William did not feel it, but he had carried Agnes all the way to the House of the Jesuits. The smell of Agnes’ blood threatened to drag him down; her weight was taxing on his arms, even with all the strength he thought he had, even with all the adrenalin surging through his system. All he felt was the slap of his feet against cement, shooting pain up his knees; then grass, irritating his ankles; then brick, with force matching the pounding of his heart.
He had to get her away from the eyes of students, and closer to the priests. William did not know, nor try to understand, why the House was his first choice. He should have left her in the ambulance and entrusted her to a nearby hospital, but something told him that Agnes needed the House, not a stretcher or hospital bed; or at least, not yet. Behind him, the security officers ran, offering no advice, and simply following.
The Holy Father had told him to keep her safe – or, more precisely, for them to stay safe, the four team members who were on the same campus. For a brief moment in his run, William remembered Bradley and Landon, and wished he had called them in to document the case. They would have found it interesting and would have joked about it at least. God knew how badly William needed a joke right now, after hours of a fruitless counseling session with a child who was now screaming her lungs out in waves of howls that cut across campus.
“Angel of God,” was the murmur from the bundle in his arms, almost inaudible beneath a scream of, “Bitch!” from where William had fled, “Angel of God, my guardian dear…”
Agnes was praying to her guardian angel. William knew the words; it was a prayer he has recited in his youth. But they held no meaning for him now, not when there was no guardian angel to heed the call directly – because guardian angels were all the same, weren’t they? Agnes was probably calling up the defenses she wished she had against all these invisible forces, whatever they were.
And yet, William found himself whispering the prayer, saying it along with Agnes.
“Almost there,” William had to stop himself, and yet tremble, for with his half-hearted reassurance came a full-bellied laugh from whatever being tormented Tai, “It won’t be long.”
And even while Agnes kept on praying, so did William, almost furtively, as though he were afraid that someone would hear him. And still, he carried her, across the empty street, through a copse of young mango trees, down a path, to the foot of the stairs of the House, up the stairs, into the reception hall. Away from the chaos, he fled with her: away from the once pounding, pulsing world that suddenly went quiet.
“Student is under control, ” came through one radio, as William laid Agnes down on the nearest couch, “Internet still down. College still on lockdown. Lift?”
There were four officers with William, and they all looked at him. William, for his part, had taken a seat on the building’s steps, trying to catch his breath. He did not realize how much he had been praying until he opened his mouth to give instructions. The words barely made their way out of his dry throat.
“Ask Fr. Matteo,” he began, “I want the student out of there first. Then let the rest of the students go. No Internet until tomorrow morning.”
A security officer relayed the instructions , while another went into a nearby cafeteria. The third disappeared into the halls of the House, and the last one paced the grounds before William, looking out for stray students. William’s breath was still in his lungs, struggling to get out. When the security officer brought in bottles of water from the cafeteria, William finished half a liter in one go, eyes still cast before him, gaze upon nowhere. The officers knew he was assessing the next moves, probably even rehearsing statements to wayward, overly curious media, who often pounced on strange stories like theirs – like this… like this case that was so –
At one case a month, it was becoming usual.
But this was the first time that it had become public.
William took a last drink of water, then handed the empty bottle to one of the security officers. There was no exhaustion yet, no exasperation – only wonder. All cases hitherto had been quieted immediately: the students had calmed down after some prayers from the nearest priest, some students had even gone home at once with their now paranoid parents. But this – today – it was public, and God knew how fast the rumors would spread, even with the Internet disabled.
William resigned himself to another late night. He planned to call home, and tell his parents to go ahead with their dinner, even without him there. Somewhere inside, William cursed, then immediately let the tension go with a deep breath. Somewhere behind him, he could hear priests calling to each other, about a case on campus, about a lockdown, about a child who needed help.
And still, the voices came over the radio. William could hear Tai’s groans, Fr. Matteo’s low words as he continued to pray, and the noisy gush of static punctuated by beeps as security officers called to each other.
“Fr. Matteo says we need to take her to the Seminary now,” came the voice of the security officer again, over the static and low shout of, “Bastards!” from the still hissing Tai, “He just needs the van to get them.”
The officer patroling the grounds sprinted up the stairs and grabbed the nearest phone. He was dialing the seminary’s number long before William could get up and do it himself. William smiled. The screams might have drawn out the gold of the sunset, and the blood might have torn out what should have been an afternoon exodus of cars from the campus, but here were his officers, still calm and systematic in everything they did. Normalcy and a warm dinner would be a long time coming for all of them, too.
Slowly, and out of the illusion of silence, cars and trucks alike honked in maddening fury, protesting the rerouting that had swathed the south side of campus in a thin screen of exhaust. William could see the traffic from where he sat. He could hear his officers talking on their radios or on the phone, with one making arrangements for the seminary van to pick them all up and return to the main campus. Soon, footsteps sounded crisp and alarmed on the floor, from the inner hallways of the House to its reception area.
William stood up as Fr. Anthony came into view. The priest was as wrinkled and sprightly as ever; but when his eyes alighted upon the figure on the couch, the once bright blue seemed to deaden into a dull, silvery gray.
“Matteo called me and told me something was happening,” Fr. Anthony crossed the room in two steps, then sat by Agnes’ side, “Where’s the victim?”
William hesitated. He had actually almost forgotten that Agnes was there, “On – campus, on a building,” he accepted another bottle of water from the nearest security officer, “She was in my office but wouldn’t talk. She – Agnes came – and I lost sight of the girl. She was on the roof and she almost jumped.”
Fr. Anthony took Agnes’ hands in his, “And this one?”
“Something hit her,” William could not even let the words leave his mouth, “I didn’t see what it was. I – I had to bring her here.”
“You say ‘something’ – not ‘someone’?” Fr. Anthony pulled something out of his pocket. It was a black, tiny cellphone, with a hard keypad. William could hear Fr. Anthony’s fingers punching out a text message, “What did Agnes tell you? And how exactly does she fit into all of this? By the way, take a seat, young man.”
“Well, Father, a van is coming soon to take us back -”
“And Matteo will take the young victim to the seminary, yes, yes, I know,” Fr. Anthony finished for him, as he sent out the text message, “It will take a while for the van to get here. They’ll call Aloysio and they’ll need his quick blessing. And of course, they’ll need to wake the Holy Father and inform him. It won’t take long, but it will be long enough for you to tell me more.”
William swallowed another gulp of water, but remained standing. He told the story, as he knew it, from Tai’s appointment with him, to Agnes bursting into the Counseling office; from Tai’s sudden need to get her bag, to Agnes nearly passing out, then suddenly awakening with a premonition. William took another drink, as he found himself pacing, and as his eyes sometimes found themselves on Fr. Anthony. The priest was listening, true, but he was also murmuring prayers over the still unconscious form of Agnes. William found it difficult to speak, much less remember what Agnes had said. Something about a field of towers filled with angels, and a demon – and then everything melted away into chaos, screaming, a dark Something that told William to make Agnes stop or she would get it.
“Towers and a field,” was Fr. Anthony’s echo, as William finally stopped, and as Agnes’ fingers gripped his hand, “She’ll be all right – it is physical pain manifesting a spiritual blow, but it is nothing compared to what your student is experiencing.”
“It knocked her unconscious,” William retorted, a trifle too brusquely for his own tastes, “She probably has a concussion, but I couldn’t send her out yet. I don’t want people to talk.”
Fr. Anthony looked at him, “Of course,” and with a quick shrug, “That’s one way to put it.”
William forced a sharp answer down with another drink of water, “The media will talk,” he nodded his head in the direction of campus, “They’ll feast on the ‘possessed student threatens suicide’ headline. I don’t want to give them any reason to add ‘faculty member also punched by invisible entity’.”
Fr. Anthony gestured toward William with one hand, as though ready to reassure him, when his cellphone beeped.
“We have permission from Aloysio,” he said, eyes to Agnes once again, “We’ll take care of her. It’s nothing serious. You’ll need to make sure your student gets to the seminary.”
William leaned on the nearest chair, “Do you still need proof of consultation?” He wasn’t sure if he was offering or checking, “Or is verbal permission enough?”
“Are you giving it?” Fr. Anthony raised an eyebrow.
“I have my doubts.”
The priest’s laugh nearly disappeared beneath the fresh honking of cars and trucks from the south side of campus, “So do I – as always,” and, deeper, without the smile earlier, “But there is something about her account – something that tells me that we will be called soon, and this time we will need to leave as a group.”
William felt something tug at his heart. He guessed it to be unease, at having to leave his work for a long summer; or annoyance, at having to take on a new job when there were students to be cared for and problems to be solved. Touring the country and tracing stories was something for anthropologists, perhaps something that the media did to make a documentary. But analyzing the weak and the troubled, peering into their often soulless eyes, reading into their often harsh words – and listening to their growls, or snarls, or howls, or even roars and sneers – they were not part of the summer he had in mind. He didn’t even know what the endpoint would be. There wouldn’t be publishable papers, he couldn’t go to a conference, and there was only the promise of one class off the next semester. His students would have their vacation, his parents would go see Spain, and he was – listening in on the Devil.
The complaint was threatening to rush out of his mouth, but as with his prayers earlier, William pushed it all to the back of his head.
A van pulled up on the driveway outside. The security officers got in, with one of them sending instructions over the radio and calling for volunteers to go with them to the seminary. Judging from the long pauses and silences between beeps, William knew that no one wanted to take on the task.
“Fr. Matteo will ask for their help, and he’ll know exactly who to take with him,” was Fr. Anthony’s interruption, his hands still clasping Agnes’, but his eyes on William, “So you do not need to assign anyone to any jobs. I do have a recommendation, William.”
William found himself halfway to the door, and he had to stop himself before walking out.
”I ask that you not join the exorcism,” Fr. Anthony finished.
William did not plan to, indeed; but there was something in Fr. Anthony’s tone that seemed accusing, even confrontational, as though there were a probe somewhere, trying to judge him and ferret out any lie, complaint, or anger that he nursed. William now had to fight not to make another sharp retort.
”I didn’t want to anyway,” he sounded indifferent, but he decided not to care about that either, “I have to help the rest of the students before we all get sent away on our – adventure.”
Fr. Anthony’s eyes blinked gray and cold, “I would call it a mission,” his retort was sharp without the speaker even trying, “But it will not serve you well to be on the exorcism team today. If you had spoken at all with the girl, whether or not she told you anything, you, too, opened your heart, soul, and mind to – something. It will be used against you.”
William had not considered that. Of course, demons would try to weaken everyone participating in the exorcism. The demons would talk about sins, regrets, and fears, until everyone was too despairing to continue, too hopeless to participate, too critical of themselves to see what blackness existed in the world beyond their hearts. It was distracting. It drove the unprepared mad, the unholy to sin.
William had heard it once, but he never spoke of it. It was years ago, and long enough for him to bury it beneath work.
”Yes, Father,” William nodded once, with a slight bow of his head to the ground, as though afraid that Fr. Anthony would see the entire story playing out in his eyes, “I’ll be off campus anyway. I don’t think I’ll have time to check in.”
Fr. Anthony waved one hand slightly at him, “Best be on your way, then,” he gestured to the waiting van, “And take care. I’ll tell you what happens to this one. She won’t take long to wake.”
William could not remember exactly what happened between leaving Agnes at the House of the Jesuits, and driving in aimless circles around where he lived, hours and hours later. He knew he had boarded the van, and had asked to be dropped off at the parking lot. He knew that he had found himself at the office before long: he gathered his things as he typed out the briefest of generic messages to any media representatives who would come calling; he spoke briefly with some people, he knew, but he generally avoided students; and he took one of the building’s fire exits, which led away from the crowds of students, and directly to the parking lot. He was careful to avoid the van, Fr. Matteo, and even the main entrance of his building.
On any other day, he would have preferred walking through the campus, under the shade of towering trees, among students who chittered and chattered and whined and laughed.
Today, he wanted to be as far away as possible. So, he drove.
He thought he was ready to drive home. But hours and hours later, nearer to his bedtime, he was driving everywhere but the house, dinner, and bed. He had memorized the streets of this usual route: after all, this was how he was after a big case. He would waste a few liters of gasoline on driving through traffic, in silence broken only by the whirr of his engine, or the honks of vehicles on the road next to his. He didn’t care much for music now, not even when the car radio started playing. He switched it off, not remembering that he had switched it on in the first place.
Had he been younger, William would have not looked in the rearview mirror, for fear that someone – something – would be seated there, waiting for him to scream. Today – tonight – as the traffic thinned, as the world around him calmed, as a light rain came down on the streets of his subdivision, William constantly checked behind him, until no cars followed.
It had been like this before, after all the cases, where he had sped out in the middle of the night to answer a student’s call. Students today, some people would shake their heads, they’re not as foolhardy as we once were, not as strong, not as resilient, not as prayerful. Look at them! Just look at home weak they’ve become.
William shook his head, turning a corner. How easy it was for people to judge, when they had no children of their own – or worse, when they had children of their own, and were so remiss in caring for them. That father from a faraway province who wrote about how children were so irresponsible was that same father who once told William to “Shut up and just take care of my daughter!” when William asked him to visit – all while that same daughter thrashed in the seminary, while Fr. Matteo prayed, while his fellow priests scrambled out of the room as the Being that possessed her rattled out all their sins for their confratelli to hear. That mother from the city who tittered to her friends about how children were so immature was that same mother who refused to see her son after the boy had run to the seminary when he started speaking in a language he had never understood.
How dare they speak and judge!
William’s temper was slowly flaring up, the way it did when one day of frustration threatened to swallow him whole. He did tonight what he always did: he drove up the hill, down the road, to her house.
He barely remembered what had happened after meeting Fr. Anthony at the House of the Jesuits, but the route to her place came easily. When William pulled up to her gate, she was there, waiting.
William stepped lightly on the brakes, kept his hands on the steering wheel, took a deep breath. He relaxed every muscle in his body, and only then realized how tired his grip was, how sore his neck was, and how strained his eyes were, after he had been drivig for what felt like midnights strung together.
”I knew something had happened,” she said, when she had gotten in the front seat. Her voice was low, but William still heard it, above the now pounding rain, through the car that grew cold.
William didn’t even look at her. He simply nodded, then started driving again, “There was another student today,” he fell easily into talking, one hand on the wheel, the other poised carefully over the gearshift, “She tried to kill herself. I stopped her – but – there was something in her, and it was strong. I didn’t feel it at first, but after it knocked Ag – a colleague – out – after it knocked one of my colleagues out, it just felt different.”
”Stronger,” she added for him.
”Yeah, stronger,” William agreed, turning a corner, “Hi, Lira.”
”Hi, William,” she answered, finally drawing his eyes to hers. Traffic had slowed him down, and he took the chance to talk to her face to face, “Thanks for listening – and sorry for – sorry for this. Sorry for disturbing you.”
Lira shrugged, making her plain white shirt wrinkle at the shoulders, “So tell me about this new thing,” she spoke, eyes not leaving him, tone almost casual – but casual enough so that William felt the tension leave him faster, “You were saying that it felt different.”
”Yes, different,” William looked at the car in front of him, tempted to honk at the traffic, but choosing, instead, to talk to his companion, “I can’t say why – I just knew, right after it knocked my colleague out. I don’t know how it happened. It just – something punched her, and she bled. A lot. Even from the ears. I had to carry her to the House of the Jesuits.”
”You should have brought her to a hospital,” was the quick riposte, seemingly underlaced with anger, “She needed medical help.”
Talking to her was always like this: she was logical, sometimes frighteningly so, but it made William think out of the box, made him stop speculating the way that his students did, when they were unsure of something and reverted to pedestrian, haphazard thinking. William liked thinking in terms of the latest research, and linking them to his own experiences. The boxing in was comforting; the theories were a good home. Outside of the logic was speculation. Maybe that was what made him uncomfortable.
”You weren’t thinking straight, I guess,” was his companion’s rejoinder, when he hadn’t spoken, “But if that happens again, I suggest you leave the priests out of it. They won’t know how to handle things.”
Something in the words made William’s hands tingle. He kept on driving, striving to ignore it.
”Only the doctors would know,” his companion would not relent, “You should know that from experience.”
She had taken a knife and stabbed him in the heart . William could only nod; then turn a corner, head following his left turn, giving him time to wipe away a stray tear from one eye. There was no use hiding it. She knew that he still cried about the event, that one night, at her house.
”I know – I haven’t forgotten,” it was as though she had read his mind as well, “Just – just make sure you don’t do it again. It shouldn’t happen to somebody else.”
William sniffed. He just kept on driving, pushing his memories out of the way – and then feeling them flooding back, resisting his desperation to hold his anger down, fighting against his logic. There he was, at the gates of Lira’s house, two years ago, rushing out of his car, juggling his cellphone, pleading for him to stop, not to do anything, because she was innocent and she had tried so hard to help.
”Let’s not go there,” she seemed to read his mind again, just as he was about to make another turn. He knew the path well: it led through several houses, then a small bookstore, then a church, then more houses, before hitting the gate out of the subdivision. And always, Lira asked not to go there, as though she knew how bad the traffic was, and how angry it would make him.
”So – where do you want to go?” William had always asked the same question, not so much out of concern, much less curiosity. It was just that: an invitation. She always took it.
”I’m not sure, so let’s just drive around,” William could sense the smile in her voice, and the comfort, the routine, slipping into his driving. It was all a habit, something he could fall back on when the rest of the world refused to be intelligent, refused to be logical, “And you can just talk about today and I’ll listen.”
”Not much to say,” William lied, and she laughedl lightly, perhaps sensing his unease, “This kid, her name’s Tai -”
”Pretty?” the other cut in.
William took his turn to shrug, “Maybe to boys her age,” and, as he made a turn on a quiet street, “Anyway, she came into my office today, told the people up front that she had a problem and needed me. Really named me, so, you know, if anyone does that, everyone just springs into action because they’re thinking: this is serious.”
”I wish it weren’t,” William retorted, sighing as he hit traffic again, “So she gets in my office, and the next thing I know, she’s going through a box of tissues. Just cries. Breaks down, absolutely no shame, no waiting, no talking even – she just breaks down.”
Traffic moved. The other remained silent.
William drove for a while before talking again, “So here I am, waiting for her to say anything. I throw all the questions I can, everything but ‘What’s your favorite color?’ Nothing – no answer, just crying. You’d think if she was this scared and in need, she’d say something by now. Nope.”
”Some people don’t like talking,” the other murmured, “Maybe they like keeping secrets. Sometimes, it’s easier for them.”
”Maybe,” William turned a corner, glanced quickly at his companion, then looked forward again. The rain had started to pour in harder, harsher torrents. He drove slower, concentrated harder on the road before him. There were no cars, but he could see water gushing out of the gutters. He was not far from home, but he was in no mood to go there either.
”So anyway -” his companion spoke up.
”So anyway,” William took the cue, “Suddenly, she just turns around, and I think she opens the door to my office. All I know is: the door is open, and standing in the hall is her professor. I know her from a meeting – from campus. Her name’s Agnes, and she’s one of those professors that just greets and hugs everybody. So there Agnes is, and suddenly, Tai starts talking.”
William had to leave out the meeting with the Holy Father. He had been sworn to secrecy, and even if he trusted his companion, he had a feeling that she would brush him off and start sneering about priests again.
”Agnes and I start talking, and then Tai disappears. Needs to get a bag, her phone, just runs off,” William spoke quickly, as though to cover up how he had nearly let the secret of the meeting slip out, “Agnes says that Tai called her – and that’s impossible, because Tai was in my office and sobbing herself to death. Agnes starts feeling faint, so I take her to my office and let her lie down.”
The other started to laugh. It wasn’t so much a girlish giggle as it was teasing, almost chortling, as though the one laughing were holding back enough insults to make William blush in despair.
”Really, William,” was the voice that finally came out of the laughter, “I didn’t think your pick up skills were getting that bad!”
”What?” William really did blush, but felt the blood drain quickly in the cold air of the car, “I – I didn’t do anything! She just looked pale, so I made her lie down.”
”Sure you did!”
”I didn’t want her to faint!”
”But what did you want?”
”Really, Lira,” William shook his head, even as Lira kept on laughing, “Her blood pressure was low. She said something about hearing screams on the phone. Since I don’t run a torture chamber, I didn’t know what to make of it. Then she fell asleep, and I did nothing, so don’t think I did anything.”
The other was quiet, but laughing softly.
”So anyway,” William took his turn to be pointed and brusque, “I was just thinking, trying to sort things out, when suddenly, she stands up, runs out, tells me that she saw towers and demons, and Tai was going to die.”
His companion was suddenly quiet.
William stole another glance at her, then brought his eyes back to the road, where the rains poured in a heavier, blacker gush. He could feel his phone in his pocket. He would text his parents later. For now, he just felt good talking to someone about his day.
”And then someone calls us and says that Tai is on the roof,” William went on, driving even slower, eyes squinting against the glare of his headlights hitting a sheet of water, “I follow her there. Agnes watches below. I know she’s praying. I can’t hear her, but I know that she is because Tai keeps telling me to make her stop.”
”Huh,” was all that the other could say.
”I know, right?” William felt the words leaving him, as the rain continued to pour, and as he felt winds threatening to blow his car off the road, “Then finally, Tai nearly jumps off the roof, and I pull her back just in time. It takes half a dozen grown men to hold this kid down. She’s screaming, and then howling and groaning. I don’t know if the rest of the students heard her, but she was loud and just – not human.
The other gave a low hum.
William could not stop talking, “Then suddenly, this thing inside Tai says that if Agnes doesn’t stop praying, she gets it,” he turned a corner, slowly, watching for oncoming traffic just in case the rain betrayed him, “I look down – and I see Agnes just fall back, head up, like something hit her.”
”Something hit her?” was the almost abrupt echo.
”Did you see it?”
”Then how do you know that she wasn’t faking it?”
”It’s kind of hard to fake a bloody nose and ears, Lira,” William retorted, feeling both irritated and worried. He had not heard from Fr. Anthony, and was ready to check his cellphone, if not for the torrent of words that still wanted to pour out of his mouth, “So I left Tai and carried Agnes all the way to the House of the Jesuits. I didn’t want the students to see her like that. And I didn’t want to add to any speculation. They’re probably taking her home now.”
The other was quiet again. William guessed that the mention of the priests, and even of an invisible entity, shook the logical Lira out of her comfort zone as well. William knew the feeling, except it was fast getting washed out by the rain outside, and the cold in the car. Something gurgled in the pit of his stomach. He remembered that he had nothing to eat since lunchtime, but meeting with Lira, he felt, had been more important than his hunger. He would probably have lost all his appetite without talking to someone first.
”I don’t like this Agnes,” was her sudden sentence, spoken out of the rushing rain.
William’s appetite went away again.
”She sounds weak,” his companion continued, “She prays too much. She probably wants attention all the time. If she’s not at the center of everything, then she’ll fly to the center if she has to.”
”Oh come on, William,” the other pressed, “I could fake getting beaten up. Think Fight Club. I could fake premonitions. I mean, hello, hyper and sobbing student could really equal a suicidal kid. Look it up in your journals. We’ve always discussed it, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Fields and demons? Curing everything with prayer? Is this girl from the Dark Ages?”
William had expected to set his mind at ease on this drive. The words, however, had brought the tension back into his muscles. He could feel his knuckles straining against the skin of his hands, his hamstrings tighten, his feet go numb. The rain was easing up, but inside, his heart pounded, and his blood ran cold and hot all at once.
”I don’t think she’s like that,” William spoke, through a fresh gush of rain that nearly broke his windshield, “I don’t think this is stuff you can just fake.”
”Suit yourself,” was the retort; then, less cordially, “I can’t help it if you like her.”
”I never said that,” he shook his head again, driving faster as the rain calmed once more, “I just don’t know her well enough to make these judgements. And I don’t like judging anyone so let’s just stop.”
”But if you don’t judge her -”
”She’s not one of the cases I have to handle, so let’s just stop it.”
William had driven back to her side of the neighborhood. The rain was gone, and there was no more traffic, no more honking, no more bright lights of stranded vehicles. There wasn’t even any water on the road, or on the rows of gates that guarded the houses, or on the roofs of the houses that he passed. He had no time to wonder; his heart was pounding hard, and he was fighting not to lash out at – well, at everything and nothing.
”I guess this is it,” the other seemed to concede, and quietly.
William drove slower. He had no ready answer; only memories, and then guilt. He could see her gate now, and knew what it had been like two years ago. There had been a light on the front porch then, and open windows with curtains billowing on the wind. And there had been someone standing there, with a phone in his hand, waiting.
”I guess I’ll see you again next time,” her voice broke in, as though to keep him from remembering more, “It’s nice – getting a visit, I mean. And talking to you. Just like old times.”
”Just like old times,” William repeated. The memories kept pushing themselves forward: his phone, ringing in his hands; the porch light casting a glare on the figure before him; the garden path filled with water and dirt; and something shiny, fighting against the night, playing in his eyes.
And then a shadow, and nothing.
”Listen, Lira,” he finally spoke, “I might be gone for a while. Maybe a few days this – this whole summer.”
She said nothing. He sensed her disappointment.
”I can’t do anything, and I can’t tell you more about it,” William went on, “Only that it’s important.”
”To whom?” she piped up.
”To whom?” he echoed.
”To whom is it important?” she raised her voice a few octaves, “Is it important to you? Or to somebody else? You can’t keep doing things for people, William – not when you’re neglecting yourself, not when you’re forgetting that you have to care for you, not when you’re… Well, you need to take care of yourself, is all.”
William knew it. These last few months had been spent caring for students, and he hadn’t had enough sleep, free time, or even good food. He had always heard the same thing from her, and he had always nodded at the end of their meetings, both in acknowledgment and guilt.
”It’s important,” William said, more to himself, “I’ll see you when I get back.”
”Or maybe I can go see you?”
William wanted to say it was tempting, but his stomach, his heart, everything inside of him literally rebelled against the notion. “No – it’s ok, don’t worry,” he said aloud, “I don’t know my exact itinerary, and I wouldn’t know where to tell you to go. And – I don’t want to disturb you.”
Again, she shrugged, “There’s nothing to it.”
William shook his head, “I’d rather not. I can’t talk about it, and there’s a lot I can’t do outside of it,” and, in a bid to comfort her, “You can think of it as my first vacation in two years. It will be an adventure. And then we can talk about it when I get back.”
Something in her face made him think that she was worried. Or disappointed. Or angry. William was never quite sure. He was never sure if it was really her face, or just his guilt painting a picture that would always, always haunt him. To the end of his days, he believed, it would.
Always the same words. She nodded, eyes to the outside world. “I know, William.”
He drove home as soon as he bid her goodbye for the night. Always the same words, always the same faraway look, and always the same route home as William fought with the rush of memories. He drove out of her street, down the main road, to the left, and to the road where she did not want to go. And in his head, he traveled through time, as the tires of his car slapped against a gravely road, as his eyes clouded once more with tears.
The porch, the garden path, the light, the rain, the white curtains playing with the breeze – a shadow, and a howl. He was on his phone again, listening to the young voice. He knew who it was, recognized the sobs beneath the sneers, the anger and despair beneath the groan that cut through the static of the call.
”I had to do it. They made me do it,” the voice kept on saying, on the phone, in William’s memories, in the mess of guilt that still thundered through him two years later. The voice was young and old all at once, but it resonated even across the years.
”She was trying to help me, but they made me stop her,” William heard the voice again, as his memories brought him back to the gate – amidst police cars, officers with guns trained on the man, and onlookers with their hands clasped to their mouths, “I called the priests but they said I was just imagining things. They said there was nothing wrong with me. They don’t know shit!”
William had been at meetings all day, and had forgotten his phone. He had seen the call hours later. Hours too late, he had known then, as he stood in the rain, as he called for calm from the gate, as he saw the garden path roughen and thicken with the mix of gravel, water, and blood.
And still, the voice. “You could have helped me, but you didn’t. I tried calling you but you didn’t answer. So she has to pay. She had to pay.”
And there was Lira, on the porch, unrecognizable beneath the hundreds of stab wounds, her last screams still echoing in the sobs of the onlookers, on the whispers among the police officers, beneath drops of sharp evening rain.
Two years ago, it had been, when William had watched his former colleagues on that porch. They were two friends from graduate school, two people who had gotten married – one who had died, and one who still lived in an institution, still screaming to unknown, unnamed shadows that continued to haunt his waking dreams.
The shadow was there that night, but William ignored it then, and even now, in his mind, in his memories. He buried the memories, beneath work, as he left his corporate job, took on the counseling task at the university, and tried to push the events beneath the classes and the students and the stress. He tried to forget. Lira tried to make him forget, but William hardly ever succeeded.
He stopped his car outside the church, allowed the tears to fall, shut out the night of two years ago the way he always did: by logic, by theory, by knowledge, perhaps, that there was nothing he could have done. The guilt would always be there, but there was nothing he could have done.
”I’m so sorry, Lira,” he said, to no one in particular – or, more precisely, to the headstone a few meters away, across a metal fence, amidst the many who still lay in their dark, quiet graves.
And, when he his tears had finally dried, William drove home.