May 3, 2019

Main Novel

Chapter 0.

Hundreds of years ago, the woman on the bed would have been bowed to the ground, free of her bonds. She would have her face to the dust, her arms to the skies, her body bent in all places where it should have been soft or strong. And before her would have been a man cloaked with sunlight and hope – a mere man, the people would whisper, but one who had been given the blessing of the Messiah to cast out the evil from the woman’s body.

She would have spoken in a language unknown to man then – one that seemed to reach out from the depths of the earth, that clung to the skin long after she had been saved, that threatened to pierce through the calm of the mere man before her.

He would not have faltered. He would not have wept.

Hundreds of years ago, the woman on the bed would have been dragged through the streets. She would have been burned as an example to anyone who dared speak against the word of God. Or she would have been taken to a prison somewhere beneath her city, where she would have been forgotten. Or she would have simply died after being fed a mixture of herbs, after being starved for days, after she had frothed at the mouth in the wake of seizures and nightmares. Perhaps she truly had a disease for which no one had a name. Perhaps her body truly was inhabited by a soul far more ancient, far more evil than hers.

We would never know. The man before her would have written nothing about her past, questioned nothing about her future. He would have simply sketched her twisted body in ink as brown as caked blood. He would have shown her marked by ropes or stabbed by knives or crushed beneath a wooden wheel. She would have no name. She had no voice.

Decades ago, the woman on the bed might have been a curiosity. People would have put her on display for all and sundry to wonder at, to cringe at, to weep at. She could well have been burned at the stake while people held their hands to their hearts and sobbed at her plight. They would have walked away, shaking their heads, thinking that the world was full of mysteries that no one would ever hope to fathom.

And the man before her would simply have written it all down, as though he were merely witnessing a circus. She was a contortionist, or the amazing woman whose face changed from one minute to the next, or the creature of darkness that screamed while she was chained with rusty manacles to the wall. The manacles would bleed their rust for days. Her blood would join the tracks when her spirit gave out.

Perhaps she would be starved, until she was a mere frame of pictures of evil rushing across her countenance. Or she would be brought back to her family when her masquerade was over. Or she would die, like all the rest of the women put on exhibit.

Years ago, the woman on the bed might have been attended to by a priest. He would have read something from a book – in a language that only few knew, and that only few ever dared to study. He would call on the name of someone in the Heavens, someone who once gave a mere man the power to cast out demons. And then that someone would work through him – for days… weeks… months… years if it came to that. There would be endless sessions merely asking the spirit for its name. And then telling the spirit to leave. And then ensuring that the spirit never came back.

The priest before her would grow gray hairs long before his time. Someone next door would make the Sign of the Cross. Someone creative would add ghosts and screams and ceilings dripping with blood, write the script, shoot the movie, and take her story to Hollywood. Again, she became the show before an audience of many, and who witnessed a mere representation of what was quite a simple tale.

Chapter 1.

The tale went something like this.

Once upon a time, a human being did something. The human being was a woman. Like all human beings, she had a life and a soul. And she was naturally curious. Curiosity makes scientists of us all. But when the wrong doors are opened wide, it is not always knowledge that flows through.

She opened a door. And things changed.

She had unnatural strength. She sometimes did not recognize her own family and friends. When she spoke, a thousand voices seemed to expel filth and anger in unison. When she did not speak, she growled. In the presence of a priest, she thrashed. Under the guidance of a psychiatrist, she appeared normal. All was well, until she came into contact with Holy Water, or a blessed object, or even the Bible. Then she would laugh from the very depths of the earth and mimic whoever was reading the Gospel.

That woman on the bed today would be dealt with the way that the Vatican now ordered. After hundreds of years of assuming that she was under the control of the Devil, the church recognized that she could have a pathological disorder, and had to rule it out before proceeding forward.

After hundreds of years assuming that the demon could be expelled by force, the church recognized the gentle word of God and its power to drive out evil without resorting to blood or starvation. After hundreds of years of watching the demons in the darkness, the church brought in light. It took hundreds of years, and today, the woman on the bed would be surrounded by more than a mere man.

There would be a priest, and his assistants, all of them armed with their faith and the blessing of the bishop. There would be a psychiatrist, overseeing the proceedings. There would even be a medical doctor, who would ensure that the proceedings went forward safely. There would be more assistants praying, watching the process, and noting what was going on while everyone grew exhausted, and while the energy in the room was pulled out by a force no one could ever hope (or dare) to measure.

And in recent years, there were people in the corner recording and documenting the event. They were not there to sell the recordings to Hollywood, nor were they there to write a story that would keep young readers up for nights on end.

They were there, on orders, for the most extreme cases. Armed with recording devices and machines that could pick up heat signatures and computers that could pull it all into a database – they were there. They were there on orders from the Vatican itself.

There were small cases that dragged on for years, and big cases that took mere hours to resolve. But the extreme cases were the ones that had to be recorded, and watched, and monitored, and transcribed.

They began with something small: a spell cast by someone close to the victim or the victim themselves, or an encounter with the supernatural that opened doors without the victim’s knowledge, or a willing opening of spiritual doors that led evil in. And then human curiosity turned into human suffering; but there was a mystery to the suffering, and it had to be documented.

There had long been guidelines on how to recognize the takeover – a true takeover, without misinterpreting what would be a genuine mental disorder, hence the psychiatrist; or a genuine bodily disorder, hence the doctor. But for some reason, and in recent years, there were changes in how the woman on the bed behaved.

Her voice would change; or sometimes, it remained normal. Her body would change; or sometimes, it remained the same. Her knowledge of languages would be great; sometimes, she simply whimpered like a lost baby. There were changes in what were ruled to be genuine cases. But they were all extreme – and in recording them, perhaps a new generation of scientists could formulate new guidelines for the next generation of exorcists to work with.

Because there were too many cases, now. Too many ruled extreme, genuine, and requiring help. And there were too few exorcists willing to wage battle.

Chapter 2.

The woman on the bed remained calm through the proceedings. She usually squirmed, even raised her head like a giant snake, whenever certain words were read out to her. Sometimes, she needed no bonds to keep her from hurting herself. Today, however, she had scratched the skin of her legs raw; she had nearly clawed out the eyes of her own brother.

That same brother was in the emergency room, hours away, unconscious. She had hit him with something, everyone thought. Had the woman been fully conscious, she would have told them the entire story.

He had put her tray of food on the table next to her bed. She had awakened. He had smiled. She hated his smile. She sat up, grabbed at his face to rip his lips apart. She missed. He tried to flee. She pushed him. More precisely, she threw him.

He landed on the opposite wall, breaking the mortar, chipping the paint. He bled from wounds in his back and from the spaces between his fractured skull.

And then her eyes went black, and she remembered nothing. If his brain survived the impact, then perhaps he could tell the story in slurs and drones. But today, the only witnesses to the confrontation were the broken walls and shattered glass on the floor.

The priest stepped over shards of that morning’s uneaten breakfast, praying silently for the brother in the hospital. Behind him, the father stood, white and pale and trembling against one wall as he watched his daughter lying quiet on the bed. Next to him was the mother, standing as well, her head held high, her lip quavering as she tried to hold her strength against the tide of a broken heart. One child was in a hospital bed, perhaps brain dead; another was in her bedroom, her soul dead to the world.

There were two other priests in the room, keeping out of the way as much as they could. One was praying the rosary; the other was watching the girl closely, as though he could pin her down if she decided to spring up at any second and behead all the people before her.

Outside, the psychiatrist and medical doctor met, discussing what the next steps would be. They were both old, but strong, perhaps even used to the scene before them. And downstairs, remotely monitoring the room, were two brothers, listening and watching their computers closely as the cameras in the room recorded the priest’s entrance. On another computer played a sea of black. The confrontation with the brother had never been recorded. For some reason, the cameras had failed.

The brothers spoke above a stage whisper to each other.

“I’m going to try to get it back,” one said, typing at what appeared to be a thousand words a minute. He was looking at lines and lines of code, representing the video that had been lost, “I can find whatever it is that’s missing. We did it before.”

The other brother held a headset to one ear, and, with the other hand, drank from a giant mug of coffee. He kept one eye on the monitor showing the goings on in the room upstairs.

“Don’t stress yourself out, Bradley,” he seemed to remind his brother, “It might be there. It might turn up all of a sudden. Remember what happened the last time.”

“When it suddenly showed up and disappeared?” Bradley retorted, glancing quickly at the footage on the other monitor before returning to his work, “I know. I just don’t want to wait too long.”

The other brother paused for a while, as though trying to show his patience, “That’s not what I meant,” he nearly stressed every word, his attention fully trained on his brother now, “Don’t stress yourself out. You can’t let it happen again.”

“Oh,” was all that Bradley could say. His fingers hesitated over the keyboard. He looked at his brother quickly; and, with a nod, turned to the footage. He would have fought his brother and argued at any other time. That time was certainly not today.

“I just,” Bradley began, as though testing the waters before plunging into what might be a quiet debate between him and his brother, “I was thinking of the kid – the one in hospital. We could – tell his parents what happened… Here, I mean… tell the doctors exactly what happened. Tell them that his sister pushed him hard. Maybe it would help him.”

“Or maybe they know, from the cracks on the wall and all,” the other replied, as he wore the headset, “Take it easy. Listen in.”

Bradley grabbed his own headset, adjusted the volume on his computer, and typed into the computer monitoring the events upstairs. They were in the living room, far away from the kitchen; for some reason, the smell of freshly baked muffins wafted in.

“Oh, Landon,” Bradley almost sang, almost laughed, even, as he sniffed the air, “Guess who’s back!”

Landon glared at his brother, “Not something I’d joke about.”

“At least it isn’t shit this time,” Bradley almost giggled, “I like how they change their smells. Sometimes it’s crap, at other times it’s like home.”

“A home where you smell the muffins and get fed snakes is what,” Landon retorted, shaking his head, “Don’t mind them. Don’t mind the smells. Just keep praying.”

Bradley might have joked about it a hundred times, but he still resorted to prayer as he watched the footage on the screen, as he adjusted and readjusted the volume on his headset, and as he checked all his recording devices. He switched the monitor to the heat sensor, just to check the rooms around them. The bedroom where the girl lay was cold – but something was seeping in, something warm, hovering over everyone who watched her.

In the hallway, and in the living room, the air was cold and trembling – even with the artificial smell of freshly baked muffins, the air was cold and blue on the screen. Bradley sighed.

“In a house with no oven, you’d think they’d be smarter,” he said out loud – and immediately regretted the joke as something heavy fell off the wall next to Landon.

“Good job,” Landon snorted, “Keep quiet and keep praying.”

“Yes, uncle Jorge,” Bradley said in a high pitched voice.

The brothers glared at each other, and, deciding not to resort to another argument, watched the screen again.

The priest was still stepping over the broken glass, and making the sign of the Cross as he did so. Everyone in the room followed; everyone downstairs followed as well. From somewhere within the house, something sighed, as though exasperated with the goings on; even the smell of freshly baked muffins had disappeared, to be replaced by a biting cold that stung the nostrils, and that made it hard for the brothers to breathe.

“Let’s not get too panicky,” Bradley felt his heart pump up into his throat. His breath was escaping in thick, almost opaque white clouds.

“Pray,” Landon whispered, opening his notebook. He picked up a pencil, fingers trembling. From somewhere in the house, there was a growl. It seemed to come from the walls, as though there were a creature prowling hidden staircases – as though it had a thousand mouths to swallow the sunlight.

“Get out,” something said, low, almost inaudible, from nowhere and everywhere at once.

Bradley prayed quickly, bringing up window after window of recordings. He checked all his files as he watched the priest open the Roman Ritual. Bradley had memorized the book; some parts he knew by heart, and he could hear them in his head as the priest began the exorcism.

“Get out,” came the same growl, louder this time.

Landon sat down next to his brother, praying louder. His breath clouded his vision; his tongue was dried out with cold. On the monitor, he could see the parents fall to their knees by the bed, the father falling prostrate, the mother bowing her head once held high. Their daughter was still staring at the ceiling, her dark hair spread out over the pillow, her mouth open, purple even on the grainy feed.

Bradley hummed to himself. It was a low hum of wonder. Landon turned to him.

“That’s strange,” was all that Bradley could say.

“Understatement of the century,” Landon forgot to pray all of a sudden. He took a quick look at the thermometer on the wall, just as the cold reached down to its lowest and stabbed the house with a frozen blade of what felt like ice. The thermometer burst, sending mercury slithering down the wall.

“Exploding things aside,” Bradley kept his voice steady, but with visible effort, as the dry air scratched against his throat, “She’s warm. And she has darker hair and a scar on her arm.”

“Not sure how that’s relevant,” Landon retorted.

Bradley had a file folder next to him. He opened it, leafed through the pages quickly, and compared photos from one page to the next. There were photos of the girl in jeans, in a dress, in a long skirt, in a short skirt. Her arms appeared flawless. Her hair had streaks of blonde in them; none of those streaks showed on the monitor now.

“She’s never had a scar, but that scar looks old,” Bradley held up a photo. It must have been taken mere weeks before, after the girl went to senior prom. She was in a strapless dress, and her arms ran through with clear, fake tanned skin. Bradley pointed to the screen, right where – and true enough – there seemed to be scar running all the way from the girl’s fingertips to her shoulder.

“Probably a trick of the light,” Landon looked from the photo to the girl. He hummed quickly as she moved, and as the scar moved with her, “Right. So – that was strange.”

“Is strange,” Bradley added, “Looks like something ripped right through. Shark, bear, not sure what.”

Landon leaned forward to look at the monitor closely. His nose nearly touched the point where the mother had collapsed to the floor, head buried in her hands, body shaking. The psychiatrist had entered the room then, and led her and the father away. There could be no distress in the room; only hope, Landon knew. Only hope.

“Shit,” Landon nudged his brother, “She’s got another scar.”

Landon pointed at the girl’s right leg, where what seemed like an old, keloid scar ran from her toes all the way under her shorts. She moved slightly, slowly, as though gearing up for a grand thrashing beneath the words of the Roman Ritual. Landon and Bradley could hear her parents run down the hallway, and then down the stairs, and then through the kitchen, and out the door.

“Should’ve stayed, dear parents,” Bradley sang again, as he leafed through more pages, “Would’ve wanted to ask you if she’s ever gotten scars.”

“Memories of her soul, maybe,” Landon said, with hardly any drama, and as though Bradley and he had been saying the words all their lives, “Or she’s under attack.”

“They’d bleed if she’s under attack,” Bradley closed the folder, “All the file says is that she’s always been sickly, always been in the hospital, but everything leveled out at age three.”

“Most kids get sick,” Landon said absently, eyes still on the monitor, “Do the records say anything specific?”

Bradley’s gaze went from the monitor, to the folder, and back again, “Nothing. Fever, maybe flu, disappearing in days. Lots of crying. No official diagnosis.”

Landon shrugged. They turned up the volume and listened in on the proceedings, even when they knew how it generally went.

The priest was sprinkling holy water over the girl. She squirmed, showing off her scars again. Even the priest seemed bewildered for a moment: he stared at her body, then looked quickly at the Roman Ritual.

“Oh Father!” Landon and Bradley chorused.

“Not a good move!” Bradley covered his eyes with one hand.

As though prompted by his dismay, the voice of the demon came, clear but grating over the headsets.

“Do you like her body, human?” the screech was but a refrain of a thousand other voices, and it dug deep into the recording, registering at both high and low frequencies, “I can show you more. All you need to do is stop. She’ll be very very nice, just like her mother was.”

“Oh shit,” Landon took his turn to cover his eyes, “I don’t even want to look!”

“I thought he got training?” Bradley was fighting not to scream, as though he were watching an awful football game with blind referees and his team losing, “What the hell is going on? I’m really calling Uncle Jorge now!”

The priest’s voice had been low and gentle, but it rose higher, and stronger, through the growls from the girl on the bed, and beyond the growls that continued to come through the walls.

“In the name of Christ, I order you to tell me your name!” was all the Bradley caught, as he checked all the recordings and the heat signatures in the room.

“I can do anything you like,” the demon’s voice had become isolated, even velvety, soothing, “Maybe you can tell me your name? Let’s have some fun together. No one will know.”

The priests in the corner continued to pray, heads bowed, but legs tensed, at the ready.

“Would you young men like a piece of this, too?” the voice was even smoother now, running through the room like warm, melted butter, “Her body is young and supple and everything you will ever want but never have – unless you surrender now. It’s so simple.”

There was no response, and only a deeper bow of the heads of the priests.

“In the name of Christ, I order you to tell me your name!” the priest persisted. And, when he seemed to calm down, “Let us pray together, In the name of the Father -“

“They can watch if they like,” the demon seemed to grin the words out. The girl looked directly at the camera, where it was perched on the farthest corner of the room, high up in the wall, “You can record this, show it off, sell it. I won’t mind. I really like it, you know, you boys watching.”

“The Lord hath said -“

“I don’t care what he hath said,” the demon mimicked, eyes never leaving the camera, “Someone watching me likes watching these things, I think. What say you, human? Shall we give him what he wants?”

Landon and Bradley looked at each other sharply. What came next was more impulse than it was double checking.

“I do not download porn,” Bradley held both hands up.

“The last time I saw porn was in a magazine and I haven’t even looked at any then,” Landon followed his brother’s example.

“Shit,” Bradley covered his eyes again, “He got us. Keep praying, man.”

The girl pouted at them, then turned to the priest again, “I like playing these games,” her voice was now girlish, lower, smoother, “Play with me?”

The boys did not even dare talk. They simply prayed, as the girl grinned up at the camera, as the wall trembled with hisses, and as the priest spoke clear in the background, reading from the ritual. Bradley stared at her, even when she looked away, even when her cackles and screams started thundering through the house in the middle of a Latin prayer.

“You weak human and you stupid human and all you sinful humans – what makes you think you can cast me out on your own?” the demon demanded.

“Don’t answer that,” Landon said between his teeth.

“The scar is growing,” Bradley added.

“Pray, dammit,” Landon retorted.

The boys went silent once again, with Bradley watching the heat signatures disappear across the room, save a blot of red and yellow that hovered close to the priest. Landon checked the frequencies that came through. There were low frequency sounds that no one could hear, but that were registering nevertheless. He saved the audio files, just in case.

“Shove it!” the demon screamed.

The priest continued to read from the ritual, eyes fully trained on the book now, even as the girl continued to writhe and bare her legs. At one point, she even spread her legs wide open, prompting the priest’s assistants to hold her down. She nearly broke free of them, nearly bit off the arm of one of the priests as her jaws opened wide, unhinging bone from bone.

“Shove it, the way he shoved her!” the demon screamed again.

One priest’s rosary flew across the room, breaking into individual beads.

The leading priest did not relent. He asked for the demon’s name again, prompting the same voice to answer back with a scream, a string of obscenities, and finally, a burst of both cold and the smell of rotten eggs into the house.

“Oh boy,” Landon said, as he prayed beneath his breath.

“Shoved her?” Bradley spoke up.

“Just pray,” Landon insisted, checking the recordings again.

“No, I’m not kidding,” Bradley retorted, watching the girl closely, as her legs and arms were held down, “This means something. And don’t say it means that I should pray more. I already know that.”

Landon simply stared, as though he’d had the same argument with his brother before. Then, with lips still moving in prayer, he turned to the monitor again.

The demon was now speaking in another language – or several, with one voice speaking above the other, and yet another speaking above the rasping, crackling refrain. The boys used to joke that it was like listening to a UN Convention, where all the delegates were fighting for the first to be heard, and nobody followed the speaking protocols. Today, there was no joke to be made, as the priests held the girl down, and as the wounds glistened in the sunlight.

“I really wish we’d had assistants who weren’t priests,” Landon said aloud, “I don’t understand why the bishop allowed this.”

“It’s called Boston, where everyone is suspicious and where no one wants to talk about possession,” Bradley answered, opening the girl’s file again, “Dude, I’m not kidding. Of all the curses, why ‘shove it’?”

“Bradley -“

“I mean, was she bullied? Was she raped? Was there something that made this thing say ‘shove it’? Everything means something, man.”

Landon was about to reply, when the girl began to scream again, then try to rip open her blouse with her own teeth. Her jaws could not be put back, and there were not enough people in the room to assist.

“This kid’s going to grind her jaw bones apart,” Landon closed his eyes, “I don’t want to know what her operations will be after all this.”

Bradley removed his headset, stood up, and rechecked all the recordings, nodding as he went.

“Where are you going?” Landon vainly tried to control the high pitch his voice was making.

“There’s something about that word,” Bradley answered, deadpan, his hand on his brother’s shoulder, “I think her parents know something about it.”

“Dude, sit down,” Landon tried to pull Bradley back into his chair, but his brother had already run out of the boundaries created by their computers and recorders. He was sprinting down the hallway, and making for the back garden, Landon heard. Landon was tempted to abandon his post, but the recordings had to be watched, and the temperature in the house had to be monitored.

Bradley had his own reasons – and Bradley had his own abilities.

Chapter 3.

Bradley was already at the door leading out to the garden when he heard the louder hissing and growling from the walls. He listened closely, thinking he could make out the words; the temptation was strong, to analyze the audio on the spot, to hear what was not being said in the room upstairs. But something in his head told him to keep on walking, to ignore the voices. He opened the door, stepped out into the world, breathed deep, and watched the girl’s parents.

It would have been a wonderful Spring day in Boston: the world above the house was blue and white and clear, the gardens were shedding the last traces of winter and sporting their greens and purples, and the grass beneath Bradley’s feet crackled as he walked. Before him stood the girl’s parents, arguing.

He made out a few words, chief among them, “I told you so.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Bradley began, as quietly and firmly as he could, “But I need to ask you a few questions before I go back inside.”

Bradley got a closer look at the girl’s mother. He had been present at all the family interviews, and she had never looked as bedraggled and desperate as she did now. As for the father, he remained calm, placid, even, as though he had been scolded and could do nothing but listen.

There was something in his eyes, however, that Bradley had never seen before. He could not call it a secret – more so knowledge of a secret, and fear that once it leaked out, everything would fall apart. To Bradley, the secret would allow everything to finally make sense.

“Again, I am very sorry,” Bradley restarted, after the mother’s sobs faded away, “I need to ask you a few more questions that were not covered in the interview.”

The father looked back at him, eyes narrowed, gaze fiery. It was the mother who spoke.

“We will speak to no one but the priest,” she trembled. Bradley could see her vacillation; he knew she wanted to talk, but her husband kept her from doing so. Her blonde head sparkled in the sunlight, caught the color of the sky; she bowed her eyes to the ground.

“I know that I don’t have the authority that Fr. Callahan does, but your daughter is suffering upstairs. She’s been suffering for a month now. Fr. Callahan can only do so much,” Bradley caught his voice speeding up at the end. As though on command, the girl’s scream pierced through the garden – the tinniest of screeches escaped the bedroom windows, rustling imaginary winds through the garden, rattling the house, bringing the mother to tears once again.

Bradley took his chance. He heard a prayer in his head, somehow urging him to keep talking.

“You said she was a sickly baby and that she was in and out of hospitals, but you never knew what she was sick with,” Bradley kept an eye on the husband, who, despite his wife’s sobs, kept himself at a rather cold distance from her, “I need to know: did she hurt herself, or cut herself? Maybe in her arms or her legs?”

“No,” the parents chorused, the father hardened, the mother still sobbing.

“Did she ever hurt herself when she was a baby?” Bradley persisted, trying to make out the mother’s voice beneath her tears, “We’re looking at a sharp instrument, maybe a really sharp knife or pick -“

“Look, son,” the father interposed, glare now even icier, one hand gesturing, “I don’t know how you do it in England, but we don’t ask questions like that around here.”

“Sir,” Bradley watched the father’s hand closely, “I just need to know -“

The father uttered something between a curse and a growl. Strangely, the mother had stopped sobbing, and was now watching Bradley closely.

“Sir, ma’am,” Bradley swallowed hard, “Your daughter is-“

“Her daughter is suffering, I know!” The father nearly screamed, but lowered his voice, eyes darting everywhere as though he expected his neighbors to catch him, “I’ve known for a year now, and we don’t want any more trouble. We just want this to be over. So get back in there and do your job-“

“Her?” was all that Bradley said.

The father paled. Over his eyes glazed memory, and upon it, resentment – and upon it all, anger. He seemed ready to fly at Bradley, but his wife grasped his arm in time, held him back, and spoke above the knot in her throat.

“She is suffering,” the mother spoke every word, eyes dark upon Bradley, hair glistening in the sun, “Make it stop. Do your job.”

There had been a buzz in the air, like cold white noise that no one knew was there until it was gone. The buzz had disappeared, as had the screams from upstairs; Bradley stepped back, listened closely as doors in the house opened and closed, and as footfalls echoed from the rooms upstairs.

“We’re done for now,” he felt his own voice deaden, “Fr. Callahan will be out in a while. I suggest you talk to him. And please make a clean confession.”

Bradley hated giving advice, and not because it wasn’t good; he hated giving advice because people would laugh at him, as though he’d asked them to strip naked. Confession truly was stripping naked. Very few people had the courage to do it. Even fewer people had the courage to make a very good one. An honest one. The confession to end all confessions.

The back door creaked open behind him. Bradley turned around, but just in time to see the mother brighten, as though she were ready to follow what he had asked her to do.

Fr. Callahan was standing on the steps that led to the back door. The soft lines of his face were brightly lined with streaks of both sweat and tears, and all the creases created by his work were sharper, darker in the spring light. At first glance, his green eyes seemed empty; but a closer look showed how he examined the world in all its detail, as though his world of shadows were so often shrouding the universe, that he had to commit all things sun-swathed to memory.

“Sir, Madame,” he had a bit of a Boston accent, a hint of an Irish brogue, both burbling beneath exhaustion, “Your daughter has been through another episode, and it is worse than anything she has ever been through.”

The priest’s words were slow, plodding through the suddenly oppressive garden. Bradley nodded at him, then made to return to the house, indicating slightly, and with only his eyes, that the priest had a new task that would perhaps set the old, ongoing one to rights.

Fr. Callahan read the boy immediately, “I need to talk to you now, Sir Madame,” and, lower, as Bradley passed him, “Stay inside and don’t let anyone come out.”

Bradley obeyed, one hand closing the back door behind him, the other finding support on one wall. He let out the breath he had been holding since he had been in the gardens. The air in the house was lighter than it had been minutes earlier; there were no smells now, no muffins or refuse or rotten eggs. There were, however, mumbling from upstairs, and the clickety-clack of a keyboard being used to within an inch of its life.

“Is that you, Bradley?” Came Landon’s voice, through Bradley’s muddle brain, “Need you here. We have a problem.”

Bradley shook his head briskly, as though to push out all thoughts of the girl’s parents and what seemed to be a fiercely guarded, even shameful secret. He didn’t bother putting on a smile; he returned to his brother’s side, sprinting, his heart calming down.

“Sorry,” he sat on his chair again, tried to put his headset on, and then stopped. Landon had not even looked at him, and Bradley could not help following his gaze.

Landon was staring at the monitors. The psychiatrist and doctor were upstairs, talking by the girl’s bedside. The psychiatrist was taking the girl’s pulse, and was starting to measure her blood pressure. The doctor was slowly holding the girl’s face, and trying to reset her jaw. He was holding her head steady: even on the monitor, the brothers could see that a thin stream of blood was coursing its way down her neck. The jaw had probably fractured, and one sharp, broken piece had probably sliced her cheek open. The cloth the doctor held to her face was slowly darkening with blood.

“We can’t let her stay,” Landon said at last, “She needs to go to the hospital now.”

Bradley swore under his breath, “How do we explain this?”

“We’ll let them decide,” Landon typed something into his computer, pulling up the files from that morning’s session, “But that’s not the problem. Look at this.”

Landon opened a file, bringing up footage of the last few minutes, which Bradley had missed. Bradley watched as the girl thrashed, her shouts matching what he had heard her scream, the scars on her legs appearing and disappearing.

But what struck Bradley was the time register on the video, marked out by large white letters on the bottom right corner. It suddenly read, “April 9, 1995” before shifting back to their current date.

“Play it again,” Bradley’s voice scraped out of his dry throat.

Landon obeyed. The video remained the same, the date changing, and then flickering back to normal.

“One more time,” Bradley spoke.

“You’re welcome,” Landon replied.

And there the date was again, changing with an almost audible crunch.

Bradley opened the girl’s folder again, and looked for her birthdate. September 29, 1995.

“I looked,” Landon interrupted Bradley’s intake of air, “It’s over five months before her birthday. Maybe it’s a glitch, or maybe we’re looking at a trick -“

“No,” Bradley cut him off, closing the folder, “It makes sense.”

Landon closed his open mouth, “Right,” he closed all the open files on his computer, “Talk to me.”

Bradley followed his brother’s example, closing his own files and shutting down his own computer. When both of them finished fixing their mess, Bradley finally sat down, looked at the file another time, and set it down again.

“I tried to talk to them,” Bradley gestured with his head to the gardens, “They weren’t exactly cooperative, as expected. But her dad said something weird. He called her ‘her daughter’.”

Landon hummed, “Not ‘my daughter’?”

“Nope.”

“Maybe he’s mad at the situation.” Landon suggested.

“Or maybe she’s not his kid,” Bradley retorted broadly, stopping only when Landon’s raised eyebrows had finally settled down, “No parent would ever say that, not even in anger, not even in panic. He said it like he’d always said it before.”

Landon looked from his brother, to the wall, where beads of mercury continued to slowly drip down. They sat quietly for a moment, listening to the footfalls of the priests upstairs. There was the sound of glass hitting glass; the monitor footage showed the priests sweeping the mess off the floor, with the doctor and psychiatrist still discussing something over the girl’s still body.

“Let’s pretend you’re married and you find out your wife’s pregnant,” Bradley watched the footage, eyes glazing over, “Let’s pretend you’ve found out that it’s not yours. What do you do?”

Landon’s brow furrowed, as though he were struggling with a dozen possibly answers, “Right now, I’d say I’d forgive her and let her have the baby – but that’s only because we’ve just finished another session and I don’t want to sin ever again. But,” and here, Landon raised a hand, as though anticipating that Bradley would interrupt him, “If I were just having my dinner, and the missus just says it over the potatoes, ‘Dear, I’m having a baby but you’re not the dad’…. Well, I’d have to pick between strangling her and hunting down the real dad and beating the shit out of him.”

Bradley’s eyes widened.

“You asked,” Landon glared back.

“Fine,” Bradley let out one long breath, “All right – what about the baby?”

“She’s gotta have it,” Landon answered quickly.

“But what if he,” Bradley’s head gestured to the garden, “What if he didnt want it?”

Landon swallowed hard, “Are you saying he told her to have an abortion?”

“I’m saying he told her to have one, and she had one, but it failed,” Bradley spoke every word in a low whisper, as though afraid that the people upstairs would hear, “What if he just decided to accept the baby, as-is?”

“Hm.”

“It explains the sicknesses until age three, and the wounds. Her soul remembers it. She just doesn’t know.”

The footfalls upstairs had stopped. The brothers turned to the monitor, watched the priests pray over the girl, watched the doctor prop the girl’s cheek with a new piece of cloth, watched the psychiatrist try to awaken the girl with words that they could not hear.

“There are botched abortions all over the world,” Landon finally said, “You don’t see the grown adults getting possessed.”

“Then maybe something happened,” Bradley said, almost automatically, “Maybe there was just a lot of anger around the house and that called them to her. Or maybe there was a lot of hatred and she just sort of absorbed it. Or maybe someone cursed her and she’s just manifesting now. Or -“

Bradley’s sharp inhale made Landon jump in his seat, look at his brother, then follow his brother’s gaze. Right before them, no more than a few feet away, was the girl herself. She was standing in her nightclothes. Her hair lay in moist masses over her shoulders. But her jaw was fixed, and there was not a drop of blood on her body.

Her eyes were fully trained on Bradley.

“All of the above,” she spoke. Her voice was clear; her eyes alert.

But as the brothers blinked, so did she disappear.

They scrambled to check the footage. The live feed, which they had kept on four hours, had not been recorded. And all attempts to try to rewind or find footage from the last two minutes simply resulted in the computer crashing and then restarting. Landon typed line after line of code, trying to bring back the images, and succeeding only in sweating from head to foot. Bradley kept on restarting his own computer, trying to get any backup file.

Half an hour later, the brothers gave up.

The monitor continued to show the group upstairs praying over the girl’s body. She had not moved at all.

“That couldn’t be her,” Bradley finally broke the silence that had covered him and his brother through their file-searching ordeal, “It would have been the demon.”

Landon closed his laptop gently, “Or she could be asking for help,” he watched the monitor footage again, “Or she could be trying to help us – that is, if you’re right about all this.”

Bradley was about to insist that he was right, when the back door opened, and the priest walked into the room. He looked even more drained now, even gray, as he took a chair from the living room, pulled it closer to the brothers, and sat down slowly.

As he looked up, so did the brothers see how nearly colorless his skin was, as though his body had shrunk upon itself, and his skin had eaten away the muscles underneath. His hair, once brilliant white, seemed to deaden. He had aged in both appearance and words, and he could hardly meet the boy’s eyes.

Behind him came the parents. The father’s face was flat, as though he were fighting not to weep, or to lash out at his guests. The mother, on the other hand, seemed to be at peace. She was not smiling, nor was she weeping; but her shoulders seemed higher, her age harder to guess. Even her voice had gained some roundness.

“We need to call the team,” she nodded to Landon, “Please call everyone downstairs.”

“The doctor and one priest can stay with her,” the head priest added.

Landon nodded once, took a radio from a bag behind him, and called one of the priests in the room upstairs. He watched on the monitor as the priest looked up at him, waiting for instructions.

The girl was awake. In between the mad dash for files and the priest’s entrance with her parents, her jaw had been reset and she was no longer bleeding. She was even nodding at the psychiatrist.

“Please call her down,” the mother spoke, voice rough with tears.

The rest of the room turned to her, then to the head priest. He breathed once, looked at the father for approval, and waited. When there was only a tremble of the man’s lips, he nodded his assent.

“We need everyone down here please,” Landon spoke into the radio, “Everyone. Now.”

Chapter 4.

It took a while for everyone to reassemble in the dining room. The two priests had to finish clearing the room, the doctor and psychiatrist had to check in with their offices, and the head priest had to pray outside. The father and mother were asking their daughter questions, ever so many questions that she finally broke through with her own inquiry about her brother.

And when her mother finally told her what had happened, the girl broke down in loud, shameless tears.

Bradley and Landon simply sat and reviewed their files, saving them in separate folders, and writing down where the files were. They never spoke to each other, not even when both of them were tempted to tell the head priest about the girl’s specter, not even when the father walked over to their side and told them that there would be coffee and a meeting in five minutes.

At that, they both stood up and made for the dinner table. They sat themselves opposite the father and mother, who had placed the girl between them. On one end of the table were the priests; on the other end, the doctor and psychiatrist. On the table were plates of cookies, bur no one seemed ready to eat.

The head priest finally arrived and began the meeting with a review of what had happened that morning. He pointed to each person in the room in turn, starting with the psychiatrist, who said that the girl had no signs of a disorder; then the doctor, who corroborated the psychiatrist’s findings, adding that he had reset her jaw, and he had truly seen a large hole, but it had disappeared as they were called downstairs; then the priests, who added their own part in the story, from the prayers to the cleanup to how they had the cloth soaked with the girl’s blood, but were also amazed at how she seemed uninjured; and then at last to Bradley and Landon, who talked about the missing recordings but left out the girl’s sudden appearance and disappearance. Doing so, besides, would have required them to reveal what they had been talking about.

The review was routine, and no one fidgeted or asked anyone to talk faster. Even the girl was quiet; she simply cried into her mother’s shoulder, hiding her face in her hands.

“Thank you, everyone,” the head priest pronounced, taking a seat at the head of the table, next to the psychiatrist, “Before we pray, I need to talk about something that we discussed this afternoon.”

The father bowed his head to the table. The mother continued to hold her daughter. The daughter whimpered, collapsed onto her mother’s lap, and continued her sobbing there, out of sight of the rest of the table.

“This is important to the case,” the priest continued, trying not to appear distraught. His effort was visible in his forcible blinking, which succeeded only in creasing his cheeks further, “But it can be distressing – and it can be liberating as well to all the people involved.”

The father reached up to wipe a tear from his own eyes. The move did not go unnoticed: the girl stopped sobbing, gasped, and sat up.

“Daddy?” She asked him softly, “What’s going on?”

The father did not even turn to her. The girl paled, beneath her mother’s embrace, and under the gazes of the rest of the table.

The priest took a long, deep breath, “This is something that concerns you,” he spoke slowly, as though fighting to control the sobs that seemed to squeeze his throat, “I now need to ask your parents: would you like to tell her story, or would you rather that I tell it as I heard it from you?”

“What?” was the girl’s faint question, “What is he talking about?”

The mother wasted no more time. She gave the girl a quick kiss to the brow, took her daughter’s hand, and nodded at the priest, almost all too briskly.

“She needs to know,” and, with her energy suddenly shrinking, as though she realized that they were not alone, “Please, tell her. I don’t think I can talk anymore.”

The head priest recognized the mother’s hesitation, and his next words were stronger, “Everyone needs to hear this because we need to know what to pray for, and if we want this all to end soon,” and, with a quick sweep of his hand around the table, “What you are all about to hear will not and should not leave this room. Do you all understand me?”

The priests folded their hands before them. The doctor and psychiatrist nodded once, leaning forward. Landon and Bradley stole glances at each other, and watched the father closely. The man seemed to praying, or muttering something to himself, his eyes still to his fingers, his hands closed into fists where they rested on the table.

The head priest made the Sign of the Cross, and then looked directly at the girl, “Your story begins long before you were born.”

Chapter 5.

The story took about an hour to narrate, punctuated as it was by pauses from the head priest, as he allowed the girl to digest every chapter; apology after apology from the mother, as she embraced her child; and even a staunch, “But I still love you,” from the father, spoken so low, it was nearly buried beneath the ret of the priests’ prayers.

The prayers were hardly a disturbance. The brothers were used to them: they were meant to calm the room, to ask for understanding, to beg for guidance. The psychiatrist and the doctor squinted their eyes at the head priest as the prayers went on, as though the low hums were distracting them from the story at hand. Only Bradley seemed composed through the proceedings; he even nudged his brother once or twice, as though to remind the other that he was being vindicated.

The story was told in its most simple terms by the head priest.

The mother had been unhappy after the birth of her first child, the brother who was now at the hospital. She had been depressed, but her husband had always been at work, and he had paid her little mind. He had been off on business trips then because, he said, he needed the extra money for their new baby.

And that was when the new neighbor moved in.

He was an ordinary man who loved gardening, walking around the neighborhood, and talking to random strangers on the street. Theirs was a neighborhood where everyone knew everyone else anyway, and he fit in. His wife had just left him for another man. He had moved in to start a new life, as the head of an online startup that hoped to populate the web with good visual content. He took photos. He was nice.

The husband winced at some points of the story, but he did not interrupt.

The neighbor was alone, and he would sometimes say hello to the woman who lived next door, she with the baby and a husband who was always out. And she pitied him: here he was, pouring all his energy into the startup, exhausting all his creativity on photography, and with no one to listen to his ideas. And there she was, all alone, with enough stress to make her cry while her baby bawled, with no one in the world to pay her any attention.

They talked a lot. They shared ideas. He took photos of her garden, her kitchen, her baby. She critiqued his shots. He took photos of her.

And so began the affair.

She never told her husband about it, and he never sensed that something was amiss in those times he went home. But whenever he was gone, the neighbor would visit his wife; or she would visit the neighbor, on the pretext of borrowing gardening tools; or they would meet in a motel outside town, with the baby tagging along, asleep in a bassinet.

The woman who had felt so alone, the man who had felt so rejected – they had both found refuge in each other’s presence, a listening ear where there once had been none, arms where there had once been cold.

The mother kept apologizing in a low, trembling voice, but no one was paying her any mind.

They lived the lie for about two months, after a harsh winter, and then a mild spring.

Then, the woman found out she was pregnant.

She knew the neighbors would notice sooner or later. She knew her husband would see the signs when he came home. They had not slept together since Christmas, when he had last been with her for longer than two weeks. Her baby was no more than two months old.

Then there was the shame to be dealt with from everyone who knew her. Her parents. Her newborn son. Her husband’s parents. And so many other people.

She visited her father confessor. She hadn’t seen him since Christmas mass, when he had last blessed her family. She had hardly gone to church since she was married, and she never knew why.

He told her to keep the baby and to pray that her husband would understand. And he told her to break it off with the neighbor.

She hated his advice. She remembered why she didn’t like church at all. It was stifling, and silly, and a routine that she never understood. Even confession was useless when she kept on committing the same sins over and over again – and especially when the man on the other side of the screen couldn’t understand how difficult it was to deal with the world’s temptations.

And all this time, she never told her neighbor anything. Somehow, deep within, she felt that (knew that) he would not react in any logical, much less merciful way.

She was right. He found out when he saw the look on her face after she struggled to find the words to tell him. And he told her to go to an abortion clinic because he didn’t need a child now. He was too busy, she was married, and besides, didn’t they agree that what they had wouldn’t last anyway? Why mark the whole affair with a human being?

The daughter’s tears dried completely at the words. She gasped, flinched as her mother tried to embrace her, and brought her knees to her chin. And there she sat, listening, a ball of dazed silence.

She didn’t want to go through with the abortion. But she was afraid of everyone, and she couldn’t face her husband in two weeks, when he came home from a long trip. She knew he didn’t cheat on her. He was much too emotionally unavailable for that, much too preoccupied with work, and able to handle the stress. But this would kill him.

So she struggled for a few weeks with the decision. And she didn’t push through with it.

She told him she wouldn’t.

He stormed out of his house, drove across town, went somewhere. She was too angry with him to care.

One afternoon, the neighbor came calling. He looked repentant. Or crazy. Or sad. Or angry. Or afraid. She couldn’t tell. He asked for her forgiveness, brought her vitamin shakes he made himself, he said, for the baby. He said he would support her no matter what happened. He said he would take care of his child, their child, their baby. He asked her to eat something because she was so thin and he didn’t want her to ever feel alone. He told her to drink the vitamin shakes. He had made them himself.

She suddenly felt happy again. Whole again. Loved again. She followed his orders because she trusted him and wanted him to stay. And she was so full of love and emotions and inspiration inside.

It was the last thing she remembered. His smiling face. His hand on her cheek. The baby crying in the crib. And then there was blood, bubbling inside her, spilling out, forming a puddle on the floor between her legs. His smile fading. The baby now bawling. The spring afternoon suddenly going black.

She woke up in the hospital days later. Her husband was at her side.

She had never seen him angrier – never seen him sadder. But one look at him and she knew that beneath his relief that she was alive, he already knew her secret.

She didn’t remember what the doctor said was in the shakes. Whatever it was, it had caused her to bleed, and for her to nearly lose the baby. Her baby had cried long and hard enough to get the attention of another neighbor, who had called 911. When the cops had arrived at her house, they found her lying on the kitchen floor, in a pool of blood, unconscious.

They contacted her husband, and he flew in immediately. He flew when the words, “But the baby’s ok”, drifted through the phone lines. On the way home, he realized that he hadn’t slept with his wife since Christmas and she would have known that she was four months pregnant. She would have phoned him. She would have told him something. And then she saw her in the hospital with a stomach barely registering a two month child. And then he knew.

And he walked for hours under the sharp April rain. Walked aimlessly, thinking of what she had done, what it seemed she had tried to do.

He said he was ready to kill someone, but something held him back.

They had an infant son, now with grandparents, her parents. The father had walked to his in-laws’ house, held his little boy, ignored his in-laws pleas for him to change out of his soaking, rain-drenched clothes, and fought every urge to tell them that there was something amiss. Why he never ratted her out, he didn’t know. But at that moment, he knew he loved her too much, and that they would endure the storm.

But the anger. Oh God, the anger.

Anger threatened love but did not replace it. The father swore it then, and he swore it now, at the dinner table, before his family, before his guests.

The air of the house seemed to lift.

At that point, the girl wriggled herself out of her mother’s arms, and threw her arms around the man who had served as her father. She wept, whispered that she didn’t know. And he told her he loved her still. It was a low voice that said it, but it calmed the girl, made her keep her arms around him, made her cling to him and sob.

And so – the priest went on – the father went back to the hospital. He woke up by his wife’s bedside. They argued, but mildly. She told him everything. He listened. He understood that he had a part in it, too. She acknowledged her selfishness. He admitted that, to some extent, his work had been a form of selflessness that had become vanity. They had their first real conversation in months.

Then it was a decade of couple’s counseling after. They moved out and fled to Boston, where they knew nobody, had no relatives. They got their son into a new school. They started a new life. They put up their own company.

The mother had the baby before they left town. It was a rough first few years. Their savings went to hospital visits where no diagnosis could be made. Their money went to doctors who could only prescribe something for their baby’s fever, and do no more. They paid for hours at their daughter’s – their – bedside, watching as she twisted her tiny body, in the throes of a nightmare that no one could measure. And somehow, in those hours spent caring for a sickly infant that was truly not his own, the father learned to love her.

And suddenly, it all stopped. The illnesses disappeared, the fevers leveled out, and their baby girl grew up to be healthy and happy. The family went back to church, the parents took care of their own company, their children went to school, and their family grew closer. Her brother didn’t know their secret, and he loved his sister with no qualms. Maybe the occasional hair-pulling incident, the rare scraped knee from chases around the yard gone wrong – but nothing big or damaging. He protected her.

It was he who had first reported that something was wrong.

His room was across the hall from his sister’s, and he sometimes heard her taking to someone in the early hours of the morning. He thought it was a boy, calling on the phone, too afraid to talk to their dad. He didn’t think of confronting her. She had her own mind, always did anyway, and could make her own decisions.

That was until one morning, when he heard her leave her room, close the door – and crash herself down the stairs.

After a night at the hospital to tend to her wounds, after a night watching her twist herself into new nightmares, after her parents found themselves back where they were sixteen years ago – everything went downhill. Their daughter had her lucid moments, but in between, she would growl to herself, call her brother and parents names, and leer at her mother as though she were ready to spill her secret.

But it was impossible. She didn’t know. She couldn’t know.

They called in the psychiatrist, their friend from church, who was seated at the table with them. The psychiatrist examined her, found nothing wrong, and decided to call in a doctor when she started bleeding from her ears. The doctor, the same one seated at the table, found nothing wrong with her either. But the nightmares would not stop. The attempts to throw herself out of windows and from the tops of stairs would not stop. She had to drop out of school because she couldn’t concentrate, had no sleep, couldn’t remember anything and needed someone to tell her everything she said or did a few hours after the fact.

The parents were sure that people at school were talking. But they couldn’t let the worries bother them any longer – not when their daughter was already talking in languages even they could not understand. Their parish priest had once visited them and heard her. He swore she had said, and in Aramaic, “Leave us now”.

It was he who called the local bishop, who then referred the priest who sat before them. The bishop contacted the cardinal, who called the Vatican and filed the report. The Vatican itself sent the two brothers to document the case. As a reminder: the Vatican took all cases of possession seriously, and the grave cases had to be documented. Those who worked with the Vatican as documentors were well trained, and could recognize the signs of genuine possession themselves.

The priest chanced to look at Bradley as he said this. Bradley tried not to blink, and pressed his lips closer. The temptation was greater, it seemed, to tell the priest everything that had transpired that afternoon, when the girl was suddenly before them in all her gray glory, before she suddenly disappeared, taking all their files and footage with her.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

The girl would perhaps want to know what happened to her biological father, the priest said.

The girl visibly fought not to nod too enthusiastically, as though fearing that she would offend the man she now held and called “dad”.

When she was born, the priest continued, her parents tried to reach out to him. They needed anything he could give by way of medical history at least, just in case doctors would ask later. They called him, sent him email, sent someone to check on him. He ignored the call and email, slammed the door in their representative’s face, and sent a note or response back with the exact same words every time.

I have no child.

The girl’s eyes filled with tears. They slid slowly down her cheeks, marking her skin anew with dark tracks.

They were about to send a note back, to persuade him to help out – this was around the time that the girl was in the hospital with a high fever and no visible, discernible cause – but they saw him on the nightly news. Man Burns Self in Home, the headline said, carrying a grainy mugshot of him taken a few days before, when he had been arrested for killing his neighbor’s dog with a shotgun.

He was deeply disturbed, the anchor had said. He had been undergoing therapy for some time, and his psychiatrist said – in an unaired interview – that he was seeing things and talking about things that were not there. He had also said that he would burn down everything and everyone because that was what his boss Beelzebub had said.

The air in the room grew prickly, stung, played on people’s skin. Bradley fought to swallow the dry lump in his throat.

The news didn’t make it to another night. Nobody really cared about raving, dead lunatics talking about mythical creatures. The parents didn’t think too much of it, either. It was distressing, true, but it was better for their daughter to have a good pair of parents, a righteous pair of parents, a stable pair of parents. Had she known her true father, their daughter would be a mess.

They thought nothing of it, until the nightmares began.

Their daughter was very young, maybe six or seven, when she first ran into their room in the middle of the night, telling them that a scary man was trying to take her away. It happened several times over the next few years, until she was in junior high. She would run into their room, afraid of a scary man. She would sleep on their bed. She would leave at dawn. She would not remember anything, much less bring it up the next day.

The last time it happened, she actually said that the scary man was burning. She threw herself down the stairs the following night.

And when things went from bad to worse, all they could think of was how to keep the secret from getting out.

“Why didn’t you just tell me?” Suddenly came from the mass of hair and tears, “Maybe I wouldn’t be like this if you actually just said something!”

Bradley was about to open his mouth, but it was too late. The daughter was hysterical, her parents were getting defensive, and the psychiatrist and doctor were trying to intervene. The priests had stopped their praying and were staring at the scene. Even Landon wasn’t moving.

The head priest alone had marked Bradley’s movements. They met eyes across the noise, and any unease Bradley had with the man was gone. He saw weak eyes, the creases of age, the gray skin of someone who knew how to read people.

The head priest gave him a single nod. Bradley answered with a nod back, then motioned to the family.

“We need to adjourn for today,” the priest pronounced, silencing the rest of the table, “The team and I need to discuss the next step forward. Let us pray.”

The prayers rang throughout the room, with lilts, with breaths that buzzed with the start of every “thee”, with the end of every “beseech”, with urgency and calm and love.

Nothing, however, stilled the girl. She was sobbing quietly at first, even as she joined the prayers in a halting, tear-choked voice. Soon, she was weeping, wailing low, words directed to the space between her palms, head buried in the shoulder of the man she had called her father for eighteen years.

And when the Holy Water had been sprinkled upon the last Sign of the Cross, she sprang up, stormed out, and ran to the nearest bathroom to lock herself in.

The psychiatrist and doctor were on her heels at once, followed by her parents, leaving the priests and two exhausted brothers at the table.

They listened to the conversation in the hallway, eyes to their fingers or the tablecloth whenever the girl shouted out something laden with more curses than sense, eyes rolling whenever the mother sushed her with, “Please stop! The neighbors might hear you, and they won’t stop talking!”

“You should have thought about that before you got yourself knocked up!” Was the last shout, with a tinge of a roar, an undercurrent of rage in a thousand other whispers left unheard. It sent the father out to the kitchen, where he rattled his way through a variety of knives and tools, presumably in a bid to break down the bathroom door.

Bradley groaned into his palm. He had witnessed the same scene many times before, in a variety of sessions that involved lies about the past that suddenly came to light. There were the tiny lies of promises of love sugar-coated by actual curses, the medium-sized lies of alcohol and trysts that happened once and were regretted a thousand times over, the large lies of hidden lives and deceit and no repentance. They were lies, nonetheless, and the forces of Hell ruled over them all. Nothing was ever harmless or venial where wars were concerned.

Bradley’s groan was more a testament to his need for sleep than fresh irritation at the situation at hand.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, when the two priests looked at him mid-prayer, “Hate to say it, but she’s right.”

“And that doesn’t really help us now,” Landon half sang.

“Just saying,” Bradley chanted back.

Landon waited as the girl’s shouts filled the house with vitriol and curses yet again, “She’ll come around in a few,” he said, one hand on his brother’s head, as though in reprimanding comfort, “As for you, you need sleep.”

Bradley shrugged, as the girl’s vocabulary of swear words dried out in a flood of sobs, and as the sound of an unlocking bathroom door filled the house with a resounding click. The brothers could hear nothing now, save the girl’s muffled sobs, the psychiatrist’s low words, the ping of a thermometer as the doctor took her temperature.

“I’m not sick,” the girl moaned.

“You know what it’s for,” the psychiatrist retorted, in the patient tone of a professor, “Sit down and we’ll finish checking your vitals, and then you can go to bed, all right?”

“My bedroom’s a mess.”

“You can sleep on another bed for now.”

“No bed is safe. The shadow man will always be there, won’t he?”

There was a pause, almost a second too long, as the parents sobbed quietly in the hallway, and as the priests paused in their prayers.

“He will be back for as long as we don’t keep up the fight,” the psychiatrist said at last, voice still soothing, tone as level as before, “So I need you to help us fight, ok? We’ll help you, but you need to fight.”

“Ok,” was the low reply, behind sputtered tears.

“And most important of all,” the psychiatrist continued, “You have to want to fight. Can I get that promise from you?”

“Ok.”

“Ok?”

“I promise.”

“Do you want to talk tonight, or will we talk tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow, please.”

“All right,” the psychiatrist seemed to pronounce the final verdict on the girl’s fate with those two words. He was both firm and soothing, a combination that made the priests bow their heads to their prayers again, and that made Bradley breathe deeply, after what felt like centuries of no exhaling.

And with that, the house itself seemed to let go of years of fists clenched around secrets, of eyes closed against the past. Where there were once dark corners there now seemed to be light. Where there was once a wintry, biting frost, there now was a cool breeze. Even the sound of the telephone ringing in the hallway jarred no one, when it once caused the whole house to jump in fright.

The father picked it up, his greeting low, his words getting louder as he answered the call.

“Yes, this is his father,” came out first, jittery, halting; then, in a less trembling voice, “Yes, yes, thank you – this is most wonderful – it’s good, very good news. I can be there tonight. Yes, I’ll stay with him.”

The table heard the father take his car keys from their peg on the wall, and then announce, to all and no one in particular: “He’s ok. They fixed everything. He’ll be fine. Nothing was broken. He just lost a lot of blood, and he’s sleeping, but he’ll need someone beside him tonight.”

And with that, all they saw was his figure speeding out of the house; all they heard was his car rumbling out of the driveway. No one dared stop him, not even his wife, who was still sobbing in the hallway, or his daughter, who had been silent long after the psychiatrist had promised that she could sleep.

“We can wrap up here,” the head priest suddenly spoke up, turning the brothers’ heads toward him, “Thank you, both of you. We’ll probably need you for the next session. Wait for our call.”

The boys nodded. Bradley had to fight to keep his eyes open. “I’m sorry I have to send you away early,” the priest gestured, rather awkwardly, at Bradley, as though afraid to refer to the boy as part of his explanation, “But I need you both at a hundred percent – and I don’t want to put you in danger, young man. Not again.”

Anyone else would have taken offense at the apparent attack on their ability to keep up the fight. Bradley, however, simply nodded, waited for Landon to stand up, and then followed. The boys did not take formal leave of the family. They simply lifted their bags, spoke low to the priests in goodbye, and left. There was no need for elaborate, protracted farewells at the end of each session.

“Unless this is Argentina,” Landon had once quipped, when an older, South American priest wondered whether they had ever considered staying for a while and talking to the family.

***

Landon and Bradley had both been a major part of forty or so cases in the last ten years. There were no real definitions, no absolute framework by which they could judge each victim, nor any standards that dictated how exactly each session would proceed and under whose supervision and leadership. Sometimes the session would go on for a mere hour, which turned into a single hour each day, every day, for a year. At other times, the session would take place over the span of forty eight hours, with no letup, no pause. The boys were there to document everything, from the house temperature to the temperature of the victim, from the heat signatures generated by those who were participating to the visible manifestations of those who came and went invisible, from the words spoken loud to to those whispered too high for any human ear to hear. And, when all was done, they would send the files to the Vatican, which would hand them over to priests studying to be part of the newly revived ministry of exorcism.

The recordings were difficult to take at face value, however, and they needed someone to analyze them as a whole rather than in individual parts – a task that their Uncle Jorge had promised them would be done, if only they could find priests both willing and able to take on what would be a grisly, frightening task.

“He’s been promising that since he was an archbishop,” Bradley once whined to another priest, who was also his uncle’s best friend, “But nothing’s happened even now when he’s a cardinal!”

“It is not an ordinary task, my son” was the priest’s usual answer, “Taking on the mantle of exorcist is an act of humility and debasement, an acknowledgement of powerlessness and reliance on the powers of God alone. It is a battle of power that infects everything it touches. You cannot expect one man alone to do this.”

“But uncle Jorge said the research could help more people, Fr. Anthony,” Bradley had once persisted, in a singsong whine that any five-year old might have made, “There has to be more urgency.”

“At the risk of carelessly injuring one of our own?” Fr. Anthony would often finish, “Some have tried, all have given up. We have no other choice but to wait for an analyst.”

The same Fr. Anthony also supervised exorcists-in-training across the United States, all while coordinating the efforts of the professionals who recorded sessions and sent them – almost daily – to the Vatican. There were only a dozen exorcists in the country, and that same number of recording and documentation professionals, none of whom were in close contact with each other. It was one way for the documentors to keep their findings from being contaminated by their own perceptions of the findings from other sessions.

After years of working on sessions, the findings sometimes became predictable: Landon appeared to be the more observant of the two, and he could sometimes predict when things would occur, or point out something that happened to disrupt what he saw as a regularity. Bradley, for his part, knew what to expect out of personal experience.

Chapter 7

Bradley had been no more than ten years old then, a little boy on vacation with his parents, brother, and uncle in Argentina. His father was captain of one of the luxury cruise liners that plied their way between London and Buenos Aires. His mother was a former singer on one of those ships who had caught the eye of the quiet captain, married him, and bore him two boys. They were hardly ever together as a family; but come vacation, the boys would speed their way out of the schoolroom and travel the world with their parents.

Bradley was as carefree as any child could be within the limits of his own awareness of his place. He would run through the ship’s lower decks with his brother, but walk like a young gentleman when he was amongst guests. He would run his own races in the streets of Rio de Janeiro or Kingston or Miami, but sit still and eat his dinner like a young lord when his father and mother brought him and his brother along to the lavish parties of the city’s elite. He would be quiet and listen at mass, hands folded, back straight, especially when his uncle was officiating, but he threw caution to the winds when he played at that Buenos Aires park on that spring afternoon.

There was little he remembered of the circumstances that led to the experience, or of the people that allowed it to happen. He would, on occasion, catch glimpses of a slavering hound, its fur singed by a mange that spread black heat over its body; or an old woman, wings of bone and leather hidden beneath her linen gown, her hair a bright silver that peeked beneath a careworn cap; and a spirit of ice that froze his insides, gripped his joints, kept him in place, as though he had been chosen since the beginning of time.

What Bradley remembered, and with vividness, were the waking dreams. He could not describe it then, and hence could remember the events rather than the emotions that accompanied them. He only knew that something else was in control, and that something else had edged him out in a battle he never even remembered fighting. It made him say unspeakable things to his mother, made him growl at his father or lunge at his brother from across the dinner table after the latter had more than a generous helping of that evening’s steak.

Oh, but what had truly incensed the spirit was his uncle, who was already the bishop of Buenos Aires, and who seemed to know how to best awaken the anger that seethed and frothed in Bradley. It took but the Sign of the Cross, the holding of a consecrated host, and even a prayer that his uncle had not even said out loud. And then there would be rage creeping in his insides, and his veins would press upwards against his skin, and his nerves would fire all at the same time and he would see both the ceiling and the floor at once, and then his spirit would let go of a rope it did not even remember holding, and then a toy ship was tossing alone on a roiling, boiling sea – and there was Bradley, all alone.

And there was Bradley, in a whole other universe, in a world between sleep and death.

Sometimes he could hear his parents weeping, or his brother screaming, or his doctor saying that nothing was wrong and they could find nothing amiss. And then Bradley would call out to the heavens in his world of storms and waves, and he would call out to all, call out to no one.

“I’m here! Let me out!”

There was little else he knew how to say, for some reason. Bradley did well at school, and often got into trouble for talking too much; but now, he could say so little, save the five words. He spent time in that prison of water, not knowing whether he had been in there for mere hours or centuries. Time had lost meaning when all he wanted to do was –

He did not remember wanting to do anything, and not until he heard several voices crying out at once.

“You have to fight, Bradley,” was the clearest of them. He recognized it as his uncle’s, from the singsong tone of the man’s Spanish, and from the comfort it brought in that dark, starless sea.

To scream, he knew; but to fight, he knew not how. He thought he needed to call in the other ships that he had passed on the way. He felt small beneath some of them, as their metal hulls screeched past his toy boat; and he felt that some of them had been abandoned, tossed forever in the waters, waiting for a harbor –

A harbor.

And that was how he finally knew. He had to fight before sailing out, for to sail alone meant death if his boat had been fashioned for mere display. He had to find his safe harbor, dock his little peep of a boat, and remake it with the help of God Made Man and His Mother, through his guardian angel. And he had to want to do it, no matter how the stormy sea sometimes gave him comfort, no matter how he wanted to be away as master of his own tiny boat.

And so Bradley docked and rebuilt, with steel that arose from nowhere, rivets brought into existence by the words of his angel, and glass that seemed to spring naturally into life whenever he chanced to build a window. Deck upon deck came to life, in those hours or days or months he spent at that harbor, somewhere between the world of the living and the land of the dead.

Around him lurked monsters and beasts, and in his head rang their invitations for him to rest, to give up the fight, to live in total surrender because no single ship was worth all his toil and effort. He learned to shut out their voices; his guardian angel grew ever more aggressive and began raising fists against their foes. Fights would break out often, and the almost endless night would thrum and clang with the voices of the damned; but Bradley kept on.

And one day, there the ship was, glorious and standing against the cries of souls and beasts, fashioned through prayers from above and within, and built by the tiny hands of Bradley’s soul. There it stood, slicing into the darkness of sky and sea to bring forth a morning that splashed its glory onto the waters.

Bradley sailed.

His spirit no longer fled or weakened; it recognized the heat and silver blood of a celestial battle.

His ship met a small armada of boats fashioned from masts of skin and decks of bone. He felt alone, for a flicker of a moment or for an eternity, he knew not. But he knew that the battle had to take place, for to delay it would be to push him deeper into the seas, far away from the soothing voice of his uncle, the safe harbor where the Son of Man and His Mother waited, the angel that now stood beside him and urged him forward. To delay would be a willing surrender, and forward he plunged.

It was here that his memories faltered. On some days, he remembered ships crying out in a blast of bone and metal shards. On other days, he remembered sitting with his uncle, confessing his sins, or attending mass despite the invisible rope that gripped him by the neck and attempted to throw him bodily from the church. And on the rarest of days, the sea and the church became one, as he fought the bloodied ships with a growing host of angels and floated in the bridges between worlds.

The battle raged for both centuries and endless hours.

There was a single ship in that armada, he remembered, that looked as though it had been fashioned entirely from linen and nails. It overflowed with spite and hatred and empty rebellion. It drew out the evening, slashed across brightness, illuminated everything with dark metallic light. Bradley knew he had to destroy it, for it was the center of the army, its core of energy, its master and commander. Every time he tried to sail toward it, the other ships would come forward, block his path, and send forth a black cloud of glass and dust. And each time, Bradley would despair, but only for a moment.

From everywhere around him, he would hear voices, shouts, his uncle demanding that one of the screaming, screeching beings give its name, the black smoke calling back mockery and ravenous rage in languages Bradley could not understand. Against them ran a rain of chants and prayers, which sometimes drew back the darkness and brought forth its own fingers of sharp, soothing light.

Then he would no longer despair, the young captain Bradley, and he would fight on.

And one day, after breaths of battle or centuries of war, Bradley came up against the ship of nails. He could feel nothing but the anger stitched into its hull, see nothing but metallic darkness bleeding from its decaying innards. He felt his angel at his side, voices thundering in command from the heavens, and a single whisper that seemed to echo an order from a Creator who had never left Bradley’s side.

“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, I demand that you tell me your name!”

The ship cried out in pain, and through the darkness pierced points of light. The anguish was indistinguishable from the screams of the waves dashing against the ships, but Bradley could hear a clear, ringing name that he would never ever speak aloud. The mere name would call the demon back and reopen the doors. It would bring forth the battle once again, and the stormy sea, and the armada of darkness that swallowed the world of eternal time.

Bradley knew that this was its weakest point, and thereupon dashed his ship against the nails. He knew not how many times he fought on that watery battlefield, or what his prayers were as his ship rammed against an enemy built with fear and lies. He only knew that he wanted it all to end.

When he next breathed, he was in his room, in his mother’s arms, and vomiting black nails that disappeared into dark dust the moment they hit the floor.

He had been possessed for two weeks, his uncle said, by a minor demon that had been sent to him as part of a curse. He had met someone who wanted him damned, but who had not counted on the strength of the boy’s faith. The demon itself had its own army of followers, but they were weak in the face of prayers, fleeing at the merest mention of the names of the Saints. Bradley had been strong and had fought bravely, and the expulsion appeared complete.

The episode, for all its quiet desperation, had never been forgotten. The entire family returned to church: Bradley’s father resigned, choosing a desk job on land instead so that he could be with the boys; Bradley’s mother grew ever closer to her sons, and spent more time mending the cracks in her relationship with her husband, which the exorcism had uncovered; and the two boys grew up knowing that the battle had just begun.

There would be more attacks, each fiercer, more determined than the one before; there would be more demons, each more vainglorious than its predecessor, each wanting to break down the walls the family had built.

Their uncle never left them, whether physically or spiritually: even when the man waged his own understated uprising against Argentina’s military regime, even when he was given the title of cardinal later on, and even when he ministered to whole of Buenos Aires, he never stopped talking to the boys.

There was, perhaps, a wish for at least one of the brothers to join the priesthood, but it appeared that they had other plans which, though contrary to hopes, did not deviate too greatly from expectations. Bradley studied film and society at university; Landon, for his part, chose psychology, then sociology, before settling on Latin languages, which he truly loved he said, after hearing his uncle hold the Mass in Latin. Bradley worked with London film studios that specialized in documentaries on the supernatural, and Landon worked with the European Union office to write and translate speeches.

Their jobs eventually became part-time ventures, however, when they both realized that their childhood had reached out to into their careers in ways they had never imagined.

Chapter 8

Landon had always been close to his uncle the cardinal, and he confided in the man, long after Bradley had been liberated, and long after Landon had chosen a career in languages inspired by his Uncle Jorge. The man stood by them for years, as Bradley recovered, as the boys wrote to him about their adventures at school, as their uncle sometimes consulted with them on the exorcism cases he was handling, and as the young men became orphans just as their careers began. Their parents died in a car crash in London: the boys were off documenting the aftermath of a deadly hurricane in the US for the EU central government, the rest of the world was calculating its next steps as a flood of storms hit land and killed thousands in quick succession, and the church was reexamining cases of priests and bishops who had erred on so many different sides of morality. Their uncle flew in from Argentina to help them with the funeral arrangements, to comfort the boys.

In that same month, the boys saw beyond their grief, and even beyond their careers. They saw their past, a world burbling with chaos, a sea of humanity boiling over with anger and desperation.

“Anger is a gateway,” their uncle said one afternoon, weeks after the boys had laid their parents to rest, “That gateway is open wide today, and has been so for decades.”

There was always a pause whenever their uncle spoke about his tasks. He would shift between the formal Spanish of the government and the lilting, laughing Spanish of the streets. That same song, so deeply embedded in the sentences he once seemed to sing, now mellowed beneath the gold of the coming sunset.

“There are more cases on the rise,” his formality was almost icy, “We cannot simply sit and wait for someone to fund our proposal.”

Landon asked about the research constantly, in those months following the funeral. Bradley, with his own experience, sensed that these cases were much like his, if not worse. Like his brother, the boy could not contain his curiosity.

“What does the Vatican say?”

When their uncle first answered the question, he was at their house, washing pots and pans after he had finished making them breakfast. He continued as the boys and he went out for a walk in Hyde Park, down avenues of trees bright green with summer and sparkling with dew. He did not stop speaking even when they had seated themselves at lunch, with baskets of fish and chips, with the boys eating slowly as they listened to their uncle talk about the work he had done in the last few decades, how that work could not bear fruit amongst the many ills of the church, and how that work continued to grow as those same ills came to light. That church lived in a world that gradually reveled in the velvet darkness of temptation and the defeat of the noble soul – their uncle called it an illumination by shadows. When the dusk came too harshly, when there were shouts in the streets for justice for this or that boy slain in the back alleys of London, when there was too much anger riding on the waves of beer and wine in the pubs, when there was news of somewhere, someplace on earth that drew out a disbelieving laugh from the most serious of people – when the world grew heavier, their uncle would call it an illumination by darkness.

“We think it guides us,” he would wrap up his fish and chips carefully, and seal the drink he had barely even sipped from, “We think it enlightens us, but it is pure darkness. It is anger. It is neither righteous nor wise, nor seeking understanding. It simply divides and revels in the division.”

Their uncle would sit in silence, as the boys finished their meal, as the world went on its merry way outside. Sometimes there would be laughter from the side streets, or the sound of a child screeching for its mother, or the drone of a motorbike as it navigated the London alleys with sharp angles and turns. And then, their uncle’s voice would break through the low clamor.

“The only way you can drive this out is by light,” his hands rested on the wrapped-up pieces of fish and chips, as though protecting them, “But what happens when that light is so feeble? When those that try to keep the light are laughed at and ignored?”

“I don’t want to crush a good proposal, uncle,” Landon cut in, one afternoon, after days of an almost identical conversation marked the boys’ evenings, “But the course does sound expensive. The Vatican might feel forced to pay for everything, and to keep on paying , if the lessons, as you said, are too complicated to be taught in just a month.”

“I know, young man,” the elder replied, sighing, “The Vatican has enough problems trying to figure out who has paid what to whom. The last I heard, they were not willing to pay money to go to war with invisible enemies that were figures of speech and most likely products of the imagination of people who overinterpreted biblical texts.”

“Well that’s taking it too far,” Landon muttered, following his uncle’s example and wrapping up his own dinner in its parchment.

Their Uncle Jorge had never lost his sense of humor, despite the gravitas his tone took that early evening, “They have money, but they have bills to pay. Surely you cannot imagine the whole of the Vatican run by steam and firewood.”

Landon opened his mouth, drew his breath, almost made an interruption on what he thought the Vatican was truly running.

“And yes, there are cases – and there are many,” his uncle cut him off, voice heavy with hardship once again, “The Vatican pays its lawyers – I hope it is to see that justice is done, and that priests are not simply sent off elsewhere to spread more evil.”

The boys would be quiet when these moments came, when their brief dinners were suddenly peppered with long conversations and bouts of uneasy silence. The boys were still finding their bearings without their parents, but their uncle did stand in quite well as a guide, on those evenings in London, for that first month without their gentle father and quiet mother, in those four weeks that their uncle would take them out, talk to them, tell them stories.

At the end of the dinner, they would always stand up, make for their apartment, walk slowly as the evening drank its way to life around them. In the beginning, the boys would stand to the side and watch their uncle Jorge give his dinner to a beggar on a street corner. The giving took a good quarter of an hour, as their uncle would chat up the man in his broken English (or in complete, singing Spanish, if the beggar happened to be an unfortunate immigrant), and convince the beggar to return to his family, or seek help from a professional institution, or find a job in one of the nearby pubs. The boys never knew if the beggars with whom their uncle spoke ever followed the elder’s advice, but they never saw the beggars again, save one who once stopped them in Covent Garden and thanked their uncle for his wisdom. He was wearing a dishwasher’s uniform, and was a hundred degrees cleaner and happier than when they saw him last.

One night, Landon followed his uncle’s example, and gave his own dinner away.

And on that same night, despite all their efforts at covering the noise with questions and conversation, their uncle’s phone would not stop ringing. The boys knew it was his Argentinian diocese calling. The diocese called at the same time every day, on their uncle’s bidding, to report about the parishes, the communities, the priests who often had all the heart but less systematic approaches to their tasks. The boys had heard the conversations so often, they already knew which priest had which problems in which part of the Buenos Aires slums.

The calls, however, would stop after several rings, as the owner knew that their Uncle Jorge was tending to more pressing matters. This evening, the ringing was incessant, almost annoying. The beggar even stared at Jorge’s pants pocket, as though he, too, knew that the call had gone from simple updating to outright urgency.

They had not heard the news yet, but the single phone call had been enough to send their uncle packing to return to Argentina, and then on to Rome.

It was the day that Pope John Paul II had died.

Everything afterward was a whirlwind of work. Their uncle had helped elect the new Pope, a man who had long been his friend, and who knew of the work that Jorge did in assembling a new course on exorcism. Jorge returned to Argentina right after the elections, there to continue his work as cardinal of Buenos Aires; he did, however, stop in London once again to introduce his nephews to his best friend, the American priest.

Fr. Anthony was an exorcist with decades of experience, with enough smiles to light the world, but enough nightmares to last several lifetimes. Fr. Anthony and Uncle Jorge had been working on the exorcism course together for decades, and had grown to be the best of friends in the process. After all the years of pitching the course and refining it, after hours spent brainstorming on its content, the Vatican finally decided that it was ready for implementation.

The whirlwind of Uncle Jorge’s life, and by some transference, the boys’, turned into a storm of work. Hundreds of priests flocked to the Vatican, to enroll in the month-long course, to practice what they learned in an Italian town for another month, and then to share their experiences and insights for another month as they served as mentors to another batch of priests. The course was in demand; the waiting list swelled to the tens of thousands as the course was opened to all religious in hundreds of languages.

What the course taught the Vatican, however, was that it was almost too late in coming. The same thousands of priests did not come as blank slates: the had already experienced the unnamable darkness, they had their own stories, they had already struggled with the unseen forces that cast their own light by shadow. The influx of priests showed how woefully backward the course was, and how there were new cases that no longer fit the old patterns so readily identifiable in decades past.

“I think the devil is doing his own research and teaching his own course,” Fr. Anthony once joked on the phone with the two boys. Their Uncle Jorge laughed when the boys relayed the jest to him, but he nevertheless took the words to heart. He asked the boys to help him gather feedback whenever they had spare time, so that he could modify the course and update it. The boys dropped everything and took to the task.

The task, if it could be defined in the ways of the world, was not simply about handing out survey forms and analyzing the responses; it soon meant traveling the world with Fr. Anthony, following up with the priests, listening to their stories, even recording a few sessions.

The course was fully booked for the next decade, and it was still being modified every year based on the accounts which the old priest and the boys collected. There were trips through Europe, where superstition and cults battled daily with Christianity; to the Far East, where the demons took on forms to which Landon’s multilingual education could give no name; to Africa, where the memories of violence and war dragged the blackness in their wake; and across the U.S., where people loved to be alone, to purportedly find themselves, only to discover that there were shadows waiting to devour them.

The boys had been ready to move on to their last destination, but the Vatican kept them in the U.S., where the cases kept piling up; or, more precisely, as in the case of the girl from Boston, where the cases were suddenly emerging, like termites crawling out of a slowly burning house.

There was one last destination: the Philippines, the last bastion of Catholicism in the Far East, and where the cases had long been on the rise. Fr. Anthony called it the best place for an internship for anyone wanting to take a PhD in Possession Studies.

“Why not Italy, though?” Bradley once asked, “It’s just as superstitious, just as dark. Why not a place God calls home?”

The conversation had taken a turn for debate as the boys traveled across the border between Washington, D.C. and Maryland, months before they arrived in Boston and found themselves face to face with the demon of secrets.

Fr. Anthony was in the front passenger seat then, with his blue eyes on the road, and his gaze sometimes wandering to the billboards that dotted the highway. The presidential elections were coming, on the heels of mudslinging and anger, much the same as any other year – this time, however, there was an indefinable something hanging in the air, swelling with anger, resentment, entitlement, if Fr. Anthony were to be asked. There was entitlement to one’s home, one’s country, one’s borders, with resentment bordering on hatred. The boys once remarked how the toxicity seemed to pour out of crowds, into streets, deep into the nation’s temper.

Fr. Anthony would simply nod, shrug, or, on that afternoon on the highway, sigh.

“Nobody knows why,” Fr. Anthony spoke, in the same voice that the boys remembered on the phone, when their uncle had entrusred them to the old priest, “There are many places on earth that God calls home. The enemy always comes to homes most loved. Perhaps that is why.”

The boys had been in the back seat then, with their laptops and notebooks, cameras and monitors in tow. They sat in a sea of technology, listening to tales of nightmares and abstraction, and yet there was no irony or opposition, only truth in Fr. Anthony’s tale.

The car was silent for a while, as the campaign posters kept coming, grew increasingly vile, with vitriol that seemed to spit farther out, with venom written in the most simple lines. Your leaders don’t care for you, but I do. Your government is inept when it’s run by a group that doesn’t know how to lead, but I come from a family of leaders, so I know what to do. Your lives are wasted in a country held hostage by terrorists and strangers.

Bradley felt as though he were being held under water. He opened his window, bringing in the scent of leaves and rain, along with a biting wind into the car.

“I have a student from there, from the Philippines,” Fr. Anthony resumed his tale, eyes now on the countryside, as the billboards gave way to farmlands, “He is just like your uncle – he is a cardinal, ministering to a flock that prays one day and collects talismans the next. It is a crowd that is happy but angry, beneath it all. Their elections are coming up. It is just like this. Angry. Raging. Resentful.”

Bradley closed his eyes, let the wind wash over him, as though to push the imaginary ocean away from his face.

“Imagine a place of happiness, smiles – boiling over,” Fr. Anthony’s voice trailed away, and then rose again, in relief, “Aloysio! There it is – that’s his name. I nearly forgot it. But of course – named after Aloysius Gonzaga, a Jesuit saint.”

Bradley had looked over at his brother then, and found the boy listening to Fr. Anthony while trying to get a signal on his phone. He was about to look up the life of Gonzaga, Bradley knew, but there would be no internet, no signal out in the country.

“The Jesuits have always been the principal exorcists there,” Fr. Anthony’s voice had risen once again, above the hum of the car’s engine and the whistle of the country air, “They’ve been the principal exorcists for centuries. They have libraries filled with transcripts and statistics about exorcism in the Philippines, even some in the region, back when they had to minister to all the other countries. They have records going back decades, and none of them have been digitized. No one is willing to take on the task. No one is willing to read through them and analyze them.”

“Woah,” Landon had interjected, half amazed, half inquiring.

Bradley knew that the boy was itching to get his hands on the transcripts, and knew the depth of his brother’s thirst for the years and years of knowledge stowed away. He knew how his brother wanted to try his hand at analyzing, even if Landon tended to be shorter on his temper whenever research was concerned. There was always a spark of wonder in Landon, Bradley knew; but it tended to burn bright and fast, so that the boy left off his work sooner than anyone expected.

Analysis of transcripts, let alone transcripts of exorcism, were nowhere in Bradley’s realm of interests. He would willingly record, listen, sense; but to put structure on the task – on a task, by the way, written into memory by detail-oriented Jesuit priests – was something he found limiting, especially when he knew the reality that lived beneath the session. There were unnamed hours in between waking and dying, a sea that threatened to choke him, a Limbo where thousands of voices spoke, where no one had any control.

He understood however, in that very moment, the value of the Philippine trip, if it would ever come: there were records that could push the course forward, and a chance for research in a country where the cases were still ongoing. It was the last frontier for the team – and it would forever tantalize them, as the news broke of the current Pope’s resignation.

Chapter 9.

The boys had been on their way to another session then, when the Cardinals were suddenly convened, when the voting process took mere days – and when their uncle went from Cardinal to Pope.

The man reportedly took on his work with unerring, unusual normalcy: he walked around Rome to pay his bills, called up his family in Argentina, gave instructions to all the priests with whom he had maintained hours of telephone time in years past, and, one night, awakened the boys on their long drive from a session in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, to the city of Boston.

The drive had been silent since the team had left the last exorcism. The session had been quiet, with the victim simply sitting calmly, looking straight at the cameras, blinking at regular intervals like a curious cat. The only problem was that the camera was mounted on the ceiling directly behind him, and everyone could hear the cartilage in his spine crack as his head turned, twisted, and remained in place for hours.

The air in that house had been heavy with darkness. Even the surrounding farm had been oppressive, dank, swarming with invisible wolves and bats. The whole team breathed as it finally exited the back roads and fled, three vans in all, for the highway. The air lightened even further when the new pope called.

Landon had picked up the call, and had been halfway through his congratulations, when he started laughing.

“He says he misses fish and chips with us,” Landon relayed the news to his brother, who had been napping then.

“Tell him we can bring him some when we’re done over here,” Bradley said, loud enough for the phone to pick up his voice, “Hello, uncle! Congratulations on getting the big job!”

Their uncle gave something between a disbelieving laugh and a sharp retort in the Spanish of the Buenos Aires streets.

“Give my regards and congratulations to Jorge as well, Landon,” was the steady sentence from the front seat, where Fr. Anthony was, “Tell him we’re on our way to Boston, but we await his orders and can be moved out at any time.”

“Fr. Anthony says we should fly out to the Philippines,” was all that Landon had said, so that the old priest shook his head, and their uncle the Pope laughed loud enough for his voice to carry through the phone’s mouthpiece, “But uncle – seriously – congratulations. We’ll help you in whatever way we can.”

There was a pause, punctuated by a low, “And here comes Jorge,” from Fr. Anthony.

“Well, I am afraid I shall have to take your offer seriously, Landon,” was the slow, soothing sentence from their uncle the Pope, “I shall need my good friend Fr. Anthony here for a lot of meetings, so you will need to be on your own for a while.”

There was no time for Bradley to finish his groan, or for Landon to bargain and tell his uncle to grant them a trip to a Southeast Asian beach first. Fr. Anthony immediately assigned one of the priests in their team as lead exorcist for the Boston case, which appeared to be minor anyway, and which would probably be wrapped up in less than a fortnight – enough time for the boys to get ready to fly out to Rome for their uncle’s installation.

As always, their experience with previous exorcisms did not predict what would happen in Boston. What was meant to be a trip of a few days turned into a few weeks, and the brothers missed their uncle’s inauguration, and all the fanfare that followed it. He was the first pope in many things, and was unique in so many ways, but the man took no notice of the festivities, had little attention for the many heads of state whose public statements littered the airwaves. He was deep in work at the Vatican, where the exorcism course was only one among thousands of issues that had to be dealt with.

Fr. Anthony, for his part, although busy, still reached out to the boys, and counseled them on the case. That was where his call found them, in Boston, on the evening that they had taken leave of the family of secrets, as they drove back to their hotel in silence. Landon picked up the call in the car, and put the priest on speaker.

“I take it that you were busy all day,” Fr. Anthony said, above the ringing of church bells across Rome, “You weren’t picking up my calls, but I trust that the session went well?”

Bradley checked his phone, then reached into his jacket pocket to get Landon’s phone as well. There were no missed calls at all.

They could hear Fr. Anthony sigh, “Let me guess – no calls whatsoever?”

“None, Father,” Bradley exchanged glances with his brother, “Looks like the demon played with my stuff, too.”

“Well let’s not give it too much credit,” Fr. Anthony chuckled, voice deep, mischievous even, if the boys didn’t know the old priest any better. They sensed that he was simply irritated and holding his temper down, in the same way that he checked his impatience when cases grew increasingly difficult, or when he simply narrowed his eyes at the boys when they forgot to save important recordings or lost transcripts that should have been sent earlier to the Vatican.

The old priest allowed the church bells to finish their tolling, then spoke once again.

“His Holiness and I have been discussing the course these last few days,” he said, slowly, the sound of turning pages interrupting him, “And he does agree that there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to anything at all. My colleagues here also agree that we need more groundwork to revise the course.”

Bradley and Landon exchanged glances, and both mouthed, with comical disbelief, “His Holiness?”

“So yes, to cut to the chase, you can both go to the Philippines in a month or so for some immersion before we start with the research project,” Fr. Anthony struggled to finish the statement, as the boys were already cheering halfway through it, “His Holiness will ask you to leave once the Boston case is completely settled, but he does not expect it to be immediate.”

“It does look immediate, Fr. Anthony,” Landon turned on a street, and drove the car up the hotel driveway, “We’ve got a lot to report on this one but it looks done, at least from tonight’s session.”

“We got the full story from the parents,” Bradley rejoined, “We’ll tell you more when we meet with you and Uncle His Holiness.”

The boys could not help snickering as Landon parked their car.

“Well I’m glad that you both have never changed and have not been contaminated by the darkness of the Boston case,” Fr. Anthony retorted pointedly, so that the boys laughed even harder, “If you can give me the story in under a minute, then I can give clues to your Uncle His Holiness as to why his Black Book keeps on disappearing.”

The boys sobered immediately.

Their Uncle Jorge kept a notebook bound in black leather, which had been a gift from his Jesuit superior in his first year at the seminary, and which he had used to keep records of all the exorcisms to which he had ministered. He had been either assistant or principal exorcist at over a hundred cases, and he took brief notes of the highlights, from what the demons’ names were, to how they responded to his prayers, to the objects that the victims coughed up. Bradley’s case was one among the many; the boy never looked at his case notes, and would ignore his uncle’s entries on his possession whenever he chanced to pick up the notebook and browse through it.

Their uncle always carried the notebook around, even if it was quite heavy, and even if he had no pending cases to work on. “One never knows when one needs to examine one’s work”, he would remind the boys. The same reminder became, “One never knows one’s knowledge until its only record is lost,” whenever the book suddenly disappeared, only to turn up in the most unlikely places days, even weeks later. The notebook would be perched on a tree branch so that it had to be prodded down by a fruit picker, or it would be in a pile of rubbish that would nearly have sent it to the Buenos Aires landfill, or – and this was Bradley’s personal favorite – it would be folded in among Landon’s dress shirts.

The book always disappeared when major cases came to what exorcists loosely referred to as the break: the point when the most powerful demon in a legion was on the verge of defeat, so that it resorted to petty means to play on its tormentors’ patience. Some priests reported losing their pens, if they were writers; shoes, if they were pastors; or even important computer files, if they were doing any kind of administrative work. Uncle Jorge would lose his book.

Everything would come to rights after a few prayers, or after a few days of patient waiting. But always, always, there was a hiding game; and always, always the exorcist was reminded to be patient, to guard his temper, to ensure that he did not find himself ensnared by the wiles of the Evil Ones. Their uncle was a veteran of sorts when it came to waiting patiently, as he knew that at one point, there the book would be again, ready for reading, re-reading, and analysis. Never for transcription, and transfer to digital files though; that, too, seemed to cause it to disappear, and for an even longer time.

On that late evening, in their car, and on the verge of summer, the boys felt the excitement of a coming trip that was years in the making, but they also felt that they had miles to go before the Boston case would finally be closed. As they did with all their prospective breaks, they had no expectations: they either broke through after plodding through tunnels in the darkness, or simply drew back at the sudden brightness of change and light. For some reason, there was no in between.

“Well, I wish you both luck and blessings,” the old priest chuckled at the other end of the line, as the silence had gone on for a trifle longer than usual, “We’ve been looking at the recordings you just sent, and they really are quite – frightening is the fallback, interesting is the less charitable word.”

The boys turned to each other sharply.

“We sent in recordings?” Bradley exclaimed, “I thought they were all erased when – you know…”

“Sad to say, I don’t know,” Fr. Anthony put in before Landon could answer, “But I received several files on the Vatican server, all of them with timestamps from your morning. The victim – the girl – child,” and here, Fr. Anthony paused, mumbling. The boys could hear the clack of a keyboard and low instructions from another priest, whom they assumed was working in Fr. Anthony’s office. Bradley crossed his arms about his chest; Landon’s hands gripped the wheel, and his brother could see his knuckles in the darkness.

“We have files from when her brother was thrown against the mirror,” Fr. Anthony spoke, ever so calmly, so that the air in the car froze, “And we will need to flag and file this just in case the police ask for it. Dare I ask?”

“We probably won’t need the flag,” Bradley’s voice came in a croak and crackle as the temperature dropped further, “The brother’s all right – the doctors called, and the dad’s with him.”

The priest-assistant began talking over the end of Bradley’s sentence, so that the clicking and murmuring filled the car with static.

“Sorry, I just have to continue this because Fr. Garton has to go to another meeting,” Fr. Anthony read out descriptions in a level voice, “We have files for the latest exorcism? Right? The session that ended with the girl alone with the priests and doctors?”

“We need to talk to the exorcist about his behavior,” the brothers heard another priest talking, “How much training has he had?”

“Four years?” They could hear, farther away, as though the phone were in the middle of a long table in a cave.

“Too short.”

“This is my fault,” Fr. Anthony put in, “I assumed it would be a quick session, and I was wrong. I shouldn’t have relied on him too soon.”

The boys knew genuine humility when they heard it. Fr. Anthony was not one to grovel or beg for the sake of saving his skin; the other priest must have sensed it was well, as he mumbled something about retraining and pushing for curricular revisions.

“So we have four files,” Fr. Anthony continued, addressing the brothers again, “We have the one right before the exorcism, the exorcism itself, then another file of the exorcism that suddenly starts around ten minutes after the end of the last one, and then closing prayers.”

Landon mouthed his amazement, “That must have been when Spooky Girl came knocking,” he could not help saying.

“That requires a bit more explanation than we have time for,” Fr. Anthony spoke above the rustle of paper and moving folders, “We’ll have time for conversation soon. Just write everything down. You were saying something earlier, Bradley?”

Bradley cleared his throat. The air in the car had not yet warmed, “I said the brother’s all right.”

“Good!” Fr. Anthony exclaimed, “What a miracle! Wonderful! How did you find out?”

“The hospital called the house and said that the brother was ok and they needed someone to watch over him.”

The pause went on for too long. “What?”

“Yes,” Bradley kept talking, ignoring Landon’s low curse, “So the dad went to take care of him -“

“What?” This time, Fr. Anthony’s voice thundered across the car, “The parents are split up?”

And this time, the boys chorused in curses.

“Where are you now?” Fr. Anthony almost growled, “Who’s with them? Go back! Go back right now! Call me when you get there but go back right now!”

Landon took but seconds to restart the car and back out of the hotel driveway. He was mumbling prayers above the sound of the engine, the rub of tire against asphalt, Bradley’s low curse as he kept trying to switch his mobile phone on.

“Use my phone,” Landon said, as he entered the highway.

Bradley reached into the back to get Landon’s backpack, hands precise, stance calculated. The same thing had happened a few times before, in varying forms, with varied consequences. There were the parents on the Nebraska farm who attempted their own exorcism on their son, only to be hurled out their bedroom window. There, too, were the parents in the Iowa farm who nearly took out their shotguns as the exorcism team knocked on their doors, as those same alarmed boys and priests disrupted the family’s first night of good sleep in years. There was no telling what this episode would bring.

“I should have paid more attention,” Landon interrupted his praying as he changed lanes, “I should have slept better last night, is what.”

“It’s ok,” Bradley opened pocket after pocket in his brother’s backpack, in search of the phone, “It could be something, or it could be nothing. Or maybe -“

Bradley’s deep, almost exhausted intake of breath nearly made Landon step on the brakes.

“It’s something,” Bradley murmured, as he pulled something dark from between the folds of his brother’s clothes.

It was their uncle’s black book.

Chapter 10

The air darkened and pushed down on the glass windows of the car as soon as the boys reentered the neighborhood. Even the car engine had enough: it died as soon as the boys were within sight of the front door, with a sigh that sounded as though a thousand souls had given up.

Bradley found that he was holding thin air. The book had disappeared again.

Thankfully, the priests’ van was still in the driveway. There was no one in it, no one roaming the streets, no dogs or cats stalking the sidewalks or scampering in the garden. It was as though all of nature had rejected the house, as though all light were being eaten by the faint glow from the dining room.

The boys jumped out of the car, just in time to hear the girl screaming, just in time to hear another voice talking over hers with acid that seemed to melt into shadows.

“He left you!” was the growl, “He left you to go to your brother because you are not his true child!”

Another scream came from the girl, this time rattling the windowpanes. The houses were large and sprawling in this neighborhood, but most of the fences were loose, if not altogether ceremonial. The boys wondered why no one had heard the noise, or had attempted to approach the house. Truth be told, they were glad that no one was listening in.

Bradley switched on his recorder and opened the front door. Behind him, Landon held up two cameras, eyes toggling between the footage and heat sensors.

The boys found the priests praying in the living room across the hall, and the girl seated on a chair in the dining room. Her hair was damp, a dull yellow that made her now gray skin ever more ashen. Her eyes were closed, her mouth was open, and from it poured both a scream and the growling, acrid voice.

“He left you all,” came out, part roar, part hiss, “He cares only for the one person that was truly faithful, truly his flesh and blood.”

Behind the girl, the mother sobbed into her palm, tears mingling with rosary beads.

Landon switched to wireless internet on his cameras. He held his breath, muttering, “Streaming,” as the yellow and white icon on the upper left corner signaled that he had made contact with the Vatican.

He looked quickly to his right and found Bradley there, holding a thumb up. It was the signal that the audio recorder was streaming too. Landon could hear conversations over the stream; the voices were muffled, but he guessed that Fr. Anthony and a team of priests were listening, observing, taking notes, and backing up their files. They were probably scrutinizing the head exorcist as well.

“When did it start?” Landon whispered to the nearest priest, who was holding his rosary beads to his chest.

“Five, ten minutes before you came back in.” The priest answered.

“What happened?”

The priest thought a while, then breathed, letting out both a sigh and a shrug, “She got out of the bathroom and looked for her father,” the priest paused, as the prayers heightened across the hallways, in an effort to drown out the screams coming from the girl, “I think her mother told her that her dad went to the hospital. She just tackled her mother. We all had to pull them apart.”

The boys took their places next to the rest of the priests and watched the session from a distance, recorders up, eyes alert. They dared not come closer, not even when the girl seemed to calm down, or when the air seemed to lighten.

The break itself was anything but a point in time. It was an island surrounded by ferocious waves, they remembered their uncle saying: it would be hours, even days, before they could make it to shore. In the meantime, they would be tossed to and fro on a rough sea that tested both patience and stamina. They would be closer to the end, then far away, then closer once again, almost all at the same time.

They needed to keep at it, to sail, to ram against the ship of nails, if Bradley were to be asked.

“Where’s the doctor?” Landon whispered to the priest again, as the exorcist’s voice suddenly emerged from what felt like a wall of silence.

“He left right after you did,” he answered, “We tried calling him. Couldn’t get a hold of him.”

Landon and Bradley looked sharply at each other above their devices. Bradley had gone pale; the last time a doctor had left at the wrong time, he couldn’t get out of bed for days. It was as though something kept him in his room, something that knew how to blend arthritis, the flu, and muscle fatigue, all with the right strength to discourage, not kill. All consultations after that came from the doctor’s bedside, through a crackling phone line that kept going dead. Only after Fr. Anthony came to bless the man’s house could the doctor get up and go to work again – as though nothing at all had happened.

“Where does he live?” Bradley said, as the prayers resumed, and as the priests bowed to their rosaries.

“Not sure,” one priest whispered, after a long string of prayers from the exorcist, followed by a long scream from the girl, “I know that he works at the psych ward in General, but I really don’t know anything else. His file’s in the box.”

The priest gestured with his head to the couches behind them, where the team had parked its requisite folders and boxes. The boxes had extra changes of clothes, theological books, and backup storage and equipment. It was dangerous to simply lug the boxes around, but there was no central space to put them. The team usually kept the boxes in a van, or in a hotel room, or at the local convent or seminary. For some reason, everything that had never been done before – or for that matter, everything that was outside protocol, on hindsight – kept coming to light in those scream-filled minutes of the exorcism, as Bradley looked closer at everything they had done.

He felt careless, even useless, as though he had reneged on a promise he did not even remember making.

“That’s right, little boy,” pierced out of the session, past the priest’s prayers, across the grinding chill of the house, “So many little things! So many little details! Look at them and you’ll find that you are all so lost!”

Landon glared at his brother and gave a sharp shake of his head. It was his signal that Bradley should pray. Bradley truly was, but half heartedly, and by his own quick admission and apology. The doctor’s files were tempting him to stop and look, all under the pretense that his aim was to help someone who was potentially in trouble.

“He’s probably home reading Playboy right now!” Came the screech, then the giggle, from what was now a silky, smarmy voice within the girl, “Or he’s watching, which is even better! I can show you what he’s doing, and we can all help him out if you like.”

This time, the priest was not distracted. He closed his eyes, raised the crucifix up, and brought it down gently to hover over the girl’s head.

“Begone, tempter of souls,” he spoke, solemn, firm, almost effortless as he pushed the girlish voice out of the way, loud as he spoke through clouds of frost that issued from his mouth, “In the name of our most holy Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood saved us from eternal damnation, whose sacrifice saved us from the ravages of sin, whose death on the Cross opened the Gates of Heaven and brought forth the promise of life Eternal.”

The girl snickered, whimpered, then growled like a cornered dog. Around her rose frost, in thin clouds. Landon looked at his brother, and saw Bradley mumbling a prayer, but no less observant of, even amazed at what was going on.

“In the name of the Holy Ghost, who breathed the Word made flesh into the pure vessel that was the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven,” the prayer continued, and paused, as the emphasis on the Virgin Mary made the girl struggle against her holds, and growl resentment against what seemed to be a growing wall of prayer, “In the name of our God, who created the Heavens and the Earth, and all that is above it, and all that is under it, and all that live in it. In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, I command you to tell me your name!”

Knowing the name of a demon subjugated it to the exorcist, as vessel for higher powers. It would sometimes take days to extract a demon’s name, and even more days to weaken the being further so that it revealed all the names of the demons with which it resided. Sometimes, the names came in an instant, and the demons left, which was common for minor cases for which the demonic horde had given up its lowest ranked creatures.

That evening, nearing the break, the boys sensed that a name was about to come, but they tried not to hope too much.

“My name?” came from the girl, as a laugh and a lament, “No one in this house could dare say I would give that tonight!”

The boys cast out their hopelessness immediately and began to pray.

The house shook, trembled for instant, as though an army of bats had enveloped it and tried to tear it from its foundations. One of the priests bowed even deeper to his rosary. The mother, who had hitherto been in the corner, wrapped up in her own fears, and sobbing, now fell to her knees on the floor. Her right hand was on her breast, and she was shaking her head through a storm of tears, as though she were making a confession for the very first time.

And then, amidst the shaking, the smoke, the whispers in the walls, there was a voice.

It came low, deep, almost too faint for human ears to hear, as though its speaker had been forced to talk after being chained in the farthest of dungeons, in the darkest of nights. Everyone heard it, and heard the house breathe.

It was a name. It had no cadence of goodness, no heartbeat that identified it as a name that belonged to sweetness, to an innocent soul. No one dared repeat the name.

Only the priest dared, and it came through his voice as he began the long prayer that acknowledged the name and the power that it brought.

The boys listened, heard the priest as he kept the mantle of exorcist without wielding it like a robe of silver. They heard his prayers loud and clear, and heard the questions pour forth in a voice that was guided, not imperious, gentle, not groveling.

He commanded the demon, and used its name.

“In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, you will tell me why you entered the body of this innocent child of God,” was the order, almost chanted, with the monotony of a father praying over his ailing son.

The girl’s head was bowed, and her body curved into a hunch that brought what seemed to be abnormally long arms all the way down to her legs. One of the priests crossed the living room and came to her side, ready to catch her should the demon try to fold her in half. Landon winced; it had nearly happened years before, but the folding was in the exact opposite direction.

“Her father invited me,” ground out of the silence, from the depths of the girl’s hair, “He wanted someone he could trust to watch over what was his. He said he had every right to her body, so my job was to kill her.”

The house shuddered. In the living room, the priests continued to pray, and the boys continued to document the scene, streaming it live for their colleagues at the Vatican. No one spoke a word, not even miles away in Rome, where Landon knew the priests were praying as they listened.

“In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, I command you to tell me every single detail of how you entered her body,” the priest went on, his hands now fully on the girl’s head, the crucifix resting against her hair.

“He asked for help in making a potion that he could take to her mother,” and here, the girl shook, tried to twist herself into paroxysms of disgust, as though the last word enraged the demon, “And he made it himself.”

“Who did he ask help from?”

“Only me.”

“Do not lie.”

The leer seemed to creep past the strands of the girl’s hair. “He asked for me, so I came,” the demon chuckled low, “I brought friends.”

The chuckle uncrumpled itself into a laugh, ringing past the wall of air that seemed to envelope the girl, creeping on spindly legs to the other side of the hall, where the priests were watching and praying.

The priest went on, voice never breaking, “How many of your kind did you bring?”

The girl attempted to look up, but kept her head bowed to the floor. Something snapped in her neck as she struggled; the mother sprang up immediately and pushed her daughter back into place.

“I brought seven,” the demon giggled, “And they brought their own friends, and those friends brought their own friends, and we all had quite a party together.”

The laugh simmered into a giggle, then a hiss, as though the demon were being raked over coals. The priest had put the crucifix square upon the girl’s head again.

“How many were you before we came?” The priest asked, with no compassion.

“Three thousand,” the demon answered, so that the mother gasped, sobbed, then quieted herself immediately with a tighter grasp of her rosary.

“How did those demons leave?”

“You must be speaking of those stupid weaklings-“

“I command you in the name of God the Father Almighty, the creator of earth, of all things on earth, of all things under the earth – tell me how each demon left.”

The demon groaned as the words fell, one by one, matched by a spray of Holy Water from the priest’s bottle.

“They all left in legions when you all began to – do – this,” the demon could barely form the words. The girl’s saliva dripped as the demon hesitated, forming a black puddle on the floor, “They kept leaving because of her. That woman kept driving us out!”

“What woman?”

“That woman! That woman we so despise, that one we so hate!”

“Say her name.”

“We hate her. We hate how she crushes and how she burns and how she -“

“Say her name.”

“We hate how she was made greater, greater than all of us, greater than we the beautiful and the mighty and the highest! We hate how he made this mere human, this mere creature, this speck of dust… he made her his Queen!”

“In the name of God the Father Almighty, he alone who creates and is Father of all creation, I command you to say her name.”

“That. Virgin. Mary!”

The girl screamed, growled, bayed as though she had been whipped and branded. And from her mouth issued black smoke, as though something were being burned in her bones.

The priest kept the crucifix upon her head, even when the girl looked up and showed only the whites of her eyes.

“How many are you now?” He asked, voice never losing strength.

“We used to be many!” The being mumbled, over and over, in a shrill whisper.

“How many are you now?”

“Used to be..”

“In the name of God Most High, who commands all the angels, I command you to tell me how many you are now.”

“There were once so many…”

“I invoke the intercession of the most Blessed Queen of Heaven -“

“Make it stop!” The girl’s voice came through a chorus of wolfish howls and batlike screams, “It hurts! It burns!”

The priest closed his eyes tighter, as though doing so would block out the girl’s pleas. She continued to weep, to whinny, and finally to wail with a lilting, lolling whine that unfurled into a response.

“I am all alone.”

The house sighed yet another time, commiserating.

The priest’s voice remained calm, droning, but the boys recognized it for its undertone of prayer. The breakpoint was close, and yet still so far. Bradley took a long breath as he held the recorder up, as though he were about to be pushed beneath rippling, roiling waves.

“In the name of our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ,” the priest went on, ignoring the fresh sneer, and the growing puddle of black saliva at the girl’s feet, “You will reveal when you will leave this body, this creation of Heaven, this vessel that should never be defiled.”

The creature replied with a snort, then a hiss that seemed to issue from the very depths of the girl’s body. She looked up at the priest, ashen skin taking on a yellow hue, eyes darkened, lips purple and drawn back against yellow teeth. She appeared nothing like her true self to anyone with a weaker soul. The boys knew that the priest could see the humanity beneath the beast, the victim to be helped beyond the veil of evil that groaned and grunted like a cornered dog.

Landon mumbled a prayer as the creature said something in Latin, or Aramaic, or ancient Greek. The priests looked at each other, then at him; no one understood what had been said.

The priest continued to pray, this time reciting the Litany of the Saints. He paused, allowing the rest of the house to reply, allowing the responses to wash over the now trembling girl.

“Partirò.”

“I will leave,” Landon and another priest chorused.

The single word kept coming, slow, resentful. Then –

“Partirò tra cinque ore, all’alba.”

“I will leave within five hours, at dawn,” one priest whispered.

Bradley breathed, but never stopped his prayers.

They had reached breakpoint.

Chapter 11

The breakpoint was never the end of a session; it was the weakest that the demon would be, and it was the opportunity for prayers to attack with the greatest power. Sometimes, there would be a final clash, as the demon would try to negotiate and fight its way out of the promise to leave. In other cases, the possession would begin again if anyone – including the victim – lost the merest amount of hope and reopened the gates. But in most cases, the clash was imminent, and it almost always led to a final expulsion.

The hours before dawn, after the breakpoint, were long and fanged with screams. The demon would leave, it said; the girl would vomit it out, at first light. Its exit dragged through even more prayers, and screeches, and bats and wolves and dogs that all seemed to be baying and howling in the walls.

Landon and Bradley watched the proceedings with eyes trained to recognize the signs of expulsion; but beyond the classificatory schemes that they could almost naturally derive from observation, they could see and sense nothing further. They knew when to disconnect their streaming link, and when to change the batteries on their recorders. They knew what prayers would work, what the demons laughed at, what the demons could mouth back in a hundred languages both living and dead. But to know how the world of the soul linked with the world of the invisible – they needed a direction, and they would not find it here.

When the sky lost its stars, and when the first breath of sunrise broke through the trees and crept across the living room walls, the girl moaned low, bent forward and fell to her fours on the floor. There, she retched a rain of black tar, thick, almost choking her, mingling with her sobs.

And it was over.

She wept, as she came to, and as her mother rushed forward and embraced her. The puddle of black tar disappeared as quickly as it had come.

The priest continued to pray, this time whispering, never removing the crucifix from the girl’s head. He waited for her to lean against her mother, to calm, to melt into the woman’s arms, before he addressed her.

“Child,” he laid the crucifix against her forehead as she looked at him, “I know that you are exhausted, and I know that all you want to do is rest, but I need you to do something for me.”

The girl nodded, swallowing tears.

“I need you to repeat some words after me, loud and clear. Can you do that for me?”

She nodded again, face pale but slowly gaining color in the rosy dawn light.

“We will pray together,” the priest began, “Repeat these words: I love you, Jesus.”

The girl smiled, and her voice cracked as she spoke, “I love you, Jesus.”

“I offer my life and heart to you.”

“I offer my life and heart to you.”

“In complete surrender.”

“In complete surrender.”

The words were whole and full, and every word rang like gentle clanging bells in the growing light. When she finished praying, the priest laid his hands over her and her mother; the priest who had watched over her and prepared to restrain her now relaxed, and he moved to the kitchen, where the phone was, to call the child’s father; another priest picked up his mobile phone and stepped out to call the psychiatrist; and the third priest called their bishop. Landon and Bradley, for their part, made for the backyard to shut off their streaming channel and talk to Fr. Anthony.

It had been almost six hours of recording and prayer. The boys could hear the clatter of silverware in Fr. Anthony’s office in Rome, almost smelled what they guessed were hearty plates of newly cooked pasta. Bradley sat on a lawn chair as Landon paced the yard, neither of them paying attention to their rumbling stomachs, neither of them admitting that they cared more about falling into bed and never getting up again than they did about going to another session.

“It’s a relief, to say the least,” the boys heard one of the priests say, “They need to rest.”

One of the priests answered something in Italian. Bradley looked at his brother for a translation; the latter shook his head, mouthing, “Subjunctive.” It was one of the language moods that Landon had given up learning when he was in college. He knew the basics, but lost any translation abilities when the language went far too fast at a time when he was far too tired.

“Boys, I think we’ve had enough for a day – or a lifetime, if your silence is any indication,” they heard Fr. Anthony say, above the sound of equipment beeping and whirring. The boys knew that the priests were using their laptops and updating files; neither of them cared to reply to Fr. Anthony.

“It’s been a long few years,” Fr. Anthony went on, voice smooth and soothing, “And – we were talking about this, his Holiness and I, this afternoon. We know how difficult the job is and how we have to move forward. I suggest you both take a long break – a month, maybe?”

The priest paused, as discussions rang in the background. Had they been given the order at any other time, the brothers would have given each other high fives and run back to the hotel for a shower and a celebratory dinner. At that moment, however, after months of travel across the country, of nights spent in the company of priests and evil, they could think of almost nothing, feel almost nothing. The drain and emptiness were common after every session, but this time, they suddenly felt as though they had had enough.

“Take a break,” they awakened out of their ruminations as the sound of Fr. Anthony’s voice broke once again through the morning, “Rest and get your energy back. I don’t want either of you to be exploited. No one should be a weak link anywhere.”

“What about the Philippines?” Landon spoke up, more curious than excited.

Fr. Anthony sighed, “We’re trying to get a research team assembled,” he began, voice dropping, more exhausted, “But most of the priests there are busy. And the exorcists are busier, if you can believe it.”

The brothers could say nothing to the remark. They jumped slightly as the sound of a ringing telephone broke through the static of the phone call. It was old and shrill, and matched by a loud, “Pronto?” from the priest that picked it up.

“I’ll call you as soon as we hear anything,” Fr. Anthony went on, “But the Vatican will take care of your meals and apartment rental. Same spot in D.C. Drive yourselves there and rest.”

“Can we just shuttle funds from the apartment and get a plane ticket to the Philippines? I can rest better on the beach.” Bradley let out something between a whine and a snort, prompting Landon to laugh, sit beside him, and nudge his brother to keep quiet.

Fr. Anthony laughed, low, as a conversation in rapid Italian filled the background, “I’ll see what I can do, but no promises,” and, as the noise around him faded, “I understand, though. I really do. I’ll let you know. You both have to rest first.”

Landon nudged Bradley one more time, as the latter began to chant, “Beach! Beach! Beach!” under his breath.

“We’ll do our best,” Landon answered, “We just need to close up shop here.”

“And drive to D.C. after a night’s rest,” Fr. Anthony added for him, “Both of you go home and sleep.”

“Mai tais by the beach!” Bradley was slowly recovering his wisecracking self.

“I’d avoid drinking tonight,” Fr. Anthony’s voice was flat, devoid of any amusement. Bradley decided not to add anything more.

Landon was about to say something, when the back door of the house opened. One of the priests nodded to the brothers, his face grave, his tone terse.

“We need you both,” was all the boys heard as the door closed.

“Talk to me tomorrow,” Fr. Anthony said, firmly, as though shutting down any possible negotiation on when and where the brothers’ vacation would be, “Get yourselves to D.C. and call me when you get to the apartment. We’ll ask the group at Georgetown to get the place ready.”

The boys thanked him in chorus and returned to the house. What they found seemed to brighten the still gray world without: the father had returned, and was embracing his wife and daughter at the dinner table as he sobbed; the exorcist was sitting by them, probably waiting for the family to calm down so that he could give them instructions on what to do; and all the priests were sitting by the family, silent. The brothers could not understand where the seriousness was coming from.

The exorcist motioned for the brothers to take their seats.

“I’ve already turned the family over to their parish priest,” the exorcist began, voice cracking, as though the last few hours had drawn all the strength out of him, “The parish already has the program for them. It’s your turn now.”

The boys sat down, but looked at each other, brows furrowed.

“It’s all right,” Landon said, “We’ll wait until Dr. Brown comes in.”

“I’m afraid Dr. Brown can’t join us,” the exorcist answered almost too abruptly, “He had a heart attack last night on the way home.”

It was not unheard of, for anyone on the team to get sick, fall into a long illness, or come face to face with their mortality. Bradley would get a fever and be coughing for days whenever he became the target. Landon would get migraines that felt as though his skull were being splintered into a million pieces. The priests would vomit, the doctors would get swollen joints and be unable to walk, and the psychiatrists would sleep for days in a strange, silent coma. These were not so much retaliatory attacks as they were the lasting effects of the war between good and evil. Any war would draw out energy and cripple anyone in its wake; their war took out immune systems and, for those who had little experience and no sense of dread or hope, the will to live. A psychiatrist from one of their Midwest sessions, for example, was on the verge of cutting his wrists open had one of the priests not recognized the signs of a coming suicide attempt and barged into the man’s room.

The heart attack, however, was perhaps the greatest, most extreme blow of all. Dr. Brown was in his early 50s, a husband and father, a respected and gentle therapist, and a researcher at the nearby university. He had coordinated with exorcists in the past; he had a whole group assembled for therapy for victims, and he knew how to talk to them with the air of a soft-spoken grandparent who had not a whit of judgement. There was no reason for him to be targeted, but there it was, and there they were, a team short of a member.

“We called his assistant,” the exorcist added, voice cracking above the sobs that came from the family, “He has all the files and he’s updated. He just needs to get Dr. Brown’s wife and kids to the hospital and he’ll come over. You can go first.”

The boys were still reeling from the expulsion and deliverance, and the news about Dr. Brown. They both had to take long breaths, as the exorcist asked the family to listen, and as the girl looked straight at the brothers. They barely recognized her from the week before, the sixteen year old whose jaw had been forced open, whose back had nearly folded upon itself, whose hair had been coated with ash and sweat and blood. She seemed at peace now, less beast, more human.

She was like the few others who were lucky to have been delivered, and so unlike the many that were still waiting in the dark worlds between worlds.

She looked back at the brothers, and found two young men, nearing their thirties, with golden hair that sparkled in the morning light. They would have picked up girls easily: their accents were softly British, with the tone of boys educated in private schools who knew how to roam the high streets with their silks and soft Egyptian cotton. Their faces were almost alike, both angular with just a touch of boyish softness where their jawlines met their chins. They both had clear bluish-greenish eyes, the kind that would appear truly gentle when they were gentle, and truly icy when they spoke from the depths of rage.

Bradley went first.

“Thank you very much for allowing us to work with you and your family,” his mouth curved up into the slightest of smiles, at the girl, then at each parent, “Thank you for allowing us to record the sessions. When we first talked two weeks ago, my brother and I promised that we would only record and send your recordings to the Vatican, and that none of the recordings would be used for any purpose other than this project. We will keep that promise.”

“The recordings are stored in the Vatican libraries and can be accessed only by the chief exorcists,” Landon continued for his brother, when Bradley’s voice seemed to shake, “They will monitor you and talk to your bishop from time to time, but they will never get in touch with you unless you give them written permission to do so. They will have no access whatsoever to your files, but the Vatican will always advise them on what to do just in case anything happens.”

The girl began to cry once again, and hid her face in her father’s shoulder.

“I know you’re frightened,” Bradley spoke up, voice gaining roundness, in the same way that it did when he and Landon gave their final word to parents at the end of the deliverance session. He would always hold down the shaking in his tone, as though forcibly keeping back memories of the black sea, the sails made of flesh and nails, the waves that swallowed the stars. Then, he would bring in the strength of reassurance, the gentleness of experience, even a touch of his growing faith.

“I know you’re frightened,” he repeated, as the girl finally looked at him, eyes blurred with tears, “I know that you’ve just gotten out of the darkness, and you don’t ever want to go back. I know what it’s like. I’ve been there myself. I’ve gotten out, and I’ve stayed out.”

The girl’s mouth opened a little in amazement.

“That’s why I’m a part of this project,” Bradley went on, locking eyes with her, “This is a project of the Vatican, and it’s been going on for years now. The Vatican is studying exorcisms. They need to study it because they haven’t paid it enough attention, the way that we sometimes don’t like reading about dead writers or wars that are finished. The church thought it was old and outdated, and something that they could study on their free time. But they were wrong.”

The girl swallowed down a sob, as her eyes gained clarity, and as her nod became one of agreement rather than mere acknowledgment.

“The church recognized that it needed to bring back exorcism as a ministry,” Bradley went on, voice now firm, eyes taking on the warm light of the morning, “But to do so, it needed to learn what exactly it was fighting. So the Vatican started a course on exorcism, to teach priests how to spot the signs, who to work with, how to take care of people, how to deal with everything you’ve dealt with. But they saw that they still needed to learn more because everything they taught always seemed to be incomplete.”

“We’ve been traveling across your country, and in some countries for years now,” Landon added, so that the girl turned to him, “We’ve learned so much, and we want to thank you, and your parents for helping us, and for helping to church. But there are still so many cases left, and we keep finding out new things, and how our old assumptions don’t seem to hold anymore. The Vatican will store your files and they will keep studying your case, and they will keep offering the course as they keep learning, and they will keep adding to their classes because even if there have been cases for centuries, we’re looking at them closely only now.”

“You’re a part of this project – you and your family,” Bradley’s smile was warmer, and he felt the air in the room push out the remaining frost from the session, “And you have a lot of work ahead of you. You have to listen to your parish priest, and you always have to check in with your local church just in case you move. I know it’s a lot of work, but it’s something I do too, and I find that it keeps me – it makes me feel safe.”

Landon cleared his throat.

“That, and a lot of prayers,” Bradley added at once, as the priests at the table looked at him, waiting.

The exorcist nodded once, solemn, as Bradley withdrew into his chair.

“Let’s talk about the sacraments,” the priest began, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a brown notebook. Bradley could not help letting out a sigh, as he remembered the black book from the night before.

The boys remained quiet, as the priest gave his instructions, as the parents and the girl listened with low sobs, and as one of the priests stepped out to answer his phone. The girl’s hair was matted with tears, but it no longer had the ash and grey that coated it in the weeks the brothers had filmed her. Her cheeks were losing their pallor, her lips were no longer dull with purple blood, and her skin lost the iridescent sheen that seemed to mark her as a bastard beast of dragon and snake. When she spoke, her voice was rounded and strong, as though she had never screamed for hours, as though she had never mouthed obscenities and curses with a groan that belonged to creatures as old as the earth itself.

And she was obedient, listening, humbled. The sessions sometimes created monsters out of those who disobeyed the invitation to return to their faith: some fell back on their old habits, or learned new ones that were almost as wicked, and returned to the worlds illuminated by darkness. The boys always took it upon themselves to remind the delivered that they were lucky, one of the very few, in a mass of thousands who sometimes waited for decades. Very rarely were victims so immediately obedient and willing to listen; even Bradley was working on his humility, and his brother loved to tease him, if only to lighten the load of their task.

The need for obedience was something that every single person on the team shared, from the exorcist who waited for his bishop’s approval for the sessions to proceed, to the priests who waited for the lead exorcist’s orders, to the brothers who moved where the Vatican told them to. Their uncle hesitated to call it “submission”; rather, he named it “loving childlikeness,” the way a child would listen to his parents and wait for their guidance.

The priest who had stepped outside entered once more, and took a seat next to Landon.

“I think you both need to talk to Dr. Brown,” he spoke, very low, as the exorcist answered questions from the girl’s parents, “He won’t let his assistant come. He wants to see you.”

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