Ok, I know that’s Keanu Reeves as Constantine, but it felt appropriate.
This Monday I’ve got more flash fiction for you, my response to Chuck Wendig’s Part 3 of 4 challenge that he posted last Friday. I’ve collected the two previous pieces in one place here, with my addition to the story at the end, so you can read the whole thing in order. The first two parts are great and you should totally go check out the sites of the original authors, which can be found here (for Josh, the original creator of the piece), and here (for Pavowski, the author of part two). There are asterisks marking the breaks between each section.
Ready for a good story?
I can’t imagine to understand everything that occurs in my life. I can’t account for everything I’ve seen. At least in terms of science. But those aren’t the circles I’ve traveled in, even after I left the church.
Not that me leaving keeps the church out of my life.
The balding priest sitting across my desk from me kept looking down at his hat, his fingers on the brim, perhaps because instructions were embroidered on it in really tiny letters. I rested my elbows on the desk’s blotter and interlaced my fingers in front of my chin. The clock on my wall ticked away seconds quietly. Finally, he took a deep breath and looked up at me.
“Forgive me, Mister Luther. This is not the sort of thing I am used to discussing.”
I shook my head. “It’s okay, Father O’Donnell. This isn’t the normal thing your parishioners deal with.”
“Ah… yes.” His brow furrowed. “I would appreciate it if you did not mention I brought this to you.”
“Right. Because the church would not want to admit that things like this actually exist.”
O’Donnell shifted uncomfortably in the chair. I kept myself from shaking my head or making a retching noise. Instead, I took a deep breath.
“Why don’t you tell me about the problem?”
“The problem is Samantha. She’s the daughter of one of our parishioners. She’s sixteen years old.”
I lowered my hands to reach for my notebook and a pen. “Possessed?”
“I’m not sure.”
I stopped writing. “You’re… not sure? Is it possible she just has a fever or something?”
O’Donnell shook his head. “She is speaking in tongues. Being… abrasive with her parents, when she never has before. She refers to things she could not possibly know. We cannot think of another way to explain it.”
“And how are you keeping the family from telling everybody in the neighborhood their daughter is possessed by a demon?”
“Her father told me of the trouble in confession. I reminded him that what he told me there remained between us, and that his wife and household were also bound by that stricture.”
I chuckled. “No wonder the girl was open to possession. It’s clear her old man isn’t very bright.”
O’Donnell glared at me. “I don’t think I appreciate your tone, Mister Luther.”
“Not the first time I’ve heard that.”
“We don’t have time for this.”
I looked up from my notes. “If you don’t like how I do things, Father, the door is behind you. Best of luck finding another freelance exorcist in the phone book.”
“But you are not listed in the phone book, Mister Luther. The church office has your card on file.”
Some priests, like most nuns, have no sense of humor. “My point is, I am your only option, unless you want to dust off your older texts, launder a fresh collar, and do this yourself.”
“I have no experience with such things. You have a great deal. Which is why you charge such exorbitant amounts of money for your… freelance exorcism services.”
“I also ghost-write inspirational books for churches like yours to sell in their gift shops!” I gave Father O’Donnell my best, cheesiest smile. He glared at me.
“Please. Mister Luther.” He paused. “Bartholomew. She needs your help.”
I sighed. “You don’t have to use the girl to get me to help you, Mike. I’m going to do it.”
“You had your reasons for leaving the church, I know, and…”
“Mike, come on, it’s okay. I’m sorry I was so hard on you. You can relax.”
The priest clutched his hat and let out a long breath. “It has been a hard time for me. I christened Samantha. Her confirmation is in two weeks. Or, at least, it should be.”
That got a smile. “Do you know I still have my confirmation bible?”
The priest started smiling, too. “Still sentimental after all these years, my son? That’s a promising sign.”
“You know I’m not coming back to the church, right?”
“I’m not sure why you left the priesthood in the first place…”
“I didn’t like the view from the inside.” I picked up my valise, opening it to check the inventory. “I still pray every day, Mike, and I do what I can to do right by Christ and my neighbors. But between bilking innocent, gullible people for cash and all of the shady crap the Vatican’s been responsible for over the years…”
Father O’Donnell held up his hands in surrender. “I do not agree with your reasoning, Bartholomew. But I’m heartened to know you’re still serving the Lord.”
I shook my head. “However you see it. Now, what else can you tell me about Samantha?”
Father O’Donnell told me where Samantha and her family lived, the sort of things she’d been saying, and I wrote all of it down. I made a fresh batch of coffee, poured some into a paper cup for Mike with a lid, and handed it to the priest before he left. I returned to my desk and sat.
An actual exorcism. From everything Mike had told me, Samantha was now renting out her head to one of the more nasty denizens of Dis. I dug out one of my source journals and looked through my notes. I had it narrowed down to a few possibilities, but I would need more information before I knew for sure. I closed up my journals and notebook, dropping them in the valise on top of the vials of holy water and my blessed crucifix.
I needed to get myself to Samantha’s family’s house to try and save her. But I also needed to make sure I had all the help I could manage. If I was right, I wasn’t the only one in danger.
So, taking a deep breath, I reached for my phone and started to dial her number.
***begin part 2***
When I pulled up to the house, Nora was already there; arms crossed, leaning back on her beat-up old Volkswagen in a sweater two sizes too big for her. Her mom’s. She watched, unmoving, as I parked my dented Chevy and got out.
It’s an old and practiced way between us, the way we stand apart, waiting. I won’t hug her unless she invites it, but she won’t. Not after our last parting. With an inward chuckle, I counted my blessings that she even came. Truth be told, I didn’t expect her even to take my call.
“Dad.” Her eyes dropped to the gravel drive. She ground a few stones under her heel.
I almost choked up. Years had passed since she called me that. “Sweetie.”
She jerked her head toward the house, the last rays of the setting sun glinting off her hipster sunglasses. “You speak to the family yet?”
I’d gotten my valise out of the backseat to check its contents again. Not that I needed to, but old habits die hard. “Thought I’d let myself be surprised. You?”
“Just poked around out here a little bit.”
“Fear. Confusion. Flashes of anger and hurt.” She cast a resentful eye at me. “The usual family stuff.”
I let her barb pass; she could say a lot worse, and I’d deserve it. I popped my bible into my pocket, snapped the valise shut, and moved toward the front door, stretching my arm out to her. She shoved her hands into her pockets and walked in front of me.
The steps to the front door creaked soothingly underfoot, like an old rocking chair Nora’s granddad used to sit and spin tales in. I thought of him and then I think of how he died, all hooked up to tubes and howling in pain. It’s not a memory any of us cherish, and I hadn’t thought of him in years. The memory just jumped to the surface like a fish in a calm pond. I glanced at Nora, but she was laser-focused on the door.
“Ready?” I asked.
Wordlessly, she rang the bell.
A heavy clatter of rushed footsteps, and the door opened just a crack. Darkness inside, and one wild eye peering out at us in the knife of dusky light. “Are you the priest?”
A thunder of stampeding feet came from the second floor, and the man winced away from the noise like a frightened dog. “I wish you hadn’t rung the bell.” His voice was hushed, the whisper of a hunted child afraid for its life.
The stomping stopped, and the man’s face grew pale. “Don’t say her name.”
“Mister Gallod?” Nora’s voice was level and warm, and entirely unlike the voice she uses with me. “May we come in?”
Ed Gallod thought for a moment and then shuffles aside. We’d barely cleared the door when he eased it closed behind us, muffling its clicks as best he could. The only light came from dim, smoky candles. Piles of open books were strewn around the couch, the floor. Unwashed dishes crowded the sink. The disarray made it feel like a squatter’d been living there. Ed trudged a well-worn path through the mess and sat amidst a pile of books. He cleared a space for Nora to sit, and offered to do the same for me, but I declined. I was too nervous to sit still. My eyes watered at the candle smoke, but something else burned behind it. Sulphur. That awful eggy stink burrowed right up into my nose and nested there. Funny, I hadn’t smelled it at all outside. Nora either didn’t smell it or didn’t show it.
“Sorry about the mess,” Ed whispered. He looked like he might crawl right out of his skin. “I’d turn on the lights, but … they just go off. TV’s nothing but static or … voices.” He licked his lips and passed a grimy hand over his face. “Or screaming.” Tears welled in his eyes.
“Father O’Donnell told us. You don’t have to go through it again.” The stairway at the dark end of the hallway gaped like a maw and disappeared halfway up its length. I wished there was light. Light helps.
Nora reached across and lay her delicate fingers across the back of his hand, and a veil lifted. His eyes went clear and he looked at her, and at me, as if seeing us for the first time. His voice, still hushed, came out stronger, resolute. “What do you need?”
“Do you have something of hers? Something personal.”
With a trembling finger, he pointed to the armchair next to Nora. A ratty little stuffed elephant perched there, missing an eye, but cheerful and pink in the half-light. “Her mother was holding onto it… I don’t know, to remind herself of what S–” he stopped and cast his eyes at the ceiling. “Of what she was like. Before she left.”
O’Donnell had told me. Samantha’s mother couldn’t take it. Left town. Went to stay with her sister, and left poor Ed to deal with their possessed daughter all by his lonesome. Poor sap.
Nora took the little elephant and crossed to me, turning it over and over in her hands, her eyes closed. She shuddered a little and then looked at me. I raised my eyebrows at her. She nodded. I turned to Ed.
“Let’s go meet your daughter.”
With heavy steps, candle in hand, he led us up the stairs. The air on the second floor stifled, like a sauna on a summer day. The sulphur smell grew stronger as Ed stopped at the door that could only be Samantha’s. My gut turned to ice. At the floor, under my feet, I saw fingernail scratches in the wood, like somebody had been dragged into the room. I tried to control my breathing, but I couldn’t: it wasn’t me breathing. The sound of angry, quick, snorted breaths filled the hall. The door loomed. My fingers found my bible in my pocket.
***begin part 3***
I tugged the Bible out of my pocket. I had just enough time to see its cover before the candle Ed carried flickered out in a sudden and cold breeze. The wind died as quickly as it had started, leaving us in a pitch black hallway, the air stifling hot and sulfurous. Nora grabbed my left elbow, and for just one instant I almost felt glad that she’d taken the risk and come along, that she’d still reach out to me for comfort when things were dark and scary. Then the door in front of us swung open silently, and she let go.
Candlelight poured from the room before us, like some grim parody of a romance novel’s climax. The rotten egg stink suffused the room and rolled out to greet us; every candle flame bent in towards Samantha, like commoners showing obeisance before their queen. Ed Gallod, standing next to me, fell to his knees as he stared at the thing that his daughter had become. If you didn’t pay any attention, everything about Samantha still seemed perfectly alright. She sat at the edge of her bed as she slowly brushed her long dark hair, and the posters on her walls proclaimed her love for boy bands & unicorns, vampires & Sauron. But the way that she looked up at us left no doubt as to whether it was still Samantha behind those eyes. She eyed us like we were dirt, or very questionable food.
“Hello Bartholomew,” she looked at me directly, ignoring her father. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.” The smile never touched her eyes. I could hear Ed retching beside me, overwhelmed by the smell.
“Again?” I scrabbled for my thoughts. I’d only banished two residents of Dis before, so which one of them was operating Samantha like a meat-puppet? Time for a quick gamble. Usually, an angry demon was a stupid demon.
“You know,” I took a step into the room, fingers tightening around my Bible, “when you exorcise as many demons as I have, they all kind of blend together.”
Samantha hissed, long and low like a snake, and her brush froze in her hair. I’d obviously hit a nerve. Like most of its kind, this demon was prideful, or at least thought that I should recognize and respect it. The snake-hiss did it, and a name clicked in my mind. “Ah, yes, Salassirriza, of course you’d choose to prey on teenaged girls.”
There was a sudden sound of things scuttling through the walls, like thousands of rats had decided to make a pilgrimage to worship the thing that ate their demonic cousins. Samantha’s face shifted into a rictus grin.
“Dad,” Nora whispered at my side, “stop aggravating it and actually do something, you dumb piece of shit.” Even the insult couldn’t make me feel bad. She’d called me ‘Dad’ again. And given me some good advice.
“Yes Bartholomew, you’d do well to listen to your daughter.” Samantha’s voice changed, becoming huskier and more sibilant. She stood up from her seat on the edge of the bed and the candle flames flickered down towards her, prostrated. “Somehow I feel like I could go for middle aged men these days.” She licked her lips hungrily, and then glanced at my daughter. “Or strong young women.” This time the smile made it all the way to her eyes, but I didn’t like the result.
Cold fear dripped down my spine. She should be scared, not like this. I flipped through my specially prepared Bible, repeating to myself that it was ok, that Nora could take care of herself. Samantha, no, Salassirriza, took two steps towards us. The tips of the candle flames followed her as she moved.
“Father dearest,” the demon spoke with Samantha’s voice once more. “Won’t you come give me a hug?”
As I fumbled for the passages that I needed, Ed Gallod stood up and stepped towards the demon that rode his daughter. He looked dazed, mesmerized by her voice and drawn towards her beckoning hand. I cursed under my breath as he drew close to her, and then watched in horror as she stepped up to him and wrapped her arms around him. Tiny flickering flames seeped out from under her fingers, running like the coils of a serpent around Samantha’s father. I finally had the words I needed, but I was terrified that I was too late to save the man.
As I opened my mouth and began to speak, calling out the powers and names of the Lord against this unclean being, I saw Samantha smile again, and I knew I was in trouble. I was using the same banishment that I’d used on Salassirriza before, but from her expression it didn’t look like it was having any effect. Leaving her father wrapped head to toe in a long coil of serpentine flames, Samantha took another step towards me, shaking her finger.
“Now Bartholomew, you don’t think that I’d have come back completely unprepared, do you?” A flick of her left hand lifted Ed Gallod into the air, slowly drawing him over the candle flames. The fires leapt up eagerly, and though Ed didn’t scream I could see his skin reddening, beginning to burn.
“So,” she took her time stepping closer to me while I racked my brains for another banishment that might effect her. “How about this? You desperately try to find something that will work on me, while I laugh in your face. Then, while you cry, I,” her very human jaw dislocated itself, and the deeper huskier voice continued without moving her lips, “will slowly swallow you whole, letting you scream the entire time while I strip the flesh from your bones.” Her hands came up and I was frozen, feeling those same flaming tendrils move on my skin.
Nora stepped forward, tired pink toy elephant in hand. When she spoke, her voice struck Salassirriza like a blow to the gut. “No, you won’t.”