“Someone’s calling for help,” Jeff said, sounding pained and worried. The young man turned to look toward the stairway that led back down to the nave. “Do you hear that?”
Daniel waited for a very specific number of moments to pass, and then reached out and put right hand on Jeff’s left shoulders. “Wait,” he said, gesturing toward the window for Jeff to look again. “Try again. And listen more carefully.
The voice came again. In its way, it really could be heard as if it were someone calling out the word ‘help’ over and over.
But Daniel knew better. He recognized the sound. He’d heard the call as a young boy, and he;’d heard it well into his old age. At seventy-four, he couldn’t hope to even begin to count how many times he’d heard it. And he saw no reason for Jeff to suffer ignorance any more; it didn’t serve the impromptu lesson Daniel was going to give the younger man. “It’s just peacocks, Jeff,” Daniel said. “An animal.” He shrugged. “Or — animals. But that’s it. Nothing more.”
“Peacocks?” Jeff peered out the window “I don’t see any- … ” The young man trailed off.
Daniel moved back to Jeff’s side and looked out the window, too. And — while it was true that there weren’t any peacocks visible — Daniel knew exactly where the cries were coming from. He pointed out past the playing children, on the other side of the chain-link fence where their bikes rested. “Out there. The Youth Center lot. I try to think of it like — hey, at least someone’s using the space..” He sighed loudly. “We’ll build the Center someday.”
“Someday.” Jeff repeated.
The cry came again. ‘Help! Help!’
You couldn’t see the peacocks in the grass, though. The yellowed stalks waving unevenly in the breeze were too high to make out anything on the ground over there, let alone a low-waddling bird.
“Here’s the thing, Jeff. When I noticed them out there, I realized there was. … — well, I pointed that out to you for a reason. The kids, and the peacocks.”
“Do you know them?” Jeff asked, sounding distracted, still looking out the window — presumably toward the children on the recreation court and the grassy lot beyond.
“I want to say I’ve seen them around town a few times, but I don’t know whose they are. I don’t think their families go to the Church,” Daniel said, moving away from the window, but keeping an eye on Jeff even as he put on his brown leather bomber jacket. “But it’s time to go, Jeff. Walk with me and I’ll tell you what I wanted you to learn from that.”
Jeff seemed not to hear him for a long moment. “There’s something –” he began, but he didn’t finish the thought. Pulling away from the windowsill, he moved to follow Daniel. “I don’t know,” he murmured quietly.
“Peacock calls sometimes sound like someone calling for help,” Daniel began, trudging heavily down the steps that led back to the nave. The stairs protested, creaking in protest from both men’s steps. “I grew up near Peacock Farms when I was a boy. Right next door in fact. So I know what I’m talking about. And those calls used to frighten me.
“I can imagine.”
“And that was even after my parents told me it was just peacocks. I used to lie in bed and cover my head with my pillows to try to drown out the sounds. It kept me up at all hours.””And here I was, complaining about my headache,” Jeff said, coming around the turn as he followed Daniel down. “That sounds terrible. Was it giving you, like, some kind of flashbacks just now, or something?”
Daniel grinned. “More like a moment of inspiration.” He took the door key out of his pocket and inserted it into the keyhole in the center of the doorknob. Then, he took hold of the knob and pulled it out a little ways, twisting it until there was a quiet popping sound as the door unlocked. Daniel pushed it open. “You look like the headache’s a little better,” Passing into the nave, he moved to one side for Jeff to follow him out.
“It is,” Jeff said. “Not even really sure what that was about. But I feel better now.” Stepping through the doorway,Jeff gave Daniel one of his customary thumbs-ups.
As Jeff passed through the door and the two men walked to the front of the Church, Daniel continued his story: “But, you know, I used to really hate Old Man Hiltraud for keeping all those peacocks and keeping me awake. Until I realized how selfish it was.” He opened the door outside and held it for Jeff to step outside, which the other man did. Then, Daniel stepped out and shut the door behind him without locking it. He anticipated a likely question from Jeff: “I’m not locking the door. The Church itself should never be locked up. There’s nothing in there anyone can steal that can’t be replaced, and the valuable stuff’s upstairs.” Daniel turned to look out toward the parking lot. The mail truck was still there. Then, he looked back toward Jeff. “We’ll take my car.” He gestured for Jeff to continue following him, and the young man complied. “And here’s the thing,” Daniel said as they resumed gesturing this time toward the recreation court. The children were loud, even from where the two men were walking, their language all feigned threats, cruel insults and boastful promises of retribution. “Things that sound like a plea for help … aren’t always, Jeff.” He paused for a moment to let his words get through to the younger man before continuing. “I learned that from the peacocks. And from kids like those — I learned that, sometimes, the ones who scream about how strong they are are the ones who actually need help the most.” He gestured again toward the kids. “They need help the most. They need us. The children. And they’re usually the ones who protest the most they don’t need help. The ones who try to show their power to the world when they feel the most powerless.”
“Like Michael Laddow?” Jeff said.
Daniel felt a little surge inside of him. “Like devils.”
“You really think –” Jeff began, and then fell silent.
“I do. Obviously.” He gestured with his right hand toward his own face. “Whether you want to be literal or metaphorical, I don’t care. But me? I’m encouraging you to be literal. I mean — Jeff, look at me. I have to be literal about it; but, it’s more than that. I obviously also really do believe in The Devil.”
“Like I just said — in my profession, I sort of have to. Which iss why I’m actually glad I had those experiences — hearing the peacocks. Do you understand why now?”
“So that you can know who really needs help no matter what it sounds like?”
“That,” Daniel said, coming to a stop. As he did, the four playing children stopped, too.
The basketball bounced a few times and rolled around, ending up at the feet of a dark-skinned girl with pig-tailed bursts of black hair that — even from the distance at which he was standing — Daniel could tell was full of glitter. That one looked kind of Asian. Daniel didn’t know enough about Asian people to call it more than that. He didn’t know much about those cultures, so he felt like he couldn’t really tell. The Asian girl bent down and picked up the basketball, maintaining eye-contact with Daniel the whole time; Daniel didn’t like it. A light-blond-haired boy standing a little ways behind her took advantage of this pause in their game to pull an inhaler out of his pocket, placing the end to his lips and squeezing it. Daniel couldn’t hear it make an inhaler’s particular hiss from where he was standing, but his memory filled in the gaps and reminded him how much he hated the sound when one of those things went off during one of Daniel’s sermons. The boy reached up to wipe his mouth with his sleeve and then he, too, seemed to be staring over at the reverend. The third, another girl, this one with long red braids on either side of her head that came down well-past her shoulders, walked up to the first girl and whispered something. The fourth child — with Daniel unsure of that one’s gender; the kid was wearing a big hooded coat and the hood was up covering the kid’s face — and, well, that one just seemed to be staring over at the pile of bicycles leaning up against the gate. All four of the bikes were a little muddy, but the metal was shining, reflecting black and white and red and pale green; it was a big contrast to the dull, grey chainlink fence.
“Father?” Jeff said, coming up alongside of the reverend.
Daniel shook off his discomfort as best he could, and saw an opportunity: “Children are complicated, Jeff,” he said to the younger man. He pointed over toward the children, then quickly lowered his hand and turned to focus back on Jeff. “As you know from our discussion, I really do believe — on a practical, real-world level, that there are devils who guide children’s hands.
“I know,” Jeff said, sounding convinced of that much, at least. “But why? I mean, besides the obvious.”
“It’s more important to understand with what than why.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s with false promises of power,” Daniel said to Jeff, looking away from the children and back toward the man accompanying him.. “Which is why that generation — right there, the ones playing basketball and shouting at each other — will roll their eyes.”
Jeff nodded, but said nothing.
“They’re listening to their bodies, not their souls. They’re hearing a lot of voices telling them what to do. What’s one more? And their bodies are like voices, too. Telling them to jump and yell and — well, survival of the fittest, and all that.” He waved a hand, as if now dismissing the playing kids. “And that’s a real, hardcore devil’s promise. Survival of the fittest. Evolution.”
“Evolution,” Jeff said, shaking his head sadly.
Daniel nodded sagely. “Evolution of what, is the thing they just won’t ask. My thing, my question I feel like we have to ask.”
“And We have to learn to hear the silent cries for help and filter out the illusions of the world. And not be afraid of those illusions. I’m so thankful you want to listen to me, Jeff. It does me good to know there are people like you who still care enough to fight. Do you understand me, Jeff? Do you understand what I’m meaning here?”
“Yeah.” Jeff was looking past Daniel, over to the basketball court. “But, Father?”
“Those kids — those kids are really creeping me out. Shouldn’t they be in school — or … going, or whatever?”
Jeff’s reaction bothered Daniel as much as the children’s stares, but in a different way. At the same time, Daniel found himself wondered whether what was bothering Jeff were the same things that bothered him about the children. But Daniel decided that it wasn’t really appropriate to ask. It didn’t belong in the conversation, and it would distract from the progress he’d just made with Jeff and the work Daniel was doing trying to keep Jeff’s thoughts aligned in so specific a way. So the reverend decided to resume his explanation: “For some people, truancy is its own reward.”
“Should we do something?”
“Any other day, I’d talk to them. But, you know what? Maybe they need this. And I’m justifying my walking away with that. Maybe they need to be away from institutions right now. And a Reverend is an institution.” Daniel allowed himself another grin, pleased with the way he’d presented himself there.
“Which is — if you don’t mind me asking,” Jeff said, more quietly, as they reached Daniel’s car. “Aren’t you supposed to wear something special if he’s possessed? Shouldn’t I? Are we in danger? I trust you, Father, but- … ” And Jeff went quiet.
Daniel unlocked the car with his electric key and the two men got inside. “It isn’t like the movies,” Daniel said as he started the car’s engine. “Like anything, the movies make something real into a cartoon. There’s no time for subtleties in the movies.” Daniel pulled out of his parking space and began the drive into town toward the Drodden police station. “Mostly, possessed people just look sad and sickly. Hungry. Malnourished. People die from it. From just wasting away. And that’s real ugliness — being helpless when you see someone you care about wasting away. People who don’t cry for help. Which is why you can’t believe what you hear or see.”
“But Father …” Jeff was staring out the side window. “Why do you think I’m the right person to help you?”
“Honestly?” Daniel said, turning onto the main road. “It’s something I’ve said to you before. You listen to my stories. You pay attention. I was getting ready to call some other people.”
“Who?” Jeff asked, turning to look back at Daniel. “Who were they?”
“Now — I respect their privacy as much as I respect yours, Jeff. But I can’t do this alone, and I’m not going to wait around for a phone call from the Vatican to help Michael.” He shrugged. “What happens after that? Well, that’s … you know.” He shrugged again, affecting a helpless look.
“Okay.” Jeff looked back out the window.
Daniel elaborated a little further. He felt like Jeff deserved it. Daniel was concerned that his own nerves were starting to get to him. Now he was beginning to feel a little shaky, his own head was aching a little. “Think about it. It’s like with the peacocks again, Jeff.”
Jeff turned to look back toward Daniel, but just blinked at him.
“The ones who are showy — the ones asking for help — they’re not the ones who need it.”
“No. And, in their way, they’re just being peacocks. Spreading their fathers. And the same goes the other way around. The folks who put up the biggest fuss about always being there for the Church? They’re not the ones you know you can count on. Their version of faith is a mask of peacock feathers.”
Jeff looked back out the window again. “Father, I’m not really — ….” He didn’t finish the statement.
Daniel’s voice was meant to be as reassuring as he could manage. “As Reverend, I know who I can really count on in the Church. Real folks. Folks like you and a few others. Folks who don’t expect anything when they’re asked to give. Generous people. Christian people in the truest sense of the word.”
Jeff let out a loud sigh, but was otherwise silent. His cheeks, however, were flushed.
Daniel yawned. “Sorry. Like I said, I didn’t get a lot of sleep. Because I wasn’t sure how this would go. Then, I decided to let faith decide. And that’s led us here.”
“What’re we going to do when we get there?” asked Jeff.
“I’m going to help Michael, yes. Well, humility first. So, I’m going to try to help him. We’re going to sit with him, if I can swing it. And we can read the Bible with him. And I’m going to ask him if he knows anything about the Rail Man.”
“You really think he got the idea to kill them from a TV show?”
“I don’t know what ideas are his and what’s — well, I think he got the idea from evil. And that’s demonic. So, yes. Maybe masked in a TV show. Made by men, need I remind you.”
“Yeah, I get that.”
“And I think the point was to get inside Michael’s head. Because something clearly has.”
“You didn’t tell Sheriff Gaynor all this, you said.”
“Just some basics. Kind of the cult parts, yeah. I told you — I plan to tell him the rest,” Daniel countered, knowing he sounded defensive even as he said the words. “I’m sorry, Jeff. You hit on something important, is all. I’m worried Curt won’t believe me.” He didn’t bother to correct to ‘Sheriff Gaynor’ that time. It was important — as the conversation went on — to bring it in, to make it more and more personal. That was part of the point of it all. To involve Jeff. To make him part of it. “I’m worried he’ll laugh it off.” He shrugged. “Kick us out.”
“People listen to you, Father,” Jeff said. “People here believe you.”
“It’s not so easy,” Daniel gently admonished. He wanted to convince Jeff, but he also didn’t want Jeff taking their visit with Michael for granted when the time came. There was a lot that could still go really, really wrong. “You need to think of where we’ll be. It’s not my home territory.”
“Yes, I managed to work this out for us. I agreed to come over to the station with whatever I found today; I’d go over it with Curt and whoever else. And then, well, I — we’d — help Michael pray. Which Curt thinks will … I don’t know, lead somewhere. I mean, I understand that. Even if I don’t know Michael as well these last few years as I once did. So I want to try.”
“Yeah,” Jeff said, noncommittally.
“See if we can’t get some truth out of him.”
“You — Curt — you both think he’ll tell things if he’s telling God, too.”
“That’s the idea.” Daniel paused again. Then, “But what I actually plan to go over with him?”
“The ‘TK’ stuff.”
“Yeah. All the stuff I’ve told you? Well, I’m keeping it close. I told him I think it’s cultists. And Satanic. And that it was like some things I’d read. Written. But — … ” He stopped, shrugging.
“You didn’t get into the specifics of the show.”
“No. So I’m going to need … back-up. So we can try to convince him, once we get there. When it’s harder for him to just send us away. Assuming we get results. I’m going to introduce this stuff and see what happens. Which is part of why I need you.”
“Why do you need me, though?”
“I just told you. There’s no bigger trick to it. It’s as simple as that. Back-up. For me, and for Michel. I can’t do this alone.”
“There’ll be a — lawyer or whatever, for Michael, right?” Jeff asked. “He’s a little kid. They won’t let us do all this unobserved. Wouldn’t that be illegal?”
“Not always,” Father Salat said. “I’ve counseled people before, and — … not always. We’ll have to get there and see what Curt says. I didn’t bother with the details on that.”
“Seriously? I thought that was a thing.”
“On television, it is. But Michael asked to see me. Well, a priest — humility. I’ve counseled people being held before. Somestimes there’s a lawyer. Sometimes there isn’t. But don’t worry about all that, Jeff. I told Curt I couldn’t do this alone; I said I’d have to bring someone from the Church along.”
“And he was OK with that?”
“Not really OK, no. But I told him it was a necessity — and the kid wants me there, so Curt wants me there, too. I think there’s more than he’s telling. I convinced him.”
“And that’s actually why you need me? That’s all? As a — distraction?”
“No.” He said nothing for a calculated few moments. “I wasn’t lying about the back-up.” He paused. Then, “I also need you, In case we need to do … more.”
“Like what? Like — an impromptu exorcism or something?”
“Maybe. An impromptu exorcism could be a possibility.”
“Jesus, Father!” Jeff was looking at him again now. With an expression of horrified disbelief.
Danie pulled his right hand away from the steering wheel and raised it, palm-out, toward Jeff. “OK … First? Watch your language. You don’t get a free pass because of this.”
Jeff made the sign of the Cross.
Daniel lowered his hand. “Second — hear me out, Jeff. You know I’m a man of my word, and you said you’d hear me out. I’ll make sense of it for you.” Daniel’s returned his right hand to the steering wheel. “I have a feeling –”
“A feeling-?” Jeff interrupted.
“Yes — a feeling.” Daniel was rapidly becoming irritated by Jeff’s near-constant interruptions now. It was making his tension-borne headache worse. “Let me speak, Jeff.” He exhaled through pursed lips. “I have a feeling that — once we get ourselves near Michael — we won’t have to prove much. If I’m right, then we won’t have a lot to prove. Because I think Michael will respond in a way that’ll show Curt we’re on to something.”
“I don’t see how. He doesn’t — … Curt doesn’t go to the Church — at all — does he?”
“No, and I don’t mean to suggest Curt’s going to believe there’s a demon inside Michael Laddow. Don’t get me wrong.” His shoulders lifted and dropped in a meager shrug. “I’m not deluded. But Curt’s a believer. I’ve talked to him. I have faith in him. And I think — if Michael reacts the right way – like I’m hoping he will — then Curt will come along with us on it, inasmuch as it helps him put together a case.”
“And what if — what if the thing — the demon reacts?” Jeff sounded truly frightened now.
After that, there was only silence in the car until they reached the police station.