Jeff laughed. He couldn’t help it. “Possessed?”
There was some silence.
Jeff regretted his laughter. So he tried to pass it off as shocked disbelief: “I mean, Father — what could possibly-?”
“A lot of things.” The old man across the table from him looked disappointed, but didn’t seem surprised. Father Salat shook his head. “But it’s all right — really.” He looked away from Jeff and back toward the book in front of them on the table. “And — really — I don’t expect you to believe me right away. Or — well, at all. But I have my reasons, if you’ll hear them out.” He again tapped his fingers on the illustration from his book. “Let me run some things over with you, here. And — like I said … have you considered you’re maybe here for a reason, too?” He shrugged. “And, if you won’t stick around for the old man with the story, then … at the very least, I’ll ask you to hear me out for giving you a day off when you needed it.”
“I’m sorry.” Jeff felt really bad about the way the old priest’s face had fallen at the laughter. Jeff leaned back a little in his chair and tried to sound as serious as he could. “I’m listening.” Jeff was telling himself he was doing it to humor the old man, but there was a part of Jeff that actually wanted to know what had led Father Salat to think like this. “I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, Father. I take this sort of — well, I take you seriously. It isn’t you.”
Father Salat nodded. “If I were in your position, I — well, you know, I’d probably be thinking the same way.” He shakes his head. “Then, the old man was turning the pages of his book, this time stopping on a different illustration.
It was another amateurish drawing, this time of a man wearing what looked like a soldier’s jumpsuit covered with pockets and buttons. On the man’s lapel was a patch that had a symbol on it that looked like a dragon’s head rearing back.
Jeff thought he recognized this image. “Is that supposed — supposed to be … a Big Kevin toy?”
“‘Supposed to be?'” The priest paused for a long sigh before he continued. “You know, I did those drawings. More pride, I guess.” He shook his head. “But you’re right — it’s a Big Kevin doll.” Father Salat’s tapped on the image, his fingertip hitting the dragon patch. “Big Kevin and His Fighting Seven.” He raised a hand. “Now, this book is about more than that. But … I have to stress that you need to know that I wrote this whole book about something that was important to me. So I wouldn’t waste your time.”
“I don’t think you’re trying to waste my time, either, Father.”
“I wrote it for the seminary, remember.” Father Salat shook his head. “But that wasn’t all. I was young and … and I wrote it for other reasons, too. And, I admit, some of them were selfish.” He shrugged. “Or ‘proud,’ maybe, is a better word again. Like I said before, I had this notion that I’d enlighten people to what I was seeing. Before I understood that you can’t just make people see things your way by, just, willpower and a thesis. How, you know, belief, even, happens in … cycles. And that sometimes we have to surrender ourselves to faith sometimes instead of screaming for people to get it. Or about why the don’t get it. Because screaming sends people out of the room. With good reason, too.”
Jeff didn’t understand much of what Father Salat was talking about. But he wanted to engage the old man a little more, especially after having laughed at him earlier. “You know, I used to have a bunch of those. My grandma got them for me at a garage sale.”
“I figured you would’ve,” the priest said, knowingly. “You’re the right age that you’d’ve had at least a few.” “They’re Satanic,” said Father Salat, as plainly and levelly as if the direction of his statement hadn’t dramatically changed. It was as if the priest were telling someone outside that it was raining; something that was self-evident. “The whole lot of them. Everything about them.”
“What?” Jeff tightened his jaw and closed his mouth. He didn’t want to go through the earlier conversation about hurt feelings again. He wanted to be respectful. And he was starting to really worry about the old man’s welfare.
“Of course,” Father Salat said, slumping down in his chair.
“But how could you-?” Jeff once again lost track of his words.
“You’ve put away toys,” Father Salat said, a little more severe now, leaning forward again. “You don’t play. You’re not at play. You’re an adult. And so am I. And it’s easy for us to dismiss these things. Because we’re adults. But what’s more effective at slipping by you?” the priest asked, lifting his right hand and moving it back and forth like a swimming fish. “Something you’d oppose? Or something you’d dismiss?” Father Salat lowered his hand to his lap. “Adults don’t pretend. We don’t look for things that aren’t there. Well, as a rule. You don’t just sit around and look at things and play pretend, do you? I mean, why would you?”
“Of course not,” Jeff said, feeling a little offended and trying to push out the image in his head of his pretend dog sitting beside him on his way to the church that morning.
“Jeff — Jeff — that’s precisely it. That’s what my book is about. It’s about toys and games and the things we hand right over to our kids. Well, their kids.” He gestured with both hands toward his collar. Then, “Adults who don’t have time for looking deeply into things. But kids are hungry and kids are learning and kids are eager.” He closed his eyes and looked down at his lap, where his hands were folded together. “And that’s where the Satanic likes to hide. Inside the things where the right people know where to look, or have the most natural inclination to look.” He opened his eyes again and pushed the book a little closer to Jeff on the table. “Now, you know me enough to know that I’m getting to a point. And putting some of my beliefs literally right here on the table. I don’t and we don’t have time to draw up big, detailed diagrams. I’m not going to make you read this thing. It’s not very well written and the author is kind of quackish about The Church. So, this is the short course, okay?”
Jeff found that he could only nod.
“Point is — children do play and imagine. And when they do, they look for things. Around them. Out in the world. All of them. And all the time. They imagine, like we all used to.” Father Salat nodded gravely before lifting his finger to point from the patch toward Jeff. “And not just for how to get out of the second mortgage or avoid the boss at a Christmas party. Do you understand what I mean?”
Jeff nodded again.
“And you — have you ever gone back to look at your toys with your grown-up eyes? Or don’t you have them any more?”
“I’m not one of those adult collector types, if that’s what you mean, Father. I don’t have a — a website, or anything.” Jeff chuckled nervously.
Father Salat picked the book back up and turned one page. “Let me read you something, Jeff. Okay?”
“‘Fire! The Earth trembles, and The Halls of Evil seethe with a mighty power from centuries past. From beneath the cities of Men, a great and ancient power is emerging. A mighty army has burst from the depths of darkness to threaten the world. They bow only to one name — their Emperor: Malakratt, the ferocious and cruel Overseer of the Fire Wolves.'”
Jeff tipped his head a little. He recognized the name Malakratt. It was the arch-enemy of Big Kevin. Jeff had once even owned a Malakratt action figure, along with Big Kevin. He’d owned some of the Fighting Seven, too — The Robot Man, The Ultimate Guard and — if Jeff’s memory was right — some kind of dog with glowing eyes. He suddenly recalled the dog more clearly: Freedom Dog was its name. The action figure of the dog would roar like a bear when you’d lift up its tail.
“Am I seeing that you recognize that?” The priest sounded less pleased than relieved.
“Yeah.” Jeff remembered, too, that he’d even slept in a Big Kevin and His Fighting Seven sleeping bag when his family had pretended to camp out in the back yard and made s’mores. He almost felt as though he could smell the s’mores, even with the a pervasive reek of old paint so thick in the air in the office.
“You’ve gone quiet, Jeff.”
“Sorry — just thinking about everything you’ve told me.” Jeff didn’t feel like he was lying. Not exactly. Sure, there was more on his mind. Like just how far Father Salat was going to take all this, and what the old man wanted Jeff’s help with.
“That’s good. And it’s part of my point. Fire. Dogs. Wolves. Dragons. That much is obvious.” The old priest’s shoulders were tense now. “But it’s not just that. It’s — well, like I said … ” He paused for a long moment. Then, “It’s what these things encourage the children to do. Simple example: notice the way Big Kevin puts Dragons on the side of good?” He pointed again at the symbol that Jeff recalled was on every one of Big Kevin’s team uniforms. “It’s a beast’s emblem. Not to mention the association of fighting with seven. And ‘Fighting Seven.’ Seven — one of the most divine numbers.”
“Isn’t the number stuff kind of astrology, Father?”
“No!” Father Salat was adamant, pounding his fingertip into the book page twice. “Numbers mean things — in the Bible —and to Satanists. They’re part of the universe. Part of God’s design.” He reached up to point toward Jeff. “And whether it’s numbers or people or — … anything, it — they — we — can be corrupted by The Devil, like any part of that design. And, most of all, the children can be corrupted. And we let them in. When we buy things for them. That we think are innocent. That aren’t.” He lifted the book and ran his fingers over the pages, like you would a flipbook. “It’s all right here in front of us. But, as adults, we’ve put it away, and we haven’t seen it. But I see it. And I remember. And I know.”
Jeff managed to catch sight of a few familiar images of things he’d known in childhood. He saw a crude drawing of what had to be the classic comic strip character Buster Mutton. And Jeff assumed the tall, easily-recognizable figure on a rooftop in another drawing had to be the the camp superhero called The Riot that had been popular in the 1960s on TV. But the others were mostly a confusing blur to him.
Jeff was getting more and more confused as the conversation progressed. “But how does this-”
“Fine, Jeff,” Father Salat brusquely interrupted, clearly growing impatient. “I’ve given you the basic argument. Let’s get straight to Michael Laddow, then.” Father Salat set the book down on the table and flipped back through the pages. “Remember when I told you a minute ago I got a call from the Sheriff?” Father Salat apparently found the page he was looking for and looked up at Jeff. “He asked me if I knew the Biblical meaning of some numbers. Asked me not to tell anyone. I actually think he can get in trouble if I do tell you. But I know I can trust you. You’re a good, honest man. Which is why I’m a little bit sure you’re here.”
Jeff lowered his eyes and looked down at his stomach where it pressed against the little table. He felt good that Father Salat was suggesting he was there for a reason. But it also scared him more than he wanted to let on.
“So Curt — uh, Sheriff Gaynor — told me a few things about what he found when they took Michael Laddow into custody. And I’m going to share them with you. I know you’re upset. But knowledge will help us. God gives us knowledge to help us, Jeff.”
“OK.” Jeff didn’t want to hear any of it, actually. But he felt like he’d committed himself to at least hearing the priest out to the end of whatever it was that had to do with Father Salat’s book. Jeff figured, too, that he could always leave if the details got too grisly.
“So, Curt told me that Michael wasn’t moving at all, wasn’t talking, when they got him into custody.”
“Until late last night. Which is why the Sheriff called me. Because apparently, Michael Laddow started talking again after hours of silence. Hours after they put him in the cell. Talking like a completely different person than the boy we know. Screaming and yelling and — mostly — unintelligible. But Curt told me how it looks like Michael had taken some kind of a knife and –”
“Jesus Christ,” Jeff coughed, starting to feel deeply nauseous — even more so than before. “No — y’know?”
Father Salat Crossed himself and then waited for Jeff to do the same.
“Sorry, Father.” Jeff repeated the gesture.
“You need to hear this if you’re going to help me, Jeff.”
“Okay. Just — I didn’t expect — … ” Jeff shook his head, and then shrugged.
“Curt told me Michael had taken a knife and carved some numbers into his skin. Here — and here — ” and Salat gestured toward his shoulders. “You know — where you just Crossed yourself? The number 2 on the left, and the number 7 on the right.” And then Father Salat lifted the book again to show Jeff the page the priest had shown the younger man before. The image of the figure with the 2 and 7 at its shoulders. “That’s what Michael did to himself. Just like this fellow here.” He shook his head again. “‘The Rail Man.'”
The name meant nothing to Jeff. “The what now?”
“The Rail Man. You know, Jeff — to be honest, when I wrote this I pored through every single piece of children’s entertainment I could find, and a lot of it blurred together. Lots of cats and mice and animals wearing clothes like out of Revelations.” He seemed suddenly distracted by a different memory. Then, “Did you know that there was even a cartoon I had to watch for this book that was … all about … animals taking over the Earth … after all the men killed each other?” He exhaled. “They even showed the war. You know, for kids.” He seemed to realize he’d become distracted and his fingertips rose in an apologetic gesture. “It was too much for me. And the children — we feed it to them. We make them digest all the evil of the world … every single day.”
“And Lord have Mercy,” Jeff said, meaning it sincerely and not as a mere epithet. He didn’t yet believe in Father Salat’s theory, but he felt the need to say something like that against the priest’s mounting distress.
Father Salat adjusted his glasses and then turned the book back around toward himself, moving his hands back and forth to adjust the book’s distance from his face before he read some more of it aloud to Jeff: ‘“The Rail Man’ is, at first, a young boy in the story. In the episode that was suggested to me — the one I could secure, because the station had destroyed their copies, of course — this boy transforms into the right hand man of what I am guessing is some kind of shadowy cabal called The Treasureseekers, who live on an island where everything is made out of gold.’”
“But how does that have anything to do with the Marshes?”
Father Salat raised his right hand with his pointer finger extended; then, the hand went back down to hold the book open. “‘Now, the levels of peril here are many. And they have to be considered with an adult eye. From a point of view that understands real good and evil. And the eternal struggle between the two. In this program, it is the fashion in which the boy is transformed that one likely notices first, if viewed with such an eye. Note also: The Treasureseekers are dressed in red, hooded robes — with a strange symbols, like the letter ‘y’ written in gold, across the back of their garments. There is a chalice. They are all gathered in a dark, domed building. The dome has a sort of a skylight — one that opens onto the stars. See how the liquid in the cups is specifically red. I watched, and I made note of each element with ever-progressing horror. For, while it is — likely, by design — not exact, this has the earmarks of the Black Mass in more ways than I care to consider. And — worst of all — this is not a cartoon, I must point out again. This was filmed with actors. Adults participated in it, and made children participate in it. For we all know that no free will can be assumed nor presumed on the part of any child. This is not an imaginary drawing of some demonic fantasy the likes of Wade Warding. These are real people doing this. Reciting these chants.” Father Salat chose this moment to look over toward Jeff.
“That’s a real show? What show? When was it?” Jeff didn’t recall ever seeing anything even remotely like that in his childhood.
“Like I said, I’m getting to that. ‘And how does the boy become The Rail Man? What is the effect? Fire from the ground. Specifically, two pillars of fire that form on either side of the boy. And then a beam of moonlight that comes down from a bright, full moon in the sky. And changes him from a little child into a hulking brute whose body is covered in spikes. Who I might add ends this episode by rearing his head back and howling like a wolf, and spitting fire like a dragon. And need I remind you that a real child actor was used? I’m no master of what are today called special effects, but the symbols above the boy’s shoulders, and later the man’s, are a burning number 2 on the left and a burning number 7 on the right, look like signs that were on-set. Which means the real child was forced to take part in what I believe might have been a real ceremony posing as something more benign. But what I saw was surely a Black Mass disguised as children’s entertainment. And I believe it was instructional. And I believe it was intentionally designed to be just exactly that. And it is not alone.” And then Father Salat closed the book again and looked back toward Jeff, expectantly.
Jeff had no idea what to say, again, so he just remained silent.
That silence lasted longer than any between the two men so far.
Father Salat was the one to break it. He dropped the book on the table, where it landed loudly. “As for what the numbers 2 and 7 mean in the Bible, Jeff — well, the number 2 is a union of two things — like a couple.”
“And of witnesses. Don’t forget that. Two witnesses? It’s the reason that there are two witnesses to contracts under law in America in most places. It’s a marriage. And a contract.”
“Two.” Jeff’s mouth felt drier than it ever had in his life.
“First one, and then another,” Father Salat nodded. “Like — someone who’s possessed. And the number 7? Well, I just told you. Divinity. There are over seven hundred references to the number in our Bible. Creation in seven days. Seven kings. The foundation of just about everything. And Revelations? Forget it.”
Jeff found it hard to breathe. “And does 27 mean anything?”
“Only if you think the 27 books of the New Testament mean anything.”
“Wait — ”
“Yeah, Jeff. Book 27 of the New Testament is Revelations.”
“And the number was just there in the show?”
“As far as I could tell. In pillars of fire. Union — of Creation — for Revelations.” Father Salat ticked off each concept on the fingers of his right hand with his left pointer finger. “And I didn’t even read to you the part where the little boy on that show has to sign a contract before the ceremony can begin — in the presence of two witnesses and the supposed ‘Lord of the Treasureseekers’.”
“I swear I’ve never even heard of this show. It sounds absurd they’d even let it air on television, much less a long time ago.” Jeff was trying to be kind, but he couldn’t help wondering if maybe the priest had imagined at least parts of what the book had described.
“Well, they did. It’s real. And I’m heading over to the police station later to show my book to Sheriff Gaynor. And I want you to come with me.”
Jeff felt icy all over his body. “What would you need me for?”
“Because Sheriff Gaynor says that Michael Laddow wants someone to say prayers with him,” Father Salat explained, moving to stand up. “And Michael’s father has gone missing. They think Michael might’ve killed him, too. They’re hoping if I visit him, he’ll confess.”
“Chris?” Jeff tried to stand, but he found that his legs felt too weak to do so. At the same time, he felt pushed to the ground. The idea of Chris Laddow being killed by his son, Michael. He’d seen Michael as a baby. Known Chris for a long, long time. “I don’t see why — ” he said. It was all he could think to say.
“I need you. You’ve volunteered to help the Church more times than most men, Jeff. I know you believe.”
“A lot of people in town believe.” Jeff knew that Chris had believed.
“But not a lot of people would’ve listened to me this far, Jeff. I knew you’d hear me out. And you’re still here.” Father Salat managed a weak smile. “That tells me something about your character. And I need someone like that with me when we help Michael.”
“I don’t know if I can do that,” Jeff said. “I’m too — … ” He struggled for the right word, finally settling on ” … sick.”
“I think Michael’s sicker,” said Father Salat, reaching out offer his hand for Jeff’ to take.
Jeff took the priest’s hand, and felt the warmth of the old man’s grip. He managed to stand up.
“Besides,” Father Salat said. “If there’s two of him, there ought to be two of us, don’t you think?”
Jeff was feeling really dizzy, but managed to keep to his feet. “What was that TV show called, anyway, Father? I’ve never heard of it.”
“I don’t think it airs anywhere nowadays. But it was called TK Wanderlad.”
“Yeah.” Father Salat shrugged. “You know! For kids.” He coughed a few times into his closed fist before continuing. “The name’s never made any sense to me, either. Can you believe they made something like that here in New York?” Father Salat shook his head and then crossed himself in an affected way, as if for emphasis. “I think you’d forgive me for not watching any more than — … ” He paused. “… — than I had to for my research.”
“There are other things, too, Jeff,” Father Salat said. He walked over to the office desk and pulled the chair away. Below the desk, in the alcove meant for a chair, there was a leather satchel. The old man picked up the satchel and set it on the desk. “Things I can’t really articulate right now. More may come to light later. But I can’t really say too much more — because of the vows I’ve taken.” He looked over toward Jeff. “And I hope you’ll understand that in ways Sheriff Gaynor doesn’t. Maybe can’t” Without looking, he turned the twist-lock on top of the satchel, and opened it, slipping his book inside.
“I understand,” Jeff said. He really didn’t, but he wasn’t sure what else to say to the priest. Now, Jeff had seen Father Salat carrying the satchel around town, but it seemed strange to the younger man to see what he presumed to be something precious having been casually tossed there under a cheap desk. Jeff wasn’t sure why, but he sort of expected that Father Salat would keep his personal things as reverently as he kept the Church downstairs. “That’s not, like, some kind of, uh … ‘demon kit’ or something, is it?” Jeff asked.
Father Salat chuckled tiredly. “No. It’s just for carrying stuff.” He waved Jeff over to him. “But it’s got stuff the Devil doesn’t like.” He opened the satchel wider. “See?” he said, positioning the top of the satchel for Jeff to look inside. “My personal Bible. A bag of Rosaries. Holy Water in plastic bottles.”
“You can keep Holy Water in plastic bottles?”
“Technically, no,” said Father Salat, pulling the two bottles from his satchel and setting them on the desktop. “Well, you shouldn’t. But this is the special stuff. There’s some disinfectant in it. And I filled these today, after last night. So — … there we are.”
Jeff’s nausea got worse. But he didn’t want to tell Father Salat. He worried it would sound like more excuses. And, as much as he wanted to make excuses, he didn’t feel right about it. The idea of staying home to watch Minnie Monroediscuss fruit juice blends and exercise tips seemed more appealing now than ever. And also more repulsive. And the headache was coming back now. Along with a pulsing ring in his ears. Throbbing pain in his nose and head matching the pulses. And he wanted to just walk it off, this time. He knew it was probably psychosomatic — again. That was the word he’d been looking for earlier that morning. Where you hear something and feel like you have it too. Like with Emma. Maybe like Michael Laddow. He wondered if Michael had ever heard of Father Salat’s ideas? The old man counseled kids all the time. And Jeff was sure that Michael was sicker than either of them; Jeff was confident that Father Salat had that much right. But Jeff still seriously doubted that there was some kind of demon living inside Michael’s skull. And the more Jeff thought about some horrible thing curled on its side with its claws wrapped around Michael’s brain, the worse Jeff’s headache got — the pain his ears now, too, along with the ringing. And the ringing now like an alarm; like a high-pitched whine that kept getting higher. And pictures forcing themselves into his head. Things he didn’t want to think about. How the scene might have looked when Michael killed the Marsh men. And things out of what had to be suggestions from Father Salat’s readings. Pictures in his head of pillars of fire and figures in red robes chanting to a bloodied Michael Laddow with numbers bleeding out of the boy’s skin. And the chanting getting louder and sharper until it was a whining sound, like the high-pitched alarm in his ears. And Jeff pictured a kind of thick, greasy sickness everywhere — all over the ground he knew well from his mail deliveries up to the Marsh house. Only there wasn’t grass in Jeff’s imagination now. Just queasy sickness rolling over everything. All bubbly-black like Jeff’s stool when he’d had the internal bleeding. In thick patterns all over the ground and between the trees, too. Jeff could still smell that stool, in his memory, all coppery with his blood. And it was like around the Marsh house in Jeff’s imagination now — burning bloody stool all over the blackened-out ground, but glowing here and there with still-smouldering embers. It was too much for Jeff to think about; there were too many pictures that were too easy to conjure. He wondered why they were so easily coming to his mind only now. But they were there. And they were forcing him to sit back down in the chair again. Jeff was having a little trouble breathing now, and it frightened him. “Father- …?” he managed to say, barely above a whisper.
“Hold on, Jeff –” Father Salat was looking away from the younger man, back toward the stairs. “Do you hear something?”
The ringing in Jeff’s ears abated as the old priest spoke to him, enough for the younger man to say “I’m getting a horrible h-”
And then Father Salat was raising his hand, signaling for Jeff to be quiet. Then, he moved to open the window above the desk and look outside. “Jeff? Can you come over here?” the priest asked quietly.
Jeff managed to get to his feet, but the ringing got worse as he stepped over toward the window; a pounding echoing whine, vibrations rising and falling painfully in his ears. Thankfully, though, none of the pictures in his head came back.
“What do you see out there, past the fence?”
Jeff looked. First, he saw four bicycles leaning against the chain-link fence. Then, he saw that there were some children playing basketball in the recreation court. They were laughing and cajoling each other. But that sound wasn’t registering with Jeff. All he could hear was the pounding of the basketball on the court as they passed it to each other. And the ringing in his ears was corresponding to the ball hitting the ground. Like an echo. Like he was close up to the ball. Or inside of it. Almost as if there were some kind of weird echo at play. Like the sound of the ball was traveling from the impact with the court, but nothing else. “Aw, Father — can we close the window? My head … ” Jeff didn’t feel like explaining what was going on to Father Salat. Principally because he wasn’t really sure, himself.
Father Salat again motioned for Jeff to be quiet. “Shhh,” said the priest. “Look and listen.”
Jeff did his best to try to hear over the echo. And then, he heard it. It sounded like a girl’s voice — or a woman’s — calling out from far beyond the chain-link fence.
‘Help! Help!’ the voice seemed to say.