Daniel was glad that Jeff was following him. He could hear the other man’s footsteps behind him, first on the sidewalk, then on the marbled floor of the Drodden Police Station lobby. Daniel didn’t dare look back at this point. He worried that Jeff’s doubts magnify if they had another conversation like the one they’d had outside. Daniel felt like he had the advantage — for the moment — with Daniel. In fact, if it weren’t for the headache hitting him from behind his eyes, he would have felt a little more confident. It was like something was digging around in there. Like the pain wasn’t just interested in hurting him. Almost like it was moving around. Like it was looking for something. But Daniel knew he couldn’t take time away from his mission to focus on how he felt. That’s the way it always was. How it always had to be, in Daniel’s line of work, anyway. Daniel knew he had to keep himself truly focused on Michael Laddow — poor, poor Michael Laddow — so that Jeff Armando would stay focused on Michael.
For the time being, Jeff seemed properly focused. Although the younger man wasn’t saying anything, Daniel could hear his footsteps mimicking his.
The reverend’s anxiety leveled off a little more each time he heard Jeff take another forward step; it wasn’t enough, though. Daniel was certain that things could still go very wrong at any moment; he needed Jeff.
Jeff needed to follow along. That part was essential. Because he’d meant what he’d said to the younger man a few moments before; he couldn’t do this all himself. That much hadn’t been a lie, at least. Daniel was feeling his age today. But it wasn’t just fatigue. There was more. It was a heaviness, too. Getting in the way. Making things harder than they ought to be. Putting him off when he tried to do things that should be so much easier. Like his years were hanging off of his skin, weighing him down and cluttering his brain. He briefly theorized that was likely the root cause of the biting headache. So, here he was, about to have a moment he’d prayed for his entire life. And he felt too sick and tired to appreciate it. He wanted to be thankful to God – and to show that gratitude. But he found that — with every step into the lobby — he was feeling the weight more and more, making his footsteps heavier and his gait slower. Which is why Jeff was so essential. Daniel knew that he didn’t have it in him to give Jeff another pep-talk like he had outside the Police Station.
It also didn’t help that Daniel wasn’t nearly as confident in what he’d told the younger man as he’d managed to make himself sound. Which was another reason he didn’t want to look at Jeff. He worried that the younger man might be able to see fear. Which couldn’t happen. So Daniel focused on trying to find whoever was attending the large Police Station lobby. The big, plastic booths that lined one wall stood empty. When the Police Station was busy, that’s where the greeters would be. They’d make sure everyone who came in had a reason to be there, and get them where they needed to go. There was usually at least one police officer attending one of the booths, but not today. The big wooden doors behind the booths were shut, too — and probably locked. There was no way to get past the booths to get to the doors, anyway.
Daniel turned to look over toward a hallway that led off to the left from the lobby entrance. The entrance was framed by a metal detector. The last time Daniel had been here — to help counsel what Daniel had considered an obviously guilty man who was about to be extradited to North Carolina — there had been those velvety red ropes like you see in fancy hotels or at movie theaters. Daniel walked directly toward the metal detector, thinking of how he’d had to zigzag back and forth along the paths of the velvet ropes. He’d felt like a little child that day, having to be guided like that. He was thankful they weren’t there. Daniel Salat did not like to be made to feel like a child.
“Nobody home?” Jeff Armando asked, quietly, just to Daniel.
The reverend raised up his right hand, gesturing for Jeff to follow along toward the metal detector. As Daniel reached the point where he was now facing the hallway, he saw a heavyset officer sitting on the other side of the metal detector entryway.
It was Barry Platt. Barry looked sleepy and bored; he was sitting on what Daniel presumed was a small stool; he couldn’t see it beneath Barry, though. The police officer was leaning against his hand, his elbow propped up by the edge of a cheap folding table made of imitation wood. On the surface of the table were also stacks of wide, grungy-looking plastic tubs of unmatched colors. Two plastic soda bottles lay on their sides next to an open — and empty-looking — brown paper lunch sack. At the far end of the table from where Barry was leaning, there was a handheld metal detector wand.
“Barry!” Daniel called, trying to sound gladder to see the man than he felt. He’d reconciled himself long ago to the fact a priest has to be glad to see anyone and everyone he meets, no matter what his all-too-human failings made him feel. So he did his best to ignore the waves of revulsion he usually experienced when he ran into Barry Platt.
Barry stood, revealing that there was, indeed, a stool there. He bowed his head once toward Daniel, saying “Father,” while Jeff got only a cursory nod. “Lemme guess. You’re here to see the Laddow kid, right?”
Daniel tensed. It irritated him that Barry would say something so publicly about why the two men had come — regardless of how alone the three of them were in the lobby. And, sure, it could be easily presumed that Jeff was his guest. But something about the casual, careless way Barry talked about Michael as ‘the Laddow kid’ — it felt wrong. It belittled the undertaking. It belittled what Daniel and Jeff had come to do. How they’d come to help. But Daniel pushed those thoughts down into his gut, like he always did when he felt his human side taking precedence. “It’s good to see you, Barry — despite the circumstances. And yes. We are here to see Michael Laddow. You know Jeff Armando?” Daniel stepped aside from the two other men.
Barry reached out and presented a big hand toward Jeff, who took it and shook it rather noncommittally. “Hi. I’m — uh, what am I called, Father?”
Daniel kept himself focused on Barry. “You’re assisting me today with the readings, Jeff — and Michael’s counsel,” Daniel answered.
“Right,” Jeff said, gesturing back deferentially toward Daniel. “So — I’m, uh, the assistant, I guess.”
“It takes two?” Barry shrugged. “Hey, whatever,” he said, raising his hands in mock surrender and then lowered them again, before walking slowly over to the other end of the table to pick up the metal detector wand in his right hand. His looked back up toward the two other men, his expression one of bland distaste. “I don’t wanna get involved with it.” He walked back toward the two other men, reaching up with his free hand to slap the side of the walk-through metal dector. “The big one here’s got a real bad case of broken. We gotta use the wand ’til they get it fixed.” Then, Barry reached out toward Daniel with the free hand. “I’ll take your bag, there, Father. I gotta search it.” He sounded more than a little apologetic about that part. “I won’t mess anything up if I touch it, will I?”
“You’re fine, Barry,” Daniel said.
Daniel handed over the satchel, and Barry took it from him, setting it down on the table and waving the wand over it. “I gotta do this,” he said. “Rules’r’rules, and that’s the rules,” he said. Despite how distracted Barry sounded, his inspection was thorough, running the wand over the bag at a variety of angles. Then, Barry flipped open the bag and reviewed the contents. “I keep hoping we’ll get one of those x-ray machines. You know? Like they have at the airport. No budget. But, eh, what’cha gonna do, y’know?” He slid the bag away from him on the table and looked back toward the two other men. “Okay, come on through.”
Jeff was the first to walk forward through the broken metal-detector’s frame toward Barry, and the officer ran the hand-held wand around the younger man at different angles. The very uncomfortable look that crossed over Jeff’s face in that moment strongly suggested to Daniel that the younger man didn’t enjoy the security process, or Platt’s handling of them,– or perhaps some combination of the two.
“And — you — appear — to — be — clean,” Barry said, calling Daniel over toward him as the reverend observed Jeff walk away with visible relief.
Daniel passed through the metal-detector. His dislike for Platt wasn’t improved by proximity.
There was more wand waving. “No weapons on the priest,” Barry said, leaning down to run the wand across Daniel’s shoes before standing back up and taking two steps back with his hands lifted up in another surrender-pose. “Well, that’s it. I give up.” He stepped over to put the wand back onto the table and then gestured broadly toward the continuing hallway. “You’re free to whatever,” he said, before hunkering down again on the stool. “Just follow the signs ’til you get there.”
“I know my way around signs, Barry,” Daniel said. “But, thanks.” He’d been trying to keep his distaste out of his words, but he knew he’d failed that time. He picked up his satchel-bag and motioned for Jeff to follow along.
“Thanks, Officer,” Jeff said, coming up behind Daniel.
The two men hurried down the hallway, which ended in a t-intersection. To the left was a closed door with a push-bar that was tightly wound with chain. To the right was another long hallway that came to a marbled stairway. In front of them was an elevator. Daniel pushed the button to summon the elevator. “We want the seventh floor,” Daniel said, before noticing his voice still had an edge from his feelings about Platt. He deliberately tried to soften his tone: “I want to thank you for coming this far, Jeff.” Having gotten the younger man to go along with it all this far, Daniel felt a renewed confidence. Some of his vigor was returning; it was enough that he felt like he could look Jeff in the eyes again, so he did just that as he added: “And I want to bless you.” He reached out and put a hand on Jeff’s shoulder again; Jeff didn’t resist. “Oh, Lord,” Daniel said quietly, “please watch over and protect this man, who has volunteered himself of his own accord to the just cause, guided by your will — as am I — to try to help Michael Laddow. In the name of the Father — the Son — and the Holy Spirit — protect him as you would me, and more-so.”
A shrill bell-alarm sounded three times in quick succession, and the elevator doors in front of them opened.
“Thank you, Father,” Jeff said, sounding quietly reverent to the moment.
Daniel pulled his hand from the younger man’s shoulder, and the reverend and his assistant walked onto the blue-carpeted elevator car.
Jeff pressed the button on the inside of the elevator to direct the car to the seventh floor.
There were another three alarm bells, and the elevator doors slid shut. They felt the car jerk upward, the ride smoothing out as they ascended.
As the elevator car climbed, lifting noisily to the seventh floor, Daniel noticed a change that had been coming to him gradually since he’d left the First Step Church building with Jeff. He found himself aware. He found that his senses seemed somehow more awake. Sharper than they had in a long time. His vision seemed clearer; oh, sure, the cataracts were still there, but he was pretty sure that he was, in these moments, seeing far more detail than usual, down to the individual strands of blue carpet on the elevator floor. He wasn’t entirely sure how long it had been since he’d seen in that detail. But it didn’t matter in the giddiness of these moments of improved awareness. And it wasn’t just his sight. He smelled lemon disinfectant coming up from the carpet; it burned his lungs, a little, and it made his eyes burn. He was working not to sneeze from it, reaching up to rub at his nose and eyes. It reminded him of the smell you get when you walk into a room someone’s recently cleaned up just for you. Like at a motel. He’d stayed at a lot of motels over the years. And the smell evoked pictures of the rooms in Daniel’s mind. And he wondered just how long it had been since he’d smelled anything strongly enough for it to evoke memories like that. And, beyond all that, the sounds and vibrations of the elevator, tickling his ears in that peculiar way when there’s just something that’s hitting you wrong, not quite the scratch of fingernails on a chalkboard but enough to make your inner ear recoil with those little tremors. His senses seemed more active — busy, even — collecting information. And it made him feel so much better, and younger. And his mind was trying to process that. Like it all meant something again; nothing was dulled; nothing was ruined by the loudness of people and their endless machines. He bowed his head, thanking God, looking at the lemon-scented blue carpet and thinking of that day, feeling heady from the clarity of it all and now remembering it the way memories were supposed to work. Like stories in his head — fresh and true and colorful. Like he really could picture the carpet as if it were blue water from a particular motel swimming pool, where the motel rooms smelled like lemon. Like he was falling into the carpet, blue water welcoming him, rushing up over his head to make everything quiet so it didn’t hurt like it always did. Like his head hurt now. Like it pounded with his heartbeat, which was good. Which was right for him to feel. Thudding heart. How he’d hated it back then, feeling it pound in his ears and he’d tried to stay under the water’s surface for longer and longer, as long as he could stand, until his lungs burned too much and he’d rush up and burst out of the water, kicking his legs with more strength than he’d known at only ten years old; he remembered being surprised by that, even then. How hard his body pushed to get above the surface, even though in his pounding head he wasn’t in so much of a hurry. Wanted to stay down in the dark blue. Sitting at the pool’s edge, water droplets making smacking sounds on the sparkly concrete. He’d never seen a swimming pool in-person before that day; he’d never even seen chlorinated water; it had all been so blue in that pool. And the blue had gone down and down, like the bright sunlight went down forever into it. And then he’d been jumping in again and going down and forcing himself to sit on the floor of the pool and look around, even though it made his eyes burn worse with every passing moment. And then the urgency that had been running all through his muscles, getting to be too much to bear again, and forcing him to swim up with all his might to break the water’s surface where the world wasn’t so muted and there were all the angry sounds of the surface all around him again, pounding him, with all the water rushing out of his ears, all pops and gurgles interrupted by the shouts of tourists and their children — because those children hadn’t been tourists yet. They hadn’t been attuned that way, yet. And there’d been a truth in that, somewhere. Somewhere he’d lost as his mother had shouted something at him, hurting his already-aching ears, and he’d grabbed his Buster Mutton beach towel and run up the sparkly stairs to their motel room on the third floor of the Pepper Share Motel. He remembered not liking the way his feet sounded as they slapped wetly on the imitation-stone steps he was climbing. Even then, he’d hated sounds that reminded him of something he’d heard in a science class: that the human body was mostly made of water. Clapping, running barefoot — ever since that class, he’d cringed at sounds like that: all the wet, bodily sounds. They scared him more than the thunder that had been sounding overhead, as he’d gotten to his motel room door. Number 317. Even now, he remembered the numbers. It had been his favorite number ever since that day. His mother had called him in because of the storm. It was the day the family was supposed to go to Imagination Ranch — the park that Wade Warding had made. As Daniel had come in the motel room door and shut it behind him, he’d walked over to the dresser and looked on top of it, where he’d placed the flyer that had been hanging on the door handle when they’d arrived from New York. It had announced the grand opening of Wade Warding’s Imagination Ranch. July 07, 1950 — Daniel’s tenth birthday. And how Daniel had begged them for the trip. ‘Just a side-trip,’ he had said over and over, pleading his case. ‘Just a short side-trip,’ he’d told his mother, then his father, and then back again, over and over. That June, Daniel’s parents had already planned a trip to Florida to visit his sick grandmother. But Daniel’s near-constant efforts at cajoling his parents into taking ‘just a side-trip’ to Imagination Ranch — fueled and focused by advertising in comic books and ‘news’ reels at every children’s matinee Daniel had attended — had paid off. They’d stop June 07th for what his father had assured the family would a ‘mercifully-brief’ trip to Imagination Ranch for Daniel’s birthday. But then the storm clouds had closed in. And then the rain — pounding on the windows of the motel room as the Salat family waited … and waited … and waited for the storm to stop. And it hadn’t stopped. It had gone on and on. And, as hours bled into each other and the waiting became interminable, Daniel’s father had declared that the trip to Imagination Ranch was another casualty of the specter of ‘hard times’ that Daniel’s father blamed everything on. ‘It’s just more hard times,’ Daniel’s father had said, every so often, speaking as if to all of them and none of them at the same time. And Daniel had laid back on the bed, looking up at the ceiling, clutching the Buster Mutton beach towel up against his cheek, waiting, and praying to God for the storm to disperse. But it hadn’t dispersed, even as the sun had faded. And, as night came, Daniel had resigned himself to a joyless night. Boredly, he had walked around the motel room, pacing like a dog waiting to be let loose. His father had told him to ‘light someplace’ repeatedly, but his mother had understood his disappointment that this had become his birthday. ‘We’ll make it up to you,’ she’d said, over and over. But he’d been unable to come up with any way she could’ve, at the time. Thankfully, the motel hadn’t had a television set. His father had declared the TV-enabled rooms an ‘unnecessary luxury’ and opted for a room without a TV. But Daniel hadn’t been thankful at the time. He’d been angry. Angry enough that he’d started noisily opening and shutting the dresser drawers, which both his parents had ignored. They’d both known him well enough to know acknowledging that behavior might ensure it continued all night long, and Daniel had only realized their wisdom in his later life. But back then, he’d kept at it, hoping for a reaction, until he’d come across the little red book in the leftmost top drawer of the motel dresser. He remembered asking his mother what it was, and being told it was a Bible. He’d opened it, flipping through the pages of the tiny book. He’d never seen paper so thin before, words so small. Like it had been made to be a secret, but at the same time to bring itself to the right person’s attention. Contradictory — kept hidden in a drawer, not advertised, but with a bright red cover that looked like the same material as the Buster Mutton cowboy boots he’d insisted on wearing for much of the trip. And, as Daniel had sat there and read, picking pages at random, the thunder had seemed to fade. His father had fallen asleep first, and then his mother. They’d left the lights on. And Daniel had continued to read — about God, and Jesus, and crowns and thorns and golden thrones. He’d skipped back and forth through the stories in the book. His parents hadn’t been all that religious, but Daniel had been assured that all the things in the Bible were true. ‘It’s the Word of God,’ his mother had said many times. ‘And you have to respect it.’ Daniel remembered now that he’d been really hungry as he read, but he hadn’t cared at the time. Daniel now recalled he’d been so hungry because his parents had fallen asleep without getting anyone any dinner. But Daniel, in discovering the little red Bible, had made the hunger part of the experience. He’d read and read, getting to the story of Job when Daniel’s own hunger got his stomach to growling and imagining that this was his own struggle to overcome. To keep reading even as the pangs in his gut ached and gnawed. But Daniel had read until he’d fallen asleep on the floor. He’d woken up curled into a little ball, protectively wrapped around the Bible beneath him, shivering, feeling sick. He remembered sitting up and vomiting, retching all over the floor — yellow bile spraying out of him and onto the red carpet. His dad had launched into a tirade of incoherent cursing and his mother had rushed him to the bathroom and washed his face. Like the baptisms he’d read about in the book. He remembered how the cool water had tingled, and how the air had smelled fresh and clean, even inside the motel room, even beyond the reek of the lemon disinfectant that had been thick on the floor while he’d slept. And the dreams he’d had — of the things he’d been reading about. Of a different kind of Imagination Ranch, where Jesus guided children into all-different kinds of Heavens, depending on what good they’d done on Earth. Handing out tickets to the best children for the best Heaven. And he’d gotten the best kind of ticket, for being so good to everyone, and had spirited Daniel away to a lemon grove paradise where all the water was lemonade that took away all thirst. And Daniel had reached out to hug his mother, crying happy tears. ‘I love you, mom’ he’d said to her. Then, he’d walked back out to his father and hugged him, too. ‘I love you, dad.’ he’d said. It had felt like a requirement in that moment, to think of them and not only of him. To be giving — like the people in the Bible. Like the people who’d left the Bible behind for him to find: kind, secretive people — or, if they weren’t secretive, then they were more selective with their truths. They were giving, of course, but they were giving in a way that also carried a kind of judgment. And then, the picture in Daniel’s head shifted his family packing up from the hotel, and how he’d asked his mother if he had to leave the Bible, and how his mother had told him he could bring it along if he wanted, because that’s why people had left it there. He’d clutched it close to him as they’d departed the motel, holding on to it even as they got back out onto the road. He’d been reading furiously in the back seat, silently — to his parents’ mutual relief, he realized now — a blessing in a blessing, for them. And then Daniel recalled the moment when he’d realized the family was driving not to his grandmother’s, but to Imagination Ranch. And how his mother had explained that she’d had a talk that morning with his father and they’d decided to take an extra day and see Wade Warding’s Wonderland, as the local newspaper was calling it. And how Daniel had been at once excited, but also repulsed — and nauseous, too. Like the sickness from before had come back. Except more so — and in different manifestations, all hitting him at once. Nausea had been washing over him, yes, but he’d also felt a deeper sickness. He’d felt a lot like Job — like he’d been challenged by God to make a choice that was being laid out before him in sharp, obvious ways. Visit his grandmother, or go to Imagination Ranch. And the choice itself had sickened him, too. To think there might be a part of him that would go to some overwrought playground instead of being with a woman who wasn’t long for the world; it had been a truly sickening realization for him — an evil inside of him. And he’d felt like whatever it was — the bad things in him — had to get out. Something truly foul had lodged itself inside of his body; young Daniel had been able to sense what it was made of, somehow. He’d known it was made of the kinds of things with which his family had surrounded themselves on the trip. Somehow, the foulness was made of something that you found in motels and swimming pools. It was something in flyers and carpeting and lemon disinfectant and dressers. It was a common element — some essential ingredient that Danirl had been sure was to be found in all of those things. Daniel hadn’t been sure then what the ingredient was, but even as a child he’d known it was somehow both deeply unhealthy and incredibly appealing. And Daniel had somehow been made aware of this. He’d been awakened. He’d been told some kind of secret that had made it so he understood that unhealthy appeal, even then, sitting there in the back seat of his parents’ car. And Daniel was also sure that — if his family continued on to Imagination Ranch — that there was more of that unhealthy element. Daniel had been sure that Imagination Ranch was soaked in it. Something that had nothing to do with the good things that made your heart beat. Like the things in the book he’d found. Things that mattered. Things that were free of that unhealthy attraction. And the book had been Daniel’s key to understanding all this. Daniel’s reading of the book had been a step to getting rid of the attraction; he was being helped, to getting rid of what was bad and unhealthy inside himself. Like the dark ring you saw in the bathtub after you soaked. No matter how good the bubbles felt, the dark ring would be there when you were done. He’d felt like he was the tub — or the water in the tub. Or both — with the rings all over his skin … and, worse, rings inside of him. It had felt like there were these rings that had been a part of him for so long that they were stitched into him. Like no amount of washing would’ve been enough to get rid of them. And it had made him feel so unhealthy – unclean, really — in the truest sense of both of those words. He’d felt dirtier and dirtier the further they drove. Sweating. Dripping. Wrong. And he’d begged his parents to stop, and they had. And he’d yanked car’s right rear door open and he’d vomited there on the side of the road, lying on his stomach on the back seat of his father’s big station wagon. Vomiting more and more foamy, yellow bile onto the ground; retching, belching and gasping in-between spurts of vomit. And he’d somehow felt good about it even as his body had clenched and retched. He’d felt cleaner with every expulsion. And then his mother was making his face tingle again with a cloth, this time wet-down from the melted ice in the little cool-chest the family had kept in the front seat. And Daniel recalled with pride how he’d told his mother and father he hadn’t really wanted to go to Imagination Ranch, anyway — hadn’t thought anyone should want to go, really, if their grandmother needed them. And he recalled how his parents had said they could do both, and he’d said not going meant more time with grandma, with what little time they had left with her. And the family had been proud of him, kissed him on the head, both of them. His father had boasted his son had good economic sense, because the tickets would have been costly, while visiting family is free. Then, Daniel had laid down in the back seat of the station wagon and looked out the back window at the clear blue sky. He’d imagined that they’d left the storms behind, that morning, possibly forever. And Daniel imagined that he had made it all happen — that he had willed himself to bring the evil out of his body, by his faith in God. That he had somehow acted to purify his body based on what he’d read. And that all that had been left inside of him certainly had to be good. Too, he’d felt like he’d been saved. And he’d felt like he finally understood why the people on those radio shows his mother listened to on Sunday always talked about being saved like that. Saved. It had seemed like the only way to describe what had happened to him. And he’d felt — from that day onward to now — that he’d be working to repay a very personal debt.
So, when that bell shrieked three more times and the elevator car doors opened, Daniel Salat walked with a renewed stride out into a very familiar brightly-lit hallway — the holding floor of the Drodden Police Station … where Michael Laddow surely waited for someone to save him.