“I’m with you, Father,” Jeff said as the two men exited the elevator — in single-file, with the reverend still in the lead.
Hearing that from Jeff meant a lot to Daniel. He’d been about to tell Jeff a considered version of that truth, but then the screeching elevator bell rang out three more times. Daniel looked back to watch the car doors shut before turning to look down the hallway in front of him.
Then, it was quiet.
But the quiet was good. After all this time … finally — here, on the seventh floor of the police station — Daniel managed to achieve the calm he’d promised himself he’d have when these moments came; the calm he’d practiced the night before, as he looked into the mirror. He’d sat there on the wooden stool in his bedroom — holding his satchel in his lap, staring at the mirror. He remembered how old his reflection in the mirror had looked — and not the good kind of old that he’d always hoped to have at his age. In his youth, he’d actually looked forward to becoming a wizened-looking man, flinty-eyed and dangerous. Instead, his reflection had just looked … old. He remembered how weary he’d looked. He’d very much like an old man, rather than the Elder Man of God he’d hoped for when he was younger. And, there’d been a real sense of apprehension as he’d looked in that mirror. He hadn’t felt ready for his appointment with Curt Gaynor, and he likewise certainly hadn’t felt ready to look upon Michael Laddow, or whatever he expected to find in Michael’s place – or, in Michael’s eyes.
Now though? Now, things were different.
He was walking down this hallway now — with a man of Christ behind him. He walked with someone who believed – both in god, and in Father Daniel Salat.
And, with belief on his side, Daniel found that the appointment had become a mission. And, knowing it was a mission drove Daniel onward, past the rusty-red doors on either side of the hallway. The doors mostly all looked the same — but there were differences, here and there. The paint was flecked and peeling in different places on each door, revealing browned metal beneath. The hinges were different colors. Some looked newer than others. And Daniel noticed the differences. Here, it didn’t matter that Daniel had cataracts. In this place, his vision was clear.
The hallway turned to the right, a sharp corner. Cheap wooden chairs were on either side of the corner, surrounding an end table that had a corded telephone on it. Beyond the corner, the hallway led to another, similar hallway of near-identical red doors. Except that most of the doors here looked a little newer than their counterparts in the previous hallway. There was no elevator here on this side, and about halfway down this second hall there was a barred security gate. In the middle of a gate was a slightly partitioned section that was obviously a door; a red handle bar was visible on the side opposite from Jeff and Daniel’s.
Curt Gaynor stood on the other side of the gate from the two men. As the two men approached the Sheriff, Daniel noticed right away that Curt looked even more tired than he, himself, had felt. Sheriff Gaynor looked simply exhausted. Like a deep, deep fatigue that had surely come long before yesterday; before Michael Laddow and the death and the fire. Like the Sheriff had slept on a pile of rocks, or something. Curt had puffy bags, the color of bruises, under his eyes; Curt’s face was ashy; the man’s wavy blond hair looked greasy and was going in all directions, wildly uncombed. Curt’s blond mustache was unkempt, and the man’s face was stubbly with what looked like several days’ growth. It wasn’t like he ever saw Curt Gaynor dressed up for church, but this wasn’t the Curt Gaynor that Daniel was used to seeing around town. Daniel tried to recall if he knew the Sheriff’s age; Curt was in his mid-fifties if Daniel’s recollection was right. But this man in front of him wearing Curt’s face seemed like someone else entirely; this Curt seemed more like an old janitor who’d decided to play dress-up.
Seated at a desk that faced the two approaching men was a young man Daniel knew only in passing — Otis Falke, who was eating a Cowboy Cake and reading what looked to Daniel like a magazine about exotic firearms. A newspaper — or maybe several; it was hard to tell — lay strewn messily all over the desk in front of Otis. There was also a small, opened paper carton of chocolate milk.
Despite his relative lack of familiarity with this younger officer, Daniel did know one thing about Otis Falke: the man was an atheist. And it really was enough to know about a person, in Daniel’s estimation — to know to steer clear of them, anyway. Unless they needed God’s grace, of course; Daniel knew that an atheist would be the first one in line for forgiveness at signs of real trouble. But Daniel knew that a priest needed to be ready to welcome anyone in at any time. Still, that wasn’t an option — not just yet, anyway. Something else Daniel noticed as he approached the gateway bars: although Falke looked like he was in his late thirties or early forties, the younger officer had the least hair of any of them there in the hallway. Daniel had to suppress a little chuckle over what he saw as an irony, and he wondered to himself if there’d ever been any academic study about that — whether or not the outright godless lost their hair more quickly than the faithful. Not that any scientist would ever let a truth like that get out.. Scientists were, just ever-so-selective about the truth, after all.
“Father Salat,” Curt said, voice dry and gravelly.
Daniel felt thirsty just listening to Curt, and had to clear his throat before returning the greeting: “Sheriff.”
Otis didn’t get up, but waved a hand in acknowledgement. “Let me buzz you in,” the younger officer said, sounding distracted. He moved a newspaper that was lying on the table in front of him to reveal a closed laptop. He flipped the computer open and typed a few characters onto the large keys; there was a loud buzzing sound that echoed through the hallway, and then a loud clink of metal from near the big red handle bar. Otis then got up and pulled the handle bar; the gate door squeaked noisily as it retracted back several inches. Then, Otis slid the partitioned part of the door back to one side like the sliding door on a van. The gate looked heavy, too — but Otis didn’t seem to have any trouble with it.
Curt didn’t waste any time: “So, who’s this? Who’d you bring along?” he asked, gesturing toward Jeff and then turning to face the man at Daniel’s side.
“Well, uh- … ” Jeff began, looking toward Daniel.
“You’re from the Church, too, right?” Curt didn’t sound happy about it, as Daniel had predicted.
“Barry sent a message a minute ago,” said Otis toward Curt.
“Huh? How’s that?” Curt looked over toward the younger officer. “What’d he say?”
“On the computer.” Otis gestured toward the laptop on the desk. “Says he checked them out downstairs,” Otis murmured toward Curt, as if neither Jeff nor Daniel could hear him. “There was also about five pages of random junk text after that, too.” The whole time, Otis kept his eyes focused on Jeff. Otis looked suspicious — or maybe just wary. It was hard to tell. It was hard to read Otis Falke. “But he said they’re good.”
It was obvious the younger policeman knew Jeff; precisely how they knew each other was less clear to Daniel. Someone being familiar with Jeff — the reverend hadn’t counted on that. So, Daniel decided to test that familiarity: “This is one of my Brothers-in-Christ, Sheriff Gaynor,” Daniel said.
Otis coughed, shoving his hands into his pockets and looking away down the hall behind the reverend and his assistant.
“Curt,” Daniel said, “this is Brother Jeff Armando.” The reverend had made sure to use both the formal and informal addresses for Curt, in succession. Otis’ interruption had lessened the effect, Daniel was sure, but there was nothing for it except to continue. Daniel head measured out other calculations for this moment, too. He’d waited until specifically now to refer to Jeff as a Brother-in-Christ; the reverend had debated telling Jeff about that title much earlier, but Daniel had decided that it had to wait until now. There was meaning in making the pronouncement to someone other than Jeff, on Jeff’s behalf. There was an authority there, that further secured Jeff and Daniels’ bond.
And it worked, just like Daniel had hoped it would. On hearing that title from Daniel, Jeff’s shoulders lifted. The man stood taller, and a little more color came back into his younger partner’s face. Jeff reached out toward Curt, and the two men shook hands. It was a thorough, genial handshake. “I’m Father Salat’s assistant today,” Jeff said to Curt, after breaking the handshake.
“Okay,” Curt said, sounding unconvinced.
“And — well — like Father Salat said — I’m … a Brother-in-Christ.”
“Okay,” Curt repeated.
“I really, really hope we can help do some real good here today — for everyone. We’ve all been hit by this tragedy. We want to help.”
“And we’ll do everything we can.” As Daniel and Jeff crossed through the now-opened gate, the reverend was deeply relieved. This first meeting could have gone wrong in so many ways. But things were happening like Daniel wanted them to, so far.
“Yeah,” Curt said.
“It’s good of you to call on us, Sheriff,” Daniel said.
“Everyone’s in grief,” Jeff said. “You’re here for justice. We’re here for — well, for fixing a little bit of that grief. It’s everyone’s duty.”
Now, if the situation hadn’t involved what it did, Daniel thought that he would have been very proud of Jeff in that moment; the way the man took charge of himself and took Daniel’s statements and incorporated them into the presentation. Daniel felt Jeff’s work needed another little push, too, so he added to it: “We’re going to help Michael, yes, Curt. But we’re going to help you most of all. I promise.”
“Yeah,” Curt replied.
Otis sighed to himself, looking down at the floor.
“What we’re all interested in doing here — yes, it’s only good.” Daniel knew it was a prideful statement. He didn’t really have the time or energy — or emotional state, really — to truly think of pride right now in a positive way, though. But he knew it could be a motivating force for some people in certain situations.. Pride was more the power of his enemy, here. And Daniel wanted to take it back. “And all these introductions are good, too, if we’re working together … but we can talk on the way — can’t we?” Daniel reasoned that getting the group on its way to Michael — and, not-coincidentally, away from Otis Falke — was a good idea.
“Right,” Curt said, making no motion to move.
“Thank you, Sheriff.” Daniel decided to focus on gratitude — sounding thankful to Curt, and just being thankful to God that they hadn’t already been ushered out of the Police Station. At the same time, though, there were still so many things that could go wrong; many of them had to do with God. The reverend’s mind was troubled by all the variables. “There’s a child in need and we all want what’s best for everyone.”
“Of course,” Curt said, casting a look toward Otis.
Daniel’s anger bubbled. Things were happening that were out of his control. Things over which there could be no control. “Let’s get to helping, then,” Daniel said.
Otis pushed the gate shut after Daniel and Jeff were past the gate. There was another heavy clicking sound; this was followed by a brief, loud buzzing noise. Then, Otis returned to the desk and focused again on the gun magazine. “Call if you need anything, Sheriff.” He pushed aside one of the newspapers to reveal a walkie-talkie lying on the desk. He leaned back in his chair, exhaling sharply and stretching his arms out to either side.
Curt gave Otis a concealed thumbs-up that it didn’t look like Otis even saw, and then the Sheriff was gesturing for Daniel and Jeff to follow him down the rest of the hallway. “When you called me back, you said you found some stuff to help the case,” Curt said. “You know, I went to school with Victor Marsh. I’m Gunny’s godfather, for Christ’s sake. I took the job when Vic retired.” Curt’s gait was slow, but he didn’t look back to see if the other men were even following him.
Daniel easily kept up with the obviously fatigued Sheriff. “My condolences,” Daniel said, following behind Curt, with Jeff coming up last in the line of men. “There aren’t words. God be with them; and, with us all. And you’re sure it was Michael.”
“Father, I told you why I’m sure,” Curt said, looking ahead toward where the hall ended in another corner; this one turned to the right again. Each successive hallway was progressively shorter; the path seemed to be circling in on itself. There were more red doors here, too, these again looking newer still than the ones before. “I shouldn’t even be talking to you.”
“We need to know if we’re going to help,” Daniel said. “We talked about this.”
“I’m breaking the rules a little.” Curt looked over toward Jeff. “Technically. I mean you. The kid asked for a priest.” He looked toward Daniel. “He’s not a priest, is he?”
“No. But he’s really my assistant. And he needs to be here.”
Curt seemed doubtful. “I don’t know.” It was a far cry from the certainty he’d displayed to Daniel on the phone before. “He’s supposed to … well, his dad was supposed to be here, and … any adult, but … ”
“Yes, yes, of course.” But Daniel didn’t know what to say to respond to that. The reverend realized he wasn’t functioning at his best. It was this place. The layout left Daniel feeling trapped. And, it wasn’t just because of the gate behind them. He felt like he was having trouble breathing. The reverend wasn’t claustrophobic, but being in that hallway made him feel like he understood claustrophobics’ feelings a lot better. He decided to try and use those feelings to help himself, if he could: “There’s — a dispiriting effect to this place.”
“You think it’s haunted?” Curt asked, blinking hard, as if confused why Daniel would change the subject so completely.
“It means it’s really depressing,” Daniel explained. “And I can understand why you’d want to get him some emotional support. The rest? We haven’t and won’t hear anything about the case after this,” Daniel assured.
“This was the hospital, remember? Blame them. This floor used to be for storage. Well, still is.” He stopped as they reached the end of the hallway, turning to face the two men following him again. He pointed with his left hand toward a set of fake-walnut double doors; both had red metal bars similar to the one on the gate. “Kid’s past there.”
“Are all those red doors to cells?” Jeff asked, looking back toward the hall they’d just come down.
“What?” Curt looked at Jeff with disappointment on his face. “No. Those are all storage rooms. I just told you that.” He shook his head like a teacher upset with their student. “The holding rooms are in there.” He gestured again to the double doors. “We make due with what we’ve got. And — whatever you do — don’t call it a cell in front of the kid or you’ll freak him out even worse.”
There was another long, long silence.
Curt took a deep breath, considering Daniel and then Jeff. He exhaled. Then, “So, okay.”
“Okay,” Daniel repeated.
“Okay?” Jeff turned the word into a question.
“So — I’m going to fill you in on what you need to know about all this. So you can get him to admit what he did. Like we agreed, Father.”
“I can’t promise. But I’ll do what I can. And — I’m sure — so will God.”
“He’s been out of his mind since he started talking again.”
“He’s the same as you told me, then?” Daniel said.
“Yeah. Except — on-and-off with the priest stuff,” Curt said, with yet another half-shrug
“Can you be more specific than you were on the phone?” Daniel asked.
“I got no idea what half the stuff he’s saying means. That’s why I called you. That’s why you’re here. He says he wants to pray. He asked for a Bible. I made out that much.”
“And does he have one?” Daniel wondered if, perhaps, the boy had already written some kind of confession.
“We got him one, yeah. And a pen and paper he asked for,” Curt said.
“Has he written anything?” Daniel asked.
“I don’t know,” Curt replied. “I haven’t checked in a while. I didn’t — I didn’t want to go in there.”
“Nobody’s in there with him now?” Jeff asked, sounding shocked.
“We”re not babysitting him every second.” He looked away from the other two men toward the double-doors, then back to look right into Daniel’s eyes. “So — I’ll be honest, Father. This whole thing is freaking me out.”
“It’s got us all scared,” Daniel said.
“No — that’s not what I mean.” Curt sounded defensive. “Michael Laddow’s a vandal and a thief and — … a lot of stuff. I’ve dealt with him before.”
“So have I,” Father Salat assured.
“Me, too,” Jeff added.
“But … not this. I mean, not — …” Curt went quiet for a moment. “How could I have missed it for so long? I knew him.”
Daniel sensed an opportunity. “It may not be something anyone could’ve seen.”
“What do you mean?” Curt asked – he sounded genuinely confused.
“Keep telling me about what happened,” Daniel said. “And I’ll elaborate as we go.”
Curt looked undecided, but kept going: “The best we can figure from the testimonies we took, he got some of the local kids together. Stuart Redwing’s kid, and Gunny.” Curt’s eyes got damp. “Christ — Gunny.”
It was another opportunity. Daniel took it: “Your godson, you said. No justice without peace, and no peace without justice. We’re doing this for him, too.”
Curt looked away for a long moment, his lower lip quivering. Then, he collected himself and looked back toward the reverend again. “But, yeah,” he said, voice shaky. “But we got testimonies from those kids. And some others.” There was another, weaker half-shrug. Then, “There was, I guess, some — I dunno, something about a prank.”
“A prank?” Jeff said, incredulously.
Daniel cast a dark look toward his assistant.
“Yeah, I didn’t believe it either,” said Curt. He cast a meaningful look toward Daniel. Michael told them it was a prank they were pulling, anyway.” A look of deepest disgust came to Curt’s face. “They buried some … animal guts out in the woods out by a big bike jump.”
“Oh, gross,” said Jeff.
“Do you know how Michael was involved in that, exactly?” Daniel asked.
“We think Michael instigated it all. From the sound of the other kids.”
“Ah,” Jeff said.
“And Michael was the one who called Vic on a burner phone and told him there’d been a murder; Vic’s ex-wife knew his phone codes;. I listened to the message. Michael told him there’d been a murder and where to go.”
“You’ve talked to Laurie Marsh, then?” Daniel asked Curt.
“Laurie, yeah,” Curt said, apparently losing himself for a long moment, staring at the wall behind Daniel.
“What did she say?” Daniel asked, trying to get the Sheriff back on track.
“Right … right. Sorry.” Curt looked embarrassed with himself. Then, “Well, I guess the other kids thought he’d go dig up the animal guts and think it was a person.”
Jeff cleared his throat, bringing a hand to his lips to cover his mouth as he belched, clearly suppressing a gag reflex. “A burner phone?” Jeff asked.
“You buy it with cash and it’s got prepaid cards you buy with cash.”
“So — untraceable,” Jeff said, rubbing his chin; he nodded to himself. “Mmm.”
“Except Michael bought it from Sweet’s. From Kevin Sweet himself. And then, we sort of lose track of Michael after that … until he calls Stuart Redwing’s kid and says ‘hey come on over to the Marsh place to see the prank.’”
“Who called the police?” Jeff asked.
Curt suddenly looked caught off-guard. “We’re still trying to get all the facts on that.” The man’s expression was furtive. He seemed to catch himself and stood a litter straighter, adding “I need all the facts before I can release names.”
Daniel ignored Curt’s reluctance on that topic and moved onward. “And you said Michael’s father – …” he began. It was the part he most wanted to know about for his plan with Michael to work.
“Chris,” Jeff added.
“ … — Chris,” Daniel said, with a thankful nod back toward Jeff before he faced Curt again. “You said Chris Laddow’s missing.”
“Dr. Laddow is missing, yeah.” Both of Curt’s shoulders slump. “The man’s phone is going straight to voicemail. Nobody’s heard from him for a while.” Curt’s stubbly chin twitched. “We’re looking for him.”
“I hope he’s okay,” Jeff said, turning toward Daniel.
“I recommend faith,” Daniel said, just as quietly, though the reverend didn’t look away from Curt as he spoke. “And then the things you told me before, Sheriff? The knife and the numbers and all that?”
“Carved into his shoulders. A two and a seven. We think he did it to himself.” Curt’s eyes flashed darkly. It was clear a part of the Sheriff wished he could’ve told the two men he’d been the one to inflict harm on Michael. It didn’t need to be said.
“And the fire,” Daniel said.
“The fire. Yeah,” Curt acknowledged. “Setting the house on fire. And … Vic and Gunny, too. Had them in chairs on either side of him. Burned them alive, we think.”
“Uh-huh,” acknowledged Jeff.
Then, Curt was looking toward Jeff warily. “Why’s he acting like he knows a lot of this stuff already?”
“I told him a few things,” Daniel explained. “He needed to prepare and-”
“It wasn’t your place to disseminate that kind of information,” Curt said. His eyes had gotten steely as Daniel had spoken just then, up the interruption. “I told you what I told you in –”
“In–?” Daniel asked gently.
“In — the priest-confidence thing!” Curt said, helplessly. The Sheriff crossed his arms against his chest, where they slid down a little so he was instead resting them on his ample stomach.
“Come on, Curt,” Daniel said. “You know it doesn’t work like that. You weren’t in confession. You said you ere giving me ‘need to know’ information. My assistant needs to know.”
Jeff stood up taller than he did at the gate.
“Yeah,” Curt said, clearly struggling to get his temper back under his control again. “Yeah.”
There was another silence.
Curt turned to look down the hallway again; then, he looked back toward Daniel. “But — you’ve got information for me, too, right? What Michael did — you think it means something.”
“Something specific, yes.” Daniel took that moment to hold up his satchel. “Right in here, Sheriff.”
“What did you find out?” Curt asked.
“You don’t need to waste your time reading it now. But I told you the basics last night, over the phone. “Like I told you last time we talked. I think — at the very least — it’s cultists — and maybe more than just Michael. I think Michael may have been influenced to do this by a cult.”
Jeff looked a little confused, his shoulders drooping a little. He turned toward Daniel, as if looking for reassurance.
“So — that’s why he wants to pray so bad?” Curt asked, his temper subsiding a little. “You think maybe he … I dunno … ‘woke up’ from whatever they did to him?”
“I don’t think it’s anything like that, Curt.” Daniel answered.
“You don’t?” Curt sounded almost disappointed.
“I think Daniel was influenced by something he saw,” Daniel said. “Something some very bad people may have used to get to him a long, long time ago.”
Curt groaned and shut his eyes as if in disbelief, looking away from them and waving a dismissive right hand. “Don’t even start with that part again, Father.”
“Curt, I-” Daniel began.
“That somebody programmed him?” Curt interrupted.
“It’s not that simple,” Daniel countered. “And — at the very least — let me show you my proof, Sheriff.” Daniel opened the satchel and withdrew his book, reaching out to give it to Curt
Curt took the book and opened it without even considering the cover, flipping through the pages.
“This is the book I wrote — my … well, call it … a thesis for the seminary. It’s the one I told you about; the details are in there. Page 317 is where the really relevant chapter starts.” Daniel had calculated this exchange, too. He’d set up the skeleton of his idea when he’d called Curt back to arrange the meeting with Michael. He was sowing seeds — laying foundations. Daniel believed that one of the most important actions a priest should undertake for his flock was the act of establishment itself, setting up the groundwork of morality in a place. Daniel believed that that it was up to people to decide their own morality for themselves; he believed free will was part of God’s plan – part of God’s design for humanity. But free will didn’t eliminate the need for guidance. And, Daniel Salat saw such guidance as paramount among all acts of charity.
Curt flipped the book to what looked like the appropriate section from the reverend’s vantage and read.
Daniel and Jeff remained silent.
“Holy fuck,” Curt whispered, like he was talking to himself.
“An old children’s television-show, just like I said. The numbers are there — the two and the seven. Just like you told me. At each shoulder.”
“Holy fuck,” Curt repeated, this time louder. His face went pale.
“A Biblical number — The Book of Revelations, Curt. Chapter 27 of the King James Bible.”
Curt’s expression darkened then. “Holy fuck, holy fuck, holy fuck,” he continued whispering. He looked up at Daniel. “You weren’t kidding. This is what it looked like? I mean, looks like.”
“Yes, Sheriff. It’s all in there. And a lot of it matches what you’ve told me.” Daniel felt uplifted; younger and younger as these moments passed, as the vibration of his voice seemed to bounce around in his chest. His heart was beating faster. There was a ferocious feeling inside of him, all over; Daniel hesitated to call it pleasure, even though it felt amazing to him. The sensation was like some burning torch pushing out from somewhere inside his heart.
Curt reached down to the walkie-talkie on his belt. “Otis?” he asked, but then the walkie-talkie squealed and squawked and Curt turned it off. “Ah, fucking thing,” Curt snarled. Then, he looked toward Daniel, apologetically.
“We all get a pass for language, today, Curt.”
“I’m going to have Otis round up what we can find about — … ” Curt peered down at the book again. “… — TK Wanderlad.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t remember the name last time we talked, Curt,” Daniel said, regretfully.
“Right now, I’m just glad you brought me this.” Curt sounded even more apologetic than he had a moment before. “I’m sorry I gave you sh — … ” He winced. ” … — crap about this. I’m going to read it. I promise. It might really be important.”
Daniel nodded. “I won’t make you read it all right now. But so much of what you describe is in there. There are even the twin pillars of fire, too. Read my descriptions. They’re the parts in the bold print.”
“Okay. And, I’m gonna see if Otis can’t round up some tapes.”
Daniel handed his satchel to Jeff, who took it. He reached out to put his hands on Curt’s shoulders; the Sheriff allowed it. “You’re a good man facing incredible evil every day, Curt. Bless you for what you do. And for your faith.” Daniel let go of Curt.
“Thank you, Father,” Curt said.
Daniel thought the time seemed right for the next step: “But just as I know you and Jeff believe in God — I also believe that Michael Laddow was crafting a Satanic ceremony,” he said. “Or a child’s-eye view of one, at least. And maybe on orders from someone else.”
Curt’s shoulders visibly tightened, but he said nothing. He just listened.
“We don’t know for sure about those details,” Daniel said; in his head, he thanked God for Curt’s silence. “Changing from one person into another. Ritual sacrifice. It’s all there. And I think it’s why Michael did what he did. I told you that you’d need to see proof to believe me. Well, there it is. I wrote about it years ago. Before any of this happened. You think that it’s coincidence? That’s a lot of coincidence, Sheriff.”
After another long pause, Curt nodded: “I don’t know what to think, without reading this more.” He patted the back cover of Daniel’s book.
“And you can read it as much as you want — while we talk to Michael.” Daniel looked at his gold wristwatch. “We have — what, you said … four hours before Michael’s legal counsel shows up?”
“Right. You said on the phone you’d only need one.”
“Maybe less, maybe more.” Daniel said.
Curt coughed wetly into a closed fist. Then, “You’ve made it work before. Vict told me. Just — don’t waste my time, here. Okay?”
Jeff got a quizzical look that Daniel saw out of the corner of his eye, casting a glance toward his assistant that suggested they’d discuss it later. Then he was looking back toward Curt. He reasoned it was time for him to be quiet — to let the Sheriff decide.
There was about ten seconds of silence. Then, Curt whispered “Damn it, Vic.” It was obviously meant only for himself, but still audible to the other men. After a few more seconds of silence, Curt nodded, acting as if his outburst hadn’t happened. “Let’s get you in to see Michael.” Curt walked toward the double-doors, unlocking them with two different keys he pulled from his belt — one for each of the two doors. “He’s the only person we’re holding right now in there, so we should be okay ’til you’re done — or I pull the plug on this. Come on.” He waved for them to follow him.
The reverend and his partner came up behind the Sheriff. “This is it,” Jeff whispered toward Daniel, but it didn’t sound at all anticipatory. Rather, it sounded like Jeff was trying to gird himself for whatever they’d find on the other side of those dull-brown double-doors.
“You need to use both keys to get in here,” Curt said. “The doors were already here,” Curt said. There was a loud click from each lock as Curt twisted its corresponding key.
To himself, Daniel wondered if it had been previously used to store contraband or hazardous materials. And whether there were any remnants of those materials left in there. It brought back his prior claustrophobia.
Curt pushed on both bars and the door opened inward, revealing an extension of the hallway they were in; it was much like the other hallways they’d visited on this floor of the police station. The doors in this hallway, however, were of a slightly different design, with trays at chest-height with metal slats there, too. There were also multiple bolts on each door. In addition, each door also had a small plate about the size of a stick of butter at eye-level.
The plates looked like mailbox slots; it looked like you could pull them open.
As if to illustrate this, Curt walked about ten steps into the hallway and turned to the second door on the left, lifting up the viewing slot. An open-air grille came into view under the slot. A sink and toilet were visible across the length of a small room. “Michael Laddow?” Curt called, rapping his knuckles twice on the metal door.
There was no answer from the other side. Daniel couldn’t even hear breathing from inside the room.
Curt knocked three more times. “Mike? Mike Laddow?” Curt repeated.
There was another long moment of silence.
And then the screaming started.
Mournful and shrill, the cries came one after the other — high-pitched, keening. They sounded wet and muffled; like the screamer’s mouth was half-full of water — or something else … something that changed the sound.
Jeff dropped Daniel’s satchel and held his ears. “Good Lord.”
Curt let go of the plate; it swung shut with a snap.
But they could all still hear the screaming from the other side of the door. Plaintive, agonized and pained.
“Fuck this,” Curt said. “Guys, look. I’m sorry, but –”
Daniel held up both hands, open-palmed, toward the Sheriff. “Let me try, Curt. For God’s sake, that’s why I’m here. Can I at least try, Curt?”
“Be my fucking guest, Father,” Curt said. The man gestured for Daniel to go ahead and took two shaky steps backward and came to a stop. He looked down at his hands, which were shaking badly. He took a few more steps backward until his back was to the opposite wall from the door. He slid sideways along the wall a few feet.
Daniel approached the cell door, but didn’t knock right away. He’d seen where that had led. He called Jeff over toward him. “Jeff? Do me a favor,” he said quietly.
Jeff approached, leaving the satchel on the floor in the middle of the hallway. “What do you need, Father?” Jeff asked.
“Help me down onto my knees,” Daniel said. He reached out toward his younger assistant for support. “Slowly, now.”
Jeff did as he was asked; he supported Daniel’s weight as the reverend allowed his legs to relax. Soon, he was kneeling on the floor.
“That’s fine, Jeff,” Daniel said, breathing heavily. It felt strange, having to struggle into a position of penitence. But that’s what old age did to you. It occurred to Daniel that — in God’s plan — maybe it was one of the costs for living the Heavenly defiance of a long Earthly existence. “Now, I want you to very, very quietly lift the latch on my signal.”
“Okay,” Jeff said.
And keep it open, even if he starts screaming again.” Daniel did his best to indicate the severity of this instruction: “I can’t stress this enough. Please. Keep the slot open, no matter what, until I signal you to close it.”
“All right, Father,” Jeff said, walking over toward the door, reaching out to take reluctant hold of the metal plate, taking obvious care not to disturb it.
“What are you doing, Father?” Curt asked from down the hallway.
“Please be quiet, Sheriff, unless you know the verses.” And, with that, Daniel Salat — feeling stronger than he’d felt all day — decided he was ready. He pantomimed opening the plate, to signal Jeff, before folding his hands together and lowering his head, eyes closed.
Jeff opened the plate.
Like before, this action was, at first, met with silence.
But, this time, the silence was broken not by any cries from within, but by Daniel Salat’s voice, speaking loudly and reverently: “‘Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.’” It was from Ephesians, Chapter 6. Ephesians was one of Daniel Salat’s favorite parts of the Bible — Chapter 6, verses 10-18 in particular. He didn’t need to read it from his Bible. He’d memorized it, in fact. It was a prayer he’d say to himself whenever he feared for his own life. It was the one he’d chosen last night to share with Michael Laddow. It seemed appropriate. “‘Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil,’” he continued.
Daniel had expected — hoped? — there would be some kind of reaction from his words — something to confirm his thoughts about Michael Laddow, just from that initial prayer. He’d expected to hear the boy speaking Latin – or, perhaps, a vibration through the prison. But, nothing like that happened. Nothing happened at all.
There was only silence coming from inside the cell.
Jeff seemed to be holding his breath, standing as still as he could manage from the looks of it, holding the slot open. He was looking at Daniel; he had tears in his eyes.
Daniel stopped praying; then, he unfolded his hands and lifted his head. “This is Reverend Daniel Salat. I’ve here to help you, Michael. I’ve brought my Bible. You told the police that you wanted me to come. Do you remember me?”
There was no reply.
“Well, I’m here — with friends. Michael — I know you believe in God. I think God would want us to help you.”
Daniel looked toward his assistant and the Sheriff, raising a hand to his lips to suggest they be quiet.
In the silence that followed, Daniel could hear loud, hitched breathing coming from inside the cell; he counted the inhalations he could hear. He counted one breath. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
“O-kay,” came a timid, tremulous voice. Daniel couldn’t remember what Michael Laddow’s voice sounded like normally. But hearing any child’s voice sound like that pained the reverend.
Curt was blinking in surprise; he looked first toward Jeff and then toward Daniel. He lifted himself off of the wall he was leaning against. From what Daniel could make out behind the Sheriff’s stubble, Curt’s cheeks were ashy.
“Can we go in, Sheriff” asked Daniel.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Curt’s mouth twisted into something like disgust. “He’s a murderer. Nobody’s getting inside. I’m breaking enough rules. I’m not going have an escaped maniac on my hands. You can talk to him through the grate. You can see him if he moves in front of the grille.”
“Curt — I know that you’ve seen the power of prayer. Sometimes, it isn’t for the person who’s praying. It’s for other people — whether they want it or not. That’s God’s will.”
Curt blinked at Salat, uncomprehending.
Daniel clarified: “We’re doing this for the child, not for us.”
“If you say so, Father.”
“Open the latch again, Jeff,” Daniel instructed.
Jeff complied, lifting the latch.
A white shape stood directly in front of them, on the other side of the grille; a figure, standing there in front of them, obscured by a bed sheet, the vague shape of a head that Daniel was sure belonged to Michael Laddow under the white folds of fabric.
“Shit!” swore Curt.
“Fuck!” cried Jeff.
Both men backed up the hallway a few steps.
Daniel recoiled in surprise at the sudden proximity of the figure, too, feeling his heart flutter. But he held his ground. This was why he was here, after all.
From under the sheet came a quiet, breathy giggle. Childlike, though the figure was clearly a young man’s. Then came more of those hitched spasms; Michael was coughing, and then he cleared his throat. “Hi.” came the muffled voice from beneath the sheet. said.
Behind him, Daniel could hear Curt whisper “What the fuck?” very quietly.
Daniel leaned in closer to the grille “You are Michael Laddow, right?”
“Mickey,” came the voice from beneath the sheets. “I’m Mickey Laddow.”
“And you heard me talking a minute before, right? I’m Father Daniel Salat.”
“Hi, Father,” Mickey said. “Please stay away. All of you.” It sounded like a request, though. Not a demand.
Daniel cast a look toward Jeff, and then toward Curt. “No one’s trying to get in.”
“I’m scared,” whispered Mickey from under the sheet.
Behind him, Daniel could hear hushed conversation going on between Jeff and Curt, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Something about the acoustics in the hallway obscured their words. There was also an annoying hum that seemed to be coming from the walls — a sound like plumbing, like water passing through pipes.
“Why are you wearing the bed sheet, Mickey? Are you hiding under there?”
“What?” Mickey asked, tilting his head beneath the sheet like a curious dog. “No.”
“Can you even see underneath it?” Daniel asked.
“No,” Mickey replied.
“There’s an easy way to fix that, Mickey” Daniel offered.
“No, there isn’t,” Mickey protested. “I can’t make eye-holes. They won’t let me have any scissors. Not even safety-scissors!” He turned to one side beneath the sheet, looking at what Daniel presumed was another blank wall that was the same as the one visible behind Mickey. “They won’t let me do anything.”
“Ah,” Daniel said. He could think of nothing else. No other reply.
“And, anyway, I already asked.” Mickey’s breath started hitching and he into another coughing fit. The child’s turned back toward the grille again, head bending forward beneath the sheet as he coughed. Then, he lifted his chin back up and appeared to focus on Daniel again. “Excuse me,” he said, his voice brightening. “Politeness is important.”
For whatever reason, hearing Michael Laddow apologize for coughing made Daniel more afraid than he’d been all day. He couldn’t figure out why. He didn’t like it. He cleared his throat. “It’s all right, Mickey,” he said, knowing his voice sounded weak.
The conversation behind Daniel in the hallway was growing more animated, even though Daniel couldn’t make out what was being said. It was louder, but still unintelligible with the hiss of the pipes and the echoing acoustics.
“But — you were crying, weren’t you?” Daniel said, trying to regain his composure and get back into the conversation with the boy. “Didn’t I hear that a moment ago, my boy?”
“Yeah.” Mickey’s head bent forward as if in guilt. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry for crying, Mickey. But … can you tell me why were you crying?”
Daniel leaned forward a little, moving his face closer to the grille than he had thus far.
The face beneath the bed sheet moved closer too, as if mimicking Daniel’s movements a moment before.
“What are you scared of?” Daniel asked.
“Where’s my mom and dad?!” Mickey suddenly shouted.
Salat’s head jerked back. He felt another flutter in his heart.
Mickey began to quietly sob. ‘I’m sorry — I’m so sorry.” Then, the boy began panting; the fabric was being pulled and pushed into and back out his mouth by his breath. The outline of his teeth became visible when he inhaled. Wetness darkened the material at the edges of his mouth and the tip of his tongue. “Where’s my MOM and DAD?” he shouted again, louder, voice sounding wet with swallowed tears. Dots were forming on the sheet from Mickey’s tears, too — rivulets from his crying. And the outlines of the boy’s fingers became visible as he grabbed at the sheet, clutching it tight. “CALL MY MOM AND DAD!”
Daniel looked back toward Jeff and Curt, who came back to either side of him on either side of the outer doorway.
Jeff had the satchel slung over his shoulder, and the water bottles were in his hands.
Curt had out what looked to Daniel like a Taser.
Daniel cast looks their way again, signaling each with a reassuring hand as he did so. Then Daniel said “We’ve called your dad.”
The sheet shifted as the boy visibly relaxed. “Okay,” he said, sounding strangely mollified by Daniel’s promise. “And my mom?” His breathing was hitching again from the renewed sobbing.
Daniel felt sick. It seemed to Daniel like the worst idea in the world to bring Miranda Laddow into the conversation just now. “I’m trying to find out about that,” was all he could manage to say. And then, despite his misgivings, a thought occurred to Daniel: “Do you know where you talked to them last?” he asked.
“At my house,” Mickey said. “I’m so tired.” Then Mickey moved out of view, and then came the unmistakable sound of a body lying down on a bed.
“Do you know where you talked to your mom and dad last?” Daniel asked again.
“At our house. Where we live,” came the voice. “Can you finish the prayer you did before? Please?”
Daniel exhaled, both surprised and also relieved. He’d forgotten himself in his bewilderment over Mickey’s behavior. This wasn’t what he’d imagined. This wasn’t what he’d wanted it to be. Not yet, anyway. But the reverend reasoned that maybe the prayer he’d started — once continued — might get this meeting back toward what he’d envisioned. At the same time, though, Daniel had never heard of a possessed person asking — sincerely, like Mickey sounded — for more prayers. Daniel closed his eyes and folded his hands together. “I’d like that very much, Mickey. I’ll start now, okay?”
“Okay,” said Mickey. There was a sound like sliding cloth. “But, wait — ”
“What is it, Mickey?” Daniel asked. He didn’t move.
“Do it in your church voice, okay?”
“My what?” Daniel held his position.
“Not like you’re talking now. Like you did when you were saying it in outside, like before.”
Daniel felt a chill go down his spine, but he maintained his pose. “All right, Mickey,” he said, uncertainly. “I’ll say it like that. But you have to stay listening until I finish.”
“Cool,” Mickey said. There was more snuggling into the covers.
So Daniel prayed, aloud — using the voice he reserved for sermons. The reverend’s voice was loud, even to himself, in the hallway; he heard his words echoing back at him. It distracted Daniel, reminding him of singing in the shower. But the echo also made his prayers sound big and imposing. He couldn’t help but admit to himself that a part of him really liked how it sounded: “‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”
Another long silence followed.
Mickey lay on the bed, the sheet rising and falling with his
anxious breathing. Daniel looked away from he still figure on the bed
toward the doorway as he spoke the next part. Curt was leaning an arm
against the doorframe to support himself, just staring at the reverend.
Jeff was practically motionless, his hand still in the satchel. His
assistant’s expression suggested Jeff felt like he was watching a master
craftsman work his trade. Daniel’s confidence grew. “‘Stand firm
then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist,” the reverend
continued. “‘With the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with
your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.
In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can
extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.’”
From inside the prison cell, Mickey Laddow began to wail again. But the wailing didn’t sound the same as before, though: it was more directed, more focused, like someone calling out in agony.
Or, like someone asking for help.
But the change in the way Mickey was shrieking meant something else, too, for Daniel; the reverend was starting to be able to make out that there were words being said in-between the unintelligible wails.
Mickey was pronouncing the words strangely, lengthening some of them out sometimes, and then saying them all together at other times.
But, as Mickey continued repeating his wails again and again, Daniel still couldn’t tell what the words actually were — no matter how many times the boy repeated them. It was too chaotic, too unintelligible.
Daniel needed to know. He turned toward the others. “Can either of you make out what he’s saying?”
“He’s losing his shit, Father, is what he’s saying,” yelled Curt. “And, look, I think we’ve had enough here.” Curt shook his head. “This did fuck-all.”
“Talk to me, Mickey.,” called Daniel. “Do you want me to keep going?”
Mickey stopped screaming; the sound diminished into one, long pained wail.
Then, even that stopped.
There were a few seconds of silence, except for the heavy breathing of the three men and the sobs of the crying boy.
Daniel broke the silence: “Mickey,” Daniel said, plaintively, “I’m trying to help you. But I can’t understand what you’re saying. Speak more slowly. Please. Or take off the sheet.”
There was one more long silence.
And then Mickey spoke: “’You’re the only one who can help us,’” he said, suddenly sounding clear and calm. His voice was quiet, raspy; there were no more hitching sobs. “‘You’ve got a lot of things to do,’” he continued. There was another pause, and Mickey spoke again: “‘Will you help?’”
“Am I still talking to Michael Laddow?” Daniel asked, shoulders shaking.
“What?” Mickey said from beneath the sheet, voice squeaking with hoarseness. “Yeah?” He said it like a question. “You just — you asked me to say it different.”
Daniel reached up and rubbed his palm over his forehead. “Why were you shouting like that?”
“That’s what people do on TV when priests talk.” There was a rustling, but Daniel couldn’t see what Mickey was doing. “Like that. I saw it on TV. When Church people yell and hold the snakes.”
“Oh, Lord,” Jeff said from the doorway, before turning away.
“Oh, sweet Lord. Sheriff, he’s so sick,” he said to Curt.
Daniel couldn’t think of a way to reply to that. So, instead, he simply finished out the prayer he’d started. He didn’t bother to close his eyes or fold his hands. Instead, he looked at Mickey and spoke plainly, voice quiet: “‘Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.’ That’s the prayer, Mickey.”
The silence that followed felt, to Daniel, like it went on forever.
Then, “Thank you, Father Salat,” Mickey said.
“You’re welcome, Mickey.”
“I’m really thirsty. Do you have any water?” Mickey said, as if ignoring Daniel’s statement.
Daniel’s face lit up.
Jeff noticed the priest’s expression. “Father?”
“Water … ” Daniel said quietly.
Jeff got it. “Right.”
“Yeah,” Mickey said. “Water, please. Can I have some, please?”
“Yes,” Daniel said. He motioned for Jeff to come forward toward him. “I’ve got some water, yeah. Brother Armando is bringing it, if that’s all right.”
“Hi, Brother Armando,” Mickey said.
“Hi, Mickey,” Jeff said, trembling. He was scared, but he clearly knew what the priest wanted him to do. He retrieved one of the bottles of holy water and then handed it over to Daniel.
Daniel took the water and handed it to Curt. “Give him this. It’s holy water.”
“I thought there was oil and stuff in that.”
“It won’t hurt him.”
Curt twisted the cap off the plastic water bottle and then unbolted the tray-slat and set the water bottle down onto the tray. Then, he pushed the tray through the slat into the room. “Here’s your water, kid,” Curt said.
There was another rustling sound, like Mickey getting up from the presumed bed.
And then all three of the men in the hallway could see both of Mickey’s outstretched hand emerge from the right as the teenager grasped at the water bottle. Mickey’s hands looked clean, with healthy pink skin and well-groomed fingernails. The boy’s fingernails were shiny, even; they reflected the overhead florescent lights.
“Thank you,” Mickey said. Then there was another rustling sound. After that, there were noisy drinking sounds — slurping and heavy breathing. Like a very young child too thirsty to take a break, swallowing down the water as fast as possible before stopping to gasp for air — and then repeating the process again and again.
A part of Daniel had recoiled at seeing Mickey’s hands. The reverend really wasn’t sure why that should surprise him, but it did. It made sense Mickey’s hands would be clean. The boy had probably had his injuries tended yesterday evening. And any … evidence on the boy’s body had likely been collected. And treating his wounds after that would’ve required him to be clean. But it still seemed odd. And wrong. So much of this seemed wrong. And, somehow, a part of Daniel had expected to see blood on Mickey’s hands once the sheet had been pulled away; red rustiness under Mickey’s fingernails. And somehow, Daniel had expected to be able to tell it wasn’t Mickey’s blood. That the boy would have Marsh blood on his hands that the reverend would be able to identify as a murderer’s blood. More than anything else, that image had haunted the fitful naps Daniel had taken since last night: Mickey Laddow’s bloody hands. But the boy’s hands weren’t bloody. There was no blood here, except his own, which he could feel thudding in his ears. Nothing felt right. Everything in the little cell felt amiss.
Not to mention he’d just given Michael holy water to drink.
“It was good,” Mickey said from beneath the sheet. “Kind of salty, though.” There was a sound like Michael was smacking his lips. “I needed that. The water-fountain tastes like mouthwash.” Mickey showed those clean hands again, setting the empty bottle back on the inside tray. “Thank you, Father Salat.”
“Will you take off the sheet now, Michael?”
“No,” Mickey said.
“Why not?” asked Daniel.
“Because it hurts my face.”
“What does?” Daniel said.
“Everything,” Mickey said, as if he were surprised Daniel hadn’t understood that. “But mostly — mostly, like, the light. But they won’t turn it off. I asked.”
“Okay,” Daniel said, looking back toward Jeff and Curt again before returning his focus to Mickey. “Can I ask you a few more things about how your — how your spirit’s doing?”
“What did you mean before, Mickey, when you said ‘you’re the only one who can help us.’”
“It’s what he said to me.”
Daniel’s heart thudded even harder than before. “Who said ?”
“What man?” asked Daniel.
“The man who took me.”
“Who,” Daniel asked, more urgently. “Who took you?”
“I’m real tired, Father,” said Mickey. A loud, long yawn followed.
“I understand, Mickey. And you … you can go back to sleep. But — we want to find the man who took you. When did he take you?”
“Last night,” Mickey said, before yawning loudly again.
Daniel blinked. It hadn’t been the answer he was expecting. And he was caught off-guard. He’d been so focused on waiting for — something, anything — to happen from the holy water that he hadn’t really been considering the actual conversation he was having with Mickey as carefully as maybe he should’ve. “What happened last night?” he asked, trying to balance his engagement better. He was listening as carefully as he could with all the noise from the walls around him. Holy water was safe to drink, as long as it wasn’t from the font. There were bacteria in the fonts. But he’d made sure the holy water he’d prepared would be safe for Mickey to drink, just in case. But he was waiting for that water to have some kind of effect on a more spiritual than physical scale. “What did the man do?”
“It was raining.”
Daniel was confused. It hadn’t been raining last night that he knew of. He looked toward Jeff and Curt. The Sheriff shook his head.
“What did the man do?”
“He called me from the woods.”
“He called me from the woods. He was stuck out there. There was a line from it. The stuff I said before was what he said. He told me only I could help him. He asked me for my help. He said I had a lot of things to do. And he asked me if I’d help. So I did. He asked me to carry him inside. So I did that. He didn’t want to be in the rain.”
“And then what happened?”
“I went to bed and I think he slept in my bubble-chair. I don’t remember.”
“And then — … ?”
“Then I woke up.”
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” Curt swore loudly.
“I don’t want to do this any more tonight,” Mickey said. “Thank you for the prayer. I feel better. Will you come back tomorrow, Father Salat?”
“Will you pull the sheet off for me? Even though it hurts?”
“Can you make them shut off the lights so it doesn’t hurt?”
Daniel looked toward Curt. “Can you shut off the lights in here?” he called toward the Sheriff.
Curt reached down to his belt and retrieved the walkie-talkie. He turned it on, and it wailed with static and noise like before. “Otis?” he asked.
“Yeah?” Otis’ voice came from the walkie-talkie.
“Can you shut off the holding room lights for just Mickey’s room?”
“Who?” asked Otis, sounding confused. Then, “Oh, you mean Mike Laddow? Yeah, okay.”
There was a brief wait; eventually, the lights in Mickey’s cell started to make a made a loud buzzing sound; they flickered a few times and then shut off.
Mickey exhaled with relief. “THANK you,” he said.
Mickey then walked over in front of the grill again. “It’s still bright out there,” he said from beneath the sheet.
“We can’t shut off the lights in here, Mickey. We need to see,” Daniel said. “Can you please take off the sheet?”
“Okay.” And then, the sheet came off.
And the reverend recoiled again; not from any horror, but from the same sense of wrongness he’d been getting the whole time. Because Mickey Laddow looked like you’d expect if you were to describe him to someone who didn’t know him — a fifteen-year-old boy with dark hair, and dark eyes that looked almost black in the light. The last time Daniel had seen Michael Laddow before today, the boy had been loitering near the Liongold Movie House. Then, Mickey’s hair had been a mass of greased spikes. The child had been wearing a leather jacket and a sour face — the typical adolescent expressions of contempt: shows of what children thought was strength. For Mickey, it was the jacket. It was the big, tall boots and torn-up jeans. And — if you were to pass him by like Daniel had done — wafting cigarette smoke. Daniel had known better than to stop and confront Mickey that day; that Mickey Laddow hadn’t been a lost cause, because Daniel Salat didn’t think any child was a lost cause. But that child standing on the street that day wasn’t ready to listen to the Word of God. Deaf ears. Angry ears violated by rap and heavy metal. Ears desensitized and lacking empathy. Lacking the required nuance. And Daniel had been tired. He’d passed by. He’d had to, hadn’t he? He tried to remember now what he’d been doing that day. What had been so important? But he couldn’t recall, and now he couldn’t reconcile how whatever he’d been doing was so unimportant he couldn’t remember it now — just like he couldn’t reconcile this Mickey Laddow with the last time he’d seen him. The Mickey Laddow in front of him now – it seemed like a different child altogether. The face was bruised, but that wasn’t it. The boy had the same dark hair, but it was fluffy and uncombed – in other words, natural-looking. And Michael’s eyes were still colored coal-black like they always were, but they looked shiny now, like that coal had been polished. Like a very young child who was stuck indoors and was eager go play outside. There was no contempt in this boy’s eyes. None. And it frightened the priest to see it. It was naked and frightening.
Daniel tried to think of what it all meant — what to call it. But nothing seemed right. All he could come up with was that Mickey Laddow somehow looked younger than the last time he’d seen him.
And that wasn’t how a child locked up for murdering two people ought to look.
Everything felt wrong. And Daniel Salat felt like a failure. Even as a part of him wanted to do something grand. A gesture. Where some violent action on Daniel’s part would reveal the demon he’d been sure was there beneath those sheets. Daniel felt the urge to take a bottle of holy water and empty it on Michael’s head.
Daniel managed to resist the urge.
“Thank you,” Mickey said again. He sighed then, as long and loud as his earlier yawns. “Please tell them not to turn the lights back on in here ever, ever again.”
And the more Daniel Salat thought about it, the sicker he felt. “Thank you, Mickey, and God Bless you,” Daniel said. His voice sounded hollow in his ears.
“Goodnight,” Mickey said. Then he walked away, back toward the right, back to the presumed bed.
“Christ,” Curt said after shutting and bolting the viewing slat.
“You need to make it so you can see the beds,” Jeff said.
“Like I don’t know that?” Curt said. “Everything here’s a mess. The budget is fucked. We’re making do with what we have. A prison isn’t a hospital.”
Daniel turned toward Curt. “He wants me to come back tomorrow.”
“I heard,” Curt said. “What a clusterfuck. You got me all worked up over this. Nothing.”
“I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted,” Daniel said, allowing a lot of the disgust he felt to slip through. “But I think Michael needs help. Help I can give.”
“Well, that’s a fucking relief.” Curt said, rubbing a hand through his hair, scratching at his scalp. “You’re expecting to come back then?” He looked apologetic a moment after he said that, amending his words: “Will you come back, then?”
“I don’t think he needs just my kind of help. I think he’s out of his mind. Did you hear how he was talking?”
“Yeah, he sounded weird,” Curt said, stroking his stubbly chin. “He’s going to get psychiatric evaluation. The lawyer wants that. I want that.” A long pause. Then, “So you gonna come back?”
“Can I?” Daniel asked.
“If you think it’ll do — well, you know … ” Curt trailed off.
“Do you want me to?” responded Curt.
“Hell, Father — I don’t know.” Curt reached up and ran his left hand through his messy curls. “Yeah, I guess. I mean — he talked to you. He wasn’t yelling nonsense. He wasn’t … calling for his mommy.” Disgust came back into Curt’s voice.
“He was doing that before?” Jeff asked.
“Yeah,” Curt said.
Daniel made a quick mental note about that. “We’ve all been through a lot,” he offered. “But I don’t think this was wasted. I need to think about it. But … right now? I want to go home, is all I want, Curt,” Daniel said. “I’m tired, too.” It was true. After the cell door had shut again, Daniel had felt a tremendous exhaustion wash over him. He’d even forgotten the satchel, he realized. He looked back to see that Jeff had collected it again, and was carrying it, walking silently a few feet behind him as he talked to the Sheriff. “I’ll write up my impressions. And we can schedule for me to come back; we’ll get you … something useful. But I think we’ve got more than we did before.”
“Well, yeah,” Curt said, expression darkening. “What I’ve got so far,” Curt said, “is that he’s talking like he doesn’t even remember what happened yesterday.”
“I think maybe his yesterday and ours are different.”
“What, like, he’s gonna say he’s got amnesia or something?” Curt said, sounding sarcastic.
Daniel stopped walking and turned toward Curt again. “Curt, I’m sorry this didn’t work out like you planned. But that’s enough. Please. I’ll come back tomorrow.” He looked toward Jeff, who offered a thumbs-up to him with his free left hand. He looked back toward Curt. “Make sure Mickey’s — Michael’s — lawyer doesn’t antagonize him about things. No matter how outlandish Michael’s claims. I don’t want to have to fight against that when I talk to him again.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Curt said blandly.
Daniel stopped just outside the still-open double-doors. “You forgot to lock up after yourself, Sheriff,” Daniel said tiredly. “Are we free to go?” he asked.
Curt hurried toward the double-doors, looking furtively down the hall as if concerned someone might see his carelessness. “Yeah, yeah,” Curt said, after he and Jeff had existed past the double-doors. He locked them forcefully, pulling on the doors as if to make sure the lock had been properly shut. “I’ve –” he started, before he seemed to instinctively feel at his pockets. “I forgot your book in there.”
“I told you,” Daniel said, feeling more annoyed
with Curt than he could ever remember feeling with the Sheriff in his entire
life. “Keep it and read it.”
“But — okay, okay,” Curt looked back toward the double-doors, moving to unlock them again. Then, he gestured behind him. “First one of those big red door from here on the right has stairs down to the parking garage. Fastest way out.”
“It’s unlocked?” Jeff asked, puzzled.
“Shit,” Curt muttered under his breath. “Come on,” he said, trudging down the hall with the other two men following behind him. As the Sheriff walked, he retrieved his big keyring from his belt and got to the door he’d directed them to before. He tugged on the door he’d mentioned a moment before, finding it locked. He shut his eyes and exhaled with relief. Then, he unlocked it with a quick turn of the key. There was a loud clang from near the door’s handle. It was obviously a locking mechanism opening. Curt tried the handle again, and the door swung open. “There you go,” Curt said. “I’m going to go grab that book. Talk to you tomorrow,” he said. “Oh, and — the door’ll lock behind you.” Then, he turned and walked down the hallway. His gait and posture suggested that Curt Gaynor saw the conversation as being over. Then, the Sheriff stepped around the corner and out of sight of both Daniel and Jeff.
The now-unlocked red door had opened onto a stairwell. Grey, cement steps descended down several floors. Daniel found it odd, though, that there were no ascending steps. Apparently, this stairwell began on the seventh floor. Daniel stepped through the doorway and looked over a dulled brass railing; it looked to the reverend like the ground was, indeed, that of the parking garage and that it went about eight floors down.
Jeff came through the doorway, shutting it behind him. As the door closed, there was a very loud clang of metal against metal that sounded similar to the noise when Curt had unlocked the door. leaned on the railing. “So … after all that, the Sheriff really wanted to get rid of us, huh?”
“I don’t think it was just us, Jeff,” Daniel said, reaching out to take the satchel from Jeff. “Here,” he said.
Jeff unhooked the satchel’s strap from his shoulder and handed it over to the reverend. “What do you mean?”
“I think he’s …. maybe, shaken up? This didn’t go like any of us expected. We didn’t get anything out of Michael the Sheriff didn’t already know. I think he’s just scared.”
“I know I was,” Jeff said.
“Am,” Jeff added. Then, “And … you know — nothing even happened,” Jeff said.
“That’s not exactly true, Jeff,” Daniel said. “But I’m too tired to talk about it right now. I’ll explain in the morning.”
The two men stood there for a while, looking down the stairwell.
“What should I do now, Father?” Jeff asked.
“You’re staying the night, right?”
“My couch in the rectory is a pullout. We’ll go home, recover and talk about it all tomorrow.”
“So that’s it?” Jeff sounded disappointed.
“You don’t debrief or anything, Jeff. Not from counseling a sick child. Right now, I don’t want to talk. I just want to go home and sleep. I feel ill. Worn-out. I’ll call you in, tomorrow morning, if you like.”
“I can do that,” Jeff assured. He looked suddenly uncomfortable. “But was there a demon? Is there?”
“I don’t know, Jeff. I’m tired, is all I know. I’m tired.”
“I understand, Father. Me, too. But you look … like, well, worse-for-wear.”
“You know what I mean, Father.”
“Yeah. I do need to rest.”
“‘I’ll drive when we get to the car,” Jeff offered. “Okay?”
“I was so sure it would show itself. I’ve felt it since we arrived.” Daniel was talking to himself. Then, he seemed to recall that Jeff was there, and close enough to him to hear. “Uh, yeah,” Daniel murmured. “I was going to tell you that you’d be doing that.” The reverend tapped his fingers on the railing, then drummed them. “You heard what I was saying. I was so sure. I felt so sure. What a disaster this turned out to be.”
“You can’t blame yourself, Father. Come on.”
They descended the stairs without another word.
The parking garage was quiet and dark, but there was a bright red EXIT sign that illuminated much of the garage and told the two men where to go. They walked a few feet past the sign and saw a part of the garage that led up and out onto the street.
As the two men followed the path back into the sunlight, Daniel had to shield his eyes as he adjusted to coming out of the darkness. He thought about Michael Laddow’s light-sensitivity. Or claimed light-sensitivity, anyway. And as the two men walked to Daniel’s car, the reverend thought about what the boy could have meant about thinking it had been raining, and that he’d gone to bed in his house and woken up in the cell. Of course, it could all just be a story. A plan. A way to get out of admitting to the crimes Michael had committed. He’d heard about people with certain mental illnesses crafting other personalities when they were dealing with times of stress. Daniel wondered if Michael was suffering from that. And he wondered if that’s where the idea of demons came from; it wasn’t a thought he wanted to entertain. He’d read theses from people who argued that there was no such thing as actual demonic possession. That it was misdiagnosed mental illnesses. And how the Church had been blamed for bringing harm to the mentally-ill. Daniel Salat had decided then that such concerns were absurd. And then he was thinking about how Michael Laddow had sat there in front of him, drinking a full bottle of holy water that the reverend himself had personally prepared; there had been no reaction from the boy except a slaking of thirst. That bothered Daniel — because the drinking of holy water was always — always — curative, if the water was prepared properly.
Jeff was talking to Daniel as they got into the car, but Daniel didn’t really hear what he’d said.
“Like I told you, Jeff — I’m just tired,” was Daniel response to whatever Jeff had said. “I want to sit down. I don’t want to talk.”
But, for all his fatigue, Daniel’s mind was racing with questions. He wondered if he could’ve been wrong about Michael. If perhaps it wasn’t an issue of demonic possession at all. He wondered what it would mean if Michael wasn’t demonic. Drinking holy water. Unharmed. Michael was a puzzle without an answer. He pored over his observations in detail. Thinking of each word Michael had said. How the boy had talked about the man who came for him. And slept in the boy’s room overnight in the bubble-chair — whatever that was.
Jeff said something else that Daniel didn’t hear. Jeff didn’t matter to him right now. The sounds of the world didn’t matter. The sickly yellow of the blistering day didn’t matter. Only his questions mattered. Answers. He knew he should answer Jeff: “I’m just tired, Jeff,” Daniel said again, waving a hand, leaning back in the passenger seat of the car. The car didn’t matter.
Jeff nodded turned on the radio. There was too much static for anything to be audible. Jeff turned the radio dial back and forth to get a better signal. There were a few channels where the noisy static resembled human speech, but nothing that was intelligible enough to listen to.
The radio didn’t matter. But the static was a different story all together. The static struck him. It hit a memory in his head — something that got him thinking, about signals … and noise … and messages. He thought about how you could still hear voices on some channels on the radio, even when you couldn’t understand what was being said. And what that might mean for his line of work. He wondered if the radio static was a message from God. Or could hide such a message. If God’s message was in everything — as Daniel knew was the case — then maybe it was a matter of layers, like an onion. Maybe you had to peel back the layers to get at the truth, sometimes. Maybe the mortal world masked God’s message sometimes, under the layers. Maybe a priest’s job was to peel back the layers — to hear the static and then to translate the static into something meaningful for those who couldn’t hear it at all. God’s messages were everywhere, in everything, weren’t they?
The two men arrived back at the First Step building.
The four children who’d been playing basketball when he and Jeff had left earlier that morning weren’t there any more.
Daniel was glad. He would’ve felt some obligation to question them, this being a school day.
He didn’t have the energy for that.
Jeff asked him something else he didn’t hear as they parked in his spot next to the rectory building. He and Jeff exited the car, but Daniel didn’t reply. Daniel just walked to the door, feet leaden. He got the keys out from his pants pocket and stumbled through the door. He looked to his side and realized he’d left the satchel back in the car. He decided he didn’t care. If someone wanted to break into his car and steal holy water and rosaries and Bibles, so be it. He reasoned that it might be good for them. Maybe they’d find the path to salvation. Maybe they’d discover the Bible like he had, by accident. And maybe they’d end up seventy-four years old like he was, trudging exhaustedly up the steps to his bedroom, while a postman called out something he couldn’t hear from the rectory’s first floor. Maybe they’d collapse, fully clothed, onto their bed, with questions flying around in their head that didn’t seem to have answers or missions that hadn’t seemed completed.
There were far too many things that seemed wrong that an old man didn’t know how to fix.
Daniel could Jeff walking around, downstairs. He called out to Daniel.
“I’ll be down in a bit,” Daniel called back. “I just need to rest — to rest, is all. Just for a few moments.”
Daniel always kept his bedroom cool and dark. He looked over toward the large electric alarm clock on the end table next to his bed. It said the time was 12:15 PM; just after noon – so, half the day gone. So little achieved with Michael. So little done. So little answered. And yet Daniel knew there was something there. Something for him to find, something he must have missed. There was no immediate proof of possession; the demon inside the boy was keeping its presence a secret. He wondered to what end. He wondered if there was a destiny at play that was too intricate for a mortal man to understand. Or more than one demon. Something had given the demon the power to drain a bottle of holy water right in front of a priest. There was far more happening than Daniel Salat had prepared for. And he was facing a far more powerful antagonist. The creature was obviously secure in its deception. But Daniel Salat wouldn’t be fooled; he’d find the flaw in the demon’s ruse. He’d waited a long time for this, too long to give up now. And he’d known Michael Laddow for years. Salat reasoned that such familiarity with a person would reveal a demon, would give lie to the possession he was sure was happening. The priest tried to imagine Michael Laddow’s face as he’d seen it before the Marsh murders; he wished he had a photograph from before, but he didn’t. He pictured the boy’s face looking up at him today from the other side of the metal grating in the door; those shiny eyes that didn’t look like Michael’s any more. Eyes that shone too much – that were too electric … and somehow too young to belong to Michael Laddow. Mickey’s eyes were also too undamaged, even as the skin around them was bruised and beaten. And then Daniel felt his heartbeat slowing and his body relaxing, and he knew sleep was coming. He didn’t want to sleep. There was too much to think about. He resisted sleep as long as he could, but he knew it would overwhelm him. He tried to keep thinking of Michael Laddow. He hoped that by keeping Michael in his thoughts, he could use his subconscious mind to try to answer the questions that he couldn’t comprehend while he was awake. He prayed silently, turning onto his back, blinking his eyes open every so often as if trying to resist the lull. “God, help me,” he murmured. He knew God was always there, always helping him – just as he knew there were things he was supposed to be doing, that only he could do. He’d been put in Drodden so long ago, for just this purpose. This hidden evil was, after all, what had brought him to Drodden in the first place, after all. He kept thinking about Michael saying so vaguely that he’d been told he had a ‘lot of things to do.’ The plain, simple nature of the phrase echoed in the priest’s mind — so common a statement, but also odd, all at the same time. Vague enough that Salat couldn’t get that out of his head. It sounded familiar. But he couldn’t place where he’d heard it. It wasn’t a passage from the Bible. It certainly didn’t sound demonic. He wondered if it was something from the TV show. From TK Wanderlad. And if it was, that meant it was something that didn’t sound demonic, but came from something Daniel was sure was demonic. Trying to think of the things he’d seen on that show, and then dreaming them. The images that had been described to him had left such grotesque impressions upon him: those pillars of fire — the figures in their dark robes – that terrible ritual; the one that would bring back the Rail Man — that poor boy in those strange pajamas — that poor boy, transformed by the fire into the Rail Man. Image after image flew past his closed eyes, repeating like a spinning carousel. The old man dreamed of the boy in the pajamas becoming the Rail Man. Dreaming it with Michael Laddow standing between the pillars and becoming something terrible. The old man was dreaming also of the numbers — two and seven — hovering in blood-red flame. Revelations — his favorite part of The Bible. There was terrible suffering in The Book of Revelations, yes. But it all led to light. And there was light in this dream, too — light and heat. The old man was drawn forward, into the heat; the dreamer went deeper, and the dream grew more frightening as he found himself moving through vast, empty rooms that had no windows or doors. They were grey and twisting and seemed to be endless. And yet these places felt familiar to the dreaming man. In some places, there was sand on the ground. In the sand, he saw what he somehow knew were his footprints. Like he had been there before. Or was now going in circles. But then he saw that there were other footprints in the sand — someone else’s. He followed the other footprints. The sand got deeper the farther he went. It began to impede his progress. He was no longer moving like he had before through the passageways. And then the sand was ankle-deep. Then waist-high. And then he was swimming in the sand, through the corridors. And then the old dreamer despaired; as his head became submerged, he feared he would lose the trail. But as the sand came up around him, he found that he could still see. And the path of the footprints had now become a long trail of bright purple light. It reminded the dreaming man of a child’s sparkler moving through the darkness ahead of him. But, the dreaming man felt fear — he feared the light, even though he wasn’t sure why. There was something about the light that seemed … tainted, somehow. He felt like the light didn’t belong in this place; like the light was alien … and had to be excised. And, the man knew he was the one to excise it. So, the man followed. And then, turning a corner, he saw her. She was the source of the light. She was dressed in purple, but that wasn’t where the light was coming from. It wasn’t her clothes — the wide-brimmed hat that covered her face from this angle,, the trench coat, the boots. The glow emanated from her dark skin — her hands, what little of her face he could see. It was her that glowed. And the dreaming man did not like that glow. It was frightening. The dark color spoke of evil. She seemed to be swimming through the sand, too; her curly black-brown hair was floating around her head like she was underwater. Her left hand held a book. A sickening sensation of nausea coming over the dreaming man as he saw her book. It seemed inherently evil to the dreaming man. This book — even unknown and unread — felt like it was wrong for the book to be in this place. Like it, too, didn’t belong. It wasn’t a good book. The book itself was evil. The book had to be burned. Or destroyed some other way, if it couldn’t be burned. Because the dreaming man was somehow certain that this book the woman held was everything The Bible was not — a book that shouldn’t exist in this place. No – a book that shouldn’t even be, at all. The book was a profanity, and it made the dreaming man angry that she was here. It made him feel righteous as he swam toward her in the sand. And it made him feel so powerful when the woman looked up from the book in her hand and saw him. She had dark skin, dark eyes. And the dreaming man pushed against the sand, to halt his momentum. Tried to stop. Tumbling across the sand like it was water. Like he was swimming and walking and crawling, all at once. Tumbling down twisting sea-caves. He tried to stop himself from falling like that, but it was too late for him to stop. And, all the while, the woman was moving away from him, floating backward through the sand. Looking at him with eyes that filled the dreaming man with a fresh rage that eclipsed his fear. Her eyes were defiant, arrogant – and the old man recognized evil in them. And he began to chase the woman. The man and the woman moved through a long, sand-filled hallway with smoother walls than those of the sea-cave. Salat smelled ocean air. Oh, how Daniel Salat loved the ocean. But the place where he was now wasn’t really the beach, or the ocean; it was an open plane now, filled with busy shadows that seemed to take on the outline of people at the corners of the priest’s vision. When he tried to look at the shadows, they scurried away, so he could never quite get a look at them. The outlines moved like they were carried on gusts of wind. The shapes at the corners of his eyes kept blowing this way and that, upsetting the swirling sand as they moved across the ground. And the woman was swimming further and further away, past the shadow-figures. Salat kept trying to get a hold of something – anything – to push himself along, to guide his tumble through the strange darkness, but the woman kept diving and rising to keep away from the dreaming man as he chased her. And then the swirling shadows came together, becoming a fog that replaced the sand. And the dreaming man and the woman he was chasing were running instead of swimming. The water fell away, swallowed by the fog. She was so far away from him, pumping her arms and legs — running so fast she kept slamming into the walls of the tunnel whenever the hallway took a sharp turn. But she stayed ahead of him, turning corners just before he got to them. And somehow getting doors open before he could reach her; she kept slamming doors in his face. Every hallway ended in a big, wide room — and each room had a door. And he tried to scream, but the fog seemed to swallow up all the sounds around him. Everything was silence. As the dreaming man ran after the woman, he spared a thought to wonder if she was the demon plaguing Michael. He wondered if she been excised fro Michael, and had somehow come home with the dreaming man instead. He wondered if she was now haunting the dreaming man’s mind now, to try to torment him into ending his efforts at helping the boy sleeping in the prison cell, the boy who needed saving, the boy with a gut full of holy water. He had to know if that was why the boy had been able to drink the holy water, and he needed to get a hold of her to find answers. He needed to know if she was the power hiding the demon from him. And then the hallway opened up, and it was like he was in a room full of stars. It reminded him of his bedroom in seminary school. At the college, he’d shared a room with a young man who’d covered the walls and ceilings with glowing star stickers; it looked sort of like that to him. Except so much bigger. And more real than the stickers had looked. Another difference — here, there was no floor. Looking down, he saw that the stars below him went on forever. But he wasn’t falling any more. He was floating and running — all at the same time; he was traveling across trails of light. Trails spreading out from the spinning stars, for — as the stars sailed through the sky — they were throwing trails of hot, glowing dust in all directions. And then he was gliding on the trails of starry dust; the woman kept running from him, getting more and more distant. And then he was falling again, but this time he felt comforted; this fall was slow, soft and gentle. He felt soothed and warmed as he fell, like someone was guiding him down to the ground instead of pushing him off a cliff. His old bones suddenly felt like they were gone, replaced with chorded steel that was being superheated by the stars around him. And there were things — living in the star trails — galloping across them. And roaring up to him now, originating vaguely from where the woman had fled. And the man saw that there were four immense things coming toward him now; they were so large they seemed to defy the notion of size — so large that his mind perceived them as infinitely small and infinitely big, somehow, at the same time. Like they could all fit in the palm of his hand, but were also the size of planets. And, as they got closer, he realized what they were. To the man, they looked like great, fiery stallions. Glowing so deep; glowing impossibly. The glow was too bright for the man to really see; he could only feel the heat on his face, through his eyelids. It was a darkness that he felt – a black fire, and it was ferocious. Green fire burned then, like a great eclipse against the stars. Red fire that somehow sang as it moved. And white fire — stretching out over a horizon that was everywhere at once. The beasts rode the stars, like moving photographic negatives against the star fields. Their manes were sharp, and familiar. Their manes brushed against the man and then embraced him — making the man feel safe. The man didn’t feel like anything could hurt him as long as he remained in that embrace. And he wanted so much to reach outward and eternally upward to touch them, but they were already in the palm of his hand and couldn’t be dislodged. And they spoke to each other, but it was as if they all had one voice; it sounded like the man’s voice — but also infinite. The words turned inward on each other, going backward and forward and hidden in their own echoes — in a way that pained him. So much so that his mind refused to acknowledge each resounding word. He could only allow himself to hear so much. But he understood enough of what he heard — that a promise was trying to be born again, that the great thing was happening again. He felt the words telling him that this was a time for joy, that the man should allow that joy to leap up inside the man’s heart. He felt sure that if he could only understand the great thing, he would feel that joy. He wanted to feel that joy, at the great and important thing that was coming. He felt certainty that the world to be ready. The great thing was coming back, and should not be stopped. The thing that should return to our would had to be allowed. The great thing should be celebrated. But, there were those — like the woman with the purple glow — who might disagree and fight the great thing. But, the four beasts believed in humanity, and they did not believe it was for the purple woman to decide. The beasts believed the hearts of men should be free. The man knew that he needed to be wary of the purple woman — because the woman wanted to choose for herself. She was a willful woman, who did not believe in the minds of men. The woman wanted to decide, like Eve and Lilith and all the others. The woman believed that the choice of bringing back the great thing didn’t belong to men. Salat knew that the world went on and on in its design, like this, and that the great thing was a part of that design — and that it was the very design of the universe that the woman opposed. The woman opposed what was right and natural. The woman opposed the very concept of nature. She was dangerous to the great thing. God’s design was in everything: the need to find and show the woman the truth — the only way to keep the great thing safe. God’s great secret was a promise to all men, for the future. The great thing would reward the people of the Earth in the days after the joyful and exalted end of everything that the Bible promised. The beasts told the man that his place in the natural order had changed – that he would need to take a more active role. The beasts told him that he would know the great thing when he saw it. They told him that he would need to look carefully. They warned him that he would need to ignore his mind, and would need to instead look inside his heart. Women trick the mind. The man knew this. The man promised the beasts that he would be ready for the trickery of any woman. He proudly told them how he’d fought all his life to resist the evil that women represented — and that he would have to be ready for the glowing woman in the same way he was ready for any woman. The beasts told him hat they had been watching him and protecting him since he came to this place. They told him that they were calling on him now, and that the man — who was, yes, present and listening and hearing, thanks to this vision that the horses had crafted — that this man before them who had fallen to his knees in the exaltation of God would hold the high title of protector of the great thing. It would be an honor, they assured him. They told him that they would give him the power to see the woman, no matter how or where she hid. Sight, they said, was the providence of angels. That told him that they alone could grant this power. And, they told him what the power was for – for the man must find the glowing woman. But also that the man must, in that great quest for God, seek out others who would protect the great thing, too. And that the man knew who these others were, in his heart, that he mad met them before, and that he would know in his heart that the others would also serve the good light, even though they may call God by other names. The beasts told him that they – angels and man — would have to work together to become as one: one great protector of the great thing that was returning; a protector of what is coming back into the world from out of the dark, so there could be more, and more and more and more — on and on and all into a new world of infinity. And that this new world would be everyone’s new Heaven. And, most of all, the beasts told him that the end had already begun – that Drodden was encircled by a ring of blinding white light that could be seen and even touched. And, they told him that the light was growing stronger and stronger, and Daniel saw that light rushing toward him. The light was getting closer and brighter — becoming so bright that it hurt Daniel Salat to even dream of it, so much so that Daniel Salat cried out as he lifted his hands to shield his eyes.
And it was then that the reverend awoke, in a cold sweat, his arms raised up and crossed over each other in front of his face.
The old man slowly lowered his arms, looked over toward the clock.
The clock read 12:40 PM.
And Reverend Daniel Salat was sitting up in his bed, panting hard. He’d only been asleep for about twenty minutes or so. He’d dreamed. He didn’t remember exactly what the dream had been about – but he felt a deep sense of urgency. He knew that he had a lot of things to do; and, for the first time – in a long time – he felt like he knew what those things were.