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15. orphan

JEFF ARMANDO

I’m looking out at the wall opposite.  At the sink.  At a green, plastic bowl on the counter; the bowl looks old.  It makes me hungry for some KangarOats.   I hold on to that.  Hunger, I can understand.  Hunger is normal.  Hunger makes sense.

And these objects in front of me are normal.  The sink.  The bowl.  Oat cereal.

Those things happen.
They’re part of life.
Real life.

Because you get up in the morning, and maybe you feed your dog if you have a dog, like a basset hound.

And then you pour yourself a bowl of KangarOats , and you eat the cereal, with a metal or plastic spoon.

I prefer metal spoons for cereal.

And then, after breakfast you go to work and you work all day and then you come home.

“Jeff? Jeff?” Father Salat is snapping his fingers in front of my face.  He does it three times before I can think to answer.

“What did you say?” I ask. I’ve forgotten.  I’m thinking of hugging my basset hound.  I’ve never named him, because I wanted to name the real one when I got him.  I wanted it to be based on something about him.  I wanted his name to matter and to mean something.  So it would be something unique about him.

“Jeff,” Father Salat says my name again, but this time it’s like it’s sympathy for something. I don’t like how he’s saying it. Then he says “Hilda Leek — I asked if you know her?”

“No,” I tell him.

I keep feeling lost.
I hate when that happens.
So much going on now.

At least I’m calming down, though.
In my body, anyway.
My heart isn’t going a thousand beats a minute any more.
But I’m still trying to put this all together in my thought.
In my head.
Not a headache like before, though.
Just a scratchy feeling.

Father Salat makes a huffing sound, like he’s impatient, like he was expecting me to say more. “They’re not on your route?” Father Salat asks me.

“No,” I say again.
It’s all I can think of to say.

“You know her pawn shop?” He reaches up to scratch at his head, behind his left ear. “Uh, I forget the name of it. It’s the one near that Thai restaurant. They live there.  Hilda Leek, and her grandson.”

“Oh, right.”  I think I know the pawn shop Father Salat is talking about. “Yeah, no,” I say. “That’s not my route. That’s Carter Pace’s route.” I hate Carter Pace, but I know better than to tell Father Salat about that.

“Mr. Pace, riiiiiight,” Father Salat says.  And he says the word ‘right’ all stretched out long.  But he doesn’t go any further about Carter.  Instead,  he just walks away from me and begins pacing back and forth.  Then he says “You remember what I told you about my vision.”

“In your dream,” I say.
I dream of having a basset hound sometimes.

“Yeah,” says Father Salat. “I told you they want me — us — to find some allies.  We can’t do this alone.”

“I know,” I say.  But I feel alone right now, anyway.  Even with Father Salat here; that’s unfair to him, I know, but it’s how I feel.

“But they also told me about someone else who’d try to stop us.”

I don’t say anything at that.  It feels like Father Salat is going to say some more things.

“And they showed me a vision, Jeff.  Of a woman.”

Purple smoke.
Purple eyes.
Wild hair.
Black skin.

“A woman dressed all in purple,” Father Salat adds.

“The woman we saw,” I say. “To me, it looked like she had … purple eyes, and a purple halo.”
Thinking of her.
Those memories help me focus.

“I — … ”  Father Salat looks like he’s having trouble saying something.  He’s still pacing.

“It’s all right, Father,” I tell him.  I want to be encouraging.  “Try again.”

“I think I saw her in my dream, too.”

“You did?”  

“I think so.  I remember it vividly.  I’m sure there was a woman. She was running away from me. Leaving some kind of a … purple trail behind her.”

“I remember, on a show, a doctor said you can’t see colors in your dreams.”  I don’t know why this fact comes to me, but it does.  “He was on a talk show, I think?”  I can’t recall the exact details.

Father Salat stops pacing and looks at me.  “And yet here we are.  That’s why I screamed.  The demon …. that thing that jumped out the window.  I think it was her. The woman that was in the dream.”

“Like — you think you were … predicting things?”
I feel stupid the moment I say it.
Because predicting the future is Satanic.

Just like that, Jeff. Except I’d call it a premonition.”  Father Salat turns away from me and crosses his arms.  He sighs.  Then, “A warning. Premonitions can be divine. And if it was a premonition, it’s helping to confirm some theories I’m building.”

“Do you want to tell me about them?” I ask Father Salat.

Father Salat turns back toward me.  He’s looking at me with some more of his kind of sympathy.  “Not until I can be certain,” he explains. “If I’m wrong, I don’t want to confuse things. We’ll discuss it more with Hilda Leek.”

“Okay.”  I’m disappointed, but I figure Father Salat must have his reasons.

Then Father Salat seems to brighten a little.  “If we’re going to go visit Hilda Leek, I’d rather explain it all once. To both of you. Don’t forget — I’m tired, Jeff.”  He can’t seem to help chuckling, though.  “You know … I didn’t get much sleep.”  His blue eyes look tired, yes, but they’re also sparkling like they always do.  
Like you’d think of Santa Clause’s eyes.

“Me, neither,” I say.  And I’m laughing, too.  Not a lot.  But enough to make me feel a little bit better again.

Father Salat extends his right hand toward me, palm up.  Then, he brings his left hand — clenched into a fist — down onto his palm;  it makes a dry smack of a sound. “But I’m certain that’s what we saw. It was the woman they were warning me about, Jeff.”

I listen.
I try to listen, anyway.
But Father Salat is talking.
And talking.
In a voice that projects.
But I’m only sort-of hearing.
And then Father Salat stops talking to me for a bit.
Because he’s on the phone.
Because he’s calling Sheriff Gaynor.
Telling him about the woman.
And I think Father Salat might be looking at me.
It’s hard to tell.
Because my eyes have blurred over.
And my eyes burn.
But I can’t make myself care.
And I don’t like how angry I’m guessing Sheriff Gaynor is.
Because of the way Father Salat keeps apologizing.
And it’s stressing me out so much.
A break-in, is what Father Salat is saying happened.
He’s calling it a break-in.
As if the woman were just some person who snuck to his house.
And he’s going on and on with a description of her.
But nothing about what we really saw.
Nothing about that halo.
Nothing about the purple glow.
Nothing about the purple eyes.
Or the purple mist.
And I can’t keep track of it.
Because it seems unreal, his description.
Even though it’s more real than what we actually saw.
Because he’s describing her like he’d describe a person.
As if the demon were just a woman with black skin.
And wild hair.
And his words are getting to my ears.
But I’m beyond all that right now.
My ears and my eyes.
I’m inside my own head.
And part of me is angry at that.
Part of me feels like I’ve betrayed Father Salat.
And I don’t want to feel like that.
And I don’t want to be angry.
So I try to tune it out.
Because I don’t think it was a break-in.
And it makes me sad to hear Father Salat lie.
Even though I know he’s not really lying.
That he’s just trying to make it make sense to Sheriff Gaynor.
But that makes my own brain louder.
And people don’t believe it about me.
But I have big thoughts.
I wanted more.
And I can’t make myself care about myself.
Just because I wanted more.
What’s that matter?
That I wanted to Not just be a postman.
And I can make out some things Father Salat is saying.
Angels and demons and God and the book.
But I have my own thoughts in my own head too.
But Father Salat is telling me we need to go to see Hilda Leek.
So I’m nodding and putting on my coat.
And my thoughts are getting louder in my head.
But I’m also looking at the bag with the demon’s book in it.
Over on the table.
And I don’t want to be close to the book.
I don’t want to take it with us.
And the thought keeps coming to me over and over.
That woman lying on the ground.
The sunlight hitting her.
And having her leap out the window.
And it’s terrifying.
It’s sitting there in my gut.
Like cancer.
And I see her going through the window.
over and over.
But Father Salat insists.
And I’m going along with Father Salat.
Because I have to.
And I hate that book.
I already know even without even looking inside.
Not that I’m going to look.
Not even Father Salat has done that.
He’s advised us both not to look.
But I can’t stop thinking about the book, either.
And I can’t stop picturing myself reading it.
And the pictures are moving fast in my head.
And I’m building walls against the thoughts.
But they keep coming.
And Father Salat is putting his hand on my shoulder.
And he’s saying I’m a good man.
And saying how I need to believe in myself.
And I’m nodding.
And thanking him out loud.
And my lips and tongue are moving but I’m not sure what I’m saying.
Because I’m in here, in my head.
And it’s like the book is gnawing at me.
Or sucking on me.
Or something.
And my thoughts keep coming again.
Like before, only tighter.
Narrower.
And I’m trying to put up walls.
To be numb.
Like when I was little and they’d hit me.
Like if I go numb it won’t hurt.
But the thoughts keep coming.
And they keep smashing into the walls I’m making.
Trying to keep it out.
And I’m trying to listen to Father Salat, instead.
And I don’t tell Father Salat what’s happening inside my head,
Because I’m scared; it might make him not bring me along.
And I need to come along.
To help this old man not to die.
Because I’m thinking of him dying, too.
And my coat feels heavy.
And I can’t get any of these pictures out of my head.
Not the old priest, lying on the floor, with his head somehow sliced.
Cut into three sections.
And not the book.
And Father Salat is telling me to pick up the garbage bag.
And then Father Salat is on the phone again.
Calling Hilda Leek.
And his voice is warm.
And I’m tuning it out.
Because it’s making my heart beat more quickly again.
And I’m hearing Father Salat saying we’ll be right over.
We.
Us.
And Father Salat is hanging up the phone now.
And I’m picturing Father Salat lying there.
On the floor of an unknown place.
Brown floorboards.
With that sliced head.
And I can see the parts where things in his brain stick together.
Like pink slices of cauliflower.
In a big pile of red gelatin.
And I’m not sure if I’m frightened that I’m not seeing myself beside him.
And now I’m picking up the black garbage bag.
And in my mind I’m seeing all the blood.
Congealed blood all over the floor.
And then I’m thinking of Chris Laddow.
How Chris was sitting next to me one day.
When we were in 6th grade.
Sitting together.
And I’m thinking of how we’d often sit together.
In the cafeteria.
And now Father Salat is telling me something about God.
And Chris didn’t know back then.
How he’d have a son someday.
Who’d murder people.
Chris had those little paper triangles in front of him.
Playing ‘Flick Football.’
And Chris looked over at me.
And it was 1972.
And Father Salat is walking with me back down the stairs.
And there’s a light rainfall outside.
And I see Chris Laddow in my memory.
And I think we were both twelve that day.
Or he was maybe a year older or younger.
And Father Salat is locking up.
And the pictures keep coming.
And the book.
And I see myself opening the book.
But I control it.
In my mind, I picture myself slamming the book shut.
And I imagine my basset hound sitting on it.
And I’m trying to think of when Chris Laddow’s birthday is.
But I don’t remember the date.
and I’m thinking how my lunchbox was open in front of me.
And it was a K.O. Rottweiler lunchbox.
And I’m picturing father Salat’s head on the floor.
And I’m imagining Father Salat’s jaw is moving up and down.
And Father Salat’s tongue is moving back and forth.
And Chris was flicking those little triangles at a girl.
I don’t remember her name.
Was it Miranda?
And Father Salat and I are walking to the car.
And Chris had graduated to paper bags.
And he was making fun of my lunch box.
And Chris was telling me a story.
He’d said he’d seen something about it on TV.
About an insane asylum.
Like Marigold Grove.
Except in another country.
And Father Salat is turning on the radio.
And the book is in my lap.
And we’re driving.
And I’m remembering Chris Laddow.
Talking about the story he’d heard.
And there’d been film.
Secret film.
And Chris had said that it had been on a special show.
On television.
On the news.
A reporter.
Chris had said how the reporter had managed to sneak into this place.
Chris hadn’t known the name of the insane asylum.
But he’d heard the reporter talk about it.
And he’d heard how the reporter had gotten in to film conditions in the insane asylum.
And he’d heard the reporter say how there’d been shit all over the walls.
And Chris had seen the film on the television news show.
And Chris had said that his parents would always let him watch whatever he wanted.
Chris had always been bragging about all that, to everyone.
How he’d been allowed to see any movie or show he’d wanted.
He’d said it was because he’d been adopted.
And he’d boast about how his adoptive parents never disciplined him.
And how they’d let him call them by their first names.
And how they’d let him swear as much as he’d wanted.
Like he did on that one day.
When they were having lunch in the cafeteria.
Talking about the secret film.
The one that had been on the news show.
And how there’d been people in the film eating their own shit.
Scraping shit off the walls and eating it with their fingers.
And Chris had been smiling as he described it.
Saying how it had been thick, like creamed corn.
And my own parents had always told me not to use the word ‘shit.’
To call it feces.
But Chris had loved to swear.
And it had been lunchtime for us when he’d told this story.
And I’d told him “Shut up, Chris. Don’t. Gross, man!”
But Chris had smiled at me he said a thing —
Something I’ve always remembered.
“It’s okay,” Chris had said. “Don’t worry. Just don’t think about it.”
And I’d relaxed and taken a bite of my sandwich.
“Just don’t think about all those people eating all that shit.”
And I remember, Chris was all smiling when he said the second part.
“Don’t think about eating shit,” he’d continued, smiling even bigger.
And I’d tried not think about it.
But of course, it was all I could think about.
“Don’t think about eating shit, right now,” Chris had added.
And now Father Salat is telling me about God.
But, of course, all I can think about is people eating shit.
And of reading the woman’s book that we’ve just found.
Because Chris Laddow had wanted me to only be able to think about it.
About those people in the asylum he’d described.
Eating their own shit.
And all the shit all over the walls.
And I’d thrown my lunch in the trash.
Because I hadn’t been able to eat it.
And I’m thinking about it now.
The walls.
The people.
The woman.
The sunlight.
The window.
The book.
And how I want to open the book.
And read it.
And now the book is all I can see.
And it’s opening.
In my brain.

“Jeff Jeff Jeff Jeff Jeff?” I hear Father Salat say.

“Yeah?” I shake my head.  I’m sitting in the back seat of Father Salat’s car, with the book next to me.

There you are,” Father Salat says with another chuckle. “Saying your name over and over for almost a full minute. Stay with me, now, Jeff.” More chuckling.

I can see Father Salat’s face reflected in the mirror if I lift up off my seat a little.  I can tell he’s looking at me.  The road ahead of us is pretty straight, but it still worries me.

“Sorry,” I say quietly. “I keep thinking about the woman.”

I see Father Saalt look back to the road.  “I get that. She’s on my mind, too. I’d be lying if I said she wasn’t.” He chuckles. “It’s not every day you see someone crash out your bedroom window. Well, not for me anyway.” More chuckling. Then, “You’ve been distracted since we left. And it isn’t just the woman. You’ve barely said a word.”  Father Salat sounds like he’s feeling guilty about it.  “I’m so focused. Because that’s how I deal with a crisis. But I’m not you. And I haven’t really checked on how you’re handling this.”  He chuckles quietly.

“I’m okay,” Jeff says.  I don’t know how to answer.  Because of chuckling.  See, Father Salat has this way of laughing like that — quietly, but in a way that makes you nervous. And a person like me just doesn’t have what it takes to come up with big thoughts when we’re nervous.  And even though I know he isn’t laughing at me, that chuckling makes me want to be quiet.

“Well, I know that’s not true,” says Father Salat.  “Because neither of us are at all okay.”

“I keep thinking about this book,” I tell him.  I don’t mean to.  The words just slip out.

“Me, too, Jeff,” says Father Salat.  “And that’s also why we’re going to see Hilda Leek.”

“What’s the book got to do with her?” I ask him.

“Maybe nothing. Maybe everything,” he says. I can tell he’s smiling, even though he’s not looking at me.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

And then the thoughts come back.
Picturing myself opening the book.
Reading the book.
Father Salat’s head in three pieces.
Shit on the walls.
And I want to open the book and read it.
But I don’t.
And I can see my memory of Chris Laddow grinning at me.
I shake my head early-on this time.
Trying to shake off the thoughts.

“I’m hoping she’ll be our first ally,” says Father Salat. “Like I said. But there’s something more. You remember the symbol on the cover of that book?”

That book.
And I’m seeing the cover.
The symbol, like a ‘Y.’
And I’m seeing myself opening the book.
The book is opening, in my head.
And it feels like there’s something’s scratching around in my brains.
And I think of using a knife on my own head.
And chopping my head into three pieces.
And there’s blood on the pages of the book.
And shit on all the walls.
And then it’s me on the floor instead of Father Salat.
And words are appearing on the pages.
Written in blood and shit.
And I feel sick.
And I don’t think of it.
But it comes back.
Like the shit on the walls.
And I send it away.
And it comes back.
And I shake away the thoughts again.

“Well,” continues Father Salat. “You see, Hilda Leek — and her grandson — they’re of a different faith than ours.”

This confuses me, and that confusion helps me focus in on Father Salat’s words. “What faith is she?” I ask.

“Well, you know, Jeff,” Father Salat says, leaning back a little in the driver’s seat chair. “It’s one not even I’d heard of ’til she told me about it.” He chuckles. “And she says it doesn’t have a name you can say with words. ‘Music of the planets and the wind,’ and all that, she’s told me.”

“Sounds like hippie stuff,” I confess.

Father Salat chuckles his agreement with me.

“But you think she might know something about the symbol on this book, just because of that?” I ask.

“No, no, heavens no,” says Father Salat. “But, you see — she’s definitely a spiritualist.”

“Like, she knows demons?” I ask.

“Demons. Ghosts. All of it. Talks about it all the time. We’ve had discussions. Fruitless ones, in my opinion, but a man in my position can’t give up on anyone, like I’ve always said.”

“And you think she’ll help us?”

“She says she’ll see us, at least.”

“That isn’t the same thing,” I say.

“I’m hoping she’ll at least hear us out. She’s told me more than once that her faith is benevolent.”

“Satanists say that, too.” I say.

“She’s not that,” Father Salat assures. “She’s not that,” he says again. Then, “We’re taught by the Bible to judge people by their works. And she does good works. I think she really is about helping people.”

“I trust you,” I say.

Except there are more images in my head.
Father Salat, looking so old.
Chuckling away.
And I trust the man.
But I don’t trust his age.
His obvious fatigue.
The way he’s lying about being able to handle what’s happened.

“Good,” says Father Salat. “Trust is important. And I trust you to help me do what needs to be done.” He appraises me. “You’re stronger than you let yourself believe, Jeff. I’m proud of what you’ve done so far.”

And he’s smiling.
But — there he is.
I can see through it.
Somehow.
Even with all his twinkling blue eyes.
And the way he’s saying he’s confident.
But I don’t believe it.
And my faith doesn’t feel like enough.
Because I think Father Salat is in shock, too.
The same way I am.
I think he’s going back to the things he can understand.
And the things he feels like he can handle.
He’s not lying.
But it’s like he doesn’t realize these things.
And I don’t think he’s just trying to find allies.
I think he’s afraid of being alone.
And I don’t tell him how I feel.
Because I want his confidence to be true.
And I feel like not saying anything might make it more true.
Because I don’t know what good this man can do.
He’s old.
He’s afraid.
And — even with me here — he feels alone.

“And we both know this is bigger than you or me, or Sheriff Gaynor. We need help from people who speak our language. And who have access to resources. And, Jeff — she has a big library up above that pawn shop. Bigger than even mine. And on similar subjects, even if the ideas go by different names,”

“You think maybe she’ll have a book that’ll help us with understanding this one?”

“At the least, I’m hoping she’ll have something we can show the sheriff when we tell him about the … rest of the details of that … woman.”

“I understand that you couldn’t tell Sheriff Gaynor,” I tell him. And I do. Even though it upset me, I also feel bad for being so uncomfortable about how he described her so plainly. Because I’m pretty sure Sheriff Gaynor wouldn’t believe the true details.

“Well, I didn’t lie to the man,” Father Salat points out. “I just left out some things I can’t prove. Yet.”

“And that’s what Hilda Leek’s about.”

“I’m hoping she’ll come with us. Or have some way for us to help prove that woman was … whatever she was. And, most of all, something to prove that this book we’ve found didn’t just come from my library.”

“Sounds like a plan.” It’s all I can think of to say. That keeps happening. I always feel small when I talk to Father Salat. Conversationally small, at least. Like I can’t keep up with all his big ideas.

“She knows things about demons. She understands them, and she’s told me she’s no friend to them — even if we call them different things. But I also think now’s as good a time as ever to warn you about something, Jeff.”

The back of my neck is getting all prickly.
And there are so many things I can’t stop thinking about.
Like how I see myself — beheaded –in my mind.
I see my head being chopped up.
And horrible gooey stuff everywhere, all over.
Blood and thick shit all over the walls.
And you knew back then I couldn’t stop thinking about it, Chris.
And you were smiling anyway.
Making me think of things.
Wet, gross things.
Coming from the ceiling, too.
Raining down on me.
And now my hands are itching so much.
“What’s that?” I manage to ask, though the images don’t stop.

“Well, like I said. She’s a spiritualist. She believes in spirits, both good and bad. And not just the Holy Spirit. I mean, all kinds. And she performs … rituals.”

The cover of the book is flashing.
The ‘Y’ symbol.
A glow.
But not purple.
Yellow, this time.
My hands burn.

“Do you mean she’s dangerous?” I ask.

My throat has gone dry.

“In my line of work, Jeff,” Father Salat says, leaning his head back a little but keeping his eyes on the road, “you learn that anyone and everyone can be dangerous. Can be. But reaching out — that’s also my line of work. So I’ve reached out to her. And she’s welcomed us.”

“That’s a relief,’ I say. I don’t feel very relieved.

“Good,” Father Salat says. “But what I want to warn you about … is that there might be some blood.”

Click here to contimue reading the story

Published inpart 2

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