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16. practitioners


Blood?”  I hate only having these one-word answers for Father Salat.  It makes me feel even more stupid.  But, it’s all I can think of in the moment. The gnawing feeling has gotten much, much worse.  It’s tearing at the inside of my head. First, came that headache.  Then, came the nausea.  Now, there’s this.  It’s like something’s digging around inside of me — and it feels like it really, really wants to get out.

And, Father Salat’s words aren’t helping me feel better.  “Blood,” he repeats, nodding once.  He isn’t even looking at me.  His eyes are still fixed on the road ahead, as we drive.  “Which is why I’m cautioning you about it.”

I don’t say anything.

Then, after another moment passes, Father Salat blinks, as if realization comes over him.  “Oh!” he exclaims, as if trying to reassure me: “Not your blood, Jeff.  And most certainly not mine. Nothing hazardous.”

I’m really embarrassed, so I try to make a joke out of what I’d said:  “Were you just deliberately trying to freak me out, Father?” I ask, certain he wasn’t. Then, I cough a few times; my throat feels itchy, now, too, like something’s crawling around at the back of my throat.

No,” scoffs Father Salat.  “Certainly not.”  He chuckles.  He sounds pleased, for some reason I can’t figure out.  “It’s Hilda’s faith. She works … with blood.”  There’s a lot of distaste in his voice.  “Her own.”

Cutting herself?” I’m disgusted.

“Not exactly,” Father Salat explains. His eyes are bright. “It’s spiritualism. It’s her way of reaching God. Like — a pinprick, from what she’s told me. I’ve never seen her do it, really. And I’ve never asked to participate in her … ceremonies — or whatever she calls them. But she doesn’t have any scars I can see, so … “

I can’t help but shudder.  “You just said she’s a spiritualist.  That’s Satanic, isn’t it?”  With Father Salat’s talk of blood, I feel a sudden need to know some kind of distinction.  And I want to be distracted from the itching.

“Well, it’s true, Jeff.  Spiritualism and Satanism are pretty much one and the same — from God’s point-of-view, anyway.”

“Then why would you work with her?”

“I told you why.  Because I have to believe she’ll help us. She’s helped me before with this kind of thing. And I’ve helped her get closer to God. Everyone is on a journey, Jeff. And Jeff – … –“ There’s a long pause.  “– I have to ask you … do you know just how much you can prove to someone just by showing a little faith in them? Faith becomes trust. Trust leads to faith. It’s one of God’s perfect circles. And once you have someone’s trust and faith – do you know how much you can change them? Guide them toward God? Isn’t that my job here on this Earth?”

I’m kind of cowed. Here I am, thinking of myself, when I should be thinking of someone else who’s in need. “I’m always impressed with your faith, Father,” I tell him. It’s true; I feel like I could never have the faith he has.  I’m sure I’ll spend my life trying, though.  I have to try, at least. And, I realize, so does Father Salat – which is the point of him working with Hilda like this. “I think I understand,” I say.

“I mean — … look at you, today,” Father Salat replies. “Look at all you’ve done. That’s all you, Jeff. So … don’t be impressed with me. Like I said, this is my job.  And I’m counting on your doubts.”

“You are?” I ask him, confused.

Father Salat nods. “Any doubts you have might be the key to us noticing something I might miss in all this. Faith sometimes requires new eyes.”

“Thanks.”  I’m not convinced, but I don’t say that.

Father Salat seems to notice.  “You’ve come this far with me.  You could’ve left at any time.  You could still leave. And yet, you’re still here.  That’s something, Jeff.”  He grips the steering wheel tightly.  “Hold on to that.  Because, by God, that’s something.”

“Yeah,” I say. I feel hollow and empty, but I nod my head.

“And if that’s not enough for you,” Father Salat says, “then here’s something else to consider: whether what we saw was … something demonic, or even just a person — Hilda Leek might know something more than she might tell us over the phone, with me just giving a description.”

“Yeah?” The hollowness inside of me feels like it’s growing.

“Yeah,” Father Salat says.  “I think she knows a lot about the kind of people in town who might have their own version of the book like the one that our mystery woman left behind.”

“You think there’s people in town who’d have books like this?”
I want to open the book.
Thoughts of shit on the walls raining down on me.
Bloody split heads on wood floors.
Scratching in my head.

“Of course. There’s no one on Earth that’s got perfect faith, Jeff. Unless the Second Coming’s arrived.”

“Wow.” I cough a few more times.

“So, yeah, I want to observe Hilda Leek’s reaction.  I want to see the look on her face when I tell her what we saw.  And when we show her the book.”

“And that’ll tell us stuff?”

“Well,” Father Salat says, “I’m good at reading people.”  He sounds proud.  “And I think all of those reasons are good enough to justify work with her.  But what do you think?”

“Hmm,” I say out loud.  I feel embarrassed right after I make the sound, but it felt appropriate.  I add a little more:  “I still don’t know.”  I don’t feel like it helps make me sound any better.

“Well — if you really need a better reason than all those,” Father Salat says, casting me a quick look of mild frustration before returning his focus to the road ahead, “Consider that God also says the faithful have to put themselves out there and hang around with the worst sinners.”

“I know,” I say.
I’m picturing myself reaching into my own throat with my fingers.
Want to vomit.
Get the scratching thing out of my throat.
My fingers covered with the shit from the walls.
Down my throat.
Thick chunks.
But I try to focus on Father Salat.
And that makes me feel a little better.

“There’s general disagreement about just how much, of course,” Father Salat says.

“Yeah,” I answer.  More coughing.

“But, because I’m good at reading people …  I feel safe saying that I don’t think Hilda Leek is bad … even if her faith is,” Father Salat says.

“Good enough for me,” I say.

“Exactly,” Father Salat says with another nod.  “‘Good enough for me’ is all the faithful can ever really hope to have in this life.”  He reaches over and turns on the radio.  It’s set to classic rock.  A song by The Boatwakes about death by street racing.

I lean back and close my eyes.  I want to show faith.  I want to show resolve.  I want to open the book.  I want to reach into the bag and open the book.  The scratching in my head is getting louder.

And we drive, until we arrive at a little strip mall.  There’s a barbershop with a sign that just says BARBER in big red and white striped letters.  Past that, there’s a Thai restaurant — Family’s Big Grill — that looks like it’s still open.  Next to those shops is a closed-down SuperLaserPower copy shop. You can see from the big window in front that there’s nothing left inside; the machines have all been taken out and there are all these square outlines of dirt, with clean spots inside the squares to show where the copy machines were standing before they were removed. There’s also frozen yogurt place next door to the SuperLaserPower copy shop; it’s called Wagons-Yo. I can’t tell really tell if it’s still operating or abandoned just going by the outside; I don’t see anyone in it, but the other yogurt shop at the mall looks like that, too, and they’ll come to the counter from the back when you walk inside because a bell goes off somewhere. Beyond all the shops, at the far end of the strip mall, there’s a little alley that leads off to a chain-link fence and what looks like a vacant lot beyond that.  On the other side of the alley from the strip mall is the wide, multi-story Pawn and Ponderer building.  There’s a blue sign with white letters above the front door to identify it.

Father Salat parks the car in front of the pawnshop, facing it.  I hear the car’s wheels crunch through the gravel noisily as Father Salat positions the car in the marked parking space.

Then we sit in the car together for a long moment.

“No turning back,” Father Salat finally says.

I don’t answer.  It’s like I can’t.  I can’t say anything.  I can’t move, either.  I want to.  I want to turn my head to look at father Salat.  But I can’t.  I’m jut looking straight ahead.  I’m sitting in the passenger’s seat, looking through the windshield at the pawnshop.  It’s noticeably different than the strip mall stores; it’s in better shape.  And it’s clean.

“Grab the bag, Jeff, would you?” says Father Salat.

A weird feeling of relief washes over me.  And I can answer him.  “Yeah,” I say.  It’s not much, but it’s something.  I can move again, too.  I open the passenger’s-side door and get out.  I inhale deeply and then exhale.  The air smells like cooking meat from the Thai restaurant.  It smells really good; I realize that I should be hungry, but I’m not.  Or — it’s not right to say that.  That’s not exactly it.  I’m famished.  But it’s like I’m so hungry that the thought of eating makes me feel sick.

We get out of the car.  I’m holding the trash bag, and it feels heavy in my hands; I squeeze the garbage bag and slide its surface over the book inside of it, pressing down with my fingertips and sliding them over the book.  I feel like I want to remind myself that the book is still there again, like I can convince myself again that the black plastic will protect me.

Father Salat walks up to the door of the pawnshop.  “Let’s play this like the police station,” he tells me.  “I’ll introduce you.”

“That works,” I say. I’m looking at the front door of the shop.  The bottom half looks like heavy wood, and the top half is made up of four little window segments.  There’s a neon sign visible across the bottom two segments — the ones at eye-level.  The neon sign is turned on, and it says OPEN in bright blue letters.

“I thought she’d come to the door to meet us, at least,” says Father Salat.

I can’t see inside; the afternoon light is hitting the window in that way that makes it reflect like a mirror.  Or maybe it’s something about the glass, or the light from the sign, or some combination of those things.

Father Salat presses his face up against one of the door’s window. I see him from the side. To me, he looks kind of like a kid looking at toys in an old movie.  He frowns at the lower, eye-level lower segments.  Then, he gets up on his toes to check out the higher two.  “And yet there is — no — sign — of — her,” he says, adjusting his head a little in-between each of those last few words.  Then, he reaches down and pushes the door, and it opens inward.   I hear the tinkle of an out-of-sight bell coming from the back of the shop.

I follow Father Salat into the shop. I hold on to the top of the garbage bag with my left hand and reach out and open the door with my free right hand. My opening the door makes the bell tinkle again. The bag feels like it’s lighter than it should be. But, as I look down, I can clearly see the outline of the book in the garbage bag.

“Come on in, Jeff,” Father Salat quietly calls to me.

As I walk into the pawnshop, I’m still looking at the outline of the book. But then, I’m struck by the smells that hit me.  See, I’m always predicting what a place will smell like.  I’m kind of sensitive to it.  My mom said I always was like that.  Here, I’d expected to smell musty odors, like the way used clothes stores smell.  But it doesn’t smell like that at all in the pawnshop.  It smells like pungent lime — and another, much-sharper scent that’s kind of like chlorine, or the way the air smells just after a thunderstorm.  But the smells are pleasant, too — very clean smells that immediately put me at ease.  I figure maybe it’s the pawnshop equivalent of the whole ‘baking cookies to sell your house’ thing. There are a lot of sounds inside the shop, too.  The sounds help me pull my gaze away from the garbage bag to look around. There are buzzing neon signs all turned-on and covering one of the side-walls.   Behind a long front desk that looks like it’s made of cherry wood, there are a bunch of flat-screen televisions; one of those is turned on and humming, tuned to a soccer game with the volume down.  There’s a high stool in front of that television, like someone was watching the soccer match. There are three old-looking grandfather-clocks there, behind the desk.  All of them are ticking away, though the ticking isn’t precisely the same for any of them.  And there are weird, low kind of weird buzzing-humming noises coming from somewhere down a dark hallway to my left just past the end of the front desk.  I can’t quite identify what the buzzing-humming sound is, and I can’t see into the hallway because there’s one of those ridiculous beaded curtains in the way.  The blue and green plastic beads make it impossible to see what might be making the noise.

Father Salat is walking around, checking out the items in the shop, too. Eventually, he turns to look at me.  “She probably –” he starts to say.

And that’s when the sounds of footsteps start coming from the dark of the hallway … ascending — like someone coming up stairs.

I look toward Father Salat, who’s got his hand raised like he wants me to wait.

There’s a rattling, clanking sound now; it’s followed by what sounds like multiple locks being opened one by one.  Then, there’s a door creaking open.  The hallway is lit up by rose-tinted light. And I still can’t tell what’s making the buzzing-humming noise, but I notice that it gets louder when the door opens.

And then a kid comes into view from the other side of the door that’s just opened up.  I’m not good at figuring out how old kids are, but I’d guess he’s somewhere between ten and fifteen years old.

“Hey,” the kid says blandly.  He tips his head to the side.  He has one of those haircuts where his bangs go into his eyes every so often, like now, and he brushes them aside with a tip of his head.  When he does this, I notice also he’s got strange scars going down the right side of his face from below the cheek all across the right side of his neck.

“Hello, Richard,” says Father Salat.  “I’m not sure if you remember me.”

The kid — Richard, apparently — rolls his eyes.  “… yeah,” he says, dragging the word out like he wants to show the loudest possible disdain.

“I’m Reverend Salat, and this is Brother Armando.”

“Hi,” I say with a half-wave.

There’s another eye-roll from Richard.  Then, “What’s up?  You here to buy stuff?” He seems to notice the garbage bag I’m holding. “Sell something?”

“Hilda – er, I mean — your grandmother said she’d see us?” says Father Salat.

“Oh.” Richard droops his head, in an overdramatic way, exhaling. Then, he takes two steps back toward the door he came out of.  Leaning in past the doorframe, and looking downward, he calls out: “Grandma Hilda?  It’s the dudes with the thing!”  His voice echoes loudly as he yells.

“Her grandson,” I say very quietly to Father Salat.

“Richard Boyle,” Father Salat murmurs back to me.  “Bit of a hellion, but good at heart, I think.”

Richard steps back out of the hallway toward us.  “Told her you’re here.  She’s downstairs getting some stuff, I guess.”   Then, he’s walking past us; it’s like we’re not even there to him, and then he’s walking over and switching off the OPEN sign on the door.  Then, his fingers trace a power cord that runs from where the sign sits to an electrical outlet just past the hinges and unplugs it.

He looks back to me, and Father Salat. “She wants me to close the place up while you’re here.” And he’s turning locks on the shut front door, and calmly pulling on the handle to make certain it’s secured.

“Okay,” I say.
I don’t know why I feel the need to answer.
But Richard’s actions bother me.
I don’t like that he’s shut off the sign and locked the door.
And there’s a part of me that’s telling me something’s wrong.
Telling me to run.
To push past the kid and head out the door.
And then it’s telling me to look at the floor.
Not wood.
Grey Concrete beneath my feet.
But I’m still afraid.
And my throat feels like it’s closing up again.
And I feel sick again.

And then Richard walks away from the door, back behind the cherry wood desk again, and sits in the high stool, facing us. “You guys Christians?” the boy asks us.

“Yes,” Father Salat says. “I’m a priest — out of First Step Church.”

“Cool,” Richard replies, in a way that suggests he thinks it’s not cool. His attentions turn toward the soccer game on the television.

And then I hear another set of footsteps from beyond that open door in the hallway. They’re slower to climb than when Richard came up them earlier. And there’s the sound of heaving breath now, from where the rose-colored light is coming.
And I want to run again.
I just want to go.
But I’m standing there.
With a priest.
And an annoying kid who’s watching soccer.
And I know it’s got to be Hilda Leek coming up the stairs.
But my back breaks out in icy sweat.
And I’m afraid.
Like it’s the woman in purple coming up the stairs.
Even though I know it’s not.

“Hilda?” calls Father Salat. “Is that you?”

And then the footsteps reach the top of the steps, and a woman I assume is Hilda Leek comes into view; she’s an old, white woman with braided silver-grey hair pushed back behind her shoulders. She’s wearing a red-and-blue dress. It looks like the dresses they wear in movies about prairie times. I don’t know enough about dresses to know if that’s unusual for an old woman, but it looks strange to me. She’s bent forward and wheezing a little as she gets to the top of the stairs, but she quickly recovers. I’m not sure about her age; I’d guess she could be anywhere from 50 to 60. “Hello, Reverend,” she says. And then she looks over at me and nods her head once, with a smile and closed eyes. As she nods, I notice a silver chain around her neck, but I can’t tell if there’s anything at the end of it because it goes down into the front of her dress. She opens her eyes again and looks back toward Father Salat. It makes me uneasy in one way, and calms me down in another. I’m not sure how to feel about both of those impressions happening at the same time. I notice she’s holding the twisted-closed top of a burlap sack in her left hand; the sack is about the size of a loaf of bread.

“It’s good to see you, Hilda,” says Father Salat. “How long has it been?” He chuckles.

“At least – well, too long. It’s good to see you, too.” Hilda says back.

She looks over toward Richard, who’s still engrossed in the game. “You’ve got something waiting for you upstairs, don’t you?” she says to him.

Something about the way she says those words makes me cringe a little; I don’t like how she talks to him.

“Yeah.”  Richard’s shoulders slump, and he walks back down the hallway — without even saying goodbye to any of us.

He goes out-of-sight; he turns a corner that I couldn’t even see was there, at the end of the hall, and then he’s gone.

And then, I can hear him opening a different door, and then the sound of his shoes clomping as he goes up a different set of stairs.

The sound fades away after a little bit, and then I can hear him walking across the floor above us, and then what sounds like the screeching jolt of old bedsprings right over me. I notice that I didn’t hear Richard close that door he went through to get up the stairs, so I’m guessing he left it open behind him.

Hilda watches him go until he turns that corner, and then she’s looking back toward Father Salat. “Sorry I wasn’t up here to meet you. I was looking for some things, downstairs.”

Father Salat gestures toward me. “Don’t worry about it, Hilda,” he says with a chuckle. Then, “This is Brother Armando. He’s been helping me … in the research.”

Hilda shakes her head, sadly. “I’ve heard, of course.” She goes still for a moment, and then lowers her head. “A tragedy,” she says. “It’s just a tragedy.”

“It is,” agrees Father Salat.

“In times like this,” says Hilda, “I don’t want to be alone. But my grandson is … well – I have to be strong for him.”

“I understand,” says Father Salat.

“But enough,” she says, waving her hands. “Tell me why you’re here, exactly,” Hilda says. “I have to be sure. Tell me what you need.” She eyes the garbage bag in my hand.

Father Salat takes a step closer and puts a hand on Hilda’s shoulder, the same way he’s done with me.

She doesn’t pull away, but she looks away from the garbage bag toward Father Salat.

“Hilda — it’s times like this that we have to remember that we live in a community,” says Father Salat.

“I’m aware, Reverend. That’s why I live where I do,” Hilda says.

“I understand,” says Father Salat. “You’ve been hurt before by the people of this community.”

“I have,” she agrees. “But I know it’s out of ignorance.”

Father Salat nods. “But, Hilda — you know that I’ve been there for you before, and I will be again. Always.”

Hilda shuts her eyes again. “I know.”

“And you know – Drodden is a community of good people, no matter what’s happened before. And we need your help. We all do.”

“I want to believe that,” Hilda says. She opens her eyes again.

“We’re all counting on you, Hilda.”

“Counting on me?” she says. It sounds like she’s trying to keep herself from laughing.   She shakes her head. “I don’t know how to feel about that.”

“I hope you’ll feel like helping,” says Father Salat. “There are things at work here that we don’t understand, Hilda,” says Father Salat. “And, we think you might be able to teach us about what we’re dealing with here. What we’ve found.”

“Ah – you’re appealing to me as a teacher, now, Father. That’s a dirty trick.” She doesn’t look or sound offended, despite her words. “You know I’m retired.”

“We never truly retire from faith, Hilda,” says Father Salat. “No one who’s seen the face of God can retire from that. And that’s why we need your help so badly.”

Hilda looks over toward me, and then looks back toward Father Salat. She gets this weird crinkle to her mouth that isn’t quite a smile. “And you’ve told no one you’re here?”

“No one. We came straight here,” says Father Salat.

“Good,” Hilda says. She shuts her eyes again. “The last thing I need is your congregation pounding at my door to talk to the weird crazy lady — ”

“You’re not crazy, Hilda,” Father Salat tries to interrupt.

Hilda simply continues, as if Father Salat hadn’t said anything. “ — with pitchforks and torches.” Then, she opens her eyes and looks right at me. “Can I trust this one?” She looks back toward Father Salat. “Not everyone in your church is as open-minded as you are.”

“Trust takes time and experience,” says Father Salat. “You and I have both. But I’d trust Jeff here with my life. He’s a good man. Give him your trust, and he’ll reward it.”

“I’m not interested in those kinds of rewards,” Hilda says. She sounds annoyed by the very idea. “But – I suppose, if you trust him … “ She looks thoughtful for a moment. Then, “If I get involved in all this, can you promise me that it won’t hurt Friedrich in any way?”

Father Salat shakes his head. “I can’t – but … if you don’t get involved, could he be next?” Salat steps toward Hilda again, but doesn’t put a hand on her this time. “Look, Hilda,” he says. “I know you value your privacy. I’ve always respected that.”

“You have,” Hilda says.

“But we’ve got something you need to see. Jeff can be trusted. I can be trusted. Will you let us show you what we’ve found?”

Hilda casts another suspicious look my way. Then, she looks back toward the garbage bag I’m holding. “Well – I suppose we should see what we have,” she says. But then, she quickly snaps “But not here!” She gestures toward the rose-tinted hallway. “I’ve set up for this downstairs. If what you’ve told me is true, Reverend, we’ll want to look down there. Less interference. And I’ve gathered up some things that might help us. Come downstairs with me, then – the both of you.”

I feel the cold sweat come back.

But Father Salat simply nods.

“Oh!” she says, sounding mildly embarrassed. “And I’ve made sandwiches,” she says, raising the burlap sack she’s holding. Then, “There’ll be time for more details about what’s happened to you both later, though. There are lives involved. So — shall we?” She gestures down the hall.

I look toward Father Salat.
I don’t want to go.
Down those steps.
Into the rose-colored light.
Past the door that had so many locks and latches.
Into the big echoing place.
And I’m afraid again.
And that tightness in my throat is back.

“Of course, Hilda,” Father Salat says. He’s looking at Hilda Leek. Not at me.

I don’t think he even sees me right now. I think he’s trying to read her, like he said.

She leads the way, and I’m following.
Stepping out of the sunlight.
Walking down metal steps.
And our footsteps are echoing.
And the lime smell is so dense I can taste it.
And that thunder-smell is thick in the air.
And we’re descending.
Down the grey metal stairway.
And I’m seeing the source of the rose-colored glow.
Bulbs hanging from the ceiling above the stairs.
Going all the way down.
Like Christmas lights.
Pink, rosy light-bulbs.
Taped to the wall at first.
Then the walls change.
Not just metal now.
Walls covered in points with soft tips.
Like egg-cartons.
But made of what looks foam.
And stuck to the metal walls.
And I’m following Father Salat.
Who’s behind this woman I don’t know.
Hilda Leek.
Who I don’t trust.
And who I fear.
Even though I don’t know why.
And my steps are heavy.
And I’m feeling vertigo.
Looking down this stairway.
That seems to on forever.
And no one is talking.
And that buzzing-humming sound is getting louder.
And louder.
Like it’s coming from all around us.
Like it’s in the metal walls around us.
Like it’s behind these big grey panels.
And the foam.
That make it feel like a tomb.
And down we walk.
And down and down.
And then past a little crevice in the wall.
Where the stairway opens up.
And there’s a little step up to a door.
But we go past the door.
And then I’m seeing a different kind of light coming from below us.
A flickering light.
As we finally come to the bottom of the staircase.
And my eyes were just getting used to the rose-light.
So the change disorients me.
And we’re passing through another long, dark hallway.
Like the one at the top of the stairs.
And now I’m smelling incense.
Like you smell at church.
But different, too.
And we’re stepping out of the hallway.
Into a wide-open, circular room.
It’s huge.
Easily the size of two basements.
Except we’ve gone down much farther than just a basement.
Like, below where a basement would be.
Should be.
Or maybe it seemed like we did.

“Did all of this come with the original house?” I hear Father Salat asks. He chuckles. “Or — did you have it done custom?”

“You practice your faith in your church, Father,” Hilda Leek says, as if she didn’t see any humor in what Father Salat said, “but my people — we have to make due with what we can find. And things are sometimes very specific.”

My eyes are already getting used to the candlelight; I see three huge candelabras, placed at equal distances, across a long black wooden table at the room’s center.

“But don’t worry. To answer your question — it’s just an old bomb shelter, is all,” Hilda explains. “It was here when I bought the place. It’s part of why I bought it.” The walls here are metal, too, and her voice echoes in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Her voice sounds strangely hollow down here. Mechanical. But I’m thinking that Father Salat’s did, too, when he spoke.

I tell myself it did, anyway.

And we’re walking across the room, past the black table and the candles. And I’m seeing more and more clearly. Closer to the long table — and with my eyes even more adjusted to the dark — I realize it’s built kind of like a picnic table, with boards at the sides to sit on. And, as we cross to the wall opposite where we came in, I realize there are doors in the walls that you can barely see when you first come in. They have narrow metal handles that are so thin they kind of blend in with the rest of the doors. I’m distracted for a bit by wondering if it’s intentional.

Hilda sets down the bag that she says has sandwiches in it on the table. “We can eat in a minute. I want to get — …” She stops, and doesn’t finish her sentence. Instead, she’s walking over toward and then opening one of the near-invisible doors. Like a refrigerator, a little light comes on inside what looks like a little storage area when Hilda opens the door.

It’s like a walk-in closet, full of shelves, from what I can see past Hilda and Father Salat.

“They’d planned to store food and water here if there’d been a nuclear war,” Hilda explains.

“Now, that’s a cozy way to wait out the long winter,” remarks Father Salat. Another chuckle.

“Not that it would’ve done them any good, mind you. But it suits our needs. If you’ll excuse me a moment?” And then Hilda walks into the little storage room.

I look over toward Father Salat. His face looks greasy and sweaty in the candlelight. I can see his whiskers. Neither of us have had a chance to shave. I don’t like seeing Father Salat with whiskers, for some reason.

“This is weird,” I murmur to him.

“We’re learning,” says Father Salat.  “And when you’re learning, you sometimes can’t decide what’s weird until you know the whole story.”

I hear Hilda groaning, like she’s lifting up something heavy for her — something that’s rattling and clanking.  And then, before I can offer to help her, she re-emerges from the storage room, holding a big cardboard box.

Inside the box, there’s a film projector and several reels of what looks like really old film.  The reels give me a sense of foreboding.

“I’ll get to the book in a minute,” Hilda Leek explains. “That’ll be self-explanatory, I suspect.  First — I want to show you both something.”

“A movie?” I ask.

“More than that,” says Hilda Leek.  Her voice is grave.  “I’m going to ask you to open your minds.  If I don’t miss my guess … this will show you exactly what drove Michael Laddow to do what he did.”

Click here to contimue reading the story

Published inpart 2

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