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3. child

JEFF ARMANDO

Jeff hadn’t been sure what to expect beyond the stairs.  As they’d come through the doorway, Jeff had remembered a sermon Father Salat had given once about there being a library up there, and how the priest liked working and living in a church where the people lived ‘under both knowledge and God,’ or something like that.  Jeff’s mind didn’t really wander during the old man’s sermons, but Father Salat’s words had a way of getting the idea across in ways you didn’t realize were happening.  Like it was subconscious.  Jeff envied the old man’s ability to talk to other people, to walk up to someone even if you didn’t know them and get along like you were old friends with them.  Jeff couldn’t talk to people like that.  Jeff found it a challenge just to say ‘hello’ to someone.  Let alone stand in front of a whole town of people and talk authoritatively on what you think God is supposed to want.

“So,” Father Salat said, breathing hard, “welcome to my third home.”  He leaned down against the railing that continued at the top of the stairs along the walnut-paneled walls.  “Where I come when I need to come up with the answers.”

The room at the top of the stairs surprised Jeff.  He’d seen the church building from the outside; that didn’t change Jeff’s appreciation of just how much work had been done to accommodate for all the books.  Jeff couldn’t even begin to count them.  They seemed to be almost everywhere he looked while he was catching his breath.  Shelves were in places you wouldn’t expect shelves, like directly over the doorframes up to the ceiling and even above the sink at the makeshift kitchen station along the far wall from where Jeff was standing as he reached the top of the stairs.  In the middle of the room was a blueberry-colored couch.  Next to the couch was a tall, skinny lamp that was already turned on.  A book-laden desk with a wheeled office-chair in front of it was in the far left corner from the stairway down.  There was a small, curtained window above the desk, too, letting in the growing light of the day.

“Wow,” Jeff couldn’t help but say out loud.  He felt embarrassed at saying it immediately afterward, but he continued on.  “You made really good use of all the space,” he said, as if that conditioned his response enough cover his outburst.  “This is some library.”

“What, this?” Father Salat remarked.  “This?” he repeated with another dismissive wave of his right hand.  “This isn’t the library.  This is my office.”  The old man’s eyes were bright behind his glasses as he spoke.  Then, Father Salat then walked around a double-sided bookshelf to where Jeff couldn’t see him any more.  “Now, let’s make that call.”

Jeff didn’t want to follow Father Salat back there.  He felt like a kid who’d convinced his grandpa to call him in sick from school, and the fact that Father Salat was a priest made Jeff feel even guiltier.  But Jeff tried to remind himself that Father Salat had been the one to suggest it.  So Jeff listened as he heard the old man picking up what sounded like a receiver off a wall phone, that old familiar click that you had to be a certain age to remember but which was unmistakable.  Jeff then heard a number being dialed out on push buttons.

There was a long pause.

Jeff looked down at his fingers and saw where they’d disturbed dust on the fake walnut railing.

“Yes, this is Reverend Salat.  Yes, well, hello, Marshall.  Yes.  Yes.  It’s terrible.  It’s a terrible tragedy.  But we have to be strong for each other.”

Jeff tuned out the part of the conversation that was clearly about Mickey Laddow and the Marshes.  He occupied his mind instead with thinking about how most everyone in town called the old man Father Salat, but the man called himself Reverend.  ‘I’m not my own father,’ he’d once heard the priest say with mild amusement.  ‘And I wouldn’t want to try to be.  That’s a responsibility I can’t claim.’  Of course, Jeff understood the reasoning.  But that didn’t make it sound less strange.

“Marshall!  That’s good news.  Well, I’m glad to hear it.  But, say, I’m wondering if you could put me through to Lucy Einsler.  Yes.  Yes.  All right.  All right.  Yes.  OK.”

Jeff’s stomach felt the way it did when he drank too much coffee in the morning.

“Lucy?  Yes, yes.  This is Reverend Salat.  Yes, well, I’m glad to- … yes, well.  That’s to be expected, my dear.  Well, I’ll make time for that.  But what I’m calling about is … yes, well, I’m calling about Jeff Armando.  Yes.  Yes.  He’s under the weather today.  Oh, I ran into him.  Well, that’s why I’m calling, Lucy.  Yes.  Exactly that.  Not really.  Well, I don’t like to tell other people what to do.”  Father Salat sighed.  “It’s not like it’s that, no.  I just don’t think he’s really fit to be driving his truck.  Well, I told him so.  The man is too civic-minded for his own good.  Came into work today and just couldn’t — … ”

Jeff’s queasiness increased.

“ — … yes, that’s right.  Couldn’t manage to keep going.  He’s just — yes, yes.  He’s going to need to rest up.  Oh, I’m no doctor.  I just wouldn’t feel right sending him on his way.  You know how it is when you see a friend looking really run-down and they’re trying not to let it show.  I know.  Yeah, I get that, too.  And I’m normally not going to make that kind of call for other people, but here?  There are circumstances.”

And as the conversation went on, Jeff became more and more nervous about it.  Hearing only Father Salat’s end of the conversation had Jeff feeling like he was eavesdropping.  But there was more than that.  There was a discomfort, too.  It felt to Jeff like – in a way — he was being infantilized.  Worse, he was sure that Father Salat didn’t intend it.  Jeff wasn’t sure how that made it worse, but it did.  And he felt guilty for even having that sensation.  But it was there, in Jeff’s head, and it bothered him enough that he was shifting his position back and forth at the top of the stairs.

There came another loud sigh from Father Salat on the other side of the bookcase.  “Well, of course not.  That’s another kind of thing entirely, Lucy!  But — I wonder if you couldn’t perhaps talk Reggie or Carter or maybe Wayne to maybe come over and pick up the truck?  Well, that’s very kind of everyone.  I’ll make sure to tell him.  Yes.  All right.  All right, Lucy.  God be with you.  Yes.  Take care.  Goodbye.”

Jeff heard the click of the phone receiver being put back into place, and then Father Salat came back around from behind the bookshelf.

“It’s done.  You’ve got the rest of the day.”  The old priest crossed his arms.  “Lucy sends her regards, and Wayne’s going to come by and pick up the truck for you.”

“Thank you, Father.”

“And now, the library.”  Father Salat said, gesturing broadly toward the wall closest to where Jeff was standing.

There didn’t appear to be a door there, so Jeff took a few steps toward where the priest was standing, hoping to get a better vantage to see whatever it was that he’d missed.

Father Salat passed Jeff by and reached for the middlemost bookshelf on the wall; the priest pulled at the shelf and drew it out toward him.  The entire shelf swung out from being flush with the wall.  The movement of the shelf was smooth, but it came with a noisy creak from unseen hinges.  There was another room behind it.

“Is that … a secret door?” Jeff asked, quietly incredulous.

Father Salat face looked like he was laughing for a very brief moment, but it was the silent kind of laughter that was common to the old priest’s face.  “Not exactly.  This door swung out when the place was built.”  He pointed out the big golden hinges on the side of the bookshelf door, only visible now that the door was open.  “This is just how it ended up.  I do think it’s cool, though.”  Then, the old man’s expression became graver, and he moved through the doorway into the room beyond.  “I do keep a lot of the … uh … challenging religious materials back here,” he called back toward Jeff, gesturing for the younger man to follow him as he disappeared from Jeff’s sight.

Jeff followed along behind Father Salat into the library.  It was pretty similar to the office, with bookshelves positioned in most every free space.  But there were no other amenities Jeff could see; it was all books in there.

“Sorry about all the dust,” Father Salat remarked.  “I don’t get in here as often as I should.”  The old priest walked over to the other side of the room to pull up a bare window’s sill.  The sill was was covered with streaked and chipped mint-green paint that matched what Jeff could make out of the walls in both upstairs rooms.  The sill squeaked even louder than the door hinges had, but the old man finally managed to pull it open.  Father Salat then reached behind the bookshelf nearest the window; he retrieved a small, skinny box fan and set it on the window’s ledge.  “This should help,” Father Salat said,  plugging the free end of the fan’s dirty-looking electrical cord into a coverless wall socket.

There was a little blue spark that flashed with an audible snap.  The fan had apparently been left in the ‘on’ position, because it started into a slow spin immediately.

Father Salat was already moving away from the window to a particular shelf as the fan came on; he was leaning in to look closely at the multicolored spines on display.  Father Salat’s mouth opened a little as the old man perused, revealing the priest’s prominent and uneven front teeth.  “Let’s see.  Yes, here’s the one.”  He withdrew a book from the shelf that looked like it was bound in red leather.  It had golden leafing on its spine.  And then, as if forgetting Jeff was there, the priest walked back toward the open door toward his office, looking down at the book in his hands.  “This is what I wanted to show you.”

Jeff followed behind Father Salat, back out of the library.  “What is it?” Jeff asked.

Father Salat moved to sit on the couch, taking a long time to get into a seated position.  He crouched, and then sort of held himself in that position, as if it was painful for him.  But he finally managed to get himself down onto the couch, and looked relieved when he did.  “Ah — there — that’s better.”  He looked up toward Jeff.  “And — as — for — what — this — is,” Father Salat said, tapping the cover of the book with each word, “this is a book that I think you’ll find relevant to what’s happened.  Because I wrote it.”  The priest held the book’s spine up for Jeff to read as the younger man approached him:

WEDNESDAYS ARE SATAN’S
(AND SATURDAYS, TOO)
by Daniel W. Salat

“‘Wednesdays Are Satan’s — and Saturdays, Too?’” asked Jeff, reading the title aloud as a question; he didn’t understand the meaning, at all.

“I thought I was being clever,” Father Salat explained, taking no apparent offense.  “It’s a reference to an old poem.  Nobody knows who wrote it.”  The old priest leaned back on the couch and opened his book on his lap.  “Wednesday’s child.”

“And the ‘Saturdays’ part?”

“Children’s cartoons,” Father Salat explained, thumbing through a few more pages before lifting the book up toward the younger man.  “It was my effort at an academic text.  I wrote it in my thirties for seminary.”  The old man’s voice sounded sentimental, and also a little regretful. “I was out to change the world — by way of enlightenment.  Enlightening the people.”  He flipped the pages, seemingly by random, and stopped on one. “Here we are.”

Jeff saw on the opened pages of the book that there were illustrations that looked like old woodcuttings.  The particular one Father Salat had selected — seemingly at random — showed a big animal that looked like a bull standing on its back legs goring a small figure that had been skewered by one of its horns.  The figure had its hands to its head, in a posture of woeful grief rather than pain.

Jeff wasn’t sure if it was the stark simplicity in which the subject matter was depicted, or something else about the picture, but it bothered him — a lot.  So much so that Jeff was left wondering for a moment whether a more detailed image might have been less troubling.  He wasn’t sure why this thought came to him in that moment, but it did.  Worse, at the sight of the image, his headache was starting to come back.

Father Salat closed the book and then stood up again from the couch.  Carrying the book with him, the priest gestured for Jeff to follow him to where Father Salat had gone earlier when he’d made the phone call to the post office, behind the stack of books on the other side of the room.  “Let’s lay this out on the table, here, so I can show you some things.”

As Jeff came around the corner of the far bookshelf, he saw an old, dirty-looking wall phone.  The plastic of its housing was pea-green, and it had a coiled handset cord.  A card table with three chairs was flush to the wall above the phone.  Father Salat sat down and opened the book again on the table, motioning for Jeff to take one of the other chairs.  Jeff picked the one at Father Salat’s side.  “Is it … about kids who — … ”  Jeff trailed off.

“Do things like Michael Laddow is accused of doing? Yes.”  And then Father Salat looked sternly toward Jeff.  “Which we can’t be sure about yet, you know.  I believe in the court system.  I believe in fair justice as much as I believe in the Divine.”  He held up a finger on his right hand, as if for emphasis before he continued:  “That’s something we all have to do.  Keep an open mind.  We don’t know that Michael did these things.”

“I know,” Jeff said, shoulders dropping.  He hadn’t thought about that.  In fact, he realized in that moment that he’d simply taken Emma Albrecht at her word.  Which troubled him, too, in a new way he hadn’t yet considered.

“It’s only been a day, too,” Father Salat reminded Jeff.  “Less than a day, even.”  His tone grew increasingly sober.  He lowered both his hands to his lap and then leaned across the table a little to make closer eye contact with Jeff.  “And I’ve learned over a long life that small towns like Drodden are very intimate places.   With very intimate people.”  Father Salat pulled to an upright sitting position.  “But — from what I’ve heard from reliable people?  Yes, it sounds like there’s not a lot of doubt in anyone’s mind.  Which will make it even harder for people to look at Michael with the kind of compassion I’m expecting from you, Jeff.”

“From me?”  It was Jeff’s turn to lean back a little in his chair.  ‘What do-?”  He fell silent after that, not even sure how to continue.

“Yes.  I want you to help me.  I hadn’t planned on it being you.”  Father Salat folded his hands together on the tabletop.  “I’d actually been thinking of a few possible candidates.  But — Divine providence?  You’re here.  And you’re a good man.”

“But what do –” Jeff tried again, and faltered.  He looked down at his lap for a long moment, and then looked back at Father Salat.  “What do you need from me, Father?  I’ll do what I can to help.”

“That’s good.  Because –” Father Salat began, and then fell silent.

Jeff didn’t say anything.  He just watched as the old priest through pages in the text.

The old man’s bright blue eyes narrowed in concentration as he turned the pages.  Then, the priest’s wrinkled face tightened, as he seemed to find whatever he was looking for.  ” — … and here we are!”  He pointed toward a picture that took up the whole left page. “I got a call from the Sheriff.”  He shook his head and then returned his gaze to the picture, which was still upside-down to Jeff.  “One I shouldn’t be talking about.  But, like I said — ‘here we are.’”  His shoulders drooped, then tightened.  “The Sheriff’s a tough man.  But I told him.  I insisted.  We went back and forth about it a little bit.  And you know?  I don’t honestly care what the man thinks of me.  He wants something and I’m going to do this right.”  He seemed not to be talking to Jeff, specifically, there — and then he was focused on their conversation again.  “So, I’m telling you.  What he told me about the Marshes and — …”  He stopped speaking for a long, uncomfortable moment.  Then, “Well, about a lot of things.  Mostly about how Michael was when they found him.  Things that sounded familiar.”

“Familiar how?”

“From something I’d seen.  I wrote about it in here.”  Father Salat turned the book around for Jeff to get a better look.

This picture wasn’t a woodcarving like the other one had been.  This looked, instead, like an amateur had drawn it.  It depicted a figure standing by itself, wearing a burlap sack on its head.  The sack had lines all over it.  Spikes covered both shoulders of the figure, and floating above each set of spikes were numbers.

On the left was the number 2.

On the right was the number 7.

“Jeff — you can call me a stupid old man if you like.  But, I think Michael Laddow may be possessed,” said Father Salat.

Published inpart 2

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