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Father Maxwell pulled the doors shut. Over the hills, an orange sun descended into the darkness.
Suddenly, he was stopped by a hand.
She wore a beige coat, wrapped tightly around her. Her hair was golden, and roused astir by the breeze. He dropped his keys to the floor.
Bending to pick them up, their skulls collided.
He flushed, but luckily, she burst out laughing.
“Sorry” he said, “That doesn’t happen a lot, I can assure you”
Blue eyes she had, like God. The All-Father had created oceans, rippling for eons and millennia, and blue skies, forever a testament to his greatness. It only seemed right that his eyes were blue. And this woman, she had blue eyes, like God, like Time.
“Sorry to bother you” she said, then remembering herself, “Father”
The warmness became hotter in his cheeks, “Call me Dylan Maxwell”
She was young, in her twenties, around his age.
The sides of her mouth wrinkled.
“It’s a stage name” he explained, “I was an actor. My accounts are in that name, so I couldn’t change it once I joined the church”
“Really?” she said, “What made you quit?”
“Standards” he said, “And that’s why I sought God. He doesn’t expect you to be Leonardo DiCaprio.”
She showed white teeth.
“Please m’am” he said, remembering his disciplines, “Don’t let me delay you. What have you come here about?”
She sighed, a long gasp which told stories of defeat.
He jolted slightly. Radical ideas were to him what the Church was to Science. He was taught to think in a clean, pure way.
“They scream” she said, visibly shivering, “Each night, the claim my body. Grandma always said that ghosts were bits of Satan’s soul, come to eat us up”
Dylan Maxwell didn’t believe in ghosts. He believed in spirits, and Satan. He’d enlighten her, because that’s what priests were supposed to do.
“You want my help?” he said.
“I need it Dylan”
He looked at his palm, ashamed at how few exorcisms it had performed. He was still a rookie, a bumbling baby with oversized shoes. Priests needed to do specific stuff before they could prove themselves. But Victoria was pretty. In middle-school, when pretty girls asked him to do something, he’d do it, no matter how foolish he looked.
“How long have they been claiming you?” he said.
“Do they say anything?”
“Yes” she said, “Latin. I know ‘cause I did it in seventh grade.”
“Do they tell you their name?”
She shook her head slowly, “I told you already. They speak in Latin.”
“Follow me” he said, laughing nervously. Victoria was a pretty girl, and once upon a time, he would’ve given his own toe for girls such as her. They were like kings, and he, the identity-less fool. He could only hope that things had changed considerably since then.
“This place is epic” she said, gazing at the curved ceilings, the hued glass, the pews, and the wooden pulpit adorned with gold and blood-red gems.
“Anything special there?” she said, pointing at the decorations.
“It’s not real gold” he said, “Just a substitute. It was given by the Pope, to our ‘outstanding’ service to the Catholic community”
She looked downwards, “Grandma was Catholic”
He was silent, hesitating, then finally; “And you?”
“What’s that?” he said.
“I’ve got no religion” she said with a slight smile.
“I’m tired!” she said, “Of…everything! Of having no answers all the time!”
“Sometimes” he said, “You don’t need answers”
“Then clearly I’m at the wrong place!” she said, an edge in her voice, “I came here for answers”
“And answers you’ll get, I promise you”
They sat in the darkness, one chandelier, a Persian carpet, the smell of lacquer, and they sat across from each other.
“I’m a man of truth” he told her, “And I’ll get straight to the point”
“I haven’t dealt with ghosts before” he said, “And frankly, I don’t believe they exist”
“I’m not done” he said, “But--I do believe in spirits and demons”
“Aren’t they the same thing?”
“No” he said, “Spirits and demons need a host for possession. Ghosts, or the common ‘fairytale’ of ghosts, exist in their own terms, living their own existence.”
“Then it’s a ghost that haunts me!” she said categorically.
“You said earlier that they claimed your body” he said, “That’s possession”
“No!” she said, “I’m fully awake when I see them. I have control!”
“What does your family have to say?”
“About this ‘ghost’” he said, “Do they help you in any way?”
She swallowed, “I don’t have a family”
Silence broke through the air. Outside, the darkness had come.
It was silent for a long while, before he decided to restart the conversation.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
Her eyes shot up.
“I’m--I’m sorry” he said, rubbing the sweat off his palms, “You were sad, and I felt guilty, and I wanted…”
“It’s okay” she said, a smile starting to form, “Single. And You?”
He was just opening his mouth, when she banged her head; “I’m sorry. I shouldna asked that! “
“Victoria” he said, “I’m a priest, not a monk”
“And priests can hook-up?”
“It’s California” he said, “Everyone hooks up”
She laughed at his joke.
There was a long beat afterwards.
“So you have one?” she said, “A girlfriend?”
She reddened, “Just asking. You said you’d give me answers.”
“And I will” he said, “No, I’m single”
He couldn’t read her expression. Either that or she was trying very hard to conceal it.
Suddenly a bell went off, shaking the walls, pounding on ears, its thunderous toll vibrating and vibrating.
“My god!” he said, “It’s eight ‘o’clock!”
The bell tolled three more times, before its echoes disappeared into the ancient darkness.
She looked around nervously, “Three hours until they come, then it’s over”
Her eyes were like God, like Time.
“No” he said, “It’s only just begun”
They drove through the city, clustered lights swimming past them.
She nodded, “Unconventional, right?”
“Where you live doesn’t change who you are” he said, “I’ve known guys who’ve lived in the Projects, holiest buggers I knew!”
She giggled. His fingers made tiny movements on the steering wheel. This was the first time in three years his thoughts were occupied by something else other than God, the church, or himself.
“You’re funny” she said, “I didn’t know priests were funny”
“You’d be surprised” he said, “Knew a guy once. Brought a stink-gun to Mass--”
She threw her head back, beside herself.
“You laugh” he said, “But it’s true! And me, I’m the easiest target around, people think I’m easy-going, so they‘re more willing to test my waters”
“And?” she said, her face lighting-up like a lantern.
“I think you know what happened” he hinted, “Wouldn’t come off for three days!”
She gasped, “Did you get him back?”
“No” he said, “He’s the kinda guy who’ll only hit harder. But just you wait, one day I’ll be stronger!”
“And when’s that?”
“When God gives me the strength”
Her expression shifted quickly. Clearly, she hadn’t found spiritual closure. However, now that the question came up, had he? He’d flirted blatantly with the girl, admitted to himself that he liked her even. Lustful thoughts polluted his mind, and he didn’t even wish them to stop.
“Wanna listen to some music?” he said, distracting himself.
“Sure!” she said.
He turned on the radio to Eagle Eye Cherry, smoothing into the second verse of ‘Save Tonight’.
She glanced knowingly at him, and then began to sing. Dylan didn’t know the lyrics very well so he hummed instead.
The city streaked beside them, her humming growing louder.
“Hey Dylan” she said when the DJ started talking, “Thank you”
“No one‘s ever cancelled their plans for me” she said, “Especially this late at night”
“It’s my job” he shrugged, trying not to flush.
“Nevertheless” she said, “Thank you.”
A fleck of light was thrown against her eyes, and they grew bluer. He struggled to keep focused on the road.
“Aren’t you too young to be a priest?”
“Like I said” he said, “I started acting young. Been in it all my life. Nineteen, I began to fail auditions. Said I lost the ‘spark’.”
“And being a priest was all you could think of?”
“It’s the only job where I can just be. No one’s gonna ask me nothing. It’s safe.”
“Safe?” she mused, “Interesting choice of word”
“Just a warning” she said, “I’m anything but safe”
He looked sideways at her, “Oh, really now”
Victoria frowned instead, “I’m serious Dylan. If you knew who I was, you’d jump out the car right now”
Rilde Flatts made its gloomy debut, a gritty Mesopotamian image. It was California’s shattered dream, blight on the surface of the earth. Cocaine, weed, and meth flowed like rivers here. However, only God deserved to be the judge. People were meant only to observe.
Slipping out into the cold air, he placed a steering lock on the car.
“You ready?” he said.
Her face was pale, the only source of luminescence in the darkness, “This is your show, remember?”
He nodded softly, and contemplated taking her hand.
“Trust me” he said, although he still wasn’t sure of himself.
She nodded, and felt for his hand, fingers locking like a python. They walked towards the door, and there, she looked paler than before.
“You alright?” he said.
“Yes” she said stiffly, “Let’s just get it over with”
The wind played with her hair. Like a beast, the seedy apartment devoured them.
The room was dark and small. Above, he could see a broken fluorescent, wires jutting out on either side. Her décor betrayed her love for aesthetics. In a corner, a Tahitian wooden-idol sat, and on top of that, an exotic plastic flower. On her walls were aligned several less famous works by Andy Warhol, and above her bed, a canvass-sized portrait of Judy Garland.
“Nice place” he said.
She didn’t answer him. Victoria strolled over to a small desk, where a gasp-lamp stood. It lightened with a hiss, pooling the corner with golden light.
“No power” she said, “Sorry”
She laughed nervously, “You’re probably used to Calabasas and the bri--”
“Victoria” he said, “It’s fine”
She turned again, hiding her face.
“You want something to eat?”
“No” he said, “I’m fine”
There was a clock, although he didn‘t see where it was ticking from. He placed his bag in a corner, and pulled out a crucifix. It felt firm in his hand, although he cringed slightly as he touched it, feeling like a phony.
He sought permission in her eyes before strolling towards the window. That would distract him, at least. In the distance, cars honked and whooshed across the roads. Below, he saw the shadow of a man crossing the street. He stumbled, then regained his balance, stumbled, and walked away.
“Drunk” he half-chuckled.
In the distance, more cars honked, and more cars whooshed across the highways. But below, he saw nothing, only darkness. A bush stirred, but that was the only movement in Rilde Flatts so far. Damned couldn’t even come close to describing the place.
“Where did you study Dylan?” Victoria said.
“I never went to college” he shrugged, “After high-school, I jetted off to New York to look for acting jobs.”
“Impressive” she said.
“Got an agent by the name Rheema Smith, best woman I’ve ever known. She got me a movie”
“Stonehedges.” he said, “A very small indie”
“Why’d you quit?”
“I thought I told you already” he said.
She bounced on her bed, “But now I want the real reason”
He ran a hand through his hair, “I told you already”
“You’re lying” she said, “Lying, lying, lying!”
“Ok then,” he said, “Tell me Judge Judy!”
“Gladly” she said, “I think you were scared of failure!”
“You were scared of being rejected” she said, “You were scared of taking risks. All you wanted to be, Dylan Maxwell, was safe”
He bounced the crucifix lightly in his palm.
“Maybe, maybe not”
He didn’t tell her how true her words rang inside.
Ten minutes passed, then an hour. The sound of waiting filled the room.
“Dylan” she said, clearing her throat.
He raised his eyebrows in answer.
Victoria flushed, “Nothing”
His mind knew then that Victoria liked him. But did he return the feelings? He wasn’t so sure. Dylan Maxwell had a tendency to doubt things. He doubted himself, he doubted his existence, he doubted his religion. Being a cardinal, was his own way of assuring to himself something.
And what that something was, Dylan was not very sure.
He looked back at her, and suddenly the blue, God-like eyes were suffocated with words she dare not speak. The muscles around her neck were tensed.
“What’s wrong?” he said, then saw that the God eyes were glistening.
She opened her mouth, “…I’m a prostitute Dylan”
“I’m a prostitute” she said, the self-loathsome tears brimming in her eyelids, “I sell my soul to husbands, and to sons, for sex!”
Dylan Maxwell felt cold all over. He swallowed hard.
The world shifted, slowly, slowly, tottering on its axis, just about to fall, nothing could hold it up, it was going to fall!
“Please forgive me” she said, “Tell your God to absolve me!”
She collapsed on the bed, “I’m sorry! I didn’t…I swear Dylan, I’m gonna quit. When I’m prostituting, it’s just sex…they use me, he uses me. But I swear, I’m gonna quit, I wanna have a soul again”
Stunned into silence, he ran a hand through his hair.
“Say something!” she pleaded, “My soul is dead!”
He inhaled through his nostrils. Victoria was maimed, but he would become her mender.
“I do not judge” he whispered.
She closed her eyelids, “Thank you…”
“I don’t judge” he repeated, “That’s God’s job”
A maimed human, a problem he could fix. He sat down beside her.
“Thank you” she said, touching his hand.
The ‘God’ eyes ensnared him; he could feel the ocean through them.
He put his fingers into her hair, running the other hand across her cheek.
“I love you” he mouthed.
Her fragrance came strong into his nose, and unlocked all his inhibitions.
He unfastened her clothes, letting them drop to the floor.
Then, she dove into him, and they kissed, her lips warm, his hands trembling.
“I love you” she breathed, clutching his hair.
He didn‘t need to repeat the words. His hands and his lips performed the deed for him.
Dylan’s eyes opened to a dark room, Victoria’s apartment. It was still night. He checked his watch, counting the hour hand to 12:55. Mist covered the window like a virus. He slipped out the bed, put on his boxers, and checked his phone for any missed calls. He’d polluted himself, but he didn’t care now.
Looking back the girl, he saw that she was still asleep. It wasn’t his first one-nighter, he’d done it once with a Broadway actress. From that time on, he’d decided to walk the pure way, study under God, obey him, and live. But today, he’d rendered those years insubstantial. His cassock lay bundled in a corner. He pulled on his sock, then the other.
“I’m sorry” he said to her, even though he knew she couldn’t hear.
“I took advantage of you” he said, “I want you to know, I want you to feel--I’m not that kinda guy. It was a long night; we were both lonely and confused, mistakes happen”
He stood up, and took a good look at her.
“I’m sorry” he said, “This’ll never happen again”
The silence was overwhelming. The air itself felt dead.
“Victoria?” he said.
Even though she slept, something about her posture caused his hairs to rise. He crept to her side, looking into her eyes. She was awake, but her eyes were unblinking. Glazed, they stared out into the distance, like glass marbles.
“Victoria?” he said, and whispered softly into her ear.
He touched her, and was met with skin so cold, he jerked his hand back.
He took a long while to understand; Victoria was dead!
“Victoria!” he said, “Stop this!”
He shook her, he handled her, he tried.
His body trembled, his face became clogged with fear, and the feet were numb, he couldn’t feel them, and he lost his balance, hitting the wall with his back. From here, his own hell, he could see her golden hair spilling out the side of the bed.
There was no explanation, only Satan. Satan. It was he. Satan had done this. He’d got him this time. A hysterical laugh crept up Dylan’s throat, where it exploded, the hymn of a mad-man.
“You’ve done your job!” he said, “Now show yourself!”
There was silence.
“I know you Satan!” he blubbered, “You needn’t hide yourself from me! We’re friends you and I”
In his ear, he heard a soft wailing, gradually growing louder. Then, all was silent again.
He breathed, waiting for the appearance. And then, he felt it.
“Who are you?” he said, his voice warbling.
He tried getting up, but his body felt heavy. His crucifix was in his cassock, bundled up below the Andy Warhol artwork. He couldn’t get up, his muscles were made of stone. He tried crawling, but the demons whispered curses at him, lashing his body with ridicule and hypocrisy.
“Ahhhh!” he rasped.
The floor tilted, throwing off his balance.
“Huuuuuuuuuuuuu” the whispers said, right over his ear.
“Leave me” Dylan said, “I beg you, release me!”
With a struggle, Dylan turned his head backwards, towards Victoria’s apartment wall.
It had become a Renaissance painting, with golden clouds drifting imperceptibly on the ground. The sky was a blue watercolor, and there was a silver throne in the center. Dylan could feel a soft, fragranced zephyr coming at his cheek.
“I am Alpha” a voice whispered, “And Omega”
“Pretender!” he shouted.
There was a hair-raising titter which pranced in the hallway outside.
Dylan lifted his hand again, reaching for his cassock. His limbs weighed tons, and tears were released from his eyes as he fought against his body. The demon’s intentions were then clear; it was inviting him to its lair.
“Fine then!” he said, “Have it your way!”
Not surprisingly, Dylan found it easy to stand up once facing in the demon’s direction.
He eyed the cassock, making hurried plans inside his head. Then, a coat of fur brushed passed his cheek. He followed the apparition with his eyes, which materialized into a black dog, before disappearing into thin air.
“Fiend!” a high-pitched voice said. The dog brayed.
On the throne, now stood a hooded man, cloak billowing at his feet.
“I am Alpha” he said, “And Omega. Let there be light…let there be darkness, ha-ha-ha!”
A razor-wind pushed Dylan back, but he resisted.
“Come at me!” he shouted, or do you fear the wrath of God?”
“There is no God!” the man rattled.
“Liar!” Dylan said, “God banishes you demon! The Lord is my fortress and my deliverer”
“The Lord is my fortress and my deliverer” the man said, “Nya, nya, nya!”
Dylan closed his eyes, “My God, my strength, in whom I will trust--”
“Godammit!” he said, “Godammit!”
“…my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold”
“You killed her!” he said, “Ha-ha, look, you killed her!”
Dylan heard a loud screech, then saw a baboon yawning beside the man. He ignored the distractions, “Take my hand demon! In the name of Raphael, be banished!”
“Look you priest!” the demon rattled, “Be banished, be banished! Nya, nya, nya!”
“You have no power!” Dylan screamed.
With a great lunge, Dylan threw himself to where his weapons lay. Fumbling, he pulled the crucifix out. His breath came out tattered, the demon literally choking him. He held the crucifix before the Renaissance painting.
The demon shrieked, then presented the dreamscape of two-thousand armies, sinking into a pit. Their general, a man with a gruff, resounding voice, repeatedly said; “Gas ‘em, gas ‘em good!”
The crucifix trembled in Dylan’s hand.
“Stop his breath!” the beast said, “Herr Lunderndorff wants his head!”
“I banish you with the will of God!”
The baboon screamed, clawing at its stomach. Then everything was gone, and silence fell upon the apartment once more.
Dylan checked his watch. 1:06. He then walked towards the window, rubbing off the mist, checking if his Peugeot was still there. A sheet of ice covered the wind-screen. Dylan looked back at Victoria’s corpse, then at the Judy Garland portrait. He remembered seeing the Wizard of Oz with his sister at the local Cineplex, thirteen years ago.
He carefully stepped into his cassock, still gripping the crucifix. He’d have to do something about that corpse. The demon was gone, he was sure of it. However, something troubled his heart. The demon hadn’t used a host. Demons could never exist purely by themselves, but this one had!
Was Victoria correct in calling it a ghost?
The choking, the razor-wind, the dog’s fur on his cheek, all physical sensations he had felt. In the Middle-Ages, priests used to claim that demons could surface into earth without a host, revealing their true form. And if that could happen, what was to stop the Prince of Darkness, The Lord of the Flies, Lucifer himself, from making his second pilgrimage up to the surface?
He shuddered. No, there was another explanation, there had to be.
He stuffed the girl into a trash-bag, and quietly loaded her into the Peugeot. Driving for what felt like hours, he finally reached the coast. God’s ocean made morning-waves, and the gulls flew over it, and a pink sun had just started to rise in the west.
The rocky coast was night-black, and he made caution not to slip. A crab skittered away, hiding under a pile of rocks. He could smell Victoria’s perfume, a faint trail of something expensive. The edge was peaceful, a vantage-point to the world.
He made a soft prayer and threw the body into the depths, where it landed with a faint splash.
The next day, he entered the darkroom.
His body was tense, sweating from every hole.
The eyes, three, looked into his soul.
Above, a circular orb of light obstructed his vision.
He could see the Judges, and behind them, eternal darkness.
Images of Victoria’s lifeless body haunted him, and haunted him, and haunted him.
Then, he let them speak their sin upon his lips.
“Father!” he cried, “They hear me! As I walk in the light, they see the rot in my eyes! Louder-louder-louder! Do they hear not? Almighty God! No, no! I will scream or die! Louder! Louder! Louder! Louder! Villains! Here, here!--it is the beating of this hideous heart!”
Panting, he waited for his Sentence.
The eyes were cold, and they looked.
And slowly, the Judge rose from his seat, and put his hands together.
The second joined him, repeating the action.
And the third, when he rose, had a warm smile on his face.
The lights blared on, and Dylan gave a bow.