A Grave Mistake (from E is for Exorcism)
Donald scuffed his way back to the hotel, hands in pockets, head down, watching each plodding step he took as if his feet belonged to someone else. The beer and the whisky chasers he had been drinking for most of the day had done their job. His cheeks felt flushed and hot, his eyelids heavy. Up ahead, his friends and fellow drinkers were loud; obnoxious even, slurring bawdy songs to barely remembered tunes. They were laughing and joking, jostling and ribbing, oblivious to the disapproving looks they were earning from people all around them.
Donald had been part of it all a couple of hours ago. Now he felt subdued and heavy, all the laughter gone from him. His head ached, not from the booze – he knew a drink-induced headache well enough to know the difference – but from some kind of, of…
His beer-addled brain struggled to find a word to describe the weight that now sat in his head. A darkness.
He had not felt right since the group had ducked into a quiet churchyard; the next best thing to public toilets for bladders swollen with booze. They had the sense to go to the back of the church, under the cover of some trees and out of immediate sight of the street. A couple of them had watered a large and ancient Yew, giggling like schoolboys.
Donald, his need great, stopped and unzipped his fly the minute he was out of sight. He focused on the arc of his urine as it splashed in a hot, steaming stream of ominously dark-golden rivulets, spattering to the soil at his feet, muddying his boots. The relief was near-blissful. When he was done he zipped up his fly, wiping his hands down his jeans. That was when he saw it.
His toilet of choice turned out to be the door of an old crypt. A skull and crossbones had been sculpted into it, tainted with years of dirt and soot, except for whiter streaks now, where Donald had just washed some of it cleaner. Part of the skull and one end of the crossbones was almost completely black. This was what first caught his eye. What was above it earned his complete attention.
A skeleton, partially hidden by the same black dirt that obscured the skull, was positioned at an almost jaunty angle. The legs were bowed, the ribs wide, no arms to be seen. The skull-face was, as all skulls are, missing features, devoid of all life; yet Donald swore it was looking right at him.
He took a step back, off balance. Behind him, his friends were re-grouping, making their way out of the churchyard. He was unable to follow them, suddenly rooted to the spot.
Words appeared below the skeleton; at least, that was how it seemed to Donald. He could have sworn they were not there before. Against his own will, he found his eyes tracing over the lettering, taking in their meaning.
‘What lies beneath is best left buried,
God help the one who would disturb.
Bring dishonour or disrespect,
And you will take what you deserve.’
Impossibly, alongside the sculpted ribs there rose a bony hand, as if the arm of the skeleton had been buried in the brick itself and was now rising up from it. Donald stood paralysed as a single bony finger uncurled to point at him. The skull face turned into a frown, shaking to and fro as if in admonition.
Donald’s mouth went dry, his palms too. His heart was racing as he sought to put right what he had done wrong.
“I didn’t mean to,” he whispered fervently, “I’m drunk, for God’s sake! It was an accident!”
A large hand clamped on his shoulder. Donald jumped, startled. When he turned to face Graham, he knew his expression was tight with fear.
“Jesus!” Graham laughed, “What are you muttering about? Come on, the others are halfway down the road. I came back to get you, you little lost soul!”
It was meant as a joke, but the words settled upon Donald’s heart like ice. Little lost soul.
He tried to smile, but felt it was more a grimace. He looked back at the wall of the crypt. The accusing arm and wagging finger were gone, as were the words. He felt a coldness settle in his stomach.
He thought about telling Graham what he had seen. Graham would laugh. He would blame the drink, then tell the others. They would never let him live it down.
Perhaps it was the drink. Donald took a step toward his friend, swayed and nearly fell. Graham reached out a hand to catch him.
“Aye aye!” he laughed again, “Can’t handle your drink anymore eh? Come on, a brisk walk and a bite to eat will soon sort you out!”
Donald turned, looking fearfully back at the morbid sculpture on the crypt door. The eyeless sockets in the dead face of the skull seemed to watch him go.
Everything was a blank after that. Donald had no recollection of leaving the churchyard. He didn’t know if he had eaten or had a last drink with the boys. It was as if he was so inebriated he was semi-comatose; yet he was aware he was unaware.
The contradiction was both ridiculous and confusing. His friends had finally stopped geeing him up, losing patience with his slowness, so he plodded wearily back to the hotel, lagging behind them.
He became dimly aware of stepping onto gravel, the texture of the ground beneath his feet changing from hard, flat concrete to the crunch of small stones. Against all the odds, he had reached the place in one piece. He looked up, his head spinning. The large white lettering of the hotel name bore into his brain. The Resting Place. It had seemed a welcoming, relaxing name when they had found and booked it online. Now it had a horrible feel of foreboding. There is more than one kind of resting place after all, his mind whispered to him seductively. He wished he could shut it up.
It must have been Graham who helped him in through the door and up to his room. The next minute he was on his bed, fully clothed.
Then, nothing. He had fallen into drunken stupors many times before. It was like falling into the warm and welcoming arms of an old, forgiving friend. Enveloping, healing oblivion.
Not this time. This time it was as if his very being had been switched off. He had gone from dim awareness to absolute nothingness. Not even darkness. Simply, nothing.
A terrifying, vast and unnavigable nothingness. When he woke his eyes snapped open, wide and shining. As if he had been switched back on again.
But he couldn’t see.
Graham sagged gratefully into his own bed, opposite Donald’s. The rest of the group were variously sharing rooms. They had all quietened down by the time they got to the hotel, the long day and the copious amounts of alcohol finally getting to them.
Donald troubled Graham. Even through the fog of booze he knew something was amiss with his friend. He hoped that a good night’s sleep might be enough to clear away the dark mood that had settled on him.
He turned out the lamp, ignoring his nagging intuition; the tiny, persistent voice that was telling him something was very wrong.
Donald wanted to scream that he was blind, that he couldn’t see a damn thing, but his mouth didn’t seem to be working; at least, not at his say-so. He was trapped deep inside himself, watching internally as his features arranged themselves into a smile. He didn’t want to smile. He wanted to cry; he wanted to beg for help.
He could see Graham, sitting up in the bed opposite. He knew with every fibre of his being that the man was in grave danger. There was nothing he could do to warn him. He was a prisoner inside his own mind, his own body.
Whatever it was that had taken over him, it was a powerful, horribly dark force. Greater, stronger than him. Even as the would-be Donald turned to speak to Graham, the real Donald inside wished his friend would just leave. Just get up and go, get the hell out of that room.
“How you doing this morning?” Graham said. “You had a skin-full yesterday mate, never seen you so bad. Hangover?”
“No,” Donald’s own voice replied. The word was slurred, sloppy. A tendril of drool oozed from the corner of his mouth. Graham’s expression changed slightly, enough to show a trace of uncertainty.
“You sure you’re all right mate? You’re still slurring.”
“Food,” the would-be Donald said. “I’m hungry.”
Inside himself, Donald’s skin went cold. Simple words. Harmless. I’m hungry. So why was his heart pounding?
He saw Graham get up, throw him a worried look, disappear into the bathroom, locking the door behind him. Donald sagged with relief, “Thank God for that!” he told himself.
His body convulsed, locked in a spasm that threw his head so far back his neck would have broken, had he not been somehow possessed.
“Blasphemy!” a harsh, hoarse voice screamed into his ears, “Blasphemy! There are no Gods! There are no Gods!”
Donald felt himself physically shrinking, though he could not escape the sound. It reverberated in his eardrums, pricked at his skin, found its way to his heart. He froze, waiting for some kind of blow.
Nothing happened. His physical body relaxed, the spasm over. The would-be Donald got up, crossing to the locked bathroom door.
He looked through it.
He actually looked through the door; the wood and paint no hindrance at all. He could see Graham at the sink, brushing his teeth, his back to him. His friend looked horribly vulnerable, standing there in his boxer shorts and not much else.
His mouth hissed; a low, drawn out sound that somehow conveyed relish. It was a soft, quiet sound, yet Graham stopped his brushing, turning to look at the door, puzzled. After a few moments, he shrugged, turned back to the sink and rinsed off his toothbrush. He filled the sink with hot water, steam rising from the bowl.
Donald felt his physical arm rise, felt his hand bunch into a fist. He recoiled in shock as it smashed through the door with sickening ease, unable to look away as it lengthened absurdly, crossed the gap between the door and the sink. He saw Graham turn in alarm, saw his face contort into fear and disbelief.
Saw as the hand at the end of the ridiculous arm grabbed Graham by the throat, to pull him off his feet and slam him hard into the bathroom door.
He heard Graham’s cry of pain and terror cut off as the arm repeated the move again, again and again. By the time it was over, Graham was hanging limp and lifeless from the huge hand, with all the animation of a rag doll.
Donald, utterly shocked, watched as the arm pulled the lifeless Graham through the bathroom door, the wood splintering, offering no resistance at all. He realised his body had somehow grown taller, and that he was now bearing down on his friend from height.
He wished he could have closed his eyes for the next part. He felt his own mouth open, so wide that the jaw dislocated on both sides. He felt his teeth sink into the soft flesh of Graham’s shoulder, heard the tearing sound as the flesh came apart to expose the muscle and tendons beneath. Inside himself, all Donald could do was whimper a small ‘no.’
“Hungry!” the would-be Donald said, taking another bite.
Father Mulllin sat in his customary corner of the dining room in The Resting Place. Sunday Morning breakfast, after discharging his duties, was one of the few of life’s little pleasures left to him.
Into his cup he poured steaming tea from a plain white pot, added two lumps of sugar and a dash of milk from the little white jug, then stirred noisily. Drifts of conversation were coming to him from the table behind him, reminding him of his old life, before he took his vows. He set his spoon down, took a welcome mouthful of tea, and honed in on their muted conversation.
Their voices were soft not only in deference to other diners, but because of pounding headaches, he had no doubt. He heard them commiserate with one another on their hangovers, unable to prevent himself from smiling smugly.
He mentally chastised himself at once, recognising the arrogance in himself. He was about to take a second sip of tea, when a howl of desperation reached him from somewhere above.
Father Mullin put down his cup, his hand trembling. He looked around, checking if anyone else had heard it. It seemed not; they were all carrying on just as they were, nothing troubling their breakfast.
He heard it again, only this time not a scream, but something akin to a chant. A whispered, urgent chant; ‘Dear God help me, please help me! Please, I’m begging you. Help me!”
This time, Father Mullin turned in his seat, scanning the room for the lost soul that was begging assistance in the middle of a busy dining room. To his confusion, the room remained undisturbed.
Puzzled, he began to wonder if he had imagined it. He hadn’t slept well, these past few nights. Perhaps that was enough to…
“For the love of God, no! Someone help him! Someone help him! Graham! Oh my God! Graham!”
There was no doubting it this time. He was not imagining it. The voice was real. He had to find who it belonged to; find a way to help them. Before he could move, fresh pleas for help reached his ears.
Someone was sobbing. Heavy and desolate at first, easing at last to nothing more than a few stuttering gasps. Then more whispering; ‘What have I done? What have I done? The boys will never believe me, they’ll never forgive me! What have I done??” More wracking sobs.
The ordinary everyday sounds of the dining room came slowly back to Father Mullin as if from far away. The mysterious voice had gone, yes, but it had left him shaken to the core. Someone here needed him.
He thought again about what the sobbing man had said. He had screamed the name ‘Graham,’ mentioned ‘the boys.’
There was only one group in the dining room that could fit that description. His mouth dry, his face creased with worry, Father Mullin rose from his seat, crossing to their table on trembling legs.
“Please excuse me gentlemen. I realise this may sound strange to you, but I think one of your number might be in need of help. In fact, I think he might be in some danger.”
The men looked up at the priest in undisguised surprise. They exchanged glances, unsure how to take his interruption. At last, one of them spoke.
“No disrespect Father, but if you’re after saving anyone’s souls, we’re all way beyond help.”
A ripple of appreciative laughter ran through the group, the men returning to their food, dismissing the priest.
“No, I don’t think you understand me. I am not interested in converting any of you; I really do think one of your friends needs help. I think his name might be Graham?”
He spoke the name as a question, but he saw he had their attention at once. Eager not to lose them, he pressed on, “I don’t know what kind of trouble exactly, I don’t even know where he is, in fact,”
That earned him a few scornful looks. Nonetheless, it prompted discussion.
“I don’t know what he’s on about,” a fork waved in Father Mullin’s direction, “but you’ve got to admit it’s unusual for Donald to miss a cooked breakfast. Graham too, come to that.”
The speaker looked at Father Mullin, “Our friend’s name is Graham, yes. How do you know that?”
The priest was at a loss for words. How could he make these men believe him when he hardly believed it himself? Words, sobbing, that no one else could hear? They would laugh him out of the hotel.
To his relief, he had no need to answer. One of the men checked his watch, pushed back his chair and stood, stretching.
“Whatever, I think I should give them a shout anyway. It’s getting late and I’m pretty sure they’ll want to eat before we head for home.”
“Donald’s probably still too hammered to face breakfast,” one of them said, shovelling sausage and egg into his mouth.
“We’ll soon find out,” the man said, giving Father Mullin one last, curious look before navigating his way round the tables and up the stairs.
Father Mullin felt suddenly foolish. The men had lost interest him. He wove his way back to his chair, sitting down, absent-mindedly reaching for his cup. Had he imagined it?
Bare minutes later, he knew he had done no such thing. A yell of horror reached the dining room, though this time he saw at once that everyone had heard it. His heart pounding, Father Mullin flew from the dining room, racing up the stairs. He muttered a silent, urgent prayer as he went.
Heavy footsteps followed behind him. Someone called for him to wait. He did not stop.
No need to ask which room it was. The man who had gone in search of his friends was standing just outside the open door of one of the bedrooms. His hands were raised, gripping his hair, giving him a look of helplessness. His skin was pale, deathly looking, his breath coming in huge, great gasps that seemed to steal oxygen from him, rather than give it.
Father Mullin stopped less than six feet away. He felt the others approach behind him and he held up a hand to stop them, not bothering to turn around. They halted without argument.
Father Mullin took a step closer, intending to offer comfort to the stricken man standing in the doorway. Before he reached him, a voice rasped into life, stopping him in his tracks, making his flesh crawl.
“Fuck off! Dirty, filthy priest! Bastard whoremonger! Blasphemer! Liar! Get back!”
Father Mullin felt all at once weak. There was something about the voice, not the words, that gave him the impression the speaker was capable of sucking the very life out of him.
He looked around, taking in the astonished and frightened expressions of the men watching. He saw another figure too. There was a woman some way behind the men, her eyes wide with fear.
“I’m the manageress,” she tried to sound commanding and failed, “What the hell is going on here?”
Father Mullin shrugged his shoulders in answer. He raised a finger to his lips, urging her to silence, then turned back to the scene before him.
The man was still rooted to the spot, unable to tear his eyes from whatever lay within that room. Father Mullin addressed the group in whispers.
“What’s his name?”
“Andy,” one of them responded, “his name’s Andy.”
Father Mullin took another step towards him.
“I’m coming to you Andy,” he said, not sure where or how to begin, “It’s all right.”
“It’s not!” Andy sobbed, unmoving. “You can’t see what I can!”
A cold, clammy sweat crept along the priest’s skin. He reached for the crucifix he kept tucked close to his heart, the hard metal pressing into his chest a comfort to him. He lifted it up to his lips, kissing it before he looped the chain over his neck to clench the crucifix tight in his hand. The action gave him courage. Resolved, he took the final steps to close the gap between himself and Andy.
“There now,” he said, as if to a child, “you can rest your arms. Let them down.” He reached up, gently lowering Andy’s hands, pressing them against his sides. The man’s body was fraught with tension. He turned to face Father Mullin, tears shining in his eyes
“Look,” was all he said.
Father Mullin was a priest. A man of God. If anyone should have the strength to face whatever waited in that room, it was him.
His instincts screaming that he should turn and run, get as far away from this place as he could, it took every scrap of his belief to step into that doorway; to look upon the sight that had already left one man paralysed with fear.
He nearly cried out. Almost fell to the floor, weak with horror. He could not for one second have envisaged seeing this.
A man, his bones cracked and bent at all angles, his clothes torn and blackened, stood facing the door. He looked like a badly made puppet somehow come to life. He should not have been able to stand on those snapped limbs, to point with those twisted fingers. To speak through that ruined mouth. Not because of how horribly distorted it was, but because of what was in it.
The limp form of what had once been a man, hung from that mouth. His clothing had been ripped from him in shreds and tatters, the walls and carpet covered in spatter and gore. Much of his skin had gone, allowing pink flesh and dark muscle to sag and droop. His head was flung back, mercifully lifeless. There were no feet, nor hands, to brush the floor, just ruined and bloody stumps.
The men, unable to stand not knowing what was in that room any longer, pushed and jostled behind him, needing to see just what was so awful. They fell away, repelled and disgusted.
Father Mullin’s mind raced. At first, it was all he could do to keep from vomiting his breakfast there and then. He fought to calm down. These people needed him. He should tell someone to call an ambulance, to fetch the police; yet something told him that this was one incident that would prove beyond their remit. This was not a case for handcuffs and bandages. There wasn’t a paramedic in the world that could bring that man back to life. He ushered the men away from the door, laying his hands on their shoulders, murmuring prayers and blessings, doing what he could to keep them safe.
Clutching the crucifix so tight it left an imprint in his hand, Father Mullin spoke to the abomination again.
“Why are you here, demon?”
A laugh, deep, hollow, old as time, flooded the corridor. Everyone there shivered, seemed to somehow shrink at its blast. Consciously, Father Mullin stood as tall as he could, determined to face this evil down.
“You think you can best me, priest?” the voice sneered, “You and your poxy trinket!”
Father Mullin considered. He was as out of his depth as he had ever been, yet he was the one who wore his faith like a badge, wasn’t he? What if this was a test, from God? What if the time had come to prove himself?
He thought hard. It was obvious, he supposed, that a demon would see a priest as a threat. That meant only one thing, if you thought about it carefully.
He really was a threat to the demon.
As if it had read his thoughts, the demon laughed again. Up and down the long hotel corridor, doors rattled violently on their hinges.
“What do you propose to do, priest?” it spat the word out. “I will snap you in two, like a twig caught in a winter wind.”
Father Mullin considered, ignoring the threat though he trembled from head to foot, “Why are you here?”
“Hah! I am always here! I walk among you all the while. I reside in the hearts of men!” His words reached a crescendo, so that he screamed the last of them. Father Mullin forced a weak smile to his face.
“That is not true, demon,” he said. “God resides in the hearts of men, even of those who do not know it. You are unnatural. An abomination in the eyes of God, so I will ask you again, why are you here?”
The demon did not use words to reply this time. Instead, he allowed the ragged corpse to fall from his lips, drool slobbering, uttering a wet snarl. Father Mullin screwed up his courage to look the creature in the eye. There was a man there, still, he saw, buried deep within this monstrosity. A man who was as much a victim of the beast as the bloodied corpse now on the floor. He felt a rush of sympathy, swiftly followed by a hot anger that surprised even him.
“How dare you, Beast? How dare you enter this innocent man’s soul and …”
He was cut off, alarmed as the demon took a step towards him.
“There is no innocence in this mortal, priest. He is marked for the Devil. His black heart welcomes him. He invited me in!”
“What do you mean, his heart is marked? How could he have invited you in? “
“I am the punishment for his transgression! Beelzebub gives me leave to show my form. Let your paltry God deal in forgiveness. Your puny, feeble God! This ignorant mortal made a grave mistake. Ha! A grave mistake!”
It took another step, trampling the corpse beneath its feet. It belched, a hellish stench billowing out through the door to hit the priest in the face. He blanched, swallowing hard, trying for a second time not to vomit where he stood. Along the corridor, he heard retching and heaving.
“I’m getting help!” the manageress shrieked, terror in her voice. “I’m calling the police. I’m getting help!” She turned and ran, heading for the door to the stairs as fast her legs would allow. The men turned to watch her go.
“No!” the demon softly intoned.
The manageress’s feet lifted from the floor. Air raced down her throat, cold as ice, preventing her screams as she was hurtled at speed down the corridor. She flew like a dart thrown, hard and accurate, to smash headfirst into the safety glass in the stairs door.
That glass should have stopped her dead. Instead, she passed through it, shattering it to myriad pieces, cutting her clothes and skin to shreds. She did not stop until she hit the wall beyond, her head disappearing into it impossibly deeply, when she became suddenly limp; dangling from her broken neck like on old coat hanging on a bent hook.
“Oh my God!” someone said, “Did you see that? What the hell?” Yet nobody moved to help her, all of them afraid to move.
Sickened, Father Mullin addressed the demon.
“You did not need to do that,” he said
“Need? No. Desired? Yes.” It snickered softly, drawing thin lips back over wickedly sharp teeth.
Before the incident with the manageress, Father Mullin had felt he had been close to learning something important. Unable to do anything to help the woman, he steadied his nerves and spoke again.
“What was the grave mistake he made?” Father Mullin asked.
The demon’s grin disappeared. He stood tall, stretching the broken limbs of the man he possessed. Growing so tall his head reached the ceiling, forcing him to bend forward to accommodate his new height.
“That is of no concern to you, false and feeble man. He is mine, now.”
As daunted as he was by the huge apparition, the demon’s words stirred something in the priest’s mind. He recalled how all this began. He had heard a voice in his head; a voice begging for help.
‘For the love of God, no! Someone help! Someone help him!
A demon would never beg for help, nor for God’s love. The voice must have belonged to the man who was now possessed. He was right, then. He did still exist somewhere inside this demonic figure. It was not he who had killed his friend or the unfortunate manageress.
There might be some hope, yet.
Praying he was right; that the man was still in there somewhere, buried deep, pushed further and further down as this demon grew in strength, Father Mullin considered. If he could find a way to speak to him, not the demon. If he could just work out what his transgression against the Devil had been, he might yet be able to find a way to stop all this.
He turned suddenly to the group of men.
“What happened last night?” he demanded.
They looked at him stupidly, seemingly confused at the question.
“Last night!” he snapped, “What happened? What did you do?”
In the room, the demon began a weird, sinister rocking, making a sound like purring.
“We went out,” one of them finally answered, “we were out all day.”
“But where did you go? What did you do?”
“What’s that got to do…”
“Answer me! What did you do?”
A shrug, “We did a pub crawl, visited most of the pubs in town. Then in the evening we stopped for a bite to eat and then came home. I mean, back to the hotel.”
“And that’s it? You didn’t go anywhere else? Nowhere off the beaten track? Nothing happened that seemed strange to you?”
“No,” the man said.
“There was one thing,” another voice spoke up.
“What?” the priest demanded.
The man shrugged, “Well, we went into that old churchyard, remember?” He looked around his friends for affirmation. There were a few nods.
“A churchyard? Why would you do that?”
“Let’s just say this town could do with some more public toilets.”
Father Mullin was taken aback. “Toilets? That could not possibly have anything to do with all this, surely? Which church?” He was met with blank faces.
“Well where is it? What’s it near? A pub? A shop? What?”
“It’s an old looking church. I think it’s just across the road from the cinema. Seems out of place there, somehow.”
“St Abundius,” Father Mullin murmured, trying to think. Abundius was one of the older saints in the Roman Catholic church. He couldn’t imagine what could possibly be there to have caused this.
The beginnings of a plan formed in his head. Knowing that he would be tested here like never before, he began to put it into action.
“All of you, go back down to the church now. Look around there. Try to remember where you were standing, where you trod. If you see anything that seems strange or out of place to you, anything at all, no matter how small or insignificant it might be, I need to know about it. You can’t tell anyone about what’s happening here, you can’t bring any rescuers back; not if you don’t want anyone else dead. Not if you want a chance to save your friend.”
“What’s left of him,” one of them said in an abject tone.
“Even if all that’s left of him is his soul, it’s still worth saving!” the priest admonished, “It is the most important part of all.”
“We don’t believe in all that shit!”
“Even after all you’ve seen here today?”
The man fell silent, hushed.
The demon in the room ceased its rocking. It had taken to sitting on the corpse, crushing its organs beneath its weight. In spite of its horrific appearance, it contrived to look bored.
Father Mullin knew the hardest part of his plan would be distracting the demon long enough to allow the men to get out. Before someone else ended up neck-deep in a wall. He also knew he ran the risk that they might not come back.
No matter. He was all out of choices. It was in God’s hands now.
He whispered, even though he knew the demon would probably hear every word, “Don’t try to leave until I give you the signal.” Hoping the men had heard and would obey.
He turned back to the demon, “What is your name?” He spoke as if he had just met someone at a party. The demon gave him an appreciative chuckle.
“I am Legion.” His voice echoed around the small room.
“That old chestnut,” Father Mullin sneered, fear and dread pricking at his neck, “No name of your own then? You scorn men, yet you are nothing more than a plaything yourself, locked in servitude to an overlord who does not care if you live or die!”
The demon growled, “Silence, priest! You are the dog shit of mankind. You do not know the power I have within me. I am no servant!”
“Not even to the Prince of Darkness? The Morning Sun? Beelzebub himself?” His words were loaded with sarcasm, “You deny being his servant?” His mouth ran dry, a metallic taste on his tongue.
The demon looked up. Father Mullin saw fire in his eyes.
“I can break you,” it hissed.
“You said as much before, yet here I am.” His arms wide as if in invitation, Father Mullin wondered if he was going mad, deliberately antagonising such evil. “You talk a lot, demon. Why not do it, if you really can?”
“You dare to doubt me?” It stood tall again, bent at the neck where it reached the ceiling.
As devout as Father Mullin was, he had never before experienced a revelation as strong as he did at that moment. He was suddenly filled with a pure, bright light. An unbending certainty. He knew why the demon had not yet attacked him.
It was afraid of him.
God was in Father Mullin’s heart, mind and soul just as surely as he was in his living being. He was consumed with Him; not merely his servant, but his representative, put here on earth to do his bidding. He felt as if his whole life had been building towards this point. The demon had not yet taken him on, because it was afraid. It was right to be so. To lose this battle was unthinkable to the priest. He could only win.
He almost felt sorry for the Beast.
“Do your worst, servant!” he sneered, stepping into the room. As he did so, he lifted his left hand, giving a thumbs up to the men waiting in the corridor. He heard them hurry away, terror giving them speed. Then he gave himself up to the fight.
The men stumbled out of the hotel, shoving people out of their way. None of them stopped to answer questions or offer explanations. They could not believe what they had witnessed that morning. They could not deny it, either.
They found the church without much trouble. As before, the gates were open and unlocked. In the sober light of day, they saw that it was a forbidding building, despite its religious leaning. It seemed dark, somehow unwelcoming. Had they not been so drunk the night before they might well have pushed on until the next pub, to use the facilities there.
“I’m not sure I want to go in there to be honest.”
“I don’t think any of us wants to Danny,” John replied, “But look what’ll happen if we don’t.”
They went in together, rounding the church to find the areas they had used the night before. Apart from a strange stillness, nothing seemed unusual.
They looked as best they could, but nothing obvious jumped out at them. Deflated, they were about to leave when Danny stopped short, calling them back.
“Hang on a minute boys. Isn’t this where Donald went last night? He was so desperate to piss he barely managed to get round the back here before he was unzipping his fly, right?”
A few non-committal shrugs.
“Right, well that’s what I think anyway,” Danny went on.
“So? What about it?” John asked, growing frustrated.
“I don’t know,” Danny admitted, “It just feels weird to me, that’s all. Feels wrong somehow.” He blushed, stepping back to allow the others to see.
Cautiously, the group came closer, looking to where Danny was pointing. It appeared to be nothing more than another old crypt, skulls and skeletons giving it an eerie feel
“It’s just another pile of old bones,” John said, turning his back on it in readiness to walk away, “What’s the point of these fucking things anyway?” he demanded, “Once you’re dead, you’re dead.” He hawked deep, then spat, a gobbet of saliva hitting the outer edge of the crypt wall. He stalked off, hands in his pockets, an air of defiance about him.
After a few paces, he turned to find that his friends were not following him. They were all staring at the crypt as if it had cast some kind of spell on them.
“For fuck’s sake, what now?” he muttered, raising his voice to shout, “Come on boys, let’s go!”
“I think you better get back here.” Danny sounded deathly serious.
Exasperated, John stalked back to them, ready to dismiss whatever it was and get back to the hotel. He looked down at what they were all staring at and felt the blood freeze in his veins.
Beneath the morbid sculptures of skulls and bones, words seemed to have blossomed onto the surface of the crypt wall. They were bad enough, their meaning sinking into his senses as he took them in:
‘What lies beneath is best left buried,
God help the one who would disturb.
Bring dishonour or disrespect,
And you will take what you deserve.’
It was only after he had read it twice over, that he looked up to see the finger pointing outwards.
Pointing at John.
“You don’t think…” Danny began, leaving the question unfinished.
“Think what?” John barked, suddenly angry, “Just take a picture of the damn thing and let’s get back to the hotel.”
Danny took out his mobile phone. He took several photographs, ready to show the priest. He was pretty certain they had found what they had been looking for.
By the time they made it back to the high street, when John had sunk into a deep, introspective mood, falling well behind the group just as Donald had done the night before, Danny was convinced of it.
The hotel car park was packed with police cars and ambulances when they got back. They were not allowed back into the premises, no matter how much they protested that they were needed. A police officer took them aside to take a statement, incredulous at their story, muttering something under his breath about group hysteria to a fellow officer. They were threatened with arrest if they didn’t calm down. One or two of them ended up in the back of a police car.
The only one who escaped their attention was John. He skulked in the background, silent and unseen. He could feel himself growing smaller, weaker, inside his own body. He had no intention of ending up the same way as Donald. Believing that only the priest could help him, he used the ruckus his friends were causing as a distraction. He darted round to the back of the building, bounding up the fire escape two steps at a time. A young police officer chased him, shouted warnings against him going inside, threatening him with criminal action. John kept going. He hoped he could keep the young man away before the demon he was convinced was growing inside him did something to hurt him.
That grave. It had to be that damned grave. If he could get to the priest before the demon took him over completely, there might be a chance he could exorcise it.
He came up against the cold exterior of a locked fire door. He spun, like a cat cornered, in time to see the young officer reach the last step and draw level with him.
“Please son,” John begged, praying he could make the young man believe him, “you don’t understand. Just back off now, before you get hurt, please.” He could hear himself slurring.
“Are you drunk, sir? You realise it is an offence to threaten a police officer?”
John groaned inwardly. How could he make him see?
Too late. He felt a force shift inside himself. Something huge and dark. John wanted to stop it, to keep the young officer from harm, but he was helpless. Whatever was in charge of his body now was far bigger and stronger. He watched from inside his own eyes as hands that seemed no longer to belong to him, swept back in a wide, powerful motion. They caught the officer mid-chest, knocking him off his feet and over the rail. He fell, screaming, to the hard ground below. John screamed a silent and unheard ‘no’ from deep within himself, helpless to do anything but watch.
Lost in his own being, he began to sob. Outwardly, the would-be John laughed spitefully, leaning over the railing to look down on the shattered body of the policeman, colleagues running to him, looking up at the figure at the top of the fire escape, recoiling at what they saw.
Father Mullin was confused. Relieved, but confused. One moment he had been locked in battle with a dark and deadly force, the next he was suddenly and shockingly alone in the corridor. Two corpses lay before him. One belonging to the man named Graham, the other belonging to Donald; the man who had been possessed. He had not saved them after all, but he seemed to have defeated the demon.
The fight had raged, spilling out of the small bedroom. For the priest, it had been a battle of wills as much as anything. He had prayed harder than he had hit, resorting to violence only when there was no choice to do otherwise.
He had been surprised to find he had any effect on the demon at all. Part of him expected his blows to go unfelt. It seemed God had granted him all the strengths he might need, including physical force. The demon had picked him up and thrown him more than once, slamming him into the walls at will. All the while, Father Mullin had kept up his chant, delivering every word with every ounce of his belief.
“Lord, deliver this man of this evil spirit. Send this soldier of the devil back to its hellish army, bound beneath the earth, hid from the light of the world. Keep him and his kind from the eyes and hearts of man! Lord, deliver this man of this evil spirit. Send this soldier of the devil back to its hellish army, bound beneath the earth, hid from the light of the world. Keep him and his kind from the eyes and hearts of man!”
Over and over again, gripping the crucifix so hard he began to bleed, anointing it with his blood. He had shut his eyes in the end, unable to bring himself to look upon the sickening face of the demon. It had helped, to close his eyes. He saw the glory of God all the better in the dark.
He had been hurled the length of the corridor, hitting the bar of the fire door painfully. He fell to the carpet, opening his eyes with trepidation, convinced he was about to meet his maker.
Then it had all stopped. The demon-possessed man had fallen like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Father Mullin could scarcely believe his eyes. Had he done it? Had he driven out the Devil? He lay there for what felt like an eternity, contemplating the wonder of what he had achieved.
Something thumped against the fire door behind him. Groaning with the effort, the priest staggered to his knees, pushing down on the long horizontal bar that released the lock.
The heavy door swung open. He recognised the man behind it as one of the group he had sent to the church, to find what they could that might have helped. He was about to explain that it was unnecessary now, that the demon had been vanquished, when something in the man’s demeanour gave him pause.
He was sweating profusely, an odd light in his eyes. A short string of saliva hung from the corner of his mouth. When he spoke, he slurred.
“I came as quick as I could, priest,” he said, a grin playing upon his tightly stretched lips.
Deep within the would-be John, the real man screamed in anguish, driving the air out of his lungs as he roared the words he prayed the priest would hear.
“Don’t let him in Father! For God’s sake, don’t let him in!”
Father Mullin blinked, confused. He could have sworn he heard another voice, a smaller voice, coming from somewhere. It sounded a bit like the voice in his head he had heard when Donald had first begged for his help.
He turned, looking back at the discarded puppet-corpse of the possessed man, trying not to believe what was happening.
Behind him, would-be John grinned, and closed the door.
E is for Exorcism is available for Kindle, in paperback, and on Audible here.
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