I’m half-naked on the toilet, straining, near tears, when an arctic blast rattles the door. I snap a look at the knob. Please don’t start turning.
Trifling mercies keep it still. But from the other side, my name is spoken: Father Show. Father Show.
The Demon again. Menace has a syrupy voice.
I’ve found another for you, Priest. Very... angelic.
“Just go. Please go.”
I could be addressing my bowels. Agony clenches many things shut at the same time: eyelids, hands, sphincter.
My best find yet. One look and you’ll imagine a halo and wings, Priest.
Another frigid gust assaults the door, throwing it open. Shrieking, I fall off the commode and immediately scramble, right hand reaching for the wall, left hand yanking up my underwear. Breath makes blank cartoon bubbles at my lips. The chill could be the Demon’s presence, but there’s a more natural explanation. My accommodation’s single window is raised, letting in the snow and sleet. I opened it myself before going to bed—an attempt at penance, self-flagellation through temperature.
I also thought that violent chills might induce a bowel movement.
I’ll be waiting inside him, Priest. His name is Michael. Isn’t that delicious?
The Demon’s voice grows distant. I lean my whole torso out the window and shout, “This time I won’t go! I’ll refuse!” A vigorous burst of weather stabs me in withdrawing. The wind flings the curtains back, settling them about my shoulders, my only stole in this midnight hour.
More stole than I deserve. At least the Demon is gone—
And then the curtains cinch tight around my neck.
Father No-Show. If you refuse me, I will torment the boy beyond all imagining. I will make it clear no priest but you can drive me out. One way or another, you will come.
I choke out a curse. “Bastard-thing.”
We are all ruined creatures, Priest.
Like arms, the curtains shove me to the floor. I point my finger at them. “I believe God is my creator, and through Him we are—”
The curtains curl up and down along the window, a lascivious mime of groping hands. Then the window drops with such force the glass almost shatters. The possessed boy’s image appears in the pane. I reach toward it reflexively. Icy glass shocks me out of expectation for warm skin and I run out of the room and into the Priory of Saint Luke’s labyrinthine corridors. The late night’s dimness makes them even more confounding. How can a place built in the age of electricity feel so ancient, so suited for wall-mounted torches?
That door there—it goes to—to—who cares, anyplace is better than my room—
There—another door. Also locked.
I knock and move on.
Am I alone here? Where are the brothers and sisters I met and dined with just hours ago?
Initial fright from the Demon had knocked back my abdominal discomfort. Now it makes a roaring return, forcing me to bend over. Gasping, I barrel on blindly until finding another set of doors that surely lead to the safety of the chapel.
Wrong again. I find myself outside the Priory. Snow mauls my bare feet.
Back inside. Back inside now.
How quick would it take to die of exposure? My thoughts latch onto the notion that it would take sixty minutes. Not bad.
Unfortunately only forty-five minutes pass before my kind hosts, my brothers and sisters in Christ, find me in what they assume is a state of delirium.
I’m not quite delirious enough to have lost my wits, though.
And certainly not delirious enough to confess.
The call comes eight days later. A fourteen-year-old named Michael Napier shows all the symptoms of possession. How fortunate he lives close to where the Church’s most capable exorcist happens to be recuperating.
How very coincidental.
My stomach complaints have ebbed during that time, with occasional assertions of dominance. I lie to the Priory’s physicians about having bowel movements again. My appetite is good. God knows where the food goes. Internally I must be up to my neck in feces. But I do feel better. One might even say I feel a stirring in my soul.
Before my departure, the Prior says, “I understand the child’s parents were atheists, but now that they’ve seen the power of Satan they are taking religious instruction. A shame it took—as is all too typical—such an extreme situation to guide them.”
“We often don’t strive for light until we’ve sunk into total darkness.”
Sometimes I can’t believe the things I say, even if I know I do believe them.
“You are the light of God and it has been an honor having you here, Father Show. But are you well enough? I know it has not been long since your last encounter with the Adversary.”
How different the Prior’s tone is compared to the tense conversation we had last night. Maybe he’s forgotten about the movie, or decided it’s not the threat he first thought. I grip his right forearm. “God will remove any remaining infirmaries.”
Then I set off with my bible and bag of tricks, driving thirty miles to the Napier’s residence. Beware, Demon! Your exorcist is coming in a sky blue 2012 Toyota Corolla rented for me by the Archdiocese.
Can’t you just hear Gabriel’s trumpet blare?
How many demons exist in creation? Scour for answers in Christian theology, grimoires, the Ars Goetia, and countless ancient texts, and you’ll find answers ranging from hundreds to hundreds of thousands. But my adversary has always been the same demon. After twenty separate encounters, I still don’t know its name.
But it certainly knows mine.
Demons are good at reading minds, one of the first things I learned in my exorcism courses at the Vatican. You must bury your thoughts. Better still, have no impure thoughts that can be used against you. But everyone has some desire, some regret, some guilt. Some. Others, like me, have numbers in each category exceeding even a liberal definition of some. The Demon understood this during our first confrontation. Had his victim been a woman or a man, or even a girl, I would have been safe. But he chose a twelve-year-old boy, and I was undone.
Six hours into our combat, after ranting away at me in Portuguese while I read the Rite of Exorcism for the seventieth time, the Demon suddenly quieted down. The lad, soaked through with sweat, went limp. Thinking myself victorious, I bent to free his bound hands. As soon as I did, he seized one wrist and brought my fingers under his t-shirt and held them there. The heat made me gasp. Then, speaking through the boy’s mouth, the Demon said, “Let us be partners, Priest.”
I tried to free myself only once. Then I stared as the Demon guided my fingertips further down the boy’s body.
“There are better ways to drive me out, Father Show.”
Hearing that, I knew the Demon had penetrated deeply into my imagination.
“You and me, Priest. We’ll run the ultimate grift. I will make you famous.”
A Faustian bargain, if Faust were a babysitter. I was thirty years old at the time, a virgin who planned to stay that way because the ramifications of the sex I wanted were too dire, the sex itself too corrupt. I’d wrestled with these desires a long time, only dimly aware how many similar people there were coming to an identical conclusion. We became Priests, hoping for security in radical devotion. Specious reasoning. As complaints rose, the Church shuffled many of us around and worked hard to conceal our transgressions. Those who were caught, those who stayed too long and too brazenly at the trough, were of course vilified.
But not me.
The Demon was good on its word.
I got famous.
The Napiers are waiting on the porch when I arrive. The way they shiver, it seems likely they’ve been standing out there for hours—afraid to be inside the same house as poor possessed Michael. The Demon has a flare for showmanship that’s not above pinching ideas from Hollywood special effects artists. Such manifestations of his power are overkill considering his natural voice alone could cause mental breakdowns in most people, especially when heard from a child’s mouth.
But the Demon reserves that little treat for me.
The Napiers come to the driveway to greet me. “Father Show?”
Mrs. Napier hugs me. “We’re so glad you’re here. Our son—”
“I know.” They follow me onto the porch but seem content to stay outside. I have to gesture to be let in. They open the door but I pass through alone while they linger at the threshold.
Just as well. The ceiling light’s blinking, making the place seem like a bit of a discotheque. After a minute spent observing the pattern, it’s clear the Napiers obviously have no familiarity with Morse code.
Because the Demon is communicating how enticing their son looks.
“It’s freezing in here.”
“We know,” Mr. Napier says. “We’ve had the furnace running at full blast for days but nothing changes. It’s scientifically impossible, but—”
“We’re beyond science now, sir.”
“I didn’t want to believe it. The chill started even before Michael’s problems. I thought there must be an open window or—”
“You have to have faith, honey,” Mrs. Napier says. “Like Father Show just said.”
I don’t recall saying anything like that but let the assertion pass. Watching young, self-assured atheists being bludgeoned into religious conviction is both tiresome and horrific, plus I just want to get on with it. So I hold up my hands and say, “We’ll concern ourselves with the heating bill later. In the meanwhile, I intend to send this devil back to some place infinitely warmer.”
Relief breaks into their expressions. Mrs. Napier starts crying. “Thank you, Father! For the first time, I feel like I have hope.”
Like big rocks dropped into a very shallow pool, these words land hard in the pit of my stomach. My lower lip trembles. Mr. and Mrs. Napier are very beautiful people, even with their faces scarred by despair. I have a fair idea of what Michael must look like.
“Please stay down here,” I say. “Or go warm yourself in your car if you’d like.”
“But aren’t you afraid? What if something goes wrong and you’re all alone?”
I clutch my bible as my stomach gives its first significant twinge in many days. I force a smile into my grimace and whisper, “With this, I’m never alone.”
I didn’t completely surrender on the Demon’s first offer. Or even on the second. But it saw I could be tempted, and on each subsequent encounter the Demon read my mind a little more, probed my desires. He found my weakness-made-flesh in a fourteen-year-old named Jacob Myerson. The boy’s mother died in childbirth and the father—brave, noble soul—insisted on being in the room with me during the exorcism, praying, shouting at the Demon to leave his son.
No doubt sensing my fever pitch, the Demon made a Little League trophy fly off Jacob’s bookshelf and strike the back of the father’s head. He crumpled, unconscious, and Jacob stood up. The Demon used the boy’s own voice to speak to me, asking me to share the secrets of manhood.
After it was over, the Demon reverted to its own voice. “Next time will be easier. Next time you won’t hesitate.”
“No. There mustn’t be a next time. This was wrong.”
As if I were talking to a consciousness that could be lectured.
“Will you confess what you have done?”
I gritted my teeth. The Demon laughed a long time, and as that laughter faded to echoes I knew he was leaving the boy. I got up and wrapped him in the top sheet. Jacob’s father regained consciousness, waking to find me holding his gently sobbing son. I stepped away to let the two of them embrace.
Outside Michael Napier’s bedroom door, the pain flares to the point I have to bend forward slightly and touch my stomach. From the other side, Michael’s spirited voice calls out. “I’m waiting for you, Father Show!”
I touch the knob, notice the heat and feel the door itself. Quite warm. Then I know the Demon’s made the boy’s room into a sauna. Going in confirms it. Michael Napier writhes on the bed, glistening. The Demon was right. One look and I imagine the halo and the wings.
This is too much.
There’s a chair at the foot of the bed. I sit down and run my fingers through my dampening hair.
“Tell me I have not outdone myself, Father Show-n-Never-Tell.”
Stop this. You must stop yourself.
I reach for my bible.
“He’s all yours.”
I cast my gaze at the ceiling. Layers of plaster, electrical wiring, insulation, timber frame and roof tiles won’t shield me from the eyes of God now any more than in the past.
But what if He’s looking elsewhere?
One rationalizes. It is the price of having reason. Or perhaps it is reason’s lure. Before one sins, one rationalizes. One explains to oneself.
One makes a list of justifications and chooses from the list.
The Demon is defeating itself, I told myself. Each time I fall, the Church is strengthened. The families I help may have misplaced faith, but misplaced faith can be the strongest of all. It does not matter how the Demon is vanquished as long as it leaves the boy and as long as God and the Church get credit for the departure.
So I fell into a routine with the Demon, waiting for it to choose another boy and egg their parents into calling for me. I didn’t quite realize how far I’d sunk until a year and a half later, when I caught myself whistling as I jauntily climbed the steps to the bedroom of the twentieth possessed boy. I stopped and turned to find his parents standing at the base of the stairs, expressions of terror and confusion and hurt on their faces. I realized how dismissive I’d been from the moment I entered their house, treating their worries as a baseless trifle. At that moment, I couldn’t even remember their names—or the name of the boy I’d come to see.
The Demon, used to a more eager Priest, said, “Why the sad face?”
It started undressing. I grabbed the boy’s arms to stop him.
“Restraint is not in our nature, Priest.”
With the slightest shove, the boy flung me across the room and I went sprawling against the wall. The Demon moved the boy toward me. This time I lunged for my bag and seized my gold crucifix with its Bas-relief image of our dying Savior. Kissing it and holding it out for protection felt so strange. The crucifix, about the length of my index finger, was part of my armament, issued to me in the way a soldier’s gun is given to him. But after accepting my arrangement with the Demon, I’d not even bothered with the pretense of it in months.
The boy adopted a wry expression. “I’m not a vampire, Father Show.”
His hand closed over the cross, and I felt the dampness of his palm. That’s when I understood the Demon had not been referring to itself in the plural when it spoke of our nature.
God give me restraint!
I wrenched the crucifix away and put it against his forehead. Nothing happened. The Demon slapped me onto my back, took up the crucifix and brought it to my lips. He strangled me until I opened my mouth, then he shoved the crucifix all the way to my throat. Feeling it lodged in my esophagus, I began to swallow and gag. Gold might be a soft metal, but the crucifix’s edges were sharp, and there was no transubstantiation.
He pushed the cross further and I gulped it down with several more painful swallows. I tasted blood. Revulsion shot through me. With all my mustered strength I got the boy off me and stood. He smirked at me from the floor.
I spat blood on him.
For just a second, the boy’s expression changed to surprise. But if the Demon felt any sense of astonishment, he recovered quickly.
I fled down the stairs and passed the terrified parents. Their pleas grew fainter as I kept running. But the Demon left, and I got credit for another successful exorcism.
The Church hierarchy interpreted the event as a nervous breakdown from so many battles with the Enemy. I was relieved of duty, told to convalesce. One Monsignor clapped a hand on my right shoulder and said, “The Devil will be waiting for you when you’re ready to come back, Father Show. Go and get yourself well.”
Soon after my stomach problems started.
For the next few months I crossed the United States, moving between abbeys that were glad to host such a notable soldier for Christ. I never stayed anywhere more than a couple of weeks before the Demon came to taunt me. I wondered if it might decide to end our game and simply possess me outright. Maybe make me commit suicide. Not that I needed demonic possession for that. But it never tried. I had so many native demons already inside me it found the space too cramped.
When I don’t leave the chair, the Demon puppeteers Michael Napier to the edge of the bed.
“It’s nice to have you back, Priest. Have I not done well this time?”
Bending over further, in pain like my intestines are splitting, I can’t even answer.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“A discovery you no doubt made long ago.”
“Different. Punishment. Being... punished.”
My stomach twists and knots. I fall off the chair and groan on my back, clutching my belly.
The Demon makes the boy flash the most devilish smile. “The greatest cure for being in hell is a little taste of heaven.”
The night before I was to go and exorcise Michael Napier, I was eating supper with the Prior in his private room when he groaned and spit a bit of food into his napkin.
“I am sorry,” he said. “My stomach is bad tonight.”
“I can sympathize.”
“My appetite’s been soured by the movie news. Hollywood must be the public relations branch of hell.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Do exorcists not keep up with current events? Here’s what’s happened. They’ve made a film called Spotlight about the Boston mess, as if that fiasco hasn’t damaged the Church enough. The Jews will make sure it receives an Oscar. Thousands of years after Moses went up onto Sinai, those people are still all about little statues of gold.”
“They’re not to blame.”
“No, Father Show?” The Prior folded the napkin twice and put it aside, the spat food visible like a lump in a snake’s stomach.
“The fault is with the priests—and those who concealed their crimes.”
“Capitalizing on those indiscretions for entertainment and profit is just as bad. Perhaps even worse.”
As I said, one rationalizes.
A sharp pang hit my stomach, forcing a grunt. The Prior’s gaze stayed fixed on me.
“I suppose exorcists must view everything differently from the rest of us. You’ve seen the worst of both worlds—the material and the spiritual. Hasn’t that made you terribly jaded?”
“I’ve tried to make my heart a home for Christ.”
“And he is a fierce housekeeper! Only He can keep the door locked against the Enemy. There is a gross immorality in the young generation, especially in its boys. I believe all of your cases have involved them—yes?”
I stared at him. “Their possession shouldn’t be read as something being wrong with their hearts.”
“Ah, the heart. We keep coming around to that, don’t we?”
“I must be missing your point.”
He smiled. “Jeremiah 17:9 is my point.”
Had I encyclopedic knowledge of scripture—or an eidetic memory—I might have understood him at the time. Comprehension had to wait until later, when I returned to my room, took out my bible and found the verse.
The heart is more devious than any other thing, and is depraved; who can pierce its secrets?
I hurled the book at the wall. Maybe the Prior had seen through me. Maybe he’d accomplished this because he was like me and hadn’t been caught. Who can pierce the heart’s secrets? People who share the same heart, that’s who. My cloak was fame; his was pronounced disgust.
Then I went to the bathroom and tried in vain to defecate, straining until I thought I’d have a stroke. How long had I made such fruitless trips now? How long could someone possibly go without a bowel movement before they died? Why wasn’t I dead already?
I went to bed with those questions in my mind, but the question of Jeremiah 17:9 dominated them all, and I credited it with influencing my dream.
I saw Christ as a child, perhaps twelve, born into a less tender family. His human father was a pervert who uncovered the boy’s nakedness every night. The dark-eyed Child Christ endured, crying through clenched teeth, tempted each time to reach out his little hand to strike his abuser blind. Instead he wept himself to sleep each night, that question reserved for the cross already in his mind: Father, why hast thou forsaken me? I finally caught a glimpse of the human father and saw my face. How I tried to break the barrier of my dream, to strangle my own offensive image and offer the poor lad comfort and assurance.
But I could only stand by and watch him suffer—the closest I’d ever come to knowing what it’s like to be God.
I feel a tectonic shift in my bowels. Since the damnable constipation began, I’ve pictured my insides as a dam made of rocks that would collapse with the dislodging of one strategic pebble.
Somehow I seemed to have found it.
“That’s very good, Father Show,” the Demon says, misunderstanding the desperation that has my fingers racing to unfasten my pants. The stirring, the absolute impulse grows. Then such pain, pulsating, wracking my body with more strength than even the Demon possesses. The Demon twists Michael’s head to scowl at me.
I get that one glance at the Demon before searing throes strike me blind, and in the darkness I see Christ on the cross, his head hanging down between sagging shoulders, sometimes lolling to the left or right like weightless scrap fluttered by the wind. His body looks like it’s been chewed up by dogs, clawed by cats, peppered with bee stings. Then he lifts his stricken face to mine and spits on me. You have done all of this, Father Show. I was the secret in your heart and you pierced me. I lived, died, harrowed hell and rose again. Now I return to harrow hell once more—in you.
He descends the cross and walks toward me. As he touches me, he disappears.
I scream, ripped apart from within. Something is coming, emerging, destroying me. The Demon screams too. “I cannot flee. What is happening, Priest? What is—”
Fingers grope me from the inside. A body moves inside my own. A push. An urge, a command to push. Contraction. Forehead driven hard into the floor, I ball my hands into fists and beat the carpet. There are more screams in the room than mouths to voice them, and all cries merge.
Another contraction. I bear down. Something’s crowning, breaking my bones, dislocating my joints. For hours it seems, though it must be minutes. Not even minutes. I grope in the dark for Christ, but He is not there. The cross stands empty against a backdrop of black.
“Most High—do not—do not consign me to the abyss. Release me as you once did my brethren.”
The voice that answers belongs to a young boy and is different from Michael Napier’s. “I sent your brethren into pigs. I see no pigs here.”
“Father Show exceeds them all.”
“No—please,” I say, crawling blindly forward.
“The hell inside him is vast, and I have passed through it for my second coming. But as this man has realized for himself, he houses so many demons already you’ll find you do not fit. I consign you to the abyss you earned by defiance. And you will never leave it again.”
Something like an earthquake happens in the room. The Demon departs in broken furniture, shattered glass, and a shriek that surely foreshadows my own fate. I can see again. Michael Napier sits sobbing with his legs drawn up to his chest. I manage to stand, pants and underwear around my ankles, my stomach better than it’s ever felt. Mr. and Mrs. Napier, their courage restored, race in to see us in such a questionable state.
Too afraid to enter, too afraid to leave, they just stand there as confusion dwindles and outrage mounts in their expression.
I bend down to pull up my clothes. As I do, Michael rises, his eyes wet, and holds something out to me.
Stay away from him, Mike,” Mr. Napier says. “I don’t know what the hell is going on here, but—”
“It’s okay, Dad. Father Show’s going to make things right.”
And looking at him, I see why the boy seemed so perfect to me. He’s all of them—every lad who came before. My eyes water. Michael brings his hand closer.
“He…he told me to give it to you.”
I lose my grip and my pants slide back around my ankles.
“He’s in the world now,” Michael says. “Because of you.”
I look down at the boy’s offering and see a glitter of gold in his palm.
I touch my stomach. Then the base of my throat.
I tell them to call the police. They alone have the confessional booth that matters to me now.
“Take it, Father Show.”
I do. The crucifix I’d swallowed. Looking perfectly clean from its passage out of me.
But the Bas-relief image of Christ is gone.