THERIOPHOBIA: FEAR THE BEAST Part 26
Hank had to drive almost to Tuscaloosa to find a Catholic church. Ironwood had a tiny congregation of its own that met for Sunday services in the old shoe store next to the PO’ FOLKS’ VITTLES restaurant, but the presiding priest only drove in once a week. Ironwood epitomized the “Bible Belt” stereotype for evangelical denominations; it seemed to Hank that a Baptist church or Church of Christ sprouted on every corner. But he didn’t know that much about those, not enough. He didn’t know to what extent they might be able to help him. None of those churches had clergy in residence. And only the Catholics, Hank knew for certain, offered official rites for exorcism.
Hank found Saint Thomas’ by memory, though it had been thirty years since he’d last set eyes upon the place. It looked just as he’d remembered it–gloomy, stale, oppressive–though the rural neighborhood encircling it seemed to have changed for the worse, corn fields given way to trailer parks, pine tree thickets to weed-grown lots, weeds to trash-strewn pavement. As Hank pulled into the empty parking lot, a childhood’s worth of memories came rushing back at him, all the things he thought he’d left behind. They seemed to mock him: We told you so. It made Hank feel bitter, but he had no time for being bitter. He swallowed it down. Beggars had no luxury for resentment.
A chorus of pigeons balanced along the eaves of the building, perched on the arms of the cross that rose from the pinnacle of the steeple. The sun, pale behind a thin screen of clouds, hung just behind the cross, encircling it. To another it might have seemed poetic, this scene. The return of the prodigal. But to Hank it seemed to increase his sense of despair, reminding him of his weaknesses, his failures.
Reminding him he had been wrong.
Hank climbed the stone steps, pushed open one of the polished cherry wood doors. A blast of cool air rushed out to greet him, perfumed by incense and candle smoke. He went inside, the door closing itself behind him.
Hank paused in the anteroom. On his right, votive candles sat in rows beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary in Her mandated blue-and-white, intermittent flames dancing atop their wicks. Hank considered lighting one but couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He stepped from the little anteroom into the sanctuary proper.
This being a weekday, the pews were empty, the nave silent. The stained glass windows depicted the same scenes he recalled from his childhood, all those Sunday masses he’d been forced to attend. The same electric lights designed to resemble gothic lanterns hung from the arched timbers overhead. Even the carpet looked the same to him.
Hank walked to his left, turned up the aisle between the pews and the wall, moving towards the head of the room, the altar. A box of polished wood and black curtains sat back in an alcove to the side. A man-sized box, draped as if in mourning. Hank’s heart began to pound. The confessional.
The curtains in one spot had been pulled aside to reveal an open doorway, gaping like a maw. Hank stepped into the greater darkness within, pulling the curtain closed after him. He sat down on the little bench inside the confessional, facing a window of interwoven wicker painted white in garish contrast to the darkness around him.
He didn’t have to wait very long.
“The Lord be with you, my child.” An old man’s voice. Not the same old man from Hank’s childhood, no, but he spoke with the same tone. Hank felt like a child again. He heard the priest sit down on his own bench with a plop.
“Uh, yes,” Hank said. “I don’t know how to go about saying this. I, um, I need your help.”
“How so?” the priest asked through the painted grate.
Hank shifted, rubbed his throat. He could feel his pulse throbbing under his fingers. “My friend is possessed.”
“Possessed?” Hank thought he detected a hint of amusement in the discorporate voice. “And why would you think that?”
“Look,” Hank said. “I know how it sounds. And I know you have to deal with crackpots all the time. But I’ve been an atheist most of my life. I never believed in God, or angels, or demons or anything else. I wouldn’t be here right now, believe me, if this wasn’t real.”
“Well, what have you seen that’s changed your mind?” the priest asked. “What would make you believe your friend is possessed?” Again, Hank picked up on a note of mild condescension.
“He tried to kill me,” Hank said. “He’s already killed several other people.”
“Oh! Well, then, you need the police.”
“No!” Hank said. “No, I need a priest! It’s not my friend’s fault! It’s the thing that’s inside him. It killed those people!”
The voice hesitated. When it spoke again, the tone of sarcasm had vanished. “I see. Well, first you must understand that, historically speaking, mental illness has been confused with demonic possession, when in fact…”
“I’m a psychiatrist!” Hank interrupted. “I know what mental illness is! But I’ve seen it with my own eyes!”
“What have you seen?”
“Physical transformation!” Hank said. “An arm growing out of a man’s mouth! I’ve got the scratches on my leg to prove it!”
“Are you, um, seeing a Doctor?” the priest asked.
Hank exhaled through his teeth. “I’m not crazy!” he said. “Look, you’re a priest! Aren’t you supposed to believe in this shit?”
Again the voice hesitated. “Of course, yes, but…”
“Look, I’m telling you my friend is possessed! We need your help!”
“Even if what you are saying is true,” the old man’s voice said. “I must have official sanction. An investigation must be made.”
“There’s no time for that!” Hank said. He slapped the grate with an open palm. “We have to go now while I have him subdued! If he gets loose again…!”
“That just isn’t possible.”
Hank stood, jerked the curtain away, and stepped out of the confessional. He pulled back the curtain to the priest’s closet. An old man looked up at him, wide, terrified eyes magnified by thick bifocals.
“Listen to me!” Hank said. “I am not insane and I am not lying! My friend is possessed by-by some thing! The police can’t help us! Nobody can! I came here because I don’t know where else to go!”
“I-I can’t…” the old man said. “Please, just…just leave…”
Hank stared down at the man. “I was right about you,” he said. He turned around and began to retrace his steps down the aisle, not feeling his feet touch the floor.
“We’re on our own,” Hank said, passing through the anteroom and out the double doors of the building. “All on our own.”
* * *
WAYNE MILLER is the owner and creative director of EVIL CHEEZ PRODUCTIONS (www.evilcheezproductions.blogspot.com, www.facebook.com/evilcheezproductions), specializing in theatrical performances and haunted attractions. He has written, produced and directed (and occasionally acted in) over a dozen plays, most of them in the Horror and Crime genres. His first novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT CHRISTOPHER: WEREWOLF, is available for purchase at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/734763
MORTUI VELOCES SUNT!