This case is a disaster. Way worse than I imagined.
Getting in was actually easier than usual, because Father O’Brian called ahead to tell them we were coming. What we didn’t know was who Father O’Brian told them who we are.
We parked on the street and looked up at the house.
“Do we just… knock on the door?” Neal finally said.
Julian blew out his breath. “I guess so.”
“Do you guys know what we’ll be dealing with in there?” I asked.
Neal shrugged. “Most likely, there’s a Shimmer playing her brain like an out of tune piano and it needs to be encouraged to find a new place to hang out. It’s an easy process. All she has to do is drink a whole bunch of very acidic foods, very quickly, and the Shimmer will decide it’s time for a new home. Come right out her nose. Or her eyeball. Or her ear. No big deal.”
Yeah, okay. Sure Neal. Parasite just sliding out her eye. No big deal.
But they were hesitating.
“…are we gonna —”
“Yeah,” Julian said, opening his door. “Sorry. The Shimmer shouldn’t give us any trouble. But cases with the church involved can be — well. You’ll see.” He took a deep breath.
“Brace yourselves,” Neal agreed, and flashed me a smile. “Ready?”
It was very gray out, but not cold. There was a whole flock of crows on the roof, all ruffling and strangely quiet.
Julian finally knocked, three clear knocks, and the crows exploded with noise above us. A chill went right through me. Julian’s brow furrowed, but just Neal grinned and bared his teeth.
A woman in her fifties answered the door. Her French twist was beginning to fall apart, and her eyes were bloodshot.
“Who are you?” Her voice was hoarse and she had to clear it.
“Father O’Brian sent us,” Julian said. “We’re here to assist the exorcists.”
I don’t think it hit me that there was a real actual Catholic-ass exorcism going on in this house until that exact moment.
Poor Mrs. Agan stood aside to let us in.
Instantly, I was struck with the sour smell in the house, like old milk hidden under a couch somewhere.
“You’ll be wanting to speak to the priests,” Mrs. Agan said, and went up the carpeted stairs. She didn’t invite us to go sit in the living room. A boy, probably 10 or 11, was sitting at the dining room table, rapidly pressing the buttons of and old school Game Boy.
“Hi,” Neal said, stepping down the couple steps into the main room. It was so quiet in that house, and seemed more quiet with all the carpeting. “What are you playing?”
“Zelda,” the boy said. “I’m stuck on this level though.”
“Oh yeah?” Neal said. “Here lemme see.”
“Do you like Zelda?” The kid’s name was Aaron, and he was Annie’s little brother.
“I’ve been known to play some Zelda,” Neal said. “Oh, yeah, this level’s hard, here I can show you.” The kid passed over the game and Neal sat beside him to show him how it was done.
“You’re having a weird few months, huh?” Neal said.
“Yeah,” the kid said. “I guess so. I was glad when Annie decided to come home, but she can’t really hang out with me anymore.”
“Yeah,” Neal said. “It’s hard when we don’t know how to help the people we care about.”
“Yeah,” Aaron said. A fly was buzzing in the room. “Everyone’s really worried about her.”
Above our head there was a heavy thunk. We all looked up.
“That happens a lot,” Aaron said, after a long moment of quiet. And then, whispered: “Are you here to help?”
“I hope so,” Neal said. “But we have to figure out what’s wrong with her first.”
Aaron looked up with big dark eyes. “Everyone says it’s a demon.”
“I don’t believe in demons,” Neal replied. He handed the game back. “Aaaand, bingo. Boss beat.” He put the game back on the table for Aaron. “Do you believe in demons?”
There was another heavy thunk from upstairs.
Aaron looked up at the ceiling and then back down at his game. “Sometimes,” he said.
Neal turned around to exchange a look with Julian, but before either of them could say anything, the priests joined us from upstairs.
“You must be the assistants the bishop sent us,” said Father Sidney. He was a fit, sharply dressed man, but he was beginning to look a bit unkempt just now.
“Julian Hawthorne,” he said, shaking his hand. “Shiloh, and my brother Nathaniel.”
“Neal,” he corrected.
Father Sidney introduced himself and his companion, Father Tomas. Father Tomas was quiet, dark-eyed, probably 40 and handsome in a craggy, rugged kind of way. I liked him more than Father Sidney at a glance.
“It’s very unusual for a bishop to send someone from outside the church to assist with an exorcism,” Father Sidney said. “You must have remarkable gifts.”
Neal’s lips twitched. “We have our moments.”
“We’d like to see Annie,” Julian said. “Just to understand how she’s doing.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Father Sidney said, and he let the statement hang in the air, to see what we’d do with it. Julian’s face remained a mask of pleasantness and he just waited. “But of course, if Father O’Brian recommends you see her, I don’t see how I can argue.”
Clearly he’d been looking for a way to argue and come up short so far.
Julian smiled. “She’s just upstairs then?”
“Now isn’t a good time,” Father Sidney said. “We were just upstairs working with her, she’s bound to be riled up.”
As if on cue, a long, wordless wail echoed down from upstairs.
There was a long, taut moment of silence.
“Annie needs to rest,” her mother said shrilly. “She doesn’t need to see strangers right now, she just needs to rest.”
I glanced at Neal, who, though obviously bristling, glanced at Julian, who smiled.
“Our methods work better the faster we’re allowed to get started,” he said.
There was a long pause before Father Sidney finally said, “How do you know Father O’Brian exactly?”
I saw the muscle in Neal’s jaw tighten, and as Julian began to explain, Mrs. Agan interrupted.
“No, I don’t know you. You’re not with the church? I’m not comfortable with this.”
Julian is so slick. He didn’t even miss a beat. “I understand we’re asking for access to a very scary and vulnerable part of your daughter’s life,” he said. “Our job is to protect people from exactly these kinds of threats, and we’re very good at it, but there’s no way for us to help you unless we see what we’re working with.”
For a moment I thought that would be enough. Mrs. Agan really seemed to relax. But then Father Sidney spoke: “I think this evening will be perfect timing, don’t you Donna?”
“Yes, that’s much better. Get her acclimated to new people being in the house. I don’t want to scare her.”
So we were stuck downstairs, while the priests — excuse me, EXORCISTS — went upstairs. I watched them steeling themselves, holding onto their bibles, until they were upstairs and out of sight. After only a few minutes there was a long, guttural scream from upstairs.
Aaron didn’t even look up from his game.
“I need some air,” Neal said, and went out through the kitchen into the back yard.
It was a long afternoon. The priests were up there for hours. Mrs. Agan was apparently not allowed in the room, but sat at the top of the stairs holding the same cup of tea for hours. It was loud as shit though.
“Was that Latin?” Julian said. We were sitting in the back yard, listening to the guttural bellowing coming from Annie’s bedroom.
“I’m going up there,” Neal growled. “This is insane.”
“Forcing our way in won’t help anyone,” Julian replied.
“And Catholic mumbo jumbo will?” Neal scrubbed his hair. “We don’t know how much time she has.”
“We don’t know anything,” Julian replied. “She could be fine up there.”
There was a long, warbling scream from above us.
“Oh yeah, she seems totally fine,” Neal said.
The priests finally emerged a little after 6, looking like they’d been a war zone. Mrs. Agan had been cooking by that point, steak and potatoes, and Mr. Agan got home from work, and insisted that we all sit down for a family meal.
“Shouldn’t she be supervised?” I whispered to Neal as I squeezed in between him and Julian. Unfortunately Father Sidney overheard me.
“Annie is restrained,” he said, serenely cutting into his steak. “For her own protection. She can’t hurt herself.”
“Does she have a mouth guard in?” Neal asked.
There was a moment of awkward quiet.
“I’ve seen people bite out their tongues,” Neal went on, and then stabbed his steak with his steak knife and took an enormous bite out of it.
Mrs. Agan’s hands shook, but it was Father Sidney who looked really sour.
“We have mouth guards in the car,” Julian said, pushing back from the table. “I’ll go —”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Father Sidney said between his teeth.
“I’m not asking what you think is necessary,” Neal said. “I’m telling you.”
“This can wait until after dinner,” Father Sidney began and I could tell Neal was about to pop a vein, but it was Julian answered.
“We don’t need to impose on your hospitality. We can supervise her while you eat.”
He was already on his feet and I hurried to follow. Neal was already out of the room, and everyone was talking over each other. I heard a chair hit the wall as someone got up to chase us, but we were already upstairs. Neal burst Annie’s bedroom door open and we were hit immediately with the smell.
The room was empty except a single bed, on which Annie was tied. She was spread eagled, limbs each tied to a bedpost. When we came in she stuck out her tongue.
“Is this what you’re worried about?” The voice was disembodied. “Afraid I’ll bite off her tongue?” It cackled. I saw blood on her teeth and screamed, but Neal and Julian were already in motion, Neal diving forward to pry apart her jaws, Julian taking off his belt to jam between her teeth.
Behind us both priests and Mr. Agan were shouting and Mrs. Agan was wailing at us to stop, please, leave her alone.
The reason they didn’t want us to come up was immediately clear. She was filthy, covered in scabs and boils, her bedding soaking in pee. There was a ring of poorly cleaned vomit all around her head.
She thrashed desperately, but Neal was pushing hard on her jaw muscles, and when she was finally forced to open them, Julian jammed his belt inside.
“Filth!” she screamed at him. “You’re as filthy as me, you monster! You mongrel!”
“Yeah, well, we can tell us all about it after we’ve saved your damn tongue,” Neal said through his teeth. “Shiloh grab the —” but I was already on my way out to the car for the first aid kit in the boot.
A first aid kit for monster hunters is pretty extensive hahaha. It’s literally like 30 pounds and I had to haul it upstairs on my back. I had only just made it back when Father Sidney finally had enough.
“GET OUT,” he bellowed. “GET OUT OF THIS ROOM. THE DEVIL IS AT WORK HERE.”
“Give us five minutes and we can calm her —”
“GET OUT.” This time it was Mr. Agan shouting, and he was a great bull of a man who looked apoplectic. “OR I WILL CALL THE POLICE.”
“Sir,” Julian began, and he was still floating on an ocean of patience, somehow. “I know, this must be terrifying for all of you, and I know you’re doing everything you can to help your daughter. But we have seen this before. We have cured worse cases than this. We can help her, we just need you to trust us.”
There was a long moment of quiet, and I thought for a moment, I really thought we might be able to help.
But then, from the bed, in a quiet, croaking voice that was muffled around the belt in her mouth
“You can’t trust them.”
“Annie?” Mrs. Agan gasped, and rushed to her bedside.
“Please,” she croaked. “You can’t trust them. That one is a monster. And the girl —” tears spilled out the corners of her eyes as she whispered, “She’s been in the cave.”
Bitch, I swear my heart stopped. “What did you say?”
“She’s been in the cave, and drank from the stream. She’s dead. Please get her out of here. She’s dead.”
I looked at Neal, totally bewildered, and was horrified to find that he was looking just as lost as I was.
“PLEASE,” Annie went on, louder. “WHY IS THAT GIRL DEAD? WHY IS HE SCREAMING AT ME THAT THE GIRL SHOULD BE DEAD?” My blood ran COLD, okay, I was FREAKING out. “GET THE DEAD GIRL AND THE MONSTER OUT HE WON’T STOP SCREAMING AT ME.” She was beginning to thrash again, and it was at that point that Neal had enough. He plunged a hand into the medicine back, pulled out a little vial and poured it on her forehead without so much as a moment’s hesitation.
Everyone started shouting at that point.
Julian did his best to intervene — “it’s just vinegar! Look, see!” He held up the vial for inspection, but before anyone could look at what he was trying to show them, the bottle flung out of his hand as if knocked, so hard that it shattered against the wall.
Julian and Neal both just stared at the glass, to stunned to stop Father Sidney and Mr. Agan from body checking us out of the room.
Annie meanwhile barely seemed to have noticed that the vinegar was there. Which, in her defense, was the least of her issues.
They slammed the door behind us. The priests started shouting about Christ’s love and poor Annie started screaming.
“How did she know?” I asked.
Neal was visibly flustered. “No idea,” he said, but I could tell from the way he was fidgeting that he knew something I didn’t.
“Did the — the Shimmer thing — did it know about…” I trailed off, following Neal downstairs and back out into the back yard. “Maybe it knew what my eye meant?”
“If it were a Shimmer it would have reacted to the vinegar,” Neal told me, and that’s when it sunk in once and for all — this case is not what we expected it to be.
“This is impossible,” Julian said. “I didn’t throw that vial. She did that.”
“Is she a sorcerer?” I asked, because it seems like all things are possible through using the powers of ghosts.
Neal crouched down and looked up at us, and I could see from his expression that he thought something else was going on up there, something much worse.
“It can’t be sorcery,” Julian said, almost absently. “That takes years of study. Someone would have seen something. There would be evidence.”
“One of us has to say it,” Neal said.
“Say what?” I asked.
Julian looked like he was ready to pull out his own hair. “We don’t even know anyone who’s seen a real possession,” he said. “Not even Mercy and Zinia. The last real, authenticated possession was literally like a hundred years ago.”
Neal just looked up at him wordlessly.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Julian said and cursed loudly.