135 - Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO As Alex appeared I heard several gasps from around the room. For all I knew, one of them could have been mine. It was one thing to know that Alex was a ghost and to know that what we were doing was supposed to call him hear to us. It was quite another for him to just appear there like that.
There was something different about him too, something that I was having some issue putting a finger on. I thought perhaps that it might have been his expression. It was a bit grimmer than I had seen before–not really that surprising all things considered–and there was a touch of something else in. Anger perhaps? Or maybe sadness?
In either case, he wasted no problem in getting to the heart of the situation. “You’re trying to kill me, aren’t you?”
John took a step forward, his lip curling up in a sneer, “We can’t kill you, you’re already dead.” Which was a bit on the ironic side, considering who it was coming from. He took another step forward and then another, closing on the carefully placed circle of gemstones.
I threw up a hand to stop him. “Wait right there. We can’t disturb the circle.” Sister Kat’s instructions had been very precise in that regard, the circle of gem stones was what would keep him here long enough for us to deal with him. It was a prison of sorts, which had something to do with why it had to be so precise–how ever that worked.
John stopped though, a dark expression still on his face, but that just fed into Alex’s anger. “But what right to you have? It’s too late to change the fact that I was brought back. I am here now, I wasbrought back. That makes me just as alive as you–”
I froze. Did he know that his brother at least thought that he’d too been brought back from the dead? Neither of them had mentioned him knowing previously–and that seemed like a bit of an important detail to leave out.
“–all of you.” They way he gestured around the room seemed to clear that idea up at least. “And who are you to judge anyways? It wasn’t my fault that I was brought back–for all any of us knows, I could have been in heaven. Maybe I didn’t want to come back in the first place.”
Personally, I had my doubts about that idea. After all, the Catechism was pretty specific on the outcome of cases like his, even if at times it didn’t seem entirely fair. But it was interesting to hear that he apparently had no memories of being dead. Interesting and a little distressing. But it was too late to back out now.
I picked up the notes that I’d made and began to read.
The Latin flowed more smoothly off of my tongue than I would have given myself credit for not so many hours ago. It was like all of those hours I’d spent on anything but my Latin lessons were fading away, being replaced by what I should have done. Truth be told, it was a a touch unnerving. It was almost as if another force had come to bear and I was no more than a tool.
Yet I pushed on. We had come to far to allow this not to continue. We had to return to the natural order of things. Only then could we–all of us–move on.
As I started on the third paragraph, something even more strange began to happen.
A faint breeze picked up around the edges of the room, shuffling curtains and rustling pages. Which of course was impossible–we were inside and all of the windows were closed. But there was no denying the breeze, nor the chill that it brought with it.
On top of that, there was the smell. It was the same leather and wet dog that I’d come to associate with these strange encounters, but it was something more. There was a pungent oder mixed in that I’d never smelled before, at least not in this association. The closest analogue that I could think of was rotten, spoiled dairy products. Milks, cheese, yogurts. It was as bad or worse as any of those, and only growing stronger as I kept reading.
Finally there was Alex. He still hadn’t moved from the spot he’d first appeared in. I had no idea if that was the gemstone’s doing or if he merely didn’t feel like he had any reason to. But in either case, his face had begun to go red. And not the lively red of a blush or a sunburn, but a deeper, darker red, more akin to the color of a brick than anything else. His eyes too were changing, darkening around the edges, almost like ink, slowly seeping inwards.
This can’t be right.
136 - Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO I had to be doing something wrong, there had to be something going on beyond the instructions that Sister Kat had given me.
I looked at the others, but they seemed as surprised as me. None of them had moved as well, not even John, still standing as the third point to a triangle with me and his brother, no more than six feet from either of us. Amanda had a pinched expression on her face–which at least meant that others were smelling the same thing as I was this time around, for better or for worse–and Mrs. Claire’s eyes seemed almost impossibly wide. But neither was saying anything. Neither was doing anything.
This can’t be right.
I tried to stop, to back up. Perhaps I could call her, she could talk me through what was going on.
But I found that I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop reading. I felt my mouth moving, the words coming out with basically no input from me.
I tried to reach up, to clamp my own hand over my own mouth, but I found that I couldn’t move my hands either. They held stubbornly to the paper in front of me, refusing to let go. I felt my heart-rate increasing; I could feel it in my ears.
What in the world is going on?
By now, Alex’s skin had gone completely red and his eyes completely black. It was a sight straight out of a horror movie, that much was sure, even if it didn’t look like it could possibly be real. I didn’t want to believe that it could be real.
I was getting on to the last paragraph, still unable to stop myself. I could almost understand the words I was saying, not as if through barely remembered grammar lessons from years ago, but rather as if I had grown up speaking Latin all of my life. The meanings were there, on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t get to them. They felt as slippery in my mind as a fish, freshly caught, still trying to return to the water.
It was a maddening feeling, but I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t understand, but I couldn’t stop.
And then it was done. With the final syllables rising to the level of a shout–not of my own volition, that was to be sure, but still rising.
The girls were turned towards me, although John was watching only Alex. The looks on their faces were horrified, as unsure of what I was doing–what I had become–as I myself was.
Somehow, suddenly, deep within myself, I knew that this had been a terrible idea. What were we doing, trying to mess with the natural order of things like this? I knew that was how the whole situation had begun, unnaturally, but that didn’t mean that it was any of our doing–or at least not my own. So what right did I have to be interfering now? Particularly with this pagan ritual, this ritual that seemed to have taken on a life of its own.
With a shout beyond my control, I finished the last of the words on the page. There was a sudden burst of that same icy wind and for a moment the competing scents–wet leather and rotten milk–seemed to merge and to heighten, enough to make the bile rise in my throat.
Then it was over.
I felt a weight lifting from my chest, from my hands, my arms. I let out a breath that hurt after speaking for so long and so loudly. I raised my arms, thankful that I could once again.
And with that, I caught my first sight of Alex.
Or rather what Alex had become.
His skin was rough now, a texture like bark or perhaps broken stone, and an even deeper red than it had originally been turning, almost black. His eyes were completely gone now, nothing left of the original color–I struggled to remember what color that had been, but I couldn’t, the inky depths were all I could bring to mind.
He seemed taller somehow, larger, but I couldn’t make out exactly how. He didn’t take up any more space in the room, per say; there was still the same clearance between his head and the ceiling. But still he seemed larger, his presence dominating the room, as if everything else had grown somehow paler in comparison.
Alex spoke, but it wasn’t in Alex’s voice anymore. It wasn’t Alex anymore. Whatever was standing there, it had a voice like gravel turning over and over in an iron drum, grinding with a terrible weight.
The words that it spoke sent chills up my spine.
“It’s about time.”
137 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO I emerged into the same hallway that I had left what felt like years ago–but I knew to be only hours. The last time I had been here, I had been running for my life, being helped by the ghost of a man that had died on my watch. That wasn’t the sort of thing that you ever really got over.
It looked much the same, a simple hallway with windowless, unlabeled doors along either side. If Amira were here, there was no way to tell which room she was in. We were going to have to open them all.
I went to the first room before the Sergent had even made it through the stairwell door and was about to life the deadbolt when he barked, “stop!” from behind me. I froze. His voice had a ring of command to it and I had been trained to obey.
“What are you doing?” he asked, walking up beside me. His tone was calmer now at least.
“Looking for Amira,” I said. “She has to be here, in one of these rooms.”
He looked down the hallway. “This is where you were?”
I nodded, pointing halfway vaguely down the hallway. I couldn’t actually be sure exactly which doorway it had been; I hadn’t been in much mood to count doorways when I’d been running. All that I knew was that it was about halfway.
“So why don’t we start there?” he asked.
I turned. At the look on his face, I suddenly realized something troubling. He still hadn’t believed me. Not until we’d gotten down here and seen the hallway full of rooms–exactly as I had described–he still hadn’t believed me. Whoever had given him his orders for this extraction, they obviously hadn’t told him the truth about what had happened.
But at the moment, it didn’t matter. We were here for a reason, we were here with a purpose–and that purpose was to find Amira.
And while there wasn’t any particular reason to believe that Amira would have been held in the same room that I was, there wasn’t much reason to believe that she wouldn’t be. The parallelism might have made it worth it all alone. So I shrugged and started down the corridor.
There were only six men with us now, myself and the Sergent included. Most of the rest must have been either left in the stairwell or upstairs. Granted, there was little enough room in the hallway that even with just six of us it still felt crowded, but it was a bit unnerving to have so few left. If something went wrong, it would have been nice to have just a little more firepower on my side.
But that was just being silly, I told myself. It wasn’t a matter of firepower. Either we would find her or we wouldn’t. If we found her in one of these rooms, there was almost no chance of there being more than one or two people there–and even if we had all the firepower in the world, we wouldn’t be able to use it. Not and risk shooting the whole reason we’d even come down here by accident.
I got to the room that I thought most likely had been the one I’d been held in. It felt like about the right distance looking back towards the stairways–and after all, if it wasn’t the right room, it wasn’t like we wouldn’t be able to to check out the rooms on either side anyways.
I put my hand out to the deadbolt only to realize that it had already been lifted out of place. Only the door’s latch itself was holding it in place. What could that mean? Either that there was someone in the room with Amira–given that it was her room after all–or that the room was empty, waiting for its next occupant. I wasn’t sure which possibility bothered me more, that we wouldn’t find her there… or that we would.
138 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO I reached for the handle, about to open it but then there was a hand on my shoulder. It was the Sergent and he was gesturing at me to let one of the men with guns do it and the other three to take up positions around the door. He wasn’t going to take any chances.
For a moment, it thought about arguing, knowing that if I were the one to open it there would be one more gun pointed at the doorway. And that I would be the first one to know if we’d come to the right room.
But in the end, I didn’t. I would find out soon enough.
With barely a pause, the man who’d been assigned to open the door grabbed on to the latch, clamped it open, and shoved his weight against the door. It swung inwards with barely a sound, letting the light from the hallway spill into the room.
What I saw inside the room horrified me. It was among the worst scenes that I could have imagined.
Amira lay on the same bedding affixed to the walls as I had been. She was wearing a sort of white dress, made of what I assumed was the same fabric that my pants had been made of. Of the clothes she had been wearing no more than hours ago, there was no sign.
One wrist draped limply upwards, cuffed to the same thick iron band in the wall. The way it hung, so limp and so frail, I couldn’t be sure if she were merely unconscious or worse, far worse. I couldn’t see the rise and fall of her chest and her face was turned away, towards the wall.
Perhaps worse of all–and in marked contrast to when I had awoken–there was a tall metal pole with a trio of bags on it, each filled with a different fluid, one clear, one faintly light blue, and the other black as pitch. Cables draped down from each of them, joining in an intricate mess before disappearing into a needle point affixed into Amira’s veins, right in the crook of her unchained elbow.
And standing there over here, bent down as if he were inspecting her, testing her, was that improbably average man.
He seemed to be completely ignoring us, rather focused on the figure in front of him.
I rushed into the room, my vision fading around the edges as I did. I drew back and threw a punch at him as hard as I possibly could. I wasn’t the biggest man and had no real hand to hand combat training, but what I did have was a whole heck of a lot of pent up anger that I hadn’t even realized I’d been carrying. That blow at least should have been enough to knock him to the ground, if not take him out of the fight in one blow.
Instead, he turned. Impossibly fast, he caught my fist in his hand, stopping my motion dead.
There was a stinging in my wrist, the feeling of pulling tendons along my arm from having been stopped so fast.
But his hand didn’t budge an inch. If he’d felt the impact, he made no sign of it.
He just looked at me, that same studying, almost bored expression he’d had on his face the last time I had seen him.
“Father,” he said. His voice had that same sliding sort of texture, that same strange accent that seemed to jump haphazardly from syllable to syllable, from country to country. “It’s been too long.”
As if it had been months, years even since I’d escaped. Not just a matter of hours.
“Why don’t you sit down for a moment and we can have a little chat.”