Catherine closed the rickety door behind us that blocked Nimble’s small office from the rest of the store.
The storeowner’s workspace consisted of a scarred oak desk and a short-backed stool along with receipts of all sizes scattered and stacked around the room. Several cases of whiskey stood behind the door and it was these that Catherine pulled away from the wall and sat on. She motioned for me to sit on the stool and I did so, a current of nervousness running through me that only amplified my physical discomfort.
We looked at one another for a time before Catherine shifted on the crates and folded one leg over the other. “Lane. What’s your full name?” I told her and she nodded. “Good solid name. Can you tell me exactly what happened in the field yesterday? It’s the only thing I wasn’t filled in on, and the bit of eavesdropping I did while that fat blowhard was talking didn’t paint the best picture.”
Despite the fact that I didn’t recall her standing in the store when Daryl was speaking, I took her word for it and began telling her in a halting description of what happened to Jones and Sara. When I’d finished, the same sensation of becoming lighter coursed through me. Even a little of the nausea had abated.
Catherine had sat silent throughout the tale and only watched me with her gray eyes. One of her booted feet twitched like a cat’s tail and she kept her long-fingered hands laced together. “How are you feeling?” she asked after a time.
“You and Jones were very close.”
“And Sara? How do you feel about her?”
My face grew warm. “She’s…wonderful,” I said, finding it nearly impossible to tell anything but the truth to this woman.
Catherine stared at me and seemed to consider something before saying, “Lane, do you understand what’s been happening over the past few days?”
“No. I don’t.”
“To put it simply, there is good and evil in the world. Sometimes they are completely natural while at others they are beyond that. There’s no cosmic balance that has to be attained as some priests or holy men would say. Bad things happen every day just as there are great kindnesses. Either way the world continues to turn. What we are dealing with here is something vile, an entity, being, energy, whatever you’d like to call it, that has a penchant for suffering. Its sole reason for existing is to cause pain and strife for all who encounter it. Now I’m not sure if it got its taste for this over time or if it was born fully evil. What matters is it has targeted the town of Rath and it won’t give up its quest until it succeeds.”
“What does it want?”
“What anything wants that has the capacity to think or reason: power. It wants control and domination. It wants to be free of whatever has kept it dormant or chained from the rest of the world. It wants to be born.”
“Born?” The word stuck in my head like a thorn. “But how would it do that?”
“By getting inside someone to break their will, make them hopeless, and take every happiness from them. Once they’re completely under its control, then it can take them off like a dirty suit and discard them.”
I had started to tremble. The image of Sara floating above the field, her neck and back arched in agony. The mark of a black hand on the back of her neck. How her voice had changed in the barn.
“It has her,” I whispered. “It has Sara.” I looked up at Catherine’s calm, gray eyes that were like clouds scudding over a gunmetal sea. “You can help her? Save her?”
She sighed and licked her lips. “I won’t lie to you, Lane, I’ve dealt with terrible things before, but none that seemed so hell bent on possessing a child. It’s tenacious and powerful, I could feel its presence the moment I stepped into town. There are no guarantees…” She paused and her face softened for a moment. “But I’ll try.”
I could have hugged her then. If not for us just only meeting and being alone, I would have. “Thank you, Miss Abercrombie.”
“Call me Catherine.” She rose from her seat and turned toward the door. “Now, there’s a lot to do before we go ahead with this. I’m going to go speak to the Tandys, look in on Sara, but I’ll need you and your father there this evening. Your connection to her will be very important.”
Tonight, I thought, and repressed a shudder. The thought of what was to come was worse than end-of-the-year tests, worse than having to go to the doctor, worse even than helping Jones muck out his barn. Jones. At the thought of my friend a white-hot ember of anger flared within me. Whatever this presence was, it had taken my best friend from me, tried to take my mother, and now had Sara in its grip.
“I’ll do whatever you need,” I said, my voice wavering with warring emotions. A tear sprung to my eye and I swiped it away. No time for crying now.
Catherine appraised me again and gave the barest hint of a smile. “Nine o’clock tonight. Be at the Tandy’s no later than that.”
Then she was gone and I was left standing in the center of Nimble’s office.
When I felt steady enough to leave, I found my father waiting near the entrance to the store. Several of the other men had departed and Catherine was nowhere to be seen. The day was darker than when we’d entered the store and the air smelled damp and foul, like it had been shut inside a cellar for too long. In the truck my father didn’t say anything, only glanced at me several times before wheeling us in the direction of 7.
“No, I don’t want to go all the way to Arbor right now,” I said, stopping him from pulling onto the road.
“Because I don’t want to risk not being here for tonight.”
Catherine must have filled him in on what was going to happen for he simply nodded and turned us toward home instead. When we got to the house I suggested we call my mother instead, and he dialed the number and let me talk. The nurse who answered said she was sleeping and that she’d give her the message when she woke.
I hung up feeling wrung out and tired but too antsy to sleep. It was nearly suppertime and I helped my father cut a few potatoes and set them to boil beside two strips of venison, even though my appetite was nonexistent. But to my surprise I ate everything on my plate when we sat down. The food was delicious. My father commented on how it was a good thing, but there was no energy behind his words. He on the other hand only picked at his food, storing the leftovers in the fridge before pouring three fingers or more of whiskey for himself and turning on the radio. The name ‘Hitler’ and the words ‘fascism’ and ‘domination’ fell out of the speaker. These were common things we’d been hearing for some time now, but I really had no concept of how big the world was outside of our little town. I was only just beginning to realize how small I was in the grand scheme of things, how precious and delicate the bindings of family and friends were, and how quickly everything could be taken away.
I left him listening to the news and went to my room, unable to decide what to do with myself in the remaining few hours before the exorcism. I knew little to nothing about the vague ritual, and Catherine’s words still lingered in my mind. Sara would need me tonight. That much was apparent. In all rights I should have been terrified about what was to come, but the thought of being able to help the girl I loved was more than enough to strengthen my resolve. Tonight the helplessness and utter confusion I’d felt over the past days would be put aside. There would be answers and possibly revenge for what had happened to Jones. The feeling that was growing inside me was the same as when I’d killed the turkey buzzard with the shotgun. It was strong and good and I knew at the base of it all was an inkling of hope that things would return to normal, or as closely as possible to something resembling it after everything that had occurred.
No more had the warmth of the thought flowed through me when an icepick of despair slid through my chest and I shuddered. Goose flesh drifted across my skin and when I breathed out I could see my breath.
Something was there with me.
The room was quiet and partially layered with shadows of the growing evening. I searched all the corners and even dropped down to look under my bed, but there was nothing beyond a few clots of dust and hair. I waited to hear Danny’s laughter or smell the foul odor that had clogged the air before, but I could sense nothing past the crushing hopelessness that had invaded me.
Not knowing what else to do, I knelt and prayed at the foot of my bed. We only went sporadically to church since the nearest congregation was in Arbor and neither of my parents were practicing Catholics. So my prayers were undoubtedly awkward and fumbling, but my heart was in them. I asked for peace for Jones and his family. I asked for my mother to recover and come home. I asked for my father to remain strong. And I asked for the courage to do what I could to help Sara that night.
The whole time I spoke to myself I could feel the room growing colder, constricting as if the walls were coming closer. But I kept at it until warmth returned to my fingers and toes and I no longer felt the cloistering pressure anymore. When I opened my eyes the sun had dropped below the horizon and darkness was hanging in cobwebs in the trees. Footsteps approached my room and then there was a knock at my door, my father’s voice on the other side of it.
“Lane. It’s time, son.”