I turned nineteen years old the day I set foot on a boat that would carry me to Africa.
I can recall the salt sting of the air in a scratch on my temple that I’d gotten in a bar brawl the night before. The memory of those first days on the boat and how seasick I was are as fresh and clear as they were all those years past. I remember how terrified I was the first time I was shot at while entering a bunker two months later, how the bullet had seemed to whisper something to me as it passed by my helmet and killed a Corporal standing fifty yards to my left.
But I must be honest, I have never been more afraid before or since than when Catherine Abercrombie spoke those words on that wet night in May of thirty-six.
I glanced around at the other people in the room, sure that there was a joke I was missing out on, but they all looked back at me somberly, several of them with a hint of fear. Even my father watched me to see how I would react, and I realized he had been privy to all this as well.
“I don’t understand,” I said again. “Sara was the one who was sick. She had the mark and she floated, I saw her.” Sara came close to me and touched my hand. She was the only one besides Catherine that didn’t seem afraid.
“I was falling on the stairs a few days ago and daddy was behind me. He caught me by the back of the neck and I bruised there.”
“But your voice, it changed that day in the barn,” I said, my stomach turning in slow flops.
“The thing inside of you, Lane,” Catherine said, “it has influence. It can do things, terrible things. And what it does is only a means to an end. To get inside you it had to break you, it had to separate you from everyone and everything you love so that it could pry its way in. Seeing Jones die along with Sara in so much pain was the final straw. I believe when you passed out in the field is the moment it entered your body.”
I laughed. “You’re all crazy. Nothing’s inside of me. I feel fine.” But did I? I hadn’t felt right since waking up. I’d been sick, cold, shaky. But that was normal after witnessing something like I saw, right? I wasn’t sure anymore.
“Lane, I’d like you to lie down now. You can help us. Help me get rid of it since it still doesn’t have a full grip on you. If it did, you would have never allowed yourself to be brought here.”
“How do you know,” I said, a spike of anger flaring within me. “How can you be sure it’s inside of me?”
“Because, I can see it,” Catherine said.
There were several whispers that flew around the room like moths. I shook my head. “What do you mean, see it? How? I don’t understand. Dad, tell her she’s wrong, tell her I’m okay.”
My father had never looked so haggard. He started to step forward, to embrace me but Catherine blocked him with one hand on his chest. “We discussed this, Mr. Murphy. You gave me your word.”
“I’m okay. I’m not possessed,” I said.
“Lane, please get on the bed,” Catherine said.
“I don’t want to, Dad please. Mrs. Shawler…” My pleas went unanswered as Catherine moved closer to me. Sara was crying, her quiet sobs the thing that troubled me the most. “Catherine-” I started.
“Mramdal fu tunal kasu,” Catherine said, and something inside of me moved.
It was a painful uncoiling, like a portion of my stomach was being rearranged. “What are you doing?” I whispered through the pain before doubling over.
“Suto von presa. Dune vago coom.” My spine tightened and I straightened back up, feeling like a ventriloquist’s dummy under the care of a violent master. A pressure started to build in my chest and I thought for a brief moment I was going to vomit. Instead my jaw was pressed downward from something inside my throat and I gagged.
Sara fell back into her father’s arms, her hands pressed over her mouth. Mrs. Shawler cursed and made the sign of the cross over her chest. My father moaned my name, and I gagged again as something extended from between my lips.
The fingers were black and glossy with moisture. They were tipped with ragged nails caked with filth. And as they extended from inside me, I saw that they were very long and bent either way on their joints.
My jaw broke. There were two pops like knots in a fire and agony erupted throughout my face. I thought I would fall, knowing my legs couldn’t hold me up through the pain, but I didn’t. Instead Mr. Shawler moved enough to one side so that I could look directly into the mirror mounted over Sara’s desk.
A shriveled face peered out of my gaping mouth between the fingers. It was humanesque in the sense that it had a nose and two eyes as well as a mouth, but that was where the similarity stopped. It appeared burnt and shriveled, the skin cracked and flaking in places. Needle-like teeth shone between its dark lips, and it snickered at the sight of my eyes widening while it peeked out of my mouth.
Mrs. Tandy fainted, falling against the wall and sliding down without someone to catch her. Sara whimpered into her father’s chest.
“Asag, you are unwelcome here. This boy is not yours,” Catherine said, approaching me slowly from the side. The thing in my mouth tilted its head and hissed.
“He is mine until I need him no longer.” The thing spoke in a croaking whisper and I felt it readjust itself inside me.
“I know your name and bind you to the ancient law of Drindal. You cannot disavow the words. I bind you and curse you.”
“I have many names, hag. Leave this place or I will tear him apart from the inside out.” The fingers tightened and the corners of my mouth began to tear. If I could have screamed I would have then, but the thing inside me was in complete control. I couldn’t move or make a sound it didn’t wish me to. I was a puppet.
“You’ll do no such thing in my presence,” Catherine said, peeling off her gloves. The skin of her hands was covered in designs. They were drawn in dark, thick ink that swirled and curved over every inch of her fingers and palms. There seemed to be strange letters written amongst the intricate patterns, but none that I’d ever seen before.
I had a moment to realize the thing inside me was scrambling back down and then Catherine plunged her arm up to the elbow into my mouth.
I fell back onto the bed and Catherine came with me, her knees driving into my stomach and chest. A scream unlike anything I’d ever heard echoed through the room and everyone watching dumbly covered their ears and cried out in unison. Blood gouted from my nose and splashed the front of Catherine’s shirt and pants. I tried to fight her off me because now the pressure of her and the tearing of the thing inside me was too much. I was going to die, flayed apart as they fought over my flesh.
“Release him and you can go back beneath the earth,” Catherine said, shoving her arm farther down my throat. A muffled growl came from inside my chest and Catherine screamed, her face so close to mine some sweat fell from her brow onto my face.
I was burning inside. I was dying. There was nothing left of my resolve to live and I just wanted it to be over. The door to the room was open and I saw a flash as Arthur Nimble ran out. The walls were vibrating, pictures falling from them in showers of glass as the window locks exploded and the panes raced upward. Rain blasted into the room directly sideways as if it were falling that way. It collected on the wall and ran outward toward the floor and ceiling.
Catherine grunted something and I flailed my arms, finally regaining movement in them. “David! Help me hold him! It’s slipping!” Catherine yelled. Then my father was beside her, grasping my arms and pinning them to the bed as I swallowed blood and tried to scream. Spikes of pain ripped through my stomach and my legs spasmed in short kicks.
“Release him or I will destroy you,” Catherine growled. She pivoted to one side and her elbow slid past my jaws. There was a drumming sound on the wood floor and I realized it was my heels hammering out a machinegun rhythm. The thing inside me crawled deeper, boring into and through me, violating every inch of my being and I cried out in my mind for God to kill me. I looked at my father and spoke the same message with my eyes. He sobbed my name and turned his head away, still holding me down tight to the bed.
Then she was there.
Sara was beside me, her hand brushing my cheek, eyes finding my own, and even though she was afraid, I could hear her voice above the cacophony of the room.
“You’re the one, Lane. You’re the one I always loved. Hold on for me.” To this day I don’t know if she spoke aloud or if the words were in my head. She’s told me herself that she doesn’t remember if she said anything or not and it’s very possible that I imagined them entirely, but regardless the effect was instantaneous.
Catherine’s arm recoiled from inside me and the slender, burnt thing sprung from my mouth.
It slid out in an ebony ribbon of long arms and legs with hooked flippers where its toes should’ve been, and it stuck to the ceiling above the bed, the horizontal rain running over its body.
A gunshot ripped through the room and the thing flew from the ceiling in a spray of ichor. Arthur Nimble stood in the doorway clutching a rifle, its barrel smoking. Catherine yelled something and was gathering herself up from the floor where she’d landed when the thing sprung like an enormous frog up and onto Nimble’s chest.
Arthur slammed into the nearest wall and rebounded, falling face first to the floor. The thing was under him, grasping and worming in his grip as he rolled over. In that brief second I saw it had its head in his mouth and was chewing his tongue to ribbons.
Then Catherine was there, her painted hands gripping it around its thin waist. She pried it from Nimble and smoke or steam began to erupt from the places where her hands touched it. The thing screamed again and this time blood erupted from everyone’s ears except Catherine’s and my own. One by one everyone in the room fell to their knees and slumped over as if they’d been shot.
My own vision wavered and became a deep shade of gray as I tried to sit all the way up. Catherine had pinned the long arms to its sides and was staring it full in the face with her strange eyes. Its body whipsawed again and it mewled out something that sounded like a plea.
But then Catherine uttered a word I couldn’t make out and the mist that was gathering in my eyes turned black, and I fell into nothing.