It started to rain as we drove along Secondary Road and I was acutely reminded of the night we had gone to Ellis Wilmer’s.
It had a sense of symmetry, the comfortable whop of the wiper blades, the darkness beyond our headlights, even the smell and taste of the strong coffee my father had brewed before leaving.
There were no lights on in any of the houses in Rath, the school as dark as a tomb. Missy Arnold sat outside her shop in the rain, hands folded in her lap. She was laughing.
We turned right on 7 and headed south as the rain fell harder. There was no lightning, no thunder, just the steady splash of water on our windshield. My father and I said nothing to one another the entire ride, each of us lost in our own thoughts.
When the Tandy’s house came into view, my breath caught in my throat. Every light in the house seemed to be lit and it shone like a ship at sea. There were three other vehicles there besides the Tandy’s truck and I wondered which one was Catherine’s. I hadn’t seen her arrive or depart in anything at Nimble’s and was curious as to what a woman like her would drive.
We left the truck and hurried out of the rain to the porch overhang but the storm still managed to soak us in the process. Mr. Tandy was there at the front door to meet us as we shook ourselves off.
The man looked a decade older than the last time I’d seen him. His skin was sallow and there were purple bags beneath his eyes. He seemed smaller somehow, as if time had shrunk him. He and my father shook hands but he didn’t offer me the same gesture, only nodded in my direction.
“Come in,” he said, leading us inside.
The house was two levels, the interior brightly lacquered wood and rose patterned wallpaper. A spacious living room sat to the left, a huge stone fireplace crackling heartily in one wall. To the right was a closed doorway to what I assumed was the kitchen. I heard Jones’s voice asking if I knew what assuming normally does, and clenched my eyes shut in several hard blinks. Beyond the kitchen door was a formal dining room with a table and chairs I knew my mother would’ve given her left arm for. Past the dining room was a stairway angling up and back to disappear on the second floor. Catherine stood at the base of the stairs.
She was wearing the same clothing as she had earlier in the day but now she had a slim, black pair of leather gloves concealing her hands. Beside her was Jane Tandy, Sara’s mother, and Arthur Nimble. Mr. and Mrs. Shawler were seated beside them. They all watched us approach looking as nervous as I felt.
“Hello, David. Hello, Lane,” Catherine said. We echoed her greeting and I tried to smile at Mrs. Tandy but she looked away almost at once. I swallowed and turned my attention to Mrs. Shawler, who’s grim face remained impassive. She gave me a quick wink before glancing at my father.
“Well, we all know why we’re here,” Catherine said, inspecting us. “I can’t say what we will encounter once we get upstairs. There’s no telling what any of you will hear or see. I will say that none of it will be pleasant. What we are trying to cast out is devious and disparaging. It will try to twist your minds into believing lies and discarding truths.” She looked at each one of us in turn. “Listen to me at all times and no matter what, do exactly as I say without hesitation. We will have one chance and one chance only to do what needs to be done.” She paused again. “Beyond that, I’ll be unable to help.”
My knees wobbled but I pictured Sara lying in the bed upstairs, something hideous inside her, poisoning her. I felt her fingers intertwined in my own, heard her soft voice saying that she liked me.
“I’m ready,” I said, and Catherine eyed me before nodding.
“Let’s begin,” she said.
Catherine led the way with the Shawlers and Nimble going next. I followed Mr. Tandy and my father brought up the rear. As we climbed I saw Mrs. Tandy place her face in her hand and move quickly away toward the living room.
The stairs creaked beneath our feet and the scent of sweat hung in the air. The stairway turned on a landing then emptied out into a wide hallway with doors on either side. All of them were shut tight, the gap beneath them completely dark except for the one at the end on the right. A slash of light cut from underneath it and another smell invaded my nose. It was a sweet burning, almost like when we would torch a clover field, only there were other scents mixed in that gave it an exotic aroma.
My heart picked up speed as Catherine reached the door to Sara’s room and opened it, stepping quickly inside. Everyone followed suit, each of them disappearing through the doorway without hesitation until it was my turn. I took a deep breath and stepped across the threshold.
The room’s walls were painted a sunny yellow, the trim and window sashes a bright white. I imagined how open and airy it must look on a sunny day when the shades weren’t drawn and the summer breeze was allowed to flow inside. There were several drawings of horses on the walls and I recognized Winnie in one that depicted the animal galloping in a field of flowers. There was a small desk topped with a porcelain dish and ivory hairbrush. Beside them was a long, burning stick of incense that trailed up a thread of smoke. The bed at the center of the room was stripped to the mattress and sheets, its width almost double my own. Heavy leather straps were attached to the brass headboard as well as the base.
I stopped dead several steps inside the room, my eyes locked on the bed.
It was empty.
I blinked, glancing around the room, searching for Sara’s slight form to be crouched in one corner or standing against the wall. But she was nowhere to be seen.
Catherine stood by the foot of the bed and gazed back calmly as my father moved in beside me.
“What’s going on?” I asked, looking around at all the faces that were pointed directly at me. Footsteps creaked on the stairway before coming closer down the hall. A moment later Mrs. Tandy appeared in the doorway, and when she stepped aside, Sara May walked in behind her.
The level of confusion that consumed me unhinged my jaw at seeing Sara up and moving around. Her color was good, her eyes were clear, and she walked freely. By all accounts she looked healthy. When I faced Catherine again, she was closer, the hands in her gloves held out in placation.
“I don’t understand,” I managed. “Why isn’t she in bed?”
Catherine stopped before me, her eyes boring into my own. “Because Lane, this isn’t Sara’s exorcism. It’s yours.”