Ghosts. There Are Ghosts.

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“That’s what I said,” Father Albert Wentley said into the phone. “There are ghosts.” There was a pause while he listened to the voice on the other end of the line. He looked at the door to his office. He looked at the window, shades drawn. He looked at the desk. “Don’t tell me it sounds crazy. First of all, I know it sounds crazy. Second of all, why does it sound crazy? It shouldn’t. We believe in spirits, after all. We believe in souls. We believe in an afterlife, and ghosts are part of what comes… after… life.” He deliberately slowed down his words for the last part, emphasizing what comes next. Another pause. He looked at the pen that he tapped in his hand. He looked at the door again. He didn’t turn his eyes forward at his desk. “I know that it’s not traditional doctrine. But they are here.” Pause. Looking around. Then he spoke again: “I won’t go to a doctor.” Pause. Looking around. Then he answered: “Well, then, when you come to get me you’ll have to be here and you’ll see them.” He hung the phone up, carefully. He was frustrated but it was exactly what he had expected. That was why he had not mentioned it before. He knew what happens when you call the archbishop’s office and tell them that there are ghosts attending Mass in your church. That was how he’d gotten through to the Archbishop in the first place. When asked what he the call was regarding, he’d said simply “Ghosts.” The Archbishop had then interrupted whatever it was he’d been doing and Father Albert had explained to him that he had ghosts in his church. He sighed. He finally looked up across the desk from him. Two of the ghosts sat across from him. They wore their Sunday finest, dress clothes and ties and shoes. Their hair was neatly combed. Both were men. One was balding. Father Albert looked at that one, and wondered why in the afterlife this man would still be bald. He focused on the balding and tried not to make eye contact with the ghosts, who sat mutely across from him. Finally, he met their eyes, each in turn, and saw the sadness and fear there, sadness and fear he did not want

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to see because he did not understand it. The afterlife was not something to fear or be sad about, was it? Was it? He looked at them. They seemed to be imploring him. They were only two of the seven or so that he’d seen in the church, but these were the first two he’d seen out of the church itself, the first two that had made it down to the hallways. Father Albert was not afraid of them. He was afraid of what they represented. He was afraid that the ghosts were here in church because there was no place else for them to go, and if that was true, then what was he doing? He’d never believed that there could be ghosts roaming the earth, because the dead would fall into two categories. There would be the Saved, who would go up to Heaven. Who would choose to remain on Earth when they could bask in the eternal glory of God in paradise forever? There would be the Damned, who would go to Hell. And who could choose to remain on Earth once Satan had his claws on them? The Devil would surely not tolerate his property walking the Earth. Father Albert discounted the possibility that these were souls sent by Satan to cause trouble. The Dark One would not use humans for that. If he could spring things from Hell, he would send a demon. He always had in the past. There had never been a case, he was sure, of possession by another human. And Father Albert spared no time for thinking about Purgatory, the flawed creation of the church centuries back. So he sat now and looked at the two ghosts sitting across from him. They had come to his office, had been sitting in his office when Father Albert had come down from the residence this morning at 9, as he did everyday. They waited there patiently, like any two visitors might. He did not know how they had gotten in, but he supposed that was not too much trouble for ghosts. They had sat there as he walked in, and he recognized them from the Masses they had attended, and they had not moved when he sat down behind the desk. They had not tried to stop him from making the phone call, finally, to the Archbishop’s office. They had sat mutely and calmly while he tried to convince his superior

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that there were ghosts in his church, and they sat mutely and calmly now. He looked at them. “What is it you want?” he finally said. He’d never directly addressed any of the ghosts before. “Tell me what you are doing here.” The ghosts’ mouths moved, but he heard no words. When the first opened his mouth, Father Albert heard a whistling of wind, a cold, chill wind. He sat back, wondering where that had come from. The wind made him instantly think of the frozen, chill plains of Antarctica during the endless night it faced: inhospitable to the greatest degree a human could imagine. It so distracted him that he could not even follow the man’s lips to try to figure out what he was saying. The other man then tried to speak, and Father Albert turned to him but then turned away because when this man spoke what Father Albert heard was screams and wails of children, children in pain and hungry and sobbing. The sound stopped and he turned back. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” They just stared at him, with their sad eyes. He said again, “I’m sorry.” That did not seem to satisfy them. And he was shaken by their attempts to communicate. He had been, up until then, taking this rather well. He had to take it well. He didn’t know why there were ghosts in his church. But they were there, and after he’d noticed them, that first Mass, when he’d seen the first of the ghosts sitting there, it had not even bothered him then. Priests, holy men, spend most of their time pondering the intangible, the spiritual, the holy and unholy. They contemplate facing evil and staring it down. They work to purify themselves so that their spirit will be strong, and so when they meet other strong spirits… … spirits so strong they can resist the tug of the afterlife… … a priest should be ready, he’d decided. He’d decided that he should no more fear these ghosts than he should fear hearing confession or praying over the dying or recently dead. The only difference between these ghosts, and those spirits, he’d decided, was that he could see the ones before him.

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But they were trying to talk to him and they could not communicate – in words. Yet the essence got across to him, somehow, in a deeper, baser emotion than one he felt humans should still be able to feel. There are those primal impulses that people experience, impulses that are not guided by rational thought. The impulses that make us pull a man pull his hand back before the hand feels the heat of the fire. The impulses that make a mother able to hear her baby just before it cries. The shudder of fear and determination that stiffen a spine when heading downstairs to investigate a sound. In the area of the body that feels those impulses, the world is still wild and jungle-like. And, Father Albert knew now, that world also had ghosts, because it was in that part of his body that he could feel the ghosts’ communications. Father Albert had prayed over the body of a dying 3-day-old baby. Father Albert had been in the army and had gone on patrol with fellow soldiers, carrying his Bible and a cross and a gun, watching explosive devices on the side of the road rip open his friends and blessing them as they lay torn in half. Father Albert had studied exorcisms. He was not easily shaken. He looked up again at the two ghosts. He spread his hands apart and secretly hoped they would not try to talk to him again. The bald one, the child-screaming one, leaned forward. Father Albert inadvertently made the sign of the cross as it did. The balding ghost pointed at its eyes, and widened one of them. It pointed, with a long, slender, and slightly translucent finger, at the eye. Father Albert looked into the eye as he was directed. At first, it was just an eye, almost transparent like the rest of the ghost. Nobody else could see them, Father Albert thought. They could feel the ghosts, because people instinctively did not sit near them, moved away or blessed themselves when the ghosts passed near them, but they could not see them because nobody else reacted directly to the ghosts. As he stared into the eye, his field of perception changed; his eyes stopped focusing on the ghost’s eye and started focusing just past that, on the reflection that could be seen there. Father Albert saw himself reflected, slightly distorted, in the ghost’s eye. He did not know why he was told to see that. He almost looked away, but the ghost tapped the finger just below its eye and recaptured his attention. He stared and his eyes refocused, one more time—past the eyeball, past the tiny reflected priest that 5

stared back, and then his vision honed in on the reflection of the window he sat in front of. Outside the window—in the reflection in the eye, he saw, reflected, outside the window… he saw… a gasp escaped him despite his resolve. He looked over his shoulder at the window. Nothing. Just the dull gray morning light shining on the lawn with the houses across the street. He kept looking. What could have caused that reflection. He looked at the houses – small, white or yellow, two stories, older houses. A car in the driveway. Trees. Could they have looked like that? He heard the wailing of children again and started, turning back. The ghost had its mouth open and was pointing at its eye. He didn’t want to look but he wanted the ghost to stop trying to talk to him. He leaned in and looked more. He braced himself. He felt his hands grip his desk. He let his eyes glaze a little. The ghost stopped trying to talk; the sound of wailing children faded. His eyes drifted. There. He did not look away and did not refocus. Just over his shoulder in the reflection, just outside the window, he saw in the ghost’s eye… Fire. Flames. Heat. He was sure of that. He was also sure it was a reflection. He could look around, as it were, in the ghost’s eye. In the reflection, he saw himself. He saw his desk. He saw the bulletin board and calendar over his right shoulder, the calendar with a few dates circled on it, special events. He saw the window, over his left shoulder, and outside the window, flames. And what flames! They danced. They sang. They beckoned. They appeared to have faces and then none. They had arms and legs and then none. They spelled words in fantastic languages, languages he almost grasped. They became the notes of music he loved and then twisted until they formed orange-red scenes from his youth, beautiful women and 6

soldiers he’d fought with and then they were abstract again, they were blended together into a wall of reddish-yellow, all uniform and pleasing and they beckoned to him. He blinked. The ghosts were gone. The flames were gone. His mouth was dry and his throat tight. He felt sweat dripping down his back. He was panting. He felt full, and he felt hungry. He missed the flames, and shook his head. Where had the ghosts gone? How could he miss the flames? What were they? He looked at his hands, still gripping the desk, tightly, still clenched white-knuckled. He slowly released them. They ached. He looked at the clock. It had been over three hours since he called the Archbishop. He panicked for second. Three hours! Three hours! How could that be? But he knew. The flames had mesmerized him. And he knew he had to tell someone. He knew he had to talk to someone. He picked up the phone. He dialed the number for the Archbishop’s office, but just before it rang, he hung up the phone. He sat there in silence, waiting to hear the sound of children wailing, but the ghosts appeared to have finished their business. He could not find them anywhere in the church or the offices or the living quarters. He wondered if they’d left the building. He went to the side door, by the offices, down off the main hall. He walked up to the heavy wooden door and put his hand on the handle. An image came to his mind, images, thoughts he’d been struggling not to think: Flames dancing and twisting and beckoning and hot, so hot, but so pure… He knew that was trouble. He also knew that in the reflection, at least, the flames were outside of the church, not inside. He pulled his hand off the door handle and looked out the glass panel of the top half of the 7

door. He saw only the same dreary day outside, the same sidewalk he took to the bus stop, the same children’s toys across the street. But they’d been outside the window in the reflection and he wasn’t ready to go outside. He stood there a few minutes more, and then made the sign of the cross and went back to the living quarters where he spent the night sitting on the couch, holding his Bible on his lap and staring at the television, which he did not turn on. He fell asleep sitting up on the couch. He did not see the ghosts for a few more days. It wasn’t until Mass on Sunday that they reappeared, and this time there were more of them. He thought maybe 30 of them, total. They didn’t register immediately. He walked in, behind the altar boys, and turned to face the congregation, and saw gaps here and there, half-empty pews near the front for no reason. The ghosts did not all sit together, for some reason. When he saw the spaces, he waited, and the ghosts became more visible to him. One came up for communion. He had handed a host to a mother carrying a baby, and blessed her, and the next in line was a ghost. It was an elderly woman. Why would an elderly woman stay around after life? Why would she be at this church? He did not recognize her, either. He had wondered, during the week, if they were parishioners, churchgoers who could not let go. That thought bothered him: if they were regular churchgoers, why were they not in Heaven? Was he reaching his congregants? Were they sincere in their beliefs as they prayed, or simply mouthing the words back. Why would someone come to church if they did not truly believe in it? Was there a Heaven? Was there? The elderly lady, the ghost, stood there before him. The elderly wanted him to place the host in their mouths; newer generations held out their hands. He didn’t know what to do. The woman behind the ghost stood there, not willing to move forward. Having spent time near the ghosts, Father Albert thought he knew why: they gave off an atmosphere, a slightly-repelling feeling that you

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did not want to get too near to. It was like feeling a draft from a basement where food had gone bad, cold and slightly off and rotten. The woman opened her mouth to take communion. He heard a cacophony of discordant music and car sounds – loud, thumping bass and guitars and tires squealing and children shouting and an older woman’s voice screeching and the sound of something breaking. He staggered a little under the impulse of it. He looked at her. She had her mouth open and the sound came from it. Her eyes were wide open, pleading. He leaned in closer. What would the churchgoers think if they saw him hand a host to empty air? He shook his head, slightly, and her hands, clasped together, quivered. He saw rage flash in her eyes, then it quickly faded out. She was pleading with him. Her mouth closed when he stood there, implacable. She moved away and the rest of communion passed uneventfully. No other ghosts came up. He could not shake the sounds out of his head. After Mass was over, after he’d said goodbye to everyone, when the church was quiet, he went back into the church itself, dimly lit now only by sunlight, pale and gray outside, filtering through the stained glass windows, the scenes of incredible loveliness and horror that lined the walls, the bright yellow and blue and red and white glass depicting the torture and death of Jesus in primary colors. There were about 30 of them, he confirmed. They were still in the pews, more or less where they had been during the service. Most sat there. Some knelt. They all turned to look at him when he entered. He still had his vestments on. He walked up to the front of the church, stood before them. “Tell me what you want,” he said. He forced his voice to be calm. This was one of the reasons he was here—to help people deal with the mysteries, the vagaries, of the soul and the afterlife. These were people, too, he told himself. They existed, now, on a different level than he did, but they were people. He felt certain that he could, in this instance, distinguish people from evil spirits or demons or others. He did not think that these ghosts were inherently evil. It bothered him, though, that they felt wrong to him, that the sounds and smells and feeling they emitted were so wrong themselves. “Tell me,” he asked them again. 9

Their heads watched him, mostly men, a few women, only one old woman, no children. As one, they opened their mouths. They looked, to him, like nothing so much as the same crowds he expected on weekdays: small but devoted, opening their mouths to say “Amen.” It was no prayer that came from their mouths, though. It was horrifying. The sounds commingled in his ears: screams, roars, animal sounds, city sounds, incomprehensible sounds, people talking, people shouting, people crying, the earth moving, coughing and choking and thuds and thumps… every bad sound one could hear in a life came out of their mouths. He steeled himself and braced himself and forced himself to listen. He listened and heard, in the wailing roaring tremulous crescendo that came from the ghosts mouths, a voice. A small voice, but a voice nonetheless. An elderly woman’s voice, it sounded like this to him: Roar moan car crash fire crackling Help building collapsing person drowning us person shrieking baby crying woman sobbing timber falling please white staticky noise waterfall lion roaring won’t you snakes hissing chomping gnashing of teeth cloth tearing. The sounds of Hell. He looked around and saw the woman, the elderly woman who had come up for communion, who had gotten angry with him when he would not give her the Host. Her mouth was open, too, like the others. None of the ghosts moved their mouths as though they were talking, and she did not, either, but as he caught her eye (her dead glassy marble-like dull eye) she nodded, maybe a little, and he motioned to her. “Come up here,” he told her. He looked at the rest of them. “You all be quiet for a moment,” and they did, as the elderly woman stood up. She approached the pulpit, the front of the church now emptied of congregants. Father Albert stood there still in his vestments and kept calm as she approached. She bowed her head 10

when she came into the aisle, and made the sign of the Cross. That, too, bothered him. Could the denizens of the Eternal Damnation of Hell show respect to the cross, to Jesus? And if she did so, why was she in Hell? Was she in Hell? Was she damned? Was she not? Why were they walking the Earth? Why were the ghosts here? She stood before him, then knelt. He smelled the odor of ghostly presence again, the smell of low tide. The smell of old body odor trapped in clothing. The smell of the houses of the elderly who have nobody to care for them and are discovered, one day, dead or just clinging to life, laying in their beds where they have been for two or three or more days, unable to get up and eat or go to the bathroom, discovered by accident, always by accident. “Help you what?” Father Albert asked, quietly. She opened her mouth and then closed it quickly, a tiny squeak of terror emitted. She looked down again. “Help you what?” Father Albert asked again, quietly. She just looked up at him, a tear forming in the corner of her dead eye. He knelt down, then, remembering his position, and was face-toface with her. Nobody ever told me only to minister to those who are living, he thought, and he felt braver for that. He held out his hands to her. “Pray with me,” he said, and she reached forward and took his hands and as he did he felt a cold chill, an icy current of energy that flowed into him and threatened to cause his arms to be numb and he looked at her and tried, he really tried, to hang onto her hands. “Our Father,” he began but his hands felt then hot the way frostbitten and frozen fingers feel hot and his neck was starting to tighten with the cold seeping up to it and he had to let go and the woman moaned and fell to her hands and knees, head down, and Father Albert massaged his hands to get feeling into them. He looked at them. They were blueish, and hard to work. He rubbed them on his thighs and they felt like rubber. “Who art in Heaven,” he continued, and the woman sat back a little, and looked at him, and put her hands together in prayer but did not take his again. He held his still-numb hands out from his sides, palms up, and looked from her to the other ghosts still sitting in the pews, mouths closed, watching this.

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Father Albert finished the Lord’s prayer that way, and the Church fell silent. The woman just stared at him, sadly, and shook her head. She opened her mouth a tiny amount and he heard the wind howling distantly, cold and quick, and carried on the sound of the cold was a voice “Help us please won’t you.” He wanted to take her hand again but could not. He still could not feel his own hands properly. He said to her “Tell me how,” and she looked frightened again and then backed away from the pulpit. “I can’t help you if I don’t know what it is you want help with,” Father Albert said, louder, but the woman just walked down the aisle of the church slowly. The other ghosts stood and followed her out, a ghastly procession that was done in complete silence. At the door, the woman paused and looked back. She was shivering, Father Albert realized. And his hands were still numb. And now they looked more than blue, they looked black. Later, he thought maybe he should go to the doctor for it. He was back in his quarters, and could not grip the handle of the refrigerator door to open it. He had to hook his wrist through the handle and pull the refrigerator open and as he did so, he looked down at his hands, which definitely looked bad and felt bad, too, where he could feel them. He tried to move his hand but could not do so. He closed the refrigerator door – how could he have made anything to eat, anyway – and struggled into his coat to go to the emergency room, the only place he could go to get help on a Sunday. He walked to the door of the quarters, his private entrance and exit and put his hand on the doorknob, but could not grip it. Using his wrists, he managed to turn the doorknob and the outer door started to open and he pulled it open and looked up to see snow swirling and whirling, driven by gale-force winds and piling up against the door, blowing in and piling around his feet and numbing them almost instantly, and underneath that all, somehow still burning through the blizzard were flames, flames dancing and leaping and smiling and beckoning and he pushed and heaved and shut the door, finally, leaning back against it and sitting on the kitchen floor, where there was now no snow at all, nothing to indicate that what had just happened was real, except that he could hear the wind howling and the flames crackling and popping just outside the door, and except that his hands were black in areas and the skin was cracking.

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“And let us pray,” Father Albert said, as he raised his hands. He looked out on his congregation and tried not to show on his face what he felt. He supposed that everyone in the pews, everyone who was alive in the pews, would look around and see that the church had only a few people in it, maybe 10. But everyone who was dead in the pews would look around and see what might be as many as 100 ghosts. He had not counted them at all, but they were growing more numerous as the days went by. It had been more than a week since he had left the church or his quarters. He could not bring himself to go outside. He was scared to do so. But it was getting harder to move around the church, too, without bumping into the ghosts. And he did not want to bump into them. They had hardly any substance, but they had some substance. He could, as he’d done with the old woman, touch them if he wanted to, and sometimes if he did not want to. His shoulder hurt as he held up his hands and prayed the Lord’s Prayer for the few living parishioners that still attended Sunday morning mass. His hand hurt, too, bandaged up and shriveling inside. He had not been able to get a doctor to come look at it, and each time he tried to walk outside the door this week, he’d been met with a heart-pounding fear, a terror that he would walk outside and into Hellfire, or a blizzard, or… …Damnation. He was worried that somehow the church, or he, or both, had ended up in Hell, because when he looked into the eyes of the ghosts, when he imagined going outside, when he tried to go outside, he saw the landscape of Hell and did not know if it was his imagination or reality. Others in the church came and went. The few people who attended Masses entered and left without difficulty. Father Albert no longer greeted them at the door because he could not bear to be near the door. He waited further inside the church, trying to pay no attention to the ghosts popping into the pews and their… feeling… that drove away others. Church employees, including the administrator, also came and went. The administrator, a woman named “Annette” who went by “Nettie,” 13

had become concerned this week as he’d canceled appointments, claiming illness. He told himself he would go to confession, or have someone else come in and hear his confession, about that lie, but he could not bring himself to leave. She’d looked at his bandaged hand, the day after the old woman had hurt it. “What happened?” she’d asked. “I burnt it.” He’d lied. That, too, he meant to confess. “You should see a doctor,” she said. But he’d told her it wasn’t that serious and decided he would think later about whether that, too, was a lie – it was actually serious, he thought – because he hadn’t wanted to linger around her office, since Clicking Boy was there. Clicking Boy scared him. He told Nettie to get one of the other local priests to handle some of the home visits that week. “Not feeling well,” he told her. “I can drive you to the doctor,” she’d said. He looked out the window when she said that. She parked, he knew, where she could see her car from the window of her office. Outside the window of her office that day, though, were vines and branches and leaves and trees, pressed ferociously up against the glass. Not nice, clean, spring-like plants. This was diseased, rotting, melting, oozing, poisonous vegetation, the kind that he would shy away from under any circumstances. “No, thanks,” he said, and watched as she shrugged and picked up the phone. He looked to his right, where Click Boy sat and shuddered. He made the sign of the cross as he walked out to get away from Click Boy, and as he did so, he had to dodge to the right to keep from bumping into two other ghosts, both young women, standing in the hallway waiting for him. He didn’t want to be afraid of any of the ghosts, not even Click Boy, but he couldn’t help it. After the old woman had injured his hand, he’d tried again, with one of the older men, a man with a beard and moustache and bald head, a man whose eyes sometimes flared up red and who, when he opened his mouth, emitted only the sound of crackling flames.

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“What do you need?” Father Albert had asked the man, sitting on the pew next to him in the main church. His hand, hurt the day before, was bandaged. The man turned to him and opened his mouth and Father Albert heard only flames roaring and popping, logs bursting. “Tell me,” he said, and listened for the words underneath the sound, hoping this man, like the old woman, could talk. Father Albert had not seen the old woman since she had touched him, since she had hurt his hand. That bothered him, too. Why wasn’t she coming around anymore? The man had turned to him and Father Albert was surprised to see tears in the man’s eyes. The mouth was open, gaping, the fire sounds snapping and bristling. Underneath that, Father Albert thought he heard thanks and then sorry and he said: “Sorry for what?” The man then hugged him, threw his ghostly smelly arms around Father Albert, who screamed in pain and terror as the heat from the man’s arms burnt right through his shirt and into his skin, causing his flesh to boil up and liquefy as he pulled away, to no avail, as the man continued hugging him until Father Albert blacked out. ****** Click Boy had first showed up just about a week before. Click Boy terrified Father Albert. Father Albert sometimes lay in his bed at night and wondered whether he was really hearing clicks, or if that was his imagination. He took to sleeping with the light on. And locking the door, as silly as that seemed. ***** Now, he had nothing he could do to sleep at night. He sat in bed and felt the burns and boils and scars on his back and shoulders. He heard them, out there in the hallway, occasionally opening up their mouths and talking. They did not come into his bedroom, so far as he knew. 15

He had never seen them in here. He had taken to closing the door and locking it. But they were ghosts. They could come in here if they wanted to, he knew. He didn’t know what it was that kept them out of the room. But he couldn’t sleep anymore. He couldn’t lose the fear that they would come through the door, that they would become less polite, less respectful to him. The Hot Man had scared him because it seemed premeditated. In the two days since then, he had called in sick, difficult to do when the office workers were just in the other part of the church complex. He had stayed in his room, though, had called down and lied… again… and said that he was terribly ill and didn’t want them to catch it. “Must be something going around,” said Nettie. When Father Albert had asked what she meant, she responded that “Almost everybody has called in today. In fact, it’s just me.” Father Albert had asked “What’s wrong with them?” Nettie had said that they, like him, just had a bug. Father Albert wondered if the other employees could see the ghosts. Wouldn’t they have screamed? Wouldn’t they have told him? He hung up the phone and then realized he hadn’t said good-bye to Nettie. She would attribute it to the illness, which, he realized, was a little like a lie in itself, letting her think that he had been rude because he was ill rather than letting her know that he wasn’t trying to be rude, not at all, but he was distracted because the hallways were teeming with ghosts who he was afraid would touch him. Who, he realized, might be plotting to touch him. The Hot Man had said Sorry. Then he had hugged him. Would other employees see them? Feel them? There had been fewer and fewer people in church, but nobody had looked as though they, like Father Albert, could see the ghosts. And would they tell him about them? He recalled the reception he’d gotten when he called the Bishop to report this. That hadn’t been so long ago.

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He went over to his desk, where there was an old laptop computer that he sometimes used. He opened it up. Put on the word processor. He opened up a list of “contacts” and found the address he was looking for. He logged onto the Church’s internal network. It seemed odd, contacting the Vatican by email, but that was what he was going to do. He sat and prayed for a moment, gathering his thoughts. It was difficult because he could hear the ghosts… voices… out in the hall. They still could not talk properly, or he could not understand them properly. The conversations he overheard were fires crackling and trees falling and babies screaming and winds howling and metal bending. With words, hidden way down inside. He began to type. He had met, once, a priest who now worked within the Vatican as a researcher. He was not an exorcist, not an investigator, not anyone high up. But he worked in the Vatican and was an insider, of sorts, the highest-up person Father Albert knew. Father Albert typed to him now: Dear Father Artenosk, I hope you will forgive my being somewhat short. I have not written in a long time and I’m sorry. I have a terrible problem that I need help with and nobody can tell me what to do. There are ghosts in my church. Ghosts, and I’m serious about it. They walk the halls and make terrible noises and they have started touching me and I don’t know what to do. When I look in their eyes, I see Hell. When I look outside the Church, I see Hell. I am in terrible pain and cannot see how to resolve this and help them or make them leave. Please let me know if you can help and see if there is someone you can talk to about this. Father Albert Landon. He prayed again. Each time he prayed now, he prayed the same thing: Lord, help these tormented souls. Help me. That was all he said, in his private prayers, ever anymore. He shivered a little and made the sign of the cross and hit “Send.” 17

He sat there for a moment and then saw that his “Inbox” was highlighted. He clicked on it and saw that Father Artenosk had replied. Eagerly, he leaned forward and clicked on it. As the email from the Vatican loaded, he prayed again: Lord, help these tormented souls. Help me. The email, when opened, read: I am out of the office and will respond when I can. Father Albert sighed. Then he looked at the door and heard the ghost voices outside. He had not slept at all last night and his eyes were watery with fatigue. He walked up to the door, listening. He heard no clicks and so he squared his shoulders and opened the door. Five ghosts stood there. A man, about his own age. A woman, nearly the man’s age. Two children. And a bent-over elderly woman. They all reached out their hands and opened their mouths and he heard the tintinnabulation in their howls. He backed away, just a little, from their outstretched hands and the noise they made. He prayed again: Lord, help these tormented souls. Help me. Then he closed the door. Then he opened it again, and looked at them. “Clear a way, please,” he said, and they backed up a little. His mouth was dry, his voice cracking a little. He stepped out into the hallway and looked left, and looked right. More ghosts, either way, standing there, mouths closed, eyes downcast, at first, but looking up as he came out. He turned to his right. There were two ghosts there, and a few more beyond him. The closest to him looked at him, a young lady, maybe 30, she would have been pretty if she wasn’t so bedraggled. She held up her hand and reached towards him. She was wet, dripping wet, the ghostly drops of water falling from her and disappearing into thin air. “Please, let me through,” he said. He met her eyes. He saw in her eyes a river, rushing water, rapids, foaming and cold, with ice chunks hitting rocks and smashing into smaller ice chunks. He shivered. She 18

opened her mouth and he heard the sound of water roaring, more than that, he heard water roaring, rocks, ice cracking, tires squealing, splashing, sirens, metal bending, doors creaking Can I splashing gurgling trying to breath more tires horns honking a party with glasses tinkling her screaming touch you a baby crying a mother assuring the baby they’d be home soon a phone ringing someone talking saying tires squealing metal bending splashing crying please let me I need relief someone telling someone they only had a few drinks ice ice breaking a car falling through it was a mistake the tiny gurgle of air escaping from lungs And Father Albert realized what had happened and saw her torment in her eyes, saw that she was damned, for all eternity, to hurl herself off of that bridge again, to have the cell phone drop from her grasp as she swerved the car out of the way of the other car in the lane she’d drifted into, saw in her eyes her own car swerving back, saw her drinking something after work, saw her belting her baby in, and he realized that for all of eternity she would come up from underwater, shocked sober and freezing and realizing that she had to go back under and then realizing that it was too late. He stared at her. Her hand was right by his face, separated by so little space it appeared she was touching him already. “You want to touch me,” he said. She nodded. Tears in her eyes? Or water? She was cold. And wet. He looked at his own hand, blackened and shriveled under its wraps. He felt the burns on his back. He knew what would happen. “Why?” he asked. She opened her mouth again Rocks hitting metal people shouting police sirens rescuers pulling her out ambulance sirens metal tearing a baby crying just once You can take this away the cell phone ringing tires squealing a horn honking the steering wheel smacking against her chest water splashing a tiny gurgle. He looked into her eyes and closed his own and said “I can’t.” 19

But he nodded, then, and said “Touch me.” She was cold and she was wet and then he was cold and he was wet as she touched her hand to his cheek and he felt an icy blast furrow into his body, wind whipping and he was drenched, water fell all around him and he couldn’t breath and he shivered and gasped for air, water going into his throat and lungs. Through the cold water, through the bitter wind, he watched as she held her hand against his face and faded away, and he fell down into a heap on the floor, in a puddle, soaking wet and shivering, teeth chattering, heart sinking, as he saw that she was no longer there. Water ran down the hallway on either side and he told himself to breath again, that he was not underwater. He wiped water away from his face and shivered and started to cry. He had to leave the church. He had to. He got up to his knees, still cold, still shivering. He slipped once or twice on the water and stood again. His clothing was heavy and soaking wet and was not warming up with his touch. He held his arms tightly around his body and moved forward. There were more ghosts, up ahead, near the corner where the stairs would take him down to the doorway where he would try to leave. He did not care what he saw there, outside or inside. He did not care who was between him and them. He had to leave. He had to get help. He could not stay. He coughed once or twice and then knelt down and vomited up water that he had swallowed when the Drowned Woman had touched him. He stood up again and held a hand on the wall, legs shaking. There were three ghosts at the corner, standing near the stairs. They held out their hands to him. The nearest one was a woman who reminded him of his own grandmother. She was kneeling, and holding her hands as though praying or beseeching him. The two behind her were an elderly man who seemed out of place, wearing clothing that was too old fashioned for the era. His face seemed marked and pocked. There was a woman with them, standing protectively near the man. A family, Father Albert thought. The elderly woman opened her mouth as she neared. He did not hear anything at first. He stopped and looked. She was trying to talk, but she could not. He bent down in front of her, and stared at her face. The man behind her, the woman, maybe their daughter, all seemed too thin. He looked into the elderly woman’s eyes, and saw a small 20

room. A small room with a child’s bed in it. On the bed lay a boy, even skinnier than the three of them. The elderly woman’s mouth opened again and Father Albert listened. He thought he heard whispering. He bent closer. He did hear whispering. People’s voices, whispering in the background. He’s always been sickly won’t make it through the winter need to keep my strength up or who’ll plant in the spring father not coming back how deep is the snow he may be ill with something else not much bread left anyway give it to him and we all starve and then he’ll starve anyway And Father Albert pulled back. He looked at all three of them. “You didn’t,” he said, but they started looking as though they would cry, and all three of their mouths opened and he heard the whispering louder then, two women’s voices and a man’s shouldn’t have let him go alone don’t we have to give the boy at least something there’s not enough to go around you’re his mother share with him we’re all in this together he hasn’t even gotten up out of bed all day maybe he’s sick with something else doesn’t make sense to give scraps of our last food to someone whose gonna die anyway maybe tomorrow we can get some food and maybe he’d make it he ain’t gonna make it. Father Albert couldn’t stand to listen. “Why should I help you?” he said, then. “Why?” They just stared at him. He wanted to get up and leave and go down the stairs. He didn’t want to help them. That wasn’t a mistake. That wasn’t unexpected. They’d let that boy starve. Was it his place to determine who to help and who to leave? They’d found their way here. If he didn’t help them, would he end up where they were? If he didn’t do what he could to help souls that were lost – he couldn’t just help those who were not lost yet, could he? He shivered and wondered, if he ended up where they had come from: What would his voice sound like?

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If he didn’t help them, if he turned his back on people in need, he might end up finding out. But if he did help them… What happens to the sin-eaters? “I don’t want to help you,” he decided. He turned to go down the stairs, feet squishing coldly in his shoes. They moved in front of him. Later, he sat in the kitchen of the residence, stomach churning and knotted and tight and empty. He stared at the sandwich he had made, the fourth sandwich he had made that evening, and the gallon jug nearly emptied of milk next to it. His stomach still rumbled. His mouth felt dry. His head felt light. The last thing he’d heard from the starving family before they’d disappeared, dissipated, was this: Thank you. He shuddered. He felt wet, still, and cold. His hand was nearly useless, blackened and crisp under the bandages, skin sloughing off. “I went into this, I had my vocation, to save souls,” he said to nobody in particular. “To save anyone that I could.” His burns hurt, across his back and on his shoulder. He wanted to move his hand. “But these are damned souls.” Tears welled into his eyes. “These are damned souls, people whose evil has already condemned them.” Should that matter? He wondered, as he stared at the fourth sandwich which he knew he would not finish even though it felt as though his stomach was collapsing on itself. He knew it should not matter. He knew what did matter, and what did matter, he did not want to admit to himself, but he did, as he stood up and wavered on legs that were weak with hunger now, weak with the sins of the family that had starved an infant so they might live a fractional bit longer, weak with the cold that chilled him to the bone from the water of the mother who had opted to have a few drinks before picking up her child, who had not wanted to pay attention to the road while she talked on the phone and who had slithered free of the car before checking on her baby. 22

The burns wracked him and he saw image after image of a man lighting a car on fire, pouring gasoline on it as a woman cowered inside, and the gasoline splashed back onto him so that when he flicked his lighter to engulf her in flames, the fire sprang down his hand and up to his face and hair and eyeballs before leaping to the car to kill her. He knew what did matter, and it was this: he was scared. On weak legs, he made his way down from the residence. The ghosts were less numerous, now, in the middle of the night, for some reason. There were still five or more in the halls, and he saw them and passed them warily. They did not approach. From off in the distance, he heard clicking, and he knew what else mattered, but what else mattered was driven down below the fear. He passed a doorway, the main entrance to the church. He looked outside the windows, longing to just go outside and thought, for a moment, that he should, he should just go outside, but he knew he would not because of the two things that mattered. He was scared to go outside. And he knew what was outside. He saw it through the windows, now: dirty foaming water filled with blood and ice and car wrecks and oil spills and the water was burning somehow and it was flowing down mountainsides that were strewn with broken bones, shards of bone razor-sharp to cut the flesh that passed over them as acid-rain fell from the sky and created rivulets in the rocks, chasms that opened and left people falling falling falling for all eternity skin scorched and animals gnawing at their throats… The ever-changing, always horrific landscape of Hell loomed outside the doors of the Church, loomed outside only for him, he knew. When he left the Church, it would be to enter Hell, weighted down with the sins of those ghosts who had found their way to his church. And did it matter so much? Did it matter if he saved them before or after they were damned? No. What mattered, the two things that mattered, were that somehow, he was saving them only by taking on their sins. Somehow, they had found a way out of Hell and to him and he knew as he felt them touch him, felt their sins go into him, knew that he was taking on their sins and they were being freed. While he was being damned. 23

That was not what mattered most. He turned and looked back at the ghosts that were down the hall from him, staring at him, mouths closed. He heard the clicks. He looked at his hand, still loosely wrapped and in pain. He felt his stomach gurgle in need. His shoulders tore underneath his clothes, and water puddle under his feet. He looked still at the ghosts, and said “I don’t know how many I can help.” They stared at him. The clicks were louder. Now he shuddered again. He didn’t know, exactly, what the clicks were, but he suspected. “Tell everyone to meet me in the Church,” he said to the ghosts, and turned to walk there. His feet squished under him. He wanted to get there before Click Boy. He was still afraid of Click Boy. He knew what he had to do and feared that he could not do it if Click Boy was there. He had seen Click Boy exactly three times so far. The first was just down the hall from his quarters. He had come out of his door, he had been intending to try to do something, anything, to feel as though he was not falling apart, and he had seen Click Boy out of the corner of his eye. By then he had become more familiar with the ghosts, not comfortable with them, not by any means, but at least he recognized them and knew them and saw some of them around. This was, too, before he’d known why the ghosts were here, why they were seeking him out. Why they wanted to touch him. This, the first time he’d seen Click Boy, was when he was still trying to figure out why the ghosts were here. And even though he was familiar with the ghosts, even though he was not afraid of them and did not know yet why they were there, he had turned away from Click Boy, revolted. And terrified. Click Boy was covered in… sores. Boils. Marks. Scars. 24

Bites. His entire body was pockmarked with tiny dots and deeper gouges and welts and bumps and bruises and pinpricks of blood. His body was swollen with poisons and pain and looked as though it might burst. His eyes were pinched closed by the bites on his eyelids and brows. His tongue lolled out of his mouth and he could not close his mouth even when he pressed his puffed, limp hands to the bottom of his jaw, which meant that his voice, the sounds of his Hell, were always escaping. And the sounds of his Hell were just clicks. Tiny, nearly-inaudible clicks. But so many clicks, so many noises, so many infinitesimal taps, that they became a constant chatter of clicks, building to a staccato the way a billion billion drops of water falling over a cliff can roar. And in the midst of that, a tiny voice… I didn’t know it was wrong… threading its way out of the clicks. Father Albert had turned and run. The second time he had seen Click Boy was in the office when he was talking with Nettie. Click Boy had been sitting in a chair, and when Father Albert had left, had hurried into the corridor and tried to walk down the hallway without looking, he had heard the clicks following him, had looked back to see Click Boy dragging his nearly-useless legs one after the other, wincing when his feet hit the ground. His feet were in tennis shoes, the kind a fourteen-year-old boy would wear, but the shoes were tattered, in shreds, they were always disintegrating and regenerating, just as the rest of Click Boy’s clothing did. He was being torn apart and rebuilt as fast as he could, and more welts appeared, welts on bites on bumps on bruises on welts. The clicking rose and fell and his voice sometimes came through: I didn’t know it was wrong I didn’t know it was wrong Father Albert did not need to run. Click Boy could scarcely move and as he did move, he was distracted and brushed his hands over his face, clawing at his eyes. He put his thick fingers, pus-filled and rotting, no doubt, up to his mouth and tried to brush out his tongue, which itself was black and blue. Click Boy coughed and stumbled and rasped and dug at his ears and shuffled along, trying to catch Father Albert, who only had to pick up his pace a tiny bit to leave him behind, and who to his shame, did so, without even a kindly word to help the boy. 25

The third time had been the most startling, and was why Father Albert had started locking his door, although he knew it was ridiculous because he knew that the ghosts were leaving Hell – were they? – and that they could move around and if they could leave Hell and move around through walls and doors, they could come through a locked door. But they did, through long habit maybe or respect for him, try to stay in the hallways and did not come through locked doors. So he locked his door at night, something he’d begun the night he’d had the dream and woken to find Click Boy there. In the dream, he’d been standing in the dark. He was on flat ground but it was dark, too dark to see around him, the kind of darkness that can only exist in a dream. Or in Hell. But it was a dream and it was too dark to see and he could only hear, as he peered into the darkness, but at first he could hear nothing. Then he heard a small click. Then more. Then more more more more more more more more more and they grew closer and louder and then he felt the first twitch and he looked down, for he could see his body clearly in the dark, his body that was wearing the outfit he’d worn that day, a blue sweater vest over white button-collar shirt with khaki pants and but he was barefoot and it was his foot which he could see clearly and his foot which he lifted now amidst the more more more more clicking and he looked and saw two ants, two tiny ants, crawling on his foot. He brushed them off and felt more on his other foot, so he put the first foot down and tried to ignore the more more more more more clicking and lifted the other foot to see twenty, maybe thirty ants and some other bugs he could not identify and he brushed them off and looked into the darkness but now his first foot was tickled and itching and he felt it up his shin and he lifted that one to brush it off, putting the second foot down and hearing and feeling squishing and crunching, as amidst the blackness he brushed more ants and centipedes and spiders off his leg, repeating that dance over and over as the clicking grew and grew more more more more clicking and he peered into the darkness and brushed and began to brush the bugs out of his waist

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And he’d woken then, startling, lying there in the dark and the only difference between the dark of his dream and the dark of the room was that in this dark he knew he was lying down. There was clicking in his room, clicking clicking clicking and he pressed himself down into the mattress away from the clicking. He snuck one hand out of the covers and switched on his bed lamp. Click Boy’s bloated misshapen face was hanging right over his, his mouth open, his tongue bleeding, his face coated in tears and scabs and bites. I didn’t know it was wrong and couldn’t help it he’d said over the clicks but Father Albert had screamed and rolled away and gone to the window to see that outside the window were walls and walls of bugs, crawling over each other, spiders and ants and centipedes and mantises and flies, so thick he could not see the streetlights and he had fled the room without looking again at Click Boy. That was why he wanted to get to the church before Click Boy could get there. He was going to help everyone. But he didn’t want to help Click Boy. In the church, a few minutes later, he stood near the front. He looked at the ghosts, filing into the pews, the ghosts already sitting in the pews, the ghosts coming past him into the doorway, heard the doors at the front of the church itself opening. He listened, especially, to that, listened to the doors opening and wondered what was outside, whether he was right that doing this would send him to Hell, or whether it was true, as he sometimes suspected, that he was already in Hell, that he had somehow or he and the church he lived in had somehow descended into the netherworld and that was how the ghosts were coming in, meeting him, walking past him now as he looked and looking away from him as he met their eyes. Because how else were they doing this? How were ghosts, spirits, souls, leaving their torments and coming to see him, to give him their torments, to ask him to save them by having him physically suffer the punishments they were otherwise doomed to experience themselves?

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He stood not near the altar but off to the side. He listened to the door in the front creak open and closed, the tiny whoosh of air as the heavy door shut itself. He watched the ghosts, all silent, shuffle in and walk in and crawl in. He tried not to envision what each was going through. What he would be soon going through. He made the sign of the cross over himself and marveled at how many there were. Over a hundred, he thought. His hand was nearly dead. He was damp and wet and squishy and his shoulders hurt and his stomach strangled itself with hunger. More ghosts were coming and he wanted to begin before Click Boy came. He walked to the front of the church. He looked the ghosts, who looked at him back. Expectantly, he thought. Hopefully. He felt, then, a little better, that he could bring hope to damned souls. That was why he had gone into this in the first place. To save souls. Just not like this. He hadn’t anticipated how scared he would be when he stood before them. The burns on his back were agonizing, now. His hand throbbed. He felt soggy and starved. “I know why you’re all here,” he said, but his voice cracked and it barely came out. He tried again. “I don’t know how you found me or why this works, but I know what you’re all doing here,” and his voice was still soft and weak but the church carried it around enough, he thought. He held up his hand, blackened and dangling. “I am just one person,” he said, and lost the strength to go on. He couldn’t make a speech. He knew what they wanted him to do and wanted to explain to them that he would let as many of them touch him as they could, that he would take their torments even if that meant that he would go to Hell in their place, but that he wasn’t sure how much he could suffer, that they had to go quickly, that he didn’t know whether it would work if he died himself, and that he was sure he would die before too many of them passed their punishment to him.

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But he couldn’t talk and his heart leapt into his throat as he looked at them. There were over 150 now, he thought, filling the pews. A few stragglers were coming in. He heard no clicking. Now. Start now before you lose your nerve, he told himself. And then he lost his nerve. “I’m sorry,” he said, so softly that he wasn’t sure, at first, if he said it, but he realized he must have because the ghosts in the front row started, looked more closely at him, opened their mouths all at once and he knew, then, that he didn’t have the heart to go through with it. Saving souls is what I was meant to do but not like this, he thought. And so he ran. He lurched forward from the spot in front of the altar where he stood and tried to run past the ghosts, wanted to run through the church and out the front door because even if it was Hell outside he was certain that Hell for him would not be as bad if he could suffer only his own punishment for being too weak to do his job. He might go to Hell for failing in his life’s purpose but he would spend eternity suffering only for that and not for all the rest of their sins. He made it to the middle of the pews before the ghosts, who were slower, slowed by their torments and their insubstantial nature, were up and in front of him and around him, mouths open, eyes wide and showing what awaited him as they clawed at him. They grabbed him and tore at him and he staggered when the first few touched him. Fire Ice Knives Bullets Screams and roars and car engines and airplanes crashing and waves and rocks and sounds he could not identify washed through his ears. He smelt burnt flesh and burnt hair and burning wood and vomit and fear and he saw flashes of light and heat and more accidents and tortures and cruelties flashed before his eyes as one, two, three, ten ghosts grabbed at him. He heard their relieved howls as his body fell and twitched spasmodically on the floor, as they disappeared and his

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own body began to bleed and scorch and contort, as he struggled to breath and struggled to see and struggled not to feel. More ghosts piled on and on and his vision went black and he lost feeling in his legs and his head was pounding as though split by an axe and he felt pins jabbing into his heart and he tried to scream but his mouth was full of something that he could not identify. He opened his eyes, blinking them clear of the foul substances that were coating them as more ghosts grabbed at him. He tried to see the crucifix, the altar, tried to utter one last prayer for their souls and his own. As he got his eyes opened, though, he looked and saw, coming closer, Click Boy. Click Boy opened his mouth. The clicking whirring nauseating crawling sound poured out and Click Boy reached a hand out and grabbed at the only clear spot, at Father Albert’s face, and as the clicking sound crescendoed, Father Albert felt the million billion tiny legs and pincers and claws begin to crawl into him, felt an eternity of spiders and centipedes and army ants on his skin and under it, in his veins, the bugs mixing with the other tortures and making it worse. He saw, instead of the vision of Jesus suffering, he saw a boy picking up bugs studying them, saw that boy putting a magnifying lens up to his ant farm, saw that boy take bugs and spiders and put them into his parent’s room, to see what would happen, saw the spiders crawling onto his parent’s faces, saw them biting the parents and the parents writhing. I didn’t know it was wrong he heard. And a spider crawled onto Father Albert’s eye and he screamed and screamed and never stopped screaming. Ever.

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