Old habits never die...completely. 3rd place winner Witches Cauldron of Horror contest
| The evening nurse peered through the five by seven-inch panel of wire reinforced glass at the thrashing form on the bed. She could see that the restraints were still in place even though the man wearing them never stopped his spastic movements. Choosing a key from the large ring at her belt, she slipped it into the lock and entered the room. The stench of sour sweat, soiled linen and imminent death greeted her at the door. This one isn’t going to make it, she thought.
She moved quickly to the IV line and injected the dose of methadone that his unconscious body craved. Looking down at the constricted, skeletal face, she wondered for the thousandth time how someone could sink to such a low level. How could anyone let a drug have so much control over him? She quickly cleaned him up and changed the sheets.
Figuring that he was more of a danger to himself than to anyone else, she sat with him for a moment holding his emaciated, needle-ravaged hand. She watched as the methadone took effect, convulsive movements slowing down to the occasional violent twitch. Beneath his lids the crazed motion of his eyeballs slowed to a drug-induced halt. His face began to relax, a look of peace replacing the terrified mask of someone locked in his own private nightmare. She studied his face. His features stood out like a relief map of hell. The mountain range of cheekbones towered over the valleys of parchment-thin flesh that barely covered his rotting teeth. His lips were chapped past the point of bleeding. He reminded her of the pictures she had seen of survivors in concentration camps.
The nurse stood up and made one final check of his vital signs before noting the dosage and time on his chart. She took one last look at him, shaking her head. This is one bed that is sure to be empty by morning, she thought.
“I hope it was a good trip, Mr. Doe,” she said, as she pulled open the heavy steel door. “I think it’s going to be your last.” She never heard the tortured groan as the door clanged shut behind her, and she never could have guessed how wrong she was.
He woke to the sound of moaning, of someone in great pain. It was no great surprise to find that it was his own pitiful noises that had awakened him. The restraints were a surprise though. This was the first time that a treatment center had gone to such extreme lengths. Opening one eye, the glare of the fluorescent bulb overhead sent fresh waves of agony through his skull. He decided to take stock of the situation with his eyes tightly shut.
Leather bands held his hands and feet tight to the bed. A slight discomfort in his neck signaled the inevitable. They had used his neck before when they couldn’t find an intact vein in his arm. The beeping sounds on his left side told him that he was hooked up to monitoring equipment as well.
Wow, he thought, I must have really done a number on myself this time. He felt the buzzer to the nurse’s station clipped to the cuff on his right wrist. Keeping his eyes shut, he pressed the button and waited for the nurse to arrive. The sound of the key throwing the deadbolt open drew his attention to the right side of the room.
“Good morning, Mr. Doe,” said a young-sounding female voice.
“That’s Mr. Curtis, ma’am,” he responded. “Could you please turn down the lights so I can open my eyes?”
“No problem, Mr. Curtis,” she replied with obvious emphasis and an undertone of contempt.
“How are we feeling this morning, Mr. Curtis?” the nurse asked as she hit the switch for the overhead lights.
“James,” he said. “It’s James. I don’t know about you, but I feel like hell. What day is it?”
“How’s Thursday grab you?” she asked.
He opened his eyes in disbelief, “Thursday? What day did I come in?”
The nurse picked up his chart, “A week ago last Sunday,” she said pointedly. He let this sink in. Christ, he thought, I really outdid myself this time. He looked at the nurse for the first time and then started to take in his surroundings. The bed was standard hospital issue except for the restraints. The room was not the typical hospital room though. It was barely bigger than the cells he had been a guest in, courtesy of the local police. At the entrance was a heavy steel door that looked as though you would need dynamite to blast your way past it.
I must be locked in the psych ward, he thought. Then, in a darkened corner of the room, he saw it.
It was sitting on its haunches, looking at him with indescribable hatred in its iridescent yellow eyes. It was some kind of monster, a demon, a grotesque red color that reminded James of raw meat. Even in its squatting position he could see that it was enormous. Its giant mouth hung open, showing rows of triangular teeth like those of a shark, and a foul looking fluid ran from the corner of it. Around its impossibly thick neck was a glowing red collar with a cord leading from the beast straight into James’ chest.
“Holy Christ!,” he screamed, frantically trying to brush at the strange light on his chest. “What the hell is that?”
The nurse looked up and into the corner that held his terrified attention.
“Mr. Curtis, there’s nothing over there.”
“Are you blind?” he shrieked. “It’s a God-damned monster!”
“So, there’s a monster in the corner, is there,” she teased. “Would you like me to scare it away for you?”
“Don’t patronize me you ignorant bitch, open your eyes.” He tried desperately to escape his bonds.
“Well, I think it’s time for your next shot, Mr. Curtis.” Her voice trembled slightly despite her brash demeanor.
“No, no more shots. Not while that thing is in here.”
“I’ll be right back with your medication,” she said over his terrified cries as she hurried from the room.
James stared at the thing that sat in the corner of the room. It looked back at him, it's face contorting into a horrifying grin.
“What the hell are you?” James whispered.
A voice that was terrifying and yet somehow familiar and comforting answered, “I am you.”
James screamed one last time and welcomed the darkness that enveloped him. The last thing he heard was the thunderous sound of his own laughter.
James woke to the sound of the demon cleaning himself in canine fashion, a huge leg twisted at an impossible angle, its’ large purple tongue extended to an incredible length.
Christ, he thought, It’s still here. The demon finished its obscene task and turned its attention to him. In the slightly luminescent eyes was more hatred than James could ever imagine.
“Why don’t you just tear me apart and get it over with? You’re certainly big enough,” he said aloud. The demon didn’t make a sound, it didn’t move, it just sat in front of the sink staring at James with a malevolence that sent a chill up his spine. They were interrupted by the sound of keys in the lock and the deadbolt being thrown open again. A large black man in scrub clothes replaced the door with his body, his very large body.
“Good morning, Mr. Curtis, my name is Terrence, but please call me Terry. How are you feeling today?” The tone was all business and James winced at the thought of the scene he caused earlier.
“I’m better today, Terry, thanks. But please call me James. Anyone ever tell you that you sound like James Earl Jones?” Terry checked the restraints and the IV lines.
“All the time. You’re not going to give me any trouble today are you James?” It was a statement, more than a question.
“No, no trouble. I’m sorry for freaking out like that."
“That’s all right.” His tone lighter, he added, “you would be one of the rare few if you didn’t freak out in this place. People see all kinds of things in here--snakes, spiders, ghosts, goblins, you name it. One old dude even saw the lord Jesus himself. That was good, though, cause he up and died later that day. Makes you think a bit, don’t it?” Jim glanced at the sink and the demon that was still seated in front of it.
“Terry, could I have a sip of water please?”
“Sure thing, James,” the attendant said, and turned towards the sink. Jim watched as Terry walked to the sink and right through the gargoyle sitting in front of it. The demon never took his eyes off James. Terry filled the paper cup and turned back towards James when the demon casually lifted a paw and jabbed a single gleaming talon into the meaty portion of Terry’s calf.
“What the…” He yelped and grabbed at the spot where the demon had stabbed him, dropping the cup of water. “Wow,” he said, lifting his pant leg and inspecting his skin. “Must have been a cramp. It felt like a red hot knife, but it’s gone now.” He pulled his hand away and James could see that the leg was untouched.
James had no doubt that the thing on the floor was real now, but what the hell did it want?
The cord that connected Jim and the demon flashed brilliantly for a split second and Jim heard himself ask, “Is it time for my shot yet?”
“Yes it is, but we want to get you out of this room and into group as soon as possible. In order to do that, you have to be semi-coherent. We’re going to wean you off gradually while you go through treatment. You don’t have to participate at first, just listen and get to know your counselor and the other members of your group. Why don’t you hang out for a minute while I get your meds, and then we’ll see about getting those restraints removed.” Terry stepped from the room and locked the door behind him. It would be a while before they trusted him again. James turned his attention to the creature in the corner.
“What do you want from me?” James asked. The demon just stared. “Well? Two can play this game, freak. Can I call you freak?” James returned the demon’s stare with mock intensity for a full minute before the demon turned toward the door. A strange look crossed its grotesque face before it ran across the room and scuttled roach-like up the wall and into a corner where the wall met the ceiling. The creature was on the same side of the room as the door, and stared at it with a look of dread. James heard the sound of keys in the lock. As the door swung open, he heard a voice that sounded ancient, like gravel rubbing across parchment.
“Thank you Terrence, that will be all. He won’t be needing that medicine. I’ll knock when I’m ready to be let out.”
“Yes, Mother Agnes,” Terry replied from the hall. The door closed once again and there stood a tiny figure shrouded in black, it’s face still directed towards the door.
“Good morning, James,” the figure said as she turned slowly towards him. “I’m Mother Mary Agnes, how are you today?” She was a tiny woman dressed in the habit of a Catholic nun. Her face, the only part of her that showed, looked as if it had been carved from an apple and left in the sun to dry. A large wooden cross hung from a rosary around her neck. Her cobalt eyes were ageless and blazed with a brilliance that belonged to a much younger woman. She was staring at James in a way that made him feel extremely uncomfortable, and he had to look away to break her hold.
“I’m doing,” he answered curtly.
“You’re doing what, James?” He looked at her again with curiosity.
“I mean I’m doing alright.”
“Then that is what you should have said, James. You should always say what you mean. Now, how is your soul?”
“Yes, your soul, James. How are you doing spiritually?” He looked at the thing on the ceiling, the bright red cord connecting the two of them, and sighed.
“I have no soul Mother.”
“That is where you are wrong my son. We all have a soul, and we need to protect it at all costs.”
“Protect it from what?”
He watched as her gaze left his face for the first time since her arrival. She turned slowly and faced the corner where the demon was trying to hide.
“We must all protect ourselves from the evil one, James.” She returned her piercing gaze. “It is the war between our Heavenly Father and the Prince of Darkness with our eternal souls as the prize, James. When you stick the needle in your arm, you are injecting Satan into your heart. Addiction is the devil's handiwork; it’s his way into your weakened soul. Through addiction and sin, his minions are able to reduce us to a point where our salvation is no longer possible. A point where the only place to go is into the tainted arms of the dark one and death. Then you yourself become one of his minions, damned to the eternal torture of the innocent.”
She paused for a moment to let this sink in. James kept switching his attention from the ancient nun to the demon. Could it be true, he wondered? Is that what is going on? The demon
seemed to be listening in on his thoughts. The cord flashed white hot for a second, and James felt his anger rise.
“Do you know how crazy that sounds?” he asked her. Mother Agnes flashed her own look up into the corner where the demon hid.
“Does it really James? Look deep into your heart and soul and search your true feelings. Who is winning your battle with addiction? If what I say is true, where will you end up? Who will win your soul?” She watched him staring at the corner of the room
“Look at me, James, ” she commanded, her eyes blazing. “You have been chosen, James. You have been given a gift, a second chance at the salvation of your soul. It is up to you to fight the demon that he sends against you. It is a fight that you must not lose, you cannot lose. Do not listen to the voice of evil in your head, for it is not your own. Always look to the light and you will win.”
“I still say it sounds insane,” he said half-heartedly.
“Then say nothing James. You have a long road ahead of you. Remember this, though. You are not alone. He is with you always and will aid you when you are in need. You are not the first. There have been others before you that have fought and won. There have also been those who have lost and now suffer the torment of the damned. Choose your own fate and live the life you know to be right.” She walked to the door and knocked lightly on the cold steel surface.
“God be with you, my son,” she said as the door started to open. Suddenly the shadows next to Mother Agnes began to take shape. The demon hissed like a snake at her as she started to step from the room. A pale blue light that was barely visible connected the tiny Nun and the shadow that followed her. James could see it now. She had her own demon in tow, but it was much different from his. It was thin, desiccated, and it shambled after the ancient Nun as if it were shackled. Its face wore the expression of the defeated as it glanced briefly at James and then the creature in the corner. The beast in the corner hissed again as the door closed behind them, leaving James alone with his thoughts and his demon.
After lunch, Terry brought James to a room that contained a circle of chairs and five other patients in hospital clothes. James still felt shaky, and Terry had to help him into one of the chairs before he left. Five people stared at him, and James was just starting to feel uncomfortable when a man swept into the room and closed the door. He was a young looking guy, almost a kid, his long black hair pulled back into a pony tail. Dressed in faded blue jeans and a red flannel shirt with construction boots, he looked as if he would be more at home tinkering on an old motorcycle than the working as a counselor in a substance abuse clinic.
“All right group, take your seats,” he said, as he sat in the chair next to James. The other patients each found themselves a chair and sat down.
“Good afternoon, all. My name is Ryan and I am an alcoholic.”
“Hi, Ryan,” the others said monotonously and in unison.
“Today we are welcoming James into our little circle of friends. James, we do a little round robin style thing here where you get to say what is on your mind and get it off your
chest. Since you are new you get to go last, but just for today. Let’s start here on my right.”
The first person on Ryan’s right was an older woman in her forties. She had stringy blond hair that needed to be washed and a cigarette hanging from one corner of her mouth. She was wearing a dirty pink bathrobe and slippers that might have been bunnies at one time but now resembled road-kill.
“Christ, Ryan, you know I hate this game,” she moaned.
“Play or pay Katie,” he shot back. She rolled her eyes to the ceiling and took a deep drag off the cigarette before sending a cloud of blue smoke in Ryan’s direction.
“My name is Katie, and I’m an alcoholic and an addict, yippee.”
“Hi Katie,” the rest replied, James included, though a little later than the others.
“Well I ain’t got squat to say ‘cept the food still sucks and I still want out.” All heads turned to Ryan to gauge his reaction. But he just sat there still as a stone, expressionless. The two of them locked eyes in a dual that seemed to last hours before he softly broke the trance.
“Katie, how long have you been here?”
“Damned if I know Junior, half my life?” she replied, blowing smoke rings at the ceiling.
“How long do you plan on staying, Katie?” His voice was calm and smooth as silk.
“Not a freaking minute longer that I have to, that’s for sure.”
“Then how about getting with the program then? Today is the first day of the rest of your life you know.” She looked at him as if she were seeing him for the first time. You could see the thoughts running around in her head, weighing the pros and cons of what he said. Then the defiance crept back into her face and she straightened up.
“Maybe tomorrow, Ace. Tomorrow can be the first day, alright?”
“All right, then, let’s move on.”
The next person was a man in his late twenties or early thirties. He had a healthier glow than the other patients and smiled at Ryan with obvious affection. He was dressed in an expensive looking robe that looked more like a smoking jacket covering silk pajamas and leather slippers. His right sleeve barely hid the gleaming Rolex.
“Hey everyone, my name is Geoff, and I am an alcoholic.”
“Today is a good day for me, I get to go home and back to my life tomorrow.” A cheer exploded from everyone surrounding James, and the applause for Geoff’s news lasted a long time.
“Next Monday, it’s back to Wall Street and the excitement of the investment floor. I can’t tell you how good it feels to be free of the compulsion to drink. It seems like yesterday that I was sipping from a paper bag on the A train, heading into the city. Hopefully—no, definitely--those days are gone for good.”
James listened halfheartedly to what Geoff had to say. He was more interested in what the beast in the center of the group was doing. Sitting on its haunches in the middle of the circle of chairs, it looked as bored as James felt. Every once in a while it would scratch some random pattern into the gleaming floor with one claw and watch it slowly fade away. James wondered if anyone else could have seen what the demon was drawing if they looked at the floor, but he doubted it. Geoff was still droning on and on about what life would be like, when something he said caught James’ attention.
“…like it’s waiting for me just around the next corner. Will I ever be free of it? I don’t know, I hope so. This isn’t my first time in treatment and it was waiting for me when I got out the last time. Oh, it waited awhile, but it finally got to me. Something kept telling me that it would be okay to have one drink, just one and then walk away. It wasn’t long before I started to believe that voice in my head and I took that first drink. I was successful for a while too. But then one martini became two and two became four and before you know it I was drinking my lunch again. No, I won’t let my guard down again. That monkey or gorilla or whatever that thing is wants me dead, and I can’t give in to it any longer.” James looked at the faces of the people around the room and saw that they were listening with rapt attention, even Katie. Geoff had described something that everyone seemed to identify with, especially him. Almost all the patients were shaking their heads in agreement at Geoff’s description of an outside influence affecting their control over their particular addiction. When the next person in the group started his thoughts for the day, James attention turned inward.
Is it possible that all these people are in the same situation that I am? he wondered, looking at the Demon in the center of the circle. Why is it that I seem to be the only one who can see that thing? Can’t anyone else see their own? He was sitting there lost in his own thoughts when Ryan tapped him on the leg.
“Hey James, you in there?”
“What? Oh, sorry. I got a little sidetracked there.”
“Probably the meds we’re giving you, but try to stay focused. You’ll be off the junk in a couple of days and then the fog will lift. Since it’s your first day, we’ll take it easy on you. Do you have a burning desire to say anything to the group today?” He looked around at the expectant faces and felt a flush of embarrassment.
“Umm…hi everyone, thanks for having me.” Christ, that was a profound statement, he groaned.
“Well, all right people, that’s it for today. Don’t forget that today is the first day of the rest of your life. We’ll do it all again tomorrow and see if James here can stun us once again with his words of wisdom and rapier wit. Find your way back to your rooms, it’s just about time for dinner. We wouldn’t want to miss those lovely little squares of green Jell-O brand gelatin now would we? ”
James left the meeting room and started back towards his room. He traveled down the various twists and turns of the hospital corridors, trying to remember the way Terry brought him when they went to the meeting room. Suddenly, he found himself in the main lobby, staring at the beautiful sunlit day that existed beyond the confines of the drab hospital walls. He started toward the doors and the freedom that beckoned to him when he glanced down at his chest and the leash that connected him to the beast. It was glowing brilliant red, bathing the room the color of blood. James looked over it and thought he could see it straining as it tried to exert its will upon him. He stopped dead in his tracks, inches away from the door.
“Oh no you don’t, you’re not getting to me that easily. I know what you’re up to, and it isn’t going to be the walk in the park that it’s been up to now, Freak.”
“James, are you all right?”
James spun around and found Terry and a couple other people looking at him a little strangely.
“Yea, Terry, I’m doing pretty good. Could you show me how to get back to my room? I’m a little lost.”
“No problem, boss, it’s right this way.
The next few days went smoothly for James. He began to know the feeling of the demon when it tried to enforce its will over his own. Group was also going well, with the rest of the patients accepting James into the tight circle of addicts. It was a strange club indeed. They were now down to four of the original members and James, Geoff had gone on to bigger and better things. James now had the run of the hospital since his behavior was no longer questionable. He began to explore more and more of the hospital in the many hours of free time between Group and the daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings. There wasn’t much else to do except watch the soaps or read addiction literature, and neither appealed to James in the least. It was during one of these forays into the bowels of the hospital that the true nature of his battle was revealed. He was on the first floor, exploring each room that wasn’t locked, when he turned a corner and found himself face to face with an exit that he hadn’t found before.
Wow, what a gorgeous day, he thought as he looked out into an alley at the rear of the hospital. What the hell am I doing in this place?
“I guess it wouldn’t hurt to take a breath of fresh air,” he said aloud. He opened the door to the alley and was starting outside when an ambulance swung in and headed toward him. James quickly closed the door and entered the first door he could find off the main hallway. His heart was racing a mile a minute and he found himself in a janitor’s closet, the smell of bleach and other cleaning compounds nearly choking him. He cracked the door an inch, keeping an eye on the rear door. A moment later the doors swung open and James could see that the ambulance attendees were unloading a gurney that contained a body draped in cloth, it’s face covered.
“Well this one sure is a surprise,” one of the attendants said. “He really seemed to have his act together.”
“You can never tell in this business,” said the other as they returned out into the alley. A stifled giggle came from the corner of the janitor’s closet and James could see the yellow eyes glowing in the darkness.
“What the hell are you laughing about, Freak?” he whispered. He turned his attention back to the gurney and the body it contained as the ambulance crew returned outside to close up their truck. A man’s arm had fallen out from under the shroud. Around the wrist was a watch covered in blood that had gushed from the gaping wound cut across the veins and tendons. It was a gold watch with an all-too-familiar silver face; Geoff’s Rolex. A form shimmered just above Geoff’s lifeless body and began to take shape. It was another demon, the one that Geoff tried described in group, sitting there on his chest. Geoff’s description didn’t do it any justice. It looked straight at James and laughed a harsh barking laugh of victory. Reaching up, it uncovered Geoff’s face and held his lifeless head carefully in its huge paws. The yellow eyes rolled up into its head and it bent toward Geoff’s face as if to kiss him. Suddenly, Geoff’s mouth opened and a misty, fog-like substance poured out and into the open mouth of the demon. It drank greedily, relishing its treasure. The demon in the corner started to laugh again as James watched in horror.
Is this what was I have to look forward to? James wondered. The vapor flowing from Geoff started to trickle off and finally stopped. The demon carelessly dropped his head back on to the gurney with a loud thud. Standing on Geoff’s chest, it rose to its full height, faced the heavens and let out a roar that sent James flying to the back of the closet. Then it was gone.
James sat in the darkness in shocked silence. His back was starting to ache where he slammed into a mop bucket next to the sink. He heard the rear doors open and the crew of the ambulance came back in.
“Hey, did you uncover this guy?”
“What would I do that for? It ain’t like its some hot chick or something.”
“Are you telling me you would look at a dead chick?”
“What, you wouldn’t?”
“You got some real problems, Louie. Let’s get him to the cooler and tag him, I’m starving.” They started down the hall while James waited until it was safe to leave, suddenly the thought of going outside didn’t seem so appealing.
He spent the next day sitting alone in the hospital chapel, immersing himself in the pages of a Bible supplied by the counselors. After an hour of leafing through hundreds of pages and dozens of begets, he looked to the altar feeling frustrated and a little silly.
“What am I supposed to do? Can’t you give me something?” The statues on each side simply stared back at him. There had to be an answer somewhere. He was getting ready to get up, when a hand touched him lightly on the shoulder.
“Searching for sanctuary?” a familiar voice asked. He heard her take a seat on the bench behind him.
“Answers, Mother, I’m looking for answers.”
“You’ve come to the right place then, James.” He turned in the pew and faced her.
“There is nothing in this book that I can find, no guidelines for dealing with this thing.”
“There are other places to seek knowledge, James. I told you that you have a gift, and you do. You see something that is rarely ever seen by the living.”
“How did I get to be so God-damned lucky?”
“I’ll ignore your blasphemy this once, James. Don’t forget that I am a nun and I always have a yardstick within easy reach.”
“Sorry, Mother,” he said with a laugh.
“The answer you seek is right here son. Look to your heart, and tell me what you see.”
He looked down and was shocked to see that the leash connecting him with the demon was missing.
“It’s gone, Mother. Where did it go?”
“Oh it’s right outside waiting for you, as is mine. As long as you dwell in the house of the Lord, your soul remains free. Time out of contact with it only makes you stronger.”
“So what am I supposed to do, become a priest?”
“Would that be so bad, James?”
“Ah, I’m not exactly priestly material. Besides, I kind of like the ladies.”
“So did Geoff, James. Is your soul worth a toss in the sack?”
“Damn, that’s rough Mother. Ouch!” He felt the sting of her palm across the back of his head.
“There are other positions within the Church where you would be valuable, James. You just think about it.”
“All right,” he said. “Mother?”
“Were you always a nun?”
“No one is always a nun, James. Things happen in your life that guides you in certain directions. I will tell you this, though. I too had to make the choice you face. Not all people who serve the Lord do so out of blind faith. But that is food for discussion at a later date.”
He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts. A thousand questions were on his mind. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the closing chapel door. Slowly, James got to his feet and made his way out of the chapel himself. There was a decision to be made and a Demon to face.
That night, James was just drifting off to sleep when he started to dream. He was in a beautiful church with stained glass on every wall and pews of gleaming white ivory. The sound of his footsteps echoed off the dozens of statues that watched him with expressionless eyes. He was dressed in a spotless white suit with shoes that matched, and felt like the guy from Fantasy Island. Is this a dream, he wondered? It seems so real. Can you question a dream while you’re in a dream?
“Ah James, so glad to see you’ve made it.”
He turned in the direction of the voice and saw Mother Agnes walking towards him.
“Yes, Mother, I have decided to take your advice. I don’t want to end up like Geoff.” He heard the sound of his voice, but couldn’t feel his lips move. He felt strangely detached, as if he were being guided by something.
“That’s wonderful son. I have the first task that I need you to help me with. Let’s see how well you can ring the cathedral bells.” She led him to a long stairway at the rear of the church and started up the endless flight, moving with an agility that James found odd, even in this dream state. She was almost running. The stairs seemed to be circling around the inside of a never-ending tower. Though he was running up the steps at full speed, Mother Agnes got further and further away from him. He was overcome by a sense of urgency to reach the top, and was quickly approaching panic when he finally arrived.
The top of the bell tower was deceptively large, a lot larger than it should have been. James looked at the three huge bells of gleaming brass, their nylon ropes showing no sign of age or use. Everything here was perfect, too perfect. Mother Agnes had her back to him, looking out of one of the enormous openings at the scenery beyond.
“James, come look at this amazing view. Only He could have created something this beautiful.” He joined her at the opening, peering out at the landscape below. Stretching out as far as the eye could see were lush green fields of grass waving in a warm summer breeze. The fields were dotted with flowers of every description and color. This too was perfect.
“Can you believe your eyes James? Have you ever seen anything like this? This is what I think heaven is like.”
“It’s beautiful, Mother,” he heard himself say.
“Can you smell the fragrance, James?”
James tried to smell the flowers but couldn’t.
“No Mother, not from here.”
“Than step closer to the window son. Here, take my place.” She stepped back from the opening, gesturing to her spot with an ancient finger peeking out from under her black habit. The nail was long and discolored. James edged closer to the edge and tried to smell the aroma of the fields below but couldn’t. Something else hit his sense of smell in its place. He couldn’t identify it at first. It was familiar yet strange and out of place in the perfect world of the cathedral.
“Step closer, James, it is time to smell the flowers now.” He felt the edge of the sill with his toes through his hospital slippers. Where did the slippers come from, he wondered, and why do I recognize that smell?
“You must lean out and smell the flowers, James. Don’t think about it, just do it.” He moved farther out on the sill, his toes hanging off the edge now. The smell was stronger, but it wasn’t the pleasant smell of flowers. It was thick and noxious, a city smell of rotting garbage in an alley trash bin and the smog of bus exhaust.
“Farther, James,” she said, her voice as smooth as silk. “Move out a little farther.” Only his heels remained on the sill now, the pungent air of the city blasting him in the face. He looked down at the beautiful fields below him and wondered why they smelled like an August night downtown when he saw it. Snaking away from his chest, throbbing hot and red was the leash. His eyes followed it straight to the black habit of Mother Mary Agnes. In the nun’s ancient face glowed the yellow eyes of the Demon. Shock and fear both gripped his heart. The walls of the bell tower started to melt away along with the green fields, the flowers, and Mother Agnes. The dingy night sky of the city swam into focus, and James knew at once that he was now wide-awake and on the roof. He looked down at the alley eight stories below and broke into a cold sweat, the nauseous feeling of vertigo threatening to pull him over the edge. He felt the mental push of the Demon on his will.
“Farther James,” it giggled in a high singsong voice, taunting him.
“Let me go,” James cried, pin-wheeling his arms for balance. Jumping back from the ledge he saw that the leash was fading from red to orange. He collapsed onto the rough gravel surface and waited for his heart to slow before he spoke to the creature still squatting on the ledge.
“You can’t have me, not now, not ever,” he panted. “I know what I have to do. I’m going to see an old nun about a new life. Your days are numbered, Freak.” He shakily got to his feet, looking for the exit. The orange of the leash was changing to a pale shade of green. Turning to the door that led from the roof, he headed for the chapel at an unsteady run. He smiled as the thing behind him let out a thunderous roar.
He called out over his shoulder, his voice echoing across the rooftops of the city.
“Today really is the first day of the rest of my life.”