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Sister Patricia sat diligently by the old priest's bedside, meditating heavily and praying on her rosary. For the past three weeks, the frail padre had not slept through the night. His fever had run as high as one hundred and three and as low as ninety-three. Despite his intense pain and discomfort, he refused any medical aid, preferring to let her take care of him. His sleep was fitful when it came. However, according to him, he would never sleep comfortably again, not after what he had seen.
He had been under a lot of stress lately, but a man of his age, acting the way he was, usually meant one thing: Alzheimer's. She wiped his head with a damp washcloth brought up from the kitchen and tried again to convince him to rest. He looked her over with red, bloodshot eyes, replete with dark rings which framed them, making him appear more dead than alive.
"Rest?" he asked impatiently. "After what I've seen? After what I now know? No. I doubt I'll ever rest again. At least not in this lifetime. That monster has seen to that."
"Oh, come on now, Father. That's just your fever talking," she cajoled, smoothing his covers and trying unsuccessfully to get him to lay down again. "God will make you better and then we will have no more of this foolishness."
"God? Yes, I've given Him much thought these days. He does not exist, at least not in this town."
"Father!" she exclaimed. This wasn't the first time he had refuted their Lord's existence. "Such blasphemy from one of His most faithful servants is a sin."
"He is gone, Sister, retired for all I know. His kingdom is now a playground for the damned, and we are all damned. All of us!"Swinging his left arm violently, the priest knocked the washcloth from her hand, spilling the small tray of uneaten food to the floor.
She recoiled in surprise, but quickly recovered and called for some of the other nuns present to help clean up the spilled food. As more of the sisters came in to help, she let her gaze sadly drift down onto the man who lay weakly in bed, his body panic-stricken, and completely exhausted. It didn't take a doctor to know that he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, if he hadn't had one already. It took all the strength she had to maintain her composure and not burst into tears. Father Randall had never been a violent man in all the years she had known him, nor had he ever acted irrational, at least not until recently. There must have been times, when he was much younger of course, she guessed, that he might have been known to drink a bit too much and get into a fight or two, but what young man didn't? Wasn't doing stupid things a part of being male?
As her mother was fond of saying to her when she was a child, "Boys will always be boys, and men will always be men, Patricia. You just have to know who you're dealing with, a man or a boy."
Patricia reflected on these words for a moment then shook her head in disgust, driving the image of her mother far from her mind. Crazy words based on a lifetime of drinking. Probably something overheard at one of the many bars she called home, or perhaps it was from a dive she worked at just after her first husband, Patricia's father, succumbed to liver cancer. He was a drinker too, and a heavy smoker. The two of them made a perfect dysfunctional couple. The biggest difference between her mother and father though, was that her father had loved Patricia as a daughter, while her mother hated her like a sister.
He was so much like Father Randall that Patricia sometimes wondered if he had been sent back to guide her through the tragedy her life had turned into. It was, after all, Father Randall who had taken Patricia in when her mother had abandoned her one day in order to go off with a stranger; a new lover. Patricia had been left with nothing but the clothes on her back and the visual image of her mother riding away on the back of an antiquated motorcycle. She didn't even turn around to wave goodbye; she was too drunk. Yes, Mother was a real classy woman, Patricia reflected with a frown.
But Father Randall had been different. He was kind and understanding, patient and caring. He was the way she had wished her family had been. He was the epitome of a disciple at times, but also of absolute love, unconditional love, the kind that Patricia had never known existed. It was also Father Randall who showed her the ways of the church, the workings of the Lord, and patiently explained to her the difference between right and wrong. He provided examples from the Bible about morals, and then instilled in her the strongest, most virtuous ones. Finally, it was Father Randall who had given Patricia money and shelter when she ran away from the orphanage in a fit of adolescent rage several years ago. Father Randall was always there. He was her own personal savior, although he never would allow her to say that. He had looked after Patricia her so carefully for so long that for her not to repay him in kind was, in itself, a sin.
His recent behavior, however, went far beyond anything that might be construed as an elderly priest trying to relive his glory years. There was something far more sinister happening to him, something that Patricia wished she could understand. But that was impossible, unless she could crawl inside his head and poke around. When it came right down to it, she actually feared not only for his life, but also his soul, if not his very sanity.
She walked calmly over to him once more and reapplied a fresh cloth to his forehead, trying to calm him down. Father Randall merely shook his head angrily at her and motioned towards an aged hope chest at the end of his bed. His eyes shifted between it and the creeping shadows that dwelled in the far corners of the attic bedroom. His temperature seemed to be escalating by the second.
"Please," he pleaded, "please just open it and see for yourself. Then you will know why I can never rest peacefully in Manchester again. That's when we are most vulnerable you know, when we're asleep." His eyes shifted dangerously around the room, as if searching for something in the shadows of the attic. He cocked his head suddenly, as if listening, then his face went stark white with the recognition of whatever imagined noise that had been heard. Patricia watched him sadly, hoping that he would find a way back to her, but knew deep down that these were the inexplicable actions of a madman.
"They've started again. Can't you hear it? Damn them, damn them all," he muttered, then turning towards the doorway, "More light, we need more light in here!"
"But Father," Patricia began, only to be cut off.
"Sister, please, more light. I beg of you, before it's too late." His gaze darted about the room in a manner that sent chills up her spine. There was nothing worse than seeing him in this state of mind, especially knowing that she could have possibly prevented it. "Can't you hear them growing louder? If we don't have the light for protection…" he trailed off.
"Father, all the oil lamps have been lit already, there is nothing else we have that…"
"Candles, we have candles," he interrupted. "Bring them up from the chapel immediately. Send someone quickly, and bring more holy water, they seem to be afraid of it. It might have made sense at one time, although I don't see why it would now. Hurry though, they're growing louder!" Covering his ears with his hands, Father Randall swayed back and forth to an unnatural and unheard rhythm that caused Patricia a great deal of distress. By the looks on the faces of the other attendants, Patricia knew she wasn't the only one who was anxious.
Copyright © 2004 by M.J. Konevich