An addiction can come from many places. I’ve seen people addicted to things as innocent as reading and as sinful as sex. Anything could become addictive.
You may think that’s impossible, but if you had seen the man I had seen; a sweating, shaking, scratching mess who ached to hold his hands together and breathe the Trinity’s name, to start his solemn request to God, you wouldn’t think it so far-fetched.
It made sense that he was a priest.
I was surprised when he started praying less. He would still sweat and shake and scratch, but there was a look of disgust on his face when he bent down in front of the cross that told me his faith had wavered.
I learned why near the end of Holy Week when I heard murmurings of a ghost that was putting those unlucky enough to witness it into an indefinite coma. I wasn’t sure what to make of that, wasn’t sure if God would have wanted me to intervene. But unless I was given permission to do so, I decided it was best to stay hidden in my icon above the church doors.
When the service for Easter Eve started, the priest took a deep sigh. He wanted to pray, needed to. He breathed out the Trinity, delivering a guttural prayer. The church-goers silently wondered if their priest was in a proper state of mind. Though they did not say anything about it to him or each other.
After the service, a large man approached the priest, tall with a robust frame, wearing a long black cassock.
“A lovely service,” the large man said with a smile, “Very passionate.”
The smaller priest smiled wearily, wiping away the sweat on his top lip. “Thank you.”
“Are you the only priest in Los Santos?”
“I suppose, unless you are here to join our church.”
“I’m considering it.”
The smaller priest reached out his hand, “Francisco Espino.”
The larger priest shook it firmly, “You can call me El Padre.”
Francisco laughed, “Do you not have a name then?”
“It’s what I prefer to go by.”
“If you’re considering joining our church, you should stay for confessions. I’ve been getting an increase of them recently. People are afraid of falling ill and want to clear the air with God before they physically aren’t able to. Some people come in every night, worried the next day might be the day they get sick.”
El Padre smiled. It was off-putting, not just because Francisco had told him something most people would find distressing, but because there was a wickedness behind it that neither I nor Francisco could put our fingers on. “I would love to,” he said, heading towards a confessional.
“Strange man,” Francisco mumbled.
Strange, indeed. There was something unsettling about that man, something sinister behind that smile, but unless I was given permission to interfere, I could do nothing but watch.
An hour later, people had reentered the church to confess their sins. Francisco’s weariness as the night went on was palpable. Around dusk, Francisco walked out of the confessional, pulling off his clerical collar and stretching as he allowed his neck to breathe.
He didn’t notice the fearfully entranced young man walking out of El Padre’s confessional at first but his subsequent collapse got Francisco’s attention.
El Padre came out a moment later, “Is there somewhere for him to rest? He’s not feeling well but he insists on continuing his confession once he feels better.”
“He needs to go to a hospital.”
“He insists,” El Padre shrugged.
Francisco glowered at him but dragged the man to the nearest pew, gently laying him down. As Francisco checked the young man’s pulse, El Padre began humming a tune that put me on edge.
“How can you be so chipper after all that? These people are scared and suffering,” Francisco snapped.
El Padre threw his head back and laughed, a bellowing, obnoxious sound. “God will get them through this.”
“God?” Francisco scoffed. “I’m not even sure I believe that anymore.”
“What is this, Father? Doubt in God’s abilities? In God’s plan?”
Francisco sighed, “How can I witness all these people suffer and not have my doubts? The hospital is overrun. It doesn’t have the resources to care for so many people,” Francisco rubbed a hand over his face. “They think this is the fault of some sort of demon. I want to say that it’s paranoia, but when every night it seems that more and more people are becoming sick for no apparent reason. It does make me wonder if this is the work of some sort of dark spirit.” Francisco chuckled. “It does seem a bit ridiculous saying it out loud. It’s just…I’ve never seen so much suffering before. I’ve heard of it but seeing it, is just different. It shouldn’t be this way…but here I am. Doubting God.”
El Padre approached Francisco slowly, deliberately. “Do you enjoy prayer, Father?”
Francisco hesitated, “Yes.”
“Does it feel invigorating?”
“I- well...yes, something like that.”
“Remember that feeling in times of doubt, Francisco.” El Padre let out a wistful sigh, “Shall we continue with our priestly duties now?”
Francisco nodded, returning to his confessional. With Francisco unable to see or hear him, El Padre began to hum that same tune again, but it sounded different this time. Not that he had changed the tune in any way, but more that it sounded unnatural -- inhuman. It was as if he was perfectly mimicking the sound of echoing bells.
It was then that I noticed the young man had stood up and was staring at El Padre, in the same trance as before. There was an intense uneasiness radiating off him; his fingers were twitching anxiously and I knew he wanted to run. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. Physically, he couldn’t move -- he was frozen.
El Padre turned a sickly green color, his skin becoming transparent. He held out a letter to the young man, “Read this for me.” When he spoke, the tune he was humming intensified, his words tinged with the echoes of bells.
I could see the young man’s lip quivering, tears streaming down his face. Despite his fear, he still managed to shake his head, refusing El Padre’s request.
El Padre approached him with the same slow deliberation as he did Francisco earlier, but before he could do anything to the young man, the doors to Francisco’s confessional burst open. Within a blink of an eye, El Padre had returned to a normal state and the young man collapsed into his arms.
“What happened?” Francisco called from the door.
“He tried to get up but fell. Did you need something?”
“I realized I left my collar,” Francisco sighed, grabbing his collar from the pew beside the young man.
El Padre put his hand on Francisco’s forehead, “You don’t have a fever, and it’s not a hot night. Yet you’re sweating. Your forehead is drenched,” El Padre grabbed Francisco’s hand, “And you’re shaking. Are you sick?”
“I – no. No, I’m –”
“Go back to your confessional, Francisco.”
Francisco did as he was told, if only to keep El Padre from remarking on his appearance any further.
From then on, both priests had a steady stream of penitents up until around midnight. When Francisco exited his confessional, he was sweating profusely and scratching at his palms. There was no hesitation in his stride as he made his way to the altar and kneeled, he pressed his hands together and took in a deep breath, mumbling an intense prayer.
Then it started. That dreadful humming again.
It sounded more distant than it did earlier. Francisco seemed too entranced in his prayer to notice the noise, and I wondered if he ever would. In the end, it was not the humming that caught his attention but a muffled sobbing.
He slowly made his way to the confessional, ensuring that he kept his steps quiet. When he got to the booth, he pressed an ear to the door trying to listen to what was going on inside.
“Bells?” I just barely heard him whisper to himself.
The door burst open and the young man from earlier collapsed on the floor, sobbing. Francisco hadn’t noticed that he was no longer laying on the pew. He looked into the booth, but this time El Padre was not quick enough. Francisco saw him. His green, translucent skin. El Padre grunted in frustration before exiting a moment later looking as he normally did.
“What the fuck?” Francisco dropped to his knees to check on the young man.
“A priest should not curse,” El Padre said through gritted teeth. He picked up the man from the floor, gripping his collar, shaking him mercilessly until he looked El Padre in the eyes. The man’s eyelids drooped and his head lulled before falling forward.
Francisco’s mouth was agape in shock and his eyes wide. “What did you do to him?”
“A priest shouldn’t curse,” El Padre grabbed Francisco’s hands. “You should ask for forgiveness.”
Francisco tore his hands out of El Padre’s grasp. “I saw you! I saw what you looked like, you’re not human! These people aren’t paranoid, they’re right! There is a demon spreading this illness and it’s you! I’m going to tell –“
“Tell who, Francisco? The police? The people? Do you think they’ll do anything about it? They’ll want a religious ceremony to get rid of me, an exorcism, and since you’re the only priest in Los Santos…” El Padre grinned. “You better start praying.”
“They need to know to stay away from you.”
Francisco let out a stifled yelp as El Padre grabbed his throat, pulling him until their faces were mere inches apart, “Do you think they’ll believe you? As if you haven’t been a sweating, shaking mess? As if they haven’t noticed the way your prayers have become utter nonsense? They think you’re sick. They think there’s something wrong with you. It would be so easy to convince them that you hallucinated this whole thing.”
El Padre loosened his grip. “Go home, Francisco. Tomorrow is Easter, you need to prepare your homily.”
And Francisco, the trembling mess that he was, went home.
At Easter mass the next day, it did not escape the congregation’s attention that Francisco seemed to be rushing.
I realized that he was rushing because he wanted everyone to interact as little as possible with El Padre and, knowing that they already thought him a sick mess, he felt no embarrassment acting so strangely today.
“…Today we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection,” Francisco sighed, rubbing his eyes as he did. “It’s difficult to really celebrate anything after what we’ve seen these past few weeks. So much suffering and fear. I’ve been listening to you all. To your confessions. The way you come to me and cling on to prayer, to God, in an attempt to save you from this illness. I know what it’s like. To rely so heavily on prayer…but this is not something that can be fixed with prayer. I know what’s doing this,” he stormed down the aisles to El Padre and grabbed him by the collar, “He’s doing this! He’s the reason people are getting sick! He’s…”
“Go on,” El Padre whispered, “Tell them.”
“He’s not human! He’s some sort of spirit, I saw it! He just…he looked at them! He looked at them and they collapsed! He…” Francisco looked around at the horrified expressions of the congregation but it was not directed at El Padre, “I’m not crazy! I’m not sick! You have to believe me, you’re all in danger!”
El Padre heaved out a dramatic sigh, pulling Francisco off him and wrapping his arms around his shoulders, “Francisco, I don’t think –”
Francisco pushed El Padre away from him, “Don’t fucking touch me!”
The congregation now looked stunned.
“I think it’s time for you all to go home,” El Padre said to the crowd, “Francisco is clearly not doing well.”
After a silent minute, a few of the crowd members nodded and muttered their agreements before making their way out.
“No!” Francisco tried to run to the door but El Padre grabbed his arms, holding him back, “No! Don’t! Please, you need to believe me!”
El Padre grabbed a handful of Francisco’s hair and pulled it, bringing Francisco’s ear up to his lips, “Don’t make this harder than it needs to be.”
Francisco pushed El Padre away from him again but made no effort to convince the people to believe him. I could see Francisco’s fingers twitching in anticipation and the moment they had all left, he rounded on El Padre.
“I will not let you continue to harm these people. I don’t care if they don’t believe me.”
El Padre grinned, pulling out a letter from his sleeve and holding it out, “Read this.”
Francisco hesitated but took it. He took in a deep breath, closing his eyes as he did, before opening the letter and reading it aloud.
“That’s it? It’s just a letter to your sister –” Francisco froze when he looked up at El Padre, his mouth opening and closing in a stunned silence.
El Padre stretched out his arms and what part of his neck was still attached to his body. There was no blood, nothing dripping from his neck or his severed head. “You have helped me find eternal peace.”
“I don’t under – gah –” Francisco yelped, bringing his hand to his neck. The blood dripped through his fingers onto the floor. I could see tears streaming down his cheeks, his mouth open in a silent plea for help. But no one would come to help him. There was nothing there to stop what was happening, no weapon or wielder.
I flinched when I heard the sounds of bones being sawn until his head fell back, the only thing keeping it attached to his body were the last pieces of ligament, but those were quickly sliced through. His head fell onto the floor with a disgusting crack, his body following suit only a moment later.
I could only watch as this happened, still unable to intervene. El Padre grinned wickedly at the sight, eventually vanishing without another word.
I chose that moment to leave the icon, spreading out my wings as I appeared in front of Francisco’s body.
“If only I could’ve done more for you,” I whispered as I bent down to close his eyes, “Que Dios te bendiga.”
I sent out a silent message to a group of teenagers nearby, compelling them to come to the church. I didn’t want Francisco’s body to stay here all night.
I kept telling myself there was nothing I could do. Reminding myself of that as I watched them find his body and carry it out, and as I watched his funeral only a week later.
There was nothing more I could have done.
I couldn’t disobey God.