[A short story for you today. I’ve been struggling to get my wheels back on the fiction track ever since I released The Discovery Phase, and it’s been chafing me. So after some extensive muttering to myself, I decided to return to shorter forms for a story or two, on the off-chance that it might reignite my storyteller’s engine. Here’s the first result. It’s a variation on a theme from C. S. Lewis. – FWP]
Father Raymond Altomare had not seen the inside of a guidance counselor’s office since graduating from his own high school. As pastor of Our Lady of the Pines Roman Catholic parish, which serves the whole of New York’s Onteora County, he was acquainted with a great many of the personnel who staff Onteora’s schools, but until that day he’d never been asked to advise one. However, he never turned down a request for a conversation from anyone, Catholic or not. So at the appointed hour he stuffed his stole into his breast pocket, adorned his features with a pleasant smile, and presented himself at Alvin Purvis’s office at Foxwood High.
The office resembled what he remembered of his own guidance counselor’s cubbyhole: large enough not to be deemed a closet, but not much larger. The furnishings were no surprise: sheet-steel desk, sheet-steel bookcase, sheet-steel filing cabinet. The bookcase bore tomes with titles typical of the professional advice-giver. Ray remembered reading two of them. A couple of pseudo-motivational posters adorned the walls.
Purvis was the epitome of the mid-Twenty-First Century public-school functionary. He was undistinguished in any way: middle-aged, medium height, medium build, brown eyes, thinning brown hair touched at the temples with middle-aged gray, and a slightly rumpled, open-collared dress shirt on which Ray could just make out the ghost of a condiment spill. The surface of his desk was littered with forms of many colors. He rose, shook Ray’s hand, muttered “Thank you for coming, Father,” and was back in his seat before Ray had settled into his.
“Forgive me, please, but you don’t look familiar,” Ray said. “Are you one of my parishioners?”
Purvis grimaced fleetingly. “No, Father, I’m not. Not religious at all, really. I hope that won’t interfere with our conversation.”
“It won’t, but I’m quite curious as to why you asked for my assistance. Am I the confessor to a troubled student?”
“No, actually.” Purvis appeared momentarily uncomfortable. “Ah, a lawyer I know spoke highly of you as an advisor, and I’m having a spot of trouble with a student I can’t figure out.”
A lawyer recommending a priest? That’s a first. Probably Sylvie Yngstrom. Al Donaldson is about as Catholic as Interstate 90. “Well then, who is this student and how can I help you with him?”
A spike of discomfort flitted across Purvis’s features. “His name is David Johnson. Any chance you know him?”
“His name doesn’t ring a bell.”
“I suppose it was too much to expect.” Purvis fiddled with the papers before him. “He’s not one of our brighter lights, but he’s not a known troublemaker either. Low B to high C average, no particular talent for any of the disciplines, not athletic as far as I can tell, and not particularly popular. Or unpopular, for that matter. He’s almost perfectly average in every measurable way. And it’s my duty to guide him from here to the end of his high school experience.”
An average student assigned to an average counselor.
“So far,” Ray said, “I’m unclear on what makes young Mr. Johnson a problem. Surely you’ve advised other average kids by now?”
Purvis grimaced again. “I have,” he said. “And if David were average without exception, I doubt I’d have any problem with him at all. But there is one way in which he, ah, stands out.”
“From the way you said that,” Ray said, “I get the impression that it’s not a good way.”
“It’s not.” Purvis looked briefly off into the corner. “I’ve been getting complaints about what happens when he’s present at a contest.”
Ray became uneasy “What kind of contest?”
“Any kind at all,” Purvis muttered. “Academic, athletic, artistic, you name it.”
“What does he do?”
“According to the proctors, nothing much. Just sits there.”
Ray was nonplussed. “Well, then what’s the problem?”
“Nothing happens. Nothing at all.”
Ray peered at him. “Meaning…?”
“The contestants and performers can’t perform. At all. None of them.”
Ray had to see for himself, so with Purvis’ assistance he acquired a ticket to Foxwood’s upcoming end-of-season football game against Laurelton High. That Onteora County had only four high schools hadn’t kept the county’s education officials from forming tiny leagues in baseball, football, and basketball. Even though the competitors were few, competition was intense and fan interest was great. At least, Purvis said, it had been.
Purvis arrived just after Ray seated himself in the bleachers. The guidance counselor perched next to him and smiled faintly. “Evening, Father. I wasn’t sure you’d make it.”
“After what you told me last week, I had to see it with my own eyes,” Ray said. “Not that I disbelieved you. It’s just something I could never have imagined. Do you see him anywhere in the stands?”
Purvis swept his gaze over the bleachers. “Mmm…not yet. But it might be for the best if he were to arrive some time after the game starts.”
Ray started to ask why, thought better of it.
As it happened, Purvis’ wish was granted. The game started out as a fierce battle between notably skilled teams. Laurelton was first to get possession. Its offense marched smartly down field until a spectacular interception granted the ball to Foxwood at its fourteen yard line. Foxwood’s quarterback led a precise eighty-six-yard campaign down field against a vigorous Laurelton defense. It culminated with a perfectly placed pass to the back corner of the endzone, a leaping catch, and the referee’s ruling that the receiver had come down in bounds and in possession.
“These kids are pretty good,” Ray murmured.
Purvis nodded. “A few of them have been scouted already.”
As Foxwood’s place kicker leaped off the bench and strode onto the field for the extra-point try, a young man of no distinguishing characteristics ambled up to the bleachers. He assumed a seat near the top, a fair distance away from any other spectators, and propped his elbows on his knees.
“He’s here,” Purvis muttered. “Watch what happens now.”
Ray leaned forward.
The teams lined up for the extra-point try. The holder called the signals. The center snapped the ball. It wobbled toward the holder, who had to rise from his knee to bring it in. The blockers held the line as the holder fumbled it into place for the kick, but the kicker stumbled and kicked the ball poorly. It flew directly into a blocker, who had the presence of mind to fall on it. The referee blew the whistle and decreed that the try had failed.
Well, snaps do go bad now and then. But that wasn’t the most impressive kick I’ve ever seen.
Purvis noted Ray’s expression. “Our kicker is first rate when David isn’t around. Just keep watching the game, Father.”
Ray’s gaze flicked toward the young man Purvis had cited. He was doing nothing to speak of, just watching the action on the field.
Keep an open mind.
Though the game had started out looking near collegiate-varsity quality, from that moment forward it was a far less impressive spectacle. On both sides, the play was no better than mediocre. At times it verged on comical. Both offenses made mistake after mistake, both physical and mental. Yet neither defense seemed able to capitalize. It was as if the teams that started the game had been replaced by inexperienced ninth-graders of no particular skills. Spectators that had cheered loudly during Foxwood’s first drive and stood to applaud the touchdown pass became silent. By halftime, half of them had departed. The inept play and the departures continued through the second half. Foxwood prevailed, though it was clear that the team had no cause to brag about its performance.
Ray and Purvis rose as the last of the other spectators trickled away toward the parking lot. David Johnson brought up the rear.
“Did you, expect to see…what we saw?” Ray said.
Purvis nodded. “It’s been that way whenever he’s present. Players with a solid reputation for ability and drive turn into buffoons when he’s in the stands.”
“Have you seen the same thing at practices?”
“Not personally,” Purvis said. “But I’ve been told about it by other staffers I trust.”
I have to take it seriously.
“What about musical performances?”
“Same deal.” Purvis scowled. “My daughter is the school’s first-chair oboist. She has a genuine gift for the instrument. When David’s in the audience, she can hardly get a note out of it. I have no explanation. Do you?”
“Not as we stand here,” Ray said. “But there’s still a possibility that it’s a huge coincidence. Would you be willing to help me with an experiment?”
Purvis’ eyebrows rose. “Certainly, Father. What do you have in mind?”
“The basketball season still has a few months to run, doesn’t it? Does David usually go to those games?”
“Oh yes. Are you thinking of keeping him away from a game or two, then letting him attend them?”
Ray nodded. “Exactly. But I don’t know the young man. You do. Can I count on you to provide the necessary obstruction?”
“I’ll see what I can arrange.”
Whatever ruse Purvis contrived to keep David Johnson away, it worked for a basketball game and a half. Ray was much impressed by Foxwood’s accurate shooting and solid defense against the Oakleigh team. One Foxwood forward racked up twenty-two points, including four three-pointers, in the first half alone. The Foxwood center was impassable in the paint; he repelled the Oakleigh forwards’ attempts to drive the baseline with exceptional skill and without fouling. Though Oakleigh fought hard, in the end Foxwood prevailed by a twenty point margin.
The following game was against Chedwick High. The first half was an epic battle. Chedwick’s team had been mentioned as a candidate for the national high school championship tournament. Foxwood was nearly their equal, and fought tenaciously to keep the score as close as possible to level. For sixteen minutes the teams provided the best performance, in both skill and passion, that high school athletes could give.
David Johnson ambled into the gym as halftime ticked toward its end. Once again he entered unobtrusively, took an isolated seat near the top of the bleachers, and propped his elbows on his knees.
Now we’ll see.
Alvin Purvis entered a minute or two later. He scrambled into the bleachers as the game resumed and perched himself next to Ray.
“Couldn’t keep him away?” Ray murmured.
“I tried my best, Father,” Purvis said. “But I couldn’t keep him talking to me any longer.”
“Then when the third period ends,” Ray said, “I’ll buttonhole him and take him out of the gym.”
Purvis looked at him in surprise. “You think you can?”
Ray nodded. “You stay here and watch the game.”
The third period was a farce. Both teams played as if neither had ever touched a basketball before. Dribblers stumbled, traveled, and lost control of the ball. Shooters missed by a yard. Centers fouled as they tried to block. As the last few seconds of the period ticked away, Ray rose, went to where David Johnson sat, and stood so as to block his view of the court. The teenager looked up at him with evident irritation.
“What is it, Father?”
“I need to speak to you privately.” Ray filled the words with urgency. “Come with me.”
“But the game—”
“Right now, David.” Ray took the teen firmly by the arm and pulled him upright against considerable resistance. Nevertheless, Ray marched him down the bleachers and out of the gym.
As the gym door closed behind them, Johnson finally wrenched himself free of Ray’s grip and faced him squarely. “Well, what’s so important that I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the game in peace?”
You enjoyed it, did you?
Ray met the teen’s glare eye-to-eye. “You are.”
“Tonight you’re the focus of an experiment,” Ray said. “Would you like to guess what sort?”
The teen pretended bafflement. He essayed a shrug.
“According to your guidance counselor—”
“The very same. When you’re present at any kind of competition, all the competitors lose all their skills. They perform like nobodies. Like the teams on the court tonight in the third period.”
“So?” Johnson said. “Did you expect pro basketball from a bunch of kids?”
“They played better before you arrived,” Ray countered. “Much better. Both sides. And the same thing happened at Foxwood’s football game with Laurelton.”
Another shrug. “Maybe they got tired.” Johnson made to return to the gym. Ray grabbed and halted him. The teen’s eyes flared with fury.
“What the hell—”
“Never mind that,” Ray said. “Mr. Purvis stayed in there to watch what remains of the game. You’re staying here, with me. We’ll see what he has to say when it’s over.” The teen tried to shake himself loose, but Ray clamped down with his full and considerable strength. The teen winced.
“My parents are going to hear about this,” Johnson growled. “They’re not Catholics. Neither am I.”
“I know,” Ray said. “And I’ll be very interested in what they have to say, as well.”
David Johnson became silent, but the heat from his gaze grew greater still. It expressed more than the teen might have intended.
One side of the little pentagon that sat in the Johnsons’ living room radiated unease and more. David’s parents sat tightly together, hand in hand and hip to hip. They didn’t trouble to conceal their suspicion at the invasion of their home by a priest. Whatever they thought of their son’s guidance counselor, they kept it to themselves.
“We’ve never heard the first thing about any trouble David’s been in,” Mrs. Johnson said. “Now you come here in the middle of the night as if we were criminals, demanding to know about our son? We should call the police on you.”
“You can if you like,” Purvis said. “I won’t try to pretend that we’re here for David’s benefit, or because he’s in trouble with the school authorities. It’s just that he’s been present at some…unusual events. Unusual enough to draw the notice of other school personnel. And David is the only common factor among them.”
Johnson glared at the guidance counselor with open hostility. “What kind of ‘unusual events?’”
“May we leave that for a few minutes in the future, please?” Ray said. Purvis glanced at him curiously, but said nothing. “It might still come to nothing. We’d like to learn a little more about you and David, if that would be all right. What you do, your opinions about child-rearing, your religious beliefs—wait.” Ray held up a hand. “We’re not here to convert you or harangue you. We’d just like to see if we can get a little insight into what we’ve…observed.”
“Which you won’t tell us,” Johnson growled.
“Please bear with me a moment longer,” Ray said. “What do you do for a living, Mr. Johnson?”
Johnson’s face twitched as if he found the question distasteful. “I’m a bookkeeper at Sentry Munitions.”
“And yourself, Mrs. Johnson?” Ray said.
“I…work in retail,” the woman forced out.
Ray nodded. “Nothing to be ashamed of in either case,” he said. “Do you own your home?”
“For three years now. Along with the bank,” Johnson muttered.
“These days, that’s the case far more often than not,” Purvis contributed.
Perfectly average, in fact.
“You’ve done well to acquire a home in Foxwood,” Ray said. “There are neighborhoods in Oakleigh and Laurelton where it would have been much easier.”
“It would have,” Johnson forced out, “but we didn’t want to live among…” His face twitched again, and he fell silent.
“Yes, the environment is a little different in…the lower-priced townships,” Ray said before Purvis could speak. “But the property taxes there are a good deal less. Homeowners have to bear down a little to cover the ones here.”
It was a perfectly normal observation, but the Johnsons bridled as if their character had somehow been impugned.
“We do what we have to,” Johnson growled. “The older residents use the taxes to keep folks like us away. We decided we weren’t having it. They’re no better than us. We’re as good as anybody, and we’re going to live like it.” His eyes flicked toward his son, who’d been silent throughout the “We’ve told David that over and over. Practically since he was able to walk.”
David didn’t speak nor twitch.
“Have you had any…difficulties because of that?” Ray murmured.
“Some of the women have been a little standoffish,” Mrs. Johnson said. “And David hasn’t made any friends in the area yet.”
No surprise there.
Ray looked at Purvis. “Well, I think we’ve learned what we came to learn,” he said. He rose from his seat. “Wouldn’t you agree, Al?”
Purvis’ eyes widened. “Ah, yes, Father.” He rose and faced the Johnsons. “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, thank you for your time.”
“Hold on there,” Johnson said as he rose from his sofa. “What about these events that you were so concerned about?”
Purvis smiled formally. “I’m sure they were just coincidences. Nothing to worry about.” He turned and with a jerk of the head urged Ray to follow him. They marched quickstep for the front door. Ray closed it immediately behind them, but not before he saw the hatred that burned in David Johnson’s eyes.
“Well, Father?” Purvis said as he drove them back to the rectory. “Any conclusions?”
“Yes, but…” Ray winced. “I don’t know if I should say what…I’m about to say.”
Purvis grinned. “Guidance counselors are a bit like priests, you know. We don’t repeat what’s told us. Well, unless someone’s in danger. David isn’t in danger, is he?”
“Not physically,” Ray said. “Not as far as I can tell, anyway. But it would be a good thing if he could be kept away from competitions until he finishes his schooling.”
“Present trends continuing, that will be the June after next,” Purvis said. He turned into the rectory parking lot, set the parking brake and killed the engine. “He’s not a strong prospect for college. But from the way you said what you said, you have an opinion.”
The stress on the word opinion was almost too light to notice.
“I do,” Ray said. “But I don’t think you’re going to like it.”
“Let me be the judge, please.”
How do I tell this secular, perfectly average man that in one way, David Johnson isn’t average at all? How do I make it comprehensible in his frame of reference?
“Do you know about demons?” Ray said.
Purvis’ eyes narrowed. “I haven’t made a study of the myths. I know religious people believe in them, and that they intend us harm.”
“Well…” Ray groped for words. “You observed the Johnsons as closely as I did tonight. What sense of them did you get?”
Purvis relaxed fractionally. “Hm. Well, I’d say they’re as average as their son, for one thing.”
“Ah, yes.” Purvis frowned for a moment. “Were you hoping I would say more than that?”
“I wasn’t sure one way or the other.” Ray steepled his hands. “Priests get a very specific kind of education, you know. Part of it is training in the detection of…evil.”
Purvis glared at him as if he’d proposed to erect a stake and burn David Johnson at it. “Go on, Father.”
“A great deal of evil is completely unobtrusive,” Ray said. “Banal, even. Evil doesn’t have to be showy, though sometimes it is. The mass killings, the great genocides, and the world wars got us thinking that we’d always recognize a monster in our midst. But that isn’t always the case. Evil can express itself in some of the quietest ways you can imagine.”
“I am having,” Purvis said, “a very hard time making sense of what you’re saying. Are you about to tell me that David Johnson is possessed?”
“No, sir,” Ray said. You wouldn’t believe me if I did. “But I do believe a malevolent force is using him to express itself. Through no fault of his own.”
Purvis’s eyes remained hard. Ray fought to remain placid of demeanor.
“I began to see it when I pulled David out of the gym,” Ray said. “He growled at me for not letting him enjoy the game. And I think he was being truthful about that. He was enjoying what he saw on the court. He found it comforting.”
“That makes absolutely no sense, Father,” Purvis said.
“Does what we saw make sense?” Ray murmured. “The total collapse of gifted teenage athletes immediately upon the arrival of one nondescript, non-playing boy?”
Purvis started to reply, checked himself.
“Did the players return to form when I managed to drag David out of the gym?” Ray continued.
For the first time, the guidance counselor appeared to open slightly to what Ray was saying.
“What David saw,” Ray said, “told him that he would have played as well as any of the varsity players we watched beclown themselves. That he was as good as any of them.”
“The Johnsons gave it away back there.” Ray grimaced at the memory. “They’re as good as anybody. They said so! They’ve said it to themselves for so long that they believe it to the core of their being. Remember what else they said? They pounded it into David since he came out of the cradle—so relentlessly that he needs to believe it despite the evidence of his senses. And it’s twisted him enough, created enough of a chink in his soul, that an evil entity could attach itself to him, ride along with him, and learn to work through him.
“I think David’s aware of what’s going on. He may have been resentful of others’ superior accomplishments in this or that field for a long time before this, but now that he has that…ride-along, it’s using his resentment to act on those around him. He resents seeing anyone outperform what he knows, in his heart of hearts, is the best he could do. He wants to see others as no better than he is–at anything. That he’s as good as any of them. And his ride-along is showing him exactly that.”
Ray sat back. Purvis’ eyes had clouded with doubt.
He has to overcome a lot of preconceptions to accept it. He may not manage. But there was a time when I wouldn’t have believed it either.
“It’s hard to accept,” Purvis said. “But it’s consistent with what we’ve seen. Still, it doesn’t suggest a way to deal with it. For me, at least. I’m not in the evil-entity-fighting business.”
“I know,” Ray said. “I am.”
Purvis’ mouth twitched. “Getting David or his parents to accept your kind of therapy would be a hell of a trick.”
Ray nodded. “I know that, too.”
Purvis nodded and offered his hand. “Thank you, Father. I appreciate your input.”
He exited Purvis’ car, walked steadily to the rectory door, and closed it behind him as the guidance counselor drove away.
Copyright © 2022 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.