Inez Ponce de Leon - Artist, Writer, Scholar, Educator

Inez's Diary: All Things Dark and Illuminated: Chapter 5

Chapter 5.

The story took about an hour to narrate, punctuated as it was by pauses from the head priest, as he allowed the girl to digest every chapter; apology after apology from the mother, as she embraced her child; and even a staunch, "But I still love you," from the father, spoken so low, it was nearly buried beneath the ret of the priests' prayers.

The prayers were hardly a disturbance. The brothers were used to them: they were meant to calm the room, to ask for understanding, to beg for guidance. The psychiatrist and the doctor squinted their eyes at the head priest as the prayers went on, as though the low hums were distracting them from the story at hand. Only Bradley seemed composed through the proceedings; he even nudged his brother once or twice, as though to remind the other that he was being vindicated.

The story was told in its most simple terms by the head priest.

The mother had been unhappy after the birth of her first child, the brother who was now at the hospital. She had been depressed, but her husband had always been at work, and he had paid her little mind. He had been off on business trips then because, he said, he needed the extra money for their new baby.

And that was when the new neighbor moved in.

He was an ordinary man who loved gardening, walking around the neighborhood, and talking to random strangers on the street. Theirs was a neighborhood where everyone knew everyone else anyway, and he fit in. His wife had just left him for another man. He had moved in to start a new life, as the head of an online startup that hoped to populate the web with good visual content. He took photos. He was nice.

The husband winced at some points of the story, but he did not interrupt.

The neighbor was alone, and he would sometimes say hello to the woman who lived next door, she with the baby and a husband who was always out. And she pitied him: here he was, pouring all his energy into the startup, exhausting all his creativity on photography, and with no one to listen to his ideas. And there she was, all alone, with enough stress to make her cry while her baby bawled, with no one in the world to pay her any attention.

They talked a lot. They shared ideas. He took photos of her garden, her kitchen, her baby. She critiqued his shots. He took photos of her.

And so began the affair.

She never told her husband about it, and he never sensed that something was amiss in those times he went home. But whenever he was gone, the neighbor would visit his wife; or she would visit the neighbor, on the pretext of borrowing gardening tools; or they would meet in a motel outside town, with the baby tagging along, asleep in a bassinet.

The woman who had felt so alone, the man who had felt so rejected - they had both found refuge in each other's presence, a listening ear where there once had been none, arms where there had once been cold.

The mother kept apologizing in a low, trembling voice, but no one was paying her any mind.

They lived the lie for about two months, after a harsh winter, and then a mild spring.

Then, the woman found out she was pregnant.

She knew the neighbors would notice sooner or later. She knew her husband would see the signs when he came home. They had not slept together since Christmas, when he had last been with her for longer than two weeks. Her baby was no more than two months old.

Then there was the shame to be dealt with from everyone who knew her. Her parents. Her newborn son. Her husband's parents. And so many other people.

She visited her father confessor. She hadn't seen him since Christmas mass, when he had last blessed her family. She had hardly gone to church since she was married, and she never knew why.

He told her to keep the baby and to pray that her husband would understand. And he told her to break it off with the neighbor.

She hated his advice. She remembered why she didn't like church at all. It was stifling, and silly, and a routine that she never understood. Even confession was useless when she kept on committing the same sins over and over again - and especially when the man on the other side of the screen couldn't understand how difficult it was to deal with the world's temptations.

And all this time, she never told her neighbor anything. Somehow, deep within, she felt that (knew that) he would not react in any logical, much less merciful way.

She was right. He found out when he saw the look on her face after she struggled to find the words to tell him. And he told her to go to an abortion clinic because he didn't need a child now. He was too busy, she was married, and besides, didn't they agree that what they had wouldn't last anyway? Why mark the whole affair with a human being?

The daughter's tears dried completely at the words. She gasped, flinched as her mother tried to embrace her, and brought her knees to her chin. And there she sat, listening, a ball of dazed silence.

She didn't want to go through with the abortion. But she was afraid of everyone, and she couldn't face her husband in two weeks, when he came home from a long trip. She knew he didn't cheat on her. He was much too emotionally unavailable for that, much too preoccupied with work, and able to handle the stress. But this would kill him.

So she struggled for a few weeks with the decision. And she didn't push through with it.

She told him she wouldn't.

He stormed out of his house, drove across town, went somewhere. She was too angry with him to care.

One afternoon, the neighbor came calling. He looked repentant. Or crazy. Or sad. Or angry. Or afraid. She couldn't tell. He asked for her forgiveness, brought her vitamin shakes he made himself, he said, for the baby. He said he would support her no matter what happened. He said he would take care of his child, their child, their baby. He asked her to eat something because she was so thin and he didn't want her to ever feel alone. He told her to drink the vitamin shakes. He had made them himself.

She suddenly felt happy again. Whole again. Loved again. She followed his orders because she trusted him and wanted him to stay. And she was so full of love and emotions and inspiration inside.

It was the last thing she remembered. His smiling face. His hand on her cheek. The baby crying in the crib. And then there was blood, bubbling inside her, spilling out, forming a puddle on the floor between her legs. His smile fading. The baby now bawling. The spring afternoon suddenly going black.

She woke up in the hospital days later. Her husband was at her side.

She had never seen him angrier - never seen him sadder. But one look at him and she knew that beneath his relief that she was alive, he already knew her secret.

She didn't remember what the doctor said was in the shakes. Whatever it was, it had caused her to bleed, and for her to nearly lose the baby. Her baby had cried long and hard enough to get the attention of another neighbor, who had called 911. When the cops had arrived at her house, they found her lying on the kitchen floor, in a pool of blood, unconscious.

They contacted her husband, and he flew in immediately. He flew when the words, "But the baby's ok", drifted through the phone lines. On the way home, he realized that he hadn't slept with his wife since Christmas and she would have known that she was four months pregnant. She would have phoned him. She would have told him something. And then she saw her in the hospital with a stomach barely registering a two month child. And then he knew.

And he walked for hours under the sharp April rain. Walked aimlessly, thinking of what she had done, what it seemed she had tried to do.

He said he was ready to kill someone, but something held him back.

They had an infant son, now with grandparents, her parents. The father had walked to his in-laws' house, held his little boy, ignored his in-laws pleas for him to change out of his soaking, rain-drenched clothes, and fought every urge to tell them that there was something amiss. Why he never ratted her out, he didn't know. But at that moment, he knew he loved her too much, and that they would endure the storm.

But the anger. Oh God, the anger.

Anger threatened love but did not replace it. The father swore it then, and he swore it now, at the dinner table, before his family, before his guests.

The air of the house seemed to lift.

At that point, the girl wriggled herself out of her mother's arms, and threw her arms around the man who had served as her father. She wept, whispered that she didn't know. And he told her he loved her still. It was a low voice that said it, but it calmed the girl, made her keep her arms around him, made her cling to him and sob.

And so - the priest went on - the father went back to the hospital. He woke up by his wife's bedside. They argued, but mildly. She told him everything. He listened. He understood that he had a part in it, too. She acknowledged her selfishness. He admitted that, to some extent, his work had been a form of selflessness that had become vanity. They had their first real conversation in months.

Then it was a decade of couple's counseling after. They moved out and fled to Boston, where they knew nobody, had no relatives. They got their son into a new school. They started a new life. They put up their own company.

The mother had the baby before they left town. It was a rough first few years. Their savings went to hospital visits where no diagnosis could be made. Their money went to doctors who could only prescribe something for their baby's fever, and do no more. They paid for hours at their daughter's - their - bedside, watching as she twisted her tiny body, in the throes of a nightmare that no one could measure. And somehow, in those hours spent caring for a sickly infant that was truly not his own, the father learned to love her.

And suddenly, it all stopped. The illnesses disappeared, the fevers leveled out, and their baby girl grew up to be healthy and happy. The family went back to church, the parents took care of their own company, their children went to school, and their family grew closer. Her brother didn't know their secret, and he loved his sister with no qualms. Maybe the occasional hair-pulling incident, the rare scraped knee from chases around the yard gone wrong - but nothing big or damaging. He protected her.

It was he who had first reported that something was wrong.

His room was across the hall from his sister's, and he sometimes heard her taking to someone in the early hours of the morning. He thought it was a boy, calling on the phone, too afraid to talk to their dad. He didn't think of confronting her. She had her own mind, always did anyway, and could make her own decisions.

That was until one morning, when he heard her leave her room, close the door - and crash herself down the stairs.

After a night at the hospital to tend to her wounds, after a night watching her twist herself into new nightmares, after her parents found themselves back where they were sixteen years ago - everything went downhill. Their daughter had her lucid moments, but in between, she would growl to herself, call her brother and parents names, and leer at her mother as though she were ready to spill her secret.

But it was impossible. She didn't know. She couldn't know.

They called in the psychiatrist, their friend from church, who was seated at the table with them. The psychiatrist examined her, found nothing wrong, and decided to call in a doctor when she started bleeding from her ears. The doctor, the same one seated at the table, found nothing wrong with her either. But the nightmares would not stop. The attempts to throw herself out of windows and from the tops of stairs would not stop. She had to drop out of school because she couldn't concentrate, had no sleep, couldn't remember anything and needed someone to tell her everything she said or did a few hours after the fact.

The parents were sure that people at school were talking. But they couldn't let the worries bother them any longer - not when their daughter was already talking in languages even they could not understand. Their parish priest had once visited them and heard her. He swore she had said, and in Aramaic, "Leave us now".

It was he who called the local bishop, who then referred the priest who sat before them. The bishop contacted the cardinal, who called the Vatican and filed the report. The Vatican itself sent the two brothers to document the case. As a reminder: the Vatican took all cases of possession seriously, and the grave cases had to be documented. Those who worked with the Vatican as documentors were well trained, and could recognize the signs of genuine possession themselves.

The priest chanced to look at Bradley as he said this. Bradley tried not to blink, and pressed his lips closer. The temptation was greater, it seemed, to tell the priest everything that had transpired that afternoon, when the girl was suddenly before them in all her gray glory, before she suddenly disappeared, taking all their files and footage with her.

But that wasn't the end of the story.

The girl would perhaps want to know what happened to her biological father, the priest said.

The girl visibly fought not to nod too enthusiastically, as though fearing that she would offend the man she now held and called "dad".

When she was born, the priest continued, her parents tried to reach out to him. They needed anything he could give by way of medical history at least, just in case doctors would ask later. They called him, sent him email, sent someone to check on him. He ignored the call and email, slammed the door in their representative's face, and sent a note or response back with the exact same words every time.

I have no child.

The girl's eyes filled with tears. They slid slowly down her cheeks, marking her skin anew with dark tracks.

They were about to send a note back, to persuade him to help out - this was around the time that the girl was in the hospital with a high fever and no visible, discernible cause - but they saw him on the nightly news. Man Burns Self in Home, the headline said, carrying a grainy mugshot of him taken a few days before, when he had been arrested for killing his neighbor's dog with a shotgun.

He was deeply disturbed, the anchor had said. He had been undergoing therapy for some time, and his psychiatrist said - in an unaired interview - that he was seeing things and talking about things that were not there. He had also said that he would burn down everything and everyone because that was what his boss Beelzebub had said.

The air in the room grew prickly, stung, played on people's skin. Bradley fought to swallow the dry lump in his throat.

The news didn't make it to another night. Nobody really cared about raving, dead lunatics talking about mythical creatures. The parents didn't think too much of it, either. It was distressing, true, but it was better for their daughter to have a good pair of parents, a righteous pair of parents, a stable pair of parents. Had she known her true father, their daughter would be a mess.

They thought nothing of it, until the nightmares began.

Their daughter was very young, maybe six or seven, when she first ran into their room in the middle of the night, telling them that a scary man was trying to take her away. It happened several times over the next few years, until she was in junior high. She would run into their room, afraid of a scary man. She would sleep on their bed. She would leave at dawn. She would not remember anything, much less bring it up the next day.

The last time it happened, she actually said that the scary man was burning. She threw herself down the stairs the following night.

And when things went from bad to worse, all they could think of was how to keep the secret from getting out.

"Why didn't you just tell me?" Suddenly came from the mass of hair and tears, "Maybe I wouldn't be like this if you actually just said something!"

Bradley was about to open his mouth, but it was too late. The daughter was hysterical, her parents were getting defensive, and the psychiatrist and doctor were trying to intervene. The priests had stopped their praying and were staring at the scene. Even Landon wasn't moving.

The head priest alone had marked Bradley's movements. They met eyes across the noise, and any unease Bradley had with the man was gone. He saw weak eyes, the creases of age, the gray skin of someone who knew how to read people.

The head priest gave him a single nod. Bradley answered with a nod back, then motioned to the family.

"We need to adjourn for today," the priest pronounced, silencing the rest of the table, "The team and I need to discuss the next step forward. Let us pray."