They’re starting to attract stares.
Marcus is usually one to take comfort in the forced anonymity of the inner city urgent care waiting room, where no one much cares who you are or what’s wrong with you, everyone looking to all corners of the room and not the person in front of them. This one’s as grim as any other; a young college boy keeps escorting another to the restroom, and the muffled noises from behind the door leave little to the imagination, a weary mother holds a flushed and bleary child against her chest, and most of them are continually held hostage by an influx of something worse, a gunshot wound or a stabbing. Televisions silently play close-captioned cable news, none of which could be considered “good.” Humming fluorescent lights cast a green, sickly light over short scenes of misery.
Possessions can hold whole neighborhoods in a thrall of violence, speights of murders and freak accidents. Marcus knows people tend to envision demonic possessions taking place in lonely small towns, creaking cabins in the woods. No, give a demon a city any day, where an overlooked cycle of despair can let it fester and breed in peace. Even better, make it a saint-haunted place like New Orleans, where even the mansions are somehow falling apart. Cracks in every veneer. Candy-colored paint thrown over rot. Lots of little spaces to slip in.
Dreadful case. Lasted weeks. Bright young lad named Antoine, potential college football star, who let a seductive creature whisper in his ear after he saw something he shouldn’t have seen.
The fact that all three of them are still alive almost feels like a fluke.
And maybe this all wouldn’t feel so bad were it not for the mostly-broken ceiling speaker above them, whining out a Kenny G. tune, some approximation of “The Christmas Song.” The soprano sax buries itself in a deep pressure point somewhere in the front of Marcus’s skull and he shifts uncomfortably, trying not to disturb Tomas, whose head is carefully perched on his shoulder.
Of course, in ignoring the song, he’s left with the other sound he’s been trying to tune out- Tomas breathing next to him, or trying to , the air wheezing and catching in his chest like someone’s got their hands around his throat. His eyebrow is split open, puddling blood beneath his forehead onto Marcus’s jacket, and it’s starting to trail down his shirt, soaking into the grey fabric. He almost wishes he’d wrangled Tomas out of his collar before dragging him in here, because this is one guilty onlooker away from turning into a scene .
His own wrist is swollen up to the size of a billiard ball and he couldn’t move it if he tried, at least not without a lot of yelling and vomiting. He’s burst a vessel in his right eye, red threatening to drown the blue of his irises. There are fingernail scratches hidden under his coat that need tending, lest the scabs begin to fuse with the shirt, and a stripe of skin missing from his cheek, which only hurts when Marcus turns his head or speaks or thinks too loudly. He always reminds Tomas that exorcisms can flare up into violence faster than a lightning strike, but there is no coaching, no turn of phrase to describe the specific hellish circumstances that lead to one of them very nearly losing an eye when a teenage boy built like a tank tries to tear their face from their skull, while the other is being thrown down a flight of stairs by an enraged uncle, who can only hear the horror in the next room and assume the worst.
No charges pressed, obviously. The demon retreats, leaving the boy sobbing for his mother, the family crowding in while Marcus calls an ambulance (for Antoine, never themselves if it can be helped), and drags Tomas into their truck himself and drives them with one hand. All is forgiven, he promises.
Across the room, an old woman is angrily muttering something to the nurse at the check-in station, whose bloodshot eyes keep darting over to him and Tomas. Marcus can’t hear them but clearly it’s something about how this hospital is about to kill a priest. On Christmas .
With a sigh, he turns his head, shrugging slightly to try and wake him. His face is very nearly pressed into Tomas’ mess of sweat-matted curls, greasy and tangled, and were this a private moment-
But it’s not. And he’s reminded of that as Tomas moans quietly, such a tiny, wounded sound pressed closely to Marcus’s ear, it makes the fine hairs on his arm stand stiff. Before he can gently move him upward, he loses him to a coughing fit, something wracking and wet that shakes his entire frame. It’s drawing unneeded attention. Marcus shudders, heat rising in his face as he runs a hand across his back. This better not make someone’s bloody twitter account, he thinks, eyes scanning for recording smartphones.
“Easy,” he murmurs, trying to ignore the stares. Tomas shakes his head, trying to sit himself upright, one hand pressed against his ribcage like he’s been shot, and Marcus realizes with a heavy sigh that something under that hand is very likely to be cracked or broken.
“Marcus, I can’t breathe-” Tomas chokes out. It’s his first full sentence in over an hour. He’s starting to look feverish, and all Marcus wants is to carry him to some warm, safe bed far far away from here.
“Yes you can, you’re panicking.” he says, gentle as can be as he reaches up, covering his good hand with his shirt sleeve and tries to dab the congealed blood off of his face. (It’s useless, Marcus merely smears it around, mixes it in with the sweat and the dirt. He comes out looking worse than before.)
Tomas grimaces and swallows hard, muttering out a shaky “ No estoy entrando en pánico. Esto duele.” Marcus scoffs and rolls his eyes.
“Oh, so you can breathe enough to argue with me?”
Tomas narrows his eyes, but whatever fire he’s got inside is quickly gone, and he settles his head back against the wall, eyes falling shut once again.
The hospital bills will go to Bennett. They always do. That, and the bail bonds. This was the agreement. Limited contact, small paper trail. Pay in cash, disposable phones. This may have been decided after Marcus asked him if he could be their “acting sugar daddy.”
(Not that he regrets it, or would ever take it back.)
“Father Tomas is committed to a vow of poverty. It’s important he remembers that.”
“Afraid I’ll spoil him, Bennett?”
“If only you knew.”
But Bennett could be counted upon to bury the important things deep enough as to not arouse suspicion. Can’t very well fight the darkness if one were nearly dead or incarcerated, and Marcus has been both on numerous accounts, sometimes both at once.
There’s an expectant nurse in wintery-blue scrubs holding a clipboard, followed by many heads turned in unison, and Marcus realizes he may have melted in relief. He gently taps Tomas’ cheek, taking a moment to gauge his temperature with the back of his knuckles, before he remembers where they are- with people who can help, not in the cab of their truck, hunched over a first aid kit.
“C’mon. They’re playing our song.”
Tomas’ eyes flutter open for a second, struggling to find their focus. Marcus loses him quickly.
He does the work for him, gently moving Tomas’ hand from his side, hoisting him up out of the chair with an arm under his shoulder, and an unseemly noise pops up from the depths of Marcus’s lungs. In this ad-hoc traveling apprenticeship, Tomas seems to have dedicated himself to the art of being unobtrusive and observant. He seems small, the uniform shrinks and hides him. Marcus forgets ( tries not to notice, same thing ) that he has the muscles of a boxer, and the subsequent density of a neutron star. He’s heavy. Never mind the three plus weeks of not sleeping, not eating, holding down a demon with all the strength in his old and very mortal body-
At the very moment Marcus feels his knees start to buckle, he’s rescued by a very tall young woman, who must be barely 18, her long braids tied up into a thick knot above her head. Her maroon t-shirt says Loyola and it’s nearly identical to the very very very old one Tomas wears to bed sometimes. She looks so tired. Everyone looks so tired, and the whole of the world feels tired when a demon runs. There is no relief. Not really. Marcus blinks, and exhales as she lifts the burden.
“Thank you, love.”
She smiles timidly and helps him manage Tomas’ near deadweight for a few steps before another nurse steps in, a wheelchair produced out of thin air. Marcus exhales shakily, swallowing back the nausea as he holds his arm against his chest. His hand is starting to swell up as well, long fingers becoming fat and grotesque at their joints.
“She called me Thomas” he hears below him. Tomas’ head lists awkwardly backwards and Marcus reaches out, one steadying hand on the back of his neck.
“She did.” he agrees mutely.
“Why do I always let people do that?” he mumbles, and Marcus can’t help it, he smiles, because there is nothing really left in him. Before he can answer, the young nurse in blue, a sturdy auburn-haired woman kneels down, and tries to gauge the condition of these broken things she’s been charged with. A tiny silver medallion dangles from her neck, obscured by the angle. This, Marcus knows, is sometimes the only blessing of the collar in a public space. They will be gentle with him.
Before the woman can get a word in edgewise, Tomas blinks away the sweat beginning to bead into his eyes, and shakes his head. “Take him first, he’s broken something.” Marcus’s fingers slide up from his neck, gently into his hair, and the nurse’s eyes flicker upward towards him , with his bleeding eye and his busted wrist and his ugly, torn-up face, all sorts of filth flecked across his clothing like a house painter in the 9th level of Hell-
And Marcus gives her a look that suggests she had better not bloody dare.
“We’ll get it all sorted out, Father.” she says with unforced kindness and patience. “Let’s get you looked at and Mr.-”
“Keane.” It comes out nervously. It’s not a good look, to be paired with a battered priest.
She nods and waves over the one who’d come to their rescue with a wheelchair, a (remarkably) handsome young Asian man. “Ben, if you’ll take Mr. Keane here.”
Before Handsome Ben can whisk him away, he stops, and looks to the girl in the Loyola shirt, now back in the row of hard, unforgiving pleather seats, looking at her phone and pretending not to watch the scene in front of her. He rests a gentle hand on the hem of her coat sleeve. “What’s your name, darling?” She looks up, deer in headlights for a moment. “Shintia.” she replies softly. Marcus smiles, and he knows that it is crumpled and broken, lacking grace or comfort because those things have been all but bled out of him by now, but the smile she gives back reminds him that he may yet have some claim on God’s mercy.
“Happy Christmas, Shintia.”
Tomas is already gone by the time he looks back up, disappeared through the ER doors. “Sorry you get the consolation prize, Ben” he says, starting to head in that direction without anyone’s permission.
Handsome Ben scurries after him, and, to his credit, laughs.
Handsome Ben (Benjamin Nguyen, he learns) is thorough, and funny, and doesn’t mind when Marcus heaves stomach acid into a trash can after they pop his wrist back into place. (It’s the noise, really, that hideous pop that sets him off, he swears.) Casts have come a long way since Marcus was a boy, remembering the itchy woolen padding and flaky plaster that weighed down his skinny little arms. Boys in overrun homes break a lot of bones, sprain a lot of ankles. He wonders if there’s any good cartilage left in some of these joints, lifetimes of fractures, wear and tear, bad posture and even worse places to sleep, making everything in him brittle and stretched too thin to be useful. Exorcists don’t have much use for physicals.
They let him off with a reinforced plastic brace, something light and adjustable, and tell him to keep it on for three weeks, maybe a month at most. Marcus isn’t sure if he can withstand a month of Tomas mother-henning him over keeping it on, which he most assuredly will.
There seems to be a question on Ben’s mind as he begins to apply a few butterfly strips to Marcus’s cheek. “So...you and the priest…”
He quirks an eyebrow, and God help him, even that hurts. “What about it?” he sighs.
“Usually when we get priests in here, they’re not the ones in the beds. Just…” Ben shrugs innocuously. “Can’t tell me there’s not a story there.” His posture stiffens and his heart freefalls into the pit of his stomach. Two months in and I’ve already broken him .
“Is he alright?”
“Stable, as far as I know.”
Marcus scoffs quietly, and fidgets in the chair as Ben continues to sanitize and mend, held captive by his own injuries. “That’s not a sign of confidence, dear Ben.” he mumbles, and before he can make Ben promise to find someone who does know, the doctor on duty steps in.
He’s an older man whose look and bearing remind him somewhat of Bennett’s, which is a strange comfort, but also lets him know that he is, in short, probably about to be raked over the coals. He consults a chart, and then compares what he’s read with the dirty heap of Marcus Keane in front of him.
“Mr. Keane,” he addresses in a deep baritone. Ben begins to clean up around them, tossing dirty gauze, empty syringes into the orange biohazard receptacles. Marcus sighs, leaning back into his chair. He’s on his 36th hour without sleep, now staring down the barrel of many more. It’s always a test, if a doctor will believe whatever he pulls from his deep gallery of lies. “My name is Dr. Collins.” He sits beside Marcus, looking over the copious notes scrawled out over the pages in front of him.
Marcus extends the hand in the cast, fingers still comically deformed, and instantly regrets it, baring his teeth and pressing the arm against his chest. “Sorry.” he mumbles, dry-throated and not that sorry. Dr. Collins, at least, looks bemused. “Habit?” he asks. Marcus nods.
“That’s what we call a dinner fork fracture. You’ll want to keep painkillers on hand, but nothing heavy. Elevation, rest, and time. Although going by your x-ray,” he says, pulling it out and holding it it up to the light. It’s nauseating, seeing one’s bones snapped apart from where they’re supposed to be. “This must seem pretty old hat to you.” Marcus shrugs. This man is seeing him and seeing through him. He doesn’t have time for that.
“Where’s Tomas?” ( Not Father Tomas. Not Tomas Ortega or Mr. Ortega. Tomas, his apprentice, and his partner, this living Son of God that he is responsible for, that he could have lost in less than a second. )
Dr. Collins tilts his head in understanding. “Father Tomas is in recovery. He’s cracked three ribs on his right side, along with a few contusions. Good amount of bruising. Nothing permanent.” Going off the look on Marcus’s face, he continues to patiently reassure.
“He’ll mend just fine, but we’d like to keep him overnight for observation.” Marcus slumps into his chair, as if nothing else but the earth’s gravity were keeping him in a solid state, and he pinches the bridge of his nose, managing a deep breath.
I did not do this . It’s what he must remind himself every time Tomas takes a hit, every time a damned creature with vomit-caked lips and broken teeth tries to undo him with the intimation of a loved one’s voice. He did not somehow con Tomas into this, although it always very nearly feels that way. He’s not the same anymore, that fresh-faced, wide-eyed seeker who approached him at St. Aquinas with all the delicacy of a man approaching a wounded animal. Open-hearted and easily seduced. No, Tomas is a man of his own mind, and gives himself and his body to God with so much well-meaning recklessness, it will probably kill them both.
Tomas put himself on the other side of that door for Marcus, knowing an angry and frightened man, a man who thought Tomas was hurting his nephew, a man so much bigger than him, would be on the other side.
"Marcus. Finish it.”
He forces himself upward, leaning elbows on his knees, fingers running through his filth-matted hair. He’s in desperate need of a wash. They’d been staying in the family’s back room for the last few weeks, and it just now hits him that the both of them are homeless. He can’t imagine they’ll find a suitable bed in the city, three nights before Christmas day. That was a problem for future Marcus, though. Right now-
“Can I see him?”
Dr. Collins considers him, and this, in the end, is only fair. “Father Tomas was admitted under my recommendation. The three fractures are bad enough, but there are also signs of dehydration, periods of sleep deprivation, undernourishment, anaemia...Frankly, I’d want him in a bed without him being busted up. Could say the same for you.”
All Marcus can do is sigh and nod, his face pulled in a tight, shameful grimace. He forgets that not everyone sees these things as signs of their willingness to endure these horrors without rest. They don’t see the horrors at all, wouldn’t know the fierceness to which they’d commit themselves to harm to save the soul of a complete stranger.
“We’re obligated to report signs of assault to the police, Mr. Keane.”
He quickly shakes his head. “It’s been handled. No charges.” The doctor nods again, staring at Marcus to imply that he is not asking for an explanation, but, rather, demanding.
“Father Tomas was called to help intervene in a case of drug addiction. Part of a new Archdiocese outreach program. I assisted.”
That seems to settle, if not uneasily. “And?”
“It got nasty. Usually does. Families get emotional.”
“How do you...assist? With these cases?” Marcus almost smiles. In this room, he’s been stripped down to his undershirt, all of his bruises, tattoos and old scars smiling back. He and Tomas do not match ; Marcus in his leather, with a face like a dockside barnacle and a gaze that always lasts a second too long for comfort, everything about him splotchy and pale pink and subterranean, scarred and ever so slightly off . Tomas, with his deep golden eyes, and smooth olive skin, gently freckled, sun-kissed. With a smile just imperfect enough to put one at ease, reassure them that he is human.
“Used to be my own work. As an ex-priest.” he says, voice pushing through those words with a fragility that he still doesn’t like. Dr. Collins sits back in mild surprised.
“Used to be? Figured most priests for lifers. How’s that work?”
Marcus looks up at him, eyes gone cold as a lake frozen over, and swallows on the lump in his throat.
“Believe it or not, the church can run out of uses for people.”
And then he looks away, doesn’t care to watch the man chew that one over, whatever he thinks it might imply. Marcus knows it’s usually never anything good . He does not yet possess the strength and silver tongue to lie and suggest that he left of his own free will. Not even after what’s been done to him. Old habits, he supposes.
“Are you family?” Dr. Collins asks, not unkindly, even when he already knows the answer. The words fall into him like an avalanche, picking up the pain and fatigue and sorrow and unbearable guilt and all but burying him alive. And he realizes, after the doctor does, that he’s crying. Marcus clenches his jaw and shakes his head, coarsely gesticulating with his good hand as if to say, No, Obviously not.
“His only family is thousands of miles away.” he says, wiping at his face, knowing these feelings are fully useless. In another life, Tomas is preparing St. Anthony’s to celebrate the birth of Christ, and fretting over what to give Luis (what he wants to buy him versus what he can actually afford.) Marcus doesn’t know if anyone’s been called, if Luis knows that he won’t be seeing his Uncle this Christmas because he’s in a hospital, beaten within an inch of his life. “No, no, I’m his partner.”
That phrase always buys a mixed reaction or two.
In this case, it’s the accidental magic word.
“I’ll get you clearance. It’ll just take a moment.” Even as servant of God, Marcus tends to be blind-sided by people like this, who do not struggle to good and be kind. He’d had that pearl of hope beaten from him at an early age. Marcus nods, worn-out features softened and blurred into nothing less than sheer, shining gratitude.
It does take but a moment, as as Marcus chucks his vomit-stained sweater into the bin, and delicately slides his coat and backpack back on over the cast and bandages, Dr. Collins reappears, and leads him down the hall of what appears to have been a tremendously long night for this fleet of healers. There’s a closed door, with a whiteboard next to it, ‘Fr. Tomas’ scrawled in blue marker. Through the window, Marcus can see dimmed lights, and a still, sleeping figure. He sighs, placing his hand against the wood.
“Sure you don’t have one of those beds for me?” he asks half-heartedly enough to assure he’s joking. Dr. Collins actually laughs, bless him, and shakes his head.
“No room at the inn.”
Marcus makes a quick tsk-ing sound, and grins. “Blasphemy, doctor.” he says, before stepping inside.