Father Nicholas always weirded me out.

He smelled like stale bread and onions. His gaze seemed to look past you, not at you. He had a quiet, sullen demeanor, and he always recited the Nicene Creed in a rasping whisper.

So when he asked me to “join him in his office for a quick chat” after Mass, I freaked out a little.

But I replied: “sure, Father.”

I glanced around the church. It was nearly empty, now; the parishioners were filing out the front door in a thick line, full of chatter and laughter. Behind them, a gloomy darkness had settled in the church – deep shadows behind the pews, behind the altar. The golden tabernacle glinted in the dim light, under the darkened crucifix.

I followed him into the parish office. Father Nicholas closed the door behind us.

“I’ve noticed you haven’t been coming to Mass regularly,” he said, taking a seat across the desk.

“Uh, yeah, I’ve been busy,” I replied, my heart beginning to race. What is this? Some kind of interrogation?

“And you don’t wear your cross anymore,” he said, pointing to my chest from beneath his robes.

“I forgot to put it on.”

Father Nicholas leaned back in his seat, surveying me carefully. I didn’t like the glint in his dark eyes, or the fact that his hands were hidden in the robes. Just tell him you have to go, the voice inside me urged. But reverence kept me locked in place.

“Is there a reason you didn’t get any holy water today?”

My heart began to pound, so loudly that I could hear it in my ears.

The holy water is kept in a tiny basin at the front of the church. How would he know, when I came in, that I didn’t get any? Was he watching me that closely? There were dozens – no, hundreds – of other parishioners coming into the church at the same time, but he noticed I didn’t get any holy water?

“Uh – no, no reason in particular.”

He sighed. Then he pulled a small vial of clear liquid from the folds of his cloak. He wet his fingers, and – before I could react – flicked them, so that a few drops fell on my face.

“What – what are you doing?” I asked.

And then I felt it. Where each drop had landed, it burned, as if he had pricked me there with a poker from the fire.

I shot up, shrieking in pain. “Are you crazy?! What is that?! What did you just put on me?!”

With his face grim, Father Nicholas replied: “holy water.”

“What – I don’t understand,” I replied, clawing at my face like a madman. “Holy water – but –”

“Holy water burns. You don’t wear a cross.” His tone turned almost humorous. “Need I spell it out for you, Jake?”

I stood there, numb, my cheeks still stinging.

“Oh, what – you thought it’d be like The Exorcist?” He laughed – the first time I had ever seen him do so. “No. They’re too clever for that. Why, if you all were projectile vomiting everywhere, and speaking Latin with perfect fluency, we’d catch on pretty quick.”

I stared at him. My heart was racing; my hands felt numb. I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

“No, they’re subtle.” He placed the vial on the desk, halfway between us; I involuntarily backed away. “Ever have an intrusive thought? ‘Jump out that window, you know you want to.’ ‘Stop cutting up those carrots and stab him in the neck.’”

I nodded.

“Most of them are meaningless. Just silly thoughts to cloud your mind. But, sometimes… it’s one of them, its voice blending perfectly with yours.”

“But –” I faltered.

“Just a suggestion, in the back of your mind,” he said. And then he laughed again – but this time it was a bitter, empty scoff. “That’s all it takes, for humans to do unspeakable things.”

Just a suggestion.

I pulled my arms around me and felt a shiver crawl down my back. “So… what do we do?” I asked, voice quavering, fearing the answer.

“Come back tomorrow. At dawn, we will begin.”

That night, I tossed and turned. The more the blanket tangled around me, the larger the pool of sweat became, the crazier Father Nicholas’s words sounded. A possession, really? I thought. That’s the stuff of movies. He’s crazy.

I flipped the pillow over. Yes, that’s what it is. The guy is nuts.

But then… what’s his real motive? I stared up at the dark ceiling. Maybe he wants to do something to me. Something terrible. I looked over at the alarm clock – 5:12 AM. The sun would rise within the hour.

You better bring your gun, just in case.

I glanced over at the desk, black in the dusky shadows. At the locked drawer, that held a Smith & Wesson in its bowels.

Bring the gun.

As the horizon lit with the fire of dawn, I made my way to the church, the gun swinging heavily in my pocket.