By Michael A Roccia III
I hate hospitals, they are so cold. Not the temperature, I could care less about that, it’s the feeling. White walls, white floors and even white counters that the nurses hide behind. I stand outside my little girl’s room with only my umbrella, a stuffed rabbit and a lily in a small orange pot with me. She loves lilies and I know she will go crazy over this.
I don’t know why I am afraid to enter. I’m not the sick one, she is. She has been brave throughout this whole ordeal. Cancer, just like her mother. Why her, she is only seven? She is one of the best kids I have ever known. Even now, she always has a smile. No matter what bad news comes.
“Oh.” Her nurse, Janis, comes out of her room jumps slightly at my sudden appearance. “Good morning Mr. Stryker. I didn’t know you were standing there.” She has her hand pressed against where her heart would be. It’s probably beating a little faster at the moment.
I smile a greeting.
“I’m here Emily,” I say. A feeling of gratitude fills most of the pit in my stomach now that I no longer have the choice to stay outside. Her smile fills the rest.
Her eyes light up when she sees the flower. “Lilies!” She reaches her hands out for them. I can’t help but cringe a little. Every time I see her move that hand I expect the IV to rip out of the back of her hand.
“It’s only one,” I tell her. I put the pot in her hands after leaning my umbrella against the door-frame.
“I love it!” she brings the flower up to her nose and pulls the oxygen away so she can smell it.
“Emily,” I say putting the plastic tubing back around her ears and adjusting it so the oxygen blows into her nose. “You know you aren’t supposed take this thing off.”
“I know daddy.” She lifts her head to make it easier for me. “I just wanted to smell the lily.” The blue handkerchief she has tied around her head to hide her baldness reminds me of the one her mother had toward the end. I am able to fight off the tears. I can’t let her see me cry.
I place the stuffed animal on her bed and sit in the chair next to her bed. “Are you ready for more of the story?” I ask her.
“mmhmm,” she says settling down into the pillows behind her and grabbing her new stuffed rabbit.
“Now where were we?” I ask myself as I pick up the book and thumb through it for the dog ear I left on the page last night. I had to stop in the middle of a chapter. Her treatment had made her sicker than usual and she just wanted to sleep.
“They had just gone into the bathroom after the troll to save her,” she tells me.
“Oh yes,” I say coming to the right page. “I remember now.” I continue the story with her listening intently. Out of the corner of my eyes, I see her pull the rabbit close to her and adjust herself so she is facing me in her bed.
I dislike reading out load. I’m not very good at it. I stumble on my words most of the time or read a word wrong because that is what I think is going to be next. On those occasions I have to start the sentence over so it makes sense. She never seems to mind. In fact, I think she likes it. She always giggles when it happens.
I’m maybe three or four chapters in when I hear loud beeping. Before I can find where it is coming from, three nurses burst through the door. They surround Emily in a flash. The book echoes in my ears when it hits the floor as I scramble to my feet.
Emily’s eyes are fix on me, but she isn’t seeing anything. I move to her when a few orderlies usher me out of the room as the doctor arrives.
“Wait!” I yell pushing the orderly away. “What’s happening?”
Emily starts to shake violently. The nurses hold her down as he back arcs up and down.
“Mr. Stryker, please let us do our job,” the doctor says as he appears. He pushes me back into the orderlies awaiting grasp. He shuts the door in my face and I watch helplessly through the glass as they hover over my daughter.
I have no idea what is going on. I’m no doctor so the beeping and readings on the monitors mean nothing to me. All I understand is the heart monitor, and it is going haywire. Normally it is one steady line with a blip every so often, but now it looks like a child is just scribbling on it.
I press my hands on the window feeling as if I am in a glass box with water rushing in. They have injected at least three things into her IV and as I watch them prepare a fourth, the one thing I fear the most happens. Her heart monitor becomes a flat line and a muted singular tone echoes in my ears.
I slam both fists on the glass and have to watch the rest through a spider web of cracks. My eyes are locked on to hers as a pair of paddles is pressed against her and the current surges through her making her tiny back arch and jump slightly off the bed.
My hear jumps as I see the flat line blip, but then dies as it returns to a straight merciless line. This happens again and again. Each time dread slays the brief moment hope when the digital readout returns to an unbroken horizontal line.
Then, there is nothing. No movement. No rushing about. No sixth or seventh injection into the IV. My pleas bounce of the glass, sounding like faceless cries in my ears. No one is listening. No one looks back at me. I watch from my empty fishbowl as they close her eyes and a sheet is pulled over my little girl.
I finally break through the orderly’s defense and into the room, but I’m cut off by her doctor. He starts telling me things, but he might as well be a grown up from a Charlie Brown cartoon. I hear bits and pieces here and there as I stare at the motionless sheet. I hear experimental treatment, complications and nothing they could do several times, but I’m not really paying attention. The sheet is all I see.
“Get out,” I manage.
“Mr. Stryker, I must…”
I sigh. “Get out!”
“Mr. Stryker, please…”
My outburst finally gets my point across and a few moments later I am alone. I see the book I was reading to her on the floor, open and face down where it landed. She wouldn’t want it to stay that way I think as I pick it up and close it.
Looking at the cover, every tear I had been holding back since her diagnosis flows from my eyes. I collapse into the chair and lose all sense of where I am as I cry into my hands. My world is gone. My purpose is gone, and I will never have… no… allow myself to have it again.
I can still hear her whispers.
I will have to hold on to this. I can’t forget what she sounds like. I have already forgotten the sound of her mother’s sweet voice.
“Daddy, help me.”
That. That was clear. As if she was still here. I look up and wipe my eyes and nose with my sleeve. Nothing has changed. The sheet is as still as it was before. I must be going crazy. I look at the book in my lap and then place it on the stand next to her.
“Daddy, they have me. Help me.”
That I heard. I look at the sheet and reach for it as if I’m reaching into the stove with no oven mitt. Then I pull back the sheet as if it is a band aid. I look at her laying there in her breathless sleep.
I curse myself for letting myself thing I was hearing her call to me. As if they made a mistake and she isn’t gone. My shoulders slump and I fall to my knees and burry my face into her bed.
My head shoots up and I see her head has turned toward me. She is alive. They were wrong! I jump to my feet and reach for the call button next to her bed to call the nurse, but Emily grabs my wrist. How is she so strong?!
“No daddy,” she says as her eyes slowly open. Where her beautiful brown eyes were, now only dark black holes remain and her lips crack before my eyes.
“Somebody!” I yell. “Help me!”
“They have me daddy,” she says squeezing my wrist. “They won’t let me go. Help me.”
“Who has you?” I cringe as pain shoots up my arm, but I don’t care. Someone is hurting my little girl.
“The black ones, the ones in fire daddy.”
I scream as I see flames fill the black holes of her eyes and jolt back from the heat. I slam into the door-frame as Janis bursts in.
“Mr. Stryker!?” she shouts reaching for me to help me as I pull myself up.
“Help her,” I plea grabbing her wrists. “Help my Emily!”
“You’re hurting me,” she yells trying to pull her wrist free.
I tighten my grip. “Please help her!”
“Who?!” She claws at my hand and then pushes at my face.
“Emily!” I yell pulling Janis over to my daughter, but her eyes are no longer open. There is no fire. The only indication of any movement was the sheet I had pulled back. She was back to her breathless sleep.
“But…” I release the nurse’s wrist and place my hand on my daughter’s cheek. She is lifeless again. Did I imagine it? I look to the nurse just in time to see her run from the room.
My head snaps back to my daughter, but she still lays there with no indication of life.
“Daddy,” her voice whispers again. It is so soft, yet is comes from all angles. “They see you now.”
“Who sweetheart,” I say looking up at the light over her bed.
“The burning men.” Her voice is directly behind me as if she is whispering in my ear. “They are coming for me daddy. Help me daddy.”
“Tell me how!” I yell as I turn to see nothing but an empty doorway.
“You will see them now too daddy.” Her whispers are everywhere again. I whirl around to see nothing.
I turn around expecting to see nothing, but my eyes fall upon a man in light blue scrubs with his hands outstretched to his side.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“Someone is after my daughter,” I tell him.
He tilts his head to the side. “Who?”
“She called them the burning men,” I say looking past him to see Janis rubbing her wrist speaking to a security officer.
“Okay.” The man says taking a step toward me. “What do these men look like?”
“She didn’t tell me,” I say. I see a shadow at the door behind him, the owner hidden at the side of the doorway. Could this be one of the burning men she told me about?
“We we will find him,” he says taking another step.
“Stay away from me!” I yell pointing a finger at him.
He takes a step back as I yell. “Alright Mr. Stryker,” he says holding his hands up again. “I just want to help.”
“Help by helping my daughter,” I say. “Protect her from the burning men.”
“You are not making any sense.’
Of all the hells, I sound like a lunatic, but I know what I saw and heard. I have to make him believe. “Emily.” I take my daughters hand. “Tell him what you told me.” I take the controller of her bed and raise it so she is sitting up. Her head turns toward us, but her eyes do not open and she does not respond. Emily where are you now?
“When did she tell you about this burning man,” he asks taking another step back.
I shake her arm a little. “Just a few minutes ago.”
His face goes numb. He doesn’t believe me. Why would he believe me?
“Look she grabbed here,” I say holding up my bruised wrist.
He eyes the black and blue marks on my wrist and tilts his head. He takes another step back so he is just outside the doorway.
“You have to believe me,” I say. “Someone is after her!”
He stiffens and nods. “I do believe you Mr. Stryker.” He looks to his left, where the owner of the shadow is standing. He is lying.
“Daddy they are coming for me,” she whispers in my ear.
“Let’s move your daughter to a safe place then,” he says.
He’s one of them.
“We have a room downstairs where we can move you both so no one can get to either of you,” he tells me stepping back into the room.
“No.” I point a finger and put my arm across Emily’s chest as if it was a seatbelt. “You aren’t taking her anywhere.”
“Mr. Stryker, please calm down,” he says taking another step. The shadow’s owner appears in the doorway. He is also dressed in light blue scrubs, but he has a syringe in his hand.
“You stay away from us!” I roll her hospital table in front of me to use as a barrier. If they take me, no one will be able to keep her safe.
“Mr. Stryker, please don’t make this hard on you,” the new comer says taking the plastic cap of the needle.
“We only want to help,” he interrupts. A smirk appears on his face and in his eyes I see flame flicker. I look back to the first man to point it out, but I see the same fire dancing in his eyes too. They charge. My tray barrier only delays them a moment, but it is long enough for me to get my hand around the wrist that has the needle, but it’s two against one. I’m pinned against the wall in seconds.
One has my left arm wrapped around my back and the other is pushing the needle at my neck. I’m able to keep the syringe from my neck, but he is slowly pushing it forward. I feel the needle touch my skin and I can’t stop thinking about my daughter. These men wanted to hurt her. I can’t, won’t, let them. I jam the heel of my heavy work boot onto the top of his foot. He cries out in pain and I bring my knee up right into his balls.
He crashes back into my chair and falls to the ground in a fetal position with both his hand between his legs. With my arm free now, I drive my forearm into the back of the other man’s head. It throbs immediately as it hit the back of his skull, but it was enough to free me completely.
I grab my daughter’s book and thrust the binding into his throat as he starts to recover from the shot to the back of his head. His hands immediately wrap around his throat as he gurgles and fights for air. I swing the book like his head was a softball and I had a corked bat. His head snapped back and he crashed to the floor in a heap.
I hear the nurse scream and look up to see the security guard she was speaking to rushing toward me with the same flame burning in his eyes. I throw the book as hard as I can at him and luck is with me. It spins through the air and catches him square in the face.
He is disoriented enough to fall forward and, through his own momentum, slam face first into the door-frame knocking himself silly. I look down just in time to see the other man slowly reaching for his needle that had spun across the floor. I hop forward and jam my heel into his outstretched hand.
The sound that comes out of his mouth is a mixture of a cat and crow. I grab the needle off the floor and my eye widen when I see the gaping wound on his hand. Blood is pouring from it like water from a sieve. He twists on his back clutching his injured hand.
“You will not hurt my daughter!”
“Please Mr. Stryker.” His eyes are a blaze now. I can feel his stare burning in my chest. “We only want to help you.”
“I don’t need your help!” I then scream as loud as I can and plunge the needle into his left eye like hammering a nail. I feel the flame heat my hand as he screeches so high my ear drums feel as if they are going to burst. Then he is silent.
“I’m not leaving you!” I back against her hospital bed like a Doberman ready to pounce on anything that enters. My hand is covered in his blood. It feels like acid against my skin so I wipe it off on the bed sheet.
“They are not after my body daddy.”
I turn and look at my daughter, but she is still a porcelain doll. “What then?”
“They are after my soul daddy!” Her yell comes from all around me.
I take my daughter by the shoulders and shake her. “Who is after you?”
“Demons!” she screams so loudly the window shatters around me. I stumble outside and I hear a loud screech coming from the nurses’ station. I see the woman who was in charge of caring for my daughter. She is crouched next to her desk. I run over to her and pull her up by her wrists. She looks at me with brown eyes. She isn’t one of them.
I release her wrists and she backs away as far as the wall behind her will let her. “Janis, where is the chapel?”
“What?” she asks looking past me.
I follow her gaze to see a letter opener on her desk. I grab it before she has a chance to reach for it. She tries to back away further, but the wall only pushes her closer to me. “The chapel! Where is it?!” I point the letter opener at her.
She points at the end of the hall.
I grab her by the shoulder. “Take me.”
“Please don’t hurt me Mr. Stryker.” She falls to her knees.
I throw the letter opener down the hall. “Take me to the chapel Janis and I won’t”
She nods and tries to push herself up, but her legs buckle like they are tooth picks. I pull her to her feet and push her ahead of me in the direction she pointed. We rush down the hall and take a left. Three nurses duck behind their desks as we pass. I see one grab for the phone in the reflection of the door we come to. I push Janis to the ground and streak toward the nurse.
“…he is covered in blood and…” she is speaking as I get to her so I yank the phone out of the wall. A tiny cloud of dust comes from the wall as the cord is pulled from it. I hold her chin in one hand and her forehead in my other. I try to look into her eyes, but she has them closed so tightly her eyelids are white. “Show me your eyes.”
She is frozen. She can’t even form a sentence.
I tighten my grip on her chin. “Your eyes!” I yell.
Her eyes fly open and I can see my reflection in her corneas. No fire. She is normal. I shove her back into the chair behind her and look to the other two nurses. Plain eyes as well. I head back to Janis who was curled up on the floor like a baby in its mother’s womb. I grab her under her shoulder and lift her up. I shove her through the doors.
She points a shaky finger to the end of the hall. “It’s there.” Her voice sounds like a radio that can’t quite get the station you want.
I drag her down the hall to the chapel entrance. I open the door and see no one in, so I release her and enter. She takes off as fast as she can down the hall. I shut the door behind me and grab the metal tool they use to put out candles and slip it through the door handles to slow down anyone who tries to enter. I then push one of the few pews in the room against it. I then tip over two more before sitting on the floor behind them.
I stare at the crucifix hanging on the wall. “Emily?”
She doesn’t answer.
My chest starts to burn. “Emily?!” I yell.
Again she is silent.
“They have her Timothy,” a man’s voice says to me from behind.
I roll over on the ground and scamper like a crab against the wall directly under the hanging Jesus. I see my makeshift barrier is still intact. The man before me has my exact build. He looks like he could be a linebacker for a top ten college. He is wearing a long grey trench could that flows open as he clasps his hands behind his back.
Underneath he has a white three piece suit with a black collared shirt. His white tie looks like a glow stick against it. His hair is much darker than mine, but the silver retinas against the whites of his eyes make me feel like I am covered in black widows and my breathing quicken as I wait for them to bite.
“I’m not here to hurt you Timothy.” He nods to me and sits in the only pew I didn’t turn over. “I’m here to help.”
“I don’t understand,” I say pulling myself up. I bang my head on the bottom of the cross.
“You have stumbled onto something that has been going on for eons.”
I rub my head. “Where is my daughter?”
He clasps his hands in his lap. “She is in purgatory.” he tells me this as if he just said she was waiting for me in the hospital cafeteria.
“That is where special souls go when demons and angles are fighting for their souls.”
“She is pure. Untouched innocence.” He adjusts his coat so it isn’t bunch up under him. “A child’s soul is the most coveted soul for that reason. Most have not been tainted.”
“I thought demons want tainted souls.”
He smirks. “You watch too much television. Hollywood doesn’t know shit about what the true holy war is.”
I frown. “Then explain it to me!” I yell.
His eyes narrow. “You couldn’t possibly comprehend the true nature of angels and demons.”
I narrow my eyes as well. If my daughter is in danger I can’t be timid. “Then simplify it for me.”
He sighs. “Think of it as a football game, and every pure soul collected is a touchdown. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins.”
I fold my arms. “And I suppose a tainted soul is a field goal? What’s a safety a dog’s soul?”
His lips vibrate as a huff escapes. “Don’t be stupid.”
“Fine. How does my daughter fit in?”
He laughs. “Isn’t it obvious?” Her soul is next to be either consumed or ascended.
My eyes widen a little and I feel my jaw drop.
“Ah, there is the reaction I expect,” he said. He stands and walks to me stopping an inch from me. I can feel his hot breath on my lips.
“Are…” I back away from him. “Are you going to help her?”
“I can’t,” he says turning away.
I grab his shoulder. “Wait! You can’t just…”
A pair of white feather wings burst through his coat and send me flying back against the wall. I slump down and shield my eyes from the blinding light that feels like a mini sun.
“You dare touch me!?” he screams. “I could tear your soul in two with glance.”
I cringe as his voice goes through me like I was standing next to the largest speakers at a rock concert. “Please.” I push through the light and crawl on all fours to his feet. “Please help her.”
The light dims enough for me to be able to open my eyes. “I can’t. Her soul has been won. It only waits to be taken. The only reason why it hasn’t yet is because you killed the demon sent to retrieve it. Another will be sent soon.”
I lift myself up so I am kneeling and clasp my hands together. “Can’t you claim her instead?”
He shakes his head. “The rules do not allow for it.”
I reach out for him, but stop short of touching him. “Please! Isn’t there anything you can do?”
His wings flap slowly as he thinks. “I cannot do anything.”
I catch how he said I. “You can’t, but can someone else?”
He smiles. “There is a rule that can be exploited.”
I take his hand. “What is it?”
He glares at me and I release his hand as if it was a burning coal. “If a soul is not consumed in time, it ascends instead.”
I look up at him and I can feel a fire light inside me. “How long?”
He shrugs. “Impossible to know. Every soul is different.”
Then if you stop the demons from taking her she will…”
He waves his hand at me. “No angel can interfere now. The soul has already been won.” He looks down at me like my seventh grade english teacher would when she was expecting an answer to a question.
It is easy to tell what he expects. “No angel can, but I can!”
“So kill all those with flaming eyes. Got it.”
“Not all will have flaming eyes. Some can hide that.”
“The how will I know if…”
“Those that can hide their eyes are called the Clandestine,” he explains. “They can hide the flames in their eye from those that can see them, but they have been branded. There is the Devil’s mark on their skin.
“What does it look like?”
“A diamond with in two circles.”
I jump to my feet. “So all I have to do is kill all demons and give Emily enough time to ascend before they consume her?
He chuckles. “In theory.”
I frown. “What am I missing?”
“You are mortal. You can’t possibly survive a demon assault.”
I jab my finger at him. “I already did!”
He smirks. “No you didn’t. The ones you faced were lesser demons. The only reason you even knew to fight them was because your daughter was strong enough to contact you, and even then you got lucky. That will not continue.”
“But what if…”
He waved his hand cutting me off. “They will send a real demon now. And no earthly weapon will stop that. You will be torn apart for your insolence just before your daughter’s soul is consumed.”
I purse my lips and look around. “But there has to…”
“There isn’t” he says. He turns and heads for the door.
My eyes land on the crucifix hanging on the wall behind me. “What about that? Could I use that as a holy weapon of something?”
He stops and turns his head to look at me out of the corner of his eye. “Are you asking me for a holy weapon?”
There is something in the way he speaks that tells me I have to choose my words carefully. He wants me to ask him, but he can’t tell me how to. Probably some rule to this stupid war. “Yes. Please give me a holy weapon so I can fight the demons.”
He steps to one side and a sword is sticking in the floor where he had been standing. A beam of light shines over it like a spotlight, but I can see no source. The hilt is gold sculptures of two angels back to back with their wings creating the crossbar. The blade looks so sharp it could cut an atom. There are ornate carvings scattered halfway up the blade.
“With this you will be able to kill any demon sent for your daughter’s soul,” he explains. “But I warn you. Once you take it, you will become the soul’s guardian. The demons will have to kill you in order to claim the soul.”
“Anything else I should know?”
“Allot, but there is no time to explain it to you.” He looks over his shoulder as if he is staring through the wall. “I can feel the demon’s coming.”
I reach for the sword. “I understand.”
He grabs my wrist before I have a chance to take the sword. “I don’t think you do. The gates of hell will open on you and demons will converge on you like a tidal wave.”
I stare him in the eyes. “She is my daughter.”
He releases my hand. “Should you fail, your own soul will be theirs. You will spend eternity in the seventh level of hell, boiling alive.
“I won’t, can’t, fail.” My hand closes around the hilt and I yank the sword from the floor like it is Excalibur itself. “I am ready.”
He vanishes before my eyes, but his voice lingers. “For you and your daughter’s sake, I hope so.”
…to be continued.