Science. Its reverence for solid fact leaves no questions open. Hypotheses aren't good enough in a world of science – only theories are accepted. That's why it's trustworthy, but that's also why it's close-minded.
Charlie Fullerton treaded carefully down the back aisle, trying blindly not to touch anything, to keep silent. Any disturbance was a sin – or at least, Charlie thought so. Tall, lanky, secretive, she wrapped her arms tighter around herself as if to block out any preaching - and also to keep herself from speaking up, from appearing obnoxious.
There are depictions of Christ on the walls, gently rendering images of his crucifixion and rebirth. Of Noah's Arc and other Biblical stories. The pictures are plain and simple - almost cartoonish - but there's seriousness in the artist's design that both intrigued and frightened Charlie.
I don't belong here, she told herself. In a steady movement she looked over her shoulder for her friend. Having a sleepover at Sam's house on Saturday meant you had to go to mass with them and their family the next day. Charlie had never considered herself a religious person so arriving at the church was almost overwhelming.
The silence was like that of a library – sacred, and those people slowly arriving spoke in hushed whispers as if to speak in a full voice was to challenge God's authority.
What authority? Charlie asked herself. The church is almost empty.
Charlie found her friend Sam standing with his parents near a white block of candles. She approached him and he handed the girl a candle and a matchbox.
'Your turn to light one,' he instructed, motioning towards the levered pond of tiny, circular torches. Charlie conceded and placed her candle amongst the other three already lit – it looked nervous and embarrassed amongst the other three candles, wishing desperately its wick would burn the same way so she wouldn't have to feel so awkward.
'Um,' Charlie started in quiet tones, looking amongst the dark wooden pews aligned on the carpet underneath the looming ceiling. 'When does it start?'
Sam, bold and freckled, checked his watch and nodded towards a bench.
'Pretty soon. We should find ourselves a seat.'
They sat on the end of one of the pews and Charlie watched silently, frozen to the seat as a priest (or that's what she assumed he was) rose up to the altar and began to speak. Charlie listened, wondering what on earth she was doing here.
I don't know about this stuff! she thought, her mental self wailing – her physical face blank and emotionless, almost steely. A few sermons were read out and Charlie stumbled and mumbled each after everybody, forgetting half of it in the process and finishing with a breathy, 'Amen.'
Charlie was soon drowsy, too overwhelmed to think. She felt her eyes drooping; wishing she were back in her bed where it was warm and comfortable and she could sleep. She stifled a yawn behind her hand, hoping nobody had noticed – she didn't want to seem rude.
Abruptly the priest stopped speaking and everybody rose to sing, holding tiny blue A5 booklets in front of them. Where did they come from? Charlie thought, staring over into Sam's book as everybody began to sing in harmonious joy, except the teenage girl who although tried her hardest to keep up and get the rhythm, barely managed to stumble a few words out in tune.
Then it was all over and Charlie thought she could go finally home but she was wrong. Everybody rose and bustled into a line and Charlie leapt to her feet, staring around in fear. 'What's happening?'
Sam told her everybody had to line up to eat some bread and sip some wine.
'But what do I do?' Charlie blurted out, completely lost.
'You just approach holding your arms crossed,' Sam instructed, 'like this.'
Charlie felt like she was branding herself to the world with her arms crossed over her chest, her palms touching her shoulders. Then Charlie saw something out of the corner of her eye. A girl crouched down behind the back pew. Charlie looked left and right, her arms still across her chest whilst everybody else had their arms by their sides.
They think I'm rejecting God. They think I'm insulting them. Charlie thought sadly, when in reality, they thought nothing of it – more that there was one more person who had yet to see the Light.
The girl crouched behind the pew held a crucifix in her hand. She was around eleven or twelve and her face was innocent – her eyes, however, were not. There was something strange about her. Maybe it was her plain black dress, or maybe it was the way she held the white cross to her chest like a protection, like a defence.
A defence against me, Charlie thought. The line moved slowly and the girl's face hadn't moved from hers. Charlie saw her lips moving – she was whispering something. Charlie looked down behind her; a few elderly people gave her an interested stare. They didn't seem to have seen the girl. Am I mad or something? Charlie wondered, and then, on a whim, she bent down behind the pew – people moving past her to replace the now empty spot in line. She ignored Sam's whispers from the cue as she knelt in front of the girl, Charlie's arms still crossed over her chest.
The girl's eyes were brilliant blue and her skin shone almost angelically. Her fingers clasped tighter around the neck of the cross and her face flashed a smile.
'Are you all right?' Charlie whispered. The girl stared at her. Charlie considered getting up and leaving when somebody spoke behind her.
'Excuse me, madam, are you feeling okay?'
Charlie turned around and her arms dropped to her sides. It was a priest in a plain black uniform. Charlie felt her neck flush and her cheeks redden. Oh, fantastic. Now the priest is going to think I'm insane.
'I'm – I'm all right,' Charlie gasped, getting to her feet and brushing off her white dress. The man gave her a look – a normal look. A cruel part of Charlie's mind thought; he is human! Feeling more comfortable, she felt herself speak, 'Just, there's this girl here.'
Charlie pointed behind the pew and the priest leaned a little to the left to see past her. His eyebrows narrowed.
'Dear girl, I fear you are ailed. There is no girl there.'
'I'm sorry, I must have - I'm sorry, Fuh-Father,' Charlie stuttered and she forced a smile, trying to seem friendly – but not too friendly. Charlie felt her insides crumbling – she didn't know how to act here!
The priest gave her a small nod and walked off. Then Charlie heard the girl speak.
Oh hell, I'm really nuts. Charlie thought.
'He is not as pure as you might think,' the girl muttered. Charlie sat down, back against the pew, trying to look like she was resting rather than talking to somebody invisible. Or was everybody else blind? 'He may be a priest, but he has sinned.'
Sinned… The word send chills down Charlie's spine.
'Why, what'd he do?' Charlie asked.
'The Priest committed some most dreadful sins – he k-k-killed me, Charlie. But that's not all he did…'
Charlie's insides skidded to a halt. She couldn't care less what the girl was saying – for all she knew this was her mind making things up – but how did she know her name?Oh right, Charlie reminded herself, she's not real. It's my mind making things up.
But then the girl touched Charlie's hand with the cross and Charlie knew she was real - she was also freezing cold. Goosebumps formed on Charlie's skin.
'Wait, he killed you? What are you talking about?'
'May I reveal his true identity to the Church?' the girl whispered, her blue eyes shining like diamonds. Charlie didn't understand. 'If he comes over here again, can I...?'
But it was too late to explain. The priest was already returning from his round up the end of the line and he was looked at Charlie with disapproval. Right, Charlie thought,she was crazy. Charlie stood up and jumped back in line, her arms crossed over her chest like a shield. The priest rose an eyebrow and then continued, but the girl had gotten up and ran to Charlie's side, the cross nudging the back of Charlie's wrist.
'What are you doing?' Charlie hissed out of the side of her mouth. 'Leave me alone! You're going to get me in trouble!'
Charlie tried to lose the girl by knocking her away but it was as if her hand went right through her. Charlie sighed in frustration and kept her eyes steady on the back in front of her, slowly moving forward. No bread or wine for me, Charlie tried for some dark humor, I'm un-Holy.
The priest stopped beside her and Charlie tried to ignore him but just as he was about to walk off, Charlie felt an invisible force smack into her body and her vision blurred. Before she knew it, she had started to speak and her voice had changed. I sound like that girl!
'Father…' she spoke and Charlie, in horror, realized she had lost all control of herself – she was paralyzed! And yet, she was moving. Charlie would have screamed but the problem was somebody had taken over her body. 'Father… Do you remember who I am?'
The priest turned and stared at Charlie, his eyes steady. 'Dear girl, I don't have any idea what you are talking about.'
'You remember what you did! You remember me!' People were starting to silence now, there was both tension and prayer in the air. 'I am Wendy Chisel. Father, it's me. You know what you did… you know what you did…' The quiet was almost disturbing now and Charlie felt completely helpless as the girl spoke through her. 'Confess your sins!' At this, Charlie felt her hand reach up to the top of her dress and with a powerful tug tore it right down the middle. Tiny round breasts, white cotton underwear and skinny legs glowed from the light outside – God's light, Charlie thought, and then she completely lost consciousness.
Sam almost dropped the wine glass to the floor. He could hardly believe his eyes! What on earth was Charlie doing? Had she gone completely insane!? Roars of disbelief and shame echoed through the Church and Sam couldn't help but wonder if God approved. He took a sip of the wine and the tiny circle of bread was pressed onto his tongue. He swallowed and rushed through the gathering crowd as Charlie screamed and shouted with a voice that didn't sound quite like her own – it was angry, full of rage. That wasn't like Charlie at all.
Sam knew God wouldn't approve of him looking at his friend so shamelessly, but he couldn't help himself. Everybody else was. He could hardly see over the heads of so many people though. He climbed and stood on a pew. Charlie's eyes were red and filled with tears as she pressed her bare chest out towards the bewildered priest.
'Father, you touched my breasts, you felt in between my legs! You said God approved, you said God understood! But this is not how a Priest of our Holy Father should act. You have shamed us all, you have sinned! I started to scream and yell for help in your office – after all, I only wanted your guidance on a small matter – but you betrayed me, Father. You betrayed all of us!'
'Some - somebody do something to stop this woman!' the priest exclaimed, his eyes wide. 'She is mad! She spoke of seeing this girl - seeing her when nobody else could! She is clearly a meddler in sorcery. She is a heretic. She must be dealt with!'
Meddler in sorcery? A heretic? Sam demanded. Charlie may have been a bit strange, but she was not a bad person.
'Maybe she is possessed, Father!' the boy shouted and heads turned to look up at Charlie's friend who jumped off the pew and pushed through the crowd. Charlie was still raving and he tried to push her dress back together but in vain. He turned towards the crowd and then to the priest who looked astonished. 'You know how to exorcise, Father? She is clearly under demonic possession! Under this Church we seek to help others. It is likely God has sent her to test our judgement.'
The priest was adamant. 'Only one who meddles in the Dark Arts would be able to conjure a Dark Spirit! Did we not all witness Miss Chisel's peaceful passing into the afterlife?'
There were murmurs of agreement and a few people in the crowd yelled that by burning the body they could rid her of the spirit. Sam fumed. 'By burning her you will kill my friend!'
'Her sacrifice will be admired by God,' said a stern voice from his right. Sam was angry. There must be another way!
'Charlie! Charles!' Sam said hurriedly, his eyes searching in Charlie's for some recognition, some dash of truth, some part of Charlie's warmth. But there was none, only vengeance. 'An exorcism, Father!'
The priest suddenly disappeared out of the crowd and Sam was pushed to his knees as people rushed forward to pull Charlie away. Sam lifted his head up and watched as his friend, raving about physical abuse, molestation and being suffocated, was pulled over near a wooden pillar, where the candles were. Sam hurried forward to see his friend being pinned to the ground, arms out to her sides, being held down by a few men. A few others held down her legs which kicked frantically. Charlie's eyes were wide and fearful, yet still with loathing, her eyes darting around. Sam didn't understand. Wendy had died a few weeks ago but even before that he had hardly known her. She was always so quiet.
Some of the lyric books were thrown on top of her and a woman pulled a few candles off the table and drew them towards Charlie's body.
'NO!' Sam screamed but his voice was lost among Charlie's screeching howls of pain. Sam ran forward and tried to pull Charlie away, his arms tight around her waist. He hoped the papers which had caught alight would move but she was held firmly to the ground by those men. They cursed and shooed him away.
Sam stared with tears in his eyes as Charlie's naked flesh sizzled and burned. The smell made him nauseous and the sight of it made him sick. Is this what God wants? He asked himself miserably, feeling dizzy. Oh, Charlie, I should never have brought you here…
He was again pulled out of the way, the priest behind him a metallic bowl filled with water - Holy Water. Charlie's eyes widened and she screamed in agony, 'YOU! You foul,loathsome, evil –'
Steam issued off her body as the Water was poured over her. The flames diminished and scorch marks traced lines over her stomach and chest, the charred white dress hanging off her like rags. When the steam cleared, Charlie was silent.
'Charlie?' Sam asked hesitantly and he took a step forward to get a closer look at his friend. Her back arched and her eyes rolled into her head, then she thudded to the floor.
She's okay, Sam thought, she's going to be okay.
How very wrong he had been.
Charlie felt herself regain consciousness. At the same time, she felt a terrible pain at her stomach – her skin was burning! She had never sworn so much in her life and she didn't care that she offended everybody in the room, she was humiliated and she was in pain. In agony.
Charlie made a motion to get up but she was still paralyzed - she couldn't move! She could have screamed. She realized the cursing wasn't hers.
Wendy! Her mind yelled. Go away! They got the message – he's a bad person - now let me go. NOW!
Wendy looked into the crowd peering over her and the faces of the men holding her down. Her eyes spotted Sam. Beautiful Sam. Charlie's insides filled with sorrow. Sam's face was tortured and Charlie wished she could show him that she was okay. In the moment their eyes met, Sam's eyes filled with sudden understanding - of recognition.
'She's in there! She's almost out! She's almost out!' he cried in delight and he ran forward and pointed to the basin in the priest's hands. 'Father, get some more Holy Water!'
Holy Water? Charlie scowled mentally, get me some goddamn water period!
When the Father returned the water was poured over Charlie's body - her face, neck, chest, belly, legs and arms - and Charlie's body became limp again. Wendy shook her head and spoke to the crowd in a smooth, quiet voice. Everybody heard her clearly. 'Only when you realize how your priest is at fault I'll let her out.'
'Why do you have to be such a stubborn little girl?' Sam demanded angrily and Charlie cheered inwardly. That's right, you tell her! 'We heard your message and all we want right now is reassurance that Charlie's okay.'
'Oh, she's okay. She's fine. She's well.'
'She's not,' Sam frowned. 'God disagrees.'
'Maybe,' Wendy shrugged, her eyebrows tipping. 'Maybe.'
Maybe? Charlie thought viciously. I strongly disagree! GET OUT OF MY BODY!
With a sudden roar the girl struggled in her binds and freed herself, charging towards the priest. Her delicate white hands snaked tightly around his veined neck, forcing the life out of him. In alarm, the Church folk rushed forward and wrenched the half-naked girl off the priest, protecting him, regardless of what he had been accused off. Charlie's body was held back again, masculine hands bruising her arms. Somebody rushed out from behind them and poured scalding incense over her pale flesh. Sam's insides shook and he held his breath as they took the candles again and then placed the burning wick against Charlie's body, against her charred white dress. She was suddenly engulfed in flames.
Everybody watched in awe; the Father, Sam, the crowd, God. Sam watched his friend's body burn and saw that Charlie was indeed lost inside her own body – the Spirit wasn't going to leave.
'Charlie,' he murmured, his eyes filling with tears, harsh shadows flickering across his face. 'God was cruel to you. You don't deserve this…'
He felt the Father put a hand on his shoulder. 'Perhaps it was her lack in faith which caused this spirit to bound into her body and steal her soul.'
Sam's eye twitched and he pushed the hand off his shoulder, taking a few steps toward towards the roaring flame turning the carpet black. Through the fire Sam could see her eyes were lit with rage, with hatred – it was Wendy inside, and Charlie was stuck with her. The orange lights danced over their bodies and Sam felt the heat cook his skin and clothes. But then, Sam saw Wendy's eyes leave and they were replaced with fear, a terrible fear that send shivers down his spine. The girl began to scream.
'CHARLIE!' Sam shouted. 'CHARLIE! It's Charlie! She's back! The Evil Spirit is gone! Quickly! Somebody save her! There's still a chance! There's still hope!'
But the crowd was already dispersing and Charlie and Sam's yells rebounded off the walls. Sam's parents appeared behind him, their souls filled with shared sorrow and regret – though not to the same degree – never to the same degree.
'There's no Hope for those without Faith,' came the Father's voice and Sam's eyes, stinging tears, saw Charlie's body turn to ashes, his friend lost to God. The final flickers of flame died and all that remained was the ash on the floor. Sam's insides crumbled. Charlie, his best friend, was dead. Killed by the spirit, killed by the Church. He stood in silence whilst others spoke in excited and amazed voices. "How could something like this happen in our Holy Church?" They were saying. "Maybe we shouldn't be bringing Outsiders into the Church - they bring Evil with them." Sam couldn't believe the unfairness of it all. His fingers snaked to his collar bone and held tight around a chain. And then, with a powerful wrench, he pulled off golden cross and necklace from around his neck and threw it to the ground. Over her ashes. Where the carpet was seared black.
There was hope for everybody… even those who did not believe in God. Sam thought. They still believed in humanity. Sam turned on his heel, pushing past his parents and walking down the back aisle, past the biblical images, a frightful picture in his head that was never going to leave: Charlie's bare body burning and crackling orange, red and yellow, her eyes meeting his, filled with undeniable fear, pain and terror... A terrible ache burst in his Adam's apple at a thought both he and Charlie had shared.
I want the pain to go away...