Following her revival, Catherine was constantly exhausted and almost paralyzed with pain coming in from multiple sites around her body.
She spent the remainder of Monday afternoon recovering, sleeping the hours away. Waking on Tuesday, Catherine was still wracked by pain, but the sleep had cleared the cobwebs from her mind, allowing her to begin remembering and holding limited conversation.
Nancy had expected to find Catherine timid and jumpy relating those appalling moments upstairs that had led to her calamity. Instead, she seemed to have gained an iron rod of strength, as though she had resoundingly won that battle and crushed all potential for it ever challenging her again.
“I looked at Craig and his eyes were just dreadful... deathly.”
“The eyes of a... a...?” Nancy couldn’t bring herself to repeat Ken’s recollection to Father Rowles.
“You can say it, Nance... a goat, yes. Yes... a ‘goat having its way with me’... those were the words I heard, Fernando’s words, and they gave me the strength. I don’t even know what I did but I was free of their hold and running, running so fast that it felt like I was floating. All that I remember was animated flashes, like a strobe light, flick-flick-flick... the bedroom expanse... the door ahead, the landing, the steps... then I tripped... ceiling-floor-ceiling-wall-floor-ceiling, all going by in slow motion,”
Catherine weakly flopped one hand over the other, miming the actions;
“...It was bizarre, all slow motion, somersaulting down a solid marble staircase thinking crisply; ‘I hope Nancy has the gun,’....”
Nancy took her hand, “That’s when I woke up. I heard... no-no... it was more like I felt the sound... the bashes and knocks of you tumbling down the stairs. I did have the gun… I’m sorry, I knocked some holes in your plaster.”
“I’ll frame them,” Catherine smiled.
“They’re a good grouping.”
“...It was so surreal, Nance. That last cartwheel... such a solid thump, it sounded strange, like it came from far away, as if it was someone else’s head hitting the ground. I tasted and smelled the impact... a stinging coppery sensation.”
She paused a moment, relating the story was costing her precious energy; and then her eyes flickered with the memory;
“... Yes... that’s right, I heard the gunshots. I heard them. Everything so disjointed, like I was in a black cave, the sound of the shots echoing on and on. So peculiar... I remember listening to the echo.”
Her eyes glossed as she transcended into the memory;
“As I listened, the echo became a buzz and the buzz became ano...,” she stuttered, frowning mid-sentence, “…another sound…” she finished dreamily.
And her eyes were no longer in the room, they saw only what they had seen, she heard only what she had heard.
Nancy and Father Rowles sat, waiting in a deathly hush.
As the memory matches linked, Catherine’s eyes darted and re-focused to the present, “…that was it…! Remember Craig’s recording, Nance... that sound?”
Nancy nodded, insects creeping up her spine.
“It was the same... the one that always preceded Ken’s visitations!” She closed her eyes to rest. Very shortly she seemed asleep... perhaps dead, but her chest rose and fell evenly.
Nancy took the interlude to explain the sound’s significance to the Father. He kept nodding knowingly; it wasn’t news.
As though she had been listening all along, Catherine’s eyes opened on cue and she continued where she’d halted;
“Everything was pitch, pitch-pitch black, the drone abated to a light crackling... like maybe a Geiger Counter... it was almost peaceful in a terrifying way. And then the acceleration came on, rushing like a Jumbo at take-off. I felt myself sliding in response, sliding down the isle of the Jumbo, faster and faster, the floor pithing up and gravity sucking me backward, along the floor, faster and faster, the sound more and more urgent.”
Ice trickled through her veins at the memory of it and she shuddered.
“Suddenly I had the sensation of vision; peculiar vision... not a white light, no angels... sorry, Father, no Jesus or welcoming committee. No. Everything seemed distant, like looking the wrong way through binoculars. I searched for a reference to bring back perspective. I was in the room. I was where I was, not floating at the ceiling... just like I am now, except you were so far away. Tragically far, out of reach. I tried to reach, lifted my arm and it telescoped some of the distance toward you—it looked as long as a telegraph pole. There were no proportions to it. You were racing to the phone, checking my pulse, talking to me, praying... I saw you move like a soldier in the movies with this funny wide stance...”
Nancy and the Father were transfixed.
“I'm sorry... this must be boring; like someone telling you their dream—just the garbage of a mind.”
“Oh, no, Catherine... no,” said the good Father. “I’m intrigued.”
“Isolation...” her eyes went rheumy again, drifting to the vision. “I wanted to cry, all lost... I saw you, Nance... panic stricken and emotion seemed so pointless—I pitied you. I was numb to caring... then you took my hand and it jolted me to myself, and with it the agony of my body burst—I wanted out, back to the tranquil place. You talked and it yanked me in a new direction—staying alive again meant everything. I hung on, forcing myself to listen to you... It wasn’t like they say, Father... all choirs and peace—it was tangled, confusing.”
She paused, her voice weak.
“...I don’t remember anything more, until... until the doctors draped me in pipes and cables and dials.”
She gently shook her head at the memory, reliving it, and then lay silently again, searching for strength. The Father and Nancy looking at one another, asking questions with their eyes whether she’d passed into sleep again.
“...I saw movement near the top of the stairs,” she suddenly said, her voice quaking a little, “... No. A moment before I saw it, I felt... felt... well, I felt an ominous sort of presence. It... it was not right,” she sounded delirious, “...not Good. Then when it appeared it was silent and dark... menacing. A really small woman, like the one you’d seen, Nance. And I was thinking... ‘why doesn’t anyone see her?’... she was smiling... so friendly, crooking her finger, beckoning me...”
Nancy shuddered and the Father looked at her—his eyes wide with fright.
“...peculiar... of all the things, I thought of Fernando... ‘standing at my back’ he said, and I hoped...”
She sipped shakily through cracked lips. A trickle ran from the corner of her mouth where her muscles couldn’t maintain the seal.
“...and I felt punched. Punched in the chest, slammed in the back... pulled inside out... I heard voices... ‘...another notch. Defib... Clear? and another voice said ‘clear’, and they hit me again, punched me down into the marble floor... it was agony... ‘blip’... another notch. Defib... Clear?... clear—punch... another... it went on and on.
Tears ran down Nancy’s cheeks as she recalled it.
“Got her...! And I was thinking, you got me five punches ago, you bunch of bastards!” She said it comically and tried to laugh at herself.
Nancy’s tears of remembered tragedy turned to tears of joyous laughter, admiration for her friend’s courage.
“The agony... such agony with it. For a moment, I didn’t know whose side had won me—the friendly midget or the team... And I realize I was me again, with all my pain and frailty.”
She took a pinch of her own forearm flesh and rolled it around gently between her fingers, marveling once more at finding herself in herself.
She had never before realized how good it could feel to be master of her own flesh. How different she felt now, the sagging face she’d seen in the mirror, purely superficial and cosmetic.
Something in Catherine’s demeanor told Nancy that she’d found her moment;
“Father Rowles wanted to speak to you, Cath... It’s about Ken.”
Nancy had rehearsed this moment in her mind, looking at all the angles, thinking how to introduce it, imagining how that man’s name might upset Catherine. As she said it, nothing changed, and that nothing was shocking; Catherine’s composure remained, she smiled, looked perhaps more serene.
“That’s fine,” she said, “let me hear.”
It bordered on being the most horrifying outcome, for Nancy; it begged to be an instant of concern for worst case... perhaps it was evidence that Catherine had lost her short-term memory.
Catherine listened dispassionately to Father Rowles explain Ken’s apparent cataclysm of personality, and the more he talked, the more it seemed that Catherine had some peculiar insight to his words;
“... and I believe that he is a changed man, Catherine,” he said, “I would not suggest that he visit with you if I didn’t believe that his confession has cleansed him.”
“I know,” was all she said, “...I’ll see him.”
The words were an ice bath for Nancy.
Catherine drew out their befuddlement with another protracted and arduous sip. When her thirst was slaked, she began to explain the riddle to them;
En route to hospital Catherine had lost consciousness, regaining it under the lights of the operating table. That lost time had been a blank of which she had no recollection.
“...It must have been the anesthetist looking at me from behind his mask. The glare of the lights was agonizing, but I could make out his image through heavy lids.”
She could remember an injection and being counted into oblivion.
“...Then I heard the sounds again... the whoosh.... I was being sucked through a tunnel of yellow-peach walls scrawled with networks of red veins. I don’t know if I was seeing the back of my lids pierced by the lights, but suddenly I was passing between rolled-up carpets standing on end. It was peculiar... On their top ends appeared faces, which looked down on me and the deeper I penetrated the more faces, faces that I began to recognize. How do I tell you this? I felt immersed in their love, ecstatic to be in their presence... in love with carpets...!”
She smiled and shook her head at the absurdity.
“I can’t tell you how deep into the tunnel I went, I can only remember that the carpets began to bend, blocking my passage. They communicated to me, they were gentle... communicating carpets... honestly! Carpets with faces... they turned me back...”
Her forehead creased as she studied her mind, looking for what had come next, but there was nothing there.
“I’m going to give a disclaimer, because you’re going to think I’m crazy… When I went to dinner with Ken, he gave me a real education about TLE—Temporal Lobe Epilepsy—and how LifeGames amplifies the virtual reality software the brain’s already running.”
Her listeners seemed puzzled.
“When I’m stronger, I’ll go into that. But I need to just tell you this before I go any further. I was very interested in what he said, so I did a bit of research and found fascinating explanations for why we humans hear voices or see apparitions that aren’t really there.”
“Oh, they’re there Catherine,” the Father assured her.
“Well… maybe… maybe not. LifeGames is messing with he temporal lobes, which are right next to the parietal lobes—and these little suckers have two functions; one involves sensation and perception, and the other is concerned with integrating sensory input. They’re tied to our capacity to create a virtual reality impression of what is outside of me—recreating it inside my head. When it misfires, it can put together incoming perceptions from the ears or eyes or touch all wrong, and make me think I’m outside of me looking back, or it can make me think something else that isn’t there, is there, looking at me.”
The Father was shaking his head in denial
“I’m a person who needs solid explanations, and after what I’m going to tell you, I really need to have shared that with you so you don’t think I’m crazy.”
“We never would,” Nancy assured.
A nurse interrupted their session to administer treatment and record details, giving Nancy and the Father a chance to visit the cloakrooms.
When Catherine resumed her recollections, she continued explaining what had happened.
“I was back out of my body looking at a gaping hole in my skull. That’s just peculiar to think about, isn’t it? It’s just nonsense...”
The old Catherine was definitely back... the skeptic, analyzing everything.
“...anyway... I’ve given you the disclaimer, so I’ll just tell it as I experienced it. Below me the medical staff were in a fluster. My first reaction was fear, searching for the entity, that little gnome, that awful sound... But this time there was nothing, it was pleasant being out of my body, curious... time seemed insignificant. Like I had the choice to perceive quickly or slowly. Everything about the experience felt familiar, not scary anymore,”
Catherine stopped for a moment, collecting her thoughts.
“...There seemed to be a lot of activity near me. Pockets of... of... like energy or something brushed past. At first they felt like emotional imprints, like they inhabited this room, and I was an intruder...”
Nancy shuddered, “Creepy... hospitals always feel charged to me.”
“Nance it wasn’t. Some of them... now listen to me... I sound like a crystal-staring hippie...! Some of them seemed young and that was sad. But mostly I felt quite comfortable; like there was no place I’d rather be than right there, like I was in a fellowship of some kind.”
Catherine paused to think about the word fellowship, to see if there was a better word, but it was the right word, all she could come up with was... “I belonged.”
“Oh, Cath... that’s just you, you make friends so easily,” Nancy smiled at her, feeling silly for the banal attempt at support.
“Thank you...” she said. “I was experiencing this mélange of... of maybe telepathic intuition? A sensation at the core of me, voices and thoughts all as one, a medley of hushed exchanges as they busied themselves in this place... this plane... somewhat interested in me, but not making a big deal of it. It all seemed to wash like oil over water, not quite touching the world we were looking at with the surgeons and instruments. What an acid trip, hey? When these... for convention’s sake, I’ll call them spirits... when they first started to materialize I saw that there were no familiar faces. Then one clarified to me... I swear, Nance... it was Leon.”
A shudder went through Nancy and she rubbed her forearms, rashed as they suddenly were with gooseflesh.
“I’m afraid you’ll laugh at me... this must sound like a script for a bad “C” rate movie. If you were telling me this, I’d think you nuts... delirious. Guess I was,” she laughed at herself again.
Father Rowles smiled, “I’ve heard it before, it is very interesting,” he encouraged.
“It was the same senile Leon, Nance... full of mischief. It seemed that we,” she searched for a word, “...that we communed for ages.”
“The surgeon said that they lost you for two and a half minutes the first time and more than three minutes the second!” Nancy added helpfully.
“A second time?” Catherine sounded surprised. “They lost me twice?”
“I think that’s what they said, we can ask the surgeon when he comes by. Have you no recollection of a second time?” Nancy squinted.
“No. None at all,” Catherine sounded cheated.
“Often survivors don’t remember anything at all, Catherine,” The priest reassured her. “Indeed, you’re rather fortunate to remember what you have. Such detail.”
“I’m detail orientated, Father.” She wondered for a second if it was wrong to wink at a priest, but she’d done it so it didn’t matter. “But I can’t help wondering what went on...?” Catherine pondered aloud.
“What about hypnosis to unlock the memory?” Nancy suggested. “Leon’s voice is available on the LifeGames computer.”
“Might be a little while, Nance,” Catherine had simultaneously thought of that possibility. “I don’t know... I know we’re supposed to be leading toward your question about Ken, Father... but it’s very close to me still. I’m not sure I’d want to go back to those premises.”
“I’m sorry... very insensitive of me,” Nancy apologized quickly. “I’m just caught up in this, it just came out... If or when you’re ready, I’ve got friends at other centers—we could arrange to sneak it.”
“We’ll see...” Catherine suggested.
Recounting the memory seemed cathartic; she was still talking slowly, not animated, taking pauses, taking her time, but as she spoke it through, rather than tiring her, she seemed to be gaining strength through it.
“...Now what I’m going to tell you gets weird... Leon told me that LifeGames amounts to much more than we think. He told me that the recordings of Fernando’s riddles are the key to understanding it. He was not able or... or, I think he said allowed, I’m not sure which... to tell me what LifeGames was based on or about… it’s hard to put it into words.”
“Okay, now that is weird, very very weird and... creepy.” Nancy agreed.
Catherine rested while Nancy explained Fernando’s significance to the Father.
When she was done, they discussed what could have rendered Leon incapable of communicating.
It was a fruitless few minutes of speculation without facts.
Catherine offered the closest hints to the solution.
“Leon explained that the Time Dilation procedure is like some kind of a Satanic Ritual... like it’s upgraded from Medieval candles and dancing naked sprinkling salt or something,” she laughed at her own words, “Like the Devil’s gone high-tech... The foul balms are something like a magic potion opening the mind... He told me that, because Ken rejects all supernatural; money’s his only focus, he’s the perfect midwife to it, giving it life.”
“Interesting,” Nancy pouted in thought.
“And here’s the crazy hint... Leon was adamant that Ken will change, that I’d be able to trust that change.”
“And you hadn’t talked to her about it before today, Father?” Nancy asked it as an accusation, and Catherine frowned at the question.
“No,” he said simply.
“What?” Catherine asked.
“It’s just beyond bizarre,” Nancy’s eyes were darting from the Father to Catherine and back, “...how you could have come to this conclusion about Ken independently… that he’s changed.”
Catherine looked serene about it, completely comfortable, insisting she would forgive him everything.
“I’m battling to grasp how you’re okay with this?” Nancy kept saying.
“Do you know what I’ve been through?”
“No... not what’s happened to me, Nance... what I’ve experienced. I’m wide open to anything. Nothing was as bad as where I’ve been. If I can’t trust how I feel now, then I don’t trust my recovery and I don’t respect...” she let the words hang.
“Might I fill you in, Catherine?” The Father suggested, he had never before seen the Lord’s work more clearly than in this woman four times reprieved. “I don’t want to stress you though.”
“I’m at peace,” she replied, “there is nothing left for me to fear, Father. Tell me then.”
“Holy is not a church, not a building, not a person or book... it is not ritualized prayer, it is not begging prayers... it is a change within. Those who experience it are the fortunate few...” he began.
Both women nodded together in solemn agreement.
“...I believe that you have experienced a lasting change of spirit... And I believe that the man accused of perpetrating all these things has had the same,” and the priest went into the details of his hours with Ken.
When he was done, medical staff came in and it gave opportunity for Catherine to rest while the Father and Nancy took lunch in the canteen.
“It sounds like this drug potion... the one we’ve been trying to identify... the one Ken undoubtedly admitted to you that he has produced...” Nancy looked to the Father for agreement of any kind, and the nothing that he said, just the slow involuntary blink, was her confirmation, “...the drug with the hypnosis and virtual reality; it’s some kind of Satanic ritual... a pact... in its own right.”
The priest was nodding, just perceptibly nodding.
“...have you any idea of the sheer volume of humanity who have already run through this program, Father? Any slightest inkling of the positions these people occupy in power? In their influence over us?”
They had already revealed the proclamations of Fernando to the Father who had listened with great interest.
“Remember,” Nancy was recounting, “we told you he said words to the effect The Great Goat or something will have his way with you? Right now, I think the Great part of that was not Ken... the apparition that looked like Craig? It had goat’s eyes... Brrrrr...” she shuddered to it, the masochism of superstition bitter sweet.
“I feel I must communicate this to the Arch Bishop.”
Nancy vigorously agreed.
“I’m most intrigued if she can recall anything from the second time they lost her on the table.”
“Perhaps she should be satisfied with what she does remember. I think some things are not for us to know. It seems this time-drug... this hypnosis and other treatment... perhaps it has caused enough misery and risk. When we pry too deeply into that which the Lord in His wisdom has clouded from our eyes…”
Nancy shuffled uneasily in her seat.
Father Rowles saw the intention in her eyes to ignore his advice.
That, he thought, was an all-too-human curiosity; to venture a short way into danger, emerge unscathed, and let that false sense of triumph become the engine that drives the unsuspecting deeper until retreat becomes impossible.
“And you’re still prepared to meet with Ken?” Nancy asked.
They were back at her bedside.
“Yes, as soon as possible,” Catherine sounded almost buoyant about the prospect; like she somehow shared something with him... a kinship, that she wanted to explore.
The revelation she had for him was simple; hordes stood in peril, and he was the key to reverse it.
The Father knew they were on dangerous grounds. His council could only go so far; all that was left would be to pass the matter on to his superiors... and pray.