My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” —Psalm 42
“Spare some change for a veteran?”
His words were empty, barely loud enough to be heard over the trains thundering on the elevated rail overhead. Some days, Lenny didn’t know why he bothered. No one listened. Most of them didn’t even look. They just walked by at top speed with their eyes locked on their phones, the sidewalk, the sky—anywhere but the homeless man huddled in his nest of newspapers, rattling his paper cup.
Lenny didn’t blame them. He couldn’t stand the sight of himself, either. Or, at least, he couldn’t when he was there. Present. Sometimes he drifted away, lost into memories that felt more real than the late November cold. When that happened, he didn’t care about anything. This afternoon, though, he was most definitely here. Here and hungry, so he kept at it, repeating the words and rattling his cup at every person who passed.
“Spare some change for a veteran?” Rattle rattle.
More shoes walking by. No one stopping. No one caring. Sure, they were cold, too. But theirs was a temporary inconvenience. For him, this was as real as it got, and it was about to get worse. The sun was getting low. He needed to head for a shelter—November nights in Chicago were no joke—but he couldn’t go in with nothing, so he decided to push, raising his raspy voice over the roar of the trains in the growing evening cold.
“Spare some change for a veteran!” Rattle rattle. “Spare some change for ... ”
His voice faded. Someone had stopped, a young black man in a heavy, black coat with the shiniest shoes Lenny had ever seen. That was a good sign. Stopping at all was a good sign, but shiny shoes meant money, so Lenny rattled his cup again, giving the smart-looking stranger a snaggletoothed smile. “Spare some change for a veteran, sir?”
“I can do better than that,” the man said, reaching into his pocket to draw out a crisp, folded bill. “What’s your name?”
“Lenny,” the homeless man replied promptly, reaching eagerly for the bill. He so rarely got paper money, but when he did, it was usually good. A five, maybe even a ten. Enough for a hot dinner, and maybe coffee tomorrow, too. But when his fingers closed around the money, the man with the shiny shoes didn’t let go.
“Tell me, Lenny,” he said, crouching down so they were at eye level. “Are you a God-fearing man?”
Lenny knew how this went, and he nodded rapidly. “Go to church every week.”
The man arched a skeptical eyebrow, but Lenny wasn’t lying. He hadn’t believed in God since the war, but when you were homeless you spent a lot of time in churches because they were open, they were warm, and that’s where the food was. Unfortunately, technical truth didn’t look like it was going to earn him dinner tonight.
“Is that so?” the young man said, gripping the offered money tighter than ever. “Show me. Quote me some Scripture, and the money’s yours.”
Lenny didn’t know a word of Scripture, but he tried anyway, reciting some phrases he’d seen typed on the church bulletins he took for fire kindling. It must not have been good enough, because the man snatched the bill right back out of his hands, making Lenny cry out. “Come on, man,” he begged, watching the man pocket the money again with loss in his eyes. “Have a heart. I’m just trying to survive.”
“Really?” the man said. “Just survive?”
Lenny nodded. “Ain’t we all?”
For some reason, this made the man smile. “And what if I were to offer you something better?” he asked, reaching his gloved hand inside his heavy winter coat to pull out a small glass bottle filled with a liquid so bright green, it almost seemed to glow in the dim light. “Something new?”
Lenny recoiled at once, swearing to himself. Just his luck. The one bite he got tonight, and it was a pusher. Unlike a lot of people he’d met on the street, though, Lenny didn’t truck with drugs. He’d had enough chemicals sprayed on him in ’Nam to last five lifetimes.
“Nah, man,” he said, scooting backwards farther into the shelter of the bridge. “I don’t touch that stuff.”
“It’s free,” the man said, tossing the green vial casually in his hand. “Try it.”
The first hit was always free. “Nah,” Lenny said again, backing away. “I’m clean, man. I don’t do that.”
Even if he had been a druggie, he wouldn’t have touched the stuff in the man’s hand. Lenny had never seen anything like the green liquid in the bottle, but it reeked of rotten eggs. Yet another reason to get out of here quick, before the situation got weirder. But as Lenny pushed himself off the pavement to walk away, the man in black grabbed his arm.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” the stranger said softly. “That wasn’t a request.”
Lenny swore and yanked, trying in vain to escape. It should have been easy. He’d been a soldier once, and still made a point to keep himself in decent shape, despite his life on the street. But the man in black was freakishly strong. No matter what Lenny did, the stranger moved him as easily as he’d move a child, letting go of his arm to grab Lenny by the jaw. He started to squeeze then, forcing Lenny’s mouth open with one hand as he popped the lid off the vial with the other. Eyes wide, Lenny lashed out with his feet and fists, but the man just seemed to absorb the blows as if they were nothing as he poured the green substance down Lenny’s throat.
It tasted as vile as it smelled, and Lenny tried to spit it up, but it was as if the liquid was climbing down his throat. Worse, it hurt. The burn was so bad that Lenny couldn’t even scream. His body had clamped up the moment the green liquid touched his tongue. He didn’t even feel the sidewalk when he fell backwards, his body convulsing in the alley as the burning liquid rolled down his cheeks and sank into his skin. He was still fighting to take a breath when he heard the man whisper in his ear.
“Thank you for your service.”
Lenny’s eyes bugged open, but he couldn’t say a word. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything but lie there and watch the stranger’s shiny shoes as they walked away, vanishing into the crowd of oblivious evening commuters pouring down the stairs from the elevated train station across the street.
No one caring at all.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. —Revelation 21:4
1 First Things
Lauryn didn’t know it was possible for a cellphone ring to sound furious until hers went off, screaming like a banshee through the heavy fabric of her winter coat. She grabbed it as fast as she could, smiling apologetically at her clearly annoyed fellow commuters cramming the Chicago L car before turning to the window and whispering into the receiver, “Not now.”
“Yes, now!” Naree yelled on the other end, her normally faint Korean accent thick with righteous anger. “Are you out of your mind?”
Lauryn winced and hunched further into the cold train window, meeting the annoyed gaze of her own exhausted, brown-eyed reflection as she adopted her calmest roommate-soothing voice. “I wasn’t trying to—”
“Do you know how many asses I had to kiss to get you that interview? I sold you to the head of HR like you were the Second Coming! That job was as good as yours. All you had to do was show up and say yes. So why didn’t you?”
“Because I didn’t want to work there!” Lauryn snapped, all attempts at calm abandoned. “I’m grateful you did this for me, Naree, I really am. But as I told you last week, yesterday, and this morning: I don’t want to work at a private hospital in the suburbs!”
“Why not?” Naree demanded. “The money—”
“It’s not about the money,” Lauryn said, pinching the bridge of her nose to head off the stress headache she could already feel building. “I could get a better-paying job anywhere, but I like working at Mercy.”
“Don’t feed me that martyr crap,” her friend growled. “No one likes working at a chronically underfunded inner-city hospital.”
“Well, I do,” Lauryn said stiffly. “They need me there. I became a doctor to help people, not treat rich ladies’ tennis elbows.”
“Rich ladies need help, too,” Naree reminded her. “And unlike Medicaid patients, they pay. You want to do charity work, join the Peace Corps.”
“Why should I go all the way to another country when there are people who need help right here in Chicago?” Lauryn argued. “I don’t fault you for using your new med degree to get a sweet job in a cushy private practice, but that’s not what I want for my life. Why can’t you understand that??”
“Because it makes no sense!” Naree said. “You need this job, Lauryn. I get your mail, remember? I know you’re drowning in student debt even with all your scholarships. It’s all well and good living on Cup Noodles when you’re a poor student, but we’re done with that. The only reason I graduated No. 2 in med school is because you were No. 1. No. 1 from the University of Chicago—you know, one of the best schools in the world? You could get any job you wanted, so why the hell are you still hanging on at Mercy? Do you like being poor?”
“No,” Lauryn said. “But I like Mercy. And I’m not poor.” Mercy couldn’t pay its attending physicians what other hospitals did, but it was still doctor money, which might as well be millions compared to what many of her patients lived on. “I make enough to pay my bills, make my rent, and feed myself. That’s more than a lot of people have.”
Her friend snorted. “Maybe you can be happy just making ends meet, but what about your family? They scrimped and saved to put you through college and med school. You owe them payback. Isn’t your dad poor?”
“And we’re done,” she said, her voice flat. There were few topics that Lauryn liked talking about less than that of her father.
“You need to face facts,” Naree said. “Your dad could totally use—”
“Just leave my dad out of this,” Lauryn said. “He has nothing to do with my life now, and he wouldn’t take my money anyway. He’s a preacher. He works for a ‘higher reward.’”
“Like you’re any different, Miss I-Don’t-Like-Money-I-Just-Want-to-Help-People.”
“It is totally different,” she said, raising her voice as the commuter train’s brakes began to squeal. “I have to go. This is my stop.”
“This isn’t over,” Naree warned. “You’re too smart to be this stupid, Lauryn!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Lauryn said as she pushed her way to the doors. “Bye, Naree.”
She hung up right after, cutting off her friend’s inevitable attempt to have the last word. It was a childish move, not to mention a temporary fix—it was hard to escape your roommate, especially one as in-your-face as Naree—but after a 12-hour shift, Lauryn just didn’t have the patience to deal with her inability to let things go.
The fact that she meant well only made the situation worse. Naree was as good a friend as she was a doctor. So long as she thought Lauryn was hurting herself with this job, she’d never give up trying to save her. And that was the problem, because Lauryn didn’t need saving.
She was already doing exactly what she’d gone to med school to do: helping the people who needed her the most. At Mercy, she routinely saw patients who’d never been to a doctor before her because they couldn’t afford to. And while it was frustrating and stressful and draining to work in a place that was always overcrowded and underfunded, it was also incredibly fulfilling. The way Lauryn saw it, working at Mercy meant making a difference, and that was more satisfying than any paycheck.
She just wished she knew how to put that deep satisfaction into a form her friend could understand.
Well, at least Lauryn wouldn’t have to deal with the fallout immediately. Even with her fancy new job, Naree would still be stuck at the clinic until midnight. Since it was only 7, that meant Lauryn had at least five hours before she had to have this argument again, and she was determined to spend as many of them as possible asleep in her own bed.
That lovely thought was enough to send her racing down the stairs from the elevated train platform, but as she walked through the turnstiles and out into the icy street, something caught her eye.
Directly across from the train station, at the end of the narrow alley between the support beams for the L’s elevated track, a man was lying facedown on top of a pile of newspapers. He was clearly homeless, which sadly wasn’t uncommon in this area. What was uncommon was the fact that he was still outside this late on a November evening in Chicago. The sun hadn’t even set yet, and it was already below freezing. If he stayed exposed like that all night, he’d die.
Cursing under her breath, Lauryn hurried across the street, dodging cars and hopping over the frozen puddles. When she reached the alley’s mouth, she stopped to assess the situation. Working with the homeless was a delicate business. No one chose to live on the street in winter, which meant there were always complicating factors in a situation like this, generally drug use or mental illness. Or both. Either of those could make accepting help very difficult, but as Lauryn peered down the alley for clues to the homeless man’s situation, she spotted a familiar navy-blue veteran’s baseball cap lying beside an empty paper cup, and she relaxed—she knew that hat. She’d seen it in her ER just a few days ago, which meant the dirty man lying at the end of the alley wasn’t some unknown. It was Lenny.
Lenny was one of Mercy Hospital’s “frequent fliers,” people who used the emergency room as their one-stop shop. Most frequent fliers were pill poppers, opiate addicts looking to get more pain meds. That wasn’t Lenny, though. For all his other problems, he had never been a druggie. He was just confused, a Vietnam vet who’d never been able to leave the war behind. Years of poorly treated PTSD had left him unable to hold down a job and chronically homeless, but he’d always been a gentleman to Lauryn. But even if he’d been an ogre, she wouldn’t have left him outside in this cold.
“Lenny?” she called down the alley. “It’s Dr. Jefferson.”
She paused hopefully, but the man didn’t stir.
“Lenny!” she said again, louder this time. “It’s Lauryn from Mercy. The sun’s going down, buddy. We need to get you somewhere warm.”
Again, there was no reply, and a cold dread began to curl in Lauryn’s stomach. Pulling out her phone to use as a flashlight—and in case she had to call for an ambulance—Lauryn stepped into the dark alley beneath the tracks.
The cold hit her like a slap. It was like a meat locker down here. The gap between the elevated subway’s support beams and the stone retaining wall, which kept back the hill that had been cut in half to build the track originally, was sheltered from the famous Chicago wind—but the shadow from the track above meant that no sunlight could get down to warm it up. Even here at the front, the alley leading back into the underpass was a good 10 degrees colder than the street beside it. If Lenny stayed down here, death from exposure became a “when,” not an “if,” and that knowledge gave Lauryn the push she needed to keep going, walking farther into the dark below the bridge toward the sheltered nook at the back where her patient was lying motionless.
“Come on, Lenny,” she said, squatting down to grab his shoulder. “Time to wake—”
She let go with a gasp, snatching her hand back. She hadn’t seen anything in the dark, but the moment she’d touched his faded jacket, something slimy and cold had coated her bare fingers. It was still there, a thick, viscous liquid that shone sickly green when she held her hand under the light of her phone’s screen, and Lauryn shot back to her feet with a curse.
How could she have been so stupid? Touching an unassessed, unconscious patient without gloves was a newbie mistake, and now her bare fingers were coated in an unidentified slime that smelled like a mix of rotten-egg sulfur and the sickly sweet reek of decaying wounds.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she muttered, wiping her hand on the cement wall beside her while frantically dialing 911 with the other.
It took three rings for Dispatch to pick up. When the girl finally answered, Lauryn didn’t give her the chance to finish asking “What is the nature of your emergency?” before launching into doctor mode.
“This is Dr. Jefferson from Mercy Hospital,” she said, crouching down beside Lenny. “I’ve got an unconscious male down across the street from the Indiana CTA station. Early sixties, known mental illness, currently unresponsive to voice and touch. I’m going to need—”
A horrible, inhuman shriek cut her off as Lenny’s whole body seized, jerking up off the pavement like his belt was attached to a string someone had just pulled tight. The sudden movement made Lauryn jump as well, and she nearly dropped her phone in the process. Luckily she held on, but just as she was sucking in a breath to yell at the dispatcher that he was seizing and she needed that ambulance STAT, Lenny started to ...
Despite only getting her actual degree six months ago, Lauryn had already seen plenty of seizures in her career. She’d seen drug addicts spaz off their beds in the heights of violent overdose and patients arch bad enough to throw out their backs during cardiac arrest. But she’d never seen anything like this.
Lenny was bouncing off the pavement like water on a hot griddle. With every violent jerk, the blood was visibly draining from his pain-twisted face, leaving his normally dark skin a morbid shade of gray. His eyes, previously closed, were now wide open and bulging, the blood vessels bursting as Lauryn watched, leaving his corneas a solid wall of red.
After that, Lauryn didn’t care about the green crap. She dropped her phone and grabbed Lenny’s shoulders, forcing him back down to the ground with all her weight. “I need that ambulance!” she yelled at her phone on the pavement. “How long until—”
Lenny lashed out with both arms, throwing her off him and knocking her phone clear across the alley. Lauryn scrambled to stay on her feet, but he continued to flail his limbs, slamming his elbow into her chest. As soon as she felt the blow connect, Lauryn knew it was going to hurt, but what she didn’t expect was for the hit to send her flying, launching her backwards across the alley and into the chain-link fence that separated Lenny’s hiding spot from the rest of the bridge’s support structure.
The metal mesh caught her like a net, bouncing her face-first onto the asphalt below. She caught herself with her hands at the last second, nearly breaking her wrist as she went down hard, but the pain barely registered through Lauryn’s adrenaline rush. So the moment she landed, she shoved herself back up, hands raised and ready to defend herself as she looked around for Lenny.
He wasn’t hard to find. In the time it had taken Lauryn to get back to her feet, Lenny’s jerking body had pulled itself upright. Considering he’d been unconscious when she’d found him, Lauryn wasn’t even sure how that was possible, but he was most definitely standing ... and his bloody eyes glinted in the low light as they locked on hers.
The look was enough to send the frantic breaths whooshing right out of her lungs. Until this point, everything Lenny had done had been bizarre and terrifying, but still inside the realm of medically possible. Looking at him now, though, all Lauryn could think was that the person standing in front of her didn’t look anything like the homeless man she’d come here to help.
And that made no sense to her trained, rational mind.
The Lenny she knew was a wiry old veteran with slumped shoulders and hooded eyes that had seen too much. This thing—the man-shaped shadow looming over her in the dark—was a good half-foot taller, with shoulders that barely fit inside Lenny’s ratty old clothes. His limbs looked too long for his body, and his raised hands were veiny and gnarled, the lengthened nails looking almost like claws. As awful as all that was, though, his face was the worst, because when he looked at Lauryn with his bloody eyes, his lips curled up to reveal a wall of yellowed teeth below his horrifying grayish-blue-tinged gums. This wasn’t Lenny anymore.
She wasn’t sure it was even still human.
Lauryn was a first-response emergency room doctor. It took a lot to spook her, and even more to make her panic. But the sight of Lenny’s horrible, inhuman face lifting into a snarl did the job. She screamed at the top of her lungs, her body moving faster than ever before as she launched herself back toward the lit street and, hopefully, safety. She was halfway through the squeeze between the wall and the support beam when Lenny’s gnarled hand grabbed her arm, closing down on it like a bear trap.
This time, Lauryn didn’t even get a chance to scream. He yanked her back into the alley, nearly snapping her neck as he threw her hard down on the bed of newspapers where he’d been lying when she’d found him. The padding softened the blow a little, but the impact was still enough to knock the air out of her lungs. Gasping, Lauryn scrambled through the greasy sheets of newsprint toward the cement wall. But when she put her back against the stone and whipped around to face her attacker, the violent monster who had been Lenny froze.
The change was so sudden, so complete, Lauryn’s first thought was that she’d imagined it. But while his body was still facing her, Lenny’s head was turned over his now massive shoulder, his bloody eyes fixed on the alley’s entrance, where a new figure—a tall shape in a long winter coat—stood framed against the glare of the floodlights from the train station across the street.
Crouched down against the wall at the back of the tiny alley, Lauryn couldn’t see the newcomer’s face. With the lights behind them, she couldn’t even tell for sure if it was a man or a woman.
Whatever it was, Lauryn didn’t care. She’d never been so happy to see another human being in her life, and the moment she got over her shock, she screamed at the top of her lungs once more.
It wasn’t the most articulate cry for help, but it must have been enough. The moment she yelled, the newcomer charged Lenny like a linebacker, knocking him to the ground. Lauryn barely managed to move out of the way before the man—for it was obvious now that her savior was a middle-aged dark-skinned man under that bulky, well-worn winter coat—grabbed her arm and pulled, lifting her back to her feet like she weighed nothing at all.
“Thank you,” Lauryn gasped.
“Don’t thank me yet,” the man replied, his deep voice unnaturally calm as he turned back toward Lenny, who’d already rolled back to his feet, snorting like a bull as he turned to stare them down with his blood-filled eyes.
It was at this point that the absurdity of the situation finally began to beat its way through Lauryn’s panic. She was in an alley under the elevated train track less than a hundred feet from a busy train station during the evening rush, facing off against her patient, who’d apparently turned into a monster—a legit monster with red eyes, incredible strength, clawed hands, the works—with an unknown savior who didn’t look like he found any of this out of the ordinary.
Quite the opposite. The man who’d just pulled Lauryn to her feet looked so calm, he might as well have been waiting for the train. Lauryn was still trying to work her brain around that when Lenny’s bloody eyes locked onto the two of them, and his ashen face contorted into a mask of pure, insane rage.
“Um,” she said, voice cracking as she took a step back. “I don’t know who you are, but I think we should run. I already called EMS. They’ll be here in just—”
“I know,” the man said, his voice calm and still as a deep winter night. “That’s why we can’t run. Look around.” He nodded at the sheltered square at the end of the alley, formed by the retaining wall, the support beams, and the chain fence that separated this alley from the rest of the underpass. “Right now, he’s in here with us. If we leave, he’ll follow, and then the whole street will be in danger.” He reached into his bulky coat, keeping his eyes locked on Lenny, who was now stomping the dirty pavement like a rhinoceros about to charge. “We have to fight him here.”
“Are you crazy?” Lauryn hissed. “We can’t fight him! He’s sick. He needs medical attention, not to be hurt more.”
Even as she said it, though, Lauryn wasn’t sure. She liked to think she had a high threshold for weird shit—a necessity in her profession—but nothing about this made any kind of sense. She could probably come up with some kind of explanation for the red eyes, discolored skin, and obviously violent psychosis, but that didn’t change the fact that this thing in front of her was over 9 feet tall. On his best day, Lenny just barely topped 6 feet. He was so tall now, his head was actually scraping the bottom of the train bridge overhead, and that simply wasn’t possible.
Just thinking about it made Lauryn feel like the whole world was sliding sideways. A feeling that only got worse when the man in front of her reached into his coat to pull out—not a stun gun or a pepper-spray canister or anything that might actually be useful—but a sword. A huge two-handed, cross-hilted sword with a wide blade so finely polished it glowed like molten silver in the dark alley.
“Unclean spirit!” he said, his deep voice ringing as he raised the sword in front of him. “I command you to leave this servant of the Lord and torment him no longer.”
The loud words bounced through the dark like shots, and the thing that had been Lenny recoiled with a hiss. Lauryn hissed, too, but for completely different reasons. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m attempting an exorcism,” the man replied, never taking his eyes off Lenny.
That’s what Lauryn had been afraid of—this guy was clearly mad, too. She looked down at her hand, wondering if whatever she had touched had psychotropic properties. Even as she did, though, she still found herself saying, “An exorcism? Like, for demonic possession?”
The man answered her blatant skepticism with a patient look and a nod toward Lenny. “Do you know of anything else that could do that?”
Lauryn did not, but just because she didn’t have a rational explanation didn’t mean she had to buy a crazy one. Unfortunately, she was literally not in a position to argue. The lunatic with the sword was the only thing standing between her and Lenny. But while she wasn’t sure how she was going to handle two crazy men, Lauryn was still a doctor and Lenny was still her patient. It was her duty to help him survive ... whatever was going on. Before she could think of how to actually do that, though, Lenny’s discolored lips peeled back in a snarl.
“Your words mean nothing, soldier,” he said, his voice grinding in a way that should never come from a human throat. “He is already ours, as you all will be.”
“Nothing is yours but death,” the man with the sword said, his booming voice making Lauryn jump. “I command you to be silent and come out of him!”
Again, the force of his words bounded through the narrow alley like gunshots, and again the thing that had been Lenny snarled like a beast, running its hand possessively over the veteran’s discolored face. For a moment, Lauryn worried it was going to try to speak again in that awful voice, but thankfully it didn’t. It did something even worse. It jumped.
The thing that had been Lenny flew at them like a tiger, its clawlike hands going straight for the stranger’s throat. Fast as it was, though, the man with the sword was even quicker, spinning away like a leaf on the wind. He dragged Lauryn with him, snatching her out of the way a fraction of a second before Lenny slammed into the cement support beam they’d been standing against. The moment the monster’s back was to them, the stranger brought his silver sword down, slamming the flat of the wide, heavy blade across Lenny’s shoulders.
The blow landed like a hammer, propelling the transformed veteran to the ground. His scream of pain as he landed was the most human sound he’d made since this whole thing started, and it stabbed Lauryn like a knife.
She didn’t even realize she’d yelled until the word left her throat. The sudden sound made the man with the sword jerk in surprise, and then he jerked again when Lauryn’s hand shot out to grab the cross hilt of his sword. “Don’t,” she ordered. “He’s my patient. I won’t let you hurt him.”
“I don’t want to hurt him,” the man said, his patience, which until this moment had been flawless, slipping slightly. “But he is a threat to everything. If the demon won’t listen—”
“There is no demon!” she cried. “Look, I don’t know what’s happening to him, but he needs help. Not this.” She pushed down on the sword and let go, turning back to the transformed man, who was already pushing himself up from the pavement. “Lenny!” she yelled. “Snap out of it! This guy’s going to hurt you!”
“I’ll hurt him,” Lenny snarled. “I’ll—”
“No one’s hurting anyone,” Lauryn said in her doctor’s voice, the one she used when patients needed to be shocked back to their senses. “Help is on the way. We’re going to get through this, Lenny, I promise, but you need to stop this right now. Come back to us.”
The command echoed through the alley, making Lenny shake. Lauryn stepped back, ready to run, but this time, Lenny didn’t attack. He just shook his head, blinking his bloody eyes in confusion, and then he whispered, “Doc?”
The word was tiny and broken, but it was the sweetest thing Lauryn had heard all night, because it was Lenny’s real voice. “Yes,” she said with a gasp of relief. “It’s me. It’s Dr. Jefferson. Hang in there, Lenny. Help is on the—”
She cut off as Lenny grabbed his head. “You gotta make it stop! The voices, the voices—”
His voice started to change back as he spoke, the words rasping and flexing like a rusty saw. But when Lauryn tried to go to him, the man with the sword beat her to it, stepping in front of Lenny as he reached into his coat yet again to pull out—not a sword this time, but a plastic bottle of water, which he proceeded to upend over Lenny’s bowed head.
“What are you—”
“You are cleansed,” he said, his voice taking on a chanting tone. “‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain.’ With this, you are washed clean, Lenny. Be at peace all the days of your life.”
The words lingered like fading lights in the dark, and then Lenny toppled to the ground. He changed as he went, his transformed body crumbling like ash that scattered when he hit the pavement. When it was over, Lenny was all that remained, lying still as a corpse on the pavement.
Lauryn was at his side a heartbeat later, shoving her fingers under his torn shirt collar to check his pulse. Her own heart leaped for joy when she felt it fluttering, faint but clear. She was rolling him onto his back to take the pressure off his airways when the stranger sheathed his sword and knelt down beside her.
“Are you hurt?”
“No,” Lauryn said, but only out of habit. Between her bruised ribs and the scrapes on her hands from the struggle on the pavement, she was actually pretty roughed up, but it was nothing life-threatening. Lenny was in a far more precarious situation. Though the most extreme changes seemed to have faded, his eyes were still blind with blood, and his face remained the color of old ash. She still had no idea what was going on, but an injured man she could handle, and after all the chaos, Lauryn was determined to make this one thing right at least.
“I can save him,” she said firmly. “I’m a doctor.”
“So I gathered,” the stranger replied, looking at her like he was seeing Lauryn for the first time. “He listened to you.”
“Of course he did,” she said smugly, turning her attention back to Lenny. “He’s my patient.”
“That’s not what I meant,” the man said as he slid the water bottle back into his coat. Which reminded her.
“What did you do back there?” Lauryn asked, glancing pointedly at the water bottle. “What is that stuff?” When he didn’t answer immediately, she added, “You were quoting Revelations, right?”
The man nodded, looking impressed she’d recognized the passage, but didn’t explain. He was too busy staring at her hands, which she’d just moved to Lenny’s abdomen. “What’s that?”
“I’m palpitating his organs to check for internal bleeding,” she explained as she began to press her fingers into the soft flesh below the old man’s ribcage. “His pallor’s anemic, but there’s no visible blood loss, so I’m feeling around to see if I can—hey!”
The man had grabbed her wrists, turning her hands palms up. “What’s that?” he asked again, nodding at a long discolored mark across the fingers of her right hand that stood out clearly from the rest of her minor scrapes and bruises.
Lauryn frowned, unsure. Then she remembered. “Oh, that’s from when I first arrived. I touched Lenny to try and wake him up, but he had this glop on him that burned my ...”
She trailed off, frustrated. Halfway through her story, the man had stopped listening. He grabbed his bottle of water again and yanked off the cap, upending what was left over Lauryn’s fingers.
“Hey!” she cried. “What are you—OW!”
She tried to jerk away, but he held her fast, which was a problem because whatever he was pouring over her hands, it wasn’t water. The clear liquid had no scent, but it burned like fire everywhere it fell, making her gasp in pain.
“No,” the man replied calmly, gripping her squirming fingers. “That burn is dangerous. You need to be cleansed. Remember what was written—‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean.’”
Lauryn bared her teeth at him. “You’re using Ezekiel as an excuse for burning my fucking hands?”
“Language,” the man chided, though once again, he looked impressed. “You know your Scripture,” he said as he released her.
Hazard of being a preacher’s daughter, Lauryn thought bitterly, clutching her fingers, which were now burned and blistered. “And you don’t know what ‘stop’ means—that was assault!”
“No, it was necessary,” the man replied in that infuriatingly calm way of his, placing the now empty bottle back inside his coat once more. “If my hunch is correct, the stuff you touched is the same substance that caused Lenny’s troubles. Not the sort of thing you want on your skin.”
Lauryn went silent, her anger forgotten. In hindsight, it was obvious, but in the panic and chaos of the fight, she hadn’t had much chance to consider that the strange green slime on Lenny’s coat might have caused whatever had just happened to him. Now that the stranger had pointed it out, though, Lauryn couldn’t dismiss the worry that the stuff might also have gotten to her. After all, she had been the one who’d seen Lenny double in size and grow claws. Two observations she would have dismissed as hallucinations if she’d heard them from one of her patients.
That was a thought that could bring you down fast, and Lauryn closed her eyes with a shaky breath. But terrifying as it was to realize she might have come in contact with some kind of mind-altering psychotropic, now was not the time to panic. She still had a patient to take care of, and it wasn’t like she was alone in her delusion. The man with the sword had seen it, too. He could help her figure out what was real and what wasn’t.
And then we can all panic.
The thought was ridiculous enough to help her focus. But the idea of the man helping her wasn’t. He was her proof that this craziness wasn’t just, well, craziness. But when Lauryn opened her eyes again to tell the stranger that she’d need him to stick around for a statement, she discovered she was alone by Lenny’s side.
Lauryn shot to her feet, turning in a confused circle, but the dark alley was empty.
There’d been no footsteps, no noise at all, and now there was no strange man with a sword, either. Her dropped cellphone, however, was sitting right in front of her, the screen displaying a text from emergency services saying they’d be right there. Sure enough, sirens were already blaring in the distance. Half a minute later, an ambulance screeched to a halt in front of the alley entrance, the flashing red lights filling the alley with chaotic motion as Lenny woke up screaming.
Wesley Snipes’ career spans more than 30 years, and with the unique experiences from more than 100 films that he has performed and produced, Snipes is one of the most beloved and sought-out talents in Hollywood.
Ray Norman has worked as an attorney recruiter and corporate headhunter, as well as ghostwritten books on health, nutrition and spiritual self-help. In addition, Norman has written scripts, including an original stage play, And You Thought Your Family Was Crazy.
Talon of God is Ray Norman and Wesley Snipes’ first novel and can be purchased on Amazon.com.