Matthew awoke to silence.
It was comforting, at first, and he started dosing off again with the noise from a dream filling his ears and his pillow softly enveloping his face.
And then he sat upright, a cold sweat clinging to his flesh. A voice whispered, “Something’s wrong,” and Matthew worried the voice wasn’t his own.
He got out of bed, and despite being clothed in only his undergarments, he opened the door to his kitchen. He spoke, “Mrs. Braden?”
No voice chirped back.
He breathed in, but the air was stale. Nothing was cooking. Nothing was brewing. No windows were open to bring in the fresh air (or less appealing farm air).
His ears ached in the silence. No one was humming.
Matthew felt his body tense as he remembered the last time Mrs. Braden missed a day. It was at least four years earlier, and she had called first thing in the morning. The phone woke him up. One of her children came down for a visit, and she invited Matthew to join them (though he declined.) His face grew pensive.
Matthew stared at the phone. He stepped closer to it. No one would know he was calling in his underwear. No one really asks what you’re wearing.
Matthew lifted the phone and spoke with the operator. They connected him to Mrs. Braden. But the phone rang.
Matthew rubbed his eyes with his hands.
The phone rang again.
The operator said, “Do you want me to keep trying, Father?”
“Just a few more times,” Matthew replied. “Please.”
He heard the phone ring and ring, and Matthew’s frown grew more and more prominent.
He asked the operator to try Mrs. Murphy. “It’s odd for Mrs. Braden to not come in without a word,” Mrs. Murphy said. “Do you need someone to come in?”
“No,” Matthew replied.
“Well, tell me if you hear from her, and I’ll do the same for you,” she said.
Sighing, Matthew asked the operator to try Charlie, but no one answered the phone there.
Running his hand through his hair, he asked the operator to try Mrs. Gleeson. Mrs. Gleeson thought perhaps one of Mrs. Braden’s children came up for a visit on impulse (which is why they never heard about a planned visit) and swept her off her feet, not giving her the moment to phone. “You know how she dotes on them,” Mrs. Gleeson said.
Matthew smiled. “Have you heard about her wandering around town at all?” he asked.
“No,” Mrs. Gleeson replied, “but I haven’t been out yet. I’ll call if I hear or see anything though. I suppose you’re going to her house, Father?”
“Yes, right after I-” Matthew realized he shouldn’t say dress “-am off the phone with you. Thank you, Mrs. Gleeson.”
“You’re welcome, Father.” Mrs. Gleeson replied. She added quickly, “Oh you know what, Father? Mr. Gleeson said she came to visit him at his office yesterday after hours. He was working late on a case – you know how Paddy Clarke says he didn’t kill Jimmy Doyle’s sheep – and he says she came in to talk to him.”
“Would he tell you what she wanted?”
“I shouldn’t be telling you this, Father.”
“Please,” Matthew said. “if it gives us a hint to her whereabouts…”
“You haven’t even checked her house, Father.”
“Have you known Mrs. Braden to miss phone calls?”
“Maybe she’s at the market.”
“Mrs. Gleeson, please. I promise I won’t say anything to anyone, including Mrs. Braden. No one will know except you and me and God.”
Mrs. Gleeson sighed. Matthew imagined her shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “He said she came by to have him help her with her will.”
Matthew’s brain stopped whirling. The blood cycling through his body turned to ice.
“Now Mr. Gleeson said he wasn’t that type of a lawyer, but he helped her out and witnessed it and everything. But don’t ask me what was on it, Mr. Gleeson wouldn’t tell me that. He said it was none of my business. I suppose he’s right, Father.”
“Mrs. Gleeson, I must go.”
He hung up on her and quickly pulled on his clothes. He was still straightening his clerical collar as he stepped out the door. He found his pace quicken until he started to run to her house. He didn’t stop to consider the rich colours or scented air God gave them. He felt his muscles tighten as his ran, heat rising in his cheeks and lungs.
He pounded on the door when he reached it. He didn’t notice the neighbours peeking out at him as he pounded harder on the door. He tried the door handle.
And he found it open.
Matthew bit his bottom lips and took in a quick, sharp breath of air to hold.
He opened the door. “Mrs. Braden?”
Silence hung thick into the room. He closed the door behind him.
He heard soft feet shuffling, but the noise fingered his spine until shivers erupted through him. His mouth went dry as he followed the noise.
He saw her in the doorway to his bedroom.
He dropped to his knees.
She hung from a rope attached to one of the beams in her roof. Her green eyes were still open. He wouldn’t describe her expression as peaceful.
Matthew felt tears wallowing in his eyes. But he stood up. He called the coroner, deciding he would break his promise to Mrs. Murphy. He walked back to the body and read its last rites for his own comfort in the hopes to prevent the soul from purgatory.
The coroner still hadn’t come.
So he dropped to the bed and wept. Tears streamed down his face as something less glamorous dripped out his nose. He heaved and hugged himself as he cried.
“It’s your fault.”
“I know,” Matthew replied.
“Maybe if you hadn’t been so tired one day and so self-centered the next day you would have noticed her spiral into despair. Maybe if you thought of anyone but yourself she would be in your house filling it with the smell of breakfast.”
“Perhaps,” Matthew replied.
He saw the demon in front of him. It was small with a large nose and ears. It had droopy basset hound eyes and mossy green skin. It carried a rope in his hands. Somehow it felt familiar to Matthew. He almost smiled at it.
He wiped his eyes with his sleeve as the demon said, “You’re letting them all down like you let Mrs. Braden down.”
“You’re losing your flock to sin.”
“You could give it all up,” the demon said, “you could save yourself from that heavy responsibility. You’re not helping anyone, you know. Someone else could have helped Mrs. Braden, but you didn’t. If you were to disappear, they’d just send someone more competent in your stead. Someone who would help things.”
Matthew frowned and wiped his eyes again with his sleeve.
“You’re useless. You’ve been useless for years now. How many suicides have you buried?”
“Five – though it will be six.”
“Six souls lost because of you.”
A sudden strength swept through Matthew that caused him to stand up. He said, “No.”
“I said no.” Matthew reached to try to find a cross. “That’s not true. They’re not lost. I bury suicides in the Church’s graveyard because I believe that suicide isn’t taking away God’s gift of life. I believe it’s a murder of circumstance – circumstances where support wasn’t there or perhaps despair plugged their ears to the support.”
“Suicide is the ultimate in self-indulgence. You couldn’t show them more than their despair.”
“Perhaps,” Matthew replied. “And maybe it is my fault for not being there, but I am doing everything in my power to send those souls to God for Him to judge. And then He can decide what killed them or if they refused Him. But I will bring them to Him.”
Matthew grasped a cross on Mrs. Braden’s nightstand. The demon said, “Someone else would save them so they wouldn’t need to face judgment so soon.”
Confidence keeping his voice firm, Matthew replied, “Maybe that’s true, but someone else probably wouldn’t help bring their soul to judgement.”
The demon scowled, its shoulders hunching over as it backed away from Matthew. Matthew drove the cross forward to press it again the demon’s chest. He continued, “Did you know I’m the only priest in the county that buries suicides in the Church cemetery? Did you know that people travel so that I will bless and bury their lost souls?”
As he watched the demon shrivel in front of him, Matthew said, “Maybe I’m losing my flock and maybe I am failing, but I am doing the best I can, and I think that’s all He expects from me.”
The demon faded from view, and Matthew set the cross back on Mrs. Braden’s nightstand. He kneeled in front of her again and said, “I am so sorry.” He felt the hot tears building up in his eyes, and on his tongue the question sat: “Why didn’t you tell me?”
But the coroner came before he could ask.
The rest of the day was quick and painful for Matthew. He did what he could and answered questions when he could, and he cried even when time said he shouldn’t. The speed of the day blurred things together, and his thoughts returned to Mrs. Braden’s glazed green eyes.
He curled up into his bed at night, feeling cold and alone. His cheeks and nose throbbed from weeping, and yet he felt as if he could continue for days. He had never been one to cry himself out of tears. Matthew heard familiar footsteps, and squeezing his eyes shut, he said, “Please, not tonight. I do not have the strength.”
The mattress shifted as Asmadai’s weight shifted onto it. Matthew opened his mouth to repeat a request, but it whispered, “Hush.”
Matthew felt its arms coil around him, pulling him against its chest. It curled around him, warming him. He felt its nose nuzzling into his hair. “Why?” Matthew asked.
Asmadai said, “You lust partly because you want someone to hold you. So I am holding you.”
Matthew frowned, but relaxed against Asmadai.
Asmadai asked, “Or were you asking why about Mrs. Braden?”
“I was not,” Matthew replied. “But if you know, I would like to know.”
Asmadai’s voice softened as it replied, “I do not know.”
Matthew’s voice broke as he said, “Her suicide note just said, ‘Sorry about the mess.’”
“I know,” Asmadai replied, hugging Matthew close to its chest.
And Asmadai held Matthew as he wept again.