I'm nearly halfway through my latest round of edits and I thought it might be good to get more public feedback on the update. As you may or may not know, I have the first three chapters of my novel, The Paladin, up on the front page. These, however, are out of date. I've since updated them.
So I have a favor to ask. If you read this blog, could you do me a real solid and read my updated Chapter 1? I'd love to have some eyes on it to let me know if you think it's better than the old version. This is it, right here, I'm posting the new Chapter 1 right after this little rant, so if you guys could give it a look, compare it to the old Chapter 1 which I will link HERE , then just let me know in the comments or on social media which one you like better. It'll be a big help. Thanks guys!
Jonathan walked through the hallowed corridors of Anne Bayley Hall, a smile on his lips, a mission in his heart, and a doughnut box in his bag. He wore a well pressed black button-up shirt with a white clerical collar, the typical dress of those in the Anne Bayley Seminary. With the bag slung carefully over his shoulder, he weaved through the throng of young men in identical attire, making his way to the office at the end of the hall. There, speaking with a young priest-in-training was his target: Father Alistair.
Jonathan paused outside the office of the priest, waiting patiently and taking a moment to admire the beautiful campus that lay just outside the window. In truth, he was, perhaps, thinking a bit too much on the box in his bag. It represented the culmination of a great deal of effort and, frankly, Jonathan couldn't help but feel a bit of pride. As Alistair dismissed the young man he was speaking with, he turned with friendly smile to Jonathan. "Jonathan, it's good to see you? How can I help you?"
"Actually, I was hoping to talk to you for a bit. Do you have a moment?"
The old priest pulled the sleeve of his black jacket back, checking his watch. With a nod he gestured toward the open door of his office. "Of course. I actually had something I wanted to speak with you about."
Moments later the pair were seated at either end of Father Alistair's desk, the elder producing a small, black scheduling book. He flipped through it and pulled a pen from a mug on his desk, making a note before looking up at the student. "So what did you need, Jonathan?"
"Well," the student began, feeling the first bit of apprehension in his chest, "I'm sure it's no secret, but, Father Willingham asked me to keep an eye on you."
The priest rolled his eyes and chuckled. He nodded and set the pen in the book. "Yes, yes, I'm quite aware," he replied. "But you should know, I haven't been to the bakery in weeks. I've even been ordering taco salads for my lunch. Satisfied?"
"Well... about that," Jonathan began. "I may have done a little... investigating."
Jonathan pulled the box from his bag carefully, keeping it upright as he sat it on the priest's desk. Alistair's eyes widened as he looked over the large, square box, "Sunrise Bakery" emblazoned across the top. The priest seemed hesitant to speak, considering his words carefully. Jonathan, however, moved forward without hesitation.
"I know where you've been getting your 'taco salads.' I swung by and had a chat with them."
The priest nodded, the slightest of frowns curling his lips. "And I suppose you've already informed Father Willingham that I've disregarded his health advice?"
"Not yet," Jonathan replied, popping open the box. Inside, sitting in a generic white foam container was a taco salad from the dining hall. The student grinned and pushed the box forward. "I figured as long as you were actually having taco salads, there wasn't anything to tell him about."
The priest's frown turned to a smile, then to laughter. Shaking his head, he dug the plastic fork out of the box, gesturing toward Jonathan with it. "Sometimes, Jonathan, you're too curious for your own good."
"It's your good we're all worried about."
"Yes, yes, I'm aware."
"So no more doughnuts?"
"I'm not in the habit of making promises I can't keep, Jonathan," he replied digging into the salad. "But... we'll see."
"You promised Father Willingham you wouldn't eat doughnuts anymore," the student reminded him.
"I'm a man of the cloth, Jonathan, and I would never utter an untrue word to the Rector," he replied, taking a labored bite of the salad. "That said, my promise was not to buy them anymore. Sunrise was very happy to donate them."
It was now Jonathan's turn to roll his eyes, his smile irrepressible. "Our job in this world is to be shepherds for the Lord's flock. Sometimes that means taking care of other shepherds, too."
"Who said that?" Alistair asked.
"You did, my first semester."
It was about half a taco salad later when Alistair reopened his scheduling book. His carefully handwritten appointments lined the pages of the book, Jonathan impressed that the instructor still had so many families to meet with. Tapping his pen next to a box marked "Robinsons," Alistair turned to his disciple. "So, for Assignment tonight, I was hoping you'd accompany me to visit a family I've known for several years."
Normally this was Jonathan's night for volunteering at the shelter, but pastoral assignments were flexible in his mind. So long as he was helping someone, he was doing God's will. "I'll have to tell my roommate, but I don't see an issue. What's going on?"
"Well, I've known this family since before I was moved to the Seminary; I was their pastor. A few years ago they were blessed with a lovely little girl, Katrina." The young seminarian nodded, uncertain of where his mentor was going. "They've been having... issues. I've been counseling them, trying to help them through a troubling time."
"Shouldn't this be a job for their new pastor?" Jonathan asked.
"It should, but they don't seem comfortable speaking with anyone else about it. Well, the mother at least. The father seems adamant not to speak with anyone."
"So... you want me to accompany you? I'm not sure what use a student would be, but I'll gladly help where I can."
"I want to pick your brain, Jonathan. You're such a spiritually bright young man and very perceptive." Alistair took a glance at his half-eaten taco salad. "Sometimes annoyingly so. I'd like to get your opinion."
Jonathan weighed the priest's words. It was true that Alistair seemed to favor him, perhaps unfairly so, but he'd never go so far as to ask him to join him on a visit like this. If he was bringing Jonathan along, he must be unsure about something. The young man nodded. "If I can help, I'll gladly do it."
"Perfect. I'll get things together. Meet me after classes and we'll head right over. I don't want to get there too late in the evening."
The young seminarian rose from his chair and slung his bag over his shoulder. He shook his mentor's hand and bid him farewell, turning back to the hall. He stopped at the door, turning back to the priest picking at his lunch. "Just so I'm clear, that was a promise not to eat doughnuts anymore, right?"
The old priest chuckled. "Get to class, Jonathan."
Jonathan ran his hands down his cassock. It wasn't often that he wore the full uniform of the clergy outside of Mass, but Alistair had insisted that their visit warranted it. The car stopped with just the slightest of jolts as the elder priest parked. Jonathan stared out the window at the two-story house of the Robinsons. It was quaint. It was cozy. So why did he feel something burning inside him as he stared at it.
"So you want us to comfort the family?" Jonathan asked as the pair exited the vehicle.
"I want you to pay attention and share your insights," Alistair answered.
"I'm still not certain what good I can do, but I'll do my best."
Minutes later the pair found themselves on a white sofa across from Katrina's parents. Her father had been trying for the past several minutes to ease the worries of the pastoral pair. "Look, she's always been a handful, but, really, I don't think this is something the Church can fix."
As he spoke, his wife remained silent, eyes drawn to the floor and head slowly shaking from side to side. Jonathan watched her curiously, having tuned out the husband almost some time ago. Every word from him seemed to drive the woman more and more into a distant state, wringing her hands and darting her eyes around the carpet. Alistair continued speaking with the husband, urging him to allow the pair to see Katrina, but he was adamant: this was not a church matter. Then Jonathan spoke up.
"Uh... Julie," she eked out.
"Something's on your mind. Did you want to add anything?" he asked.
Alistair raised an eyebrow at the young man's observation but made no moves to stop him. The husband, however, was not so complacent. "No," he answered. "She's tired. Look, we've been through this before. I appreciate what you gentlemen are trying to do, but-"
"What happened to your hand?" Jonathan asked, his eyes now focusing for the first time on a bandage wrapped around the man's right hand. He quickly pulled it closer, hiding it.
"That has nothing to do -"
"She stabbed him," Julie piped up.
"She's not well, Jason," she cried, tears welling up in her eyes.
His eyes brimming with frustration, Jason rose from the couch. Claiming he needed air, he stormed out of the room, leaving the priest and his student alone with Julie. Tears streamed down her eyes, both men waiting for her to find a moment of relief from the agony that possessed her before pushing any further.
"Julie?" Alistair asked.
"She's... she's been getting better," she sniffled, running a tissue across her swollen eyes. "I swear, every once in a while, she's fine. It's like... it's like she's my little girl again."
"How so?" Jonathan asked.
"Kindergarten," she replied, taking a deep breath to collect herself. "She was ready. She stopped biting and scratching. I mean, she wasn't perfect, but she was normal. Like any kid. Then..."
Julie grew gravely silent, her pallid features remaining motionless for several moments.
"Then?" Alistair prompted.
"Then... the puppy."
"What happened to the puppy?" Jonathan asked cautiously.
"He ate Kelly's head."
A little girl, no more than five years old, sat on her bed, combing out the ratted hair of a disfigured doll. Her movements were jerky and rough with no consideration for the toy. Clumps of artificial hair ripped out of the doll's scalp with each stroke, the girl taking little notice.
"Who is Kelly?" Alistair asked. Jonathan touched his mentor's sleeve and gestured to the side of the bed. There rested a smaller doll's head, the hair nearly gone and covered in what looked to be blood and other unidentifiable fluids. The little girl simply continued her brushing, silhouetted in darkness.
The pair had found young Katrina's room in near complete darkness when they came up to speak with her. According to the mother, she had broken every light they brought in, so now the room was only dimly lit by the setting sun. Alistair had immediately started speaking with the girl, building a rapport, but Jonathan couldn't seem to focus.
From the moment he entered, everything felt off. His chest was burning. He could swear he saw shadows that weren't there. He might not have noticed the discarded doll's head if he hadn't been so focused on the girl's toys already. Perhaps it was his imagination, but as he sat there, barely listening to what Alistair was saying, he noticed that all the toys were looking at him.
Alistair moved from his chair to the girl's bedside, bending down to pick up the disgusting plastic head. He looked it over for only a moment before turning back to Katrina. "What happened to Kelly?"
"I told you, Baxter ate her head."
"How did you get it back?"
Jonathan's chest seized. His eyes locked on the little girl as she turned to his mentor, laying down her current doll. "I opened him up and pulled it back out."
It was several moments before either man could speak, Alistair eventually setting the head back on the floor and responding with a quiet "I see." Jonathan turned away from the others, trying not to focus on the torn stuffed animals and disfigured dolls that all seemed to have their gazes locked on him. He looked around the room, for what he was unsure. He could see indentations in the carpet where a tall lamp once stood, now removed by the parents and the light fixture above her bed was missing both bulbs and its glass cover. His gaze wandered past a picture of the family tacked to the wall. Just above it he could see what had to be a dozen or more tack holes scattered along that section of the wall. As Alistair probed the child about taking hold of the steering wheel when her mother was driving, Jonathan turned to a small, child-size vanity. He could see Alistair's reflection talking to Katrina, holding a Bible in his hands as he spoke. Katrina, however, was staring directly at Jonathan. The student watched the twisted eyes of the young girl piercing through, her lips curling in disgust and rage. He turned quickly to see her intently watching Alistair gesture toward his Bible.
Jonathan shot to his feet, his hand running through his hair as he tried to calm himself. Alistair looked up with some concern, but the disciple reassured him he simply needed to stretch his legs. Alistair pushed up from the bed to his feet with a slight groan and made his way to Jonathan's side.
Before the elder could begin comforting his junior, Katrina began to weep. They turned to see the little girl, her doll cast aside, now at the edge of the bed where the light clearly showed her face for the first time. Her crystal blue eyes wells with tears and her rosy cheeks heaved with sighs as she cried.
On instinct, both men dropped down to their knees to attend to the little girl, though Jonathan immediately regretted it. As she sobbed, Alistair stroking her golden hair, Jonathan's chest once again seized up. He looked into her eyes. "Make it go away," she cried quietly.
"Make what go away, my child?" Alistair asked.
The girl tore her shirt down and violently slapped her palm against her chest. "It's in me. Make it go away! Make it go! Make it go!"
Her voice rose from a quiet plea to a ear-splitting cry. Katrina hurled herself from the bed, grabbing on to the side of her dresser and slamming her head violently into it several times before Alistair could stop her. In a heartbeat, Jason was up the stairs and through the door, pushing the old priest away from his daughter. With blood trickling down her forehead, Katrina clung to her father, weeping and wailing. He lifted her up into his arms, stroking her hair.
Jonathan could see the contained rage that was billowing inside the father as he looked at the clergymen. "I think it's time you leave," he spat with restrained animosity.
"Leave!" he repeated.
Alistair nodded and placed a hand on his disciple, leading him out.
As the pair re-entered the car, Alistair hesitated, his hand resting on the ignition. He turned quietly to address his pupil, but Jonathan seemed distant, lost. In truth, Jonathan couldn't shake the feeling that was churning through his chest, ripping at his heart.
The young man turned with a start. "Huh?"
"Are you okay?"
"Y-yes. That was just... more intense than I expected."
Alistair nodded as he started the engine and pulled out of the cul-de-sac. "It's getting worse."
"So now what?" Jonathan asked. "I don't feel like we really did much."
"What did you think about Katrina?"
Jonathan hesitated, but decided to answer the question. "Well, she's clearly disturbed. I honestly think the child needs counseling on a level we just can't provide."
"You think this is a psychological issue?" Alistair asked.
"Well, yeah. You told me they've talked to counselors, but I think this child might need something more intense. Probably a mental health facility."
The old priest shook his head, pulling the vehicle onto the main road toward the university. "I don't believe that at all, Jonathan."
"How can you not believe that? After what we saw?"
"What did you feel, Jonathan?"
The young seminarian swallowed, his hand moving to his chest. It still pained him, the remnants of the inferno that blazed within as he watched the child speak, as he stood in her presence. He tried for several moments to form the words, but his mind failed him.
"I know you felt something dark, Jonathan," the priest observed.
"Well, it was a little creepy. Still... I'm not sure what you're getting at."
"She's been taken."
"Taken?" Jonathan asked.
"Possessed by the Serpent himself."
Jonathan turned to stare at his mentor, a bemused look on his face. "You think she's possessed by a demon? Look, Father Alistair, I agree that something is deeply wrong with the child, but-"
"Do you truly believe that medicine and therapy will save this child?"
"Well, we have to trust in God that it will. What other option do we have?"
"I'm sending my request to the Archibishop tonight," Alistair said, his grip tightening on the wheel.
"I'm asking for permission to conduct an exorcism." The young pupil went silent. He stared around the cab in disbelief, uncertain of what to say. As the vehicle passed through the gates of the university, Alistair continued. "I... I would like your help."
"Performing an exorcism?!"
"It's a complicated ritual, Jonathan, I'm not well familiar with it. I could certainly use your assistance."
"Wouldn't this be better for someone like Father Willingham?" Jonathan argued.
"Willingham would never condone this. I need you. Your spirit is strong, I know that together we can save this child."
"I... I don't know, Father. This is huge. I mean, I feel for the family. I feel for that poor girl, but this is something that professionals need to be handling."
"There may not be time for that, Jonathan. Do not fear for your inexperience. The Lord will make his power known through us so long as we do our part and try," Alistair replied.
Keep your eyes open for my debut novel, The Paladin.