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Sever the Wicked, Part III: Pierogi

As Father Clemont pushed his empty plate away, he wondered why he’d ever questioned Mrs. Kowalski. Pierogi really did make everything better. Sure, there was an infernal plot underway to kill the Pope (along with, presumably, all of the clergy) and turn everyone else into the demonic equivalent of pub mix, but thanks to his dumpling-induced torpor, it all seemed so very far away.

What did God expect him to do about it, anyway?

He took a sip of his Coke and stifled a belch, but his companions didn’t even seem to notice when he excused himself. Mrs. Kowalski was leaning over the table, her half-finished plate of pierogi set aside in favor of a bottle of High Life. She spun it around and around in her withered fingers, watching Revka eat.

Centuries of divine slumber had apparently given the young nun a bottomless stomach. She’d powered through three plates of pierogi in under 35 minutes before quietly setting her fork down next to her own little stack of Coke cans, crossing herself, and whispering a brief prayer.

Her appetite had earned her more than a few sideways glances from Dom Babci’s staff as well as a novelty t-shirt. On the front was an overweight man reclined at a table Clemont assumed had once been full of pierogi. His arms hung at his sides, each holding a utensil, and though his tongue lolled out, he wore a satisfied, dreamy smirk. One edge of the table rested on his dumpling-swollen potbelly, tipping everything toward the other side.

Revka was currently staring at the shirt’s back, which read, “I got stuffed at Dom Babci’s!”

“What does this say?” she asked. “God give me speak English, not read. Not yet.”

Clemont and Mrs. Kowalski exchanged a quick glance. The old woman gave a little shake of her head. Clemont sighed.

“There’s a joke on the back.”

Revka peeked at him over the neckline, her emerald eyes glimmering. The tip of the scar on her cheek was just visible.

“I like jokes.”

“It’s kind of crude.” Clemont actually enjoyed a raunchy joke as much as the next person, but Revka’s sense of humor, like so many aspects of her personality, was still a mystery.

The nun narrowed her eyes. “Try me.”

Clemont pressed his lips into the thinnest of smiles, ignoring the commotion from Mrs. Kowalski’s side of the table as she sputtered on her beer.

He should have known better. On their walk over, he’d begun to suspect she’d received divine assistance on more than their language barrier. She was an absolute sponge, picking up on twenty-first-century concepts with alacrity. When he commented on this, she’d informed him matter-of-factly that she had not spent the past several centuries as a corpse, but as a spirit roaming the earth, absorbing knowledge and experiences as she went.

“I could not see everything,” she said. “But I saw enough.”

More than that, she would not share.

Suddenly unsure what to do with his hands, Clemont settled on pushing his plate a smidge further away, then sat forward. “I’ll tell you about the joke another time. Look, Revka - when you were spirit-walking, did you learn anything about how to stop Hell’s attack? Is there anyone who can help us? We’re not exactly the Super Friends here.” He smirked. “Well, except for you, maybe.”

Revka glanced at Mrs. Kowalski. “Super Friends?”

“Nevermind, dear. Father Clemont’s just saying that except for you, we’re not the demon-fighting type.”

“Anyone can fight demon; they just need strong enough believe,” Revka said, looking back at Clemont. “I tell you this already.”

“I remember.” Clemont didn’t have the heart to tell her that, strong as his belief was, he had just been lucky to get the drop on the demon while it was distracted. In a head-to-head match, he was hamburger within ninety seconds. He also didn’t want to send himself tumbling down a metaphysical rabbit hole around the implications of dumb luck vs. divine intervention, so he settled for a sigh. “All I’m saying is, I think we’re going to need more help. Your coffin said you were from a church near Prague. Are your sisters still there?”

“We called it Velingrad in my time.” Some of the brightness left her eyes. She rolled the t-shirt back up and set it aside. “I do not know whether any of my sisters remain. In the early days of my roaming, I could feel the warmth and comfort of their presence. No more. The world has gone cold.

“Even Mother Superior has turned away from me,” she added in a choked whisper. “She would know what to do.”

Revka was no longer looking at Father Clemont but through him. What she saw, he could not guess, and though he’d comforted many of his parishioners through some of their darkest days, the small hitch in Revka’s voice as she spoke about her isolation nearly shattered the old priest. He soon found himself staring at the butter congealing on his plate.

“Revka, I — I have no idea if your sisters are still out there,” he heard himself saying. “But we have to have faith, right? If we lose hope, then Hell wins.”

The young nun didn’t quite smile at that, but her expression softened ever so slightly. If twenty years of confessions had taught Clemont anything, that look was a good sign.

“You’re right,” she said. “But how do I get there?”

“There’s an airport upstate,” Clemont said. “I can take you there tomorrow.” Whether St. Paul’s could afford to send Revka to Prague was another question, but they could cross that bridge when they got to it.

“Father, you’re not going to let her travel alone, are you?”

“No! Of course not,” Clemont said quickly. “I’m gonna, you know … I’ll drive her up to O’Hare, make sure she gets in.” Cost of travel aside, he’d seen enough actual demons for one lifetime, and the potential for getting torn to shreds seemed much higher wherever the young nun went. On top of that, Revka seemed more than capable of understanding and handling anything that came her way, whether a frothing demon or a handsy traveler. And, of course, who was supposed to run the church while he was gone?

Father Clemont tried to explain all this logically to Mrs. Kowalski.

“Mrs. Kowalski, she … I … you can’t —,” he began. The old woman held up a hand.

“If you’re about to tell me she can take care of herself, I don’t want to hear it. She doesn’t have anyone else on God’s green earth she can trust, and you’re going to leave her at the airport curb, toot your horn, and drive off?” The old woman narrowed her eyes as she spoke, and Clemont swore he could actually feel himself shrinking. “If it’s about money, I have plenty. That’s all you need to know. And if you think I’m about to ask to administer rituals and rites while you’re gone, don’t worry: I know well enough what the Church thinks women can and cannot do,” she huffed. “But I can at least run interference in the front office while you’re out. I think that about covers it, no?”

Clemont’s mind raced. The way she was speaking … he’d heard a voice like that once before, just before he’d up and applied to the seminary. Was that really where God wanted him? Right out there in harm’s way?

“You’re a special man, Father, that’s all I know,” Mrs. Kowalski was saying. “You get up in front of that lectern each Sunday, and when you speak, it matters. Why else do you think everyone keeps coming around?”

She glanced at Revka, and Clemont turned to see the nun frozen, her eyes wide, fork hovering half an inch above Mrs. Kowalski’s abandoned pierogi. Revka grinned sheepishly, then speared a dumpling as soon as Mrs. Kowalski nodded her approval.

“She needs you. I can feel it in these old bones,” she said, looking back to Clemont. “Maybe we all do.” She laid a gentle hand on his arm. “Just think about it.”

Clemont opened his mouth, but instead of words, all he heard was a burst of static. He jumped in his seat, then looked for the source of the noise.

It didn’t take long to find it: an old tube television mounted in the corner of the restaurant, with an outdated cable box bolted onto the little shelf that perhaps held a VCR once upon a time. Clemont suspected that on most days you could stuff yourself silly with pierogi while watching Golden Girls and Matlock reruns, but the staff had just tuned it to one of the cable news networks.

It pained Clemont in the depths of his soul that one of God’s chosen warriors would be exposed to the cycle of nonstop analysis-disguised-as-news within hours after awakening from a centuries-long divine slumber. He had just begun to wonder, not entirely abstractly, whether it might not be better just to let the demons win after all when Revka’s voice rescued him from his thoughts.

She gestured at the screen with her fork. “Who is that man in the picture box?”

Clemont looked up at the fuzzy image. Senator Gabriel Hightower was hosting another campaign event, this time at an abandoned car factory in Michigan. Though the headline at the bottom of the picture excoriated the Senator, Clemont knew if there was another TV in the restaurant showing one of the other cable news networks, he’d get the exact opposite story.

He sighed. Many things in 2022 were better than they had been 30 years ago - many things - but he missed the days where all the news program talking heads more or less told the same story. These days it felt like everyone was speaking different languages. He wondered if this was what it’d been like right after God knocked over the Tower of Babel.

Then again, at least in Babel, everyone knew the tower had fallen.

Clemont was about to reply when another figure caught his eye. Sitting near the back of the stage was an old man who, draped in the red cassock of a Cardinal, looked like a shriveled tomato. He’d slumped forward slightly, clearly asleep despite the roaring crowd.

“Cardinal Lemke?” Clemont said, incredulous. “What’s he doing at a political event?”

“I think she means Senator Hightower,” Mrs. Kowalski said. “Folks say he’s got his eyes on the Presidency.”

Clemont pushed the wayward Cardinal from his mind and focused on the Senator. “I’ve heard that too. Nice to see a third-party candidate getting some real attention for a change.”

“Easy to look at, too,” Mrs. Kowalski sighed. “Reminds me of Bobby Kennedy. Hoo! But I just can’t bring myself to trust him.”

“Nor should you,” Revka said, frowning. “This man speaks sickness.”

“Lots of politicians do that,” Clemont said. “Though I suppose it’s all kind of subjective.”

“Subjective nothing. You think I care donkey, gray monster, spiky rat? Pointless animals,” Revka scoffed. “Flavors of greed and control by men who would put themselves before God. No - the Hightower is something … else…” Her voice trailed off on the last word. She stood and shuffled toward the television as if hypnotized. “Where have I seen you before?”

Before Clemont could fully process this, someone piped up from behind the counter.

“Hey, lady - if you don’t like the Senator, you can get the Hell out of here.”

Clemont whirled to find the voice belonged to a scowling middle-aged man whose hands were covered in flour nearly up to his elbows. Clemont recognized him as the owner, although he didn’t know his name. Next to him stood a stern-looking woman whose curly black hair was dotted with gray streaks. Clumps of dough clung to the mallet in her hand.

“Hey, Sister!” the balding owner called out, a bit louder. “Did you hear me?”

Clemont gave Revka a few seconds. When she didn’t turn to face the man, the priest spoke up.

“Sister Revka is not from around here,” he said, standing. “No need to get upset, my son - we’ll be on our way as soon as I use your restroom.” Clemont’s singular Coke had run right through him, as always.

“Make it quick,” snapped the woman. Clemont gave a quick bow and started for the back part of the store. As he rounded one corner, then another, and then another, he started to think it was further than he remembered. Black-and-white checkered tiles seemed to stretch on forever in front of him.

He groaned. Had he borked his blood sugar again? But a few moments later, he found the door to the men’s room, swung it open, and stepped up to the urinal.

He was just zipping himself back up when he heard the door open behind him. “Father Clemont?”

“The one and only,” he responded without thinking. He turned to find himself face-to-face with the owner of Dom Babci. “Oh, Lord. What did she say now?”

“Oh, nothing.” The man held out a cordless phone, yellowed from years of greasy fingerprints. “It’s for you.”

The restroom spun slightly as Clemont reached for the phone. But before he could grab it, the owner brought his arm back like he was getting ready to hurl a baseball, then smashed the phone against the side of Clemont’s head.

The priest cried out, tumbling to the floor as pieces of plastic clattered on the linoleum all around him. He tried to stand, but the room seemed all out of proportion, and before he could get totally to his feet, the owner kicked him square in the belly with enough force to lift him a few inches from the ground.

Clemont groaned, then belched, the pierogi threatening to leave his body violently, but he fought back the urge to vomit. He looked up at his assailant and saw two sunken, black pits where the man’s eyes should have been. Then the owner clasped his hands like he was about to pray, and brought them down on the back of Clemont’s neck. The aging priest cried out, crumpling to the ground. His mind was racing. Like an idiot, he’d given his crucifix to Mrs. Kowalski for safekeeping.

The thought of Mrs. Kowalski and Revka alone up front invigorated the old man. Sure, Revka was more than capable of dispatching demons, but what if she’d been distracted by Hightower and the owner’s wife had gotten the drop on her?

He forced himself to his knees, looking up just in time to see the eyeless owner lining up his flour-covered fist for another haymaker. Without thinking, Clemont brought his hand up and caught the fist, stopping it with pure adrenaline.

“I’m getting so tired of you demons and your bullshit,” he grunted, turning the fist aside and slugging the owner in the gut. The balding man stumbled back several paces, then howled, tearing at his skin as if he were stuck inside some too-tight suit.

But before he could totally reveal the horror beneath, the restroom door swung open, thudding into the demon’s back. He whirled, shrieking, with bloody strips of flesh clutched in his fingers, and Revka plunged a dagger into one of his empty eye sockets.

As the shriek withered to a dry hiss, Revka planted a boot on the owner’s chest and sent him backward into the urinal with enough force to break the ceramic into several pieces.

The demon burst into a heatless blue flame, just like the one in St. Paul’s, and Revka met Father Clemont’s gaze. “Are you all right, Father?”

“A little woozy, but I’m —” he stopped short as he took in the sight in front of him. Revka’s lip had been split, and a small trickle of blood was running out of her nose. “My God! Revka, are you okay?”

“You should see other guy.” She pointed the dagger at the owner’s corpse, which was now little more than a skeleton covered in a grimy mixture of ash and sewer water. When Clemont looked back at her, she grinned, smearing blood from her busted lip across her teeth.

Clemont wondered how many demons had died looking at that smile.

“See?” Revka asked. “I like jokes. Now come on, Mrs. Kowalski waiting.”

Clemont followed Revka back to the front of Dom Babci, dimly aware that the return trip was much shorter than the path he’d taken to get there. Mrs. Kowalski was standing by the door, a styrofoam takeout container and a sixer of Cokes from the restaurant’s fridge clutched in her hand.

On the ground nearby was another ash-covered skeleton. Not too far from the corpse was a bony hand clutching a bloodied mallet.

“We need to get to Prague,” Revka said. “We cannot wait for morning.”

She was right, of course. Clemont sighed, and Mrs. Kowalski stepped forward, her eyes wide.

“Father, you can’t be thinking about staying!”

“I’m not,” he said. “I just can’t stand O’Hare.”


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