“I’m not allowed to go to church.”
Donnie gave the new kid a blank look. “Not allowed to?” In his experience, parental censure only applied to missing church services. Suddenly, understanding dawned. “Oh, you’re Jewish?”
The new kid shrugged bony shoulders. “No. We’re not anything, far as I know. I’m just not allowed. That’s all.”
“I dunno. Mom’s never said. Just that I can’t go in a church. I’ve never been inside one, not even once.”
Donnie tried to imagine that. “We have to go to Mass every week. Twice, sometimes. It’s cool, though. I want to be a priest when I grow up,” he added in a burst of enthusiasm, then blushed. Sometimes kids made fun of him for being so religious.
The new kid just looked interested. “Yeah? What’s it like?”
Donnie launched into a description of a typical Mass: the incense, the ritual, the surplice he got to wear as an altar boy. He wasn’t sure the new kid really got the idea of the Host, but he didn’t make jokes about it or anything, so that was cool. Actually, he looked kind of sad. Donnie had the strangest urge to put his arm around those thin shoulders, maybe even stroke the straight dark hair that fell over his collar and made him look like a gypsy.
“I could take you to my church, if you like,” Donnie blurted. “Just for a visit, I mean. To see what it’s like. Father Thomas always leaves it open in the afternoons.”
“I’m not sure… Mom doesn’t like me to be late home,” the new kid said doubtfully. He looked like he wanted to be persuaded, though.
“It’s only ’round the corner. Come on!” Donnie urged, in his excitement actually taking the new kid by the hand without thinking.
The new kid smiled suddenly. “Well… all right. But just to see it.”
“Here we are,” Donnie said unnecessarily as he pushed open the heavy wooden door into the church.
“I don’t think I like it here,” the new kid said softly. “I feel sick.”
“That’s just the incense. You’ll get used to it,” Donnie told him, more confident now he was on his own patch, so to speak. “Look, you see this? This is Holy Water. You have to get a bit on your fingers and make the sign of the cross, like this.”
The new kid didn’t move. “I don’t think—”
“Come on! It’s only water!” Daringly, Donnie scooped up some more water and flicked it at the new kid like he’d seen some of the other altar boys do when Father Thomas wasn’t around.
The new kid flinched as the droplets struck his face—and then he screamed. Loud and high, his cries echoed through the church.
“Stop it!” Donnie hissed. “Father Thomas will hear you!”
“It’s burning me!” the new kid cried, his hands clapped to his eyes.
Donnie pulled at them, desperately trying to hush him. “Cut it out! This isn’t funny!”
“It hurts! It hurts! Make it stop!”
“You’ve got to be quiet!”
“Boys, boys, what in the Lord’s name is going on here?” Father Thomas’s deep tones cut through Donnie’s panic.
“Father! He says it hurt him, but it’s only Holy Water. How can it hurt him? It can’t, can it?”
Father Thomas looked stern. “Young man, I think the joke has worn a little thin.” He pulled at the new kid’s hands, getting them away from his face.
The skin was reddened, blisters already forming, and bloody tears fell from his eyes. Donnie stared in shock.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God!” Father Thomas gasped. His face changed, twisted. Donnie backed away in unconscious fear as the priest carried on in a terrible voice. “I adjure thee, thou most foul spirit, every appearance, every inroad of Satan, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth—”
A strange, inhuman cry came out of the new kid’s throat. His reddened eyes fixed on Father Thomas; he began to back away toward the door.
“Go out, thou seducer, full of deceit and wile, thou enemy of virtue! I adjure thee, that thou depart from the House of God!”
A great wind seemed to sweep through the church, and Donnie watched in horror as the doors to the street opened of their own accord and the new kid, his blistered, bloody face distorted by terror, was hurled outside, the doors slamming shut behind him.