Eli rocked in and out of consciousness, encased in a balmy miasma of light. When the anesthetic wore off and he was finally able to fully open his eyes, he found himself in a hospital bed with an IV in his right arm and thick gauze wrapped around his wrists. He felt weak and his ears were swimming and despite just having been unconscious, his eyelids were heavy, yet he managed to take in his surroundings. There was a window next to his bed, revealing a light blue sky—the kind of blue that was described as “robin’s egg,” but Eli was immediately reminded of Sarah’s eyes.
He shook his head. Don’t think about her, he told himself. Not now.
The door to his room opened and a young woman dressed in scrubs with a freckly face and a messy ponytail walked inside. She had a wad of bubblegum in her mouth, which she chomped as she absentmindedly took his vitals. She didn’t say a word. As she turned to walk out, she blew a huge pink bubble. Its pop was the last thing Eli heard before she re-opened and re-closed the door.
It felt like an hour later, although realistically it was probably a few minutes, before the door opened again. Eli expected another nurse, or maybe a doctor, but it was his brother, Jude, who walked in. He came in with a smile, but once he saw Eli his smile waned. “Hey stranger,” Eli said. He was surprised by his own voice. It sounded meek. Raspy.
Jude looked worried. “Dude, what’s been going on with you?” he asked. “Here I am in bed when I get this call from your girlfriend that you’ve been found seriously injured and rushed to the hospital. What gives?”
“I wish I knew,” Eli replied. He felt bad, worrying Jude like that. Jude was the laidback type—the type who let things roll off his back, whose typical jovial demeanor was hard to shake—so to see him distressed sank Eli into shame.
Jude pulled up the chair that was situated at the corner of the room and took a seat next to Eli’s bed. “Well, tell me what you do know.”
“I’m not sure where to start.”
“Here.” Jude dug in his jacket pocket and pulled out one of those miniature liquor bottles, a Jack Daniels, which he handed to Eli. “Maybe this’ll help.”
“How did you smuggle this in here?” Eli asked, bewildered.
“Are you kidding? The people here don’t check anything.”
Eli remembered the nurse who’d come in earlier and added, “On second thought, that’s not very hard to believe.”
“Just make sure you hide it if anyone comes in.”
Eli twisted off the cap and downed over half the bottle.
“Well?” Jude urged him.
Eli told him everything, starting with the old man in Baghdad and ending with the holes in his wrists. As he spoke he kept his head bent, his eyes fixed on his lap, where his hands—still sore from the holes and the stitches—rested. When he finally looked up at Jude, he was met with an incredulous stare. “I know it sounds crazy,” he continued. “But think about it, why would I do any of this to myself? How could I do it to myself?” Despite not being close to Jude, or particularly interested in what Jude thought of him, he found himself desperately wanting Jude to believe him now.
“I dunno, man,” Jude said, scratching his head. “I mean, you’re asking me to believe some pretty far-fetched stuff. And you haven’t been the same since . . . since you know what.”
Eli’s stomach bottomed out.
“I’m a logical kinda guy, y’know? And this shit you just told me, it’s not logical.”
“What’s not logical about this?” Eli raised his bandaged wrists. “You can see it, can’t you? It’s right fucking in front of you so what’s not logical about it?”
“It’s not logical that it just happened out of nowhere. Look, I care about you, I really do, but the fact of the matter is you’re not making much sense right now. And I can’t ignore the way you’ve been this past year—the bars, the girls, the unemployment checks just pissed away . . .”
“You’re one to talk,” Eli snapped.
“Hey, I’m not pointing fingers,” Jude added, holding up his hands in defense. “But you and I both know why you’ve been acting like this. You weren’t like this before. It’s not you.”
“Who are you to say what is or isn’t me? You haven’t been through the shit I’ve been through.”
“Fair enough. But Eli, man, you can’t just waste yourself.”
“Oh, so I can’t waste myself but you can?”
“I’m not the one who’s depressed, Eli.”
Eli shook his head. Sighed. Glanced out the window. “You should probably go.” He finished off the miniature Jack Daniels, then waved it at Jude. “Thanks for this,” he said. “I needed it.”
“No problem, bro,” Jude returned, somewhat indignant. “That’s what I’m here for.”
Eli’s head was tilted downward as he murmured, “Yeah.”
Jude got up and left.
Eli laid his head against his pillow, closed his heavy eyelids, and drifted back to sleep.
He dreamed again, this time of Sarah. She was sitting at the kitchen table across from him, her hands clasped on the surface, taking in his words as he told her he was enlisting. “Think of the benefits,” he said. “It’s my chance to really do something with my life,” he said. Then added, “Other than being a husband and father.” He ended with, “I think this’ll be good for us. I need you to believe that.” He reached across the table and took her hand in his. She smiled a bit as he squeezed it.
“Telling Hallie is going to be the hard part,” she said. “She won’t understand why you have to be gone for so long.”
“I know,” he admitted. “I have no idea how I’m going to do it.”
She placed her free hand on top of his so that his hand was sandwiched between hers. “It’s going to be a big change for all of us. You not here . . . us not with you . . .” The smallest hint of a teasing smirk tugged at her lips. “You’ll be sex-deprived. Can I count on you?”
And with that, Eli leaned over and kissed her. “I won’t really be gone,” he told her. “Just keep thinking about me. Tell Hallie to keep thinking about me. You know how when people leave they tell their loved ones they’ll be with them in spirit? It’s always sounded cheesy to me but now I get it. My heart stays right here, baby. It doesn’t move.”
Sarah was full-on smiling now. The smile extended from her lips to her eyes so he could tell it was genuine. “Are you getting sentimental on me, Eli?” she asked.
Eli laughed. “You do have that effect on me.”
A moment passed and Sarah’s smile slowly fell. “What if something happens?”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I won’t let it.”
“How can you not let it?”
Eli held up his free hand and touched his fingers to a strand of hair that was hugging her cheek. Gently, he curved it behind her ear. “I love you,” he said.
“I think love is more than some fantasy bullshit, I think it’s real. I think it has a life of its own. I think it transcends everything.” Eli brought his free hand down upon Sarah’s so that their hands stacked on top of each other.
The scene cut and Eli found himself staring down at the dead bodies of Sarah and Hallie on the floor, drenched in their own blood. They were still for a moment, then Sarah moved. Instinct told Eli to run to her, to help her up, to hold her in his arms and beg her forgiveness for not being there, for not being able to save her. But all he could do was stand, statuesque, over her limp body and watch as she slowly managed to turn herself onto her back and stare up at him. Her eyes were blank, dead, and blood seeped from her mouth. “Eli,” she said. “Eli, wake up.”
Eli felt something tug on his shoulder, shaking him. His vision blurred and the next thing he knew, he was back in his hospital bed, looking up at the face of Melinda who had just shaken him awake.
He started to cry.
Melinda didn’t speak. She sat on the edge of his bed and held him as he cried into her chest. How long he cried he couldn’t say, but when he finally stopped Melinda’s shirt was wet. He clung to her like a scared child to its mother, comforted by the rhythm of her heartbeat.
He thought of the day he first met her. (Had it really been just a few months ago?) They were at a bar. He’d been at the front, drinking down his guilt, when she sat next to him and introduced herself. He recognized her. He’d seen her there before but had never spoken to her. She recognized him too. He’d liked the sound of her name and asked her how old she was, what she wanted in life, and why she was hanging out at a bar of all places. She surprised him by saying she went there just for the kicks. “You know, novelty seeking. That kind of thing.” Those were her exact words.
He liked her immediately.
As he walked out into the parking lot, tipsy, he caught a glimpse of her from the corner of his eye. She was with two other men, and they were tossing her back and forth like a ragdoll. One kissed her. Then when she spat in his face, he slapped her. The other one grabbed her by the hair and told her she needed to learn respect.
Eli couldn’t remember what he thought, only what he felt: white-hot rage. It was the first real emotion he’d had in what already felt like a lifetime. It consumed him and he gave in to it.
He couldn’t remember the exact sequence of events—some punches, a few bloody knuckles, scraping and grunting, a kick against ribs, but nothing substantial. It was all a blur. What he did remember was taking Melinda home, letting her sleep on his bed (he took the couch), and making her breakfast in the morning. He remembered bits and pieces of the conversations they had, how she seemed to genuinely care about what he had to say, how she reminded him, personality-wise, of Sarah.
He didn’t tell her that, though. She was oblivious of his life before the Middle East.
Leaning into her embrace, into her warmth, he burst into another stream of tears and just let himself sob. “I’m so sorry,” he muttered, and in all honesty he didn’t know if he was talking to her or Sarah.
He felt her run her fingers through his hair, moving it out of his eyes. She bent over and kissed one of the gashes on his forehead, then interwove her fingers with his, glancing down at his gauze-wrapped wrist. A revelation seemed to strike her and she said, “I think you need to see a priest.”
Eli was kept in the hospital for a total of two weeks before being transferred back to St. Thomas, where he was put under heavy suicide watch. He requested a priest by the name of Father Paulson, who Melinda suggested to him. He’d been her confessor during childhood and she thought highly of him.
He arrived on a Tuesday afternoon. It was raining and Eli was inside the activity room with fifteen other clients, staring out a rain-streaked window while listening to Joe play a rendition of America’s “A Horse with No Name” on guitar (after being told not to play his own music due to its disturbing nature), when a service provider stepped in and announced that he had a visitor.
She led him to the visiting room, where Father Paulson was waiting.
He was an older man, gray-haired and lean, dressed in a black cassock, holding a large black bag at his side. When he saw Eli enter, he set the bag down. He walked up to Eli, his hand extended, and smiled. “I’m Father Paulson,” he said. “You requested my visit?”
“Uh, yeah,” Eli replied sheepishly, taking the priest’s hand. “Thanks for coming.”
“You said you knew Melinda. Any friend of hers is a friend of mine.” Father Paulson released Eli’s hand. Took a seat at the table that was situated in the center of the room. “I take it you want to talk to me about what’s afflicting you.” He gestured towards Eli’s wrists, which were still wrapped in gauze.
Eli took a seat across from Father Paulson. He didn’t know where to begin, but visiting time was only an hour and he had so many questions so he decided to just start talking. “I don’t know what’s happening to me,” he said. “These cuts,”—he pointed to his forehead—“I’ve had them for weeks and they’re still fresh, but the doctors can’t seem to find anything wrong with me. And what’s weirder, I have no idea how I got them. The cuts, these,”—he held up his arms—“they just appeared out of the blue. Everyone seems to think I inflicted them on myself, but I didn’t, and I have no way to prove it! I think . . .” he paused. Bit his lower lip. “I’m beginning to think they might be, like, metaphysical.”
Father Paulson seemed neither surprised nor confused. He sat with his hands folded on the tabletop, looking at Eli as if deep in thought. When he spoke his voice was perfectly calm: “Have you been having strange dreams lately?”
“Yeah!” Eli answered. “They’re not like any dreams I’ve ever had before. They’re . . . bizarre.”
“What kind of things do you see?”
“Mostly the desert.”
“Have you ever been to any deserts?”
“Yeah, kinda. I mean, I was deployed in Baghdad for a few years. But this is different. It’s . . . empty, and not just because there aren’t any people. I feel alone, like I’m where no one can ever reach me.” Eli paused, contemplating. “I dream a lot about death. At least I think it’s death. Like, in this one dream, I’m standing on a hill staring at the sky and this force comes and knocks me down. I land on my back and while I’m laying there, everything gets hot and withers up. And all the sudden I feel like I’m burning to death. The sky turns blazing red and I think to myself, ‘This is dying.’” He paused again, trying to read Father Paulson’s expression, to decipher if he had any idea what it meant, but all Father Paulson’s expression seemed to say was “please continue,” so he did: “There’s this other one where I’m naked in the desert and I’m sitting in this circle. In front of me is this really tall cactus plant that looks angry. It catches on fire and burns up. Just like that. For no reason. One minute it’s there and the next, it’s completely enclosed in flames. I smell the smoke, feel the heat, and I want to leave—I really want to leave—but I can’t. So I just sit there and wait for it to burn up.” Eli glanced down at his hands, at the gauze that resembled white gauntlets and said, “I don’t know why, but I think that one’s about death too. I think this thing—whatever it is—is killing me.”
Father Paulson scooted forward in his chair and cleared his throat. “I’m going to ask you a question that will probably seem random,” he said, “but I want you to answer me honestly, alright?”
“Are you a religious man?”
“Heh, not one bit. Pretty distant from religion, actually.”
Father Paulson nodded, taking that in.
“Why do you ask?”
Instead of a reply, Eli got another question: “Do you know of the five Holy Wounds?”
“The five Holy Wounds?”
“Yes, the wounds inflicted on Christ during his crucifixion.”
“Wait, are you saying I’m getting crucified?”
The slightest hint of a smile crept onto Father Paulson’s face. “Not exactly. Every once in a while a person will be inflicted with these wounds. We Catholics call them the stigmata. The wounds, that is—not the people.”
“So, what causes them?”
“That’s not entirely known. It’s believed within religious circles that the stigmata are a way for God to let his most devout get closer to him.”
“Yeah, well, I’m kinda disqualified in that regard.”
“True, but that is only one belief. The details of the stigmata are very ambiguous.”
Eli glanced down at the off-white surface of the table as a thought came to him. “There’s something else,” he said. His voice quivered with nervousness. Why he was nervous he wasn’t sure, but suddenly he felt as though he were about to disclose something secret and personal. “When I was in the Middle East, not long before I was sent home, this man ran into me. I don’t know who he was. I never got his name. Everything he said was incoherent. But he, uh, he was covered in blood.”
“I’m not sure. He didn’t look injured but I couldn’t tell; it was dark out.”
Father Paulson nodded, as if to say “go on.”
“He, uh, he just sort of . . . died. In my arms.”
“I’m sorry,” Father Paulson said.
“But it wasn’t like the other deaths,” Eli added. “He just fell over. No pain or anything. And before that he touched my face. I have no idea why. It was almost like he knew me.”
“Is it by any chance possible that the stigmata can be . . . I dunno, like transferred or something? Can someone give it to someone else?”
“I highly doubt that. While it’s true there’s a lot about the phenomenon that is yet unknown, I don’t think it operates like a disease. All recorded cases of it have been isolated and inexplicable.”
“How many have been recorded?”
“I couldn’t give an exact number but I’d say it’s in the hundreds.”
“Has anyone ever died from it?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
I should be comforted by that, Eli thought, but for some reason he wasn’t. He thought back to the day he first met Joe, when Joe asked him if he wanted to die. “So where did this . . . phenomenon, or whatever . . . where did it originate?”
“Hard to say. The first person ever documented to have had the stigmata was a friar in the 13th century, who we now call St. Francis of Assisi. As the story goes, he went on a pilgrimage to Mt. La Verna to fast and while he was there, a six-winged angel appeared to him in the middle of a prayer. It’s said that St. Francis was so elated and humbled by the angel’s presence that when it left, he discovered holes in his hands, feet, and side.”
Eli considered that. “You said there were five wounds,” he said.
“Yes,” Father Paulson affirmed.
“Do people get all five?”
“Usually no. Sometimes they get two, sometimes three, sometimes only one; sometimes they endure other afflictions as well, such as crying blood or feeling mocked and alone. Strange dreams are also common.”
Eli paused, sucking in a deep, slow breath.
“It’s a lot to take in, I know,” said Father Paulson.
Eli looked down, dubiously, at his wrists. “I thought Jesus was nailed through the palms.”
“Some people believe that; however, it’s widely accepted among historians and archaeologists that the ancient Romans would nail their victims through the wrists, rather than the palms, to keep them from falling off the crosses.”
For a long moment, Eli was quiet, thinking it all over. “So you’re telling me I’ve got some, what, theological curse?” he asked.
“Not a curse,” Father Paulson countered, “a gift from God.”
“Can I return it and get a refund?”
Father Paulson gave a sympathetic smile. “I’m afraid not.”
“So what’s going to happen to me now?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean clearly I’m not doing this to myself, so what should I do?”
“I’m not sure,” Father Paulson admitted. “But I will help you.” He dug in his bag and took out a camera. One of those Polaroid cameras that couldn’t be found in stores anymore. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he said, “I’m a bit old-fashioned.” He snapped some pictures of Eli’s hands and forehead. “I’m going to send these to the Vatican”—he shuffled the photos, reached down to put them in his bag—“and ask what should be done. I’m sure you realize this will be a very delicate matter. It’s not like I see the stigmata every day, even in my line of work. And the fact that you’re not religious presents a problem.”
“What kind of problem?”
“Throughout history stigmatics have been deeply religious people. That someone who is not religious should receive the gift of the stigmata is highly irregular. Some would even call it blasphemous.”
“You don’t seem too offended by it,” Eli remarked.
“Lucky for you, I’m not like other priests. I don’t espouse the belief that God only blesses the religious. If that were the case, so many people would be left out in the cold. Christ himself performed miracles for those who doubted and disbelieved. Why should it be any different now?” Father Paulson zipped up his bag. “I know from personal experience that you do not have to believe to be touched by God.”
“Personal experience, eh?”
“Indeed. I was a nonbeliever in my younger years, and not a very open-minded one I should say. An ‘angry atheist,’ if you will.”
“So what changed you?”
When Father Paulson responded, he was looking at the wall behind Eli, as if the event was replaying for him there and nothing else in the room—Eli included—existed. “I was driving home from a party—driving drunk and high. I went over a steep bank and wrapped my car around a tree. It was late at night and I was on a back road, so there was little chance of someone driving by and seeing me. I remember sitting in my car at an odd angle, in extreme pain and only half-conscious, thinking I was going to die.” Father Paulson paused. “Then this woman appeared. Out of nowhere—just suddenly she was there. And I could have sworn that there was a light that came with her because when I saw her I had to shield my eyes. I thought she was going to pull me out, or maybe run for help. But she just looked at me and said, ‘Get out of the car.’ I remember thinking, Lady, are you kidding me? Does it look like I’m in any condition to be going anywhere? But she just told me to get out of the car. So I did.”
“Then what happened?”
“I crawled over the bank. I was too high and in too much pain to walk, so I crawled. When I reached the road I looked up and the woman was gone. I started limping down the road, then I smelled smoke and heard a big boom behind me. It was so loud that it knocked me over. My car had caught fire and exploded.
“Jesus,” Eli interjected. “What did you do?”
Father Paulson turned his attention from the wall back to Eli and shrugged. “What else could I do? I kept limping down the side of the road until a car came and the driver was nice enough to give me a lift to the nearest hospital.”
Before Eli could comment, the service provider who had led him to the visiting room opened the door and announced that Father Paulson’s time was up.