I waited in the front room for the Reverend Jones. When he came out, he was ashen, his eyes wide and rolling like a colt that smells a thunderstorm coming across the plain.
"Well?" I said.
"Rachel is right," the Reverend said. "You must do it."
I felt my heart drop into an empty space in my chest. In the hours since the child was born, I had been hollowed out by shock and terror. But until I heard Jones say it, I had never experienced true existential dread.
What kind of monster must I be? Did I create this?
"Are you sure?" I asked.
Jones nodded and gripped my shoulder. "Yes. It must be you. You are the father. Only you can wash the stain of it away. Only you have the moral authority to banish the Dark One back to where he came from."
"But he's just a baby—" and my voice broke.
"No," Jones said. "You are thinking now only of love. But love is a weakness. Love stays the hand of justice. Love hesitates when strength is required. God did not spare Sodom or Gomorrah. Before that, he sent the Great Flood. He shows us the path in all things."
I'd heard this before, in one of Jones's sweaty, chanting sermons, the congregation shrieking before him in spasms of bliss, a box of snakes hissing and rattling next to the altar. But I only went to those heaving nights for Rachel. I joked it was an anthropology experiment.
"This can't be happening," I said.
"It is," Jones said. Then he stepped back and regarded me with a critical, appraising eye, like one might judge an ax before hefting it. "I've seen you on Sundays. You are not a believer—"
"What does that—"
Jones held up his hand. "I know it. I can feel your doubt like a cold stone in the fire. But think on this: do you not see the will of God himself in this? Is it possible that God wasn't after your wife, but that he had his hand on you all this time? That he designed this test for you alone?"
I shook my head. It was preposterous.
"Think on it," Jones said. "Things have been put in motion now that cannot be undone. Except by you."
Then he was gone.
I hesitated. Rachel was still groggy from the drugs Darla gave her to stop the screaming. I desperately wanted to see her, to touch her and bury my face in the cascade of dark hair. But then part of me wondered about her. The pale skin. Her black eyes rolling in unbridled ecstasy. Her ethereal, almost unearthly beauty. What if she was the monster? What if she had created this thing, and now she expected me to kill it?
A spasm of righteous anger and hatred blazed in my heart. The strength of it shocked me.
I heard a stealthy noise and whipped around, afraid that my very thoughts were visible like black letters on a white board. It was only Darla, pushing through the door and moving in sharp, rat-like motions to cross the room. She was still wearing her white gown, and I found myself unable to tear my eyes away from a red smudge across her front. Rachel's blood? The child's?
She came to me with her piercing blue eyes and stood close enough I could smell the sharp tang of the antiseptic she had used to cleanse herself after the birth. She looked up into my face, and I saw no doubt in her. Only determination.
"Please," I croaked. "Isn't there some other explanation? Some genetic condition? An anomaly?"
Darla shook her head, and what did I expect? She was a congregationalist, too. And she had seen the boy. "No," she said in a pitiless voice. "There is no such sickness."
Then she pressed an object into my open hand. I looked with dawning horror and realized it was a sharpened crucifix. I looked up and she nodded at me.
"I'll give you some privacy now," she said.
Alone, the crucifix burning into my palm, I stared at the door, feeling as if the last tendrils of sanity were slipping away from me. Would it ever be summer again? Would the moon ever shine on me? What if this was just a birth defect? What if it wasn't?
Beyond the door, a high keening note sounded, and I began to shiver with fear. I'd heard babies cry before, but this was nothing like any baby I'd ever heard. Slowly, I approached the door and pushed it open. The room beyond was bathed in shadow, the bedsheets still stained with Rachel's blood and something glistening and clotted on the floor. A crib had been set up next to the bed, and it was from this crib that the unearthly note sounded. I saw something move in the blankets and my shivering deepened into shaking.
"Hello?" I whispered, knowing how ridiculous it was to expect an answer from a three-hour-old baby. I looked up to the ceiling, and for the first time in my life, I wished I could call upon Rachel's God to give me the same certainty she possessed. To give me some kind of sign that Jones was right and this was a test like the Great Flood or those wicked cities he burned on the desolate plains.
But it was too late for God and me—I realized right then, standing in the awful doorway, that deathbed conversions and desperate prayers are just tricks doubters play on themselves to keep the fear at bay.
The blanket rustled and a tiny arm rose up and gripped the crib slats. It was as I remembered: scaled, red, with the tiny claws that had ripped poor, lovely Rachel to shreds.
I entered the room slowly, my hand tightening around the crucifix and my lips forming the words to some childhood prayer I only half-remembered and less than half-believed. I hovered over the crib.
Then the slitted eyes and the lipless, ancient grin.
The crucifix clattered to the floor, useless. Jones was right. Love hesitates.
I bowed my head and asked him what I needed to do. When the answer came, I wasn't surprised.