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The Exorcist

Posted on Sun Jan 7th, 2024 @ 23:35 by Liana Zhao & Alastair Temple
Edited on on Sun Feb 4th, 2024 @ 12:40

Chapter: Winter's Crest Festival
Location: Teacher's Lounge/Television Room
Timeline: Thursday, 10th December (Evening)
4502 words - 9 OF Standard Post Measure

The day had got away from Liana yet again. Having a habit of overloading her schedule, this was far from an unusual occurrence and yet, given her previous admonishments that Jessica use the time leading up to the holidays as purely an adjustment period, did border a little on the side of hypocritical. In most cases, she had practised as she'd preached, viewing her task to be more a matter of placing herself in various key positions around the castle at appropriate times that lent themselves to authentic interaction. There had been paperwork, however, because there always was, especially as she was now adding to her caseload a number of the senior students who were facing only another semester before needing to consider their next options. Creating transitional pathways had been her bread-and-butter for the last five years, it was somewhat pleasing to be able to settle in one place whilst focusing on it.

As was often the case when she got completely fixated on work that kept her at her desk, Liana had realised a little late that she'd missed the seating for the evening meal. Only a month out from having to refresh the resolution that she not forget to eat, her solution took the form of seeing what she could scrounge from the remnants of the groceries she'd packed to bring with her, namely the hoard of instant noodles she'd collected from her favourite food market before heading into the wilderness away from imported Korean delicacies. They were a guilty pleasure, especially for someone who knew how to cook, but would have been a permissible intervention had her arrival at her bedroom not thrown an unexpected roadblock into her culinary plans.

She stood smiling at the note for far longer than would have been easy to deny, had she any kind of audience. As it was, there was only the dust-mites to notice her lingering appreciation of the handwriting, and mounting curiosity in regards to the invitation.

Cordially invited.

Of course he would write that.

To give credit it where it was due, Liana did take time to change, which mostly constituted swapping into her fur-lined boots and pulling a knee-length cardigan over her woolen dress. A fleeting thought had been given to whether pyjamas might be more appropriate but, all things considered, she decided against it. It wasn't as if she'd packed any that were particularly suitable for the climate, after all. Snatching up not one, but two of her remaining stash of noodles, she took a glance at herself in the mirror on her way out and moved a little faster than necessary towards the teacher's lounge, or more specifically, the small television room immediately adjacent.

To find Alastair already there, doing his level best not to be too excited. That said, he did stand and smile, doing that awkward gesturing with his hands that people do when they don't know what to do with them. Eventually he settled on just holding them behind his back. "Glad to see you've found my note and decided to attend," his baritone rumbled. He was dressed in his finest, though to be fair, that didn't deviate much from his normal. A black brocade gilet with a subtle raven motif and silver buttons, over a maroon longsleeve shirt. Pressed black pants with a black leather belt over black leather boots. Finally, a black tailcoat with maroon lining was hung over a seat.

A bottle of cola, a carton of orange juice and two glasses were prepared on a table, itself flanked by two chairs, opposite the relatively large screen TV hooked up to the VCR. Finally some options of different flavor potato chips seemed to be available as well. Finally a thermos and a coffee cup seemed to round our the preparations done by the music teacher. . "I, uh - didn't know what you liked, so I got a few different things," Beat. "How was your day?"

It was likely not often the case that Alastair Temple could claim to have been upstaged by a bottle of soda but, whilst his appearance was the more striking of the two, the tiniest amount of flustered naivety left some doubt that it was in any way specifically a result of the upcoming activity, let alone his intended company. Thus far, he had proven to favor the flamboyant when it came to fashion and Liana couldn't prove beyond all doubt that this wasn't just how he'd woken up and decided to dress for the day. What seemed less a matter of happenstance was his preparation, and it was that which threw her long enough for her to appear visibly taken aback. A faintly mystified stare ensured that it was an overall positive reaction, very promptly compensated for by a bright smile and the emergence of two cups from her cardigan pockets. "I'm afraid all I have to offer are some slightly spicy noodles." Her gaze held his and it took another elongated pause for her to realize she'd totally ignored his question.

Compose yourself, woman.

"It was long and productive but very much due for an improvement." Surveying the spread, Liana exhaled in happy relief. "This seems to be a promising start."

"Aw, I'm sorry your day wasn't that good, Liana. Hopefully a fun movie can be some distraction," he answered, starting a kettle going for her. He'd already eaten, and he wasn't going to assume that she brought food for both of them. To be fair, he was basing that on the fact that he could eat two or three of those packets and not be full, so he considered two a one person meal in and of itself. Still, he seemed to be taking the whole noodle thing in stride. "The water won't take long, I'm sure. Never actually used this kettle before."

"So, what prompted this?" Curiosity held out over polite acceptance as Liana set down the noodles in full anticipation of sharing. Of all the Korean dishes she was capable of, it might not have been her first choice of introduction but it somehow seemed fitting. He had already been privy to her unexpected taste in literature, finding out that her favorite thing to snack on was not found in the confectionery aisle but brewed in a Styrofoam cup seemed somewhat par for the course. "Not that I'm complaining," she hastened to add. "Though I am impressed you managed to find a copy locally."

"Oh there's a rental in town. It's small and hidden in a cellar, but it's there," he smiled, waiting for the kettle to boil. "As for why - I just figured it'd be a nice distraction. I know you like horror stories - in book form at least, it's not a large leap to assume you enjoy them in movie form as well. And this is a classic for a reason," he smiled, leaning against the counter and folding his arms over each other.

An elevation of eyebrows conveyed a mixture of surprise and pleased interest. New Cresthill itself seemed to have grown a little since the last time she was in the area, either that or it had a habit of hiding its secrets in cellars. Smiling at his reasoning, Liana then wrestled with a thought that had occurred to her since deciphering his note and pulled her cardigan around herself to confess, "You know, I've never seen it." A sheepish wince bled into a soft huff of laughter. "I keep meaning to but I've never worked up the nerve." Hesitating as something dawned on her, Liana added, "Never found anyone to watch it with, that's half the problem. Reading these kind of stories alone is bad enough, movies are just so much more...visceral." She shuddered, not out of repulsion but the squeamish delight the occupied the other end of the spectrum.

"You haven't? Oh we're gonna have to solve that, for sure," he chuckled, interrupted by the kettle starting to whistle. With a deft hand he retrieved the kettle and set about pouring the boiling water into Styrofoam noodle cups, being careful not to overfill them. That done he set the kettle aside. "I've seen it a few times, but the last time was with Rob and Sylvain, like six years ago ish," his words were somewhat subdued, but there was very little sadness in them. Not like the last time he talked about his old friends.

Evoking their names nevertheless caught Liana's attention, enough that she filed away the reference for further consideration as the movie unfolded. Without means to judge Alastair's choices, which may very well have been dictated by availability alone, there was still some chance that this movie, with this significance, was part of a healing process for the music teacher. If that was the case, she was touched he'd invited her to share in it.

Intervening to pull out the cutlery draw, Liana took out two forks and swiveled one around to present to Alastair. "There are two schools of thought," she advised, "One would suggest that eliminating most of the water and then adding the flavouring is a far better option because what you wind up lacking in broth, you make up for in intensity." Her lips twitched. "And then there's the correct thinking, which is that the broth is part of the whole experience." An expression of playful self-righteousness paraded as gracious permission. "You are free to choose as you please, of course, with limited judgement."

Ah, so the second cup was for him after all. What he did next though, might upset her - or, at least, earn him that limited judgement she'd promised. He went for the first option, draining most of the water - when the noodles had soaked long enough to cook - then adding the flavoring. "I'm a metalhead. Nothing about me is subtle. Intensity all the way," he explained with an apologetic smile.

It would have been a spectacular revelation of a side of her personality deftly hidden thus far for Liana to actually mind. As it was, she had brought up the hotly-contested debate purely because she found amusement in it, never having bothered to participate in it herself. If she was inclined to be honest, she prepared the noodles both ways depending on how she was going to consume them, since a slightly more advanced version of the otherwise-still-a-snack was to prepare them and then fry them with additional vegetables throughout, even some tofu if she was feeling particularly adventurous. Perhaps with a little more warning in advance, she could introduce him to that another time.

It took her only a moment's regathering of her wits for Liana to move past the presumption, nay intention, of there being another time.

"I'll give you a free pass for being enough of a novice not to know better." Tearing opening the seasoning packet, she tipped it into his cup before repeating the process with her own. She took it then, with a hand to spare for one of the packets of crisps, to place on the coffee table in front of the television. Then she returned to assist with the last of the supplies. "We've supplies enough for an army." The observation alone made Liana consider something. "Are we expecting others?" She didn't know why she felt suddenly awkward asking, other than the acknowledgement that she had completely assumed there wouldn't be and suddenly realized she had no basis for it outside her own preference.

"I mean, there's also the hardcore way of eating them. You crunch the raw noodles and eat those, chase it down with the boiling water, then snort the seasoning like it was coke," Beat. "I don't recommend that method, if I'm honest," he concluded, chuckling at his own joke. Everything now prepared for movie time he motioned her to her chair, once again waiting for her to be seated before taking his own. "Expecting? No. But this is a common space. And it's perfectly fine for some of the snacks to survive for next time," answering that question. "You ready for the movie?"

Careful consideration of available options had left Liana torn between one of the armchairs and the corner of the couch. The reason for her indecision was multi-faceted, or at least she would have argued as much, spurred primarily by a consideration of what would provide the best view, followed by the most comfort. Of niggling relevance was the seclusion of the chair versus the more communal arrangement of a three-seater but it wasn't something she allowed herself to linger on, stalling momentarily as a distant recollection lead to the uncovering of several blankets from the cupboard in the corner. She set one, still folded, on the back of the couch but took the other with her to the armchair, which won for the time being by pure dint of having been her preference in the past. With blanket draped across her lap and her cup of noodles retrieved and perched on the arm of the chair to cool, Liana tucked her legs up beneath her and gathered her resolve as a sigh that set her shoulders in place. "I don't know if ready is the word I would choose but I am fresh out of stalling tactics, at least."

"Well, that'll just have to do," Al said with a confident nod as he took the other chair, the table with snacks and drink firmly in between them. One might briefly consider whether he'd set it up this way on purpose, to help create a certain atmosphere of enjoying a movie together (though whether or not one 'enjoyed' a movie like this was up for debate entirely) while keeping a polite distance between them, or not. He placed the other blanket on his lap as per her example and started the movie, as well as his meal of noodles.

It was perhaps of no surprise that Liana had inherited her love of horror from her father, or that she almost only ever watched movies that fit into the genre during their time together. These days that meant a lot of the newer releases slipped under the radar, but in the case of this particular classic, nothing her dad had presented as a reasonable argument had swayed her on sitting through it. Now that the previews had started, and her first forkful of noodles dangled in an attempt to cool them, the faintest sensation of trepidation began to set in. Why, after being certain for such a long time that this particular movie would sit with her for too long, had she consented to watch it with barely a protest? She couldn't argue that there wasn't a sense of anticipation, a thrill, which was the entire appeal of being scared in the first place. She just hadn't got very far into the novel this film was based on before she'd been left with a feeling of foreboding and it was just occurring to her now that she was going to have to sleep alone, in a cold room, in an empty wing of a large Scottish castle, after watching this...

Ever so slowly, the blanket was pulled up to drape over the top of her head.

For Al's part, he never considered himself a 'reasonable argument' which might explain how he, unlike her father, had managed to trick her in to watching this without much of a fuss. Part of him was amused at how terrified she got from scenes that - to him - were unsettling, sure, but not blanket-on-head terrifying. Instead the movie caused in him a deep sense of being unnerved at the tragedy and horror that a twelve year old child was undergoing in the narrative. The other part of him felt sorry, and he wondered why. Was it some sense of wanting to protect her?

The movie was written more to disturb the viewer, rather than scare or startle them like other, simpler 'horror' movies. His noodles long gone as the movie went on, he quietly - as not to interrupt the immersion into the narrative - poured himself some cola, wordlessly offering her some as well.

It was a testament to the film's caliber that, despite her reservations, Liana had been immediately drawn in. Several times, she had been caught with a mouthful halfway, only to return it to the cup to concentrate on plot progression. It meant the noodles were well and truly cold by the time she finished them but eating whilst distracted made this a fairly common occurrence. She was, at least proven so far, the type of person easily immersed and spoke only in brief moments of exclamation at pivotal moments. A moment's laughter at her expense had seen her willingly chuckle whilst hiding beneath her blanket but, like Alastair, it was the sense of deep empathy and discomfort that made her squeamish and promised, as she'd predicted, to stick on her mind well after the movie was over.

If it ever finished.

The problem arose just after she'd accepted the soda, distracted into a frozen tableau as Alastair poured by the unnerving sight of a young girl bad-mouthing a priest. Her fixation made the shock of sudden inaction even more profound, a jolt that threatened to slosh the cola all over her hand as the VHS, clearly a well-worn one, suddenly paused and plunged the room into eerie silence. On the screen, a close-up of the child's distorted features did not make for a comforting intermission, not when the flicker of the television coupled with the tape's best attempts to keep spooling created an unholy noise that was instantly unsettling. "That doesn't sound good."

"Shit," Al jumped out of his seat with almost startling swiftness, darting over to the player to stop the tape and eject it. A hiccup like that usually meant only one thing: the player was trying to eat the tape. As he removed the tape from the device his fears were validated; a length of tape was hanging out of the plastic housing, still caught in the machine. "Uh - hang on a sec, maybe I can fix this," he offered, kneeling down in front of the player and carefully trying to pull the tape out.

After a few moments of cautious effort he did manage, and used his fingers to spool the tape back on the spindle in the casing. "That's that done, hopefully it'll play true now," he offered, glancing over to Liana. "You ok to continue, there? Do you need a break?"

Having already deemed herself unlikely to be of much assistance, Liana had used the time to head into the kitchen to wash her cola-drenched hand before returning to perch on the arm of her chair, willing to be present in the solution even if only as a spectator. Still wearing her blanket as a shroud, she smiled broadly at his success and then drew in a deep breath, which she promptly exhaled as slightly shaky laughter, as she considered his offer. "I'm not sure a break would prove much other than to draw out the anticipation. I knew this would get under my skin."

She shuddered then, only partially a voluntary action. As a child, she'd been prone to nightmares, and thanks to a confusing muddle of sentiments mostly from her mother these had often taken the guise of being punished by otherworldly entities for being a disappointment. No amount of outgrowing that kind of thinking truly eliminated the core memory of waking up in pitch darkness to the sound of her own sobbing. Sliding back into the chair and immediately tucking herself into it sideways, abandoning the idea of holding a drink in favour of encasing herself entirely in the blanket, Liana released a breath as a putter of lips and declared, "All right, let's do this."

Part of him almost regretted picking this movie now. A very, very small part. Almost. While he wanted to share a scary movie with her, he hadn't wanted for it to get so much under her skin that it would affect her for real. Still, wheels were in motion, and this train was going to finish its journey. With that in mind he put the tape back in, hoping that the movie would resume - and though the initial scenes were a bit scuffed and glitchy, after a moment or two it played normally again.

Thus satisfied that he'd done a good job he slid back into his seat, quietly - inasmuch as that was possible - munching on some potato chips.

Thankfully, should the topic ever come up, Liana would have been the first to point out that she was a grown woman entirely capable of making her own choices. She also would have been quite responsive to admitting that part of her craved the adrenaline, which wasn't always people's expectations of her at first glance. Such duality stemmed from an early upbringing that favoured controlled passion, channeled and directed with purpose rather than let loose to randomly provoke, which didn't always mesh perfectly with what had emerged as a natural tenacity for pushing the boundaries. Professional decorum aside, Liana was typically more adventurous than outside appearances suggested.

It didn't save her entirely from several full retreats under the blanket.

By the time the movie wound up, she had reached a resolution that involved resting her head against a folded arm, impressively folded into the chair in a way that looked restful despite the close confines. Tucked against her was another of the bags of potato chips, only lightly touched because there hadn't been a lot of reprieve within the movie's narrative for her to drown out the audio with chewing. As the final credits started to roll, there was a noticeable moment of frozen contemplation before the rustle of a packet resulted in a single crisp delicately snapped in two between her teeth. She'd been eating them one-by-one all night.

"Sometimes I wonder," she eventually broke the silence, "how on earth anyone comes up with these kind of stories." It was, at least it seemed, an expression of admiration rather than concern.

"In this case I suspect the author came across the term of concept of an exorcism and got to thinking how to combine that with actual demon possession, and what that might look like," Al answered, his voice a bit lowered out of - well, 'respect' was a powerful word - for the movie and her reaction to it. As such he also let the credits play, with the music - strange and esoteric as it was, on somewhat lowered volume too. As he did though it dawned on him that her question was probably more rhetorical than actual and he chuckled softly. In his mind, the movie's theme music was stuck on repeat. Tubular Bells, by the then prodigy Mike Oldfield. He wondered whatever had happened to Mike after writing that legendary piece.

"To subject a child to it though..."

The words petered off, leaving behind a pensive silence that matched the unblinking stare Liana was affording the corner of the coffee table. It lasted only a few seconds before she visibly roused herself and stretched, trapped momentarily in the uncontrollable tension of extended limbs. When she finally relaxed, it was with a faintly triumphant slump. "Worth watching in any case, even though I may need a mirror to peer around corners for a while." Her features, slightly sleepy despite the tumult of her thoughts, softened into a smile. "And what is your verdict, Mr. Temple? Worthy of the hire fee?" She laughed, rendering it equally as rhetorical as she added, "You have me intrigued, I didn't realise New Cresthill had embraced popular culture. Last time I was here, they were protesting a half-hearted petition to install a cinema."

"Oh worthy of the hire fee for sure," Al easily agreed. "It's a classic for a reason. Very good movie, especially for one so old," he added, leaning back cuddled in his chair and looking at her, with a smile. Another potato chip monched, before he continued. "You'll not be surprised to hear I paid special attention to the music. The dissonance between the theme - tubular bells - not actually being scary but rather mysterious and the general feel and mood of the movie was an especially inspired choice," He could wax poetic about this, but decided against it. He didn't want to scare her away, after all.

"I'll take you to the video rental some time if you want," Beat. "Maybe we could make this a recurring thing?"

A slow nod of confirmation betrayed just enough hint of distraction that the implication of the offer was lost amidst Liana's curiosity. "I'd be interested to see what other titles they carry."

Having roused herself, Liana rose to assist with the task of packing away, rolling up what remained of the packet of crisps she'd been nursing and finding a rubber band in the kitchen area to fasten around it. While she ran a shallow sink to wash the cutlery and cups, she glanced up at the clock over the oven and smiled to herself. At this rate, her sleeping schedule was going to be completely shattered, a feat entirely attributed to time spent with the same person. She suspected both of them were not disappointed by the break in rehearsal as a motivation to socialize, though the day following would likely require some time dedicated to their festival piece. It was, as it happened, not an unhappy anticipation.

"I think that's everything," she said finally, scanning the area for residual signs of mess. "And now to attempt sleep." It was actually walking through poorly-lit hallways that concerned Liana the most but she was well past an age where expressing reluctance felt justified.

When she extricated herself from her chair he did as well, to do his part in cleaning up the mess. The VHS tape set to rewind as they worked, it didn't take long for the mess - what relatively little there was of it - to be gotten rid of. He looked at her, considering for a moment how scared the movie had made her. That, combined with their domicile being an old and creaky, creepy castle, gave him an idea. And so, bravely he offered, "Walk you to your room?"

The offer evoked only the briefest hesitation, a consideration for preserved dignity that was promptly vanquished out of sheer unwillingness to make a fool of herself otherwise. With a warm smile, Liana dipped her head thankfully and then, replied with a slight twinkle in her eye.

"You know the way."


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