Editors: Kelsey Keating & Amanda Lewis
SALVATION Copyright ÂŠ 2020 J.S. Bailey All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, please write to the publisher. This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the authorâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published by BHC Press Library of Congress Control Number: 2020933935 ISBN: 978-1-64397-136-0 (Hardcover) ISBN: 978-1-64397-137-7 (Softcover) ISBN: 978-1-64397-138-4 (Ebook) For information, write: BHC Press 885 Penniman #5505 Plymouth, MI 48170
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works by j.s. bailey novels Rage’s Echo Servant
The Chronicles of Servitude, Book One
The Chronicles of Servitude, Book Two
The Chronicles of Servitude, Book Three
The Chronicles of Servitude, Book Four
A Chronicles of Servitude Story
short story collections Ordinary Souls
multi-author anthologies In Creeps the Night A Winter’s Romance The Whispered Tales of Graves Grove Tales by the Tree
1 A STREAM lay at the bottom of the hill, and Jane Newbold ran toward it as fast as her short legs would carry her. An orangewinged butterfly flitted ahead of her, and each time she nearly caught up with it, it veered wildly in some other direction, forcing Jane to change course at the last second. As hard as she tried, she could never quite reach the butterfly. She panted with exertion, tripped over the hem of her dress, and landed hard in the mud close to the edge of the stream. The butterfly soared above the clear water trickling over rocks and landed in a patch of blooming dandelions on the other side, flexing its wings in the sunlight as it drank of the flower’s nectar. “Why won’t you let me catch you?” Jane called out to it. “You’re just so beautiful!” “Jane? Dinner’s nearly ready!” Jane turned her head at the sound of her father’s voice. She could see him up near her family’s cabin at the top of the hill, leaning on an axe next to a stack of split wood.
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“Coming, Daddy!” she cried and heaved herself to her feet. Her dress was splotched with mud now, and she knew her mother would scold her for it, yet it would never stop her from running. She ran up the hillside and burst into the cabin, where the smells of cooking carrots and turnips made her mouth water. Her mother stirred a pot with one of Jane’s younger siblings on her hip, and when her mother turned to face her, Jane’s face broke into a wide smile. “I love you, Mother,” Jane said, unsure of why the moment called for it. “I’ll love you forever and ever, all the way to the end of time.” Her mother’s brow creased. She opened her mouth to speak— And Jane opened her eyes. She lay on her back, in bed. Where was her mother? Where was she? Shaking, she sat up. Her body felt all wrong, like it had doubled in size in an instant. She lifted a hand in front of her face. It was too hard to see in these shadows, so she swung her legs over the edge of the bed and pulled herself to her feet. She felt so heavy. Daylight filtered through a gap in the thick drapes hanging in the window close to the bed. Jane pulled them open and looked out onto a manicured lawn sloping down to a pond, where a pair of geese pecked at the grass. She coughed a few times, then turned from the window. The chamber in which she’d awakened was spacious, containing a tall wardrobe and some bookshelves. Something about all of this felt so familiar, yet each time she tried to focus on where she’d seen it before, her thoughts flitted away like that orange butterfly. Jane held her hand in front of her face again. In the better lighting, she could see that her long, white fingers were even longer than she was used to. Had she grown up? When had that happened? A slightly yellowed envelope lying on the dresser beside the bed caught her eye. “Jane Newbold,” read the ink scrawled upon it in writing so familiar, it had to be her own.
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She tore it open and read: Dear Jane, If you’re reading this, you may be confused. It usually happens like this, and unfortunately there’s nothing that I, that is to say, you, can do about it. Yes, you wrote this letter on July 24, 1999. That’s today’s date, though it won’t be when you get to reread it. Unseen ants marched over Jane’s skin. I want you to be brave, Jane, just as you’ve always been. Your memories will come back to you—I know, because it’s happened before, and as frightening as it may feel right now, it will all get better. If all has gone according to my wishes, there should be a man with you named John Finnegan. He is a good friend and will help you reorient yourself to the world. I wish you the best of luck. Sincerely, Jane Newbold Jane lay the letter back on the top of the dresser with a trembling hand and took one step backward. “John Finnegan,” she murmured, turning to the door. She knew that name, and at once the image of a short man with pale, brown hair entered her mind. He liked to wear navy blue polo shirts and gray slacks, and she used to make fun of him for having so little variety in fashion. Her heart pounded. She knew John Finnegan, and she knew this bedroom. She’d sat on the edge of this bed when she wrote herself that note. Was John Finnegan really here? She hurried over to the wardrobe and withdrew a bathrobe to cover up the thin gown she’d slept in, then gingerly stepped out into a long hallway with apple-green walls and a polished, hardwood floor.
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She remembered picking out the walls’ paint color at the hardware store. This was her house. Upon reaching the top of a curving staircase sweeping down to a bright entryway below her, Jane called out, “Finnegan?” Because now she remembered Finnegan didn’t like to be called John, since that had also been the name of his father. The house felt too still, as if Jane were the only person inside it. “Finnegan, are you here?” Her voice sounded creaky, like hinges in need of lubricant. She sensed a distant tremor as if someone previously inert had sprung into motion. Jane descended two of the steps, then paused. “Finnegan?” A short man in gray slacks and—surprise, surprise—a navy blue polo shirt burst into the entryway, looking vaguely irritated to have been interrupted from whatever he’d been doing. His gray hair glistened in the sunlight spilling in through the long windows on either side of the front door. Jane gave a start—who was this man? Surely not her friend. This man looked much too old. He stopped at the bottom of the sweeping staircase and gave her an awkward bow. “My lady, is it good to see you! I thought you’d never wake up.” So it was Finnegan. Jane swallowed and descended the rest of the stairs, coming to a stop before the diminutive man. “I’ve been asleep,” she said. “Yes. How much do you remember?” He gave her a calculating look. “It’s hard to say.” She paused and squinted at him and the lines on his face. “How long was I out?” “Let me think…it was 1999 when I tucked you in, which makes it…twenty-one years? I ought to start calling you Rip.” “Twenty…one?” Jane’s head swam. Memories trickled back to where they belonged, and in a fleeting moment of existential horror, she realized how old she must be by now. “Let’s go sit down somewhere comfortable,” she said somewhat dazedly, starting toward the parlor. “And bring me something to eat.”
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“Yes, my lady.” He sounded annoyed, but she supposed he wasn’t used to waiting on anyone hand and foot after this length of time. Finnegan hurried off to the kitchen while Jane went to the parlor and sat in a plush armchair close to the unlit fireplace. He rushed back a minute later carrying a tray laden with an apple, a banana, and a cold glass of water. Jane bit into the apple while Finnegan took a seat. The juice felt like heaven on her tongue. “So,” she said after she’d swallowed. “What important things have I missed? What should I know?” Finnegan’s brow furrowed. “Where do I begin? Terrorism’s gone haywire; back in 2001, a group of nutjobs flew planes into some pretty famous buildings. You can read all about that online.” “I do remember the internet,” Jane said. “Did you ever get a computer?” Finnegan shoved a hand into a pocket and withdrew a thin, rectangular device. “Got a computer, then got this. Check it out.” He tossed it to her, and when Jane hit a button on the side, a tiny screen lit up to reveal a stock image of mountain scenery. “What is this?” Jane asked. Finnegan grinned. “It’s everything anyone ever needs. Swipe the screen with your finger.” Jane obeyed. Tiny icons appeared over top the mountains. She squinted at them, then handed the device back to Finnegan. “You can show me how to use it later. What else do I need to know?” “One of your granddaughters died.” “I’m sorry to hear that.” “A reality TV star became president.” “That doesn’t surprise me.” “Your son remains as pompous as ever. I’ve been keeping tabs.” Jane rolled her eyes. “Is there anything from the past twentyone years that could possibly astound me?” “There’s a new Servant. Well, not so new anymore, since he’s been at it awhile. New to you, though.” Jane leaned forward in her chair. Even the slightest news about the Servants was enough to interest her. “Oh?”
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“He’s real skinny, stopped a few crises. Name’s Bobby.” “Bobby.” Jane let the name roll off her tongue. “He doesn’t sound very threatening.” “I’ll leave that for you to decide. Let me think…Margot moved away. Her dad died, left her a place. A lot of the old crowd have moved on from this neck of the woods. I’ve got all their whereabouts in a folder, if you want to drop in on them.” “Good.” Jane sipped from her glass of water. “Tell me more about this Bobby.”
BOBBY ROLAND pulled his rental car up in front of a faded brick ranch house in a tired suburb of Dayton, Ohio and took slow breaths before exiting. The pain wasn’t so bad today since Ashley Mason, age ten, had given him one of her healing treatments that morning before he got on his flight to Ohio. The girl’s powers were only a band-aid technique, however: Bobby couldn’t be completely healed until Cecily Broward, who owned the cursed object that had done this to him, decided to be nice and lift the curse like the benevolent soul she wasn’t. Bobby opened the car door and heaved himself out. Autumn leaves skittered across the concrete driveway and collected in a pile against a stone flowerbed border. The whole neighborhood had a tranquil feel to it, though the domestic scenery wasn’t enough to mask the underlying murk he’d been sensing for days, like a violent current flowing beneath an otherwise placid river. Hopefully this visit would go over better than the similar one he’d conducted earlier in the year. Feeling a boost of confidence as he made his way up the walk, he rapped on the front door and stepped back. The door swung open with a squeal. A skinny black man just a couple years younger than him appeared, wearing baggy jeans and a Cincinnati Reds T-shirt. He gripped a half-eaten bagel sandwich in his left hand.
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“Hey,” the man said. Bobby peered past him into a dimly lit living room with paneled walls. “Hey. Is Peter Imbus home? He and I have been emailing each other.” The man took a bite out of his sandwich, chewed, and swallowed. “You’re looking at him.” Bobby regarded the man again. “You’re Peter Imbus.” “That’s what my birth certificate tells me. I’m guessing you’re Bobby.” “Yep.” Bobby cracked a smile and held out his hand for Peter to shake. The younger man pumped his arm up and down with vigor. “It’s good to meet you,” Peter said. “Same here. It’s funny, it’s just, Adrian—Mom—said you and I look a lot alike, only you have brown eyes.” “I do have brown eyes,” Peter said. At that, they both laughed, and Peter said, “Come on in, bro! Man, I’ve always wanted to say that. I’m my dad’s only kid. Growing up was kind of lonely.” They took seats opposite each other in the small living area, Bobby on a blue plaid couch and Peter in a matching recliner. “I have a younger half brother,” Bobby said. “Well, two of them, counting you. But Jonas and I aren’t anything alike, so sometimes it felt like I was alone.” “I remember when she stopped in here about five years ago,” Peter said. “It was like seeing a ghost. My dad never did get over her. He practically had a shrine of her pictures, and he told me all sorts of amazing stories about her so I wouldn’t think she was a deadbeat. Anyway, she came here and fessed up about what she did, and I yelled at her to get out.” Peter swallowed. “I wish I could take it all back, considering.” Silence descended upon them as they each contemplated the actions and demise of their late mother, who’d abandoned four children she’d conceived with four different men, and Bobby felt more unease stirring within him. What exactly was going on here? No demons lurked nearby; he’d be able to tell in an instant. And Peter was probably as harmless as Bobby.
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“I went to see our sisters in Michigan,” Bobby said at last. “Kylee and Jenna? I contacted them first like I did with you, and they both said I could come see them, but when I met up with them, they didn’t want to talk about Adrian, so we had nothing to talk about.” “Are they talking to each other?” “Yeah. After Adrian told them about each other, they started hanging out.” “Good for them,” Peter said. Bobby pictured the two young women sitting across from him on a couch much like he and Peter were doing now, giving him blank stares like they’d expected someone more along the lines of Dwayne Johnson or Vin Diesel. “Kylee’s a singer and Jenna writes poems. If they’d liked me a little better, the four of us could have made a half-decent band.” He nodded toward the drum set in the corner. Peter’s sheepish expression reminded Bobby all too much of his own. “Honestly, I’ve hardly touched it this year. Been too busy with work.” “I hear you.” Bobby leaned back to get more comfortable, then winced as red-hot pain shot through his calves. “You okay?” Peter asked, sitting up straighter as he sensed Bobby’s discomfort. “Not really. I have chronic pain.” Peter’s eyes widened. “Like fibromyalgia?” “Sort of. I also got in a pretty big fight a few weeks ago and bruised some ribs.” He left out the bit about Ashley Mason healing those bruises once he finished dealing with that particular unruly demoniac. “No offense, bro, but you don’t look like much of a fighter.” “You’d be surprised.” Bobby closed his eyes, took a few calming breaths, and started to change the subject to something happier when a young voice from nowhere said, “Help!” He sat forward and looked at Peter, who was just finishing up his sandwich. “What?” Peter asked, nonplussed. “I like bagels.” “Did you hear something a second ago?”
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“I think a car went by.” “I heard someone say something.” “Maybe they had a loud radio?” “It wasn’t outside. It was in here.” Bobby pulled out his phone to see if it had been the source of that single word, yet he had no notifications, and no apps had accidentally opened. Weird. He slid the phone back into his pocket. “Anyway,” Bobby said, “it’s nice meeting you. I should have done it years ago, but I’ve been busy, too.” “Mopping floors and picking fights must take a lot out of a brother,” Peter said with a wink. In his mind’s eye, Bobby saw himself standing before a cowering young man who spewed curses at him, ordering his tormentor to return to the pit and never hurt anyone again. “It sure does,” Bobby said. “What did you say you do, again?” “I inspect septic tanks. Don’t make that joke.” “Help!” Though the voice sounded slightly louder this time, it seemed more like the speaker stood at the far end of a long tunnel. “I just heard it again,” Bobby said, rising and glancing around the room for any other possible sources of the sound. Peter placed his hands on his knees, his eyes curious. “The voice?” “It sounds like someone’s calling for help.” “It must be the door-to-door salesman I locked in the basement.” Peter grinned, but his expression faltered when he seemed to realize Bobby was not in a joking mood. “Dude, I didn’t hear anything.” At that moment, Adrian Pollard’s apparition materialized midway between Bobby and Peter. “He’s going to think you’re crazy,” the false likeness of his late mother said mournfully as blood dripped down her chest and onto the floor, where it vanished without making any puddles. “And he’ll never want to talk to you again, just like your sisters.”
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Peter, who could not see the apparition that the demons had conjured in Bobby’s mind, said, “Hey, man, you don’t look so good.” The dark, unseen current Bobby felt flowed faster and faster as if rushing toward a waterfall. “I don’t handle flights as well as I used to,” Bobby said, rising. “I hate to cut this short today, but I’d better get some rest. I’ll come back tomorrow.” Looking disappointed that his long-lost brother would be leaving so soon, Peter said, “You could stay here, if you want. I’ve got an extra room.” “Thanks, but I don’t want to burden you. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Peter frowned. “Well, it was nice seeing you.” Bobby hurried out to the rental car as fast as his aching legs would allow. It took him ten minutes to reach the seedy motel he’d checked into after leaving the airport, and once he entered his room, he said to the ceiling, “Can you please tell me what’s going on?” Listen, the Spirit whispered. “I’m trying to.” Ever obedient, Bobby sat on the end of the queen-sized bed, closed his eyes, and waited for enlightenment. He could feel his blood speeding through his veins, his pulse tapping out a harried rhythm, that invisible current of dread rushing toward its climax… “I’m…trapped.” Bobby cracked open one eye. Despite the hollow, young voice that sounded even louder this third time, he remained alone in the room. “Trapped where?” Bobby asked, not sure if he should expect a reply. “In the bad place.” Phantom spiders scurried down Bobby’s arms. He peered at the ceiling and into the corners; even risked a peek under the bed. He was still alone.
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“If you’re trapped in a bad place,” Bobby said, “how can I hear you?” “It’s…hard. Will you help me?” Bobby hesitated. Was this another demonic tactic intended to drive him insane, like his doppelgänger and the apparition of his mother? Or was some child really stuck somewhere and reaching out psychically to someone who might be able to help? “How is it I can hear you?” he asked. The voice took longer to respond this time. “I prayed.” “You prayed for someone to hear you?” “Yes.” “For how long?” There came another long spell of silence. “I don’t know. The bad people keep hurting me. They’re always hurting me. I try to hide from them.” The voice sobbed. “I don’t even know where I am.” “Okay,” Bobby said, thinking fast. “Can you tell me your name?” “I think I’m called Layla.” “Okay, Layla. How old are you?” “Seven? No, I must be eight now. Something bad’s happened. Are you an angel?” Her words made him shiver. “I’m a man. My name’s Bobby.” “I need someone to save me.” Bobby tried to piece the facts together based on what Layla hadn’t said in addition to what she had. Most lost children would cry for their parents. Since Layla had not mentioned needing her mother or father, did that mean she was an orphan? Then he had an idea. “Layla?” he said. “Yes?” The hopeful note in her voice wrenched Bobby’s heart. “I want to try something. You prayed for someone to hear you, and I could hear your voice. Can you pray that I see you, too? Because it’s kind of spooky not seeing who’s talking to me. You’re like a ghost.” He heard a distant, mournful giggle. “I can try.”
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Bobby cleared his mind, hoping that if he could gain some sort of mental picture of the child, he might be able to determine her location so he or the police could go retrieve her. Either Layla was praying silently, or Bobby had lost the connection with her, for he heard nothing, and no revelatory images appeared in his mind. “Can you see me?” Bobby’s eyes snapped open. Standing in front of him was a young girl dressed in a ruffled denim skirt, a hot pink T-shirt, folded-down pink tube socks, and white canvas sneakers with scuffs on the sides. Her hair had been cut in a jagged fringe across the front, and the rest was tied back with a giant magenta scrunchie. “I can see you now,” Layla said. “Can you see me?” She had deep brown eyes and a few freckles on her face. She reminded him of someone but couldn’t place who it might be. “I can see you.” Bobby swallowed. No child in this decade would dress like this one; they’d be laughed at. “Um, can you tell me what year it is where you are?” Layla’s young brow furrowed. “Year?” “I think your message might have come through a little later than it should have. But don’t worry!” Bobby added when her eyes started to fall downcast. “We’ll figure this out.” “I don’t know anymore,” Layla said. “I’ve been trapped a long time. I remember watching the New Year party on TV, before it happened. I think it was 1994.” Bobby started to feel lightheaded—he’d been born in 1994. How could he help someone twenty-six years ago? “What happened?” he asked, trying to mask his unease. “How did you get trapped?” Layla shuddered and glanced away from him. “They were all drinking. And…one of them came at me with an axe from the log pile out back. They said it served him right, for what he did. I remember…” She rubbed her neck as tears filled her eyes. “It hurt so bad, but then it all stopped. Then I was trapped, and have been ever since with the bad people.”
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While she spoke, her appearance morphed, and thick blood gushed from a ragged wound encircling her entire neck and soaked into her clothes. Her brown eyes grew pleading. “Bobby, I need your help. I need—” Suddenly she disappeared, and the unseen current crashed over Bobby like a tsunami of dread.
2 AUTUMN RIDGE didn’t appeal much to Mia Swanson anymore, not since she’d tried to kill her best friend’s cousin two years earlier. It hadn’t mattered to Shona McElroy that Maliyah Carlisle had committed a terrible deed. The younger woman became possessed and allowed the demons to resurrect a small army of criminals from the dead, using living beings as payment. A lot of people had died, but not Maliyah. Bobby Roland had saved her, ever the hero. Mia let the speedometer needle on her dashboard drop to thirty-five as she passed through the Autumn Ridge town limits. After fleeing—no, moving—to Portland, she made it down here just a few times a year, and each time she passed through the old, familiar streets, emotions she didn’t want to acknowledge welled up inside her like magma in some dormant volcanic vent. As always, Mia shoved all such feelings into a mental box, tied it to a mental anchor, and threw it off a mental ship into a mental ocean. Life was safer that way.
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She pulled into her parents’ driveway behind her mother’s lonesome sedan. No other guests had arrived yet. Mia popped the trunk and removed her suitcase and a blue giftbag containing the sweater vest she’d bought for Sherman Swanson’s birthday, then approached the front door with her fist raised to knock. “Come in!” her mother called from the bowels of the house before Mia even touched the door. “It’s unlocked!” Mia let herself inside and set the giftbag on the small table in the entryway. Her mother, Geneva, bustled about the spacious kitchen off to the right. Various components of a chocolate birthday cake were scattered across the counters and marble-topped island, and a mouthwatering aroma leaked from the oven to make Mia’s stomach rumble. “How was the trip down?” Geneva asked, coming around the island to give Mia a tight squeeze. With her slightly plump figure and short, vibrantly red hair, the woman looked the same as always, which Mia found comforting in a world where evil roamed. “Uneventful,” Mia said. She leaned her rolling suitcase against the cabinets and stretched her arms, grateful to be out of the car. “How are things here?” “Super busy, if you couldn’t tell! Everyone should be coming by around six, and I’ve barely gotten anything ready. You could help me, if you want.” “You know I’m a terrible cook.” “Then leave that part to me.” Geneva winked. “Austin took your father to that new outdoorsman store earlier today and promised not to get him back here too early.” “Dad’s not an outdoorsman.” “Oh, didn’t I tell you? It’s his latest kick. He’s determined that he and I are going to go ‘rough it’ next summer.” “That sounds terrible.” “Well, don’t tell him that, Mia. It would break his heart.”
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MIA RAN a dust rag over the shelves and knickknacks in the Swansons’ living room, and a thump outside made her look to the window. A yellow sportscar had parked behind her Mazda, and from it had emerged her father’s younger brother Ned, who’d dressed in a flamboyant Hawaiian shirt and khakis. Mia groaned inwardly. She watched and listened while Geneva met Ned at the door. “You need to park your car down at the supermarket and walk here so Sherman doesn’t see it from a mile away!” she said to him, her black shirt coated in splotches of flour. Ned’s eyes widened. “It’s a surprise party? I didn’t know that!” “You did know it, because I told you on the phone. Now go move your car!” Ned dramatically retreated to his vehicle, started the engine, and zipped backward out of the driveway. “He’d better not come back here,” Mia said, joining her mother as they watched the car head down the street Geneva rolled her eyes. “I couldn’t not invite him, Mia.” “I could have ‘not invited’ him for you and saved us all the trouble.” Over the next ten minutes, more members of the Swanson clan arrived—feeble Great Uncle Pete got dropped off at the door and was helped inside by his daughter and her husband, Grandma Nell arrived on her own, and assorted cousins and some of Sherman’s friends rounded out the extensive guest list. Mia started to feel claustrophobic, but ever the good daughter, she didn’t show it. Geneva disappeared for a few minutes to change into cleaner clothes, and when she returned to the gathering, she was holding her phone. “Austin just texted me. They’re on their way!” Mia imagined the look her father would have on his face when he stepped through the door. It would make the man’s day—Sherman was so easily pleased by the simple things.
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She felt a nudge and glanced to her left to observe that Uncle Ned had emerged from the kitchen with a glass of punch and sidled up beside her. “How’s it going, little woman? Find yourself a boyfriend yet?” “I haven’t been looking for one.” “Come on, you’ll be thirty soon. You don’t want to be an old maid like me.” “I’ve got better things to do.” “Like what? Edit papers?” Mia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Hold that thought. I have to use the bathroom.” Without looking back at her uncle, she wound her way through the crowd and shut herself into the bathroom, though she didn’t truly need to use it. Why couldn’t relatives, or anyone, for that matter, mind their own business? She waited sixty seconds, flushed the toilet without having used it, and rejoined the party, albeit as far as possible from Ned. He would find her again soon enough. Geneva pressed her face to the window. “I see them coming! When they get to the door, you know what to do!” Everyone huddled off to one side so they wouldn’t be seen through the windows as Mia’s older brother and their father came up the walk. Car doors slammed, footsteps clomped on the porch, and when Sherman entered the house first followed by Austin, everyone cried, “Surprise!” Sherman, who carried a brand-new fishing rod in stark contrast to his plaid slacks and nerdy button-up shirt, looked startled, but he beamed, regardless. “Wow, I never thought turning sixty would be so surprising!” There came a smattering of laughter, and Mia felt glad to see someone so happy. She approached her father and gave him a hug. “Happy birthday, Dad,” she said. “Got any birthday wishes?” He put a finger on his chin. “I wish…for world peace!” “That’s pretty lofty.” “A good challenge has never stopped me! We can start the trend right here, today!”
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She laughed. “Okay, Dad. Let’s do it.” Sherman looked toward the kitchen. “Do I smell pizza? Let’s go eat!” Everyone filled their plates with the pizza one relative had picked up and brought to the house so Geneva didn’t have to. Mia chose to eat hers while leaning against the kitchen counter, and to her chagrin, in came Ned, who leaned against the counter beside her. “So other than not dating, what’s new with you?” he asked, his mouth full of pizza. “I eat, I sleep, I edit papers. Nothing glamorous.” “Come on, there’s got to be more than that!” “There really isn’t.” Ned regarded her dubiously, though with a mischievous glint in his eye. “I bet you do have a boyfriend, and you’re just afraid to bring him here for fear of what we might do to him.” “I solemnly swear to you I don’t have a boyfriend.” “A girlfriend, then? I remember you used to live with that black woman.” Mia tensed. “She wasn’t my girlfriend, and I don’t want to talk about her.” “That breakup must have hurt. Hasn’t it been a couple of years now?” She set her plate down on the counter and stared at him. “It’s nothing to be ashamed about,” Ned went on. “It’s a proven fact most relationships fail. Look how many I’ve gone through! Why did your girlfriend leave? Did you give her too many death glares?” “There was nothing sexual about our friendship.” “I’m not judging you, you know. I think most of us here have very open minds. Isn’t that right, Mom?” he said to Grandma Nell as she entered the kitchen, empty cup in hand. “Is what right?” Nell asked as she glugged iced tea into her cup. “Mia broke up with her girlfriend, and I said none of us would judge her for having one.”
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Grandma Nell’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Mia, I didn’t know you had a girlfriend.” “Mia has a girlfriend?” one of her cousins shouted from the living room, then laughed. “It doesn’t surprise me,” an aunt said in a not-low-enough tone. “I’ve had my suspicions for years now.” Mia’s blood stirred like someone had put it all in a heating kettle. “I have never had a girlfriend. I don’t have a boyfriend. I am not interested in dating.” “Then how are you going to ever give your parents little grandbabies?” asked Uncle Ned. “She can adopt, right?” someone asked. “Depends on state law. I’m not sure how it is in Oregon.” “It’d be easier on the kid to have two parents, though.” Mia’s vision narrowed to a point that centered on Ned’s face. Somehow, because of his giant, obnoxious mouth, all conversation in the house seemed to have centered around Mia’s nonexistent love life and her corresponding lack of reproductive capabilities. “You will shut up right now!” Mia roared so loudly that everyone in the house fell deathly silent. “But Mia,” Grandma Nell began, but Mia cut her off by saying, “You will be quiet. You will all be quiet!” She turned and looked at each of her relatives, and at her father’s friends. Nobody made a sound. Their eyes had glazed over, out of focus. The gravity of what Mia had just done sank in. Oh, no. Sherman Swanson, who had paused with a slice of pizza halfway to his mouth, blinked despairingly at his only daughter, fighting to get words out. Geneva opened her mouth, turned toward her husband, then looked at Mia as if she had become a stranger. Austin, Mia’s burly older brother, grew white as a sheet. Swallowing a knot in her throat, Mia turned back to regard Uncle Ned. “You will stop being an annoying ass, and you will start minding your own business.” She looked back to the rest of the gathering. “You all will speak at will.”
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So many voices started talking at once, it sounded like someone had unmuted a television in the middle of a scene. “What just happened?” “What was that all about?” “Is everyone okay?” Uncle Ned rubbed his eyelids. “I didn’t mean to get on your nerves, Mia. I guess I just get carried away sometimes.” Meanwhile, her parents didn’t speak. They stared at Mia with haunted eyes, their cheerful world forever tainted with the truth about their only daughter.
3 BOBBY COULD hardly sleep, so troubled was he by the uncanny apparition of Layla, the “trapped” child. He’d experienced many horrors during his tenure as the Servant. He had freed dozens of people from the clutches of demonkind, battled sadistic killers, and even faced off against the risen dead. Plenty of stuff to fuel a lifetime of nightmares. Yet seeing Layla, so young and innocent, as she’d appeared at the moment of her death, had shaken him so deeply, he couldn’t stop trembling until he drifted into dreams of axes and blood. When he rose the next morning, his near-constant pains had intensified, as he’d known they would. He ate a granola bar that had disintegrated in his luggage, changed into a clean pair of jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, then sat at the small, round table in the corner of the motel room and made a surreptitious scan of the premises. He remained alone. “Layla?” he said aloud. “Can you hear me?” If she could, she didn’t mention it.
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“Layla, I need to figure out where you are. Can you at least tell me what town you’re in?” Silence. “Are you here, in Dayton, or somewhere else?” He kneaded his eyelids. He’d seen many unusual things these last five years he’d been the Servant—evil spirits, demonic apparitions, and the like— but never had he come across anything he might consider a ghost. He wasn’t even sure he believed in ghosts. Layla might not be real. What if she was another demonic trick sent to distract him from some more important task? He was supposed to be finding someone to replace him as the Servant so he could go suffer his pains without anyone having to rely on him, and now this had flown in like a meteor from left field. It might be dangerous to continue communicating with Layla. He would have to consult with someone about this before he made any more moves; get a second opinion before he ended up cursed again, or worse. He picked up his phone and sent a quick text to his friend Kaori Saito, a former Servant currently gallivanting around the world with her former Servant friend, Nabih Momani, in their search for other living Servants. Need your advice. Call me when you can. Kaori’s successor as the Servant, Luke Lancaster, was still fairly new at the job and lacked the wisdom Bobby needed, plus he was busy ridding the British Isles of demons. Bobby wouldn’t waste time contacting him. He could call Phil, Roger, or Frankie back in Autumn Ridge, but due to the difference in time zones, he had no desire to wake them unnecessarily. Who did that leave? Then he thought, Aha.
“I’M GLAD you came back,” Peter Imbus said when Bobby arrived at his house a short while later. “I thought maybe you didn’t like what you saw and ran back to Oregon.”
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Bobby hated the sorrow on Peter’s face. “This might be sort of an odd question, but do you believe in anything supernatural?” Peter shrugged. “Sure. One time my dad and I were camping in the woods down in Adams County, and I swear to God I saw Bigfoot taking a leak on a tree.” “What about ghosts?” Peter’s expression clouded over. “You think my house is haunted, don’t you? You kept hearing a voice yesterday.” “Your house is probably fine.” Bobby heaved in a deep breath, praying that Peter wouldn’t give him the boot upon hearing this confession. “I think a spirit was reaching out to me from somewhere else. I talked to her back at my motel room. Then saw her.” Peter blinked. “You saw a ghost.” “I saw something. She might be a demon.” “So, she’s haunting you?” “I wouldn’t say that.” His brother took some time to reply. “Do you always do this with people you just met? You try to make them think you’re cuckoo to see if they still like you, or something?” Bobby didn’t answer. “I’m going to go talk to some people down near Cincinnati who know more about this stuff than I do. I wondered if you’d want to come with me.” Peter looked uncertain. “It’s Sunday, so I’m free all day. Who are these people? Ghost hunters?” “Yes.”
BOBBY HAD called ahead at the Thompsons’ house to make sure they would be home this calm, autumn day. It took an hour and a half to drive down from Dayton to Bobby’s hometown of Eleanor on the Ohio River, Peter riding shotgun. “You’ve met these people before, then?” Peter asked when Bobby pulled up in front of a small, white two-story house that had a For Sale sign stabbed into the parched grass beside the driveway. “Just once, almost five years ago now. They’re the area’s go-to ghost people.”
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“Ghost people.” Peter shook his head. “I don’t think my life was ever this interesting until you showed up.” They got out and knocked on the door. “We’re around the back!” a woman called, so Bobby traipsed through the dying grass and found Wayne Thompson relaxing with a bottle of beer in an Adirondack chair on the deck while his wife, Jessica, sat at a round patio table with a young girl no older than three, who was looking at picture books. A seven-year-old boy swung back and forth on a swing set not far from the deck. Dark-haired Jessica rose and turned in greeting. The bulge of her abdomen indicated that Little Thompson Number Three would soon be joining the family. “Long time no see!” Jessica said, giving Bobby an awkward hug. “Still hunting you know what?” Bobby nodded. “Yeah. It looks like you two have been busy.” Jessica looked down at her stomach. “I guess so.” “She blames me, for some reason,” Wayne said, pulling himself to his feet. He set his beer bottle down on the table and limped toward Bobby to shake his hand—the fortyish man had been born with cerebral palsy, and walked with a pronounced “scissor gait” as a result. “Who’s your friend here?” “I’m Peter,” Peter said somewhat bewilderedly as Wayne shook his hand. “I’m Bobby’s brother. We just met yesterday. It’s a complicated family.” Wayne’s eyebrows shot high above his glasses. “And he’s already dragging you into this? Some brother you are, Bobby.” Bobby shrugged. “Sorry. Something spooky came up, and I didn’t want to ditch Peter right after I traveled across the country to meet him.” Jessica scooted her chair to the side and motioned for Bobby and Peter to sit. “Don’t worry about what you say in front of Addy, here. We’ve taught the kids about spirits from the time they could sit up.” Little Addy glanced up from her picture book. She had dark brown hair tied into pigtails. “Mommy and Daddy say ghosts are just people, except when they’re really demons playing pretend.”
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Bobby’s skin crawled as he took the chair next to the child’s mother. He didn’t know if it was right telling innocent ears about such things, but since he wasn’t a parent, he didn’t think he should judge. “Okay. Yesterday I started hearing a voice in my head calling for help. It sounded like a little kid.” Jessica frowned. “What did you do?” “I kept talking to it—her. She said her name was Layla, and she was trapped, and that I could hear her because she prayed for help. Apparently, somebody hurt her pretty bad.” He glanced at Addy, who had resumed perusing her book. “If you get my meaning.” In the chair to his right, Peter shook his head. “This is some messed-up crap, man.” “It gets worse. She materialized in front of me, and I could see her…injuries. But I know she wasn’t haunting my motel room or Peter’s house. It’s like she was reaching out from somewhere else, trying to find someone who might have the ability to help her. Which doesn’t sound like a normal ghost to me, which makes me wonder if she’s something a little nastier.” Jessica’s expression became grave. “When I was younger and a little more foolish, a spirit followed me home from one of my investigations. They don’t always stay in one place, contrary to popular belief.” Bobby wrinkled his nose. “How did you deal with that?” “Very poorly, but everything turned out okay in the end. The spirit moved on, and all was well.” Wayne gave a soft, ironic-sounding laugh that Bobby didn’t know how to interpret. “So, that’s what I do?” Bobby asked. “Get her to move on?” “Assuming she’s human, she may not know she’s dead,” Wayne said. “Once you gently break the news to her, you can tell her she has no place here anymore. It may take some coaxing to get her to go.” “But she said she’s trapped.” Bobby made a quick review of what Layla had told him. “She said bad people keep hurting her. What do you think she means?” “She might be constantly reliving whatever trauma ended her life,” Jessica said. “Or, it could be an evil spirit anchoring her here,
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making her unable to move on. And you already know what to do about those.” Bobby sighed. “I guess I should try to contact her again so she can tell me where she is, see if there’s a demon there, and get rid of it.” Peter blinked at him. “Dude, who are you?” “Your long-lost brother.” Bobby didn’t smile. “What if Layla is just a demon playing pretend?” “Then you banish her to hell,” Jessica said simply. “That is what you do, right?” “Well, yeah.” “Then you should have no trouble dealing with her.”
AFTER THEY’D shared a delicious lunch of grilled burgers with the Thompsons, Bobby and Peter said their goodbyes and buckled themselves into Bobby’s rental car. Before Bobby started the engine, Peter said, “None of this is a joke, right?” “No.” Peter’s skin took on a sickly tinge. “You really fight demons.” “I exorcise them. Please don’t tell anybody, though. I’ve got enough tabloid people breathing down my neck back home, thanks to some blabbermouths.” His brother fidgeted, as if the passenger seat were too uncomfortable for him. “Um. If you’re right about all this, and you really do deal with demons and stuff, um…will they start bothering me since I’ve associated with you?” “I hope not.” “You hope not.” Bobby pinched the bridge of his nose. His head hurt now in addition to everything else. “If anything bad ever starts to bother you, just give me a call, and I’ll be here to help you as soon as I can. Okay?” “If you say so.” Peter shivered. “So, where are we going now? Back to my house?” “There’s another stop I need to make first.”
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“As long as we’re not visiting vampire hunters next.” It took a total of two minutes to reach Charlotte Roland’s house. Bobby’s stepmother stood outside raking leaves when he pulled in. “Bobby!” she exclaimed the moment he emerged from the car, then ran to him and gave him a squeeze. “It’s great to see you! Who’s this?” Bobby flashed her a grin that masked another random spike of pain. “Charlotte, this is Peter Imbus, my brother. Peter, this is Charlotte, my stepmom.” Charlotte and Peter shook hands. Confusion filled Charlotte’s eyes. “Brother?” “Adrian had other kids. You told me that.” “Oh, right! Sorry.” Charlotte blushed. “You two do look an awful lot alike.” “Except my eyes are brown,” Peter said. “As well as the rest of me.” They all laughed. “I can’t stay long,” Bobby said. “I just wanted to tell you congrats.” Charlotte held up her hand, where a diamond ring glimmered on her finger. “I wasn’t sure if you’d gotten my voicemail or not. We’ve set the wedding date for December.” Her expression sobered. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?” “You and Drew seem happy together. That’s okay with me.” “You’re invited, of course. You can even bring Joanna, if you want. I’d love to meet her.” “We aren’t really dating,” Bobby said, uncomfortable. “I mean, she’s still up in Portland working on comics, and well, you know.” A knowing glint appeared in Charlotte’s eyes. “Of course. Do you two want to come inside and sit down for a bit? I can make you some coffee.” Bobby shook his head. “I’m in a bit of a hurry—but I promise I’ll make it to the wedding. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.” His stepmother nodded in understanding. “Don’t forget to kick back and relax once in a while, okay? Let me know if Joanna wants to come. Maybe the two of you can even stay a week or two.”
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“I’ll think about it,” Bobby said, and he would. When he and Peter got back into the car, Peter said, “Your stepmom seems nice.” “She is.” “Why do you call her ‘Charlotte’?” “Because that’s her name.” Bobby checked for traffic and backed out onto the street. “Didn’t she raise you, or something?” “Yeah, but she never asked me to call her ‘Mom,’ or anything.” “Maybe she was waiting for you to make that call.” “Hmm. Maybe.” Bobby had never even thought about it before. “The way I see it,” Peter went on, “if Charlotte was married to your dad and raised you, she’s your mom. You don’t know what I’d have given to have a mom in my life.” A few more turns brought Bobby onto the highway that led to the interstate. “Okay,” he said, admitting defeat. “I guess she is my mom.” He prayed that saying it out loud wouldn’t attract the attention of demons. Charlotte had been safe from them so far. If one of them tried to hurt her now, Bobby just didn’t know what he would do.
about the author J.S. BAILEY enjoys writing eerie tales of the supernatural that keep readers on the edge of their seat. She is the author of The Chronicles of Servitude series (Solitude, Servant, Sacrifice, Surrender, Solemnity, Salvation) featuring Bobby Roland, a socially awkward psychic who foresees disasters and spends his days fighting evil as well as Rageâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Echo and Ordinary Souls. Her short stories appear in many collections, including The Whispered Tales of Graves Grove, In Creeps the Night, Tales by the Tree, and A Winterâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Romance. Bailey is fond of long walks in the woods, British television, and lots of burritos. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband and cats.