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Strays by A.J. Thomas (1)

Chapter 1

 

 

A CRYING fifteen-year-old girl struggled while her parents dragged her to the front of the church. As she yanked her entire body back, desperate to free her arms from their hold, her parents explained that she was angry, snapping at everyone and being disrespectful. Adam Luhmann, the church’s official pastor, set his hands on the girl’s forehead and prayed over her, enthusiastic as ever. After several dramatic moments, he threw his arms up into the air. “Demons,” he proclaimed, his tone totally serious and a little frightened.

The energized crowd quieted down instantly. Some even gasped, right on cue. Milking their anticipatory silence for all he could get, Adam stepped away from her, back into the crowd’s line of sight, and clasped the teen’s mom on the shoulder. “It’s so easy for the very young, when temptation is new and confusing, to give in to the whispers of the Devil. So many in this modern age delude themselves into believing that whispers are where it ends, or even that evil doesn’t really exist in this world. But you know the truth! We are in a constant battle for our very souls, and the soul of your precious daughter is caught in the fray. For so many, the struggle against the demons distracting them from the grace of the Lord Jesus tears them apart. But you have faith! You brought your beloved Melody here to us, and together we will call upon Jesus himself to rid her of the demons spurring on her anger. Through his love, we can free her from the Devil and the rage he inspires! The Devil will not sow discord in your home a moment longer!”

Jory sighed and wished he could slink offstage. Ranting about demons meant Adam was jumping to psychic surgery almost a half hour early. Deviating from the script wasn’t the end of the world, since Jory had set everything up well in advance and even made sure the chicken livers beneath the table were mostly thawed this time. But it did mean this show’s miracle was likely to forget why he was here. The last thing they needed was for the man to get up out of his wheelchair early and wander away toward the coffee in the lobby.

He peered around the curtain toward the back of the church, where the guy Jory had picked up behind a Walmart in Rochester was trying to get the attention of one of the ushers. He looked happily stoned, but confused.

The crowd was too focused on Adam and young Melody to be distracted, thankfully. They responded to his call for prayers with moans and shouting. Three or four “Cast out the Devil!” calls came from the sidelines, with a smattering of “Save us, Jesus!” thrown in for good measure.

The good people of New Life Ministries were enthusiastic.

Adam could rev them up with a single word, keeping the positive energy and the prayer warrior mentality at a frantic level. The real magic here was that Adam had stumbled upon some kind of placebo effect. Someone would come up suffering from fatigue, or a lingering cold that they were inevitably going to recover from in a day or so, and they’d soak in all of the encouragement and prayers and shouting like it was a drug. Riding that high, they’d instantly feel better. And in a day or two when the cold naturally ran its course, they’d tell everyone how effective turning to Jesus to heal them had been.

It was even more convincing when the affliction was something as ever-changing as anger. No one at the church would ever suggest that Melody was a normal teenager, that she had overbearing parents and was justifiably angry about it. No, it had to be the Devil. Adam would prove it right before their eyes, just as he’d done every two weeks for the past year and a half.

Jory rolled the table, covered in green velvet like an altar, to center stage. Adam helped the terrified girl climb onto it and lie back. She was still sobbing. Jory hurried off the stage and grabbed one of the ushers. “Hey, the guy in the wheelchair was supposed to be next, before this girl’s parents pushed her to the front. Can you go help him get through the crowd? Reverend Luhmann said he desperately needs our help.” The usher, a regular member of the congregation who seemed to honestly believe all of it, gave him a frightened nod.

It wasn’t entirely a lie. The man desperately needed the five hundred dollars Jory’d promised him, so with any luck he’d remember his lines and keep his shit together. Jory liked this guy, even though he wasn’t sure why. They’d spent an hour sitting near the loading dock behind a Walmart, talking, when Jory picked him up. Onstage, Adam prayed aloud, his hands held high above his head. The shouting had quieted now, every set of hands in the church clasped together in desperate supplication. As Adam prayed for the strength and guidance to find the demons lurking inside the girl’s body, he brought his hands down and, with a well-practiced movement, palmed one of the chicken livers before he moved toward the girl’s stomach, maneuvering so it looked like his hand was sliding straight down into her. When he crushed the chicken liver, blood oozed down his palm, pooling on her stomach. The pooled blood obscured everything but looked oh-so-convincing.

Adam slowly pulled his bloody hand up, extracting the demonic chicken liver from the small pool of blood. The girl, screaming for her parents while tears rolled down her cheeks and into her hair, was shaking on the table below him. Adam held up the chicken liver with a triumphant cry, then flung it in the trash. “The Devil has no power here!” he shouted above the crowd’s astonished cheers. “We will fight this battle in the Lord’s name, here and now! If you believe, if you give everything over to Jesus and trust in him completely, his mercy and love will shield you and keep you safe! But it’s never too late.” He lowered his voice a little and helped Melody sit up. “It’s never too late, my child. Jesus loves you more than you will ever know, and his will is reflected in everything around us. He knows we’re weak, he knows we stray, but even that weakness is part of his plan. In his glory, he put you in the safe and loving arms of your mother and father. Knowing they would teach you of his love, knowing they would guide you here, where we strive to glorify Jesus in all that we do. Jesus has shown you the way.”

Jory sighed, trying to block out the noise and the bullshit.

Adam lived for the show. He thrived off of the adrenaline and adoration, reveled in the complete trust people placed in him. But Jory couldn’t do it anymore.

For two years, when he’d spent every Sunday at the Solid Rock Bible Church back in Missouri, where his evangelical foster mother lavished praise on him for praying dutifully, Jory had believed that God really did heal people through Reverend Luhmann. Or maybe just hoped he’d finally found someone else like him.

But Adam’s gift, profitable as it was, was a joke compared to his own. A simple touch made Jory acutely aware of whatever illness or injury someone was suffering from. He felt their pain mirrored in his own body, a surge of heat connecting their ailment to him like a live wire. At first it had made him recoil, the sickness leaving him dazed and repulsed. But when his foster mother, Barbara, had developed pneumonia and Adam’s prayers proved useless, Jory had been too scared of losing her not to act.

Healed, she’d proclaimed that he had a gift from God and he had to put it to use. Adam took Barbara’s absolute belief in Jory as a sign that Jory was such a talented liar that he’d be a natural faith healer, with a bit of training.

It had actually been kind of fun, until two weeks ago. Jory’d refused to heal a nine-year-old who’d been throwing up for a week and was too sick to stand. The kid didn’t have a cold or the flu. His entire body was burning, every part of him crying out in pain. It felt like the kid’s own blood was attacking him from within. Desperate to help, Jory had followed the heat and pain to its source, then spent another few minutes looking at anatomy diagrams on his smartphone, all the while telling the parents to take the kid to an ER. Adam had shoved him offstage, so Jory’d called 911. Doctors in nearby Rochester had said the kid’s undiagnosed and unchecked diabetes would have killed him in a matter of days.

But standing up onstage while staring at your smartphone wasn’t part of the gig. Adam had been furious, especially when Jory’d put a positive spin on it. God hadn’t given them a challenge they couldn’t face; God had simply shown him the way. Adam couldn’t say shit to contradict him in front of the audience.

By God, he’d meant Google, but so long as the kid recovered, Jory didn’t care.

Onstage, Melody was standing again. She wasn’t screaming anymore, but she was still sniffling as her parents led her away, presumably to pray together. Then the ushers rolled Jory’s miracle to the stage. The old Army jacket was a nice touch, and one that the guy had supplied on his own. Still wiping chicken blood off his hands, Adam descended the steps to meet him in the aisle.

“And what is your name, sir?”

“Neal,” he said, his voice amazingly clear. “And I am in so much pain. All the time, I hurt. My body’s gotten so worn-out over the years, and I’m just… I’m at my wit’s end.”

He’d remembered his lines and remembered to keep his condition vague, Jory noted with a grim smile. He even whimpered when Adam did his typical diagnostic prayer and announced to the entire congregation, “Jesus will help you walk again, my son.”

And the crowd cheered.

“But this will require a massive undertaking. We are nothing,” Adam said, sounding completely sincere. “We exist only to glorify Jesus, and in his glory, he will restore you.” He let his hands sweep over the crowd around them. “We can show the Lord we are nothing but his faithful servants! Come here now, my brothers and sisters, lay your hands upon this poor disabled veteran and let us pray!”

Adam glanced pointedly back at him. Jory crossed his arms and stayed put. Neal, his eyes clear and bright, met his gaze while Adam wasn’t looking. It would have been suspicious and awkward from any of the other actors, but it felt more sympathetic from this guy.

Every single person sitting near the aisles got out of their seat and converged around them, eager to set a hand onto Neal’s body, and they began to chant, echoing the prayer Adam was shouting over the din. When the energy had reached a peak and the tension in the church was palpable, Adam stopped. “Now stand, my child! Stand and walk once again!”

Neal was either very stoned or a better actor than Jory had originally guessed. He trembled as he rose out of the wheelchair and lurched forward—staggering, clumsy steps that had the crowd gasping. Finally, he straightened up and walked forward, embracing Adam with a bright smile. “Oh, bless you! Bless you all!”

After a half dozen more affirmations and prayers, Adam returned to the stage, tugging at his tie. He added a little sway, Jory noted, when he reached the top of the steps. It always pays to look like you’re working hard. “Brothers and sisters, what a day we’ve had! You’ve borne witness to the power of the Lord Jesus right here among you, and when you go out into the community, you will thrive. There will be challenges to your faith and your well-being in the coming days, and when you face those challenges, I want you to think back on this moment. Remember the power of the Lord, remember the light of Jesus and what it feels like to be embraced by the glory of the Holy Spirit. Because when you welcome the Lord into your life, when you accept him with your whole heart and surrender yourself to serve as his vessel, you will work miracles every day.”

A few women in the front row nodded slowly in agreement. They all dropped money into the collection plates weaving their way down the aisles of plastic chairs. After the past few months, they’d given more than enough to replace the warehouse around them. Adam wouldn’t, of course. He’d rather pocket the money, and he didn’t need a building. All he needed was a stage, a good sound system, and hundreds of people who desperately wanted his message to be true.

And chicken livers.

Adam ended the service with another prayer and then stomped toward him. “Those damn things were still half-frozen and you spent the whole show hiding back here. What happened?”

“I bought them frozen, but they seemed like they were thawed when I put them in there.”

“Next time, be more careful. It’s damn hard to squish one of them when they’re solid in the middle.”

“Sorry about that. What did you think of Neal?” he asked, eager to change the subject. “Good for a testimonial next week?”

Adam looked disgusted as he straightened his tie. “Hell no. If you’re going to bring me an injured veteran, make sure he doesn’t reek of pot, beer, and piss. Get him out of here and meet me in the office, we’ve got a private consultation.”

Jory sighed. The people Adam ministered to in private tended to have serious problems. All Jory usually had to do was figure out what the hell was wrong with them. He’d pass the information to Adam so he could, through prayer, repeat what their doctors had already told them. They’d pray and Jory would console himself that at least they left with their faith solidified. He might not have been able to help, but he could show them there was something beyond the mundane universe.

Neal was leaning against the wall in the hallway to the office, drinking something from a paper bag. He held a stack of five of Jory’s cookies from the front vestibule.

“I thought I asked you not to drink before this?” Jory asked, trying not to laugh.

“It’s not before anything, it’s after.” Neal dug into his pocket and pulled out a tiny bottle of vodka. “You look like you need this more than me.”

Jory chuckled miserably. Whatever Adam had in store was going to hurt.

“They told me up front that you made these.” He held up the cookies. “Is this what you do?”

The browned-butter pecan cookies he’d made last night were fantastic. Adam hated that Jory wasted his time in the kitchen, so Jory’d turned his obsession into a necessity. He provided snacks for services himself, until his cookies were as much a church staple as the chicken livers. He ended at least four nights out of the week in the church kitchen, and sometimes it was the only thing that kept him sane. “Yeah. Somebody’s got to do it.”

“Are you kidding me? These cookies are magical. Like, I don’t even know…. They’re damn close to perfection.”

“Glad you like them. Now, I believe I owe you some money?”

“You do.”

“You did really good, by the way. It was inspiring.” He pulled out the envelope with Neal’s money, opened it so Neal could check the amount, then handed it over.

Neal shoved the envelope into his jacket and smirked at him. “I’d say I’m glad to oblige, but there’s enough bullshit around here already.”

Jory shrugged. “It inspires people, though.”

“Is that what you tell yourself?”

“The only thing we can really do is give our congregation a glimmer of hope,” Jory said, choosing his words carefully.

“Hope? Is that what that was?”

“You saw their faces,” Jory said, letting himself relax a little. “Looked like hope to me.”

“Kid, the only part of this church that’s worth shit are these cookies. It’s obvious that this”—Neal held up a half-eaten cookie—“this is what you do. You should do it someplace else.”

“Probably,” Jory said, holding open the back door.

He made sure it shut behind Neal.

The office door was closed, and a man Jory had never seen was standing in front of it. He was at least three inches taller than Jory, with light blond hair and eyes that looked hazel behind lightly tinted sunglasses. Who the hell wore sunglasses in a warehouse with no windows?

“Can I help you?” Jory asked, folding his hands in what he’d taken to calling Adam’s pious stance.

“No.”

Jory raised both eyebrows. “Did you need to go into the office?”

“No.”

“Okay,” he said, managing a careful smile. “Would you mind standing aside so I can?”

The stranger narrowed his eyes. “You?”

Jory made a show of looking around and glancing down the empty hall. “Yeah.”

Keeping his gaze fixed on Jory, the man knocked on the door without turning around. Adam yanked the door open. “Reverend Smith,” Adam growled, shoving the big man out of the way and tugging Jory inside. Jory shot Adam a questioning look. Adam just glared at him. “Thank you for finally joining us.”

“Isn’t he a bit young to be a minister?” The voice was old, laced with pain and the gravelly sound of a deep lung infection.

The office was intimidating. Half of it was a small sanctuary; two small prayer desks and an altar and cross dominated the room. Adam’s desk and the desk the church secretary used during the rare hours she volunteered were set off to the side. In front of Adam’s desk was a withered man who might have been anywhere from fifty to eighty. A clear plastic oxygen tube ran from his nose, around his ears, and down to a large green-and-silver cylinder mounted to the back of the electric power scooter he was using.

This was going to suck.

“Forgive me for being tardy, Reverend Luhmann, but I wanted to check on Mr. Neal and make sure he was doing okay. How can I be of assistance?”

The old man barked out a sound that might have been a laugh. It sounded like stones rattling in a tin can. “That drunk junkie you brought in for the peons? Don’t play games with me, young man. I refuse—” He was overcome by a series of hacking coughs that left him bent over the handlebars of the scooter. “I’m no fool,” he managed, panting to catch his breath. “You’re why I’m here. You’ve convinced a few doctors in Rochester that you’re something special. So you’re either a better liar than Mr. Luhmann here, or the real deal.”

Jory glanced at Adam, who grimaced. Had they finally run into someone Adam couldn’t talk his way around? Jory crushed that thought. Adam might not have found his angle yet, but he would.

He sighed. “May I shake your hand?”

Looking suspicious but a little amused, the old man held out his hand calmly. A single touch was enough to make Jory cringe. The old man wasn’t just sick, he was toxic. “You’re dying,” Jory said simply. “You have late-stage lung cancer.”

“The kid who bags my groceries can guess that much,” he rasped.

“You’ve had….” Jory closed his eyes and thought about the cloud of sticky pain he’d felt in his chest. “Two unsuccessful transplants. How the hell does someone your age even get on a transplant list once, much less twice?”

“Jory,” Adam snapped. “Don’t act like I never taught you to be polite.”

He wanted to roll his eyes. Adam had taught him a lot, but please and thank you hadn’t figured into his education.

The old man waved Adam off. “That it?”

“No. The right side of your heart is big, I think because it’s working harder to pump blood through your lungs. If I had to guess, I’d say that’ll be what kills you.”

“Really?”

“And you drink too much. Your liver isn’t as bad as your lungs, but it’s getting there.”

“You get to the point I’m at and see if you care about the state of your liver.”

“I don’t see myself ever getting to that point,” Jory said bluntly. “I grew up with all those smoking will kill you public service announcements they ran on PBS during Saturday morning cartoons.” And his gift made tar-clogged lungs feel putrid. Fire and pain were normal, but the sticky choking sensation was pure torture.

“And you say he can do it?” the old man asked, glancing at Adam, who was perched on the edge of his desk.

Adam ran his hands through his graying hair and shook his head. “I don’t know how much we can actually help, Mr. Barnett.”

“I’ll agree to two more if he can,” Barnett wheezed without hesitating.

Adam managed to keep his eyes from bulging, but Jory could tell it was a near miss.

“I can’t,” Jory insisted. “It’s not possible.”

Adam smiled. “Mr. Barnett and I have discussed reasonable limitations. I’m not asking you to do anything that would put you in danger, just help however much you can.”

Adam wasn’t asking.

“This isn’t an infection. It’s something I might not recover from. I can’t help him. I won’t.” He shook his head, trying not to sound nervous. He’d never defied Adam, never challenged him.

“You’re going to try,” Adam insisted, his tone quieter. “I’ll grab you some water and cough medicine before we get started. I expect you’ll need it.” With that, Adam slipped out of the office. He shut the door behind him and Jory heard him talking to the man standing outside.

The silence got awkward quickly. “So… you normally bring a bodyguard to church, Mr. Barnett?”

“He’s hardly a bodyguard,” Barnett said, taking a few pained deep breaths. “My son, Corbin. He’s convinced this is just another con, but he’ll indulge me. If you turn out to be another fraud, he’ll make you and your partner regret it.”

“I already told you, I can’t help you.”

That rattling laugh came again, and this time it seemed more genuine. “So you’ve said. I expected you to jump right in—” He hacked again. “—mumble something mystic over me and then, when I come back tomorrow with the report from my doctor, try to tell me these things take time. Or only the truly faithful can be saved, and I obviously don’t believe.”

Jory nodded. “That’s the standard script. You’ve tried more than one faith healer, then?”

“I’ve seen my share. They all spot the lung cancer,” he rasped and held up the oxygen tubing. “It’s a bit obvious. You’re the first one other than my cardiopulmonary doc to spot the pulmonary hypertension. That’s what it’s called, the thing with the right side of my heart. How’d you know? Tell me the trick and I might even convince Corbin to walk out of here without hurting you or the good reverend.”

“Believe it or not, there’s no trick. I’m good at figuring out what’s wrong with people, that’s all.”

Barnett considered him for a moment, his gaze quiet and assessing. “Med school dropout?”

“High school dropout, but I did get my GED.”

Barnett smiled. “So how’d you know?”

“I don’t know how. I can just feel it,” he admitted. “I’ve always been able to do it.”

“The kid with diabetes?”

This guy had done his homework.

“I couldn’t help him either,” Jory said, glancing toward the door. This wasn’t right at all.

“They said the boy would have died, his blood sugar was so high.”

“And I’m glad he didn’t, but I didn’t have anything to do with it. I’m going to go find Reverend Luhmann.”

But the door opened before he reached it. Adam came back in with a large bottle of water and a blister pack of cold medicine he’d needed the last time he’d helped a kid with the flu. Mr. Barnett’s not-a-bodyguard followed him in.

“Are we ready to begin?” Adam asked, flashing Jory the fake smile he usually saved for their marks.

Jory didn’t smile back.

Adam wrapped his arm around Jory’s shoulders. “All you’ve got to do is try. If all you can manage is to ease his pain a bit, that’s something, isn’t it?”

Jory shoved his arm off. Adam was still smiling, but Corbin Barnett was glaring at him and blocking the door. “I’ll try. But when it hurts, I stop,” he whispered.

“No one could ask for more,” Adam agreed.

“Do you need a Bible? Or time to pray or something?”

He huffed and gave in to the urge to roll his eyes.

The moment he touched Barnett’s skin, the burning spread up his fingertips, danced in a spiral around his chest, and settled right in the center of his back, radiating out through his torso. It hurt like a bitch, and he was more than a little resentful that Barnett probably had all kinds of nice drugs to take the edge off. Jory would get to make do with cough medicine. He focused on the burning, pulling the fire and inflammation into his body with a deep breath. At first he didn’t feel anything beyond Barnett’s pain. After a minute, he felt a tickle in the back of his throat; then he had to work harder to draw in a breath. The next breath was harder still, and soon the pain and pressure built until he felt like was drowning in a lake of burning tar.

He ripped his hand out of Barnett’s grip and bent down, setting his hands on his knees, as he fought to catch his breath. “That’s…,” he rasped, then coughed as he ran out of air. He shook his head.

The office was silent around him for almost a minute while he stood there, panting.

“My God,” Barnett whispered, the rattle in his voice gone. He tugged at the oxygen hose and pulled it out of his nose, staring at it as if he were seeing it for the first time. “What are you?”

Jory tried to answer, but he only managed a painful cough that left his chest aching.

“There, now, that wasn’t so—”

“Quiet,” Barnett snapped. “We’re not finished yet. Corbin?”

“Hey!” Adam cried.

It left him dizzy, but Jory lifted his head. Adam had his hands in the air. Corbin Barnett stood behind him, one hand gripped in his hair and the other holding a gun to the back of his head.

“I don’t need to see my doctor to know that’s better.” Barnett’s face was filled with wonder. “You have no idea how long I’ve looked, how much money I’ve spent, trying to find someone like you. You’re going to finish fixing my lungs, boy, or you’re going to watch the good reverend die.”

Adam tried to pull away, but Barnett’s son yanked his head back hard. “Jory!”

“Adam….” He gasped.

“Ah-ah, don’t move,” Barnett said coldly. “Finish it.”

“Jory, please! I’ll help you after! We’ll get you all the help you need, I swear it!”

“It’ll….” It was already agony. But maybe his body would bounce back. He was younger and healthier, just like with Barbara’s pneumonia. If he didn’t try, Adam’s odds looked worse than his.

“Please don’t let them shoot me!”

Barnett dropped the oxygen tube into his lap and offered Jory his hand.

“Jory!” Adam cried as Corbin yanked on his hair again.

Jory grabbed Barnett’s hand and the pain surged through his arm. He pulled, breathed, and pulled again. He let the burning sensation flood through his body until it felt like his skin had become nothing more than a container filled with liquid fire. He tried to draw another breath, but his lungs wouldn’t fill, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get enough air to move past his throat. His chest throbbed and his head spun, the world shifting as his vision grew dark around the edges. His shoulder stung as he hit the floor, the side of his head hitting the tile.

“Well, it seems you were right, Reverend,” Barnett said above him. “He is quite remarkable.”

“I told you he just needed a little incentive,” Adam said calmly. His voice sounded close. A gentle hand shook him. “Jesus, his skin is like ice.”

Someone rolled him onto his back and set a hand on his chest. “Shit.”

“He’s barely breathing.” That was Adam again, but he still sounded calm. Like he hadn’t just had a gun to his head. Like Jory wasn’t dying at his feet.

“Have faith, Reverend,” Barnett said cheerfully. “With my money, you’ll be able to afford the finest funeral money can buy.”

The room was silent. Jory felt adrift until Adam spoke again. “Help me get him out to the woods. When they find him, I’ll tell the police he was sick and wandered off to bed. He must have become disoriented and lost his way.”

Barnett laughed. Even though the rattle was gone, it still sounded the same somehow.

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