Authors: Jodi McIsaac
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Medical, #Psychological
ALSO BY JODI M
THE THIN VEIL SERIES
Through the Door
Into the Fire
Among the Unseen
Beyond the Pale: A Thin Veil Novella
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2016 by Jodi McIsaac
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of
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Cover design by Christian Fuenfhausen
For my brother
Peggy had often assumed she would meet a violent end at the hands of her son. She’d imagined the scenario many times, especially in the early days of what she called “the troubled years.” A quick blow with his fists, a kick with his steel-toed boots, or a bullet to the head, should he ever find his father’s hunting rifles.
But the man pointing a gun at her now was not her son.
“Terry, please, it’s Bud and Peggy Campbell,” she said, her hand on her husband’s arm.
“What are you doing here?” The man stood on the path in front of them, blocking their way. The nearby streetlamp threw his shadow over Peggy like a ghost. His combed-over hair was askew, and his hands shook as he jabbed the revolver at her face.
doing here?” Bud sputtered beside her. His cheeks burned red under his thick gray sideburns. “We’re going for a walk, that’s what. What are
doing here? Put the gun down, man, and let’s talk!”
“I know you,” Terry muttered, moving closer to peer at them. The light glinted off the barrel of the gun. Peggy whimpered.
“Of course you know us!” Bud said. He pulled Peggy closer to him. “Haven’t we known each other for twenty years now? Is this why you weren’t at prayer meeting today? Out making a fool of yourself?”
call me a fool!” Terry bellowed. He shoved the gun in Bud’s face, then back at Peggy, swinging it back and forth like a metronome while his eyes darted between them.
“Don’t upset him, Bud . . .” Peggy whispered.
“Prayer meeting . . .” Terry mumbled. “I don’t need that anymore. I have a direct line to God. He talks to me.”
Peggy’s eyes widened. This sounded all too familiar.
“Of course he does,” Bud said. “And right now he’s telling you to put the gun down. Please, Terry, you’re frightening Peg.”
At this, Terry’s head jerked up. “No. You can’t hear him! You’re one of
“What’s wrong with you?” Bud asked. “You’re talking nonsense! Have you been drinking?”
Terry shook his head jerkily. “No. No. I know what you are. I know what you’re planning.”
“We’re not planning anything,” Peggy said. “Just let us go.” Under her breath she started to pray. “Dear Jesus, we ask you to help us. We call upon Your name—”
“Stop whispering!” Terry bellowed, spit flecking from his mouth. “I know the truth! They told me! Their ghosts came to me. They told me what you’d done! You’re going to kill us all!”
“How is Lucille?” Peggy tried. “How are Mark and Georgia? Are they home from college for the summer?”
If Terry recognized any of these names, he gave no indication. The wildness in his eyes grew. “They’re back,” he said hoarsely. “They’re speaking to me.” He sank to his knees and moaned, “They won’t stop talking! Shut up! Shut up!”
Bud tore his arm out of Peggy’s grip and lunged forward. He dove for the gun, which was limp in Terry’s hand. Terry bellowed. There was a roar, a scream from Peggy’s own mouth. Bud landed at her feet.
She screamed again, but a powerful thud in her side cut it off.
She fell onto the path beside Bud. Her head connected brutally with the pavement. Her vision blurred, and she struggled for breath. Pain, worse than birthing her two children, tore through her, as if she was being ripped in half.
“Bud,” she gasped. His lifeless eyes stared at the night sky. Another roar. Terry’s body fell back into the shadows beneath the bridge.
Peggy heard sirens in the distance. It didn’t matter. It was too late for Bud; too late for her.
Wes needs new underwear,
she thought frantically.
And the key sticks in the lock. Oh, Wes, who will look after you?
He had only the Lord to protect him now . . . and his sister, Clare.
Peggy’s bets were on the Lord.
The secret to staying alive was to keep moving. At least, it had worked so far. I’d lived in Seattle for two whole years, longer than I’d lived in one place for almost a decade. I was getting itchy feet, and my roommate and best friend knew it.
“Just stay for a bit longer, Clare,” Latasha would urge me whenever she caught me browsing for real estate in San Diego or Barcelona. “You’re never going to meet someone if you can’t sit still for five minutes. And what about your career?”
I wasn’t worried about my career. Freelance copywriting had its perks. Give me a Wi-Fi connection and a cup of coffee, and I’m good to go. The health-care benefits were nonexistent, but that small inconvenience paled compared to the freedom it gave me. I could go wherever, whenever.
have a point about my love life. I was thirty-one and single. Serious relationships seemed more trouble than they were worth. But my ovaries were twitching, and I’d recently checked “Interested in a long-term relationship” on my online dating profile. Seattle seemed as good a place as any to settle down. The best part? It was about as far away from my actual hometown in Maine as a person could get in the continental United States.
We were deep into our Saturday gaming night. Latasha and her book-club friend Amy had introduced me to the world of Arkham Horror, Risk, and yes, Dungeons & Dragons. My experience with games had previously been limited to UNO, Balderdash, and watching my brother play Phantasy Star II on our old Sega Genesis.
Tonight we were playing Warring Worlds Online. I was about to die. Apparently the secret to staying alive applied to fictional worlds as well. Stay in one place for too long, and before you know it, you’re surrounded by enemies, without the tools or strength to fend them off.
“Dammit.” I pushed my chair back from the table, which was covered in laptops and cords.
“Sorry, Clare.” Latasha peered at my screen and then shot me a sympathetic look. “That’s a shitty way to die.” She ran a hand over her short-cropped black curls, which I had envied ever since we first met in college a dozen years ago. My hair was stringy, shoulder length, and—as my father had once put it—the color of soot.
I opened a second bottle of merlot in the kitchen and refilled Latasha’s and Amy’s glasses, then poured the rest of the bottle into mine.
“Weren’t you going to call your brother today?” Latasha asked through a mouthful of Brie. Eating an obscene amount of cheese and crackers was a treasured part of our game nights.
“Oh yeah.” I glanced at my phone. Ten o’clock. “It’s probably too late . . .”
“Whatever,” Latasha said, calling me on my bullshit. “You said he stays up half the night and sleeps until noon. Just call. You’re always glad when you do.”
“What’s so bad about calling your brother?” Amy asked, consulting the hand-drawn map beside her keyboard.
“Nothing,” I said quickly. “It’s just . . . we don’t have much to talk about. He’s mentally ill.”
Amy looked up. “Really? What kind?”
“Paranoid schizophrenia. He’s been in and out of the psych hospital for the last few years.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s in,” I admitted. “But he gets out tomorrow—hopefully for good.”
Amy frowned. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
I shrugged. “It’s no big deal. It doesn’t really come up that often.”
“Is the hospital in Clarkeston? That’s where you’re from, right?”
“Yeah. My parents are still there, so they visit him a lot.”
“Well, that’s good. Have you seen him recently?”
I took a gulp of wine and shrugged off the wisp of guilt that floated down onto my shoulders. “A couple of years ago, last time I went home for Christmas.”
“Sorry for asking so many questions,” Amy said with an awkward laugh. “I’ve just never known anyone . . .”
“It’s okay,” I said. Amy began another round of apologies, which I promptly cut off. “Don’t worry about it. Really, I don’t mind.”
This was partially true. The full truth was that in my day-to-day life, Wes didn’t exist. Now that he was in the hospital and not wreaking havoc on our town and family, I tried not to think about him. My calendar reminded me to call on his birthday and Christmas, and every year I sent him a pile of books I thought he’d like—books dark enough to catch his interest, but not enough to give him any dangerous ideas. Epic fantasies were a safe bet. Wes thought himself a great warrior, a slayer of evil forces, and I hoped that reading about fictional heroes and villains might diminish his desire for the real thing.
“Has he always had this condition?” Amy swirled the wine in her glass.
“When we were children, everything was fine.” That seemed like another world, some mythical realm of normalcy.
“How far apart are you guys?”
“Just a year.” My head felt fuzzy. I took another long drink. “We were practically raised as twins. I skipped kindergarten and went straight into first grade, so we were always in the same class. Went to this tiny Christian school in the basement of a church—the kind that makes you wear a potato sack all day if the hem of your skirt doesn’t touch the ground when you kneel.”
“They did not!” Amy exclaimed.
Latasha snorted. She was draped over the armchair, her laptop abandoned, a plate of cheese resting on her stomach.
“That’s not the worst,” I said. “We had an entire semester of ‘science’ class on fermentation so they could ‘prove’ that when Jesus turned water into wine, he was really turning it into Welch’s grape juice. Because we all know that alcohol is of the devil.”
The girls laughed, and we lifted our glasses in a toast to my messed-up upbringing. But I couldn’t bring myself to laugh, no matter how ridiculous it sounded now. Back then, I’d been a true believer. I’d bought it all. Wes? He hadn’t given a shit. How times had changed.
“So when did you find out your brother had schizophrenia?” Amy said once she recovered. “If you don’t mind me asking, that is.”
I gave her a reassuring smile. “He was about twelve, I think. Started having behavioral problems. Stupid stuff, like stealing from our mom’s purse, skipping school, whatever. Just . . . became a bit of a misfit. Then in high school he got into the wrong crowd and started doing drugs. He dropped out in eleventh grade. He just . . . completely changed. At first we thought it was the drugs—we didn’t know anything about mental health. My parents blamed themselves. My dad even stepped down from his position as an elder at the church because of some stupid Bible verse that says if you can’t control your own family, you’re not fit to lead in a church. It was only when Wes got arrested that he got diagnosed.”
“He was arrested?” Amy pressed.
“It’s a long story,” I said, avoiding Amy’s rapt gaze. “I should really go call him before it gets too late.”
“Take your time. We’ll hold down the fort,” said Latasha.
I climbed the stairs to my bedroom, taking my wineglass with me, and shut the door. The cell phone was heavy in my hands, and my heartbeat was annoyingly fast. It was always this way. I had overcome my childhood shyness and could speak in front of crowds and make small talk with strangers like it was the simplest thing in the world. But calling my own brother? That required some serious pep talking.
Growing up, we were as close as your average brother and sister, if “close” means always fighting and scraping and trying to get the other sibling in trouble. But we had each other’s backs when it counted—most of the time. I remembered the day he climbed to the top branch of one of the sprawling maple trees in front of our old farmhouse. I’d been sitting underneath the tree, reading a book, trying to ignore the twigs and leaves he was raining down on my head.
“Clare!” he’d yelled suddenly.
“What?” I yelled back, not looking up.
“Help! I need help!”
“Yeah, right,” I muttered, returning to my book. Wes had been on a torment-the-sister rampage recently, and I was certain that if I looked up I’d get a face full of something unpleasant. He’d probably found a bird’s nest and was just waiting to crack an egg on my forehead.
“No, really, help me! I’m stuck!”
“You never get stuck.” It was true. Everything Wes touched turned to gold; without seeming to put in any effort, he’d succeeded at everything he put his hand to. Sports, art, music, school, friends—they were all his for the taking, and he took and took and took. I, on the other hand, was born with two left feet, had the artistic ability of a three-year-old, and was so painfully shy that the person I talked to most was the reflection of myself in my bedroom window. The thought of Wes trying and failing at anything was ludicrous. He could probably fly down from the tree if he set his mind to it.
But curiosity got the better of me, and I looked up. Wes was hanging upside down, one foot wedged in the fork of a branch. Well, well . . . would you look at that. Of course, I wasn’t thinking rationally; it didn’t occur to me that he could break his neck if the branch gave way. All I was thinking was that he needed my help, and I needed some leverage. I gazed up at his flailing form.
“What are you doing?” he bellowed. “Go get Mom!”
“First tell me where you hid my diary,” I spat up at him, clambering to my feet.
“What? I’m about to fall!”
“Where is it?”
“Jeez! It’s under the sink in the downstairs bathroom!”
I hadn’t actually thought he would tell me; I was still expecting him to perform some athletic feat of daring and land gracefully on the ground in front of me. But now—now I wondered what else I could get away with.
“Promise that I get to play your video games whenever I want, for a whole month.”
“Are you crazy?”
I sat back down.
“Fine!” he yelled. “Just help me, please!” I noticed for the first time that his face was red and wet with tears. His blond hair, which usually fell smoothly over his forehead, highlighting his bright blue eyes, was reaching toward the ground, as though it was pointing the way.
Feeling a twinge of guilt, I finally took off toward the house, yelling for our mother. She sent me across the railroad tracks to fetch Uncle Rob, since our dad was at work. By the time he and I had raced back over the field, my mother had dragged our tall aluminum ladder from the shed and propped it against the tree trunk. She had climbed up into the tree and was trying to reach Wes.
Together, she and Uncle Rob got him down. His ankle was swollen and bruised, but at least his neck was intact—no thanks to me, he’d been quick to point out. Instead of video games, I’d gotten a red welt on my bottom in the shape of our wooden kitchen spoon. But I’d recovered my diary, so it hadn’t been a total disaster.
You’re not kids anymore.
I turned my phone over in my hands. Then I dialed the number of the hospital.
“Riverside Psychiatric Facility. How may I direct your call?” The woman’s voice on the other end was crisp and professional. I wished I could just talk with her instead.
“Wes Campbell, please. Room two sixty-three.”
I listened to the phone in his room ringing.
Maybe he won’t be there.
But where else would he be?
“Hey, big brother.”
“Hey! I wondered if you’d call.”
“Of course! I’m sorry it wasn’t earlier.”
“Doesn’t matter. What are you up to?”
“Just playing a game with the girls.”
“Oh yeah? What kind of game?”
“Um . . . it’s an online game. A fantasy kind of thing.”
“Huh. On the computer?”
“Yeah.” I picked at a loose thread on the bedspread. “I know you don’t really like computers.” That was a bit of an understatement. Wes had previously gone on vitriolic rants about how they were “fucking tools of the devil.”
“Just be careful,” he warned. I could hear the worry in his voice. “You don’t know who’s watching you.”
“Wes, my roommate, Latasha, works for the NSA,” I said. “I’m pretty aware of what they can do. But I don’t really care if they watch me kill a few orcs and demons.” I regretted the words as soon as they were out of my mouth. Even in his more lucid moments, Wes thought he was a demon slayer on a mission from God. I changed the subject. “So, you’re leaving tomorrow, right?”
He grunted. I realized I had no idea where he would be going. “You moving back in with Mom and Dad, or what?”
He snorted. “Yeah, right. Dad’s got an apartment lined up for me.”
“Well, that’s cool.”
There was a long pause, and then he said, “Your roommate really works for the NSA?”
“Have you thought about killing her in her sleep?”
“Hey, you shouldn’t swear.”
“You shouldn’t suggest I murder my friend.”
“Calm down; I was just kidding. But do you ever wonder if she’s . . . you know, keeping track of you?”
“She’s not keeping track of me. And if she was, I’d just feel bad for her. I have the most boring life in existence. Believe me, the government has more interesting people to stalk.” I tried changing the subject again. “What have you been reading lately?”
“I just think it’s weird that she happens to be living with you right now,” he persisted. “Because I just met this former government guy here at the hospital. Maybe they’re both plants.”
“Latasha’s not a plant. She’s a systems analyst, not a spy. Who’s the guy you met?”
“Winston Ling. A scientist. Got checked in a couple of weeks ago. He told me about a covert government project he was working on in a secret lab. Called it ‘Project Amherst.’ But something happened—something really bad.” He had lowered his voice, and I could picture him looking over his shoulder, checking to see that no one was listening at the door.
“He didn’t say. Not exactly. Just said it all went wrong and something got out. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Mutants. I bet that’s what it was.”
I was glad he couldn’t see me rolling my eyes. I slipped into autopilot. This was the part of the conversation where Wes would tell me about his latest encounters in the spiritual realm and I would nod my head and say “mm-hm” and bite my tongue whenever the word “crazy” floated in the general direction of my vocal cords. I drained the contents of my wineglass.
This isn’t his fault