Strays

By: A.J. Thomas

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.