When eighteen-year-old Christopher Myers’ parents are murdered, something is written on his bedroom door, a mark in his parents’ blood that convinces the police the killer has targeted Christopher as the next victim. To keep him safe, he travels away with his estranged grandmother and uncle to the small town of Bridgton, New York. And it’s in Bridgton that he meets an extraordinary young man who has come with his father to stop an unrelenting evil. Soon Christopher learns of the town’s deep dark secret, and how his parents’ murder was no accident, and how he has been brought to Bridgton by forces beyond his power—forces that just may threaten the destruction of all mankind.
Praise for The Calling:
“The Calling is a powerful, gripping and terrifying novel, the sort that possesses your whole life while you’re reading it; it’ll stalk you through the day, and inform your dreams. Swartwood has delivered a novel that will become a classic.” —Tim Lebbon
“Robert Swartwood’s The Calling is a diabolical rocket sled of a psychological thriller. Told through the vivid, almost druggy point of view of a young man on the edge, tangled in a web of tragedy and surreal horror, Swartwood’s novel gets under the skin and stays there. Highly recommended.” —Jay Bonansinga
“This novel is small town horror at its best.” —Hellnotes
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Read An Excerpt From The Calling
The church parking lot was deserted. I parked in the handicapped space closest to the entrance. The trailing police cruiser parked in the handicapped space beside me, and for a moment I expected the officer behind the wheel to shake his head, motion for me to back up and park in a regular spot. But when I looked over at him he had already shut off his car and had this morning’s paper open in front of him.
Pastor James Young was waiting for me at the entrance. A man in his early fifties, with light brown eyes and a round, pleasant face, he wore chinos and a red polo shirt and shook my hand the moment I stepped inside.
“Christopher,” he said solemnly, “how are you doing?”
“Honestly, I’m exhausted.”
It was June 6, 2003, and my parents had already been dead for a week.
Without a word Pastor James Young led me toward his office. The hallway was long and deserted, its carpet shaded midnight blue with a design of blood red diamonds scattered throughout. Just as we entered the lobby, I glanced up at the support beam in the ceiling and saw a body hanging from a noose.
“Christopher?” The pastor was a few paces ahead, looking back at me with a frown. “Is everything all right?”
I blinked and the body and the noose were gone. It was just a normal support beam, thick and wooden, its weathered look clashing with the flawless white paint.
“Ever wonder the truth?”
“It’s just a story,” I said, because I knew it was just a story, some ghost story a kid no doubt made up one day during service because he was bored. But ever since I was young I’d heard the stories, the rumors, the myths of that crossbeam.
Staring up at the ceiling, Pastor James Young said, “The way I heard it, when this place was built fifty years ago, a local man came late one night and hung himself there. Supposedly he had done something awful, something he thought was unforgivable, and figured killing himself like that was the only way.”
I wondered briefly how many times the pastor had told this story. For as long as he’d been here, he was no doubt asked about the beam. Did the story change slightly every time he told it—did he add something new? Or did he have the thing memorized and got so bored with the telling after so long that it was like saying one of the many Bible verses they make children learn in Sunday school?
“The only way for what?” I asked.
“Forgiveness. Redemption, maybe.” He shrugged. “Who really knows?”
We continued walking again, down another hallway, and seconds later we were in his office, Pastor James Young behind his large oak desk, me in one of the two chairs facing him.
“Now,” he said, “what is it I can help you with?”
“To be honest, I’m not really sure you can help me at all.”
He forced a smile. “I can always try.”
Despite the church’s size—its attendance for both morning services was close to one thousand on any given Sunday—his office was tiny. Besides the desk, which took up a good quarter of the room, there were three filing cabinets huddled in one corner, and a large bookcase that covered nearly an entire wall. Books mostly on theology filled the shelves. A bonsai tree sat on a table behind his desk, and while it was positioned to receive sunlight from one of the two open windows, it looked as if a few of its tiny branches had begun to wither.
“How much do you know about what happened last week?”
He looked down at his desk, moved a stack of papers from one side to the other, and sighed. “Just that your parents were murdered. That you found their bodies. That the police first suspected you of doing it but then cleared you.”
So that sounded about right. Those were the key facts, the essential information, that was put in the papers. Not about what was painted on my bedroom door. Not about how it was supposedly a calling card from the killer saying I was next.
“I’m going away for a little,” I said. “For a week or a month, I don’t know how long. Steve … well, he wanted me to talk to a psychiatrist before I left. Wanted to make sure I’m okay in the head.”
The frown appeared on the pastor’s face again. “So then why did Police Chief Carpenter ask that I speak with you?”
“Because I told him I’d rather see you instead.”
I glanced away, toward the wall that had random pictures of different sizes scattered all over a large cork board. Many were of Pastor James Young and his family—his wife and two sons—while others showed him together with various church families. One of those church families was my parents. Taken at what looked like a church picnic, the pastor standing between my father and mother, all three of them with their arms around their shoulders, smiling at the camera.
“Christopher? Why did you want to see me instead?”
I leaned forward in my seat. Opened my mouth but didn’t say anything.
“Are feeling okay?” James Young asked. “You look pale. Do you want something to drink? I can get you a bottle of water. Or—” His eyes shifted to something on his desk. “How about a lollipop?”
It was then that I noticed the jar of lollipops on his desk. Together they created the color of the rainbow. I remembered it was one of Pastor Young’s trademarks, to always have a lollipop or two in his suit jacket every Sunday morning. Oftentimes a child might start acting up, begin crying, and while he was in the lobby he would hold out a lollipop and say, “Hey now, no need to be sad.” It was the same thing he’d said to me the day I was baptized. I had been five years old. I was nervous, having to go out in front of a full congregation of strangers, and began crying. And James Young, the good pastor that he was, pulled out a red lollipop, leaned down, and with a smile said, “Hey now, Christopher, no need to be sad.”
It had been true then, but now, thirteen years later, my life had been turned upside down. Family that I’d hardly even known existed was now part of my life, and I would soon be traveling with them to New York to hide away from what could only be called a sociopath.
“What’s that?” I said, pointing past the jar of rainbow-colored lollipops at something else on his desk. “You’re not recording this, are you?”
He gave me a peculiar look, then glanced down at the tape recorder resting beside his telephone. He placed a hand on it, shaking his head. “No, of course not. Before you came I was listening to a tape Matt Hatfield sent me yesterday. They had a speaker over at Trinity last weekend he wanted me to hear. The man travels around the country with his—”
“Do demons exist?”
A breeze came through the windows, causing the bonsai tree to shiver.
Pastor James Young said, “I’m sorry?”
“Demons,” I said. “Do they exist?”
“That’s why you wanted to see me? To ask me about”—he cleared his throat—“demons?”
“Actually, I’d originally wanted to discuss the indifference of God. You know, that whole why-does-bad-stuff-happen-to-good-people debate.”
“And you don’t want to discuss that anymore?”
“Not really. Pardon my French, but I figure if we discuss that, you’d give me one long line of bullshit, and I really don’t have the patience for that right now.”
“So instead you’d rather ask me about demons.”
“Any particular reason why?”
He was silent for a moment, just watching me, before speaking. “Why, yes, of course they exist.”
“Can you prove it?”
“They’re mentioned in the Bible.”
“No, I mean something more substantial.”
“I baptized you when you were very young. If you don’t mind me asking, Christopher, are you still a believer?”
“That doesn’t pertain to my question.”
“But it does. Because if you believe that God exists, then you believe that Satan exists. And if you believe that they exist, you must also believe that angels and demons exist.”
“But how do you know?”
He opened his mouth, started to speak, stopped. Seemed to think for a few seconds, before saying, “Faith.”
I shook my head. “That’s not good enough.”
“Okay, then what about ghosts? Do you believe that ghosts exist?”
I didn’t say anything.
“You know it’s funny, but people around the world are more apt to believe in the existence of ghosts than they are in demons. Maybe that’s because through the ages people have come to think of demons as little red creatures with horns and tails and pitchforks. But they’re nothing like that. They … they’re just like angels in a way, but no longer good.”
He leaned forward in his chair, setting his hands on the desktop.
“Some people also believe that when you die, you become either an angel or a demon. This is untrue. Angels and demons, they’re completely different species than us. They were here close to the beginning of time and they’ll be here toward the end of time, but we humans … our existence lasts only in a blink of God’s eye.”
“Christopher, I’d really like to help you, but I can’t do that unless you tell me what’s going on. Why are you asking about demons?”
I glanced at the wall of pictures again. “Last week,” I started to say, but then faltered, lost my voice. I cleared my throat and tried again. “Last week, after what happened, I remembered a dream I had about a year ago. In the dream I was walking around a massive store, like a Walmart, and it was completely deserted. Eventually I needed to take a piss so I went into the bathroom. It was really bright inside and silent, so much so that when the door shut it echoed.”
My eyes had focused on the picture of my parents.
“So then I’m standing there at the urinal, just minding my own business, when someone comes out of one of the stalls. He doesn’t flush the toilet or anything, he just opens the door and comes out. And … and somehow I’m seeing all this, like from a third person point of view. I see myself standing at the urinal, and I see this man walking from the stalls toward the sinks. To get there, he needs to pass me, and I don’t really think too much about it, because why would I? But it’s right when he passes me, his shoes echoing off the floor, that he suddenly steps forward, wraps his hands around my neck, and starts choking me.”
I blinked, looked back at the pastor.
“And at that same moment I woke up and I … I couldn’t breathe. It was like someone was standing right over me, trying to choke the life out of me. I couldn’t move. I tried waving my arms around but I just couldn’t move. And it was still dark in my room but I could have sworn I saw someone leaning over me, right there in front of me with his hands around my neck. And … well, I eventually managed to fall off the bed. Once I hit the floor I could breathe again. And I looked around, trying to catch my breath, and in every corner I expected to see someone there, someone … you know, the person who had just tried choking me. It was still early in the morning, both my parents were asleep, so I went back to bed. But I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there and watched the corners, figuring that the moment I closed my eyes, the shadows would move and the person hiding there would come back out and finish the job.”
I paused, cleared my throat, and said, “You know, I think I could go for a bottle of water after all.”
Pastor James Young swiveled on his chair and opened a mini-fridge underneath the table behind his desk. He pulled out a bottle of Deer Park and handed it to me.
I uncapped it and took a few sips of the water, then wiped my mouth and set the bottle aside.
“Okay,” Pastor James Young said after a moment, when it was clear I wasn’t going to speak. “So you think … it was a demon that tried attacking you?”
“I didn’t. I thought it was just one of those dreams that was really real. Like when you dream you’re playing baseball and the ball comes right at your head and you jerk up out of sleep the moment it almost hits you. But I told my parents about it the next day, and my mom”—glancing once again at the corkboard—“she put the idea in my head. She said that I was being oppressed.”
“Do you think you were being oppressed?”
“I don’t know. But after last week, after … after finding my parents like I did, I’ve been thinking a lot about that dream. Because you know how you asked me earlier how I’m feeling? I’m exhausted, yeah, but ever since last week, I’ve felt just like I did that morning a year ago. Just lying in bed and watching for one of the shadows in the corner to move. Because I know what this guy is waiting for, the bastard who killed my parents.”
The pastor looked even more uncomfortable than before. He glanced down at his desk, started to move that stack of papers but then thought better of it, took a deep breath. “What do you think he’s waiting for?”
“He’s waiting for me to close my eyes. He’s waiting for me to go back to sleep so he can finish what he started.”