I stepped toward the bathtub, my shaking hand stretched out to the curtain. I had to see for myself. I had to know.
I took in a deep breath through my nose, steadied my nerves as much as I could, and pulled the curtain back.
A scream froze in my throat.
My mother was standing in the corner of the bathtub, her head slumped over to her shoulder, her eyes closed as if she were asleep on her feet. Blood dripped from her ivory wrists to shiny red puddles in the bottom of the tub, and she was cloaked in a long, black gown, which disappeared in inky tendrils down the drain.
I’d seen her. I’d wished to see my mother again, and now she was standing right in front of me. Something more real than a vision or a ghost. I’d seen her. But she hadn’t seen me yet. I could still get away.
Her eyes opened. She looked right at me.
“Dawn,” she said, a smile breaking across her face. “I told you I’d come.”
I tried to scream, tried to move, tried to run. But it was like one of those nightmares that you hope only happens in your dreams. I was stuck, a prisoner of the scene.
My mother straightened up her head, still smiling. At first, aside from the black gown, she looked as I remembered—high cheekbones and slim nose. Her eyes were the same, her smile, her voice—it looked like her on all accounts. But there was something else different about her. Something that made the fear so fucking real. Her eyes didn’t have any pupils; they were just a blank shade of blue. They were eyes that housed nothing—no emotions, no soul, no humanity.
This wasn’t my mother. Not anymore.
I had to get out of there. My mother took a crooked step toward me, walking through the puddles of blood. The blood seemed to stir and come alive at her bare feet. It started climbing up her legs, taking her over in a wash of red. It continued to move up her, like she was being devoured by a crimson tide, until she was completely covered in it.
Her eyes, though. Her eyes remained white and blue. Blank. Empty. Inhuman.
She stopped at the edge of the tub and looked at me. I still couldn’t move, even when the blood began to slide down her teeth, covering her once pretty smile.
I still couldn’t move when she stepped out of the tub and onto the floor in front of me.
“I missed you, honey,” she said, and I closed my eyes to the sight of her, wishing I didn’t have to hear her voice, the voice of the woman who used to tuck me in at night, the voice of the woman who lost herself to madness. “Didn’t you miss me?”
Foolishly I believed that if I kept my eyes closed, she would go away.
When I finally opened them, she was still there, watching me as only someone with no pupils could. I could see the blood moving on her face, like it was another creature and she was the host.
“Say you missed me, honey,” she said, whispering now. I felt tears springing to my eyes, my heart breaking somewhere inside. I felt the need to hold her, to have her hold me, to bring my real mother back.
“I—I missed you,” I said softly, knowing I was crazy, that this wasn’t her. This wasn’t her.
But what if it was?
She held her hand out to me. I caught a glimpse of the gaping slice in her wrist. “Then come with me. It will be easier this way.”
I swallowed hard, keeping my hands to myself. “Easier?”
She smiled. “I won’t let them hurt you. It won’t be scary, I promise. It will be over quickly.”
I managed to shake my head. “I’m not going anywhere.”
The smile on her bloodied face vanished. The room went ice cold.
Suddenly she lunged for me.
I finally screamed, the sound tearing out of my lungs loud and clear, and turned to run just to see the bathroom door locking on itself.
“Sage!” I shrieked as fire-hot hands grabbed the back of my shirt and started pulling me backward, keeping me from reaching the door handle. I tried to turn and kick but only fell to the floor, which was now filling up with blood. The taps in the sink and in the bathtub kicked on by themselves, blood gushing out of them, the air filling with a copper tang.
My mother pulled me up by my arms, her red, wet hands searing into me, and started dragging me toward the bathtub. I screamed again, trying to get free. I could feel her face changing shape, taking on another form, and I did what I could not to look at her.
“Dawn!” I heard Sage bellow from the other side of the door, the handle jangling back and forth. “Dawn!” The door shook on its frames as Sage threw himself against it.
“Help!” I screamed until a hand went across my mouth, silencing me. Then the hand pulsed and expanded and grew until it was a thick tentacle forcing its way into my mouth, trying to move past my tongue and down into my throat. I was choking, the air being sucked out of me, my mouth feeling like it was being ripped apart.
Just as the world was growing black, Sage kicked the door in, breaking it off its hinges. The tentacle quickly removed itself from my mouth, the hands let go of my back, and I fell forward, limp and lifeless, my head about to crash into the side of the bathtub. Sage caught me just in time and pulled me out, letting me rest on his strong, muscular thighs.
“Shit,” he swore, cradling my head in his hands. I looked up at him, trying to tell him that I was okay. Those beautiful green eyes were tinged with a fear I’d never seen before as he looked from me to the bathtub and back.
I lost consciousness.
People were arguing. The sound of Jacob’s gruff voice and Sage’s panicked one. I remembered what had happened. The bathroom. My mother. I could tell I was in bed, under the covers, and still I was afraid to open my eyes.
“I think she’s waking up,” I heard Max say.
A warm hand went to my cheek, and I had the courage to face the day, to keep going on. I opened my eyes and smiled when I saw Sage’s handsome face over mine, his brow wrought with concern. “Dawn. You’re going to be all right.”
I snorted caustically, even though it hurt. “Right. Sure. Uh-huh.”
I tried to sit up, and he helped me until I was leaning back against the pillow. We were in my room, the lights all blazing. Max was sitting on a chair in the corner, watching me intently; Jacob was standing by the broken bathroom door, his arms folded and his eyes in my direction, but his mind elsewhere. In his hand he held something that looked like a photograph.
“What time is it?” I asked, eyeing the window. It was black outside, a nearly full moon hanging low in the distance.
“Four a.m.,” said Jacob. “You’ve been out for an hour.”
“Dawn,” Sage whispered, his massive body settling on the edge of the bed beside me. “What happened? What was that thing?”
“You saw her?”
Sage exchanged a look with Jacob. “Who?”
“My mother. My mother was in the bathtub. I went to get some water, and I saw her there, behind the curtain. Then she started coming for me…”
“I don’t know what you saw, Dawn, but that was not your mother…that was…” Sage trailed off, his mouth curling in utter disgust. He shook his head. “I don’t know what the fuck that was. But it wasn’t your mother. It wasn’t human.”
“It was a demon,” Max said absently.
Sage and I both looked to him.
“Tell me again, Jacob, why it’s a good thing that he’s here,” Sage sniped.
“Shut up,” Jacob said calmly, though his tone was tightly wound. “I told you last night that there was more to this. And Max is right. That was a demon.” He gave me a sympathetic look. “Sorry, love, it was once your mother. For maybe a second even, it was her, before the demon took over. You did see her. You did hear her. Just enough to fulfill the final part of the bargain. Now you’ve been granted everything. The housekeeper told Sage that once you saw her, it would all end. This is the beginning of the end.”
Fucking hell, if my whole body didn’t just freeze in fright. I clutched the blanket to my chest, trying to find warmth.
“You’re failing at your beside manners,” Sage mumbled.
“And I was never very good at it,” Jacob said, walking forward until he was at the foot of the bed. I felt like I’d seen him too often in those ugly pajamas of his. “Luckily I have Max. Well, you have Max. He’s a lot better at this than I am.”
I looked over at Max, who was chewing on his lip in thought, staring dead ahead. I was starting to think he hadn’t even heard Jacob when he suddenly said, “Right then. I reckon it’s about time I come clean.”
“I knew it,” Sage said under his breath.
Max leaned forward in his seat, elbows on his grey tracksuit pants, and clasped his hands together. He looked me dead in the eye.
“Dawn, I am a photographer. I do work for Creem magazine. But I’m not here because of Sage Knightly and his European solo tour. I’m here because of you. For you.” He scratched at his sideburns. “Jacob had a hunch about you—a worry. He asked me to look into it. Because he’s boring and mortal now, there wasn’t much he could do, so I was the next best thing. You know how the Jacobs work, don’t you?”
I swallowed hard. “Refresh my memory.”
He sighed. “This is the part that always sounds the stupidest,” he said to himself. “Okay, here we go. In short, Jacobs are guardians, guides, and managers of this world, the Thin Veil or the barrier world, and the other worlds—Heaven, Hell, and some nooks and crannies in between. We’re all here for one purpose, and when the purpose is fulfilled, we start over again. Anew. No memories of the past we just had. Believe me, if you’ve been around for thousands of years, the erasure of past lives is the only way you can ensure sanity. Our purposes can change, though, with each life. Sometimes we manage, like Jacob did, ensuring everything is going as planned—debts to demons are made all the time. In fact, in this increasingly…volatile world, the debts are growing. Sometimes we guard the world, ensuring the bad things stay where they do and the good ones don’t come visit. Sometimes we guide those who have the ability to see and communicate with the dead. Sometimes those people can even see the demons. Sometimes they can even fight them.”
Even though I’d heard a version of this from Jacob last year, I still had a hard time wrapping my head around it. I guess it made sense in some ways, but even so, it was a lot to take, especially after witnessing my demon mother in the bathroom.
“Am I someone who sees and fights demons?” I asked. If I was, I certainly failed in the bathroom. My throat was still unbearably raw.
“I wish you were, little lamb,” he said. “Would make my job a whole lot easier. But no. In this role, I’m a manager. I’m here to protect you and the contract you signed and do whatever I can to ensure that it is handled fairly.”
“Handled fairly!?” Sage erupted. “She was fucking attacked by a demon in the bathroom while I was sleeping. How is this being handled fairly!?”
Max raised a brow. “Unfortunately, I don’t have much control over how the demons will appear to you, Dawn. I just know that now they’re getting set to collect on you. They want what you owe them.”
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