The Forgotten Child
The dead can speak. They need her to listen.
Ever since Riley Thomas, reluctant medium extraordinaire, accidentally released a malevolent spirit from a Ouija board when she was thirteen, she’s taken a hard pass on scary movies, haunted houses, and cemeteries. Twelve years later, when her best friend pressures her into spending a paranormal investigation weekend at the infamous Jordanville Ranch—former home of deceased serial killer Orin Jacobs—Riley’s still not ready to accept the fact that she can communicate with ghosts.
Shortly after their arrival at the ranch, the spirit of a little boy contacts Riley; a child who went missing—and was never found—in 1973.
In order to put the young boy’s spirit to rest, she has to come to grips with her ability. But how can she solve a mystery that happened a decade before she was born? Especially when someone who knows Orin’s secrets wants to keep the truth buried—no matter the cost.
Content warning: Adult language, sexual situations, discussions about sexual assault.
Release date: October 10, 2018
Publisher: Ringtail Press
Print pages: 365
Content advisory: adult language, serial killer, murder, sexual situations
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The Forgotten Child
Melissa Erin Jackson
Orin Jacobs was fascinated by the mechanics of things.
“He’s going to be an inventor someday,” his mother would tell her friends every time she found him in the living room, clock pieces spread out before him on the rug—tiny screws and bolts and wires and springs.
He took things apart so he could see how they worked.
His mother didn’t know that beyond the clocks and watches and microwave oven, he also took apart living things. Frogs were the easiest to catch, but he set traps for rabbits and birds, too. Birds were his favorite.
He snapped delicate wing bones to see how they’d heal on their own. He was amazed that just a few cracks here and there robbed them of their ability to fly.
It was when he was eleven, with his little sister tied to a tree, that Orin saw a change in his mother. He knew she no longer thought he’d be an inventor. Now she worried he would become—that he was—something else entirely. Sunlight glinted off the small knife in his hand.
His mother ran to him, knocked him aside, and snatched the blade from his fist. Then she boxed him on the ear—slapped and shoved and screamed at him. “What’s wrong with you! She’s just a baby!”
Was her age the only problem? Did Orin only need to wait until she was older?
His mother used the blade to saw through the ropes binding the six-year-old girl in place.
Orin had never seen his mother so angry. She’d never hit him before.
“I wasn’t going to hurt her!” he’d said, sprawled on the ground, hand cupping his hot-to-the-touch ear. Then, softer, he said, “I just wanted to see what’s inside.”
Clutching the crying girl to her side, his mother’s lip curled. “She’s not a clock, Orin. If you take her apart, you can’t put her back together.”
So Orin studied human anatomy with only the aid of textbooks. Perhaps he could be a doctor. Doctors were allowed to cut people open.
But pictures and diagrams weren’t the same as feeling the warmth of flesh as it slowly turned cold. Wasn’t the same as getting sticky with blood while rooting around in body cavities, searching for organs and muscles and bones. Wasn’t the same as putting a finger on something as small as a nerve, and watching as paws, claws, and feathers twitched of their own accord. Oh, how he yearned to make fingers and toes twitch like that.
He couldn’t feel like a puppet master if his mother didn’t allow him to pull the strings.
Though as he got older, others denied him access, too. Medical schools wouldn’t allow him into their institutions after interviewing him. He couldn’t even get hired as a mortician’s assistant.
So he waited.
And once his mother died peacefully in her bed on a cool autumn night in 1973, thirty years after she hit him, Orin went looking for his first patient.
A pack of werewolves raced across the television screen. Riley, with a bowl of popcorn clutched to her chest, stared wide-eyed, heart thundering in her chest even though she’d seen the movie eight times already. When a knock sounded on her front door, she screamed, sending popcorn everywhere and leaving tiny splotches of white cheddar dust all over her brown couch.
Jade rushed in, hands balled into fists and raised above her head, ready to punch an unknown assailant. “What’s wrong? What happen—oh.” She dropped her arms and propped a hand on her hip. “Good god, girl. You can’t seriously be watching this again.”
Riley regretted giving her best friend a key to her apartment.
Untangling herself from her blanket, Riley lurched forward to snatch the remote off her coffee table. She hit pause. “What are you doing here?”
“Hello to you, too,” Jade said, plopping down next to her and grabbing a handful of the remaining popcorn. “You didn’t answer my text this morning. You also didn’t reply to a very similar one last month. I know a strategic ignore when I see one.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“You’re full of lies.”
They glared at each other.
Jade looked her usual flawless self, green eyes rimmed with black liner. Riley had worn the same sweatpants every night this week and was almost positive there was popcorn in her bra. Jade’s light brown skin—several shades lighter than Riley’s—was dusted with the faintest layer of makeup, and her head of gorgeous, wild brown curls was currently pulled up in a messy bun. Several curls had escaped, creating a fuzzy halo around her head.
Riley gave her own head a scratch, wondering when she’d last washed her hair.
She had, in fact, ignored Jade’s text. Her initial reaction to the message—We’re IN for this weekend, Ry! Jordanville Ranch, here we come!—had been to silence her phone, drop it in her purse, and put on Battle at Fishrock for the ninth time.
“C’mon, Ry. This kinda thing is right up your super weird alley.” Jade waved a hand in the direction of the werewolf frozen on the TV screen and the true crime novels on Riley’s bookshelf.
Riley side-eyed her laptop sitting on her coffee table, where dozens of murder-related websites were bookmarked for easy access. “Werewolves aren’t real. Ghosts are.”
Rolling her eyes, Jade said, “You were obsessed with the ranch ages before the Paranormal Playground episode was even announced. You get weirdly fixated on local cases—and you practically go apoplectic about the serial killer ones.”
“Apoplectic is a little dramatic,” she said, though Jade wasn’t wrong. “I like the stuff about catching bad guys and the pursuit of justice and all that. I do not like the haunted house stuff.”
“Tell you what,” Jade said. “If you fess up about why you’re so against ghosts, I won’t make you go this weekend.”
Riley pursed her lips.
“Just as I thought!”
“Why do I need a reason? Ghosts are scary. If I told you I was scared of clowns, would you ask why?”
Jade huffed, sending an errant curl flapping, which meant she’d let it go. For now. “Rochelle and Pamela won’t be able to afford that room without you there. Brie’s parents promised to stay at the house with her husband and the kids for the whole weekend. Brie never gets a vacation. Don’t take that from her.”
Oh, so now she’s resorting to out-and-out guilt?
From the handful of emails Riley had received, and also ignored, five of them were on the guest list: herself, Jade, Rochelle, Pamela, and Brie.
“Look,” Jade said, turning to sit cross-legged on the couch so she could stare more fully at the side of Riley’s head. “It’s not just about affording the room. Or the fact that I’ve been on the waiting list for a year and this is my dream and don’t you dare destroy it ...” Riley rolled her eyes at that. “I’m seriously worried about you.”
Brow furrowed, Riley turned toward her—back against the armrest of the sofa, knees pulled into her chest. A piece of popcorn crunched underfoot. “Why? I’m fine.”
Jade cocked her head to the side, mouth bunched up in the corner.
“What! Don’t look at me like that,” Riley said.
“Ever since you broke up with Casey, you’ve been ... an antisocial homebody.”
That hardly seemed fair.
“You broke up with him, remember? You should be partying it up every night and making terrible decisions! You know damn well he hasn’t been moping at home for the past six months. That asshole likely didn’t wait six minutes.”
Riley frowned, not sure how Jade thought any of this would help. “I’m not moping ...”
Ticking off Riley’s offenses finger by finger, Jade said, “You always have an excuse not to do stuff with me and the girls. You only want to hang out with me if we’re sitting on a couch watching a movie. You work a ridiculous number of hours, watch an even more ridiculous amount of TV, and you avoid interacting with other human beings at all costs.”
Riley’s cheeks flamed. “What is this, an intervention? I interact with people all day long, thank you very much.”
“I’m talking about interacting with people on a level deeper than, ‘Can I get you a refill?’”
Riley gasped in mock-horror.
“Please?” Jade’s green eyes doubled in size, and she clutched her hands below her chin, looking for all the world like a lost puppy. They’d only been friends since freshman year in college—some seven years ago—but they’d been like sisters ever since. And just like a real sibling, Jade had figured out long ago how to push Riley’s buttons.
Ignoring her gut screaming at her to say no, Riley groaned. She’d requested the time off work weeks ago, but she’d also hoped to find a way out of it. She should have known Jade wouldn’t have been deterred by mere avoidance tactics. “Ugh! Fine!”
With a whoop, Jade thrust a fist in the air. “I have to get home to Jonah,” she said, standing up. “I swear to god that boy would starve to death if it weren’t for me.”
Riley felt an extra flare of annoyance. Jade had known Riley would be powerless to say no in person. “When do we leave?”
“We’ll all meet at my house on Thursday afternoon around four. You still take Thursdays off work to watch your shows, right?”
My shows? Had she really turned into an eighty-year-old woman? “Yeah.”
“Okay, good. Then we can take one car—Brie offered to drive. Shouldn’t take more than four hours to get there,” Jade said.
“Jonah is going to survive a whole weekend without you?”
“I prepped and froze meals for, like, six nights. All he has to do is warm them up in the microwave.” Jade headed for the door. “He’s forbidden from using any other appliance. Remember that time he tried to make toast? Damn near burned down the kitchen.”
Riley laughed, following Jade to the door.
She hugged Jade goodbye, but her friend held on a second longer than necessary. “Thank you for coming. Really.” Pulling away, she held Riley by the arms and flashed an award-winning smile. “We’ll have a great time, I promise. Mini road trip, slumber party with the girls—”
“Two nights of paranormal investigations to possibly experience a visitation from a serial killer ...” Riley singsonged.
Riley shook her head. “Go save Jonah from starvation.”
Closing the door behind her friend, she sighed at how epically stupid it was to go to a haunted ranch. She preferred to live in denial about her “sensitivity,” as her mother called it, but it was hard to do that when she willingly walked into a place teeming with ghosts.
Between the Great Ouija Board Fiasco when she was thirteen, the old pipe-smoking sea captain who’d followed her around during her first—and only—tour of a cemetery on Halloween in high school, and the haunted apartment she’d moved out of lickety-split just before she’d found her current one, Riley couldn’t deny that her mother was probably right. But if Riley didn’t go to cemeteries or haunted houses or any place that generally gave her the willies, she didn’t have run-ins with the dead. Easy peasy.
And the more she ignored and denied, the easier it was to keep it all at bay. Nothing could come waltzing through the proverbial door if the door was closed, locked, and barricaded.
Because of her aversion, shows like Paranormal Playground set off warning bells in her head. Though, she had to admit, she found the show’s co-stars—a boyfriend and girlfriend who’d become husband and wife between seasons three and four—more legit than others she’d seen. Then again, it was a low bar.
Riley stuck to Cold Case Files, The First 48, Forensic Files, and Dateline. Shows about justice. Shows about closure.
Not stories of lingering, trapped spirits. Of souls bound to the physical world.
Riley blew out a deep breath. She had to stop thinking about this.
The more she thought about these things, the more she opened herself up. The more the spirits could sense her vulnerability and come knocking at the door.
So, this weekend, she vowed to remain detached during the investigations. She would be the same wet blanket from middle and high school, sitting in the corner and refusing to cooperate. Jade might get upset over it, but she’d deal. Rochelle, Brie, and Pamela would be there to share in the excitement.
A buzz sounded across the room, making Riley jump, but it was only her phone.
She pulled it out of her purse and sighed at the group text that had just come through from Jade.
Ry is in, ladies! We leave in TWO DAYS! Get ready to catch some ghosts!!
She’d added the goofy ghost emoji for good measure.
The women replied rapid-fire, but Riley couldn’t even muster up false excitement. She deposited her phone on the coffee table. All desire lost to continue watching the wolf-boys of Fishrock, she turned the TV off, instead opting for a glass of wine, a hot shower, and an early bedtime. Ruining her friends’ fun with her pessimism before they’d even left probably wasn’t good form.
Standing on the cold tile floor of the kitchen, she uncorked the half-empty wine bottle and poured herself a glass. Her hand shook so badly, a bit of red wine splattered on the counter.
Get a grip.
The Paranormal Playground crew hadn’t uncovered anything but very ambiguous “evidence.” The place probably wasn’t even haunted. Denial and avoidance would get her through it. And wine. Could she just fill her suitcase with bottles of Merlot?
Downing the wine in seconds, she headed for the bathroom.
Her phone, still being blasted by her excited friends, vibrated itself right off the table and onto the carpet below with a muted thud.
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