Chapter 1

When Samuel Stewart was told to decide his future, he knew there were three paths in front of him. If he were to visualize them, he would describe each of them as something vastly different.

One was a dirt road. This was the path he would have to take if he were to live up to his mother’s expectations. Which was to say, the lowest expectations. He would fail to finish high school, fail to get into college, fail to get a job, and fail to be anything more than a burden to her and to anyone who had the misfortune of breathing the same air as him. The dirt road would not be something he traveled along. It would be something he became.

The second was a paved road. Hot against bare feet, long and winding, cracked and faded, but steady. Survivable. That was the path of college, of getting a degree in something he was good enough at, of hopefully working his way into a job where he could feel useful and important rather than simply replaceable. It was the path of potential.

The third path was always at the center, laid in marble, carved into stairs that led up to heaven. This was the path where he could do more than survive. This was the path where he could live. It was the path he wanted most of all. It would allow him to escape, to run, to feel free and fulfilled spiritually, which he wished for even more than he wished for guaranteed meals.

There were many letters and brochures that came in the mail, telling him to apply to this college or that program or this job. It was the time in a teenager’s life when the applications were sent off and prayers were said with more heart, and it was the time he received the only letter that mattered. It was a simple letter, thin enough to hold just one piece of paper. There was a seal in the corner, and the words Cleanser Academy printed underneath.

That single letter made his marble staircase crumble.

“Is it really so surprising?” his mother asked as she caught his expression. She sat at their small kitchen table in their quaint, pastel kitchen, watching him as he stood in the low doorway. He didn’t know what he must have looked like to her. Was there an expression for crushed dreams?

Samuel held the letter in his hands, staring at it, wishing the letters would rearrange themselves, yearning for a different answer, struggling to see if he could rebuild that marble staircase.

He couldn’t.

“No,” he answered his mother, his heart heavy. The ink was dried. He wasn’t qualified to be an Exorcist. “I suppose not.”

He chose the paved, but broken, path.

 

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Samuel was obsessive about checking e-mails. There were rejection letters right next to suggestions on how to heighten his performance in bed. Most could be glossed over, but there was always a high enough chance one was life changing. That made it seem so dramatic, but he was borderline paranoid at this point. Samuel read every word of every e-mail carefully, even if it was just to find the real unsubscribe button.

Just before Samuel’s second year at college, he received an e-mail that didn’t necessarily affect him, but he could feel the effects it would have on others—and the potential it brought to him. It warned of Davis Turner, who would be a student the upcoming semester. With this single e-mail, every student and faculty member at the College of Charleston would know he had been possessed as a child. He could no longer have secrets. His future was limited. Being possessed was not like getting a cold. You didn’t build an immunity to it; you became a beacon. The chances of being possessed again doubled. Tripled even.

Samuel had heard many stories through his church but had rarely seen a case of someone being possessed so young and turning out so…normal. The fact Davis was being let into college was a huge risk for the school and for the students.

Samuel was inexplicably curious.

Of course, Samuel was woefully incompetent at being social in nearly any form, so actually seeking Davis out to… talk? Ask questions? Observe like some creepy stalker? That was never going to happen. There was nothing to do but ignore his burning curiosity, his want to maybe help this boy, and so because of this he kept himself busy.

Theatre was a major that definitely helped with that. First it was just classes. There were small whispers (“He killed his dad;” “He killed an Exorcist;” “He’s going to get us killed—or worse;” “He doesn’t even care about anyone but himself if he’s here and not in jail”), but Samuel stubbornly ignored them. He couldn’t give himself hope for something he had already been denied. He couldn’t get involved. He could put his best into his schoolwork.

A year passed without him even seeing Davis, despite them sharing a campus that was hardly anything more than three square blocks. That is, minus the occasional graffiti of his face on brick walls that were not so nice.

He decided becoming Assistant Stage Manager at the start of his third year would keep him focused, and he wasn’t wrong. He had nearly forgotten by then that Davis was a student there at all. He had only given in to his curiosity when it came to his church. Whether it was criticisms of the non-traditional Exorcists who were a part of the government or rumors of warnings from Angels, the information had satisfied him enough in the Exorcist-and-demons department while he continued with his degree.

It was a week into the semester and he found himself organizing scenes and actor applications, wordlessly handing them out to actors. It was positions like this where he excelled, where there was a clear process and he wasn’t obligated to be friendly, just efficient. He sat at a table pulled from the props room, positioned outside of the audition room, when one of the actors decided to try speaking to him.

“Can I audition?”

Samuel looked up to see a boy standing there, eyes focused but hesitant, eyebrows furrowed, his weight shifting from one foot to the other. His accent was not from Charleston, but of somewhere else Samuel couldn’t quite place. He asked the question not as if he already knew the answer, like so many actors did, but more as if he was requesting to participate in something strictly off limits. The boy had the looks for an actor, with perfectly clear, brown skin, and it certainly wasn’t fat surrounding his bones. His tight black t-shirt didn’t hide that fact.

Samuel tapped his fingers on the stacks. “Which part?”

There was silence for a moment before Samuel looked up, annoyed with the lack of response, only to see wide, hazel eyes staring at him. Samuel squinted and looked away, then back at him. “What?” Samuel asked.

“I can audition? Really?” the boy asked, his face bright and hopeful.

“You’re a student here?”

“Yes.”

“Then yes. Which part?” Samuel asked.

“Uh. Harry. Yes.”

Samuel handed him the appropriate scene and application. “Just fill this out and good luck.”

With a whispered word of thanks, the boy leaned over and filled out the application right there instead of going elsewhere. Then, handed it back. Samuel took the paper and was about to place it with the others when he paused at the name.

Davis Turner.

Many things went through his head. He questioned the idea of fate, the inevitability of this meeting, and his own ability to not look invested. His eyes flickered up and Davis was still there, looking sheepish as he scratched his fingers through his messy brown hair. He prayed to Mary for self-control and berated himself for imagining Davis looking much different. White, scrawny, short. That was not this Davis at all.

“You’re not going to give it back, are you?” Davis asked, his jaw clenching. He looked like he was preparing himself for rejection.

“No—no, you’re fine,” Samuel said, fumbling to keep himself looking unbothered, fiddling with the edge of the table, which he absently noticed was chipping. “Good luck, still.”

“Thank you,” Davis said, and Samuel could tell he put meaning into both words with how he controlled his voice. It brought Samuel’s eyes back to him. He was truly and genuinely grateful to Samuel for the privilege, he noticed, even though it should have been a simple right.

Samuel gave a curt nod and made himself look busy while Davis walked away. For the first time, Samuel felt genuine in wishing someone luck. Maybe he would see Davis again. Maybe there was no way to escape this curiosity.

Samuel was disappointed to find out Davis did not get the role.