Read The First Chapter of 'The Promise of Lost Things' by Helene Dunbar | The Nerd Daily

2022-07-01 11:10:11 By : Ms. Kim Wei

Three characters with their own agendas converge in a town filled with mediums, where most residents make their living speaking to the dead…and there’s no such thing as resting in peace.

Intrigued? Well read on to discover the synopsis and the first chapter of Helene Dunbar’s The Promise of Lost Things, which is out July 5th 2022!

Russ Griffin has always wanted to be a fantastic medium. Growing up in the town of St. Hilaire, where most residents make their living by speaking to the dead, means there’s a lot of competition, and he’s always held his own. But Russ knows the town he loves is corrupt, and he’s determined to save it before the sinister ruling body, The Guild, ruins all he’s ever wanted.

Willow Rodgers is St. Hilaire royalty. An orphan, raised by The Guild, she’s powerful and mysterious. But she has secrets that might change everyone’s fate. She’s done with St. Hilaire, done with helping desperate customers who think mediums work for them. She wants to end the cycle for good and rid the town of ghosts, even if that means destroying the only home she’s ever known.

Asher Mullen lost his sister, and his parents can’t get over her death. They sought answers in St. Hilaire and were left brokenhearted. Now they want to expose St. Hilaire as a fraud. Asher is tasked with infiltrating the town, and he does that by getting to know Russ. The only problem is, he might be falling for him, which will make betraying Russ that much harder.

Russ, Willow, and Asher all have their own agendas for St. Hilaire, but one thing’s for certain, no one will be resting in peace.

In St. Hilaire, New York, everyone talked to the dead.

If you were lucky or talented, or both, the dead might listen. Sometimes they talked back. Sometimes they made sense. Sometimes they were just a pain in the ass.

I knew it was odd to live in a town filled with mediums whose primary business involved séances, healing sessions, and ghost walks. It was odd to live behind a gate that only opened to visitors—for a price—during the summer when they’d converge on our town seeking answers, comfort, and forgiveness from those who had passed on.

And perhaps it was equally odd to embrace the idea that death wasn’t an end point. Even though, maybe, in most cases it should be.

But, odd as it was, I loved it. I loved the history of our town, which was founded by a group of talented mediums over a hundred-and-fifty years ago. I loved the weirdness of séances and fairy trails and people coming to walk the huge labyrinth on the other end of town. I loved feeling like I was part of something big, something that mattered, as well as the fact that I could bring hope and closure to the people who came here. And I really loved being chosen as leader of the Youth Corps, made up of all the high school seniors. The role put me on the path to an actual job with the town’s governing body, the Guild, assuming I survived high school and some extra training courses, first.

Today’s lesson started the way most spirit-related activities did, with a voice in my ear and a feeling I was being watched, a slight vibration under my chair and a chill in the air.

I shivered in my wool coat. The chill, which seemed to settle somewhere in my spine and radiate through my body like a spiderweb, was a reaction to ghosts that most mediums outgrew, but one I guess I was stuck with. I tightened the muscles in my shoulders, locked my knees in an effort to stay still, and hoped Willow Rogers didn’t notice, which was ridiculous because Willow Rogers noticed everything.

“Tell me, Russ,” she commanded. She sounded bored as if she’d rather be manning an off-season phone line or working the research desk at the town archives than mentoring me in conjuring the dead. More than that, she looked bored, her green eyes dismissive and clouded as if her thoughts were far away.

I tilted my head and searched the air around her. “There’s a woman,” I said. “Standing over your left shoulder.” I examined the ghost’s clothing: over a hundred years out of date. Her hair: a messy blond ponytail. This lesson was so easy; it was no wonder Willow was bored. The spirit could have walked out of my freshman-year textbook. “Melody Thorne,” I said, identifying one of our town’s founders and most frequent ghostly visitors.

Willow stared at me, perfectly still and unblinking, her lips red against her skin as she said, “Continue.”

I tried to tune out the sound of my heart beating in my ear. Narrowed my eyes to focus on the syllables formed by the ghost’s barely there mouth. “You have a”—I leaned forward to listen more closely to what the spirit of Melody Thorne was saying—“a class. No, a meeting. You have a meeting at four o’clock and she’s worried you’ll be late.”

There were no clocks in the room, so Willow glanced at her phone. Her face flashed with annoyance and then cleared before she stood and smoothed down her straight black skirt. “That’s all for today,” she said, which meant I hadn’t done anything she could find fault with. Willow was notoriously generous with her criticism.

I stood and stretched. The muscles in my neck were taut and sore. These weekly lessons were required to help me strengthen my skills as a medium, but they were dull, exhausting, and it was clear both of us were only here out of obligation. I could do this sort of thing in my sleep.

Willow walked to the door of the classroom, her high heels echoing on the parquet floor. Then she turned back abruptly, as if she were trying to catch me off guard. “I overheard Father talking…” she started, her face animated for the first time since she’d walked into the room. “Is it true that Ian Mackenzie speaks to you?”

I inhaled sharply. Willow and I never spoke directly about our lives. We’d talk about school or the Guild or general current events: the museum got a new collection of dowsing rods from the early 1920s, or did you hear Miranda had something strange happen during a reading she was conducting? But never anything more personal and for me, it didn’t get any more personal than Ian Mackenzie.

I didn’t talk about Ian with anyone. I hadn’t talked about him when he was alive and considered St. Hilaire’s hottest, young medium, even though we were friends with benefits. Or enemies with benefits. Or whatever you call it when you kind-of-sort-of like someone and kind-of-sort-of hate them at the same time and yet can’t seem to stay away.

I really didn’t talk about him now that he was dead and haunting me (and only me) and now that we actually did like each other. Maybe more than liked each other. When it came to Ian, the specifics were always hard to pin down.

I answered her question with a tentative nod and waited while she looked me up and down. She had a piercing stare, one I’d often emulated with some success. I knew she had to be irritated that Ian would talk to me and not her. After all, she and Ian had gone to school together and served on the Youth Corps together. And even though she was only a few years older than me, she was already a member of the Guild. More than that, she’d actually been raised by them as a type of collective adopted daughter. She even called Guild President Clive Rice “Father.”

And Ian? He was a Guild legend. That hadn’t changed just because he was dead.

I was only a high school senior. A senior who was currently student leader of the Guild’s Youth Corps, but still, that was nothing in comparison to either of them. She had to be pissed I had a line to St. Hilaire’s most elusive ghost.

“I suppose it makes sense,” she said, narrowing her eyes and letting contempt bleed into her voice. “Ian was always motivated more by what was in his pants than what was in his head.”

I winced. She wasn’t wrong, and despite my determination to stay in control, I felt myself flush. But it was one thing for everyone to know that the ghost of Ian Mackenzie, one of the best mediums St. Hilaire had ever seen, spoke to me. It was another for them to know…assume… Hell, I couldn’t define what my relationship with Ian had been when he was alive—much less what it was now—so there was certainly no way Willow and the rest of St. Hilaire could have a clue.

But Ian and Willow were more alike than either would have admitted, and the number one rule for dealing with both of them was the same: Don’t show fear.

I coughed, regrouped, and said, “I’m sure he’d want to send his best to Colin. How is your boyfriend, anyhow?” I had to restrain myself from putting air quotes around the word boyfriend. Colin was Ian’s younger brother. He and Ian had hated each other when Ian was alive, and Ian’s death hadn’t changed those feelings. Rumors about Colin and Willow had been swirling around for ages, though “boyfriend” was probably putting a pretty spin on it.

Willow’s eyes flashed, but when she turned back to the door, she didn’t answer. All she said was, “Be here the same time on Wednesday to continue your training.” Then she walked out.

When I got home, I booted up the brick of a laptop I’d been using for over five years despite numerous crashes, stuck keys, and burned-out pixels on the screen. My browser opened to the Buchanan Sentinel. Buchanan was the town that sat just outside St. Hilaire, and their big news usually involved some sort of high school sportsball or a debate on mailbox colors, but sometimes I needed to see what was going on in the rest of the world.


I vaguely remembered the show and its mission to visit supposedly haunted places and debunk them. It had been a hit for a while and had changed casts multiple times before it just seemed to stop, but I’d never watched it when it was on and hadn’t paid much attention to it ending.

I skimmed the article, most of which discussed St. Hilaire’s founding as a home for spiritualists and described how we opened for business to the public in the summer, offering to contact the dead relatives, lovers, friends, and coworkers of the often-desperate customers who came through the gates for a mere fifteen dollars a head. Stock photos showed the painted Victorians and the old-growth forests, the wishing rock and the bronzed statues of our founders.

A paragraph at the bottom touched on the always-contentious topic of how, since spiritualism was classified as a religion, St. Hilaire received tax breaks not offered to adjacent towns and how that had pissed people off in neighboring Buchanan who felt as if they were picking up our slack.

My father and I had never had enough money to worry about tax breaks. And it was hard to get worked up about Buchanan residents being irritated, since they always seemed bothered by something we were or weren’t doing.

There was little concrete information in the piece about the show. No air date or cast list or rationale other than that St. Hilaire was Ghost Killers’ next target and that it was a “breaking story.”

“Welcome to small-town America,” I muttered to myself. “But it didn’t even mention the Guild. How can you write an article about St. Hilaire without mentioning the Guild?”

“You know what they say about people who talk to themselves, right?” a voice behind me asked.

“That they have a captive audience?” I tossed back.

Ian Mackenzie choked out a laugh. No. The ghost of Ian Mackenzie choked out a laugh, but really, there was little difference between the two. Even as a ghost, Ian was bigger than…well, life.

He leaned over my shoulder to read, and I could feel a cold whisper of something like breath land deliberately on my neck. I shivered.

“Need I remind you they didn’t mention the Guild because the Guild is obsolete?” he asked. “Or at least it will be once we get through with them.” Then he pulled back and said, “Although they could have interviewed me. And maybe you, I guess.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at Ian’s indignation. Aside from one conversation I’d facilitated with his youngest brother, Alex, Ian hadn’t spoken to a single living person aside from me since he’d died, and here he was, wondering why the press wasn’t calling and asking him to do the late-night talk-show circuit. Typical. “Good thing you don’t have an agenda.”

“No,” Ian corrected me. “We have an agenda.”

“Okay, fine.” I admitted. “Technically, he wasn’t wrong. The Guild had always been secretive and controlling. But Ian had told me about rumors of them actually killing people during the time he’d run the Corps. Plus, lately, they’d been doing ridiculous things like making all the houses put up Guild flags and running people out of town for refusing to follow some arbitrary rules. Something had to give, and we were going to make sure it did. We just didn’t know how we would do that yet.

“I thought my being chosen to lead the Youth Corps would give us inside information we could use against them, but so far most of my time has been sucked up with these.” I gestured to the piles of reports that threatened to take over the room.

And it was true. All high school seniors had to serve in the Guild’s Youth Corps. And most years, one student was chosen to lead the Corps and possibly jump straight into a Guild-shaped career. When I’d originally dreamed of being chosen student leader, I’d assumed the role would include many things: the chance to learn everything I could from the town’s most esteemed mediums, an opportunity to hone my talents, and a chance to prove I was Guild material.

I didn’t think it was going include trying to take down a corrupt organization.

Or communing with Ian who, through sheer willpower, was keeping himself tethered here instead of doing…well, whatever those who have passed on beyond the ghost state normally did.

Unfortunately, neither of us were getting very far. Not with that goal, anyhow. Aside from my weekly lessons with Willow, my three months as student leader had included one thing: paperwork. Stacks and stacks of reports the Guild expected me to read, verify, catalog, and input into their databases. My entire position was turning into nothing more than a hellish internship.

Ian picked up the top half of a mountain of séance reports, riffled through them, and then before I could stop him, he tossed them dramatically across the room. “Why not make them go away,” he said.

I watched the papers fall like snow, one after the other, the staples making tiny clicks as they hit the worn wooden floor.

Then I watched Ian watching the papers. He was more solid than most ghosts, smugger than, well, anything.

“Are you telling me they didn’t make you do the reports when you were leader?” I asked, already able to guess his answer.

“Wake up, Griffin. This is a waste of your time.” Ian crossed his well-defined arms loosely in front of him, relaxed and in control. As usual.

I considered asking how he’d gotten out of having to do the Guild’s grunt work but thought better of it. It was foolish to assume I’d be treated the same way Ian had been. And even if he told me his secrets, I was too sensible and not charming enough to resort to whatever tactics he’d used to bend the Guild to his will.

“I suppose you have a better idea?” I asked.

He cocked his head and smiled a smile full of innuendo. “I have many better ideas.”

If “Don’t show fear” was rule number one when dealing with Ian Mackenzie, rule number two was “Don’t take the bait.”

Even when part of me wanted to. Especially when I wanted to.

“No doubt,” I said and quickly began to distract myself by gathering the papers. “Weren’t we going to discuss you not bursting into my room anymore?”

“I’m dead. Where would you send the engraved invitations?”

I rolled my eyes and moved the now-ordered stack out of Ian’s grasp. Boundaries had never been his strong suit. “Can’t we just… I don’t know. Set up a time to meet?”

“Like a date? Do I need to bring flowers and make dinner reservations, too?” Ian leaned back against the bed and smirked. “Funny enough, my watch doesn’t exactly work in the great beyond. What’s your problem, anyhow?”

What was my problem? I didn’t know where to begin. Willow had gotten under my skin, and these days, Ian seemed to live there.

But most of all, I was struggling with the fact that I’d spent years working my ass off to prove myself to the Guild and now I was doing everything I could to find a way to destroy them. It was stressing me out.

“I don’t have a problem,” I said.

Ian ignored my bullshit answer as he wandered around the room and, from somewhere, sourced a marble. He rolled it back and forth on the desk.

The cat’s-eye rolled left, then right. I wasn’t sure where it had come from. I wasn’t sure why this act was worth Ian’s limited reserve of energy. I wasn’t sure why I cared. Except…

Ian Mackenzie was a complicated thing to be. He’d been the darling of St. Hilaire when he was alive. He was their darling now. Or would be if he’d agreed to speak to anyone other than me. But now that he was dead, there were times when I could see cracks in his characteristic cockiness, times when he seemed oddly anxious. And, despite my better judgment, I found that, in those times, I had an overwhelming desire to do something to relieve his anxiety.

When Ian rolled the marble toward me a fourth time, I bent over and grabbed it. As if it had been his plan all along, he leaned forward and kissed me. The marble was icy where it lay clenched in my fist. Ian, too, was cold. I always forgot Ian would be cold and therefore I was always surprised. But then Ian had always been unexpected. He was an open window where I was sure I’d shut it, a road out of town that didn’t exist on a map.

I pulled away to catch my breath and clear my head and remember my name. But Ian was a drug, and I couldn’t help but want more.

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This time he placed one cold finger on my lips.

I waited. Waited. Waited. My breath came in fits and starts, my traitorous heart pounded, looking for escape. My focus was equally divided between the marble in my hand and the strip of icy flesh against my lips. I waited as if waiting were the only thing I knew how to do. And around Ian, that wasn’t far from the truth.

“Trust me,” he said, holding my gaze. I found it impossible to look away and equally impossible to remember what I was supposed to trust Ian with. I was still wrestling with this new understanding between us after I’d refused to speak to him the entire year before his mysterious death.

My phone buzzed and broke the spell. Grateful and annoyed in equal measure, I blinked, pulled away, and stared at an unfamiliar local number before letting the call go to voicemail.

Ian reached toward my cell phone, but I slapped his hand away. “You gave up things like phones when you…” I was going to say chose to die because that’s what everyone believed had happened. That Ian was too good of a medium, too good looking, too privileged and special to do anything as uncivilized as to just happen to die young. His death must have been a deliberate choice, everyone said, caused by Ian being wild and reckless and too consumed with being Ian to bother staying alive.

I’d bought into the story, too, at the time. But something about it had always unsettled me, and Ian always skirted around the subject like a spider. “Sorry. I didn’t mean…”

Ian didn’t look away.

“Sorry,” I said again, forcing myself to glance down.

I reached over and grabbed another stack of papers, aiming to line up the staples in the upper-left corner. As I did, something caught my eye. I sorted through the pile in my hand and then looked through the ones on the table. Then I looked again.

“Seventeen?” I asked Ian. “They held seventeen séances to try to reach you in a single season?”

I knew the Guild had been oddly obsessed with contacting Ian. But I hadn’t realized they had been this bent out of shape. In all that time, Ian had never thrown them a single bone.

“Never let it be said I don’t know how to play hard to get,” he said. “Give me those.” He reached over for the stacks and skimmed the forms, turning pages, and turning them back.

I studied him. Ian was so present, so focused, that I rarely had the chance to watch him without him watching me back. But now he was captivated by the reports and I had the chance to take in the straightness of his back, the way he distractedly narrowed his eyes as he considered what he was reading, and I had the chance to think about how much easier my life would be without this connection to him that I couldn’t seem to shake. And how much duller.

“Willow Rogers,” he said, looking up so quickly I felt as if I’d been caught watching porn in the library.

“Willow Rogers was part of…” Ian thumbed through the reports. “Shit. Over half of these.”

“I thought they kept trying to reach me because they were worried about marketing St. Hilaire to tourists and wanted me to be their poster boy. But now I wonder if the reason wasn’t something else.”

Ian’s expression was unusually distorted for someone who was always concerned about appearances. I would have loved to believe that this lapse in control, this letting down of his guard, was due to us spending more time together, but like everything with him, it was hard to know for sure.

“Something else like what?” I asked, but when he didn’t answer and didn’t meet my eyes and the room got perceptively colder, I felt my anger rise. “Ian?”

“Just keep your distance from her,” he said, still looking away.

“That’s gonna be a little difficult given that she’s mentoring me, don’t you think?”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Maybe you can ask for a new mentor?”

“Who did you have in mind since she’s pretty much the best here, now that you’re…” I paused when Ian narrowed his eyes. “Anyhow, stop being so…cagey,” I demanded, although I easily could have said, Stop being so…Ian. “There’s no point to us trying to get anything done if you aren’t going to be honest with me.”

Ian tilted his head at an odd angle, which was something he’d just started to do. It was a ghost thing, I guessed, and the awkwardness sent shivers racing up my spine. “You want to play that card? Really?” His voice had an edge that did nothing to put me at ease. I could bleed out from the sharpness of that tone alone. “Then let’s see your arm.”

“What?” I flinched against my shirtsleeves. Ian always had a special way of making me feel exposed.

“Ian…” I started, searching for a way to avoid an argument. Lately, I’d lost my taste for battle. I looked for loopholes in Ian’s argument, but we both knew I’d deliberately done the one thing I’d promised him I wouldn’t do—continue to mix up potentially lethal batches of potentially lethal herbs as directed by a crumbling old book of my grandmother’s, and inject them into my arm in order to have the ability to visit with ghosts without having to hold a proper séance.

There was no way of getting around the lie; that serum had been the only way I could talk to Ian in the beginning without the whole dog-and-pony show of an illegal formal séance, since I was technically under age for holding one on my own. I had a hard time believing he could hate it that much. “I don’t want to fight with you.”

“That isn’t a denial,” Ian observed, thankfully bringing his head back to a more normal angle.

“No,” I admitted. “No, it isn’t a denial. But it also has nothing to do with you.”

I could see Ian’s shoulders tense, feel the temperature drop in waves. Although he’d never done it, it was a fair bet he had enough energy or presence or whatever-the-hell it was to damage the house. It was amazing the amount of power a pissed-off ghost could harness.

Instead, Ian stuck his hands in the pockets of his painted-on dark jeans. “Right. It’s your life,” he said. “I’ll keep in mind that it has nothing to do with me.”

“Ian,” I said, but he was gone before I got the word out.

The passive-aggressive disappearing-in-the-middle-of-an-argument thing drove me nuts, and he knew it.

I sat down and tried to parse the silence. Ian was a black hole of sound and vision, noise and expectation. It always took a few minutes after he left for me to return to myself, not unlike waking up from a realistic dream. Sometimes it took a few minutes before I could tell what was real and what wasn’t.

My phone lit up with a reminder of the earlier voicemail. I played the message back and then played it again, oddly relieved.

The message had nothing to do with ghosts. Nothing even to do with St. Hilaire. The real world was calling, and for once, I was more than happy to answer.

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