- Dystopian Suspense / Romance Novel
- Book One of a new trilogy
Excerpt from Subversive:
Gemma stood at the edge of the cornfield, staring at the withered body hanging from the cross. The faded tattoo of a blue whale swam across one outstretched forearm, the image distorted by the old man’s sagging, leathery skin. Thick nails secured each of his hands to the crossbar, the wounds caked with dried blood. A third nail protruded from his ankles, and beneath this final, terrible mutilation, his bare feet appeared black from the grotesque combination of gravity and pooling blood. His head rested on one emaciated shoulder, his eyes glazed over and vacant, like windows of an abandoned house. But when she moved closer, inadvertently stepping into his line of sight, his eyes came alive, staring down at her accusingly.
She gasped and closed her eyes, holding them shut as she silently counted to five. When she opened them, she blew out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
Henry wasn’t staring at her.
Henry was dead.
No. That isn’t Henry Castern. It can’t be. He’s not supposed to be here. He’s meeting Maks and Allen at the store.
A breeze swept across the field, passing over moldy cornstalks and cattails on its journey to the body. The dead man’s salt-and-pepper hair—so similar to Henry’s, which he always kept slicked against his skull with a peppermint-scented pomade—lifted and snapped like a horse’s tail at the thick swarms of blowflies surrounding his head. Then the breeze reached Gemma, and buried beneath the putrid stench of decay was the vaguest hint of peppermint.
She doubled over, retching, as a dark shadow passed overhead, briefly blotting out the sun. As she wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her jacket, an enormous black bird descended from above and settled upon the old man’s shoulder. A crow or a raven—she never could tell the difference—stared down at her with dark, possessive eyes. It tightened its grip on the old man’s shoulder, massive claws sinking into tattered flannel and decaying tissue, and she heard the tearing of fabric or flesh or both. With a shaking hand, she grabbed a stone from the ground and launched it at the bird, but since she was terrified of hitting the old man, the throw went wide. The creature did not move, only cocked its neck and studied her with mild interest. She hurled two more rocks at the bird before it finally grew irritated enough to unfurl its wings and fly away. But it left reluctantly, and with a parting glance that said, I’ll be back later.
With the bird gone, she pulled the Motorola from its spot on her utility belt and glanced at her watch.
A quarter-mile away, on the outskirts of Ash Grove, Maks Yelchin and Allen Portzline would just be arriving at Castern’s Country Market via the abandoned railroad tracks that passed through the south end of town. The two men would be expecting Henry to be waiting for them as he always was, standing outside the rear delivery entrance of his store, a lit cigarette dangling from his fingers as he blew smoke rings into the sky.
But Henry was dead.
She raised the radio to her lips just as a loud burst of static erupted from the speaker, startling her. The radio slipped through her fingers and disappeared into the high grass at her feet.
Falling to her knees, she ran her palms through the grass, her breaths coming in short, panicky gasps as she desperately searched the ground for the Motorola. Tears of frustration flooded her eyes, making it impossible to see anything. Minutes earlier, she had easily found rocks to hurl at the bird. Now nothing seemed to exist beneath the high grass but loose dirt and clumps of dried mud.
“Come on!” she muttered. “Please!”
Finally—yes! —her hand closed around hard plastic. The Motorola.
And then fireworks destroyed the silence of the morning, exploding in a series of rapid-fire cracks that echoed off the surrounding mountains and reverberated throughout the valley. A flock of birds burst from their hiding places in the tall grass like black lava erupting from a volcano. They sailed west, away from the sound, fighting the wind and cawing indignantly as they passed overhead.
Her first thought was: Who sets off fireworks in April?Then her eyes fell on Henry, and her jumbled mind put the pieces together. The truth hit her in the gut with the force of a punch.
Those aren’t fireworks. They’re gunshots.
Maks and Allen are being ambushed.
She leapt to her feet and ran, abandoning the open field for the concealment of the forest. When she reached the wood line, she grabbed onto the sturdy mass of an ancient oak tree and flung herself behind it, burying her face in the tree and screaming. Beneath her grasping fingers, the tree’s brittle bark broke loose and crumbled to the ground like tiny pieces of confetti. When she could no longer scream, she prayed; not a cohesive prayer, by any means, but a series of rambling and repetitive utterances, such as Please, God and Oh God, help me andDon’t let me die today, God.
Were soldiers lying in wait for her, too? She could see them clearly in her eye, crouched inside their sniper’s nests in the second-floor windows of Henry’s farmhouse, tracking her progress through the scopes of their rifles. Toying with her. Waiting until safety was within reach to pull the trigger. Already conjuring up the lies they would tell about how she had left them no choice but to kill her.
Seconds later, the gunfire ended, replaced by a strangely unsettling silence. Forcing herself to take slow, deep breaths, she lowered her hands from her ears and leaned around the tree to survey the field.
There were no soldiers. No open windows in the farmhouse. Nothing.
Think. You need to think.
Maks and Allen needed help, but she had no weapons. Allen always carried a Glock on supply runs but Gemma had nothing except her father’s old Leatherman. Even if she could somehow make it into Ash Grove without being spotted by any soldiers, she would only succeed in getting herself killed or captured. She couldn’t even call the others back at The Station for help. Any radio communications might put the rest of the group in danger, since she had to assume that the Task Force soldiers in Ash Grove had taken possession of the two men’s radios.
With that thought, the first crippling wave of grief swept over her, threatening to crush her with its magnitude. They’re dead. Maks and Allen are dead.
Maks and Allen couldn’t be dead. The Task Force doesn’t kill people.
Her gaze dropped to the Motorola in her hand.
Not Maks or Allen.
Another breeze passed over her, carrying with it the nauseating combination of peppermint and decay. Careful to keep her fingers away from the PTT button, Gemma raised the radio to her ear.
“Come out so we can talk.”
The strange voice propelled her out of her hiding place. She did not think, only reacted, dropping the radio and sprinting away from the field. Away from the cross. Away from Henry. Away from Ash Grove. Needing to put as much distance between herself and that terrible voice as possible.
She leaned into the mountain, breathing heavily, allowing the fear to drive her forward even as her chest grew tight with the effort. Several times, sharp, crippling pains radiated through the sides of her abdomen, but she raised her arms over her head until they subsided. When her thighs started to burn, she opened her stride and ran faster, concentrating on the trees. They guided her home, each one in succession, as she followed the barely-perceptible pattern of shallow notches carved into their trunks. Tears streamed down her face as she ran, blinding her, causing her to stumble and fall many times, but each time she pushed herself back to her feet and kept moving.
For almost eleven miles, she never stopped running.
Hours passed before she finally glimpsed The Station through a gap in the trees. Only then did she stop, doubling over, hands on her knees, sweat and tears intermingling as they dropped onto the forest floor. After a few seconds, she tilted her head back and stared at the building in disbelief.
Named for its resemblance to an old train depot, the long, ramshackle building once housed a ticket booth, gift shop, and café. With its natural wood siding and slanted roof of forest-green shingles, it blended seamlessly into the canopy of pines above, providing the perfect concealment. After many years of neglect, the surrounding forest had slowly begun to reclaim the building. An ankle-deep layer of dead leaves littered the raised front porch, and thick strands of ivy curled around each of the support posts, ascending all the way to the roof before disappearing into the building’s full rain gutters.
From the outside, The Station looked abandoned.
The inside was a different story.
Gemma used the sleeve of her jacket to wipe sweat from her forehead. What would she tell the others? They would demand answers. Answers she did not have. Allen had no family in the group but Maks had a fiancé named Brie. What would she tell the girl? What couldshe tell her?
I left them there, she thought.That’s what I’ll tell them because it’s the truth. I left Maks and Allen to die.
Her feet betrayed her, carrying her up the sloped ridge toward the overgrown parking lot where knee-high crabgrass and sow thistle seeped through cracks in the asphalt like blood oozing from a cut. She staggered along like a condemned prisoner on her way to the execution chamber, her dread increasing with every step. A wooden sign hung from a post at the edge of the parking lot. Red lettering over a canvas of chipped white paint, the words so faded they were barely legible.
Welcome to the Mammoth Mine!
Coal Mine Tours Every Hour, On the Hour!
She glanced at the entrance to the coal mine. Beneath a makeshift shelter composed of eight log support beams and a painted-metal roof, the entrance was nothing more than a large hole cut into the side of the mountain. An old coal car rested on the tracks, its once canary-yellow exterior now bleached white by the sun.
Dimly aware of a painful ache in her hands, she glanced down and realized that she had carved bloody ruts into the soft flesh of her palms with her own fingernails. Both of her hands and the tips of her nails were coated with dried blood. She never felt a thing.
Her eyes drifted to old bathroom pavilion, a squat coffee-colored building once utilized by patrons of the mine tour. Since the property included a private well and septic system, the toilets worked despite the lack of electricity. Pouring a jug of water into commode triggered a flush. An old-fashioned water pump stood just outside of the bathrooms. She headed toward the pumps, needing to wash the blood from her hands before anyone saw it.
As Gemma approached the pavilion, Gavin Westbrook emerged from the Men’s room and lifted the handle of the water pump. She froze in place and stared at his sun-darkened skin, chestnut eyes, and perfect Roman features set beneath a mop of unruly brownish-blonde hair. Even after two years of dating, she found it impossible to believe that someone as perfect as Gavin could have fallen in love with her.
If only she could love him back.
Suddenly, Gavin’s head snapped sharply in her direction, his jaw rigid, his right hand already grasping for the knife on his belt. When he saw Gemma, his face instantly relaxed into a relieved grin, but the expression faded as his eyes scanned her bloody clothes, her disheveled appearance, and her lack of companions. “Gemma?” He lowered the pump’s handle and broke into a run, leaping over fallen logs, his tattered, blue chambray shirt sailing behind him like a superhero’s cape.
He reached her and pulled her into a tight embrace. The fresh, clean scent of Ivory soap filled her nostrils. He must’ve bathed sometime after she left this morning.
That felt like a lifetime ago.
Gavin held her at arm’s length to examine her. “What is it? What happened?”
She couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes. “I’m not . . . I don’t . . .”
“What about Maks? Allen?”
Alerted by the noise, a crowd of people emerged from The Station, blinking in the late morning sunshine. A nineteen-year-old girl with pale, delicate features and a blonde pixie cut hovered near the back of the crowd like a ghost, tattooed arms crossed beneath her small bosom. A tiny diamond sparkled on her left hand.
There shouldn’t have been any water remaining in Gemma’s body. She should have cried and sweated out every ounce of moisture during her endless run back to camp. But as she watched Brie go up on her tiptoes, searching the forest for her love, Gemma collapsed, sobbing, into Gavin’s arms. Fresh, hot tears streamed down her cheeks, and when they reached her mouth, she swallowed them like bitter pills, loathing the salty taste of her own guilt.
“They’re gone,” she breathed into Gavin’s ear between sobs. “They’re both gone.”
- Suspense / Thriller Novel
Excerpt from Stoker’s Mill:
The girl walked alone down the double yellow centerline of Highway 61, a cherry-red bookbag slung across her back, singing quietly to herself. She peeked over her left shoulder at Barbie. The doll’s head jutted out of the bookbag, regarding the road ahead with wide eyes and a cheerful smile. A breeze swept through the trees, carrying with it a familiar stench. She stopped singing and held her breath. The whole town stank like rotten eggs but the smell seemed really bad today. When the breeze died, she risked a quick breath. The rotten egg stench was gone, but she did not feel like singing anymore. Except for the songs of the insects and the rhythmic smacking of her flip-flops against the asphalt, all was quiet.
How far to Lizzie’s house? Barbie sounded nervous.
“Not far,” Jody replied. “I promise.”
She didn’t want to think about the smell, or about what was happening in the ground beneath her feet, so she filled her mind with happy things, like her new Strawberry Shortcake bookbag. Momma couldn’t afford to buy her new things. Most of her clothes came from local yard sales, the tags already marked with some other girl’s name, the fabric stained by paint she had not played with and food she had not eaten. But the bookbag was special.
“Nine is an important year, munchkin,” Momma had said the previous evening, as she placed the perfectly wrapped present with its pink bow on the table in front of Jody. “It’s your last single digit birthday. I think that calls for a big present, don’t you?”
Of course, Jody had agreed, but when she stripped away the wrapping paper and saw Strawberry Shortcake’s freckled face staring back at her, she had almost fallen off her chair. She’d first seen the bookbag at the Houckton Mall a few weeks earlier, but she had pretended not to notice it because she knew Momma would never be able to afford it. If God wanted her to have the bookbag, she figured He would help Momma to find one at a yard sale someday. Never had she imagined she would get one so quickly!
When Momma stood up to clear the dishes from the table, Jody had quickly unzipped the bag and pulled out the thick mound of grey paper stuffing that gave the bag its shape, letting it fall to the floor at her feet. She peeked inside, looking at the tag for the scrawled name of the bag’s previous owner. But there were no markings of any kind, not on the inside or the outside. Only then had Jody realized that the Strawberry Shortcake bag she held in her hands was brand-new.
How much did our bag cost? Barbie asked.
“I don’t know,” Jody said. “Probably a couple hundred dollars.”
Momma couldn’t afford to buy Jody new things very often because she didn’t make much money waitressing at the Coal Cracker. She didn’t get home until suppertime most days, which meant that Jody spent a lot of time alone. It wasn’t a big deal during the school year, but summer days were long and boring. Going to Lizzie’s house to play with Barbies was Jody’s favorite thing to do. Especially since Lizzie’s toys were much nicer than Jody’s.
Except for me, right?
Jody turned her head and smiled at Barbie. “Of course. You’re my best friend.”
She felt a little guilty for not calling Lizzie’s mother and asking for a ride. Momma would be upset, but Jody wanted to walk. To prove to herself that she could do it. She wasn’t a baby anymore; she was nine. Certainly, old enough to walk a mile by herself. Besides, every few steps, she turned around and checked for cars. She could see forever in both directions. Not that it mattered. There wasn’t much traffic in Stoker’s Mill anymore.
She wished Momma could stay home all day like Lizzie’s mom. But Lizzie was lucky. Not just because of her big house or her fancy dolls with the pretty dresses but because she had a daddy who went to work and made money. Lizzie’s daddy was tall and handsome, with dark hair and a big smile, exactly the way Jody had always imagined her daddy might look. But she had never met him and Momma said she didn’t have any pictures of him, although Jody sometimes wondered if maybe that wasn’t true.
Poor Momma, whispered Barbie.
“Don’t worry,” Jody said. “Someday, I will get a job and make lots of money so Momma can quit being a waitress and stay at home like Lizzie’s mom.”
Doctors made lots of money, but just the thought of blood and guts made her stomach churn. Momma had joked once about marrying a lawyer, because they made lots of money, but Jody wanted the bad guys to stay injail, not get out. Maybe she would become an actress? They made billions and billions of dollars. Besides, imagining herself as a different person seemed easy enough; Jody did it every day.
As Jody pictured herself soaring across the country on an airplane, heading to Hollywood for a guest spot on Full House, the earth began to vibrate beneath her feet. She froze in place, her arms falling to her sides.The Strawberry Shortcake bookbag slipped off her shoulders and landed with a thud on the highway behind her.
An earthquake? Barbie cried out. Is it an earthquake?
Jody looked down Highway 61 toward town—and then back the other way—for someone, anyone, to help her. There was no breeze but the rotten egg smell was suddenly worse than ever. It made her want to puke. A crow cawed overhead, its large body perched on the pole for the powerlines. The bird gave her a curious look, like it didn’t know why she would want to be on the ground. Its black head twisted from side to side.
Hands raised for balance, Jody ran to the pole and wrapped her arms around it, holding on with all her strength. But even the pole felt unstable, swaying from side to side, a rocket ready to launch.
“What’s going on?” she cried, locking eyes with the crow.
The bird cawed once in response and took flight, as if it had just made the decision to leave Stoker’s Mill forever.
“We have to get out of here, Barbie!”
Where is . . .?
She twisted around. The bookbag was where she’d dropped it, but it was trembling now. Barbie lay half out of the bag, arms outstretched toward Jody in a silent plea for help. Jody bolted for the bag as fast as her flip-flops and the quaking ground would allow. She grabbed the bag and shoved Barbie back inside, clutching them both protectively against her chest.
Terrified, Jody stood frozen in the middle of the highway, the road shifting beneath her flip-flops. She wanted to run, but her feet didn’t seem to work anymore. Besides, she didn’t know which direction torun. The whole world was moving.
The highway split open and pulled apart, revealing a massive crack that seemed to descend forever into the earth. A giant plume of steam rushed out of the gaping hole, searing the pale skin of her legs and instantly drying the tears on her damp cheeks.
And then, still clutching the bookbag, Jody tumbled into the crevice.