It is with great pleasure that I present this exclusive excerpt of my newest book, part one of my new dark fantasy apocalypse horror saga entitled Thirsting Gulch. Find the full book on Amazon Kindle here.
First, the lovely, rather hypnotic cover. Let me know what you think!
And, now, without further ado, the excerpt — a sizable chunk of the first chapter. Any thoughts, feels, etc. are welcome. Thanks so much for reading! You’re great.
I. The Pocket Watch
A SMALL FIRE HIGHLIGHTS the darkness. I feed the flames with the splintered bones of an oaken desk. To my right, some dozen feet away, there is another fire, and another lies two dozen feet beyond it. There are maybe ten such fire pits, scratched into the dirt beneath our twitching heels.
Sheer rock walls are anchored in the earth a body’s length apart. I sit in the middle with my friends. Or, at least, they’re people I think I know. I stop at “think” because I’m unsure how far back our history goes.
Have we always been here, in Thirsting Gulch?
We call it Thirsting because the river ran dry. It’s what mother said. I can’t say for sure. Can’t even tell what day it is, or when I last saw her. You’d be surprised how much you lose when you lose the sun.
I can’t remember anything but dark.
Thirsting Gulch is here and now. That’s what I know. The only light is firelight, and the fires burn low. We’re running out of fuel.
We started with chair legs, busted tables. Wooden beams. Chess sets. Oh, anything we had, really. Once, I asked where the beads and nightstands and books, all this stuff, came from. I asked Nekum and Trivia and Ulius.
There are no answers in Thirsting Gulch.
It hurt the most when Ulius gave me a blank stare from behind his bushy, gray eyebrows. He’s the oldest of us all, could be grandfather or father to any one. If he can’t bring up one memory of a world before this terrible here and now, well—
Maybe we’ve always been here, in Thirsting Gulch. Maybe we’ve always been listening to the rushing voice of nothing, and squirming at the caress of the drifting fingers of the fog patting the rock faces which wall us in.
This prison is our refuge.
The walls aren’t to keep us in. They keep others out. Back. Away. Which others? I don’t know. It’s just what mother said. Or maybe I dreamed her saying it. I don’t want to think right now. Who knows why we’re here. We only know that we are.
Trivia’s narrow face, her sharp chin, catches the dim glow as she shifts. She speaks as if she suddenly had an idea, like a spark had seared her brain. “It’s the surface. Up is closer to Hell. Down is better. At least, down isn’t the worst.” Trivia touched my cheek when she told me. “Up is closer to Hell.”
What does she mean? I’ve never mustered the nerve to push her. She’d break if I did. There’d be tears dribbling from her eyes if she weren’t so parched. So there’s only a crust, instead, where there ought to be water running freely.
We’ve run dry. Dry like the river.
No, I can’t remember the river’s name.
Maybe Trivia wouldn’t have broken if I’d shouted at her. I should have demanded answers sooner, maybe.
Sometimes I pluck a daydream from the tangled wires binding my idle thoughts: the image of the back of my mother’s head as it appeared when she shuffled into the fog. Never saw her again.
That thing, glinting at the edge of what I can see. How long has that been there? I scuttle away from the fire to snatch the shiny thing. I pause.
Mother’s silvery pocket watch.
I press the metal to my cheek when I curl up to sleep, to hold on to the memories. But I wonder, before I surrender to dreams, if she was ever real. Sometimes, I imagine none of this is. And it’s better that way.
What was a pocket watch for? Two long arms, hands pointing at the same two symbols forever. There are thirteen symbols to choose from, so why do the hands play favorites? When I open up the little compartment in the back, I find metal wheels with teeth. I think they should be moving, but they’ve fallen still. When I hold the pocket watch one way, the hands resemble a curling mustache. Flipping the face around, the mustache becomes a hideous grin.
I snap shut the cover and hide the watch with my few other personal items.
Everything had a use before Thirsting Gulch, I’m sure. But, if I had ever been taught what the little black arrows and symbols of mother’s pocket watch mean, or what to do with them, I’ve forgotten now.
Noloriom says, “The fires are enlightenment. The light safeguards us, as long as we believe.”
“Believe in what?” I say.
“Who is that?”
“Who is God? How could you ask that?” His eyes widen. His stare calls me crazy.
I sigh, hugging my knees close. “Was God a friend of yours?”
The fire gives less light, less heat, lately. We are running out of fuel.
“A friend of mine.” Noloriom rubs his chin. “You could say that. Maybe.”
“Don’t you remember?”
His breath is a hiss. He clicks his tongue. “The details have all slipped away, like sand through fingers.” His gaze wanders away from the firelight, scanning the dark around. “Funny, I don’t remember sand. And yet, I said the word, feeling I knew what I meant.” When he licks his lips, the sound is like tearing paper. “I can’t remember sand, just like I can’t picture God’s face. I just know you’re supposed to believe in Him.”
“Good things happen. Good things happen to you.”
A lonely wail, like a stifled shriek, rises from somewhere beyond the rings of firelight. How far? I couldn’t tell you. Far, close, what does distance matter? Our world is limited to the extent of the reach of light: not far.
Not at all far.
I wake to the ticking of mother’s watch. The hands have moved. They touch two different symbols now.
But I can’t read them, and I don’t know what they mean.
In Thirsting Gulch there is no sun, and so the days don’t pass. Rather, time is dragged away by the darkness, by the shifting of shadows weaving a web around us.
How many are we? Thirty, maybe fewer. I always lose track while I’m counting. My mind will wander, grasping at an image. A red balloon, an orange cat. The feeling of saltwater on my tongue. I lose count, and it’s all gone, along with the number.
All I know for sure is that the number is smaller each time.
“Trivia.” I brush her wrist with my fingers.
“Ærin.” It feels good — or more than empty, at least — when she says my name.
“You’re my friend, aren’t you?”
“You sound unsure.” She smiles, hiding her teeth behind her pale hand. But I can tell she is confused by my confusion.
The blackness around us is as it has been: absolute, crushing, still.
“No, I am sure. I am.” I push my voice out, propel it with all the air in my lungs, but my sound is muffled by the oppressive dark. “I am.” I take her hand, then. “Why do we build the fires?”
Trivia shakes her head.
“Please,” I say. “The fires. We’re burning everything away. The memories, too. Aren’t we?”
“There’s none of them left to burn, my love.”
“That can’t be true.”
“There was nothing before Thirsting Gulch.”
“No, no. There were — there was—”
“What? What was there?” I read hope in her eyes. She wants me to prove her wrong.
I say, “I had a mother. I did.”
“Did you?” Trivia wrinkles her brow. Her eyes are sad, now, her round lips pursed.
I pull her after me. “I’ll show you.” And when we come to the heap of blankets in a nook in the rock, I stop. “You have to promise not to tell.”
“I promise,” she says.
“It’s a secret.” I stare into her eyes.
Rifling through the blankets, I search for mother’s watch. It would prove she had once been with me. That she was a real person, real in my life, once. It’s right there, I can almost hear the quiet, quizzical ticking of the thing.
I upend the blankets, hurl them aside.
Standing over nothing but stone and nothing, my shoulders begin to shake. “Where is it? I know it’s — Trivia, she’s real. The pocket watch. I took it when she left.” I am sobbing, and Trivia is holding me. I say, “It was the last piece of her.”
“Shh. She is real. Maybe she’s even out there, somewhere. But it seems unlikely.”
I raise my face from her shoulder. It hurts to cry; my tears run dry. “What do you mean?”
Trivia says, “The light keeps it away from us.”
“The madness and the fog. They’re the same thing, I think.”
I think about that. “Noloriom told me his friend God was helping us.”
“He would, wouldn’t he.”
“He’s helping. Only those who believe in him, though. Is he watching, now, do you think?”
“I don’t know who this ‘God’ is. Sounds a bit selfish, picking and choosing who to lend a hand to.”
The pocket watch is gone. Trivia and I cling to each other for warmth by the weakening fire.
The last pile of books falls into the flames. We drive them in, deeper. The ash doesn’t stir, because there is no wind in Thirsting Gulch.
Books are meant to be read. But, if ever I was able to read, that skill has left me.
“What’s beyond the fog?” I ask Ulius.
“Death,” he answers.
“What is death?”
“To go away and never return.”
“What’s beyond the fog?” I ask Noloriom.
“Hell. Demons,” he answers. But he can’t tell me what demons are. And “Hell” he can only describe as “A Bad Place.” That, at least, sounds familiar to me.
“What’s beyond the fog?” I ask Trivia.
“Everything else,” she answers.
“Good and bad.”
Spookers. Had a nightmare about them. Is this the first time I’ve dreamed of Spookers?
There was once a cozy room. All the furniture was made of wood and stained a warm red. A fluffy, white-pink carpet cut across the heart of the space.
I was in that bed, half asleep. She perched on the edge of the bed, ready to take flight any minute: my mother, or whichever figure my imagination had replaced her with. Real or conjured, she didn’t want to be sharing with me the secret. The secret that was the Spookers. The shadow was my mother, but she spoke with Noloriom’s voice and cried with Trivia’s face.
Even though in the dream her words had made sense, when I woke, I held nothing but gibberish in my mind. So I let it all slip and slide away.
Into the fog.
Nodded off in front of the fire, I guess. Trivia shakes me awake. She doesn’t want to let go of my wrist.
I push her chest. “I’m fine, now. Just bad dreams.”
She looks at me really weird, the look you might give someone who walks on their hands instead of their feet.
“Really,” I say. “I’m fine. I have a headache, but nothing worse.”
I watch Trivia drift off. She snores.
The thing about sound in Thirsting Gulch is that it only seems to travel in. Any sounds we make are muffled by something. Maybe by the fog.
And I do hear one very particular sound. A ticking. The ticking.
Bouncing off the walls, it could be coming from anywhere.
My headache gets worse.
Nekum stole the pocket watch. Mother’s watch. It must have been him.
“Ærin,” he says.
He is little, made littler still by how he bends double over the dying flames.
“Hi.” I pat the ground beside me.
He lowers himself with care onto the spot I’ve offered.
I don’t think we’d ever spoken before, but I can’t be sure of that, because I know his name and — and that his favorite food is diced, raw tuna. I say, “What’s beyond the fog?”
He rubs his chin. “Freedom.”
“How should I know?” Rolling his shoulders, he tells me, “Anything has to be better than here, though.”
I frown. “Are you sure? How can you be sure?”
“I can’t, of course. But don’t you get the feeling that we’re trapped here? Caged, like.”
Yes, I think. I shrug, pretending I don’t believe he is hiding the truth from me. I ask him, “What’s got us caged? Why would anyone do something so awful?”
He shrugs this time. “I’m so thirsty. And hungry. Maybe we’re being watched to measure us. How long it takes a mind to break, a body to wither.”
“So you think there’s more than darkness, out there.”
He snarls. “I didn’t say that.”
“You meant it, though.” I clutch his shoulders. “If someone’s measuring us, they’re seeing how we behave differently than, um, something else. If that’s true, there’s more to it, more than this dark. There’s something other than this place. There’s more to this.”
“More to what, Ærin?”
“More to life, the world.”
Nekum says, “Whatever,” and stares into the flickering flames.
But I say, “I think you’ve got quite a few ideas for someone who claims to be ignorant, someone who deflects all my questions.”
“What are you getting at?”
The headache is worse than before. I’ve never had one this searing, or, if I have, I’m almost happy to have no memory of it.
I lose my patience with Nekum. I bite my lip so hard it bleeds.
Nekum stole the pocket watch. Mother’s watch. Had to have been him.
These thoughts pulsate in my splitting skull as I clamp down on his neck with my fingers.
“Why did you take it? Why did you take it?” I whisper as I squeeze.
His eyes bloodshot, he yanks at my arms, but I won’t stop. I keep asking the question. He won’t answer.
Two men who are not Noloriom or Ulius rip me off of the barely conscious Nekum.
“He stole it from me,” I hiss. Even if I’d wanted to scream, the volume would have been the same. Thirsting Gulch drinks the power from your voice.
After the men separate us, they lose interest. One of them throws another chair leg into the fire as he walks away.
The piles of kindling shrink. No one seems to notice the scarcity of the remaining debris.
No one does.
Except for me.
I sit alone. Even Trivia has taken to walking up and down the length of our refuge, to exercise her legs and keep her mind blank. Blankness must be bliss. But the headache fills my brain.
As Trivia comes near, I ask, “What are you looking for, a way out?”
She doesn’t hear, or won’t listen. Her eyes scan the walls and never find mine.
I sit alone in front of the fire farthest along the line the refugees of Thirsting Gulch have formed.
Nekum comes to me. His neck is covered in strange, angry, purple splotches. As if he’d been attacked — strangled.
I am about to ask what happened to him when he tells me, “It was attracting Spookers. So I threw it away.”
“What did you throw away?”
“The ticker.” He shakes at the knees. Weakened legs.
When was the last time he ate? When did I last eat?
He twitches, his arms hanging limp at his side. Like boneless fish.
Nekum says, “The ticker was so loud it filled my world, night or day.”
I shake my head. There is no time in Thirsting Gulch. By “night or day” he means those interludes when he sleeps or wakes, which is ultimately meaningless. There are no stars, and there is no sun or moon, here, by which to count the passage of the hours.
He’s still talking. “Now that the ticker is gone, I can hear them. Clearly, for the first time.”
I might kill him, but I’m interested to know what comes next.
“They’re telling me it’s all well. That I don’t need to be here anymore. There’s a place I can go.” Nekum’s gaze focuses on me. “I think they’re telling you, too. All you have to do is take my hand and follow.”
I might kill him, but first I ask, “Who are you talking about?”
“Them. The other. Yes.”
More riddles to frustrate me. I rise to kill him, to finish what whoever strangled him began, but he doesn’t give me the chance.
His ears prick at some sound I didn’t notice.
He says, “I hear you,” and half-runs, half-tumbles into the place beyond the reach of the ring of firelight.
Into the fog.
… … …
Thanks for reading! The nightmare continues here.
The stylish map I illustrated (inserted in the book right after the Table of Contents).