Thursday, June 2, 2011

Devils' Den Sneak Peek

Here's a short excerpt from my dark fantasy, Devils' Den, that should be out this summer.  If this captures your interest, please let me know.  Happy reading!

Chapter one

Justin McKnight sat in the backseat of his father’s Lexus while his parents, Jack and Rita, stared straight ahead at the interstate.  They rehearsed their sales pitch for a scheduled insurance meeting when they returned to Lexington that evening.  Their conversation drew no interest from Justin.  He stared out the window at the passing hills and houses, and released a long, quiet sigh. School was out for the summer, and he would spend the next two months with his grandparents in Mills Springs—a small rural community outside of Somerset, Kentucky.
His family had made this trip many times, but today a boding evil loomed and threatened to sever the security he had known for so long.  Contrary to the bright morning sun, a dark, ominous sensation shrouded the car that he didn’t understand and couldn’t comprehend.  Inner turmoil and dread encapsulated him.  He had no reason for his uneasiness, but the strange darkness lingered.  He couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was about to happen. 
Because his parents were too preoccupied with their careers they had failed to form the strong emotional bond he desired.  A chasm needed to be bridged for him to reach the nurturing lifeline he needed from loving parents.  He felt closer to his grandparents because they held uncompromising patience and love.  The summers at his grandparents’ farm were his fondest memories.
Justin was a veracious kid with a waggish smile, mischievous at times, like any thirteen year old could be, but he never caused trouble.  He devoted himself to his school work, did his chores in a timely manner, and never argued with his parents when it was time to go to bed.  He was, for the most part, the ideal child.
To occupy his loneliness and the deep void provided by workaholic parents, Justin spent his time enraptured in fantasy novels, superhero comics, and drawing.
His biology classes introduced him to the world of insects.  Over the past few summers, he had collected a vast number of butterflies, moths, and beetles.  His interest in entomology was another reason he enjoyed his summers at his grandparents.  The forests, fields, and meadows offered a larger number of species to collect than he could ever hope to find in the city.
Bored, Justin tuned out his parents’ sales pitch and searched through his backpack until he found his spiral-bound sketchpad and a charcoal pencil.  He flipped through the pages and stopped at the first blank sheet.  He lightly stroked the pencil back and forth, up and down, hoping inspiration came.
Suddenly, through the vague charcoal lines, an image surfaced.  Justin moved his pencil more conservatively and concisely.  Stronger characterizations broadened in the center of the paper.  Within minutes, he had drawn a gnarled, leafless tree with jagged, forked branches that cut into a dark, sunless sky.  Twisted roots vanished into the black waters surrounding it.
The scarred tree stood on mossy ground in the center of a marshland.  Black, bubbling water pooled around the tree roots.  Small islands of sphagnum moss splotched the bog’s surface.
The sudden inspiration pushed him to draw more.  Hanging from the tree’s largest bough was a frayed, leather noose.  Justin understood the noose represented death.  The dark tree seemed an evil entity poisoning the water around it.
In spite of the warm summer day outside, chills crept up his arms.  The eeriness and familiarity of the dark images iced through his veins and unnerved him.  He tried to recall where he had seen such a place, but he couldn’t remember.
He rested the flat end of the pencil to his lips, contemplating his next strokes to further enliven the picture.  His attention turned to something in the swampy water he hadn’t noticed before.  An apparition.  The skeletal shape of a man’s face peered through the water at him.  He shuddered, closed the pad, and looked out the window.
Hidden within every shadowed crevice of the trees along the interstate’s edge were entities he felt but feared seeing.  The hairs on the back of his neck stiffened as chills ran through his body.  He’d never experienced such seizing terror.
Justin had not drawn the face.  It had appeared.  In the few seconds he had studied it, he had no doubt the image somehow existed and watched him.  Somewhere, this ghostly figure waited for him.
The dark sensation overshadowing him was connected to what lay in the brackish water on the page.  This wasn’t one of his ordinary drawings.  It was a warning of an impending threat.  He feared this drawing was somehow a portal.  The image within wanted to pass through to him and take him.  He took a sharp breath and tried to swallow the growing lump in his throat.
His parents continued rehearsing their sales pitch, oblivious of him.
“So, Mr. McKnight,” Rita said, deepening her voice.  “What can your insurance company offer that our present company doesn’t already cover?”
Staring intently at the road, Jack replied, “Our company can provide you the same benefits you already have but at ten percent less than your employees currently pay.”
Rita laughed, brushing her auburn hair from her eyes.  “You’ve got me sold,” she said.  “But, of course, I’m married to you.”
Jack nodded and looked into her hazel eyes that sparkled when she laughed.  “I certainly hope we can convince them as easily as you make it sound.”
She closed the leather journal on her lap.  “Honey, it won’t be a problem.  You’ve studied the competing market and know where we stand.  You’ve won over other major executive firms before, so this won’t be any different.”
He sighed.  “I know.  It’s just something doesn’t feel right.  I generally go into these meetings with a cloud of confidence.  When I feel like I’m going to gain new business clients, I have a tugging sensation, almost like a sixth sense, that lets me know I have the account.”
“You don’t feel that now?”
“Not as strongly as I usually do.  Something’s off.”
“Like what?”
“I’m not sure.  I can’t explain it.  I have a bad feeling but I’m not certain why or what it’s about.”
Rita frowned.  “You ever feel that way before?”
Jack was quiet for a moment as he thought.  He ran one hand through his graying brown hair and then adjusted his glasses.  “Yes, when I was a boy.”
Justin wished they’d break away from the sales talk, but once they began, they seldom stepped outside their circle of business.  Had his mother glanced back at him that very moment, she’d have sensed the terror that paralyzed him.
As he held his sketchpad he thought about the facial image in the swampy water.  Surely what he had seen was magnified by his wild imagination.  He opened the sketchpad.
Instead of the faint detail greeting him, the image was more pronounced, darker, and strangely, closer.  The face no longer held a ghostly form but had fleshed out.  The eyes were deeper, angrier.  The human face was more appalling than earlier.  The picture seemed to be coming to life.
Hollow eyes resided deep inside sunken sockets—dead, but also, undead.  Justin didn’t know what to make of the growing image.  This wasn’t his imagination, but he truly wished it was.
He put away his charcoal pencil and studied the picture with extreme curiosity.  Far behind the evil tree was an old, crumbling tombstone.  One at first, then another and another, until six gravestones shadowed an inset in the picture where his pencil had never touched.
The face tilted.  Rows of teeth tightened into a grim smile.
An ominous voice whispered, “I’m coming.”
Justin closed the pad and held it shut, fearing that whatever was in the picture would slink from the drawing, grab him, and pull him into the mire.
“I’m coming for you,” it said.
Justin’s heart raced.  He had never known such fear.  Catching a glimpse of his pasty reflection in the window, he almost didn’t recognize his own face.  His lips quivered, and his eyes were consumed with horror.
He scanned the fields and gentle sloping ridges along the highway and hoped to forget about the strange drawing.  But the threatening voice whispered again.
“I’m coming for you.”
The roadside sign indicated that Burnside was three miles ahead.  There, his father would turn from the main road onto a side road that crossed a small swollen pocket of Cumberland Lake.  Soon after, they’d reach the quiescent Mills Springs.  He hoped his grandfather could make sense of the drawing, although he wasn’t certain he should show his grandfather the picture at all.  He certainly knew not to tell him about hearing the voice.  His grandfather called such foolishness, “Hogwash!”
Justin no longer looked forward to spending the summer away from his parents.  The voice wasn’t a figment of his imagination.  The threat came from a darker region, an unknown origin, perhaps even a hellish recess from deep inside the bowels of the earth. 
Evil was coming.
For him.
Fear paralyzed him.  His stomach turned with nausea and an unsettling anxiety intensified at the thought of never seeing his parents again.
Ten minutes of eerie quietness passed.  If his parents had continued discussing their proposal, he hadn’t heard them.  He seemed to have passed into a void where outer sounds didn’t resonate.
Opening the sketchpad, Justin noticed that the dark water now eclipsed the man’s eyes but the rest of the face remained visible.  His uneasiness didn’t fade.  The situation would be a lot different if he had drawn the face.
He gently rubbed his finger across the face, feeling for an abnormality in the paper’s texture that might explain how the image had appeared.  He wanted a reason to prove his imagination played against him.  Perhaps the paper was thicker or convex in this area and the brushing of the charcoal pencil had stenciled out the bold facial expression.  But the paper was as smooth beneath the face as were the surrounding edges.  There wasn’t any defect that he could find.  He flipped the page over and examined the underside.
Smooth, too.
Out of the hundreds of pictures Justin had drawn, he didn’t recall one drawing where an image self-evolved.  In fact, this piece of art was darker than any he’d ever created.
“I’m coming.”
He closed the pad.
Justin wondered what had drawn the face and the gravestones.  Somehow the face detected his presence.  Maybe it could actually see him.  Whatever it was, it was coming for him.  He didn’t doubt the threat for a second.
His father turned the car onto a dirt road.  Grandpa’s farm was only a few miles away.  Some comfort washed over Justin, but not enough to grant the security he craved.  Grandpa was getting old, not feeble, but not young enough to provide a hundred percent protection.
In the horror movies Justin had watched, guns rarely destroyed undead creatures.  Magic, specialized tools or just plain luck wrought victory against demons and undead ghouls.  Of the three, luck was the only thing he could hope graced him, but that was seldom the case.

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