Hi all! I’m trying something new, and I’ll be posting my latest book, chapter by chapter, here on this blog. I’m planning on two chapters a month until the story is complete. I hope you enjoy reading about Ellie and Bartholomew and everyone else in the fictional town of Linewood.
Here’s the blurb:
Ellie Prater grew up hearing rumors about gold hidden somewhere on old Harmon’s farm and legends of the creature that protects it, but she doesn’t believe in buried treasure or monsters. She believes in hard work on the family farm, the love she has for her mother and friends, and the fact that no one will save her when bills pile up. But when Harmon, the neighbor she’s come to love as a grandfather, is on his deathbed, he tells Ellie that the treasure is real. She promises to find it before the farm is sold.
But the land’s protector—a coyote-faced cryptid named Bartholomew—is real and is tasked with keeping the treasure safe. Ellie must convince him she deserves to find it. If she doesn’t, her mother will lose her home to foreclosure, and Ellie will have to give up her dream of owning Harmon’s farm. As she spends more time with the mysterious Bartholomew, however, Ellie’s at risk of losing more than just her home. She just might lose her heart.
TWs: Grief, death of a grandfather figure, a bicycle accident, some blood and minor wounds
Without further ado, Chapter 1.
A howl in the distance cut through the night and froze Ellie’s already-chilled limbs. Her midnight trip to the Whitehall farm had been quiet up to this moment, but the sound echoed through the corn fields, haunting and terrifying. Frissons of fear traveled through her body.
It was a coyote. Just a coyote. The monster Ellie had grown up hearing about—the one with red, glowing eyes and long, sharp claws that lurked in corn fields and stole humans away, never to be seen again—wasn’t real. The monster was just a bedtime story for naughty kids caught sneaking in their neighbors’ fields.
Coyotes were the better option, though still dangerous.
After a few moments of silence, Ellie forced herself to move to pick up the shovel where she’d dropped it. The howl was far enough away that she knew she was safe, even if her body told her otherwise. She dug her shovel deep into the muddy earth, searching for the treasure Harmon Whitehall told her about on his deathbed.
When she was ten, Ellie started helping out at Harmon’s farm. Her mom thought she didn’t have enough to do at home, so she worked it out with Harmon that Ellie would go over there after school every day to keep her out of trouble. Ellie enjoyed the work and was glad for the pocket money. Over the years, Harmon had become like a grandfather to her, and at the end of his life, she’d stepped up to take care of him.
But from day one of working on his farm, Harmon’s other farmhands swapped rumors about a treasure buried on the property. Ellie had listened to the adults talking around her, saying things they normally wouldn’t have because kids don’t count as eavesdropping ears. They said Harmon could never have kept the farm running through the bad years without quite a bit of money set aside. After all, he was never down at the bank taking out loans like the other farmers in town. They said he kept his gold buried somewhere on his property, so well hidden no one but he could find it. Ellie had filed the information away for the future when she’d have a chance to treasure hunt.
As she grew older, though, she lost interest in the stories. She chalked them up to jealousy, the bitterness tingeing their voices allowing Ellie to understand what was really going on. They resented having to work for Harmon at all when they wanted their own land to work. Besides, Harmon didn’t need treasure to get him through the bad years. He didn’t have bad years. Even when the rest of the countryside was shriveled from drought or drowned in rain, his farm flourished, so he always made out with a profit.
So when Harmon summoned the energy to tell her to find it, Ellie knew the rumors had to be real.
He hadn’t been able to tell her what was in it. He’d barely been able to give her directions. His words stuck in his throat, and the beeping of the hospital machines drowned out his paper-thin voice. But she’d held his hand, weak and frail beneath her own, and she’d promised she would find his box of treasure.
Tonight, though, Ellie longed for her bed, for warmth and safety, but she had a job to do and not much time to do it in. Once Harmon’s son took possession of the property in two weeks, Ellie’s nighttime excursions would be at an end.
She blinked away tears at the thought of the old man. He’d been a loving and constant presence her entire life, until three months ago…
The howl sounded again, closer this time. Ellie stood as still as possible, trying to control her ragged breathing. She squeezed her eyes shut. The monster wasn’t real, but just in case, she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t see any shiny eyes staring at her from between the tall, dead corn stalks.
She spent several minutes like that as the late October chill settled in her bones. If she didn’t move soon, she felt like she would freeze to the ground, and no one would find her until the spring thaw.
The wind gusted through the field. The corn rattled and reached out its papery fingers to claw at her body. She felt a presence somewhere in the field with her, but as much as she wanted to run back to her car and never come out here again, she couldn’t. She had made a promise. When she didn’t hear the howl for several minute, she mustered bravery from somewhere, and opened her eyes.
A pair of red, glowing eyes stared back at her from the corn stalks.
Ellie’s breath hitched in her throat. The eyes hypnotized her and pinned her to the spot. Every fiber of her being told her to run, to get the hell out of there, but she couldn’t have moved even if she wanted to.
The orbs moved closer, weaving through the corn stalks, winking at her as they disappeared and reappeared. There was nothing else in the world except for those red pinpricks in the night.
Her phone rang with a text, the sound jarring in the otherwise quiet night. The spell broken, she screamed. Laughter broke out around her, and the eyes bobbed up and down for a moment, then flickered out.
With shaking fingers, she dug her phone from her pocket as two sets of feet stumbled through the rows of corn toward her. Ellie’s heart raced with leftover adrenaline, but at least the intense fear was gone. Anger bubbled up in its place. She knew that laughter.
Her two best friends, Adrianna and Rory, appeared in the moonlight, tears of laughter streaming down their faces. Adrianna’s petite hands were clasped around a seven foot pole with LEDs rigged to the top. Her red hair was wild and untamed. She looked like a mythical being out of the mists of time, intense and fey. Only she would wear a white flowing dress with work boots into a cornfield. Rory towered above her, five-foot-eleven and raven-haired, dressed in camo pants and a leather jacket. She stumbled out of the row behind Adrianna. They high-fived, the smack loud in the darkness.
Gotcha, read the text on her phone in their group chat.
“What the fuck, you guys?” Ellie’s temper flared now that the fear had fled.
“Sorry, El, we had to,” Rory said.
“How did you know I was even out here?” Ellie was practically shouting. Rory gestured placatingly with her hands.
“We’ve been wondering where you’d been disappearing to these past few months,” she said, “so we followed you last week. And then again tonight after we made that thing.”
Her friends giggled, but Ellie frowned and crossed her arms across her chest.
They didn’t understand how serious this was. If Adam came home before she found the treasure, she’d lose her chance forever. From what little she’d seen of him while she’d cared for Harmon in his last days, she was sure he wasn’t the kind of guy to move back home to the family farm after making a life for himself in the big city for the last thirty years. And whoever he’d get to buy the place would not want meddling locals on their land.
She hadn’t told her friends what she was up to. Maybe she should have, but it felt like this was a secret thing she couldn’t share. Wouldn’t share. She felt closest to Harmon when she was traipsing around the field on her own, trying to follow the directions he’d whispered to her, honoring his memory in her own way. Ellie wasn’t sure her friends would understand, and she didn’t know how to explain how much this meant to her.
But… With time running short, maybe it was time to try explaining. As much as she wanted to keep this quest hers, and hers alone, she was getting nowhere on her own. Ellie uncrossed her arms and followed her friends out of the cornfield. Maybe they could put their heads together instead of Ellie always coming up empty.
“Let’s go to Carter’s,” Ellie said, referring to Linewood’s only 24 hour diner. She’d fill them in there. Hopefully, they wouldn’t be mad. Hopefully, they would help her.
As they reached the edge of the cornfield, though, another howl rippled through the night, much closer this time. Ellie and her friends paused and looked back, still and watchful.
“Howl back,” Adrianna whispered.
Ellie and Rory stared at her, eyes wide. Ellie shook her head.
“We should just go,” Ellie said finally.
They headed toward Rory’s pickup. Adrianna lay the metal pole in the back, careful not to break the LEDs, and Ellie searched around for where she had left her bicycle. Once located, she tossed that in the back, too. She rounded the side of the pickup, and the silver paint gleamed in the moonlight. Ellie swore she saw two red orbs reflected on the side, but when she turned to scan the cornfield, nothing looked back at her.
She let out a huff of breath. Her mind was clearly playing tricks on her as badly as her friends had.
They all piled in. Rory backed out of the muddy field like she’d been doing it her entire life, her hands expert on the wheel. The backseat was cramped, but Ellie didn’t mind. It was better than being up front and having to keep Rory company by talking. The country music blaring from the radio was loud, her friends were louder, and the truck bumped uncomfortably over the dirt road from the farm to the highway. Ellie let the music and her friends’ conversation wash over her.
“Pop said Robbie lost his job last week,” Adrianna said. Ellie leaned forward, her interest piqued. “He’s coming home tomorrow.”
“Wait, really?” Ellie said. “What happened?” Rory turned down the music.
“Of course you’d be interested in that,” Rory said. She looked in the rearview mirror, making brief eye contact with Ellie. Rory’s eyes glinted with mischief. Ellie flushed, glad for the darkness to hide it.
“He’s got a girlfriend,” Adrianna said gently, turning in her seat to search Ellie’s face.
“I know that,” Ellie said. She leaned back and stared out the window. It’s not like she’d talked to Robbie in years, anyway. Adrianna reached her hand out and squeezed Ellie’s knee.
“I know you’ve missed him,” Adrianna said. “I have too, but he’s different now. And so are you.”
Ellie squeezed her eyes shut, wishing she hadn’t butted into the conversation.
Robbie Kinkaid. Adrianna’s older brother. Linewood’s handsomest heartthrob. Ellie’s first boyfriend. Ellie loved the high school thrill of dating a senior when she was still a junior. Adrianna hadn’t minded, though she hadn’t seemed particularly surprised when the relationship finally failed either.
Ellie still loved the memories of their short-lived romance. Stolen kisses under the stars. Picnics on the banks of the creek that ran through the Kinkaid’s backyard. How magical the summer was before Robbie went off to college seven years ago.
They hadn’t broken up so much as fizzled out, and Ellie couldn’t help but think that maybe it was because she wouldn’t sleep with him even when they’d been together for a while. He’d been a gentleman about it, and Ellie had hidden behind the religion she’d been brought up in, even though she knew deep down that wasn’t really the issue. But at the time, she didn’t have words for what the issue was.
Eventually, he stopped coming home for breaks altogether. And then he’d met his current girlfriend.
She’d felt nothing but a small pang when he’d ended things six years ago, and her heart had mended completely over the years. But she wondered how that would hold up to seeing him again. Like Adrianna said, they’d both changed.
Perhaps Ellie most of all.
Finding the term asexual had put everything into perspective. How she pretended to understand when her friends talked about how hot people were. How she spent too much time studying the act of sex like the emotions that followed for her friends would somehow be revealed to her if she just learned enough of the mechanics. How she skittered away whenever a boy wanted something more than a kiss.
Now that she was in her mid-twenties and the tumult of high school was over, she felt more comfortable in her own skin than she had in her entire life. And all from finding one little word.
The flashing neon Carter’s sign hit her vision like the eyesore it was, pulling her from her memories. A pig became a ham on a platter, and back again, a meat-lover’s favorite never-ending tango. The place sat on the outskirts of town, out near the highway, in the middle of a giant dirt parking lot. Ellie often wondered why nobody bothered paving around here, but she figured it added to the charm. At least the roads in town were paved.
Carter’s was decent enough food, but at one in the morning, the grease that permeated the air unsettled Ellie’s stomach. She ordered a slice of lemon meringue pie and tried to tamp down the queasiness.
They sat in their usual back corner of the diner. The fluorescent lighting was jarring after the darkness of the cornfield. The light held the night at bay, though, and Ellie was glad for that. She’d heard howls before, but never that close. And as much as she tried to tell herself it was just a coyote, now that she was safe in a brightly lit place, she could admit to herself that it hadn’t quite sounded like one.
She’d never heard such a haunting, lonely sound before. And the reflection of red eyes on the truck… She shuddered, and looked up from where she’d been staring at the table.
Rory and Adrianna watched her with concern, but the pity melted into smiles and overdone cheeriness when they caught Ellie’s eye. Ellie pressed her lips together in a frown. She hated that no one knew how to act around her anymore. She hated that she couldn’t pretend everything was okay. And, if she was being honest, she was still mad as hell at their prank.
“How are you, El?” Rory asked. She reached her hand across the table and took Ellie’s in her own. Under her friends’ intense scrutiny, Ellie’s cheeks flushed with heat.
“Fine. Still recovering from a shitty joke. How are you two?”
Her friends exchanged a look before Adrianna reached out and took Ellie’s other hand. She squeezed and gave Ellie a small smile. Ellie’s embarrassed blush deepened.
“You know we love you, right?” Adrianna said.
Oh fuck. Not an intervention. Ellie tried to pull her hands away, but her friends tightened their grips and held on.
“We’re just worried about you,” Rory said. “You’ve kind of been… not really here since…”
She trailed off, and Ellie felt tears prick the backs of her eyes. She shut them and lowered her head before the tears could give her away.
“Since Harmon died,” Adrianna said, quiet and gentle, sympathetic. Ellie tensed under their hands, fighting against the urge to run away and hit something.
“We just wanted to make you smile,” Rory said, hesitant for the first time that night. The look didn’t sit well on her usually confident features.
Tears escaped and rolled, fat and hot, down Ellie’s cheeks.
“Well, good fucking job,” Ellie sobbed.
She ripped her hands from her friends’ and ran out the back of the diner. The cold air met her, the taste of not-quite-winter on the air. She stood, staring at the sky, her hands balled into fists, wishing the diner’s lights would go out so she could see more than two stars.
She knew Harmon was up there looking down at her. Watching out for her. She missed the old man so much, she could barely stand it some days.
A sob wracked her body, and she crouched to the pavement. She buried her head in her knees. Only her friends could have gotten her to finally cry over Harmon’s death.
She’d bottled it all up. Put all the emotion into a little glass jar, like the ones she used to use for canning tomato sauce with Harmon, and buried it deep inside. Not even his funeral could break the glass, but her two best friends quietly tapping on the sides tonight shattered it in seconds.
Her sobs had quieted by the time the diner door slammed again, and footsteps crunched on the gravel. Ellie smelled Rory’s perfume, vanilla and lavender and a hint of musk, as her friend sat down next to her.
“I’m sorry,” Rory said. “We weren’t thinking.”
She put her arms around Ellie, but Ellie resisted leaning into her. Ellie didn’t want pity.
“I know this has been hard for you,” Rory continued. “Adrianna and I will always be here for you. Even if we fuck up sometimes. You don’t have to go through this by yourself.”
“Thanks,” Ellie said. She knew Rory wanted her to lean into the hug, to cry on her shoulder, and tell her everything she’d been feeling these past few months, but Ellie couldn’t do it. She wanted so badly to go back to how things used to be when she shared more with her friends, but nothing would ever be okay again. Instead of giving Rory what she wanted, Ellie stood, leaving her best friend sitting on the ground looking surprised.
Ellie wiped her eyes and then reached a hand down to help Rory up. If she couldn’t share her feelings, she could at least go back inside and try to be the person she used to be.
Rory looked at her hand for a moment before taking it. Rory was taller than Ellie by several inches, and she peered down into Ellie’s face searching for something. Ellie flashed a small smile hoping that would stop Rory from asking more questions or talking more about Harmon, but it probably looked more like a grimace. Rory met Ellie’s smile with a sad one of her own.
Without another word, Rory took Ellie’s hand, and together, they went back inside.
Adrianna had eaten her gravy fries and half of Rory’s grilled cheese sandwich by the time they got back, but Ellie’s pie remained untouched. Despite herself, Ellie softened at that. Under normal circumstances, her pie would have been fair game, but sad folks deserved their pie whole and complete.
“Adam’s coming home in two weeks,” Ellie said while sliding back into her side of the booth. Adrianna stared at her, fork frozen halfway to her mouth.
“You’re shitting me,” Rory said.
Ellie shook her head. “Mrs. Innis told me that he finally got some time off work or something. ‘Until he gets Old Harmon’s affairs in order,'” Ellie said in a high pitch, mimicking Mrs. Innis’s nasally voice.
“I never thought he’d set foot back here,” Adrianna said.
“Wait, what did she mean ‘get his affairs in order’?” Rory said.
“Sell the place, probably.” Ellie’s voice cracked.
Silence spread like molasses over the table. They all knew the stories of how much Adam hated it here. Ellie had met Adam only a few times as she helped take care of Harmon towards the end. He’d drive up in his fancy Lexus and look at the dirt like he could shame it into not clinging to his shiny black shoes. His graying hair wasn’t yet quite silver, but it always shone in the sun, giving him the halo he thought he deserved.
Adam wouldn’t be living on the farm, and even though Ellie knew it made sense for him to sell it, she couldn’t imagine the farmhouse inhabited by anyone but the old man she loved. One of the giant farm corporations would probably buy it and tear down the quaint farmhouse to make room for more field.
“Oh, Ellie,” Adrianna breathed. “What are you gonna do?”
“What can I do? I work at the corner store.”
“Maybe he’d work with you…” Adrianna’s voice trailed off, and Ellie knew Adrianna didn’t believe that any more than she did.
Ellie shook her head.
“I just have to… accept that this is how it’s gonna be.”
“No.” Rory slammed her hand down on the table. “We’ll figure something out. We don’t even know if he’s really going to sell it, anyway. No point in getting upset until we really know what’s what.”
“I… might know what that something could be…” Ellie filled them in on her quest, grateful for the natural opening. Rory’s eyes grew brighter and brighter as she spoke. When she tried to give them the directions, though, Rory shushed her and looked around like a government spy was listening in.
“Not here,” Rory said. “Once we’re back in the truck.”
Adrianna pursed her lips in annoyance, but didn’t say anything. Silence hung over the table for a few beats before Adrianna broke it.
“This is amazing,” she said. “I can’t believe the treasure is real. And I can’t believe you’ve been looking for it alone these last three months.”
“It’s not like I’m new to geocaching,” Ellie said. “The directions this time are different than the map coordinates I’m used to, but it’s the same idea. Just a little more clandestine.”
Ellie shrugged and picked at her pie. Her stomach flopped over and over. She thought that would stop once she’d confessed her secret to them, but she’d been wrong.
“Why haven’t you found it yet, then?” Rory asked slowly.
“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “Maybe because it’s so dark when I go? It’s easy to get turned around…”
Neither of her friends looked convinced.
“You know those fields better than anyone in town,” Adrianna said. “That’s really weird.”
Ellie shrugged again and forked some pie into her mouth. Rory drummed her fingers on the table, a thoughtful look on her face.
“We’ll have a brainstorm session tomorrow at my place after work. I don’t have to work ’til ten. I’ll stop by the library in the afternoon to get some maps and whatever other useful stuff I can think of.”
“I get off at four, but it’s my day to help Mom take her sponge bath and make dinner and stuff,” Adrianna grumped. “And Robbie’s coming home. I suppose you’ll have to start without me.”
“What time does your mom go to bed?” Rory asked.
“Not ’til 8:30.”
“We won’t leave for the fields without you,” Ellie promised. “But it can’t hurt to start brainstorming.”
Adrianna perked up at that. Ellie shoveled some more pie into her mouth. The lemon burst over her tongue, and she savored the taste for what felt like the first time in months.
She should have known her friends would be there for her. It was too easy to get wrapped up in the grief and the mission and forget that people who were still among the living loved her.
They would find the treasure. They would save the farmhouse from Adam. They could do this.