Treasure in the Corn Field: Chapter 3

RosaTaylorCoverDraft

Need to catch up? Chapter 1 is here!


Rory was pacing her living room when Ellie walked into her small apartment above the laundromat on Main Street. The living room was tiny and it only took Rory four large strides from one side to another, but that didn’t stop her from stomping her way across the floor.

She stopped moving and turned to face Ellie when the door opened.

“Hi,” Ellie said, her voice quiet.

“About time,” Rory snapped. “I expected you like an hour ago. I was afraid you’d wiped out somewhere.”

Ellie opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She hadn’t spent any time figuring out what she’d say once she got here, but she couldn’t tell her best friend what she’d seen in the corn field. Rory would probably chalk it up to grief or being overtired and mistaking a coyote for a monster or even just emotional exhaustion from Robbie coming home.

Rory was amazing at many things, but believing in the fantastical wasn’t one of them. If she couldn’t see it, touch it, smell it, as far as Rory was concerned, it didn’t exist. Besides, no one in this town over the age of five believed the scary monster stories anymore. There was no way Rory would believe her.

“Sorry,” Ellie said finally. “I lost track of time… Robbie stopped by this morning.”

Rory’s face morphed from annoyance to something akin to pity. Ellie regretted saying anything, but then she’d never been good at thinking on her feet.

“It was fine,” Ellie said quickly, cutting off the interrogation she knew was brewing. “What’s for dinner?”

“Chili. But you don’t get off this easy.” Rory flopped onto the couch and pulled Ellie down next to her. “Tell me everything. Then we can eat.”

Ellie sighed and resigned herself to this conversation. After all, she was the one who brought it up.

“He called me El Bell. Told me he’d broken up with his girlfriend. And then he left. He was there for all of five minutes.”

Ellie picked at her nails. There was dirt under them from riding her bike. She curled her fingers under to hide them before risking a glance at Rory.

“How are you feeling about it all?” Rory asked.

“I don’t feel anything,” Ellie said. Her hands tightened in her lap.

“Right,” Rory said. “I believe that.”

“It’s fine,” Ellie said. “Everything that happened is ancient history. I don’t know what he thinks he’s going to dredge up, but the past is the past.”

Rory hummed in disbelief, but didn’t push. She got up to serve dinner. Ellie’s stomach rumbled, hunger finally catching up to her. Her thoughts raced, flipping between monsters and old boyfriends and treasure. She was grateful for a warm bowl of chili between her hands, loaded up with cheese and sour cream, just how she loved it.

“By the way,” Rory said, “I found one of those puzzle books you love so much at the grocery store.”

Rory produced the book from somewhere and dropped it in Ellie’s lap. Ellie put her chili on the coffee table and flipped through it.

So many new ciphers inside! It would take her hours to decode them all. She hugged it to her chest.

“Thanks, Rory. You sure know the right way to my heart.”

“I dunno how you can stand doing those things, but I’m glad to help.”

“They’re fun,” Ellie said, the argument over boring ciphers old and familiar. “Keeps my brain young.”

Rory just laughed.

After they’d eaten, Rory pulled some maps she’d photocopied at the library out of her messenger bag. She spread them on the coffee table. Ellie picked one up that had the boundaries of Harmon’s farm marked on it.

“Where did you get this one?” Ellie asked.

“Oh. I went to the library and looked up property records. Oliver was really helpful.”

Ellie groaned and bit back a harsh reply. Rory was just trying to help, but Oliver, the local historian and property guru, was the biggest gossip this town had ever seen. If he knew they were interested in Harmon’s property, so would everyone else by tomorrow morning at the latest.

“Don’t worry,” Rory continued. “I told him that Adam would want this information, and I was just being proactive. Please don’t be mad.”

“And Oliver bought that? Have you ever even met Adam?”

“Well, no, but I guess I also said I was helping you out.”

Ellie sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. She needed a nap and some time alone to think about everything that had happened in the last couple days. Why is it that things could go along for a time without issue, but then outside forces conspired to ruin everything all at once?

She could have handled Robbie’s seeming interest in rekindling their relationship if Harmon was alive. She could have handled Harmon’s death if she could grieve without having to find a treasure on a timeline. And that creature… well… she wasn’t sure she could have handled that ever.

“So,” Rory said, intruding on her thoughts, “what were the directions Harmon gave you?”

Her voice was quiet, the same tone Adrianna had the night before when she mentioned Harmon. Ellie huffed out a watery laugh at her friends feeling like they had to walk on eggshells when bringing him up. She wanted to talk about him without her friends fearing she’d break down crying, but her eyes welled up just at the mention of his name. She blinked the tears away. Maybe she couldn’t talk about him yet, but she’d keep working on it.

Rory scooted off the couch and onto the floor next to the coffee table, studiously pretending she didn’t see Ellie wiping her eyes.

Ellie pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket. On one side was a receipt for the hospital cafeteria. One turkey club with a bag of chips, one iced tea, and one slice of carrot cake. Harmon wasn’t supposed to eat cake, but Ellie figured he should have whatever he wanted in his last days. She cherished the memory of the small smile of bliss on his face as he savored it.

On the other side of the receipt was Ellie’s hastily scribbled transcription of Harmon’s whispered directions.

Start at south corner of barn.

Walk half mile due east.

Stop. Turn left. Walk twenty paces.

Stop. Dig five feet.

Rory smoothed the receipt out on the table, reverent and gentle. She read it a few times with a bemused look on her face. Then she looked back at the map.

“Damn,” Rory said. “I didn’t think to put buildings on here. Not so helpful after all. But… the directions don’t sound so hard. What’s been the problem?”

“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “Maybe because I have to go out at night? Everything looks different. Maybe I’m veering off due east.”

Rory hummed and rested her head on one hand and pulled the outlined map toward her with the other.

“Have you ever had this much trouble finding a geocache before?”

Ellie shook her head, frowning at the useless map. Rory stared at it, too.

“This is so much different than geocaching, though,” Ellie said. “I don’t have specific coordinates to find, and the box is actually buried, not hidden in a clever spot aboveground. I have no idea how broad the hole I dig should be, or anything, so I don’t know how to tell if I’m in the right spot.”

“Well, we’ll bring a compass tonight and between your geocache skills, Adrianna’s tracking skills, and my robot-like digging skills, I’m sure we’ll find it.”

“I mean, I had a compass when I was out there,” Ellie said. At the pointed look Rory gave her, she quickly added, “But maybe Adrianna’s will work better.”

Ellie’s desire to go back to the property tonight faded as the memory of glowing eyes intruded into her thoughts. She didn’t know what that thing was, but for the first time in her life, she was afraid to go to Harmon’s house.


Chapter 2                                                                                                    Chapter 4 (coming soon)

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Treasure in the Corn Field: Chapter 2

RosaTaylorCoverDraft

Need to catch up? Chapter 1 is here!


Chapter 2

Ellie’s dreams were plagued with glowing red eyes and tall, shaggy monsters. They chased her through the corn field, the ears grasping at her, slowing her down. She ran until she couldn’t anymore, and just as she fell to the ground and they reached out their blood-stained clawed hands to snatch at her, she woke up gasping. Her heart pounded in her chest. Her hands were clammy and too hot. She kicked her covers off and lay in the dark, willing her body to calm down.

It was just a dream.

After a few moments, she shook the dream off as best she could and got up to start her day. Despite her fatigue, she got her chores done, milking the goats and collecting eggs. The dream was long forgotten by the time she kissed her mom goodbye. Ellie biked to work, traveling down the long dirt road from their old farmhouse into town. She got there with two minutes to spare.

When she got to the corner store, she was awake enough to help folks coming in for cigarettes and beer. What people needed beer for at seven in the morning, she had no idea, but she wasn’t one to judge, and their purchases kept her in a job.

Two hours into her shift, and the place was deserted. Ellie sat on the stool behind the counter, looking through the geocaching website she loved, looking for new caches to find. She’d already found all the local ones, though, so she widened her search.

It was getting a little late in the season to go after new caches, but after the coming winter was over, she swore she’d get back into her old hobby. She missed traipsing around new locations, GPS in hand, trying to find the tackle boxes or plastic totes people hid in remote places.

Searching for Harmon’s treasure wasn’t fun. It held the weight of a deathbed promise and the heavy memories of Harmon laughing and living on his property. While geocaching and treasure hunting seemed the same on paper, one was a fun frolic through the countryside, and the other hurt.

Ellie wrapped her arms around herself. She was so, so very tired. Surely, it wouldn’t hurt to rest her head on the counter for a bit…

The door dinged open. Ellie jumped, picking her head up off the counter so fast she cricked her neck, and in walked Robbie Kinkaid. She hadn’t expected him this morning, although looking back, no one had said what time he was getting to town. But she hadn’t prepared herself. She realized she was still clutching her phone, and she stored it under the counter.

“Hey El Bell,” he said. He smiled his crooked smile, one of his dimples showing.

“No one calls me that anymore,” Ellie said with a smile of her own. She rounded the counter and hugged Robbie. His strong arms encircled her, warm and familiar. Ellie’s stomach fluttered, despite her head telling her not to get carried away. He probably wasn’t staying, and more importantly, he had a girlfriend. Robbie pulled back, but left his hands on her hips.

“Then clearly no one in this rinky-dink town knows a good nickname when it presents itself.”

Ellie’s smile faded, and she stepped out of Robbie’s reach. There was nothing she hated more than people dumping on her beloved town, even if they were born here. They only got to do that if they stayed.

She leaned against the counter, and took him in. She hadn’t seen him since he left for good six years ago. His hair was longer, but it was the same bright red she remembered, a complement to Adrianna’s slightly darker shade. His college hoodie in the school’s blue and red colors clashed with his hair, and sadly hid the muscles she’d felt just a moment before. His bright blue eyes looked tired, but excited.

“You look good, Robbie.”

“You too, El Bell.” The silence between them grew into an uncomfortable, palpable thing. So many unsaid things hovered in the air, but they were best left that way.

Another customer came into the store, and Ellie went into employee-mode until Mr. Jones had bought his Camel Lights and was safely out of the store. Robbie lurked around, pretending to decide between Mentos and Sour Patch Kids.

“Victoria and I broke up,” Robbie said. He plopped a bag of chips down on the counter instead.

“Sorry to hear that,” Ellie said. She wasn’t sure anyone had ever told her the girlfriend’s name, but somehow the name Victoria fit the woman she’d built in her mind when Robbie had first broken up with her. Ellie punched his purchase into the register, avoiding his eye. She couldn’t handle this right now.

“Yeah. Thanks.” Robbie ran a hand through his hair and handed her some money. Ellie slowly counted his change out, the air growing thicker by the second. After a few more silent beats, Ellie held his money out to him, but Robbie said, “Keep the change.”

With a parting smile, he left, the bell clanging behind him. Ellie stood clutching the money long after he had left. She felt affronted at him acting like leaving his change was a gentlemanly thing to do. Did she look like she needed—she looked at her hand— a dollar fifty in change?

This wasn’t the reunion she’d expected, not that she’d spent much time thinking about how it would go down. But… there was obviously something still there between them. She stared at the counter, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

She’d come to terms with their breakup years ago. Robbie left for college the summer before her senior year, and he’d only come back for one break before forsaking this town for good. What did he mean by telling her he was single again? Six years was a long time to wait for anyone, and she certainly hadn’t.

Sure, she hadn’t dated much since him. It was a small town with a smaller dating pool, and when word got around that no one could hit a home run with her, the dating pool pretty much dried up. Everyone out here either wanted kids, or were going to have them anyway because that’s what people did.

Ellie wanted no part of any of that. No sex, no kids. She had her mom and her two best friends, and even though she knew she’d like a partner someday, she was content as she was for now.

Robbie coming home threatened all of that. Their relationship had been soft and special. The summer before he left contained some of the fondest memories of her life. But they weren’t starry-eyed teenagers anymore, and they barely knew each other now. Him barging in here to tell her he’d broken up with his girlfriend shouldn’t mean anything to her.

And yet her heart fluttered and wanted to return to the past.

There is no going back, Ellie reminded herself. There’s only one foot in front of the other, into the future.

Ellie thrummed with energy by the end of her shift. She wanted to grab her bike and ride until she collapsed, but she had to go to Rory’s house and sit still and brainstorm. But everything in her screamed at avoiding stillness.

She pulled her phone from her pocket as she waved goodbye to Edgardo Alvarez, the relative newcomer to town who had the shift after hers. She didn’t know him well, but he seemed nice enough. For such a small town, having an enigma work the next shift was strange, but folks around here didn’t ask many questions.

It was one of the things she loved best about Linewood. If Edgardo wanted to be a loner, everyone would let him. They’d talk about him when he wasn’t there, sure, but they would leave him be for the most part. But if he didn’t show up for work one day, someone would go to check on him. And if he needed help, there was no power in this county that would stop folk from giving it to him.

Ellie paused next to her bike and texted Rory that she’d be late. She might not be able to ride until she dropped, but she could at least work off some of this energy.

The air was chilly, but not unpleasantly so. She biked slowly down Main Street. Mrs. Mason, her old high school English teacher, waved as she crossed the street with her five kids and golden retriever.  Tom Butler, the owner of the town’s only bar, paused in his sweeping to nod at her as she went by. Familiar faces, loved ones, friends, acquaintances, all flowed past as she pedaled her way through town.

A strong wind kicked up and blew her long brown hair out behind her as she left town behind. The open fields beckoned. Hay bales rolled up and waiting to be gathered sat in a field to her left. A barren field, long since harvested of soybeans lay to her right. Harmon’s farm was further out, and Ellie fought the desire to bike past it.

Every time she went there, she half expected Harmon to be sitting on his porch, straw hat on his head, smoking the pipe he loved so much. His little piece of luxury in this cold, hard world, he used to call it.

His long road to a cold grave, Ellie thought of it now, though the scent of pipe tobacco was still enough to bring back all the loving memories she had of him. It was strange how something that turned out to be so awful was enough to bring back the warmth of her time with him.

She turned down a small dirt trail through the Mason’s corn fields. The corn stalks lay scattered on the ground, remnants of the harvest season. She could just see their corn maze off in the distance. Ellie wanted to be excited for Halloween night when the Masons would open their home and their maze to the community, but she couldn’t quite manifest the feeling.

She and her mom used to pick Harmon up in their old beater car and bring him out for the festivities. He would protest about his age and the lateness and all the people, but Ellie would never take no for an answer. And Harmon always had fun.

Ellie didn’t know how she was going to get through the party this year without him. She had two weeks to build up her courage and fortitude.

She really didn’t mean to, but before she knew it, she was pausing at Harmon’s property line. His fields were still full of unharvested corn. He died before he could pay the folks who would have done it, and Adam couldn’t be bothered to make the arrangements himself. The waste bothered Ellie, but she also loved the cover the corn gave her at night. So, a blessing after all.

Lost in her thoughts, Ellie turned to leave, but the feeling of being watched crept over her skin, raising the hair on the back of her neck. Her eyes scanned the field and something dark caught her eye. It sat back behind the thick wall of corn stalks, so she couldn’t get a good look at it from the road, but it lurked in the field, massive and real. Ellie knew the creepy feeling she had was coming from being watched by whoever that was. Thinking it was some local kids causing mischief, she lay her bike down in the dirt, and walked into the corn to check it out.

This was how women in horror movies always died. Ellie dismissed the thought as soon as it flitted into her brain. This wasn’t a horror movie. She wasn’t a heroine or bait. She was just a woman in a small town corn field in the middle of the day.

Or so she thought.

As she trudged through the dead corn, pushing ears of corn out of her way, she headed to where she’d seen the form, but in the time it took her to discard her bike and enter the field, it had disappeared. She paused, turning in a slow circle, the corn towering over her. The air was claustrophobic. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t alone, but she couldn’t see anyone.

“Hello?” she called. Her voice sat in the air, heavy and out of place.

Rustling and snapping stalks pulled her attention to her left. She pushed the corn out of her way and moved toward the sound. When she reached a row with a bit more space, a hulking form rose over her. It pulled itself to its full seven feet. Its eyes, set in a canid face, glowed red. The creature’s hot breath curled in the cool air. Shaggy black fur hung from its too long limbs, and its hands were tipped in wicked-looking claws.

Ellie’s heart raced, and she balled her hands into fists, bringing them up before her in some semblance of a defensive position Ellie thought maybe she learned in a women’s self-defense class in high school, but the creature didn’t move.

The monster was real. The stories were real. Her dreams last night… those were real too, though this monster was doing significantly less chasing. She glanced down at its claws, but she couldn’t tell if they were blood-stained. She did not want to die in this field. She wondered how fast it could run, if she could make it back to her bike in time. If it could move faster than she could bike.

Woman and beast stared at each other for what felt like an eternity. Finally, the monster took a step forward, reaching one of its clawed hands out toward her, just like in her dream. Ellie found her courage, broke eye contact, and ran for the road.

She grabbed her bike and rode without looking back until she stopped shaking from fear and started shaking from exhaustion.


Chapter 1                                                                                                                               Chapter 3

Treasure in the Corn Field: Chapter 1

RosaTaylorCoverDraftHi 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.


Chapter 2

Interview–Lana Wood Johnson

Hi everyone! I’m super excited to welcome author Lana Wood Johnson to my blog today! Her debut YA book, TECHNICALLY YOU STARTED IT, comes out June 25th from Scholastic.

9781338335460


When a guy named Martin Nathaniel Munroe II texts you, it should be obvious who you’re talking to. Except there’s two of them (it’s a long story), and Haley thinks she’s talking to the one she doesn’t hate.

A question about a class project rapidly evolves into an all-consuming conversation. Haley finds that Martin is actually willing to listen to her weird facts and unusual obsessions, and Martin feels like Haley is the first person to really see who he is. Haley and Martin might be too awkward to hang out in real life, but over text, they’re becoming addicted to each other.

There’s just one problem: Haley doesn’t know who Martin is. And Martin doesn’t know that Haley doesn’t know. But they better figure it out fast before their meet-cute becomes an epic meet-disaster


Hi Lana! Thanks for joining me on the blog today. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m Lana and I’m a giant nerd! People sometimes don’t entirely get how deep it goes when I say it, but I’ve got the cred: my first memory is Star Wars A New Hope in theaters, I met my best friend 24 years ago in an online roleplaying game, and I initially flirted with my husband by shouting a meme at him in the year 2000.

Wow, your nerd cred is impressive! Your debut novel, TECHNICALLY YOU STARTED IT, comes out this summer. Can you tell us a bit about the project?

Haley and Martin are also just as nerdy in their own way as I am, (although Martin’s a bit cooler than either of us.) Told entirely through their text messages, it’s Haley’s story of falling in love with someone whose physical body she doesn’t really recognize but who she knows better than anyone else around her.

What inspired you to write this story?

After a hefty round of full rejections on my second book, I found myself volunteering on a crisis line for a local youth shelter. That’s where I discovered my skill of connecting with people via text messages is actually kind of special. I realized that like the youth I was talking to, I used the internet to connect with people and I decided to channel that into a story.

Very cool! In addition to the nerdiness, this book is also really queer. I’m super excited to see it hit mainstream shelves. Can you tell us a little about those themes and what you’re hoping people will take away from them?

My biggest hope is that people will take away that even though it’s m/f it’s two queer characters connecting in their own ways. And while it’s not about their identity, and the coming out they do is incidental and contextual to the situations, the story wouldn’t be remotely the same if they were straight characters.

As I started revising, I realized how important it was to me that the story stay in their text messages. By keeping it there, it made Haley’s perspective on the relationship the center and I realized showed better what it was like to fall in love with the person inside the skin.

What media (books, movies, podcasts, etc) are you enjoying right now?

I’ve just started drafting again which means my tendency is to go back to old, familiar stories. That said, I just discovered My Favorite Murder and as the completionist I am, I’m working my way through their archives. There’s a LOT of archives tho!

Any favorite writing snacks or drinks?

I don’t need anything to write, but I love writing at a fancy bakery nearby my house. They have miel lattes which is made with honey and the FANCIEST pastries. I think one of their bakers also watches Great British Bake Off so I get to taste some of the weird things they make on the show. That’s where I first had a kougin amann which is an excellent writing food.

That sounds delicious, and I’m hungry now. That’s a good place to leave this conversation. In closing, where can people find you online?

I am on Twitter and Instagram, and on my website.


TECHNICALLY YOU STARTED IT will be released on June 25th. You can preorder it from Indiebound, Barnes and Noble, Target, or Book Depository!


Lana_Wood_Johnson_websize_YA_Contemp_100x100

Lana Wood Johnson was born and raised in Iowa in the time before the internet but has spent the rest of her life making up for that. After years working in wireless communication for companies of all sizes, she now works doing the same for a local youth shelter. Lana lives in Minnesota with her husband and their English bulldog. TECHNICALLY, YOU STARTED IT is her debut novel.

 

Cover Reveal: Anyone but You

I am incredibly excited to help reveal the cover for Chelsea M. Cameron’s newest book ANYONE BUT YOU!

Without further ado:

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About the book: Things are going great for Sutton Kay, or at least they were. Her yoga studio is doing well, she’s living with her best friend, and she just got two kittens named Mocha and Cappuccino. Sure, she doesn’t have a girlfriend, but her life is full and busy.

Then her building is sold and the new landlord turns out to be the woman putting in a gym downstairs who doesn’t seem to understand the concepts “courtesy” and “don’t be rude to your tenants.” Sutton can’t get a read on Tuesday Grímsdóttir, but she can appreciate her muscles. Seriously, Tuesday is ripped. Not that that has anything to do with anything since she’s too surly to have a conversation with, and won’t stop pissing Sutton off.

Sutton’s life gets interesting after she dares Tuesday to make it through one yoga class, and then Tuesday gives Sutton the same dare. Soon enough they’re spending time working out together and when the sweat starts flowing, the sparks start flying. How is it possible to be so attracted to a person you can barely stand?

But when someone from Tuesday’s past shows up and Sutton sees a whole new side of Tuesday, will she change her mind about her grumpy landlord? Can she?


Are you excited yet? I know I am!

I don’t know how I’m going to wait until March 19th to read it! In the meantime, we can console ourselves by adding it on Goodreads.

And if the blurb wasn’t enough to peak your interest, here’s a sneak-peak!


“You’re attracted to her.” I made a sputtering noise like a car trying to start in the winter before I was able to formulate any words.

“I am not!” I said and my voice squeaked on the last word.

Zee cackled and scared the kittens, which were on the floor rolling around with some new toys that had come.

“You totally are. I mean, I read between the lines and figured out she was hot, but your little obsession with her is telling me that she’s really hot.” I pressed my lips together because I didn’t want to say anything that might incriminate myself and lead Zee to think their theory was something that it wasn’t.

Okay, fine. Tuesday was stunning. Gorgeous. Hot. Sexy. All of those. But that didn’t mean anything. I saw hot people all the time; I ran a yoga studio. Her attractiveness had nothing to do with anything.

“Ohhhh, this is very interesting,” Zee said, stroking their chin and staring at me as I glared back.

“Stop it,” I said, pointing my finger in their face. “Stop it right now.” They laughed and shook their head.

“No way. She’s mean and hot, which is a deadly combination. You’d better be careful. Pretty soon she’s going to ask you to ‘help paint’ and there will be no brushes or paint involved. Unless she’s into that kind of thing.” I stood up from the couch.

“I’m leaving right now unless you stop talking about this immediately. And I’m taking the babies with me.” I scooped up both kittens and held them to my chest as they wiggled, angry I’d taken them away from their new shiny toys.

“No, don’t leave,” Zee said, falling horizontal on the couch and reaching for me dramatically. “Come backkkkkk.”

I turned on my heel and pretended to flounce, whipping my hair around.

“Come back and I’ll let you have the rest of the ice cream,” they said. That did it. I went back and dropped the kittens in her lap. They made cooing noises at them and gave them kisses as they meowed.


About the Author:

Chelsea M. Cameron is a New York Times/USA Today/Internationally Best-selling author from Maine who now lives and works in Boston. She’s a red velvet cake enthusiast, obsessive tea drinker, vegetarian, former cheerleader, and world’s worst video gamer. When not writing, she enjoys watching infomercials, getting brunch with her partner, tweeting, and playing fetch with her cat, Sassenach. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Maine, Orono that she promptly abandoned to write about the people in her own head. More often than not, these people turn out to be just as weird as she is.

Where you can find the author: Twitter    Facebook   Instagram   Patreon   Website

Blood and Driftwood

This was originally written for Jolene Hayley’s Beware the Seas showcase last fall. I’m missing the beach in this snowy winter, though, so I’m reposting it here. I hope you enjoy!

TWs: Blood, a small wound, mass death, death of a parent


My skin tingled from the salt spray of the ocean and my hair whipped around my face as I meandered my way down the beach with Oscar at my side. His black fur stood out against the pale sand, despite the early morning gloom.

My eyes skittered over the colorful shells that spotted the sand, not yet picked over by the other beachgoers who would soon join us. I hadn’t yet found the one I would take home today, but I knew it was waiting for me somewhere along the high tide line.

The sun peaked its sleepy head over the horizon. The red and golden hues of the sky reflected off the choppy, churning waves. A storm was coming.

Not looking where I was going, I stepped on something sharp and cried out. Oscar barked in alarm, crowding around me as I sank to the ground and cradled my bloody foot. Shooing Oscar away, I inspected it but couldn’t tell how bad the cut was. Blood and sand stuck to my skin. Tears pricked at my eyes as I looked back the way we came. We were a good two miles from my car, and I had nothing to bandage the wound with.

The tail of a half-buried conch tinged red with my blood caught my eye. It stuck out from the sand, almost invisible while we were walking, but sharp enough to puncture my poor foot.

Pounding on the wet sand made me whip my head around. A man was running toward us! I waved my arm at him, and he waved back. As he got closer, Oscar barked his head off and ran in a circle, so I grabbed his collar and held on, which left me without free hands to signal that I needed the man’s help and wasn’t just being friendly. As a result, the jogger flew past us, kicking up clumps of sand in his wake.

“Hey!” I yelled at his retreating back. He ignored me, probably a result of his earbuds, and continued on his way. I choked back a sob and buried my face in Oscar’s damp fur. The two miles back to my car seemed like an insurmountable distance on an injured foot. I counted to ten and breathed in and out.

When Oscar started whining from being held in place, I let him go. He raced down to the water, and back to me, then back to the water. Normally, I’d have laughed and dug my phone out for a video. Instead, I sat in pain and dread, not wanting to start my journey home.

I glanced down at the shell again and before I knew what I was doing, I dug it out of the sand. It lay in the palm of my hand, the red splashed across it contrasting with the stark white of the shell. I didn’t know why I felt so attached to it, but I figured that if it had tasted my blood, that surely made it mine. I couldn’t let some other beachcomber claim it for themself.

I struggled to my feet, a maneuver that took longer than it should have due to a yapping dog playing around my legs. Instead of heading back the way we came, though, I hobbled down to the water’s edge. Waves lapped at the beach, not quite reaching me. Oscar stopped playing as soon as I stopped walking. He sat by my side, alert but silent.

The shell weighed heavy in my hand. With all the strength I could muster, I heaved it out into the churning water. It flew farther than I thought possible, seeming to travel hundreds of yards, before a tendril of water rose up from the top of a cresting wave to grab it.

I blinked. It must have been a trick of the light. Or an oddity of wave science. Tendrils don’t just rise up out of the water. The wave breaking must have sprayed water into the air, appearing to swallow the shell with intention.

After several more minutes, the ache in my foot grew stronger. A quick glance down showed me a puddle of red around my right heel. With a shaky breath, Oscar and I began the long hobble back to my car, leaving bloody footprints in our wake.

The storm I’d predicted early that morning raged against the walls of my house that night. Rain pelted the windows with such force I was convinced they would break. The wind howled, and I feared it would rip the roof off. The house twisted and swayed on its stilts, and I imagined them snapping, sending us tumbling into the canal.

I sat wrapped in a blanket in front of the empty fireplace. Oscar cowered against me whining softly to himself, and I absentmindedly ran one hand along his back, and my other hand along the bandages on my foot. The wound, once cleaned, showed a perfectly round puncture. It was small, but deep. I’d keep an eye on it, but I hoped it wouldn’t need a visit to the doctor.

Oscar quaked with fear, an unfortunately contagious emotion. I wanted nothing more than to light a fire, to bask in its comfort and warmth, but it was too dangerous to open the flue. So I sat in the darkened room, the soft glow of candles around us, their pale light a promise that I would see tomorrow dawn bright.

A bolt of lightning flashed, illuminating the shades pulled down over the windows. Thunder cracked, and I jumped. It sounded like the world was breaking open. My heart hammered in my chest, threatening to burst free. My hands curled around the blanket, pulling it tighter around me, and I buried my face in it.

Oscar jumped down from the couch and stood in front of me. His low growls blended in with the storm howling outside the walls, but his hackles were raised and his teeth were bared.

“What is it, buddy?” I asked. He rarely acted this way, and I didn’t dare touch him while he was like this. It didn’t matter how much I wanted to pull him into me and whisper that it would all be over soon.

Something heavy dragged across the back deck. Lightning cast a shadow across the windows, the outline of a tall, human-shaped thing. Oscar’s growling morphed into frantic barking, his front legs leaving the floor each time he barked.

Something hit the door with a loud bang. I couldn’t move, could hardly breathe. With shaking hands, I covered my mouth to hold in a scream. Another loud band, and the spell was broken. I stood up, leaving my security blanket on the couch and grabbed the closest weapon-looking thing I could find–a ceramic bowl my mother had given me for my birthday the previous year. Hefting it, I limped toward the door, but Oscar blocked my way.

“Stop it, buddy. Maybe… Maybe someone’s caught out in the storm and needs our help.” My voice cracked on the last word. I glanced at the bowl-weapon, and briefly wondered if I really believed that.

I tried moving around Oscar again anyway. Again, he blocked my path. For such a small dog, he sure was a pain sometimes.

Another bang on the door. The house rattled with the force. Another flash of lightning showed the shadow of a monster. No, I corrected myself, the shadow of a person that only looks like a monster because of this storm.

After several minutes of bargaining with Oscar, he finally stopped barking and let me by. The lightning and thunder had moved on, leaving the screaming wind and heavy rain behind. Oscar watched, silent once more, as I wrenched the back door open. All that met me was horizontal rain soaking my clothes through the torn screen door.

Looking at the sky the next morning, I’d never have known there had been a storm. The soft purples and yellows belied the mess that greeted me when Oscar and I descended the steps leading down from my front deck.

Garbage and broken branches were strewn across the yard. A tree toppled over in front of my car, missing it by mere inches. I breathed a sigh of relief that it hadn’t smashed right onto the car, and sent a silent thank you to whoever was listening that my driveway wasn’t blocked by the tree. I could back out and take care of it later.

There were more cars than usual in the beach’s parking lot when I got there. I patrolled up and down for several minutes before sliding into a spot someone had just vacated. I was slightly later getting here than most mornings, but a half hour had never made this much of a difference before.

When Oscar and I crested the dunes, following the well-worn path of thousands of feet, a crowd of people facing toward the ocean greeted us. Oscar barked, and a few heads turned our way. I smiled and waved. They blinked and looked away.

Curiosity sang through my veins despite the unnerving feeling that something was very wrong, but I tugged Oscar in the opposite direction from the crowd. He seemed eager to leave, even though it meant walking the wrong way on the beach. I was surprised at his eager acceptance of the change, but didn’t mind.

The wound on my foot throbbed with each step I took away from the crowd. Sharp pain shot up my leg, clawing its way toward my knee. Once Oscar and I were far enough from the other people, I unclipped his leash and sank to the ground. He nuzzled at my pocket where his tennis ball sat.

“Okay, buddy,” I said, and threw the ball down the beach as far as I could. As he raced away, I let out a groan and cradled my foot. The pain was more than a throb now. It was a constant, piercing pain that brought tears to my eyes.

Oscar dropped the ball in my lap. Where he’d normally look expectantly at me, he climbed into my lap and whined. I pet him with both hands, knowing that if I didn’t keep them occupied, I’d peel the bandages from my wound to check on it. I expected a gangrenous mess, but now was not the time to look.

He let me pet him, but when I grabbed the leash to reattach it, he pranced out of my reach.

“Oh, come on.” I got up, tested my weight on my bad foot, and knew I wouldn’t be able to catch him. Tears ran down my cheeks. I bent over and held out the leash.

“Please, buddy. For me?”

Oscar stared at me, his little pink tongue poking from his mouth. He ran down the beach, away from where we came.

I didn’t want to leave him, but I hoped that maybe someone in the crowd could help me. I hobbled back the way we came. With every step, the pain in my leg receded back into my foot. By the time I reached the crowd, the throbbing was almost non-existent.

“Excuse me?” I waved to get the attention of a woman standing near the back of the crowd. She turned to me, her face impassive, her eyes unblinking. “Um. I was just wondering if you might be able to help me catch my dog?”

She blinked once, finally, then looked away from me. How rude. I turned to the little boy standing next to her.

“Can you help me catch my dog?” I asked him. He hid behind his mother’s leg.

Oscar woofed softly behind me. His hackles were raised, his teeth bared, but he made no other sound. When I reached down to clip his leash on, he snapped at me and I jerked back. I stumbled into a row of people in the crowd, and we all fell into a writhing heap.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” I said. I tried to get up, but there was nowhere to put my hands to push myself up without squishing someone’s arm or leg. But no one protested or complained, or even said “screw you, lady.” They all lay there, arms flailing like when a beetle gets flipped upside down.

Somehow, I extricated myself. I crawled forward, curiosity finally getting the better of me. I needed to see what they were all staring at. Oscar woofed again, then growled. I ignored him. It was easy wending my way through the forest of legs, and I made it to the front of the group in several seconds.

I gasped. The beach had been carved away in the previous night’s storm, exposing a giant tangle of driftwood. Except the wood didn’t look ocean-worn, and it was vaguely human-shaped…

Something wet bumped the back of my arm, and I shrieked. Oscar had the good sense to look apologetic, or so I thought, but his hackles were still up. I clipped his leash on while I had the chance, and stood.

The wood in the sand hollow quivered. The crowd pressed closer, sweeping Oscar and me along with them. We now had front row seats to whatever was going on, but I wasn’t sure I wanted them. The unnatural silence was broken only by Oscar’s barking and the pounding waves.

Whatever was holding these people in a trance seemed to break when the thing moved. It rose slowly, as if awaking from a deep slumber. Someone in the crowd passed out. Two more people followed suit. Dropping Oscar’s leash, I rushed over to check on them. His barks reached a crescendo as the thing grew taller and more people fell.

I couldn’t find a pulse. I raced from person to person, checking their necks and their wrists, but they were all gone. All… dead…

The thing towered over me, pulled up to its full height. Seaweed hung in clumps from its head and limbs. Its long fingers reached out to grab me, but it drew back when a giant, black ball of fur chomped down on its leg and shook its head.

It raised its hand to strike my beloved Oscar, so I dove toward its legs and hugged my pup to my chest. The blow never came. Instead, I felt a vice-like grip squeeze my sides and the earth slipping away from me. I held onto Oscar like a lifeline.

“What do you want from me?” I screamed. It brought me level with its craggy face. I glared at what I thought was an eye.

“You gave me a gift.” Its voice emanated from everywhere and nowhere. If my hands weren’t full of squirming dog, I’d have clamped my hands over my ears to block out the horrid sound.

“I did not. Now put me down.”

It cocked its head at me, and if it had a nose, I was convinced it would be sniffing the air. It brought its other hand up and grabbed my dangling legs, flipping me upside down. I lost my grip on Oscar, and he fell to the ground. It was only a few feet, and the soft sand broke his fall, so he was up on his feet and barking as soon as he shook off being stunned.

Blood rushed to my head. The pounding and pressure made it hard to think. The creature peeled the bandage off my foot.

“You chose me,” it said.

“Put me down,” I whispered. I couldn’t manage anything louder.

Gently, the creature placed me on the sand at its feet. It knelt beside me and caressed my hair.

“My bride,” it said.

“Um. No.”

It pulled its hand back, and let it hang at its side. “You chose me.

Realization dawned. The ocean had reached a hand out of the waves yesterday.

“I stepped on a shell and it stabbed me. I gave it back to the ocean. It wasn’t for you.”

The creature sat on the sand next to me and stared out at the crashing waves. The sun had risen fully, and its reflection dappled the murky water.

“What did you do to all those people?” I asked.

“You chose me. I had to come.”

I craned my neck and looked at the pile of people behind us. So many lives lost, and for what? For this creature to have enough energy to woo me? My heart broke when I saw the little boy shaking his mom’s arm. Oscar picked his way over to the boy, and nuzzled his arm. The boy threw his arms around my dog’s neck and sobbed.

“Was it worth it?” I pointed behind us.

The creature said nothing. When I turned to demand that it answer, it stood and waded out into the water. I watched until its head disappeared beneath the waves.

My foot was bleeding again, but it wasn’t infected like I thought it would be. Still probably best to see the doctor.

I limped through the pile of bodies and scooped up Oscar’s leash and the small boy. He protested at leaving his mother, but I wanted to get him away from all that death. I didn’t know what I was going to tell the police, but I’d come up with something good.

No one would ever believe the truth.

The Christmas Corridor

Grandma’s house was dusty and dark when we arrived for Christmas Eve. Her milky eyes and clawed hands weren’t so helpful for keeping a clean house anymore, but she was too proud to ask any of us for help. My mom sighed, and set about assigning tasks to us kids.

“We can’t decorate until everything is clean,” Mom said.

I groaned. Mom narrowed her eyes.

“Carla,” she said in that warning tone she often got with me, but I grabbed my cousin Ina’s hand and dragged her away to the parlor before she could continue scolding.

Good thing Ina was always more thoughtful than me, because she had rags and furniture polish in the hand I hadn’t grabbed. We worked our way around the room, turning on lamps, dusting off the thick layer of grey that coated everything, Ina chattering away.

“…and then Marcus said that he wouldn’t ever date Gina because she smells like pea soup…”

I ignored Ina as much as I could, but that was hard because her voice was loud and grating. She had no volume control, no inside voice I could remind her to use. Not that she would have listened to me. She was a whole three weeks older, which she reminded me of every time I tried to suggest she do something different.

She was still going on about Marcus and smelly Gina when I came to the fireplace. A whole year of grime lay before me, begging to be cleaned. I sprayed it with the polish and began rubbing.

The ornate carvings made it difficult, and I wished I had some q-tips and several hours to get into each crevice. Grape vines and dancing men, beautiful and pleasing. Grandma’s family must have been very rich, or very talented, to make this. I’d never asked her the story behind the mantle, easily the centerpiece of the house, but I would ask her this year.

Grandma was a woman of few words, but I hope she’d tell me the story. Her childhood was a mystery, and we’d all learned early not to ask too many questions. My mom answered any questions we had to the best of her ability, but always warned us not to ask Granny.

The one time I’d asked Granny about her life, she threw her spoon into her soup bowl and screeched about nosy children who didn’t understand their place.

I never asked another question.

“I hate cleaning,” I said, interrupting Ina and my own endless thoughts. “And I wonder if this is the year the curse will befall our family.”

“You don’t actually believe in that silly story, do you?” Ina asked. “I don’t.”

“Why not? Every grandmother in our line has died on Christmas Eve. Granny’s not looking too great, and today’s Christmas Eve.”

“Oh, shut up,” Ina said. She threw a dirty rag at me. “Besides, it’s not every grandmother. Just every other.”

“Okay, yeah. Every other. As in ours.”

Ina ignored me, and I returned my attention to the mantle. One grape on the right side was particularly grimy, and I rubbed it harder with the cloth.

“Damnit,” I muttered. “Get clean.”

“Language,” Ina scolded.

I shot her a dirty look, but she just returned it with an innocent one of her own. Damn Ina and her prudishness. It’s not like I’d said fuck.

I returned my attention to the grape. I pushed down with the rag, and the grape depressed into the mantle. Fear froze my body, icing its way from my head to my toes. I broke the carvings.

With shaking hands, I brought the rag away from the mantle. Ina hummed to herself behind me, lost in dusting the baseboards. At least she’d stopped talking.

The grape was pushed down deep, far lower than the other grapes around it. But, a small drawer had also opened beneath it, cutting through the chest of one of the dancing men.

Relief flooded me. I hadn’t broken it. I wouldn’t get into trouble.

A rustling noise behind me made me turn around. Grandma shuffled into the room, her slippers scuffing on the hardwood floor. She was bent and crooked, her figure imposing and terrifying even in its twistedness. I didn’t want to be afraid of her, but I couldn’t help it. She’d never been overly affectionate, which had led to my never really bonding with her. And now she was just a scary old woman whose temper got worse with every task she was no longer able to do herself.

I looked into the little drawer before she could make her way across the large room. A small key lay nestled inside. I grabbed it, and slid the drawer closed as quietly as I could. It closed with a small snap as the grape popped back into its normal position.

With a sigh of exhaled anxiety, I pocketed the key. I’d look at it later. For now, a semi-blind old woman was picking her way through the living room toward me.

“Not breaking things again, are we?” Grandma said. Her voice was thin and ancient, its sound even more grating than Ina’s despite its softness.

“No, Grandma. Just cleaning,” I said.

Ina popped up from the floor and held out the dusty rag. As if Grandma could see it.

“We’re doing just fine, Grandma” Ina said. “But thanks for checking on us.”

“Hmmph,” Grandma said. She began her slow scuffle back toward the door.

Ina and I stayed still, watching Grandma’s retreating back. I felt bad for the woman. No matter how intimidating I found her, she was still just an old woman trying to do the best she could and being told it wasn’t good enough. But those charitable thoughts were easier to have when she wasn’t staring at me, demanding answers.

I turned the key over and over in my pocket, waiting for her to leave. Waiting for the opportunity to look at it better.

The key was black and ornate. Heavy. Old. It lay in the palm of my hand in a shaft of moonlight streaming through a crack in the shutters, its heft more than I’d have ever expected from a key so small. It was barely half the length of my pinky finger.

Ina, Marie, Jessie, and Toni slept on the other futons in the bedroom we always shared. Their breath came regular and even. I risked life and limb by climbing my way through the minefield of spread-out cousins on the floor. The door creaked slightly as I opened it. I froze, held my breath for a few beats, but no one in the room stirred. I shut the door behind me. It didn’t creak going the other way, and it closed with a quiet click.

The long hallway lay dark before me, suggesting I return to the safety of the bedroom. But the key weighed in my hand, a promise of adventure and novelty in a house that had seen little of that my entire lifetime.

I’d never seen a mysterious locked door in this house, but I was determined to find it. If the key was hidden, the door may be too. I’d start with the fireplace.

For over an hour, I pushed on each knob and whorl, each carving and ornament. No dice. Strangely, even the grape that had spat out the hidden drawer at me was no longer working.

The grandfather clock in the corner struck midnight. I whirled around at the sound, heart pounding. The chiming mocked my inability to find that which was hidden.

I leaned against the mantle, hoping it would open a secret panel in the walls like I’d seen in so many movies, but the walls stayed firmly shut. I picked up each candlestick and nick-knack on the mantle, but each came away easily. I stifled a frustrated groan.

I flopped onto the couch in defeat. I sat until the grandfather clock chimed the half hour.

A shuffling noise down the hallway stirred my attention. I turned my head toward the noise as it grew louder, making its way through the darkened house and into the parlor where I sat.

My grandmother was even more terrifying in the dark. Her head was shrouded in a scarf, her white nightgown flowed behind her, both giving her a wraith-like appearance. If it weren’t for the scuffling of her feet, I’d have thought her a figment of my imagination.

“The door’s over here, dearie.” She pointed with her arthritic fingers toward the wall behind the television stand. No wonder I hadn’t been able to find it.

“Thanks, Granny,” I said. A little part of me suggested caution, but I hopped off the couch anyway and slid the stand away from the wall as carefully as I could. Only one small Santa fell off, his face contorted in the darkness into a scowl, censuring me for disrupting his slumber.

Grandma pushed an invisible spot on the wall and a false panel opened up, just like I’d hoped for. It revealed a wooden door, unimpressive and plain with a black lock that matched the key in my robe pocket. I’d been expecting something a little more exciting, but my hand automatically reached out, stuck the key into the lock, and turned it. That, at least, gave a satisfying ka-thunk as it turned.

I finally hesitated, a pit growing in my stomach. How had Grandma known what I was doing?

This had all felt so natural, her coming to help, my willingness to follow along. The magic of midnight hours made the strange feel normal, and hid the truth too well. A pang of fear jolted through me, and the certainty that I needed to be back in bed overwhelmed me.

I looked back at my grandmother, who smiled at me, a leer in the shadows of the dark. I opened my mouth to say goodnight, to leave this room and go back upstairs, but my body betrayed me. I smiled back, and I opened the door.

Behind was pitch black. Cold seeped out, giving the feeling of a large space. Impossible. My brain was churning out information about how on the other side of the wall was the dining room and there shouldn’t be space for a cavern inside the house, while my body swayed on the threshold.

Despite the chill, the unknown beckoned me. Something inside of me screamed at me to shut the door and leave, but I couldn’t have ignored the pull if I tried. The room drew me inside.

Grandma followed me in, her scuffling feet right behind me. I felt her clawed hands on my back, shoving me further in. And I felt the floor rising up to meet me as I tumbled into the dark.

Pale light from a weak winter sun streamed through the parlor windows, hitting my eyes and waking me. I hadn’t meant to stay here all night, but dragging my old body down the hallway and into bed had left me too exhausted to bother mounting the stairs and then picking my way through Carla’s cousins and into her own bed.

My bed now.

Granny had died in her sleep, on Christmas Eve, just as every other matriarch of the family died. The Family Curse, they called it.

A gift, I called it.

I slipped the key back into the secret drawer in the mantle, ready for the next generation to find.