Excerpt: Into the Caldera

Here’s a scene from my latest novel, Into the Caldera. It’s a psychological thriller (my first in this genre).

As she walked through the young stand of trees that hugged the eastern side of the mountain, the fog slowly receded. The pines, muted in the blanketing fog, emerged more distinct and pristine. Jenn saw the life in them, the green needles on their branches were brighter, sparkled even.

Above her the pale gray grew brighter until the clouds began to break up and the sun began to poke through in the spots between them. At one point a bright beam of light shined through the branches and warmed her covered shoulders as she paced along the trail. A new life emerged from within her. She could feel it. She welcomed it. The tragedy of the past few months had diminished in her eyes, she had put the fear and anger to rest. She could feel her face smiling in the sudden sunlight.

By the time she emerged from the trees onto the scramble of lava rocks that dotted the southeastern side of the mountain, she felt elated, free. For the first time since the early summer, she had a positive feeling about the future. She felt empowered for having removed the two biggest threats to her sanity. She didn’t regret what she had done. She embraced it. She was ready to move on.

She stood for a moment on the first big rock and looked over the endless field of dark, scraggly rocks that made the path forward difficult. She didn’t dread the exhausting ups and downs that awaited her. She welcomed the challenge. She’d move forward in her life gladly accepting any challenge thrown her way because she had overcome one of the greatest ones any person could face – meeting her tormentors head on and getting justice for the wrong they had done to her.

She reached for her water bottle, which was disappointingly light, and took the last few swallows of water she had. The warming air made her thirsty, and the sun threatened to stay out the rest of the day as the clouds scattered and disappeared above her. She twisted the cap onto the empty bottle and pushed it back into the pocket on her pack without taking her eye off the rock field before her. She still felt thirsty.

She tensed her body to climb onto the next rock when she heard something – a snap of a twig in the forest behind her as if someone had come upon her on the trail. Her head swiveled back toward the path from which she had emerged minutes ago. Even in the sunlight, shadows shrouded the trail. She strained her eyes to peer into the dim light.

Her heartbeat quickened. She could feel it in her throat.

“Hello!” She regretted yelling aloud the moment the word left her mouth. The echo of her voice haunted her. She stepped down from the first rock and re-entered the path heading heading back the way from which she had come. She stopped as her eyes adjusted and looked in every direction. She could see nothing but the trees and rocks she had traversed just a moment ago. No one was around. She held her breath and listened intently. Nothing.

Satisfied that her mind was playing tricks on her, she bounded out of the trail and back up onto the rock. She looked back at the trail through the forest one more time before she bounced to the next rock and another. At first, she maintained a swift pace, jumping from rock to rock and quickly scrambling up larger rocks, but after just a few minutes, her thighs throbbed and her breathing became labored. She paused and looked back. She hadn’t gone that far despite the exhaustion she felt. She looked ahead and became dispirited at the sight of the endless rock field. She started again and stopped, a pattern that continued for what seemed like an eternity.

When she neared the end of the rock field and could see another stand of trees before her, she stopped and braced herself atop one of the larger rocks wedged into the side of the mountain. She wiped the sweat from her brow and shrugged the heat from the sun off of her shoulders. Her heavy breathing slowly settled as she stood still. She reached for her water bottle but withdrew her hand once she remembered that it was empty. Her parched throat begged for water. She scanned the area for any natural water sources – a stream like the one they had drunk from earlier, but the dry, barren rock bed seemed to repel life.

A panic rose in her chest. She needed water. The logical side of her brain reasoned that she would soon be back at the Sno-Park, but the irrational child within her screamed in fear. She tamped down the dueling emotions and focused on the path before her. She looked up and surveyed her position relative to the mountain. She could no longer see Mt. St. Helens from her vantage point, but she sensed that she was clearly on the southern side of it. The forest before her, the same one they had entered when they began the hike yesterday suggested that she only had a few miles to go at most.

She felt woozy as if she were teetering on an unsteady rock, but she knew the rock beneath her had been firmly wedged into the earth when Mt. St. Helens erupted long ago. She stutter-stepped backward a little bit and decided to sit down to catch her breath and regain her balance. Sweat still dribbled down her back and across her forehead. A drop of sweat slid into her eyebrow and fell onto her leg. She closed her eyes and leaned forward trying to ward off the dizziness. Yellow spots danced in the darkness of her closed eyelids. She took a deep breath and opened her eyes again. The optimism and determination she had felt earlier had all but faded. She felt troubled and insecure again like something else bad had happened.

A dark shape, something indistinguishable, moved in front of her. She focused her eyes on the trees near the edge of the rocks and tried to discern what it was. Her heartbeat throbbed in her head. She couldn’t see anything other than rocks and then thick, impenetrable trees. She sat stock still and eyed the trees waiting for it to move again. The shadows of the tall trees cast an eerie pall near her. She could smell a creepy dampness like that of a graveyard awaiting her.

A dread overcome her. She had to walk through the forest to get back to the Sno-Park. She felt isolated and alone, and the irrational fears that had once plagued her as a little girl returned. She wanted to stay on the rock in the open air and sun as far away from the darkened forest as she could, but she knew she had to keep going. It was midday, but soon it would be evening and then night and darkness would swallow everything and she would be alone.

She stood up defiantly and pointed her chin toward trees as if she were challenging them to come after her. She gathered herself, put her little-girl fears in the farthest reaches of her mind, and jumped to the next rock and the next until she stepped down onto the soft earthen path leading through the forest. She could do this. She had to do it. She had come this far.

At the mouth of the forest path, she stopped. She looked in every direction among the trees trying to detect any motion that would warn her of danger, but nothing moved, not even the trees. The air refused to fan her as if Loowit somehow disapproved of her actions.

She licked her dry lips and swallowed in spite of her parched throat before she took a tentative step into the forest path. The sunlight dimmed quickly as she made her way through the trees. An occasional beam of sunlight would greet her at a gap in the path, and she’d pause to let it warm her, reassure her.

She moved carefully, purposeful, and kept an eye on the woods that swallowed her whole. She’d hear twigs snap and feel the rush of shadows around her. Her breathing became irregular, rushed, and restrained at the same time. Her heart thrummed in her chest and popped into her ears when the tension became too much. She saw Scott and Marc lingering among the trees with menacing looks on their faces. She’d look away and pick up her pace, but when she looked back, the apparitions were gone, another trick that her subconscious mind played on her. She cursed herself. She cursed Scott and Marc and her tortured path through the judgmental trees.

In a moment of confusion, she thought she was lost. The steady, obvious path beaten by many feet before her became muddled and blended in with the rest of the forest floor. She couldn’t see it as clearly as she had when she had entered the forest earlier. She swiveled around among the trees looking for clear signs of which way to go, but nothing offered her any clues. She panicked. All of the trees looked the same. She felt she had just spent the last hour going in circles. It felt like she had returned to the point she had been earlier. A grave fear washed over her. She braced herself against a tree at her side and closed her eyes to recapture her composure.

Another snapping noise popped behind her. A body brushed against the outreaching limbs. She wheeled around to see what was coming at her, but she could see nothing. She felt like she was being charged from all directions in the dark because, in spite of the sounds, she couldn’t lay her eyes on anything or anyone. She backed against a tree and waited.

Nothing came.

The tension became too much and she cried out in anger and fear. Then, real tears came. She didn’t know why she was crying, but she wailed into the great silence. Her cries pierced the solitude of the forest. She covered her eyes with her hands and slid down the tree at her back until she was sitting on the ground leaning into her angled knees. Her shoulders heaved in spite of the weight of her pack that was wedged against the tree behind her. She could feel the damp, cool earth beneath here, but it didn’t make her feel any better.

She didn’t know how long she sat there crying aloud among the trees. She peeked out from behind her hands. The same still, dim light greeted her, but nothing had charged her or had come near her. She felt foolish, scared by her own overactive imagination. She’d had the same problem as a little girl, but she thought she had outgrown that. Maybe not.

More thoughts about Scott and Marc crept into her mind, but she shooed them away. She didn’t want to think about them anymore. When she got back to the Sno-Park, she would drive to the nearest police station and report what had happened, and then, she was not going to think of them anymore. She would put them out of her mind forever, close the book on this awful chapter of her life and burn it.

She bent over and placed her hands on the damp ground and pushed herself up to a standing position. Her pack threatened to topple her over, but she widened her stance and regained her balance. The path that had been hidden just moments before became clear again, and she took a determined step forward. She wiped her eyes and nose with the back of her hand. She felt oddly relieved in spite of her momentary breakdown.

The trail widened and took a sharp turn left. The trees were taller here and the spaces between them were wider. She sensed that she was truly familiar with this part of the trail, and hope surged within her. Was it familiar because she had remembered it from the beginning of their hike? She couldn’t be sure, but she was very hopeful. This nightmare was finally coming to an end.

Her pace quickened. Every turn brought her closer to the parking lot. Every turn gave her hope that she’d finally get out of this god-forsaken forest. She’d never come back here. Never. Despite the good memories she had hiking the trail with her father as a little girl, Scott and Marc had forever ruined it for her. They had ruined a lot of things, but they had definitely killed the luring beauty and wonder of Mt. St. Helens. To come here again would be like trying to cheat fate or taunting the spirit of Loowit.

She hurried along the trail hugging the twists and turns as if she were racing back to the parking lot. She heard something again like someone running to catch up with her. Her heart jumped into her throat, and her breath hitched. She broke into a run. The loose dirt and rocks beneath her feet skittered from her pounding boots. She almost lost her footing at one sharp turn, but when she regained traction, she sped up. Whatever was coming for her would have to catch her and claw her to the ground. Her pulse thumped through her body – she could feel it in her head, her chest, and her hands as if her body could barely contain it.

The trail winded through the forest haphazardly turning left and right without any rhyme or reason. She fretted in her mind that whoever had created the trail had been either drunk or a joker. The noises behind her receded and surged again but her frantic pace remained the same. Sweat dribbled down her back and dampened her armpits. The weight of her pack slammed against her shoulders at each hairpin turn.

A long straightaway appeared before her. It felt like the homestretch, the last length of the trail before she entered the parking lot. She picked up speed and covered the length of the board-straight path quickly. Just as she turned right at the end of the straights section, she ran head on into something or someone. She stumbled back and the weight of her pack forced her to the ground. Her rear end hit the earth hard. She yelped in pain, her vision momentarily blurred by sweat and the stunning realization that she had run into someone.

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