Excerpt: Into the Caldera

Here’s another excerpt from my current novel-in-progress, Into the Caldera. The somber, desolate mood should jump from the page. Does it?

A loud crack startled him awake. He sat up on his elbows in the tent and looked around, but his head felt like dead weight. A dizziness blurred his vision. He managed to listen for more sounds. An eerie quiet fell over the camp site in the dull light of early morning. Through foggy eyes, he searched for shadows beyond the tent, but he could discern nothing in the pale light. He dropped his head back to the ground onto the puffy, cool cloth of his sleeping bag and squeezed his eyes shut. The hangover from last night crushed him to the ground. He moaned slightly and pulled the top of the sleeping bag up to his chin to ward off the morning chill.

Behind his eyelids he searched for memories of last night to explain how awful he felt at that moment, but his mind resisted his best efforts. He turned to his side facing the wall of the tent closest to him and curled up as if parts of him would fall away if he didn’t hold himself together. He kept his ears open for more sounds. Silence. He drifted into the fog of half-sleep.

Movement to his back finally forced him to open his eyes again. He felt something pressed against his back like a foot or a knee. His position became uncomfortable with the weight against him, so he turned back and scanned the twisted, malformed lump of sleeping bags for Marc and Jenn. Neither was immediately identifiable in his blurry vision, so he reached down and grabbed the thing pressing against him.

Jenn moaned when he pushed against her knee. He moved it away and she put it back against him.

“Jenn,” he whispered, not wanting to wake Marc or really say anything too loud in his state.

Another moan.

He pushed her knee away again. This time he moved it further away from him and shifted his sleeping bag closer to the wall opposite her.

A ball of blonde hair pushed up through the tangled sleeping bags. Her heavy, unfocused eyes struck him. “What are you doing?” she asked, her voice hoarse.

“Your knee is in my back.”

She moaned and flopped back down on the sleeping back. She shifted away from him and pulled the sleeping bag over her head. He watched her twitch around, and then, he realized something was missing.

“Where’s Marc?”

No response.

“Jenn…Jenn.”

“What?”

“Where’s Marc?”

She sighed but didn’t respond immediately.

“Is he up already?”

Finally, she said, “I don’t know.” She sounded groggy and drunk, her voice muffled by the sleeping bag.

Scott sat back up on his elbows and tried to clear his head as he looked around the tent as if Marc had been there all along but had been hiding. He gained some sense of balance and unzipped his sleeping bag flipping back the top to extricate himself. He felt momentary relief that he was still fully clothed. At least he didn’t embarrass himself last night like the first time he had taken ecstasy. He still vowed to himself to never take the pills again. The morning after was too brutal and he couldn’t remember any fun he may have had. What was the point?

He carefully crawled over Jenn’s outline in the rumpled sleeping bags and zipped open the door to the tent. He poked his head out. Drizzle speckled his head as a dreary morning greeted him. The gray light spilled across the camp site giving everything a somber, beaten look. The upturned kettle lay beside the damp, cold fire pit. His and Jenn’s packs lay between the tent and the fire pit. Some random garbage next to the fire pit bristled under the drizzle giving the impression that it was about to fly away, but there was no wind to speak of.

Scott scanned the area looking for any signs of Marc. He looked for Marc’s pack, but it, too, was missing. He unfolded himself from the entrance to the tent and stood straight up into the drizzly air and stretched his full height emitting a slight groan. Standing up revealed nothing new. Marc was nowhere within his line of sight.

“Jenn.”

When he received no response, he looked back through the entrance to the tent to see if she had even moved. She had not.

“Jenn, get up. Marc is not here. His pack is gone, too.”

A guttural groan rose from the tent.

“Did he say anything to you last night about hiking early in the morning?” Scott asked in spite of her resistance to be awake.

“No…I don’t remember anything.”

A thought hit Scott and he poked his head back into the tent. Marc’s sleeping bag was completely unzipped and unfolded to be used like a large blanket in the mass of material on the tent floor.

“Did he even come to bed last night?” Scott asked.

“I don’t remember.” The agitation in her voice was palpable.

Scott stood up again and scanned the area around them. The light drizzle had dampened his hair slightly. He shook his head and drops flew in every direction. He slicked it back with his hand.

He cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled, “Marc!”

He waited.

“Marc!”

“Damn it, do you have to be so loud!” Jenn yelled from the tent.

Still no response.

“Where the hell is he? We have plenty of water.” He ran through a list of possibilities in his head.

Jenn finally crawled out of the sleeping bags and sat at the entrance to the tent. Scott paused when he saw her as if she startled him. “Why are you wearing Marc’s shirt?”

She looked down as if she were surprised, too. “I don’t know. I guess I must have grabbed it last night in the dark or something.”

She had on her shirt beneath it. Scott could see that, but Marc’s shirt was a button-up flannel one, not something someone just threw on. She had put it on and buttoned it up except for the top two buttons.

“Did he give it to you because you were cold?”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember. Last night is a blur.”

Scott strained to remember what had happened last night. He paused and looked at the damp ground beneath his feet. He had trampled over the dirt in his pacing, but he strained to discern any footprints other than his own. Footprints criss-crossed over the dirt and spotty grass. Frustrated, he looked up and scanned the horizon slowly. No movement as far as he could tell. A dull ache filled his skull and he winced as if someone had struck him across his head. Each beat of his heart reverberated through his brain. He tried a deep breath to contain his anxiety, but it only magnified the encroaching headache.

He looked at Jenn who sat at the entrance to the tent braced against her arms. She looked dissociated with the present as if she were dreaming with her eyes open. Scott walked back to the tent and leaned in to get past her.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“We have to wait and see if he comes back. I’m laying down. My head hurts.”

He crawled over to his side of the tent, which seemed dark and dreary in the pale light, and flopped down on top of his sleeping bag. He lay there for a moment before he shuffled around and slid back into the cocoon of warmth. The drizzle still persisted outside the tent. He could hear a faint patter from the rain drops. He closed his eyes and he felt movement as Jenn lay back on the blankets beneath her.

“Can you zip that shut?” Scott asked her without opening his eyes. He could feel the damp air drifting into the tent and the chill made him feel exposed. He felt her move again and heard the familiar whine of the zipper as it closed up the tent. She sighed as she made herself comfortable on the other side of the tent. She kept a distance from him that would have alarmed him had he not been worried about his friend and hungover.

He told himself that all he could do was wait. If Marc had taken a hike, he’d be back at the campsite at some point. Looking for him was pointless. The vast space that surrounded them offered countless paths. His groggy skull was too cloudy to think much or even attempt to guess which way his friend had gone.

His eyes pulsed to the blood flowing through his skull. He buried his head into the cool fabric of his sleeping bag and begged for sleep to take him. He just needed to rest and then he would find his friend, or maybe, Marc would be back by the time he woke up. These thoughts tortured him as he drifted into a fitful sleep.

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