Concept: Pine Mountain

The worn gravel popped under his tires as he turned off the main artery that winded through Pine Mountain and snaked its way toward the mountain from which the town borrowed its name. Eric Slater peered off into the distance before his car completed the turn onto his mother’s driveway, beyond the sway of the southern pines that crowded against the road, and eyed the mountain’s gentle slopes. Nothing, it seemed, had changed in his hometown, most certainly not the mountain. He had spent his entire childhood in its shadow hoping to one day escape the gravity of its orbit only to find himself at its feet over four decades later.

A smirk tightened his lips. The grit of a long road trip with the top down speckled his teeth, so he wiped them clean with the tip of his tongue. The dry taste unleashed the thirst that had built up over the last few miles after he had exited Interstate 75 and made a beeline toward the small town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians. The driveway dipped and he heard a scraping noise that, at first, made him wince for his car, but then, he realized he didn’t care anymore. He throttled the accelerator and pulled through the washed out section of the driveway until he climbed the hill and nosed the car into a shade near the edge of the old porch.

He killed the engine and leaned back into his seat exhaling his relief at having finally arrived. His stomach churned, a knot of angst broiled within him. His breakfast hadn’t settled with him too well. Maybe it was true that he could no longer eat greasy diner food without any remorse. He stepped out of the car and hesitated just a moment before he took the four steps onto the porch. If his mom was at home, she hadn’t noticed a visitor, or she was avoiding him. He hoped she wasn’t home.

He took in the old house, inhaled the scent of rotten wood and southern pine that surrounded him. The house, his childhood home, had been built by his great grandfather back when the town was first settled. His grandfather had tacked on a few rooms including a bathroom that had clearly been an afterthought. His father had simply maintained it, replacing old clapboard when it needed it and adding a fresh coat of white paint every so often.

Eric loved and hated the old house. He loved the grand, wide porch that hugged two sides of the house. He and his brother, Robert, had spent many days on the porch playing or waiting out the inevitable southern gully washers that struck during the long, hot summers. He could still see the steam rising off the earth and smell the pristine air cleansed after a hard rain. He took a deep breath trying to capture the wonder of so many years ago. He needed something to remember fondly.

Surprised that his mom still had not acknowledged she had a visitor, he shook himself free of his recollection and stepped toward the rickety screen door and pulled the handle. The warped, wooden door rattled in place but refused to budge. He looked inside the screen and could see that it was latched. The screen door had never been latched in all of his memories of his childhood. That thing had swung freely and wildly in every single thought he had about the old house. He distinctly remembered how it had clattered loudly when he stomped out for the last time so many years ago. It had played prominently in the soundtrack of his early life, but it had never been bolted shut.

He looked at the door on the other side with its rippled glass panes. Yellowed curtains covered the windows, and flakes of white paint shimmied across its surface. He held his breath for a moment and listened. Nothing. He looked back at his car, and, for a brief moment, felt tempted to drive off without a word, but he had nowhere else to go. All of his options had been exhausted. That was the only reason he stood on his mother’s porch at that very moment.

Instead, he turned back toward the bowed screen door and knocked on it. The door clacked and rattled in its frame making more noise than his pathetic knock. After the noise dissipated, he listened for footsteps on the other side. He knew the creaky plank floor announced every single step loudly, so he’d hear his mom approach. Again, he heard nothing. He knocked again but much harder. The sound could have raised the dead.

After a few seconds of unnerving silence, he heard someone stir on the other side. Slow, heavy steps made their way to the door. The curtain parted and he could see his mom’s face, or at least a much older version of his mom’s face, through the mottled glass. She didn’t smile or seem surprised. She wore the peeved look of a woman dealing with an unwanted door-to-door salesman, but she opened the door and stood there behind the latched screen door.

“Eric? What are you doing here?” she asked. Her voice creaked like the old house. She too had been worn down by time. She had white hair now and had put on a lot of weight. Her skin, always brown and weathered from so many summers spent in the fields, looked pale and dry like the red Georgia clay cracked by an endless drought. She stood slightly stooped as if the weight of her life had begun to win the battle of attrition.

“I wanted to come see you.”

“Why didn’t you call first?”

“I-I didn’t think I needed to.”

“I wish you would have called. I’m not ready for visitors.”

Eric didn’t know what to say at first. He just stared at her through the screen. She wore one of those house coats she always wore when she had on a nightgown, but it was just after Noon, well past the time for being dressed for the day.

“Can I come in?” he asked finally.

She looked at him as if he had asked a silly question. “Come on in,” she replied. She opened the door wider as if he needed more room to squeeze by her, but she didn’t touch the screen door.

Eric stood there for a moment and then said, “The screen door is locked.” He nodded to it.

“Oh, sorry, I forget that I keep that locked now.” She fumbled with the latch. Her fingers were swollen and arthritic, so it took her a bit to remove the tiny metal arm of the latch from the eye hole. Eric looked on patiently. He had all the time in the world. There were no calls for him to take. He had no meetings to attend. His email had been disconnected after he had been fired rendering his phone useless for doing anything other than wasting time.

His mother pushed the screen door outward, and he stepped aside and through the door. She turned without a word and ambled toward the kitchen. He followed her, taking in the house that had at one time been as familiar to him as the back of his hand. It felt strange to be home again after so long. Everything looked the same, but it was different.

“Where’s that wife of yours? What’s her name, Carla?”

“Carmen.”

“Is she not with you?”

“No, she’s back in New York.”

Eric didn’t offer an explanation and his mother didn’t ask for one.

“You want some sweet tea?”

“Sure.” He salivated at the thought of her tea even after all of these years. He could still remember how it tasted on his lips.

He stepped into the kitchen behind her and she padded toward the refrigerator slowly. He took a seat at the shaky, metal table that had served as the dining room for the three of them for his entire childhood. The rubbery seat still felt as uncomfortable as it had when he was a petulant teenager. He still hated how the table had a perpetual glaze of stickiness to it that pinched at his skin, but something about that cramped kitchen with its steel sink and drippy faucet and the dank old refrigerator that rumbled in the corner made him feel like he belonged, like he had found what he was looking for. He allowed a smile to form on his lips, but he quickly suppressed it when his mother turned around with the jug of tea in her hand. He’d save it for another day when, or if, things ever got better again.

Scene: The Encounter

The main characters in my current novel, Into the Caldera, have a chance meeting at a party that alters the course of their lives. Jenn, the protagonist or antagonist depending on how the story is viewed, meets Scott and Marc although she’s too high to really remember much. The scene is written from her altered point of view.

The sky grew brighter despite the deepening night. The music not so much confronted her as penetrated her like Ron had done earlier. Every guy at the party leered at her, made suggestive comments, and lapped at her breasts like the thirsty dogs they were. She felt like she walked on the air beneath her feet. Her body thrummed, titillated with each step she took. Her arm brushed against another girl’s bare arm, and she felt a rush of desire. The girl, equally drunk or high, smiled lazily at her and apologized, but Jenn wanted to kiss her and taste the beer on her lips. Only her stumble into the crowd stopped her from pushing herself upon the girl.

Nicole came up to her and steadied her in the ebb and flow of the crush of bodies.

“Jenn, you’ve had too much.”

“What?”

“You’ve had too much Molly and beer.”

“There’s no such thing.” Her words felt coherent and sharp, but she didn’t recognize the sound of her voice.

“You need some water.”

“I want another beer. And a Molly.”

“No.”

Jenn focused her eyes on her friend. Anger flushed her face. “Why not?”

“You’ve had enough. Besides, I’m out.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I gave the last one to Hannah.”

The name reverberated in her head, but Jenn couldn’t process it. “Holly?”

“What?”

“What the fuck is Holly doing here?”

“Not Holly. Hannah. Who’s Holly?”

“Oh.” Jenn looked at the blur of faces past Nicole and shook her head. She felt her heart speed up like a rocket in her chest.

“Who’s Holly?”

Jenn came back down to the moment. “She’s that tramp Ron’s dating now.”

Nicole shook her head. “Oh, her.”

“She’s a tramp.”

“We should go.”

“This party is still hot…”

“It’s 2 AM.”

“Seriously?” Jenn pulled her phone from her pants pocket, but it fell to the floor. Nicole bent down with her to retrieve it. Jenn nodded her head as Nicole handed her the phone. She widened her eyes to see the time displayed on the lock screen. “Damn. Where’d the time go?”

“I’ll take you home.”

“No.”

“Jenn, I’m going over to Aaron’s place. I don’t want to leave you here alone. Let me take you back to our apartment and then I’ll go to Aaron’s.”

“I don’t want to go.”

“You’re rolling, Jenn. You shouldn’t be left here alone.”

“I’m not alone. I have the girls.” She thrust her hand out toward the door leading to the patio and hit a passing guy on the shoulder. “Oh, sorry.” The guy looked at her and smiled, but he kept walking.

“The girls are already gone. They’ve hooked up.”

“All of them.”

“Pretty much. This party is winding down.”

Jenn scanned the room around them. Bodies still crammed into most available space. Only a narrow path winded through the room to let people pass. “It still looks strong to me.”

“You’re high.”

“I’m fine. Go on and fuck Aaron. Fuck your brains out. I’ll be fine.”

Nicole exhaled a laugh. “Are you sure?” She sounded genuinely concerned, but Jenn didn’t want to interfere with her friend’s hookup.

“Have an orgasm for me.”

Nicole laughed out loud. “Those are only for me!”

She leaned in and hugged Jenn. Her hair still smelled good despite the sweaty volleyball game they had played earlier. When they parted Nicole said, “Call an Uber and text me when you get back to the apartment.”

Jenn wobbled a little in place. “Yes, mother!”

“Jenn,” Nicole sighed sounding exhausted.

“Okay, I’ll keep you informed of my whereabouts.”

“Thank you.”

Nicole gave her one last hug before she pivoted and allowed the crowd to swallow her. Jenn watched her best friend disappear from sight before she scanned the sea of heads that bobbed around her. In that brief moment when she was alone, she felt like the only one at the party. A chill ran up her spine and goose bumps perforated her arms.

“Hi, I’m Scott, and this is Marc,” said a voice she could not see. She turned and two tall, lanky guys stood before her. Both had longish, scraggly hair and boyish faces so young looking that she thought that some high schoolers had crashed the party.

She tried to steady herself and make sense of where she was, but she drew a blank, so she said the only thing she could think of, “I’m Jenn. I’m leaving.”

Excerpt: Into the Caldera

Here’s another excerpt from my current novel, Into the Caldera. It’s a work-in-progress that I’m currently revising.

Jenn startled awake in ink-black darkness. She raised her hand to rub her aching head, but she couldn’t see it until she held it a few inches from her face, and even then, it didn’t feel like her hand. Her head throbbed in the worst way, a hammer came down with each heart beat smashing any coherent thoughts she had.

She didn’t know where she was. Her shoulder sat against something hard on her right side – a door? The space smelled like sour laundry that had been festooned with sweat and left to mold in a confined space. The distinct scent of worn shoes surrounded her. She fanned out her left arm and felt multiple pairs of shoes next to her – a closet? She reached up but felt nothing. Then, she sat up levered against her outstretched arms and felt the bottoms of shirts and pants hanging above her. The darkness bewildered her.

She struggled to clear the cobwebs from her mind as she sat there in some closet in some room somewhere. She remembered Nicole leaving. Two faces, men, no boys, hung in her memory. Their names lingered on her tongue, but she couldn’t recall them. The rest of the memory blurred into the dim lights and loud music like when she had spun around in her mother’s yard as a kid. She sat shrouded in silence.

She reached for her phone in her pocket, and that’s when she realized she wasn’t wearing her pants. A blanket covered her legs and she pushed it down feeling around for her pants, but all she found were more shoes scattered around her. She panicked and sat up all the way bumping into the door next to her as she leaned forward to grasp for her pants. Nothing.

Feeling her hands along the door, she found the edge and slid it open to more darkness. A very faint light from outside a window in the room provided the only ambient light, but she still could not determine where she was. She tensed as she scanned the darkness to determine if anyone else was present. She couldn’t tell.

She pushed herself up scraping the bottom of the clothes with her back as she stepped out of the closet. Putting one hand on the wall, she glided along the grainy surface until she found a light switch. The tentative overhead light had only one bulb, and it pulsed before it brightened the room entirely. Nevertheless, any amount of light hurt her eyes and she squeezed them shut. She finally forced them open onto the empty room.

The messy, sparsely-furnished room smelled musky, an odor that drowned out the sweat-stained clothes and sour, earthy shoes in the closet. The small bed sat unmade with a twist of sheets and blankets that exposed the top of the mattress. A dinky desk sat next to the bed piled high with books and papers in no particular order. The stained, worn carpet scratched her bare feet. It took a moment to focus her eyes on the floor beneath her.

Her bra lay tangled on the floor next to the bed and her pants, likewise turned inside out, were strewn beside it. She felt her chest beneath her shirt and her bare nipples poked through. A flash of embarrassment consumed her. She couldn’t remember anything except those two boyish faces that had greeted her after Nicole had left. Did she have sex with them? She feared the answer but couldn’t conceive one.

After she put on her bra and slid into her pants, she pulled out her phone and checked the time, her hands trembling as if she were wracked by fear. It was just after 6 AM, and from what she could tell, she was still in the SAE house; although the room did not look familiar. She found her shoes on the other side of the bed and slipped them on before she tentatively opened the door and gaped at the empty hallway.

She didn’t see anyone until she reached the front room. A couple slept intertwined on one of the sofas. The guy snored loudly, but the woman next to him slept so deeply that the guttural sound didn’t seem to bother her. Jenn paused at the edge of the room and rubbed her throbbing forehead. She could hardly think, but she needed to get back to her apartment.

When she pulled out her phone again, she winced at the brightness of the screen as she scrolled to find her Uber app. A few taps of the screen told her she had six minutes before her car would arrive, so she shuffled toward the kitchen to get some water to soothe her scratchy throat. Every cabinet she opened revealed more or less random things – an opened bag of chips, disposable plastic containers, an apron – but no cups.

Dirty plastic cups littered the countertops, but she wanted a clean one. Finally, she gave up and took one of the cheap cups from the counter and cleaned it hurriedly under lukewarm water from the faucet. Satisfied that she had cleaned it thoroughly, she filled it with cold water and took big gulps until she had drained it. The water felt good to her throat. She drank another cup full before she put it back in its spot on the counter.

Her app told her that her driver was three minutes away. As she walked by the couple of the sofa, the woman let out a moan or a sigh and it startled her. She stopped in her tracks, but the woman remained asleep. Jenn didn’t know why she cared if she woke the woman or not, but she quietly opened and shut the door as she slid out into the cool morning air. Her phone buzzed indicating that the Uber was approaching.

She walked to the curb. Cars littered either side of the wide street parked in silence waiting for their owners to wake up, likely hungover, and claim them for the ride home. As her Uber pulled over in front of the SAE house, she greeted the driver and took a seat in the back. She found that talking made her head hurt worse, so she kept her conversation to a minimum. She had never been so thankful to have a quiet driver. She sat back and closed her eyes. Her whole body ached, but sitting down made her aware that her thighs hurt. She felt an intense pain between her legs as if she had been rubbed raw. She put her hand there and quickly pulled it away.

She couldn’t remember what had happened. Once again the images of the two boys popped in her head. What were their names? Scott and…Marc? A chill rappelled down her spine and a tightness squeezed her chest making her head throb even more. Something had gone terribly wrong. She felt like she had just walked into a dark alley with shadowy figures lurking around her. She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead as a panic consumed her.

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.

Excerpt: Into the Caldera

The following is a dream sequence from my latest novel-in-progress, Into the Caldera. Warning: explicit language.

Scott opened his eyes slowly. His head felt like it was in a vise and pounded with each heartbeat, so he stayed stock still hoping to get through the pain. He stared up through the dome of his tent into the slight hue of light creeping into the darkness. The rain canopy blocked his view, but he could feel a slight, cool breeze lapping through the upper vent. He measured a gradual exhale of breath and winced as his head throbbed until he realized there was movement next to him. He slowly turned his head to his right as if each degree of rotation pained him.

In the darkness, whether she could see him or she didn’t care, he didn’t know, but Jenn sat up on top of Marc on the other side of the tent. She wore his long-sleeved shirt, but it was unbuttoned and the edges flapped to her side. Her breasts hung loose over Marc as he ran his hands up her stomach and onto the bottoms of her breasts. He kneaded them as he thrust his hips into her. His sleeping bag was unzipped and the top lay over her hips, but Scott could clearly see that she was naked and that they were having sex right next to him. He started to say something, but his voice didn’t work. He thought getting out of his sleeping bag, but his hands wouldn’t move. He felt like a heavy boulder sat on him.

He just watched. His mouth felt parched as he strained to see them in the darkness, his tongue like sticky paste plastered on his teeth. Jenn looked like she moaned, but he heard nothing. She started moving faster, grinding her hips across Marc’s lap. He thrust harder, pinched her nipples, and ran his hands along her hips. Her hair flailed in the space around her from all the motion until she clutched her hips tight around him and fell on top of him breathing heavily. Despite all the motion, they were remarkably quiet as if the sound had been turned off on some poorly-lit porno.

Scott felt aroused. His own penis pressed against his sleeping bag. In that moment he realized he too was naked, but he couldn’t be concerned with that now. In spite of the fact that his best friend was fucking his girlfriend, he enjoyed watching it. Jenn was as beautiful naked as she was clothed. Her breasts, despite their diminutive appearance, were surprisingly full and firm. He looked over at her laying naked on top of Marc with her head turned away from him. Her breathing seemed muted, but he could clearly see the rise and fall of her excited exhalations. He could see the faint tones of the outline of her body in the pre-dawn light. He wanted to reach out and touch her, to let her know he had seen what she had done, but his head ached like it had never ached before. All he could do was look at them.

He couldn’t be sure because the pain radiated from his skull and made coherent thoughts wilt, but he thought Jenn turned her head while she lay on top of Marc and looked at him in the darkness. The faint glow that permeated the tent cast ominous shadows across her face. He could see her lips, but her eyes were spooky pockets of darkness. She smiled at him, not a friendly smile, but a sinister one, almost a snarl. He wanted to move closer to her to see it. He wanted to ask her what the hell she was doing with his best friend. Another pain sparked through his skull.

Anger displaced his arousal. A burning jealousy rose from the pit in his stomach and set his chest on fire. It competed with his aching skull for attention. The swirl of pain and emotion overwhelmed him. He looked away, his head lolled toward the other side of the tent. His eyelids grew heavy and a fitful sleep found him once more.

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.

Excerpt: Into the Caldera

By the time the three emerged from the dense forest that cupped the southern side of the volcano, the skies began to clear. The foreboding clouds moved east with only an occasional lightning flash in the far distance to remind them of the storm they had endured on the drive from the freeway. The sun made an appearance and bore down on them with the heat that had been expected for a late summer day. The tree cover ended abruptly, and nothing but an open field of dirt and rocks lay before them. Scott was the first to pause to remove the extra shirt he had put on at the car.

“Hold up, guys,” he said behind Marc and Jenn, who had positioned herself in the middle of the single file line that weaved through the rocks.

Jenn turned and looked at him, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing…just want to take off this shirt.”

Marc paused at the base of a large pumice rock. He glanced back at Scott but turned to look ahead without saying anything. Scott sat his pack on the ground and shrugged off the long sleeve shirt. He quickly crammed it into a pocket on his pack. Jenn smiled at him and licked her lips through parted teeth.

“Keep going,” she said nodding to the t-shirt he still wore.

Scott chuckled. “I don’t want to embarrass Marc.”

Marc looked back at them and rolled his eyes. “Let’s get going. I’d like to get to the north side before it gets dark so that we can set up camp.”

“Yes, sir!” Jenn mocked standing up straight in front of Marc and giving a soldier’s salute. Marc rolled his eyes again before he turned to climb up onto the rock next to him.

Scott smiled as he slung his pack onto his shoulders and moved forward. Jenn did the same, and the three resumed walking toward the field of rocks cast to the side of the mountain by the eruption in 1980. The dark brown pumice rocks looked like hardened sponges. They were packed together and had nasty jagged edges that caught shoes and loose clothes as the three navigated the field. Scott looked ahead as far as he could see, and the rocks seemed to go on forever. After only a few minutes of moving up and down between the rocks, his breathing became more labored. Sweat dripped down his forehead. The rambling conversation that Jenn had mostly with herself under the dark canopy of trees they had just left ceased. He could hear her breathing from where he climbed. Marc was further ahead, but Scott assumed he was working hard too. The three focused on navigating the rocks as the irregular gaps and sharp edges threatened their exposed ankles and shins.

On one particularly deep divot between the rocks, Scott scraped his shin. “Fuck!” he yelled as he fell back between the rocks. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

Both Marc and Jenn stopped and turned back to him. “Are you okay?” Marc asked.

Scott grimaced as he held his leg. “Yes, I’m okay. It just stings like a motherfucker.”

“Are you bleeding?” Jenn asked. She seemed a bit eager to see.

Scott took his hand off his leg and looked at his shin. “Not really, it’s just a scrape. Kind of like a paper cut. Superficial but hurts like hell.”

“These rocks are super sharp,” Marc said.

Scott felt annoyed by the obvious, but he released his leg and climbed back up the rock to be on level ground with his companions. “Let’s keep going,” he said taking a step forward. He shook off the pain that lingered in his shin as Marc and Jenn walked past him to continue the hike.

The three hikers continued their meticulous climb over the rocks at the base of Mt. St. Helens. More clouds moved over them blocking the sun, but the clouds were less threatening than the ones that had almost drowned them on the drive to the Sno-Park at the base of the mountain. Scott felt relief from the heat under the clouds as the climb became arduous, not because it was particularly technical but due to the constant up and down movement required to navigate the endless field of boulders. It reminded him of the squat exercises his track coach favored at school. Up and down. Up and down. His thighs ached.

The monotony of the rock field felt magnified by the silence that engulfed them. Marc was always the brooding, silent type. When he and Marc hiked alone, Scott did most of the talking, but Scott wasn’t exactly loquacious. He enjoyed the quiet solitude of hiking in the wilderness. Nevertheless, he also enjoyed the companionship and would force Marc into conversations.

He had only known Jenn for a couple of weeks, and in that time, he had learned that she rarely stopped talking, yet she had only said a few words since they had hiked out of the forest. He didn’t know if it the strenuous act of navigating the rocks had silenced her or if she had finally run out of things to say. She’d certainly said enough on the three-hour drive from Seattle.

He looked ahead at his two friends as they climbed in front of him. Marc, with his strong calves bulging beneath his shorts quickly scaled one rock after another. Jenn bent over as she climbed up with her rear not far from Scott’s face. His ears flushed red as he stared at her ass. He watched her unfold as she conquered the rock and stood up tall.

Scott took in the whole of the young woman above him. She stood at least 5’10’ with long blonde hair that hung down to the bottom of her shoulder blades. She had her hair in a long ponytail that flopped side to side as she moved. She didn’t have really sizable breasts but she had nice curves. Her hips flared out in the tight shorts that hugged her strong thighs. Scott loved her long, smooth legs. They were shapely and muscular. He could tell she was an athlete.

His observations aroused him, and a bulge formed in his shorts. He quickly shifted himself as he ascended the next rock to avoid the outward appearance of a hard-on. He and Jenn had only been hanging out for a couple of weeks, and they hadn’t even so much as kissed. He couldn’t really explain what their status was, but he was clearly turned on by her, and she seemed to relish the attention.

“Do you guys remember the SAE party at the end of the year?” Jenn asked.

Marc looked back at her and Scott looked at both of them as they paused to consider her question. Marc responded first. “I remember that there was a party but that’s all.” He laughed nervously.

“You don’t remember it at all?” Jenn asked.

“Nope,” Marc replied shaking his head. He continued climbing forward.

“We got pretty wasted at that party,” Scott said. “We’d been drinking for a few hours before the party even started. I barely remember arriving at the SAE house.”

“Really?” Jenn said. “I was there.”

“You were?” Scott said. “I don’t remember seeing you there.”

“I remember both of you.”

“Did we meet you at the party?” Scott asked.

“Yes.”

Scott stopped as the other two slowly scurried ahead of him. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” he asked Jenn pointedly.

“I thought you remembered,” Jenn replied. She seemed nervous all of a sudden, but Scott ignored it. She paused a moment as Marc climbed ahead of her.

“It was clear I didn’t remember you. You could have reminded me.”

“I didn’t think about it.” Jenn stood in the divot for a moment as Scott climbed up onto the rock behind her. She stared down at him before she turned and climbed up the next rock.

Scott let it go, but something didn’t add up. Jenn wasn’t telling him the whole story. He fell silent as he tried to remember the night of the SAE party, but it was like a blank spot in his memory. He remembered meeting his friend Sachin, who was a member of the fraternity, to go to the party, but everything else faded into the darkness of his drunken memory.

“Do you two always get that drunk at parties?” Jenn asked.

Scott felt offended. “No, we don’t. That’s the only one.”

“Aww, what fun is that? I thought you two were fun,” she replied.

Marc let out a half laugh but kept hiking forward.

“Well, for starters, I’m on the track team. Kind of hard to workout if I’m hungover,” Scott said.

“Then, why’d you join the fraternity?”

“We didn’t. A friend of ours invited us to the SAE party. We’re not members. We don’t have time for a fraternity.”

“You seemed to fit in that night.”

Scott gave Jenn a puzzled look. “We were just blowing off steam after a hard year. That’s all. It’s not something we’d do normally.”

“What do you do ‘normally’?” Jenn asked making air quotes in front of her as she continued to press forward.

“Marc and I are on scholarships and we’re Computer Science majors, so normally, we’re in the computer lab. That’s about as wild as it gets for us.”

Jenn giggled.

“What’s so funny?” Scott asked.

“You two don’t look like computer nerds.”

“How do we look?” Scott asked.

“Well, Marc looks like some kind of mountain man with that beard and long hair, and you look like a skinny high schooler with that baby face.”

“Gee, thanks,” Scott said. Marc just grunted a laugh without even looking back.

“What?” she said opening her palms and shrugging her shoulders. “I’m not being insulting. You look so young, but you’re not nerdy.”

“I’m 19.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Do you want to see my license?”

“Anyone can get a fake ID.”

Scott sighed in mock annoyance.

“So neither of you remember the party?”

Scott looked at Jenn as she turned to face him. “Nope. Sorry. Is there something we should know?”

Jenn didn’t respond. She just turned and climbed ahead. Scott stared ahead at her butt as she scurried up the rock. He remembered his hard on and his mind drifted to other thoughts. A deep-seated desire throbbed in his head. He tried to shake the thoughts, but each time she bent over in front of him to climb the next rock, he couldn’t help himself.

The clouds had finally moved east and left open a fading blue sky as the sun began to descend. They only had a couple of hours before it set and they were still maneuvering among the rocks. Scott could tell by the profile of the mountain that they had made progress, but it felt like they were climbing over the same rocks over and over again. As the shadows started to grow longer and the fractured north side of St. Helens came into a better view, the rock field faded into a sandy landscape. The three hikers paused to sip from their water bottles.

“That was insane,” Scott said as he looked back at the field of rocks. “I’m glad we’re not coming back this way.”

“There are more on the other side,” Jenn said nonchalantly.

“How do you know?”

“I’ve hiked this before.”

“You have?”

“Yes. I’m from Longview just up the freeway. This was practically my backyard.”

“Why didn’t you say so?”

“I dunno.”

Scott narrowed his eyes at her but smiled. “Is there anything else I should know about you?”

“There are many things you should know about me,” she teased.

Scott laughed. Marc smiled but rolled his eyes at the banter between his best friend and the girl between them.

“If you’re going to be my boyfriend, there’s a lot you need to know,” Jenn added.

Scott paused and smiled nervously. He didn’t know what to say, so he took a long swig from his water bottle.

Marc looked up at the sky and turned to survey the route ahead of them. “We should get moving if we’re going to set up camp further north,” he said.

Scott and Jenn agreed verbally and fell in behind Marc as he climbed up a hill on the trail. The three fell into a single-file line again and remained largely silent. Scott couldn’t shake the idea of being Jenn’s boyfriend. He had hoped for as much, but he felt it unlikely. He watched her walk in front of him and his imagination consumed him.

The rugged trail dipped into a valley between two large rocks and then went vertical. Marc stopped at the top of the trail and surveyed the path. Scott and Jenn paused behind him.

Marc turned to Jenn. “Do you think you can jump across that?”

Jenn looked past him and smiled. “Yep. Of course.”

Marc didn’t seem convinced. “It’s probably four or five feet and you have that pack on your back.” He nodded to her shoulder.

Jenn seemed annoyed by his questioning of her ability. “I jump all the time on the court. I think I can handle this.”

“This isn’t volleyball,” Scott interjected.

“I know that, silly,” Jenn replied.

“Why don’t you go first?” Marc suggested to Jenn.

“Do you want me to hold your pack?” Scott asked.

Jenn smirked. “No, I’ve got this.” She stepped back a few feet and then ran toward the gap. She bolted upward and landed gracefully on the other side of the gap seemingly without effort. Her feet scuttled up some dust that looked like smoke. The late day sun had dried out the rocks already. “I told you.” She crossed her arms and smiled as if she had just defied gravity.

Marc looked surprised, but he turned to Scott and said, “You go ahead.”

Scott backed up and adjusted his pack before he took off running toward the gap. He flew up in the air, but his pack felt like it was pulling him into the gap. He panicked briefly before his feet landed on the crusty rocks and he braced himself on his palms as the force of the pack and his body pushed him to the earth. He stumbled a little as he got up but he was firmly on the other side.

“That was some jump,” Jenn said sarcastically.

“I’m a runner, not a long jumper.”

“I see that.”

Jenn and Scott turned toward Marc on the other side. He backed up further than either of them had. His thick legs pounded the dirt beneath him as he ran somewhat slowly toward the gap. He thrust himself into the air toward the two onlookers, but he didn’t get enough distance to clear the gap. Scott watched him bound up toward him and then disappear beneath the edge of the rock almost in a cartoonish slow motion.

“Marc!” Scott yelled as he ran toward the edge as his friend disappeared from view. He heard Marc thrashing around as he tried to grab anything on this side of the gap to prevent himself from falling. The scrabble of loose rock and the pounding of flesh and bone against rock ended with a solid thud and a loud grunt.

Scott, with Jenn at his back, stopped at the edge of the rock and peered into the gap. Marc lay motionless ten feet below in the gap between the rocks. The shadows prevented him from seeing his friend clearly. “Marc!”