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.

Concept: The Words We Cannot Say

An incessant beeping noise permeates the room, a chirp really, but it’s irritating nonetheless. My nerves are already tattered like an exposed wound, and this noise just puts me closer to the edge of losing it. I take my breaths, just like the therapist said, but they don’t help. I want to punch the machine until it stops, but I don’t want to raise any concerns among the doctors and nurses that come and go from my wife’s room. They’re here to help her, not me, but I wonder how much longer it will be before I need help, too. I cover my eyes with my hands and rub them until I see spots.

“Mr. Soczek,” a slight voice says in the darkness of my palms.

I look up and there’s a nurse standing before me. She’s an older woman who reminds me of my late grandmother, but she has gray hair that is tied back in a ponytail, not the dyed-brown bouffant that my sweet grandmother wore. She smiles slightly as if she’s waiting for me to acknowledge her presence, but the room still spins around us.

“Yes,” I say, and I know I sound exasperated because I am. The last 48 hours have been a roller coaster of emotions. I put my hands on the arms of the chair I’m sitting in as if it will stop the spinning.

“Dr. Kaufman will be here in about 30 minutes.”

“Is that what he said?”

“Yes.”

“Last time he said that, it was two hours.”

“Mr. Soczek, please understand that Dr. Kaufman is a busy man. He has patients all over the hospital. If an emergency comes up, he will be delayed.”

“I understand that, but my wife needs him now.”

“She’s stable now. There’s nothing he can do other than wait to see how she recovers from the surgery. Only time will tell.”

I look past the nurse to my wife laying on her back and unconscious in the bed behind her. Bandages cover her head and part of her face. Her eyes are swollen shut, and a breathing tube snakes down her throat. The chirp of the machine continues, amplified by my anxiety. I think I see her twitch, but my vision is so shaky that I cannot know for sure.

“Mr. Soczek. Mr. Soczek.”

I drift back to the nurse and look at her a moment before I realize she’s still talking to me. “What?”

“Why don’t you go outside and get some air?”

“I don’t need any air. I’m fine.”

“You look like you haven’t slept for a while.”

“Do you know when she will wake up?”

“She has a lot of injuries. It’s best that she sleeps for a while. It will help with the healing process.”

“Is she blind?”

“I don’t know. Dr. Kaufman can discuss the prognosis with you.”

“Is she going to make it?”

“She’s stable now. The worst has passed, but you should discuss this with Dr. Kaufman.”

“When will he be here?”

“As I said, I expect him to be here in 30 minutes or so.”

I run out of questions to ask her. My mind is whirling through the last few days, and the lack of sleep has affected by ability to think clearly. The nurse looks at me for a moment longer as if she expects me to grow another head or something, then, she sighs slightly before she turns and walks away. I slump back into the chair as the door to the room swings shut behind the nurse.

I look at my wife for a moment, and I swear to myself that I see her twitch, so I get up and go to her side. Her bruised and bloodied hands, at least the parts not covered with bandages, lay by her side. Casts are wrapped around both of her arms. An IV needle is taped to her left hand. I look up to the bag hanging by her bed and watch the fluid drip slowly into the funnel that feeds the needle.

The drops remind me of our honeymoon. It rained the whole time we were in Costa Rica. Some days the rain tore through the jungle like angry bees battering the large leaves on the vegetation, and on others, it trickled from the sky and lazily dripped from the gutter above our balcony making a plopping sound that drove us both mad when we tried to sleep at night. It was too hot to close the windows, and since the air conditioning only worked sporadically, we had to choose between the annoying sound or broiling in our own sweat. It wasn’t a great way to begin our marriage.

I turn back to Bree, and a wave of gloom overwhelms me. I gently touch her hand fearing that I might upset the complicated mass of tubes and needles that loop across her body. I find some exposed skin near her pinky and I rub it with my thumb. I wonder what she will say when she wakes up. If she wakes up.

After a moment, I return to the chair, and the weight of the last 48 hours collapses on me. I lean into the back of the uncomfortable chair trying to get some rest. It’s inflexible with a prickly, coarse material that covers a stiff frame. My head lolls against the wall, and I shut my eyes. Sleep beckons me, but I’m afraid to go to sleep. What if Bree wakes up? What if Dr. Kaufman comes by and I’m asleep? I shut my eyes anyway unable to win this battle any longer despite that damn chirping noise.

***

Something startles me awake. When I open my eyes, I’m staring at the ceiling of the hospital room. The hanging ceiling tiles, perfectly square with irregular perforations, look down at me knowingly. An unsettled feeling comes up from my gut and I jerk up into a sitting position. I had leaned over in my sleep and rolled onto my back against the hard, cushioned arm of the chair. My back screams at me and I groan back. I stretch my arms out just as Dr. Kaufman walks through the door.

“Mr. Soczek, you’re awake,” he says. He seems surprised.

“I just dozed off.”

“I came by earlier, but you were asleep. The nurse said you wanted to talk to me.”

It took a moment to process what he said, but then, I remembered I wanted to talk to him about Bree. “How is she?” I shift my eyes from him to my wife, but I return to him when he responds.

“Well, the surgery was successful. She’s stable, but she’s still in serious condition. We managed to stop the internal bleeding. She has multiple fractures, a punctured lung, and both orbital bones are fractured.”

“Is she blind?”

Kaufman stops and looks at me strangely, but maybe it’s just the remnants of sleep affecting my perception of his mannerisms.

“I did not detect any damage to the eyes, but we won’t know for sure until she’s awake.”

“When will she wake up?”

“She’s in a drug-induced coma. We need to keep her that way for a while. She needs to rest to help her body recover.”

“So she won’t wake up until next week, when?”

He gives me another odd stare before he answers. “Let’s give her a few days and see where she is. Then, we can determine when we can back off on the sedatives.”

I breathe a sigh of relief.

“Your wife, she’s a tough lady. I think she’ll pull through this. It may take a while, but she should fully recover.”

I muster the best smile I can for Dr. Kaufman. He nods and glances over at Bree one more time before he ducks through the door and disappears into the hallway. I look over at her and I wonder what she will say when she wakes up.

***

I managed to get away for a bit after the doctor visited us. Since I didn’t have to worry about Bree waking up, I decided to go home, our home, not the place I’d been living for the past few weeks, and clean up. I’d been in the same clothes for several days and hadn’t showered or slept. I felt disgusting. After my shower, I fell onto Bree’s, I mean, our bed and slept for a few hours. I don’t know what time I went to sleep, but when I woke up, it was late morning. I awoke in a panic, but then, I recalled my conversation with Dr. Kaufman and relaxed. Another shower helped.

Before I left to return to the hospital, I called Bree’s parents and her sister and let them know what had happened. I had to apologize repeatedly for waiting so long to call them, but I explained that I’d been out of it because I was so worried about Bree that I didn’t even think to call them. It didn’t help that my cell phone was shot and I hadn’t had time to get another one. Her family lives in Northern California, so it will take them a few hours to get to San Diego to be with Bree. That will give me time to get my shit together.

***

I don’t know what I expected when I returned to the hospital. I guess I thought there’d be more activity in Bree’s room as the doctors worked to bring her back, but when I stepped through the door to her room, all was quiet. She lay there in the darkness with only the faint overhead light illuminating the upper half of her body. I sit down in the uncomfortable chair again and just stare at her. I think of things to say when she wakes up. How do I make this all better?

As I’m rehearsing the things I’ll say in my mind, someone pushes the door to the room open hesitantly, and I see a large man in a tight-fitting sports jacket step into the room. It must take his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness because I don’t think he saw me at first. He looks at Bree and then scans the room until his eyes land on me. He nods and steps toward me. Another man, similarly large, follows him.

“Mr. Soczek?” he whispers.

An anxiety comes over me when I see the badge glimmering on his belt. Police. “Yes,” I reply.

“I’m Detective Swanson, and this is my partner Detective Manous. Can we talk to you out in the hallway for a moment?” He continues to whisper as if he will wake Bree up, but each word he says sends a chill down my spine.

I nod and stand up. I look at Bree one more time before I follow the rotund officers out of her room. They step down the hallway a bit and I join them in a small huddle near the door of the room down the hall from Bree.

“Thank you, Mr. Soczek,” Swanson says.

“You’re welcome,” I reply. “What can I do for you? I’ve given my statement to the police already.”

“I know, and we’ve read through the reports, but we have more questions if you don’t mind,” Swanson says.

I don’t feel like I have any choice, so I nod my head in agreement.

“The report says that you arrived at your home at 10 AM on Tuesday after you didn’t hear from your wife. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“And you two are separated. Is that correct?”

I don’t like the word separated. We weren’t separated. We had just decided to live apart for a while until things settled down. “We were living apart for a bit, but we had planned to move back in together. Things were getting better,” I reply.

“When was that going to happen?”

“Next week.”

“Why next week?”

“I don’t know. That’s just what we decided.”

“When did you decide on that?”

“This past weekend.”

Swanson looks at Manous. Something passes between them, and it raises my anxiety a bit.

“That’s the last time you saw your wife before the incident, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know why anyone would want to hurt your wife?”

“No one would want to hurt her that I know of, but this was a robbery.”

“How can you be so sure?” Manous asks.

“Look at the house, it was ransacked.”

Swanson nods, but Manous doesn’t seem convinced. I fidget in place. My back starts to ache from spending so much time in that damn chair. I hear footsteps behind me, and I look back just as a nurse goes into Bree’s room. My anxiety level rises more.

“How is your relationship with your wife?” Swanson asks.

I pause a moment before I respond. I look from Swanson to Manous and back again. “What do you mean?”

“You lived apart. What happened?”

“We’ve had our ups and downs just like any married couple. We decided to try some time apart to see if that helped us.”

“Helped you?”

“You know, absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

“Did it?” Manous interjects.

“Yes. We are still deeply in love. Our time apart made that very clear.”

Behind me another nurse enters Bree’s room. I feel very anxious. I look behind me as her door shuts. Swanson asks a few more questions and I respond absently. I forget the questions and my answers as soon as they are spoken. I’m worried about what the nurses are doing in her room. I shift in place and a creeping nervousness shimmers down my back.

“I’m sorry detectives, but I need to check on my wife. Do you have any more questions?”

“Not at this moment, but, Mr. Soczek, if you think of anything we should know, please give us a call. Here’s my card.” He extends his hand and gives me a business card. I look at it briefly before I stuff it in the back pocket of my jeans. They smile as I shake their hands before I turn and go back to be with my wife.

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.

Concept: Into the Caldera

My visit to Yellowstone National Park sparked an interesting story concept that I’m still developing. It’d be a new genre for me – psychological thriller. I’m excited about the potential, but it’s far from a full-blown project at this time. Usually, these things have to germinate for a while before I work on them. Below is an excerpt of the idea. More to come…maybe.

Scott Murrow drove into the storm careening left and right as each switchback took him further from the small town of Cougar, Washington and closer to the base of Mt. St. Helens. The Marble Mountain Sno-Park seemed nowhere in sight on the semi-dark highway shrouded by thick pine trees that let little of the light of day through. The sliver of sky above them rumbled with occasional thunder after a streak of lightning in the distance. The rain fell like a curtain before his eyes. He could barely see the nose of his red Dodge Dart as it cantilevered at each turn in the treacherous road.

Scott glanced over to Marc in the passenger seat but said nothing. His best friend stared ahead through the same cloudy windshield, an expression of concern clutched his face. Another switchback forced Scott to return his attention to the road. Silence held inside the car save for the pelting rain drops and the whine of the car’s engine as it climbed the hill.

Finally, Marc broke the silence. “Are you sure this is going to clear up?” he asked not taking his eyes off the road.

“That’s what the weather forecast said,” Scott replied. Another sharp turn grabbed his attention.

“We can’t camp in this,” Marc said. He seemed uncommitted.

“Sure we can. It will pass.”

“Lightning is dangerous. I didn’t come here to get killed.”

“We’ve been planning this all summer. We can’t back out now. I have the permit. We’ve wanted to do this since we came out here. Give it time. It’ll pass.”

“Yeah, Marc. Don’t be a pussy,” Jennifer said. She had been sitting quietly in the backseat, so quietly that Scott had forgotten she was there. She had talked incessantly all the way down I-5 from Seattle, but when they turned off the Interstate, she had stopped talking, almost like she was sulking in the backseat. Scott had looked into the rear view mirror a few times to see what she was doing, but he could only see the side of her face as she stared out the window.

Scott laughed uneasily and glanced at Marc who seemed more annoyed than amused. Marc usually fed off good-natured teasing, but he stayed quiet.

“She’s just kidding,” Scott said to his good friend quietly.

“Okay,” Marc replied without looking at him. He kept his eyes plastered on the wet roadway ahead of them. The pine trees waved frantically at them in the wind as if they were warning them of peril ahead.

Another hairpin turn diverted Scott’s attention momentarily. He regretted bringing Jennifer along. They had just met a couple of weeks ago, and in a rash of excitement he had told her about their trip and invited her along without consulting Marc. He barely knew Jennifer, but he had been friends with Marc for practically his entire life. They’d done many hikes together – just the two of them. They’d been planning this camping trip all summer. It was one of the benefits to moving all the way out to Seattle to attend the University of Washington.

“It doesn’t look like it’s letting up,” Marc said.

“It will. Trust me.”

“You mean trust the weatherman.”

“Yeah, trust the weatherman.”

“You two crack me up,” Jennifer interjected from the backseat. “You worry more than a couple of girls.”

Scott glanced back at Jennifer. He gave her a disapproving look in the hope that she’d be quiet. Jennifer just smiled at him playfully, and then, he remembered why he had invited her. He had never met such a beautiful woman, much less one that was interested in him. For a brief moment, he wondered why exactly she was interested in him. It didn’t make sense. She was clearly out of his league. A turn pulled his attention away.

“Is that the entrance up ahead?” Marc asked.

Scott squinted through the blowing rain. “I can’t tell,” he replied.

Marc leaned closer to the windshield. “I think it is.”

“Geez, you two are blind as a bats. That’s the entrance. Even I can see the sign from back here,” Jennifer boasted.

The men ignored her, but Scott slowed down to take the left turn into the Sno-Park. The rain finally let up as they drove into the park, but the wind still rippled through the trees and the dark clouds cast a ghastly pale light upon them. It was mid-afternoon, but it looked almost like dusk.

As he pointed the car right into the empty parking lot, Scott hesitated. The restrooms were on their left. “Anyone need to go to the restroom?” Scott asked.

“I do,” Marc replied.

“What about you?” Scott asked into the rear view mirror nodding to Jennifer.

“I’m fine.”

“You sure? Once we get on the trail, the woods will be your bathroom,” Scott said.

“I’m sure.”

“Have you ever peed in the woods before?” Scott asked.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Jennifer replied giggling at her own comment.

Scott laughed nervously and nosed the car into the spot in front of the restrooms. Marc jumped out. He watched his friend disappear behind the door of the men’s room.

For a moment, the two remaining passengers were quiet until Jennifer broke the silence. “Look what I have.” She held out an open palm between the front seats. A bunch of colorful pills filled the center of her palm. “Want one or two?”

“What are those?” Scott asked.

“Fun pills.”

“Seriously, what are they?”

“Ecstasy. Fun pills.”

“Are you kidding? We don’t do that shit.”

“Why not?” Jennifer slumped back a little, sulked.

“We just don’t. I’m surprised you do.”

“Only on the weekends when I’m having fun.”

“What about your volleyball scholarship? Won’t they take that away if they find out you’re taking drugs?”

“They have to find out,” Jennifer replied defiantly. She withdrew her hand, but Scott didn’t see where she put the pills.

His regret bubbled up again until Jennifer put her hand on his shoulder and leaned up and kissed him on his neck. “We’ll have fun anyway,” she whispered. Excitement ricocheted down his spine.

Drops of rain splattered across the windshield as a gust of wind waved the trees like dark shadows converging upon them. Marc emerged from the restroom and trotted back to the car.

“All better now. It’s chilly out there. We’ll need our layers for sure,” he said as he shut the car door.

“I hope you packed well for this trip,” Scott said turning back to Jennifer. She smiled at him.

“I have two strong guys to keep me warm. I’m not worried,” she said. Her smile grew wider and her eyes sparkled at him and his friend. Her comment gave him pause but he just laughed it off as he backed the car out of the spot and drove around to the trailhead. He parked in the spot closest to the trail.

“Ready to get started?” Scott asked.

“Let’s go!” Marc replied.

Jennifer said nothing but followed the men out of the car. Scott opened the trunk and pulled out his bright blue backpack. Marc grabbed his dull gray one, and Jennifer pulled hers onto her shoulder in one quick motion. After a few moments of adjusting the straps and testing out the loads, all three seemed ready to go.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Jennifer asked playfully.

“Marc has it all in his head,” Scott said looking at his good friend.

Marc smiled. “Follow me,” he said as he stepped toward the trailhead.

The rain had stopped, and the wind had died down with only a slight breeze. The air was still chilly for a late August day, and the damp smell of the forest engulfed them as they entered the trail. The muted light strained by the steel gray clouds above them provided just enough visibility to see the trail clearly. The thump of three pairs of feet on the compacted trail was the only sound that they heard as they headed toward Mt. St. Helens.

Marc led the way with Scott and Jennifer falling closely behind him. Scott glanced back at the beautiful blonde woman behind him and wondered what was going through her mind. He wondered why he had invited her. This was supposed to be his and Marc’s last hurrah before classes started back at the UW. He felt like he had ruined it in some way. He sensed that things would never be the same after this trip. Unease and dread washed over him as he walked further into dark forest.