Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 20

Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 20

New chapters of the serial novel, Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods, will be posted each Thursday. Subscribe to have new chapters delivered to your mailbox.

If you are new to the story, I suggest starting at Chapter 1.


“Ranger’s station – dead ahead.”

The ache in Cooper’s arms and back slipped from his mind as he looked through the trees and saw the building Travis spied. Throughout the day, they rotated stretcher duty – two of them carrying Meagan while the third took a rest. They maintained a slow pace, careful to avoid tripping over rocks in the trail or slipping on icy patches, so a three-hour hike became six. Cooper tried to carry an equal time, but his energy level was no match for the strength of Andrea and Travis, both bigger than he was. In his exhaustion, he could only imagine how tired his companions were.

A half hour before spotting the ranger’s station, they reached the intersection between the Chestnut Branch Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Their spirits soared knowing they had a short two-mile hike to go. But even that celebration seemed small compared to the feeling that overcame Cooper as their destination came into view.

He wanted to run through the woods to the building and restrained himself to stay with his burden-carrying friends. They followed the trail to the gravel road that would loop them back to the ranger’s station. The campground areas, closed for the winter, were to their right. During the summer, campers and their horses would crowd the popular campground. The parking lot on their left would overflow with cars, hikers and families off playing in the woods. But, today, only sounds of nature floated through the empty park.

They entered the gravel road beside a gurgling creek, turned left, and walked the short distance to the empty parking lot and ranger station. Two snow-covered cars, untouched for days and belonging to hikers who had entered the woods a week or more before, sat forlornly in the parking lot. Whether those hikers were still alive was impossible to know, a depressing image for Cooper of more dead bodies rotting in the mountains.

At the end of the parking lot were bathrooms. To the right was a set of information boards with the usual rules and regulations posted. They partially obscured a low slung building with a covered porch and a pair of garage doors. The building was lifeless and dark, a seasonal ranger station closed in the deep winter months.

They had discussed that possibility many times, common in the sprawling national park. Only the biggest of the visitor centers were open year round. When the busy summer and fall tourist seasons ended, the seasonal staff went home and the year-round rangers spent days patrolling their routes. The odds of a ranger sitting at this station in January were nil.

But beside the information board was their real hope – a pay telephone. Several times on the trail, they tried and failed to get calls out with their cell phones. Between turning the phones on to check for a signal and the brutal cold temperatures, the batteries were long depleted. But a pay phone was a lifeline.

They crossed the parking lot and set the stretcher down on the gravel. Cooper bounced on the balls of his feet, the excitement overwhelming him, as Andrea, grinning, picked up the receiver and pressed zero. He waited for her to speak, but instead her smile faded. She depressed the switch hook with her finger and dialed 911. Cooper’s anxiety grew as she depressed the switch hook three times in rapid succession, her face clouding as she listened through the handset. Slowly, sadly, she hung the handset up. “Nothing. No dial tone.”

Despair threatened to overtake Cooper, but he fought for hope. “Doesn’t matter. We are almost at the park entrance. The interstate is just two miles down the road. And there has to be houses between here and there, right? We’ll find something.”

Without waiting for a debate, Cooper slung his backpack on and marched down the gravel road. Andrea and Travis lifted the stretcher and followed. Within minutes, they exited the park at a crossroads. No buildings occupied the corners, only farming fields nestled in the mountain valley. Homes dotted the landscape, but the houses sat dark with no signs of life. Cooper told himself those were all summer homes, people living in the warmth of Florida during winter. They can’t all contain dead people. He crossed the intersection and began the two-mile march to the interstate.

On a normal day, he would have never noticed the house tucked well off the road down a lengthy gravel drive twisting through the trees, but smoke curled from its chimney. Smoke meant warmth and real food and soft beds and people. Real people who could help Meagan and end their journey. Real people who would welcome some banged-up hikers with open arms.

Fresh tire tracks stretched through the remaining snow on the ground, another sure sign of life. Not made today and nor the day before, but since the storm. Someone was in the house. All they needed was a phone and a place to wait for a ride. Who would begrudge them that?

He dashed up the driveway, gravel kicking up behind his shoes, leaving the others trudging toward the house. He saw an empty rocking chair on the wide covered porch, creaking in the winter breeze. Two other chairs sat around a small table, a perfect summer spot to sip lemonade and enjoy the mountain air. A coffee mug rested on the table.

Along the edge of the house, children’s bicycles sheltered under an overhang. A swing set was in the backyard. The house felt warm, inviting, and filled with family.

Focused on the house as he sprinted up the drive, Cooper didn’t see the man behind the tree. He materialized from the shadows and chambered a shell in the shotgun in his hand, the ratcheting sound clacking through the quiet afternoon. He leveled the gun at Cooper’s chest as he skidded to a stop. “Get out of here, boy. You ain’t welcome here.”

Despite the cool air, the shotgun bearer wore a dirty white cotton tank t-shirt. His sinewy arm muscles rippled, reflecting various tattoos. His blue jeans were several sizes too big and sagging, held up by a belt cinched around his waist. His cropped hair and green-gray eyes were menacing. But he was younger than Cooper had first thought, closer to Travis’ age than Andrea’s. “I said get. You and your friends.” He waved the shotgun toward Andrea and Travis as they caught up.

Cooper held his hands up, showing them empty and no threat. “Look, dude, we just need to use a phone. Meagan here is hurt. We get some help and then we’re gone.”

“Phone don’t work. Hasn’t in days. And ain’t no ambulance to get here anyway. So just take her and go.” He pointed with the shotgun to the road below them.

They could find another house. Someone else. But Cooper wasn’t ready to yield. “Come on. She’s hurt. We need a little help.”

“I said get out of here, squirt.” The young man stepped forward and shoved the muzzle of the gun hard against Cooper’s chest, sending him tumbling backwards. He tripped over his feet and fell, landing on his backpack. Like an upside down turtle, he struggled to regain footing. As he stood, the barrel of the gun again poked his ribs.

He opened his mouth to protest as Andrea came around his side. She grabbed the barrel of the shotgun to push it upwards and away from her young protégé. The stranger, furious and scared, pulled the trigger.

The blast from the shotgun was deafening though they all heard the sickening sound of a body falling to the ground.


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The cover image is licensed under Creative Commons: 0.0 License from Qimono on Pixabay.

Eyes Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open Title

An owl hooted deep in the dark forest. The mountain breezes rustled the leaves. Frogs ribbited from a nearby pond. Crickets chirped their nighttime songs. The cacophony of nature drifted through the screens of my open windows. No creature was disturbed by a predator slinking through the shadows.

But something had penetrated my sleep, shaking me awake in the wee hours of the morning. What noise had disturbed my slumber? Perhaps the shrill screeching of bending metal as an intruder pried a screen from an open window and slithered inside the house. Yet, no creak of wood floors betrayed a stranger inching toward me.

I lay in my bed, eyes squeezed shut, and listened for ominous sounds. Wouldn’t at least one dog have reacted? Shouldn’t the spoiled clumps of fur have emitted a warning growl? Instead, I heard only one dog snoring while another grunted as he rolled over, but no dog alerted to an approaching danger. Only normal nighttime noises reached my ears, so I convinced myself no threat skulked inside my home.

But why was I awake? Maybe dawn approached and I needed to start the day.

I pried my eyes open and looked around the gloomy bedroom. Pitch-black dark of night loomed outside. No moonlight filtered through the windows. No man-made glow chased away the shadows. No pink glimmer in the eastern sky over the mountain ridges hinted of an imminent sunrise.

No, I had not awaken early. It was the middle of the night.

I rolled over, reached to the bedside table, picked up my cell phone and glanced at the time display. 2:27. Two freaking twenty-seven AM. The middle of the night. Hours before I needed to be awake.

With a deep sigh, I flopped my head onto the pillow, squeezed my eyes shut, and prayed for sleep.

Breathe deep. Relax. Keep the mind in neutral. Don’t think about tomorrow’s tasks. Don’t ponder future phone calls. Don’t dwell on necessary errands. Don’t mentally rewrite that one paragraph that has eluded me so far.

But, wait, if the character’s anger grew, then the scene’s intensity would explode. Maybe if I rearrange that scene, then I could . . .

Screw it. I’m not going back to sleep. I know better. Once awake in the middle of the night, slumber eludes me. It always has.

I suffer from Chronic Maintenance Insomnia. Several nights a week, I awake deep in the middle of the night and cannot go back to sleep.

Other people suffer from Onset Insomnia, a difficulty sleeping at the beginning of the night. Fortunately, going to sleep in the first place is never a problem for me. By 8 pm most evenings, I am stretched across the bed, surrounded by napping dogs, and reading a novel, the best sleep aid I have ever found. Within an hour or two, I am sound asleep. If it only it would last until dawn.

No competition for which is worse because both maintenance and onset insomnia are painful, but add the word chronic for some real agony.

Acute insomnia is an isolated event, usually brought on by stress. Someone may be so worried by an event in their lives they can’t sleep for a night or two.

That sucks, but try it for night after night for years. Or, in my case, every other night or every third night for years. Welcome to the world of Chronic Insomnia.

So, at 2:27 in the morning, I awoke. By 2:40, I resigned myself to another bout of insomnia and resorted to the only tactic that can bring me a return of blissful sleep. I picked up my half-read novel, put down only a few hours earlier, and read.

The words flew by. The characters lived their lives. The clock ticked, inching toward 3:30, but my tactic worked. My eyes grew heavy. The letters blurred. Sentences became incomprehensible without being read two or three times. Sleep crept upon me. I closed my book, set it on the bedside table, and gently laid my head on the pillow. My body relaxed as sleep overcame me.

Drifting. Fading. Disconnecting from the dark room. Slipping into a dreamy state.

Without explanation and only the haziest of transitions, I sit in my Jeep at an intersection down in the valley though I don’t know my destination. Two cars wait in front of me to turn left. The background noise of nature at night have faded to the clicking of my turn signal.

Click. Click. Click.

The first driver waits, longer than necessary, watching traffic go by, looking for an opening. But not yet. Not now. Need more room.

What is taking so long? Just turn, damn it.

The driver in front of me taps his fingers on his steering wheel. He shakes his head in disgust. He throws his hands in the air, pulls his car into the right turn lane, and passes the first driver while flipping the bird out his window. He guns his engine, zooms into the intersection, and turns left, glaring at the driver who had blocked his path instead of watching the road in front of him.

But I see the imminent danger. Another car, its driver unsuspecting of approaching catastrophe, drives down the main road. Too late, she sees the impending collision. She locks on brakes, smoke billowing from her screeching tires. She blares her horn, the shrill panic blasting our eardrums.

The two cars meet head-on, stopping their progress with a crunch of metal. Airbags explode in powdery white clouds and absorb the worst of the impact, but the violence of the collision tosses both drivers about their cars. Windshield glass shatters and rains down on their bodies. The frames of the cars crumple and fluids splash across the street.

I helplessly watch the horror in front of me and . . . sit up in bed.

What the hell? Why was I dreaming about a car wreck? Not even a car wreck I am in, but one I witness.

But at least I got sleep, right? Please tell me I slept.

With trepidation, I reached for my phone on the bedside table and glanced at its clock. 3:37. I slept for a minute, maybe two. Maybe I even had the dream before I was fully asleep.

The dog in the bed raised his head, looked at me with disgust, and flopped back down with a noisy sigh. Within seconds, the steady breathing of his sleep filled the room. I looked at him with jealousy. There I was, still awake in a dark bedroom. Time to read a little more and try again.

The characters continued their adventures, but the words blurred on the page. Sleep taunted me with its possibility. I set the book down and closed my eyes. My body relaxed and drifted back toward sleep. On the far edge of my shutting down brain, I heard the grandfather clock in the den striking four.

Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong.

Maybe a blink of my eyes. Maybe a dream. But the grandfather clock was again chiming the hour.

Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong.

Six a.m.? Two hours sleep? I had just closed my eyes. Barely a blink. It can’t be time to get up. Please. Please. Let me sleep a little more.

I opened my eyes. The pink sky over the mountains on the far horizon announced the coming dawn. And in case I had any doubt, the dog on the bed sat up, stared at me, and wanted to know when I would serve breakfast.

The dawn didn’t care I hadn’t slept all night.

And neither did a hungry dog.


The cover image is based on a image licensed under Creative Commons: 0.0 License from Kat J on Unsplash

Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 19

Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 19

New chapters of the serial novel, Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods, will be posted each Thursday. Subscribe to have new chapters delivered to your mailbox.

If you are new to the story, I suggest starting at Chapter 1.


“Wait.”

Andrea’s eyes widened as she jerked her head toward Travis. “You speak?”

Travis ran a hand through his grungy, black hair and forced a harsh laugh. Since finding Mike on his deathbed, Travis closed his mind to everything happening around him and focused on his friend. When Mike died yesterday morning (was it really just yesterday?), the pain enveloped him and eclipsed every other thought. Sitting alone in the shelter last night, eating breakfast this morning, hiking the trail today – all were vague memories in a dense fog. As he shuffled down the trail, his mind protested with every clump of his boot.

What’s the point of getting to the ranger’s station?

Clump.

Everyone’s dead.

Clump.

No point in trying.

Clump.

Nothing matters.

Clump.

Meagan’s scream had pierced his veil of pity and rattled his brain. The view of her crumpled body below shocked him. And seeing Cooper slip during his descent – the way he fought and persevered – was an electric jolt through his body.

Not everyone’s dead. Cooper’s not. Andrea’s not. And, by God, Meagan’s not. I’m sorry Mike, but I’ve got to live.

“If we pull her up like that, we could kill her. Or paralyze her.”

Thirty feet below them, Cooper had tied the rope under Meagan’s arms and then attached the end to his own waist. The hastily assembled plan was for Andrea and Travis to hoist Meagan up the slope while Cooper guided her body. No matter how careful they were, the journey would be bruising.

“Cooper can’t be much help. He will be fighting for his own balance, so we will have to lift both their weights. If we slip, . . .” Travis made a whistling sound and then slapped his hands together, making Andrea flinch.

She rubbed her hands together as she peered at the rocky descent below them. “But we have to get her up here. She’ll die for sure down there.”

“We do, but there’s a better way.” Travis pulled the ax off of the side of Cooper’s backpack and trotted down the trail toward a grove of young trees. He wrapped his hand around the first one, shook his head, and repeated until the fourth tree. The edges of his mouth inched up in the slightest smile as he swung the ax at the tree’s trunk.

Andrea leaned over the edge of the cliff and spied Cooper waiting below, shuffling his feet despite the narrow ledge. “Hang on, Coop. We have a plan.”

“A plan? What is it?”

“Hell if I know,” she muttered under her breath as she watched the first tree drop to the ground. Travis sized up several more trees before selecting his second victim. With a few fierce swings, he felled it. He soon added a third.

Travis dropped to his knees and rubbed the bark. He looked up at Andrea and grinned. “Strong. About three inches thick. Perfect.”

“Perfect for what?” asked Andrea, but Travis was already cutting branches away from the main trunk. He shuffled on his knees, stripping branches as he went, until he had an 8 foot stretch cleared. He stood, grabbed the ax, and swung. With a few strokes, he had separated the strong base from the weaker top of the tree. What remained was an eight-foot long pole.

Andrea joined him as they fashioned the second tree into a similar pole. When they did the third, they cut it shorter – six feet – and then Travis cut that into two sections each a yard long.

He leaned back on his haunches, a smile shining on his face. The dullness in his eyes had lifted. The brown sparkled in the early afternoon sun. “See? These will work, right? Now we a need a pair of heavy shirts or a blanket. Or coats.” His face brightened further. “Yeah, coats. They will work.”

“Work for what?”

Without answering, Travis drug the pared trees to their backpacks. He dug through his pack and removed the heavy winter coat he had worn earlier in the week. “Do you have something like this?”

Puzzled, Andrea opened her pack and removed her own coat. She mimicked Travis’ actions – zipping the front closed and pulling the sleeves inside out so they were tucked inside the coat.

Travis threaded the first pole through the right sleeve of his own coat and then through Andrea’s coat. The second pole slid through the left sleeves. Lashed to either end of the long poles, the two shorter poles worked as a spreader and forced the jackets taut. He leaned back on his heels and announced with pride, “A jacket stretcher.”

Andrea smiled and nodded her head. “Not bad, Boy Scout.”

Even with a stretcher, Meagan would jostle across the boulders as they pulled her up the hill. But they would bind her body to the makeshift stretcher, protecting her from the worst bounces.

Lowering the contraption to Cooper was easy, heavy enough to slide down the hill but not so heavy to risk pulling them over the side. Cooper rolled Meagan onto the stretcher, tied her down, and then waited while Andrea and Travis hauled the stretcher back up the hill.

Once Meagan was on flat ground, Travis untied the rope from the stretcher and tossed it back down the hill. Cooper secured the rope around his waist, hoisted Meagan’s pack onto his back, and crawled back up the hill. Since the younger boy could see where to plant his feet, the trip up was much easier than down.

Within minutes, they were lying on the trail, huffing from the exertion. Despite the cool air, sweat ran down their faces. They watched the setting sun as they rested, accepting the fact they faced one more night in the woods. Carrying the stretcher on the trail would be difficult enough, but stumbling in the dark risked another injury.

Cooper sat up and rubbed the dried blood off his nose and mouth as Andrea tended to Meagan’s wounds. Travis scanned the exposed trail, high on the ridge where wind would batter their tents. “Let’s carry her down just into the edge of the trees and set up camp.”

Once moved into the darkness of the woods, Travis gathered firewood and built a fire, Cooper prepared dinner, and Andrea monitored Meagan. As the last of the sun faded, the three of them sat on logs enjoying the warmth of the fire and hot food. Meagan continued to sleep on the improvised stretcher.

Travis folded the trail map and slid it back inside his backpack. “Tomorrow. If the weather holds, we should make the ranger’s station by early afternoon. We’ll take turns carrying the stretcher.”

Cooper polished off the last of his stew, raised his plate, and licked it clean. “Good to have you back, Trav.”

“Good to be back.”


Click Here To Go To The Next Chapter – Chapter 20!

The cover image is licensed under Creative Commons: 0.0 License from Qimono on Pixabay.

Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 18

Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 18

New chapters of the serial novel, Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods, will be posted each Thursday. Subscribe to have new chapters delivered to your mailbox.

If you are new to the story, I suggest starting at Chapter 1.


Meagan’s screams reached Cooper’s ears, but by the time he turned, she had disappeared over the edge of the mountain. In his eagerness to reach the ranger’s station, he had been far ahead of the group.

Stupid. Stupid. Always keep the group together. Always.

Cooper’s boots pounded as he raced up the trail. Out of breath from his sprint, he dropped his backpack to the ground and asked, “What happened? How did she fall?”

Andrea ignored his question, her face pale as she yelled at Travis, “I need the rope. Hurry!” The older boy was standing speechless, staring down the slope at Meagan’s crumpled body. Loose dirt, pebbles, and broken tree stumps covered the steep slope between them. Climbing down without a safety rope was suicidal.

Andrea grabbed Travis’ shoulders and spun him away from her so she could grab the rope off of his backpack frame. “Travis. Focus. We need you. I’ve got to get down there.”

Cooper studied the slippery, steep descent. Each step invited a fall into the boulders and debris far below. Meagan’s body perched on a rock outcrop thirty feet below the ridge. If she woke up and moved, she would fall another hundred feet. “No, I’ll go.”

Andrea searched for something to secure one end of the rope, a ballast to break her fall if she slipped climbing down. “Can’t let you. Too dangerous.”

Cooper’s hand wrapped around her wrist, a steady pressure to get her attention. “We need you up here. You’re stronger, can handle my weight. I’m not sure I could hold you if you fell. And I sure as hell can’t pull both you and Meagan back up that hill.”

Andrea gestured in protest toward Travis, but her argument faded as she observed the motionless boy beside them. With his backpack still on, he stared over the edge making no movement to assist in the rescue. She resigned to Cooper’s logic. “OK, Boy Scout, you win.”

Cooper looped the rope around his waist and secured it, his hands shaking. Going down? Challenging, but Andrea could keep him from falling.

But coming up? With Meagan’s weight added to his? Could Andrea pull them both back up the hill?

With no movement from Meagan’s lifeless body below, he might come back up alone. Time to worry about the return trip later.

Cooper stepped over to Travis and unbuckled the waist belt on his backpack. “Dude, listen up. I’m sorry about Mike. It sucks. But right now – right this minute – I need you.” He glanced over at Andrea. “We need you. You listening?”

Travis’ gaze broke from the body below and he shifted his dull eyes to Cooper. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded.

“Good. Get that pack off. Help with the belay.”

Travis’ pack fell to the ground with a thud and he shuffled over to Andrea. She looked at Cooper and shrugged, a silent worry shared between them.

Maybe he’s in the game. Or maybe, just maybe, as I plummet to my death, I will realize what an idiot I’m being.

With the rope taut between his waist and Travis’ and Andrea’s hands, Cooper walked to the edge and stepped backwards over the drop-off.

People who have never been rappelling imagine kicking off a cliff wall and dropping through the air, the rope singing against a carabiner. Sure, you can do that. And it’s fun. But in a situation like this, you walk backwards down the hill, feet always planted on the ground. Moving fast increased danger. Step by step, inching down the mountain.

Pebbles loosened by his boots bounced down the hill, pinging off rocks and trees below. The loose dirt shifted, making his feet slide as they fought for purchase.

A tree branch poked his back, ripping a hole in his shirt. He cursed quietly and ducked under it. The movement shifted the ground below his feet, and he dropped to his knees. The rope tightened, pulling his body flat into the ground with an oomph. He slid three feet down the hill before the belay rope stopped his fall.

Shaking, he spit dirt out of his mouth. He whispered a silent prayer, raised his feet, and sunk the toes of his boots into the loose soil. As he straightened his body and leaned back, he could see Andrea’s worried face looking over the edge. He gave a thumbs-up sign.

But where was Travis? Is he helping? Is he focused? Or is Andrea the only thing between me and the valley floor? I don’t trust her as far as I can spit, but my life is in her hands. Great.

Andrea fed slack in the rope and he backed down the hill again, slipping and sliding. His feet searched for traction in the shifting soil.

Nothing to grip.

With dirt trickling down the hill, he slid his foot to the right and found a rock wedged into the ground. It felt solid. Maybe. He added his weight and it held.

One step at a time, Coop, one step at a time.

He leaned back letting his body weight sink onto the rock and lifted his left foot to step backwards.

The rock wasn’t deep enough. It had only been a few inches deep and his weight unearthed it. With his left foot in the air and the right foot without support, he dropped fast, away from the mountain.

I’m falling. Shit, I’m falling.

As a branch swept past his right side, he flailed a hand for it but missed. Panicked, he reached for anything – a branch, a rock – anything to stop his tumble, but nothing was there.

The belay rope snapped tight, stopping his descent as suddenly as hitting a brick wall. The whiplash threw his body forward and slammed him into the side of the cliff. His nose connected with a rock buried below the surface of the ground. The pain clouded his vision and blood flowed down his chin. His vision greyed. He fought to stay conscious.

Andrea stumbled in her efforts to stop his plunge, her feet sliding toward the edge. The belay rope slacked and Cooper fell another two feet, dragging his bruised body down the side of the wall. The rope snapped taut again and he smashed into the wall a second time.

Dangling on the side of the cliff, Cooper shook his head, slinging drops of blood across his shirt. His vision came back into focus. He wrapped his hands around the rope and fought to get his feet back under him. Planted and leaning back, he looked back up the hill. Andrea and Travis were leaning backwards against the rope, both gripping it firmly and holding his weight.

Attaboy, Travis, you’re in the game.

Shakily, he gave a thumbs up. Again.

That didn’t work so well last time.

He brushed his sleeve across his face, wiping the blood into the cloth. He spit into the dirt, his saliva coated in red. A vision of Mike coughing up blood in his final days flashed through his mind and he fought to focus. Slowing his breathing, Cooper stepped backwards again.

Deal with a bloody nose later.

He inched down the hill, step by step, until he saw Meagan come into view out of the corner of his eye.

The ledge she was on was a mere eight inches wide, but a small spruce grew up from the ground just below it. Meagan was wedged between the tree and the rock, but that was far better than on the boulders far below.

Cooper edged his boot onto the ledge and tested its strength. He decided it would hold both of them – driving memories of the traitor rock that had fooled him moments earlier out of his mind. He willed himself not to look down and called up the hill for some slack on the rope, enough to give him room to work.

Though, if he fell, would the slack pull them off their feet? The last catch almost didn’t happen and now they were closer to the edge. Besides, it hurt like hell. If it happens again . . .

Don’t go there. Think. Focus.

His whole life, Cooper had been battling his brain to focus on the task at hand. His mind liked to wander, flitting from one distraction to another. He would struggle to rein it in, centering his task in the swirl of his thoughts. As he stood on a ledge above certain death, that practice came in handy.

Ignore the noise. Focus. Focus.

He bent down and studied Meagan. Her legs were crossed, but appeared unharmed. Her right arm draped across her body and hand dangled in the air. The left forearm bent off at a strange angle. The break would need to be set, but only if she lived. The left side of her face was swelling and her nose was slanted sideways, blood dripping from it.

But no movement. No signs of life. He reached to the side of her neck and felt for a pulse. Slid his fingers and felt again.

Where was it? That beat?

He slid his fingers a third time and held them still. He stood, looked up the cliff, and shouted, “She’s alive.”


Click Here To Go To The Next Chapter – Chapter 19!

The cover image is licensed under Creative Commons: 0.0 License from Qimono on Pixabay.

May 2018 Review – Books Read & Other Things

May 2018 Review - Books Read & Other Things

Note the new title – May 2018 Review – Books Read & Other Things. Yes, I will continue to share the books I read the previous month (and ask for your lists, too), but I will also review other highlights. For example, one change will be to the newsletter going forward.

Newsletter

Subscriber growth with the email newsletter continues to be very strong. Most people have signed up for Instant Notification (i.e., an email the same day a post goes live).

Recognizing that not everyone wants that many emails, I have also offered a weekly summary newsletter. Only a small group of people have elected that choice which makes sense when I only post once or twice a week. Many people have suggested a monthly summary newsletter rather than weekly.

So be it. Starting this month, I will produce a summary newsletter monthly, coming out in coordination with this monthly post. If you have hesitated to sign up for the newsletter, perhaps the monthly summary option will be a great option.

Let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts.

Books Read May 2018

Full disclosure – the links in this post are all Amazon affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of those links, I receive a small commission from Amazon though it has no impact on your purchase price.

The longer days and various tasks cut into my reading time, so I fell a little below my normal pace reading only 8 books this month. At 47 books so far this year, I am still ahead of the pace needed to read 100 books this year.

Here are this month’s tomes:

J.T. Ellison – Nashville Metro PD Lieutenant Taylor Jackson struggles through some challenges to maintain her job leading a homicide squad while still solving murder mysteries. The Immortals follows a young band of murderers captivated with the occult. The book introduces a great new character – a good witch, for real – and centers on a high school that amuses me. My mother graduated from the same Hillsborough High School central to the story. In So Close The Hand of Death, a serial killer who has been taunting the detective ups his game – by running a contest among other serial killers. Creepy and fantastic.

Lisa Gardner – As I have said several times, Gardner creates the best (worst?) bad guys ever and this month’s selections do not disappoint. Boston Detective D.D. Warren is rarely nervous, but she is as she faces this crowd – thriller writers learning their craft at a conference. She has a fifty-minute session as a keynote speaker and tells them a story with 3 Truths And A Lie. Can they – or you – figure out the lie? If you have wanted to try Gardner’s books but haven’t committed to a full-length novel, this short story is a great way to get to know her style. In Find Her, the story is less about Detective Warren and more about Flora Dane. A sadistic man kidnapped college student Dane. He held her captive for over a year and did unspeakable things to her (as I said, Gardner creates creepy bad guys). Told in gruesome flashbacks that past explains why she killed a man who attacked her. Does anyone other than Dane really know what happened during her first abduction?

Michael Connelly – Connelly writes about my favorite fiction detective, Los Angeles based Harry Bosch, and his half-brother, Mickey Haller (known as The Lincoln Lawyer). But neither appears in this book as Connelly introduces a new LAPD detective, Renee Ballard who works the overnight shift (The Late Show) as a first-on-the-scene detective. I admit this is not my favorite Connelly book, but Ballard’s character grew on me during the book, particularly the way she handles a situation at the end of the novel. I look forward to reading more about Ballard.

Chris Bohjalian – I read my first Bohjalian book in April, which was his latest, so I went back to read a previous best-seller, Midwives. Like Connelly’s book I mentioned above, I struggled through the first part as the story’s foundation forms, but once “the crime” has occurred (a woman dies during childbirth at home) and the trial begins (is the midwife guilty of manslaughter?), I was hooked. The daughter tells the story, intermingled with journal entries by her mother. Guilt or innocence is never clear cut. The book leaves you wondering to the end what really happened (and I mean the last page).

Clive Cussler – The Rising Sea has an interesting premise (particularly in the current discussions of Climate Change), but I never got into the multiple characters and shifting locales. This is the curse of writers who use series – it is often hard to get into a novel without reading the series in order.

Stephen King / Owen King – King’s stories enamored me as a kid with The Stand ranking as one of my all-time favorite books. Sleeping Beauties does not disappoint. What if all the women on the planet went to sleep leaving men to make everything work? Given a choice, will the women come back to the men or form their own new world? As always, King gives us lots of great characters to love and hate – not all of whom make it to the final pages.

Website Activity

The most popular post of the month was the Charleston Harbor By Boat – photographs I had taken during a recent week there. I need to dedicate more time to photography, but other projects interfere.

April’s Brad And His Date was the second most popular post this month, receiving twice as many reads in May as it did in April – the month I posted it. It does an ego good to have a story “with legs.” Poor Brad may not realize his path to popularity was through a short story.

Two other short stories written in previous months continued to have strong readings – Modern Torture Devices (I hate to guess what people are Googling to get that one) and Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria.

Essays aim toward website operators and don’t receive as much readership, but this month had one with very strong readership – The Privacy Policy I Wish I Had Written. Not a typical essay (more short story), readers appreciate the humor and frustration dealing with the legal side of operating a website. The other essay, Facebook Versus Small Websites, performed more the way most essays do – a small but passionate reader group.

Pestilence continues to be popular, much to my surprise. Who knew an appetite for a serial novel existed?

What Are You Reading?

As always, what are you reading? I love getting ideas of books I should have on my list.

And thank you for hanging out, enjoying my creations, and making this journey fun.

Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 17

Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 17

New chapters of the serial novel, Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods, will be posted each Thursday. Subscribe to have new chapters delivered to your mailbox.

If you are new to the story, I suggest starting at Chapter 1.


Meagan lowered her backpack to the ground and placed her walking sticks beside it. She shrugged off her winter coat and rolled it tight. Opening the top of the pack, she stuffed the jacket under the bedroll and secured the top of the pack. Her long-sleeve shirt and thermal undershirt provided plenty of insulation in the mild weather. After days of harsh winter cold, the air felt downright warm in comparison.

The bright sun hung in the apex of the sky, casting its warmth over the mountain ridges. The overhead branches dripped melting snow to the forest floor. As Cooper predicted the day before, the trail refroze overnight into a hard pack, but dissolved to a slushy, muddy mixture as the day progressed.

Meagan stood with her hands on her hips and stretched her back, twisting her head until she felt a satisfying pop. After two days of rest, she resented the cumbersome weight of the backpack.

As the group broke camp in the late morning, she settled into the back of the pack, comfortable seeing the group ahead without them monitoring her every move. She walked slow enough to put space between her and Andrea, creating the illusion of strolling carefree alone through the forest. The world wasn’t ending; she was just enjoying the solitude of a hike in the mountains.

From her vantage point, she watched the others hiking the trail in front of her – first Andrea with Travis just a step ahead and then Cooper far in the distance.

Eager to complete their journey to the ranger’s station, the younger boy claimed the lead as they left the camp, not that anyone argued. He sped down the trail and disappeared around bends, but stopped and waited impatiently as they caught up, his feet shuffling from side to side. As Travis approached, he loosened his backpack for a break, but Cooper would set off down the trail. Andrea would tighten Travis’ pack and push him to keep marching. They could break at the ranger’s station.

Travis’ head hung low as he scraped his boots along the ground, trudging down the trail. He left Mike reluctantly in the shelter that morning, protesting that the group should wait days before moving out. Cooper patiently but persistently refused, dogging Travis to eat and to pack his backpack. Powerless to resist, Travis complied with the commands.

With breakfast complete, Cooper stood and held Travis’ backpack, waiting for the older boy to slip it on. Travis grumbled again, but his complaints lacked anger – or emotion of any kind. Despite his disagreement, he accepted the decision to leave and allowed Cooper to strap the pack on his back.

Andrea watched the exchanges between the boys, but kept any thoughts to herself. She never relented on her promise to go to the ranger’s station, hiking behind Travis to prevent him from stopping. She uttered simple encouragements to keep him plodding down the trail but remained silent otherwise.

Meagan avoided the group tension by lagging on the trail, maintaining a distance between her and the others. Andrea’s tales the previous day of the outside world depressed her, but the good weather buoyed her spirits. Moving provided energy and hope. The exercise – just doing something rather than waiting – rewarded her spirits.

She could still see Cooper far ahead on the trail, so she paused to enjoy the view. The trail had broken free from the trees and ran along the rocky top of a ridge, providing a stunning view for miles. Rows and rows of forested mountains stretched into the distance, glimmering in the bright sunlight. Unlike the haze of a summer day, the winter air was crisp and clear.

“Come on, Meagan, let’s go.” Cooper’s voice sailed through the air, startling her from her reverie. She looked down the trail and nodded, signal enough for Cooper to turn and resume hiking.

She lifted her pack from the ground and settled it on her shoulders. The waist belt hung unfastened as she bent over and scooped up both walking sticks in her left hand.

As she stood, a red-tailed hawk sailed across the trail and distracted her. Because of the gap between her and the others, only Meagan saw him, effortlessly floating in the updrafts of air. She marveled at his grace and beauty as she shifted the backpack and took a step forward.

Distracted by the bird, she did not watch her footing. The toe of her boot caught a loose rock, shifting her weight forward.

In her studies in college, a professor discussed the causes of plane crashes. While a single incident might be the precipitating event, it rarely was the sole cause. A simple mistake caught quickly and corrected solved the overall problem before disaster struck. Even if the mistake was huge – birds being sucked into and killing both engines upon takeoff – planes were designed to fly despite problems and pilots were trained to overcome the challenges. Captain Sully Sullenberger proved that by guiding a powerless flight into the Hudson River, saving the lives of everyone onboard. But as he pointed out, every member of the crew did their jobs as trained. No other mistakes were made.

But sometimes a second mistake compounds the error of the first mistake increasing the risk. If caught early, a pilot could overcome a second mistake – but not if a third and fourth created further cascading errors. A series of unfortunate events – rarely a single event – caused a plane crash.

Avianca Flight 52 ran into severe weather upon its approach to Kennedy Airport in New York. Air Traffic Control ordered them into multiple holding patterns and the plane ran low on fuel. They communicated the problem to their controller, but failed to confirm that subsequent controllers received the information. During the first landing attempt, they aborted due to weather. The pilot and co-pilot questioned each other whether the controllers understood their fuel situation, but neither asked the controllers. They never declared a fuel emergency. And they ran out of fuel. Seventy-three people died.

Officially, lack of fuel caused the crash. But did it really? A series of events and mistakes precipitated the accident, any one of which would have resulted in a different – and better – outcome if handled differently.

Watching the hawk rather than where she was stepping was a mistake, but it didn’t cause Meagan’s disaster. Sure, she wouldn’t have tripped over that rock if she had been paying attention, but anyone who has ever hiked has tripped over a rock. You stumble, catch yourself, laugh, and hike on down the trail.

But Meagan’s next mistake made things worse – much worse. She tried to plant one of the walking sticks into the ground for balance, but was still holding both in a single hand. If she had shifted one into each hand before walking, she would have recovered from the stumble.

Instead, just as the first stick contacted the ground, the second, held loosely in the same hand, crossed in front of her legs and tripped her. Already off balance, the second stick sent her stumbling off the trail.

And then another mistake took over. She never fastened the waist belt on her back pack. The heavy pack clung to her body with just the two shoulder straps – plenty of support when walking down the trail, but the bag swung sideways with her body as she fought to regain her balance. She could not overcome the shift in weight which propelled her toward the edge of the ridge.

Fighting for stability, she tried to ignore the steep drop. Pebbles bounced and clacked down the hill, bouncing off boulders and fallen trees. The pack pulled her forward, but she fought to regain footing. She slammed her foot down hard, trying desperately to stay upright.

She might still have made it, despite all the things that went wrong, if not for the ice. The sun worked on the trail surface, heating the rocks and melting the snow. But a thick layer of powder covered the edge of the trail, not allowing the sun to remove the ice underneath. Her boot struck a sheet of ice and refused to grip. She lost her balance.

Then – and only then – did she scream. A high-pitched shrill of terror. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Andrea turn fifty yards down the trail, too far away to help.

Meagan focused over the edge of the trail, down the hill. The jagged rocks. The broken tree stumps. Her body tipped over the edge and she twirled her arms to stop, but too much had gone wrong. A simple distraction. A few small mistakes. Some unfortunate conditions. None a disaster by themselves, but a lethal combination.

Meagan tumbled headfirst over the edge of the mountain, her screams silenced.


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The cover image is licensed under Creative Commons: 0.0 License from Qimono on Pixabay.