New Novel: Vale of the Cross

Well, I’ve been gone from here for a while…

…but I finished my first novel and self-published it on the Kindle store! It’s a comedy set in the Appalachian Mountains, and it’s kind of accidentally a Christmas story. There’s also deep-woods cultists, fertilizer crime rings,and mysterious Russian guests.

I’d appreciate any Amazon reviews you can give — lots of reviews would help me market the book better.

I’ll be working on a new novel next, probably a two or three-part fantasy thing. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to continue the “Scavengers” story on here or in a novel format, but look for posts on that sometime soon.Cover 48

Here is an excerpt:


Back when Mary and Alice were just kids, and Sarah had just hit thirteen (a point of immediate supremacy to not only her sisters but to everyone else in Valle Crucis), the girls went on a camping trip with their mother and Uncle Travis. It was a yearly affair, right at the end of the summer, before the nights started getting colder. They picked a different place every year, but this time they picked the campgrounds at the base of Grandfather Mountain.

What made this place unique was that it wasn’t too far from civilization. The mountain itself could be considered quite populated, at least on its southern face. There were all sorts of gift shops, even back then, and there were more things even in the works. They were even talking about replacing the wooden bridge with a sturdier metal suspension bridge, but the girls didn’t believe that sort of talk. They felt the danger of the bridge was part of its reason for existing.

Sarah was scared of heights, though she never admitted that to her sisters. She lacked the bravery and bluster of her sister Alice, who could do anything without losing her composure. She would always stay up the latest of everyone in the camp; the only thing she was afraid of was Mary’s ghost stories. (Alice even abhorred the word “ghost” or any other such devilish terminology). She was by far the most comfortable of the family in a wooded setting. Sarah and Mary sometimes would joke behind Alice’s back that she was some kind of mountain woman – that she wasn’t really a part of their family but rather, some kind of half-bear, half-baby that their mother found in a cave in the mountain.

The girls weren’t sure how the tradition of camping started. It was probably their father who turned their mother on to the idea, because Esther Leigh was hardly the outdoors type (though she had the tall body type for athletics). Any questions they asked about this were swiftly dismissed or deflected.

On this particular camping trip, when Sarah had reached the supremacy of the teenage years – notably before her younger sisters – the three of them were alone outside by the fire. Their mother and Uncle Travis had both gone to sleep in their tents – early, just like old people always did – leaving the girls to their own devices. On that breezy, slightly-chilly night, the girls set to scaring each other as little embers from the fire flicked away into the air and disappeared.

“Let’s play truth or dare,” said Mary, always the mischievous one.

“I hate that game,” said Sarah, mainly because she hated competition in general. And, being a teenager now, she was saddled with the responsibility of deeming every game that her sisters came up with as “lame” or childish.

“All right you’re on! I pick truth!” said Alice, who could never tell a lie.

“Okay…uh…did you really kiss Tommy during that church trip?”

“I did not! That was a lie!” said Alice. Sarah believed it; Mary just liked to give Alice trouble, since Alice thought all boys were gross. Well, most boys. Everybody knew she was sweet on that boy Drew from Sunday school. “All right, dare,” said Mary.

Alice looked out into the woods and raised her eyebrows, and if it was anyone less devout of a Christian, Sarah would’ve called her expression downright fiendish.

“I dare you to sneak off into the woods with me,” said Alice, directly at Mary, but staring at Sarah as well.

Before Mary could respond, Sarah shook her head. “No, you can’t,” she said. “I’m in charge.”

Mary nudged Sarah. “Yeah, you’re right,” she said, in that insidious way she used to get what she wanted. “You’re just a baby like us, right? You’re not allowed to do anything on your own.”

That got a rise out of Sarah. “Fine then,” she said. “Let’s go for a walk. See what I care.”

Years later, Sarah would reflect on this incident as the arrogance of childhood in full display. Here they were, Sarah would think, three little girls ready to set off into god-knows-what in the pitch black woods. It was dangerous, but in some ways, when Sarah looked back as a grown woman, it was a good adventure. In their youth, people dare to dream more than when they’re older.

All three of them got up and walked out into the woods. It got significantly colder away from the fire, even for a night at the end of summer. The girls shivered and hunched over as they continued on. They hadn’t packed nearly as many winter clothes, even though their mother had insisted.

“It’s a lot darker than I thought,” said Alice, muttering to herself.

“Oh come on now, you can’t chicken out on your own dare,” said Mary, whose teeth were starting to chatter.

Sarah had to agree with Alice, though. The night was a lot darker than she thought it would be. They had gotten so used to the street lights (though sparse, in such a small town) and the pinpoints of light from distant houses that now, deep in the woods, they were getting lost and quickly. But none of them wanted to back down, so they kept going. Sarah nearly tripped on a root, and wanted to grab onto Alice for support, but she thought better of it mid-fall, and twisted to catch a tree branch.

“Did I ever tell you,” said Mary, “about the ghost of Grandfather Mountain?”

“Mary…” said Sarah. She knew she was easily scared, and this wasn’t the time for it.

“Oh yeah,” said Mary, “a lot of people say the mountain got its name cause it looks like a face, but the truth is it’s named after an old man.” She stepped over a loud twig with a snap that caused Alice and Sarah to jump. “Long, long ago, this old man took his son on a camping trip one time in the mountain, right around this spot actually. They both got lost in the woods for days. It was so cold, and they got so hungry. The son couldn’t bear the hunger anymore, and he went crazy and ate his father alive!”

“Mary…” said Sarah, again. She could barely see in front of her, but Alice was there in close, and Sarah could see the look of scared, shaky defiance in her eyes.

“That’s a lie!” said Alice, very loudly.

“Careful! Not too loud! You don’t want to wake him up! Anyway, the old man was so upset that his son killed him that his spirit lived on in the woods. He didn’t go to heaven or hell because he was too angry. They say that throughout the years, he kidnaps children that get lost in the woods and eats them whole, just like his son ate him when they got lost all those years ago.”

Sarah could only hear the sounds of their breaths now, and could barely see anything in the pitch black. Then, there was another twig and another loud snap. “Oh no, it’s him!” said Mary, shrieking. Alice and Sarah were suddenly blinded by a flickering light, and they shrieked too, piercing wails that cut through the night.

But then Sarah heard Mary laughing, so hard in fact that she had to sit down on the ground against a tree. She was holding a little keychain flashlight in her hands, still waving it around. “Oh the look on your faces,” said Mary, panting from the effort of laughing so hard.

Sarah held her hands on her hips. “Well, well, if…if you had that flashlight the whole time, why didn’t you use it to help us on our walk!”

“Oh don’t be scared, sis,” said Mary. “Ghosts aren’t real.” She leered at Sarah and leaned in, shining the flashlight on herself. “At least, most of them aren’t.”

Sarah shoved Mary away playfully and stuck her tongue out. “Well, look, use your flashlight and help us find our way back,” said Sarah. It was time to lay down the law and be the responsible one. “It’s too dark out here. Now let’s just turn around and…”

She turned around to see the campfire, but there was nothing behind her except darkness. She spun around looking for the fire. “Where is –“

She was interrupted by a hand grabbing her shoulder. All three girls screamed in unison. Mary shined her flashlight on their attacker – a grizzled old man with a bushy gray beard. He had a rifle slung over his shoulder. “It’s the Grandfather!” Alice yelled. She covered her eyes and started praying. Mary and Sarah turned tail and tried to run in the opposite direction, but those firm hands held them still. Sarah punched out with both hands, trying to shove the man, but all she caught was air.

“Stop,” he said, and the single word had power over them. They all stopped in the tracks and just stared at the big man.

“Where’s your camp,” he asked, in a way that made it sound like a demand, not a question.

“We’re…we’re lost,” said Mary. “Over there…uh…” said Alice, pointing towards the gloom.

“Come on,” he said, turning on a big flashlight (the kind that takes those huge batteries). “Don’t lag behind.” It flooded the area with light and he walked on in front of the girls, looking behind every few moments to make sure that they were following.

Sarah saw the campfire again and she wondered if it was a good idea to say anything, given that she didn’t know this man. She was terrified, and she wished that she hadn’t let her bravado get the best of her. She wished she had told her sisters that it wasn’t safe to go out into the woods like that. It occurred to Sarah that maybe they would never be found. This man, the “grandfather,” would devour them. Or even worse, they would all get eaten by bears. Park Rangers can’t find people if they’re hidden in bears’ stomachs.

In any case, it didn’t matter, because the man was leading them on a beeline back to the campfire.

“What were you doing out here?” asked Alice, always the brave one.

“Huntin’,” he said plainly.

“Oh,” she said.

They made it back to the campfire at last; it was a longer walk than any of them could remember. They could hardly believe they had strayed so far away. Their mother Esther and Uncle Travis were pacing around and they ran up to the girls when they came back up.

“Father Lomas,” said Esther, sighing in relief. “Thank you so much for finding the girls.”

Sarah finally realized. It was Father Lomas, from the Plumtree Bible Church a few towns over. In the campfire, he looked a much softer man, albeit still big and hairy like a grizzly bear. “Keep a leash on these three,” he said roughly. “Plenty of things out in them woods.”

“Yeah,” said Uncle Travis. “Thanks.”

The three girls huddled around the fire, and Uncle Travis stayed out with them. They got warm again, which was a welcome relief. They girls all looked at each other as if they had all been through a near-death experience. Eventually, Uncle Travis made the girls get into their sleeping bags and go to sleep. He zipped them all up tighter than last time.

When she heard the rhythmic snoring of their Uncle, Sarah heard Alice whisper to Mary. “That…was awesome.”