Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Excerpt: THE ANGELS' SHARE, Chapter One

Kirkland, Maine is a town with many secrets. When reporter Alex Whittaker discovers a Kirkland High student beaten and left for dead on the eve of a contentious local election, she is determined to unmask the girl's assailant. Soon, Alex is plagued by memories that are not her own, and dreams too terrifying to contemplate. Her investigation reveals a town rife with scandal and corruption, and she finds that there are some who'd go to any lengths to silence her. As her dreams bleed into her waking hours, Alex is forced to make a choice: face off against a vicious killer, or risk losing herself completely.

It’s morning, early. The sun hangs low above the treetops, backlighting the skeletal smokestacks of the old Kirkland Paper mill. My footfalls crunch against the loose gravel of the shoulder, a jarring counterpoint to the throbbing in my temples. The cold October air burns in my lungs, but the copper taste like pennies in the back of my throat can’t mask the lingering scent of whisky that clings to my tongue, my lips, my skin. As I come around the bend in the road, I quicken my pace. Just one mile further. One mile, and then I can rest.

I pass the turn-off to Fort Abrams, the gate above the uneven dirt drive swinging open in the morning breeze. As I jog past, I hear something. A girl, crying.

I break stride, coming to a halt doubled-over and panting a few yards past the turn-off. Fort Abrams is one of many battlements that dot the coast of Maine – built in the early eighteen-hundreds to defend against the British, its crumbling ruins now serve as a site for keg-stands and date-rapes. I’d been there once in high school, an ill-fated date with Tom Bradford. I later heard you couldn’t keep him off you with a stick, but it wasn’t true – I knocked his old Datsun out of gear parrying his drunken advances, and it rolled fifteen feet down an embankment, coming to a forcible stop at the trunk of a rather large oak. As he cried over the smoldering wreck of his pick-up, it occurred to me that my presence was no longer required, so I left.

It’s a shame he never called.

The roar of my pulse in my ears subsides, and I can hear her, clearer now. Sounds like her guy drives an automatic.

“Hello?” I call. There’s no reply. I step off of the shoulder and into the shallow, weed-strewn ditch. Dew bleeds through my running shoes as I peer into the forest beyond, but there’s no one there. I glance back toward the turn-off. Nothing. I turn toward town. That’s when I see her.

She’s lying face-down in the ditch, cans and wrappers and cigarette butts strewn around her as if she’s just one more unwanted item carelessly discarded. Her clothes are filthy, and she’s lying at the end of a broad swath of disturbed earth cutting through the thick carpet of pine needles that blanket the forest floor. Her right arm is extended toward the road, and her fingernails are broken and bleeding. One of them is missing, the raw skin beneath glistening in the morning air.

I call to her. She doesn’t respond. I place my hand on her shoulder. Still no reply. I shake her, gently at first, and then harder when she doesn’t react. She must be unconscious, I think. Hurt. I roll her over. I wish I hadn’t.

Deep gashes furrow the flesh of her hands and forearms, black from dirt and grime. Her stomach is in tatters. There’s blood everywhere, its metallic tang catching in my throat and making me gag. Her shallow, hitching breaths seem more labored now, and I brush the hair from her face to help her breathe. Her eyes are closed, her eyelids fluttering, and her brow is furrowed in pain. A single tear slides down her dirt-streaked face. I kneel beside her – paralyzed, helpless.

Suddenly, she begins to shake. Her limbs rattle violently against the bed of dead leaves beneath her. Her chest hitches, and she stops breathing. My indecision evaporates. I tilt her head back and lower my mouth over hers, holding closed her nose as I force air into her lungs. Six summers and a lifetime ago, I’d lifeguarded at a local beach; now it seems so distant, those half-remembered classes in a quiet corner of the empty high-school gym. I pray that I’m doing more good than harm as I feel her battered chest rise beneath me. I check for breath. Nothing. I try again. She’s convulsing now, struggling beneath me. I can taste her blood on my lips, and as I press my face to hers I realize she’s cold, terribly cold.

I press down hard on her chest, open palm to breastbone, a steady rhythm. Fresh blood wells up from her stomach, surging as I bear down. It soaks my hands, thick and black as ink in the long morning shadows of the ditch. So much blood. I squeeze my eyes shut tight against the tears and force myself to breathe deep, again forcing air into her lungs, her head cradled in my arms.

The girl’s tremors surround me now, a low rumble that seems to rise up from the ground itself. I open my eyes, startled – my vision is blurred, and my teeth rattle together uncontrollably as I try to hold her still, taking another breath and expelling it into her mouth. I can actually hear the sound of her vibration now, and my heart leaps when I realize that the noise is a scream, building in her throat like a wave capping and breaking against the shore. I try to pull back but she rises against me – a hand grips my hair at the nape of my neck, holding my mouth to hers. The sound is deafening, a guttural animal roar that blots out all other sound. I struggle against her grip, panic coursing through my body, but she holds me fast. Her eyes are open now, her back arched up toward me as I try to back away. My legs piston against the ground, my arms flailing as I lean back precariously against her grip. My head swims, my vision darkens, and still, she won’t let go.

Then, suddenly, it’s gone. Her hand loosens its grip on my hair and falls away. I’m off-balance, still pushing away from her, and without her resistance I pitch backward. My calf connects with the shallow lip of the ditch and I fall, hard. My head cracks against the unforgiving blacktop with a dull thud, its rough surface scraping the flesh of my elbows raw. I’m dazed and shaken and my head is pounding.

Only too late do I recognize the growl of the approaching engine.

It’s an old Ford pick-up, coming fast. I don’t see anything but the yellowy stare of its headlights and a blur of chrome bumper as it approaches, the driver cutting the wheel sharply to avoid me. As it passes, wind buffets my hair and face, and kicks up dust that stings my eyes and skin like needles. The pick-up continues past me toward the opposite shoulder, leaning dangerously to the left as though it might tip. The driver corrects, cutting sharply back across the road and coming to a screeching halt in the right-hand shoulder. The door is open before the truck stops moving.

“Jesus – are you all right?” he asks.

“Phone,” I croak through the cloud of dust that still hangs like fog over the roadway.

“I could have killed you,” he says, quietly, more to himself than to me.

“Phone,” I repeat, stronger this time. “I need a phone!”

“There’s a cell in the truck,” he replies, confused. “Ma’am, are you all right?”

“I need you to call nine-one-one,” I say, ignoring his question. “There’s a girl in the ditch. She’s dying.”

He sizes me up for a moment, and then turns wordlessly and runs back to the truck. I collapse back down onto the pavement as I watch him go. My head is heavy, and I can feel the beginning of an angry knot where it connected with the ground. I watch as the man leans across the seat of the truck, snatching up his cell and pressing it to his ear. His truck stopped just inches from the sign that’s marked the edge of town for as long as I can remember, and probably long before. I’d sworn to myself a long time ago that I’d never see that sign or its idiot command again, but as I lay here now, I feel an odd sense of relief to see it’s still standing.

Welcome to Kirkland, Maine, it says. Enjoy Your Stay.