So as the title of the post says, I have a new novel coming out this month. It's always an exciting and busy time right before a release but I thought I'd do something different this go around. I'm gonna give you guys a little look-see of the first chapter before it goes live on the 30th. The cover above was done by the very talented Kealan Patrick Burke who always does a fantastic job with my books. So take a peek at the chapter below and feel free to let me know what you think!
The night my family was taken from me I’d had too much to drink. Storms did that to me. For as long as I could remember, clouds, thunder, lightning—any of them started the feeling inside. The itching feeling of something with too many legs crawling, first, in the base of my stomach, and then up into my chest, where it sat and prodded my heart into a staccato rhythm. I’d start sweating and shaking, and before I knew it, I’d reach for a bottle. It was worse when I was younger and wasn’t allowed to partake in liquid courage. I’d huddle in my room until the storm passed, after which I felt like I’d just escaped something that had been looking for me, hunting me. My parents did what they could, assuring me it was an entirely normal fear that many people dealt with, but hearing that others go through the same thing as you do doesn’t make it any better. When they couldn’t calm me and my terrors got worse, they took me to a therapist who talked in a quiet voice and asked me so many questions I found it hard to follow where he was going half the time. I guess my parents thought the therapy helped, since I was always fairly relaxed when I came out of that little room with two chairs and a single fountain between them, the water trickling over a few rocks and never failing to make you want to pee. Problem was, there were never any storms raging overhead when I went to see the good doctor. It’s easier to talk about something you’re afraid of when it’s not there staring you in the face.
So the years went on like that. I’d get up every morning and check the weather for the day. I came to know which weathermen knew their stuff and which were just shooting from the hip. Some days, when I knew a storm was imminent, I’d sneak back home after heading off to school and sit in the basement of our house, the quietest part I could find, and just wait it out. The muffled rumbles and strobes of the lightning still reached me there, but it wasn’t near as bad as having a panic attack in the middle of a history lesson with thirty other sets of eyes on you. No, for a fifteen-year-old kid there isn’t much worse than that.
I found out that drinking helped when I was a senior in high school. My best friend, Bobby Anderson, snuck me a half-empty bottle of Malibu in the empty locker hall between fifth and sixth hours.
“Dad won’t notice it’s gone, he hates that shit,” Bobby said, pushing the bottle deep into the recesses of my backpack. I was scared to death to try it, having never taken so much as a sip in my life (my parents both grew up in alcoholic homes and were deeply set against anything that resembled recreational drinking). But a storm showed up around two that next morning, and in the flashing light outside my window I spun the cap off the rum and swallowed three mouthfuls before I could taste it. After the burning stopped, I nearly threw up but managed to keep it down long enough for a warmth to spread out from my stomach to my limbs. The thunder came down a few decibels and the lightning didn’t make my breath catch like it usually did. I was in love.
The therapist had mentioned sedation only once to my parents, and they’d firmly shut him down on that front. To be perfectly honest, pills scared me too. But I was mature enough to know when I’d found a solution to my problem—if not the best one—and at the tender age of eighteen I began to self-medicate.
I was able to hide the drinking from my parents until I was a junior in college, majoring in conceptual design. They stopped by the little house I rented on the outskirts of my college town for an unannounced visit. They found me passed out beneath the dining-room table, an empty bottle of wine and two beer cans clustered around me like a miniature defensive wall.
This isn’t to say I was an alcoholic at that point. I actually didn’t even like the feeling of getting too drunk. For the most part I would relegate my self-medication to only when I needed it, which was sometimes three times a week and at others once a month.
Needless to say, my dad had a few choice words that day after they’d roused me from beneath the table. I understood. How could I not? And I nodded along with them once my dad stopped yelling and my mom stopped crying. We sat down on the sofa and had an honest heart-to-heart about the dangers of drinking, and I swore to them that I wouldn’t touch a bottle again. I’d go back to counseling for the astraphobia, as it came to be named. It was the first lie I ever told my parents.
I realized over the years that prolonged fear does something to a person. This isn’t an excuse, just a truth that I learned in time. It curls you in on yourself like paper in a fire and cuts you off from the rest of the world, which doesn’t deal with the lurking terror that never truly leaves. Fear drains life of hope. It only lets you see as far as tomorrow, which might be as bad as or worse than today. It crushes you with arms that wrap you so close, you can’t tell someone what normal actually feels like.
So by the time I met my wife, I’d become somewhat depressed and reserved. I’d just started at a company designing brake systems for jet aircraft, and she was a vice president’s secretary. I can remember the day I first saw her. I had to go up to the executive offices to present a report for our fail analysis, something I hated to do since it involved enough questions to choke a mule. Jane was at a desk just outside the vice president’s office, trying to repair a heel that had come off one of her shoes. Her legs were crossed and she was wearing a modest skirt that had ridden up her thighs as she examined the break in her shoe. I couldn’t help but notice she had great legs. I told her this later when we were married, after she’d asked me what was the first thought that went through my head when I saw her. She’d slapped me hard on the shoulder and called me something equivalent to male swine, but I could always see in her eyes that she liked it. I offered to help her fix her shoe, and after some prodding, she let me take it back to the workshop downstairs, where I applied a simple bonding compound on the break. You would have thought I moved the earth an inch.
We married a year later, and nine months after that our daughter was born. We called her Sara, after Jane’s grandmother, and when a baby boy followed a short time later, I got the honors and we named him Jack. I always liked the name Jack; it’s a good, sturdy name, the name of a detective or a construction worker. Someone tough who wouldn’t be bothered by the stresses of the world or phantom fears that came and went without boundaries or concern.
For the first few years of our marriage I tried to keep the fear and the drinking a secret from Jane. I kept a flask of vodka in the back of my sock drawer, tucked behind a divider. She knew I didn’t like storms, but I usually retreated to our bedroom when one came and sipped from the flask until everything faded to an acceptable level.
One rainy Saturday afternoon she caught me slumped in the corner of our bathroom, the flask loose in my grip. There was a falling-out. A reckoning, if you will. At first she just asked questions calmly, but by the end both of our voices were raised. It wasn’t until Jack knocked politely on the door to our room that we both stopped. She asked me to go to counseling and I refused on the grounds that I’d already tried that for years and it had solved nothing. I wouldn’t have some quack tell me I needed a bottle of pills and to come to terms with my fears. But, in truth, I knew why I didn’t want to go back. In my own way I’d found how to cope, but it was more than that—it was addiction. To put it in any other terms would be a lie. You can’t drink as much as I did for twelve years and not get addicted. I knew that I was because I’d find myself having a drink even when it was sunny or when Jane and the kids were out shopping. I remember rushing to the bathroom more than once to use mouthwash so they wouldn’t smell anything but pure, fresh mint on my breath. Addiction is the tiger in the grass. You don’t know it’s there until you feel the teeth close around your neck.
I half expected Jane to leave, to just take the kids and go, but she didn’t. She stayed, and when I explained everything to her about the anxiety and fear that took over whenever there was a storm, she understood. She relented and allowed me to drink when I wanted to and, believe it or not, it angered me that she let me do it. In some insane way I always expected her to give me an ultimatum that would force me to stop, but it never came. So the tiger pounced and locked its jaws in place, and that was how we lived our lives.
I remember the last storm. I’d been tracking it on the weather radar all morning at work. My job as lead design manager dried up along with the company two years before, and we’d moved back to my hometown in the northern part of the state. At the time there was nothing resembling what I really wanted to do, what my degree said I could do, so I settled for a mechanic’s position at a small shop on the edge of town. I worked with the smell of grease and oil in my nostrils every day until it felt like the only odor I’d ever known. When I clocked out that particular night, it was almost six and the evening sun was gone, lost behind pallid layers of gray clouds. The trees were beginning to tip like wavering tops in the wind. I drove as fast as I could to our small development and pulled into my spot beside Jane’s minivan. A fat raindrop splattered on the windshield as I got out, and I bolted up the steps before any other cold drops could touch my skin. The wind tugged at my shirt and I shivered. It was uncommonly cool for the first week of June, even for Minnesota, where sometimes you had to wear a sweatshirt in July. Our house was a modest one-level identical to three others in our neighborhood, but Jane made it comfortable and our own in the way I think only women can.
I came inside and shut the door against the storm. The smell of cooking beef met me and I inhaled the small comfort it brought. There was the pounding of little feet and then Jack was in my arms, his six-year-old body so warm, it always felt like he had a fever.
“Dad, you’re late again!”
“I know, I’m sorry, buddy.”
“Are you shivering?” he asked, his little head tilted to one side.
I tried to smile. “Just chilly outside.”
“Dad! It’s summertime. You can’t be cold.”
“It’s the storm,” Sara said as she rounded the corner to the mudroom. Her hair was drawn back beneath a headband, exposing her mother’s features. It still stunned me how much she, at only eight, resembled Jane, and I knew she would become as beautiful as her mother before she hit fifteen.
“Hi, kiddo,” I said as she came to my side.
“Hi, Dad. It is the storm, right?” she asked, hugging me around the waist.
I nodded. “Yeah, just the storm. I’ll feel better when I get settled.” I set Jack on his feet and he rushed off to his room, no doubt remembering his Legos desperately needed to be built into something grand. Sara trailed after me into the kitchen, her eyes glancing around the room as if she would find a way to ask the question she held by searching the walls and ceilings.
“What is it, honey?” I asked as I squirted a generous amount of soap into my blackened hands. Sara hopped onto a barstool on the opposite side of the counter and smiled.
“How did you know I wanted to ask something?”
“I can read you like a book.”
Again the smile. “Ashley asked me to come to a sleepover tomorrow night at her house, and I wondered if I could ride the bus there.”
“Well, let me talk to Mom and we’ll see. Are you okay with staying all night at her house?”
“Yeah, Ashley just got an American Girl doll for her birthday and I’m going to bring mine, and we’re going to play house.”
I chuckled as I attempted to scrub the grime from beneath my fingernails. No matter how many times I washed my hands the dirt never really seemed to go away. “Well, it’s fine with me, but I’ll check—” My voice was lost in a parade of thunder and I stopped. My heart did a funny flip, as if it were doing a trapeze act in my chest.
I swallowed as the vestiges of thunder rolled across the sky. “Yeah, just fine. Why don’t you go play in your room for a few minutes?” Her eyes, the only feature she’d inherited from me, searched my face for a moment, and I wondered when she’d become so much older than her years.
“Okay,” she finally said, and disappeared through the archway, into the living room.
I dried my hands and fumbled a glass tumbler from the cabinet. Without bothering for ice, I went to the pantry and pulled the dark bottle of rum from the highest shelf. I filled the glass half full and took two swallows. The burn of the liquid as it first went down was like finding the right key to a lock after searching for hours. Immediately my muscles began to unclench and my breathing deepened. I put the bottle back on the shelf and stepped out of the pantry, almost running into my wife as she rounded the corner.
“Jesus! You scared me,” she said, putting a hand against the wall.
“Sorry.” I leaned in and kissed her. She smacked her lips and raised her eyebrows when I pulled away.
“Wow, I think I have a buzz now.”
I sighed and turned toward the fridge to pull out a bottle of iced tea. My hand shook a little when I registered a flash of lightning through the window above the sink. I topped off the glass and set the bottle of tea on the counter; I’d need it again soon enough.
“How bad is this one supposed to be?” she asked, occupying the stool Sara sat on only minutes before. Thunder grumbled nearby and my gaze shifted to the ceiling involuntarily.
“It looks pretty severe. No tornado warnings out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we got a few later.” I saw a crestfallen look ripple through her features and knew what she was thinking. “I’ll only have a couple,” I said.
She nodded without looking at me, but managed a smile after a few seconds. “There’s burgers still warm in the pan.”
“Sounds great. I’m going to shower first,” I said, heading for the door to our room. Before the shower got hot, my drink was gone. The storm was quieter in the bathroom and the streams of scalding water helped iron my nerves a little.
By the time I changed into a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt, I felt almost normal. I heard my son singing a theme song to a cartoon in his room, although I couldn’t place which one it was. Jane was folding laundry in the living room, and I tried to make as little noise as possible while I poured my second drink of the night.
“Sara wants to stay at Ashley’s tomorrow for a sleepover,” I said as I leaned against the archway.
“What did you tell her?” Jane asked.
“That I’d check with the emperor of the house before I gave her my blessing.”
She shot me mocking look and stuck out her tongue. “It’s okay with me.”
“Good, I’ll tell her.” I started walking across the living room, toward Sara’s door.
“Michael?” My full name stopped me in my tracks. She called me by that only when she had something important to say. “Please, just a couple tonight?” I looked down at the floor, a tumult of emotions rip-tiding through me.
“Yes, I’ll try,” I said. I started walking and after two steps the lights flickered. I tried to stifle the breath that my lungs attempted to heave inward in panic. The answering machine beeped to life in the kitchen, and I took a long pull from my glass, leaving only an inch of liquid at the bottom.
Sara sat on her bed combing the hair of her prize doll, Megan. She’d saved her money for nearly six months to purchase the toy, and even after several talks about the high cost, she went ahead and bought it. To her credit, it almost never left her side at home, the doll’s dark hair and stylish red dress staples amongst the other stuffed animals that adorned her bed at night.
I sat down beside her on the bed, my weight pushing the mattress down so that she fell off balance and tipped into me, laughing.
“Dad, you’re too heavy!”
I scrunched my face and looked at the bed. “No, this bed’s just a piece of junk. We’ll have to get you a stronger one.”
She giggled. “I heard you guys talking.”
“About my sleepover.”
“You little eavesdropper.”
She frowned. “What’s an eavesdropper?”
“Someone who listens in on other people’s conversations,” I said.
“That doesn’t make any sense. How would you hear someone if you were dropping off their eaves?”
I laughed and hugged her. “You’re right as usual. And yes, you can stay at Ashley’s tomorrow.”
She hugged me back and leapt from the bed to her closet, her feet barely touching the carpet. “Awesome! I’m gonna pack right now! I’ll have to take Megan’s party dress and her brush and her shiny shoes.”
“Don’t forget your own clothes,” I said, standing. I’m not sure if she heard me. Her head was buried beneath a pile of blankets, in search of her doll’s necessary items. I smiled and left her to it.
I crossed the hall and peeked into Jack’s room. He was there, in the middle of the floor, toys of all kinds spread around him as if he were at the epicenter of a G.I. Joe–Lego explosion. The wind moaned outside and nudged the house, causing loud creaks and cracks. I finished my drink and set the empty glass on the floor of the hallway. My head swam as I stood up and took a deep breath. The rum was doing its job. I pushed the door open and stood there, watching my son play for a moment. His little fingers spun a bright yellow Lego in several different directions before seating it into a makeshift wall his army men hid behind. I traced my memory back as far as I could go and tried to remember a time when I’d been as carefree as he was right then. Soft images came to me: playing cards with my father, a simple game of go fish, I think; my mother humming a soundless tune, her hands thrust in soapy dishwater while I pushed small cars around her feet. But that was all. The rest was a choppy blur of rain and low clouds that made my guts writhe. I steadied myself and stepped into his room.
“Whatcha doing, champ?”
“Playin’ Joes.” He didn’t raise his head from the small figures on the floor. I knelt beside him, picked up a particularly frightening member of Cobra, and made the figure’s knees flex wildly.
“You Joes are cowards! Hiding behind a wall!” I said in a mockingly high voice, and followed it up with a raspberry that made Jack’s eyes widen and then close with belly laughs. “Laughing at me? I’ll show you!” I made the figure trudge up to the wall Jack had built and aim a kick at its bottom. “Ow, oh no, I broke my foot!” I cried.
That did it. Jack fell backward in gales of laughter. I watched him, giggling a little myself, painfully aware of how brittle and fleeting this moment was. There would come a time when he wouldn’t laugh so easily at his father’s simple jokes. Someday the toys he loved so fervently would be packed away and forgotten. I hoped he wouldn’t forget the feeling of easy laughter, or the joy he got from the make-believe worlds he created, or what it felt like to be young.
Jack opened his eyes as his laughter subsided, and sat back up. “You’re so funny, Dad. You should be on TV.”
“Am I better than Diego?”
He thought for a few seconds. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“You guess so? Come here!” I yelled, and began tickling him. He screamed laughter again and rolled away from me. Thunder slammed overhead and echoed into the deepening night like a rockslide. I sat up, my throat tightening, threatening to strangle me right there on the floor. A small hand on my arm brought me back, and I looked down at Jack’s upturned face.
“It’s okay, Dad. The storm’s outside and it can’t get in.”
Tears welled up in my eyes, and the sadness I only allowed myself in moments of complete solitude tried to rise. Sadness for feeling so paralyzed that my six-year-old had to comfort me, sadness for sitting in his room with booze on my breath, sadness for feeling like a failure.
I leaned over and kissed him on the top of his head. “I know, buddy. You’re too smart, you know that?”
He just smiled and came closer. “Dad?” he asked in a whisper.
“Yeah?” I whispered back.
“Can I have a candy bar?”
I burst out laughing again. “Sure, buddy.” He responded with a small whoop and raced out the door, nearly tripping on my empty glass.
Before I made it back to the living room, I heard Jack exclaim to Jane that he was having a treat at my bidding. Jane raised an eyebrow at me as I walked through, and I merely shrugged and acted as if it was the first I’d heard of it. As I came closer to her, I could smell the familiar fragrance of her shampoo mixed with her own, more subtle scent. It was the smell of her skin, organic and real and singular to her. I put my hand on the small of her back and guided her away from the laundry. Her face was close to mine and a little smile played at the corner of her mouth. I kissed her. In that moment—with my children happy, one in the kitchen, one in the bedroom, my wife pulled against me—I was content. I savored it. We finally moved apart, Jane’s smile now complete.
“What was that for?”
“Because I love you,” I said, simply. She hugged me close again and my eyes strayed to the window at her back. I stiffened.
Our front yard was dark. Darker than any yard should be on a June evening, a little past seven. Night had come early with the storm. Clouds thicker than I’d ever seen before coated the sky just above the tree line surrounding our home. I expected the tallest tops of the pines to actually scrape the hide of the storm at any moment. But what approached from the west cooled my blood and sent a runner of fear down my spine. A roiling whirlpool of clouds turned in a flattened spiral formation in the sky. It was enormous. Lanky tendrils of root-like thunderheads trailed up to a central black eye that rotated, swallowing the rain-laden clouds and spitting lightning every few seconds.
“Jesus” was all I managed. Jane pulled away from me and turned to the window. A hand went to her mouth.
“Is it a tornado?” she asked, transfixed by the swirling storm outside.
“I don’t think so, but we can’t be too sure.” Thunder roared like an enraged freight train and lightning touched one of the trees across the street, creating a shower of sparks and flying wood.
I swore and pulled Jane back from the window, my hands shaking on her shoulders. “Get Sara,” I said. She nodded and ran toward the opposite end of the house. I made my way to the kitchen, my knees threatening to drop me to the floor every few steps. Jack sat at the counter, contentedly chewing on a chocolate bar. “Jack, sit down in the archway, right now.”
Something in my voice must have registered, because his eyes widened and he nodded. Without so much as a word, he slid from the stool and went to the main archway leading to the living room and sat at its base. I turned to the pantry, my heart leaping in alarming directions within my rib cage. The bottle of rum was in my hand before I knew it, and I put it to my lips and swallowed one, two, three gulps before I had to take a breath. I shook my head as I capped the rum and set it in its place, noting with crazed amusement that it was almost empty.
There was a loud snapping sound, like a hundred rubber bands breaking at once, and the lights went out.
“Honey?” Jane’s voice was high and tight with worry. I stumbled from the pantry, amazed at how black the house was. I made out the oblong shape of the counter and the islands of stools beside it. Just a few more steps and the archway should be there. Lightning lit up my path, and in its flicker I saw my family huddled together in the archway, Jane’s arms cuddling both of the kids close, their small faces white in the electric glare. They looked scared. Perhaps more frightened than me, but I doubted it.
“Flashlight,” I said and turned back to the kitchen. Wind pushed at the walls and made the house moan like a ship at sea, as I finally found the drawer I was looking for. Pencils, pens, paper, coupons ... finally my fingers touched the hard barrel of the Fenix light I kept there. I clicked the bulbous switch and cool, white light flooded the ceiling. I swung the flashlight around and focused on my family again, securing them in the beam. My nerves still felt like ragged live wires, but I could breath and my heart had slowed to a normal rate. I made my way around the end of the counter as lightning strobed again, suffusing everything.
My flashlight fluttered with it.
I stopped, sure I had imagined it. The beam was steady, and I could see Jane raising a hand to block its glow. A word seemed balanced on her lips—perhaps a plea to shine it away from them? I didn’t find out because lightning flashed again at that moment and my flashlight went out for good. I stood, stunned for what felt like an eternity, shock radiating through me as my mind tried to catch up with what had happened. Electromagnetic charge in the air from the storm short-circuited the minute board within the light? Batteries dead? Coincidence? I shook the light. Nothing. Flicked the switch on and off. Nothing.
A roaring began to build beyond the roof, as if a wildfire burned above us. It grew louder with every passing second, and I wondered if this was what everyone meant when describing a tornado’s sound. Raising my head, I realized I was still flash blind from the combined brightness of the lightning and flashlight. There was a floating afterimage in the darkness of the living room. Three glowing, elongated shapes hung there in the black. I blinked, thinking they would be there on the inside of my eyelids too, but instead they disappeared. My stomach lurched. I opened my eyes as the golden points of light grew and sharpened in the room beyond my family. I tried to run. I tried to move to them, to pull them away from what my senses had already deemed real but my mind refused to accept.
The giant eyes and mouth hovered in the darkness. The mouth smiled.
I let out a half scream as lightning flared again, and I saw inhumanly long arms and hands scooping my wife and children into an embrace. Thunder roared and the floor shuddered beneath my feet. I lunged toward the doorway as the lights came on, in a mockery of my horror. I tripped over a stool and fell to my knees in the now-vacant archway. My family was gone.