NaNoWriMo: “The Hunger” by S.C. Jensen PART 2

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In an effort to keep myself motivated to stay the NaNoWriMo course this year, I’ve decided to post my progress here once or twice a week. No, I don’t mean I’ll tell you whether or not I met my word count goals every day. I mean I’m going to share my actual NaNo draft with you in all its ugly, unfinished glory! This is Part 2 of my progress. You can find Part 1 here.

I figure NaNoWriMo is a lot like writing a serialized novel; you have a rigorous pace to keep and no time to go back and change things or fuss around with word choices. This is a first draft habit I struggle with and really need to improve upon. So I’m committing to writing 50K words this month, and sharing with you as I go. I hope you will read along, toss me the occasional word of encouragement, and inspire me with ideas for what should happen next. The working title for this piece is “The Hunger” and it is a supernatural thriller about a family canoe trip that goes horribly, horribly wrong. Enjoy!

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Chapter Four

Margaret settled her knees into the bow of the canoe, dug her paddle into the rocky ground beneath them, and pushed off. The scrape of the hull against the shore reverberated through the boat and into Margaret’s belly. It was a warm, comfortable feeling despite the chill in the air. With the waters of Reyer Lake lapping against the canoes, Margaret finally started to relax.

The boat rocked gently when Robert hopped into the stern. Then all of their movements seemed to soften, to melt into the cold gray waters of Reyer. The weightlessness of the canoe lifted Margaret’s spirits. She dipped her paddle into the lake, and felt the familiar tug of the north drawing her onto the water.

Those first moments of calm silence on the lake were like a drug slipping into Margaret’s veins. It would be wrong to break it. A disruption. Already, Margaret had that otherworldly feeling that crept over her at the beginning of a journey. Passing onto the lake was like crossing a threshold into otherness. She was a stranger here. A trespasser.

“Did you get a copy of the map?” Ellie sat behind Margaret, in the middle of the laden canoe. “Or are we following the Swine brothers?”

Margaret kept her voice low. “I have one.”

The chatter from the other boats grated on Margaret’s nerves. She dug into the water. The satisfying burn of warming muscles spread down her back and across her shoulders. The sound of water dripping from her paddle was rhythmic and soothing. She wanted to put some distance between their canoe and the others. She wanted, as much as possible, to be alone.

Margaret looked back over her shoulder to make sure the red canoes were still upright. She felt a little guilty leaving Mom behind with the Swains like that, but right now she didn’t want to listen to Frank lecturing about how old the rocky outcroppings were, or what minerals made up the multi-coloured striations in the granite, or what temperature water trout preferred to breed in. She wanted the silence of the lake, uninterrupted.

Instead of the canoes, though, Margaret’s gaze found the cabin on the shore. The stand of birch trees closed in around it as they glided farther away. The sandy parking area was nothing but a dirty yellow smear against the edge of the lake. The figure of Bill Williams was just visible against it, a dark thing standing perfectly still. One arm stretched up above his head. Waving, maybe. The gesture elongated his body. The man stretched and distended until he was one with the tall, thin trunks of the trees behind him and Margaret couldn’t see him anymore.

Everything this far north became long and thin. Down around La Crosse, the forest was thick and green year round. The undergrowth was rich with berry bushes and lush mosses. The trees were the same as on Reyer Lake, black spruce and jack pines. But here, the trees were fewer and farther between. The branches were fewer and farther between. The needles. The trees were sparse in every sense of the word. It was colder. Roots were deeper. Food was scarcer. Between the trees was a blanket of rock and dried needles, a few low bushes and lichens were the only things that wanted to grow. The forest was hungry up here.

“You know where you’re going?” Frank called out across the water. Margaret flinched. “Ten clicks up, east shore. We should be able to reach it before dark.”

“Not the way you paddle,” Ellie muttered. “Are there any closer spots?”

It had been an early morning, and an eight hour drive to get to Moose Lips. The sun was already sinking against the blackened tips of the pines ahead. Margaret braced her paddle against the gunnel and pulled the collar of her jacket tighter. While the days were crisp and sunny in the early autumn, the evening air was sharper. A cold wind sighed down the length of the lake toward them, licking at the top of the water, and making little ridges on the glassy surface. “We’ll find something.”

Any flattish spot would do, really. Margaret wasn’t worried about finding a place to camp. Now that they were out on the water she was surprised that she wasn’t really worried about much at all. The fears that had crept up on her when Frank first suggested the trip out to Drake Mine diminished with each stroke of her paddle.

Trips into the bush often had this effect on Margaret. There was something relaxing about being outside, away from the buzz of civilization. The rules were simpler out here. Even the tiny village of La Crosse could be overwhelming sometimes. Margaret didn’t even like to think about the city. The city was for the Swains of the world. Not Margaret.

So much of her life seemed to suffocate but here, out on the water, Margaret could breath. She’d fought black waves of depression and electric shocks of anxiety her entire life, as far back as she could remember. The fluctuations of her moods were like echoes of memories of her father. Dullness punctuated with bursts of dark anger and flashes of white hot panic. The obsessiveness that came with a desperate need to seek control in a world that seemed to swim around her, ever-faster, until she was swept up in a tidal pool of emotions, and sensations, and thoughts that were hers-but-not-quite-hers.

It’s no wonder Frank got frustrated with her. He was a straight edge, perfectly linear in thought and action. Ever since Frank had moved in with Mom, Margaret had been a storm battering at his walls. The perfectly straight walls of logic, and progress, and common-sense. Frank was sensible. Margaret was sensitive. That was the line he used to divide them.

Why couldn’t she like Frank? He was doing the best he could, even if he was an arrogant prick sometimes. But the feeling would never go away. Frank was a stranger, even though she’d known him for years. Maybe this trip would help.

In spite of her resentment towards Frank, Margaret really did want them to feel like a family. She wanted her mother to be happy. She was determined to make this trip work.

Margaret took a deep, cool breath and let herself sink into the feeling of paddling. She hadn’t been out since spring, and she’d missed it. The rhythmic tug of each slice through the water, the warmth in her muscles in contrast to the cold air, the sound of water dripping, water lapping, water slipping away from the hull of the boat. It was her lullaby. Ellie and Robert kept their thoughts to themselves, each enjoying a private moment with the lake. Good paddling partners made all the difference.

The big white canoe easily outstripped the little red ones, even loaded as heavily as they were. They had three experienced paddlers and momentum on their side. Margaret made a mental note not to let themselves get too far ahead. But they picked up speed effortlessly, gliding through the water like a great white fish. It was almost impossible to slow down once they got into that rhythm. Margaret lost herself in the paddling. The water seemed to pull them along at its own pace, they were merely passengers.

“Wind’s picking up,” Robert said.

How long had it been? Margaret’s shoulders burned. The little surface ridges had become small white caps. The exposed skin on her cheeks felt icy and damp. The joints in her hands were stiff and achey, the skin raw with cold. “Let’s pull in toward the shore. Can you see the others?”

Reyer Lake curved slightly east, then west again. On the map it looked a bit like a weasel, twisting its way across the terrain. They followed the eastern shore, since that was where the campsites were marked. As they got off the open water and closer to the trees, the line of sight back towards Moose Lips Lodge was broken. Bill Williams, if he was still standing on the shore, wouldn’t be able to see them anymore.

Margaret couldn’t see the little red canoes, either. She stuck her paddle into the water, the flat blade breaking against the waves to slow them down. Reyer Lake was restless against the early evening light. The sun went down and seemed to take all the colour with it. The blue sky had become pale and gray, the evergreens blackened, the water teamed against their canoe. Margaret scanned the lake for the other boats.

A loon called out, signalling the end of the day. Its throaty laugh trembled, rising and falling with the waves. Another loon joined in. Margaret couldn’t see the loons or the canoes. But the sound of laughter built up to a crescendo around them, echoing off the shoreline and escalating to a fever pitch as it swept across the lake. The hairs on Margaret’s neck stood up and pressed against her jacket almost painfully.

“There they are,” Robert said. Just then, the monotonous gray water was broken by two slashes of red. The setting sun cast one last of beam of golden yellow light toward the canoes. Water glinted off their paddles, flashing and sparkling in the falling dusk. When the sun disappeared into the pines for good, the boats became nothing more than shadows.

“Okay, let’s slow down. We need to find a spot to camp.”

Margaret and Ellie paddled gently while Robert guided them in toward the rocky shoreline. Margaret watched the darkening waters carefully. Rock shelves could pop up anywhere in these northern lakes, but they were especially hazardous closer to shore.

It wasn’t long before a pale finger of rock reached out of the darkness and beckoned them in to shore. The smooth gray stone stretched out of the forest, low and flat. It would be easy to haul the boats onto. As they approached the little peninsula, Margaret could see the shape of a campfire ring nestled closer to the trees. She swept her paddle out of the water. “Over there.”

Their canoe slid closer to shore and the lengthening shadows stretched out to meet them. The trees were thicker here than they had been at Williams’ place. Or maybe it just looked that way in the waning light, shadows thickening the underbrush, fleshing out the trees. Bare birch branches creaked in the wind and pine needles sighed. Margaret’s face ached. But they were almost there.

The hairs on her neck prickled again.  Margaret didn’t like approaching a campsite in the darkness.  But the stirrings of panic swirled in her chest like the little whirlpools that twisted off the blade of her paddle. She felt exposed, suddenly, out on the water like this. She felt like they were being watched.

Trees don’t have eyes, Maggie, she chastised herself in Frank’s voice. Don’t let your imagination run away…

The scrape of rock against their hull startled Margaret out of her reverie. “Shit! Sorry guys. Didn’t see that one.”

Robert steered them in against the shore, swinging the back of the canoe towards the finger-like outcropping. “Heads up!”

Margaret reached out to the rock with her paddle, tucked the blade into a crevice, leveraged her weight against the shaft, and pulled them in closer. Ellie braced the canoe with her own paddle and Margaret hopped out onto the rock. “Got it.”

With her feet planted on solid ground, Margaret felt suddenly heavy. Tired. The hours of the day caught up to her in a rush. They unloaded the canoe quickly, without speaking. Robert scouted out a flat spot for the tent and set it up. Ellie gathered kindling and got a fire started. Margaret unpacked the cooler and put a pot of water on to boil. She kept half an eye on the red boats as they fought their way toward the shore against the growing waves.

“This isn’t the spot,” Frank called out once they were within shouting distance.

“You want to keep going in this?” Robert called back. “It’s going to be pitch black soon, and the waves are getting worse.”

“We’ll have to make up the distance tomorrow,” Frank said as they got closer. He didn’t want to give in, but he didn’t want to keep paddling, either. Margaret knew. “I hope you’re ready to wake up early.”

There was a flurry of activity when the other two boats landed. Margaret rehydrated some moose meat stew and boiled more water for tea. Two more tents went up with relatively little fuss. Brian might be a pain in the ass, but he knew how to set up camp quickly. Frank dragged the boats up onto the shore and tied them down. Margaret didn’t say anything, but she watched Robert wander over and inspect the knots on his way to bush to pee. She loved that man.

“We should be able to get to Drake tomorrow if we’re up early and paddle hard,” Frank said when they were finally all settled in around the campfire. Margaret sighed but she didn’t have the energy to argue. A belly full of stew and hot, sweet tea to wash it down, the flicker of light from the campfire dancing around them in the dark. This was just about perfect, in Margaret’s books. She’d be happy if they just stayed here and did a couple of day trips to explore the area. Forget about Drake Mine and Frank’s expedition.

Margaret shifted closer to the fire and leaned back against Robert’s legs. He rested his mug of tea on her shoulder and rubbed her neck with one hand. The warmth from the cup kissed her cheek and reminded her that this was a vacation. She let herself relax.

Margaret looked up at the night sky, the little pinpricks of light against the pitch black blanket of space. She tried to discern the outline of the trees against the darkness, but they seem to stretch into the void infinitely. Rocks and trees and sky became one as night fell in earnest around them. No one had energy to speak, it seemed. The group fell into a comfortable, exhausted silence. The only sounds were the crackling of the logs on the fire, the sighing of wind through the trees, and the soft lapping of waves against the shore.

In that moment, Margaret did feel at home on Reyer Lake.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

That night the wind howled through their camp like a thing, enraged. Branches battered their tents. The surrounding trees fought the restraint of their skeletal forms, thrashing like madmen. They stretched farther than they ought to be able to just, it seemed to Margaret, so they could whip at the campers. Snapping and cracking, limbs crashed to the forest floor around them and scraped across the granite shore.

“This is wild.” Ellie sat up, wide-eyed and cross-legged, leaning toward the centre of the tent. Margaret and Robert huddled in close. No one wanted to be near the shaking walls in case a branch landed on them. “This is fucking wild.”

Robert nodded silently. There was nothing to say. They just huddled next to one another and listened to the raging of the storm. Margaret strained her ears, trying to determine the source of the noises. Hollow thumping from the boats, the clash and clatter of metal cookware rolling across the rocks, shrieks of wind that sounded like human voices. Margaret listened, but there was nothing to say.

Panic boiled and twisted inside her brain. Margaret sensed the ramping up of anxiety, the wave-like rush of pure fear that could sweep her over the edge at any minute. She thought she’d left this ride at home. She thought she’d left it behind. But Margaret was strapped in as tight as she ever was, and she braced herself for the inevitable chaos of emotion and hyper-sensitivity that came with a high. The high and the mad dash into hopelessness that would follow.

Robert grabbed her hand. Light from the little battery operated camping lantern illuminated his face in a blue glow. His eyes flashed, little glinting shards of glass in blackened sockets. But his mouth was his, wide soft lips and always that hint of a smile. He squeezed her fingers between his. The heat of his hand pulled her back down, back out of her head and into her body. “Stay with me,” he said.

“We shouldn’t have come here,” Margaret said.

“This is wild,” Ellie said again. She rocked in and out of the light from the lantern, just slightly. The motion cast dizzying shadows against the walls of the tent. Margaret put a hand on her arm to stay her; Ellie was shaking. Margaret closed her eyes.

The wind roared in and out of the camp, ceaselessly. It seemed to go on forever, increasing steadily. Impossibly loud. Then a gasp, a pause between gusts.

Another noise pierced the darkness.

“Is that Mom?” Ellie’s arm tensed beneath Margaret’s hand. “Mom’s crying.”

Margaret’s eyes shot open and she reached for the zipper. “We should check.”

Robert yanked hard on her arm and Margaret fell backwards. “Stay in the fucking tent.”

His voice shocked Margaret more than pain in her arm. Robert had never raised his voice for as long as she’d known him. She pulled her arm out of his grasp and stared at him. The wind howled again, obscuring the crying sound. Sweat beaded on Roberts forehead and his eyes flashed again. “Please. You could get hurt. I’m sorry.”

“But Mom—”

“She’s fine. Scared probably. But she’s fine. Frank is with her.”

Ellie stared at the tent door. The wind sucked it in and out violently. The whole tent moved like someone was shaking it from the outside. Horror drained the colour from Ellie’s face. This was more than wild. “Don’t go out there, Mags.”

The three of them huddled in the centre of the tent, keeping as far from the sides as possible. They wrapped the sleeping bags around their bodies, cocooning themselves against the storm. The pounding of Margaret’s heart was loud enough to drown out the sound of the storm. Eventually, she fell into a fitful sleep.

Chapter Six

When they crawled out of the tent the next morning, Margaret couldn’t believe their gear had survived. But for all the violence of the storm, most of their belongings were where they’d left them. The cooler had tipped over, and a couple of tin mugs had to be retrieved from the bushes. But the camp was more or less the way they’d left it.

Margaret gathered up some of the deadfall that broke off in the winds, but there wasn’t much. A few old, dry branches had come down, and the rest was barely big enough for kindling. She shook her head in wonder as she walked around the tents. A snore shook the side of Brian and Gerald’s tent and Margaret burst out laughing, nearly mad with relief.

Despite his threats for an early start, Frank and the others didn’t drag themselves into the morning air until Ellie was making the second pot of coffee. Mom emerged, braiding her long black hair in a thick rope over her shoulder. She stretched like a cat and grinned at Margaret.

“Good morning, sweetie.”

Ellie brought her a cup of coffee. “Are you okay, Mom?”

“I slept like a baby.” Mom held the coffee up to her face and took a deep breath. “How about you?”

Ellie’s eyes swept over to Margaret. She frowned. “How the hell did you manage to sleep through that storm?”

“What storm?” Frank stumbled out of the tent and began rummaging through the cooler. “That bit of wind, you mean?”

“Bit of wind?” Robert looked up in disbelief. “I’m pretty sure old man winter tried to blow us into the lake.”

“Maybe you should have brought your teddy bear,” Brian scoffed. “Keep the bogey men away.”

“Maybe you should keep your mouth shut.” Margaret poured herself the last cup of coffee before Brian could reach the pot.

“Hey!”

Ellie tossed him the beans. “Make your own, slacker.”

“You know how it is,” Frank said. “Things always sound worse from inside the tent. Noises get amplified. One time I was doing exploration up by the Cigar site, I was sure there was a bear outside my tent. Woke up in the morning, nothing but rabbit tracks.”

“Might have been something else,” Ellie said.

Margaret shot her a look. “Don’t.”

“Well, I want to know who’s holding out,” Robert said. “C’mon. Who brought the booze? I could use a little Irish in my coffee after a night like that.”

“Guilty as charged.” Gerald pulled a silver flask from inside his Gore-Tex jacket. Typical city slicker, the cost of his gear was inversely proportionate to the number of times he ever used it.

“You’re a good man, Gerry.” Robert held out his cup. “Top her up. I’m going to go let a little out of the tank.”

Not a minute later, Robert was back. He walked stiffly up to the campfire, his face ashen. The pounding started in Margaret’s ears again. “What is it, Bobby?”

Robert didn’t look at her. He didn’t take the coffee cup that Gerald held out to him. He said, “The canoes are gone.”

 

 

Chapter Seven

“I don’t understand,” Frank said. He held a piece of nylon rope in his hand. It was still secured to the tree he’d tied it to. The ends kinked from where he’d knotted them, but the knot had not held. “I tied them up last night.”

“I know,” Robert said. “I checked your knots.”

“What, you don’t trust me to tie a damned boat?”

“We spent eight hours yesterday taking bets on which bump was going to send a canoe through our windshield,” Ellie snapped. “I don’t blame him.”

“What the hell is—”

“The fucking boats are gone, Frank!” Margaret cut him off, her voice rising as another wave of anxiety pitched her forward. “Do you need more evidence than that?”

“They were fine, though,” Robert interrupted. “The knots were sound. The ropes are still holding the shape for fuckssake. They were tight.”

“It’s almost like someone untied them,” Brian inspected the yellow fibers. “There’s no damage. Even in strong winds this shouldn’t have happened. Knots get tighter when you pull on them.”

“Good knots…”

“That’s not helpful, Ellie.” Mom’s voice was dangerously calm.

“Maybe old Bill Williams is fucking with us,” Brian said.

“Could be,” Frank said. “I don’t trust him. Ghost stories. Fake name.”

“Wait,” Margaret said. “Fake names?”

“C’mon, Bill Williams?” Brian said. “I didn’t buy it either.”

“Now who’s being paranoid?” Ellie laughed without humour. “You gave Maggie such a hard time for not wanting to come up here at the end of October to go spelunking in a fucking mineshaft because that’s ‘dramatic.’ But you’re willing to believe than an old man canoed across the lake in the middle of a storm just to add credibility to his fake ghost story? Are you fucking kidding me?”

“I think everybody needs to take a deep breath and a swig of the sauce,” Gerald said, suddenly the voice of reason.

“Gerry’s right.” Robert took the proferred flask. Foregoing the coffee, he took a long pull. He stared dully across the waters of Reyer. “It doesn’t matter if it was the wind or a man. We need to find those boats.”

“Why are you even entertaining the idea that Williams had—”

“Can it, Ellie.” Mom took the flask from Robert and shoved it at her younger daughter. “It doesn’t matter. We need a plan.”

Ellie’s eyes flashed over the rim of the flask, but she drank. Margaret could see the line connecting their eyes, Mom’s silent fight for control and Ellie’s willful defiance. Finally, Ellie broke. She took a sip and spat. “I’m going for a walk.”

Margaret broke from the group and followed her sister into the trees. She appreciated that Ellie stood up for her back there. And Margaret didn’t think it likely that Williams had anything to do with the missing canoes. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong here. Yes, she often felt that way for ‘no reason.’ But her imagination hadn’t untied the canoes last night. And someone had been crying last night. She was sure of that. “Ellie, wait!”

Ellie spun and faced her. Her cheeks were splotchy with cold and fighting back uncharacteristic tears. “You were right, Mags. We shouldn’t have come here.”

“Don’t let them get to you, Ellie.”

“It’s not that, it’s—” She ran her hands through her hair and pulled her hood up to cover her face. Ellie hated getting emotional. Margaret was the basket case in the family. “Ugh. Okay. They are getting to me.”

“You hear the wind last night,” Margaret said. “I know Robert checked Frank’s knots but—”

“Yeah. I know.” Ellie turned away and stared into the trees. “But this place is weirding me out.”

“Let’s go back,” Margaret urged. The trees were starting to make her feel claustrophobic. They seemed to multiply, filling in the spaces between them the longer she looked at them. Margaret and Ellie had a rule when they were out in the bush. Don’t talk about strange things. Don’t talk about strange feelings. Don’t draw attention to your fears. “Let’s just go back.”

“Alright.” Ellie wiped her eyes and turned around. Then she froze. “Shit. That little fucking shit.”

“What are you—?” Margaret spun. She saw it too.

Their canoe. The white one, stuck out of the bushes a few meters from where they stood. A few loose branches lay on top of it, but it was otherwise fine. A dark line in the undergrowth led away from the canoe back toward the camp, like it had been dragged. Realization dawned on Margaret.

“Brian.” Ellie said, echoing Margaret’s thoughts. “He was pretty fucking quick to point the finger at Bill Williams.”

“You think he’s trying to scare us?”

“Oh come on,” Ellie sneered. “He’d love that. Teasing us for listening to Williams’ story, being nervous about the mine. This is exactly the kind of thing he would do.”

“Kind of a dick move, even for Brian.”

“Think about it. The storm? Everyone else sleeps through a ‘bit of wind.’ Our tent was shaking like someone grabbed it from the outside—”

“—and the crying noises,” Margaret said. A wave of embarrassment rushed over her. They had been terrified last night. Brian had probably been laughing to himself until morning. No wonder he’d slept in. “Asshole. I bet he loved that.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“Let’s have a look for the other canoes, first. They must be somewhere around here.”

“No. What are we going to do to him,” Ellie’s eyes flashed dangerously. “We can’t let him get away with this.”

“We can let him think he’s getting away with it,” Margaret said. “We can play along.”

Ellie grinned and slapped her sister on the back. “Yes!”

“We’ll beat him at his own game,” Margaret said.

Ellie said, “And then I’m going to beat him with a paddle.”

 

 

Chapter Eight

But they didn’t find the other boats amongst the trees.

Margaret and Ellie walked back to the camp with the white canoe on their shoulders. The paddles were still lashed inside. When they swung it down onto the rocks beside the tents the rest of the group erupted in applause.

“Where the hell was that?” Robert asked.

“Where are the other two?” Margaret asked. She looked at Brian as she said it, but didn’t linger. She didn’t want to think so, but he seemed genuinely relieved to see them.

Robert pointed out across the water. Two little dots of red were barely visible against the far shore of Reyer Lake.

“Well that’s a bit extreme,” Ellie muttered behind Margaret.

“What the actual fuck,” Margaret said.

“Well don’t look like that,” Brian said. “At least we have one canoe. I thought Robert was going to have to go swimming.”

“Yeah.” Margaret said. “Right.”

“Fuel up, Mags.” Robert passed her a tin bowl full of steaming hot oatmeal. “We’re going to get our exercise this morning.”

“Are you done eating?” Margaret asked. “I’m not hungry.”

“Let’s go then,” Robert said. Margaret saw that is own bowl was untouched as well. “Ellie?”

“I’m going to stay here.” Ellie caught Margaret’s gaze meaningfully. “Keep an eye on the riff raff.”

“We’re the riff raff,” Robert said. “Tally ho, Maggie!”

###

When they were a safe distance onto the lake Margaret told Robert about her and Ellie’s suspicions. Robert didn’t say much. When Margaret looked back over her shoulder at him she saw his face was frozen in a look of deep concentration. His eyes focussed unwaveringly on the red canoes, as if he didn’t want to let them out of his sight again.

“I’ve never liked Brian,” he said, finally. “You know that.”

“I know.”

“He was piss scared when you two were gone.” Robert dug deep into the water and propelled them forward with a powerful stroke. “I thought he was, anyway. You think they teach acting in the army?”

“He probably thought we’d make him go swimming when we found out,” Margaret laughed. “Put those macho military skills to work.”

“Fucking prick.”

“Ellie wants to beat him with a paddle.”

“Maybe he’ll do us all a favour and fall down the mineshaft.”

Margaret was quiet for a bit. “Just don’t push him, okay?”

They paddled in silence for a while. The sun was up, reflecting in bright slashes across the water. The morning chill was burning off in a thin fog around the edges of the lake. The wind from last night had died completely, but an occasional stirring sent swirls of steam up like puffs of breath from the trees.

The canoes had landed about a kilometre down the lake, towards Bill Williams’ cabin. Brian might have been messing with them last night, but Margaret could see they’d gotten more than ‘a bit of wind.’ The red hulls of the boats could be seen from their campsite because they had been tossed up on the bank, meters from the shoreline. “Must have been some storm.”

Robert kept paddling. “Yeah.”

Even in the calm morning waters it seemed to take forever to get to the boats. Then again, Margaret didn’t feel the usual muscle burn from paddling. Robert’s sense of urgency had died about halfway across the lake, too. Like they were just killing time. Subconsciously, Margaret wondered if she was stalling. The longer it took them to get the boats, the less likely it was that they’d get back in time to pack up and up the lake to their next spot. Last night hadn’t been fun, and if Brian was going to keep playing stupid pranks she didn’t really want to be three days from the nearest road and satellite radio when Ellie or Robert decided to take things into their own hands. Beating him at his own game was a great idea, in theory, but Margaret would rather not have to play at all.

“I don’t even want to get the canoes,” Robert said, echoing her thoughts.

After forty-five minutes of leisurely padding, the hull of their own canoe bumped up against the steep, rocky shoreline. This wasn’t a camper-friendly landing. The granite poking through the trees and scrubby bushes fell toward the waters of Reyer at a sixty degree angle. The red boats were wedged up between some lichened rocks out of Margaret’s reach.

“I’m going to have to get out and push them in from up there,” she said.

Robert steadied the boat for her and Margaret hopped out onto the rocks. The bank was steep enough that she needed to put both hands down to pull herself up toward the red canoes. When she reached them, Margaret was surprised to see all four paddles set neatly next to the boats. “Look at this.”

“Convenient,” Robert said. “Or someone is fucking with us.”

“Shut up and grab this thing, would you?” Margaret pushed the first canoe up over the rock it was nestled against the rocks and pushed it toward the water.

Something across the water caught her eye. A dark spot in the scraggly gray trees, just up the hill from where they had set up camp. From her vantage point on the far shore, Margaret could see the way the ground sloped upward and the forest became thicker. Evergreen covered hills rolled in the distance.

“Okay, okay, I take it back!” Robert shouted. The red canoe knocked theirs sideways and he scrambled to steady himself against the rocks with an outstretched arm. “You don’t have to try to drown me.”

“What the fuck is that?” Margaret pointed.

“What are you—?” Robert looked up across the lake. “—oh. What?”

“It’s like a door in the Cliffside,” Margaret said. “Is that the mine?”

“I thought it was at the north end of the lake?” Robert said. “We’re at least twenty kilometers from Frank’s x on this map.”

“Maybe the map’s wrong?” Margaret said. “It wouldn’t be the first thing Frank screwed up this trip.”

“Come one, toss me that other boat,” Robert said. “Not on my head this time. Let’s get back and check it out.”

Margaret grabbed the second canoe by the gunwales and pushed it down the embankment, careful to ease it in next to Robert this time. He flipped it expertly into the water beside him and secured both smaller boats to the larger white one. “Okay, ready set. Where do you want me to pull up?”

But when Robert looked up at Margaret, his eyes seemed to slide right off as if tugged toward the trees behind her. All of the hairs on Margaret’s body stood on end. She felt it, too. It was as if the trees had been creeping up toward her while she struggled with the boats. Now the stirring of the leaves in the gentle morning breeze sounded too loud in her ears. Like the birch branches were shaking right behind her head, as if they were reaching out to touch her. If she just stayed there, she would feel the cold scratching fingers of—

“Hey, earth to Maggie.” Robert clapped his hand and waved. “Where do you want me?”

He was looking at her again, actually at her. But his expression was odd. Looked at the door in the cliff across the lake one last time. “You’re fine there.”

She tried to climb down the rocks as carefully as she could, but her legs felt like jelly. It was that awful dream sensation where you try so hard to run and feel like you’re swimming through molasses. A patch of electric orange lichen sloughed off beneath her foot and Margaret slid into a crack between stones, twisting her ankle. “Shit.”

“You okay?” Robert swung the blade of his paddle toward her and wedged it into the rocks. “Here, brace yourself.”

Margret grasped the shaft and pulled herself out from between the rocks. Whatever had been weighing on her disappeared as she stepped lightly into the boat, kneeled, and grabbed her own paddle. “Got it. Thanks.”

When they were out on the lake, the two smaller canoes trailing behind them, Robert spoke. “I need to sleep tonight.”

“Yeah,” Margaret said. “I’m tired, too.”

“You’re tired,” he said. “I’m hallucinating.”

“What do you mean?”

“I keep feeling like the trees are moving,” Robert said. “Here and at camp. Like they’re stepping closer.”

Margaret felt that tingle o the surface of her skin as the hairs rose up again. But she followed her and Ellie’s pact. “You do need sleep,” she said.

“What’s up with the mine, though,” he asked. “You’ve been around here before. Are there other entrances to Drake that you know of?”

She’d been up here before. Yes. She didn’t want to talk about it. “I don’t know. I didn’t really pay attention. I think that’s pretty normal, though.”

“That far away?”

“I don’t know.” Margaret really didn’t want to talk about it. “Like you said, maybe the map is wrong. We didn’t go to Drake Mine when I was here last. We weren’t stupid.”

“Well, I think Frank has the stupid covered,” Robert said. “That man is so white he doesn’t have a shadow.”

“Maybe he’s a vampire.”

“Even vampires have shadows.” Robert said. “They just don’t have reflections.”

“You’re the expert.”

“What are you implying, my dear?” Robert flung a cascade of freezing water droplets against Margaret’s jacket. They rolled down her neck and made her shiver. “That I vant to suck your blood?”

“You know the rules, Vlad.” Margaret splashed back at him. “No ‘superstitious nonsense’ until we’re back in civilization.”

“Civilization. Where ‘superstitious nonsense’ gets you a psych appointment and stern talking-to by Frank the Swine?” Robert’s tone was unexpectedly bitter.

Margaret said nothing. Robert had always supported Margaret, and backed her up with Frank thought she was ‘crazy.’ But he’d never been openly hostile toward the man. She could admit, to herself, that she often hated Frank. Brian, too. And the thing with Brian and the storm and the canoes was pushing her towards a line she didn’t really want to cross. Not yet. But in the back of her mind, Margaret thought something had to be done.

“Sorry,” Robert said.

“Don’t be sorry.”

“The guy’s a dick, though.” Robert said. He drove them back toward the camp with strong, steady strokes. “He should have listened to you.”

“Yeah,” Margaret said. “He should have.”

 

 

NaNoWriMo: “The Hunger” by S.C. Jensen PART 1

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It’s that time again! NaNoWriMo kicked off yesterday (that’s National Novel Writing Month to the uninitiated) and in an effort to keep myself motivated to stay the course this year, I’ve decided to post my progress here once or twice a week. No, I don’t mean I’ll tell you whether or not I met my word count goals every day. I mean I’m going to share my actual NaNo draft with you in all its ugly, unfinished glory!

I figure NaNoWriMo is a lot like writing a serialized novel; you have a rigorous pace to keep and no time to go back and change things or fuss around with word choices. This is a first draft habit I struggle with and really need to improve upon. So I’m committing to writing 50K words this month, and sharing with you as I go. I hope you will read along, toss me the occasional word of encouragement, and inspire me with ideas for what should happen next. The working title for this piece is “The Hunger” and it is a supernatural thriller about a family canoe trip that goes horribly, horribly wrong. Enjoy!

Chapter One

The warped and weathered logs of an old trapping cabin peeked out behind a thin stand of birch trees next to the Pointe Nord service road. The dull grey form hunkered between their skeletal bodies like a prisoner in a bone cage. Margaret’s tongue sat in her mouth like a stone. She had lived her entire life in the boreal shield, north of paved roads, surrounded by thick pine forests and slabs of lichened granite. She’d learned to walk in the mossy undergrowth, tumbling down rocky hills. She’d learned to fish with hands pink and aching from the ice-cold water that seemed to break through the stone and push the land apart. This was her home.

But she didn’t feel at home here.

Margaret swallowed the rock in her mouth and got out of the truck.

“You’re a brave lot.” The voice came before its owner. Margaret’s eyes swept through the trees, around the cabin, and over the sandy dirty lot they’d parked in, trying to find a face. A sharp crack snapped her gaze toward a woodpile next to the cabin. A man, as gray and twisted as the cabin itself, materialized between two. He left an axe buried in the chopping block. “Late in the year to be heading out in those.”

“This your place?” Frank slammed the driver’s side door of the other truck. The canoe tied on top of Frank’s truck shifted under the nylon ropes that secured it to the roof. Margaret wondered if there would be streaks of red paint on Frank’s roof, or if the canoe would have streaks of black. Oblivious to his poor tie-down, Frank strode toward the man with a meaty hand outstretched. “Frank Swain.”

“Mine, sure. For now, at least. Never know when the trees will decide to take her back,” the older man said. His long fingers, knotted with age and blackened with use, wrapped around Frank’s. Margaret thought of the birch stand. Cage-like trunks and finger-like branches. They man eyed the red canoe warily. “Good to meet you, Frank. Can I do something for you folks?”

“We’re looking for a ‘Moose Lips Lodge,’” Frank said. He seemed to take in the little clearing and the ramshackle cabin for the first time. “It’s supposed to be around here somewhere.”

The old man laughed. Cackled, really. It was like the sound of branches snapping in the first frost. Cold and dry, but with that peculiar humour of the north. This was a laugh Margaret understood. She didn’t feel at home here, but Frank didn’t belong. The old man caught her smile and winked. “You found it, Mr. Swain.”

“This is the Lodge?”

“My own little joke, I guess.” The man dug a finger into his grizzled beard and scratched his chin. “What are you looking for with old Moose Lips?”

“Well, mister—” Frank trailed off. He liked to be able to drop a person’s name into conversation as many times as possible. Some residual habit from his years in business school, Margaret assumed.

“Bill Williams,” the man said. He stood a little taller, stretching his bent frame upward like a tree toward the sun. “At your service.”

“Bill? As in William?” Frank let out an awkward belch of a laugh. “Did your mother have a sense of humour?”

“Just Bill, as far as I know,” the man said. “As for my mother, I couldn’t tell you. I was named by Jesuits.”

“Well, Bill,” Frank pulled his hand, belatedly, from the man’s grasp. “We heard we could leave our vehicles here. Possibly pick up some supplies.”

“How long you folks going out for?” Bill rubbed his right palm against his coveralls, like the rough, grimy canvas could cleanse him of Frank’s touch. “First frost was only a few nights ago. It’s going to get real cold, real fast.”

“That’s what I told them,” Margaret said. “But Mr. King-of-the-Wild over there thinks he knows what he’s doing.”

“This is my step-daughter, Maggie,” Frank said, as if to excuse her.

“Well, Maggie—“

“Margaret,” Margaret said.

“Margaret.” The old man turned his pale brown eyes on her. He was like an owl, taking in every twitch and every gesture, waiting to swoop in for the kill. “You have good cause to be concerned.”

“It’s perfectly safe,” Frank said. “We have good maps, the right equipment. Brian is a medic. What could go wrong?”

“We’ll be fine,” Brian, Frank’s younger brother, piped up from behind Frank’s truck. Margaret turned to see him shake off and tuck himself into his Levi’s. The youngest Swain was closer in age to Margaret and Ellie than to Frank, the product of a first, failed marriage on Grandpa Gerry’s part. “I don’t know why you’re being so weird about it.”

“Maggie’s not being weird.” Robert wrapped an arm around Margaret’s waist. “She grew up around here. You guys didn’t.”

“Well, you’re still here.” Brian said. “So you can’t be too scared.”

“We’re here because mom’s here.” Ellie stepped up next to Margaret and Robert, the only sane ones in the group. “Fucked if we’re going to let you morons take her into the wilderness without at least one set of wits to share about the group.”

“One set?” Brian sidled up next to Frank. “Who gets to claim the brains?”

“Just stop it,” Mom slammed the back door of the black truck. “We haven’t even started yet and the bickering is going to kill me.”

“Well, you can leave the trucks here. Keys, too. Or not. Some folks do, some folks don’t.” Bill Williams took the bickering in stride. “I have a satellite radio here if you do need help out there; just send someone back to see me. But I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“Of course we’ll be fine,” Brian scoffed.

“We haven’t had anyone die or go missing in years,” Bill said. The others laughed. Margaret fought back a chill creeping up the backs of her legs. It settled at the base of her spine.

“Yeah.” Margaret tugged at a blue nylon knot that secured her own canoe. The rope loosened, and she and Ellie each grabbed a gunwhale. “Great.”

“Where’s Gerald?” Mom asked.

“Would you like some coffee before you head out?” Bill Williams smiled his broken bark smile. His face cracked into pieces that Margaret thought had always been there. The seams in his flesh took on more and more blackness as he got older and the earth became him. She knew his type. Bushed.

“Yeah,” Margaret said. “That would be great.”

 

 

Chapter Two

“Well that hit the spot,” Mom said. She rubbed Margaret’s back in rhythmic circles. It was a habit she’d had since her daughters were small. Only now that Margaret was grown did she realize it was a nervous habit. Just try to be civil. For mom. The reminder niggled at the back of her mind. She wondered if Ellie felt the same.

Gerald and his sons, Frank and Brian, huddled over a map in the corner of Bill Williams’ hut. Margaret couldn’t help feeling angry at them. Mom and she and Ellie belonged here. This was their world. Frank sat there like a colonial explorer, lording over the map like being able to read it was a sign of ownership.

“I figure three days in and three days back,” he said.

“What’s your destination?” Bill Williams asked. He sat himself nearer the women than to Frank and company. The only odd man out was Robert. Bobby slid in next to Margaret, like her body was the grounding rod in this crazy experiment. She stood, not because she didn’t want to sit with him, but because her mother’s hand was going to wear a hole through her skin in a minute.

“Drake Mine,” Frank said.

“Ahh,” the old man said. “Lot of history there. You’re not going in, though.”

It wasn’t a question. There was no reasonable excuse for enter the old mine shaft, as far as Bill Williams was concerned. Margaret agreed.

“I want to show them how far we’ve come in the last hundred years,” Frank laughed. He was a modern day miner. He wore a hard hat and coveralls to meet the safety requirements of his firm. Otherwise he had little to do with the men who’d died in the old black shafts dug into the granite rockface of the north. Copper, gold, diamond, uranium. The rock of the earth held all kind of riches, if you knew what you were looking for.

“You’re not going in,” Williams repeated.

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Margaret interjected.

Of course Frank wanted to go in. He wanted to put on his brave miner hat and go into the abandoned shafts and prove to Mom how great his command of the north really was. Brian, military medic with two tours in Afghanistan under his belt, was to play medic here, too. Gerald, the decrepit old man, thought the sun shone out of his sons’ asses. Frank said, “We’ll see.”

“Mr. Williams,’ Mom said.

“Yes, Mrs. Swain?“

“Ms. Churchill. Grace,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” old Bill said. He waited for her to speak and ignored the chatter from the men who didn’t belong. “Grace.”

“You said you hadn’t had anyone die or go missing in years.” Mom took a long swallow from her coffee mug. “Can you tell us what happened? I mean, we hear rumors in La Crosse, but—”

“Oh, you don’t want to hear that.” Bill busied himself pushing old newspapers into the chinks between the logs of his cabin. The crowd filled his living space, three on the bed, three at the table. Margaret floated, with Bill, filling in the spaces that weren’t taken up by the others. “That’s old news.”

“Old news is the best news,” Ellie said.

“Not here.” Bill Williams tore up more paper and stuffed it into the cracks. “Not when you’re going out. Stop in on your way back and we can talk about it.”

“It’s not just the girls who are scared,” Brian scoffed. “What’s going on, Frank? Where are you taking us?”

“Superstitious nonsense,” Frank said. “I told Maggie before we left that all of this was superstitious nonsense.”

“She’s not superstitious.” Margaret was silently grateful for Ellie’s defense. Too many times had she been written off as superstitious, paranoid, mentally unstable…

Mom jumped in, too. “Frank, dear. Watch the language.”

“Well what am I supposed to say at this point? I’m trying to take us on a family trip. To bond. To make us closer to one another. All I’ve met is resistance. I’m starting to think you all just don’t want me here!”

“That’s not it, Frank.” Mom slips between her daughter and her husband with a practiced skill. “It’s just different when you grow up here. You see things differently. Margaret sees things differently.”

“Always an excuse.” Frank spreads his thighs against his father and brother next to him. The three make a wall of white-man logic that will not be broken, not today. “Never a reason.”

“It’s okay, mom.” Margaret sits herself between Ellie and her mother. Nothing but a symbol of their resistance, but at least they aren’t alone. Robert flanks them, the reluctant warrior.

“Well, it’s not going to hurt anything to tell you, I suppose.” Bill’s eyes glinted over the rim of his coffee mug. He watched Frank and Brian carefully. “Folks have been going missing on Reyer Lake ever since the mine collapsed in the twenties. Maybe before that, too, but nobody talks about before.”

“Everywhere people go, people go missing,” Frank said. All logic, no brains, Margaret thought. “What makes Reyer any different?”

“Drake Mine, for one,” Bill said. To Margaret, his eyes, said more.

“Yeah, yeah,” Brian chipped in. “The collapse. We know.”

“Do you know how many men died in that collapse?”

“We’re all a little too old for ghost stories, Mr. Williams.”

“This ain’t a ghost story.” Bill Williams smiled, then. His teeth were surprisingly clean and white, given the state of the rest of him. Little sun-bleached bones in his mouth. “Seven men were down in that hole when the pilings caved in. Six of them died.”

“If it’s not a ghost story, what on earth does this have to do with our canoe trip, Williams?” Frank’s left knee bounced rapidly under his elbow. He leaned forward with his face in his hands, trying to look interested. Margaret could see his patience thinning as it often did with her and her ‘imagination.’

“One man survived. Charles Thomas. The cross shift found him more than a month later—”

“Good thing you’ve got a union, eh Frank?” Gerald elbowed his son in the ribs.

“He’s the one you have to worry about.”

“If he were still alive he’d be a hundred years old.” Frank’s exasperated sigh seemed to propel him to his feet. “Thanks for the coffee, Bill. But we should get going.”

“How did he survive so long in that hole?” Brian stood up with Frank. Gerald came with him like they were attached at the hip. “Didn’t he get hungry?”

“He’s been hungry ever since.” Margaret said it to herself more than anything, but Bill heard. He nodded slowly.

“What’s that, Maggie?” Frank’s voice took on an edge.

“You seem like a resourceful man,” Bill said to Brian. “I’m sure you can imagine what he had to do to survive.”

“Yeah, gross,” Frank said. “But that was eighty years ago. I doubt there are even bones down the old shaft anymore.”

“No bones, no. They took the bodies out and burned them after they found Charles Thomas,” Bill said. “And they took Thomas into the city to see a doctor. He was right as rain. Got a settlement, never had to work again.”

“Terrifying,” Frank said. “They cleaned up the mine shaft and the cross shift got to work. The end.”

“That they did,” Bill said. “But that wasn’t the end of it. Thomas kept coming back.”

“Why on earth would he come back after they paid him off?” Brian laughed. “Now that is crazy.”

“It’s true,” Robert said. “My grandpa worked at Drake for a while. He said Thomas wouldn’t go near the mine shaft, but they couldn’t get him to leave the camp. Unnerved everybody, knowing what had happened. Eventually they had to close the site because they couldn’t find anyone to work there.”

“Yup. Everybody packed up and went home,” Bill said. “Except Charles Thomas.”

“And he haunts the woods to this day.” Brian raised his arms above his head and made a goofy face.

“You asked, Brian.” Margaret’s own patience was worn through. “Don’t be a dick about it.”

“Margaret—“ Mom sounded tired.

“This is seriously what you’re worried about, Maggie?” Frank reeled on her, as if it was somehow her fault that Bill Williams had talked about Reyer Lake. “An old man wandering around the woods?”

“No,” Margaret snapped. “I’m worried that you morons are going to get yourselves killed trying to prove how clever you are.”

“We’re just here so mom doesn’t have to paddle back by herself once you get stuck down there,” Ellie said.

Robert’s usually serious face twitched with a smile. “You said you have satellite, right?”

“That I do, son.” Bill Williams cackled again. “Moose Lips Lodge has all the modern trappings. I even have a composting toilet.”

 

 

 

Chapter Three

Bill Williams chopped firewood. He swung his axe and piled his logs like a mechanical woodsman, perfectly rhythmic. He never misjudged a swing. Each log he split neatly into halves, then quarters, and fitted them together against the wall of the cabin like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Margaret admired the seamlessness of his movements. The man was bushed, but he knew how to live out here. It was going to be a long, cold winter. Bill didn’t waste any more time on them.

It took about an hour to unload the three canoes from the trucks and get them packed with all the gear. Frank circled around the boats, giving orders about what went where while Margaret, Ellie, and Robert ignored him. They took the majority of the gear in their larger white canoe. Frank and Brian fussed with their loads, made a big show of piecing everything together just so. They got the balance all wrong.

“You going to help your man, Mom?” Ellie stacked the tents behind the crosspiece, making a backrest for herself. “Or is this the only way you can get him to bathe?”

Gerald, hovered between the red canoes and looked impressed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t worry, Gerry,” Mom laughed. “The water is very refreshing this time of year.”

“Don’t encourage them, Grace.” Frank glared at Margaret with his infamous lack of humour.

“I didn’t say anything,” Margaret said. “I think you’ve done a fine job. Very neat.”

Frank’s lips tightened. He looked between Margaret and canoe as if trying to decide which one was lying to him. Then he grunted and started rearranging the gear. Warm satisfaction buzzed in Margaret’s head.

Margaret had never been able to pinpoint why she didn’t like Frank. He was a good man, he had a good job, and he was kind to her mother. He genuinely seemed to want them to be a family. But Margaret and Ellie had been too old when he entered their life for them to ever see him as a father. Or maybe this unyielding resentment was how people felt about their fathers. Margaret, admittedly, couldn’t remember her own beyond the emptiness of the place he used to be and the relief that came with it.

Still, something about Frank rankled her. She was never more aware of it than when he was with his brother and his father. Frank had been living in La Crosse for the last twenty years, but he was a city boy. He could blend in in town, well enough that even Margaret forgot he wasn’t a northerner sometimes. But when Gerald and Brian were around contempt bubbled to the surface and oozed out of Frank. Contempt of their town, their land, their people. To Margaret it stank like the city.

“Careful,” Robert said in her ear. “You’ll burn a hole in his head if you keep staring at him like that.”

“Might be an improvement,” Ellie said.

Margaret felt an overwhelming love for her sister and Robert, then, the only two people in her life who hadn’t let her down. Even Mom, whose incessant love for Frank had never stopped feeling like a betrayal to Margaret, couldn’t be counted on. “I don’t know what I would do without you two.”

“Twenty to life, probably,” Ellie said.

“Nah.” Robert wrapped his arms around her waist and rested his chin on her shoulder. “She’d be out early on good behavior.”

“I don’t know how you’ve known Mags for this long and can still say that with a straight face.”

“He’s pretty good at poker, too,” Margaret said.

Robert hummed into Margaret’s neck and swayed against her hips. “Daddy was a gamblin’ man.”

“If he starts singing country music I swear I’ll put us all in the drink.”

Robert looked over Ellie’s shoulder at the youngest Swain and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “If you want to go swimming, we could put you in Brian’s canoe.”

“Shut it, lover boy.”

Brian and Robert had never gotten along. Even when they were kids and Brian came to spend summers ‘in the bush’ with his big brother, Frank, Brian and Bobby had butted heads. Robert quietly refused to be impressed by Brian’s machismo. Brian not-so-quietly refused to believe Robert’s strong silent type act wasn’t a cover for cowardice. Since Brian signed up for service he’d gotten even more obnoxious about it. But Margaret knew Robert pushed his buttons on purpose.

“If you three aren’t going to help with the canoes why don’t you go lock up the trucks and give the keys to Williams,” Frank interrupted before another argument could erupt. “Looks like we’re keeping him waiting.”

Margaret noticed then that the chopping noise had stopped. Bill Williams stood next to his wood pile and leaned his bent frame against the handle of the axe. He watched the group with a distant look on his face, like he was seeing something else, some other time.

“Creep,” Ellie said.

It was a little creepy. But these guys who lived in the bush by themselves for so long sometimes forgot how to act around other people. Most of them weren’t all that great with people to begin with. Margaret figured Bill Williams was a harmless creep. He belonged here, growing grey and spindly like the trees around his cabin. He was probably looking forward to winter when the only intrusions upon his peace and quiet would be the cracking of the ice on Reyer and the howling of wolves.

Margaret said, “I’ll go.”

*************************************************************************************

That’s the end of Day 2, 3495 words down 46,505 to go! Stay tuned for more.

Book Review: Refuse by Jennifer Roush

Refuse by Jennifer Roush

I can honestly say that Jennifer Roush’s sci-fi novel Refuse is unlike anything I have ever read. I’m guessing this is going to be new to you, too. Now, don’t go running away screaming. This is not some experimental post-narrative fart sniffing BS. When I say new I mean…

 

I have never been inside a characters head quite like this before. And I like it.

 

Refuse is a serious book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And you can hear Roush’s voice oozing out of every word of every sentence. This book has style. Narrative style. A very distinct narrative style that I can only compare to the likes of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (both of whom Roush is nothing like, I just compare for the intensity of authorial voice).

 

It’s not going to be for everyone, I’ll say that right now.

 

Refuse is the story of Antoinette Foucault, a human resident on the asteroid Psyche (which is shared with two other alien species, the mysterious Grays and the powerful Amarians). Psyche is home to a Colony of the solar systems unwanted humans: emotional deviants who refuse to conform to Amarian rules. Antoinette is not a patient of the Colony, but she should be.

 

The band of misfits that propel this story are so bizarre it’s almost a thing of beauty. The inner workings of Antoinette’s mind as she works her way through the mysterious society of Psyche certainly are beautiful. Raw and course and sometimes ugly; but beautiful.

 

What I like best about Refuse beyond the sheer strangeness of the plot and characters, is Antoinette’s voice. The gritty, gross, sometimes absurd musings of a woman who is destined to destroy her home. She’s a deviant, surely. But in this world, so are we all. Sometimes Anty is so funny that we forget there is nothing funny about her situation, and that’s the beauty of this book.

 

I’m a big fan of SF that gets outside the box. Science fiction should be a world without boxes, but there’s a tradition at play that many writers struggle to break free from. Roush succeeds, and then some. She manages to play with ideas around species, individuality, gender, race, and sexuality so fluidly that you don’t realize much of what Antoinette is going through is a parallel to our own world. If you’re like me, you’ll be laughing too hard to realize that Refuse is a serious book.

 

And that’s why I love it.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Jennifer Roush is my friend and sometimes editor. My review is in no way coloured by this relationship. She’d probably beat me if I praised her for something that didn’t deserve praise. The fact is, I know a lot of very clever people, and I will be showcasing them (and others) here as often as I can. And I promise I will only review things I genuinely love, or genuinely hate, here. Because taste matters.

That said, if you have something you would like me to read and review (of yours or someone else’s) please let me know.

The TBR Pile: Black Speculative Fiction Month Edition

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The month is almost over, and I’m just getting back into this whole blogging thing. But I just found out that October is Black Speculative Fiction Month! So, I will be dedicating the rest of my posts this month to black SF writers/creators and books with black protagonists. For now, I’d like to drop some links for further reading while I catch up on all the stuff that’s been going on this month!

Chronicles of Harriet has a great explanation of what BSFM is all about, plus a reading list that will keep you busy until next October!

Troy L. Wiggins has a post on “Six Essential Fantasy and Science Fiction Books Written by Black Authors” which features two of my favourite SF writers of all time: Octavia E. Butler (If you haven’t read Lilith’s Brood yet, you absolutely must!) and N.K. Jemisin (I wrote about Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms HERE)

NPR has an excellent article on the importance of Black SF by author by Alaya Dawn Johnson that is full of industry insights and reading recommendations, “Black Sci-Fi Writers Look to the Future.”

And Grey Dog Tales will tell you why you should care about Black Speculative Fiction Month, “even if you’re as white as a recently-scrubbed albino sheep in a Yorkshire snowdrift.” This article is thought provoking and full of suggestions for further reading—blogs, articles, and recommendations abound!

Or if you just want to check out some new books, here are some that I’ve read or have in my TBR pile. Let’s celebrate BSFM with new books to read! Ask your local bookstore to stock these authors, make a request at your library, buy your own copy, write a review, dive in and ENJOY!

41tfeLyYimLDhalgren by Samuel R. Delany:

Nebula Award Finalist: Reality has come unglued and a mad civilization takes root in Bellona, in this science fiction classic.

A young half–Native American known as the Kid has hitchhiked from Mexico to the midwestern city Bellona—only something is wrong there . . . In Bellona, the shattered city, a nameless cataclysm has left reality unhinged. Into this desperate metropolis steps the Kid, his fist wrapped in razor-sharp knives, to write, to love, to wound.

So begins Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany’s masterwork, which in 1975 opened a new door for what science fiction could mean. A labyrinth of a novel, it raises questions about race, sexuality, identity, and art, but gives no easy answers, in a city that reshapes itself with each step you take . . .

This ebook features an illustrated biography of Samuel R. Delany including rare images from his early career.

61PCeRgmQAL._SY346_The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K Jemisin:

A REALM OF GODS AND MORTALS.

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle.

51ucq60C9zL.jpgLilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler: Three novels in one volume: the acclaimed science fiction trilogy about an alien species that could save humanity after nuclear apocalypse—or destroy it.

The newest stage in human evolution begins in outer space. Survivors of a cataclysmic nuclear war awake to find themselves being studied by the Oankali, tentacle-covered galactic travelers whose benevolent appearance hides their surprising plan for the future of mankind. The Oankali arrive not just to save humanity, but to bond with it—crossbreeding to form a hybrid species that can survive in the place of its human forebears, who were so intent on self-destruction. Some people resist, forming pocket communities of purebred rebellion, but many realize they have no choice. The human species inevitably expands into something stranger, stronger, and undeniably alien.

From Hugo and Nebula award–winning author Octavia Butler,Lilith’s Brood is both a thrilling, epic adventure of man’s struggle to survive after Earth’s destruction, and a provocative meditation on what it means to be human.

51maU6K7HAL._SY346_.jpgWill Do Magic for Small Change By Andrea Hairston:

Cinnamon Jones dreams of stepping on stage and acting her heart out like her famous grandparents, Redwood and Wildfire. But at 5’10’’ and 180 pounds, she’s theatrically challenged. Her family life is a tangle of mystery and deadly secrets, and nobody is telling Cinnamon the whole truth. Before her older brother died, he gave Cinnamon The Chronicles of the Great Wanderer, a tale of a Dahomean warrior woman and an alien from another dimension who perform in Paris and at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Chronicles may be magic or alien science, but the story is definitely connected to Cinnamon’s family secrets. When an act of violence wounds her family, Cinnamon and her theatre squad determine to solve the mysteries and bring her worlds together.

41Ybzx4ZG9L.jpgDark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree R. Thomas:

This volume introduces black science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers to the generations of readers who have not had the chance to explore the scope and diversity among African-American writers.

51Uy-XHYgiLElysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett:

Received the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award Special Citation
A Finalist for the 2015 Locus Award for Best First Novel

A computer program etched into the atmosphere has a story to tell, the story of two people, of a city lost to chaos, of survival and love. The program’s data, however, has been corrupted. As the novel’s characters struggle to survive apocalypse, they are sustained and challenged by the demands of love in a shattered world both haunted and dangerous.

61y7w-c2dFL.jpgThe Alchemists of Kush By Minister Faust:

Two Sudanese “lost boys.” Both fathers murdered during civil war. Both mothers forced into exile where the only law was violence. To survive, the boys became ruthless loners and child soldiers, until they found mystic mentors who transformed them into their true destinies.

One: known to the streets as the Supreme Raptor; the other: known to the Greeks as Horus, son of Osiris. Separated by seven thousand years, and yet connected by immortal truth.

Born in fire. Baptized in blood. Brutalized by the wicked. Sworn to transform the world and themselves. They are the Alchemists of Kush.

41eUhJG7m5L._SY346_Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor:

In a post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways; yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. A woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert, hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different—special—she names her Onyesonwu, which means “Who fears death?” in an ancient language.

It doesn’t take long for Onye to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her conception. She is Ewu—a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half-breed rejected by her community. But Onye is not the average Ewu. Even as a child, she manifests the beginnings of a remarkable and unique magic. As she grows, so do her abilities, and during an inadvertent visit to the spirit realm, she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.

Desperate to elude her would-be murderer and to understand her own nature, she embarks on a journey in which she grapples with nature, tradition, history, true love, and the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately learns why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death.

41tWRPpGRgL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgCrystal Rain By Tobias S. Buckell

The is much-anticipated debut novel by Tobias S. Buckell, one of science fiction’s newest and most promising talents.

Long ago, so the stories say, the old-fathers came to Nanagada through a worm’s hole in the sky. Looking for a new world to call their own, they brought with them a rich mélange of cultures, religions, and dialects from a far-off planet called Earth. Mighty were the old-fathers, with the power to shape the world to their liking—but that was many generations ago, and what was once known has long been lost. Steamboats and gas-filled blimps now traverse the planet, where people once looked up to see great silver cities in the sky.

Like his world, John deBrun has forgotten more than he remembers. Twenty-seven years ago, he washed up onto the shore of Nanagada with no memory of his past. Although he has made a new life for himself among the peaceful islanders, his soul remains haunted by unanswered questions about his own identity.

These mysteries take on new urgency when the fearsome Azteca storm over the Wicked High Mountains in search of fresh blood and hearts to feed their cruel, inhuman gods. Nanagada’s only hope lies in a mythical artifact, the Ma Wi Jung, said to be hidden somewhere in the frozen north. And only John deBrun knows the device’s secrets, even if he can’t remember why or how!

51SpLP8SExL.jpgBrown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson The rich and privileged have fled the city, barricaded it behind roadblocks, and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to rediscover old ways–farming, barter, herb lore. But now the monied need a harvest of bodies, and so they prey upon the helpless of the streets. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, eternal powers, and the tragic mystery surrounding her mother and grandmother. She must bargain with gods, and give birth to new legends.

41w7GPKYewLFlygirl By Sherri L. Smith

Ida Mae Jones dreams of flight. Her daddy was a pilot and being black didn’t stop him from fulfilling his dreams. But her daddy’s gone now, and being a woman, and being black, are two strikes against her.

When America enters the war with Germany and Japan, the Army creates the WASP, the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots—and Ida suddenly sees a way to fly as well as do something significant to help her brother stationed in the Pacific. But even the WASP won’t accept her as a black woman, forcing Ida Mae to make a difficult choice of “passing,” of pretending to be white to be accepted into the program. Hiding one’s racial heritage, denying one’s family, denying one’s self is a heavy burden. And while Ida Mae chases her dream, she must also decide who it is she really wants to be.

51V7WWg9EzL._SY346_.jpgLove is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson

A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.

The lush city of Palmares Tres shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.

Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Tres will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.

S.C. Jensen @ Goodreads’ “Ask the Author”

ask-the-author

Hello everyone!

I apologize for my absence the last few weeks. I had an unexpected hospital stay (don’t worry, everything is fine!) Now that I’m home again, and everything is settled, I am hoping to get back to business. I will be answering reader questions on Goodreads’ “Ask the Author” feature until the end of January. Please sign up or log in and fire away! Thanks!

Hot Off the Press!

It's here!
It’s here!

It’s been many years in the making, but I’ve finally got a box of my very first published book! It’s actually starting to feel real now 🙂 I am still looking for reviewers, if you are interested. Please contact me through wordpress or at scatphillips@gmail.com if you’d like to give it a shot. Thanks for your interest!

Calling all Reviewers!

Looking for a summer read?
Looking for a summer read?

I’m looking for some sci-fi and spec fic fans to review my new novel, The Timekeepers’ War. If you’re looking to add another book to your summer reading and think you’d enjoy a little post-apocalyptic adventure, please get in touch! I’m looking for honest, thoughtful reviews. No fluff! If you don’t like it, I’d rather read a constructive review on why than a fake positive review 😉 Thanks in advance for your interest!

Buy The Timekeepers’ War Today!

 

Available Now!
Available Now!

A huge “Thank You!” to everyone who is still waiting by for the release of my novel, The Timekeepers’ War. Your patience has finally been rewarded! The eBook is available here: on amazon and smashwords. Paperbacks are available on amazon and through my publisher, Bedlam Press. If you are interested in a limited edition signed hardcover, you can snag one of them at Bedlam as well! There are only 25 of them, though, so you’d better hurry!

If you are a member of Goodreads, you can try your hand at winning a review copy through the Goodreads Giveaway program. The contest runs until September 12, 2014. Please share!

Thanks again to everyone who has been waiting so patiently. I can’t wait to hear your feedback!

 

SF Book Review: The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book One of The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book One of The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Broken Kingdoms, Book Two in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Broken Kingdoms, Book Two in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Kingdom of Gods, Book Three in The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K Jemisin
The Kingdom of Gods, Book Three in The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K Jemisin

It has been a long time since I’ve written a book review here, so I’m going to try to kill three birds with one stone. That is, if you believe you can kill something by just loving it too much… I hope Jemisin is resilient, because there is going to be a lot of love coming her way.

I cannot say enough good things about N.K Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. This isn’t going to be a proper, detailed review because I simply read them all in one great insatiably hungry sitting. Now, I can’t remember all of the details that made me love these books; all that remains is the hazy afterglow of book-lust in all its warm and fuzzy glory. One of the hazards of binge reading, I suppose.

Jemisin is a recent discovery for me. I stumbled upon a review of The Broken Kingdoms by the Little Red Reviewer, and in an uncharacteristic act of blind faith, immediately bought the entire Inheritance Trilogy as well as the first two books in the Dreamblood trilogy. What can I say. I’m a sucker for well written reviews and pretty book covers.

Jemisin did not disappoint. Not only did she not disappoint, she blew every expectation that I had out of the water. She is everything that a great science/speculative fiction or fantasy writer should be, in my opinion. She is everything that I hope to be, some day, as a writer. I thought I was getting close, but Jemisin has shown me exactly how far I can still push myself. And I love her for it.

I’m not going to tell you the plotline of these books. You can look that up easily enough. What I am going to tell you is that Jemisin does three things marvellously well, and I believe these three things are essential to good, progressive SF&F lit.

1) Women: Jemisin writes female main characters who are main characters that happen to be female. She does not do stereotypes. She does not do caricatures. She writes full, well-rounded, interesting female characters who are as tough and vulnerable as they need to be. They are human, even when they are gods. This is also true for her male characters, although I would argue this is less of an anomaly in today’s fiction. Jemisin creates balance and believability with her characters without resorting to age old tropes and conventions.

2) Gender and Sexuality: I will never understand why, when a writer creates a completely original and unique world, they insist on conforming to heteronormative social constructs. Jemisin is not afraid to push the boundaries of gender and sexuality in her writing, she uses ambiguity to great effect, creating complexity and tension in her characters’ relationships that would not exist otherwise. And I’m not talking about trendy lesbians, either. She writes male characters who slip with ease from raw masculinity into sumptuous femininity. She writes about love between men, and the complications of having both male and female lovers. She deals with power and dominance in ways that rise above gender. And it’s hot. I dare you to pick up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and tell me otherwise.

3) Race: Like issues of gender and sexuality, race is another oft overlooked aspect in SF&F literature. The genre is notoriously whitewashed; the most popular SF writers tend to be white men who write about white men. This is true in all literature, but seems to be a particularly stubborn reality in SF. As more and more female writers and/or writers of colour are taking off in literary fiction, SF seems stuck in the mud. But this is the genre that should be the most able to accommodate writers and characters of all backgrounds. There are literally NO RULES when you’re writing SF. You get to make it all up, top to bottom. Why the hell do we insist on continuing to read and write predominantly white characters? Jemisin does not feel compelled to follow this formula, obviously. And she shows exactly how easy it is to make the shift. I honestly didn’t really think much about the fact that she created a world with many races (which were not sullied by “real world” stereotyping/exoticising) as I was reading. It was after I had finished that I thought, “Holy shit, that was refreshing!” Now that she has shown me how it can be done, she’s given me new goals for diversity in my own writing.

So regardless of where your tastes lie as a science fiction or fantasy reader, I urge you to pick up N.K. Jemisin the next time you’re looking for a fresh new voice. I honestly believe there is something for everyone in The Inheritance Trilogy and Jemisin has something to teach us all, as readers and writers, about how easy and effective it is to push those boundaries. I truly hope she will help to usher in a new age of SF fandom now that she has thrown open the door for those of us trying to follow in her footsteps.