Sunday, March 17, 2019

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Crockett Rev 2

Name: London Crockett
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: The Blasphemer’s Cypher


Lady Margaté wants to ruin Jinxx’s life. Not make it uncomfortable, but send the fourteen year-old seamstress and apprentice mage begging for coins in the street. As Baroness-in-Waiting, Margaté can do whatever she desires, and she believes Jinxx’s family is responsible for her father’s death.

Jinxx is hired by Margaté’s mother to make Margaté a quinceañera dress. While working in the castle, Jinxx discovers a hidden, enciphered note. After breaking the code, she realizes Margaté’s appetite for vengeance is worse than she imagined: Margaté anonymously accused the local priest of molesting Jinxx. 

As word of the accusation spreads, people think the priest is innocent, but Jinxx is immoral. The priest doesn’t believe Margaté is behind the accusation, even after Jinxx shows him the note. Nor does a second one convince him, but Jinxx knows Margaté isn’t going to stop at an accusation: her next step will be violent. 

Reliant on crutches, Jinxx is the worst sneak in the world and a dreadful liar. She has one advantage: her secret magic studies. If she can learn how to cast a spell—any spell—she might be able to prove she’s innocent and Margaté is guilty.


Rules are important. Without them, you have people strutting into houses of worship with hands on their sword hilts. It’s not a rule anybody ever wrote, because everybody knows to never do it.

In the middle of community girls’ choir practice, the temple doors slam open. An hour before siesta, the light almost blinds. Nothing but the silhouette of a slender boy shows, his legs apart as if trying to take up the space of both doors. Together, the doors are wide enough you could stand three cows side-by-side in the gap. The boy hardly occupies a sixth of it. 

People don’t enter a temple like that. I doubt you enter a tavern like that unless you want to fight somebody. 

The only sound as he struts down the center aisle is the click of his boots on the mosaic tiles. When my eyes adjust, I gasp. Everybody does. The boy isn’t a boy. It’s a girl in pants. Women don’t wear pants, and certainly not in temple. Her only accommodation to modestly is a black scarf tossed over her hair. Otherwise, she looks like an idalgu freshly dismounted from a horse.

When she gets to the base of choir stand, I notice her sword. It’s long and…well, I don’t know much about swords. It looks fancy and lethal. None of that matters: it’s a sword in the Temple Naserys. Pants are shocking. A sword is an offense beyond words.

Pra Traceu rushes down the choir stand and nearly knocks poor Hope Eternyl down. “Lady Margaté.” 

Lady Margaté Sesedo Tucánrarin Dogualfse, heir to the Barony Naserys.

He bows. Then everybody does the same, except me. I’m sitting, because I can’t stand for a whole choir practice. Nevertheless, I bow my head and say, “Your excellency.”  

Why is she back now? I thought she’d be away at whatever fancy academy she attends until she inherits her father’s title at seventeen. She’s my age, fourteen.

“I’d like to join the choir.” It doesn’t sound like a request.

“We would be honored to have you join us, your excellency, but you’re attired inappropriately,” Pra Traceu says. “Can you come back next week, please? We start two hours before siesta.”

Her hand goes to her hilt. She’s remarkably fine-boned for somebody wearing a sword. Why would anybody carry a sword? People haven’t dueled for a century. “I’ll stay today and listen. My mother wrote me last year and told me you were bringing cantes into the temple. It’s as dreadful an idea as the modern reforms. But she insists I participate.”

“So you’re aware Lady Sesedo supports the choir?”

She doesn’t answer right away. Expressions aren’t my forte, but her look is a challenge. She has no respect. 

He holds her eye until she answers. 

“I’m aware of my mother’s choices,” she says. “Don’t expect that I’ll continue that support once I inherit my title. This experiment in theological democracy ends in three years.”

“With respect, Lady Margaté, I sought Lady Sesedo’s approval as a courtesy. I’m serve by the Deóm Siódossio’s grace, not your family’s. Should you disapprove, you may join another faith community. From now on, if you wish to enter the Temple, you must leave your weapons at home.” 

Pra Traceu is possibly the nicest person I’ve ever met, so he doesn’t say this with a hint of anger, which I suspect is a feat. I’ve just met Lady Margaté but I’ll need to pray a lot to not hate her.

Her fingers creep about her hilt, then her hand falls away and she smiles. It’s more like a child’s drawing of a smile, exaggerated and crooked. “We all serve under somebody else’s authority. I wouldn’t assume reformists like the Deóm will exert theirs forever.”

He gestures towards the pew at the front of the temple reserved for the Sesedos. “There is no authority except that of the Lord’s, your excellency. We must return to our practice.”

As Lady Margaté unbuckles her sword belt and sits, Promysed comes over and whispers in my ear, “Oo-la-la,  Jinxx, what a delicious scandal the Lady is.”

Promysed says things like that. I don’t even know what “oo-la-la” means. She read it in a book and now says it all the time. 

I hide my frown and shrug. There is nothing delicious about Lady Margaté and her scandal.

“Girls, I believe Miss Melesda and Doñita Promysed were on the verge of a solution before our esteemed visitor arrived. Let’s continue and see if we can get it down before we break for lemonade.”

 Promysed scrambles off to work with Melesda on figuring out how to turn the song we’re practicing into a bulería. Going from a staid 4/4 time song to a 12/12 one with plenty of duende is something only Melesda can work out. 

“Miss Jinxx,” Pra Traceu says, coming up next to me, “can we continue?” I adore him, but he has less rhythmic talent and duende passion than Doñita Mouse-Mouse, the temple cat. 

I nod, distracted by Lady Margaté’s stare. I haven’t seen her since Lord Sesedo’s funeral. There’s no way she knows who I am, but I can’t help but check on my crutches, as if instead of Pra Traceu, she’s staring at them or my patched and threadbare dress. Perhaps she hears my belly complain about eating nothing but some olives and a slice of bread today.

He smiles, as if he’s unaware of her menace. “I’m certain I have it down this time. The emphasis is on the three, six, eight, ten and twelve, right?”

“Yes. The same as all the soleás. Ready?”

He holds his hands up in front of his grin. If enthusiasm were duende, he’s have more than the Song Thrush.

I count the beat out loud, less for him than to distract myself from Lady Margaté. She’s clapping along with exaggerated hand motions. She holds the emphasis beats instead of hitting them harder. My rhythm synchronizes with her off-beat one.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Can we start again?” 

“Of course. It appears Lady Margaté would appreciate some instruction as well. Your excellency?”

“Has no desire to have her teach me anything,” she hisses.

How could she know who I am?

I pull my crutches between my legs, imagining how I’d use them to fend off her sword. I might be tiny and a cripple, but it doesn’t mean I’m not strong.

Pra Traceu moves between us. “Let’s try again. I’m so close to getting this.”

I nod and push myself to focus on the rhythm. Soon, Lady Margaté’s terrible clapping mostly fades from my mind.

Ten minutes later, the rest of the choir girls go quiet, leaving only Melesda and Promysed’s singing. Melesda’s smokey voice does a paso doble around Promysed’s crystalline tones until they reach the bridge. They’ve figured out how to make it work. At moments like this, the combination of their voices is more delightful than a chess game with a kitten in my lap. 

Lady Margaté stands as if to watch the girls sings, but picks up her sword belt. Her eyes don’t waver from mine until I avert my gaze. She slides her sword out a few hands and takes a quick step towards me.

When I force my eyes back to her’s, she scowls at me like a bull threatening a fallen picador.

Melesda and Promysed finish the song and the choir bursts into applause.

“Bravo, girls, bravo!” Pra Traceu says. 

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Spizziri Rev 2

Name: Sammi Spizziri
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Title: After I Bid You Adieu


Eighteen-year-old Evie wants to change the world through podcasts. Determined to escape her hometown and follow her deceased mom’s hopes for her, she’s on the perfect path in an early college program. The only thing missing is her best friend and sort-of love interest from back home, Kace. But since he decided to skip college in favor of staying in Ridgeview, Evie’s done her best to forget about him. After all, the worst thing she can do is repeat her mom’s mistake of settling for a hometown boy over a career.

But then Evie returns home unexpectedly for the summer, bringing her face-to-face with Kace—and her grief. Things only get worse when her scholarship is threatened, forcing her to create a podcast to save it. When the story she chooses requires Kace’s help, he wants answers to what happened between them in exchange. Unable to afford college without the scholarship and unwilling to settle for a meaningless life trapped in a town she hates, Evie agrees. Spending the summer working together, Evie must do what she’s avoided the last year: be honest with Kace, face her grief, and decide if career dreams are worth sacrificing her heart.


Mom always encouraged me to get out of Ridgeview and chase my dreams, but she never said those dreams would mean inhaling horse manure on a Saturday afternoon.

I tried not to breathe through my nose as we strolled through the stables, waiting for the owner to meet us. “Is this worth it?”
Liv, my best friend and roommate, typed something on her phone, seemingly oblivious to the smell. “How else are you going to get your story on horse carriages?”

My summer class was my first intro to my major, audio journalism, which meant I’d be creating my own podcast like I’d dreamed of. At eighteen, I couldn’t ask for more. Everyone back home wouldn’t graduate for another two weeks. “You’re right.”

“So, who are we interviewing tomorrow?” Liv had unofficially partnered with me on my project, more as an excuse to get out of the dorm than an interest in podcasting. I appreciated the help, since I’d never made my own podcast, and I could use someone to bounce ideas off of.

“A Wall Street financial analyst. Wednesday we have a Broadway actress, and Thursday a sous chef at La Bleu.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Important people.” She approached the horse in front of us and stroked his mane. “Have you considered telling a story about an ordinary person? Sometimes they have the best stories.”

“If I wanted ordinary, I wouldn’t have left Ridgeview.” The horse behind us whinnied, and I jolted forward.

Liv laughed. “I thought all farm girls loved horses.”

“I’m from a small town, not a farm.”

“Maybe if you ever told me about it, I’d know the difference.” Liv’s light tone didn’t mask her true meaning. This had always been a sore spot between us. But talking about the past wasn’t something I was interested in.

“There’s nothing worth telling.” I glanced at my phone, the clock reminding me I had only one hour before my class. Maybe it was because Dignitas University was used to dealing with us early college students, enrolled before we were legal adults, or maybe it was how all colleges worked, but the class tardiness policy was stricter than my high school’s. “I’m going to check where the owner is. Do you think the lady who greeted us has an office somewhere?”

My phone rang, and the name Dad flashed across my screen. It’d been weeks since his last call, a conversation filled with small talk while we figured out what to say. Jingling boots drew my attention to the woman who had let us into the stables earlier, beelining toward us, I silenced my phone.

“Evie,” she said. “I’m sorry but looks like we’ll have to reschedule. Roger had an emergency pop up.”

My heart sank. I hadn’t realized how set I was on this story, but it had an intriguing combination of elements. The glamour of carriage rides in Central Park, the rags-to-riches story of the owner, and the resurfacing debate about whether horses should be banned from the city. “My topic proposal is due on Friday. Is there time before then?”

“He’s heading out of town tomorrow, but I can do my best to answer your questions.”

I agreed. Before we had a chance to start, my phone rang again. Dad. My thumb hovered between the red and green buttons. Two calls in a row meant it was important. “I’m sorry, can I take this?”

When she nodded, I answered, walking out of earshot. “Hey, Dad.”

“Hi, Evie.” His voice was more upbeat than usual, like the life it once held was back. At the sound of it, I was home, the scent of cinnamon potpourri and peppermint tea threading through the house. But without Mom, that wasn’t home anymore. I forced down the lump in my throat.

“How are things?” I asked as he said, “When are you coming home?”

I exhaled. Coming home? I pulled the phone away from me to glance at it, like it might give me a clue about how to have this conversation with Dad without upsetting him. “Oh, Dad, I thought you knew.”

“Knew what?” His voice tightened.

“I’m staying in New York this summer.”

Silence filled the line. Not the deadened, dropped call kind. The kind where someone heard you but didn’t like what you'd said. “Didn’t you reschedule the Christmas flight I booked you?”

Now that he mentioned it, I had said something of that sort when I’d canceled back in December, an attempt to soften the blow of missing the holidays, but I’d left that credit untouched with no intention of booking a flight home. It was easier to stay away than face Mom’s absence. Or run into my best friend from home. Kace would want to talk about it all: her death, me ghosting him, the kiss…. “I’m sorry, I have classes to take, and—”

“Evangeline Marie Daniels.” His voice hardened. I’d never heard him speak to me like that. With my two older brothers, he'd used that tone a million times. Mom handled my discipline, and she had a different way of approaching everything. Where he was firm, she was tender. Where he was oblivious, she was in tune.

I swallowed, feeling like a chastised kid. Distancing myself from my family hadn’t been the plan. But if I wanted to move forward, to do something Mom would be proud of, I had to continue on the path I’d started: college. “Dad, you can’t tell me what to do anymore. I’m in college.”

“Barely. If you hadn’t gone to Dignitas, you’d still be in high school.”

“But I did go, and I’m not in high school.”

He sighed. “Evie, things are different without your mom. And…I’m retiring.”

“Seriously?” It’d been something he’d talked about since I was ten, yet kept putting off. My brother Luke had been waiting to take over the auction business since he graduated high school. He’d be happy. My heart leaped, followed abruptly by a pang in my chest, the reality of not seeing my family for so long catching up with me.

“It’s time. Which means I’ll be training Luke to take over, so we’ll need you to help out since Sara didn’t work out…”

“She didn’t?” I’d trained Sara with my mom to take over my mom’s position when she was diagnosed. She was supposed to be Mom’s replacement. “What are you going to do when I go back to school?”

“Scarlett will take over. All you need to do is train her before she and Jackson get married—”

I stopped, eyes fixed on the same horse who had scared me earlier. I'd heard Scarlett's name a few times from Dad the past year. I hadn't texted my brother Jackson much lately, and he pretty much only shared the weird things he'd found at the latest auction. Not that it was his fault. I was the one who left unexpectedly. I was the one dodging calls from home. “Wait, what? They’re getting married?”

“He didn't tell you?”

“No.” My stomach seized, like if I wasn’t careful something might burst out involuntarily. Neither of us said anything while we both probably thought the same thing: there was a lot I didn’t know.

“The wedding’s in August. We need you home. Just for the summer.”

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Baxton Rev 2

K.L. Baxton
MG Science Fiction
Intrec and the Earth's Venom

To ensure that nobody stops him from helping to fulfill their task, he secretly ejects himself to Earth, lands in a desert, and gets to work.

Soon thereafter, thirteen-year-old Ethan discovers a gray-skinned alien hiding inside his treehouse. Ethan’s father died, too, and he agrees to help Intrec. But that’s easier said than done, because his next door neighbor is an FBI agent.

If the FBI finds Intrec, he could be locked up for experimentation, dissection, or worse—he and his grandfather could both die. 


If Intrec couldn’t snatch another one of Earth’s serpents, Granddad would die.

He’d already lost Dad to Tapergnaw’s disease. As tears blurred his vision, he passed by houses in his neighborhood, landing several feet ahead with each stride. I can’t lose my grandfather.

Harte’s golden ball of shine light beamed over the white-dotted mountains. Its warmth latched on his black short arm top and trickled over his sky-blue twilled bottoms that stretched to his knees. A gust of dry wind rustled the palm fronds as they leaned in the opposite direction. Every numah who zapped by him in a gray blur never failed to smile and wave. His head dropped.

All he did was discover the antidote to Tapergnaw’s disease, the deadly plague that suddenly spread on planet Harte over ten years ago. He just tried to save Dad, he never asked to be famous. Although his discovery saved millions of Hartians, the tape substance had already strangled Dad’s heart to where he’d only lived a few more months. And if Granddad didn’t receive the antidote within the next several days, he’d suffer the same fate. His chest puffed.

As the ground light between crossroads beamed from orange to purple, the traffic of people on the zap path stopped and filed in lines. He glanced at everyone’s ear tips that stood on both sides of their bald heads. Two lanes, divided by a straight black line, allowed the traffic to move in either direction safely.

Since he’d broken into the experimental lab once before and borrowed one of Earth’s creatures, he’d do it again. As he twiddled his thumbs, the ground light emanated blue.

The line thinned, and he maintained traffic’s pace. Several blocks ahead, he crossed over a patch of green strands as he sidled closer. He sucked in several deep breaths and darted his gaze everywhere, no numahs were in sight.

This must work again. He vanished, but a familiar voice shouted, “Don’t try to attempt that again, Intrec.”

He materialized, whirled around, and Mom paced toward him. Her gray slip swayed at her knees and the breeze ruffled her white top. She always passed the lab on her way home—but why was she off work early? The person he’d least expected had spotted him. He sighed. She worked many late evenings, so why did today have to be different? He squinted as the shiner brightened the medal star-shaped work badge below her shoulder—the embroidered OSH(Outer Space Headquarters).

“Security measures are tighter now…you wouldn’t make it past the sensors even with invisibility.” She spoke telepathically.

“I have to save Granddad,” he stammered, the words sounding from his brain.

She blinked her oblong black eyes sideways. “Don’t worry about that.”

How could he possibly not worry about Granddad dying? Ever since Granddad Podo moved in a few months before Dad died to help Mom care for him and his thirteen-year-old sister, Meeca, they’d developed a closer relationship. “Why aren’t you at work?”

She grinned down at him, revealing square white teeth. “Jezum is in meetings,” Mom answered. They shuffled down the walk path, and her heel lifts clicked on the pavement. Jezum was her boss. “He gave me the rest of the day off.”

Intrec’s heart skipped a beat as he wiggled his ear tips. “Are the meetings about going to Earth?”

Mom nodded.

An idea popped to mind. “When?” Would another journey to their parallel planet take place soon?

“Within the next couple days.”

He gasped. Earth’s serpents cured Tapergnaw’s disease, but at limited supply, elders never received treatment. Youngsters were always treated first.

“How many trips have been made to planet Earth?” Their twin planet was just on the other side of a black hole.

His stare connected with hers, the tips of his ears slowly rising.

“So far, there have been six successful journeys to Earth.” Scientists rarely stayed there more than several days at a time. The longer they explored their parallel planet, the more likely they’d be discovered by earthlings.

His chest puffed. “I want to go to Earth.”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but that’s very unlikely.” He frowned, and his ear tips wilted.
“Things aren’t so bad. If Granddad dies, he still lived a full life.”

Still not long enough. Since Tapergnaw’s disease stole Dad’s life and would soon be stealing Granddad’s, he’d be losing another parent. Somehow, he needed to collect an extra serpent. They dawdled up their wheel-way toward a peach-bricked house with a maroon-colored roof. She rested her hand on the automated sensor beside the door. It lifted, and they stepped inside.

He called for Twyzoe, and his tricolor wagger barked and ran toward him. His white legs and black paws rested and scratched on Intrec’s knees. Intrec bent down on the black wooden floor. Twyzoe licked his face full of kisses while he patted his white head, also petting his floppy brown ears and back.

Although Intrec had to find a way to travel to Earth, Mom wouldn’t want him to risk exposure to the earthlings. But since when did a youngster genius listen to his mother?


“This move will give us a brand new start,” Mom said for the millionth time.

Ethan wanted to argue, but the words didn’t budge from his tongue. When Dad was alive, he always used to say, “Sometimes people make bad choices. It’s no use to dwell on the past. All you can do is learn and move on.” But some mistakes were bigger than others. When they resulted in death.

 Mom peered straight ahead as she drove, her gaze fixed on the white beam of the headlights. She seemed quite sure of what their new home would be like, but he had no idea what to expect. Silhouettes of cacti, palm trees, and the sun rising behind the mountains started brightening the horizon.

The rays grazed her face: the dark circles under her eyes, the large yawn she let off—he did the same thing. He didn’t have to stare into her eyes to know how they’d look: chocolate brown amid redness. And he was certain that his mirrored hers. Ethan wanted Mom to pull into a hotel like they had the past four nights, but she insisted she’d drive through the night, so they could start their new lives sooner. Seriously, what was the hurry? She took a swig of coffee from her large cup.

“So…” Ethan propped his elbow in between the two seats and ruffled a hand through his dark, gelled hair. “Have you always missed living in Benson?”

Mom nodded and grinned. “I certainly won’t miss Connecticut’s cold winters, that’s for sure.” She chuckled. He held back a groan. However, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her smile, and that was his fault. He caused his father’s death, and the move must’ve been his punishment.

“Your grandfather is really looking forward to seeing us.”

Ethan blew air through his lips.

“Try giving him a chance…He’s always wanted to spend more time with us.” She patted his hand. “And he wants to get to know you better."

Ethan’s grandfather had practically been a stranger before Ethan lost his perfect life. One where he played ice hockey with Dad every winter and was always surrounded by the friends he’d known from kindergarten to eighth grade. His grandfather only visited them once a year, sometimes twice, and now they’d soon be living with him. 

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Collins Rev 2

Name: Tim Collins
Genre: Young Adult Horror
Title: Fountains, Wishes, and Nefarious Creatures

Sixteen-year-old Del is desperate to save her terminally ill sister, Addie. When a decapitated corpse appears in her family’s desolate Texas field, she calls the number tattooed on the body. If her dead father’s stories were true, the call would reveal the location to Eternum, home to an ancient fountain of healing.
Del and Addie travel to Eternum with the body of their father. Once inside, Del’s father is resurrected; however, Del learns it was all part of his plan to get her to come willingly with her sister. The town needs Del to fatally spill Addie’s cancer-ridden blood to complete a ritual. Without it, the townsfolk will be massacred by Neffers – imprisoned beasts who give the fountain its power but only remain satiated by cancerous blood offerings.
To save her sister, Del must free the Neffers from the shackles of Eternum. Doing so will condemn the town and enable the Neffers to feed upon the sick children of the world. Doing nothing means watching Addie die and letting Eternum continue to bleed children. In a battle where the line of monsters and men is blurred, Del must determine how many lives the person she loves most is worth.
Chapter 1
The foot tattoo on the headless body read: IF FOUND, CALL (512)555-1212, so Del pulled out her iPhone.

Call the cops? Not on her life. Or his.

Talking her way out of one dead body seemed plausible, but the police would canvas the field. The putrid scent of its occupants would undoubtedly betray her.

A turkey vulture glided around the decapitated body. “Get the hell outta here! He’s mine!” Del said, snatching a piece of gray limestone from the dried dirt and hurling the rock skyward. The irritated vulture voiced a guttural hiss before settling into the field’s lone live oak tree. For now, she owned her prize uncontested.

“I need him,” she whispered.

Normally, dead bodies were a one-way ticket to jail, not a prerequisite to salvation for a sixteen-year-old girl. But life hadn’t been normal for a while.

Del stared across the empty landscape of her family’s Texas Hill Country field. The neighboring houses all mysteriously burned to the ground a century ago, bodies of the families dismembered and spread like fertilizer. The same thing happened three times over before the land became unsellable.

“I’m not afraid of you—” Del circled the shirtless corpse. She maintained a perimeter outside the buzzing flies and fluid-soaked ground but breathed easier knowing it wouldn’t answer. “—I’ve seen other dead people, you know.”

Seen. Caused. CollectedSame difference.

Besides, if this body meant what she thought it did, she could retire her dad’s wooden-handled nine-inch Winchester bowie knife back to his office.

Del remembered her dad’s mantra: those who do not fear the call of death will find eternal healing.

He told stories about the fountain of youth, a fountain that healed even the sickest of people. People like Del’s sister, Addie.

The story varied every time, but she never forgot his explanation.

“It’s like those trays by the convenience store cash register.
Give a penny. Take a penny.
The fountain treats lives as pennies.
Take five lives. Give everlasting life.”

“Call of death.” She chewed her last unbroken nail to a jagged nub. “Dad wasn’t talking in metaphors.”

Her jittery fingers dialed.

“Yeah?” A gruff and tumble voice answered. “You got, Pez.”

Del strained to hear his garbled words over the hum of the man’s idling truck engine.

“I think I found something that belongs to you.” Del skipped the pleasantries.

“And what might that be?” Pez asked, the echo of his voice hinted she was on speakerphone.

“A body. Male. Never missed Taco Tuesday fat and goopy.” Del noted no blood around the corpse’s wounds. “And no head.” She performed a quick pirouette to verify she didn’t miss it in the open field.

Nope. No head. No smell either.

“Should I be freaking out?” Del asked, dragging a sweaty palm across her vintage t-shirt. She dug her teeth into her sun-chapped bottom lip.

“Probably a mix-up. Text me your location.”

An angry voice chimed in behind Pez, “You put your phone number on a dead body?”

“Do you think I’m stupid, Milt? I have your number forwarded to my phone.”

Del laughed, but the iPhone slipped from her hands as she tried stifling the sound. It bounced into the milky-white substance oozing from the body. She hesitated, never seeing a substance like this from any of the other bodies but relented and plucked her phone from the goop.

“Five-second rule,” she muttered, wiping the phone clean on the hip of her jean shorts before putting it back to her ear.

Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

“Dammit, Pez!” Milt yelled.

“Relax. You’re gonna burst a blood vessel.” Pez cleared his throat. “Still there, kid?”

“Yeah,” Del said. “This thing’s got no head, and I think it may be smarter than you.”

“Touche,” Pez chuckled. “I like your spirit. We’ll be there shortly.”

Del’s fingertips danced nervously across the screen tapping out her location before she tucked her phone into her pocket.

“Call of death. Fountain of healing.” Del muttered as she unsheathed the Winchester and twisted the silver blade to reflect sunlight onto the body’s tattoo “—Dad better be right, or you might have some new friends. Speaking of new friends…”

The vulture’s courtship with the oak ended its monogamy. A second bird arrived. Then a third. Within minutes a wake of bald heads and black feathers blotted out the sun and pressed the tree limbs to the brink of survival.

The charcoal eyes stared at the body. Del slid three steps left when she realized they weren’t eying the body.

They were staring at her.

Chapter 2

“Don’t worry, I won’t let them eat you,” Del said. She pulled a stainless-steel Zippo from her back pocket. With a flip of the lid, the blue-orange flame jumped to life. “I’ll burn it down!”

As if understanding her words, the nightmare birds peeled off the tree one by one.

“Life is fragile. It’s tough to get ahead.” Del’s wide chocolate eyes challenged the expansive sky when she giggled. “See what I did there?”

“Nothing? Man, you’re tough.” She wrinkled her nose and glanced at his empty shoulders. “Bet nothing sounds funny to you these days. Little friendly advice. Humor keeps the darkness at bay.”

Del relented her guardian’s prowl and tucked away her weapons before kneeling near the bare-chested body.

“Can I tell you a secret?” She cupped her hands around her mouth and leaned in. “We’re not alone. I convinced this boy Jason to build me an underground fort under that tree.” Del glanced in the direction of the field’s lone oak. “Took him two hours just to find a plot that didn’t have limestone fighting the shovel for every inch and another two weeks of digging to finish. Only had to do a biology lab with him. Dissection. Aced it.”

No one would partner with him in class. No one ever partnered with him.

“He hung himself. Right there.” Del flipped her head toward the tree. “I found him. He’d been swinging there a week, invisible to the world. That was the reason on his note. He felt invisible.

“Sometimes I still see him swinging there, eyes pushing out of their sockets, tongue amputated by his involuntary bite, jeans soaked in urine. Maybe I should’ve seen the signs, but I can’t save everyone.” Del wiped her eyes free of tears.

Clearing her throat, she sat back on her boot heels. “Why don’t you smell? The others smell. Can’t get enough air fresheners to kill that stench. Can you believe I use roadkill to cover the smell? You’d be surprised at the effectiveness of a splattered skunk carcass.”

Del wiped the cascading beads of sweat from her forehead. Not a single cloud in the blue sky. Not one break from the sun. These were the hardest days to contain the lingering perfume of death. Her nose had grown immune to everything else, but not to them. The human body simply wasn’t designed to tolerate death’s stench.

“I’d drag you up the hill for proper introductions, but we have people coming. Important people who can make good on my promise to save Addie.” Del pushed a pile of dirt over the goo oozing from the body. She referred to it as “dude milk,” which seemed harmless compared to whatever some scientist would label it.

Maybe they’d name it after her. God, she hoped not. That’s not the way she wanted to be immortalized.

The corners of her lips turned higher.


Addie’s cancer didn’t stand a chance.