I’ve been really busy lately, working on two different manuscripts to get them ready for publishing, so I haven’t had much time to blog, but I feel bad for being so neglectful. 😉
I figured I’d make up for my absence by adding a sneak peek of what I’ve been working on. So, below is the first chapter of The Kraken’s Mate. I still can’t give a definitive release date, but I’m shooting for mid to the end of May. My second manuscript, Key to the Dead Fall, will not be available for some time after that, as it has a lot of revision to go through, and Uriale’s Redemption has been put on the back burner until these two are complete, but I’m still shooting for getting that released this year as well. After that, I’m taking a break, y’all. LOL.
When the pain grew too great, I retreated into memory, but I had to be careful where I tread. There were minefields in my past, and one wrong step on memory lane could send me into deeper suffering than anything these aliens did to me.
In one of my favorite memories, I recalled a casino. Not an unusual place for me, since I grew up in Las Vegas. I’ve spent far too much time in casinos. Yet this memory stood out starkly, allowing me to escape the cold, sterile prison where I was kept—the prison where needles constantly pierced my skin and machines forever probed my body. I was pretty certain they were injecting me with venom. I also suspected they’d been deliberately infecting me with some sort of virus or bacteria. Whenever I was returned to my cell, I was either very sick, or wracked with agony. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t care. All I knew was that my mind would have snapped long before now, if I didn’t have the memories.
“Joanie!” My mother waved from across the grand entrance to the casino, and I saw her despite the ever-flashing lights of the slot machines and the crowds of eager tourists rushing to lose their money. I understood that eagerness far too well.
I wove my way through the crowd towards her, barely restraining my urge to break into a run. It’d been nearly a year. She looked good—far better than I’d expected. Europe had been good to her. So, too, had her new husband. I shouldn’t have been jealous, and for the most part, I wasn’t, but a part of me resented the fact that he had taken her away from me. She was happy—for the first time in ages—and I was a rotten daughter to begrudge her that simply because I wanted my mother all to myself.
But she was finally back in Vegas. For a couple of weeks only, but I looked forward to spending them with her. It would be like old times. Just the two of us. Brandon couldn’t make this trip with her, and as much as I liked him, I was happy his work held him up in London.
I threw my arms around her and hugged her tight. “Hey, Mom. How was the trip? You should have let me pick you up at the airport.”
She returned my hug for a moment, then released me, taking a step back to look me over with a wide smile on her face. People thought she was my sister, she looked so young. She was so young, but I could still see the age creeping over her skin. Not from years, but from life experience. “Don’t worry about it. The traffic at McCarren’s insane. I sprung for a limo. It was a better ride than that beat-up old El Camino you’re driving.”
My fingers toyed with the stretched-out collar of my tee-shirt as I avoided her eyes. “I sold that to a collector. I’m riding the bus for now. I would have arranged to borrow a friend’s car, though.”
She sighed, brushing my riotous curls off my forehead. “Oh, Joanie. What happened this time?”
I didn’t want to waste this precious time with her rehashing old ground. We were going to have fun. After all, we were in Vegas. It was so good to see her that I didn’t let my fear of disappointing her bother me.
Sometimes, the pain was too hard to ignore. It dug in with claws and teeth and tore at my insides. The venom. I could feel it eating away at my flesh from the injection sites. I’ve learned to stop looking at my arms and legs, because there was horror in the sight of the dark lines spreading under my pale skin—skin far more washed-out than it had been when I lived in the sunny southwest.
In those moments—or maybe they were hours, or days, or weeks—even memories of my mother weren’t enough to allow me to escape. Instead, I clung to consciousness, biting off my screams of pain, rocking back and forth on the floor of the cell, as if movement would speed the rate of the fire burning up my insides. Speed it enough to kill me.
They wouldn’t let me die, though. The aliens weren’t keeping me alive because they liked me and wanted to help me. I sincerely doubted they would ever let me go. At some point, their experiments would end, and so, too, would I. No doubt on some cold slab in one of the laboratories I’d been shuttled to by the terrifying robots that escorted me everywhere when I was outside of my cell or the labs.
Eventually, the pain faded enough that I could slip back into memories, but the aliens didn’t let me stay there for long. Soon enough, the door of my tiny cell beeped and I tensed, instantly alert. Knowing what was coming.
The door slid open, revealing a robot on the other side. The thing was like a faceless mannequin from a clothing boutique. It had the shape of a human, but there was no mistaking it for one. It was made of a shiny white material, with black rubber-like pieces covering the joints. Sometimes, it would speak to me, but only to give orders. When it did, it had a tinny, mechanical voice.
My body still ached, but the fire had died down to embers. Whatever poison they’d put in my system was leaving it. I suspected they put an antivenin in at the same time, or directly after. I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t believe my own immune system was enough to get rid of it.
This point in the process was usually about the time the robot came, and I held out my shaky hand for the food bar it carried. Without a word, it handed it to me.
I pulled it close to my chest, cradling it like a lifeline. “No steak and lobster today? This place is really going downhill.” My voice was little more than a ragged croak.
The robot didn’t respond to my words, nor did I expect it to. Instead, its body turned one hundred and eighty degrees, its head remaining fixed on me—one of the many things that freaked me out about these robots. Its face—or the blank mask that I assumed was a face—never turned away from me as it stepped out of the cell. The door closed behind it.
My stomach ached too much for food, but I ate the bar anyway. I knew better than to resist. I’d tried to starve myself once, and only once. Waking up with a feeding tube shoved down my throat changed my mind about such a drastic plan of escape.
After food came rest. I knew I would have at least some time to sleep. They always let me sleep after my time in the lab. I guess they wanted to ensure that my body was healthy before starting up the next experiment.
When I awoke, I had no idea how much time had passed, but I felt significantly better. I felt too good. I feared that another session would be coming soon. The best way to delay was to appear weakened. I groaned and moaned as I slid off the cot that jutted out of one wall, limping the two steps it took to settle myself on the toilet.
My urine burned coming out, but I ground my teeth, clutching the sides of the toilet bowl, knowing that if I looked into the water, I’d see that it was pink with blood. In the beginning, this had terrified me, but after so many sessions that I’d lost count, I accepted it as normal.
As soon as I stood up, the toilet flushed. I scowled at the door, muttering “I hoped you enjoyed the show, assholes.”
More time passed, and I spent it in memories. The good ones. Sometimes tripping over a bad one as I walked down into the rabbit hole. I was dancing at a nightclub with my friend Larissa when the lights went out. Not the ones in the nightclub. The ones in my cell.
This had never happened before. When emergency lights flickered on along the floor, I rose slowly to my feet, staring at those beacons in the darkness. I crept towards the door, stepping lightly as if I might set off whatever it was that was keeping me in this dream. Nothing changed when I cautiously reached out and pressed my hand against the smooth surface of the door. It felt cool against my cheek when I rested my ear against it, listening—as I had so many times before—and again hearing nothing but my own heartbeat.
I gasped and jumped backwards when the door suddenly slid open, the cot hitting the backs of my knees so that I collapsed on top of it. Beyond my little cell, the corridor was dark, illuminated only by a row of emergency lights just like the ones in my cell.
I stared into that darkness. Waiting. Fearing. This looked like a way out. An escape from my hell. But what if it was a trap? A new experiment. A new and different hell.
I’d seen the corridor beyond my cell many times. Always well-lit, always empty except for me and my robot escort—and a bunch of unmarked doors. Some of which led to labs, where I’d been strapped down and tortured.
Now it was dark, and somehow even scarier than when I’d known what nightmare awaited me.
I heard a voice whispering in the darkness beyond my cell. The sound was harsh in the heavy silence. “Hello? Is anyone else there?”
The ability to breathe escaped me as I jumped to my feet, recognizing the voice—the language—as human. “I’m here!” I almost cried, holding back the tears with a force of will I didn’t know I had left. “I’m here!” I said just a little louder, afraid the owner of that voice would move on, passing me by, leaving me alone in this place.
A shadowy figure paused outside my door, then stepped further into the light cast by my emergency lights. The way they illuminated her face concealed her features in macabre shadows, but she was human. So human that I almost grabbed her in a hug, dissolving into grateful tears.
Instead of doing that, I held onto the last shreds of my control, fearing that if I touched her, she would disappear like the people in my memories always did. “Hi.” What else did one say in this situation? I held up a hand in a half-hearted wave, not trusting myself with any further words. Not yet. I still struggled to contain the tears, and the fear—fear that none of this was real, that I was hallucinating, and that I would wake up on another table in yet another lab.
Her face, twisted by shadows cast from under-lighting, broke into a relieved smile, then a small laugh as she stepped towards me, reaching out to me as if she, too, wanted the contact to see if I was real, but was afraid I wasn’t. “Are you human?”
“Last time I checked, but I haven’t seen a mirror in a while.” I exhaled in a forced chuckle, wondering if my joke might not be half true. Who knew what the aliens had done to me?
She did touch me then, her fingers just lightly brushing my tangled curls, reminding me of my mother. “You’re real.” Her voice sounded breathless. “I checked all the other cells that I passed and there was no one in any of them. I thought I was alone.”
I nodded, suddenly feeling a sense of great urgency. I had no idea why the door was open, the lights were off, and this other woman was free to wander, but I was guessing that the aliens weren’t going to let that slide for long. We had to get moving. Where, I didn’t know, but I just wanted out. Now.
I grabbed the other woman’s arm and pulled her out of my cell.
She followed without hesitation, perhaps coming to the same realization I had, but she couldn’t seem to stop talking, her words tumbling out in a breathless rush. “My name is Theresa, what’s yours?”
“Joanie,” I said as I scanned the corridor, searching for the telltale silhouette of the robots in the darkness. Even in the light, I feared the sight of them. In the darkness, I wasn’t certain I could handle it.
Theresa followed me down the corridor as we checked each cell, finding them empty. She passed me when I froze, my eyes fixed on one door in particular. Unlike the others, it was still sealed shut. It was one of the doors that I’d suffered behind. I didn’t want to walk past it. When she grabbed my arm, tugging me towards the turn of the hallway, my mind retreated from that place, shrinking away, barely able to remain aware as I wanted to hide in memories.
We met other women. I vaguely caught their names as I slipped in and out of awareness. They seemed more alert than I was. Less afraid. I couldn’t imagine why. One of them had waist-length black hair with dyed-purple ends and a determined expression on a face that looked to be younger than mine by nearly a decade. I was jealous of her confidence, but also relieved. She seemed to know what to do.
Only she didn’t. None of us did. There were four of us, and the only idea we had was to avoid the robots. So much for group brainstorming.
They talked. I barely listened, my mind wandering, trying to run and hide. I heard the exhilarating ring of a jackpot, and pictured the flashing lights. Felt the excitement. Then I realized it was an alarm, and I was aware again. Aware of where I was. I didn’t want to be there anymore. Without real thought, I found a place to hide now for real. Like a child hides from the Boogeyman, only nothing could stop these nightmares. They just kept on coming, and the other women were pulling on me. Demanding I go where I didn’t want to. Demanding I move, even though the alarm was driving me insane.
I’m not here. I’m not here. I’m not here.
I was on the floor, and that horrible dog whimpering sound came from my throat. Someone rubbed my back, soothing, reminding me of Mom. When I was a girl, the fighting in the next hotel room would grow loud enough to invade my dreams, until I awakened in a cold sweat. Mom would be there, rubbing my back, her breath smelling of cheap alcohol, her body of cigarettes and strange men. Her mascara would be trailing down her cheeks from tears that she tried to hide from me, but she was there. Always there. Until the end. A senseless death that could have been avoided.
A new nightmare arose out of the shadows behind the warrior-woman. I remembered that her name was Claire, and she was fierce. Braver than me. She turned to face the monster at her back, and then rushed into its clutches with a shout of defiance.
Someone screamed. Then we were running. Leaving the fighter behind with the monster. My feet thumped out the rhythm of my retreat as the word “coward” bounced around my mind. She’d distracted it so we could run, and we’d left her to die.
I heard her shouting, but her words were distant and made little sense. I had completely retreated now into the darkness inside my head. It was safer there. Like under the covers, where the man who stood on the corner watching the girls in their school uniforms couldn’t see me.
The other women were fighting me now. Like I was the monster. Then I realized they wanted to feed me to it. This horror with scorpion pincers and wings like an insect. Four arms pulled me closer, and I just knew there was a stinger somewhere, waiting to strike with more venom. More agony. I screamed and screamed until I lost my breath. Then my world went black.
I felt like I was riding on a boat, out at Lake Mead, my body swaying with the water. Smooth, relaxing movement. But the sounds around me weren’t relaxing. They were violent. Something out of hell.
Usually, the monsters go away when you open your eyes. At least, the ones that weren’t human. The ones that were human, well, they never went away unless you hid.
This time, when I opened my eyes, I discovered that the monster had changed, and I couldn’t decide if it was for the worse or better.
Tentacles curled around me, cradling me, holding me firmly so my struggles had no effect. But I wasn’t the only one who’d had no effect with struggling. Bodies littered the ground around the massive creature, many of them in pieces. Including the robots. So many robots like the ones that had taken me to my torture time after time.
Ha! Serves them right, the bastards.
Only now, I was the one in danger. I was the next to be pulled to pieces. This time, I was determined to face my death with dignity. After all, hadn’t I wanted this? Perhaps not in this violent a manner, but I’d wanted the peace. The end to pain.
So I didn’t scream as the tentacle monster lifted me up, pulling me closer to its upper body. It looked almost human above the waist. Only humans weren’t usually so handsome. Not outside of magazine ads. The eyes though, they weren’t human—eerie, cold, curious, shiny—like blown-glass paperweights—beneath long lashes that would put a mascara model to shame.
Its upper body wasn’t much larger than that of a pro wrestler—or a very big football player. The musculature of that upper body was impressive, and I marveled that I could take a moment to admire it, even in the face of my imminent death.
At what should have been the waist, the webbing—the part of the body that linked all the tentacles to the monster’s upper body—began, and it took up a lot of space on its own, so that the top of the creature’s head to the bottom of the webbing looked to be around six feet, leading to a mass of writhing tentacles. I couldn’t count them, they moved so much, but they were big, and much longer than the upper body. Each one was long enough to wrap around me several times, an array of suckers tugging on my exposed flesh.
Suddenly, I heard a different quality of sound. A huge vault door slid open to my side, and I caught its movement out of the corner of my eye. Then the tentacle monster swallowed me.