Hi horror fans! I'm shamelessly plugging my new horror novel that's coming out Nov. 20. It's called THE HOLLOWS
and you can preorder a signed copy at: http://www.ll-publications.com/thehollows.html
When you preorder you'll also receive the ebook version of my first novel - the EPPIE Award winning PIT-STOP
Here's the first chapter of THE HOLLOWS
The Buckner Farm
May 13, 1949
For Tess Buckner the only worthwhile activity on that blustery Texas afternoon was standing between the two clotheslines in the backyard and letting the sheets billow against her. White cotton sheets lifted on the breeze, tickled her nose, and played dead again. She held out her arms, turning her little body into a T. The sheets rose to the occasion, taking her hands in loose but enthusiastic handshakes. Tess giggled.
Then the breeze quieted and so did she. Momma’s head bobbed over the clothesline on the right, her squinty gaze catching Tess at once.
“I thought my pischouette came out here to help her mother,” she said in a tone that sounded both amused and annoyed.
“I’m only so big,” Tess explained. “These clotheslines are too high for me.”
“Which means I should give you a chore more suited to your size.”
“But Maw-aaah,” Tess whined. “I’m helping. I’m looking out for dropped drawers.”
Mare Buckner smiled. “I assure you, my drawers are in no danger of dropping.”
Tess took a moment to catch her mother’s meaning. “I mean from the line, silly.” She laughed. The sheets thought it funny too. They billowed up in their own silent fits of hilarity.
“Tell me a story,” Tess said. She couldn’t see Momma beyond the sheets, but she didn’t have to see her to know she was rolling her eyes. Tess waited and asked again. “Tell me a story…pleeease?”
“You’ve heard all my stories,” Mare replied, but Tess didn’t believe her. There are endless quantities of certain things. The beach will always have enough sand. The sky will always have enough rain. And Momma will always have a story squirreled away in the corner of memory taken up by childhood.
Mare Buckner grew up in Nawlins. At least that’s the way she pronounces it. Papa insists it’s pronounced New Orleans. It’s only a teensy bit away from Texas, where they live. Tess once put her fingers on the United States map at school, one on New Orleans and one on Fort Worth, and the gap was barely the size of a dime. Part of her longed to see Momma’s Nawlins, but Papa sounded like the distance was too far to be troubled with.
Tess rounded the sheets as Mare pulled one of Papa’s shirts from the basket. Tess tugged on the shirt. “A story, Momma. Story, story, story!”
“Tess Elizabeth Buckner,” Mare said, snapping the shirt back. “You’re about to hear the story of the girl who spent all day pulling weeds as punishment for back-sass.”
“But you haven’t told me one in weeks,” Tess pleaded. Momma didn’t know that Tess repeated the stories at school. She had grown popular retelling them. A small circle of third graders on the playground gawked at her in awed silence as she spun tales of southern jinxes and Vodun curses. Even big-shot Arnie Fetters occasionally shuddered or gasped in surprise. If the stories ever got back to the teachers, she’d be in for an earful from her mother. But for the moment Tess was willing to take that chance.
Besides, Tess loved the way Momma sounded as she told them. That accent she tried hard simmer down most times came bounding back to life during a story. Tess always thought she was glimpsing Momma in her truest, most beautiful form.
“I’ve got it,” Tess said, holding a finger up like her teacher did when making a point. “If you tell me a story I’ll pull weeds in the flowerbed for a full hour.” She rocked on her feet as her mother looked at her. “You have to admit that’s a pretty swell deal.”
Mare studied her daughter for a moment, making Tess feel like she was getting a final hair and clothes check before heading to the bus stop. Momma’s stares always seemed too long, and Tess sometimes wondered what she was looking for. Maybe her attention was drawn to the blonde ringlets that came naturally to Tess but took Momma half the morning to reproduce with pin curls. Or it could have been the over abundance of freckles that speckled her nose and cheeks like a swarm of snowflakes. Whatever it was, Momma seemed to get a little lost inside herself when she stared at Tess. The hypnotic music coming from the radio on the kitchen window ledge didn’t help. I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover gave way to the dreamy Bing Crosby crooning Now Is the Hour. Tess listened, swooning in the breeze, as Bing melodiously said goodbye to a loved one sailing away.
“The weeds can wait another day,” Mare decided. “But that doesn’t mean you’re getting a story for free.”
Tess grabbed her mother’s dress. “I’ll do anything.”
Mare grabbed another piece of clothing from the basket. Tess cracked a smile when she saw it was Papa’s drawers. “Fetch that pail off the back porch,” Mare instructed. “If you can go down to the river and make it back with a pail-full of water, I’ll tell you a story.”
“That’s it?” Tess bounced happily. “I can do that.”
Their well pump had gone out yesterday evening, giving Papa a chance to use many of the words Mrs. Gershon said were “Paddle Words.” Mare propped her hands on her hips.
“Then why are you dancing around here?”
Tess didn’t need further motivation. She darted for the porch, grabbing the pail by the handle without slowing. Rounding their two-story farmhouse, she nearly banged the pail into Papa’s candy-apple red Studebaker. She pulled back in time, thankful she didn’t scratch the paint. That wouldn’t have been pretty, for the paintjob or her behind.
She slowed to skip across the flat stones surrounding the circle drive, being careful not to get caught on the rosebushes near the porch. Beyond that was the rusty old barn. Tess hurried past it, hearing Papa’s disgruntled tones echo through the loft window. He was somewhere in there, grumbling to himself and banging tools and getting himself all in a dither. Papa spent whole days dithering in the barn and on those days Tess knew to steer clear. When a matter couldn’t wait, it was Momma who ventured into the barn, and she never came out looking happy about it.
Beyond the barn the forest began. It looked dense and forbidding to a first-timer, which Tess was proud to say she wasn’t. The forest wasn’t as vast as it first appeared. It covered three acres at most, and once inside, the trails were easy to follow. Within minutes you emerged from the other side, staring at the Trinity River. But for a few precious moments, the woods came to life in that same mystical way Nawlins did in Momma’s stories. The silence seemed watchful, as if something unseen waited in breathless anticipation.
Tess was through the first acre when she heard the sound. It was low and barely audible. She cocked her head and stopped, peering up at the canopy of branches and the shards of sunlight that pushed through the leaves like hungry fingers. Her body went rigid as the sound drifted over the breeze again.
A groan. She heard a low, muted, raspy groan.
It was a ragged, withering voice that could have been male or female. She twisted around slowly, finding it difficult to move. The sound didn’t come from any one direction. But it was close. The more she listened the closer it felt. She stared at the forest floor, seeing pine needles dappled in sunlight. The shadows became more noticeable.
The groan lifted into a reedy warble. Someone had to be hurt, maybe from tripping over a branch, or getting bit by a snake—or worse. Tess wanted to call out. Her lips parted, but her voice didn’t follow. Her mouth had gone dry as dirt. The groan spiked again, passing through her like an electric shock. Tess coughed.
“Are…are you okay?” Had she said it out loud? What made it past her lips came out as a whisper. Tess tried again, pushing the words out one at a time. “Hello? Who are you? Where are you?”
The groan broke into a series of dry coughs, sounding like the distant gunfire she heard during hunting season. A thump followed the coughs, and then silence. Tess waited, realizing the abrupt end to the noise was scarier than the noise itself. The fear put her in motion. “Hello?” she called louder. “Where are you? Tell me where you are.”
No answer. She moved deeper into the forest, leaving the path. Bushes snagged at the blue summer dress Momma had bought last week. She couldn’t stop to disentangle herself from every little branch. Faces of her schoolmates floated in her mind as she imagined each one lying with a broken leg and grasping at the air for help. Tess climbed a small rise and tried again.
“Please call out again,” she cried as she stepped carefully over a trunk and into a small grove of trees. A group of crows took flight, shooting upward from every side. Tess staggered to avoid them. Her foot landed on something that wasn’t ground. Up above a crow cawed in annoyance. She had already forgotten the crows. Her focus was on the large wooden door she stood upon.
The wood was nearly green from years of overgrowth. The metal clasps and the old padlock on the handle were so rusted they looked bloodstained. It was a cellar door, or more likely a storm shelter. Spring storms in these parts would justify having one, but why so far from the farmhouse and so well hidden? The surrounding trees stood like guardians protecting the door from the outside world.
The groan came again. Tess screamed and leapt back, dropping her water pail. The sound came from directly beneath her. She knelt on the ground and knocked on the door in a panic, not wasting time thinking. Someone was down there, someone who needed her. A cold knot tightened in her stomach.
“Who are you?” she cried, banging the door with her small fist. “Are you hurt?”
The groan lowered to a whimpering. It sobbed, and Tess brought her ear close to the wood, taking in every sniffle. It whispered only one word.
Tess scrambled to her feet and grabbed the first heavy thing she saw, a fallen branch not two feet from the door. Tess hefted it as best she could, shifting it onto her shoulder, and taking a stance over the blood red lock. “Don’t you worry,” she said. “I’m getting you out of there.”
With a squeaky grunt she swung the branch and got it on the first try. The branch hit the heart-shaped padlock, and the metal shattered like an ancient vase. She probably could have kicked it with her shoe and gotten the same result.
She lugged the branch aside and grabbed the door handle, hoping it wasn’t as breakable as the lock. “I’m opening the door,” she announced to whoever was down there. If it was a small child, she didn’t want to scare him or her. She squatted and braced herself—and then pulled.
It was hard, but not as hard as she expected. The door didn’t shift from its resting place at first. The roots and weeds at its borders played tug-of-war with her. Tess thought of the cowering child waiting inside and put her back into it. Weeds ripped, roots cracked, and the door swung until gravity helped her, allowing her to let the door fall against a tree. Tess found herself at the top of a staircase, staring down into blackness.
The overbearing stench of mildew forced her to step back. Sour air wafted over her, the underground lair exhaling after years of holding its breath. She wondered how someone could actually be waiting down there. She kept looking in the oily darkness, hoping for a sign of movement.
“Can you walk? ...Hello?”
No movement. No sound. Had she scared the child? The daylight could be too bright for someone who spent a long time in darkness. She squatted again and held out her hand, like someone befriending an uneasy dog.
“It’s okay. You can come out. I wanna help.”
She waited but no response came. Rising from the squat, she eyed the rotten-looking stairs warily. Only the first four were visible in the light, and there was no way to know how many followed or if they were intact. And yet the toe of her shoe drifted closer to the first one. Her shoe touched the wood and a soft creak echoed in the darkness. She let her other foot follow until she was completely on the step. It sagged a little, but it didn’t break. She was sure of it. She—
Hands closed on her shoulders.
Tess gasped as she was pulled backward. The hands spun her around until she was staring into Momma’s taut face. “Tessie. Tu dèlires? I send you for water and you decide to go exploring instead? Well, I think I have several other chores that need your immediate attention.”
“But Momma!” she erupted. She twisted in her mother’s grip, pointing into the black hole. “There’s someone down there! I heard ’em crying. I think the person’s hurtin’.”
Mare had started pulling her the other way, but stopped to look back. She eyed Tess first and then the door. It was obvious she had never seen it before either. She turned her gaze to her daughter. “Wait. What?”
“The child’s down there, I promise.” She stared up at Momma, letting the tears come. “I know he ain’t making noise now, but he’s down there. He is. I wouldn’t make this up. Not this.” She tugged on her mother’s dress, praying her momma wouldn’t think she let her imagination get the best of her. Adults had a way of ignoring the important stuff.
Mare’s gaze remained steady. “All right,” she finally said. “Let me take a look.”
Tess nodded gratefully and they turned to the waiting darkness. Mare stepped past, keeping one hand firmly on Tess’s shoulder to let her know she wasn’t to follow. Mare went to the doorway and stopped at the edge.
“Who’s down there?” she demanded. “Tell me your name and how you found your way onto our land. There’ll be no hiding and seeking here.”
Mare waited with hands on hips. Now that she put it in those words, Tess wondered if someone had toyed with her for sport. If that was the case, there would be a fight on the school playground tomorrow. And if it was Arnie Fetters, he could expect to go away from it with a bloody nose.
No answer came. Momma waited a whole minute before turning to look at Tess.
“I heard someone.” Tess looked at the hole in the ground, hoping in vain to see a child crawling off of the stairs.
“I know you did, Tessie, but whoever’s down there isn’t going to fess up to it. We’ll have to go back to the house and ring the police. Allons.”
With a gentle touch Momma took her by the shoulder and turned her around. Tess didn’t need convincing. She was happy to turn her back on the strangely-placed storm shelter. And she was happy Momma was with her too. To think, she had almost stepped down into that blackness alone.
“Don’t worry,” Mare said as she squeezed her. “I’ll still tell you a stor—”
Momma’s hand jerked away as she let out a guttural cry. Tess wheeled around to see her mother on her stomach, writhing in the dirt as she flew backward. Her dress bunched around her waist as some unseen thing yanked on her feet. Her fingers clawed the ground, raking at loose leaves and making trails in the dirt. Her eyes blazed panic.
“Tess!” Mare cried. Tess flung her small body toward the dark opening in the ground that wanted to swallow Momma. Nothing happened fast enough. Tess couldn’t make her legs react as rapidly as her heart. Her arms were pitifully short, her hands pushing through air like fish fighting the current. Tess’s index and middle fingers brushed the stony white knuckles of her momma’s left hand. Then Mare was ripped away, disappearing into blackness. Tess heard several hollow thumps as Mare Buckner tumbled down the steps. A scream came next, so awful and loud Tess thought she had to be in a dream.
“Momma!” she cried, crawling madly to the edge of the staircase. She saw movement like bugs crawling on the trees at night; a glistening shape one moment, a sense of liquid motion the next. She cried for her momma again and again. And then she saw her, or at least her hands, shaking as they came into the light.
They were much too white as they grabbed the lowest visible stair. Momma’s waxy face came into view and Tess screamed. Her chin and neck were red with blood. Momma’s eyes quivered in their sockets, but they bulged farther when they fell on Tess.
“Run,” Mare said, and the voice might have been the same raspy whisper she heard earlier. “Please, Tessie. Run!”
Mare’s gaze dropped as she gagged and vomited on the stairs, spraying blood over the mildewed wood. Something moved in the darkness, and Momma was yanked out of view.
A sickening, ripping sound followed.
* * * *
Abner Buckner sat on a workbench, staring at a broken well pump. Truth be told, he was staring through it more than at it now, letting his mind draw him somewhere far from the dank and musty barn. He imagined, as he often did, that he hadn’t been born into farming, and that his true talents lay elsewhere, perhaps as a Texas Ranger. He liked the idea of enforcing something, of carrying a weapon and being respected for it. He especially liked the idea of walking around in a uniform that wasn’t always spotted with dirt and grease stains.
Those thoughts vanished as the side door banged open, ripping him from his trance. “What the hell?” he barked, hoping his volume covered how startled he was.
Tess ran at him, communicating through a series of shrieking gasps. She said something about her Momma and a cellar and a voice. She grabbed him by his overall straps and yanked with unexpected strength, pulling him off the bench and into action. “Help me!” she screamed. “Help Momma!”
“Okay, damn it all. I’m a’coming.” He grabbed a scattershot rifle as Tess took off back into the forest. A moment later they were there, looking into the blackness. Abner fished a lighter from his pocket and squatted next to the opening.
“Honey?” he yelled, waving his lighter toward stairs. “Mare, you in there? Did you fall or somthin’?”
“It’s down there,” Tess said through her sobs. “Something hurt Momma.”
Abner braced the rifle in the crook of his arm and started down the stairs. The flicker of the lighter was barely enough to light his way. But he went down the stairs, seven in all, and came to a concrete floor. In the darkness he saw glimmers of half-rotted shelves lining the wall and old crates covered in thick coats of dust. What she didn’t see was his wife.
“Are you sure she went down here?” Abner asked, bending over to move the light across the floor. “I can’t even see her footprints in the dust.”
He glanced up at Tess, waiting for an answer. But her gaze was fixed on the wooden stairs. She peered at the grayish-green planks, her skin going gray and waxy all at once.
“The blood,” she whispered. “The blood is gone.”
Abner Buckner looked at his daughter’s rigid posture. She was on the verge of fainting, and he hadn’t the slightest notion why. But when he stopped calling for his wife, he heard something. It was soft and easy to miss amid the swaying tree branches, but the longer he listened, the more he thought the sound was there in the cellar with him.
Ticking—like the ticking of a clock.