Friday, October 10, 2014


Hello all. 

Just a quick update. Don't want to take up too much of your time. 

First things first, I am doing much better. It's been a week since my last post (in which I revealed I am a raging booze-monster), and I can't believe the difference in how I feel. For the last few years, I have been either drunk, hungover, or suffering from withdrawal symptoms. I can't remember the last time I actually felt good. I am not completely over the withdrawal yet, but I am more clearheaded and have more energy than I have had in years. And it has only been a week. 

Which is not to say it has been easy. It has not. The first three days, I felt like a shit pancake smothered in misery sauce. Shakes, heart beating in my chest a mile a minute, anxiety, cold sweats, headaches, nausea, the works. Then on day four, horrible things stopped pouring out of me and I began to feel better. By day five, I could eat a full meal without losing it. The shakes stopped. I even went to my son's t-ball game. 

The last couple of days, I actually got out of the house and ran errands. Who am I? 

I'm going to take it easy the rest of the week, eat regularly, drink lots of water, and spend time with the family. On Monday, I'll get back to writing.  

Before I go, I want to take a moment to thank all of you who took the time to offer your support and encouragement. Honestly, I expected to get some nasty comments and deal with a heavy dose of trolling. But so far, that hasn't happened. Your responses have been overwhelmingly supportive, and I can't tell you all how much it means to me to read your kind comments. Many of you have shared your own stories of addiction and recovery, and it gives me hope. If others can do it, so can I. 

With everything I have and with everything I am, thank you. 

The last few days have served not only to redeem my faith in humanity and demonstrate just how many people out there are concerned about me, but also to reveal the challenge that lies ahead. Anyone who has ever been an addict knows what I'm talking about, but for you sensible, careful souls who have wisely avoided such things, let me explain what being an alcoholic in today's society is like. 

Just for a moment, imagine you are a cocaine addict. You realize your problem, you go to rehab, and you get clean. Then you come home, and everywhere you look, you see cocaine. When you watch a football game, every other commercial is advertising cocaine. They depict fit, attractive people dancing and snorting blow up their noses and having an awesome time doing it. 

You walk into a restaurant and half the people around you are snorting cocaine from little mirrors as they eat their meals. Bottles of cocaine line the walls. The waiter comes over and hands you a menu listing their exceptional cocaine selection. She offers to pour you a little sample of the house Colombian White. 

You go to the grocery store and there is a massive cocaine section, an endless variety, every kind of blow you could possibly desire. You go to the convenience store to buy a bottle of water and have to walk by the cocaine cooler to do so. It is everywhere, all around you, tempting you, you can't ever get away from it, and it will always, always, be this way. 

That's what it's like to be an alcoholic. 

But you know what? I don't care. I'm tired of booze. I feel better than I've felt in years, and I'd like to stay that way. I don't want to go back. I don't want to fall into that trap again. I've been down that road, and I know where it leads. 

It's nice to reside in normal town again. I think I'll stay here. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Confession Time

My name is James Nathaniel Cook, and I am an alcoholic.

There. I said it.

I’m not talking about a ‘have a few beers before bed’ kind of problem, either. I’m talking about a ‘drink an entire liter of hard liquor a day’ kind of problem. Seriously. About a liter.

Every. Single. Day. Sometimes more. Can’t remember the last day I didn’t.

Let that sink in.

The last couple of weeks, I have been having my first drink at around 10:30 in the morning, and I’m usually passed out in my armchair by 1:00 PM. I wake up hungover, I drink water and tea to get functional, and after dinner, I start up again until I pass out. For the second time in a day. Usually before nine PM.

I haven’t written a word of new material for The Darkest Place in nearly two weeks. I’ve been too drunk. That is the real reason it is taking so long. Hell, that’s the reason all my books take so long. It’s hard to write when you’re so inebriated you can barely string a sentence together.

I didn’t get here overnight. I think I became addicted to alcohol at the age of 21. For a long time there, I could maintain. I could work. I was functional. But I can’t tell you how many times I went to work hungover. I should have been fired a hundred times over from every job I ever worked. It’s a wonder I never was. Maybe I just showed up resembling a pile of hammered dog shit so many times they just figured that was how I looked. Kind of pathetic when you think about it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not looking for sympathy here. I did this to myself. I’ve spent the better part of 13 years in the bottle, and I have no one to blame but myself. It’s my own fault things have gotten this bad.

What I’m looking for here is accountability. Sooner or later, all my family and friends are going to see this, and the secret will be out. Once I post this, there is no going back. If I’m honest, I think I’m just tired of trying to hide it. I simply do not care about keeping up appearances anymore.

I have had many successes in my life. I served my country for six years with honor and distinction, and I have the service record and medals to prove it. I am the first person in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree (finance major, just in case you were wondering). I have a wife who loves me, two beautiful children, and plenty of people in my life who care about me.

Nonetheless, I feel like a failure.

I failed my family. I failed my friends. I failed you, my beloved readers. But the thing about failure is you can learn from it. You can choose a different path. For too many years of my life, I have walked the path of anger and depression and addiction.

No more.

I cannot live like this. It’s not a life. It’s barely an existence, and unless I make some serious changes, I won’t even have that. I’ll be dead before I’m forty.

I turned 34 years old last month. I don’t know how many years I have left. Maybe forty, maybe five, maybe a few days. But for whatever time I remain on this Earth, I refuse to spend it as a useless drunk. My family, and friends, and you readers who have given me the career I always wanted, you all deserve better from me.

And by God, I intend to make it happen.

I’m in a pretty low place right now. I woke up at three in the morning last night from alcohol withdrawal, shaking like a leaf in the wind, and I knew I was in trouble. All I wanted to do was have a drink. So instead, I stumbled downstairs on shaky legs because I haven’t been eating lately because my stomach can’t handle it, and I got every bottle of booze in the house and poured it down the fucking sink. Then I went upstairs and woke my wife up and told her I needed help. She’s staying home with me today.

The withdrawal is pretty terrible right now. My hands are shaking badly as I type this. But I know I can get through it. It’s easy when you don’t have a choice.

And that’s why I am posting this. I want everyone in my life who has ever given a rat’s ass about my existence to know what I’m going through and hold me responsible for fixing it. I’ve let a lot of people down, but I will do everything I can to make it right.

We all make mistakes. We all strive and fail. I'm no better than anyone else. Being willing to admit it is the first step to correcting the problem. 

I may be down, but I’m not out. Not by a long shot; I have too much to live for. I’m going to take some time and get myself sober and functional again, and then I’ll work on picking up the other pieces of my life. I probably won’t get much writing done, so as far as a release date for The Darkest Place, you’re just going to have to be patient with me. I want to make it the best book I can, but that’s not going to happen if I spend most of every day drunk off my ass.

Enough is enough. I’m going to beat this thing. I’ll post again when I’m feeling a little stronger.

Wish me luck. And as always, thank you. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Another Excerpt From The Darkest Place: A Surviving the Dead Novel

“It looks like a settlement,” Mike said, handing me the field glasses. I peered through them.

At the highway junction, there was a gas station, a farmers market, and an RV park, all separated from the forest by a broad asphalt parking lot. The fireproof buffer zone had kept the structures and recreational vehicles safe from the fires that had come through not long ago. From where Mike and I lay at the top of a rise near the treeline, we could see the people below had moved the RVs so they formed a ring around the two buildings. They had also packed the space beneath the vehicles with dirt and were using the wide trenches left behind as latrines.

Now that’s what I call multi-tasking.

I counted a couple of dozen people, some of them standing guard, others engaged in menial tasks, and still more doing nothing much at all. There seemed to be an even dispersion of men and women, even a few children here and there. I gauged the size of the small compound and the amount of work that must have gone into securing it, and decided something did not add up.

“There’s not enough people,” I said.

“I was thinking the same thing,” Mike replied.

“All that dirt, the number of RVs, there must be others somewhere.”

“Or maybe there were, but they moved on.”

I put the field glasses down. “Could be.”

“Let’s give it a while. Keep an eye on them, see what we see.”

“Good idea.”

We settled in.

It was nostalgic, in a way, lying there among the torched foliage. During the years when Mike was imparting the lessons he had learned from his days at Quantico and on the battlefield, we had spent countless hours in the wilds, lying motionless, waiting, just like we were doing then.
In the early days, my targets had been javelina, deer, and coyotes. Those initial hunts were organized so Mike could teach me the basics. He figured since animals had better senses, better instincts, and are generally more perceptive than humans, if I could get close to them, I could get the drop on a man with no problem. Mike’s lessons took hold quickly, and it was not long before he decided I was ready for phase two.

Next, he began setting up targets in open fields and had me try to shoot them while he watched for me through a spotting scope. By the time I was fourteen, I could consistently fire two shots on target undetected from two-hundred yards.

When I could do it from eighty yards, Mike decided it was time to up the ante with mock sniper duels.

I took on all of them: Mike, Dad, Tyrel, and Blake. Even a few of their students who wanted to try their luck against me. We would start on opposite ends of various landscapes in the Texas hill country, make our way to one of three pre-established destinations, and try to spot the other guy in the distance. If we did, we fired at a steel target hung above and away from them to stop the match. If the shooter hit the right target, he then had to walk a spotter via radio to where the other sniper lay hidden. If he was successful, he won. If not, we reset and started over. The match went on until one of us was victorious, or it grew too late and we had to call it.

Mike was the only guy I never beat.

He taught me, after all, so he knew all my tricks.

The others, I had much better luck with. Which is not to say I bested them on a consistent basis—I didn’t—but I got them enough times to know my skills were well above average.

So despite the heat, and the smell of charred wood clogging my nose, and the slowly building pressure in my bladder, I lay still and watched. Mike did the same, but he was not as still as I. There was the occasional twitch and fidget and shift of torso, a surplus of unnecessary movement. The untrained eye would never have seen it, but to someone who had seen Mike lie still as a stone for hours on end, it was like watching him pace around wringing his hands. After a while, I grew tired of it.

“What’s wrong with you?”


“Something’s bothering you. What is it?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.”


There was a rustle of fabric as he turned his head. “I’m fine.”

“Mike …”

“Okay. You want to know what’s on my mind? I’ll tell you.” He leaned close so he was right next to my ear. “Did you fuck my daughter, Caleb?”

My face turned to ice. “Um …”


“I wouldn’t put it in those terms, exactly.”

“So you fucked her.”

“Mike, it wasn’t like that.” I met his gaze, and what I saw there made me want to back away slowly and avoid sudden movements. It hurt to see it; Mike was almost as much a father to me as my real one. I blurted out, “I love her, Mike.”

He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Caleb, you’re only eighteen. You don’t know what love is.”

“Look, maybe I haven’t been around the block like you have, but I know how I feel. You talk about what’s between me and Sophia like it’s some sordid, tawdry thing. It’s not. We care about each other. I’ve had feelings for her a long time, and she told me she feels the same way. We just never said anything to each other about it.”

Mike looked at me again, much of the hardness gone from his gaze. “Do you really care about her, Caleb? You’re not just taking advantage of her?”

“What? No, Mike. I would never do that. You know that.”

“She’s been under a lot of stress lately. That kind of thing can make a girl vulnerable, make her do things she normally wouldn’t.”

“I told you, Mike. I would never do that to her, or any other girl for that matter.”

He sighed and turned his face back down the hill. “Sorry, son. I didn’t mean to … listen you have to understand what it’s been like for me all these years. Guys have been coming after Sophia since she was eleven years old. Fuckin’ hordes of them, an endless parade. All this time, it was all I could do to keep her from ending up like my mom—barefoot and pregnant with me by the time she was sixteen. I don’t want that to happen to Sophia.” 

“You don’t think she’s smart enough to keep that from happening?”

“I think she’s a kid,” Mike said. “I think she’s made some bad decisions along the way. The partying, the drugs, the crowd she hangs out with … well, used to hang out with, anyway. For a while there, I thought I was gonna lose her.”

“But you didn’t, Mike. She did some crazy teenager shit like most teenagers do, and she got over it.”

“You didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?”

“Do a bunch of crazy teenager shit.”

I gave a small shrug. “I’m not like most teenagers.”

Mike laughed slightly. “Yeah. I guess not.” He grabbed the field glasses and peered down the hill again, sweeping slowly from left to right. I lay next to him, chin on my hands, thinking about Sophia. Enough time passed that I thought he had dropped the subject, so when he spoke, it startled me.

“I guess if there’s any guy I would want her to end up with,” he said. “It’d be you, Caleb. Just make sure you take good care of her.”

I looked at him, surprised. There was a lump in my throat, and a blurry stinging touched the backs of my eyes. I had to swallow a few times before I could speak. “Thanks, Mike. That means a lot to me.”

He grunted and continued staring down the hill. We left it at that.

Nothing much happened in the settlement below as the sun stretched the shadows into afternoon. I was beginning to consider suggesting we head back and get the others when I heard the sound of a car approaching.

“Hand me the eyes,” Mike said. He had given me the field glasses so he could take a rest. I passed them back.

We watched a car pull up to the compound, a GMC pickup, loaded with supplies, two people seated in the cab. It stopped in front of a low-rider Cadillac that served as the settlement’s main gate. Two men climbed over the Caddy and approached the truck. There followed a brief conversation, then one of the people in the truck handed something to a man at the gate. He ran into the main enclosure, disappeared into an RV, and came back out with a small box in his hands. After handing the box to the man in the truck, there was a quick round of conversation—thank-you-and-goodbye by the look of it—and the truck was off.

“Huh,” Mike said.


“Looked friendly enough.”

“Sure did. I’m thinking I might have an idea.”

The big Marine glanced at me warily. “Caleb …”

“What? These people might be able to help us. And I’m a lot less scary looking than you. Besides, if anything goes wrong, you’ll be up here on overwatch.”

He thought it over. “All right. But approach from the road. If things turn bad, signal me by scratching your right ear with your left hand. Got it?”

“Right ear, left hand. Got it.”


I let them see me coming a long way off.

After backing down from the shallow hillside, I circled around in defilade and emerged at the base of another hill, standing on highway 281. The lookouts at the settlement didn’t see me until I topped the rise and skylined myself.

I could see them in the distance, eyes peering through binoculars, rifles hung over their shoulders, faint echoes reaching me as they called to one another. Their posture seemed neither aggressive nor overly relaxed. They wanted to make it clear they were aware of my approach, but had no plans to get in my way.

I stopped in front of the Cadillac—a purple one, lots of after-market modifications, barely four inches off the ground—and waved at a guard standing atop an RV.


The man nodded in my direction. He was a little shorter than me, heavyset, late thirties, big bushy moustache. He said, “Howdy.”

“Don’t suppose you have any water in there, do you?”

“Depends. What you got to trade?”

“What are you looking for?”

He reached in his back pocket and pulled out a list. As he did, a light wind kicked up, sending streamers of ash across the soot-stained parking lot. “Got any feminine hygiene products?”

“Um, no.”



“Pain medicine?”

“Afraid not.”

“Toilet paper?”



I chuckled at that one. “No.”

He stuffed the list back in his pocket. “Well, I guess that just leaves ammo.”

I patted the mag pouches on my vest. “I can spare some five-five-six and nine-mil.”

“How many rounds?”

“That depends. How much water are we talking about?”

One corner of the man’s mouth twitched upward. “You’re pretty sharp for a young fella.” He made a motion over the Caddy. “Come on in. Just hop right over the car there.”

As I obeyed, the guard turned and shouted to someone I couldn’t see. My feet hit the opposite side of the gate just in time to see several men and two women emerge from RVs, all carrying weapons. My hand tightened on the grip of my rifle, but I stayed relaxed, letting it dangle from its tactical sling. If things went south, after I signaled Mike, the rifle would be a distraction. While all eyes were focused on it, I would quick-draw my pistol and start gunning people down. At this range, the sidearm would be easier to bring to bear.

“What’s your name?” one of the men said. Tall, about my height, salt-and-pepper hair, mid to late forties, strong build, moved and spoke like a cop. By the way the others gravitated toward him, I figured him for the leader.

“Caleb Hicks,” I said, seeing no harm in giving my real name.

“Who are you with?” The man said, coming to a halt a few feet in front of me. His tone was not entirely hostile, just authoritarian, like he was accustomed to being answered when he posed a question, and being answered quickly.

“Me, myself, and I,” I said, looking around casually. “What is this place?”

“I’ll ask the questions.” I returned my gaze to him. He had dark brown eyes, focused and intense.

“What are you doing here?”

“Passing through. I need some water.” I lowered a hand slowly to my canteen and gave it a shake. It made a light splashing sound, indicating it was almost empty. I had actually drank most of it earlier, planning to use the empty canteen as an excuse for approaching the settlement. “Came across a house a day ago that hadn’t burned down, found a few liters left in the hot water heater. But I’ve just about worked through it by now. If you have any to spare, I’m more than happy to trade for it. Can’t drink bullets, after all.”

“Where are you coming from?”

I hooked a thumb over my shoulder. “San Antonio. Or what’s left of it, anyway. When Houston went up like a road flare, I saw the writing on the wall. The highways were choked by then, so I left on foot. Had to hide out from the fires for a while, and now I’m trying to make my way to Colorado.”

The man looked from me to the guard standing on top of the RV. “We don’t normally let people inside the gate,” he said pointedly.

“Aw, come on, Travis,” the guard replied. “He’s just a kid. Stop being so damn paranoid and let him have some water. We got plenty, for Christ’s sake.”

The leader, Travis, glared a moment longer, then returned his attention to me. “I suppose Jerry’s right. Leave your rifle and your sidearm at the gate, then go with Mabel here.” He gestured to a frumpy, fiftyish woman behind him. “She’ll get you some water.”

Travis walked off and disappeared into his RV. The others with him cast me a final, curious glance and then did the same. Mabel stepped closer, offering a doughy hand. I shook it.

“Nice to meet you Caleb.”

“Same to you, ma’am.”

“You’ll have to forgive Travis. He’s a good man, but a bit overprotective.”

Jerry climbed down from the RV and took my carbine and pistol, but didn’t ask for my ammo. Mabel began walking toward the gas station in the center of the ring of campers. I followed a few feet behind.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“Well, let’s see … it’s been a little over a month since what happened in Houston. Most everyone around these parts evacuated long before then. There were a bunch of us came up from San Antonio with the National Guard. Stopped here for gas, but while the soldiers were fueling up their trucks, they got orders to head back south. Commanding officer apologized, but said he had no choice.”

“So they just left you here?”

She nodded. “Sure did.”

“You don’t sound angry.”

“My husband was a soldier, God rest his soul. I know what orders are. Besides, we had Travis. He organized us, had us scavenge around for food, medicine, weapons, things like that. It was his idea to circle the campers and fill ‘em in with dirt. Does a good job of keeping the infected out.”

Mabel led me behind the gas station to an old-fashioned hand pump. She put a small metal bucket beneath it and began pumping out water. “Back about a week ago, some folks got together and decided they couldn’t stay in this place any longer. Said it was unsustainable. I believe that was the word the fella eggin’ ‘em on used. Name was Thornton, used to be a state senator. Slimy little snake of a man. Convinced all those folks to head west for Arizona. Said there was some kind of bunker out there he knew about, place where they were taking a bunch of folks part of some secret government project. Sounded like a bunch o’ hooey to me, and I told him as much. So did Travis, and those other folks you see here. But they wouldn’t listen. Lit out, and took most of our food with ‘em. God only knows if they made it or not.”
She finished pumping the water and held up the bucket. I tilted the mouth of my canteen beneath it and held it steady while she poured. 

“Seen anyone else come through?” I asked. “Travelers, other survivors, the military, anything like that?”

“Had a few folks pass through, lookin’ to trade, most of ‘em wantin’ bullets or water or both. Offerin’ food or whatever else they had. Travis don’t normally allow folks inside the wall. I imagine him and Jerry will have words about it later.”

When my canteen was full, Mabel withdrew the water bucket. “How about ten rounds of rifle ammo?” she said.

I cocked an eyebrow at her. “How about four. Looks like you won’t be running out of water any time soon.”

She smiled. “Five?”


I pulled a mag from a carrier, counted out the cartridges, and handed them to her. “Thanks, Mabel. Best of luck to you.”

“Same to you, darlin’. Be careful out there.”


She stayed by the pumps as I walked back toward the gate. I looked around along the way, trying to get a sense of the place. There were almost as many campers forming the perimeter as people, a solid white wall dotted at regular intervals with shatterproof glass. The residents themselves milled about in various states of solemn dejection, dust in their hair, eyes squinting under the hot sun as they stared at me from under hat brims and outstretched hands, a few of them lucky enough to be sporting sunglasses. Glancing to my right, I saw the dirty faces of a few pre-teen children pressed against a window trying to get a better look at me. The closer I came to the center of the enclosure, the more acutely I felt the weight of all those staring eyes. The attention was disconcerting.

I had hoped the people here could offer us some measure of assistance, but from what I could see, they needed help more than we did. It would probably best for my group if we just bypassed this place altogether.

About ten feet from the gate, Travis’ voice stopped me. “Mr. Hicks,” he said. “Might I have a word with you for a moment?”

I turned and squinted. The sun was at his back, forcing me to shield my eyes to see him. “What about?”

“Please, it’ll only take a minute or two.”

I didn’t move. “So come out here and let’s talk.”

He stepped down from his RV and approached, hands held out to the sides. His gun was notably absent from its holster. A few steps brought him around so I didn’t have to squint to see him. “I just have a few questions for you, and I would prefer to ask them in private. It will only take a few minutes of your time. After that, you can be on your way.”

I read his face. He looked calm, radiating sincerity, but there was an intensity in his eyes I didn’t like, an unblinking steadiness that made the hair on my neck stand up. Falling back on my training, I did a quick assessment.  

He wasn’t armed, but that didn’t mean anything. He still wielded the most dangerous weapon of all—authority. All he had to do was shout, and I was a dead man. I could decline and try to leave, but if he decided to press the issue, things would escalate. And out here in the open, with only my knife and hand-to-hand combat skills, I didn’t stand a chance. Not unless I got extraordinarily lucky, and I was not about to bet my life on luck.

My left hand twitched as I thought about reaching up and casually scratching my right ear. I could see where my rifle and pistol lay on the ground only a few feet away, Jerry standing next to them. He seemed oblivious to the tension between Travis and me, but he could be faking it for all I knew. If I gave the signal, it would be the end of Travis’ life, and the shock factor would very likely buy me the time I needed to cross the distance to Jerry, incapacitate him, and retrieve my weapons.

But what then?

My best bet would be to run for the southeast side of the encampment, staying low and hugging the wall of campers, and serpentine my way through the dead trees there, hoping none of the residents here were expert marksmen. I knew I could count on Mike to cover me and take out anyone who stuck their head up too far once I was outside the gate.

But did it really need to come to that? What if Travis sincerely just wanted to ask a few questions and send me on my way? Furthermore, if he tried to break bad on me, we would be in the confines of his camper at hand-to-hand range. Travis was strong looking, but I’m no weakling, and I sincerely doubted he could match my skill level in a strand-up fight. Few people I had ever met could.

I was also still at the point in my life I thought it was best to avoid bloodshed whenever possible. I have since become a far less sentimental person, but at the time, I conceded, thinking it was the sensible thing to do.

“Lead the way,” I said, holding a hand toward Travis’ RV.

He walked ahead of me a few feet and disappeared through the door. I followed him in, blinking at the sudden dimness of the camper’s interior. If the afternoon had been overcast instead of blindingly bright, I would have noticed him hurrying to the small table in the kitchenette sooner. But my eyes were still adjusting, and by the time I blinked away the sickly green film obscuring my vision, I found myself staring down the barrel of a .45 automatic.

“Where are the others?” he asked.

I blinked in confusion. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Don’t bullshit me kid. We both know you didn’t come here alone.”

My hands came up to shoulder level, palms out. “Listen, I don’t-”

“Do you want to know what I did before all this happened?” he interrupted, tilting his head at the wasteland outside the window.

“Is that a rhetorical question?”

He frowned, shifting the gun so he held it at hip level. “I was a detective with the San Antonio Police Department.”

“Okay. So if you’re a cop, why are you threatening me with a gun right now?”

“Because a detective notices things. Take your boots, for example.”

I looked down and felt a twist in my stomach. I knew what he was about to say, but it hadn’t occurred to me until just that second what a gaping hole they put in my cover story. 

“They’re too new,” he said. “They fit you perfectly, which means you bought them from a store, not found them along the way. There’s no way you crossed all those miles between here and San Antonio with no more wear and tear than that.” He gestured at my feet with the gun.

There was a moment of silence. I got the impression he was waiting for me to say something, an old cop trick. I didn’t take the bait. Finally, he said, “Then there’s your face. You’re not tan enough. If you had been out in the sun these past couple of weeks, you’d be brown as a strip of bacon. Not to mention you’re clean-shaven.”

He took a couple of steps closer, but stayed out of arm’s reach. “Now tell me, kid. Why does a man facing the prospect of dehydration waste precious water on something as unnecessary as shaving?”

My mind raced. The barrel of Travis’ gun was only forty-five hundredths of an inch wide, but from my perspective, it may as well have been the size of the moon. I kept my hands up and eased back a step.

“Don’t move again,” Travis growled.

“Okay, fine,” I said, playing for time. “Just take your finger off the trigger, okay?”

“No. I asked you some questions, boy. If you want to leave this place alive, you better start answering them.”

“Okay, I will, I’ll answer all your questions. All I ask is you take your finger off the trigger. Just so you don’t shoot me by accident.”

I was scared at this point, and didn’t have to fake the tremor of fear in my voice. Travis glared a moment longer, then eased his finger off the trigger, keeping his fingertip poised just above it. “There, happy now?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re very fucking welcome. Now talk.”

I took a deep breath. “When I left San Antonio, I had two pairs of boots,” I said. “One of them wore out. This is my second pair. That’s why they look so new.”

Travis seemed to consider this. He made a small motion with the gun. “What about your skin?”

“I had a hat, but I lost it a couple of days ago. There are a couple of bottles of SPF 70 in my backpack, the spray-on stuff. It only takes a little bit once or twice a day. I put it on my face and hands. My clothes protect the rest.”

It was true I had the sunblock, but I had only used a little of it. The part about the hat was a lie, but there was no way for him to verify that. My clothes did indeed cover most of my exposed skin, being that my shirt was long-sleeved, and I was glad I had not rolled the sleeves up.

I waited for Travis to say something, but he remained silent. His expression was stoic, but I thought I detected a hint of uncertainty in his posture. “As for my beard,” I went on, “I hardly ever have to shave. When it starts to grow out, I smear it with olive oil and shear it off with a straight razor. Doesn’t require water, just a cloth to wipe the razor on.”

“And I suppose if I search your backpack I’ll find a bottle of olive oil and a straight razor?” Travis asked.

“You will.” It was true. I carried the oil as part of my fire-starting kit, and the straight razor had been a gift from Blake when I turned fourteen. I kept it for sentimental reasons.

Travis’ expression softened, growing regretful. He lowered the .45 and took a few steps back until the kitchen table was between us. “Okay. Sounds plausible enough. If you would be so kind as to empty your backpack.”

I almost did it, then remembered the two grenades and the radio within and kicked myself for bringing them along. Should have left them behind, idiot. What the fuck did you think you would need them for?

If Travis searched my bag, the game was up. I lowered my hands. “What the hell for?”

“So I can verify you’re telling the truth.”

“Fuck you, cop.” I said, growing angry. “I'm not letting you search my shit.”

His eyes narrowed, his face darkening in anger. “What’s wrong, kid? Got something to hide?”

“Me? What about you, motherfucker? Why are we doing this bullshit in here and not out there?” I pointed out the window at the courtyard in the center of the compound. Something crossed Travis’ face, just a flicker, but it was all the confirmation I needed.

“What’s the matter, don’t want those people out there to know what you’re doing in here?” I started backing toward the doorway. “Why do I get the feeling they wouldn’t approve of you shaking me down for no good reason?”

Travis squared off with me, but kept the gun at his side. “Stop where you are, kid. Don’t take another step.”

“You know what,” I said, affecting a tone of indignation, “I already answered your questions. I’m done explaining myself to you. It’s time for me to go. You want to stop me? Shoot me.” And with that, I turned my back and began walking toward the exit.

“Stop!” Travis shouted. I ignored him and kept walking, not hurrying my pace. The kind of thing a man would do when he felt he had done nothing wrong. As the light through the doorway grew brighter, I felt a burning, itching sensation between my shoulder blades. I wondered what it would feel like if a .45 hollow point mushroomed against my spine before blowing my heart out through my sternum. Would there be pain, or would there just be an impact, a moment of breathlessness, and then darkness?

Luckily, I didn’t have to find out. The doorway came and went and there was no thunder of large-caliber death along the way. I stomped angrily toward the main gate, head down, stride determined. Behind me, I heard Travis scramble after me.

“I told you to stop!”

“I told you to go fuck yourself.”

“Jerry, don’t let him out of the gate.”

The guard who had been so kind to me earlier obeyed immediately and aimed his rifle at my chest. I stopped. 

“What the fuck, Jerry?”

“Just doin’ my job, kid.”

Footsteps crunched behind me, then stopped. “Listen,” Travis said. “Just calm down, okay? There’s no need for this to go any further. Just let me search your pack. If you’re telling the truth, this whole thing will be over with and you’ll be free to go.”

I looked around and saw people begin to emerge from campers and stand up from seats in the shade. They wandered closer, eyes wide, no doubt wondering what all the excitement was about. Slowly, I turned and faced Travis, once again forced to squint against the sun’s glare. Shading my eyes with my right hand, I could see his pistol was holstered, but his fingers dangled close to the grip, the retaining strap unbuttoned.

Slimy son of a bitch.

“This is the last time I’m going to tell you, kid,” he said. “Drop the bag.”

I shook my head. “I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.”

My right ear didn’t itch, but I reached up with my left hand and scratched it anyway.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Excerpt from The Darkest Place: A Surviving the Dead Novel

THE CAR WAS a 1998 Honda Accord.

Price: $2500.00. Odometer reading: 98, 319.

I could not have cared less about the mileage. After five summers at the Lazy J Ranch, and weekends mowing lawns around the neighborhood, and afternoons swapping bullet riddled paper targets at Black Wolf Tactical for five bucks an hour, it was mine. And any excuse to go for a ride was fine by me—a fact Lauren had no qualms about taking advantage of.

Caleb, could you run to the grocery store and pick up some milk?


Would you mind taking this package to the post office for me?

Not a problem.

Your dad forgot his lunch. Could you take it to him, please?

Be glad to.

I don’t think I ever said no. The day it happened, I wished I had. But not for me.

For Lauren.

It was early in the afternoon on a warm, pleasant Tuesday in May. She had sent me to the dry cleaners to pick up the dress she had worn to her friend Nancy’s baby shower. Mary Sue Lewellen, who my stepmother liked not at all, had spilled a glass of pinot noir on her cream-colored Burberry London. Afterward, there followed the requisite gasp of surprise, and a round of horrified apologies, and graceful forgiving noises on Lauren’s part, and her landing a real stinger when Mary Sue suggested she would buy a replacement.

“Oh no, honey,” Lauren said, smiling sweetly. “I wouldn’t want to put you out. Stan’s tire shop went under last month, didn’t it? Just save that money, sweetie. I’m sure you need it more than I do.”

So I took my time that day. I stopped at a gas station to fill up even though the tank was only a little over half empty. I bought a Slim-Jim and ate it as I cruised down the mostly empty streets. The little Vietnamese lady who owned the dry cleaning business recognized me and we had a short, pleasant chat. I paid with the twenty-dollar bill Lauren gave me, pocketed the change, then carefully hung her dress from a plastic hook above the back seat.

As I neared home, I had a strong feeling something wasn’t right. The front door was shut even though it was only seventy-five degrees that day. When the weather was cool enough, Lauren always opened every window in the house and held the doors open with wooden stops, leaving the screen doors latched to keep bugs out. She loved the scent of a warm spring breeze as it aired out the stuffiness leftover from winter. I tried to remember if I had shut the front door out of habit when I left, and decided no, I hadn’t.

So what was it doing closed?

Rather than slowing down, I kept going, circled the block, and parked on a street parallel to my house. After killing the engine, I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I was being paranoid.

There’s no such thing as paranoid, my father’s voice told me. It never hurts to be extra careful. If something doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t.

I could have credited the closed front door to an absentminded mistake on Lauren’s part, but that didn’t fit her patterns. She was a meticulous, detail-oriented woman. She folded all the towels in the bathrooms exactly the same way, her car went through the carwash every Saturday morning, weather permitting. She never missed an appointment. The spices in the kitchen were stored in identical little tins with magnets on them, stuck to the refrigerator, each one labeled in Lauren’s neat, precise handwriting. Each pair of shoes had assigned parking on the closet rack, her CD collection was in alphabetical order, and she never left a room without turning off the lights. Why would someone like that open every window in the house and then shut the front door by mistake? Why would she walk by and leave it shut if it wasn’t her habit to do so?

The answer was obvious: she wouldn’t.

Something had to be wrong.

I didn’t have a gun or a knife, not even the Gerber pocketknife I usually carried. I pondered my options for a moment, then popped the trunk, lifted the thick piece of cardboard under the upholstery, and took the lug wrench from beneath the spare tire—a heavy, L-shaped hunk of steel about the length of my forearm.

Better than nothing.

I tightened my belt and slid the lug wrench into my waistband. Once I was satisfied it wouldn’t fall out, I got moving.

The thought occurred to me to knock on a neighbor’s door and try to call Dad, but most people in the neighborhood were at school or work at that hour. And even if someone was home, how long would it take to get Dad on the line? What if he was at the range with a class? Even if I told whoever answered the phone it was an emergency, it would take a minimum of twenty minutes before Dad could get home.

Not fast enough.

So I hurried to the Taylors’ house, whose backyard shared a border with ours along a tall wooden privacy fence. There was an entrance on my side of the street, latched, but easily defeated by inserting a thin twig between the slats and lifting. I shut the gate behind me, crouched low, and crept into the Taylors’ yard hoping no one was home.

The backyard was empty except for the Taylors’ patio, a stainless steel grill, and a hammock off to my left. I stayed close to the edge of the fence and crouch-walked to the far side, watching the windows and straining my ears. There was no movement, but I thought I heard a thump in one of the upstairs rooms followed by a muffled shout.

The fence was over six feet tall, with sharp points atop the slats and 2x4 crossbeams between the support posts. I gripped the V between two slats, stepped up on a crossbeam, and leapt as high as I could. My feet cleared the fence as I did a 360 in mid-air and landed in a three-point stance. Looking up, I could see the inner part of the back door was open, but the screen section was latched shut.

Above me, I heard a whimper and the dull thud of flesh striking flesh.

The urge to run into the house was strong, but as it has many times since that day, my training took over. I knew it was stupid to run into a building of any kind when I didn’t know what was waiting for me inside. So I drew the lug wrench from my belt and took position beside the back door. A quick peek around the corner revealed the kitchen was empty, so using flat end of the wrench, I cut a hole in the flimsy screen and carefully undid the latch.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I turned the handle, opened the door, and waited. There were a few more thumping sounds from upstairs, but nothing else.

I stepped inside, lug wrench raised over my shoulder, ready to swing or throw it in an instant. My shoes made almost no sound on the laminate floor as I crossed the kitchen and turned the corner to the living room. Just inside the front door, the foyer table was overturned, the lamp atop it broken on the ground, and several family pictures along the wall had been knocked askew.

On the floor, a blood trail traced across the living room carpet and up the stairs.

Cold rage burned low in my stomach. I stepped back into the kitchen, closed my eyes, and breathed in through my nose, out through my mouth.

In through the nose, out through the mouth.

Think, dammit.

In through the nose, out through the mouth.  

Assessment: There is an intruder in the house, possibly more than one. Assume they are armed. They have Lauren, and she is most likely injured. Secure the house, then immediately call for police and medical assistance.

Dad had stashed firearms in five different places throughout the house. I was guessing Lauren had been attacked and subdued before she could get to one. The closest was a pistol under the kitchen sink, a CZ-75 9mm automatic. I grabbed a bottle of olive oil from the counter, rubbed some of it into the cupboard hinges to keep them from squeaking, and opened the door just enough to reach inside. After a bit of feeling around, my fingers grazed the pistol’s checkered grip. The holster did not have a retaining strap, just a thumb paddle, so I pressed it and drew the weapon. After checking to make sure there was a round in the chamber, I thumbed the safety off and headed for the stairwell.

Ascending stairs is one of the worst tactical situations a person can face. Your enemy has the high ground and multiple angles of attack, whereas the person going up the stairs has a limited range of motion and no cover. The best way to handle it is to keep your weapon up and move quickly, covering as many vectors as you can. 

The carpeted stairs were mercifully quiet. I kept my weight close to the wall to avoid making the steps creak. Once at the top, I checked my corners and crouch-walked toward my parents’ bedroom. The door was shut, but from behind it, I could hear a low moan and a sound like fabric tearing. The rage in my gut soared to a crescendo.

I pressed my ear gently to the door and listened. More sounds of fabric ripping. My stepmothers voice, speech slurred, a plaintive tone.

The lug wrench was still poised over my left shoulder, my right hand holding the gun. There was no way to know how many intruders I was facing or how well they were armed. But what I did know was that Lauren was in there, she was hurt, and I was the only person in a position to do anything about it. Equal parts rage and fear coursed through me as I took a half step back, lunged forward, and slammed a kick just left of the door handle.

The door burst open hard enough to crack the drywall behind it. I stepped into the room and darted my eyes from one side to the other. My parents’ bed was to the left, a dresser and Lauren’s jewelry stand against the wall to my right. Lauren lay flat on the bed, gagged and bound hand and foot with duct tape.

There were two intruders, Caucasian males, one young, maybe early twenties, the other in his mid to late forties. Both wore identical blue polo shirts and tan slacks with dark brown dress shoes—the kind of thing a door-to-door salesman might wear on a temperate spring day. One crouched to my right, rooting through Lauren’s jewelry stand, while the other sat astride Lauren’s hips, ripping away at her blouse. Pale pink fabric lay in tatters on the bed around them, one side of her bra torn away to reveal her small right breast. Both men looked up in almost comical surprise as I entered the room.

Without hesitation, I hurled the lug wrench in a straight overhand toss. By good fortune, the flat end hit the man astride Lauren full in the mouth, causing the lower half of his face to explode in a crimson burst of blood and broken teeth. He let out an inarticulate cry of agony and toppled backward off the bed.

The other man saw the gun and lunged.

It is hard to describe what happens to you in situations like that. The adrenaline rush, the taste of copper on the back of your tongue, the tunnel vision, the way the world goes gray around the edges, the sound of your heart hammering in your ears, the way everything happens in the course of seconds but there are so many details.

I once heard a commercial where a coach exhorted to his team how life was a game of inches. How the small distances—the space between a receivers hand and a football, how close a soccer ball rolls toward the goal line, whether a boxer’s punch connects with his opponent’s chin or empty air—those tiny gaps, or lack thereof, make the difference between victory and defeat.

In mortal combat, they make the difference between life and death.

The intruder crossed the space between us in less than a second, hands outstretched toward my gun. But as fast as his legs propelled him across the room, my trigger finger was faster.

The first shot went low, striking him in the abdomen. I’m not sure if he even felt it, he didn’t make a sound, but by then he was halfway across the room. I raised my aim to avoid his grasping hands and fired again the instant before he hit me. He was shorter than me, but heavier, his weight enough to send both of us tumbling into the hallway. I had the presence of mind hook my instep under his thigh as we went down, and by rolling with the fall and thrusting with my arms and legs, I flipped his body up and over me. He landed flat on the floor, the air whooshing out of his lungs.

I twisted on the ground, brought my gun to bear, and fired twice into his chest at point blank range. In the fraction of a second it took me to fire, I realized I was wasting ammo—there was a neat nine-millimeter hole in his forehead.

The hollow point slug had mushroomed upon impact and excavated a fist-sized chunk of brain and skull from the back of his head. Blood flowed from the wound like water from a faucet, and for a second or two, all I could do was stare in horrid fascination. Then I heard a curse and a thump from the bedroom.

Wake up! You’re not out of danger.

Just as I rolled flat on my back to face the doorway, a gunshot rang out. I could see the other man kneeling on the ground, one hand over his ruined mouth, the other holding a snub-nosed revolver. His shot went wide, smashing one into the drywall to my left and dusting my face with white powder. The floating grit forced me to close one eye.

With my legs pressed flat to the ground to avoid shooting them, I fired four times. The first three shots caught the intruder center of mass, causing him to jerk violently with the impacts. The last one went wide and perforated the wall behind him. His gun fell from nerveless fingers as he slumped over, coughing out a bright spray of blood. Wide, surprised eyes stared at me for an eternity of seconds, then went blank. The intruders face slackened just before I heard his bowels let go.  

Then there was silence.

I lay on the ground, eyes stinging from the drywall dust, my own harsh breath grating in my ears. The three white dots on the CZ’s sights stayed lined up on the intruder’s chest, finger tight on the trigger. I switched the gun to my right hand and used my left to stand up. The intruder’s corpse shuddered a few times as I approached, but soon went still. To my left, I heard Lauren groan.

I ran to her side and looked her over. One eye was badly swollen, and there was a nasty split on her lower lip. But aside from a few scrapes and scratches from where her blouse had been torn away, I couldn’t find any other injuries. Gently, I tapped her on the cheek and said her name. Her eyes rolled, then fluttered, then looked at me and began to focus.


“Yeah, it’s me, Lauren. Are you hurt?”

“My head…” One of her hands gingerly touched the swelling around her left eye. I grabbed it and put it back down at her side.

“How bad is it?”

“One of them…hit me…”

Her eyes aren’t tracking. Concussion. She needs an ambulance.

“Listen, Lauren. How many of them were there? Was it just the two, or were there more?”

“Just two, I think.” Her voice was getting stronger.

“Okay, just stay here. Try not to move, okay? I’ll be right back.”

I did a quick sweep of the house and found no other intruders. Before going back upstairs, I called 911 and explained the situation, requesting police and an ambulance.

“Are the intruders still in the house?” The dispatcher’s voice was female, older sounding, but firm and confident.

“Yes ma’am. Two of them. They’re both dead.”

A pause. “Are you sure?”

“Yes ma’am. One of them took a shot to the head, and the other one took three slugs to the heart. I checked them both for a pulse.”

“Did either one of them have a pulse?”

“No ma’am.”

“And you were the one who shot them?”

“Yes. I already told you that.”

“Do you still have the weapon?”

“Yes. I’m going to unload it and put it on the coffee table in the living room.”

“Okay, I’ll let the responding officers know. Are there any other weapons in the house?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Have you dispatched an ambulance yet?”

“Yes, I have. They’re on the way. Can you stay on the line with me until they get there?”

“How long until they get here?”

“I’m not sure, honey. They’re on the way, though. It shouldn’t be long.”

“I’m going upstairs and staying with my stepmom until they get here.”

“That’s fine, honey, just try not to move her, okay?”

I bit back an irritated retort; I probably had more first responder training than the paramedics answering my call. “Okay,” I said. “I”ll be careful.”

I knelt next to the bed and held Lauren’s hand, trying to keep her talking. Perhaps three minutes later, I heard sirens coming down the street. I went outside, flagged them down, and showed them where to find Lauren. I’ll never forget the look on their faces when they saw the bullet-riddled corpses of the intruders.

“Jesus Christ, kid,” one of them said, a big Hispanic guy. His nametag read Ortez. “You did all this?”

I nodded.

Ortez went to look over Lauren while his partner, a pretty blond woman with brown eyes and strong, useful looking arms, checked the corpses for signs of life. When she finished, she stepped in front of me and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. Despite her outward calm, she positioned her feet like a fighter and there was a touch of wariness in her eyes.

“Can you wait downstairs for the police to get here, please?” she said. “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of your mom.”

I thought about correcting her that Lauren was my stepmother, but decided against it. I simply nodded and went outside to wait.

Sitting there on the front porch, I thought about that hole in the drywall next to my head, and remembered something my dad once told me about marksmanship and ballistics. I think I was maybe eight or nine at the time, and we were eating kabobs at an outdoor picnic table at a bar-b-que place near downtown.

“Here’s something you need to understand about ballistics, son,” he said as he slid the meat and vegetables off a kabob and pointed it at the sky. “Here’s where you are when you’re shooting.” He pointed at the bottom of the kabob. “And here’s the bullet.” His finger touched the tip. “Any little movement on this side here at the bottom translates to a much larger movement here at the end.” He pivoted the kabob from left to right like the striker on a metronome. Looking at it that way, I understood the concept. A fraction of an inch of movement at the bottom of the kabob became several inches of movement at the pointy end.

“See what I’m saying, son?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so. If I move just a little bit when I’m shooting, it doesn’t look like much, but the bullet is going to travel for hundreds of yards. That little movement of the barrel makes a big difference as to where the bullet ends up.”

Dad smiled. “That’s right.”

The guy who shot at me as maybe ten feet away when he pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the wall about ten inches to my left, and to hit at that angle, it must have traveled over and across my face from the right. Judging by where it punctured the wall, I figured it missed me by no more than three inches. If the intruder had aimed the barrel just a bit lower, or had the presence of mind to make a follow up shot, I would be the one dead and not him. And God only knows what would have happened to Lauren.

As the sirens grew louder and my hands began to shake, I remembered that commercial again, the one with the coach giving a speech to his team. The old fellow had it right.

Life really is a game of inches.