Thanks to those of you who commented on my previous post regarding which novel you would like to see me publish next. Your opinions are very insightful to me. To help you decide, I thought I’d blog the first chapters of both options for you to read. Here are the prologue and chapter 1 of PLACID RIVER RUNS DEEP, a mystery about a summer retreat gone bad. Anyone who comments gets entered in a raffle for a copy of the winning book. (Please excuse the space between paragraphs. I don’t know how to fix that.)
PLACID RIVER RUNS DEEP, by Mollie Hunt
The doe drank in the sounds of the forest: the drone of a blue bottle; the rustle of juncos in the tall firs; the cry of a raven, far off and hollow as the sky itself. All familiar, all correct. With a snort, she lowered her muzzle to the thick moss and grazed.
Scuffing her tiny hooves through the peat, she moved quietly. The summer air blew cool off the river, ruffling her tawny coat. She was content.
Suddenly the velvet head jerked to attention. Something on the wind wasn’t right. She turned her liquid eyes this way and that, ears straining.
Then the wind changed. The danger smell faded.
The danger smell was gone.
Again, delight took her as she nosed through the ferns and wild violets to get at the choicest stems; again she was swept into a sweet, carnal trance so when her soft lips hit something unexpected, her surprise was acute.
It took only a moment to connect the danger with the thing she touched. Instantly she reared back and sprang away as if her life were in peril.
But it wasn’t.
The man stretched out in the damp peat behind the cedar log couldn’t hurt her.
He was stone cold dead.
Roy Terry sat in his prison cell and fumed. It had all happened so fast. One day he was a normal eighteen-year-old with a normal eighteen-year-old’s life and a normal eighteen-year-old’s dreams; the next, incarceration! And for no short time, either. The judge had handed down a heavy sentence on the boy, tried as an adult seeing he was of age, though barely.
A travesty of justice! Roy thought to himself, part of the wailing litany that cycled relentlessly through his mind since he’d been a compulsory guest of the Washington State Penitentiary. I was just saving my ass! Any normal kid in my spot would have done the same thing…
But that was a lie. His crime had been abhorrent, and Roy himself realized he was nowhere near normal. Never had been and probably never would be. His strange dreams and nightmare fancies, his perverse likes and ominous dislikes, his mind-numbing phobias and villainous pleasures; even his vision of the world, which he knew for a fact to be steadfastly against him, were morbidly unique.
This temperament had made it hard for Roy to find friends. To his mind, most of the kids at school were unworthy of his notice. A few showed a rebellious streak, and he had hung around with them for lack of anything better to do, but sooner or later even wildest proved too tame for Roy Terry.
Thought they were so tough, he brooded. Cruising the back roads blasting Grand Funk and drinking their dad’s beer because they didn’t have the guts to buy their own. Throw the cans in the river and pelt ‘em with rocks till they sink to the murky bottom. What kind of life is that? Roy mused. Where were the kicks? Where, the sweet rewards?
Terry’s days of cruising and drinking and pelting cans were behind him now. He was well to be done with them, he thought arrogantly, arrogance being one of the few freedoms that Roy Terry still retained.
Roy pictured the sanctimonious faces of those who had put him where he was. They wouldn’t get away with it. When he got out – and he would get out, someday – he would find them. He would seek them one by one if he had to search the world over. He wouldn’t rest until they were sorry.
Ember MacKay paced floor of the small rustic cabin. Every so often she would stop and stare through the open door at the beautiful day she was letting go to waste. She should be outside enjoying the sunshine and fresh country air.
After all, she thought mournfully, who knows how many more chances I’ll have? Next summer I may be too sick to come to the river.
Next summer I may be dead…
Whenever her mind circled back to this terrifying reflection, which it did with the regularity of a heartbeat, she would shake her fine head of mink hair and chastise herself for jumping the gun. The tests wouldn’t be back before next week. She would just have to wait. It was the hardest thing she had ever had to do.
The last ten days had been like something out of a made-for-television docudrama. Up until then, she’d figured the tiredness and vague body aches she’d been experiencing weren’thing to worry about. All in her mind, more than one doctor had suggested. Lack of exercise, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, iron-poor blood and PMS had also been proposed by both the private and professional sectors.
She wasn’t sure why she had decided to consult a hepatologist, but Dr. Connor had taken her complaints seriously. Before she knew it, she was strapped into the plastic arm chair with a vampire in gray scrubs expertly extruding her blood. Within hours they had a diagnosis, a common virus known to create all sorts ambiguous symptoms including that telltale dullness and pain. Finally she had an answer.
Okay, she had said, much relieved to know her distress wasn’t psychosomatic. How do we fix it?
That was when the nightmare began.
“I’m sorry, Ember,” Dr. Connor replied as sympathetically as he could without skewing the truth. “At this time there is no cure for hepatitis C. We can treat the symptoms individually but unless the virus clears by itself early on, which yours didn’t, the disease becomes chronic.”
In that moment, Ember’s world did a flip-flop. To live out her days feeling like a sick puppy was something she had never considered. She was only thirty-four; what would the exhaustion, nausea and general malaise be like when she was old and feeble?
No sooner had she begun to absorb the bad news when the doctor continued. “Your symptoms are only part of the problem, however. Unfortunately this form of hepatitis is the leading cause of liver damage, cirrhosis and liver cancer.”
Oh great! Not only was her illness incurable— it was going to get worse. Not enough that she would suffer for the rest of her life; now he was saying that her life might not last that much longer.
The hepatologist had ordered a battery of tests including a CT scan and a liver biopsy. This would show the condition of her liver, and if damage had begun, how far it had progressed.
How far gone, in other words. Cirrhosis of the liver had no good outcome. It was either transplant or death. Or both. She’d seen a friend change from an active, vibrant woman to an invalid in less than a year. Horrible pain, suffering and mental confusion that led to an inevitable end. By the time she died, it was a mercy.
And now the same thing might be happening to Ember.
A tinkling bar of Pachelbel’s Canon insinuated itself into her deliberations. Rats! she swore inwardly. I thought I turned that thing off! She was in no mood for phone calls. Getting away from the day-to-day distractions had been the whole point of coming to the cabin. No one at work knew where she was; she had taken great pains to make sure of that. But cell phones trespassed anyplace with willing reception, even the secluded Placid River in lower Washington State.
Placid River – her family’s summer getaway. Ember had been coming since she was a child. Kool-Aid and fried chicken; bright mornings and long, sun-washed afternoons. Swimming in the frigid mountain waters until she came out shivering, then going back in one more time. Those were days of pleasures no more complicated than picking blackberries, catching crawfish, or watching the evening shadows climb the forested hilltops until the sun winked out and the bats began to soar. Her grandmother had taught her to appreciate the Brown Myotis bats. They ate mosquitoes, sometimes more than their body weight in one night. Thus they were friends.
Placid River had been a place of joy for Ember when she was a child, then as she grew older, a place of tranquility. Now it was to be a place of refuge where she could sort out her mind. She had to think. She had to decide. But how could she make life-altering decisions when she was constantly interrupted by phone calls?
The little phone was unsympathetic, enthusiastically blaring its tinny summons. With a sigh, Ember crossed to her purse which lay on the oak rocker and rummaged until she found the offending instrument. Flipping it open, she glanced at the glow-blue readout to see who was cutting in on her private time.
“Hello, Aunt Syl,” she said into the diminutive set, trying to keep the frustration out of her voice.
“Emmy, dear,” her aunt began, using the nickname Ember had been tagged with when she was a baby. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Ember said defensively. “How are the cats?” she added in a softer tone.
“Muffy and Little are fine. Harry’s fine too but unhappy that he’s not allowed outside.”
“He’ll get over it. It’s only for a few days. I miss them already. I probably should have brought them with me.”
“Well, maybe next time, though three cats in that little cabin might be pushing it, dear.”
The voice paused, then asked hesitantly, “Have you heard anything yet?”
“About the biopsy? No, Syl,” Ember replied flatly. “The pathology report won’t be back until next week. I thought I told you that.”
Ember tried to keep the exasperation out of her voice. She loved Aunt Sylvia, her father’s sister – and all the more because both her parents as well as the grandmother who had raised her were gone now – but the elderly woman had very little clue when it came to life in the modern world. Having had no children of her own, she had never quite learned the lesson of live and let live, and was always poking into Ember’s most private affairs, opinions at the ready, whether invited or not.
“You did, dear,” Syl declared, “but it just seems like something that important could be sped up a bit. This is the twenty-first century, after all.”
“It’s taking a little longer because of the Fourth of July holiday. Dr. Connor said Tuesday or Wednesday.”
“Well, try not to worry. I’m sure everything will be fine. One of the cousins had a bout with hepatitis some years back. He was quite sick for a while but he made a complete recovery.” Ember could almost see the forced smile on her aunt’s round face. “He figured he must have caught it at that Hot Meal in Beaverton, you know – that shoddy little place he used to go to when he was working out there? Needless to say he hasn’t been back since.
“You never ate there, did you?” she added in sudden alarm.
“This is a different form of hepatitis, Aunt Syl. You don’t get it from poor hygiene. And this type is chronic. That means it never goes away.”
“I know what ‘chronic’ means. But Emmy, where could you possibly have picked up such a thing? I thought only…” Ember’s aunt paused searching for a word less harsh than drug addict or degenerate. “…only reckless people contracted diseases like that.”
Ember didn’t answer; she had no idea where her Hep C had originated. Dr. Connor had asked her all the usual questions for a blood-borne virus: Had she used intravenous drugs? Had she had a transfusion? Was she in the health-care profession, where the possibility of exposure to contaminated medical equipment is high? She had said no to them all. A statistically less likely source was sexual promiscuity, but Ember, though no saint, had been far too busy in college to mess around much, and after a short and not-so-sweet failed marriage, she had steered clear of relationships, turning her energy toward her job instead. She loved being a journalist for the Oregonian, Portland’s daily newspaper, so her lack of a social life hadn’t seemed much of a hardship.
It had been difficult to recall her exact actions ten to fifteen years previous – the amount of time Dr. Connor figured she had been carrying the virus – but for a while when she was going to Portland State, she had lived in a group house. The bathrooms were communal and disorganized to say the least. She supposed someone could have grabbed her razor by mistake. A toothbrush? Yuck! but it could have happened. Or a nail file, a sewing needle, a pair of cuticle scissors, a pen knife – anything that could have drawn blood, first from the carrier and then from her. Ember couldn’t imagine any of those vibrant young ladies doing anything reckless, as Aunt Sly put it, but you never knew.
Ember’s little phone gave out a loud warning beep. Ember pulled it away from her ear and checked the screen.
“Oh-oh,” she said when she saw her battery icon registering zero.
“Emmy? Are you still there?”
“I’m here, but my phone’s about to die. Let me call you back when I get it recharged.”
The obnoxious blast sounded again.
“Okay, dear. Just remember I’m here for you. And don’t spend this beautiful day worrying. Worry isn’t going to solve anything. Call me when you can. I love you.”
“I love you too, Aunt Syl. I’ll call. Bye.”
Ember flipped the dying phone closed and dug in her bag for the charger. When she didn’t find it and suddenly visualized the thin two-headed cord lying on the kitchen table at home – where it obviously still remained – she was surprised how little she cared. Actually she liked the idea of being incommunicado for the next few days. No more unexpected disruptions and no more compulsion to check in with the doctor’s office one more time!
Still, it had been nice to talk with Aunt Syl. And her aunt was right about one thing: worry was futile. What will be, will be. She would find out soon enough what the remainder of her life held for her. Whether she would live or die; be healthy or an invalid. Whether she was going to have the bright and fulfilling future she had been working toward, or be adding her name to the liver transplant list.
As she stuffed her phone back in her bag, she caught her reflection in the full length mirror that hung on the back of the bathroom door. Though she had past the dreaded thirty-mark, she had managed to keep the same weight she was in college. The proportions may have shifted a little with gravity, but she was still lovely. Five-foot-six and curvaceous, she struck an imposing figure when she put her mind to it. She didn’t look sick – maybe a little tired around the eyes. She peered closer. There was none of that tell-tale yellow tinge detracting from the azure blue, but with Hep C, the symptoms of liver failure were often hard to define.
Until it was too late, that is.
With a brutal sigh, Ember tore her eyes from the deceitful image. She picked up a nubby sweater and dove for the door. She was going out for a nice healthy walk in the woods, even if it killed her!
Bounding down the plank steps into the soft grass, a late-afternoon sunbeam fell across her face, momentarily blinding her with its warm brilliance. It felt good. Suddenly she knew she was lucky to be there.
Because after all, next summer I may be too sick… the voice in her head began all over again.