Authors: S.L. Duncan
Above all else, have faith in yourself.
Published 2014 by Medallion Press, Inc.
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is a registered trademark of Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2014 by S. L. Duncan
Cover design by Michal Wlos
Edited by Lorie Popp Jones
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
So much of getting this story from an idea in my head to the book in your hands was made possible because of the efforts of some very special people, and I am eternally indebted to them all. First, thank you to my agent, the brilliant John Rudolph, whose insight and counsel made this book better in every way and to my wonderful editor Emily Steele for sharing my passion for the story. Thank you to all the talented, brilliant book lovers at Medallion Press for being champions of
of Gabriel Adam.
And special thanks to Lorie Jones for her sharp eye and attention to detail.
To my family—thank you for your encouragement.
Thanks to my friend Peter Rankine for his honesty in the early readings and to author Mindy McGinnis for her eleventh hour insight.
And lastly, but most importantly, I am forever grateful for my wife, Kate, who endured me through this whole adventure.
Pastor McPherson crept through the cornfield, his boots heavy and caked in mud. At last he was close enough to feel the warmth of the bonfire’s heat in the air. A glance over his shoulder told him how far he’d come without being seen. In the far distance at the edge of the field, he could just make out a twinkle of porch lanterns.
For a moment he allowed himself to catch his breath. Letting a knee sink into the wet soil, he planted his fire extinguisher into the ground and leaned on the handle as if it were a cane. His tar-riddled lungs had struggled to keep up, not helped by the ever-present tightness that constrained his chest, but he’d done well to remain silent. Little currents of pain carried a familiar objection from the muscles in his lower back.
You’re too old
, they said, and he agreed.
Stalking through the field bordered on ridiculous, perhaps even dangerous given his age, but there was no way in hell he’d let those damned teenagers get away again. Too many times they’d trespassed onto his land and trashed the field, running down his crop with their new trucks, only to leave behind enough drained beer cans to fill an empty grave. All while their witless parents turned a blind eye.
, he thought.
In the front pocket of his shirt, one of the clear plastic corners of a sandwich bag had inched out, exposing its weather-sealed contents. Inside, a 35mm pocket camera blinked its tiny green light, ready for use. Fresh batteries. New film. This time, he came prepared.
This time, their parents will know
McPherson kept to the darkened rows of corn, well out of reach from the bonfire’s glow that shimmered behind swaying tassels and flag-shaped leaves.
Ahead, figures and shadows haunted the field at the light’s edge.
Behaving like degenerates
, he thought and stared into the darkness. The field was quiet. Unusually so. Typically by now, he’d hear the spoiled brats laughing and dancing, poisoning their minds to the incessant beat of some talentless pop sensation blaring from the speakers of their car radios, but as he listened, only a stillness lingered ahead.
The pastor checked his hearing aid. A high-pitched squeal told him it was functioning properly.
Something didn’t feel right. Nor did it look right, either. The light fluttering through the corn was bluish white instead of the orange hue he’d seen so many times cast by the teens’ bonfires. Also, the air smelled wrong—crisp and sweet from the crop, unlike the noxious stench that should be choking his lungs by now. Even stranger, there wasn’t a hint of smoke.
Fueled by the uncertainty, his imagination ran wild with new possibilities of the light’s source. He dipped his fingers down into the soaked earth and wondered what could possibly burn in such wet conditions.
A spatter of rain began to fall, yet the field ahead glowed brighter.
As he got back on his feet and hobbled deeper into the corn, the intensity of light built until it became like looking into the sun. McPherson shielded his eyes and inched closer, hesitating just behind the last row. There he saw it, exposed by the radiance, a shallow crater surrounded by a grand circumference of flattened cornstalks.
Fear held still every bone, every muscle.
At the center of the clearing, shadows poured from a single burning bush like blood from a wound. They moved with purpose, slithering across the ground as if alive. Buried within the crackle of fire and the rustling of corn came a sound like a hiss through the chatter of teeth.
A sound from something animal. Something predatory.
McPherson’s mind raced for an explanation, but when none was given, intuition urged him to go, to leave and find a way back to the farmhouse as quickly as possible. The fire extinguisher fell from his hands and rolled away, already forgotten.
He turned from the light and saw nothing but endless rows of corn and darkness. The drizzle had turned into a downpour, and the porch lamps he needed to guide him home had disappeared behind sheets of falling rain. Without them, his bearings were lost.
But it is so beautiful
, whispered a voice in his head.
McPherson’s anxiety calmed at its sound.
Come. Stay only a little longer.
Blue flames danced amongst the branches and leaves of the bush, yet the fire did not consume them. Instead, the bush remained whole, unharmed. Lured back, the pastor found the spectacle impossible to resist. He drifted to the clearing’s edge and wondered, as he looked upon the kaleidoscope of light, if perhaps this was some reward for his faith. Thoughts of fame and fortune filled his mind. Removing the camera from the plastic sandwich bag, McPherson took aim through the lens and moved closer to the bush for a better shot.
The instant he stepped beyond the last row of corn and into the clearing, the world seemed to stop. Sounds of the field vanished inside a groaning rumble in the earth. Rain refused to fall, the droplets of water sparkling like jewels in midair. Leaves no longer moved. In the microsecond it took for him to realize his mistake, something lashed out from the crater and spewed forth a stream of energy into the clouds above.
The shock wave bent corn away from its epicentre and vaporised rain as it expanded.
McPherson was thrown from his feet, and his shoulder struck the ground first and dislocated. He rolled, hearing a popping and then crunching sound echo in his bones. Before he could acknowledge the pain, an inhale to the clearing’s center, as inescapable as gravity, pulled him toward the flame. Wind rushed by as he grasped for stalks with his good arm, fingers scraping through mud and root, desperate for purchase—anything to stop from being dragged into the fire.
As his feet entered the crater, a vortex ignited around the bush and spiralled upwards like a tornado.
Regrets from a sinful life filled his mind.
The money, the deception. The lust for innocents.
Muscles seized; joints locked. Indentions made by invisible hands appeared on the skin of his wrists, the marks of three fingers reddening under their grasp. His captor held him, prying his arms open, joining his feet together until McPherson’s body took the shape of a cross.
Debris cut through the air, tearing through his clothes.
To his horror, a shape formed inside the vortex and split off like a branch growing from the trunk of a tree. The limb, wreathed in fire, rocked hypnotically as if guided by a snake charmer’s flute, slithering through the air closer and closer.
Unable to look away, McPherson locked on the reaching fire. “Our Father, who art in heaven,” he prayed, “hallowed be Thy name . . .”
The end of the branch neared his face and burned against his exposed cheek.
“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in . . .” His mouth moved to finish the prayer, but the words caught in his throat, clenched shut by the unseen captor. He could feel the vise tighten around his neck like a noose, its physical presence undeniable. To breathe became a struggle for air, his lungs starved for oxygen.
Five digits formed, clawlike, in the arm of flame as voices drifted on the winds. McPherson couldn’t understand the meaning of the ancient and foreign words, but they hinted at a great rage.
The shadows that bled from the bush had found his body. They crept up his legs, his torso, to his mouth and nose. Under his clothes, muscles grew. Skin tightened, stretched by the expanding flesh, and threatened to rip apart like the seams of a garment. Ligaments severed. Bones snapped.
He felt compelled to scream out, to beg for his life, to apologize for all the horrible things he’d done, but no words met his lips.
A new presence flowed into his thoughts. The light of his world diminished, and as it faded, he found acceptance. His soul quieted, and in that instant, he knew his final moment was upon him.
But before the abyss consumed him, something quite unexpected happened. In the last remaining shard of life before death, Pastor McPherson heard a voice. Its clarity cut through the falling curtain of his mind and spoke one single word. A name.
Gabe checked his watch once more and cast another glance to the five-ton church bell. At the top of the hour, the monstrosity’s bone-rattling chime would ignite a migraine as bad as any he’d ever experienced. He imagined that somewhere inside the iron resonator, a clapper hung, aimed at the flared rim of the bell’s lip.