I find it ironic that that book that had the longest lead time to publishing is the one I’ve scrambled the hardest to make my publishing deadline. And I still didn’t quite make it.
When I decided in late August to self-publish Here (then known as Torn) I’d already put my name on the two month wait list with the cover artist. I’d also finished edits on Hunted, the second book in The Chosen series, and sent it off to beta readers. My deadline for sending Hunted to Jim Thomsen, my editor, was October 1. So I emailed Jim and asked him when he could fit Here into his schedule. He told me he could fit me in on September 1. Which was a week away.
It wasn’t hard to make Jim’s deadline. The book had been combed over and picked to death. I had it to him on August 30 and had the manuscript came back a couple of weeks later.
I was still waiting to start with the cover designer.
In the meantime, I was revising Hunted based on beta reader feedback and then started the first draft of Sacrifice, the final book in The Chosen series. I’d already gone through copy edits and had begun formatting for my print book. The entire process was incredibly laid back up until that point.
That should have been my first clue.
There’s a reason our family motto is “If it isn’t crazy, it isn’t Swank.”
The delay can be attributed to one thing: the cover. Ebooks can’t be formatted with out one. Proof print books can’t be reviewed until the file is uploaded. The cover was late getting done and it threw everything off. I kept emailing my eBook formatter, Lucinda at LK E-Book Formatting Service, to let her know I wasn’t going to make my deadline to her. To which she graciously fit me in later. (This happened twice.) Now the eBooks are formatted and uploaded. They went live on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords last night.
But there still aren’t print books.
The proofs arrive today, with extras ordered to send to some reviewers. If it all looks good or only needs minor tweaks, then print books should be available by the middle of next week. ‘
But it’s all worth the hassle because I love this book. And I hope you do to. To show you how awesome Here is, I’ve decided to post the prologue and first chapter below, to give you a sneak peek. Then run over to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords to download your eBook. Or order your autographed print copy here. Or hold off and order your print copy from Amazon and Barnes & Noble next week.
Then let me know what you think.
October 27, 1962
The wail of sirens pierced the air, jerking ten-year-old Tom Phillips from a deep sleep. He bolted upright, his heart racing.
He knew what this meant. For days, his anxious father had watched the evening news for the latest information about the missile crisis in Cuba.
Tom jumped out of bed and ran into the living room, the hardwood floor cold on his feet. His father stood in the glow of the console television, watching the special newscast while his mother sat on the sofa, rocking back and forth, muttering to herself.
His father’s gaze turned to him, his eyes wide with fear. “It’s happening.”
“… thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” his mother whispered as she lifted a shaking hand to her mouth.
Dark circles underscored the eyes of the gray-haired news anchor. “It is advised that all citizens find shelter immediately. Again, it has been confirmed. Washington D.C. has been hit by a nuclear weapon. The number of casualties still isn’t known at this time. All citizens are advised to take cover.” He cleared his throat. “May God help us all.”
“Let’s go.” His father’s voice was gruff as he reached down and pulled Tom’s mother off the sofa.
She began to sob.
“Tom, go start getting everything ready.”
Tom struggled to obey, his fear freezing him in place.
His father’s shout rattled him. He never yelled.
Tom ran out into the garage and down the concrete steps to the basement. He flipped on a light and found the AM radio, turning the dial until he found a station reporting news of the nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.
“Find the lantern,” his father said as he led Tom’s mother around the concrete block barricade that obstructed a direct path to the door. He sat her on the mattress on the floor in the back corner of the basement.
Tom lit the battery-operated lantern while his father searched the shelves, conducting a quick inventory of their supplies: containers of water, canned goods, blankets, a Geiger counter, and other items to aid their survival.
The concrete muffled the sirens above, but the blare still crawled under Tom’s skin, making his hair stand on end.
“…we still haven’t received confirmation of the whereabouts of President Kennedy.” the voice on the radio said, the words shaky. “We now have reports of strikes in Turkey, France, and this just—”
Static filled the airwaves.
Tom’s father turned the dial with trembling fingers until he found another voice. “… has not been confirmed but reports are coming in that New York City has been attacked.”
His mother buried her face in a pillow on the mattress as her body shook with sobs.
His father looked up and took Tom’s hand. His father’s eyes were glazed, but his mouth pressed in determination. “We’ll get through this son. We will survive.”
Tom solemnly nodded. “Yes, sir.”
He believed him. His father never lied.
The second hand of the clock jerks with each tick in an odd, click-spaz movement.
“…and this is the closest the world has come to a full-scale nuclear war. If it weren’t for the cool heads of President Kennedy and the Soviet Union Premier Khrushchev, the United States, and the rest of the world for that matter, would surely have been bombed with nuclear weapons.” Mr. Archer drones on about the Cuban Missile Crisis.
My pen hovers over the open notebook on my desk, but the only marks filling the page are elaborate scrolls and doodles.
I started doing that after my accident.
My seat in the back corner of the room gives me perfect vantage of the windows that overlook the student parking lot. Storm clouds gather in the distance, but the dull ache in my thigh has predicted rain all day. If I hurry, I can probably make it home before the sky breaks loose. Otherwise I’ll be forced to take the bus.
My gaze drifts to the clock again. Twenty-eight seconds later than the last time I checked. With a slow sigh, I lower my head and freeze as a boy’s eyes lock with mine. My breath sticks in my throat.
I snap my eyes down to my desk. Why is Evan Whittaker looking at me?
My heart kick-starts into a gallop. My fingers reach up to my cheek to rub off some unseen smudge. The only reason one of the most popular guys in school would be staring at me is if something is wrong.
My shoulders tense as I lift my head to peer in his direction. He slumps over his desk, his pencil moving over his paper. I take a deep breath and allow my muscles to unknot just before his head raises. His neck twists to look back, his eyes holding mine again. Black hair, as dark as ink, falls over his ears and brushes the top of his collar. Heat rises to my cheeks, but I refuse to look away. I’m waiting for a look of contempt, instead finding curiosity and a hint of desperation.
The bell rings and shakes me from my stupor. The low murmur of voices fills the room as people rise from their seats with the same relief I feel. I reach down and grab my backpack, stuffing my notebook and pen inside. The room clears out as I stand and I’m relieved to see that Evan has left.
“Julia, can I speak with you a moment?” Mr. Archer calls as I make my way to the door.
I stop, hitching the backpack strap over my shoulder, and turn to face him. He stands behind his chair and taps a pencil on top of the desk. His button-down plaid shirt stretches across his protruding belly. Matched with his silver hair and usual smile, he bears a slight resemblance to Santa Claus.
“It’s about your grade.” His gray eyebrows raise as his smile falls away.
I shift my weight while casting a glance out the window. Students scatter along the sidewalk hurrying to the buses and their cars. The clouds are darker and lightning flashes in the distance.
“Julia, you’re getting a D in this class. I know AP U.S. History can be difficult for a junior, but I checked your record. Up until this year, you were a straight-A student.”
I lift my chin and sigh. I know what’s coming.
“I’ve talked to some of your teachers. I know you’re not doing well in your other classes. I want you to speak to Mrs. Hernandez.”
I nod, avoiding his gaze. “Thanks, Mr. Archer. I’ll check with her tomorrow.” I have no intention of talking with the school counselor but know it will appease him for a week or so. I turn to leave.
“Julia, I know it must be hard…” Mr. Archer’s voice softens. “But they say time heals all wounds.”
I glance over my shoulder with a half smile. “Yeah, thanks.”
Bodies fill the hallway as I weave through the crowd to my locker. At the beginning of the school year, I learned if I pretended to be invisible, eventually I became invisible. No one sees me. No one notices me. At least they hadn’t until Evan. I still can’t understand why Evan would be looking at me.
Shoulders hunched, I grab my jacket out of my locker, ignoring the books piled on the bottom, as usual.
I slam the door shut, drawing momentary glances from the people around me. Shoving my arms in the sleeves of my fleece hoodie, I walk to the exit, eager to escape.
In spite of the increasing ache in my leg, I still consider walking, but the clouds have begun to churn. I barely make it to the bus, climbing the steps moments before the driver closes the doors.
I’m an anomaly, a junior riding a bus filled with mostly freshmen and half as many sophomores. Good thing I no longer care about my social status.
Nearly every seat is packed with hyper teenagers, but I find an empty spot in the second row. The red-headed freshman in the seat looks startled, her eyes widening when she realizes who I am. She scoots toward the window, plastering her body to the side of the bus. I perch on the seat edge, my feet in the aisle, protecting the girl’s personal space.
I don’t blame her. I wouldn’t want to sit by me either.
The bus is half-empty by the time it reaches my stop. It’s sprinkling now, splattering the sidewalk with polka dots. I pause on my front porch and close my eyes. The cold rain coats my face.
A car horn blares down the street. My eyes snap open and I search for the source. I find it three lots down, next to Monica’s house. I suck in my breath at the thought of her and dig my key out of my backpack to let myself in. My little sister’s still at school and my parents are at work.
I enter the quiet house, bypassing the kitchen and head straight to my bedroom. My backpack hits the floor where I toss it. I throw myself on the bed and grab a pillow to curl around. A picture frame on my nightstand catches my attention.
The frame is a curse. I hide it in my drawer, but after a few days it’s back on the nightstand. My mother sets it out, calling it a precious memory. I call it a reminder of my guilt.
Against my better judgment, I reach for it, my fingers curling around the edges of the cold silver frame. I pull it closer, studying the photo, and a lump forms in my throat. An image of Monica and I last spring at the annual school picnic fills the space. Our heads are bent together, her long blonde hair a sharp contrast to my thick, brunette waves. She smiles for the camera, a cheesy grin that most people found infectious. My heart aches and despair clouds my head.
My eyes well with tears. What would Monica tell me now? What sharp-witted barb would she have used to shake me from my melancholy?
Perhaps if I hadn’t killed her, she would be here to help.
Then again, if I hadn’t killed her, I wouldn’t need her help.
Anger surges along with a wave of frustration. I throw the frame across the room and it dents the wall. Glass shatters on contact, spraying shards across the room. The frame bounces off and lands on the carpet with a thud.
I hug my pillow and twist the chain of my bracelet. My thumb rubs the attached silver medallion, engraved with Julia on one side and Love endures forever on the other. A nice sentiment if I only knew how I got it.
The bracelet is just one of my oddities since the accident. They found me wearing it at the scene, but I have no memory of it and neither does anyone else. Then there’s my doodling, which turns into elaborate scrolls and arabesques, when I was barely capable of drawing a stick person before. And the dreams, nightmare and fantasy, yet both so vivid in detail I’m sure they’re real.
The doctors attribute it to the coma, the result of my head trauma. My psychologist blames it on survivor’s guilt. Whatever the cause, there’s no changing the past.
Monica is dead.
I lay on the bed and stare at the wall. The patter of rain lulls me into a zombified state. The door creaks open. I hear a sharp intake of air and crunching glass. The mattress dips behind me and the familiar feel of my mother’s fingers threads my hair. I sigh, closing my eyes as she rakes from the front of my head to the back.
“Mr. Archer called me today.” Her voice is soft and soothing.
I don’t say anything, hanging in the state of nothingness.
“Julia, please,” she begs, her desperation unmistakable. “Don’t shut me out.”
It hasn’t been intentional. It’s as if a glass wall separates me from the rest of the world, my mother included. I can see what happens on the other side, but the view is slightly dimmed, the sounds muffled. Other than the few times she pushes through the barrier, like now, I feel nothing.
And it scares me.
I roll onto my back and look up at her. Tears cloud her gray eyes as her mouth pinches tight. The fact I have caused my parents so much misery is not lost on me. I merely add it to my long list of offenses. Reaching my hand up to hers, I stop her in mid-stroke. “I’m sorry, Mom. I don’t mean to.”
She moves her hand to my cheek and stares into my eyes. “It wasn’t your fault.” She whispers.
With those four words, the emotional wall slams shut and suffocates me in my desperation. I close my eyes with a slow exhale of grief.
My mother sighs, realizing she’s lost her small window of connection. Her fingertips trail down my cheek as she stands, the mattress creaking with the shift. She pauses and I hear a metallic clunk on my nightstand.
“I know it hurts to look at this picture now, but someday you’ll cherish it.”
The door closes and I’m alone in my solitude. Alone in my agony. Alone in my guilt.
The next morning I wake up anxious about Evan and what his look meant. I decide I’ve imagined it all. It’s ludicrous really, thinking Evan Whittaker would be looking at me when he’s never noticed me before.
Before History, I pass him in the hall on the way to the Mrs. Hernandez’s office. He walks with a group, several cheerleaders and football players. I keep my eyes on the floor, staring at students’ feet. My gaze shifts up as he passes and I hold my breath. Sarah Chapman, one of the popular girls, has his full attention.
She tosses her silky blond hair over her shoulder with a flick of her manicured nails then leans into him and laughs. The corners of his mouth raise in a smirk, his eyes narrowing as he looks down at her. I’ve almost completely passed him when his eyes shift in my direction then he’s pulled along in wave of students rushing to class.
I stop in the open door to the counselor’s office. Mrs. Hernandez sits at her L-shaped desk, typing on her computer. She raises her head and greets me with a warm smile.
“Julia, come in.” She looks down at a file on her desk as I cross the threshold. “And shut the door behind you,” she adds.
I close the door before I slump in the worn office chair, dropping my backpack on the floor.
Mrs. Hernandez laces her fingers together and rests her hands on the desk as she leans toward me. “Julia, I see you’re still having difficulty in your classes.”
I tilt my head and shrug.
“I know the last six months have been hard on you, but it’s time to pick up the pieces of your life and move on.”
Just like Monica can move on with hers? I want to ask, but I bite back the words and rub the charm dangling from my mystery bracelet, the grooves of the engraved letters rough under the tip of my thumb.
Mrs. Hernandez watches me, waiting for a response.
“It’s hard to concentrate,” I offer. The words feel sluggish on my tongue and I realize how rarely I actually speak in school any more. I clear my throat.
“I’ve talked to your parents and we’ve discussed several options. It’s obvious you’re struggling to keep afloat this year. If we don’t see substantial improvement, it might be in your best interest to go to alternative school.”
My heart sputters and the blood rushes to my toes. Alternative school is for pregnant teens and juvenile delinquents. Losers.
Mrs. Hernandez smiles tightly. “Your mother thought you might have that reaction as well. I suggested that we have someone tutor you first, see if you can raise your grades without resorting to sending you to another school.”
I swallow, trying to coat my dry mouth, and nod. “Thank you.”
“We’re trying to assist your academic success, but you’re going to have to make some effort, Julia. You can’t keep going on like you have, living your life in limbo. I know you’re punishing yourself for Monica’s death, but all the pain you cause yourself won’t bring her back.” She reaches her hand across the desk and grabs my hand. “I knew Monica. She wouldn’t want this. She’d hate to see what you’re doing.”
My eyes burn and I stand, her hand falling so that it droops over the edge of the desk. “Are we done?” I ask, my chest constricting.
The hope in her eyes extinguishes. “Yes, I’ll line up some tutors and let you know your schedule tomorrow.”
I turn and grip the doorknob, flinging the door open. I burst from the room and down the now empty hall. Everyone’s in class, doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Except me. I hear Mrs. Hernandez calling my name, but I ignore her as I run for the doors to the parking lot. I have to escape.
I bolt out the side door, sucking in deep gulps of cool autumn air as I face the stark reality.
There is no escape.
This pain will always follow me. Failing or thriving at school, nothing has changed. The burning in my eyes becomes unbearable and I finally give in, the tears flooding down my face. I bend over, elbows on my thighs as I release the first sob. For six months I’ve kept it buried, hid the anguish deep within.
My knees drop to the ground. Monica is gone. Sweet, funny Monica is gone. I miss her with an anguish that threatens to consume me.
But mostly, I’m tortured by guilt, that I could kill my best friend and not even remember it. I should be made to relive her death over and over in my head.
Instead, I only have snatches of the dreams that visit me every night. The screeching tires. The impact of the crash. Screams. Shattering glass. Pressure on my chest. Monica, who sits in the seat next to me, practically unscathed while I die.
And that’s how I know the dreams aren’t real. They aren’t my suppressed memories as the doctors suggest, but my fantasies instead. The reality I’ve created to appease my guilt.
I push to my feet and run as a slow drizzle falls from the sky. The pounding of my feet on the pavement fills my ears, fills my head until my heartbeat finds a rhythmic union. Tears blur my vision, but I know where I’m going. The only place where my world makes sense.
I run from the school, down the street a half-mile and turn the corner down the two-lane highway that edges town. I ignore the ache in my leg that creeps up my thigh. My hair grows slick and heavy from the rain. My thin long-sleeved t-shirt plasters to my body.
I push on despite the stitch in my side and the now-sharp pain in my leg. The gray stone church tucked into the edge of the woods comes into view. It’s my beacon, my anchor. Tears stream down my face and blend with the rain, which now falls at a steady rate. My breath comes in desperate pants, yet I refuse to slow down, refuse to stop until I’m there.
My feet crunch against the gravel of the church parking lot and my gait falters. A black wrought-iron fence lies ahead. My hands fumble with the latch of the gate until it opens. The hinges creak as I rush through, toward the back of the cemetery where the fence and trees are almost one. I run past the older headstones, past the newer compact markers until I drop. The soft ground absorbs the impact as my knees hit the earth. I fall face forward before Monica’s headstone.
“It should’ve been me,” I cry, my hands grasping the edges of the cold, slick stone. Gut-wrenching sobs rack my body. The rain falls harder, pelting my back.
Warm hands wrap around my arms, pulling me off the ground. My body turns and my face presses into a firm, warm chest. I’m enveloped inside the opening of a warm coat. I sink into the warmth, my legs barely holding me upright. A voice whispers in my ear, “It’s okay, Julia. I’m here now. Everything’s going to be okay.”
A sharp pain stabs my neck and then there’s nothing.