Last week we announced that C. Deanna Verhoff’s Glory Alley And The Star Riders is our Kids Corner Book of the Week and the sponsor of our student reviews and of thousands of great bargains in the Kids Book category:
Now we’re back to offer a free Kids Corner excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded this one already, you’re in for a treat!
by C. Deanna Verhoff
“Glory Alley isn’t a wizard, she doesn’t slay vampires or zombies, but she kicks butt in her very own way. Her weapon is never giving up. Glory rocks!” ~Nicole, CO
DETAILED DESCRIPTION: Glory Alley is a girl rock collector in search of a better life. Since her mother’s death a few years ago life has spiraled out of control. Classmates make fun of her hand-me-down clothes and her siblings have become juvenile delinquents. Dad has given up on the entire family and they are about to lose their home as well. The future looks bleak for the Alleys, but Glory has a plan. She’ll strike it rich in Queen’s Mesa, saving the house and their reputations. Then one fateful morning it actually happens, she finds a rock beyond compare, but three otherworldly guardians arrive to spoil the party.
They say moving the rock will disrupt magic-based worlds like their own. In order to set things right again she must give up the stone, sealing her family’s fate. If she refuses, alien civilizations will be plunged into chaos. Surely, there’s another option, but can she find it before everything falls apart?
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Book One of the Glory Alley Series
Glory Alley and the Star Riders
By: C. Deanna Verhoff
Glory Alley and the Star Riders©
Copyright 2012 C. Deanna Verhoff
All rights reserved. Glory Alley and the Star Riders©, (originally titled as Glory Alley’s Cosmic Dilemma©), and the Glory Alley Series, are trademarks of the author. No part of this work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission.
Tullah and Earth were different, yet very much alike in appearance and human development. Their inhabitants knew similar hardships, hopes and dreams. Separated by space and time, the planetary sisters never met, yet marched to the beat of a single universal drummer toward the same inevitable end, until one fateful morning a girl with a stone fetish set Tullah on a strange new course.
Somewhere on Tullah…
Glory Alley and her best friend Clash, a freckly faced boy she’d known since pre-school, huddled over a blue handheld data device called a Sliver. A map of Queen’s Mesa filled the screen. She studied it carefully, barely noticing the roar of the bus engine under her feet, or the rows of winter wheat flickering past the window, and the girls a few seats back laughing at her ratty sweater. Planning tomorrow’s secret spelunking expedition was too important for petty distractions.
Clash tapped an image of a crudely drawn circle on the Sliver’s screen. “Here’s where we stopped last time.”
Remembering the place made her stomach do somersaults. Glory’s voice dropped to a reverent whisper. “The pool.” She and Clash knew each other so well she didn’t have to say what was on her mind, but expressing the words made it somehow seem real, like it was finally going to happen. “If we’re ever gonna find the mother lode, this’ll be the place.”
Clash’s real name was Besnik Gundisalv. The nickname, Glory theorized, had to do with the way his white-tipped hair stood up as if he’d been struck by lightning. Glory didn’t have a nickname, but as an Alley she was automatically labeled a loser. All of Cloverdale thought she’d never amount to anything, but they were wrong. With the help of Queen’s Mesa, she’d prove the Alley name deserved respect.
The last trip had dangled the hope of success ever closer. She and Clash had pushed deeper than they had ever dared before. They were rewarded with a virgin cavern untouched by human hands. Creamy stalactites had icicled the ceiling. Shallow water lingered over a rocky bed sprinkled with glittering crystals. Wouldn’t you know it, their batteries ran low. They had barely arrived when they had to leave. The place existed beyond their comfort zone. Steep drop-offs and tight tunnels pushed their spelunking skills to the limit, but the urge to return grew stronger every day. Dare they press their luck?
“We should make the pool our goal for tomorrow,” Clash suggested.
The two of them shared a zeal for Queen’s Mesa, but for different reasons. Someday they’d travel beyond the mesa, to exotic places across the globe. As she dug for rare rocky specimens, Clash would catch all the excitement on video.
Queen’s Mesa was practically in their own backyard, the very place where they had started their future together. Just as friends, of course. Clash had spunk, but it didn’t make up for him being the shortest boy in their grade. She felt like a big cow around the skinny little booger.
“Lighting’s always an issue,” Clash said, folding his hand-held computer once, then twice, until its rubbery blue case returned to the shape of a paperback. “I wonder if I can sneak the tripod lights out of the garage without anybody noticing.” He drummed his chin with an index finger. “Too bad there’s no reception below ground. A live feed would be good practice for when we have our own reality show.”
“And who’s going to carry the extra equipment all that way?” Glory’s brow furrowed, knowing the answer already. Numerous trips had proved Clash to be quick on his feet—whereas feats of strength were Glory’s domain. Her sturdy figure was used to heavy farm work. “I’m not a pack mule, you know.”
“Admit it—you’re scared to go back because of the skeleton we found.”
Glory’s back stiffened at the insinuation. “Scared? I don’t know the meaning of that word.”
“I just think we ought to start in the left tunnel for a change. We’re never going to get the mesa mapped out if we keep exploring the same old places. Besides, those bones weren’t human. It was just an animal.”
“An animal with a femur this honkin’ big!” Clash spread his arms. “What if your grandpa knows what he’s talking about?” He nudged Glory with an elbow, teasing. “Maybe the red-eyed Hoogula is for real.”
“If such a creature roamed the tunnels we’d have met it by now.”
“Some say the tunnels go on into forever, so I wouldn’t be so sure.” Clash said. “We can’t deny something big died down there, which means something bigger killed it.” He spread his bony arms even wider. “This honkin’ big!”
“I think it’s more likely it got lost down there and died of natural causes.”
“Hoogula or not, those bones need to see the daylight. Up top, we can charge people to look at ‘em.”
“I like that idea,” Glory said. “But it’s probably just a dead bear. I do want to return to that pool though, but on a day we can take our time.”
The screech of brakes signaled the bus was about to stop in front of the long gravel lane in front of Glory’s house. Her family’s old farmhouse with the crooked front porch waited at the end looking gray and forlorn.
Glory gathered her backpack and stood. “See ya tomorrow.”
“Thirteen hundred hours—sharp.”
Glory stepped off the bus. Gravel crunched under her feet as she walked. A huge red barn stood off in the distance from a two-story farmhouse. The property had been in her mother’s side of the family for five generations…and it showed.
Curled and torn shingles barely clung to the home’s sagging roof. Peeling white paint exposed gray wood. She hop scotched across the front porch over missing floor boards, stopping in front of the screen door, which hung crooked on only one hinge.
Mom’s dream had been to restore the house to its former glory. Dad had never been able to refuse her anything, but when Mom left the world Dad stopped caring, and the home improvements stopped too.
Now everything was slowly dying for lack of her. Sometimes Glory missed her so much it made her stomach hurt. When Mom was alive, everything smelled of bread and ginger. Now the house reeked of booze and urine…but wait, do I smell popcorn?
Glory peered into the living room where Dad slept in a pair of holey jeans and a stained T-shirt. His mood could shift from day to night without explanation.
She took off her hikers at the door and tiptoed in socks toward the kitchen.
The place was unusually quiet.
Nana and Grandpa Kracker had moved in with the Alleys two years ago, but they’d left this morning to celebrate the holiday weekend with Aunt Martha in the city. So where was everybody else?
Mom’s presence was strongest here. The simple decor reminded Glory of the way home used to be—nothing fancy, but orderly and reliable. She sighed. Those days were gone forever.
Faint holiday music drifted down the hallway getting louder when she entered the kitchen. Patrice must have come home from school early to work on the Harvest Day feast. In her batter-splattered flannel shirt, frizzled yellow hair standing every which way, she looked small standing behind the counter where Mom was supposed to be, peeling apples.
An old Father Winter’s Day song drifted from the streamer. On this night, on this most wonderful of nights, children’s wishes all come true. Glory hummed along with the words. On this night, on this most wonderful of nights, hearts and spirits are renewed. Three-year-old George perched on a stool, trying to string white puffs of popcorn. Face streaked with jam, he sat there in a diaper and nothing else. Glory knew from experience that her little brother defied all clothing. He had a stubborn streak, but she liked that about him. His messy hair was in need of a trim and looked like delicate threads of gold when it caught the light. Glory paused in the doorway quietly singing his name.
He jerked to attention. “Gwo-wee?” A smile of recognition spread across his face until he forgot the task at hand and stabbed his finger with the needle. “Ow!” He held out his injury for her to see. “Gwo-wee!”
Glory carried him to the sink, washing the dot of blood under the faucet. He cried, offering his wounded finger. “Kiss.”
Glory kissed it. “Better?”
“Uh-huh.” He nodded, giving thanks with a runny-nosed peck on the cheek. Glory let him go and scowled at Patrice.
“What’s the matter with you—giving a little kid a needle?”
“I told him a thousand times to leave it be,” Patrice replied. “Serves the brat right.” She slapped a dirty little hand digging into a bowl of cookie dough. “Quit that, George.”
More tears formed in George’s eyes and he clung to Glory. “Gwo-wee. Love.” he said as if the words were soothing ointment.
Patrice handed her the peeler. “Make yourself useful,” she said before rolling more dough between her palms. “Why is it that I get stuck doing everything around here? Did you clean the toilets?”
Glory refused to acknowledge her sister’s testy frown, focusing on Patrice’s shiny gold necklace instead. A large opal-like pendant caught her eye.
“Whoa,” Glory said reaching for it. “Is that thing real?”
Patrice fumbled for it and quickly slid it beneath her shirt. “Did you clean the coop yet?”
“Why can’t the twins do it when they get back?”
The twins, Randy and Danny, were a grade ahead of Glory. They had been sent away earlier in the year to opportunity school, a program for students with chronic discipline problems. Apparently, they had learned their lesson and they were ready to return to regular school.
“Dad says they’re going to be digging fence holes all week, so quit your whining.”
“Er, what’s with the popcorn garland?” Glory inquired as she spied a partially eaten muffin on the countertop. She pointed. “Yours?”
“No. You can have it.”
Glory shoved the whole thing in her mouth.
“Disgusting,” Patrice said with a curled lip. “You’ll never snag a guy that way.”
“Like you’re the expert, Miss Never-Had-A-Date.” Glory’s voice was muffled by the muffin. “Besides I’d rather have jewels than a guy.”
“Play your cards right, lose a little weight, and in time I’m sure you can have both,” Patrice winked. “You could be pretty if you tried.”
“I want to be a geologist,” Glory reminded. “Don’t need looks for that.”
“But you need money to become a geologist and lots of it.”
“Don’t worry.” Glory held an index finger in the air. “I have a plan.”
“It won’t work unless you learn to play the game: beauty attracts money, money attracts beauty, and poor unattractive people never get ahead.”
“Are there any more muffins?” Glory’s eyes scoured the kitchen until resting on a blueberry delight hidden behind the flour bag on the island. She snatched it up and took a huge bite, savoring its wonderful sweet moistness against her tongue. “Mmmm.” She chewed and talked at the same time. “Remember how Mom used to talk about opening a bakery?”
“Listen up,” Patrice said, taking her annoyance out on the cookie dough with a big spoon. “Once you get a certain reputation in school…or uptown…it’s nearly impossible to shed. Time to stop acting like a backward hick before it’s too late. And, ew, eat with your mouth closed.”
“If people don’t like the way I act—” Glory paused to flick muffin crumbs off her chest, “—or eat, that’s their problem.”
“You’re hopeless,” Patrice shook her head in exasperation. “Speaking of problems,” She leaned over the counter. “Brandon’s in the woods chopping down a tree.”
“Why?” Glory gulped, already knowing the answer.
“Don’t be stupid—Father Winter’s Day is only a few weeks away.”
“But Dad said…”
“The tree is free, so maybe he won’t get mad.”
Glory swallowed. “Nice Dadtoday?” she asked hopefully, trying to determine if Dad was drunk or sober.
Patrice shook her head. “No, it’s the Mean One.”
Glory set down the peeler and made for the back door.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“When Dad wakes up and sees a tree in the house, I want to be as far away as possible.”
“Get your butt back in the chair and keep peeling.”
“You’re such a witch,” Glory said, sitting back down.
A few minutes later George curled up in the corner with his favorite blanket to take a nap. The phone rang. Patrice answered. Glory tried to figure out who it might be. Patrice glared in her direction and took the phone call to another room.
Glory set the peeler on the counter, inhaling deeply. Ahh—the aroma of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves blended like fine perfume in a plain bottle labeled Allspice. She remembered the first Harvest Day after Mom’s funeral. The cupboards offered only dried noodles and spices. The fridge held nothing but condiments. The day after the funeral Glory had taken the bottle of Allspice to Queen’s Mesa. Once there she had sat alone in a rocky tunnel sniffing it like an addict huffing paint thinner. Occasionally, she still had the urge. The Allspice remained in her backpack, but like everything else around here, it had lost most of its flavor, but Nana and Grandpa moving in had been a huge relief in so many ways.
They had been with them ever since social services had threatened to split up the family. Even though Nana was half-blind, and Grandpa had memory problems, they kept the house running more than anyone did. The way that they ditched them today to celebrate the holiday somewhere else really stung. What was that about anyway? Maybe it had to do with the way Nana had looked lately…extra old and tired. There were long stretches of time where she didn’t cook at all.
With Nana slowing down, her eyesight failing, and Patrice’s plans to move out of the house, Glory would be the lone girl holding the bag. The mere thought of it made her head hurt.
The oven buzzed.
She looked inside. The center of the cookies looked pale and doughy, but the edges were crispy brown. Better ask Patrice what to do. She found her down the hall in Nana and Grandpa’s bedroom.
Patrice sat on the edge of the bed facing the window, not noticing Glory in the doorway. Her voice sounded soft and syrupy—phony—must be a guy on the other end.
“The timer went off,” Glory announced. “But I can’t decide if they’re done.”
Patrice spun around, her face wearing a guilty expression. “How long have you been standing there?” she demanded to know.
“Uh, a second.”
“Sorry, I can’t talk now,” she said cupping the phone. “Don’t forget to call me later.”
“Who was that?”
“None of your business,” Patrice snapped. She hurried to the kitchen, pulling the cookies out of the oven, lecturing Glory about the evils of spying on private telephone conversations the whole time.
Glory was about to defend herself when the back door swung inward.
In came Brandon, the oldest Alley sibling. A well-built teenager with light blue eyes and spiky blond hair—his tall physique would soon rival Dad’s. Silver body piercings adorned his ears, eyebrow and tongue. Swirly tattoos of barbed wire, skulls, and mostly naked women decorated his body. At the moment, only a few inky tendrils escaped his jacket. He backed into the kitchen, dragging a five-foot tall pine tree. Oh, no, thought Glory, here we go.
“Dad’s gonna have a hissy,” she warned, but nobody listened.
Brandon propped the tree up in a corner. “Ahh,” he said, taking a loud sniff. “Smells just like I remember.”
Everyone fell quiet a moment. This had been Mom’s favorite time of year. Every room required a sprig of spruce somewhere. Those were happy times, better times.
“Well, since it’s here,” Glory said. “Might as well decorate it.”
“It’ll make a nice welcome home for the twins,” Patrice suggested.
“Right,” Brandon responded, eyes still glued to the tree.
He pulled himself away to disappear down the basement stairs, emerging a few minutes later with boxes of lights and ornaments. As much as she feared upsetting Dad, Glory began to relax as they filled the tree with glittering lovelies. This is fun, she thought, happily threading popcorn garland. She circled it around the tree and stood back to admire her handiwork.
“Are you going to plug it in or do I have to do everything?” Patrice complained, making her way to the outlet.
When the tree began to glow George’s blue eyes shined with astonishment.
“Ohhhh!” he exclaimed with a clap. “BOOO-tiful!” George pulled off his diaper and danced around in circles, singing indecipherable words.
“I swear that kid’s retarded,” Brandon said, then ordered Glory around as if she was his keeper. “Shut him up before he wakes Dad.”
“He’s never seen a Father Winter’s tree before; whaddaya expect?”
Brandon slugged Glory in the bicep.
“What’d ya do that for?”
“I just felt like it.”
Brandon slugged her again in the same place.
“You better knock it off!” Glory said angrily, pushing him away with an elbow and holding her throbbing arm with her hand.
“And what are you going to do about it?”
“Maybe I’ll tell Dad about the funny cigarettes you’ve been smoking in the barn.”
Brandon pushed her against the door, towering over her, pressing a forearm into her neck.
“If you do that, it’ll be the last thing you do.”
Brandon liked to threaten, and usually meant it when it came to Randy and Danny, but he seldom followed through with his sisters. He probably wouldn’t do anything more than pin her arm behind her back or deliver a painful noogie.
“Ooh, I’m shaking,” she mocked.
“You will be after I tell Dad that you’re still going up to Queen’s Mesa—yeah, that’s right, I saw your stash up in the loft, and after I’m through giving you a pounding, Dad will finish you off. So you better think twice.”
“What the blazes is going on!” A slurred voice came from the doorway.
The siblings froze at the sight of Mean Dad. Light brown stubble mixed with patches of gray covered his chin, contrasting with the uncombed blond hair. Blood-shot eyes, white parched lips, with a voice like gravel, Glory knew to expect the worst.
“Brandon!” he snarled, “What have I told you about bullying your sisters. I’m the only one that passes out poundings around here.”
Glory’s throat tightened as she watched Mean Dad stare down big brother.
“Try me, tough guy,” Dad said, showing Brandon a closed fist, while he grabbed him by the shirt collar with the other.
Glory cringed inside, expecting Dad’s right hook against Brandon’s face at any second.
While Patrice was saddled with the responsibility of running the house, Brandon was in the unfortunate position of being Dad’s personal punching bag, taking the heat off the rest of them. Glory suddenly regretted antagonizing him the way she did.
Brandon tried to back away, but Dad pulled him uncomfortably close.
“You picking on little girls again, eh?”
Brandon silently pleaded with her not to say anything.
Glory stepped forward, shaking her head from side to side. “No, Sir. We were just playing. Honest.”
Glory and her brother exchanged dubious glances as temporary allies.
Dad was about to say something until his gaze fell on the tree. He seemed to forget about the squabble and let go of Brandon, wandering closer to the tree, feeling the soft needles between his fingers. His face softened as he touched the bulbs, then the homemade ornaments. The Alley children braced themselves knowing anything could happen.
A smile formed on Dad’s lips. Wanting to smile too, the corner of Glory’s mouth twitched, but Dad’s joy passed like the morning dew and quickly evaporated into rage.
Patrice flinched when he pulled off the tin foil star, wadded it into a ball and bounced it off of Brandon’s head.
“Who wasted this foil?”
No one answered.
He yanked the string of lights out of the wall and fought it like a jungle man wrestling a giant snake. Cursing wildly, with the cord wrapped around him, he yelled some more. “A plug is a gul dang credit-sucker, but you little ingrates don’t give a flying fig!”
Mean Dad knocked the tree over then stomped the branches into kindling.
“I said no flippin’ holiday decorations!”
He marched to the refrigerator, fists clenched at his sides, cussing up a storm. The door made a sticky sound when it opened. Dad tilted his head to the side to survey the contents within. The fridge was unusually full, stocked with the Harvest Day dishes Patrice and Nana had slaved over for the last two days.
“You like to waste—I’ll show ya waste.” He threw the casserole dish at the wall where the bowl shattered. A shower of corn rained down. The children cringed, covering their faces, but did not dare step away.
“What’s this slop?” He took one look at the carefully prepared stuffing. “Bird food.”
Glory would never believe the bowl slipped from his grasp by accident. When it hit the floor, stuffing slid over George’s feet. Little brother knelt down picking up handfuls to shove them into his eager mouth.
“You think that’s good, Little Pig? Well, have some more!” Dad kicked a mound at him.
The bread stuck to George’s face and hair in wet clumps. He backed away, sucking his thumb, grasping for Glory’s hand with the other. “Me no like that.”
Glory enveloped him in her flannel shirt and pulled him protectively against her waist.
She didn’t like it either. Though the fact was never spoken aloud, everyone knew that Dad resented George more than all the rest.
George’s birth didn’t kill Mom, but an infection contracted after his delivery did, though Dad sometimes blamed the government instead. As a kid, Glory didn’t understand exactly what a staph infection was, or why the government would want to kill her mother. The only thing she knew for certain was that Dad had brought Mom to the hospital, but came back with only George. He’d been in a bad mood ever since.
Dad crouched low to yell in George’s face. “Put some clothes on, boy, I’m tired of looking at ya!”
Little brother buried his head in her leg and whimpered.
“Shouldn’t the kid be out of diapers by now?” Dad looked to Patrice, who held up her palms, looking scared and helpless.
Dad returned his attention to the contents of the fridge, leaning his weight on a shelf, hardly noticing when it tipped. Three pies, homemade ones, the kind that took hours of peeling fruit and rolling out crusts, landed upside down on the floor. Glory’s stomach sunk for Patrice, who looked as if she’d just seen a puppy run over by a hay mower.
Dad found what he was looking for and pressed the bottle of cold vodka to his cheek. After a long swig, he scanned the room like a boxer waiting to be challenged.
“This kitchen better be clean when I come back or I’ll whip the lot of you!”
She listened to him stumble to the family room. Good. He’d fall asleep soon and the terror would end. At least until he woke up again.
The television clicked on and the ball game blared. Nobody spoke for a couple of minutes.
“He’ll be passed out in an hour,” Brandon said, sending a disgusted sneer toward the living room. “We can have the Harvest Day feast without him.”
Glory nodded in agreement, but Patrice started to cry. Not sad tears, but angry ones, the kind that sent fiery red lines down pale cheeks.
“I hate him!” she screamed. “And as soon as I’m eighteen, I’m going to move away and never come back!”
“Don’t say that!” Glory pleaded. “Please, Patrice, you don’t even have a job, and nobody’s gonna hire you without a diploma.”
“Last night Nana spent hours—arthritic hands and all—helping me make all of this—and now look at it! And Grandpa used his pension check to pay for everything. Dad had no right. No right!”
Brandon looked toward the family room, his face a sneer. “Don’t worry about Ditzy Nana and Grandpa Pee, they obviously aren’t worried about us—going to Aunt Martha’s where we aren’t invited, leaving us with dear ole Pappy. Since there’s no feast here, I think I’ll follow their example and split.”
“Not ’til you help clean this up!” Rage coursed through Glory’s body. “And who are you to call Nana and Grandpa names? You…” She couldn’t think of a good comeback, so went straight for the jugular. “You stupid flunk out!”
Glory yelped and ran around the table, sliding in her socks. He circled around to get her, but Glory dove under the table. Brandon knelt to reach for her. Glory scooted out the other side then hopped onto the tabletop.
Brandon stood to grab her ankle. Glory shook him off and dropped to the floor on the opposite side, using a kitchen chair as barrier between them.
“You’re fast for a fatso, but not worth the trouble.”
He muttered something as he flung open the back door, slamming it behind him.
Her chest heaved as she tried to calm herself. Why couldn’t the Alleys get along for just one day? What would mom think if she could see them right now? A lump of shame formed in her throat.
Patrice handed her a mop.
The two of them cleaned Dad’s mess in silence, lost in their own thoughts. George plopped down on the floor next to her, taking samples of pumpkin pie from the floor and eating merrily.
She couldn’t help but laugh. Wanting Patrice to stop crying, she tried to make her focus on George’s cuteness. “What a helpful little man you are.” She gushed over George, who smiled and giggled through a face full of pumpkin mush. Patty didn’t even crack a smile. No use.
Glory’s mind drifted to the mesa, hoping against reason that somehow its legendary riches might pull them out of the rut they fell into after mom died.
Early the next morning, when the world was still dark, Glory woke to the sound of her father’s slurred voice.
“Those government liars!” He ranted. She recognized the Daily News program playing downstairs. “They should all be shot.” Metal clanged. He was looking for his gun. He liked to swing it around, but he’d never use it, she was sure. Lots of swearing followed.
Patrice slept in the twin bed across the aisle, but didn’t stir. Seeing her there was unusual these days. She had a babysitting gig down the road, where she spent the night with the Miller kids because their parents both worked the night shift. Basically, she got paid to sleep there just in case the little kids got sick, scared or hurt. Easy money.
“Somebody drank all the guldarn orange juice!” Dad yelled from the kitchen.
Vacation was off to a rocky start. Yesterday—no Harvest Day feast. Today—Mean Dad angry at the world.
I gotta get out of here, she decided.
Glory tiptoed in the dark around her second-story bedroom, trading puppy dog pajamas for a pair of jeans and a light gray windbreaker with a hood. She wasn’t sure where she would go, what she would do until thirteen-hundred-hours sharp, but anything was better than staying around the house.
She couldn’t leave fast enough—first stopping at the barn for spelunking gear—then running across the stubbly field to the woods.
Once in the safety of the trees she took a rusty miner’s hat out of the bag, placed it on her head, letting the strap dangle. The light on top of her head lit the way.
Readjusting the pack across her back, she kept walking until the trees gave way to a desolate dirt road. The more space she put between herself and her home, the better she felt.
Golden sunlight spread across ruby red and golden treetops. Beautiful, she thought, switching off the headlamp, feeling a little more optimistic as her breaths turned to frosty clouds.
The pack of spelunking gear slung over her shoulder got heavier by the minute, but she didn’t mind. Halting a moment, she squinted at the solitary flat-topped mountain in the distance, Queen’s Mesa. It towered over the surrounding forest, looking regal and cold, while Tullah’s second moon hovered above like a cosmic scoop of vanilla ice cream. Delicious, thought Glory, but she had one more thing to do before the climb.
A wrought iron fence came into view. She walked its perimeter, clinking a stick along the rails as she went, stopping at a set of curly black gates secured by a chain and padlock, which stopped cars from entering but not kids. The extra weight around her middle made for a tight squeeze between the metal slats, but a moment later, Glory stood in Cloverdale Acres, Resting Place of the Dearly Departed.
Rows of tombstones stretched as far as the eye could see. She walked among them until reaching the back of the cemetery, where the poor folks were laid to rest and tombstones were scarce. It tormented Glory that her mother’s remains rested here with nothing more than a bare patch of dirt to mark her passing.
Mom had been gone almost four years, but the day of the funeral seemed like yesterday. Glory had stood in front of the casket, and when nobody was looking, she climbed over the side to kiss her dead mother. Prepared for the soft warmth of skin, she was shocked to touch cold hard flesh instead. The anguish of reliving that moment she had tried so hard to forget stuck in her throat. At the time, she thought that her mother had turned into stone. She couldn’t sleep at night wondering if someday she’d suffer the same fate. But over time, the more Glory had pondered how death transformed a person into a rock, the less she fretted about it. After all, she loved rocks. They didn’t care what anybody thought, nor did they feel pain or fear. And unlike mothers, rocks lasted forever.
As Glory approached the resting place, her face pinched when she saw that the monument of loose stones she’d built over the plot was gone.
“Stupid, rotten, groundskeeper,” she muttered. “Why can’t he just leave it be?”
She took off the miner’s hat, letting loose a thick brown ponytail, and then sat down cross-legged atop the grave.
“Mom,” she whispered into the breeze. “Can you hear me?” Her mother never answered, but Glory held out against reason that someday she might. “Maybe you already know, but things are worse at home. Brandon’s grades are so bad he might not graduate. Ever since Patrice turned sixteen, all she does is cry and I don’t know why. Randy and Danny, as far as I know nothing’s changed with them— they’re still idiots. And little George, he seems fine to me, but Nana says he’s behind for his age, needs to see a specialist, which as usual we can’t afford. As for Dad, well, the roof is sagging, taxes are overdue, the crops did lousy this year, and he’s drinking again.”
Glory plucked a few blades of grass, weaving them together, and then tossed it aside.
“But don’t you worry, Mom.” Glory’s confidant tone belied the doubt gnawing at her stomach. “I have a plan, I’m going to strike it rich in Queen’s Mesa, and when I do, everything will be better for the whole family.”
She looked to the mountain—just gazing upon it, so ancient and unchanging, usually gave her a peaceful feeling, but not today. Somehow, someway, she had to turn things around for herself, for all of them, especially George. At least the people from Child Protective Services hadn’t come around since Nana and Grandpa moved in—that was good—right?
Her face suddenly brightened.
“Guess what, Mom.” She slid off her backpack and heaved it onto the ground in front of her. “A couple weeks ago Clash and I found a new cavern with a pool and everything. I picked up some great stuff. Nothing worth a hill of credits, but still very nice, so even though your birthday’s a few days away, I’m going to give you part of your present now.”
She took a coil of rope from the bag, her water bottle and other spelunking gear, and then emptied a pile of rocks onto the ground. She arranged the stones over the gravesite into the shape of a heart and then paused to look out over the horizon at the mesa.
Grandpa said the place was enchanted and vicious creatures full of magic guarded her winding tunnels. In the deepest recesses of the mountain, a virgin cavern hid a gem beyond compare, but nobody could get at it because a red-eyed devil devoured anyone who came near. Now that Glory was older, and had explored the mountain many times over without meeting anything scarier than a bat, she laughed at Grandpa’s silly tales. Devils didn’t exist, Glory knew, but jewels were another matter.
“When I find my fortune, Mom,” she promised. “You’ll have the best marker in the whole graveyard.” Until then, she’d build one the best she knew how. Glory returned to the project at hand, spelling Rose Alley with stones inside the heart. She studied the crooked letters and frowned, rearranging them until perfect.
“Happy Harvest Day, Mom,” she said, and with a wave was off through the dim woods, toward the mesa.
If only she had a hand-held Sliver like most kids, she would call Clash to let him know she was starting for the mesa earlier than planned. The devices weren’t reliable underground, but the flexible polymer cases made them waterproof, and practically indestructible—perfect for caving. It would be nice to chat online, play video games, or read an electronic book to pass the time waiting for her best friend to arrive.
After an hour at a steady pace, her goal loomed large in the distance. Before long she reached the top where the entrance to the caverns below opened wide like a mouth holding a high note for all eternity. Above the opening, a message was etched into the stone with weathered lettering:
Beware: this mountain and everything in it
be private property.
Trespassers devoured on sight.
According to Grandpa, the message had been there when he was a boy and as far back as anybody could remember, but there was no public record of anybody ever owning Queen’s Mesa. Glory found it a curious thing, but knowing the person who wrote it had no doubt turned to dust long ago, being devoured wasn’t high on her list of concerns.
Cave exploration was dangerous enough on its own. A slip into a crevice, a backbreaking fall, the Cold Crazies—otherwise known as hypothermia, were all possibilities, yet part of the thrill. Go back and wait for Clash, she told herself, only idiots cave alone. She took a deep breath, switched on the helmet light, and ventured down deep into the belly of Queen’s Mesa.
Glory wriggled through the same tight tunnel they had discovered on their last trip. After a long stretch, it opened into an airy cavern where the light from her helmet illuminated a pale brown ceiling. She guided her flashlight over a sloped limestone shelf running along its upper perimeter. Boulders dotted the landscape, including a shallow pool that covered half the floor. Bloink, bloink, bloink echoed the steady sound of dripping water. Yep, she grinned. I’ve found the mesa’s sweet spot for sure. From silvery barite specimens to translucent blue crystals, there was no telling what lovelies the Queen might give up. Maybe, Glory dared to hope, this would be the day the mesa parted with something priceless.
She let her bag of gear drop with a dull clunk. “Prime hunting ground,” she announced to the empty cave, her echo bouncing down the cool cavern walls. “Thirteen! Hundred! Hours!” the male voice programmed into her watch barked like a military commander. “Oh crud.” Had it been that long? She pictured Clash waiting for her outside the mesa passing the time playing games on his Sliver, not realizing she’d gone in without him. He’d probably hang around an hour before losing his patience.
“What a lousy best friend I am.” She considered turning back, but a tall crevice—one she hadn’t noticed last visit—caught her attention.
It zigzagged up the wall and looked wide enough to squeeze through.
“Well, hello there,” she said to the crack, aiming her light toward it into the dim unknown. Hundreds of crisscrossing rainbows appeared on the ceiling, dancing with every jiggle of the flashlight. Her eyes traveled over the spreading colors at the top of the cave. “Whoa!” she gasped, mouth gaping.
The number one rule of spelunking was bring a light, bring a backup light, and bring a backup to the backup. Helmet light, check. Flashlight in hand, check. Spare in bag, check. The second rule was always bring a buddy. Clash, er…despite the risk, she had to go in there.
Glory slid into the crevice.
The bumpy walls were high in places. The top opened like a valley. The space quickly narrowed. She sucked in her pudge, shifting her bag to the side, and squeezed through hip first. The view on the other side took her breath away.
A natural cathedral ten times bigger than the school gymnasium stood before her in dizzying splendor. Thousands of years of water droplets, mixing with calcite from the stones, formed cream-colored stalactite and stalagmite pillars. They thrust upwards and downwards twisting and turning into a maze of delicate ivory. Its arched ceiling, crusted with sparkles, appeared as a starry night straight out of a fairy tale. Mirrored crystals magnified the beam from her flashlight a hundredfold explaining the rainbow effect. Glory felt like she had burrowed out of the sewer and into wonderland.
“Holy schmoly,” she whispered, eyes like sponges, absorbing the spectacular vision before her. Stalagmites resembled a forest of candles dripping with wax. Glory walked through them until she came to a vast dome that rose up and up. Below, the floor gleamed like polished marble and a lone stalagmite spiraled from its center. A black rock the size of her head, perfectly round and smooth as ice, balanced upon it.
Glory’s heart fluttered.
In their natural state stones rarely formed with such symmetry and shine. The walls of the cavern slanted inward as if bowing to the rock at the center. Water trickled in the distance. Heat rushed to her clammy cheeks. She had found the most perfect rock in the universe and it was just sitting there begging to be taken.
For a minute, she stared, drooling in its presence, feeling her spirit being drawn toward the stone ahead of her tiptoeing feet. The unexpected sound of sniffing prickled the hairs on the back of her neck. She stopped to listen.
What if Grandpa’s tales about enchanted man-eating creatures living in the mesa were true? Glory shook her head. Impossible. She’d been in Queen’s Mesa dozens of times without seeing the slightest hint the legends were true. But what if other spelunkers were in the cavern and tried to grab it first?
She sprinted over the wide, empty, floor sliding to a stop in front of it. Tiptoes strained as she licked her lips and reached out for the most beautiful rock ever. Trembling, Glory’s fingertips made contact. A warm pulse came from the stone. She tried to recoil, but too late! It exploded into millions of stars of every color.
Blown back ten feet, tiny stars penetrated her skin like bullets, sizzling as they quickly faded. She glanced upward. The rock sat on its stalagmite pedestal as if nothing had happened.
But something had happened—was happening.
Light burst within, sending fire through her veins. She grabbed at her chest, eyes squeezed shut as some unnamed part inside burned. Behold, the lowly are raised, a woman’s voice sang from somewhere far away. And the empty are filled. Rejoice. The words became a lullaby, lifting her higher and higher, into outer space. Behold. The lowly are raised. And the empty are filled. A blue and brown planet surrounded with wisps of white clouds circled a yellow star. A gray planet surrounded by red rings whizzed past followed by a huge green world orbited by a dozen moons.
“Elboni!” the unseen woman suddenly shouted.
The word bounced off the walls of the cavern, growing louder and louder, until Glory covered her ears. Reeling, she tried to stand, but staggered and fell.
Knees held to chest, she rocked back and forth, squeezing tears out of the corners of her eyes. Great discomfort gradually turned into pleasant warmth. It spread outward from beneath her heart and into limbs. Basking in waves of tranquility, she wanted the feeling to never end, but it was over all too soon, leaving Glory feeling emptier than ever.
“Whoa.” Hands went to helmet. “Am I dead?” She slid it off and felt around her skull checking for bumps, cracks, blood or any sort of damage. Everything felt in place, but she considered the possibility that she was lying unconscious somewhere dreaming all of this. “Maybe I have the Cold Crazies and I’m hallucinating,” she moaned.
Her eyes locked on the rock. It sure seemed real. Glory gazed at the rock with hunger and knew she must have it. Fierce emotions muddled her thoughts, but she fought to gain control. A good spelunker knew to stay calm and continually assess the situation.
The miner’s hat had stayed in place during the explosion. The flashlight had rolled twenty feet away. Glory was grateful to see that it was still working. A sixth sense nagged, warning her not to linger, so on hands and knees she scurried to the flashlight and tucked it under an armpit determined to take this tremendous discovery with her. One problem though. A rock that size would be difficult to lift, yet alone lug it all the way home.
Glory stood by the curly stalagmite holding the prize staring in awe, bracing for another show of fireworks. Slowly, carefully, she winced as fingertips touched its smooth surface.
This time nothing happened.
Hopes drooped, but at least this meant she could take the rock without fear of another explosion. She hefted it from its base. Contrary to appearance, the stone was light in weight, no heavier than a jug of milk.
Glory dropped it into the backpack with less extraordinary specimens. Then she heard that sniffing sound again. This time it was followed by a low growl.
Spinning around, she aimed her light this way and that, until it landed on a slab of white rock. The rock appeared to be breathing.
Glory’s heart jumped to her throat.
The slab turned her way. Red eyes the size of dinner plates glowed back at her.
Glory froze as a giant head came into the flashlight’s beam. It had a huge doggish muzzle, pointed black ears, and a white hide like scorched rock. It stood eight foot tall at the shoulder. Brown, thorn-like protrusions speckled its body. Fangs that looked like railroad spikes dripped with saliva.
Everything went numb at the sight of the beast’s blazing glare. It stared at her with teeth bared. A guttural growl filled the cavern. All she could do was stare back with mouth agape.
The creature leapt, shattering a lacy awning of mineral icicles. Glory dove forward, ducking beneath its outstretched paws. The devil-dog landed on the ground behind her and turned to snap at the back of her neck.
Glory darted through a grove of stalagmite trees and ran toward the fissure she had entered by, sliding into the narrow opening just before the beast overtook her.
Too big to enter the crack, the hellish hound clawed madly at the entrance. Panting heavily, Glory doused the light under her jacket. The world was pitch black. Everything fell quiet.
Had the beast given-up? Sweat dripped down her face and back. The idea of flipping on the flashlight, exposing her whereabouts, seemed suicidal, but navigating the caves without light would be equally deadly.
Glory switched it on, and glanced upward just in time to see a thick glob of drool coming right at her face. Splat, it oozed down her cheek.
The creature had climbed to the top of the shelf and planned to tear her out of the crevice. Glory let out a strangled whimper. The creature snarled and pushed its head down through the rock. The thick sinews in the beast’s neck flexed as it strained to reach her.
She flattened herself on her back to avoid being chomped. Glory hugged her bag and prayed like crazy. Every muscle rigid, she expected to be ripped to shreds. When it didn’t happen, she opened one eye to see that the beast’s head was too big to fully penetrate the crack. Finally, it ran off, barking like a hundred hounds before a foxhunt.
There might be other ways out of the caverns, but Glory only knew of the one at the top of the mesa. Uh-oh, her insides twisted in alarm, what if it sniffs out my trail? She gathered her footing and slithered out of the crack as fast as she could.
It was a race to the entrance at the top of the hill. Glory’s legs pumped, heart pounded, adrenaline surged like a firestorm through her veins. After sliding down an unexpected dip in the cave’s floor, she stopped. Head jerking, she bounced the beam of the flashlight from wall to wall. Exit, where’s my exit? Eyes fell upon the freshly painted arrows marking the way to the top.
Energy renewed, she sprinted over rocks. A wide jump, one that always frightened her even on good days, was coming up.
For a second she considered dropping the beautiful black stone to lighten the load, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She tipped her backpack, letting everything fall out, then hastily returned only the essentials—flashlight, water, and her newest acquisition. Zipping the backpack once again, she pressed its weight against her stomach to keep it from bouncing as she ran.
The barking got closer.
The urge to huddle into a cowering ball of jelly threatened to overwhelm her. Pull yourself together, don’t give into the fear. Fight it.
The caves echoed with barking.
Run. Her legs felt like soggy mush. Run.
Here comes the jump!She sprang with all her might. Never had she cleared it with so much room to spare, but when her feet hit the ground on the other side, her flashlight dimmed. No! She nearly cried at the thought of being entombed in total darkness with the devil dog in pursuit, but tears were for wimps. Flashlight, don’t fail me now! She smacked the plastic casing and the light dimmed further.
Growls seemed to come from everywhere. Glory had descended into the caves enough times to know that the hard walls deceived the senses. The beast could be a mile away or only a few feet. What was a giant monster dog doing at the bottom of a dark cave anyway? Up ahead a patch of bright yellow on the putty-colored wall came into view. Sunlight! Anticipation pushed her legs faster. Almost to the top, I can do this, not much further.
Thunderous barking erupted from behind. She dared to steal a glance and saw a mass of white muscle and fangs closing the gap between them. Yikes! She lost balance, tumbled across the rocky floor, and veered to the left. The creature tried to halt, but skidded past until its front paws caught on a crack in the floor. It somersaulted out of control toward the cave’s opening, stopping just outside the entrance.
When the rays of the sun hit its body, the creature’s hide burned away like paper touched to a flame, creating a spreading black ring over its haunches. With an ear-piercing yelp, it scrambled back into the cave, thrashed about, and crashed from wall to wall in a blind fit. Boulders and chunks of rock fell, filling the cavern with dust. Glory curled into a ball to shield her head and face.
The cavern’s entrance smelled of powdered cement mixed with singed leather. The taste coated her tongue. The thorny beast ran in circles, whimpering, trying to lick the burns on its rump. She quietly scooted along the perimeter of the rocky walls hoping the devil dog creature had forgotten its prey. Her lungs wanted to hack out trapped dust, but she fought the contraction.
One eye on the creature, another on the cavern’s entrance, she trod over broken rocks. Ten more feet to the cave’s opening…a little more…a little more… the confused animal panted on its side too preoccupied with licking its hindquarters to see her leave.
Free at last! Glory rushed down the side of the mesa. Sliding halfway, she lost control, and rolled down the rest of the way until her body whacked against a tree. Ignoring the tearing pain in her ankle, she was on her feet in an instant, prepared to sprint through the forest.
A heavy touch to the shoulder made her scream. She spun around with fist raised. There was Clash, white-tipped hair standing straight up, fishing pole in hand, backpack slung over his shoulders.
“What’s the matter with you?” Clash’s voice rose in puzzlement. “It’s just me.”
Glory looked back to the mountain from where she’d just escaped. It jutted out of the forest like a giant tree stump, veined and brown. A hawk circled its peak, but there was no sign of the beast. A faint howl echoed from the hilltop, fading away until the only sound was Glory’s own labored breathing.
“Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Clash asked.
“Do you have to ask?”
“You mean that dog howling?”
“That was no dog. It was the red-eyed devil of Queen’s Mesa.”
He laughed, shaking his head, not taking her seriously at all.
She ought to be mad at him, but if the roles were reversed, she’d think he was joking too. In the light of day, the legends surrounding the mesa seemed absurd again, but the urge to put distance between her and the caves was strong. She forced her taxed body to move forward. Clash followed her deeper into the woods.
Limping along, she ignored her friend’s confused and irritated inquiries as to why they were leaving the mesa when their intent was to explore it. Feeling hot and shivery at the same time she tore off her headgear and flung it into the brambles.
“I’m done with spelunking!” she vowed in disgust, tears of frustration working their way to the surface. Leaves crunched beneath her feet. Breaths came in jagged spasm. “If I never go back to Queen’s Mesa again it’ll be too soon!”
“What?!” Clash threw up his palms. “Don’t tell me you went to the pool without me!”
“Be glad you didn’t go,” Glory said, brushing away a tear. “It was awful!”
“Are you hurt?”
“N-n-no.” Glory’s chest spasmed as she fought to gain control.
“Then I’m really honked off. We’ve been planning this for weeks. And I’m ready to spelunk.”
“I’m never going back. The Hoogula is for real.”
“Now I know you’re just trying to be funny.”
Glory hugged herself. Her teeth chattered uncontrollable.
“Oh, bloody gut bucket, you have the Cold Crazies!” Clash flipped open his Sliver and studied the screen to do a search. “That’s what you get for going without me. That was a really foolish thing to do.”
“You don’t understand. It was real. Everything was totally real. Now nothing is the same. I can feel it. Something’s different. Something important.”
“You’re babbling and not making any sense.” Clash held out his screen for Glory to read. “That’s a classic symptom—see. Cold Crazies, yep, that’s what’s real.” He took off his camouflage jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders.
“I’m not cold and I’m not crazy!” Glory shoved the Sliver out of her face, but kept the jacket. There’s something alive in there and it tried to kill me.”
“If you’re not cold it’s worse than I thought.” Clash studied his screen some more, tip of tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth. “People about to freeze to death often feel warm. They sometimes take off all their clothes. It’s called paradoxical undressing. Are you feeling the urge to take off your clothes, Glory?”
“Yes,” Glory said between clenched teeth. Fingers splayed she made a move toward Clash. “I feel the urge to take off my right sock and strangle you with it!”
“Whoa there, Glo.” Clash was shorter and weighed less than Glory. She could easily take him down. He wisely backed away a step, holding up the fishing pole like a sword. “I know it’s the Cold Crazies talking, so I forgive you, but if you take another step forward, I’ll whip you with this thing.”
“This conversation tires me,” Glory said, feeling all weird and tingly inside her chest.
Maybe she ought to let Clash see it, proving everything.
But what if it failed to spark again? Unable to bear it if her best friend doubted its magic, she lost the nerve. “Stay away from the mesa.” Glory ran backward a little ways. “Sorry about everything.” With that, she darted into the trees.
“You’re not well!” He cupped a hand to his mouth, calling after her. “At least let me walk you home!”
“Don’t follow me.”
Her friend’s voice echoed through the old trees, calling her name, and after a while sounded no more.
The unseasonable warm air caught a nip as the sun disappeared behind the clouds. Glory ran deep into a thicket, over a creek, and into a small clearing. Ditching Clash like that made her feel bad, but the need to be alone with her new find took precedence.
Her fingers were still frozen tight around the flashlight. After peeling them away, she crouched on the ground next to her backpack. What if the rock had been a figment of her imagination? If the mystical experience turned out to be the work of the cold crazies, she’d feel relieved—yes? On second thought— no.
Slowly she opened the zipper.
And there, nestled among the coils of rope, was the magnificent stone.
Glory dropped to her knees. She licked her lips and braced for another light show, but when she pulled it out of the bag there was no explosion, no pleasure or pain, not even a single spark.
Tension drained, yet she felt crushed at the same time. Easing herself into a seated position, she set the stone in her lap, resting one palm on its cool surface. What if the rock’s mystical powers only worked only at certain times?
“What are you?” she asked the stone.
At first glance, the rock’s surface had an onyx hue. Under the dim sunlight, more colors emerged. Depending on how the thing was rotated, blacks, grays and blues merged and separated from one another.
Indigo was its true color, she decided. It had a silky feel, yet seemed hard as metal. Fancying herself a budding geologist, Glory held the rock to eye level and got out a magnifying glass.
First guess was that it was slate, but that was ruled out quickly. No visible crystals. No visible grains or veins. Her tongue flicked from one corner of her mouth to the other as her brain worked. The rock was made of lightweight material. Could it be lava rock? Maybe, there’s no bubbles, but sometimes lava rock doesn’t have any. She rubbed it with sandpaper from the bag. No particles came loose. Could it be marble? No, too light.
Is it hollow? She rapped on it with knuckles, but it gave a solid thud. Weird, but no matter, she thought, some mysteries aren’t meant to be solved right away.