Brent Hartinger is the author of Shadow Walkers.
SUMMARY: Zach lives with his grandparents on a remote island in Puget Sound in Washington State. With only his little brother, Gilbert, to keep him company, Zach feels cut off from the world. But when Gilbert is kidnapped, Zach tries the only thing he can think of to find him: astral projection. Soon, his spirit is soaring through the strange and boundless astral realm—a shadow place. While searching for his brother, Zach meets a boy named Emory, another astral traveler who's intriguing (and cute). As Zach and Emory track the kidnappers from the astral realm, their bond grows—but each moment could be Gilbert's last. Even worse, there's a menacing, centuries-old creature in their midst that devours souls and possesses physical bodies. And it's hungry for Zach. (Publishes on February 8, 2011.)
Chapter One Excerpt
I felt this weird chill, so cold it made me gasp.
At first I thought I’d walked through a pocket of frozen air, but it didn’t feel cold exactly, at least not on my skin. It was a much deeper chill, like I was suddenly cold on the inside of my body.
It felt like a premonition of something terrible.
But as soon as I felt it, it was gone. I’d barely had time to shiver.
I turned and looked behind me on the trail, but didn’t see anything unusual. I’d been walking to the end of Trumble Point, this little peninsula at the southern tip of Hinder Island. The waters of Puget Sound in Washington State – sparkling blue and mostly calm today – stretched out on either side of me. The whole peninsula was a park, a mix of Douglas-fir and red-barked madrona trees, but at the moment I’d felt the chill, I’d been in a clearing of bright sunlight.
I thought about taking a couple of steps back on the trail, to see if I could find the pocket of cold air again. But the truth is the chill had me spooked. I didn’t want to feel it again, not even by reaching out with just my hand.
“Zach, come on!”
It was my seven-year-old brother Gilbert calling to me from farther up the trail. We’d come here together to walk to the old lighthouse at the tip of the point. It was an old-fashioned lighthouse, built high atop the rocky edge just above the beach. You couldn’t go inside – it had been fully automated for years – but to the state’s credit, they still kept it lit because of the row of nasty rocks that extended out from the point, invisible at high tide. The lighthouse made a great destination for a hike, especially on a beautiful summer day in June with the air smelling of pine needles and salt.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I said, more than happy to leave that strange chill behind.
Gilbert and I had lived with our grandparents here on Hinder Island for almost two years now, ever since our parents had been killed when the barrier at a railroad crossing had malfunctioned. There were only about four thousand people on the whole island, so it was mostly just mossy forests and rocky beaches slathered with seaweed. Our grandparents had lived here forever, even raised a family, including my dad. But they were old now and didn’t get off the island much. As a result, Gilbert and I didn’t leave much either.
He came running back toward me, unstoppable in squeaky new tennis shoes. He was chowing down on a king-sized Three Musketeers.
“There’s a dead bird in the woods!” he said. “It’s grey and furry, but I think it’s a baby bald eagle.”
“Hold on,” I said. “Where’d you get candy?”
He was suddenly wary, protective of his candy bar. “The lady.”
“What lady?” I said, looking around. I hadn’t seen anyone in the park so far, but that wasn’t surprising. Lots of people took the ferry out to Hinder Island on the weekends, shopping in its funky art galleries and holing up in all the bed-and-breakfasts. But almost no one stayed through the week, even in summer.
“The lady with the big purse,” he said, even as he kept wolfing down the chocolate in case I might try to take it from him.
“Gilbert! You know you’re not supposed to take candy from strangers.”
“She’s not a stranger,” he said, talking with his mouth full. He thought for a second. “I just don’t know her name.”
So she was an islander. That was different. It was true there were no “strangers” on Hinder Island. This is hard to explain this to off-islanders, but things are different where you live on a small piece of land surrounded by water on all sides. After a while, you start to think of the water like a moat, like you’re protected from all the bad things that happen everywhere else, safe from the Big Bad Wolf. Plus, you really do know all the people. It isn’t long before there isn’t anyone you haven’t talked to at least once. And even if you’ve only talked to them a few times, you soon know who they know, what they do, where they live – and somehow that makes everyone accountable to everyone else.
Even so, I wasn’t about to let Gilbert eat that candy. I held out my hand. “How about I hold that until we get home?”
With a heavy sigh that sounded like he was the disapproving older brother, Gilbert handed me the candy, although there was only a bite or two left. I wrapped it up as best I could – it was melting in the sun -- and put it in my pocket.
“Hey, a walking stick!” Gilbert said, picking a branch up out of the undergrowth. It was almost perfectly straight and just his size. He started peeling off the leaves and smaller branches. Now that the candy bar was out of his sight, he’d forgotten all about it. Seven-year-olds.
“Wanna hear something interesting?” Gilbert said as we started forward again, him with the walking stick this time.
“Sure,” I said.
“Billy says he stuck a branch in the swamp, and two weeks later, it started to grow leaves. It turned into a tree!”
“That is interesting.”
“You think that works with people too? If I cut off my arm and stuck it in the swamp, I’d grow a whole new me?”
I stopped on the trail. “No. Gilbert, it doesn’t work that way with people. You know that right?"
He turned around to face me, leaning against his stick. “Yeah. I just wanted to know what you’d say.”
I rolled my eyes at him.
When we’d started walking again, he said, “You wanna know something else interesting?”
“Sure,” I said.
“You think I’m gonna forget about my candy bar in your pocket. But I won’t.”
Leave it to my little brother to be anything but a typical seven-year-old.
“You little Nabothian cyst!” I said, which was my pet nickname for him. A year or so earlier, he had overheard our grandparents saying that our mother had once had one of these, which are these harmless little bumps inside a woman’s body. Gilbert had asked me what it was, and I’d impulsively said that it was him, that he was a Nabothian cyst. Gilbert hadn’t believed me, but I’d said, “You know how Grandma is always saying Mom ‘had’ you? ‘When Cecil had Gilbert...’? Well, that’s what she means. Mom had a Nabothian cyst. You!”
I’d been teasing him about it ever since. For some reason, it felt really good to laugh about something that involved our parents.
“I am not!” Gilbert said.
“Are too,” I said, pretending to be serious. “I don’t why you still don’t believe me.”
He squealed with laughter. We’d been playing this game a long time, but for some reason it wasn’t making me feel very good today. I’d been wrong when I’d thought I could leave that chill in the air behind – that pocket of cold air or whatever it was – just by walking on down the trail. I still couldn’t shake the sense that something terrible was going to happen.
“There’s the lighthouse!” Gilbert said, pointing.
Sure enough, it loomed up from a rocky crag at the very end of the trail.
In front of us, the trail split in three ways – a narrow access trail heading up to the lighthouse, and two wider trails that wound their way down to the rocky beaches on either side of the point.
Out in the water, seagulls circled and crab trap buoys rocked.
I hated that water. Those same waterways that kept bad things away, that kept everything safe and predictable, also kept out new faces and new ideas. It’s not like the women on Hinder Island wore bonnets on their heads and accused people of being witches like in that play The Crucible. But it was like living in a small town: everyone was just a little too literal in their thinking, and a little too suspicious of outsiders. And while everyone knew everyone else, everyone also knew everyone else’s business. This is all fine when you’re seven like Gilbert or in your seventies like my grandparents. It’s not so great when you’re sixteen and the new kid in town, like I had been for – well, two whole years now.
Once you set foot on an island, no matter which direction you go, sooner or later you come to a dead-end.
Something caught my eye down on the beach on my right.
It was Matt Harken, this guy a couple of years ahead of me in school. He’d climbed up on one of the beach’s big boulders and was fishing – alone, it looked like. This made sense. He was a loner, but definitely not a loser – like how I’d like to think people saw me, even if I was probably just flattering myself. Matt was sort of a cross between a geek and hipster, neither cool enough to be noticed nor weird enough to be mocked. And he almost never was noticed, not by most people.
I’d noticed him. I guess you could say I had kind of a crush on him.
But I’d never even talked to him. I take back what I said about how I’d talked to every single person on the island at least once. I’d never had the nerve to talk to Matt.
It’s funny how you could know by sight every single person on an island of four thousand people and still not have a single real friend, much less anything “more.”
Matt wasn’t wearing a shirt, just shorts.
I’d always thought he was a good-looking guy, but it was kind of a hidden beauty, which I guess is why more people didn’t see it. He had a rare, but confident smile. And his long-ish dark hair hung down over eyes that were so piercing they were like whaling harpoons.
But even I had never seen his body before. His back bulged. He was pale, but not pasty, lean, but not skinny. Casting his rod, he turned in silhouette, and I saw his chest and stomach was rippled in all the right places. He had the same dusting of dark hair on his chest that he had on his legs – legs which looked particularly muscled as he stood perched on that granite boulder.
For the first time since I’d felt that weird chill, I felt myself flush warm again. I knew I should look away, keep walking after Gilbert, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I was in the shadows of the trees, and he was out in the sun of the beach -- even if he did know I was there, I doubted he’d be able to see me.
But just then the sun dipped behind some clouds, and he must’ve somehow sensed me ogling him. Anyway, he turned around to look right up at me. This figured.
I immediately looked away. How embarrassing. I wondered how obvious it had been that I’d been staring.
I hurried forward, not daring to look back. Face flushed, I reminded myself that I really needed to keep an eye on Gilbert, especially this close to the water.
“Gilbert?” I said, but he didn’t answer. “Gilbert?” I said, louder.
I’d seen him go down the left-hand trail, but I couldn’t see him ahead of me. This made me mad. He knew he wasn’t supposed to go all the way down to the beach alone.
“Gilbert!” I said, working my way down the grade to the beach itself. It was steeper than I remembered, and a skittering of loose rocks followed behind me like a little avalanche.
At the bottom of the trail, Gilbert’s walking stick had been tossed to one side. Not stuck in the sand, not resting against a tree.
The granite boulders on the beach were taller on this side of the point, almost over my head. They loomed up like tombstones in some giant graveyard.
“Gilbert!” I said. “Where are you?”
There was still no answer.
I remembered that chill I’d felt, that premonition I’d had. I’d known something bad was going to happen – and I’d still allowed myself to be distracted by Matt. How could I have been so stupid?
“Gilbert!” I said, suddenly frantic. The waves weren’t exactly crashing against the shore – there are no crashing waves in the protected waters of Puget Sound. But the slopping of the water against the beach was just loud enough that I couldn’t be sure how far my voice would carry, especially within all those boulders.
Still calling for him, I started searching between the rocks. I’d been here dozens of times before, but it had never felt so much like a maze. My feet crunched in the wet, dark gravel. Overhead, clouds claimed more of the sky. I didn’t know how they’d moved in that quickly.
“Gilbert!” I yelled. I thought about calling for Matt, but I was sure he couldn’t hear me, not completely on the other side of the point. I even looked around for the woman who had given Gilbert that candy, hoping that she might be able to help me.
I stepped behind one giant rock, then another, then another. The waves splashing against the beach seemed bigger now – a fishing boat must’ve passed by just off-shore, but I hadn’t seen or heard it go by.
I was in a full-fledged panic now. I remembered the chill, the certainty that something terrible was about to occur, and it made me gasp all over again.
I stepped behind one more boulder.
And there was Gilbert, sitting on his haunches staring into a tidal pool. The tide-pool itself was completely still even as a wave crashed against a rock not five feet away.
He barely looked up at me. “There’s a crab with only one claw,” he said.
I was so relieved I couldn’t bring myself to speak, much less yell at him. Instead, I turned toward the open water, looking out at the darkening sky.
A cold breeze suddenly blew in off the bay, but I didn’t shiver. Whatever had caused the chill I’d felt before, it had been a lot colder than this.
Thank you for sharing an excerpt out of your up-coming book, Brent!
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