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Novel excerpt from MAZE OF MOMENTS

September 18, 2011

To give myself some motivation to keep working on the revision, I’m posting an excerpt of the novel I’m currently revising (again) to try to get it ready to query agents. Any and all critiques are welcome. This is the first eight pages of my novel Maze of Moments, a modern faerie story.

***

Forget writer’s block, artist’s block was the real bitch. Zeva Couran shut the door of her house and studio, locked the deadbolt with her key, and took a deep breath. She’d spent the past hour and a half staring at the clay and feeling like she was suffocating. Maybe a walk would get the creative juices flowing…or release some frustration. The sun set late during June in Illinois, and the neighborhood she lived in was down at the heels, but not truly dangerous.

The Rottweiler at the yellow house down the street barked. A crow answered from the maple tree in front of her house. Zeva pocketed her keys and walked west on the sidewalk. After a block her stride lengthened as her muscles stretched. The air was sultry but comfortable, and she could see stars beginning to struggle out past the street lights.

Four blocks and two sets of train tracks later, there were fewer street lights, and half of those were burnt out or flickering on and off in drunken rhythms. No one stood around on front porches. No cars drove past. As she tried to pick up her speed, her boots clumped louder on the cracked pavement. Her arms, bared by her tank top, prickled as if something had brushed against her. Refusing to glance over her shoulder, she rubbed her arms and tried not to think about why she didn’t want to look.

For Pete’s sake, Zee, this is Capernaum, Illinois, not Chicago, she admonished herself. You’re only four blocks from home. Chill. Just the act of trying to talk sense into herself made her realize that her mouth was dry, her throat prickly. An errant breeze caressed her cheek, floating her dark hair into her eyes and making them sting. The breeze swirled about her. It seemed to be teasing her with secrets it knew.

She shook her head. “It’s just the wind.” The sound of her voice startled her and she did glance over her shoulder. Nothing there. She sighed and tried to survey her surroundings without being obvious. She wanted to look as confident and un-lost as possible.

Saint Mary’s Cathedral towered ahead of her, its limestone bulk allowing shadows to pool at the base. The doors were flanked by ornate lanterns which cast a warm halo of light out to welcome pilgrims to holy ground. Zeva stopped walking and stared at them, entranced by the way the light seemed to dance and twinkle. Next to Saint Mary’s was the parish cemetery, its gravestones aligned in orderly rows, like the staunch upstanding churchgoers whom they memorialized. It was a sterile cemetery, full of none of the intriguing creepiness of a country graveyard. Then again, considering her mood, that might be a good thing.

The wind was rising now, muttering to itself. A nameless fear rose up, hot in her throat. She swallowed and swallowed again, trying to ease her breathing. Something skittered behind her. She spun around to search for the source of the noise. Again nothing. The sidewalk was empty, the street was empty, the windows of nearby buildings were dark.

“Who–” she began, but the quaver of her voice frightened her worse and she didn’t complete the question. Her mind screamed it. Who’s there?

The darkness felt like it was gathering around her, growing thicker. She shook her head slightly, trying to clear room for thought among the cloudy dread inside. This was ridiculous! But her body didn’t want to move. A rabbit-like instinct seized it and wanted it to freeze until the hunter moved on. Her mind sluggishly insisted, however, that she must move in order to survive.

Survive? The absurdity of the word cracked through her paralyzation. Zeva turned and ran. As stupid as it seemed, terror pushed her on. How could her survival be in question? It wasn’t possible, not on a muggy June evening within a mile of home. Yet she ran, sweat beading at her temple. The church door seemed to beckon her. Every breath she scraped into her lungs seemed deafening. There was something behind her, she knew there was.

As she drew nearer, wondering why the block seemed miles long, she glanced at the cemetery again, and for a single instant, the image of orderly stones like sentinels was replaced by cracked, dirt-stained stones jutting like teeth that had never seen braces. She squeezed her eyes shut, heard something behind her draw in a loud breath, and snapped her eyes open. The cemetery was itself again.

“God!” she cried aloud, needing to look behind her and unable to make herself do it.

Something hit her back hard and she fell to her knees, feeling the skin of her palms scraped off by the pavement. Overbalanced, she rolled, rolled, hit the gutter, and fetched up against the curb. The impact forced the breath from her lungs. She closed her eyes, so stunned she couldn’t move.

A man’s voice was shouting in a language she didn’t understand. Then he cursed in English. There were the sounds of blows, flesh against flesh, grunts of impact. She heard a snarl, low and stomach-clenching.

Then, very clearly, the man’s voice said, “Te exigo!

There was silence.

Zeva lay in the gutter, refusing to pry her eyelids open, partly because every inch of her body hurt, inside and out, and partly because she knew she was about to die, and the pain didn’t matter all that much in the light of death.

“Hey, are you okay?” It was the man’s voice. Zeva didn’t move. Had he driven off whatever was chasing her? “Miss? Miss? Oh, Father, let her be all right. You made me human, with human limitations. I ran as fast as I could.”

Eyes still shut, Zeva frowned. Was he talking to her? Was he crazy? Footsteps approached her. They sounded hesitant. She wondered if it was because he didn’t want to frighten her, or because he was frightened himself.

“Miss?”

She sighed. He didn’t sound as if he were going to kill her immediately, anyhow. Murderers probably wouldn’t have manners. She opened her eyes and tried to focus on the large blur that was approaching her. Her vision was a little fuzzy. The blur stopped moving.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “I apologize if I frightened you. Are you all right?”

She blinked at him. She still felt sluggish. She tried to sit up, but it made her head throb.

“My name is Boone Mellady. Can I help you?”

It didn’t sound like a name someone would make up. She swallowed and tried to speak, then scraped her tongue against her teeth to work some moisture into her mouth. “Zeva Couran. Am I alive?”

His face was coming into focus now, and she could see well enough to tell that his teeth flashed in a brief grin. “You are alive, praise God.” He moved toward her again. “I was coming out of the church. It looked like you needed help.”

“What–what was after me?”

He knelt an arm’s length away from her. It was close enough that she saw a hint of consternation on his face before he answered. “You didn’t see? It was a dog. Very large.” His eyes flicked upward, then he looked back at her face. “Your eyes don’t look good. Hang on.” He shrugged out of a battered backpack and rooted around in it for a moment, then she was blinded by a light pointed directly at her eyes.

“Hey!” she cried, eyes watering. She tried to jerk away, but banged the back of her head against the curb. Tears of pain slid down her face as she took deep breaths to stave off the black flashes that began encroaching on the edge of her vision.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I had to check. You probably have a concussion. Your pupils look odd. And you’re bleeding. You hit the pavement pretty hard.”

“Yeah. Damned dog,” she muttered. For some reason that provoked a sharp laugh from him. It made him sound angry, and for a moment she was frightened again. He must have seen it, because he shook his head and reached out to touch her shoulder.

“I’m sorry. Look, do you live around here? Can I help you get home? It’s the least I could do to help.”

“Why? It isn’t your fault that dog attacked me.” A suspicion seized her mind. “Unless…was that your dog?”

“Not mine,” he said, his voice firm. “You weren’t bitten, were you?”

She held her hands up in front of her face, then inspected her bare arms. They were scraped, pebbles sticking to them from the asphalt, but there were no punctures. “No.”

“We need to get you patched up,” he said. Zeva started to sit up and he grasped her arm to steady her. His hands were firm but gentle. Once it was certain she could sit unaided, he released her and rocked back on his heels, regarding her. His eyes were brown and full of concern. His hair was dark, but with only the light by the church door to illuminate him, she was uncertain whether it was black or brown. He wore a mustache and beard with two thin streaks of white in it. Mentally she placed him about forty.

He smiled at her scrutiny. It transformed his face from a stern, almost forbidding, expression. “You look like you’re coming back to yourself a little. How’s your head feeling?”

She shrugged and noticed her left shoulder was sore. “It hurts, but I think I’ll live.”

“I truly hope so.” There was genuine humor in his voice as he reached out again to help her stand. “Where shall I take you?”

“Um.” She frowned. He was handsome and friendly, and he had helped her, but she wasn’t sure she wanted him to know where she lived. “Why are you helping me?”

“Because you need help,” he said, as if it were the most logical thing in the world. Maybe to him it was, but it was hard to imagine. Capernaum was a friendly sort of Midwestern city of about a hundred and fifty thousand people, but Zeva had spent years scraping out a living at second-rate jobs so she could pursue her art. Working customer service and sales floors tended to show you the greedy, rude side of people. She wasn’t sure the kindness of strangers could really be trusted.

He must have seen the skepticism in her expression, because he gestured toward the church door. “Father Lucas is still in there. I’m sure he’ll vouch for me, if you’d like.”

Just the fact that he made the offer was reassuring. She shook her head and pain exploded through her head. As she swayed he held her up, guiding her to lean on him.

“That’s it,” he said. “I’m taking you to Mercy.”

“Oh please,” she scoffed. Her voice sounded half-hearted to her. “I don’t need to go to the hospital for a little bump like this. I’ll be fine.”

“It would be a good idea,” he returned, turning her to the left and guiding her somewhere. “You might have a concussion.”

She sighed. “I don’t have health insurance. Mercy’ll want paying, and I haven’t any money to do that.”

He was silent and she felt her face heat up. He probably wondered if she were homeless or unemployed. That was the usual assumption, wasn’t it? It just figured, she met a good-looking guy who seemed kind, and immediately impressed him with how poor she was. Just as she opened her mouth to explain further, he spoke.

“Not having insurance is no excuse for going untreated. Tell you want, I have a roommate who knows a little something about medicine. He’s a first year resident at Mercy, and I can take you to see him. He’ll be able to treat you without the hassle of the hospital.”

She squinted up at him, perplexed again. “Seriously, why would you do this for a complete stranger?” She almost added, What’s wrong with you? but bit her tongue at the last moment.

Her tone of voice obviously made the second question clear. He had a nice laugh. “It’s my calling. I help people whenever they need it, wherever they need it, as best I’m possible. I have to obey the call.”

That didn’t explain anything. “What?”

In answer he nodded back to the church. Zeva felt her face go even hotter. God, she’d been perving on a priest. “I’m so sorry,” she blurted. “You’re a priest, aren’t you? I thought you guys had to wear–”

“I’m not a priest,” he interrupted, a strange note in his voice. Then he took a short breath. “Lay minister, that’s all. I fall far short of the purity demanded of the priesthood, but that doesn’t mean I can’t answer God’s call in my own way.”

“Right.” She was trying to decide if he was a nice man or truly crazy. For a moment, when she’d believed him a priest, she’d felt better about going anywhere with him. After all, you didn’t hear much about priests being rapists, and when they did, they were usually raping teenage boys, not women. This irreverent thought caught her off guard and she snorted with a laugh that she immediately tried to suppress. He looked at her, puzzled, but she shrugged. “Never mind. Okay, take me to this doctor friend of yours then.”

He gave her an encouraging smile. “This way.”

His car was a battered Chevy Corsica with ripped leather seats. He didn’t apologize for the condition of the car, and for some reason that made Zeva like him better. He helped her fasten the seatbelt, which didn’t want to latch, and then pulled out of the church parking lot.

“So, Zeva Couran, what were you doing wandering the street after dark? Saint Mary’s isn’t in the best part of town.”

“It’s not as bad as Haugh Street or Worthville,” she said, unable to suppress a note of defensiveness. “The rent’s good, and people are friendly, even if we don’t have much money. I don’t live far from here. I was working on a new piece and just couldn’t get anything to come together, so I thought a walk would help me work things out.”

Boone’s face lit in a smile as he glanced over at her. “So you are the artist I read about in the paper the other day.”

She grinned, leaning her head back against the seat. “You saw that? It was awesome. I’ve never had someone write a story about me before.”

One of her pottery pieces had won a regional award two weeks ago, providing a much-needed boost of confidence that she was right to keep pursuing her art. Zeva had been contacted by a reporter for the Capernaum Chronicle who wanted to do a human interest piece about her for the weekend Lifestyle Section. Zeva had agreed, happy for the free publicity. She’d been careful to mention the art lessons she gave to supplement the tight income from her bookstore job, but the reporter had barely mentioned them. It was nice to hear someone who didn’t know her had noticed the article.

“I saw the article, yes. It made me wish I could afford one of your creations. The picture of that Merlin vase was especially intriguing. I did get my friend Fithian to buy a piece though. It’s a vase, about a foot tall, blue glaze with white specks.”

She smiled, warmed. That vase had sold right when she needed to pay her car insurance, and she hadn’t realized the article got her the sale. “I love that one. Your friend has good taste. Is he the doctor?”

“No, no, he’s our landlord.” Boone flicked on his turn signal and they left the main road for a highway leading out of town.

Zeva tensed, reaching for the door handle even though it would be suicidal to jump out of a moving car. “Hey! Where are we going?” This was insane! Why had she been stupid enough to get into a car with a complete stranger, even if he said the priest would vouch for him? He was probably a serial killer. He probably had the priest fooled.

“Just a few miles out of town.” His voice was steady and calm, and she relaxed fractionally. Okay, maybe not a serial killer. “My friend lives on Tower Road.”

Her interest piqued. “Really? Out by that old castle? I’ve always wondered about that place.”

He laughed, and the warm sound made her relax. “Sort of. We live in the castle.”

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