Littsburgh is thrilled to share with you the first chapter from J.D. Barker‘s Forsaken (a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Debut Novel), “a gripping tale of suspense in the tradition of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and John Saul.”
Barker is new to Pittsburgh, so we also asked him a few questions to get to know him a little better. You can check those out here:
Fun fact: Barker has been asked by the Stoker family to co-author a prequel to Dracula! We. can’t. wait.
Day 1 – 1:13 a.m.
The chill of night bit at her skin as a wintry howl moaned through naked branches just beyond her window. Rachael pulled the sheets up tight around her neck and slipped over to her husband’s side of the bed, searching for the warmth of his body. He wasn’t there, though; she found herself alone.
“Thad?” she breathed.
With the fury of the night’s storm behind it, the dark room whispered back at her—a hard, bitter whisper filled with the hollow tone of a place devoid of life, void of the safety that came with knowing a loved one was close.
Rachael watched as her breath hung in the frigid air, a white mist gobbled up by the surrounding darkness. She watched as it disappeared, replaced with her next.
Has the heater broken? she wondered. They had grown accustomed to such problems living in an older house, although the heater had never failed them before.
Outside, the wind kicked up, each bellow somewhat louder than the last as if locked in some strange contest of strength, unwilling to be outdone by one another. The thick branches of the oaks surrounding their modest home leaned in, scraping against the walls and roof.
Rachael rose from the bed, the child within her kicking in protest at the sudden movement.
“There, there, sweetie,” she said. “We’re just going for a little walk.”
She reached for the silk robe she had draped over her dressing table chair the night before—it offered little warmth against the icy chill of the air around her.
Reaching for the wall, her fingers fumbled across the smooth surface until catching the light switch. She flicked it on, but nothing happened.
The power must have gone out, she told herself.
“Thad? Where are you, honey?” she said, this time louder than the first, but not loud enough to wake Ashley, who was no doubt snug and still curled up under her Winnie the Pooh comforter in her room at the end of the hall.
With the wall as her guide, Rachael worked her way down the hallway, pausing at her husband’s office.
Why is the door open? He always closes it.
She had expected to find him, but even before her eyes adjusted to the thick darkness, she knew the room was empty. His most recent manuscript, now only half completed, stood beside the monitor of his computer. A stack of blank paper nearly as tall was piled at its side, awaiting words so it could graduate to the other. Beside them both was the antique journal in which he kept the notes for all his projects. She had found the old book for him a decade earlier in a small oceanside town. A relic of the past. Once belonging to the town scribe of some long-forgotten place, its cover was the softest of leathers, bound with thin wire.
Rachael frowned. It wasn’t like him to leave the journal out like this—in fact, he rarely let it out of his sight, even for a short moment. Rachael had grown to think of it as his security blanket, his refuge from the world around him. He would spend hours at a time lost within its pages, his pen scribbling away, or sometimes just reading the faded ink of entries written long ago. Within those pages, he had found the fragments that had become his first bestseller. And now, nine novels later, his name topped the New York Times Bestsellers list again. As of yesterday, he was number one for the fourth week in a row.
Rachael knew his latest story had come from that journal, just like the others before.
From somewhere between its covers was the idea that had led to what the Chicago Tribune had called: “A masterpiece of nail-biting terror—Diary is a chilling glimpse into the mind of a madman eight hundred and sixty-three pages deep.” He had shrugged off the write-up, not even bothering to finish reading the article. Instead, he had gone back to his office and lost himself in his current project, the journal at his side, the clicking of his keyboard shattering the stillness throughout the otherwise silent house.
It was a drug to him, it truly was.
Clickity, click, click, click… Rachael could hear the echo even now.
Clickity, click, click.
“Thad?” she uttered again, already knowing he was nowhere near.
He never left it alone… Never.
This started with that journal; it will end with that journal—that cursed antique.
The thought came into her mind as any other—seemingly fresh, although she knew in her heart it had been there for some time. Only now did she have the courage to face the truth. She never wanted to hurt him, not intentionally, but she had, she knew she had. She had hurt him in ways she couldn’t even begin to explain.
Their lives were perfect. A fairy tale. She knew the truth, though, and it burned at her. Their perfect life hadn’t been earned. It had been a trade, and the deal was concluding much too soon.
A deal she had made without him.
Rachael reached in and snatched the journal up without so much as a second thought, clutching it tightly against her chest.
Tonight it would end. She would make things right.
The air grew colder as she descended the stairs, carefully taking each step in the thick darkness, her bare feet shuffling across the cold, wooden steps. She came to the first landing and fell still when she heard something—her name crawling to her on the tail of the wind, a garbled voice, a snake’s hiss. It had come from somewhere below.
The voice scratched at her.
What are you doing, Rachael?
A tingle raced across her spine and she pulled her robe tight at her neck, a feeble attempt to keep the frigid tendrils of cold air from slipping across her skin.
She grasped the journal tighter still, her knuckles turning white.
We had a deal, Rachael.
She wanted to answer, to shout out, to tell it she wasn’t afraid, but when she opened her mouth her voice had abandoned her; only the slightest breath escaped her dry lips.
As she found her way down the remaining steps, the journal began to grow warm in her hands. It became hot, but she wouldn’t let go. She couldn’t.
Without warning or the touch of a match, the fireplace at the far end of the living room came to life. Angry flames reached halfway across the room, then pulled back with a violent roar, wrapping snugly around the few charred logs remaining from the previous night.
A deal, Rachael.
At first, Rachael shielded her eyes from the bright light but then forced herself to look, to stare into the searing red flames lapping greedily at the dark. She stared until her vision began to fill with tears, to burn, to pain her almost to the point of screaming.
She deserved to hurt.
She deserved to hurt for all she had done.
The spiral wire of the journal’s binding cut at her hands as her grip tightened.
Rachael found herself approaching the fireplace, her eyes lost in the dancing flames.
His last book had come from the journal.
She would make this right.
With a deep breath Rachael threw it to the flames, flinching as they reached out, snatching it from the air. A searing heat flooded the room.
The eager fire licked at the leather binding, reaching around the journal with the hungry tongue of an unfed child, engulfing the pages within a muddled chaos of orange and red. The logs crackled and popped with excitement. Smoke bellowed forth, thick and dark, choking the surrounding air.
Then it was gone.
The hearth fell silent, filled only with the cold cinders of yesterday’s burn.
She looked to her hands; Rachael found herself still holding the journal, her grasp so tight that a trickle of blood had begun to drip from where the wire binding had cut into her palm.
“I want what’s mine,” a woman’s voice hissed from behind her.
Rachael turned to face her, the added weight of her unborn child causing her to stumble in the darkness. She grasped an end table to steady herself as her eyes found the form lurking among the shadows in the far corner of the room. The woman stepped back, slipping deeper into the dark. Rachael had no need to see her; she had seen her twice before—two times more than she wished she ever had.
The room had grown colder, filled with a numbing chill. Rachael tightened her robe, but it did little good.
“I want what’s mine,” the woman repeated, this time louder, angrier. Her face edged into the moonlight for one brief second, and Rachael found herself wanting so desperately to turn away, to turn from the hideous creature in the far corner, to turn away and forget what she had come down here to do, to forget it all. But she could not. She only stood still, shuddering as the voice crept up her spine. The woman sank back further, as if pained by the thin moonlight, retreating into the welcoming gloom.
Long, white fingernails protruded from her interlaced bony fingers. They made a clicking noise as she tapped them against each other at a nervous pitch.
A drop of saliva fell from her lips; it burned with a hiss as it touched the polished wood floor.
“I… I can’t do it,” Rachael stammered. “I can’t.”
The woman mumbled the angry words of a long-forgotten language, her coarse throat gritting each syllable as she spat it out. She uttered the last six words in quick succession. “The choice is no longer yours.”
Rachael flinched as the journal dug deeper into her skin. She tried to drop it but found herself unable to let go.
“Three days,” the woman told her. “And the child is mine.”
Moonlight crept deeper into the room and the woman seemed to sink further into the corner, disappearing altogether in the night’s grasp.
The fingernails remained, though, their wicked noise—
Clickity, click, click, click… It grew louder with each passing second.
Clickity, click, click… Much like her husband’s typing.
A sudden pain filled her abdomen and Rachael buckled over, grabbing the edge of the doorframe. A loud moan escaped her lips.
She felt herself falling, falling.
The journal fell from her grip, quickly lost in the darkness beneath her.
I want what’s mine.
“No!” she cried out, her voice lost in the surrounding ocean of murky black.
“Rachael? Are you okay?”
Short of breath, Rachael sat up in bed with a start, covered in sweat.
“Did the baby kick again?”
Disoriented, Rachael glanced around, her bedroom coming into focus through tear-filled eyes.
She was downstairs.
She was in the living room.
The journal, she had to find the journal.
“Oh God, you’re bleeding—”
“What?” Rachael breathed.
“Your hand, it’s bleeding… don’t move…”
Thad jumped from the bed and bolted to the bathroom, returning with a moistened towel.
It was a dream…
It had all been a dream…
“Here,” Thad said. “Let me see.” He took her hand and began wiping away at the blood. “What did you do?”
“I… I don’t know,” she muttered. “Is it bad?”
Thad shook his head. “I don’t think so; I think it’s already stopped. There was just so much blood…”
Until now, she had fought the urge to look.
In the dimly-lit room, she raised her hand to the thin beam of moonlight trickling in from the window. She forced herself to examine the small red marks spanning her palm from top to bottom, the trail leading from the base of her hand up through to her index finger, pink and swollen.
The pain came, and she winced.
“It’s like a bunch of paper cuts,” Thad stated, examining her wound in the light. “I’ll see if I can find something to wrap it in—is the first aid kit still in the kitchen?”
Rachael nodded her head. “In the drawer next to the fridge.”
Thad disappeared through the bedroom door, heading for the stairs.
From within her came the dull ache of the baby’s kick—it had been kicking a lot lately. She wasn’t the only one getting little rest tonight.
She reached for the sore spot, carefully massaging her belly just as the baby kicked again, this time even harder than before. “Shh,” she told her child. “Rest now. You’ll be getting out soon enough.”
Outside, lightning flickered across the night sky; the gnarled hands of an ancient oak crept over the wall, a crazed shadow reaching with desperation into the room.
The clock beside the bed read 5:13 a.m.
It would be morning soon.
Rachael wanted it to be morning. She wanted that more than anything right now, but even as the clock changed to 5:14 a.m., the night seemed to close in tighter.
Her hand was throbbing now, and in the back of her mind she still felt the cold metal binder of her husband’s journal biting at her. She still heard the strange clicking fingernails of the woman who had invaded her dream.
Rachael’s heart pounded heavily within her chest.
Three days, the woman had said.
Her good hand wrapped around her unborn child.
Thad came back into the room, wanting nothing more than to just help her, a silly grin across his face. “Okay, let the doctor work.”
“You’re so sweet,” she said.
“You don’t remember how you did this?”
She shook her head. “Maybe I got up in the middle of the night and cut it on something trying to steady myself. I’ve been so clumsy. I keep tripping over my own feet. My balance is all off. I feel like a giant Weeble.”
“You look wonderful,” he said, kissing her neck.
“I didn’t mean to wake you.”
He sighed. “I was already up. Tomorrow’s trip, the book, the chance at another movie… My mind won’t shut down long enough to sleep. If this deal plays out the way Del says it will, we’ll be set. The numbers he’s throwing around are ridiculous,” he told her while dabbing at her hand with an alcohol-soaked ball of cotton. “We can sell this place and upgrade. It’s time, right? A mansion in L.A., maybe an old Victorian on the cliffs of Maine overlooking the ocean. Maybe both. Whatever we want, wherever we want… no limits.”
Setting the cotton aside, he picked up a roll of gauze and began wrapping it around her hand. “Nothing but the best schools for Ashley and the baby,” he went on. “When we first met, I told you I’d give you the world. Now it’s all ours, prime for the taking.”
She forced a smile. “I’m so proud of you.”
Cutting the gauze, he taped the end and held her hand up to his lips, gently kissing it. “I couldn’t have done any of it without you.”
Excerpted from Forsaken by J.D. Barker by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.