But right now, I'm on a roll with Smallfoot Alley, and I'm pushing to finish the rough draft.
This little novella has been hard to write because it wasn't a story inside me clamoring to get out. It actually began as two experiments.
The first was to see if I could write a paranormal romance.
Three years ago, I was in an online critique group where paranormal romance was all the rage. Since these stories were popular sellers at the time (and presumably still are), I decided to give it a try. Of course, "paranormal romance" usually means vampires and shape-shifters. I don't even read those, and I had zero interest in writing about them. So I cast about for some kind of paranormal entity I could feature and settled on cryptids. Specifically, cryptoprimates. Big, hairy, bipedal hominids, subject of countless badly shot videos and photos and star of Harry and the Hendersons.... With a twist. My cryptid would not be in the great northwest, but in west Alabama.
The Southern Sasquatch. Bigfoot in Dixie.
Think Fouke monster. Think The Legend of Boggy Creek.
Well, hey, it's more plausible that such creatures exist than it is that vamps and shifters do....
The other experiment was to see if I could write by the seat of my pants.
My sister is a pantser. A lot of the writers in my various crit groups were pantsers. I'm a plotter. To make matters worse, when I don't purposely fictionalize a story element, I aim for historical accuracy in my fiction, even for minutia, and sometimes said accuracy can be difficult to determine. And researching it can take up way too much precious writing time.
In Sweet Southern Boys, f'rinstance, there is a description of the weather and moon phase for Verona, Georgia on January 14, 1994. I located an almanac for that year online and used information I found for Valdosta, Georgia, which is approximately where Verona is located. This is how it showed up in the novel:
January 14, 1994
Only people who knew him well -- and the two boys with him knew him as well as anyone -- would know how agitated he was behind his stony expression. His nostrils flared to accommodate his rapid, shallow respiration. His hands were not trembling only because they held the steering wheel in a tight grip.
A crescent moon hung in the sky ahead, glowing through a hazy cloud cover. It was eight o'clock. The temperature hovered around forty degrees and the three boys wore lightweight jackets over their jeans and shirts.
Randy's eyes darted to the rear view mirror. In the distance, a dusk-to-dawn light cast a circular glow in the darkness and shone down on the riverside cabin the boys had departed moments before. The cabin and the half dozen vehicles parked around it disappeared as trees closed in behind the car.
The story was initially inspired by this stock image -- a visual writing prompt, so to speak -- and I made the first working cover from it. Without knowing anything about the story, I decided to title it, "Wrong Turn" because who would turn onto such a spooky road intentionally?
I dropped that idea after doing cursory research on the title and discovering it is the name of a 2003 movie that ridicules Southerners with the "inbred hick monster" stereotype. Six people find themselves trapped in the woods of West Virginia, hunted down by "cannibalistic mountain men grossly disfigured through generations of in-breeding," sez the IMDb. Lovely. Writer from Ohio; producer from Pennsylvania. And people wonder why we want to secede.
Originally, I set the story to open in mid to late autumn. It certainly wasn't spring or summer in the original stock photo. I found a new photo and made the lovely, colorful autumn background that served as my working cover throughout most of the writing, though it didn't match what the story said (and didn't "say romance," according to fellow members of a writing forum).
A few weeks ago, I managed to reach 28,000 words by skipping whatever barrier had me stuck at 12,000, going to the end of the story -- I'd figured out early how it was going to end -- and writing the scenes in reverse order.
That was how I figured out what the problem was. I ran into it both going and coming, and there was no mistaking it anymore. The storyline would not accommodate Thanksgiving and Christmas, and all that those holidays mean to people, and all the activity, travel, visitors, etc., that those holidays generate. I thought and figured and potted, and moved the opener to early January. Problem fixed.
I went back to my original stock image of the road with bare trees and set about to make a working cover from it. The iStockphoto watermark annoyed me so I went to the site to purchase the image without it. Oh, man, what a shocker. iStock has priced many of their photos out of my range including this one.
Nothing to do but start a photo search. I combed my usual suppliers. I was about to despair of finding anything, and thinking I might have to change the entire theme of the cover when I found a road through some bare trees a dusk.
Did a little processing, slapped the titles on ... and was not happy. The road was more like a long, one-lane driveway, which did not fit the story at all. I would have to composite something, I went looking for roads, just roads. Lots of pictures of roads on stock sites. None of them looked like they'd work, until I found the highway through the desert.
One of the hardest things I've encountered in photoshoppin' is making two images shot under different lighting conditions look realistic together. The desert road gave me fits. I must have done it over half a dozen times before I got it to work. I shortened the trees to make them appear more distant, filled the now empty foreground with the road, blued the whole thing and added the titles.
Old and new working covers
Excerpt where the road first appears.
(Set up: Leslie Hoffman is traveling to Sommers, Alabama where she is to take a new job. She's driving through a horrendous thunderstorm when she encounters creatures whose red eyes evoke preternatural terror in those who see them. BTW, Chris Dupree's appearance was inspired by actor Ryan Carnes, who did a fairly credible job as SyFy's The Phantom a couple of years back. I've never seen him in anything else except a couple of guest spots on TV dramas, but a Google search suggests he isn't real picky about the roles he takes. He's a cutie, though.)
I've gone more than twelve miles. Must've taken a wrong turn in Bristol...
The reality of her situation dawned. She was caught in a violent thunderstorm on a cold night in January...and lost.
Her hands cramped from tightly clutching the steering wheel. Forced squinting and anxiety had combined to give her a raging headache. She could barely make out the road through the windshield madly distorted with rain, against which the wipers were nearly useless. High winds buffeted the little vehicle. Any moment, the tires could lose their purchase on the pavement and slide into the mud-soft shoulder. She and her transportation could end up at the bottom of a flooded ditch.
Is that a light ahead?
She vowed to stop, wherever she was, at any sign of habitation.
It was not a light but a reflective road sign that read "Erwin."
Erwin? Where on earth is that?
More to the point, what was it? Not a town, or even a crossroads community. There were no stores, no houses, no structures of any kind, and no lights. But the shoulder widened and led to a flat, open space, almost like a graveled parking lot, though no building accompanied it. Still, she pulled off the road, switched on the dome light and reached for a map on the seat beside her.
"I make it through this, I will get GPS installed," she muttered as she unfolded the map and searched for her whereabouts. She found Bristol and Sommers, but no Erwin.
"Well, that's just great. I'm in the twilight zone."
Her fear abated a little since she had something to busy herself with besides driving near-blind in the terrifying storm, but she lowered the map when fresh chills crept across her skin. She tossed the map aside and turned off the dome light.
Movement. Outside the back window. Not wind or rain, but something alive and stealthily approaching the SUV. She shifted to reverse to activate the backup lights.
What she glimpsed in the rear-view mirror created a burst of fear that froze her for a second, followed by greater fear that energized her icy hands. She double checked the door locks before shifting into drive and stomping the gas pedal. Wheels spun useless, spraying gravel before they found traction. The little SUV leapt forward, adding to her alarm, and she eased up on the accelerator to move off at a less frantic pace.
Something was outside the car. She had not imagined the the images in the mirror because she heard bumps, like fists pounding against the fenders, as she drove away. Scarcely breathing, she careened the SUV back onto the blacktop.
A glance in the mirror sent a neural alarm through her such as she'd never known. By the glow of the tail lights, she saw something --men? animals?-- running after her. Two of them, long-haired, dressed in rags --or was it fur?-- with luminous red eyes.
Spurred by a spike in terror, she again pushed too hard on the gas pedal. The vehicle whirled completely around and ran off the other side of the road, half into a ditch filled with churning water.
Tears blinded her as she tried mindlessly to drive out of the ditch. The drive wheels spun uselessly.
Four-wheel...four-wheel...how? How? Oh, yes! Little chrome bar ...under the shifter...
She yanked on the T-bar and locked the the four-wheel drive, something she'd never done, and pressed the gas pedal. She vehicle seemed to move forward and hope fountained up inside her. But it was over in an instant as both engine and wheels whined uselessly and the vehicle actually bogged down a bit.
Please, oh, please! Move, roll, please!
Her pursuers reached her, pounded on the windows, rocked the car. Rain cascading down the glass distorted their faces, but she saw enough to lift the hairs on her neck. They were man-like but not human and their eerie vocalizations formed no words.
They would break a window and get to her any moment. Terror turned to madness and her scream filled the night.
Suddenly, headlights emerged from the darkness and moved closer. A vehicle pulled off the pavement near her SUV. The two creatures or men or whatever they were, ran toward the woods behind her and disappeared in darkness.
Someone emerged from the truck with a very bright flashlight and shown it about her vehicle, and into the night, left and right. She barely made out the form of the newcomer when he stepped around the front of the truck, through the beams of the headlights--a man clad in a long duster with a shoulder cape. A wide-brimmed cowboy hat shielded his eyes from the rain. He approached her SUV and tapped on the window.
"Hello," he called. He held the flashlight against the back window and slanted the beam around inside.
She rolled the window down a crack and gulped back a sob. "Oh, thank goodness! I was so scared! Those--" Empty lungs made further speech impossible. It was as if the breath had physically been knocked out of her and she struggled for air.
"Are you all right?"
Deep gasps wracked her, but she felt a measure of calm, or at least coherence, returning. "I sort of... hit my head...on the steering wheel. But...I don't think I'm hurt. I need--"
"I'll take you to the hospital in Catesville."
"No, I just need to get my car out of the ditch and get to Sommers."
"That'll take a wrecker. Have to wait for the weather to clear. If you're injured, you need to see a doctor."
"You can't stay here."
He was right. No point in resisting. She pulled her keys out of the ignition and snatched up her purse.
"I have luggage," she said faintly as she struggled out of the tilted vehicle and, blinded by the pelting rain, promptly stumbled over something and went down on her hands and knees in the mud.
He took hold of her arm, helped her to her feet and led her to the huge truck rumbling nearby. He opened the door and said, "Get in. I'll get your luggage."
Trembling from the frigid air, she climbed up, literally, into the spacious club cab and dropped her keys into his outstretched hand. The stranger transferred her suitcases to the compartment behind the driver's seat and returned to her SUV to lock it before sliding behind the wheel. He returned her keys and she dropped them into her purse and glanced about. The truck's motor rumbled as he made a U turn and headed northwest.
"Did you see where those...men went?" she asked, grateful for the warmth flowing from the dashboard vents.
"There were two of them. Real short, five feet tall, maybe. Long hair, ragged clothes that hung off them in tatters. They chased me."
He shook his head. "Chased you? I didn't see any other vehicles."
"They were...on foot." She cleared her throat, suddenly aware of how crazy her story sounded.
He didn't speak for a moment. "I didn't see any men...on foot. But you can file a report about them with the sheriff's department in Catesville."
He brought the truck to an unexpected stop. Caught in the headlights, roiling, muddy, wind-tossed water flowed rapidly across the road. A sign rising up out of the water read Crow River.
"Bridge is awash," the stranger said. He turned the truck around and headed back the way they'd come, but just before they reached the area where they'd left her vehicle, he slowed and turned left.
Leslie peered ahead and her terror, which had calmed to simple fear, rose again. The road was paved but in need of repairs. Vegetation, stark and leafless, pressed close in on each side, and the skeletal structures of defoliated tree limbs entwined overhead. Like a tunnel into a nightmare.
"Where does this road go?" she said, unable to keep the quaver out of her voice.
"It goes by my place and intersects with a county back road into Catesville."
"I wonder if you could take me--" She cleared her throat and willed her frantic nerves to calm. "Please, excuse my lapse of manners. My name is Leslie Hoffman. I'm on my way to Sommers where I have a new job. I took a wrong turn and ended up here. If you could just take me back to Bristol, I might have a place to stay there tonight."
Again, he said nothing for a moment before lifting a shoulder and putting the truck in reverse. This road was too narrow for a U turn and he backed all the way to the main highway, his body turned sideways so he could see out the back window.
Headed east again, they passed her vehicle-- she barely made it out in the flash of lightning-- and crept past the Erwin sign. For some reason, the familiarity of it comforted her.
No more than three minutes later, they were stopped again by a small, turbulent river flowing across the pavement.
Leslie's throat constricted when she realized the situation. They were trapped by flooded roads. "Do you suppose that water's shallow enough there to drive through? I mean, a big, high truck like this...."
"It's Hatchet Creek," he said. "The water's higher than the bridge rails."
She jammed her knuckles against her teeth and blinked back tears. "I just came this way a few minutes ago."
"Yep, these things can happen quick. That's why they're called flash floods."
Without further talk, he turned the truck around and dove back to the wild, scary road overarched with skeletal trees. Waves of cold fear washed through Leslie's body and coaleasced into a painful lump in her chest.
Except for the strangely unhuman little men, everything behind her seemed safer--staying locked in her car back in the ditch; staying in the cafe office...staying in nice, safe Montgomery doing transcription, which she'd wanted to escape for so long.
She glanced down to her aching, mud-coated fingers and cut a sideways look toward ... what? Her rescuer?
He was soaked, too. His leather duster was slickened with rain. The cowboy hat had kept the rain out of his eyes outside, but the brim dripped. Beneath it, his face, bluish by the light of the dash, took her aback. He appeared to be young; under thirty, and not bad looking in profile. But there was something about him, his laconic way of speaking, his distance, that frightened her.
Why would he subject himself to the violent storm to help a stranger? Was he a Good Samaritan, or something else? He could be worse than the two who had pursued her earlier, if they even existed. She might go missing, and nobody would ever see or hear from her again. She might end up raped and murdered and buried deep in the cold, skeletal woods along the edge of Hatchet Creek.
The drive seemed to last forever. With each bumpy, rain-soaked minute, her fear grew and when he braked the truck and turned left, it exploded behind her solar plexus. By the indirect light from the headlamps, she could see a hulking structure, a shack. A good-size shack but still a shack. And dark, because the storm had taken out the electricity.
"Wait here," he said. He stepped away from the truck and she sat alone, trembling like a puppy as terror gripped her throat and drained the remaining warmth from her body. Her raincoat was fleece-lined but nevertheless inadequate for the damp, penetrating chill.
He'd left the headlights on and she could faintly see him trot up the steps and disappear inside. He returned in moments and hung a dimly glowing camping lantern on a porch post beside the three wide, wooden steps.
He stepped back to the truck, took her luggage out and told her, "Come inside."
"I thought you were taking me to Catesville," she squeaked. "County back road, remember?"
"Hatchet Creek bridge is out; that means Skipper Flat, about a mile north, will be flooded. There's no way out until the weather breaks."
She followed him up the steps, gripping her mud-coated purse as the truck lights snapped off behind them. Another gas lantern barely lit the interior. She had the impression of big furniture hulking in the shadows, and looked around for someone else, anyone else -- wife, kids, parents, anybody.
Nothing. She was alone with a stranger, trapped by a flood miles from anywhere, with no way to contact the outside world.
And nobody knew where she was.
He put her luggage on the floor, again said, "Wait here," and disappeared, this time toward the back of the house. He must have gone outside because the sound of the rain pounding the roof and the saturated ground grew sharper, louder, as though a door had opened.
Where'd he go? To get a-- a-- an axe? What if he kills me and dismembers me and--
At the sudden sound of a growling engine of some kind, she jump and squeaked. Several electrical lights came to life around her.
It's just a generator. Get a grip! You're getting hysterical. He's not an axe murderer. Probably. Now, try to keep your wits about you.
She was not in a shack, as she'd assumed in the dark. The electric lights revealed that it was a log cabin, a roomy and very upscale one with modern conveniences and a host of creature comforts. A man's domain, no doubt about it. Man-sized furniture upholstered in bold plaid or brown leather sat about the big room. A massive stone fireplace took up most of one wall while a huge, antique armoire stood opposite it. On another wall, a big flat-screen LCD television hung at sitting eye-level.
The room was comfortably warm; apparently the power had not been out long enough for the cold to seep in ... or else it was heated some other way. Not the fireplace; it was black, not so much as an ember glowing.
She heard a door close. Footsteps sounded behind her and whirled around to keep him in sight as he walked across the room. He carried nothing--no axe, hatchet, machete or knife. He took off the duster and hat, hung them on pegs near the front door and ran a hand through his wet, dark blond hair. For the first time, Leslie could see that he was good-looking. Extremely so. The cargo pants and T-shirt he wore were not soaking, but damp enough to cling to, and thus reveal, his lean, well-muscled body.
He returned her gaze and she unconsciously clutched the lapels of her raincoat together at her sternum She must look a sight, hands and shins muddied, hair plastered to her head, mascara surely running down her face in black rivulets.
"How's your head?" he asked, his voice and demeanor perfunctory.
"It's okay. I was scared, not injured." She ran her fingers along her forehead just below her hairline. "I barely bumped it on the steering wheel."
He looked at her a second longer, as if he wasn't sure whether her assessment could be trusted, took her luggage and stepped to a door next to the armoire.
"Guest room with bath in here." He walked through the door and reappeared moments later without her luggage. "After I get cleaned up, I'm going to heat up some beef stew, if you're hungry."
See? What kind of rapist-murderer feeds his victim beforehand?
"That sounds good. I had a bite in Bristol, but it seems to have played out on me." She gave a nervous laugh. "I'm sorry, I've been too frightened to remember my manners. I haven't said thank you, although I do appreciate very much what you've done, Mister...."
* * *
Leslie returned to the guest room. The thought of changing into night clothes made her uncomfortable so she curled up in the big, comfy easy chair and tried to read. But she kept thinking about Chris Dupree...about how he attracted her. And frightened her.
She knew nothing about him. He really could be a serial killer, no matter how kind he'd been to rescue her, take her in, feed her. Maybe flooded highways on stormy nights were his hunting grounds. Although now that she thought about it, would she be so frightened of him if she weren't already scared out of her wits by the little creature-men, whatever they were?
Her eyelids lowered and the unread page before her blurred and darkened, but sleep would not come, only a heavy drowsiness. Mere seconds after her eyes closed, an unearthly chill crept across her, as it had in the SUV when she stopped to study the map. Her eyes popped open. Suddenly gripped with fear, she looked toward the window.
Glowing red eyes in an unhuman face, just inches beyond the glass, stared at her. A hand, fur-covered but oddly human-like rose up to knock against the glass.
Terror such as she'd never known took her in its grip. Breath rushed out of her and would not return, no matter how hard she struggled to inhale. She could neither breathe nor look away. The thing would break the glass soon, and come for her--
Breath at last rushed in to fill her lungs and she immediately forced it out again, across her vocal chords, in the loudest, longest scream of her life. Unable to see through eyes she tightly clenched, she heard the pounding on the glass, heard it break, felt the creature grab her shoulder--
Her eyes snapped open to see Chris Dupree looming over her, his hand at her throat. Her mouth flew open to scream again, but only a faint breath found its way out. Her gaze fastened on his face and reason returned.
He wasn't reaching for her throat. He was jostling her upper arm, to waken her from the nightmare. He didn't look threatening at all. He looked concerned.
"Are you all right? You cried out in your sleep."
Her muscles still stiff with fright, she turned her head to look out the window. The glass was intact. Nothing but blackness beyond. No glowing eyes. No hairy creature pounding on the window. There was no sound but the rumble of rain on the roof.
Tears stung her eyes and she covered them with a hand. Caught in the grip of residual fear, she found herself also assailed by scorching mortification.
"This is so embarrassing! You probably think you found a basket case by the highway. I don't understand. I'm not given to seeing things or to experiencing such a ... debilitating level of fear. I do apologize for causing you so much trouble and once this awful weather clears up, I promise, I will so be on my way."
He ignored her apology. "Are you over your fright?"
A glimpse of her dream returned and she shivered. "I dreamed about those men, or whatever they were, that chased me. Are you sure you didn't see them?"
He took a seat on the edge of the bed to face her. "No. That doesn't mean they weren't there, but it does seem unlikely. You might have actually seen the eyes of an animal reflecting your taillights. The flooding could have forced them from their nests or burrows. Maybe you were so tense from driving so long in the storm and from being lost that the shadows and lightning fooled your eyes."
"They pounded on my car."
"Could have been a falling tree limb. The wind is strong. The ground is always littered with limbs after a storm."
She nodded. "I didn't think of that." His explanation, his dispassion ...the soothing sound of his voice...they went a long way toward calming her. "So, you don't think I really saw any little hairy men with red eyes...."
"Anything's possible," he lifted a shoulder, "but not likely--although local legend has it that skunk apes and monkey men inhabit the swamps around here."
She gave him a bewildered shake of her head. "Skunk apes?"
"The Southern Sasquatch. Bigfoot in Dixie." A grin of pure mirth without a trace of scorn or mockery lit his face. It was the first time Leslie had seen him really smile and neither fear nor embarrassment could induce her to look away, nor stop an answering smile on her lips.
"Sasquatch is seven feet tall. These little hairy creatures weren't as tall as my vehicle."
"Ah. The monkey men. Shorter than an average adult human. Simian in appearance but they walk upright. They're all over the South -- if you listen to tales at drunken frat parties and around kids' campfires. There've been sightings of them in Chatahoula County for several years -- not many but enough for the arts and crafts tourists to nickname this area Smallfoot Alley."
"Smallfoot." Leslie erupted in a soft, half-hysterical giggle, and suppressed it abruptly. No need to enhance his likely impression of her as a complete bimbo. "But you don't believe in them."
He shook his head. "Like I said, anything's possible. But no, I don't believe in them. Except for some species of monkeys in Mexico and Central America, there are no primates on this continent."
Leslie nodded, wondering where her humiliation had disappeared to. It was completely gone. It was as if his gorgeous smile had dissipated it, the way sunrise burned away morning fog. Somehow, it had also taken away all thoughts of serial killers and ax murders. What was there about this guy that simply talking to him created a such a warm, safe feeling inside her?
Their eyes fastened. Aware that her expression might give away the faint quivering in her stomach, she had to look away. Her gaze fell to the middle distance between them and absently moved to the window -- and she froze, every muscle in her body petrified in an excruciating clench.
The thing was back. Her warm, safe feeling shattered before overwhelming panic that sent shudders through her body. She struggled to breathe but terror paralyzed her lungs.
She was peripherally aware of Chris getting to his feet, heard his hushed voice say, "I see it."