Below are the first few pages of the novel Abenaki (working title), a ghost story. It follows the Pancost family - Laura, Alex, and Jude - as they struggle to cope with the recent death of father and husband George. They've moved to New Hampshire, seeking solace, but discover that his memory is not the only thing haunting them: something in the forest has taken a horrifying interest in Laura's children. Dark secrets come to light, and as the family confronts their own grief and the encroaching terror outside, their ordeal brings them to the edge of redemption - and reveals what lies beneath it.
Status: The latest draft is done and I'm shopping it around to interested parties. If you'd like to see the novel published, please reach out via the "Contact" button above.
“There is always scope for fear, so long as anything I loved remains behind”
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Alex Pancost peered through his bedside window. Outside, the moonlit New Hampshire forest grew thick: a jumbled regiment of pines, oak, spruce, and more whose names he hadn’t learned yet. In the dark they all loomed like giants, blotting out the waning moon with their leafy arms as they reached toward his bedroom.
He gripped his sketchbook, the one Dad had given him last year on his ninth birthday. It was big, purple, and had a PRIVATE PROPERTY sticker across the front. By now it was almost full-up with drawings. He thought some of them were even good – the ones of real people, like Mom and Dad and Jude. He was proud of those. They were memories, and he wanted to get them right.
Thinking of them cheered him a little as he looked back out the window, waiting for the monster to return.
Twice he had seen it since they moved in, away in the trees, watching the house from between the giants’ legs. He was pretty sure he was the only one. Even if Jude spotted it, he wouldn’t admit it, and Mom…well, she wasn’t on the lookout for monsters. At least not ones like this. He wasn’t going to give her another reason to worry.
But he had seen it. Twice. He knew it. And each time he had buried his head beneath his Star Wars blanket and tried to convince himself he had imagined it.
Tonight would be different.
Mom had hung lamps in the trees to attract bugs, which were irresistible to the bats she was studying here. They seemed to hover in the dark, the furthest one marking the monster’s favorite spot: a corona in a clearing, tufted with ferns.
He took a deep breath, trying to drum up some extra courage. It wasn’t much use. His heart thrummed in his ears.
Of course, he could always hide beneath his blanket again. Just in case.
Under the covers was safe, after all. Any kid knew that. He could hide forever and monsters would never be able to get him. It was hot and stuffy in the summer, but impenetrable to claws and teeth and tentacles.
There was a catch, though. Once he was under, he’d be stuck there for the rest of the night. No take-backs. Monsters won’t move while you’re looking but as soon as you pull up the blanket all bets are off. And they were patient. They would wait all night for that one mistake. Dad had always told him, “Monsters are cowards. They’re more scared of you.” But Alex wasn’t so sure Dad had ever seen a real monster.
Mom’s advice, as usual, was more practical: “If something scares you, learn about it. Document your findings. Fear and ignorance are just two dumb cousins.”
He opened the sketchbook and began to document what he saw: the window, each of the three lamps beyond it, even the pollen dusting the other side of the pane. He kept the strokes light, easy to erase if he made a mistake. It was coming together nicely, and he began to lose himself in the details, as he always did when the work was good. He’d just finished the shingles on Mom’s workshed when something moved in the trees by the lamp.
His heart whocked against his ribs so hard it almost hurt, and his pencil skated off the side of the page, leaving a dark streak. He swallowed and tried to erase the mark, but his eyes didn’t leave the window.
The clearing was still. He was sure bugs and bats were zinging through it but at this distance all he could make out were the trees, the light, and the fuzz of ferns. He leaned forward and pressed his forehead against the glass, squinting.
It happened again. A flicker of shadow at the edge of the lamp's glow. He recoiled and snapped the sketchbook up against his chest.
It’s probably a deer, he told himself. Mom said there are lots of them here. She even saw a moose. So maybe it’s a moose.
Or a bear.
An insight, foreign and almost adult, murmured into his thoughts, and he felt his palms grow slick: it might be better if the monster were under his bed. Or in his closet. At least then he could know where it was. An under-the-bed monster couldn’t suddenly become a behind-the-shower-curtain monster. But the monster outside could be anywhere outside.
Please be a deer.
As he stared through the window, the night seemed to grow thicker around the bubbles of lamplight; the dark darker, trees stonelike. The New England woods were old here, untouched by loggers for a century, with dense old-growth stretching deeper into the White Mountains. He imagined them midwinter, caked in snow, with lanky wolves hunting the deer, splashing the white with scarlet that would show up black under moonlight.
After the long wait, the monster’s appearance was so quick Alex almost missed it.
It seemed to burrow up out of the shadowed grass, building itself from the ground, an Etch-a-Sketch shaken backwards into time to reveal a hidden image. As it collapsed upward he realized he could hear it, even through the window: crackling and gristly, like ice thawing in warm water. It assumed a shape that was vaguely human, with a thin torso, four long limbs and a featureless head. But its arms were too long for its narrow body, and it seemed off-balance; the proportions were all wrong, and it seemed to be wearing a cape.
It hunched there. The lamp’s glow lit it from behind: a hazy silhouette in the yellow light, unmoving. Long arms slightly bowed out, as though holding unseen luggage. The cape draped from its shoulders and just touched the ground by its feet.
Alex’s breath began to hitch. The sketchbook was useless in his hand, sweat sinking into its pages. He could hear his heart as his throat worked and worked.
The monster shifted its stance and two eyes opened, silver orbs winking up at him through the night air like a mirage. They glowed, set in the shadow that was the rest of its face, molten buoys in a dark sea.
His mouth began to form sounds, shapeless cries for help that stuck sharp in his throat and didn't travel further than a whisper. They wheedled through his teeth as the thing in the woods beyond watched. The two of them held just so: the creature unmoving, Alex’s eyes stretching wider and wider as they took it in.
It raised its hand. The cape came with it, and Alex realized it wasn’t a cape at all: it was a wing – a great, membranous wing that unfolded from its arm in a translucent black fan. He could just see the lamplight through its gauzelike substance, and the faintest outline of what must have been bones webbed to hold its shape.
He finally pulled in a deep, sucking breath and pried open the sketchbook, fumbling with the thick pages, trying to find the one he’d just been using, keeping his eyes on the thing beyond the window.
It began to wave at him. The slow back and forth of its long-fingered hand was metronomic as the wingtip brushed the ferns at its feet.
His own hands felt clumsy and fat. They couldn’t seem to separate the pages of the sketchbook from each other. A small, helpless whine slipped past his lips.
After endless seconds, he found it, almost tearing it with the effort. The monster continued to wave. His mouth cracked from a lack of moisture, but he had his plan, and the plan fed the little fire of bravery in his chest that had almost gone out. He readied his pencil -
Only to realize he wasn’t holding it.
His heart gave another whock. He could just see it from the corner of his eye, down by his legs. He must have dropped it in his panic. It was out of reach – he’d have to lean over to grab it…and break his line of sight through the window.
The monster lowered its hand and the wing folded back up against its body like a cowl. It cocked its head in the lamplight.
He pumped a few quick breaths in and out, like a swimmer preparing to dive, wiggled his fingers to remind them of their job, and nodded to himself. The monster just stood there, waiting.
A quick lean-and-snap over to the right and back to sitting. Boom. Done. His eyeline broke with the window for no longer than a second. He felt like Han Solo and Indiana Jones rolled into one. He gripped the pencil and prepared to -
The monster was gone.
Alex stared. The clearing was empty. Just ferns, swaying slightly. He couldn’t believe it. He’d been so fast, there was no way it could have moved.
But it had. He didn’t know what to do now. He just blinked, looking out the window. It could be anywhere. He’d lost it and now it could be anywhere.
A thick chill worked down his back. He tried to shake it by putting pencil back to paper, filling in details. His body knotted up, eyes scanning from one lamp to the other, then back down to the book, trying to anticipate where it would next appear, whether it would appear at all.
For several minutes he was raw nerve, flayed and buzzing and painfully aware of everything within reach of his senses as the scene on the page took real shape. He still saw the monster so clearly in his mind’s eye: the hunched posture, the wing-cloak, the, long-fingered hand raised in a mock greeting. It took its place on his page, and the more clearly he defined it, the less frightening it felt. Mom had been right.
As he traced, nothing further moved outside. It stayed gone. The adrenaline began to burn itself out. He sat, breath hissing through his nose as saliva slowly trickled back into his mouth.
Then he realized: he’d done it. He’d been scared, but he hadn’t hidden under the covers. Even if it was still out there somewhere, he’d been brave enough to stand his ground. He’d stared it down.
A tiny gasp of a laugh escaped his dry lips. He felt like he’d earned the extra digit that was coming his way next month. Ten years old and officially courageous.
His breath slowed, his grip on the pencil loosened. Each monster-free moment was a boost to his confidence. He discovered the same taste in his mouth that he had after a really good game of kickball: coppery, clean, satisfying. He could almost smell it.
He could, in fact, he realized. He’d always thought that was just an expression, the smell of victory, but as he began to grin it was unmistakable: spicy, almost musty. It smelled like the woods, like rough grain, old memories. Alex’s eyes began to water from the strength of it.
His grin faltered. It was really strong now, filling his whole room. He coughed and tried to flap his covers to blow it away. This couldn’t have been what Michael Phelps meant.
Then he realized it wasn’t the smell of victory. Not at all. This was something different. Something real. It –
It’s the monster. That’s what it smells like. Oh no oh no oh -
A misshapen long-fingered hand, soot-black and quivering, stretched up from below the windowpane and pressed itself against the glass.
Alex moaned, a low sound much older than he was, and brought the covers over his head, his hands rusty pistons as they clamped down tight and hid him beneath the fabric.
A faint squeeeee came from the window. It reminded him of a windshield wiper pulling across a skein of condensation. He could almost see the hand, one long finger extended, as it made its way down to the latch at the base of the pane.
The sound dragged for an interminable time, an unbroken frictious whine. His burgeoning confidence evaporated, and a scream welled in his throat. He was within a hair of letting it go when the noise suddenly stopped.
He stayed still, heaving breaths as silently as he could, eyes wide and dry. Nothing happened. No unlatching, no breaking of glass, no shadow materializing on the other side of the blanket. His muscles were bundles of electric wire cramped beneath his skin. R2-D2 and C-3P0 stretched over him like automaton saints.
Alex knew any adult would have taken action, or even called for help. But he wasn’t an adult. He hadn’t even graduated to double digits. And what could Mom do, anyway? The monster had been right there, maybe still was – if it wanted to eat him, he knew she couldn’t stop it. Drawings meant nothing when it could just reach over and grab him. All he had was the safety of being under the covers. So he doubled down and buried himself in them.
He began to tremble, his body wringing itself out. His breath loosened, stopped catching in his throat. Then he smelled urine. That was almost worse than anything else. Almost ten and he still wet the bed. It made him angry, but angry was better than afraid, so he tried to hold on to it.
He stripped off his wet underoos and slipped them out from under the blanket, making sure not to let so much as a crack of air connect his bubble to the world outside it. He'd do laundry tomorrow, wash the sheets so Mom wouldn't see and worry about him. He was used to washing his own clothes by now.
The smell brought with it sense memories, not quite distinct events, of when he was younger. The feeling of his old bed, squishier than the mattress he was on now, with glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling above him. The smell of his old school's gymnasium, lacquer and sweat. Daddy's stubble like sandpaper on his cheek.
A little adrenaline still buzzed within him, but already he felt his muscles uncrimping as post-panic exhaustion seeped towards the dark of sleep. The sense memories began to melt into one another, rhythmic, gaining independence as his subconscious took over for the night. Stubble to sand to clay to clams to baking to brownies to warm to -
He fell asleep, as he had every night since they moved last week to Abenaki, New Hampshire, wrapped airtight beneath the Star Wars blanket. Outside the forest yawned and sighed in the dark, old as anything.