Below is a sneak peek of Chapter Five of my debut novel, The Apollo Illusion—a dystopian suspense for young adults and millennials now available through Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, Smashwords, and paperback via Amazon. In honor of its release, I will be publishing the first few chapters FOR FREE on my blog over the coming weeks.
Oak Creek Canyon
It’s probably about one o’clock in the afternoon, and we’re finally on our way to Oak Creek Canyon, the four of us stuffed into an old 2130 model car with Ernest drooling on our laps. It’s rare that my family uses our car; most Apolloans don’t drive unless it’s necessary, but when we do, our cars run off hydrogen fuel cells and emit nothing but water vapor.
“How’s your mom, sweetheart?”
My mother turns around from the passenger seat and peers over her shoulder. Since Andrew’s father left, my mom has made it her mission to help his mother in whatever way she can. Even though we’re both nineteen now, nothing has changed, and I smile internally.
“She’s good,” Andrew answers. “Today is a little hard for her.”
I hear my mom gasp. “Oh that’s right,” she says. “You should have invited her to come along. We would have loved to have her.”
“Trust me, it wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Ever since this morning, Andrew hasn’t been as friendly toward me. While conversing with my mom, he shoots me a cool glance, reminding me how much I screwed up.
My dad, feeling adventurous today, maneuvers the car onto a random dirt road and drives us another five to ten miles into the forest. By the time we park, hike further into the wilderness and reach a secluded spot by Oak Creek, only another two hours of sunlight remain.
Our spot is surrounded by Cottonwood trees and Arizona Sycamores, and the fresh mountain water streams like music in the background. Overwhelmed with boyish giddiness, my dad begins setting up the tent. He always gets this way at the beginning of a camping trip, loving nothing more than music and s’mores over an open campfire.
“I think Andrew and I will go swimming while you set up the camp,” I announce.
My dad, in his altered state of elation, simply nods while my mom calls out, “Take Ernest with you!”
I always feel silly in a bikini and sneakers, but the shores of Oak Creek are rocky. I step into the water, only ankle-deep at first, and shiver as the freezing liquid surrounds my ankles like a bucket of ice.
“How is it?” Andrew is calling to me from behind a tree trunk, changing into his swim shorts.
“Cold! But refreshing.”
A small bead of sweat dribbles down my forehead; it’s warmer than normal today. Ernest races in from behind me and bounds right into the water, splashing droplets all over my body. I stiffen from the shock.
“Apparently, he doesn’t think it’s too bad,” I say under my breath.
I lower myself into the frosty water a little more, cringing as the coldness hugs my calves, then my thighs, then creeps up my hips. I hate jumping into the mountain’s streams; I always have to enter them gradually.
The red sandstone formations lining the creek soar over me on either side, offering a sense of protection and comfort from the rest of the world. My body is growing accustomed to the water now, and it’s starting to feel warmer. I lift my head toward the sky—a few potential rain clouds are hovering nearby—and I close my eyes, letting the sun’s afternoon rays sink into my skin.
I wish I could tan as easily as Andrew, but both my parents are of Eastern European descent. Therefore, I tend to morph into this horrific shade of red before my skin’s melatonin decides to make its yearly appearance.
“You might want to take it easy in the sun,” Andrew says from behind, startling me. “Remember what happened last year?”
I open my eyes and turn around. “I thought you were still getting changed.”
He ignores me, though. “Flora, remember what happened?”
Of course I do. I’d been determined to get a nice summer tan, and thus spent all day lying outside under the sun. By nighttime, I’d turned purple. Yes, purple. I’d burned so badly, I developed a fever and my parents insisted I douse myself in Aloe Vera for the next week, not to mention, I’d craved nothing but bread and butter for seven days and gained two pounds.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’ll be more careful this time.”
Andrew dives into the water without testing its temperature before pushing up through the surface, slicking his dark hair back from his face. I admire his chiseled jaw line, his solid build, and quickly pull my eyes away before my thoughts drift where they shouldn’t.
When we go swimming, Andrew usually sneaks up and yanks me into the water with him, inducing my scream. But today, he remains in the middle of the swimming hole, and I feel a sense of melancholy.
“Aren’t you coming in?” he asks.
“Aren’t you going to come and get me?”
Instead of answering, he just dips under the water again, the outline of his body remaining stationary. Guilt washes over me and I wait until he re-surfaces, then call out, “Andrew, I’m really, really sorry.”
He shrugs. “Why are you apologizing?”
“C’mon. I’m serious. I feel horrible.”
Andrew opens his mouth, about to say something, but Ernest paddles between us, his head lifted elegantly above the water. I watch my dog make his way toward Andrew and back to me, benevolent in his charming interruption. Growing tired, he decides to push himself toward the rocky shore and out of the water, his golden coat sopping wet, and he showers the trees surrounding us as he shakes the water from his fur. Andrew, a smirk crossing his face, soon follows him and takes a seat next to me.
He rests in silence and I watch the smirk disappear. I can feel his presence beside me, hear the gentle rhythm of his breath, and a yearning rises from inside me. I want to comfort him, to run my hands through his hair and over his muscles, acknowledging my mistake, but instead, I remain quiet. Andrew speaks. “Did you know that no one wanted to listen—you know—to what it’s like?”
I pause before responding. “What it’s like to do what?”
Andrew looks over his shoulder at me. “To grow up without a father.”
I gulp, unable to offer a response, so I sit quietly as he continues.
“I remember the sound of his voice, still, when he used to read me bedtime stories—these really adventurous ones. He’d change his voice to resemble the different characters; he was so animated.”
“That’s why you like to write,” I say, moving my gaze to the ground.
Andrew lowers his head and sighs. “Yes, that’s why I like to write.”
We both continue sitting in silence and staring over the water, wondering who should speak next. It’s Andrew who breaks the spell.
“When he left, it was literally overnight,” he says, and I detect a quiver in his voice. “You remember, don’t you?”
“Of course. I couldn’t believe it. Your dad seemed so …”
“Happy,” Andrew says. “I know. I was dumbfounded. Our neighbors brought us food, the local mechanic fixed a car for my mom. But no one wanted to listen. Their help was genuine, but it was also shallow.”
He pauses for a moment, and turns to face me. “You were the only one to really care, Flora. You and your parents.”
My breath catches in my throat, and for a moment, his eyes embrace every part of me, and I want to give in. But the doubt pushes it away. “Well … I’m sure I wasn’t the only one,” I say. “All of your girlfriends eventually―”
But Andrew shakes his head, his conviction unwavering. “It’s always been you. Remember freshman year of high school, when my mom had her … event … and they locked her in the mental hospital for two weeks?”
I nod my head. “Of course I remember.”
“You stayed by my side every night. Not even my guy buddies called to check on me. I would have been alone otherwise.”
Of all the years we’ve been friends, Andrew trusted me the most to be there today, and I wasn’t. Never have I felt so underserving of his friendship, and I watch as he buries his hands into his wet hair. When he turns away, water droplets slip down his bare back, glistening on brilliantly tanned skin.
“It was unfair for me to have expected so much,” he says. “That’s my fault. I’m sorry.”
I tell him no, he shouldn’t have to apologize; I’m the one who doesn’t deserve his friendship. Andrew snickers at my comment, but it’s snide, almost jeering.
“This damned Wall,” he says. “It keeps me from leaving, from getting the hell out and finding somewhere else to go, where I belong.”
His words surprise me, even jab with betrayal. “You want to leave?” I say. “What about your mom, and me? Do you really want to leave us behind?”
His back still facing me, Andrew’s voice grows stiff. “And what happens if you leave me? Huh, Flora?”
I’m struck silent for a moment, staring at him in bewilderment before finding my voice again. “What are you talking about? Why would I leave you?”
“Never mind.” He shakes his head and waves me off, dismissing me. “Let’s just go swimming and enjoy the water. Your parents will be expecting us back soon.”
Baffled, I watch as he dips into the creek again, and it takes a moment before the realization hits: Andrew is worried I’ll disappear from his life, just like his dad.
Stay tuned for the next chapter, THE HIKE, publishing next week on Tuesday.