This is the opening to the novel in progress for National Novel Writing Month. Track my progress with the meter on the left. A slow start this week, but we’ve had some website issues that needed attention. I’m not worried–I’ve arranged for two four-day weekends and a five-day Thanksgiving break.
50,000 words? No problem.
The cool morning air was a tonic to Tom Hardin’s aching head, an artifact from a night of too much beer, smoke, and shouting at the television during the Clemson basketball game the night before. A little quiet time out on the water at Lake Warren with Moose, his bull mastiff, always worked wonders. With a little luck, he’d bring in a bigmouth worth keeping before getting home to work on the new deck. Tom looked forward to the coming summer evenings on the deck with a bottle of cold beer.
Well, maybe a cup of coffee. He promised Rhonda he’d cut back on the beer.
Tom had launched from this ramp so often, he could do it with his eyes closed. Good thing. His early start had beaten the sunrise by several hours this morning. Mist hung in the air like smoke over a Civil War battleground, hugging the trees and muffling sound. The earthy scent of the wet ground around the reservoir lake was perfume to his nose. It was Tom’s favorite time of day.
Moose sauntered up and stared out over the lake as if analyzing the odds of success. He sniffed at the breeze and then turned his brown eyes to Tom.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m hurrying,” Tom said, although he knew that Moose didn’t hurry for much of anything. Even rabbits got a free pass through the Hardins’ back yard. Moose was an old man in dog years, and he took life with an old man’s stoic patience. You get to the final destination soon enough. No need to rush all the way there.
The twelve-foot jon boat slipped off the trailer and into the still water with barely a splash. Tom waded into the ankle-deep water, hoisted one leg over the side and then lifted himself into the boat.
“Come on, now,” he said to Moose. Wagging his tail, the big dog splashed into the lake after his master. With practiced skill, the mastiff flopped his paws over the gunwale and waited for Tom to lean against the opposite side for balance before launching himself out of the water and into the boat.
Although an eight-horsepower motor in good working order was mounted astern, Tom unlimbered the oars, maneuvered the boat around and began pulling toward the center of the man-made lake. No need to spoil the stillness of the misty pre-dawn.
Tom rowed until the moon glinting off the back of his Suburban was nothing more than the glow of a candle, flickering in time to the rhythm of the water beneath the boat. He brought the oars into the boat, lifted his rod and reel from the bottom of the boat, and cast the spinning lure in the general direction of the shore. Then he leaned the rod against the boat while he opened a battered green thermos and poured coffee into a spill-proof travel mug.
This was his favorite place: Alone on the water to enjoy the serenity of the pre-dawn hush–well, alone except for Moose, who seemed to understand that certain times of day called for a reverent silence. That was something most humans couldn’t grasp.
Except this morning. Moose was restless. He normally lay with his head in his paws, waiting patiently for Tom to decide it was time to head for shore and go home. Instead, he looked at Tom with searching eyes, as though asking his master if he, too, sensed that something was wrong.
Tom frowned and took another sip of his coffee, watching quietly as Moose slowly raised himself to a sitting position, clumsily shifting his weight to keep from rocking the boat.
“What’s up, boy?” Tom followed his dog’s gaze toward shore. The only sounds were occasional peeps from a cricket or a persistent frog who hadn’t given up on his search for a mate. Still, Moose searched the shoreline twenty yards distant, certain that something of interest lurked among the grass and cattails along the shore.
“Muskrat? What is it?” Though he saw nothing, Tom had no doubt that Moose had picked up on something in the darkness. The big dog was old, but he hadn’t lost his hearing.
Gradually, Tom’s eyes picked out a small, glowing shape, partially obscured by the rushes. It was a rectangle, more tall than wide, leaning to one side. It looked like an old gravestone catching the moonlight.
Tom grunted. “Didn’t know there was any graveyard around here.” It was possible, but not likely. People had been marking graves in South Carolina for over three hundred years, but any cemeteries in the area would have been moved before Lake Warren was filled.
Curious, Tom set his coffee back into the cup holder, grabbed the oars and dipped them into the water, pulling for shore. Less than a minute later, a soft scraping against the bottom of the boat signaled their arrival.
Tom swiveled in his seat to get a look at the object. It might have been a headstone. The shadows scratched across its face had an order to them that wasn’t natural, but he couldn’t make out the words.
On impulse, Tom decided to take a look. “Come on, fella,” he said to Moose, dropping over the side and into the shallow water. “Bass won’t be hitting for another hour anyway.”
Instead of following, Moose growled low in his throat, staring past Tom into the darkness.
Tom followed the dog’s gaze over his shoulder, but even with the full moon he couldn’t see anything but trees.
“Getting careful in your old age, huh?” Tom shook his head and waded ashore, pulling the boat behind him until it was far enough aground to stay put. “All right, wait there.”
The stone was about six feet from the water’s edge. It definitely was not a gravestone–it was too unevenly shaped and had none of the usual religious symbols. It did look old, though. Very weathered, stained from hundreds of years exposed to the elements. Maybe water, too. Things had been dry the last couple of seasons and the lake had dropped a bit.
Tom rubbed at the stone with a calloused hand, trying to get a feel for what was carved into the surface. It was about three feet tall and half as wide, cool and surprisingly smooth to the touch. It felt like granite, which was a surprise. Not that granite was rare in these parts; some of the best in the world was quarried a couple of hours west, over in Georgia. The surprise was finding carved granite that looked older than the colony of South Carolina. Granite was so hard that even the best steel tools weren’t very efficient at cutting it.
“What do you make of this, Moose?” Tom squatted in front of the stone, trying to figure out how this stone came to be there. Moose growled again, a little louder.
“Hush, buddy, you’ll scare the bass before we even get started.” Squinting again, Tom pulled a penlight from the pocket of his flannel shirt, thumbed the button on its base and played the light across the face of the stone, adjusting the angle of the beam to let the shadows highlight the strange markings.
The marks were roughly carved, covering the front of the stone, and unlike anything Tom had ever seen. They didn’t look like Indian glyphs. More like writing, but it was the weird sort of chicken scratch you’d see in a museum.
“If I didn’t know better,” Tom said, “I’d say it looks like…”
A sharp bark from Moose startled Tom and he looked over his shoulder again, annoyed. Before he could tell Moose to be quiet, Tom stopped, mouth open, surprised that his dog was standing in the boat. Moose still stared past Tom into the darkness, teeth bared, a menacing growl rumbling deep in his throat.
Without warning, Moose leaped from the boat and bounded past Tom, moving faster than he had in years. Stunned, Tom turned so quickly to follow that he lost his balance and fell backward, bumping up against the stone.
Just out of sight, obscured by cattails and low shrubs, a blinding flash of light was immediately followed by a deafening crack! Gunfire?
Tom jumped to his feet and lunged into the brush after Moose, enraged that some idiot hunter might have taken a shot at his dog. Moose was a better friend than most of the humans Tom knew, and heaven help the man who…
The bitter stink of charred meat hit his nose like a fist. In a small clearing not fifteen feet ahead, Tom could just make out a smoking mound of…something. The smoldering mass reeked of scorched hair. With a shock, Tom realized that he was looking at the blackened remains of his dog.
“You should have listened to your dog. They always know.” A tall, athletic man with short dark hair stepped into the clearing. In the darkness, he appeared to be wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt and jeans. Before Tom could react, the man raised his hand in Tom’s direction.
Light, searing and irresistible, was the last thing Tom saw.
“Hebrew,” the man said, completing the thought of the one he’d just reduced to a smoking mass of flesh and bone. He stepped over the remains without looking as he made his way toward the stone at the water’s edge. “The carvings are Hebrew.”