Read an Excerpt
Jack’s heart froze. He’d drifted off to sleep when a clinkity-clink sound jarred him instantly awake. Curled upon his sleeping bag, facing west, he opened his eyes. An August sun tanned his face, and a supple breeze carried scents of the Rocky Mountain high country.He didn’t know if the noise was benign or hostile, but his instincts told him danger. Lying still, he surveyed the campsite, fight or flight adrenaline pumping his veins. Kevin and Jim’s unoccupied lean-to’s were off to the right, and in the center of camp, a dying fire smoldered. On the far side of the fire was a woodpile and next to it, his 12 gauge Winchester shotgun, leaning against a tree, unloaded. The shells sat nearby on a makeshift table along with various camping supplies. He cursed himself for letting his guard down. Forty feet to his left he spied the source of the noise, a huge brown grizzly bear, rummaging through food left over from a recent cookout. How could he be so careless? Leaving meat out in the open was just asking for trouble, up here where everything from bears to bobcats hunted fresh game. He’d been tired from a long day of hiking, and after an appetizing dinner of Hobo burgers and beans, he was ready for a nap. His buddies talked of heading down to the lake for some early evening fishing. Leaving them in charge of cleaning up may prove to be a deadly mistake. His shotgun was 60 feet away. A mad dash might get him there in time to load two shells and get off a shot before the bear was on him. The scenario did not fill him with confidence, for even if he ignited both barrels at close range, it seemed an insufficient means to bring down the beast. It was by far the largest grizzly he’d ever seen, and looked as if it could eat him, Kevin and Jim with nary a belch. He considered other options as the bear huffed and pawed through leftover venison. It knocked over a camping table, scattered pots and pans clattering the ground. Grumbling appreciative bear speak; it licked at the cookware, savoring tiny morsels. Icy fingers of fear caressed Jack’s skin like a draft from a cold dark cellar, but he remained immobile, afraid of drawing the bear’s attention. He searched in vain for a large stick within reach. With a low growl that would frighten any god-fearing man, the mammoth carnivore knocked away an empty container in its search for additional treats, came upon a cooler latched shut. Claws honed lethal by evolution slashed open the lid as a chef might filet a fish, overturned the container on its side. The contents spilled to the ground, an assortment of raw venison, sausage, and steaks. Much like a slot machine gambler hitting the jackpot, the bear resumed its feasting, seemingly unaware of Jack’s presence. A break for the nearest tree was not an option. The Douglas Firs and cottonwoods within his view afforded no handholds to climb. The predator slurped with satisfaction, blood juices from the raw meats frothing its chin. Jack knew the meal wouldn’t last much longer and when the food was gone, the ravenous creature would come looking for a main course. Him. He calculated a path toward Indian Point and the old rope-bridge spanning Queechay Gorge, a hundred yards distant. Once across the bridge, he would be safe. The moment of now or never approached fast as he gathered his courage, ready to spring into action. But when he tried to move, he found that his muscles had stopped obeying. Fear had bound his arms and legs to stakes buried deep in the ground, leaving him helpless, at the mercy of a savage killer. The creature made short work of the meats, batted away the empty cooler, growling with unsatiated hunger. It paused, nose up, sniffed the air.
It turned around.
It was now facing Jack, eyes locked, sudden realization dawning upon its primitive brain. Like a nightmare turned real, the hulking grizzly lumbered its great bulk toward him, twelve hundred pounds of menace on a mission. Murderous intent gleamed from its eyes. Muscles capable of ripping a man in half rippled beneath its fur as it walked, bloody drool spilling from its open mouth. He had waited too long, for fear now had him in its iron grip and was not about to let go. The opportunity for flight had just come and gone; now death approached to claim its prize. Desperation inched up his spine, his heart shuddered. The survival instinct screamed in his mind. Run damn you, run! But he could not. Like a winter chill, sheer terror crept into his bones. The bear loomed closer.
Jack teetered on panic’s edge, all but certain he was about to meet his end, here and now, a violent and horrific death. The man-eater growled in anticipation. There was no escape. His father once said that if a bear ever came after you, "Don’t run, just lie down and be dead." He didn’t say "play dead" or "act dead", he said, "be dead." He thought of his father and mother, and how he had been blessed with parents that provided him with love and support for all of his 29 years. They’d learn of their only child’s gruesome demise from the county Sheriff or local preacher, leaving them devastated. Jack’s heart cried out. No chance to say goodbye, or tell them how he respected and cared for them. Bitterness burned his soul and he cursed a god that could be so cruel, so uncaring. His death would be meaningless. He couldn’t let that happen, refused to give in. He’d always been a survivor and he was determined to survive this. His only chance, though slim, was to ‘be dead’, hope that the bear would believe it, and being convinced, wander off in search of its next meal.
He closed his eyes, held his breath, visualizing himself as a corpse.
Be dead... The thundering stride drew near, nudged his legs with a large, meaty paw. Steel-like claws teased the fabric of his jeans. It lowered its head, sniffed at his feet.
Jack lie frozen, wrapped in terror’s lethal embrace.
His heartbeat slowed to a crawl, thip-thumped inside his head.
The hairy mammoth trailed its nose up his legs, to his stomach, sniffing. It nudged him again, rolled him onto his back.
It slid its nose across his chest, snorting his scent.
Now, inches from his cheek, its hot breath buffeted his face like a medieval bellows. Slimy spools of saliva found their way into his nose and mouth, the nauseating stench threatening to trigger his gag reflex. He could feel its immense weight and power as it brushed against his chin with its cold, wet nose.
With a guttural growl, it raised its head and Jack braced himself for the inevitable crushing blow. A mighty roar shook his body, rocked his eardrums. A spray of bloody spittle from its huge maw rained down on his face and neck.
It sniffed again at his face for what seemed like an eternity. Then, as if hearing a call beyond human senses, the creature pricked its ears, wheeled around, and trudged off into the woods, its prize meal left unclaimed. Jack remained motionless, disbelieving this unlikely twist of fate. He should be dead, a front-page tragedy in tomorrow’s local headlines.
However, he would not meet his maker today. By some miracle, he’d been given a second chance. * * * Kevin Plummer and Jim Madigan stood by the shore, placidly casting their lines, enjoying the sunset, chatting about everything from girls to gears; two backwoods philosophers without much of a scholarly education. But what they lacked in degrees and certifications, they made up for in common horse sense. They weren’t in the best of shape, Kevin at 5’ 10" and Jim just over six feet, both men a good twenty-five pounds overweight, with full beards and long, bushy hair. If you put a fiddle and a guitar in their hands, you’d have a couple of robust mountain men and a hootin-any. Neither one had any bites yet, but that mattered little to them. Fishing was a state of mind. They’d been casting for half an hour when the silence was shattered by the bellowing rage of a ferocious animal. It came from the direction of their camp and even from this distance, the roar of the most feared creature in the woods was unmistakable. They exchanged an apprehensive look, dropped their fishing rigs, grabbed their rifles, began running up the path back to camp, armed and dangerous; thoughts of Jack being horribly mutilated driving them to the limits of their endurance. Any one of the three men would have given their life to save the other two, an unspoken trust formed from years of shared life experience. The trail was a fifteen-minute walk, but as they ran, time seemed to slow down, stretching the path to infinity. They heard no screams or calls for help, but that could be a good thing, or a bad thing. Dread crawled down their backs like spiders run amok.
They picked up the frenzied pace. * * * The bright orange setting sun silhouetted a distant mountain peak as it descended into the horizon, casting an orange glow across the campsite. Jack tried to sit up, found that his body was too rigid for such a maneuver. He had no feeling in his arms or legs and his pulse had faded to a dead stall. He’d even stopped breathing. Oddly enough, he wasn’t alarmed, and felt quite serene. His mind was clear and focused and for the first time in his life, he felt completely at peace. A warm vibration tingled his toes. It felt like hitting your funny bone, only pleasant. It spread from his toes to his feet and a moment later his legs were filled with a warm buzzing sensation. He felt no apprehension, rather the wonderment of a child enthralled with discovery. He heard a faint hiss, like someone letting the air out of a tire. The vibrating effect moved up his torso, increasing in strength and amplitude as it spread heat throughout his chest, the hiss now a soft roar. It spilled into his arms, hands and fingers, as he lay spellbound. Rumblings in his ears grew louder as the vibrations intensified, moved into his head, his entire body trembling from the pulsating energy. He thought of an angry Atlas, holding up the world, trying to shake him from its surface. Like ripples in a pond, wave after wave of energy flowed from his head to his feet, then back again. This must be what it feels like to be electrocuted. As quickly as it had come, the effect receded, then dissipated like morning mist under a warming sun. A preternatural quiet settled over the forest. No leaf stirred, no sound, no breeze. Only perfect stillness. How strange, he thought. He’d never heard of this happening to anyone before. Was it possible he alone had experienced this bizarre occurrence? It didn’t seem to have any adverse effects, he felt fine. He wondered if there was information about it on the web and decided to investigate further when he returned home. For now, he’d best arm himself. He wouldn’t be caught off guard again. Then he would find out if his friends were OK. He stood, looked around the camp. Everything seemed normal. Hot embers glowed in the fire pit. Leftover flames flickered here and there, licking at black remains of half burned logs. Evidence of the bear’s appearance littered the ground; the ransacked cooler, empty pots and pans, paper cups and plates. His shotgun shells were scattered in the dirt, their supplies strewn about as though a forest leprechaun had gone on a mad bender. He noticed large paw prints pressed into the ground. With his gaze, he followed them as they trailed across the campsite to his sleeping bag, some as much as three inches deep. That was no bear, he realized. It was a monster. He was a lucky man indeed. What happened next surprised and confused him. Looking down, he saw a figure lying on his sleeping bag. That’s odd, who would be lying on my...? It took Jack a moment to realize the figure was he. His panic returned in an instant. Could this be death? He didn’t feel dead. How was it possible to be dead and yet alive? Confusion filled his mind as he tried to understand what was happening. He held his hands in front of his face. They shined with silver luminescence and he could see through them. His whole body glowed with a transparent shimmer, much like ghost popularized in Hollywood movies. Incredible! Whatever had happened, he seemed to be in no real danger and none the worse for wear. His momentary panic subsided, curiosity taking hold.
Just then, his friends, Kevin and Jim, emerged from the path leading to the lake. He was glad to see they hadn’t been eaten by the grizzly. They must have heard the earth-shaking roar all the way from the lake. They looked his way and ran toward him, shouting. "Ram, are you all right!" "Yes," he said, but they seemed not to hear or see him, and stooped to the figure on the ground, ignoring him. He watched in fascination as they checked for signs of life, and finding none, began administering CPR. Kevin tilted back the head, pinched the nose, covered the mouth with his own to breathe oxygen into the lifeless body. Jim placed his stacked hands palm down on Jack’s chest, began a timed pumping motion over the heart. "Come on Ram, don’t give up on us." He put an ear over Jack’s heart.
Still no beat. Why did it have to be Jack, Kevin thought? Jack had been the peacemaker, the referee, breaking up occasional fights between the close friends, forever keeping the triad together. Whether a helping hand or encouraging word was needed, Jack was the ‘go to’ guy, and had more than once saved their hides. Jack Ramsey was the last person on earth who deserved to die. As the seconds ticked by, they fought off increasing desperation, repeated the cycle: pumping the heart, breathing into the lungs, checking for pulse. Nevertheless, Jack’s body remained rigid, lifeless. Jack attempted to garner their attention. Guys, hey. It’s all right, I’m right here and I’m OK. Can’t you see me? The men continued their attempt to revive his body. Jack was about to tap Kevin on the shoulder when something drew his attention away from the frantic scene.
He looked up into the twilight sky.
A few cumulus clouds drifted past, highlighted by the red orange glow from the fading sun. Mesmerized, Jack felt drawn to the majesty of the world above as if he belonged there, filled him with an overwhelming desire to fly. Suddenly, like the fictional hero from Krypton, he floated 50 feet above the campsite where he hovered, looking down at the commotion with a detached interest. The sky called him with the soulful song of sirens, and without knowing how or why, guided only by instinct, he answered it. He glided off effortlessly and in moments soared high over a shroud of treetops. They sped below as he reveled in this newfound freedom. Coming upon the lake where his friends had been fishing earlier, he slowed and hovered a hundred feet over the water, looking down on the panoramic scene. The trees, the grass, the lake, everything had a sparkle as if sprinkled with fairy dust. Its pristine beauty struck a gentle chord in the fiber of his being. Giddy, he rose higher and looked west over the Rocky Mountains. A sliver of deep red clung to the horizon. Liquid rays of red orange light leaked over mountain peaks and flowed down slopes like a volcano spilling lava. He looked east, where rolling hills cascaded toward the Midwest flat plains. A river coursed through small, sleepy towns dotting the landscape. The view filled him with awe, as if God had pulled away the curtains of his mind to reveal the true beauty of creation. All around him pulsed life-generating energy. It seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. Even the earth, in some strange way, was alive. He was more alive than he’d ever been. He absorbed the splendorous vibe like a parched child thirsting for knowledge. Gliding westward, Jack passed over Elbow, Colorado, his small hometown. It looked so peaceful nestled in the crook of a wedge-shaped valley. Warm glows of early evening lights spread from windows of homes and businesses. Street lamps cast soft amber pools on the roads and sidewalks as town folk went about their earthly affairs. From this distance it reminded Jack of his boyhood, sitting on the roof of the barn at dusk, watching fire flies air dance in the field below. He swooped upward and onward, again to the west, watched in fascination as mountain peaks passed underneath, resembling great speed bumps on the road to paradise. Soon, the mountain range gave way to the Nevada desert flats. Gaining speed, Jack rushed toward the setting sun, flying faster and faster, reaching the coast of California in under a minute. He rose higher still as he soared above the ocean, the fading sun glaring off steel blue waves, the sense of freedom beyond exhilarating. No longer was he bound to the Earth by gravity. He could fly! He didn’t know how exactly, or why, and he didn’t care. It was the single most incredible feeling he’d ever experienced and he didn’t want it to end. Nothing else mattered. Rising to thirty thousand feet, he crossed the expanse of the Pacific Ocean in mere heartbeats, his sky-high vantage point presenting him with an incredible vista. Asia came into view. From this height, he could discern the islands of Japan and Okinawa, the coast of eastern China cresting the horizon. With the heady delight of a test pilot exploring the limits of a new jet fighter, he turned upward into a straight climb, began spinning like a whirling dervish as he rose, ascended to forty thousand feet, slowed to a stop, then angled sharply into a nosedive. The air around him whooshed by as he plunged at the sea, then gently swooped into a level glide like a Blue Angel pilot performing an aerial stunt. He executed a few forward rolls, a backward loop the loop maneuver, and a ninety-degree turn at an insane velocity with little or no effort. This was amazing! He wondered how far he could take it. It was a New World waiting to be explored and he was the man to do it. He would learn all there was to learn here in this...? Where was he? What was this strange and beautiful realm? He was sure this was no dream. He was wide-awake, fully conscious, and flying. He was still Jack Ramsey, with all his memories and emotions intact, but somehow he had become....different ...more. He could find no logical explanation for his condition, and it didn’t fit the religion of his youth. He couldn’t wait to tell his parents and friends about this wondrous experience. At the thought of his parents, images raced along the speedways of his mind; having toast and coffee with mom; helping dad fix the tractor carburetor. Small moments that formed deep bonds with people he loved. And he saw ugliness. Bouts of anger and jealousy, things he did that made him ashamed. Times he had hurt others and the ripple effect of his thoughtless actions. A thousand moments flashed by in fast forward, overwhelming him in a sea of emotion. He embraced all of it. Seeing his life from this perspective forever changed him. The soils of his mind now enriched, seeds of understanding sprouted vivid awareness. It was all so simple. The answers had been right there in front of him all along. He’d just been too blind to see. He wasn’t unique at all. Everyone had a soul, and he now understood that all humans were spirits residing in temporary physical form in the earthly school of hard knocks. Or put simply, ‘Spirit Class 101’. Jack floated as he soaked in understanding, humbled by the simplicity of life’s hidden meaning. When he got back, he would do everything in his power to live life to its fullest potential, with renewed appreciation, and insights as to his purpose here on earth. When he got back? Back to where? Yes, of course, he had a body. And if he didn’t return to it soon, he was under no illusion as to the consequences. His physical vessel could not survive indefinitely without his soul if he stayed ‘out’ for too long; there would be no going back. He’d be a stranded spirit eternally in search of a host. It may already be too late. As awesome as this state of consciousness was, it was time to go. Again, following his instincts, he conjured an image of his body lying back at camp, expressed the desire to return, then sprang off at a speed that would make Einstein shudder. He arrived at the campsite, half a world away, in the time it takes to pour a glass of buttermilk. Hovering over the clearing, he watched his two friends pound his chest in a valiant effort to resuscitate his dead form. * * * Several minutes had passed with no sign of life. Reluctantly, Kevin and Jim withdrew their efforts, regarded stoically the unmoving figure on the ground; a cold, dead husk of lifeless flesh that had once been their friend. Their world had just gone from serene to surreal, the full impact of loss sinking in. Jack was one of a kind. Their triad had been reduced to a wounded duo, like a broken milking stool, useless without the support of its third leg. Dazed and confused, they stood motionless; as though moving would be a sign of acquiescence to the unfair hand fate had dealt them. Kevin took a deep breath, the weight of responsibility landing heavily on his shoulders. He knew the food smell had attracted the bear. Now, a careless mistake had cost him his best friend’s life. He swallowed hard against blame. It fell to him to be the one to tell Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey of their son’s tragic death, for it was his idea to come up here this weekend, and his oversight that drew the bear’s attention. He stooped to begin the unpleasant task of wrapping the body in a sleeping bag and placing it next to the fire where it would be safe from predators through the night. Tomorrow, they would carry it down the mile long slope to where Kevin’s Jeep CJ-7 waited like an ever-vigilant sentry. It would be a long ride home. Jack dove for his physical body and smoothly melded back into place. The vibrations returned briefly, then faded. Kevin unzipped Jack’s sleeping bag, feeling defeated. I’m sorry Ram, hope you can forgive me, wherever you are. And then...out of the corner of his eye.... He gasped and almost jumped out of his skin as the corpse’s eyelids slid open. He knew this to be a natural bodily reaction at the time of death, but as he watched, the elusive spark that separates the living from the dead appeared behind Jack’s eyes. Relief flooded Kevin’s face. Jack was alive. Kevin chose to view it as a sign that the strong bond of their triad was invincible, because from his perspective, he and Jim had done the impossible, fixed the broken stool, the third leg now firmly reattached. And their friend, Jack Allan Ramsey, was back where he belonged.