I’m not squeamish at the sight of blood, exactly, but I wouldn’t say I’m super cool with the idea of it emerging from the ground and coating the earth. And if all I wanted was to spend some damn time with my girlfriend (and maybe encourage her to spend time with me in public, too) and get through high school, it’d probably be even less welcome. But that’s Lea’s situation in Bleeding Earth, Kaitlin Ward’s debut, which releases on February 9. And if that makes you say “Oh, my God, I need this” as much as it does me, then you definitely want to check out this exclusive excerpt.
I drape my arm around a towerlike gravestone, watching my best friend hover at the cemetery’s edge. She’s lived across from this graveyard her entire life, and still, she’s terrified of it. Like skeletons might crawl out from the coffins below the soil and wrap their bony fingers around her ankles.
“Hillary, come on!” I shout. “I promise, the cemetery will not hurt you.”
She takes a grudging step forward.
I gasp theatrically and stumble like something’s just grabbed me. She shrieks and shuffles back toward the edge of the road.
“You’re so easy it’s almost not even fun,” I say, laughing.
She glares at me, sweeping fawn-colored bangs away from her eyes. “I so do not love you right now.”
“Just get over here so we can get this done.”
I’m torn between exasperation and amusement. Hillary truly is terrified of cemeteries. She’s not faking to be cute or whatever. But I’m only so patient, and we’re here for a reason.
Her reason. She’s getting tracings of the gravestones of her local ancestors as part of her family history project.
At first she takes baby steps into the cemetery, tugging anxiously on her lip ring. We both have them; we dared each other last year, to the non-amusement of our mothers.
Finally, she makes it past the first row of graves, striding toward me with intense purpose. I consider pretending to be attacked by a dead person again, but decide it’s not in my best interest to traumatize her more.
“See?” I smile when she reaches me. “Still alive.”
“Oh hush. And hold this.”
She hands me a fat crayon, its wrapper peeled off. Then she holds the tracing paper over the face of a gravestone. I rub the side of the crayon back and forth over it until I have a cerulean outline surrounding the name and dates of one of Hillary’s ancestors.
We move on to the next, and the next. She’s still tense, but I’m kind of enjoying this. It’s April; we haven’t had much spring so far, and today is so warm, I almost wore my flipflops
for the first time this year. The new grass surrounding the graves is an enthusiastic shade of green, and the brook that runs through the cemetery is swollen with melted snow. I’m just happy to be outdoors, even if it’s here.
We’ve wandered pretty far in now, but the longer we’re among the graves without incident, the more Hillary relaxes. Her shoulders lose their arch of tension; her eyes stop darting around like she’s expecting to see a ghost. She even starts making jokes about the names of her ancestors.
“Immersion therapy,” I tell her. “We should come here every day and cure your fear.”
She laughs. “Maybe.”
I scrub the crayon over her last piece of tracing paper. She admires our work and rolls it up carefully around the outside of all the others.
“Ms. Hartman better give me an A on this project,” she says, patting the smooth granite top of the gravestone.
“I’m sure she will. And you survived the cemetery. No creepy dead girls sprang forth from their eternal resting places to drag you to the underworld.”
She smirks. “So far.”
We start back toward her house, which perches on a small hill across the street. I wish we could go hiking now, since it’s such a beautiful day, but if I even hint at suggesting it,
she’ll get all guilty and cancel her already-made plans with her boyfriend. She’s really weird about putting friends before relationships. Which is nice, except when it loses her the boyfriend.
When we were in ninth grade, she saw something on TV about how you’ll regret lost friendships more than lost romantic opportunities, and she’s really taken it to heart. I think she’s probably right; no one has impacted my life more than my best friend. But her last boyfriend broke up with her after she cancelled three dates in a row for friend “emergencies,” and I don’t want to be the cause if it happens again. Sometimes I wonder if she doesn’t use this whole friends-first-no-matter-what idea to keep them from getting too close. If maybe falling in love is scary. She rolls her eyes and changes the subject any time I suggest such a thing, though.
We’ve almost reached the front of the cemetery when I step in something mushy. This far from the stream, I wasn’t paying attention for mud.
“Hey, Hill, look out, it’s . . .” I trail off because what’s smeared on the heel of my shoe isn’t mud. It’s darker. It’s red.
“What happened?” Hillary’s voice has an edge again.
“I don’t know. Something weird’s on my shoe.”
I crouch and inspect the ground. The grass is slick with a reddish-copper substance.
“Blood,” I say aloud. “I just stepped in fucking blood.”
“What the hell?” Hillary squats beside me. “Dude. Look, it’s all over.”
She’s right. Blood is oozing up out of the ground in front of this gravestone. Tiny beads like grisly dewdrops, glittering on the bright blades of grass. The longer I look, the plumper the beads become. They push together, forming miniature blood puddles.
“Is this even possible?” I back away slowly, toward the road, toward Hillary’s house.
“I don’t know. Could the grave be . . . fresh?”
I wrinkle my nose. It’s a recently erected stone, but they take the blood out of corpses before they bury them. Don’t they? I ask Hillary, and she just shrugs. “Like I know anything
Neither of us are destined to become biologists, that’s for sure.
A cloud crosses the sun, cooling both the temperature and my already declining mood.
“We should tell someone,” I say. I’ve scrubbed my foot through the dirt at the side of the road over and over, but it’s only smudging the blood. I’m going to have to bleach these
shoes. Or throw them out.
“I told you the cemetery was creepy,” Hillary grumbles as we wait for cars to pass.
“This is not normal cemetery shit.”
We run across the street, up Hillary’s driveway, and through her front door. Inside, it smells like peppermint because her mom has an obsession with candles. Hillary’s eight-year-old brother is shrieking delightedly from his bedroom upstairs, and her cat eyes me disdainfully before prancing out of sight, as if he cannot be bothered to even waste his eyesight on these foolish human teens.
“Mom!” Hillary calls, slipping out of her shoes.
“In the kitchen!” her mom shouts back.
We skid into the shiny-tiled kitchen in our socks. Hillary’s mom is setting out chocolate chip cookies on a cooling rack. They smell heavenly but look, well, I’ll say iffy, to be nice. I take one anyway, when she offers them to us. It tastes okay.
“Mom.” Hillary leans her elbows on the kitchen’s island.
“There’s blood in the cemetery. Like, a lot. Lea stepped in it.”
“Near one of the newer headstones,” I add, as though this information is relevant. “It seemed like it was oozing out of the ground.”
It sounds so, so stupid now that we’re in this peppermint-and-cookie-scented kitchen, away from the gravestone. And Hillary’s mom is a nurse, which makes me feel even more stupid. She sees blood all the time.
“Probably a coyote got something,” she says.
“I don’t know, Mom.” Hillary’s brow furrows. “It was a lot of blood.”
“Do you want me to go look with you?”
Her tone makes me feel even dumber. It’s the tone moms use when you’re worried about a monster under your bed. The tone they still use sometimes when you’re seventeen, but
only when they think you’re acting like you’ve lost ten years off your age.
“I guess not.” Hillary glances at the oven clock and her eyes widen. “Shit! Shoot, I mean.” The amendment is in response to receiving the Look from her mother. “Levi will be here in fifteen minutes.”
“I’ll head out,” I tell her.
“You’re sure you don’t want a ride home?”
I wave her off. “I know you want to change before he gets here. It’s nice out. Walking’s good for me.”
“Oh yeah. And maybe you’ll run into—” Hillary cuts herself off, but I hear the end of her sentence in my head—Aracely. We don’t talk about my relationships. Not in front of her mom, anyway. I’m out at school, and my parents have known for over a year, but Hillary’s parents would so not be okay with the idea that their daughter’s best friend dates girls.
“Oh, is there a boy?” Hillary’s mom asks, catching on—or so she thinks.
“I’m leaving now,” I say, but I give a coy smile so she’ll think I’m just shy about a crush. This way she won’t bring it up again for a long while, and I won’t have to lie about anything. Or worse, tell the truth.
“I’ll text you,” Hillary says, heading for the stairs as I head for the door.
As I walk down the driveway in my defiled shoes, Levi is just pulling up. I tug my phone from my pocket and text, Better change quickly!
Levi smiles hesitantly at me as he parks. Hillary’s been dating him for a few months now, and he’s still kind of uncertain around me. I actually think he views me as competition, which is hilarious, because Hillary couldn’t be more straight if she tried.
He isn’t a bad-looking guy. He’s got the standard blond-haired, blue-eyed thing going on, and he plays sports, so he’s in shape. He’s always polite, and I heard him make a pretty good joke once. But our distrust is mutual I guess, because there’s something about him that bothers me. I just can’t settle on what.
I don’t glance toward the cemetery as I walk down the adjacent road. Great—now I’ve picked up Hillary’s irrational fear. It’s just, even thinking about something being killed and leaving behind so much blood unnerves me. And then there was the way the blood seemed to ooze. It wasn’t right.
All in all, I’m glad when I reach Main Street’s wide sidewalks. It’s a pleasant twenty-five-minute walk from Hillary’s house to mine, and a bonus of spring is that there are few tourists. Skiing is done, leaf-peeping is long done, and summer tourist traps haven’t yet opened. Which means Main Street is blissfully free of fanny packs and of iPads being used as cameras. And Hillary was right; I am hoping to maybe possibly run into Aracely, whose apartment is at the other end of Main Street.
Aracely and I have only been on a few dates, but I’m already falling pretty hard. I barely knew her before; she’s a junior, and we don’t have any overlap in our circles of friends, but we had a class together last semester. I noticed her—how could I not?—but she’s not out, so other than a couple wistful daydreams, I didn’t give any thought to dating her. Until the day she came up to me and asked me out.
I pass by a church that recently upgraded its inspirational quotes sign to an LED display with bright pink bulbs. Usually, I don’t pay it much mind, but today they have up the absolute creepiest quote I have ever seen.
Beloveds, don’t be afraid, it reads, and there’s something so chilling about reading those words in that cheerfully bright lettering.
I take a picture of it with my phone because this needs to be texted to every single friend I have.
I’m captioning my message when someone across the street screams. It’s the kind of scream that digs into my bones and nestles in the marrow, echoing as pulses of fear in my nerves.
And then there’s shouting. Not where I heard the scream, but farther down Main Street, where the shops are. I can’t tell what’s happening, what’s getting to everyone. They’re all backing toward the storefronts. Mothers are picking up their children. A parked police car turns on its lights.
I creep backward onto the church steps, looking around wildly for a hint about what’s wrong. No one’s clustering together. People aren’t fleeing just one spot, either; they’re panicking all over. Edging into stores or sitting atop the hoods of cars.
It’s the sidewalk people are pointing at. The sidewalk they’re abandoning in droves.
But the sidewalk’s fine. It’s—
It’s not fine.
I crouch carefully on the bottom step, peering down. There’s something red seeping up through the cracks between slabs of the sidewalk. Spilling over and dripping onto the street. It’s impossible and it’s insane, and part of me thinks I’m having a hallucination.
Beloveds, don’t be afraid, the sign still proclaims brightly beside me.
But I am. I am suddenly so afraid that the fear becomes a white-hot brand, pressed into my heart. And I should be, because something impossible is happening.
The earth is bleeding.
Bleeding Earth releases February 9, 2016, and is available for preorder now.