Following a decade of nuclear war, the population has plummeted, forcing the world to find a civilian-saving alternative. They settle on the Langyan Series, where, in order to decide international disputes, twelve-person teams from each country will compete in paintball battles inside a specially designed arena.
Sarah Charlton—a depressed, destructive, and anxiety-ridden college dropout—is the last person anyone expects to lead the USA team. Cut off from the outside world, she and her eleven teammates, including an old friend and an old flame, must rely on one another for safety and support. To prove her worth as a leader, Sarah first has to learn to trust in herself.
But then the Series turns deadly, and as the team fights to stay alive, Sarah fights to hold onto her humanity.
|Publisher:||Sky Forest Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)|
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Dwarfed among the dusty golden mountains, Sarah fought to keep her bike from grinding to a halt on the ever-steepening road. The chain screeched in protest as she forced the bike down to its lowest gears. Each desperate intake of breath, harsh and ragged, tore through her throat. Her lips moved silently, forming the words that beat against the inside of her skull.
With each rotation of the pedals, a new insult wormed its way into her brain, staining everything it touched. Physical pain, often the only life raft when it seemed she would drown in her own thoughts, was proving worthless.
The Badwater Basin of Death Valley lay behind her, a full day's worth of pedaling, all for nothing. The ache of her muscles and the sun scorching her skin had granted none of their usual relief. Coasting to a stop on the gravel-covered summit, Sarah slumped to the ground in disappointment and exhaustion.
With shaky hands, she fumbled for her half-empty sports bottle and sucked down a mouthful of lukewarm water. A Geiger counter was clipped to her tank top, and she spared a quick glance at the reading. Although the numbers were slowly creeping higher, she still had a few hours before needing to seek shelter from the radiation cloud wafting through California, a souvenir of the ongoing twelve-year war. She leaned back against one of the boulders littering the summit, stretching out the tight muscles of her back.
Without the barrier of physical exertion and pain, the one-word barbs began to solidify into calculated attacks.
Everyone thinks you're a failure.
Your job is a joke.
You have no friends ...
"Well, of course you don't have any friends, Charlton," Sarah said aloud. The last attack had hit a nerve, and her shaky hands curled into fists. "As soon as you enter a room with other people, you lose your damn mind."
Talking to yourself again? the Voices whispered. The glee in their tone made Sarah want to scream. If only you had some real people to talk to. I wonder where you could meet some of those. A coworker's game night, perhaps?
"Not again," Sarah begged. She peered over the edge of the summit at the steep switchbacks below. One step was all it would take. One step, and her body would be a mass of broken bones and punctured organs. One step, and the Voices would be gone forever.
You don't have the guts, they sneered.
Goosebumps broke out on Sarah's arms despite the scorching heat. Of course they were right. As much as she threatened the idea, even going so far as to slit shallow cuts across her wrists or swallow handfuls of pills, she could never commit. The knife never pressed deep enough; she always stuck two fingers down her throat mere minutes after swallowing.
Spineless, the Voices whispered.
Sarah slumped in despair. Her mind began to wander over the past few days — Cole's email inviting her and Paul to his monthly game night, the terror of throwing herself into a social situation conflicting with her desire for any sort of friendship. How often had she longed to share in her coworkers' camaraderie as she eavesdropped on their conversations the following Monday from her cubicle? Staring at Cole's email, she had fired off a hasty, We'll be there, thanks !
Sarah groaned, wishing she could reverse that moment. "Enough," she begged.
Just one more time. I promise, a Voice replied. We just love the look on your face when everything falls apart. With a wicked giggle, they began to replay last weekend's disastrous game night.
Sarah winced as the memories clouded out the desert landscape around her. Within seconds, she was back in Cole's living room. She clutched a beer in one white-knuckled hand as she sat silently amongst her ZipBuild coworkers. Her arms were clamped tightly to her sides to hide the stains of perspiration that had bloomed just minutes after arriving.
Beside her on the couch, her husband, Paul, was faring only marginally better. After his attempts at humor had fallen flat, he resorted to what he knew best — shop talk. Oblivious to the blank stares of the toy designers seated around him, Paul droned on about the latest updates to his team's self-driving car. Cole and his guests shifted uncomfortably on the sofa, incorrectly assuming that Paul was trying to slight them for their less serious careers.
This is pathetic, the Voices whispered, and Sarah could only nod in agreement as another guest's eyes clouded over.
As Paul ended his monologue about the importance of updating all the major microchipped highways, Cole stood with a look of desperation. Before Paul could utter another word, he nearly shouted, "Everyone, refill your drinks! It's Drawquest time!"
The cloudiness lifted from the group's eyes as they hastily retreated from Paul toward the dining room.
"God, what a nightmare," Paul whispered as they followed the group. "Now I remember why we never do this." Passing through the kitchen, he grabbed two bottles of beer from the counter and handed one to Sarah as though it were the elixir of life. "Drink up," he urged quietly. "We need the help." They plopped into their seats just as Cole finished explaining the rules.
"If your team guesses the picture correctly, you get a point. Lil, you're up first."
Cole's wife, Lily, picked up a marker and started scribbling on a whiteboard at the head of the table. As her coworkers began shouting their guesses, Sarah felt the sharp talons of insecurity begin to loosen their grip. She glanced over at Paul, who raised his bottle toward her, acknowledging that it was finally taking effect.
Turning her attention to the whiteboard, Sarah chuckled at Lily's scrawled drawing. "What the hell is that?" she blurted out. "I thought Cole said you had a flair for art." Through her liquorinduced buzz, she didn't notice the looks of venom from her coworkers.
As the empty beer bottles piled up in front of them, Sarah and Paul's nerves gave way completely. Standing at the whiteboard, Sarah gestured frantically to Paul, waving her arms as he fumbled through the names of the planets.
"Venus, Neptune, Uranus." He giggled. "Uranus."
"I circled the fourth one!" Sarah yelled, pointing at her diagram of the solar system.
"No talking," Cole muttered, but the fight had left his voice. Clearly nobody was enjoying the party anymore, save for Sarah and Paul.
"Mars!" Paul shouted.
"Yep," Cole said, tossing the answer card into the box with relief. As the two victors celebrated, he raised an eyebrow at his coworkers.
"Kicking ass and taking names!" The alcohol made Sarah's voice much louder than intended.
Across the table, two women from Accounting excused themselves to go freshen up.
Sarah gulped the last of her beer, feeling a content warmth emanating from her belly. Staggering back to her chair, she gave Paul a clumsy kiss, then nodded in the direction where the two women had just disappeared. "I gotta go too," she slurred. "Back in a sec."
Approaching the bathroom door, Sarah stopped at the sound of two voices inside.
"She's so obnoxious!" one of them whispered. "I've never heard her talk so much, and all I want her to do is shut up!"
"Cole didn't actually mean to invite her," the second voice confided. "He was adding people to the invite and accidentally clicked her name. Then she responded like, three seconds later. He couldn't tell her the truth."
The first voice laughed. "Well that's one mistake he won't make again. Did you see his face?"
"Oh, my God, he can't stand her!"
Instantly, Sarah felt stone-cold sober. Her stomach turned to liquid, and a numbness spread up her hands. How could she have been so stupid? They hadn't wanted her to show up in the first place, and now she was ruining the party. Face burning, she quickly retreated from the bathroom door, hoping they hadn't heard her footsteps.
Sarah sidled up to Paul at the table, grasping his arm with a trembling hand.
One look at her red face, and a flash of understanding shone in his eyes. "Hey, everyone, we need to be getting home," Paul called out. "Cole, Lily, thanks for having us!"
Sarah didn't trust herself to make the obligatory round of goodbye hugs. She plastered a tight smile on her face, managed a quick wave, then turned and bolted for the door.
Back in the desert, Sarah grimaced behind her sunglasses. This latest humiliation, less than a week old, had been on replay in her head nearly every waking moment since Saturday.
You know they're all in the office talking about you. Laughing at you, a Voice said. Think you'll get another invite? Just for the comic relief?
Sarah's chest tightened as she fought to pull air into her constricting lungs. "You're wrong. It wasn't even that big of a deal," she gasped.
But she knew better. She could hear the laughter as though she were sitting in her cubicle. It bored into her ears like a knife.
"Damn it! Why isn't this working?" Sarah looked down at the skin on her forearm, slowly turning a deep red. Forcing herself to focus on the stinging burn, the laughter began to fade in volume. "There you go, Charlton. Just breathe."
A bright flash of light flickered across Sarah's face, dragging her from her thoughts. A black van was making its way up the steep switchbacks to the summit. The sunlight reflected off its windshield, causing spots of light to dance around the dusty ground. All day long, not one car had passed her on the road. At midday in the middle of June, the temperature could reach well over a hundred-twenty degrees, hardly tourist weather. She stood and straddled her bike in an attempt to keep the driver from stopping and offering assistance. The desert locals were all too willing to help a damsel in distress, and the last thing she wanted in her current state was company.
As the van cleared the top of the hill, Sarah gave a friendly wave to show that everything was just fine, thank you very much. Her smile melted into a scowl when she realized that the van was pulling onto the shoulder anyway.
"I'm fine!" she called out. "Just about to head back down to the Springs!" As if to prove her point, she scooted onto the saddle and started easing herself back onto the blacktop.
"Ma'am!" a rough voice shot out at her. "One second please!"
Sarah turned to look at the man who was now exiting the passenger side door. Tall, his muscles straining at his safari shirt, . Sarah's eyes took in the gun bouncing off his hip and the mirrored aviators beneath his cowboy hat.
Maybe he's just a cop, or a park ranger, she tried to reassure herself.
But every nerve in her body was thrumming with energy. The man's hand rested too close to his gun, his steps were short and nervous, as though anticipating her movements.
"Ma'am, I'm going to have to ask you to come with us."
Sarah's eyes moved back to the van, which was now close enough to see that the windows were tinted black. No, not tinted — every window was spray-painted opaque black.
"Oh, shit," Sarah whispered. She whipped around on her bike and slammed her foot on the pedal, the chain grinding loudly in response. The town of Panamint Springs lay miles below. It was a long shot, but Sarah could guess the alternative — rape, death, an unmarked desert grave. A shot cracked through the air and pierced her eardrums. Heart hammering, she turned around and stole a quick glance at the man. His gun was aimed high, just a warning shot.
So he doesn't want you dead, at least not before he's had his fun, she thought. No, thanks. Turning back to the road, she launched herself over the summit edge toward the town below.
The road to Panamint Springs, treacherous even on a good day, stretched out in front of her. The dusty switchbacks balanced on the tops of steep cliff edges, threatening to plunge reckless drivers to an instant death. Sarah had traversed this road several times on her masochistic bike rides, always clutching the brake handles as she whipped around the deadly turns. But today, with the threat of a gruesome death closing in, her hands left the brakes and held on to the handlebars for dear life. Her speedometer began flashing numbers that had never appeared on the screen before: thirty-five, forty, forty-five miles per hour. As the whiplash-inducing turns finally began to subside, the sight of Panamint Springs rose up to greet her.
"HELP! Help me please! HELP!" Sarah screamed as loud as her burning lungs could manage.
Everyone must be inside. It's so hot, she thought, her heart sinking.
She willed her legs to keep pumping, knowing that now they were on a straightaway, the van would soon overtake her.
No sooner had the thought crossed her mind when she heard another ear-splitting crack. Suddenly she and her bike were airborne, gliding over the sand and tarmac. Sarah had just enough time to stupidly wonder, What the — before plowing headfirst into the desert sand.CHAPTER 2
Lying in the hot sand with her head pounding and her arms aching, Sarah felt the first pangs of resignation. You're going to die today, she thought. The idea almost had a note of comfort in it. No more worries or anxiety. No more sad, lonely days at work. She could just lie here in the sand and let whatever was going to happen ... happen.
Fearing its own demise, a shrill Voice bored into Sarah's skull, Get up, you idiot! You think he's going to let you sit here and give you a nice, easy bullet to the brain? If that's what he wanted, he would have shot you at the top of the mountain.
Squinting into the sun, she lifted her face out of the sand. Her bike was beside her, the back sprockets and tire now twisted shreds of metal and rubber. The bastard shot my bike, she thought. As adrenaline surged through her veins, Sarah pulled the bike to her with hands that were shaking almost uncontrollably. She wrestled the seat pouch open and shook the contents loose — spare tube, keys, money, chapstick ... and her knife! It had been a present from her grandfather when she had been called for the Officer Draft. With a blade barely three inches long, she had never used it on anything more serious than slicing open a cardboard box. She prayed she had it in her to use it on a person.
At the slam of a door, she looked up. Both the man in the cowboy hat and his driver were advancing. She stood on shaky legs and held the blade out toward them. The driver, a shorter, stockier version of his counterpart, laughed at her pitiable stance.
Sarah knew she must look like a fool — covered in sand, shaking like a leaf, and baring a child's knife. But at the sound of his laughter, something inside of her snapped. She was probably going to die in this godforsaken desert, and she could accept that. But after twenty-plus years of ridicule, by God, she was done being laughed at.
"Don't take one step closer, you fucking bastard," she snarled at the driver, whose smirk wavered at the new glint in her voice.
"Beggin' your pardon, ma'am," drawled the first man. "We're not goin' to hurt you. We —"
His words were cut off by Sarah's cry of surprise as the driver, moving faster than she had thought possible, dove into her and tackled her to the ground. Sarah instinctively plunged the knife into his side, but it had barely broken through the skin before he swatted it away. His bulk pushed down on her, forcing the breath from her lungs.
"Nice job, partner. Lemme go get some rope."
This can't be happening, Sarah's brain screamed. Her captor was now sitting on her stomach as he watched his partner walk away. Panic was threatening to paralyze her muscles as her eyes cast around desperately, looking for any way out of this situation. With both men's attention turned away from her, this might be her only opportunity.
With a cry of effort, she lurched forward, arm outstretched. As the man turned back in surprise, Sarah threw her right arm around his head. Her fingers threaded into his hair and grasped the short strands as tightly as she could. She slammed her left hand into her captor's face and clawed desperately at his eyes. She grimaced, trying to ignore the nauseous twist in her stomach as her nails gouged the rubbery tissue.
The man beat at her blindly and managed to knock her arms away from his head. Sensing that the driver's main focus was no longer keeping her pinned down, Sarah disentangled her body only to find herself looking up at the tall man, his gun now clutched tightly in one hand.
"Clever girl," he growled.
His scowl beneath those aviators was the last thing Sarah remembered.
Excerpted from "Wolf Smoke"
Copyright © 2019 Poe Casavant.
Excerpted by permission of Sky Forest Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A thrilling roller coaster ride! With a colorful cast of characters, just the right amount of humor, and action scenes worthy of a Tarantino film, Wolf Smoke has something for everyone. (Adults only though!) A strong debut from Casavant that leaves you wanting more.