That said, I have always been of the mind that readers would rather see new books than new postings, so I have allocated the lion share of my free time in the direction. As such, here is a preview of Moonblink, the 5th Zoo Crew novel, which will be available at the end of this month…
Those last few moments before night descended, plunging the world into darkness.
Perched behind the wheel of her faded ’94 Honda Accord, Kyla Wegman leaned forward to stare out through the windshield. Squinted her eyes, narrowing them to little more than slits. Tried to focus.
Received little to no improvement for her efforts.
“What the hell?” she muttered, easing her foot down onto the brake. Pulled up to the light blazing red above her. Pressed both palms into her eye sockets. Left them there until pops of light appeared behind her eyelids.
At 31-years-old, she was far too young for her vision to already be failing her. She didn’t smoke. Ran at least three times a week. Ate fruits and salads as often as her budget could afford.
Her most recent physical had displayed excellent blood pressure. Cholesterol levels. Lung capacity.
Still, for whatever reason, she found herself in this same position with increasing frequency. Rubbing her eyes vigorously, trying to wipe away the gray fog that would pass through like smoke during summer fire season.
Behind her a single blast on a horn erupted, pulling Kyla’s hands from her face, a twinge of embarrassment passing through. Feeling the palpitations rise from her stomach and up through her chest, she raised a hand in apology between the front seats.
Raised her foot from the brake and started forward anew.
Three months had passed since her move to Missoula. With the closing of her divorce, she had left her lifetime home of Anaconda and moved west.
Decided to, as her mother put it every time they spoke, give big city life a try.
The phrase still brought a smile to Kyla’s face each time she heard it. The town was no doubt larger than what she was used to, but still a far cry from being considered a big city.
At just over 70,000 people in the whole county, she wasn’t entirely certain it could even be called a city.
Despite the lack of stature the town possessed, there was a certain undeniable charm that Kyla found infectious. She had been looking for a new start after things went sideways with her childhood sweetheart, someplace free of accusatory looks and prying questions.
Missoula had already proven itself to be that and then some.
Unlike most of the other bergs and metropolis’s dotting the Gem State, Missoula was a college town. Attracted people from across the country. Even a handful from much further than that.
Created a melting pot of ideas and energies. The kind of environment Kyla had never known. Found herself growing more curious about with each passing day.
Recently a coworker had even pointed out that the company they worked for offered a pretty solid tuition assistance program should she want to consider enrolling at UMontana in the fall.
Just as it had the first time it was mentioned, the notion brought a smile to Kyla’s face. It allowed thoughts, ideas, visions to fill her mind. All that was and would never have to be again.
Like becoming her own person, free from the dreaded label of just being someone else’s wife.
The smile remained in place as Kyla rolled west along Brooks Avenue, the southernmost thoroughfare of town. At just after 6:00, most of the evening rush hour had already thinned considerably.
If such a thing even existed in Missoula.
Coming home to find her cupboards empty and the fridge containing only a few items that looked to be well on their way to becoming penicillin, the plan was to make a quick Albertson’s run. Grab whatever she needed. Be back home in time for Grey’s Anatomy, one of the few guilty pleasures she couldn’t help but indulge in.
With those thoughts in mind she rolled forward, watching as the last of the sun disappeared before her, taking the final sliver of orange light below the horizon.
Along with it went any semblance of vision, the world plunging straight to black.
Feeling her heart rate spike, her breathing grow rapid in her chest, Kyla squeezed the wheel tight with both hands. Continued to feel the car move forward. Heard the sounds of traffic around her.
Prying her right hand away from the wheel, she jammed the thumb and forefinger of her right hand into her eye sockets. Rubbed vigorously. Again saw the dots of red and yellow erupt before her.
Opened her eyes to nothing but black.
“No,” she whispered, feeling sweat form on her lip. “No, no, no.”
Once more she rubbed at her eyes, digging her fingers in past the point of painful. Opened them as wide as she could. Saw just the faintest orbs of streetlights flitting by on the edges of her vision.
“Okay, okay,” she whispered, her heart hammering in her ears. She searched through her memory, trying in vain to register the most recent landmark she passed. Matched it against her limited knowledge of the area.
“Three blocks,” she muttered, “three blocks from Albertson’s means I should be coming up on the old shopping plaza. I can pull in there and call for help.”
Easing her foot off the gas, she felt the car slow.
Again heard the angry wail of a car horn behind her, this one lasting many times longer than the previous blast.
Moving on pure reflex, she pressed her foot down, the Honda lurching forward, throwing her body back against the seat.
Felt her head slam against the chair behind her.
Heard the clatter of metal-on-metal as the front end connected with something semi-solid before her.
Never once saw a single thing as it happened.
Susan Moritz pulled the pot roast from the oven at half past 6:00. Wrapped in aluminum foil, it resembled an enormous misshapen silver football.
Smelled infinitely better.
The scent permeated the kitchen as she placed it on the rack atop the counter. Pressed her right knee tight against her left. Raised her heel to push the oven door shut.
Felt the heat fall away from her calves just a moment before hearing the door slam into place.
Around her, stacks of dishes were piled high. Most had been there long before this evening. Stood at least a decent chance that they would still be there come morning.
Seemed to almost be mocking her as they balanced precariously in the sink. Spilled over onto the counter.
Pushing out a lengthy sigh, Susan ran a finger down the side of the stack. Selected a trio of plates that seemed to need the least amount of cleaning. Pulled them out.
Ran a stream of warm water over them before using a dish towel to wipe away whatever remained.
It would have to do.
Thursday night dinners were something Susan had instituted months prior. A single evening each week where she left work early – or rather, on time – and came home to cook. The kids both pushed aside whatever items were on their bustling social agenda.
Everybody sat at the table.
No television. No iPads. Not even a cell phone.
For any of them.
Finding the time to sit down wasn’t always easy. Enforcing the rules even less so, but through sheer willpower and stubbornness, all three were making it work.
Just as they always had.
If given her way, Susan would rather the dinners fall on Friday nights. It would be infinitely easier for her to cut out early. There would be less stress heading into the weekend.
She might even have time to clean the dishes afterward.
With her son now in 6th grade, an official junior high student, the odds of getting him to forfeit his Friday nights were slim at best.
Non-existent for her daughter, a newly minted freshman in high school.
If family dinner was what Susan wanted, it was Thursday night or nothing.
Depositing the three plates onto the table, she stepped down the narrow hallway leading away from the kitchen. Stopped halfway down it. Raised her face towards the top of the staircase running parallel to her.
Wiped her hands on the dish towel still clutched before her. Felt bits of dried food rub against the pads of her fingers.
“Ben, Mandy, dinner!” Susan called. Heard the music that had been playing fall away. The sound of footsteps walking across a hardwood floor.
Returned back in the direction she had come from. Took up a plate of bread and a bowl of potatoes from the counter. Carried them over and placed them around the outside of the table.
Left a hole in the center for the main attraction of the evening. Folded the same dirty dishtowel and placed it in the space, using it as a potholder for the steaming pan sitting nearby.
Less than 10 feet away, Susan heard the thunderous sound of a young one spilling down the stairs. Shook her head at the amount of noise a single teenager could create.
Fought a losing battle to keep a smile from her face.
“Hey,” her son Ben said, swinging out from the hallway and into the room. Without waiting for a response, he went straight to the table and snatched up a piece of bread, shoving it into his mouth.
A month away from his 14th birthday, he was already several inches taller than she was, his frame long and lanky from the most recent growth spurt. Shaggy brown hair fell over his ears and eyebrows, a point of contention that Susan had long since given up trying to coax out of him.
Dressed in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt two sizes too large for him, he was the epitome of most teenage stereotypes she’d ever heard.
“Hey,” she replied. “Where’s your sister?”
Continuing to work on the bread, Ben shrugged a single shoulder. “I dunno. Haven’t seen her.”
Reflexively, a frown tugged at the corner of Susan’s mouth. Thus far neither of the kids had complained about the dinners. A few times they had even seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves.
Still, it had been easy then. It was winter. There wasn’t much else to do.
If this was how it was going to be now with spring approaching, there could be problems.
Pushing away from the table, Susan walked over to the breakfast bar extended from the wall. Pressed her thighs flush against it.
Picked up her phone and held it to her lips.
On cue, the device did as commanded, a ring tone sounding out in the kitchen. Six times it buzzed through the air, Susan gripping the phone before her, Ben continuing to work on the bread, this time swiping it through the potatoes sitting close at hand.
“Hey, this is Mandy. I can’t come to the phone cause I’m out living my life. I suggest you leave a message and go do the same!”
Susan rolled her eyes at the voicemail message, both at the words selected and the singsong voice used to deliver them. She waited for the beep before telling her daughter she had five minutes to get home before they started without her.
Attempted to use her official legal voice. Hoped it would add a bit of gravitas.
Knew it probably didn’t work, despite her efforts.
Dropping the phone into place, Susan circled back around towards the roast. Peeled the layer of aluminum foil away from it. Felt a spray of warm steam wash over face.
Instantly regretted the decision, knowing she would have to wash the work blouse she was still wearing, that the scent of beef would cling to it until she did.
Grabbing a silver serving spoon from the sink, she thrust it down into the dish. Used the edge of it to break the meat into manageable chunks.
Jammed a pinkie down into the gravy and tasted it for seasoning.
Involuntarily gave a small groan of approval as the flavor spread across her tongue.
The dinners had been instituted as an excuse to spend more time with the kids, though in truth they had served a secondary function as well. They had forced her out of the office at a reasonable hour. Back to doing something she thoroughly enjoyed.
Was surprisingly good at.
Most nights, take-out or frozen dinners were fine.
Not every night, though.
Grabbing up a pair of potholders, Susan carried the roast to the table. Positioned it just so.
Swatted at Ben as he attempted to go for a third slice of homemade bread.
“Slow down on that. Everybody knows you don’t fill up on bread when there’s beef to eat.”
“Hey, you said dinner was ready,” Ben countered. “I ate what was here.”
The moment Susan was beyond range he took up more bread, this time plunging it into the dark brown gravy filling the baking dish.
Once, twice, Susan opened her mouth to fire back before giving up on it. Resigning herself to nothing more than a smile.
“Okay, well, try to save at least a couple pieces for your sister.”
Behind her, the phone on the bar began to buzz, the sound drawing her towards it.
“Speaking of which,” she said, drifting off to the side. Without glancing at the screen she took it up, pressing it to her face.
“Hey there, we were just about to go looking for you. Dinner’s getting cold.”
For a moment, there was no response. Nothing but the sound of traffic, the idle chatter of voices in the background.
When at last the caller spoke, it was not her daughter.
It wasn’t even a female.
“Hello,” said a deep voice. Older. Harried. “Is this the mother of a young woman? Mid-teens, long brown hair? Rides a powder blue beachcomber bike?”
“Of all the restaurants in all the towns in all of Montana, you had to pick this one?!”
Ajax made no effort to lower his voice to a volume acceptable for public consumption. Even less to hide the derision hanging from every word.
As the statement floated out through the dining room of St. Michael’s Hospital, a few heads turned towards the corner. Saw the quartet of people clustered tight around a table. Dismissed them with little more than a smile and a shake of the head.
“I don’t think that’s how the quote goes,” Drake Bell countered. Made a point to keep his voice lowered. Hoped the insinuation would be picked up on.
Wasn’t about to hold his breath.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Ajax said, bobbing his head in rhythm to the words. “I know the quote, I’m just making a point. This is not the type of place one goes for a celebration.”
Drake leaned back in his chair. Assessed his friend and roommate seated across from him. Could see both Sage and Kade Kuehl in his periphery to either side. Knew that neither one would say a word, letting this play out between Drake and Ajax however it may.
“Who says this is a celebration?” Drake offered. “Why can’t this just be the Zoo Crew getting together for dinner? We don’t only have to do outdoor activities, you know.”
A sour expression passed over Ajax’s face.
“No, don’t do that.”
“Do what?” Drake inserted quickly.
“Try to make me be a bad guy here,” Ajax snapped, voice back up to the original volume. “You found out today you passed the bar exam. Score high enough to waive into any other state, if Montana wasn’t so damn archaic with their reciprocity rules.”
“And if I had any interest in practicing in another state,” Drake said.
“And therefore we are celebrating,” Ajax said, not to be deterred. “At least we were supposed to, until you said to meet you here, of all places.”
Drake opened his mouth to respond. Closed it just as fast. Folded his arms across his chest and drew in a deep breath.
The Zoo Crew.
A self-dubbed moniker given seven years before to one of the more random groupings Montana had ever known.
As individuals, none of the four quite fit in. Had spent a week or so attempting to do so. At the first sign of pushback, abandoned the notion altogether.
Instead found each other. Took a quick and easy liking to one another, had been inseparable ever since.
The true origin of the Crew could be traced to the recruiting patterns of the University of Montana football team. The linebackers coach at the time had somehow found his way to West Tennessee. The secondary coach stayed much closer to home, covering the schools on the Flathead reservation 60 miles north of town.
Both saw something they liked. Extended scholarship offers.
Ten months later Drake and Kade – the recipients of said offers – met.
Two weeks after, Drake moved from the temporary dorm assigned during summer football camp. Discovered he was paired with Adam Jackson from Boston, Massachusetts. Showed up expecting to find a lily white guy with Irish ancestry and buttoned-down collars.
Instead found Ajax, the man currently giving him a hard time from across the table.
Serving as the three originators of the Crew, the trio made a pact at the end of their freshmen year. Winter had been slow in relenting. Finals were bearing down on them quickly.
In response, the group made the agreement to not let either stand in their way.
With the exception of away football games, holidays, or the rare emergency event, nothing else would stop them either.
A few years later, Kade’s sister Sage rounded out the roster. Quickly assimilated to the point none of the others could even remember a time before her arrival.
The goal of the group was simple and straight forward. Get up early, get outside, do something life affirming at least three mornings a week.
Otherwise, there didn’t seem to be much point in living in the grandeur that was Montana.
Time of year didn’t matter. Ditto for the particular activity. Just seek out someplace where nobody would notice their differences and put real life in the rearview mirror. Release every bit of jubilation, trepidation, or angst that might be lingering.
In the summer, that usually consisted of hitting the abundant streams and rivers nearby, fly rods in hand. On the opposite end of the calendar, they could be found frequenting the ski slopes.
During the very narrow windows in between, hiking, golfing, kayaking, and a host of other things filled the void. With the exception of maybe cross-country skiing, no activity was off-limits. Every person had an equal say in deciding the schedule.
“Okay,” Drake said. “If this a celebration-“
“Which it is,” Ajax countered.
Bowing his head slightly, Drake pushed on. “First, you know what a celebration to me consists of.”
“Yeah, we know,” Ajax said. Another flippant wave of his hand. “Order in from half a dozen places in town, sit on the couch and watch Maggie Grace movies.”
A smile crossed Drake’s face. It was, word for word, exactly how he would describe his perfect celebration.
Again, was not about to let on as much.
“And second,” he said. “How could it be a celebration if we weren’t all together? You know as well as I that Sage is on shift tonight until 11:00.”
Beside him Sage started to object, Drake already knowing what she would say. Earlier she had twice offered to call off from her post as RN for the evening.
Before she could say a word, he extended a hand in her direction.
“Please, allow Mr. Jackson here to answer for himself.”
The comment brought a smile to Sage’s face, a flash of white teeth from her brother across the table.
An instant look of disgust to Ajax.
Several moments passed in silence, Ajax’s mouth twisted up. At the conclusion of whatever internal debate he was having, he offered a simple head bob.
“That’s just mean spirited, you know that?”
A nod was Drake’s only response as he shifted his attention to the man in a red polo and matching ball cap that entered on the far end of the cafeteria.
To the black thermal bag balanced across his hands.
Rising from his seat, Drake extended a hand overhead. Used it to motion the man towards the corner. Watched all three of his friends turn as the man drew closer.
Proved himself to actually be a boy as he came near, with red hair and a pimpled chin to prove it.
“Are you Mister…” he said, pausing to check his receipt, “Bell?”
“I am,” Drake replied.
Without another word, the young man peeled back the flap on the bag. Pulled three large pizzas from it, the words Firetower Pizza stamped across the top.
“Already paid in full, so we’re all set,” the young man said, retreating just as fast as he had arrived.
For a moment nobody in the group said a word. Exchanged quick glances. Tried to pretend there wasn’t a mouthwatering aroma wafting up from the middle of the table in front of them.
“Okay,” Ajax finally relented. Kept the disdainful look locked in place just the same. “Now this is starting to feel like a celebration.”