Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

Her feet pound on the treadmill. The rain comes down outside. She stares into the blurry window at the parking lot and keeps running, not getting anywhere.

Better the window blur than her eyes.

The music blares in her earbuds. Enimen talks about losing himself in the moment, in the music. Sarah tries to forget yesterday. The conversation with her mom. The uncertainty.  

But yesterday’s talk plays over in her head:

“I’m sorry you couldn’t reach me, dear. My phone died. Your aunt and I went out for lunch after the appointment, then had our hair and nails done. It was lovely. We bonded in a way we haven’t since high school.”

“I’m glad you had a good time, Mom, but you can’t ignore the fact of what they told you at the clinic.”

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Ashes and Dust

Sand engulfs my hand,

Sinking it farther in to the trap.

I choose not to bask here in the sun,

Wet tendrils of hair drying to my skin,

As the air whips at skin’s softness,

Burning and breaking the surface,

Exposing pain…

I wish to dive

Back into the water,

Swim away.

The clouds roll in like ashen arms,

Mingling with the sulfuric haze.

Breathing into longest lungs,

I want to break free and cry,

Cry for sweet release,

Not stare aimlessly

At towering mountain peaks

Imprisoning my lone form,

Afraid for my life,

That one breath

Might steal away my soul,

Leaving it to fly

On the breaking breeze,

Carrying it somewhere faraway

To burn and smoulder

To ashes and dust.

I pray the tide comes quickly.

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Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

She puts the phone in her pocket and retrieves her cigarettes.  She stands and lights up, allowing the smoke to do its calming job.  She glances at the building, knowing Sarah isn’t there.  It’s her day off.  Mike went home hours ago.

Still, the phone sits in her pocket like a hot rock.  She is reminded of the game hot potato she played as a kid at friends’ birthday parties.  No one wanted to be stuck with the supposed potato.  She begins to walk toward the woods.  Her thoughts don’t make sense.  That phone is her connection to her friends, her tiny world.

But it’s also a leap of faith, her first tentative step in taking a chance at life again.  And that scares her.

Shelley’s legs shake as she ambles through the recovering grass toward the budding trees.  Everything is coming alive again around her.  The breeze is fresh breath on her face, the cacophony of birdsong a symphony of promise.  She enters the woods for the first time.  There is no marked path, yet she desires to be lost in her solitude for the moment.

Tall trees surround her.  She closes her eyes, tries to imagine skyscrapers.  The warmth of the sun kisses her face.  She feels Russ’s lips on hers.  She sits on the moist ground, reaches out, touches a mossy rock–the softness of skin on another human being.  Her eyes gently open.  The tears she held in break from their cages.  Unsure of the reason for them, Shelley lets them fall.  Maybe she can name every fragile stream that leaves its mark on her, every heartache, every memory, every person who has come and gone in her life.

She sits in seclusion for a while, the distant hum of the highway and the birdsong the only sounds.  Unaware of when she fell asleep or had even been so worn out and worn down, Shelley’s eyes snap open when the first raindrop hits the crown of her head.  She stands, pulls her hood over her head, and makes her way out of the woods.

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Left

I gaze at the setting sun,

Broken and bound,

As the first glimpse of twilight

Streaks across my face.

My eyes close,

And the tears no longer fall.

Why dare to cry

When there is no one to listen?

Monuments of history’s accomplishments

Rise in the background,

Tainted with crimson hues

From a blood-red sun,

Though one would think it beautiful,

The painstaking pain,

I dare say,

Wrenches my heart,

For I know the moment

The sun is swallowed,

My life ends, left unloved.

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Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

Mike’s parting words remain with Shelley long after he shuffles across the dining area toward the lobby.  …I’ll be around for a while…and I don’t just mean tonight.  His form is blurry now.  It’s not because of the physical distance.  Shelley’s eyes are one part of her that has always worked right.  Her tears obscure clarity.  Fifty feet away, sixty feet, seventy, Mike is a dark blue blob.  

Her eyes shift to the phone flipped open in her palm.  The downward movement of her eyes casts another tear out, banishing it from her churning insides.  The blackened screen hids Sarah’s number, Mike’s message: call if u need anything.

The phone snaps shut.  She sniffles, blows her nose on the only napkin left.  The other one is with Mike, a piece of her, a bit of trust.  An open door.

She lifts the cold coffee to her lips, sips.  It goes down like liquid gold, the caffeine another friend.  She sets the cup down and fingers her coat pocket–empty of cigarettes.  She smoked her last pack two days ago and swears, for the umpteeth time, that she’s quitting.  Yet she shakes, unsure if it’s withdrawal or frayed emotions.

Maybe both.

She finishes the coffee in a few long gulps, then stands and tosses the cup away.  She goes outside to her spot.  

The picnic table ought to have my name engraved on it after all these months, she thinks.  Now she is alone with her thoughts, yet she tries to force them out like the tears.  Emptiness is easier to hold than an overfilled vessel of heartache.  Heartache spills and leaves stains in its wake.  

Everywhere Shelley has driven, visited, these past several days has left a trail of heartache, like tire marks on the road from trying to speed away at the last minute.  Or the desperation to stop, just throw on the brakes.  Just make life halt.  Marks left.

She gazes out toward the turnpike.  The drone of traffic in the night is a drug.  She can almost hear tires squealing on the pavement, leaving more marks.  A vehicle crashing into the concrete barrier, repeatedly, a nightmare replayed, a life wasted.  Her life?  Whose life?

My life.

She reaches into her pocket again, wishing for the cigarettes.  She comes away with the cell phone, opens it.  A rueful smile creases her face that Mike cares.  Sarah.  Russ.

She’s already visited the cemetery, the church, the house, the workplace…driven through all the old haunts…stirring her memories.  Her vessel spilled months ago.  Now she’s just trying to clean up the mess.

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Review of Dark Territory by Jerry Hunter

darkterritorySummary: From the Civil War battlefields of England and Ireland to a mystery lost in the forests of North America, this is both a roaring adventure and a timely commentary on the dangers of religious extremism.

Rhisiart Dafydd is a zealous Roundhead who embraces Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army and the violence it entails. But can his convictions survive the atrocities of the English Civil Wars and Parliament’s campaign in Ireland? Called upon by his former commander to voyage to America to seek out a missing group of Welsh Puritans, he must first survive the journey, and then – if he can find the community – see whether they really have created the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

An epic historical adventure set during one of the most turbulent periods in history, this gripping thriller also poses questions about violence, power, religious extremism and rejection of difference which are chillingly relevant to our world today.

Note: I was given a copy of this novel by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

If history teaches us one thing, it’s that humanity never really changes. We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. History repeats itself.

Dark Territory is historical fiction and was written in Welsh, originally published under the title Y Fro Dywyll, and was translated by Patrick K. Ford.

The novel opens with a former soldier named Rhisiart Daffyd walking through the noisy, sometimes harrowing, streets of 1656 London. Among the sights and sounds of the living, death stares back through mounted heads on pikes, a stark reminder of where we are all headed. The climate is chilling, despite the children running through the streets, the vendors selling their wares, and life continuing on as a man who has seen his fair share of death walks these cobbled streets. I am right there with Rhisiart, an invisible set of eyes on his shoulder. The description of the streets of London is done so vividly, with such beautiful detailed language, that the reader really gets a sense of what life was like then.

Rhisiart Daffyd served in Oliver Cromwell’s Army of the Saints and has come to London under the summons of his former commanding officer, John Powel. Powel has gotten word of a settlement in America that has drifted from the Calvinist views being upheld in Cromwellian England, and he wishes to send Rhisiart to the new country to investigate and report back to him.

Rhisiart boards the ship Primrose. He is surrounded by Englishmen, the only other Welshman an older man named Owen Lewys. Some of the best dialogue in the book occurs between these two during the voyage. Having witnessed, and taken part in, so much death during the war, Rhisiart questions his beliefs. The faith he once adhered to is no longer true for him. He and Owen, who his a Quaker, discuss passages in the Gospel of John, where the light within every man is written about. Rhisiart dismisses Predestination, believing it ludicrous that God would select some souls for damnation and others for salvation prior to their births. Rather, he believes now that God’s light shines within all people, even though humanity is flawed. He keeps quiet about his views aboard the ship, however, as he and Owen are in the minority.

A storm rages at sea as the ship approaches land. It hits rocks, leaving Rhisiart and a black tom cat named Nicholas the only survivors.

The novel then gives us the backstory of Rhisiart, from the time he was a boy and lost both of his parents, raised by his sister Alys and his uncle, to when he started apprenticing under a blacksmith. There is lovely narrative about Rhisiart working words into the objects he crafts. It is during this time that he develops his belief in what Cromwell professes. He marries the blacksmith’s daughter, Elisabeth, but he soon goes off to war.

When he returns from war a broken man who now questions everything he believed in, having witnessed atrocities, including the Battle of Naseby in 1645, he hopes to settle down. The “little plague” darkens his family’s doorstep, killing Elisabeth and his unborn child.

I was devastated right along with Rhisiart. Despite the atrocities he has participated in, he is still a man who loves and thought he was doing right for his homeland. It’s no wonder he takes on the mission Powel entrusts him with, seeing as he has no one keeping him in England any longer.

The book switches back to 1656. Once Rhisiart comes ashore, he is cared for by some Native Americans. There aren’t many of them at all, and the one who speaks English tells him how many of their tribe died from diseases from the settlers. The kindness of the Native Americans toward Rhisiart shows more of true Christian (or otherwise) charity than any of the characters in the book, despite they aren’t Christian. This truth is resonates with Rhisiart and does with me as well. It is heartbreaking to look back on history and see how the Native Americans were driven from their land, in some cases, and how such things still occurs today, both in America and globally. The refugee crisis in the world today comes to mind. To show kindness and generosity to your fellow person is in the spirit of what is at the heart of Christianity, the whole to do what Jesus did. To show mercy, understanding, love.

I think this is what strikes Rhisiart, both in his discussion aboard the Primrose with Owen Lewys and with the Native Americans. More than ever, he doesn’t believe in the Calvinist doctrine. He sees it for the manmade construct it is, not a divine ordinance…although he still has a mission to see through.

He regains his strength while in the care of the Native Americans. They give him a map to the settlement Powel told him to seek. Rhisiart travels several days through the woods in the dying fall and arrives at New Jerusalem. By the name alone, you can be sure this settlement believes it is God’s kingdom on Earth.

Rhisiart settles there for several months, befriending some (blacksmith Griffith John Griffith and his son, Ifan, and young, pregnant widow Rebecca) and at odds with others (namely the Elder, Rhosier Wyn). He learns some secrets about the corrupted ways the leaders of New Jerusalem carry out what they believe is divine justice. His beliefs are challenged more every passing day, and as Rebecca’s pregnancy nears its end, dread overcomes the reader, wondering how this is all going to end.

We have seen the crimes and wars done in the name of religion over the centuries, including the accurate historical representation in Dark Territory. So much unnecessary violence and death has resulted over disagreements. The whole “I am right, you are wrong” mentality and the pride of believing one’s way is the only true way puts up walls between people, between nations, and it tears down the Golden Rule. In theory, it should be simple to follow the path of love, to treat others as you wish to be treated, even in our human imperfection.

We can look at the serious nature of the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century and the harsh beliefs of the Puritans in America and believe we have come so far from those ways of thinking, but a quick look around the world today paints a different story.

Dark territory, indeed. This novel shows the journey, the struggle, the life of one man in the midst of religious wars and tyranny. It forces us to look deep within ourselves and examine our hearts, our beliefs, to trod the path today through dark territory.

This novel is one of those rare gems that hooked me from the beginning. The themes are important for anyone to realize and think about. This is one of those masterpieces that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

5 out of 5 stars

Favorite quotes: “He imagined that silence would roll down the corridors like mist on the surface of a river, that quiet would collect in the chambers like water gathers in a fountain’s pool, turning sound to vapour and dulling the ear, keeping secrets secret.”

“He tilts his face to the sun, his eyes closed, and all the sounds of the ship are like a whisper in a dream. This is the world, he thinks, and this is the life I have lived. The heat he feels on his face has the warmth of skin: like another cheek pressing against his own cheek. Living fingers playing with his hair, a hand caressing his skin playfully.”

“Is the way that the most insignificant instincts lead an animal to its death essentially different from the way that most men follow their instincts to the end?”

“‘I do. He knew that I… had lived the life… had believed… had done. And he knew that I now doubt many of the things I used to believe in. And he saw value in that.’”

Purchase Dark Territory on Amazon

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