sample the audiobook of Ember Burning
Like what you hear? Click here to get Book 1 on Audible.com
Trinity Forest Book 2, Oshun Rising, will be available on Audiobook in early 2018.
read the first three chapters
Darkness. It can make you vanish and disappear completely from sight. At least for an instant. Maybe forever.
The thought passes through my head all the time. Especially now, as I run through a curtain of pine trees. In the dark. Alone.
I dodge branches like a boxer, weaving and dancing through the trees and making my way over uneven mud, patches of snow, rocks, tufts of grass, and bushes. The leaves crunch underfoot. The wind whistles through the treetops. The crickets chirp.
My heartbeat booms in my ears. With each step, it sends adrenaline strong as a shot of Red Bull straight to my veins. I feel like I could jump right out of my skin.
I’d intended to come and set up a tent for the night, but the forest was so dense, it was a wall of trees. Now, the trail has vanished, and suddenly, I’m disoriented. I stop to lean on a towering pine tree, panting.
Of course I know this is ridiculous. What I’m doing. Going to Trinity Forest. Alone. Like the freak show I am. The girl who goes off the tracks. Who obsesses about missing people, about what happens in Trinity. But the mystery of Trinity calls to me. If I disappear, so be it.
Maybe my weirdo obsession is because of Mom. Or maybe it’s just because of where I live. In a town that produces opinions like a bustling factory, the one thing everyone agrees on is you don’t go to Trinity Forest. They say it’s haunted. Mysterious. Dangerous.
Everyone knows the stories. The one child actress who went there and never came home back in the ’80s. That backpacker in the ’90s. I want to say some random oil worker from Texas, too. The list goes on and dates back years. Decades. Hell, maybe even centuries.
Those stories—plus the fact that Trinity is private property—keep most people in neighboring Leadville away. Only outside tourists ever go to the forest—or those who really want to disappear. Mom called it the Bermuda Triangle of Colorado. She became obsessed with missing people, too.
“Don’t ever go there, Ember. Ever,” she told me repeatedly when I was a little girl.
By the time I was eleven, I’d figured it was just another story to keep me and my brother Jared out of the woods. Just like my parents used Santa Claus to get me to clean my room in December. Or the tooth fairy to get me to brush my teeth.
I need to think about something else. I need to get out of here.
I start to run again, still not sure where I’m headed. The sound of my breath fills my head. Heavy, rhythmic. Fire in my lungs. My feet pound the ground swiftly, numbly skimming over rocks, kicking up pine needles. It’s as if darkness itself is chasing me, threatening to swallow me whole. I sprint fast, my backpack banging against my hips, its straps eating into the skin of my shoulders. Pain sears my sides. I need to get out of here.
I spin around in the black night. The hushed hoot of an owl. The rustling of something scampering across fallen leaves.
“I wish Maddie were here,” I whisper. Emotion creeps up my throat. The fear is dark and sticky.
Maybe I’m lost.
Maybe this was a big mistake.
A week earlier
A few final snowflakes spin around outside my window, and a steady stream of polar air seeps in through the cracked windowsill. Winter won’t release its grip on Leadville, despite the fact that around the rest of the world, early April means spring. You know, pink and yellow flowers, fluffy white bunnies, bright glowing buds yawning from the tree branches—that sort of cheery crap.
I hunch on the floor, resting my head on a bent knee. Glue sticks to my fingers as I press the picture onto the page of my spiral notebook. I wipe the extra glue on the green carpet and stare at the blurry photo. A teenaged girl with dark hair and rose petal lips.
I glance up to ensure the bedroom door is locked so Gram won’t walk in and see me amid my weird, obsessive hobby.
The cursor on my laptop blinks beside this girl’s name. Laurie Parker. Ordinary name. Ordinary face. She disappeared hiking near the Hamakulia Volcano in Hawaii.
What in the world happened to her? I scrawl her name in red on the page above her face, wanting to honor her in my own personal way.
I stand up, grab my cell phone off the bed, and scroll through the seven text messages Maddie has sent me in the past week. I’ve either ignored them or replied with a few quick words or stupid emoticons.
I click on a song on my phone that I’ve been listening to lately, an indie band I just discovered online. I love the minor chords in the music and the mournful moans of the lyrics. They feed something dark inside me with pulsing color: Ink black. Chocolate brown. Shiny silver. Swirling, pulsing rhythmically with each note.
I call my ability to hear colors in music my Color Crayon Brain. Doctors call it synesthesia, a diagnosis for people like me who “see” music. A lot of people think it’s creepy, but I think I’m lucky. It’s beautiful, and it’s medicine to me.
I gaze at my notebook and the other pictures and names of the missing. The large forehead and chiseled cheekbones of Valerie Monsette. The Howdy Doody look of Ben Alackness. The intense gaze of Phil Sei.
I grab my jacket off the bed and make my way through the piles of unopened boxes that clutter the room—the boxes I haven’t opened since my parents died. A year ago. A year, and I still haven’t spoken to anyone about what happened. What really happened. The guilt has been eating me from the inside, like leaking acid.
It doesn’t help that my brother abandoned me for college months ago, leaving me alone with Gram—a woman I swear is made of granite. Her place has never felt like home with its crooked linoleum floors, mildewy bath towels, and thick, dark curtains.
Near the door, I trip over my guitar case, catching myself on the wall. Like the boxes, the black case hasn’t been opened since the accident. I trace my fingers along the edges of the stickers covering the case—brand names and slogans from beer and outdoor companies. Free stickers Dad collected for me at the bars and restaurants he played.
My fingers tremble as I unlatch the case. I stare at my blonde guitar, willing myself to ignore the elephant that has permanently camped out on my chest.
I remember Dad sitting next to me as we played on the sunken couch. His dark hair flopped over his eyes and his chin jutted as he strummed.
“Okay, so get into the chorus a little bit more. Be more aggressive,” he said.
I listened to his advice and belted out the words; my fingers felt like they might bleed from that Saturday afternoon jam session.
“You’re really feeling it, yeah,” he said.
I remember that the sound of the song produced yellow rays in my Color Crayon vision, as if the sun itself were pouring directly into my heart.
He stopped me after a minute. “Okay, the first half of the chorus, you’re struggling to find your own thing there.”
I nodded, a serious student intent on growing and learning. One day, I thought, I’d actually sing professionally. I watched as Dad demonstrated two versions of the chorus.
I started playing again, fine-tuning my fingers and the timbre of my voice. Dad grinned and bobbed his head. Not just my heart but every vein in my body oozed sunshine. It was better than anything I’d ever felt before.
I shut the case now, push the guitar back into a corner behind some boxes, and stomp down the stairs.
Outside, the sky opens up, becoming an infinite blue, stretching and curving before it hits the jagged Rocky Mountain peaks in the distance. They’re topped by white—the snow that never leaves, no matter the season.
Gram’s shoulders hunch into a frown as she digs into the dirt with a garden shovel, clearing the muck. It’s amazing how a woman made of stone can give birth to a bed of perfumed color each spring. Every fall, she dutifully plants these bulbs. Each spring, the flowers bloom, perking up her tired turquoise house. It sits among a string of gingerbread looking Victorian homes, most of them tattered and cramped together as if glued to each other.
Before the accident, I had not seen or talked to my grandma since I was nine because of some beef between her and my mom. Things I still don’t fully understand. Yet living with her, I kind of get it. In Gram’s world, there’s no time for feelings. She was here in Leadville way back in the ’60s, when the Climax Mine churned out millions of dollars’ worth of molybdenum to be used for nuclear power and missiles. She knows only hard work. Like I said, a woman made of granite.
I stop on the buckled sidewalk, deciding whether to talk to her. I could probably move past her like the wind and she would never notice.
I cough instead.
She looks up at me and nods, microscopic and swift. She doesn’t ask where I’m going or what I’m doing. Her eyebrows flicker but her face never changes. After a moment, she returns to her digging. I shove my hands into my pockets, duck my head, and walk toward the convenience store.
The letters on his knuckles spell out the words Get Some.
With greasy dark hair, stubble on his chin, and a pooching belly, the cashier does not in any way look like he will get some anytime soon. Still, he puts his two fists together so I can read the words tattooed across his fingers. “Check it out. Killer, right? Right?” He grins.
I lift the muscles of my face to smile, but it doesn’t really work. I set my Gatorade on the counter and then crane my neck around the corner to see if there are any new posters on the wall.
“You here checking for them missing people again?” he asks.
I shrug. Even I don’t understand it.
“You don’t say much, do you?” he says, ducking his head to try to catch my eye.
I avoid his eyes and watch, instead, a tiny TV playing the news behind him. On-screen, a skinny guy with glasses talks about the safety of genetically modified food. “There is still no credible evidence of harm to humans or animals,” the man says. “And your question, Laura, about any connection between the food supply and some secret society is ridiculous.” He looks familiar, but I can’t place why, or where, I might have seen him before.
Engrossed in the TV, I put my five dollars on the counter with just a glance at the cashier, who, according to his name tag, is called Ned.
“I didn’t just get these killer knuckle tats,” Ned the Cashier says. “I got a bike, too.”
Looking at him, I imagine some cheesy chrome motorcycle to match his cheesy knuckle tattoos.
“Cool,” I say. See? I talk.
Ned leaves my money on the counter and starts tapping on his cell phone. He thrusts his phone in front of me to show a picture of a purple bicycle with a leopard print seat. A bicycle. Not a motorcycle. I start to laugh but stop when I see he’s genuinely proud.
I nod and attempt to give him some encouragement with a thin smile. He beams as he hands me my change.
On my way out, I pause to study the posters of two people. One of them, with a picture of a blond teenaged boy, has hung there for a decade. The edges of the paper curl up. The other, featuring an older woman, has been there for a couple months. She went missing in New Mexico.
As I lean into the glass door to leave, Ned calls to me, “Have a great evening!” He may be different from me, but Ned the Cashier has something I don’t anymore: friendliness.
Outside, a tinkling sound rings in the air, as if something just dropped onto the concrete sidewalk. The sound triggers a flash of metallic silver in my mind. I blink quickly because up until now, I’ve only seen colors when I hear music. Nothing else.
A good ten feet away, something glints in the sun. Farther down the block, a young woman walks with a sway, her long, flowing red hair blowing in the breeze.
Bending down, I pick the shiny object up. A closer look reveals it’s a silver coin. But it’s not a quarter. Both sides have a picture of a pyramid and a dot in the center—rather than George Washington’s head.
Sure that the woman dropped it, I call out to her. “Hello, miss! You dropped something.” She doesn’t respond and turns the corner into the alley another couple of blocks ahead.
I jog after her, turn the corner, but she is gone. Nowhere in sight.
I study the coin again. Maybe it’s a religious symbol or a gambling token. I squint and make out two words beneath the pyramid. Faint, but legible. Trinity Forest.
I pocket the coin, ignoring the chill running down my spine, and head home before the snow kicks back up.