As a special Sunday treat, I am proud to be able to share with you the opening pages of my upcoming second novel, Trials and Tribulations.
Picking up where Highway to Hell left off, this second installment sees Marcus, Becky, Helen, Graham and Sammy set off on an adventure through Hell. Their target is Richard, who himself is lost, wandering a desert land, alone… or is he.
Trials and Tribulations
Richard had no idea how long he had been walking. No matter what direction he looked in, all he saw was sand. A rolling golden yellow ocean of sand, which made Richard feel intensely seasick. The surface was rippled by the strong gusts of wind that blew with a rhythm as regular as a heartbeat. It carved undulating dunes that somehow managed to roll in opposite directions. The effect created, was one that confused the mind and churned the stomach.
Since Richard had started walking, the argumentative voice in his head had been silenced. The itch in his crotch had also disappeared, although he was yet to actually look between his legs to check. He was terrified to look down and discover his genitals were still mangled and disfigured. Not that he had much use for them anymore. He hadn’t seen another living soul since Jizo – that short little monk – had dropped him off in the middle of nowhere. Richard had already decided that if he saw him again he would kick his ass.
Richard’s pace was slow, but he still stopped to rest. He looked back the way he had travelled. As always, his heart half hoped for a marker, anything that would give him an idea of the distance he had travelled. There was nothing. Not even any footsteps receding into the distance. The desert absorbed every trace of his presence. Richard looked around; the road beneath him was hard. The soles of his feet were broken and raw, his ankles swollen. His toes had begun to turn the color of a fresh bruise. So long as he kept moving, the ground didn’t seem to be that hot, but the moment his forward motion stopped, the desert floor caught fire and seared his flesh as if he stood on an acetylene torch.
Another gust of wind came through the world, this one harder than the others. It would be the first of five. Richard had been there long enough to learn this. First came one strong blast, then three breaths of wind, each one colder and gentler than the last, and finally a firmer gust would whistle around him. The Howler; that was what Richard had named it. For despite the barren surroundings, this final gust of wind managed to produce a howl eerily like that of a pack of wolves standing high up on the rocks, calling to the full moon that hung above their heads.
Richard looked up at the sun. It was directly overhead. He could feel its heat pounding his body. It seared his flesh, yet he didn’t burn. His once youthful face was gone. The features that made him cute while alive – and were destined to be classed handsome once adulthood came along – had withered. The skin of his face had leathered and wrinkled. It had taken on a tired look. The elderly look of a man used to working the land rather than a boy used to private school and with a boardroom based future.
Richard’s once short and well-kept brown hair had been bleached to a near white by the sun, and now hung in dirty strands that extended down close to his shoulders.
Day and night no longer existed as individual states. The sun moved in the sky, but only very little. Even when it did shift in its axis, there was no noticeable change in temperature, clouds were nonexistent. Richard had concluded that they simply didn’t exist in this world; in this Hell. The result was, that Richard hadn’t slept for, well, given his desolate surroundings he had no idea, but judging by the thick beard that covered his face, he had been walking for at least three weeks. His body was near skeletal; his frame muscular yet weak.
There had been a few plants growing in the sand along the path which Richard had eaten. He had swallowed them greedily at first, only to throw them back up before they had reached his stomach. In the end he picked them, and chewed the leaves like gum. Sometimes he would swallow the bitter tasting vegetation, but when he started to feel nauseous he would stop. Richard worked the ball of cud between his teeth. He would create a rhythm between chews and his footsteps. It offered him a distraction when the heat got too much and his vision blurred. He suffered from blackouts, when the heat became too much, his world turned white. It was as if he stared at a naked light-bulb. It wasn’t natural light that he saw but something much more artificial. When Richard came too, he had found that he had continued walking; he staggered like a drunk making his way home on a Friday night. His footsteps in the burning sand would be evident at random intervals, showing where he had strayed from the path. His feet would blister from the heat. If he stood for too long, his skin sizzled, as if on a barbeque grill. Once, Richard had come too with his feet buried ankle deep in sand, almost a quarter mile from the road. By the time he made it back to the path, his feet were burnt to the point of bleeding. The skin peeled away like that of a roasted pepper. Yet, even then, he had continued to move; crawling on his hands and knees. He was driven by the simply knowledge that there had to be something up ahead. Just over the next rise, or behind the dune to his right; a town, a hut, anything. The plants had stopped growing about a week before, if Richards’s stubble based calculations were even vaguely accurate. His water supply had been absent even longer. Once, Richard had found a small pool by the side of the road. He had just pulled up a large plant, and there it was, in the sand. Richard remembered it even now, because the plant had tasted much sweeter than the other leaves he had eaten. But that had been a long time ago. What little water he had been able to extract from the pool had long since passed through his system.
Richard felt his legs begin to shake. He had been standing still for too long, and his body was beginning to recognize the fatigue that should have brought his journey to a halt long ago. He licked his lips. They were dry and cracked. His tongue was as rough as a cat’s. Richard winced as he started to move again. His joints sent lightning bolts of pain shooting through his body into his brain. His knees, his hips, his lower back and shoulders, they were all burning with a pain that reminded him of his time bound to the bed; his time with the lady in white, and her many faces. She was always with him, he understood that. Richard didn’t think it strange he was taken by a white light when he felt weak. It was her; she was reaching out to him, embracing him and holding him close to her bosom, burying his face between her ample breasts, suffocating him until he was ready to return to his body.
Fighting against the pain, Richard found himself gaining momentum once more. He lurched forward with stiff, robotic steps; something akin to Frankenstein’s monster in the early Universal films. The road had begun to slope upwards now. It was not a steep incline, rather a gentle rise that took Richard to the crest of his current dune. Somewhere, in the back of Richards mind, was a voice telling him that he had made the wrong choice. A constant whisper that chided him for not having chosen the path that headed West; the path of the snake. “It was my choice. I decided.” He muttered to himself. It was a rather unsettling habit that he had picked up.
Richard reached the top of the slope just as the final gust in the series swept through. It helped to propel him forward, and carried him those final few paces to the top of the sandy wave. What he saw caused him to collapse to his knees. The road split the skin like a piece of overripe fruit. Richard didn’t feel the pain. It had become as good as impossible for him to separate each individual ache. Instead, he had just accepted that everything hurt.
His body had been so abused by the elements that no matter what happened, blood no longer flowed from his wounds.
Kneeling on the hardened ground Richard saw the path fall away from him like the tracks on a rollercoaster. It plummeted at a near violent degree. I can’t keep my balance for that. He thought to himself as he stared at the steep slope.
Only one thing for it then, turn back, give up. An unwelcome and unexpected voice spoke up in his head. Although, as far as Richard was concerned, the owner of the voice stood beside him. He could see him as clear as day. It was himself. Not the gaunt, bearded nomad he had become, but rather a well-dressed, rich looking man, one who clearly enjoyed the good life. He stood beside Richard. He leant forward, his hands resting on his knees, arms supporting the weight of his upper body. He whispered into Richard’s ear. Richard shook his head. It’s a trick. I just need to find a drink that’s all. It’s just in my head. He told himself. It made him feel nauseous, and his head began to pound. When he opened his eyes, his projected self was gone. He was alone again. Although he knew the other one was there. He was stuck inside his head just waiting for the chance to come back out. He tried hard to bury it.
Richard turned his attention back to the world before him. His jaw dropped, he couldn’t help it. The desert still stretched ahead of him, an endless sea of tidal dunes. However, it was what sat at the foot of the long slope that held Richards immediate attention. It was a small copse of trees. They bordered a small body of water. It was not much larger than a garden pond. Its surface shimmered, and reflected the light as if it were filled with diamonds of the purest cut. Beyond that, as if the sight of water and shelter was not enough to over load his mind, Richard also saw a line of camels. Had they not been walking in such a neat formation, he would have thought them a wild herd. They were too far away for him to see it, but Richard just knew that there were people with them. People who lived in the desert, in these conditions. He hoped that maybe, just maybe they would be able to help him.
Richard waved his arms in the air. In the vain hope that one of the people who were too far away from him to even see, would look in his direction. They would of course need much better eyesight that he had, but in this strange world of endless days and flying green scorpions, he figured that anything was possible.