The Marked Son
KEEPERS OF LIFE - Book One, by Shea Berkley
When Dylan sees a girl in white in the woods behind his grandparents’ farm, he knows he’s seen her before…in his dreams. He’s felt her fear. Heard her insistence that only he can save her world from an evil lord who uses magic and fear to feed his greed for power.
Unable to shake the unearthly pull to Kera, Dylan takes her hand. Either he’s completely insane or he’s about to have the adventure of his life, because where they’re going is full of creatures he’s only read about in horror stories. Worse, the human blood in his veins has Dylan marked for death…
Praise for The Marked Son:
“Reading Shea Berkley is like watching magic unfold before your eyes. THE MARKED SON is written with such intrigue and depth, I could not get enough of this delicious tale. I’m hopelessly lost and can hardly wait to see what jewels Berkley has in store for us next.”
~ Darynda Jones, author of First Grave on the Right
© 2011 Shea Berkley
If I never dream again, I’ll fade away
Until I’m only a breath of memories that can’t stay.
I was eight the first time I saw the girl.
Mom freaked when I told her, said I was letting a girl terrorize my dreams, but I didn’t get it. They were dreams, not nightmares. I don’t remember ever waking up afraid. Not back then. So when the dreams kept coming, year after year, each one more vivid than the last, I held onto them like a skydiver clutching his ripcord. No way would I let Mom take them away from me.
It’s been years since she’s asked me about the girl, but lately Mom’s been curious. I tell her I haven’t had a dream in awhile. She eyes me like I’m lying.
So what if I am? I may not remember everything about my dreams when I wake up, but I do know when I’m about to have one. My scalp tingles, like tiny bugs zap, zap, zapping along my skin. The darkness behind my lids turns smoky. I’ve tried to pull away at that point but it’s no use. I don’t fight it now. Instead I sink into the thick air and come out the other side into a world that is nothing like the one I know…
Yet, it’s familiar.
Tonight, the smoke fades, and the girl appears in a thin, white gown. I’m lying in a meadow surrounded by deep woods, one hand tucked behind my head—shirtless and shoeless and wearing a pair of old, ratty jeans. I can hear the TV I left on fading in the distance until only the sound of the meadow fills the air.
She’s suddenly beside me, beautiful beyond words, her long, dark hair spilling over her shoulder as she bends to touch my hand. Her cool fingers rest more like mist than flesh in my palm. The rough corset she’s wearing cinches the fabric snug to her hips. She’s got a definite Victorian vibe going, but it suits her. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it.
Her violet eyes darken, revealing the silent plea that carries a hint of desperation, and she tugs, urging me to get to my feet. She wants me to run, to escape. In the last two weeks, we’ve tried, running so long and so hard that we’re sure we’ll never find our way home again. We’ll be lost together forever. It’s what she wants. It’s what I need. But it always fails. We eventually wind up back at the meadow.
Tonight, I’m content to pull her down beside me, lie in the soft grass, and stare at the sky. Our fingers intertwine, our shoulders touch. We’ve both gotten older since the first time we met. There were years when we rarely saw each other, but lately, our time together has intensified. There’s a feeling of impending doom that wasn’t there when we were younger, as if this perfect place of dreams is about to shatter, and we’ll never see each other again.
There’s so much I want to know. Why do I only dream about her when I need her most? Am I insane? I don’t ask. I’m afraid to. I want her to be real, just a few months more, maybe a year. Then I’ll grow up and cut this strange, imaginary cord. I can’t lose her smile, not yet, or her lips against my cheek—one of her butterfly kisses that’s gone before it’s begun.
Her silence has never bothered me before. Tonight, all I want is one word.
I touch her hair, her cheek. I know the tilt of her head and the tip of her lips. I know when she’s sad and when joy fills her to overflowing. I’ve tried painting her in art class, but I’ve never been able to capture her perfection, because when I wake, her face dissolves with the dream. If she’d just talk to me, I’d remember everything about her. I would.
As we lie there, night and day flash by. One minute the sun warms my skin, the next the stars color it silvery bright. Flowers open and close. Birds sing. An owl hoots. The girl turns and lays her head on my chest. I wrap a protective arm around her and pull her closer, yet it’s never close enough. She’s my one comfort in life, but being with her is like holding onto sand that keeps slipping through my fingers. Time is running out, and I can’t figure out why.
Suddenly, the darkness lowers and the dream grows cold, the woods sinister. She jerks upright. I follow. I ask her what’s wrong. Her face shows her terror. Her mouth opens in an attempt to speak. No words follow.
The next moment, she’s across the clearing. I call for her to come back. She doesn’t. She can’t. All I know is that she needs me. Now.
I slam back into consciousness, panting against the thudding of my heart. I peel off the scratchy covers and slip out of bed. The hotel room is dingy, but the night is laced with a full moon’s light. I stand at the window and let the hopelessness overcome me as the dream fades away.
Heaving a sigh, I grip the windowsill and roll my forehead along the cool glass.
It’s just a dream. Just a stupid, childish dream.
But how I wish it weren’t.
What is seen is.
What is heard may be.
Alas, what quickens my soul can never be.
I close my eyes, hoping to break free of this nightmare. Yet, when I open them, the hot breath of the southern summer is truly gone, replaced by a weakened sun and the cool breezes of the northwest. The car windows are open, and in the distance, the wooded foothills along the southern portion of the Cascade Mountains rise and fall like ripples in the earth. It’s June. It should be sweat-rolling-down-my-spine hot. Instead, there’s a damp chill outside. Not totally unpleasant, but not familiar. I slouch deeper into my seat and glare at Mom.
Her mouth pinches, her skin flushes, and she snubs out her cigarette in a tray overflowing with more than three days worth of ash and spent stubs. “Don’t, Dylan. Just keep it to yourself.”
She says I’m a petulant teenage boy. I am, but who wouldn’t be in this situation? I’m disillusioned. Frustrated. Disgusted by life. I’m seventeen, on the brink of my senior year, and once again, I’ve been forced to leave everything familiar to me in order to appease another of her emotional breakdowns. Mom thrives on drama. She always has, and I’ve always played along.
Not anymore. I’m sick of playing the good son.
“All I’m saying is, we didn’t have to leave.”
Same answer. Always the same.
“He left,” I remind her for the hundredth time.
She shakes her head, and the few dark curls that manage to stay bound in her messy ponytail suddenly bounce free to lash wildly in the wind. “His family lives there. You know how people are. Hateful gossips.”
Her jaw sets at a rigid angle. “I don’t want to talk about it. Not to them, and not to you.”
“So my life means nothing to y—”
“Shut it!” She blinks rapidly, still staring at the torn-up road. “I mean it. Not another word.”
The tears are back. I look away, disgust searing my insides. The cool wind whips through my hair, pounding at my ear drums, drowning out her staccato gasps for breath. “I get it. Nothing’s ever going to change.”
She ignores me. I’m fine with that—at least, that’s what I always tell myself—and soon she’s lighting up again. She bought the ten-pack carton at the first gas station we saw on our way out of town. For eight months she didn’t take a single drag. Not one. I’d been begging her to quit for years. Did she listen to me? No. But she listened to Jared, her latest ex-boyfriend. Anything for Jared. It’s the one thing the walking dick did right, but now look at her.
Why did I think she would change? We’re drifters, stumbling from small town to small town, staying a year or two until the man-pool dwindles, leaving the next. Mom changes men like some girls change their nail color. When she finally settles on one “special” guy, it’s only a matter of time before he leaves, by way of the back door, with an armful of our stuff he can hock at the local pawn shop and a pocket full of what little money he finds in Mom’s purse.
I’ve learned to lock my bedroom door.
The small evidence of our existence on this earth is behind us, rattling around in a rented trailer as it bounces in and out of deep ruts, shaking our rusty, old Plymouth Road Runner until I’m sure the rivets have come loose.
Mom curses as the car whines up another hill. She pumps the slab of steel with the ball of her foot like the hick she is, until the engine revs, re-engages, and spits us forward.
“You coulda at least slept your way into a better car,” I mutter, pulling up the hood of my gray sweatshirt. Not likely. Mom’s always been better at giveaways than bartering.
She doesn’t hear, and it’s probably for the best. A fresh round of tears would’ve been her answer. They’re the answer for everything these days.
To the east, the hills climb into the mountain range. I stare out over the forested landscape, seeing but not seeing. My mind is on the girl in my dreams. Pale face. Dark hair. White gown. Eerie woods. Chills sweep my arms. It’s just an impression, there and gone before I can capture it, but a strange, deep longing rises in my chest. I’ve dreamed about her every night for two weeks, and each dream is more intense than the last. I’m feeling desperate in a way I’ve never felt before, like I’ve been ripped out of the ground one too many times, and the next transplant will end in failure.
My thoughts return to the present, and I see the road split. To the left, pavement riddled with water-filled potholes. To the right, dirt riddled with muddy potholes. We turn right.
I slap my hand on the outside of the door. “Seriously? A dirt road?” Trees quickly surround the car, and an unfamiliar thickness invades the air. Our soon-to-be-new home is fast losing its appeal.
“It’s a sheep ranch, Dylan. Where do you expect it to be? In the middle of downtown Portland?”
“Not in the wilds of Oregon!”
The car shakes and rattles as we slowly make our way down the torn-up strip of dirt. Mom does all she can to avoid trouble spots.
“This is hardly—” She huffs when the car slams into an especially deep hole and mud splatters in a shower of gloppy brown. The undercarriage smacks the road hard, and she growls her frustration. “—out in the wilds,” she finishes. But I can see even she’s struggling to believe her own propaganda.
“Yeah, right. There’s not even a damn Walmart out here, and Walmart is everywhere.”
“Don’t cuss,” she says. “My mother hates cussing.”
Good to know. Rattle off the seven unspeakable cuss words the first chance I get, and family or not, if she has any brains, her mother will send us packing.
Trees crowd the road, sucking the air out of the car. I’d forgotten how much I detest the great outdoors. I’d spent my whole life traveling toward the city, longing for a place where I belong, and now Mom slaps me back to square one.
Every so often, another dirt road forks off the main one, but try as I might, I can’t see any signs of human life. The road looks like it leads to a campground. What is she thinking? She hates country life even more than I do.
“So, your mom… What am I supposed to call her?”
Her laugh is a short, bitter sound. “How about Granny? That’ll rip her up.”
“Using me to dig at your mom isn’t very mature.”
She pushes the dancing, brown curl out of her eyes. “Oh, shut up. You know I’m kidding. Anyway, what do you care?”
“I don’t.” I haven’t cared about anything in a long time, but still. Someone has to be an adult, and it sure won’t be her.
And she isn’t kidding, regardless of what she says. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who causes that particular look of resentment to flash in her eyes.
As we trundle over the hard-packed mud, a scruffy, tri-colored dog with a bobbed tail and spindle-legs shoots out of the trees and runs alongside the car, all barks and growls like it’s never seen a rusted box on wheels before.
“Beat it, Fido.” I swat at it, but it nearly bites off my hand. “Hey!”
“The dog almost bit me!”
Mom looks at me like I’m the problem. “What are you, two? Don’t touch a strange dog.”
Yep. I’m the problem. I slouch back onto my seat and feel my jaw tighten. She would side with a mangy animal over her own flesh and blood. I guess that’s what happens when you’re the unwanted son of a teenage runaway.
The dog breaks away when we round a bend cluttered with trees. Mom mutters a few cuss words. I close my eyes and sigh. That’s Mom. Do as I say, not as I do.
The car veers to the left, and I crack my eyes open. The wall of trees separates to reveal a half-dozen strange, brightly-painted metal sculptures that belong in one of those modern museums only rich people go to. There’s something disturbing about the way they rise up, twisting and stretching in a macabre, colorful dance.
Behind them, a huge, red barn overlooks a clapboard-sided house. When we bottom out near the top of the drive, a small woman, pail in hand, turns and watches us from her place on the front porch. I push my hood off to get a better look. “Yee-haw. There’s Granny. So where’s Uncle Jed, cousin Jethro, and Elly May?”
“Knock it off.”
An stabbing ache begins near the base of my skull. “Let me get this straight. You can say whatever you want, but I’ve gotta behave?”
“Exactly. Nobody likes a smart ass.”
“That would explain your lack of popularity.”
She blows out the last of the smoke that’s rotting her lungs. “For God sakes, would it kill you to be nice?”
The Road Runner rolls to a stop. Mom hops out with a big, yet wary, smile plastered onto her face. I’m not at all eager to meet my maternal kin. Honestly, how great can they be? Mom left when she was barely sixteen. My life sucks and I’m still with my parental unit. What does that say about hers?
The woman drops the bucket, and when it lands on the porch’s wooden planks, the expected clatter is swallowed by the surrounding forest. Her face pales. I recognize disbelief when I see it. Her hands shake as she rubs them down the sides of her worn-out jeans. Granny isn’t exactly old. In fact, she’s downright young-looking. A little weather-beaten, but still kind of attractive. An older version of Mom.
Mom hesitates. “Hey, Mama. Bet you didn’t expect to see me.”
I groan. I shouldn’t be surprised that she’s dragged us all the way up here without telling anyone, but I am. I should have remembered Mom isn’t one to bother with practical matters like informing family we’re coming to live with them indefinitely.
“Dylan,” Mom yells, and motions me forward. “Get out of the car.”
Grandma’s attention shifts to where I’m still sitting in the passenger seat. Her eyes are big and pale blue, almost see-through. They’re kinda creepy, actually.
“Who’s that?” she asks. “Your boyfriend?”
I’m a big guy. Not, oh-my-God-look-at-that-giant-fat-boy big, but tall and muscular. I’ve been known to walk into a bar or two and not get carded.
“Beautiful,” I mutter. Gritting my teeth, I get out of the car, one hand on the roof, the other on the door and glare at Mom. “She doesn’t know who I am, does she?”
Mom’s eyes widen. She looks ready to cry again, and I feel the burn of anger rising in me. I try to tamp it down, but I can’t. It bubbles over, leaping into my eyes, my mouth, and my heart.
Without another word, I snatch an old army duffel stuffed with my things from the back seat and slam the door. I don’t look back as I retrace my way toward the main road.
I ignore Mom’s call.
I do, but it’s got nothing to do with her. The crazy dog skids into my path. Its ears are down, and its teeth are showing. Long, mean teeth.
Mom’s fingers clamp onto my shoulder, startling me. The dog leaps toward her, and I kick dirt at it and yell for it to go. Amazingly it does. I pull out of Mom’s grasp, ignoring the pleading in her eyes. She latches on again. “You can’t go. Please, don’t do this.”
Where does she get off, acting this way? “What do you care whether I’m here or not?”
“You have to stay! If you don’t, it’s going to get worse.”
It sounds like she cares, but I’m not easily fooled. I turn away. “She doesn’t know who I am. You never told her about me.”
“Of course not. I haven’t talked to her since I left.”
I snap around and confront her. “Why are we even here?”
“There’s no other place to go.”
“Don’t cuss.” She glances back and sees Grandma inching her way toward us. “We have to be smart about this. You promised me you’d behave.”
The muscle in my cheek twitches. “People make promises all the time they don’t intend to keep.” Just like she’d promised to quit smoking and drinking and hooking up with men. Promises run cheap in our dysfunctional family.
I will not be like her. I will make something out of my life, even if it kills me.
Panic flushes her face. “Please, Dylan.”
She’s desperate. I can taste it in the air. I should relent, but an unquenchable need to hurt her like she constantly hurts me threatens to hijack my control.
The crunch of gravel stops me from saying something that would push her over the edge. Grandma’s within hearing range, a look of suspicion on her face. “What’s going on, Addison?”
“Addy,” Mom says on a sigh as she turns to face Grandma. “My name is Addy. And nothing is going on. This is my son. Dylan.”
“Your son?” The news is definitely a shocker for her. “But he’s… How old is he?”
“Seventeen,” I say.
Grandma appears dazed and more than confused.
“Yeah,” Mom blurts out. “Do the math. Sixteen and pregnant. Daddy would’ve freaked—I freaked—so I left.”
“What? Your father—”
Mom throws her head back and sways side-to-side like a nervous hen that’s been pegged for Sunday dinner. “You know I’m right,” she hollers at the sky.
Shadows flit into Grandma’s eyes. “He would’ve been angry, yes, but that was no reason to leave like you did.”
Mom’s chin trembles, but she regains control. She looks toward the house and into the woods beyond, like she’s searching for something. “Well, we can’t change the past.”
“No. We can’t.” Grandma glances at me. I can tell she wants to move closer for an inspection, but manners—and most likely shock—keep her back. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dylan,” she says.
Her gaze lances through me. I get this feeling like I should apologize, but I can’t think what I’ve done wrong, exactly. I don’t especially like the feeling. So instead, I thrust out my hand and throw her a smile laced with sarcasm. “Hey there, Granny.”
There’s a sudden void of sound, like the whole world stops for a millisecond, shocked by my rudeness. It whispers on the wind, “She’s your grandmother. Have a little respect.”
She blinks, and then her mouth cracks open into a wide smile, followed by a sharp laugh. She grabs my hand and squeezes. “You’re your mother’s child, all right.”
I stiffen. She has no idea how deeply she’s insulted me. Or maybe she does, because the sunlight splinters in her eyes, and her fingers squeeze mine.
Mom’s fixated on the car, and she’s as jittery as a crack addict. “Can we unpack, now?” she whines, and lights up a cigarette, sucking so hard the tip burns quickly into squiggly ash.
Grandma lets go of my hand to cup my face. There’s an analytical slant to her stare—a “who’s your daddy” look. I can see her mentally click through the slim White Pages of her acquaintances, searching for the culprit. A shadow of suspicion flickers before she gives my cheek a gentle pat. “You’re a handsome boy, Dylan. I bet your girlfriend is still crying over you leaving.”
Girls have been giggling and sighing over me since I hit the sixth grade. I won’t lie. I like girls, and I like the attention they pour on me. A lot. But as soon as I get attached to one, we leave. Over the years, I’ve learned to adapt. To play the field. Life is less complicated that way.
I shrug and look at Mom. “I’m not strictly a one-woman guy, right, Mom?”
She blows out a thick stream of smoke before pitching the spent butt on the ground and grinding it out. “No, you’re not.”
A twinkle enters Grandma’s eyes. “A Romeo, huh?” When I start to pull away, her fingers intertwine with mine, and she leads me back up the dirt road toward the house. “Trust me. A time will come when one special person is all you’ll want.”
Mom snorts and lights another cigarette.
God, I hope not. The last thing I want is to become like Mom; chasing the one and always slinking away with the taste of burnt ash in my mouth.