I just got the cover art for Alien Contact for Runaway Moms. Yay!
Or maybe not, from your point of view, because I’m not ready to reveal the cover just yet. Runaway Moms is book five in my science fiction Alien Contact for Idiots series — but they’re all complete stories, so no wicked cliffhangers.
It’s not the cover, but here’s a tease. When you read a book you travel to a new world, especially when the book is science fiction. Here’s the “travel poster” for the world of Alien Contact for Runaway Moms.
She’s running from an abusive lover…but what is she running to?
When her abusive lover tries to take custody of her baby, Audra flees where even he can’t follow: the aliens’ forbidden cities underneath Kwadra Island.
But can the safety she wants for her daughter survive a search party, violent alien criminals—and the love of an emotionally damaged Kwadran?
Time: Five years from now
Place: A forest on a duplicate of Vancouver Island that doesn’t exist on this planet . . . yet
“I don’t care how helpful you’re being,” Audra Verhailey panted with as much defiant dignity as she could muster. “I’m not going to have sex with you.”
Her lanky, dark-skinned guide — an honest-to-God alien from another world, though he looked like someone she might meet on an Indian Reservation — slowed his pace. He glanced back with a sad, faraway expression, as though remembering a healthier forest on a distant planet. Then he resumed climbing the steep hillside.
Fuming, she followed. If he got too far ahead, she’d have to shout, and that might wake Roxie, the best baby on this Earth. The least he could do was stop to listen to her.
He hadn’t spoken during the forty minute climb through a dense yet sickly evergreen forest with so many dead needles it was sometimes like slogging through loose sand. She’d been meaning to state her terms for at least thirty-nine of those minutes, ever since they’d started up this mountain. But exertion and his fierce silence had robbed her of words.
For the first ten minutes, Audra had felt nothing but love for her baby, gratitude for his help, and relief that she’d escaped despite everything.
For the next ten, love still dominated, but she wished he’d say something so she knew he just meant to help.
By the time the third ten came around, the mountainside’s isolation and his stubborn silence had started scaring her. She’d tried jokes and humorous comments about the mountainside, but he’d answered with brooding grunts, if at all.
Now her anxiety was approaching panic.
“I’m doing the right thing,” she whispered to herself as she tromped over fallen branches that cracked underfoot like gunshots from a pursuing posse. “The right thing, the right thing.”
Even Mom, a level-headed high school principal, had begged her to get Roxie away from the baby’s dad. I know, Mom said as she thrust a roll of bills into her purse, that Tom controls your money. And everything else, including makeup, clothes, friendships, thoughts. So take this and run away. Hide.
But no matter where I go, he’ll find me!
If you can just keep away from him for a month or two . . .
Mom was right, as usual. After a while, Tom would act as though he didn’t care that she’d left. He hated losing — but not as much as he hated people thinking he was a loser. For him, everything was about appearances.
So Audra knew she was doing the right thing . . .but that didn’t automatically mean it would end well.
So far, it couldn’t have gone worse. She’d had to creep away in the middle of the night because Tom’s paranoia made him hard to escape. But then her wallet, containing her driver’s license, credit card, and nine-hundred-eighteen dollars, was stolen on the ferry from Astoria to Kwadra Island, leaving her without friends, money, or even identification in an alien land. Anguish clung to her skin like filth that would never wash off.
Roxie was worth it all, of course, but Audra’s nerves were shot. And now, instead of being able to relax as she approached the ultimate in safety, she had to endure Mr. Tall Dark and Intimidating’s brooding silence. She couldn’t take his company much longer without screaming or lashing out or . . . or something.
She’d met him this morning when climbed out of a construction company pickup truck. She was kneeling with a map spread out on dirt that would one day be a paved street or sidewalk. Maybe a house. She was thinking they might have to build whatever-it-was around her dead body, because she was at the end of her hope, quivering with misery and fear for her baby’s welfare.
But then came an unexpected ray of not-despair. Baby Roxie had smiled up at the big, tough construction worker and dropped the plastic keys Audra had given her to play with. He picked them up, knelt down, and let Roxie grab his finger. When she tried to stuff his hand in her mouth, he let her. His smile was heavy with yearning, wistfulness . . . and pain.
That smile, that smile . . .
For no better reason than a stranger’s mournful smile, Audra had leaped to a rash decision she now regretted. She’d asked if he could read the hand-drawn, bootleg map Mom had bought. Maybe even give directions to her destination?
No, he’d said, he wouldn’t give directions. She’d just get lost. Instead, he volunteered to guide her.
Everybody, or at least every woman, knew that a guy who abandoned work to help a stranger was suspicious. Or maybe, hopefully, just sick of the job; she knew that feeling.
He got back in his truck and drove them along a dirt road that climbed a mountain valley for nearly an hour. Audra hadn’t seen another vehicle for the last half of the drive. Then he hiked up this wilderness mountain with her. He even carried her backpack, heavy with food, diapers, toys, a single change of clothes for herself, six flashlights, and one-hundred-ninety-two triple-A batteries.
As Audra hurried to catch up to him, she was chilled to the bone by how utterly vulnerable she was. No one would hear her screams, if she had to scream. There were no kindly neighbors to run to, if she had to run.
Mom might call this guide the greatest gentleman alive, but although Audra admired her mother’s optimism, she couldn’t share it. He was a guy, and she knew the kind of guys runaways attracted.
As a teen, she’d run away from home twice — which her foster mother, now her adoptive mother, had totally not deserved — so she knew all about girls who disappeared off the face of the Earth. Ten summers ago, she’d shared a tent with a street friend from Montana. They were vegging out at Pioneer Courthouse Square when Evangeline met a guy who seemed nice. She had wiggled her fingers at Audra in a see-you-soon wave as she left with him.
She was never seen again.
Audra had liked a boy in her eighth-grade biology class with blond hair, and that guy’s hair was dark, which was the only reason she hadn’t flirted with him. But what if she had? What if she, rather than Evangeline, had gone off with him?
That day had haunted her nightmares for years, yet what had she done? Gone off with a dark-haired guy who seemed nice and who would make her disappear off the face of the Earth. She must be the most naïve idiot still breathing. At least for a while.
Roxie deserved a better mother.
Audra had told herself not to trust muscular, macho guys, but after puzzling over the handwritten map written in an alien language, with five dollars and eighteen cents in her pocket and half of yesterday’s banana in her belly, she’d gone and trusted him anyway.
“Did you hear me?” Her voice was shrill, tremulous, and loud enough that Roxie stirred but went back to sleep. “Not even a blowjob,” she finished in a fierce whisper.
As soon as she spoke, she realized she’d stumbled onto something. He was being so over-the-top helpful that he obviously wanted something from her. She had only her baby, her body, and five dollars eighteen cents; if he angrily demanded payment, she’d give him the best blowjob ever. The money too, if he wanted it.
She had to stay alive and well for Roxie’s sake. Nothing on Earth was more important than that.
Instead of answering, the guy tormented her with an enigmatic smile as he climbed over a fallen tree trunk. Expecting his gaze to rake her body, she slouched. But he didn’t check her out. Didn’t even glance at her as she detoured around the log.
She was relieved, sure, but this guy was spooky with a capital S — which could also stand for Silent and Scary. His name was Al or Hal, something like that, but his silence was a wall forbidding even simple questions. She didn’t understand him, and that bothered her. People—guys, at least—didn’t help runaways out of the goodness of their hearts. Though Kwadrans hailed from an alternate Earth, they were human, and human guys thought with their dicks no matter what planet they were born on.
Guys were dicks, no matter what planet they were born on.
“I just wanted to make that clear,” she said, determined to coax something out of him. When he didn’t answer, she stepped close enough to poke his shoulder with three stiff fingers. “No sex, understand?”
Only one word, but it was progress. “So don’t try anything.”
She stopped and planted her feet. “I warn you, I’ve taken self-defense classes.”
When a new possibility hit her, her tired legs wobbled so much she had to lean against a tree to keep from falling. “Did Tom pay you to lead me around in circles until he gets here?”
Blinking, her guide stopped. He took a deep breath and looked around as though returning from far away. “Sorry, what did you say? Going back is hard for me.”
Tearing Roxie from the security of a posh apartment wasn’t easy for her, either. Not knowing where her baby would sleep tonight was agony. He’d get no sympathy from her.
Well, not none. Less than his help deserved, though.
“Is a lawyer named Thomas J. Verhailey paying you to do this?”
“I wish he was. Wish somebody was.”
Fighting off a shiver of dread, Audra wrapped her hands around her elbows. As she feared, he wanted some kind of payback for his help.
“He your husband?”
“God, no.” That was one mistake she hadn’t made. “It’s complicated, okay? I’m a Verhailey only by adoption and . . . Oh, never mind. I have another question before you head back to la-la land.”
He cocked his head to one side. “La-la land?”
“Are you with the police?”
His bark of laughter reassured her—until he spoke. “Only when they lock me up.”
“I’ve hooked up with a criminal?”
He leered at her, but if the overdone expression was a joke, it wasn’t funny. His face slid back to its usual granite impenetrability. “I’ve been buttered in public a few dozen times.”
“That’s ‘drunk’ to you,” he said. “Also for creating public disturbances. Fighting. Pub brawls. That sort of thing.”
Around his mouth and eyes, he looked like someone who might’ve done worse, yet she wanted to believe him. She resumed plodding uphill while trying to make her thoughts plod as well, rather than skitter wildly. That was harder.
As a teenager, she’d survived for months on the streets of Portland by almost, but not quite, panicking — being hyperaware of possible threats, but not losing control. With each tired footstep, she tried to sink deeper into the survival instincts of her youth. It helped to remember the on-edge mood of the first day at a new foster home, when she didn’t know the rules or trust the people.
He brushed against a dead sapling, creating a shower of dead needles. Some of them stuck to his raven-black hair like brown dandruff.
“You in trouble?” he asked.
“Of course not,” she shot back. “I ran away from home at two a.m., fled the country, risked my baby’s life, and am following a butter-soaked stranger up a mountain to search for a hole in the ground that probably doesn’t even exist, all because it’s my idea of fun, fun, fun.”
He didn’t answer right away, just kept walking. He didn’t seem to mind that she was fleeing trouble. That was reassuring, but she couldn’t let it lull her.
“It exists,” he said. “Or did.”
“What do you mean, did?”
She counted the steps until he deigned to answer. Eight. Nine. Ten . . .
“You ran away with a baby in the middle of the night without knowing this stuff?”
“Go–” She paused to calm her voice. “Go to hell.”
“Yeah, I’m pointed that direction.” After several more steps, he chuckled. “It’s not enough to run away from your problems, you know. You have to have something to run to.”
“Oh yeah? Tell me, Mr. Wise Guy, do you follow your own advice?”
Another chuckle, tinged with bitterness. Then a sigh. “Maybe that’s what I’m doing right now.”
She scowled, trying to dispel any hopes he might have about her. Didn’t he realize yet that she had time for nothing and no one except her baby?
“Is the ventilation tunnel still open or not? Just tell me straight.”
He didn’t answer because they’d arrived at an overgrown gully, and fighting through the bushes required full attention. When he reached a fallen log that acted as a bridge to the far bank, he extended his hand to help her across. She ignored it, and then regretted her stubbornness, because crawling on hands and knees woke Roxie. Tiny fists stuttered erratically through the air as the girl fought against wakefulness; tiny fists that were as soft as a chick’s newly hatched feathers yet as steely as the fierce little will that yearned for love.
“The authorities,” he said over the baby’s fussing, “don’t want crooks sneaking down there. The mountains on the western side of the island are honeycombed with towns and tunnels connecting them, so it’s nearly impossible to track down a crook. When someone cuts into a ventilation tunnel, a crew fixes the grates as soon as they can.”
Audra hugged Roxie and swayed from side to side. “How soon is that?”
“Assuming I can slip through the grate . . .” She stopped to control the panic that nearly overwhelmed her calmness. What if she couldn’t? Her heart beat painfully at the thought of coming all this way, with no way back, and only making things worse for Roxie. “Assuming I get in, it sounds perfect.”
“You a crook, then?”
It was the quickest he’d ever responded to her. This time, though, she was the one who hesitated before answering. She crooned to Roxie and walked her fingers over her tummy. Roxie laughed.
He didn’t take the hint. “The flicks after you? Cops, I mean?”
She shook her head, hoping she wasn’t lying. Tom, the boyfriend who’d sired Roxie, had turned out to be a control freak, a narcissist, and an unfeeling sociopath. Unfortunately, the world saw him as a respectable lawyer with the county’s district attorney. If she dared leave him, he said, he’d find her no matter where in the country she went. Canada too. He had friends in police forces everywhere.
He loved to say that, and his chest puffed up a bit more with each word: he had friends.
She had none.
But surely not even he had friends among the aliens on Kwadra, the island that had appeared off the west coast from the future of an alternate Earth.
Tom had told her, in a voice like discussing Portland’s rain, that because she had no source of income and no place to live if she left him, he’d get her declared an unfit mother. He had snapped his fingers to show how easy it would be.
I’ll take Roxie and you’ll never see her again. Don’t even think about leaving me, Audra. You’re mine forever.
Pain stabbed her heart at the thought of being torn from Roxie’s side. Her vision grew watery, causing her to stumble. “I’m no criminal,” she whispered to her Kwadran guide. “Just . . . a mom. That’s all I want to be. A mom.”
Her footsteps slowed. He stopped and looked back at her. “The grate’s open. I guided an American — his brain was spinny-flipping, if you know what I mean — a couple weeks ago, and no government crews have been around since then.”
“You lied to me?”
He shrugged. “The authorities will fix this one eventually.”
After a few seconds, he resumed climbing uphill.
She didn’t follow. “This is far enough.” Audra yearned to rest her hands on her knees, but Roxie’s weight would pitch her flat onto her face. “Thanks for your help, but I can take it from here.”
“Okay.” He turned to face her.
He agreed fast, way too fast. Her legs trembled. This was it, then. The moment of payback. She almost gagged at the thought of blowing this stranger. She wouldn’t do it unless there was absolutely no other way to ensure Roxie’s safety.
Roxie, I love you.
He stepped to his right, craned his neck, and pointed. “It’s right up there.”
The words knocked the foundation out from her dread. Watching him from the corner of her eye, she peered uphill. She saw nothing but trees and moss-covered rocks, even when she moved near him.
Not too near.
She took slow, deep breaths and tried to rebuild the only successful defense she’d ever known: mistrust. “I see it,” she lied. “You can go back now. I’ll rest here a minute while you head down to your truck.”
He grinned again with those dark, unreadable eyes. “Dumb little cheechako. Blind, too.”
Unlike her, he wasn’t breathing hard, despite the backpack. He had a construction worker’s conditioning and a construction worker’s hair — a flat halo from the band of the hardhat he’d left in the truck. “Look again. This time, see what’s invisible.”
“Invisible. Right. You’re crazy, you know that?” Crazy was even scarier than criminal, if that were possible. Audra edged away from him.
But she tripped over a fallen branch and landed on her bottom. The soft forest floor was wet from a recent rain, so now the seat of her only jeans was soaked. Cold, too. Fir needles stuck to her hands.
Roxie, bless her precious little heart, laughed to encourage Mommy to do that again. She thrust one tiny fist into the air then stared at it in wonder as though realizing that holy moly, she had hands.
But Audra couldn’t give her darling the attention she deserved because the guy loomed over her like a storm cloud. From this angle, with wild evergreens for a backdrop and a raven croaking out a laugh, he was the nightmarish stereotype of a vengeful Indian. Or Native American. Or First Nations person. Whatever the polite term was this week.
If he attacked, she’d kick. Kick his kneecap and she could do real damage. She hadn’t been kidding about the self-defense classes.
But he stood well over six feet tall, his t-shirt showcased flat abs and sleekly muscled arms, and he moved with a cougar’s speed and grace. She was outclassed and she knew it.
Nonetheless, she braced for a kick. For Roxie’s sake.
Maybe he noticed her shifting, or maybe he used some mind-reading trick from another world. Whatever. He stepped back.
“Cultus stupede cheechako,” he muttered in his native language.
To her ears, the words sounded harsh. Shanoog was based on Chinook, the old Indian trading language of the Northwest Coast, with generous borrowings from French and a little English. His Earth and hers had shared a history until around 1800, when their two realities diverged. Tribes, not Europeans, ruled the west coast of his twenty-third-century North America.
A few years ago, his people had used unimaginably advanced technology to ‘hop’ their entire kingdom — called Kwadra Island on his world, Vancouver Island on hers — to this Earth. Maps looked stupede now, with two large, identical islands.
The Kwadran let out a sigh before plopping to the damp ground beside her. She cringed away from him.
“Frightened, lost little cheechako. Look up there. Go ahead, look. What do you see?”
Clutching Roxie’s hand, she watched him, instead.
He shook his head and sighed again. He scooted a couple feet away without bothering to stand, despite the heavy pack on his back. “Now will you look?”
She watched him for several more seconds, wishing she could read his eyes. Then she looked uphill.
No matter how she stared, though, she didn’t see an eight-foot oval ventilation shaft into the hillside. No illicit backdoor into a safe haven in the now-abandoned underworld where Kwadrans had holed up when the environment of their alternate Earth went bad.
“What do you see?” he asked.
She had no reason to play his game. Also no reason not to. “Okay, okay. I see an overgrown granite cliff. A bunch of trees, half of them dying—your forest isn’t adapting well to this Earth. Some bright red berries. A bunch of bushes. And a guy I don’t trust.”
His eyes twinkled. She was hard-pressed not to smile.
“Notice anything about the bushes?” he asked.
“They’re, you know . . . bushes, okay?” Stroking the downy blond hair atop Roxie’s head, Audra looked again. “I have no idea what kind they are, if that’s what you’re after.”
He waited. Though this conversation was weird, it didn’t feel threatening, so she looked uphill again.
And after several seconds, she saw something.
A hundred feet uphill, shrubs were bending to and fro as though in a stiff breeze — yet she felt no wind. Feeling like Lewis and Clark exploring the wilderness, she licked her forefinger and held it up in all directions. No breeze.
“It’s wind from the ventilation shaft’s fans!” She was inordinately pleased with herself, even though she didn’t care what this guy thought. Obviously.
The twinkle spread from his eyes to his whole face, revealing a different man underneath his impassive, unresponsive exterior. He was the opposite of Kwadra Island. Its buried cities were old and abandoned, but his buried features were young and full of life. For a second — maybe two — she was so startled by the change that she yearned to trust him.
“Your hiding spot awaits you, cheechako. Whoever’s chasing you, they’ll never find you underground.” He rose effortlessly then offered a hand to help her stand.
She looked at it. Girding herself against that alluring desire to trust, she tightened her brow and lips, ready to refuse.
But she was pointing uphill, with Roxie on her chest. She couldn’t get up on her own without undignified flopping and grunting and disturbing the baby, who’d want to eat, and no way was she breastfeeding in front of this guy. After heaving a melodramatic sigh, she took his hand.
It was, she thought in surprise, a nice hand. Large, strong, and callused from honest hard work, though his long fingers seemed delicate enough for more than mere hammering. He pulled both her and Roxie upright with ease. Still holding his hand, she ended up nearer than she liked. He was almost a foot taller than her five-foot-five. Up close, he looked, sounded, and even smelled nothing like Tom.
Her Native American space alien from the future released her hand. She didn’t have to tug or scream or even ask. He just let go.
Audra discovered she didn’t mind this man’s closeness nearly as much as she’d expected.
Alien Contact for Runaway Moms goes live September 1. Until then, it’s available for pre-order, so order your copy now!