The Keeper's Calling is the first book in The Keeper's Saga, an exciting new YA series by Kelly Nelson.
I would look back on that summer as the defining moment of my earthly existence. Everything prior fell within the realm of normal. Everything to follow didn’t, leaving me at the mercy of the Fates’ every whim.
I folded the map and tossed it on the picnic table. Zion National Park—the final stop on our camping trip the week before the start of my senior year. After driving for hours, we had checked into the Watchman Campground and pitched our tents. I wanted to explore the park before dinner. Sitting around the campground all afternoon would bore me to tears. But Dad and Uncle Steve collapsed once their air mattresses hit the floor of their tents. Both men now slept. My cousin Amanda and my sister Jessica sat in camp chairs under a large tree, absorbed in reading their books.
I threw my bag into the tent I shared with my cousin. “Hey, Adam, I’m bored. You up for a bike ride before dinner?”
Adam eyed the grassy shade where the girls were reading. “Chase, you’re crazy. It’s way too hot.”
I pulled my baseball cap onto my head. “Well, if my dad wakes up, tell him I’ll be back before dinner. After sitting in the car all day, I’ve got to do something.”
Adam walked toward the shade. “Have fun, dude.”
I grabbed my backpack and threw in three water bottles and a handful of granola bars, then shot Adam a confident smile. “Always do.”
I loved my family, but after a week of camping with them 24/7, I needed some alone time. I unclipped my mountain bike from the rack and pedaled into the park. The lecture I’d endured the day before still burned my ears. Dad was on a roll. I swear I’ve heard the same thing a hundred times since freshman year, and yesterday was no exception. “With school starting next week, this is game time. High school is when it really counts. If you don’t get the grades now, you won’t get into the college you want.”
The college I want? Who knows what college I want? I think it’s the football thing again. That’s what put a bur under his saddle. Both my dad and Uncle Steve played high school football. Yesterday morning they started talking about Adam’s chances at playing college ball. Adam is the star wide receiver for our high school team, and I know my dad wishes I’d gone out for football as well. He hates it when I remind him I do play football—soccer. I may be athletic, but I’m not the superstar I know my dad dreams of. He didn’t think I’d ever really applied myself. He was probably right. I didn’t stick with youth football. Bailed out of that after four years and switched to soccer. He thinks I could have been good if I would have worked at it. As a senior at Hillsboro High School in Oregon, I approached school the same way I did sports: my goal was to have fun. Next to my straight-A-earning, swim-team-captain, and ultra-competitive twin sister, I didn’t measure up. But it didn’t bother me. I had my own agenda.
The magnificent scenery brought me back to the present. As a native Oregonian, my eyes were used to seeing towering Douglas firs and beds of ferns, not colorful, jagged cliffs and scrawny, water-deprived juniper trees. I coasted to a stop, and as usual, I veered off the beaten path. After climbing down a red-rock hillside, I ditched my bike and helmet and hiked through a sagebrush flat. Before long it narrowed into an old wash. Thousands of flash floods had worn a gap in the rocky hillsides. The orange rock walls rose twenty-five feet or more on both sides. At times, shade completely immersed me. Clumps of hardy desert weeds dotted the sandy floor, and lizards zipped away in front of me.
The wash widened, and I spied a hole in the rock wall. The crevice opened five feet above the ground. I got a foothold on the sandstone face and climbed in. I had seen several of these cave openings, but usually they were shallow indentations. This one, however, carved its way deep into the hillside. Crawling on my hands and knees, I edged my way into the darkness.
As an almost-Eagle Scout, with only the paperwork holding me up, I carried a mini Maglite in my backpack along with my compass. I dug out the light and looked around. The cave opened into a larger space with boulders and rocks piled near one wall. The ceilings were tall enough that I could stand. Graffiti decorated the walls, and cigarette butts and trash littered the sandy floor. Obviously, I hadn’t discovered a hidden, natural wonder of the world.
I checked my cell phone. No coverage in here, but I’d been gone an hour. It was cool in the cave, much cooler than outside, and the air had an earthy smell. I climbed onto a flat boulder and sat down, then grabbed a water bottle from my pack and took a long swallow. With a sigh, I wiped the water off of my chin. As I replaced the lid, the flashlight slipped out of my hand and fell between the rocks.
“Dang it,” I muttered.
I considered leaving the light, but my dad had given it to me on my twelfth birthday when I started Scouts. It had been with me on more camping trips than I could count. That flashlight was like an old friend. I set the water bottle on the ground. In the remaining sliver of light, I began clearing boulders out of my way. Finally, I wedged my arm between the rocks and reached for the flashlight, succeeding only in knocking it to the floor of the cave. I moved more rocks, and a pile stacked up behind me before I could grab my flashlight. Gently, I retracted my hand, squeezing the light between my fingertips. I maneuvered it to a foot above the ground, where I could almost grab it with the other hand, when it slipped out of my grasp.
The flashlight clanged, sounding like it hit something hollow and metallic. I reached down again, and my fingertips brushed across metal. I turned the light toward the ground. After brushing away the dirt, I saw something.
Curious, I moved more rocks. Fifteen rocks and two boulders later, I brushed away the dirt from a metal surface. Using a stick, I dug out a small, metal box. It looked ancient and pocked with rust. There wasn’t a lock, but corrosion had sealed the lid. I banged the box against the wall, at first only loosening the dirt and chipping off pieces of rusted metal, but the box finally opened. Decaying wood lined the inside, and a soiled piece of leather lay at the bottom. Years of hiding underground had left the leather dark and stiff. Prying it open sent a tarnished gold object tumbling into my hand.
I turned it over. It reminded me of a pocket watch, only a little larger and oval-shaped. The object had a small hook on the top. Strange symbols were engraved into the metal casing, making the thing look like an ancient artifact. In the glow of my flashlight I made out the shape of a shield etched in the center. I felt a latch on the side. The top flipped open when I pressed it. The thing opened so fast, it must have been spring-loaded. An eerie light with a bluish tint emanated from within. I focused my eyes on a miniature glass globe, colored in a perfect replica of the earth. I saw the outline of North America, and noticed that the light inside the globe focused into a pinpoint on the lower Rocky Mountains.
There were three buttons and an odometer-looking thing, with dials, located below the globe. Each button had a foreign symbol or some kind of pictograph on it—like the hieroglyphics on an Egyptian cartouche. When I slid my thumb across the first button on the left, it clicked under the pressure. A wave of nausea hit me, and my vision blurred. Lowering my head, I rested my hand on my knee. I felt dizzy. What’s wrong with me? I thought. Must have a touch of heatstroke or something.
The wave of nausea left as quickly as it had come. I closed the lid on the gold device, deciding to look at it later. My stomach rumbled. Time to head back to camp. Maybe after a good meal, I’d feel better.
With the device stored in the pocket of my shorts, I crawled to the opening and jumped onto the desert floor. I glanced up and down the wash. Something seemed different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I shrugged it off and started back the way I’d come. Nothing was how I remembered. The wash wasn’t as deep as I’d thought, and more lizards were out now. High above me, a hawk screamed, talons extended, as it dived for its prey. When I reached the sagebrush flat, I looked at the sky. I could have sworn the sun had switched sides of the horizon. I pulled off my cap and scratched my head.
I dug my compass out of my backpack and ate a granola bar. Lining up the compass arrow with the “N,” I turned my body to face north. The sun beat down on the right side of my face. I’d left camp at three o’clock, so by now the sun should be getting ready to set. It should have been in the west, to my left. Did my compass break, or is there some magnetic field messing it up? I wondered. I shook it and tried again, but it still offered me the same confusing result.
I finished the granola bar and reached for my water bottle. It wasn’t there, and I realized I’d left it in the cave. It was too far to go back for it, so I got out a fresh one. Regardless of what my compass said, I knew the direction I’d come from. I started across the flat, discovering desert wildflowers I didn’t remember seeing before. A coyote mother and her pups chased jackrabbits in the distance. I definitely hadn’t noticed any coyotes before. They scurried off once they spotted me. Ground squirrels chattered everywhere. Three hawks circled the cloudless blue sky, taking turns screeching at each other. The scene in front of me teemed with wildlife, and I shook my head in awe.
A half hour later, I searched for my bike. It was gone. I found the same kind of bushes I’d hidden the bike under, but they were in different sizes and different places than I remembered. Yet I knew I was in the right location because of the distinctive color swirls on the solid rock hillside. I climbed up it, expecting to see the road, cars, and other bikers. This place had been crawling with people an hour ago. All I saw where the road should have been was a game trail. Not even a well-worn, heavily used game trail. In my imagination, I saw where the road should have been.
Completely baffled, I kept walking. Was I going crazy? Where was the road? If it wasn’t where I expected, it had to be close. I kicked a rock off the path, confident that at any moment I’d hear the hum of a car’s engine in the distance or at least encounter another hiker. But for the next mile, as far as the eye could see, nothing appeared except rocky cliffs and sagebrush.
Ahead of me, four turkey vultures circled a stand of junipers. One by one, they landed. As I drew closer, my curiosity got the better of me. I pushed through the trees. The flock of vultures took to the air as I rustled the branches.
I expected a dead rabbit or ground squirrel. Instead, my eyes widened at the sight of human legs sticking out from under a pile of sticks. Panic seized me like a coastal sneaker wave. Unable to move, I listened. The thundering of my beating heart seemed loud in the sudden stillness, and I wondered if I was truly alone.
Although sickened by the sight, I edged closer, powerless to turn away. The scene sent a shudder down my spine. The vultures had pecked open the man’s pant legs and begun to rip into the flesh of his thighs. Any hope I had that he might be alive vanished. I pulled the branches off him, shooting nervous glances over my shoulder.
He was a large man who looked like he had hit the weights at the gym. His wavy white hair and gray beard were matted with dried blood. His skin was weather beaten and tanned, like he had worked road construction or something. Death rendered his eyes a dull brown. I had expected a younger-looking face to go with the muscular build. His chest was bare, and he lay on his side. His pants were covered with blood. Removing the last branch revealed a mutilated right hand. His fingers were gone. I brought my fist to my mouth, cringing. One glance at his shoulders left me fighting the urge to throw up. If missing fingers weren’t enough, massive cuts crisscrossed his back, leaving it looking like rotten hamburger. Had he been whipped? I didn’t think that stuff happened anymore.
Horrified, I scrambled away. Someone had tortured this man to death! My hand shook as I dug my cell phone from my pocket. Nervously, I scanned the horizon for anything unusual, but only natural sights and sounds surrounded me. The hum of black flies and yellow jackets filled the air as they competed for a piece of flesh. And the vultures still circled above me, occasionally landing to eye me with obvious distaste as I monopolized their find. The only disturbances to nature seemed to be me and the corpse.
I slid my cell phone open and dialed 911. I held the phone to my ear, waiting—nothing. A loud beep drew my attention to the display. “No network coverage.” I tried again. Still nothing. Next, I typed a text message to 911. After I pushed “Send,” the phone display read, “Message saved for sending.” Hopefully it would go through.
While texting, I had involuntarily moved farther away from the hideous sight. The vultures got braver. They strutted back and forth, moving closer to the body with each pass. They alternated with the ones in the air, each taking a turn circling the carcass. The smell of blood baking in the sun had emboldened them, I decided, and suddenly I didn’t want to be alone anymore. I sent text messages to Adam and Jessica. Then I dialed my dad’s number. A blaring beep answered my plea. No network coverage.
No sooner had I turned my back than the vultures began consuming the bloody flesh again. I’d seen my share of TV shows and knew not to mess with a crime scene, but soon there wouldn’t be a body left to investigate if the vultures had their way. Although I had no desire to get involved, my conscience was pricked, and I knew I should try to preserve the body. The pile of sticks hadn’t kept the scavengers away, so there was no use replacing them. Numerous rocks littered the landscape. I gathered what I needed and covered the man with stones.
For all the torture he went through before he died, he looked peaceful as the final rock slid into place. The relentless sun beat down as I stood to survey my work. “Hmm.” My mound of stones resembled a burial job in a Western movie. Bizarre. This whole thing was surreal.
I left the stand of juniper trees, more anxious than ever to find someone—anyone I could tell about the body. In my forced solitude, I began to wonder about the man and why he had been tortured. Most likely the answers were buried with him.
I wiped the back of my hand across my forehead. I was a mess. Dust clung to every bead of sweat, and orange dirt stains covered my shirt and shorts. I downed the rest of the water bottle as I hiked away from the circling vultures. Only two birds were left—the others must have given up. My filthy hands tempted me to open the last bottle of water. Thankfully, I didn’t.
To learn more about The Keeper's Saga, visit the author's website here.
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