The Measure of the Moon: New Excerpt

The Measure of the Moon by Lisa Preston is a mix of mystery and domestic suspense that weaves together two stories of love, lies, and secrets resulting in a shocking conclusion (available April 18, 2017). 

“If you ever say anything to anyone, they all die.”

When eight-year-old Greer Donner falls off his horse in the Washington wilderness, he braces himself to face the long hike home alone. But screams pierce the darkness, and he stumbles upon a dead-end road where a man is beating a woman—nearly to death. In a moment of courage, he stops the assault, but he’s left to face the man, who turns his wrath into an ominous threat: if the boy ever reveals what he has seen, his family will pay the ultimate price. The secret Greer now carries begins his emotional unraveling.

In Seattle, Gillian Trett is a photographer with a troubled marriage and a childhood she’s trying to forget. Domestic tension mounts when her husband’s stepsister arrives. Desperate for a distraction, and a way to advance her career, Gillian throws herself into uncovering the history behind an old man’s Holocaust photo of boys in a forest. The mysterious children and the truth behind the scene haunt her—she can’t let go of the image, or of her own shadowed past.

Then a horrifying revelation entangles Gillian’s path with young Greer’s. The boy and the woman, separated by a generation and a hundred miles, each confront the terrible power of harbored secrets—not only to eclipse the truth but also to illuminate the dark, unknown dimensions of their loved ones and themselves.

CHAPTER 1

Joyriding done right meant stealing home when nobody suspected, then slipping away for a solo backcountry gallop. When miles passed with no one in sight, it felt like the high point of eight-going-on-nine-year-old Greer’s life. He laced his fingers through Clipper’s mane, leaned forward, and drummed his heels on the sweating horse’s bare ribs.

Being a man would feel like this, he guessed, hoping to spy a hawk from the summit. They earned a view of faraway fields dotted with homes. He could see his school beyond the woods and farms across the distant two-lane highway. Fifteen miles north, the ground gave way to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and from where Greer sat, the lighthouse looked like a ship. The strait did more than separate land from sky. Cold salt water under the horizon buffeted islands belonging to two countries. Beyond lay endless Canadian soil. Behind him, countless American mountains stacked their way to the Salish Sea.

Clipper snorted and stamped one front hoof. Greer steadied him with the two lead ropes he used as reins, then closed his eyes to soak in the scents. A breeze stirred, skittering leaves across the trail. The gelding blew and jumped sideways, flinging Greer from its back.

In the split second as the ropes pulled through his fingers and he went airborne, Greer heard hoofbeats signal the horse’s mad dash. Several thoughts crashed through his mind. The fall was going to hurt. He shouldn’t have lied and taken Clipper without permission. That morning, Papa had made him promise to be cleaned up and presentable by dinnertime because everyone was going to be there for the big gathering. And there wasn’t a kid on earth in more trouble. 

Wincing, he brushed the dirt from his shoulder and hip. The hard landing, a launch into the willows tossing him smack onto his side, smarted. On the inside of his calves and thighs, his jeans were wet from the horse’s sweat, and the wind chilled him. 

Holding his breath, Greer heard nothing. The telltale sound of flung rocks no longer echoed. Please let the horse be okay. He’d catch an earful when he got home. 

There was another problem. Golden, crunchy maple leaves drifting trailside warned of waning days. In November, daylight died early, pitch by five o’clock. Greer couldn’t make the many miles home before dark. Walking would take three or four hours. 

Wishing his boots were better broken in, he started jogging down the mountain trail, summing things up with what he planned to be his last words for hours so he could save his wind for the task at hand. “Dang it, Clip.” 

~ ~ ~

 

Ever since he could remember, everyone made it clear to Greer that the best thing about being the baby of the family was having plenty of big brothers and sisters to help him out. It seemed to him more like he had a dozen parents. His three brothers and two sisters were all grown-ups and had husbands or wives or boyfriends or girlfriends, which brought all sorts of other people to the table for the big dinners. Caroline, the mother of his sister-in-law Maddie, acted like an aunty, too, because she was Momma’s best friend. Even though Momma and Papa were the only ones he lived with, it was hard to get a moment’s peace. A long hour later, Greer realized that too much thinking took away his stride and home wasn’t getting closer quick enough to suit him. The river crossing was coming up and he’d still have a few miles to go. 

Maybe the forest roads would be faster than the skinny trails. The old logging roads that his big brother Doug called scars in the land were a lot longer, but flatter. He could probably make better time on them, and they weren’t as confusing as all the intersecting dirt trails. If he were in a hurry and a-horseback, he’d definitely ride forest roads and push the horse. He nodded, pleased to have a way to make better progress and by dusk, was enveloped in the sound of the river’s riffles, scouting a place to ford. 

The water ran wider here but shallower, not as fast as above the foothills. Greer slid one foot at a time in the cold crossing. In a knee-deep hole, his boots filled, but he stayed methodical even as the din of rushing water roared in his head. 

Scrambling up the east bank, he couldn’t help but think how much he’d have felt like a man if he had Clipper under him, riding through the water like it was nothing. Shivering, he sat between two giant ferns to dump the water out of his boots. The sound of tires crunching on gravel then spinning caught his attention. 

An expanse of dying daylight beyond heavy tree trunks made him realize that one of the dead-end forest roads lay just forty yards ahead. Maybe he could get a ride or, if the driver had a cell phone and could get service out here, he could call his parents. 

Screams. He heard terrified screams, angry shouts, and more odd sounds. Frozen, Greer held his breath to hear better, but couldn’t understand the noises and felt a sudden pang about the creep of nightfall. He pulled his boots on, paused to listen, then stalked to the last of the trees bordering the forest road’s ditch.

The gravel track was a dead end. A big black SUV, its driver’s door gaping open and headlights on, blocked a small passenger car in the dead end. Two voices came from between those cars, a man and a woman. Shouts and cries. 

Hunkered in the ditch, Greer saw and heard it all. The glare of the SUV’s headlights lit up the sight of a man in a suit roaring at a woman in a dress and a turtleneck. She cowered. He drew back one hand and belted her solidly across the right side of her face, deflating her last cry, sending her to the ground. Greer’s stomach clenched.

Realizing that the SUV’s headlights protected him from being seen, Greer crept closer, pausing at the open driver’s door. A silver pistol lay tucked between the floor and the leather driver’s seat. 

This SUV was the kind of truck-like beast Doug called an urban assault vehicle, whatever that meant. New and fancy—without knowing how he knew this, Greer could be sure of it all the same—it seemed too clean to have ever before been on the dirt roads that laced these mountains. From the backseat of the other car came the sound of a baby crying. 

The woman squealed, “No, no, no,” her cries increasing until the man buried his boot in her belly, muffling her pleas to a grunting bleat. 

Someone ought to say something, Greer thought. Someone ought to do something. But there was no one else. Averting his gaze from the beating, Greer heard another kick, another groan. He eyed the shiny revolver, thinking about a rule, a big one: Never pick up a gun without direct, immediate permission from the adult in his family who stood right there that minute. 

There were lots of rules with guns. Think of all guns as always loaded. That was another rule. Sure, he knew the rules. And he knew double-action revolvers cold. He knew this heavy one would take both hands to fire, and even then, he wouldn’t be a good shot. He just wasn’t big enough yet, not for this gun. This was like not being able to help Gram into the saddle. Someday, he’d be big enough for everything, like his brothers and sisters. That someday wasn’t now, but now a big man was beating a woman into the ground. Now was when somebody should do something. 

Greer frowned. Only a minute ago, he’d been carefully crossing the river and thought he was alone in the woods. He’d have liked to run into some other people. 

Thud. The next kick was followed by the woman retching. The baby in the car screamed. This had to stop. 

Greer took the revolver, kneed the driver’s door shut, and walked toward them, both hands pointing the pistol at the man’s belly. 

“Sir, you shouldn’t do that.” 

The man lurched without moving his feet, jerking his fists back as he gaped. 

Greer stepped past the woman and didn’t let himself wonder too long about the wet spots and dirt on her clothes. He swiveled and stopped beside her car, the revolver’s muzzle never faltering from the mean man’s stomach. Wasn’t gut-shooting the worst? He didn’t want to do it. He’d never pointed a gun at a living thing before. He knew better, like knowing better than to fight with someone smaller. Like knowing not to kick someone, especially someone on the ground, especially a girl. Everybody knew better than that. 

The man stared openmouthed, blinking at the business end of his own pistol. 

Finding the man too big to stare back at, Greer kept his focus where he kept the pistol pointed, on the center of the man’s body. Still, the man didn’t speak. Neither of the grown-ups talked, but gosh, that baby in the car’s backseat was a screamer.

“You go on now, ma’am.” Greer felt the tension in his jaw, heard the catch in his voice. He tightened his two-handed grip on the pistol. 

She made a choking gasp, heaving for breath between sobs. Her hair hung in her face and she swayed as she pushed herself onto her bleeding knees.

Sick. The smell of someone being sick filtered out her mouth when she stumbled close. Greer felt his stomach turn, but things seemed a little better when she slumped into the car’s driver’s seat. 

Her sudden stillness and silence made him nervous. She should leave, go home. Like he wanted to. 

“You have a safe trip,” Greer said. That’s what Momma and Papa always said when someone drove away. His peripheral vision caught her mouthing something incomprehensible, shaking her head then freezing. 

Nothing happened. 

Desperate, Greer asked in soft terror, “Don’t you have people, ma’am?” 

Her tires spun and the car rocketed forward, the right wheels crumbling the edge of the ditch, the left mirror an inch from scraping the big SUV as she fled. If Greer hadn’t already shut the door, she’d have hit it. Or stayed behind. 

The man yelled an unholy shriek and kicked gravel as the car’s taillights disappeared. “You, you little fucker!” 

Keeping his body very still, Greer chewed his lower lip. 

The man pointed at him. “Put that gun down right now.” 

Greer didn’t think about whether or not to obey. He crossed the distance to the SUV’s grille, felt the headlights’ heat on his body, and noticed the over-bright blaze on his guts while setting the pistol on the hood. Something cut into the beam right behind him. A large hand came down on his shoulder, spun him around. 

“Where the fuck did you come from? What are you doing out here, you little shit?” 

The man rocked with fury, the stunning effect of looking at the bore of his own revolver evaporated. Greer found himself now the one with no idea of what to do or say. 

“What’s your name?” The man grabbed the pistol with one hand, flicked the other against Greer’s chest.

Greer took a sideways, balancing step against the SUV’s grille, scared to silence. 

“I said, what the fuck is your name?” 

He could pretend the man hadn’t meant to push him. “I . . . I’m Greer Donner.” 

“Oh, Greer Donner, is it?” The man’s voice sneered, mocked. 

Greer wondered what he’d said wrong. He knew what to do when a grown-up caught him at something and wanted to know his name. Give it all up. He nodded. “My parents are Ardy and Bella Donner. We live over on the old Ingle place by the end of—” 

He gasped as the man grabbed the front of his shirt and shoved him sideways, sent him staggering across the road, tripping into the ditch. The man kept coming, and Greer scrambled backward until he hit a tree. His back rubbed against a big fir now, and he liked that more than a car grille against his spine. 

The man shoved the gun’s barrel into the front of his slacks. Greer knew that this wasn’t an okay way to carry a gun, but he didn’t say anything, even when the man demanded, “Do you know who I am?” And then a two-word shout that sounded like a threat. “Do you?” 

“No, sir. I . . . I’ve seen you in town, I think. Maybe.” Greer’s uncertainty was honest confusion. Was he being called out for his manners, for not knowing the man’s name? For interfering? 

“What did she say to you?” 

Greer shook his head. “I didn’t understand.” 

“Greer Donner,” the man said, in a way that seemed bad, like it wasn’t enough and he was owed more. “Say your family’s names again.” 

Greer repeated his parents’ names. He gave up his brothers’ names—Ben, Doug, and Frankie. He named his sisters—Clara and Emma—and told the man about the extra kind-of sister he had because Doug was married to Maddie who was called a sister-in-law, but seemed like another big sister or an aunty. Then he remembered to add Clara’s husband, Wes, even though Clara and Wes lived in Seattle, so he didn’tsee them as much as he saw Ben or Doug or Maddie. Greer wondered if he should mention Emma’s boyfriend or Ben’s boyfriend, or any of Frankie’s girlfriends who came to holiday dinners when Frankie wasn’t in California. Should he name Maddie’s mother, since Caroline was like an aunty? Should he mention his gram? He tried for a smile instead. It would pay off, this being good, giving respectful answers to the mean man. It had to. 

“If you ever speak of this to anyone, I’ll hurt them all.” 

The man’s gaze mesmerized Greer as much as the words dropped his jaw. He knew a man speaking the truth when he heard it. This man was telling the truth. And it seemed the man had more talking to do. “You understand me?” 

Greer held his breath. His head whipped because the man yanked his shirtfront, twisting the fabric, forcing a fist into Greer’s chest. Thrust against the tree this hard, Greer couldn’t breathe. 

“I asked, do you understand me?” The man leaned his face into Greer’s. The rosy nose, framed by thick eyebrows and a bristling moustache, had black hairs curling from the nostrils. 

Greer nodded because he’d cry if he spoke. 

“Answer me. If you ever say anything to anyone, they all die.” 

Greer wished the man would quit saying it. He got it. His chest shook and tears rained down his cheeks as he nodded, his lips helpless to form a whimpering response. When the man released his shirt, Greer crumpled to the forest floor and felt his guts rumble in the most warning way. He hoped he didn’t mess himself. 

“Nothing happened here. Got me?” 

Nodding as hard as he could, Greer managed to look up, giving his sincere, silent promise. He shouldn’t be here at all. He should have stayed at the bakery so Maddie could pick him up and bring him home. He shouldn’t have taken Momma’s horse. 

Doug. In a fleeting instant, Greer closed his eyes and summoned an image of his brother in the forest. You weren’t supposed to have afavorite brother or sister, but it couldn’t be helped that Doug was the coolest guy ever. A guy as comfortable in the woods as Greer wanted to be. If only Doug were here. 

But his brother didn’t appear. Greer tried harder, begging in his mind for his brother, for his papa. Papa would be great right now. Papa had guns, often carrying one in his coat when he logged with the big horses. Papa? Doug? Help me. Greer’s thoughts screamed in desperation and rank fear. 

“Nothing happened!” the man screamed. “You will never speak of this to anyone or everybody dies.” 

Greer opened his mouth, but bit back his own scream, stayed silent. Even if Doug were here, what would happen next? Maybe Doug could kick the living daylights out of this mean man in a fair fight, Greer thought, but what about when the man had a gun in his pants? And what about later, if he came in the night? 

Momma and Papa and all his brothers and sisters would get killed. 

“I’ll hurt them, little Greer Donner, son of Ardy and Bella on the old Ingle place. I’ll come in the night and kill everyone. I will shoot your whole family if you tell. Got it?” The man drew back his right palm. “Answer me.” 

“Yessir!” Greer replayed the man’s promise, word for word, in his mind. I’ll come in the night. And kill everyone. I will shoot your whole family . . . if you tell. Too horrible to seize all at once, the threat had to be measured and weighed. But it was a promise, and Greer made one right back, striking a bargain for the lives of his entire family. 

“I won’t tell, sir. I won’t ever tell.” 

“You swear to that, boy.” 

“Yessir. I swear. Sir.” He’d already said he wouldn’t tell, he could do no more. His word was good. Donners made good on their promises. What else could he do? Please, please believe me, he prayed in his mind, prayed to the mean man. I won’t tell. He scrunched his eyes tight against sudden, unbidden images of his murdered family. Would the man shootthem in the head or the body? Greer had caught glimpses on TV, in movies he wasn’t supposed to see, of people being shot. 

A picture of his papa, with a surprised expression and half his skull blown away, solidified in Greer’s mind. He saw his momma lying on their hardwood floor, a black hole seeping red in the center of her chest, her arms at her sides. His mind’s eye brought him a picture of his brothers and sisters as a pile of corpses, arms and legs protruding everywhere. It was left for Greer to pull them out of the pile, to lay them out neatly, to get blankets and cover them so they wouldn’t be cold. 

Greer swayed with strain. Bang! His eyelids stretched wide. At first he thought it was a gunshot, then he realized it was the slam of a car door. The man was in the big SUV. Tires flung gravel as he slam-shifted, maneuvering the vehicle back and forth in a one-eighty. Brake lights lit the scene red, bathed the dead end like the devil’s home. Greer remembered leaving the living room last month when Frankie came for the weekend and watched a horror movie. It had been way past Greer’s bedtime, but he wanted to be with his big brother. And on the TV, the devil kept showing up and doing bad things, sometimes to bad people, but sometimes to the good guys. Greer hadn’t had the endurance to see the movie through, and he’d had nightmares ’til morning. 

Spinning tires, the SUV made the next forest road off this dead end and accelerated. 

Greer gasped, freezing and terrified. His jeans were wet below the knees and also between his thighs. His face was wet. The night was black and getting colder. He bolted after the SUV, turning on instinct when the spur joined another road. That man leaving him alone should have felt better, should have been a burden released, but Greer felt no freedom and knew why. 

What if the man decided to do it anyway? To just go kill his whole entire family? What if they were already dead when he got home? His heart thumped faster, commanded him to run harder.

 

Copyright © 2017 Lisa Preston.

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Lisa Preston is the author of Orchids and Stone as well as several nonfiction books on animal care. Her experiences as a mountain climber, fire-department paramedic, and police sergeant are channeled into fiction that is suspenseful, fast paced, and well acquainted with human drama. She has lived in Arizona, California, and Alaska and now makes her home in western Washington.

Comments

  1. Pambo

    Sounds like a wonderful exciting book!. Great job Lisa!

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