The Soul Keepers: New Excerpt
By Devon Taylor
The Soul Keepers is a pulse-pounding, cinematic YA adventure by debut author Devon Taylor.
Death is just the beginning.
After dying in a terrible car accident, Rhett awakens in the afterlife and is recruited to join the crew of the Harbinger, a colossal seafaring vessel tasked with ferrying the souls of the dead. To where exactly, no one knows. But the crew must get the souls there, and along the way protect them from vicious soul-eating monsters that will stop at nothing to take the ship and all of its occupants.
Rhett and his new friends have a hard enough time fighting back the monsters that grow bolder and more ferocious every day. But then a new threat emerges, a demon who wants something that Rhett has. And if she gets it, it could mean the end of everything … for both the living and the dead.
The fall was slow.
Through one mangled opening of the car, where a window had once been, he could see the earth and the sky tilting into one another, falling over each other with a weird sort of grace. Pine trees bristled against the cloudless sky, bruised and leaking color as the sun sank below the hills.
In another one of those slightly crooked, slightly grinning holes—a mouth with teeth of shattered glass—there was the gray asphalt of the road, rising to meet him, open and flat like the cracked palm of a steady hand. It was there to crush the car, with him still inside it. It was there to end him.
And it did.
When time unstuck itself from whatever ringing echo it had been momentarily captured in, he felt the raw pull of gravity, the unfiltered attraction of the earth. He felt it pull the car down, with him still inside it and the steering wheel tight in his hands.
There was time for one last glance in the rearview mirror, where his father’s cornflower-blue tie had been snapping back and forth in rhythm with the tumbling of the car. But the tie was gone. In the mirror he saw only the blackening sky and the first makings of constellations brave enough to show themselves on this horrendous night.
Then the car smashed against the road, his soul was torn from his body, and his life was suddenly, unceremoniously, over.
* * *
The edges of his vision rattled with an oncoming darkness.
He held it back, concentrating on the pain, on the sight of his own body wrapped up in the tangle of metal and plastic that had once been a newish Volkswagen Jetta—his mom’s car. The forest-green paint was scraped and stripped and wrinkled like a dirty shirt. All the windows were blown out, the glass strewn along the road behind the vehicle.
There was also the semitruck another few feet up the road, its trailer crumpled like the mangled spine of some long-hunted animal. It burned there, charring the road beneath it and sending an unhealthy-looking cloud of dark smoke into the air. He could see the FedEx logo peeling away from the metal of the trailer, flaking off and fluttering away on the rising heat of the flames.
He sat there with his legs under him, the uneven surface of the road digging into his knees and palms, registering all this with only a slight pinging against his senses. What he was really focused on was the other him, still hanging upside down inside the wreckage of his parents’ car, his face and hands white, his eyes vacant. A little trickle of blood escaped out of the corner of his mouth and ran up his cheek, across his forehead, and into the thicket of his brown hair. The body was a warped reflection of the seventeen-year-old boy he’d previously been. And previously had been only moments ago, when his world was normal and right, empty of ruined cars and burning trucks.
And yet … he was still here. His lungs burned with the air he was breathing in. His body cried out from a million white-hot pinpricks of agony. His head thudded and throbbed like the backbeat to some terrible house music. But he was also … there.
He could feel the accident, could feel the impact. His limbs and muscles ached with the force of it. But the body dangling inside that tomb of crushed metal was no longer his. It looked like him—it had his smallish nose and his wide, sometimes haunted-looking eyes. But it definitely didn’t belong to him. How could it when he was sitting right here, breathing, aching?
Even as he thought it, though, the ache was fading, replaced by a bizarre numbness, a nothingness, as if the inside of his body had suddenly gone hollow.
On both sides of the concrete barrier that ran down the center of the highway, cars were pulling over, people leaping out, staring at the carnage with shocked eyes and open mouths. Some people were weeping, some were coughing from the smoke and the heat … heat that he suddenly could not feel.
A couple of men ran over to the car, to his body, and were reaching in. One of them looked like he was trying to find a pulse. Within the crowd, he could see other people holding their phones in the air, trying to get a decent shot. He was a spectacle now. Soon he’d be all over the internet, a viral tragedy.
“Hey!” he yelled at them. “Hey! Don’t do that! Can’t you see that I’m dead? I’m fucking dead!”
He didn’t need anybody to tell him that they couldn’t hear or see him. There was a part of him that already knew. It was the same part that knew he had “crossed over.” Or whatever the correct phrase was. Maybe someone caught the moment that the spiritual was peeled away from the physical. Maybe there was a picture on one of those phones that showed a ghostly fog in the shape of a human, hovering just above his body as it hung there behind the steering wheel in a horrid imitation of life as it was, as it would never be again.
He felt his arms and legs begin to shake. He fought to still them, afraid now. Afraid that he might shake himself into a billion little particles of mist and get carried away by the cool evening breeze.
Was he a ghost? A spirit? Was he just a memory, firing off in one of the last living neurons of his brain?
Something was going to happen soon. Either he was going to poof out of existence, or he was going to fade into a shadow, or he was going to follow a brilliant white light down a tunnel into oblivion. But something was going to happen. It had to. Otherwise he might go insane waiting. He shut his eyes. He waited for infinity to swallow him.
Meanwhile the whump-whump-whump of blood in his ears was beginning to fade—not necessarily slowing, just getting quieter—as if someone was turning the volume down on his heart. He was able to hear the world again: the animal trumpet of horns blaring and brakes screeching as traffic came to a halt along the road, the whispery murmur of panicked conversations among the crowd, the haunted cries of distant sirens.
Someone—a woman from somewhere in the back of the crowd—had called 911. She was still on the line with the operator, describing the scene: “… a big FedEx truck and a … a sedan … I can’t make out what kind of car it is. It’s too … it’s too messed up … I almost got caught in it, too. It just happened out of nowhere.”
Was that how they were going to remember this? Had he been flung out of “nowhere,” right into the middle of these peoples’ lives, maybe to linger there forever? Him and his parents?
He opened his eyes and the destruction slammed into his senses all over again. The burning truck, the tinfoil ball that had been the car he’d learned to drive in … had still been learning to drive in. The sky was even darker now, bordering on black, and the fire lit the scene with its unsteady orange glow.
Peering in through the empty windows of the car, he braced himself for the sight of one of his parents’ bodies, trapped in the car the way his was, looking cold and empty. But he couldn’t see either one of them. In the backseat, where his father had been sitting, there was only a gnarled hole through which he could see the crowd gathering along the shoulder of the road, still trying their best to look more scared than interested, trying not to look like the rubberneckers that they were.
His father should have been there, in that space where there was now only empty air ringed with the ragged bite that had been taken out of the car.
He flicked his eyes to the front again and tried to look past his own body (someone had shut his eyes, at least) and into the passenger seat, where his mother had been sitting …
Nothing. The seat was empty, and the dashboard was covered in bits of broken windshield and streaks of something red that he wouldn’t allow himself to believe was blood.
Panicking, he tore his eyes away, let them sweep over the spot in the backseat again, over the sight of the enraptured crowd on the far side of the road, and …
On the shoulder, in the front row of the gathered onlookers, there was a guy in a black blazer and dark jeans. He was around the same age, maybe even a bit younger, but with immaculate hair and one eyebrow cocked up in a slightly curious, slightly irritated expression. The guy was looking right at him.
He looked around at the other people, who were all fixated on the tangled metal and billowing smoke. He looked back at the guy in the blazer. Still staring.
He didn’t know what else to do—he raised his hand and waved.
“Oy!” the guy yelled over the din. “C’mon, mate! I’m not gonna wait all day!”
“I … uh…” He pointed at himself in a silent question. Blazer Guy groaned and twirled his finger impatiently.
“Yeah, mate, I’m talking to you. Who the hell else would I be talking to?” The guy turned and sidestepped into the crowd, disappearing behind a wall of bodies.
“Wait!” he called. “Hold on a second!”
He struggled to his feet. His legs felt rubbery and not quite his own. It took a moment for everything to balance out, but as soon as it did, he darted around the car, leaving his body there on its own, to the shoulder of the highway. The crowd stared past him, throughhim. He paused before going after Blazer Guy, looked back at the only part of his body he could see from here: a pale hand, open and dangling, frozen in a silent good-bye.
He turned and shuffled into the crowd.
Nobody noticed him.
He slipped between a few people, bumping into some, but none of them seemed to realize they were being touched. It creeped him out. He hurried through the crowd and left it behind.
On the other side there was the rocky shoulder of the highway and a shadow-littered tangle of trees. The highway itself was a mess of cars and people, with traffic completely halted and angry honks rising into a chorus.
He turned, staring up the highway, back in the direction of the city, peering past the glare of headlights. He was still looking for the guy that had called to him—Blazer Guy. In the dimness of the night it was hard to tell what anyone looked like. He scanned the collection of bystanders that he’d just come through, but there were no blazers.
He considered waiting there for Blazer Guy to come back. Maybe if he stayed put, the guy—or someone else like the guy, someone who could see and talk to him—would show themselves. But going back to his body, looking at that mess again … the idea gave him the shivers.
And there was still the problem of his parents. Where were they? Were they like him?
The trees stood by, as if waiting for him to decide—look for his parents, or keep looking for Blazer Guy. The shadows among the branches and around the tree trunks had turned to full-on patches of black now, hiding the fallen leaves and pine needles and bits of debris from the wreck that were scattered here and there. He wondered if somewhere within that curtain of darkness he would stumble upon his parents. He wondered if he really wanted to find out …
Ready to give up, he was prepared to just start wandering around, when he heard “Oy, mate!” from right behind him. He started, whipped around.
Blazer Guy stood in front of him, grinning, hands in his pockets, looking back at the wreckage, focusing, it seemed, on the burning hunk of metal that was the FedEx truck. He whistled.
“That’s quite a mess you made there, mate,” the guy said. “Not sure if you know this or not, but fire is usually not great for a vehicle’s overall state of being. Personally, I try to avoid fires when I can. I grew up in London, so I’m partial to the rain. You know what I mean? Well, I suppose not, given … well, this.” Blazer Guy gestured with a wide sweep of his arm at the entirety of the wreck, at the car and the truck and the onlookers.
“You’re … British?” he said. They were the first words that popped into his head, and they found their way to his mouth before he had a chance to stop them.
Blazer Guy looked offended.
“First of all,” he said, “I’m technically Welsh. And what, you’ve got something against British people?”
“What? No! I mean … I just … We’re in New York. I didn’t expect … I mean, I didn’t think…”
“Less than twenty miles from the international hub of the world, and you didn’t expect to see a British person?” Blazer Guy folded his arms and began tapping his foot. “You know, mate, it could be that I’m here to decide your fate. As in whether or not you end up … there.” He pointed up, at the black canvas of sky. “Or … there.” He pointed down, cringing. Blazer Guy leaned in and whispered, as if sharing a secret. “And you’re not off to an exceptionally good start.”
“Oh my God…” he started.
Blazer Guy hissed in a breath, cringing even more.
Blazer Guy did it again.
He felt his legs give out, and he squatted down, covering his face with his hands, panic crashing around inside him.
But the guy was laughing.
“Don’t worry, mate,” he said, squatting down with him, leaning back on the balls of his feet. “I’m not here for anything like that. That was a pretty good laugh, though, right?”
He dropped his hands and glared.
“Maybe not,” Blazer Guy said. “How about we start over? I’m Basil. Basil Winthrop. Pronounced with a long A, mind you. And you are?”
For a second he couldn’t remember. He grasped for it, but it wasn’t there. He stood, and Basil—formerly Blazer Guy—stood with him.
“It’s all right, mate. Some of it gets lost in the transition. The name especially.”
He turned around, back to where the crowd stood and where there was now an ambulance and a number of police cars parked along the concrete barrier, their warbling lights making the whole scene look shimmery and unreal. Cops were pushing members of the crowd back. He looked past them, at the car, at the spot where he’d been sitting, staring at his own body as the last of his life slipped out of it. He thought about the tie—his father’s tie, cornflower blue, jerking around in the rearview mirror like the head of an electrified snake.
“My name is Rhett,” he said. “Rhett Snyder.” He turned to Basil. “My name is Rhett Snyder,” he said again, this time hearing the relief in his own voice.
“Rhett,” Basil said, almost questioningly. “Rhett. Sounds like something you’d name a pet. Like a dog, or possibly a small, helpless rodent.”
“My parents’ favorite movie is … was Gone with the Wind,” Rhett said, for some reason feeling the need to explain. “They named me after Clark Gable’s character.”
Basil pondered this, then said, “Ah. Yes, well, there’s no accounting for taste, is there?”
“Listen, I don’t know who you are or why you’re here or what’s happening. I—” Rhett stopped short. He felt dangerously close to cracking. Confused, alone, afraid, invisible. This guy—Basil fucking Winthrop—was about as compassionate toward the recently deceased as a vulture is to a zebra carcass. “Shouldn’t I just be … dead?” he went on. “I don’t know what’s going on, but this … this isn’t anything they ever went over in Sunday school.”
Basil chuckled and leaned in, grinning. He said, “Oh trust me, mate. I know. When I took the old dirt nap myself, I hadn’t expected any appendices to my time line. But here we are.”
“I … sorry. You…?”
“Yeah. I can regale you with all the perfectly unfortunate details later. But right now we have a boat to catch. Shall we?”
“Wait,” Rhett said. “What about my parents?”
“Your…?” Basil looked confused and then worried. “Oh. Then we really have to get moving,” he said. “The others will be along soon. Your parents are…” He gave Rhett a serious look. “They’re in good hands, mate. I promise.”
Rhett glanced over his shoulder and considered the scene one last time. The crowd had been all but dismantled, pushed back behind a yellow perimeter of police tape. There was now a white sheet draped over the crumpled mess of the car, hiding the carnage and the sight of Rhett’s body. The sheet fluttered in the breeze for a moment, catching the light of the fire-ravaged semitruck, now surrounded by firefighters dousing the flames with a hose.
Somewhere nearby, Rhett was now sure, his parents’ bodies would be found and covered with sheets of their own, turned into vaguely human-shaped spaces of emptiness, erased from the universe.
But if that was the case, why weren’t they with him now?
Rhett turned back to Basil, the only person who seemed to have any of the answers. He was a pain in the ass, but he was going to take Rhett where he needed to go. He could only hope that his parents were there, too.
“Let’s go,” Rhett said.
Copyright © 2018 Devon Taylor.