Shannon here: This never before released excerpt from White Doves was fun to write. The creature in the woods and the pool scenario really happened during a family vacation when I was nine. As soon as Laken got lost in the woods, I remembered the incident and used it as fodder for my fiction. Comment on any post dated April 11 – 15 for a chance to win a copy of White Doves or White Pearls. Deadline April 16th, midnight central time.
“If you don’t know Jesus,” Grayson—Pastor Grayson—continued, “repeat this prayer. Dear Lord, I know I’m a sinner. I come to You, with nowhere else to turn. I’ve tried living on my own steam, Lord, and it’s not going very well. I need Your help. Give me new purpose and Your precious peace.”
Even though Laken tried not to pay any attention, the words sank in. She darted farther into the woods. The sound of her breathing and last fall’s dead leaves crunching with each step muffled his voice. Acorns and pinecones rolled under her tennis shoes, and she almost lost her footing.
Deep in the pine, cedar, and oak, Laken tried to erase Grayson’s words from her brain. Even when she could no longer hear him, she kept running, until she couldn’t remember which direction she’d come from. Her pulse raced from more than mere exertion.
She stopped to catch her breath. Her bright orange T-shirt clung to sweaty skin. The humid air congested her lungs. Looking up, she caught only glimpses of the blue sky in the thick overgrowth. Though still a good hour before dusk, the forest was dark. The trees closed in.
An eerie, bloodcurdling shriek erupted overhead.
The barred owl’s catlike screech punctuated the close of Pastor Grayson’s prayer. Though Hayden had heard the creature before, the hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
A human scream pierced the stillness.
Hayden’s heart jolted as he turned to check on Laken and Pearl. The mare shivered, swishing her tail to ward off flies.
Laken was gone.
He frowned. Surely she hadn’t taken off in the woods on her own with only copperheads to keep her company. He scanned the crowd. “Carol, have you seen Laken?”
“She was with Pearl the last time I saw her.” Carol shielded her eyes and looked around. “Grace, have you seen Laken?”
“Last I saw, she walked over to the edge of the woods.”
“Did she take the path?” Hayden scrubbed his palm across his stubbled cheek.
“No.” Grace shook her head. “I figured she was looking for shade.”
The owl shrieked again.
Hayden cupped his hands around his mouth. “Laken!”
“I’m sure she’s just fine.” Grace patted his shoulder. “And with this many people milling about, we’re sure to find her.”
“Brady’s riding over with his Sunday school teacher after his riding lesson.” Hayden backed toward the trail. “Carol, can you wait for him?”
“Sure.” With a nod, Carol turned toward the church.
Hayden loped into the thick woods. Memories of getting lost as a kid assailed him with unseen terrors in the shape of tree limbs clawing at his back. Not to mention the very real copperheads. “Laken!”
“I’m here.” Her faint voice sounded far in the distance and way off the path.
Cupping his hands around his mouth again, he shouted. “Are you okay?”
The pressure in his chest eased. “Are you lost?”
As he turned into the thick underbrush, briars tore at the ankles of his jeans. “Keep talking.”
“What should I say?”
Hayden grinned. “Anything. Just help me find you.”
“Did the trail ride leave without us?” She sounded closer.
“Not yet.” His side ached, but he kept running.
“Guess I should have stayed with the group.”
He caught a glimpse of orange to his left, about five hundred yards away. “I see you.”
“You do?” He saw Laken turn and peer into the trees. Relief sounded in her voice.
He reached her, stopped, and bent over. With his hands propped on his knees, he inhaled a lungful of humid air.
“Sorry to be so much trouble. I just wanted to get out of the sun.”
“I believe you managed that.” He straightened as his breathing slowed. “You okay?”
“I’m fine. I hope you know the way back.”
“The path is over there.” He gestured toward his right.
She fell into stride beside him. “Thanks.”
The owl shrieked again.
Laken jumped and grabbed his arm, her nails digging into his bicep. “What is that?” Her voice quivered.
“An owl.” He caught a whiff of coconut shampoo from her caramel-colored lengths. She felt nice on his arm, despite her taloned grip. How long had it been since he’d felt like a protector instead of the destroyer?
“I appreciate you trying to make me feel better, but I prefer the truth.”
“It’s a barred owl, I promise. He sounds close. Maybe we can find him.” Hayden stopped and searched the trees overhead. “Some folks call them screech owls, for obvious reasons.”
Laken didn’t release his arm, but her nails let up.
Scanning the limbs, he spotted the unblinking creature. “There.” He pointed. “See him in that big pine? He’s white and brown mottled and streaked. Kind of blends in with the bark.”
“He’s so big.” A smile sounded in her voice. “I’ve never seen a real, live owl. I mean, away from the zoo. He’s so beautiful.”
“God created amazing creatures.”
Her hand dropped to her side.
Not ready to let her go, Hayden entwined his fingers with hers in the guise of leading her back toward the path. Rotting leaves from last fall swished and crunched with each step. “Didn’t you grow up around here?”
“We lived in Searcy and started coming here for church when I was eleven.”
“Come to think of it, I’ve lived in a few rural areas and only heard it a few times.”
As they moved away from the owl, it screeched again.
“That’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard.” Laken shivered. “Aren’t owls nocturnal?”
“It’s dark enough in here; he probably thinks it’s dusk.” Hayden pushed a branch out of the way and held it until she stepped through the opening. “Reminds me of when I was a kid on a road trip to visit relatives. We were somewhere in Mississippi at a motel with a pool so packed my sister and I couldn’t get in.”
He kept his eyes trained on the ground, making sure nothing moved among the bed of leaves in front of them. “It wasn’t a very developed area, with lots of woods around. Katie and I sat on the deck mad, until a barred owl cut loose. Apparently, no one else had heard one before. Within minutes, we had the pool to ourselves.”
Laken laughed. “I can’t say I blame them.”
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