Organized by Storytellers On Tour, today, along with several other bloggers and bookstagrammers, we present to you Astral Cuts, John Notlad‘s debut Urban Fantasy / Paranormal novel, in celebration of its release! Make sure to check out their posts as well and don’t forget to enter the giveaway!
John Notlad is an author of Fantasy and Paranormal stories including Astral Cuts and his upcoming novella, Lost In The Waking Well. He was born and raised in the armpit of Texas, where he still spends most of his time. When not writing, he can be found watching cartoons with his wife and two children, drinking strange teas, or wandering around his dreams in search of new ideas.
A twisting contemporary fantasy about a son’s revenge, an imaginary friend with a magical dagger, and a journey between the planes of existence in search of one sinister cowboy.
Flint Hainsen is a young, ordinary man still living at home with his mom. That is, until the evening he discovers her lifeless body on the living room floor.
Grief-stricken, Flint quickly falls into the hands of an otherworldly gentleman by the name of John. The enigmatic, old cowboy claims to be a friend of his late mother. He offers answers surrounding her death and a plot of revenge. However, Flint soon finds that John’s motives are far more sinister than he let on and the answers he provides only lead Flint deeper down the rabbit-hole between this reality and another.
From the other side of that rabbit-hole emerges Nelson Germander III. He was a friend of Flint’s from childhood, an imaginary one. He has returned to the physical world with a warning: John is a demon from the Astral Realm, and he must be stopped.
Armed with Kashvi, a portal opening dagger, the two old friends descend through the layers of reality in search of John. They are confronted with the monsters that lurk in the shadows, and their minds. Along the way, Flint’s troubled past rears its head and the sinful connection that binds he and his mother to the astral visitors becomes all too clear.
Excerpt from Astral Cuts by John Notlad
Flint crouched inside the doorway between the kitchen and the den.
“No.” An aching groan slipped up his throat. His heart fell into his twisting stomach as he patted the woman’s cold, pale cheek and turned her head to the side.
“You idiot!” He clenched his teeth and pressed his wet face against her arm.
Her long hair, dark like his, was stuck to her lips and spread out across the floor. She looked uncivilized like that—like an animal, he thought.
“What’s wrong with you? You promised.”—Flint cleared his nose—“What did you do?”
He hadn’t bothered shutting the front door, and the glow of the pink evening sky painted his mother’s flesh deceptively warm and vital. Her skin, in death, was smoother than in life. Where branching veins once protruded from her thin forearms, the skin was now drab and plastic, aside from a speck of scabbed blood in the bend of her elbow.
Flint studied these things and hoped he could one day forget.
Crushed slag crunched and popped from the driveway outside of the little house. A brake rotor squealed.
The scattered papers on the floor around him fluttered as Flint scrambled to his feet. Red and blue flashes of light strobed along the walls.
“Police department,” a man announced as he climbed the porch and leaned his torso in through the front doorway. His small, nearly spherical frame barely stood half as tall as the door. One hand held a beam of white light that hid his face. The other rested on his holster.
Flint shielded his eyes from the bright flashlight.
“Sir, would you mind steppin’ out here where I can see you better?” the officer asked. “You the one who made the call?”
Flint wiped his eyes and stepped over his mother’s legs. He drew in a shivering breath. “Yes . . .”—he cleared his throat— “Yes sir.”
“Just hang tight.” The officer swept the flashlight’s beam from Flint to the floor behind him. He glanced once more at Flint, removed his hand from his hip, and stepped toward his mother’s body.
“She your momma?” he asked, pressing two nail-bitten fingers against her neck.
Flint opened his mouth, but there was no sound. He cleared his throat. “Mhm.”
Something from behind tapped against his arm, like the palm of an icy hand. He flinched away from the touch and turned to see what it was, discovering that he’d only backed himself into an empty corner.
“When did you find her like this?” The officer turned her wrist. A small plastic syringe fell from her half-clasped hand.
Flint sniffled. “Uhm, I don’t know.” He pressed his eyes shut. A stream of warm, brackish tears rolled over his cheekbone. “Right before I called—twenty minutes ago, maybe. She was supposed to be getting clean.”
“Sir, why don’t you come visit with me? Get some fresh air,” another officer, a silhouette in the doorway, asked.
Flint stepped out onto the old cement porch. Overhead, a fat moth and a thousand gnats spiraled around an unshielded light bulb.
Vehicles slowed as they passed the tiny, off-white house. Their drivers’ faces turned toward Flint, illuminated by flashes of red and blue. They cared for only a moment.
“Just take a deep breath,” Officer Warren said. The rolled cuffs of his black uniform stretched snugly around his arms. “Is this your home or hers?”
Flint looked over his shoulder, back through the doorway.
Standing above his mother’s body, the other cop scribbled in a leather-backed notepad.
Flint thought of apologizing for the unsightly predicament. Properly illuminated, it was apparent that she’d been dead for some time. Still, a part of him half-expected the bright, incandescent light to wake her from her nap.
“It’s her house. I just moved back in last week.” His voice cracked, and his eyes stung as tears worked their way back up their ducts. “This isn’t supposed to happen. She was getting better. She was smiling, just yesterday.”
“So, you’re here to help her get clean?”
“She’s been sober for eight months. I’m staying here because I lost my job. She said I could stay until I get back on my feet.” Flint could feel his heartbeat pounding in his ears. “She wouldn’t do this. Why would she leave?”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” He drew a deep breath and glanced inside at his partner, who dropped something into an orange plastic bag. “The medical examiner has someone coming out. These things take some time. Why don’t we get you away from here for a bit?”
Flint nodded. He pressed his hands against his face, dragging them across the bit of patchy stubble his genetics allowed him to grow.
“There’s a counselor back at the station. You can talk to her. And we’ll get a statement written where we won’t get eaten up by mosquitoes.”
Flint stared into the leafy peppermint that grew like a weed around the porch. His cheeks, where his tears had dried, felt tight and sunburnt.
Past the peppermint and the gravel driveway, Mr. Leedey stood at the corner of his trailer beneath an old tin floodlight. Over the years, Flint’s neighbors had likely grown accustomed to the occasional sheriff, but since Margaret’s recent stint as a bachelorette, the visits were less common.
The old man raised a trembling hand and hobbled back toward his patio door.
“Is that something you’d want to do?” Officer Warren asked.
“Sorry,” Flint mumbled. “Yeah, sure.” He thought of where his mother would go, and how she would get there. She was a burden for someone now—a thing that would get moved from place to place, straining backs and invoking revulsion.
“Hey, Mike, I’m gonna run him up to the station. He don’t need to see all this.” Officer Warren leaned against the dented aluminum door.
The first cop was still crouched on the floor. He spoke incomprehensibly into the radio mic that hung over his chest then looked up impatiently. “Go ahead. M.E’s got someone on the way. No cleanup, so I should be right behind ya.”
Officer Warren patted Flint’s back between his shoulder blades. “You know where the station’s at?”
“I do, but I don’t have a car.” Flint sunk further into himself.
Officer Warren glanced over at the milky-yellow Trans Am, which sat rusting in the driveway in front of his patrol car.
“Doesn’t run.” Flint said.
“Shame. What is that? An eighty-six?”
“Yeah. It was my dad’s.”
A half-mile up the road, an irrigation canal ran beneath a short bridge. Before the county installed a chain-wrapped gate, Flint’s father had driven the old Firebird along the bank and wandered onto private hunting lands. There, he had sat against a tree and put a .357 round into his forehead. That story and a handful of old photos were all Flint knew about his father.
His mother drove the car for a month or so, parked it, and pledged to one day put it up for sale, but never did.
Officer Warren broke the silence. “Come on, I’ll give you a lift. You want to ride front or back?” He flashed his porcelain-white teeth.
Flint faked a smile and stepped from the porch, taking care not to soak his shoes in the puddles of rainwater that lay hidden beneath the unkempt weeds.
Officer Warren climbed into the patrol car, leaned over the center console, and lifted the lock on the door. “Just kick that shit out of the way,” he said, brushing a few articles of trash from the black leather seat.
“You’d think it would be the county that responded this far out of town.” Officer Warren twisted in his seat, looking through the cage and rear window.
Flint watched the beam of the headlights bounce and expand as they backed down the driveway.
Officer Warren spun the steering wheel and pulled the gear shifter into drive. “I guess they drew this area into the city so they could have the paper mill’s tax dollars.”
Flint stared through the thick window and watched the power lines climb and fall between the poles. As a boy, he thought that if they drove fast enough, he could get home before the cartoons made it through the wires. A friend tried to clarify how electricity worked. The same boy also claimed that he could walk through walls and teleport, so Flint took his lesson with a grain of salt.
The radio in the dashboard clicked. A staticky voice called for units in Lanely Hills to worry about someone else’s problems.
Flint’s thoughts raced and repeated relentlessly. He hoped she had been too high to be afraid. He wondered if he’d still have a bed to sleep in, and he scolded himself for the selfish thought.
“You’re not alone, ya know?” Officer Warren said matter-of-factly. “That dope’s gettin’ everybody out here.”
“Just last week I got a call for a woman—seventy-six years old—overdosed in the tub. You know it’s bad when grandma—” he glanced over at Flint. “Sorry. You get desensitized after seeing all this junk.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Flint said. “I’m pretty numb myself.”
Officer Warren nodded and twisted a knob on the radio.
As the police cruiser bounced and rocked into town, Flint fought to stay out of the darker places in his mind. But the thoughts came anyway. He was alone. No father to make proud, and no mother to love. Twenty-one, but an orphan all the same.
He wondered if they were together somewhere, his mom and dad. He daydreamed of what that place must be like, and those thoughts made him happier. So, he stayed there in his thoughts.
Downtown always smelled wet, like a parking lot after rain. As he exited the Lanely Hills Police Station, Flint exhaled a trembling breath and stepped onto the sidewalk, resisting the urge to run.
Some small part of him feared that he’d become a suspect. He’d given his statement truthfully, but they still seemed to watch him with narrowed eyes. Perhaps they could sense his guilt. Therefore, despite Officer Warren’s insistence that he give him a lift back home, Flint felt he should walk.
He knew that particular part of town quite well, having spent many of his twenty-year-old Saturdays at any one of the area’s run-down nightclubs and music venues. He always felt like the odd man out at those places, and he felt similarly on that empty sidewalk.
A dump truck stopped and hissed beside him at the intersection.
He marched forward, following the peeling cement buildings that formed a wall alongside the two-lane road and watched his feet pass over overgrown cracks in the concrete.
A stranger or two hobbled past him as he neared the less decrepit parts of town. Flint tried to seem as normal as possible. He didn’t want them to worry for him. They’d pass, his chest would grow tight, and he’d catch the breath he’d forgotten to take.
He was relieved as streetlights came into view. Farther ahead was Davey Street, a small strip of one- and two-story restaurants and nightclubs. It wasn’t Freemont, but there was alcohol and, sometimes in the back alley, gambling. Beyond that, after a turn and seven miles, he could be home.
“Young man,” a voice called from behind.
Flint looked over his shoulder.
A tall man, dressed like a wealthy Las Vegas cowboy, propped himself against the wall with one foot, beside a neon-lit window.
He curled a fat, smoldering cigar inside his right index finger. “I don’t mean to bother, but by God do you look familiar.” He raised a bushy, white eyebrow.
Flint squinted at the man’s dark, weather-beaten face. He wasn’t good with faces. “Sorry, you must mistake me for someone else.” Flint tucked his hands into his pockets and turned back to the sidewalk ahead.
“It’s uhm . . .” his thick, gravelly voice continued from behind, “Flint, I believe. Right?”
“I was real good friends with your mama. But I don’t reckon you remember me too well,” the man said.
“I don’t think so. Sorry.”
“Well, that’s alright. You was just a little one back then.”
Flint stood silently and watched the man pull a drag from his cigar.
“How is your mama, by the way?” His eyes were cold and gray, piercing but kind. The silver hair behind his ears was matted and damp, perhaps from sweat.
Flint swallowed. “She passed away.” He’d heard others use that expression about their dead. He did think it sounded better that way.
The man shook his head and adjusted his wide-brimmed hat. “I’m sorry to hear that, son.” He rubbed the end of his cigar against the brick wall and showered the sidewalk with quickly fading embers.
“When did she—?”
“Today. Just a while ago.” Flint looked down at his dusty sneakers.
“You’re kiddin’?” The man pushed himself from the wall with his boot and put his hand on Flint’s shoulder. “C’mon. Let me buy you a drink,” he said, ushering Flint toward the bar’s entrance.
“Thanks, but I really don’t feel like—” Flint had to crane his neck to meet eyes with the friendly gentleman. His breath smelled of whiskey.
“Nonsense,” he interrupted. “One drink. For Margaret.”
Flint looked down the road at the circles of orange light that extended out in the direction of his home, where only solitude awaited his return. “Sure. One drink.”
The man nodded and stretched out his club-like hand. “Name’s John. Nice to meet you again, Flint.”
A pungent fog of burnt tobacco wafted from within the bar as John opened the door. Wooden ceiling fans spun beneath the dark, exposed rafters. From a dusty corner above the pool tables, modern country music played quietly through a buzzing speaker.
John squeezed himself into a cushioned booth seat. “I just can’t believe that about ol’ Margaret.”
Flint rubbed the back of his neck and sat across from the old man.
“She was a hell of a woman. World’s worse off without her.” John gazed down at the scuffed-up table and ran his fingers down his moustache. “That’s a damned fact.”
“How exactly did you know my mom?” Flint asked.
John’s chest bounced as he chuckled. “Let’s see. I met Margaret at about the same time your father did.” He shook his head and smiled. “Me and her grew quite fond of each other, I think. I was never really good at readin’ her. Also, I was much older than she was. You know how those things go.”
“Yeah,” Flint nodded.
“Your daddy and her started going together. Me and him didn’t get along too good there at the end.” John raised his hands from his lap and slapped them down on the table. “That was that.”
Flint scratched his scalp underneath his dark, wavy hair. “I didn’t know him too well, my dad. At all, really.”
“You ain’t missing much.” He smiled with a wince. “I apologize. That was rude,” he said, chuckling.
“Don’t sweat it.” Flint shrugged. “Mom never said much about him. You might as well be talking about a total stranger.”
A thick, exaggerated country twang belted out from beside them. “How’re you doing tonight? Can I get you something to drink?” The petite waitress tilted her head and forced a smile. Her orange hair was knotted loosely in a half-bun, half-ponytail atop her head.
“You like beer?” John asked.
“A little,” Flint replied. He wasn’t a drinker, but it didn’t feel like a bad time to start.
“Two house lagers then.” John nodded his head toward the pretty waitress.
Flint half-smiled at her and drew his attention back to his strange new friend. John shifted in his seat.
“So y’all dated back then? Or you were just friends?” Flint asked.
The waitress stepped closer. “So . . . drink? No drink?”
Flint looked up at her. “Hmm?”
She raised her brows and widened her hazel eyes.
“Yeah. Just the two house lagers,” Flint said.
“Two lagers,” she spoke to herself. “Okay, I’ll have those right out.”
Flint watched her walk away and shook his head.
“Guess she can’t hear too good,” John said.
Flint’s shoulders relaxed and his lips began to tingle as the waitress delivered beer after beer to the two men. They laughed beneath the once-ornate stained glass fixture that hung over the table. The room around them had filled with community college kids and tired laborers.
John leaned an arm on the table, rocking its uneven leg off the floor. “You like card tricks boy?” he asked.
Flint shrugged and nodded.
John patted his breast pocket. His golden ring clinked against a small pearl snap button. He patted the other pocket and pulled from it a blue and white box of playing cards. He set them on the table, opened the box, and shuffled them with a rapid flickering.
“Watch closely now,” he said, twisting his neck toward each shoulder with a loud crack.
Flint blinked and tried to focus his cloudy eyes.
John turned his head away, fanning the glossy cards out before Flint. “Just grab one.”
Flint pulled a single card from the center of the fan, a four of hearts, and held it face down in his palm.
“Got one? Alright. Take a look and put it back. Anywhere you want,” John recited methodically.
Flint replaced the card.
John reshuffled and set the deck in the center of the table. “Are you a bettin’ man, Flint?” He raised his chin high, looking down at Flint from beneath his absurd wide-brimmed hat.
Flint glanced between the man and the deck of cards suspiciously.
John rolled his eyes. “It’s just a friendly wager. I don’t want your money,” he chuckled.
“Good. I don’t have any,” Flint smirked. “What are we talking about? What’s the bet?” he slurred.
John perked up in the worn leather seat and smiled, sucking air through his teeth. He tapped his calloused fingertip against the stack of cards. “I bet you I can get your card out of that deck before you can.”
Flint smiled and shifted his hand to the center of the table, nearly toppling the stack cards.
“Hold your horses, boy.” John held his arm out in front of him. “On the count of three. You win, and I’ll get you a date with that pretty waitress you’ve been eyeballin’.”
Flint glanced at the girl with the fiery hair. “Wait a minute. What makes you think I’m looking for a date?”
John stared. “What? You don’t like women? Would ya rather a date with me, boy?”
Flint cleared his throat. “And if you win, what do you get?”
“I just like winnin’.” John pursed his lips and looked to the ceiling. “I can take an I.O.U, I suppose.”
A nasally laugh coincided with a snort from someplace behind Flint. He twisted in his seat and peered over the backrest to see a young brunette two booths back, covering her mouth and turning bright pink. Three others at the table leaned around her, smiling at the cellphone in front of her face.
The man sitting beside her, sporting a baby-green polo, looked away from the bright screen. “What are you looking at, psycho?” he shouted.
The brunette slapped his arm and sheepishly lowered the phone into her lap.
The wide-eyed man held his gaze as his other friends snickered.
“What an asshole.” Flint shook his head as he turned back to his drinking partner.
John looked at him without expression.
“What was that, you little shit?” the man shouted from behind. Silverware rattled as he bumped his knees against the table.
Flint laid his face into the palm of his hand. “Jesus Christ,” he sighed.
“Jace, quit it,” a girl said.
“Behind you,” John said coldly, focusing on something above Flint’s shoulder.
Flint lifted his face, dragging his cheeks and nose up through his hands. He exhaled slowly and opened his eyes.
A flesh-toned snippet of light flashed in his peripherals. His chin twisted like lightning, as what felt and sounded like a ten-pound hammer crashed into his cheek.
The sound of flesh slapping flesh, followed by a thump against the vinyl seat, cracked through his skull. A fiery sting throbbed from his chin to his ear.
“Stop it!” a girl’s muffled voice shrieked from somewhere outside of Flint’s darkened vision.
He blinked until he could see again. “What the—?” He groaned and felt like vomiting.
John stood above him, a cloudy silhouette, shifting in and out of focus. His mouth moved, but Flint couldn’t make out his words over the ringing and shouting. Flint winced, cupping his hand around his jaw.
“Oh my god,” the waitress’s voice echoed.
He swayed in the booth seat, looking for the comforting voice. She sounded close.
A thin, freckled arm appeared through a denim shirt, piercing John’s midsection as if it were made from vapor.
John didn’t seem to mind.
Flint squeezed his eyes shut and stretched them open, straining to understand what was unfolding before him.
“Are you okay?” the waitress asked, patting his chest.
John’s eyes narrowed as he looked down stoically from above her. He rotated slowly, his body separating from hers as he stepped away. “Hey, look at me,” her voice drifted into the murky, gray fog that enveloped his vision. “Look at me . . .”
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