Organized by Storytellers On Tour, today, along with several other bloggers and bookstagrammers, we present to you Strange Gods, Alison Kimble‘s debut YA Fantasy novel, in celebration of its release on July 20th! Make sure to check out their posts as well! And don’t forget to enter the giveaway!
Alison Kimble began writing because she loves stories and believes in their power to shape our world and ourselves. Her writing blends the real and the fantastical and crosses genres of horror, fantasy, and sci-fi. Now that her debut novel, Strange Gods, is in your hands, she is working on her next novel and a short story anthology. She lives in the Greater Seattle Area with her husband and spends her time walking in the woods, going to the movies, and seeking adventures large and small.
Spooky arrives at a wilderness boot camp for troubled teens with two suitcases and an ultimatum: either she keeps her head down over the summer or she won’t be allowed home at the end of it. All she wants to do is survive the pyros, bullies, and power-tripping counselors, get through senior year, and start her life somewhere new. She’ll do just about anything to protect that future.
But when an encounter with another camper goes awry and ends with Spooky hiding in the woods, something else finds her. Something ancient and powerful has sent out feelers, hoping to catch a human alone. For its purposes, one human is as good as any other. Even a delinquent teen will do.
If Spooky wants to survive to see any kind of future, she will have to figure out how to gain leverage over a god. And as if the one wasn’t bad enough, a pantheon of dark entities are lining up between her and the life she’s always wanted…
For fantasy fans, comes one girl’s journey through dark worlds of magic, gods, and monsters.
Excerpt from Strange Gods by Alison Kimble
Chapter 1: Spooky
Up until this exact moment, Spooky hadn’t been sure whether or not Luke liked her. Now it seemed improbable there was any other reason he was holding her hand under the table. She stiffened as he curled his fingers around the edge of her palm. She wasn’t sure if she wanted his hand on hers, but she didn’t want to get caught with it there.
Then his touch was gone, and in its place, a piece of paper. Spooky shifted her eyes to the closest counselor, but no heads turned. No one had noticed the exchange.
She crinkled the contraband in her hand: a note. Pens were restricted-use items, so notes were rare. More importantly, notes were risky—you couldn’t change your story once it was in writing. She wanted to read Luke’s face as much as the words he had put on the paper, but she kept her chin pointed at the front of the cafeteria.
“Remember, there is no such thing as your true self, only unlimited potential for growth and change,” Izeah Dodgson continued into the mic. “I want you to reflect on those words when you’re tucked into your bunks tonight.” He scanned the room over the top of his glasses. His bald head shone in the fluorescent lighting. “To close us off, I have an announcement. Yesterday evening, patrol spotted a large animal inside the fence. Now, now.” Izeah put up his hands as if to quiet the room of silent campers. “I don’t want anyone to be alarmed. This is exactly why we have the fence in the first place.”
The fence wasn’t really designed to keep things out. Spooky had seen the exposed chain-link exterior when the cab dropped her off on orientation day. The plastic sheeting that made it impossible to climb only ran along the inside. But the illusion of trust was a core part of Izeah’s philosophy of rehabilitation, so he insisted the fence was keeping animals out rather than keeping two hundred delinquents in. The fence kept things out, just like the motion-activated floodlights “scared off raccoons,” and the foam spork she had just used to eat her runny chili “saved on dishwater.”
“A thorough search of the camp tells us our visitor didn’t stay, but we want to be cautious. If you see anything, anything at all, please alert a counselor.” The mic whined. “We are on the edge of a wilderness. We must respect that we aren’t the only ones out here.”
The second Izeah dismissed the crowd to their post-dinner duties, Spooky glanced down at the scrap of paper in her hand: Meet tonight.
There were no other instructions, but Spooky knew Luke’s plan. That didn’t mean she thought it was a good idea. She tried to make eye contact during post-dinner cleanup, but work duty ended before she could give Luke so much as a head shake.
He was going, whether she joined him or not.
When the last bell rang and the cabin lights went out, Spooky kept her eyes open and began counting. After she reached sixty for the fortieth time, she folded back the blanket, rolled off the bunk, and tucked the pillow in her place. With sneakers in hand, she crept past heavy-breathing campers to the entrance. Not a single floorboard creaked. She had earned her nickname, at least in part, because of her talent for passing through life quietly.
The trick to avoid the motion detectors, Luke had told her, was to do three things at once: jump the lower sensors, duck the upper sensors, and don’t set foot inside the circle. Spooky didn’t trust herself to jump and duck anything, so she squatted and swung a leg around the cabin’s open side. Izeah insisted a circle of open cabins inspired “community,” but the formation also ensured anyone could look out and see her dangling from the doorway. Gripping the wall for balance, she found the ground next to the cabin with her toe. Arms shaking, she transferred her weight and set both feet outside.
She crouched and scanned the night. Her sleep shirt was twisted and stuck to her body with sweat. Her heartbeat should have been loud enough to wake all ten cabins. But nothing stirred.
She had done it. She had snuck out. This was a teenage rite of passage. Even if someone had invited her, she wouldn’t have had the nerve to attempt this at home. She wasn’t sure she had the nerve for it now, but she certainly wasn’t ready to try to reverse the process and get back inside the cabin. Her hands quivered as she put on her sneakers. After a few more moments watching the silent dark, she started across the field toward the back of the main lodge.
Even though Spooky had been at Dodgson for over a month, she had never been outside after the last bell. It was like the world had flipped upside down; the field around her was flat black, while all the light and life played out in the sky above her. Bright points and brilliant clusters and tiny pinpricks twinkled. She had to rely on her feet more than her eyes to find each step.
She exhaled for the first time since she read the note, or maybe for the first time that summer. It was as if the darkness put her at an unreachable distance from the sleeping campers and counselors. Even her limbs felt far away.
Only now, in the quiet, did it occur to Spooky she might be walking into a trap.
Although they had been at Dodgson together all summer, she had only known Luke since he was assigned to cafeteria duty two weeks ago. He’d come up to her while she was setting up the buffet, tucked a hair back into her hairnet, and asked about her nickname. And he kept finding her, in between serving and mopping and scrubbing. He had even started saving a seat for her at meals.
It was unfamiliar territory to have anyone, much less a guy, show interest in getting to know her. She had thought they were becoming friends. Maybe even a little more. And since he’d held her hand longer than strictly necessary to pass the note, almost definitely more. But she shouldn’t let herself forget this wasn’t some guy from English class—every camper at Dodgson was here for a reason. Luke was here for a reason.
Spooky pictured Luke’s straight, pointy nose and white-blond hair. His half smile. She couldn’t imagine that face leering out of the night, ready to inflict violence. But it was possible that Luke had set her up to meet someone else. Someone who wanted to have a private word without the watchful eyes of counselors. She wasn’t aware of any enemies. Unfortunately, it didn’t take much to set off one of two hundred delinquents. There were plenty of stories of accidental offenses leading to nasty consequences.
And Luke had been distant during post-dinner cleanup. While she’d been spraying down tables on one side of the cafeteria, he’d been stacking chairs on the other. When she started collecting serve ware, he began mopping. He’d ducked her attempts to make eye contact. She hadn’t seen him come back from taking out the trash at all.
He’d been avoiding her.
Spooky stopped walking. Why had Luke bothered to write her a note? The forethought seemed sweet at first, but the risk was impractical. Counselors were attentive during announcements; it was the worst possible time to communicate. He could have waited until after dinner was over and whispered the words.
But he’d already tried to do that, hadn’t he? Luke had asked her to sneak out twice this week. The note hadn’t given her a chance to say she was too tired, or she couldn’t risk the scuffs. A note only gave her the choice to show up or leave him waiting.
Spooky rubbed her arms through her long-sleeve flannel. She should turn around and get back in bed. She didn’t even know how many scuffs she would get if she was caught out here. It was a big camp, and Luke said patrols only went around once or twice a night, but she should have tried to do the math. The image of Luke standing alone in the cold had been on her mind instead.
She sighed through her nose and kept walking. Spooky liked Luke, or at least, she thought she might start to. She definitely didn’t want him to stop talking to her. And he would have every right to if he took the risk of coming out here and she didn’t show. Going back now would put a quick end to the only good thing happening at Dodgson.
Still, Spooky approached the dumpsters behind the lodge like a ghost. She had come back here dozens of times on garbage duty, but the shape of things changed at night. The lodge had lost its edges. Every shadow was a void. Her ears twitched. Luke had told her to meet him at the door, but it seemed like she had arrived first. She huddled behind one of the rusty bins to wait.
Her toes had just started to go numb when footsteps brushed the dirt nearby. A white-blond head bobbed into view.
“Luke!” He was alone. A laugh bubbled up. Dodgson really did something to your faith in people.
“Sorry I’m late.” He jogged over to her. He didn’t bother to keep his voice low, but they were far from any sleeping quarters. “I had to wait for my cabin-leader to snore.”
“I wasn’t here long,” Spooky said.
He took a step closer. She took a step back and jumped when her shoulder brushed the dumpster. She was relieved it was just him, but just him, alone in the dark, gave her plenty of new reasons to be nervous.
“So, what’s up?” she blurted.
“Oh, you know, out for a midnight stroll.” She could hear his smile more than see it.
“A stroll, huh? Aren’t you worried about the animal that got inside the fence?”
“It was a bear. A huge one.”
“Really? How do you know?” At least there weren’t any grizzlies in Colorado.
“Animal control told me when I showed them where I saw the snake.”
“You saw a snake?” Spooky dropped the casual tone she’d been attempting. “Where?”
“Between the dumpsters. I saw it when I was taking out the trash after dinner. I’m surprised you didn’t hear me yelling.” He chuckled and edged closer. “But don’t worry. They checked everywhere. It’s gone.”
“Was it a rattlesnake?” She picked up one foot then the other, eyeing the shadowy ground.
“Don’t worry.” Luke closed the distance between them. “I’ll protect you.”
“But what if it’s still…”
He put his hands on the dumpster behind her and leaned in.
It was a strange sensation having somebody else’s lips against hers. Things touched her mouth every day, but another set of lips felt different somehow, like she was trying to use her left hand for something she usually did with her right.
She couldn’t tell Luke how strange it was. She couldn’t let anybody at Dodgson find out she was having her first kiss only two weeks after her eighteenth birthday. She would become an instant target for that kind of quaint, teenage naiveté.
But privately, she could celebrate her second milestone of the night. She had pictured this moment for a long time. While she never could have guessed who, where, or when, she had imagined a slow, inevitable, folding together. Lips slightly open, arms entwined, and bodies close.
This was turning out to be a much more thorough exploration of her mouth than she had imagined. And it was getting more thorough by the second.
Luke mimed a slow chew, then a few quick guppy gasps. She tried to catch his rhythm. If he noticed she was doing something wrong, he didn’t pause to address it. She pursed her mouth when his opened, and he gave her lower lip and a decent part of her chin a lick.
Spooky pushed him away. He barreled back in faster than she could wipe her face.
“Luke, hold on…”
The words became garbled as he mashed her lips around. Her hair slid all over the bin as he guided her head this way and that with his mouth. A sticky spot clung to her shirt.
Enough. This midnight tryst was over.
Spooky hitched her foot up to push herself off the dumpster. Her knee slid between Luke’s legs and slammed into his groin.
Spooky gasped as he doubled over. He backed away from her with a high keen.
“Oh, sorry!” Spooky reached for him. “I’m sorry!”
“What the…” he whimpered. “What’s wrong with you?”
A beam of light swung around the corner of the lodge. Footsteps and voices drifted through the chill.
Counselors on patrol.
“Luke,” Spooky muttered. “Luke, we have to leave.”
A trio of figures rounded the building, flashlights swaying. Spooky jumped behind the dumpster. Luke was doubled over in the open. If he would just move a few feet toward her, the bin would be between him and the oncoming counselors.
“Luke, come here,” she hissed.
He groaned. A beam landed on his platinum hair. He spared one hand from his crotch to block his eyes.
“Hey! Stop right there!” a counselor called.
The voices picked up. The light stayed on Luke. If she didn’t move now they would catch her too.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
Spooky bowed her head and dashed to the nearest tree. The trunk wasn’t wide enough to conceal her shoulders, so she darted to the next one. She scrambled around it and pressed her back against the bark. It wouldn’t take much searching to find her, but there was nowhere left to sneak. Between this pine and the forest was the fence, complete with twenty-foot-high, unscalable plastic sheeting. To “keep out the animals.”
“Any other campers out here making choices that don’t reflect their true potential?” Counselor Jackie called.
“Come on out,” another counselor she knew, Mark, commanded. “Let’s start rebuilding.”
The words didn’t sound natural, but they were familiar from daily speeches and role plays. Unlike Izeah Dodgson, the rest of the staff delivered their canned lines about trust with varying levels of conviction.
The third counselor spoke in a low voice. Spooky heard “slip in behavior” and “initiate the reparation process.”
“…but before we begin rebuilding,” the counselor said. “I want you to choose to be your best, most trustworthy self and tell us: are you out here alone?”
Spooky might not be Luke’s favorite person right now—she could still feel the spot where her knee met his pelvis—but if there was one thing that guaranteed every pyro, bully, and druggie here would turn on you, it was ratting someone out to the counselors.
“I was just checking to make sure I locked the dumpsters after dinner. Animal control came and I got distracted. I wasn’t sure,” Luke whined.
He was talking too much. He sounded like he was lying. She tried to melt into the tree trunk.
“I trust you,” the counselor said in a monotone voice. “But if there were someone out here with you, and you were to tell us now, I would recommend you get thirty scuffs. I’ll talk to Mr. Dodgson about that personally.” He paused. “Otherwise, you’re looking at fifty, minimum.”
Fifty scuffs? Only the rough bark stopped Spooky from sliding to the ground. She had known being out of bounds was a multiplier for whatever else you were caught doing. She should have gone to examine the scuff board after dinner instead of trying to catch Luke’s eye. She should have done the math before leaving her bed instead of counting the seconds.
Fifty scuffs was bad. Fifty scuffs, plus her existing twenty-three, would put her at a serious risk of maxing out before the summer was over. A rise that fast would land her back in Adam Dodgson’s office, in a seat she had vowed she wouldn’t return to after day one.
From the second she stepped out of the cab, everything at Dodgson had been jarring. Her bags were whisked away to be searched. She had to swap the clothes she came in for rough gray pajamas. She had a schedule with building names and times, but no clock or map. She wandered around in loaner flip flops, trying to follow the crowd without getting too close. The other campers looked at her like she was food. The counselors looked right through her.
But nothing at the camp was more jarring than the Dodgson brothers and their conflicting approaches to delinquent rehabilitation.
“Exploratory teens,” Izeah began in his welcome speech, “fall into a pattern of behavior slips and mistrust that feed each other. They make a mistake, and their community implements new restrictions. Parents, teachers, and friends treat them like they are going to misbehave again. So they break more rules. Blame, rules, and offenses pile up until, eventually, they conclude they can’t do anything right. So why try? They’ll always mess up anyway, right? Wrong!” He yelled the answer to his own question so loudly the grass around her could have rippled. “We know you can be better. We’ll give you the trust you need to break the cycle of negative thinking. Here at Dodgson, we give you the freedom to be your best selves. In a controlled environment, of course.”
“Do you know why you’re here?” Adam Dodgson asked as soon as she sat down across from him. It seemed like a silly question. Spooky knew what she had done. His dim office and quiet attention were the stark opposite of Izeah’s blustering speech on the field. Elaborate promises of trust and rehabilitation swirled in her head.
“Err. Because I made a mistake, and I can do better?”
“No. Because you were insufficiently motivated to behave.” Adam had all the hair Izeah lacked. His sandy mane was just graying at the temples. “Outside these walls, the fallout of your actions wasn’t enough to constrain your behavior. Breaking rules didn’t affect you, personally, in a way that mattered to you. I’m going to change that.”
Adam Dodgson reached into the filing cabinet beside his desk and pulled out a red folder with her name on it.
“When you break rules, you get scuffs. When you get scuffs, there are consequences. With the appropriate consequences, you will choose not to break rules.”
Izeah’s speech had mentioned scuffs. The word was meant to evoke something temporary, like a bit of grime that could be wiped away. After all, Izeah said to the field of teens in gray pajamas, he believed each and every one of them had endless potential to do better. Two minutes into their meeting, Spooky had a feeling Adam Dodgson didn’t share his brother’s optimism.
“I’ve talked to your parents, and I’m impressed.” His voice was even and deliberate. “To motivate you to behave this summer, they already had their own consequences in mind. I helped them add a few additional details.”
Adam opened the red folder and repositioned it to face her. Inside were her scuff levels: predetermined punishments for every ten scuffs, up to one hundred.
Spooky had assumed if she was caught sneaking out, she would spend the rest of the summer shoveling chicken shit, or maybe even bunking in the closed cabins with campers who were a little more stabby. Working in the cafeteria and sleeping in an open cabin were privileges of her good behavior. There was Dodgson, and then there was Dodgson.
But the scuff level punishments at camp weren’t what scared her. At eighty scuffs, consequences started bleeding through the fence and into her life outside. Adam Dodgson would take out his horrible red folder and make sure misery followed her through the gates. Spooky hadn’t just left for Dodgson with her suitcases. Her parents had put her in the cab with an ultimatum. If she got one hundred scuffs, the bleak and lonely years so far would be the best of her life.
And now she was about to hit seventy-three scuffs with almost half her time at Dodgson remaining.
“No one under the dumpsters,” Jackie called.
“I’m alone,” Luke whined again.
“Sure you are,” Mark said.
He was close. Too close. The beam of his flashlight waved on either side of the tree. She squeezed her eyes shut. His footsteps grew louder.
A sizzling crack echoed, and her vision blazed red.
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