The Urchin is my 95K word novel now available as an ebook on Amazon for 99 cents and soon to be available on all ebook retailers for the same price. (Check to see if it's been posted on your preferred carrier.) Here's the blurb to pull you in:
Since the End came, leaving the United States a confused and desolate wasteland, what is left of society has been trying to pick up the pieces and put itself back together. Nick Miller is willing to do whatever it takes, and is flying a top-secret mission over the devastation when he is forced to make a crash landing. Luckily, he is rescued by the brooding, enigmatic Vance Amherst and his dubious crew of teenage boys, who are eking out an existence in the remains of their boarding school. But Nick quickly realizes that something is very wrong at Stanton Academy: the school has been turned into a fortress bristling with giant spikes; the boys, armed to the teeth with wooden stakes, exude a desperate, fearful discipline; the teaching staff is conspicuously absent. And night is falling…
Here is a sample chapter to get you started:
By A. M. Ambrose
The sun was skimming the horizon as Nick guided his Stearman north towards New Washington. It would be dark soon. Too dark to fly. He would have to find a safe place to touch down for the night. The wind tugged persistently at an errant lock of his sandy blond hair that had escaped the confinement of his leather helmet. Annoyed, Nick shoved the curl back into place and adjusted his goggles as he scanned the landscape. He used to love to fly. Getting up in his father’s old biplane was one of the true joys of his childhood. Of course, that was back when flying in an open cockpit meant there were things to look at. Now there was just mile upon mile of nothing. Over the last hour, he’d seen the hulls of a few blasted out buildings and a handful of brutally scorched trees. Sometimes he could even make out where a road must have been, but his compass was really the only thing he could rely on to guide his way north.
There was a soft thud and the Stearman wobbled, unsteadily. The plane felt off balance. Had he hit something? Nick couldn’t imagine what there was to hit in the middle of the barren wasteland, but the Stearman’s stick was off somehow. It felt like the right wing of his plane was dragging something weighty. But what?
Nick saw it, far out there, hanging on the very edge of the wing. A figure? A face? “What the hell? What is that?” he blurted in alarm. When flying so close to the ground, it only takes a second of lost concentration to cause an accident and Nick spent several seconds staring at the large mass dragging off the tip of his wing. The wheels of the plane drew too dangerously close to the crumbled remains of a building and Nick clipped it. “Damn it,” he yelped.
The ground came up quick and hard. “No! No! No! Shit!” The pilot narrated the crash, his teeth rattling as he tried to avoid the larger pieces of debris that blanketed the wasteland. Sizable chunks of cement, twisted pieces of rebar, random battered personal items of people who had been vaporized off the face of the planet in an instant all threw themselves in his path. He got the Stearman down, but it was limping jerkily along like a three legged dog. Suddenly, the plane lurched sharply to the right and spun out. “Whoa.”
Nick knew without looking that the wheel that had clipped the building was busted. “Un-fucking-believable,” he chastised himself, shaking his head. “There’re three standing buildings in the whole state and I hit one of them.” It hadn’t been much of a building, more like a teetering ruin, but there was enough of it left to do damage to a plane with a pilot who had lost focus.
As soon as the Stearman stopped moving, Nick yanked his goggles off his face and sprang up in his seat, twisting to look at the wing. Whatever was snagged there must have been knocked off during his derailed rollercoaster landing. Nick felt a chill across the back of his neck. “Some kind of debris that got kicked up in the wind, I guess,” he tried to reassure himself. Scanning the barren wasteland surrounding him, he added, “Or maybe a mutant Big Bird.”
Nick sat back down in the cockpit and tried to think of what to do next. He hadn’t so much as seen a remote outpost for at least the last hour and a half. “I am so screwed,” he muttered to himself. “There’s nothing here.”
A faint squeaking sound caught the pilot’s attention. He scanned in all directions. Where was it coming from? The sound was familiar, mechanical in some way. The image of hot summer afternoons and chasing the ice cream truck popped into his brain. From out of the west, a group of teenagers, all boys, road towards him on mountain bikes that were badly in need of a little oil. In unison, they skidded to a stop several feet from the plane. Nick gawked at them as they returned his look with cool stares. There were a half a dozen of them, scruffy looking, ranging in age from thirteen to sixteen or seventeen, Nick estimated.
“Hello,” he called out, trying to keep his voice low to hide his nervousness. “Uh… I had a bit of a problem.”
This announcement brought little reaction from the guys. They seemed to be scrutinizing him. Unwilling to be intimidated by a pack of snot-nosed punks, Nick defiantly met their gaze. They were all dressed in snug fitting motorcycle leathers that appeared to have been stitched from mismatched pieces of material. It looked as if most of them had cannibalized bits of luggage and maybe even an old couch to construct their garments. They were also all carrying multiples of some type of tools on broad strips of leather, bandoleer style, crossing their chests. Like teenage banditos on bicycles, Nick thought with some discomfort. One of the older guys, the one with dark hair, suddenly barked, “Get down off that plane. Make it quick.”
Nick pulled back slightly. That wasn’t what he was expecting to hear. To make matters worse, he had just realized what the weird implements were that the boys were carrying. They were all heavily armed with sharpened wooded stakes, what appeared to be wooden flails and several other weapons that he couldn’t readily identify. Plus, they were each carrying a bow and a quiver crammed full of arrows slung over their backs.
They wanted to be tough, apparently, but Nick wasn’t in the mood to be menaced by a pack of grubby teenagers. He was never in that kind of a mood. “Don’t get pissy,” he said, forcing his voice to come out deep and steady. “I’ve just had a bit of plane trouble. Fetch an adult for me. I need talk to someone about getting my wheel fixed.” At twenty, he knew he probably wasn’t that much older than the largest boys, but he thought it was best to proceed with the air of authority.
The boys visibly bristled, exchanging looks. The dark haired one checked the time, using an old pocket watch that was connected to one of his belt loops by an ornate chain. With his eyes on the dial he said, “The sun’s almost gone. There's not much time. You'd better hurry up and get down from there.”
“Listen kid, enough with the attitude. I just need to talk to your dad or someone in charge.”
The boy glanced up while putting his watch back in his pocket. “Kid…?”
“Vance is in charge,” an older guy with dirty blond hair snarled, jabbing his thumb in the dark haired kid’s direction. “We're about all the authority you're going to find around here.”
“Take it easy, Dave,” Vance said in a quiet voice. “He doesn’t know what’s what.”
A small, wiry kid with wavy hair, who looked about thirteen, was unable to stay still. He kept nervously switching his feet on the pedals of his bike and scanning the sky behind Nick. “You'd better come with us, Mister,” his pubescent voice was like a reed whistling in the gloaming. “It's almost dark and they'll be coming soon.”
“Martin! Control it.” Vance barked, glaring fiercely at the younger boy. Martin registered a hurt look of surprise, but immediately hardened his face.
“Who's coming?” Nick asked, his mind immediately flickering back to the dark mass he had glimpsed hanging on the wing of his plane.
“Some of our night dwelling friends,” Vance replied, his lips curling into a bitter smile.
Nick wasn’t sure he liked the look of his new acquaintances. There was something about them, almost feral in nature. “Okay,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. “Thanks, but I'd better just stay with my plane.”
“Suit yourself,” Vance gave a callous shrug.
“But,” Martin was startled, “we can’t just leave him here.”
“He’s not part of us,” Vance said, stiffly. “He can do what he wants.”
While the boys turned their bikes around, preparing to leave, Nick scanned the barren landscape that spread out from all sides of the plane like the Atlantic Ocean engulfing a lonely boat. A night spent alone in this wasteland was not an inviting prospect. Neither were the boys, for that matter. Nick examined his circumstance. He had no food and no water. He was teetering on the brink of a total day hiker’s nightmare scenario and he was turning away the only offer of aid he was likely to encounter. The sun was about to plunge below the horizon. With a creeping feeling of dread, Nick knew that staying with his plane would be a mistake. A very big mistake. “Now, wait a minute,” he called out as the kids were about to leave. “Maybe I'd better come with you.”
Vance snapped his head around and glared at the pilot. “Either you're coming or you're staying, but make up your mind quick because in another five minutes you're going to regret both decisions.”
“I'll come with you,” Nick decided, gingerly hoisting a canvas satchel to his shoulder and struggling out of the cockpit.
Vance and Dave swiftly rigged what looked like a large plastic cutting board between their bikes. It had been modified with notches cut out of both ends so that it could be snapped onto the frame of two bicycles like a toy train track. “Have a seat,” Vance told Nick, curtly gesturing towards the board. “And make it snappy.” Vance squinted towards the setting sun. “We've got to go.” When the guys started pedaling, Vance called out, “Scott, Kelly, take rear guard. Rick, alert the Urchin.”
The larger boy, the one called Rick, sped ahead of the little band. Scott and Kelly slowed their bikes to a stop. The pilot looked over his shoulder to see what they were up to. He assumed Kelly was the one with dark curly hair and the Irish complexion. Scott was probably the one with darker skin and black hair. The boys waited, scanning the skies while the others faded into the distance. Finally, keeping his voice casual, Kelly wondered, “Do you think they have enough of a lead? We should get started.”
“If you’re nervous, we can get going,” was Scott’s smug reply.
“I was just concerned for you. I know how you get when you’re away from home.”
Scott tightened his grip on his handlebars and blew air out his nose. “Don’t worry about me, Sunshine. I can wait as long as you can.”
The terrain was rough, littered with crushed refrigerators, rotting shoes and glinting shards of glass, the wreckage of a civilization that had abruptly disintegrated. Rick and Martin were nimble enough on their bikes, darting and swooping around the debris, but with the board balanced between them, Vance and Dave’s progression was significantly slowed. Martin was having trouble keeping pace with the other two. He kept pulling ahead, apparently intent to get to wherever they were going, but then he would look over his shoulder, note the large distance between them, fall back to ride at Vance’s side.
Nick clung to the board, trying to keep his balance with his satchel cradled in his lap. It wasn’t easy. Looking over at Vance he estimated his age to be about sixteen or seventeen. He had a pale, but handsome face with steely blue eyes set in dark lashes. His jaw was clenched as he stood up on the pedals, using his whole body to propel the bike forward as quickly as possible. “Wwhhat aaare yoouuu kiddsss doooingg heerrreee?” Nick tried to ask as he was jounced along, but his query went ignored. On the other side of him, Dave was equally intense, his body bobbing back and forth with his effort to pedal, his hands gripping the handlebars so tightly his knuckles were white. Even though the bikes were locked together by the board, Dave surreptitiously kept glancing in Vance's direction every few seconds.
After several minutes of enduring his uncomfortable conveyance, Nick noticed something in the distance. It was a building, strangely out of place in a landscape of devastation, but large enough that, in full daylight, he would have probably seen it from his plane. The whole image was strange and discomforting; as if he had just been transported into the heart of a Dali painting where incongruous objects have been dropped by an absentminded giant into a monochromatic desert. Someone had erected a bizarre scaffolding of wooden spikes all over the structure so that it appeared like an enormous sea urchin bristling in a tide-less wasteland. “Whhhy...?” Nick chattered, mostly to himself, realizing that no one was likely to take the time to explain the building’s appearance.
Rick was waiting at the building’s rusting front gate. He’d dismounted his bike and flung it on the ground to the side of the entrance. He’d taken his bow from its quiver and had an arrow nocked and ready to fly. Martin, unable to reign in his fear any longer, sped ahead to join him. Vance and Dave skidded their bikes to a halt and Nick was propelled off his perch, only catching himself from falling with a few running steps. He peered through the bars of the gate to see that dozens of boys were crowding the front windows of the spiky building. Turning to Vance, Nick asked, “Why’s this thing covered with ...?”
“Stakes?” Vance supplied. “Call the rear guard,” he told Dave before giving Nick a spare glance. “It keeps our old friends from coming home to roost.”
“Oh, well that explains it,” Nick mumbled to himself.
Dave put two fingers to his lips and blew a loud, shrill whistle. “Should we take the new-comer inside?” he asked, lowering his hand.
“No, stick to procedure.”
Dave’s face tightened as he looked into the encroaching night. “Where are they? They'd better hurry.”
Vance pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open. Standing at his shoulder, Nick was able to get a good look. A window in the face of the time piece represented a.m. and p.m. with a sun and a moon that slowly rotated with each passing minute. At 6:12 p.m., the watch was just about to move forward to totally eclipse the sun and only show the moon.
Kelly and Scott were both gripping the handlebars of their bikes for all they were worth, but that was the only indication either of them was willing to concede that he might feel tense in any way. The sound of Dave’s whistle piercing the air made them both sit up just a little, but besides that neither immediately reacted to it. “There’s the signal. Ready to go?” Scott finally asked, his voice casual.
“If you’re afraid, go ahead,” Kelly replied.
Scott gestured in the direction of the Urchin with a half bow, “No, no, after you.”
“No, I insist. Age before beauty,” Kelly countered.
Scott kicked off and began madly pumping his bicycle’s pedals, raising a small cloud of dust. He called over his should back to Kelly, “Pearls before swine.” After stalling for a moment, Kelly started furiously pedaling in pursuit of his friend.
Back at the Urchin, Martin was trembling. He stood as close to the gate’s entrance as possible. “The others are coming. I can feel it,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “Why won't they hurry?” Without looking at him, Vance reached out and put a steadying hand on Martin’s shoulder.
“Here they come,” Dave said with some relief.
The rear guard made their appearance in the distance, using the full weight of their bodies to cranks the pedals, but still managing to zigzag dexterously around the larger fragments of rubble as they headed towards the gate. “And our buddies are right behind them,” Vance added, knowing the truth more than seeing it.
“Who?” Nick asked. He could barely make out Scott and Kelly on their bikes. There didn’t seem to be anyone following them.
As the sun was completely engulfed by the horizon, three enormous birds rose out of the darkness, flying through the air at an amazing speed. They appeared to be pursuing the boys.
“Fuck. It's Old Gym,” Dave muttered, half under his breath.
Nick could feel Rick and Martin shifting on the ground behind him in agitation. “Asshole,” he heard Rick utter.
Vance fixed Nick with a steely glare. “We shouldn't have waited for you.”
“What are those things?” the pilot asked, too mesmerized to take offense at Vance’s words. “Birds?” No one answered him. They were intent on the efforts of the rear guard.
The creatures looked so peculiar. Not like birds at all. They didn’t flap their wings, or even appear to have wings, for that matter. An idea occurred to the pilot. “Men?” he wondered aloud. “Are those flying things men? How are they…?” he couldn’t even think of the words to finish his sentence. “What are they doing?”
The rear guard was getting closer, but so were the flying creatures. “Should we go inside?” Dave asked, his voice carried an edge like a scalpel.
“No,” Vance was firm. “We stand our ground until we can all go inside.” Turning, he thrust something into Nick’s hands. “Here, you might want this.”
Nick looked down at the sharpened wooden spike that had been pressed upon him. “What? Why?”
“Hurry!” Martin shrieked at the rear guard. Even though they were pedaling with all their might, their progress felt painstakingly slow. All of the scouting party had their bows nocked and ready for action.
Finally Scott and Kelly were nearing the gate, but their pursuers were almost upon them. “Get ready to close,” Vance shouted to the numerous faces watching from the windows.
Nick could feel the waves of tension radiating off the guys. “What the fuck are those things?” he demanded in frustration.
The largest of the three creatures swooped out of the sky and snatched a shrieking Scott right off of his bicycle.
“Vampires!” Vance shouted.