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READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: The Between by Ryan Leslie

While landscaping his backyard, ever-conscientious Paul Prentice discovers an iron door buried in the soil. His childhood friend and perpetual source of mischief, Jay Lightsey, pushes them to explore what's beneath.

When the door slams shut above them, Paul and Jay are trapped in a between-worlds place of Escher-like rooms and horror story monsters, all with a mysterious connection to a command-line, dungeon explorer computer game from the early ‘80s called The Between.

Paul and Jay find themselves filling roles in a story that seems to play out over and over again. But in this world, where their roles warp their minds, the biggest threat to survival may not be the Koŝmaro, risen from the Between's depths to hunt them; the biggest danger may be each other.

Follow Paul and Jay through the iron door in THE BETWEEN by Ryan Leslie—out next Tuesday, April twenty-seventh. Pre-order your copy NOW!



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CHAPTER ONE: Be Human, Paul Prentice

Paul’s shovel hit something hard, something that shouldn't have been there in the clay soil of his suburban backyard, and the jolt from the impact shook him out of the robotic work-trance he had been in all morning. He frowned at the shovel like it had failed him and wiped his brow with a sleeve that was already soaked with sweat from the Texas summer sun.

When he had told Julie that he planned on doing the landscaping work himself, she gave him an amused look that said, oh you silly creature who never learns. It was a look he had grown quite familiar with over the five years of their marriage. You would think, with Julie’s track record of being right, Paul would recognize that look as a signal to rethink the ill-considered plan he had enthusiastically described to her. Instead, even with his history of failures, he took that look of hers as a challenge, an opportunity to prove her wrong. And so, each time, her look became a little more amused, he became a little more determined, and the failure became a little more spectacular.

This time was proving to be no different.

Mounds and mounds of dirt surrounded him, and yet he had only cleared away about a third of the dirt on the slope leading down to his kitchen door. After the hard rain in May when water ran from an overflowing spring two blocks to the north, the water had cascaded down his backyard like a waterpark ride, pooling outside the kitchen, rising inch after inch, threatening catastrophic damage to their non-flood-insured home.

Min-woo Kim, their neighbor across the street, said they needed a retaining wall and a channel to clear the water to the side of the house. Paul put a quick estimate of the materials at about a grand, give or take. The first contractor came back with a quote of $4,500, and the second doubled that, including a rainwater collection system Paul neither asked for nor wanted.

He convinced himself that the work would be, if not fun exactly, rewarding in an evolutionary psychology kind of way, releasing the primal drive to build shelter, to homestead. Or something like that. And maybe Julie would be impressed. Those good spirits lasted about an hour and a half into the actual digging, when the morning clouds had been burned away and the temperature crept toward triple digits.

And now he had hit something solid with his shovel. Probably a limestone boulder he’d have to unearth, and then he’d need Jay’s truck to pull it loose. Saturday would end with little to show for it, and tonight Julie would ask, “How’s it going out there, sweetie?” and he’d say, “Just super. Everything according to plan. Pass the bourbon.”

He should've hired the work done. He and Julie had the money after all, but Paul was still trying to recover financially from the statue incident back in the spring. He wasn’t being cheap. There was a difference between being cheap and being a good steward of family resources.

He’d actually said those words out loud in April when Julie deleted the household budget spreadsheet he’d spent an entire weekend setting up, complete with electronic feeds of their bank transactions, credit card purchases, and brokerage data. She even nuked the cloud backup of the file.

“Normal people don’t use phrases like good steward of family resources, Paul. This is a marriage, not a corporate cost center, capeesh?” she said. “To make up for budgeting me discretionary spending of $200 a month—a fucking allowance!—I need to see an act of unadulterated frivolity. For penance, you must buy something irrationally expensive. On a whim. I know you can do it. I’ve seen you drop a couple hundred bucks on an old, stinky book.”

“I’ve collected rare books as long as you’ve known me.”

“Oh, yes. Collecting. Investing. Every purchase rationalized away and properly accounted for. But I want to see if you’re capable of letting loose, Mr. Accountant. So no books, got it? Un-a-dul-ter-a-ted fri-vol-i-ty.” She emphasized every syllable of his lexical kryptonite. “It should feel like getting a tattoo. If some part of your brain isn’t screaming this is a bad idea! while another part is screaming do it do it do it! then you’ve failed. Be human, Paul Prentice.”

It was the be human comment that really got to him.

I’ll show her unadulterated frivolity, he thought. A week later, at the Wayland Gallery on West Sixth, a short walk from their house, he spent almost five thousand dollars on a wooden statue called First Mother. A six-foot-tall, buffalo-headed, pregnant nude carved in American basswood. The gallery owner claimed it was a feminist, Native American re-spinning of the Greek minotaur figure. Or something like that.

Julie had seemed quite taken by the statue when they saw it in the gallery together. When she encountered it unexpectedly standing in the corner of their living room, on the other hand, it nearly gave her a heart attack.

First Mother stared out the living room window at Paul with her accusatory animal eyes, arms crossed on her distended, pregnant belly. How fitting was it that he had a shovel in his hand, with the figurative hole he was digging himself out of with Julie, and the statue-shaped hole in their bank account?

He gave the statue a half-hearted smile that looked more like a wince and then put his focus back on the problem at hand. The rock in the ground. He moved about a foot to the left of where he’d been digging and jammed the shovel down into the clay. Boom! He hit the rock again, but this time it echoed, almost like a great bell had rung.

“Are you kidding me?” he muttered and tried again another foot over.


Confused, he looked to the left and right. It did sound like a bell, or at least something metal, and the sound seemed to come from all around him. He began scraping away at the top of the soil.

Ten minutes later, he had uncovered a rusty iron door.


Over the next several hours, Paul avoided the door as if he had never seen it, as if it weren’t a persistent void on the edge of his periphery. When Julie came home around 6, sweaty herself from a 90-minute hot yoga session (why anyone would pay for 100 degree studio time when the Texas summer supplied it for free, Paul had no idea), he saw her through the kitchen window and ran inside to meet her. He rambled on a bit about hitting some snags here and there, rocks in the soil, one big rock really but nothing he couldn’t handle, and the unforeseen time it was taking to get the angles right. Without the right angles—the correct angles, he should say--what was the point? She didn’t need to go back there. Stuff to trip on. Hard to gauge progress without understanding his master plan. Would she like to see his master plan?

He didn’t tell her about the door, because telling her about the door meant worrying her needlessly, and anyway, he had stopped acknowledging the existence of the door, so there was really nothing to tell her.

Julie gave him an arched right eyebrow. “I’m sure your master plan is quite masterful, but I’m taking a shower. Will you be done before Jay and Min-woo get here? Aren’t they coming over to watch a boxing match or something?”

The boxing match! He had almost forgotten! The backyard would have to wait. Paul turned on the television, set the DVR to record—in case Min-woo was late, as usual—and went out to sit on his front porch in the still-100-degree early evening. Not thinking about the door.


An hour or so later Jay pulled up in an old pickup truck that had recently developed the same, strange gurgling exhaust note that all of Jay’s previous automobiles eventually produced. Gugguta-guggutagugguta. Jay stepped out onto the curb and held in his outstretched right hand a six-pack of Carta Blanca longnecks like he was Perseus proudly displaying the head of Medusa. The beer’s cardboard carrier box chose that moment to give out. In the Greek myth, which Paul knew well, two drops of Medusa’s blood dripped from her severed head, forming the winged horse Pegasus and the winged boar Chrysaor. Instead of drops of blood, however, two beer bottles fell from the carrier box and exploded on the concrete curb, soaking Jay’s jeans. No winged animals appeared.

"Uh. Two of the three beers I brought for you just exploded," Jay said.

Paul laughed so hard he started choking. Jay scowled and cursed, but soon wore the crooked, dopey grin Paul had seen almost daily since they had met in elementary school over twenty years ago. Jay seemed to have changed less during that time than anyone else Paul knew. He had the same curly hair that always ended up going every which direction. The same way of walking without swinging his arms, strides a bit too long, his whole body bobbing up and down like a boat on rough water. Or better yet, with his gaunt frame and exaggerated features, like a big marionette. Of course, now there was the receding hairline, perpetual scruff, and an almost imperceptible sadness in his eyes that hadn’t always been there. But otherwise, Jay was the same gangly kid he’d always been, just in manchild form.

“Oh, those were my beers that broke, were they?” Paul jumped down from the porch and met him on the sidewalk. He still found it strange to shake Jay’s hand. Not that handshakes, in general, were strange. Okay, maybe a bit, with the weird masculine display of hand strength, where you have to look strong without looking like you’re trying to look strong, grasping the opposing hand somewhere in a Goldilocks Zone of firmness. Other men seemed to approach handshakes naturally, but Paul always became self-conscious, which sometimes ended up with an incomplete latch, his fingers getting squeezed, and both parties pretending like this social failure hadn’t just happened.

Second-grade Paul hadn’t started by shaking second-grade Jay’s hand after the incident at the swing-set during recess. It must’ve been college before they switched from non-hand-shakers to hand-shakers. Jay surely extended that first palm, having picked up the habit from all that hanging out in bars he did. And still did. Lots of handshaking between tipsy men in bars.

They shook hands (successfully), and Jay pulled him in for a half-hug. The hugging was a newer phenomenon than the hand-shaking and usually meant Jay had been drinking. But Jay pulled back after encountering a cocktail of sweat, mosquito repellent, and spray-on sunscreen from Paul’s shoulder.

“Is the big fight on, or are we still in the undercard?” Jay asked, and then, with a step back and a look like he’d smelled something wretched, added, “What the hell are you doing out here, anyway? It’s hotter than the devil’s asshole. You’re all sweaty and stinky.”

What had Paul been doing for the last hour? Not thinking about the door—that was for sure. “I was, uh, working in the backyard. Lost track of time. Don’t worry about the fight. I’m recording it. Min-woo’s always late, anyway, and we should wait for him before we start watching. Maybe I should go get cleaned up. De-stink. You mind?”

“No, I prefer you stinky and sweaty.” Jay narrowed his eyes and then added, “You’re acting weird. What’s going on?”

“Nothing’s going on,” Paul said before he could catch himself. Besides his wife Julie, the other person he couldn’t lie to was Jay. Jay had a sixth sense about people and lies. One of Jay’s bizarre talents which worked especially well on Paul. All the air seemed to rush out from him, and he sat hard on the porch step.

Jay sat down next to him and used the step’s edge to bang off the caps of two of the beers. “Here you go. Now, whatever it is, out with it.”

“I found something, and it’s got me a little freaked out,” Paul said.

Jay nodded solemnly, took a deep breath, and asked, deadpan, “Is it a lump on one of your nuts?” He folded his arms and shook his head. “It’s all that sitting on a bicycle you do. I told you that can’t be good for the boys. But we’ll get through it. Same thing happened to Lance Armstrong, and with one ball he still won all those bicycle races. Of course, he was blasting steroids up his ass the entire time. All I’m saying is there’s hope.”

Paul took a long pull on the beer and said, “Are you quite done?”

“Done? Me? Never.” It was true. If you gave Jay empty space, he tended to fill it, Robin Williams style. The best way to keep Jay from descending into manic zaniness was to keep him occupied.

“I found a door,” Paul started, and before he knew it, he was unloading all these fears he had surrounding the door that hadn’t even cohered yet in his own mind. What the hell was under his yard, maybe even under his house? Could the whole house fall in, like what happens with sinkholes sometimes, and would his insurance even cover that? What if it happened when they were sleeping? What if the door led to a secret torture room or a burial chamber full of bodies? Austin had its own Jack the Ripper back around the turn of the twentieth century. Maybe this was the killer’s hideout. It’s why the city built the moontowers around here a century ago, to try to make this area safer at night. It had happened right here! And what about Julie? What would Julie think with a crypt or something just feet from where they slept?

Jay listened without interrupting, without smiling when Paul’s rambling grew more and more absurd.

“You’re free to tell me I’m being an idiot,” Paul finally said after running out of horror story scenarios involving the door. Jay shrugged and opened a second beer for himself. He offered the last one to Paul, but Paul’s was still mostly full. “So ... you’re being an idiot.”

“Thanks. You’re a fucking pal.”