The Object: a free serial novel
Episode Three: “First Night”
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The black paint on the window–one of Mrs. Wilkins’s many demonstrations of insanity–was their only chance not to be spotted. Lillia helped Drake and Kate climb out on the slanted rooftop for the second time, then crawled through herself. The sun was just falling below the curve of the object’s underside, blanketing the city in a warm orange glow.
Lillia removed the window stick and let the window down gently just as she heard the thundering footsteps coming up the stairs.
She looked at Drake and Kate and put a finger to her lips. Kate sniffled. Suddenly Lillia noticed the wind had died down, and now every sound they made seemed amplified–their breathing, the scraping of their feet on the grainy asphalt shingles.
“It’ll be okay,” she whispered to Kate. “Drake, hold your–“
The bedroom door flew open and crashed into the small white vanity where Kate often pretended her doll was a stage actor, Kate a make-up artist preparing the doll for the most important performance of its career.
Drake wrapped his arms around Kate and Lillia put her ear to the window.
“Ain’t nobody here,” a man said in a deep, scratchy voice, followed by violent coughing.
“I seen her leavin’,” said another. “She only took two of ’em with her.”
“Well they ain’t here.”
“They was not too long ago. This tuna’s still cold.”
“Hey, let me get that other half. I’m hungry.”
There was a pause in conversation, and Lillia waited, tense, for one of the men to notice the stool under the window and piece the entire scene together.
“Let’s keep lookin’,” one of the men said.
Then the voices began to call out for anyone in the house. “We ain’t gonna hurt nobody,” they said. “We just wanna help you. Aliens is comin‘.”
“We’re your next door neighbors,” said the scratchy voice.
Their words faded as they moved out of the bedroom to the second floor landing, where they stood and mumbled to one another for a moment. The only thing Lillia could make out of this conversation was, “We gotta grab ’em up fast.” Finally she heard the squeak of the staircase as they descended to the front foyer.
Drake and Kate sat perfectly still, watching her, Kate terrified, Drake trying not to be. They knew how to hide, how to stop crying in fear of drawing attention to themselves, how to interpret angry voices and loud crashes muffled through the walls. The object aside, this wasn’t a peculiar day. This was simply what life was like when Mr. Wilkins came home, only the object and the mayhem to follow had appeared unexpectedly. Lillia knew when to expect Mr. Wilkins, and as the days drew nearer, her anxiety would grow.
The object hadn’t given her time to grow anxious. One moment life was the same as it had always been. She’d had a pop quiz in calculus. At the end of class Mr. Snyder announced the highest grade to determine the curve for the other students. The only sophomore in a room full of seniors, Lillia, and she knew she’d scored perfectly. She always did, even when she didn’t study. Mr. Snyder announced her grade and groans and whispers rose in a wave across the classroom.
When the bell rang, she stayed behind, waiting for the classroom to empty, waiting until only thirty seconds remained before the next bell, when the hallways would be clear. Then she ran to her next class, Anatomy and Physiology, where instead of desks students were paired up in fours around black island countertops with sinks and Bunsen burners.
This was the best and worst part of her day and evidence to the universe’s sense of humor. Seating assignments of random selection, and somehow she was grouped with Chase Kolton, her personal obsession since she first came to DuPont Manuel High School, and the Payton sisters, Sophie and Autumn, both unrivaled in their independent study of anatomy, or in how much of their own they put on display to the rest of the class, two live specimens, brainless and eager to be inspected by whomever, whenever, wherever.
Whatever activity did subsist in the cold meat of their brains functioned only to sniff out Lillia’s attraction to Chase, to deflect Chase’s attention, to abominate Lillia and seek to take what she wanted. Jackals with short shorts and cleavage.
Today they had dissected frogs–or rather Lillia had dissected the frog while Sophie and Autumn squealed and giggled and clung like chimps to Chase’s arms.
“So gross,” Autumn had said. “How can you do that?”
It was amazing how girls as dumb as these two so often seized upon moments of pure genius: they knew precisely how to acknowledge Lillia only in moments when they could brand her with an unpleasant association. A splayed out frog’s innards today. Last week the roaring fart of a football player, its author obvious to all, but somehow the Payton sisters had instantly directed the entire class to falsely and knowingly deem Lillia the source.
This was daily life for Lillia: balancing her fear of people with her desire to exist among them as more than an insect in constant danger of being squashed. The incident with Mike the Stalker was less a divergence from the norm and more an exacerbation. Taunting, harassment, bullying, crude innuendo–these were daily experiences for Lillia. She used to question why she was subject to constant abuse while others walked between the raindrops, but such was the nature of luck. Like the seating assignment in Anatomy and Physiology. Random selection sometimes produces results that seem premeditated.
Then the object appeared, and everything suddenly looked different.
Where were Sophie and Autumn now? she wondered. To whose arms did they cling while gazing up at the object, and did they loathe it for its latent and perilous nature or its capacity to deflect attention from them?
The former, Lillia imagined. The sheer size of the object was enough to steal the breath of even the most unimpressed, the most self-absorbed person–at least at first. So far it seemed to be drawing the worst out of people.
“Did they leave?” Drake whispered.
“I don’t know,” Lillia said.
The sun hovered low over the interstate, where traffic crept along at such a pace that some drivers had abandoned their vehicles in the emergency lane and were running to get out from under the object, and now the sun’s dim evening glow illuminated the object’s underside, giving it depth and definition for the first time. Not a flat surface. The shadows cast by the sunlight revealed ducts and protrusions, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands. Mechanical in their formation but somehow dusted with the essence of natural development, as though the object were some great and ancient spaceship whose surface had weathered to sand and silt, just like the mountains of the earth.
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Which meant the object not only had its own gravitational pull but must also have its own atmosphere, its own wind, if such a thing were possible.
Lillia heard footsteps quickly approaching the window.
“Move over,” she whispered, nudging Drake. He scooted to far wall, pulling Kate along with him.
Lillia started to follow when the window jarred open a few inches and two dirty sets of fingers hooked the frame and pulled it up to reveal the toothless, grinning face of a chubby man wearing a blue work shirt with the name Ted above the breast pocket.
“Heh heh, there you are,” he said, reaching out and grabbing her by the ankle. Lillia struggled for a moment and then used the force of his pulling to deliver a hard kick to his nose. He cried out and released her and she scooted away from the window as it slammed on Ted‘s hands. He cried out again, louder this time, then forced the window back open.
“You’re a sassy little twit, I’ll give you that,” he said. He began to climb out onto the roof. “Come here. You’re gonna be my new friend.”
Lillia realized she was still holding the piece of broom handle for propping the window open. She put it behind her back. Kate was sobbing and Drake was saying her name over and over.
Ted struggled with the window as it kept falling on him, forcing him to turn to his side and hold it up with one hand.
When he was out past his knees she brought the broom handle down over his head with both hands and all her weight. Ted’s head bounced on impact and he looked up at her for a moment before tumbling down the roof and falling over the side, crashing down somewhere in the hedge bushes below.
“That was awesome, Lillia,” Drake said.
Lillia turned to him and then thrust the broom handle at him. “Take it,” she said. “I’m gonna go find help.”
“But there could be more in there.”
“There is,” she said. “At least one more. And when that guy wakes up in the bushes he’ll bring his friend up here and then we’re in real trouble.”
She shook the broom handle and Drake took it.
“Hurry, Lillia,” he said.
She nodded. “If anyone else tries to get you, do what I did. Wait until he’s most of the way through and knock him on the head. Okay?”
“Cool,” Drake said.
Lillia listened through the window for movement. Then she pulled it open slowly, peeked inside, and climbed through.
The mirror on Kate’s vanity had shattered. The cups and bag of potato chips had been kicked across the room, a mess the three of them would catch a beating for if Mrs. Wilkins laid eyes on it. A belt across their bare bottoms.
She approached the door on tiptoes, stopped, listened to what sounded like someone rummaging through drawers in the kitchen downstairs. She crossed the hall to Mrs. Wilkins’s bedroom, still in pristine condition and bare save for the bed, a small dresser, and two nightstands–so bare the intruders hadn’t bothered to tear it apart, probably assuming it was just a guest room.
The men were right not to bother. Lillia knew the nightstands to only contain Benadryl, a notepad and pen, and a Bible. She also knew Mrs. Wilkins kept a can of pepper spray and a handheld taser under her pillow.
With these in hand, Lillia returned to the landing and slowly began to descend the squeaky staircase. The front door was cracked open. If she could make it there and draw the attention of the man in the kitchen, she could spray him, zap him, and then get a hold of one of the loose bricks that lined the flowerbed below the porch.
The rummaging stopped and then a voice said, “Hey Ted! Find anything?”
Lillia froze. He was coming.
Then he was there, standing at the foot of the stairs, gazing up at her. She brandished the taser at him but kept the pepper spray concealed.
“Hey there, girly,” he said. “Where’s Ted?”
“Ted had an accident,” Lillia said.
The man put his foot on the bottom step and grabbed the rail. “Ted, you up there?”
“You need to leave,” Lillia said. “This is our house.”
“Where’s my brother? Ted!”
“He’s not up here.”
“Bullshit.” He took two more steps, called out to his brother again. “Where were you hiding? We looked around pretty good.”
“What were you looking for?”
The man giggled, and Lillia realized if he wasn’t insane before, the object had made him so. “We’ve had our eyes on you a long time,” the man said. “Watching you walk home from school in your little skirt. Ted’s in love, I believe.”
“Come on down here.”
“Is that a taser?”
The man lunged up the steps and Lillia pressed the button on the taser, producing a blue current of lightning between two metal spikes. She tried to zap him but he grabbed her by the wrist and wrapped his free arm around her waist, lifting her off the steps.
He screamed and dropped her as she unloaded the pepper spray in his eyes. She fell back against the steps, the man clawing at his face and reeling on unsteady feet. Then she jabbed the taser into his thigh and pressed the button.
Ted’s brother stiffened and trembled, then collapsed and tumbled down the stairs. Lillia turned away and shielded her eyes both from the sting of pepper spray in the air and the sound of snapping bones. When she opened them again she found Ted’s brother lying in a twisted bundle, moaning, a gash on his head that looked like it had been delivered by an axe, the radial bone jutting from one forearm–she’d learned about the radius in Anatomy class.
Sherman collapsed on the floor and vomited. All the running he’d done today, the dehydration from donating plasma, the pint of KG in his stomach, the crunch of the old woman’s bones–it was all too much.
Then came the shouting and the gunshots.
Sherman rolled over in his own warm puke and watched the bus driver lean over and scramble for something to his left. There were two bullet holes in the windshield–then three.
Out on the street someone was shouting, “That was my grandma you blind sumbitch!”
The driver came up holding a revolver. Then came three more blasts in quick succession and blood spattered the seats and misted in Sherman’s face. The driver slumped over and then fell out of his seat, the gun clattering to the floor.
Sherman snatched up the gun and then crawled to the back of the bus, the kid outside still bawling and firing shots into the front windshield.
When he reached the back, Sherman lifted the yellow lever on the emergency exit door and pushed it open, triggering an alarm. He jumped out onto the pavement at the intersection of 2nd and St. Catherine, right in front of the Brick House community center. It was almost full dark now.
He took off down St. Catherine. The moment he was clear of the bus the kid whose grandmother had just been plowed fired at him and then gave chase, cursing and shouting, “You a dead man, bitch!”
Sherman ran at a speed he didn’t know himself capable. He veered to the left sidewalk, where the occasional tree or parked car would provide him some cover, until the kid joined him on the sidewalk, firing wildly. A bullet tore through some tree branches up ahead, raining disintegrated leaves upon him as he passed.
He crossed the 1st Street intersection, kept going straight. He came to an exit ramp from the interstate and nearly made the mistake of taking it, but he quickly realized the incline would slow him down. The kid was already closing distance.
Past the exit ramp he cut left into a yard that ran alongside some trees bordering a house on the corner of St. Catherine and Brook Street, and when he emerged from the trees onto the Brook Street sidewalk he collided with a young girl, sending both of them sprawling on the street and knocking the pistol from his grip and skidding across the pavement to the center line.
Sherman and the girl sat up at the same time and looked at each other. Then Sherman dove at her and pulled her kicking and screaming to the short retaining wall just as two more gunshots rang out.
Sherman peeked over the wall and saw the kid approaching at a fast walk. He looked at the girl, wide-eyed and panting. “If he gets me, run like hell.”
Then he went for the gun, expecting to be mowed down by gunfire, but instead he reached the center line, scooped up the pistol, and pointed it at the kid, who had run out of bullets and now stood in the street, producing a clicking noise as he continued to pull the trigger.
“Well go on then!” the kid shouted. “Shoot me! Do it!” He began to pace back and forth and punch himself in the chest.
“Listen, brother,” Sherman started.
“You killed my grandma!”
“Nah, man, it wasn’t–”
“Shoot me if you got the balls,” the kid said. “What are you waiting for? Go on!”
“Come on, son. You need to listen.”
Sherman glanced over at the girl, who cowered against the wall, shaking. The kid continued to scream and curse, and she reacted to each blast of his rage.
Sherman fired the gun over the kid’s head and the kid backed away, tripped, sat down in the grass. Sherman approached him quickly, gun trained at his face.
“Listen to me, son. I’m sorry as I can be about your grandma, but I wasn’t the one drivin’ the bus.”
“You a liar, man.”
Sherman smiled and plucked at his tattered denim jacket. “Now come on, son. Do I look like a brother with a job to you? Seriously. The man you’re after you done killed. If I wasn’t so black you could see his blood on my face.”
The kid dropped his head and began to cry. “That was my grandma, man. I come to take her to church. She thought the end was comin‘.”
“You ain’t got no other people?” Sherman asked.
“I got my boys,” the kid said. “CNG, bitch. Fuh eva’.”
Sherman nodded. “Two of your boys jumped me couple weeks back. You get back to Greenwood you tell ‘em drunk Sherman let you live, you understand?”
The kid stood and straightened his jacket.
“CNG don’t give a fuck,” he said. “We gon’ own this town now. I get reloaded, I’m comin’ after yo’ broke stankin’ ass.”
Sherman cocked the hammer on the pistol and the kid turned back up St. Catherine.
Sherman called after him, “Go have a look for yourself!” he said. “It wasn’t me, son! You tell ‘em I let you live!”
The kid was gone, lost somewhere in the dark. Sherman turned back to the girl.
“Young lady, you shouldn’t be out in the streets tonight. It’s dangerous.”
The girl stood. “I need help,” she said. “Some men broke into our house. I hurt them. My brother and sister are still there.”
“Where do you live?”
She started to tell him but stopped.
“It’s okay, young lady. What’s your name?”
“I’m Sherman. I’m homeless and I’m a drunk, but I ain’t never hurt nobody.”
She stared at him for a moment. Then she pointed towards the intestate and said, “My house is over there.”
He followed her down the street to her house. The front door stood wide open. Just inside he could see a lump moving and twitching at the bottom of the steps.
The girl crossed to the right side of the yard, waving him along. “One of them is over here,” she said.
He came around the side of the house, where tall trees and the interstate obstructed the light from the street lamps, and found the girl standing at the hedges lining the house, pointing at a man who lay half-conscious and making motions with his arms as though backstroking in a swimming pool.
Sherman pointed his gun at the man.
“Wait,” Lillia said. “Don’t kill him.”
“Fine by me,” Sherman said.
Lillia backed away and called up to the rooftop. “Drake!”
Sherman looked up and saw two children standing on a small section of roof where the house was only one story.
“Lillia, look!” the boy said, pointing up at the sky.
Sherman stepped around to where Lillia stood, and together they peered up at the object, where a number of tiny golden lights floated and glided like lightning bugs. For several minutes they watched the little orbs grow bigger and bigger in the sky.
“What is it, Lillia?” said the little girl.
“I don’t know,” Lillia called up to her.
“Aliens!” the boy said.
“You go on up, get them children off that roof,” Sherman said. “I’ll see to it this guy knows not to come back.”
“Thanks,” Lillia said, and then she took off around the corner.
Sherman moved over next to the man in the hedges and tapped him on the leg with the barrel of the gun.
“Hey, man,” he said, pointing up at the sky. “Check that out.”
To be continued . . .
Read Episode Four