The Object: a free serial novel
Episode Five: “Emergency Broadcast”
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~ ~ ~ ~
Lillia jumped when she awoke to find Sherman hovering over her in the dark, his dark skin blended perfectly into the night, only the glints of his eyes visible.
“Didn’t mean to scare you,” he whispered. “I got us a TV. Thought you might want to come watch the news.”
After dragging Steve’s body next door and laying him on his own porch, Lillia and Sherman had both agreed a nap was in order. Drake and Kate were droopy eyed and yawning up in the bedroom, so she’d put them to bed first.
Sherman had insisted that he sleep at the top of the staircase. “That way I can keep a barrier between you children and Ted, or anyone else who comes along.”
Lillia offered him Mrs. Wilkins’s bed, then the couch. Finally she suggested he sleep with them in the bedroom, despite how bad he smelled, but he insisted on the cold hard floor. They worked out a compromise and dragged the mattress from Mrs. Wilkins’s bed into the hallway, right up against the head of the stairs. Sherman bounced up and down on it and said, “This works out even better. Won’t be no sneakin’ past me.”
Lillia hadn’t been asleep two hours when he woke her. She followed him out to the hallway and found the blanket and pillows still piled up at the corner of the mattress where she’d put them.
Sherman shook his head. “Guess I’ve still got the jitters. I seen somethin’. A big light outside. Lit everything up like it was daytime. Went down to see what was goin’ on but didn’t see nothin’. After that I figured it’s time we get access to some information, so I went over to Ted’s house and jacked his television.”
Downstairs she found Ted unconscious, snoring. He stood upright but his chin rested on his chest.
“No way I could sleep like that,” Lillia whispered.
Sherman spoke a little louder. “Don’t gotta worry ’bout wakin’ him up. Couldn’t leave you alone with him squirmin’ around, so I made him choose between a whop upside the head and some sleepin’ pills.”
“Which one did he pick?”
“Both, turns out. Well, he chose the pills, but then he started throwin’ a fit, so I had to apply the other method, too. Speed things up.”
They entered the dark of the living room, where Sherman had positioned the television on the floor near an electrical outlet. He’d fashioned an antenna out of a wire coat hanger and a strip of aluminum foil. Lillia had never seen such a thing. She thought TV channels came through a cable in the wall.
The screen was fuzzy and dim, and once in a while it rolled. Better than nothing, though. She plopped down on the floor, crossed her legs, and turned up the volume.
“. . . and the president announced a nationwide state of emergency, saying quote, ‘We don’t know where it came from. We don’t know what it is. We don’t know what it plans to do. Though top scientists and military personnel are working to establish contact with the object, we must until that time consider it a threat to our national security.'”
“That’s great,” Sherman said. “It’ll be rainin’ bombs this time tomorrow.”
The newscaster looked tired and nervous. He fumbled with a pile of papers and went on to explain that military barricades had been set up on the outskirts of the Louisville Metro Area, blocking highway and interstate access in every direction.
“Louisville residents are urged not to attempt to leave the city. Due to tonight’s sightings, the president has placed Louisville under a full-scale quarantine, fearing microbiological contamination that could be carried by these alien . . . things.”
Lillia turned and looked up at Sherman. “Did you see them?”
He shook his head. “Might have been what those lights was about.”
“We’re still working on getting footage of the creatures,” the newscaster said. “If you or anyone you know has captured one on your phone or camera, please call the number at the bottom of the screen.”
For the next few minutes he rattled off a checklist of precautionary measures to take: stay indoors, bottle as much water as possible, keep a battery-operated radio handy, and, most importantly, don’t panic. Then he announced the station was going off air for the rest of the night. The screen went black, except for an “Emergency Broadcast” title.
“Well,” Sherman said. “Didn’t learn much, but at least we know we’re trapped in the city.”
Lillia stood and turned to him. “What do you think?”
“You mean do I think we’re gonna die?”
Lillia’s eyes darted away for a moment. An image of Blake and Kate screaming flashed in her mind. “Yeah,” she said.
Sherman sighed. “Honey, I honestly don’t know what to think. If it does intend to kill us, I don’t see what’s the big hold-up. Tell you the truth, I’m more afraid of what our government might do.”
Lillia nodded and sniffled.
~ ~ ~ ~
Roger Lansing merged onto I-65 South. In the passenger seat was a woman whose name he still did not know. She was crying. Together they had sat amongst the mangled wreckage of Stacie McKenzie’s car, comforting the girl for hours as she slowly bled to death. Attempts to extract her had failed. The door was jammed shut and her legs were pinned between the seat and the dashboard. With blood rushing to her head, Stacie grew delirious. She began to state her name, date of birth, and social security number over and over. She said, “I’m okay, really. Just get me out. I’m late for work.”
Near the end, she started rattling off her address. “My cat. He’ll starve to death if I don’t get back to him. His name is Sprinkles. Please take care of him.”
The girl with him now was too upset to drive herself home. She lived in Lebanon Junction, about forty minutes south of Louisville. She worked as a radiologist at a doctor’s office somewhere off Watterson Expressway. Roger offered to take her home, but first he would head over to Mt. Washington and swap out the catering van with his Maxima.
Surprisingly, the interstate was near empty. He expected to merge into standstill traffic–even this late at night–but instead found himself on an open roadway, six lanes completely void. He found himself not obeying the lines in the road, pressing the accelerator, pushing the van harder than he’d ever dared. Only on the girl’s request did he slow down.
Good thing she did, too, because with the van’s dim headlights he didn’t see the enormous blockade in the road as they passed under Gene Snyder Freeway. He hit the brakes hard, boxes and carriers slamming against the metal wall behind him.
The interstate was completely blocked off by military trucks, bundles of razor wire, and even two tanks. At least thirty soldiers in gas masks knelt, as though on command, and pointed assault rifles at the van. Then a voice came on an intercom or a megaphone:
“Turn back now or we will open fire. The Louisville Metro Area is under quarantine. You cannot pass. Turn back now. If you do not follow this instruction you will be perceived as a threat. You have ten seconds to comply.”
“Loud and clear,” Roger said. He shifted into reverse and hit the accelerator hard enough to burn rubber.
“No,” the girl said. She’d finally stopped crying and now shot her head around in a panic. “No, we have to get out. I have to get home. My kids, my husband.”
Roger braked and spun the back of the van into the shoulder so he could turn around. When he came to a stop, the girl in the passenger seat opened the door and jumped out.
But she slammed the door and took off running toward the barricade. He watched the soldiers raise their assault rifles, heard the warning blaring on the intercom. He thought about jumping out and going after her, but before he could make a decision the night lit up with gunfire.
Roger shifted into drive and sped away.
~ ~ ~ ~
When Ted regained consciousness, the pain in his neck and arms, coupled with the massive headache that stinky black hobo had given him, drove him to tears. He wanted to kill somebody. Make that girl watch him throw those children off the roof. Have his way with her. Pluck out the hobo’s eyes and then break his neck.
Or maybe he wouldn’t kill Lillia. Maybe he’d stick to the plan. If he could free himself soon, that RV Steve had spotted down on South 3rd might still be there. The owners were an elderly couple. He doubted they would flee the city in the middle of the night.
The plan was simple. First, he and Steve were to kidnap the girl. They’d both had their eyes on her for months, and she’d make a nice toy to keep them occupied on their way to Mexico. Next, rob a bank. If the banks were all closed, hit a dozen gas stations and liquor stores. Then steal the RV and get the hell out of town. If aliens were coming to destroy the world, Ted would rather die on the beaches of Ensenada than in a filthy bedbug-infested Louisville apartment. It would also be kind of cool to watch the show.
He needed to think. In order to think, he needed a cigarette.
Then he remembered the Zippo lighter in his pocket.
He kicked off his shoes as quietly as he could, not sure whether the black guy was around but remembering that he’d dragged a mattress to the top of the stairs. If he was asleep, Ted didn’t want to wake him. If he was awake, Ted would have to work quietly so as not to arouse suspicion.
With his shoes off, he used the heels of his feet to pull on the legs of his pants. He’d always belted his pants loosely around his gut, but they resisted coming down over his hips. Finally the waistband slipped over his butt, bringing his dirty yellow underwear down with it, so that when the pants finally lay in a bundle at his feet, his underwear hung suspended on his hips.
He tried to scrape his butt against the wall to pull them back up but only succeeded in working them even lower and twisting them up.
Using his toes, he picked up his pants by the crotch and shook them until the contents of his pockets spilled out, rattling on the hardwood. This noise he couldn’t avoid. He listened for a moment but didn’t hear the mattress squeak. Then he felt around the floor with his toes, touching change, his pack of cigarettes, an ink pen, a tire pressure gauge, and finally his Zippo. He scooted it close, then spent the next few minutes trying to stand it up and grasp it between the index and big toe of his left foot. Then he opened the lid with the other big toe and after several attempts managed to strike a flame.
Now came the most difficult part. Ted felt like a ballerina, working so delicately on his toes. Holding the lighter in place, he used his free foot to lift a leg of his pants, which were blackened by oil and axle grease and should flare up easily, and bring it to the flame. If he moved too quickly, he could smother it, but with just the right finesse, the tip of the flame to the greasy hip . . .
At first contact with the pants, the flame doubled in size. Then it ate a hole through the fabric and suddenly the entire leg was engulfed, lighting up the corridor and producing thick, rancid smoke.
Ted looked around himself quickly, in search of the most flammable thing in his proximity. Through the entrance to the living room, he could see a wicker chair sitting in front of a large window with heavy drapes. Perfect.
He bundled the pants up as much as he could without burning himself, then hooked his foot under the cool side and kicked them across the corridor and through the doorway, where they landed on a rug just shy of the wicker chair.
“Come on, baby,” he whispered, licking his lips and watching the flames brighten and swell.
~ ~ ~ ~
Lillia sat up in bed. Something had woken her. A sound, maybe. A clatter. She tried to remember only for a moment. Then she noticed a pulsating glow in the scratches on the window’s black paint. It brightened, dimmed, brightened, dimmed, but never fully extinguished.
Kate lay next to her. She climbed out of bed slowly and pulled the blanket up to Kate’s neck. Then she tiptoed to the window, careful to avoid a certain spot on the floor that squeaked if you stepped on it. Many nights Lillia had snuck out to sit on the roof and be alone. She’d think about Chase Kolton, or about graduating and going far away to college somewhere. She’d count the days until Mr. Wilkins would be home. But if she stepped on that one particular spot on the floor, the loud creak would always wake Drake, who would invariably ask if he could join her on the small slanted roof.
Sometimes Lillia would step on that spot on purpose, but not tonight. Tonight, something was glowing out there, and she knew whatever it was, it didn’t belong.
She tried to peek through the cracks in the paint, but the window was foggy. She pulled it open and cool, humid air rushed in, rippling her nightgown.
When she saw the little golden squid-like creature, she nearly screamed.
Its head was no bigger than a quarter, and it had hundreds–maybe thousands–of tiny, thread-sized tentacles spread out like a skirt all around it. Each one drifted and curled and floated independent of the others’ movement. It sat just outside the window, staring up at Lillia with round, beady black eyes, and when she bent to look closely, she realized she could see through it, even its head, to the grainy shingle upon which it sat.
“Hi there little guy,” she whispered.
What happened next occurred so quickly she had little time to process it. The creature raised two of its tiny little tentacles, no thicker than fishing line, distinct to her eyes only because of how brightly they glowed. The tentacles began to twist and interlace and finally they stopped. Lillia had to lean in very close–so close she felt the warmth of the little squid–to see what shape it had made for her:
In the same instant, she caught her first whiff of the smoke coming from downstairs and the little creature latched onto her hand with its tentacles and began to crawl up her arm. A surge of adrenaline rushed through her body, and she felt at once exhilarated and frightened.
Her back stiffened. Then her whole body froze. All she could feel was the squid’s tentacles, like the tickle of a thousand feathers, as it crawled up her arm, her neck, and finally latched onto her head.
In her last conscious moment, Lillia smelled the smoke again and somehow knew Ted had caught the house on fire.
Then she collapsed.
To be continued . . .
Read Episode Six