The Object: a free serial novel
Episode Six: “Oops”
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~ ~ ~ ~
In the faint gray morning sky, military helicopters slowly orbited the object, waking the homeless with the distant chopping of their propellers. An occasional spout of gunfire disturbed the otherwise still and unruffled streets, most of it from the outer perimeter of the city as frightened or deranged residents tried to sneak between the road blocks and barricades. Lamp poles still moist from the night’s dew clicked off in sections as orange sunlight spilled over the littered streets. The interstate had finally cleared, save for a handful of wrecked and abandoned vehicles. Downtown saw no traffic, no movement at all—very little in the west end or southern metropolitan area.
In the shade of the I-65 overpass on Broadway, a strange blind man with long white hair and glossy eyes sat holding a sign that read THE END IS NIGH. He spoke to the echo of his own voice: “I can hear you scream. I can sense your fear. I can feel you running away. I can’t see the thing you’re running from, but I can sense it gaining on you.”
At the man’s feet sat a tin can. He picked it up and shook it. A few coins rattled inside.
“I’ve spoken to it. I know why it’s come. Spare a quarter and I’ll tell you what it wants.”
Then he laughed maniacally and shook the can again before returning it to the sidewalk and repeating the process.
In the breeze whispered a distant police siren, but otherwise the city was silent–so silent you could almost hear the lapping of the Ohio River, the gush of air from unknown mechanisms jutting out of the object’s surface.
Right about the time the vintage clothing store on Bardstown Road finally burned down to smoldering embers, another plume of smoke billowed up toward the underbelly of the object, this one farther north, right across the section of interstate where drivers could look down on the tops of the three- and four-story houses and apartment buildings that made up Old Louisville.
~ ~ ~ ~
Barry Shafer lay in bed reading through a dead drug dealer’s criminal background report. Next to him, Whitney slept naked under a white sheet. He glanced at her occasionally as he went down the list of known associates, crossing out ones he knew to be in jail or prison and even two he knew to be dead. The LMPD was slow to update their records, it seemed.
He glanced at his wife once more, then grasped the sheet and ripped it away from her. She reached out for it instinctively, head buried in a pillow, groaning, but he tossed the sheet down over the end of the bed and smacked her hard on the butt.
“Go make breakfast,” he said, “and bring it in here. I had a long night.”
“Apparently,” Whitney mumbled, brushing hair out of her face. “You said you’d be right home.”
“Had some work to do.”
“Sure,” she said, climbing out of bed.
“What was that?”
She turned. “You said you’d only be gone a few minutes and you were out half the night, Barry. I was worried. That thing in the sky. I barely slept. Then you waltz in here in the middle of the night expecting . . . well . . . like you were never gone. Like that thing isn’t hovering over our heads and there’s nothing to worry about.” She paused. “I want to go to Sarah’s. I’m scared.”
He smirked. “Then go.”
“I’m taking Hayden.”
“Fine by me.”
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Barry slammed his fist down on the bed. “What, Whitney? Go to Sarah’s if you’re that damned scared—see how far you get. I don’t care. Just tell me if you’re cooking breakfast or not. I’m hungry.”
Whitney threw on a bathrobe and ran out of the room, slamming the door behind her. A few minutes later he could smell bacon frying.
~ ~ ~ ~
Roger pulled over to the side of Bardstown Road and rolled down the window. A young man with a thick beard sat on the otherwise empty sidewalk. This was the first person he’d seen all morning.
“Hey, you need a lift, buddy?”
Danny Roberts stood. “You leaving the city?”
“Can’t,” Roger said. “We’re quarantined. All the roads are blocked off.”
“Where you going?”
“I’m looking for a cat.”
Roger explained witnessing the wreck, the young waitress who was late for work and worried about her cat. Then about the woman he’d tried to give a ride home, how soldiers on the interstate had mowed her down with machine guns.
“So you’re going to her apartment. The waitress’s.”
“Think she’d mind if I used her shower?”
Roger shook his head. “I’m hoping she has some food, too. I haven’t eaten since yesterday. Got some pulled pork in the back, but it’s not safe to eat at this point.”
“I could eat, too.”
Danny opened the door and climbed in the passenger seat. “We should find a gun store,” he said. “I have a feeling things are about to get crazy in this town.”
“Good idea,” Roger said.
~ ~ ~ ~
Ted was screaming and Sherman sprang up from the pillow coughing violently to find the house filled with smoke and red sooty flames licking the rails. The intensity of the heat drove him off the mattress and against the back wall. He froze for a moment, glancing down the stairs, the side of which was engulfed in flames. They were trapped.
“Hey help me!” Ted screamed. “I’m burning up!”
“What happened?” Sherman called down.
“How the hell should I know? Just help me!”
“I can’t get down there!”
Sherman moved across the landing to Lillia’s bedroom door and rapped on it sharply.
“Lillia! The house is on fire! I’m comin’ in!”
He barged into the room and slammed the door shut behind him. Drake and Kate awoke immediately, both wide-eyed and confused in their beds. Lillia lay unconscious on the floor.
“Lillia,” he said, kneeling beside her and shaking her shoulder, then louder, “Lillia, wake up, honey!”
“What’s going on?” Drake asked.
“The house is burning down. We can’t get down the stairs. I don’t know what to do.”
That was a lie. He knew there was only one option: jump out the window. He thought about coming around the side of the house and finding Ted swallowed up by the hedges. Ted’s back looked like it had taken lashes from a whip, but he hadn’t broken a bone. The children were sitting up on that patch of roof from which Ted must have fallen. It was dangerous, and the children would be terrified, but he had no other choice.
Then he remembered something else. The excess rope on the staircase, still knotted to the rail above Ted.
Kate began to cry and Drake, noticing Lillia, jumped off the bed and came to her side. “Wake up, Lillia!” he cried.
Sherman patted Drake on the arm and stood. “Keep trying to wake her. I’ll be right back.”
He went to the door and put his hand on it. Warm but not hot. He opened it and came back out to the hall, closing it behind him to block the dense cloud of smoke from the children’s noses.
It felt like an oven out here and the smoke was so thick he could barely see where to go. It was early morning, and the only light he had to go by came from the flames.
He stepped onto the mattress and realized he didn’t have a knife. Down in the foyer, Ted had succumbed to heavy, throaty coughing and wheezing. He took deep, hitching breaths, trying to muster the energy to scream for help but inhaling more toxic smoke in the process. He would be unconscious soon, which was for the best. Sherman couldn’t imagine the agony Ted must be experiencing. At the top of the steps, Sherman could barely take the heat. Down there, Ted was probably cooking.
Amidst the smoke and the heat, Sherman found himself craving a cigarette, and that gave him an idea.
He grabbed up the blanket from the mattress and cloaked the upper half of his body with it, covering as much of his face as he could. Then he jogged quickly down the steps to the nylon rope, which ran taut over the rail and down to Ted’s wrists but hung loosely in a coil on this side.
He used his cigarette lighter to burn the rope right up next to the knot. Meanwhile, the immense heat was burning his face and heating the fronts of his pant legs to near-unbearable temperature.
When the rope snapped off the rail, he scooped it up and started back up the stairs. He hesitated when Ted let out a half-cry for help, then, with the heat stinging his face like a thousand wasps, he reach through the rail and lit fire to the rope that bound the man.
Then he bounded up the steps and dove through the bedroom door to fresher, cooler air. Immediately his knees buckled and he collapsed next to Lillia, startling Drake and sending him scrambling backwards.
“Close the door,” Sherman managed between coughs. “Hurry.”
Drake jumped up and did as he asked.
“She won’t wake up,” he said. “What’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t know, honey.” Sherman climbed to his feet, still coughing. “We gotta get out on the roof.”
“What about Lillia?”
“I’ll carry her.”
“Okay,” Drake said.
He ran to the window and pushed it open, securing it with the stopper. Then he called to Kate and she climbed off her bed and joined him.
Sherman helped them through one by one, then instructed Drake to hold onto Kate and make sure she didn’t fall. He went back to Lillia, tried to wake her a final time, and then picked her up and carried her to the window.
Getting her through proved difficult. Her dead arms flopped around, catching against the sill. He called to Drake to hold her lolling head as he pushed her through and then to pull while he braced her back with one hand and hooked an arm under her thighs.
When she was mostly out, save for her legs, Sherman climbed through as well.
He tied a loop at one end of the rope.
“Okay, kids, I’m gonna lower you down one at a time. You need to hold on to this loop as tight as you can, and when I tell you to let go, let go. Okay?”
“Okay,” Drake said.
She nodded, still crying and now shaking.
Drake volunteered to go first. Leaving Kate to sit against the wall, he took the looped end of the rope and crawled down to the gutter, lying flat on his stomach parallel to the ledge.
Sherman sat squarely and readied himself. Drake grabbed onto the gutter and then leg first one leg, then the other, over the side. Suddenly he disappeared and the rope pulled tight. Sherman gripped it hard and leaned back to keep the weight of the boy from pulling him down the slope.
He lowered the rope rapidly but steadily, keeping an eye on the slack, but before he reached the end, the weight released from the rope.
“I’m okay!” Drake called back. “I let go! Send Kate down!”
“Kate, are you ready?”
She shook her head and didn’t move.
“Honey, we have to do this. They ain’t no other choice. The house is burnin’ up fast.”
Indeed, the bedroom had already started to fill with smoke and Sherman could hear the fire raging right outside the door. It wouldn’t be long before walls and sections of roof started to collapse, before the roof on which they sat became a hot plate.
Beside him, Lillia remained unconscious.
~ ~ ~ ~
She was lying on a hardwood floor between two rows of tall bookshelves, feet up in the air, kicking around playfully. She read about helicopters, their mechanics, their physics, how they worked, how they flew.
Then she floated up from the floor.
~ ~ ~ ~
Sherman pulled the rope through its loop to make a bigger loop and then he wrapped it around Kate’s chest, under her arms. He pulled it snug.
“I’m sorry, honey,” he said. “I know you’re scared. It’ll be over in just a second.”
When he picked her up and lowered her over the ledge, she screamed and kicked her legs out, causing him to lose his balance and almost sending them both off the roof.
He let her go and lay back against the shingles, lowering her as fast as he could. His feet were on the gutter and it made popping sounds as nails came loose. Drake was calling up to him, “Lower! Lower! Keep coming! Almost there! Okay, I’ve got her!”
He dropped the rope and scuttled back up the roof to Lillia. Smoke now billowed out the window, blackening the hem of her nightgown. He dragged her the rest of the way out and then sat there, holding her head against his chest, breathing deeply.
“Nervous day in Louisville, ladies and gentlemen.”
He pulled his cigarette case out of his pocket, popped it open with one hand, and pulled out the longest partial. Closing the case, he lost his grip and dropped it. It rattled down the roof and into the gutter.
“Sherman!” Drake called up. “How are you getting down?”
He lit the cigarette and took a long drag.
“Only way we can,” he said, not loud enough for Drake to hear.
A loud crash came from inside and hot air shot out the window. Sherman pulled Lillia up into his lap and scooted down to the ledge. He stood, leaning back to make up for the extra weight.
Then he jumped.
~ ~ ~ ~
Whitney sat with her hands in her lap, staring at her plate.
“Hayden!” Barry yelled with a mouthful of food.
“Just let him sleep, Barry.”
“He came home drunk last night, didn’t he?”
Barry scooped a forkful of eggs and stuffed them in his mouth. Then he chewed on a piece of bacon.
“I’m gonna rob the city.”
She looked up at him. “What?”
“You heard me.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“The city is under quarantine and everyone of means has fled. They left behind their homes, their cars, and most importantly their businesses. Banks, jewelry stores, pawn shops. Can you imagine all the cash, all the gold, all the diamonds people left behind? It’s a free-for-all. All I need to do is collect, then find a way out of the city.”
“What if the world is ending?”
“If you’re counting on that, you might as well kill yourself now.”
She sniffled. “I’m scared, Barry. I want to leave.”
“Didn’t you hear me? I said the city is quarantined. There’s nowhere to go.”
“But you said . . . there’s got to be a way out. We’re going to die, Barry!”
Barry sighed. He wiped his mouth with a napkin, got up, and came around the table. He stood behind his wife and rubbed her shoulders.
“You should eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Down the hall, Hayden emerged from his room and went straight to the bathroom, slamming the door.
“Ouch, that’s too hard,” Whitney said.
He smiled, pet her on the head. “You know, I’m going to be very busy from here on out,” he spoke softly. “I may not have time to come home most nights.”
She was crying. “You can’t do that to me, Barry. I’m terrified. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to be alone. Please.”
In the bathroom, the shower came on.
“Thanks for breakfast,” Barry said.
Then he wrapped his hands around Whitney’s neck and squeezed, watching her naked legs kick out from her bathrobe, listening to the splashing sounds of Hayden in the shower.
To be continued . . .
Read Episode Seven