The Object: a free serial novel
Episode Eight: “A Little Light Reading”
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~ ~ ~ ~
The library was quiet, dark. Lillia kept the children at the door while Sherman fumbled blindly around the front desk and office area in search of a light switch. The power was still on, thankfully. Lillia could hear the soft hum of air blowing from a vent overhead, pushing the musty odor of old books down with it. She had always loved to read, the smell of this library as familiar and comforting to her as the memory of living with Ms. Jenny, a fact that begged for Lillia to seek out the light switch. Sherman had insisted she stay with Drake and Kate.
“You never know who might be holed up in here. Door bein’ unlocked and all. They’s some crazy folks in this town.” He looked up and away when he said this last part, as though recalling prior encounters with Louisville’s wackiest nut jobs.
Now Kate was terrified. She clung to the hem of Lillia’s skirt with her clammy little hand, imagining murderers perched atop the bookshelves, hissing and drooling and staring down at her.
Drake was scared, too, though he worked hard to hide it. Each time Kate muttered, “I’m scared,” Drake followed by declaring himself unperturbed. But when Sherman accidentally turned over a cart full of books, Drake leapt into Lillia and wrapped his arm around the small of her back.
Sherman cried out in pain.
“Everything okay?” Lillia asked.
“Yessum,” he replied with strain in his voice. A piercing squeal rose as he dragged something across the tile floor.
“Need any help?”
“No ma’am,” Sherman said, grunting.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to move this dang–” He paused, growled. Another loud squeal, then a forceful exhale of breath. “Table. Got it. Somebody blocked the office door.”
Lillia took a step forward and Kate pulled at her skirt. “No,” she said.
“It’s okay, honey,” Lillia whispered. Then to Sherman, “You shouldn’t go in there without a light.” Sherman had tossed his cigarette lighter in the gutter to illustrate his commitment to giving up smoking.
Lillia suddenly wished she had a rock in her hand. Anybody could be in that office. An alien someone cornered and locked away. A mental patient, escaped from Our Lady of Peace in the chaos that erupted under the object’s shadow. What else would someone have tried to imprison? As Sherman had said back on South Brooks, libraries didn’t keep much money. They contained nothing of value, except knowledge. There had to be something dangerous in there.
This had seemed like the perfect place to wait things out. Solitude, a great hiding spot, and what better way to distract yourself from what dubious fate awaited the world than to break open a book and escape into another. Fictional worlds that right now would feel more real than this one.
The smell of the books was unusually potent. Lillia found herself itching to read a book. Sherman was rummaging again, knocking things over, mumbling to himself–no doubt about needing a cigarette or a drink.
“Nah. I thought they might be a flashlight ’round here. A lamp or somethin’, geez.”
“The computer monitors,” Lillia said.
Sherman was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “I ain’t too familiar with computers. They got a button?” His voice softened to a mumble. “Okay,” he said, “well, a little yellow light come on but the screen’s still black.”
“You have to turn on the motherboard,” Lillia said.
“I got it,” Drake said, and before Lillia could grab him he took off into the darkness. She called out to him, but he didn’t respond.
“Whoa!” Sherman cried, startled by the boy’s presence.
A faint blue light illuminated the area behind the front desk and she saw Drake and Sherman standing with their backs to the office door, which was indeed blocked off by a table with several bookshelves stacked on top. The door had a window, but the mini blinds were down.
Drake was already sitting at the computer. He loved the internet, one of the many reasons he preferred going to school over being at home.
Kate resisted when Lillia tried to lead her to the desk, so Lillia scooped her up and carried her, something she used to do all the time but as Kate grew had become increasingly tiresome. This time, though, she had no trouble hoisting the little girl and carrying her like a toddler.
She set Kate on the countertop next to Drake and Drake said, “You gotta check this out.”
He’d pulled up a website that had collected images of the object taken by people with cell phones, amateur photographers, and even news helicopters. These were the closest and most revealing shots, showing the depth and texture of the object’s surface. A jagged mess of square and pyramid-shaped components or housing for components. It definitely looked mechanical. As though it had been designed and constructed. That meant it had to be a spaceship, and whoever or whatever built it likely waited inside.
Waited for what, she didn’t know. The object appeared nearly twenty-four hours ago, and so far it hadn’t budged. Occasionally a gust of wind stirred up a twisting swirl of dust that quickly settled back to the object’s surface as though it were its own planet.
The gravitational pull was unmistakable. As they’d drawn closer to downtown and more directly under the object, she’d felt the air change. More wind, more dust and debris. Walking became easier instead of harder, and they must have traveled well over a mile. No stretch at all for Sherman and Lillia but something of an adventure for Drake and Kate–especially Kate, whom Lillia had often pled with Mrs. Wilkins to take to the doctor for her lack of appetite, pasty skin, and bony frame.
Drake clicked through the photographs faster and faster until suddenly he stopped and said, “Lillia, look!”
On the screen was something unreal. A monster, and it looked nearly identical to the little squid creature on her head.
She’d forgotten it was there again, the shimmering little thing gone invisible, its tentacles entangled in her hair and weaving so slowly, so gently. Only when something triggered her memory, like this photograph, could she feel its weight: no more than a baseball cap dropped on but not secured to your head.
The only difference between the squid on her head and the one in the picture was size. The image Drake marveled over showed the new Riverbats Stadium before the Ohio River with a setting sun in the hills beyond. Above the stadium, in an orb of its own golden-orange glow, floated a gigantic maritime head, smooth and sleek and plasmatic, the size of a house and so translucent Lillia could make out its brain stem. Connected to the head were thousands, if not millions, of tentacles, all clinging together like copper wire in a cable. Blue lightning blazed in forks all around the monster, lighting up its deep black marble eyes, which seemed focused on nothing.
“Do you think they eat people?” Drake asked.
Lillia shook her head instinctively, but when she felt the weight of the little guy rocking back and forth in her hair, for a moment she truly believed the aliens to be harmless.
“Lillia,” Sherman said.
She turned away from the computer screen, which cast the faintest glow on Sherman, who stood leaning over the table with his ear against the office door.
“I don’t hear nothin’,” he whispered as she approached.
Lillia listened. She heard nothing as well. “Should we go in?” she asked.
“I think we might ought to,” Sherman said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep otherwise. I’ll get to wonderin’. No tellin’ what’s in there.”
“What about the kids?”
“Keep ’em by the door, I expect. Tell the boy to grab the girl and haul ass if anything goes wrong.”
She did as Sherman suggested. Drake didn’t want to leave the computer, and then when he figured out the plan he wanted to participate. He tried to argue, but Lillia was stern. “Go over there and hold your sister’s hand,” she said. “Now, Drake.”
“Fine, whatever,” Drake said. “Come on, Kate,” he said impatiently.
Lillia returned to the office door. Sherman was studying the table and bookshelves.
“You ain’t got no more super powers handy, do you?”
“Not that I know of,” Lillia said. She thought for a moment about the event he was referencing. “I don’t know how it happened,” she said.
That wasn’t exactly true, though. Deep down, she knew exactly what had made her float in midair. Never in her life had she possessed such an ability, and then a glowing alien latched onto her head. A coincidence that big was no coincidence at all.
Sherman looked at her, a shadow with two glints of light for eyes. He sighed. “I got this . . . feelin’ takin’ over me. Like nothin’s what I thought it was. You can feel a big change comin’ on. Storms especially. Livin’ on the streets makes you more acquainted with the weather. A storm lets you know it’s comin’.”
“You feel a storm coming?”
“I’ve been known to let a metaphor slip now and again,” he said.
“The object,” Lillia said. “You think it’s going to attack us.”
“Don’t much matter. You bet your last dollar we’ll attack it, no matter what. No doubt, young lady. We got a nuke comin’ our way, and our own brothers got us trapped in the crosshairs. If we’re gonna live, we gotta get around them road blocks and machine guns and hightail it on outta here. See how them country folk live for a while, till whatever happens happens. Help me scoot this table over, sugar.”
Together they lifted one end of the fold-out table and spun it out away from the office door.
“You ready?” he said, putting his hand on the doorknob.
“What if we can’t get out of the city?” Lillia asked.
“You just learn to fly, young lady. Zip us on down to the Gulf.”
“I’ve never been to the beach.”
A moment of silence passed between them. Sherman said, “Yessum. Well. One step at a time.”
He turned the knob and let the door swing open slowly, spilling dull light over a desk and, on top of the desk, a baby carrier.
Lillia’s heart sank. “Oh no.”
Sherman felt along the wall just inside the door and flipped on the light switch.
“Stand back, honey,” he said.
Lillia turned around and put her face in her hands. She waited for Sherman to tell her it was dead. Who could do such a thing? Abandon an infant, lock it up in a room where no one would find it?
Suddenly Sherman began to laugh, and as if in response the baby let out a wet cry. “Hey there, little fella. Where’d your momma go?”
~ ~ ~ ~
Barry followed the nervous young bank teller–the only one who’d shown up to work today–into the open vault where deposit boxes lined every wall.
“Everyone’s gone,” the boy said. “Branch manager, loan officers, the girls–everybody. I didn’t know what to do. Can’t lose my job, so here I am.”
He inserted his key into one of two keyholes and Barry did the same with his. Then the teller pulled the box out from the wall and sat it on a table.
“Let me know when you’re done,” the boy said.
Barry nodded and the boy returned to the main lobby.
Now alone, Barry flipped the lid on the deposit box and filled each of his jacket pockets with five $10,000 bundles of one-hundred dollar bills for a total of a hundred grand.
He left the empty box sitting on the table. As he passed through the lobby, he stopped and asked, “You staying open all day?”
“Normal business hours,” the boy said nervously, “until someone tells me otherwise.”
“Good. That’s good.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Now that they’d found the main light switch panel and illuminated the entire library, Sherman and Lillia were able to sit down and debate who would take the baby to the hospital.
“It’s too dangerous for you to be traispin’ around by yourself,” Sherman said. “Besides, I know these streets better’n anybody. You might get lost.”
“I know where the hospitals are,” Lillia said.
“You’re too young to be on your own.”
“I’ll be fine, Sherman, I promise. I’m quick. I can outrun most people.”
Sherman shook his head. “I don’t know, honey. Feel like I can’t let you do it.”
Drake and Kate were seated on the floor nearby, Drake flipping through a book about aliens and UFOs, Kate focused intently on a children’s book. Lillia leaned in close and whispered, “This is Kentucky, Sherman. Nobody will take a second glance at me, but you? A black man walking down the street carrying a white baby? You could get hurt . . . or arrested.”
He sighed. “Young lady, you’re much too wise to be sixteen.” Then, “Will you at least take the gun?”
“No,” she said, standing. “I want Kate and Drake to be safe.”
“I’d feel a lot better if you took it with you.”
“Even though I’ve never shot a gun? I’m better with rocks anyway.”
Lillia crossed over to the end of the counter, where earlier she’d noticed a glass paperweight in the shape of an apple. She returned to Sherman’s side, looked about the library, and pointed to the top of the staircase.
“See that vase up there?”
Sherman stood and squinted. “I see it,” he said.
She took aim and pitched the paperweight. In less than a second, the vase exploded, startling the children and inspiring exclamatory curses from Sherman’s mouth, for which he immediately apologized.
Lillia stared in disbelief–not at her accuracy but at her newfound speed. That paperweight had left her hand with the propulsion of an arrow from a crossbow.
“Whoa, Nelly, oh goodness,” Sherman breathed. “Okay, okay, yeah, I’ll keep the gun.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Jaquon tried to hide his tears, but Andre and Terryl kept grabbing his shoulders and shaking him. He sat on a bench in the trash-littered dog park across the street from the supply house, where Ray and T.J. and the rest of the older guys kept watch while Jaquon, Andre, and Terryl wandered around the park selling crack. “Cheer up, Jay, don’t let that shit mess with yo head,” Andre said. “We gon’ get that sum’bitch.”
“My muh’fuckin’ grandma, yo,” Jaquon murmured.
Andre stepped back from the park bench. Across the street, he saw Ray coming out of the house.
“Yo, Ray comin’,” he said.
Jaquon sniffled hard and wiped the tears from his cheeks. He stood up just as Ray was crossing the street. Ray did not look happy. “The hell y’all niggas want?” he said, stepping up to them in the shade of the massive oak tree.
Terryl said, “Some junkie-lookin’ piece of shit run Jaquon’s grandma over with a bus.”
Ray curled his brow. “A junkie drivin’ a bus?”
“Yup,” said Andre.
“Was I talkin’ to you?”
Andre dropped his head and shuffled his feet. Ray stared Jaquon down until he looked up from his own feet.
“What you want us to do about that?” Ray said.
“I want that nigga dead,” said Jaquon.
“So kill him.”
“Andre and Terryl know what he look like. Just so happened to have whipped his ass couple weeks back.”
“Same junkie,” Ray said.
“Yup,” said Andre. Ray stared him down and he looked away again.
“I’m a ask you simple-minded niggas again: what do you want us to do about it?”
“I don’t know,” Jaquon said. “Put some people on it, I guess.”
“Yeah, man. I don’t know nothin’ ’bout trackin’ people down. All I know is slingin’.”
“Did he do that shit on purpose?”
Jaquon shook his head. “Nah.”
“Shouldn’t have been drivin’ no bus,” Terryl said.
A black sedan rolled to a stop in the middle of the street and a white man in a suit stepped out, smiling behind an expensive-looking pair of sunglasses.
Ray stepped around the bench to approach the man. Jaquon and the others fell in behind him.
“What you need, hoss?” Ray asked.
The white man smiled. “I’d like to speak to your supervisor.”
“Supervisor?” Ray laughed. “I believe you lookin’ for somebody else. I ain’t got no job.”
The white man said, “Raymond Stewart. Born November 3rd, 1986. Convicted of possession with intent to distribute in 2005. Paroled in 2010.”
Ray pulled his .9mm and held it at his hip. “Who are you? Police? What do you want?”
“I want to speak to your supervisor,” the man said again. He reached into both his pockets slowly, and as Ray raised his gun, the man said, “Careful, Ray. My gun is on my ankle. No cause for alarm.”
From his pockets the man pulled two bundles of cash. He tossed them on the ground at Ray’s feet. Then he pulled two more, tossing them diagonally in either direction. Then two more, two more. When he was done, the ground was littered with more money than Jaquon had ever seen–even more than the time Ray brought him into the back room of the liquor store, where a pale, skinny white kid was counting out piles of crumpled five and ten dollar bills.
“What’s that shit?” Ray asked, pointing at the ground with his gun.
“One-hundred-thousand dollars,” the man said. “Tell your boss to meet me at the bank on the corner of Sixth and Muhammad Ali. Four o’clock.” Then he turned and started back for his car.
Andre bent to pick up a stack of bills and Ray yelled at him. “Yo, leave that shit be. Hey! White boy! You police, ain’t you? What the hell is that thing in the sky? Is it the end of the world or what, nigga?”
“Sixth and Muhammad,” the man repeated. “Four o’clock. If he’s late, I’ll already be gone.”
Ray began to approach the car. “Hey! Did you kill Wally?”
The man smiled through his rolled-down window and then sped away.
To be continued . . .
Read Episode Nine