The Object: a free serial novel
Episode Nine: “Mergers”
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~ ~ ~ ~
Kate cried when Lillia left to take the baby to the hospital, but after a few minutes of Sherman reading to her, she fell asleep. Drake soon followed, passing out opposite his sister on a sofa in the upstairs reading lounge, where Sherman had taken them. Here he could sit at a table and peer out over the balcony at the main lobby and the front doors. He didn’t expect anyone to try to come in, especially since he’d locked the place up.
He was almost asleep himself when the glass on the door shattered.
Drake shot up off the couch and ran over to the rail.
“Get down,” Sherman whispered, sliding out of his chair and crouching. He turned to Kate and put a finger over his lips. She nodded, chin tucked into her chest.
Sherman took the gun off the table and watched as a man ducked through the opening, unlocked the door, and let in another man and a woman. The woman pointed toward the office and said, “Somebody’s been in there! Oh my God, Charlie.”
The two men inspected the office, emerged shaking their heads, and rushed over to collect the woman when she collapsed on the floor sobbing. “My baby!” she bellowed.
One of the men comforted the woman. The other man began to wander around the lobby, and when he stepped under a tall lamp, Sherman noticed the revolver holstered on his hip.
“We should tell them,” Drake said.
“Shh,” Sherman whispered. “Don’t say nothin’, Drake.”
“But she just wants her baby.”
Sherman shook his head, awkwardly conveying authority. He’d never dealt with children before.
Drake began to fidget. Sherman tried to stay him with a stern look, but Drake had already broken eye contact.
Sherman remembered being Drake’s age, when all boys come into that stage in their lives defined by an irresistible urge to defy authority–a stage that, for many, even Sherman, lasted well into adulthood.
Stay put, boy. Just stay put.
A hopeless thought. Lillia wasn’t much bigger than Drake and yet he obeyed her most of the time, but Sherman was useless when it came to telling others what to do. He’d never been in a position to do so.
One of the men was leading the hysterical woman toward the door. The other peered up at the second floor, overlooking them in the darkness.
Then suddenly Drake jumped to his feet and said, “Hey! We know where your ba–”
Gunshots rang out. A deafening sequence of thunderclaps reverberating from the high ceiling and muting Sherman’s very thoughts. He fell away from the rail and flat on his back. Lying there in the dark, eyes closed, waiting for the pain to stab his chest or stomach as his brain caught up with the bullet wounds he’d no doubt acquired. You don’t get shot at twice in two days and not get hit. No one’s that lucky.
When the echoes dissolved, the only sound in the library was that of Kate sobbing–and the clicking of a firing pin. Sherman sat up, patted his chest and stomach with his hands, and took a deep breath. Then he stood and pointed his gun down at the man who’d fired on them. The man continued to pull the trigger but made no move to reload, which meant he probably hadn’t brought along extra ammunition.
“Drop the gun!” Sherman shouted.
The woman bawled at him: “Where’s my baby! What did you do to my baby, you sick bastard!”
“Your baby is just fine, ma’am,” Sherman said.
“Liar! Where is he!”
“The hospital. We found him. I got kids with me myself.”
He turned to point at Kate, who was wailing and slobbering on the couch. Then he glanced at Drake and the gun dropped to his side.
Drake was sprawled out on the floor, blood spurting from his chest.
~ ~ ~ ~
This cat understood him. It had thoughts–complex ones. Roger was pretty certain Sprinkles possessed the same consciousness of a human being. He hadn’t slept since Sprinkles brought him this discovery along with a tube of Neosporin, and despite utter exhaustion, he couldn’t even think about taking a nap.
“What the hell do you want?” he yelled, sitting on the edge of the sofa.
Danny was long gone, which had taken a load off Roger’s mind, but ever since then Sprinkles had been standing at the door, meowing incessantly. He wanted something, and nothing Roger could think to say would shut him up.
“Look, I’m blown away, Sprinkles, I really am. You’re a cat and you know exactly what I’m saying to you. That’s absolutely the craziest thing I’ve seen in my life.” He pointed upward. “Even crazier than that. But I don’t know what the hell you want.”
Sprinkles purred–what sounded like the cat version of a grunt–and jogged over to the couch, where he jumped up on the coffee table and stared at Roger.
Roger sighed. “Okay, work with me here. We’ll play Twenty Questions. One meow for yes, two meows for no. Sound good?”
He laughed and slumped back on the couch. “Well, it’s working so far. Okay, first question.” He thought a moment. “Do you . . . want to go outside?”
“Okay. Where do you want to go?”
Sprinkles hissed at him and batted the air with a paw.
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean? Where do you w–oh, damn. Not a yes or no question. Sorry.” Roger sat forward again. He looked around the room, finally meeting with the cat’s gaze. “You know, I took Spanish in high school. They didn’t offer Cat at Bullitt County,” he said. “Anyway, next question, next question . . . um . . . I don’t know. Do you need to use the bathroom?”
Roger sighed. “I have a litter box for that, dumbass.”
“Are we going to walk to this place, wherever you want to go?”
“So okay,” Roger said, “I’m going to drive you?”
“No, no, see, how will I figure out where I’m going? I know you can’t answer that, but think about it. I mean, short of you meowing at me to tell me to go left or right.”
What Sprinkles did next took Roger a few moments to understand. The cat turned his whole body ninety degrees to the left, meowed, then spun around completely to face right, meowed again, and returned to look directly at Roger.
“You’ve got to be joking,” Roger said after a pause. “No offense, but a cat for a GPS doesn’t sound too great. You don’t even know where you are. You’ve lived your life in this apartment.”
Once more, Sprinkles hissed at him.
~ ~ ~ ~
“Mr. Schafer, good morning.”
Barry smiled at the bank teller and continued walking across the room along the mahogany divider separating the two men in the quiet lobby. At the end of the long row he raised up the hinged countertop and stepped through to the Employees Only area.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Schafer,” the teller bumbled, “you can’t–I’m afraid it’s not allowed, sir. Sir?”
Barry pulled his gun out and settled it at the teller’s midriff level. The teller skipped backwards and covered his stomach with his hands, letting out a shrill yelp like that of a Pomeranian. “Oh no, oh no, please,” he said.
“Don’t shit yourself,” Barry said. “Just do what I say and we’ll keep this brief.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
“No questions. Let’s walk.”
“That’s a question.”
“Oh no,” the teller said. “I’m sorry.”
“Really, Mr. Schafer, I didn’t mean to ask–”
Barry raised the gun and pointed it at the teller’s face. The teller cowered, began to cry.
“Not another word,” Barry said.
“Okay.” He bawled then, gasping and covering his mouth, certain this was his end and too terrified to beg.
Barry snickered. He covered his mouth with the arm that held the gun, then used it to motion the teller to the hallway. “The vault,” he said.
Without a word, the teller scurried into the hall, almost jogging but with short, choppy steps, as though he had to pee. Barry followed him into the safety deposit room, where yesterday Barry had collected a hundred grand in cash, only to throw it on the ground in some ghetto dog park. On the far wall in this room stood the heavy iron vault door, upon which was what looked like a pirate ship’s steering wheel. The teller moved to the right of the vault, where he reached up to punch in a code in the security panel on the wall.
“Stop,” Barry said.
The teller snatched his hand back and stepped aside, watching, frightened, as Barry approached the panel.
“Give me the code.”
“But,” said the teller. “Am I allowed to speak now?”
“Only the code. Say anything else and you’re dead.”
“Star three one four one five nine two.”
Barry punched in the code. A red light on the panel turned green. He moved over in front of the door. In the middle of the big wheel was a combination lock with a rotating dial.
“Left to sixty-five. Right a full turn past sixty-five to thirty-five. Left directly to nine.”
The door gave off a soft click.
“Swing the wheel to the left until it stops. Then pull it open.”
Barry stepped back. “I’d have to put my gun down. You do it.”
The teller hugged the wall and scooted over to the door. He opened it slowly, watching his feet, and when the vault’s automatic light system kicked on, Barry laughed aloud and pushed the teller inside, where he made him count out one million dollars and stuff the bundles of money into a bag.
When the bag was full, Barry said, “Stay right there. Don’t move.” Then he headed for the door.
“You can’t lock me in here,” the teller said. “It goes dark when you close the door. There’s no food or water. Please, Mr. Schafer. I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Don’t piss on the money,” Barry said.
He closed the vault door, silencing the pleas of the teller.
~ ~ ~ ~
The waiting room in the Emergency Center was packed with the homeless. No seats were empty and there was hardly any standing room left. Some people lay asleep on the floor; others yet argued back and forth, spoke to themselves, or announced their impatience to whomever would listen. From the back corner came the sound of an old woman singing a hymn.
Lillia stood in the middle of the aisle with people sitting to her right and more crowded all around her. She held the sleeping baby upright against her chest and rocked him slowly. He might wake up any moment and contribute his cries to the already suffocating rowdiness of the room.
She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t push her way through the crowd. Everyone was bigger than her. Not long after she came in, at least ten more people had piled in behind her, blocking her from the exit. She was trapped.
A lump swelled in her throat and before she knew it she was crying. She didn’t know why. Homesickness, maybe, though she’d never had a real home. She missed Drake and Kate. She even missed Cindy and Audrey, the little brats, no doubt tucked in bed this morning somewhere at a relative’s house in one of the outer counties, where the object could be gazed upon safely from a hilltop and the days passed without riot.
Drake and Kate had never known that kind of childhood. Neither had Lillia. One in which the greatest troubles ahead of you were the contents of gift boxes and kitchen cabinets and notes from this month’s love interest.
The room seemed to be getting louder and louder, some people clearly in severe pain and others yet in emotional upheaval.
The crowd rocked a little as somewhere nearby one person shoved another.
That’s when Lillia made eye contact with the police officer from yesterday, the blonde woman, the one who’d shot Mike the Stalker–or had she? Lillia hadn’t seen it. She had already crossed through the overpass and was almost home when that gunshot rang out.
The woman cop was standing at the set of doors leading into the emergency wing, one hand on the butt of her revolver. Next to her was the nurse’s station, where an old woman in scrubs sat behind a glass window on the telephone. Several people in tattered clothing hovered around the window, occasionally tapping on the glass.
Lillia’s head began to swim. She attributed it to the sour smell. She wanted to sit down but didn’t dare ask someone to give up a chair. The baby felt heavier and heavier. She repositioned him and secured her arm under his bottom.
Then it happened again.
~ ~ ~ ~
It was the girl from the vacant lot by the interstate. The girl who’d pointed out her stalker lying bleeding in the gravel, only to run away before Meredith could question her.
Lillia, that was her name.
Lillia had a baby in her arms.
And she was floating.
The room went silent for the first time since Meredith had begun standing guard here. She’d come to check on the man she’d shot, only to find he’d died, and, not knowing what to do and with no available superiors to report to, she decided to play security at the hospital. Here maybe she could stay out of trouble, she thought.
Now a teenage girl was floating in midair, and all the homeless people watching were losing their minds.
The nurse frantically dialed a number and began to shout into the phone to a doctor, beckoning him to come and see.
People were backing away from Lillia and the floor was soon bare underneath her. She was quite a sight to see, holding the baby, hovering with one leg drawn up a little and one pointed straight to the floor. Even her hair and her strange dreadlocks drifted aimlessly as though touched by an updraft. Meredith couldn’t help but notice many of the men were transfixed not by Lillia’s defiance of gravity but by her red polka dot underwear.
She approached the girl, who looked frightened to death.
“Can you come down?” she asked.
Lillia looked all about the floor beneath her. “I don’t know. I don’t know how I got up here.”
Meredith reached up slowly and locked her fingers around Lillia’s ankle. She pulled lightly to find that Lillia moved as easily as a balloon. In a moment, Lillia’s feet were on the ground and her weight had returned to her.
“Come with me,” Meredith said. With Lillia back on the floor, the crowd began to inch closer and closer, either to inspect Lillia or to free up elbow room.
Meredith took Lillia by the crook of the arm and led her to the double doors. She tapped on the window and opened her mouth to speak to the nurse but stopped when she noticed a young doctor standing in the nurse’s station, mouth agape. He slammed his hand down on the buzzer to unlock the door and made frantic gestures with his free hand ushering Meredith and Lillia inside.
~ ~ ~ ~
It took Roger twenty minutes to reach Eastern Parkway and another five to get to 2nd Street. Early on in the adventure, either Roger had taken a premature left or Sprinkles had given a premature meow. No doubt if they could communicate openly, the two would still be debating.
They idled beneath the thick canopy of trees on either side of the road. Old Louisville was a dark area now with the dust-colored object in place of the sky. It looked like late evening here and everything was still. Homes either abandoned or locked up tight with fearful tenants awaiting total devastation. And too quiet. Roger became convinced he saw people peeking at him from their windows. As if they knew to hide from something and couldn’t help but watch the idiot on the street who didn’t know that something stalked him a block away.
“Why don’t you meow us the hell out of here, huh?”
“You’re the boss,” Roger said. “I just hope you’re taking us someplace a little less creepy than this right here.”
They rode on uptown, where small businesses began to crop up between the old Victorian houses and dark brick apartment buildings and finally near the downtown area.
Crossing West Chestnut Street, Sprinkles began to claw and hiss at the door.
“Okay, okay, chill out.”
He pulled over to the right side of the road just past the intersection in front of a shaded bench. When he opened his door, Sprinkles leapt past him and scampered off down the street.
Roger jumped out and chased him as far as the curb, but when he stopped and looked around he didn’t see the cat anywhere.
“Sprinkles!” he called.
He heard laughter coming from up the street and he turned to see a group of men all carrying beer staggering and swaying in front of the YMCA. They were mocking him.
Roger searched about for the cat until the men were upon him. He’d hoped they would simply pass by with no more than a drunken remark or two, but instead they stopped. He remembered he’d brought along a single gun, a small .22 revolver, tucked in the inside of his left boot.
“Sprinkles,” a few of them hollered.
“Here Sprankles,” said one. “Sprankles, come on, boy.”
“What the hell you lookin’ for–your kitty cat?”
“Yes,” Roger said.
“You got to be outta your damn mind, dude,” a man said. “Look up at the sky. We’re all dead. Hey, ain’t you listenin’?”
The man pushed him and he fell off the curb, landing on his back in the street.
The crowd erupted in laughter. Someone smashed a beer bottle on the sidewalk.
Then a deafening reverberation rocked him flat against the pavement. It was like a gigantic rubber bubble had exploded nearby. He didn’t even see the men being flung in every direction, landing hard on the ground, some cracking ribs, others suffering broken noses or loosened teeth. Their heckling was now a chorus of moaning.
Roger felt tiny footsteps on his stomach and looked down himself to find Sprinkles perched upon him. Then just as quickly he was trotting away and meowing.
Getting to his feet took some time. The earth was still shaking and he couldn’t hear so well. When he had a handle on his footwork, Roger noticed the iron bench had been knocked over. Mulch had blown out of the bed behind it. Even his van still rocked back and forth from whatever disturbance Sprinkles had caused. Or had Sprinkles caused it? What exactly happened just now?
Roger didn’t have time to think. Across the parking lot on the other side of 2nd Street, Sprinkles was racing toward a burning building on the next block.
~ ~ ~ ~
Hayden tried to watch TV but he couldn’t. The nurse had cleaned and sutured the wound on his shoulder and given him a white pill to take for pain, but he felt cold and queasy and the stinging hadn’t subsided a bit. He no longer had a shirt, and the blanket they’d given him was thin and netted such that cool air from the vent wafted right through to his feverish skin.
When he heard the ruckus down the hall, he first thought it was his father coming to finish him off and no doubt scaring people along the way. Then he heard the girl screaming. “Let me go! I said let go of me!”
He sat up and shoved his feet into his sneakers, then stood and moved through the dark room to the door, which was barely cracked open. He watched a female police officer and a male doctor dragging a pretty young girl into a room. Two nurses fell into the room behind them and a third scooted on up the hall carrying a baby.
Hayden threw on a gown but didn’t fasten it. Shoes untied, back exposed to the cold air, he stepped out into the hall and approached the room where they’d taken the girl. He listened through the door to gather the nature of the situation. Nothing made sense, so he cracked the door open hoping no one would see. Inside he found the cop and two nurses pinning the girl to a hospital bed while the doctor plunged a syringe into the rubber top of a small glass medicine bottle, which he returned to his pocket. He nudged a splash of the clear liquid out of the needle, flicking it, and then began to pivot to face the girl, who had found Hayden in the doorway and now met him with her eyes.
He took down the cop first because she had a gun, and he knew the surprise of him wrangling the cop would stall the doctor’s hand and keep the needle out of the girl.
She was easy to bring down to one knee, and when he pushed her off balance he easily snatched the service revolver out of its holster and pushed her with his foot so she fell over completely. Then he backed up a few steps and leveled the gun at the doctor’s face.
“In the throat or in the forehead, Doc,” he said. “I’ll just do what feels right if you don’t put down that needle.”
The doctor threw up his hands, one still mounting the syringe for injection.
“Put it down,” Hayden said.
“Son, this girl–well, you should have seen it,” the doctor said. “We have to run some tests on her, damn it. We have no choice. For all we know she hosts something from that thing up there. An alien. Son, she was floating.”
Hayden stormed the doctor and smacked his chin hard with the barrel of the gun. Then he snatched the wrist of the syringe-wielding hand and chopped the doctor’s legs out from underneath him, sending him to the floor with his arm stuck up in the air, locked by Hayden’s relentless grip.
Hayden pointed the gun in the doctor’s face again. “Look at me.”
The doctor squinted and wiped his eyes and finally returned Hayden’s gaze.
“The girl said let her be,” Hayden said, “so you’re gonna let her be. Now get your ass back out there and start helping people. All of you.”
The nurses scurried out immediately, finally letting go of the girl, who jumped to her feet on the bed. The doctor and the lady cop began to climb to their feet at the same time. Hayden let go of the doctor’s wrist but kept the gun trained on him. He backed away a few steps so he could keep an eye on both the doctor and the cop, and that’s when the doctor dove onto the bed and stabbed the syringe into the girl’s hip.
Hayden tore him away, but it was too late. The girl wobbled, then fell off the bed. Hayden caught her and returned her limp and unconscious body to the mattress.
~ ~ ~ ~
Sherman directed Kate behind a parked car on the right side of the road, and there he laid Drake in the narrow patch of grass between the curb and the sidewalk.
“You stay here with your brother, honey,” he told the little girl. “I’ll be right back.”
He drew the gun and moved up the road, dashing from one parked car to the next to conceal himself as much as possible. Up ahead, a building was on fire. A mergers and acquisitions joint, if Sherman remembered correctly. He’d heard a man screaming, which was why he elected to scout the intersection first before carrying the children into a dangerous place.
There was no time to dally. He moved along, closer and closer to the building, so close he began to feel the heat of it.
That’s when he saw what looked like a man, only black and leathery and shriveled up, emerge from the front doors of the building, flames billowing out behind him. Sherman could hear faint screams in the roar of the fire.
As if things couldn’t get any crazier, a white cat suddenly leapt out from the alleyway and squared off against the beef jerky man. They encircled each other like two wild animals.
Sherman couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The man grabbed up a trashcan, the contents of which immediately burst into flames, and chucked it at the cat, who leapt to the side. Suddenly two cars parked on opposite sides of the street slammed together, squashing the beef jerky man.
Sherman looked away but only until he heard the cars slamming into the walls of different buildings. He opened his eyes to find the man intact and searching about the area. The cat had disappeared.
The beef jerky man spotted Sherman and spat out, “It’s you!” He began to hobble Sherman’s way, but as he drew near, his gaze turned upward.
“There you are!” the man said. Sherman recognized him as Ted in the same moment he realized Ted did not recognize him but was addressing something behind him.
He turned and nearly fell, for behind him and matching the height of the nearest building, hovered a gigantic squid creature, glowing a warm orange-gold, with more tentacles than he could count in a week.
And two of those tentacles snaked down from the head of the translucent beast and hovered just overtop the back of the car where Drake lay dying and Kate was all alone.
~ ~ ~ ~
Barry waited on the front steps of the bank for half an hour, the duffle bag at his feet. He watched some of Mr. Morgan’s boys canvas the block, slyly peeking into backseats of parked cars, around corners, and along the ledges of rooftops. He’d seen the smoke rising from three or four blocks down on Muhammad Ali Boulevard. This meeting needed to go just as he expected, but curiosity was eating away at his patience.
Mr. Morgan came around the corner with Ray flanking him. He was dressed in a brown suit fit only for church. When he reached the steps, Barry snatched up the bag and came down to the sidewalk. He tossed the bag past Mr. Morgan at Ray’s feet.
“In a hurry this morning, Mr. Schafer?”
“As a matter of fact I am,” Barry said, standing toe to toe with the man. “Looks like a building is on fire over there, and I want to see it.”
Mr. Morgan huffed. “What do you want from me, Mr. Schafer?”
“Damn!” Ray interjected. “How much money is this?”
“One million dollars,” Barry said.
“And what are you paying us to do?” Mr. Morgan asked.
“I want you to kill every cop in this city.”
Barry started for his car, and when Mr. Morgan inquired if that included his brother, he said, “Especially my brother.”
Mr. Morgan called after him. “I’ll be glad to spread the word. Pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Schafer.”
~ ~ ~ ~
He left his car idling in the street with the door open and peeked around the corner just in time to see a horribly disfigured and burned man get crushed by two cars smashing together as if magnetized. Then the cars shot away from one another and smashed into the buildings, one not far from where Barry stood.
The gigantic squid thing came slithering down the side of a building and hovered in the air over a black man–that one, the one he’d chased yesterday–who was staring off underneath the belly of the thing, if it had a belly. Suddenly one of its tentacles shot down behind a car. When it raised up again, Barry saw that it had swallowed a young boy.
The tentacle brightened for a moment and then suddenly the inside of it exploded in red, as though the boy had simply burst apart. Just then a little girl ran out from behind the car. Another tentacle followed her.
Barry smiled and gritted his teeth. The glowing tentacle followed the little girl as she ran up the street towards the black man, who called after her and started towards her when the tip of it stretched open like an elastic mouth, encapsulated the girl, and then shrink wrapped her.
The black man was howling, and behind him, the man who looked burned laughed hysterically.
The tentacle holding the girl flashed with glittery light just like the other one, and then in an instant the girl misted out and up into the tentacle, reduced to particles.
The burned man ran out in front of the black man and ripped a blue mailbox out of the concrete. He threw it at the squid creature, but on impact the metal disintegrated into white hot sparks and disappeared just as the children had done.
Barry studied this man who possessed superhuman strength as he drew fearlessly toward the otherworldly beast before him. The closer he got, the brighter the thing on his charred head glowed, the same orange-gold that emanated from the beast.
Barry didn’t know what that thing was on the man’s head–an LED yarmulke, a glow-in-the-dark shower cap–but he knew he wanted it for himself.
And he would have it.
To be continued . . .
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