The Object: a free serial novel
Episode Ten: “A Change of Clothes”
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Hayden watched a local news channel at low volume. He wanted the girl to wake up so he could find out what that doctor had meant when he said, Son, she was floating. An absurd notion, and despite the compelling footage on the news of glowing, translucent sea creatures adrift along the Louisville skyline, sparking with bright blue forks of lightening, his mind kept drifting back to that word: floating. Might he have said something else? Gloating? Bloating? No, he’d said floating. Absurd, yes, but absurdities weren’t so unbelievable these days. It was a little after two in the afternoon and pitch dark, the sun blotted out for most of the day by that gigantic rock. And those creatures they kept cutting to on the news–if they could float, why not this girl?
Several times since she’d fallen unconscious, Hayden had grown concerned by her strange breathing and had approached the bed. He touched her small shoulder and said, “Hey, are you okay?” No response, of course. Whatever the doctor had injected in her thigh had knocked her out instantly.
She was a beautiful girl, probably just entering high school. In all this madness–his mother murdered by his father, the arrival of an alien species, the entire city of Louisville regressed to a Wild West state–he found himself wondering if the girl was old enough for him, if she had a boyfriend. Simple things, normal things. Would things ever go back to normal?
A light knock came from the door. Hayden jumped to his feet and raised the gun to meet the doctor’s bruised and blood-encrusted face. Once Hayden had caught the girl and returned her to the bed, he’d given the doctor the beating of his lifetime, and the cop, so stunned by the events, had fled the room.
Now the doctor entered with his head down.
“Just wanted to check up on the girl,” he said, standing in the shaft of light from the hallway, waiting for permission.
Hayden moved between the bed and the doctor.
“You got any needles?”
“No,” the doctor said. “May I?” He took a step forward. Hayden leveled the gun. “Look, kid, I wasn’t trying to hurt her. When you administer Ketamine, you have to monitor the patient’s breathing. Unlike most anesthetics, it stimulates rather than sedates the circulatory and respiratory systems. Increases blood pressure, makes breathing shallow and rapid.”
Okay, maybe he wasn’t lying. “I think she’s breathing funny,” Hayden said. He stepped back and allowed the doctor to approach, but when the doctor reached into his pocket, Hayden yelled at him. “Hands where I can see them, Doc.”
The doctor looked irritated. “It’s just a stethoscope.” He pulled his hand out slowly and showed it to Hayden.
“Okay,” Hayden said.
He watched the doctor with caution as he pulled on the girl’s collar and stuck his hairy hand down her shirt. One inappropriate feel and he was going out the window.
It must have been the iciness of the stethoscope’s diaphragm that woke her. One moment she lay motionless, chest rising and falling quickly but steadily, still in the awkward, ragdoll position she’d been in for the past hour. Then suddenly she sprang to her feet in a way that defied gravity and sent a roundhouse kick to the doctor’s face that impressed even Hayden.
The doctor went flying back into an IV stand, pulling it down on top of him as he crashed to the floor cursing and screaming.
Now she was looking at Hayden, her eyes wild, her hair a tousled, frizzy mess. Her body jerked as if she started to run but paused. He saw familiarity in her eyes, her cute rounded face, until the doctor started shouting.
“She’s crazy! See? I told you!”
Say something, stupid.
“I’m Hayden,” Hayden said, drawing her attention away from the doctor for only a moment. “He was just checking your pulse. I had the gun on him the whole time.”
“Who are you?” the girl said.
“Hayden Schafer,” he said. Pain shot suddenly through his chest and he felt a hitch in his throat. An image of his mother flashed through his mind. “Hayden,” he repeated. “What’s your name?”
The girl was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “Lillia.”
“Nice to meet you.”
The doctor was on his feet now and backing toward the door. “I want you two to get the hell out of my hospital.”
“Where’s the baby?” Lillia asked.
“You have a baby?” Hayden said.
“No. It’s not mine. I found it. Where is it?”
The doctor threw up his hands. “I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t care. If you two don’t get the hell out of here, I’m calling the cops–the national guard, the FBI, whoever wants to come and deal with your ass.” He was pointing at Lillia. Then he rushed out the door and slammed it shut behind him.
Hayden turned back to the girl and realized, from this angle, he could see far enough up her skirt to note the color of her underwear. He averted his eyes and said, “I guess we should get out of here.”
She followed him reluctantly into the hallway, and when he turned toward the Emergency Room doors, she said, “We shouldn’t go that way. It’s packed out there and I think I scared everyone.”
“So you were floating.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Let’s go this way.”
He met her back at the door to her room and asked her to wait a moment while he knelt and tied his shoes–he still hadn’t done so. Then they walked together through a set of doors and into a dark, empty hallway that led to the surgical center and the main lobby. It was quiet here, chilly. When they spoke, their voices trailed down the hall and echoed back to them.
“Thanks for helping me.”
“Where’d you learn to fight like that?”
“I’m a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.” He smiled. “You’re not so bad yourself, you know. I thought you took that doctor’s head off.”
“That’s the first time I’ve ever kicked anyone,” she said.
Hayden pulled open another door and motioned for her to step through. “Might as well embrace what you’re good at,” he said.
Lillia stopped. “What happened to your shoulder?”
“I got shot.”
He gave her an overview of the morning’s events, chopping his father’s behavior up to temporary insanity caused by the threat of the end of the world. He didn’t want to tell her the truth about Barry yet. He’d always feared people would equate him with his father, and he already knew he didn’t want to be separated from this girl. This was the first time since long before the object appeared that he didn’t feel quite so alone–quite so directionless.
They stepped out into the false night and he led Lillia around the corner and two blocks down, where he’d parked his car.
“Anywhere specific you need to go?” he asked.
She nodded. “The library on 4th. My brother and sister are waiting for me.”
Hayden drove and Lillia recounted everything that had happened since the sky went dark. She told him about her foster mother abandoning her and the two children, taking her biological children with her, about the two men breaking into the house, the homeless man and the shootout, the house burning, waking up in midair, hovering like a hummingbird, and finally finding the baby locked away in the office.
“Is he trustworthy?”
“Yes . . . I think so. He’s been nothing but nice so far. He refused to sleep in the bedroom with us. Afraid he’d scare the kids.”
“Well, let’s round everyone up and find somewhere comfortable to stay. Somewhere secure. The streets aren’t safe. Have you seen those alien things on the news?”
She ducked her head and touched her temple. “No,” she said.
“They’re freaky. Really freaky.”
“I’m more worried about people than I am aliens.”
Hayden nodded. “You got that right.”
He drove on and for several blocks neither of them spoke. Lillia looked nervous, hands in her lap, one gripping the other, knees locked together, head ducked. A couple times she stole a quick glance at him. She was studying him, he knew it. Trying to decide if she should trust him and relax or go tumbling out the passenger door.
Hayden’s thoughts kept going back to what the doctor said–that and how Lillia had sprung up from the bed. Difficult to put together. Like if you were to record someone falling backwards and landing on a bed, and then you played the footage in reverse. That was how she’d come out of her sleep.
“I need a change of clothes,” Lillia said. “And a shower.”
Hayden nodded. It occurred to him that he and Lillia shared a newfound dilemma of no longer having a home. Lillia because hers burned to the ground; Hayden because he couldn’t go back there and see his mother’s body cooling and stiffening on the kitchen floor. And even if he could, Barry might be there. These thoughts sent a cold chill through his body. “I could stand a new shirt,” he said. “How about we stop somewhere and I’ll buy us some clothes?”
“I have to get back to Drake and Kate.”
“That’s what I meant,” Hayden said. “They’ll need clothes, too. I’ve got money.”
“Oh. Okay.” He couldn’t tell if she was just modest or worn down by fear and sleep deprivation. “Thank you,” she said in almost a whisper.
“No problem. That is, if we can even find a store that’s open.”
Hayden leaned forward. Up ahead black plumes of smoke billowed up between buildings, only visible against the narrow rim of orange sky not blacked out by the object.
“This whole city’s gonna burn down,” he said. “See that?”
He pointed it out to her.
“I hope no one got hurt,” Lillia said.
“Maybe we should avoid that area right now. Looks like Muhammad. In fact. . .”
Hayden pressed the brake and cut left onto 1st Street instead of continuing on to 3rd. Three blocks down, he turned right onto East Breckenridge and then had to backtrack a block up 2nd to reach York Street, where he parked on the curb in front of the Louisville Free Public Library.
Lillia was out of the car before he put it in park. He had to hustle to catch up with her, and as he jogged up the steps he realized why she was in such a hurry. The glass on one of the doors had been shattered.
She grabbed the handle, stopped. Her head lolled to her chest. She was crying.
Hayden started to put a hand on her, but he stopped himself. His face turned red. Then he stupidly punched her on the arm and said, “Hey.” No follow-up in mind. She looked at him, her eyes bloodshot, her cheeks glistening. “I’ll go in, okay?” he said. “Just in case.”
Lillia began to take deep breaths and she backed away, nodding. Her foot slipped down the top step. She stumbled and Hayden came forward but she quickly grabbed the rail and steadied herself.
“I shouldn’t have left them,” she said. “Sherman told me not to.”
“They could still be okay,” Hayden said. “Just hang tight. I’ll be right back.”
When he opened the door, Lillia let out a strange gasping cry and spun around to face the awkward and constipated-looking statue of George Prentice on the other side of York Street. Founder of the two publications that merged in 1868 to form The Courier-Journal. A Know Nothing supporter and a bigot. Hayden had learned all about him in school. His legacy was a bittersweet one. Just as Hayden regarded his father, this city owed part of its identity–part of its existence–to Prentice but at the same time detested him for his cruel nature and the malicious things he’d done.
Quit stalling, stupid.
Lillia was sitting on the steps now, arms wrapped around her legs, face buried between her locked knees. He didn’t like leaving her out in the open by herself, but this had to be done. If her siblings had been murdered by a psychopath or eaten by an alien, it was best if she didn’t see the remains. Or leftovers.
Hayden pulled the door open and stepped inside. He saw the trail of blood immediately.
The library was dark. A few lamps illuminated the aisles between book shelves way in the back, and soft blue light from a street lamp crept across the carpet near the side entrance. Hayden followed the blood trail to the staircase and up into total darkness. At the landing he continued to track the blood to a lounge area with padded chairs and two sofas.
Here he stepped in a puddle, so thick he heard the splash. He went on to the end table and turned on the lamp, spilling dim light across the blood-soaked floor. So much blood there should have been a body. So much blood it could easily have come from both children.
He stood staring at the red pool, dreading the impending moment when he would have to tell Lillia what he’d seen. She was going to lose it, and being the bearer of such heartbreak and agony, she might balk from him and run away. Then he’d likely never see her again. The floating girl whom he knew nothing of and wanted to know everything. What the hell was he going to say to her? So much blood, you wouldn’t believe it. I mean pints and pints of blood. Those kids are waaay dead.
He heard a noise and it drew him out of his thoughts. A cough? A wheeze? It had come from the other end of the room, near the balcony, where his long shadow dissolved into blackness.
Hayden stepped out of the way of the light and studied that corner of the room closely. Sure enough, someone was crouched there, hiding in the dark.
Immediately, the man said, “Who are you?” He was crying.
“I’m Hayden. I met Lillia at the hospital. What happened to the kids?”
No response. Hayden took a few steps forward and as he drew closer he could hear stifled sobbing and the word “sorry” being mumbled over and over. He came even closer, just six feet from the man, and saw he was holding a gun.
“Did you shoot them?”
The man’s head shot up and began to shake. “No, no, no, son, I would never,” he said. “Some folks came in, had guns, ragin’ mad. They shot the boy. I took ’em outta here, was gonna get him to the hospital. But we come across Ted. Ted’s supposed to be dead, but he ain’t. Far from it. You wouldn’t believe what we saw.”
“Wait a second,” Hayden said. “Ted? The Ted that Lillia told me about? She said he burned alive in the house.”
“I thought so too, son. But he’s alive. Burnt to a crisp and walkin’ around like he ain’t a corpse. Him and the cat, they were movin’ things with their minds. Slingin’ cars around like toys. He’s a monster. And the cat. What the hell is happening?”
“I don’t know,” Hayden said. “But you haven’t told me what happened to those kids. Where are they?”
“A thing–an alien, I don’t know what it was. It come down off a building and sucked them both up inside itself. It ate ’em with its tentacles. Burst ’em like water balloons and sucked ’em up.”
Hayden’s instinct was to confirm this man as psychotic and leave him slobbering in the corner, but the image he just portrayed gave Hayden chills. His thoughts returned to Lillia, how she would take all this. And then what the doctor had said about her. Then the aliens. The object. Where was the line between insane and, well, likely? Lillia trusted this man, and apart from the gun, he didn’t look like he’d be too hard to handle if he did do something stupid. No matter what happened to the children, Sherman wasn’t responsible.
“We should get out of here,” Hayden said. “I’m going to take Lillia somewhere safe. This town’s getting crazier by the minute.”
Sherman was shaking his head. He looked Hayden straight in the eyes. “I can’t face that little girl. I told her I’d protect them kids. I can’t do it. Just tell her I wasn’t here.”
“I can’t tell her what happened without telling her you’re here. You should go with us. She told me she trusts you. She’s not going to blame you for this.”
“No,” Sherman said, suddenly with a deep authority in his voice. He stood. “I’m a fool and I ain’t no good to anybody. Ain’t my place to be with you young people. I’m gone.”
He stepped around Hayden and started down the stairs. Hayden followed him to the bottom, where he stopped and stared at the front door.
He was staring at Lillia, small and scared and hugging her legs in the frame of the broken window. “I’m sorry, honey,” he said.
Hayden stepped around to face him. “Sherman.”
“If you don’t come with us, and I don’t tell her you were here, I have to lie to her about the kids. I have to say I don’t know what happened to them.”
Sherman nodded, sniffled. “Ain’t no hurt in delayin’ pain. Let her think they’re still out there somewhere, lost in the city. Maybe I’m still with them. Maybe everything’s gonna be okay. Don’t you wish that was true?”
He began to walk away, toward the side entrance, and suddenly developed a bounce to his step, a sway in his hips. When he spoke, he sounded like he hadn’t been crying, as though today were just a normal day and his only problem was waiting for a police car to round the corner so he could take another swig of his whiskey. “You take care of that girl now, son, you hear?” he said, nearing the side door. “Ain’t many people that friendly to a stankin’ ol’ bum like me. Hell, she even talked me into givin’ up cigarettes. My momma couldn’t even do that, God bless her.”
Sherman laughed a strange laugh, one filled with nostalgia and anguish but so perfectly executed as to seem genuine. Then he pushed his way out the door and was gone.
To be continued . . .
Read Episode Eleven