B2E1

Book Two, Episode One


Episode One:

Six Months Later

 

LILLIA CROUCHED below the short wall of the roof.  She sat atop a dark grey building, three stories high, listening to the man down on the street as he rapped and shouted to himself while pacing in circles at the intersection of Baxter Avenue and Hull Street.

They’d been following him off and on for the past week.  Ayo, he called himself, as in, “Ayo, I need a dub.”  A newly aspiring drug dealer who’d tried to work his way into the area surrounding Phoenix Hill Tavern–or Barrytown, as Hayden had coined it–but had quickly been kicked out, for reasons unknown.

After the nuclear bomb incident, Barry disappeared.  That was nearly six months ago and so far he hadn’t shown his face.  For a long time Lillia assumed he was dead, but then the CNG boys suddenly took over a long stretch of Baxter Avenue, guarding it the way the military guarded the city.  In the center of this quarantined area stood the tavern, where even four blocks away Lillia could hear music blaring.

“Dad loves music,” Hayden had said when they first discovered this development.

Louisville had turned into a ghost town.  No traffic, few pedestrians, no planes flying overhead, no barges on the river, no trains.  Silence, except for the tavern and the area surrounding it.

Was he building an army?  Playing king?  Why wasn’t he coming after them?

Kidnapping Ayo was Lillia’s idea.  While Hayden insisted on keeping quiet as long as Barry did the same, she couldn’t ignore the feeling that something terrible was happening in that tavern.

Lillia peaked over the wall, first checking on Ayo, who seemed too focused on finding customers to look up, and then searching out Hayden, who studied Ayo from around the corner of a building across the street.

Fallen leaves and dead tree limbs crunched under Ayo’s feet as he strolled.  It was late April and so far Lillia hadn’t seen a single bloom, a single leaf.  Even the grass was dead.  The object blocked all but the weak sunlight of dawn and dusk, and the metro area hadn’t felt a drop of rain since October, leaving the ground to dry up and crack open and the air thick with dust.

Lillia made eye contact with Hayden.  He shaped a pair of binoculars with his hands and then pointed down the street toward Barrytown.  Up on the roof, Lillia had the better vantage.  She stayed low as she moved to the south side of the building, then scanned the wall of crushed cars no doubt erected by Barry himself.  Sometimes gang members with hunting rifles sat atop the adjoining roofs above this makeshift wall.  Terrible shots, most likely, but Lillia didn’t want to find out.

Right now the coast was clear.  She returned to the east-facing wall and gave Hayden a quick thumbs up.  He stepped out from behind the building and began to approach Ayo.

Lillia waited until he was within ten feet.  Then she hiked her leg up, planted her sneaker on the wall, and stood up on the ledge.

“Hey!” she shouted.

Ayo spun around and looked up at her.  “Yo girl, whatcha doin’ up there?”

She jumped, sailing down the side of the building with her hands pressed against her hips to hold her skirt in place.  Hayden stopped to watch her.  She smiled at him just before her feet connected with the sidewalk.  As before, she hit the ground with no more force than if she’d simply hopped in place.

Ayo had turned and covered his face, still spouting a string of curse words.

They were upon him quickly, and when he turned back to Lillia, his eyes widened in disbelief.

“But you jumped,” he said, pointing up at the roof.  He heard Hayden’s footsteps and spun around again.  “Who they hell are you people?”

“We’d like you to come with us,” Hayden said.

Ayo shook his head and began to back away, reaching into his pocket.

Hayden’s swiftness was amazing.  He put Ayo to the ground and somehow took the gun from his pocket all at once and now stood over him, pointing the .38 at Ayo’s face.

Years of Tae Kwon Do gave him an advantage.  So far he was developing the skills afforded him by the little squid on his head faster than Lillia.  She was worried about that, but at least Hayden made her feel safe, something she hadn’t experienced since she lived with Ms. Jenny–a life she barely remembered anymore.

No matter how he made her feel, she knew she couldn’t get too comfortable.  Barry’s absence frightened her, but not as much as the silence of the object.

She dreamed of the nuclear bomb every night.  Glowing, translucent creatures of every color pouring out of the object by the hundreds and coalescing into a single pinpoint of blinding white light moments before connecting with the warhead.

Nothing happened.  The bomb simply disappeared, and the white dot of light drifted back into the object.

That’s when the object responded for the first–and so far only–time.  The giant ring hovering around it suddenly began to move, blasting the city with wind gusts that knocked everyone off their feet and generating a deafening rumble, like thunder without end.

The ring stopped in a vertical, north-facing position, and that’s where it currently remained, its lowest point maybe twice as high as the tallest building in Louisville.  Staring at it too long gave Lillia vertigo, even though she had shed her fear of heights by spending the past six months learning to jump from roof to roof.

The sun was coming up over the trees now at its peak brightness.  Before long it would touch the object’s horizon and disappear again.

“Don’t kill me, man,” Ayo kept repeating.  “I ain’t done nobody wrong.  Come on, man.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” Hayden said, “as long as you do exactly as I say.”

“Aight, aight, no prob.”

“Get up.”

Ayo stood, slowly, suspiciously.  He looked from Hayden to Lillia, then back again.  Then he bolted up the street.

Hayden laughed and Lillia stepped up next to him.  Together they watched Ayo turn a corner and disappear.

“You want to get him?” Hayden asked.

Lillia shrugged.  “Sure.”

In a matter of seconds, she’d leapt back onto the building and off the other side, landing directly in Ayo’s path.

 

The biggest challenge they’d faced since things had gone quiet was finding a place to live.  Roger thought it best to take over Mall St. Matthews, citing the availability of food and supplies, and in the end he won the debate in the eyes of Meredith and Sherman, so the group had split up, with Lillia and Hayden going it alone.  They met up with the other group once a week to restock, share information, and report any important activity, but Lillia firmly believed it was only a matter of time before Barry would send his gang to raid the place, once other malls and grocery stores ran out of stock.

At first they stayed in a large suite on the top floor of a hotel near the airport, but that was when the city experienced a month-long power outage.  Climbing the stairs became tedious, and finally they discovered the hotel was infested with junkies holing up in rooms to party.

During the power outage, they jumped from house to house in Old Louisville, then the Highlands, then the St. Matthews area, moving only when an unfriendly party discovered them or they stumbled upon a better place to live.

Then one day they awoke to an alarm clock blaring.  The power had somehow been restored.  That day, they drove up to River Road and walked around one of the parks for hours, waiting for a coal barge to pass.  None did.

They were headed back to the car when another car whipped into the parking lot and stopped with its headlights blinding them.  They both braced for attack, but the voice of an old man said, “Hayden, is that you?”

He was a family friend, Hayden later explained.  Samuel Smith, a retired meteorologist who used to do the weather reports on one of the local stations back in the eighties.  Lillia watched Hayden help the feeble old man out of the car and wondered how he managed to climb in by himself.  They spoke for a while about people she didn’t know, Sam recounting every mutual acquaintance who skipped town when the object appeared.

“I’m too old for all this running around,” he explained, turning his face up to the sky and exhaling.  “What a sight, eh?  Who could walk away from this?  Even if we all die, at least we got to see it.”  After a moment’s pause, he said, “How’s your dad?”

“I haven’t seen him,” Hayden said.  “Don’t know where he is.”

“Probably looking for you.  What about your mom?”

Hayden shook his head.  “The same.”  He changed the subject quickly, asking how Sam was getting along and offering for him to join their group, but Sam was unperturbed.  “Lex is staying with me.  I’ll be just fine.”

“Who’s Lex?” Lillia asked, her first contribution to the discussion.

Hayden and Sam took turns explaining that Sam broke his leg and cracked a few ribs in a car accident ten years ago.  He hired an in-home physical therapist, Lex, and when he was back to normal he kept her on as a personal assistant.

“I just like her, you know.  She’s a good girl.  It gets lonely being a widower.”  He chuckled.  “I feel sorry for anyone who trespasses on my property.”

“She’s big into kickboxing,” Hayden said.  “I sparred with her once.  Big mistake.”

“Where is she now?”

“Skinning a deer in the backyard,” said Sam.  Hayden smiled and cocked his head curiously.  Sam shrugged.  “Well, you know how these deer are around here.  They’ve been tearing up my garden for years.  It’s not like anyone’s around to enforce the no-gunshot-within-city-limits law.  Food’s getting harder to come by.”

Sam went on to offer them a place to stay, but Hayden declined, and Lillia knew why.  He didn’t want to endanger the old man.  Sooner or later, Barry would be coming for them.

As he helped the old man back into his Bentley, Lillia overheard him whispering, “You kids need a place to stay, I can give you Jim Baker’s security code.  It’s the same for the gate and the house.  Now that’s a place to wait it out, and you know Jim won’t be coming back until that thing’s gone–if ever.  He’s probably down in the Bahamas right now.”

“I’ve never met Jim Baker,” Hayden said.

“Oh, so do you know which house I’m talking about?”

“Nope.”

Sam grinned.  “It’s on the way home.  You might want to follow me.”

When they came to the big iron gate, Sam honked, pointed out the window, and drove on.  Hayden pulled up to the security panel and input the code.

“Are you sure no one’s home?”

“According to him,” Hayden said.

The driveway snaked up the side of a hill.  Hayden had to maneuver around the fallen branches of enormous and ancient maple and oak trees.  Finally they reached the top and stopped.

This wasn’t a house.  It was a mansion.

 

They’d been living here almost a month and Lillia still got lost on a daily basis.  Why would anyone ever need a house the size of a hospital?  Hayden left her with the task of locking Ayo away in the kitchen walk-in down in the basement while he made a sweep around the house to check for intruders.

Yesterday they’d cut the refrigerant, removed all the food, and put a bed in the walk-in.  Lillia thought it inhumane, but there were no other rooms in the house from which Ayo couldn’t escape.

The only problem was she couldn’t find the elevator.

“Dis a big house.  Where’s my room?”

“That’s a good question.”

“This your place?”

“Sort of.”

“Ah, I see.  You just moved right in after the owners left.  Smart.  I didn’t think about the rich folks leaving.  I’m a have to find me a mansion after I’m done with y’all.”  They reached the end of the hall, Lillia walking behind Ayo, gun pointed at his back.  Ayo turned.  “You know where we’re going?”

“I can’t remember.”

She stood against the wall and motioned for Ayo to head back the way they came.

Her memory was getting worse.  Not only that but her problem-solving abilities as well.  She’d always been a great student, able to ace tests and contribute to book discussions on a level above her classmates.  But now even her memories of Drake and Kate were growing cloudy in her mind.  She thought of them often but only because she knew she had to, lest she forget them altogether.

It didn’t make any sense.  While her physical prowess continued to grow, her mind was slipping.  The only explanation was the thing on her head.

And yet Hayden was thriving in all aspects.

When they reached the foyer, she instructed Ayo to sit on one of the sofas lining the walls.  She sat across the room from him.

“What now?” he asked.

“We’re waiting for Hayden.”

“What’s he doin’?”

She glanced around, frowning.  “I don’t know.  Oh, he’s securing the house.”

“Man, y’all jokers are trippy,” Ayo said, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his pocket.  “This a non-smokin’ establishment?”

Lillia shrugged.  Watching Ayo light a cigarette made her think of Sherman, who’d only sided with Roger and gone to Mall St. Matthews because he couldn’t live with the guilt of failing to protect Drake and Kate.  She wanted him to be here if only to serve as a reminder of them.

“How old are y’all?” Ayo asked.

“I just turned seventeen.”

“What about him?”

“He’s twenty.”

“Me too.  Doubt we went to school together.  Hey, y’all got any liquor in this place?”

“I think so.”

“You gonna offer me a drink?”

“That’s up to Hayden.”

“He’s the man of the house.”

“I guess.”

“You his girlfriend?”

“No.”

“You single?”

“Yeah.”

Ayo sat forward.  “I see, I see.  You and me should both have a drink.”

“No thanks.”

“Aight, I see.  So what do y’all want from Ayo?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Well, you got to tell me or I can’t do it.”

“Hayden will tell you.”

Ayo curled his brow and took a long drag from his cigarette.  He blew smoke in her direction and said, “You don’t like me very much.”

“I don’t know you.”

“But you think you do.  You think you know what I’m about.  You think I’d hurt you if I got the chance.”

“You tried to pull a gun on us, didn’t you?”

“Baby doll, you got super powers.  Jumpin’ off roofs and shit.  And you’re scared of me?  Damn.  The hell you thinkin’, girl?”

“Are you in a gang?”

Ayo burst out laughing.  “Nah, nah, no gangs for me.”

“What do you do?  Besides selling drugs?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Are you going to?”

“What?”

“Tell me.”

He sighed.  “Aight, but don’t laugh.”

“Okay.”

“Theater.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, that was my thang.  Went to school for it and all that.  You ever seen a black Romeo?  Got the lead right before all this happened.  Now I’ll never get to do it.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Which part?”

“I’ve never heard of a theater actor selling drugs.”

Ayo smiled.  “You want to hear a story?”

“Okay.”

When he spoke next, his voice changed completely.  He enunciated properly, ruminative.  “My real name is Damitri.  Ayo is a character I created.  I’m not a drug dealer.  Well, I wasn’t.  It’s hard to play the roll of a drug dealer if you don’t have drugs in your pocket.  Where you found me, down on Baxter, I’m sure you saw they’ve walled off several blocks, right?”

Lillia was so stunned she couldn’t respond.

Damitri continued, “Long story short, a few weeks ago a bunch of guys broke into the house and took my sister.  It was weird.  When it happened, I thought what you’re probably thinking, but they didn’t touch her.  They just waved their guns around and made her go with them.  They kept saying Mr. Schafer wants a word with her.  Who the hell Mr. Schafer is, I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure he’s behind that wall.”

“But you were in there for a few days,” Lillia said.

“How the hell do you know that?”

“We’ve been following you.”

“Why?”

“Because we’re all looking for the same person.”

“You know him?”

“Yes.”

Hayden appeared from around the corner and said, “He’s my dad.”

Damitri shot up like a weed.  “Your dad?  What the hell, man?  Why’d he take my sister?”

“We don’t know,” Lillia said.

“Why’d you get kicked out of there?” Hayden asked.

“I got in a fight with the wrong dude, that’s all.  Nothing that can’t be fixed.  I never even saw your father.  What do you guys want with him?”

“He killed my mother.”

“And he wants to kill us,” Lillia added.

“This is crazy,” Damitri said.  “Did you know he took my sister?”

The coincidence was quite striking.  Now Lillia wasn’t sure what to do with him.  She thought they were dealing with a criminal type.

“We just picked you at random,” she said.  “We were going to use you as a spy.”

“You’re trying to get at Mr. Schafer.”

“Yes.  We need to learn whatever we can about him.”

“All right, I’ll do it.”

“You will?”

He shot Lillia a glance that was almost flirtatious.  “You gonna give me a choice?”

Hayden stepped forward.  “Yes, actually.  If you want to go, then go.”

Lillia couldn’t tell if he spoke with sincerity or jealousy.  Damitri nodded and started wandering around the room, looking closely at the paintings on the walls and the statues and the ceramic art, then up at the dome ceiling from which a chandelier hung two stories high.

“Like I said before, I’m trying to get my sister back, and if you want to kill your pops, I guess that means we’ve got a common interest.  But I’ve got my own place, and my dog’s waiting on me there.”  He stopped in front of a mirror and combed his hair with his fingers.  “Probably needs food.  Probably gotta take a piss.”  His voice changed back.  He was becoming Ayo again.  “My shit is all carpet,” he said.  “I’m a need to get back home tonight, know what I’m sayin’?”

“That’s fine,” Hayden said.  “How will we get in touch?”

“I know where you live now.”

“We know where you live, too,” Lillia said.

Ayo gave her another amatory look.  “You should come by sometime.”

“We’ll come see you tomorrow,” she said immediately, throwing him off balance.  “To discuss specifics.  We’ve already formulated a plan, but since you’ll be involved and you’ve been over the wall, we’ll need your input.”

“Damn, girl, you get down to business.”  Ayo smoothed out his thin goatee and said, “While we’re on the subject of business, I’ve got one more condition for y’all.”

“What is it?” Hayden asked.

“Well, my ride is all the way on Baxter.”

“I’ll take you back.”

“Hold on, don’t be interruptin’ me now.  I’m tryin’ to tell you my condition.”  He peered around the room, raising his arms palms up and nodding.  “Now judging from the size of this place, I’d say the folks who live here are pretty damn rich.  Rich folks tend to have quite a few luxury automobiles, am I right?  And I bet you all the dope in my pocket they only took one of those cars with them when they lit on outta here.”

“How about I just take you back?”

“How about no?”

Hayden stepped up to Ayo.  “You don’t have a choice, dude.”

“I thought you said I did?”

“I said you can go home.  I didn’t say you get to pick how.”

Ayo sighed–or rather Damitri.  “You’re worried that thing in the sky is just going to disappear and the Rockefellers are gonna come home and hold you responsible for their missing car.  That’s dumb, yo.”

“Their name is Baker.”

“Well the Bakers probably have full coverage, no?  You can give me a car and we’re cool, or you can play it how your daddy would.  Up to you.”

 

Two in the afternoon looked like midnight.  In some parts of the city you could see the lower sky, but this property was full of trees.  After Damitri left in a white BMW, Lillia took a walk around the place.  All she could see above her were tiny golden dots drifting in the blackness.  The giant squids hadn’t drifted down to the city in quite some time, but they were still there, weaving in and out of the jagged outer structure of the object, lighting up the night like giant fireflies, gliding in orbit without aim or intent.

Except to steal children.

Drake and Kate weren’t the only victims of those plasmatic beasts.  The first Lillia had heard of but most certainly not the last.  The night after Hayden and Sherman killed Ted, after the creatures stopped the bomb, one of those things came crawling down the side of a building and cornered the two boys Roger had with him.  Lillia watched it open two tentacles like the mouths of snakes and shrink wrap themselves around the kids, liquefying them instantly and sucking their cloudy red remains up through the tentacles and into its bulbous head.  That’s what Drake and Kate experienced.  A painless but most violent death.

And she couldn’t cry about it.  She didn’t even feel upset.  Only the knowledge that she should be upset plagued her.  She felt no emotion, only a psychological itch comparable to trying to think of a word or name that’s on the tip of your tongue.

If a giant squid could pick off children like a bird eating worms, then the little squid attached to her head might well be stifling her emotional response.

All the more reason to rip it off.

She passed by a fountain clogged with leaves and followed the peat gravel path through a gate and out to the rim of the property, where a stone wall well over a hundred years old looked out over the Ohio river.

Here she could see some of the Indiana sky.  She sat on the wall with her legs dangling over the edge.  Below the wall, the hill’s steep gradient ended at a cliff, and below that were small dilapidated houses bunched up together.

The Louisville skyline was just a black silhouette against the orange backdrop of the sky, though one of the taller buildings had some lights on in the upper floors.

 Don’t forget to tell Hayden about that.

As she scanned the river, she noticed something else peculiar.  Just to the east was the edge of Six Mile Island, a long stretch of land like a median between interstate lanes.  When Hayden first brought her out here, he had to explain that Sjx Mile Island wasn’t six miles long.  “It’s called that because it’s six miles from Falls of the Ohio,” he told her.

She’d never actually seen the island before and was surprised to find it was a wildlife reserve.  No houses, no buildings, no bridge leading to it.  Just forest.

And a campfire.  Someone made a smart move.  The Navy had boats on the river a mile or so past the island.  Whoever was sitting around that fire probably tried to escape the city, came to the blockade, and settled for the island, an underdeveloped plot of land no one would bother, unless they liked water birds.

That might be a person to visit.  Then again, they might want to be left alone.

She heard dead grass crunching behind her and glanced back.  Hayden came strolling out of the darkness in his usual khaki shorts and plain white t-shirt marked with a single mysterious stain somewhere around the neck.  Whenever he appeared, reality sort of slipped away and she returned to a time when falling in love was her primary concern.  She could hop rooftops like a frog on lily pads and toss cars around like baseballs but she didn’t know how to let Hayden know how she felt about him.  They’d spent every waking moment together since the day they met, and still he hadn’t touched her, aside from when they trained out in the yard.  Kicks to the face don’t count as affection.

Without speaking, he hopped onto the wall and plopped down next to her.

Lillia pointed out the campfire out on the edge of the island.

“I saw that last week,” he said.

“You didn’t tell me?”

“I did tell you.  Remember, we were sitting down for dinner.  We had lemon pepper chicken.”

“We have chicken almost every night.”

It was true.  When they first came here, Lillia found the chicken coup in the back yard and all the dead chickens and rotten eggs inside.  Hayden cleaned it out and they spent the entire day scouring the city for living chickens.  Now they had dozens of them and their daily meals consisted of mostly eggs and poultry.

“You were pretty tired,” Hayden said.

“That’s not it.  I can’t remember anything.  The other day I couldn’t even think of my last name.”

“I think it’s all in your mind.  If it’s affecting your memory, why wouldn’t it affect mine?”

Lillia shook her head timidly and beat her heels against the wall.  “Did you see the lights in that building downtown?”

Hayden leaned out so he could see around her.  “Hadn’t seen that yet.”

“Should we check it out?”

“If you want.  Maybe tomorrow.  We still have to pay a visit to Private Duncan.”

“Oh . . . I forgot about that.”

Private Duncan was a soldier manning a watchtower the military had constructed in the southbound lane of I-65, just past the pile of rubble that used to be the Gene Snyder overpass.  Months ago, when all the barricades were reduced to one-man posts, they’d ambushed Private Duncan and scared him into an agreement.  If he let people leave the city if they so desired, and he was generous with classified information coming in from his superiors, then he would get to live the rest of his life.  Lillia had no real intention of killing anyone, but she wasn’t sure about Hayden yet.  When they accosted criminals on the street in their general effort to restore order and keep the peace, he was always more violent with his scare tactics.  He even broke the arm of a drunken idiot who was slapping his wife around in a liquor store parking lot because she didn’t want him to break in and restock.

“We should probably eat before we go,” Hayden said.

“What are we having?”

“Take a wild guess.”

 

Before meeting with Private Duncan, they decided to pay a visit to Sherman and the others at Mall St. Matthews.  The only way in was to climb up on the roof and enter through a service hatch, which led to a utility room on the second floor.  Without cell phone service, they had no way of reaching the others, so once they were inside they had to browse around the mall like the world’s last shoppers.

Everyone slept in a furniture store on the first floor, so they looked there first.  Lillia plopped down on one of the mattresses and hugged a pillow.

“Sleepy?”

“A little.”

“You could have stayed home.”

“I don’t like to be by myself.”

“Me neither.  I can see your underwear, by the way.”

“Why are you looking?”

“I’m not.  I just noticed is all.  You know, a skirt isn’t really the right wardrobe for a superhero.”

She sat up, sighing.  Why did he always have to point that out?  It was annoying.  Was he really that offended?  Mrs. Wilkins used to torment her with lectures on how to be proper, how to dress, how to behave.  If she ever decided to put on a bathing suit and test out the pool back at the mansion, Hayden might have an aneurysm.

“I’ve never heard of a superhero in khakis either.”

“We need some spandex.”

“Have fun with that.”

“You okay?  You sound a little on edge.”

He was right.  She felt restless and wasn’t sure why.  Maybe she did know but it slipped away along with the rest of her memories.  “I’m fine,” she said, standing and brushing her skirt down.  “Let’s just find everybody and get this day over with.”

“Want to split up to speed things along?”

“Fine.”

Lillia stormed away, still not sure why her emotions were so high.  She found Meredith and Roger sitting at a table in the food court.  They must have heard her coming because Roger had his gun drawn when she came around the corner and spotted them.

“Hey, Lillia!” he said, setting his gun on the table.  “Sorry about that.  We weren’t expecting you guys today.  Where’s Hayden?”

Lillia jogged up to them and sat down next to Meredith.  “We split up.”

“What?” Meredith exclaimed.  “I didn’t know you were dating.  What happened?”

Roger burst out laughing, shooting flakes of food all over the table.

“I meant we split up to look for you guys,” Lillia explained.  “We’re not dating.”

Meredith giggled with Roger for a moment, and Lillia tried but she couldn’t even muster a smile.

“What’s wrong?” Roger asked.

She shrugged.  “I just don’t feel too hot today.”

“Everything good with Hayden?”

“I guess.  Where’s Sherman?”

She noticed a somber look between Roger and Meredith.

Roger sighed.  “Probably passed out somewhere.  He’s been on a bender.”

“He’s drinking again?”

“A lot,” Meredith said.

“I’ve tried to talk to him,” Roger said.  “He just apologizes and thanks me for worrying about him and goes right back to it.”

Lillia stood. “Where’s the liquor store?”

“You’ve been to it, remember?”

“No, I don’t.  Where is it?”

He pointed.  “Down at the end.  You want something to eat?”

Lillia took off running.  As she rounded the corner she almost collided with Hayden, who jumped back and said, “Whoa!  Where are you off to in such a hurry?”

She didn’t stop or respond.  The liquor store was just up ahead and the lights were on.  When she reached the entrance, she saw him immediately.  Unconscious on the floor.  He was dressed in a brand new black suit and, despite the heavy drinking, looked cleaner and healthier than he ever had before.  Too bad it was just an illusion caused by the clothes.

Something lay across his chest and he had his arms around it, but she didn’t pay it much attention.  Instead, she started knocking over stands of wine and liquor, taking bottles and pitching them at others.  She ripped the register off the counter and heaved it so hard that it knocked over an entire row of shelving.  Before long she was wading in alcohol and broken glass, but she didn’t stop until nearly every bottle was broken.

She didn’t even notice when she started crying, nor did she notice that Hayden, Roger, and Meredith had come to the entrance to watch her throw her fit.

When she was finished, she weaved through the mess she’d made and approached Sherman.

“I guess that’s one way to do it,” Roger said.

“Honey, did you hurt yourself?” Meredith asked.

Hayden said nothing.  He had his arms crossed and was staring at her as she knelt before Sherman, who hadn’t stirred even after all the racket she’d made, and inspected what he was holding.

It was a long box, gift wrapped with a bow and a little To and From card taped to it.  On the card, barely legible, was her name.

 

“You gonna open it?”

“Not right now.”

They were parked on the north side of Gene Snyder where the rubble blocked off all lanes.  Sometimes they took the entrance ramp up to the freeway and back down the other side, but here on the outskirts of the object it actually rained.  Last time they tried it the median was soupy and the almost got stuck.

“Let’s go.  His relief will be coming in soon.”  Lillia stepped out and met Hayden at the hood.  “Ready?” he asked.

She nodded.

As always, they counted to three, took off running toward the pile of rubble, and hurtled it in a single leap.

Hayden always landed first, but Lillia always won the race to the fence, where Private Duncan, an admirably alert and watchful young man, would be unlocking the narrow gate to let them through.

Lillia didn’t slow down until she slipped through the gate, just to make sure Hayden didn’t catch up to her.  As she slid to a stop, he came down from the sky and landed in front of her.

“Looks like I beat you,” he said.

“The gate is the finish line.  You weren’t supposed to jump.”

“Whatever you say, slick.”

She shot him a cold glare.  He was pushing all the wrong buttons today.  She hated being called “slick.”  Someone from her past used to use that word all the time, though she couldn’t remember who it was or why she despised the person.

“Private Duncan,” Hayden said, turning away from Lillia and extending a hand to the nervous soldier.  “Anyone come through today?”

“Nobody in the past week,” Duncan said.  “It’s been dead around here.  But look . . . there’s something you probably want to know about.”

For a moment Lillia’s anger abated.  Private Duncan never volunteered information.  Despite the agreement, Hayden usually had to pry it out of him.  This must be important.

“Let’s hear it,” Hayden said.

“They’re coming in two weeks.”

“Who?”

“The army.  I’m not even supposed to know this, but Dickie, you know, my relief, he’s the nephew of someone pretty high up in the ranks.  He said the president and the Secretary of Defense decided enough is enough.  They’re making a full sweep.  They’re going to take back the city.”

“They can’t do that,” Lillia said.  “It’ll be a slaughter.”

Duncan shook his head.  “I highly doubt the U.S. Army is going to start mowing down citizens.”

“I’m not talking about citizens, you idiot.”  She turned to Hayden.  “He’ll kill them all.  We can’t let that happen.  We have to do something.”

“Like what?” Hayden asked.

“Who are you guys talking about?” Duncan asked.

Lillia ignored him.  “We have to get to him first.  Before they get here.”

“Are you saying there are more people like you in there?” Duncan asked.

“Yes,” Hayden said sternly.  Then to Lillia, “So now we have a deadline, and we haven’t even seen him in action.  This sucks.”

“I have to report this,” Duncan said.  “I have friends stationed at Fort Knox and Fort Campbell.  That’s where they’ll be coming from.  They need to know what to expect.”

“No one’s going to believe you,” Hayden said.

“I have to try.”

“You keep your mouth shut, Duncan.  If it comes down to it, I’ll let your army know myself.  They won’t believe it till they see it, anyway.”

 

When they arrived home, a car sat idling in front of the gate.  Hayden stopped as soon as he saw it and opened the door.

“Stay here.”

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know.”

It was full dark now, but the car was lit up by a security light.

Lillia waited until Hayden was several paces away and quietly opened her door and stepped out.  Hayden approached the car on the driver’s side, calling out to the driver to identify him- or herself.

The door opened slowly and a woman stepped out, calling his name with a big grin.  She had freshly curled black hair and light brown skin.  The same height as Hayden, probably in her late twenties.  She looked like a professional athlete.  It was Lex.

Lillia cringed as Lex threw her arms around Hayden.  When she pulled away, her hands remained on his shoulders while they spoke.  At length.  No wave in Lillia’s direction.  No acknowledgement whatsoever.  Finally she returned to the car and cranked up the CD player, blasting music from a local band Hayden had been following before the object appeared.  It worked in drawing his attention, but he returned to the car with a big grin on his face.

Hear the song.  “Willar D. Bee” by Aby Laby Land

“What did she want?” Lillia asked as he climbed in.  Instead of pulling forward, he started backing into a driveway and turning around.  “Where are we going?”

“The riverfront.”

“Why?”

“That was Lex,” he said.  “Sh–“

“I’m not stupid.”

Hayden looked at her with the standard wounded puppy expression guys always put on when they know they’ve screwed up.  “She came by to tell us they’re about to launch the fireworks.”

“What fireworks?”

“Thunder Over Louisville.  It was supposed to be today, and apparently they’re going through with it.  No air show, obviously.  Have you ever been?”

“No.”

“Haven’t you lived here your whole life?”

“Yes.”

“This is unacceptable.”

He pulled out onto River Road and drove double the speed limit all the way to downtown.  On the way he explained that Sam Smith got the information from one of his friends who worked for Louisville Gas & Electric, one of the title sponsors for this year’s event.

They parked close to the river west of the Second Street Bridge and walked down to the rail just as the first shells launched from the barges, soaring up into the night and exploding, lighting up the bottom of the object’s ring, a structure so massive that all the buildings in Louisville could probably fit inside.

Lillia became entranced.

“Usually they have music,” Hayden said.

“That would ruin it.”  So would the crowds.  Hayden had told her over six-hundred thousand people attended last year.

“Bad music to boot,” he said.  “They should play some Aby Laby Land.  Keep it local.”

“Drake and Kate would love this,” she said, and just then a swarm of creatures once again poured out of the object.

Hayden pointed.  “Look!”

They came down in a massive flock, hundreds of them, and as they drew closer their shapes began to take form.  Some were the giant squids, others amorphous shapes constantly in flux, like oil floating in water.  Some looked like snakes or eels.  Others were perfectly round orbs of light.

Lillia feared they would consume the fireworks as they’d done the nuclear bomb, but instead they became part of the show, dancing and weaving in and out of the explosions in a celebratory fashion.

“That’s awesome!” Hayden shouted, and suddenly he threw his arm around her.

She tensed, but he didn’t let go, so she leaned into him a little and for the first time all day felt the slightest relief.  She even managed to smile.

But it quickly faded.

“Hayden?”

“Yeah,” he said distantly, staring up at the sky with his mouth hanging open.

“Hayden, look!”

About a hundred yards to their left, the Belle of Louisville Steamboat was rising out of the water, standing vertically and groaning from the strain.

“Holy shit,” Hayden said, and they watched as the enormous boat shot out into the river in a high arc and landed on one of the barges.

The explosion was enormous.  Fireworks shot out in every direction, and Hayden pushed Lillia to the ground just as a shell connected with the I-64 overpass behind them, deafening them with its concussion and raining down a shower of hot sparks.

They stayed low until the flames on the barge stopped shooting missiles in their direction, and then they slowly climbed to their feet.  Fireworks still launched from the other seven barges and the bridge.

Lillia peered down at the docks, where moments before the Belle of Louisville had sat undisturbed.

Barry smiled and waved at her.  Then he turned back to watch the rest of the show.

To be continued . . .

The Artist Returneth With Announcements


Hello readers! Resident artist here to tell you that good things are on their way. As many of you know, The Object: Book II will begin it’s serialization in May. That’s right, in just a few short weeks you’ll have access to the continuing saga of our heroes and villains.

Secondly, I’d like to go ahead and state that I’d like to change the art style up a little bit, and this is where I’d the help of you, the reader.

https://i0.wp.com/comicrelated.com/graphics/chew_cov02.jpg

Artwork by Rob Guillory. A step away from realism, but caricatured characters can sometimes be much more expressive.

I’ve always been a fan of graphic novels. I’ve been reading The Walking Dead, trying to get caught up with the show (although it deviates so much from the book that it could hardly be called catching up, right?) and also Chew.  I love the art style of those two. The man who does the covers for The Walking Dead (Tony Moore) is flat out excellent, and I love the quasi-realism that his work has. I also enjoy the flexibility that a step away from realism offers in graphic novels like Chew. With illustration styles such as this, more work can be produced in a lesser amount of time.

So, that’s one style I’d like to work with.

https://i1.wp.com/www.imaginistix.com/images/centaur_image2.jpg

An example of the work of Boris Vallejo. Truly a new master.

However, I’ve always loved concept art and illustration from Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf Publishing. Collectively they produce all things related to Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and World of Darkness. Not to mention I always had a soft spot for the old-school RA Salvatore book covers, and old new-masters like Boris Vallejo. The clarity and reality of this style of illustration is unmatched in bringing a person into the world of the story, yet the downside is that it takes countless hours to produce just one work of art.

So that’s another route entirely.

But seeing as how any foray into uncharted territory is good for building character, I’d like to know what you think. Post below what kind of style you’d like to see more of. A more gritty, visceral graphic novel style, or an expanded polished illustration style.

Second on the announcement list is this:

I’ve finally gotten my Etsy shop open! After badgering for months. Months. M-o-n-t-h-s… I’ve finally taken Winston’s advice and created a Facebook like page, and my Etsy shop…

Neat, eh?

If you all would like to see more of my art, click the banner above, or just visit here every once in a while, I’ll be doing posts about new art as I make it.

And finally, I do want to mention one more thing, pertaining to those who live in Louisville specifically…

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.

Me and Winston often venture out of our caves to set up and do some street promotion. Recently we’ve been spotted on Bardstown Road between Cafe 360 and Hey Tiger just down the block. We take up residence for the afternoon spreading the word of The Object, and I bring out any available art I have to sell as well and display it. The next time we’re out and about, come meet us in person! We love networking and meeting our fans, so if you happen to be a local of Louisville, don’t be surprised to see two strange men with a stack of books and a stack of art posted up on any given warm weekend.

I will return. Until then, stay classy, readers.

What’s Your Favorite TV Show?


This month, The Walking Dead returns to AMC, and next month, Game of Thrones returns to HBO.  I’m thinking about reviewing the episodes every week with the hope that they’ll generate discussion of the shows.

However, I’m familiar with several TV series, and I’d like to get an idea of what you guys watch so maybe I can add another show or two to the list.  Check all that apply.  Thanks.

By the way, I put all the episodes (including the two never-before-posted final episodes) back on the blog, conveniently scrolling across the top of the page.  Hope some new readers will pop up.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on Book One.

Episode Thirteen, The Object: Book One

Episode Thirteen


The Object: a free serial novel

Episode Thirteen: “Time to Tell the Truth”

Want to comment as you read?  Open this episode’s discussion thread.

Time to Tell the Truth

Lillia awoke to find herself lying nearly on top of Hayden, who had one arm wrapped around her back.  For a moment she didn’t remember where she was, nor anything that existed beyond what she could see, the only sound that of the air conditioner’s soft rattle.

A car honked outside and suddenly the world outside flooded back into her mind: Drake and Kate, the police killings, the seedy hotel, the object.

Lillia sat up carefully so as not to wake Hayden and slid out of bed.  She sorted through the pile of clothes until she came up with a pair of jeans, a fitted gray long-sleeve shirt, socks, and a bra.  He’d asked for her bra size yesterday, right before he got out of the car and shot out the department store’s glass door.  Embarrassed enough with the question to only ask at the last minute but in no way shy about robbing a store.

She’d expected him to bring her a bunch of clothes she couldn’t wear, but he even got the bra exactly right.  Lillia pulled the baggy shirt over her head and then quickly covered her chest with it and turned to make sure Hayden was still asleep.  A hitch in thought and she’d forgotten he was there, forgotten what she was doing.

She quickly dropped the shirt and put on the bra.  Then she pulled the shirt over her head.  Mrs. Wilkins had always made her change clothes this way, starting with her shirt and moving downward.  The longer Lillia was away from that woman, the crazier she remembered her to be.  Mrs. Wilkins believed if you put your pants on first, then tried to change your shirt, the shirt’s filth would rain down upon the pants.  Ridiculous, but here stood Lillia in a shirt and underwear, shoving her right leg into a pair of jeans.

She lost her balance on the second leg and fell back against the bed.  Hayden began to move and she hurried to pull up the pants and button them.  She yanked the zipper up and, still lying there, looked over at Hayden.  He was smiling.  “Having trouble?”

Lillia sat up, spun around, and sat cross-legged with her elbows on her knees.  She brushed the hair out of her face and then folded her arms over her stomach, trying to warm herself.

“I didn’t mean to wake you up,” she said.

“I could tell.  Everything fit okay?”

“Yep.  I’m glad to be out of that skirt.”

“I bet.  How’d you sleep?”

She smiled and shrugged.  “I zonked out fast, I know that.”

“The explosion didn’t wake you up?”

“What explosion?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “It was pretty far off, though.”

“How late were you up?”

“For a while after you fell asleep, I guess.  Man, I had some crazy dreams last night.  You were in them.  Well, sort of.”

Lillia laughed.  “Sort of?  How sort of?”

Hayden sat up in bed and wrapped his arms around his legs.  “Well, I dreamed I was a cat,” he said.  “And I was fighting this guy.  And then I was . . . looking for you.”  He stopped there and his eyes trailed away.  For a moment he looked deeply disturbed.  Then he blinked and returned his gaze to Lillia.  “How is that possible?”

Lillia flinched.  “What?”

“Something happened,” Hayden said.  “Do you feel that?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lillia said.  The look on his face made her a little uneasy.  The look a person gets when processing a lot of information in the mind all at once.  The look Mrs. Wilkins would develop sometimes while on the phone with a friend or co-worker, the look that always led to shouting and things being thrown.

But Hayden smiled.  “So that’s how.”  He suddenly reached out to Lillia and leaned forward.  She recoiled and he drew his hand back.  “You’ve got one on your head, too, don’t you?  That’s how you can float.”

Lillia realized the feeling he’d inquired if she felt.  It was like the heat from a shaft of sunlight on a winter morning.  A calming, reassuring feeling, and it seemed, strangely enough, to have a shape.  An umbrella of energy under which the two of them huddled.

“Check it out,” Hayden said, dropping his gaze so the top of his head faced her.  “I’ll show you my alien if you show me yours.”

Lillia laughed.  She reached out and touched the invisible squid on his head, her fingertips producing tiny ripples of light that revealed its dimensions.  Then she ducked her head for Hayden.

~ ~ ~ ~

They ate breakfast at a diner up the street.  Hayden was surprised to find it not only open but completely slammed with business.  This was a poorer neighborhood than his own.  Fewer people with the means to flee the city, which meant more people lingering, food growing more and more scarce as businesses shut down and grocery stores with no resupply on the way emptied of their shelves, either by shoppers or, near the end, thieves, some of whom were simply hungry, others who stole to mark up and sell when famine set in.

For now, people still dined here–at least those who had money yet to spend.

Hayden and Lillia got a table immediately, but it might well have been the last one.  The diner bustled with loud conversation over the tinker of silverware on plates.  People either shouted or didn’t speak at all.  Somewhere a man berated a waitress for not being prompt.  “The service here is an absurdity,” he said, with emphasis on the last word.  “I never come to places like this.  You see why?”  He was looking at his wife.  “They don’t care.  They just don’t give a flying shit.”

The hostess led them into another room and he saw the complaining customer sitting with his frightened upper middle class family.  They were dressed for church, the man, his wife, and their two daughters.  This was a person with the means to leave the city but not the will.  His family now clung to him in fear.

As they approached the family’s booth, the waitress stepped back between two tables to let them pass.  She was close to tears.  Hayden stopped and turn to the man, the hostess going on ahead, unaware.  Lillia stopped behind him.

He didn’t know what he was going to say, but looking at the man he suddenly realized he’d seen him before, push mowing his small front lawn.  He even remembered what the house looked like: three stories, blue siding, white pillars at the top of the porch steps.  Even the date.  How could he remember something so insignificant?

Hayden put the question aside and smiled.  “Hey, you’re my neighbor, right?”

The man scowled at him.  “What?  I don’t know you.”

“You live on Willow Avenue.  The blue house.  I live across the street, a few houses down.”

This last part was a lie, but the man flashed a look of false recognition and, smiling, extended a hand.  Hayden took it and the man’s demeanor instantly changed.  He said, “Yes, that’s the house all right.  I didn’t know I’d see anyone from my neck of the woods down here.  You can’t get a damn meal in this city anymore.”

“We’re facing quite a struggle,” Hayden said, nodding.  “That thing up there hovers over all our heads, and who knows what it’s up to, right?”  He turned to the waitress, noticing too that the hostess had turned around and was coming back.  “How are you holding up, ma’am?  With all this.”

The waitress struggled to speak.  Her voice quivered.  “I don’t know,” she said.

“How about your family?”

She looked up at him, paused, then said, “I had to leave my kids at home alone.  I don’t want to be here, but my landlord put a note under everyone’s door saying if we stop paying rent we’re getting kicked out, even with that thing above us.  So I didn’t know what to do.”

The hostess was here now, hands on her sides, eyeballing the waitress.

The man’s wife spoke so timidly Hayden barely heard her.  “Harper always says children should not be left alone, don’t you honey?”

“I do indeed,” Harper said, crumpling a napkin in his fist.  He looked up at the waitress and shifted his body towards her.  “You don’t have a husband?”

“He died,” she said.  “In Iraq.”

“Well surely you draw some sort of check.”

The waitress spoke faster now.  “I do.  I have plenty of money.  But all the branches of my bank are closed, and when I try to take money out of the ATM it won’t let me.  I don’t even know if I can cash my check here.  I have to make tips to pay my rent.  I’m trying but we have a limited menu and I have to explain that to everyone and it’s taking longer and people aren’t giving tips because they can’t get to their money either.”

“Your table is this way,” the hostess said to Hayden.

“That’s what I always say, isn’t it, babe?” the man said to his wife.

“Yes,” she replied.

The man poked the tabletop as he spoke.  “You always keep a cash savings, just in case.  Don’t I say that, babe?  Just in case?  You always keep cash on hand.  Isn’t that right, um . . . what’s your name, by the way?”

“Hayden,” Hayden said.  “You’re right.  I have a stash at home.”  He looked at the waitress.  “If I had it on me, I’d help you out.  I only brought enough to eat with.”

“Hell,” the man said, grunting and standing.  He stuck his hand in his front pocket and pulled out a money clip thick with one-hundred dollar bills.  “How much is the rent, honey?”

The waitress looked stunned.  “Um.  No, it’s five-hundred dollars.  I’m fine, thank you.”

“You probably have bills coming up, too, right?” Hayden said.

The man looked up from counting out money.  “You have bills too?  Do you have food?”

“Yes,” she said quickly.  “We’re fine, really.”

“I’ll tell you what, Harper,” Hayden said.  “Throw her twelve-hundred and I’ll run half of it over to you when I get home this afternoon.

The man studied him for a moment, brow curled.  Then he swatted at the air and said, “Just stick it in the mail slot on the front door.  Which house do you live in again?”

Hayden pictured the street in his mind.  “Two houses to the left of the one across the street from you.  The maroon one.  There’s a pink flamingo in the yard.”

“You’re the one with the flamingo?” Harper asked, disgusted.

Hayden laughed.  “Yeah, we all hate it, too.  It was a gift from my grandmother.  She’s not doing so well and we’re just keeping it up until, you know.”

This lie seemed to seal the deal.  Harper counted out twelve bills and handed them to the waitress.

“Go on home,” Lillia said to the waitress.  Hayden turned to her and found her smiling and staring at him.

“I’ll go talk to my manager,” the waitress said.

“If he gives you any trouble,” Harper said, sitting back down, “you just come tell me.  Good luck, honey.”

Hayden offered his hand to the man, whose wife was rubbing his forearm.

“I’ll see you this afternoon,” Hayden said.

Harper nodded.  “If we get some service sometime today, that is.”

The hostess led them to their table and took their drink orders.  When she left, Lillia leaned forward and whispered, “That was brilliant.  You played that guy like a fiddle.”

He smiled.  “Oh, did I?”

“You were lying,” Lillia said.  “You don’t live on Willow Avenue.”

“How do you know where I live?”

“Save it.  I can tell when you’re lying.  Are you going to give him half the money?”

“Well yeah,” Hayden said.  “I don’t want him terrorizing whoever does live in that house.”

“See!  I knew it.  I can tell when you’re lying.”

Hayden smiled and looked down at the table.  He felt her staring at him.  He’d been dreading this moment since last night, but he might as well get it over with.  Or should he wait until they’d eaten, so at least she wouldn’t leave him hungry.

A group of people passed by, being led by the hostess to a table still piled with the dishes and soiled napkins of previous customers.

“I’ve been lying about something else,” he blurted out.

Lillia nodded.  “It has something to do with the library, doesn’t it?  I knew it.”

“I saw Sherman.”

“You what?” she said loud enough to draw attention.  “At the library?  Why didn’t you tell me?  Where are Drake and Kate?”

“They’re dead, Lillia.  One of those things, those–” He pointed at his head.  “Those big things, it came down and took them.”

She was shaking her head and saying, “No, that’s not true.”

Hayden leaned forward.  “Some people broke in, and Drake got shot, but they got away.  Sherman was trying to take him to the hospital.  Then everything went crazy.  There’s a man somewhere in this city who has one of these things on his head.  He’s killing people, burning down buildings.  We might be the only ones who can stop him.”

“I have to find Drake and Kate.”

“Lillia, Sherman saw him.  The same guy I dreamed about last night.  I dreamed about Drake and Kate, too.  I saw one of those things come down and take them.”

“What do you mean take them?” she yelled.  “How did it take them?”

He sighed, struggled to think of what to say.  “Lillia, it sucked them up in one of its tentacles.  It ate them.”

He tried to stop her but she yanked her arm from his grip and screamed, “Stay away from me!”

Then she left.

~ ~ ~ ~

“I know those two,” Meredith said.  “They were at the hospital.  She had these things in her hair.”

“Dreadlocks?” Trey asked.

Meredith looked at him strangely.  “How did you know that?”

Trey shrugged.  “Hey, can I have fifty cents for the jukebox?”

“The jukebox is fifty cents?” Roger asked.

“Yeah, I checked on the way in.”

Roger fished some change out of his pocket and gave it to Trey.  When Trey stood, Pete tried to go with him, but Trey whispered, “Stay here, Pete.  I’ll be right back.”

Roger watched him go and his eyes returned to the boy whose girlfriend had just screamed at him before running out of the restaurant.  The boy was staring back.  Not at him but at Meredith.

“Is everything okay?” Roger asked.

“Not even close,” the boy said.

Roger couldn’t help but think he looked familiar.  Something about his eyes.

“You gonna chase after her?”

The boy shook his head.  “Don’t know there’s a point.  I know where she’s going anyway.”

“The library,” Roger said.

“Yeah, I guess you heard that.”

“Everybody did.  Maybe you should go after her.  She shouldn’t be by herself.”

“It’s useless,” he said.  “If you knew the whole story . . .”

“I think I might,” Roger said.  “I was there.  What you were talking about.  The man who looked like he’d been barbequed.  And the cat.”

“The cat?” the boy said.  “What cat?”

“I was taking care of this girl’s cat.  He was like a human.  I know that sounds crazy.  He understood what I was saying.  We had this whole system–” He stopped.  “Anyway, I was there.  I watched all that stuff go down.”

“Maybe you should go tell her that,” he said, standing.  He stepped up to Roger’s table and spoke in a lower voice.  “I’m going to go find that man and kill him.  I think he’s looking for her.”

Roger leaned forward.  “Do you think you can take him on?  He’s more than human, you know.  If you really saw what he can do.  How about you just come with us?”

“I don’t have time,” he said.

A spoon lifted from the table and melted in front of Roger’s face.  Then the cold yet molten material, drifting like water in zero gravity, collapsed on itself to form a perfectly round ball no wider than a quarter.  It solidified, generating a rough surface with edges and depressions.  A model of the object or the Earth, something for debate.

The boy plucked the little memento out of the air.  Then he handed it to Roger.  “Give her that.”

Roger took the thing and studied it.  “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” the boy said.  “But if she hates me, she’ll toss it, and if she doesn’t hate me, she’ll keep it.  We have a room at the hotel down the street.  Bring her back if you can.”

“We’re staying there too,” Roger said, but the boy turned and headed out of the restaurant.

Trey passed by him and returned to the table.

“Jukebox is broke.”

~ ~ ~ ~

Barry pulled the metal door open and stepped out onto the roof of the National City Tower, the second tallest building in the city.  Derek waited for him at the north ledge, suit jacket and tie flapping behind him in the wind.  From up here, the belly of the object looked significantly closer, more discernable.  It looked to have metallic caves and mountains, perhaps entry points and navigation systems.  A marvel to look upon.  One might be capable of exploring its terrain, if properly equipped.

Derek looked back and saw him coming.  He was leaning on the ledge but now he stood straight, hands in his pockets.

“Did you hear about the news chopper going down?” he shouted as Barry approached.

Barry waited until he was close to answer.  “No,” he said.

“The marines did it.  After they shot out that overpass.  Something happened, Barry.  Orders were changed.  I’ve had surveillance units on these rooftops since yesterday morning.  They’ve got demolition crews rigging up the bridges, Spaghetti Junction, and I bet they’re gonna blast craters in the roads, too.  They’re sealing us off, man.  I wanted you to come up here and watch.  My boys think it’s happening soon.  Like within the next few minutes.”

“How the hell would they know that?”

“Sound amplifiers.”  Derek turned to face the Ohio River.  “Just watch and see.  I bet we get nuked by the end of the day.  I’m getting out of here.”

“You’ve got to be crazy to want to leave this.”

“Leave what?”

Barry raised his arms out.  “All of it.  Everything.  I feel something, Derek.  An energy in the air.  It’s coming from that.  Don’t you feel it?”

“No,” Derek said.  “You’re crazy.  You’ve got to be crazy to want to stay here.”

Barry felt his cell phone vibrating and pulled it out of his pocket.

“Hello?”

“Yo, one of my boys found your girl.  She’s at the library.”

“University?”

“Nah, Fourth Street.  Public library.”

Ray hung up, and Barry smiled as he returned the phone to his pocket.

The explosions rocked the building and sent such tremendous thunder across the city that many probably thought this their final moment.  The skyline lit up with fire and debris and the two visible bridges collapsed in sections into the river, the water surface treacherous with choppy waves and debris.

On land, the interweaving highways and entrance ramps known as Spaghetti Junction went up in one simultaneous explosion, generating a dark gray cloud of dust and smoke that grew so rapidly it might well reach the object.

“You believe me now?” Derek shouted into the wind and lingering thunder.  He was terrified.  Pitiful.  He’d always been such a baby.

“I had sex with your wife,” Barry said.  He laughed.  “Five times.”

“What?”  Derek took a step forward.

“She’s got that little four-leaf clover tattoo on her inner thigh, you know what I’m talking about?  She showed it to me at your birthday party, after you’d passed out in a lawn chair.  Said she was hoping to get lucky.  We did it on your bed.  Then four more times before I got bored with her.”

Derek reached for his gun but Barry fell upon him, yanking his wrist with a twisting motion and easily taking the gun from his limp fingers.  He pushed Derek to the ground and heaved the gun over the side of the building.

“People who fear for their lives on a daily basis are the ones who have no life worth preserving.  They mask that truth with their fear.  You’re pathetic.  You think you’re going to escape this city?  No, that would be a bold move, something you’re not capable of.  The only way you’d leave this city is if I led you by the hand.  But I’m not going to, Derek.  In fact, I’d kill you right now if I had time.  As it happens, I have to be somewhere more important right now.  So you just carry on.”

Barry turned toward the door to the stairwell.

Derek shouted, “How can you talk to me this way?  As much as I’ve done for you?  As much money as I helped you steal?  I’m your brother, damn you.”

“You’re not even my sister,” Barry said, laughing hysterically as he left Derek calling out to him on the roof.

When he stepped out the lobby doors to the street, he stopped to inspect Derek’s splattered body on the sidewalk, only to confirm the body’s identity, before jogging to his car.

~ ~ ~ ~

The only way Hayden could think to start was just driving around the major roads all throughout the city, hoping he would sense Ted the way he sensed Lillia, her signal growing fainter as she ran farther away.

He got a whiff of a feeling coming up Fourth Street, lost it, then picked it up again as he drew closer to the downtown area.

At Broadway he took a left and then an immediate right onto Fifth Street, continuing north.  He knew it ended at West Main Street.

He felt a left turn coming.  Then Ted would be close.

~ ~ ~ ~

Sherman awoke on the bench where he’d sat drinking and talking to himself half the night, then finally passing out with an empty bottle in his hand.  He was close to the road, his back to the iron fence in front of the Louisville Slugger Museum.

It was morning.  He peered behind him in both directions, instinctively looking for cops.  He didn’t see a soul.

Except for one.  Sherman caught him out of the corner of his eye.  Down the street stood a four-story building with gothic arches in its windows and features of a castle, including in the right corner a cone-roofed bell tower.  On the tip of the roof was perched a dark figure, a silhouette barely visible against the brownish backdrop of the object.

It was watching him.

When he tried to stand, it came bounding through the air like a hawk and landed right in front of him.  It was Ted.  His skin charred and hanging off, part of his jawbone exposed, several ribs showing where a section of his side had burned off completely.  His clothes were mere rags still clinging to their stitching.  He had no lips or eyelids.

Sherman tried to back away and fell onto the bench.  The smell of Ted brought him close to vomiting.  Then he did.

“Where is she?” Ted hissed.

Sherman shook his head, spitting bile onto the sidewalk.

“Tell me,” Ted said.

“I don’t know where she’s at, man.  Ain’t nothin’ I can do for you.”

Ted grabbed him by the shirt and leaned into him, pressing him into the bench and sending an agony through his body that made him believe he was burning alive.  Ted screamed into his face and the spray of saliva from his mouth felt like steam from boiling water.  “Where is she?”

Sherman couldn’t speak until Ted let go of him.  Then he shouted, “The library!  That’s the last I saw her!  The library!”

He fell over on his side, crying and cringing with pain.  He’d betrayed her once again, and now he could feel the heat of Ted leaning closer and closer.  This was the end, and it was one he deserved.  He should have killed Ted when he had the chance.  None of this would have happened.  Lillia and the children would still have a home, and they wouldn’t have left to be separated from each other, the children killed, and for all he knew, Lillia killed, too.

A squealing noise suddenly rose directly behind him to near deafening volume.  He felt Ted back away and turned just in time to see the driver’s side door of a red sports car fly off its hinges and go bouncing down the street like a flat rock across the river’s surface.

Out of the car stepped Hayden, the boy from the library.

Immediately, he and Ted collided in midair, their feet just above Sherman’s head.  He dove out of the way as they came down, then scrambled to his feet and took off down the street.  Half a block away, he stopped and turned around to see Hayden being slung into the side of the museum.  Ted charged him but Hayden jumped high in the air and landed halfway up the big steel bat structure that lay against the side of the building.

In two more leaps Hayden was on top of the building.  Ted jumped up onto the bottom and thickest part of the bat.

Sherman hid in an alley when he saw what was happening next.

Hayden got up under the handle of the bat and tore it from its bolts in the ground.  He raised the bat up, something that had to weigh several thousand pounds, Ted astride it as if riding some strange sports-oriented theme park attraction.

Then Hayden flicked the bat upward, shooting Ted into the air.  Hayden reared the bat back, both arms wrapped around it as far as they would go, and swung, connecting with Ted as he freefell and sending his body in an arch at least five blocks away.

He dropped the bat.  It hit the roof ledge, tearing out a chunk of bricks, and crashed down on the street, splintering in several places and partially collapsing, pieces of the building raining down after it.

Sherman saw Hayden standing there at the broken section of the roof, looking off to the east, where Ted had crash landed.

“Hey!” he called up to the roof.  “The library!”

“What?” Hayden called down, his voice faint.

Sherman cupped his hands around his mouth.  “If he ain’t dead, he’s going to the library!  Where’s Lillia?”

But Hayden was already gone, leaping rooftops like a frog on lily pads, leaving his car idling in the street with no driver’s side door.

~ ~ ~ ~

Lillia searched the reception area and the office where they’d found the baby.  She checked the tables with computers, the downstairs lounge area.  Nothing.  Then she climbed the steps and went to the couch where Kate and Drake had been sitting when she’d left.  She saw the blood and collapsed on the floor sobbing.

She didn’t understand.  The thing on her head, it made her feel smarter and faster.  Better.  Happier.  Those big monsters swimming in the sky had to be the parents of the little ones.  But it wasn’t feeding off of her.  If anything, she was feeding off of it.  It was like a battery, pumping energy into her body and making her more capable.

Why would its mother eat her brother and sister?

Lillia crawled over to the couch and lay curled up on it, crying until her body ached.  She didn’t know what to do.  She had no one.  Sooner or later she would be up next to die.

Downstairs, the door handle clicked and the door squealed open.  Lillia climbed to her feet and slowly approached the rail.  A dark figure stepped into the doorway.

“Hello, Lillia.”

Lillia studied the figure closely.  It wasn’t Ted.  Ted was short.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I’m Barry,” the voice said.  “I’m Hayden’s father.  I’d like to talk to you for just a moment.  Can you come down?”

“What do you want?”

“Just a conversation,” Barry said.  “I can help you.  But I need you to help me find my son.  He’s gone crazy.  He’s been going around saying terrible things about his mother.  She’s worried sick about him.  Can you help me?”

“Sure,” Lillia said.

She walked the rail until she came to the staircase.  She descended slowly, keeping her eye on him.  He was far enough inside now that his face caught the lamplight.  He was big, meaty, and he looked mean.  Just as Hayden had described him.

She stopped at the landing halfway down and thought about Hayden, what he’d said right before she left.  She’d thought him so cold for describing the kids’ deaths so bluntly, but she’d forgotten he’d just witnessed the death of his own mother, without time to deal with his own loss, much less hers.  He was only trying to communicate to her what she refused to believe.

“Come on down,” Barry said.  “That’s it.  Good girl.”

Her shoes clopped on the marble steps, one after the other.

“Did you kill Hayden’s mom?” she asked.

Barry tilted his head and grinned, feigning confusion.  “His mother is fine.  I can get her on the phone right now.”

“No you can’t,” Lillia said.  “You’re lying.  You killed her.”

Barry began to walk quickly towards her, saying, “And you’re next, you little bitch.”

Lillia ripped the marble knob off one of the newel posts at the bottom of the staircase and threw it at Barry, striking him in the chest and setting him flat on his back.

She stepped down off the last step and stood over him.  He clutched his chest, wheezing and coughing, gasping for air.

“Why did you kill her?  What did she do to you?”

He couldn’t speak.

“Why does everyone have to be so mean?”  She reached down, grabbed his lapels, and pulled him to his feet effortlessly.  She stared into his black pupils, at his big toothy grin.  “It’s not necessary, you know,” she said.  “You can be nice sometimes.”

Barry tried to grab her, but she made a choking gesture with her hand and he froze in place, wrapping his hands around his neck, mouth open, tongue sticking out.

Lillia walked towards the door, pushing Barry backwards though she stood six feet removed from him.  His shoes scraped the floor when he wasn’t kicking outward.

When his back hit the door, she used his body to push it open, forcing him outside.  She followed him quickly into the morning breeze, where she dangled him over the staircase, kicking his feet, choking.

“You choked your wife, didn’t you?”  She looked across the street at the statue of a man seated.  “I don’t even know how I know that.”

Then she dropped him.  Coming upon her fast was the most frightening thing she’d ever seen.  A ghoulish man with blackened skin and bones showing all over his body, running full speed in her direction, his eyes squinted with determination.  It was Ted.  He shouldn’t be alive.  No one could burn like that and still be breathing, much less sprinting for her.

He must have one on his head, too.

Suddenly Ted was tumbling across the sidewalk fighting with someone.  It wasn’t until they stopped rolling that she could make out her attacker’s subjugator as Hayden.  He’d wound up on top, pounding Ted’s head so hard with his fist the impact made popping sounds.

Ted reached up and grabbed Hayden’s arm, and suddenly Hayden screamed in pain.  Ted jumped to his feet and flung Hayden through the stone wall of the library.  Then he plowed through the door, shattering what remained of the glass and cutting himself open in several places.  He leapt great distances, great heights.

Lillia watched as chunks of the walls and roof blew out, as the entire structure eventually shifted, then as Hayden and Ted came bursting out of the roof and into the sky, leaving the library toppling over and disintegrating.

Hayden and Ted flew so high in the air, Lillia lost sight of them.  They might well have disappeared into the dark bowels of the object.  She suddenly recalled how she’d always felt a twinge of fear and panic when letting go of a balloon, watching it rise higher and higher into the sky, becoming a pinpoint, then nothing.

She thought about everyone at school.  Chase Kolton, the boy she’d been infatuated with since freshman year.  Was he still in the city?  Probably not.  From what she understood, his family had a cabin on a lake somewhere.  They most likely skipped town.  As did Sophie and Autumn Payton, most likely.  Their parents had a lot of money.

For the first time ever, Lillia was glad she didn’t have any friends.  The only person she had left to fear losing was Hayden, and he was falling out of the sky, grappling an undead monster.

When they were level with the tree tops, Lillia reached out for Ted, gripped her hand into a fist, and swung it down towards the ground.  Ted’s body changed course in a violent jerk and slammed like a rock onto the head of the steps, right at Lillia’s feet.

She took several steps back and used both hands to wring his neck.  She could feel his telekinetic defenses trying to pry at her phantom fingertips.  She squeezed as tight as she could, gritting her teeth, her shoulders raised to the sides of her head.

Hayden appeared beside her, his shirt ripped down the front and spattered with blood.  “Hold him,” he said.  Then Ted began to drift out over the road.

“What are you doing?” Lillia asked.

“Just trust me.”

Lillia walked forward with Hayden, holding her grip around Ted’s neck as Hayden positioned Ted just over the yellow line.

A car came sliding around the corner, squealing tires and accelerating fast.  It was Hayden’s car, and whoever was driving was in quite a hurry.

She looked over at Hayden and realized the extent of his plan.  He must have heard the car coming and thought that enough momentum, with the right timing . . .

When the car’s brakes began to squeal, Hayden made a flipping motion with his hands, spinning Ted’s body like a Roulette wheel.  His head connected perfectly with the grill of the car and popped off his neck like a tee ball.  The head spun in the air for a moment and then bounced into the grass across the street.

The driver fought to keep the car straight as he came to a screeching halt but wound up sideways with one tire up on the sidewalk.

“Who is that?” Lillia asked, but before Hayden could answer, Sherman jumped out of the doorless driver’s side.

“Sherman!”

Lillia ran to him and threw her arms around his waist.  She smelled the alcohol on him and began to cry.  Sherman was already crying and mumbling apologies, his body stiff and trembling.

“It’s my fault,” he said.

Hayden appeared next to them.  “Where’s the head?” he asked.

Lillia pulled away from Sherman and pointed at the patch of grass where the head had landed.

It wasn’t there.

“Roger!” Hayden called.

Lillia turned to see a group of people coming up the street: a man carrying several guns, the cop Meredith, and two young boys.

“Everybody okay?” Roger asked, looking at her.

“I think so,” Lillia said, making eye contact with Hayden.  She sniffled, tried to smile.  Hayden stood at a distance.  He returned the smile but stayed his position.

That was when all the city’s tornado sirens went off at once, and everyone’s eyes were drawn up to the sparkle of lights in the sky.

~ ~ ~ ~

The little creature began to glow, dimly at first but brightening fast.  Ted’s brain activity was diminishing, and the alien’s tentacles began to loosen around his head, rippling.

The thing’s head felt like a small water balloon in his hand.  He pulled on it, but the tentacles clung to Ted’s hair like two root systems grown together.  He waited a moment, tried again using all the force he could muster.  The tips of the creature’s tentacles clung to Ted’s skull as if magnetized.

When the sirens went off, he finished yanking the tiny squid thing from the severed and bashed head, then quickly fitted it to his own head like a toboggan.

It took hold of him instantly and he trembled as a surge of electricity, adrenaline . . . something raced through him, like a warm jolt of lightning, refreshing, revitalizing.  He felt immortal.

Barry jumped to his feet and bounced off the ground as though it were a trampoline.  He flew up into the air, arced, and landed on the roof of a building.

In the sky above him, creatures and blobs of light varying in color and size began to pour out of the object’s deep black caverns, scattering into the morning sky, abandoning ship.

The tornado sirens blared all across the city.  As Barry surveyed the cityscape, he began to laugh maniacally at the western horizon.

“Looks like you were right Derek!” he screamed.  “Here comes annihilation!”

He reeled with excitement at the eyesight this thing had given him.  Indeed, when he looked off to the west, where the sky was still dark and the Ohio River poured across the landscape like black ink, he could see the distant sparkle of a nuclear missile’s rocket boosters.

It was headed straight for Louisville.

TO BE CONTINUED

(end of Book One)

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Episode Twelve, The Object: Book One

Episode Twelve


The Object: a free serial novel

Episode Twelve: “Cockroaches”

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Cockroaches

 

Danny crouched by the wall on the Exit 125 overpass of I-65, just south of Gene Snyder Freeway.  In the orange sunlight, he smoked a cigarette and watched the object, a thing so large and heavy that if it were to fall it might open a fissure in the ground deep enough to vomit up lava.

From here the view was breathtaking.  Danny was far enough away as to not be directly under the thing and could see its upper hemisphere.  The ring encircling the object was completely detached and turning slowly, like the hour hand of a clock, casting so dark a shadow diagonally along the middle of the object that it gave the illusion of a deep, metallic cavern where flying creatures beyond fathom slept hanging from the walls.  As a backdrop to the view, a canopy of deep red and purple clouds streaked across the horizon.

Danny only noticed the ring’s movement because he’d been sitting here so long.  Getting to this overpass unseen had proved quite a task, hiking up Exit 125’s long ramp the least of his journey, and for an hour he lay on his back in the gravelly emergency lane, smoking and decided how best to proceed.

But the time for rest was over.  As soon as he finished his last cigarette, he was going to break through the barricade and get the hell away from that thing in the sky before some hatch opened up at the bottom and shot down a laser to vaporize the city.  Danny at the right distance to hear the faraway screams and know, for a moment, what colossal agony raced towards him.

A quarter mile to the south, soldiers stood guard in a line that stretched from emergency lane to emergency lane across the interstate, all of them posted behind a thick run of tangled razor wire.  Parked at random behind the men were two tanks, one for northbound, one for southbound, and enough military jeeps, hummers, and trucks to host a parade.

Danny peaked up over the concrete wall, scanned the row of soldiers, and dropped.  He guessed thirty and maybe twenty more mingling in the back.

A few more, for certain, in the tanks.

He was ready.  He rose slowly, snuck his rifle onto the ledge.  Through the scope he studied the soldiers’ faces.  Despite their stiff, unflinching posture, the men were talking to each other.  Some of them were laughing.

Kill a few to rile them up.  Kill a few more and force them to use heavy artillery.  Run back to the Exit 10 overpass.  Climb the embankment.  Get into the woods.  Any soldiers posted there would have headed down to the interstate to see the action.  Slip right past.

Danny pulled the trigger and a soldier’s face exploded.

He watched the body drop, relished the stunned expressions on his comrades’ faces.

Then he was being shot at, first by M-16 rifle fire, then by M-60s, what sounded like dozens of them.  He could feel the bullets eating away at the other side of the wall as the machine guns ate up bandoliers.

He began to laugh.  It had only taken one shot.  Behind the thunder of gunfire, he could hear the whine of the tank’s cannon turning.

~ ~ ~ ~

Roger sprinted across the street, figuring with the noise no one would hear him, and his chances of being seen increased the longer he stayed out in the open.  When he dove around the corner of the house, he was sure the gunfire would turn on him.

But it didn’t.

He scrambled to his feet and crab-walked to the corner, where he peeked out at the firing squad.  Several of them had stopped shooting, but the youngest of them still grinned and fired away, as if today were Christmas and they’d just turned on the most anticipated video game of the year.

Roger knew the feeling, but this was nothing like a first-person shooter.  No surround sound system in the world could duplicate the real sound of gunshots, the thud of them, the terror that sound evoked right out of the air.

He took aim on the kid farthest from him and fired.  Blood burst from the kid’s neck and he collapsed into the kid next to him, who had stopped shooting moments before.

Roger shot that one in the head and he fell on top the other.

He took out two more before the rest noticed and started looking his way.  He darted down the side of the house and around back.

The kids were shooting at the house now.  Roger peeked around the back corner, up the alley between the two houses.  He could see two of the remaining five kids from here, and their attention was focused on the corner he’d just fled.

He jumped across the opening and ran around the left side of the adjacent house, up to the corner.  He had a good angle on them here.  He could see their backs.

This time he didn’t pause.  Three fell almost instantly and the street fell silent.  He missed the fourth, a short kid with bushy hair.  The kid spotted him and fired a shot that splintered the trim next to Roger’s face.  He felt the bullet graze the sleeve on his left shoulder, a few inches from tearing his throat open, like he’d done to that first kid.  Then to two more.

Another shot rang out, thudding into the wall around the corner.  About five seconds later, another.

Roger readied himself to pop around the corner right after the kid’s next shot, but right before it came he felt something hard press into his lower spine.

When the shot came, his body stiffened so tight it sent pain all through him.  It took him a moment to realize he hadn’t been shot, that the kid out on the street was still plugging the house with rounds.

“Hey yo man, drop the gun.”

A young voice, right behind him, sniffling.

Roger dropped his gun.  “Wait.  Kid.  Let me turn around.”

He tried but the kid started screaming to his friend.  “Trey I got him, come here!  Don’t move, man!  Come on, Trey!”

Trey came running wide open around the corner, gun out, and passed them.  He skidded to a stop and came back, pointing his gun at Roger’s face.  His eyes looked like they’d been plucked out of a wild creature and inserted into his sockets.  Bloodshot and yellow.  He looked fifteen years old otherwise.

“Wait,” Roger said, followed by nothing.

Trey stood there a moment, then shrugged and looked around the area.  “Well?  What’re we waitin’ for?”  He nodded and began to shuffle his feet.  “Oh yeah, that’s right, to die.”

The last thing Roger saw before he closed his eyes was Trey raising his left hand palm up to balance his grip.

Then came a deafening blast and he felt his body sling into the side of the house and collapse loose and numb to the ground.

The first thing to return to him was his vision.  He lay with his face in the thin dead grass, staring straight ahead at a spot of bare dirt.

As he reached out for what lay there, the sound of Trey and the other kid crying on the ground nearby began to grow in his ears like a distant siren drawing closer.

He picked up the bullet and got to his knees, studying it closely and running his hand up and down his body, searching for blood.  In front of him, Trey writhed about on the ground, his gun several feet from him.

Roger crawled to the gun, picked it up, and pointed it at Trey’s head.

Another loud blast knocked him off his knees.  When he gathered himself, he looked for its source and saw Sprinkles next to the tree, staggering on wobbly legs.

“There you are,” he said in a long breath.  He climbed to his feet tucking Trey’s gun into his back pocket.  He found his own gun in the grass and returned it to its holster, then picked up the other kid’s gun, the one that had been digging into his back, and stowed it in a front pocket.

He remembered the bullet between his thumb and index finger.  In perfect condition.  It hadn’t impacted something at any real velocity.  The only explanation was that Sprinkles had knocked it right out of the air, and if Sprinkles had been but a fraction of a second late, Roger would have hit the ground with his skull cored.

Roger approached Sprinkles, the boys still curled up in the grass, crying, but Sprinkles hobbled away quick enough that Roger had to chase him out onto the street and over to the intersection, where the squad car looked like it had been hollowed out by metal-eating termites.  As he approached the car, he could hear the female cop sobbing.  He came around the trunk, carefully, in case she decided to shoot.

Peeking over the car, he noticed the woman’s gun on the ground.  The other cop was dead or unconscious, and blood still seeped out into the rough grain of the pavement in a four foot radius around him.

“Ma’am,” he said.

The woman screamed and cowered against the car.

“It’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you,” he said.  “I got all–most of them.  Is backup coming?”

She shook her head timidly.

“Can you radio for them?  I shot a lot of people.  Some could still be alive.  Two of them definitely are.  They’re over there.”  He pointed.

The woman wasn’t listening.  Roger stepped around the dead cop and knelt in front of her.  This was the first time he got a close look at her face.  She couldn’t be any older than twenty-five, probably younger.  Frail, shaking like a poodle.

“Hey, you need to radio to dispatch, okay?  You need to call this in.”

“No,” she mumbled.

Roger nodded, unsure what to do.  He reached out slowly to take the radio mike from her shoulder.  Just when he unhooked it from the strap, she lunged forward and hugged him, crying, “I don’t want to be a cop.  I can’t take it.”

“Okay,” Roger said, letting his arm settle over her back, then putting his other arm around her.  “It’s okay.  You don’t have to be a cop.”

The girl buried her face in his neck and wept.  He pressed the button on the radio mike, paused, let go.  A woman’s voice came through, crackly and distant and unclear.  He turned the knob until it clicked, then returned the mike to her shoulder.

When he finally got her to stand up, he ushered her around the front end of the squad car to avoid another breakdown at the sight of her dead partner.  Along the way he picked up her gun and returned it to its holster on her belt.

Behind him Sprinkles meowed.  He turned to find the cat lying on the pavement, struggling to keep his head up.

“What’s the matter with you?” Roger asked.

A weak hiss.

“Do you want me to carry you?”

Meow.

Roger thought a moment.  “Are we doing the one meow, two meows thing again?”

Meow.

The girl was staring at him now, her face a mess of confusion and fear.  He opened his mouth to say something but stumbled for words.  How would he explain Sprinkles?  Should he bother?

He picked up Sprinkles, held him against his chest, and came back to the driver’s side of the mangled squad car, where the woman stood hugging herself and staring at her feet.

When he saw the boys coming, he reached for one of the guns stuffed into his pants.  Sprinkles made a breathy attempt at a hiss.  Roger paused, and when he saw the kids’ faces, both soaked in tears and snot, he let go of the grip.

The boys stopped six feet shy of Roger and the woman and stood there, arms dangling by their sides, staring Roger directly in the eyes, as if waiting for permission to speak.

“What do you want?” Roger said.

Trey spoke first.  “I’m sorry.  Ray said we had to.  You gotta do what Ray says.  We didn’t shoot nobody.  We just shot the car, both of us.  I promise.  I’m sorry.”

“You tried to shoot me, remember?”

“But you was shootin’ at us,” Trey said.  “I had to by then.  For real, man.  I’m sorry.  We didn’t mean it.”

Roger turned to the smaller boy, the one who had put the gun to his back.  “What about you?”

The smaller boy couldn’t break from his sobbing to speak.  From the look of him, he seemed certain he was about to die.

“Pete don’t talk much,” Trey said, any hint of crying gone from his voice.

“Look,” Roger said.  “I’m not sure what you want, but I’m not gonna report you.  Just get out of here.  And stop shooting at people.”

“We don’t want to go back,” Trey said.  “We want to go with you.”

~ ~ ~ ~

Barry led Sheila around the side of the building and out across the yard.  The sun had set minutes before and darkness enveloped the golf course.  Sheila wore nothing but a matching bra and panties.  He’d had no trouble talking her and Hailey into stripping, stopping them before they got completely naked.  No reason to rush things.  He could charm cobras if he wished.

Derek and Hailey chatted away on the balcony, almost shouting at one another, Derek bragging about cases he’d recently put down.  It wouldn’t be long before he showed her his gun.  What a loser.

Barry and Sheila stumbled out to the seventh green, closest to the building.  Sheila tripped on the thick grass of the fringe and fell next to the cup, laughing and wincing.  She’d scraped her forearm and both knees, now streaked with green stains.

Barry laughed at her.  Hair tousled, underwear hiked up on her butt cheek.  He kept walking until he reached the center of the green and stood there drinking from a bourbon glass that was two-thirds full with no ice.

Sheila peeked inside the cup and pulled out a golf ball.  She turned over and lay flat on her back with her knees pulled up and swaying from side to side.  Barry turned and watched her try to balance the golf ball on the tip of her nose.  It rolled down her forehead and bounced across the green and into the cup.  Sheila shrieked with excitement.

“You’re lucky,” Barry said, looking over her pale flesh in the haze of strange darkness.  “It feeds into the environment, you know.”

“Huh?”

“Luck,” Barry said.  “Positive energy.”

In the distance, Hailey was laughing and repeatedly saying, “No way.”

Barry looked up at the jagged underbelly of the object.  He raised his glass.  “If you’re going to do something, do it already.”

Sheila giggled and whispered, “That’s what she said.”

Barry turned and found her stretching and yawning.  A challenge, naked and writhing in the grass?

He knelt before her, put a hand on her knee, and then fell backwards as a gunshot rang out in the night, followed by hooping and howling from the balcony.

Derek had shown her his gun.  And now she was shooting at them.

Sheila sat up, wide-eyed.  Another shot rang out and a tuft of grass exploded ten feet away.

“Oh my God,” Sheila said.

Barry pulled his gun out from its ankle holster.

“It’s your friend,” he said.  “She can’t hit anything.  Here.”

He put the gun in Sheila’s hand.

“No way,” Sheila said, trying to give it back.

Barry pushed her hand away.  “Go ahead.  The safety’s off.  Just aim and pull the trigger.”

“What if I kill someone?”

“You can’t hit anything either,” he said.

Another shot, and Sheila’s shoulders tensed.  She raised the gun, pointed it at the building, and fired.  A window exploded.  She and Hailey took turns firing until they’d emptied their clips, Barry and Derek laughing and shouting threats at one another.  Sheila’s final shot sent the sliding glass door behind Derek and Hailey splashing down like a waterfall.  In the silence to follow, Hailey cursed and cried out.  She’d cut her foot on the glass.

“I didn’t get her, did I?” Sheila asked.

Barry pushed her down on the grass, saying nothing.

~ ~ ~ ~

Hayden rented a room at a weekly rate hotel down in Okolona.  After breaking into a department store and quickly filling two shopping bags with clothes, then driving around to find the only restaurant still open, a Chinese place on Preston Highway, the sun had set, ushering in an unusual dark.  The sign on the hotel flickered on the face of the building, drawing his attention to its OPEN sign and to Lillia, droopy-eyed and slumped in her seat.  She needed to rest.

According to the clerk who spoke with a mouthful of potato chips from the vending machine, he only had one room available, a double bed.  The parking lot was nearly empty, but Hayden didn’t argue.  The clerk had probably seen him pulling in and made an educated guess as to what rate he’d be willing to pay, based upon how expensive his car looked.  Lillia would want her own bed anyway, right?

The clerk was a large man with a full beard.  He spoke lazily, as if he’d just woken from a nap.  Hayden paid him for the room and sighed as the clerk recited a long spiel about the room’s amenities and the conditions under which Hayden could lose his security deposit of fifty bucks.

“I’ve stayed here before,” Hayden said when the clerk paused to stuff another handful of chips into his mouth.

The clerk nodded slowly, pushing the keycard and rental agreement across the counter, leaving greasy fingerprints on both.

When he stepped out of the office, he noticed Lillia had fallen asleep in the car.  He got in quietly and pulled around the building, parking near the staircase closest to their room on the second floor.

“Hey, we’re here.”

Lillia made a whimpering sound, sat up, and rubbed her eyes.  “What is this place?”

“A hotel,” he said.  “I don’t know how crumby it is.”

“As long as it has a shower,” Lillia said, her voice trailing off as she climbed out of the car.

He led her upstairs and opened the door for her, then said, “Be right back.  I’m gonna bring up the clothes.”

Lillia nodded, yawning and stretching.

He closed the door behind him and checked to make sure it had locked.  Then he stood guard for a moment, studying the area.  He could see people loitering in the shadows of the L-shaped building’s walkways, tips of cigarettes dancing, the murmur of drunken conversation.  He made quick work of retrieving the bags.  At the car, he noticed a uniformed security guard walking along with a clipboard and a set of master keycards.  He wasn’t armed.  Across the parking lot, two girls were climbing the ditch that separated this property from the convenience store next door, each of them carrying a grocery bag, both laughing and shrieking and gossiping about some boy.  Someone on the second floor called down to the security guard, “You keepin’ ’em in line tonight, Joey?”

“You know it,” Joey said.

“What was that explosion a little while ago?”

“I didn’t hear it.  Where’d it come from?”

“I don’t know,” the voice said.  Hayden couldn’t find its source.  “Sounded like it come from Outer Loop.  Fairdale maybe.  That direction, at least.  It was big, whatever it was.”

The conversation continued as Hayden returned to the room, walking a little slower than before.  No one else around here seemed anxious or afraid, which told him nothing terrible had happened here so far.  The two girls crossing the parking lot couldn’t be any older than twelve, though they were dressed like they were heading to a club.  He wondered what kind of parents would let their pre-teen daughters roam the streets at night, but if kidnappers lurked around every corner, he never would have seen them in the first place.

Still, he felt better back in the room with the door locked and latched.  Lillia was in the shower, her clothes bundled up outside the bathroom door.

Hayden dumped the bag of girl’s clothes on one of the beds.  Then he turned on the television and flipped through the channels until he came to a news station reporting an incident at the military barricade on I-65, south of the city.  They had a helicopter on the scene, showing an overhead view of the rubble that yesterday had been an overpass.  The reporter speculated that the military had possibly fired upon an alien.

As Hayden watched the story, he realized this hotel was less than two miles from the scene.  He crawled across the bed against the wall and looked out the window.  Sure enough, he could see the spotlight from the news helicopter to the southwest.  Down in the parking lot, he noticed two men arguing, one of them, the security guard, standing still while the other circled him.  Hopefully those girls had gone back to their room.

Hayden checked the locks on the door and windows.  He grabbed a chair from the tiny kitchen table and wedged it under the door knob.  The weather strip had rotted away, letting light, insects, and cool air creep in through the crack under the door.

As he inspected the room for dirtiness and cockroaches, he eventually came to the bathroom door.  He thought he heard Lillia crying but with the splatter of the showerhead and the high-pitched whining sound of pressurized air in the faucet, he couldn’t tell for sure.

The news coverage changed from the explosion on the interstate to a series of police slayings all across the city.  Hayden turned up the volume to learn that at least half of the LMPD’s forces were dead or in critical condition.

The shower turned off and Hayden muted the television.  He sorted through his bag of clothes and put together an outfit for when he got out of the shower.  He’d stolen some basketball shorts to sleep in, but he wanted to be ready for anything, so he decided to sleep fully dressed.

Lillia came out of the bathroom wrapped in a thin hotel towel so small that it barely covered her and she had to hold it in place at the top and bottom.  She stood there looking nervous and cold, hair soaking wet, beads of water dripping down her bare arms and legs.  This was the first time he’d seen her without those red and white dreadlocks tied into her hair.  Without them she looked even younger.

Hayden realized he was staring at her.  He grabbed his clothes and went past her to the bathroom door, saying, “Clothes are on the bed.  I hope they fit.  I’ve never shopped for a girl before.”

“Thanks,” Lillia said.  “Which bed do you want?”

He stopped.  “Um, how about I take the one closest to the door?”

She nodded.

Hayden showered quickly with the door open.  If something happened, he wanted to be able to hear.  For several minutes, he lost himself in thought as anxiety washed over him along with the erratic jets of hot water from the showerhead.  He began to imagine coming out of the bathroom this time to find Lillia with her neck broken.  Barry standing over her.

The water went cold, disrupting the scenario playing out in his mind.  He cranked the squeaky knobs and jumped out and dried himself the best he could with the tiny towel.  He dressed quickly.

Lillia was sitting on her bed with the towel wrapped around her head.  She was wearing one of the t-shirts he’d stolen for himself.  No pants or skirt.  The shirt was big enough on her to serve as a dress, but the sight of her still surprised him.  He’d grabbed five or six pairs of jeans at the department store, even choosing several different sizes to increase the odds of picking something she could wear.  He must have botched that job completely, but why wouldn’t she at least put her skirt back on?  Did she trust him this much already?

Considering the gravity-defying roundhouse kick to that doctor’s head, maybe she didn’t need to trust him.  Hayden wasn’t even sure he could stand up against her in a fight.  Who knew what she was capable of?

To look at her, she wasn’t capable of anything.  Like a puppy being berated.  Frail enough that one too many harsh words could crush her like a giant boot.

“Couldn’t find anything that fit?” he asked.

Almost startled, Lillia turned and put her hand on the pile of clothes behind her.  “No, they’re great,” she said.  “All the shirts fit and two pairs of the pants.”

“Oh good,” he said, stepping past her to his bed.  He lay back against the pillow on the side next to the door.  Here he could feel a cold draft.

They watched the news for a little while with the lights off, Lillia bathed in the glow of the screen.  He stared at her, trying to think of something to say, and as if she sensed him watching her she began to tug at the hem of the t-shirt, straightening it over her pale hips.

“Is it okay if I turn this off?” she asked on a commercial break.

“Yeah, go ahead.  They’re just saying the same things over and over anyway.”

The television cut off, and with the curtains closed the room went pitch black.

Hayden heard the creak of the other bed as Lillia stood, and then he felt the depression of the mattress as she climbed into bed with him.

Silence ensued.  He lay in the dark too nervous to even look her way.  Eventually he assumed she’d fallen asleep, until finally she said, “Are we going to look for Drake and Kate tomorrow?”

“Sure,” he said.

She nodded and her forehead brushed against his shoulder.  He hadn’t realized how close to him she was, or that she was facing him.

“I think we should go back to the library.”

He felt a twinge of panic.  The blood.  She’d see it and know he lied to her.

“I looked all through the place,” he said.  “Didn’t find anything.”

“They could have left a note.  Drake used to write me notes all the time.”  She made a sound that might have been a diffident laugh.  “One time we were playing in my room and I went downstairs to make us a snack.  When I came back, there was a note on the door that said, ‘We are hiding under the bed.’  So I got down on my knees to check, and they came jumping out of the closet and scared me to death.”  She paused.  “I bet he left one.”

“I didn’t see any.”

She nodded again but didn’t speak.

Hayden was so nervous he began to sweat.  He sat up.  “Are you hot?”

“I’m fine,” she said.  “You can change the thermostat if you want.”

“I think I might.”

He got out of bed and walked around to the air unit in the window between the two beds.  As he fiddled with the settings in the dark, he said, “Let’s find some breakfast in the morning.  Then we’ll go to the library.”

“Okay,” Lillia said.  “I just want to check.  Thanks.”

When he returned to bed, she slid her arm over his chest.  He lay flat on his back for nearly an hour, feeling her moving fingers, an invitation for him to put his arm around her, he surmised, but he couldn’t do that.  No matter what she thought of him tonight, tomorrow she would hate him.  She would leave.  He would push her arm off him right now, but that would only serve to hurt her more.  The best thing he could do was let her have a safe, comfortable night.  She likely wouldn’t have one again.

He was almost asleep when he heard the thunderous rumble of another explosion.

~ ~ ~ ~

Roger saw the fireball as he emptied the gas jug into the tank.  The van had died on Preston Highway, half a mile from the closest filling station.  He and Trey had walked to get gas, leaving Meredith with the young boy and a gun.

He was pretty sure it was a helicopter that had exploded.  He couldn’t hear it from this distance, especially since Trey never stopped talking, but several minutes before he’d seen a spotlight pointed downward in that part of the sky.

Now Trey talked about it incessantly.  “Wow, did you see that?  That was awesome!  Did you see it, Pete?  Something exploded!”

“People probably died, you know,” Roger said.

With everyone in the van, he pulled off the side of the road and continued south on Preston Highway, Meredith in the passenger seat propping Sprinkles up so he could see.  Sprinkles had meowed them all the way from 2nd and Muhammad to here, and they’d driven at least two miles down Preston without a peep.  Roger was afraid if they travelled too far south, they’d pop up over a hill and find themselves face-to-face with a shooting gallery from one of the barricades.

They were within sight of the Outer Loop intersection.  If you made a right turn there, you’d come upon I-65 in less than a half mile, and then you’d be just north of the interstate barricade, where the girl he’d met on Watterson Expressway had been torn apart by bullets, and where, he assumed, that helicopter had just been shot down.

He was about to put on his blinker and cut into a parking lot when Sprinkles meowed.  He put on his brakes and glanced over.  Sprinkles had his head tilted to the left, so Roger put on his left blinker and slowed down, waiting for the final meow to indicate which parking lot to enter.

Meow.

A hotel.  He pulled in and stopped near the entrance.  The parking lot went both ways around the building.  Sprinkles meowed and pointed right with his head.

Roger pulled around to a large parking lot half-enclosed by the L-shaped building and parked along the right edge of the lot, in front of a tall barrier fence.

When he opened the door to climb out, Sprinkles leapt over his lap and out the door, miraculously landing on his feet and darting for the building.

Roger jumped out and chased him, but as he bounded towards the breezeway and the staircase, he spotted Sprinkles on the second floor.  He ran up the stairs and around the corner, calling out quietly, only to find the walkway empty, Sprinkles nowhere to be found.

He searched for half an hour, until finally he encountered a security guard who said he hadn’t seen a cat and that if Roger wished to remain on the property, he would have to rent a room.

~ ~ ~ ~

In the dark, a sliver of warm, golden light filled the crack under the hotel room door, growing brighter and brighter, then dulling as a tiny, translucent creature manifested from the light, still carrying that golden glow in each of its countless angel hair tentacles, like pieces of fishing line bundled together, wavering as they would underwater.

The little creature floated up the side of the bed and above the place where Lillia’s arm lay draped over Hayden’s chest.

Another source of light generated nearby, a creature of equal features, clinging to Lillia’s head, its tentacles woven into her hair with such delicacy and perfection as to not disturb its natural flow.

The two creatures stared at one another with their hollow black eyes, pulsating in turns as if communicating with light itself.  Then the one on Lillia’s head disappeared, and the other turned in the air and floated up to Hayden’s pillow.

To be continued . . .

Read Episode Thirteen

Tired of reading on a computer screen?  This book is available in paperback and for Kindle.

The Artist Speaks – Part 1


Hello readers. It is I, the artist for The Object.

A metal cast block showing a Cthulhu like squid figure.

In late June 2012, a relic was found in modern-day Iraq, dated to roughly 20,000 BC, depicting a strange, squid-like creature. Tests are being conducted at Boston University to ascertain the origin of this artifact.

I’ve remained voiceless for the entirety of the Object’s youth. Why?

Because I’m the art guy, not the writer.

But now that The Object has matured and blossomed from its humble beginnings, it may be time for my presence to be known.

And after all, haven’t we all got a story to tell?

What I’d like to share in this first part of my introduction is just a foray into my process and patterns of thought when making art.

On an average day, it goes a little something like this:

Text Message Received.

Winston: Hey I’d really like to see a picture of the small squid creature.

Justin: Ok, what’s it doing?

Winston: It’s outside the window of Lillia’s house, on the roof.

Justin: Neat. Ok, let me see what I can come up with.

And that’s basically it. Winston takes his thoughts, loads them into the double-barreled shotgun and fires them in my direction. I must then catch each of the mind-bullets and translate the world that Winston sees into a visual language.

Take the picture below for instance.

A small glowing squid Cthulhu type creature floats.

Cute little thing, right?

The difficulty with creating the above image was this: How can I portray that this creature is on a roof, outside a window, and still get a detailed close-up? The only way to show the window on the roof is to be far away; if I only made a close-up of the squiddy, the window might not be noticeable as that particular window.

So I split the middle, and drew both. The top panel gives the necessary sense of scale and luminosity for the little guy, and the bottom panel gets you up close and personal with our orange cutie.

We hope to one day see plushies of our glowing little guy in Barnes and Noble.

The giant object over Louisville hides the sun.

Half the time painting this, the piece was upside down.

Speaking of colors, that tends to be another theme in The Object; the deep oranges and reds, colors of rust and dirt and fire, colors of sand and lonely sunsets.

I envision Louisville under the Object as a land of perpetual dusk, where the sun’s light struggles to edge around the massive sphere and climb through alleyways and abandoned roads until the once radiant sunlight crawls as a mere cinderous glow.

The image to the left is one of my personal favorites. It is also the longest, top to bottom, of any image I’ve made so far. This encourages the viewer to “read” the image.

You start at the top, noticing details of some unusual landscape. You continue, slowly realizing that you are looking at the bottom of something, and that the bottom of the image is actually a skyline.

Beyond the flat facts of a picture, though, is something much more important. It’s my opinion that a piece of art should try to evoke some emotion or mood. The best kind of artworks tell a story, raise some questions, and most of all, make you feel something.

A blind homeless man holds a sign that reads The End is Nigh.

This originally began as a quick portrait to test a few new painting techniques, but I got carried away.

The above painting is one of my favorites, for two reasons.

1. It is one of my best works, in terms of technical ability, message and mood.

2. I really love the television trope of “the blind homeless man that somehow knows too much“.

With this piece, I really stressed the feeling of desolation. When looking at this image, I want the viewer to be uneasy. I want them to feel the stillness of mad certainty. I want them to be haunted.

What originally started as a way to play around with some new Photoshop brushes turned into a fully fledged painting, and Winston liked it enough to include it in the story.

When your art can inspire the writing, you know it’s damn good.

That, or you’re working with a truly great writer.

Stay tuned for more awesome posts, and the second part to my introduction, which will show you, step by step, how I create a piece of art for The Object.

If you’d like to see more of my work, click here.

Take care, my friends.

~ Justin ~

When it’s no longer science fiction—A peek behind the Double Helix


The Object welcomes author Jade Kerrion with her guest post: “When it’s no longer science fiction–A peek behind the Double Helix”

JadeKerrion

For the past several years, our attention has been consumed by faltering economies, unstable governments, an epidemic of bullying, and an explosion of social media. In the meantime, largely ignored by mainstream media, the genetic revolution marches on quietly and inexorably.

 

Let’s test your knowledge of bioengineering. Which of the following is true?

 

  1. We used genetic engineering to create hybrid creatures, like the goat-sheep, and the camel-llama
  2. We used genetic engineering to transfer bioluminescent genes from coral and deep-sea jellyfish to create glow-in-the-dark mice, cats, dogs, pigs, and monkeys
  3. We cloned animals, including sheep, dogs, and horses
  4. We used genetic engineering to create animals that excrete pharmaceutical products in their milk and other bodily fluids
  5. We used genetic engineering to preserve endangered species, creating animals that possess the nuclear DNA of the endangered species, and the mitochondrial DNA of the host species…in effect, a genetic hybrid
  6. We created bug-bots by implanting wires in the central nervous system of insects, and we can now control their movements, including flight
  7. We created organic robots by implanting wires in the central nervous system of rats, and we can now control what they do
  8. We wired a monkey to control a third artificial arm entirely through its brain waves
  9. We genetically engineered rats with pliable skin in order to grow human organs (e.g., ear) under their skin for eventual transplant to a human
  10. We used organic computer chips made out of rat neurons to control a flight simulator
  11. We isolated a brain of a lamprey eel and placed it in a nutrient medium, surrounded by electrodes. The living, intact brain controls a machine that moves toward the light (in much the same way a lamprey eel moves toward the light)
  12. We used a DNA synthesizer to create an artificial organic cell. (Isn’t that an oxymoron?) The computer is its parent

 

If you answered “Yes” to all of these, you are right. All of these are true. Science fiction is now science fact. Today, we possess an unprecedented control over bioengineering, an area that remains largely unregulated by governments.  Our scientific advances raise many ethical questions, such as “Is it right to control the autonomy of another creature, even if it’s just a rat?” Other more pragmatic questions focus on timing, “When will we start applying directed evolution (i.e. design) to humans?”

 

I majored in Biology and Philosophy at the Johns Hopkins University, and the philosophical implications of genetic engineering naturally combined my two interests. I started by asking myself, “What would the world look like to the perfect, lab-created human being?” And then, I wondered, “How would the world change for the people whose genetic templates were used to create the perfect human being?” The Double Helix series sets out to answer both those questions from the point-of-view of Danyael Sabre, an alpha empath whose genetic code was used as the physical template for the perfect human being.

DoubleHelixCovers

In the world of the Double Helix, directed evolution has become the norm, but is accessible only to those with financial resources. Historical personalities are reincarnated as clones. Genetically optimized in vitros abound, and they tend to succeed at the expense of normal humans who struggle to keep up. Nevertheless, normal humans still form the political majority, and thus, the world of the Double Helix is deeply stratified by genetics, wealth, and politics. Into this already chaotic mix, I added mutants and their dangerous variants of psychic powers, and finally Galahad, the lab-created, perfect human being.

 

The story explodes into a “highly-enjoyable, brainy guilty pleasure of a novel: a perfect mixture of non-stop action, gripping plot, thought-provoking philosophy, and beautiful visuals.” Set in Earth’s near-contemporary future and frequently compared to X-Men, Heroes, and Alphas, the Double Helix series is highly accessible, even for non-science fiction readers.

 

I invite you to check out a world that is closer to science fact than science fiction. Welcome to the Double Helix.

 

Author Bio:

 

Jade Kerrion unites cutting-edge science and bioethics with fast-paced action in her award-winning Double Helix series. Drawing rave reviews for its originality and vision, and described as “a breakout piece of science fiction,” Perfection Unleashed, and its sequels, Perfect Betrayal and Perfect Weapon, are available in print and e-book through Amazon and other major retailers.

 

About The Double Helix series: 

 

His genetic code sourced from the best that humanity offers, Galahad embodies the pinnacle of perfection. When Zara Itani, a mercenary whose abrasive arrogance exceeds her beauty, frees him from his laboratory prison, she offers him the chance to claim everything that had ever been denied him, beginning with his humanity.

 

Perfection cannot be unleashed without repercussions, and Galahad’s freedom shatters Danyael Sabre’s life.

 

An alpha empath, Danyael is rare and coveted, even among the alpha mutants who dominate the Genetic Revolution. He wields the power to heal or kill with a touch, but craves only privacy and solitude—both impossible dreams for the man who was used as Galahad’s physical template.

 

Galahad and Danyael, two men, one face. One man seeks to embrace destiny, and the other to escape it.

 

The award-winning Double Helix series, consisting of Perfection Unleashed, Perfect Betrayal, and Perfect Weapon, will challenge your notions of perfection and humanity, and lead you in a celebration of courage and compassion. Science fiction, urban fantasy, and action-adventure readers will enjoy this thrilling roller-coaster ride as it twists and turns through a world transformed by the Genetic Revolution.

 

Social media and buy links:

 

Connect with Jade Kerrion: Blog / Facebook / Twitter

Perfection Unleashed: Amazon / Amazon UK / Smashwords

Perfect Betrayal: Amazon / Amazon UK / Smashwords

Perfect Weapon: Amazon / Amazon UK / Smashwords

 

~*~*~

 

BACKUP LINKS (if, for some reason, the links above do not transfer through a simple cut and paste)

 

Social Media Links

Blog: http://www.jadekerrion.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JadeKerrion

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JadeKerrion

 

Perfection Unleashed

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008E98YFM

Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B008E98YFM

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/175081

 

Perfect Betrayal

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009YLG59Q

Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B009YLG59Q/

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/249761

 

Perfect Weapon

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009YMFSE8

Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B009YMFSE8

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/249762

The Object Interviews Author Paul Freeman


The Object’s author interview series continues with Paul Freeman, who’s here to tell us about his new book,  Tribesman.  Mr. Freeman also talks about why authors shouldn’t be afraid to self-publish, his experience on Authonomy (a popular online writer’s community), and is favorite scene from the new book.

author Paul FreemanWELCOME, PAUL FREEMAN!

Author of Tribesman

Winston: Tell us a little about yourself.  What made you decide to be a writer?

Paul: Well I’m from Dublin Ireland. I like to think I am a warrior, adventurer, and zombie hunter. All in my own head of course, but hey, it’s a fun place to be. Tribesman is my first novel to be published, it is an epic fantasy based around love, loss, betrayal and of course adventure. I have also recently signed a contract with Spore Press who will be releasing a horror novel I wrote with three other writers called, Season of the Dead, in spring 2013. A little while ago I was asked to contribute a short story to a steampunk anthology being published by a new press, Kristall Ink. That anthology is now out, it is called Strange Tales From The Scriptorium Vaults. I’d never written steampunk before, so as well as a challenge, that was a lot of fun.

To answer the second part, I’m not sure if I ever made a conscious decision to be a writer, it just sort of happened. As a kid I was always making up stories, and games, it was just a natural progression I suppose.

Winston: Who are some of your favorite authors?  Do you see some of their inspiration in your own work?

Paul: Oddly enough, although I do write fantasy, I don’t read all that much of it. Of the fantasy writers I’ve been inspired by I think David Gemmell stands out by a mile. I’ve also taken a lot of inspiration from mythology and ancient history. Anything to do with swords and magic and you have me hooked. I’m a big fan of Historical fiction, among my favourites are Bernard Cornwell and Robert Low. If even a touch of their style and class has rubbed off on me I will be more than delighted.

 Winston: You’re a member of the HarperCollins writing community Authonomy.com.  What was your experience like there?

Paul: I had a very positive experience on Authonomy. When I first joined and uploaded my novel, Taxi, I was very green, and new very little about the publishing world. Not just writing technique, but more mundane things like correct formatting, how to approach agents and publishers, or not to as the case may be. I made a lot of friends through the site, learned a hell of a lot from them, and realized there are thousands upon thousands of people just like me all over the world. I also learned that everybody has an opinion, and that while it is great to get advice, and share knowledge, knowing which to take and who to trust is key.

On a more practical level, to the best of my knowledge I am still the only person to have made the ‘editors desk’ with two books in the same month. In fact while on my way to the desk I was approached by three publishers asking me to submit Tribesman, one of them eventually offered me a contract. No offers for Taxi, although it received a very positive review from Harper Collins.

Winston: Tell us a little about Tribesman, how it came to be, and what kinds of readers would enjoy it.

Paul: Tribesman is an, old school, epic fantasy, with a grittier edge. I love adventure stories, and Tribesman is an adventure. A warrior banished from his homeland because of a dark deed, sets out upon a mission to rescue a merchant’s daughter. Along the way he meets a girl from a race of desert nomads, together they battle demons, men, and the warrior’s own dark god, bent on controlling him.

I like my heroes to be flawed, to forever balance on the edge between dark and light, and that is what Culainn is, a complex hero with a code of honour that may not always match the values of others. In real life bad things happen to good people, and good people do bad things, so it is in what I write.

I think anyone who enjoys a good story and seeks escapism, From Lord of the Rings fans, and Robert E Howard, through David Gemmell, to fans of Brent Weeks and George RR Martin will like Tribesman.

Winston: Describe your favorite scene from the book and tell us why it sticks out to you.

Paul: In Tribesman, the war god of the north, Culainn’s homeland, is called Morrigu. I based her loosely on a figure from Celtic mythology, The Morrigan. She can take any shape but prefers that of an old crone, or a dark raven. In one particular scene, Culainn is helping defend a town from an attack by an army of desert nomads. The besiegers break into the town and kill everyone but Culainn.  He is in the town square surrounded by his enemies, when a raven swoops down and lands on a body at his feet. I have a really strong visual of that scene, I’d love to see it played out in film.

 ~ ~ ~ ~

Out of nowhere a raven swooped down and stood proud on top of a corpse at the warrior’s feet. It pecked at a gaping wound in the chest extracting a long crimson string. With the morsel hanging from its beak it flapped its wings and flew up to perch on the snarling warrior’s shoulder. He could see fear mixed with awe cross the faces of the nomads. The white sea parted then, leaving a gap for a dark shadow-like figure to float through. The mage. Culainn spat and waited.

“They fear you and what protects you,” the bald mage rasped, his emotions hidden. He brought a long tube up to his lips and blew into it. Culainn felt a sting on his cheek, like an insect bite. And then he was falling.

He tumbled through the darkness. An image materialized of a warrior armored in a chainmail shirt, his face a mask of horror covered in blood, his hair matted to his head in gore, his arms soaked red from his enemies. A sword in each hand, on his shoulder perched a raven, croaking a triumphant song of defiance. He knew the warrior, recognised the face that would strike terror into the hearts of all men. His name was death.

Warrior born.

~ ~ ~ ~

Winston: You went with Cogwheel Press to publish Tribesman.  How has your experience been with this small press publisher?

Paul: Pretty good. I went in with my eyes open. I understood a small publisher would never be in a position to give the same sort of marketing and distribution support as a major publisher. Obviously the ultimate goal would be to see the book on bookshelves around the world, but it’s a start and I realize most of the marketing will be down to me. However it’s a great boost to have a publisher albeit a small one prepared to put their money behind you, to have faith in you and your work. The contract I have is also a lot more generous than I would ever get from a major publisher, of course that is all relative, but yeah I’m happy with them. The small group of authors and editors we have are like a family, all supporting one another. Hopefully we can all grow together.

Winston: The publishing world has changed a lot in the past couple of years with advancements in self-publishing, so much that for the first time ever independent authors are attaining success.  What’s your opinion on self-publishing?  Yay or nay?

Paul: Yay for sure. I think it’s great that so much control is now in the hands of authors, they no longer need to stuff their jiffy envelope with reams of paper and wait six months or longer on a yes or no from an agent or publisher. It’s also great for readers. Now the market can decide what it likes, not a bunch of faceless executives following or inventing trends. On the downside, it means there are a lot of vanity projects that maybe would not have otherwise being published, but I think in time it will balance out and the quality will show. I’ve read some fantastic books by self-published authors, including Circle in the Woods, I might add. Eric Laing springs immediately to mind and several others. There’s a lot of rubbish out there too, but there’s a lot of rubbish put out by publishers also.  I think the cream will rise to the top.

Winston: Where should our readers go if they want to learn more about you and stay updated on your new releases?

Paul: You can follow my blog for updates and occasional short stories I post, find me on GoodreadsFacebook, and Twitter, or be really nice and buy me on Amazon. At the moment Tribesman is only available for Kindle, but should be out in paperback by the end of November.

Tribesman on Amazon.com

Tribesman on Amazon.co.uk

Winston: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us here at The Object.  We’ll leave you with one final question related to our particular area of focus: do you believe in aliens?

 

Paul: Yeah sure. Maybe not as in little green men in spaceships, but I’m sure somewhere out there, there is a planet with life, maybe they are more advanced, or maybe on a par, or even behind us. But I’m sure there is life out there somewhere. It would feel kind of lonely otherwise.

____________________

Tribesman, a novel by Paul Freeman

Tribesman, available on Amazon

Episode Eleven, The Object: Book One

Episode Eleven


The Object: a free serial novel

Episode Eleven: “Is That You, Sprinkles?”

Want to comment as you read?  Open this episode’s discussion thread.

~ ~ ~ ~

            This was pointless.  Why didn’t he just go back to the van and drive around to look for the cat?  He was easily a mile from where he’d parked with no clue how to get back.  He’d made so many turns, ducking through alleyways and the back yards of dilapidated houses and duplexes, chasing shadows and investigating sounds that might have been meows.

Where was he now?  Fifteen Street?  Sixteenth?  Even with two handguns stuffed into his pants and a shotgun resting on his shoulder, he didn’t feel safe.

The alien that had eaten those children was gone for now.  He’d watched it swim back up to the bowels of the mother ship.  But the thing Sprinkles had fought, that slow-roasted zombie with superpowers, he could be anywhere.  Crouched on a rooftop, peeking through a dark window, hiding up in the tree where Roger now stopped to take a leak, right in front of a tiny blue house.

At least some light was returning.  An upside-down dawn, the orange sun falling below the object’s horizon and sinking fast to the rim of the Earth.  Then real night would fall, and Roger didn’t want to be in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

He didn’t want to be in this city at all.  The military had blocked off all the roads, but there were still plenty of ways to escape.  He could swim across the Ohio River into Indiana.  Or maybe head west.  Follow Muhammad Ali Boulevard all the way out to Shawnee park and then follow the riverbank all the way down to where it bumped up against Dixie Highway.  He could bypass any military barricade, maybe stop off at one of the strip clubs in the area, then head down to Highway 44 and follow it back to Mount Washington.  It would only be about a fifty mile walk.  Why not?

He didn’t want to call out to Sprinkles, as much trouble as that had caused him earlier.  This time Sprinkles might not be around to blast the area with his supersonic meow.

Maybe with Sprinkles, he could just stroll right through the barricades.  Maybe Sprinkles could sweep tanks off the interstate like a leaf blower clearing a sidewalk.

Of course, he had to find the cat first.

Every instinct he possessed told him to turn around and bolt for the van, but he kept walking deeper into the bad part of town, farther and farther from safety, if safety were more than a fairytale told to keep children from wetting the bed at night.

Maybe that’s what kept him searching.  Under the object, no place proffered any greater comfort than another.  The only thing that kept his blood pressure down and his fear in check was that damned cat, who couldn’t sit still if all the mice in the world were his reward.

Roger zipped his pants and stepped down to the sidewalk.  Whatever road he was one stretched as far as he could see in either direction, lined with houses on both sides.  Not much tree coverage.  There were quite a few cars parked on the curbs, which meant a lot of people hadn’t fled the city in this area.

He heard a cough across the street and noticed someone was sitting in a small porch enclosure in the house opposite where he’d just peed.  A red ember from a cigarette flitted in the dark like a lightning bug.

“You lookin’ for somethin’, buddy?”  The voice of an old black man.

“My cat,” Roger said.

“What you got in your hand there?”

“A shotgun.”

“Prob’ly need one ’round here,” the old man said.  “You don’t need nothin’?  I got anything you’re lookin’ for.”

“No thanks,” Roger said.  In truth, the offer was enticing.  Roger had quite a history with cocaine.  That’s why he didn’t have a wife to go home to.  He could even go for a joint right now, but alien invasions and paranoia don’t mix well.  He came across the street, closer to the old man.  “You haven’t seen a white cat around here, have you?”

“No suh,” the old man said.  “Seen a raccoon little bit ago.  Knocked over that trashcan there behind you.  I seen somethin’ else, too.”

“What was it?”

The old man laughed.  “Ain’t confident I can describe it.  It was pink, I think.  Looked kinda like a jellyfish, floatin’ through the air, ‘cept it changed shapes.  You know like a jelly fish does, fans its body out to push itself along.  Looked like a jellyfish one minute, then it looked like a blanket, then it rolled itself up and looked like a bolt of lightning, just sittin’ there.  It come as close as where you’re standin’.”

Roger looked about himself, up at the sky, all around the neighborhood.  Then he turned back to the old man.  “What did it do?”

“Oh not a thang, son” he said.  “I’d venture it was friendly enough a spirit.  I said hello.  Then it went on about its way.”

“A spirit?”

“Yes suh, couldn’t be nothin’ else.  You could see right through it.  Looked like it wasn’t made of nothin’ but light.  Now you tell me if somethin’ like that ain’t a spirit.”

Roger wanted to leave, not because of the old man but because he could hear people shouting in the distance.  Maybe they’d encountered the pink jellyfish spirit, and maybe it turned out not to be so friendly.

“Can you tell me what street this is?”

“Hale Avenue.  I’ve lived here 47 years.”

“How would I go about getting to Muhammad Ali Boulevard?”

“Well now,” the old man said, standing up slowly.  He came down off the porch putting his hand in his pocket and producing a soft pack of cigarettes.  He lit one and pointed to the right.  “You wanna go all the way down to the end.  That’s 15th Street.  You wanna go left and go–oh, I don’t know how far.  It’ll take you to Muhammad.  You ain’t from around here?”

“Mount Washington.”

“Country boy,” the old man said.  “I hear you Bullitt County folk don’t like black people.”

Roger smiled nervously, embarrassed.  “Hey, we’re not all the same,” he said.

The old man chuckled.

Then the gunshots started.

~ ~ ~ ~

Sprinkles watched the shootout from under a hedge bush.  Ten humans shooting at two other humans.  Police.  Staci had watched police on the television every night, though they had just been moving shapes to Sprinkles then.  Now Sprinkles understood things better.  He understood humans when they spoke.

He understood that he was dying, and there wasn’t much time.

One of the police fell down and was bleeding.  He wanted to help them like he’d helped the man Roger.  His intention had only been to hiss, but something else had happened.  A great wind had come out of his mouth to knock the humans over.  Then he’d found the other man.  Ted, whom he needed to kill.  He didn’t know why.  He only knew Ted was bad, and his need to kill Ted allowed him to move big things with his thoughts.

But doing so had made him sick.  His body wasn’t strong enough for what now lived inside him.  He had to find her.  The girl.  He could see her in the back of his mind.  He could feel her.  She would know what to do.

Sprinkles crawled out from under the bush and ran up the street.  As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t help the police.  It might kill him.

And he had to find her.

~ ~ ~ ~

The phone rang while Barry was in the shower.  It rang again when he came out in nothing but a towel.  He knew it was his brother before he even answered.  Barry had invited him over for drinks, and Derek was the type of person to call ten times before arriving.  For the sake of preparedness, for the sake of pissing Barry off.

He picked it up and said, “Damn it, Derek, what?”

“Just thought I’d let you know there’s a warrant out for Hayden,” Derek said.

“For what?”

“Assault.  He beat the shit out of Louis.”

“Louis who?”

“Wesley.  The doctor.  Remember?  You played golf with him last month.”

Barry sighed and pulled the towel off his waist to dry his bald head.  “Tell me something, Derek, do I give a shit about anything you’re saying?”

“Just thought I’d let you know,” Derek said.  “I’m on my–”

Barry hung up and went to the bedroom to get dressed.  He had his pants on when the doorbell rang.  The girls he’d ordered from the escort service, unless Derek had called from the parking lot.  He came out and answered the door.  A tall blonde and a shorter brunette, both in tight white mini dresses.

“You’re Barry?” the brunette asked.

Barry smiled and nodded.  He put his hand on the door frame and leaned forward, studying both their bodies.  “Either of you girls know how to cook?”

The brunette curled her brow, but the blonde kept smiling and nodded emphatically.

“Good,” Barry said.  “I’ll be right back.”

He closed the door on them, relishing the confused and angry expression on the brunette’s face as he jogged to the kitchen.

He reached down, hooked his hands under his dead wife’s arms, and dragged her stiffening body into the bedroom, where he deposited her in the walk-in closet and closed the door.  Then he returned to the living room, opened the door, and invited the girls in.

“That was rude,” the brunette said.

“Apologies, ladies, I’m a little scattered today,” Barry said.  “What are your names?”

“Sheila,” the blonde quickly responded.  “This is Hailey.”

“You look lovely, both of you,” Barry said.  He clapped his hands together.  “Okay, first order of business.  I’ve got four t-bone steaks in the fridge.  I like mine rare and so does my brother.”

“Your brother’s coming?” Sheila asked.

“Yes, and I’ll warn you right now, he’s an asshole.”

“Must run in the family,” Hailey said.  She stepped past him to the kitchen.  Barry watched her walk, her dress clinging tight to her thighs, so high up a shorter person could probably see her ass.

He turned back to Sheila and said, “Gotta grab my shirt.”

When he went to the bedroom, she followed him.

“Sorry about that,” she whispered.  “Hailey’s been in a bad mood all day.  I think she’s having boyfriend troubles.”

“In your line of work, I imagine so.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing.”  He put his shirt on and when he started buttoning it Sheila stepped up and took over.

“You can report her if you want,” Sheila said.  “They’ll send another girl.”

“Not necessary,” Barry said.  “I like a girl with an attitude.”

Sheila frowned deliberately.  “I can be mean, too.”

He smiled.  “I’m sure you can.”

“No, really.  I can be way more mean than Hailey.”

With the shirt buttoned, Barry headed out of the room and Sheila trailed him so close he could feel her behind him.

“I can be whatever you want,” she said.

He was getting annoyed.  “I like you just the way you are,” he said, half distracted.  “There’s nothing wrong with being nice.”

“You should try it sometime, then,” Hailey said.  She had emerged from the kitchen carrying a glass of bourbon on the rocks.

When she put it to her lips, Barry said, “Is that for me?”

She stopped, lowered the glass, and then thrust it out at him.  He stepped up to her, smiling.

“You’re feisty, aren’t you?”

“Only when I’m around rude assholes who think I’m a cook,” she said.

“Is a cook a step down from a hooker?”

“I’m not a damn hooker.”

“What?” Sheila said.  “Yes you are!”

“Well so are you,” Hailey said.

“I know!”

Barry laughed for a moment but when the girls started raising their voices he said, “Hey, hey, shut up, both of you.  Are those steaks done yet?  What the hell am I paying you for?”

“Not to cook,” Hailey said.

“Well then make yourself a drink, sit down, and shut up.  Sheila, get to cooking.”

“No problem, I’m on it,” Sheila said, giving Hailey a mean face as she passed by.

Hailey’s mood had improved drastically by the time Derek arrived.  She downed five glasses of bourbon, becoming less and less testy with each gulp.  Barry sat with her for a time, listening to her whine about her loser boyfriend, some kid who worked in the office of the escort service.  She had him convinced she didn’t sleep with her clients, but apparently someone had spilled the beans.

“I’m pretty sure it was her,” Hailey whispered, pointing in the direction of the kitchen, from which came the sounds of sizzling meat and Sheila’s rather impressive singing.  She must have wanted to become a vocalist but let the wrong guy lead her down the wrong path.  Barry had seen it before.  A singer is told she should be a model.  A model is told she should pose nude, that it will help her career.  Next up is stripping.  Then this, if you’re lucky enough to land an escort gig in lieu of standing on a corner.

A pity for Sheila in particular, as she had real, raw talent.  Barry had planned to kill both these girls tonight, but he decided he would keep Sheila around for a while.

He looked at Hailey, who was still rambling about Sheila’s betrayal, and began to snicker.  Hailey didn’t know it, but Sheila just saved her life.

“What’s so funny?” Hailey asked.

“Nothing,” Barry said.  The doorbell rang and he stood.  “Sorry.  I was just remembering something funny that happened yesterday.”

“So you weren’t listening to me?”

“I was, I promise.”

He opened the door.  Derek pushed his way in quickly, a disgruntled expression on his face, but stopped when he saw Hailey.  He looked at Barry, smiled, and slapped him on the arm.  “Didn’t know we had company,” he said.  “Is that steak cooking?”

“T-bones,” Hailey said.  She stood, wobbling, and came up to Derek to introduce herself.

Barry left them and went to the kitchen.  Now he definitely wasn’t going to kill them.  Sheila had set the table and was preparing a full dinner.  Salad, asparagus, twice-baked potatoes with bacon and sour cream, stuffed Portobello mushrooms, and a cheese cake.

“How the hell did you manage all this so quickly?”

“I went to culinary school for a year and a half,” she said.  “I dropped out when my mom died.”

“Sullivan?”

“Yep.”

“You have an amazing voice,” he said.  “You could have had a career in music.”

Sheila smiled, but she had sadness in her eyes.  “Thank you.”

“Why didn’t you pursue it?”

She shrugged and returned to cooking.  Barry refilled his glass with bourbon and made a drink for Derek.  Then he called him out to the balcony so they could speak in private.

“Where’s Whitney?” Derek asked when he stepped out into the cool evening air.

“She went to her sister’s,” Barry said.

They sat in the patio chairs.

“Probably a good thing.  You hear what’s been happening today?”

“Aside from that?” Barry said, pointing up at the object.

“The shootings,” Derek said.  “Bunch of west end gangs are crawling through the city like cockroaches killing every cop they can find.  Now they’re hitting fire departments, too.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Engines 16, 17, and 18 so far.”

Barry was surprised.  It’s not often you get more than you pay for.  “Who’s behind it?”

“Hell if I know,” Derek said.  “We sent out a 10-19 to all units, brought them in, gave out every unmarked we have available.  But we’ve still got dozens of cruisers on patrol, and the state boys think they can handle themselves.  They’re all sitting ducks.”

“Maybe you should go on vacation.”

“Wish I could.  That’s how I came to find out about Hayden.  Went to the hospital to see a couple of our boys and saw Louis beat all to hell.  He was mad, too.”  Derek began to laugh.  “Hayden must have jarred his brain loose ’cause he was talking about this girl who came in earlier.  Teenage girl, real cute he said.  Claims she was floating in midair.”  Now he was laughing to the point of hysterics.  “So serious, too.  I mean, Louis is a prankster from way back, but I swear he actually believed what he was saying.”

Barry sat forward.  “He said a girl was floating?  In the hospital?”

“In the ER waiting room.  You should see his face, Barry.  Looks like a damn eggplant!  He probably has a skull fracture, loopy bastard.  Thinks the girl has an alien inside her.”

“Who was this girl?  What was her name?”

“I don’t know.”

“Was she admitted?”

“Don’t know that either.  Why don’t you ask Hayden?  Louis said they left together.  Maybe she’s his girlfriend.  He’s got a girlfriend, don’t he?”

“I don’t keep up with my son’s love life.”

“I thought Whitney told me he did.  Or maybe that was Johnny’s kid.”  Derek sighed.  “Johnny’s dead, by the way.  Him and half my other guys.  This thing’s big enough to call in the national guard, but you can’t get in touch with anybody right now.  Federal government’s shutting us down, Barry, sealing us off.  Doesn’t look good.”

“What do you think they’re planning?”

Derek stood and approached the rail.  He craned his neck upward and studied the object.  “To be honest, I think they’re scared shitless.  I think they’re scrambling to figure out a way to communicate with that thing, and if it doesn’t happen in the next day or two, they’re going to launch a nuke at us.”

“Bullshit,” Barry said, standing.  “That won’t happen.  They’ve seen enough movies to know that thing’s technology has to be light years ahead of ours–or else it wouldn’t be here.  They detonate a nuke, we’ll all be fried and that thing will still be sitting there.”

“They’re gonna do it, Barry.  Mark my word.”

“Not in this day and age.”

“Day and age?  What the hell are you talking about, man?  It’s a new day, a new age.  We’re not dealing with domestic terrorists here.  Have you even put any thought into what that thing is?”

Sheila appeared at the door and said, “Dinner’s ready.”

“Okay, babe,” Barry said.  He stepped up next to Derek and Derek looked at him.

“Well?  Have you?”

“It’s a spaceship,” Barry said.  “So what?  It’s not the freakin’ Death Star.  If it was here to blow shit up, it wouldn’t have picked Louisville.  It would have picked New York or LA or Tokyo.  And there’d be more of them.  Unless it has a one-punch super-weapon that’ll blow up the entire planet, in which case there’s nowhere to go, so why plan for it?  Why not live today like you’re going to see tomorrow?  Whatever that thing is, it’s given us the opportunity of a lifetime.  We can rob this city until it’s naked wearing a whiskey barrel.  No one’s here to stop us, and no one’s here to see it go down.  Open your eyes, Derek.”

“My eyes are open,” Derek said, “and you know what I see?  ICBMs.  They’ve already got them pointed at us.  Right now there’s some young military tech. kid sitting in a little room waiting for the go code.  And that little shit’s eager to push the button.  It’s the American way, Barry.  You don’t understand something so you drop a bomb on it.  Lady Liberty’s got crosshairs in her eyeballs and today she’s looking at us.  You bet your ass.  We need to get out of this city pronto.”

Barry laughed deliberately, though in truth he believed Derek might be right.  The sky could light up at any moment and reduce him to vapor.  But if he could get his hands on whatever was attached to that man’s head he saw today, the military blockades wouldn’t be able to hold him.  That man had flung cars around like Hot Wheels, and from the looks of him he was half dead.

But Barry was strong, in mind and in body.  If he had that kind of power, maybe he could leap from Main Street to Evansville in a single leap.  Maybe he could stop a nuke in midair and send it straight to D.C.

He just had to find the guy and figure out a way to kill him.

Or he could find the girl.

Derek had gone silent.  Still staring up at the object.

It was everything Barry could do not to push him over the balcony right now.  Derek always had been a scared, paranoid freak.  In college he’d spent most of his time developing conspiracy theories and losing girlfriends because he couldn’t shut up about the ruling class and their plots of mass genocide.

When they were kids, Barry used to sneak over to the high school gym and shut himself in one of the unused lockers in the girls’ locker room.  Not only did he get to see all the girls naked, but he also learned all kinds of scandalous information from their gossiping.  One girl, Lindsey Strange, was cheating on her boyfriend with her math teacher, Mr. Parker.  She read a note he’d written her to all the other girls, and when they all left the locker room for gym class, he stole the note and used it to blackmail Mr. Parker repeatedly.  He got a new bike out of the deal, then money.  Next he approached Lindsey and made her strip naked in front of him.  He made her get a really short haircut, which earned her so much ridicule at school that she quit the cheerleading team.  Mr. Parker found another job and moved away, and Barry spent two years wearing Lindsey down to the point that she fell in love with him.  She sat with him on the school bus.  She started coming to his house under the pretense of tutoring him in advanced mathematics.  She went from being his own personal slave to being his girlfriend.

It was all culminating to Barry’s ultimate plan, losing his virginity to her, but Derek ruined everything.  He’d always suspected something was wrong with Barry’s and Lindsey’s relationship.  The first of his conspiracy theories, as it were.  Sure enough, one day when Derek stayed home sick from school he went snooping in Barry’s room and found the note.  Then he slowly began to piece everything together.  He found out where Mr. Parker had moved to and called him.  Mr. Parker explained everything, and then Derek ratted Barry out to their parents, Lindsey’s parents, and the school principal.  Barry was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for thirty days and when he returned Lindsey was gone, having been yanked out of school by her parents and sent to an all-girls catholic school for her junior and senior year.

Barry had hated his brother ever since, and on top of aspiring to one day kill him, he’d also set the goal to sleep with every one of Derek’s girlfriends and as of now had an eighty percent success rate, including Derek’s wife.

“Let’s eat,” Barry said, turning toward the balcony door.

Derek didn’t respond.  He was still staring at the object.

Barry snapped his fingers.  “Hey, Dr. Strangelove, we eating or what?”

“Yeah,” Derek said, distantly.  “Whatever you say, boss.”

~ ~ ~ ~

Roger spotted Sprinkles coming out from under a bush and as the cat scampered up 15th Street, he was left with two choices: stay and help the woman cop whose partner lay on the ground bleeding profusely and screaming, or slip away unnoticed and chase after Sprinkles.

Neither option sounded appealing.  If he ran away, he would carry more guilt than he thought he could live with.  If he stayed, he might never see the cat again.

It’s just a stupid cat, his ex-wife would say right now.  Nina hated cats.  She hated all animals.  That was her term of endearment for Roger on his worse days–the days of fighting, late nights, her discovery of drug paraphernalia above the bathroom medicine cabinet, the time he brought home a girl from a bar when Nina was supposed to be pulling a double at the hospital, the day he punched his supervisor at the warehouse and got fired.  You’re an animal, Roger!  You behave like an animal!

He didn’t argue.  She was right.  That’s why he didn’t fight her when she hired that big bald-headed attorney and took everything except the ’93 Taurus that hadn’t been driven in two years.  He could have had his half, or more, after discovering she’d been sleeping with the guy throughout the divorce proceedings, but he blamed himself for that.  It was over.  There was nothing he could do.

Kind of like this situation.  Sprinkles was already out of sight and he didn’t see which way he went.  He only had one option left: save the lady cop.

The gang members stood like a firing squad in the street from one curb to the other, unloading clip after clip into the squad car, shooting wildly.  They looked like they had plenty of experience holding their guns in cool and intimidating ways but little experience actually target shooting.

Behind the car, the lady cop crouched next to the back wheel, covering her head and crying out, “Please!  Pleeease!

The other officer, a young light-skinned black man with corn-rolled hair, lay flat on his back, his chest spurting blood.  His right hand reached upward and swatted repeatedly, as though a fly were pestering him.

Roger surveyed the scene, the houses and buildings in the area.  The squad car sat diagonally in the intersection of 15th and Hale Avenue.  Roger was hiding behind the house at the corner, on the right side of Hale, facing 15th.  Far down the street behind him, the old man stood out in his yard, probably smoking another cigarette, watching the events unfold.  The gang members stood on 15th Street up ahead and to the left.  On the other side of the street where they stood were two houses not ten feet apart.  That was the spot.  That’s where he needed to be.  He had a plan.

In order to get there unnoticed, he ran across Hale Avenue, jumped the short, rusty cyclone fence, crossed the back yard of the house opposite the ones where he was headed, between which ten men with guns continued to pierce the squad car with .9mm rounds, and came around the side, staying low, until he reached the front.

He peeked around the corner.  Luckily no one had spotted him.  He was very close to the men now and realized some of them were just boys, the youngest of them not even in high school yet.  Most of them held their guns sideways with one hand.  Several stabbed their guns at the air as they fired.  Terrible shooting.  At least Roger had one advantage.

Now came the scary part.  He had to get across the street, and short of circumventing a block’s worth of houses and running the risk of them deciding to advance on the car, his only choice was to stay low and cross the street directly behind them.  This was nothing like the shooter games he spent so much time playing.  The gunfire was deafening, the clank of bullets on metal so impactful the fear of being shot consumed him.  If just one of those boys so much as detected movement in his periphery . . . game over.

Roger rose from his crouched position, readied his gun, and stepped out into the open.

To be continued . . .

Read Episode Twelve

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Episode Ten, The Object: Book One

Episode Ten


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.”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“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.”

“No problem.”

“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.”

“By who?”

“My dad.”

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?”

“Who?”

“Sherman.”

“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.”

“Right.”

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.

“Drake!  Kate!”

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.

“You okay?”

“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.

“Sherman?”

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.”

“Yeah.”

“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 . . .

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Episode Nine, The Object: Book One

Episode Nine


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?”

Meow.

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?”

Meow.

“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?”

Meow meow.

Roger sighed.  “I have a litter box for that, dumbass.”

Meow.

“Are we going to walk to this place, wherever you want to go?”

Meow meow.

“So okay,” Roger said, “I’m going to drive you?”

Meow.

“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.”

“Where?”

“That’s a question.”

“Oh no,” the teller said.  “I’m sorry.”

“Let’s go.”

“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.

“The combination.”

“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?”

Meow meow.

            “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.

Boy disintegrated by alien creature, killed by  tentacles from the Object in Louisville Kentucky.

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 . . .

Ted, with little squid attached, faces off with the monster alien squid from the Object in Louisville Kentucky. The Mergers and acquisitions building burns down beside him.

Read Episode Ten

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Episode Eight, The Object: Book One

Episode Eight


The Object: a free serial novel

Episode Eight: “A Little Light Reading”

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Open this episode’s discussion thread.

~ ~ ~ ~

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.

    “Finding anything?”

    “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.”

Copyright Justin Comley, 2012

    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!”

    Lillia gasped.

    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.”

    “Okay.”

    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.”

    “Me neither.”

    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.”

    “Rocks?”

    “Yep.”

    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.”

    “You 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 . . .

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Episode Seven, The Object: Book One

Episode Seven


The Object: a free serial novel

Episode Seven: “Waking Up Falling”

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~ ~ ~ ~

   Lillia sensed she was falling before she opened her eyes, and when she did she caught a glimpse of Drake’s pale, terrified face before shutting them again.  She felt Sherman’s bony arms wrapped around her, smelled his rancid clothes, and behind the rush of wind in her ears she could hear the roar of the fire behind her.

    Kate screamed and Drake called her name.  Then, suddenly, she was no longer falling.

    I’m dead, she thought.  I’m dead now.

    “Holy Jesus,” Sherman said, his mouth right next to her ear.  “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”

~ ~ ~ ~

    Hayden stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around his waist.  His head was pounding.  He wiped the steam off the mirror and inspected the bruise on his cheekbone.  Those two frat boys had put up quite a fight, but Hayden handled them well.  A kick in the ribs for one and two punches for the other.  Everyone at the party had looked stunned.  A scrawny five-foot-eight kid against two football players, and he put them on the ground so fast half the crowd missed it.

    In twelve years of studying Tae Kwon Do, Hayden had never used his skills outside the dojo.  Sometimes he broke into the high school gymnasium after hours to use the exercise equipment and practice, but that was it. None of his friends knew he could fight.  Not even his dad.

    His dad knew he took Tae Kwon Do, but to Barry it was just another boring subject of polite dinner table chatter, like strangers stuck sitting together in a crowded restaurant.  He had no idea what Hayden was capable of.  Hayden hadn’t even known until last night.

    It happened in the front yard of C.J. Norton’s house.  Right by 3rd Street on a busy evening.  Cops could have rolled past any second, but a group of people had gathered outside to stare up at the object and talk about it.

    An argument unrelated to the object began to swell between a girl and one of the guys Hayden ended up taking down.  At first everyone ignored it, but as the arguing turned to yelling and the yelling to screaming, more and more people turned away from the enormous alien rock in the sky to better understand the context of the fight.

    Hayden was the last to tear his eyes away from the object.  A loud pop was what drew him to the crowd, then the wave of gasps and some girl saying, “Oh my God, I can’t believe he hit her.”

    Before he realized it, Hayden was pushing his way through the ring of people.  Someone spilled a solo cup full of cold beer all down his back.  He didn’t know if it was an accident or not, and before he could address the subject he spilled out into the open center of the crowd and found a girl cowering, covering her face and crying, in the arms of another girl.  A few paces removed stood a thick-necked frat boy being grappled by a friend of equal size and stature.

    They both saw him coming and came forward, their struggle set aside immediately at the chance to fight someone small and wimpy.

    The rest took place in an instant, and before anyone could say anything Hayden took off down the street to his car.

    Hayden brushed his teeth and got dressed, then pulled his wallet, keys, and loose change from the pocket of his dirty pants–he’d slept in them last night.

    When he stepped out of the bathroom, he found his mother lying dead on the floor.

~ ~ ~ ~

    In the middle of the night, Roger and Danny loaded up on handguns and took one .12 gauge shotgun apiece from a gun store, filling shopping bags with ammunition.  Roger felt stupid, but he’d played too many video games not to get a certain thrill from having a pistol sticking out from the waistband of his pants.

    The roads were empty, which made turning around easy after realizing they’d passed Stacie’s apartment.  They found her building on a little road behind a large multiplex that housed, among other things, a movie theater and a grocery store.

    When they stepped up to Stacie’s front door, Danny began to kick at it.

    “Whoa, whoa!” Roger said.

    Danny stopped.  “What’s the problem?”

    “People might still live here, man.”

    “So what?”

    “I’ve got the keys.”

    “Well why didn’t you say so?”

    Danny stepped back and lit a cigarette.  Roger tried several keys until the deadbolt turned.  He unlocked the knob itself and they entered.

    The apartment looked like it was occupied by an old woman.  Antique furniture, flowery print on the sofa and seat cushions, a grandfather clock standing in one corner, dozens and dozens of family photos hanging on the walls, intermixed with way too many clocks for a girl in her early twenties.

    “Nice place,” Danny said.

    He crossed immediately to the kitchen area and threw the door open.  His head disappeared inside for a moment and then he came out with a pickle jar in his hand, a block of cheddar cheese in his mouth, and a half-full bottle of wine tucked under his arm.

    “Mmm’gonna take a shower,” he mumbled through the cheese.

    Roger flopped down on the couch, grabbed the remote off the coffee table, and turned on the TV.

    “. . . said that government officials in conjunction with the U.S. Marine Corps and NASA are attempting to make basic contact with the object.  A spokesperson for the White House stated that no immediate plans are in place to launch a preemptive attack, but the president did say in his address to the nation late last evening that he would ‘do whatever it takes to protect American citizens.'”

    That was the last Roger heard of the news coverage.  He was fast asleep on the couch.

    When he awoke again, Danny had raided the refrigerator.  He sat at the kitchen table with food spread out all around him.

    “I think I might just live here,” he said with a mouthful of cereal.

    Roger sat up, coughed.  “Have you seen the cat?”

    “Nope.”

    “Did you look for him?”

    “I don’t think I’m into the cat thing.”

    Roger got up from the couch and came to the table.  He made a peanut butter sandwich with whole wheat bread and took a banana from a bowl on the counter top.  He sat at a stool and ate as Danny finished off the bottle of wine, then wandered to the couch, where he flopped down and was soon snoring.

    Roger sat in peace for the first time in hours and just stared around the room.  On top of the microwave was a small framed photo of Stacie with Sprinkles in her lap.  He was solid white, slender.  His big green eyes stared at the camera with seeming intent.

    Roger started to get up and look for the cat, but seeing Stacie’s face again brought back an image of her hanging upside, piercing screams set against the sound of the expressway, the rush of wind coming off that enormous spaceship–if it was a spaceship.

    This was the first time he’d stopped to think about the object and the trouble not only he and the city of Louisville faced but the entire world.

    And what were those lights he’d seen in the sky last night?

    He thought about the military barricade on the interstate.  If he were going to escape the city, it would have to be through the woods.  Mount Washington was quite a hike, but he could make it.

    This Danny kid, though, apparently lived an hour south of Louisville.  Maybe they should stay here for now, wait it out in a dead waitress’s apartment.  Either that or find some other abandoned place, likely one not so nice.  Besides, the very feel of Stacie’s apartment spoke of a very lonely young woman.  Surely the odds of someone showing up to look for her were minimal.  And even if they did, Roger might be the only person left in the city who could tell them what happened to her.

    He certainly didn’t want to tote a cat all around the city while he looked for a place to stay.

    That thought brought his mind back to Sprinkles, who, if even alive, hadn’t so much as meowed since Roger and Danny arrived.  Danny kicking the door probably hadn’t helped matters, nor did his current snoring.

    Roger got up from the stool and crossed the kitchen to the short hallway, which had three doors, two standing wide open, the third cracked open about three inches.

    He peeked in the spare bedroom, flipped on the light switch.

    The room was completely empty.  Just freshly vacuumed blue carpet.  He checked the closet, found it as empty as the room.  Stacie must have lost a roommate before she died.

    “Sprinkles?” he said, turning back toward the door.  He came out into the hall, stepped into the bathroom, turned on the light.  The shower curtain hung neatly folded up and laid over the rod.  Nothing in the tub, nothing behind the trashcan.

    The door barely cracked open was the last option, and before Roger even pushed on the door he caught a glimpse of Sprinkles’ big green eyes underneath a some kind of furniture–maybe a chifforobe.  Only a narrow line of light spilled across it, and beneath that, in the darkness, a set of glowing green eyes shrank to horizontal slits.  A rising growl built with the creak of the door as Roger inched it open and reached into the dark to find the light switch.  Before flipping it on, he glanced back over at the chifforobe.  The glowing eyes were gone.

Copyright Justin Comley, 2012

    Light flooded the room and Sprinkles slammed into Roger’s arm, raking his claws across the skin and sinking a sharp incisor into a knuckle before flopping back to the floor, landing on his feet, and sprinting out of the room hissing and growling.

    Roger backed away from the door and sat on the edge of Stacie’s neatly made pink bed, heart pounding.  He inspected the hole in his knuckle and wrapped the bottom of his t-shirt over it, then the scratches on his arm, blood trickling from each one.

    Then Danny screamed and the cat shrieked.  Something toppled over and shattered.  Roger jumped up and came out the door as Danny stood near the couch prying Sprinkles from his face.  He watched Danny rip the cat free and fling it over the bar and into the kitchen, where it landed on the counter, sliding back against the wall, then leapt up on the refrigerator and across to the top of the cabinets.  There it ducked and growled low, staring down at Danny, glancing at Roger.

Play Episode Seven’s Original Score

    That’s when Roger noticed a strange thing about Sprinkles.  It wasn’t the right angle of light spilling into the bedroom that had made his eyes glow bright green.  Here in the fluorescent white of the kitchen, they still glowed–even brighter now.

    The gun went off before Roger realized Danny had drawn it.  Beneath Sprinkles, a section of the cabinet door exploded in chunks and splinters.  The cat leapt to the refrigerator, then to the floor.  It passed Roger as he fell against the wall covering the sides of his head with his arms.  “Damn it, Danny!”

    He looked up at Danny, whose face looked like Roger’s arm.

    “You see that thing’s eyes?” Danny asked.

    “Yeah.  Crazy.”

    “It’s a damn devil cat.  Evil.  Or maybe–shit, dude!  Maybe it’s an alien.”

    “An alien that looks like a cat?”

    “Yeah.  I mean, you know.  Like an alien that takes whatever shape it wants.  To blend in with the world.”

    Roger climbed to his feet.  “Why would an alien want to look like a cat?”

    “So people won’t know it’s an alien.”

    “Its eyes glow,” Roger said.  He looked directly at Danny.  “Why don’t you put that gun away?”

    “Nuh-uh,” Danny said, reestablishing his footing amidst the fragments of a broken lamp.  His eyes continuously darted to the hallway floor, where he held aim with the gun.  “I’m for real about this, buddy.  That’s a freakin’ alien cat.  You wait till I blow its head off, see what comes out.”

    “Let me just–“

    “What?  Talk to it?”

    “Just wait,” Roger said.  He entered the hallway.

    “Dude, seriously,” Danny whispered.  Roger didn’t stop.  He stepped up to the open door of Stacie’s bedroom.  No sign of Sprinkles.  He could be under the bed, in the closet, atop or underneath any one of Stacie’s strange antique furniture.  “If that thing starts eating you, I’m outta here,” Danny called in a hushed voice.

    Then Roger stepped into the bedroom and pushed the door to behind him, leaving it slightly cracked.  The corner of the bed was less than six feet away.  He’d be making his face vulnerable if he got on his knees to peek under there.

    “Sprinkles?” he said.

    He felt ridiculous trying not to make a sound as he knelt, placed his hands on the floor, and dropped.  Under the bed he found several plastic storage containers, a magazine with a man in a Speedo on the cover, a hair brush, and mason jar filled with quarters.

    “Here Sprinkles,” he said.  “Sprinkles?  I’m not going to hurt you.  Dumb cat.  Here kitty kitty.”

    From high up in the closet, Sprinkles growled at him.  He got to his feet quickly and moved around the side of the bed opposite the closet, where he could scan the shelf hanging above the clothes rod.  A clutter of boxes and small luggage.

    He saw the green eyes peeking down from atop a stack of shoeboxes, just the faintest outline of a head and horizontal ears.

    “You may not like me, cat, but I’m all you’ve got now.  Better get used to it.”

    Something shifted on the closet shelf and Sprinkles suddenly leapt out and landed on the bed.  He approached Roger, stopped short, looked him square in the eyes, and gave a long, almost melancholy meow.

    Roger reached out to pet him.  Sprinkles hissed and lowered his head.

    “Well make up your damn mind,” Roger said.

    Sprinkles meowed again, this time harshly, impatiently, even.  His green eyes seemed to pulsate with light, leaving dark spots in Roger’s vision when he glanced elsewhere, which hadn’t been often thus far.  Danny could be right about this creature.  Hair sticking straight up, teeth showing, and those neon LED pupils.  He wasn’t sold on the alien idea, but this was no ordinary cat.

    He tried to pet Sprinkles again and Sprinkles pawed at the air.

    “Look, I don’t know what to tell you, cat,” Roger said.  “We can either be friends or I can find me another place to stay.  There’s a big UFO over the city and the military set up a quarantine so I can’t get home and I don’t have a lot of options left.  I told Stacie I’d come here and take care of you.  Not sure what the hell I was thinking, but there it is.  Tell you the truth, this whole situation is making me think I’ve lost my freakin’ mind.”  He sighed and looked up at the ceiling.  “Enough that I’m talking to a damn cat, anyway.”

    Sprinkles meowed.  Roger looked down.  It was strange for a cat to stare at someone so long.  Cats are easily distracted, but Sprinkles hadn’t flinched.

    “What the hell are you staring at?”

    Meow.

    “Great,” Roger said.  “Not only crazy but a smartass, too.”

    Meow.

    “I think it’s safe to say we have a communication problem.”  Roger winced and grabbed his arm to fight a fresh round of stinging in his lacerations.  “I really appreciate this, too, by the way.”

    Sprinkles let out a closed-mouth snarl, jumped off the bed, and scurried out the door.

    “Hey, wait!” Roger called.  He braced himself for screams and gunfire, but they didn’t come.

    He sat at the edge of the bed, arm in his lap, inspecting his wounds.  A loud crash emanated from the bathroom.

    “Danny?”

    “Yeah,” Danny called from the living room.  “Did you kill it?”

    “No,” Roger said.

    “If it comes in here I’m killin’ it.”

    “No you’re not either.”

    “You just watch and see, buddy.”

    Roger raised his voice.  “I told it’s owner I’d take care of it, right before she died.  You kill that cat, you better kill me, too.”

    For a moment he got no response.  Then, “You’re a crazy sum’bitch, man.  I’m outta here.”

    He heard Danny rustling around in the kitchen, probably searching for liquor.  Then the front door swung open and slammed shut and Roger felt a sudden wave of relief.  He hadn’t realized how nervous that boy made him until he was gone.

    Meow.

    He jumped off the bed and spun around.  Sprinkles had returned, and something lay at his feet.

    “You’re a freakin’ ninja cat,” Roger said.  “What’s that you got there?”  He took a step forward, then stopped.  “You’re not gonna claw me again, are you?”

    As if he understood, Sprinkles backed away a few steps, allowing Roger to quickly reach in and grab the small plastic tube.

    “Holy shit.”

    It was Neosporin.

~ ~ ~ ~

    “Honey, how on Earth–I mean, what the . . . that was impossible.”

    They stood on the street in the early morning, watching the house burn.  Kate was crying, mourning one of her dolls, or maybe just terrified.  Watching the only home you remember burn to the ground underneath a giant spaceship directly after seeing your sister and a smelly homeless man float in midair was quite a lot to take at once.

    Not to mention the screaming.  Ted’s awful, agonizing howls, tapered off now but still fresh in everyone’s memory.

    Here in the orange glow of the fire, Lillia remembered the little squid creature crawling up her arm and onto her head.  She could feel its tiny tentacles woven into her hair and synthetic dreadlocks, and when she tried to touch it, her fingers stopped short, like when you try to put the positive sides of two magnets together.

    She felt strange.  Light, loopy.  One time she had to be hospitalized for a severe ulcer and the doctor gave her a shot of Demerol.  This sensation was similar to that, except the shot had slowed everything down, and if anything the world seemed to be moving at a faster pace now.

    Kate stepped up to the side of the road, then onto the sidewalk, and there she stood, tiny, shaking, the glow of the fire lighting up her hair.

    “You–we were floating, Lillia,” Sherman whispered.

    Lillia nodded.

    “How did you do that?”

    “I don’t know,” she said.  “Hold on.”

    She stepped away from Sherman and came up to the sidewalk.

    Kate looked up.  “Does this mean we don’t have to live with Mrs. Wilkins anymore?”

    Lillia smiled and put an arm around her.  “I don’t think we’ll be seeing that woman again.”

    “Ever?”

    “Ever.”

    “Will we see Mr. Wilkins?”

    “Nope.”

Copyright Justin Comley, 2012

    Kate nodded ardently.  “Good,” she said.  Then, after a moment, “Where are we gonna live now?”

    “I don’t know, sweetie.”

    Behind them, Sherman said, “We should probably get to figuring that out.  No tellin’ what kinda delinquents we’re liable to run into out here.”

    The left wall of the house collapsed, bringing the roof down with it in an explosion of smoke and embers.  Lillia reached down to take Kate’s hand and led her out to the road where Sherman stood with Drake.  Drake had hardly looked at the house; he was transfixed by the object in the sky.

    “We’re in the wild west right now,” Sherman continued.  He pointed up at the object’s underbelly.  “That thing scared off I’d say ninety percent of the population, and what you’ve got left is mostly crooks and crazies.”

    With her back to the fire, Lillia said, “Let’s go to the public library.”

    Sherman curled his brow.  “The library?”

    “Yeah.”

    “Why?”

    “I don’t know,” Lillia said.  “I just think that’s where we should go.”

    Sherman reached into his pocket, came out with nothing, then patted the other pocket.  “Dang, I forgot.  Lost my cigarettes.”

    “You should quit anyway,” Lillia said.  “And you should quit drinking.”

    “Today?”

    “What’s wrong with today?”

    “Well, that thing,” he said, pointing up again, “whatever the hell it is.”

    “I can tell you what it’s not,” Lillia said.

    “What’s that?”

    “An excuse.”

    Sherman laughed heartily and shook his head.  “Okay, honey, okay, you got me.  I’ll give it a try.”

    She smiled and said, “Come on guys.”  She led Kate down the road and looked back to see Sherman patting Drake on the back to get his attention.

    “The library, huh?” Sherman said when he and Drake caught up.

    “Yep.”

    “I guess ain’t nothin’ there anybody’d be of a mind to steal,” he said.  “Just a bunch of books.”

    “I’m gonna look for books about aliens,” Drake said.

    “Might not be a bad idea,” Sherman said.

~ ~ ~ ~

    Barry sat in the recliner by the door, tapping the side of his handgun on his hip and rocking back and forth.  “Hi, son,” he said.

    Hayden backed away a few steps until Barry pointed the gun at him.

    “You know, I wouldn’t move another inch if I were you.”

    “What did you do to her?”

    Barry smiled.  “I snapped her little neck in two.”

    Hayden began to cry, and despite the overwhelming sadness welling inside him, he couldn‘t help but fight against the tears, just to spite his father.  “Why?” he choked.

    “To be honest, I’m not really sure.  I just really . . . can’t stand either one of you.  Never could.  I hate this shit.  Family dinner, small talk, arguing about why I’m late coming home or whatever the hell you’re up to every night.  It’s so boring I could gouge my eyes out.”

    Hayden took several deep breaths.  Then he said, “I’m going to kill you.”

    “Well, see, I’m afraid not,” Barry said.  “Think you can dodge a bullet?”

    “Fight me.”

    Barry laughed.  “Say what?”

    “If you’re such a tough bastard, put down the gun and fight me.”

    “The gun is a lot less painful.”

    “You’re scared.”

    This time, after laughing, Barry gritted his teeth.  “Okay, you little shit.  You want it the hard way?  You got it.”

    Hayden quickly considered his options as Barry removed the clip from the gun and the remaining bullet from the chamber.  He put both in his pocket and dropped the gun on the recliner, then dramatically interlaced his fingers and popped his knuckles.

    Just as Barry moved to approach him, Hayden swept a vase off the table and chucked it at his father’s head.  Then he bolted into the kitchen, threw open the balcony door, and leapt over the rail.

    When he hit the ground, he heard something pop in his ankle and a white hot streak of pain shot up his leg.  He cried out and clutched his shin, but when he heard his father screaming above him, he forced himself to his feet and hobbled as fast as he could around the side of the building.  As he turned the corner, a gun shot rang out.

    It felt like someone had launched a hornet at his shoulder with a slingshot.  He saw the blood mist out in a line right before he dove behind the wall.  There, he took a moment to inspect the exit wound and immediately felt queasy.

    Move your ass, man.  Go!

    He staggered alongside the wall to the parking lot, where he’d thankfully parked under the oak tree at the corner, far away from the building’s entrance.

    Another gunshot rang out and the window to the second floor landing shattered.  Hayden jumped in his car, fumbled the key twice trying to insert it in the ignition, and finally tore away from the parking spot, backing up so fast he burned rubber when he spun the front end around to face the exit.

    The rear passenger window exploded in a hail of gunfire, and Hayden counted each shot until he skidded out into the road and pushed the accelerator to the floor.

~ ~ ~ ~

    Under a cluster of rose bushes and weeds, a black, skeletal hand reached out and clawed at the hard dirt, and behind it a set of large white eyes sought after a tiny ball of light glowering in the shadows just a few feet ahead.

    The hand was passed by its opposite, reaching out, grasping a clump of Johnson grass, ripping it out of the ground.  The smoldering monstrosity dragged itself along, inch by inch, until finally its charred, hairless head, blackened and leathery with patches of pinkish white where the skull was exposed, emerged into the light of the little golden squid creature.

    Ted tried to whisper to it, but with lungs filled with smoke and no lips, it came out as nothing more than a raspy breath.

    He reached out for the creature, but when his fingers were within an inch, he collapsed.

    He couldn’t hear, speak, or smell, and he could barely see–just enough to navigate his way through the kitchen and out the back door after the rope burned in half, just enough to watch the fuzzy golden orb as it floated up his arm.

    The fire had burned away his sense of touch, too, but now, as the thing moved up his shoulder, his neck, and finally his head, all his senses returned to him.  Now he was screaming uncontrollably and writhing about in the bushes.

    All he felt was agony.  Grief.  Anger.  Hatred.  And in the midst of it all, he could only think of one thing.

    Lillia.

To be continued . . .

Read Episode Eight

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Episode Six, The Object: Book One

Episode Six


The Object: a free serial novel

Episode Six: “Oops”

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Open this episode’s discussion thread.

~ ~ ~ ~

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.

Copyright Justin Comley, 2012

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.”

“Barry!”

Play Episode Six’s Score

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.”

“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.”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

“Hop in.”

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.

Danny smiled.

~ ~ ~ ~

    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.

“Okay, Kate?”

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.

“Drake!”

“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.

Copyright Justin Comley, 2012

~ ~ ~ ~

    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?”

She nodded.

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

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Episode Five, The Object: Book One

Episode Five


The Object: a free serial novel

Episode Five: “Emergency Broadcast”

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Open this episode’s discussion thread.

~ ~ ~ ~

    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.

    “Couldn’t sleep?”

    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.

Copyright Justin Comley, 2012

    “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?”

    “About what?”

    “The object.”

    “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.

    “Hey wait!”

    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.

Copyright Justin Comley, 2012

    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:

    Hello Lillia.

    She gasped.

    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

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