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 . . .

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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 ~

the object hovering over the louisville kentucky skyline

Get Your Copy of The Object: Book One


We begin the serialization of Book Two in May 2013.  Check back for some exciting announcements about a new dynamic we’ll be introducing to the reading experience.

In the meantime, download the book!

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The Object: Book One, Kindle Edition

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Please share this post and tell everyone you know about The Object!

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Some Sleep This Month? No?


The past three weeks have been insane.  I set myself a tough deadline for finishing and publishing The Object: Book One along with scheduling guest posts and interviews to help promote it.  Now that I’m done with everything, it’s time to kick back and relax for a while before undertaking my next project, right?

Wrong.  I’ve decided to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).  I tried last year and failed, but with the writing marathon I endured in October, I think it’ll be pretty easy to keep up the momentum.  (Though I am three days and 5000 words behind already.  Hoping to catch up today.)

A while back, I asked you guys which book you think I should write next.  You can see the results here.  If you haven’t voted on this poll yet, please do.  While I’ve already decided what I’m going to write this month, your vote will help me decide what to begin working on in December.  (In January, I’ll be committing myself to Book Two of The Object.  I plan to have the entire novel done before the first episode posts this time.)

I’ll be posting updates on my word count and maybe some sneak peeks at the story.  I won’t tell you which book I’m writing yet.  The voting I mentioned above is pretty close, and I’d like to see some more opinions weigh in first.

Check out my interviews at LouisvilleKY.com and Tales of the Wolf Queen and also my guest post at JadeKerrion.com.

Episode Ten, The Object: Book One

Episode Ten


The Object: a free serial novel

Episode Ten: “A Change of Clothes”

Want to comment as you read?  Open Episode Ten’s Discussion Thread

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 . . .

Read Episode Eleven

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New Block of Episodes Available on Kindle


Several of you have emailed or messaged me asking when The Object Serial: Episodes Seven, Eight, and Nine will be available for Kindle.  Well, I’m happy to announce they’re available now.

Lillia's house burning near I-65 in Louisville

Get the new episodes on Amazon

We don’t have any immediate plans to run free promotions for these episodes.  We want to keep everything free on the blog until the release of The Object: Book One so we can gain as many readers and subscribers as possible.

Speaking of which, Matt, Justin, and I are officially in full-fledged book launch mode, and we’d love your help spreading the word.

We have a Facebook event (2,800+ invites thus far) that will give you simple and quick ways to help out, the most important of which is inviting your friends to join and check out the story.  (Remind them it is completely free.)

The Object Book One, set in Louisville, Kentucky

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Episode Eight, The Object: Book One

Episode Eight


The Object: a free serial novel

Episode Eight: “A Little Light Reading”

Want to comment as you read?

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 . . .

Read Episode Nine

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