Episode Thirteen, The Object: Book One

Episode Thirteen


The Object: a free serial novel

Episode Thirteen: “Time to Tell the Truth”

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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 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 . . .

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