The Object: a free serial novel
Episode Eleven: “Is That You, Sprinkles?”
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~ ~ ~ ~
This was pointless. Why didn’t he just go back to the van and drive around to look for the cat? He was easily a mile from where he’d parked with no clue how to get back. He’d made so many turns, ducking through alleyways and the back yards of dilapidated houses and duplexes, chasing shadows and investigating sounds that might have been meows.
Where was he now? Fifteen Street? Sixteenth? Even with two handguns stuffed into his pants and a shotgun resting on his shoulder, he didn’t feel safe.
The alien that had eaten those children was gone for now. He’d watched it swim back up to the bowels of the mother ship. But the thing Sprinkles had fought, that slow-roasted zombie with superpowers, he could be anywhere. Crouched on a rooftop, peeking through a dark window, hiding up in the tree where Roger now stopped to take a leak, right in front of a tiny blue house.
At least some light was returning. An upside-down dawn, the orange sun falling below the object’s horizon and sinking fast to the rim of the Earth. Then real night would fall, and Roger didn’t want to be in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
He didn’t want to be in this city at all. The military had blocked off all the roads, but there were still plenty of ways to escape. He could swim across the Ohio River into Indiana. Or maybe head west. Follow Muhammad Ali Boulevard all the way out to Shawnee park and then follow the riverbank all the way down to where it bumped up against Dixie Highway. He could bypass any military barricade, maybe stop off at one of the strip clubs in the area, then head down to Highway 44 and follow it back to Mount Washington. It would only be about a fifty mile walk. Why not?
He didn’t want to call out to Sprinkles, as much trouble as that had caused him earlier. This time Sprinkles might not be around to blast the area with his supersonic meow.
Maybe with Sprinkles, he could just stroll right through the barricades. Maybe Sprinkles could sweep tanks off the interstate like a leaf blower clearing a sidewalk.
Of course, he had to find the cat first.
Every instinct he possessed told him to turn around and bolt for the van, but he kept walking deeper into the bad part of town, farther and farther from safety, if safety were more than a fairytale told to keep children from wetting the bed at night.
Maybe that’s what kept him searching. Under the object, no place proffered any greater comfort than another. The only thing that kept his blood pressure down and his fear in check was that damned cat, who couldn’t sit still if all the mice in the world were his reward.
Roger zipped his pants and stepped down to the sidewalk. Whatever road he was one stretched as far as he could see in either direction, lined with houses on both sides. Not much tree coverage. There were quite a few cars parked on the curbs, which meant a lot of people hadn’t fled the city in this area.
He heard a cough across the street and noticed someone was sitting in a small porch enclosure in the house opposite where he’d just peed. A red ember from a cigarette flitted in the dark like a lightning bug.
“You lookin’ for somethin’, buddy?” The voice of an old black man.
“My cat,” Roger said.
“What you got in your hand there?”
“Prob’ly need one ’round here,” the old man said. “You don’t need nothin’? I got anything you’re lookin’ for.”
“No thanks,” Roger said. In truth, the offer was enticing. Roger had quite a history with cocaine. That’s why he didn’t have a wife to go home to. He could even go for a joint right now, but alien invasions and paranoia don’t mix well. He came across the street, closer to the old man. “You haven’t seen a white cat around here, have you?”
“No suh,” the old man said. “Seen a raccoon little bit ago. Knocked over that trashcan there behind you. I seen somethin’ else, too.”
“What was it?”
The old man laughed. “Ain’t confident I can describe it. It was pink, I think. Looked kinda like a jellyfish, floatin’ through the air, ‘cept it changed shapes. You know like a jelly fish does, fans its body out to push itself along. Looked like a jellyfish one minute, then it looked like a blanket, then it rolled itself up and looked like a bolt of lightning, just sittin’ there. It come as close as where you’re standin’.”
Roger looked about himself, up at the sky, all around the neighborhood. Then he turned back to the old man. “What did it do?”
“Oh not a thang, son” he said. “I’d venture it was friendly enough a spirit. I said hello. Then it went on about its way.”
“Yes suh, couldn’t be nothin’ else. You could see right through it. Looked like it wasn’t made of nothin’ but light. Now you tell me if somethin’ like that ain’t a spirit.”
Roger wanted to leave, not because of the old man but because he could hear people shouting in the distance. Maybe they’d encountered the pink jellyfish spirit, and maybe it turned out not to be so friendly.
“Can you tell me what street this is?”
“Hale Avenue. I’ve lived here 47 years.”
“How would I go about getting to Muhammad Ali Boulevard?”
“Well now,” the old man said, standing up slowly. He came down off the porch putting his hand in his pocket and producing a soft pack of cigarettes. He lit one and pointed to the right. “You wanna go all the way down to the end. That’s 15th Street. You wanna go left and go–oh, I don’t know how far. It’ll take you to Muhammad. You ain’t from around here?”
“Country boy,” the old man said. “I hear you Bullitt County folk don’t like black people.”
Roger smiled nervously, embarrassed. “Hey, we’re not all the same,” he said.
The old man chuckled.
Then the gunshots started.
~ ~ ~ ~
Sprinkles watched the shootout from under a hedge bush. Ten humans shooting at two other humans. Police. Staci had watched police on the television every night, though they had just been moving shapes to Sprinkles then. Now Sprinkles understood things better. He understood humans when they spoke.
He understood that he was dying, and there wasn’t much time.
One of the police fell down and was bleeding. He wanted to help them like he’d helped the man Roger. His intention had only been to hiss, but something else had happened. A great wind had come out of his mouth to knock the humans over. Then he’d found the other man. Ted, whom he needed to kill. He didn’t know why. He only knew Ted was bad, and his need to kill Ted allowed him to move big things with his thoughts.
But doing so had made him sick. His body wasn’t strong enough for what now lived inside him. He had to find her. The girl. He could see her in the back of his mind. He could feel her. She would know what to do.
Sprinkles crawled out from under the bush and ran up the street. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t help the police. It might kill him.
And he had to find her.
~ ~ ~ ~
The phone rang while Barry was in the shower. It rang again when he came out in nothing but a towel. He knew it was his brother before he even answered. Barry had invited him over for drinks, and Derek was the type of person to call ten times before arriving. For the sake of preparedness, for the sake of pissing Barry off.
He picked it up and said, “Damn it, Derek, what?”
“Just thought I’d let you know there’s a warrant out for Hayden,” Derek said.
“Assault. He beat the shit out of Louis.”
“Wesley. The doctor. Remember? You played golf with him last month.”
Barry sighed and pulled the towel off his waist to dry his bald head. “Tell me something, Derek, do I give a shit about anything you’re saying?”
“Just thought I’d let you know,” Derek said. “I’m on my–”
Barry hung up and went to the bedroom to get dressed. He had his pants on when the doorbell rang. The girls he’d ordered from the escort service, unless Derek had called from the parking lot. He came out and answered the door. A tall blonde and a shorter brunette, both in tight white mini dresses.
“You’re Barry?” the brunette asked.
Barry smiled and nodded. He put his hand on the door frame and leaned forward, studying both their bodies. “Either of you girls know how to cook?”
The brunette curled her brow, but the blonde kept smiling and nodded emphatically.
“Good,” Barry said. “I’ll be right back.”
He closed the door on them, relishing the confused and angry expression on the brunette’s face as he jogged to the kitchen.
He reached down, hooked his hands under his dead wife’s arms, and dragged her stiffening body into the bedroom, where he deposited her in the walk-in closet and closed the door. Then he returned to the living room, opened the door, and invited the girls in.
“That was rude,” the brunette said.
“Apologies, ladies, I’m a little scattered today,” Barry said. “What are your names?”
“Sheila,” the blonde quickly responded. “This is Hailey.”
“You look lovely, both of you,” Barry said. He clapped his hands together. “Okay, first order of business. I’ve got four t-bone steaks in the fridge. I like mine rare and so does my brother.”
“Your brother’s coming?” Sheila asked.
“Yes, and I’ll warn you right now, he’s an asshole.”
“Must run in the family,” Hailey said. She stepped past him to the kitchen. Barry watched her walk, her dress clinging tight to her thighs, so high up a shorter person could probably see her ass.
He turned back to Sheila and said, “Gotta grab my shirt.”
When he went to the bedroom, she followed him.
“Sorry about that,” she whispered. “Hailey’s been in a bad mood all day. I think she’s having boyfriend troubles.”
“In your line of work, I imagine so.”
“Nothing.” He put his shirt on and when he started buttoning it Sheila stepped up and took over.
“You can report her if you want,” Sheila said. “They’ll send another girl.”
“Not necessary,” Barry said. “I like a girl with an attitude.”
Sheila frowned deliberately. “I can be mean, too.”
He smiled. “I’m sure you can.”
“No, really. I can be way more mean than Hailey.”
With the shirt buttoned, Barry headed out of the room and Sheila trailed him so close he could feel her behind him.
“I can be whatever you want,” she said.
He was getting annoyed. “I like you just the way you are,” he said, half distracted. “There’s nothing wrong with being nice.”
“You should try it sometime, then,” Hailey said. She had emerged from the kitchen carrying a glass of bourbon on the rocks.
When she put it to her lips, Barry said, “Is that for me?”
She stopped, lowered the glass, and then thrust it out at him. He stepped up to her, smiling.
“You’re feisty, aren’t you?”
“Only when I’m around rude assholes who think I’m a cook,” she said.
“Is a cook a step down from a hooker?”
“I’m not a damn hooker.”
“What?” Sheila said. “Yes you are!”
“Well so are you,” Hailey said.
Barry laughed for a moment but when the girls started raising their voices he said, “Hey, hey, shut up, both of you. Are those steaks done yet? What the hell am I paying you for?”
“Not to cook,” Hailey said.
“Well then make yourself a drink, sit down, and shut up. Sheila, get to cooking.”
“No problem, I’m on it,” Sheila said, giving Hailey a mean face as she passed by.
Hailey’s mood had improved drastically by the time Derek arrived. She downed five glasses of bourbon, becoming less and less testy with each gulp. Barry sat with her for a time, listening to her whine about her loser boyfriend, some kid who worked in the office of the escort service. She had him convinced she didn’t sleep with her clients, but apparently someone had spilled the beans.
“I’m pretty sure it was her,” Hailey whispered, pointing in the direction of the kitchen, from which came the sounds of sizzling meat and Sheila’s rather impressive singing. She must have wanted to become a vocalist but let the wrong guy lead her down the wrong path. Barry had seen it before. A singer is told she should be a model. A model is told she should pose nude, that it will help her career. Next up is stripping. Then this, if you’re lucky enough to land an escort gig in lieu of standing on a corner.
A pity for Sheila in particular, as she had real, raw talent. Barry had planned to kill both these girls tonight, but he decided he would keep Sheila around for a while.
He looked at Hailey, who was still rambling about Sheila’s betrayal, and began to snicker. Hailey didn’t know it, but Sheila just saved her life.
“What’s so funny?” Hailey asked.
“Nothing,” Barry said. The doorbell rang and he stood. “Sorry. I was just remembering something funny that happened yesterday.”
“So you weren’t listening to me?”
“I was, I promise.”
He opened the door. Derek pushed his way in quickly, a disgruntled expression on his face, but stopped when he saw Hailey. He looked at Barry, smiled, and slapped him on the arm. “Didn’t know we had company,” he said. “Is that steak cooking?”
“T-bones,” Hailey said. She stood, wobbling, and came up to Derek to introduce herself.
Barry left them and went to the kitchen. Now he definitely wasn’t going to kill them. Sheila had set the table and was preparing a full dinner. Salad, asparagus, twice-baked potatoes with bacon and sour cream, stuffed Portobello mushrooms, and a cheese cake.
“How the hell did you manage all this so quickly?”
“I went to culinary school for a year and a half,” she said. “I dropped out when my mom died.”
“You have an amazing voice,” he said. “You could have had a career in music.”
Sheila smiled, but she had sadness in her eyes. “Thank you.”
“Why didn’t you pursue it?”
She shrugged and returned to cooking. Barry refilled his glass with bourbon and made a drink for Derek. Then he called him out to the balcony so they could speak in private.
“Where’s Whitney?” Derek asked when he stepped out into the cool evening air.
“She went to her sister’s,” Barry said.
They sat in the patio chairs.
“Probably a good thing. You hear what’s been happening today?”
“Aside from that?” Barry said, pointing up at the object.
“The shootings,” Derek said. “Bunch of west end gangs are crawling through the city like cockroaches killing every cop they can find. Now they’re hitting fire departments, too.”
“Engines 16, 17, and 18 so far.”
Barry was surprised. It’s not often you get more than you pay for. “Who’s behind it?”
“Hell if I know,” Derek said. “We sent out a 10-19 to all units, brought them in, gave out every unmarked we have available. But we’ve still got dozens of cruisers on patrol, and the state boys think they can handle themselves. They’re all sitting ducks.”
“Maybe you should go on vacation.”
“Wish I could. That’s how I came to find out about Hayden. Went to the hospital to see a couple of our boys and saw Louis beat all to hell. He was mad, too.” Derek began to laugh. “Hayden must have jarred his brain loose ’cause he was talking about this girl who came in earlier. Teenage girl, real cute he said. Claims she was floating in midair.” Now he was laughing to the point of hysterics. “So serious, too. I mean, Louis is a prankster from way back, but I swear he actually believed what he was saying.”
Barry sat forward. “He said a girl was floating? In the hospital?”
“In the ER waiting room. You should see his face, Barry. Looks like a damn eggplant! He probably has a skull fracture, loopy bastard. Thinks the girl has an alien inside her.”
“Who was this girl? What was her name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was she admitted?”
“Don’t know that either. Why don’t you ask Hayden? Louis said they left together. Maybe she’s his girlfriend. He’s got a girlfriend, don’t he?”
“I don’t keep up with my son’s love life.”
“I thought Whitney told me he did. Or maybe that was Johnny’s kid.” Derek sighed. “Johnny’s dead, by the way. Him and half my other guys. This thing’s big enough to call in the national guard, but you can’t get in touch with anybody right now. Federal government’s shutting us down, Barry, sealing us off. Doesn’t look good.”
“What do you think they’re planning?”
Derek stood and approached the rail. He craned his neck upward and studied the object. “To be honest, I think they’re scared shitless. I think they’re scrambling to figure out a way to communicate with that thing, and if it doesn’t happen in the next day or two, they’re going to launch a nuke at us.”
“Bullshit,” Barry said, standing. “That won’t happen. They’ve seen enough movies to know that thing’s technology has to be light years ahead of ours–or else it wouldn’t be here. They detonate a nuke, we’ll all be fried and that thing will still be sitting there.”
“They’re gonna do it, Barry. Mark my word.”
“Not in this day and age.”
“Day and age? What the hell are you talking about, man? It’s a new day, a new age. We’re not dealing with domestic terrorists here. Have you even put any thought into what that thing is?”
Sheila appeared at the door and said, “Dinner’s ready.”
“Okay, babe,” Barry said. He stepped up next to Derek and Derek looked at him.
“Well? Have you?”
“It’s a spaceship,” Barry said. “So what? It’s not the freakin’ Death Star. If it was here to blow shit up, it wouldn’t have picked Louisville. It would have picked New York or LA or Tokyo. And there’d be more of them. Unless it has a one-punch super-weapon that’ll blow up the entire planet, in which case there’s nowhere to go, so why plan for it? Why not live today like you’re going to see tomorrow? Whatever that thing is, it’s given us the opportunity of a lifetime. We can rob this city until it’s naked wearing a whiskey barrel. No one’s here to stop us, and no one’s here to see it go down. Open your eyes, Derek.”
“My eyes are open,” Derek said, “and you know what I see? ICBMs. They’ve already got them pointed at us. Right now there’s some young military tech. kid sitting in a little room waiting for the go code. And that little shit’s eager to push the button. It’s the American way, Barry. You don’t understand something so you drop a bomb on it. Lady Liberty’s got crosshairs in her eyeballs and today she’s looking at us. You bet your ass. We need to get out of this city pronto.”
Barry laughed deliberately, though in truth he believed Derek might be right. The sky could light up at any moment and reduce him to vapor. But if he could get his hands on whatever was attached to that man’s head he saw today, the military blockades wouldn’t be able to hold him. That man had flung cars around like Hot Wheels, and from the looks of him he was half dead.
But Barry was strong, in mind and in body. If he had that kind of power, maybe he could leap from Main Street to Evansville in a single leap. Maybe he could stop a nuke in midair and send it straight to D.C.
He just had to find the guy and figure out a way to kill him.
Or he could find the girl.
Derek had gone silent. Still staring up at the object.
It was everything Barry could do not to push him over the balcony right now. Derek always had been a scared, paranoid freak. In college he’d spent most of his time developing conspiracy theories and losing girlfriends because he couldn’t shut up about the ruling class and their plots of mass genocide.
When they were kids, Barry used to sneak over to the high school gym and shut himself in one of the unused lockers in the girls’ locker room. Not only did he get to see all the girls naked, but he also learned all kinds of scandalous information from their gossiping. One girl, Lindsey Strange, was cheating on her boyfriend with her math teacher, Mr. Parker. She read a note he’d written her to all the other girls, and when they all left the locker room for gym class, he stole the note and used it to blackmail Mr. Parker repeatedly. He got a new bike out of the deal, then money. Next he approached Lindsey and made her strip naked in front of him. He made her get a really short haircut, which earned her so much ridicule at school that she quit the cheerleading team. Mr. Parker found another job and moved away, and Barry spent two years wearing Lindsey down to the point that she fell in love with him. She sat with him on the school bus. She started coming to his house under the pretense of tutoring him in advanced mathematics. She went from being his own personal slave to being his girlfriend.
It was all culminating to Barry’s ultimate plan, losing his virginity to her, but Derek ruined everything. He’d always suspected something was wrong with Barry’s and Lindsey’s relationship. The first of his conspiracy theories, as it were. Sure enough, one day when Derek stayed home sick from school he went snooping in Barry’s room and found the note. Then he slowly began to piece everything together. He found out where Mr. Parker had moved to and called him. Mr. Parker explained everything, and then Derek ratted Barry out to their parents, Lindsey’s parents, and the school principal. Barry was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for thirty days and when he returned Lindsey was gone, having been yanked out of school by her parents and sent to an all-girls catholic school for her junior and senior year.
Barry had hated his brother ever since, and on top of aspiring to one day kill him, he’d also set the goal to sleep with every one of Derek’s girlfriends and as of now had an eighty percent success rate, including Derek’s wife.
“Let’s eat,” Barry said, turning toward the balcony door.
Derek didn’t respond. He was still staring at the object.
Barry snapped his fingers. “Hey, Dr. Strangelove, we eating or what?”
“Yeah,” Derek said, distantly. “Whatever you say, boss.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Roger spotted Sprinkles coming out from under a bush and as the cat scampered up 15th Street, he was left with two choices: stay and help the woman cop whose partner lay on the ground bleeding profusely and screaming, or slip away unnoticed and chase after Sprinkles.
Neither option sounded appealing. If he ran away, he would carry more guilt than he thought he could live with. If he stayed, he might never see the cat again.
It’s just a stupid cat, his ex-wife would say right now. Nina hated cats. She hated all animals. That was her term of endearment for Roger on his worse days–the days of fighting, late nights, her discovery of drug paraphernalia above the bathroom medicine cabinet, the time he brought home a girl from a bar when Nina was supposed to be pulling a double at the hospital, the day he punched his supervisor at the warehouse and got fired. You’re an animal, Roger! You behave like an animal!
He didn’t argue. She was right. That’s why he didn’t fight her when she hired that big bald-headed attorney and took everything except the ’93 Taurus that hadn’t been driven in two years. He could have had his half, or more, after discovering she’d been sleeping with the guy throughout the divorce proceedings, but he blamed himself for that. It was over. There was nothing he could do.
Kind of like this situation. Sprinkles was already out of sight and he didn’t see which way he went. He only had one option left: save the lady cop.
The gang members stood like a firing squad in the street from one curb to the other, unloading clip after clip into the squad car, shooting wildly. They looked like they had plenty of experience holding their guns in cool and intimidating ways but little experience actually target shooting.
Behind the car, the lady cop crouched next to the back wheel, covering her head and crying out, “Please! Pleeease!”
The other officer, a young light-skinned black man with corn-rolled hair, lay flat on his back, his chest spurting blood. His right hand reached upward and swatted repeatedly, as though a fly were pestering him.
Roger surveyed the scene, the houses and buildings in the area. The squad car sat diagonally in the intersection of 15th and Hale Avenue. Roger was hiding behind the house at the corner, on the right side of Hale, facing 15th. Far down the street behind him, the old man stood out in his yard, probably smoking another cigarette, watching the events unfold. The gang members stood on 15th Street up ahead and to the left. On the other side of the street where they stood were two houses not ten feet apart. That was the spot. That’s where he needed to be. He had a plan.
In order to get there unnoticed, he ran across Hale Avenue, jumped the short, rusty cyclone fence, crossed the back yard of the house opposite the ones where he was headed, between which ten men with guns continued to pierce the squad car with .9mm rounds, and came around the side, staying low, until he reached the front.
He peeked around the corner. Luckily no one had spotted him. He was very close to the men now and realized some of them were just boys, the youngest of them not even in high school yet. Most of them held their guns sideways with one hand. Several stabbed their guns at the air as they fired. Terrible shooting. At least Roger had one advantage.
Now came the scary part. He had to get across the street, and short of circumventing a block’s worth of houses and running the risk of them deciding to advance on the car, his only choice was to stay low and cross the street directly behind them. This was nothing like the shooter games he spent so much time playing. The gunfire was deafening, the clank of bullets on metal so impactful the fear of being shot consumed him. If just one of those boys so much as detected movement in his periphery . . . game over.
Roger rose from his crouched position, readied his gun, and stepped out into the open.
To be continued . . .
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