The Object: a free serial novel
Episode Twelve: “Cockroaches”
Want to comment as you read? Open this episode’s discussion thread.
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?”
Roger thought a moment. “Are we doing the one meow, two meows thing again?”
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.”
“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?”
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.
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 . . .