Book Two, Episode One


Episode One:

Six Months Later

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey!” she shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aight, aight, no prob.”

“Get up.”

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

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

“You want to get him?” Hayden asked.

Lillia shrugged.  “Sure.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is she now?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope.”

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

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

“Are you sure no one’s home?”

“According to him,” Hayden said.

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

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

 

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

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

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

“Dis a big house.  Where’s my room?”

“That’s a good question.”

“This your place?”

“Sort of.”

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

“I can’t remember.”

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

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

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

And yet Hayden was thriving in all aspects.

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

“What now?” he asked.

“We’re waiting for Hayden.”

“What’s he doin’?”

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

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

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

“How old are y’all?” Ayo asked.

“I just turned seventeen.”

“What about him?”

“He’s twenty.”

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

“I think so.”

“You gonna offer me a drink?”

“That’s up to Hayden.”

“He’s the man of the house.”

“I guess.”

“You his girlfriend?”

“No.”

“You single?”

“Yeah.”

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

“No thanks.”

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

“It’s complicated.”

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

“Hayden will tell you.”

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

“I don’t know you.”

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

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

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

“Are you in a gang?”

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

“What do you do?  Besides selling drugs?”

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

“Are you going to?”

“What?”

“Tell me.”

He sighed.  “Aight, but don’t laugh.”

“Okay.”

“Theater.”

“Really?”

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

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Which part?”

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

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

“Okay.”

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

Lillia was so stunned she couldn’t respond.

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

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

“How the hell do you know that?”

“We’ve been following you.”

“Why?”

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

“You know him?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“We don’t know,” Lillia said.

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

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

“He killed my mother.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All right, I’ll do it.”

“You will?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I know where you live now.”

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Hayden asked.

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

“I’ll take you back.”

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

“How about I just take you back?”

“How about no?”

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

“I thought you said I did?”

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

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

“Their name is Baker.”

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

 

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

Except to steal children.

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

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

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

All the more reason to rip it off.

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

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

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

 Don’t forget to tell Hayden about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I saw that last week,” he said.

“You didn’t tell me?”

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

“We have chicken almost every night.”

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

“You were pretty tired,” Hayden said.

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

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

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

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

“Should we check it out?”

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

“Oh . . . I forgot about that.”

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

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

“What are we having?”

“Take a wild guess.”

 

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

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

“Sleepy?”

“A little.”

“You could have stayed home.”

“I don’t like to be by myself.”

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

“Why are you looking?”

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

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

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

“We need some spandex.”

“Have fun with that.”

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

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

“Want to split up to speed things along?”

“Fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?” Roger asked.

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

“Everything good with Hayden?”

“I guess.  Where’s Sherman?”

She noticed a somber look between Roger and Meredith.

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

“He’s drinking again?”

“A lot,” Meredith said.

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

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

“You’ve been to it, remember?”

“No, I don’t.  Where is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“You gonna open it?”

“Not right now.”

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

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

She nodded.

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

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

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

“Looks like I beat you,” he said.

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

“Whatever you say, slick.”

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

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

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

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

“Let’s hear it,” Hayden said.

“They’re coming in two weeks.”

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

“Like what?” Hayden asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have to try.”

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

 

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

“Stay here.”

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The riverfront.”

“Why?”

“That was Lex,” he said.  “Sh–“

“I’m not stupid.”

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

“What fireworks?”

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

“No.”

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

“Yes.”

“This is unacceptable.”

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

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

Lillia became entranced.

“Usually they have music,” Hayden said.

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

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

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

Hayden pointed.  “Look!”

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

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

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

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

But it quickly faded.

“Hayden?”

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

“Hayden, look!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued . . .

Episode Twelve, The Object: Book One

Episode Twelve


The Object: a free serial novel

Episode Twelve: “Cockroaches”

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

Cockroaches

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few more, for certain, in the tanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~

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

But it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey yo man, drop the gun.”

A young voice, right behind him, sniffling.

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

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

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

“Wait,” Roger said, followed by nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am,” he said.

The woman screamed and cowered against the car.

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

She shook her head timidly.

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

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

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

“No,” she mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A weak hiss.

“Do you want me to carry you?”

Meow.

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

Meow.

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

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

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

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

“What do you want?” Roger said.

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

“You tried to shoot me, remember?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my God,” Sheila said.

Barry pulled his gun out from its ankle holster.

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

He put the gun in Sheila’s hand.

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

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

“What if I kill someone?”

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

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

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

Barry pushed her down on the grass, saying nothing.

~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, we’re here.”

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

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

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

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

Lillia nodded, yawning and stretching.

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

“You know it,” Joey said.

“What was that explosion a little while ago?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t see any.”

She nodded again but didn’t speak.

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

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

“I think I might.”

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meow.

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

To be continued . . .

Read Episode Thirteen

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Get Your Copy of The Object: Book One


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

In the meantime, download the book!

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Some Sleep This Month? No?


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

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

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

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

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

Episode Four, The Object: Book One

Episode Four


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Episode Four: “Lights in the Sky”

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Open this episode’s discussion thread.

~ ~ ~ ~

Sherman held the gun on Ted while Lillia climbed halfway up the staircase to tie the nylon rope to the rail.

“Make sure you pull it tight, honey.  Put ol’ Ted on his tiptoes.”

“I’m a get you, just wait and see,” said Ted.  He started to speak again but Lillia yanked on the rope, causing him to cry out.  “That’s too tight,” he said.  “This is inhumane.”

“Like comin’ after little children,” Sherman said.  “You’re a grown man, Ted.  You ought to know better.”

“Piss on you, blue gums.”

Another jerk of the rope came from above.

Sherman said, “Y’ain’t helpin’ your case none, talkin’ like that.”

With the rope secure, Ted was now tied at both wrists in a standing position against the side of the staircase, about halfway down the hall.  Trips to the kitchen would have to be taken through the living room.

“What now?” Lillia asked, leaning over the rail.

“You go on up and keep the children company.  I’ll see what I can do about–what’s your brother’s name, Ted?”

“Kiss my ass.”

“See what I can do about Kiss My Ass,” Sherman said.

Lillia nodded and jogged up the steps.

Sherman waited until she closed the bedroom door and then he stepped around to the foot of the stairs, where Ted’s brother lay moaning and bleeding.  His breathing had grown shallow and the pool of blood had spread to both corners of the bottom step, running in a stream to the base of the coat rack.  This presented the illusion that the coat rack itself was bleeding, until he turned back to Ted’s mangled brother.  That bone sticking out of his arm churned Sherman’s stomach.  Had he not already puked himself empty on the Tarc bus, he might just add to the mess right here.

He knew what he had to do, but he didn’t know how to do it.  The gun was out of the question.  It would scare the kids and only add to the blood he needed to mop up so the children wouldn’t see it.

“Hey,” Ted said.  “How’s my brother doin’?”

“Not good.”

“How you doin’ over there, Steve?”

Steve opened his mouth to respond and pink blood bubbled out.

“Your brother’s dyin’,” Sherman said.  “Looks like he got a rib in his lung.”

“Call an ambulance!”

“We done tried that.  Couldn’t get through.  This city’s gone off its rocker–but I guess you know that already.”

“Well then help him, I don’t know.  Do something.”

“I’m workin’ on it.”

“What are you gonna do?”

“Well, let’s see.”  Sherman crossed his arms, coughed.  “The plan, I suppose, is puttin’ him out of his misery.  I just ain’t decided on my method.”

“Kill him?”

“He’s done mostly dead.  Just needs that extra little push.”

“You son of a bitch, you better not kill my brother.”

Sherman stepped into the hall to face Ted.  “Well then what do you think I should do?  Believe me, I’m open to suggestions.  Killin’ folks ain’t an every day thing for me.”

“Take him to the hospital.”

“With what?”

“My truck.  It’s parked right up the street.  White S-10.  I got the keys right here in my pocket.”

“Nah, no good,” Sherman said.  “Them kids don’t need to be out traipsin’ around in this craziness.”

“Leave ’em here.”

“With you?”

“I’m tied up.”

“Soon as I’m out the door you’ll be tryin’ to work free.  Can’t risk it, no sir.”

“Then let me go.  I’ll take him.  I swear you’ll never see me again.”

“Can’t do it, brother.”

“Come on, damn it!”

“Keep your voice down.”  Sherman raised the gun again.  “I won’t have you scarin’ them kids.  No more.”

“You gotta kill me or let me go,” Ted said.

“Let’s concentrate on your brother for now.  We’ll get to you next.”

Sherman lowered the gun and walked through the living room, intending to find a good sharp knife.  Stabbing Steve would only add to the blood, but at least it wouldn’t spray all over the walls.  He didn’t have time to search for other options.  He still had Ted to deal with, then securing the house from other intruders.  He needed to find a television and see what they had to say about that big thing in the sky.

What he really needed was a pint of whiskey.

Before he reached the kitchen Sherman stopped at the couch, where his answer lay against the armrest.  A throw pillow.  Of course.  If you want to kill someone quietly, what better way is there?

He grabbed the pillow and stuck the gun in his back pocket.  The weight of it made his loose pants sag so low they were nearly falling off by the time he reached Steve.

“You gonna prop his head up with that?” Ted asked.

Sherman knelt next to Steve and hitched his pants.  He took the gun out and placed it on the floor at arm’s length.  Then he tried to position his knees clear of the blood as he leaned over Steve, gripped both sides of the pillow, and pressed it firmly into Steve’s face.

Steve let out a muffled moan that sounded like an electric shaver.  His uninjured arm lolled and flopped like the severed tail of a racing lizard, striking the corner of the bottom step, then landing in Sherman’s lap where it writhed about and grabbed at his shirt.

Sherman turned his head and closed his eyes.  He began to count the seconds in his head.  How long does it take?   Ted must have heard the commotion because now he was calling out to his brother.  “Steve, you okay?  What’s that son of a bitch doin’ to you?  Hey–hey, whatever your name is!”

Lillia must have heard, too, because the bedroom door opened and closed upstairs and he could hear her little footsteps, one after the other, slowly coming down the steps.  When she stopped, he realized he was counting her footsteps and not the seconds.

“Hey!” said Ted.

Sherman opened his eyes and turned to Lillia, who stood about halfway up the stairs, her fingers lightly treading the rail.  She stared at Steve–or rather the pillow on Steve’s face.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” Sherman said.

Lillia titled her head slightly.  “Is he dead?”

Sherman slowly removed the pillow to reveal Steve’s face, his wide eyes and open mouth.

“You kill my brother?!” Ted screamed.

“Yeah, he’s . . . man, I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to a dead–”

Suddenly Steve’s body jerked and a mist of blood shot out of his mouth as he gasped for breath.  Sherman shrieked and reared back as if being thrown from a horse and said, “Oh Holy Hell, Steve, damn, you ain’t dead!  Sorry for cursin’, young lady.”

“What’s goin’ on over there?” Ted asked.  “Somebody better answer me.”

“Just hang on,” Sherman said.  He leaned over Steve again, and this time Steve made eye contact with him.  “Sorry, Steve.  Don’t mean to drag this thing out so long.  I ain’t no good at killin’.”

“It . . . hurts,” Steve said.  “Can’t breathe.”

“Well look, they ain’t no ambulance comin’.  You know that, right?”

Steve nodded.

“I got a gun,” Sherman said, “but I don’t know if I can do it, Steve.”

This time Steve nodded aggressively, opening his eyes as wide as he could.  Blood bubbled up at the corner of his mouth and streamed down his cheek.

“What’s he sayin’?” Ted said.

“He wants me to . . . to put an end to it.”

“Well do it then!”

“I’m tryin’ to Ted!” Sherman yelled.

“Please,” Steve murmured.

If Sherman hadn’t seen his lips moving he wouldn’t have caught it.  He leaned far over and picked up the gun, righted himself, stood with one foot on either side of Steve’s legs.  “Ted.  You got anything you want to say to your brother?”

Ted didn’t respond.  Sherman peered around the side of the railing, thinking Ted must have succumbed to tears.  Instead he found Ted straining to peek up through the rails at Lillia, grinning.

“Might want to move over to the wall, honey,” Sherman said.  “Ted’s got the angle on you.”

Lillia looked around herself for a moment, then realized what he meant and jumped away from the rail as though it were electrified.

“No last words to your own family, huh, Ted?”

Ted grumbled to himself for a moment and then said, “Catch ya later, Steve.”

Sherman pulled back the hammer.

“Wait,” Lillia said.  She turned and bounded up the steps, calling back, “I have an idea.”

~~~~

    Barry double parked in front of a taxi cab around the corner from the police precinct.  West Jefferson Street was barricaded by fire trucks, probably to make it easy for cops and city officials to get in and out without having to tear through the masses of belligerent fools wailing and pleading for assistance with their various problems.  People crowded the front and back ends of the fire trucks blocking the street, and officers in riot gear held the barrier.

Play Episode Four’s Score

“What’d you find?”

Jason was running through the contacts list on Wally’s cell phone, looking for any names that might be Wally’s supplier or employer.

“I don’t know.  It’s a bunch of chicks.  Kate.  Keisha.  Natty.  Momz.  Pizza Place.  T.  White girl.  My only guess would be T.”

“Call it.”

Barry scanned the sidewalks, studying individual faces, each frowning, cheeks wet with tears, noses clogged with snot.  “Too stupid to run,” he mumbled.  “Resigned to whatever fate it brings them.”

“What?” Jason said.  He pulled the phone away from his ear.  “Signal’s weak.  Wait.  Okay it’s ringing.  Shit.  Disconnected.”

“Call it again.”

“No I mean the number’s been disconnected.”

“Give me that.”  Barry snatched the phone from Jason’s hand and opened the door.  “Wait in the car.”

“Gladly,” Jason said.

Barry stood outside the car for a moment and checked his clothes for blood spatter.  Then he removed his handgun from its holster and inspected it, in case he had to check it in before entering the precinct.

Copyright Justin Comley, 2012

He approached the crowd at the back of the fire truck and pushed his way through to the front of the barricade.  The tallest in the crowd, he scanned the faces behind the riot glass and helmets until he spotted one he recognized.  Bodies pressed into him on both sides, reeking of sweat, dampening the sleeves of his suit jacket.

“Tyler!  Hey!”  He whistled loud enough to soften the noise of the crowd for a moment.  Everyone turned to watch him.

“Barry!” Tyler called back.  Then he patted the arm of the officer next to him and said, “Hey, the tall guy–let him through.”

Barry fought his way over to Tyler and slid through a narrow crevice he and the other officer made with their riot glass.  He jogged down the street around police cars parked at random and finally came to the swinging doors of the precinct, where a young female officer leaned against the wall crying, soaked in blood.  He stopped and looked at her for a moment.  Then he continued on into the bright fluorescent-lit lobby, where he spotted his brother, Derek, huddled with two other detectives near a row of water coolers.

As though sensing his presence, Derek lifted a finger without turning, then crossed his arms and continued with his hushed conversation.

Barry sat on a bench near the exit and waited–his brother liked to make him wait.  Even for the money they had smuggled from evidence and robbed from small-time drug dealers: Derek took it for a “safe waiting period,” and when Barry’s half came back it always turned up light by twenty percent.  “Handling fees and such.  You understand,” he had explained the first time it happened.

The young bloody officer wandered through the door just as Derek finally broke from his secret meeting and approached.  Barry passed her close enough to catch a salty whiff of the blood.  When he reached Derek he glanced back and noticed the girl had taken his place on the bench.

“Madhouse, Barry, I don’t have much time.  What is it?”

Barry spoke low.  “I need a name run.”

“Now?”

“Yes.”

“Jesus, Barry, haven’t you noticed the fuckin’ Martian spaceship in the sky?”

“It’s important,” Barry said.  He moved in a little and gave Derek his signature grin, the one that meant money.  “Could be big, Derek.”

Derek sighed and said, “Okay, fine, pick a uniform and tell them I said to help you.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know–that one.”  Daniel snapped his fingers twice in the girl’s direction.  “Hey, you, Meredith.  Come here.”

Meredith stood and approached briskly, head down.  “Yes sir.”

Derek looked her over.  “What happened to you?”

“I shot someone.”

“With a bazooka?  How’d you get blood all over you?  Anyway, that doesn’t matter.  This is my brother, Attorney Barry Schafer.  You’re gonna go upstairs with him and run a name for him, okay?  Give him whatever he wants.”

Barry and Derek exchanged a brief smirk, and then Derek smacked Barry on the arm with the manila folder he was holding and headed for the door.

~~~~

    Danny barreled out the front door of Cafe 360 yelling and cackling at the top of his lungs. He held a fifth of Blue Label Johnny Walker in one hand and a grill lighter he’d swiped from the kitchen in the other.

He crossed the street staggering and came to the entrance of a vintage clothing store.  The door was locked so he searched about for something blunt and heavy.  In the alleyway next to the building he found a chuck of rock the size of his head.  The weight of it made him top-heavy and he dropped his scotch on the way back to the door, but that was okay.  The streets were empty, alll the hippies and hipsters and proprietors of shops and restaurants had fled.  Only Danny remained.  Danny and about two dozen bars up and down Bardstown Road.

The rock smashed through the glass door easily, triggering a security alarm.  Danny kicked at the remaining shards of glass and then stepped inside.

A few minutes later he reemerged from the store dressed in a yellow 70s-style leisure suit with bellbottom pants and a large pair of sunglasses.  His pointy-toed boots crunched on shattered glass and tendrils of smoke trailed him out the door.

~~~~

    Lillia came down the stairs this time carrying a large bag that rattled as if filled with Legos.  She also carried a plastic cup filled with water.

Sherman had gone to the kitchen to avoid further conversation with Ted, who fluctuated between aggressive retort and crude perversions, often mentioning the girl, Lillia.  Enough was enough.  Ted was just asking for a bullet.

He found a mop and bucket and was filling the bucket in the sink when he heard a door open upstairs.  He shut the water off and returned to the foyer as Lillia was coming down.

She sat on the steps above Steve’s head and started fishing through the bag, coming out with a prescription pill bottle.  She inspected the label closely, dropped it back in, and pulled out another.  She did this several times before finally tossing the bag from her lap and twisting the cap on a bottle.  Then she picked up the plastic cup and scooted down a step, closer to Steve.

“Mrs. Wilkins’s pain pills,” she said, looking at Sherman.  “She has a whole pharmacy in her bedroom.”

She fished two pills from the bottle and hovered them over Steve’s mouth.  Steve looked at her and then he stuck out his bloody tongue.  Lillia dropped them and then poured a small stream of water in his mouth, most of which he coughed back up.

“More,” he choked.

This time Lillia gave him three pills, more water.

“More.”

Sherman watched, mesmerized, as the little girl fed the entire bottle of pills to a man with a hole in his head the size of a small banana.  She looked peaceful, contemplative, as though instead of delivering someone his death she were merely watering a garden.

When the pills were gone, she hopped over Steve’s body and came to stand by Sherman, and there they waited together for Steve’s chest to stop heaving.

“Will you stay with us?” she whispered.

Sherman nodded.  “If you’ll have me, young lady, I’d certainly appreciate it.  I don’t have any place else to go.”

“Thank you.”

“No, no, thank you,” Sherman said.

~~~~

    “He came at me, so I shot him.  I couldn’t get a response from dispatch and I didn’t know what else to do, so I put him in my car and drove him to the hospital.  No one would help me drag him inside.  I couldn’t do it by myself.  So I left him there.  On the sidewalk.”

“Scumbag deserves to die,” Barry said.

Meredith’s fingers trembled as she typed on the keyboard.  “Wally Hinkley, you said?”

“Try Walter.  I’m looking for known criminal associates.”

“I’ll just print out his sheet.”

“That’s fine.”

She made a few clicks with her computer mouse and then he followed her across the room to the printer, which had already spat out two sheets of paper.  She handed them over and then stood there, still shaking.

“You need to toughen up a bit,” Barry said, “if you want to be a police officer.”

She sniffled sharply and then breathed through her open mouth.

“You don’t know what it’s like.  To kill somebody.”

Barry snickered.  Then the lights went out.

~~~~

    Out on the street the crowds erupted in earsplitting screams and quickly dispersed from the barricades.  Derek Schafer was the last of his small entourage to notice the ground and the buildings light up in a stark orange-golden glow.  He walked several steps ahead of the other detectives, too busy scrutinizing the contents of his manila folder, when finally he heard the crackle and sizzle of electricity above him and looked up to see a giant creature passing just overtop the buildings.  It looked like a squid, only with thousands of tentacles of varying sizes, some so small his eyes could barely detect them, and they waved as though the beast were swimming through the sky.  Bolts of lightning sizzled in the air all around it, and the creature emitted a thick and piercing glow that left spots in Derek’s eyes long after it floated on past the taller buildings to the west and disappeared.

Copyright Justin Comley, 2012

To be continued . . .

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Episode Three, The Object: Book One

Episode Three


The Object: a free serial novel

Episode Three: “First Night”

Want to comment as you read?

Open this episode’s discussion thread.

~ ~ ~ ~

The black paint on the window–one of Mrs. Wilkins’s many demonstrations of insanity–was their only chance not to be spotted.  Lillia helped Drake and Kate climb out on the slanted rooftop for the second time, then crawled through herself.  The sun was just falling below the curve of the object’s underside, blanketing the city in a warm orange glow.

    Lillia removed the window stick and let the window down gently just as she heard the thundering footsteps coming up the stairs.

    She looked at Drake and Kate and put a finger to her lips.  Kate sniffled.  Suddenly Lillia noticed the wind had died down, and now every sound they made seemed amplified–their breathing, the scraping of their feet on the grainy asphalt shingles.

    “It’ll be okay,” she whispered to Kate.  “Drake, hold your–“

    The bedroom door flew open and crashed into the small white vanity where Kate often pretended her doll was a stage actor, Kate a make-up artist preparing the doll for the most important performance of its career.

    Drake wrapped his arms around Kate and Lillia put her ear to the window.

    “Ain’t nobody here,” a man said in a deep, scratchy voice, followed by violent coughing.

    “I seen her leavin’,” said another.  “She only took two of ’em with her.”

    “Well they ain’t here.”

    “They was not too long ago.  This tuna’s still cold.”

    “Hey, let me get that other half.  I’m hungry.”

    There was a pause in conversation, and Lillia waited, tense, for one of the men to notice the stool under the window and piece the entire scene together.

    “Let’s keep lookin’,” one of the men said.

    Then the voices began to call out for anyone in the house.  “We ain’t gonna hurt nobody,” they said.  “We just wanna help you.  Aliens is comin‘.”

    “We’re your next door neighbors,” said the scratchy voice.

    Their words faded as they moved out of the bedroom to the second floor landing, where they stood and mumbled to one another for a moment.  The only thing Lillia could make out of this conversation was, “We gotta grab ’em up fast.”  Finally she heard the squeak of the staircase as they descended to the front foyer.

    Drake and Kate sat perfectly still, watching her, Kate terrified, Drake trying not to be.  They knew how to hide, how to stop crying in fear of drawing attention to themselves, how to interpret angry voices and loud crashes muffled through the walls.  The object aside, this wasn’t a peculiar day.  This was simply what life was like when Mr. Wilkins came home, only the object and the mayhem to follow had appeared unexpectedly.  Lillia knew when to expect Mr. Wilkins, and as the days drew nearer, her anxiety would grow.

    The object hadn’t given her time to grow anxious.  One moment life was the same as it had always been.  She’d had a pop quiz in calculus.  At the end of class Mr. Snyder announced the highest grade to determine the curve for the other students.  The only sophomore in a room full of seniors, Lillia, and she knew she’d scored perfectly.  She always did, even when she didn’t study.  Mr. Snyder announced her grade and groans and whispers rose in a wave across the classroom.

    When the bell rang, she stayed behind, waiting for the classroom to empty, waiting until only thirty seconds remained before the next bell, when the hallways would be clear.  Then she ran to her next class, Anatomy and Physiology, where instead of desks students were paired up in fours around black island countertops with sinks and Bunsen burners.

    This was the best and worst part of her day and evidence to the universe’s sense of humor.  Seating assignments of random selection, and somehow she was grouped with Chase Kolton, her personal obsession since she first came to DuPont Manuel High School, and the Payton sisters, Sophie and Autumn, both unrivaled in their independent study of anatomy, or in how much of their own they put on display to the rest of the class, two live specimens, brainless and eager to be inspected by whomever, whenever, wherever.

    Whatever activity did subsist in the cold meat of their brains functioned only to sniff out Lillia’s attraction to Chase, to deflect Chase’s attention, to abominate Lillia and seek to take what she wanted.  Jackals with short shorts and cleavage.

    Today they had dissected frogs–or rather Lillia had dissected the frog while Sophie and Autumn squealed and giggled and clung like chimps to Chase’s arms.

    “So gross,” Autumn had said.  “How can you do that?”

    It was amazing how girls as dumb as these two so often seized upon moments of pure genius: they knew precisely how to acknowledge Lillia only in moments when they could brand her with an unpleasant association.  A splayed out frog’s innards today.  Last week the roaring fart of a football player, its author obvious to all, but somehow the Payton sisters had instantly directed the entire class to falsely and knowingly deem Lillia the source.

    This was daily life for Lillia: balancing her fear of people with her desire to exist among them as more than an insect in constant danger of being squashed.  The incident with Mike the Stalker was less a divergence from the norm and more an exacerbation.  Taunting, harassment, bullying, crude innuendo–these were daily experiences for Lillia.  She used to question why she was subject to constant abuse while others walked between the raindrops, but such was the nature of luck.  Like the seating assignment in Anatomy and Physiology.  Random selection sometimes produces results that seem premeditated.

    Then the object appeared, and everything suddenly looked different.

    Where were Sophie and Autumn now? she wondered.  To whose arms did they cling while gazing up at the object, and did they loathe it for its latent and perilous nature or its capacity to deflect attention from them?

    The former, Lillia imagined.  The sheer size of the object was enough to steal the breath of even the most unimpressed, the most self-absorbed person–at least at first.  So far it seemed to be drawing the worst out of people.

    “Did they leave?” Drake whispered.

    “I don’t know,” Lillia said.

    The sun hovered low over the interstate, where traffic crept along at such a pace that some drivers had abandoned their vehicles in the emergency lane and were running to get out from under the object, and now the sun’s dim evening glow illuminated the object’s underside, giving it depth and definition for the first time.  Not a flat surface.  The shadows cast by the sunlight revealed ducts and protrusions, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands.  Mechanical in their formation but somehow dusted with the essence of natural development, as though the object were some great and ancient spaceship whose surface had weathered to sand and silt, just like the mountains of the earth.

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    Which meant the object not only had its own gravitational pull but must also have its own atmosphere, its own wind, if such a thing were possible.

    Lillia heard footsteps quickly approaching the window.

    “Move over,” she whispered, nudging Drake.  He scooted to far wall, pulling Kate along with him.

    Lillia started to follow when the window jarred open a few inches and two dirty sets of fingers hooked the frame and pulled it up to reveal the toothless, grinning face of a chubby man wearing a blue work shirt with the name Ted above the breast pocket.

    “Heh heh, there you are,” he said, reaching out and grabbing her by the ankle.  Lillia struggled for a moment and then used the force of his pulling to deliver a hard kick to his nose.  He cried out and released her and she scooted away from the window as it slammed on Ted‘s hands.  He cried out again, louder this time, then forced the window back open.

“You’re a sassy little twit, I’ll give you that,” he said.  He began to climb out onto the roof.  “Come here.  You’re gonna be my new friend.”

    Lillia realized she was still holding the piece of broom handle for propping the window open.  She put it behind her back.  Kate was sobbing and Drake was saying her name over and over.

    Ted struggled with the window as it kept falling on him, forcing him to turn to his side and hold it up with one hand.

    When he was out past his knees she brought the broom handle down over his head with both hands and all her weight.  Ted’s head bounced on impact and he looked up at her for a moment before tumbling down the roof and falling over the side, crashing down somewhere in the hedge bushes below.

    “That was awesome, Lillia,” Drake said.

    Lillia turned to him and then thrust the broom handle at him.  “Take it,” she said.  “I’m gonna go find help.”

    “But there could be more in there.”

    “There is,” she said.  “At least one more.  And when that guy wakes up in the bushes he’ll bring his friend up here and then we’re in real trouble.”

    She shook the broom handle and Drake took it.

    “Hurry, Lillia,” he said.

    She nodded.  “If anyone else tries to get you, do what I did.  Wait until he’s most of the way through and knock him on the head.  Okay?”

    “Cool,” Drake said.

    Lillia listened through the window for movement.  Then she pulled it open slowly, peeked inside, and climbed through.

    The mirror on Kate’s vanity had shattered.  The cups and bag of potato chips had been kicked across the room, a mess the three of them would catch a beating for if Mrs. Wilkins laid eyes on it.  A belt across their bare bottoms.

    She approached the door on tiptoes, stopped, listened to what sounded like someone rummaging through drawers in the kitchen downstairs.  She crossed the hall to Mrs. Wilkins’s bedroom, still in pristine condition and bare save for the bed, a small dresser, and two nightstands–so bare the intruders hadn’t bothered to tear it apart, probably assuming it was just a guest room.

    The men were right not to bother.  Lillia knew the nightstands to only contain Benadryl, a notepad and pen, and a Bible.  She also knew Mrs. Wilkins kept a can of pepper spray and a handheld taser under her pillow.

    With these in hand, Lillia returned to the landing and slowly began to descend the squeaky staircase.  The front door was cracked open.  If she could make it there and draw the attention of the man in the kitchen, she could spray him, zap him, and then get a hold of one of the loose bricks that lined the flowerbed below the porch.

Copyright Justin Comley, 2012

    The rummaging stopped and then a voice said, “Hey Ted!  Find anything?”

    Lillia froze.  He was coming.

    Then he was there, standing at the foot of the stairs, gazing up at her.  She brandished the taser at him but kept the pepper spray concealed.

    “Hey there, girly,” he said.  “Where’s Ted?”

    “Ted had an accident,” Lillia said.

    The man put his foot on the bottom step and grabbed the rail.  “Ted, you up there?”

    “You need to leave,” Lillia said.  “This is our house.”

    “Where’s my brother?  Ted!”

    “He’s not up here.”

    “Bullshit.”  He took two more steps, called out to his brother again.  “Where were you hiding?  We looked around pretty good.”

    “What were you looking for?”

    “You.”

    “Why?”

    The man giggled, and Lillia realized if he wasn’t insane before, the object had made him so.  “We’ve had our eyes on you a long time,” the man said.  “Watching you walk home from school in your little skirt.  Ted’s in love, I believe.”

    “Gross.”

    “Come on down here.”

    “No.”

    “Is that a taser?”

    “Yeah.”

    “Fair enough.”

    The man lunged up the steps and Lillia pressed the button on the taser, producing a blue current of lightning between two metal spikes.  She tried to zap him but he grabbed her by the wrist and wrapped his free arm around her waist, lifting her off the steps.

    He screamed and dropped her as she unloaded the pepper spray in his eyes.  She fell back against the steps, the man clawing at his face and reeling on unsteady feet.  Then she jabbed the taser into his thigh and pressed the button.

    Ted’s brother stiffened and trembled, then collapsed and tumbled down the stairs.  Lillia turned away and shielded her eyes both from the sting of pepper spray in the air and the sound of snapping bones.  When she opened them again she found Ted’s brother lying in a twisted bundle, moaning, a gash on his head that looked like it had been delivered by an axe, the radial bone jutting from one forearm–she’d learned about the radius in Anatomy class.

~~~~

    Sherman collapsed on the floor and vomited.  All the running he’d done today, the dehydration from donating plasma, the pint of KG in his stomach, the crunch of the old woman’s bones–it was all too much.

    Then came the shouting and the gunshots.

    Sherman rolled over in his own warm puke and watched the bus driver lean over and scramble for something to his left.  There were two bullet holes in the windshield–then three.

    Out on the street someone was shouting, “That was my grandma you blind sumbitch!”

    The driver came up holding a revolver.  Then came three more blasts in quick succession and blood spattered the seats and misted in Sherman’s face.  The driver slumped over and then fell out of his seat, the gun clattering to the floor.

    Sherman snatched up the gun and then crawled to the back of the bus, the kid outside still bawling and firing shots into the front windshield.

    When he reached the back, Sherman lifted the yellow lever on the emergency exit door and pushed it open, triggering an alarm.  He jumped out onto the pavement at the intersection of 2nd and St. Catherine, right in front of the Brick House community center.  It was almost full dark now.

    He took off down St. Catherine.  The moment he was clear of the bus the kid whose grandmother had just been plowed fired at him and then gave chase, cursing and shouting, “You a dead man, bitch!”

    Sherman ran at a speed he didn’t know himself capable.  He veered to the left sidewalk, where the occasional tree or parked car would provide him some cover, until the kid joined him on the sidewalk, firing wildly.  A bullet tore through some tree branches up ahead, raining disintegrated leaves upon him as he passed.

    He crossed the 1st Street intersection, kept going straight.  He came to an exit ramp from the interstate and nearly made the mistake of taking it, but he quickly realized the incline would slow him down.  The kid was already closing distance.

    Past the exit ramp he cut left into a yard that ran alongside some trees bordering a house on the corner of St. Catherine and Brook Street, and when he emerged from the trees onto the Brook Street sidewalk he collided with a young girl, sending both of them sprawling on the street and knocking the pistol from his grip and skidding across the pavement to the center line.

    Sherman and the girl sat up at the same time and looked at each other.  Then Sherman dove at her and pulled her kicking and screaming to the short retaining wall just as two more gunshots rang out.

    Sherman peeked over the wall and saw the kid approaching at a fast walk.  He looked at the girl, wide-eyed and panting.  “If he gets me, run like hell.”

    Then he went for the gun, expecting to be mowed down by gunfire, but instead he reached the center line, scooped up the pistol, and pointed it at the kid, who had run out of bullets and now stood in the street, producing a clicking noise as he continued to pull the trigger.

    “Well go on then!” the kid shouted.  “Shoot me!  Do it!”  He began to pace back and forth and punch himself in the chest.

    “Listen, brother,” Sherman started.

    “You killed my grandma!”

    “Nah, man, it wasn’t–”

    “Shoot me if you got the balls,” the kid said.  “What are you waiting for?  Go on!”

    “Come on, son.  You need to listen.”

    Sherman glanced over at the girl, who cowered against the wall, shaking.  The kid continued to scream and curse, and she reacted to each blast of his rage.

    Sherman fired the gun over the kid’s head and the kid backed away, tripped, sat down in the grass.  Sherman approached him quickly, gun trained at his face.

    “Listen to me, son.  I’m sorry as I can be about your grandma, but I wasn’t the one drivin’ the bus.”

    “You a liar, man.”

    Sherman smiled and plucked at his tattered denim jacket.  “Now come on, son.  Do I look like a brother with a job to you?  Seriously.  The man you’re after you done killed.  If I wasn’t so black you could see his blood on my face.”

    The kid dropped his head and began to cry.  “That was my grandma, man.  I come to take her to church.  She thought the end was comin‘.”

    “You ain’t got no other people?” Sherman asked.

    “I got my boys,” the kid said.  “CNG, bitch.  Fuh eva’.”

    Sherman nodded.  “Two of your boys jumped me couple weeks back.  You get back to Greenwood you tell ‘em drunk Sherman let you live, you understand?”

    The kid stood and straightened his jacket.

    “CNG don’t give a fuck,” he said.  “We gon’ own this town now.  I get reloaded, I’m comin’ after yo’ broke stankin’ ass.”

    Sherman cocked the hammer on the pistol and the kid turned back up St. Catherine.

    Sherman called after him, “Go have a look for yourself!” he said.  “It wasn’t me, son!  You tell ‘em I let you live!”

    The kid was gone, lost somewhere in the dark.  Sherman turned back to the girl.

    “Young lady, you shouldn’t be out in the streets tonight.  It’s dangerous.”

    The girl stood.  “I need help,” she said.  “Some men broke into our house.  I hurt them.  My brother and sister are still there.”

    “Where do you live?”

    She started to tell him but stopped.

    “It’s okay, young lady.  What’s your name?”

    “Lillia.”

    “I’m Sherman.  I’m homeless and I’m a drunk, but I ain’t never hurt nobody.”

    She stared at him for a moment.  Then she pointed towards the intestate and said, “My house is over there.”

    He followed her down the street to her house.  The front door stood wide open.  Just inside he could see a lump moving and twitching at the bottom of the steps.

    The girl crossed to the right side of the yard, waving him along.  “One of them is over here,” she said.

    He came around the side of the house, where tall trees and the interstate obstructed the light from the street lamps, and found the girl standing at the hedges lining the house, pointing at a man who lay half-conscious and making motions with his arms as though backstroking in a swimming pool.

    Sherman pointed his gun at the man.

    “Wait,” Lillia said.  “Don’t kill him.”

    “Fine by me,” Sherman said.

    Lillia backed away and called up to the rooftop.  “Drake!”

    Sherman looked up and saw two children standing on a small section of roof where the house was only one story.

    “Lillia, look!” the boy said, pointing up at the sky.

    Sherman stepped around to where Lillia stood, and together they peered up at the object, where a number of tiny golden lights floated and glided like lightning bugs.  For several minutes they watched the little orbs grow bigger and bigger in the sky.

Copyright Justin Comley, 2012

    “What is it, Lillia?” said the little girl.

    “I don’t know,” Lillia called up to her.

    “Aliens!” the boy said.

    “You go on up, get them children off that roof,” Sherman said.  “I’ll see to it this guy knows not to come back.”

    “Thanks,” Lillia said, and then she took off around the corner.

    Sherman moved over next to the man in the hedges and tapped him on the leg with the barrel of the gun.

    “Hey, man,” he said, pointing up at the sky.  “Check that out.”

To be continued . . .

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