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The Absence of Knowledge, Part 9: The New History of Concord

 

The New History of Concord

By: Ronny Mills

Age: 9 ¾

 

Ronald Mills, Sr., was down at the shop doing Good Honest Work, and Terry Mills was next door Grabbing Coffee at The Worcheszkcis(?)’ house when the Bad Stuff happened. Let the record show that Grabbing Coffee sometimes was actually drinking wine, but always smoking cigarettes and talking real loud on the back porch with Mrs. Worchezschis(?). Also the record should know that Good Honest Work was fixing cars (and other stuff that people needed fixing, like vacuum cleaners, and sometimes sewing machines, or garbage disposals). Ronald Mills, Jr., knew about the Bad Stuff first, on account of because he was watching cartoons on Saturday morning, and the TV stopped playing cartoons to start talking about News that was happening in Charlotte, which was close to Concord, but not so close you could walk.

 

There were lots of Fucking Maniacs (that’s what Ronald Mills, Sr. said they were called) on the TV, which was being filmed from a helicopter, or sometimes from people’s phones. The Fucking Maniacs were hurting all the people they could see, and there were fires, and a bunch of police ready to break it up, but some of the police started shooting other police instead, and then Ronald Mills, Jr., got up to tell his mother, Terry Mills, about the Bad Stuff. There was no fence between the Mills’ yard and the Worchekskis(?), so he could have just yelled, but Terry Mills was In The Middle Of A Conversation, and told him to go back inside.

 

I put the pencil down and shook out my hand. Whenever I wrote importantly I grabbed the pencil too hard, and my hand got tired fast. Mrs. Davis told me to stop doing that, but the problem is that when I’m doing it, I’m so focused on the important writing that I don’t realize I’m doing it. Anyway, that was probably enough History for the day. It was important to record the History, because mom said that if you don’t remember History, you get doomed to repeat it, and I really didn’t want to repeat any of this. So I was writing it all down, because I didn’t think anybody else was. Concord used to be so full of people you had to wait in line at the grocery store, but lately there was just me, mom, and dad. And you couldn’t really count mom and dad as people anymore.

 

I clicked off my camping lantern and let my eyes get used to seeing in the dark. Then I unpinned the black curtains from behind the grate of the air conditioner, and watched the outside. When I was sure nobody was looking, I put on my Bandaliero, and took the grate off super quiet. I checked again, and there was still nobody. I put the grate back, and walked all sneakily until I was behind the ducts. I unclipped my binoculars from the Bandaliero — which were supposed to be kind of a toy, so they weren’t really super good, but still worked okay — and I looked at all the rooftops, the windows, and the street below. I did not see anything moving. I put the binoculars back on the Bandaliero, and headed towards Means Street, because the corner store there still had some food in packages, which was the only food that was good any more.

 

Most of the buildings in downtown Concord were actually all connected. It was only the one street, so if you got on the roofs like I did, you could walk to the others without getting down. There were a couple gaps, though, but for those I left boards nearby that I could walk across. I kind of hid them, or threw them around so they didn’t look like anything, and nobody would know somebody was living up on the roofs. It had been a while since I saw anybody in Concord except mom and dad, but that didn’t mean the others were all gone.

 

Some of the Fucking Maniacs didn’t move much, or make any noise at all… unless you got close to them, and then they moved so super fast, and pulled all your parts off like you were a bug. But even if it was just me and mom and dad in town, I sure didn’t want them coming up here, either. So I had to be fast and careful.

 

I practiced my climbing on the roofs that were different heights, and I practiced my somersaults for when I had to jump back down. Somersaults were good for dodging things – I learned that from every video game I ever played – so I practiced them extra hard. When I got to Means Street and the roofs ran out, I had to climb down the fire escape, which was scary. The stairs go right past all the dark windows of the offices and apartments and stuff. You don’t know what’s behind them, watching you. Plus, no matter how much stealth you use, the fire escape still makes some noise. I got to the bottom part, where you had to kick a bolt or something to make the ladder fall, but I didn’t know how to do it, so I never did it. Plus, also, it would make a lot of noise, and then there would be a ladder up to the roof for mom, or dad, or the other Fucking Maniacs to climb up.

 

Instead, I unwrapped my rope from around my waist, and I tied it to the railing. Dad taught me a lot of good knots, and mom taught me a lot of good climbing. I climbed down, and when I was sure nobody was looking at the street, I ran across. It wasn’t very dark outside, like maybe it was a full moon, but ever since the Bad Stuff happened, the black spot in the sky had grown and grown, until you couldn’t see the moon, or most of the stars past it. But you could still see their light, and that was weird. I stopped at the doors of the corner store and waited, so I could check it out first.

 

That was a good rule: You should always check things out first.

 

And it was a good thing I did, because after a minute, I thought I saw something moving inside, and then I heard something plastic fall. Then a person crossed in front of the doors, and I saw that it was mom.

 

I was really hungry and I wanted to go in and eat that food, but another good rule is: Don’t do things just because you’re hungry.

 

That’s how you get killed.

 

Instead, I inched around to the edge of the store — away from the windows — and crossed the street, out of sight. I stayed in the shadows until I reached my rope, and I climbed back up. I pulled my rope up after me, and tied it back around my waist. I started to go back up the fire escape. There were still other places that had food in packages that hadn’t gone bad, but the store on Means street had beef jerky, which was what made it my first choice. I hoped mom didn’t eat all of the beef jerky, so I could come back and have some tomorrow. But even if she did, that was still better than her finding me.

 

I was only two floors up when the stupid fire escape made a loud metal noise, and I froze. I looked at the store, and I checked it out. Nothing happened for a while, but then the doors started to open, and mom came out. She looked around, and I guess the shadows weren’t as good as I thought, because she saw me.

 

She waved all big and happy, like she was glad to see me. I mean, she was always happy these days, but it was a mean kind of happy.

 

“Ronny,” she called up. “You want some beef jerky?”

 

I ignored her and started to climb back up the stairs.

 

“You don’t have to come down,” she yelled. “I’ll toss some up to you.”

 

That made me stop and think.

 

“No way,” I finally said. “You poisoned it.”

 

I have seen people use traps a lot on TV, so I am very wary of traps.

 

“Nuh uh,” mom said, and she did that head-tilt thing just like she used to do, when she was pretending to be serious, but secretly making fun of me. It made me sad to see it.

 

“Look,” she said, and she shook a plastic package around. “It’s still sealed. Poison-proof!”

 

I walked back down a flight of the fire escape stairs and leaned over the railing to look at her.

 

She hucked the bag of jerky up to me and it started to go over my head, so I had to turn to catch it and take my eyes off her for a second. I got scared and looked back immediately, but mom hadn’t moved.

 

She was really fast and she was good at climbing. She liked climbing rocks and stuff for fun, but not like I did. Not rocks like The Mountain, which was what we called the big boulder in the middle of the woods over by Myers Park. Back when things were normal, me and my friends would climb up it and pretend to push each other off, or dare each other to jump, which was scary. But even if you did jump, you probably wouldn’t get hurt real bad. The rocks that mom climbed were taller than even the big buildings in Charlotte, and you could die if you fell. That was both really cool and kind of stupid, I thought. But she liked it, and she was good at it. Still, even she couldn’t climb the brick wall all the way to the fire escape before I could run up the stairs and get away. So I told her so.

 

“Ronald McDonald,” she laughed, because she knew I hated being called that. “If I wanted to chase you down, I would have done it already. That’s not the game we’re playing.”

 

“We’re not playing any games,” I said.

 

“Sure we are!” She smiled up at me real big.

 

She smiled real big a lot these days, all teeth and gums — but mom never smiled big back when she was normal. Her smiles were small and kind of crooked.

 

“In the game we’re playing, I win when you choose me,” she said.

 

“Choose you for what?” I asked.

 

I stuffed the bag of jerky in the pouch on my Bandaliero, in case I needed both hands to get away.

 

“Choose me over your dad,” she answered. “Come with me, let’s get out of this boring town. There’s nothing fun left here, anyway. Let’s go to Charlotte! We can stop by the Speedway – they might still have race cars. We could steal a race car!”

 

“I don’t wanna,” I said.

 

“You wanna stay here with dad?” She asked, like she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She puffed her cheeks out after ‘dad,’ and held her arms out wide like she was big and fat.

 

I kind of laughed.

 

“See? I’m way more fun,” she said.

 

“You would hurt me,” I said.

 

“Never!” She said, then after a second: “Well, not unless it was really, really funny. I promise!”

 

“I don’t understand why it would be fun to hurt me,” I said, backing away from the railing.

 

She saw me start to leave and got extra convincing.

 

“It probably won’t ever happen,” she said. “Honest! And if it did happen, you’d laugh!”

 

“I’m gonna go now. You better not try to chase me, because you’ll never catch me before I jump back down and get to my hiding place in the park,” I lied.

 

I have seen a bunch of espionage on TV, and I know it’s important to do espionage at times like this.

 

“The park, huh?” She echoed, and she did her head-tilt again. “That sounds like a really good hiding place.”

 

“It is, and you’ll never find it,” I espionaged.

 

“That sounds like a challenge, pal,” she said. And her voice was still happy, but it had more of that new, mean kind of happy behind it. She took a step toward the fire escape, and I got ready to run.

 

There was a distant whooshing sound, like a jet starting up, and then a huge boom, and a bunch of little chimes, like lightning had struck the next block over, and then it started raining metal.

 

Mom and me both jumped, and looked in the direction of the noise.

 

We could see pale blue light coming from around the corner, on the other side of Spring Street. It was so bright it made giant shadows of everything it touched.

 

“You better go,” I yelled down. “Dad’s coming.”

 

Mom thought about coming after me for a minute, I could tell. But I was already climbing the stairs, and she saw dad’s lights start to shift in our direction, so she finally turned to run.

 

“We’ll talk again soon, Ronald McDonald,” she called, jogging across the street and disappearing between buildings.

 

The New History of Concord

By: Ronny Mills

Age: 9 ¾

 

Ronald Mills, Sr., and Ronald Mills, Jr., and Terry Mills had been hiding in the basement for a long time. History doesn’t know how long, because there were no windows or calendars, but toward the end, Terry Mills did tell Ronald Mills, Sr., “We’ve been down here for weeks, we have to at least try!”

 

Terry Mills was talking to Ronald Mills, Sr., about leaving the basement, and getting some supplies, and then leaving town. Ronald Mills, Sr., did not think it was a good idea, and that’s why they were arguing about it. Adults sometimes think that because kids don’t know much, that they can’t hear much either. And that’s dumb, because kids hear plenty. Especially when adults are arguing in the far corner of the basement, using angry whispers that are practically as loud as normal talking anyway.

 

Ronald Mills, Sr., was saying that the Mills family were still alive because they had a finished basement that had carpet and was warm. There was a bathroom down there, and also a pantry, which was where they put extra food from Costco trips. Electricity had stopped pretty soon after the Bad Stuff happened, but the Mills had camping lanterns, and blankets, and it wasn’t that cold yet anyway. They had the Costco food, and the water still worked — which Ronald Mills, Jr., thought was weird, because he always thought the government used electricity and motors to push the water into your house, but Terry Mills said that it was just gravity fed from the reservoir.

 

Anyway, that’s why Ronald Mills, Sr., thought they should stay in the basement: because they had survived down there so far. But Terry Mills thought that wasn’t enough, and she called Ronald Mills, Sr., “short-sighted,” and that made Ronald Mills, Sr., really mad. So mad that he did the thing where his voice doesn’t even sound angry anymore, but just really flat, and clear, and careful, and that’s when you’re really in trouble.

 

Terry Mills said that it had been forever since they heard the Bad Stuff happening outside. She was right. It had been a long time since the gunshots, and the screaming, and sirens. Then there was a while where it was mostly quiet, but every once in a while somebody would yell, or laugh, or break something. But lately even that had stopped, and there had been no noises at all. Terry Mills wanted to at least go check it out, but Ronald Mills, Sr., explained that the Bad Stuff could be waiting out there for her to do exactly that, and they stopped arguing, and went to bed.

 

Neither Ronald Mills, Sr., nor Ronald Mills, Jr., heard it, when Terry Mills woke up extra early, and snuck up the stairs, and left the basement.

 

My eyes were all dry and itchy from being so tired, but I couldn’t sleep, because dad was still out there on the street making loud noises. I didn’t know what exactly he was doing, but he had been doing it for a long time now. He started out close to our house, and mostly stuck to our neighborhood at first. Then he just kept getting farther and farther out, until he’d finally reached the edges of downtown, where I was hiding. He was still a few blocks away, and I couldn’t see him past the tall trees on the other side of Union Street.

 

I had watched him for a little bit, once. He was just driving around and looking at houses. He had a bunch of weird machines on the back of his shop’s old flat bed truck. He taught me to drive that truck one time. It actually wasn’t super hard. Adults make such a big deal of driving, but really you just pull a little lever until it says ‘D’ for ‘Drive,’ and one pedal makes you go, and the other makes you stop, and you steer it with a wheel — just like the old, stand-up style car games in the arcade. There are lots of rules to learn about driving, and some switches and stuff that do different things, but it sure isn’t harder than math, and they make kids learn that.

 

It was important that I learned to drive the truck, because it said “Mills and Son” on the side in fancy, faded writing. I wasn’t old enough to be the “son” part yet. That was actually dad. At some point, he had been his dad’s son, when his dad owned the shop. And they were Mills and Son. And I guess even his dad’s dad had owned the shop way, way back in the past.

 

Dad was pretty sure I was also going to work at the shop someday, and be The Son. The idea made me kind of proud, and excited, but also scared, and sad, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be The Son. I mean, I wasn’t really good with engines, or at fixing stuff. It seemed like every time I tried, I forgot a spring, or I didn’t tighten a bolt enough, and the whole thing would rattle when you turned it on, or else it just wouldn’t work.

 

Plus, I didn’t really like cars and stuff. I pretended to like them, partly because of dad, and partly because all the other kids really did like NASCAR and race cars. I even made mom think I liked race cars – even though mom hated race cars — just so she wouldn’t get mad someday, and accidentally tell dad the truth when they argued about me. I just thought racecars were boring. They went around in circles, and they were loud. And they smelled. But I wasn’t supposed to think that, so I tried not to. And so lots of weekends we drove just outside of town to the Speedway, and watched racecars go in circles, until somebody got hurt, which I guess was everybody’s secret favorite part.

 

I never told anybody what I really liked, because it was stupid, and they would have just made fun of me.

 

I liked dinosaurs.

 

I wanted to help them. Not dig up their dead bones or anything, but actually help them, like the lady in Jurassic Park. But you’re supposed to like stuff that you can grow up to work on, and nobody fixes dinosaurs. That’s not a real thing.

 

So I was going to be The Son any way you cut it, and I would drive that flat bed truck around town, and talk to people about the weird noises their car was making. I mean, the way things were going, I probably wouldn’t wind up doing any of that. One of the Fucking Maniacs would get me eventually, or it would be just by getting sick, and not having any medicine. But one thing was for sure: I wasn’t ever going to fix any dinosaurs.

 

The New History of Concord

By: Ronny Mills

Age: 9 ¾

 

Ronald Mills, Sr., made Ronald Mills, Jr., promise not to leave the basement, no matter what. And also not to make any noise, or undo the big bolt on the door for any reason, except for if somebody knocks two times, pauses, then knocks three times more. That was the secret code that Ronald Mills, Sr., was going to use, to let Ronald Mills, Jr., know it was safe to open the door. Ronald Mills, Jr., was very good about secret codes, so he remembered it.

 

After Ronald Mills, Jr., promised a whole bunch of times to not leave, and not make noise, and remember the secret code, Ronald Mills, Sr., left the basement. He went to look for Terry Mills. He was gone for a very long time. Long enough for Ronald Mills, Jr., to fall asleep a few times, even though he tried very had to stay awake. Then there was banging on the door, and screaming. Ronald Mills, Jr., went up to the top of the stairs to listen for the code, but the person on the other side didn’t knock right, so he didn’t open the door. But Ronald Mills, Jr., could tell by the voice that it was Ronald Mills, Sr., knocking. So Ronald Mills, Jr., reminded him to use the code. Ronald Mills, Sr., didn’t remember the code, and said to open the door anyway. Ronald Mills, Jr., said he wasn’t supposed to, and they yelled at each other about it until Ronald Mills, Jr., started crying, which he also wasn’t supposed to do, because he was a boy. Finally Terry Mills, who Ronald Mills, Sr., had gone out and found, told Ronald Mills, Jr., that it was okay to open the door just this one time, so he did.

 

Dad was still out there doing his weird, loud thing. He’d drive the truck a little bit, and then stop, and then there was that flat sort of paddling sound, then it would be quiet for a long time, and then a big, airy boom, like a whole storm happening all at once. Afterward, it sounded like wind chimes – lots of tinkling and ringing. He did it again and again, basically all night.

 

I was so thirsty that I was getting kind of dizzy, and eating the beef jerky only made it worse. Now, it’s no good to wait so long to drink or eat that you’re too weak to find stuff to drink or eat. That’s a good rule: Find stuff to drink or eat before you really, really need it.

 

I’d never gone out looking for supplies when both mom and dad were so close to my hiding spot, but it seemed like they were each busy doing their own things. Maybe if I was really small, and used all my stealth, I could get out and back without them noticing me. I unpinned the heavy black curtains from behind the AC grate, and checked out the roof for a while. When I was sure it was clear, I moved the grate aside, and snuck out, and moved really quick and small.

 

Dad was close. Just on the other side of Union Street. And he was in the flat, thwacking stage of whatever he was doing. That was the part that took the longest, and it had just started, so he would probably be busy a while. Just to be safe, I went the other way from when I’d last seen mom, over by Means Avenue. That meant going toward Carrabas, and even though I’d picked a lot of the stores on that side clean already, I knew there was a whole case of Peach Iced Tea in Scotties, back in the hidden area behind the drink cases. I had left it because Peach Iced Tea is really gross, but I was so thirsty now, I didn’t even care.

 

There was no fire escape on the Carrabas side of downtown, because the building at the end wasn’t very tall. So I just tied my rope to an aluminum chimney sticking out of the roof, and climbed right down. Across the street and through the doors, quiet and fast like a squirrel. It was dangerous to not really check out the inside before going in the store, but it was more dangerous to say on the street where dad could just peek around the corner and see me.

 

I snuck around the aisles, careful to dodge the trash, and the bits of metal from broken shelves. I pulled open the heavy metal door to behind the drink cases, and felt around in the mostly dark until I found the case of Peach Iced Tea. I punched a hole in the plastic with my finger, and pulled one out, and opened it. The cap made a pop sound that felt really loud, but probably wasn’t. I listened for anything that might be listening for me, but I didn’t hear them, so I drank the Peach Iced Tea. It was still gross, but it was also the best thing I’d ever had. I drank a whole one, and then half of another. I put four more in the pouch on the back of my Bandaliero, which was all it would hold. They clinked together when I moved, so I took off my socks and wrapped them between every other bottle. That was gross, since I hadn’t washed my socks in a really, really long time, and they smelled terrible, but it was better than making noise and getting caught.

 

All geared up, I pushed open the heavy metal door real slow, and slipped back out into the store. I started toward the exit, and the street outside exploded in light. I went blind instantly, even though I threw my hands over my eyes and jumped to the side. I landed between aisles. I hoped I hid in time, because I couldn’t run anywhere when I couldn’t see. When I pulled my hands away from my stinging eyes, there was a big, blue orb right in the middle of everywhere I looked. I guess with the heavy metal door of the drinks case shut, I didn’t hear dad’s truck pull around the far side of Union Street, and park in front of the store. I could hear it now, though: engine low and growling, like a mean dog. I knew what came next. The huge wind, and the metal rain.

 

The doors and windows exploded inward, and shards of glass flew around like stinging insects. Small metal bits bounced across the tile, and ricocheted off of the walls and ceiling. They caught the spotlights shining from dad’s truck: Screws and washers and bolts glinted among the glass, like stars reflected on the ocean.

 

I couldn’t hear very well. The noise had been too loud, and now everything sounded like I was wearing earmuffs. But I felt the thwacking through the floor. I saw the smaller screws start to rattle across the tile. It was starting again.

 

“Stop!” I said, and I stepped out from my hiding place.

 

Looking right into the lights was like staring at the sun, if the sun was idling across the street. I couldn’t see anything behind or around the spotlights, and could only guess at the things in front of them by their long, twisty shadows. Something moved to block the lights, and its shadow settled over me. Shielded in its darkness, I could see its outline clearly. I already knew who it was, of course. I’m not a dummy.

 

It was dad.

 

He had always been big. Tall and strong, but also kind of fat. Just big, in every sense of the word. His shoulders were big. His belly was big. His arms, and his head, and even his beard was big. And standing like he was, with the lights at his back, making everything else impossible to see except for his silhouette – he looked positively gigantic. Like something out of a fantasy book. He should have been holding an axe or a magic sword.

 

He reached out and pushed something on the truck. The lights pointing at me died down. I blinked hard, and a lot, trying to clear the spots and sparkles from my vision. I could hear dad walking closer, his boots crunching on the glass and kicking around bits of metal.

 

“Don’t!” I said, and I backed up, but I tripped over something — I couldn’t even tell what it was — and I fell on my butt. I scraped my hands on the glass and yelped, even though I knew dad would tell me to ‘suck it up,’ or ‘be a man.’

 

But he didn’t.

 

“Are you hurt?” He asked.

 

It didn’t sound like he was worried about me, which was a whole different tone. When he was actually worried, he didn’t like to show it, so he made his voice extra tough. The way he asked about me now, it sounded more like when he talked about politicians, or sports teams he didn’t like.

 

“Not really,” I lied, trying to hide my bloody palms.

 

He was still mostly just a shadow to me. An outline against the headlights of his truck, which were still on, and pointed away from us. I was still dazzled from looking into the spotlights. All the black spaces in my vision were shifting and dancing, making fake colors, like oil on water. Dad stooped down and grabbed something off of the floor. He held it up to the light to examine it, and I could see that it was a big shard of glass. He turned it this way and that for a second, then brought it down hard into his own arm. So hard, I heard it hit bone. Then I couldn’t see what he was doing anymore, but it sounded like he was grinding it around inside his arm.

 

“Stop!” I said. “Please don’t!”

 

I sounded whiny and I knew dad would hate it, but I couldn’t help it.

 

“I hurt you,” he said.

 

And again, his voice was wrong for the words he was saying. He didn’t sound sorry, but more like he just remembered a chore he was supposed to do, after he already sat down and took his shoes off.

 

“I’m okay,” I said, but he didn’t stop doing the grinding thing.

 

“I have to keep you safe,” he said. “It’s the only rule, and I broke it. I have to pay for that. You remember, Ronnie? You remember how I told you a man always pays for his mistakes, even if nobody makes him?”

 

I did remember that. He told me that after I accidentally (I swear!) stole a pack of comic book cards from the grocery store. He made me take them back and apologize for stealing, even though it wasn’t stealing — I just forgot I put them in my pocket, when I had to use both hands to bend down and pick up cat litter off the bottom shelf for mom.

 

“It wasn’t you,” I said. “I tripped and fell. You didn’t do it!”

 

Finally, the grinding sound paused.

 

“You sure?” He said.

 

I nodded.

 

My vision had mostly come back – only some tiny suns that moved wherever I looked – and I could see that dad didn’t look so great. His eyes were all tired and hollow. His beard had always been pretty crazy, and stuck out everywhere, but now it was also dirty and kind of braided on itself, like a homeless person. His clothes were greasy and bloody, and he had left the glass shard stuck in his arm. Blood poured down his arm and from his fingers, pooling around his boots.

 

“This is exactly the kind of thing I promised to protect you from,” he finally said. “You need to come home with me.”

 

He took a step forward and I took a step back.

 

“Don’t,” he warned. He used his mean warning voice, like when you’re arguing back and you’re not supposed to. “You’ll fall again.”

 

“Don’t come towards me,” I said, “or I’ll run again, even if I do get hurt, and then it’ll be your fault, ‘cause you could’ve stopped it.”

 

He froze.

 

“You need to come home with me,” he said, and he jerked his thumb back at the truck.

 

“No,” I said. “You’ll tie me up again.”

 

“Of course,” he said, and he laughed a little bit, like I’d said something dumb. “That’s how you’re safest. You can’t move, you can’t leave, you can’t get hurt. Don’t you understand that?”

 

I didn’t understand it.

 

I could practically still feel the ratchet straps he used to bind me to the bed in my room. He put towels and blankets under them, so they wouldn’t dig into my skin and hurt, and he’d come in once and a while, and undo them to turn me around – which is when I got away in the first place — but other than that, he wouldn’t let me move at all. Not even to go to the bathroom. I had to go in a pan, and he fed me, and made me drink water, and washed me, and everything. I didn’t even have a TV to watch. Just the ceiling in my bedroom. Looking at the dots and scratches from the plaster, imagining them as different things. If you don’t think boredom is a kind of hurt, then I can tell you’ve never been ratchet-strapped to your bed for a few months.

 

“I can’t,” I told him. “I can’t go back to the bed.”

 

“Ronnie,” he commanded.

 

Just that. My name and nothing else. Because he knew that I knew what he wanted me to do, and just wasn’t doing it.

 

“It’s going to get cold soon,” he said, when I didn’t move. “And I’ve been going all over town, using that sucker back there to knock out all the windows.”

 

I looked in the back of the truck: at his air compressor, and a big cannon looking thing, and some generators he’d rigged up, and bunch of other stuff.

 

“There won’t be anywhere warm left,” he explained. “Except for home. You don’t want to freeze to death, do you, Ronnie?”

 

I sure didn’t, but I also kind of didn’t believe him. He couldn’t have gotten everywhere in town. Plus maybe some spots without windows would still be warm, like my grate hideout — and anyway, wasn’t he supposed to keep me safe? That was his rule; so letting me die would be breaking it. And if he couldn’t hurt me…

 

I turned and ran. My shoes skated on the glass, and the ball bearings, and the garbage, and all the other things dad had knocked down with his air cannon, but I didn’t fall. I yanked the back door open and ran across the open street, toward the old courthouse, which wasn’t a courthouse anymore, but a theater — only I guess it wasn’t that, either.

 

Just an empty building. You could call it whatever you wanted.

 

I knew dad was following me, even though I didn’t look back to check. I could hear glass breaking and stuff being tossed aside, then the metal door slam open and bounce closed again. I didn’t want to look back, because I didn’t want to see him like that – all angry and crazy like the Fucking Maniacs, or worse: Just sort of cold and disconnected, like he had been lately. It reminded me of something mom used to say, when I’d done something wrong: “I’m not mad at you, just disappointed.”

 

Just Disappointed was supposed to be worse than mad, on the scale of how much trouble I was in.

 

Dad never said that, though. He was always okay with being plain ol’ mad. But not lately. Lately he was Just Disappointed too, but for reasons I couldn’t understand.

 

The courthouse had big glass doors, and floor to ceiling windows, but the glass wasn’t broken yet, so I had to pause to grab the cold brass doorhandle, and heft it open. It was an old metal frame, and it was so heavy that I only got it open a little bit, before I just gave up and shoved myself inside through the tiny gap. With the weak light of the moon – or whatever was lighting up the night since the black spot took over the sky – I could see just enough to make out the tall, dark rectangle of an open doorway. I tripped over a few things I didn’t see on the way there, crawled through on my hands and knees, then bunched myself up against the farthest wall. My hand brushed soft fabric, which I thought was curtains at first, so I slid behind them, to hide. After a minute, I realized it must have been costumes for the actors though, because I felt all sorts of things, like feathers and metal, which I don’t think curtains usually have. Past the fading spots of light blindness, my eyes were getting more used to the dark. I could only see certain pieces of the dark room, but there was a big, low thing that I thought might be a table, or a bunch of desks, only these had mirrors above them. I knew that because I saw the shadows change in the reflection of one, when dad slammed open the heavy metal door like it was nothing.

 

“Ronnie,” dad called. Loud, but not mad. Just impatient. “You’re going to get hurt out there. That can’t happen.”

 

He waited for me to answer, but I didn’t.

 

I looked around more, trying to see if I could find an exit, or at least a better hiding spot, since some of the clothes on the rack were shorter than others, and you could probably see my knees, if you were looking.

 

That’s when I saw the figure, and knew I wasn’t alone in the dark room.

 

My chest got all tight, because I thought they were people at first, or worse: Fucking Maniacs. But I checked them out for a while, and they didn’t move. That’s when I saw that they didn’t have legs – just chests and heads on poles. A few were wearing big clothes, like robes or dresses, so you were fooled at first. I think they used dummies like that to work on clothes – I learned that from a show about designing dresses that mom used to watch, and I didn’t pay much attention to.

 

“Ronnie,” dad called out again. “Come out now, and get back into your straps without struggling, and I’ll leave the curtains open on your window, so you can look out.”

 

When I didn’t take the bribe, he tried again.

 

“I’ll feed you soda when I find it – through one of those bendy straws you like.”

 

One time. One time, I said I thought a bendy straw was cool, at a McDonald’s or something – it had a dinosaur on it – and for some reason everybody ignored the dinosaur part, and just thought that I thought bendy straws were the best thing on Earth.

 

Obviously, I didn’t answer that one, either.

 

But somebody else did.

 

“He doesn’t even like those,” mom called out, from somewhere farther away.

 

“Terry,” dad said, all super casual, like they had just bumped into each other at the supermarket while out running errands. “Come down here.”

 

The courthouse had another level – one that looked down at the main lobby below — but you couldn’t get there without going up some stairs somewhere else, so I guessed mom was up above, and dad couldn’t get to her.

 

Mom laughed.

 

“No, thanks,” she said. “I don’t feel like fighting right now. I think it’d be more fun if I picked the place. And the time. And the weapons. In fact, I think it’d be the most fun if you didn’t know about it at all.”

 

“Why would we fight?” Dad asked.

 

“I guess you don’t have to,” mom laughed. “But I was hoping you’d struggle, at least a little bit…”

 

“I don’t want to hurt you any more than necessary,” Dad called up.

 

His voice didn’t echo like mom’s. It was like the walls and the ceiling just swallowed it up.

 

“Oh? And how much hurt is necessary?” Mom said, sounding fake sexy, like Bugs Bunny does in the cartoons where he dresses up like a girl bunny.

 

“We promised to keep the boy safe,” dad said. I hated how he called me ‘the boy’ when he was talking to other adults. “I know you’ve hurt him.”

 

“Only a little, now and then,” mom purred. “Just to keep the game interesting.”

 

She wasn’t lying. One time, she caught me scavenging in the school cafeteria, and she cut my belly with a piece of glass — but not very deep – and let me go. Then another time, at the camping store, when I was stealing a sleeping bag and a thermos, she hooked me with a fishing rod, and it pulled some of the skin off my back when I jumped through the windows. There were a couple other times like that, too, but she seemed to only want to hurt me a little, and then watch me run.

 

“I think,” dad said, “since you hurt your own kid, it would make the most sense if I cut out your womb, and had you hold it. I think that would really help you learn.”

 

It wasn’t even like a threat to him, it was like a decision he had come to, after some real careful thought. It made my guts turn to hear dad talk like that, but mom didn’t care.

 

“Boo,” she called down. “That’s boring! It’s so… ugh, poetic. You know how I’m going to kill you, when I get the chance?”

 

Dad didn’t answer. Maybe he shook his head, but I couldn’t’ see it.

 

“Neither do I!” Mom said, and she laughed, loud and bright. “That’s what’s so great about it: It’ll be spontaneous.”

 

“Terry,” dad said, kind of stern, but also very reasonable. “Come on down and let me cut out your womb, so we can be a family again.”

 

“Pass,” mom said quickly, like she wasn’t really paying attention to the conversation anymore.

 

“This can’t last forever,” dad said, and he started lecturing her about responsibility, and following the rules, and knowing your place, so at least that hadn’t changed.

 

I slid deeper into the clothes rack, creeping along the wall. I hoped that I would feel a door, or a window, or something else, and could get away while they were distracting each other. I bumped into something metal that was heavier on the bottom, and it wobbled a little, but mom and dad didn’t hear it over the arguing.

 

The mannequin did, though. The mannequin heard it just fine.

 

I could only see its outline. I couldn’t see if it had legs, or just a pole, because it was wearing some kind of long dress. But it was next to the other mannequins, so I assumed it was a mannequin. There’s another good rule: Don’t assume things, because sometimes you’re wrong, and if you’re really wrong, you could die.

 

The second I bumped into the microphone stand, the figure straightened up real quick, like somebody had shot electricity through it. Then it froze again, with its head tilted toward me. I couldn’t see its face, but I recognized the motion. The Fucking Maniacs moved like that. The really quiet ones that dad called ‘the Sleepers.’ They stayed perfectly still unless they heard something get close, or you stepped past their invisible border, then they got very alert. That was the bad phase. I didn’t see many people get away once the Sleepers woke up, because if you moved or made any sound, they’d spring on you so fast, like a cat on a mouse. They’d get you before you could even think to run, and then they’d rip you apart like a mean kid pulling the legs off a beetle. I had seen them do it a few times, before I moved my hideout downtown — back when I’d tried to get out by following the highway. That’s where the Sleepers stood guard, mostly. There, and in the woods, and on some back roads. Just waiting for somebody to try to pass.

 

When I saw the Sleepers standing there, all slumped over, like they were so tired, but for some reason they couldn’t lay down — I knew better than to get too close. But nobody else wanted to be near them, either. I could use that. So I curled up in a pipe not too far away, and I made that my hideout for a few days.

 

Not everybody was smart, though. I saw some people try to get past the Sleeper’s line. Once, in the real early morning, when everything was wet and cold, a big woman tried to run right past the Sleepers. She froze when they got all alert, and didn’t move for a real long time. But finally she must have breathed wrong or something, and they tore her apart like sharks do in documentaries.

 

One guy in a camouflage vest, but wearing a bright orange hat – which I thought was weird, because it ruined the camouflage – did something really smart: He got his rifle from his truck, and he shot a few of the Sleepers. They didn’t even seem to care. They didn’t move, or scream, or fall down. The angry Fucking Maniacs — you could shoot them if you got the chance, and though they didn’t care about pain much, they’d still die if you got them in the right place. Plus you could blow them up, or light them on fire, or probably even stab them if you were good at that kind of thing. But then, the angry ones couldn’t move faster than you could see. The Sleepers could. And the other Fucking Maniacs were real strong, but not so strong they could just pull your arms off. The Sleepers could. My guess was that, since the Sleepers didn’t move much, they could save all their energy and use it up all at once in a short burst. And maybe their insides were really still, too, so their blood and stuff doesn’t leak as much, so wounds don’t do as much damage. But that seems like the kind of thing that makes sense in my head, but that teachers would think was dumb if I asked about it.

 

None of what I knew about Sleepers was good. And I knew I had one listening now, so quiet and still in the dark. If I made one little sound, it would scramble over and pick me apart, like pulling flowers off a bush.

 

And even if I did get away from it, mom and dad were still in the next room, arguing about which awful things they should get to do to me, and why.

 

There wasn’t a lot I could do but think, and remember things, which is how I came up with a really great idea. That’s a good rule: If you come up with a really great idea, you should do it, even if you’re scared, or it might go wrong, because you never know when you’ll get another really great idea (it could be never!).

 

See, I was thinking about how weird it was that mom and dad were fighting – I mean, they fought a lot back when they were normal, but they were Fucking Maniacs now, and I hadn’t seen any other Fucking Maniacs fighting each other. The Fucking Maniacs mostly seemed to work together, or at least ignore each other. I even saw mom walk right by those Sleepers on the highway (which is when I knew it was time to find a better hiding spot), and they didn’t care about her at all. They didn’t even wake up for her. So why should mom and dad be fighting? And why was dad being so careful about protecting me from the other Fucking Maniacs, if they were all on the same side?

 

I was also pretty sure the Sleepers couldn’t see better than normal people. Maybe this one had its eyes closed until I made a noise and woke it up, but if it could see in the dark now, why was it listening for me, instead of just looking over and getting me?

 

So okay, I know what I just said about assuming things, but sometimes you have to assume anyway, when it gets real bad. I assumed two things: I assumed the Sleeper couldn’t see in the dark, and wasn’t very smart. And I assumed that dad and the Sleeper might not get along.

 

Here was my really good idea: I reached up so slow and careful even I couldn’t tell if I was moving or not, and I found my small LED flashlight. It was clipped to my Bandaliero. I tried not to use it too often, because it’s not the dark you should be afraid of, but things finding you in the dark, and nothing helps them find you like a big old spotlight in your hand. I didn’t want to risk making a sound when I unclipped the flashlight, so I left it attached to the Bandaliero. I pointed it at what I hoped was the right place, and I clicked the light on.

 

Everything happened at the same time: The Sleeper bounded across the room in a heartbeat, following the source of the light. Coming straight for me. It was really creepy, how fast they were, but it was really extra creepy that they were also so quiet. This one was dressed in a long black judge’s robe, and had a silly white wig on, like the guys you see on money. I guess it used to be an actor here. Its skin had gone all white, being in the dark for so long, and dust clouds puffed off of its clothes when it moved. It reached out one of its milky white hands and sunk its fingertips deep into my face.

 

That’s when the mirror broke.

 

That was my good idea: I had aimed the flashlight at the big mirrors above the table across from me, and the Sleeper went for my reflection. I shut the light off as soon as the thing crashed into the glass, and I used all the noise it was making to hide my own noises, as I plunged, blindly, deeper and deeper into the pitch-black room.

 

“Ronnie!” Dad thundered.

 

He loomed in the doorway, his shoulders practically touching the sides, his head practically brushing the top.

 

More breaking noises: wood, and glass, and metal things hitting the floor – followed by fast, light footsteps. A shadow broke away from the black and tackled dad. All tangled up and just silhouettes, the two of them fighting looked like one crazy, thrashing monster with a bunch of limbs. I ran into what felt like a bunch of barrels stacked in a corner, and I wiggled myself into the tiny spaces behind them. I wormed around the edges, burrowing deeper into the stack, until I couldn’t go any further. I found just the right angle to see through the gaps between them, and from there I watched dad fight the Sleeper.

 

The fight didn’t last very long. Dad was huge and strong, and the Sleeper was only half his size. But the Sleepers were something else besides human, and whatever that was, it was as strong as it was mean. The Sleeper had dad turned over in an instant, one beefy, hairy arm all pulled up and twisted back. The thing yanked and yanked, still dead quiet, stubbornly trying to separate dad’s limbs from his body. Then dad yelled some nonsense sounds.

 

“HET NO HARUK!” Dad said, and his voice was very different. It was like metal hitting metal. It barely sounded human.

 

The Sleeper just dropped him. It took a few steps back. It looked kind of confused.

 

Dad got to his knees slowly. His arm was clearly hurt.

 

The Sleeper didn’t move, necessarily, but kind of thrummed in place — like it was trying to move, but its muscles just weren’t responding.

 

“Ronnie,” dad called again. “Come out now. Right now. We have to go. It won’t hold for long.”

 

I guess me and dad were stupid in the same kind of ways. Because, see, we had both forgotten about mom.

 

She was fast, and good at climbing, and for some dumb reason I always think that means “good at going up things real quick.” But she can climb down things quick, too. Like the second story balcony she’d been standing on. I guess she saw her chance when the Sleeper attacked, because she had scampered down and now stood behind dad, laughing.

 

“See,” mom said, sort of to dad, but mostly to me. “That was fun! You couldn’t have foreseen that. This is why you shouldn’t make plans, Ron. They’re just guesses that you count on.”

 

“HET NO HARUK!” Dad shouted again, struggling to stand with his bad arm.

 

“Come on,” mom said. “You know that doesn’t work on my kind.”

 

“I was talking to the other one,” dad said, and gestured at something behind mom.

 

She turned to look, and as soon as she did, dad bashed her in the head with his giant bear-paw fist.

 

I did not think dad would – or could – use tricks, so I guess me and mom are dumb in some of the same ways, too.

 

Mom went sprawling, but she didn’t stay down long, and dad’s bad arm was slowing him down. Mom’s hair was wet with blood, but she was still giggling. Her smile was so wide it looked like it hurt. It looked like she had too many teeth, like the skin at the corners of her lips would split apart and there would just be more teeth back there, a bigger smile, marching all the way around her head.

 

She danced away as dad sent out another punch. The blow looked slow and clumsy, but he hit a wooden box thing full of Historical Stuff and it basically exploded. He probably only needed one more good hit to finish mom off. But he couldn’t manage to get it. Dad swung, and mom danced and nipped at him like a playful puppy. The Sleeper, frozen, followed both of them with its eyes, waiting for its turn.

 

Mom picked up a sharp piece of wood from the exploded box and threw it at dad. He swatted it away like an annoying fly, but that wasn’t the point: As soon as he moved to block the wood, mom charged in real quick and kicked him in the chest with all her weight. Dad went to one knee and seemed to be choking on his own air, but he still managed to grab mom’s wrist. She twisted and pried at his fingers, but he wouldn’t let go. Still, he was winded, and he only had the one good arm. You could see him trying to figure out how best to hurt her without risking her getting away. Meantime, mom jabbed, and clawed, and kicked. Dad bore it all patiently. It was like watching hyenas attack a rhino on a nature documentary, which I have seen a lot of.

 

But finally dad got his breath back, and he twirled mom around and threw her to the floor. He bent down to grab a big chunk of something heavy, I don’t know what. Mom had skidded awkwardly and kind of hit her head when she fell, so she was slow to get up. Dad was all set to smash her brains in, when the invisible leash came off the Sleeper, and it leapt across the room. It didn’t make a sound. It clambered around dad’s body like an excited monkey, until it found his bad arm and continued what it started. Dad grunted and swatted at the pale thing, in its judge’s robes, and its dirty wig, but he didn’t yell out – not even when the Sleeper pulled his arm right off, and blood throbbed out everywhere.

 

It seemed fake. Something you think the movies get wrong: Blood doesn’t really shoot out like that, and arms don’t just come off. But I guess sometimes the movies get things right, too.

 

The Sleeper tossed the limb aside like it was garbage, and started reaching for dad again, but he brought the chunk of something up and folded the Sleeper’s face in on itself. Its nose and mouth mostly went away, and its eyes drowned in blood that looked three shades too dark. Like it was oil that needed changing. The Sleeper only staggered for a second, before it blindly reached out for dad again. He hammered it with the stone over and over, and didn’t stop until there was just a bunch of mush atop the Sleeper’s neck. Its head looked like chili. But not the good kind you get at the fair – the gross stuff the school served in the cafeteria, that you just knew was made out of yesterday’s meatloaf and the leftovers from Taco Tuesday.

 

Dad was tired, or maybe just out of blood. It looked hard for him to stand. But he did, and he looked all around for mom. Mom was real quick, and pretty good at stealth when she wanted to be. She was gone. Now, if a mean pretend-judge had just pulled my arm off and thrown it away, I would have called it a night. But I guess that’s why I’m not dad. Weaving like he did when he came home late on weekends, dad turned away from the heavy glass doors leading outside, and instead stumbled through a small brick arch that led deeper into the building. Going after mom.

 

I probably wouldn’t have a better chance to escape, and that was another good rule: Take your chances when you get them, not when you’re sure it’s safe to take them.

 

I slipped out from behind the barrels and crossed the dark room – I was super careful about watching the dummies this time – into the lobby. I only paused a second at the front door, to check out the street before leaving. I learned my lesson about not checking places out before you go into them. It looked pretty clear, so I yanked on the heavy brass handle.

 

“Hey, Ronnie,” mom said, from behind me. “It just got funny. Heads up!”

 

I turned and saw that she was standing up on the balcony again. I guess she just climbed right back up there and hid, in order to trick dad. Or me. Anyway, it worked on both of us.

 

Even though mom’s head was all cut up, and there was blood getting in her mouth and eyes, she looked so happy it might have been her birthday. She had just tossed something at me, and it was real pretty: dark glass with all sorts of colors dancing around inside. Then it turned around in the air, and I saw it was a bottle with a burning rag stuffed in the neck. I actually went to catch it at first, just because of reflexes, but at the last second I remembered not to be stupid and jumped out of the way.

 

Actually, maybe that was stupid — because maybe I could have caught the bottle, and it wouldn’t have broken, and spread flames everywhere like fire was something you could just spill on the floor. But there was no room for maybes anymore. I did what I did, and what I did was kind of hop back and throw myself away from where the bottle landed. I wasn’t quick enough. Drops of fire caught on my pants, and my forearms, and my hands, and I just watched them burn there for a second before I turned and pulled at the heavy door again. It felt like it took forever to open, and even longer for me to wiggle myself through the gap to outside.

 

I started to run away, but then I remembered to Stop, Drop, and Roll first. They made us watch a dumb video about that in school, where these two white guys tried to make it into a rap, but I guess it worked, because I remembered to do it, and it helped. The grass outside the courthouse was kind of wet with the nighttime, and the fire went out quick. I could tell there were all sorts of real bad burn spots on me – even through the jeans, which I guess aren’t fireproof at all – and though I hardly felt them now, burns always feel worse later. Through the glass, I saw mom pointing and laughing at me, like I’d just slipped on banana peel. Then she tossed down another bottle, and another. Neither of us had seen dad come out the upstairs door and sneak up behind her. I didn’t even see his face. Just his one big remaining arm, as he wrapped it around her neck, and pulled her down. Then some of the flames licked up the far side of the glass, and I couldn’t see anything any more.

 

I ran halfway to the rope that led up to my rooftop hideout, before I thought better of it. Dad’s truck was idling right where he left it, next to the corner store. I looked at the rope, and I looked at the courthouse, and the flames inside, and I looked at the truck, and even though the truck had always kind of scared me before – it was too tall, and old, and loud — it didn’t seem so bad anymore. I had to jump and climb to get into the seat, which was really high off the ground. Then I scooted forward as far as I could go, and I touched the pedals with just the tips of my toes, which were all that could reach. I put the lever into ‘D,’ and I pushed the gas pedal as far as I could, which wasn’t very far, but I guess it was far enough. I wasn’t super careful about steering, because the lines you’re supposed to stay between didn’t mean anything any more.

 

I didn’t stop at all. Not even for the signs. It took so much of my concentration to keep the truck going where I wanted, that I didn’t even worry about the burns, or about mom and dad, or about the town, or about anything. I just drove as fast as I could toward the highway. And you know what? I didn’t stop at all for the Sleepers, either. I just drove right through them.

 

That doesn’t always work out: When I was hiding in the pipe, I saw a few people try to run over the Sleepers. Sometimes they made it through the first one, or even two, but then one of the Sleepers would grab onto their car and pull them out through the door or the windshield. But that was back when there were lots of Sleepers waiting at the edge of town: Lines and lines of them like soldiers in a real loose, lazy formation. I probably wouldn’t have made it through all that, but they were spread pretty thin these days, and I had a big truck that was real high up, and heavy, and metal, and it had my name on the side — even if I wasn’t the Mills it meant, or even the ‘And Son’ — so I figured I had a better chance than most.

 

I found a spot with only one Sleeper, and I hit her head on — her sunken, sickly face highlighted right between the prongs on the hood ornament, like the sight on a gun in a video game — and a bunch of red sprayed up, and rained on the hood, and a little bit on the windshield. The headlights were tinted a bit red, too, but they still lit up the road pretty good. I kept driving until I reached an exit that didn’t really go anywhere in particular, and I drove, and drove, until I was on top of a hill outside town with nothing on it. I stopped there, because I could see for a long time, and nobody could sneak up on me. I killed the engine, and I rolled my burns in the cool grass some more, and I tried not to think of them, because they get worse when you think of them. I wanted to cry, but I wasn’t supposed to, because I was a boy, so I dug around in the glove box and found a paper pad and a greasy pencil, and I wrote some more History, so I wouldn’t have to repeat it.

 

The New History of Concord

By: Ronny Mills

Age: 9 ¾

 

After Ronald Mills, Jr., opened the door for Ronald Mills, Sr., and Terry Mills, there was a whole bunch of yelling, and Ronald Mills, Sr., ordered Ronald Mills, Jr., around.

 

First, Ronald Mills, Jr., went to the sink, and wet some towels for Terry Mills to put over her eyes, and then he got a blanket to put over her body, and then Ronald Mills, Sr., held her like she was sick, or very hurt, even though it only looked like she had a few scrapes, and had gotten dirty. Ronald Mills, Sr., promised Terry Mills that she was going to be okay, and when she laughed kind of sad, like she didn’t believe him, Ronald Mills, Sr., told her that she was going to be okay because she had to be.

 

Terry Mills said she wasn’t going to be okay, because she looked at the black spot in the sky, even though she didn’t mean to at all. She only looked because there were still some people outside, even though it had gotten very quiet lately, and those people were more like animals. They could barely talk, and their faces were crazy. They grabbed Terry Mills, and held her eyelids open, and pointed her face toward the sky so she would have to look. Ronald Mills, Sr., interrupted them, and fought some of them, but after Terry Mills looked at the black spot, it was like the people were a little normal again, and they said they were sorry, and that they had to do it, and then they ran away.

 

Ronald Mills, Sr., kept saying it was okay, but Terry Mills did not believe him. She said she could already feel things in her brain changing. Let the record show that Terry Mills didn’t actually say “changing” — she said very weird things about gifts, and about losing them — but Ronald Mills, Jr., got what she meant, so he wrote down “changing” instead.

 

Terry Mills rested for a while, and it even seemed like she might get more better eventually. But that was all a trick, so that when Ronald Mills, Sr., and Ronald Mills, Jr., fell asleep, too — on account of because they thought Terry Mills was asleep, and it was okay to go to sleep — Terry Mills could sneak out.

 

Ronald Mills, Sr., and Ronald Mills, Jr., went looking for Terry Mills upstairs, out of the basement, which Ronald Mills, Jr., wasn’t allowed to do normally, but Ronald Mills, Sr., was pretty distracted at the time. Ronald Mills, Jr., found a note from Terry Mills, and in it Terry Mills said she loved him, and she loved Ronald Mills, Sr., and she was very sorry, but she had to leave them before she hurt them. Terry Mills was going to “end it” herself, but let the record show that she did not, or maybe did not get a chance to before her brain changed. The note from Terry Mills also made Ronald Mills, Sr., promise two things: That he would never look at the black spot, and that he would keep Ronald Mills, Jr., safe, no matter what. Ronald Mills, Sr., laughed, even though nothing was funny, and he said that he already broke one of those promises, but he could keep the second. Then he knelt down to look Ronald Mills, Jr., right in the face, which he only did when he was super serious, and told Ronald Mills, Jr., that he couldn’t go outside anymore: “There are no more people out there,” Ronald Mills, Sr., said. “There are only Fucking Maniacs.”

 

When I was writing, I didn’t feel the burns, but I also didn’t feel myself crying, and how are you supposed to not cry if you don’t even know you’re doing it? Some of the tears got the words a little blurry. I would have to be careful not to cry anymore, especially not when I wrote History. The History must have took a long time, because when I looked up, it was bright out. Well, as bright as it got through the black sky. The town was far away, and really small, like a train model, but I could see it pretty good from up on the hill. I could see that the courthouse was still burning, and that the stuff around it was burning, too. There were no more firemen to put it out, so I imagined it would burn forever.

 

I got in my truck — there probably wasn’t any other Mills left, so I guess that made it mine — and I wrestled with the gear lever, and I pumped the gas, and I hauled on the steering wheel, and I drove toward nowhere in particular, as long as it was away from Concord, North Carolina, which was just History now.

 

 

The Absence of Knowledge: Second Epoch (Plus New Stories — One Updating Now!)

The Absence of Knowledge collection takes place across four timelines, or ‘epochs,’ as I’m calling them (because Crono Trigger). And big news: The Second Epoch is done! That’s the halfway point, for you fancy math-knowers out there. We’re actually two stories into the Third Epoch now, if you count the ones live-updating on Wattpad. So for those of you who prefer to burn through a bunch of these at once in eBook form, I got your back: Just click here to get The Absence of Knowledge, Second Epoch: The Black Spot on Amazon.

Now, remember, this is not the point where you support me financially. I do plan on monetizing this book somehow once it’s all finished, and I’d love your support at that time. But we’re not there yet, and I don’t want to burn out your good will (or your wallet) before we hit that point. The Wattpad versions are live updates, so they’re a bit rough around the edges — but all of the final versions of these stories are available for free, right here on this website, exactly as they appear in the eBook. If you don’t want to pay the .99 cents, you don’t have to! In fact, the only reason it’s not free is that Amazon doesn’t allow it unless you agree to Kindle exclusivity (and even then, you only get two weeks of ‘free’ pricing). This is the bare minimum they let me charge. This is just for folks who don’t mind tossing a dollar to read it offline, or properly synced for their Kindle, or just happen to hate dollars with a mindless and burning passion. That said, reviews are always appreciated! They help spread the word, and that’s invaluable.

Oh, and there’s a new story now updating live on Wattpad, the second in the Third Epoch, called Lock the Light Away. Find it here. And thanks for reading!

The Absence of Knowledge, Part 8: Siege Tower

 

He awoke to screams, as usual.

Sometimes, they were his own. But not tonight.

The absolute dark of early morning. His face numb from the cold. His fingers unresponsive. They crept like dying spiders – slow, stiff, uncertain — along the seam of his sleeping bag until they found the frigid metal tab of the zipper. He worked it back and forth, catching every broken tooth and errant thread, until the gap widened enough to let him free. He rolled to the edge of the bare mattress, and listened.

The screams repeated.

They were insistent tonight.

They were not going to let him sleep.

He stood up. He put a hand to his lower back. He pushed in and twisted at the hips until his spine cracked. A groan, fading into a sigh.

He counted the steps: Three to the edge of the bed. Turn. One and a half. Turn. Four to the door.

He ran his hand up across the wall. A soft plastic click. The lightswitch did nothing. It hadn’t for some time. Just an old habit.

The living room was mostly vacant. What furniture remained – no wood; all of that burned already – was shoved back against the walls. He’d cleared the space in preparation for an emergency escape that had not yet come. He moved through the room with the begrudging trust of the blind.

He followed the gradient of cold: It started at intolerable, and slowly grew to painful. He padded to the broken windows. Outside, on the expansive balcony, light. A relative term. A less complete shade of black. He found the insubstantial outline of his rifle, and set hands to it. He leaned out over the railing. He watched the darkness below. He listened.

Grunts. Heavy breathing. The scuff of a foot, missing a step. He tracked their progress. He kept the rifle close, locked his jaw against the chattering cold.

A woman broke through the wall of black at a full sprint. She skipped over an open manhole, skirted the dinosaur skeleton of a burned SUV, and slowed at the intersection to consider northbound Washington — too many cars, too many places she couldn’t see, too many variables — but chose westbound instead. She went to cut across the park. It was the right move.

She was fast, smart, and alert.

But she did not see the chains that hung between the bollards – the ones meant to stop vehicles from entering. It was just a small hop, to clear them. A few inches, and she would have disappeared into the trees before her pursuers could see which direction she’d went. But she didn’t jump in time. She caught both ankles and fell — momentum like a slingshot, firing her downward into the pavement — stunned. She rolled around. She moaned. She clutched her face. She tried to stand.

From the darkness, her pursuers. They closed on the woman with the wary confidence of predators. Somebody spoke. He could hear the sounds, but not catch the meaning. Their voices were low and casual. Hers was louder, more emotional. A threat and an answering plea. He settled the butt of the rifle into his shoulder and pressed the cold, lacquered wood to his cheek. The drama below now framed by the harsh geometry of his iron sights. The context of the scene had changed. It had a new, unseen director. Him.

The apparent leader motioned to one of the other pursuers, who approached. The woman cried out again. Both ignored her. The hunters looked away for a moment, and the prey took her chance.

Fast, smart, and alert.

She was halfway gone before they reacted. But she was slower than before. Her keen instincts clouded by the fall. There’s only so much adrenalin can do. She disappeared into another bank of shadow. The pack whooped and laughed and followed. They spotted weakness. They knew the hunt was over now, in all but formality.

And yet he still had a say.

He focused on the leader. A skinny one. Lanky. Dark hoody up. No details. Not even a person, just an abstract. It would be easy.

The prongs of his sights stabbed in at his target, urging his finger toward the trigger.

Without their leader, the other three might scatter. They might be distracted long enough to let the woman escape. They might not triangulate where the shot came from – not if there was only the one – and find him.

But then again, they might.

And bullets are finite.

And he did not know the woman.

The skinny one disappeared into the shadows. The others followed after. Their manic sounds grew faint.

He lowered the rifle.

He bent, and returned it to its place: resting in the corner, where the two low walls of the balcony met. He stood. He winced. He put his hand to his back and shook his head.

He walked carefully, broken glass crunching beneath his feet the whole way. When he reached the raised metal lip that marked the frame of the old, broken sliding glass door, he began to count his steps.

Ten to the doorway. Hand to a switch with no response. Four to the bed. Turn. One and a half to the edge. Turn. Three to the endtable.

He lowered himself gently, like easing a priceless work of art down from the bed of an unsteady truck. He felt for the cold metal tab of the zipper. He worked it up its stuttering, frustrating track. He laid down. He closed his eyes. He waited for the next screams.

Morning broke, and he wormed free of his bedding. He washed his face with the stale water from the bathtub, ran through a brief regimen of stretches, and dressed in the same set of clothes he wore every day. Thick wool socks, worn sneakers, jeans so old they had gone colorless, and a padded flannel shirt. He moved to the kitchen, and assessed the pantry. He stared at the bare shelves.

He listened to the wind whistle through invisible seams in the walls. The apartment had always been cold. Even back when its windows had been intact.

“Shoddy work,” he said, and frowned at the drywall. “I told you, Maria. I told you before we even moved in, this was shoddy work. Shoddy work for a whole lot of money.”

Nobody answered.

He shuffled to the living room and carefully hefted an aluminum ladder from its place against the wall. He bent with his knees, though even they cracked in protest. He carried the ladder to the edge of the balcony and balanced its feet atop the enclosing wall. He paused to watch the skyline. When he was finished, he glanced back toward the bedroom.

Inside, sitting atop the chintzy plastic IKEA stool that served as his nightstand, was a framed photograph. The photo was paper. The frame was wood. The only paper, and the only wood left in his apartment. The rest had been burned for warmth. The photograph showed a solidly built woman in her mid-50s, wearing a daisy blouse beneath a deepwater blue cashmere sweater — draped across her shoulders like it had been made for her, which, of course, it had. Plain gray slacks. A thin silver chain around her neck, sporting a single, unadorned iron carpentry nail. Her hair was black and untidy – the wind had caught it – and she was laughing. Behind her, the same low brick walls of the balcony on which he stood. Beyond them, the same skyline.

Almost the same skyline.

Buildings present in the photo were missing from his view. Others still stood, but were crumbling, charred, or broken. In a few, fires raged. Across the Hudson, New York City never stopped burning. Not completely. The river shimmered with oil. Bodies rafted past, swirling out to sea. The marina was shattered, abandoned. A sunken forest of masts, their tips just barely breaking the water’s surface. Beyond it, the park had grown wily and untamed. Nature had taken back the space. But across the bay, the Statue of Liberty stood unchanged.

He inhaled deeply, slowly, through his nose.

“Hell of a view,” he said. “Never worth the money, though,”

He looked west, at the black spot fixed in the sky. When it first appeared, it was no larger than a speck. Now it was the size of the moon. It never set. Never moved across the sky. Just grew. Imperceptibly, but incessantly.

He spat and turned away. He leaned over his balcony wall, surveying the others below. Portside Towers was vaguely pyramidal — wider at the base and narrower at the top. Its balconies were staggered, not stacked one atop the other. They fanned out beneath him like rice paddies. With just a 16-foot ladder stolen from maintenance, he could access them all.

He knelt to check a series of hashmarks scratched into the wall.

“Four down, one right,” he said.

He slid the ladder over the edge and gently lowered it to the balcony below. He sat on the wall and carefully swung his legs over. The apartment below had been the first one he cleared. Not even wood remained in there. The same with its neighbors to either side. His stop was four stories down – four awkwardly wrestled ladders, four slow and painful descents.

He had been mining the place for two days. The glass door was already shattered, its glistening jewels crunching beneath his shoes. He surveyed the living room, and shook his head.

The walls were covered in massive reproductions of comic book art. All portraits, all male, all stripped down to leather thongs and elaborate codpieces. They wore thick mustaches and leering smiles.

“These were your neighbors, Maria,” he said. “Not exactly the borrow-a-cup-of-sugar types.”

He headed for the kitchen first. He had left the cabinets open. He filled his backpack with their contents: Cruelty free albacore in olive oil, fair trade lentils, something called Quinoa that looked like rice but smelled like broccoli. The box proudly called it an ‘environmentally stable grain source.’

“Betcha feel silly now, eh fellas?” He asked.

He waited for an answer. When none came, he chuckled to himself, then resumed packing.

In the bedroom, he unhitched a small hatchet from his belt and set about dismantling a minimalist maple coffee table that had clearly cost a fortune. Now it was firewood. He collected the pieces and bound them with a bungee cord, then hooked the bundle to the webbing of his backpack. He climbed the ladder, dragged it up after him, reset it, and climbed again.

Four stories took their toll, and he wasn’t done. Two more to the roof.

He crested the final ledge and collapsed on the tarpaper. He waited until the spots disappeared from his vision, wiped the sweat from his forehead – already cooling to a nasty chill – and limped toward a series of buckets, pots, bowls, posts, and tarps. He held his lower back, favoring his left side.

He lifted the corners of shower curtains and cheap tablecloths – even a pair of rubber sheets, courtesy of the codpiece-and-mustache boys – so that the dew they’d collected could flow down, into the waiting containers below. He stooped – gasping, swearing – and retrieved the water, then transferred it all to a single plastic barrel that sat beside the access doorway. He unscrewed the lid. It was half full. He added his harvest, drank some for himself, then sealed it again. He turned back to the ladder to begin his short, painful journey home.

It rattled against the concrete wall, a sound like steel drums. Somebody was climbing it. Quickly.

He reached down and unclasped his hatchet. He shifted it in his palm and swung it shortly, twice, to settle its weight in his grip. Then he charged. His steps were low and quick. He breathed shallow, quiet, did not grunt or yell. He stopped a few feet shy of the roof’s edge, hatchet raised, panting thinly, and waited. The rattling stopped.

Wind. Bird calls.

He crept up to the ledge and peered over. The balconies below laid out like drawers in a jewelry box. All vacant. No ambushers waiting for him on the ladder. No potential attackers standing at its base.

He gave the ladder an experimental shake. It shuddered, but remained steady. Its feet planted firmly.

“Well it wasn’t the damn breeze,” he whispered.

He fixed the hatchet between his teeth and bit down. Butt on the ledge, legs dangling, weight onto the rungs. He froze. A few feet down, and his legs would be in reach of anybody standing on the balcony below, hidden just out of his sightline. He closed his eyes.

He sighed.

He wrapped his hands loosely around the side rails, then swung his feet out and slid the remaining length of the ladder. It rattled, shook, made a sound like a freight train crashing into a kitchen, and he hit the pavement flat-footed. A sharp intake of breath. The hatchet out of his mouth and in his hand.

He had shattered the sliding glass doors months ago. Hacked apart and burned the wooden lounge furniture. Stripped the fabric from the couch and armchair, burned their frames, and left the springs in a pile by the doorway. Waterlogged beige carpet in the living room. Dirty white tile in the kitchen. Beyond that: Only black shadows in the doorways, where the gray winter sunshine petered out.

With no immediate threat visible, he took a moment to straighten up sharply, put a hand to his back, and twist. It did not take. He did it again. A pop.

He sobbed and laughed at the same time.

“Well, it ain’t like I can just go see a chiropractor,” he said.

He limped into the darkened apartment. Weathered glass shards ground beneath his sneakers. He checked the kitchen first. Behind the island. In the fridge. He had stripped away the doors to the cabinets long ago, and could see at a glance they were empty.

In the living room: a floor lamp with an expensive-looking curve to the base, a colorful glass coffee table, a pile of rusting springs. He gave his eyes some time to adjust, staring into the dark until he could at least pick up outlines, then walked into the dark, his left foot dragging — shuffle stump shuffle – the hatchet held diagonally in front of his face. He paused at a Stonehenge silhouette, a door, and pushed it open. A cramped coat closet. Clear.

This unit mirrored his own in some ways, but it had an extra bedroom. His own hallway veered to the right. This one forked: Left to the guest, right to the master.

He slid along the wall, watching the far corridor. At its end, cold and dusty light from the big windows in the master bedroom. Quiet breath. Soft steps. At the threshold, he paused. He knelt as low as his creaking knees would allow, and ducked his head in. Left, right, and back.

No movement. He crept into the bedroom and pressed himself flat against the wall. He slid toward the windows, light at his back, facing the darkness.

He froze.

The bedframe was a solid piece of molded white plastic, bulbous feet and grand sweeping arches. It would not burn. He had let it be. The blankets, he had stolen. The several dozen oddly shaped throw pillows, he’d tossed in the far corner.

He had left the bed totally bare.

Now there was something on it.

He broke into a low and mostly silent run, only the crackling of his joints betraying his approach. A fast and vicious swing, more speed than force, and the hatchet sunk to its hilt in something soft.

Too soft.

He wiggled the axe, sending a small puff of tiny feathers swirling in the air. Dim secondhand sunlight catching the barbs, lighting them up like fireflies.

The throw pillows. The ones he’d left heaped in the corner, after stripping the bed bare.

The corner directly behind him right now.

The skin on the back of his neck danced, and he spun, almost in time to dodge the blow.

The sharp edge of something metal, but hollow. Too light. It dazed him, but didn’t put him down. A figure darted past, clipped its shin on an unseen bedpost, and went sprawling in the darkened hallway. It half-crawled, half-ran to the intersection –

In the snapshot of laundered sunlight, she shone like an angel. It made stark shadows from her cheekbones. It feathered her hair with white. It shone in her eyes — not an airy blue, but the complex and impenetrable color of the ocean. The same shade as the woman with the windblown hair, in the photograph on his makeshift nightstand.

This was not the same woman. This one was decades younger, much paler – no distant Spanish dusting her skin, as there had been with Marie – and forty pounds lighter. There was a desperate, refugee thinness to her frame.

The moment unfroze, and the girl bolted around the corner, out of sight.

“W-wait,” he called. His voice broke.

She didn’t hear him. Or she didn’t listen.

“Wait!” He called again.

He ran after her. He didn’t make the corner and put his shoulder through the cheap drywall. She was on the balcony, one foot already poised on the ladder.

She was fast.

“You’re the girl from last night!” He yelled.

She peered into the gloom, but didn’t see him. He moved carefully into the light and saw her eyes dart down to his hand.

He was still holding the hatchet – and the pillow he’d murdered. It was bleeding down.

“I’m normal!” He said. “I can talk. I’m not a thing.”

“Some of them can talk,” she said.

“They can?” He asked. “I’ve only seen them screaming.”

She didn’t answer. She looked to his hand again.

He tossed the hatchet away suddenly, like it had burned him.

“Would one of them do that?” He said.

She shifted her weight off the ladder and peeked at him through the rungs.

“No,” she said. “But not all normal people are good, either.”

He laughed.

“Tell me about it,” he said.

“Why do you want me to wait?” She asked.

He started to answer, but caught himself short and fell silent. He looked around at the furniture, stripped of wood. At the shelves, emptied of food. He stuck his jaw out.

“I guess I don’t,” he finally said.

Now it was her turn to laugh.

“That’s about the only thing you could’ve said to make me stay,” she told him, and let her long, thin fingers fall from the rung. Her knuckles were bulbous and scabbed. Her fingernails ragged and dirty.

“Listen,” he said. “I don’t have much here, and what I do have is mine. This is my spot – people have been trying to make me leave since before the world went crazy – and I don’t need company.”

She walked toward him, light, easy, wary. A deer moving through a clearing. The glass that crunched beneath his feet merely crackled below hers.

“I don’t believe that,” she said. “You were begging me to wait just a second ago.”

“I don’t beg anybody for anything,” he snapped.

“Hey,” she put her hands up, palms out. “Look, there’s nothing wrong with needing someone. There aren’t many of us left. I’m glad to see you, too.”

“Get moving, lady,” he said, and inched toward his hatchet. “It’s every man for himself these days, and I don’t know you from Adam.”

“One night, okay?” She said, and circled him, hands still up. “I just…I just need to catch my breath for one night. I won’t bother you. Maybe I can even help. I don’t eat much…”

He took in her slight body. All elbows and knees.

“One night,” he said. “I’ll get you some supplies – only the stuff I can’t use, mind you – and then come morning, you’re gone. You don’t tell anybody I’m here, and I never see you again.”

“Deal,” she said.

She held out her hand.

He took it. Frail. Paper-thin. Warm.

Together, they ascended – her first, him following with hatchet held in teeth – and harvested more rainwater. She drank deeply from a cheap cooking pot, just going to rust.

“This how you got up?” He asked, nudging open the access door.

“Yeah,” she said. “How else?”

“It’s dark in there,” he said.

“Sure is.”

“You made your way up here in the dark?”

“Of course.”

“All the way through the lobby, found the door to the stairs, and took every flight to the roof, all in pitch black?”

She paused while returning the pot to its place, just beneath a torn shower curtain. She looked back at him.

“During the day, you can see just fine in the lobby,” she said. “The windows are all busted out, plus somebody drove a garbage truck through the main entrance. Looked like it started a hell of a fire when it crashed.”

“It was on fire before it crashed,” he said. “So was everybody in it. Couple dozen of them. In the back. With the trash.”

“You were here when it happened?” She asked.

She duck-walked beneath the water traps and stood beside him. They looked out onto the bay. The Statue of Liberty, like a model somebody had set on the horizon.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve been here all along. We lived here. I lived here. Before. I’m not moving. Nobody’s gonna make me.”

She didn’t have a response for that.

“What about you?” He asked. “Where do you hole up?”

“I don’t,” she answered. She gave him a sideways look. “Not anymore. Holing up is dumb. No offense. If you stay in one spot, they’re guaranteed to find you. Trust me, I know.”

“Doesn’t seem like I’m the dumb one,” he spat at her feet. “You were the one running for your life last night.”

“So you saw all that?” She said.

“Heard it, mostly.”

“And you didn’t think to, I don’t know, help?”

“Lady, I said it before: I don’t know you.”

She scoffed. Crossed her arms. Looked away toward New York, while he watched the bay. They stayed like that for a quiet moment.

“Let’s get you something to eat,” he said.

He led the way to the ladder, and descended first. The hatchet clipped firmly to his belt. He hauled an old paint bucket full of water. She carried a green plastic pail, emblazoned with a starfish.

They built a fire in his kitchen sink. Sat on bar stools in front of it, watching the flames instead of talking. She ate tuna straight out of the can, while he poured dry quinoa into an old fashioned metal coffee pot, splashed some water in after it, and set it to cooking.

“I didn’t even get your name,” she spoke, after a particularly long and uncomfortable silence.

“I don’t see how it matters,” he said. “You’re gone tomorrow.”

“Jesus,” she muttered.

He studied the fire.

“You’re something else,” she said, after visibly fuming for a moment. “We’re still people. We have names. We talk to each other and help each other. That’s what people do.”

“That’s what people did,” he corrected.

He shook the coffee pot. Smelled the quinoa. It was earthy, in an entirely unpleasant way.

“We’re still alive,” she said. “At least, I am.”

“I didn’t much like people before all this,” he said. “Not much has happened to change my mind lately. Just look at those thugs last night, hunting you down in the street like it’s a game.”

She turned to stare at him.

“Those weren’t people,” she said, carefully. “Those weren’t anything like people.”

He stirred the fire.

“You really haven’t left this place at all, have you?” She asked.

“Not much cause-” he started, but she cut him off.

“You really don’t know anything-” she said, but it was his turn to interrupt.

“You don’t come into my house and start insulting me when I’m sharing my-”

“You don’t know anything!” She yelled. She threw the empty tuna can into the fire, sending up a volley of sparks. “The angry ones – the ones that just scream and charge – they’re kittens. Have you seen the still ones? The ones blocking every exit from this god damn island? The ones that don’t move until you get close, and then they move so fast you can’t see them – tearing you apart limb from limb with their bare hands? You them?”

“I don’t-”

“Even those ones aren’t the worst. You can trick the angry ones. Avoid the still ones. It’s the laughing ones that will get you. Those things chasing me last night weren’t human. Weren’t even close. The madness just took a different form in them. Sure, they can talk and reason – but they think everything is a game, especially killing, and they love to play.”

She slid from her bar stool and jabbed a thin finger at the broken windows.

“Have you even looked out there, lately? The angry ones are gone. They left weeks ago. But the still ones keep guarding all the exits. They’re keeping us in, so the laughing ones can play with us. That’s what you’ve been hearing out there – not ‘thugs’ taking advantage of the situation. Not human nature. Every single normal person I’ve met has done nothing but help and care for each other. Every single one! It’s only monsters out there, killing us off one by one. And you’re doing nothing.”

“Better them than me,” he said.

She bit the side of her lip. She looked away.

“Do you really mean that?” She finally asked.

“No,” he sighed. “I guess not. I don’t know anymore. Most of my life it’s just been me. I liked it that way. I was a firm believer in ‘if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself.’ It worked just fine, until…”

He gave the steaming coffee pot a shuffle. It belched out thick puffs of steam. He wrinkled his nose.

“Do you want this?” He asked her. He tilted the pot in her direction, to show her the contents. “Smells like somebody farted on some rice.”

She laughed.

“It’s quinoa,” she said. “It’s an environmentally st-”

“Stable grain source,” he quoted the box. “So they tell me.”

She laughed again, quieter, and took the pot from him.

“I used to be all about this stuff,” she said.

“Quinoa?” He asked.

“No,” she said, and looked around for something.

He pulled a plastic cup from beneath the counter and rattled the pair of forks inside. She took one.

“Environmental stuff,” she continued. “I only shopped at local co-ops. I drove an electric car. I signed petitions.”

She shook her head.

“Seems pretty dumb now, huh?” He asked.

“Maybe,” she said. “No. We didn’t know this was coming. We were trying to do the right thing. I think it’s the trying that counts.”

“Sounds like dumb to me,” he said.

She tilted her head while she chewed. She swallowed with visible effort.

“Until what?” She said. “You were saying you used to think it was every man for himself, until…”

She rotated her hand at the wrist, urging him to pick up the prompt while she continued to eat.

He stood, carefully. Palm flat against his lower back. He walked away.

Four to the bed. Turn. One and a half to the edge. Turn. Three to the table. He reached down. His hand found it unerringly, even in the absolute darkness. He reversed his movements, and returned to the small kitchen. The weak fire in the sink threw shadowplay on the tile backsplash. He handed the object to the girl.

It was a rectangular frame. Old, faded wood that had lost most of its stain. The glass was scratched. The felt on the back was peeling. The photograph inside was immaculate. It showed a woman with windblown hair and a careless smile. And an expensive sweater.

“Who is this?” The girl asked.

“Was,” he said. “That was Marie. My wife.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Everybody is,” he said.

She looked at the photo for a moment before handing it back to him. He set it on the counter, deliberate and reverent, making sure it sat well away from the fire.

“I don’t know what she saw in me,” he started. He stopped. He grunted. He began again. “We couldn’t have been more different. I was cheap beer and she was expensive wine. I was action movies and she was books. I voted Republican; she voted for those weird parties you never heard of. They said she only married me for my money – every dime, I earned myself…”

He paused to look at her. Waited until she nodded.

“And hell,” he continued. “Maybe part of that’s true. She always had expensive taste. I don’t think she could’ve taken living poor, like I grew up. That didn’t make her bad. It made her smart.”

She didn’t speak when he fell silent. She ate quietly, careful not to let her fork ping against the steel of the coffee can. The whistle of the wind. The rustle of the fire.

“Thing is, she could’ve had a thousand other rich guys,” he said. “That was always her world, and she owned it. The way those yuppies in their nice suits looked at her, back when we were young. I saw it. But she chose me. And I made her happy. She loved this place.”

He gestured around at the broken windows. The weather-stained carpet. The empty living room. The skyline across the river, black — save for the few spots where it was burning.

“She liked the view,” he laughed.

She didn’t join in.

“She always thought the best of everybody. Too trusting, I always told her. Naïve, I said, if she wasn’t in the room. But I wouldn’t have changed a thing about her for the world. She would’ve helped you last night. In the blink of an eye. Hell, if she was still here, I would’ve helped you, because I’d know she’d want me to. But she’s not here.”

“How?” She asked.

“Cancer,” he said. “Thank Christ she didn’t live to see this mess.”

He spat into the fire. It sizzled.

The girl nodded.

“It’s still not an easy way to go,” she said.

And he nodded.

They ate in silence. When they were done, he took the fork and coffee pot and rinsed them with water from the little green plastic pail. The kind a child would use to dig at the beach.

They stayed by the fire until it died, talking mostly about the way things used to be. Then he guided her through the dark, first to the bathroom, then to the bedroom. He dug beneath the frame for extra blankets.

“You can sleep on the bed,” he said, settling a heavy quilt on the floor.

“No way,” she said. “This is your place. And besides, I saw you holding your back. You need the bed.”

“I’ll be fine,” he said, automatically.

A quizzical silence.

“It is unbelievably cold up here,” she finally said. “I think we’d be better off sleeping together.”

He blinked. He swiveled to face where he thought she was, in the dark.

“Oh my god not like that,” she said, almost all one word. “Just for body heat. That’s how we used to do it back in the firehouse.”

“What’s that?” He said.

“Nothing,” she said. Her voice had lost something. “Just the place where I was before this.”

He did not push the point. He began piling blankets onto the bed.

“Now don’t you go making moves on me, young lady,” he said, with faux sternness.

“Groooossss,” she sang, and they both laughed.

He eased down onto the mattress. She pressed against him, his lap to her rear. After a few moments he pushed her away, turned over, and pulled her hand across his shoulder, so that her stomach was pressed against his back instead.

“Just not comfortable on that side,” he said. “My back and all.”

“Of course,” she said, and she kindly let the subject drop.

He awoke to screams, as usual.

Somebody was touching him. He threw himself out of bed, landed on the floor, felt around for his hatchet.

“What’s going on?” The girl asked.

He shook his head clear. He closed his eyes and sighed.

“Bad dream,” he said. “Did you hear someth-”

Another scream. Muffled by distance, refracted from the neighboring buildings, hard to place. He heard a rustle – the girl was moving.

“Don’t go anywhere,” he said, but she didn’t answer.

She kept moving.

He reached out, bumped his knuckles on a wall that he didn’t realize was there. He knocked his knee on the nightstand, standing up. He felt the picture frame topple over. He moved to catch it, but guessed wrong. He heard it hit the carpet, but the glass didn’t break.

There was a thump somewhere to his right, followed by whispered swearing. Then light footsteps, growing distant. The girl had found the doorway. She left the bedroom.

He followed after, hands in front, taking careful, shuffling steps like a blind man. He bent his finger backward when he hit the wall. He felt along its length, found the opening, then slipped out into the living room. The light was abysmal, just shadows and vague outlines, but he moved faster, having his bearings again. She was already outside, standing at the edge of the balcony, looking down into nothing. From out here, the noises were clearer: Pained grunts. Something metal being knocked over. Laughter, wildly out of place for how sincere and playful it was.

From absolute darkness into relative darkness, a figure: An older man, his face indistinct. A bulge around the belly. Toddling, uncertain steps. He held a hand to his face in a way that betrayed a wound. He screamed again, no words, no plea for help – just an animalistic squeal. He stumbled onto Washington Street, moving toward the memorial, and the marina.

“We have to help him,” the girl said.

He didn’t reply. He went to retrieve the rifle from its place in the corner. His fingers closed on nothing.

He grabbed again, lower, waved his hand slowly from side to side, hoping to contact its barrel in the dark. He knelt, with considerable difficulty, and padded around the cement.

“What are you doing?” She asked.

“I have a rifle here,” he said. “Somewhere.”

“I have it,” she said. “I saw it earlier. I’m a decent shot.”

“Hand it over,” he said.

He approached her in the dark, one hand out for receipt. He was watching the street below. No rifle was deposited.

He grunted.

“Are you going to help him?” She asked.

More figures emerging from the shadow canyons of the neighboring high-rise. They followed the wounded man.

A whiff of fabric moving across wood, and the girl had the rifle up against her shoulder, sighting it down on the figures below. She tracked the leader: Skinny and androgynous, its features hidden beneath the deep, loose hood of a baggy sweatshirt.

He heard her breathe in slowly. Could practically feel her finger tightening on the trigger.

He seized the rifle, pulling it up and away.

“What the hell?” She hissed.

“You shoot and they’ll know we’re here,” he said.

“So we’ll shoot them all,” she said.

“You don’t even know how many there are,” he said.

He held the rifle above and behind him, keeping a toy from a petulant child.

“We can take them,” she said. “We have to help that guy.”

“We don’t know him,” he said.

She recognized the finality in his voice. She went to speak, stopped.

“Fine,” she said, and she turned away.

From balcony to tile to carpet, her footsteps went from flat, to hollow, to gone.

He watched the street.

The hooded figure quickened its pace, broke into a short run, vaulted the metal hoops of a bike rack and did a clumsy twist. It fell, rolling onto its butt. It laughed: High and young.

One of the others followed suit, but vaulted the rack with more grace. This one a boy, tall and lanky. A shock of long hair on one side of his head, the other shaved bare. He landed square, both feet planted on either side of the hooded figure’s shoulders. Then he squatted low, rubbing his crotch on the prone figure’s face. They laughed, all of them, together. The hooded figure pushed the lanky boy away and had its feet again, up and running at full sprint. It disappeared after the wounded man, around the corner. The others followed, whistling and whooping.

From somewhere behind him, a familiar noise that he hadn’t heard in a long time: A sticky latch being flipped, and the plastic crackle of weather stripping, releasing its seal. The girl had opened the front door.

“Wait,” he cast his voice low and urgent out into the dark. “Don’t go out there!”

Through the bare living room, to the end of the hall. Nightblind, he sensed the change in the air from the open door. Staler than his own, warmer, and full of rot. Outside, in the long corridor between apartments, something crashed. The girl swore.

“Wait,” he called again, leaning out of the doorway. “I never cleared the halls. It’s not safe.”

“Then stay there,” she snapped.

He hesitated at the threshold for the space of ten heartbeats, then stepped out of his home, and into the dark.

The hallway smelled of singed dust. Remnants of the fire. The carpet was thin, and did nothing to hide her footsteps ahead. He followed them through a cooler space in the darkness. Sensed another change in the air. Felt an absence of pressure signifying a larger space. An open door: one of the apartments that he hadn’t checked yet. He could feel its stillness pressing in on him. He moved to the left wall and put his hand on it. Dragged his fingers across the rough, flaking paper as he walked. They grazed against the cool metal of a doorjamb. He felt for the knob. Found it. Still closed. He hadn’t heard it swish open, hadn’t heard the hydraulics wheeze as it shut, hadn’t heard the hollow thunk of the latch engaging. She’d walked right by it.

“Back here,” he called.

She didn’t answer.

He sighed, loud enough so she could hear the resignation in it.

“The door to the stairs is back here. I’m touching it,” he said.

A moment of quiet, then small feet, shuffling.

“You’re coming with me?” She asked.

“If I don’t, you’ll never even find the damn stairs,” he answered.

A skeptical laugh. Uncertain steps.

“The wall to my left, your right,” he said.

She found it, her fingers brushing against his when she reached the doorway.

“Let’s go back,” he said. “It’s probably already too late to do any good.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “We have to try.”

She didn’t wait for him to reply. The handle clicked, and stale air washed in. It smelled like concrete and metal. He felt the warmth of her body pass, in the dark. He followed it.

The stairs were easy. One at a time, hand on the rail, all the way to the bottom. They descended in silence, wary of alerting some unseen thing below that might be waiting for them. Finally he heard her stumble, reaching for a step that wasn’t there.

“I think we’re here,” she said.

“The lobby is this way,” he agreed. Palms against rough concrete. Cool steel. “Got it. Follow my voice.”

He eased the door open. The relative dark of the lobby at night, with its smashed windows and destroyed façade, was daylight compared to the absolute blackness of the stairwell. He could only make out shapes. Boxes and diamonds: the tacky, faux mid-century modern furniture of the lounge. Beyond it, ink and shadow. Distant sparks marking fires across the river.

“I’m all turned around,” she said.

“It’s this way.”

He took her by the hand, felt her delicate bones against his broad and calloused palm.

They picked their way through the shattered, burned, and weathered remains of the lobby, wincing whenever their feet found old wood, or broken glass. They crept around the husk of a burned-out garbage truck, half-embedded in the reception desk. The sticky, resinous smell of old, fried meat. He didn’t look inside. They stood on the cracked pavement of the circular driveway, and listened.

Distant yelps of pain and fear, answered by laughter.

He squeezed her hand. She squeezed back.

Out on the street, she took the lead, picking her way quiet and quick through the shrubbery, heading toward the Korean War memorial which bordered his building on the marina side. There was light over there, mostly blocked by the curving remembrance wall. It threw sinewy silhouettes halfway up Portside Towers. The voices grew louder. He and the girl grew quieter. Smaller movements, more carefully placed. The orange wash of the unseen fire guided them in. They ducked behind the memorial. On the far side of it, a man sobbed and pleaded. A smattering of young voices joked and prodded. A fire crackled. A bone snapped. A low, wet howl.

“Last chance,” she said, her voice so faint that he saw, more than heard the words. “You don’t have to do this.”

He clenched his jaw. Fit his teeth together. He nodded once, short, sure.

She smiled. Small and sad.

She stepped out into the light. The voices stopped.

He followed the girl, tensing for a fight.

“Ho, shit!” Somebody laughed. Disbelieving. Others joined in.

The hunters lounged in a rough semi-circle around a central campfire. Just kids. Not a one over twenty. A loping monkey of a boy, all knees and elbows. A pretty blonde in a puffy green parka. A shorter, dark-skinned girl with her combat boots kicked up, resting on the lap of a chubby Asian kid with a patchy pubescent beard. The bald man they’d seen running was now on his knees, clutching his face and quietly whimpering.

“Ohhhh noooo,” a high voice sang.

It cut through the rabble. A short, slim figure in a gray sweatshirt stepped forward, its hood pulled up, face lost to shadow.

“You lost!” It finished.

The laughter resumed.

He looked to the girl for context, but she was stepping away from him, circling around to stand behind the hunters.

He opened his mouth to speak. Considered. Then turned to run instead. He found three more children lurking behind him: One — the oldest so far, in his mid twenties, perhaps — was huge and muscular, wearing an old army jacket and cap, both three sizes too small. They were covered in sharpie graffiti: copulating stick figures and crudely scrawled profanities. Another, a girl, plain and acne-scarred. Brown hair pulled back into a tight ponytail that flowed all the way to her knees. She held a pair of industrial bolt cutters. The snips were stained with rust. Or something rust colored. The last kid was a perfectly hairless, golden-skinned little boy. Not even eyebrows marring his smooth face. Maybe ten years old. In each hand, he held a shiny silver chef’s knife. Black handles stenciled with Japanese writing. The metal was ornately folded; it caught the firelight and danced with it. He stepped away from them. He turned to face the main group.

“Why?” He asked.

Every one of the children burst out laughing. It went on so long they ran out of breath, red-faced and panting. When it finally started to ease down, the pretty blonde giggled and it caught on again. A full minute passed. They wiped tears from their eyes.

“Oh, Jesus,” the chubby Asian kid sighed.

“My stomach hurts,” the girl in the combat boots said, holding a hand over her abdomen. “That was the funniest god damn thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Why?” The hairless boy imitated, making his voice deep and dopey.

And they were off laughing again.

Something in the bald man broke, and he bolted from his place by the fire. He disappeared into the night like he’d jumped into the ocean.

“Oop,” the huge guy pointed. “Lost a rabbit.”

“Ah,” the hooded figure waved a dismissive hand. “He’ll play the game later. Let’s focus on this one for now – it’s hilarious.”

The leader crossed around the campfire, the light at their back stealing all detail from the space beneath the hood. Just a black hole for a face. They stood a few feet from him, hands on their hips, watching. He looked past them. Found the girl at the edge of the memorial, where stones met grass. Her shoulders pulled in, her head cast down, trying to make herself small.

“Why?” He asked her again.

“Boo,” the girl with the ponytail called. “Too soon.”

“Yeah, man,” the huge guy said. “Don’t wear it out.”

“Hold up,” the hooded figure said. “Let her answer.”

The girl didn’t speak. She looked away.

The leader closed the distance to her in a few quick bounds. They seized the girl’s face. Held her eyelids open – Marie’s eyes; murky blue – and spat directly into her eyeball. The girl cried out.

He tried to run to her, but massive, meaty hands closed around his arms and pulled him backwards. Down. Thumped on his ass. His back. He gasped from the pain.

“You gotta answer him,” the figure explained to the girl. “Come on, it’ll be funny.”

They waited.

“I had to do it,” the girl said, still unable to look at him. “If I don’t play the game, I become the game.”

“Ooh, well said,” the acne-scarred girl chuckled. “I like that.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty good,” the leader agreed. They turned to address him. “So do you get it now?”

“Get what?” He asked. “Listen, if your problem’s with me, you can let the girl go-”

A sharp bark of laughter from behind.

The hooded figure knelt down, face to face with him. He stared into the cavern beneath the drawn hood.

“That’s just it, though,” they said. “That little rabbit over there just killed you…”

The figure paused to look at the girl, still rubbing her eyeball. When they turned, he caught a glimpse of their features. High, thin nose. Sharp cheekbones and full lips. They were beautiful, whatever they were.

“She brought you out here to die, and you know it, and yet you’re still all ‘let the girl go.’ It’s funny. Get it?”

“No,” he said. Looking to each of the kids for clarification. “You knew I was up there? You could have come in and killed me whenever you wanted…”

“What’s funny about that?” The chubby one asked.

“Right,” the leader agreed. “You had to come out to us. That’s the game. And you were doing so good! We ran, what, twenty rabbits past your house..”

“Sixteen,” the pretty blonde corrected.

“Sixteen bunnies!” The hooded figure exclaimed. “Nobody made it to sixteen! That chickenshit yuppie in the bank broke at eight. Hell, those badass biker guys only made it to ten. When we brought out a cute little white bunny – like, we’re talking barely old enough to hop, here — and started cutting on her right in front of the warehouse they were holed up in, they broke. Came charging out all chains swinging and-”

“Get your hands off her!” The hairless boy did his baritone impression again, and the other kids laughed.

“We tried that with you last month,” the hooded figure continued. “And nothin’! Same exact bunny. Little thing screamed all night, but you didn’t budge. We cut her until she was just a stain, man. You were stone cold! You were the champ!”

He winced. He looked at the girl, to make sure she still wasn’t looking at him.

“I gotta know,” the leader asked. “What was it about this particular rabbit that finally got to you?”

He didn’t answer. The figure stood and started over toward the girl again.

“Her eyes!” He called after them. They stopped, swiveled about. Waited for him to continue. “She…she looks like my wife. A little bit. Around the eyes.”

Quiet. Small waves lapping at the shore. The crackle of the fire.

“Pfffffthahahahaha,” the leader doubled over.

The other hunters broke simultaneously, howling, rolling on the ground, weeping and thumping on their thighs. When their laughter finally faded, the hooded figure sat down before him, inches away.

“That’s perfect,” they said. “You have to get it now, right? You get the joke?”

“No,” he whispered.

“Am I explaining it wrong?” The leader asked the group. “I don’t know what else to say.”

“Some people just got no sense of humor,” the huge guy said, his voice weary.

“Sad,” the girl in the combat boots added.

“Listen,” he said, looking to each of the kids in turn. “There has to be something you want. I’ve got food, water. We can make a deal.”

“You can’t,” the girl finally spoke. One hand still over her eye, she looked at him from across the fire. “I told you, they’re not human. They’re just like the other things.”

“Not just like them,” the leader amended. “It’s true, when I’m not around, my little ones can be a little chaotic. They each play their own game, by their own rules — and if you’re not paying attention, maybe you could mistake that for madness. But when I’m here, they all play the same game. The best game: Mine.”

The figure pulled back its hood. Short, shiny red hair in an artfully chaotic mess. Smooth, pale skin. Flowing, flawless features, each contour on its face leading gracefully into the next. Except for the area around the eyes. The entire ocular cavity — from the bone beneath the eyebrow, all the way back around to the bridge of the nose — there was only blackness. Not a shadow; not a trick of the light: The void persisted, even when the leader turned and caught the light of the fire. He stared into the blank spaces where their eyes should be. They were not empty; they did not look in onto the skull. They opened onto some other place. The black within them was absolute, and yet still, he got the sense of watching something incomprehensibly vast moving in the far distance. He looked from the black eyes to the black spot in the sky, and back.

“Hey, now you’re getting it!” The leader said.

“I’m booooored,” the pretty blonde whined.

“All right,” the leader shrugged. “Let’s get started.”

“Hold on!” The hairless boy said. “I wanna try something. I’ve always wondered if you could still see out of your eye once it’s pulled out of your head.”

“What?” The huge guy laughed. “That’s stupid.”

“No,” the boy argued. “I mean, without cutting the nerves and stuff. If you pull it out just a little, can you make them look at their own gouged-out eye?”

“Whoa,” the chubby Asian said.

“Okay,” the leader chuckled. “Leave the eyes for now.”

“And the mouth!” The boy interjected.

“Well, that’s just getting greedy,” the dark-skinned girl said, standing and stretching.

“He has to be able to tell me if he can see himself,” the boy whined.

“Tell you what,” the leader said. “We’ll start at the toes and race you to the top. Better be quick!”

“You’re on!” The hairless boy laughed, sliding his knives against one another.

The girl shuddered. Her palm still covered her one wounded eye, but the other met his for a moment.

“This doesn’t make you bad,” he called to her. “It just makes you smart.”

“Ugh,” the boy rolled his eyes. “Maybe you can have the mouth, after all. He can just nod.”

The kids laughed, and set to play.

 

 

The Absence Of Knowledge, Part 7: Everybody In The Whole World

Mari slams her bedroom door and listens for a few seconds. When nobody yells, she yanks it open and slams it again.

 

“Mariana!” Diego shouts.

 

He doesn’t follow it up with anything. He knows that whatever he orders her to do, she’ll do the opposite as loudly and as often as she can until he gives up. Diego knows he can’t make her do a thing when mama and papa are gone, which is often. She’s across the bridge in Juaritos, picking up shifts at the clinic again. He’s always at the Fort, doing something he isn’t allowed (or just doesn’t want) to talk about.

 

When she’s satisfied that Diego isn’t going to escalate this argument into a war – and a little disappointed, come to think of it – Mari hurls herself into bed and grips her pillow in her fists. She balls them up so tight they go numb and start shaking.

 

She hears Lucas protest — his little boy whine, high and pleading, like a drill in her head – from all the way downstairs. Mari can’t make out his words, but she doesn’t need to. He’s always bleating about needing to go out to catch those little video game monsters on his phone. When Mari first started in on Diego, Lucas had the nerve to try join her – as though not being allowed to play his dumb game is anywhere near the same injustice as her not getting to see The Mellow Tonins on the one night they’re actually, miraculously playing this skeevy town. They’re only like her favorite band this year. She put their poster up and everything. When was the last time she’d bothered decorating her room? They move so often they don’t even own thumbtacks anymore. She had to go out and buy them just for the occasion. That’s how much she cares, and nobody even cares that she cares.

 

She gazes desperately at the poster — Mikey with his heavy eyeliner, worn so ironically you can almost see him rolling his eyes. Yvette in her long sleeveless coat, head down, lost to the bass. Deacon barely glimpsed in the back, both arms raised, drumsticks clutched like he’s hanging on for dear life.

 

Everybody in the whole world is going to that show tonight. David, Angel, Lucy – even Gabe, the giant dork who probably can’t name a single song off their first album. Everybody in the whole world.

 

Except for her.

 

And all because mama told Diego it “felt weird” out there.

 

If it was just Diego, she’d shove him outta the way and skip right out the front door, both middle fingers raised in triumph. She would never – ever – do anything just because Diego said so. He’s only two years older than her, and a total loser outcast. Mari hates when people at school ask if he’s her brother. Like, she can’t say “no,” because then it’s a secret. In high school, there’s nothing more deadly than a secret. It always gets out. Then it’s a weapon to be used against you.

 

So she’s gotta acknowledge Diego’s existence at least, but even that eats at her. He’s so dim, he doesn’t even realize she’s trying to ignore him. She’s tried everything — looks down when they pass in the halls, doesn’t return his greetings, takes the long way to Chem just so she won’t pass his locker — but he won’t get the point. In fact, whenever Mari ignores him, Diego starts yelling her name or asking her what’s for dinner or what they’re going to do this weekend, like he’s trying to tell everybody they know each other for some-

 

Oh. God.

 

He’s doing it on purpose!

 

She flashes back to his goofy smile, which he never wears except when they meet at school. The way he trips over nothing just when she and her friends walk by. Or else he burps or he says some stupid slang that nobody has used for like, eons. It’s almost like the more she’s embarrassed by him, the harder he wants to embarrass her. But that’s…that’s just evil.

 

Mari gets up and slams her door again. Diego doesn’t even have the decency to say something so she has an excuse to yell at him. The jerk.

 

She thinks of sneaking out, just to spite him. He would get in so much trouble. ‘You’re the responsible one,’ mama would say, her arms crossed over her dirty blue scrubs, hair all frazzled from work. ‘If we can’t trust you, what happens then?’

 

Mari’s insides light up just to think of it.

 

The only problem is, she’d get it way worse than Diego. It’s like cutting off an arm just to give your enemy a headache.

 

Lucas yells again. She makes out the words this time — “rare ones only come out once a month!” – and rolls her eyes. But she realizes that’s not enough, so she gets up and opens her door, pokes her head out into the hall, and screams:

 

“Shut up, Lucas!”

 

Him and Diego are still arguing in the kitchen, downstairs. She waits for it…waits for iiiit…

 

“No, you shut up!” Lucas finally shouts back.

 

And there’s her excuse.

 

See, Diego can play the quiet game, but Lucas has got no filter between his mouth and his brain.

 

Mari stomps down the hallway. She wants them to hear her coming, so they can worry about it. But it’s hard work. She practically has to jump just to get her footsteps to register through the carpet. She’s kinda small for her age, and Fort Bliss’ military housing is new-build; it hasn’t had time to go to crap like the ones in Nevada. Still just as ugly though – adjoining townhomes cramped up in a fourplex, beige on beige on slightly darker beige. Big, ugly squares, all the same.

 

She rounds the corner and practically slides into the kitchen.

 

“What did you say to me?” Mari snaps.

 

“I said you shut up,” Lucas snipes back, safe from his fortified position behind Diego’s legs. “Because you said it first.”

 

“I said ‘shut up’ because you’re being a little jerk,” Mari says. “You can’t tell me to shut up when you’re the one that needs to shut up.”

 

“Would you both shut up?” Diego asks, in his aggravatingly polite way. Like he’s so far above their petty squabbles he’s only playing along out of boredom.

 

“No!” Lucas and Mari shout, at the same time.

 

For just a second she feels a bond with the little brat. Allied together against the bigger dork, who has the gall to try to boss them both around.

 

But that fades when she remembers why he’s upset. His stupid game. The concert.

 

“Did she even say why we can’t go out?” Mari asks.

 

She knows the answer. She was here when mama told him. But she wants to hear Diego say it, so he can hear how stupid it sounds.

 

“Because it feels weird out there,” Diego says.

 

He’s looking at the ceiling, not in her eyes. He knows.

 

“Oh, cool. That’s a great answer,” Mari says. She holds out her hand, palm up, like she’s holding the answer there. She makes a big show of checking it out from all angles, then says: “Yep, makes total sense to me. It’s weird outside. Better stay in until we die.”

 

“Look,” Diego says. “I don’t like it anymore than you do-”

 

Mari cuts him off: “Like you even care! You don’t even go out. You probably love this.”

 

Diego closes his eyes. She can practically see him counting to ten. Little numbers rolling back behind his eyelids. When he opens them again, he doesn’t say anything. He just turns and walks over to the window. Holds the blinds apart with one hand and motions for her to come look.

 

She doesn’t. Like she’s just gonna jump at his beck and call?

 

“It is weird out there,” he says. He shifts his eyes from her to the window and back. “Mrs. Hendricks is standing on her lawn staring at the sky.”

 

“Oh my god who cares,” Mari says, practically all one word. “Are you saying I can’t go to the show because the neighbor lady is outside?”
Mari makes a wanking motion with her open fist. Lucas joins her.

 

The little idiot probably doesn’t even know what it means.

 

“She’s been out there for hours,” Diego says. “And it’s not just her – half the neighborhood is all zombied out.”

 

Well that’s…they’re probably just…

 

Okay, Diego has her there. She has to at least look.

 

She leans way out over the sink, not quite tall enough to peak through the blinds while keeping both feet on the floor. Diego’s not lying. The Asian kids from down the block – she doesn’t know their names, the other army brats are too interstitial to even bother — are right in the middle of the street, all huddled up around something Mari can’t see. A couple guys in uniform are milling about like drunks. The buff guy from a few houses down and his tiny wife; the creepy old white folks with their forever-smiling teeth, and yeah — Mrs. Hendricks, too. She’s lock-legged on her “lawn,” which is really just a little strip of grass the size and shape of a carpet runner. Her mouth is open a little bit, eyes wide, staring at something above Mari’s house.

 

“So what?” Mari asks, even though she goes cold in her toes and fingertips. “They’re probably just looking at that black spot in the sky.”

 

Mari leans in further and looks up to follow their gaze, but she can’t see the spot from this angle.

 

Diego lets the blinds snap shut on her face.

 

She hops back onto her heels and glares at him.

 

“You’re not supposed to look at the spot,” he says. “The news said it’ll hurt your eyes.”

 

“Yeah,” she says. “Well, obviously the neighbors don’t care.”

 

“Or maybe it’s doing something really cool!” Lucas exclaims. He’s hopping up and down at the edge of the kitchen counter, trying to lever his weight forward so he can see out the window, too. But the blinds are closed, and he’s still a couple feet too short, even if they weren’t.

 

“He’s right,” Mari says, not because he is, but because anybody that’s not Diego is right by, like, comparison. “I bet something awesome is happening. It’s probably like our moon landing out there and you’re keeping us from it.”

 

Diego laughs and she can practically taste how annoying it is.

 

“Okay,” he says. “Let’s go see, then.”

 

Lucas is already running for the door, like he somehow knew this was going to happen, but Diego issues a bunch of negative tuts that stop him short.

 

“In the living room,” Diego clarifies. “If something big is happening, it’ll be on the news.”

 

He’s always one step ahead. He probably plans this stuff out at night, laying in his smelly bed and plotting ways to ruin everybody’s lives.

 

But Mari still follows him to the living room because the people on the street are bouncing around in her head. She’s never seen grown-ups make those faces before. Only real little kids let themselves go that blank in public, smiling or drooling or laughing and yelling at nothing you can see. Mrs. Hendricks looked like a two-year old going through a car wash for the first time. Just awe and confusion and terror but also a little bit of joy. Mari had to see what she was looking at, even if it was secondhand.

 

Diego flips the TV on. He doesn’t even sit down. Just stands there in the middle of the room with his arms crossed like he’s doing something big and important instead of pushing a button on a remote. It’s amazing, Mari thinks, just how many ways he finds to bother her. She and Lucas sit on the couch like normal people. Diego surfs around until he hits the news. A pretty Latina girl that looks way too young to be doing TV stuff is standing in front of a crowd of pissed off looking people. She’s talking fast, trying to beat something about to happen. Then the camera spins around and frames a tall old white guy in a blue uniform. He stands behind a wooden podium, a small army of men in riot gear flanking him.

 

He starts yammering about something stupid.

 

“Oh,” Mari says. “This is just about those gangbangers that got shot.”

 

“They weren’t gangbangers,” Diego says, like he knows everything. “They were just kids. Mexican kids.”

 

He emphasizes that last bit like she should care because she’s also supposed to be Mexican, even though she was born in Michigan and she only spoke enough Spanish to understand when mama yelled at her. It’s like, after the move, being this close to Mexico tricked Diego into thinking they were anything but ordinary, lame Americans.

 

He wishes.

 

Mari is so lost in her head, trying to think of the perfect insult to show Diego how stupid his newfound immigrant kick is, that she actually missed the start of the riot.

 

She just sees the old white guy fall, and then the stormtrooper dudes step forward and start emptying assault rifles into the crowd. Diego jumps, and Lucas slams his hands over his eyes. Ever since he saw papa get beat up real bad back in Nevada, Lucas can’t watch people hurting each other. He just shuts down. Probably why he likes his dumb animal and card games so much. No people getting hurt.

 

The camera catches a few frames of the crowd screaming, bleeding, falling, and then it’s on the ground. She forgets that cameras have like, operators behind them. So used to just thinking of them as the all-seeing eye. Now the eye is sideways, and she sees what’s probably the camera-guy grab the pretty news girl and hustle off toward an alley. Somebody kicks the camera, and it spins for a while – world gone to a black and red disk – then it settles on its back, idly filming the sky. That little black spot in the upper right hand corner, like a fly on the screen, doing and looking like not much at all.

 

But the sound’s still on.

 

Gunfire. A woman crying. Some wet meat sounds. Impact. So many different people screaming and yelling stuff that it’s all just lost. Just noise.

 

Mari reaches out and covers Lucas’ ears, too. She’s been yelling Diego’s name over and over for what feels like an hour, but he’s just standing there quietly watching the sky and listening to the screams. Mari leans out from the couch and kicks him in the back of the leg. That finally snaps him out of it. He looks at her like they’re old friends meeting unexpectedly at the supermarket, this little disbelieving smile on his lips.

 

“Turn it off!” She yells.

 

He blinks.

 

“Oh,” he says. “Right.”

 

The room goes quiet except for Lucas, who’s quietly humming to himself. Always that same song, when the violence breaks his mind.

 

“What’s wrong with you?” Mari snaps at Diego.

 

He looks like he’s actually considering the question. He pauses for a long time, then finally decides:

 

“Nothing. I just wanted to see what was going on…”

 

Lucas and his little song. Toes digging into the carpet. Meat of his palms sealed over his eyes.

 

“What about him?” Mari asks. She motions to Lucas with her chin. She’s still holding her hands over his ears.

 

“Crap,” Diego says, and it’s like his brain just came back from a vacation. “I am so sorry buddy, I wasn’t thinking, I didn’t mean-”

 

Mari releases her grip and backs away. Diego drops to his knees and peers into Lucas’ covered face.

 

“Are you okay, little dude? It’s all right. It’s over now. It’s safe to come out,” Diego keeps whispering, soft and steady. A gentle running stream of platitudes until Lucas finally peaks out between his locked fingers.

 

“The blankets,” Mari says. She speaks from the corner of her mouth. She doesn’t want to look at Diego right now. Instead, she’s looking at the kitchen, staring at the closed blinds above the sink.

 

“Right,” Diego says, all matter of factly, like it’s a vote that just passed. “Let’s get you into the blankets.”

 

Lucas’ eyes are glossy. That humming song of his on loop. He follows Diego like he’s been brainwashed.

 

He probably won’t speak for another few hours. That’s how it happened last time.

 

Mama and papa have Mondays off, during the day. The only time they get alone, mama reminds them constantly, as though it’s the kids that are clinging to her and not the other way around.

 

Lucas, he came home early from school one day and found mama and papa watching some war flick. They didn’t hear the door. He stood frozen behind the couch for god knows how long, watching people shoot each other, beat each other’s brains in, die screaming. Never said a thing. Mama jumped when she spotted him, caught him up running and dumped him headlong under his blankets. He crashed out like a coma patient until late that night, when he asked for a milkshake. Papa went out and got him one from an all-night drive thru. Lucas stayed up ‘til morning nursing the shake, but by lunch he was back around and talking.

 

Diego’s the one who forgot about Lucas’ thing. That means he’s the one who has to sit by the kid’s bed, watching the lump under the blankets for signs of life. That’s good: It gives Mari dinnertime free, at least – no Diego trying to force Hungry Man’s on her like they actually supply any kind of vital nutrients.

 

Mari gets up and pads to the kitchen in her slipper-socks. They’re super dorky and all, but they’re the coziest things in the world. She only wears them around the house – if anybody saw her in bulky red knee-highs with cheesy cartoon stars and stripes all over them, her heart would literally explode. She pours and drinks a glass of water, tries not to, but opens the blinds again.

 

The street is empty.

 

That should put her at ease, right? The eclipse or whatever was over, and her neighbors went back inside.

 

Right.

 

That’s what happened.

 

But see, there’s a single child’s shoe in the middle of the road, and it’s freaking her out.

 

Stupid kid probably lost it playing tag or something, and then ran inside without thinking.

 

But see, there’s a dark spot on the lawn where Mrs. Hendricks had been standing. Probably some gearhead jerk dumping out his motor oil instead of recycling it. Happens all the time.

 

Right.

 

That’s what it is.

 

But see, there are no lights on in any of the other houses.

 

All of the military families live in these identical plaster crapboxes. Crammed together end-to-end, four deep and not enough windows. The second the sun’s not overhead, you need lights on. Diego always has all of theirs on twenty minutes before he has to, because he likes to “get it out of the way.” That’s all he does: “get things out of the way.” He’s probably going to join the army when he’s old enough, no matter what papa says. He’s got that good little soldier stare.

 

So unless there’s a blackout or something, all these houses should be lit up like Vegas.

That’s what’s going on: A blackout. A very localized blackout, affecting the rest of her block, but not her house. Or the streetlamps on the corner.

 

Right.

 

But over there, across the street, a shape darts through the gap between complexes and there’s something about its quickness that sets Mari’s nerves on edge. Probably one of the Asian kids didn’t get the message that hide ‘n seek was over. Now he’s running home at full tilt, afraid of being late.

 

Right.

 

That’s all the shape is.

 

But then there’s the screaming.

 

Mari startles and sloshes water all over her favorite Mellow Tonins T-shirt. She knows it’s completely lame to be the girl wearing the band’s shirt at the band’s show, but she was hoping to get Deacon to sign it. While it was still on her.

 

He’d have to touch her!

 

That was worth risking lame.

 

Mari listens, but the scream doesn’t repeat. It didn’t sound like a kid and it didn’t sound playful. It sounded like anger. Pure and harsh, unbroken by thought or concern. Like whoever screamed was so mad they didn’t care if it made them look stupid, or if the neighbors asked questions later.

 

Mari decides to check on Lucas. That’s what she’s doing. It’s not because she’s freaked out by it “feeling weird out there.” That’s still a dumb reason for not getting to go to the show, and she won’t dignify mama’s logic by acknowledging it.

 

Up the stairs and down the skinny hall to the tiny bedroom. She pushes the door open — Lucas used to hang signs on it; biohazard symbols, posters for cartoons, little skull stickers, and his own crude drawings of superheroes and fighter jets — but after the last flurry of moves, even he gave up on decorating.

 

That’s weird. There’s a Lucas-sized bump under the pile of safety blankets — six deep, no matter how hot it is — but Diego isn’t sitting with him.

 

Oh god, he’s such a jerk. Does he just automatically expect her to do it? Why, because she’s a girl?

 

“You do all the emotional stuff,” Diego would probably say, in his good little soldier voice. “That’s woman’s work.”

 

And then she’d BAM! Punch him right in the nose and he’d start crying and she’d say-

 

Lucas picks up his humming song.

 

Mari sighs, extra loud, so he can hear it through the blankets. Then she crawls up on the bed and snakes a hand under the covers. She finds his ankle and rests her fingers against it, so he has a constant reminder that he isn’t alone. With her free hand, she fishes her phone out and starts poking around. Since her plans got so unjustly canceled, she’s already killed half the night checking the internet. She read through her social feeds, checked all eight of her email accounts, texted everybody that would reply – she’s done basically everything a human being can do.

 

Now she just stares at her screen and waits for something to happen. It doesn’t.

 

All of her friends are probably at the show already and too busy to reply, so her whole world is on pause. She settles for watching stupid cat videos or whatever on mute, until she falls asleep using the Lucas lump for a pillow.

 

When she wakes up, it’s fully dark outside. She taps her phone, which says it’s past midnight.

 

What?

 

She slept for like four hours? And nobody woke her?

 

Mari pats around the bed, flattening the bumps, and finds Lucas has already recovered and gone. The little butt. He should have known she didn’t want to sleep the whole night away. Even if there wasn’t anything to do and no point to being awake at all.

 

At least both mama and papa would be home by now.

 

She rubs the sleep out of her face and tries to muster up some anger, but she’s still groggy and it won’t stick. She thinks about just finishing the job and crashing in her own room for the rest of the night, but if she sleeps too long mama and papa will be gone again in the morning and they’ll have no idea how mad she was. That is not acceptable. They have to know.

 

Mari trudges into the hall on search mode – all the bedrooms are empty – and tromps down the stairs. Lucas is sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of cereal. He’s got that checked-out look, and he’ll probably have it for a while. But at least he’s up and around. Mari thinks about hassling him for ditching her, but he’s had a rough enough night already.

 

She’ll get him tomorrow.

 

She fakes some energy and charges into the living room, all spooled up and ready to unravel all over her parents. But they’re not there.

 

It’s just Diego.

 

None of the lights are on in the living room. Only the glow of the TV set. The same image from earlier – that abandoned news camera filming the sky; a little black spot burning in the corner. It was sunset when they first saw it. All fiery orange smeared into dark blue, the black spot the sole point of contrast. Now it was a night shot: A smattering of stars in the darkened sky, which you’d think would make the black spot invisible, but no – somehow you can still see it. Like it’s blacker than space.

 

Diego is staring at the TV all quiet, his lanky arms slack at his sides. His mouth is open a little bit and his eyes are wide, pupils expanded like a druggie. Mari says his name, but he doesn’t answer. She snaps her fingers in his face and he doesn’t even blink. She shoves him but he’s like one of those inflatable boxing clowns – just bounces right back into place. Mari walks up and stands in front of him. She’s too short to block his view. He just stares over her head. She holds her hands up in front of his eyes and then she’s on the ground somehow, her brain rattling around her skull and little spots skirting her vision.

 

He…hit her? Diego actually hit her? Is that what happened? She’s disoriented and can’t quite remember him moving.

 

“What,” she asks, but Diego cuts her off.

 

“Shhh,” he says, not breaking eye contact with the TV. “Just listen.”

 

She does, for some stupid reason, but she doesn’t hear anything. Either he’s got the TV on mute, or the sound on the broadcast gave out, or else there’s nothing to hear in the first place.

 

“I don’t-” she says, and Diego screams so loud it sounds like something pops in his throat.

 

“Shut up!” he yells.

 

She flinches, starts crawling away real slow. But he’s not interested in her at all. Only the black spot on the screen.

 

“Just listen,” he says, to nobody. “They’re explaining everything.”

 

Mari’s legs are boiled noodles, but she drags herself upright in the hallway. She doesn’t want to crawl into the kitchen and risk freaking Lucas out. Last thing she needs is for him to go all catatonic again. Because now he needs to run. Now they need to get the hell out of the house.

 

“Hey buddy,” she says, approaching Lucas like he’s a skittish kitten.

 

Right away that’s the wrong move.

 

Like, fully 90% of Mari’s interactions with Lucas involve her informing him of how annoying he is, and the other 10% are her asking him to leave.

 

Lucas’ eyebrows scrunch up, he leans away from her.

 

“What’s going on?” He says.

 

He’s talking. That’s good. That’s amazing actually – his whole PTSD thing might be getting better. She hopes it stays that way, after tonight.

 

“Nothing,” Mari says. She tries to correct course: “Except for you being a little butt.”

 

The weight of uncertainty lifts off of him. He loosens up, turns his attention back to his cereal.

 

“Then quit being weird,” he says.

 

“We have to go,” Mari tells him.

 

He scoffs.

 

“I wish.”

 

“No seriously, we have to get out of here.”

 

A tremble runs through Lucas. It’s still too soon after his last breakdown for this kind of thing.

 

“Why?” He asks, already dreading the answer.

 

“It’s papa,” Mari says. “He uh… he wants to see us. Show us something up at the Fort.”

 

It’s literally the worst lie Mari has ever told. No part of it is believable. She lost credibility at ‘papa wants to see us.’ That they’d be allowed, much less wanted at the Fort, at this time of night? Lucas doesn’t bite. He doesn’t even nibble.

 

“You’re being a crazy person,” he says.

 

“No really,” Mari can’t think of anything to do but commit. To keep slapping shiny parts onto the lie until the mere possibility of its truth is too intriguing to pass up. “It’s the secret project he’s been working on. They’re all finished now – just now, tonight – so they don’t have to keep it secret anymore, so they can show their families.”

 

Still ludicrous enough to be unbelievable, but not so ludicrous that it’s irresistible. She’s losing him.

 

“I guess it’s some kind of uh…hovering…”

 

Lucas’ eyes widen, marginally.

 

“Robot…tank,” she finishes.

 

He’s practically salivating, but still reticent.

 

“I guess it even talks,” she says.

 

And Lucas is up on his feet, yanking at her shorts.

 

“Let’s go!” He chirps. “Hurry!”

 

“Okay, sure, whatever,” she says, carefully distant.

 

She lets him pull her to the door and just about has her hand on the knob when Lucas looks her up and down and stops to puzzle.

 

“You’re going like that?” He says.

 

Mari’s wearing her Mellow Tonins shirt, a pair of too-short jean cut-offs – mama called them Daisies for some reason – and her fuzzy stars-and-stripes pajama-socks. That’s it. No shoes, no jacket.

 

“Yeah,” she says. “They’re just gross old Army guys. Who cares?”

 

She reaches out, grabs the knob again.

 

“Are you coming, too?” Lucas says, looking behind her.

 

Cold needles dance up the backs of her legs.

 

“Nobody is going anywhere,” Diego answers.

 

Mari’s mind revs, but it’s not in gear. Can she lie to him? He’d never buy the one she told Lucas. She can’t think of another. She actually can’t think of anything at all to say. So she doesn’t. She yanks the door open, and her wrist shatters.

 

She yelps and jumps backward, clutching her arm to her chest.

 

Diego calmly shuts and locks the door before turning to face her. He’s got psycho eyes. Not blank, like before: Now he’s hyper-focused, but detached – it’s that same expression the cultists on TV get when they start talking about their weirdo prophets. Diego’s holding a hammer in one hand. Black rubber handle with a steel head. Tiny spikes on it. The meat tenderizer.

 

Mari looks at her pulverized wrist and sees little dots of blood rising where the spikes impacted.

 

Lucas hasn’t even had time to process what he just saw. He’s still looking between her and Diego, all confused, when his coma response starts kicking in.

 

“We’re nothing without rules,” Diego says. He starts right out with crazy and just keeps going. “Weren’t you listening?”

 

“To…to what?” Mari asks.

 

“To them,” he says. He gestures at the ceiling with his hammer.

 

He watches her for a reply, but she doesn’t have one.

 

“Oh, no,” he says, and he looks heartbroken. “You can’t hear them? That’s…that’s awful. I’m so sorry.”

 

Diego reaches out as if to hug her, then reconsiders.

 

“I’ll have to show you,” he says, voice gone icy.

 

Before she can blink he’s grabbed her by the arm, which she’s been nursing against her chest like an injured bird. She screams. Diego doesn’t care, or even notice. He drags her across the room to the big butcher-block cutting board mama keeps out on the counter. He pins her broken wrist to the board, and she cripples with pain.

 

“Now, the rule was that you’re not allowed to go out tonight,” Diego says, all business. “I was there when the rules were explained-“

 

“It doesn’t matter!” She protests. “Mama just wanted to keep us safe, if she knew-”

 

“It doesn’t matter who makes the rules,” Diego says. “Or what they intended. It only matters what the rules say, and that we obey them. Don’t you see? We’re animals without rules. Dirty beasts.”

 

He brings the hammer down on her thumb. She mostly just feels the vibration through the board. Not much pain yet.

 

“You tried to get out using this hand,” Diego continues. “So it’s gotta go.”

 

Hammer again. Her pointer finger this time.

 

“If you could hear them, you’d understand. You’d understand this was mercy – the others, they’re fickle. Now that they’ve returned, they’re taking back all their gifts. They know we don’t deserve them. But not Haruk. She’s justice. She’s law. Now that she’s back, she isn’t revoking her gifts – she’s giving us more!”

 

Two quick slaps – god, it sounds just like mama beating slabs of chicken – and Mari doesn’t even know which fingers are pulp now. It’s all one big burning ball of wrong.

 

Diego pauses, watching her kindly. Like he expects her to thank him or something.

 

In the quiet, she can hear Lucas humming his fragile little song.

 

Diego frowns at her, then brings the hammer down one more time. He releases her wrist, pushes her backward, and she crumples on the kitchen floor like a puppet with its strings cut. Mari holds her arm close, but she doesn’t dare look at the damage. That’s the only thing that would make it worse: Actually seeing what’s been done.

 

The tenderizer is dripping red. Her blood, streaming off it in ribbons.

 

“Isn’t judgment beautiful?” Diego asks her.

 

He means it. He wants her to agree.

 

So she does. What else is she supposed to do?

 

“It was wonderful,” she says, not recognizing her own voice. It sounds like a shy little girl. “Thank you.”

 

He beams at her.
“So now you get to understand – really understand – what breaking the rules means,” He says, like he’s kinda jealous of her.

 

Mari doesn’t cry. But only because she’s scared that’s going to make it worse.

 

They’re all silent for a moment, save for Lucas and his droning.

 

“We skipped dinner tonight, didn’t we?” Diego says.

 

Mari winces.

 

“Don’t worry!” Diego laughs – actually laughs – and says, “That was my fault. I was supposed to feed you, and I forgot. I was listening to them. But that’s no excuse. There are no excuses. I’ll see justice later, once the wrongs are corrected. In the meantime…”

 

He trails off as he makes his way to the fridge. He pulls a couple of TV dinners out and sets about unboxing, unwrapping and poking at them. He joins in Lucas’ humming as he works – the whole family has heard the tune enough to know it by heart – and in a few minutes has the food microwaved, plated up, and set out on the table.

 

Mari uses the time to slowly acknowledge the pain, which emanates in shockwaves from the elbow down. She doesn’t dare cry out, or move from her place on the floor. But every second she sits, just waiting, is a drop of adrenaline burning out inside her. A tick up in pain. By the time Diego has dinner ready, she’s dizzy with agony.

 

“Up,” he says, grabbing her good arm and helping her to her feet.

 

He deposits her in a chair and turns to Lucas. Zombied out, he doesn’t struggle at all. Just goes where he’s guided.

 

They sit there, bleeding and humming, uncertain of what comes next.

 

“Well, go ahead and eat,” Diego says, chipper as a soccer mom.

 

Mari picks up her shaking fork and tries to keep a piece of Salisbury Steak on it long enough to reach her mouth. She fails a few times, but eventually gets it. It tastes like wet, dirty cardboard. She can’t tell if that’s because she’s going into shock, or because it’s Salisbury Steak.

 

Diego smiles at her. He turns to Lucas, who stares straight ahead and does nothing.

 

“Eat,” Diego tells him.

 

Lucas hums.

 

“Eat,” Diego says. Like he’s pronouncing a death sentence.

 

Lucas doesn’t respond.

 

Diego spins and starts rattling through cabinets until he finds what he’s looking for. He comes back to the table with a pair of vise-pliers from the miscellaneous drawer and squeezes Lucas’ mouth open.

 

“Wait, stop,” Mari says. “What are you doing?”

 

“If you don’t eat, you don’t need teeth,” Diego says, working the pliers over Lucas’ top canine.

 

“No, don’t-” Mari starts, but it’s too late.

 

Diego rips the pliers out, and a stream of blood arcs across the table. It splashes warm and thick across Mari’s face.

 

Lucas screams.

 

She screams.

 

Mari tips out of her chair and backs all the way across the floor. Puddles up in the farthest corner and just keeps screaming. She wants to stop, she really does, but it’s like somebody pulled the cord in her back and now she has to make this noise until the mechanism winds down. Even Lucas stops first: After the initial yelp, he falls into wracking sobs.

 

Diego stands by the table and waits it out. It can’t last forever. Lucas lapses back into pause mode. Mari stops screaming just before she starts to black out. When it’s all over, she looks at Diego with blank terror.

 

“That’s okay,” he reassures her. “Mama didn’t set any rules against screaming.”

 

He patiently ushers the both of them back to the dinner table, puts forks in their hands, and waits. Mari digs in immediately, and this time even Lucas manages to shakily spoon some watery potatoes into his mouth.

 

“Good,” Diego says. “You’ve been fed. Now, to me…”

 

He flips through the cupboards, neatly stacking things to the side as he goes.

 

“Do we keep eating?” Mari asks him.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” he answers quickly, automatically. “The rule was that I feed you. You’ve been fed.”

 

His pile of assorted objects grows. Cooking Sherry from the forgotten cabinet above the stove, rubbing alcohol from the medicine drawer, papa’s good whiskey from his hiding spot that everybody knows about…

 

“W-what are you doing?” Mari asks him.

 

He looks at her like he forgot she was there. Or maybe like a chair that just suddenly started to speak.

 

“I didn’t cook for you on time,” he says, like that’s an explanation.

 

He upends the rubbing alcohol over his head. Smells like acid and medicine. It reminds Mari of a room you’re not supposed to go in a hospital. When the plastic bottle is empty, Diego tosses it aside and picks up the Sherry. He sloshes it around the cabinets and on the counters. Finally, he grabs the dusty brown bottle – objectively, Mari knows she’s got bigger problems, but she still instinctually cringes when Diego uncorks papa’s whiskey and starts emptying it out on the floor.

 

Mari sneaks up and grabs Lucas out of his chair, covering his eyes with her good hand. She backs the two of them up as far as they can go. Diego pauses to think, and Mari hopes he just snapped out of it. Maybe this is like, a nervous breakdown – and it’ll all be over as abruptly as it started. Diego’ll start crying and they’ll send him to a place for this kind of thing. He’ll wear papery clothes and talk about his feelings and walk everywhere barefoot and come home in a few months all fragile and skittish like a deer-

 

But no.

 

Diego snaps his fingers like he just remembered something. He smiles, then crosses over to the miscellaneous drawer again. He leaves slippery, shimmering footprints. He rummages around in there, comes out with a blue plastic stick. He resumes his place in the pool of alcohol, and holds the tip of the stick up to his head. It’s not until she hears the click that Mari recognizes the blue thing: It’s the fireplace lighter they bought a few moves back, when they briefly had a fireplace and naively thought they’d use it.

 

It doesn’t light.

 

“Diego,” Mari starts, but there’s another click and fire flows down his body like syrup.

 

It’s oddly beautiful for the first few seconds: Just a wave of flickering blue tracing Diego’s arms and face; a soft surge of yellow and orange following behind. He looks angelic in that freeze frame: a serene young boy behind a watercolor aura. Then he really catches. His hair and clothes go first.
The flames hit the puddle at his feet and expand in every direction. It felt so slow at first, but now time lurches forward. Half the kitchen is an inferno in the space of a breath. Mari edges toward the door, reluctantly removes her unbroken hand from poor Lucas eyes, and reaches for the knob.

 

Diego’s head – just a black silhouette behind a curtain of fire – instantly snaps towards her.

 

“You’re not allowed to go out,” he says.

 

Mari figured any sounds out of his mouth would all be screaming, but he speaks calmly and harshly: like he’s reprimanding a toddler. Looking at him there, a twisting black mannequin inside a hurricane of flame – the voice should be demonic. It should be The Exorcist or like a death metal band. But it’s just Diego’s voice, and that’s the worst part.

 

She rips the door open and shoves Lucas out first. He only runs a few steps, enough for the momentum of her push to peter out, and no more. Mari grabs his wrist as she sprints by, drags him out onto the stoop, down the sidewalk, and across the street. But she stops there and turns around to…what? Assess the damage? She doesn’t really know.

 

It’s all just fire in there. Like their front door opens right into hell.

 

And out from it walks Diego.

 

He doesn’t pause for a second, just spots the pair of them frozen across the way and starts their direction. He’s moving fast, but not running. A brisk walk, like he’s on his way to tell off a coworker and – oh yeah, incidentally, he’s also on fire.

 

Mari is backpedaling, Lucas in tow. She’s transfixed by the figure advancing on her. It’s impossible. It’s something out of a fantasy movie. It leaves flaming footprints in the grass. She can’t think of this monster as Diego anymore, can’t reconcile the thing as human at all. It raises a finger to point at her.

 

“We’re not allowed to leave,” it says.

 

The fire is finally starting to affect its voice. Vowels come easy, but the consonants barely register. The creature is also starting to slow down, which is good, since she and Lucas are backed up as far as they can go, cornered against the garage of the opposite four-plex. She can’t do anything but stare in awe as the thing approaches. It stumbles, recovers, trips again, goes to its knees. Her heart soars, but it’s still coming. Crawling on three limbs, that one accusing finger still pointing.

 

It’s trying to speak again, but it must have lost the vital parts. Just sputtering and bubbling. Not ten feet away from them, it loses the front arm and collapses on its belly. That doesn’t phase it. It just starts wriggling forward on its shoulders like a worm. It closes another few feet like that before it finally stops altogether and sort of collapses in on itself. It smells familiar. Like the Fourth of July. Fireworks and gunpowder and barbecue.

 

Mari blinks and her sense of self comes roaring back. Her very first action is to cover Lucas’ eyes, though she knows she’s laughably late. She inches along the garage door, not taking her eyes off the pyre for a second. They skirt the corner of the townhome and creep backwards down the sidewalk until the fear of what’s behind them overcomes the fear of what’s in front of them. Mari glances around the block, but it looks empty. She can hear chaos coming in on the wind from somewhere close, but their block is an island of calm. She squats before Lucas and looks him in the eye. Tracks her head back and forth, but he’s not following her.

 

“I know, okay,” she says, shaking his shoulders gently. “I know that was bad. Worse than bad. That was like, nightmare stuff. I know and I’m so, so sorry. Okay? I’d give anything for you not to have seen that, and you can have so much time to deal with this later. We’ll get you a million blankets and the biggest milkshake in the world. But you’ve gotta stay with me for just a few minutes, okay? Just until we find papa?”

 

She waits, but Lucas says nothing.

 

There’s a worrying throb from her wrist. She still can’t look. Can’t let herself understand the damage. There will be time for that when she finds help. Time to take care of everything. But right now she has to focus on moving. As long as they stay moving, nothing bad can happen.

 

She’s not sure why she thinks that, but she doesn’t feel like dissecting the logic right now. Instead she takes Lucas’ tiny limp hand in her one good one, and guides them out of their housing complex. Then she sees why her block went so quiet. The party is next door. Up ahead there’s an intersection between this road and one of the base’s main thoroughfares. She forgets — or maybe never knew — the name of the street. Just past it is the base’s mall, called something stupid like Freedom Post or Freedom Shops (just like it is on every base), and it’s as busy as she’s ever seen it.

 

There are people, or something that looks like them, everywhere.

 

It’s like one of those zombie movies that Diego likes-

 

Nope. Can’t think about him. Try again.

 

It looks like somebody started a riot on top of a massacre. There are bloody and broken bodies all around. Most them are still. Some of them move, moan, clutch wounds or crawl toward cover. Others are standing, but just barely: Bent at the waist, neck slack, arms hanging, like there’s an invisible wire wrapped around their bellies and it’s the only thing keeping them upright.

 

In the distance, shadows blink through the mall’s lit areas. People running. Or more like loping, kinda-but-not-really on all fours, like angry gorillas. They flit by so quickly she can’t see them. Not really. She just catches silhouettes. And screaming. Faint, but so much of it and so purely, starkly furious that it sets her small hairs on end. She starts backing away, toward home — maybe they can put out the fire and wait until help arrives – but she hits something solid.

 

Mari turns and looks into the happiest face she’s ever seen. Ear to ear smile, pure teeth and gums. Eyes practically sparkling. Every inch of it is covered in blood spatter. The guy’s hair is all matted with it, his clothes completely soaked in gore. He holds a pickaxe over one shoulder, all jaunty, like he’s off to play polo or something.

 

“Hey,” the bloody man says. “Quick: What’s six times seven?”

 

Too much, too fast. Mari’s brain is on autopilot.

 

“Forty-two,” she answers, reflexively.

 

“Good!” The man laughs, and he steps around her. Practically skips down the sidewalk, spinning his pickaxe in one hand.

 

He stops by one of the moaning bodies and repeats his question.

 

“H-help,” they answer.

 

“Haha, wrong!” The bloody man says, and he brings the pickaxe down into them over and over and over again.

 

He’s still going when Mari gets her senses back and guides Lucas away. She returns to their street to regroup.

 

“Okay,” she says, mostly to herself. “Here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to cut through the block and get to the cemetery…”

 

Lucas has nothing to say about that. He barely blinks. Humming on loop. But Mari pretends he’s listening anyway, just so she has an excuse to keep talking.

 

“I know it’s freaky,” she says. “But dead people can’t hurt us. It’s the living ones we have to worry about, and there’s no reason for them to be in the cemetery right now. It’s dark and empty and there are lots of places to hide. We can cross through it and get to the airfield, and there’ll be soldiers there. They can help. They can get us to papa.”

 

Lucas doesn’t look convinced. But then, he doesn’t look much of anything. He’s a blank chalkboard, waiting for somebody to start writing.

 

Mari stands and scans the street like a prairie dog. She doesn’t spot any threats, but there are plenty of looming shadows full of their promise.

 

“It’ll be okay,” she says, still half-convinced she’s consoling Lucas. “If we just keep moving.”

 

Mari guides him and Lucas putters along. He won’t run, but he’ll manage a brisk walk. They sneak along the sidewalk by their house. She keeps him on the inside, shielding his view from the smoldering pile of blackened bones across the street. Mari watches the windows of the other homes for signs of movement, but with the lights out, there’s no telling. She catches phantoms in every pane of glass one second, then chases them away the next.

 

Mari pulls up short at the end of block and shuffles Lucas behind her. She leans around the corner of the last four-plex. There’s a little side-alley there – unfenced and unused. A darker patch of dirt worn down by all the lazy kids who opted to cut through, rather than walk all the way around the block. To one side, the housing unit’s tall wooden fence. To the other, barb-wire — just three twisting braids wrapped around a series of off-kilter metal posts. An empty lot beyond the wire sports a couple of big white tanks, rust spots just starting to eat through the paint, and nothing else. Barely even scrub grass. On the other side there’s another block of identical military housing. No lights on there, either.

 

The alley itself is clear, but there’s another road that cuts between the housing complex and the cemetery, and it’s anybody guess what’s out there.

 

Mari slinks through the alley, jumping at every rustle of the dry and sunburnt grass creeping out from under the fence. She slides under the single side-window of the townhome. Has to maneuver Lucas into doing the same. She pulls down on his hand, and he dips to his knees without protest, but it’s a struggle to get him standing again. He wants to shut down. She can’t let him, no matter how badly she wants to go home and tuck him under a pile of blankets and let him hide there. Maybe crawl in with him, only emerging days later when this has all blown over.

 

But home isn’t an option. Home is on fire. Home will never be an option again.

 

Mari leans out just a couple of inches and checks the street.

 

Every hope that she’s been delicately holding in balance drops straight out. She’s a wet paper bag, and reality is a rock.

 

The first thought in her head, though she knows it’s absurd, is that she’s looking at a parade.

 

The road that divides the military housing complex from the graveyard is a little wider than her own, and with yellow lines to mark the lanes instead of nothing, but it’s not a highway or anything. If you’d have asked her this morning how many people could cram onto it at once, she’d have rolled her eyes and went back to checking her phone, which is how Mari answered stupid questions. Forcing a guess though, she’d have said maybe a few hundred.

 

Probably ten times that many packed the tiny street now, with more coming by the second.

 

The crowd was spilling off of the main avenue – the one that ran by the mall — and coming their way. It was hard to pick out any single person in that shambling wall of faces. They were packed together too tight, shoved all the way up against the cemetery fences on one side, pressed into the doors of the housing complex on the other. No screams. No creepy Halloween record moans or groans. Just flat, determined silence. Mari thought again of Diego’s zombie movies, but even that comparison wasn’t right. Something was different here. These weren’t the angry people she’d seen rampaging through Freedom Crossing. These were something else.

 

It was like they lacked even the most basic drive. The zombies, they at least wanted to eat your brains or whatever – so they walked toward you. They went somewhere. These people – it was like they were being dragged along by invisible chains. A guy with a faux-hawk stumbled headlong with the barely maintained balance of the very drunk. The girl next to him was bent deep at the waist, her long red hair brushing the street as she shuffled reluctantly on small, bare feet. All of them moving like there was a bulldozer at the back of the crowd, slowly inching the whole thing forward.

 

Leading the pack is a tall and skinny guy dressed in pajama pants and slippers. Polar bear print on the pants; snowflakes on the slippers. He’s shirtless. So lean Mari can count his ribs in the dark. Gawky ape arms and a too-long torso. A two week beard and severe bedhead – and not the sexy kind that takes hours of practiced styling. The tall guy moves differently. He’s slow and sleepy– walking like he just woke up to somebody ringing the doorbell. But his pace is more determined. He knows where he’s going. His movements are languid but fluid, like he’s strolling across the bottom of a pool. His gaze isn’t limp and directionless, like the others – he’s scanning the street before him, casually alert.

 

Mari tucks away before he sees her hiding spot. She starts pushing Lucas back the way they came, but freezes. The silhouette of a man, backlit against the open street, blocks the path now. His head tilted to one side like he’s listening to something really far away. He stands bolt-upright, posture so perfect it looks painful. Arms pinned to his sides. He’s not moving. He’s waiting.

 

Mari chances another glance down the road: The lazy man and his followers are still advancing, albeit glacially. There’s no way she’s getting up and over the wooden fences of the housing complex. Not with Lucas. He’ll barely walk; he sure won’t climb. It might be awkward getting him through the barbwire, sure to snag them both a couple of deep scratches, but it could be done. But then what? An empty field with nowhere to hide. More houses on the far side. More people. More things. She looks back to the shadow blocking the path. Its head moves, ever so slightly, trying to triangulate whatever it is he’s listening to.

 

God, she’s so stupid. It’s been on loop so long her brain just normalized it.

 

Lucas’ humming. He’s tracking Lucas by his song.

 

Mari feels her window closing.

 

The street: Crowd so thick they’re crushing themselves. When they reach Mari’s hiding spot, simple physics means they’ll spill over into the opening, right where she and Lucas are standing.

 

The alley: The listening man, honing in on Lucas like a bat.

 

The field: Naked, visible, nowhere to go.

 

She knows if she gives herself any more time to worry about it, she’ll freeze up.

 

Mari takes a deep breath and steps onto the sidewalk.

 

They move as fast as they can, but Lucas has a limit. It must look pretty stupid, some sprightly teenage girl and her idiot brother trying to power-walk past the zombie apocalypse. She expects to be overwhelmed any second. But it doesn’t happen. Mari can’t help it; she steals a glance.

 

The slow man swivels his head with the unnerving patience of an owl.

 

She sees his face. Hopes it’s just a trick of the diminishing light that he doesn’t appear to have any eyes – only sheer black pools enveloping each socket. When their gazes meet, Mari’s heart goes cold. Chills right down to her fingertips. She steels herself for action: A scream, an accusing finger, laser beams firing from his mouth — but no, he does nothing.

She and Lucas slip across the street and through an opening in the graveyard fence. There’s a spot where two bars are set a bit wider than the others. They haven’t been pried apart or anything – it’s just sloppy workmanship. And kids are like water: They’ll find any opening and flow right through it, so long as it’s a shortcut. To a kid, shortcuts take priority above all else — no matter how inconvenient, awkward, or dangerous.

 

If Mari hadn’t been so small for her age, she’d be stuck out on the street. But as it is, she and Lucas slide through the bars easily. It’s the only time she’s ever been grateful to be tiny.

 

She leads Lucas across the soft, squeaky grass, and they squat behind a huge tombstone with a weird looking cross on top of it. She takes another look: The lazy man watches the spot where they disappeared, but he doesn’t break stride. He just raises a hand and motions toward the opening in the fence. It’s a dismissive gesture, like you’d use to wave off a hovering fly on a hot summer day. One of the lead walkers — a younger guy in business slacks, wingtips and a tank-top — breaks off from the crowd; his pace only marginally quickened, moving stiff and pained. His arms hang limp at his waist and his head lolls with every step. He makes the shortcut gap and just stops there. He slumps, presses against the bars of the fence, and eases all his weight onto his forehead. Face smushed into the bars, neck bent painfully, he settles there.

 

Not moving or anything. He’s done. His job is just to block the entrance.

 

The lazy man and his followers flow on, an unbroken river of flesh. Apparently Mari’s small moment of relevance is over. It’s fine by her. She takes up Lucas’s hand again, and together they duck from tombstone to tombstone until they reach the eastern border of the cemetery. No wrought-iron fence here – this side butts up against an employees-only parking lot behind a strip mail. Simple chain-link does the job when there’s no need for ornamentation.

 

Mari slips behind a tree and surveys the lot. The power is still on over there. There’s an outdoor light mounted above the rear entrance, bare fluorescent — pale blue and draining. It casts long, lean shadows. The only cover she can see is a darkened space between a pair of rusty green dumpsters. It’s only a few feet from there to the skinny alley that opens right out onto the freeway. Or parkway. Or whatever – she forgets what it’s called when they run through the city like this. There are stoplights and turn signals like a road, but it’s still eight full lanes wide, not counting the median. Mammoth concrete pillars squat every couple hundred feet, supporting the real highway above. Streetlamps run either side, lighting the whole thing up clear as day. Only gravel decorates the wide median. Not even a shrub to shelter behind. Nowhere to hide, and an awful long way to run in the open.

 

Lucas is draining like an old battery. He can be shoved and cajoled into movement, but he gets slower by the second. With every stop they make, it’s harder to get him started.

 

Mari’s heart breaks, for the split second she allows it.

 

Lucas is a brat, of course, but every kid is a brat at his age. Lucas is better than most. He’s always been sensitive. No matter how many times she tells him off, he always ask if she’s okay when she’s clearly not. It’s none of his business, and she usually yells that right in his face, but mama and papa and Diego don’t even ask anymore. They just write her problems off as teenage drama and laugh behind their hands. But not Lucas. He never gave up on her.

 

She’ll never give up on him.

 

Mari lays her one good hand on his cheek. His skin cool, hers flushed.

 

“You are going to make it,” she commands.

 

Lucas blinks and his song hitches a little. That’s his only response.

 

Keep. Moving.

 

Mari tries to pry the fence up with her one good hand, but it’s not even close. So she puts her butt against the chain link, and backs into it. With a lot of effort and a few painful snags, she manages to push the bottom of the fence out enough for Lucas to slip through. When he does, she drops to her stomach and lets the fence snap back into shape. The uneven metal takes a few more swipes at her back as it passes, and the shock from jostling her busted fingers makes her pee a little.

 

It’s official: Her favorite T-shirt has now been destroyed.

 

Just a few hours ago, her biggest concern was getting Deacon to autograph this bloody rag.

 

Mari retrieves Lucas’ small, limp hand, and gets moving. There’s no time for crouching, assessing, hiding. They have to cross the highway, then a good chunk of desert before they get to the airfield and safety. Lucas could shut down completely at any minute. She can feel him fading right now: He’s just the impression left after you stare at a bright light for too long. Blink and he’ll disappear altogether.

 

They skitter across the little parking lot and between the dumpsters. Mari does a quick scan — no movement. No cry of recognition. She ducks out and peers around the corner: The driveway is clear, but not the highway. A few bodies are scattered about there; some cars, stalled or abandoned.

 

Mari takes one last look at the graveyard. She was so scared of the idea when they first ran for the fence. But out here, in the light – this is worse. She feels a thousand eyes on her from every direction, but can’t actually find them.

 

Go.

 

Mari takes quick, purposeful strides. Lucas stumbles and trips behind her, a little dog being walked by an impatient owner. Through the alley, across the first four lanes and up on the divider. Red rocks crunch beneath her slipper socks, digging at her feet even through the thick bottoms. She pauses at the far curb. There’s a UPS truck parked diagonally across the lanes to one side, and two sedans meshed together by a fender-bender on the other. Their doors are open. One of them chimes a faint and useless alert.

 

The highway is clear, so she crosses it, but she can’t see into the desert beyond. The damn street lamps burned away her night vision. The idea of slipping beyond these islands of light and into the unknown makes her stomach clench. She advances slowly, pausing to let her eyes adapt. No point in charging out there blind just to twist an ankle or fall into a dry riverbed. That’s what the logic brain tells her. But that’s not really why she’s stalling. It’s that other thing: the animal brain — its reasoning less clear, but stronger.

 

When her eyes do finally adjust, Mari is confused about what they show her: The silhouette of a twisted, stunted little tree, standing dead center in a circle of dark, wet sand. All around it are mannequin parts. That’s what she thinks at first. Because none of this can be real.

 

Severed limbs and dismantled torsos litter the ground. A muscled and tattooed arm here, a girl’s smooth leg, still wearing her running shoes over there. A soldier’s whole upper body, sans limbs; blood-soaked camo, face twisted around backwards and buried in the sand.

 

Mari doesn’t get it. Killer trees?

 

She leans to one side, then the other, getting more angles, and her mistake becomes clear. It’s not a tree. It’s a person, or something like it. It’s very thin, and its posture so unnaturally broken that at first she took it for a withered little guajilo. Its legs are crossed, knees bent outward at painful angles. Its fingers are all twisted up into claws. Its skin looks wrong. Thin and kind of grey. It’s a sad and desiccated thing, and Mari’s first reaction is more pity than fear — but the ring of blood-stained dirt tells her that’s a mistake. She takes Lucas’ hand and backs away slowly, quietly, until they’re once again on the relative safety of the empty highway.

 

They still have to cross into the desert, but not here.

 

Mari gives the tree-thing a nice, wide berth. It brings her and Lucas right up close to that idling UPS truck. There’s blood on the floorboards and a couple of ragged smears on the pavement, but they don’t end at a body. She’s thankful for that, at least.

 

Once they’re suitably distant from the thing in the desert, Mari again sneaks out of the light. Hesitant. A stalking cat. Leaves plenty of time for her eyes to adjust. It doesn’t take her nearly as long to spot the next two creatures, lurking in the dark. These ones are clearly men. Big ones. One bald, shirtless, and well-muscled. The other is pretty fat, but it’s all beer belly and burly arms. Longer hair that hangs over his face. He’s not as bent as the others. Not flexible enough. Just kind of hunched over with his arms at his sides. A swirl of torn limbs and bloody carcasses surround each man. Mari watches the pair for minutes and doesn’t see a single twitch. They are utterly, inhumanly inert. She backs away again, returns to the nice, well-lit road. She’s done feeling safer in the dark.

 

Mari scours the UPS truck to make sure it’s clear, then tucks Lucas behind the driver’s seat. He stares at nothing, hums like a track left on repeat. Mari wonders if whatever changed those people in the desert is working right now, on Lucas… but she shakes the thought clear. For Lucas, the stasis started long before the black spot and the riots. He hadn’t been the same since that night he saw papa attacked. Everybody else in the world was learning about true violence and horror tonight. Lucas already knew.

 

Mari stares at the keys dangling from the ignition and has a crazy fantasy about jacking the truck. Hopping into the driver’s seat with its absent door, throwing it into gear, and just hauling ass across the desert to safety. She dismisses the idea automatically – another dumb little kid daydream that she should have outgrown already.

 

But she quickly circles back around: Why not steal the truck? What, is she gonna get in trouble? The thought is laughable. She’d love to live long enough to be in trouble at this point.

 

Lucas’ internal song grows fainter. His unmoored, roving eyes are sleepy. Even if he wasn’t also dealing with a dumptruck of trauma, all the running and hiding and stress would be exhausting enough for him. God knows it was exhausting for her. Mari felt hollowed out, like a bunch of small animals had snuck inside her body and ate everything away until there was just a shell.

 

Even if they could get past the lurkers in the dark, would the truck make it to the airfield? It felt close, in Mari’s head, but she’d never actually been there. Outside of her own, immediate neighborhood, Mari’s only real sense of place in this city came from a distantly remembered Google map, back from when they’d first moved in and she’d been surveying her new territory. The airfield seemed practically next door at the time, but that meant nothing. It could be miles. There were lights in the distance, across the lake of black sand, but how distant? What if they were like giant army spotlights, and actually super far away?

 

What’s the alternative though, hiding here and hoping nobody finds them? It didn’t work out great for the driver.

 

Mari gives Lucas a familial squeeze and then rounds the driver’s seat. She doesn’t actually know how to drive, but that’s not a big deal. The worst that can happen is them crashing and dying. Seems like a petty consequence right now. Besides, Mari gets the gist: There are two pedals. She knows what they do. There’s a wheel. She knows what that does, too. The shifter is politely labeled, informing her exactly where to put the little orange arrow if she wants the thing to go. Engine’s still running. Headlights on. She considers the seatbelt. It seems silly to buckle it, but it feels too alien to leave it hanging. She rolls her eyes at herself as she clicks the tab into place.

 

Mari wrestles the shifter from P into D – it’s harder than she assumes – and the truck starts drifting forward. She stomps on the brake and it jolts to a stop so abrupt that her teeth vibrate. She tries the motion a few more times, getting the hang of the pedal. Does the same for the gas. When she’s got a rough sense of how it’s gonna move, she hauls on the steering wheel for what feels like forever – the fact that she’s doing it with one hand doesn’t help – and gets the truck oriented toward the desert.

 

The headlights illuminate a gray and withered stump, watered by a circle of blood.

 

If she has to break through the lurker’s lines somewhere, she figures she’ll at least opt for the smallest one. Mari presses the accelerator, too hard, and jounces the back of her head off the seat. The truck lurches to life and wallows like a drunken bull. She hauls the wheel one way, only to realize it’s too far, and back the other. The front end is diving and weaving like somebody’s throwing punches at it, every little correction of hers just barely avoiding disaster. She’d planned on skirting by the thing in the desert, as far outside its radius as she could get. The truck has other plans. No matter how hard she wrenches it, every turn of the wheel brings them straight back toward the waiting creature.

 

Mari can see it’s a woman, now. When the headlights hit her and the engine roared, the old lady started unfolding with tiny, spastic jerks. It was like watching a flower bloom in timelapse. She has Sunday School posture now: painfully straight-backed, arms to her sides, feet together. The woman is ancient, probably sick, and totally naked. Thin hair the gray of driftwood, saggy everything, wrinkles giving way to deep folds. She wears a white plastic bracelet around one wrist, and a length of clear tubing dangles from one arm. She must have been in the hospital when whatever happened, happened. So even the sick and the dying aren’t immune.

 

The truck closes in on her like it’s on rails. Fifty feet. Thirty. The old woman surges into life: Her eyes fly open and in the same instant she breaks into a dead sprint, right at the approaching truck. Arms outstretched, arthritic fingers grasping, withered toes digging into the sand. Mari would never, in a million years, have guessed the old woman could move like that. She closes the distance in a blink, probably sets the world record for the geriatric 10 meter dash, if there is such a thing. No comical explosion of blood when the truck hits her. Barely a bump. She’s just gone. Like the engine ate her up and used her for fuel.

 

Mari keeps the gas pedal pinned until the bouncing threatens to send the truck out of control. The desert’s flat, but not that flat. She eases off as much as she dares, slows the truck to a modest, but still painful canter. She wants to hold a hand out for Lucas. Let him know it’s okay, or at least that she’s still here. But her good one is busy steering, and she gets the feeling that pawing at the kid with her mangled stub won’t exactly comfort him.

 

She focuses on the task at hand: Barely dodging obstacles as they come into view. It feels like a terrible video game. The controls are garbage and the pop-up is deadly. She’s sweating within a second. It feels like she’s been driving for twenty minutes and the lights of the airfield are no closer. She glances at the speedometer: It sure as hell doesn’t feel like ten miles an hour.

 

Mari blinks, and the clawed hand just appears, already locked around her wrist with the finality of a manacle. Saltwater gray, yellow nails, deep and bloody scratches. She’s still gawking at it when it yanks her out of the seat.

 

It feels like all the joints on the left side of Mari’s body have been pulled out of their sockets, simultaneously. The seatbelt digs into her neck, strangling her, but thank god for it: without it, the old woman would have ripped her straight under the truck. The lurker had been caught up in the front wheel well somehow. Most of her is still jammed up there – all Mari can see is one withered arm and a terrible, placid face. It would be, well, not better if the old woman were snapping or frothing at the mouth or swearing or something. But this is worse: No snarling, no spitting, no emotion at all – her milky eyes watch with sleepy disinterest as her gnarled hand tries to yank Mari to her death. Like the two are separate entities: The face does not care; the hand wants blood.

 

Mari frantically runs over ways she can fight back, and comes up with: Don’t.

 

Instead, she flails around with her foot until it kicks the gas pedal, then pins it to the floor. The engine growls like she just stepped on the tail of a sleeping tiger, but it takes a while for that to mean anything. The truck’s a behemoth; it speeds up gradually. Mari’s vision is going black. Choked out by a safety device. Is that ironic? She’s never quite sure…

 

The truck bottoms out, squeals in protest, then goes airborne for a second and crashes back down, mashing the old lady’s body further into the well. Her grip falters, but doesn’t release. A few more bone-rattling bounces, a metallic snap — the engine howls like a mad monkey after – and then comes the knockout punch.

 

Mari’s mouth tastes like teeth. All calcium powder and pain, like she just woke up after a nasty dentist appointment. Her forehead is beeping. She should probably do something about that.

 

Reason comes slow.

 

She looks around the cabin of the ruined truck and patiently waits for the world to start making sense. The beeps are coming from the dash. Some sort of warning chime.

 

Wait, was she driving?

 

The old woman…

 

Mari about chokes when she sees that wrinkled claw still there, clutching her sleeve. She gives her arm an experimental wobble, and the hand shakes with it. No resistance. She leans out of the cab as far as her seatbelt allows, and sees that the malnourished limb ends in a bloody gash at the shoulder. The old woman’s severed head sits face down in the dust. Silky white strands of hair fanned out all around it like a skeletal dandelion.

 

Mari pieces together what happened: The truck clipped one of those stubborn, prehistoric rocks that litter the desert around here, and the whole front end crumpled like marzipan. The bumper snapped all the way back to the wheels, turning the fender into a guillotine. Mari gags a little as she plucks at the papery fingers still locked around her forearm. They come away easy, but leave sickly yellow imprints on the skin beneath. It’ll hurt later, when she has time for it. She unbuckles her seatbelt and experiments with her various parts. They all move, though reluctantly.

 

She’s forgetting something. Still hazy from the crash.

 

Lucas!

 

Mari flips around the driver’s seat and finds her little brother sprawled in a pile of blood-stained packages. One of the bins came open in the crash, spilling its contents across the rubber floor. Something clipped Lucas’ forehead in the wreck, opening a wide but thankfully shallow gash on his forehead. He’s got one eye closed against the flow of blood. The other, lidded and murky, roves about in confusion. Mari digs a finger into one of the rips on her ruined T-shirt. She pries it wider and tears the whole bottom hem off in one ragged strip. She uses it to dab Lucas’ face dry, then cinches the rest tight around his wound. She almost laughs. It looks like one of those ‘80s karate headbands. Under different circumstances, Lucas would love it.

 

He blinks at her. She takes it as a question.

 

“Everything’s okay now,” she says, hoping that if Lucas buys the lie, then maybe she can, too. “We’re almost to the airfield.”

 

Her legs are rubbery and unresponsive. Feels like’s she stumping around the desert on stilts. Lucas isn’t doing any better – he keeps trying to sit down, right there in the dirt. She has to maintain constant forward momentum just to keep him upright. So she does.

 

Crossing the desert at night takes a year. A year of unseen thorns and banged shins, turned ankles and scraped palms. But finally those distant lights loom large, and the airfield is in reach.

 

Just beyond a fortified chain-link fence. Topped with razor-wire.

 

Right. It’s a military installation. Why did she think this would be easy?

 

No shoddy workmanship to exploit this time: The fence is secured, top to bottom, and made of stronger stuff than normal chain-link. It doesn’t even flex at her touch. She wants to fall down a hole and die, but self-pity won’t help anything. Which is a shame, since she’s really good at it.

 

But now is not the time.

 

Lucas’ hand is clammy and weak in hers. They trudge on, skirting the fence line, looking for an opening.

 

Another year of thorns.

 

For the millionth time tonight, Mari wishes she had shoes. Her novelty slipper socks feel wet. She hopes it’s just sweat. She knows it’s not.

 

At last they crest a small hill covered in slippery iceplant, and spot an entrance.

 

A single-lane maintenance road that terminates at a pair of locked gates. A big solid black box mounted between them. There’s a little one-man booth on the airfield-side of the fence, unmanned. The run-up to the gate is littered with bodies, but these ones aren’t so bad.

 

Isn’t that messed up? This afternoon, seeing one corpse would’ve probably sent her into fits. But now that she’s seen people pulped with pickaxes, lit on fire, torn into pieces – mere bullet wounds are almost comforting. Which is good, because these bodies are riddled with them. There are a few dozen corpses in all, most of them piled loosely about fifty feet from the gates, like they hit some invisible wall of death. Doesn’t take a genius to see what happened here. They all tried to rush the fence at once and got gunned down by soldiers on the other side. Mari hopes the guys with guns are still in there. Then she amends that wish, and instead hopes that they haven’t gone insane yet.

 

She and Lucas limp down the hill, across a little gulley full of chipped stones, and onto the maintenance road. Beside the gate is a green post with a yellow box. A single red button beneath a speaker.

 

She presses it.

 

And feels very stupid while she waits for a response.

 

None comes.

 

Testing the gate, she sees the black box has two staggered bars running out to either side. A tiny red light blinks in the upper right hand corner. It’s a heavy-duty remote lock, and it’s sealed up tight.

 

Lucas, temporarily freed from Mari’s grip, sits down cross-legged in the middle of the road and slumps in on himself. Eyes almost closed. His humming song so faint she can barely hear it anymore.

 

Mari presses the intercom button again. It feels like turning the key on a car that won’t start; she knows it’s useless, but what else can she do?

 

She manages a full minute of patience before she sits down next to Lucas and starts crying. She feels bad about it – the only thing keeping her going was the idea of staying strong for him – and that just makes her sob harder. This was her only idea: Make the airfield. Find help. Find papa.

 

And now a mute speakerbox just pronounced their death sentence.

 

Big, sloppy, embarrassing, hiccupy weeps. Nose running, total loss of dignity. Mari doesn’t care. She lets the cry unfurl until she can’t even get air anymore. Then something settles on her leg. She clears the tears from her burning eyes and blinks down at a tiny little hand. Mostly limp. Barely there.

 

Lucas.

 

Some part of him is still present. Aware enough to see his sister crying, and set a hand gently on her knee.

 

She hugs him so fiercely that his back cracks. She laughs as she lets him go.

 

“Okay,” she says.

 

Mari stands and marches back to that arrogant little speakerbox and hammers the button like a little kid at a crosswalk. She gives it a few seconds. Nothing.

 

She hits it again.

 

Again and again and again and however many damn times it takes. She holds the button down and yells:

 

“I know you’re in there. I know you can hear me.”

 

She doesn’t know either of those things.

 

“If you don’t open this gate right now and let us in,” she says. “I’m walking back into town and waving down the first horde of monsters I see and I’m leading them all right back here.”

 

The speakerbox takes a minute to think.

 

“Okay fine,” Mari says, and turns to leave.

 

“Wait,” the speakerbox says. Its voice is full of crackles and pops, and sounds much younger than she expected.

 

Mari grabs the speakerbox in both hands. Breathless, she reels: “Help us, please, it’s me and my brother out here and my dad is in there he’s army we’ve been going all night there’s something really wrong out here we need-”

 

“Easy!” The speakerbox says. “The reception on this thing sucks. Talk loud and slow, right into the receiver.”

 

Mari looks, but doesn’t see any obvious microphone. She leans in, lips practically brushing the flaking yellow industrial paint.

 

“Let us in!” She screams, just as loud as she can.

 

“Ow,” the voice laughs. “I heard you that time.”

 

“Why won’t you help us?” Mari says.

 

“I didn’t… we didn’t know if you were normal,” the voice replies. “Sorry.”

 

She can only laugh at the most wholly inadequate apology she’s ever heard.

 

“Well we are,” she finally says. “Can you see us? It’s just me and my brother. We’re fine. Uh…no, we’re really not fine, but we’re not a threat.”

 

“Hold on,” the voice says. Then “Aw, hell. You really are just kids.”

 

Static.

 

“I’m going to buzz the gate. I’ve got a high-powered sniper rifle trained on you right now. When you hear the sound, you step through, turn around and hold it closed until there’s a thunk. You don’t do that, or you do anything else, and you’re dead two seconds before you know it.”

 

It should scare her, but the voice is so young. It’s like being threatened by a fifth-grader.

 

“Yes, sir,” she says.

 

Mari tries to drag Lucas to his feet, but he’s going Gandhi on her. Limp, non-violent resistance.

 

“Lucas,” she hisses. “Come on.”

 

He does not.

 

“Please,” she says. “Just five more minutes and this is over. We’re safe. Blankets and ice cream forever, I promise.”

 

She shakes his arm, lightly slaps his cheeks, but he’s gone.

 

There’s literally nothing left in her. Exhaustion in every form – physical, mental, spiritual – seeps through her pores. Coats her bones. Weighs her down. She feels like she’s walking on the bottom of the ocean.

 

But she remembers that little hand, near lifeless, resting on her knee…

 

Mari bends down and hauls Lucas up over her shoulders. She’s not strong, and he weighs half as much as she does. Couldn’t lift him on her best day. But this is her worst day, and somehow, she manages. She can feel her soggy footsteps leaving bloody prints. She muddles her way to the gate, waits for the buzz, and rams it open with her shoulder. Her one good hand holds Lucas’ arms, crossed wrist over wrist. Her bad arm is wrapped clumsily around one of his legs. It’s probably in her head, but she swears she can feel a tiny red dot burning on her chest. Waiting for a misstep. She kicks the gate closed, weights it shut with her body until she hears the thunk, picks the closest building, and starts walking.

 

It’s easily five hundred feet away.

 

It might as well be five hundred miles.

 

There will be time to think about how much all this hurts later. How impossible it seems that she’ll ever actually reach that ugly beige trailer, ringed in floodlights. There are more bodies scattered all around this side of the fence – most of them just random people peppered with bullet holes. Some of them are wearing army uniforms. Those ones are torn to pieces. Mari navigates a minefield of corpses, and thinks ‘it’s not the worst thing you’ve seen tonight. You can freak out about this later.’

 

Later. Not now.

 

Now is walking.

 

One foot and the other and that’s it.

 

A hundred feet to the trailer. Fifty. But the closer she gets, the more her knees bow. The further Lucas slides out of her grip. The harder it is to hitch him up again. Twenty feet from the trailer, she scuffs her foot just a little, and it’s all over. Mari falls, clipping both knees painfully on the pavement. Lucas slides off her back like water on leather. She doesn’t even have the strength to cry.

 

“You all right?” A familiar voice asks. It’s the speakerbox, given human form and devoid of static. He’s kneeling in the dark beneath the trailer’s metal staircase. Just a shadow.

 

She actually laughs at the question.

 

She gestures mutely at herself, then her brother, then the world at large.

 

“Is anything all right?” She replies.

 

“No,” the human speakerbox says. “Probably not.”

 

He stands and steps into the light. Mari’s heart drops. She wanted a soldier. Some grizzled badass with biceps the size of watermelons. Maybe an eyepatch. But this kid looks like he’s about her age. Sandy, tennis-ball-fuzz haircut and acne scars. He’s dressed in a gray jumpsuit with black boots. Wearing some kind of goofy hat – like an army helmet mixed with a sombrero. Dull green metal clashing with cheap white plastic. But he does have that rifle he warned her about.

 

They stand at odds for a stupid length of time.

 

“Well, do we look like a threat?” She asks, lip curled.

 

“No, right,” he says, and he literally hops to – physically jumps out of the standoff and jogs over to help her. “Sorry. Let’s get you inside.”

 

Inside is like a 1950s office designed by a prison warden. Unadorned, imitation wood-panel walls, green carpet so thin it bunches up when you drag your feet, plain metal everything – desk, cabinets, tables – every corner brutally sharp and just waiting for you to bang a shin on it. It smells like sweat and oil. That’s probably coming from the half dozen soldiers who mill about the trailer in various states of agitation, ranging from mild panic to barely controlled rage. They’re all way too young for comfort. Where are the old guys with battle scars, like in the movies?

 

There’s a blonde girl wearing her ponytail so tight it looks like it might snap off, four white guys that Mari can’t tell apart – square jaw, round chin, narrow nose, brown hair shaved short – and a black guy with thick glasses; their lenses reflecting colorless light from a rugged laptop perched on the only desk. He doesn’t look up.

 

The little guy with the rifle stands silent while the others glare at him.

 

It feels like Mari should say something.

 

“Hi,” she says, and it’s the dumbest she’s ever felt.

 

None of the soldiers respond.

 

The little guy leans his rifle against the wall, by the door, where a dozen other guns stand at attention. Lucas and Diego could have told you all about them – reeling off algebraic names and numbers; citing stats like they’re talking about football players – but they’re all just guns to Mari. Alien and vaguely worrying things.

 

The little guy takes off his goofy helmet and hangs it on a hook beside six others. Each with that same silly white ring around the base that makes them look like UFOs from one of Diego’s hokey ‘50s sci-fi movies. The ones with the little shadow guys that make nerdy jokes. He’s always trying to get her to watch them, insisting-

 

No. Was. He was always trying to get her to watch them.

 

Can’t think about that now. That’s for later.

 

The tension reaches a breaking point, and the little guy says:

 

“What was I supposed to do, leave them out there?”

 

“Yes,” one of the generic white guys answers. “That’s exactly what you were ordered to do.”

 

“What if they’re infected or something?” The blonde girl adds. “You just killed all of us.”

 

“They’re not infected,” the little guy says. “They’re walking and talking and not trying to kill anybody.”

 

“Some of them can still talk,” a different white guy says.

 

“Oh yeah?” Another one sneers. “You see a lot of them asking about the weather? They’re just animals.”

 

“No,” Mari says, and they all look at her like she’s a toddler trying to join a political debate. “Some of them can talk.”

 

“See?” The blonde girl laughs. “Even the kid says it was a bad idea.”

 

The little guy gives Mari a sideways look.

 

“My name is Mari,” she says. “This is my brother Lucas. We’re normal, I promise. Even the talking ones are still super crazy and like, killing people and stuff.”

 

He doesn’t look normal,” one of the white guys says, nodding at Lucas.

 

He’s right. Lucas sat down on the floor right when they came in, and he’s still there now, head drifting toward his chest.

 

“He’s just exhausted,” Mari says. “He’s just…we’ve just seen a lot of bad stuff on the way here. Our brother…”

 

Diego. A dancing stick man in the middle of an inferno.

 

That’s for later.

 

“Sorry,” the little guy says.

 

The other soldiers suddenly find a bunch of different stuff to look at that’s not Mari or Lucas.

 

“I’m Randy,” the little guy says. “But my last name’s Gerikoff, so they uh… they all call me Jerk.”

 

“That’s the clean version, anyway,” the blonde girl says. “I’m Steves.”

 

And then it’s roll call. The white guys reel off:

 

“Johnson.”

 

“Jameson.

 

“Johannsen.”

 

“Also Johnson.”

 

The last one notices Mari’s hapless stare and adds: “You can call me James, if you want.”

 

She decides to mentally label them all as “Johnsons.”

 

The black guy is the only one who hasn’t said anything, so Mari looks at him. His laptop is so bulky it looks like a protective case you’d use to carry around six other, normal computers. The whole thing covered in thick black plastic, laden with purposeful grooves and serious latches.

 

“That’s Ken,” the little guy says, for him.

 

“Why don’t you call him by his last name?” She asks.

 

“It is my last name,” he answers, and Mari jumps. She looks over, but he’s already back to his screen.

 

Introductions are about all anybody can think to say.

 

After an awkward minute, Randy suddenly remembers that his guests are bleeding all over the place, and shepherds them over to a couch the exact color and texture of shredded wheat. He grabs a plastic first aid kit from its mount on the wall and cracks it open on the coffee table. While he’s wrapping her in a mummy’s worth of white gauze, he asks a bunch of questions about what happened and how she got hurt. But aside from the hand, which she’ll never forget – that crack she could feel down to her toes; Diego’s crazed unblinking eyes – she can’t recall how she got the rest. Scratches on her back and face. Her feet all scraped away. It’d be easier to list the parts of her body that weren’t messed up.

 

When Randy’s finished, her hand and both feet are bound tight, and there are sticky patches all over from a litany of other bandages. She doesn’t feel much better physically, but it helps not to see the wounds anymore.

 

Lucas is crunched up into a little ball, denting the farthest cushion of the couch. Arms wrapped around his knees. Eyes mostly closed. Not watching anything.

 

“What happens now?” Mari says, when Randy starts gathering up the medical supplies.

 

She just said today’s magic word, apparently, because everybody starts shouting at once.

 

“-should’ve gone with-”

 

“-wait for reinforcements-”

 

“-armor up and hit back with-”

 

“-not equipped to deal with this kind of-”

 

“-some kind of bunker here or-”

 

“Hey! Hey! Stop!” Ken yells, and to everybody’s surprise, they listen.

 

Even Ken seems taken aback.

 

“I ah…I think I can get it working,” he adds.

 

Just about everyone deflates. The relief is tangible. The only one still riled up is Randy.

 

“So what?” He snaps. “What then? We just take off?”

 

“Uh, yeah,” a Johnson says. “What else? You wanna hang out with the pyschos? Do some bonding?”

 

“We all want to help people,” Steves says. “But you saw what happened at the fence. We barely held them back, and there were three times as many of us then. What if the creepy guy comes back? You really think we can fight them off again?”

 

“What guy?” Mari asks, but she’s officially just background noise now.

 

“Most of ‘them’ are rotting by the fence,” Randy says. He points out the lone window, toward the gate Mari came through. “I hope he does come back, so we can finish the job.”

 

“What if he gets reinforcements?” A Johnson says.

 

“What guy?” Mari asks again.

 

“Then we’ll kill his reinforcements,” Randy says, half-sarcastically. “Why did you join up? Why did any of you? To run away when it all hits the fan? What was the training for, if we’re not even gonna use it? We’ve got the hardware. We’ve got positioning. We’ve got fortifications. Even if Ken’s right and he can get the Snake running – for how long? Huh? What happens when it breaks down? What happens when-”

 

“Then we deal with it,” Ken says. He snaps the laptop closed. It seals like a bank vault. “All the info is right here. There’s a whole car just for spare parts. It sure beats squatting in this…”

 

He reaches out and knocks on the wall of the trailer. The whole thing rings with the fragile warble of sheet metal.

 

“The trailer isn’t the only building here,” Randy says, but you can actually see him losing now. “We could pull back to the tower. Or one of the hangars.”

 

“You sure those are even clear?” Steves asks. “Last I saw, it didn’t seem like we were winning.”

 

Everybody shifts their eyes, agreeing to some unspoken statement.

 

“We got two,” Randy says. He points at Mari and Lucas, sitting on the most uncomfortable couch in history. “What if more come? Are we really not gonna be here to help them?”

 

Are we?” A Johnson asks. “Seems like that’s up to the creepy guy and his friends.”

 

Mari bangs her good fist against the wall of the trailer. It bows out so far she thinks she might punch through it. They’re inside of a gong. When the noise fades, she finally gets to join the adult table.

 

“What. Guy?” She snips the words short.

 

Randy sighs, like it’s a funny story he got sick of telling a long time ago.

 

“When this first started, everybody was just running around like maniacs-”

 

“That’s not true,” a Johnson interrupts. “People were acting weird for days before it all went FUBAR.”

 

“It was the spot,” another Johnson says.

 

“How can a spot do all this?” A Johnson asks.

 

“If it’s not the spot, what’s with the dog cones?” The first Johnson steps over and picks a helmet off the wall. He shakes it so the thin white plastic rim bounces.

 

Mari looks to Randy.

 

“Some government guys came by a few days before all hell broke loose. Told us we weren’t supposed to look at the spot on account of we’d go blind or get eye cancer or something. They dropped off crates of these plastic disc things that snap around our helmets, to help keep us from looking up too far accidentally. Then they commandeered basically all of our hardware and most of the fighting divisions.”

 

“Great call,” Johnson says, gesturing out the window, presumably at the whole ruined world.

 

“It was just chaos at first,” Randy continues. “What was left of the base force started killing each other, themselves, everything. We tried to get a handle on it, but it was too much. Your CO would give you an order and you turn around to do it, but when you turn back you find him wrist deep in some grunt’s guts, giggling and tossing ‘em around like confetti.”

 

“We’re all that’s left,” Ken says.

 

“We don’t know that,” A Johnson says. “There could be others holed up like us.”

 

Quiet as fresh snow.

 

Mari coughs.

 

“It died down eventually,” Randy finally says. “But then this big mob shows up all at once. Walking together like they got a purpose. Leading them is this…this guy.”

 

“Old guy,” Steves adds. “Real nasty looking.”

 

The Johnsons nod.

 

“And he’s got like…I don’t want to say black eyes,” Randy says. “But more like-”

 

“Empty spots where eyes should be,” Mari finishes.

 

“You saw him,” Randy fills in.

 

“No,” Mari says. “I saw a different one.”

 

“Jesus Christ,” a Johnson breathes. “There’s more than one?”

 

“I don’t think the guy we saw was the same,” Mari says. “He was young and tall and skinny, and all the people following him were really slow and awkward. Like the things in the desert.”

 

“The ones out there definitely weren’t slow,” Johnson says. He doesn’t want to continue.
“We opened fire,” Steves says. “We didn’t have a choice.”

 

“They were unarmed,” Randy says.

 

“They didn’t need weapons,” Johnson adds. “Just their hands.”

 

“Didn’t even care about the razor-wire,” Randy says. “Went right up and over, shredding themselves the whole way. Didn’t faze them at all. Just kept running right at us. God damn, the looks in their eyes. Just pure hate. Every one of them looked at me like I just killed their kids or something.”

 

“We got through it,” Steves says, both to finish the story, and to comfort Randy.

 

“Yeah we did,” Randy says. He smiles at her. She smiles back.

 

There’s something else there, Mari thinks.

 

“But when it was over, the old man, he just walked away,” a Johnson says. “Like he didn’t even care that we won.”

 

“So that’s why we have to get out of here,” Steves says, like the whole story just proved her point. “He might be coming back.”

 

“If we’d left when you guys wanted,” Randy answers. “We wouldn’t have found these two.”

 

Mari blushes and hates it. She doesn’t like being a bullet point in somebody else’s argument.

 

“I vote we go,” she says.

 

Randy looks wounded.

 

“So you got yours and screw the rest, huh?” He says.

 

“It’s not like that,” Mari adds. “Our father, he’s army, and he’s in here somewhere-”

 

“Who’s he with?” a Johnson asks.

 

“First Armored,” Mari says, reeling it off automatically. “Support.”

 

“Gladiator,” Ken says, and he laughs bitterly.

 

“What?” She asks.

 

“Sorry, kid,” Ken says.

 

Mari gets a chill in her belly, the kind that always precedes something horrible. Your gut knows it before you do.

 

“What? Sorry about what?” Mari looks around to the others for help – she’s not sure how they could help, maybe they could shut Ken up before he says-

 

“Gladiator’s gone,” he finishes. “Brass took most of ‘me when they seized our hardware. The few that were left are all dead. If your pop was here this morning, he’s not now.”

 

“You don’t know that,” Mari says.

 

“I do,” Ken counters. He spins the bulky laptop around so she can see the back. It’s got a big ‘PROPERTY OF’ sticker that Mari refuses to finish reading.

 

“Ken was Gladiator,” a Johnson says.

 

Is,” Ken snaps, and glares at the Johnson until he looks away. “That hasn’t changed.”

 

“But they can’t all be dead,” Mari says, careful to keep it from sounding like a question.

 

Stupid Ken answers anyway.

 

“There were only a dozen of us,” he says. “Not exactly hard to keep track of. We were working on the Snake when Collins walked up, singing. We laughed at first. Even clapped when he finished. He took a bow, then opened fire…”

 

Mari’s mouth is dry, but she can’t swallow to fix it.

 

“What’s your last name?” He asks her.

 

“Rodriguez,” she croaks.

 

He nods all sad in a way she’s seen too many times before. Usually while watching through the blinds as a soldier in formals talks to a housewife in her doorway. Just after he hands her the flag.

 

“Your dad was a good guy. He went straight after Collins when it started. Almost got him, too. He’s a hero, kid,” Ken says.

 

It’s funny how heroes are always dead, Mari thinks.

 

They all give her a minute of quiet before they start bickering again. They rehash the same points in different words like that’s the problem – if only they could find the right synonym, then everybody would suddenly agree with each other. Steves and Ken and the Johnsons want to get to whatever the Snake is, but after that they all have different ideas. Randy wants to stay right here, in case somebody else comes by needing help. Steves and the rest want to leave, Randy wants to wait. Steves and the gang want to strategically retreat, Randy wants to provide support. Steves and company say move out, Randy says-

 

Something in Mari snaps.

 

“We didn’t see anybody else normal out there,” Mari says. She says it quiet, but something in her tone cuts straight the noise. They all shut their mouths and stare at her. “Not alive, at least. And you wouldn’t believe how many of those things there are. All different kinds.”

 

“Nobody?” A Johnson asks.

 

Mari shakes her head.

 

“How many psychos?” A Johnson says.

 

“I don’t know,” she answers. “We live over by the mall. It’s not that far. And just between here and there? Thousands. More. And the black-eyed guy that we saw – he wasn’t just wandering around. He was sealing off exits.”

 

She searches her memories for a few military terms she picked up second-hand from papa.

 

“He was using the slow ones to stake out a perimeter, so the angry ones have a kill zone. They’re not stupid or aimless. They know what this place is, and they’re going to come back.”

 

It sounds more video game than authentic to her, but nobody calls her out on it.

 

“There’s nobody left,” Mari reiterates to them. Then, to herself. “There’s nobody left. I have to take care of Lucas. I don’t care what you guys do. We’re leaving just as soon as he can move again.”

 

“Maybe we can leave instructions,” Randy says, and somehow manages to look even smaller. “For anybody that comes by looking for help…”

 

“I think that’s a moot point,” Ken says. He’s turned around in his chair, looking out the one big window toward the gate.

 

The horizon is boiling.

 

Cresting the small hill just beyond the fence, backlit against the dusty light pollution of the city, thousands of writhing, grasping silhouettes approach.

 

Everybody huddles around the window in silence, like they’re watching a breaking news announcement instead of reality. This is just too big, too bad to be happening. The brain disconnects.

 

They gawk in quiet reverence until the first of the horde steps out of the shadows and into the floodlights. The man with the black holes for eyes. He’s older, but not decrepit. Not fat, but definitely stocky. The implacable mass hints that he used to be buff, back in his day. Maybe still was, beneath the rolls. Dark hair slicked back, thin strands skating across a prominent bald spot. Not trying to hide it or draw attention away from it. He’s wearing a dirty white tank top and boxers with faded blue stripes. Barefoot. His fists clench and unclench at his sides, like he’s itching for a fight.

 

He has a cruel face: Deep frown lines, forever-furrowed brow, hard-set jaw thrust forward. Mari practically knows his life story, just looking at him: Former military, and not happy about the former part. Forced retirement usually, sometimes honorable discharge. They skim around the base bars nursing straight whiskey; sit alone at local diners downing scalding hot cups of black coffee; plant themselves bolt upright on park benches and stare straight ahead. No longer part of the army life, but not knowing anything else. They’re like walking ghosts. And they’re always mad.

 

This one was something way past mad: Pure fury etched onto his face like god carved it into his skull on the day he was born. Lips just short of a snarl, nostrils flaring, eyes burning. Yet still in control. Not like the people that followed him, biting and snapping at one another, shoving, punching, scratching – hemmed into a rough formation by some unseen force, and clearly against their will. The old man stops in front of the chain-link gates and carefully surveys their length. He spots the trailer right away – it’s the only building lit up like a country fair, and full of stunned idiots, gaping at the approaching disaster instead of running.

 

He fixes them with those cold, black pools that used to be eyes, opens his mouth, and out comes something between a howl of anguish and a war cry. Mari’s nerves jangle up at the sound. She never imagined she could be the focus of such a deep and personal hatred. It makes her stomach twist.

 

You can almost see the leashes snap. The barely restrained mob surges forward in a wave of scrambling violence.

 

The noise. God, the noise. A stadium full of people, every one baying for your death.

 

But at least it wakes her and the soldiers from their trance. They trip over each other trying to be the first to get away. She bangs her knee on the metal desk — just like she knew she would from the moment she saw it — and it hurts worse than she thought. Sends a bone vibration all the way up to her skull.

 

The mob is up and over the razor-wire in a blink – mindlessly pulling at it with bare hands when it slows them down. Then biting at it, when their hands are caught. They tear themselves to pieces, but it doesn’t matter. More are coming, spilling up and over the thrashing bodies. Too many. The gates bow out at the top, then fold, then collapse entirely. The mob spills out like a liquid.

 

One of the Johnsons is already gone by the time Mari looks up. The only smart Johnson, she thinks.

 

The other three grab rifles and duck out the door. Quick Chinese firecracker bursts as they open fire. Ken doesn’t bother with a gun. He hustles his bulky briefcase computer under one arm and says:

 

“Get to the Snake.”

 

Then he, too, is gone.

 

Randy, Steves, and Mari idle. Each waiting for the other to act.

 

Randy snaps out of it first. He snatches up his sniper rifle and shoves Steves towards the door.

 

“Let’s go,” he says to Mari.

 

She just looks at the couch.

 

He follows her gaze, to Lucas – quiet little forgettable Lucas — all balled up in the corner like a scared pillbug.

 

“Get up, kid!” He says, and crosses over to pull at Lucas’ arm. The pillbug moves, but doesn’t unfurl.

 

“He gets like this,” Mari says. “He won’t move.”

 

Randy does half a dance between the door and the couch, caught between a dozen different plans, skittering away in every direction. Steves yells something from just outside the trailer, but its lost in the approaching din. He ducks his head out.

 

“Just go. We’ll meet you there,” he says.

 

Steves says something back.

 

Randy stands at the threshold like he’s getting ready to jump out of a plane. Nerves, doubt, determination, a clock, ticking.

 

Then he reaches out, grabs the handle, and slams the door shut.

 

He runs over to the crude metal desk and Mari is already there, shoving with her one good hand and all the might of her woefully small body. Together they get it upright, blocking the window. Next go the filing cabinets and table, hastily stacked in front of the door. Already there is banging on the other side. All across the walls. Pockmarks denting out where fists impact. It sounds like she’s sheltering under an aluminum roof in an epic hail storm.

 

The trailer begins to rock. Gently at first, just a rowboat on a windy lake, but it picks up momentum. Teeters from side to side. Her and Randy are just trying to keep their sea-legs as everything goes Poltergeist and throws itself around the room. Mari tackles the couch and crawls atop Lucas. She pins her arms around him, stuffs her face into the back of his hair. It smells like Froot Loops and dust. His breathing is shaky.

 

Randy falls and swears. A heavy thump, even more swears, then the trailer hits that sweet spot: Leaning back in a chair, arms waving, muscles flexing…

 

She knows they’re going over, but they linger on that precipice for so long she starts to doubt.

 

She shouldn’t. She should know better by now.

 

The trailer tips. Mari and Lucas tumble around like tennis balls in a dryer. The world is sideways, or upside down – did the trailer roll once and stop, or did it keep going? There’s no way to tell, just by looking. The room is a junkyard. Everything has gone everywhere. At least she’s still got hold of Lucas. He doesn’t look hurt.

 

Well, no more hurt, at any rate.

 

Mari tries to assess her own state, but genuinely has no idea if she was wounded in the fall. She’s basically just a collection of injuries now. Overlapping hurts, each vying for attention; the unique voices of all the burns and scrapes and broken bones are lost in the larger choir of pain.

 

From a haphazard mound of metal and papers, Randy groans. He digs his way out, zombie hand poking up from a grave of manila envelopes, and starts throwing stuff aside. He’s looking for something.

 

It takes a minute for Mari’s head to clear. To remember that’s not a storm outside – all that banging and scratching – it’s coming from the army of maniacs, still trying to claw their way in.

 

Randy finds what he’s looking for – his rifle, of course – and goes prone with it. A second later, a gunshot like the voice of god. She’s still reeling from the first when the second comes. She follows his aim and sees that the big bastard of a desk they used to block the window has come unmoored. It lies diagonally across the opening now, leaving triangular gaps on either side. Dozens of hands now shoved through them, blindly grasping at the air, banging on the walls, clawing at the metal. It’s slapstick. Like Daffy and Bugs trying to go through a door at the same time. They’re keeping themselves out, but it won’t last. Some are more insistent than others – bashing in the faces of their competition, biting their throats, gouging out their eyes – and they’re steadily wriggling through the gap. Randy sights on one and the thunderclap jars Mari to the bones. The thing’s head practically explodes. The bullet probably goes right through and does the same to the one behind it. But it doesn’t matter. The others just shove the corpse out of the way and pick up right where they left off.

 

Mari double-checks, but no – there’s only the one window in this sad little assembly-line building. No exit but through the bellies of those screaming monstrosities across the room.

 

Wait, do they eat people? She was assuming so, but maybe that was from Diego’s zombie movies. The mob might not actually devour her and Lucas when they get through. They might just bash her brains in, and tear Lucas apart like a pack of wolves squabbling over a rabbit.

 

It’s a thin comfort.

 

Mari tries to find calm. Tries to accept her fate. She looks upward, mostly by reflex. If there is a god, she doesn’t believe he’s literally in the sky or whatever. He could be anywhere, or everywhere — but staring meaningfully at like, the stapler, just doesn’t feel right. She gives Lucas one last squeeze. She’s just about to ask Randy to turn that rifle around and shoot her first (Lucas is so far gone that him having to watch her die probably wouldn’t even register, but she couldn’t bear the reverse) when she spots it and has to laugh.

 

The door is still there. Of course it’s still there. Why wouldn’t it be, you idiot?

 

The trailer had rocked backward, so now the front door is on the ceiling. Ten feet up from the floor, but a pair of bulky filing cabinets had shifted in the crash, forming makeshift stairs. Only six or seven feet between her and freedom. Too bad both she and Randy fell well short of that height requirement. Mari doesn’t know where they’d go, even if they did get out. The maniacs are everywhere. But just the prospect of dying under the open sky, instead of this crappy box, makes it worth a shot.

 

She has to yell Randy’s name a few times before he hears her. They’re both half-deaf from the gunshots. She points at the ceiling. He sees the door, and his eyes swell comically. He drops the rifle, beside her in a flash.

 

“I’ll boost you up,” he says.

 

Randy forms a cradle with his hands, Mari steps into it, and he hefts her with surprising ease. She balances, poorly — one foot wobbling in his hands, the other slipping on his shoulder — and flips the latch. The door shoves up and out, and there are the stars Mari never thought she’d see again. Operating on base human instinct alone, she very nearly jumps for it. But she remembers Lucas.

 

“How are we going to…” She says, looking at her inert ball of brother.

 

“Damn,” Randy says. “Damn, damn, damn.”

 

He chews his lip while he thinks. They both try to ignore the scrabbling sounds just a few feet away, and getting closer.

 

“You go up first,” he says. “I’ll hand him to you.”

 

That’s all Mari needs. She jumps, Randy heaves, and Mari practically sails through the doorway. She lands on her side and scrambles right back to the threshold, ducks her head in. She watches — upside down, blood flushing her cheeks — as Randy pokes, prods, and cajoles Lucas into movement.

 

“Lucas!” Mari says. “Lucas, come on! Please! We have to go!”

 

It’s not useless, but it lives next door to useless. Randy pulls Lucas to his feet and the kid stands, reluctantly. When they move it’s like a blackout drunk being helped home by friends. Randy pushes him atop the cabinets and locks his arms around Lucas’ legs, just under his butt. He lifts the boy up, toward Mari’s outstretched hand. But he can’t make Lucas take it. She could reach out and ruffle her brother’s hair, but that’s about it. She can’t get any purchase. Randy tries to shuffle his grip lower, lift the kid higher, but it’s not a matter of strength. It’s a matter of leverage. He’s doing all he can, and she’s doing all she can, and none of it is enough.

 

“Grab him!” Randy yells, through gritted teeth.

 

“I’m trying,” Mari says. “I’ve only got one hand!”

 

“Try harder,” Randy says. More like a plea than an admonishment.

 

“Lucas,” Mari charges her voice with every ounce of compassion, fear, and hope she can muster. “Lucas, please. I know, okay? I know how bad this is. I know you want to go home and hide until this is all better. But that’s not an option right now. Home is gone and I don’t think this will get better. But I will find you a safe place, if you come with me. I promise you that. All you have to do is reach up and take my hand.”

 

He doesn’t so much as twitch. Randy wavers. There’s a nasty metallic screech and a bang. The maniacs shriek with renewed passion.

 

“I know you’re in there, baby brother,” she says. “Remember earlier? At the gates? You reached out then and put your hand on my knee. That’s all you have to do now. Just the same thing, just reach out…”

 

Nothing.
“I know how you feel,” Mari says. “You’re thinking ‘does it even matter if I make it through this? Why bother?’ But this isn’t about you. See, Lucas, if you don’t take my hand, I’m going to jump back down there with you. I’m going to help Randy throw you through this door, and there won’t be time for both of us to get out, too. We would die. I don’t want to die. I want to live, and that all depends on you. I need you to save my life right now, Lucas. And it’s the easiest thing in the world: just reach up, take my hand, and save me.”

 

He looks up at her weakly. Mari can practically see the fog behind his eyes. He’s so pale. Looks like he’s already been dead for a day. But he slowly lifts one wavering arm to place his limp and fragile hand in hers. She snaps around his wrist like a snakebite, goes spread-eagle on the roof, trying to get maximum traction, and does the impossible. Straining so hard she practically hears the blood vessels bursting behind her eyes, can almost feel the individual fibers in her muscles snapping, she heaves Lucas up and onto the roof.

 

She laughs like she won the lottery.

 

There’s a clang beside her, but it’s just the rifle. Randy tossed it up first. His palms slap down on either side of the doorway and he comes rocketing up like he hid a trampoline down there. Then he lies on his back and joins Mari in laughing at the stars. Seconds later, the whole trailer shakes. A surge of mayhem from below. Randy leans over and glances down, inside the trailer, now filled to capacity with frothing psychopaths. Bleeding from countless wounds, eyes gone feral, screaming in blind rage. It won’t take them long to climb up. Randy rolls and comes up with his rifle, sights down it, ready to take the first comer. He jumps when Mari simply reaches out and slams the door.

 

They don’t seem big on reasoning. Let’s see them figure out how to work a latch.

 

Randy laughs again — at himself, with relief, in shock, everything. Mari smiles at him.

 

It fades when they both seem to suddenly realize they’re only ten feet up, cast away on a lonely metal island in a vast sea of murderers. Easily hundreds, if not thousands of the maniacs still vie to get at them. They flood into the trailer until it’s full; those on the outside punching, kicking and headbutting the walls in impotent fury. On their periphery, standing separate from the frenzy, the old man with black eyes watches them.

 

His expression is a mix of frustration and amusement. Eyebrows arched, teeth clenched, lips twitching.

 

Mari freezes. A cow standing on the train tracks, just watching as the locomotive approaches.

 

Randy still has his rifle, and he means to use it. Has it up and leveled at the old man, barrel rock steady, finger on the trigger. Mari steadies herself for the bang, but it doesn’t come. Randy squints through the scope, blinks, adjusts his grip, drops his eye to sight again. No good. He spins the gun around: Spiderweb cracks all across the lens. He looks at Mari like a lost dog.

 

Another anguished howl snaps them to attention.

 

The old man screams, fists clenched, neck craned, veins bulging out across his forehead like snakes beneath his skin. Again Mari is hit with a wave of hatred so intense it feels personal. It makes her queasy.

 

The maniacs thrashing in the trailer below freeze. One by one, they turn to face the black-eyed man. His breath runs thin. His scream dies out in a series of furious grunts. He takes a second to compose himself. Straightens his posture. Shakes out his hands. Cracks his neck. Then he nods once, and the crowd below recedes like the tide. They all pull back as one, and for a split second Mari’s actually relieved – they’re retreating!

 

Then they hunker down and sprint forward. A solid wave of bodies breaks against the trailer. Mari goes sprawling. She nearly slides right off roof, but catches herself at the edge. Lucas fares better, in his protective cocoon. Randy’s on his butt with a bloody lip. Must have caught himself with the rifle. Before he lost his grip on it. The gun is nowhere to be seen. Randy looks around like there might be a button he can press to fix this situation. Some way to hit rewind and take it back.

 

Keeping low, Mari scuttles back to the edge to assess. The mob is already retreating for another push. When enough of them hit some invisible line, they snap forward as one. Even though she’s ready for it this time, it still knocks Mari’s arms out from under her. She clips her chin on the roof. Something buckles in the space below. The supports of the flimsy trailer are giving out. The crowd recedes.

 

The space of a breath.

 

And impact.

 

It won’t take much more abuse.

 

A distant, resonating roar. Not the old man. This sound is deeper, more present. Mari feels its vibrations play through the thin metal of the trailer. She turns, and doesn’t understand what she’s looking at. It’s a train. Barreling down the tarmac, where there are no rails. The whole thing lit up like a stadium — blinding flood and foglights all across the front; small but laser-bright spotlights down the roofline. The exterior is smooth and featureless black metal. Its engine screams to split the sky in half. The lead car banks off to one side, and the rest follow, undulating like a gigantic obsidian snake. When it was coming straight at them, Mari was half-blinded by the floodlights. But now that it’s at an angle, she can see the enormous, fortified wheels beneath each car. It’s like a train and a monster truck had a baby that grew up to be a tank.

 

Randy is on his feet, hooting and waving his arms. He looks to Mari with half a laugh, sharing some joke she never heard the punchline to.

 

“It’s the snake!” He says.

 

She doesn’t have a response.

 

“It’s a rescue!”

 

“They better hurry,” is all Mari can think to say.

 

The pair turn as one to watch the black-eyed man. It’s like he understands what’s happening – gets that he’s got a time limit now – and he’s not going to take any chances. The crowd backs up farther than before. Getting more of a run up. The old man’s face is a mask of barely constrained fury. He doesn’t make any visible signal, but Mari can sense when he pulls the trigger. A charge in the air, like the moment before a lightning strike. There’s a split-second delay, and then the mob charges. Mari closes her eyes. Just listens to the snarls grow louder. The last blow is much harder than the others. The groans and snaps from below are drowned out by the snake’s engine, but she can still feel them through her palms. And then she can’t. It feels like forever, how long she’s in the air. She pictures herself just spinning away into the sky like a cannonball. Cratering the dirt in a distant, empty patch of desert. Allowed to rest and rust and rot in peace. Instead she hits a wall and bounces.

 

There was no wall behind her a second ago.

 

Wind knocked out of her, she gasps up at a short expanse of smooth black steel. The snake is directly behind the trailer, not yet to a full stop, but slowing faster than something that size has any right to. There’s a two-foot gap between the edge of the trailer and the side of the Snake. Mari managed to hit the wall so hard that she rebounded to safety. If the impact had been any less violent, she’d probably be dead. Slipped over the edge and crushed beneath those mammoth wheels.

 

It’s…a difficult thing to be grateful for. If more of her bones aren’t broken, they’re at least bent. She feels like mush. Just a bunch of pudding beneath her skin. With as much urgency as she can muster, she turns her head to search for Lucas. Tries to quiet that voice inside her, running around slamming doors and flipping tables, screeching that he’s gone – surely gone — lost to the conveniently Lucas-sized gap between trailer and Snake. She steels herself to find an empty spot where Lucas used to be. Grief pouring into rage into relief into shame into guilt. Instead she finds Randy hunching awkwardly there. Fingers locked on the handle of the sideways door, toes of his boots damn near digging troughs into the metal roof. And beneath him: Lucas.

 

Randy covers the boy like a tarp.

 

He rolls away from Lucas and shakily gets to his feet. He gives Mari a worried look and she could kiss him. She takes back everything she ever thought about him: He looks like he could have been in her class at school, or at most, a year ahead. She wouldn’t have talked to him, if they met in the hall. Not her type. Too small, kinda goofy looking. Maybe not a full on dork, just below average in the most forgettable way. No way would she ever remember his name. That’s just wasted brain space.

 

But he saved Lucas.

 

Now Mari looks at him and Randy practically shines. If you asked her right now, she’d happily tattoo his name on her butt.

 

Wheezing and whistling, Mari crawls toward them, reaches out a trembling hand. Randy ignores it. He scoops Lucas up like you would a lazy housecat, takes two staggering steps, and heaves the boy up onto the Snake. Mari goes cold for a second, because Lucas disappears. Fear and worry set up shop in her belly – she won’t let Lucas out of her sight, never again – but she votes to trust Randy. He helps her to her feet and they hobble to the edge of the trailer. The small, darkened gap beckons to Mari like sleep. Formless and inevitable.

 

With Randy helping her, she jumps and grabs hold of the Snake, forearms flat, using the tension of skin on metal for grip. The stub of her bandaged hand slides uselessly. She goes to pull herself up and finds nothing in reserve. Bangs a knee coming down. One desperate foot blindly searching for purchase behind her.

 

It’s not even a big thing: Any ordinary day and she’d hop right across the tiny gap, using basic momentum to pull herself up without really trying. Such a trivial motion that you wouldn’t even think to worry about falling. But all of her strength is gone. The skin of her forearms squeaks and gives, starts to slide. She kicks and hauls with all of her might. All of her might is not very much at all.

 

Then hands on her hips, lifting. Mari channels all of her will into helping those hands — teeth bared, grunting awfully, all dignity and self-awareness abandoned – she doesn’t even flinch when they move down to her butt and start pushing. She crests the short rise like she just summited a deadly mountain. Every ounce of her has been burnt for fuel, and now she’s shutting down. She barely hits the tipping point, where her weight nudges over the axis, and she falls forward.

 

Falls?

 

That’s why Lucas disappeared. A 12-inch thick ledge runs the perimeter of the car, and then it’s a three foot drop to the flat roof below. When she hits, she knocks her elbow and bites her tongue, adds a few checks to the growing list of pains, and does not care for a second. She wants to laugh — to release tension, to signal relief, or just because it really is funny that she’s still alive after all this. But she’s too tired.

 

Lucas is safe in body, if not in mind. Curled up beside her, his thousand-mile eyes watching something she hopes is a whole lot better than reality.

 

On the far side of the retaining wall there’s an unholy crash, followed by a rain of metal. Mari somehow hauls herself upright and props her chin on the ledge. Where the trailer used to be, there is now a wild tangle of broken steel and writhing bodies. It looks like the aftermath of a plane crash. And here come the rescuers, flooding over the wreckage, hurling debris aside, looking for…

 

Survivors.

 

Just one. They pull out a young man in a dull green uniform, stained with blood, caked with dust. A triumphant screech goes up, and the maniacs swarm over Randy like ants.

 

Mari slides down the wall and crumbles into a pile. Doesn’t even have the energy to shift her painfully-bent leg. She is hollow. A thin, brittle human shell, covering an empty space. She lets the numbness take her. She knows it’s better than the alternative.

 

Halfway down the car, a hatch opens and pale white light splits the dark. Steves pokes her head out and blinks to see Mari and Lucas there. Then she smiles. Then she stops smiling.

 

“Randy?” She says.

 

Mari can’t shake her head, so she just looks away.

 

Steves waits there for a long time, processing. Mari closes her eyes. When she opens them again, Steves is gone and two of the Johnsons are there instead. Looming over her like statues. They say a bunch of things and don’t get a response. They do it to Lucas, too. They talk to one another. One shakes his head a bunch and the other makes a lot of angry gestures. Angry gestures win, so the pair come over and hook their arms below Mari’s. Everything goes black.

 

Mari wakes up on a ship, skipping across a choppy sea. Her cabin is narrow, but tall and long. It’s crammed with bunkbeds or — what do you call it when there are more than two? The beds are stacked four high, industrial metal lockers between the rows. The floor is black rubber embossed with a complicated diamond pattern. The lights are set deep into the ceiling, and are mercilessly bright. Her thoughts are slippery, so she operates on instinct. She gets her sea-legs and goes in search of Lucas.

 

Moments later, she realizes where she must be. Inside of that train-truck thing the military guys called the Snake. Seconds later, she remembers how she got there. The shriek when those things found Randy in the wreckage. Punching, biting, stabbing with their hands….

 

No. That’s for later.

 

There’s so much for later that just the idea of later makes Mari feel like she’s standing in front of a landslide.

 

But that doesn’t matter. Later is for later. Now is for Lucas.

 

Mari searches three cars before she finds anybody else. One car that’s just green plastic crates, stacked neatly in locking metal shelves from floor to ceiling. A car full of expensive looking electronics – swiveling chairs bolted to the floor, keyboards built into consoles, monitors reeling off inexplicable information in text, graphs, and blocks of colors. A car where one whole side is a long, skinny kitchen – multiple ovens, stovetops, and sinks – and the other is a neatly ordered, tightly stacked pantry. All of the labels are pure white, with austere black text that simply states their contents, and nothing more. BEANS, they say. And, their point made, they say no more.

 

Finally, Mari slips through the flexible rubber hallway between cars and opens a door to find voices. Calm and measured, they’re discussing things that Mari is not prepared to understand right now. They’re just background noise. She walks straight past them as they make surprised noises and utter silly platitudes. She finds Lucas curled up at the bottom of a small bucket seat. It’s covered in hard white plastic, and bolted to the floor, but it swivels. She spins it around so he’s facing her, and puts her hand on his cheek. It’s warm in a worrying way, but his eyes are open, and his breathing is steady. Mari sits like that for a long minute before something occurs to her. She stands and runs to one of the soldiers. A black guy. She knows his name somewhere, but it’s not a place she can find right now. Already frustrated with words and all the stupid delays they’re causing, she skips right past the formalities and starts pulling his jacket off. He resists at first, but sees something in her eyes and begins helping her instead. Mari does the same to the next man, and the two others that come into the car, presumably drawn by her appearance. She has four coats now, all drab, patternless green, made of a stiff, but lightweight material that feels more like industrial panels than clothing.

 

Mari jogs back to the white chair and carefully layers the coats, one at a time, over the Lucas ball. When he’s completely covered and comfortably weighted down, she slides to the floor beside him. Mari slips her one good hand beneath the makeshift blankets and finds Lucas’ tiny, bird-like wrist. She wraps her fingers around it and feels his pulse, beating metronomic. It rebuilds her slowly, beat by beat.

The Absence of Knowledge, Part 6: Scratching at the Door

The black spot in the sky boiled, unseen. Though it was featureless, colorless, and barely larger than a thumbtack, there was a sense of movement when you looked at it. It was like a familiar song whose lyrics you can’t quite recall, though you remember the melody perfectly. There was definitely something inside that opaque darkness, and you could almost make out what it was, if you just stared at it for a few…more…

“Hey!” Ali snapped her fingers, drawing Mose’s attention away from the skies. “You’re not supposed to stare at it.”

“What?” Mose was foggy and unsettled, like he’d walked into a movie theater during the day and emerged after nightfall.

“The broadcasts say you’re not supposed to stare at the black spot. It’s like an eclipse or something – you don’t think it’s bright, but it’s still damaging your eyes.”

“Aw, that’s a bunch of crap and you know it,” Mose said, rubbing his cheeks to chase the daze away. “Something can’t be black and bright at the same time.”

“Well, whatever,” Ali said. “It’s like cosmic radiation or something. Don’t look at it.”

“Fine,” Mose said, and he humped the camera back onto his shoulder. The strap helped take the weight off, and the pad helped brunt its edges, but the damn thing still dug into your muscles if you held it steady for any length of time. He could feel it stretching out his neck already, and they hadn’t even started shooting yet.

“Oof, Mose,” Ali hit him with that self-conscious doofus of a smile – the one that made his knees weak. “I’m sorry. I’m harping on you like a schoolteacher. Ignore me, I’m just nervous. You do whatever you want.”

“Nah, you’re right,” Mose said. “Not much to see there anyway, no use risking my eyes to look at nothing. Then how am I gonna pay my rent?”

Mose gestured with the camera, and Ali shrugged back at him.

The black spot scratched at his mind. Not an overpowering sensation, not even really annoying – more like a tickle than an itch. Besides, Mose prided himself on his resolve. He quit smoking cold turkey just last week – no patches, no gum, no tapering off. It was his third try, but he had a feeling this one would stick. His will was iron.

Now that he’d called himself out on it, he knew he’d never look at the spot again. It was a matter of principle.

Except, shit, his eyes were drifting upward already. It wasn’t fair; he wasn’t even paying attention. He was thinking about whether to frame Ali against the crowd of protesters, or against the steps of city hall. About what that positioning meant to the viewer – did it subtly state that she’s with the people, if she stood in front of the crowd? Did it mean she’s siding with the authorities, if the backdrop was city hall? Some cameramen don’t give a damn about that stuff, but Mose thought there was an art to everything, if you just cared enough to find it. But when he was all lost in his head, thinking about shots and frames, his traitor eyes took the opportunity to waltz skyward.

He jerked his head down, stared at his feet.

“Hey, here we go,” Ali said. “Chief’s coming out.”

Finally, Mose thought, something to do. He circled around to frame Ali’s intro against the crowd. Might as well make her a lady of the people after all, he decided.

“And 5, 4,” Mose said, then silently counted down from three on his fingers.

Ali paused for a fraction of a second, before beginning.

“This is Alejandra Cruz reporting for KAIM Channel 7. We’re here on the footsteps of City Hall awaiting the police response to widespread allegations of excessive force in last night’s deadly shooting of 7 local teenagers. The Latino community in particular is present in large numbers tonight, believing the shooting to be racially motivated. 5 of the 7 deceased were of Latino heritage, and all but one had criminal records clear of any convictions. Police have insisted that the suspects were armed and confrontational, but cell phone video released just this morning shows no visible weapons, the children on their knees, their hands above their heads at the time police opened fire. It looks like Chief Hernandez is ready to speak now…”

Mose circled back around to get the chief and his podium in frame. He squatted low, so the camera was looking up at an even more extreme angle, the authoritarian façade of the station looming large behind the scene like something out of 1984. Mose had his own way of protesting.

“Ballsy,” Mose whispered to Ali.

“What?” She whispered back.

“Calling them children,” he said.

“They were,” she said.

Mose was about to warn her that the station might not appreciate her word choice, but the show was starting.

“The depart-“ Hernandez coughed into his closed fist, cleared his throat, and started again. “The department has no comment on last night’s tragic events as of this time. This is an ongoing investigation, and our findings will be released when they are thoroughly vetted, and not before. Instead, I am here to announce a citywide curfew, effective immediately-“

The protesters howled behind Mose. The elderly woman beside him spat onto the ground and unleashed what Mose could only assume was the vilest string of profanity ever uttered, judging by her tone.

“Effective immediately,” Hernandez shouted into the microphone, barely drowning out the crowd. “Any person on the street after nightfall will be detained without question, without charge, indefinitely. This is in light of the nationwide state of emergency declared in response to the widespread rioting, senseless looting, and atrocious violence being committed against police and civilians alike. This is not to be viewed as-“

A beer can arced out of the assembled crowd, somewhere just behind Mose. It caught the light, spinning silvery through the air, to connect with Hernandez’s forehead. His eyes had been down, reading the prepared statement. He stumbled and lost his footing, dropped to one knee. The officers flanking the podium, already assembled in full riot gear, instantly raised their rifles and began firing.

Mose wrapped his arm around Ali’s waist and hauled her to the ground. Bullets keened overhead – hopefully rubber, but Mose wasn’t about to count on that. The pained screams behind him were no help in solving that particular mystery, but then, they wouldn’t be. Mose had been nailed by a real bullet before, trying to joyride a tractor back when he was an idiot teenager. The owner came out firing blindly, and Mose caught a .22 in the butt. Had to bend over a table for the doc to remove it, all the while his mother screaming in his ear, only pausing to occasionally smack him in it instead. And he’d caught a few rubber bullets, too, covering an anti-war protest that had turned ugly a few years ago. They hurt exactly the same. And from this range? They wouldn’t be doing a hell of a lot less damage than the real thing.

He had more meat on him than Ali, so he pushed her forward and turned his back to the shooting. Together they crab-walked sideways out of the line of fire — Mose expecting to feel that thump and sickly heat inside his flesh any second. But the riot cops were targeting farther back in the crowd, maybe trying to get the core to disperse, or maybe just hoping to accidentally tag whoever threw the beer.

When Mose wrapped himself around her like a human overcoat, Ali flushed hot. She knew how god damn stupid that was – seriously, little girl, the guy nobly protects you from gunfire and your first thought isn’t gratitude, or even fear, but sex? She did her best to, if not disperse the feeling, at least compartmentalize it and focus on the life and death situation at hand. She’d always had a thing for Mose, sure, with his crooked smile and puppy dog eyes and holy hell, those shoulders – but there was a time and a place and this was firmly, unquestionably neither. But still, his body wrapped around hers from behind, the heat of his breath on her ear…

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

As soon as they were clear from the crowd, squatting in the narrow alley between City Hall and its neighboring parking garage, she shrugged him off and stepped away. Mose looked wounded – emotionally, if not physically. Although…

“Are you okay?” Ali said. “Holy crap, did they get you? Are you shot right now?!”

“No,” Mose said, and he reached around to feel at his own back. “I’m good. I’m pretty sure I’m… yeah. I’m all right.”

Ali exhaled, and that was a mistake. The world went red at the edges and she sagged against the wall for support.

“Do you think those are rubber bullets?” Mose asked. “Man, even that seems like an extreme response for this…”

“I don’t know I, oh,” the remaining strength in Ali’s legs spilled out onto the floor. She slid until she was kneeling.

The bullets weren’t rubber. There were half a dozen bodies on the street, sprawled like broken marionettes, red puddles seeping out beneath them. The protesters were trying to run, but they were getting in their own way — tripping over each other, trampling each other — and the riot police were just firing wildly into the wall of humanity.

It was nearly impossible to pick out individuals among the chaotic crash of people, but it was clear they weren’t all trying to get away. Some of them were standing and fighting – though, bizarrely, it wasn’t against the police. A man with a Cuban flag T-shirt had pinned a teenage girl face down on the pavement, and he was furiously tearing at the back of her head. Ali watched as a chubby middle-aged woman in a pink pantsuit ran along the rear perimeter of the crowd, searching for some unseen criteria. When she found it, apparently in an elderly man in a blue windbreaker, she yanked him out and stabbed her fingertips into his eyes. It didn’t make any sense. Nothing was making any sense.

Mose had stopped trying to understand what was going on. There wasn’t any point to it now. The only thing they could do was get the hell away from all that madness. The alley they were squatting in dead-ended fifty back. They could try sneaking by out on the street, but they had those bug-fuck crazy protesters to one side and riot police to the other.

No, Mose didn’t like their chances on the street. They could try ducking further into the alley, see if they could lose themselves in the dark and ride it out, but Mose didn’t like the idea of being cornered right now. There was a blue steel door set in the wall about ten yards away, just at the edge of where the street lamps chased away the gloom. Its paint was faded, and the hinges rusty, but there was a smeared arc in the grime on the ground in front of it, indicating it had been opened recently.

“Come on,” he grabbed Ali’s shoulder and swiveled her around, to see what he was seeing. “There’s a door here.”

“Yeah,” Ali said. Her eyes were wide and twitchy. Maybe in shock. She would have agreed to just about anything right then.

She let Mose steer her down the alley, kicking empty cans and skidding on wet papers, until they reached the door. He twisted the handle but it wouldn’t budge. Not like it was locked, but like it had seized shut. It wasn’t so much a knob anymore, as a handle. Mose grabbed it and yanked at the door. It didn’t open, but it did bow out toward the top, just a little. He kicked at the base, and heaved again. Mose alternated between bashing the sucker in and yanking it outward until something finally gave with a rusty squeal, and the door swung open. Mose had thrown all of his weight into that last pull, and stumbled backward onto his ass when it gave.

A sharp yell of pain and rage. Somewhere close. Mose looked down the alley, back toward the street. A silhouette there, tall, thin, its head turning this way and that, searching.

“Get in!” Mose hissed.

Ali leapt into the dark beyond the doorway without question. Mose crawled after, his palms sliding in the thin muck of composting garbage. He leaned out to pull the door closed. The figure’s head snapped around. He couldn’t see its eyes, but Mose felt them find him. It shrieked again, with a harsh and personal rage, like Mose had just punted the thing’s baby. Mose slammed the door shut, but he knew from experience that it didn’t lock.

“There are stairs here!” Ali said, from somewhere just above him.

Mose turned to feel for the start of the steps, and tripped over the first one. He caught himself on his hands and, wasting no time, began running up on all fours. He reached the first landing and clipped Ali with his shoulder. She yelped and clawed at his back. He grabbed her around the waist.

“It’s me,” Mose said.

“Are you crawling? Why? Are you hurt?”

“Just go!”

Mose gave Ali a half a second lead, then started up after. There was light on the next landing, but it was diffuse and useless, having filtered down from somewhere far above. Just enough to see dust motes whirling, and nothing else. A bang from below, reverberating up through the cramped concrete stairwell like a metallic wave. The thing from outside had reached the door. There was only one full flight of stairs between them.

Mose’s heartbeat was deafening. Above it, he could only hear the faint scuffle of Ali’s feet ahead. Then it stopped: He bumped into her from behind. She had paused for a fraction of a second to feel the walls on this landing, probably looking for a door. It caught Mose off guard, and he grunted in shock. From far below came an answering scream, then wild scratching and harsh, excited breathing.

It hadn’t been coming after them – didn’t understand that they’d gone up the stairs — but it got the message now.

Up another few flights in a blind panic, the faint illumination growing stronger by increments. Ali used to park in this garage from time to time, back when she was working the dedicated city hall beat as a newly hired researcher/catch-all office bitch. Her job was to check up on the text of every mundane new ordinance and measure introduced, just in case the real news team needed that copy for a story at some point and, oh yeah, if she wouldn’t mind swinging by that barbecue joint on 4th, she could grab lunch orders, too…

Ali knew the garage filled up quick in the mornings. She’d had to park on the roof level more than a few times. With all the twists and turns, the garage felt taller than it really was, but it couldn’t actually be more than four or five stories. She’d never taken this particular stairwell. She’d always waited for the elevator – and even if the elevator was broken, she would have walked the ramps all the way back down, instead of risking this horrid stairway. The whole place smelled like piss and old garbage. If there were lights at all, they were out, and probably had been for a long time. And either she’d stopped to feel at the wrong landing – the one between floors – or there weren’t even exits at every level. This place was a rape begging to happen on the best of days. But she was getting the hang of the layout: short, steep flights of stairs that hit a landing and jack-knifed back on themselves before continuing up. The climbing motion was becoming mechanical, with her body instinctually memorizing the approximate height and width of the steps and the rough amount of them between landings. The light was second hand and weak, but it was getting strong enough to see the outlines of the steel railings bolted into the walls. They had to be getting near the top.

Then Ali’s routine betrayed her – the repetition tricked her legs into thinking there was another step, where there was only flat concrete. She twisted her heel and went headfirst into the wall. Mose tripped over her sprawled feet and made an equally inelegant-sounding landing. In the stunned, quiet moment that followed, she could hear a shriek of renewed interest, and the distant slapping of flesh on concrete quickened.

They had to be near the top. Only four or five stories. Had to be.

Ali pulled herself up into a crouch and tapped Mose’s shoulder. He was blocking the next flight; she’d have to crawl over him to keep going. So now he went first, silently lunging up the darkened steps. Ali came behind, distinctly aware that there was now no buffer between her and the thing that followed. The bouncing, echoing quality of the narrow stairwell made it impossible to tell for certain just how far the thing was behind them. Ali could feel its breath on the nape of her neck, could picture its clawed fingers snagging her blazer and yanking her backward, screaming, falling down into the darkness, landing on the brutal concrete steps in a tangle while it tore at her hair and skin, pinning her to the-

She stumbled out onto the rooftop without ever realizing she’d reached it. By the dumb look on his face, she assumed Mose had just done the same. The top story of the garage was a split-level: One ramp rose from below, made a U-turn, and then ascended again before terminating at a long, low concrete shed with a blue steel door set into one side. The stairwell emerged right at the split. There were lampposts at staggered intervals, but the light they cast didn’t extend far beyond the waxy pools at their base. Still, Ali could see that, scattered all along the downward ramp, stood silhouetted figures. They weren’t positioned with any plain purpose – not gathered in a group, or around their cars. Most of them were utterly still and painfully slouched, as though an overpowering fatigue took them with no warning, and now they struggled just to remain upright. Only two of the figures, back in the shadows where the downward ramp receded into the covered garage, were moving. They paced in agitation, muttering something to themselves while tearing at their hair and beating their breasts. The strange sight had frozen Mose and Ali, but the meaty smack and pained hiss from the stairwell behind them broke the spell.

The thing was still coming, getting closer by the second.

She had no reason to believe the people on the ramp were a threat, but something about their stillness and broken posture made Ali uneasy.

“Up here,” she said, and grabbed Mose’s hand. It was large, and warm. It enveloped hers like a blanket.

She dashed ahead, pulling Mose toward the apex of the garage. There was a white work-van parked in the uppermost space on the left. The rear of it was windowless; the sides unadorned save for freckles of rust. Ali pulled Mose behind it and they huddled together against the rear tire, to hide even their feet from view. Mose wrapped his arms around Ali, for comfort or just stability, she couldn’t tell, and didn’t particularly care. They heard their pursuer make the door: the tinny echoing quality of its screams changing as it stepped out from the alcove and into the open air.

Ali tried to breathe as quietly as possible. She took in long, thin streams that left her perpetually faint. An angry bark from the far left edge of the lot, then a frustrated shriek from the far right – their pursuer was running back and forth without purpose, taking out its fury on nothing. More shouts, from farther below on the downward ramp, and then footsteps. Mose released Ali and dropped to his knees. She plucked at his shirt, wordlessly imploring him to stop – don’t risk being seen – but he had already ducked his head below the van.

It was one of the riot cops. Male, just under six feet tall, his build indistinguishable beneath the bulky armor and blue-black uniform. His face-shield was coated in blood, rendering him all but blind. He had either run out of ammunition, or could no longer remember how to use his rifle. He clutched it, both hands on the barrel like a club, and swung at the empty air. He walked in a low stoop, knees bent, chest toward the ground, neck angled painfully to keep his head level. Every few steps he lost his balance, and used the rifle to prop himself up again. He gurgled and slavered like a rabid dog.

The footsteps from below grew louder, then a red and yellow blur tackled the policeman. A half second later, another figure joined the fray. The two from the garage. The trio snatched at each other, tore away skin and hair, dug fingers into flesh until they broke the skin. The flailing ball of limbs emitted a chorale of pain and rage that broke against the low walls ringing the complex, growing in fury and intensity until…

It stopped.

Like God had pressed pause on the scene.

The riot cop’s helmet had been knocked off in the melee, and his rifle-club tossed aside. A stunning older woman in a red cocktail dress sat on his chest, her limp golden hair covering both of their faces. Her hands were wrapped around the officer’s throat. His fingers dug into her arms at the elbows. A portly balding man in an olive jumpsuit kneeled at the policeman’s head, one fist raised, about to smash down and end it all. But instead he blinked, looked around, and stood. He wandered away. The riot cop bucked once, twice, and threw the woman off. She hit the pavement and rolled to the heels of her feet, then settled into an undignified open-legged squat and rocked back and forth. The riot cop stood last, surveyed the empty lot, then lapsed into an aimless, agitated rambling.

Mose stood, silently praying that his creaky knees wouldn’t choose that moment to pop. Ali looked at him, one eyebrow raised, voicing a silent question: ‘What was that?’ Or maybe ‘are we okay’?

Mose shook his head, giving two answers at the same time: They were ‘I don’t know’ and ‘absolutely not,’ respectively.

Mose padded silently to the passenger door of the van, and tried the handle. Locked. He put his hand against the window, shielding it from the glare of the lamp above, and saw that the driver’s side lock was engaged, too. He turned and leaned out over the border wall. He saw nothing useful. No fire escapes, or rope ladders, or miraculous rescue helicopters hovering there, waiting to take them away. Mose returned to Ali’s side and shook his head again. She pointed at the blue door, just a few feet of open ground away.

Mose had no idea what the shed was intended for – maybe it housed a transformer, or a storage space, or a mysterious old hermit that would answer three riddles – but he couldn’t imagine a reason why it would be unlocked. He shook his head, but Ali just pointed again, more firmly. Mose looked her straight in the eye and shook his head again, slowly, accentuating each movement. Definitely not. Ali widened her eyes and pointed, inclining her head. Yes, let’s go. Mose set his jaw and raised his eyebrows. Putting his foot down. She sighed, and shrugged. He relaxed.

Then she bolted for the door.

It slipped out of him before he even knew what he was doing.

“Ali, no!” He said, loudly.

They both froze in place.

Mose gingerly eased out around the rear of the van like a child tentatively peering into the kitchen to see if mom was still mad.

Fifty feet away, three blank, bloody faces stared back.

Ali broke first: She twisted the handle and yanked at the door. It didn’t budge.

Mose broke next, running to Ali’s side.

The trio of creatures broke last: They moved clumsily, trying for an ungainly four-limbed lope that their bodies couldn’t quite pull off. They repeatedly fell and scraped on the concrete, but never stopped moving, eyes locked on Mose and Ali, closing distance by the second.

“It won’t open,” Ali yelled.

“Push!” He said, trying to shove her aside, but her fingers were panic-locked to the handle.

“What?” She screamed.

“It’s a push door!” He answered. “Push!”

She wrenched the handle with her whole body, and heaved her weight against the door. It gave way with no resistance, and she followed her lunge all the way to the ground. Mose hopped over her, kicked her legs out of the way, and slammed the door shut. He braced his shoulder against it. One of the creatures hit the other side at a full run, and the impact nearly knocked Mose’s arm out of its socket. But after the first try, the thing on the other side switched tactics, immediately resorting to scratching and punching. Useless efforts that resulted in nothing but metallic screeches and bangs. Mose carefully pried one hand loose from its death grip on the handle. There was an industrial looking deadbolt with a long, thin, unrounded toggle. He snapped it shut with a mercifully solid thunk, and eased away from the door.

“Will that hold them?” Ali asked.

“No idea,” he said. “Maybe not if they try full force, but listen…”

He tilted his head toward the door and pointed at the ceiling. She did the same.

Just behind the wailing of fingernails on steel, they could hear a staccato of faint, fleshy thumps.

“What is that?” Ali asked.

“I think it’s the other two,” Mose said. “They don’t seem to understand doors. They’re trying to punch their way through the walls.”

“Jesus,” Ali said, “what the fuck is going on?”

“I don’t have a clue,” Mose said. “Some sort of crowd control thing gone wrong? Like a… a gas or something?”

“The police dosed their protesters with murder gas,” Ali said, her voice wired with sarcasm. “That seems counter-productive.”

“Damn, girl, that was my first guess!” Mose laughed, to dispel adrenaline more than anything else.

Ali laughed too. Both of them were utterly unconvincing.

“Okay, then,” Ali said. “What now?”

“Does your phone work?” Mose asked, trying his own.

“No,” she said, and flashed him the screen, spiderwebbed by fine cracks. “Yours?”

“Yeah,” Mose said, then again: “Yeah! Yes. Okay.”

He punched in 9-1-1, and let it ring so long that his phone hung up for him, automatically.

“Nothing?” Ali asked. “How can that be?”

“I don’t know,” Mose said. “Maybe the same thing that’s happening here is happening there.”

“Don’t say that,” Ali said. She wrapped her arms around herself and slumped into the farthest corner away from the door.

The interior of the shed was unadorned concrete all around, with a low wooden counter occupying one end, and a large metal shelving unit at the other. The shelves held heavy-grade cleaning supplies: serious-looking plain white containers embellished with small blue text. There was a power washer propped up in one corner, a few mops and brooms in the other. On the counter was a dull red toolbox with a padlocked latch, a pair of stained workman’s gloves, a large glass pipe, a Bic lighter with the stars and stripes across it, and a stack of video game magazines.

This place was intended as a different kind of sanctuary.

There was only one window in the place, facing street-side. It was deep and perfectly square, the glass stained yellow with age and smoke. It had obviously never been cleaned. Mose grabbed one of the gloves, spat in the palm, and used it as a rag to clear a grime-free portal. He peered out of it.

Just a straight drop, five stories to the empty street below, occupied by nothing but bodies. Mose scanned the buildings across the way for signs of life, and found his eyes drifting inexorably upward. The black spot leered, like a stain on the sky. A cigarette burn on the curtain of reality. It appeared to be flat and featureless, unless you studied it closely, at which point it developed a sheen like oil on water. A faint rainbow swirl, but one comprised entirely of unfamiliar colors that gave Mose a headache when he tried to define them. He got the sense that something was moving when he looked at the spot. Not like something was contained inside its borders, but more like he was watching a very small portion of something large and incomprehensible passing by just beyond it. A parallax effect. Like he was peeking through a hole in a fence as a massive train lumbered by on the other side. All chaos and noise.

Yes. Noise! That was it. That was what bothered him when he looked at the spot. It made a sound, but one that seemed like it was coming from his own head, stirring his eardrums from the inside of his skull. It sounded like a quiet theater whispering in excitement just as the feature starts. A million voices, a billion — untold, unfathomable numbers — all saying the same thing, but just out of sync. What was that?

Almost caught it that time.

Once more.

So close.

It’s right there, at the edge of understanding…

“Mose!” Ali pinched the skin of his neck, and he snapped to with a yelp. “Hey, what the hell are you doing?”

Ali leaned in, close enough that Mose could smell her hair, so he did (orange and spices, like always). She peered out the window.

“What are you looking at?” She asked, glancing up and down the empty streets. “Why weren’t you answering me?”

“Oh, uh,” Mose was still dazed, coated in the film that lingers between daydreams and reality. Ali’s closeness wasn’t doing his concentration any favors, either. “Just staring off into space, I guess. I’m a little shellshocked.”

She gave him a wary look.

The look said, in no uncertain terms: “I am not buying that shit, and I know exactly what you were doing. This pause is only to give you enough time to explain yourself and buy some bonus points before I call you out on your crap.”

“I was staring at the spot again,” Mose said, feeling like a schoolboy caught passing notes in class.

Ali laughed.

“I guess we have bigger problems now than your optometrist,” she said. “But why do you keep staring at it? Is it doing something?”

She joined him in gazing purposefully at the black spot for a silent moment.

“You don’t see anything there?” He asked.

“I see a black spot,” she said, trailing off.

Mose didn’t take the prompt.

“What do you see?” She said, but Mose only grunted. He was gone again, that unfocused highway hypnosis in his eyes.

Ali sighed. She left him to space out while she took stock of their supplies: Mostly cleaning stuff, some big serious-looking machine with a long wand at the end, two mops, and a wide broom. Maybe they could unscrew the ends of those and have makeshift clubs. That wasn’t terribly comforting. Then there was the toolbox: Could be something better in there, some kind of blade or hammer, but the latch and padlock weren’t decorative. They were thick and shining steel. Even if she’d had something to bash at them with, Ali doubted she could break them. There was only the one exit from the shed, and though the things outside had finally stopped beating on the walls, she knew they were still out there. Ali paced back and forth from the counter to the shelves, trying to remember if she’d seen something on TV that told her how to make a bomb out of cleaning supplies and video game magazines, but nothing came to mind.

Mose said something, softly. He chuckled.

“What is it?” She asked.

He shook his head and muttered again.

“Mose?” Ali walked over and poked him in the arm.

He made a few befuddled noises, but nothing coherent.

“What’s funny?” She asked.

“Funny?” Mose said, snapping out of his trance. “Oh, it’s just…we’re paying our dues.”

“What does that mean?” Ali said.

“What does what mean?” Mose asked.

He shook his head, trying to remember what he’d been thinking. But he felt like he’d just woken from a dream, and it was now sifting away, the details running through his fingers like sand, until they were gone.

“You said ‘paying our dues.’ I don’t get it,” Ali prompted.

“Sorry,” Mose said, “I forget. I was just daydreaming.”

Ali bit her lip and looked away.

“Hey,” Mose changed the subject, “we should have a real look around. Take stock. Maybe we can use something in here to get out.”

Ali laughed bitterly.

“Done and done,” she said. “Unless you’re deadly with a broomstick, I think it’s a bust.”

“I’m pretty good. I watched a lot of Ninja Turtles,” Mose offered.

Ali smiled in a very patient way that, Mose knew from experience, meant she was completely out of patience with him.

“Maybe the phones are working now,” he said, tapping at his.

He tried 9-1-1 again, but it didn’t even ring this time. Just a cold silence. He went through his contacts, dialing numbers at random. Same deal. There were bars in the display, but nothing would even attempt to connect. He spun his phone on the plywood counter in frustration and turned to Ali.

“I guess we just hole up here until help comes?” She said.

“Is it coming?” He asked.

Ali didn’t have an answer for that.

“Yeah, I guess we hole up,” Mose said. “I don’t know what else to do.”

He knew it was the wrong thing to say: He was the man here. He was supposed to have a plan, an idea, some secret skillset they taught in man-school for just this situation. But he had nothing, and Ali always caught him in his lies.

“Me neither,” Ali said, and she let out a long sigh.

She had been hoping Mose didn’t have some foolhardy plan to go out there and fight. She would have gone along with it, she knew, because she was desperate for any kind of solution, and had no better ideas. But what she wanted most right now was to just to curl up here, in the relative safety of their little shed, and have Mose hold her until she fell asleep. Then, when she woke, it would all be over. The military would be outside with a brisk “nothing to see here, move along.” And they would. Then home. Stiff drinks and comfort food. Soft beds and blankets. End of story.

But she couldn’t figure out a way to ask Mose to hold her without sounding like a scared little girl, and she couldn’t figure out a way to sleep with the occasional pained scream, unearthly howl, or distant gunshot sounding outside.

Instead, she sat cross-legged on the chilly concrete floor and thought about her family, just across the border in Juaritos. Would this riot, or whatever it is, have spilled that far? Carlos wouldn’t have been in school when it happened – too late for that. He was probably safe at home. Mama would be at work in the hospital. But if the were cops protecting anything, it would be the hospitals…

Ali pictured those riot police, their plastic face-shields reflecting the muzzle flash as they fired into the unarmed crowd. That wasn’t a normal response. Not even here, not even at the worst of times. Maybe the cops weren’t immune to this thing, either. Maybe they were part of it.

Ali got a hitch in her chest that threatened to overwhelm her. She felt those great, heaving sobs building up in her throat. She stood suddenly and got herself moving. She swung her arms around. Stretched out her back. Put her hands on her head and twisted. When she’d worked out the worst of the surging emotions, she lay against the wall and slid down until she was sitting on her butt. She put her head back and closed her eyes. She’d never get sleep, but maybe she could get some rest.

When she awoke, the temperature had dropped sharply. She had drifted from her seated position, fallen asleep on her side, curled into a tight ball. The cold concrete sapped the warmth from her body. She felt as if she’d been frozen to it. She shivered violently and sat up, rubbing warmth back into her arms. Mose was staring out the window again. Or surely not…still?

Ali didn’t care any more if it made her sound weak. She was going to ask him to hold her, purely for warmth. She’d be scientific about it. Your broad shoulders and big hands provide excellent surface area with which to transmit heat. He’d totally buy that. Ali stood slowly, her joints creaking like an old woman, and shuffled over to get Mose’s attention.

She poked him in the ribs. She flicked him in the ear. She pulled on his hand.

Nothing.

“Mose,” she said, as loudly as she dared.

She didn’t think those things outside could get through the walls, but she wasn’t willing to risk drawing their attention again. The sounds they made alone…

“Mose,” she repeated. She dug her nail into his forearm. He didn’t so much as flinch.

“Wake up!” She said, increasing the pressure.

Dark blood welled up around her fingernail and went racing down his wrist. She gasped and pulled away.

“Oh god, I’m so sorry,” she said. “ I didn’t mean-“

Ali saw that it was pointless. Mose hadn’t even blinked.

She peeked around his shoulder, out the window.

Had the spot…grown? She swore it was bigger now. It had started as roughly thumbtack-sized, now it looked more like a dime. No, that was probably just because it was dark. Odd, though, how you could still see it at night. It was such a deeper shade of black than everything around it…

“This is the price,” Mose said, and Ali jumped.

“What?” She laughed, mostly at herself.

“This is the price,” Mose repeated. His voice was sleepy and directionless.

“You okay?” She asked.

“This is what we owe,” Mose said. He was frozen in place, his eyes locked on the black spot, his lips barely moving, just enough to make the sounds. “They’re not taking what’s ours. That’s what you’d think. They’re just taking back what’s theirs.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Ali said.

She shook Mose gently. He swayed, offering no resistance, but as soon as she let up, he rocked right back into position, fixated on the black spot in the night sky.

“That’s what evil is,” he said. “That’s what we think of as evil: Things taking things that aren’t theirs. Taking things that are ours. We could fight that, because it’s evil. We’d be right, and that would give us strength. But that’s not what’s happening. They gave it to us in the first place. They gave it to us so we could grow, and that’s what we did. Now they’re back to reap the benefits. They’re just farmers. It’s not evil to harvest.”

“Mose, hey,” Ali said, pulling away. “You are really freaking me out here. If that’s what you’re trying to do, great job. Please stop.”

Mose closed his eyes. Put his hands to his face. Staggered back a few steps.

“Mose?” Ali tried again.

“Yeah,” he said. He pressed the meat of his palms against his eyes. He shook his head and laughed. “Sorry, I was spacing out again. I guess we just stay here and wait for help.”

“What?” Ali said.

“You said you didn’t have any better ideas,” Mose said, moving toward her.

“Mose,” She said, “that was hours ago.”

“Oh?” Mose said. His tone was almost whimsical. “Time really flies in there.”

“In where?”

“Inside the black spot. With them. It’s funny,” Mose said. He stepped into the greasy half-light cast by the dirty window. “So many things seem to matter out here, but in there you can see that none of it does. Not really.”

Ali thought it was a trick of the dark at first. Just some oddly cast shadows on Mose’s face. But he took a step toward her, and then another, and the shadows did not shift. His eyes had turned black – every bit of them. His eyelids had receded, leaving two wide and unblinking circles of darkness. He reached out and touched Ali’s arm. She flinched.

“Don’t be like that,” Mose said. “I’m still in here. For now.”

“Mose…what…” Ali didn’t even know what question to ask.

What answer would fix this?

“It’s gonna be okay, Ali,” he said. And he smiled. It was Mose’s smile; that same confident, lopsided smirk. “It’s all gonna be okay. For you.”

Ali stared into his face, and saw that she’d been wrong, earlier. Mose’s eyes hadn’t turned black. They were gone. Replaced by twin portals to a cold and empty void. In the abyss beyond, something massive shifted. She was in a tiny fishing boat on a dark sea, looking through the porthole as a gargantuan cruise ship passed by. She could only see little details. Tiny snatches of a distant, unfathomable whole.

“Things are gonna be okay f-for me?” Ali repeated. Her mind had left her. She could only parrot back responses.

“Just you,” Mose said. He reached up and tucked her hair back around her ear, then laid a gentle kiss on the tip of her nose. “I can make sure of it.”

Wait. No. Carlos and his dorky little anime shirts. Mama and her forever-burning cigarettes.

“What about my family?” She asked.

“No,” Mose said. “You’re all I have time for. You’re the only one I can save.”

“How?” Ali said. She was just trying to keep him talking now. If he was talking, he couldn’t do…whatever he was going to do next.

“Like this,” Mose said, and with two quick steps he crossed over to the door, flipped the latch, and swung it wide.

A breeze as subtle and sharp as a scalpel cut through Ali.

Mose stepped out and walked briskly down the ramp of the parking garage, heading toward the pacing, murmuring figures at the bottom. To Ali’s amazement, she followed. When they were within spitting distance, all three figures – the older woman, the handyman and the riot cop – turned to face them as one. For an instant, there was pure madness in their eyes. Then they stiffened up and went still. They turned as one and walked to the edge of the roof.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Mose laughed.

Ali said nothing.

“Let’s get rid of them,” Mose said.

One by one, the trio leaned over the dividing wall until gravity took them. They tumbled in complete silence, save for a bony impact when they hit the pavement. When the last disappeared — the golden-haired woman in the stunning red dress, her locks fluttering in the wind — Mose turned to Ali and shrugged.

“That’s it. I can’t do anything about the Sleepers,” Mose gestured down the far ramp at the slumped and broken figures, still as statues, lurking in the shadows there. “They’re not hers. But as long as you keep your distance, you’ll be fine.”

Ali tried to think of something to say, if only because Mose seemed to be waiting for it.

What could she say? Thanks for mind controlling the maniacs? It was really great the way you made those people commit suicide for me? Hope your eyes grow back?

When nothing came, Mose just sighed sadly and began walking away.

“Mose,” She called, just as he reached the alcove to the stairs.

He turned and looked at her, or toward her — she couldn’t tell with those vacant pools in his face.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

He smiled.

“I’m not,” he called back. “We all have to pay the price now, Ali. Remember that.”

“I don’t know what it means,” She said, and her thoughts all came back in a flood of questions. “Pay what, to who? What’s-“

“No,” Mose shook his head. “That’s all the time she gave me.”

A shiver passed through him.

“Mose?” Ali asked, though she knew in an instant that he was gone.

“Se po ta ku ho ire ra,” the thing that used to be Mose said, its voice no longer remotely human. It sounded like howling winds filtered through steel pipes. “Mi ra Hoa.”

It turned and disappeared into the shadows. Ali listened until she could no longer hear the echoing of its footsteps. Somewhere far away a man yelled a girl’s name, over and over again. A siren sounded, then cut off abruptly. Somebody laughed, earnest and high.

Ali looked to the black spot. It had definitely grown. She could see that now. It was the about the size of a golf ball, rivaling the moon for prominence. If you’d asked her yesterday what color the sky was at night, she would have said black. But it wasn’t. It was a gradient: deep-sea blue that faded into itself until your eye lost the ability to discern between its shades. The night wasn’t truly black. The spot was truly black: An absolute and indisputable nothingness. She had never actually seen nothing before tonight. Had never truly grasped the concept.

But she understood it now.

The Absence of Knowledge, First Epoch eBooks on sale now!

What the title says, folks! The Absence of Knowledge is split into four Epochs, or small collections of three to five stories each (though they’ll all be roughly the same word count: 30,000+ words, which is novella length). That’s mostly for narrative purposes – each Epoch marks a substantial shift in the way the story is told. The first Epoch, called The Signal, was completed with War Bastard, and now they’re all collected together for you to buy, if you just hate money (since you can get them all for free on the site anyway!).

Remember: This isn’t how I’m monetizing the book, this is just in case you want to read the series on your Kindle and don’t feel like going through the workarounds. The only reason it’s not free right now is because Amazon won’t let me (the lowest price is .99 cents, and hey, would you look at that? That’s what the book costs!).  I will be monetizing the book at some point, but that can wait until it’s all finished and we work the kinks out. So please don’t burn out your support now, thinking these eBooks are keeping me alive! I’ll need you later!

With all that said, here’s the link to buy The First Epoch on Amazon. And if you do buy it, please please please leave a review! You have no idea how much that helps! Thanks!

The Absence of Knowledge, Part 5: War Bastard

Crit shot an exaggerated, suspicious look over each shoulder before extending his hand for me to shake. I took it, and felt the hard metallic object secreted in his palm. I dragged my fingers when we disengaged, snagging the object for myself, and quickly pocketed it.

“If you’re found…” Crit said, trailing off ominously.

I rolled my eyes.

“Jesus, Crit, it’s a thumb drive. There’s nothing illegal, or even illicit about a thumb drive. It’s like that Jurassic Park meme. I could yell “there’s a thumb drive here, everybody!” and there’d be no response.”

I said the last part a little louder than Crit’s own paranoid whisper.

We didn’t even net so much as a glance. I turned back to him and finished the reference:

“See? Nobody cares!”

“Hey, fuck you, Spaz,” He said.

“Dude, please just call me Jeff,” I protested.

Crit insisted I call him by his handle. He wouldn’t even tell me his real name when we first met, whereas I introduced myself as Jeff, and winced every time he used my own handle. It didn’t seem that embarrassing on the internet, but being called “$paztick a$$hole” in person it just, I don’t know – it lost some of its luster.

“Fine, fuck you, Jeff,” Crit spat. “This shit is highly illegal. We’re talking Men in Black caliber response, if we’re caught.”

“Crit,” I sighed, and plucked at my french fries. They came out soggy, and time was not doing them any favors. “We’re talking about sound files, man. Nobody gives a shit.”

“Secret sound files,” he said. He was starting to sound kinda hurt. Losing some of his self-appointed edge. “Obtained through illegal means. Especially this bunch.”

Ah, screw it. What does it hurt to play into the guy’s fantasy a bit?

“Oh yeah?” I said, and I hunched forward, dropped to a whisper. “For real? This is some serious stuff, then?”

“Yeah!” He said, too loudly, surprising himself. He quickly corrected and bent to our top-secret huddle. “I pulled these files from an old military server. Shit that was older than you back when you were born. When they finally get the budget to buy new stuff, they wipe ‘em and sell ‘em at auction. But, see, if you’re lucky, and you’re good, you can sometimes recover pieces.”

“And you are good,” I said, inflating his head a little. “Bet they never expected someone like you was bidding on them.”

“Ha,” Crit said. “You’re damn right.”

“So these were, what? Military sound files? What does that mean?”

“Not exactly,” Crit said, and we were clearly at the part he wished wasn’t true. “They’re uh…they seem like mostly old SETI stuff. You know, that space radio telescope shit they used to do back in the day? Listening for aliens and whatnot?”

Crit lost a lot of enthusiasm when he had to explain that part. It was obvious he’d hoped for something a bit tastier from a recovered military server. I could brighten his day a little if I…

Heh. Why not?

“Oh shit,” I said. “Do you think this is it?”

“Is what?” Crit said.

“Do you think this is proof of aliens? First contact?”

Crit’s eyes could generously be described as beady at the best of times, but now they went wide like an anime character. This possibility had clearly never occurred to him.

“Oh fuck, yes. Dude. Yes it totally could be,” he said. “Wait. Fuck. Give it back.”

“No way, man!” I said, trying not to laugh. “A deal’s a deal.”

“Bro, come on,” Crit pleaded. “I am not trading proof that aliens are real for a fuckin’ SidStation.”

He pushed the paper bag on the table back toward me. I shook my head.

“Come on,” I said. “You know how much those things are worth. They don’t even make ‘em anymore. Plus it’s going to sound totally sick on your new tracks.”

“Yeah,” Crit admitted. “I guess. But if you find anything cool, you gotta tell me first, all right?”

“Deal,” I said. I held out my fist out. He pounded it.

Crit put on his beefy, old-school Ray-Bans, and pulled the hood of his black sweatshirt down low over his face. He tucked the paper bag holding my SidStation under his arm, and walked quickly through the doors of the In ‘N Out. He checked all around before jogging across the street, probably sure he was being followed.

Once he was out of sight, I laughed. Critikal.sHitz was a dipshit, for sure, but he could find some amazing files. Stuff nobody else had. He once traded me these crazy loops of radio signals from other planets. Not like aliens, just the radio waves that the planets in our solar system naturally emitted. It was intense. Saturn sounded like ghosts screaming, and Jupiter was like a big boat coming into harbor.

He was all amped up about this latest find, and wouldn’t do the normal trades, so I offered him my SidStation. I wasn’t lying to him: Those suckers cost a small fortune, even back when they were still making them. But I just hadn’t used the damn thing in forever. I was outgrowing chiptunes.

Damn. That sounds pretentious, huh?

I mean, I was just…moving past them. I still liked listening to other people’s tracks, I just didn’t want to do my own anymore. I’m pretty into synthwave stuff these days, and the old PSG sound chips just start to feel confining. Crit’s illicit soundfiles usually had that goofy ‘80s sci-fi feel to them, and they almost always turned up gold somewhere. Despite how disappointed he was with the find, I was stoked he’d found old SETI recordings. I pictured Dr. Who stuff, like theramins played by the stars themselves.

I horked down the rest of my Double Double – they always get the burgers right at In N Out, even if this particular place sucks on the fries – and stepped out into the perfect Burbank sunshine, feeling like a million bucks. Or maybe a billion.

I don’t know, whatever inflation says feels awesome.

***

I slotted Crit’s thumb drive into my dedicated mixing PC, which I have dubbed War Bastard. There were roughly a thousand files scattered across a few hundred folders, each named for the dates and times they were recorded. Those files could be anywhere from ten seconds to eight hours long. It would literally take me years to listen to all of them.

I’m not even about that.

I just wanted to find the hooks — the craziest few minutes hiding in those many boring hours. Luckily I wrote a script for that, after spending a solid week trying to go through Crit’s first file-dump by hand. I started it running. It would spend the next several hours combing through all of the soundfiles in the directory I selected, searching them for dead spots and cutting them, leaving only the activity that exceeded the threshold I’d set. I set this one relatively high. If nothing cool turned up, I’d nix the first wave of results, lower the threshold, and try again. But may as well aim high on the first pass.

While the script did its work, I played internet on my laptop. I started off on one of those sites with a bunch of trivia organized into lists, then tripped over a source link and fell into a Wikipedia hole. Ended up reading about the Crimean war, then somehow stumbled into studying the tech that made old music boxes work, then to a page about the different styles of opera singing, one of which featured a picture of a pretty girl with her mouth partway open, and that was it: I spent an hour looking at porn, three minutes masturbating, and ten minutes closing all the tabs of stuff I was sure I would use but never got to.

You know how it goes.

I glanced back at War Bastard. The script had finished working. Usually it would turn up about forty five minutes of sustained, high-activity sound for a job like this. This one had found three straight hours.

All right, Crit!

I was glad, at least, that I hadn’t abandoned my SidStation for nothing. I set the compilation file to play, and picked right back up on my classical opera techniques. The jpeg of the pretty girl with her mouth open seemed to look at me with judgment in her eyes, so I switched gears and started reading webcomics instead.

There was some good shit in Crit’s files. Whenever I heard something particularly compelling, I sat up from my bed, leaned way over so I could barely reach the mouse, and clicked save. I had thirteen promising files so far: Interesting whistling patterns, hypnotic static waves, sonar-esque blips and one that – I swear to god – sounded like a Dalek saying “poop pop” over and over again. I would have to find a use for that sucker.

I was plowing through the archives for a comic strip called Achewood when something new crackled through the speakers. This track sounded, if not louder, then clearer or… maybe closer than the others? It kicked off with a deep bass that rattled my subwoofer beneath my shitty plywood desk. Followed by a single tone, somewhere between a whistle, a squeal, and a scream, that ululated madly. It was joined by loud pops, piercing Emergency Broadcast-style squeals, and crackling tsunamis of static, all dancing in and out of one another. But that first tone stayed dominant, like it was leading the band. The whole thing lasted for just over a minute.

When it finally fizzled to a stop, I had to Google “earthquake Burbank” to make sure the earth hadn’t literally shook. I had a serious case of vertigo, and briefly lost track of what space meant. I knew, instinctively, how large my room was, but for a few seconds after that file stopped playing I couldn’t have told you if it was ten feet or ten miles to the door.

When my head at last stopped spinning, I got up and clicked back to the start of the file. I paused the player – I didn’t have the stamina to go through it again so soon – and I saved the chunk to my desktop under the name “HOLY SHITBALLS.”

I put the computer to sleep and laid on my bed, staring at the ceiling in total silence. I didn’t finish the Achewood archives, I didn’t fall into another wiki-hole – I didn’t even look at any more porn. I spent the entire night wide awake, without once touching the internet. I believe that’s the first time that has happened in…ever.

The next morning, I had a new track all mapped out in my head. That’s not normally how I work. Usually I get hooked on a sound, and have to just try pairing it with a lot of other shit to see what sticks. When something finally does, I try throwing more at the track until something else holds, and so on. It’s tedious as hell. But not this time. I knew every second of the song: the tempo, where it dropped, and exactly how long the fadeout was. As soon as my brain had finished processing, I jumped up and hurled myself into my computer chair. I had War Bastard up and humming all that morning and into the afternoon. Come evening, it was done. As I do with all of my tracks, I uploaded the file to the Synthspace forums first, for feedback.

I hadn’t eaten all day. The last meal I had was at In N Out. And my body had since used up whatever poor fuel it could extract from greasy burgers and soggy fries. I stood up too fast and went woozy, had to steady myself against the wall and wait for the waves of fade-out to pass over me. I went to the kitchen and stared blankly into the fridge, hoping I could will something to eat to magically appear in there. We had a few things I could make – some raw chicken legs, a bag of rice – but I would rather starve than cook.

My dickhead roommate Sean had a box of Chinese leftovers. He’d written his initials on them, as dickheads do. I opened it, trying to guess at the contents. Something brown, I saw. Fried stuff in a sweet sauce. It could be anything. I thought about going out for provisions, but there was still dizziness knocking around in my guts, waiting for me to do something stupid like walk to the store so it could jump out and kick my ass.

I sighed.

I grabbed Sean’s container of Chinese Whatever, stuck it in the microwave, and two minutes later headed back to my room to shovel illicit sugar and protein into my face. Before I sat down at the computer, I grabbed a pen and paper, wrote a note, took some bills out of my wallet, and went back out to the kitchen. I stuck the note and bills where the Chinese food had been, and pinned it down with an expired jar of mustard. The note said:

Ate your leftovers
Here are reparations
-J

I knew Sean would still yell at me for it, but this would take some of the edge out of him at least. I trudged back to my computer yet again, my rumbling belly protesting all this stalling, and hit refresh on the forum while I horked down my tepid Chinese mystery meat.

Two responses already!

That was weird. It’s a pretty active forum, but people are slow about actually listening to new stuff. It usually takes days for somebody to even click the link, at which point they’ll call out some minor flaw and label you an unforgivable asshole for it. But whatever: At least you get to fix the mistake.

That wasn’t what was waiting for me this time, though.

“HOLY FUCIK!!1!”

The first, hastily typed reply said.

“this was amaxing dude waht the hell is that hook?!?”

The second reply was a bit more expected. It was from Notorius_F.A.G., who I recognized as one of the forum’s self-appointed experts. Which, in this case, meant that he was twice as insufferable because he actually sorta knew what he was talking about.

“The mix is sloppy,” his reply said, “and your levels are all over the place. The intro takes too long to get going and the fade-out is a cliché that should warrant the death penalty. But aside from that, this is shockingly pretty good. I shall echo the previous, poorly worded sentiment: Where did your hook come from? It’s strangely catchy.”

I typed up my responses, which were basically “thanks” to the first one, and the politest way I could find to say “fuck your mother, but thanks” to the second one. By the time I posted them, there were six more replies. Another from Notorious_F.A.G., just as prickish, but also stating that he’d listened to the track again, and it had grown on him even more.

Ten more replies in the next hour. Twenty-five the hour after that. It was the most active thread in the forum by far, and picking up steam. I was so excited by all the validation and attention that, even though I hadn’t slept the night before, I stayed up late again refreshing the forum and replying. I took a couple of pieces of advice, even a few from Notorious, and remixed the track a handful of times before morning. When I posted the new version, there were still a few holdout blowhards, sure, but most everybody agreed it was ready to go. I uploaded it to my own fileserver for people who give a shit about the quality of their music files, and then YouTube for everybody else.

Then I crashed out.

I slept for twelve hours, only waking when the garbage truck came by to loudly abuse our cans for having the audacity to stand so proudly on the sidewalk. For a few groggy minutes, I laid in bed trying not to move, so I wouldn’t disturb the pocket of warm air that I’d gathered over the night. Then I remembered: My new track was up, and there might be more comments and views waiting for me. The giddiness had me wide awake in seconds. I kicked off my blankets and flopped into my computer chair, still in my boxers. I sucked in breath when the shockingly cold vinyl touched my thighs and lower back. I pulled up Synthspace and checked my thread.

There were ten pages of new responses.

I laughed and punched the air a little bit. I jumped up and did a victory dance. I sat back down to read the replies, but only made it a page or two before I realized the new responses were still coming – adding up faster than I could get to them.

Everybody loved it. They couldn’t stop listening to it. They thought I had a breakout hit on my hands, not just for me as an artist, but for synthwave as a movement. But above all, they wanted to know what that hook was.

I pulled up YouTube, bracing myself for at least mild disappointment. Synthspace was reserved just for people specifically into this kind of thing. YouTube was a great cesspool of random people who were only universally “into” casual racism and puns. Somebody was bound to hate my track, or at the very least, ignore it.

The page loaded. Twenty thousand views. Overnight.

Half as many comments. And the really strange thing: Nearly as many shares. Getting people to share anything on the internet — much less some niche genre ‘80s revival synth track — was like pulling teeth. Yet nearly half of the people who’d listened to my song had gone on to share it.

How cool is that?

I scanned the comments briefly, and they were almost all positive, or at least as positive as YouTube comments could be. There were the inevitable breakdowns where somebody foolishly mentioned something barely related to politics or feminism, and another user replied with a bunch of rabid, belligerent frothing blaming women and Obama for everything wrong with the world, up to and including cancer. But mostly everybody just loved the track.

Euphoria welled up behind my chest. I was full to bursting with excitement. It felt like happiness was about to bust open up my ribcage and spill out onto the carpet. It would be a bright and shimmering yellow fluid, like liquid sunshine.

My computer chimed. A message from Crit.

herd ur new track gud shit mang

I replied:

thx. couldnt have done it without u. hook makes it.

I took his extended silence as the end of that conversation, but a new window popped up, with a message from somebody outside of my contacts. I accepted it.

Hello Jeffrey, you may know me by the nom de plume “Notorious_F.A.G.” on the Synthspace forums. I’ve received your contact information from our mutual friend, who still will not tell me his real name, thus forcing me to refer to him as “Critikal.sHitz.” He tells me does not know, exactly, where you found the hook in your recently uploaded track. Only that he sold a batch of files to you in bulk. Can you enlighten me as to its source, and perhaps send me the unedited file? Yours, Malcolm.

Holy shit. Who signs off an instant message?

After I was finished laughing, screencapping the message, and sending it to Crit with two solid paragraphs of jokes about the stick up “Malcolm’s” ass, I replied:

Sorry. not @ liberty 2 say

I went extra hard on the text-speak, because I knew it would annoy him. He sent back:

Dear Jeffrey, while I of course appreciate the artist’s confidentiality, I can only assure you that I do not wish to create or distribute a competing track, or anything of the sort. I am simply obsessed with that particular soundfile and would love to analyze it myself. Yours, Malcolm.

Another screencap and a few jokes, and I replied.

no sry.

His response came almost immediately:

Dear Jeffrey, I am a person with considerable means at my disposal to harm you. I say this not as a threat, but to educate. I do not throw my weight about lightly in the forums, but I am highly regarded there and can make your life very difficult if you continue in this (frankly unnecessary) obstinacy. Please send the sound file ASAP. Yours, Malcolm.

He was threatening me with “influence in an online forum”? Oh, Christ, no! My reply was simple and immediate:

Fuk urself til u die from it

I waited a few minutes for another message, but I guess I’d ended that conversation. I got up and hopped in the shower – the two days I’d spent hunched in front of War Bastard, mixing, distributing, and reading comments had not done my natural odor any favors. I turned the water up so hot it hurt, and stayed in way longer than I should have. I emerged feeling like a new person – like I’d burned off needless layers, shed some old skin, and came out bigger. I went to get dressed and noticed a new message window open on my monitor. One with a hell of a lot of text. Most of it just gibberish, like:

IMHE HO HOA IMHE RAA KO MENE IM IMHE HOA

It was from Malcolm.

I scrolled up past the gibberish, checking his responses in chronological order. He started off with more vague threats, which quickly devolved into explicit threats, which then turned into fucking insane threats rife with uncharacteristic spelling errors and obscenities. Eventually he just started messaging me pictures of extreme gore – people with their heads split open on railroad tracks, their guts spilled out on battlefields, little kids getting mauled by dogs. And finally he typed two long paragraphs in that all-caps gibberish I’d seen when I first walked in.

God damn. I’d only been gone an hour.

I closed the window and blocked his ass every way I knew how. Some people take this internet shit way too serious.

The exchange with Malcolm left a sour taste in my mouth, which bled over into the forums and the YouTube page. It wasn’t quite as fun to check them anymore, so I shut off War Bastard’s monitor and got ready for work.

***

Work sucks.

***

When I got home after my shift, the old excitement was back, pulsing in my fingertips. I had purposefully avoided checking my phone during my shift, because I knew that was a slippery slope. I could spend all day just endlessly refreshing the forums and never hit the end of it, but work tended to frown on such activities as ‘me not doing my job at all,’ and I kind of needed money to live. So I worked. Besides, it gave me something to look forward to when I got home.

I’d barely kicked off my chunky black work shoes and tossed my server’s apron into the corner before I had War Bastard back up and humming. I checked the Synthspace forums first. I was prepared for anything. Twenty new pages of responses. Thirty. Forty. I was ready for the crowd to turn on me now, angry with the new golden boy and looking for an effigy or two to burn.

I was not ready for what I saw.

There were two thousand four hundred and twelve new responses.

“Holy shit,” I said aloud.

I chewed my nails to release some of the pent up energy. I felt the need to tell somebody — not online, a real person — but the only one around was my dickhead roommate, Sean. He’d just make fun of me for being way too into nerd-stuff. He’d never get what this meant.

I skimmed the post replies. More of the same: Like it, love it, what’s that hook, etc. But then there was some weirder stuff from the forum regulars, the first people to see the track. They asked stupid questions I knew they knew the answer too, made bizarre typos, got way too aggressive with the other posters. The mood was shifting there.

So I typed in the YouTube URL, instead. My history autocompleted it. I clicked accept, and could barely stand to watch the page load.

Two.

Hundred.

Thousand.

Views.

My whole body went cold. It wasn’t even excitement anymore. What the hell was I feeling? Fear? Anxiety? I didn’t know how to process this. I got up from my computer chair and paced my room a few times.

Fuck it.

If Sean’s the only guy I have to talk to, then Sean it is. I knocked on his door, interrupting the incessant sounds of gunfire that thumped behind his perpetually closed door. He paused his game. I heard the floorboards settle as he approached. The door slid open a crack.

“What’s up?” He said.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” I said. “There’s some crazy shit going on, and I know you don’t care or whatever, but I need to run it by somebody.”

“Sure,” he said, but only after a very long pause that let me know, very clearly, he was not sure. “One second.”

He closed his door. The game resumed briefly, then paused again – saving, I guess — and Sean swung his door wide. He gestured for me to sit on his ratty futon with him. I did. We both stared at his frozen screen, paused right at the split second his character exploded another’s head with a grenade launcher.

“So I have this new song out,” I said, already embarrassed. “And it’s kind of going crazy on the internet.”

“I know,” he answered. “I saw it on Facebook. It’s actually really good.”

I was not expecting that. Sean exclusively listened to hip hop. Bad hip hop. Nothing was more out of character for him than listening to, much less enjoying, much less admitting to enjoying cheesy ‘80s synthwave soundtrack music.

“Oh, uh,” I said. “Thank you?”

“Everybody’s listening to it and posting about it,” he said. His voice sounded strangely flat, like he was really tired, or not wholly paying attention.

Wow. If everybody Sean knew was listening to my track – mostly other white, wanna-be gangsters, and their long-suffering girlfriends — it really was going to be a breakout hit.

“That’s awesome,” I said. “The track is doing so well, but I am totally out of my depth here. Like, what do I do right now? All this attention is on me and I feel like whatever I do next will either make or break everything. It’s like I can’t make a decision in case it’s the wrong one, you know?”

“I don’t think you have to do anything,” Sean said. “You didn’t do anything so far. You just made it. Everything that’s happened since has just happened. It’s out of your control.”

His eyes were glassy. In the dimness of his bedroom, with the shades drawn, just the LED glow from his giant flatscreen lighting the interior, it looked like each of his pupils contained an explosion of blood. They were just reflecting his paused game, I knew, but it was still disturbing.

“I guess it is,” I said, suddenly overcome with the desire to be anywhere else but sitting with Sean on his lumpy futon. “Thanks for the talk.”

“Yeah,” Sean said.

I closed the door behind me, expecting the sounds of his game to resume. They didn’t.

I grabbed two Red Bulls from the fridge and headed back to my room. I locked the door. I vowed I wouldn’t spend all night refreshing the comments and watching view counters, but I broke that vow almost immediately.

Three hundred thousand views on YouTube. A half million.

The tone of the comments was changing now. They were still overwhelmingly positive about the track itself, but they were getting weird about everything else. People spouting gibberish and, stranger still, getting a ton of thumbs for it. Like everybody was agreeing ‘yes, this is fine gibberish.’ They were getting really violent and confrontational, too. Now the commenters weren’t just telling people they disagreed with to kill themselves, but specifying the method and how they’d like to help.

I minimized that window and switched back to the Synthspace forum. The same thing was happening there, just on a smaller scale. The replies were getting bizarre and incomprehensible. Even some regular forum names I recognized were posting horrific videos of car crashes and natural disasters with captions like “ROFLMAOBBQ” and smiley face emojis.

My track broke a million views by ten o’clock that night. I was practically obligated to celebrate, but it felt wrong somehow. Instead I messaged Crit.

hey does something seem off w/ track 2 you?

Twenty minutes, and no response.

I finally pulled myself away from obsessively monitoring my own success, and started catching up on my normal web routine. By the time I got to the news sites, the chewed-up feeling in my stomach had progressed into full-blown anxiety. The headlines were a horror show.

MASS SHOOTING AT KANSAS CITY MALL; 17 DEAD, 41 INJURED

DRIVER WAS SOBER WHEN HE RAN DOWN CHILDREN AT CROSSWALK, INVESTIGATOR SAYS

POLICE ENFORCE BALTIMORE CURFEW IN RESPONSE TO WIDESPREAD RIOTING

There was a knock on my door.

“Yeah?” I said, distracted. I was still scrolling through the headlines, trying to figure out where to even start learning about all of the various atrocities that had happened today.

“Hey man,” Sean said, from the other side of the door. “Did you eat my Chinese food?”

“I did,” I answered. “I left some money there for you.”

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said, after a long, quiet minute.

“Sorry,” I said.

My attention was lost again to the internet.

MOTHER HYSTERICAL AFTER ALL 8 CHILDREN SIMULTANEOUSLY ATTACK HER

CONCERT TURNS DEADLY AS NYC CROWD STAMPEDES

NOT ENOUGH MANPOWER TO CONTAIN LA WILDFIRES, SAYS MAYOR

No celebrity bullshit cutting through, no feel good human interest stories, just straight tragedy after tragedy. What the hell was going on?

Another knock.

“Hey man,” Sean said. “Did you eat my Chinese food?”

“What?” I asked, annoyed. I stood up from my computer chair and crossed over to the door. “We just went over this.”

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Sean said.

I froze, my hand on the lock, about to flip it. I waited for thirty seconds.

The knock came again.

“Hey man,” Sean said. His voice was still flat, like it had been in his bedroom. “Did you eat my Chinese food?”

I didn’t answer.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said.

The knock came again immediately. Much harder. My door rattled on its hinges.

“Did you eat my Chinese food?!” Sean yelled, his apathetic tone suddenly swinging to full, screaming rage.

Pounding on the door.

“YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE DONE THAT!” He screeched, so loudly that his voice cracked.

The pounding increased in both speed and ferocity.

“DIDYOUEATMYCHINESEFOOD?” Sean yelled, the words bleeding into each other. “DIDJOOEETMYCHINEESEDIJOODIJEETMICHINEEZMI-”

I backed away from the door. It was just flimsy plywood. It danced against the jamb. The walls reverberated with the force of Sean’s blows.

“DIJOOIMICHIHEIMHIIMHE IMHE TEE KO RO IMHA HOA!”

The stream of gibberish broke apart into syllables. Not words, but clear spaces between the sounds. They meant nothing, but sounded strangely familiar…

“IMHE NO ITO HOA!”

The same stuff Malcom was typing at me, earlier?

The door cracked, and bowed inward. It wouldn’t hold much longer. I looked around for something, anything that could double as a weapon. For the first time in my life, I regretted not being the specific type of nerd that collects katanas and shit. I grabbed the heaviest thing I could find, an old oscilloscope that I was planning on circuit-bending into an instrument, and pressed my body flat against the wall beside the door.

“IMHE HOA IMHE! IMHE!” Sean screamed. Fists beat. Wood cracked. Something finally shattered and the door slammed inward.

Sean skittered into the room, running on all fours, his palms flat on the ground and his ass in the air. He paused a few feet beyond the threshold and sniffed at the air. He growled, then turned his head very slowly to face me. His skin was flushed and red. His cheeks were wet. Thick and unbroken streams of tears flowed from each eye. He bared his teeth at me and charged. I closed my eyes and swung the oscilloscope down hard. It made contact. Something both soft and crunchy gave way to the metal, then warmth and wetness splashed across my hands and shirt. I opened my eyes.

I had caught Sean right in the temple with the sharp corner of the oscilloscope. It opened up a huge triangular gash in the side of his head, out of which spurted syrupy red blood. I could see the white of bone inside that wound. I could see the pink of brain.

I immediately threw up. None of the swimming nausea that usually serves as a pre-vomit warning — just an instantaneous ejection of partially digested Chinese food. It splattered across Sean’s face, and pooled in his open head wound.

Seeing that, I threw up again, though this time with enough forethought to face away from him. I ran down the hallway and hid in the bathroom. I locked the door and dragged the little cabinet we used to store towels in front of it. I sat on the floor and shook, covered in sour sweat.

Jesus Christ his head his head oh shit what did I just do god damn I can’t go to jail I can’t what do I what do I-

Okay.

I took a deep breath, held it until little stars burst in my vision, then let it out. I did it again. And again.

Sean attacked me. I’m sure they can like, CSI that shit and see what actually happened. There’s no way I tricked the guy into breaking through my door and into my bedroom, then cold-blooded murdered him with an oscilloscope. The cops would see it was self defense, plain as day.

I had my cellphone in the pocket of my sweatpants. I pulled it out and dialed 911.

I got a pre-recorded message telling me that all operators were busy, and I should stay on the line.

What the hell? That’s not supposed to happen, right? It’s the emergency line. They can’t just put you on hold. Can they?

I didn’t have anything else to do. I sat there cross-legged on the cool bathroom tile and I waited for somebody to pick up the line. I waited for an hour. Then two. I put the phone on speaker and set it on the counter. I laid my head down on the bathmat, pulled a towel over my body, and listened to the message repeat.

Stay on the line. Somebody will be with you shortly. Stay on the line. Somebody…

I awoke with the worst neck cramp I’d ever had. I could barely turn my head. What was I doing in the bathroom?

Oh, right.

I grabbed my phone. The clock said it was 7:08AM. The emergency call had terminated at some point during the night. Whether they’d finally answered and hung up on me when I didn’t respond, or it just cut out, I couldn’t tell. I dialed 911 again.

Stay on the line.

I hung up, resisted the urge to whip my phone into the wall, and practiced breathing again. When I’d calmed down, I thought about going out for help, but what if Sean wasn’t dead? What if he was up and around now, and pissed off? Or worse, what if he was dead, and I went out there and confirmed that fact once and for all. I couldn’t face that right now. So I did what I’m best at, instead: I played internet.

I pulled up the news.

NATIONAL STATE OF EMERGENCY

WIDESPREAD RIOTS

STAY IN YOUR HOMES

It all blurred together into a big sloppy mess of tragedy. There didn’t seem to be any one event causing it – just the whole world going to shit all at once, like society had decided enough was enough, and started flicking the lights on and off until everybody left the party.

I couldn’t do any more news. By reflex more than anything, I pulled up the Synthspace forums. Or tried to, anyway – they were down. I opened the YouTube page for my track instead.

I laughed. It was a flat and hollow sound in the cold little bathroom.

Three hundred million views. In less than two days.

Well, if there was any consolation to the world ending, it’s that I was the most popular artist in history, right about the point where history stopped.

Those things had to be tied together. I upload my song, the traffic goes crazy, people start flipping out, and the world goes to hell. I know how narcissistic and deluded it sounds: my stupid synthwave song – the one that sounds like an outtake from the original Blade Runner soundtrack – is the thing that brings about the apocalypse. That’s the dumbest thing anybody has ever thought.

But I was thinking it.

If there was a connection between my song and this madness, I knew where to start looking. It wasn’t the god damn synthesizers or the drum machine turning people into maniacs. It was the hook. The SETI signal I’d recovered from those old military drives.

God, I was so stupid.

What was the military doing with SETI files in the first place? I should’ve known something was up the second Crit told me that, but I just got too excited about the find. About getting in on the ground floor of something. About having my own little arrogant secrets.

And now the world was paying for my ego. The least I could do was try to figure out why.

To do that, I would have to listen to the signal. I could sit in this bathroom and play the crappy YouTube file until my phone died, which, judging by the red flashing battery icon, seemed like it’d be any minute now, or I could go out there and grab my laptop and my headphones and do it right. The only thing standing in the way of that plan was Sean, who was either A.) Up and around and ready to bash my brains in, or B.) Dead, because I bashed his brains in, and then threw up in them, and now I would have to look at that atrocity again.

I wasn’t sure which outcome I was hoping for.

I eased the bathroom door open glacially. When it was wide enough for me to slip out, I paused, held my breath, and listened. I could hear birds chirping outside. Distant traffic and…

Pops. Screams, both pained and furious. Sirens.

But I didn’t hear anything that would indicate movement in the apartment itself, so I stepped out into the hallway. I snuck down its length with all the stealth of a cartoon burglar. I eased around the shattered husk of my bedroom door, and saw Sean’s bare, hairy feet, still sprawled out on my carpet. A little further, and I saw his shirtless torso, lying in the center of a massive, dark brown stain.

Any more and I’d see his head. See what I did. Have to face up to it again. I kept my eyes on my feet, instead.

I grabbed my laptop and charger from the floor by my bed, my headphones from atop my dresser, and then tiptoed back into the bathroom. I knew it was probably pointless now that I’d verified Sean’s status, but I still locked the door and dragged the squat cabinet in front of the handle. I opened up my laptop, plugged my charger into the single outlet, hooked up my headphones, and flipped off the overhead lights.

I’ll tell you what I can’t do: I can’t fire a gun. I can’t perform CPR. I probably can’t even run a mile without dropping from exhaustion. Practically all I can do is listen. So I listened. I found the original, unedited sound file for the signal, and set it to repeat. I closed my eyes, and lost myself to the noise.

It begins with a deep bass. A rumble like distant trains crashing. It builds, slow and inexorable, until your ears reverberate with it. It does not vary in volume or intensity. It just is. Forever. It is alone and unbroken for so long – proud, if not arrogant in its resistance to change – that when tiny cracks finally appear in the uniformity of sound, you’re grateful for the release. Little pops and squeals, announcing the chinks in the armor. Then the feature piece comes wailing in through the holes they’ve punched: a sort of ululating whistle that screams up and down through the octaves – never repeating, yet somehow following a logic, or grammar: It operates on rules that your mind grasps instinctively.

Then, so gently it’s almost imperceptible, a static wave sneaks up through the ocean of bass. It is subtle, but not inactive. There are things moving in that static; fingernails of sand scratching against concrete walls.

Next, the pops and squeals grow in intensity. And you realize they tricked you at first: They came in at the same time, and made you think they were part of the same pattern, but they’re not. They’re distinct from one another — perhaps even at odds. They appear and disappear entirely at random, increasing with frenetic desperation until the very last second of the signal, when everything cuts out abruptly.

And repeat.

A steady, unbroken boom. Crackles, squeals. A howling whistle, center-stage. A blanket of white noise settled beneath.

Repeat. Isolate. Focus.

The demanding randomness and wild shrieks of the other sounds make you think that perhaps the bass, too, changes throughout the signal. But it doesn’t. It’s constant. Stoic. Eternal. It’s the authoritarian grumble of distant machinery, buried and forgotten, but still toiling away, oblivious to what goes on above. It is the sacred baritone of priests chanting – the underlying echo of their pious voices bouncing off of cold stone; absorbed into the ancient wood of the pews and forgotten. They don’t sing for celebration, or for posterity, and they will never be recorded. They sing because they are supposed to. Because they always have. They always will. The bass keeps the order.

At first, the pops seem out of place in the otherwise somber and unworldly signal. They’re bubbly and effervescent – almost fun. They’re champagne corks and carbonation; a finger tucked into the mouth and pulled away abruptly. But listen a few times and you’ll feel something sinister beneath them. A nail pressed loose from a vital crossbeam, signaling the inevitable collapse; distant gunfire; an eyeball pried from its socket. They bring joy to the signal, but only because to bring joy is also to bring chaos.

The squeals, on the other hand, are malevolent from the start. They’re not the idle whine of feedback, or the harmless chirp of ungreased bearings. They’re something between rusty metal dragged across a chalkboard and the desperate protests of small animals, fighting for their lives. They rise, higher and higher, until their pitch seems impossible. Until it feels like fine needles boring into the very center of your eardrums, opening holes into your skull, and letting what’s in there seep out until there is nothing left. The squeals bring urgency to the signal. The urgency of fury.

If the static was a constant, it would be comforting. It could be easily dismissed while your ear is drawn to the more active sounds. But there’s something just off about the white noise. It’s not merely waves crashing, but waves crashing against something. Breaking against the hull of a huge ship in the dark – a ship bearing down on you, unseen but certain. There’s a dire sentiment to the static that draws your total and unbroken focus. If you can just listen hard enough, you might discern some vital information before it’s too late…

And that’s when you awaken to find that you’ve lost hours, intent on nothing, oblivious to the outside world. The static brings constancy to the signal, but not peace. The static brings sleep, but not dreams.

And then there’s the central tone: The screeching whistle that dominates the signal. It demands your attention, wheedling in and out of every other pattern, dragging your mind away. It fixes your intent in place, making you feel as though you’re on the verge of understanding it, then deviates suddenly, pulling the rug out from under you. It’s your favorite song played live – you can mentally fill in what words come next, but the singer’s delivery isn’t quite right. It is at once familiar and strange. The whistle brings intrigue to the signal. The whistle demands focus. The whistle commands you to analyze it. To listen to it. To share it.

There it is: The thing that crawled inside my head and made me do this. I didn’t find a cool sample and build a song around it; I caught a parasite and it took over, forcing me to build a Trojan horse for an army of psychic monstrosities.

I could almost see them there – the sounds now so familiar that they began to take on shapes in the blackness of the bathroom. The signal as a whole was a shadowy sphere, so infinitely vast that its depths were incomprehensible. It meant madness to even try. And each aspect of that signal was an entity that lived inside that eternal void. Something ancient and, if not malevolent, then apathetic in the cruelest way. Those entities, too, were pure, impossible black. They’d lived so long in the void that they had become the void itself. And yet, despite how impossible it was to discern detail within the darkness of the sphere, I could almost see something. The very thought was at odds with itself, but there were bright things behind those shadows. Illuminated, but concealed, like lighthouses in the fog. They were faces. Young faces. Almost child-like, but theirs was youth captured on a faded photograph. Cracked, withered, long dead. I knew what they were — those sounds, those effects, those entities inside the black sphere.

They were order. They were chaos. They were fury. They were sleep.

No, they had other names. Inside the signal, nestled in between the tones, they whispered them, tauntingly.

They wanted to be known.

Haruk, The Order.

Herote, The Merry.

Hoa, The Rage.

Himna, The Slumbering.

The prominent whistle at the heart of the signal was all of them, and none of them. It was the Herald, spreading their word in advance of their arrival.

I threw my headphones to the ground. I had to feel around with my foot for a second before I could pinpoint where they landed. Once I did, I stomped them into pieces. There was something wrong with my face; it was swollen, and wet. I touched my fingers to my cheek and tasted them. Salty. So, tears and not blood. At least there’s that.

How long had I been lost in the signal? It was pitch black in the bathroom, but there were no windows, anyway — it could be morning or midnight. I pawed my way to the door, and felt alongside the wall for switch. I flicked it, and nothing happened. The power must have gone out while I was listening. I’d been running on battery power. I opened the bathroom door a crack, and once I was reasonably satisfied that nothing was going to come charging down the hallway, I stepped out.

Faint light streamed through the closed blinds in the living room. The kind of colorless oversaturation that said it was either just before sunrise or just after sunset. I couldn’t take the confinement of the apartment a second longer. No matter how dangerous it was out there, I felt a strong compulsion to get the fuck away from my laptop, the signal, Sean’s rotting corpse – everything. I repeated my drill on the front door: Open a crack, wait, hold breath, listen.

Nothing. There were distant sounds of anarchy beyond the brick walls, but inside the actual building it was as quiet as fresh fallen snow. That, in itself, was seriously disturbing. The complex was a cheap build. The walls were paper thin. You could hear people wipe their asses if you listened hard enough, but now? Library quiet.

I took no chances and padded to the stairs like a paranoid housecat: operating on the assumption that something big was about to pounce from around the next corner, and ready to jump away at a moment’s notice.

Up the concrete stairs, painfully cold on my bare feet, and out onto our rooftop patio. There was a gross hot tub that the less discriminating tenants fucked in, and the rest of us avoided like the plagues it surely carried. Some faux-wooden benches, their seats set at severe angles, like the designers were intentionally vying for the most butt-discomfort possible. Planters full of scrub grass. A few disused and rusting communal barbecues. But otherwise vacant.

I leaned out over the railing and took in the city below. It was firmly twilight, but there were no lights out there. Not even the traffic signals were functioning. The only jumpy, staggering illumination around came from the distant fires raging in unseen buildings. Through the gloom I could make out twisted shapes strewn about the streets, and just knew they were bodies. Judging by the last news reports I’d seen, and the exponential rate my song was spreading, I didn’t have much hope that the rest of the world was faring any better.

I looked to a sky the color of denim, the early evening stars rendered visible for the first time in years by a total lack of artificial light. It was a clear night, and I felt like I could see forever – the only mar was a small, stubborn black spot in my vision. I rubbed my eye, but it was still there when my sight refocused. I blinked, and turned my head from side to side. The spot did not move with me.

The spot wasn’t the product of my own strained vision, like I’d spent too long staring at a monitor and brought artifacts with me when I looked away. It was external. The black spot existed. It hung there in the sky like a cancerous mole. Just a pinprick now, but I knew how big it really was. And I knew it was coming closer.

I climbed up onto the railing, the cool metal instantly freezing my toes. I shook, off balance at first, but I managed to recover and stand up straight. Once I regained my equilibrium, everything became perfectly still. There was no wind to knock me over, no sudden noises to startle me into falling. If I was going to do this, it would have to be entirely my choice.

I laughed a little.

I wanted to think it was the guilt driving me – I had killed the world, after all. Surely I couldn’t live with that. But what’s the point in lying to yourself?

I stepped off the roof of my apartment building — the last precious sound I heard was the harsh vacuum of wind rushing past my ears — because I didn’t want to live through what was about to happen.

Can you blame me?

The Absence of Knowledge: We’ve hit our first milestone!

Over on Wattpad, where I post updates to these stories live as I write them, I’ve just put up the last part of War Bastard. I’ll do some editing tomorrow, and the final version will appear complete on this site by the weekend. That’s actually pretty monumental, as hopefully you’ll see just by reading the story. But it’s also notable because of how the overall Absence of Knowledge collection is going to be broken down. Here’s how it works:

There are going to be about 20 connected horror shorts that make up the larger AoK collection. Those will be broken down into four Epochs, each consisting of about five stories. That serves a narrative purpose, as every Epoch contains a very different phase of the story.

For example, War Bastard marks the end of the first Epoch — I’ve been calling that one The Signal — and all of those stories are about the early stages of the calamity, and the destruction wreaked by the mysterious signal from space. After the events of War Bastard, we stop moving forward chronologically for a bit. The stories of the second Epoch, which I’m tentatively calling The Black Spot, will take place at more or less the same time as War Bastard, covering the same events in different parts of the world. The third Epoch details the aftermath of those events, and the fourth Epoch concludes the story.

I figure this is also a good time to make the stories available in eBook form, in case you prefer to read them that way. I’ll post them on Amazon as I finish them. Now, all of these stories are free — my site doesn’t even have ads! — and they will continue to be, both here and on Wattpad. But if you prefer to read things through Kindle, this is your chance: Each Epoch collection will cost .99 cents — the bare minimum I’m allowed to charge. This is not how you support me financially. Hopefully that time will come — this is just for those of you who want to click a single button and have the collected stories come up on your phone. I would make it free if I could, but Amazon forces you to charge something, and .99 cents is the minimum.

I figure it’s still a bargain because, with just the first five stories collected, we’re already well over 30k words. That’s how long the average novella runs, and they can cost nearly as much as a full book! But if you do splurge on that nifty eBook, please do me the biggest favor ever and leave a review! Continue spreading the word! You guys have been great about it so far, and I know with your help The Absence of Knowledge will find the audience it deserves.

Thanks again!