Well, here it is. Not exactly part of my Weekly Challenge, not exactly a Wacky Wednesday. Just a chapter, a bit on the weird side, offered in the hope it’ll provide some amusement.
The beta version of the full novel is going out tonight, so if you’re on that list…hope you like it! And whether you do or not, feedback is great. Details are awesome! Almost as awesome as you guys!
The Secret: Chapter One
If you’re reading this, I’m almost certainly dead. But I imagine you know that already. I don’t see how it could be a surprise.
Worse, from my point of view, is that everyone I ever knew or loved likely died with me. Or before. I’m not talking about aging and the inevitable march of time here. I doubt any part of the end was pretty or peaceful. But even if I’d known what was coming, from the beginning? I don’t know what I could have done to save any of us.
Still. Maybe you’ll find something in this that will help you. Before it’s too late. I hope so.
I might as well start with the first day I noticed anything unusual. Nothing before that matters anyway.
The lumpy road was smooth butter under my bare feet, the clean green air stained with warm flavors of asphalt filled and caressed my pumping lungs, the March sun lightly toasted the morning and then retreated to think of other things…days like this were what I had missed about running. Except it had never been so good, before these last few months. Too many injuries along the way. Barefoot running sounded so ridiculous—until I’d tried it. Now I could barely stand shoes at all. Foot-splints, earplugs for the feet. Never again!
“What is he—a hobo?”
I’d spotted throngs of urchins ahead, cavorting in hydrant-spray heaven, but hadn’t seen the three boys lounging in a pickup bed until I came abreast of them. I grinned, and thought about answering the twerp as my feet carried me past, but life is sometimes good: I heard a loud smack!
“He ain’t no hobo! That’s Mister Ash!”
Sudden coughing. Then: “Dangit,” came the reply as I left them behind me. “You almost made me swallow my cigarette!”
I lost my grin. The kids were downwind of me, so I hadn’t noticed what they were doing…but the tow-headed smoker couldn’t have been more than nine years old. About my daughter’s age. She probably knew him.
Up ahead, water coursed down the curb on my side of the street. I moved left to avoid it, noting the slightly worse-than-usual yellow-brown tinge as our local drinking supply fountained into the air. I suspected Henge’s city fathers opened our hydrants periodically in an attempt to clean out the lines just prior to some sort of mandated testing—because otherwise they’d never bother. But it was fun for the children.
Just after I ducked and wove my way through the soaked and shrieking mob I came upon an old gray tomcat crouched in a stand of unmowed grass about three feet from the pavement. Back when he was a kitten he’d been friendly, and I’d stopped to pet him while walking by. Then as a young adult he started running away. Today, fat and certain, he bared his fangs in my general direction and hissed without bothering to so much as twitch his tail.
I hissed back, surprising him not at all, then padded onto Old Center Avenue. At the same time the breeze shifted. The smell of rain hit the back of my throat…I looked up and saw dark gray clouds moving in…for the kill, an inner voice cackled. I grinned again. I loved a good storm.
Old Center cut through what used to be my great-grandfather’s farm. Both sides of the road had gone to scrub, just four blocks from downtown. Coming here always struck me as if I’d suddenly left the town behind and entered the countryside. Except that our actual country roads were better-maintained. This one didn’t go anywhere in particular, and was slowly fading away. Which might have pleased Great-Granddad, since the land for it had been taken from him by the town council sixty years ago—right after he’d lost an election for mayor. For commerce, they’d said, citing eminent domain. There had been some sort of plan, but it had fallen through. And according to family legend they’d never quite gotten around to paying him anything for the land either.
The scrub was still in my family’s possession, though. Last I heard there were no current plans to sell or develop any of it. A good grudge can outlast a lifetime. Or several lifetimes. Most of my family died young.
Didn’t matter; I loved running here. As the sky darkened and the sounds of town—such as they were—faded away, I found myself peering into twisty recesses of black walnut, hemlock and prehistoric fern. What if, I wondered as I laughed shallowly and let my mind spin through its exercise-induced oxygen deprivation, an ancient and malevolent spirit lived in these woods? An Elf, maybe, brought across time and ocean from its native habitat, slowly losing its mind to the tedium of modern life. Would it spot a passing runner, and ensorcell his mind? What if the runner had aspirations—had always wanted to run farther, run faster, never stop—and the Elf smiled as it twisted the threads of thought and sinew, causing the runner to move faster than he ever had, to become a blur among the trees and gravel and aging broken shoals of dark and brooding chipseal? What if this scrub wood connected to another Wood, and the trail became eternal? Would the runner forever flash along the trail? Or would his mortal body expire, his heart exploding in his breast?
I imagined being that runner, and picked up my pace just for fun. It was easier than I’d expected, and the approaching storm’s ozone-laden air seemed to carry power I could use. I leapt and laughed along my track through the woods.
But not forever, or even until my body failed dramatically. I didn’t time myself, but it was only about a mile to the end of the road, and obviously the same coming back (though it generally felt a bit longer). Call it twelve minutes, maybe—after which I’d re-entered, as I thought of it, my town.
Still. A good run. I’d needed the break; work wasn’t going well lately.
* * *
“Honey? Can you stop by the store and get some milk? And a few other things?”
I sighed. Then: “Text me a list,” I called back to her from our home’s entryway. I’d stop by, all right. After my shower, and before I got back to work…both of which would happen right there in the house. “You do know the grocery store’s not exactly on the way to anywhere I was going, right?”
Sometimes a silence can pierce your skull. Fortunately this one was interrupted by a buzz from my phone: she’d sent the list already.
I loved my wife. But not so much for her efficiency.
* * *
I checked before I pulled out of our driveway. We apparently needed tomatoes. Plus basil, celery, and carrots. I detected soup in our near future. Worryingly, there was no meat listed. Rebecca had been making Vegan noises for the last few months, and they’d stepped up in frequency lately. Though I hadn’t checked the fridge; maybe she already had animal flesh handy?
She also wanted aluminum foil and Diet Coke. So Wal-Mart it was—the only other choice we had left in town was the Latino Market. They were cheaper, since most of their inventory came from Mexico, but they didn’t carry Coke products.
Outside the store, I reluctantly donned my homemade sandals. No raised heel, no arch support, and good luck finding anything like that in a store. Especially in Henge, West Virginia. But I wasn’t going to ruin my feet—again—for fashion’s sake.
* * *
I added a pound of Italian sausage to my cart and began searching for a bucket of lard—just on principle; truthfully I didn’t cook and had no idea how to use it—but I spotted Mike Eisler, our chief of police, in front of me. He’d been a friend of my older brother, and I’d never liked him, so I swung into the soda aisle.
Where I ran into Rose Epley. When I was a kid, as far as I could tell everybody nearby was a relative, or nearly—so I’d never tried to figure out exactly how I was connected to Rose. By now it would be too embarrassing to ask. Something on my father’s side, I suspected. Maybe my mom’s too. Small-town West Virginia, you know?
“Jacob Ashton!” she exclaimed. “As I live and breathe. When are you bringing the little ones over for pizza? I know you wouldn’t be avoiding me this year.”
Rose organized a sort of founding-family reunion every year, on the first day of spring. It was coming up in a couple of weeks, and in fact avoiding her was exactly what I’d been doing. The whole thing was a little strange. Not Deliverance-strange…quite. But nearly. It involved dressing up as our ancestors, telling stories, and hiking in the woods. Oh, and some hunting. And when I was a kid some of the men would take us boys aside for a bit of communal blood-drinking. In theory it meant we were all hunters together, and we would keep our old ways—which included not telling the women.
Eventually I grew up a little and figured out that “don’t tell the women!” wasn’t so much because it was an ancient and noble secret ritual but more out of fear the women would ban it. As they would have, in a heartbeat. So to speak.
I guess, given the stuff that happened later, I should tell you it wasn’t human blood. They used deer if they could get it…but my first time had been squirrel.
Which I still felt had been a little bit of a cheat. Hear me roar, said the mighty rodent hunter’s pimple-faced nephew? Not a high point in my life. Though I think it was supposed to be. I guess I was never a dutiful son of Henge. Or of my parents either. They’d had Fred for that, until Iraq.
Anyway, as far as I knew that stuff hadn’t happened in at least ten years—not since Mom and Dad died and Rose took over organizing the reunion. And I’d always kind of enjoyed the whole event otherwise, but Rebecca…well, she didn’t. Resentment because her own family had never been invited to participate before our marriage, probably, though she denied it. Last year we’d caused a minor stir by taking our kids to Hawaii for a week instead.
I smiled down at Rose. At just over four feet tall, with bright red hair, she’d been my favorite babysitter. For myself, years ago. She’d wanted to do the same for my kids, but Rebecca wouldn’t go for that either. Rose smoked like a chimney, and her most-recent husband worked for the prison the town fathers had foolishly—in my opinion—invited to settle just past the city limits.
In four years the non-inmate population of our county had doubled. And what nice people they were, too. Our land of opportunity.
“How’s Hank?” I asked Rose, trying to move the conversation away from dangerous topics.
She pursed her lips. “You know, today was supposed to be his day off. But something was goin’ on over at the prison, and he lit out this morning like his tail was on fire. That man gets on my nerves, with all his running around when a body ought to still be in bed.”
“Huh.” I kind of liked Hank. A lot more than her last couple of husbands. But if I was reading the signs correctly, his days were numbered. If Rose was criticizing him in public…I tried to put in a good word: “Well, the overtime will probably help.”
“Oh, you.” She poked my side. “What do you know about overtime? You went off to MIT, you have your own business you run from your house. You don’t have the same problems we locals do.”
I blinked. I wasn’t a local? My family had almost two hundred years of history here, and…well, I’d come back from college, hadn’t I? Ten years ago. Though it was true I didn’t have much to do with most of my relatives anymore.
A voice from behind startled me. “She’s got a point, Ash.”
I turned. Eisler, two feet away. I’d have preferred a few miles between us. “Hey, Mike. How’s the law business?”
He eyed me. “Poor. Like everything in this town. How’s the internet treating you? Spying on people’s a good way to pay the bills these days?”
I sighed. I hadn’t realized he knew that much about my company. “I guess. If that’s what you want to call it.”
He glanced at my sandals and sneered. “Stock up on staples while you can, Ash. You too, Rose. I shouldn’t ought to tell you folks—but there’s a riot at the prison. They’re calling in the National Guard. It’s not goin’ to be pretty out there.”
I winced, and nearly pulled a muscle holding off an I told you so! about the prison. Still…“Why should we stock up?” I asked him.
“Some of the prisoners might have escaped. Word is, we’ll have to put the whole town on lockdown pretty soon.”
He spun his cart—full of fuel alcohol, rice, beans, and bottled water—and wheeled off with it. Rose and I stared at each other, then separated. Later at the checkout counter I saw she’d loaded her cart like Eisler’s.
I did too, only I included batteries and a couple of oil lamps. Along with the lard and the stuff Rebecca had wanted.
Lockdown? In what fantasy world was that legal?
And did Eisler seriously just decide to buy supplies for himself before letting the town know what was going to happen?
* * *
I finished paying for my haul and saw Rose waiting for me by the door under a sign warning people to stay away from Henge Lake because it was—once again—infested by blue-green algae. Supposedly. I grinned, wondering how much truth there was to it this time. Jim Donovan, who owned Henge’s only steakhouse (overcooked sirloin and fries a specialty), had put up fake warnings at least once to keep people away from his ex-wife Joan’s marina. Theoretically this espionage might have impacted our two bait shops in town, too, only they both sold beer and a lot of locals could be counted on to spend any extra cash they had on another six-pack. So no harm, no foul—according to Jim.
Anyway. Rose probably wanted to extort some sort of commitment from me for the Founders’ Festival. But what the heck; I’d been at least a little sorry to miss it last year. Rebecca could stay home if she wanted to.
Besides, the rain was coming down pretty hard out in the parking lot. Might as well hang around inside and talk for a bit, I figured.
Lightning struck somewhere close as I got to her, and the lights flickered. “Wowie!” she said with a big grin. “Remember how we used to go out and dance in the rain, Ash? When you were shorter’n me?”
“I do, in fact. Look, about the—”
A bright flash, brighter than I’d ever seen, whited out my vision. I felt the thundering crash in my teeth.
Wal-Mart’s lights went out. Somebody laughed. I blinked rapidly, shaking my head…and just outside the door, I saw two uniformed police officers walking toward us with empty carts. Heads lowered, moving with purpose. I didn’t like the look of it.
I glanced at Rose, then tilted my head toward them. “Do they really think people won’t notice? We should probably get out of here.”
She gave me her trademark frown, sized for a body a foot taller than her own, and nodded. As we left, the store manager was telling people they wouldn’t be able to purchase anything until the power came back on.
I waved goodbye to Rose, then kicked off my sandals and headed for the far reaches of the parking lot. Luckily the rain had eased up a bit.
Just past my truck sat Tim Sullivan’s Forerunner. Not quite pulled into a parking space—I guessed he’d stalled it somehow. Tim stood in front of it, his hood up, looking perplexed.
“Hey, Doc!” I yelled, then grinned at him. “See what happens when you don’t buy American?”
He flipped me off. Then: “I don’t get it,” he told me when I got closer. “I was driving along, the lightning hit, and my damned car died. Won’t start.”
I nodded, distracted, scanning the lot. “Tim? Look around.”
As he did, his eyes widened. At least four other cars were in similar straits. And out on the road, there were two separate accidents. Fender-benders, it looked like. “What the hell?” he asked.
The whole thing struck me as impossibly cool. “Did you see the lightning hit? That last big flash?” I asked. “Because I don’t think…”
Another bright bolt strobed the sky, and thunder followed soon after. I stood, wondering. What I was thinking made no sense at all. But on the other hand…
“Hey, Tim. Let me help you push that out of the way. Did you get your groceries yet?”
“No. Guess I can do that while I wait for Triple-A. Or—damn. I guess they’ll be a while, won’t they?”
I laughed. “Be my guess. Besides, Doc, around here they’ll just have to call Bernie’s Garage. You’d do better calling him directly. But he’s only got the one truck.”
He grinned at me. “Guess I’m still not used to your small-town ways.”
Sure, since he’d only been my neighbor for a decade. “Ain’t no groceries you can buy right now—the power’s out inside,” I told him in an exaggerated local-boy accent. “Let me help you push your un-American junk out of the way. Susie and the kids at home?”
“I think so. Why?”
“Hold on a sec.” I raised a finger, then climbed into my beat-up F-250. Holding my breath, and feeling ridiculous about it, I turned the key. With no drama whatsoever, the engine started. I climbed back down, leaving it running, and walked over to Tim. “Figure it out yet?”
He gave me a puzzled look, and the rain started coming down harder.
“Let’s push that thing!” I yelled over the noise. He nodded, and between us we got it moving. Fortunately the parking lot was fairly level.
Afterward we hurried into the cab of my truck. Before I said anything I pulled out my cell phone and checked its display. “Ha,” I told Tim. “I was right.”
Tim turned to me. “About what? What do you know?”
I shrugged. “It’s not that I know anything…but is your cell working?”
He took it out, looked at the display, tried pushing a couple of buttons, and showed it to me: Blank screen.
I showed him mine. Same thing. “Okay,” I said. “I don’t know about yours, but mine was charged. So…I’ve never heard of lightning doing this before, but I think what we got was a little bit of EMP.”
Short for electromagnetic pulse. Tim was one of maybe five guys in town I wouldn’t have to explain that to, so I sat back and waited to see what he’d come up with. He’d been fairly good-humored about all this so far…but the gaze he gave me now was bleak. “Ash. Maybe it wasn’t lightning.”
I mulled that. “Then…what?”
“Can you take us home? I’ve got a few beers we could drink while we talk about it. And I think we ought to check on our families. With the power being out and all.”
My gut clenched. I wouldn’t have believed the lightning could simultaneously knock out cars, phones, and city power either, but the alternatives were…“You seriously think someone did this deliberately? In Henge?” I thought about that, then glanced back toward Wal-Mart—where I’d seen police officers coming in to stock up on emergency supplies. “Chief Eisler told me there was a prison riot.”
Tim frowned at me, then shook his head. “I don’t see the connection. But this is the first I’ve heard of a riot. And I’m on the list to call if they need help. Last time I spoke to anyone out there was—two days ago?—yeah, Thursday afternoon, when they wanted me to look at a couple of patients. But for what it’s worth, that was completely weird. Both guys were comatose for no apparent reason. And one of them had grabbed hold of a Bible and squeezed hard enough to break three of his fingers.”
“Jesus,” I said—then wondered if Tim would think I was trying to make a joke.
But he didn’t seem to notice. “This kid’s grip was still so tight I couldn’t get the thing out of his hands. I gave him a muscle relaxant, but some other doc showed up to take over, so I went home.” He shook himself. “I just got a strange feeling about it. It was as if…as if there there were something larger going on, like maybe they had a lot more cases. But—anyway. That was the day before yesterday and nobody’s said boo to me.” He looked at his phone again, then shrugged and put it back in his pocket. “Though I guess if they’re calling right now I wouldn’t know.” His brow furrowed. “Come to think of it, Ash, I need to check messages from my landline. People might be hurt out there. If whatever happened here affected the whole town, I mean.”
I wanted a better explanation, but Tim didn’t seem to have one and we probably weren’t going to figure this out sitting in Wal-Mart’s parking lot. After a moment I backed the truck out of its spot, looking around the lot and trying to figure the best way to navigate past the various stalled vehicles. Then I glanced at Tim as we started rolling forward. “You know none of this makes any sense, right? A prison riot, a couple of comatose inmates, town clowns stocking up on supplies, either weird lightning or a possible EMP bomb…I mean, what the hell?”
Tim shook his head, then leaned back and settled into his seat. “Let’s just get home. Check on our families. Go from there.”
There we go. The whole thing will be out, and I’ll tell you how to get it free, in about a month.
I plan to post a story for you next Wednesday, or at any rate to publish it to Amazon and post a link here, and to make it free for the first five days of its existence. On the other hand? So far I’ve written precisely none of it, and have no ideas in particular.
Guess I better get started, huh?
Have fun out there!