Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Typewriter - Chapter One

The lives of a man and his family are threatened by the discovery of a mysterious typewriter with the ability to see into the future... and into the mind of a psychotic killer.

CHAPTER ONE

He found the typewriter on Tuesday, April 14th, just after 9:30 in the morning.

Jack Harrison pulled his shiny Lexus into the driveway at 2314 Crescent Heights Drive and stepped out. He was a thirty-something professional, in good shape, with a head full of blond hair that he tended to wear long, just over the collar. He wore slacks, designer shoes, and a dress shirt unbuttoned at the neck.

On the ring finger of his left hand was a slim gold band and on the sides of his car were vinyl door magnets advertising his company: FIRST CHOICE REALTY.

With his hands on his hips, he tilted his head and took a moment to appraise the property. It was a one-story brick home, just under two thousand square feet, built in the late sixties. The yard was a disaster, but the front of the house - with its red brick walls, white mold trim, and set of double doors with their inlay of frosted glass - wasn’t as bad as expected and his spirits rose. It would definitely sell; it just needed a little work on its curb appeal. A pair of azaleas by the front steps would work nicely.

Satisfied with his appraisal, he went to the rear of his car, popped it open and grabbed one of the dozen yard signs inside. The sky above was gray and threatening rain; a breeze tumbled past him, blowing his well combed hair out of place. He stood in the middle of the front yard and ran his fingers through his hair, taming it back into place and straightening his upturned collar. Jack considered himself no more vain than most in his particular line of work; he knew the importance of image and enjoyed dressing to play the part.

He pierced the lawn with the prongs of the sign then mashed it into place with the sole of his black dress shoe, leveraging his full body weight. He glanced back up at the house, then up one end of the street and down the other. He was juggling numbers in his head, performing calculations, approximating payment amounts. Eventually he would settle on just the right asking price.

The key to the house was hidden inside a small metal lock-box attached to the front door. He thumbed the four-digit combination, took out the key and used it to open the front door. Stepping inside, he withdrew a heavy-duty Stanley tape measure from his left pocket and a cellular phone from his right.

The house was dark and quiet. He stood in the middle of the foyer surrounded by rich mahogany flooring and dark green wallpaper.

“Hello?” he called out. A habit of his, from years of entering homes presumed empty but surprisingly weren’t.

Not hearing a reply, Jack sucked in a deep breath and then proceeded with his routine. He went through the house methodically, recording the dimensions of each room, notating them into his phone along with any special features or peculiar drawbacks. He acquainted himself with the home just as he would meeting someone new for the first time, getting to know them.

“Nice wood flooring in the entrance and throughout,” he said, stamping his foot, his phone to his lips.

In the kitchen, he recorded a note about the double range oven. Gas and electric. The stainless steel sink. The red oak cabinets. He wielded his tape measure like a sword, taking measurements, recording the details into his phone.

He opened the sliding glass doors to the back yard and walked outside, making notes about its size, the condition of the exterior fence, the large red wood deck. “Needs stripping,” he noted into the recorder.

He entered the bedrooms, noting their dimensions and the size of the adjoining closets. He stepped inside the master bathroom and made a note about the large pedestal tub next to the walk-in shower. “Nice,” he added, running his fingers along the cold cast iron surface.

He went into every room and walked over every square foot. The entire process took well over an hour and he captured and recorded every detail the home had to offer. When he returned to the den, something caught his eye. He stopped and frowned. There was a water mark in the ceiling, a long narrow stretch running right down the center, the edges stained with mildew. He stood on his toes to get a better look. “Water damage in the ceiling,” he grumbled into his phone. He reached up and a piece of drywall flaked off in his hand, sprinkling debris on his head and shoulders.

“Gonna have to get Gus to fix that.” He shook the debris from his hair and patted his shoulders clean. Then, using a familiar motion, combed his hair back into place with his fingers.

The water damage was troubling. Jack needed to look into that to make sure it wasn’t something serious. He slipped his phone and measuring tape back into his pockets and ducked around the corner, searching the ceiling for the door to the attic.

He stopped when he spotted the white drawstring dangling above his head in the middle of the hallway to the right of the den.

He reached up, grabbed the end of the string in his fingers and tugged. The door to the attic opened and a collapsible wooden ladder extended at his feet.

The attic smelled dank and musty. He frowned at the cobwebs blocking the entrance. He waved his arms past them and ascended into the attic, keeping himself crouched to avoid banging his head on the beams overhead. A single bulb with a pull chain hung from the rafters. He pulled the chain and squinted as bright light filled the attic.

An old furnace, cased in stainless steel panels, sat in a corner on top of a shallow aluminum pan to catch condensation. Jack could see the pan was full of dirty water - that probably accounted for the leak in the ceiling beneath his feet. He had to balance himself carefully on the rafters; only half of the attic had plywood flooring, the rest were 2 x 6 wooden beams with the typical pink cotton-candy insulation in between.

Okay, so the furnace needed work. He’d have to hire a plumber to give it a once-over. The drainage pan could just be clogged, that happened sometimes…

“Shit,” he cried out, almost losing his balance.

He had stepped on a corner of the plywood flooring that buckled under his weight. As he stooped to get a better look, he saw that the board hadn’t buckled as he thought. It was a cut-out piece, designed to cover a small section of the floor. Jack scratched the back of his neck as he mind tried to make sense of it.

He reached down and removed the puzzle piece and revealed a hidden section of the attic. As he squinted to get a better look, he caught sight of something hidden in the corner under the plywood. He lowered himself and, being careful not to tear a hole in his slacks, dropped to all fours. Carefully, he stuck his arm into the wedged opening and his fingers landed against something hard and cold. Something metal. Soon, they found a handle. He pulled the object free.

It was a typewriter.

Still in its case, Jack recognized what it was right away. Big, bulky, with the word ROYAL in large embossed letters on the top of its gritty surface. It was heavy too. He made a face as he struggled it free and then readjusted his position, sitting cross-legged with the thing in his lap.

Alone with the just the case and the long dark shadows from the bulb overhead, he eased the cover open. His eyes widened and he absentmindedly licked his lips. In his lap was an ancient typewriter, from the old gumshoe days of the fifties, in seemingly perfect condition.

“Wow,” he said, running his fingers over the cold metallic keys. He felt like a kid on Christmas morning.

And that’s when he heard a hollow knock at the front door.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Last Of Us Novelization - Chapter Eight: An Example of Turning Your Screenplay into a Novel

CHAPTER EIGHT

It took a moment for Joel to regain his senses. Behind him a gun battle raged on; the Fireflies had struck again. Up ahead, Tess sprinted away, heading toward the dilapidated tenement building across the street. Holding his wounded elbow against his side, he followed. From the speakers overhead, the woman’s unaffected voice droned over the loudspeakers: “All civilians must clear the surrounding area immediately.”

He ran past the orange and white barrels propped high on old tires, sloshing his way through a deep puddle in the street. To his right was a building that was tattooed with the familiar red & white WANTED signs of half a dozen known leaders of the Fireflies.

The Humvee from earlier drifted into position, the muzzle of the .50 caliber machine gun following Joel’s movement. It wasn’t safe to be on the street in this situation - soldiers shot first and asked questions never. Tess knew this, which is why she was running so fast.

“Goddamn Fireflies,” he cursed under his breath.

“Joel!” she scolded. “Let’s go! C’mon!”

As they turned up the street, Joel saw other residents quickly disappearing into buildings, like roaches caught in a flashlight’s beam. Tess was fast - she was fifty yards in front and headed toward the steps leading to an entrance in the far tenement building.

She reached the steps of the entrance and stopped to catch her breath. “Looks like the coast is clear,” she said. She headed up the steps toward the heavy double doors. “C’mon.”

Joel jogged up the steps just as the monotone recording repeated: “Attention. Checkpoint Five is now closed until further notice. All civilians must clear the surrounding area immediately.” Tess was holding the door open for him and he ducked inside.

He followed her into the darkened hallway, closing the door behind him. Tess turned and looked at him. She sighed. “Fuck. So much for the easy route.”

They were in a quiet lobby of an old apartment building; minimal power, paint-chipped walls, the smell of rotting wood. The large checkered tile beneath their feet was dingy and gray. Some of the doors in the hallway were barricaded with the familiar military locks: iron bars that expanded into door frames in both directions, with an Army placard in the center bearing a unique ID number and a warning not to intrude.

Tess saw the nasty gash just below Joel’s elbow. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said. Thankfully whatever had grazed him had missed the bone, but it sure stung like hell. “Just a flesh wound.”

Tess pulled a small roll of gauze from her back pocket. “Here,” she said, handing it to him. “Patch yourself up.”

Joel took the roll and nodded. He quickly dropped to one knee and wound the gauze around his forearm, pulling it tight. When he was done, he used his teeth to rip the gauze free, then rose and handed the roll back to Tess. The whole affair took less than a minute.

“Good,” she said, nodding with satisfaction.

She turned and headed down the hall. “They’re gonna close all the checkpoints. We’re gonna have to go around the outside.” She turned to her left and headed down another dark hallway. A dim bulb flickered overhead.

Joel wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “Outside the wall?” Two things immediately sprung to mind: trigger-happy soldiers and flesh-ripping infected. Neither filled him with confidence.

“Or,” Tess said, giving him another choice, “we could just let Robert go.”

Joel grunted and said, “Cute.” They both knew that wasn’t an option.

As they approached the end of the hall, a dark figure rose from a chair. The faint light overhead shimmered on the black man’s glasses. It was Lawrence, one of the tenement building’s younger residents. Joel knew him vaguely.

“Hey Tess,” he said, falling in step with her. “You see that shit?”

“I was there,” Tess said simply and without bravado.

As they walked down the hallway together with Joel lagging a few feet behind, Tess looked at the young man and asked, “Hey, how’s the east tunnel looking?”

“It’s clear. I just used it. No patrols.”

The trio rounded another corner, this time to their right. A fire extinguisher hung on the wall.

“Where you off to?” Lawrence asked.

“Gonna pay Robert a visit.”

They entered a long hallway. Dark shadows interspersed with pale light. A ceiling fan turned slowly up ahead. The entire hallway appeared eerie and almost completely vacant. Another extinguisher hung askew near the corner.

“You too?”

Tess hesitated and her eyes narrowed. “Who else is looking for him?”

“Uh, Marlene. She’s been asking around, trying to find him.”

“Marlene?” There was incredulity in her voice. “What do you the Fireflies need with Robert?”

The young man snorted. “You think she’d tell me?”

Joel noticed another resident sitting in a chair against the wall with his arms folded across his chest. This one appeared to be either sleeping or comatose. Joel couldn’t have cared less either way. A wire cage sat beside him. Inside were a handful of pigeons gently cooing.

“Well, what did you tell her?” Tess seemed unfazed by this other man’s presence.

“The truth. I got no idea where he’s hiding,” Lawrence replied.

“Good man,” she said. “Hey, you stay out of trouble, all right? Military’s gonna be out in force soon.”

“Yeah,” Lawrence replied. “See you around.” He walked a few feet further and then took a position by leaning beside one of the locked doors, shoving his hands into the pockets of his coat. Joel met his gaze as he walked by and said nothing. Joel lived by one simple rule: the less friends you had in the zone, the better.

He and Tess walked along in silence, approaching another turn. Joel lagged a few feet behind her in her shadows.

Once alone again, Tess spoke as she turned left down another hallway. Her voice was low: “Marlene looking for Robert? What do you make of that?”

“I don’t like it,” Joel grumbled. “We better find him before the Fireflies do.” He could still hear the warning sounds from the emergency alarm wailing outside the walls of the building.

Finally they reached the end of the hallway. An old sofa cushion, stained and mildewed, sat against the far wall. To Joel’s immediate left was an open doorway. Tess strolled inside without knocking and Joel followed her.

They entered an apartment with sparse furnishings. Windows lined the far walls, their dingy glass partially obscured by broken levolor blinds. A small wooden table squatted against the wall to the right, sporting a few plates and bowls. The walls were in the same dilapidated condition as the hallways: marred by peeling paint and water stains. The wooden floor was warped in places and littered with debris.

In the center of the living room was a pale area rug, a worn leather sofa and a gray loveseat.  The apartment was occupied by a sole resident sitting alone on the edge of the sofa. Behind the loveseat stood a battered mahogany bookshelf showcasing a busted television, and nailed to the wall beside it, for entertainment, a dartboard.

Tess approached the man without a hint of concern. “This is us,” she said to Joel, exhaling.

The man on the sofa sat with his hands in his lap and looked up from a fog of either drugs or alcohol. “Hey guys. How’s it going?” he asked, a slight slur to his words. He didn’t bother to stand.

“Shit’s stirring up out there,” Tess replied. Joel was near the window and could hear the sirens still blasting their alarm. “How we looking over here?”

“Ah,” the man said, scratching his stubbled chin with dirty fingernails. “It’s been quiet. No signs of military or infected.” The man’s eyes lifted to Joel’s. They regarded each other a beat before the man glanced away.

“That’s what I like to hear,” Tess said, her tone cheery.

The man made a vague gesture to the entertainment center behind the weather-stained sofa. Joel waited for the man to acknowledge his presence but the stranger avoided his gaze. The air was thick with an uncomfortable silence; there was something about this friend of Tess Joel didn’t like. He wished she was as guarded as he had become. It only took one loose pair of lips for the military to make damn sure neither of them were heard from again.

Joel moved toward the mahogany case. Ripped through the drywall and wooden slats behind it gaped a jagged hole, big enough for a man to step through and barely hidden by the edges of the bookcase. Tess took up position on one end of the entertainment center and motioned Joel to the other.

“Joel, gimme a hand with this.”

He gripped the edge of the heavy piece of furniture and together they slid it out of the way. The books on the top of the shelf fell and an empty bottle tumbled onto its side.

As Tess stepped through the hole and disappeared into darkness, he heard the man on the sofa snort. “Y’all take it easy out there.”

Joel didn’t reply but the hairs on his neck rose and sent a feeling of dread throughout his body. He jumped through the hole and fell into a pit of blackness.

He felt Tess’s presence beside him.

“God,” she gasped. “This place reeks! They need to watch what they throw away down here.”

They swam in a sea of darkness. A disgusting Molotov aroma of sour milk, human waste and rotting wood filled his nostrils. He could feel the gag in his throat rising.

In the distance, a gas-powered, single-stroke engine purred. The generator. He heard Tess reach for the light switch and flick it on, and in the next instant the underground basement was filled with light. Joel squinted, raising a hand to shield his eyes.

“Let there be light,” Tess pronounced.

Concrete floor, wooden tables. Iron beams embedded within the brick walls. He followed Tess around the corner into a room to her right. Now they were crawling through a makeshift tunnel, a shielded industrial lamp pulsed with light above their heads.

“Let’s grab our gear,” Tess said.

A concrete pipe waist high stretched across the entrance to the next room. Electrical cables hung low, suspended from beams in the ceilings. The place looked like a mining operation from the old west. Joel wondered how long the wooden pillars would forestall the inevitable cave in that was sure to come.

He vaulted himself over the concrete pipe and soon found himself in the middle of a small workshop with metal shelves, wooden tables, toolboxes and parts bins. A few weathered maps and posters were affixed to the walls.

“Our backpacks are still here from last time,” stated Tess, seeing them on the workbench.

Joel approached the bench and took stock of his belongings. A weather-beaten, leather backpack with worn straps, a clip-on flashlight, a gas mask with one working canister. He picked up the compact 9mm automatic handgun, racked the slide. He hit the eject button and a magazine popped into his waiting hand.

“Not a lot of ammo,” he sighed.

“Well,” replied Tess. “Make your shots count.”

Always the optimist, Joel snickered to himself. He slung the backpack across his shoulders and followed Tess to a scaffolding covered with a ragged gray tarp and plywood.

“All right, Texas,” she said, turning to Joel with a mischievous grin. “Boost me up.”

Joel shoved the pistol into his back pocket and tiredly took up his position, back to the wall, body crouched low, hands forming a stirrup just above his bent knee.

“You ready?” Tess asked, as she prepared to place her foot into his cupped hands.

“Yes ma’am,” Joel replied. He’d become used to his role as a makeshift ladder.

With a running start, Tess leapt agilely into his grip and in one smooth move Joel hoisted her up above his head. Years of practice had made the two of them practically experts at this maneuver. She grabbed the edge of the scaffolding and, with a grunt of effort, scampered over the ledge.

Joel waited for her head to reappear. She lowered a hand to him, bracing the other against her knee. “C’mon,” she said, her tone brusque. Joel guessed the idea of lifting a hundred and eighty pound man with a single arm was less than appealing.

He took a step back and, like Tess, got a running start. He jumped high so as to make her job easier. She grabbed his hands in hers and grunted. Joel felt her muscles strain as she gathered all her strength and pulled him up to the ledge.

He managed to get one hand on the ledge and then used his strength to pull himself up, aided by Tess grabbing him by the arm. Finally he climbed his way up, grunting from the exertion. With a sigh he rose to his feet. Tess’s face was flush from the effort. The two looked at each other and nodded.

Without a word, Joel slipped past her, heading to the exit of the tunnel just up above. A large wooden door had been propped to conceal the exit and he pushed it up now, motioning for Tess to climb underneath it.

“Go on,” he told her.

She scampered through the gap and grabbed the edge of the door. “Got it,” she said, holding it up for him.

Joel slipped underneath it and then replaced her grip on the door, easing it down. They were now out of the tunnel and one step closer to the outside.



Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Last Of Us Novelization - Chapter Seven: An Example of Turning Your Screenplay into a Novel

CHAPTER SEVEN

They were living in the dead carcass of a city, Boston, and although it was summer, the sky overhead hung low and gray. Armed soldiers in full riot gear patrolled the rooftops of buildings and they moved like apathetic ghosts, making their rounds, stirring up pigeons. For most soldiers, their spark of enthusiasm had died a long time ago. A rasping melancholy settled over the city, oppressing both captors and captives. Each of the buildings, like the city itself, had become a hollow shell: no power, no running water, just a refuge for the hollow-shelled survivors inside.

Grimy buildings, broken windows, trash lined streets. This was the world in which Joel and Tess lived.

Reminders of the old life existed, but they were few and far between. An American flag, worn and faded, hung limply from the side of a building. An occasional movie poster or playbill still survived on some of the brick walls.

The world as it once was no longer existed. Within the few remaining quarantine zones left in the country, democratic rule had been replaced by military decree. The military, with its heart no longer in it, oversaw the day-to-day operations.

Two types of citizens lived under this new regime. The non-infected and the recently infected. The only way to distinguish the two was by use of a thumper, an electronic scanning device that bumped up against the base of the skull and took a split-second seismic reading of the brain. If the waves didn’t bounce from front to back without obstruction, that meant something bad: the infection had taken root and was metastasizing the brain. The military had only one mandate in these cases: to eradicate the threat immediately.

The infected didn’t have rights. Even if the symptoms weren’t evident - it took one to two days for the recently infected to turn - or even misdiagnosed, the military had strict orders to put you down. Shooting was less desirable than lethal injection because ammunition had become scarce and was a necessity against armed rebellion. Potassium chloride was agonizingly more painful than a bullet to the head, but to those in charge, much more cost effective.

Ragged awnings, cracked pavement with weeds in between. In every corner, rotting garbage piled chest high. This is what surrounded Joel and Tess as they stepped out of the building, capped by a suffocating gray sky overhead.

Tess looked up at the sky, trying to gauge the position of the obscured sun. “The checkpoint’s still open,” she said.

The broken touchstone Joel wore on his wrist had forced him to develop a keen sense of time over the years too. “Only got a few hours left until curfew.”

“We better hurry up then.”

The corner near the alley was empty save for a man and woman in tattered clothes having a water-cooler discussion by an overfilled dumpster. The green trash bin was covered in graffiti. Above the dumpster was a weathered FEDRA notice warning residents about curfew hours and the consequences of violation.

Joel caught the tail end of their conversation as he approached.

“Wait, are you serious?” the guy asked with surprise in his voice.

“I got served the damn papers this morning,” the woman sighed. “I’ve been selected for outside work duty.”

“That’s such crap. Soldiers are supposed to handle the outside.”

“I’ll be sure to tell them that.” She caught Joel in the corner of her eye. “What about you, Joel? You been summoned for this bullshit yet?”

He knew what the military was up to and wanted no part of it. “Nope,” he said simply.

“Yeah, I bet,” she said, laying on the sarcasm. No one trusted anyone in the zone. Everyone was on their guard.

But the fact was, Joel had spoken the truth.

Joel and Tess walked down a narrow alley between the two buildings and approached an open, wrought-iron gate. Someone had spray-painted the words SEEK THE FIRE on the side of one building and another FEDRA notice hung askew on the building facing the gate. As was common, most of the military warnings plastered here and there had been defaced. This particular one had the word FREE spray-painted over it in red. Graffiti in the zone was as common as the trash on the ground.

The alley smelled bad; it reeked of human waste.

This was what life in the zone had devolved to, if you could call it that. Weeds, overturned trash cans. Boarded windows. Most of the government warning signs bore the familiar Fireflies mark of rebellion: two back-to-back “F”s spray-painted in luminescent colors. Some bore the distinctive shape of an actual firefly.

They turned a corner. The main street stretched at the end of the alley and Joel could see an armed soldier patrolling the rooftop up above. As he entered the street, he noticed a short line of survivors behind a wire fence, with an armed guard blocking one end. Above the line was stretched an awning with the words RATION DISTRIBUTION CENTER printed in black faded letters.

A recording of a woman’s voice droned from overhead speakers: “Attention. Citizens are required to carry a current ID at all times. Compliance with all city personnel is mandatory.” The military had use of gas-powered generators to provide what little power it needed to keep the dwindling population under control.

An armed Humvee in green camouflage paint raced through a puddle, spraying the sidewalk in dirty water.

Tess leaned tiredly against one of the concrete barricades and motioned to the line across the street. “Look at that,” she said. “Ration line hasn’t opened yet. Must be running low again.”

People in line fidgeted with visible irritation. A woman raised her voice: “Hey! How much longer?”

The guard sighed heavily. “Lady, when the rations arrive, we’ll open the door. All right?”

Joel and Tess turned to their right and headed up the street. To their left was a section of the street that was off-limits: wooden police barricades wrapped in barbed wire with armed guards in fatigues standing between them. Joel knew what this area of the street was used for and it made his stomach turn.

Just as they passed, several men in dingy white hazmat suits with gas masks and machine guns emerged from the door of the building behind the barricade. They ushered a handful of frightened citizens into the street and in short order forced them to their knees. “Hands on your fucking head,” ordered one of the men with gas masks. “Do it.” Then he turned to his associate and said, “All right. Scan ‘em.”

His associate then proceeded to check each one, placing the handheld thumper against the base of the skull. Joel watched, his intestines twisting into knots as he feared the worst.

The machine hummed, then beeped. “He’s clean,” spoke the masked man. He went to the next, and then the next. When he reached the third, a young frail woman, the machine’s tone sounded an alarm. “Got a live one.”

The men in suits shoved the woman to the ground as she squirmed underneath their grip. “I’m not infected,” she pleaded in a horrified voice. “It’s wrong! The scan’s wrong!”

“Hold her down!”

Moving with impassive efficiency, two soldiers did exactly that while a third administered the lethal injection. The woman’s body jerked spasmodically as her muscles and organs grappled with the flow of potassium chloride in the bloodstream. In a mere matter of seconds, cruelly, the battle was over.

Joel’s stomach churned with disgust.

The soldiers quickly resumed their duties, placing the thumper against the skull of the last remaining citizen.

But after having just witnessed this military brand of justice, the poor bastard pushed the scanner away and jumped to his feet. “Fuck this,” he cried. He made it two feet before shots rang out and bullets peppered his back.

Just a typical day in the city, thought Joel, as a wave of cynicism shuddered through him.

One of the remaining survivors trembled with fear and gasped, “Oh shit!”

“Shut up!” ordered the leader of the group. “Consider yourself lucky. That’s what happens when you hide out in a condemned building.” He turned back to his associate and poked the air. “Call the clean up crew.”

One of the men in fatigues turned his attention to Joel and Tess. “All right, people. This isn’t a show. Keep moving along.”

Joel walked past the man lying in the street, stepping around the widening circle of blood.

Tess sidled up beside him and shook her head. “Seems like more people are getting infected.”

“That just means more people are sneaking out,” he said in a low voice.

He glanced up, past the concrete boundary of the zone with its tall guard towers and looked to the gray sky in the east, to what once was the Boston city skyline. It seemed surreal, like a Salvador Dali painting; buildings leaned against each other at impossible angles, seemingly in defiance of gravity.

They approached the main gate just as another Humvee came to a halt and a helmeted soldier in fatigues scurried out from behind the wheel. Up top was a female soldier with her arm resting on an M2 .50 caliber machine gun. She spoke to the man now on the ground. “They fuckin’ lynched them,” she said.

“The entire squad?” the driver asked.

“Yeah. Way I heard it, they lined them up in the street and cut ‘em up. Retribution and shit.”

Joel edged toward the gate slowly, rounding a large puddle of water. His curiosity was piqued but he didn’t want to attract any attention.

“We ever lose control of this place to the stragglers, that’s what will happen to us.”

Stragglers. A cute term for the way the military viewed Joel and the others: just a bunch of troublesome inferiors waiting for their turn to die.

“That will never go down here,” the driver assured her. Army trucks rumbled in the distance. “Any straggler even looks at me the wrong way, I put his ass down.” His eyes met Joel’s and they held each others’ gaze before the man looked away.

The female soldier snorted. “I’m sure that’s what they thought at every other QZ before riots broke out.”

“It’s those goddamn Fireflies,” the driver said excitedly. “They keep stirring the population up. We put an end to them. That’s how you solve this shit.”

“We agree on that,” the gunner said with a nod. And then, spotting the straggler, she spun the machine gun in Joel’s direction, a defiant challenge shimmering in her eyes.

Joel grunted and moved away toward the gate. The time for that battle would come, he told himself. All in due time.

Tess was hanging back near the checkpoint, waiting for him.

“I got us all new papers,” she said as he approached. “They shouldn’t give us any static up there.”

The checkpoint was a wide, double-gated barricade large enough for military grade trucks in the center and pedestrians on the right. An armed guard patrolled the walkway overhead. An American flag hung loosely from a pole at the top of a guard tower where spotlights had been affixed to the hand railing. Just beyond the checkpoint lie the main plaza surrounded by more of the same decrepit buildings.

They walked past the orange and white barrels marking the entrance to the checkpoint and Tess turned to Joel and whispered, “Just play it cool.”

The diesel engine of a camouflaged truck grumbled as the checkpoint guard waved an arm at the driver. “Drive on through,” he ordered.

Joel approached the guard dressed in full riot gear as he turned casually to Tess, motioning for the papers. Tess handed him the two passports without saying a word.

“Let me see your IDs,” the guard said tiredly. He had deep circles under his eyes, his face sagged with exhaustion.

“There you go,” Joel said, placing the passports into the soldier’s gloved hand. The man’s other hand loosely held an M-16 pointed downward. As Joel waited, he considered the soldier. The man looked like he hadn’t slept in days.

The man looked at the papers with unfocused eyes, forcing himself through the motions. “What’s your business here?” he asked. In his tone was a zero lack of interest.

“Got the day off,” Joel replied. “Visiting a friend.”

The guard nodded. “All right. Move on through.”

And just as the guard stepped aside to let Joel and Tess pass, an explosion ripped through the diesel truck that had just cleared the outer checkpoint gate.

“Oh shit!” cried Tess as they recoiled from the blast, hands instinctively going to their ears. A searing blast of heat swept past Joel as the ground beneath his feet trembled. He felt a fishhook snag his arm belong the elbow and threaten to rip it loose. His body felt on fire and a painful ringing stung his ears.

“Get out of here!” the guards shouted. “Go!”

The men rolled the gate closed as orange flames engulfed the truck. Joel was still recovering from the blast as the world spun madly around him. As he regained his senses, he turned and saw a machine gun battle erupt beyond the gate. Above the ringing in his ears he heard the muffled cry of a guard: “Close it up! Fireflies!”

He felt a bullet whistle past him and then the gentle touch of a hand upon his throbbing arm. It was Tess. Although he couldn’t hear, he could see she was pleading with him to get the hell away.

“Joel,” she said, her voice sounding as if he were submerged underwater. “Come on! Let’s get out of here!”



Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Last Of Us Novelization - Chapter Six: An Example of Turning Your Screenplay into a Novel

CHAPTER SIX

Although the details of his recurrent nightmare varied now and again, the outcome was always the same.

He and Sarah were at the movies. They had just settled into their seats when the lights in the auditorium lowered, and the silver screen before them came to life. He glanced over at his daughter. She wore a huge smile partially obscured by the bucket of popcorn in her eager hands. She was dressed in her plaid pajamas and pale blue tee. Her bright blue eyes were filled with excited anticipation; Joel wanted to feel that anticipation too, but it kept giving way to a nagging sense of dread.

He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. As the movie started, their seats began to rumble. At first, Joel assumed it was all part of the show, but the rumbling grew louder and the shaking more violent and he knew something was terribly wrong.

He glanced at Sarah. She had this strange look in her eye, a mischievous grin, as if she were in on a private joke. Everyone else in the theater screamed in excited laughter; only Joel felt a horrible misgiving. He wanted to get up, but his body remained frozen in his seat. He glanced around him and saw frenzied faces laughing hysterically. The dread was closing in on him along with the walls and ceiling of the theater.

The laughter grew to a feverish pitch and the theaters seats were now wildly bucking. Finally, he could stand no more and stood up, and without thinking, he grabbed Sarah’s arm in an attempt to leave but was surprised when she violently yanked away from his grip.

In confusion, he turned to look at her - and this was always the worst part of his dream - he saw his daughter’s eyes. They were cold and dark and filled with hatred.

His body shuddered as the cold finger of death traced its way down Joel’s spine. Sarah stared up at him as a dark red circle of blood blossomed on her chest, and she glared at him with cold, lifeless eyes. Her smile turned into a horrible grimace and she screamed at him at the top of her lungs: “WHY DIDN’T YOU SAVE ME?”

The panic threatened to drown Joel and he fought for air, viciously clawing his way to the surface of consciousness. His body bolted upright and his lungs panted for oxygen. Cold beads of sweat formed on his forehead. His shirt and jeans felt damp, his entire body compressed. Sleep had become the worst part of his daily existence; the nightmares forcing him to relive that terrible night nearly twenty years ago.

He found himself fully clothed on a worn mattress in a dark room with the blinds - bent and broken - closed. A gray morning light struggled to shine through them. He heard the hollow knocking in the hallway, and his mind struggled to make sense of it. It wasn’t a dream; someone was outside in the hallway, knocking on the door to his apartment.

He sat on the edge of the bed, still grappling with the visions that lingered behind his eyes. He sighed heavily, then rose achingly to his feet. After a couple of steps his body wavered, and he leaned against the door frame to find his footing and clear his head.

The knocking at the door persisted.

“I’m coming,” he called out irritably.

He shuffled out of the bedroom and across the kitchen toward the front door. The apartment was dirty and dank, it smelled of mildew and rotted wood. Stained cardboard boxes, empty pails and a propane tank sat in one corner of the room. Joel sucked in another breath and arched his back, letting the bones crack into place. He flipped the lock and opened the door, then released a heavy sigh at the sight of his early morning visitor.

Tess McGee.

She entered without waiting for his invitation.

“How was your morning?” she asked, but her tone lacked the friendliness the words implied.

She wore a tight maroon shirt, stained and ripped, with the tails out. The sleeves had been discarded long ago. Underneath was a dark gray tee-shirt that had, at one time, been a different color. Her raven hair was swept back from her face in a make-shift ponytail. Most noticeable was the purple bruise the size of a fist just below her right eye.

She went straight for the bottle of whiskey on the table in the kitchen and poured herself a shot. Joel hung back, watching her, waiting for her to explain it to him.

“Want one?” she asked casually, as if it were perfectly natural this early in the morning.

“No,” he said irritably. “I don’t ‘want one’.”

She made a ‘suit-yourself’ gesture and took a drink. As Joel turned away, the irritation within him grew. Tess leaned against the kitchen table and the tone in her voice softened.

“Well, I have some interesting news for you.”

“Where were you, Tess?” he interrupted, feeling irritation blossom into anger.

She regarded him coolly for a moment. The space between them filled with silence.

“West End district,” she said finally. And before Joel’s temper erupted, she added by way of explanation, “Hey, we had a drop to make.”

“We,” he said emphatically. “We had a drop to make.” He snatched a wet rag off the kitchen counter and approached her.

“Yeah,” she said with a nod. “Well, you wanted to be left alone, remember?”

The early morning light from a gray-soaked sky seeped in through the windows of Joel’s dirty apartment. He handed her the wet dish towel and turned away.

“So, I’ll take one guess,” he said, his back to her. “The whole deal went south and the client made off with our pills.” With hands on the counter, he glanced back at her over his shoulder. “That about right?”

Tess laughed.

A moment passed as Joel waited for an explanation.

“The deal went off without a hitch.” She reached into her back pocket and threw a folded wad onto the table. “Enough ration cards to last us a couple of months, easy.”

Joel motioned to the ugly welt below her eye. “You want to explain this?”

Tess sighed. “I was on my way back here and I got jumped by these two assholes, all right?”

She put the wet cloth back against her cheek. “And yeah they got a few good hits in, but…”

Joel rested his hands on his hips and shook his head.

“Look, I managed,” she said, her tone defiant.

Joel snatched the towel from Tess’s hand. “Gimme that.” He lifted her chin and, being as gentle as he could, dabbed away the dried blood from her wound.

Tess flinched, but her eyes never left his.

“And are these assholes still with us?” he asked.

She snorted and smiled. “Now that’s funny,” she said.

He eased the towel away and examined her face by gently turning her chin. “Did you at least find out who they were?”

“Yeah. Look, they were a couple of nobodies.” She removed his hand from her face. “They don’t matter,” she said. She stood and jabbed a finger in Joel’s chest. “What matters is that Robert fucking sent them.”

Joel recoiled. “Our Robert?” he asked incredulous.

“He knows that we’re after him,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.

A surge of anger shot through him. He pounded a fist into his palm and turned away.

Tess continued, “He figures he’s gonna get us first.”

“That son-of-a-bitch is smart,” Joel said. He threw the dishrag on the counter to underscore his assessment.

“He’s not smart enough.”

There was something in her tone that caused him to hesitate. Tess leaned forward and whispered, “I know where he’s hiding.”

“Like hell you do,” he said, daring her to prove it.

Tess drifted toward the window. “Old warehouse in Area 5,” she said gleefully. She turned and spread her arms wide. “Can’t say for how long, though.”

Joel nodded to himself and motioned to the door. “Well I’m ready now,” he said.

“Oh I can do now,” Tess agreed.



The Last Of Us Novelization - Chapter Five: An Example of Turning Your Screenplay into a Novel

CHAPTER FIVE

The amount of time it took for the world to flip completely upside down was surprisingly short.

As people stand in long lines at their designated quarantine centers, they listen intently to battery-operated radios, watch tiny, fuzzy screens on portable televisions. Men and women, disillusionment etched on their faces, shuffle into what soon becomes a false sanctuary, carrying their children in their arms and hastily-packed bags in their hands. A father drags along his son’s yellow Big Wheel.

An older man standing in line turns and looks back at the ghastly faces of survivors snaking a mile behind him and a chill runs down his spine: it reminds him of Jews being herded into Auschwitz at the beginning of World War II…

On one of the televisions overhead, a young female reporter, her face devoid of emotion but her voice steady, reads from a teleprompter: “The number of confirmed deaths has passed two hundred. The Governor has called a state of emergency…”   

In the beginning, no one understood the severity of the disaster, especially those in charge. People were desperately trying to hold on to their old way of life. Those who didn’t go to the quarantine centers barricaded themselves in their homes. The rule of law quickly vanished.

A stocky man in blue-jean overalls, a shotgun across his knees, sits in a rocker in a dark living room, his wife and two small children huddled nearby. They listen intently to the radio in a house void of electricity. They hear the chilling words of a survivor recounting what he saw. His voice is filled with shock and disbelief: “There were hundreds and hundreds of bodies lining the streets.” A pounding at the door, strangled cries; the man jumps to his feet, shotgun at the ready…

Things only turned worse when waves of terror-stricken citizens flooded the make-shift quarantine centers. This, from a news broadcast in New York: “Panic spread worldwide after a leaked report from the World Health Organization showed that the latest vaccination tests have failed.”

Government officials, faced with massive riots on their hands, took the next logical step.

An exhausted nurse, her grimy uniform matted with blood, listens to her hand-held radio. With camera shutters clicking in the background, she hears these brazen remarks from a military commander: “…with the bureaucrats out of power we can finally take the necessary steps to…

Riots in major cities became the status quo.

A woman holding a small infant finds herself practically squeezed to death by a throng of rioters as police push them back. In her eyes, the vacant stare of disbelief that would soon be the hallmark of the non-infected. On loudspeakers overhead, a reporter’s voice delivers the current state of affairs: “Los Angeles is now the latest city to be placed under martial law…” Amid the yelling and screaming, her voice carries on: “All residents are required to report to their designated quarantine…”

Now, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago… Cities wracked by violent upheaval. A cold gray sky threatened to suffocate the huddled masses underneath.

As a man rummages through a dumpster flipped on its side, he hears this from his pocket radio: “Riots have continued for a third consecutive day and winter rations are at an all time low,” and in the background an angry mob screams and jeers.

In Boston, the sun managed to break through the cruel winter clouds. A brief respite from the biting cold.

In the corner of an abandoned building, a thin woman huddles with others under a heap of wool blankets. A radio propped up on an empty milk crate crackles with the latest news: “A group calling themselves the Fireflies have claimed responsibility for both attacks.” A female reporter adds, “Their public charter calls for the return of all branches of government.”

And then something rose from the gloom of utter despair. Something to give the suffering masses hope.

On the fifty-yard line of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, a tired man in a white hazmat suit digs another grave as others drag forth more decaying bodies. In his ear, the latest news from his battery-powered radio. A man’s voice reports: “Demonstrations broke out following the execution of six more alleged Fireflies.”

But for one survivor in Austin, Texas, the hope promised by this latest turn of events was rejected.

Joel lay in a hospital bed on the outskirts of Austin, his torso wrapped in bandages. He was in a make-shift triage center on a gurney which had been rolled into a shadowy corner of the tent. He stared at the ceiling. He was alive, but felt no joy; his heart was slowly filled with a boiling cauldron of black dark sludge. He heard the crackle of a radio playing nearby. Out of the darkness rose a woman’s faint, but urgent plea: “You can still rise with us.” And right before losing her grip on the microphone, she said, “Remember, when you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light. Believe in the Fireflies.”

And Joel turned painfully onto his side, away from the voice.



Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Last of Us - Epilogue

EPILOGUE

Joel stood outside on the porch, holding the screen door open, saying goodbye to the woman caller. Ellie could only hear one side of the conversation and it seemed the woman was reluctant to go. It wasn’t until Joel said, “Well, okay then. Guess we’ll see you tomorrow,” that the woman finally said goodbye and left.

He stepped back into the house, looked at Ellie and shrugged. She was sitting on the floor next to the sofa, a cup of tea in her hands.

Joel plopped himself into the cushions. Their eyes met… she was waiting for him to say something, to address this latest turn of events. He fidgeted uncomfortably. Finally, he made a gesture to where the woman had stood on the porch.

“You sure you’re okay with this?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes and said, “Puhlease. It’s about time.”

Joel considered her response and eased himself into the sofa cushions. She watched as he seemed to struggle with a decision. Finally he nodded to himself and rose abruptly to his feet. Ellie lifted her head, her curiosity piqued.

“Wait here a sec. Got somethin’ I wanna show you.”

She watched anxiously as he disappeared into his bedroom, heard him fumbling around in his closet. When he returned, he was holding something that filled her heart with joy.

“No way!” she said.

In his hand was a guitar.

“Easy,” he warned her. “Don’t go gettin’ your hopes up.”

“Is that your old one?” she asked excitedly, propping herself up on her knees.

“No, no,” he said, sighing. “I’m afraid that one’s long gone. Tommy gave me this one.”

“When were you gonna tell me?”

He looked at her and shrugged.

She settled back, her heart full of anticipation. Finally, after all this time, Joel was ready to make good on his end of the bargain.

He was going to sing for her.

The den was dark, the evening air filled with the sound of crickets. A cool summer breeze swept in from the porch. They were alone, living in his brother’s compound, and for the first time in a long time, they didn’t have survival on their minds.

Joel plucked a chord, it resonated in the air, melodious. He tilted his head to concentrate, his hand poised expertly on the tuning screw. He twisted it a fraction of an inch, plucked again. Then, satisfied, he nodded to himself.

He took a deep breath and began to play, and Ellie watched his hands move in a way she’d never thought possible: delicate and gentle. She watched as the tips of his fingers danced across the strings. The music rose slowly at first, and soon it had a life of its own. It filled not only the room, but her aching heart as well.

And then Joel sang.

Delta Dawn,” he sang, slowly, in a voice so mellifluous she didn’t think it belonged to Joel, “What’s that flower you got on? Could it be a faded rose from days gone by? And did I hear you say, he was a’meetin’ you here today, to take you to his mansion in the sky…

And as the tears welled up in her eyes, she knew he was singing for her.

He filled the empty den with a soulful melody and his voice carried across the room.

He sang for Sam and for Henry. He sang for Tess. He sang for all the people who had suffered so deeply and had lost so much. He sang for those who had grieved and those who had died.

He sang for Sarah, his little girl.

But most of all... he sang for himself.

She couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks. She thought of Riley and the funny way she felt when her best friend looked at her with that mischievous smile. And although she cried, her heart wasn’t filled with sadness, but rather with joy. She felt a peace within her lungs she hadn’t felt in a very long time...

The last of Joel’s lyrics lifted in the air and in her heart, and he sang the words slowly, lost in them, and lost in his own memory: “To take you to his mansion in the skkkkkyyyyy.

The note lingered in the air, slowly fading into silence.

Joel put the guitar away and looked down at the girl kneeling at his feet, the tears rolling down her cheeks. He padded the cushion next to him.

“C’mere, kiddo.”

Ellie rose and slid under his waiting arm, and they sat together and she cried. She could feel Joel’s chest shudder, heard his stifled cry. She felt the warmth of his tears roll down her arm.

He had fulfilled his end of the bargain, and now at last, he was whole.

The Last of Us Novelization - Chapter Four: An Example of Turning Your Screenplay into a Novel

CHAPTER FOUR

There was ringing in Joel's ears as the tide of consciousness slowly returned. He heard someone calling to him from a distance, calling his name, and slowly the blinding pain behind his eyes subsided, and he felt a gentle hand nudging him.

"Daddy? Daddy?"

He wasn't quite sure where he was. Was he home? Was Sarah nudging him awake as she was prone to do?

"Daddy," he heard her say, with a sense of urgency in her voice.

"What?" he asked. He opened his eyes. Slowly he registered the cracked windshield, a pair of legs racing madly past him. He heard the distant groans and cries. The smell of gasoline in the air.

The SUV was on its side and he was inside, looking out. His vision cleared and he saw the brutal savagery taking place in the cab of the wrecked truck beside them. The furious onslaught of an animal ravaging its prey. Hands, teeth, blood. Inhuman moans filled his ears.

He quickly returned to his senses and knew he had to get himself and his daughter away from this madness.

He eased her arm away from him. "Get back," he told her. The smashed SUV continually rocked as people pushed their way past it in a rush to get free.

Sarah disappeared behind the seat and he leaned back, grabbed the handrail above his head and he twisted his body so his foot could reach the windshield. Using every ounce of strength, he kicked the windshield with his foot, planting a heavy boot in the middle of the broken glass. He kicked once, twice, a third time. Finally the windshield gave.

With effort, Joel struggled to crawl his way out of the space where the windshield had been. All around him he heard the screams of people fleeing, heard the pounding of the pavement as they ran.

The downtown street had turned into a war zone, with sparking cables, downed traffic signals, wrecked vehicles. Clumps of human flesh lay scattered on the pavement. All around was mayhem.

When he struggled to his feet, he couldn't help but be frozen by what he saw. Mass hysteria filled the street. He found himself leaning against the crashed SUV in order to pull it together, give him time to think. The guttural cries he heard racing toward him didn't register until it was too late.

Almost immediately the beast was upon him, fingers ripping at his face, teeth snapping at his throat. He'd brought his arm up reflexively and it managed to keep the gnashing jaws from ripping into his flesh. Before he could react, he saw his brother materialize from the shadow of the SUV, a heavy red brick in his hand.

Tommy struck the monster in the side of the head, caving its skull in with one massive blow.

The two brother's looked at each other, each aware of just how close death had come. Joel didn't need to say thank you; his eyes said it for him. He turned his attention back to the SUV and the little girl trapped inside.

"Dad?" Sarah cried out.

"I'm here baby. I'm here," he said, kneeling down to get her. "Come on, give me your hand."

He pulled Sarah from the wreckage and as she took a step forward, she stumbled and cried out in pain.

He caught her in his arms. "What is it?" he asked.

"My leg hurts."

"How bad?"

"Pretty bad," she said.

Suddenly Tommy appeared, his face full of resignation, his eyes focused on an unseen terror approaching rapidly.

"We're gonna need to run," he said simply.

Joel knew what was coming and cursed the situation under his breath. He reached behind him and withdrew his revolver, plopped it into his brother's hands.

"Keep us safe," he said. He scooped Sarah into his arms as Tommy held the gun out before him. Now, they were ready to run.

"Come on baby," he said, bursting into a sprint. "Now hold on tight!"

His daughter did exactly that as her fingers dug into his shoulders and she buried her head into his chest. He was running behind Tommy, just up ahead. They were headed toward the TEXAN gas station at the end of the hill.

Others ran past him. All around were fallen victims, with the ravenous hunched over their bodies. He heard Sarah let out a gasp, and he squeezed her tight against him. "Keep your eyes closed, honey!"

Over his shoulder were the moans of the attackers, low and guttural, and he could hear their scraping footsteps just behind. As they neared the gas station, a vehicle careened into the pumps, setting off an explosion that trembled the pavement beneath Joel's feet.

Flames rolled horizontally from the blast and Joel veered right, a wave of stifling heat engulfing him, soot filling his lungs. He had managed to avoid the flames, but the people to his left weren't so lucky. He heard Sarah's anguished voice reveal the unspeakable truth: "Those people are on fire."

"Just keep looking at me baby!" he told her. It seemed as if the whole world were crashing down around their shoulders. Everywhere you turned, chaos, panic, bloodshed. Screams, the ear-splitting sound of metal on metal as cars collided, the rumble of buildings as explosions shook them.

Tommy lead the way, with Joel right on his heels. They rounded a corner. The Armadillo Theater was just up ahead, it's glittering lights and Texas shining star a beacon in the warm Austin night. They were headed right for it, with no logic why, when a car in flames crashed into its box-office setting off an explosion that killed the power and covered them in a blanket of darkness.

Beyond the flames of the wreckage, Joel could see a flurry of angry faces racing towards them.

"Get back!" Tommy cried. "There's too many of them!"

Joel stopped in tracks, desperately looking around for an exit. That's when Tommy spotted the gate.

"This way," he cried, motioning with the gun. "Through the alley!"

He pointed to the nearby alley and instantly Joel rushed for it as people fled in all directions.

Tommy opened the gate and Joel raced through, holding Sarah tightly in his arms. “Go!” Tommy shouted.

Now they were separated from the panicked mob, racing frantically down a long dark alley. The brick walls seemed to close in on Joel from the sides, and suddenly he heard the distinctive guttural sounds just ahead, but his forward momentum was to fast to stop.

The creature lunged for Joel and he fought to hold him off, one arm holding Sarah, the other against the maniac's throat.

Tommy appeared at his side, kicking the madman in the gut, knocking it to the ground. He put a boot on the man's chest as it fought and scratched, and he lowered the gun and fired.

"He's dead!" Tommy cried, resuming his point position.

"Jesus," was all that Joel could utter. His mind was still struggling to come to terms with the madness around him.

The cries of the chasing horde had grown louder and he closed his eyes as he ran, repeating an earnest prayer to his daughter: "We're almost there, baby. We're almost there."

“Let’s go!” Tommy cried.

The word ‘There’ meant safety, and safety had to be close. It had to be.

Tommy pointed to the front of a bar with neon lights. "There!" he shouted.

There. Safety at last.

They raced up the stairs, past the outdoor picnic tables with their green umbrellas, heading for the door of the bar. Joel rushed in behind Tommy just as the horde descended upon them. Their blood-thirsty pursuers lunged at them with outstretched arms. Tommy slammed the door on their limbs, the revolver in his hand at the ready.

As the crazed mob fought manically to get inside, Tommy leaned his weight against the door, pinning their hands and arms. He turned and yelled at his brother: "Get to the highway!"

"What?" Joel asked, reeling to face him. He stood near the empty bar with Sarah in his arms. He saw Tommy forcing the door closed with his free arm as frantic hands and nails scraped the wall beside him. Judging by their pursuers’ determination, it didn't appear either of them had much time.

Tommy yelled again: "Go! You got Sarah! I can outrun 'em!

Sarah stiffened in Joel's arms. "Uncle Tommy!" she cried out.

Joel had to make a split-second decision. All around them were screams and the pounding of feet and fists. Complete pandemonium.

He knew Tommy was right. He looked solemnly at his younger brother and spoke, his words more of a vow than a statement: "I will meet you there.” He spun and took off like a madman toward the rear of the bar.

"Hurry!" he heard his brother shout.

Joel smashed through the back door and found himself standing on a desolate outdoor patio behind the bar. A member of the horde tackled another man nearby, ripping at his throat. Joel spotted a crumbling gap in the brick ledge at the rear of the enclosure and raced toward it. In the distance he could see the rusted iron bridge spanning the river and, beyond that, the glowing lights of the highway. Amid the screams and wails, a helicopter thumped overhead.

"Daddy," Sarah cried, her eyes wide with panic, "We can't leave him!"

"He's gonna be fine," he told the daughter trembling in his arms. Another victim let out a blood-curdling scream to his left just before the its body was ripped to shreds. Joel leapt past the fallen victim and a snarling maniac instantly fell upon it, devouring the body as it writhed in pain.

He quickly scrambled down a rutted hill as a strangled cry echoed in his ears.

"We're almost there," he said in a panicked voice.

Now at last he was on a direct dirt path leading to an embankment and the highway beyond. The neon lights from the bar cast an eerie shadow on the ground before him and he saw other shadows emerge in his field of vision. Grotesque shadows, arms flailing. He heard their desperate cries behind him, could almost feel their blood-soaked breath upon his neck.

“They’re getting closer,” Sarah cried. Her desperate fingers dug into his flesh.

A gust of wind from the helicopter overhead engulfed Joel. The bright circle of light from its search beam skimmed the nearby terrain, its blades thumping past him. Around the bend were flashing red lights illuminating the gully, and as Joel rounded the turn, he saw the ambulance on its side with its doors hanging open. A gurney lie half-exposed in the back. The smell of gasoline filled his nostrils.

“Dad?”

The driver crawled frantically on his elbows, dragging two broken legs behind. He was headed for a set of makeshift floodlights near a generator at the top of the hill. From the anguished cries and pounding soles just behind him, Joel knew the poor bastard didn’t stand a chance. He heard the man cry out in horror as one of angry horde caught up to him. Joel didn’t glance back. He just kept racing with all his strength. The floodlights had become a beacon of hope and he was headed straight for them.

Suddenly machine gun fire erupted amid a searing light and Joel turned away, seeing his crazed followers tumble back, their chests explode with bullet holes. He heard the bodies hit the ground, felt Sarah’s arm tighten around his neck. In the next instant, the night air was silent; the blood-chilling moans and groans were gone.

Joel turned and looked behind him. His shoulders relaxed and he met Sarah’s frightened eyes. “It’s okay, baby,” he said. “We’re safe.”

His eyes rose and took stock of the man standing between him and the floodlights: the black silhouette of an armed soldier, his dark shadow stretching out before him. A huge sigh of relief escaped Joel’s lungs. “Hey!” he shouted and took a step toward the armed silhouette. “We need help, please…”

“Stop!”

The single word the soldier uttered was more of a threat than a command. The tone sent a chill down Joel’s spine. The word was muffled, and Joel quickly realized why: the armed man in fatigues wore a gas mask over his face.

“Please,” Joel said. “It’s my daughter. I think her leg’s broken…”

“STOP RIGHT THERE!”

Joel’s eyes were blinded by the light affixed to the muzzle of the machine gun and he squinted. He saw the man stretch his arm forward, press his palm outward. A warning. This was serious, Joel thought, and he understood the man’s concern.

“Okay,” Joel said, trying to keep his voice calm, edging himself back. “We’re not s-sick.” He cursed himself for stuttering; his adrenaline had finally run its course.

The soldier spoke into a radio transmitter affixed to his shoulder. His voice carried a tone of relief:  “Got a couple of civilians in the outer perimeter. Please advise.”

Joel felt the tension in Sarah’s body ease as he held her. His attention was on the guard as his receding heart rate pounded in his ears.

“Daddy, what about Uncle Tommy?” she asked.

He looked down and reassured her in a hushed voice: “We’re gonna get you to safety and go back for him. Okay?”

She nodded and laid her head upon his shoulder.

Joel’s attention was teased to alertness by the strange tension detected in the soldier’s words. The man issued a reply into his radio. “Sir,” he said with a strained voice. “There’s a little girl…”

A silence fell as the soldier’s breathing labored. “But…” he said. Another brief silence followed. Joel could feel the hairs in his neck stiffen. The soldier spoke again. This time his voice was full of resignation. He simply said: “Yessir.”

And somehow Joel sensed the horror of what was soon to come.

“Listen buddy,” Joel said frantically. “We’ve just been through hell. Okay? We just need to…”

The man lifted the machine gun into the groove of his shoulder, taking aim.

“Oh shit!” Joel cursed, his faced flooded in the wash of the flashlight. He spun away, but not before the gunshots erupted and he felt something hot pierce his side. He twisted in pain, crying out, and Sarah flew from his arms. He tumbled down the hill and came to a rest face down in the dirt. His mind reeled from what had just happened.

 As the footsteps approached, he rolled over on his side, raising a hand. He knew this was the end.

The dark figure towered above Joel and aimed his weapon. Joel spoke, his voice drained of emotion. “Please,” he said. “Don’t.”

The gunshot exploded in his ears and echoed in the distance.

To Joel’s surprise, the soldier’s head jerked violently to one side and then his body slowly crumbled to the ground. Joel glanced to his left and saw Tommy approach, breathing heavy, both hands on the smoking revolver.

That’s when he heard Sarah’s stifled cry.

“Oh no,” gasped Tommy, his face drained of blood.

Joel quickly jerked his head behind him, saw a shadow lying on the ground. He scrambled on all fours toward it. “Sarah!” he cried.

Sarah lay flat on her back on the dirt, still in her flannel pajamas, her legs stretched before her. Her hands rested on her stomach barely masking the widening circle of blood soaking her powder blue tee-shirt.

Joel could barely speak, his heart clogged his throat. “Okay,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “Move your hands baby…” He could handle this, he reassured himself. He just needed to see how bad it was.

Sarah reached for him in panic, her eyes wide, face flushed. Her body trembled with fear.

“I know, baby,” Joel said, taking her blood-stained hands in his. “I know…” He put both hands over the the tiny hole in her tee-shirt; the crimson blood seeped through his fingers. She reached for him again, letting a strangled cry escape her lips. “Listen to me,” he said. “I know this hurts. You’re gonna be okay, baby. Stay with me.”

His words were meant for him just as much as they were for her.

“I’m gonna pick you up…” He bent down and tried to scoop her up in his arms. Her body felt so light, so ephemeral. He was half-aware of his brother kneeling at his side, his face grim. When his eyes returned to Sarah, he noticed the trembling had ceased.

And just like that, Sarah, his little girl, was gone.

“Sarah,” he gasped, staring into her unseeing eyes. The horrible reality took hold. It spread through his veins like a virus and his body convulsed with grief. “Baby…” he cried, burying his face into her neck. He pleaded with her: “Don’t do this to me, baby. Don’t do this to me, baby girl. Come on…”

As he rocked her tightly in his arms, his mind recoiled in disbelief. It was all just a terrible dream, a nightmare. He just needed to wake up, needed her to wake him up. To nudge him like she did on Saturday mornings, when the sun filled the house with warmth and breakfast was on the table, and he had to get up and get atom, because there was a soccer game that afternoon, and things to do around the house, and that new movie at the mall Sarah was dying to see…

But when he opened his tear-stained eyes to the darkness surrounding him, he knew with grim reality that it wasn’t a dream. And the dam to his emotions crumbled and his pain poured forth, in agonizing, gut-wrenching sobs. He clutched Sarah’s lifeless body, knowing his world would never be the same.




The Last of Us Novelization - Chapter Three: An Example of Turning Your Screenplay into a Novel

CHAPTER THREE

He hurried her to the front door, toward the blinding light in the windows, and Sarah felt herself glancing over her shoulder, back toward the office. The reality of what had happened hadn't yet settled; it was though she were living a nightmare.

Joel threw the front door open and scrambled outside with Sarah in tow. He was met by his younger brother, Tommy, moving with rigid alarm around the front of his SUV. Her uncle was a man with the same physical assuredness as her father, but with twice the intensity and emotion.

"Where the hell you been?" Tommy asked in a panic. "You have any idea what's going on out there?"

Joel turned, allowing Tommy to glimpse his face and shirt. "I got some notion."

"Holy shit," Uncle Tommy gasped.

Joel opened the back door to the SUV and ushered Sarah inside. "C'mon baby," he said. "Go on in there."

"You got blood all over you."

"It ain't mine," Joel stated calmly. "Let's just get out of here."

"They're saying half the people in the city have lost their minds."

Joel shut the door and then climbed into the passenger seat. "Can we just please go?" he pleaded.

Tommy nodded and passed in front of the headlights on his way to the driver's side, creating a grotesque shadow that lurched across the front porch. Images of Jimmy flashed behind Sarah's eyes and she felt the cold fear returning. "Some sort of parasite or something," she heard him say, as he scrambled behind the wheel.

He paused before putting the car in gear and glanced across at Joel. "You gonna tell me what happened?"

"Later," was all her father said.

He put the car in reverse and turned to look behind him and his gaze landed on Sarah straddled between the two seats. "Hey, Sarah," he said, his voice calm. "How you holding up, honey?"

She answered without thinking. "I'm fine," she said.

Uncle Tommy backed into the street. The night was warm and the sky above was clear. He pointed the vehicle east and put the car in drive. Up ahead were brake-lights, another car on the road, and seeing them gave Sarah a bit of relief.

She asked, "Can we hear what's on the radio?"

"Yeah, sure thing," Uncle Tommy said. He flipped the knob as he mashed the gas petal. Joel sat beside him in silence.

Sarah replied with a "Thanks," but instantly regretted her decision. Nothing but empty static buzzed from the car's speakers, erasing what little comfort she felt.

Tommy flipped it off. "No cell phone. No radio. Yeah," he said. "We're doing great."

As Tommy drove toward the highway, they passed a familiar house at the end of the street: the Wilkinsons. Sarah knew them and well. Their station wagon was in the driveway, the motor running, the tailgate lifted. The breaklamps were on and everything was bathed in a red glow. Mrs Wilkins stood in the driveway like a deer caught in the headlights. The father was nearby on one knee, packed bags by his side, imparting something vital to their young son. The whole scene seemed surreal, something out of a dream.

"Minute ago," Tommy continued, "the newsman wouldn't shut up."

"He say where to go?" Joel asked in a level tone.

Tommy thought for a moment. "He said, ah... Army's putting up road blocks on the highway." He sighed heavily. "No getting into Travis County."

The road they were on ended at a highway going north and south. Highway signs, a hospital sign pointed in either direction.

"That means we need to get the hell out," Joel said, leaning forward. He pointed to the black highway sign in the shape of Texas. "Take 71."

"71," Tommy confirmed. "That's where I'm headed." As he approached the stop sign, a Texas trooper with lights flashing, sirens blaring, rushed by, heading toward the interstate. The fact they were turning in the opposite direction of the sirens gave Sarah a tinge of relief.

She struggled to grab onto something hopeful. "Did they say how many are dead?" she asked, hoping for some reassurance.

"Probably a lot," Tommy said, failing to recognize her need. "Found this one family all mangled inside their house."

Joel put a hand on Tommy's arm. "Tommy," Joel said curtly, reminding him of Sarah's presence.

"Right," Tommy said, and became quiet as he eased his emotions back down. "Sorry."

Sarah watched the SUV's headlights scour the winding road ahead as she willed her heartbeat to return to normal. Tommy made a sharp left turn, following the black and white sign to the state highway.

She saw Joel lean forward with concern and felt Tommy take his foot off the gas. She followed her father's gaze to the left and saw the flickering light post and the smashed car underneath. Someone had crashed headlong into the pole, causing its lamp to shatter.

Sarah stared at the car, its crushed hood, the driver's door hanging open, a shower of orange sparks dancing on its roof. The driver was nowhere to be found. "Jesus Christ," gasped Joel. "How did this happen?"

"They got no clue," Uncle Tommy said, making another left and stepping on the gas. "But we ain't the only town."

The vehicle descended a narrow lane and the green foliage from the surrounding woods seemed to close in around them, choke them. "At first they were saying it was just the south. Now they're going on about the East Coast, the West Coast..."

Up ahead, an orange glowed grabbed Sarah's attention. Something was on fire.

"Holy hell," Uncle Tommy exclaimed.

The large three-story ranch was ablaze, engulfed in weltering red flames, a trail of orange smoke drifting up into the starry night sky. "That's Louis's farm," Tommy said.

Sarah turned and stared at the structure. She jumped as she saw her own apparition staring back, reflected by the light of the fire and the burning timbers consumed by the flames.

"I hope that son of a bitch made it out."

"I'm sure he did," her father said.

Suddenly, a horrible thought came to her and she said it aloud without thinking: "Are we sick?"

Joel turned to look at her in the eye. "No," he said. "Of course not."

The vehicle approached another intersection and Tommy brought the car to a halt, scanning the highway signs.

It wasn't reassurance she was after from her father. It was the truth. She asked, "How do you know?"

Tommy interjected, turning the car to the east. Out of the three of them, he was the authority on the subject, having listened to the news reports. But when he spoke, his voice lacked the authority he wished to convey: "They said it's just, ah, people in the city. We're good."

The city? thought Sarah. Was it true? She turned to her father. "Didn't Jimmy work in the city?"

Joel considered a moment. She could tell he was working it out in his mind. "That's, right," he said. "He did." And then he added, "We're fine. Trust me."

She didn't have much else to hold on to, so she did as he suggested. "All right," she said.

A moment passed. Sarah listened to the hum of the tires on the highway, then she felt a stutter as Uncle Tommy eased off the gas.

Up ahead, standing next to the speed limit sign, a man and woman...

"Let's see what they need."

As they approached, Sarah saw the frightened child.

Joel grabbed Tommy's arm. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Keep driving."

"They gotta kid, Joel." He spoke with a edge of surprise in his voice.

"So do we," Joel said. There was panic in his voice. He didn't want Tommy to let the car come to a rest.

"But we have room," Sarah heard herself say.

The man moved in front of the headlights waving for help, pleading. "Hey!" he shouted. There was a helpless plea in his voice. His wife had the same forlorn look in her eyes as that of Mrs.Wilkinson, the woman standing at the edge of her driveway in the middle of the night. A look of a world having come to an end. A look of loss and confusion. Of total abandonment.

"Keep driving, Tommy!"

"Hey stop!" the man pleaded again, and it made Sarah cringe, the helplessness in his voice, the guilt pulling at her gut.

With a palpable reluctance, Tommy stepped on the gas. The man cried out again and it made Sarah's blood freeze, that anguish in his voice mixed with disbelief. She knew Uncle Tommy didn't like leaving those people - people like themselves - behind in the dark, at the mercy of some unspeakable terror.

The drone of the tires filled the silence. After letting a moment pass for their heart rates to settle, Joel turned to his brother. "You ain't seen what I seen," he said quietly. Sarah caught a glimpse of the dried blood on his cheeks. "Someone else will come along."

Sarah knew her father was right but inside she was still struggling with the guilt in her stomach. "We should've helped them," she said weakly.

Another turn and now they were nearing the highway. An ambulance passed and strobed the inside of their car with flashing red lights. By now, Sarah had gotten used to the wail of sirens and she managed to keep her pulse rate steady.

The hospital was on the left, the highway just over the hill and to the right. Overhead she heard the thumping blades of a passing helicopter. But when they came abreast of the hospital at the top of the hill, Sarah's heart sank.

"Oh, this is bad," Uncle Tommy said, bringing the car to a halt.

Between them and the highway stretched a sea of red taillights. Joel leaned forward, scanning the horizon in the night, trying to get a handle on the situation.

"Everyone and their mother had the same damn idea," her uncle said.

The helicopter above seemed right on top of them and it was hard to hear what her father was saying. "Well, we could just backtrack and..."

Her focus wasn't on what her father was saying, or the helicopter, or the traffic. It was on the man in the car ahead of him. She felt an immediate rush of panic as the man stepped angrily from his car...

No, no, no... she thought to herself.

Instead of threatening them, the man's attention turned to the traffic ahead of him and his cursing shouts interrupted her father's train of thought: "Hey! What the fuck man! Let's go!"

What they witnessed next was nothing short of unbelievable.

Something manic raced across the road, plunging itself into the man with such force that the impact of its collision shook the car violently and made the woman inside scream in horror. It wore a blue hospital gown, and resembled an older man in appearance, but its speed and savagery was anything but human. It literally ripped the man apart, from the inside out, and soon was covered in a fountain of gushing blood.

"Holy shit," Uncle Tommy gasped. Sarah couldn't move. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't tear her eyes away. Soon, another flash of blue raced into the scene, this one a woman, and she began ruthlessly hacking away at the woman in the passenger seat.

The woman's anguished cry filled the night air.

"Turn us around," Joel said evenly.

"Oh my God," was Tommy's reply. He too, like Sarah, was frozen with shock and disbelief.

"Tommy! Tommy!" Joel urged, jostling his brother back to reality.

Sarah saw the first creature look up from the bloody corpse, a river of red pouring down the front of the blue hospital gown. He locked eyes with Sarah and it seemed something behind the eyes switched on, and it raced toward them with blinding speed.

"Holy shit," yelled Uncle Tommy, fumbling to get the SUV in gear. He threw the vehicle in reverse, made a quick one-eighty, as Sarah's eyes remained locked on the thing racing toward her. She noticed the same blood-shot eyes, the same grotesque look of madness she'd seen on Jimmy when he burst through the glass.

Only this one was coming faster, and she knew the glass window wouldn't protect her.

As Tommy stepped on the gas, the creature slammed up against the passenger window by Sarah's face, leaving a pair of bloody hand prints. The glass held, and in the next instant, they were racing away.

"What the fuck just happened?" Tommy screamed, searching for a handle on the situation. "What the fuck just happened?" He mashed his foot on the peddle and sped over a crossing, jolting the car into the air. "Did you see that?"

"Yes," Joel said, his voice strained. "I saw it."

Uncle Tommy cursed and shook his head.

"Turn here, turn here," Joel said, pointing to a side street on Tommy's left.

Sarah swayed hard to the right as Uncle Tommy veered hard to the left. At the edge of her awareness she could hear the indistinguishable screams and cries for help. The vehicle stopped and they found themselves facing a crowded street. Not crowded with cars, but people. A frightened mob running their way.

Jackknifed ahead was an RV, plowed in the side of a building. All around them were lost souls, faces awash with fear, stumbling aimlessly in the night.

"Come on people, move!"

Suddenly a group of panicked souls appeared from behind the wrecked camper and, like startled rabbits, rushed past them.

"What are they running from?" Sarah asked.

"Get us out of here," Joel said.

"I'm trying," his brother answered. Tommy floored the SUV but then an older man in a green cap and gray shirt suddenly appeared between the headlights. Uncle Tommy hit the brakes. The man's hands slammed the hood of Tommy's car as the two connected, causing Sarah to cry out. The man's mouth hung open as he scanned the passengers inside. There was no anger in his eyes, only bewilderment.

He shuffled off, but more people appeared at the end of the street, stumbling toward them like survivors of a plane crash.

"We can't stop here, Tommy!" Joel yelled.

Uncle Tommy was at the end of his rope. "I can't fucking drive through them, Joel!"

A shouting match erupted between the two: "Then back up then!"

"They're behind me too!"

Sarah's eyes were transfixed on the faces of the people stumbling past them. She'd never encountered such abject fear and the tangible loss of humanity frightened her.

Suddenly a gap appeared in the rush of oncomers and Joel screamed and pointed. "There! There!"

"Hold on!" her uncle yelled.

She felt the SUV lurch as it ran up on the sidewalk. Tommy held a white-knuckle grip on the wheel, was threading them carefully through the thinning crowd. Finally they were clear and she felt the car surge forward as Tommy gave it gas.

But out of the corner of her eye, she saw a pair of blinding headlights racing to meet them. She cried for her uncle to look out, but it was too late.

The vehicle struck them in the side, filling the interior with shattered glass, and Sarah found herself being flung violently across the seat as everything slowly faded to black.




Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Last of Us Novelization - Chapter Two: An Example of Turning Your Screenplay into a Novel

CHAPTER TWO

Sarah Shepard was sound asleep in her upstairs bedroom when the phone rang, and deep in the midst of a surreal dream.

She stood in the center of a giant stadium, her foot propped on a soccer ball, her gaze panning 360 degrees to take in the bright lights and cheering fans. It was a warm Austin night. The stars were out. Electricity filled the air. The national tournament had arrived, and she was the star player. But where her heart should have been filled with excitement, instead it was filled with a sense of unease.

She scanned the faces in the stadium hoping to catch sight of her father, but the shadowy parade of spectators were vaguely recognizable as human. It was the oblong gaping holes for mouths and the flickering lights for eyes that added to her unease, and their cheering sounds were more possessed of madness than mayhem, and it occurred to Sarah the bodies they embodied wanted nothing more than to desperately descend upon the field.

She emerged from the dream at the insistent demand of a buzzing by her bed. It was the cordless phone on her nightstand. Almost reflexively, she picked it up. Her body was awake but her mind lagged behind and she answered without thinking.

"Hello?"

The voice on the other end had a desperate sense of urgency that immediately frightened Sarah and shook her from her sleep. "Sarah, honey. I need you to get your daddy on the phone."

"Uncle Tommy," she said, recognizing the voice. She struggled for some context to help ease her fear. "What time is it?"

The tone of his voice demanded her alarm: "I need to talk to your dad now. There's some --"

And then the line went dead.

"Uncle Tommy?" Sarah asked, her heart racing. "Hello??"

There was only the familiar looping of a disconnection tone on the other end.

Sarah replaced the handset and forced her mind to focus. She sat up out of bed and rose to her feet. How she had gotten into bed she couldn't remember. The lamp on the nightstand was on, giving her room a faint glow, filling it with pale light and long shadows.

She used the palm of her hand to rub the remaining sleep from her eyes. "What was that all about?" she heard herself ask. Her mind was still coming to life, the embers not yet fanned to flames.

She opened the door of her bedroom and stepped into the darkened hallway.

"Dad?"

There was no answer, but she heard the faint murmur of a television coming from his room. She opened the door to the upstairs bathroom. It was empty. A recent edition of the TEXAS HERALD lie on the counter by the sink. She picked it up. The headline shouted at her: ADMITTANCE STRIKES IN AREA HOSPITALS!" Her subconscious mind registered other disturbing headlines below, but she put the paper down, not wanting the seeds to take root.

She left the bathroom and turned to her right, heading for her father's bedroom. The bedroom door was ajar and she could see the white-static light of the television strobing from within. As she approached, the sound from the television became louder: she heard a woman's concerned voice coming from the speakers. She pushed the bedroom door open and entered.

"You in here?" she asked.

Her father's bedroom was big and, like her father, an untidy mess. A used bath towel hung from the rail of a stair-step climber beside the bed. There were dirty socks, crumpled jeans, coffee-stained architectural plans. A dog-eared Guns & Ammo magazine lie face down on the carpet. None of this surprised Sarah; this was how her father's bedroom always looked.

No, what grabbed her attention was the female reporter speaking to the camera and the frightened edge to her voice: "...seem to be somehow connected to the nationwide pandemic."

"Where the heck are you?" Sarah asked the empty room.

The reporter went on, and Sarah now turned her full attention to the live news broadcast: "We've received reports that victims afflicted with the infection show signs of increased aggression and --"

Her mind struggled to form a connection. Her missing father, the shocking headline in the paper, this live news feed. As she watched the screen, she saw men in uniforms carrying machine guns struggle to contain a fire in the reporter's background. They must've spotted the news crew, for their attention was immediately diverted from the fire to the woman holding the mic.

"We need to move everybody out of here now!" shouted one of the men in authority. "There's a gas leak!"

Sarah recognized the building in the background. It was the old courthouse near the capital building. She knew it well, as did everyone else living in the state's capital city. "That's nearby," she said without thinking.

"Hey!" the man shouted, anger and disbelief in his voice. "Move!"

But the reporter was too distracted by her own broadcast to heed the man's warning. "There seems to be some commotion coming from behind the..." As the reporter turned, the men panicked and raced to get her to safety. "Lady! Get the hell outta here right now!"

Because of a delay in the feed, Sarah heard the actual explosion before the woman on camera knew what was happening.

"Uh, what was that?" Sarah asked, shoulder blades up to her ears.

She turned and saw a bright ball of fire mushroom in the distance, followed by a pillar of black smoke. On the television, the live news feed went dead, and the television screen was filled with white static. She could only imagine what had happened to the woman reporter and the men trying to save her.

"Oh God," she gasped.

The explosion set off dogs and car alarms all over the neighborhood. She could hear the incessant barking mixed with wailing sirens in the distance. With her nerves completely on edge, she eased herself out of the bedroom, shoulders still tense.

"Dad?" The sound of her voice seemed unnatural in the strange glow of the room.

As she walked toward the door, hunched in fear, the fuzzy light from the television cast a surreal shadow of herself moving along the wall and she had the creepy sensation she was not alone.

She cried out again, louder: "Dad?!"

She hurried down the stairs, holding herself as she went. "What is going on?" she asked quietly, hoping the calm in her voice would soothe her.

When she reached the living room, she heard sirens approaching. She edged toward the window near the front porch and watched as several squad cars raced past, sirens wailing, red and blue lights flashing. Wherever they were going, they were hellbent on getting there.

Again, she hugged herself as a chill coursed down her spine. The sirens faded and she was left with the lone sound of a dog's relentless barking. Sarah recognized the bark. It was Luther, the neighbor's well-trained black lab. And he only barked when --

Her attention was grabbed by the vibration of a muted cell phone on the tile counter in the kitchen. She saw it. "There's his phone," she said, with a mixture of relief and concern.

She picked up her father's phone and looked at the list of alerts on the glowing touchscreen.

"Eight missed calls," she spoke aloud without thinking.

They were all from Uncle Tommy.

"Where the hell are you? CALL ME!" she said, as the icy chill of fear ran through her veins.

She saw the last one, sent at 2:11 am and read it aloud: "On my way."

She struggled to make sense of it and replaced the phone on the counter. Fighting a grip of terror threatening to constrict her lungs, she walked toward her father's office where a sole desk lamp provided a halo of luminescent light.

But as she passed before the sliding glass doors leading to the side patio, she heard a horrible yelp and jumped. Luther's barking had ceased. And, Sarah noted with a heart-stopping gasp, the tire rope swing that hung from the oak tree just beyond the patio was swinging madly.

Something was out there.

"Dad?" she whispered with a trembling voice. The pounding of her heartbeat against her ears made it impossible to think. She reached the double doors to his office and pushed them open. That's when she saw her dad rush in, crazy-like, as if something horrible were chasing him.

Instead of being reassured by his return, the terror in the way he moved and acted froze the blood in Sarah's veins. He was panicked. Scared. And in her ten years of life on this planet, she had NEVER EVER seen her dad show fear.

Joel, oblivious to his daughter's presence, quickly turned and slid the outer door to his office shut, locking it with a grunt of relief, his eyes scanning the outside for some unspoken terror.

"There you are," Sarah said, more with surprise than relief.

The sound of Sarah's voice brought Joel's attention back to the room, back to her.

"Sarah," he said, his voice laced with panic. "Are you okay?" He didn't wait for an answer. He turned immediately and started rifling through the drawers of his office desk, frantically searching for something.

Sarah answered his question with a hesitant, "Yeah." She was still trying to make sense of everything that had happened since Tommy jolted her awake with an abrupt and mysterious phone call.

Joel found what he was looking for. With dogged determination, he pulled the aluminum case from the drawer, opened it and reached for the Smith & Wesson .357 magnum inside.

"Has anyone come in here?" he asked over his shoulder. Sarah could hear him grapple with bullets, loading them frantically into the chamber.

"No," she replied to his back, barely able to speak. "Who would come in here?"

"Don't go near the doors!" Joel ordered, his tone more measured as he loaded one round after another. "Just stand back there."

Sarah was on the verge of tears. She didn't want to lose it all right then and there. She was just a kid and she needed some reassurance from him to keep herself together, not fall completely apart.

She said, "Dad... You're kinda freaking me out." In her words were the desperate plea for comfort. "What's going on?"

Her father must have sensed her need because the next words he spoke were delivered with a forced sense of calm. "It's the Coopers," he panted. "Something ain't right with them. I think they're sick."

Sarah struggled to make sense of the connection between the words he spoke and the gun in his hands.

"What kind of sick?" she asked.

But before he could respond, a horrible guttural cry, followed by a pounding at the sliding glass door made Sarah jump and spin around in fear.

She heard the terror in her father's voice as he gasped, "Jesus," and then he pointed his revolver at the glass and shouted a warning: "Jimmy!"

"Dad?!" Sarah exclaimed, edging backward, her heart in her throat. Somewhere deep inside, the revelation was dawning: Jimmy, the next-door neighbor's eldest son, was trying to smash through the heavy glass door.

"Honey, c'mere," Joel said. He backed up alongside her and motioned for her to get behind him. "C'mere, c'mere" he repeated in a panicked voice, sliding his body between her and the door.

As she backed away from the glass pane, huddled behind her father, the figure disappeared and Sarah heard a strangled, tortured cry come from the darkness, an inhuman moan that sent a cold sliver of fear down her back. She trembled from it and dug her fingers deep into her father's waist.

He heard her father whisper, "It's okay," and she could feel the adrenaline surge through his blood, could sense the raw energy rising to the surface. She knew he was at the peak of alertness, that all his survival instincts were primed, ready to be ignited.

The young man reappeared, throwing himself against the glass pane again, this time with much more force, and again Sarah's heart jolted.

"Jimmy!" her father warned a second time, but there was something in his tone... a desperate finality, as if he knew his efforts were useless.

The figure outside the door disappeared from Sarah's view for a second time, a heartbeat longer, and she knew instinctively what Jimmy was doing.

He was getting a running start.

And when Jimmy Cooper appeared again, he was racing toward the glass like a madman.

"Jimmy!" her father shouted.

Cooper hurtled himself inside, smashing through the pane, sending glass shards in all directions. He landed in a heap on the floor amid the broken glass.

The impact didn't seem to have an effect on the boy as he rolled to his side and snarled. In that instant, with Sarah huddled behind her father, she caught a glimpse of Jimmy's face. It was the blood-soaked chin, the mask of dark-blue around his wild, blood-shot eyes, and Sarah felt the horror of his existence. Whatever this was, it wasn't Jimmy Cooper any longer.

Joel shouted at the thing as he continued to back-peddle keeping Sarah behind him: "Jimmy, just stay back. I'm warning you..."

But the creature scrambled to its feet in an cannibalistic rage and Sarah heard herself cry, "Oh my God..." and Joel shouted again. It made a blood-thirty lunge for Joel's throat, oblivious to the gun leveled at its blood-stained chest.

"Don't!" Joel yelled and in the next instant, the gun went off, filling the room with a blinding flash of light, shattering Sarah's eardrums with an explosiveness that clamped her body tight. She screamed, burying her face into the back of Joel's shirt.

She heard the deadening thump of a body hitting the floor as a shiver of terror coursed through her. Trembling, she opened her eyes, saw Jimmy Cooper writhing on the floor, a gaping hole in his chest. In the next instant, the body was still.

Joel had grabbed her by the wrists and was pulling her back into the kitchen. "Go, go," he ordered, pulling her into the light. Her mind was in shock as it grappled to conceive the inconceivable.

"You -- you shot him," she said with trembling lips.

Joel lowered himself to eye-level with Sarah. He had his hands on her arms, trying to control her fear, his body blocking her view of the office and the dead body inside.

"Sarah," he said. There was a peculiar calm to his voice, a lifesaver for her to grab on to, to keep her from drowning in fear.

"I saw him this morning..."

"Listen to me." He spoke slowly and deliberately, his eyes peering into hers, forcing her to focus. "There is something bad going on." He spoke the word carefully, so that Sarah knew it wasn't over-exaggeration and it caused Sarah's focus to return. She met his steely gaze, embraced the comfort it provided. The fear that threatened to consume her retreated.

"We have got to get out of here, do you understand me?"

Sarah nodded and said, "Yeah."

Just then, Joel's attention was grabbed by their shadows moving across the wall. A vehicle had just pulled into the driveway, its headlights shining through the windows, filling the den with light.

"Tommy," her father said, exhaling a sigh of relief. He grabbed Sarah's wrist and headed toward the front door. "C'mon."