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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, ...
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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."
"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.
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…”
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.
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.
Monday, March 27, 2017
Saturday, March 25, 2017
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.
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.
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."
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Joel Shepard got home late. He pulled his beat-up Chevy pick-up into the driveway, turned off the engine and sat for a moment, exhausted, under a full moon in the dead of a Texas night. He grabbed the keys from the ignition and looked glumly at the dark house before him: a two-story tract home on a half-acre lot with wood-siding. A rocking chair sat on the narrow porch by the front door. He grunted, opened the truck door and climbed out. It was another red-letter day at the job site. The crew was now down to five and was six weeks behind. And the client, now at the end of his rope, was threatening lawsuits.
As he walked heavily to the front door, his cell phone rang. He glanced down, saw the number and cursed to himself. More problems. It didn’t seem this day would ever end. He shook his head as he flipped it open. "For chrissake. What now?"
It was his brother Tommy.
"Just got off the phone with Lance,” Tommy sighed. “Whatever's going around, apparently he's got it too."
"So," Joel said, his blood pressure rising. "No tile guy."
"No tile guy," his brother confirmed.
"That's just..." He was on the verge of swearing, but didn't have the energy. Instead, he fumbled with the keys in his hand. "This whole job's going south, Tommy. And the goddamn contractor is nowhere to be found."
"If he's sick, he's sick. Not much you can do --"
Joel opened the door to his house and stepped inside. "Tommy. Tommy," he interrupted. "He is the contractor." He caught his temperature rising and lowered his voice. "He is the contractor, okay? I can't lose this job."
"What is it about 'sick' you don't understand?"
Joel caught a glimpse of the ten year-old asleep on the sofa. "I understand."
"Look. I'll call around, find someone."
"Lets talk about this in the morning, okay?" He flipped the switch by the door. The girl stirred as a soft glow of light filled the den.
"Hell, maybe I'll do it. How far along was he?"
"We'll talk about it in the morning."
"All right," Joel said. "Goodnight." He flipped the phone off and tossed the keys on the coffee table.
Yawning, the young girl sat up on one elbow. "Hey," she said, squinting up at him.
"Scoot," was all he could muster. She made room for him and he let his body collapse into the leather cushions.
"Fun day at work?"
Joel took a long look at her. She was in her plaid, thread-bare pajama bottoms and had one tee-shirt over another. Leather bracelets encircled her wrist and she wore a choker with beads around her neck. Her name was Sarah and she had a style all her own. Wheat-colored hair like her mother's which she preferred to keep short, an aversion to make-up, to boys, and especially dresses.
But that wonderful Texas drawl of hers? That was all Joel.
Her father gave her a sideways glance. "What are you still doing up?" He propped his head upright with tired fingers. "It's late."
"Oh crud what time is it?" She spun around and looked at the clock on the wall above the sofa.
Joel knew what time it was without lifting a muscle. "It's way past your bedtime,” he told her.
"But it's still today," she stated plainly, as if it were an indisputable fact. She always had a way of spinning things to her advantage, a trait she definitely didn't pick up from him.
With a burst of ten year-old energy, she scrambled to the far end of the sofa and reached for something hidden in the shadows.
Joel had a vague idea what was coming. "Honey, please not right now. I do not have the energy for this."
Ignoring his plea, Sarah popped up and confronted him with an outstretched arm. "Here."
In her hand was a square gray box.
"What's this?" Joel reached out and took it from her.
"Your birthday," Sarah replied, again stating the obvious.
He opened the box. An overwhelming sense of appreciation swept over him and he struggled hard to contain it.
"You kept complaining about your broken watch, so I figured, you know..." She ended the sentence with a shrug.
He removed the watch and sat the box down on the coffee table. He was too exhausted to handle the feelings that threatened to reveal themselves, and so to avoid them, he focused on fastening the watch to his wrist.
"You like it?"
The truth was he loved it. But hard knocks had taught Joel to keep his emotions at arm's length, and so the protective shield went up. He tapped the watch face and - making a face - said, "Honey, this is nice, but..."
"What?" There was a trace of panic in her voice.
He held the watch up to his ear. "It's nice but I think it's stuck. It's..." He made a helpless shrug.
Instantly Sarah panicked. "No, no, no..." She grabbed his wrist as her face went pale. A second passed... a second she noted by the ticking of the hand on Joel's watch, and her color returned.
"Oh ha ha," she said, pushing his arm away. She stretched out on the sofa away from him.
"Where'd you get the money for this?"
"Drugs," she said over her shoulder. "I sell hardcore drugs."
"Oh good." He settled into the sofa and grabbed the remote. "You can start helping out with the mortgage then."
She snorted. "You wish."
* * *
After over an hour of flipping channels, decompressing from an entire day spent putting band-aids on a sinking ship, Joel switched off the television. His worries had eased, thanks to the midnight marathon episodes of real-life lumberjacks, but a few concerns still bubbled to the surface. His earlier joke to Sarah about helping out with the mortgage had a kernel of truth. He was behind on the mortgage, not to the point of imminent foreclosure, but being behind on the house payment was never a good thing.
And this business with the construction crew was troublesome. Never before had he encountered so many setbacks related to crews not showing up. A typical nail-bender like himself knows you only get paid if you do the work. Construction workers ain't salaried and they ain't protected by the union. If a guy called in sick, you could bet your ass he's laid out at home and coughing up a lung. One, two guys on a crew sick? He guessed it was possible.
But five? Six? No, there had to be something else going on. Something serious.
If you listened to the news, with its tendency to exaggerate everything, you'd think the world was coming to an end. Skyrocket admittance to hospitals, people dropping at bus stops, in check-out lines, the post-office. There was even a local story of a woman who passed out behind the wheel of her SUV and careened into a bus load of school children. Thank God the kids weren't hurt, but Jesus...
And there were other news articles lurking in between the headlines of the flu epidemic. These were much more troublesome and so Joel steered his attention away from them, but you couldn't get some of them out of your head, like "mass-hysteria" and "brutal family slaying" and the worst: "man kills wife before feasting on family dog."
Christ, he thought, watching the scrawl at the bottom of the screen before flipping the television off for good. What in the world is going on?
He looked at Sarah sleeping peacefully beside him and he fought for some comforting thoughts, thoughts to replace the troubling images swirling in his head. Tomorrow was Friday, thank God, and that meant the weekend was near. He was looking forward to Sarah's soccer game in the afternoon - she was the team's star performer. Watching her shine on the field would do a lot to alleviate the worries from his shoulders.
He struggled to his feet, scooped Sarah up in his arms and carried her off to bed.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Monday, March 13, 2017
Here is his insightful gem:
I know what you're thinking. This is a joke, right?
Mr. Gaines was serious and in his own way, Gaines was a genius. He was trying to impart something important to the beginning writer. If you compare yourself to Stephen King, or John Grisham, you're dead before start. You'll freeze up and justly so. Your first-time attempt can't be as good as theirs because they're masters at writing. But your first-attempt might be as good as their first-time attempt. Maybe even better. But the real truth is, it doesn't matter.
He told the class this: "Pay attention to the student who drops on my desk a three-hundred page manuscript by the end of the semester. If I had to bet who out of the class will make it as a writer, he or she would be my number one pick."
How can he say that without even judging the quality of the work? Crossing the finishing line reveals more about the character of the writer than any specific writing sample ever could.
Mr. Gaines, with his down-to-earth logic was attempting to demystify the novel for us newbies. He was trying to get us to remove it from the lofty perch we had placed it upon.
Think about it.
If you were to make a decision to complete a marathon, would you go find one tomorrow and jump right in? No. You'd pick a date a year in advance, and then you'd start training, a little bit every day, or every other day. You'd start off running/walking a mile. And when your lung capacity increased, you'd stretch it to two miles. After several weeks, you might find yourself running five or six miles three or four days a week! Imagine that. Others would look at you and say, "Well, sure. He's a runner," much the same way we look at published authors and say, "Well, sure. He's a writer."
A first-time novel doesn't have to be good, it just has to be.Become like a freight train and write with abandon! Write without looking back. Set a target for yourself, a weekly goal, something easy for you to achieve, then increase it as you gain proficiency.
Never ever judge the work as you go along. That's like starting your marathon training, and, after having to walk after the first mile, giving up. It makes total sense for you to have to walk, there's no shame in it. You simply haven't developed the lung capacity yet.
Writing is no different. You can't be expected to write like Hemingway the first hundred pages, because at that point, even Hemingway didn't write like Hemingway! What Hemingway did do, and you can too, is stick with it. That's the difference between a wisher and a doer.
It's easy to do if you keep the truth in front of you: A book is nothing more than a bunch of pages filled with words. You can write a bunch of pages, can't you?
Sure you can.
If you were a gamer extraordinaire, then the elusive and highly sought-after Katana was yours to proudly display on your Master Chief back. Securing this ultimate boon wasn't easy. You had to get every achievement, forty-nine of them in fact, and while most of them were fairly easy to achieve, there was one or two that were extremely difficult.
Among these was the "Two For One" achievement: Score a Double Kill with a single spartan laser shot in a ranked free for all playlist (online).
This one ate my biscuits. It was impossible. I spent more time than I care to admit trying to achieve that bugger. Then, a friend of mine from work told me he had gotten it easily. By cheating.
Apparently, there were enough frustrated gamers out there struggling to achieve this elusive task that they formed an alliance and talked of their plans on a popular message board. If you reconfigured the language on your xbox so that you were able to join them in a match, then everyone playing could 'assist' everyone else by achieving the impossible.
I did this, got the Katana, but felt terrible about it afterwards. The victory tasted like ashes. So, in order to redeem myself and restore honor to the Halo universe and the Katana which it represented, I proudly present my legitimate (and extremely LUCKY) securing of the achievement: Two For One.