Sunday, 19 June 2016

When the children come - chapter 2

I've not been blogging much recently, mainly because I've been working and traveling like crazy, and working on three novels simultaneously. Don't know what's got into me. But whatever it is, it is trying to get out.

So, here's chapter 2 of 'When the children come'. If you missed chapter 1, it's here.

It's about a man who hates kids. Then he notices they are disappearing. In fact they're being killed. And it turns out he's the only one who can save them.

Of course that's what it's about on the surface. What's it really about? Well, for that you'll have to read it.

Oh, and last time i'll say it, kids are disappearing, because they're being killed. The story isn't gratuitous about this, but it is central to the story, So if that turns you off, just don't read any further.

Chapter Two
Sally was well hidden in his Corvette, under a blanket, behind the driver’s seat. Lara rolled her eyes when she saw the red sports car. “Glad we can travel incognito,” she said.
            “At least it’s fast.”
            They got in. She popped open the glove compartment, pulled out its main item. “Loaded?”
            “You’re not a NRA nut, are you?”
            He shook his head, turned the ignition key and rolled the car up the ramp into the daylight. He pulled away fast enough to outpace three men who saw them emerge and walked towards them, but not so fast as to look suspicious. Once they were on the move, he spoke to Sally.
            “Sally, you can come out now.”
            “No. They mustn’t see me.”
            At least she was speaking. He’d not had a peep out of her yet. “Why don’t you tell us what’s going on?”
            There was a pause. “Timmy’s dead.”
            Nathan hit the brakes. The Corvette skidded to a halt.
            Sally shrieked. “Don’t stop! They’ll find me!”
            “Drive, Nathan,” Lara said.
            He stared at her, but Lara wasn’t looking at him. He followed her gaze to a cluster of men on the street corner looking his way. He smiled at the men, and took off again.
            “Who’s Timmy?” Lara asked.
            “Her younger brother,” Nathan answered. Sally was sobbing.
            They passed a rubbish truck. Not difficult, they seemed to be everywhere.
            “Holy fuck,” Lara said.
            “What?” He turned around to try and see what she’d just seen, but the truck was already behind them.
            “Just drive.” She fumbled with the lock on the glove compartment to get it open, pulled out the Glock, let it rest in her lap. “Don’t stop Nathan. Stay down Sally, you can come out when we’re out of here.” Lara gripped Nathan’s hand. He glanced at her. Her face had gone the same marble white as the running kid he’d seen earlier.
            His army training kicked in. His voice went into its flat mode. “Tell me,” he said. “What you just saw in the rubbish truck. Describe it to me.”
            Lara shrank back into the leather seat. “Kids,” she said. She glanced over her shoulder to where Sally was hidden, then back to Nathan, and said quieter, “Small children.”
            Nathan drove on, tried to process again, to stare things in the face. That was how you survived. See the world as it is, not as you think it is, not as you want it to be, but exactly as it is.
            Parents in the neighbourhood were killing their kids.
            Lara’s hand grew clammy. She didn’t talk any more.
They were effectively behind enemy lines, surrounded by hostiles. This had to be local. Maybe nerve gas, or a virus. Whatever was going on, normal rules no longer applied. Act like the locals, get Sally to a safe haven, Lara too, though he didn’t know if she was in any danger. Mags’ place in the country. Virginia. Their best bet. He thought about calling the Doc. But he was local, might be infected too. He’d call him later, then call some of his buddies in the Mil. But first, get the two civilians out of harm’s way.
It was a twenty minute drive to the highway. There shouldn’t be much traffic on New Year’s Day. He kept to the speed limits, but his accelerator foot remained tense, ready to floor the pedal if required. His window stayed open, and he listened as much as watched. He flinched at hearing a siren, but it was going the other way. Streets were still quiet, even the clusters of men had disappeared. Then he saw people queueing to get into a church. It was clearly packed. No kids. He turned on the radio but only got static, and an uneven beeping noise, like Morse, but faster. Each red light seemed to take forever, even though there was almost no traffic. He only breathed easier when he spied the ramp up to the Freeway. It was open, it was clear. 
            He talked Lara and Sally through his idea of what had happened, reassuring them. Sally stopped sobbing, Lara’s grip on his hand loosened. Lara and Sally started talking to each other once they hit the highway and evergreens began to appear.
             But for Nathan it was like Afghanistan had come to find him. Five years since he’d left, but right now it felt like yesterday. And though Manhattan receded far behind them and the promise of Virginia loomed up ahead, the miles to the exit slowly counting down like last night’s New Year clock, his gut wouldn’t let up. He kept expecting roadblocks, helicopters, mad axe-wielding men to come charging out in front of them like some zombie B-movie. But nothing happened, and an hour later he took the exit to Mags’ neighbourhood. It was going to be okay. It was safe after all. Lara drifted off, and Sally was quiet, no doubt asleep under the blanket.
            As he wound the car up the single track to Mags’ place, he gently prised the Glock from Lara’s fingers, and pocketed it inside his jacket. The car crunched up the gravel driveway to Mags’ ranch house, and he drew to a stop. No sound outside except the cool winter breeze in the barren sycamores.
            “We’re here,” he announced, waking them both.
Lara stirred. She looked for the Glock, guessed Nathan had it. “Give it to me,” she said.
“We’re not here to shoot my sister,” he countered. He reminded himself he knew almost nothing about Lara.
She wouldn’t let it go. “You’re making my point for me. Either give me the gun, or give me the car keys.”
Sally reared up from the back, her face puffy, that sleepy kid smell Nathan detested.
“Stay out of sight, Sally,” Lara said.
She ducked back down.
Out of the corner of his eye, Nathan saw a net curtain pull back, someone peer out from the house. Mags. She came out the door. She looked well. It was going to be okay. Nathan’s gut told him so.
“Neither,” he said to Lara, opened his door and got out.
“Fuck you!” Lara said.
Nathan ignored her, got out of the car, and started walking towards Mags. “Hello, Sis.” He held out his arms and his sister, shorter than him but wider, beamed, and they both entered into their habitual mock bear hug contest. Nathan closed his eyes and squeezed the only person in the world he truly trusted. He was home. He heard Lara walk up behind them.
“Hello Mags,” Lara said. “Us two thought we’d come and thank you for some great sex.” She smiled at Nathan. “Well, above average.”
Nathan returned the smile, but recognised what she was doing: hiding Sally. Lara walked towards Mags, hooked her arm, and walked her towards the house. “And you know how hungry it makes me.”
He followed her lead. Just before he entered by the front porch, he cast a look back to the car. His door wasn’t closed properly. Sally had moved into the bushes. Smart kid. And in that moment he suddenly wondered where Mags’ hubby Phil and the kids were.

Pancakes with maple syrup. Lara devoured three of them. Nathan knew Sally must be hungry, and would smell them from wherever she was hiding. He put two to one side, and glanced at Lara when Mags wasn’t looking, but Lara shook her head a fraction.
Mags chided him. “You gonna’ eat those or start a new religion, Nathan?”
“Yes, Nathan,” Lara joined in, “you didn’t seem to be into delayed gratification last night.”
He sighed and tucked in. “Why do girls always gang up on us men?”
“To keep you in your place, little brother.”
He finished up, leaned back into the deep sofa, nursing a large mug of coffee. Josh’s mug, Darth Vader and Yoda battling with light-sabres. For the first time he considered Yoda’s size. It looked like a child fighting a parent. To the death. He downed the rest of the coffee, bitter dregs catching on the back of his tongue. Mags took the mug and the plates into the kitchen, and started loading the dishwasher.
            “Where’s Josh?” he called out to her.
            The dishwasher closed with a soft click. Mags didn’t answer straight away. “Out back somewheres, with Archie and Phil.”
Lara caught his gaze, locked it in place. He felt compelled to play it out.
            “Can’t hear them, Mags.”
            Another pause. “Probably in the tree-house playing video games, headphones on, you know, disconnected from the real world, like most kids these days.” She came back into the lounge. Nathan’s cocoon of happiness punctured as he saw her face. It was as if she had two faces, one a loose mask over the other. On the surface she looked chummy, happy-go-lucky, but underneath she was drawn, wild. A carving knife hung from Mags’ right hand.
            Nathan swallowed. The Glock was in his jacket hanging by the porch door. Lara had been right. He kept his eyes on Mags.
            “All those years,” she said. “All those years, turns out you had it right, and the rest of us had it all wrong.” Mags glanced at Lara, then Nathan. “I don’t know how you both stood it.”
Mags’ two faces morphed back into one, a coldness rising to the surface. Nathan had seen that look before, a suicide bomber they’d cornered just in time in a village in Helmand Province, locked into his own tortured logic, no reasoning with him. No way back, just wanted to die and go to the afterlife. The Sarge obliged, via a bullet in the bomber’s re-coded brain. But this was Mags, his sister.
“That’s all changed now,” Mags said. “A fresh start.” Her face brightened, that same faraway look in her eyes as if she were glimpsing a better world. “Yes, a new beginning.” She stood between Nathan and Lara, while both of them sat in soft, deep chairs, hard to get out of in a hurry.
“It will all be fine when the children come.”
Nathan had no idea what she meant, but the way Mags looked at him he wasn’t sure it was a good idea to ask.
Lara piped up. “And when will they arrive, Mags?”
Mags turned to Lara, beatific smile gone. Her eyes narrowed. The hand with the knife waved casually at Nathan.
“Stay there, little brother, no need to run around after all that eating.” The knife twisted back towards Lara. “Don’t you know, girl?”
Nathan felt helpless, stuck in that damned sofa. If he tried to clamber out Mags could slash him and still cut Lara. But Lara kept her composure.
“Like you said, Mags, we knew better all along. I’m just checking that you know.”
Mags’ lips twisted. “Nice try.”
Nathan had to act. Mags wouldn’t cut him, he was her brother; that would come through. Anyway, he had to risk it. He launched himself forward as best he could, then dived as a flash of silver whipped past his left eye. He ended up on the floor. Mags screamed like a banshee and raised the knife high, eyes blazing.
His instincts and training kicked in as she fell on him. His foot rose like a piston into her chest as his left hand chopped into her forearm to block the knife, then seize her wrist. His right hand should have slammed into her carotid, but he couldn’t do it. She used all of her weight as she squirmed and shoved, and thumped his face with her free hand, scratching across his eyes so he couldn’t see, all the time screaming and grunting. She kneed him in the balls, and he almost lost his grip on her wrist, felt it slip. He was losing this. His little sister was going to kill him.
A loud crack, louder than thunder. Lara had found the Glock. Hot rain spattered his cheeks. He kept his eyes closed. Mags collapsed on him, dead weight. The knife clinked onto the floor. He let go of her wrist, caught her head and lowered it next to his, like they were embracing. He held her, wrapped her in his arms, fingers clasped behind her back, one last bear hug. Nathan began to sob, just like Sally earlier.

            “Don’t go up there,” Sally said, her body stiff, her hands in small fists by her side.
            Nathan stared up the sturdy oak tree to his hiding place of old, his and Mags’ one refuge from the folks. It looked peaceful. He spotted bird movement in the top-most branches, high above the wooden tree house. Crows. Carrion birds. The rope ladder beckoned. How long since he’d last climbed it? The space between the rungs was smaller than he remembered. Gripping the ladder with both hands, he began the ascent.
            Even before he arrived, he could hear the tell-tale buzzing of insects around a fresh corpse. He paused at the top of the ladder, staring through the doorway. Phil had tried to protect the boys, that much was clear from the gashes to his arms, and the hole in his chest... Mags had slit the two boys’ throats, and it suddenly occurred to him he’d not asked Sally how Timmy had been killed. The three of them looked peaceful, Phil in the middle, the boys on each side in his arms. There were blankets, flashlights, books, all in disarray; Phil and the boys had this yearly ritual of staying up till dawn to see the New Year in. Phil would say that otherwise all your New Year’s resolutions departed with your dreams upon waking. Mags would have none of it, saying it was a dumb idea to start the New Year bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived. Phil hadn’t been too successful, unemployed on and off, scraping through the hard years like so many, but he’d been a good father, one Nathan would have traded for his own in a second.
            Nathan climbed back down.  
“We should bury them,” Sally said.
            Lara eyed him. “What do you think, Nathan?”
            He’d barely spoken to Lara, didn’t know what to say. He’d known her less than twenty-four hours and in that time they’d become lovers, and she’d saved his life by killing his sister. He needed to call someone, get the military involved. He looked up at the sky. No planes, no choppers, yet this house was underneath the flight path to Baltimore International Airport. His ‘local epidemic’ theory wasn’t looking good.
            He couldn’t climb back up there. He looked to Lara, then Sally, both standing apart. Like him, they were barely holding it together. He strode towards the garage.
            “Where are you going?” Lara said.
            “To get some kerosene.”

Working with Lara, he checked the TV channels while she searched the Internet. Even Sally tried, after she found a tablet. Nothing. The Internet was down. The TV was bare, except one channel that had irregular red flashes that gave him a headache. The cell network was down. The landline was dead. It was as if they’d been invaded, without a single bullet being fired, the whole state shut down. He suddenly wondered if it could be some kind of cyber-security attack. That could explain the shutdown, but not the behaviour.
            “Eat something, Sally,” he said.
            “Not hungry,” she replied.
            “Do as you’re told,” he snapped, then caught himself. Jesus, just like his father. “Sally, we’re leaving soon, I don’t know when we’ll next be able to eat. Please.”
            She glared at him, then ran to the kitchen. Cupboard doors slammed, then he heard cereal dumped into a dish, milk sloshed over it.
            Lara appeared. “I found this in the garage.” She handed him a VHF radio, along with the charger. He took it, inspected it, then set it down carefully, knowing it might be the one thing that could get them out of this mess. He watched Lara. Her lips were pressed together, her movements unsure, lacking the grace that had so attracted him last night. 
            “Listen,” he began.
            “No. Don’t you dare forgive me for killing Mags. Don’t thank me either, I was aiming for her chest. Nearly took your head off.” 
He held out his hand, but she didn’t take it.
“We should get moving,” she said.
While Lara got Sally and some provisions into the car, Nathan went back out to the garden, and lit the fuse he’d made earlier from torn sheets. Eager flames licked up the rope ladder, and spread under the tree house.

He drove into the hills, glancing every now and again in the mirror, the pillar of smoke from the tree house barely visible in the late afternoon sky. The VHF sat on the dashboard, crackling once in a while, that fast morse-like code rattling more often than he liked. He’d tried to raise anyone, but just got static.
He found the spot he’d been looking for and pulled over. It was a viewpoint at the top of a zig-zag road ascending the highest hill around. An overflowing trash can and enough room for several cars, a stone-mounted plaque noting an ancient battle site far below against the British. They all got out and approached the edge. You could see for twenty miles. His parents had brought him and Mags here every Sunday he could remember. After each of his two tours, he had come up here to try and anchor himself back into normal life, never truly sure on which side of the looking glass he’d landed. He shaded his eyes. The waxy yellow sun would set in a couple of hours. Pulling out a flask of coffee, he poured a cup for him and Lara, while Sally dug out a Coke Zero.
            Lara stood next to him. He felt the touch of her body. She cleared her throat. “What do you suppose she meant?”
            Nathan closed his eyes. Mags was gone, the kids too. His head spun for a second, his body tensing. He opened his eyes. Lara moved away a fraction, no longer in contact.
“What do you mean?” he said.
            “When the children come.” She moved in front of him. “I don’t get it. They’re killing all the kids. Do they think they’re coming back? Some kind of resurrection?” She walked away, kicked hard at a stone, booting it off the edge. He’d never been allowed to do that.
            NFI, he thought, a joke from the war. No fucking idea. He glanced at Sally. She sat on the edge, her feet dangling over the two hundred foot drop, just like he had all those years ago, secretly hoping his parents would tell him to come back, that it was dangerous. They never even got out of the car.    
            Sally played with the Coke can, shoulders slumped, body listless. Crushed. He put down his coffee, walked right behind her and picked her up, startling her, Lara too. The can pitched over the edge. Sally began fighting him, kicking, thumping his chest with her tiny fists, re-enacting Mags’ attack. “Let me go!” she yelled, as he returned to the car. He held her tight, let her pummel him, till she stopped and buried her head in his shoulder, her body wracked by sobs. She wrapped her small arms around his neck. Lara came over, stared at him awhile.
            “What are we going to do, Nathan?”
The radio crackled alive. A voice, foreign. He could have laughed, life was always best at cruel jokes.
            “What the hell is that?” Lara asked.
Sally lifted her head, her red-rimmed eyes large, hoping he had all the answers, knowing he probably didn’t.
But this time he did. “It’s Afghan,” he said. He put a hand on Lara’s shoulder, and spoke to both of them. “They’re calling for people like us, people not affected.”
Putting Sally down, he picked up the radio, and began talking in pidgin Dari, coming back to English when it got too complex. He had to keep his eyes open, stare out at Virginia, had to remind himself he wasn’t back there. He had to trust these people. It helped that for the first five minutes they clearly didn’t trust him.  
When he finished, he turned to see Lara and Sally waiting, holding hands.
“Let’s go,” he said, then squatted down to Sally’s level. “I’ve found some more kids,” he said.
Sally’s face lit up.
            As they drove onward into dusk, he spotted a police barricade far ahead, lights flashing, and pulled onto a side road. Lara got out the map, and Nathan hugged the small empty roads. It grew dark. He kept his headlights off.
            Lara glanced back to see Sally asleep, then turned back to Nathan. “Why do you think we aren’t affected? It can’t be just because we don’t like kids?”
            “Don’t know. At least we’re not the only ones,” he said, pointing straight ahead to a compound resembling an old fort. As they pulled up, floodlights blinked on, dazzling him, waking Sally with a shriek. He came to a stop, guessed what was coming. He put a hand over Lara’s as heavy footsteps rushed towards them, people yelling in Pashto and Dari and something else, way too fast for him to decipher. Within seconds he felt the familiar cold metal ring that was the pointed end of an AK47 jabbed into his cheek.
            Sally had bolted down behind the seat again. Over their shouting, and in the haze of the floodlights and hand-held flashlight-beams, he spoke calmly to Sally.
            “Sally, I need you to sit up and show yourself. Trust me, they’re on your side. Do it now please, or we’re all dead.”

            The rifle’s nozzle shoved harder, but when Sally stood up in the back, the voices changed tone, and the men withdrew. More shouting, and several women dressed in traditional knee-length skirt and trouser outfits – panjabbi, he recalled – walked quickly from the compound towards the car. When they saw Sally, they broke into a run, arms out-stretched, ululating a familiar welcoming cry. Nathan thought back to his tours in Helmand Province – no prizes for guessing what the guys had nicknamed it – but for the first time since his return, he admitted there were things about it he missed.

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