Good evening, WordPress community! I hope your night has been treating you well. I’m happy to report that I successfully moved into my new apartment this past weekend! There’s nothing quite as peaceful as living alone, and I’m starting to get used to this newfound freedom. I’m also looking forward to hosting small dinners and get-togethers with my awesome group of friends and acro yogis!
Tonight, I’d like to present the first chapter of my newest novel, The Swarm and the Flyer. I’m right in the middle of my first round of edits, and I’ve been further developing my characters while also adding additional layers to my subplots, which I feel I skimped out on as I wrote my first draft. But hey! That’s why true writers stay just as focused and determined during subsequent rewrites.
For those who read my first version of this chapter, I want you to know that I made a couple of changes. As always, I would love to receive your feedback, thoughts, and wishes. I value them all!
Without further ado, I present…The Swarm and the Flyer.
The Swarm and the Flyer
The Tri House
I’m not afraid to die. Not by losing myself in my hatred for my ex-boyfriend. Not by the sonic waves of the Swarm that can blow me apart in an instant…like they did for so many of my teammates. For so many of my friends.
But I am afraid of surviving in this wasteland alongside my last remaining teammate, a guy named Josiah Knect, who doesn’t seem like he’ll ever give in and admit that the world we know is really gone.
That’s what I keep telling myself I’m scared of, at least. Until they arrive with the latest gusts of wind in the night, ushering in a muted tension that blankets the Tri House.
“Rayland, what is it?” Josiah slips the last of three fresh AAA batteries into his MagLite before flicking his deep-set eyes my way. I set my pen and paper down on the kitchen table, the muscles along my spine tightening as I look from Josiah to the boarded-up back door. The plywood sheet nailed against it vibrates for half a second, then stops.
In the stillness that elapses between me and Josiah, I can make out another gust of wind slamming the brick walls of the Triathlon House, or Tri House for short. At least, that was the name my roommates and I had given it back in the summer of 2014. Those two years since we last lived here now feel like a decade gone by.
I let my breath out slowly, my t-shirt fluttering against my chest. Josiah turns to face the back door before flexing his forearms. The camping lantern in the center of the glass table we’re sitting at whispers and sighs, the flame dimming as it dances less and less. His shadow is splayed out across the wall behind him, towering higher over the both of us the more our only source of light fades. I glance at the last bottle of Nu-Flame that rests on the window ledge behind Josiah, but my fear over our waning fuel supply burns up when the branches outside creak again. Even with my heart pounding in my chest, I let my ears do the leading, the darkness of the kitchen inching closer to us across the tiled floor.
From the second tier of the Tri House’s raised backyard, Thunder begins to bark. I can hear the raw fear in his tone as he alternates between snapping yaps and low growls. Josiah and I lock eyes. “Goddammit,” I hiss.
“I thought he was in the garage!” Josiah’s voice goes high-pitched for an instant. I feel for my knife, which is in its sheath at my hip.
“He was. He got out.” Through the window with that single tiny broken pane, Rayland. You freaking idiot.
We rise at the same time, though Josiah’s arms and legs stutter. He cocks his eyebrow and stares half-sideways at me, wrinkles forming on his high forehead. “You sure?”
“It’s Brandon’s dog, man,” I snap, my lips curling in for a moment. “We have to save him.” Josiah’s uncertainty deflates. He presses his lips together and nods.
Leaves lash against the boarded-up windows, the blinds lowered and shut for the past two months. Tree branches creak and groan in the backyard. But we both know it’s no longer the wind passing through.
It’s the Swarm. How many, I don’t know.
Then the tinny humming starts.
“Radios!” I bark it out, then sprint to the nearest counter and snatch up the closest radio out of the sixteen we stacked in neat rows. It’s a red handheld radio, its paint badly faded from years of use. I flip the sliding switch on, then turn the knob to the loudest and most distorted station I can find. The static is music to my ears.
Thunder’s barks are getting more and more panicked. Josiah approaches me as I turn to the kitchen center island, where the six hunting earmuffs he and I had managed to scrounge up rest against one another. I snap one pair over my bushy jet-black head of hair, then let out an irked grunt; a few strands catch in between my ear and the cup, and I have to wiggle them out. I toss Josiah a bright green set next, which he catches, fumbles with for a split second, and then cups over his ears. He doesn’t catch them on his curls, which is surprising, considering how they’ve grown as fast as weeds.
The windows are starting to vibrate.
Josiah and I take turns snatching up one radio after another, flipping each one to a static-laced channel before we hook them onto our shorts. Then he falls in line behind me as I sprint to the back door.
Josiah nods before raising one warbling radio like a pistol. I clutch the doorknob as the six radios clipped to the waistband of my shorts creech at each other. Josiah’s curls bob like a buoy in choppy waters, his hair squished by the band of his earmuffs. The humming outside rises to a roaring buzz, discordant and mechanical in nature, which I can hear even through my earmuffs. I can’t make out Thunder’s yelps anymore.
“Go!” I throw the door open – and the shock of the sound waves nearly brings me to my knees.
I only have to take one step out before I make out the purple and semi-transparent mass swirling overhead. The Swarm loom among the dead tree branches, wailing as they seek Thunder out. With a mighty roar, I raise my first radio and try to use my arm to shield my face from the rain of bark and dead leaves. I have to be pushing crazy, expecting the static to carry over the shrill cries of the creatures. Don’t think, move forward.
I stumble into the dark, Josiah bringing up my rear as the air shimmers in front of me. I have to shut my eyes, the force of the Swarm’s supersonic screeches so strong that I fear my eyeballs might pop. Knowing only a migraine-like pressure in my head and the rippling across my own skin, I belt out a second roar — and this time I can make out their guttural shrieks of pain.
In the swirling chaos, one radio flies past my head, then another. Josiah’s hurling radio after radio up onto the tiered backyard, where only rocks and dirt remain among the barren ground. The cacophony of static grows stronger as I join him, and the Swarm let out another angry wail. I manage to chuck my third radio into the swarm above before falling to my knees, the weight of their sonic forces threatening to shatter my bones. Still the static prevails. Just like General Selva said it would.
A grey blur to my right. Then Thunder is all over me, licking my face and pleading with me. I grab hold of his red and black collar like I’ve done a dozen times before, then swing my hand out and clip Josiah’s bare knee. “I got him!”
Josiah takes my hand and drags me and Thunder inside. Leaves and twigs rain down on us. I stumble and nearly lose my shorts before kicking off the wooden deck, the round grill lid flying inches in front of my head. When I cross the door’s threshold, Thunder already two steps ahead of us, I find it in me to use my feet to push myself forward. Then Josiah swings around the second I land a single kick against the boarded-up door, one of my Brooks running shoes flying off. The door slams shut, and the sudden cessation of air pressure sets off a small explosion of dead leaves and bits of wood, all of which scatter across the kitchen floor. The blast sends me and Josiah flying. My hand grazes his bare thigh, his slightly coarse leg hair.
I’m sprawled out on my back and barely even able to grin. Thunder licks my face over and over again, his breath fogging up my vision. When my pulse finally starts to drop, I jerk my earmuffs off and listen. The harsh grating of the Swarm fades away somewhere to the southeast.
We did it.
“Oh, Thunder, I’m so glad you’re safe, buddy,” I murmur, sitting up and rubbing him like crazy behind his shaggy grey ears. Thunder looks so proud for having survived, his tongue lolling out and his teeth flashing in the pale glow of the lantern. I don’t even have it in me to scold Thunder for escaping from the garage.
“He’s a fighter,” Josiah says, exhaling before he spreads his arms out like he’s about to make a snow angel out of the twigs and leaves. His earmuffs tumble out of his hand and across the messy floor. Then Josiah lifts his head and beams at me. “Just like you and me.”
I cough out a couple of fragments of leaves before returning Josiah’s winded smile. I have to pull my shorts up, trying not to look down at the exposed waistband of my boxers. If Josiah notices, his eyes don’t show any signs of embarrassment or averting
Just like you and me.
Outside, the scattered radios keep playing their same static song. I close my eyes and wish that the ‘you and me’ I have with Josiah Knect isn’t so complicated.
We wait another fifteen minutes to make sure the Swarm are gone before going back outside. Thunder yaps and clamors at our legs, trying to keep me and Josiah from going back out there.
“Easy, boy,” I murmur, trying my best to rub him so that he’ll calm down. “We gotta go back out.”
Those radios are our weapons, after all.
“Stay here, buddy,” Josiah adds with a gentle scratching behind Thunder’s ears. I notice how Josiah has to tense his shoulders and legs to keep himself from crouching and talking on Thunder’s level. “It’s safer. I promise.”
I want to believe that we’ve grown perceptive enough. That Josiah and I will always pick up on the Swarm’s otherworldly grating and the howling wind they ride in on at least a minute or two before they arrive, but I can’t bet my life on that.
We lost too many friends…too many teammates who made that mistake.
This time I open the door, Josiah raising his flashlight with a swift jerk and casting its beam into the darkness. Counting the last two radios I have clipped to my waistband, I unsheathe my hunting knife. Though I doubt that a couple of Buck hunting knives will do us any good.
Out on the back deck, I kick a couple of downed branches out of the way before leaping onto the second level of the three-level yard, each tier walled off with wooden beams that are almost as thick as my waist. I bend over and pick up the first radio I stumble across, a blue mini USB radio I’d taken off of the grisly remains of one of the neighbors three houses down. The memory of his mangled hand and how his still-warm blood had drenched the radio claws its way back into my head. I shudder and rub my bare biceps before moving on.
“They really hauled it out of here pretty quick.” Josiah stares at the red fence just above us before puffing his chest out. He sounds worn, unsure, but somehow still curious. The Swarm fascinate him, even when he’s living moment to moment in this hell with me.
Somehow I can’t blame the dude, though Josiah’s childlike awe is starting to grate on me. Instead, all I can do is try to shrug off this full-body ache. The minor cut on my left knee has stopped bleeding, but something inside still feels raw. Now’s not the time to start tripping over feelings again, Rayland.
“Hey-ey, this is cute!”
My heart flutters. I turn in time to catch Josiah picking up a Hello Kitty radio that he hadn’t seen yet. He turns it over before shooting me a grin. “Is this the new one you were telling me my sister would love? Cause she totally will!”
I smile for the first time that night, though my cheeks are sagging in the darkness behind my flashlight. I wanted to show that Hello Kitty radio to Josiah to brighten his day yesterday, since I know that his younger sister, Marie, loves (or loved…) Hello Kitty. But I also want to forget those creeping images that have kept me up late for the past couple of nights.
The mustiness of the house I’d explored by myself before Josiah had come back, the one across the street and down the block a half a mile…
How clean the kid’s room on the second floor had been, the bright pink wallpaper and stuffed animals neatly lined up on a shelf suddenly igniting a flicker of hope within me. One that made me sheath my knife and let go of the walkie-talkie clipped to my back pocket.
Then I’d seen the little girl’s body slumped against the wall in the closet, the accordion doors almost completely obliterated.
Her face swirls into an unrecognizable blur in my head, and I blink twice before the last traces of her body are gone. “Yeah…I thought it was sweet.”
In total we pick up all sixteen radios. I thank the Universe for all of them being intact and still working, even the one with the now-flimsy antenna. The second-to-last one that Josiah snatches up has its battery back popped open, but he finds both AAA batteries amid the blanket of leaves and rocks a few seconds later. I breathe a sigh of relief, thinking there might just be a God after all.
I never thought that pocket radios, walkie-talkies, and AAA batteries would become so damn precious to me. To both of us. In the peaceful stillness that swallows us up, I can feel a world where there are still lights on in some of the houses in this neighborhood.
Back inside, Josiah and I triple check each device. Other than a couple of scratches on the side of mine, they look fine and still work. I even finds a station playing an older Huey Lewis and the News song, although the signal is weak as shit. I start to tap my bare foot against the bottom cabinet of the center island, then grin to myself while Josiah refills the lantern. Mom and dad had driven to this song one lazy evening back in Odessa. I was in the back seat, rocking my head to the music and trying my best to sing along.
Mom…Lorena…I’ll find you both again soon. I promise.
I turn to Josiah in time to see him hold up a yellow Garmin radio, the antenna that was holding on by a plastic thread now completely broken off in his other hand. Josiah’s frown is exaggerated, but the pain in his eyes is not.
I lean my head against the island and squeeze my eyes shut. “Dammit.”
Fifteen working radios left.
End of Chapter 1