Welcome back to my post-apocalyptic series! If you haven’t heard, my two most recent novels are all about Rayland Mark Calderón trying to escape the Swarm, a flock of cloud-like creatures that have wiped out much of the human race with their deadly sonic wave attacks. The only problem is, Rayland is outrunning the Swarm alongside Josiah Knect, his last living teammate and acro yogi who can’t return Rayland’s romantic feelings, even in the midst of the apocalypse.
“And then the nightmares will begin.”
Chapter 3 (continued…)
Steeped In Uncertainty
The first sign that things were very wrong came with the news reports that aired in late May, back when I was house hunting with my then-boyfriend Adam. One man in Laguna Hills, California had been walking by the beach when people saw him start to panic and scream about something ringing in his ears. Some God-awful noise that he screamed was splitting his head open. Witnesses said they saw what looked like storm clouds rolling in from the coast, but that they then started to move purposefully, following the man like they were alive. Like they were conscious.
Not ten seconds later, there was a deafening boom: the man’s skull — or what remained of it — was smashed across the wooden boardwalk and sand. The clouds receded and disappeared somewhere over the ocean in seconds. People screamed and scrambled for cover like they were the ones who’d lost their head.
It didn’t take long for the body count to rise. The stories started trickling in one by one, some separated by weeks, others by only days. A woman in Canada was found with the remains of her two infant twins in their Jeep Grand Cherokee seventeen miles southeast of Quebec. The entire left side of their vehicle had been ripped to shreds, like a huge pair of teeth had taken a chunk out of it. Their bodies had been torn apart and scattered across the floor of pine needles and broken tree branches.
When I saw that second report, I reached over and slipped my hand into Adam’s. “Oh my God, how awful,” Adam said, shaking his head and pressing his fingertips against his lips. I wrapped my arm around his shoulders, my stomach doing a somersault when the news anchor pursed her lips and said, “Be warned, the images you are about to see are quite disturbing.”
“What the hell are those things,” I muttered, my brain not comprehending the footage of the purple masses that rolled in from the sea. Adam adjusted his glasses before leaning his head on my shoulder.
It had to be something other than “ultra-high frequencies,” as a scientist from Penn State specializing in electroacoustics had called it during a news interview we had watched in mid-June. I didn’t suspect anything less than aliens, some nano AI experiment gone wrong, or, hell, even ghosts. The haze and glimmering bodies that took no particular form might have passed for clouds on any other day, but not that night.
There would be way more speculation in the coming weeks. Things neither I nor Adam would be able to make sense of.
I round the corner and slow down. Josiah’s sitting on the hearth with his shirt off. He only has to spot the legal pad in my hand before he flashes me a thumbs up. “Hopeful news, I hope?”
“Eleven cans of veggies, nine bottles of water, six cans of tuna, another six of mixed fruit, and four boxes of crackers.” I sigh and slump onto the couch that neither of us had recognized when we first got back to the Tri House. Then I flash my buddy a self-assured shit-eating grin. “Said tuna is still not vegan friendly. Sorry.”
Josiah’s smile grows, even as he squints and folds his hands in his lap while he tries to think of the bright side. “Ahh, no worries. Food is food.” He shifts on his folded legs before furrowing his eyebrows. “Hopefully I can get by without eating any animals. But I won’t be too optimistic.”
“You can hope,” I say, leaning my head back and studying the faded pastel walls of the dining room. The candlelight and the glow from the two lanterns on the dining room table cast agitated shadows across both me and Josiah, and through the railing of the stairs, which rise into the darkness above.
The Tri House, though older and a little rough around the edges, had captured my heart from the get go. Hell, even if it had been built in 1993, the house had still kept up with all of our indoor bike riding and outdoor grilling shenanigans. It had definitely held up to most of our triathlon club’s antics.
I stare up at the low-hanging candle-style chandelier above me and curl my lips inwards. This place has seen more than its fair share of flings and fallouts, too. Some of which I still rightfully own up to.
I press my palms against my temples, though I know the tinny buzzing of the Swarm is only a memory replaying itself in my restless mind.
Josiah purses his lips so that he makes a squeaking noise of contemplation. “That CB radio idea you’ve been juggling with…I’m starting to think it’s our best bet.”
“It’s a risk, though. The truck’s two streets over,” I reply, rubbing my thighs through my basketball shorts before I toss the legal pad onto the glass table. Then I exhale. “At least, that’s where it was, like, four months ago.”
Josiah raises one leg and plants it on the brick hearth. The semi, a bright green and white cab, had always been parked out in front of a house that I had run by countless times during my solo night jogs. How long will it take us to bike over there tomorrow night? Three minutes, maybe less? Either way, it has to be right before sunset. From what Josiah and I have learned, the Swarm only seem to come out around midday and at night. Never at dawn or dusk.
The last time I’d seen them out in broad daylight had been almost two months ago. Back on the train tracks. Back when there had been ten of us, not just me and Josiah.
My eyes burn and sting. Rich, Gabby, Sarah, Brandon….none of them will know what it means to survive another day in a world where the Swarm reign. Or spend another ounce of strength fighting to get back to their own families.
Two fists ball themselves up in my stomach before they come crashing together. I couldn’t save them. Just like I couldn’t stop Adam or his sister from walking out that front door.
“I’m down to go,” Josiah says, snapping me out of my painful daze. “We should double-check our bikes tonight, just to make sure they’re in working order.”
“Yeah, sure,” I say, sitting up before I unwrap my arms from around my knees. “Then we’re a go for the semi plan. Let’s go tomorrow, right before sunset.” Now I can sit up to face Josiah. “If the semi’s still there, if it still has enough battery power, then maybe we can use the radio and get out to someone.” That feels like an exponential number of ifs.
“Maybe even my family,” Josiah says, glancing in the general direction of my notepad. “If anybody could’ve lasted for this long, it’s them.”
Mr. and Mrs. Knect, and Josiah’s younger brother and sister. They had to have heard the news, probably found a way to hunker down in Argyle and outsmart — or at least hide from — the Swarm.
So then, what the hell else is it gonna take for me to start focusing more on finding his family and less on the fact that Josiah’s pecks only gleam a certain way by the light of this camping lantern?
I close my eyes and swing my head from side to side, as if I can will Josiah’s light purple shirt from The Yoga Movement back onto his stocky chest. I have a decent handle on the physical contact and the separation part — we do sleep in the two rooms farthest apart upstairs, after all. But it still slips Josiah’s mind from time to time that walking around in just his navy blue yoga shorts flicks a certain switch of mine. Y’know, the one that precludes me dropping my pants and getting naked with another guy.
A light wind rustles the trees outside. The Tri House shifts and lets its joints settle with a low sigh.
But Josiah and I need each other, and in some ways the duality of that message makes me hurt more than the ache that keeps threatening to swallow me up from the inside out. Lust. No, it’s more like how the song by A Perfect Circle goes:
Run, desire, run
Run him like a blade
To and through the heart
No conscience, one motive
Cater to the hollow
Josiah spins his legs out in front of him before he catapults to his feet. Then relief floods me the second he grabs his shirt, throws it up into the air, and dives into it with a little hop. His curls spiral out before he blinks at me. “Shall we?” Josiah juts his thumb towards the garage door. Our bikes. Right.
“Yeah. Let’s do it.”
End of chapter 3