The Swarm and the Flyer – Chapter 4: Tuneups in the Dark

Welcome back to my Thursday night creative writing series! Thank you for taking some time out of your busy schedule to check out my latest work of fiction, The Swarm and the Flyer. If you enjoy old-school horror, some gore and action, post-apocalyptic fiction with strong leads and an unusual amount of emotional depth, then this tale may just be for you.

Elevator Pitch

After losing his father and being cheated on by his boyfriend, Rayland Mark Calderón must try 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 an acro yogi who can’t return Rayland’s romantic feelings, even if Rayland can help Josiah reunite with his deeply religious family.

It Comes at Night.jpg

“The Triumph of Death,” by Pieter Brugel (as seen in the movie It Comes at Night)

 

Chapter 4

Tuneups in the Dark

 

I’m the first one in the garage, and I hold my flashlight out like a peace-offering to the darkness. Thunder trots past me and disappears in between the boxes full of strangers’ belongings. I inch forward as soon as I spot Thunder heading for the hole in the window, the same one that he escaped out of less than a couple of hours ago. “Thunder, sit!” Both Josiah and I say it in unison, and we snort before laughing at each other.

Josiah waves me on before tiptoeing to the workbench that’s next to the broken window. “I’ll board it up. Give me two minutes.”

I snatch up Thunder’s leash and give him a gentle tug while Josiah moves our bikes away from the workbench. Then he props our last sheet of plywood against the window overlooking the front lawn of the Tri House. Thunder whimpers before spinning around my legs a couple of times.

“Easy buddy,” I murmur, then look off into the blackest corner of the garage. I know he’s gotta be feeling guilty for having escaped earlier. What’s happened is past, though, and the three of us are still alive. That’s all that matters.

But it’s that unclear timeline of me living that makes my stomach turn and my skin prickle with goosebumps.

I cast my light over the nearest stack of boxes, my eyes catching on one specific box. TEXTBOOKS is scrawled across the side in Adam’s handwriting. I gulp down more of the stale air before closing my eyes. There was a monster in the dark, after all.

While Josiah hammers away, I glance down at the toolbox I’ve got in my other hand. Between our two flashlights, we should be able to see well enough to work on our bikes. Last time we’d checked, Josiah’s chain wasn’t gliding smoothly at all. We’re gonna have to change that. Out in the open, sound seems to attract the Swarm, more so at night. Josiah and I figure that’s when they’re most active.

I study my friend for a few seconds, watching as he drives a couple of nails through the plywood with careful swings of the former homeowner’s hammer. Then, deciding against just being a lump on a log, I scoot my butt up against the wood.

Josiah works without words, his eyebrows furrowing in concentration after he’s given me a thankful nod. I look away from the harsh glare of my flashlight and out into the settling night, which is cut up into amber grids of faint moonlight by the mesh screen that’s barely hanging on to the garage window.

Eight nails later, we both step back to admire Josiah’s work — and bump our hips against the green work table directly behind us. Josiah chuckles to himself before swiping his dusty hands together. “That should hold for a while. Thanks for your help.”

I make a hat-tipping motion, then let Thunder loose and drop my flashlight into my now free hand. “Anytime.”

Our next step is to tune up Josiah’s bike. I set my toolbox down on the table before Josiah hoists his bike up and balances the front wheel on the nearest pallet. “Looks like the barrel adjuster is off on your rear derailleur,” I say, latching my index finger onto the hanger bolt before giving it a good wiggle. Then I glance up at Josiah and add, “Just like you suspected.”

“This is the part where you say you never doubted me for a second,” he replies with a grunt. When I laugh, Josiah finds it in himself to crack a sliver of a smile.

I get to work, slipping my Philips head screwdriver into the top adjustment screw. The little black ‘H’ on the body of the pulley is now mostly scraped away from years of Josiah lugging his bike around, hauling it into the back of a dozen different teammates’ cars, all that fun triathlon stuff. I rack my brain while twisting the screwdriver. Why is it so hard for me to remember the last race that Josiah and I did together?

Our last step is to index Josiah’s gears, which just means to smooth out the bike’s shifting. It doesn’t take me more than a couple of revolutions of the rear wheel for both of us to hear the dull metallic clang of the chain snapping down to each subsequent gear. After Josiah raises his bike so that the back wheel is off the ground, I crank the pedals and turn the barrel adjuster counter-clockwise. A couple of twists later, the chain is finally clear of the right sprocket and no longer rubs up against it.

Okay, this silence is killing me.

“Sorry I was pushy earlier about Thunder,” I say, watching Josiah flex his thick fingers while he squeezes his handlebars. “It’s just…been harder for me to stay here.”

“You’re on a long healing process,” Josiah says, his eyes glimmering when he glances at the cracked door leading back into the Tri House. “We’ve made a lot of memories here. This place feels like a shell of the house we used to know, now that it’s just us.”

I give the crank another pull and listen. The chain shift with a much cleaner snip, snip, snip. Just when I think I can exhale in relief, Josiah adds, “I’m sorry I haven’t been giving you as much space as you’ve wanted.”

It takes me two seconds to help Josiah ease his rear tire back to the oil-stained ground, but that’s more than enough time for me to be thrown off kilter. I stare through the blur made by the spinning spokes of Josiah’s tire and rest my hand on his bike seat. “I don’t even know what I need right now,” I whisper, wiping the black grime from my hands with the red rag I left hanging out of my back pocket. Then I hold the rag out. Josiah bows slightly before taking it. “Time to mourn for our dead teammates. Time to hate Adam. Time to just be fucking mad at the Swarm.”

I only have enough energy in me to set my screwdriver back in my toolbox. Then I slide down the side of the workbench before I’m full-on crying. I keep quiet, scared that I might wake the dead if anyone else can hear me sobbing. Josiah sets his bike to the side before sitting next to me.

“I can’t even feel happy,” I begin, curling my knees up to my chest. “Not since my dad died. Not since Adam left me.” I rub away the heaviest of my tears. “Obviously not since the Swarm came. But…there’s a lot I wish I’d said to my dad. About me being gay. About him not getting it, y’know?”

Josiah’s smile cracks with the knowing. “I think I do. My dad’s been the same way. Plus, my mom won’t even talk about me coming out.”

We both press our hands together and stare at the oil-stained garage floor. Josiah takes a shaky breath. I press my hands together and curse them: parents. What the hell do they know, anyway?

I speak. “Whatever happens tomorrow, thank you.” Our eyes meet. “For being there when my world went to hell.”

Josiah puffs out his lower lip, the softening of his eyes clear as day even in the small pool of light we’re huddled around. He speaks. “It’s the least I can do. And yeah, I’m hoping for the best tomorrow too. We’ve been relying on our own inaction for longer than I’m comfortable with.” Then Josiah clasps his hand around his other wrist and smiles at me. “We’ll move on from the Tri House. Together.”

Wings seem to flutter in my chest, and the fluttering only gets faster once he’s helped me to my feet. Then we drift back inside, letting Thunder lead the way. I cast one last look over my shoulder at my black Vilano bike, which rests away from Josiah’s bike, on the other side of a few boxes that never belonged to us.

 

—————

 

While Josiah washes up with the last jug of water we propped up in the upstairs bathtub, I sprawl out on the guest bed that isn’t mine and sink into the coldness of a comforter that still doesn’t feel right. It’s both a blessing and a sickening reality: the middle bedroom, the one I’d once claimed as my own when I was still living here, had been turned into a brightly colored nursery by the young couple that rented the house after us. Neither Josiah or I have opened that door lately. Though the crib is empty inside, the relatively new carpet is pure white and still holds the scent of freshly polished wood. My gut crawls every time I think about how clean and untouched the room looks, knowing that the crib will forever be an empty shell. There was never any joy, never any crying spells or diaper changes done in that room.

I reach for my phone and unlock it, grateful that I’m finally feeling less paranoid about conserving the battery. Josiah had found a power capsule with a full charge during our second-to-last raid. It was enough to give both of our phones a charge up to 50%. I dial my voicemail and swallow, wondering if what I’m about to do will be the last thing cellphones will ever be good for in this new world.

“Hey baby, give me a call.” My mom’s voice comes through clearly, her voice barely tinged with worry. She had left that message only an hour after the very first story about the man in Laguna Hills who was blown apart had aired on the news. I stare up at the ceiling, my eardrum tingling. “Just wanted to make sure you’re safe. Lorena and the kiddos are with me here in Temple. We’re safe.” A pause that’s unusually long for my mom, who never hesitates in her speech. “I love you”

Then the automated voice of a woman who now sounds way too human-like comes on: “To replay this message, press 1. To delete-”

I hit the “9” key, then exhale with my lungs shaking as she says, “Message saved. Next saved message.”

Now the more dire voicemail. One mom had left me on the third day of the Swarm’s arrival while I had been helping Adam unpack his luggage at our new place. “Rayland, baby, please, if you can get through to me somehow, please call me. They’re saying on the news that there’s a lot of signal interference…So please, call me back. I know we’re not supposed to travel, but Lorena and I-” Then her tears came spilling out. My face crumples, and I have to pull my phone away from my ear to get away from my mom’s static-laced sobs.

“I’m here, ma. I’m still here…”

I save the second message and sniff. When the female voice says, “Saved message” again, I instantly hang up and toss my phone across the comforter. I know the next voice will be Adam’s, and I can’t bring myself to listen to his words again. To hear him swear that he loves me in that gentle tone that had gotten my defenses down way too much.

The restroom door swings opens. I hop off the bed and grab the last clean folded towel out of the closet that my roommates had once called their own. I step up to the cracked bedroom door, feeling my heart drop when I catch a glimpse of Josiah, towel around his waist, before he disappears into his room. “Restroom’s all yours!” His voice is friendly but distant.

I dart into the bathroom and shut the door behind me. The glow of the camping lantern on the counter bobs and flickers across the shower tiles. I take two steps in before my bare feet get wet. With a sigh, I look down at the spots of water that Josiah left in his wake. Adam used to be notorious for not drying off his feet after he’d taken a shower. Great, another memory.

Without a care, I slump down against the door and bury my face in my hands. This towel isn’t mine. These walls no longer hold the promise of a great triathlon club, only the fading echoes of our voices. Coming back here to hold out against the Swarm was the worst idea, and now I’m sitting in the graveyard of my best memories, trying to sift through the best times while fighting off what I don’t want to remember.

End of chapter 4

Tune in next Thursday as Rayland and Josiah make their trip to find a working CB radio and try to get in contact with anybody left alive in the Swarm’s wake of destruction.

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