The Swarm and the Flyer – Chapter 6: The Semi (Part 2)

Persistence is the key to becoming a successful writer.

I’m getting the hang of this. I’ve been showing up and writing five days a week, which is a great start in pursuing my writing career. However, my next goal is to make my blog into a stronger platform, one where networking and swapping comments are more than just “going through the motions.” I want to bring writers together.

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Writing is my passion, but so is bringing outcasts, misfits, and people who lack self-confidence together to spark something bigger and better for everyone involved.

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If you’re here because you might want to support me and my creative writing, then I’m extremely grateful. I hope that you are in search of something similar, so that I can, in turn, give your writing my full attention and heartfelt feedback.

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If you’re new here, my Thursday night writing series is all about The Swarm and the Flyer, my first ever attempt at writing anything remotely horror related. Rest assured, this isn’t a trite retread of The Walking Dead. No, what I’m shooting for with this story, as well as its sequel, The Wrath and the Base, is something much more emotion-focused and theme driven. I don’t just want my characters to have their pitfalls and victories; I need them to carry some heavy themes on broad shoulders, so that the action scenes are just as powerful as the overall messages I want to convey to my readers.

What are these two stories all about? Grief, mainly: the struggle to name it, to integrate it into one’s own life, and to come to terms with how it makes a monster out of us, oftentimes when we want nothing more than to be closer to those around us. To feel heard and recognized by them, even as they turn away from this new and scarier version of our old self. These two tales are also about other issues: being a gay outcast, finding the will to live when much of the world is already wiped out, and having the courage to love and forgive your family after they wound you deeply. But don’t worry, these two books aren’t all gloom and doom. There are wins, big and small. Some will have happy endings when all is said and done.

This is Rayland Mark Calderon’s story, but it is also my own.

 

Chapter 6

The Semi (Part 2)

 

The heavy winter darkness is here.

“I hate these early sunsets,” I mutter, listening to the bushes rustle in the front yard. Josiah and I have our bikes at our sides. We’re standing before the front door. The door that’s been shut for the past six days. He licks his lips before he replies. “Me too.”

Josiah has my portable toolbox in his dark blue drawstring, which rests against his back. I know we’re going to need at least a couple of screwdrivers and ratchets in order to make this work. Especially since neither one of us has ever laid our hands on a CB radio, much less uninstalled one.

When the wind dies down, I pry the front door open, thankful that its hinges don’t squeak. Thunder doesn’t bark at all, only pants and tugs at his leash to lead us out. I have to hold him tight, steering my road bike down the front path and around the skeleton of a dead rose bush.

The road out front is silent and clear. The streetlight across from our corner casts only its own shadow in the partial moonlight. I wonder how many human remains litter the cul-de-sac roads after these past seven weeks of hiding out.

How many are our teammates.

Goosebumps flare up across my bare arms. I clutch my handlebars tighter.

“Easy boy,” Josiah whispers as Thunder tugs at my arm. Josiah reaches over and, instead of grabbing Brandon’s dog by his collar, strokes the back of his neck several times. That seems to get Thunder to chill out at least a little bit.

We make our way around the side of the Tri House and past the closed garage door, dead pine needles crackling faintly under our shoes. Once we’re beyond Josiah’s SUV, I slowly let my knuckles ease up. Two cars, a red truck and a forest green Honda, are parked at odd angles in the front lawn of the house catty corner to us, their rear wheels still hanging off the curb. The driver’s side window of the Honda is smashed open. I swallow. Maybe the dark figure slumped against the steering wheel is just a trick of the lighting. But the blood spatter on the dash and front windshield dispels my sad little wish real quick.

For a few sweet seconds, I’m unchained as I straddle my bike and pedal. Both of our bikes sing softly, the spokes cutting through the wind. The vibrations from the road shake my fingers and dance up my arms. We reach the corner of Timber Ridge and Fox Hollow not a minute later, the gradual dip in the road flattening out. Thunder slows to a trot. Just a few more houses down…

Then it’s there: the green and white semi cab, completely intact and without so much as a flat tire or cracked windshield. I thank our lucky stars and pick up my cadence, Thunder and Josiah right beside me. Josiah is already following our game plan and takes Thunder’s leash from my hand in one fluid motion. When I see that Thunder’s switched sides so that he’s following Josiah, I pull up to the grill of the semi and dismount.

I hop up onto the side step and tug at the door handle. No dice. “Dammit.”

“Check for a key box,” Josiah whispers, nodding to the underside of the cab before he leans his bike across mine. I bob my head and start running my hand slowly around the base of the cab. I take my time, making sure to not cut myself on any metal edges. Without a first aid kit, getting a cut could mean death just as easily as an attack by the Swarm.

I have no luck on the driver’s side, and sure as hell don’t know where else to feel other than around the fuel tank and wheel wells. My heart does jumping jacks in my chest when the leaves overhead rustle ever so slightly.

Then my fingers come across a tiny plastic box under the passenger’s step. I pop open the magnetic box and smile down at the spare key. “We’re in business.”

As I hold the key up and let it shine against the glaring moon, my eyes focus on the door handle on the passenger’s side. “You’d better not be unlocked,” I mutter, stepping up and giving the handle a tug. The door doesn’t budge. I snicker before inserting the key and pop the door open.

I only have to look at the top of the front windshield to get that relief that I’d hoped for. The CB radio rests flush in its built-in mount. I set my revolver  in one of the cupholders, my nostrils flaring against the stale smell of cigarette smoke and something even more bitter — motor oil, maybe. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Josiah hopping up and down on the driver’s side. I have to snort and giggle.

“I gotcha.” I roll my eyes before lunging over the driver’s seat and popping the door open. Behind Josiah, Thunder paces and yanks at his leash, which Josiah tied around the nearest tree trunk.

“Hey, so this big truck has an antenna on the back of the cab.” Josiah jerks his thumb back, his eyes alight with excitement. “I’ll work on unscrewing it while you check the radio out. Sound good?”

“Perfect, thanks Josiah.” I salute to him, which he responds to with a quick grin before he passes me my toolbox. Then I remember our plan and call out, “Hold off for a sec. Gonna see if we can get through to anyone first.”

“Roger that!”

“Okay, now to figure you out,” I say to the radio, gliding my hand over the mic and the buttons. COBRA 29 LTD CHROME. Fancy sounding name. I sure as hell don’t know how to tune the damn thing, but I’d better start trying to figure out the buttons and dials.

I carefully unhook the mic before flicking the power on. Nothing. Then I remember the key and jam it into the ignition. The power kicks on before amber lights flood out from the center console. “Thank you,” I murmur, then open my toolbox and slip the screwdriver out.

Thunder barks twice in quick succession, which I can hear clear as day through the open door. “Shh, shh, quiet, boy.” I crane my neck with the mini MagLite in my mouth, casting the light over the shallow sleeper space in the back. The stick shift jabs into my side, and I let out a winded “Oof.” On my second pass with my flashlight, I spot a crinkled Lays bag and reach for it. The sound of tiny bits of chips is sweet relief, and I toss the bag outside to Thunder, who goes to town and tears into it.

Once the center console reaches its full glow, I carefully lift the mic receiver off its hook. I hold down the PTT button, close my eyes, and listen. Nothing but static. I clench the “RF Gain” knob and open my dry mouth. “Check 1-2. Check 1-2.” Talkback is good as my voice echoes back. Please, please. “Check 1-2. This is Rayland Mark Calderón. I’m a survivor. Josiah Knect is with me. We’re at-” I cut myself off and let go of the button. There’s no telling who might be on the other end. Survivors. Looters. Someone worse. “We’re survivors in Denton. Is anyone out there?”

More warbled noises spill out of the mic. I watch the needle on the SWR meter dip just above the “1” mark before rolling back to the far right. Seconds pass by. When I hear nothing, I study the front panel of the radio and note the four screws at each corner. Might as well start unscrewing.

I crank the DYNAMIKE knob all the way to the right before I raise my screwdriver to the first screw. I repeat my message into the mic, my tongue weighed down like I just took a spoonful of honey. “We need help. Please, anybody.”

In the side rear-view, I can see Josiah hanging onto the cab and studying the long antenna on the back. He catches me looking at him in the rearview and purses his lips in pained defeat. “If my dad were here, he’d probably know how to uninstall this thing,” Josiah calls. “He’s good at tinkering with electronics.”

If my dad were here, he wouldn’t be able to help us. I squeeze my eyes shut, anger rushing into my veins. I hold back from telling Josiah to keep it down. He knows how this works.

“This is…fficer Cassandra Owens. Do you read me, Rayland?”

I jump so high that my head bangs against the roof of the cab. “Holy sh- Yes, yes I read you, Officer!” I jam the screwdriver in and begin untwisting screw number two, keeping the PTT button pressed down.

There is a gust of wind so strong that the semi rocks from side to side. In the rearview, Josiah goes rigid. He raises his eyes to the treeline to my right. Though the voice inside my heads screams at me to not look, I turn and stare out the passenger window. The line of pitch black trees across the street is swaying back and forth.

We woke them up.

“We need to move!” The tension in Josiah’s voice slices through the cab. He grabs the antenna and continues unscrewing it. I swear and release the PTT button, listening to the jumbled static rise and fall. The third screw comes out and falls to the floorboard.

Then her voice comes through again. “…We’re…ere, Ray… I’m with my partner, Officer MarQui Ric…”

“I copy! Copy!” I almost scream into the mic before tucking it in the crook of my neck. I yank the final screw out, then fumble with the different colored wires behind the CB radio, finding the point at which they are held together with butt connectors. Which ones? Shit! I twist and twist, the wind picking up as leaves dance across the hood.

“We can meet you!” My voice is loud and clear. “Where are you?”

“I read you…land. Officer Richards and I are… -olding out near the – Argyle fire sta-”

The driver’s side door is thrown open before Josiah sticks his head in. “I know where that is! And holy God, you found someone!”

But can we trust her? “We have to go!” I blurt into the mic, then twist and yank at the fourth and final wire, the plastic butt connector refusing to give. “Officer Owens, Josiah and I will make it out to the fire station tomorrow afternoon.” Then I pause. “We’re armed.”

“Good, be careful, there are others out here,” Officer Owens says, fierce determination in her voice. “They’re killers…Officer Richards and I are-”

More static overrides her voice. I drop my screwdriver as soon as the last screw falls to the floorboard. The first traces of the deep purple haze start to rise up over the two-story house across the street. Thunder is barking like crazy now, choking himself the more he yanks against his leash. What? Her and Officer Richards are what?

One. More. Wire.

Josiah is tugging at my sleeve. The plastic housing and radio come free the second the cab lights die out. When Josiah takes my arm, I can feel the last wire give. In a flash, I process what’s waiting for me outside the passenger window: the silver glint of the Swarm, like bits of metal swirling in their nebulous bodies. And the red gleam…those eyes.

Josiah and I topple out of the cab and onto the grass. My head strikes something hard — the edge of the sidewalk, maybe. My brain’s a match that’s just been struck, and I clutch at the burning spot and stare up through the branches. When I shut my eyes, I’m high again like I was last fall, when Rich, Brandon, and I had gone on a night walk to clear my head. God, that hit from the blunt had run me over like a train. I couldn’t stop coughing. “Take it easy, man.” Rich’s grin had glinted in the midnight dark right before we fell on our backs in a stranger’s front lawn. “It’ll pass.”

“Rayland, come on!” Josiah is on his feet and tugging at my arm. I’m holding it. I have the CB radio cradled against my chest. Thunder’s barking is a whisper compared to the roar of the Swarm. Josiah yanks one live radio from his waistband, then another before chucking them over the semi. He yells at the oncoming Swarm.

I shove the CB radio into my bag while Josiah unties Thunder. Then we run, snatch our bikes, and fly onto our seats. I pray for a smooth road. I pray that Thunder will run faster than he’s ever run in his six dog years of existence.

I pray for the chance to stop running. To let the Swarm sweep me off my bike and end me right here. Wouldn’t that be easier, anyway.

Instead, I pedal harder, the CB radio now rubbing through my drawstring as it slams over and over again against my back. The static flows from the remaining radios across our waists. Now my ears are tingling for real, even when the grating of the Swarm starts to fade. Fox Hollow Road melds into Timber Ridge, and I skid and nearly topple off my bike. Then I right myself as Josiah shoots ahead of me, making a beeline for the Tri House.

Neither one of us looks back. Not once.

 

 

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