Every story that I write is born in darkness. Each one is cloaked beneath shadows of doubt, anonymity, and a creeping sense of distress over the importance of their thematic messages. Writing is fighting to bring my characters, plot, and drama to life, and most days it’s an uphill battle with a stone or two tied to my back. Some days I feel like giving up. Sometimes I wonder if anyone will read through The Swarm and the Flyer or The Wrath and the Base completely and be moved by them.
Even so, there’s no other hobby of mine that really makes me feel alive quite like writing fiction. My heart is fully invested in this journey. I’m finding healing in these two supernatural post-apocalyptic tales, both of which are exercises in striking the balance between love, grief, and rage for those who weren’t in exactly the right place at the right time when my bereaved heart needed them most. And how to live and move on from that.
This is Rayland Mark Calderon’s story. This is my story.
Welcome back to The Swarm and the Flyer, a story that revolves around ephemeral monsters known as the Swarm, a hero named Rayland who can’t quite help but feel at home in the apocalypse after his dad and teammates died, and Josiah, the only teammate Rayland has left to count on, even if Josiah can’t return Rayland’s feelings of attraction. Together, they have to find a way to get along, reunite with Josiah’s family, and outrun the Swarm, all while another group of survivors draws ever closer with their own twisted agenda…
An Encounter Beyond Goatman’s Bridge
Even the military couldn’t fight off the Swarm.
Josiah inches his SUV ahead, careful to weave between the first two military trucks that are pressed up against the pillars of the underpass. His tires crunch over broken glass, which litters both the sidewalk and the road. I hold my breath and gently squeeze Thunder’s shaggy nape. He stops pacing back and forth, though he keeps right on panting in my face and staring out the cracked windshield.
There are dead soldiers. Dozens of them, sprawled out across the road like watermelons dropped from the highway above. I retch before letting go of Thunder and covering my mouth, my grip on the .38 revolver loosening.
“We can do this,” Josiah says, his eyes wide and his chest rising and falling. He turns the steering wheel one way, then the other when the side of his car scrapes against the next Humvee. I look to him and say, “You got this. J-just…focus on the road.”
There’s a sick squelch of bloated flesh as the car rolls over a body. Josiah cries out and lets go of the wheel. I reach for it and steer us around the last of the Army trucks before we make it to the other side of I-35. Josiah’s sobbing and shaking his head. I tell him to brake, and when he does, I unbuckle my seatbelt and say, “Let me take over. It’s alright, man…it’s alright.”
I wait to comfort Josiah until we get out and meet in front of his car. My arms find a natural resting spot around his back and just above his waist. He sobs and shakes his head. I hold him close, scanning the wreckage before me. When the smell of decaying flesh has subsided, another smell takes its place.
It’s from Josiah, I realize. The scent of patchouli and citrus is warm and fills my lungs — then overrides every ounce of fear I’m feeling and carries me off.
I felt a stone sink in my stomach when Adam didn’t respond to my question about how his presentation in class went. The silence of the Tri House grew, and I looked up from my textbook. Adam stood at the kitchen sink, his eyes out of focus behind his glasses. He was looking at something on the counter. A piece of paper. My CHL license application.
“It went okay. My professor liked my sketch…” His voice petered out. Though I was sitting at the kitchen table, I could see that his hands were shaking. I closed my book by John Gottman and tried to ease into the silence of the Tri House. Silence was golden in a place where five athletes lived, trained, and, every now and then, partied together.
“I just want to be safe,” I told Adam, rising from the table and walking over to the counter. Adam cocked his head before smiling and turning back to the dishes in the sink. “After what we saw on the news about that guy being attacked. How those clouds came after him…” My voice trailed off, and I pressed my hand to my chest before going on. “But I’m not going to buy a gun. Not yet.”
More empty space and hesitation. Adam didn’t look over again, didn’t say anything about my name being on the concealed handgun license that I had forgotten to put back in my wallet.
The he spoke. “Okay, babe.” Happy but distant. My boyfriend’s voice had a way of trailing off, strained under the high expectations I think he held for himself. Like maybe the expectation that he should’ve said something about me wanting to kill myself less than two months ago. He knew how broken I was, had seen how I rolled on the floor in my room and cried until it felt like my body was going to shake itself apart. I knew he wanted what was best for me, but there were shadows of doubt clouding his usual cheerfulness.
I didn’t know how else to acknowledge the elephant in the room. So I said what I always say whenever the air between us got heavy: “I’m open to talking, love. I want to be here for you.” Then I stopped trying to actually sound scripted and added, “I want to be in this with you. Even though we both struggle with what I’m going through.”
“Yeah,” Adam replied, the lilt in his voice sharp. He dropped another plate into the clean water. “I’m just worried.” Then he grunted and turned away. I sighed and folded my arms, trying to think back to what I was reading in my couples’ textbook about the love languages. I still had a lot to learn, but at least Adam and I had talked through my suicidal bouts a couple of times by then. How he’d agreed to take the kitchen knives and hide them if I got bad again. That was a step that I’d never taken with anybody before. Not even my parents.
“Thank you for worrying about me,” I whispered, resting my head against his shoulder. “I’m sorry I scare you sometimes.”
Though he was almost six inches taller than me, I could feel him relax into me. His breath was warm and shallow. Don’t speak, Rayland. Don’t talk about abstract psych crap like trauma and bereavement. Just be here with Adam for once.
So I rested. Adam raised his head and exhaled, and in the reflection of the darkened kitchen windows I could see relief flooding his eyes. When he squeezed me back, a missing piece of me fell back into place. We were okay again.
The door to the garage flew open, and Rich called out, “I’m hooooome!” Adam and I just grinned and looked at each other, our heads tilting a little. As soon as Rich rushed into the kitchen, his cap on backwards and his board game in the crook of his arm, I did my best to taper my smirk. “Hey man.” Even the smell of weed and his buddies laughing back in the garage couldn’t sink my mood. Rich held up his boardgame and wiggled his eyebrows. “You guys up for some Mancala?”
For once, it was easy for us to say yes. When Adam winked at me, relief spread throughout my system. Seeing him so relaxed around my roommate and his friends put me a step above cloud nine. We may not have blended in super well with Rich and his buddies, since we didn’t wear tank tops and shorts every day or chugged beers nearly as much as they did, but they were chill and welcoming. That, I started to believe, was all that mattered. That was the Tri House spirit I wanted to keep alive for as long as I could.
Then Adam turned to me and said, “No Josiah tonight?”
If my smile faltered, I didn’t own up to it. Instead, I just shook my head and started gathering my Mancala stones into a pile. They clinked against the glass surface of the kitchen table. Rich just snorted and kept his unfocused eyes on his own stones.
Josiah hadn’t stopped by the Tri House in a couple of weeks. Acro yoga or something like that. Hardly any of my teammates had mentioned him lately.
When I smiled at Adam, my face might as well have been made out of plastic. “Nope,” I told him before looking at the ash marks along Rich’s fingers. “Haven’t heard from him in a while.”
I told myself that maybe it was better that way. Then I wouldn’t have to tell Adam how my heart had started to see-saw.
Josiah and I drive for a while without talking, the wheel now in my hands. The sun is shining through the clouds, casting a shimmering haze over the lines of cars before us. Though the scent of Josiah’s musk is still with me, reality comes rushing back to me, a wakeup call that is both pitying and harsh.
Another military truck rests against the crumpled telephone pole down Lillian Miller Parkway, tossed against it like a toy. I shiver. That was how the DART train had looked when the Swarm had just lifted it off its tracks: like a damn kid’s toy floating in the air. I can still remember the look of horror on Adam’ face from that day.
The traffic grows worse the closer Josiah and I get to Argyle. Not only are the roads backed up with wayward cars and trucks, but several cars line the sidewalks on either side. When we reach the blocked-off intersection of Teasley and Robinson road some twenty minutes later, I think that we might be at the end of the line. I have no choice but to hit the brakes, then throw the SUV into park and smack my palm against the wheel.
“Crappy time to have to rely on a car,” I mutter, then jerk my head away when Thunder tries to lick me. Josiah doesn’t say anything, just strokes Thunder’s fur in an absent-minded kinda way. I glance down at the revolver in the side pocket of the door before focusing back on the intersection, where three delivery trucks collided head on and crushed another two cars beneath their pileup.
It takes us less than five minutes to get our bikes and all the gear that we can carry down from the back of Josiah’s SUV. I put three walkie-talkies and a couple of radios in Josiah’s bag, then have him place the rest in my own tri bag. We finish by loading up with as many cans of food as we can haul without feeling too weighted down.
I only have to look up at the sky, and their voices come rushing back to me. How our teammates had screamed. How they’d run, crawled to try and get to shelter.
Come on, Rayland. Focus.
Though my back strains the more I pedal, the air on my face is a little bit of sweet relief. There are fewer bodies out here, but the storefronts we pass are a mess. Torn-up cardboard boxes and plastic bags flutter around the empty parking lots. I can’t tell whether it was looters or the Swarm who smashed every window along the strip mall, but the uncertainty doesn’t faze me.
This is our world now, after all.