The ground trembled, causing something almost like a wake to ripple from the center and outward. One, two, three… five tendrils burst from the ground as Cooper grabbed Aiden’s hand. Not slowly like they had before, and vibrating as the tips twisted and turned, scanning their surroundings.
Cooper yanked him to his feet and onto the relative safety of the metal planks. The tremors didn’t stop. They intensified.
Onlookers stopped what they were doing and peered downward to where they all stood, and to where the ground seemed to be awakening. Five more arms broke the surface and stood at about three feet tall, making the pit in the middle of the building look almost like a garden of living vines.
“Has anyone… living… ever touched it before?” Giselle asked Jacqueline.
“No,” she said, lowering herself into a cross-legged seat. She closed her eyes. “For better or worse, you’ve just brought about the end of this place. As well as many of the people here.” She waved her palm over the mud, nearly brushing the tips of the tendrils, stuck her hand inside, and exhaled. “See that it’s worth it,” she smiled.
Later, Cooper would swear he heard the screaming first, rather than the violent crunching and grinding of metal
SFX: Metal, destruction
as a giant tentacle twice the height of the structure itself burst forth, filling the air with wet sand. It sliced through one whole side of the prison. The carnage was immediate. Bodies, some mangled and already dead, fell from above and landed in the pit. The sand swirled into a black abyss, and the bodies flooded inside the mouth of the beast.
Cooper looked to Jacqueline, the elder. Her hand was still in the muck, and a single, long coil had wrapped up the length of her arm and around her neck.
“You’ve given me hope,” she said to them, before her body was yanked upward then pulled into the depths. Her vertebrae snapped in several places, and Cooper loathed himself for hearing a melody in the cracks.
“WHAT DO WE DO?” Eric yelled. He turned to Cooper. “Can you calm it with music or something?”
SFX: Cooper soundscape
Cooper strained, sending the first song he thought of toward the beast and searching for a mind or a soul to connect with. He found none. The notes jumbled into a cacophonous, screeching symphony
SFX: Chaotic cooper soundscape
that made him fall to his knees.
“I don’t think he likes music,” Cooper gasped. “At least not Fall Out Boy.”
“WHO THE HECK DOESN’T LIKE FALL OUT BOY?” Hazel roared, scooping the small girl back into her arms. “We have to go, there’s no fighting this.”
Another tentacle shot out of the ground to full height. And another, and another, until five writhing masses were slamming into the scaffolds at once, climbing to the heavens from the depths. None were as large in height or in girth as the first, but they all swiped and grabbed, knocking dozens of people at a time off of their feet and into the swirling pit. The structure itself was already in ruins. Debris in the form of steel rods and shrapnel rained from above. Several people were suspended a hundred feet off the ground, kicking their legs and clinging to fractured bits of railing or flooring barely large enough to grip, before plummeting.
As it rained havoc, the beast itself was silent.
Eric turned to Aiden, then back to Cooper. “You. Whatever you gotta do, do it. I believe in you. And you… can you do the head-music thing to communicate ideas?”
“Get as many people as you can to gather around the kid.”
Hundreds of people. It had been a long, long time since Cooper had connected with so many at once, and never under circumstances with actual consequences. He breathed as deeply as he could, reached outward with his mind into the weave of energy and life and power and sound, and sent a message across it. They’d hear it as Soundgarden’s cover of “Come Together”. They’d never have heard it, but they’d know what it meant. Cooper’s soul vibrated in his chest as he looked up and saw people running—climbing downward toward the ground floor.
“Come on, Aiden,” he whispered.
Musical transition: intense
Three thoughts occurred to Natalie at the same time.
Number one. “Huh. I guess I’m dying here.”
Number two. “That’s not The Beatles. I hate it.”
Number three. “Jesus Christ, Ray. What did you do to make that thing?”
She shielded her eyes from a flash of purple, and felt compelled to move toward it. With the calm complacency of an executioner, she walked to a ladder and climbed down into the sphere. She didn’t have to fight with anyone. Almost everyone else on her floor had gotten knocked off the side of the building. Natalie had only survived because her fall had been broken by a pile of bodies. They must have tumbled down from a higher floor during one of the first swipes. She saw no need in thanking them.
Leaving her pot and her rats and her metal heat shard behind, she climbed into the sphere, expecting it would either kill her immediately or keep her safe for another minute or two. Inside, she saw a teenage kid shooting an energy beam from his chest and crying while he did it. A few dozen people were crammed inside. Mothers, fathers, children—all holding hands and wasting their last thoughts on hope.
“Fuckin’ Wielders,” Natalie said. She wondered what she’d like for her last thoughts to be. She imagined the noise her brother would make if he were being boiled alive like a lobster. She smiled, pleased with this final use of her consciousness.
The structure was collapsing. Huge chunks of debris fell into the swirling sands. The last thing Natalie saw, tinted in purple through the sphere, was a foot. Bloodied, bruised, missing at least one toe, jutting upward and sinking into the mud. Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t a shield. Or if it was, it was a shitty one. The trunk of one of the tentacles was inside the orb with them all, and it didn’t seem to be affected. There was a gnarly thunk as a body slammed into the floor in front of Natalie. Eyes open, blood pooling from his mouth. It was the healer who had bitched at her over the water spigots.
“What were all those good deeds worth, you self-righteous fuck?” She said to the body, then kicked it out of the sphere.
The purple was gone, and Natalie was standing in a crater in the middle of a parking lot. A couple of severed tentacle chunks dissolved on the ground, like a bucket of sand in the ocean.
“No way,” she said. A parking lot. The cars looked different. She could smell burgers cooking in a restaurant somewhere. And cigarette smoke. While the weirdos screamed and scrambled and scattered, she drifted slowly along the trail of smoke. It terminated at a skinny man with a high hairline, a wrinkled blue shirt with an embroidered patch that read “Bargain Boing,” whatever that meant. There were bags under his eyes, his mouth hung open, and a lit cigarette was stuck to his bottom lip. As Natalie walked past him, she plucked the cigarette off of his lip and treated herself to it. “Thanks. Helluva day,” she said. His nose wrinkled. She harbored no delusions about the state of her body and the smells it must have been excreting. She needed a shower, a car, some clothes. A cheeseburger. And more cigarettes. Maybe or maybe not in that order.
As she walked around the building, she saw five people climb out of the pit in the parking lot that caught her eye. They were all wearing clean clothes. Regular clothes that were probably modern. One of them handed off a little girl to someone who was clearly her mother. One of them sucked on some kind of… was that a Walkman? Was he smoking a Walkman?
Another of them was the teenage kid who had shot the purple beam that teleported them here. He must be insanely powerful, she thought.
They were getting stronger. In more ways than one, information like that could be… profitable. At least if she could convince the right people to make it profitable. And she knew the right people. Or, at least she used to. There may be some things, she realized, that she needed to investigate regarding the state of her affairs as she left them.
A car picked up the group and sped away, creaking as it turned out of the parking lot. Natalie made sure to remember what it looked like. She damn sure didn’t know what make or year it was.
Using a chunk of brick that had fallen out of the wall, she slammed through the window of some kind of sedan. Maybe a Toyota? She fumbled around on the door panel until she had successfully opened it. It felt… different. There was no window lever or lock.
She climbed inside, paying no mind to the shards of glass digging into her skin. She ripped open a panel beneath the wheel and hoped everything else was the same where it really counted.
She adjusted the rearview, but not before tilting it down to look at her reflection. Her hair was grey and wiley. Cheeks sunken and wrinkled. Crow’s feet and wrecked teeth. Not much was left of who she used to be.
Except for her eyes.
She’d always liked her eyes. Back in the day, the right compliment on her eyes almost always assured a lovely evening for whomever had done the complimenting. Grey/blue. Almond-shaped. Full of cunning, she’d been told.
“Which is why Ray couldn’t trust me.”
She smiled. Then she screamed. She ripped the mirror off of the windshield, and threw it into the street. She punched the radio display, shattering it and sending a long crack up the center of the dashboard. Seconds later, the engine roared as she sped toward half a lifetime’s worth of choices that had been made for her by someone else.
All of Eric’s attention was on finding a place to hide. There would be no explaining the situation if they found themselves on the wrong side of one-way glass.. It could only go poorly.
As the questions bounced around his head ad infinitum, he latched on to bits and pieces of the conversation his passengers were having.
(Cooper) “Where’s the little girl?”
(Hazel) “I found her mom.”
(Aiden) “Will they all be safe? We can’t just leave them.”
(Giselle) “They’ll be safer alone than anywhere we could take them.”
(Cooper) “How many do you think made it out?”
(Giselle) “How many do you think DIDN’T?”
(Hazel) “What are all these trays? Is this potting soil?”
Eric groaned and huffed, making a sharp left into a tattoo parlor with an empty parking lot. He swung wide into a spot hidden between a dumpster and a rotting wooden fence. Some confused teenager had tagged the dumpster with graffiti of the letters “AARP”, certainly thinking the phrase meant something else.
“Eric…” said Giselle. “Would you happen to have some trousers? I seem to have misplaced mine quite some time ago.”
“Wait,” said Hazel. “How long were you a pigeon before today?”
“What month is it?” Giselle responded.
“Center seat opens to the trunk, there’s a pair of sweats in there. They won’t smell great, though,” he said, scrolling through his phone. Cooper spoke first, having done the same.
“Local news stations are saying that there was a sinkhole in the parking lot of the strip mall,” he said. “Yada yada vehicle damage, yada yada police on the scene, yada mudslide and loose clay… nothing about us. Or the others. Yet.”
Eric looked at Aiden, who was sitting in the back passenger seat with his head between his knees. “Hey… you good?”
“Ha! No. Nah, man.”
“So… what now?” asked Hazel.
“We hope no one thinks to look for us at...” Eric squinted. “Madam Inky’s House of Pain.”
“I’ve got to… I’ll be right back,” mumbled Aiden, sliding out of the car and stumbling inside.
“He thinks we should go inside,” said Hazel.
“Or he’s got the shits,” Giselle suggested.
“My money’s on number two,” said Eric, still scrolling through photos posted in their area. One person had snagged a photo of one of the escapees.
“Be careful,” their post read. “Deranged dude dressed George Michaelstanding under the light on Wauhatchie, across from the boat center. Crying, screaming, the works. Avoid if you have kids in the car.”
There were 12 comments. The top read “I saw one of those just now, too. A woman. Probably high off her rocker. Call the police, get that crap out of our city. I did.”
The next read “Sounds like a Bama fan got lost on his way to Knoxville.”
None had even a fraction of empathy, or even a passing interest in knowing this man’s story. Just angry, stolen platitudes. Eric wondered if those people would live their whole lives never knowing what he’d just seen, or what those people had been through. And even if they did, would they give a damn? For neither the first nor the last time, Eric swatted away the demon that sometimes lodged itself in the wheel of his thoughts.
SFX: Thought reverb Would I help those hateful people if they needed it?
Of course he would, he thought. Of course. Of course.
Aiden didn’t realize it was still legal to smoke inside an indoor business. Either way, the stagnant reek of this place went immediately to his sinuses. He rubbed the space above his brow and looked around. It was one big room, like an old-timey barbershop that had been converted. It struck him as odd that there was no music, only the mechanical whir of the needle. The source of the smoke was a cashier, who scrolled through her phone and flicked ashes into a tray. The tattoo artist was a bearded man who had almost certainly been in either a metal band or a country duo. There was no inbetween. He wiped a bit of blood from the arm of a white man who was getting a tribal tattoo around his bicep.
“Y’all got a bathroom?” Aiden asked, hearing the nausea in his own voice.
“Not usually,” said the cashier. “But you look like hell.”
“Promise you’ll come here for your first ink and we’ll give you the key,” the artist said without looking up. The man in the chair smirked in a way that would annoy Aiden for years.
The cashier tossed him a single key on an orange keychain. It clinked into his chest. He fumbled to catch it before it slid to the ground.
“Outside and to the left,” she said.
There was a second’s relief from the heat of his cheeks and neck when he stepped outside. He put his hands on his knees for a breath. Two breaths. Three. Sirens approached. He shuffled around the corner and unlocked a metal door with a penis etched into it, but not before dropping the keys in a puddle. The sirens got louder and louder as he fumbled with the doorknob. The screws were loose, causing it to dangle from the hole on the door. He shoved the door open and threw himself inside right as the cops sped past.
He had thrown up in the sink before the smell of week old piss had even hit him. It was cold for October, and there didn’t seem to be any heat in this room. As he coughed up nothing more than bile and spit, steam rose from where it had landed. As he flushed the sink with rusty water
SFX: Running water
his hands tingled with numbness. He pressed his face against the cold porcelain, not quite caring about the layer of slime and filth that had just rubbed onto his cheek.
“Okay. Options. Think...” he coached himself. Whatever that had been… magic or a curse or whatever… he hadn’t been in control. At least not the first time. The second time, he had at least wanted to… summon it? Was that the right word? But it may have only happened because he was panicking again… because the world was out of his control.
He gulped. In foster care, everything was always out of his control.
“Option one,” he choked. “Go back to Aunt Lidya’s. Go with the DHR. Go live with some rando for two years and hope they’re cool. Sixty-forty odds against.” He rose and splashed his face with the water that was still running. “Live in constant fear that I’ll cause a big purple ball that’ll rip their house to shreds and take us to some weird desert, get arrested and experimented on if I don’t die.”
He realized how miserably thirsty he was—thirsty enough to drink water from this sink. He slurped from shaking hands.
“Option two. Run. See if these guys.. these Wielders... know of any job or place for me to live.” He felt his heart beating behind his eyeballs. “But they won’t want nothing to do with me. They can’t, it ain’t safe. If people like them…
...Are being thrown into prisons in places like that, they can’t afford the risk.”
Aiden wept. They were, in all likelihood, the only people in the world who could help him understand what was happening to him. But he couldn’t ask them to.
Aiden snapped out of his trance when the loose doorknob jiggled in the wind.
SFX: Metal shake
No. Not the wind. It kept shaking. It was frantic. A hand beat on the door with such force that it caused a screw to fall out of the doorknob.
SFX: Muffled “Please… let me in… please. I have to hide.”
It was a woman’s voice. Definitely not a cop, and definitely not Hazel or Giselle. She was crying.
“I know you’re hiding, too.”
Aiden unlocked the door and cracked it open. There stood a woman in her 50s. Wild grey hair, wilder eyes. She wore filthy denim overalls and a pink and green shirt.
“Please, let me in,” she repeated, looking over her shoulder.
“Yeah. Yeah… of cour–”
The door slammed into his nose which immediately gushed with blood.
The woman shoved him into the cheap, shitstained tilework of the wall and punched him twice in the stomach.
She wasn’t incredibly strong, but fought like a demon—slinging the entirety of her body weight into each blow. Aiden coughed and doubled over, wheezing for breath. She grabbed a fistful of his hair and dragged him across the room.
SFX: ((Aiden wheezing)
The last thing Aiden saw was the sink rushing toward his head.
SFX: Shattering porcelain
Before he lost consciousness, he heard the clatter of shattered porcelain clacking onto the floor, as well as the trinkle of spilling water as he felt himself being dragged away by his feet.
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