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29:16:04:59

29:16:04:59

Аннотация

    Jackson Aims forgot everything. Where he was, what he was doing, and just about everything else.
    He found himself in a destroyed metropolis with thousands of others with the same condition.
    In the years to come truths have been unfolding: No one is over the age of twenty-six. There is an invisible yet impassible barrier located Downtown where others have disappeared. And a building-sized timer had appeared suddenly, and is tied directly to Jackson’s fate.
    Jackson must uncover his past to correct a broken future, and must soon, less he becomes one that wholly vanishes.


Joshua Johnson 29:16:04:59

Prologue

    I am awake, but my life means nothing.
    I am lost. I thought hard trying to remember something, anything, but nothing registered. Looking around it was it was positively desolate. I stood on some bare, stricken road in the middle of nowhere. Sweltering lines of heat rose from the asphalt, twisting mirages beyond line of sight.
    As I turned, my vision registered an object, a person! The first stranger popped into view, followed by droves of others. There were maybe twenty in all. Most seemed as lost as I was moments ago, all still caught in whatever had happened, detached from life with blank expressions caught in some terror off in the distance.
    The man closest to me was of medium build with bushy eyebrows and a hatefully dissatisfied look of despair traced in his frozen facial features. I opened my mouth to ask him a couple questions. Nothing too complex; my mind just couldn’t work like that.
    “Where are we? What happened?” I asked.
    The man with the disjointed expression stared dumbfounded. The questions struck him as perplexing, a complete conundrum. Something jingled around in his skull, and he was only able to drool as an answer. I moved on, trying to find someone lucid enough to respond.
    But no one was conscious yet. They all just stood there, absolutely still, gazing off into space like empty husks. I kept catching glances from them as I passed, or at least thought I did. I hoped someone would have a few responses, but these people were no help.
    Instinct set in, as if I had done it before, and I reached into my front left pocket and pulled out something. It was called a wallet, or what my brain itemized as such. Flipping through the creased leather, I extracted a driver’s license. Some numbers that didn’t ring a bell were written on the top of the plastic, while others spelled ‘ISS’ and ‘EXP’ were on there as well. It didn’t make a lick of sense, though one detail was hauntingly familiar: the name, Jackson Aims.
    A trigger pulled and a shot rang between my ears. This was my name. This was the only piece of information that felt like it fit. Even looking over the picture of myself, or what I could only assume it to be, felt oddly disconnected and unfamiliar.
    Placing the license back into the wallet, I rummaged through the rest of the leather pouch. There were just some other pieces of plastic with numbers scribed on them, a few photos of people I didn’t know, and a few dollars. Nothing to help me figure out this infuriating moment in time. Flustered, I returned the bi-fold to the pocket while my mind continued to race with a million needs.
    “Hello?” a tiny, shrill voice came calling from over my shoulder. When I turned, there was a girl, just a small thing. She was filthy, beaten and broken. Her tear-soaked eyes emitted a silent plea for help. I wanted to help, but fear for this bizarre new world I was flung into made me cautious. Still, perhaps this girl knew what had happened.
    I guardedly approached her.
    “Girl,” I blurted out. The words were hard to find in the moment as I struggled with the details. I bent down to a kneeling position so I could look at her directly. “It will be okay. You’re not hurt, are you?”
    She shook her head.
    “Do you know where we are?”
    She just looked down at the ground, telling me what I already knew. I cursed and stepped back. Of course she didn’t know. Just what the hell was going on? Where am I?
    That was when she started crying. Not loudly, though, just a soft whimper, as if she was trying to hide it. When I looked back I saw her lip quivering, eyes misting over. Poor thing. How could I be so greedy? Reaching back, I took her by the hand and she didn’t resist.
    “Shhhh now, everything will be fine,” I said, partly talking myself down as I tried to gain some control of my emotions. “My name is Jackson. Do you remember yours?” We had to start somewhere. I stared into her eyes, her left eye was slightly darker blue than the other.
    “Olivia,” she said, as if she was saying it for the first time. “Olivia Martin.” Her eyes watered more.
    I wiped the tears away. Her little body shook with strain and tension. It was hard to watch someone in such a way. To have to fight that natural instinct to shy away from people we don’t know, asking things of us we don’t trust to give them. I was sure that’s what she felt because I felt it too.
    “Well, Olivia, how old are you?” I didn’t understand why I asked it, maybe to keep the conversation going or to activate her own memory. She was, after all, the only one that wasn’t mesmerized like all the others, staring off into emptiness. I looked around and saw that not one of the others showed signs of coming out of their stupor. It was so vivid and utterly terrifying, watching these people, their bodies alive yet lifeless.
    “Eleven,” Olivia answered.
    Olivia surprised me again. Finally we were getting somewhere, albeit with simple questions, but they were small victories. I smiled, wanting to laugh even though I had to blink away the tears of being so lost.
    “How old are you?” Olivia asked and gave me the recognition of a delicate smile.
    The question brought on a trembling wave that assaulted each one of my senses. A rapid buzzing filtered into my ears and a burning continued down my skin. My brain fell into full overdrive trying to search for an answer. It was right there too, right on the tip of my tongue.
    “Twenty-three,” I said, flushed. I felt like I was scorching hot, ready to fall over. It was so bizarre knowing so little about myself. It made me even more terrified.
    “You’re sorta… old,” Olivia said with a frown. Her slender hand still gripped mine. It tightened with every passing second. She blinked her blue eyes at me to wipe away her tears. Her blonde, dirty hair flapped in a gentle wind. For being so young, and so scared, the comment was bold enough. An unwilling smile appeared on my face.
    “Come along. Let’s see if we can find any friends, huh?” I said.
    Olivia nodded in agreement. Standing back up, I twirled around, leaving her little hand attached to mine. Together we walked the crowd, trying to find anyone who could help. But what we had to do was wait. Slowly, the others drifted back to this plane of existence, though no one remembered much of anything beyond their age and name.
    When some time had passed, when every person had come back from the brink of undying, I decided that we needed to leave. There was nothing for us here, not in this barren wasteland. Since I seemed to have the most aptitude, I decided to lead the group. Not exactly what I wanted to do, but no one else was capable. So I set out with my ragtag assembly of men and women, children as well, all of them marching behind me.
    We stayed in the middle of the cracked, abandoned road, twisting and weaving into the distance. It led us through an unnatural landscape, incomplete and unrecognizable. Buildings destroyed all around, nothing untouched by whatever tragedy occurred. I wanted to call out, to try and find more faces, but it felt wrong to do so. I was afraid to raise my voice in this unfamiliar land. Moreover, there wasn’t a reason to alarm the others just yet, who were still mostly useless and only able to accomplish the slow, meandering walk.
    Olivia no longer needed to hold my hand, but stayed within reach. Even in her short time since coming to, she’d grown in strength and resolve. She was willing to help those who didn’t have the power to walk, aiding others with patience and kindness. The environment was what terrorized my thoughts the most. All about us were the results of some great disaster, but we hadn’t a memory of what exactly occurred. Even though my mind couldn’t comprehend any of what I was seeing, my gut told me otherwise, that eventually I would know what I was looking at. We came into a world not our own. We were in some neighborhood where homes were razed, foundations crumbled, and nothing whole. I tried not to pay attention to the background. I had more important things to deal with.
    We stayed on that road for a while. The sun was much lower in the sky when we came to the end of the line. Olivia saw it first. She ran forward, pointing off into the distance, and tried to get my attention. She had moved towards a cliff that shot straight downwards. When I came rushing to her, I saw the precipice. It rocketed downward a good hundred feet, the sheer drop making my legs wobble. But that wasn’t what the girl was pointing at.
    She’d seen something far more frightening, darker than anything I could have imagined. Somehow, in that second, the air dried and boiled. The oxygen was sucked out of my lungs. When I looked up, I was gazing at a broken metropolis, with an evil darkness surrounding the heart of the city.
    A menacing veil of, black clouds rotated on an invisible axis. Spikes of lightning struck rapidly through the mass while thunder shook, felt even from where I stood. And I could hear laughter, laughter secreting from the darkness.
    All the world was laughing, a dark hissing, a multitude of voices raising on high that no one else could hear. I tried to cover my ears but it wouldn’t dissipate. The world started reverberating and shaking. The darkness expanded from the center of the city and started pouring outward. I watched in shocked, muted horror as it covered everything. Without warning, the shadows washed up and over concrete towers and ruined streets, covering them in some deep blackness.
    “Jackson? You ok?” Olivia asked.
    “I think so,” I struggled. The laughter died away, and the darkness returned to the center in a blink. Maybe I was physically capable, but I was not really ok. Whatever this was, whatever it was going to be, this was why we were here.
    In the days to come I learned about a barrier that would keep us out from the center of this city. Discovered that nobody was over the age of twenty-six, and that no one had memories of their past. We survived in a broken city touched by a disaster that left nothing unscathed. We were also disappearing, and not because of disease, murder, or other strife’s. It was something far more sinister, and if I don’t figure it all out soon then my fate is sealed.

Chapter 1: Getting to Know My Nightmares

    It’d been two years since “The Forgetting”, and only have a month left before my turning and am no closer to the truth than before. I have tried to solve our ultimate dilemma, but my fragmented memories of the past life haven’t helped.
    My dreams just kept getting more vivid, more surreal, more malevolent. Sleep was impossible with those nightmares, flashes of the barrier and the darkness, dreams of me leaving Olivia alone in this brutal world.
    I knew I wouldn’t sleep tonight, and didn’t even try. I had the cold sweats before I laid down. My mind raced with the possibilities of the next day, but the shadows that leapt across the darkened room kept me grounded in the here and now.
    I tried to still my thoughts and closed my eyes. Straining to remember, I wondered what my life was like before The Forgetting. Sometimes I fantasized about it, hoping my past was better than my present. But it always led back to this place and time, and that damn barrier. A barrier that surrounded me, hissing, a weird electricity burning the air. A “welcome” taunted me from the darkness that is the city’s center and begged me to come inside. I resisted initially, but soon felt like I was being pulled in against my will. I couldn’t stop it, was never able to.
    My eyes snapped open.
    I had tried to sleep in the living room. It was small but did the job. The rest of the house was rather spacious, but for some reason I liked this room more than the others. Most of the house was in complete disrepair. I had worked on the place for the past two years, trying to patch it up, but it resisted many of my attempts. There were giant holes in the ceiling that I did my best to plug, but they still leaked when it rained. And the smell of decay could never be washed away. But it was what Olivia liked, so we stuck it out.
    The couch’s old springs coiled with a rusty twang as I sat up. The fabric smelled old and was torn in places, stuffing spilling out. It was never comfortable, but I couldn’t sleep anyway so there was no point in getting rid of it. Plus it would be awkward to throw someone else’s belongings away. This wasn’t really our house. There were photographs still hanging on the wall, with people we didn’t know, so we respected their space the best we could.
    The floorboards moaned from below, and I knew a certain someone was up.
    “Couldn’t sleep?” Olivia asked as she entered the living room.
    I shook my head. I was beginning to feel the awkwardness of constantly being awake, seeing things that weren’t there, feeling as if someone was watching me. Occasionally I would get dizzy and need to sit down. Bags were growing beneath my eyes, and I was sure they’d never go away.
    Olivia’s stomach growled. She tried to cover it up, but I still heard it. She hadn’t eaten that much in the past few days. She wasn’t a stubborn eater, but clearly understood our situation. We may have had ample supplies, but they wouldn’t last forever unless we committed to maintaining a certain lifestyle. I motioned towards the other room opposite this one. She shook her head, but her growling stomached betrayed her.
    I marched her toward the space where all the food was kept. I, for whatever reason, could not remember the name for this room. For now, Olivia just called it the food space. That was another thing this house provided for us besides shelter. A basement packed with preserved sustenance was directly under our feet. Most of it was canned, some of it packaged. We’d stockpiled it, moving it from other places to here. It paid off after all the days and nights of work. We had years’ worth of food.
    “So Olivia, what do you say? You daring enough for the peaches again?” It was hard to see anything yet, particularly Olivia’s reaction. There were slits in the wooden planks I had nailed over the windows, and morning was just beginning to shine through.
    Olivia’s response was nothing more than a faint, horrid expression.
    “Ummmmmm no?” she asked.
    “No?” I asked. I reached for a flashlight I kept on a nail hanging near the basement stairwell. Olivia was afraid of the darkness, and refused to travel downstairs. I turned back around to face the girl with the question still hanging in the air, the light in hand.
    She really acted much older than she should. Of all the children I saw in this city, she was the most mature by far. She was certainly more developed than most of the adults as well. That’s why I knew the comment she made wasn’t because she hated peaches, they were admittedly disgusting. Maybe they were too old? Or maybe something else. Either way, they weren’t good enough to eat anymore.
    Then something lit up Olivia’s world and she asked, “Can we have some… uhhh…” she cut off mid-sentence, then blushed and twirled her hair.
    “Some what?” I inquired. I already knew the answer. For as strongly will-powered she was, she just couldn’t resist the taste of chocolate. We kept several bars sealed in a small plastic container set in a dark corner. It was a very dark chocolate, almost bitter. Olivia loved it nevertheless. I had discovered them a few days back in the basement. The instant it touched my tongue, I relived a memory from before The Forgetting when I was just a child. It was an old memory, and jagged in places, not whole.
    “You know!” She squirmed, looking up at the ceiling and only sometimes catching my sight.
    I shook my head. I wasn’t going to let her off this easy, not this time.
    “Ooooooooo, Jackson, come one. Please?” she begged. I still pretended not to understand. She rushed forward, more pleas escaped her lips as she pulled at my shirt and used those big blue eyes to find my soft spot. It was hard to say no to her, but I had a plan. I gave her the flashlight and stepped aside, letting her look into the darkness. She shut down instantly.
    “All you have to do, Olivia, is go and find them. You can have all you want,” I said.
    As brave as she was, she couldn’t get over this fear. Of course, I shared that same fear. Not of this downstairs labyrinth bathed in black, but the darkness “Downtown,” where lives were cut short.
    “No.” Olivia muttered as she took a couple steps backwards.
    This wasn’t a cruel tease. She had to learn this lesson for herself. If I could just get her to do this one thing, she would be better suited for life without me, a time that was rapidly approaching. She took a few more steps back, holding the flashlight out to me as she quivered. She was on the verge of tears.
    “Okay, okay,” I said, taking the flashlight back. Descending the stairwell was like entering a new world, such a contrast from the land of the living and the light. It was dry and cool down there. The flashlight cut into the shadowy room, illuminating shelves with preserves and packages of dry meal. I had to step over several boxes and debris that lay in between me and my destination.
    The metal shelves that held our loot were old and falling apart. Cans were stacked on top of one another, and I recognized the labels of some from a past I couldn’t piece together. One of the cans in particular had a layer of grime covering it. Taking the canister in hand, I used my thumb to wipe clean the surface. “Kidney Beans” was printed in large, bold letters with “Javier’s Beans always taste better!” in smaller stencil below it.
    Beans always tasted right, and Olivia like them well enough, so this would be our breakfast. Putting the can into my front pocket, I retraced my way back upstairs and emerged with Olivia patiently waiting. I tossed her the can. The look on her face said she was thankful that is wasn’t the rancid fruit preserves. She fished through a drawer to find the can opener.
    “So what are we doing today?” Olivia asked as she displayed the can opener like it was a trophy.
    I didn’t answer. My waking moments were starting to solidify into nightmares. I had trouble grasping our existence, and was constantly confused by what happened Downtown. It wasn’t anything I wanted to discuss with Olivia, but it was the only thing I could think about. So instead I just remained silent.
    She didn’t ask again and instead hummed as she opened the can of beans. She remained pleasant, as if trying to heighten both of our moods. We ate in silence. The beans were cold and the texture had something left to be desired, but they would do.
    Someone knocked on our front door.
    I wasn’t expecting visitors, and we typically didn’t have any. It was early, too. It looked like the sun was only just then starting to rise on the horizon. Olivia wanted nothing else but to go and greet whomever it was. She probably yearned for attention from someone other than me. I told her to wait in her bedroom, just in case.
    Our front door was riddled with bullet holes, and a single shotgun blast near the bottom made for a decent peep hole. Looking through it this time, however, didn’t reveal who was out there at first. But then a pair of eyes moved in front of the hole, staring straight at me.
    “Jaccckkkssssooonnn,” a low voice rumbled.
    I chuckled nervously in response.
    “You going to let us in or what?” another voice interjected.
    I let out a sigh of relief. These were familiar voices. I’d first met Kyle and Susan at the beginning of all this. They were part of the group I had shuffled along that broken highway. Knowing these two was a pleasant memory among a sea of terrible ones. They were holding each other’s hand when they first came to on that road, and they never let go, even though they were complete strangers. It was an awe-inspiring sight. I remembered how they struggled to recall events from before, how they comforted each other when nothing made sense. Even though the world was falling apart all around them, they maintained this unusual bond. And then there were the rings. I didn’t know what it signified, but it had to be something special.
    Susan was the first to notice the lettering inside her ring. It had Kyle’s name etched in the golden metal. Kyle’s ring had Susan’s name inside it as well. It seemed that the two were meant to be together. The rings, and the hand-holding, forged a strong relationship, and they’d been inseparable ever since.
    There were only a few people I could trust in this world. I was the first one. Olivia was the second, Followed by Kyle and Susan. Not only were they honest, but they were passionate and protective of Olivia. They would shelter her when I had to travel to get supplies, and possibly keep her when I used to stay Downtown overnight.
    I unlocked the multiple deadbolts and latches and swung the door open. Before I could stop her, Olivia scrambled past me and ran into Susan’s arms.
    “Olivia! Oh my goodness look how big you’re getting! Has he been feeding you chocolate all day and night?” Susan cried as she held and hugged the little girl.
    Susan had told me she was twenty-one during The Forgetting. She looked younger than that, despite the harsh new life. She was petite and very skinny, but her brilliant, green eyes and curly red hair made her seem taller and stronger. I had sometimes dreamt of what our life would be like together, if she wasn’t with Kyle of course. That pretty smile crushed me every time because I knew it belonged to someone else. I could never express my feelings for her, or at least wouldn’t.
    “Jacksoooonnnn!” Kyle gave me a bear hug, picking me up and off the ground. He was always excited to see us. Kyle was much larger than Susan, making them comically different in appearance when they stood together. He was well-built, with shocking, blond hair and blue eyes. He remained super protective of Susan and usually didn’t let her go out by herself. And if he had to go somewhere she would be forced along as well.
    “And what can I do for you two?” I asked as I leaned over and gave Susan a hug. She always smelled the same way. I couldn’t put a finger on what exactly that smell was, but it was enchanting.
    “We haven’t seen you in a few days. Thought we’d pop over and make sure everything was going good, buddy,” Kyle stated as he picked Olivia up and swung her onto his shoulder.
    I leaned against the frame of the doorway and looked out into the morning light. It was becoming a fine day, and already heating up. The sky was mostly vacant of clouds, and the sun was nearly fully-formed just at the edge of the skyline. That was when the first hints of gunfire opened up from somewhere down the block.

Chapter 2: Ghost in the Light

    Everyone scrambled inside, crouching on instinct as if the next hail of gunfire would come rip-roaring this way. I hadn’t heard gunshots in a very long time. I thought most everyone had run out of ammunition last year, but apparently that wasn’t true.
    “Jackson?” Kyle said. He wasn’t asking me a question. We had a plan setup long ago for these situations. He knew what was going to happen.
    “You remember how to use it?” I asked. It’d been forever since we held them. The weight always felt odd to me, like it was too heavy. And I never knew if they had been used before, used to kill before. But when the need arose, I always knew they could be used to safeguard me and my own.
    “Yeah… yeah… I think so,” Kyle replied.
    “Good.” I looked at the girls. Olivia knew without needing to be told, but I directed her anyway. “You lock this door after we leave. Open it for no one. You understand me? No one!”
    Olivia nodded. She clearly didn’t want me to go, but knew why I had to.
    I waved for Kyle to follow as I took the key hanging around my neck into my hand, and motioned toward the gun cabinet in the living room. I reached the cabinet, placed the key in its slot, and turned. This metal cabinet had been here with the key still in the lock when we first discovered the house. It was like someone had been just about to open it before something dreadful occurred. I shuddered at the idea every time.
    The metal sang against the hinges, declaring their disuse as I pulled on the handle. A pair of handguns, a shotgun, and several rounds of ammo sat inside just waiting to be used. I’d only ever shot three bullets from the first clip of the first gun, at someone, something I’m not proud of, but I’d never killed a person. I was thankful for that. Otherwise we only shot for practice.
    “Here,” I said and handed a pistol to Kyle. “Just a few rounds, no more.”
    He took the pistol with both hands, a nervous energy preparing him for what was to come. Kyle was willing, but I didn’t know if he was completely able to use this weapon.
    I reached for the shotgun.
    “No bullshit. Are you good?” I asked.
    “Yes,” Kyle replied.
    I had taught him to shoot not too long after the start of all this. I witnessed him fire and know he could pull the trigger, but he was a dreadful aim. Luckily, he never had to fire at anyone. Handing him the clip, I waited for him to place it into the handle. He shoved the magazine home and pulled back the slider to put a round into the chamber.
    Kyle halfcocked an anxious smile. His finger fumbled near the top of handle, and hit the clip release. The clip tumbled to the floor, sending a few shots spiraling across the carpet. He fumbled and cursed as he reloaded, then and tried again.
    “Honey,” Susan started but Kyle waved her off.
    “I’m good! We’re good! You just stay away from the windows and doors. You’ll be just fine--I promise. I love you,” Kyle said and headed for the front door. “Olivia, keep Susan safe. And lock this damn door!” Kyle opened the front door while kneeling down, scanning the outside like a hawk looking for prey.
    “Be safe,” Olivia ordered with an edge of authority in her voice. I nodded, motioned towards the front door, and pushed passed Kyle. The girls followed closely, and before they shut and locked the door Susan mouthed the words, “I love you,” to Kyle, and followed our orders.
    The sun cast a bright glare to the day, shadows poking out through gaps in the buildings. We kept low and moved into the road. Cracks and holes covered the asphalt with grass and weeds nearly knee high sticking out all about. With every passing day, more of nature was overtaking the roadway.
    We weren’t the only ones that took notice of the gunfire. Several individuals had popped their heads out open doors and windows. Others had ventured further outside their homes to try and get a better look. I didn’t know most of them, or cared to.
    Ricky and Jamie Alexander were one of those people who were always around. They lived next to Susan and Kyle. I didn’t recall their age but they were probably a few years older than Olivia. Those two were also from the group I took care of on day one. Ricky was a talker, and I couldn’t really get him to shut up. Jamie was more of the silent type. She was rather tall for her age, almost taller than I was. Black hair, even darker eyes, and freckles near her dimples.
    Ricky Alexander had already been outside and leaned our way when he saw us coming. He was a little taken aback by our firearms, but paused only a second or two. Ricky knew us well enough to know we weren’t the danger. He beeline it straight this way, swinging a baseball bat over his shoulder. It was a crude weapon for a crude kid. He was a stout child and a full head shorter than me. With a swash of red hair and even redder cheeks, Ricky always looked worth bullying, but he was unbeatable in a verbal contest.
    “Well, aren’t you two just ready for war? A little too holed up in your house awhile, Jackie Boy, gotta give that blood a little boil?” Ricky asked.
    I could stand for a little less of his cordial attitude and a little more serious of an appreciation for the fact that there were bullets flying through the air. Then again, he did have a weapon, so at least he was ready.
    “Not now, little one,” Kyle replied as he glared down the street, trying to pinpoint the exact location of where we were meant to go. The twitch of his muscles and his incessant blinking made him seem beyond feverous. I hoped I was up for this, and prayed the others were as well.
    “Ricky, where did the shots come from?” I asked, giving him a quizzical look that demanded an answer.
    Ricky’s mind raced to find a snide comment, or maybe a good one. It was always hard to judge which direction he would take his replies.
    Ricky simply swung us his bat off his shoulder and pointed down the road. “Palmers,” he answered.
    The Palmer family were a huge lot and good people. I didn’t think they ever raised harm to others, and helped the most they could. It felt wrong, impossible to believe that the bullets came from the Palmers’ house. Yet with how life was unfolding, things had started to happen closer to home. A wave of dizziness hit me and I took a deep, tired breath to steady myself. These damn sleepless nights were taking a toll.
    From what I knew, the Palmers were a family of two older siblings trying to handle five younger children. Zoe and Peter were only twenty-five and eighteen respectably. Peter was far stricter of the two, while Zoe remained good-natured for the sake of the children. They didn’t even know if the kids they were taking care of were family or not. Nevertheless, they were surviving, or at least they had been.
    “You don’t think…” Kyle leaned in and whispered.
    I was thinking the same thing. If someone got desperate enough, hungry enough, mad enough, then things like what we were thinking could happen, and have happened.
    I shook my head. There was no point in assuming anything. My mind reset to focus on Olivia for half a second, trying to comprehend the thought of her suddenly being down here and in harm’s way. I tried to push the thought aside, but it refused to budge. I could hear faint cries and laughter in between my ears, driving me into a quiet craze.
    “Well, are you going to put that stick to use?” I asked Ricky. I could care less if he came, but the extra support might be necessary.
    Ricky’s eyes sparkled and his cheeks brightened just a bit as he contemplated the question. His wheels were turning, sputtering with a comeback. It didn’t usually take this long. Maybe the gun in my hands was hindering his wit. A hard shove from behind brought Ricky back to his senses.
    “Course he will!” Jamie exclaimed. His sister stood behind the chunky redhead. Jamie was usually quiet and reserved, but today she seemed far from her usual temperament.
    “Okay then. We’ll lead and you two watch our backs. You have anything to use?” I asked Jamie. She held up a large, jagged kitchen knife. The thing looked like it could fall to pieces, but it would have to do. I nodded and set out first, going in the direction Ricky had pointed.
    The others who called this neighborhood home watched as we trekked toward the Palmers. Most were unwilling to confront whatever had happened. They were afraid, or just didn’t care enough to leave their homes. These were trying times after all. Less people meant more of a chance at survival. Less people meant more food. Theft, murder, and anything else that would help an individual live a little longer (even just few moments) had been committed before. Just because it didn’t happen here often didn’t mean it hadn’t ever happened.
    These streets had been painted crimson before. These people, these scavengers, would be waiting to hear if the Palmers’ were dead. The instant the news became factual was the instant anything in that house was up for grabs. They were too cowardly to face gun power, though. They’d likely stay indoors for hours, until dusk. Then they’d stalk the shadows and steal from the departed. But not today. I wouldn’t let them. I knew the family was still alive, though my gut rumbled in disagreement.
    Moving to the sidewalk provided more shelter. Several trees grew parallel to the road along both sides of the street. They had blossomed with a full canopy, shielding most of the sunlight from above.
    Up ahead I noticed someone crouching behind one of those trees about a stone’s throw from where we stood. It was difficult to make out who it was with the sun looming directly in front of us. I brought our group to a halt and held up a finger to my mouth. The others acknowledged my direction and crouched down, trying to hide themselves among the foliage.
    I snuck up with my shotgun pointed directly at the back of whoever waited by that tree.
    “Kelly?” I blurted out on accident as I got close enough to recognize the person. I failed to remove the shotgun from my shoulder, however, keeping it trained on the girl as if she was a stranger.
    The comment startled the girl. She swung around, twisting an old six shooter directly at the middle of my forehead. She had madness set in those lines around her mouth and I saw my life flash before my eyes. At least everything I remembered from the last couple years.
    “Whoa, easy now,” I said, holding up my hands with the shotgun barrel pointed towards the sky. I felt my heart thunder in my chest.
    “Damn it, Jackson! Fucking damn it dude! That’s a real fucking good way to get yourself killed!” Kelly whispered in teeth-grating anger. She shook and didn’t immediately lower her gun. Her blue eyes sparkled even in the shade of the trees. Kelly was slender and young. She lived by herself, a loner, and her fiery mouth didn’t exactly bring many friendships into her life, but she survived. And there was that one time she saved my life, even pulled out the bullet that Frank buried in my shoulder. She’d had my respect, if not my friendship, ever since.
    “Kelly…?” I asked. That crazed look didn’t dissipate. She kept the gun steady near my head. Her ragged breaths didn’t ease off and her twitching finger remained dangerously close to the trigger. Kelly hardly seemed present.
    “Focus, Kelly…” I said.
    “Just two seconds, damn it. Just two mother living fucks of a second, please!” she exploded.
    I obeyed the command while keeping my hands skyward. The shotgun began to wavier in my hand, the weight enough to keep me biting my lip to try and keep it steady.
    “Okay,” she said. She finally lowered her piece and I was allowed to do the same, much to my arm’s delight. Kelly stood and shouldered herself against the tree as she looked back down the street. “I was outside when the shit started. Saw the muzzle flashes. It definitely came from inside that damn house, man, the fucking Palmers place. Can you believe that shit?!”
    She held the gun steady in her hand and a wave of tranquility suddenly overtook her. I could feel it too, this strange surge. The tension evaporated from her body and her breathing slowed. Kelly found some weird energy to lower her adrenaline. Everyone in this city truly did underestimate this girl. If they could just get past the tough exterior and harsh words then they could see her spirit. It was there, buried, allowing her to be whoever she needed to be.
    “How many shots you got?” I asked. Kelly’s six shooter was chipped and missing the aim, not worth its weight in a real firefight. I doubted the firing pin even pulled back, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. I would only receive a tongue lashing for it anyway.
    “Just two,” she hissed.
    “Just two…” I squeezed the bridge of my nose, feeling a headache start to grow. A sudden bout of nausea circled my stomach and a grogginess set in.
    She wouldn’t be much help with only two shots.
    “So be it,” I said. “Mind taking up the rear?”
    A gun was still a gun. Even an unloaded gun would make a person react, the sight alone making people duck for cover. A slightly chipped, partially loaded gun with a crazy girl holding it could make the world bend.
    “Sure thing Jackson,” Kelly moved to the back of the group, joining the chunky red head and his sister. She didn’t exactly get along with those two, but she was more focused.
    “Really?” Ricky asked when Kelly joined them.
    “I’ll pull your eyes out fat boy,” Kelly replied.
    I glared at the both of them.
    “Sorry Jack,” Kelly apologized. I knew for a fact I am the only one she’d ever apologized to. Even the fat boy was surprised to hear the words slip from her throat.
    I waved for the rest to follow as I once again found myself leading a group down the cracked earth. It was strangely quiet, even more than usual. The scraping of our shoes on the pavement was the only sound that broke the overbearing silence. A sense of dread settled over me as the big house came into view. I didn’t know about the rest of the group, if they felt the same way. Ricky was huffing and puffing and wheezing just a bit. Kyle twitched with expectation while Jamie was silent as the day itself, and Kelly raged on in silence.
    The Palmers’ house was maybe the nicest one on the block. Time and weather had yellowed its white exterior. We approached the intact porch with a swing and two rocking chairs where I remembered the eldest Palmer playing games with the children. They were trying to pass the time, trying to make this miserable world a little more bearable. Part of the roof had fallen in before they moved in, but the place was so big they never used that part of the house anyway. A very broken door sat on the hinges, begging to fall off, but that had always been there.
    Something that hadn’t always been there, however, was a trail of blood. It started near the doorway and led back inside.

Chapter 3: Innocence Lost

    Ricky held his breath. Jamie stared at the ground. Kyle scanned the windows, trying to see something, and I could do nothing but feel an absolutely terrifying emptiness harden in my core. We didn’t move, could hardly function. We just watched in stunned silence, wishing things were different. Yet the house remained still, and weirdly inviting. We had a need to know what happened.
    “You guys stay put. Kyle, on me,” I commanded with a scratch in my throat. The other three had to be left out of this; they would only get in the way. The brother and sister couldn’t handle this situation, and the fiery one might try to kill a shadow with that itchy trigger finger and end up taking one of us out. Kyle would have to back me up. Him and only him.
    “That’s stupid, Jackson, I’m fucking coming!” Kelly whispered violently. I knew she’d be the only one to object. Pride stormed inside her. She wouldn’t back down from this, and that’s why finding her balance was key. Even with her ever-present passion she still had sense. One doesn’t live long without it.
    “I need you outside. You can cover the entrance in case someone comes out. Stay here, Kelly. Anything happens, you can come running in, yes?” I asked.
    Kelly fumed, her face reddening with rage. She swore under her breath, but didn’t argue. She shifted her weight, and walked to a broken-down automobile that was rusting in the daylight. She knelt behind it, keeping the gun at her side. The other two followed without a word. They would guard the outside.
    “Shit,” Kyle said.
    “What is it?” I asked.
    “Where did that come from?” Kyle pointed up. I followed his arm. The sky had darkened. It was brilliantly clear just moments ago, yet now I was watching a thunderhead break nearby. It crept up on us. A few droplets began flying down. Soon enough we were caught in a complete downpour.
    “Let’s get this done,” I said as I led the way into the house that become so different in this pouring rain. Kyle followed silently behind as we crossed the brink into the silent home. Inside, there was a complete and utter stillness. No children’s laughter, no sound of Peter’s tough love coursing through the air. Only an overwhelming sense of dread and terror filled the atmosphere. As I stood in the entryway, the blood that lingered near the door didn’t move like I thought it had. Instead it just remained pooled, but wet, recently spilled.
    I shouldn’t be here.
    This wasn’t my place, but Kyle and I needed to know what happened.
    The outlay of the house was familiar. I could only recall coming her twice, but in those times the family managed to keep me for hours—so happy were the Palmers to have guests. Zoe and Peter’s rooms were separate from the children’s, down here on the ground floor. I saw the stairway that spiraled up to the second story, and the little ones’ bedrooms. It was difficult to decide which way to go at that moment.
    Who deserved to be looked for first? Who deserved to be saved? Logic dictated that I should stay down here, for now. There were less rooms on this floor, and the front door was the only exit. If someone came flying down those stairs there would be enough time to handle it. Of course, Kelly could threaten someone with her sidearm if they went screaming out into the world--if that iron of hers worked right.
    Flowing into the hallway, Kyle followed silently as he’d promised. With the sudden thunderstorm picking up strength, it had darkened considerably outside, bathing the hallways in a dank gloom. Shadows twisted and bounced as lightning flashed outside. My sleepless senses mutated the shades. I could feel my hands instinctively point the barrel of my shotgun at the jumping shadows, but I refrained from pulling the trigger.
    Up ahead a doorway loomed into life. The wooden boards beneath our feet creaked and moaned with age. We slowed the pace, stepping carefully to make sure we staved off as much noise as possible. Raising the shotgun mid-level, I slid along the wall, inching ever closer to the opening.
    No sounds escaped from beyond. I prayed for someone to make a noise, be it crying or moaning… just something, anything. The silence was too much, and a jittery shaking started in my left hand. I had never experienced that before, but I also didn’t usually go hunting for murderers either.
    I dared a peek inside the doorway. I wasn’t thinking about someone with a functional sidearm burying a bullet between my eyes. I felt an idea take hold, that there wasn’t enough time to think or hang back. Lives were in danger. My gun entered first, ready to spark to life. Only a growing sense of vigor carried me forward.
    I made a quick scan of the room. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. I looked in all the corners, behind the door, and under the bed. It wasn’t until my hand touched something wet on the bed that I knew my fears were justified.
    “What is it?” Kyle asked as quietly as possible. It was too dark to make out the color until lightning flashed outside, and a deep crimson revealed the truth.
    “Nooooo…” Kyle uttered. His eyes widened with horror at the sudden realization that what we’d heard earlier may have been the bullet that hit Zoe. Yet this was too strange, and too out of place for a murder. There was a very distinct lack of a body. No trail of blood leading off somewhere, and there was very little of it, just a small patch really. I would have missed it if I hadn’t stuck my head in that exact spot.
    “Next room,” I whispered.
    A bullet wound would have bled much more. Something different was at work here. Where was Zoe? Where were the signs of life?
    The darkness only grew blacker from there as we burst back into the hallway. I turned left and went straight for Peter’s room. It was only a few strides from Zoe’s room but it felt like a much greater distance. I rushed forward, nearly running. This time the door was closed, but that didn’t slow us down. I kicked right through the timber and the door slammed open. I held my restless finger against the shotgun’s trigger, ready for anything. But there was nothing.
    Peter’s room was empty save for a bed and desk. We found nothing beyond that, o blood soaked sheets or signs of struggle. Nothing leaped out at me and certainly not at Kyle. Kyle fidgeted in place with his gun tapping softly against his leg. I stared at him as if trying to summon an answer. He managed to avoid my questioning glare.
    “We’re not done yet,” I ordered.
    At least the rain was calming down, though it remained overcast outside. We made our way into the hallway and back towards the front of the house. Somehow the home had changed since we first entered. The creaks and groans from the foundation now occurred randomly. Her appearance transformed beyond normal shades and shadows. It seemed like dark arms reached out at us in the hallways.
    A chill came over us, and my breath fogging before me. I sensed my blood grow colder.
    We entered the foyer and looked toward the staircase that spiraled up to the second floor. I knew that the hallways branched in three different directions at the top, and the children’s bedrooms would be in the left side of the home.
    Only a bit of sunlight breached the open doorway. The clouds overhead were just beginning to break, and light was thankfully starting to flow through the windows near the top of the house. The shadows pushed away, and I regained what I was missing, a sense of knowing what was in this miserable home.
    “Some luck at least,” Kyle whispered. He was right. The light would make it that much easier for the rest of the exploration. We ascended the stairs in a quick yet careful rush. My shotgun pointed to the left, Kyle’s to the right, not wanting to let anything surprise us. Our footsteps were loud on the old wood, but there was no need to play it coy anymore after I’d kicked the door in.
    We pushed onward to where I remember the first bedroom was on the second floor. It belonged to a girl probably no older than my little one, a frail little thing named Alexis. The girl was one of the most cheerful people to be around, always happy, and always a ball of pure energy. The thought of Alexis spurred me on. With shotgun mid-level and a trigger finger just waiting for someone to pop out, I circled a turn in the hallway and closed the gap to the sleeping quarters. I found nothing as I rounded the junction. I was expecting something, anything.
    Everything was quiet as death as we entered the room. No signs of a struggle. Thankfully no little bodies were strung out along the floor either. There was simply nothing. I knew something happened here: gunshots happened for a reason. Blood spatters happened for a reason. But as far as we could determine, none of it made any sense.
    My vision fell on something very peculiar. It rested against the far wall, near the corner on the right side. I walked over and bent down to examine it. My blood chilled a few degrees. I couldn’t begin to understand what it meant, but, frankly, I didn’t want to either.
    “What is it?” Kyle asked. He stood over me. I didn’t know how to explain it so I simply picked up the severed finger and held it out for him to see. I heard his gasp, and Kyle backpedaled a few feet. The detached finger was a regular-sized, adult pinky. It looked like it was chewed off of a hand.
    I breathed deeply, trying to gain some concentration. The shotgun grew heavy in my arms, and my eyelids felt like dropping, laden with this uneasy exhaustion that didn’t allow me to sleep. I didn’t know why, but I kept the finger in my hand. It felt like it was something important, a means to an end.
    I met Kyle’s gaze. He nodded and moved into the hallway once more.
    We moved swift and loud as we progressed to the last room in the hallway. Joanne’s room was up ahead. She was the youngest of the Palmers. She had soft, violet eyes but never talked much. She usually just sat in a corner looking off into the abyss. I wondered what those violet eyes had seen thus far.
    Suddenly, we heard the faintest of whimpers. It was barely audible, but there. A soft orange glow illuminated the hallway, seeping from the crack of a hardly-opened doorway just ahead. It was enough for us to quicken our pace and burst into the room.
    Kyle moaned out loud and left the room while I stood paralyzed. There was Peter and all the children surrounding a fire built in a barrel. They were eating… pieces… of something that once were human. I could only guess who it was they were piling into their gaping mouths. Several pairs of eyes followed my movements as I dropped the severed finger to the floor. I thought I knew these people, but never expected this. I’d heard stories of cannibalism from the inner part of the city, but never foresaw this horror.
    “Jackson?” Peter’s faint voice picked up from around the fire.
    I was in a pure daze and couldn’t hear the rest of what he was saying. The scene was too gruesome. Body parts lay close to the fire while others roasted in the heat. My stomach rolled as the smell finally hit me. I wanted to leave but couldn’t, as if my feet were glued down. I dropped the shotgun and looked at each child, wondering how they could commit such an act. One of them started crying, softly at first, until bursting into full tears. Soon the others joined in.
    “What the hell…,” I trailed off, holding down vomit. “What is this?” There was no way of understanding this, yet I still needed some sort of answer.
    Peter turned his eyes to the fire before bringing them back up to me. That's when I noticed how sunken his eyes had become. His skin was stretched over bones. He looked weak and defeated. Peter pushed himself around the fire and stood beside me.
    “She,” Peter dropped his head and whispered. “Zoe said…” Peter got chocked up and his legs swayed side to side. He could barely hold himself up and placed a skeletal hand on my arm to steady himself. “This was our only way. She tried killing herself a little a while ago, to make it easier on us…” Peter’s voice cracked while the children cried louder.
    I thought back to the bloody sheets in Zoe’s bedroom, to the patch of blood in the entryway. She’d tried to end her life, but apparently had failed. One of the kids came running forward and picked up the severed finger, and cradled it like it was precious. It was Joanne, with her violet purple eyes. She returned to the others, crying and wailing.
    “So you, you, you…” I stuttered and squinted, trying to comprehend. The idea was so unfamiliar, so troubling. I turned around, away from everything. I didn’t want to comprehend.
    “Zoe said it was the only way. We tried to find food. We foraged for weeks. People Downtown don’t care. They have their own rations and stores, but nothing else. There is just so little left up here, you know…” Peter said, choking up for a second. “They were getting so weak. Look, I know. I know this isn’t right. But there was nothing else.”
    “She… was… going… to… turn… tomorrow,” Joanne managed through sobs.
    “What?” I asked, eyeing the girl. Joanne didn’t speak another word.
    “She was turning tomorrow,” Peter explained. “She said she didn’t want to leave us unless it was on her own terms. She said it was ok.” Peter struggled to cling to my arm. He was shaking terribly and his legs trembled, threatening to send him crashing to the ground.
    “Her twenty-sixth birthday…?” I trailed off. I thought she was younger than that. I didn’t realize she was so close to my age, and to the turning. But still, to do this to someone was disconnected from everything I knew about family. Guilt welled within me as I remained disjointed. We had supplies to last them some time, if we’d only known about their situation. If I’d shared some supplies this might have never happened.
    “The gunshot?” I asked, already knowing the answer. If she’d tried to shoot herself, then a shot from a pistol would be quick and hopefully painless. I just didn’t know how they could eat her. I looked around at the children’s tear-streaked faces, noticing out boney they were, and how terrible their breathing had become.
    Peter began crying, matching the others in the room. The children gathered to their feet and huddled around him. It was too much. I left the room without as much as a glance back. I wanted out of this hell and grabbed Kyle on my way back to the stairs.

Chapter 4: It Begins

    The rest of the day passed by in flashes of dismembered body parts and ambient smells. Nothing felt solid or real. The ground shook but didn’t move, and it was cold outside even with the sun at its peak. Olivia talked, but I couldn’t hear her. Everything buzzed but I was stuck, lifeless, in the most silent world that had ever existed. I was broken.
    I did my best to put on a smiling face as I tucked Olivia away for the night before returning to the outside world. I took a seat on the cement just outside the door. I wouldn’t sleep tonight; I didn’t think Kyle would either. Too many images were cascading through my mind.
    Instead, I tried to focus my attention on the sky. Bright little specks sparkled in the darkness. A full moon hung just near the center of the sky. Somehow it eased my mind. I returned inside and made sure to double-check the locks on the door.
    Striding into the living room, I crashed on the couch, my legs aching and my mind shot. That familiar, musty smell of the house thankfully replaced the odor of burnt flesh my mind kept fixated on. I was used to the silence of the room, but now it reminded me of the same quietness at the Palmer’s. I needed to do something to distract myself.
    I lit the globe inside a nearby lantern. The shallow light enveloped the room, and I felt much better. I kept a few old binders underneath the couch that were filled with clippings and pictures from someone else’s life. I reached without looking and grabbed the first one that touched my fingers. I tossed the brown, leather binder into my lap and opened it to the first page.
    I had remembered how to read not long after The Forgetting, something that most in this city had not been able to achieve. The words on the front page weren’t exactly foreign, but they also didn’t hold much meaning, at least to me. The words on the flap read:
    To Julie,

    From the first moment to our last,
    I will always love you.
Robert
    The second page held photographs. There was a couple in each picture, smiling and holding the other. They were young in the first couple pages, but as I went on they aged before my eyes, a lifetime captured in photographs. I saw the beginning of a relationship, the middle, the end. In one picture they were up in the air somehow, lights of blue, purple, and pink flashing in the background as they looked down upon a lake or a river. In another they had the sun setting behind them. The glare was strong in the photo but I could still see them laughing. Further in the book they were in strange outfits and shoving cake in each other’s faces. I had no idea what that one was about, but it seemed fun nonetheless.
    Flipping through another couple pages I saw them holding a baby. The woman, now a mother, was exhausted and hooked up to some kind of machine. Again I was confused, but I didn’t really need to understand. The next few photographs were when everything changed. Something was wrong. The lady was still hooked up to tubes and things, but she was bald and looked sick. Soon it was only pictures of the father with the little girl.
    I grasped the side of my head and felt a headache coming on. These weird, mini migraines happened so often I knew this was going to be a bad one. Gently laying the photo album on the couch, I cradled my head with both hands just before the blistering pain overcame my senses. My vision blurred and even the back of my eyes hurt. It passed rather quickly, but it left an overwhelming need to fall over.
    My scared vision caused shadows to start jumping off the walls like demons. It felt like the spirits had followed me, seeking blood after I’d intruded on their domain at the Palmers. I killed the globe of the lantern, and again the darkness covered the room, the shadows dying into the background.
    I was losing myself, and couldn’t even decide what was better, the light or the darkness. Both had their terrors, both so unwelcoming.
    “Come on, Jackson… just sleep,” I told myself. There was nothing else for me here, and I didn’t want to leave Olivia again. I definitely didn’t want to be a part of the waking world either. I reached behind the couch and brought out a bottle I kept hidden there. Vodka was labeled on the front of the clear bottle. I rarely used it as a sleep agent, but it was never more necessary than tonight. I took three gulps, trying to hold by breathe, stopped, recovered, and chugged some more. It burned so hot. Why anyone would drink this for anything but sleep was beyond me. Putting the top back on, I shoved the empty bottle beneath the couch and laid back. It took several minutes of impatient waiting, but the vodka finally hit back, hard. It would have taken me off my feet if I wasn’t already down for the count. I relaxed, feeling the liquid slosh around inside me. Soon enough, shapes contorted while the world begun to slow down. I closed my eyes and folded into myself. I slept for the first time in days, and didn’t dream once.
    A heavy knocking startled me awake. It took a few seconds to get my bearings before noticing a heavy weight on my body. I saw Olivia curled up and still asleep on my chest. Her body lifted slowly with my breaths, but her eyelids remained close. I didn’t tell her what happened the day before and never would. She knew better than to ask when she saw something was wrong. So she comforted me in her own way. I heard more knocking on the front door and this time Olivia heard it as well. She stirred from her slumber and rubbed her eyes while letting out a massive yawn.
    “Well… morning,” I said, trying to smile.
    Her hair was unkempt as always, blonde strands matted and clinging to her forehead. Her face was dirty and coated with a layer of sweat. She only grinned back. Lifting her gently up and away, I stood from the couch.
    “You stay here. Right here,” I instructed, pointing at the ground directly in front of her. After yesterday, she’d be lucky to go outside ever again. Olivia nodded, and took a seat on the couch.
    I walked to the front door, no idea who could be knocking. I doubted Kyle and Susan would be back, not for a few days at the least. So that left exactly no one I should be expecting.
    I looked through my usual peep hole and a very fat leg clogged most of the view. I could hear whispering, but I didn’t immediately recognize the voices. They spoke quickly and quietly, and it seemed so very early. I hadn’t slept in so long that everything seemed strange and dulled. I was still adjusting, but I couldn’t ignore the pounding on the door.
    “What is it?” I asked. I didn’t open the door.
    The crowd outside fell silent. They didn’t talk, or move, just stood there frozen.
    “Well?” I asked. “I’m in no mood.” After what happened the day before, I didn’t think I’d ever open my door again. The rest of the world could just stay outside.
    “We have to talk,” Kelly said.
    “I don’t want to talk about it, Kelly,” I sighed. That fiery personality never got an answer from me about what happened yesterday. I couldn’t tell her, as I could hardly fathom it myself. I’d eventually tell her, just not right now. Of course she didn’t exactly like that answer.
    “Jackson, fuck, just let us in! It’s not that, man! It’s something else,” Kelly said, agitation in her voice.
    I knew she wasn’t going away. Sighing heavier I twisted the locks on the door. Kelly pushed her way past me, followed shortly by the pudgy redhead and his sister.
    “We have to talk,” Kelly insisted.
    Ricky turned around and shut the door, making sure to turn the locks back in place. That was odd. He shot a gaze at me that had an edge to it. Yesterday he was only full of dread. Plus he didn’t know what happened either. This look was different. His hair was greased out in all directions and sweat poured all over him.
    “Whatcha looking at?” Ricky sneered. At least that was normal. I sighed and waved towards the table in the middle of the floor. The two younger siblings obeyed, taking seats, but the fiery one remained standing, looking ready to explode. I couldn’t tell what this was about, but I was sure I’d find out soon enough.
    “So, what is it?” I asked. Olivia peeked her head through the entryway. I glared at her until she disappeared back into the living room. Bringing my attention back to the three guests, I saw the pudgy kid and his tall sister repeatedly looking at each other and back to me. Kelly remained confidently crazy, and near ready to burst with whatever she was holding in. She paced back and forth, either deep in thought or trying not to detonate.
    “Shit. Damn it. You even know? No, you can’t know yet. I mean this is fucked up. This is…” Kelly stuttered. She threw up her hands in revulsion and shook with absolute wrath. The brother and sister remained silent, unwilling or unable to speak while I knew that it was best to allow Kelly to let out her anger.
    “This is some broken, bullshit, sadistic, angry, bitching thing. It doesn’t even make sense! The damn people are going fucking wild down there!” Kelly exclaimed.
    I spotted Olivia once again peeking in. I pointed and made the sternest face I could, and she ran to her room, knowing she shouldn’t be hearing words like these.
    “I’m not following,” I said, throwing my hands in the air. I had a pounding headache, and felt slightly sick to my stomach. The damn vodka always hit me wrong, even only a few gulps.
    Kelly’s voice was loud enough to echo in the tiny room, and between my ears. “How about you two?” I asked, eying Jamie. Maybe she could be more concise because I had no idea what the hell Kelly was carrying on about.
    Jamie didn’t initially answer. She remained fixated on her brother, as if encouraging him to answer for her. Surprisingly, he remained tight-lipped.
    “She doesn’t know a damn thing. They only know what I told them!” Kelly yelled. She was out of tune, and so lost in her own anger that she was turning blue in the cheeks. The brother and sister turned away, and leaned further away from Kelly, trying not to get involved.
    “Okay,” I said slowly. “Let’s start from the beginning.” I went over to the wall, leaning a shoulder against the peeling wallpaper and crossed my arms. My vision remained blurry and I wasn’t completely awake. Having to deal with Kelly this early sucked. She was so loud my head was ringing.
    Kelly continued her rant, though I wasn’t really listening. I just couldn’t find my attention. Her voice cracked, sharpened, and whistled with angry plight, but the words threaded together in a string of nonsensical ideas. Her voice carried on until it abruptly stopped. I looked around the room, noticing that the three of them were watching me.
    “What the hell!” Kelly shrieked. She stormed up to me, and stuck a fist in my chest, thundering about my lackadaisical attitude. She scared the world out of me, even though she was half my size.
    “I’m listening, I’m listening, just take it down a notch,” I pleaded. “I have no idea what you’re saying. Just…” I wasn’t given a chance to finish. Kelly punched my chest even harder, and whatever anger was left inside her boiled out.
    “I’m trying to fucking tell you!” She whispered fiercely. “There is some crazy shit going down in this city, messed up stuff! Okay, get this.” She paused briefly, gaining some sort of grip on herself. “After you left the Palmers’… I went back in later that day.”
    “You did what?” I shuddered at the thought, but I shouldn’t have expected anything different from her.
    “There was nothing there. I don’t know what the hell you guys were freaking out about; the house was empty. Anyway, that’s not my point. After I left that house I went Downtown because I needed supplies. That’s where I saw IT.” She paused again. “It’s on the side of a fucking building, dude! Numbers, big, big, numbers!”
    Kelly trailed off, lost in thought as if something mysteriously popped into her head. I struggled to follow, but she wasn’t giving me much to go on.
    What numbers?
    Ricky waved me over. He had something on his mind that needed to be let loose. I hoped it was more than just a joke. Pushing myself off the wall, I left Kelly behind for a second to figure out what Ricky wanted. He moved away from his sister and looked like he wanted me to follow.
    “What is it?” I asked.
    “Bats, she’s out of her damn mind,” he said. That was Ricky’s nickname for Kelly. I didn’t exactly get the description, if it had reference or meaning. “She came flying up here this morning pounding on our door like this hare-brained creeper thing. I figured she was going mad. Jamie though it best we let her in before she broke down the door.” He sneered and looked back at his sister. “Bats has been going on and on. I don’t know what she thinks it is but…”
    Ricky stopped, as if prying ears had suddenly fixated on him. He glanced around, praying that Bats wasn’t listening. He saw Kelly glaring at him and he cocked his head sideways and trembled. I couldn’t help but laugh, on the inside of course. Kelly was absolutely the most chilling when like this, aimed and loaded, pointing directly at you, and her aim was straight on the little chubby redhead.
    “You fat little bastard,” she hissed. “I’m not fucking crazy! I know exactly what I saw, ooooooohhhhhh I swear I’ll bash your skull in!” She came flying with fists raised and ready to rain down punishment.
    Ricky backed into me, shaking and wheezing. If he hadn’t yet, I feared he’d might piss his pants. Pushing the little guy away, I caught the frenzied girl in midflight and held her tight. She pulsated with unadulterated anger and her language raised another few degrees. She slapped against my grip, and clawed at my arms, trying to drag herself to the red-haired kid.
    “Easy Kelly, easy. Calm down. Focus on me. Come on, settle…,” I said as she thrashed. It was some time before she reached some level calm. Her pulse relaxed, and gained a steady rhythmic thumping. She looked up at me, and I saw clarity and trust.
    “You have to go see it,” she said as she became docile, her voice somber. “Look, I realize how I sound, like some lunatic, but there is some serious shit happening Downtown. I’m not talking about the turning—it’s something else, and I just know you’ll understand it.”
    I released her, no longer worried she’d jump on Ricky the first chance she got. Her rage was spent. Instead she walked to the front door, unlocked it, and went running into the sunshine. I stood mystified, completely confused by the one-sided conversation.
    “Utterly, bat-shit, crazy,” Ricky announced.
    I still didn’t understand the reference, but didn’t care.
    “Anyway, little miss crazy isn’t exactly alone in what she saw. Word’s been that some crazy shit…” Ricky said, making air quotes while performing a pretty decent Kelly impression “…did happen overnight. Can’t say what it is, but it’s apparently big.”
    Ricky stood at the doorway looking outside. His sister joined him, but she didn’t make as much as a peep. I stood behind them, trying to forcibly push them out without physically resorting to that. I was completely done with this interaction.
    “Let’s just clear our heads, maybe get some rest, and you two go home,” I insisted as I took another step forward, my aura of unwillingness pushing the two through the door. I wanted them gone, and any story of whatever was happening Downtown was the furthest thing from my mind.
    Images of the Palmer’s house still plagued my mind, and nothing could accompany those pictures and thoughts right this second. Ricky seemed to recognize my unwillingness and gave me a look of curiosity, and a slightly crooked smile. Something was brewing inside his thick skull, and it was about to come out.
    “It’s a timer,” Ricky said.
    I shrugged. It didn’t mean much to me, a timer or whatever it was.
    Ricky bit his lip and said, “It’s inside the barrier…”

Chapter 5: A Walk Amongst Ruin

    The statement was simple and direct. Ricky didn’t have to say anything else, and he knew it. He beamed with some sort of self-absorbed pride, as if he’d won a competition. The brother and sister departed without a goodbye, and I was left alone with my thoughts. The declaration stopped me in my tracks, over-thinking, reasoning the words into something logical. Yet there was no reason or explanation. It was simply unthinkable.
    The words kept repeating in my mind. It’s inside the barrier. It’s inside the barrier. Ricky’s voice rang out loud even though he’d gone. It made more sense than the entirety of Kelly’s argument, or whatever that was supposed to be. With a few simple words my perception had changed. I was being pulled back Downtown, to everything that I had known and hated, where I was hated.
    “Olivia, we’re leaving. Grab some clothes for the night.” I instructed.
    I had already decided, or I should say Ricky decided for me. Olivia didn’t question, but disappeared into her room. It gave me the chance to grab my gun. I opened the metal cabinet door with my key, and grabbed the gun and a clip, shoving the clip into my front pocket and the gun into my waistband.
    “Where are we going?” Olivia asked as she crossed over the old carpet, coming to halt before me.
    She smirked up at me, but I couldn’t even bear a smile in response. Instead I just put a hand on the back of her head, and nodded toward the opened front door. She was a bit taken aback, as she was never allowed to go outside, or at least hadn’t been for a while. Keeping her in arm’s reach, we crossed the road and B-lined it for the only two people I trusted besides myself and Olivia.
* * *
    “What’s down there?” Susan asked. I had tried to explain the morning’s events. How Ricky, Jamie, and Kelly came to my door in utter disarray, and just how different the Kelly had been this morning after returning from her foray into the city. As I sat there clarifying the ordeal, it sounded bizarre even to me, but I could already feel myself moving into the unknown. I knew I needed to be down there. Whatever this timer was or wasn’t, if it sat within the barrier then it was important, probably the most significant thing to occur since I woke up without any memories two years ago.
    Susan was far more skeptical than I. Her eyes narrowed and she was deep in thought. For me to so willingly venture to a place where I was no longer welcomed was beyond strange. She probably thought I’d gone crazy. I offered a glance at Kyle, who still wasn’t himself. He must have been lost in those images from the Palmers. I would be too if it wasn’t for this new development, and yet they still lingered in the background, those memories.
    “Kelly wasn’t clear, but Ricky said something too interesting to ignore. I wouldn’t be going if it wasn’t, trust me,” I said as I twisted on the couch, feeling uneasy about the whole ordeal.
    I trusted Susan and Kyle, but leaving Olivia with them, even for a day, felt wrong. I knew that, eventually, sooner or later, this would cause a world of trouble. I had to go, though, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to put Olivia in danger.
    Olivia looked up at me. She was caught between betrayal and sadness, questioning why I had to go. She didn’t understand why I had to leave her here. Olivia didn’t remember how bad it got down there. The gunshots, the blood, all the things from those early days. She blocked them out and forgot them. Even if things weren’t the same didn’t mean I was going to change my mind about bringing her now.
    “Well, you know we’re more than willing to watch Olivia,” said Susan.
    She turned to Kyle who was lost in a daze. Susan looked worried. Kyle probably hadn’t shared what happened at the Palmer’s, or at least hadn’t yet. I was sure Kyle would break his silence, and then she’d wish he hadn’t.
    “When do you expect to be back?” Susan asked, swinging her attention back my way.
    “Less than a day. Perhaps early afternoon, I really don’t want to be caught down there after sunset,” I said. There were a few gangs left Downtown dangerous enough to make me weary. Murders still happened. Apparently cannibalism was still occurring. Lucky, there was still law enforcement down there in the form of a few still trying to handle such a burden. Joey and his crew of officers tried their best to keep order in a disorderly world. Though I wondered if they know about the Palmers. Would Joey do anything about that, considering we live up here?
    I stood up. I could feel the handgun’s cold metal surface brush my back in my waistband. There wasn’t a way around not being armed when going back to a place that despised me. Olivia was a melting pot of emotions. She probably believed I wouldn’t return.
    “Thanks again,” I said.
    Susan smiled and got up. She wrapped her arms around me and hugged me deeply. She leaned in close and whispered, “You just come back whole.” She smiled again.
    Kyle seemed to break his trance for a moment. He came over, grabbed me by the neck, and brought me close. He didn’t have much to say, but he had been listening, and at least expressed his own heart-felt goodbye.
    “Stay safe, my friend,” Kyle whispered.
    “I will. I promised someone already,” I said without having to look back at Olivia. The little girl suddenly clung to me, and wrapped her little arms around my waist. I looked down at her and knew I shouldn’t be leaving, that we should just go back home and forget about this craziness, but I couldn’t.
    “It’s okay… it will be okay,” I whispered. I picked up Olivia and held her in my arms. She didn’t whine, didn’t shake or hyperventilate at my departure. She would miss me I know. She just hugged me with her arms around my neck, silently wishing for me not to leave. I put her down, and without hesitation walked straight out the door and into the world.
    Walking down this familiar street, as I’d done roughly two years ago, I realized that much hadn’t changed. Everything was fragmented: the memories, the surroundings, the people, all broken and in disrepair. We lived on in the destruction that we didn’t remember happening, in another time we didn’t recall living.
    There used to be a river that gushed only a short distance from the street off to the right side. With The Forgetting destroying any notion of knowing how to survive, that river brought fresh water to us and our dying thirst. It was one of the only things in this new life to celebrate and hold onto.
    The fighting started only a few months after the beginning of the world. Groups argued and tried to control resources. They fought, and died over the water.
    Stopping atop of a broken bridge that still hadn’t fallen from disrepair, I glanced down at the dry riverbed, seeing sharp rocks, debris, and tragic memories. It was probably a twenty foot fall from here to the rocky outcrop below.
    Moving ahead, I looked left to see the dry riverbed running close by. The groups that arose over time did so for two fundamentally different reasons: to take, and to give. Those who wanted to control the waters, to control the people, were almost the greatest threat. They would extort, lie, and kill those in their way. But then again, the ones that sought to keep the waters free for everyone else were utterly terrifying too. They would do whatever needed to be done. They destroyed lives, demolished buildings, and sought to control everybody while trying to keep the waters free. It was a horrible paradox.
    A lot of people died in that war. Not soon after the first stone was slung, I could recall seeing the first body floating upside down in the water. It was a bloody beginning to this tragic city. I sympathized with why they did it too, but just not how they ended it. I never wanted to get involved, but always tried to voice my concern, my voice always drowned out in the violence.
    Then one day the river was simply gone, as if it never existed in the first place. No one could explain it, and I sure as hell couldn’t rationalize it. The fighting only grew worse from there. Accusations were tossed around freely, and especially toward those who could stand to gain from the river’s disappearance. More blood was spilled, and more tears were shed. Even more lives were taken. I was one of the people suspected of somehow tampering with the free-flowing water. That was just the beginning of my troubles, I suppose. I thought to the times when I held Olivia at night, when the fighting grew too close to home, when it threatened to beat down our front door.
    I made my way forward. The river dipped down and swung left. From here it would drift another hundred paces or so before disappearing altogether.
    I passed by several broken dwellings. These places had been incinerated at some point. Surfaces were all weather-beaten from the constant rain and the merciless glare of the sun. Paint was peeling here and there. The grass was burned in places, most of it brown and the rest simple patches of dirt. Blackened soot covered everything.
    Anything that tried to grow back was sure to suffer an unhappy life. The cement on the foundations was blackened and crumbling, threatening to collapse at any moment. A strong wind could push over these weakened buildings, and often did. It was sometimes loud enough at night to hear something falling apart.
    Some other houses on my right weren’t as lucky, if that was even an appropriate way to put it. Piles of ashes were just heaped on the ground. The burnt and rotted piping, and some framework, jutted out of the ground, barely suggested that a building had existed before.
    Not a single piece of this broken city ever looked unscathed from whatever disaster occurred before The Forgetting. As my mind had returned piece by piece, new words and ideas became apparent. War… famine… natural disaster. But nothing fit quite right.
    I came to a halt as a not-so-recent memory arose. Olivia was right here, running ahead and pointing, seeking my attention. I wanted to call out to her, to tell her to stop. But this was just my horrific fantasy, or my deepest fear. If I followed where she was pointing, I knew it would only lead me to that circling mass of evil.
    This was a memory from the first day, a phantom from my past. The cliff that would drop down a hundred feet with sharp and jagged boulders below. I started moving again, keeping my eyes on my feet.
    Step by step I drew ever closer to that edge. Before I knew it I was staring down at the abyss at the bottom of the gorge. The fall would take but a few seconds, and death would be instant. Several graves sat at the bottom of the ravine. Some deaths were accidental, people falling to their doom. Others chose the fall to stop their misery. I knew their plight, their need to let go of the pain and sorrow.
    I’d had the urge to leap myself, to no longer worry about the fighting, the hunger, the turning, or anything else would be such a relief. Every time I thought I was ready to jump, I would hear Olivia’s voice echo in my mind. It would be foolish to fall, selfish even. I would not only be killing myself, but I’d leave Olivia alone in this corrupted world. I would never take the plunge.
    Thunder cracked as I raised my head, as if it knew I was coming. Clouds circled about an invisible axis in the distance, the barrier right below that veil. The city spread out before me, and was just as broken as before, if not more so.
    Towers touched the clouds above, and smoke billowed from the largest ones. This happened often enough, as apparently a fire built up in the skyscrapers. People didn’t know how to control a simple fire, allowing it to spread from the base and beyond. Before anyone could put it out, the flames traveled up the walls and through the windows, where they were fueled with open air. Soon enough, cloud-touching buildings could become raging infernos, expelling multiple families.
    I felt something watching from the darkness beyond. Thunder spoke again while a shaft of lightning rippled throughout the mass. Waves of dizziness swayed my thoughts and threatened to throw me off the cliff, to turn me one of those accidental deaths. I quickly dropped my eyes to my feet, begging my legs to steady. The world rocked beneath me before it finally grew steady.
    A rumbling alerted me back to the center of the city, but I dared not look back. It wanted me to stare into the darkness, to draw me in and not let go. Not willing to give the gloom that sort of pleasure, I turned and focused on the expressway. It wove straight into the heart of the city, exactly the way I was going.
    My feet carried on without me. I was lost to the environment as the superhighway materialized before me. It was littered with wreckage. Cars looked glued together they were nuzzled so close.
    I glided towards what I recalled being a fire truck. The word fire stayed with me as I witnessed the sure and total destruction of the vehicle. It was faded red while constantly assaulted by the weather. The windows were broken, and the driver’s side door was ripped off. Its sides were marked with war stories. As always, there was no driver, no bones to mark a final resting place, no trace of blood. It was as if the vehicle simply drove itself here and died.
    I walked on, passing by cars, trucks, ambulances, police caravans, a motorcycle laying on its side, and even a helicopter that appeared to have crashed and exploded in the middle of it all. I looked at the ‘copter and saw a logo stenciled into the fuselage:—“Bennis Industries” it read. I wondered what type of company that was, but it didn’t really matter.
    I dipped and zigzagged through the onslaught of stationary traffic, making my way passed the cluster. It was never an easy journey on the highway. It felt like miles and miles of twisted metal stretched on forever. At one point I had to start jumping from rooftop to rooftop since the cars were piled on top of one another.
    Why the highway? I could hear Kyle ask. It was an argument I’d heard time and again. It was a shorter route, but far more dangerous. There was a path that traveled downhill from the cliff, a little trail cut into the woods that twisted and turned until it dropped right into the heart of the city just near the barrier. That path took much longer, though, and added time to a journey I didn’t want to make in the first place. It didn’t need to be dragged out any longer.
    Jumping down from an overturned, faded blue sedan, I saw that The Fall awaited me, a twenty-five foot portion that had crumbled away. The opening was too big to jump across obviously. Instead, someone had pieced together a bridge.
    It was only a few pieces of rope, one for the feet, two for the hands, and a whole lot of nerve to cross the thing. The ends for the handles were tied off to huge chunks of cement boulders that had broken off from the bridge. The rope for the feet was attached to rusted metal rods that protruded out of the street. I had forgotten The Fall and its rope bridge, as stupid as it was, and dared the idea of backtracking and taking the extra time. This gap in the highway caused several deaths. Too many tried to cross the bridge at once a few months back. Their graves line the asphalt below.
    Taking a step towards the bridge, I causally gave the two hand ropes a tug to test their strength. They were taut and unwavering. Swallowing hard, I promised myself I wouldn’t look down. I focused on the far side and moved out into open space. My feet moved one in front of the other, feeling the rope without having to look at it. It was a slow process.
    A crack of thunder erupted just above me, though the storm was far away. It took my attention off the rope walkway for a second, but it was a second too long. A scream barely left my throat as both my feet slipped off the rope and I plummeted downward.

Chapter 6: Glasses

    Only the instinct to swing my arms up stopped my fall as my right hand found the rope. I dangled over a fifty foot drop, straight onto broken concert.
    So much for not looking down.
    I gripped the rope with both hands. Swinging up my left leg, I managed to embrace it and get a firm hold. Blood started rushing to my head, and I was already dizzy from exhaustion. Sleep depravity was keeping me weak. How was I going to get to the other side like this? I risked the idea of falling as it would have been so much easier.
    “You alright buddy?” a shout erupted from the other side of the bridge. I turned and saw someone on the causeway. Several people surrounded the shouter. I was upside down, though, and couldn’t distinguish appearances or identify the voice.
    I didn’t say a word, not sure if they’d recognize me or not. There was maybe five of them, though my double vision likely multiplied the figures. The leader was wearing a black jacket that dropped almost to his knees. He wore a pair of sunglasses too. Beyond that, and from this distance, I couldn’t make out any other features.
    “Just hang tight, my man! I’ll get you outta there!” the leader shouted and near immediately took to the bridge. He walked across the ropes with the speed of a man who’d treaded them many times a day. It swayed side to side, seeming likely to give out any second.
    “Whoa...” I moaned. The rope walkway shivered. It was already hard enough to stay latched, and knew I couldn’t dangle like this for long. This man was almost running, throwing the ropes, and me, into havoc.
    “Deep breathes, upside down man. We built this bridge, it’ll hold. You just keep yourself right there,” the man in black instructed as he stopped just above me. He looked roughly the same age as me, though much more rugged. A full beard and several scars covered his face, while the sunglasses hid his eyes. He stood there with an outstretched hand.
    “Wait a second…” he said, nearly stunned. “Well, I’ll be damned!”
    “Jackson, is that you?” he whispered.
    He knew me, even upside down, but I was getting too dizzy to remember anything about him. I looked back at the others but nothing came to mind. A hand awaited by my face, opened and inviting. I looked back up at him and his smile sought my attention. Even if this was awkward, I couldn’t help but take his hand. If this was a ploy, and he were to let go, only open air and concrete below would stop the fall. But he lifted me back to the walkway as promised.
    “Jackson,” he whispered.
    My arms trembled with fatigue, but my mind was working overtime now. Should I know him? Out of the hundreds of people who call this place home, his face wasn’t one I could recall. I had so few friends left, and only knew of the ones that lived close to me.
    This man was from Downtown, and that was where everyone learned to hate me. I knew that the hate still lived there. It didn’t just go away. However, it wasn’t detestation that streamed off his tongue, or through that smile.
    “It’s been awhile,” he said.
    “It has been,” I replied, trying to sound friendly.
    “Well, let’s get you off this bridge, what do ya say?” He smiled again. Without wasting a moment he took off marching, though he kept turning back to make sure I was steady and upright. “They call me glasses. Don’t suppose you can guess why?” He laughed, turning back, and tilting his sunglasses up and down. “Never had the luxury of knowing my name. Never really cared, though, I suppose. What’s to a name anyway? It’s just sounds that relate us to a formality, right?”
    “I guess so.” We reached the end of the bridge. The others watched on in silence. They didn’t bear grins like Glasses. They held crooked smirks, frowns, crossed arms, and disapproving glares. They weren’t used to people crossing their bridge.
    What was my intent? Who was this stranger? In a city with so few of us left, a stranger wasn’t something you saw every day. Did one of them know me? Would they point me out, and shove me through the gap in the highway?
    “Hard to believe you’re here. Thought maybe you had turned, or worse. Glad to know you hadn’t,” Glasses exclaimed as he set his boots on concrete. He didn’t move out of the way as I reached him, instead he leaned in close and whispered, “You’re Will for now. Eyes on the ground and keep them there.” I followed his advice, clinging close to his side with my head turned down.
    “Look here, folks! Will has had quite an ordeal, and not one of you will speak to him until he’s back to normal! In fact, let’s do this. You three…” Glasses said and pointed at more than half his group. “Run over to my place and get me some clothes for our friend. I dare think he’s pissed himself. Stay together. Watch each other’s backs, and light the flare if you need to.”
    There were a few gasps, but without seeing their faces I couldn’t tell how many were disgusted by my supposed urination of my underwear.
    “You two will stay with me, but will be my eyes. You know what that means, right?” Glasses asked and nodded, looking for an answer. The other two moved ahead, going to different parts of the area around the highway. The one’s tasked with retrieving clothes sprinted away without a word.
    “That will keep everyone busy for a time,” Glasses said. “So, Will, what brings you down to our neck of the woods? Wait, wait I know! You’re here to see IT, aren’t you? Well I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch. I go from thinking you’re dead right back to thinking our hero comes riding in to save the day again.” Glasses chuckled. I tried to sense sarcasm, but found none.
    “Ahhhhhh…” I mumbled, dumbfounded.
    “Hey, it’s okay. I’m just glad you’re all well and good. Oh and how could I forget?” He snapped his fingers. “Olivia! How is that sweet girl doing?” Glasses’ smile widened. He had somehow remembered us, even though I didn’t have a clue who he was. Yet he was able to describe us in brilliant detail, right down to how Olivia had two different shades of blue eyes.
    “Bold as ever,” I remarked. “But safe, out of harm’s way.”
    “Good. No reason to get her involved in all of this. It’s been getting worse down here, you know. More are turning every day. Our food supplies are holding well, and water’s still flowing from that well, but that doesn’t exactly matter if we all turn twenty six anyway.” Glasses turned his face upwards, the sunlight bouncing off his shades.
    “What about the barrier…” I cut short, worried about how exactly I would phrase the question. The barrier and the turnings hung on my tongue, but I held back. It felt like eyes were watching and ears was listening, and if the wrong people heard me talk in such a way, then my Will identity might be a bust. But I needed to know why we turn at twenty-six and cross over the barrier.
    “Hmmmm?” Glasses questioned. He ducked below a beam from an overturned utilities truck that had caught fire on the expressway. The charred remains were only a broken shell. The ruined traffic started to lighten as we drew closer to the city. All the vehicles were pointing away from Downtown, as if driving away from whatever doom lingered in the veins of this metropolis.
    Glasses looked back again, and I saw my reflection bounce off those lenses. I shook my head refraining from continuing the conversation.
    We had come upon the off-ramp, where the highway flowed towards the main level of the city. There was little rubble to impede our progress towards the town, but those black clouds rumbled ever closer.
    “Well, I suppose we should get to it then?” Glasses whispered. “Let’s get you to that tower, and see what you came all this way for. But first…” Glasses pointed at the two up ahead, his watchers, or more likely his lookouts. “We got a tail to lose.”
    “What are you suggesting?” I inquired.
    “Look, I trust them more than I trust myself, but your name is a little synonymous with a bit of filth.” I gave him a look that suggested to turn it around. “Hey, not me, no sir, I don’t believe the rumors. I remember what you did for us, and not what people say you did to us. Look, Jackson, it’s damn good to see you, and honestly I couldn’t be happier to have you back. If anyone can turn around what’s happening down here it’s you. That doesn’t change the fact that people would be out for your blood if they knew you were still alive, though. Hell, they held a public funeral for you when they assumed you had gone the way of the turning. It was a mighty party too, believe you me.” Glasses chuckled, trying to lighten the mood. He failed miserably.
    “Turn, it around,” I said, gritting my teeth. I didn’t need to know if my funeral was a good time or not.
    “Okay. Sorry, didn’t mean, uhh. Damn, I’m bad with words. Forget it, forget I said anything.” Glasses attempted a weak smirk, but it was forced.
    “Done.” I sighed. I shouldn’t be so hard on him. He did just save my ass back on the bridge. “So what’s the plan then?”
    “I’m going to keep you out of trouble. That means keeping you out of sight, out of sight out of mind. Weird saying, but it fits, don’t it?” He glanced at me, but must have seen my irritation building. “Okay, on my mark, follow me. Just keep it quick and silent.”
    “Now!” Glasses hissed.
    Before I knew it I was being pulled to the left. My eyes stayed on the watchers in front. They didn’t seem to notice our sudden departure, or at least, until we were out of sight. We entered some narrow back alley. It ran through this block and traveled onto the next. The shadows from the buildings above covered the alley, sheltering our progress as we rushed through the tight corridor.
    These structures were made of brick, deep brown in color and in surprisingly good condition. The weather must not have taken too much toll on them, since they were nestled so close together.
    “I know what you’re thinking and don’t you worry. No one lives back this way. We’ll just keep to the shadows, and move you as close as possible to what you’re down here for,” Glasses said as he glided through the back alleys at a decent clip, knowing exactly where to go.
    I tried to keep up, but he was in much better shape and quicker on his feet. I couldn’t help but wish I knew him when I’d spent my time down here. Maybe things would have been different. Maybe I wouldn’t be so out of my element, or so unloved in Downtown.
    “So honestly…” Glasses started. His tone switched as he slowed his pace to a crawl before stopping completely. “How has it been? Life, that is.”
    It was an unexpected question. Every day we fought for existence. Even if I could live one day longer I was still approaching my twenty-sixth. In this land, aging meant dying, and at a relatively young age. Instead of getting upset, I remained neutral. I shouldn’t be made at him. It was, after all, just a question.
    “Truthfully, I wish things were different. Who wouldn’t, though?” I asked. It was the nicest way I could put it. To think about everything all at once, the shootings, the hunger, the turnings, and that awful barrier with the clouds and lightning, it all drove me senseless.
    “You and me both, but that’s not what I’m talking about,” Glasses said. He was on edge. That good nature flipped on itself and disappeared. In its stead was a hard grimace.
    “What do you mean?” I asked.
    “I’m talking about the number, twenty-six.” He took those sunglasses off and shot me a look with a pair of deep gray eyes, streaming with intensity. This was nothing I had known before, this guise. “Tell me you know something. Anything.”
    “What?” I asked, immobilized.
    “The turning. Tell me you understand it. Tell me you’re close to a cure, or a treatment. Tell me something that I can share with the others. I need to tell them they don’t have to be afraid of tomorrow, that their brothers and sisters aren’t walking into the shade anymore. Tell me you discovered the way to combat the thing that kills more of us than hunger and murder. Just, tell me…”
    Glasses trailed off. It wasn’t anger nor sadness. It wasn’t pain and didn’t seem like desperation. The plea coming off his lips wasn’t anything like that, but I couldn’t place it. I didn’t know if he was directing all of these emotions onto me or if he was just at the end of his rope.
    “You were the best of us,” Glasses continued. “Are the best us. You kept more alive than you even know, and you’re the only one left who can help us.” His eyes blazed with passion. I could hardly believe this was the same person.
    “I… I’ve… been… I mean…” I stumbled. I couldn’t find my tongue. No one had approached me like this before, especially not about the turning. Most everyone I knew made it the furthest thing from their mind, but Glasses seemed to have it always there. He’d been hanging onto the belief I was out there somewhere, still alive, and coming up with an enchanted remedy.
    “You don’t have one…” Glasses said. It wasn’t a question. The fire in his soul extinguished just as quickly as it had started. “If you don’t have one, no one does,”
    His eyes glazed over. Maybe he was so close to turning twenty-six. Then again, maybe he just knew there were so few of us left and wanted to help all of them.
    “I’m sorry,” I said.
    “Sometimes, hope is all we have. Some of us haven’t given up on that yet, haven’t given up on you either.” He returned the shades to his face, trying to mask the coming tears. He sighed, but managed a smile. “Best you remember that. Well, let’s get moving again.” Glasses turned around and picked up the familiar pace.
    An orange glare erupted just above us, bringing our attentions skyward.
    “That a flare?” I asked.
    “Okay, look,” Glasses pointed the down the alleyway. “Continue this way until you get to Washington. Take a right, and when you get to Cicero you’ll be almost there. You’ll see that red glare from the numbers after few more blocks. There will be a movie theater on the left side. Move through that movie theater; it’ll get you closest to the tower.” Glasses had removed a pair of brass knuckles and wrapped them around his right hand.
    “What’s going on?” I asked, worried.
    “Mobs. We’ve been helping the officers fight them, but you just worry about the part you play, Jackson. I’ll try to keep this place alive long enough for whatever change you can make, if that is what’s supposed to happen,” Glasses said. He moved his arm slowly, laying the hand with the brass knuckles on my shoulder. The brass was slightly discolored with a red tint. “Now get out of here. Please.”
    “But…?” I was cut off as Glasses circled around me. He took off his leather jacket, revealing his bare back. Tattoos covered his torso, and more scars rippled his skin.
    This isn’t your fight! At least not yet. Move it, Jackson!”
    Glasses shoved me backwards and pointed. I didn’t need any other suggestions. I took off as fast as I could and managed a few blocks before looking back. I didn’t see Glasses anymore. He had disappeared somewhere beyond the shadows.
    I turned on Washington, running towards whatever I was meant to see.

Chapter 7: Being a Target

    Washington Street was completely empty, void of everything I was used to. There was little damage, as if somehow our great disaster didn’t exist here. That’s not to say it was completely free of harm. The sidewalks on either side of the road were fractured. Weeds and grass burst through the cracks, and automobile wreckage dotted spaces here and there.
    I wasn’t followed or chased. Whatever happened to Glasses, whatever that was, it didn’t spill over into this part of town. It used to be common for skirmishes and wars to take place here. This city was broken down into groups that controlled different parts of town, or at least that was how it was when we first started trying to live together. I could hardly believe these people could still be like that, though. Didn’t they understand? We didn’t have forever here. We couldn’t escape it. There was no leaving this town. These petty squabbles were of little use anymore. They should have known this after everything we have discovered about the turning and our twenty-sixth birthday.
    I held my pistol at the ready as I made my way down the sidewalk. It was going to get more dangerous as I got further into the city, and just knowing I had the ability to defend myself made it easier to keep moving forward. But I vowed only to use the gun as a last resort. Popping off a few rounds meant an entire village of people could hear the sound. Some would come running, wondering, others might come with knives, brinks, and bats after the uncommon display of firepower.
    “Come on! Where are we?” I said out loud. The directions were simple enough, but as time passed I grew no closer to my destination. It was exasperating. This was taking longer than I needed it to.
    “Hey you!” a voice shouted from behind.
    Twisting around, I held the gun behind my back. No reason to upset the gentle folk of Downtown. There were twelve of them. They held brinks, bats, knives, shovels, and any means of making an impact in a skull. I should have stuck to the shadows. This was going to get messy.
    I didn’t dare respond. How had so many snuck up on me? I needed to be more careful than this. The urge to aim the gun at them made my finger twitch, but I didn’t dare make such a gesture yet. I took a few steps backwards, maybe instinctually, maybe out of fear. I turned my head slightly and caught a glimpse of a street sign. It read “Cicero,” the road that ran perpendicular to this one. I took one step closer.
    I couldn’t tell if this was the same crowd that one of Glasses’ group would have fired the flare for. The mass of people failed to advance. They stood on the block across the street, sticking to the middle of the road. There was chatter amongst them. Incoherent shouts rippled from the center, along with screams. In an instant they were running, shouting, and searching for the kill, or whatever they were looking for.
    I made no attempt to hide my only threat. I leveled the pistol and fired one shot into the air. I didn’t have enough ammo to shoot them all, and hope it would stun them. The blast struck a nerve, but only mine. The advancing crowd didn’t seem afraid at all. In fact, I think they just moved faster.
    “Ah, fuck me…” I turned around and ran as hard as I could. I didn’t need to know what this was about. If I had wandered into some sector, some land war, it didn’t matter. Though I did wonder why Glasses would send me this way just to die. Shouts and screams leapt up louder, transforming, completing the terror I was hoping to avoid. Panic spurred my legs faster down the concrete.
    I reached the next intersection. Part of the street was flooded near ankle deep. The reservoirs were backed up nowadays, so when it rained some of the streets turned into rivers. The flooded street carried on the rest of the way down Washington. It was cold, too. The water stood still, not running toward the storm drains like it should have been. Some red glare reflected off the windows and off the water, just like Glasses had predicted.
    “Yes, yes…” I said and kicked through the water. I wasn’t going to chance a look backwards, but at least I was moving in the right direction. If Glasses’ instructions were correct, then I should see it soon enough: that theater. It was no wonder people refused to live down here. The buildings were soaked in this toxic water, sitting still, decaying. The atmosphere reeked, evidence that the world here was beyond restoration.
    Water splashed behind me. Evidently I was still in the wrong territory, I’d possibly been recognized. If I was caught, I’d be beaten, torn to pieces, and displayed as a trophy. I wasn’t going to let that happen; there was still too much to do, too many people to help, to save. I needed to figure this out, and for whatever reason I was closer to it than ever before.
    A display jutted out of a building, a yellow marquee with lettering pronouncing shows and times. Most of the building was falling apart, its glass doors shattered, and old movie posters were still displayed in cases covered in moss and grit. Vines hung out of the second story windows, busted open from weather and time, and water flowed through the front, directing me onward.
    I passed through the entrance and entered a world thick with flora, more overgrown than I’d ever seen before. Standing water swirled in the middle of the floor, with part of the flooring just above water level creating a sort of pool. Stalks of vegetation grew around the pond with lily pads floating, and frogs croaking at my sudden arrival.
    The stairs on the left slanted upwards, and more vegetation grew around the handrails. Vines reached for the rafters. Off to the right was the counter where refreshments were sold, popcorn popped for waiting movie-goers. The movies were one of the first memories I gained after the forgetting. I remembered going to the movies once or twice when I was younger, but never remembered a movie theater quite like this.
    My pursuers started shouting outside. Some declared I’d gone into the theatre. I didn’t have much time.
    I tucked the handgun into my belt, making sure the safety was on, as I climbed the stairs. I hardly made it to the second story before the first person entered. The flora was thick enough to hide behind so I ducked along the side of the railing as.
    “Where’d he go?” a voice echoed through the overgrown theatre.
    “Why are we even chasing him? He doesn’t even look like one of them. He looked fucking normal, didn’t he?” another voice asked. “I didn’t think they could had guns either.”
    “Better safe than sorry, I always say,” a third, female voice interjected. “Spread out, groups of three, move slow and steady. Find him, but don’t kill him. Got it?”
    I didn’t understand. How was looking normal a reason not to be chased? Why was I being chased in the first place? I glided along the railing, keeping silent as possible. There were several doors that led to other theatres or projection rooms. I chose one at random and tried to open it, struggling with all the vegetation that covered the door. I passed through the door and entered a hallway, sliding carefully before shooting out of the hall and into the seating area.
    A stream of light shot through a hole in the ceiling. A large screen that would have displayed the films was set against the far wall. Rows of seats were covered in moss and algae-soaked cushions, aged the color of dirt, and dust hung in the air. I moved towards the screen and stepped through a rip in the material onto the other side. There was an exit over to the right. I opened the door and nearly fell over the side of the building. Something had ripped the entire half of this building off, and a straight drop onto bricks below awaited my exit.
    “Shit,” I whispered.
    The drop was too far. I’d break my leg, if not worse, trying to jump to the ground. There wasn’t exactly a ledge to grasp or an easy way to get out of this. I thought maybe I could hide, wait for a moment to leave, and pray no one would find me.
    Suddenly, like I hadn’t noticed it initially, my head tilted upwards against my will. Slightly bending my head, I squinted against the rays of sunlight that assaulted my vision. The structure I was staring at was still a few blocks away, but it was one of the biggest buildings in this city so it was as clear as day. It was a broken tower, leaning against another. The mass of clouds was so close, so black and spiteful. Yet it was the numbers that kept me fixated.
    This was what everyone was talking about, what Kelly was shouting about and what Glasses wanted me to see: a timer, ticking backwards with deep, red numbers.
    “What do you think?” Kelly’s voice echoed in my head.
    “I have no idea,” I answered my imagination. I knew the numbers wouldn’t be stationary, but I didn’t think they’d be ticking backwards either. I had only seen a timer like this on my digital wristwatch, before it ran out of battery, but that one ticked forward. Therein was the other question: just how the hell was it being powered? Why did it exist? This was more bizarre than anything else in this already bizarre world.
    “Any thoughts?” Glasses’ voice said, adding his voice to Kelly’s in my mind.
    “Not exactly,” I whispered. My attention remained absorbed with the approaching mob that was seeking me out. There was something interesting about this clock, something I couldn’t exactly put a finger on. Then it hit me. “You’ve got to be shitting me,” I blurted out.
    29:16:04:59 blared in deep crimson.
    “What is it?” a million voices asked in my mind. Kelly raged. Glasses demanded. Kyle and Susan gasped in distress. Ricky held his snide comment back. Jamie said nothing. The Pamlers cried. And Olivia watched in silent admiration, wishing she was there.
    “What is it?” they repeated.
    “It’s my birthday, my twenty-sixth. My turning,” I answered. The timer aligned to the exact second, or so I assumed. I knew it was only a month away for sure, but this was irrational. The world went black. I slid into inaction, losing any ability to remain standing. My feet slipped from the ledge, and I flew down head first.

Chapter 8: A Party for Someone we once knew

    My head was pounding before I even opened my eyes. When I did, a starry night awaited. My body ached abnormally. Not like it hurt from a two-story fall, but ached like I had been lying in bed for days. My back was stiff and my neck was cinched, but nothing was broken. I laid atop a pile of bricks covered by a tarp. Looking up and behind myself, I saw the theatre doorway I’d fallen through.
    I pushed myself up on my elbows. The red timer in the distance continued its pursuit of reminding me my time was short. How the heck the others hadn’t found me on the side of the theater fully comatose was beyond me. How no bones were broken was even stranger. Even the door above was still wide open, begging to be looked out.
    Down this side of the building, the standing water still circled around, but the pile of bricks was large enough to at least keep me dry. I pushed myself upright and brushed off the dirt while twisting and cracking my back.
    “Damn it all,” I swore under my breath. I must have been out for hours, so I was running far behind schedule. The night was dark, and the moon was high enough to be late in the hour. My little girl would be worried, but hopefully Susan could comfort Olivia. I knew she’d do her best to try.
    “We’re not done here yet,” I thought. I needed to figure this out, to get closer to the tower and that timer. Questions needed answers, especially why the hell that backwards tick lined up with my twenty-sixth.
    “Sorry Olivia, I’m not coming home just yet,” I said with a sigh.
    The water was only an inch deep as I climbed down the brick pile and into the street. The water level dropped lower and lower as I moved a few hundred feet closer to the illuminated tower. Thankfully, the red numbers even being two blocks away made a typically dark night a little lighter.
    I turned a corner and had to pause. There was a party up ahead, with everybody that still lived Downtown dancing in the streets. The main street was lined with tables and drinks, a usual custom when someone turned. They were celebrating, and ultimately saying goodbye.
    The people left would bring out the alcohol and drown in it. They would get hammered in an effort to celebrate and forget the person who walked into the center of this dark city. Everyone knew everyone. When someone turned, it was harder to take, as if a piece of you was breaking off. Of course I didn’t feel the same way. With any luck these people had forgotten about me, but I sure as hell hadn’t forgot them. Rage filled my stomach again, and I had to push it down. I couldn’t let myself drown down here.
    I hid behind some bushes and watched on in silence. Even if we were dying off every day to some strange event, there were perhaps a few hundred still celebrating underneath the stars. That might not even include those who didn’t partake in the festivities. I had to be more careful this go around. Or did I? They were drinking, and it was dark. All I needed was something to cover my face.
    The closest table was empty, and no one was close by. I took a seat at the table, walking like I belonged and making sure I was as casual as possible. The night was filled with chatter, a virtual squawk box.
    I forgot how crazy it got Downtown. It was so much livelier than where Olivia and I lived. Olivia would have loved this. If she were here, she’d have the time of her life talking and dancing the night away. Sadly, it would never happen. She was linked to me, and I was linked to dirty lies.
    A variety of instruments covered the tabletop. There was freshly grown food, and spirits that would punch me down into the ground if I partook. There were several flashlights, one that I pocketed, and a lantern in the middle that kept the shadows away. A hooded sweatshirt hung on the back of one of the chairs. I put the sweatshirt on and lifted the hood over my head, finding a certain calm with my cloaked image.
    I didn’t want to waste time if the party came back and found a stranger taking their things they so carelessly left unattended. I managed to keep my calm and not just run through the crowd. I had to exit the party without drawing attention to myself in the crowd of intoxicated youths.
    The strings of a guitar played from somewhere up ahead. People danced underneath a dead tree whose limbs reached out in all directions. Lit candles were placed among the branches, and an eerie glow illuminated the air. It was hauntingly beautiful: the slow dancing, the dead tree with its lights, and the guitar player strumming his instrument to an unhurried, passionate song. For half a second I forgot why I was there, wanting to dance to the slow melody. But those red numbers set me right back on course.
    “Here’s to Adam!” a voice saluted. I passed a table surrounded by six or seven faces all raising a glass to the air.
    “Here, here!” a woman exclaimed. She tilted her glass downward, and spilled some whiskey on the ground. “One last drink. Drink up. Drink up.” She started to cry. The others either tried to consul her or shed tears of their own.
    Was Adam a name I could remember? It wasn’t exactly ringing a bell. Not that I would really remember all the names here; it’d been nearly two years since the beginning. Yet even knowing that another had walked into the darkness it brought me back to the time when I had witnessed the turning.
    Back during The Forgetting, there was a thousand of us. In those early days we starved, disease was rampant, and dozens were shot. But that didn’t even account for the majority of the people who disappeared. That belonged to something inexplicable.
    These people had built this settlement close to the swirling mass of clouds near the city’s midpoint, nicknaming it for what it was: Downtown. It did rain enough in this area, therefore drinking water was most likely the reason for staying so close to these clouds.
    I was there, trying to bargain off items for supplies, before I was ever hated, when it happened for the first time. Screams erupted just outside, and panic evolved into full mayhem. I ran to where the shouting was the loudest: at the barrier.
    The barrier was the border that separated the lighted world from the darkened mass of clouds that never moved out from the center of the city. A twenty-six year old woman, the person turning, or so we later called the process, was already past the barrier, the invisible blockade.
    I tried to pass through the barrier myself but a lingering pain started in my head and traveled my spine before curling my toes. My skin radiated with heat, and it felt like I was melting from the inside out. I couldn’t open my eyes, and it would only get worse after that.
    But this dark walker, as we had called them thereafter, moved through the barrier with ease. They would slowly walk towards the darkest part of the city, so dark we couldn’t see into it.
    Some fought to get to the walker, but none of them lasted; the pain was too unbearable to try for long. How the dark walker could continue on against this pain was impossible to understand. Unless, of course, they weren’t feeling anything at all. After a few more minutes the girl disappeared into the blackness. The dark clouds above shook with thunder while waves of lightning careened across the sky, as if welcoming the girl into the gloom. It was eerie to watch. Even more unnerving was that somehow I understood why this was happening, but just not at that moment.
    Since then I had watched twenty-two individuals walk through that barrier. The first couple times I tried to help, but failed. I’ve watched bigger men than me pushed aside as the dark walker moved toward the unreachable part of this city. These walkers always succeeded breaking through whatever was stopping their departure.
    So I just watched on instead. After each incident, I questioned whoever was present, trying to gain some knowledge or to fathom the process. There was one clue that always kept popping up, the one idea that aligned with everything else, the one factor that everyone usually remembered for some odd reason: their birthday. The dark walker was turning twenty-six.
    The table of drinkers were still sipping their whiskey as I recalled the events of the first turning. The partiers sang, laughed, cried, talked, and did just about everything in-between. They didn’t notice me just staring as I thought about our complicated past. A surge of vulnerability struck me and I tightened my hood. Being cautious was top priory, and getting lost in the past couldn’t happen again.
    The timer soon came into full view, eclipsing a building at the intersection. Those red numbers flickered, predicting my downfall. Plopping on the ground and not caring, I took a seat in the middle of the crowd, and the middle of the mayhem. This didn’t make sense. The timer was somehow synced with my twenty-sixth birthday and dictated my eventual turning. There was no way around this. Everyone turned, and no one was immune to whatever this was.
    “You okay?” a nearby woman asked.
    I nodded. I didn’t dare speak, but instead just stood up.
    “Need a drink?” the partier asked.
    I nodded again. I sure as hell could use one. I should keep a level head, but this day was just getting too confusing.
    “Here,” she said, handing me a drink.
    I ventured a quick peek at her. She was attractive, probably a year younger than me. She had long hair and longer legs. The drink she handed me was clear, and tasted harsh. I didn’t mind and chugged the entire glass. I probably shouldn’t have as it might hinder what I was going to attempt to do.
    “Soooo…” she started.
    I handed the glass back to her and wiped my mouth with the back of my sleeve. I wasn’t ordering another, but she must have thought I was. She held out a flask, intending for me to slush back a few more swallows. I declined with a wave and she shrugged, draining the rest of the container herself. The drink corrupted her balance, sending her to the ground. She landed firmly on her ass, and smiled with a foolish grin.
    She twisted on the ground and laughed until something struck her fancy. I could tell she was squinting against the darkness, trying to mouth something out.
    “Is that my sweatshirt?” she asked, fully aware.
    I simply walked away, pretending not to hear, and left the girl on her knees crying thief. I should have never taken that damn drink. Eyes started following my movements, and the guitar strumming stopped abruptly. It was an unwritten law that we don’t steal on nights like tonight, after the turnings. This sweatshirt that now clung to my perspiring back may have just ended my run.
    “Hey Buddy! You know the rules!” someone shouted.
    “Hey, slow down! Get your ass back here!” another exclaimed.
    My pace quickened as I careened towards the front entrance of the skyscraper where the timer was lit. The red color danced across the ground and enlightened my passing form. I started to run. Maybe not the smartest thing to do in that moment, but I needed to get out of there.
    An arm caught my shoulder and hung on. They were strong, and weren’t going to let go.
    “Just what in the hell are you doing?” my assailant asked. I looked up at a rather tall, and deeply intoxicated, individual fully capable of pounding me straight into the ground. “Who is this?” A hand reached up and brought down my hood.
    “Holy fucking shit!” someone up ahead shouted. The hand holding on instantly let go, and my assailant took a few steps backwards, appalled by my appearance.
    “What is it?” the girl from whom I had stolen the sweatshirt asked.
    “Jackson?” someone else asked.
    “It can’t be,” the girl stated.
    Events were suddenly spiraling out of control. I was exposed in a society that desired blood. Screams and shouts flew into the air. Looks twisted to horror and frowns became diabolic grins full of spiteful anger.
    “Get him!” someone shouted.

Chapter 9: The Climb

    The crowd unfolded around me as I bolted around the furious, but slow-witted troop. A few hands reached out, but nothing held. Feet pulverized the ground behind me. Once more I was being chased, though this time at least I knew why.
    “Fuck, fuck, fuck…” I whispered. This wasn’t my domain. I didn’t know or even remember the corridors, alleyways, and whatever else was in this part of town. I wasn’t quick enough to keep out of reach forever. Eventually they would catch up, and then I’d be finished.
    Those bright, bold numbers lit up the streets, illuminating the entrance from the main street like an arrow pointing right at the doors. No one was really in this part of the area as it was too close to the barrier to make it habitable. The only faces now were directly behind me, but the numbers were picking up in pursuit.
    “Get back here you devil!” they shouted.
    “Kill him, kill him, kill him…” more voices chanted.
    The crowd hurled more like-minded obscenities at me. I prayed I didn’t trip. They would skin me alive if they caught me. It was almost a guarantee they would take it slow, my death coming long after I’d begged for it to end.
    I burst through the front entrance of the building with the timer. It must have once been an office structure. I made a spilt-second decision and ran directly to the door on the right side, sliding the flashlight out of my pocket and gliding down the stairs as I moved through another doorway. Shouts above tried to unravel which way to go. The door above the stairway slammed open and feet took to the stairs, moving up and down in pursuit.
    I had to hide. The flashlight revealed some kind of custodian’s room. Piping jutted out of the concrete, and there was enough room between the walls to slide through. The piping was old and caked in slime. I held my breath and squeezed into the corner, clicking off my light just before the crowd busted through the door.
    Lanterns cut through the darkness as three men moved into the cramped corridor.
    “Where is that bastard?” one of them asked.
    “I doubt he came this way, there’s no way out,” another answered.
    They looked for a few moments, quickly flashing their lights about as they tried to find some evidence of my arrival.
    “Fuck it, he’s not here, let’s go,” the first one stated.
    They flushed out of the door and I could hear them sprinting back upstairs. Sighing, I realized I was safe, or safer than I had been. I wasn’t going to leave yet, as others could come looking in the same place.
    I leaned back and fell against the wall, sliding to the floor. It was tight back there, but I had enough room to not mind being stuck. It was completely black without the flashlight, and hauntingly quiet. Occasionally I reached out and touched the piping to make sure I was still exactly where I meant to be, fearing that I was somehow moving, lost to a nightmare becoming real.
    After no one had returned for some time, I let myself step back out. I clicked the flashlight on and tried to wipe the black ooze that leaked from the rotting piping off my clothes but only managed to spread it further. The ooze was thick and disgusting, smelling almost worse than it looked.
    Something about the old, broken pipes struck me as familiar. These were water pipes, and must have flowed up the rest of the skyscraper. A network of metal jutted out in all directions before burying itself into the walls and beyond. Control panels, if that was what they were, rested on the far side of the room, though they lacked power to operate.
    I hovered close to the old instruments and wiped away years of grime and dust. Gauges and mechanisms that might have once worked all registered absolutely nothing. Some were dented and broken, like someone had taken a crowbar to the system.
    “Tell me something,” I whispered, wishing the machines could talk. I moved towards the door, and rested an ear against the wood to listen for my pursuers. Wherever they were, they weren’t in the stairwell anymore.
    Slowly, I pushed open the door, half thinking someone would be waiting. I squeezed through the door and switched off the light in mid process, reassuring myself that no one would be there. I strained my eyesight against the darkness, looking for a sign that someone was still around.
    When I saw nothing, I hesitantly clicked the light back on and made my way up the stairs. I stopped at a half-opened door and ventured a glance out. A crowd was waiting in the building’s main lobby. Some searched while others argued. Their numbers had dwindled since initially forming, but there were still enough to not dare an escape.
    There was no way of leaving out the front entrance now, but I wasn’t ready to leave anyway. What I came for waited probably thirty stories up. I turned back to the stairs and started the climb.
    After ten floors I reassured myself that no one was up this high. During the next fifteen floors I was sweating through the sweatshirt that I just couldn’t convince myself to get rid of. Upon reaching floor forty-one, my feet were raw and maybe bleeding, but a whoosh of wind caught me by surprise as I looked down at quite a view.
    There was nothing but steel rods, loose chunks of building material, and open air where there used to be a wall. This was where the sky scraper had somehow managed to crack and lean to its left without completely falling apart. Floor forty-one was now the last floor that I could levelly stand upon.
    The office complex was leaning at an extreme angle, nearly horizontal. The crack in the building had caused a massive portion of the wall, which was now the ceiling, to crack and fall off. The floor was now the just windows, most of which no longer held glass panels.
    Rubble was piled all over while some of it must have caused such an impact that it tore right through where I needed to walk. The hole in the ceiling traveled through four more stories before becoming whole again. Rot consumed parts of the walls and most of the furniture. Everything felt upside down, backwards and inside out. At least somehow the actual walls were intact and looked decently able to hold weight.
    Hopefully after a few stories I could look closer at what I had come for: the timer. But a slight problem reared its head as I stared down through the cracks in the floor. The far side of this building was over the barrier. I had never been so high up while trying to cross over, but could only assume the effects would be the same. If the pain came at the wrong moment it could send me straight out one of those glass-free windows.
    I took a deep breath and crept slowly forward. The floor pitched at a slight, upward angle. Desks, tables, and bookcases made formidable obstacles. Some rested in the open windows, as gravity hadn’t taken a toll just yet. I turned my flashlight’s beam to see a clear path against the hateful red glare.
    Gently, gingerly, I climbed around, through, or over whatever was in the way, stepping where the support appeared best. The walls moaned and creaked, but held. My heartbeat stuck to my throat while my temples throbbed. It was far colder up there too, my breath coming out in long, visible waves. I was thankful I didn’t toss the sweatshirt away on the climb.
    The flashlight’s beam cascaded over the open floor. It was weird to see the stairwell above me hanging on by threads of steel rods. Some objects were still latched to the walls, held on by cords plugged into outlets. Light fixtures were fastened to the walls on my left and right, upside down. Paintings swung gently in the wind, thin wires screwed into the plaster the only thing keeping them from falling through the holes in the floor. Though the mess was disorienting, nothing compared to looking down.
    I soon came upon a soft, cream-colored sofa that lurched halfway through an opening. Unlike gravity, the weather hadn’t been so kind to it. Rain had brought mold and the couch was literally being eaten away. I looked down through the opening and saw that the sofa would eventually fall through, smashing to the ground after a long fall. Just thinking about it made a shiver run up my back.
    I made my way through the next few floors with relative ease, until floor forty-five came into view. The floor had crumbled away. The steel rods that once lined the wall were pushed outwards, as if some sort of force had blown right through it. The opening carried on for about a full floor before the building became solid once more.
    I was grateful to have ceiling once more between me and the dark clouds, but had no idea how I was going to get to the other side of the broken building. That red glow of the numbers had increased tenfold, indicating how very close I was to the source.
    A humming came from up ahead as something mechanical buzzed to life. Machinery that only electricity could power was operating, and my mind was at work trying to understand what it meant. However, I had to first solve the dilemma of how to cross this breach.
    I looked at the left wall and saw it was intact. I took off the extra hoodie and my shirt, pulling the shirt to thick shreds and wrapping it around my hands. Then I put the hoodie back on. Aiming for the first vertical row of windows, I cautiously climbed into the open air. I reached the top window and started to move horizontally, crossing the few feet between windows without an issue while making sure not to look down.
    A jolting notion came over me as I stopped and looked over the gap that divided the next set of windows. A good six feet separated the two sets. Worse, not even a scratch was etched into the glass of the closet one. A draft rose around me, and a cold gust swayed the building as if it would tear to pieces at any second. Just how the hell could I cross the divide? It was too long of a stretch, and I couldn’t exactly jump from here, but there was no other path.
    A slight moan escaped up from the cinder and concrete wall. Just the tiniest crack appeared near my feet. It splintered the window sill in half and traveled out. The wall thundered as plaster sprayed all around. The crack widened into a breach that threatened to send the entire structure tumbling to the ground. My head whipped from side to side to find an escape. The only way was forward. The set of windows down and to the right were glass free. I had to jump for it.
    No time to think.
    No time to wonder.
    I putting my feet on a splintering wall and gained some leverage. Thunder exploded above as if eager to see the show. I pushed off the wall with almost too much force and sailed awkwardly through the air. The flashlight tumbled from my grip and spun end over end. I still refused to look down even as I fell.
    The target window came closer. Everything became detached. Time slowed.
    My hands flew out in all directions, reaching for the opening. Plaster fell like snow. Somehow the raining bits of paint chips and plaster reformed into a time when I was a kid making a snowman when tiny flakes of snow began to fall gently from the sky on Christmas Eve.
    I touched the sill of the window with my left hand and held fast. My body hit hard against the wall. The shock loosened my grip, but a few fingers managed the keep. It wasn’t enough though, and before I knew it I lost the sill and was falling again.
    I didn’t comprehend what had happened, not right away. I had a hold on the opening, what happened? What was going to happen? Everything that had occurred ran through my head at lightning pace. From the events starting two years ago to this exact moment. It was everything in an instant.
    I looked over, still in slow motion, and watched as I flew past the end of the wall. I made a lame attempt to reach out and grab something, but I was just too far away. I think I already knew that. This was meant to be my end. I closed my eyes and let the fall take me.

Chapter 10: Luck vs. Fate

    A sudden jerk brought me back as the falling stopped. I looked around. My stop didn’t make sense, not until I felt the fabric around my neck tighten, snugger than it should have been. I slowly raised my right arm above my head and touched the steel rod that had caught the hood of my borrowed sweatshirt. This damn sweatshirt had saved my life.
    I was hanging on by a thread, though, and grasped the rod, pulling with all the strength I could summon. It remained steady. The structure above didn’t seem to be crumbling anymore. The rod itself pointed out at a ninety degree angle before jutting up and back into the building. I managed to pull myself back up and stood upon the rod without it rocking. Several other rods weaved and crossed each other, making for a handy ladder back into the broken building.
    After a few tense minutes of climbing I was back on solid concrete. I touched the outside of the building, trying to find a way back in. The steel rods led me to the other side of the gap, but not back through the hole in the floor. I was stuck on the outside, looking through one of the lower windows that still had glass. The window itself was too small to fit through, like most of the others. I had to go up.
    I gently punched through the glass that was already cracked, making an opening big enough for my foot, and hoped the building wouldn’t react to the force. Stepping into the open window, I flinched, half expecting my foot hold to buckle and cause everything to come crashing down. This time it didn’t even yield a squeak. With renewed effort, I stuck both feet into the window and gripped the rough exterior with both hands.
    The next window was just above my reach, but there was no glass. Part of the window was missing, and a bigger hole formed on the left side that would allow me to squeeze through. I jumped the few extra inches and held fast, always waiting for that familiar cracking sound. I lifted myself up, reached through the hole, and looked about. Trying to ignore the view downward, I turned to look at the other side of the gap. The floor couldn’t be more than a few feet away.
    I pushed all the way through the hole and balanced myself in the opening, staring at the floor that appeared so far off. There were no lucky steel rods to grab me if I missed. Another whoosh of wind rose upwards, bringing the view back to attention. Forty some stories was a long drop.
    I jumped, but didn’t put enough force into it this time and fell short. I saw the floor coming and reached out my hands, looking for the edge. I caught the floor and pulled myself up quickly, climbing onto solid ground for what felt like the first time, and laid down. My breath came in hard gasps as I heaved a sigh of relief. I was finally across the opening.
    “You dumb son-of-a…” I said, shaking my head as I tried to clear my havoc-filled mind. I was wading through too much to just come up close to something I probably couldn’t even begin to understand. I stared at the other side of the opening and couldn’t believe I’d just made that crossing.
    The red light shone up ahead, pulsating. Dizziness washed over me as I pushed myself to my feet. I wiped the loose plaster from the sweatshirt as that red light throbbed inside my head. I turned to face what I’d come searching for, and suddenly yearned for the answers to my questions. What was this timer? Why was it aligned to my birthday? Was it tied in with my turning? It had to be.
    I crossed into the next area and noticed that the room was alive with activity. Ripples of electricity caused the hairs on my head to stand on end. Wires and cables encircled the room, covering every square foot. Some sparked while others shook, and there was a clear humming that reverberated through the air.
    Stepping carefully through, I followed what appeared to be the thickest cable expecting it to lead me somewhere. It corkscrewed throughout the room, an area that seemed completely unbroken. No cracks or breaches were in the walls. The windows still showed the dangerous decent through intact glass.
    The red glow lit my path so I kept eyes glued to the ground as I moved about. This way I could step between the open windows in the floor. I jolted my head against a metal container as I crashed headlong into the object that the main cable was attached to. I hung onto whatever it was, and tried not to fall over.
    The object I clung to hummed with a high-pitched whine. It was about the size of a car, and had gadgets and dials blinking with tones of green and blue. I ran my hand along the metal. It was cool to the touch, which didn’t make any sense. There were many other smaller cables that expanded outwards from the mechanism. Several of those cables ran from the device, straight through the walls, and connected to the glass panels outside, the ones that displayed the ticking numbers. That was it. It was basically a giant black box with wires, yet it was still a complete mystery.
    I took a couple of steps deeper into the unexplored section of this tower, hoping I could find something else that might make a bit more sense.
    A blistering pain erupted in my chest and forced me to one knee. It was like someone had reached through my rib cage and strangled the valves of my heart. I stumbled backwards, narrowly avoiding a plummet through one of the open windows, and gasped for breath. Incredibly the pain was suddenly gone as quick as it had come. I stood there horrified and confused, leaning back against the black box as a chill ran down my skin. The surface of the device felt unnaturally cold.
    Sparks of light exploded behind my eyes, but waned after a few deep, long breaths. Slowly sliding down the black boxes’ surface, I rested against it and tried to slow down my scattered vision. I put my hands on my knees and tucked my head in.
    Something triggered my attention from the corner on the other side of the room. It glowed with a soft, blue hue, but it didn’t exactly seem real enough at that moment. Squinting, I only managed to watch the blue color fade. Only when it shone again did I realize it was real.
    I kept the blue tint in my peripheral vision as I took a few, cautious steps forward, watching the ground. The exposed windows reminded me that one simple misstep and it was a fairly quick end to all of this. One more step and my right leg suddenly shook with mind numbing agony.
    “Damn barrier,” I said.
    I had apparently tried crossing over into the part of this forsaken city where I wasn’t meant to be. Even this far up the hurt still came. My leg continued to quiver, tightening and contorting, quickly followed by a thought-altering migraine. The pain immediately halted as I retreated backwards over the barrier.
    I stepped a few feet beyond the barrier again and an acute pain once more struck my legs before circling through my body. Taking another few steps was pure hell as the world spun with an unnerving, blood-boiling, muscle-contorting hate. The pain traveled further and laced into my arms, constricting and pulling them to my sides.
    I stayed focused on the blinking blue light that was only a few strides away. Every step was more difficult than the last. The sparks began again and I had to backtrack, unable to see.
    “Damn, damn, damn.” I repeated. The sparks slowly faded from my vision. I slumped to the floor and found myself looking down through a window, watching the street below somewhat alive with activity. Tiny dots of light traveled along the street. I wondered if some people were still looking for the man they thought was long dead, or praying to find the man still alive so they could kill him. Of course from this far up it may just have been a trick on the eyes. This weird, red glare made everything look so different.
    I twisted around again and witnessed the blue light pulsate for the next few minutes, wondering what exactly it could be. I knew this must be what I came for; this was my prize. For whatever reason I knew in my bones that the timer was what led me here, but not what I was looking for. This tiny object, forty some stories up in the air, having to cross a broken bridge to reach, through derelict buildings after traveling through crowds filled with murderers to reach. But for of that, this was the end.
    Gathering my strength, I found a firm foothold on the black box. I exploded forward, rushing beyond the barrier. The pain was instant and intense. I squinted against the headache that arose. Tears streamed down and flew away from my cheeks. I couldn’t run anymore, but instead launched into the air with arms outstretched, keeping the piercing blue shade firmly in sight.
    Liquid dripped down my face. Blood was leaking not only from my nose but my eyes as well. A surreal pain radiated off my skin, heat so hot that waves of fire were burning off layers of flesh. The sparks propelled behind my eyes, and my vision was failing. I was almost there though, just a few feet away.
    I fell short by only a few inches, my fingertips so close but so far. A tremor pulsed in my hand, forcing it closer to my body. I pushed my left hand forward, blindly reaching for the object through haze-filled eyes. A shudder started in my legs, shutting down my ability to move, and filtered upwards. My abdomen pin-pricked before going completely numb. Death crept up my torso, but I remained resolute, reaching for that blinking blue. I didn’t feel my chest stop lifting, or my heart stop pumping. Just before darkness overcame me, I managed a weak grasp around the glowing blue light. Then I fell.

Chapter 11: The Screams

    “Wake up…”
    “Wake up!”
    “Jackson, wake up!”
    The voices echoed from all around. A thousand different screaming voices erupted through the darkness. They spoke in unison, aligned and loud.
    My eyes opened, slowly, letting my vision clear as my temples throbbed. The pain slowly subsided, and the voices vanished. The pain was all but gone and I was fully capable of lifting my outer extremities again. But I remained on the ground.
    The soft glow escaped my hand and demanded attention.
    It was a sphere, mostly smooth but with slight etching around it. It was cold. The glow filtered along the etchings, through a metal casing. The blue wasn’t just one color, shifting from navy to indigo and sapphire. I knew it was crazy, but I felt I had seen this sphere before, sometime and somewhere else. Maybe not in this life, but maybe before The Forgetting.
    My eyesight returned to normal as my vision fully rested on the sphere. Bringing it closer, I traced a digit along one of the etchings. A blue light followed my fingertip before fading with the rest of the orb. It was like the thing was breathing, or had a heartbeat. Whatever it was, it completely canceled out the effects of the barrier just by touching it.
    I felt I had to test this. I dropped both hands and cradled the device to the floor. Taking a deep breath and holding it in, freeing my grip from the sphere, I withdrew both hands. My muscles almost refused at first but obeyed. A shock of nausea and dizziness spurred up quickly. Almost fainting again, I shot my hands back onto the orb. The pain dissipated just as quickly.
    “So you’ll let me cross?” I asked the orb out loud.
    The small sphere didn’t weight much, and was made of material I hadn’t known before, some kind of metal, thin but very strong. The sphere didn’t yield a millimeter when I pressed it with my thumb. An idea popped into my head. Moving towards the black box powering the timer, I crossed over the threshold and the sphere died permanently. When I took the orb back over the barrier, it hummed to life once more.
    “Well, okay then,” I sighed.
    Thunder cracked above me and shook the building. I couldn’t help but laugh. I hadn’t experienced so much unneeded adventure ever before in my life, and really didn’t need any more. But I knew more was coming.
    The only path was forward. I yearned for it to be easier, but doubted this journey would be. Traveling the opposite direction I came, I left the control unit and its timer behind, still no closer to that answer of why the timer existed. At least the sphere was a small marvel. Having to hold onto it could prove tedious since it left me with only one hand to climb with.
    The angle of the building finally leveled off. Everything on this side was whole, or at least as much as a destroyed skyscraper could be. The windows that were the flooring were not broken, but merely scratched in places. Most of the furniture had slid away, most likely out the open hole on floor forty-five. Crossing this part was unpredictably quick and painless, save that I had to use the strange blinking blue sphere as a makeshift flashlight.
    “Where should I go?” I asked the orb. It lit up blue in response, then died back to darkness before repeating the process.
    “Thanks,” I scoffed.
    This part of the office structure hadn’t really been affected by the weather. There was no mold or decay. The walls were mostly unscathed expect for a few cracks here and there, and most of the remaining furnishings were in decent shape. Even the pictures on the walls looked like they could have been hung there yesterday. I moved through a couple more floors and came to the point where the building had collided into another, forcing itself inside. Somehow the other structure was able to maintain the weight of itself and the other.
    It was twilight inside the other building, immensely different from this one, as if being inside the barrier had transformed it beyond its normal form. I jumped through the hole and landed with a thud. It was only a five foot drop into the new building. Once inside, I felt a thousand times better, standing on a real wood floor. The windows were in their rightful place, and were only for looking out instead of standing on.
    I felt a strange sense I’d been here before. I couldn’t tell if being in this specific room was it, or this entire tower, or maybe even being on the other side of the barrier. It wasn’t like anything was recognizable, but it felt strange enough that I had to leave the room immediately. Yet the feeling stayed as I exited into the hall.
    I ran down the hallway looking for a stairwell that would lead down. The red timer still shone behind me through the dirt-streaked windows and open cracks in the building’s exterior. But it was fading quickly, so I had to use the sphere more, holding it out in front of me. Its blue light illuminated the hall. It made for an awful lantern, though, as it died every few seconds. Navigating this old place with this light source was mind-numbingly slow. After some time I finally discovered the stairwell and escaped into the darkest abyss I had found thus far.
    The stairwell circled downward with no red light from the timer to guide my descent. Every few seconds the notion of missing a step occurred to me as the glow died. It was a maddening affair, though I realized something as I stopped in the darkness.
    I was the only member of this city to cross the barrier and survive under my own free will, probably the only one that ever would be. The thought took hold for a little too long as my left foot took one too many steps, and sent me flying down the last couple of stairs. I slammed hard on the left side of my shoulder and the sphere rolled from my grasp, settling a few inches away.
    It started immediately, the pain circling my chest and a fire creeping into my lungs. I reached out for the sphere as a sudden muscle spasm locked my arm. My hand swung over and hit the sphere, sending it flying down the stairs. It bounced off each step, rolling slowly down. Getting upright was going to be impossible so I drug myself to the steps, and rolled down. Twisting and turning, my ribs burned and my shoulder nearly broke. A spasm took hold in my left calf while a buzzing sound filtered in loud enough to drown out everything else. I crashed onto the next level and reached out and grabbed the sphere before it could take the next step.
    My lungs burned around my bruised ribs as I rolled to my back. I touched each one. None were broken, but I was sure they were black and blue. Something felt snapped out in the wrong direction in my left shoulder, leaving me unable to move it. A few nerves twitched in my neck. It heated up and pinched off. I couldn’t grip the sphere in my left hand, and instead held it in my right.
    I spotted a sign hung near a door. It showed a ‘forty-two’ etched in the plastic. This was going to be a long descent, one that I wasn’t going to make quickly. I got to my feet, and started limping down the stairs.
* * *
    It was ages before I finally reached the bottom. At least there were no other surprises, though that awkward sense of familiarity was still present, gnawing.
    The building must have been a hotel back in the day, I realized as I strolled into the ground floor lobby. There were several concierge desks around, and a few brochure stands still holding flyers. Curious enough, I walked over and grabbed one that detailed a city much cleaner and crisper then my current location.
    Dust blew loose as I unfolded the brochure, uncovering years of buildup. Reading through the pages wasn’t exactly possible, though, as it was still too dark to make out anything. Instead I put it back and looked around. Some potted plants that would have bloomed had died long ago were near the entrance, and a red carpet ran from where I stood to the doors outside. The windows were covered in grim, but the red light from the timer spilled dust-filtered shadows into the room.
    I moved towards the front, and pushed through the glass doors. The entrance of the hotel faced back towards the living part of this city, the barrier probably only a short distance away. Tables with burning candles and lanterns that flickered with life were still visible, but a decent distance away. No one appeared to be out and about. It was strangely satisfying, being on this side of the barrier, where no one had been unless they turned. Even those that did walk this path, they didn’t know what they were doing, or so I assumed.
    Motioning to the right, I couldn’t help but look deeper into what hadn’t been seen before. Lights from the living part of the city sort of spilled over here, giving a backdrop, but the rest of the center of this city was darkened beyond sight, like not wanted to be seen. The clouds above twisted, shadowing the rest. Straining, I gave an honest attempt to see, but there wasn’t a chance of it. I inhaled and turned around, aiming back towards where I’d come from.
    A scream, or what sounded like one, erupted in the distance. It came from behind, and from deep within the blackness of the city’s center. A wind picked up, carrying another distant scream. Then silence. For an exhausting moment there was nothing but pure, deathly stillness.
    I must be hearing things.
    I stood still and strained to hear anything else, yet nothing came. So I turned around and began walking back to the living.
    Another scream roared into existence, much closer this time, coming from somewhere off to my right, slightly angled back towards the center. I stood motionless, waiting, unable to move, my feet made of stone. Then another sounded from a different direction, but still coming from the black. It was a woman’s voice, high pitched, crying murder. Yet it sounded deeper somehow, uglier. More screams came, all sounding so different, nearly inhuman.
    The cold metal of my handgun felt snug against my waist. I had nearly forgotten about it, and it was unbelievable that I hadn’t lost it initially when I fell through that opening in the skyscraper. It demanded my attention, and I found myself holding it, aiming at the multiple locations from where I’d heard the screeching. But my hand failed to grip the handle effectively. The gun swayed, threatening to fall.
    More shrieks bellowed from my left and right, so much closer than the rest. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead as my legs trembled in this unnaturally cold environment.
    A scream shattered the world only ten feet in front of me. Something was running through the darkness, but it was only a shadow. It looked human, then again it didn’t. The blue radiance of the orb in my hand wasn’t enough to light it. I tried to squeeze the trigger, but the gun fumbled in my weak grip. The firearm tumbled to the ground.
    My ribs hollowed in protest as I turned back. Screams suddenly reverberated from all around, as if a mob had formed from nothing and were in chase. My legs failed to move, as a horde of figures broke through the shadows like nightmares unleashed onto the living. Vicious howls finally set my feet in motion, trying my best to run towards what I knew.
    I grasped my side and held the sphere close. I couldn’t let them get the sphere.
    A scream sounded in my right ear, only feet away. Something clawed at my shoulder, tearing the cloth of the sweatshirt. I didn’t mean to look, didn’t mean to slow down. But it was enough for something to catch up, crashing into my back and sending me crashing to the concrete, waiting for whatever it was to finish me off.

Chapter 12: Late Enough

    The sphere’s blue light, cradled in my right hand, winked out as I rolled end over end, over the threshold and back into “Downtown”. I looked back. Whatever had been making those sounds was gone, along with any notion that they ever existed.
    There was no one around; not a noise escaped into the evening air. I got up and took a seat at the closest table, placing the sphere in the middle of the surface. It remained dead, no light emitting from its etched surface. I wanted to doubt it would light again, like my imagination had created this magical device and the steam ran out of this strange dream.
    Maybe I drank too much. Maybe I didn’t even climb that damn tower. But the sphere remained, my eyes fixed on it. This was no dream or alcohol-fueled hallucination.
    My head slammed into the table. It hurt to not understand any of this. Slowly, my face twisted so my cheek rested on the tabletop, my eyelids shut. I could almost fall asleep right there, but waking up in the morning to an angry human mob wasn’t really a thing I wanted to do.
    Sighing, my eyelids fluttered open. There was only one place that was still ablaze with light at this hour. I wondered if dawn was coming soon, but I thought I still had some night left. I stood up and stuffed the palm-sized orb into the sweatshirt’s front pocket. I didn’t know why it was so luring, or what was calling for me as I ambled over for a look. A bar loomed through the large glass window out front, and nobody stirred inside. This was, long ago, the only place left with a large supply of spirits. It’d been awhile since I’d been here, at Sierra’s bar. Lifting up on my hood, I covered my face and entered.
    The door dinged with a new customer as I walked through. The place was virtually empty except for a few stragglers at the back table. They had fallen asleep on the top of the table and around the ground. There was another group at the counter, somehow still at it, even this late. But I doubted they could do anything but lift another shot glass to their mouths. They didn’t even notice the bell ding, nor my entrance. The lights were low enough, as the lanterns were scattered about, and flames were low.
    I didn’t know why I was there, didn’t know why I risked being seen. I thought that I probably couldn’t make the trip back home just yet. I’d most likely would faint, I was so tired. I didn’t need a drink that was for sure. But being off the street was that much better, hiding in plain sight once. I thought back to the girl that cried thief as I looked down at the sweatshirt. Something as simple as this nearly got me dismembered.
    The bar itself was rustic and old. Not terrible, just different when compared to the rest of this city’s broken architecture. Most everything was wood, from the bar to the stools to the floor and ceiling. There was a massive mirror behind the bar showcasing the surroundings, though pieces were broken off and missing.
    The person who discovered this place had found a cellar full of fine wines, bottles of liquor, and boxes of beer. I remembered trying beer when we’d first tested it, but it apparently hadn’t aged well compared to the rest. It didn’t get us drunk like shots of vodka and glasses of red wine.
    The floor was sticky with whatever substance was left over from this night’s party. I took a seat at a round table. There was standing water or alcohol coating the surface. I wiped the excess free with my sleeve, spilling it over the side. Placing my hand back down on the wood, I drummed my fingers, trying to ease my mind.
    “What ya have?” an enchanting young voice came from nearby. I looked over and saw a pretty girl tossing her hair and chewing on the end of her finger. It was far too late for anyone to be working. I played along, though. It’d been a rather tough night, and she was pretty enough to take my mind off things.
    “Huh?” I asked.
    She was younger than me, but not by much. She had fitted herself into a white silk, form-fitting dress cut a little too short, and a bit see-through. In this low light though it was hard to make out much detail. Teasing me with her smile and those blond curls, she bit the lower half of her lip. She squeezed in low enough and rested her elbows on the table, not worrying about the sticky surface. The lantern that still burned in the middle of the table circled something devilish in those eyes.
    “O honey, it’s been a hell of a night,” she said, flipping a curl away from her lips as she looked over at the bar. The others weren’t paying attention, passing out cold for the night. She turned her smile back to me. “You here for a drink or what?”
    She halfcocked a smile and winked. Her shape was perfection. Her hips twisted as if hearing music, and those legs…
    I swallowed hard, thinking of what to say. “And what’s your name, love?” I tried to ask seductively, but my voice cracked.
    “Eve,” she said, smiling at the lame attempt. She wasn’t anyone I remembered, but that was becoming a theme for the night. I couldn’t say if she actually worked for Sierra, but I didn’t mind if she did or not. She was, after all, with her smooth skin and full lips, making advances and I wasn’t too keen to question her position. I had a powerful need for comfort, and this Eve was accomplishing some form of that.
    “Something strong, Eve,” I finally answered. A drink would help, I supposed. Definitely relieve this stress. Maybe kill the nerves and possibly help me find sleep at some point.
    “Sure thing, honey. Top notch for the gentleman.” Eve gave another wink before departing. She made sure to shake her hips as she walked away, and even dared a look back to make sure I was watching. She strolled behind the bar, ignoring the drunkards hanging off the bar stools. She grabbed a bottle from underneath the counter and waved the glass in the air as she smiled. “You like vodka?”
    I shrugged, the one shoulder still aching from my earlier fall, but it was enough for her. She grabbed two glasses and sauntered back, taking the seat opposite me. It was hard not to stare, but I tried to keep my hooded face down, keeping my appearance hidden. She didn’t seem to mind, though I didn’t exactly know why. She placed a glass in front of me and poured the cruel liquor. We held our glasses up, cheered, and downed the fire. The first splash of vodka hurt and I coughed at how harsh it was. Eve laughed as she tossed back hers, and poured another.
    “Where have you been all night, darling?” she said with a smile. In a city of a few hundred, she treated me like a stranger, which I was after all. I was too afraid to show my face, even though there was no activity around us. She didn’t try to yank my hood down, or shuffle around to try and get a glimpse. She was okay with not knowing, or played off the idea that I was some stranger who came from outside the city.
    “Well…” I wanted to tell her something, anything. Tell her the truth that no one else really knew. About this city, about what I saw just a little while back. “Can I tell you something?”
    She smiled and nodded.
    “I… I…,” I stumbled. “I don’t really have that much… longer, you know. It’s strange, now that it’s closer, really, it feels like it could happen tomorrow. I know it won’t, but… that’s beside the point. I’m feeling so… so… divided, like not whole. I just want to stay right here. Stay with the people I know.”
    Truthfully, I thought about it all the time, and even though I had a few friends and my little girl Olivia, every day I felt more alone. I turned my head, looking through the bar’s front window. The area glowed red outside, but no other soul was awake to hear my story.
    Eve nodded, frowning a bit, but her eyes remained fixed on mine. “Sad boy,” she said and twirled in her seat, inching the chair closer to mine. “Tell me more.”
    “Uhhh, well…,” she caught me off guard. I took another shot, ignoring the taste. She neglected to refill the glass. Instead she sipped from the bottle and slid it across the table.
    “Here’s to not knowing I suppose,” I said and tipped the bottle back, draining a little more. “What do you think happens?”
    Eve shook her head. She traced an outline on the table and flicked a curl away from her eyes, managing to keep that halfcocked smile.
    “Not that it really matters, I guess.” I sighed. “It would seem that we lose ourselves, or, become something different, what am I trying to say?” I giggled, the liquor was taking over and I started feeling lucid. Numbness traveled to my legs and they finally relaxed. Putting a hand inside the sweatshirt pocket, I gently caressed the sphere, believing that I was making some sense.
    “I need to understand it. If I just, was given more time, and could survive this… this… turning, I just know I could figure it out. Maybe even change things, divert our paths.” I unexpectedly pondered if the sphere had a lifespan. Maybe if it was cut off from the other side it would eventually not recover, like some life form too far removed from its environment.
    “Why?” Eve asked.
    “Why what?” I replied.
    “Why worry so much about it? The turning, it can’t be stopped, never does stop. Everyone goes away.” Eve smiled, patting the top of my hand, but leaving it there after she was done.
    “Why does it have to be changed? Why do you have to be the one who changes it?” she asked. She began stroking my hand, turning it upside down, tracing a line about my palm, touching each fingertip as she went.
    “Can’t tell you that, I suppose. Always felt that way, like, somehow it’s my fault,” I said, opening up. I hadn’t done this in so long, but it felt right. Even if Eve was a complete stranger, she was what I needed her to be in this precise moment. As if she could heal the wound that rifled through me, stitching together the past as if it would suddenly come rip-roaring back. Though, all she would ever be was a pretty face listening to me ramble.
    She laughed innocently. “Your fault?” she asked. “It’s no one’s fault. Not yours, not mine, not even Jackson’s, wherever that poor boy is now. Suppose you saw all that earlier?” She must have been meaning when they chased me into the tower.
    “Not even he has anything to do with this. Don’t tell anyone I told you that though,” she laughed. “Don’t need those cowards coming after me too. Anyway, if we’re meant to walk into the shadows, then we do just that. If you’re meant to stop it, then try you must. But don’t ever blame yourself, honey. Fate is a tricky mistress, and she is damn good at what she does.”
    Eve leaned over the table, coming just inches away. “More,” she whispered.
    “Hmmmm?” I couldn’t even form words.
    “Tell me more.” She pulled her chair to my side, now resting a hand on my thigh.
    “Well, can I tell you a secret?” I asked. I waited for her to nod before continuing. “I’ve been having memories.”
    “That’s not really a secret, darling. We all have ‘em.” Eve smiled.
    “Not just from the last two years. From, before The Forgetting.”
    “Again.” Eve waved her hand around as if dismissing the comment.
    “Not just snippets or flashes. Whole memories. Like, okay, there’s this one, it happened just a couple days ago. I was sitting on my couch and it hit me like, like thunder. I was within the memory, reliving it, and could remember it clear as day. It was back when I was just a kid. When I was really young, I had gotten our first puppy, and it was Christmas. There were lights, music, television, family, cookies, eggnog, snowmen, turkey, ham, stuffing, cranberries, mashed potatoes, uh and the gravy. I see faces, but can’t remember the names. This lasted for hours, until I fell asleep that night still within that dream, waiting for Santa.”
    The stream of memory flowed, moving swiftly from thought to mouth. I didn’t worry about who was listening, and hoped that maybe Eve could understand.
    “That’s odd,” she said with a frown. “I’ve never had anything like that before. Hell, sugar, that’s about the craziest thing I ever heard.” She grabbed the bottle and chugged a few more gulps, managing to empty the rest. Dropping the bottle back down, she pushed the glass away as if she no longer wanted to look at it.
    “What about you?” I asked.
    “Oh you want a story now, huh? I can respect that. Though I may need another drink…” she showed me her shot glass and flipped it upside down onto the table.
    “You have quite a tolerance,” I said. My head was spinning, and Eve drank far more than I did.
    “More vodka?” I asked, looking back towards the bar.
    “No. For my story, I’m going to need something a little sweeter. I think we need to go to the cellar,” Eve said.
    I pushed back in my seat, stood, and grabbed the lantern in the middle of the table. “Shall we?” I held out a hand, my good hand, to lift Eve up.
    “My gentleman,” she said and gathered to her feet, pulling at her dress to make sure she was still decent. She motioned towards a door that led to a stairwell that spiraled downwards.
    I led, holding the lantern out, guiding us on. Eve clung to my arm. I wasn’t sure if she was more drunk than she looked, or was just trying to get closer.
    “How do you know Sierra?” Eve asked suddenly.
    “What do you mean?” I questioned back.
    “Well, certain people come looking for something late at night. We only go to places we are familiar with in those moments. And you find yourself in her bar, virtually by yourself, sitting alone at a table. So, why?” She found her grip around the back on my neck, slowly caressing, circling.
    “Hey, I thought I was getting a story,” I said, trying to turn the attention back on her.
    “Not until I get my drink, lovely boy.” She poked a finger into my side.
    “Of course, of course. Let’s see here. Sierra, she was a friend. A good friend. You know, her and I first discovered this bar back then, this cellar too.”
    “Nu-huh,” Eve giggled.
    “Oh yeah. We popped our first cork off a bottle of some white wine only a few days into this life. She loved it. I didn’t care for it. Oh Sierra, how has she been?” I inquired. It’d been so long since I’d have seen her.
    “You don’t know?” Eve slowed her pace, staring up at me, as if something suddenly changed.
    I shook my head.
    “She died. Fever took her awhile back.”
    “Really?” I replied.
    “Yeah. She taught me everything I know. She was like a sister.” Eve waved a hand in front of her, trying not to cry. “I cried enough for her. Let’s talk about something else, yes?”
    I nodded, cradling her the best I could, though my damaged shoulder screamed at me.
    We walked into the full-sized cellar. The lantern lit up the strange space. What seemed like an unlimited amount of bottles filled the cellar, even after the two years of serving them to thirsty guests. Boxes upon boxes were stacked in the corners, empty ones scattered about.
    “What kind do you want?” I asked and lifted the light, scanning over the bottles. Pulling one at a time, I read the labels like I knew what I was doing. I only really knew white or red, nothing more.
    “Red,” Eve answered.
    “Anything in particular?”
    “No. Just red.” Eve let go of my shoulder and slipped toward the middle of the floor, scooting some boxes out of the way. She slumped to the ground, watching, and waiting. I found the bottle she wanted and sat beside her, placing the lantern close by.
    “Corkscrew opener?” I asked.
    Eve was smiling as I looked up, and saw the corkscrew opener dangling between her delicate fingers. She handed me the device and I undid the top.
    “So… a story?” Eve asked and grabbed the bottle, taking a generous sip. “Oh this wine deserves no less. Good choice. Okay let me think.” She passed the bottle back and pondered which direction she wanted to go. I took a taste of the wine. It was a beautiful drink, but I was already far more drunk than I wanted to be.
    “Oh darling, I have one,” Eve exclaimed. “There was a night, much like this one, where a guy wondered into a bar all by himself.”
    The story was oddly familiar, and I smiled, laughing. I did wondered where she was going with this.
    “And this guy, ever the gentlemen,” she said with a wink, “told me a story that reminded me faintly of someone else. Someone that everyone felt betrayed by…”
    A sudden lump filled my stomach.
    “Uhhhh…” I said.
    “Shh…” she held a finger to her lips. “This is my story, let me finish. This guy, this betrayer as they called him, opened up to a girl he didn’t know. And he’s been hurting for so long, so very long. So this girl, this stranger, who didn’t believe the rumors, held his secret and will do so forever. So she wonders, why after all of this, did he wander into a bar, in a city, where most everyone still hated him?” She placed a hand on mine. “Why did Jackson come back?”

Chapter 13: Waking Up

    Slowly, I withdrew my hood. It wasn’t like it mattered anymore. Eve smiled, turning her eyes away from mine, and instead sipped the wine.
    “How’d you know?” I asked. I didn’t think I gave anything away. I couldn’t say if I was scared, flabbergasted, or confused. I was just indifferent. It wasn’t like she drew away or became violent, like the rest. She was oddly, even strangely, comfortable.
    “Oh sugar. Sierra told me about you, long, long ago,” Eve explained. “You two had no secrets. One thing she told me I can clearly recall was that you had strange dreams. Vivid ones. Real ones.” Eve lifted the lantern and strolled over to the hallway that filtered back upstairs.
    “Come along,” she said and waved me over. Together we climbed back up, returning to the main level. Instead of stopping there, she rounded a corner and climbed up another level. She stopped at a shut door and twirled and lifted a lantern nearby.
    “What is it?” I asked after she didn’t say a word. She simply looked at me.
    “It’s just… I can’t explain it,” she said and shook her head as she pushed through the door. I followed.
    We entered a bedroom. There was a bed in the center of the room. Pictures hung off the wall, though it was too dark to make out the faces. A long dresser sat on the far edge of the room, along with a few candles that remained unlit until Eve circled around in the darkness and put a match to each one. The bed was thickly covered with multiple blankets, and Eve took a seat near the edge. She patted down the spot right next to her.
    “Here. Sit,” Eve said. She had a mixture of demanding and affection in her voice. She took out her earrings, undoing her necklace while placing it on the nightstand. I didn’t know what to expect, how to trust someone I abruptly realized I’d put too much trust into. I still took my place on the side of that bed.
    “Umm…” I struggled.
    “Jackson, just lay down. It’s been one hell of a day for you, sugar.” Eve killed the lantern and the room was shadowed in a strange glare. The candles’ light reflected on the lone window in the corner of the room. I dared a look out as I moved over to the window.
    I could see the main street down below in front of the bar. There was the glow of that ever-present red light, and several bodies lining the street, completely incapacitated after their drinking. Though a few loners still circled the street with flashlights, looking for something or someone.
    “They’re still looking?” I asked, but I didn’t think I meant it as a question.
    “They won’t stop either. Frank has them all, spread thin and crazy. They came in the bar hours ago. But never mind that right now honey. They’re not coming back, for now at least,” Eve said and stood, facing away from the window, as she unzipped her dress. I dared a look back, the curves of her form present, and worth getting caught looking. She slipped in-between the covers. “Come here.”
    I was dizzy, slightly drunk, and suffering from my ever-present insomnia, but I wouldn’t dare ignore this invite. So I did the only sensible thing. I took my sweatshirt off and tucked the sphere close by, and climbed into bed.
    Eve placed a hand on my chest, and circled a finger around. “Just let me help you,” Eve said and twisted around to face me. She rested a pair of lips on my neck, kissing and sucking. She twisted upwards and sucked on my earlobe. I couldn’t help but sigh in eagerness. Was this really happening?
    Eve mounted on top of me, and the rest was a blur. Only sleep took me away from the best dream I have dreamt in sometime.
* * *
    I was standing on the edge of an abyss, gazing straight into the drop. It was twilight, too dark to see, but something emitted upwards. A sound fueled this nightmare, as screams erupted up through the hole. The screaming didn’t frighten me, though, not as much as the darkness did. All around that great abyss was the very same city I had come to know, with its broken buildings and dead stories. In the dream, somehow the city closed in around. It surrounded and pushed. Soon or later, I had to fall.
    For hours I fell, only moments I screamed. Plunging through the darkness was oddly familiar, as if I had done it before. Gliding through life without sight could punish anyone, but as I fell I was somehow wholly at comfort. The thought of dying was easy and welcoming. To find myself hitting the bottom of this seemingly bottomless pit felt like a joyful even I almost yearned for.
    Then nothing.
    The descent was over. I wasn’t falling, was somehow standing upright as if I’d never fallen in the first place. But I was still in the darkness. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Sounds emitted from behind me, something like beating, like someone was tapping on a wall with a fingernail.
    I turned toward the sound and it suddenly stopped, as if it never existed at all. Another tap echoed from behind me. It stopped when I turned toward it. Finding myself flying in around in circles, I tried to trace the sound as it endlessly echoed from all around. Then suddenly, it stopped forever.
    “Jackson?” Olivia’s voice sounded from somewhere in front of me.
    I couldn’t see her, but I knew she was somewhere in this darkness. When I tried to call back, my voice was unwilling to cooperate. I voicelessly screamed her name, and only heard whispers of what should be there.
    “Jackson?” she asked. Her voice was further away, echoing off into the distance. I silently screamed again but to no avail. Instead I ran to where I thought she would be. She kept repeating my name, kept getting further away. My trembling legs wouldn’t carry on after a while, couldn’t carry me to her.
    Suddenly she screamed very loudly. Then it sounded like a body hit the floor.
    I raced harder, trying to find my way through the black. I never came across anything. Instead, after forever, I simply slumped to the ground, out of breath and out of my mind. That was usually when it happened. The world crumbled away into an even deeper abyss. Once more I fell, but didn’t care, just shut my eyes and let it all go, let it be done.
    When I did open my eyes once more, I found myself somewhere new, no longer in the darkness, but in a sea of grass with the sun shining brighter than anything I had ever known. The chirps of birds circled in the air above. A light wind breezed through. I knew this place was peace, was exactly where I wanted to be. This was home.
    But it didn’t last. Again the tapping came, as if someone or something desired my attention. The relentless tapping grew louder and more defined. After a time I had to cover my ears as the oscillating sound grew too deafening.
    The world shook with noise. It never grew softer, or vanished. Minutes would turn to days. Months to years. Like this sound was going to never leave. Never had I been so lost as to what to do or where to go. I was trapped in something so wicked that I couldn’t find a way out. I only sat there and squeezed my ears.
    Abruptly, I was flying. Not like a bird, just moving, skyrocketing passed everything. The world blurred with colors streaking together. The sound of the tapping grew more prominent. It wasn’t really louder, just closer. I was going to find out where the tapping was coming from.
    I saw it then. There was something blinking in the distance. Within moments I had come to what I apparently needed to see. It was as alien as the tapping and everything else, and once again it was dark. But the blinking gave off life, a shallow hint of red. What I could only describe as a tower, maybe a few stories high, had a light near the top that was blinking red.
    This was what caused the tapping, just not as loud as before. In fact, the tapping was barely audible. It was more like a drone or the buzzing of electricity. I hovered around the light for a second like a moth drawn to a flame, then descended as if my wings suddenly lost their ability to carry me.
    Touching ground, I stood in front of the tower. It was an antenna, like the ones I’d sometimes seen on top of buildings Downtown. Attached to the tower was a small brick building with a single door. My hands drew to the door without my permission, and before I knew it I’d walked inside.
    Inside sat a man staring at computer monitors. He didn’t move, just sat there. He motioned for me to approach, pointing at a monitor. I obeyed, but what I saw on the monitor, for some reason, didn’t make sense. I never could remember what I saw on that monitor, always waking up, and forgetting.
* * *
    Sunlight had already poured in from the window. Easily, gently I arose from the bed. I paid attention to Eve’s breaths, making sure each was the same length as before, trying not to wake her. I thought it would be easier if she didn’t see me go, though I didn’t exactly know why. It was a strange connection, even though I’d known her for only what was a moment, a brief second in time.
    My ribs still hurt with every movement, and my shoulder slightly burned. But what Eve and I shared last night made everything hurt less somehow. That’s why it was going to hurt more to leave.
    I made sure the sphere still sat in the front pocket as I grabbed the sweatshirt. As I touched the sphere, yesterday suddenly felt alive again, as if sleeping could have changed what happened. But, like a nightmare come to life, I knew the world was the same. Reaching the door that would lead downstairs, I couldn’t even look back. The door opened softly. I retreated through and gently pulled the door shut.
    I scurried down the stairs in a few steps and burst back into the bar. The same people were sprawled out in the corner, snoring loudly.
    The sun was already overhead, clearly past dawn, and as I traveled outside I knew it was dangerous to be out here. I pulled up my hood, my hidden face at least making me feel better. But I had to be quick and get out of sight.
    Something was amiss, and demanded me to look back as if eyes were on me. A face was watching me through the doorway, just a sheet covering her naked form.
    “You should be fine, sugar. Most everyone sleeps off the hangovers till late. And I’m sure they were drinking even more after seeing you,” Eve said and tossed a smile, flicking a blonde curl away from her lip. “You just keep yourself good, ya’hear.”
    I nodded. There wasn’t anything else to say. I started to track back the way I came, heading home. There wasn’t a need to linger, and the sphere begged to be figured out. But had I known this would be the last time I saw Eve alive, maybe I would have hung around a little longer.

Chapter 14: The Wasteland

    I focused on the journey ahead, letting go of the strange, awkward, ultimately satisfying night. I needed to get home, to see my Olivia again. I’d spent far more time away than necessary, but at least something good came out of it: the still-dead sphere that rested in my front pocket, and I would never forget my night with Eve.
    I came across the dried up river on the hike back home, trying, and failing, to jar my memories forward once more. I just focused on the walk. The sun wasn’t high enough just yet, so at least it was more comfortable for the long march. To be home again, and away from Downtown’s evil, would be bliss. My doom lingered down there, but the answers were closer than ever. The sphere told me as much.
    Something slowed my pace only a few blocks from my house. There wasn’t much around here, most everything was destroyed, broken, or simply gone. Looking around, I still felt like someone was watching, but nothing caught my attention. Just an awkward sense of illusion.
    I took a few more steps but just couldn’t shake the feeling. I came to stop at an intersection, Thompson and Market. It wasn’t really anything that rang any bells, not like any memories in this particular spot, but something wanted to lead me away, further down Market and away from Olivia.
    Market Street held the same destruction as before, with its cracked street, nature looming over everything, and it wanted nothing else but to pull me that way.
    “Fine,” I said out loud. Whatever it was, it tugged at the back of my mind and didn’t let go.
    I twisted left and set forward, moving about the destruction. I was strangely tired for having slept. Maybe the nightmare kept me on edge, but then again, it wasn’t that long since I’d been asleep. Shapes were beginning to form where things didn’t exist. Waves of dizziness came and left. Voices started to linger in the wind.
    Market twisted to the right and shot into a dead end, bending around a large scrap pile some of the locals had built. A great desert stretched far as the eye could see passed Market Street. The sun glared off the crystalline sands, and waves of heat rolled off the distant mountains. Winds blew the sea of sand across the valley that surrounded the entirely of our broken city, all of Uptown, all of Downtown, everywhere.
    Walking into the desert wasn’t like crossing the barrier. Anyone could willingly walk into the barren region, and many had attempted it before. They either had made it to whatever other side existed and never made the return trip, or simply died in the sands without us knowing about it. No one had ever returned.
    The desert was already burning hot compared to the somehow moderate environment of my home town. The sand pelted my face, forcing me to shield my eyes as the wind blew westward. The feeling pressed me forward, and I lost myself a good distance before realizing how far I had traveled. Twisting around and looking back, the city had grown to just a speck in the distance.
    “What are we looking for?” I asked out loud. There had to be something drawing me out this way. A wave of vertigo nearly put me down on all fours, coughing and heaving, though I recovered. Another spout of dizziness set me reeling backwards, head crashing into the sand. My world was spinning so fast I could have been in the clouds.
    It hit me in that moment. This had happened before, only twice, but in the same way. Instead of fighting it, I laid back and watched the white, billowy clouds drift by.
    “Well let’s have it then,” I said before the sequence began.
    It wasn’t so much a dream. I don’t think I would call it a memory either. It was more like living another life, a life that could be mine, but just maybe wasn’t. The first time happened when I was leading the group down to the city in the beginning. It happened when I laid eyes on those dark clouds for the first time.
    The second time, it happened when I was shot.
    Everything was black and white, washed with traces of gray. Time remained frozen as I stood in the middle of the sands just like before. But things soon changed. No longer was it the desert I stood in. Instead, a lush and vast forest careened into existence off to my right, while the desert remained everywhere else. Though the strange part was the trees were rotting, dying. One was in full bloom, leafs and flowers on the end of each branch, yet it was rotting near the base. Though frozen in time, the sands of the desert appeared to be devouring all of the woodland.
    Somehow I was closer to the familiar city, but it wasn’t broken like before. Towers touched the sky, full and shining in their brilliant, garish tone. Glancing to the left, I saw myself, a mirror image as if seeing my reflection. But this was no mirror. This was a haunting realization of me watching myself and not fully understanding what I was looking at. I just knew it was me, frozen in the moment, awaiting what was going to happen next. I tried to shove the anxiety down as I moved closer.
    The scene came to life. Looking away from this doppelganger and back toward the forest, I witnessed the reality of how things may have come to pass. It wasn’t a slow or natural decay that consumed the forest. This was more. The sands were eating away anything that was green, or, at least what should have been green. The sands swept quickly, with such ferocity that anything that should have resembled a forest quickly decayed into nothingness.
    “Jackson! You here lad?” a voice questioned.
    I whipped my head around and saw a new figure come into the scene. He walked from over a mountain, wearing glasses on a bulbous nose. He was a stocky little man, and completely out of breath.
    “Over here,” my mirror image announced. This other me looked so much fuller than I was. His hair was brushed and slicked back. He had clean clothes, clean face, but his expression was something near ill. There was some kind of gadget in his hand that beeped and whistled, but it was far too advanced for my mind to comprehend.
    “According to the data…” the pudgy guy said as he took a second to catch his breath.
    ‘I know,” my doppelganger interrupted. He was punching keys on the device while simultaneously looking at his wristwatch. He seemed to be counting down to something, mouthing numbers or calculations, but doing so in his own private world. The other man remained quiet.
    “Okay, okay… okay… okay…” The second me muttered. “Fifteen minutes. It will be over in fifteen minutes. The forest will be dead.”
    “We need to go, Jackson. The area will be flooded in less than an hour,” the other commented.
    “I know… I know.” My doppelganger shook his head. “There just isn’t enough time. The power plant is going to take at least three hours to get up and running.” This second Jackson looked over at the other man, and appeared to be getting choked up. He kept an edge to himself, somehow, while looking downright ready to burst into tears.
    An unexpected uproar assaulted my senses. Turning away from the scene, I tried to find the incoming drone. I couldn’t see much through the black and white haze of this strange, nightmarish reality.
    “Well, that’s earlier than expected… ummmm, who would have flashed it this soon?” the other man asked.
    “It’s close enough,” Jackson groaned. “Damn it, there just isn’t enough time. We should go. We can still make it to the bunker.”
    The other guy suddenly grew downtrodden, removing his glasses and looking towards the oscillating sound.
    “What is it?” Jackson asked.
    “I’m going to the city,” the man in the glasses replied.
    “What, why…” Jackson trailed off. “No, no, how? I thought you were immune?” Jackson could barely maintain himself. This other me was mystified and broken.
    “Contracted it back… ah hell, you know what? It doesn’t matter. The medicine did its job, slowed it down long enough.” The man grabbed Jackson by the arm and shook a little bit. “Lad, I know you’ll figure it out. You’re the only one who can.”
    The two hugged.
    I couldn’t help but watch in shocking, muted horror. I needed to understand this, but it wasn’t coming to me. Whatever this man had contracted it was something awful enough to warrant an embrace. Time froze again, the two caught in a never-ending hug.
    This always happened when this altered reality came to an end, and I knew I would wake up soon. Instead of drawing my attention to them, I shifted back towards the direction where that crazy sound was coming from. Even in this black and white universe, the cityscape was just a bit darker on the horizon, like something had exploded with an unnamable darkness.
    What was less than an hour away? What was a power plant? Why transform the surrounding forest into an impassable desert, and just how the hell did someone do that? Soon the vision started to blur, as it came back to life once more.
    This hadn’t happened before. The vision always ended and never came back. But now my world was spinning on a slight tilt.
    Jackson and the other were saying words I couldn’t understand over the loud buzzing coming from the city. My sight was either fading or drawing to something unholy, a darkness that hovered as if alive on the horizon. It was coming this way.
    I took a few steps forward and strained to make out shapes on the neutral colored skyline. It looked like a swarm, a shade against a dark background. Whatever it was, it was screaming towards us incredibly fast.
    “I think it’s going to be here quicker than your estimation, lad,” said the other man, his voice somehow resonating over the noise. The deafening sound seemed to die away, or the dream wanted me to hear the interaction of these two men. The other man wiped away a few tears and looked toward the black clouds.
    “So it would seem,” Jackson replied. He started to shake his head, and sighed deeply. “Why?”
    “Why what, my boy?”
    “I shouldn’t be immune. I just, shouldn’t be. It’s a cruel joke.” The mirrored image of me cried.
    The conversation between the two drowned out, and the billowing black cloud of noise was close enough to see. Whatever it was, it didn’t make sense. I closed my eyes to think, just for a moment. When I opened them again, I was caught within the storm. Black particles swirled and spun around. I couldn’t quite explain it. The sound was too much, but I ignored it.
    The blackness wasn’t totally engulfing like it was around the center of this broken city. This was more of a wind, a pitch-black gust alive with purpose. It breezed past us in an instant, and screamed away from the shining city. With that, the noise settled.
    “Feel any different?” Jackson asked.
    “Can’t say that I do, but that’s the point, isn’t it?” the other said and managed a smiled.
    “I’m so sorry, Adam. I didn’t mean for any of this,” Jackson started.
    “No lad. This wasn’t your fault. But you will fix what they broke. Well, my journey’s at an end it would seem. Have as good a life as possible. I know you’ll figure it out. Goodbye Jackson.” Adam hugged Jackson again.
    It was gut-wrenching to watch, feeling so disconnected as I did. From what it looked like, I should remember this Adam somehow, someway. I knew he was dying, knew that something was happening.
    “I promise I will,” Jackson called after Adam, who was already walking toward the city. Adam didn’t turn around, just continued marching onward. Jackson sighed loudly, and froze in place as the dream seemed to have ended.
    I was left with the absolute feeling of loss. And, somewhere deep in my wounded memory, knew exactly what had happened to this city, because I had a hand in its breaking.

Chapter 15: Ploy

    Coming out of the nightmarish vision, dream, or whatever it was, left me spinning and sick. My head felt heavy enough to fall off. The back of my eyes hurt, and pin pricks sparked across my skin. The feeling didn’t leave as I tracked back toward the city. It felt like my life had unraveled before me, an inescapable logic that, somehow, I had a hand in all of what happened.
    We were living in ruin, fighting for life, and dying in the middle of it all because of something I should remember. The black wave of hovering particles was a beginning, a strange, unanswerable question. All I knew for sure was that this Adam, whoever he was to me, contracted something, maybe an illness, and marched himself to this city.
    It took only a few minutes to backtrack to the city, but the vision remained alive. The conversation between Adam and myself, that younger me, kept replaying before my eyes, kept repeating what Adam was saying. But it begged another question: why would Adam march himself here, into this city? I stood on the edge between pavement and sand, thinking.
    “Twenty-eight days,” I said out loud. My turning loomed in the not-too-distant future, screaming closer with each new day. With every second that passed, the center of the city called louder and more distinct. If I failed to understand all of this soon, all of these questions weren’t really going to matter. The turning didn’t care who I was or what was going on. It would come, it would grab me, and take me away.
    “Just how the hell…” I trailed off. An odd sensation overcame me as I stood there staring at the ground, something that I had never noticed before. It seemed so weird, but strangely right. The wind in the desert was strong, and powerful enough to blow sand into our city. Yet it never crossed the threshold onto the pavement, hadn’t for years.
    The edge between sand and city formed a perfect border. It was a flawless line that ran all the way down, as far as the eye could see. Testing a theory, I bent down and picked up a handful of sand. I threw the sand hard and fast towards the city. It flew back almost instantly, chucking the lot back into my face.
    I spat out the grains and picked up another handful to test the hypothesis again. The same result occurred, though I wasn’t foolish enough to have it come blasting back at me and stood off to the side. Whatever was causing the particles to fly back was keeping the entire desert out of the city, almost magically. Something else was at play here, something scientific and capable of being answered, but I couldn’t grasp it.
    I picked up the last handful and cupped the grains with both hands, creating a tight ball with my fists. The second I walked onto the pavement the sand tried to break loose. As I pushed further in, the grains dug into my skin, the pressure increasing exponentially as the sand tried to escape. After a few more steps I couldn’t hang on. I turned around and released them. They flew with ferocious speed back over the threshold, and came to a rest just outside the line of pavement.
    This was insanity. This was the definition of my life right now, everything compounded in such a way I was going to fall into madness. The insomnia, the timer, the dreams, visions, or whatever they hell they were, all built questions I couldn’t answer. And I had a fucking sphere that managed to break all the theories, and let me go where I shouldn’t be able to go. But I had no memory to answer what I was supposed to do, and guessing might take too long to get any solutions.
    I pushed back towards my initial destination: home. These thoughts bounced through my mind, lingering even though I had no clue what they meant. The sun did it’s best to pull my attention away. It was plenty hot now with the sun nearly at its peak, but I remained trapped to my own ideas.
    The sphere. It was my be-all and end-all, my grand prize. The thought had crossed my mind several times, but this time I focused on the strange instrument. It was left up in that building like it wanted to be found, like I was supposed it use it. Strange as it was, it felt right in my hands as I pulled out the device and examined it. The perfectly, round metal sphere, with its etching that failed to light up. It was weightless. I should have been able to crush it, but I couldn’t. The metal was so firm.
    “Tell me,” I ordered, shaking the sphere like it would talk back. If it was only so easy. Returning the sphere to my sweatshirt’s front pocket, I noticed the intersection coming up ahead. I turned left and continued toward our block. Soon enough I passed the Palmer’s house, though I couldn’t bring myself to look up at the giant yellowed building.
    Maybe I feared that someone would be looking out those windows, and those were faces I still couldn’t look upon. What happened two nights ago was just too much. I pushed past the home and walked in the middle of the street, keeping my eyes glued on the pavement.
    It was quiet out here. I couldn’t say if that was really normal or not. This place stood in stark contrast to how alive downtown was the night before. Only the sound of the wind whistled against my ears, and maybe the scrub of my old tennis shoes that were a size too big scraping along the concrete. When I was well enough away from the big yellowed house, I looked around. Everything seemed normal enough. Yet something was different, was wrong.
    Angling towards Kyle and Susan’s, nothing appeared out of place. It wasn’t like the door was kicked in, or windows were broken. I didn’t know what I was expecting. But a little girl hadn’t come running out of that house yet, nor was she staring through a window. Everything remained still, soundless.
    I approached the front door and pushed an ear against its surface, waiting. Nothing.
    I didn’t knock, just grabbed the doorknob and pushed through. The place was in shambles, broken furnishings tossed from one side of the room to the other. Silverware was flung about the floor. Knives stuck out of the wall. Glass shards were scattered about, the carpets stained a deep crimson, and a smell emitted from somewhere deep within the mess.
    That scent stung, attacking my senses like I was slugged in the ribs, ribs that still burned from the night before. An overpowering fear grasped the back of my neck.
    “Hello?” I struggled to ask. “Kyle? Susan? Olivia?” I pushed through the debris. There was nothing but destruction, not a sign of my friends or my little girl. Spots of blood drove me nearly mad with worry.
    I followed the stains on the carpet as the blood twisted and turned. The smell that hung in the air tasted coppery and reminded me of days in the past, days of war and death. It smelled so awful that I had to pull my shirt above my nose and mouth.
    The aroma grew stronger as it led me to a set of stairs heading into the basement. My heart leapt into my throat. That deep crimson seeped into the carpet at the top of the steps. It looked fresh, and even had chunks of flesh mixed in. Flinging the door open to the basement, my senses screamed as a whoosh of stale blood-fueled air flew up. Glaring into the darkness of the basement only raised more fear.
    The most sickening thought was the lack of noise, no crying or screaming, just the awfulness of nothing. I flew down the steps, not worrying about being graceful, and slipped on the blood-soaked wood, nearly breaking my neck after falling down the rest of the way.
    Only the light from the open door allowed me to see. There wasn’t so much as a whisper of help coming from the space, but the smell remained coppery and shocking. I only wished I wouldn’t find anyone down here. I flung my arms in all directions and strained to discover something against the bleakness.
    An outstretched leg tripped me and sent me tumbling. A moan escaped. Someone was alive enough to make a sound. I got up quickly and felt my way around. I touched skin, wet skin. It was someone’s arm, and a big one at that.
    “Kyle? Kyle!” I shouted. “Come on buddy, talk to me!” I shook, my hands slipping from his skin as I tried to get a grasp on him.
    My vision adjusted just a bit to catch a glimpse of his face and body, but what I saw was beyond imaginable. His face was pulp, puffed up beyond recognition. Drool mixed with blood oozed from his mouth, his jaw offset and broken. Dried blood mixed with sweat clung to his shirt and body.
    “Jacckkksssonnn…” Kyle choked out.
    Tears streamed down my cheeks. He was dying.
    Unable to talk, I felt around Kyle’s legs and arms. There were no bindings tying him down; he was just sitting in the chair, somehow upright and awake.
    “Jackson,” he whispered again.
    “Come on Kyle, let’s get you outta here,” I said.
    I wrapped his massive arm around my shoulder and lifted with all my might. Somehow he rose to the occasion, though slowly. We stumbled across the darkness towards the stairs. This way I could get a better look at him, and deal with it from there.
    Climbing the stairs with Kyle clinging to my shoulders was difficult. My ribs and shoulders burned from my earlier wounds, but I remained focused on the task at hand. Kyle nearly collapsed twice, but we managed not to slip on the blood.
    Bursting through the opening, we both crashed to the floor. I lay breathless for only a second before turning my attention to him.
    “My god,” I whispered. I had to look away.
    Kyle’s face was smashed like it had been beaten with a brick. His eyes were puffed enough that he wouldn’t be able to see. I didn’t know how he could even talk. His jaw was a half inch off-center. His shirt was white in places, but the rest was red. I lifted his shirt to see the damage and counted eight, no, nine stab wounds. Vomit rose from my stomach.
    This was all wrong, and it was all my fault. I should have been here. I shouldn’t have left.
    “Jackson,” Kyle spoke with an almost certain clarity. The words slurred through his fractured jawbone. “You… have… to…” He tried to talk. He lay there, unmoving.
    Shallow breaths came far too few. He still bled. I took a blanket from nearby and tried to hold it against all of his wounds. He didn’t even groan with the pressure. He wasn’t feeling anything.
    “Shhh… shhhhh… just keep quiet. We’re going to get you outta here, get you some help,” I choked. I couldn’t keep my voice from cracking. Tears trickled down my face and I wiped them away with the back of my sleeve. I noticed how bloody my own shirt had gotten from carrying Kyle.
    Kyle’s hand found mine. When I looked down, I imagined he was looking at me.
    “No,” Kyle whispered. “You have to… have to… find her.” His voice was deep, like it wasn’t his own. His head rolled back, and tension gripped his body and shook a few times. He held my hand tight for a moment before his chest rose one more time, then settled forever.
    “No,” I whispered. “No, Kyle, come on. No, no, no, no….” I shook him, felt for a pulse on his neck. I moved my hand to his chest but there was no heartbeat. He wasn’t here anymore. My friend died right in front of me. Yet, he wasn’t thinking of himself when he went.
    “I’ll find her. I promise,” I whispered. With renewed vigor I set out to find my Olivia and Susan.
    I stumbled away from Kyle and rushed into the living room. The room was spinning, and I chocked down vomit.
    “Olivia!” I shouted. “Susan!”
    I screamed, not caring if the murderers were still here. I needed to find the girls, to fulfill my friend’s dying wish. I stormed through the rooms on the bottom floor. There was only scattered remnants of the struggle. Kyle must have put up one hell of a fight, he would have done his best to protect his kin. Everything was silent, though. There wasn’t a trace of the girls at all so I turned my attention to the top floor.
    An idea took hold: everyone I knew was violently being ripped away from me. Everything that I had come to love could be dead, and gone for the rest of time. I sprinted upstairs and rushed into the first room.
    “Damn it, no,” I chocked. My heart stopped as I entered the room. In the middle of the floor, just like Kyle in the basement, was Susan. She was strapped down in a chair, unlike Kyle. Her head was down, her hair soaked in blood and sweat. A pool of red lay near her feet. It leaked from the holes that covered her arms, her shirt just as red as Kyle’s. She didn’t move.
    “Susan?” I said with little power.
    Nothing.
    I slowly approached the girl and was overwhelmed with just how much I cared for her, more than she would ever know. The place in my heart that desired Susan was burning, but it was falling apart, dying just like the world.
    I knelt by her side and looked her over closely. She was dead. Susan hadn’t clung to life like Kyle. Her head was angled downwards, neck careened all the way forward. I swept the hair from her forehead just to make sure it was her, and pretended for a moment that it was going to be someone else. Susan’s eyes were glazed over, streaks of tears covering her cheeks. Her mouth was open in a silent prayer.
    “Why?” I asked Susan.
    She didn’t respond. She had deep, red and purple marks around her neck. Gashes were scattered about her arms, and her fingernails were covered in bits of flesh. She’d fought, just like Kyle.
    The bleakness of my situation was coming quicker. Nothing would ever be the same, yet the fact remained that nothing would change. I was going to die in a twilight hell, be it walking into the darkness downtown, or gunned down by whoever had committed this gruesome crime. But I still had one act, one person, to discover: Olivia.
    The floorboards creaked behind me. I turned around and saw the baseball bat only for a brief second. It hit and world grew dark.

Chapter 16: My Greatest Threat

    My head thundered and the side of my face blistered with rage as I awoke. Double vision multiplied the individuals in the room, but it settled quickly enough. I couldn’t move my hands. Ropes burned in my wrists as I struggled. My legs were pinned to the legs of the chair, just like Kyle and Susan.
    “’Bout time, chap,” someone hissed. A figure materialized sitting opposite me. He ran a hand through his slicked black hair while rocking back in his chair. No one else was here, though. A smile careened through his dark, oily beard, and a pair of venomous black eyes stared back at me.
    “I heard things, about you being in places you weren’t supposed to be, doing things you aren’t meant to do. I thought we had an understanding, Jackson. Hell, I thought you were dead. Of course, that was my mistake,” he said and stood up, stretching his back, cracking it audibly. “Hate to say it. Hated myself for even believing that you were still here.”
    “What have you done, Frank?” I asked. I felt sick. So much pain filtered through my body, but it wasn’t just the physical. The death of my dear friends and the unanswered questions lingered in my mind. And poor Olivia. Where was she?
    Frank’s smiled widened as he stroked his beard. He shrugged his shoulders and walked behind me, resting a filthy hand on the back of my neck. I tried to shake it off but he simply chuckled.
    “Me?” Frank stayed out of sight. “I didn’t do anything.” He whispered in my ear. He moved his hand to the other side of my head, keeping my neck from moving. “That would be a lie though, wouldn’t it?” He double-tapped my cheek, kneeling beside me as he brought out a knife. He twirled it in front of me. It was discolored, still bloody.
    “You sick bastard,” I said and shut my eyes, wishing away everything. He must have used it to carve up my friends. I just hoped it hadn’t come close to Olivia. I stared at the knife’s steel blade, its handle made of ivory.
    Frank laughed.
    “Oh come along now,” Frank said.
    I didn’t understand his meaning. He must have seen my brow furrow.
    “You mean to tell me…” Frank said as he returned to his seat, playing with the blade in his hand. “This was art. I’m an artist. Their deaths weren’t simple kills,” Frank’s smiled vanished. “Of course, this probably wouldn’t have happened, you know, if you’d stayed away.” He remained seated as he brought a hand to his temples and started rubbing.
    I didn’t have a clue how he’d found us, found me. I didn’t think he would have tracked up here, not for this. How did he know about Susan and Kyle, where they lived? And where was Olivia?
    “Why them?” I asked.
    “Why them? Why the fuck not them!” Frank shrieked. He reached over and wrapped a hand around my neck. I caught my reflection in his eyes. He brimmed with hatred, revulsion from those years ago, against me and my ideas, fueling his crushing grip. He stopped short before I lost consciousness. Smiling, he sat down again.
    “You made the mistake. You did,” he pointed out. “You killed them the moment you stepped foot Downtown, champ. You couldn’t just let things be, couldn’t just stay away. I was good with you decaying up here. I knew you lived here. You thought different?” He laughed.
    I looked away, not allowing myself to cry. Frank was crazy, but smart. He knew exactly where to strike and when.
    “Oh no…” I mumbled. There to my left, he had laid out both bodies. Their arms were crossed on their chests, almost like a ceremony to the deceased.
    “No one is safe. Not when they know you,” Frank whispered.
    “Fuck you,” I muttered.
    “What was that?” Frank looked intrigued.
    “I said… fuck you,” I said louder.
    No reason to hide my anger anymore. All this pain, all these questions, what was the point anymore? Everything was building up, and my end was ticking ever closer. My friends were dead, Olivia was missing, and I was gone myself in a short month. Soon enough the turning was going to take me. I had no respect for what this bastard said. He’d just stick that knife through my neck anyway, just like the others.
    “Ooh I like that. Yeah, I like that Jackson. I really do. Got some bite to ya, huh?” Frank chuckled. I didn’t expect that.
    “I hate you,” I whispered in rage. “I fucking hate you.”
    “Not more than I you,” Frank hissed back.
    “Just do it already,” I looked away. Wherever Olivia was, I hoped she wouldn’t have to see this.
    “Oh no, no, no, no. It’s not going to be that easy.” Frank shook his head.
    “What?”
    “You really thought…” Frank laughed loudly. “No. You get to live with this.” He swung his arm toward the bodies.
    “Boss!” a shout bellowed from downstairs. It wasn’t a voice I recognized, but apparently Frank’s goons had caught up to their leader. For whatever reason, this new voice sounded panicked.
    “Oh shit, the place is a mess. Boss! You okay!” another voice shouted.
    I didn’t understand what was happening. Did they not know about the bodies? Did Frank do all of this by himself?
    Frank smiled as he got up again and drew a handgun from his belt. But he didn’t do what I expected him to do. Instead, he cut loose the rope that bound me down and tossed it beneath the bed. He threw the dagger onto my lap, and shot himself in the leg.
    “What the hell?” I whispered.
    “You will suffer,” Frank whispered. “Up here!” Frank gritted his teeth. He tossed the gun towards me feet. I could swear he was grinning through the pain.
    Without thinking, I grabbed the gun and the knife. I aimed the sidearm at the center of his chest and pulled the trigger. But when the hammer fell, nothing happened.
    Multiple bodies flashed into the room. Shouts erupted from everywhere as I continually pulled the trigger. Frank’s people came crashing into the room with guns drawn, but refused to fire.
    “Jackson, drop it!” the lead man shouted. I turned to the guy giving the order, or should I say, the kid.
    “Joey?” I asked.
    “That’s right! Drop it, now!” Joey ordered again. Several of his other “sheriffs” stood beside the kid.
    Joey kept shouting, but I couldn’t hear him through the buzzing. I managed to drop the knife and the gun, raising my hands above my head, not exactly aware of what was happening. It was like watching someone else’s life. The others in the room were looking around horrified, their faces full of disgust.
    “Oh my goodness…” one of them commented. One of Joey’s crew bolted for the door, spewing up the contents of his stomach before reaching the exit.
    I slowly turned back to face Frank, who had an honest look of horror and appeared deathly terrified. It had to be an act.
    “On. The. Ground,” Joey said, emphasizing each word. He pointed his gun from me to the ground and back again. One of the others were taking out something metallic with loops in it. I hadn’t seen the metal rings before, and didn’t know what they were for. I only followed instructions, too mystified and too lost to know what else to do.
    I fell to the ground and they leapt on my back instantly. They clasped my hands behind my back with the metal loops and let me lay there for a while. They tended to Frank like he was the victim. He put on a good show and I turned away, sickened by all of it.
    “Then he just… just… killed them,” Frank explained.
    The buzzing died away and I caught Frank in midsentence. He was retelling a fabled story, making up the entire thing. He was a damn fine actor, far more intelligent than most probably realized. I wanted to argue, to plead my case. But I couldn’t. The sickness that boiled in me kept me silent.
    The thought of Olivia popped up again. I looked around as if I could see her hiding underneath the bed or in the closet. If she wasn’t here that would be for the best. Maybe she went home, stayed there, and waited. It made me stay silent, fearful of Frank’s violence.
    “Easy Frank,” Joey said, holstering his sidearm.
    The two other “officers” dragged me to my feet.
    “Go get yourself patched up and try to take it easy. We’ll take care of this,” Joey said and looked me over.
    Frank watched me as well, still in character. His crew, the two others who weren’t officers, were holding him up. His leg was visibly bleeding. Everyone acted accordingly, very on edge and frightened from the grisly scene. I kept silent. There was nothing to be said. My friends’ lives and deaths were on my hands, and that damn timer downtown was most likely still counting down.
    “Sure, sure,” Frank gritted.
    “Ok, boss. Let’s get you Downtown,” one of Frank’s goons said. The two that wrapped Frank’s arms around their shoulders were certainly great actors. Maybe they didn’t even know about Frank’s plan. The crew left the room, with Frank smiling back at me.
    “Just keep him there,” Joey ordered. He bent down in front of me and picked up the gun that Frank used on himself. He examined it, pressing the clip release.
    Of course, there were no bullets in the clip, but that was Frank’s plan all along. Give himself a single bullet for his plan, and give the sidearm to me, knowing I would pull the trigger, caught in the crime I didn’t commit. It was genius.
    “Can’t we just kill him?” one of the sheriffs asked. He drew his piece and looked back at Joey. I was dead inside, and remained emotionless. I waited to feel the metal touch my temple and thought I could hear Olivia’s voice. But it was coming from everywhere, in front of me, behind, over to the left, and from outside. She was playing, crying, saying she was hungry and cold. Closing my eyes only made her voice grow louder.
    “No,” Joey’s words echoed. “We don’t do that, you know that. We’re not like them.” He nodded his head toward me.
    The other officer holstered his sidearm, but sneered.
    “Zackery, check his pockets. Let’s make sure of few things,” Joey demanded. The one that just holstered his metal turned and started rifling through my pockets. The others watching on in silence, holding me tighter, as if I would do something.
    “What is this?” Zackery announced. He withdrew the orb from my sweatshirt and looked at it strangely.
    “What the heck is this?” he repeated as he held out the orb for everyone to see.
    Joey grabbed the sphere and placed it in his jacket pocket. “Continue,” he instructed.
    Zackery followed suit, and started checking my pants, other pockets, and the back pockets. He pulled out something from the back left pocket and gasped. I never carried anything back there, but he showed it to Joey.
    Joey’s emotional level remained constant as he looked over the plastic bag. Inside was what looked like blonde locks of hair held on by a bloody scalp. That color, it was so familiar. It was Olivia’s.

Chapter 17: The Law

    It’d been forever since then, since Frank’s elaborate gambit. He got his wish. He had me dwindling in a jail cell, reliving those terrible memories from weeks ago. This was worse than death. This was rotting from the inside out. I took all the blame, no evidence to point in another direction.
    The cell was a small, concrete slab with only a bed leaning against the wall. A single, barred window faced directly Downtown. The timer stood directly in my line of sight from the window, and I didn’t forget the irony of the situation. I was trapped on the inside, looking out, and seeing my end come ever closer. The timer showed only two days, five hours, thirty seven minutes, and twenty-three seconds left. Only a few days left, but it really didn’t matter anymore. Everything had changed.
    I looked away from the timer and back toward Downtown. It was maybe only a half mile away, and the day was bustling with activity. People were all about, continuing to act out their mundane lives. Some were drunk, while most others were living out what life was left. Thunder cracked from the center, and even though it was a perfectly cloudless day, it was the constant reminder that evil awaited
    “Wouldn’t think about it. Gonna be somess time till you gets out,” someone spoke from beyond the bars to my cage. This was Bobby, an officer with the strange slur. He glared at me, snarling his jagged teeth, his beady eyes set back in their deep sockets.
    He spit on the ground, and a long line of drool refused to separate from his lips. He whipped it away with the back of his sleeve. “Why don’t you just sits on down. Forget about that lifes you thoughts you had. Just sits down and die,” he said, adding an extra “s” to nearly every word.
    I rotated on my heels and leaned back against the barred window. I just didn’t care anymore, and my stubbornness was getting worse with every passing day. I spat on the floor myself and gave him the middle finger refusing to follow his meaningless orders.
    “Your ass bettersss find a seat you sum-a-bitch,” he slurred.
    I stared out the window. “Fuck off, Bobby, you dumb sum-a-bitch,” I mocked.
    “I swears…” He wrestled with a pair of keys that hung from his belt loops. There were quite a few, and every key he tried refused to unlock my cell. “I’m going to beats your stupid ass, boy.” Bobby turned red in the face.
    “What are you doing?” Joey demanded.
    “He deservesss a beatss down boss.” Bobby stumbled through a few lines, babbling and correcting himself. When no good answer was apparently, Bobby turned and left. The lead officer waited for Bobby to vanish beyond his line of sight.
    For Joey being a full head shorter, and much younger than most of his officers, he carried himself well and demanded the respect of his counterparts. The self-appointed leader of these sheriffs had a much more level head.
    He wore what the police officers would have worn if this city was once again whole. A wide-brimmed hat that didn’t fit quite right covered his head with a bright, polished badge set in the dead middle. The uniform he wore wasn’t made for him, obviously, but he’d decided to wear it anyway. He had rolled up his sleeves, and cut off the pants so they didn’t drag when he walked. Still, it was comical, but no one ever made fun of it.
    “Sheriff,” I said.
    “You know, as many times as you say that, doesn’t mean I understand it,” Joey frowned, quickly changing to a stern look of disapproval. In fact, no one apparently recalled the term “sheriff” or “police” or whatever, even though it was knitted into their uniforms. “You need to stop.”
    “Then just do what needs to be done,” I said back.
    “No.”
    Joey’s self-righteous attitude refused to bury a bullet between my eyes. Whatever was stopping him also halted the attempts of the other officers, though I had no idea why.
    I lay down on the bed, eyeing the cracks in the ceiling. There was a solid fifty-five cracks in the concrete above, and I counted them regularly. One rather large one split the wall near the barred windows, and on occasion I’d chip away at it with my bare fingers. This only earned me bloody fingertips. The cell was escape-proof, refusing to let me leave and end this pitiful life.
    “Well, why not? I murdered them, right?” I asked.
    “Did you?” Joey asked.
    “Didn’t I?”
    “I’m not going to play these games Jackson.” Joey never directly labeled me with whatever they’d discovered on that day.
    I didn’t get it. I was either innocent or guilty. Yet he kept asking me, like I would eventually declare my intent that day, like he could wait out my silence.
    “Sure you are. It’s all you got,” I laughed.
    Joey leaned through the bars and clasped his hands tougher. He seemed to be in thought, holding a deeper secrecy that the others lacked. From what I’d learned of him over the past few weeks, he was a decent person, maybe even good. But he kept me locked up here instead of granting me my final release, which was maybe the worst thing anyone was willing to do to me.
    He didn’t allow others to come see me; the crowd from the city was only allowed to hurl insults through my barred window. Even Frank wasn’t permitted inside the jailhouse. I heard he walked with a limp now but had a never-ending smile. No attempts were made on my life and I could only assume that was thanks to Frank as well. The mob must have understood that leaving me here in this jail cell was better than a quick release of death.
    Even though there were no rules or laws that governed Joey’s actions, he still held onto something that didn’t truly exist anymore. Maybe he’d wanted to be a policeman before the forgetting, or maybe he was one. But he seemed too young, and the clothes didn’t fight right.
    “You know, you don’t have to watch over me,” I sighed.
    I’d never admitted guilt, never would. But I never discredited Frank’s story either. It didn’t really matter. It wouldn’t lead me back to Olivia, wherever the poor girl was, or was buried. They never found her. Frank probably hid the body. That dirty bastard.
    “Not today,” Joey stressed.
    “Sure thing,” I replied.
    There were only two days left anyway. No one had the faintest inkling that the timer was intertwined with my fate. My time was short enough to not worry about what Joey’s intentions were. As soon as that timer struck zero, my turning would commence, and whatever would happen, happened.
    “Hmm…” Joey responded. He drew in a breath and let out a long sigh. “Well, sooner or later, we all answer for our sins.” He departed without another word. His words carried a heaviness, and it was like he wasn’t directly saying them to me.
    “Maybe…” I said out loud to my empty cell. Maybe Frank and the rest of the mob could answer for their sins.
    The rest of the day was uneventful as usual. A few people below my window shouted hateful comments every few hours, but they didn’t carry weight anymore. Soon enough, day became night, and lightning struck repeatedly in the center of the city. The thunder said my name between each boom.
    Joey had lit a few candles in the hallway, and they flickered in the deep of the night. Three of the four sheriffs sat and conversed only a short distance from my cell. Focusing in on the only thing I could hear, I listened to their gossip.
    “…so, Lynn saw one apparently,” one of them spoke. I couldn’t remember what his name was, but he had a very distinct voice. I called him Big and Dumb, because that’s what he was. “Said it was bleeding, had cuts all over the body. Real scary shit I guess.”
    “I heards that too,” Bobby spoke up. “It looks humans I guess. But nots like us, you knows. I don’t evens knows.” Bobby’s diction was so broken it was hard to understand him. Yet his story was something else.
    “Damn it, Bobby! Can you speak clearly?” the dumb one announced.
    “Shut ups, Andy!”
    “Andy…” I sighed. The big dumb one was Andy. At least one of my questions had been answered before the end of it all.
    “Calm down, Bobby,” Joey added. “It’s definitely strange though, isn’t it? Just what the heck are they?”
    “Where you think them coming from boss?” Andy asked.
    “So, Lynn was the only one who saw it?” Joey asked, avoiding the initial question.
    “Yups. No one elses yet,” Bobby piqued up.
    “Okay,” Joey exhaled audibly. “Just keep an eye on her. She’s notorious for this type of stuff.”
    “Shes a liars, huh boss?” Bobby scuffed.
    “Not a liar. But likes to fabricate certain things.”
    “Fabricates…?” Andy asked, dumbfounded.
    “It means she likes to twist her words,” Joey answered.
    “Twists…?” Andy said, still dumbfounded.
    “Never mind. Just keep an eye out, for everything. I’m going to catch some z’s for a few. You just keep those doors locked. I don’t want anyone coming in unless it’s an emergency. And you wake me first, you understand me, you two?”
    “Yes sirs,” Bobby said without hesitation.
    “Sure thing, boss,” Andy followed the order.
    I knew Bobby would leap at the opportunity of burying a bullet into me, but the leash that Joey had on him was nearly remarkable. Both deputies followed his law with the upmost willingness. Joey was a natural born leader who would have done far superior things if ever given the chance.
    “Good. You know where I’ll be if you need me,” Joey said as he departed. He slept in the cell adjacent to mine. In that way, if something broke out he would be right there to defend me, in his odd sense of lawfulness.
    “Sherriff,” I nodded in his direction as he walked past my cell. He didn’t say a word, barely even noticed I existed. Instead he walked on, entered the cell, and lay down on the bed, falling asleep shortly after.
    “Sleep well, Sherriff,” I whispered.
    Something flashed outside my cage, out in the world. I rose from my bed and leaned against the bars, looking toward the Downtown area. There was something at the tower, something with the timer. It was flickering, like it was dying. Then it shut off completely.

Chapter 18: It Begins

    “Uh, Sherriff?” I asked. My voice carried from my barred window to his.
    “I see it, Jackson,” Joey said. Apparently he hadn’t fallen asleep after all. I heard him get up, pace back into the hallway, and find his deputies once again. I didn’t pay attention to what they were discussing. I remained focused on the tower shutting down. Whatever it meant, somehow I knew it wasn’t something good.
    The doors outside my cell started opening and slamming shut. Whatever they were doing, the deputies were flying about, screaming down the hallways with flashlights lighting the area.
    “Okay,” Joey ordered, “Bobby you take…” Joey was cut off by a loud pounding at the front door. Someone rapped at it like the thunder that constantly cracked overhead.
    I couldn’t see what was happening, but someone ran towards the front of the building and opened the door.
    “Joey!” someone shouted. “The barrier! They’re coming from inside the barrier!”
    “What’d you mean,” Andy started.
    “Let me in, let me in, holy shit, let me in!” the voice screamed. Rushing to the bars, I looked into the hallway, trying to see.
    Suddenly the door to the outside shut, and someone panted heavily inside.
    “Tell me,” Joey ordered.
    “There was a lot of them,” a female voice replied, panting and hysterical.
    Glass shattered down the hallway and a scream erupted. I’d heard that inhuman howl before, when I was on the other side of the barrier. Whatever I’d seen that day, it was inside the police station.
    “What the hell was that?” Andy shouted from the other room.
    “Boys, arm yourselves,” Joey ordered. “Andy, take her and get her somewhere safe. Bobby, with me.” Joey moved into my hallway. The first shot rang out like part of a dream. The second woke me up. Bullets flew past me and I dove for cover on the cell floor.
    “Is that’s ones of em?” Bobby slurred.
    “Doesn’t matter! Keep firing!” Joey yelled.
    Another scream pierced the world. It was closer this time, and reverberated off the walls. Ammo again pelted at something down the hall. I could hear the shells clatter onto the cement, bullets pierce the flesh of something that howled in pain. The screams were so very different than human, yet possessed a tinge of humanity. It was a pitch too high to mimic, ear shattering and loud.
    The sheriff and the intruders battled beyond my metal bars. Bobby flew past, disappearing into the darkness, firing rounds at more of the things I couldn’t see. I only heard muffled screams declare their deaths. Bobby came flying back, crying, running back down the hallway.
    “Sooo… manysss…” Bobby huffed.
    “Move back towards the munitions room. We’ll barricade ourselves in there!” Joey ordered. “Jackson, move against the far wall!” he yelled after me, already moving away.
    This time, I followed the orders.
    Then, all at once, there was complete stillness. Bobby’s slurs and Joey’s orders fell away as shots stopped dead and the screams no longer ignited the night air. It was as if the whole thing was a hallucination, which, after all, had happened before.
    But I heard it, faintly. Whatever it was, it was coming this way. Claws drug along the concrete, and a heavy breathing rasped. I placed my back against the far wall, sinking deeper into the cell. Crouching down, I tried to hide myself in the darkness.
    A shadow passed in front of the cell. It stopped in front, slowly twisting its head as if sensing me. The faint light made it hard to make out whatever it was. A low growl escaped through a pair of cracked lips. The creature leapt against the bars, raging on the metal, hissing, screaming, clawing and trying to fight its way in. A wet sucking sound left its throat, while saliva dribbled from its mouth. Its eyes glowed a shallow purple, somehow shimmering in the absence of light.
    A fierce round of gunfire ripped through the creature, two puncturing its torso. The creature fell against the bars. It breathed and screamed, struggling to stay on its feet, before falling into a heap on the ground.
    Joey stepped forward, gun still drawn. He made sure to make no sound, instead just crouched to examine the creature with his flashlight.
    “What the hell is it, Jackson?” Joey whispered without raising his head. He was low, trying to get a good look at the face of his victim, but kept an eye down the hallway waiting for anything else to come out. He remained tight-lipped, confused and afraid of the creature. He kept his gun pointed downward, making sure the creature’s chest was no longer rising.
    I didn’t speak. I was just as stunned as Joey was. It was the exact same howl I’d heard the other night. Up close now, I was sure it was exactly what I had seen in the shadows. The only thing that kept running through my mind was the idea that these things came from beyond the border, crossed over from the center of the city. Coming to the bars, I made sure to be as silent as Joey, unwilling to attract further attention.
    Joey’s flashlight lit the fallen body. The creature’s skin was pale white, badly cracked and bleeding, though the blood wasn’t exactly seeping from the gunshot wounds. The face bared a resemblance to human, but the skin was badly stretched over bone. Though the strange thing was it wore very human clothing, including a pair of ragged jeans, stitched sweater, gloves, though claws were reaching through them, boots, and even jewelry. It also had hair on its head, but most of it was falling out. Some blonde curls hung down, mostly covering the distinct features. It hit me hard.
    “Eve?” I asked. Stunned and bewildered, the hair was a dead giveaway. It was so familiar. I had never seen hair worn like hers. The curls were so faint now, most of them falling out of her head.
    “What was that?” Joey asked.
    I knew Joey had heard me. It was more of a stunned realization. He got up slowly and approached my cell with his head hung low, gun twitching in his already shaky hand. I didn’t move.
    “Eve. She, disappeared about four days ago. Though it was just… just… I don’t know. Did she turn?” Joey asked.
    He wasn’t asking me. He was asking himself, as if trying to figure it out, trying to understand things I’d known for nearly two weeks. He seemed to fall short of understanding.
    “Her birthday…” I wondered. Four days ago, did she tell anyone? It had come and gone without so much as a whisper. After I’d left her standing, watching me leave, breaking our weird connection. She must have known she didn’t have that long. That’s why she spent her night with me. I looked over the disfigured corpse, and thought of what we had, for at least one moment in time.
    “Is that what happens to us?” Joey asked, again not questioning me. He was struggling, but not quite grasping any of it.
    I contemplated what I knew. What happened when we turned? Did we somehow, for some reason, morph into this? Eve looked more human than monster, or sounded closer to being a human than my first experience with these things. Maybe because she turned only a short while ago? But why were they coming out now?
    “The timer,” I blurted on accident.
    Joey looked like he was going to fall apart. He had seen far too much in the short amount of time to comprehend what I was saying. Confusion set in when he tried to piece it to what he was staring at.
    “The sphere, let me see it,” I said. I needed to know.
    Joey backed away from my cage and lifted the gun, not at me, but down the hallway from where they’d come. Without noticing what he was doing, a pair of keys hit me in the chest and fell to the ground near my feet.
    “Halfway down the hall. A door. It’s marked ‘evidence.’ The larger key will get you in. Get your things and go,” Joey said and looked at me with fear. I knew he wasn’t one to run from a fight, but he was beyond confused at this point.
    “Why?” I asked.
    “Because you didn’t kill those people. Never believed it for a second.” Joey swung the flashlight towards the keyhole while keeping his sidearm pointed down the hallway. I scrambled for the keys, and struggled to find the right one that fit. “You know, everyone has a tell. You have a tell. Something that lets me know you’re lying. But you never lied to me about what happened.”
    “Why keep me here then!” I whispered with absolute rage. This could have been over a long time ago.
    “Because you needed this!” Joey hissed. “If I let you go, then that was it, it was over.” Joey squinted down the hallway. “But things have changed, haven’t they?”
    “What does that mean?” I opened the door to my cage.
    “It means you have focus now. You need to figure this out. No one should be locked in to this fate, not you, not me, not anyone,” Joey said and pointed at the mutilated body.
    “What makes you think I could do anything? Are you even seeing this? She was...”
    “Exactly. She was. She. Human. Not this. Whatever Eve became, this shouldn’t be the way she’s remembered.” Joey kneeled down, twisting Eve’s face toward the floor her hair falling and concealing her features. “You want to understand this, don’t you?”
    “Well…” I stumbled.
    “Of course you do,” Joey answered for me. “Look, I know it hurts. We remember Olivia too. But listen, we never found a body. She might still be out there.”
    “Stop.” I didn’t need to be reminded. I didn’t need hope.
    “Fine. But there are more still out there worth saving. Trust me; these people need this.”
    “These people chased after me just weeks ago. Why should I try to fix their broken lives?” I hated all of them. Hated all of this.
    “Because you want to, always wanted to.”
    Joey’s words stung.
    “That shouldn’t matter,” I said and moved around the fallen body.
    “But it does, Jackson. And even if you don’t believe in it anymore, or in yourself, others do. No one wants to die in a cage, even those who still call you those names. They deserve attention, deserve a life better than this. Especially for those who are still innocent in all of this.”
    Another scream erupted from down the hallway. Joey’s gun swung up instinctively. He flashed the light down, but nothing stalked the hallways just yet.
    “Get moving,” Joey said and pushed forward, rushing into the twilight halls without a look back.
    I just stood there, consumed with my own rage, anger, and sadness. I hated the way I was being pulled where I didn’t want to go. I just wanted to end this miserable life. But Joey had made an unbreakable point, one that tugged at my heartstrings. There were people who still deserved to be saved.
    Glasses believed in me. Eve was nice to me, with the limited time given her. Joey wanted to protect me from myself, and all he ever wanted was to shield others from harm. These people needed hope. And if Olivia was here she would say the same thing.
    So be it.
    I progressed down the hallway in the opposite direction Joey had gone, the flickering candlelight casting shadows of my passing. The light twisted. I waited for creatures to pop out at me around every corner. Soon I reached a door that was wedged slightly open, ‘EVIDENCE’ stenciled on the glass. I paused and listened. When nothing stirred from within, I slowly entered the room.
    It was empty. A candle’s light came from the corner near the opposite side of the door. But something else flickered inside with a dull blue roar.
    Slowly and silently, I closed the door behind me and moved further towards the blue, pulsating light. The familiar sphere was very much alive and glowing, somehow functioning even on this side of the barrier. I picked up the device. It felt no different than before. The blue light escaped from the etched surface, and it was warm to the touch. I didn’t have time to figure out this new twist, and instead started looking for a weapon or anything that might help. There didn’t appear to be a stash in here, or an ammo cabinet.
    Click clicckkkkkk click click click… the sound came from down the hallway, only a short distance away. I blew out the candle and put the sphere underneath my shirt, trying to hide the light. Squatting down, I scuttled close to the door, hiding along the wall.
    Claws dragged along the concrete outside the door. A soft, slurping drew in from outside, and a high-pitched scream lingered in the silence, echoing down the tight hallway. The illumination from the candles out in the hall signaled that something was passing by. The glass of the door wasn’t exactly see-through, more rippled, so it contorted the monster’s form.
    It was scouring the hallways, looking for who knows what. The creature passed without a notion of entering this room. Trailing off into another corridor down the prison, the clicking faded away until I could no longer hear it.
    I waited.
    Slowly, I touched the doorknob and turned it. The door swung open with a small squeak that sounded like thunder in the stillness. Sinking back into the room, I gritted my teeth, stopping to listen. I heard nothing, so I hesitantly passed through the opening.
    Squatting in the middle of the hallway made me feel like I was alone in the center of the city again. The dank illumination was not nearly enough to ease my torn concentration. Bringing the sphere forward, it at least gave off a blue glow. I stood up slowly and tip-toed down the concrete, wishing I had a gun.
    The prison was rather small, if I remembered correctly; only ten cells and a few sparse rooms. Nothing could really hide in such small quarters, so when I reached the exit in a few seconds I made sure to open it slowly and look out into the world before taking the leap. Outside the prison, everything was calm. It was late after all, and the world should be asleep, though I doubted it was. Monsters were running amuck in the city.
    I stepped out into the openness. The sweet sense of freedom didn’t escape me. But I had a lingering feeling that this was all wrong, that my taste of freedom would be short-lived. One of those monsters could come screaming out of the prison, or someone who wasn’t so into me living outside a cage would see me and bury a bullet in my head.
    Scampering over to the rocks and trees over to my left, I hid behind them for the moment. Neither man nor creature sought open space. My eyes turned to Downtown, and lights caught my attention.
    The Timer.
    The timer was flickering again, as if it was struggling to come back to life. The numbers continued to roll backwards in between the power outages. I looked at the sphere and realized that it too flickered with the timer, the flashing completely synchronized. The sudden and violent occurrence of the creatures from the center were linked. I just didn’t know how.
    As if answering my question, the timer Downtown shined bright and vivid, remaining steadily lit. As it did, the sphere’s light died. They were surely linked.
    Shouts drew me back to the outside world. Near the entrance of the prison, several deputies and civilians had gathered around the open door. I saw Joey, still alive and well. He seemed to be talking and helping those who were injured or scared. I couldn’t understand what they were saying from where I was, but there was a very noticeable panic in the crowd.
    There was a lot of crying, shouting, and questions being slung around. I assumed that the creatures had gone away, possibly back into the center, but these people wouldn’t know that. They would still be looking for them, and if I stayed here, they might eventually find me too.
    Joey filed the group of alarmed individuals back into the prison, guns still drawn. When the last entered, Joey looked around the landscape, searching for someone, or something. For a second I swore he saw me, as his eyes lingered in my direction for a second too long. But he disappeared in the building with the rest after another few seconds.
    “Sherriff,” I sighed. Joey had told me what I needed to hear.
    My mind raced back to Kyle, thinking about his remaining moments, his wounds that covered his body. Susan with the markings around her neck, turning black and purple as I watched. Thought of Olivia and the bag of hair with blood still on the scalp. It was utter torture, and it was beyond my control. Yet for all the pain, and all the hate, there was something else to think about.
    I leaned heavily and Joey’s words, and on Glasses’ comments. If I failed, if I were to give in, then everyone would become what I saw tonight. These monsters, they were human after all. Or at least, had been.
    My thoughts returned to Kyle, Susan, Olivia, Ricky, Jamie, Kelly, and even the Palmers, anyone who was affected by this damn city and the damn turning. I couldn’t live with Olivia anymore; I knew this. But I could live for her. With my last two days, I could at least try once more. The timer glared bright, and the idea took hold in the darkness. With the sphere in hand, my mind was already made up.
    I was going to the center.

Chapter 19: A discussion with Evil

    I still had on the same clothes since I was thrown in jail. The front pocket of my sweatshirt was still the best place to hold the sphere. I tucked it in and made my way Downtown, tracing directly back toward the barrier. Thankfully the prison was located near wooded park, and it kept me hidden.
    The community was abuzz with the sudden influx of screaming creatures that had come and gone. In fact, everyone was out and about, even at this late hour. They were out in the streets with lanterns and flashlights, scouring the earth for the cracked skin beings. And if they discovered me, it would be just like discovering one of those things. I would be strung up by my heels and proclaimed as the reason everything was happening, again.
    Using the forest as camouflage, I watched as the main road ran parallel to my position. This road would wrap around in a semi-circle toward the barrier. Old street lamps that used to run on electricity were powered by candles now, and a multitude of people lined the sidewalks. They were scared, bewildered, angry, and hostile.
    I kept low and silent. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention. Even in this forest there were people with flashlights. They scanned the dirt, jumping at anything that swayed. A bush or the wind blowing through the trees was mistaken for creatures, and they senselessly attacked with whatever they had as weapons.
    Beams of light flashed over me as I lay on my belly. I stayed motionless, people stepping within mere inches. They carried bats and iron rods, and they were scared out of their minds. I thought about running sometimes, but that would attract even more attention. If I did, I would soon have to be running away from the very people I was trying to save.
    Hours passed as I crawled through the forest inch by inch, the entire time feeling such an awful tiredness creep in. My insomnia was catching up again. I started seeing things that weren’t there. Too many times, I reacted to nothing but the wind, or a shadow catching just right. My shoulder was on fire too, and it probably would never heal right.
    Can I do this? I wondered. There was nothing left for me here, this I knew. But could I really drag myself beyond the barrier? Even then, what was I looking for?
    Branches broke behind me and I stopped dead. I kept myself close to the tree trunks, their branches spread out far enough to envelope my entire body. Thankfully, no one wanted to scrape themselves walking too close to a pine needle.
    “See anything?” someone asked.
    “Nah. Haven’t got anything. Let’s just get outta here. It’s too damn dark anyway,” another replied.
    “Right-o,” the first answered. Their voices trailed off, leaving me alone once more. Time and time again this happened, they crept up so silently. Sighing, I carried on, wishing this was somehow quicker.
    Then as if answering my wish, the forest came to an abrupt end, where the concrete forest took over.
    I looked out from the coverage and saw only a few people down the street. They didn’t really pose much of an issue at this point. Maybe they wouldn’t even notice me. They seemed too focused on finding those creatures. It still remained dark enough, but the sun was starting to peak its head over the horizon.
    “I know you’re here Jackkksssooonnn! I can smell you!” Frank shouted at the top of his lungs. He had rounded a corner down the street, perhaps only fifty feet away. His lackeys were in toe.
    He looked like a wreck, and walked with the aid of a cane. Had that familiar knife slapping at the side of his leg. He was probably drunk too, looking for a fight.
    “Frank… man, it’s been a while. Shouldn’t we…” a guy standing next to Frank said before getting cut off. Frank backhanded the man, leaving what looked like a bleeding, broken nose.
    “You dicks listen to me. You’ve all heard the news—Jackson is gone. I want that bastard found!” Frank announced.
    “Damn it, Frank. I think you broke my nose!”
    “Go ahead. Give me a little more lip. See what happens…” Frank started tracing the tip of his dagger on the chest of the one who spoke.
    “Okay, Frank…” the other raised his hands above his head, yielding to Frank’s intensity.
    “You two.” Frank pointed with his knife at part of his group. “Head back toward the jail. Search all the spots, all the buildings.”
    “Sure thing, boss,” one spoke.
    “Gotcha,” the second one agreed. Together the two set off running in the same direction. They flew past my position, not slowing down.
    “You,” Frank said, pointing at another. “You search the forest while heading back toward the jail. If he’s anywhere, that’s where that son-of-a-bitch will be.” The third one in his party rocketed towards my position, and I stuttered.
    I slowly got up and backtracked toward a full grown pine tree and ducked behind it, facing away from the advancing foe.
    Frank babbled at a few more of his goons. He had quite the party this morning. But I couldn’t worry about the rest of his entourage. I stayed focused on the one who now crept closer.
    Branches snapped as the man entered the forest. I heard him swearing under his breath as a flashlight snapped to existence in the dim forest. Even though the sun was peeking out, it remained dark in these woods, the canopy overhead too thick for the dim sunlight to pass through.
    Tilting my head slightly, I glanced over to see the figure coming closer. With each step, my doom seemed to approach. In his other hand he held frying pan, an unusual choice, since it was too bulky to swing in the close-knit tree line. That at least gave me a fighting chance.
    Slowly, I pulled the sphere from my pocket, readying it in my hand.
    “Damn it… getting tired of this…” the man mumbled.
    He passed the tree, shining the light around. It came to rest on me. Without thinking, I swung the orb as hard as I could and connected. The metal let out a soft thud, and his body went instantly limp, crashing to the ground. A small trickle of blood formed where the sphere hit him.
    “Shit,” I whispered. Maybe I’d hit him too hard. I didn’t want to kill him. The guy let out a groan, but failed to move. Good, at least he wasn’t dead. I collected his flashlight. It might help for what was ahead.
    Frank and the others were out of sight as I pushed toward the tree line again. Slowly, I entered the street, keeping my head on a swivel. They could be anywhere, could be watching. The barrier sat close enough, but if I wasn’t careful I would miss my opportunity. Frank probably didn’t have a plan this time.
    Crossing to the other side of the street, I slipped behind some concrete slabs that had broken off the side of a building that loomed overhead. Waiting, looking both ways, I didn’t see anybody. A sigh of relief washed over me as I squatted low to the ground. I rounded the corner of the building, out of sight.
    “Why, hello champ,” Frank said and grabbed me by the shoulder, putting a hand over my mouth. He spun me around and wrestled me into a choke hold. With an elbow around my neck, he managed to keep his hand over my mouth. He was strong. I couldn’t get free. He stood taller than I, even bending over, probably because his leg still buckled from the self-inflicted gunshot.
    “Where ya been, friend?” Frank asked and tightened his grip more, cutting off oxygen. “Come on, let’s have a chat, huh?” He dragged me backwards. I couldn’t see where he was going, but we passed through a doorway into a small room. I glanced to my left, understanding the barrier was only a short distance away.
    Frank tossed me like trash to the floor. I hit my head and the room spun. I felt sick to my stomach. I had nothing to defend myself with besides the sphere in my pocket, but felt it not necessary to show him my one and only device that I needed for this journey. Escaping was my only choice.
    The room appeared to be an old shop with wooden floors and walls, just like the bar where I’d met Eve. There were three windows, each one broken with jagged glass sticking out of the frames. A staircase lead upstairs, but I wouldn’t know where to go on the second floor.
    “Jackson, stop,” Frank ordered, as he readied his large dagger once again, “Take a seat.” He nodded towards a table before walking over and plopping down in one of the two chairs. He waved his dagger at the seat opposite, and pushed it out with his foot. I didn’t expect this, nor did I want to do anything.
    “What do you want?” I asked, stunned.
    “I want you to sit your ass down now before I cut your tendons at your ankles and you can’t walk anymore,” Frank hissed as he slammed the blade down, sticking it into the surface of the table. He leaned back in his chair, putting his feet up, as he stared out the window.
    I followed orders, thinking, or not thinking, that this may be my end. Whatever this was, it was strange as hell.
    “Where ya going?” he asked as I sat down.
    I didn’t know what to say.
    “Come on, bo-yo,” Frank said and slammed his chair down, resting his elbows on the table. Those black eyes burrowed into mine.
    “You should know, Frank,” I said and kept my distance.
    “What?” Frank laughed out loud. “What’d that mean?”
    “It means…” I looked at the floor. “I have nowhere to go. So maybe you should tell me, considering what you did to my home.”
    “Ohhhhh…” Frank leaned back again. “Well, cause and effect.” He shrugged. “Cause: you came back here. Effect: you can’t go back home. Furthermore…” Frank hesitated. “You somehow managed to escape that cage. Still trying to figure out that one.” Frank reached up and stroked his black, greasy, hair.
    I failed to answer back. Looking around again, there wasn’t a good away of getting away from Frank. I slipped my hand back into my pocket. The metal surface of the sphere was cool to the touch. Gripping the ball, I didn’t know what my plan was, but at least I still had the sphere.
    “You know what,” Frank said and grabbed his knife. He slammed the blade down near my hand. I didn’t have time to react, nor would I. The blade was close enough where if Frank tilted it just a bit closer it would cut flesh. “I don’t like this…” Frank twirled his finger my direction. “I don’t like that even after all of this, you’re still out here, doing whatever the fuck you’re doing. You, and your conniving, scheming, under-handed bullshit should have ended when I killed what you had left. I mean, are you even human? No, no, no, you can’t be, can you?” Frank withdrew his dagger and placed it on his side of the table.
    “What?” I could feel the rage fill my stomach. “You talk about being human? Who the fucks hurts an innocent girl that can’t even defend herself? What the fuck about you!” I wanted nothing but to grab that knife and stick it between his ribs. Olivia was all I had. Frank had ripped that away, along with Susan and Kyle, in the most brutal way possible.
    “You speak like you’re innocent yourself. I know the truth, and so do you,” Frank said and glared.
    I was too angry to speak.
    “Let me tell you a little something, Jackson,” Frank said and stood, moving toward the front door. “About the first time when I realized and came to understand our destiny. You know how tragic it is to realize the exact moment you die? But even that I can appreciate. It’s not like I can change that fate, right?”
    Frank leaned against the doorway that lead outside. For whatever reason, he had left his dagger behind. Keeping one eye on the blade, I followed his movements, thinking that even with all the time in the world, he was still too quick for me to make the initial move.
    “Don’t forget for a second that I know that damn timer is ticking away to your birthday, you wretched piss-ant,” Frank said and laughed.
    I remained mutely shocked. No one else knew this, and how he’d uncovered this truth was far beyond my limited knowledge.
    “So?” I asked and went along with it. No reason to hide what he already knew.
    “And you’re the reason why I’m here right now. Isn’t it?” Frank gambled.
    I thought back to my vision in the desert. Frank may not be far from the truth, as absurd as I wanted that fact to be.
    I shook my head.
    “Damn you, Jackson. Damn you and all your… familiarity. Your aptitude. You make me sick. You make all of us sick. Why don’t you just admit it already? No one has memories like yours, dreams like yours. I sure as hell don’t. Neither does Greg. Neither does Lin. Neither Paul, Sarah, Juan, Travis, Heather, nor Rachel. You’re it!” Frank yelled.
    I didn’t know how he’d figured out all my truths. It was like he’d followed me ever since the beginning. And maybe it was just that. He knew where I lived. He knew my relations. He recalled my strange ability to gain memories, more than the rest in this wretched city. Perhaps he was always there, watching, waiting.
    “You think I wanted this?” I said and felt off balance, weak. I couldn’t overplay my hand, and I shouldn’t bring out the worst in him, but it was going to happen anyway. “I never asked for this. You think it was a good life to lead, hiding away, praying for all of this to end? You believe that watching all the people I love die or walk beyond that barrier was a choice I happily made? You know what, fuck you, you dirty son-of-a-bitch.” My anger spilled out and caught Frank by surprise.
    “I think that is exactly it. Why else? I don’t want to be here. We don’t want to live here. Yet I’m not the one being hunted by all the others of this damn city. Thankfully, I’m not you.” Frank smiled.
    “Thankfully, I’m not you, either,” I retorted.
    Frank pointed at me, wagging his finger like the comeback was so well timed.
    “So, we’re not each other. Well isn’t that just what I also hoped for, Jackson. Oh to trade places though, wouldn’t that be a treat? To know exactly what your plan is? Or, at least, what it was, right? I mean, hell, it looks like you’re trapped in your own end. That timer is close enough, isn’t it?” Frank said and smiled as he returned to his seat.
    He grabbed the knife and started scratching his neck with it. He must have nicked his skin, as it started to bleed. He noticed the wetness and reached up to touch the spot. He smiled, and showed me his red hand.
    “I would do it, ya know?” he asked, waving his knife. “But… really… I just can’t bring myself to do it. I wanna see how this plays out. I wanna watch as you cross that barrier as that timer hits zero. Whatcha going to be thinking then, huh? You think, you’ll even be able to think? Fuck, I think it’s just all over from there. But, what will it mean to you?” Frank placed his knife back in its holster and crossed his arms, waiting for his question to be answered.
    “I think, if I at least get to forget about you, then it’s been worth it,” I hissed back.
    “A strange sentiment, I suppose,” Frank said.
    Electricity filled the air between us, both unwilling to move, both unwilling to break our stare, as if severing it meant losing what we both fought for.
    “So…” I spoke up first. “You’re just going to let me walk right out that door?” I was intrigued, but wary. Frank was so mystifying, always having an agenda. This seemed like a deceit, yet what would he gain? Besides, he could have ended it already.
    “’Course,” he whispered. “Like I said. I want to be there.” “Why wait?” I asked. Now this caught him by surprise.
    “Come again?” he stuttered.
    Instead of saying another word I got up, and led him outside. He kept a few paces behind me, not entirely understanding what I was doing, and I doubted what I did next would answer any of his questions about me. It sure as hell would complicate his notion of what I was far more than it already was.
    I dug the sphere out of my sweatshirt’s pocket and gripped it in my left hand. I turned around and showed it to him, waving it like something magical.
    “What is that?” he asked. He had stopped in his tracks, eyeing the device but failing to make sense of it.
    “Isn’t that a good question?” I answered back. Slowly, I crossed the brink into the unknown, passing through the barrier. Just as it had done before, the sphere grew to life, pulsating with its never-ending cycle of blue light.
    “Well, I shouldn’t be surprised, should I?” Frank questioned.
    For some reason the dream of falling came racing back. I could feel the darkness build up behind me. The thunder cracked in my arrival, and it cooled down immensely.
    “Sorry you don’t get your wish,” I said with a smile. Being no longer within Frank’s grasp I realized just how much his petty threats and displaced anger couldn’t affect me now. He would sooner or later burn for it, and I prayed that I was there to watch it happen.
    I turned back around, facing deep into the heart of this broken city. Frank no longer mattered. The voyage ahead was the only thing that counted as I pushed further inland, as Frank’s voice drew further and further away.

Chapter 20: The Diner

    Crossing the brink into this foreign land was the easy part. Navigating the wasteland would be the challenge. The sphere did its job though, keeping the pain away and lighting up the area the best it could. I turned on the flashlight that I’d taken from the guy in the woods. The beam cut a clear path through the darkness. Even fifty feet in it was far darker than I would have thought it would be. The sun refused to shine here, or it couldn’t break through the clouds above.
    The blue glow of the sphere at least felt welcoming. It brought a strange light to the dark world. But it showed me things that were oddly out of place, even wicked. Shining both lights forward, I focused ahead, my destination somewhere in this shade.
    No one had ever been this far into the ink, unless they had turned of course. So where I was going had never been charted. It took a while for my vision to adjust, and it was a slow process of navigating the unknown.
    Wherever I was, it was populated by a scrawling line of buildings and their silhouettes as they climbed high and out of sight. The structures were in decay, just like the rest of the city, but somehow different. It was as though the darkness of this center displaced their meaning. In a way, strangely, they were inviting.
    It would be so much easier to run inside, find some dark corner to hide in. Though that still wouldn’t stop the timer. I was sure it still ticked backwards in its need to tell me I was going to turn.
    I came to a halt on the sidewalk that ran parallel to the road and caught what looked like an old-style diner. I recalled there was one that resembled this building exactly back in the lighted part of town. Maybe there was something inside that could help with this trip.
    A bell above the door chimed with my arrival. I cringed at the sound, set against a world enveloped only by the constant crack of thunder overhead. In the center of the floor was a service station with a bar that wrapped around the entire floor. Barstools lined the outer edge, while tables and chairs filled the spots in between. A thick layer of dust and time covered everything. Even the windows were streaked enough to conceal the outer world.
    I didn’t know what I was looking for. Maybe something useful. Maybe something that could answer a few questions. Or maybe it was just a need to see a world so removed from everything else.
    Moving around the counter and towards the back, the beam of the flashlight hovered over everything. Plates and silverware still held bits of food that had decayed over the years. Chairs were flipped upside down, like someone was in a rush and forgot to realign the diner the way they’d found it. I picked up a chair and placed it where it should have been: the seat underneath a clean table.
    The beam flashed over in a corner, directing my eyes to a jukebox. It remained lifeless with a disk held in midair, just waiting for the electricity to fire back up so it could continue playing the music. My memory was vivid enough to remember dancing to a few tunes when I was younger. I was sure some of those disk in the jukebox played those songs, though I wouldn’t get a chance to listen to them.
    Pushing passed the music player, I moved to the back, the sphere playing that alien-like blue glow off the ceiling. Shadows flickered against the walls, darting back and forth. They danced off the paneling and all the old pictures. It was an effect I tried not to pay attention to.
    The wall next to me was cool to the touch. I continued down the back hallway and soon stumbled upon a door that wasn’t labeled. It was locked. I tried to push against the frame, but didn’t want to kick it in. I wasn’t ready to make noise in this land, and instead retreated the way I’d come.
    I exited the hallway and returned to the jukebox, like it was somehow calling out to me. Flashing the light inside, I saw the disc, the needle, and the contraption that would bring the music alive. I tapped the glass.
    “Let’s go,” I said out loud. There was nothing for me here.
    I heard the faintest click inside the machine. Bending down closer, I made sure that what I’d heard wasn’t my imagination. The arm dropped the disc into place, and a pitch escaped the speakers. The device lit up, colors alternating between orange and yellow down the side of the machine.
    “Shit. No-no-no,” I whispered. I tried to hit the side of it. An old tune belted from the jukebox. Someone was singing about being in love but losing it all.
    I grabbed the machine and shook it, pressing all the buttons. Nothing was working. It resisted turning off after being silent for so many years and it was too heavy to pull backwards and unplug the damn thing. I backed up as if everything was about to come crashing down.
    I didn’t care about how the hell it was being powered, I just wanted it to stop. Sweat dripped down my forehead and stung my eyes. Wiping away my agitation, I shrugged and could feel my fears become a reality.
    That was when the first scream drowned out the beat of the music. It was loud enough it had to be close, loud enough to be heard over the jukebox. As the foreign music attacked the deathly quiet environment, I stopped trying to turn it off and looked for somewhere to hide.
    I jumped over the center counter space and squatted against the wall. A cash register was laying on its side nearby, with a few paper bills still in the drawer, and a few pieces of broken plates were scattered about. The counter space wrapped around me in a square, and hid my view of whatever was going to come looking. I flicked the flashlight off. All I could do was wait.
    The bell above the door chimed with a new customer. That same, soft hissing played against the roaring music. Claws clinked against the marbleized walkway. One grew closer to my location, and I overheard something that sounded like a soft wheezing, like it was breathing but struggling to do so. I put the hand with the sphere into my front pocket and tried to cover the fabric to lessen the blue light, thinking the soft glow from the orb might alert the monsters.
    One of them came around the bend of the counter, arching its head against the flashing lights of the jukebox. It followed the yellow and blue lights as they circled around the edge of the music maker, and seemed caught as it pulsated every few seconds.
    Strangely enough, the creatures appeared almost human, as I’m sure they once were. But they all had those deep gashes and cracks covering their bodies, and full length claws where their fingers should have been. Their spines were curved, and they walked hunched over.
    The bell above the door kept chiming. Seven, eight, nine times the bell rang.
    Curiously, the first one approached the jukebox, growling and hissing. It mustn’t have heard such a thing in so long, and was failing to understand the sound. Claws screeched against the glass separating the disc from the listener. The creature batted its twisted and mangled claws against the glass, shattering it, letting pieces rain down on the disc. A piece must have got stuck underneath the needle in the machine, and screeches replaced what used to be a pleasant song.
    A decent lot of creatures disappeared down the back hallway. They didn’t seem to mind the locked door, breaking through the wood like it was nothing. When they discovered nothing interesting, they seemed to echo a distinct pitch back towards the group. I couldn’t decide if it was communication or just a part of their strange actions.
    Lights began to click on overhead. The small diner was aflame in a bright distinct light like I had only known when the sun was out. Then it flashed off again. Looking ahead, a creature was playing with what looked like a wall switch. It must have controlled the overhead lighting.
    I couldn’t believe that electricity still ran to the building, or how it even worked. But as the monster kept switching it on and off, I prayed that they didn’t see me.
    The creature playing with the switch moved onward, but left the lights on. I tried to crouch down more, laying on my side and putting my face on the floor. Even from this angle, though, I could still see their heads, meaning they could still see me.
    A much older-looking creature came into view. Its flesh was taught over its boney frame, the skin nearly bleached. The lack of sunlight must have whitened these creatures. Its spine was curved more than the others, and it hunched over at a more severe angle. Cracks and crevices covered all of its body, though it didn’t bleed anymore. Instead, a thick black ooze seemed to hover just inside the wounds.
    Its teeth were all gone save a few still that were hanging on. The head was completely bald. Where the ears would have been were just holes, and the nose appeared to have fallen off. I couldn’t tell if it was male or female, its features were so misshapen. The creature’s head swiveled from side to side, and a very distinct pair of violet eyes set on me, a milky cover over the irises.
    I wonder?
    I started to think that maybe the monster wasn’t actually looking at me.
    The older creature was staring at me, hissing and moaning. Those violet eyes pulsated with a strange sparkle that played with the lights of the jukebox. I remained still.
    Slowly, the creature turned its head, disregarding my position. It was true, at least, that one was completely blind. Maybe they all were. The older one walked further, bumping into the countertop and hissing in reply.
    The jukebox died as if it had never started playing. The song on the disc must have ended. Only hissing and moans filtered through the air, but the light from the jukebox still flashed yellow and orange off the metallic surface of the countertop.
    “Jackson?” a voice came through the hisses.
    I looked around but knew no one human could be here.
    “Jackson?” the voice questioned again. I hadn’t heard it in so long, but there was no way.
    Olivia? I thought to myself. No, it wasn’t possible. This had me be my imagination.
    “Jackson! Help me!” she screamed, but seemed to be farther away.
    No, stop. This isn’t real. This isn’t real. I chanted to myself.
    “Help me! It hurts! Hellllppppppp!” Olivia screamed.
    I covered my loose ear, pressing the other against the cabinet, forcing the thought aside.
    “Where are you? Why? Why? Why? Why?” Olivia’s voice kept chanting.
    My foot slipped on the marble and I didn’t notice it until it was too late. I kicked the cash register and punted it across the floor. Coins tumbled from the tray, slapping and spinning on the floor.
    The older creature screeched with a scream and jumped onto the countertop. It stared its milky discolored eyes onto me, but this time, it was seeing, and screamed in its discovery.

Chapter 21: The Start of Understanding

    The cash register was still tied into some cable or plug-in, and it light up as I kicked it a few feet away. It beeped, flashing ‘ERROR’ on the electronic screen. The attention of the creature on the countertop flashed to the cash register, now hearing the new sound. It leaped upon the device, claws crushing into the exterior, shredding the metal.
    I stayed absolutely still for a moment and watched as more creatures moved closer to the one attacking the register. Coins continued to spill out and come to rest on the floor. More and more creatures hopped onto the counter, watching on in vivid hisses and low throttled screams.
    I spotted a few cans scattered about, some napkins and canisters on the countertop. I reached for a can, moving slowly and deliberately, making no noise at all. Drawing back, I tossed the can up and over the counter. It landed on the far end of the room, bouncing a few times until coming to a rest in the corner.
    The creatures turned to the new sound. The one attacking the register halted its assault, leapt over the counter and searched. I too stood up slowly, looking ahead and behind. The creatures settled in the corner, screeching and wondering where the sound had come from.
    I slid across the surface of the counter, landing on the other side without a sound. Moving towards the door, I looked back to make sure nothing was following. Slowly, I pulled the door open.
    Ding the bell above the door rang softly, but it was enough.
    The creatures turned their attention to the door, screaming in response. Dragging the sphere out of my pocket, I burst through the door and tried to slam the door shut, but the hinges refused to close as quickly. Even if they couldn’t see, my thundering heartbeat would be enough to follow. They screamed louder, in unison and with more force. I ran out into the street, no directions, or leads.
    Screams reverberated from all around, closing the distance. I wouldn’t be able to make it into another building. Picking the closest car, I yanked the rusted door open and gently closed it behind. I lay down on the ill-smelling fabric interior and put the sphere underneath me. Closing my eyes, I prayed they hadn’t seen me enter the car. Shrieks exploded into reality as even more creatures than the ones in the diner surrounded the area. The screams were so loud they rattled the windshield of the car.
    The diner’s light was still on, showing a multitude of figures bouncing between me and the structure. They scuttled back and forth, howling and crying, trying to discover where the sound disappeared to.
    The car shook as one of them crashed onto the hood, yanking the car forward while its claws dug in deep and twisted the metal. A screech alerted more to the automobile. I slipped to the floor of the backseat. It was so rusted I crashed right on through to the pavement below, the fall muffled by the inhuman screams.
    I wiggled free from the metal that snagged my pants. Several pairs of legs had surrounded the rusted car. Some jumped on top, others were clawing at the glass. Were they tracking me?
    A scream shook the world louder than the rest. One of the creatures had bent down and was gawking at me through blind eyes. The mangled face bellowed another shriek. Dagger-like claws swiped in all directions as it struggled to snag something made of flesh. One claw cut my leg, gashing a few inches of skin near the knee. Blood splashed outwards, and I unwillingly yelped in pain.
    A thousand more screams haunted to life, hearing the cry. All I could do was draw in my knee close to my body and wish those creatures away. More and more were crouching down, following the lead of the others.
    Tearing at my pants, they managed to rip a few shreds of my sweatshirt. Talons came dangerously close to arties. All the while they screamed in their horrible language, which seemed to keep bringing more and more. At least there was much clearance between the car and the pavement. Though it didn’t halt the onslaught.
    One claw caught on my pants and caught the seam just right, dragging me backwards a few inches. I held onto the frame above, even though the hole in the vehicle hugged me snuggly in place.
    A scream shouted from above. Looking up, I noticed a large hole in the roof of the sedan. A blackened face glared at me through the hole. Another scream reverberated through the car’s insides, echoing so loudly it shook everything. The hole was only six inches across in the roof, and the creature tore it, trying to widen it.
    Another yanked on my denim pants, but I was wedged sorely stuck and failed to budge. I pulled on the opening in the floor, trying to wiggle free of the grip that one of them had. It was safer inside the car at the moment, and with one final pull I freed myself and slipped through, back into the opening.
    Sighing a breath of reprieve for a second, I looked through the grim of the windows and saw hordes surrounding the car. How did I get myself here? I thought.
    Claws scraped the side of the car. I leaned back, hoping to avoid the grasp above.
    A strange feeling came over me. It started in my feet, slowly traveling upwards, and a heat formed in my stomach.
    No, not now. Not right now! I thought. This was the worst possible moment for this to happen. But before I knew it, the world died from existence, and I was somewhere else completely.
    It wasn’t quite a vision. Nor was it a dream. As I slowly discovered what I was looking at, I began to understand everything I was and this history. I snapped awaked. I was no longer in that car, and no longer in the city’s center. I was far away from everything that I had known for the last two years.
    I was standing atop a very tall building, one that could touch clouds if there were any that day. I was somewhere in a very alive town, and I drew in fresh air for what felt like the first time. The city sparkled like a jewel in the shimmering sunlight. Light reflected off the glass of the skyscrapers, bounced off the river that ran just to the north, and even though it was hot, it was comfortable.
    To the left was the Bear’s stadium, Soldier Field. A game would have been played this afternoon, if they weren’t out of town this weekend. I didn’t care much for the sport. A shimmering Lake Michigan lapped against the shore. But the beauty was fading because what was happening, what had happened, was going to take over this city quickly, and most likely the rest of the United States. It might even spread and become a pandemic. There wasn’t a way to stop it or cure it. That’s why I was going to jump, to end it right here and right now.
    My right foot flung out into the air, but I kept my eyesight straight up, watching the clear sky above. I let my foot hang there, allowing gravity to do its work, pulling me down. For some reason I feared the fall. Just human instinct I guess. Not wanting to die, and being afraid of what’s to come.
    It wasn’t even the fall that would kill me. It was the ground coming up. Yet the fall, it kept me grounded. Shaking with tension, I tried to keep my breaths shallow. My heartbeat thundered in my chest, and I was truly scared of all of this. Stumbling backwards, I fell on my ass.
    “Damn you,” I said out loud. “God damn you…”
    I looked back at the sky and wondered just how many would survive the initial attack. It had started weeks ago. The percentage of patients who survived the virus was nearly point zero-one percent in trials. Though that was in controlled areas, with the best medicine and tools, the best people watching over them. Now, hell, the ones surviving were doing so on their own terms. Any type of medicine wasn’t helping in the least.
    “It wasn’t my fault. It’s not my fault, it can’t be. I tried… God knows I tried!” I shouted at the sky.
    But then again, the blame rested completely, squarely, on my shoulders. This would affect everyone here, and it would spread, quickly and silently outward. The spread might only take a few weeks for Chicago to be fully covered, less than a few months to expand to the borders of the region. In six months it could cover all of this continent. Knowing how the virus could manifest, it might touch the borders of Europe, Asia, and Africa by year’s end.
    “Your father told me you were up here. Come on, the last of us are going to the bunker in South Carolina,” a voice appeared behind me. I looked back and saw a man, really just a boy, staring back at me.
    “You should go, Phillips. The gestation period suggests that it isn’t safe here anymore,” I said, lingering back out into the world.
    “I’m immune,” Phillips replied.
    “I know that. But given the news reports it’s total chaos down there. There’s panic. Riots. And lots and lots of dead people.”
    “Oh,” Phillips sighed.
    I looked back at him. He was the first tested patient to survive the trial. Also, my lead researcher on the case. He’d volunteered and somehow lived with the virus, the disease dormant but not causing the same effects as it did to everyone else.
    “Well, let’s go!” Phillips was slightly on edge. Though he’d survived the virus, I knew he wasn’t too keen to the idea of it floating around in his veins, sleeping. We had never seen anything like it before.
    “Can’t do that,” I said with a sigh. Even though I yearned to jump, it wasn’t quite what I had in mind.
    “Yeah you can. The chopper is waiting. The whole science team is waiting for us at the lab.”
    “The five thousand effect,” the words echoed inside my head. It was a term I’d adopted. The idea was complex enough but it tested well. There was a station in South Carolina, Florida, Texas, and California, and the one that Phillips wanted me to travel to had been finished first. It was just about to be launched.
    “Exactly,” Phillips replied.
    “It’s right here too,” I whispered. The installation was being built below ground.
    “It’s taking too long. It won’t be ready. But the one in South Carolina is all set!” Phillips cried.
    “It started here. I’ll finish it here…”
    “But we don’t even know if you’re immune.” Phillips moved forward, coming to face me nose to nose. He was only eighteen, but a complete genius. I trusted his logic, more than most. His strangely blue eyes radiated against the sunlight.
    “Wouldn’t that just be an honest to goodness slap in the face, being immune?” I laughed, then frowned. “Look, it will be done soon enough. I need to coordinate the effort. I can only do that from here.” I pointed at the ground. The idea of jumping didn’t escape me, though I doubted I ever had the ability to do so much. After all, I had so much left to do.
    “But Jackson…” Phillips said.
    “Get yourself to that helicopter, now,” I ordered.
    The blades against the wind signaled that the helicopter was coming closer. The copter swirled in, landing against the helipad just above us on the roof.
    “Look, I’ll walk you up. But you get into that damn helicopter, get to South Carolina, and you lock yourself up in that damn vault,” I said.
    Phillips sighed but nodded. There was no point in arguing with me. I was, after all, the boss. Together we set out to the stairs and traveled them quickly. Coming to the helipad, he looked back at me.
    “You’ll figure it out! I know you will! Just have faith!” Phillips shouted over the roar of the copter. I simply nodded, not wishing to let him continue. I pointed, directing him. He stuck out his hand, and we shook. This was most likely the last time I would see Roger L. Phillips again, and prayed he would survive this.
    The helicopter had my father’s business logo etched on the side Bennis Industries. Looking back to Phillips, I held out my hand, waving, praying for his safety. The chopper took off, aiming east, carrying so much precious cargo.
    It wasn’t meant to kill us. It was meant to save us. I tried to blame everything. The materials, the facts, the lab conditions, and even my assistants. Yet the real blame was on me for creating the damn virus.

Chapter 22: A New World

    My eyes snapped open. I didn’t understanding where I was. Then it hit me. The creatures should still outside the car, trying to claw their way inside.
    But they weren’t. In fact, they were completely gone. It was as if they had never existed at all. I lay back down on the seat of the car and lifted the sphere above my head, watching it pulsate with its slow tick. I checked my pant leg. There was no tear in the fabric, and I wasn’t bleeding. Maybe it was all an illusion after all? One hell of a strange one that would convince me my inner self was slipping further into madness.
    What the hell? I thought. What was this? Where were they? A dizziness overcame my senses and I twisted in the seat. Maybe it was one of my hallucinations. An incredibly real and terrifying one.
    I ran over the dream, vision or whatever it was in my mind and watched on. Pieces were falling together, but there were still holes. But there was one fact I could rest my thoughts on: there was a virus. One that I had created. How, when, or why was beyond me at this point. It was a virus that had killed many, though I couldn’t really be for sure.
    There was a toll on my shoulders, and it felt like a million hands were pushing me down. A virus could explain why the city was broken. The chaos that would arise during such a time, it could tear a city apart. The dream may have even explained why there were so few of us left. Maybe we were the point zero one percent who were immune? Yet that felt wrong. It failed to explain this five thousand effect, the barrier, or the importance of turning twenty-six. It was all a jumble.
    “The Corruptor,” a voice lingered between my ears. It sounded faintly of Susan, her voice calling from beyond the grave.
    “Liar!” Olivia shouted.
    “The Sinner!” Kyle moaned in agony.
    A multitude of voices ran through my head. Yet, I didn’t try to push them off. I had to accept them. Because they were right. I had done something to this city, its people, and maybe even the world. So I just let them in and rush over my thoughts.
    “Not Yet,” Glasses’ voice cut out all of the others and settled on a defiant silence. “Only you,” he pleaded.
    I know, I thought back.
    “Get to it then,” Joey called with all his grit and faith.
    I pushed myself up, found the flashlight and clicked it on. Climbing to the front seat and out the door, I glared at the diner from where I’d just come. The insides were still lit somehow, and the jukebox flashed with its yellow and orange colors, but no music filled the empty air. I was thankful no creatures lingered, but had they really failed to exist in the first place? No… they’d been in the jail. Joey had shot one. They had to exist, just not apparently right here, and right now.
    I turned to the left and looked into the black. It wasn’t completely dark. We, in the living part of this city couldn’t see this from beyond the barrier, but there were buildings still alight even in this night, even after all these years. Tiny dots sparkled everywhere.
    I jogged into the center of the road with the sphere held in front of me and the flashlight’s beam cutting a path. I was completely amazed at the surroundings. One entire skyscraper had nearly all its lights on. Electricity was coming from some source. A couple of light posts that lined the avenue still illuminated the streets with their orange glow.
    A glass tower loomed to my right. Most of it was unlit, and it disappeared in the thundering clouds up above. The blue glare from the orb reflected off the lower panels.
    A sign dangled near the center of the buildings, now toppled and hanging vertically. Tilting my head and aiming the flashlight, though it wasn’t much help, the words spelled out ‘Dylan and Dylan, Attorneys at Law.’ The sign waved in the wind, as if greeting the unfamiliar presence. Broken fountains lay in disrepair, and the years hadn’t been kind. Concrete foundations were cracked and falling apart.
    Down the street from the attorney’s office was a big brick building. I moved closer, angling the flashlight up, and spotted a big cross at the top of a chapel. Floodlights aimed at the cross were still somehow functioning, though they flickered from time to time. Arches and pillars decorated the front of the chapel, while statues adorned a balcony and separate spaces near the roof.
    I could faintly remember the idea of religion. Never more than a few pieces, really. I recalled Sundays, early mornings, some guy with a beard, wine, and that was about it. I examined the brick building. It appeared the west wall was falling apart, as a giant hole had formed near the base. The crack traveled all the way to the cross. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought a bolt of lightning struck the cross and caused the crack. Maybe the bearded man was angry no one came here anymore?
    Switching my attention back to the matter at hand, I let my eyes rest on the distant skyline. My answers were that way, if any answers existed here at all. My feet carried on without me, as if traveling the world required so little effort.
    I came to a halt and refocused. I had come upon a bridge with lampposts still shining down on the street. Traversing the bridge was too easy. No wrecks lined the highway, no holes so big I had to glide over them with only ropes for my hands and feet. Nothing slowed me down at all, like the world wanted me to move quicker to find what hadn’t been found.
    A lifeless forest of trees and bushes awaited on the other side of the bridge. It was a park in the middle of nowhere. Plants, long dead from the lack of sunlight, bristled with waiting arms. Trees roots twisted out of the ground, begging for a drink. Most just remained standing, twisted, angry arms swaying in the wind, while others rotted on the ground. The ground itself should have been a thick, grassy knoll, but now only a patch of dirt remained. A warped iron fence wrapped itself around the park, and an entrance with a gate was locked from a heavy twist lock and chains.
    I had to find a way up and over. Flashing the light from side to side, I discovered a section down the row was ripped to pieces. Metal shards jutted out in all directions, like a bomb had exploded.
    I passed through the fence. The park was deader than I’d initially thought. A pathway that would loop and twist along the parkway was cracked and parts of the concrete were unearthed. As I walked along the path, I discovered it cut off suddenly and dropped down into a wide lakebed.
    Water that would have splashed the edges of the concrete had dried up long ago. The soil was a mixture of soft dirt and sand. It felt strange to be walking where the water used to be. I walked a good ten feet down into the lakebed before it leveled off. Pushing forward, I followed my instincts, and turned slightly left, as if I knew where I was going. Soon the bank rose and I was right out of the lakebed once more.
    I stood still and held the orb out, the flashlight ahead. A vast network of buildings loomed in front of me. Striding a few dozen feet forward, I walked straight into the fence that surrounded the park, finding the exit just a few more feet to the right.
    Five or six very tall sky scrapers surrounded the little park, and all of them had a few windows glowing with lights, patches of bright spots amidst the darkness. Thunder reverberated overhead, while lightning flashed between clouds.
    A pain suddenly appeared in my chest, a burning sensation so hot it made me think my sternum was melting. I lost my grip on the flashlight and it tumbled to the ground. The notion that I still gripped the sphere made it reasonable that something else was happening. I doubled over, my stomach twisted, and my airways began to tighten.
    What the fuck! I screamed inside.
    This pain, this was new pain. I hadn’t felt like this before, and didn’t know why it was coming now. I wondered if somehow this was the turning. But it was too soon, far too soon. My arm began to shake, threatening to drop the sphere still clutched in my now claw-like hand. If I dropped the device I wondered if it would double my pain? My shoulder started to burn where I’d fallen on it back in the tower with the timer, but that pain was amplified.
    I staggered into the road. For some reason I needed to be away from the dead park. It was throwing off my equilibrium, that or being in a place far more lifeless than the rest was unkind to my body.
    Choking down the vomit that boiled up inside me, I crashed against the glass exterior of one of the buildings. Finally, after a few seconds, whatever the pain was seem to filter out, leaving only a sense that something dreadfully worse was coming. I’d heard some of the people felt the turning coming before it happened. Though I didn’t exactly remember anyone feeling like this. Or at least, feeling like their skin was melting off.
    A scream lingered in the vastness. A good distance off.
    “Not Again…” I said out loud. It sounded just like them. My previous scene didn’t exactly grant me the notion that any of them were real. But living in this darkness, and being beyond the barrier, left me with the thought that nothing should be taken for granted. Whether it was a hallucination or not.
    I leaned against the tower and raised the sphere, trying to peer inside. The lobby was partially lit and looked like another office structure, desks lining the front entrance and sofas and comfy chairs around the lobby.
    Another scream emitted from far away. I tried to see what was yelling but nothing appeared. I knew I should get moving soon. Dream-like or not, I didn’t want these creatures to surround me again.
    A creature flung itself against the glass inside, sending me flying backwards and landing on my ass. A screamed erupted from the lobby, and the creature continued to fling itself against the glass. The glass spider webbed with the impacts, growing slowly. The glass was breaking.
    I got to my feet and flashed the orb around, trying to find an escape route. It was too damn dark to see a great distance, though the lamppost lit the way down the road. Sprinting in that direction, I followed the lampposts, trying to find something, anything.
    Something lingered far behind me. It sounded like claws on top of pavement. A thousand pounding, disfigured feet came from behind, though I wouldn’t dare look back. Instead I remained focused forward, and hoped they were still far away. The creature that had smashed itself against the glass sounded like it was still trying to break through. It must have been alerting the others. If I moved far enough away, they might not know where I was.
    The road dipped and twisted around, running straight into the center of what must have been a busy marketplace. Little stations and storefronts dotted the landscape. Goods still hung on hooks, watches and trinkets lying on the surface. Pushing past, something caught my attention up ahead. It flashed.
    Thinking that maybe it was just a light blinking inside one of the buildings, I pressed on, until it blinked again. It was red.
    Another scream erupted from somewhere down the highway, but it remained far enough way. Now, that red blinking drove me forward. It was colored like the timer. I pushed back into the road, trying to get a better view. It was probably a few blocks down, and up in the air.
    What is it? I asked myself.
    Then it blinked again.
    And Again.
    And Again.
    Softly, off and on, as if matching the sphere pulsating in my hands.
    It called out in the deepest darkness.
    Something deep inside me clicked into place. I had seen this before. Back in my dream. Back when I was in the darkness, when I flew to the tower with the strange, blinking red light. This was it. This was my destiny. It was calling me, and it was so close. And the screams were getting closer too.

Chapter 23: The Blinking Light

    I ran.
    I cut my breathing short, eyes focused ahead. The blinking red light was coming up quickly, but the screams were closing as well. With every step closer to the light, my answers grew brighter. Everything was in reach, like my senses were becoming clear. Even though that timer clicked ever away, it wouldn’t matter if I got to that light.
    A scream erupted from my right. One of those creatures raged as it matched my pace, chasing me. Gasps and moans escaped its throat. Blank eyes stared back, but it somehow listened to my footfalls. Its vocals reached back to the rest of the horde and screams returned in response.
    A claw swiped outwards, but I ducked. The creature swung so hard it went spiraling to the ground, flopping on the asphalt and screaming in protest.
    “Serves you right,” I whispered, wary of making too much sound even in triumph.
    I ventured a look back to see it wiggling on the ground. That was a bad idea. There were so many of them now. Even in the dying of the light I could see dozens, possibly hundreds more behind them.
    I spun my attention back around and followed the pulsating light. It was maybe a few hundred feet away.
    My peripheral vision kicked in as several shapes appeared in the shadows off to the left and right. Howls erupted in the forever night, and joined the group already raging behind. Now I had to be only fifty feet from the source, and the dream became a startling reality.
    An antenna stretched into the sky with a blinking light at the top. The transmitter itself pierced the clouds from its position on top of a concrete building only big enough for a small office. The building had a single bulb lit outside a curiously open door.
    There had to be hundreds of creatures behind me. I didn’t have to look back to know that. Their claws thundered on the pavement like the clouds above. If I slowed down just a little I might be overwhelmed by the mass. A death like that would be incomparably horrible.
    I crashed through the open doorway. I was going too fast to stop and close the door. I just saw my hand fly past the door handle, reaching but failing to grip the doorknob. It was like falling from the building again, letting time itself slow down, watching my hand miss where it was meant to hold. Back outside the screams were so loud they reverberated in the small room. The monsters were only a short distance behind, and all I could do was cover my head and wish it would be over quick. I hoped I wouldn’t feel much.
    But no attack came.
    Daring a look through the opening between my arms, I saw a mass waiting outside. Screams still howled through the crowd, but they refused to enter the room. Befuddled, I gathered myself and walked cautiously toward the entrance. I watched the hundreds of demons call from a few feet away. It was as if the light above the doorway kept them at bay. This light was my savior. Yet, it had to be more than that.
    “What the…?” I asked aloud.
    “It’s called the five thousand effect,” a voice answered from behind.
    I jumped and hit the doorframe, startled out of my skin. The creatures outside screamed in unison at the sudden sound.
    “Whoa, whoa, sorry, Jackson, didn’t mean to scare the bejesus out of you,” a figure said as he approached from the back of the room. It wasn’t someone I knew, or remembered seeing even in a dream. This person was a stranger, but one who knew me.
    “Who are you?” I asked.
    “Still got the forgetfulness huh? Thought that would have worn off my now,” the man answered. He talked with a thick accent, one I couldn’t place. “No matter. We’ll get you back. Shut that door so we don’t have to hear them for the moment, will ya?”
    I simply nodded and shut the door, the creatures howling in protest.
    “I’m Vincent Hills,” the man answered my question before I asked it. He reached up and pulled a drawstring, turning on a single light bulb that illuminated the dark environment.
    “Wait a second,” I said with a gasp.
    “I know, I know. It’s the hair, isn’t it?” He laughed as he brushed what few strands remained on his balding head.
    “No. You’re so, so, so much older.” I felt myself searching my brain, trying to figure out what I was seeing. The man who stood in front of me, this Vincent, had to be in his forties, maybe even older. No one in this city was over the age of twenty-six. Everyone else had walked into the darkness, never to be seen again.
    “Fifty-one, that’s right.” Vincent smiled again. “It’s truly good to see you again, my friend. It’s been too long. Guess we estimated a little too short for your memory to kick back around huh?” Vincent sighed. “Here, sit down. We have, at least, a little time to get you caught back up.”
    I followed the order, taking a seat near a control console. It was alive with lights, sounds, and monitors that seemed to capture video all over the center of the city. No video feed linked back to the living part of town though.
    “So…” I started.
    “We need to break your chain,” Vincent cut me off.
    “I don’t follow.” I leaned back in my chair while Vincent took a seat opposite.
    “Of course not. Not yet, but you will. Let me start at the beginning, with the Alaco Cure. It should have been the miracle cure-all, but, well…” Vincent trailed off. “It infected the populous slowly at first. It gained a foothold after it touched the water supply. The first outbreaks came shortly after that…”
    “Whoa, slow down.” I sighed. “What the hell is the Alaco Cure?”
    Vincent paused and frowned, sliding his hand onto my shoulder.
    “It was a drug breakthrough. Developed and tested to cure cancer. It worked amazingly in the trials,” Vincent explained.
    “Doesn’t sound so bad,” I said. But I knew even saying the words felt wrong.
    “It wasn’t. Not… initially.” Vincent withdrew his attention to stare at a monitor. He keyed in a few commands and a few of the screens reset to a different period in time. The video showed a time when the city wasn’t dark, and a bright sun burned over the buildings. There were people on the monitor running about. Some were looting, others were running with guns in hand, while more just simply laid down on the ground, not moving.
    “It was a mutation. We didn’t find it until the first subjects showed signs of digression,” Vincent explained and paused the video. I refocused my attention on the person laying in the street, apparently dead from this mutated cure-all.
    “What happened then?” I asked.
    “It spread. Rather quickly too. The first few waves destroyed the east coast. Europe was wiped out in a blink. Communications went dark soon after.” Vincent keyed in a code and the monitors fell to black.
    “The Alaco Virus…” I whispered.
    “You know it’s been over two years seen we last spoke?” Vincent asked, driving the conversation in a different direction.
    “Really?” I asked.
    “Truly. Can’t say I’ve really enjoyed my stint in the darkness, but hey, if this helps then so be it.” Vincent leaned back in his chair, wrapping his hands behind his head.
    “Why are you here then?”
    “Well…” Vincent stopped short. “Because you asked me to.
    I looked into Vincent’s sunken eyes. Along with his balding head, he wore a pair of thick-framed glasses. A pair of earplugs sat on his shoulders that I was sure he used to keep the creatures’ screams out.
    “It’s all part of the five thousand effect,” Vincent explained. “It kicked in two years ago, activating when it was deemed necessary for humanity’s continued existence. It was our best shot.” Vincent rose to his feet and strolled to the center of the floor. “This particular installation was built long before the outbreak, meant for some sort of military base, or something like that. We retrofitted it with the needed matter to activate the effect. And wouldn’t you guess it? It worked.” Vincent smiled. “Look at your sphere. I’m sure you have it.”
    Vincent looked me up and over. The device sat in my hand, and no longer pulsated with its blue glow. Strangely, it remained dead.
    “I’m not following at all,” I said.
    “You’re not meant to. You said our best shot for you to regain your memories was to overload your subconscious. How is it working?”
    “Definitely overloaded,” I said and managed a smile.
    “Good. Because, to be frank, we need you back now.”
    “You’re telling me,” I sighed, thinking of the timer.
    Vincent shook a finger in my direction, as if suddenly realizing something all at once.
    “Exactly!” Vincent exclaimed. “More precisely, you’re running out of time. And if that timer of ours is still up and running…” Vincent moved to a monitor and keyed in a few strokes. The timer set on top of that building flashed on the screen. “There isn’t much time left. Is there?” The clock read only an hour remaining.
    “What the fuck?” I shouted.
    “You placed it before the five thousand effect, that timer. Said it might jump-start your memory when you came to. But I couldn’t get it to work until a month ago.”
    “What the hell is the five thousand effect?” I asked.
    Vincent paced back to his chair and plopped down heavily. He didn’t appear to be stressed or flustered, just tired. Tired from all the time he’d spent in this room.
    “It draws them in. Keeps them out,” Vincent explained.
    “Them?” I asked, looking back. I stared at the door like it would suddenly burst inward and the screaming creatures would flow over us.
    “Correct. Only you know how it works. Couldn’t tell you how it draws them in and holds them like a net. But it does.”
    “Why can’t I remember any of this?” I asked.
    “It was part of the effect. Everyone has the virus. It somehow works with the virus. But the side effect was a complete loss of memory. No way around that.” Vincent leaned back in his chair and grabbed what looked like a packet of freeze-dried food. He offered some, but I waved it off.
    “So… why use it then?” I asked.
    “A last resort. Those things are dangerous. They attack on sound. Any part of them that was human was lost in the turning process. With so few remaining after the virus took out most of the population, we strove to protect the rest that were left.”
    “So they were humans after all…” I whispered. I mostly already knew this, had witnessed Eve just begin the process.
    “Those that didn’t die…” Vincent explained. “They mutated along with the virus. Don’t know exactly how it works but…”
    I cut him off and said, “The antibodies reformatted the living cellular structure. They corrupted the white blood cells and destroyed the immune system.” The words came streaming out of my mouth without thinking. “Most died from their systems shutting down. Those who didn’t die saw their DNA transform, twisting them into something completely different.” My chain finally started to snap, but not fully yet.
    “Atta-boy,” Vincent said with a nod.
    My memories were forming, piecing together hints of the past. The process of the turning fit into place. I remembered how the subject would reject the drug treatment harshly, and a violent change occurred. The entire transformation only took a matter of days. The subject’s body would crack in places, bleeding internally, until soon after a black ooze would drip from the wounds. It was some biological reaction to the mixture of drugs in the system, corrupting the blood, turning it a dark color.
    Their bodies would twist and mutate, losing all semblance of who they used to be as they lost hair, teeth, and all their senses. Not long after, they were screaming lunatics and walking beasts.
    “It was meant to help…” I started. “I didn’t mean for any of this.” Visions flashed inside my skull, burning pictures of what happened into the back of my eyes.
    “It wasn’t your fault. It was an accident, you know,” Vincent insisted.
    “An accident?” I asked. I couldn’t recall how it happened, but the virus must have leaked through somehow. Though anything that caused a pandemic, and a shift in human nature, was far more than a mere accident. Vincent returned to the monitors, switching away from the ticking numbers and to another channel.
    The monitors flashed with our history. The city we lived in was suddenly rebuilt, restored, and shining with brilliance. This I remember being Chicago. I recognized the Willis tower, John Hancock Center, and even Lake Michigan. The transformation of the desert must have dried up the entire lake. I remembered this city from my past. On the screen was a picture of the center of the city, one with a mass of buildings, and people still living normal lives. In the middle was Bennis Industries headquarters, exactly where I was ready to jump off and end it all. It was where the outbreak began.
    “Of course it was,” I said. I had created the Alaco virus after all.
    I suddenly thought of how the timer had died outside my jail cell, just a little while back. How those creatures came into the living part of this city.
    “Why is the power failing?” I asked.
    “Now that is why you’re here. Well, besides the turning too, I believe. The lights suddenly flickered inside the small room, and the screams outside picked up. Vincent stared at the roof, as if trying to look through the concrete walls and focus on the antenna above.
    “The problem is when the power goes out the barrier drops. The five thousand effect will no longer protect the city, or me, I suppose,” Vincent sighed. “I think that is why the other installations went dark.”
    “The others? Like this one? Where?” I asked.
    “South Carolina, Russia, China, and a few other places. I lost communication with them a few months back. It’s been quiet ever since.”
    Another memory snapped into place. The five thousand effect was launched two years ago at most of the installations through an aerosol blast that treated the atmosphere. The effect was what caused the barrier, the memory loss, and the darkness that surrounded the city’s center. The antenna above us was the launch platform for the aerosol.
    The aerosol itself triggered a certain synapses in the brain when the host turned twenty-six and the dormant virus would mutate.
    “Why didn’t you ever lose your memory?” I asked.
    “We believe that the virus didn’t react with the five thousand effect in a host that doesn’t mutate after twenty-six.”
    I was more than confused.
    “Why is the number twenty-six so important?” I asked.
    “We honestly never figured it out. We just didn’t have enough time. All we know for sure is that the virus can still kill a person at any age, but the mutation doesn’t occur until twenty six.” Vincent shrugged.
    “Why would a virus even, or how…” I stuttered. A virus couldn’t determine age, could it? It must have been some physiological change.
    “I don’t know,” Vincent answered.
    “Well, the power…” I started.
    “Right. But I haven’t a clue where the source lies. There are no cords or electronics showing a location. In fact, the power flows through the ground. That’s why the building’s still lit up outside,” Vincent explained.
    The chain finally snapped and everything came flooding back.
    “The serum! The serum I injected into myself before the five thousand effect was enacted. That’s why I remembered more,” I said out loud, not knowing what to do with all the memories that were suddenly available.
    “Exactly lad. The serum didn’t fully block the effect, but it partly worked. Are you back now?” Vincent asked.
    “Yes.” Everything from this past life flooded back. All the bad stuff was now lingering in the back of my mind.
    “Here, I won’t need this,” I said as I gave the sphere to Vincent. “The five thousand effect surrounds the installation.”
    I got up and paced to the middle of the floor. Finding a groove in the tile, I lifted the slab and pressed the revealed button. A small rumble shook beneath our feet, and a trapdoor lifted a few feet away.
    “What are you planning on doing?” Vincent exclaimed.
    “First and foremost, I need a weapon. If people were still in the installation they may have turned, and they may have adapted to the five thousand effect since they had nowhere to go.”
    Vincent walked to a shelf and grabbed a pair of handguns and five clips, along with a flashlight. I wished I had those kinds of reserves just laying around back in the city.
    “The installation is down there. The power supply is down there as well. We need to fix that right now, because if we don’t then the barrier falls,” I explained.
    “But, you didn’t build the power supply,” Vincent replied.
    “I’m no engineer, but we have to do something.” I took just one handgun and a couple of clips. Shoving one clip in, I cocked back the arm and put one in the chamber, making sure the safety was on. I put the gun in my belt, the clips in my front pockets, and twisted down toward the ladder that led underground.
    “Be safe down there, Jackson,” Vincent advised.
    “Be back in a few,” I said. I stepped onto the ladder and paused for a moment, looking up at Vincent. “You know, I can feel the turning coming. How did you know you were immune to it?”
    “I didn’t. Lucky I guess.”
    “Luck.” I said. “Don’t think I’ll be so lucky.” I knew I wasn’t going to be immune. Fate wouldn’t be so cruel as to have the person responsible for the fall of humanity be immune to his own plague. “I should be going.”

Chapter 24: Into the Core

    It was strange feeling. I remembered everything, as if nothing had changed. It was like reliving a life that hadn’t existed for two years, though I didn’t know if I really wanted the memories back. It was so much easier not knowing, to not remember what I did, or didn’t do. The thought of killing countless people shook me to the core.
    These installations were built years before we’d arrived to transform them into delivery systems for the aerosol spray of the five thousand effect. The facility was built deep in the ground, and was comprised of several corridors and labs.
    I reached the bottom and turned to see only one corridor leading in the opposite direction. It would eventually split off and deviate from there. Electricity would be running, emitting from the power source, but I would still use the flashlight. Everything was made of concrete. I followed the corridor and it ran only a short distance.
    Soon I arrived at the central hub. Computers and instruments lined the walls. They still hummed with numbers blinking on the screens. This wasn’t where I needed to be, but it would help. Every installation was built different, so when the reactor was placed, it was always somewhere else. And even though I had the full capacity of my memories, I didn’t remember where the power source would have been.
    I walked over to a computer that appeared to be going through some coding and typed in a few lines of text that brought up the file database. I clicked on a folder and a diagram of the building unfolded. In three dimensions, the outlay of the foundation appeared. From there in the control room I would have to take the stairs off to the right, and go down two levels. The core would be right around there.
    A scream erupted from down the hallway, distant but terrifying. That was why I had to arm myself. Even though they should be dead from lack of nutrients, we never got a chance to fully understand the turning. It could have been that their systems went into hibernation mode, or something like that. Maybe they didn’t even need food or water, who knew?
    There used to be science division down there trying to study the virus. They even had a few living specimens. Everyone was infected with the virus, dormant or not. If the virus or the specimens broke containment then it would infect the entire installation. And it appeared that was exactly what happened.
    I drew the gun from my belt and moved the flashlight about. Hopefully the creatures weren’t shouting in realization that a new presence had entered their territory.
    Bending around a corner to the right, I moved to the stairwell. I wondered why they wouldn’t cut power to the secondary systems to save on the electricity, but I remembered the core was meant to run for thirty years. And if the virus wasn’t cured, most studies showed a full saturation rate of ninety-nine point nine percent, meaning the world would be over anyway. No reason to worry about saving power in a dead earth.
    The door leading to the stairwell was solid metal with no glass to peek into the corridor. Walking slowly, trying to make as little noise as possible, I approached the door with the gun ready to fire. Nothing inhuman remained here. Gliding through the door, I moved into a dark stairwell. I took one step at a time. I didn’t want to have the same incident as before.
    Never had the darkness scared me this much. Confined, slow-going and quiet, this stairwell had me lost in a timeless bubble of my own guilt.
    After a few agonizing minutes a door loomed in the flashlight’s glare and declared that I had reached the bottom of the stairwell. Slowly letting the door open, I peeked out into the dimly-lit corridor and looked around. Nothing was out of place, and any screams that had echoed in the darkness before were all gone. I slipped through the door, my heartbeat slowing just a bit.
    This level should hold the core. The floor plan was huge. Several walls ran in a circle around the core itself. They were heavy duty, reinforced steel walls that would protect the installation in case the core exploded. Though that was a moot point since all the tests showed it would never detonate anyway. A soft blue hue radiated in the hallways, forcing the idea that something bloomed with life down here.
    I followed the signs and headed off to the right. I passed rooms labeled ‘Genetics,’ ‘Thermodynamics,’ ‘Quantum Mechanics,’ ‘Chronometric Alteration,’ and other rooms with signs reading what would be inside. Several scientists and doctors would have been housed down here. If the scientists had turned, or been killed by the creatures, then there’d be no one to maintain the equipment, especially the core, even if it was meant to be self-sustaining.
    The turning process abruptly filtered into my mind, and I remember the first time I’d witnessed a potential subject taking my fabled cancer cure.
    Before the virus had been accidently released, and before we knew about the potential affects, we were testing it on Andrew Fuller. Andrew was an old family friend of my Father’s, and worked in the accounting department of our business. He was seventy-two and dying of lung cancer, a constant smoker of two packs a day since he was twelve. It was a death sentence when we diagnosed him a mere two months before our trials.
    With Fuller, the drug took effect immediately. It healed his grave illness. But it didn’t take long after that before his skin began to crack and bleed. His eyes changed color to a milky substance, and blinded him. Soon he was screaming and thrashing violently, attacking the doctors and breaking containment, or at least, running into the hallways. The security buried a few well-placed shots into his forehead, and my greatest triumph suddenly became the world’s worst virus.
    The mice we tested never showed any symptoms like what happened to Andrew. Needlessly, we tried the treatment on others. They understood what could happen, but all the subjects were dying one way or another. We strapped down the subjects and pumped them full of the “cure”. Every one of the older subjects turned moments after administering the drug, or died from the reaction. But for whatever reason, the younger patients never had the same response. Anyone under the age of twenty-six took fully to the drug, healing their illness. But the turning remained dormant until their coming of age.
    No forms of sedation worked to calm the patients once they’d turned. They never slept, never ate, only howled insanely. The timeline for the turning was usually the same. After about five days they would lose most of their hair and teeth. Their eyes would grow a deep shade of purple, though they would be completely blind.
    The one thing that every subject showed was increased sensitivity to hearing, as well as communicating somehow with the others who had also turned. Even though they weren’t located in the same rooms, all of those who’d turned seemed to notice the others. We had to put down the subjects once they started to grow claws since it became too dangerous to hold them.
    That was a month before the outbreak. A whole month to have done something. Maybe I could have destroyed the samples or the “cure”. But the firm, and in particular, the board, which my father headed, refused to bomb the whole trials because of “some unfortunate incidents”. I contemplated firebombing the entire office and work labs, but the samples had been moved and duplicated at several installations. I had wasted too much time deciding what to do.

    Snapping back to reality, I passed by an opening to my left. A blue glow pulsated with energy, a dying energy. I looked around but nothing stirred from the shadows, and only the constant whining of the reactor hummed in the air. The blue light flickered for a moment, returning my eyesight to the object at hand. Through double paneled, bulletproof and moisture-resistance glass, the reactor sat within a confined room.
    “Ok…” I said out loud.
    The first dilemma hit me. I had no idea how to fix the thing. I didn’t design it. I was no engineer. I may have fabricated the five thousand barrier, the Alaco Cure, among other things, but never this. A man named Phillips designed the core, and the sphere I’d used to travel through the barrier. He was the mind behind this installation.
    The brilliance of the core was that it was the most powerful new energy source ever conceived. Comparable to a tesla coil, but just much more effective. It motorized electrical devices wirelessly, evident as it powered the timer all the way from here. Much like ideas of Nikola Tesla, who had experimented with science like this, Phillips actually had a working version about a year before all of this happened. The prototype was still in the testing phase, but nothing else could be used and so we’d switched on this prototype power source. It should still have twenty-eight more years to go, but it was dying right in front of my eyes. I hadn’t the faintest clue where to begin.
    I ran around the walls and came to the door that led to the sealed core room. The power source wasn’t radioactive, nor was it dangerous really, but Phillips wanted it separated from the environment of a busy science center.
    I unlocked the heavy metal door and swung it open, entering the vault. It was so… simple. A plastic stand held the device that almost resembled the sphere I had carried around. But this was much larger. Instead of etching, it had dimples like a golf ball, and it glowed with a much darker blue than my sphere. Also near the top of the orb was a clear cut-away that allowed me to look inside. The inside of the sphere was also incredibly simple. It looked like a liquid, along with a few other electronics, but not much else.
    It smelled sterile but not hot. The orb wasn’t burning or anything. I studied it as I came closer, trying to think of something, anything, to understand what my next move was.
    Then as if answering my question, several dark walkers entered the room. I only stared at them through the glass, not willing to hide anymore. What was the point? The barrier was going to fall with the power failure. Apparently that was what happened at all the other installations.
    I thought of Olivia, who was the only real family I’d ever had. Even my family, my real family, wasn’t really there. Dad was consumed with the business, and mom had died of cancer when I was very young. I had no siblings. Now Olivia was gone, most likely killed because of me. The virus may have taken all of Olivia’s family away. In retrospect, I’d killed all of her siblings, her parents, and anyone she’d cared about. She may have been immune to the initial outbreak of the virus, but it would have remained dormant in her system until twenty-six, when she would most likely turn.
    “It’s about time…” A voice escaped from the corner of the room. I turned, not worrying about the creatures. Instead I refocused on the sound that suddenly burst into existence. It was a voice so familiar yet so foreign. A body in the corner formed whole and approached, the blue hue of the power source giving light to a face I thought I’d never see: my own.
    Right there in front of my eyes, I was staring at myself. He was smiling ear to ear. It wasn’t a reflection. I didn’t think it was my imagination. If it was insomnia, it was a damn good hallucination.
    “You fucking failure,” he said. A frown reformed from the once cruel smile and dictated the direction he was going. He wore the same clothing I did, styled his hair the same way. It was like I was looking into a mirror. It was definitely, me.
    “You know, the point that the universe could conjure up someone like you is an absolute mystery. Have you even fathomed what you brought to this world? Extermination? Annihilation? Genocide?” he snarled.
    “It wasn’t meant to…” I pleaded.
    “Your fabled cure meant to do what exactly? Kill every last person or turn them into something inhuman? Well congratulations, because that’s what happened. You see that?” He pointed at the power source. “So much for lasting forever, right? Just another fuck-up in a long line of fuck-ups! The barrier… what a ridiculous notion; what an idiotic idea.”
    He snarled again. He sauntered over and closed the heavy metal door. One of the creatures crashed against the door and roared in protest, which caused more screams that seemed to shake the double-paneled glass.
    “You’re not getting off that easy. No sir, not by a long shot. You don’t deserve to be ripped to pieces,” he explained.
    “I know,” I said. I didn’t have the heart to argue. It was all true. The world deserved to see me die a worse, longer death. Getting shredded from head to toe with claws would only take a few moments. My suffering should last much longer.
    “Do you? I mean, do you really understand?” He returned to stand in front of me, eyes squinting, as if trying to read me. “Jack and Susan… dead. Olivia? She’s gone. But that doesn’t even remotely compare to destroying an entire planet. All of humanity. All of it. Completely gone, forever dead. Because. Of. You,” he said, pressing a finger into my chest.
    I felt the pressure. He was surely no ghost or figment of my imagination. He was as real as it gets. “What a disgrace,” he said and shook his head.
    Rage filled my stomach at the sound of Olivia’s name. I lashed out, striking him squarely on the jaw. His head bent back but he smiled off the blow.
    “That’s what you needed years ago, a little balls. Could’ve destroyed those samples before they were ever moved. Of course, you failed at that too. Pathetic,” he said and wiped a sleeve across his bloodied mouth. He moved over to the core again and rested a palm on it, bowing his head gravely as he changed his attitude.
    “It’s not the point that the cure didn’t work. It’s not the point that you couldn’t figure out the virus mutation. It’s the point that you were willing to give up in the end,” he explained. “Instead of thinking about jumping from a building, you should have been down in the labs working. Trying. Failing. And picking up yourself all over again. You shouldn’t even think about giving up now, even if the clock strikes zero. You are the only one with enough… intelligence to break this curse. Well, at least, you were.”
    “I, I, just…” the words didn’t come. I was stunned, shocked, loathing myself. He spoke the truth. The virus existed because of me, but could have stopped if I’d acted quicker. It could’ve been contained or even destroyed. But I didn’t do either of those, and because of that everybody was going to suffer, had suffered and died, only a few left to endure this world I’d created.
    “It doesn’t matter much, I guess,” he said. “You already gave up long ago. I really hope it hurts like a son-of-a-bitch. I hope it isn’t easy. You deserve every bit of what’s about to happen.”
    He frowned once more before fading from sight. It left me ill, reeling backwards. All the while the constant screaming outside reminded me that soon enough I would be one of them.
    A lurch in my chest sent me curling up on my knees, feeling a pain like I was being invisibly stabbed through the lungs. My heart crushed beneath an unseen weight, and my eyes were on fire. I crashed to the floor, no longer able to stand. The turning had begun, and the last image I saw was the door flying open and the creatures scrambling into the room.

Chapter 25: The Turning

    “Whhhhooooooo issssss it?” a voice questioned.
    A million voices responded.
    I woke up. The creatures hovered over me but didn’t attack. My eyes were still on fire, but otherwise I felt ok. Gathering to my feet, I backed up while keeping my attention on the closest one. But it was the voices that cascaded through my head, reverberating off the walls of my mind. I covered my ears but the shrieks didn’t dampen or waiver. Nothing was right.
    With the fiery sensation in my eyes, I wondered if I was on the course of losing my eyesight. But my vision was fine. It was actually better. Objects appeared sharper while the contrast was crisper. It felt like I could see everything. I looked through the glass panel and zoomed in the instruments of the computer consoles in the other room opposite of this one. On the back of the monitor was a sticker with the build date of the equipment. Lettering that should have been too small was clearly visible.
    My attention returned to the three others in the room. They watched in silent focus, clearly unable to understand what had happened to the unturned who was so recently here. I stared at the one closest to me. It was six feet tall even with a curved spine, its skin pure white. It growled in my direction but didn’t move as it continued to search the room.
    “Whhhheeereeee didddddd itttttt goooo?” it spoke. The creature didn’t speak. Instead it somehow spoke in my mind. And a thousand voices answered, though I managed to push those aside.
    “Can you hear me?” I asked out loud. Every creature jumped and howled as the sudden noise assaulted their heightened senses. This particular sound went against every instinct they possessed, and this new, freshly-turned human was so very different than the others.
    “Whaattt doooessss it saaayyy?” the creature responded. Again a million voices answered, though I tried to focus on the one.
    “Can you understand me?” I didn’t voice the question, only thought it. The creature spun on its heels. This time the many voices didn’t come calling. Only a few hundred questioned what the new voice had asked.
    This had to be part of the turning process, to be able to communicate like this. Somehow we were now linked. Though for whatever reason, I hadn’t slipped into the darkness like they had. I caught my reflection off the glass panels. It appeared that the physical transformation hadn’t taken place.
    My hands remained the same. No cracked skin was noticeable. No markings on my arms. Somehow, I remained whole. I pulled at the skin on the back of my hand and it snapped back in place. Physically, I seemed to be the same, though my eyes still felt inflamed.
    I left the room feeling utterly different, yet strangely intact. The creatures followed. I couldn’t remember anyone that hadn’t physically as well as mentally turned. In all the trials, tests, experiments, simulations, and anything else we tried, the certainty of the virus taking over and rewriting the genome was one hundred percent if the person wasn’t immune.
    I wasn’t immune, yet I remained the same individual. I couldn’t tell if this was God playing an awful trick or if he was giving me a second chance. Was this the terrible fate the other me spoke of, wishing the ultimate evil upon the one who caused the downfall of society? Or was it just another hiccup in my long line of failures?
    I strode down the hallway, the blue hue continuing to flicker with life. But it was fading. The power source could hopefully run for a few more days. Or at least, a few hours. Keeping the barrier intact until I could figure out what to do was the key. How to deal with this new beginning was my target.
    Coming to the stairs, I climbed up, leaving the creatures to fend for themselves. I needed to talk to Vincent, to unravel what happened, to make sense of this mess. As I climbed I continued to hear the mass of voices. Nothing sounded even remotely human. It reminded me of how animals communicated. Groans, moans, and screams came through more often than spoken words. I was able to decipher their language immediately upon turning. Screams were a language all their own.
    I ran down the corridor to the ladder that would lead up, wondering what I should do. When I reached the top of the ladder I pounded on the trapdoor, hoping Vincent was close by.
    “Just a second, Jackson,” Vincent said, his voice muffled. Soon enough the trapdoor lifted and I escaped back into the room. I spotted a monitor showing the feed from a camera that pointed at the timer downtown. It flashed with zeroes.
    Vincent wanted to say something but couldn’t at the moment. Instead I just shuffled past him and took a seat at the computer console. I stared at the blank monitors, dropping the gun and clips on the desk.
    “Do you have a mirror?” I asked.
    Vincent was confused but shuffled over to a cabinet.
    “What happened?” Vincent asked as he ran back over with a handheld mirror, placing it nearby. He looked frantic, excited, and beyond terrified.
    “Something…” I held up the mirror and looked at my reflection. I knew it. My irises had mutated just like the turnings. They were now a deep, purplish color. It was like looking at someone else. I wasn’t the same, but I wasn’t completely different either. Altered maybe, but the word changed felt wrong.
    The voices started again, frantic as Vincent. I tried to shut out the mass and listen to any coherent, single lines of dialogue. Something was happening. The entire horde was moving towards the barrier.
    “Shit,” I said, tossing the mirror onto the metal console. I got up and exploded through the door, into the dark world. Vincent followed behind, not knowing what to think.
    “Jackson, what’s going on?” he asked. He was examining me like a project, as if trying to understand the outcome of some hypothesis he was testing. He had to construct some sort of idea of what had happened down in the installation when the timer struck zero. But this wasn’t his expected outcome.
    “What does that timer say?” I asked.
    I remained fixated on the voices. They gushed like waterfalls, too many crashing over the others. It was beyond my control at this juncture to communicate effectively with any of them.
    “It, umm, it… ran out?” Vincent questioned.
    “It did,” I said without turning around. If I ran now I could make it to the barrier within maybe an hour. I could follow the voices there. They were excited. They understood the barrier was failing. Soon they would be released from the darkness that kept them trapped.
    “So, you’re immune then. That’s great!” Vincent exclaimed.
    “Not quite,” I said and turned around to face Vincent. “I can hear them. All of them. From this city to the next. Even the ones overseas.”
    “Huh?”
    “Vincent, I turned.”
    “You what!” Vincent scrambled backwards as if I would suddenly leap out and attack with my apparently hidden claws. He ran back inside and yanked one of the guns off the console. He aimed it at me, his hand shaking. I couldn’t blame him. He had lived in the darkness with the incessant screams of these creatures for too long not to arm himself when confronted by one.
    “And I didn’t turn. It’s hard to explain. I can feel them, hear them. But I’m really not one of them,” I explained.
    Vincent didn’t lower his gun. He kept it pointed at my chest. I walked back into the building and closed the door, hoping it would ease his mind.
    “Don’t move!” he challenged, backpedalling away from me.
    “Look,” I said. “We don’t have time for this. The power source is failing and that barrier will fall soon. The creatures will run rampant through the city. They will kill everyone. We can’t let that happen, now, will you help me?”
    “How can you stand here if you turned? You’re on the wrong side of the barrier!” He didn’t even hear my plea. The gun rattled in his hand. He wasn’t going to be able to help me like this. All he saw was a creature that was no longer human, even though I physically remained the same. I wondered if turning while within the barrier made me immune to the five thousand effect.
    “Put that fucking gun down, now!” I sneered. The instance my demeanor changed his aura also changed. I didn’t know if it was these new eyes of mine, but it was like he glowed yellow. His trigger finger retracted to the outside of the gun. The shock of my comment made him misstep.
    Within that instant, I was upon him, not even knowing I could be so fast, so precise. I grabbed him by the wrist and stretched his hand with the gun outwards. With my other hand I lifted him up by the throat and shoved him against the monitors.
    “Now is not the time!” I screamed. “I need your fucking help!”
    Vincent dropped the gun as I tightened my grip on his wrist. His eyes were wide enough for me to know my message got through.
    “Okay. Okay. Just let me down,” he wheezed.
    “I need to get to them as quickly as possible. What’s the quickest way?” I set Vincent gently down.
    “I don’t know. I haven’t left this room in years.” He coughed and rubbed his throat. He remained timid, and flinched as if I would strike him. “But I have something that might help. It’s outside.” He pushed himself away from the monitors and walked through the door. I followed as Vincent kept close the building, still afraid the creatures would leap out of the darkness.
    I found myself wondering why I could still stand on both sides of the barrier. There were no effects from either side as I crossed the threshold. Somehow I had adapted to the five thousand effect. When I turned the effect must have canceled out somehow. Maybe that is why there were a couple of walkers down in the installation.
    Vincent stopped near the corner of the building and pointed at a garage that sat a few dozen yards away.
    “Inside there. She should run. Gas is in the tanks sealed up behind her. That’s all I got for you,” Vincent said, breathing heavily as he walked passed. “Keys in the ignition.” He continued without a goodbye, returning to the station. Not long after, I heard the door slam shut. I wondered if this would be the last time I saw Vincent.
    Running across the darkness felt different now, as if the thousands of voices of this city reassured me that darkness was home, even though they wanted to break away from it. It had become second-nature, this strange, unnatural twilight. Even though they resented the night they’d still lived within it for years.
    Thunder rang overhead. The antenna above blinked red. There wasn’t much time left. I had to get to the horde before the barrier fell.
    I hadn’t driven a vehicle in so long, though driving wasn’t something you forgot. The truck was nimble for its size as it rumbled down the streets. The headlights cut a clear path through the damaged city. Crossing over the center lane to avoid the overturned wreckage of an eighteen wheeler, it was hard to imagine how this city had survived, or at least grown into something so different.
    Some creatures started running alongside the truck. Their screams roared over the engine, but they also ricocheted through my mind. They couldn’t understand how one of theirs was controlling such a thing. Some scraped at the truck’s sides, claws dragging across the metal, though they made no real attempt to attack. I kept hearing them shout that the truck was too loud in their quiet atmosphere, and in fact terrorized them. They all felt the same fear. The millions who were connected shuddered in the same horror, and soon it massed into a riot.
    I took a right turn and zoomed past the dark, dead park where I’d been earlier. Onward I roared passed the glass lawyer’s office, Dylan and Dylan, and crossed the long bridge. I retraced my steps by following the voices like a guide. They were pointing me exactly where they were.
    None of the voices had a recognizable idea. They all screamed in an illogical mess. Their fear was constant in my thoughts, even though I wasn’t the one afraid. But their emotions were becoming my own. It was hard to displace them from my own feelings. They were more human than I’d anticipated, but they weren’t capable of maintaining humanity for long. They screamed in pain that ascended to madness, turning to anger and rage.
    “Kill. Run. Free,” the words rattled through my head, overshadowing the more non-coherent statements. They all howled in questions and millions more responded. I had only been linked for less than an hour and I was already starting to lose it. They had been linked for years.
    It was no wonder they were crazed, or attacked anything that wasn’t the horde. Their actions may not even be their own, not really. Thinking about it, these other creatures could be directing them from afar, even overseas. Though directing was the wrong term. It was more like losing oneself to the madness of hearing so many voices scream in the darkness.
    I crashed headlong to an SUV and banged my head against the steering wheel. Dazed, but maintaining a bit of composure, I tried the key in the ignition and heard only a click. Smoke started to billow from beneath the hood.
    I jumped out of the door and hit the ground running, sensing the way I needed to go. I knew there wasn’t much time left. That power source was going to fail soon enough and, in turn, that barrier would fall. Even though I didn’t have any idea what I would do when I caught up with the crowd, I could at least get in the middle of them. Maybe I could say something.
    Several other creatures ran beside me, screaming and gasping with each breath. It was strange to be so connected as I looked over one of them. Yet the worst feeling was that I had brought this horror on them. They used to be human, used to have families, dreams, ambitions, and a future, until I ripped it away. The creature closest to me still had hair on her head. She must have turned recently.
    A frightening realization overtook me.
    “Eve?” I thought.
    She’d been shot. I watched her die. Or did she? Could these creatures be killed, or had she simply been stunned? Either way, it was definitely her. She suddenly stopped running and looked around blindly, as if not understanding the name.
    “Who?” Eve answered. Thousands of voices rang in response, spilling, falling over the others. In that moment I saw her lose part of her humanity.
    “Just listen to me! No one else!” I screamed. I could hear my own voice echo in my thoughts, shutting out the others that still screamed. “Come on Eve, hang on!”
    “I’m trying!” she said. The response was so loud. It was decidedly human, decidedly Eve’s. As if on cue, the others stopped completely.
    “Okay, just hold steady on my voice. Do you understand me?” My voice continued to echo even if the creatures tried to rant over it.
    “Yes,” she answered.
    “Good. Now Eve, do you remember who I am?”
    “Noooooooooo…. Who is Evvveeeee….” Her voice began to stretch like the others. She would have been in the darkness for about a week now. It was beginning to transform her thoughts as well as her speech. Some of the voices started to rise from below as she lost a bit of her grip.
    “Eve!” I shouted. The echo sounded between the hordes, killing their rise. “That is your name!”
    “It is? I mean, it is! I’m Eve!” she cried back. “Where am I?”
    I wondered if this was a split personality of sorts, or if she was just losing herself altogether.
    “You’re here. With me. Just follow my voice. We have to go,” I said, out loud this time.
    She didn’t disregard the statement, but simply followed the order. We both started running, allowing myself to reconnect to the horde while somehow keeping Eve removed completely. Never had a voice remained disconnected in this manner, and it was like death. She was wholly gone and the void was unable to be filled. I myself felt the same disconnection every time I had to tear myself away from the strange link as I switched between the horde and Eve.
    We passed the diner from earlier in the night. Looking at it gave me the chills, which somehow transferred to Eve. Even though she was blind, she understood my emotional distress at seeing the exterior of the building and the car I’d hid in during my hallucination.
    “What is it?” she asked telepathically.
    “Nothing,” I answered. I pushed away the memory since it might drive her into an emotional craze.
    I switched my mind back to the horde and their screams rose again. The thousands upon millions of others protested back to their original ideas. They wanted to be free from the darkness, free from the pain. I tried to share my concern, but for some reason my voice didn’t have the same echoing ability from before.
    Moving closer, we approached the others. They were as close as they would get to the barrier, which was probably still a few hundred yards off. Even from this distance it was completely black.
    I didn’t know how to start, but I needed to gain some control over the situation.
    My eyes started to morph colors as I looked back toward the center of the city. I saw a red hue pulsate along the ground, which I assumed was the power emitting from the core. It moved through the ground, keeping objects powered. But the pulsating was slowing. It was happening. It was happening now.
    Damn it!” I screamed. There wasn’t enough time, and my shout bounded through the horde and caused a panic.
    “Listen to me!” I thought. My voice fell on deaf ears now. The sound of so many screaming was too loud to hear my plea. I wouldn’t be able to get through to them now, not like this.
    I thought about things for a second, how things were about to get worse, how those who needed me to handle this situation were about to be let down. And I thought of Olivia. How I ruined her life. Destroyed her future. All I ever wanted for her was the best, but I committed the exact opposite. She died, scared and alone.
    A deafening quiet shook through the crowd. Millions were watching, feeling, and seemingly understanding what I was going through. I could hear some of them crying. Some chanted the name Olivia. They were sad because I was sad. It overrode their need to be free, at least for the moment.
    My mind pushed further on. I thought back to the moment when the board approved the cure for more testing, even in my protest, even with all the evidence saying it was fatal to humans. The horde cowered in shame and anger. That pain ran rampant. They shook with nervousness and even a few ran to take cover from this grouping.
    In my mind’s eye I could see the test tubes filled with the ‘Cure’. When I’d first discovered it, these were the only samples of the virus. I could have destroyed the samples after the first human testing. My hands shook over the button that would have incinerated all known evidence. The entirety of the horde, millions of them, felt the agony as I waivered to push the button.
    “Whhhhatttssss gooooinnnnngnggggggg onnnnn!” Eve Shouted.
    “Just keep watching!” my voice echoed back in my mind.
    I recalled seeing the plague spread from city to city on a television set. Countless dead. The others, the ones who turned, began to slaughter all of those who remained immune. War broke out. The television showed the pure and utter annihilation that the world was going through. The horde shared in my blame, shared in my sorrow. The silence was unbroken. Now was the moment to speak.
    “Listen to me,” I thought. I spoke with earnest sorrow and commanding authority. I needed them to realize what was going to happen. “We don’t need to be afraid anymore. We are one. Stay with me. And focus!” I shouted.
    Only a few voices stirred, but they were drowned out in my echo.
    “Stop,” I ordered those few lingering voices that tried to overthrow my command. Those who refused to quit were soon silenced.
    “I’m here,” Eve moaned. She sounded near hysterical, but resolute.
    “Good,” I sighed. “Now let me show you what you need.” I don’t know how I did it, but I let them see through my eyes. All at once, a million blind creatures were able to see what they’d lost. I felt the million souls linked to me, staring, gawking as if their vision was mine, and mine was theirs. We were one.
    “Stay with me!” I screamed in my mind. Millions replied in one single, enduring cheer. Finally one of them was directing, and it was me. I felt connected to them like they were my children. Together we found the chains to hold us together, and we understood one another. From here on out, never again did they have to exist without a voice to guide them.
    I looked at the ground. The red pulsating of the core had stopped. We felt the barrier drop throughout the crowd. Daylight started to break through the darkness. A high-pitched whine sounded deep within the center of the city, followed by something like an explosion. The core had finally run out of power. Thunder and lightning burst out as if they would only do so for one last time. The beginning of the end was underway. What happened in the next few moments was completely up to me.

Epilogue

    If my memory serves me, and my math is correct, today is August 18 of 2020. As I write this it’s been a long six months since the barrier fell. A lot has changed, yet some things remain the same. There is no cure for the Alaco Virus and the transformation process still takes place on a person’s twenty-sixth birthday if they aren’t completely immune. Thus far, I am still the only one who has turned but remained physically the same.
    We still are forced to live in this broken city that is still surrounded by an unending desert. Life remains difficult. Things I used to take for granted back before The Forgetting are everyday difficulties. Water especially. But even more-so with the dark walkers living among those who haven’t yet turned of age.
    The transition for the “unhuman”, I just can’t call them creatures anymore, has been rough to say the least. There was a lot of fighting and warring over what many called beasts, demons, and monsters. The few dozen, out of hundreds, left Downtown refused to accept my unhumans from beyond the barrier. Instead, I led them Uptown, where fewer people lived. We carved out a niche, trying to exist without chains. It wasn’t easy for my kind to be accepted so quickly. Though they realized after a time that they were, after all, human before.
    “Jackson,” a shrill little voice came calling. “What are we doing today?” I looked back. The dirty blonde-haired girl stared at me with a smile that could melt any heart.
    “Give me a few, sweetheart. Then we’ll go see how our friends are doing,” I replied.
    Olivia nodded in agreement and bounded out of the room.
    Olivia is well, has been ever since I left her in the care of our dearly departed Susan and Kyle. That reminds me, I should at least recount for her few weeks without me. Her boldness never failed, and in fact, was the only thing that saved her life in the end. She managed to follow my tracks Downtown when I hadn’t arrived that night like I promised. She even tried her hand at the rope bridge on the highway. Thankfully, Glasses found my girl before she got the chance to take the full crossing. She had been in his care ever since. Also, Glasses is completely okay. He never really explained what happened that day down in the alleyways, but he never really had to. All I knew was that Olivia was okay, and I found my renewed vigor to exist.
    I didn’t have much trouble with Frank and his crew, or really anyone anymore. They were too afraid of what I brought from the city’s center. And Frank actually turned during the few hours I had spent in the darkness. He was now part of us. Selfishly, he was probably the ugliest turning I had seen since. His mutation caused him to lose a leg, and a crack tore up his face rather nastily. Though I didn’t really feel sorry for him. He did, after all, kill Susan and Kyle and had me thinking I had lost Olivia in the process. But he became one of us, and I had a certain connection with him just like the rest. So I couldn’t hate him as much as I wanted to.
    Susan and Kyle were buried in a plot in the backyard of their home. Olivia and I place flowerers there at least once a month. I try to ask for mercy, and even now, I can’t forgive myself for what happened to them. I just hope they have found some sort of harmony in the afterlife. They had lived such hard lives and deserve some peace at last.
    “Jacccckkkkkssssssoooonnnn,” a voice lingered in my subconscious.
    “Eve,” I thought.
    “I… I… can rem, re… remmmmembbbberrr. Sieeer… Siiee… Si, Sierrrrraaaaa’ssssss Barrrrrr.” Eve struggled to speak, but with every passing day, I was getting her closer to the way she had been.
    “Yes, that’s right.” I smiled slightly.
    Joey has become a new sort of leader of the Downtown area. He had been an integral part of helping us adapt the best we could to the area, to this new life. And I thank him every day I see him.
    As for myself, it hasn’t been easy. Every day I fight with myself with what I did, try to make it seem like I couldn’t do anything. That the virus would have spread no matter what. Though I know otherwise. But I will never let myself drown in this emotion. No matter how long it takes, there will come a day when I will be able to reverse this change. These people will be made whole again.
    “Jackson!” Olivia ran into the room again.
    “Yes, yes. Okay Olivia.” I put the pen down. I could pick this up later. Grabbing Olivia by the hand, I lifted her into my arms and moved out the front door.
    “I love you,” Olivia hugged my shoulders.
    “I love you too.”
    The day outside was bright. The hot orange ball of fire managed to hover in the sky above, and it was sweltering.
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