Almost finished with the first draft of my novel BROKEN BOY SOLDIERS. It’s going to be my first apocalyptic Crime trilogy. Crazy, right? I can’t help it. This is going to be one badass story.
It’s about a city-wide invasion and how a group of survivors learn and grow in the midst of madness. It has multiple viewpoints (a young homeless girl whose only concern is to keep her brother safe; a cop who abandons his duties to try and find his family; a killer who has been stalking a family for a year and is about to strike when the chaos begins; and a young gang leader who at first mistakenly believes the crime families are at war, that he and his little gang can swoop in and pick at both sides until they’re the kings of the city.)
The first warning of trouble arrives with the blaring sirens. They whoop from the towers at the four corners of the city and the alarm echoes through the streets, the alleyways, disturbing Lane’s sleep behind the dumpster. He is covered in a thin blanket. He’s using a coat I’ve stolen a year ago as a pillow. He is eight years old when the sirens go off and, minutes later, jets shred the sky, and windows slide open, and the murmur of thousands of voices whip through the city like a backwind. He has drool on his chin. His eyes look like flames in the semi-darkness behind the dumpster. I rub his head, pet his hair, whisper, “It’s nothing,” although I know it is something. In my fourteen years I’ve never heard anything like it, and judging from the questions of others—homeless people too, deeper in the pockets of darkness, some drunk, some with their blank stares washed from their faces by an event none of us yet understands—nobody else has ever heard anything like it either.
For some reason it makes me think of Nazi death camps, air raids, incinerators.
Morbid, I know. But sometimes I’m morbid (who isn’t, sometimes, you know? Especially when life seems hopeless, or there’s only enough hope to make you wish just a little more was within reach.)
I wasn’t born with any special powers waiting for me to discover them. I only want to keep my little brother alive once the riots start in the streets. It’s early morning. Summer. You never think the end of the world is going to come when it’s nice out, you know?
But sometimes God (gods?) like to smother us in fear, drop the roof on our heads, crumble the walls, blow the fire in the hearth out across the curtains in the still cool early morning. Maybe catastrophes makes us stronger, maybe they can bring us together? Ask my little brother Lane about that, he knows about fear, not that he ever confesses it. He’s such a little soldier. Most people, if they were in his place, as young as he is, all they would do is whine, or give up, or die. But he carries on. I love him and I fear enough for both of us.
Lane has the biggest eyes you ever saw, a very light shade of green. They used to be innocent, and I feel bad, you know, for the lies I’ve had to tell him over the years, just so he wouldn’t realize how terrible things really are.
Instead I like to pretend we’re on an extended vacation. Lots of people wish they were as free as we are, living on the streets like we have since our parents died (nobly, I told him. Our father was like a knight of old, our mother a woman of incredible beauty and purity. They’d been good people, I’d told him. And they were that, although in real life they’d been pretty ordinary until someone made them a footnote in the history of our city.)
And now there is some other kind of history forming right around us. You can feel it in the pulse of the air. The jets roar by again. They have to be only feet above the buildings, the sound they make deafening, the smell they leave behind enough to burn something horrible permanently into your head.
I have something I’ve always drawn comfort from, just like Lane does (although his thing is tainted by another lie, but he doesn’t need to know that.) I pull the picture he’s drawn of the two of us on his eighth birthday, three months ago, in late spring/early summer. We had gone to the park and I’d bummed change, you know, to buy me and him two cupcakes with candles in them. They were chocolate with white frosting and sprinkles. We sat in the gazebo that day and Lane told me I was the best girl in the world. He was wrong about that, like I said, I’m not anybody special. You let people think what they want though, you know? And anyway, he needs me, and I like to make him smile, I like to show him that what he thinks and feels matters to me.
He’s been on the streets with me since he was three years old. Long story. I can’t go into it right now. He can’t remember what happened the night our parents left us, which is good (his forgetting, not their leaving us. Besides, they didn’t really have a choice in leaving).
What Lane can remember is the lean times, many of them. He is malnourished, small for his age. His white skin seems to glow translucently in certain light. He used to have the most innocent, disarming smile. As it left him, something left me, too.
But hunger and uncertainty can rob anybody of the traits that make them special. Not that he isn’t special any longer, he is, yet you can see he’s scared too, and he’s tired all the time, and I worry, sometimes, that he might be sick and that one night I’ll wake to him lying there next to me, not breathing, his eyes wide open, staring at a wall as cold and unfeeling as so many people who pass by us on the streets, as if we are invisible (sometimes they look at us like we’re a nuisance, or just plain infected. You don’t want to see your little brother getting those kinds of vibes from people. It makes you want to wipe the smugness and superiority off their faces with a two-by-four.)
I stare at the drawing he created of the two of us sitting at the gazebo on his birthday, hunched over the cupcakes that we tried to take our time on, savor, you know? He’d drawn it with colored pencils I got for him. Quite a kid. He is a good artist for his age. I think he has a photographic memory, but it is special too, because it’s like he’s able to stand outside of himself and see everything around him. All he has to do is close his eyes. Some people might think that’s freaky, but some people don’t know what a gift that is, especially if there’s ever a time you need it.
He scoots up the wall, leans against it, sniffles, and rests his head against my shoulder. He says, “You still like it?”
“I love it. It’s the best gift anyone has ever given me.” He’d made me look beautiful, like some kind of angel. There are shadows that almost resemble wings. His hair is in his eyes, he has one hand raised to brush the hair back.
Lane says, “I hear people running.”
“It’s none of our business.”
“What do you think they’re running from?”
“Maybe they’re running to something.”
“No,” he says. “Listen.”
I listen, but I don’t know how you’re supposed to distinguish by sound alone if people are running away from something or to something.
I nod, as if I hear it too, though.
He smiles. He says, “We should see what’s going on.”
It’s hard to contain an eight-year-old’s curiosity.
He stands next to me, places his hand gently on my shoulder. He touches everything gently, as if afraid he might break it. He has those hopeful, big eyes. He says, “Please. I’m sick of sleeping.”
We sleep a lot. It helps when you’re starving. I don’t know you anymore, but I hope you never have to see your little brother wasting away in front of you, and I hope you never know what it feels like to watch him devour a can of cold beans, his clothing tattered, his face smudged, and how it is to see the love grow in his eyes because you did whatever it took to make sure he had something.
You cuddle him at night because there are bad men out there, and bad women, too, and you keep his back against the damp bricks and place yourself the best you can between him and the world.
Lane waits for me to tell him that we can go out onto the street and see what is happening, but the jets keep roaring, and those terrible sirens keep blaring, and I people yell in the distance. Some curse, some cry. And there is a rumble in the street then; it shakes the ground and dust falls from the window sill of the restaurant across the alley and the dumpster we hide behind skids over a foot. The sound of heavy machinery is in the air, above us, all around. Jets and tanks and personnel carriers. I close my eyes and wish that it’s just a dream. (Surprise, it’s not.) The noises are louder. Did you ever hear a lot of people die at once, in unison? It’s like a horrible song, but a perfect one, a dark music, a rise in unnatural intensity and volume and a decline in normal, everyday sounds. It’s a gathering vibration that shakes the core of you.
I drape my arm over his shoulder and pull him tightly to my side. I whisper, “Something bad is happening.”
It is the first time I’ve ever told him anything like that, because usually I don’t want him to worry, but whatever is happening is happening right there, not a hundred feet from us, although we can’t see it from behind the dumpster.
Lane says, “Why can’t we just see?”
“Maybe,” I say. “But we’ll have to stay in the alley.”
“I want to go out on the street.”
“No. You have to listen to me. All right? I look out for you, don’t I? I’m older. We have to be careful.”
He rolls his eyes. “I know. But don’t you think we miss out on things by avoiding them?”
He has a point, but he’s too young to understand that I am protecting him.
Another thing you don’t want is to see other kids going to birthday parties at their friends, or hanging out with their buddies after school, and then look at your little brother and see how alone he is, even if he has you. The other boys on the street would have taken advantage of him, some of them would have hurt him, with their fists, or worse. You can’t let them do that. You can’t take the chance, because once someone takes something precious from you, or from him, it’s gone forever.
I should know.
I do know.
“We stay in the alley,” I say.
He shrugs and sighs and says, “Fine.”
It isn’t fine though, whatever’s going on. I don’t want to see, don’t have the faintest bit of curiosity. But Lane would have snuck away the second I wasn’t looking and he’d be out there among all the people yelling, possibly getting trampled by some of them as they run to something or away from something.
Yet it is better to satisfy his curiosity, better for me too, to know what is going on, because if it is something that would affect where we’re staying, we’ll be on the move instantly. You don’t sit there motionless when the devil is knocking on your door. You slip out the back. You’re not a coward, you’re a survivor. You have someone to take care of. Their life is in your hands. You don’t fight. You elude. For their sake, even if sometimes you want to fight because it would feel good to hurt people who are threatening him.
He’s had a hard enough life. Nobody has any idea. If they’d been there when the man came in that night, when he was dressing your parents up in the most bizarre way, having fun with their corpses, they would understand why you protect your little brother. There are too many mean, cruel, sick people out there. They don’t have any qualms about hurting a child; some of them like doing it because they’re sick and hurting someone so small and innocent makes them feel powerful.
Lane says, “We should go before we miss it.”
I think: We’re not going to miss it…
I nod. I stand, take his hand, hold him close, my heart hammering.
We ease down the alley slowly. There isn’t much visible out there from where we’ve started. The random flash of people running by as if they’ve caught fire. If only that is all it’s been, some tragic accident, like a semi-truck full of volatile chemical had flipped over, poisoned the air, had people burning alive.
We could live with that, we’d vacate.
But with the jets and sirens and the slap of thousands of boots on the pavement, there is more to it, something worse, something catastrophic.
I lean over and say, “We need to get out of here.”
“You promised,” Lane says.
I sigh. “I don’t like this. Not one bit.” If I try to drag him away he’s going to make a lot of noise, and he’ll attract attention to us. I’m not sure which of us is really in control.
I can tell by his expression that he has a million possibilities whipping through his head. He still believes in super heroes and villains. He might think Superman is out there, battling some alien forces. Who knows? He isn’t about to share it. The older he gets the less he shares.
He holds my hand (he always holds my hand, and I dread the day he’ll feel too old, too manly, or just too plain embarrassed to do that, because he’ll get away from me then.)
We stop near the mouth of the alley.
The sun is bright in the street, which is a relief, because it was so overcast earlier.
Cars have clogged the road. It isn’t much different, at first, from typical rush hour traffic, only there is all the noise and people running around. We can’t see from the alley what is causing the ground to rumble. Lane says, “We need to go out there.”
But the alley feels safe. It is so much darker and cooler than the surface streets.
Morbid thought: The alleys always remind me of a grave. We find peace there, quiet, for the most part. Violence sometimes happens, but for the most part people keep their troubles behind closed doors or on the roads. To leave the alley and enter the mix with all the strange faces out there is to invite trouble into our lives, and trouble isn’t something we need. We only need to be left alone. Everybody else can take care of themselves and whatever they have to deal with. That’s why there are cops and firemen and churches and community groups.
And military, and that’s what sounds like it’s coming down the street. You ever heard of martial law? I read about it in a book once, a science fiction novel (not my favorite genre, but when you’re broke and you love to read you’ll take any book you can get, and you’ll squeeze every bit of pleasure you can from any story. Some are definitely better than others. Sometimes you find an amazing one, like Water for Elephants, or Grendel, or Last Night in Twisted River. But the okay ones are aplenty, and that’s enough. Not every story can knock us down. Not every character can be so fleshed out they’re more real than our own families, or the family we used to have that just feel like ghosts now.)
I think too much, remember?
I’m so deep in thought I don’t feel Lane leave my side.
He is ten feet ahead of me, only a few steps from the sidewalk.
People blur by him, on foot, the cars idling, some people smashing windows in store fronts, some people howling like they’re turning into animals, werewolves maybe. With sounds like that in the air nothing is out of the realm of possibilities.
I run toward Lane, but for the five steps I take to reach where he’s been, he takes five miniscule steps away from me, and he’s out among the rioters, sucked up by them, disappearing behind a mass of legs and arms and manic-looking faces.
“Lane!” I scream so loudly it hurts my throat. I dive into the mass of bodies.
Elbows catch me in the side of the head. Someone knocks me down. I scrape my knees, the pain so bright and sharp, but I bite the leg of the person nearest me. He swats me aside and I see my brother near the curb, curled up in a fetal position. People stomp the pavement around his head. They could so easily obliterate him, and he is all I have in the world besides a bunch of rotten memories.
I push myself up and shove a man and woman as hard as I can, hoping I can get to my brother before he’s trampled.
The jets roar again.
The ground trembles as if it is giving birth to something from the belly of hell.
A lot of the bodies around us, between us, still, and it gives me the chance I need, just a few seconds, to reach Lane. I pull him to his feet, more angry with him than I’ve ever felt, and more relieved too.
I crush him to my chest.
Someone knocks us up against a car, but I hold on to him.
He’s crying. His tears are hot. The air is steaming around us.
There is the sound of something ticking overhead, but I can’t tell what it is.
I say, “We have to get back to the alley and get out of here.”
He’s sobbing. “I’m sorry!”
I rub his back. “Come on.”
“It’s my fault,” he says.
“Shut up, okay? We have to get out of here.”
But we’re surrounded. There has to be fifty people between us and the alley, everyone being pressed tighter together by things we can’t see—the tanks, I think, soldiers maybe, guns. What have we done? What has anyone done to deserve this kind of treatment?
Lane says, “I’m scared.”
“It’ll be okay.”
The heavy footfalls of the soldiers.
The crack of rifle shots.
The endless whir of the siren in the sky.
I pull Lane back to the ground. I push him under a car and crawl underneath behind him.
People scream, mostly in fear. Someone yells over a bullhorn, but their words are indistinguishable over the panic rippling through the frozen crowd.
I hold Lane’s hand. His eyes are squeezed tightly shut.
I pray he’ll leave them shut until it is over.
I pray the soldiers won’t find us there beneath the vehicle.
The citizens on the sidewalk and around the other cars try to make a break for it, all of them suddenly running in different directions, but there is the snap of electrical charges and people hit the ground, convulsing. One of them is right next to the vehicle we hide beneath. He is looking at us, without really seeing us, too far gone in the pain, the wires running from his chest to a man wearing black polished boots.
I place my hand over Lane’s mouth to keep him from screaming. The guy on the ground closes his eyes. He relaxes. He looks like he’s fallen asleep, but he isn’t sleeping.
There are more black boots among the people and they are driving them back. I am too afraid to reassure my brother. He’s wet himself. I can smell it. I squeeze his hand tighter, worry I’ve hurt him, but I need something to hang onto, so terrified that one of the men in black boots will spot us and pull Lane out by his ankle and I’ll never see him again…
My second Crime novel IT’S ONLY DEATH comes out in about ten days! If you haven’t ordered a copy yet you can do so here!
I also had a novel submitted to Kindle Scout and it didn’t sell. Thanks to those who cast their votes for it. I’ll be putting it up for pre-order on Amazon by tomorrow because THE DEVIL GAVE THEM BLACK WINGS is a wicked Supernatural Thriller and needs to get out there in the world.
As always, thanks for all your love and support. Treat yourselves and each other well!