A/N: This chapter is officially the prologue, and has been redone since the older copy.
Prologue: Chapter 00: The City
"Insomnia kept him daydreaming instead of dreaming."
Kevin's green-eyed gaze wandered to the television screen in The Big Red. What a name it turned out to be, a big ol' ironic smudge on the face of the city, because the people in the diner were more so blue, and everyone inside looked forlorn and distraught in some sort of way. Even if they were good at hiding their frustrations. Their eyes were filled with troubles, much like his own. The once ecstatic and jovial bunch that lingered inside its doors seemed solemn and somber now, and looked like the air burdened their very shoulders. Those who didn't drink drank themselves drunk, and those who were normally tipsy as hell were grave, sober, freaky half-lidded spirits. He was always on the in-between.
And for him, the small, inexpensive bar was habitual, because for him, life at the office wasn't as great as the day before. Why? Well, the world was going to hell. Everyone was freaking out, confused, face blanched by just looking at the craziness around 'em. Wars in countries nobody cared about began to involve the United States (and suddenly, people cared). People felt like being just a little more paranoid. Like those kinda' old ladies on the street, talking to the other, 'Did you know that there is one child molester in every direction you turn? Every direction of the block, I saw it on that news report…'
Everybody's train was wrecked in some way, and they solved their problems--or, at least, attempted to-- by going to the nearest place they could sit and relax. Just to prove it, The Big Red began to smell like cigarettes and cheap liquor even more than usual until you could lick your lips and taste bitter booze in the air. More and more people seemed to be spilling in, trying to forget anything that had troubled them that day, or even the day before. In fact, he'd come in numerous times in the last few weeks just to say 'screw it!' and just mope around with the other half-dead and mindless guys who jittered around the place like little stinkbugs.
At least he didn't stink. That was always one little point me managed to tally onto his 'Defining Moments in Life' scoreboard.
Kevin took a drink of his beer and his lips puckered a little; the taste was so horrendous and bitter that he wanted to toss the glass against the wall. Shatter it to little bits--he'd have to pay for a new mug, but it would be worth it. Of course, he should've known better. Beer tastes like shit anyway.
As for the food, it was greasy but satisfying. The burger had rubber meat. However, the lettuce was crisp and the tomato thick; in the end, it covered a film of taste over the black beef…
and the fries were always a joy.
Kevin took up his napkin and pushed away a plate dotted with crispy black remains. The bartender, Toby as his nametag read, had a buzz cut and a large lower lip. He tended to slide along the bar with only his thick belly and up exposed to the customers. He looked like he was on a little moving catwalk, not even budging in inch except for one swing, tattooed arm. Kevin couldn't say he knew Toby enough to invite him out for a birthday party or a pleasantly uncomfortable day out camping, but he knew his age, his family life, and his sign, which had to mean Toby was something of a close friend.
With his cloth folded over his shoulder and his bony wrists wringing away at a mug, he managed to speak to everyone in the place for at least five minutes. Dang, come to think of it, Toby probably knew his sign. It wasn't that Kevin was a social person (not that he was a hermit, either), but Toby could've made friends with a goat, if he tried.
The heavyset bartender paused in front of Kevin and grinned.
"Hey, Orman. You've come in a bit early today," he said. Kevin was spinning the mug with the tips of his fingers pinned at the top of the drinking glass. "Any reason why?"
Kevin pushed back glasses that slid down the bridge of his nose and replied, "Just hungry. I was also curious about what was going on lately, and you have such a nice TV in here."
He looked at the television. Some team won the game, but he hated football, so he didn't really pay any attention. Like any television in a restaurant or diner, it was either the news or somebody tossing a pigskin.
Kevin leaned in, made himself comfy.
"Did you hear the news?"
It was a stupid question. Everyone knew what was happening in their town. It was the reason why they all sat around in a crammed diner, smoking like chimneys, drinking like bandits. It was what was going on outside that made their hearts so fluttery. Creepy crawly things in the movies.
Toby leaned likewise on the bar counter with his thick elbow. His oceanic eyes were staring at the television, too, and he growled a little.
"Fuck yeah. First people started seeing things yesterday--those weird shadows on the walls, all followin' your every step--an' then the newborn kids started growin' all weird, and damned fast. I watched the 5 o'clock news just Tuesday, and you know what it said? Those little newborns were already the size of three year olds, and they've only been born for 'bout seven hours. Seven goddamn hours! Can you believe that? Cause' I sure can't. I sure can't."
Kevin's glasses flashed in the glare of the ceiling lights. He listened intently and grew still for a moment with his chin perched on his lower palm. He himself was rather curious (being a newspaper article writer and editor) about such a compelling mystery. Pulling all the ideas he could from his head still left him with a blank for an answer. It's common sense: children don't turn three in seven days. But exactly what caused it was beyond him.
"Maybe something in the air? Or some chemical? Maybe even a conspiracy in the hospital. Who knows?"
Toby's hands were as rough as tree bark as he went on rubbing a rag across the glassy tabletops. He worked his jaw and thought for a minute.
"Yeah, yeah. I think it has to be something like those. But if it's some crazy-ass scientist experimental thing, I'm gonna' be flamin' pissed. Those poor kids might be in pain, shooting up in size so quick!" His face went from calmly upset to worriedly thoughtful. "It's gotta' do something to 'em… and three years, man, three years they don't get because of it. I don't know about you, but I'd like to have a few years extra to live, if I had the choice."
Kevin smiled and meant it. Toby was the kind of man who could curse his way into the record books, but in the end was one of the most intelligent and caring men that Kevin had had the pleasure of meeting. He had two little girls with their mother's straw-like, bleached white hair. Kevin saw their pictures sometimes, when Toby was feeling proud of something or told a particular story about them, like the time little Sonia broke her leg on a trampoline. He'd never seen Toby so concerned. Saying things like, 'Things like that can't get infected, right?' or 'I hope she doesn't need surgery. My poor baby's a total girly girl, and she wouldn't stand a scar!'
Kevin slid the empty cup toward Toby. Pleased with the room that was not left in his stomach, Kevin stood up from the seat.
"I'm going off to see my little brother." he announced, slipping his bag on his back. Papers galore on the inside.
Jamie was born in August a good eight years back in time, when Kevin was still in high school, and was the only family Kevin could call family. His mother and father were nothing more than strangers, and his aunts and uncles hated his parents. Meeting them was one to a billon. Maybe if his parents happened to die, they might take time out of their busy schedule to say hi, go to a funeral or something. Aunt Beatty was pleasant, though.
"Jamie? Tell the chum I said 'Hey'," old Tobe replied.
Kevin offered a final gesture of farewell and exited the Diner, enjoying the moist wind and wet air. It smelled just like Autumn. Like a minty, watery-eyed winter; but it was spring, and normally the days and nights are hot and cotton-mouthed. His pleasure was short-lived. A chill, almost painful, clawed into his shoulder blades and slid down to his hips.
Dammit, it just didn't feel safe to anyone anymore. With this strange growing paranoia nestled in everyone's chest, it felt as though a pair of eyes were constantly watching and waiting. It felt like the shadows themselves were staring. People were seeing things. Things that forced them to look in their showers before crapping. Things that made them sprint a marathon just to take out the trash. Shadows became black things--became figures with pill-shaped red eyes. He thought it ridiculous, but that was only because if he believed in it and accepted the hysteria, he'd probably go insane.
A chill ran an icy line across his spine once more as his continued down the street. His parents' house came into view with a clean green porch and a swing he used to sit on when he was little. The same old wooden fence remained as he had left it when he went off to college.
Kevin stood wearily at that crappy old fence, chewing on the skin inside of his cheek as he devised conversations if he had to meet mom or dad. No matter how hard he tried, casual chat was impossible. 'How are you, son? Still making less money than me?' 'Oh, are you finally broke? You can't move in.' 'I haven't heard from you in a while. Where's your car?' His father was the stereotypical high-class business man, and his mother was silenced by years of emotional abuse; she eventually became him. They were pathetic creatures that made him pathetic, too. It was a regular sob-fest destined to land on the Lifetime Network.
So he fidgeted with his frigid fingers and remained pinned to that one spot in front of the steps up to the door. But he didn't need to get too far forward. The door handle spun, clicked softly, then the door snapped open. A young boy peered out from the doorway with an excited smile.
Kevin looked at the half-face staring out at him and grinned.
"Did you miss me?"
"Kevin!" Jamie shouted, leaping three steps and embracing his older sibling. He always seemed too small for his age, his head just a nudge above Kevin's hip. Personally, Kevin worried that his brain was the size of a five-year-old, too, but he seemed fluent and made decent average grades in school. Kevin reached out and placed a palm against his sibling's hairline, smoothing it out and pulling Jamie's head back just a little. Like a bobble-head, it bounced by into place.
"What took you so darn long? You're late!"
The child's lower lip stiffened and he damn near jerked Kevin's arm off, whether it be from excitement or irritation, he didn't know; but at least he was bouncy and ready to go. If Jamie had came out forlorn and dragging his body like he'd been mentally whipped, Kevin wouldn't be able to sleep.
Once he managed to calm his brother down, Kevin cast a quick glance at that old house he grew up in for so many years. Their mother was watching from the second story window, glasses that mimicked his own flashing like robot's eyes. She always looked clean and respectable, and always wore a sleeveless button-up that showed off her shoulders, colored like mammee apples. What was so sad in seeing her was that every time he did, he remembered a mother that used to be wonderful; when he was Jamie's age, she'd roll around on the ground with him and giggle like a little girl, or she'd make a mud pie. Just one though. Just one before lunch. It was almost hard to blame her for anything, remembering her like that with such an amiable smile and a dulcet voice. He could only truly blame his father.
He gulped quietly when he felt her gaze bore into his own. Even with her eyes a little more lifeless and her hair a little more gray, she looked threatening. Eventually, he couldn't take the pressure on his eyes and turned his attention back to his overjoyed brother.
"I'm… only five minutes late." he murmured softly, "Give me a break, kid. I had to work a lot today."
"Still…" Jamie trailed.
"So, what do you wanna' do? We've got all day."
He had a simple request that he could fulfill without trouble. The park was always the first place the tiny boy had in mind, even when he chewed on his cuticles and pretended to think about where he wanted to go. It was his escape into freedom for a few hours.
Kevin had introduced him into that playground when Jamie was only a toddler. With towering monkey bars, splayed out like a spider's legs, and slides that were scratched from the loose grains of sand that clung to children's clothes, it was the most fun place they'd been to since they'd discovered pizzerias. One time, Jamie had sprained his elbow on the pole to glide down off the jungle gym. Kevin had never been spanked so fervently in all of his childhood.
Jamie preferred to go out when it was so cold that the snot would literally shoot out of your nose, and when the skin felt the most moist and clean out of all of the days of the year. In the summer and the later days of spring, the grass was dead and stabbed bare feet. The jungle gym was a pan right out of the oven, and it was a game of hot potato just to slide. If you wore a skirt or shorts, be prepared to hold the back of your thighs with tears streaming down your face.
The park was called Rodney Recreational Area, near the school Kevin used to attend as a child. He slipped the bag on his shoulder off without effort and dropped it into grass that had been soaked by a recent drizzle. He unsnapped the opening and took out the baseball and bat he knew Jamie would want. The red stitching had slowly unraveled from the ball, and the leather had turned brown from so many meetings with the dirt. When he was younger, he loved playing in the boy's baseball team, and the ball was so old he could picture it just melting right in his palm.
He turned and watched Jamie climb up the pole to the jungle gym. For some reason, children tended to take the hard way up the playground equipment, which usually ended up an egg-plant colored bruise or a split lip. Maybe it was the adventure they felt, like an action hero they'd always wanted to be a sidekick to. Jamie craned his head and looked at his big brother with a smile on his face. Kevin wondered what went on in his young mind, what things he pondered upon and daydreamed of; he couldn't quite remember what went on in his own.
Jamie slid back down effortlessly and joined his brother's side, hands dangling open-palmed at his sides. He looked like one of those dogs who loved tennis balls, who stared up at the little green sphere with anticipation-filled eyes. It made him smile.
He sat down with Jamie and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which had enough gooey jam to percolate through their napkins. The trees nodded in the wind and sent the occasional group of leaves to tumble down on their heads; while they didn't bother Kevin that much, it was not pleasant when a crumpled thin leaf managed to land in his collar.
The sun, wherever it had been veiled in the throng of fat clouds, had gone down, and had illuminated the sky with red and orange waves of light. Kevin and Jamie had done a run-a-round between trees and across the sandbox. Now it was just right, just the time to take that old ball and close the day up. The moon waited only for them to stop, walk back home, and close that big cedar door.
"You know what?" Jamie questioned.
It wasn't so much a question as a statement. When he tossed the ball back as he spoke, Kevin was so focused on his brother's sudden discussion that he dropped the ball in the grass. He bent down and scooped it up with his tossing hand.
"What is it?" Kevin asked. He threw the ball back.
"I want to move out of Mom's and Dad's. I hate it there, you know. They never do anything like this with me." For a minute, Jamie just rolled the ball in his palm. Kevin looked at the ground beneath his feet. He wasn't sure how to approach Jamie's words, only because he knew that Jamie telling him was as useless as telling a random passerby with their baby stroller, or with their weird yak boots.
"You know they're trying to support you. I know how you feel, though. They didn't play too much with me, either." Kevin had caught the ball, and prepared to pitch it right back.
"But did they ever pretend you weren't there?"
His voice cracked. Kevin held the ball in his hand--his fingers whitening as his grip tightened--his larynx constricting shut. Stomach twisted in knots, he noticed that Jamie's eyes were looking at him, waiting for something to ease that horrible feeling in the little boy's heart. He could almost see a sword sticking right out of his chest as Jamie wheezed a little, making a sort of squeaky noise that wrinkled his nose and lip. The tears barely managed to slide out as he closed his eyes so tight that it looked like he was in agony.
The horrible truth always came back to haunt you, to pester and fester under your skin. It never went away, it never hid itself, and it would always challenge you to the bitter end. Kevin knew that better than anyone, but he wanted to pretend it wasn't there. Just for a little longer. It hit him like a car, like a huge diesel with a jagged, barbed front bumper. Was he sending his brother back to the wolves? Just like that, every day since he left that damned house?
Kevin walked over to his younger brother and took his hand, hold gentle and filled with regret, as it always had to be. How cruel he felt, grasping his brother's thin wrist tenderly as possible, like his hand would just brake into little pieces any moment, telling him, "We have to go now. It's getting real dark."
He wished he could have not said anything, but he did. He could always wipe away the mucus and the tears, take him out for a moment of peace and companionship, but in the end he was too afraid to help Jamie escape from both of their fears. He was in his twenties, and even then he feared his parents more than even the most frightening shadows. If it could all go away, maybe it would be better. But it wasn't the dysfunctional world within his folks that tore his stomach out. Even after he dropped off Jamie, walked home, and lied on his mattress in his small apartment, he couldn't sleep, thinking only of what a wretched man he was to his only true family. Insomnia kept him daydreaming instead of dreaming.
Kevin's body jolted up from his bed and he shot out one hand to shut off his alarm clock. It was habitual that his heart be stopped everyday by the sudden sharp sound to his ears, those incessant sounds that interrupted his muddled dreams. He rubbed his eyes, brushed back his hair, and slipped on his glasses, looking around his small bedroom into the murkiness. He never did like the migraine-inducing sight of the bright, sunny particles than accompany five in the morning. Frowning at the heaps of clothes, books, and papers that were present on every inch of his desk, nightstand, and drawer, he slunk out of bed and reached out for a shirt hanging on the bedroom doorknob. He thought about actually cleaning up his room.
It was only a thought, of course.
He brushed his teeth with as much ferocity as he could muster. The crack of dawn was so cold that his whole body went off like a Chihuahua caught in the depths of snowmelt. He observed the foam and water and blood circle down the drain and it reminded him that he needed to floss a little more, or else he'd have to go to the dentist again. To tell the utmost truth, he hadn't been to the dentist's office since he was probably ten. He didn't have the free visits like he did back then.
Wednesday was one of those days that made him feel like he'd started walking on air. He got that surreal feeling where the week seemed to be passing at 200 miles an hour. Once Thursday would hit, it'd feel unbearably slow. That Wednesday was slow and moody for most of the people living in the city, though.
It had been seven days since the newborn children had started to spontaneously grow. They went from little tiny guys with baby toes and fingers to hands as big as his own. The last time he had checked the news, they were already knee-deep into their preteens and went straight to young adulthood. If he started growing antennae and speaking in gibberish, the world was screwed; he wondered what the hammer was in the whole situation. Just a passing thought.
He poured himself some corn puffs, scooped some black walnuts from a bowl, and fished for a can of cola in his fridge.
He sat down in his living room and turned on the television. He didn't want to admit it, but he enjoyed such bizarre or crazy things like spontaneously growing babies or mermaid infants. Whatever could keep him interested as he ate his breakfast was fine with him. Another celebrity freaking out? Wonderful. Another war in some dusty country? Why not. Call it demented, call it rude and terrible, but he called it another day.
But it was the jokers on the news that Kevin especially watched. People just can't stand when they can't figure something out, Kevin thought bitterly, and reached for the drink sitting on his coffee table. The children had stopped growing when they grew hair downstairs, giving everyone that little bit of relief. He wondered quietly if the kids talked and knew the same things as normal teenagers--if they look at you with that irritating glower and holler, 'You just don't understand my life!'. This time around, they would've probably right about that one.
Kevin drank his Pepsi and felt a overwhelming sharp pain in his lower jaw. A tooth in the back of his mouth cried out in a mess of flood of twisted and bleeding nerves. He fell backward on his couch and threw both feet into the air.
"Damn you cavity! You win this round, but I'll pull you myself if it must be!" He must've looked ridiculous, kicking his feet and holding his face. Once the pain subsided, his feet melted back down.
"Congratulations, Kevin Orman. You're still alive," he breathed to himself, leaning his weight against the cushions.
Then, a noise so loud he shot forward and flipped himself behind the couch. It was louder than a gun. It didn't bang, it crunched and screeched. He felt it hit something hit the apartment from below, on the lower floor. It shook his floor; glass crunched as the outside world beyond his apartment door lit up with the sounds of metal grinding on the asphalt. The wispy smell of burnt rubber floated up into the air. It sounded vaguely like giant coke cans filled with glass crushing together, only with so much force that it would've knocked him off his feet just hearing about it.
He looked around and crawled out like an maltreated dog. His curiosity gauge was as filled at it ever had been. He walked outside and took in the sight. Down below the cars were crushed together and piled. He saw a blonde-haired girl on the ground that had been ejected from her seat, spread out like a red eagle in flight. He grabbed his head and stomach, not sure which one was giving him this tingly feeling. He rolled up his sleeves and started to run down the stairs. He could see the woman with the spread hands moving her head up and down.
"Don't move," he said, his hands hovering above her face. She'd lost so much blood, he wasn't sure what to do. "Can you talk? What's your name?" He could only think what doctors would do, or something close to it. If she spoke, then he could keep her awake. He noticed her head smashed in in the back and the way her clothes had been torn off under her. A long line of blood from her to the wreck sight told him she slid across the asphalt. He picked up a loose piece of shirt, bathed in black and red.
He looked over his shoulder.
People exited their bent and broken automobiles and looked at each other silently. He wasn't sure what to do: yell, run to help, get his camera (and what a cold-hearted person he'd be if he really did). They all looked at each other with burning red eyes.
"This is not the time to be pissed at each other!" he yelled.
But they seemed entranced. They ran at each other and started fighting. No, not with fists made and threats yelled. They pawed each other's clothes and tore away at skin with their nails.
"What the hell…?" He didn't have the nerve to ask them what the fuck they were thinking, but his own gut told him something wasn't… right. He jumped when warm fingers gripped touched his skin. A hand grabbed his wrist and pulled on him. The woman with the bloody head and eagle-spread arms looked up at him with eyes like the others, with violent eyes that wanted to kill him. Those eyes made his body shake. He pulled away from her unbelievably strong grip.
"What the hell is wrong with you people?"
He backed up one stair, then another. An older woman with curly brown hair looked up at him, her child choked to death at her feet. Kevin shook his head disbelievingly at her.
"What the fuck is wrong with you…?"
She started running up the stairs after him, growling guttural noises so spine-tingling that he spun around and ran the rest of the way up the apartment stairs and aimed to get inside and lock the door behind him. She was close behind him. His bowels loosened until he felt too sick and nauseous to even move anymore. His hands were sweating dirty lines in the creases of his palms.
He slammed the door behind him and locked it. He heard nothing else of the shrieking girl. But his body felt too sick to do anything else and he heaved breakfast on the side of the door.
"…This mysterious problem seems to have progressed further. All words from every portion of the city have strangely vanished…"
He looked up at the television screen. As the newscaster spoke, the words that Is this world going crazy?" he asked, not expecting any answer. Kevin suddenly realized he was still clenching a piece of that woman's shirt in his hand. He crushed it over his heart and tried to regain his composure. It seemed that, the more the newscaster spoke, the more his voice faded out.
"… Even now, the news station cannot give you any information on your television… all words are gone… Elders bursting into flame… Cannot leave town… If you leave, you will die…"
After that came the salt-and-pepper, irritating hum of static electricity. Kevin sat on the ground and watched the small screen, and worked his jaw back and forth until it hurt. Something's wrong. Something's bad.
He rushed around the apartment until he found a pencil and paper and scribbled in messy cursive. The paper remained blank and white, as if the pencil never even touched it. He pressed and wrote over and over until the tip broke off, but there were no letters, not even an indention.
He ran his fingers through his hair and breathed in sharply.
"What's going on around here?" he questioned aloud, and looked through the papers that were in his bedroom.
All blank. Blank, blank, blank.
He tossed the papers down and raced back to the door, but refused to open it. He placed his ear against the wood and listened to the muffled yells and clanks. Something fleshy and thick hit his door and pulled his ear away in alarm. Something outside was dying.
Kevin listened with his mouth ajar and his breathing shallow and hushed. His heart pounded like a drum in his ear. Outside, the air filled with smoke. There were a few gurgled yells. He backed up, his eyes unable to peel away at the door. Blood pooled and slid through the cracks between his door and the ground, the white carpet slowly darkened and made syrupy and sticky. His mind tried to piece together all of these things as they took place. The couch beckoned him over, and he sat.
Written on television screen was:
WE WEEP FOR THOSE WHO BLEED.