Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Spotlight: John Hennessy's AT THE END


At the End
by John Hennessy




Page count: 228
Publisher: John Hennessy
eISBN-13: 9781476249599
ISBN-13: 978-1475171884
Genre: YA sci-fi









Blurb/Synopsis:


Night 1: 12 billion taken.
Day 1: Confusion.
Night 2: 13 billion taken.
Day 2: Panic.
Night 3: 13 billion taken.
Day 3: The fight for survival begins.


In 2048, the human population borders 39 billion after the termination of the birth control industry, and the realities of overcrowding have sunken into the minds of the world, until billions mysteriously go missing. In the wake of civilization’s collapse, a trio of teenage gamers from Washington struggle to endure. Maggy, a strong-willed intellectual, leads Darrel and Félix, two shy geeks, on an expedition down the west coast, as they try to determine the source of humanity’s downfall.


At the End is a fast-paced post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel geared toward teen, featuring two strong female protagonists and two geeky male protagonists. The book's chapters alternate from Darrel's point of viewand Maggy's point of view.


CHAPTER 1

They’re All Gone

They did it; they really did it.
The Catholics put an end to the birth control industry, eliminating contraceptives by over 97%, from what I understood. How? I should have paid more attention in school.
The room became darker the longer I stared at the ceiling. Everything was so still, so quiet. It was almost as if I lived on top of a mountain, alone, in a sanctuary of solitude. This was far from any sanctuary. The alarm clock on the nightstand pierced my ears as if it sought to kill me. I hated that sound, always had, and probably always would. Although, this would probably be the last time I listened to it. Would that be so bad?
I reached to my left where the harsh annoyance emanated from a tiny silver box. I moved as though I were a slug, despite the fact that I could barely stand the beeping. Numb to the world now, maybe, but I had never experienced this feeling before; I could have misinterpreted the emptiness. 
My finger must have made it to the correct button because the sound finally ceased. The room glowed with electronics. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw complete darkness. My computer: a tiny metal case smaller than a shoebox that perched on my desk, silent as it slept, lit most of the room. From what I understood, old computers always made humming noises, cooled by fans. I’m not sure what cooled that bugger, but I’d never heard a peep out of it. On the wall above my desk hung the Ultimate Resolution Display, a marvel of the twenties, I believe. Considered garbage in comparison to the shelved items on the current market, but it worked consistently. My eyes darted to the 3D contact lenses resting next to the clock. Quickly, I inserted them with painless ease. They didn’t change my dark-blue eye color like some contacts did.
I plopped down into the roller chair, awakened the cursor, and ran a search for the world population. Still 38,638,347,313. No one would ever change it again, probably for the best. 
I cleared my throat, just like I always had done.
I drifted into the kitchen, possibly thirty minutes later, or maybe three; I didn’t know where time went. But it passed almost at a creep that I’m certain of. Well, I’m not certain about anything anymore, but about as certain as I dared to be. The neo-plastic countertops were bare; they even sparkled in the rising sunlight that found entrance into the house through minor slits in the blinds. An empty fruit bowl sat near the raised edge of the counter, waiting to be filled again.
I cleared my throat. My eyes glazed over, the fruit bowl vanished, hidden in a mist that did not exist. 
The world came back as a finger nudged a spoon that sat in wait for me on the counter. The countertops were designed to look like wood, a modern kitchen. I had wondered what modern kitchens looked like half a century ago, probably bleak stainless steel. I had seen part of one before, about five years ago, as it was updated to neo-plastic, a type of super plastic that I knew nothing about. Again, I should have paid more attention in school. Maybe. 
I poured a bowl of cereal. Sugarcoated wheat flakes, I could have eaten them every day for the rest of my life, but I didn’t think they would be around much longer, then again, I’m guessing neither would I. Time escaped me again, as by the time I made it to the couch, the flakes were soggy. Damn. 
The couch was as comfortable as ever. Now this was a sanctuary, a haven, at least for the time being. “Uhrm. On,” I said loud enough for the sensor to pick up my voice. The brand new screen lit up. Immediately, a news anchor—a pretty woman—dressed well in a tan suit, came on. 
“Good morning and welcome back. The time is three minutes passed the eight o’clock hour, Tuesday, the twenty-fourth of March, twenty forty-eight. Today, so far it is estimated that another two million people have gone missing in the Seattle metropolitan area . . .”
“Channel 227,” I groaned. I couldn’t listen to the news anymore. Cartoons on the other hand I could watch, they did not remind me of the disaster happening outside. A rat jumped out on the screen, almost real. A cat chased its tail, but the rat had better plans, ones involving dynamite. So unrealistic, only people killed things with explosives. I loved it. 
All the blinds were drawn down, as I hoped to ignore the street, and the odd, high-pitched noises that periodically came from it. A while later, I thought a midmorning nap seemed appropriate, falling asleep to the boom of cartoon violence.
A creak from the front door stirred me. My chest tightened. The end at last, I hoped. 
The creak grew louder, followed by silence. 
Something bumped the piano in the room off from the foyer. A curse escaped, floated into the air, and was eventually picked up by my subaverage listening skills. I sat, encased in ice. I heard the blood in my ear. I thought maybe a heart attack would kill me first. My short brown hair bristled like a porcupine. I could feel my rosy-cheeked complexion paling.
Four limbs touched the ground like a cat, fairly soft, but I picked them up despite the voices coming from the TV. I concentrated so hard on the sound that it was all I could hear.
They drew closer, slow, as if they imitated a sloth. The last step I heard was at the end of the couch, just on the other side of its arm. My head was probably centimeters away. I don’t think I breathed. My heart thudded against my ribs, as if it were going to split me in two. I waited.
An almond-shaped head popped out from behind the arm, two round, burnt eyes stared at me from behind nifty spectacles. “Darrel?” a voice said, but I was on my way out. Blackness surrounded me, engulfed me; it took care of me, like a warm electric blanket. 
Water splashed my face. I guess that worked, because I woke up, wet and screaming. Curse after curse, all the ones I knew, I let them fly. 
“Calm down, bromigo,” a voice tried to soothe me. The almond head dropped into view in front of me. I erected myself with my back against the couch. I didn’t trust what I saw. 
“Félix?” I gasped. I coughed some, still short on breath. I cleared my throat. Shocked, I just gaped at him. I never thought I’d see his dark, pecan skin again. 
His long face turned into a smile, presenting his luminous white teeth. “Yeah, it’s me. You going to pass out on me again?” he asked, nervous. I saw his hands twitch, scared. He ran his shaky fingers through his short black hair.
“No. At least I don’t think so. I could use some water though.” A second later he was pouring me a glass. I never thought simple water could taste so damn good. “Thanks,” I managed, setting the empty glass on a neo-plastic coaster. Mom hated watermarks. 
“No prob, bromigo,” he said. He poured himself a glass, sat down in the chair next to the couch, and stared at the animated bullets coming right at us. “Can I ask you something?” He shifted in the velvety fabric, turning to see my expression.
My eyes were still a little unfocused, but my mind felt sharp, guessing as to what he was going to ask. “All right.”
“Why are you watching cartoons?”
“You see the mark on the door?” I asked him. I heard the shakiness of my voice. 
“Yeah, I did.”
“That’s why,” I answered. I turned back to the showdown, two red-stashed cowboys settling a dispute with a duel. 
“You should be watching the news, to understand what’s going on,” he remarked.
“Is that what you’ve been doing?” 
He nodded. 
“Do you know what’s going on?”
He shook his head. 
“Then I’m just going to watch cartoons, okay?”
“Well that’s not logical, it just means no one knows yet,” he said. He took another sip from his glass.
“Félix, why are you here? Better yet, how are you here? Yesterday the news said not to go outside, that it’s unsafe; I haven’t seen anyone on the streets for over a day.” 
Whatever I said struck a wounded chord in him. He buried his head in his lap, sobbing. 
I heard a muffled, “They’re gone.”
Damn, so many.
“Mine too,” I said. “Taken the first night, yours?”
“The second,” he replied. 
His words were stifled by a cough, but I understood. “So last night was your first night alone?” He raised his head and nodded, taking off his glasses to dry his cheeks. “Well don’t worry, they’ll be back.” I didn’t know what else to say, more than likely all my words would be lies. “You want to play Death Squad?”
“No,” he said. I think that was the first time in two years that he didn’t want to play. “I want to watch the news.”
“Uhrm. There’s no point. It’s been the same news since yesterday morning,” I told him. 
He stood up, angered. “Billions of people are missing, your parents, my parents, don’t you care?”
“Yeah, I care. But she’s not saying anything new, none of them are. They don’t know anything.”
“But maybe they do now, when did you last check?” he asked, hope unconcealed in his words. 
I scanned the clock on the TV. “Less than an hour ago.” 
He shook his head again, not listening. 
“I’m telling you nothing has changed.” 
He ignored my words; he needed to hear good news. “Channel 0002,” Félix yelled. The same news anchor appeared on screen, streaming the same broadcast she had been for the last several hours. 
“Today’s current estimate has peaked at 38 billion people missing, about 13 billion more globally than yesterday.” She changed her tone; maybe something new was coming to break her from her repetitive blathering. “Surprisingly, the first two nights occurred without a trace of recovered video footage, but last night a French woman caught on camera quite a disturbing sight, using an antiquated 1998 camcorder. We have managed to interface the outdated technology.” They rolled the footage: a mellow-toned French woman shot a distorted image of a nighttime street at least three stories below. A few city lights illuminated parts of the sidewalk, where large, fuzzy black dots crossed under them in single file. The image went in and out, alternating between darkness and a strange static screen I had never seen before. 
The camcorder played back a harsh noise drawing closer, high-pitched scratches that sounded as if claws dug into the building’s side, climbing. As the sound grew louder, the camera began to shake more, as though an endless twitch struck its bearer. “Do you see anything?” a man’s voice asked in French before the TV translated his words into English. 
The camera withdrew from the window, still focused on its frame. “Spots,” she replied. “Could be people down there.” The sound advanced faster for a few seconds until it ceased altogether, stopping near the window. 
“What is that noise?” the man asked with a tense voice. 
“I don’t know,” she replied, less afraid than her male counterpart. She edged closer again. “Maybe a squirrel.” 
The silence coiled fear in me, ready to discharge, but my eyes remained glued to the display despite the anticipation of horror. 
“Too big,” the man responded. The camera crept to where the footage had started by the window, but before it reached its destination, a claw swiped it to the carpeted flooring. The lens recorded nothing but blackness after, yet an audible short scream burst forth. 
“Estelle . . . Estelle?” the man whispered, almost choking in fear. A rush of footsteps ran at the camera, then carried the device off into more darkness. 
The news anchor reappeared. “That’s all the footage reveals, a giant claw, larger than a Tiger’s. From this, we know whatever the creature is, it is capable of scaling vertical walls. The man escaped his apartment and found his way to a news station still in operation around seven this morning . . .” 
I couldn’t listen anymore. “Channel 227, priority one,” I spoke clearly. The TV recognized the command and changed back to a cowboy riding away on a horse as the sun set. 
“What are you doing?” Félix screamed at me. His eyes had been just as stationary as mine, fixed to the screen. “They have new information, change it back.” My silence awakened a fury in him that I had never witnessed before. His skinny fingers curled into a fist with eyes targeting my face. “Channel 0002.”
“Access denied, setting priority one in activation,” the speakers communicated. 
“My dad added the setting so that my little cousin would stop switching the stations,” I said. 
Félix stared at me, surprised. “Figures, you don’t know anything about electronics.” His arm trembled in agitation. 
Would he really strike at me? 
“All right, bromigo. Calm down.” I put up my hands and swallowed. The dryness of my throat gave way to slight tears. “Channel 0002,” I commanded. No use arguing when he felt passionately enough to make fists. 
In size, I was much bigger than him, but I had little heart to fight in real life. I thought him the same, but it looked like my opinion turned out wrong. Clearing my throat, I seized my empty glass while he refocused his attention to the screen. 
Words that overflowed with panic chimed out of the speakers. The rushed voice did not slow as the TV transitioned to a new image: the Space Needle climbed in the distance, failing to compete with a multitude of newer buildings that dwarfed the symbolic tower. The sound faltered, skipping over a few words. An instant later, it cut out altogether. The camera zoomed in, the screen blurred unable to draw the pixels fast enough. The screen adjusted to an image hovering above the city. The picture began to follow the sound in its collapse, flickering between static and skyline. 
The image stabilized for a moment.
Félix gasped. 
“No way,” I muttered, staggered by the inconceivable spaceship that floated near the Space Needle, poised for possible destruction. “You believe it?” I asked.
He shook his head. 
Of course he didn’t. Despite the hundreds, maybe thousands of imaginary spaceships my eyes had encountered, nothing prepared me for what I saw. I had flown ships that looked and felt so real; I sometimes began to believe they were, but not anymore. Not anymore. 
A news chopper flew towards the great machine: five black and red ovals, like bees’ abdomens the size of skyscrapers, trailed behind a slightly larger oval, connected by support beams that curved at peculiar angles, almost as if made for aesthetics instead of reinforcement purposes. A strange red light glowed at the butt end of the five, emitting trace amounts of a crimson gas that disappeared soon after it encountered the firmament. 
The chopper drew closer, almost within a few body lengths to the front oval. The camera zoomed in again, concentrating on the one section, and as the pixels adjusted, dozens of curved poles that extended out from the nose of the body and attached to the rear, all came into sight. 
The ship looked more complicated than the interior of the human body, including the brain. “I guess graphic designers got it all wrong,” Félix said. 
I nodded my concurrence. 
“Invasion?” I asked, though I didn’t know how I expected him to reply; it’s not as if he would have known any more than I did. 
The display cut out again. When it returned the chopper was descending beyond a rate within control; it was crashing, heading for the waters of the Sound. The camera attempted to keep track of the chopper, but a second later the screen went haywire, producing only static. 
I twisted to meet my friend’s utterly stunned face. “Invasion,” I repeated. Panic hit Félix, but I think it hit me harder. I ran, skidded, tumbled, and clambered to the front window. Curses were the only words that left our mouths, in an echo similar to a fading song chorus.
I brushed aside the curtains. 
Normal. Everything still looked the same, except no busy cars to be heard. “Did you see anything on your way over?” I asked. 
“Not a thing,” Félix replied. “Maybe they are only in the bigger cities. Seattle is only an hour away by car.” 
“Then how come everyone is gone? No, I think they’re here, somewhere . . .” My arm twitched, then my leg gave out, sending my face to the carpet. 
“You okay, bromigo?” he asked, twitching as well. 
“No . . .” I said. It was the end, happening just like in Fury of War and Our Descent, the two games I played most before the release of Death Squad. It was now. “What do we do?” I lay there, motionless. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t survive.
They would get me . . .
“Do you know anyone with a telescope? Maybe we can look for ourselves, to see what’s out there.”
“I remember Jacob Moletti had one,” I replied. 
“He goes to U-Dub, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah, he does, and from what I understand it’s changed him drastically. All he does is drink now.” Or did. Probably taken now, and it’s doubtful the aliens gave out free cocktails. 
“Well, we should go take a look to see if it is still there.”
“Do you really want to know?” I asked. I didn’t. I’d seen too many bug-eyed aliens on screen, at least enough to discourage my curiosity to go and search for them. 
He slumped down next to me, hands twitching as if attacked by an epileptic fit. Taciturnity became our mood. What was there left to say? Goodbye? The time had long passed for such sentiments, too many people taken unexpectedly.
Time betrayed me, for the next time my eyes crossed the kitchen clock, only twenty minutes had passed, but I swear the sun should have been settling down for bed. Félix laughed when he saw me staring at the clock, flustered. 
“You know it’s funny, all we’ve ever done is play video games, and now when it comes to it, all that training means nothing,” he said, still laughing. 
I turned to him. “Training?” I said. His meaning was lost upon me. 
“Don’t you think we’ve been trained for this? The military does the same thing for combat simulations,” he said. His grin widened.
“Except they have people screaming at them, they have people instructing them, they have other tests besides combat games,” I countered. 
“True . . . but still . . .” He wanted to say something more, but stopped himself. 
“You really think we should go to Jacob’s,” I said, not entirely excited for his answer. 
“His father works for NASA, doesn’t he? That’s why his parents split?”
“From what I understand, yeah. You think his father tells him secrets . . . stuff like the existence of aliens?”
Félix propped himself up using the window ledge. “All I know, bromigo, is that I can’t watch cartoons waiting to die, waiting to be taken.” He hastened to the kitchen, where he began to empty the knife block. 
“What are you doing, bromigo?” I asked. Uncertain as to what he intended to do out there, on the streets that promised our demise.
“What’s the first thing you learn before playing Our Descent online?” he asked, frantically scouring through drawers. He placed older knives next to his assembled weaponry. 
The answer came easily, probably a saying I’d repeated a million times since I had heard it years ago. “The well armed take advantage, whether physical or intellectual, all are assets to the soldier,” I said without fault. For some odd reason the saying sparked a feeling of courage in me. It ignited a strange passion that I’d never comprehended. 
“Then let us be well armed, bromigo,” he said, raising his eyes from the collection of blades to meet mine, now ablaze with the will to fight. I placed the thought of surrender in the shadows of my mind. 
I jumped to my feet, invigorated. “My dad’s tools,” I yelled. His eyes glinted at the idea. We raced to the garage, lined with woodworking utensils. I clutched one of the several electric handsaws, charged by the sun. “The batteries should last years, unless the aliens block out the sky.” All at once, the adrenaline ran dry, replaced once again by fear. 
Years . . . 
How long could we really survive? Video game campaigns ended when you shut off the application. A Nightmare was beginning to unfold in my mind. 
A hand landed on my shoulder. I jerked. Félix smiled. “Let’s just make it to Jacob’s first.” I’m pretty sure I nodded. His effort to comfort me freaked me out more. 
I tried repeating the energizing motto, but its power lessened the more I recited it. Félix held up a hatchet, twirled it around. He eyed it for a long time, then asked, “Why does your dad have a hatchet when he has all of these saws?” 
“Beats me, my father is a strange one, he probably used it to chop up wood just for fun.” I searched around, nothing resembled any real weaponry, then I remembered my neighbor. “The Troll,” I shouted unintentionally. 
“What?”
“The Troll,” I repeated, “he has all that hunting gear.”
“I’m not going anywhere near that place. What’s wrong with this stuff?”
“The range,” I said. My fingers glided over the sharp teeth of a blade. “None of this stuff has any range; it’s all last resort gear.” He nodded, he hadn’t thought of that either. “Best to fire from ten meters than to slice from one.”
“All right, but if he’s home, we’re dead.”
“Uhrm. We’re dead if we don’t go, too,” I added. “Uhrm.” The thought of leaving the house started to agitate me, my throat felt as if it would never be clear again. “Uhrm.”
“You all right, bromigo? You’re clearing your throat more than normal,” he observed. 
“Guess it’s not a normal day.” 
His lips moved to one side of his face in a half-grin. “Guess you’re right about that. Let’s put this stuff in a bag with some food and get going. Might take us a while to get to Jacob’s and I don’t want to be out in the dark.”
We gathered the equipment, grabbing any spare blades and accessories. My dad’s utility belts proved useful for stuffing knives into as well. In twenty minutes we transformed ourselves from scared-shitless teenagers into scared-shitless teenagers with garage weapons. 
Ready for departure, I surveyed the street through the peephole. Nothing. I hadn’t heard a dog bark for two days, and I hadn’t heard a bird since yesterday, but then I wasn’t listening for them either. 
“Uhrm. Ready?” I rotated so that I could see Félix. 
He carried a handsaw in his right and a hatchet in his left. “I wish I were.”
I nodded and opened the door. Slow and with caution, at least I tried, but the damn thing sounded off like a siren, alarming anything within a thousand meter radius with its impairing creak. An exaggeration on my part, probably, time would tell shortly. 
I lived at the end of Rhododendron Way, which hadn’t change much in the last twenty years, from what I understood. In fact, Bellingham hadn’t changed much. Still relatively small, fewer than 200,000, still considered progressive in its collective views, from what I understood anyway. 
The Troll was different. I didn’t know why he didn’t live up north in Lynden, probably would’ve fared better there, but then again, I knew little about the man. Except that he favored hunting, boasting an arsenal fit to take down a small militia on his own. No one on the block had liked that.
The cul-de-sac presented us with more cars than the usual Tuesday afternoon. Extra vehicles dozed in driveways all down the street, probably never to be woken again. We slinked into the front yard, crouched behind some flowers I had never bothered to learn the names of, mostly because my mother rattled them off as if I already knew them. I examined the neighborhood. 
Dead.
The same symbol marked all the doors that I could see: a slanted line with three lines pointing upward, like a tilted E, colored black and red. I turned back at the engraved marking on my door, my eyes flooded, no stopping the tears. I wanted to run back inside, sit back down on the comfy couch and watch cartoons, so that I could pretend that everything was fine. Not a chance. The TV had died like everything else around. Damn.
I glanced at Félix; his face was the same. We weren’t soldiers . . .
I could not say for sure how long it took us, but we made it to the Troll’s house, three houses up and across the street. “His house is marked,” Félix noted in a tone full of apprehension.
“Yeah, but he could still be alive, after all, we are . . .” I said. We spun around to meet each other, staring. Neither of us had thought about that. Our houses were marked, yet we weren’t taken. 
“The foil?” we said in unison. 
“But that was just for fun. It doesn’t do anything,” he said. Two years ago, we had put foil up above our beds, for protection from aliens, of course. It started as a joke at school, I scarcely remember why, and neither of us had bothered to take it down since. 
“Maybe we should wrap ourselves in it,” I suggested. “Just in case.” 
“Yeah, all right, I guess it couldn’t hurt.” 
I nodded. My skin pimpled from a shiver, the silence of the street was starting to eat at my already fragile nerves. We confronted the mark on the door, then snuck inside, the Troll’s properly lubed hinges produced no noise. In the kitchen, we stocked up on more cutlery, as his were top notch, sharpened to perfection. Conveniently, the Troll had three large boxes of foil that we used to blanket our bodies.
We crept down the stairs, but our furtive steps seemed pointless, nothing jumped out of the dark at us. 
“Over here,” I said, heading towards an old armoire covered by dust. The whole room matched, decaying and dusty. I opened both of the doors to the furniture, where several bows greeted me, including an ancient one without any technological enhancements. Hunting blades hung on the inside of the doors, a few of them the size of small swords. 
“No guns,” Félix observed. 
“Guess not.” I snatched one of the newer bows, and a pair of goggles fell to the floor, a small dust cloud puffed up upon the impact. I scooped up the pure black goggles that looked like ski goggles. After I extracted my 3D contacts, I put them over my eyes. I flipped the switch on the side and the room lit up in black and white. “Wow, I can see everything.”
“Infrared. There are lights on the side of the goggles.” Félix pointed to a light, then grabbed his own pair. 
“Slick.”
“Expensive.”
“Yeah, I bet,” I said, pulling back on the bowstring. “Except for that.” I nodded at the ancient bow. “Don’t know why he would keep that around.”
“Probably worth a ton, bromigo. It looks like an artifact.” He touched the heavy wood, careful not to knock it over. Eventually he selected one, stowed a bundle of arrows, along with half the hunting blades. The other half I took, placing the deadliest looking one in a soft sheath that I wrapped around my calf. The Troll had three quivers, one probably as old as the ancient bow, the other two maybe a few years past their prime, but they held together. 
I scanned the room for anything else viable for combat, but came up empty. Pictures of the Troll and hunting companions hung on the wall, displaying their acquisitions. I’d never seen such a spitting image of the fantasy creature; the apt nickname described the man in full detail.
I turned back to Félix.
“Ready, bromigo?” Félix’s voice was as shaky as my sweaty hands. I hoped I would never have to fire the bow; I would never hit a target with such rebellious nerves. A sickness attacked my stomach, climbing up my throat. I saw the ceiling above before the goggles went flying from my head. 
Félix sprinkled cold water on my face as I came to. “Hey,” I said weakly. He handed me the bottle, but it was a hard pour. He guided the bottle for me, my hands still quivering. “Thanks.” 
He nodded. “Sure, bromigo.” 
“Time?” I asked.
He pressed a button on his wristwatch. It lit up for a second. “Three,” he answered. 
Good, it had only been ten minutes or so, not the end of the world. Not yet. He helped me to my feet. “Maggy,” I mumbled. 
“What was that, bromigo?”
“Maggy, I forgot about Maggy,” I said, searching the darkness for the goggles. I found them under an antique chair. 
“You think she made it?” he asked. 
“Uhrm. She was in on the joke, too. Remember?” I took a step and wobbled, almost collapsing again. He reached to support me. “I’m fine,” I said, waving away his hands. “I’m fine. Let’s go check out her house, we have time before it gets dark.”
“Sure, bromigo. Sure.” I was glad to hear his sympathy.
When I had first met Maggy a few years ago, before we became close friends, I had the biggest crush on her. Funny thing about that, it never actually went away. I think she had always known how I felt, girls always seemed to know, but they were excellent at concealing any awareness. That was probably to make it less awkward when their feelings didn’t match.
We met daylight again in the Troll’s backyard, which connected to the Railroad Trail that wound all around Bellingham. My foot sunk in on the soft trail, mushy from last night’s rain. On the other side of the trail, a fence stopped us at somebody’s backyard, too high for me to scale. 
“There’s a gate over there.” Félix pointed to the next neighbor down. The latch was simple, a fence more to keep dogs in than people out. No dogs chased us as we crossed into the front yard to Lake Crest Drive. We crouch-walked along the sidewalk, passing a few houses until Crestline Drive. Her bright yellow home shined, as if it smiled in the overcast. 
We stopped on the porch, whispering what to do if she wasn’t there, or if it was a good idea at all to know. The foreign symbol marked her door. I gripped the handle. “Okay,” I sighed. 
I twisted the knob. 
A knife struck the molding. In a panic, I swiveled, pushing Félix off the porch as I jumped away. I heard a strange shrill scream. It was my own. My heart had pounded playing video games before, but nothing compared to this. And the heat. It was the worst hot flash, the temperature lingered only in the 40’s, maybe low 50’s outside, but my skin sweated as if it were in the high 90’s. I gushed like a waterslide. 
I spotted a few bushes and hid behind them, desperately trying to calm my breathing; it was as rapid as a fully automatic bursting 5000 rounds per minute. Félix joined me a second later. “You all right?” he asked. I nodded, drawing in a deep, deep breath. 
I had dropped my bow, so I reached for the swordlike knife resting against my calf. The blade shook and shook. Damn my nerves. I looked over at Félix. He nodded as he drew the same conclusion I had come to: aliens. 
I cleared my throat a hundred times, the vein in my neck bulged as if a thousand snakes shot through it in rapid succession.
We charged around the corner, yelling war cries. I threw the knife, but it more slipped from my hand than anything, rotating in the air like a saucer. Félix fired an arrow towards the door, but missed, only to hit the doorbell. My knife didn’t make it that far, as it thudded into the stairs of the porch. 
Maggy stood in the doorway, eyeing us with complete disbelief. “Jelly? Tortilla?” She carried two steak knifes, but dropped them once she saw us. “You morons . . . you’re alive . . .”
At that moment, I hoped the wetness around my crotch was sweat. “IQ,” I said. I ran up the steps, hugging her skinny body as tightly as I could muster, though my muscles trembled, aquiver with fear. I released my weak hold. “You tried to kill us.”
“You tried to kill me.”
“Even?”
“Even,” she replied. “You guys made it, how?”
“Do you still have the foil hanging above your bed?” Félix asked. 
She nodded, her long, sleek black hair swaying in the movement. 
“We think it has something to do with that.”
She giggled. “Is that why you guys are as shiny as a new quarter?” 
“You guessed it, bramiga,” he answered. “You should wrap yourself as well, just in case it’s true.” She led us inside, where we sat on the couch while she neatly dressed herself in foil. 
I stared at her beauty, probably a bad habit I should deter, but I didn’t know how. She was short, thin, and an Asian that actually lived up to the old stereotype: she was a brainiac. Her yellow eyes stunned me for a few moments every time I looked into them. “When were your parents taken, IQ?” I asked.
“The first, yours?”
“Same,” I replied.
“The second,” Félix said, taking a sip from a water bottle. I had already engulfed half a container in the few minutes since we had sat. The icy liquid helped steady my out-of-control heartbeat. 
“Sorry, Tortilla, must be a little harder.” He didn’t reply, just slowly drank his water. “Jelly, can you help me?” She struggled to wind the foil around her back. 
“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t mind her nickname for me, even though it meant I was bigger, it also implied a sweetness, like Santa Claus and his bowl of a stomach. Félix never complained about his either, but he subscribed to even fewer cultural stereotypes than she did, plus his mother never cared for it, always making sure that Maggy understood that they weren’t Mexican but Salvadoran. Why it mattered though, I never understood.
When she finished with the foil, she concealed it under thin clothes. “So I don’t look like the dorks you two look like,” she said. When she was done poking fun, we explained the plan, the journey to Moletii’s house. “I’m in, bromigos.” 
“You’ll need gear.” Of course, she already knew that. She played just as many video games, and spent just as many hours taking down opponents as we did. Packed with kitchen utensils and a replica axe from Lord of the Rings, she added in a few more things that we had forgotten, chiefly, a change of clothes. 
“Isn’t the axe a little heavy,” I said.
She laughed. “It’s not the 20’s.” She tossed me the axe; it was as light as the hunting knife. “Some composite plastic, probably stronger than that blade you have,” she bragged. 
With a smirk, I handed it back to her.
“You two ready?” Félix asked. “It’s almost four.” 
“Ready,” she said. I nodded. We went down the porch and looked both ways. “West Birch Street would be faster, we’ll just have to cut through a few yards.”
“Guess no one will mind,” I said.
“Unless they are alive. Maybe we should look for survivors on the way,” Félix spoke up, nocking an arrow back, primed for engagement. I copied him, though I doubted it would make a difference, the damn thing would fly ten meters from anything I aimed at.
“We have about three and a half hours of decent daylight, if we look too much, we won’t make it there before twilight, and I don’t have any nifty goggles,” Maggy said. She started towards the cul-de-sac, axe raised, and eyes on duty, alert.
I followed close to her right, so Félix trailed to her left, putting her in the middle. She could probably take us both, but that didn’t matter, something instinctual made us bookends. After two cluttered yards, we hit the pavement of West Birch, and the silence finally tore into me. 
“Are the rounds of a dead end called a cove-va-sac or cul-de-sac?” I asked. I had loosened my hold on the bowstring, but the perfectly aligned arrow did not move regardless of the applied tension. 
“I think it is cul-te-sac,” Félix countered.
Maggy laughed. “No, it’s definitely cul-de-sac.”
“I think it is cove-va, myself,” I said.
“Have your phone?” she asked. I shook my head. Félix dug around in his pockets but came up empty-handed from them all. I doubted any of us had gone somewhere without a phone since the third grade. Weird.
“Well, it shouldn’t be hard to find one,” Maggy said. The conversation numbed the high levels of apprehension, at least enough for us to breathe at a regular pace. “Let’s try that house.” She pointed up the road to a two-story baby blue home with yellow trim. 
The front door was locked, so Maggy swung her axe at the crack where the door met the frame. The fake wood splintered after a few hard strokes, and with one hard kick, she threw it open. I stared at Félix. Neither of us knew she was so tough: built like a kitten, but as deadly as a cougar. 
It looked like any other house I’d seen, moderately clean, some dirty dishes on the counter, a recycling pile too tall to ever be taken out in one trip, and in the living room a spotless jumbo TV bracketed to the wall in front of a couch. 
“There’s one.” Maggy spotted a phone beside the toaster. She pressed a few unlock combinations until the screen granted access. Her nimble fingers hit the voice input button. “Define cul-de-sac,” she said. 
The phone searched for a few seconds before a woman replied, “A street, lane, or passage closed at one end, a blind alley.” 
“Yes! Ha!” She showed us the spelling.
“Lucky, that’s all,” I said, but there was no stopping her triumphant, smug grin. 
“Shh,” Félix uttered. “I think something else is in the house.” I listened. Nothing. It was enough to creep all of us out, as I was the last to bolt over the threshold of the door. We let up on the gas when we rounded the corner where Birch forked off into east and west. 
“Probably just our nerves,” Maggy said when her lungs caught up. “Just nerves.”
I cleared my throat a dozen or so times, downing water like a kitchen drain, but it didn’t matter. Félix tossed me his inhaler after he finished spraying his throat. I shook it, counting to thirty. I shot the medicine into my mouth and held until a cough broke loose. Maggy took it next.
Asthma, I don’t think I had known anyone who didn’t have it. A plague of the twenty-first century, but medicine combatted it rigorously, making it little more than a nuisance. 
“Ready?” Maggy asked. It didn’t matter, though, whether or not we were, she took off towards Alabama Street. We were already over the hump of Alabama Hill, so at least we had that going for us, well, more for me. I was exhausted, yet the distance that I had covered was laughable at best. 
I stopped when we started past the Lakeview Condos. “Spooky.” The giant complex of expensive housing emanated a chill of death. All of the doors within the complex were marked just as all the neighborhood houses were. Félix tugged at my sleeve to press on.
Whatcom Lake came into view as we hit Electric Ave; the habitual ripples of the water from boats and people were gone, the body of water lay motionless as any fluid ever could. The stoplight at the cross street still functioned in its routine, signaling non-existent traffic. Still no birds sang any jolly tunes, not even seagulls or crows flew in the sky. It was barren, except for the heavy clouds. 
We met North Shore Drive a block or so north, turning northeast along the shore. We passed about four houses shielded by trees and bushes, until an empty driveway gave way to a lone house. Maggy, observant as ever, regarded the mark on the door. “It’s different.”
We walked down into the drive. “What do you think that means?” I asked. They both shook their heads. The symbol only had two lines that pointed upward, colored solely black. Fearless, Maggy pushed the door open so that we could peer inside. There was nothing dissimilar from any of the other houses. 
“Let’s check it out,” she urged. 
Félix slipped in first, bow shaking but ready to launch. I refilled my water after we concluded nothing stranger had happened compared to any other home. The residents were missing, nothing unusual about that.
Carelessly, we marched down the stairs to the daylight basement. 
I heard a few crunches, as if bones were being crushed under extreme pressure. We rounded the corner. Indeed, that’s what it was.
Horrorstruck, we all screamed. A beast that resembled a lioness was hunched over a corpse, chewing down a slab of human flesh. Surprised, it jumped up on all fours, standing two meters at its shoulders. Two more arms sprang forward from its shoulders, jointed in too many ways to count. At their ends rotated a hand with four humanlike fingers and two thumbs. 
There was no time.
My arrow flew towards a bookshelf to the left of it; Félix’s arrow penetrated a foreleg. A roar that sounded unlike a true lion, as low and ominous as any video-game dragon, rattled our ribcages. I swallowed a hundred times; no more saliva existed to scream. 
Maggy sprinted for the sliding glass door to our right, flipped up the lever, and threw the door open. “Hurry!” she screamed.
Félix crossed the threshold last, stubbing a foot on the track; he tumbled onto the wet lawn in a crash. A deadly paw stomped down on his foot. He cried. We turned and saw the giant mouth, brimming with scything teeth, about to crush his skull. Maggy pelted the alien with steak knives. I launched the hunting blade sheathed around my calf. Within moments, the creature was speckled with our weapons.
It roared again. My stomach quaked and gurgled. I nocked another dart and loosed it. It flew straight for its shoulder. As it hit, the alien twirled and stepped back. Félix crawled until he was able to stand. We darted for the lake. 
A well-maintained motorboat, powered by the sun, was moored to a short dock, strangely idle in the creepy water. Maggy was the first to reach it. She jumped in. “No key,” she yelled. I helped Félix settled down into a seat. The Alien, now recovered from our startling attack, bolted down the slope of the lawn in a burst of speed unimaginable, twice as fast as any cheetah. 
Maggy searched for a key. Félix handed me his hunting knife, and I slashed the cord, then pushed off from the dock. We slowly drifted away in the calmness of the lake. 
Once the alien reached the shore, it stopped, stamped about for a second, then roared furiously. 
“Maybe it’s like that old, old movie, what’s it called,” Félix said.
“Signs,” Maggy replied. 
“Yeah, maybe water will kill it.”
As if it heard Félix’s words, it defied his guess and rushed into the water, paddling hard after the boat. 
“Find the key!” Maggy ordered. We scrambled in haste. Hidden or lost: it could not be found. As the creature swam, it used one of its humanlike hands to yank the arrow from its shoulder. Red blood, just like mine, escaped its body and dyed the water. 
“Shoot it,” Félix yelled at me. 
But I couldn’t. I was stiff. Dead. Already dead. Real fear doesn’t exist in video games. I couldn’t handle facing this opponent. 
Félix looked up at me, his glasses still intact, then quickly snatched the bow and arrow, firing. It missed. He shot a second and a third, until at last it was upon the boat. 
Maggy leapt forward with her neo-plastic axe and hacked off one of its human hands. She brought down a giant swing upon its head. The axe stuck, unable to be freed. 
The alien cried as it sank. Bubbles surfaced: a reminder of its life now taken. 
We sat in silence. “Alion,” Maggy said after a while. 
“What?” I asked.
“Alien plus lion, it’s an alion,” she laughed. 
I thought about it for a second. “Nice, bramiga. Very nice.”
Félix and I laughed, and she smiled. “Let’s look again for the key,” she said. She found a ring of keys in a dry box under the captain’s chair. It was a good thing that Lake Dwellers were so trusting. If it were my boat, I would have kept the key in a safe, or at least someplace a little more hidden from thieving hands. 
I checked over Félix’s wound; it wasn’t as bad as his cry had led us to believe. 
We reached an expensive, neo-plastic dock on the northeast side of the lake. “It’s only five thirty, so I think we’re okay on time,” Maggy said as she climbed out of the boat. “Moletti’s house is on East North Street, and I think we’re between Silver Beach and East Connecticut. You remember which house is his?”
Félix shook his head. 
“I remember brick,” I said. 
“Brick is better than nothing.” We nodded. The steps that led up the backyard slope wore me out, more than I thought a few lousy steps could. At the top, a high deck watched the sunset to the west, a great view on a clear day, but rainclouds were strolling south, always the backdrop of Bellingham.
We came again to North Shore Drive. “You know the area well,” I said to Maggy. She smiled as we passed the East Connecticut sign. Finally, we stopped at the East North sign: it stood motionless, just like any other sign, but I had a horrible feeling that it would be the last street sign that I would ever set my eyes upon. Three houses up the road, we found an ugly gray house with brick siding climbing halfway up its walls: an ancient house, without neo-plastic. 
The same symbol with two black lines marked the door. “I like that sign less than the one on our doors,” I said. My heart was wild. I didn’t want to go in. 
Maggy gazed at us. “We have no other plan.” She found two knifes in her backpack: a butcher’s and a chef’s, each thick and sharp. I pulled out a handsaw. Félix gripped his last two hunting knives. Maggy rotated the knob.
A shadowy foyer greeted us, bleak and chilly. We crept in single file. My foot knocked over a glass bottle. We paused, silent and scared. The bottle rolled forever; I don’t think it ever stopped. Maggy continued on. Straight ahead of the foyer connected a living room with a long curling couch that boasted seven cushions or more. In the corner of the room there was a TV fastened to the wall: it relayed nothing but static. It emitted no sound. Bottles were scattered all across the carpet, coffee table, and the end tables. The house reeked of alcohol.
“Look!” Maggy cried. She ran to the couch where a sprawled body slept. 
“It’s Jacob,” I said. “Is he alive?”
She put two fingers to his pale throat. “Yeah, just passed out, I guess.”
“Look at this place,” Félix gasped. He stared at me. “I’ve never seen so many bottles of alcohol, not even at your parents’ New Year’s parties.”
“You think he’ll get alcohol poisoning?” I asked, though I’m not sure why either of them would have known. They both shrugged. I walked into the kitchen with Félix not far behind. The counters were lined with unopened bottles. A dozen or more little green propane bottles glared at us from the floor. 
“You think he wanted to blow himself up?” Félix’s voice quivered. 
“Don’t know. IQ, come here.” Maggy bounded up to us and gasped. 
We all shuddered. 
“Should we look for the telescope?” I asked. I didn’t know what else to do.
“I guess so,” Maggy answered. We searched the house for a while, until about six thirty; night crept upon us: there was about an hour until sunset.
We gathered by the couch. “Anything?” she asked.
“No telescope,” Félix replied, “but I found an Apocalypse Room; it has a metal door, pretty thick too.”
“That is good to know.” She turned to me. 
I shook my head. 
“Well, I don’t know what to do now, I guess we can look outside for it . . .”
“Uhrm. I’m not going out there now, no way. Uhrm. Forget it.” 
The backyard: a motion light turned on abruptly. We all hit the floor, crushing bottles and all. Curses, it was all curses after that. “They’re here. They’re here. What now. What now,” Félix said, beyond panic. 
“The propane,” Maggy whispered. 
“Huh?” he said.
“We blow the house with the propane while we hide in the Apocalypse Room. You two line the house, and I’ll put one in the oven.” No one argued. She always had the plans, and we always listened. 
A window broke somewhere in the house. 
More curses sputtered forth.
Finished with the plan, we hastily lugged Jacob down to the metal room, and as we pulled on the door, a furry arm reached into the crack. Maggy picked up the handsaw.
The massive bone was as solid as neo-plastic, and it fought against the saw, but the alion finally withdrew its limb, cut halfway through. Blood splashed on the cold floor. When the door shut, no light illuminated the cramped space. Such complete darkness.
Claws, powered by tough, strong muscle, struck the door. No one screamed like on TV. I guess when fear is thick and real, they just didn’t come out. My throat was so dry, so terribly dry. 
“It will only take about a minute for the oven to get hot enough,” Maggy said while stroke after stroke fell upon the door. 
Silence overtook the room on our side of the door. My body quaked worse than a 9.0. I reached into my backpack and grabbed the goggles. I thought sight would calm me. 
I looked upon a black and white world, with some gray, some cold gray. I saw Jacob’s body in the back, still and lifeless. He had certainly had the right idea; there was no fear coursing through him now, no stomach pains, no nausea, nothing but blackness. I scanned the room until my eyes fell upon Félix and Maggy. They huddled together across from me, cozy and tender. I spotted their interlocked hands. 
I had never felt so sick. So hot. So enraged. If ever an all time low existed, this was it. I cleared my throat over and over again. 
The first tank exploded. The chain followed. I closed my eyes to peer at the darkness that blackened my thoughts. I waited, filled with hope that my tormented heart would cease, at the end now. At the end.They’re All Gone

They did it; they really did it.
The Catholics put an end to the birth control industry, eliminating contraceptives by over 97%, from what I understood. How? I should have paid more attention in school.
The room became darker the longer I stared at the ceiling. Everything was so still, so quiet. It was almost as if I lived on top of a mountain, alone, in a sanctuary of solitude. This was far from any sanctuary. The alarm clock on the nightstand pierced my ears as if it sought to kill me. I hated that sound, always had, and probably always would. Although, this would probably be the last time I listened to it. Would that be so bad?
I reached to my left where the harsh annoyance emanated from a tiny silver box. I moved as though I were a slug, despite the fact that I could barely stand the beeping. Numb to the world now, maybe, but I had never experienced this feeling before; I could have misinterpreted the emptiness. 
My finger must have made it to the correct button because the sound finally ceased. The room glowed with electronics. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw complete darkness. My computer: a tiny metal case smaller than a shoebox that perched on my desk, silent as it slept, lit most of the room. From what I understood, old computers always made humming noises, cooled by fans. I’m not sure what cooled that bugger, but I’d never heard a peep out of it. On the wall above my desk hung the Ultimate Resolution Display, a marvel of the twenties, I believe. Considered garbage in comparison to the shelved items on the current market, but it worked consistently. My eyes darted to the 3D contact lenses resting next to the clock. Quickly, I inserted them with painless ease. They didn’t change my dark-blue eye color like some contacts did.
I plopped down into the roller chair, awakened the cursor, and ran a search for the world population. Still 38,638,347,313. No one would ever change it again, probably for the best. 
I cleared my throat, just like I always had done.
I drifted into the kitchen, possibly thirty minutes later, or maybe three; I didn’t know where time went. But it passed almost at a creep that I’m certain of. Well, I’m not certain about anything anymore, but about as certain as I dared to be. The neo-plastic countertops were bare; they even sparkled in the rising sunlight that found entrance into the house through minor slits in the blinds. An empty fruit bowl sat near the raised edge of the counter, waiting to be filled again.
I cleared my throat. My eyes glazed over, the fruit bowl vanished, hidden in a mist that did not exist. 
The world came back as a finger nudged a spoon that sat in wait for me on the counter. The countertops were designed to look like wood, a modern kitchen. I had wondered what modern kitchens looked like half a century ago, probably bleak stainless steel. I had seen part of one before, about five years ago, as it was updated to neo-plastic, a type of super plastic that I knew nothing about. Again, I should have paid more attention in school. Maybe. 
I poured a bowl of cereal. Sugarcoated wheat flakes, I could have eaten them every day for the rest of my life, but I didn’t think they would be around much longer, then again, I’m guessing neither would I. Time escaped me again, as by the time I made it to the couch, the flakes were soggy. Damn. 
The couch was as comfortable as ever. Now this was a sanctuary, a haven, at least for the time being. “Uhrm. On,” I said loud enough for the sensor to pick up my voice. The brand new screen lit up. Immediately, a news anchor—a pretty woman—dressed well in a tan suit, came on. 
“Good morning and welcome back. The time is three minutes passed the eight o’clock hour, Tuesday, the twenty-fourth of March, twenty forty-eight. Today, so far it is estimated that another two million people have gone missing in the Seattle metropolitan area . . .”
“Channel 227,” I groaned. I couldn’t listen to the news anymore. Cartoons on the other hand I could watch, they did not remind me of the disaster happening outside. A rat jumped out on the screen, almost real. A cat chased its tail, but the rat had better plans, ones involving dynamite. So unrealistic, only people killed things with explosives. I loved it. 
All the blinds were drawn down, as I hoped to ignore the street, and the odd, high-pitched noises that periodically came from it. A while later, I thought a midmorning nap seemed appropriate, falling asleep to the boom of cartoon violence.
A creak from the front door stirred me. My chest tightened. The end at last, I hoped. 
The creak grew louder, followed by silence. 
Something bumped the piano in the room off from the foyer. A curse escaped, floated into the air, and was eventually picked up by my subaverage listening skills. I sat, encased in ice. I heard the blood in my ear. I thought maybe a heart attack would kill me first. My short brown hair bristled like a porcupine. I could feel my rosy-cheeked complexion paling.
Four limbs touched the ground like a cat, fairly soft, but I picked them up despite the voices coming from the TV. I concentrated so hard on the sound that it was all I could hear.
They drew closer, slow, as if they imitated a sloth. The last step I heard was at the end of the couch, just on the other side of its arm. My head was probably centimeters away. I don’t think I breathed. My heart thudded against my ribs, as if it were going to split me in two. I waited.
An almond-shaped head popped out from behind the arm, two round, burnt eyes stared at me from behind nifty spectacles. “Darrel?” a voice said, but I was on my way out. Blackness surrounded me, engulfed me; it took care of me, like a warm electric blanket. 
Water splashed my face. I guess that worked, because I woke up, wet and screaming. Curse after curse, all the ones I knew, I let them fly. 
“Calm down, bromigo,” a voice tried to soothe me. The almond head dropped into view in front of me. I erected myself with my back against the couch. I didn’t trust what I saw. 
“Félix?” I gasped. I coughed some, still short on breath. I cleared my throat. Shocked, I just gaped at him. I never thought I’d see his dark, pecan skin again. 
His long face turned into a smile, presenting his luminous white teeth. “Yeah, it’s me. You going to pass out on me again?” he asked, nervous. I saw his hands twitch, scared. He ran his shaky fingers through his short black hair.
“No. At least I don’t think so. I could use some water though.” A second later he was pouring me a glass. I never thought simple water could taste so damn good. “Thanks,” I managed, setting the empty glass on a neo-plastic coaster. Mom hated watermarks. 
“No prob, bromigo,” he said. He poured himself a glass, sat down in the chair next to the couch, and stared at the animated bullets coming right at us. “Can I ask you something?” He shifted in the velvety fabric, turning to see my expression.
My eyes were still a little unfocused, but my mind felt sharp, guessing as to what he was going to ask. “All right.”
“Why are you watching cartoons?”
“You see the mark on the door?” I asked him. I heard the shakiness of my voice. 
“Yeah, I did.”
“That’s why,” I answered. I turned back to the showdown, two red-stashed cowboys settling a dispute with a duel. 
“You should be watching the news, to understand what’s going on,” he remarked.
“Is that what you’ve been doing?” 
He nodded. 
“Do you know what’s going on?”
He shook his head. 
“Then I’m just going to watch cartoons, okay?”
“Well that’s not logical, it just means no one knows yet,” he said. He took another sip from his glass.
“Félix, why are you here? Better yet, how are you here? Yesterday the news said not to go outside, that it’s unsafe; I haven’t seen anyone on the streets for over a day.” 
Whatever I said struck a wounded chord in him. He buried his head in his lap, sobbing. 
I heard a muffled, “They’re gone.”
Damn, so many.
“Mine too,” I said. “Taken the first night, yours?”
“The second,” he replied. 
His words were stifled by a cough, but I understood. “So last night was your first night alone?” He raised his head and nodded, taking off his glasses to dry his cheeks. “Well don’t worry, they’ll be back.” I didn’t know what else to say, more than likely all my words would be lies. “You want to play Death Squad?”
“No,” he said. I think that was the first time in two years that he didn’t want to play. “I want to watch the news.”
“Uhrm. There’s no point. It’s been the same news since yesterday morning,” I told him. 
He stood up, angered. “Billions of people are missing, your parents, my parents, don’t you care?”
“Yeah, I care. But she’s not saying anything new, none of them are. They don’t know anything.”
“But maybe they do now, when did you last check?” he asked, hope unconcealed in his words. 
I scanned the clock on the TV. “Less than an hour ago.” 
He shook his head again, not listening. 
“I’m telling you nothing has changed.” 
He ignored my words; he needed to hear good news. “Channel 0002,” Félix yelled. The same news anchor appeared on screen, streaming the same broadcast she had been for the last several hours. 
“Today’s current estimate has peaked at 38 billion people missing, about 13 billion more globally than yesterday.” She changed her tone; maybe something new was coming to break her from her repetitive blathering. “Surprisingly, the first two nights occurred without a trace of recovered video footage, but last night a French woman caught on camera quite a disturbing sight, using an antiquated 1998 camcorder. We have managed to interface the outdated technology.” They rolled the footage: a mellow-toned French woman shot a distorted image of a nighttime street at least three stories below. A few city lights illuminated parts of the sidewalk, where large, fuzzy black dots crossed under them in single file. The image went in and out, alternating between darkness and a strange static screen I had never seen before. 
The camcorder played back a harsh noise drawing closer, high-pitched scratches that sounded as if claws dug into the building’s side, climbing. As the sound grew louder, the camera began to shake more, as though an endless twitch struck its bearer. “Do you see anything?” a man’s voice asked in French before the TV translated his words into English. 
The camera withdrew from the window, still focused on its frame. “Spots,” she replied. “Could be people down there.” The sound advanced faster for a few seconds until it ceased altogether, stopping near the window. 
“What is that noise?” the man asked with a tense voice. 
“I don’t know,” she replied, less afraid than her male counterpart. She edged closer again. “Maybe a squirrel.” 
The silence coiled fear in me, ready to discharge, but my eyes remained glued to the display despite the anticipation of horror. 
“Too big,” the man responded. The camera crept to where the footage had started by the window, but before it reached its destination, a claw swiped it to the carpeted flooring. The lens recorded nothing but blackness after, yet an audible short scream burst forth. 
“Estelle . . . Estelle?” the man whispered, almost choking in fear. A rush of footsteps ran at the camera, then carried the device off into more darkness. 
The news anchor reappeared. “That’s all the footage reveals, a giant claw, larger than a Tiger’s. From this, we know whatever the creature is, it is capable of scaling vertical walls. The man escaped his apartment and found his way to a news station still in operation around seven this morning . . .” 
I couldn’t listen anymore. “Channel 227, priority one,” I spoke clearly. The TV recognized the command and changed back to a cowboy riding away on a horse as the sun set. 
“What are you doing?” Félix screamed at me. His eyes had been just as stationary as mine, fixed to the screen. “They have new information, change it back.” My silence awakened a fury in him that I had never witnessed before. His skinny fingers curled into a fist with eyes targeting my face. “Channel 0002.”
“Access denied, setting priority one in activation,” the speakers communicated. 
“My dad added the setting so that my little cousin would stop switching the stations,” I said. 
Félix stared at me, surprised. “Figures, you don’t know anything about electronics.” His arm trembled in agitation. 
Would he really strike at me? 
“All right, bromigo. Calm down.” I put up my hands and swallowed. The dryness of my throat gave way to slight tears. “Channel 0002,” I commanded. No use arguing when he felt passionately enough to make fists. 
In size, I was much bigger than him, but I had little heart to fight in real life. I thought him the same, but it looked like my opinion turned out wrong. Clearing my throat, I seized my empty glass while he refocused his attention to the screen. 
Words that overflowed with panic chimed out of the speakers. The rushed voice did not slow as the TV transitioned to a new image: the Space Needle climbed in the distance, failing to compete with a multitude of newer buildings that dwarfed the symbolic tower. The sound faltered, skipping over a few words. An instant later, it cut out altogether. The camera zoomed in, the screen blurred unable to draw the pixels fast enough. The screen adjusted to an image hovering above the city. The picture began to follow the sound in its collapse, flickering between static and skyline. 
The image stabilized for a moment.
Félix gasped. 
“No way,” I muttered, staggered by the inconceivable spaceship that floated near the Space Needle, poised for possible destruction. “You believe it?” I asked.
He shook his head. 
Of course he didn’t. Despite the hundreds, maybe thousands of imaginary spaceships my eyes had encountered, nothing prepared me for what I saw. I had flown ships that looked and felt so real; I sometimes began to believe they were, but not anymore. Not anymore. 
A news chopper flew towards the great machine: five black and red ovals, like bees’ abdomens the size of skyscrapers, trailed behind a slightly larger oval, connected by support beams that curved at peculiar angles, almost as if made for aesthetics instead of reinforcement purposes. A strange red light glowed at the butt end of the five, emitting trace amounts of a crimson gas that disappeared soon after it encountered the firmament. 
The chopper drew closer, almost within a few body lengths to the front oval. The camera zoomed in again, concentrating on the one section, and as the pixels adjusted, dozens of curved poles that extended out from the nose of the body and attached to the rear, all came into sight. 
The ship looked more complicated than the interior of the human body, including the brain. “I guess graphic designers got it all wrong,” Félix said. 
I nodded my concurrence. 
“Invasion?” I asked, though I didn’t know how I expected him to reply; it’s not as if he would have known any more than I did. 
The display cut out again. When it returned the chopper was descending beyond a rate within control; it was crashing, heading for the waters of the Sound. The camera attempted to keep track of the chopper, but a second later the screen went haywire, producing only static. 
I twisted to meet my friend’s utterly stunned face. “Invasion,” I repeated. Panic hit Félix, but I think it hit me harder. I ran, skidded, tumbled, and clambered to the front window. Curses were the only words that left our mouths, in an echo similar to a fading song chorus.
I brushed aside the curtains. 
Normal. Everything still looked the same, except no busy cars to be heard. “Did you see anything on your way over?” I asked. 
“Not a thing,” Félix replied. “Maybe they are only in the bigger cities. Seattle is only an hour away by car.” 
“Then how come everyone is gone? No, I think they’re here, somewhere . . .” My arm twitched, then my leg gave out, sending my face to the carpet. 
“You okay, bromigo?” he asked, twitching as well. 
“No . . .” I said. It was the end, happening just like in Fury of War and Our Descent, the two games I played most before the release of Death Squad. It was now. “What do we do?” I lay there, motionless. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t survive.
They would get me . . .
“Do you know anyone with a telescope? Maybe we can look for ourselves, to see what’s out there.”
“I remember Jacob Moletti had one,” I replied. 
“He goes to U-Dub, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah, he does, and from what I understand it’s changed him drastically. All he does is drink now.” Or did. Probably taken now, and it’s doubtful the aliens gave out free cocktails. 
“Well, we should go take a look to see if it is still there.”
“Do you really want to know?” I asked. I didn’t. I’d seen too many bug-eyed aliens on screen, at least enough to discourage my curiosity to go and search for them. 
He slumped down next to me, hands twitching as if attacked by an epileptic fit. Taciturnity became our mood. What was there left to say? Goodbye? The time had long passed for such sentiments, too many people taken unexpectedly.
Time betrayed me, for the next time my eyes crossed the kitchen clock, only twenty minutes had passed, but I swear the sun should have been settling down for bed. Félix laughed when he saw me staring at the clock, flustered. 
“You know it’s funny, all we’ve ever done is play video games, and now when it comes to it, all that training means nothing,” he said, still laughing. 
I turned to him. “Training?” I said. His meaning was lost upon me. 
“Don’t you think we’ve been trained for this? The military does the same thing for combat simulations,” he said. His grin widened.
“Except they have people screaming at them, they have people instructing them, they have other tests besides combat games,” I countered. 
“True . . . but still . . .” He wanted to say something more, but stopped himself. 
“You really think we should go to Jacob’s,” I said, not entirely excited for his answer. 
“His father works for NASA, doesn’t he? That’s why his parents split?”
“From what I understand, yeah. You think his father tells him secrets . . . stuff like the existence of aliens?”
Félix propped himself up using the window ledge. “All I know, bromigo, is that I can’t watch cartoons waiting to die, waiting to be taken.” He hastened to the kitchen, where he began to empty the knife block. 
“What are you doing, bromigo?” I asked. Uncertain as to what he intended to do out there, on the streets that promised our demise.
“What’s the first thing you learn before playing Our Descent online?” he asked, frantically scouring through drawers. He placed older knives next to his assembled weaponry. 
The answer came easily, probably a saying I’d repeated a million times since I had heard it years ago. “The well armed take advantage, whether physical or intellectual, all are assets to the soldier,” I said without fault. For some odd reason the saying sparked a feeling of courage in me. It ignited a strange passion that I’d never comprehended. 
“Then let us be well armed, bromigo,” he said, raising his eyes from the collection of blades to meet mine, now ablaze with the will to fight. I placed the thought of surrender in the shadows of my mind. 
I jumped to my feet, invigorated. “My dad’s tools,” I yelled. His eyes glinted at the idea. We raced to the garage, lined with woodworking utensils. I clutched one of the several electric handsaws, charged by the sun. “The batteries should last years, unless the aliens block out the sky.” All at once, the adrenaline ran dry, replaced once again by fear. 
Years . . . 
How long could we really survive? Video game campaigns ended when you shut off the application. A Nightmare was beginning to unfold in my mind. 
A hand landed on my shoulder. I jerked. Félix smiled. “Let’s just make it to Jacob’s first.” I’m pretty sure I nodded. His effort to comfort me freaked me out more. 
I tried repeating the energizing motto, but its power lessened the more I recited it. Félix held up a hatchet, twirled it around. He eyed it for a long time, then asked, “Why does your dad have a hatchet when he has all of these saws?” 
“Beats me, my father is a strange one, he probably used it to chop up wood just for fun.” I searched around, nothing resembled any real weaponry, then I remembered my neighbor. “The Troll,” I shouted unintentionally. 
“What?”
“The Troll,” I repeated, “he has all that hunting gear.”
“I’m not going anywhere near that place. What’s wrong with this stuff?”
“The range,” I said. My fingers glided over the sharp teeth of a blade. “None of this stuff has any range; it’s all last resort gear.” He nodded, he hadn’t thought of that either. “Best to fire from ten meters than to slice from one.”
“All right, but if he’s home, we’re dead.”
“Uhrm. We’re dead if we don’t go, too,” I added. “Uhrm.” The thought of leaving the house started to agitate me, my throat felt as if it would never be clear again. “Uhrm.”
“You all right, bromigo? You’re clearing your throat more than normal,” he observed. 
“Guess it’s not a normal day.” 
His lips moved to one side of his face in a half-grin. “Guess you’re right about that. Let’s put this stuff in a bag with some food and get going. Might take us a while to get to Jacob’s and I don’t want to be out in the dark.”
We gathered the equipment, grabbing any spare blades and accessories. My dad’s utility belts proved useful for stuffing knives into as well. In twenty minutes we transformed ourselves from scared-shitless teenagers into scared-shitless teenagers with garage weapons. 
Ready for departure, I surveyed the street through the peephole. Nothing. I hadn’t heard a dog bark for two days, and I hadn’t heard a bird since yesterday, but then I wasn’t listening for them either. 
“Uhrm. Ready?” I rotated so that I could see Félix. 
He carried a handsaw in his right and a hatchet in his left. “I wish I were.”
I nodded and opened the door. Slow and with caution, at least I tried, but the damn thing sounded off like a siren, alarming anything within a thousand meter radius with its impairing creak. An exaggeration on my part, probably, time would tell shortly. 
I lived at the end of Rhododendron Way, which hadn’t change much in the last twenty years, from what I understood. In fact, Bellingham hadn’t changed much. Still relatively small, fewer than 200,000, still considered progressive in its collective views, from what I understood anyway. 
The Troll was different. I didn’t know why he didn’t live up north in Lynden, probably would’ve fared better there, but then again, I knew little about the man. Except that he favored hunting, boasting an arsenal fit to take down a small militia on his own. No one on the block had liked that.
The cul-de-sac presented us with more cars than the usual Tuesday afternoon. Extra vehicles dozed in driveways all down the street, probably never to be woken again. We slinked into the front yard, crouched behind some flowers I had never bothered to learn the names of, mostly because my mother rattled them off as if I already knew them. I examined the neighborhood. 
Dead.
The same symbol marked all the doors that I could see: a slanted line with three lines pointing upward, like a tilted E, colored black and red. I turned back at the engraved marking on my door, my eyes flooded, no stopping the tears. I wanted to run back inside, sit back down on the comfy couch and watch cartoons, so that I could pretend that everything was fine. Not a chance. The TV had died like everything else around. Damn.
I glanced at Félix; his face was the same. We weren’t soldiers . . .
I could not say for sure how long it took us, but we made it to the Troll’s house, three houses up and across the street. “His house is marked,” Félix noted in a tone full of apprehension.
“Yeah, but he could still be alive, after all, we are . . .” I said. We spun around to meet each other, staring. Neither of us had thought about that. Our houses were marked, yet we weren’t taken. 
“The foil?” we said in unison. 
“But that was just for fun. It doesn’t do anything,” he said. Two years ago, we had put foil up above our beds, for protection from aliens, of course. It started as a joke at school, I scarcely remember why, and neither of us had bothered to take it down since. 
“Maybe we should wrap ourselves in it,” I suggested. “Just in case.” 
“Yeah, all right, I guess it couldn’t hurt.” 
I nodded. My skin pimpled from a shiver, the silence of the street was starting to eat at my already fragile nerves. We confronted the mark on the door, then snuck inside, the Troll’s properly lubed hinges produced no noise. In the kitchen, we stocked up on more cutlery, as his were top notch, sharpened to perfection. Conveniently, the Troll had three large boxes of foil that we used to blanket our bodies.
We crept down the stairs, but our furtive steps seemed pointless, nothing jumped out of the dark at us. 
“Over here,” I said, heading towards an old armoire covered by dust. The whole room matched, decaying and dusty. I opened both of the doors to the furniture, where several bows greeted me, including an ancient one without any technological enhancements. Hunting blades hung on the inside of the doors, a few of them the size of small swords. 
“No guns,” Félix observed. 
“Guess not.” I snatched one of the newer bows, and a pair of goggles fell to the floor, a small dust cloud puffed up upon the impact. I scooped up the pure black goggles that looked like ski goggles. After I extracted my 3D contacts, I put them over my eyes. I flipped the switch on the side and the room lit up in black and white. “Wow, I can see everything.”
“Infrared. There are lights on the side of the goggles.” Félix pointed to a light, then grabbed his own pair. 
“Slick.”
“Expensive.”
“Yeah, I bet,” I said, pulling back on the bowstring. “Except for that.” I nodded at the ancient bow. “Don’t know why he would keep that around.”
“Probably worth a ton, bromigo. It looks like an artifact.” He touched the heavy wood, careful not to knock it over. Eventually he selected one, stowed a bundle of arrows, along with half the hunting blades. The other half I took, placing the deadliest looking one in a soft sheath that I wrapped around my calf. The Troll had three quivers, one probably as old as the ancient bow, the other two maybe a few years past their prime, but they held together. 
I scanned the room for anything else viable for combat, but came up empty. Pictures of the Troll and hunting companions hung on the wall, displaying their acquisitions. I’d never seen such a spitting image of the fantasy creature; the apt nickname described the man in full detail.
I turned back to Félix.
“Ready, bromigo?” Félix’s voice was as shaky as my sweaty hands. I hoped I would never have to fire the bow; I would never hit a target with such rebellious nerves. A sickness attacked my stomach, climbing up my throat. I saw the ceiling above before the goggles went flying from my head. 
Félix sprinkled cold water on my face as I came to. “Hey,” I said weakly. He handed me the bottle, but it was a hard pour. He guided the bottle for me, my hands still quivering. “Thanks.” 
He nodded. “Sure, bromigo.” 
“Time?” I asked.
He pressed a button on his wristwatch. It lit up for a second. “Three,” he answered. 
Good, it had only been ten minutes or so, not the end of the world. Not yet. He helped me to my feet. “Maggy,” I mumbled. 
“What was that, bromigo?”
“Maggy, I forgot about Maggy,” I said, searching the darkness for the goggles. I found them under an antique chair. 
“You think she made it?” he asked. 
“Uhrm. She was in on the joke, too. Remember?” I took a step and wobbled, almost collapsing again. He reached to support me. “I’m fine,” I said, waving away his hands. “I’m fine. Let’s go check out her house, we have time before it gets dark.”
“Sure, bromigo. Sure.” I was glad to hear his sympathy.
When I had first met Maggy a few years ago, before we became close friends, I had the biggest crush on her. Funny thing about that, it never actually went away. I think she had always known how I felt, girls always seemed to know, but they were excellent at concealing any awareness. That was probably to make it less awkward when their feelings didn’t match.
We met daylight again in the Troll’s backyard, which connected to the Railroad Trail that wound all around Bellingham. My foot sunk in on the soft trail, mushy from last night’s rain. On the other side of the trail, a fence stopped us at somebody’s backyard, too high for me to scale. 
“There’s a gate over there.” Félix pointed to the next neighbor down. The latch was simple, a fence more to keep dogs in than people out. No dogs chased us as we crossed into the front yard to Lake Crest Drive. We crouch-walked along the sidewalk, passing a few houses until Crestline Drive. Her bright yellow home shined, as if it smiled in the overcast. 
We stopped on the porch, whispering what to do if she wasn’t there, or if it was a good idea at all to know. The foreign symbol marked her door. I gripped the handle. “Okay,” I sighed. 
I twisted the knob. 
A knife struck the molding. In a panic, I swiveled, pushing Félix off the porch as I jumped away. I heard a strange shrill scream. It was my own. My heart had pounded playing video games before, but nothing compared to this. And the heat. It was the worst hot flash, the temperature lingered only in the 40’s, maybe low 50’s outside, but my skin sweated as if it were in the high 90’s. I gushed like a waterslide. 
I spotted a few bushes and hid behind them, desperately trying to calm my breathing; it was as rapid as a fully automatic bursting 5000 rounds per minute. Félix joined me a second later. “You all right?” he asked. I nodded, drawing in a deep, deep breath. 
I had dropped my bow, so I reached for the swordlike knife resting against my calf. The blade shook and shook. Damn my nerves. I looked over at Félix. He nodded as he drew the same conclusion I had come to: aliens. 
I cleared my throat a hundred times, the vein in my neck bulged as if a thousand snakes shot through it in rapid succession.
We charged around the corner, yelling war cries. I threw the knife, but it more slipped from my hand than anything, rotating in the air like a saucer. Félix fired an arrow towards the door, but missed, only to hit the doorbell. My knife didn’t make it that far, as it thudded into the stairs of the porch. 
Maggy stood in the doorway, eyeing us with complete disbelief. “Jelly? Tortilla?” She carried two steak knifes, but dropped them once she saw us. “You morons . . . you’re alive . . .”
At that moment, I hoped the wetness around my crotch was sweat. “IQ,” I said. I ran up the steps, hugging her skinny body as tightly as I could muster, though my muscles trembled, aquiver with fear. I released my weak hold. “You tried to kill us.”
“You tried to kill me.”
“Even?”
“Even,” she replied. “You guys made it, how?”
“Do you still have the foil hanging above your bed?” Félix asked. 
She nodded, her long, sleek black hair swaying in the movement. 
“We think it has something to do with that.”
She giggled. “Is that why you guys are as shiny as a new quarter?” 
“You guessed it, bramiga,” he answered. “You should wrap yourself as well, just in case it’s true.” She led us inside, where we sat on the couch while she neatly dressed herself in foil. 
I stared at her beauty, probably a bad habit I should deter, but I didn’t know how. She was short, thin, and an Asian that actually lived up to the old stereotype: she was a brainiac. Her yellow eyes stunned me for a few moments every time I looked into them. “When were your parents taken, IQ?” I asked.
“The first, yours?”
“Same,” I replied.
“The second,” Félix said, taking a sip from a water bottle. I had already engulfed half a container in the few minutes since we had sat. The icy liquid helped steady my out-of-control heartbeat. 
“Sorry, Tortilla, must be a little harder.” He didn’t reply, just slowly drank his water. “Jelly, can you help me?” She struggled to wind the foil around her back. 
“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t mind her nickname for me, even though it meant I was bigger, it also implied a sweetness, like Santa Claus and his bowl of a stomach. Félix never complained about his either, but he subscribed to even fewer cultural stereotypes than she did, plus his mother never cared for it, always making sure that Maggy understood that they weren’t Mexican but Salvadoran. Why it mattered though, I never understood.
When she finished with the foil, she concealed it under thin clothes. “So I don’t look like the dorks you two look like,” she said. When she was done poking fun, we explained the plan, the journey to Moletii’s house. “I’m in, bromigos.” 
“You’ll need gear.” Of course, she already knew that. She played just as many video games, and spent just as many hours taking down opponents as we did. Packed with kitchen utensils and a replica axe from Lord of the Rings, she added in a few more things that we had forgotten, chiefly, a change of clothes. 
“Isn’t the axe a little heavy,” I said.
She laughed. “It’s not the 20’s.” She tossed me the axe; it was as light as the hunting knife. “Some composite plastic, probably stronger than that blade you have,” she bragged. 
With a smirk, I handed it back to her.
“You two ready?” Félix asked. “It’s almost four.” 
“Ready,” she said. I nodded. We went down the porch and looked both ways. “West Birch Street would be faster, we’ll just have to cut through a few yards.”
“Guess no one will mind,” I said.
“Unless they are alive. Maybe we should look for survivors on the way,” Félix spoke up, nocking an arrow back, primed for engagement. I copied him, though I doubted it would make a difference, the damn thing would fly ten meters from anything I aimed at.
“We have about three and a half hours of decent daylight, if we look too much, we won’t make it there before twilight, and I don’t have any nifty goggles,” Maggy said. She started towards the cul-de-sac, axe raised, and eyes on duty, alert.
I followed close to her right, so Félix trailed to her left, putting her in the middle. She could probably take us both, but that didn’t matter, something instinctual made us bookends. After two cluttered yards, we hit the pavement of West Birch, and the silence finally tore into me. 
“Are the rounds of a dead end called a cove-va-sac or cul-de-sac?” I asked. I had loosened my hold on the bowstring, but the perfectly aligned arrow did not move regardless of the applied tension. 
“I think it is cul-te-sac,” Félix countered.
Maggy laughed. “No, it’s definitely cul-de-sac.”
“I think it is cove-va, myself,” I said.
“Have your phone?” she asked. I shook my head. Félix dug around in his pockets but came up empty-handed from them all. I doubted any of us had gone somewhere without a phone since the third grade. Weird.
“Well, it shouldn’t be hard to find one,” Maggy said. The conversation numbed the high levels of apprehension, at least enough for us to breathe at a regular pace. “Let’s try that house.” She pointed up the road to a two-story baby blue home with yellow trim. 
The front door was locked, so Maggy swung her axe at the crack where the door met the frame. The fake wood splintered after a few hard strokes, and with one hard kick, she threw it open. I stared at Félix. Neither of us knew she was so tough: built like a kitten, but as deadly as a cougar. 
It looked like any other house I’d seen, moderately clean, some dirty dishes on the counter, a recycling pile too tall to ever be taken out in one trip, and in the living room a spotless jumbo TV bracketed to the wall in front of a couch. 
“There’s one.” Maggy spotted a phone beside the toaster. She pressed a few unlock combinations until the screen granted access. Her nimble fingers hit the voice input button. “Define cul-de-sac,” she said. 
The phone searched for a few seconds before a woman replied, “A street, lane, or passage closed at one end, a blind alley.” 
“Yes! Ha!” She showed us the spelling.
“Lucky, that’s all,” I said, but there was no stopping her triumphant, smug grin. 
“Shh,” Félix uttered. “I think something else is in the house.” I listened. Nothing. It was enough to creep all of us out, as I was the last to bolt over the threshold of the door. We let up on the gas when we rounded the corner where Birch forked off into east and west. 
“Probably just our nerves,” Maggy said when her lungs caught up. “Just nerves.”
I cleared my throat a dozen or so times, downing water like a kitchen drain, but it didn’t matter. Félix tossed me his inhaler after he finished spraying his throat. I shook it, counting to thirty. I shot the medicine into my mouth and held until a cough broke loose. Maggy took it next.
Asthma, I don’t think I had known anyone who didn’t have it. A plague of the twenty-first century, but medicine combatted it rigorously, making it little more than a nuisance. 
“Ready?” Maggy asked. It didn’t matter, though, whether or not we were, she took off towards Alabama Street. We were already over the hump of Alabama Hill, so at least we had that going for us, well, more for me. I was exhausted, yet the distance that I had covered was laughable at best. 
I stopped when we started past the Lakeview Condos. “Spooky.” The giant complex of expensive housing emanated a chill of death. All of the doors within the complex were marked just as all the neighborhood houses were. Félix tugged at my sleeve to press on.
Whatcom Lake came into view as we hit Electric Ave; the habitual ripples of the water from boats and people were gone, the body of water lay motionless as any fluid ever could. The stoplight at the cross street still functioned in its routine, signaling non-existent traffic. Still no birds sang any jolly tunes, not even seagulls or crows flew in the sky. It was barren, except for the heavy clouds. 
We met North Shore Drive a block or so north, turning northeast along the shore. We passed about four houses shielded by trees and bushes, until an empty driveway gave way to a lone house. Maggy, observant as ever, regarded the mark on the door. “It’s different.”
We walked down into the drive. “What do you think that means?” I asked. They both shook their heads. The symbol only had two lines that pointed upward, colored solely black. Fearless, Maggy pushed the door open so that we could peer inside. There was nothing dissimilar from any of the other houses. 
“Let’s check it out,” she urged. 
Félix slipped in first, bow shaking but ready to launch. I refilled my water after we concluded nothing stranger had happened compared to any other home. The residents were missing, nothing unusual about that.
Carelessly, we marched down the stairs to the daylight basement. 
I heard a few crunches, as if bones were being crushed under extreme pressure. We rounded the corner. Indeed, that’s what it was.
Horrorstruck, we all screamed. A beast that resembled a lioness was hunched over a corpse, chewing down a slab of human flesh. Surprised, it jumped up on all fours, standing two meters at its shoulders. Two more arms sprang forward from its shoulders, jointed in too many ways to count. At their ends rotated a hand with four humanlike fingers and two thumbs. 
There was no time.
My arrow flew towards a bookshelf to the left of it; Félix’s arrow penetrated a foreleg. A roar that sounded unlike a true lion, as low and ominous as any video-game dragon, rattled our ribcages. I swallowed a hundred times; no more saliva existed to scream. 
Maggy sprinted for the sliding glass door to our right, flipped up the lever, and threw the door open. “Hurry!” she screamed.
Félix crossed the threshold last, stubbing a foot on the track; he tumbled onto the wet lawn in a crash. A deadly paw stomped down on his foot. He cried. We turned and saw the giant mouth, brimming with scything teeth, about to crush his skull. Maggy pelted the alien with steak knives. I launched the hunting blade sheathed around my calf. Within moments, the creature was speckled with our weapons.
It roared again. My stomach quaked and gurgled. I nocked another dart and loosed it. It flew straight for its shoulder. As it hit, the alien twirled and stepped back. Félix crawled until he was able to stand. We darted for the lake. 
A well-maintained motorboat, powered by the sun, was moored to a short dock, strangely idle in the creepy water. Maggy was the first to reach it. She jumped in. “No key,” she yelled. I helped Félix settled down into a seat. The Alien, now recovered from our startling attack, bolted down the slope of the lawn in a burst of speed unimaginable, twice as fast as any cheetah. 
Maggy searched for a key. Félix handed me his hunting knife, and I slashed the cord, then pushed off from the dock. We slowly drifted away in the calmness of the lake. 
Once the alien reached the shore, it stopped, stamped about for a second, then roared furiously. 
“Maybe it’s like that old, old movie, what’s it called,” Félix said.
“Signs,” Maggy replied. 
“Yeah, maybe water will kill it.”
As if it heard Félix’s words, it defied his guess and rushed into the water, paddling hard after the boat. 
“Find the key!” Maggy ordered. We scrambled in haste. Hidden or lost: it could not be found. As the creature swam, it used one of its humanlike hands to yank the arrow from its shoulder. Red blood, just like mine, escaped its body and dyed the water. 
“Shoot it,” Félix yelled at me. 
But I couldn’t. I was stiff. Dead. Already dead. Real fear doesn’t exist in video games. I couldn’t handle facing this opponent. 
Félix looked up at me, his glasses still intact, then quickly snatched the bow and arrow, firing. It missed. He shot a second and a third, until at last it was upon the boat. 
Maggy leapt forward with her neo-plastic axe and hacked off one of its human hands. She brought down a giant swing upon its head. The axe stuck, unable to be freed. 
The alien cried as it sank. Bubbles surfaced: a reminder of its life now taken. 
We sat in silence. “Alion,” Maggy said after a while. 
“What?” I asked.
“Alien plus lion, it’s an alion,” she laughed. 
I thought about it for a second. “Nice, bramiga. Very nice.”
Félix and I laughed, and she smiled. “Let’s look again for the key,” she said. She found a ring of keys in a dry box under the captain’s chair. It was a good thing that Lake Dwellers were so trusting. If it were my boat, I would have kept the key in a safe, or at least someplace a little more hidden from thieving hands. 
I checked over Félix’s wound; it wasn’t as bad as his cry had led us to believe. 
We reached an expensive, neo-plastic dock on the northeast side of the lake. “It’s only five thirty, so I think we’re okay on time,” Maggy said as she climbed out of the boat. “Moletti’s house is on East North Street, and I think we’re between Silver Beach and East Connecticut. You remember which house is his?”
Félix shook his head. 
“I remember brick,” I said. 
“Brick is better than nothing.” We nodded. The steps that led up the backyard slope wore me out, more than I thought a few lousy steps could. At the top, a high deck watched the sunset to the west, a great view on a clear day, but rainclouds were strolling south, always the backdrop of Bellingham.
We came again to North Shore Drive. “You know the area well,” I said to Maggy. She smiled as we passed the East Connecticut sign. Finally, we stopped at the East North sign: it stood motionless, just like any other sign, but I had a horrible feeling that it would be the last street sign that I would ever set my eyes upon. Three houses up the road, we found an ugly gray house with brick siding climbing halfway up its walls: an ancient house, without neo-plastic. 
The same symbol with two black lines marked the door. “I like that sign less than the one on our doors,” I said. My heart was wild. I didn’t want to go in. 
Maggy gazed at us. “We have no other plan.” She found two knifes in her backpack: a butcher’s and a chef’s, each thick and sharp. I pulled out a handsaw. Félix gripped his last two hunting knives. Maggy rotated the knob.
A shadowy foyer greeted us, bleak and chilly. We crept in single file. My foot knocked over a glass bottle. We paused, silent and scared. The bottle rolled forever; I don’t think it ever stopped. Maggy continued on. Straight ahead of the foyer connected a living room with a long curling couch that boasted seven cushions or more. In the corner of the room there was a TV fastened to the wall: it relayed nothing but static. It emitted no sound. Bottles were scattered all across the carpet, coffee table, and the end tables. The house reeked of alcohol.
“Look!” Maggy cried. She ran to the couch where a sprawled body slept. 
“It’s Jacob,” I said. “Is he alive?”
She put two fingers to his pale throat. “Yeah, just passed out, I guess.”
“Look at this place,” Félix gasped. He stared at me. “I’ve never seen so many bottles of alcohol, not even at your parents’ New Year’s parties.”
“You think he’ll get alcohol poisoning?” I asked, though I’m not sure why either of them would have known. They both shrugged. I walked into the kitchen with Félix not far behind. The counters were lined with unopened bottles. A dozen or more little green propane bottles glared at us from the floor. 
“You think he wanted to blow himself up?” Félix’s voice quivered. 
“Don’t know. IQ, come here.” Maggy bounded up to us and gasped. 
We all shuddered. 
“Should we look for the telescope?” I asked. I didn’t know what else to do.
“I guess so,” Maggy answered. We searched the house for a while, until about six thirty; night crept upon us: there was about an hour until sunset.
We gathered by the couch. “Anything?” she asked.
“No telescope,” Félix replied, “but I found an Apocalypse Room; it has a metal door, pretty thick too.”
“That is good to know.” She turned to me. 
I shook my head. 
“Well, I don’t know what to do now, I guess we can look outside for it . . .”
“Uhrm. I’m not going out there now, no way. Uhrm. Forget it.” 
The backyard: a motion light turned on abruptly. We all hit the floor, crushing bottles and all. Curses, it was all curses after that. “They’re here. They’re here. What now. What now,” Félix said, beyond panic. 
“The propane,” Maggy whispered. 
“Huh?” he said.
“We blow the house with the propane while we hide in the Apocalypse Room. You two line the house, and I’ll put one in the oven.” No one argued. She always had the plans, and we always listened. 
A window broke somewhere in the house. 
More curses sputtered forth.
Finished with the plan, we hastily lugged Jacob down to the metal room, and as we pulled on the door, a furry arm reached into the crack. Maggy picked up the handsaw.
The massive bone was as solid as neo-plastic, and it fought against the saw, but the alion finally withdrew its limb, cut halfway through. Blood splashed on the cold floor. When the door shut, no light illuminated the cramped space. Such complete darkness.
Claws, powered by tough, strong muscle, struck the door. No one screamed like on TV. I guess when fear is thick and real, they just didn’t come out. My throat was so dry, so terribly dry. 
“It will only take about a minute for the oven to get hot enough,” Maggy said while stroke after stroke fell upon the door. 
Silence overtook the room on our side of the door. My body quaked worse than a 9.0. I reached into my backpack and grabbed the goggles. I thought sight would calm me. 
I looked upon a black and white world, with some gray, some cold gray. I saw Jacob’s body in the back, still and lifeless. He had certainly had the right idea; there was no fear coursing through him now, no stomach pains, no nausea, nothing but blackness. I scanned the room until my eyes fell upon Félix and Maggy. They huddled together across from me, cozy and tender. I spotted their interlocked hands. 
I had never felt so sick. So hot. So enraged. If ever an all time low existed, this was it. I cleared my throat over and over again. 
The first tank exploded. The chain followed. I closed my eyes to peer at the darkness that blackened my thoughts. I waited, filled with hope that my tormented heart would cease, at the end now. At the end.


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