“Exitium” is an ongoing series of short stories. Part One (which follows) first appeared in the collection, Dead As Soon As Born.
(Genre: Science Fiction / Horror / Suspense)
**# equals a chapter break
Morris tapped his pen rapidly against the table, his coffee long since turned cold and forgotten. He had been there an hour now, the last twenty minutes of which had been spent trying to finish one paragraph. The laptop screen set before him seemed to dim in a taunting sense, its power settings having decided he clearly wasn’t using the device any longer.
Outside the independent shop, the wind was blowing fiercely, whipping people’s coats against their paths loudly. Morris watched as a woman turned her face just enough for the wind to rip off her sunglasses, sending them to the sidewalk behind her. A busy man stepped on them immediately without taking notice.
Morris returned his attention to the blinking dash marker, and shortly resumed his mumbling of obscenities in frustration. He was so close now, so close, to finishing the damn thing. This story had come so easily at first, but only grown more difficult beyond its first hundred pages. It wasn’t so much the story as it was Morris; he was burning out, his written voice becoming stale and forced. He needed that spark of inspiration again, but didn’t know where to find it.
“Turn up the volume! Excuse me? Can you please turn up the TV volume? Yes, thank you.”
Morris looked away from his laptop to see a startled man shouting at an employee, his finger pointed to the screen in the upper corner of the shop. Morris turned then to the TV set – an ancient thing with a deep back – to see what the fuss was all about. On screen, there was a youngish woman fighting the wind with a microphone in hand, standing outside Central Park. She looked at least as scared (if not more) as the man urging the shop employee to quickly find the remote.
As the volume was increased from 5 to 30, Morris listened to the crackled audio of the reporter. “…police don’t know what it is, nor has the White House or Pentagon released any sort of statement to our knowledge. This has just happened, a current development! We’re all just as confused as you. Is it anywhere else? Are there similar sightings? We don’t know…”
Morris was confused, but only momentarily. The cameraman moved off of the girl a second later, and showed a large object in the sky (probably thirty-some stories in its own right), hovering above the city buildings beyond their location. It was egg-shaped, black in color, with illuminated blue rings moving down its surface (five in total). Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to be doing anything. Morris wondered what it was, but knew deep down that the answer wasn’t one he wanted to hear.
His heart began to race.
The other man in the shop got onto his phone. “Honey? Honey, where are you? Get in the fucking car. We have to leave New York.”
Morris watched him hurry out the door, flinging on his coat as he went. It was then that Morris saw the people outside had become frantic and scared. The wind didn’t seem like such a natural occurrence anymore; it was pulling in the direction of Central Park, where the egg was watching overhead. Nobody was going in that direction anymore. They were all fighting the wind to move further away.
Morris looked at his computer screen, frozen and in shock. Was this really happening? He suddenly thought back on the morning, hoping it would be hazy, suggesting he was only in a dream. But he remembered every minute since getting out of bed at four.
This was really happening.
Morris slapped the laptop shut and slid it into his case quickly. The shop employee that had turned up the TV had since vanished to the backroom. Morris was the only one around now. He wondered where he should go, who he should call. But he was a single man in his forties, divorced and without children. His parents had died two years earlier in a plane crash, and they’d only ever had one other child. That was Kendall, his younger sister, but she wasn’t on speaking terms with Morris.
For a long minute, he just stood in place by the table, unsure of what to do. He looked back at the TV screen, realizing then that he had tuned out all sound around him since the departure of the other patron. He opened his ears and tried to focus on the reporter once more.
“It doesn’t seem to be doing anything,” she said, looking over her shoulder briefly. “The object appeared about fifteen minutes ago, putting us all in shock. But I’ve just received word that similar ships have also shown up in Washington, D.C., Sydney, London, France…”
Morris turned away from the TV and looked toward the counter once more. There was still no one else around. The shop appeared to have been abandoned.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m getting the fuck out of here.”
Morris looked back at the TV just as the girl tossed her microphone aside and ran off-screen, the cameraman returning his gaze to the egg in the sky. It lingered there for several moments before the screen went black, the feed cut. Rather than return to the anchor room of the studio, an image appeared saying the connection had been lost.
Morris finally willed his legs to move, and headed out the front door into the shoving crowd of people.
Annalise hadn’t quite listened to her husband when he told her to get in the car. Instead, she had turned on the TV, saw the news, and begun packing her things. As she searched the closet for their handheld radio, her cell phone chimed from the dresser corner. She reached out to grab it, and saw that it was a text message from her husband.
Where can I meet you?
Annalise growled in frustration, and wrote back, I haven’t left the house yet.
She then pocketed the phone and returned her attention to the closet. In the back (of course), she found a box of emergency supplies buried beneath a stack of folded blankets. She dug it out and carried it to the bed. She quickly tossed off the lid and rummaged through its contents, locating the radio, several flashlights, batteries, and a Swiss Army knife (with all the bells and whistles). After seeing what else was inside, Annalise decided to just take the whole container, and moved it outside to the car in the driveway.
They lived on Long Island, though her husband worked in the city. Getting a house in Wantagh had been much more affordable; besides, Annalise hated going into the city and its craziness. That morning, Jackie had luckily taken the Fusion to work, leaving her the crossover. For this, she was thankful.
The trunk now had the emergency supplies box, a suitcase for Jackie’s things, both of their compact depository safes, and several bags of groceries and drinks. She had first received his urgent call about a half hour earlier. Considering all she needed to finish now was her own suitcase, she felt on top of time.
Her phone chimed again.
Get the fuck on! Meet me at the Brookdale rest stop.
A text with the address appeared a moment later. Annalise copied it into her Maps app and checked the distance. It was a solid two hour drive from their house. She wondered where Jackie was currently, and how far he had to go. The turnpike was probably going to be insane. Would cars even be moving?
“Jesus Christ,” she cursed, heading back into the house. “Please be a modern-day War of the Worlds hoax.”
She spent ten minutes completing her suitcase, used the bathroom one last time, and headed back outside. As she stopped to lock the door behind her, the ground shook tremendously, putting her off balance. She grabbed onto the stoop railing, and looked around herself. The neighborhood was suddenly loud with screams and car alarms. Outside, numerous people were also packing up their cars to leave, and now staring up at the sky in fear.
Annalise looked up herself, but saw nothing. Still, that egg thing on the news must have done something in the city. Why else the enormous tremor?
As she headed down the stairs and toward the car, a gust of wind suddenly charged down the street, almost knocking her backward with its force. She fought against it, trying to reach the crossover, but the strength increased so much so that she couldn’t stand against it any longer. She fell back in a twist, landing on her side and grabbing onto a small garden bush subconsciously. She screamed over the howl of the wind, wishing desperately for it to end.
This was not a hoax.
In Mechanicsville, MD, Samantha was grabbing her car keys and hurrying into the garage. Every TV channel was showing the same thing: destruction. Manhattan had been leveled, as well as the capitol. No one knew if the President had been evacuated to his bunker in time or not. Over a million people were expected to be dead, and there were still more of those egg-shaped objects scattered across the globe. Had they all dropped as well? Or were they waiting for something still?
Samantha didn’t really care. She was only concerned with picking up her young son from his school fifteen minutes up the road, the sooner the better. That was her priority number one. Other people could wait.
So she jumped into her sedan, started up the engine, and pulled out of her garage and driveway as quickly as she could, nearly clipping another rushing mother in the process. Not that it was of any surprise, but other parents had had the same thought as she. Samantha prayed that traffic wouldn’t keep her from reaching her son.
Andrew and the rest of his classmates had been gathered in the auditorium. Every teacher and faculty member seemed to be present, each one of them shaken. Andrew wondered why. The other kids were all talking about it, too, asking the same questions.
Why are we here?
Is something going on?
Why won’t they tell us anything?
Andrew had heard one of his friends talking about sneaking out to leave the school. Something was clearly up, and they deserved to know what exactly. He contemplated following them, but no plan had yet been finalized. There were too many adults, and at least one at every exit. They appeared to be prisoners.
The room had been cleared of tables and equipment (gym class usually taking place there), so everyone was seated on the cold, hard floor, uncomfortable and vocal about it. But the teachers didn’t seem to give much of a shit. Some had become aggressive with the students, frequently yelling at them to stay put and shut up. Others were clearly too lost in their own thoughts, and therefor lacking in any interaction. Did they even know the kids were planted on the tile floor?
“Hey, you comin’?”
Andrew turned to see his friend, Jay, crouching at his side. Following closely behind Jay were two other classmates, Fred and Ronda. Surrounding them were many other students still seated, but paying attention to him.
“Where are we going?” Andrew asked, confused.
“We’re going to rush Mrs. Valerie at the fire exit in the corner. Get out of here.”
Andrew looked past his friend to the door in question. Mrs. Valerie stood there, clearly anxious and biting her nails. No one else was within twenty feet of her. Why she was alone to guard the door made no sense.
“Is it just her?” Andrew asked.
“Mr. Hurley just left for the bathroom, I think,” Jay said. “So we’re working with a small window of opportunity here.”
Andrew looked at the other students who appeared to be in on the plan. “How many of us are there?”
Jay shrugged. “Enough,” he said, hurriedly. “You coming or not?”
Andrew considered it a moment longer, and then nodded. What did he have to lose? If they got caught or stopped, then they’d just be placed back here again. It’s not like the teachers had guns and were going to open fire on them. Mrs. Valerie would probably just scream and jump aside during their charge.
“Where do we go once we’re outside?” he asked as Jay began to turn.
“The parking lot,” his friend replied quickly. “I heard there are parents out there trying to get inside, but the principal won’t let them.”
Andrew liked the sound of this, and followed George in a crouched stance like the others. They moved through the crowd about ten feet – enough of them to catch the attention of Mrs. Valerie, who looked up from her nails with obvious concern – and then Jay stood tall.
A group of twenty-some students jumped to their feet at once and charged for the fire exit. As expected, Mrs. Valerie jumped out of their way, shouting for them to stop at once. Nobody listened, except the other teachers, who rushed the group from all angles. But Andrew, Jay, and several others managed to get outside before it was too late.
The fire alarm sounded.
In Historic Abingdon, VA, Wendy and her sister, Kayla, were on their way to the park opposite the Barter Theater when they first learned of the morning events. Wendy had asked Kayla to look up the weather for the day – the sky showing some heavy cloud coverage moving over – and Kayla responded by pulling out her phone. It was then that she saw a ton of unread notifications at the top of her screen.
Surprised, she swiped down for the complete list, and saw that a large number of her Facebook friends were streaming videos live. “Wow, is it a holiday or something?”
Wendy looked over Kayla’s shoulder to see what she was talking about. “No. Why?”
Kayla pulled up one of the videos and saw a recording of a TV news report. On the screen, an anchorman was sweating and talking shakily. Wendy told her to turn the volume up so they could hear. Both girls had stopped on the sidewalk, no longer on their way to the park.
“…again, if you have children present, you may want to divert them elsewhere as we go to replay several of the videos recorded prior to the event,” the man said, licking his lips and nodding to someone off-camera. The screen then changed to a cell phone’s recording, slender and shot in low definition. It had been taken from a city street – subtitles appeared to say “Manhattan” a moment later before vanishing – and there was a crowd of people stopped in their tracks, looking up. The person recording the video did a three-sixty rotation to show them all – hundreds, probably, in all directions – and then turned the camera to the sky as well.
Kayla put her free hand over her mouth. “Oh, my God…”
Wendy whispered, “What is that?”
There was a large, oval-like object directly above the crowd of people, very dark in color, and covering much of the sky. The people were eerily quiet as they stood frozen in place, many others recording footage with their phones as well.
“What’s going on?” Wendy asked, trying to get a better look at her sister’s phone screen.
The object then suddenly dropped, crippling the buildings in its way and crushing the street, cutting the video short. The action took all of a split-second, so little time that the girls weren’t even sure what they’d seen.
Another video took the screen, this one perhaps recorded by an iPad, seeing as the presentation was wider and of better quality. It had been shot some distance from the object in the sky – in this view, the ship looked like a black egg with a handful of glowing, blue rings – and seemingly out of the danger zone of the thing falling from the sky. A moment later, that’s what happened. Only the distance between this person and those beneath the egg didn’t seem to matter; a wave of blue fire engulfed the street ahead immediately, and rushed to the camera man just as she let out a scream of surprise. Then there was blackness.
The anchorman returned, his face even whiter than before. “There are hundreds of videos like this online,” he began quietly. “And they all end the same. From New York and Washington. Both cities are presumed to be gone now.”
Wendy and Kayla exchanged looks of terror.
“This isn’t real,” Wendy said, shaking her head. “Play another video. Someone live streaming.”
Kayla switched over to another available video. A girl in her early twenties appeared, talking frantically from the safety of her bedroom. “What the fuck is going on, people?! What the fuck?!” she cried, her hands combing through her long hair. “My Dad works at the Pentagon. Is he fucking dead? His phone number won’t even ring for me. What are we supposed to do? Did we just get nuked or something?!”
Wendy grabbed the phone from her sister’s hands and clicked off the screen. “That’s enough,” she said, starting to walk again. “Let’s go.”
“Hold up,” Kayla said, reaching just in time to catch Wendy’s wrist. “Give me back my phone. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“It’s just some bullshit,” Wendy said harshly. “Some trick.”
“Give me my phone.”
Wendy relinquished the device, and Kayla turned back in the way they’d come. Wendy stopped in her tracks and watched. “Where are you going?”
“To the car,” Kayla called over her shoulder.
Wendy hurried after her. “We haven’t been to the park yet.”
Kayla was bringing up the news on her web browser. She scanned the Emergency Alerts and began to walk faster.
“Slow down, will you?”
Kayla shook her head. “We’ve got to go home.”
“What the hell for?”
“This isn’t a trick, Wendy!” Kayla nearly shouted. “Look on your own phone. Manhattan and Washington got bombed.”
Wendy made an exasperated sound, and finally took out her own device. After a minute of walking and looking at its screen, she sighed and said, “I don’t think so.”
“I don’t think we were bombed,” Wendy said as they neared the parking lot they had left the car. “Those things were just floating in the sky.”
Wendy brought out her key fob and unlocked the car, circling to the driver’s side. “We don’t have any bombs that can just float in the sky. Not to my knowledge, at least.”
They got seated and quickly buckled in. “Then what were they?” Kayla asked, still searching her web browser for other reports and videos.
Wendy stared beyond her windshield for a long moment, her eyes unfixed. “I don’t think they’re man-made.”
Kayla didn’t reply.
Wendy looked at her. “Going home isn’t going to make us safe,” she said with some trepidation. “If those videos aren’t fake, then we may as well start digging underground for cover.”
Kayla finally looked up from her phone, silent tears running down her cheeks. “Where do we go then?”
Jackie was gone, she was sure of that. He’d stopped texting Annalise after the earthquake, his phone number no longer connected to an active line. She’d tried several times in the last hour to no avail. And as she’d feared, the roads weren’t moving. She’d only moved about two miles before traffic become so overcrowded that everything stopped.
She’d seen some people get out of their vehicles and continue on foot. This made her angrier than anything, because it left unoccupied vehicles in the road, making the traffic even worse. She was beginning to feel claustrophobic and trapped; to her left and right were cars. In front and behind her were cars. In every direction she looked, cars. Leaving on foot was the only other option, it appeared.
But all of their things were here in the crossover. She couldn’t leave them behind; they were too important. But how was she supposed to get her car off the road? And from there, where would she be going?
The car beside her emptied then. A man, a woman, and two children all climbed out, the kids crying. She watched with a building anxiety as the parents grabbed the wrists of their children and directed them to the roadside to leave their vehicle behind.
Annalise looked in her rearview and saw that more and more people were opting to do the same. It wouldn’t be long before she’d be the only inhabited vehicle at this spot of the road, leaving her (most certainly) trapped and unable to move any further.
“God-fucking-damn-it!” she screamed, pounding on her steering wheel.
She swung open her driver-side door and moved around to the trunk. If she was going to leave on foot, she was at least bringing one bag of necessary items for the road. But that meant going through things and making a master bag of sorts, a combination of everything she’d packed. So she began to pull everything out and searching their contents.
Samantha had pulled into the school parking lot just in time, it seemed. A decent-sized crowd had formed outside of the main entrance to the building, and was pounding on the doors, demanding to be let inside. The parking lot was nothing but chaos, enough so that Samantha couldn’t find a spot to pull in. Instead, she did what so many others had, and stopped her vehicle up on the curb of the sidewalk.
She quickly threw open her door and stepped out, looking around for other entrances to the building. From the front of the school, there were just the crowded double doors. But along the sides, there were emergency exits and several classroom exits. So far, no one seemed to be casing the building’s perimeter (unless they were already around the backside, which she could not see); so she grabbed her keys and began down the side lawn, passing the windows of the principal’s office and the nurse’s office along the corner.
She hadn’t gone far before an emergency exit ahead was thrown open with some force. A handful of kids appeared, charging outside, a moment before the door shut behind them. Of that group, Samantha spotted her son.
He turned and ran over as the other kids swam past, headed in the direction of the parking lot. Andrew threw his arms around her and squeezed, speaking quickly. “We need to go! We need to go!”
She grabbed him by the hand and directed him toward her car up on the sidewalk. “I couldn’t agree more,” she said, looking up at the sky and scanning the clouds. She prayed they would remain clear.
“Where are we headed?” Andrew asked. “Home?”
“No,” she replied, opening the front passenger door for him.
Andrew climbed in, surprised. His mother never let him sit up front. He was still young.
“Where then?” he asked, grabbing at his seat belt.
Samantha went around to the driver-side and quickly climbed in, sticking her key into the ignition using the same swift movement. “Langley,” she said. “To see your father.”
Annalise was walking with the Atlantic Ocean beside her. She had emptied and repacked one of the larger packs they had, and was now carrying it over one shoulder uncomfortably. Occasionally, she would check her phone to see if Jackie had resurfaced, but there was never anything new from him. She wondered if she were in shock, confident now that her husband must have been killed.
Or maybe it was just that instinct of survival that was keeping her from dwelling on it and falling apart. She needed to get as far from the city as possible, which – the last she’d read online – was now a pile of rubble. Jackie had probably been stuck in a traffic jam similar to the one she’d left when the bomb-like object had fallen. Though she hoped his death had been instantaneous, she also tried to avoid the topic altogether.
I just need to keep moving, she told herself repeatedly.
People around her were moving faster, some outright running. But she didn’t have that kind of stamina, and knew that the distance she would have to travel was much greater than these people seemed to realize. By nightfall, she’d be lucky to have crossed half the bridge. Hell, maybe she wouldn’t even be on it yet. It could be days before she reached the New Jersey Turnpike. And then what?
One step at a time, she told herself.
Wendy and Kayla pulled into the Bristol Caverns parking lot about forty minutes later, the traffic of 81 not being nearly as congested as they had feared. Not yet, at least. It would probably swell more in the coming hours.
“The place looks closed,” Kayla said, looking toward the shop where tickets would be purchased for a tour below.
“Doesn’t matter,” Wendy told her, climbing out of the car.
Kayla followed suite and looked around. There was one other vehicle, off to the side. She pointed at it and said, “Well, maybe an employee is still inside.”
Wendy waved her hand dismissively, heading around to the side of the building. “Kayla, it doesn’t matter. We don’t need to go through that shop to reach the caverns.”
“You’ve been here before?”
Wendy nodded, taking them past the shop and toward the wooded area further back.
“Won’t there be some kind of barrier to keep out freeloaders and the homeless, though?” Kayla said, almost whining. She was proving to be a poor companion in emergency situations.
Wendy looked over her shoulder. “It’s been a while since I was here,” she said, climbing the slight hill. “But all I remember is going down some steps into the caves. If there’s a locked door, we’ll break in somehow.”
“Do you really think this is smart?”
They found a path into the trees and took it. “This was the nearest option I could think of,” Wendy said. “If you have any better ideas, let’s hear them.”
Kayla became quiet.
They soon found the entrance to the caverns and, while there was a door, it was unlocked and opened. As Wendy began down the stairs, Kayla looked around the surrounding woods. Wendy stopped a few feet down and looked back up to see what her friend was doing. “You coming?”
Kayla began down the stairs. “I was just looking for the other guy.”
“What other guy?”
“That car in the lot. Someone must be here somewhere.”
Wendy looked down into the caverns. “Seeing as the door was open, maybe they’re in the caverns. I doubt we’re the only people to think going underground might save us.”
They followed the main cavern path some distance, Kayla occasionally asking how much deeper they should go.
“I suppose as far as we can and still have these lights,” Wendy replied, pointing toward one of the many lamps showing their way. “Why?”
“I don’t want to get lost.”
“As long as we are on the path, we won’t get lost,” Wendy assured her.
A new voice said, “Hopefully not.”
Wendy and Kayla stopped in their tracks and looked around. Sitting snug between two cavern columns was a man of maybe twenty-three, with short, dark hair. He didn’t bother to stand from the overturned bucket he was sitting upon; instead, he gave them a small wave.
“Sorry if I scared you,” he apologized. “I work here.”
Kayla began to stammer. “We, uh, just, the news, and um…”
Wendy put a hand on her back to shut her up. “We thought going underground would be the smartest thing to do considering the attacks,” she told the employee. “I’m Wendy, and this is Kayla.”
“I’m Mark,” the man said, smiling gently. “And it would appear that we had the same thought. About coming down here, that is.”
“You didn’t shut the door behind you,” Kayla said softly.
“No, I didn’t. I figured others may come by, and I saw no reason to bar them from possible safety.”
Wendy opened her mouth to speak, but Kayla cut her off. “Do you really think we’ll be safe down here?”
Mark made a face of mock consideration. “It’s hard to say, really. While these caverns may protect us from fire or fumes above, they could also collapse if a bomb dropped nearby. Still…I felt like this was my best option, which is why I am here.”
Wendy nodded in agreement.
Kayla looked worried, her eyes darting about the surrounding cavern walls and columns. “Do you spend a lot of time down here?”
Mark laughed. “Well, sure. I give most of the tours. But sorry, I’m not really in the mindset for one now.”
Kayla smiled. “I wasn’t going to ask for that.”
“I think I saw that twinkle in your eye,” Mark said, grinning. “Don’t deny it, now.”
Wendy ignored the poorly timed flirtation, and found an uncomfortable seat herself, on the ground and up against a smooth rock.
“How long were you planning to stay down here?” Mark asked them.
Kayla looked to Wendy, who shrugged.
“I guess until we start starving,” Wendy said. “We didn’t stop to buy groceries or supplies. I was too worried about the roads coming to a halt. I just wanted to get here as soon as possible.”
“Where did you come from?”
“Did you take any food down here?”
“Just the lunch I had packed for the day. And sadly…I ate that about twenty minutes ago.”
“So none of us have food?” Kayla asked.
“That’s right,” Wendy told her.
“Well…shit. How long could we last down here, then?”
Mark answered. “Honestly, in a couple hours, we may receive some good news.”
“He’s right,” Wendy said. “By dinner, we could be headed home.”
Kayla scoffed. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”
Wendy looked away from her.
“Do you?” Kayla asked, turning to Mark.
He shrugged. “It’s possible.”
“Do you even know what attacked us?”
“Of course not.”
Wendy spoke up from against her rock. “It was aliens.”
The others looked at her with a sort of pity.
Wendy didn’t care. “It was, guys. Come on. Nobody has the technology of those things we saw in the videos. I’m sorry. It sucks. But that’s the truth. I think we would have known if North Korea or somebody suddenly possessed the power to position floating bombs of that size over our cities.”
Kayla understood where her friend was coming from, but was in denial. They’d argued about it on the drive over, so this time she said nothing.
Mark, however, told Wendy, “I’m a religious man.”
“So?” she said.
“So, there are no aliens. God created life on Earth, nowhere else.”
Wendy made a face, shook her head, and looked off into the darkness.
Nobody else spoke for some time.
Annalise felt like she’d been walking for hours, but the bridge appeared to be just as far as it was when she first abandoned her vehicle.
Others walked the sidewalk with her. It was like a march of the deceased, everyone leaving the city with only the bags that could be carried beside them. Leaving behind just about everything else they knew and owned, and going…where? There was no dead-set destination, at least not for Annalise. She was just concerned with getting away from Manhattan. After that?
I guess someplace devoid of life, she thought. Like Wyoming. She had once read that was the lowest populated state in the U.S., and a state with low population was surely a state positioned low on a targeted attack list.
A sound caught her attention and also, she quickly noticed, the attention others walking that side of the road. It was coming from the water. She stopped and crossed to the dividing wall looking over the Atlantic. Bubbles were rising from below the surface, as far out as she could see. As soon as they appeared, they popped, only to be replaced by another a moment later.
Annalise looked to the man that had stopped several feet from her. “Is that…is the ocean starting to boil?”
The man looked as concerned as she. “I, uh…I think it might be.”
The level at which the bubbles were rising and popping continued to increase. After a long minute of silent observation, the man cautiously held his hand out over the water. Annalise watched as a series of bubbles exploded a foot beneath his hand, splashing up drops of water that touched his skin. He pulled back, hissing.
“It’s hot?” she asked him.
The man turned to her and nodded solemnly, rubbing his burned hand at his torso.
Annalise swallowed hard. “Fuck.”
Samantha and her son may have escaped the school, but the roads were hardly moving. The problem was the tri-county area housed numerous families that worked in Washington or over the bridge in Virginia; and as such, surviving members were going crazy over unanswered phone calls and text messages.
“What are we going to do, Mom?” Andrew asked, his voice shaking slightly.
Samantha looked out at the highway before her. They were still a good twenty minute drive from the Harry Nice Bridge, and that would have been under normal circumstances. But nothing about that day had come about normal.
“We just keep inching our way, for now,” she told him, trying to make it sound like more of a chore than an actual concern. “We’ll get to your father, don’t worry. It just may take a couple hours.”
“And if we don’t?”
Samantha didn’t know how to answer that. She had told Andrew everything she knew about the attacks, so his mind was spinning just as much as hers. If they never got to Langley, then where would they be going instead? She hadn’t decided.
“We’ll figure something out,” she said, her eyes falling over the glove compartment. “Just keep checking the news on your phone and let me know of any updates.”
“What if people start looting and rioting?” Andrew asked.
Samantha thought of the Glock that lay hidden just inches from her son’s knees. “I’ll protect you,” she told him firmly. “Don’t you worry about that.”
In the caverns, Kayla was becoming increasingly anxious to move. She couldn’t explain why, but she didn’t think they were deep enough to be safe. She thought that if any collapses occurred, their chances were better being even deeper within the caves.
“Sure,” Wendy said, entertaining the idea for her friend. “But what about rescuers? The farther down we go, the harder we would be to find.”
Mark had fallen asleep a while back, and was snoring as drool dribbled down the side of his mouth.
Kayla said, “If we get attacked again, and the caves start to crumble, I don’t think we’d be getting any rescuers any way.”
“So, this is a matter of preference to starvation over crushing?”
Kayla nodded. “I suppose so.”
Wendy made a face. “I think I rather be crushed.”
“Well, maybe it could be instantaneous. Look at this place. If any of it falls on your head, I think you’d die right then. Starvation, however, could take days.”
Kayla considered that and shrugged. “I suppose you’re right. But what if you get, like, stuck in a small crevice during the collapse instead of being instantly crushed?”
“Well, then you’d get your preference of starvation still, wouldn’t you?”
Kayla didn’t respond. Instead, she stood for the umpteenth time and began to wander in circles. “I just hate sitting here, waiting for who the fuck knows what.”
Wendy nodded in agreement.
Kayla looked over at Mark. “I bet he has a flashlight. Maybe even a map of these caverns.”
“So, I want to explore.”
Wendy was beginning to feel rather annoyed by her friend. “For what fucking purpose, Kayla?” she demanded. “To just get lost down in the darkness? At least here, we might get a signal on our phones.”
Kayla crossed over to Mark and carefully searched his person, trying to keep him from waking. When she came up empty-handed, she said, “Maybe his things are under the bucket.”
Wendy chose to ignore her.
Kayla tried to decide if she wanted to wake Mark or leave him be. She took several steps back from him, trying to decide. She put her hands on her hips and stepped from one direction to the next, going nowhere, ultimately making circles in place.
Wendy watched her, bored and tempted to check her phone again. But she didn’t want to waste the battery, and so far nothing good had come from the news since the initial attacks. She wondered how many more there had been around the world. She had read reports of other egg-bombs being spotted over other large cities outside of the states.
As if to give her any indication of what was going on above ground, the caverns began to shake. Kayla nearly stumbled sideways, but caught herself. She turned to Wendy, her eyes wide with horror. “Something’s happening!”
Wendy stood from the floor and looked around them. Dirt, dust, and rock were falling around them. As the quake continued to quickly grow, Mark woke and stretched from atop his buckets. The girls turned to him. “What’s going on?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.
A stalactite then broke from above and fell. Wendy simultaneously grabbed Kayla and shouted for Mark to move. Her fingers had just managed to cover her friend’s eyes when the sharp rock came down on their guide, tearing off his head as he leaned forward to stand from his bucket. The rock broke into numerous pieces at impact, sending several chunks at the girls and knocking them backward.
In their falling, Kayla smacked her head against the low ceiling behind them, and lost consciousness. Wendy, however, fell on top of her friend with little injury. As she gathered herself – the caverns shaking harder now, sending more stalactites to the ground around them – she realized Kayla was not responding to her screams.
“Shit!” she cursed, trying to lift Kayla miserably. “Open your eyes, damn it! I can’t move you!”
The low ceiling seemed to rattle then, directly above Kayla’s fallen form. Wendy reacted quickly and dragged her friend away just as it caved down at an angle. If she hadn’t noticed, Kayla would have been smashed then (much like Mark’s head behind them).
She shook Kayla’s shoulders hard, and smacked her across the face. “Please! WAKE UP!”
The caverns were coming down around them.
“We’ve got to go! We’ve got to go!”
Further down the path – off to the side where the ceiling was too low to stand and water was present – a light suddenly appeared.
Annalise had backed up toward the road, where hundreds of vehicles had been left abandoned. The ocean was splashing with large bubble bursts now, some of which had burned other travelers standing too close to the barrier wall.
She was tempted to get back inside a car and drive off, but she knew that wasn’t possible. The roads were, essentially, fucked beyond repair at this point. Nothing was moving, and it wasn’t like the boiling ocean would suddenly change that.
What do I do? What do I do?
Something shot straight up out of the water then, high enough that the sun blinded her from seeing what it was. The man that had burned his hand beside her was still nearby, and the two of them exchanged confused looks.
“What was that?” he asked.
Something crashed down behind them, in the road. Annalise swung herself around and saw a tall form crouched atop a sedan, its back to them. Whatever had landed there wasn’t human; it had dark, swirling skin of black and blue, no clothing, and stood an impressive height – maybe eight feet or more.
The creature straightened and turned to face them. The man beside Annalise cursed loudly and began to run. Annalise, however, had frozen in place, terrified by the sight. Whatever it was that had launches itself out of the water, was now looking directly at her. Its body wasn’t all that different from a human’s – arms, legs, torso, and head – but the look of it was…aquatic. There appeared to be gills at the side of its neck, and its eyes were tiny, oval, and black. Annalise could not see any obvious nose, mouth, or ears, though its head was large.
Another one dropped down then, this time landing between parked vehicles on the road. After a moment, it too stood tall, and looked in her direction. It was then that Annalise realized everyone she’d been walking with had left in a hurry. She was the only person around.
A sound brought her to her knees then, something internal. It was almost like the thoughts in her head, only high-pitched and unrecognizable. If these were words she was hearing, they weren’t of a language she knew. And the intensity in which they had suddenly sounded was nearly unbearable.
She fell backwards in surprise, and slapped her hands over her ears. It didn’t make any difference. She closed her eyes in pain as the volume increased, scrabbling her brain. When she finally fought back, enough to open her eyes (despite the chaos going on inside her head), she saw that the two creatures were towering over her.
She began to scream as a hand with sharp, long fingers reached down to grab her.
Samantha and her son were finally within sight of the Harry Nice Bridge, which would eventually allow them to cross the Potomac River into Virginia. As far as Andrew could tell – from hanging out the window almost fully to get a good look for his mother – the toll booths weren’t being operated.
“Are cars still going through?” she asked.
Andrew returned inside the car and nodded. “Yeah. It’s just that traffic is crawling across the bridge.”
“I’m not surprised,” Samantha told him. “Why would those workers stick around in a time of crisis? Fuck the six dollars to get into Virginia.”
Andrew wasn’t used to hearing his mother curse, and looked at her with some surprise.
“Don’t start with me,” she warned him.
Further ahead, below the bridge, the Potomac began to bubble.
Wendy grabbed Kayla from behind, cupping her hands around her friend’s armpits, and began to drag her in the direction of the light.
“Wake up, girl,” she grumbled as the caverns continued to shake around them. “I can’t keep this up for long. You know that.”
They came to the water, and Wendy checked its depth. It only went a few inches, not enough to drown Kayla as she proceeded to drag her off the path and toward the distance light. She didn’t know what it was or what had created it, but the blue glow represented hope to her. Hope that they may yet survive.
“Damn it, Kayla, WAKE UP!”
The ground shook so hard then that Wendy slipped and fell backward, releasing her friend. When Kayla’s head dropped into the water, she awoke in a startled state of darkness and wetness. “What the hell?”
Wendy picked herself up and raised Kayla out of the water. “There’s a light this way,” she said, pointing. “But we’ve got to move. This place is coming apart.”
Kayla looked around them, spotted the light, and picked herself up with some difficulty. “My head is killing me,” she said, groaning.
“I’m sure it is,” Wendy replied, helping her friend move through the water. “I think you smacked it against the rock when that spike came down on Mark.”
Kayla looked behind them then. “Is he dead?!”
Wendy nodded, urging her friend to continue down the shrinking tunnel, their bodies now hunched over as the ceiling lowered. “Pay attention, will you? I can’t have you getting knocked out again.”
It wasn’t long before they had to get onto their hands and knees to crawl. The light seemed to be only going further and further from them, which didn’t make any sense. Kayla pointed this out, and Wendy spat back, “I don’t fucking know! Just follow it!”
After several uncomfortable minutes in a tiny tunnel with water up to their chins, they finally came out into a new, larger space.
“Another cave?” Kayla asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Wendy said, standing. Her knees hurt like hell now.
The light was dead ahead. As they approached it slowly, Kayla said, “I don’t think it’s moving anymore.”
Wendy didn’t answer her. Instead, she looked around them cautiously. The cave was dark, aside from the blue glow. She could hear and feel the water beneath their feet, but nothing else. Even the sound of the shaking caverns had vanished.
She realized then that she had stopped moving forward. She turned to the glow and saw that Kayla was getting ever closer to it, unaware that Wendy had fallen behind. But rather than try catching up, Wendy remained in place, listening carefully. The sudden silence had struck her with a deeply laid terror. She tried to call her friend back to her, but found that she couldn’t move her lips to produce the words. She was shaking all over, a sense of dread having taken over.
Kayla was standing before the light now, and could see that the blue glow was coming from something shaped like a knot in a tree. It also appeared to be suspended some six or seven feet in the air, high enough that she had to reach up to touch it. Her fingers came back moist and sticky. As she tried to look down upon them, the glowing knot seemed to move around in place.
Wendy tried to call for her friend again, but still no words came.
Kayla took notice of the movement, and ignored her fingertips. Before she could react, something grabbed her by the hips, something like fingers, but much sharper. She was lifted into the air, screaming, about a foot above the glowing knot. She heard the sound of something fluttering, and then a crevice opened above her. She only saw it due to the light contained within, another blue glow. Before she could question the mouth, the crevice lunged forward and closed around her head, severing it at the neck.
Wendy turned and fled back to the tunnel, tossing herself forward into the water and scrambling in a prone-like stance as the walls and ceiling closed around her. In the distance, back in the cave, she heard grotesque sounds. Crunching and sloshing sounds. If Wendy didn’t know any better, she’d say her friend was being eaten by whatever had directed them over by light.
It didn’t take long before Wendy realized the cause of the silence that had overtaken their surroundings; the tunnel had been blocked by the fallen ceiling ahead. She had no way back to the initial cavern containing Mark’s decapitated form. She had only one way she could move now, and that was back toward the light.
Wendy began to scream in the small space that would become her tomb.
The sound of the Harry Nice Bridge crumbling was deafening. Samantha and her son watched in horror as cars – no further than a few hundred feet ahead of their own – began to shake in place. They were currently stopped in a toll lane, a booth directly to their left.
“What’s happening, Mom?” Andrew shouted over the noise.
Samantha watched as the bridge seemed to swing from side to side, pieces of it breaking off and falling into the water below. “It’s falling,” she said, her voice defeated. “My God…”
“What do we do?” Andrew cried, shaking his mother’s arm to snap her back into reality. “We can’t stay here!”
Samantha nodded and reached over to the glove compartment. “You’re right,” she said, removing the gun hidden there. Andrew’s eyes widened when he saw it. “We’ve got to ditch the car.”
“Is that Dad’s?” he asked.
Samantha swung open her car door, which slammed into the unoccupied booth. “No, it’s mine. Now, get over here!”
She stood outside her door as her son climbed over the center console to get to her side. As he began to climb out, she looked beyond the booth and at the bridge. Hundreds of cars were honking, and hundreds of people were screaming. The bridge collapsed then, folding in its raised center, and then dragging each end of it down a second later. Just like that, hundreds (if not more than a thousand) people were gone.
“Holy shit!” Andrew screamed.
Samantha ignored him. Instead, she grabbed his arm and directed him through the traffic, back the way they’d come. Most people had left their cars at this point, as well, providing them an unusual sight: a wave of heads and flailing arms down a highway of stopped vehicles. It was like watching an infection spread through the blood stream.
“Keep up!” she told her son, pulling him along roughly. Not far ahead on the left was a packed gas station of delivery trucks (eighteen wheelers and the like). She directed them in its direction, thinking of the grocery mart as a possible refuge. She was sure others would go as well, but hoped otherwise.
They reached it about five minutes later, exhausted and bruised from bumping into cars and other people. As they headed quickly for the mart’s double doors, a gunshot rang out from inside. Samantha skidded them to a stop, and turned her son to go around the building instead. They pressed their backs against the brick wall and tried catching their breaths.
“Is someone shooting at us?” her son asked through a wheeze.
Samantha shook her head. “I don’t think so. But someone does have a gun inside.”
“Yeah, well so do you, Mom.”
She looked down at the Glock and took a deep breath. “Yeah, but I’m not going to just barge into the store and start shooting people that stand in our way.”
“What if someone attacks us?”
She looked down at her son. “Then you close your eyes, because they’ll be losing their head.”
Andrew grinned, despite the horror of everything happening around them. “What do we do now? We’re not going inside, are we?”
There was another gunshot from within the mart.
Samantha shook her head yet again. “No, I guess we aren’t,” she sighed, looking around. She considered stealing an eighteen wheeler and plowing through the parked cars, but knew that would mean risking people who hadn’t yet abandoned them. She doubted many were still left, hoping for traffic to move, but still…she didn’t want to take such a destructive chance. Not yet.
She looked down to see Andrew tugging roughly at her arm. “What is it?”
“Stop zoning out!” he yelled at her. “What are we going to do?”
Samantha licked her lips and looked around them, her chest heaving as a panic attack threatened to take over. Beyond the gas station was the woods, though she didn’t know how much of it. She assumed there were properties lining the river there, or perhaps more factories (like that of the power plant on the opposite side of the road).
Still, she thought it might be the best way to go.
From within the trees, they stopped for another break. Andrew looked back toward the road, hearing heightened screams. Something else was happening out there, he was sure of it. But his mother said nothing, and took him by the wrist to keep him close to her.
“What’s going on?” he asked her. “What caused the bridge to fall?”
Samantha had no idea. She hadn’t seen any aircraft or explosions.
“It was like an earthquake, wasn’t it?”
She shrugged. “Maybe.”
“The phones are all busy,” she said. “I’ve tried calling him plenty already.”
“When was the last time?”
Samantha wasn’t sure. She thought about it, and realized maybe an hour or more had passed since her last attempt. But she doubted the result would be any different. “Fine,” she said, deciding to humor her son. “I’ll try again.”
The line didn’t ring; it gave her an immediate busy tone. “Sorry,” she said, lowering the phone. “I figured as much.”
“But Dad is CIA,” Andrew whined. “Doesn’t he have some sort of secret line or something?”
Samantha surprised them both by laughing. “Not to my knowledge.”
“What does the news say?”
Samantha lifted her phone once more and went online. The browser moved incredibly slow, but she was eventually able to load the latest update. Careful to hide the screen from her son, she read the report silently. When she’d finished, she shut off the phone screen and looked absently into the trees.
“What is it?” Andrew asked.
“I don’t know how to explain it to you,” she said simply.
Samantha laughed again. Her son sounded like a man now, not a ten year old in the fifth grade.
“You like those sci-fi movies, don’t you?” she asked.
He raised an eyebrow. “Yeah…”
She turned to him. “There have been attacks on the ground,” she said. “By unidentifiable creatures.”
Andrew took a moment to register what his mother was saying, and then his eyes widened. “Aliens?!”
His mother shrugged and looked away again. She didn’t want her son to realize how much hope had just drained from her body. She had no idea what they were going to do, or if they even had a fighting chance in hell of surviving.
“Are you OK?” Andrew asked cautiously.
I should be strong for him, she told herself. At least, give him that until the end.
In the distance, they heard several gunshots in quick succession. Samantha stopped leaning against the tree and put a hand on Andrew’s shoulder, turning him away from the highway. “Let’s get going,” she said. “We’ll look for a house with a basement or something. Find a good place to hide until things calm down.”
As they walked deeper into the woods, Andrew looked up at his mother. She seemed so different.
“What if it doesn’t?” he asked after a minute of walking.
Samantha gritted her teeth. She didn’t have an answer for him. “We’ll figure something out,” she told him, rubbing his back as they went. “I promise I’ll protect you.”
Something snapped above them, and they instinctively looked up into the branches above. Several leaves fell, but then there was nothing. Samantha stopped walking and stared hard into the trees, looking for anything of concern. After several moments had passed, she decided it had just been a bird or squirrel, and got them moving once more.
“What do you think Dad is doing?” Andrew asked as they stepped over a log.
“Probably making plans to fight back,” she said, hoping it was true.
“Would the CIA be called on to do that?”
She shrugged and said, “I think, under these circumstances, any agency of the government has probably been told to prepare.”
Andrew nodded to himself, appearing to relax. “Good.”
Samantha smiled down at him.
Another rustle of movement above them made her stop dead in her tracks. She quickly grabbed Andrew by the collar and pulled him back at a step to be near her as she scanned the branches above.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied honestly. “Keep quiet, though.”
Leaves were swaying downward upon them. Back the way they’d come, the occasional scream and gunshot continued. Samantha had read about the creatures, and if those stories were true, they had no idea what to expect. Whether they actually lived in the water or not, they were at least able to go onto land for a time. So what was keeping them out of the trees? Surely, they could climb.
Samantha tried to blindly remove the Glock’s trigger safety as she scanned the trees. Andrew remained close, watching her hands as she readied the firearm.
She shushed him.
There was a crack from the ground behind them, and Samantha swirled around with her Glock raised. But nothing was there. Andrew screamed a second later, and Samantha turned in time to see something tall and naked snatch him up under its arm. She raised the gun once more, but couldn’t bring herself to pull the trigger. She didn’t want to risk hitting Andrew.
Samantha gave chase as the creature ran and jumped through the woods, moving much faster than she. She followed it as best she could, until they were out of the trees in the back yard of a property. She spotted the creature across the lawn already, Andrew still held tightly under its arm, screaming for her to help.
“WAIT!” she screamed nonsensically.
The creature launched through the air and soared through a window with Andrew pressed against its chest. It shot through the glass like a spear, and disappeared inside. Samantha ran to the house – beyond exhausted – and looked through the broken window. She heard Andrew calling her from somewhere upstairs.
Samantha quickly climbed through the broken frame and looked around the room. She was in a dining space, it appeared. She exited to the hallway and spotted the foyer ahead. The staircase was there, just opposite the front door. She rounded it quickly and climbed as a crash sounded ahead. She jumped the last couple steps and turned down the hall, calling out Andrew’s name.
She heard him scream in response from the opposite end. It was now or never. She couldn’t let the creature jump through another window and get away. She hurried down the hall with the Glock held tightly before her, lowered to her crotch. She quickly looked left into a room that appeared empty, and then charged into the room opposite.
There, she saw Andrew unconscious on the wooden floor, the ugly creature standing over him, ready to eat. As it turned on her, Samantha froze in shock. The creature was daunting in height and muscle, much larger than her husband or anyone else she’d ever known. Then it opened a mouth she hadn’t noticed before, revealing numerous rows of gnarled, sharp teeth set before a faint, blue glow emitting from its throat.
The second it reached down to pick up her unconscious son, Samantha raised her Glock and pulled the trigger. The bullet made impact with the creature’s chest, pushing it back slightly, enough so that it let go of Andrew’s shirt. It then looked at Samantha and began to flex its muscles, spreading out its long arms in intimidation. The mouth appeared again, and a screech sounded from within Samantha’s head, bringing her to her knees.
But before the creature could lunge and snap its jaws over her, Samantha raised her Glock once more and emptied its clip. The creature collapsed backward, bleeding a dark sludge from its wounds. The sound ringing in Samantha’s head stopped abruptly, and she was able to stand. Although she was out of ammo, she held the firearm up toward the fallen monster as she inched forward a foot.
Once she felt safe enough to assume the monster was dead, she dropped down beside her son and pulled him up into her arms. The emptied Glock remained on the wooden floor as she carried Andrew out of the room, away from the bleeding creature. As she turned for the stairs, her son blinked his eyes slowly, trying to look around them.
“Sshh, save your strength,” she told him, descending to the ground level of the house.
“Am I alive?” he asked in a drugged-like state.
Samantha was crying inaudibly. A tear fell onto his face, but he didn’t take notice.
“Yes, you’re safe now,” she told him, awkwardly opening the front door and stepping out into the yard. Spotting the Potomac ahead of the property, she stopped and looked around, trying to decide where they should go.
“You killed it?” Andrew asked weakly.
She looked down at him and nodded as he gained some strength.
Andrew smiled. “You’re a warrior, Mom.”
Samantha laughed and shook her head, fighting back tears. “Let’s get you away from the fucking water.”
Exitium is a Latin word for doom, destruction, and ruin. As such, this story is meant to instill dread in the reader. Though it was written some months before I finally read The Cabin at the End of the World (by Paul Tremblay), I now look back it and think the two stories have something in common: palpable anxiety. And like The Cabin at the End of the World, “Exitium” does not have a happy ending, but rather a stopping point. I felt like that went with the territory.
The story was written earlier this year over the course of three days. I had to pause multiple times and try to decide where I wanted to take it, and later end it. I obviously couldn’t bring myself to kill the mother or her son, and decided I would prefer the reader imagine their remaining journey.
Despite the significant destruction here, I also wanted there to be a sliver of hope that we can all protect the ones we love, even in the dimmest of times. I know that I would fight through hell and back to protect my wife and daughter. Just the thought of them going through a situation like this is absolutely terrifying. And that’s the point.