Every writer says, "Oh, I'm working on a novel."
Pathetic, really, to be such a stereotypical part-time scribbler, but real life keeps popping up. Someday, the ball will roll the right way, and I'll finish it.
Until then, here's the fourth snippet of my book. Strong language, but you probably already knew that, if you've read the other sections.
For other snippets, click here.
Deputy Tom Betts called his location to Control, the small dispatch phone center in the back annex building of the police station. It was his first call of the shift, and it was the type he hated most: domestics. He opened his patrol car door, stepping out to see Jenny Rae Simmons standing on her trailer's front steps with one hell of a shiner over her left eye. Troy must have not have given a shit about that restraining order. A pair of small dogs were barking through the baby gate in the trailer's kicked-in front door.
“He's not here, you know. He took off with my Daddy's truck.”
“Who's not here, Miss Simmons?”
“The motherfucker who did this, who'd ya think?” she said as she pointed to her eye. The blonde-haired baby she was holding started to fuss from the noise of the dogs, and she bounced him on her hip to quiet him.
It was a cool day, and the wind made the willows next to the dilapidated trailer swish and stir. A hum built in the air, at first in harmony with the whispering from the willows, then overpowering it. Deputy Betts began to squint, as if some annoying insect was buzzing in his ear. The dogs' barks turned to pained whines.
A white flash from the north drew his attention from Jenny Rae, and then everything started to smoke and smolder all around him. The light grew brighter. He looked at Jenny Rae, her baby trying to burrow into her shoulder as the heat in the air jumped. The light grew even brighter, even through closed eyelids. The baby started to scream as Jenny Rae tried to shelter it, turning her back towards the onrushing heat. Jenny, the baby, and the dogs burst into flames as he brought his hands up to cover his eyes.
Tom Betts's entire world went from a routine call on a domestic abuse report to blinding fire and pain. Now, every fiber of his being, every muscle, every bone, every joint, felt like it was being pinned by an invisible hand to a white-hot stove top. His uniform, his gun belt, even the oversized revolver his Daddy gave him, all burned away. His skin was gone, peeled away by the incandescent light. The light was everywhere, now. There was no escape.
He felt a massive gust of wind pick him up. He grasped and clawed as he tumbled through the molten air, propelled by gusts far stronger than any hurricane or tornado. He crashed to the ground, the last cool breath of air driven from his lungs by the impact. The shockwave of heat roared past him, the ground split and sizzling all around him. He managed to get out only squeals and grunts as he stood to his feet with a madman's panic. The initial burn had been a shock, but his nervous system was still intact, and sent every report it could, at once, to his brain.
The flood of pain overwhelmed him. He needed to breath. He wanted to die. He craved oxygen. He didn't want to bring that heat into his lungs. Something told him to hold out, to keep the outside air at bay, but he couldn't fight it any longer.
He drew a deep breath of pure, fiery pain. The agony of inhaling the superheated air forced him bellow it out the instant he took it in, but he was forced to keep repeating the cycle, over and over again. He rubbed his eyes, as if to push the pain out of his skull, but felt like he was grinding hot cinders into his eye sockets.
He continued to breath the pain in, scream the pain out, his limbs flopping and clawing patterns in the orange and red cinders around him. Time seemed to slow, then stop. The volume of the agony was starting to fade, or he was growing used to it. Or his nerve endings were cooked away. Or he was finally dying, thank God. It didn't really matter, at this point, as long as it ended.
Betts' vision cleared, bit by bit, though his ears still blocked out everything except his heartbeat and a keening whine. His nose was there. He checked. It wasn't working, yet, but that was the least of his worries.
He saw his burned, cracked flesh start to flow and smooth over, the blackened portions fading away, returning to his normal fair hue. He turned his hand over, looking now at the palm. The pain and burning were gone. He could tell the air was nothing but flame and ash, but he could still breathe. He could still think. Had the flash been a nuke? Was he dead? Was this the lake of fire Reverend Potter preached about, all those years ago?
It wasn't hell, but it was close. The wind was still blowing, carrying embers and flame. The scorched landscape was now charred, treeless, and barren. There wasn't rubble or burned-out cars, or anything else he had seen from nuclear strikes in the movies. Everything was gone: Jenny Rae's trailer, his car, his clothes and gun. The Ellis county courthouse. The water towers. Even the lakes looked like they had boiled away. Everything that once was Waxahachie, Texas, and maybe even farther than that, was now just a howling vision of hell.
Tom Betts stood, and was uneasy on his feet. Nothing seemed real. His skin was whole, uninjured, and the pain faded from the burns that once covered him from head to toe. He was standing barefoot in flames and blackened earth, but felt only the faintest tingle of heat. His senses and movements were now out of proportion, like he was stretched or pulled out of shape. He touched his face, and it felt like he was wearing an oversized mask. The sensation coming through his fingertips was almost wooden, like his arms and legs were asleep.
The sea of flames surrounding him died out as every last bit of fuel was consumed. Now it was just ash and embers. The wind lost its fury, and the darkness cleared for a moment. An island of sunlight shone through on an area to the north. The ground there was still barren and featureless, as if it were scraped clean, but it was unburned, unblackened. The wind picked back up, and like a mirage in the desert, it disappeared from view.
A puzzled look came over his face, and he started staggering in the direction of the uncertain vision. A wave of nausea passed over him. He fell to one knee and threw up. His body felt numb, and he passed in and out of consciousness, small puffs of ash rising from his breath as he lay face-first in the burned-out sand.
The next few hours were a nightmarish blur of crawling and vomiting, vomiting and crawling, mixed with bouts of unconsciousness. Tom Betts continued in this pattern until nothing came up at all, just dry wretches and consuming darkness. The oppressive heat evaporated the perspiration from his body, but not before it mixed with the powdered silt and ash, leaving him covered in mud and caked embers.
The wind filled with the sound of whirling blades. Rescue helicopters. Thank God. The last of his strength was gone. The ground beneath him now was different, though he couldn't remember when the transition happened. It must be the mirage he saw before, through the fires. The ground was sandy, with small pieces of greenish and black glass or crystal mixed into it. It took an effort to bring his head up and look around. He saw that it was an area about a mile in diameter, with what looked like a pair of statues in the distant center of the circle.
There was no heat like the burned area he had crawled through. It was cool, almost luxurious after his recent ordeal, and he rolled on to his back with a groan. A Blackhawk helicopter roared overhead, landing just a short distance from the statues a half-mile away. He reached for it, trying to signal as best as he could, but the personnel aboard must not have seen him. He fought off another wave of dry retching, and brought himself to his feet. Help was just a little bit away, and he wasn't going to get there by just crawling.
Footstep after sickened footstep, Tom Betts lurched closer. He could see people in full environmental gear jump from the side doors of the helicopter. They were in puffy yellow coveralls with black backpacks. They were surveying the ground, taking samples, photographs, sweeping it with metal detectors and other things Tom didn't recognize. They began to establish a cordon around the two statues.
Tom continued to plod on. He could see that the gray sculptures looked like a pair of gigantic wrestlers or warriors locked in combat. They were situated atop a rock-encrusted steel platform that was rusting and warped in spots.
Two more Blackhawks landed on the far side of the statues, disgorging crewmen in protective outfits similar to the first. So far, they hadn't noticed him making his way towards them. A pair of suited figures from the first helicopter were setting up a camera on a tripod. When they tried to mount the camera on top of it, one leg buckled, sending the tripod on its side in the glassy sand. The camera operator bent over to pick up the support rig, saw him, and froze. He motioned to his partner, who turned and saw Betts. The figure's startled body language conveyed surprise even through the balloon-like suit.
Tom drew closer, almost within a hundred yards of the statues, and saw that the responding personnel were wearing scuba masks under the environmental outfits. The sky darkened as another helicopter landed between him and the statues. The sand and glass peppered him, but there was no stinging pain. He also remembered Army Blackhawks as being huge. Even though it this one was only yards away, it seemed smaller for some reason. Weird, he thought to himself.
Men in yellow bubble suits and oxygen tanks on their back jumped from the doors of this new Blackhawk, but they were armed with military rifles instead of scientific gear. Two of them had under-barrel grenade launchers and vests full of 40mm projectiles.
A crescent of armed soldiers formed a perimeter around him. He wondered why they were all so short. Naked and covered in sweat-caked ash, he must have been quite the sight to them. Their wide eyes looked up at him, and to each other. They were talking to each other, probably over radios inside their masks, but he couldn't hear anything over the noise of the Blackhawk. A taller suited figure stepped from the helicopter, and slipped between two soldiers. He motioned for them to lower their weapons, which most of them did.
The transparent plastic front of the suit showed that this taller man was older. He was probably their commanding officer, or at least in charge of something more than a rifle. He produced a small clipboard with a white piece of plastic on the back. He wrote on it with a dry-erase marker.
“Who R U? Got ID?” was the question in hurried handwriting.
Tom scowled. ID? What the fuck does this guy think, that I have my atomic bomb-proof wallet wedged in my ass crack? I'm naked, for fuck's sake.
Betts leaned into the man, who had seemed taller from a distance, and shouted over the whine and repetitive thumping of the helicopter blades, “My name is Tom Betts. I'm a cop. What the hell happened? Was it a nuke?” Betts fought back a heaving stomach, and steadied himself by putting his hands on his knees and stooping over.
The officer held up a finger as he listened to a transmission in his ear. He nodded his head in agreement with the unheard voice, and turned to the troops behind him. He gave them a thumbs-up, and pulled the zipper pull tab from his shoulder, unsealing his suit.
"Doff your Level A's, men. Radiation Control says we're in the hottest zone of anything we've scanned, and it's not that bad. Lots of Trinitite, lots of alpha and beta, but the gamma-producing isotopes have half-lifed away in this zone. Just don't scoop up a handful and eat it."
He turned to Betts, who stood up. The officer stepped back as Betts drew up to his full height. Two of the soldiers brought their rifle barrels back up. "I'm Lieutenant Colonel Dennison, U.S. Army, out of Fort Hood. Are you alone? Have you seen anyone else out there?”
Tom shook his head as another wave of nausea hammered at him.
“Jesus, you're a big one. What are you, six foot, ten? Seven foot? What'd you say your name was? 'Best?'"
"Betts. What do you mean, 'you're a big one?' I'm five foot, nine. I'm the runt of the family, Colonel."
"Son, don't bullshit a bullshitter. I think the heat and all this other shit's gotten to you. Let's get you in the Blackhawk and back to base. Master Sergeant, you're with me. Detail the rest of the men to assist with the research bunnies. Also, get 'Mr. Runt' here a blanket. I don't need to see any more swinging meat today, thank you very much."
Lt. Colonel Dennison's senior enlisted soldier, Master Sergeant Rice, nodded to the nearest soldier with a rifle. The soldier trotted back to the Blackhawk helicopter, and retrieved an olive green blanket. Betts wrapped it around his waist. It looked like a miniskirt.
Betts choked down the urge to puke, and put his hand on the officer's shoulder. He noticed that his hand looked huge compared to the man's upper torso. "Wait a minute, Colonel. What the hell is going on? What happened here? Some kind of bomb?"
"We don't know much at this point, Betts. You're standing in the middle of what's left of the whole fucking Dallas-Forth Worth Metroplex. Everything's gone. Everything that's not gone is on fire for miles around.
"Now, kindly pull that big mitt off of me, son. We need to figure out how you ended up being the only living soul we've seen in this whole god-forsaken shitstorm."
They escorted Tom Betts back to the helicopter. He tried to duck to clear the rotor blades, and became dizzy. As he came alongside the sliding side door of the Blackhawk, he staggered, and went to one knee. The Master Sergeant and Colonel both couldn't get him back to his feet, even with both men pulling as hard as they could. Betts put a massive hand out, grasping the top of the door frame, and brought himself back to a semi-upright position.
The helicopter's crew chief became quite agitated upon seeing the giant man's hand crumple the reinforced airframe like paper.
Betts pulled his hand back in bewilderment. He had to fold himself like a jackknife to fit in the passenger hold, and seemed to fill the entire space.
"Jesus, Colonel, couldn't you find a bigger guy than this one?" asked the craft's pilot over the radio headset.
"Get us back to base, Smitty. The brass are going to want to see this one," Dennison said.
"Roger that, sir."
The Army helicopter's twin engines screamed, throttling hard to claw into the heated air. Laboring under its new heavy cargo, the aircraft banked and headed west to clear the smoke from the scorched devastation, then south to Fort Hood. Tom Betts sat against the rear bulkhead of the helicopter's main compartment. Colonel Dennison and Master Sergeant Rice took rear-facing jump seats, while the crew chief continued to bitch about his newly-wrinkled aircraft. That wasn't going to buff out.
Betts kept looking at his hand, waving the sausage-like fingers in front of his face, as if in a trance. The Colonel and Master Sergeant exchanged a smirk, and both shook their heads in mutual agreement: There was going to be a lot of paperwork and extraneous bullshit involved in this one. Damn it.
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