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I dedicate this novel to my amazing friends at the Fairfield YMCA- Amber and Darwin Russell, Jacob Plenz, and Tyler Zeek. You all have supported me more than anyone else, and none of this could have been possible without any of you all. Thanks, guys.

-J.L., July 25th, 2015

 

Chapter 1

     The Dark Man walked down the desert highway, never pausing to glance back. There was no need to; he had been down roads such as these a hundred times before, and had rarely ever seen a living soul. The few that he had seen were quick to get by him; they had never looked back, either. That was fine by him; the less attention that he drew to himself, the better. It was hard to ignore him, though; anyone within a one mile radius knew that there was something not quite right about the man. In that fact, they were completely right.

     The orange sun was setting over the sand

y, bleak horizon in a slow, steady manner. The Dark Man noticed the stone-gray mountains, where he could barely see the snow-capped peaks off in the distance. A soft breeze blew sand around him, which was a reminder of the terrible dust storms that had ravaged the land years ago. Thin, wispy clouds hovered above. To any normal man, the scene was a breathtaking sight. To the Dark Man, the beauty did not move him at all. That was not why he was here.

He had been walking down the highway for three hours when he came upon a small town. The entrance sign to the town read, Welcome to Williamstown! Happiest Little Town in Arizona! Under that, the sign said pop. 1,823. The Dark Man grinned. He knew that that number would be changing real soon. In fact, he figured that by the time that he was done with the small town of Williamstown, that number would be quite low.

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     Downtown Williamstown consisted of a shack known as Town Hall, a drug store and gas station, a bar called the Lobo, and a large diner known as Pearl’s; the latter building was what caught the Dark Man’s interest. Although several curious townspeople stared at him as he walked through their town, no one was brave enough to approach him. Outwardly, there seemed to be nothing wrong with him; he was a tall figure, clad in a tucked-in red shirt and jeans, with a pair of leather cowboy boots on his feet. His face showed an intelligent but cautious being, the kind whom any person would be weary talking to. But all in all, he looked like a typical man (although, as some people would later state, a man who was badly in need of a haircut).

     However, the townspeople knew that he wasn’t just a regular man. It was as if he were giving off a presence that clouded people’s minds under a blanket of darkness. The townspeople didn’t understand it as anything supernatural; many assumed that it was their imaginations working overtime. In the end, it didn’t matter to the majority of them, anyways; the only concern of theirs was the fact that a strange man had entered their town in the spring. All tourists who came to Williamstown arrived in late summer, which was still over four months away.

     Charles Jiffords, a grotesquely fat man (whom was also known as the town’s biggest drunk), stumbled over to the Dark Man, who was still swiftly walking down the street. Several other people nearby stopped what they were doing to see what exactly was about to go down.

     “Hey, mister; I think I’m asking for the whole town when I say who the hell are you?” Charles asked, pointing an accusatory finger at the Dark Man, making him stop in his tracks. The Dark Man smiled.

     “Do you know what is funny about that question?” he asked, still smiling. He didn’t give Charles a chance to answer. “I’ll tell you why; it seems that no matter where I go or what I do, people always seem to ask me that damn question!” He tilted his head back and roared out a huge storm of menacing laughter. Charles shrank back at the sound of it.

     “Hey… what’s wrong with you, dude?” Charles aske

d, in a vain attempt to act brave (the majority of his “bravery” was coming from a magic known as Liquid Courage). The Dark Man’s grin was quickly swapped with a glare of rage, causing Charles to lose what little courage that he had left inside of him. He fell backwards onto the sidewalk, staring up at the Dark Man in sheer fear. The townspeople did not move to help him, instead remaining in their places and watching the scene unfold with an anxious fear.

     “What is wrong with me? That’s a hell of a way to welcome someone into your town!” His face returned to a grin. “But, I guess that I could answer your first question, if you’d like.” Charles nodded, although still very much afraid. “Good! I was hoping that you would be a good sport!” the Dark Man said. He extended a large, rough hand and helped Charles back up.

     “Thanks…” Charles said, still unsure about the man. “Well then, who are you?”

     “I’m nobody. I’m everybody. I am your savior, and your worst nightmare. Many people have called me many different things, some good, some bad. As for you and your fellow townspeople, I will go by Richard. Richard Flagston,” the Dark Man said, “Now, may I continue on?”

     Charles was flabbergasted. His fear of the man, Richard, was irrational. It had to be irrational. He was intimidating, sure; that had been obvious from the moment that he had walked into the town. Yet there seemed to be nothing wrong with him (apart from his extreme bipolar nature), and Charles saw no point in pushing the issue any further. He silently moved away, allowing the Dark Man to continue his trek to the ever-looming Pearl’s Diner, straight ahead.

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     Pearl Madin knew every single person who lived in the town by name. At the ripe age of 77, the majority of her counterparts were already beginning to lose their memories. This was not Pearl’s case, however; after owning and running Pearl’s Diner, the town’s biggest attraction, for forty-five years, she felt as if she was at the peak of her life. The diner was originally built to hold three hundred people at one time; at its busiest times, it could be crammed with over five hundred.

     She had five employees; Dale Comer, the cook; her three daughters, Patricia, Danielle, and Pam, the waitresses; and her younger sister, Kristine, who worked the evening bar. It was Pam, her youngest daughter, who saw the Dark Man enter the restaurant. Still single at the age of thirty-seven, she had been steadily losing her interest in men as the years had moved along. However, when she saw the Dark Man for the first time, she felt the burn of instant infatuation singe her heart. She walked over to the man, still standing in the doorway, and greeted him.

     “Hi, sir; will you be dining alone this afternoon?” she asked, smiling.

     “Only if you won’t join me!” he replied, flashing a smile back at her. “Would you mind?”

     Pam glanced around at the restaurant; it was unusually empty for the lunch hour, with only about twenty-five customers dining in. Her sisters were handling the people well enough, and her mother was sitting down at a booth with the Joneses. It was supposed to be her lunch break, anyways.

     “Okay, you’ve got a deal!” she exclaimed. They walked over to the nearest table and sat down. “What is your name?”

     “Richard. Richard Flagston,” the Dark Man said, staring into Pam’s eyes. She knew that she could get lost in those deep, dark eyes forever. They seemed to have an odd lack of color, yet they were full of vibrant life. “And you… you’re a…” He paused for a second, searching intently into her eyes. “You’re a Patricia… no, no, wait; Pam! Your name is Pam!”

     Pam stared at the Dark Man with a gaping mouth, dumbfounded. “How… how did you know? How did you know that?” she asked.

     He grinned. “You know, a man like me has his ways.”

     Pam’s shock had started to fade. “Yeah? And just what kind of man are you, exactly?” She looked amused.

     The Dark Man shrugged. “Just an ordinary man, I guess… although a bit of a free spirit, if you know what I mean.”

     She did, and quite well. “Ah-ha. So, where are you from?”

     “No place in particular. I had a large stint in Las Vegas back in the early nineties; from there, I went to Topeka for a little while. But, really, I’ve been all over the place.”

     She nodded, impressed. “I’m surprised, we don’t have many people as well-traveled as you who pass through our small town. Speaking of that, what brought you here?”

     His smile waned. “I’m traveling to California; I have some business to deal with there.”

     “And you’re walking?” Pam asked. That struck her as a little more than just odd.

     The Dark Man stared at her for a minute, unmoving. He glanced down at his hands, before finally opening his mouth again. “Yeah, I’m in no hurry to get there. Besides, I have my ways.”

     Pam only had a moment to consider what he had said when her sister, Daniele, walked over to the table. “Hey, sis,” Danielle said, “Who’s your new friend?”

     Before she had a chance to respond, the Dark Man spoke up. “My name’s Richard Flagston, and you must be… Danielle!” He grinned.

     “Wow… did Pam tell you my name?” Danielle asked.

     He shook his head. “No, no. A lucky guess; I’m good at things like that.”

     “Okay…” Danielle was weirded out by her new customer. Pam didn’t seem to feel the same way. “Anyways, what would you two like to drink?”

     “Coffee, please,” the Dark Man said.

     “And you?” Danielle asked Pam.

     “The same,” she replied. Danielle walked away, looking concerned. Pam turned back to the Dark Man. “So, Richard, how long will you be staying in town?”

     He shrugged. “Not long; in fact, I’ll probably be leaving here right after our lunch is finished.” She was disappointed to hear that, to the point to where he could see it plainly on her face. “Hey; look into my eyes for a second,” the Dark Man said.

Pam did… only to find that she could not look away. His eyes had gone completely black, and had gained control of her movements. She could not move, although she tried hard to fight it. It was of no use; she was frozen in place. The Dark Man grinned, raising a hand as if to signal that everything was alright. And maybe it was; Pam couldn’t tell. All she knew was that she loved those eyes, those dangerous, mysterious eyes. And that was her final thought before her world went dark.

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     Pearl was the first person to realize that there was something going wrong. She saw Pam hit her head on a booth table, which she had been sharing with some out-of-town stranger. The man made no move, only continuing to stare at Pam with a dark and foreboding grin. She ran over to her unconscious daughter, sticking a hand on her neck to check for a pulse.

     “Pam, are you alright? Pam?” She looked over at the man on the other side of the booth. “Why are you just sitting there? You should go and get help!” The customers stared at the commotion, interested only in the newest subject to gossip about.

     The Dark Man grinned. “Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Who do you think did that to her, Bambi?”

     Pearl recoiled in horror. “Who are you?

     He laughed sarcastically. “People keep asking me that!” He looked past her shoulder, where a man was attempting to sneak out the front door. “Oh, no; you weren’t going to leave the fun before it even began, were you? That’s okay, we can take care of that!” The Dark Man snapped his fingers and a large steel chain appeared, locking the door shut. “Okay, now that that’s settled, where was I? Oh, yeah. Who am I? I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.” He pointed to the stationary figure of Pam. “Pam, do what you must.”

     Much to the surprise of everyone, Pam stood up. Except it was no longer Pam; her eyes had turned black, and her face bore the same sinister grin that the Dark Man had been flashing.

     “Pam…?” Pearl said, quivering.

     “Goodbye, bitch,” Pam said. She raised her hand in the air, as if to give her mother a simple high-five, and nodded. Pearl was instantly flung back against the wall, her neck snapping with a loud crack. Then the panic started; everyone ran towards the chained door, trying to get out. Several people were crushed in the process, and many more were hitting and kicking at each other and the door. It was of no use; there was no way out.

     The Dark Man laughed, and everyone froze for the moment. “Very good! People like yourselves make this job way too easy. But, I can still have a little fun with you!” With those words, his face turned into that of an evil demon. His flesh yellowed and wrinkled, giving the expression of extreme age. His eyes went blacker than Pam’s, to the point to where every single person could see their own reflections in them. His teeth had become long and jagged, not unlike those of a wild animal. He jumped into the air and landed on top of a young couple; he tore their throats out simultaneously, blood splattering all over the place. Several others suddenly combusted, which in turn set the majority of the patrons on fire.

     Within less than three minutes, nearly everyone was dead; those who were not were indistinguishable, and would be gone soon. One such person, who was laying on the floor near the door, looked up weakly at the Dark Man and Pam as they were getting ready to leave.

     “Why…” the thing rasped, trying to get the words out of a torched mouth, “Why did you do this?”

The Dark Man Rising

The Dark Man Rising- Amber Russell and Jeremy Lackey

     The Dark Man chuckled. “You think that this was my first? A little town in southwestern Ohio was my last target, and I have many more in the path that has been laid out before me.”

     “When will you stop?”

     “When Discordia reigns forever; only then will we stop. Now, on with our business; long days and pleasant nights in that Great Clearing above, my friend,” the Dark Man said. With that, he ripped out the man’s throat. He then removed the chains from the door and left with Pam, savoring the smells of burnt flesh. There would be much more before he was finished.

 Chapter 2

     Michael Freeburg could no longer remember whether or not he had actually been born; instead, he remembered just waking up one day, to the sound of gunfire. That had been in 1868, he believed; at any rate, it didn’t really matter anymore- time was of little consequence these days, as he had enough on his plate as it was. The circumstances surrounding his “appearance” were almost as strange as the event itself- although he had been a stranger to the residents of Topeka, Kansas at the time of his awakening, they had treated him as if he were a familiar friend. Over time, his life had started to feel like one giant cycle of déjà vu.

     That was not the only oddity, either; somehow, Michael had known how to speak English almost immediately. There had been no forethought put into the action; he had known what he had wanted to communicate, and he had done just that. There had been three objects with him at the time of his awakening, all of which he was still in possession of. The first, and most often used object was a large revolver that had been holstered to his waist from the very beginning. The second object had been a scrap of paper with a cryptic message written upon it, reading, “All shall kneel in their place before the Tree of Gan.” Although he did not understand the exact meaning of the phrase, his journeys had left him with a general understanding of it. Lastly, leaning on a wall adjacent to Michael had been an old brass horn, with ornate figures decorating the sides of it. This was the most mysterious object of all, an object so powerful and dangerous that not even Michael fully realized what he had in his possession.

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     It so happened that this unique horn was the current focus of Michael’s attention; he had only ever had to blow into it two times in his entire life. It didn’t take the brain of a rocket scientist for him to realize that it held some unique, special purpose; following that train of thought, he had been less than brave to try his one-of-a-kind instrument out. However, he knew that the day would come when he would have to use it, and when it finally did, he was ready.

     That day had come, less than two years after his awakening. During that time, thoughts of suicide swam through his mind regularly; he saw no point in continuing on in a world in which he shouldn’t even exist. On the cold winter night that he had chosen to finally end the miserable existence which he called life and hang himself, he decided to make one of his final actions be allowing himself to play the horn. Michael walked over to his closet, grabbed up the horn, and blew into it before he gave himself a chance to change his mind.

     A powerful, elegant sound emitted from the horn; the lanterns in the room flickered and went out, leaving Michael in total darkness. A small blue light appeared in front of him, hovering in midair. As he watched in amazement, a small dot appeared in the center of the light, growing larger and clearer at a steady rate. An invisible force pulled Michael towards the light, which was now so bright to the point to where he could no longer see anything. Finally, he gave up his struggle and allowed himself to fall headfirst into the depths of the unknown.

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     Light. Silence. Michael opened his eyes. He was lying in a large, deserted field; various trees stood in different places, casting shadows over the strange and foreboding land. A slight breeze moved leafs and clouds along, which soothed Michael’s worries. Was he alive? Dead? He didn’t have the slightest clue; in all honesty, he didn’t really care, either. This was a place in which there would be no more pain, no more suffering; he had landed in a place where he would no longer be a stranger to everyone who passed him by, a place where he could be himself, a place that he could call home.

     These feelings were not to last, however; as he adjusted himself to his new environment more carefully, he realized that he could hear the faint sound of people singing, not far from where he was. He turned around, expecting to find a group of people walking towards him; instead, his eyes beheld the most beautiful tree that he had ever seen. It was gigantic and imposing, seeming to demand all of the space that it could possibly need; although it did not have any leafs at all, it appeared to radiate different shades of gold and crimson; the singing appeared to be coming from the tree itself, a sound so pure and wholesome that Michael could not stop the tears of joy that were forming in his eyes.

     Michael approached the tree carefully; even though he knew that the tree was pure and would not do harm to those who didn’t deserve it, he had no idea what would happen if he got too close to it. However, the only thing that changed was that the volume of the singing had gotten louder. He fell onto his knees at the base of the tree, weeping.

     A man in dark clothes walked around from behind the trunk of the tree, coming to rest less than a foot from where Michael currently knelt. “Do you know what you are kneeling before?” the stranger asked, startling Michael.

     “The Tree of Gan,” Michael said, without a doubt in his mind. “I’ve always wondered…”

     “Yes, yes,” the stranger said, “you are correct. Do you know why you are here?”

     “I must be dead,” Michael replied.

     The stranger laughed. “Oh, no, you are by no means dead. You summoned the power of the Horn of Eld, did you not?”

     In the confusion of the past few minutes, Michael had completely forgotten about the horn, as well as the mystic light that had emitted from it. “Did I?” he asked.

     The stranger smiled, small lines of age appearing as he did so. “Yes; we knew that you would sooner or later, it was only a matter of time.”

     “Why me?” Michael asked.

     “I cannot reveal that, not now. No, for now, satisfy yourself with the knowledge that this is your destiny,” the stranger said, pointing to the Tree of Gan. “You must find and guard this most sacred object, at all costs.”

     “What is it for? What does it represent?” Michael asked.

     “It represents everything, Michael. Without this tree, or any of its other forms, all of the worlds would be no more. You stand before the key to all knowledge, all truth, all reasoning; anything that you could want to know about the universe can be found inside this vessel. You’re one mission in life is to find it and save it.”

     “Does God reside in there?” Michael asked, curious.

     The stranger’s smile waned. “Enough; there shall be no more questions. Remember what I have told you, Michael; everything rests upon your shoulders.”

     And with that, the stranger turned around and vanished into thin air. Immediately, Michael’s vision turned hazy; the blue light appeared in front of him once again. He fought hard not to fall into it this time; he had seen too little of this amazing world, too little of the Tree… But before long, he felt himself falling headfirst again, and knew that the dream was over; however, he now knew his purpose in life and would either fulfill it, or die trying.

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     The year was now 2015; in the long space of time between that odd but wonderful dream and the present, a lot had happened to Michael. Finding the Tree of Gan was not on that list. He had eventually settled down in a rural part of Texas, where his nearest neighbors were over eight miles away. This was the ideal situation for him; his way of life would have looked quite odd to anyone who happened to stumble upon it.

     Michael’s home was, for all effects and purposes, a miniature Fort Knox; even the most skilled of mortals would have found it near impossible to enter the complex unless they knew all of the secrets on getting past the security. The house was surrounded by a large electric fence, topped with heaps of barbed wire. There were over two dozen security cameras placed at various point both inside and outside the house, all of which sent their feeds directly back to a bank of computers set up inside Michael’s sparsely furnished living room.

     It was this set of computers that had caught Michael’s attention, drawing him out of his flashbacks of the past. It was nighttime, and typically the only movement to be seen of the camera feeds were those of small rodents that had burrowed themselves under the fence. Tonight, however, there was something wrong; the video feeds were flickering, unable to show a clear picture of the outside. Michael set down the horn and snatched his revolver up from beside him, ready to investigate the disturbance.

     Once outside, it took a second for Michael’s eyes to adjust to the darkness; a sliver of moon hovered in the air, providing little light. As he approached the barrier fence, however, he could clearly see the silhouette of five men standing together, seemingly waiting for him. As he got close to the group, he noticed the features of the man who appeared to be leading them; he was tall and thin, with a deathly-pale complexion and a long, pointed nose. His eyes were steel-gray, the kind that had seen more than their share of hard times.

     “Evening, Darholv,” Michael said coldly. “I thought that I had made it quite clear that you and your lot were not to be found in this area any longer.”

     Darholv grinned, revealing sharp, pearly-white teeth. “You did, Michael,” he said, speaking with a mild East-European accent, “Yes, you did. How are those townspeople that we “interacted” with, anyway? Still worried that the vampires are going to return?”

     Michael ignored Darholv’s jeer as if he hadn’t heard. “What are you here for?” he asked.

     Darholv’s grin vanished. “The Boss has issues with you that he needs rectified, but seeing as how busy he is at the moment, he sent us to deal with you for him.”

     “And so you are going to do what, kill me?” Michael said, laughing.

     Darholv and his vampires did not see the humor in it; after giving Michael a unified look of disgust, their features mutated- their height and head size increased, giving them a bloated look. Their already-jagged teeth elongated to the size of steak knives; there was a look of hunger in their eyes.

     The smallest and leanest of Darholv’s cronies leaped into the air, pouncing on Michael’s position. Michael dropped, rolled, and shot the vampire dead while it was still in mid-leap. This did not bother the other vampires, however; they closed in on Michael from all directions, seemingly trapping him. Michael whipped out two knives from his vest pocket and threw them at the two vampires to his left and right, simultaneously impaling both of them. Darholv and the other remaining vampire, now weary of Michael’s fighting style, circled cautiously around him.

     “You are a disciplined fighter, Michael, but you have nothing on me!” But instead of attacking Michael himself, he signaled for the other vampire to attack from behind; with unnatural speed, Michael put down the vampire with a single shot.

     “Just you I, now,” Michael said tauntingly, “No more cowering behind your inferiors.”

     “COWERING?” Darholv roared, “How dare you!” He transformed into a black cloud of dust and rushed at Michael, knocking the gun far out of reach. “You will die for that!”

     Michael, knowing that he was only seconds away from a miserable death, used his last defense; he grabbed a large silver necklace bearing a crucifix from around his neck and thrust it into the black cloud of dust.

     Darholv screamed in agony, a sound that Michael had heard many times, yet had never gotten used to; Darholv’s body turned solid, which was followed by it exploding into hundreds of chunks of meat. After that, the night was silent once more.

     Michael ignored the mess that had scattered itself upon his from lawn and went back inside his house. Wanting only to sleep, he placed the horn back into his closet safe and lay down on his bed. The Dark Man was after him again, that he knew… but why? The answer was obvious to Michael, but not easy to accept; the Dark Man was out to find the Tree of Gan. That made it more urgent than ever for him to locate the Tree, but so far, he had had no such luck; in fact, he was about as close to finding the Tree as he had been after he had experienced his dream about it.

     The next best step was to locate the Dark Man and find out what he knew; that task would not be difficult. Almost every other week, Michael saw reports on the television of large-scale massacres and killings in many small towns throughout the country. All he needed to do now was to give it some time and wait; as he had all of the time in the world, he was not concerned about that.

     Michael Freeburg closed his eyes and drifted off to an uneasy sleep; uneasy was fine by him, as rest was rest. And on the road that he was heading down, he would need all of the rest that he could get.

Chapter 3

     Cameron Daniels hit the red locker with a dull thud. He fell down to the ground in pain, clasping his aching left arm. A large, beefy hand grabbed him up by his hair and stood him back up.

     “Com’on, faggot, I thought your kind likes pain!” Clay, the giant to whom the beefy hand belonged to, said. “Com’on, I wanna hear you sing!” The crowd of onlookers behind Clay laughed, all of which were watching the scene intently as they filmed and took pictures on their phones. Clay shoved Cameron’s head nose-first onto the locker again, followed by another roar of laughter.

     Cameron stayed on his hands and knees, hoping that Clay was finished with him. It seemed like it; he had turned around and was starting to walk down the hall with his large group of friends. However, after whispering something into the ear of his girlfriend, Angelia, Clay spun around and kicked Cameron in the stomach three more times. “That was for looking back at me, you queer,” Clay said.

     “Hey!” said someone behind Clay and his posse. The group parted instantly, revealing Cameron’s short and scruffy history teacher, Mr. Miller. “What’s going on here?” he asked, looking down at Cameron and then back up at Clay.

     “Just giving the fag lessons to live by,” Clay said, still smiling. “He obviously hasn’t gotten the lesson anywhere else.”

     “It does not matter what he has and hasn’t learned, you are not the one to do that,” Mr. Miller said. “Now, all of you, get back to class!” Although he said this in a rough tone of voice, he had been smirking the whole time. Clay and his friends turned and walked away, feeling more satisfied than ever.

     “And you,” Mr. Miller said, pointing at Cameron, “Stand up.” Cameron did what he was told, although not without some difficulty; Mr. Miller made no offer for assistance. “What just happened?” Mr. Miller asked, looking at Cameron’s bruised face.

     “They… they…” Cameron thought for a moment. Mr. Miller was Clay’s football and basketball coach, and admired Clay almost as much as everyone else (excluding Cameron, of course) did. If Cameron got Clay kicked out of school, the beating that he had encountered today would pale in comparison to the one that he would have coming for him. “Nothing,” he said, finally answering Mr. Miller, “They did nothing.”

     Mr. Miller nodded, satisfied. “Good, good. Now, Mr. Daniels, I suggest you go get yourself presentable and pansy on your way.” He turned around and walked away; Cameron did not dare move until Mr. Miller was safely around the corner.

     Cameron ran to the nearest bathroom, finally feeling the tears come to his eyes. Luckily, the bathroom was empty; as soon as he saw his bruised and battered face in the mirror, he broke out in barely audible sobs. Why the fuck did this have to happen to him? He had been putting up with jeers, threats, and the occasional beating for three years, ever since he had told his friend Emma that he was asexual, and she had passed the information on to the entire school. Since then, the misery had never really let up; at the vulnerable age of fourteen, he had no friends and all the positive self-esteem of a brick wall.

     It did not help the fact that he had lived in West Virginia his whole life; the state was staunchly conservative politically, fanatically conservative socially. His parents had been lifelong Republicans until they had decided that even the most extreme hardliners in the party were going soft, and joined the Tea Party. They did not make life any easier, either; their tactic to deal with an asexual son was to ignore him completely, unless necessity demanded it. On those rare occasions, they regarded Cameron with disgust and contempt, as if he were an alien from a hostile planet rather than their son.

     Cameron cleared the dried blood off of his face the best that he could, washed his hands, and left the bathroom. The hallway was empty, as all of the other students had already started their treks home. He walked downstairs to his locker, happy that he hadn’t ran into anyone else; however, his happiness was to be short-lived. On his locker door, the words “COCKSUCKER” and “DIE FAGGOT” had been spray-painted on in neon pink, standing out boldly against the first floor’s blue lockers. Cameron sighed, grabbed his things, and headed off towards the exit; behind him, a hallway light flickered and blew out. He smiled.

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     Cameron had always known that there were things about him that made him different from many of the other people in his life; that was a fact that even his parents had acknowledged since the year he had been born. He had always been able to move items without touching them; read the thoughts of people when they were in a particularly emotional state of mind; break various items (lightbulbs, for instance) when he got angry. He had learned how to control this unique set of skills, to the point to where no one at school had any idea of what he was capable of doing; in all truth, he had no idea what he was capable of, either.

     His other difference, however, was not something that he was proud of; admitting that he was asexual to his former friend Emma (and thereby to the entire school, inadvertently) had been the worst mistake of his life. He had known that he was not attracted to anyone for what felt like forever, and when he had been in seventh grade, he decided that enough was enough; someone needed to find out, or he was going to explode on the inside.

     Cameron had approached Emma towards the end of lunch. Most of their mutual friends had wondered on outside, leaving the two of them sitting in awkward silence at the lunch table. As he looked up at her, a strand of long brown hair fell into his eyes; he swiped it away, getting her attention.

     “Hey, Emma, could I tell you a secret? One that can’t be shared with anyone?” Cameron asked.

     She nodded, smiling. “Of course! You can tell me anything, you know that!”

     Cameron’s confidence boosted. “Well, try this on for size; I’m asexual.”

     Emma blinked at the word. “You’re… a fag?” she asked.

     Cameron laughed, but he was now uneasy. “No; that means that I have no romantic interest in anybody,” he said.

     “I’m best friends with a fag…” she said, seemingly unaware of his comment.

     Only then did Cameron realize that he had made a mistake in telling her anything; he had been so confident in the idea that he would support him and be by his side, he had given little thought to what would happen if she did not take it well. Emma stood up and walked away from the table, leaving him to wonder what she was going to do.

     It didn’t take long to find out; by the end of the day, talk of Cameron’s asexuality had reached every single student in the school; by the end of the week, everyone else had found out, too. The name-calling had started up right off of the bat; although some of it hurt, he could deal with it. But when the threats and physical bullying became a regular pastime in his life, he quickly fell into a depression. And, as far as he knew, he had not found a way out of it yet; the way his life was going, he felt that the only way out was to die. That was the only thing on Cameron’s mind; if one more thing hurt him, he knew that he was liable to do anything, including killing himself. The thought terrified him.

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     After ten minutes of walking, Cameron reached his suburban home; two stories, painted white, and four bedrooms, it was a stereotypical symbol of an upper-middle class family. Hs father’s Ford pickup and his mother’s Jeep were both parked in the driveway. Typically, they did not get off from work until five; they were home two hours early. That was not a good sign.

     Sure enough, Cameron’s parents were waiting for him in silence. As he stepped through the door, his mother gave him a look that he could not interpret. “Sit,” she said, gesturing to a chair opposite to them. He did as he was told.

     “So, you’ve been flaunting it around again,” Cameron’s father said, looking up at his son for the first time. “Did we not tell you to drop it and act like a normal boy again?”

     “But I didn’t-,” Cameron started, trying to protest.

     His father held up a hand. “No, no, do not go spouting off your lies to us. Not just yet. Your mother and I need to speak, just as you need to listen,” he said.

     Cameron’s mother nodded. “We are doing this for your benefit,” she said. “You do not have to live this evil lifestyle, and we will do anything that we can to help you.”

     Cameron’s father continued on: “Your mother and I have been talking for months now, trying to figure out what to do with you. For the longest time, it seemed like we were coming up with nothing more than dead ends.” He clasped his hands between his knees, looked down at them, and sighed. “Well, the other day I was informed of a church resort down in Virginia, named Westfield’s; they know how to help you, to heal you. So, right after school lets out this year, we are going to take you down there; it is our only option that we have left, you will finally be saved.”

     Cameron was quite familiar with Westfield; it was one of the most famous Christian conversion camps on the East Coast, known for its quasi-legal methods for “turning” asexual teens straight. These methods included locking teens in windowless rooms for hours on end without food, showing graphic videos of what they believe happens to non-married people in hell, and they were even rumored to use the occasional electrical treatment on their teens. With that knowledge in mind, Cameron knew immediately that he would do whatever it took to keep from being send to that evil place.

     “No way!” Cameron said, raising his voice. “I know about that place and what they do to people there!”

     His father’s face turned red. “You do not have any choice in the matter! It has been decided!” he shouted.

     “I’ll be damned if it has been!” Cameron shouted back angrily. “Even if you do leave me there, I’ll just run away! I refuse to be another of their torture subjects!”

     “You run away from there, and you can kiss your freedom goodbye! I’ll have you in jail within an hour!” his father said. “Now, get up to your room and stay there, no dinner!”

     Cameron ran up the stairs, into his room, and slammed the door behind him. What did his parents know, anyway? They had no idea how it felt to be asexual; they didn’t have to be told that they were being forced to go to a place like Westfield; they didn’t know anything at all. This was the final step; he was done putting up with everyone else’s shit without any sort of fight. But what was he to do? He had little physical strength to fight back, and his willpower amounted to even less. But then an item on top of his television caught his eye, and his mind went blank.

     Next to his silver necklace with the words “NETWORK DOWN” engraved upon it sat his bottle of Ritalin; like so many other kids of his generation, he had been diagnosed with ADHD and had to take the medicine in order to stay focused. What if he didn’t have to fight? What if he didn’t have to do anything at all? He had found his answer.

     Cameron picked up the NETWORK DOWN necklace and set it carefully around his neck. He then picked up the pill bottle and sat down on his bed with it in hand. He dumped the tiny, white, circular pills out onto his hand and stared at them; there were at least twenty pills there, more than enough to overdose on. So what was he going to do, live or die? As Cameron Daniels sat on his bed with a dose of death in his hand, he had no idea.

Chapter 4

     “Are you just stupid, or what?” Barty Felder shouted at his longtime employee, Kelly Coleman. “This is the third time this week that you’ve inventoried our shipments incorrectly, and I’ve had just about enough of it!”

     Kelly backed up against the wall and whimpered. “I-,” she started, unable to continue; her cheeks shone from the recent acquisition of tears.

     “What? What’s your excuse now?” Barty barked, losing his patience quickly.

     Kelly jumped at the unexpected increase in volume. She was terrified, but not because of his anger; she would have preferred it if he had never noticed her at all. She lingered where she stood for another moment before turning around and running down the hallway. Barty Felder shook his head as he watched her fleeing figure go; with her attitude and complete lack of common sense, he often wondered why in the hell he had hired her in the first place. He then spun around and walked to his office, realizing he did not really care; employees such as Kelly were expendable, easy to replace once they had gone bad.

     Barty believed that her expiration date was coming up fast.

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     If you were in the second-floor woman’s restroom of Felder Business Solutions’ factory on that day in the early summer of 2015, you would have heard the sound of a gentle but steady stream of weeping. That was being produced by Kelly Coleman, who was sitting inside a stall, hiding from everyone. She was still unnerved by being yelled at by her boss, and did not plan on coming back out until everything in her mind sorted itself out. That could take a while, as she knew all too well.

     Kelly found herself possessed with an extreme social anxiety; from the moment she had begun her sentence of public schooling, she had been unable to perform even the most basic of social interactions. She had been to see numerous psychiatrists throughout the years, but it had never done any good; they had all told her to go out and interact more with society, but she just could not do it. Every single time she had tried to be social, she had freaked out horribly and gone back home feeling ashamed and disgusted with herself.

     What had brought Kelly to Harlem, the armpit of New York City, anyway? Her father, of course; George Coleman (of Atlanta, Georgia, thank you very much), one of the top lawyers in the United States, had given her only two options: give up her wild dreams of being an artist, or leave and never come back. That had been a difficult and harrowing decision to make, but she eventually chose freedom to do whatever in the hell she wanted over her father’s desires of what she should do with her life. Only now, as Kelly sat on a dirty toilet bowl, crying her eyes out, did she realize that maybe her father was right; her dreams were just that: dreams. Dreams that she would regret chasing for the rest of her life.

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     Everything in Kelly’s life had been going alright for a long time; although she had never found a way around her social anxiety, it could be dealt with. She had gotten to the point to where she could go out to the store to buy things; she had even been attending night school a few times each week at the local community college.

     There was a catch to her luxurious lifestyle, however; it all had to be approved by George Coleman, no matter the size or scope of the matter. Everything from what shampoo she used, to what food she ate, to what classes she took in her free time; it was all monitored by him. For most things, that was perfectly fine by her; she did not really have any secrets about her, and those that existed could be shared with her father. All, except for one; art.

     Kelly had fallen in love with art early on in her life; ever since her early years in elementary school, the act of drawing shapes on paper and laying down paint on canvas had come as natural to her as running does to a jaguar. She had been horrible at first, just as anyone would expect; however, that did not matter to her at all. She loved doing it simply for the sheer joy of the act of creation, a joy that she could not find in anything else in life.

     As the years went by, Kelly’s talents flourished; by the age of twelve, her works were being entered into statewide art fairs. That was when her father noticed, and first became outraged; “No daughter of mine is going to pursue such a liberal career in life!” he had exclaimed one evening after she had won yet another award for her work. She did not understand at first; only later did she realize that it was a typical American pastime to turn everything into a political issue and label anything even vaguely associated with the arts as “liberal” and “socialist”. Even then, she did not understand what the point of it all was; why were all creative people so viciously stereotyped into a category like that when no one ever even took into account the nature of the artist’s work?

     It only got worse from there; Kelly had to start hiding her artwork when her father was in the house, and was forbidden to buy any art supplies at all. Fortunately for her, the art teachers at the various schools that she attended throughout her younger years were more than happy to secretly give her all of the supplies that her heart could desire. Her father, however, possessed a confrontational type of personality; every single time that he found out that people were assisting his daughter in the “heresy” of creating art, he would duke it out with those in question, go about quasi-legal methods of discrediting them, and then send her on to the next available school. Whenever anyone questioned his way of dealing with people, they were quickly silenced through bribes or other, more violent ways; after all, he was George Coleman, one of the most influential men in the country. He was practically untouchable.

     But when Kelly started getting commissions from some of Atlanta’s highest elite for her talents, her father’s attitude changed; he quit mentioning art completely, and finally allowed her to buy her own art materials again. Her bank account swelled, but even then, it never became about the money; it was only a side effect of doing what she loved most in the world. She was, however, glad that the money made her father happy; as she knew all too well, when George Coleman was unhappy with something, no one around him was allowed to be happy, either. She was allowed to create art as freely, and as frequently as she wished (or was requested; whichever came first). And for a while, she was perfectly fine with her situation.

     Kelly’s contentedness was not to remain, however; doing repetitious pastels of flowers and trees was completely fine at first, but after doing hundreds of them, some of the novelty of the act had worn off. There had been no freedom to express herself in any of those pieces, no individuality; instead, she had been producing generic high-quality works that anyone with even half of her talent could accomplish. She wanted to create pieces that mattered to people, not just for a couple of years, but pieces that would outlive her by a long shot.

     That was when Kelly had first heard about the act of street art; although almost completely unknown in the southern United States, it was a common practice in the larger northern cities, such as New York and Chicago. Artists were commissioned to paint large sections of various buildings in almost any fashion they desired; it was an occupation in which she could express herself as an individual, and finally use her talents for something more than a way to make money. Her thoughts and dreams were soon consumed with the idea of traveling north and joining countless other street artists, all of which desired one sole thing; to allow their message to be seen. There, she believed that she could finally find a place to fit in, a place where she could finally find a way around her social anxiety and learn to know people as more than aggressive, shady figures wishing only to do her wrong.

     The day eventually came when Kelly decided that the time was right to pack up and travel to New York, and to start a new life; first off, however, she had to make her father aware of her plans. She approached him one Saturday afternoon as he sat in his lounge, reading a newspaper. As she got near, he glanced over the paper with a mild curiosity.

     “Yes?” he asked.

     The moment was now or never; if Kelly did not stand up and represent herself, she would regret it later on. “Father,” she started, “I am leaving, today. Going to New York City.”

     A look of puzzlement found its way onto George’s face. “What in the world for?” he asked.

     “I am going to take my savings and become a street artist,” she replied.

     George remained silent and went back to reading his newspaper, which Kelly took to be an all-clear sign. She ran upstairs to her    room, checked to make sure that she had everything that she was taking packed, grabbed her possessions, and went back downstairs. Much to her surprise, however, her father was no longer sitting in his chair.

     “Father?” Kelly called out; her voice echoed through the halls, giving the old plantation house an odd, disturbing feel to it.

     Kelly walked down the hallway a little further, an unnatural feeling of fear hitting at her heart. ‘Where is he?’ she thought, suddenly wishing to be out of the house as soon as possible.

     Something moved behind her. Kelly turned around, but not quick enough; nothing was there. She walked through the entrance to the living room.

     George Coleman jumped on top of her and started hitting at her face, which made her scream out in surprise and in pain. She fell down on the ground as he tumbled off of her shoulders and onto the couch. They both stood up and faced each other. Although she was nearly half a foot taller than him, he outweighed her by at least a hundred and fifty pounds.

     “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Kelly screamed hysterically at George; blood ran down her mouth as she quivered.

     “You will not go to New York, you little WHORE!” he screamed back at her, lunging once again; his fist met her face square-on, knocking her down to the ground once again.

     “You can’t tell me what the hell to do!” she said, crawling backwards away from him. “I’m an adult, and I can go wherever in the hell I want to!”

     George laughed, a cruel look settling into his eyes. “You; an adult? Hardly,” he said. He then stepped forward and slapped her. “You silly little bitch, how dare you think that you can just walk out on me!”

     She stood up, and backed away towards the door. “I’m leaving, and there isn’t a damn thing that you can do about it! I’m done trying to live like this!” Kelly had to get out, and soon; if they kept this up much longer, he would end up killing her. She knew it. Before her father could retort anything back, she grabbed as much of her stuff as she could, flung the door open, threw it in her car, and then threw herself into the car.

     “YOU LEAVE NOW, AND YOU NEVER RETURN! DO YOU HEAR ME! YOU ARE DISINHERITED!” George shouted out the door at his daughter as she revved the engine.

     “Fuck you!” Kelly shouted out in reply, and then put the car into gear; within a minute, the only home that she had ever known was just a speck in her rear view mirror. She turned on the radio; “More Than a Feeling” by Boston was playing on her favorite station. She cranked up the volume to full and smiled, glad to finally be free. She pulled onto the highway to the sound of Brad Delp belching one of the most memorable lines of any song that she had ever heard: “I closed my eyes and slipped away!” In the end, that was what she had done; she did not regret it at all.

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     New York City was unlike anything else that Kelly had ever experienced; everything seemed to be alive and constantly in motion, without any thought ever devoted to the idea of rest. The buildings themselves were imposing enough; the amount of people that she witnessed entering each and every one of them, however, nearly overwhelmed her completely. However, she loved it all; it felt just like the change that she had been looking for.

     Not long after Kelly had found a temporary place to stay, however, she discovered the harsh reality of life in New York. She applied to several different companies and contractors, looking for some sort of position involving street art; not a one of them ever gave her the light of day. She then tried to go in person to various different locations around the city, believing that one of them would allow her to create art on their buildings; the responses that she got ranged from a simple, “No thank you,”, to having the security called to escort her out.

     Before long, with nearly all of her savings used up, and no more money coming into her life, she realized that she had to go out and find some sort of employment, no matter what it was.

     And that was what had brought Kelly to Felder Business Solutions; she had interviewed with Barty, and had actually gotten hired. Looking back on that decision, she wished that she had looked harder for a job; anything could be better than working for an asshole like him, right?

     Kelly stood up, walked out of the bathroom stall, and looked at herself in the mirror; she looked old for the age of twenty-four, as if she had been through a lot in her short life. In a way, she supposed, she had been. She then turned around and walked out the door, knowing that she had to get back to work before she got in trouble again; twice in one day just might get her fired. ‘Would that be such a bad thing?’ she wondered to herself. Then, smiling, she decided; it would not matter to her if it went either way.

 

 Chapter 5

When it came to understanding the life of Barney Axton, a person had to grasp the fact that only three things in the world mattered to him; his farm (which had been in his family for generations), basic cable service, and the ability to buy heroin at any time, on any given day.

     In Barney’s mind, he was not an addict; there was never any fear of losing all of his money to dope; he had never made the drug the sole focus of his life; in fact, he rarely noticed that he was using heroin at all (unless, of course, he stopped using it for more than a short span of time; that was when life typically became ugly). It was more of a hobby to him, something that he honestly believed that he could stop using if given enough time and concentration to confront the habit.

     Barney had started using dope in his junior year of high school; he had been at a party, someone had handed him a needle, he injected it, and he was in heaven. He and his friends had had fun with it for a long while; however, when they started running out of money to buy more, they ran into issues. To get more money coming in, they started pawning off their valuables, followed soon by their relative’s possessions; when those ran out, they turned to the art of robbing stores. Within a month they were all in jail; within a year, all of them had stopped using heroin- with the exception of Barney, of course. He found that he was having too much fun to try and give up the drug, no matter what consequences awaited him.

     Barney no longer stole from and robbed others; there was no need to. His parents had both kicked the bucket soon after high school, leaving him the farm and everything associated with it. In Nebraska, this meant that he was automatically considered a part of the upper-middle class. He believed that he was only a responsible, helpful part of society, albeit one with a small, nasty habit. Everyone else in the country had one, so why shouldn’t he? The best answer to that question could always be found at the moments in which Barney Axton’s drug supply finally ran out.

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     One such moment occurred at the same time as, roughly two thousand miles east, a boy by the name of Cameron Daniels was having the living shit beat out of him. Barney, however, was blissfully unaware of the situation (as well as the existence of Cameron in general); after finding out that he was out of dope, the only thought in his mind was of purchasing more. That was no easy task; Cort, the town nearest to him, had an unreliable drug market. No dealer lived in the town; instead, most came from larger cities, such as Lincoln, and stayed only long enough to sell their loads before moving on to elsewhere. It was a gamble as to whether or not any dealers would actually be in town, but Barney had to at least look; if he did not, he would be in for a very painful and sleepless night.

     Barney drove his Chevy pickup into town; Cort was little more than a gas station, several bars, and old houses that had been in disrepair since the end of the Vietnam War. The deserted areas behind the bars were his destination; they had always been the best choice for drug dealers wishing to set up shop in town. He parked next to an overflowing dumpster, ignoring the deplorable stench that it emitted; he then walked around the side of the building, ready to do his business and get the hell out of town.

     Three strangers were there, beating up a drug dealer that Barney had bought from occasionally, known only as Jack. The largest and most aggressive one looked up, clearly drunk to the point of oblivion. “Oh, so we’ve got a customer here!” the man said. “Let’s give him what he needs most!” The three men then proceeded to beat on him; once they had lost interest, they walked off, leaving Barney and Jack alone, bleeding.

     Jack was completely unconscious, but he would recover. Barney picked himself up off of the ground and limped on over to the gas station, where he bought a bottle of Motrin and a twelve pack of beer from a salesman who could not help staring at Barney’s profusely bleeding nose. He then drove back home, trying not to notice the effects that withdrawal that were quickly creeping up upon him.

Once there, Barney turned on his television to a show where two women were screaming at each other, each of them claiming that they were the first one to fall in love with Darrius (a smiling dumbass who stood off to the side, loving the fact that women were fighting over him. ‘As if,’ Barney thought morosely, ‘I wonder how much all of them are being paid to do this shit?’). After watching the end of the episode, he shut it off again in disgust. He then cracked open the first of his beers, chugged it, and then did the same with all the others; he was drunk long before night fell. The beer, when mixed with the medicine, sent him off to a quick and deep sleep; ‘I hope I don’t dream,’ he thought, right before he went under.

Barney’s sleep that night would be as far from dreamless as a person could get; his life would never be the same again.

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     Buzzing. Moaning. Barney opened his eyes and immediately scanned his strange surroundings. He jumped at the sight of four other people; one stone-faced man wearing a cowboy hat; one beautiful but obviously timid woman; and two teenage boys, who appeared to be holding hands. These people were aware of him, as he was them, but they did not say a single word; he decided that it would be in his best interest to follow suit.

     The stone-faced man, who automatically took the role of leader, started walking forward through the field of dying and dead grass that they had been standing in. Barney and the others followed him, even though they were seemingly heading towards nowhere in particular. As he walked, Barney took a closer look at his companions; the timid woman did not appear to be the type of person that would take too much shit from anyone, and would fight back if necessary. The dark-haired boy had a timid look to him as well, as if he were afraid that someone might reach out and slap him at any given moment. The blond-haired boy, who was slightly shorter, had a more confident look about him; although he was obviously young, his cold and vengeful eyes told the story of someone who had gone through a lot in a short span of time.

     And as for the stone-faced man? Barney did not know what to think of him at all. Everything about the man, from the way he walked to the way his large sidearm lay holstered against his hip, shouted that he was a dangerous being; however, he felt no evil emitting from the man. Serenity and power, yes, but not evil. As a matter of fact, Barney could not pick up neither evil nor good signals coming from the man; he appeared to be indifferent either way.

     Up ahead in the distance, Barney noticed a large rose rooted in the ground. It was larger than the typical flower, and stood at almost three feet tall. It possessed a dazzling color scheme of reds and pinks, bright to the point to where he could not look at it directly without being partially blinded. As they got closer, the sound of a choir performing could be heard somewhere in the distance; however, seeing as there were no buildings at all that Barney could view in the surrounding landscape, he did not understand where the voices could be coming from. Once they reached the rose, however, he understood the truth; the singing was coming from the rose itself.

     As they watched, the rose began to change; its stem grew up and out, towering over the landscape. The shades of pink and red morphed into every hue of green and brown that a person could imagine; the rose petals then turned into large, thick leaves, every one of them the size of Barney’s head. The choir’s volume increased, to where he could actually hear the words to what they were singing; the language was foreign to him, but he could tell by the tone in which the voices were singing that it was uplifting and joyful music. As the rose’s transformation completed, they beheld the sight of a gigantic tree standing before them. It was a magnificent sight, the likes of which Barney had never seen.

     The other people in Barney’s group looked equally impressed, including the stone-faced man. However, the surprises did not end there; the tree started to morph again, this time by letting all of its leaves and branches fall off. Its’ texture went from rough and wood-like to smooth and marble-like; the color of the trunk of the tree changed from a light brown to dark gray, standing out against the otherwise bright and cheerful environment. Countless windows appeared on all sides of what appeared to be an endlessly high tower, reaching up beyond the clouds and out of sight.

     As the tree finished its formation into the tower, Barney took a closer look at the titanic building. It had been built out of some unknown substance; each individual brick was at least twice as big as any living being that he had ever seen. It appeared to be a near-perfect cylinder, the kind that would have taken a million men years upon years to design and build. Directly in front of them stood a heavy Oakwood door, which was presumably the only entrance to the tower (although considering the circumference of it, it would take a while for Barney to confirm that). Higher up on the tower, he thought that he could see “19” boldly imprinted upon the surface. Barney had no idea how such a structure could even exist; every law of physics would suggest that there was no way that it could remain standing for even a moment, given the materials and methods used in the creation of it.

     And yet the tower still stood just as surely as Barney knew that he was no longer dreaming. He looked around at his companions; they stood rooted to their spots, unable to move at all. He then walked slowly up to the tower, put his hands on the door, and pushed. The wood did not budge in the slightest, even though there appeared to be no type of locking device attached to it. Barney looked up at one of the towering windows and considered climbing into it; after all, what harm could it really do? He decided against the idea, however; something about the tower told him that even if he reached the window, he would still never be allowed inside. With this knowledge in mind, he turned around to rejoin his comrades.

     They were all gone; in their place stood a man with long dark hair, jeans, and a determined look on his face. ‘The Dark Man,’ Barney thought, which seemingly came out of nowhere; what in the hell was a Dark Man? At this thought, the Dark Man smiled.

     “Ah, Barney Axton! The man that I have been wanting to see most!” the Dark Man said.

     “And why would that be?” Barney answered, unsure about this talking newcomer.

     The Dark Man grinned. “Because you, my boy, are my insider! My key! You hold a power which the others lack, and which I wish to possess.”

     “Who were those people, anyway?” Barney asked.

     The Dark Man scowled. “No one that you should be concerned with,” he said.

     “What is it that you want from me?”

     The Dark Man’s grin returned. “I am giving you the opportunity of a lifetime; walk to the door of this tower with me, open it, and I will reward you with all of the riches, power, and drugs that your little heart could ever desire.”

     Despite being talked to like a child, Barney’s heart leaped at the thought of an unlimited supply of cash and heroin. Imagine what he could do with all of that; there would never be another worry in his life again! However, something seemed off about the Dark Man; Barney could feel a sense of evil emitting from the man (whom he was doubting less by the minute actually was a man), something that was too dark to grasp and too powerful to ignore.

     “I am sorry, but I’m declining your offer,” Barney said. “Whatever in the hell your plan is, I don’t want to be a part of it.”

     The Dark Man’s expression turned into a snarl. “If you will not join me then, you will die!” With that, the Dark Man went into a grotesque demon form and leaped at Barney. Barney fell backwards, but was not quick enough; the Dark Man grabbed hold of his ankle and pulled Barney towards him. Just as the Dark Man was attempting to bite into his leg, Barney hit his head against the side of the tower; his world went black, and the dream was no more.

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     Barney Axton opened his eyes. He was back in his living room; the sun was rising in the air. However, he did not feel safe at all; what did that dream mean? It had made little sense while he was asleep, and made even less now that he was awake. Was it the result of too much television? Barney did not know. He did know, however, a newfound fact of life; too much drinking before sleep could really fuck with the mind.

Barney closed his eyes again, sleep immediately engulfing him again. He did not dream any more.

Chapter 6

Michael Freeburg placed his brown cowboy hat on his head at an angle and looked at himself in the hallway mirror. Wrinkles of age were finally showing themselves, confirming what he had often wondered; he would not live forever, after all. Would he die a natural death anytime soon? Of course not; his life timeline could attest to that fact. But, in another couple of hundred years or so, he would die. There was no preventing that, not anymore. Instead, he had to focus on finding the Tree of Gan; the entire meaning of his life could be traced back to that.

Michael had finally found what he believed was a lead that could lead him one step closer to his goal. He had been watching a local news channel when they covered a story from Arizona; around seventy-five people had been killed in a local town hangout called Pearl’s Diner, although the police did not know what the cause had been. From their report, they had made it sound as if a large wild animal of some sort had gotten inside and killed everyone; however, that did not account for the widespread fire damage that had obviously occurred inside, as well as the numerous amount of people that had been trampled to death by the main entrance, as if it had been locked.

Michael had known immediately that it had been no wild animal that had slaughtered all of those people; only the Dark Man could have had the will and the way to pull something of that magnitude off. And so Arizona was his next stop; the Dark Man did not do anything without some type of motivation, and Michael believed that the incident at Pearl’s Diner had been done to get his attention. Why? He did not know. But as soon as he caught up with the Dark Man he would get answers, no matter what the cost was.

Michael climbed into his non-descript van and pulled out onto the interstate highway. He had not been to Arizona in many years; yet as he relaxed himself for the certain confrontation that loomed in the near-future, the routes needed to reach the state came to his mind with ease. He did not know what to expect upon finding the Dark Man, but he knew that it would not be pleasant; situations such as these never were. He was certain of only one thing, as a matter of fact; the Dark Man was fleeing across the desert, and Michael was in close pursuit. Soon that gap would be closed completely.

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Michael first stopped in Williamstown; the city was, for all effects and purposes, dead. The liveliest scene that he could find was the still-ongoing investigation at Pearl’s Diner, where police and CSI wandered around all over the place. He pulled into the parking lot of the local honky-tonk, the Lobo, and went inside. A few weary heads turned to greet the newcomer as he entered, but the majority of the people just stuck to their drinks. He walked over to an empty stool at the bar and sat down.

“What will it be?” the bartender asked, washcloth in one hand, beer mug in the other.

“Just Coors,” Michael replied. The bartender turned around, grabbed a bottle and a glass, and place them on the bar. Michael ignored the glass and drank straight out of the bottle in slow swigs.

Someone tapped Michael’s shoulder. He turned around to find an obese man, who was obviously drunk, standing and staring at him with an idiot’s grin.

“You’re looking for that man, aren’t you? Flagston, I believe the name was,” the drunk man said.

“What do you mean?” Michael asked, having been caught unawares by the stranger.

“The man that fucked up all o’those people at Pearl’s; you’re after him, right?” the man said.

“Maybe,” Michael replied. “Why do you ask?”

The drunk man grinned. “Because I know where he’s hiding, right as we are here talking.”

Michael’s eyes widened. “Where is he?” he asked.

The drunk man waved his pointer finger back and forth. “Nope, not just yet. First, I want to know how much you will pay me for the information.”

Michael opened up his wallet and set a fifty dollar bill in front of the man. “Is this enough?” he asked.

It was the drunk man’s turn to be wide-eyed. “Yes! I mean, yes, it will be more than enough.” He picked up the bill and shoved it in his pocket.

“Where is he?” Michael repeated.

“There is a town named Messa, around seventy-five miles west of here. He has been there ever since he got done screwing up this town. And that is where you’ll find him,” the man said.

Michael stood up, thanked the man, and walked out of the bar. He then climbed back into his truck, pulled out his map, found the location of the town, and got back on the road. The palaver that he had been waiting for all of his life was about to take place, and he did not know what to think; on one hand, it might actually give him some answers to the questions that had long plagued his mind. On the other hand, however, facing the Dark Man again meant risking everything, including his life. It was a risk that he was ready to take.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

     As Michael pulled into the town of Messa, he immediately noticed two things that were odd about it: all of the stores appeared to be closed, and there appeared to be no sign of life in the town at all. He parked his truck alongside the curb of the main street and got out.

The only sounds that Michael could hear were those of the breeze and the birds; there was still no sign of any recent human activity. He walked past a row of vehicles that were parked in front of him, none of which appeared to have been used for days. He crossed the street to Messa’s police station and walked inside. No one was at the reception desk, but that did not mean much; they could have been in the back of the office for all he knew.

Michael rang the desk bell; its chime sliced through the silence like a knife. “Hello? Is anyone here?” Michael called out. There was no reply. “Hello?”

After realizing that there would be no one to answer his inquiries, Michael walked out of the station. Much to his surprise, a young boy of about nine stood in the middle of the street, staring at him with blank eyes.

“Hi,” Michael said, approaching the kid cautiously. “Are your parents around here anywhere?” The boy did not answer. Michael knelt down in front of the boy and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Son, are your parents around here anywhere? Are you the only one?”

The boy blinked once; when his eyes opened again, they had gone completely black. The boy opened his mouth and let out an inhuman banshee scream, which made Michael feel a sudden need to shit his pants. He leapt up and backwards, just in time to see people by the dozens piling out of the Safeway grocery store across the street from him. They all appeared to have black eyes, just like the boy that stood before him.

The Dark Man appeared on the roof of the Safeway, grinning. “Welcome to Messa, Michael,” the Dark Man said. “I see you have met some of my newest converts to the cause. Now, let us see how you deal with them!” The Dark Man snapped his fingers; the whole horde of people proceeded to run towards Michael, their black eyes signaling their intent to commit murder.

Michael drew his gun and fired back at them as he ran away, causing a couple of men in their early twenties to fall dead on the ground. He ran into a two-story building, the mob in close pursuit. As he went up the stairs, the mob found themselves stuck in the doorway, unable to get in because of how many were trying to enter at once. Michael took the opportunity to reload and fire more shots into the horde, dropping another half dozen of them.

Michael reached the roof, only to realize that he was out of places to run. The Dark Man still stood across the street, silently watching the scene unfold. Michael grabbed a large metal rod and shoved it through the door handle, buying him a few extra seconds of life. He appeared to be too far off of the ground to safely jump down; his only other option was to try and jump to the next building over, a four-story complex that had only window frames to grasp onto.

Something clanged up against the door; Michael was out of time. He took one last look over his shoulder as the mob broke through the door, and leaped off of the building. His hands reached out and grabbed the window frame, managing to gain a grip just in time. He started to pull himself up to the window; however, one of the people had broken away from the crowd and had proceeded to take her own leap, grabbing onto Michael’s back. His fingers slipped; the duo fell towards the ground, fighting over who would land on who. He got on top of the possessed lady two seconds before they hit the ground; it hurt, but he was alright. As for the lady, her head had split into pieces, brain and blood stains spreading out onto the road.

The horde did not stop their forward movement; all of them began to walk off of the building, falling straight onto Michael. The people that did not die immediately started to bite and scratch at him, doing whatever they could to harm him. He fired his gun until he was out of rounds, and then used the butt of it to beat his way out of their horde. There were only a dozen of them left now; once reloaded, Michael had no issue dispatching them as well. When the cloud of gun smoke settled, he was the only person left standing.

Michael surveyed his kills; there were around fifty dead on the street with more inside the building. At least a forth of them had been children; that fact did not faze him at all. They had all lost their humanity the moment that the Dark Man had reached into their minds, and there was nothing that he could have done to change that. However, the fact that the Dark Man could control that many minds all at once unsettled him; how powerful was this sorcerer? As he looked up from the bodies, he realized that he was about to find out.

The Dark Man was standing less than ten feet from Michael, grinning. “Very good Michael, very good! I am truly impressed, I did not know that you had it in you to kill this many people all at once.”

Michael raised his gun. “You killed them, not I; I just put them out of their misery.” He fired the gun; the bullet flew off far behind the Dark Man, as if by magic.

The Dark Man’s grin widened. “Would you kill the one that you have sought for so long so quickly? I am honestly surprised, Michael; I thought you were smarter than that.”

Michael lowered his gun, seeing the point that the Dark Man was getting at. “You will answer my questions, then?”

The Dark Man’s eyes lit up. “Of course, naturally! I have been waiting for this moment for the longest of times; as a matter of fact, that little charade that I pulled back in Williamstown was explicitly for your benefit! You should feel proud!

“Enough of your taunts; the only one responsible for that slaughter is you, not anyone else. Now, can we please get this palaver started?”

The Dark Man widened his eyes in surprise. “Pushy, pushy, never good qualities for a man to have. However, if you must insist upon it…” The Dark Man snapped his fingers; a fully stoked fire appeared, along with two large logs on either side of it. “Well, this is a good a place as any to do this; speaking in the throes of the dead has a type of… symbolic quality to it, do you know what I mean?”

Michael, who had little interest in symbolism, ignored the comment. “Let us palaver, then.”

“What would you wish to know?” the Dark Man asked.

“What are my origins; where did I come from?” Michael asked.

The Dark Man smiled. “Ah, a fine first question! You were not born of this world, Michael, which you must know as fact already.” Michael nodded. “As a matter of fact, you were truly born so long ago that I am not even positive about your origins,” the Dark Man said.

“Well, what do you know?”

“Michael, you do not only exist in this world. An identical version of you exists in another universe; you both seek the same exact thing, and you both have gone to extreme lengths to reach that goal.”

“The Tree of Gan?” Michael asked.

The Dark Man’s smile was faint. “It is known by different names in different worlds; in this world, it is a tree; in another, it is a tower; in yet another, it is a rose. However, when everything settles, they all boil down to the same exact thing. Both versions of yourself seek, as you have always done in cycles past, the same thing; however, you never grasp onto it. Instead, you repeat the same mistakes over and over again. It is quite annoying, when you truly think about it for a minute.”

Michael’s eyes widened. “What do you mean, “In cycles past”? I have never been on the search for the Tree of Gan before now!”

The Dark Man laughed. “Of course you have! Your belief has always been that you can reach the Tree with your soul in such a tattered and ripped state. Look at what you have done tonight, Michael; although none of these people had any semblance of humanity left inside of them, your killing of them still added to the shredded pile of fodder that is your heart. You have never learned your lesson- that is the cosmic joke of it all; you are cursed to repeat the same quest over and over again until you finally wake up and realize what you must do to redeem yourself. That, or until you are murdered; once that happens, there are no more chances for you. You will be finished.”

It took a moment for Michael to process all of this information; had he been on the quest for the Tree of Gan many times before? The more that he thought about it, the more it made sense to him. “So tell me of this quest, then; do I walk the path alone?”

The Dark Man’s smile vanished. “No, you do not. There are four others who shall join with you; all have their own haunted pasts, which you should readily identify with,” the Dark Man said, his smile returning. “Not to worry, however; your newfound allies will be no match for the might of the forces of the Dark King. He is the only being that I answer to, and the only force in the universe that cannot be stopped.”

“Who is this Dark King that you speak of?” Michael asked. “Is he a sorcerer such as yourself?”

The Dark Man laughed. “If you do not know whom the Dark King is, then you are a bigger fool than I thought. However, I did give you my word that I would answer any of your questions, and I am a man of my word, whether you would have it or not. The Dark King is a being that I doubt that you will ever come face to face with; however, he is the same being that seeks to destroy the only fruit of your loins.”

Michael’s expression turned into one of horror. “How do you know of that?”

“It is no big secret, Michael. However, there is no need to worry; the King is much more concerned with you at the moment, and feels no need to destroy anyone else before he destroys you,” the Dark Man said.

That relieved Michael only to the point to where it went off of his metal radar for the moment. “Is there anything else that you would tell me?” Michael asked.

The Dark Man nodded. “Actually, yes there is, although it is more of an observation of mine. You and I are not so different from one another; we both share the same goal of reaching the Tree of Gan, and we both will stop at nothing to reach that goal. That includes the betrayal of the ones that we love the most; you have done it many times before, gunslinger, and I know that you shall do it again.”

“How dare you!” Michael shouted. He drew his gun and fired it at the Dark Man; once again, the shot missed the target completely.

“I see that this palaver is over,” the Dark Man said. He jumped into the air and morphed into a bloated and grotesque raven; after one last caw of hatred, the Dark Man flew away, leaving Michael to sit alone in the remains of the town of Messa.

What Michael had learned in the course of the palaver was astounding; to think that there existed another form of himself in another world, one that was almost his twin, was disturbing. And what was the lesson that the Dark Man had scoffed at for Michael having never learned it? He did not know. And as he sat by the dwindling fire, surrounded by dead and decaying bodies, he realized that there was very little about life that he actually knew to be true. That was what terrified him the most.

Chapter 7

BREAKING NEWS: RUSSIA DECLARES REBOOT OF U.S.S.R., FORMS ALLIENCE WITH OTHER TOTALITARIAN COUNTRIES

By Jonathan Hawkins, May 27th, 2015

It has been a shocking morning on the world stage; earlier this morning, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that his country would be renaming themselves the U.S.S.R., and would be returning to the same governmental system of communism that the country had previously lived under for the better part of the 20th century. This has caused a severe drop in any stocks relating to the country, as the U.S. and other European countries have immediately halted all trade and commerce with the country, as well as all countries aligned with them.

In an even more bizarre twist of events, the new U.S.S.R. announced a new alliance, dubbed the New Warsaw Pact, between the terrorist group I.S.I.S., as well as the countries of Iran, North Korea, and China. Although there has been no official explanation as to why these countries have formed a new pact, many people have their own explanations as to why this has happened.

In an interview with an unnamed top Soviet official, he claimed that “There has been a newcomer to President Putin’s inner circle, an unknown man going by the name of Flagston. If you want to know why this has happened, I would advise you to find that man; he is the real one in charge here.” We could not find any reports of anyone new in the upper echelons of the U.S.S.R.’s government; however, we here at U.S. News feel that it is as good an explanation as any for what has happened throughout the world today. If you have faith in a God, I personally suggest that you pray for this situation to be resolved in the best manner possible; if not, we may all be under dire straits.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

As Cameron Daniels finished reading the news article, he noticed that his whole body was shaking out of fear. He had learned about the Cold War and how the world was almost destroyed because of a few men’s power plays back in school a few years ago, and the thought of that situation starting up again terrified him. He closed out the article and sat back in his computer chair, trying to regain some control of his emotions.

Cameron had decided to not overdose on his medication; he had not seen how that would have improved his situation in any way whatsoever. However, now he was not so sure; slipping away under the power of pills seemed highly preferable to the idea of being blown to smithereens by nuclear warfare. He quickly shoved those thoughts out of his mind and logged into his Facebook, hoping to find some sort of emotional relief there.

Much to Cameron’s surprise, he had a pending friend request waiting for him; he only had twenty-two friends on the website, and most of them were former gamers that had long since stopped using the site. He opened the request; Daniel Robertson, Yes or No? it read. He did not know anyone by that name, and there were no mutual friends. Could it have been a mistake of some kind? He did not know. However, his gut was telling him what he should do; he clicked the Yes option.

Almost immediately, a chat window opened up. “Hi,” Daniel Robertson typed, “how are you doing?

Um, good,” Cameron replied. “Who are you?

     “My name is Daniel Robertson, I’m from Hamilton, Ohio,” Daniel typed.

“Why did you friend me?” Cameron asked.

     “I don’t really know; your name just popped into my mind, and so I searched it, found you, and decided to friend you,” Daniel typed.

The two of them talked for a couple of hours about various topics, trying to get to know each other. Eventually Cameron wanted to have a more normal conversation with Daniel. “Can I have your phone number so that I can call you and talk to you?” he asked. Daniel gladly gave over his phone number; Cameron, however, was nervous. He had not called anyone for anything other than formal purposes for the longest of times, and he was not sure that he could do it now. He dialed the number, and after a moment’s hesitation, hit the CALL button.

The phone rang twice. “Hello?” a boy asked on the other end of the line. “Cameron?”

“Yeah, its’ me,” Cameron said. “It is so great to hear your voice! How are you?”

“Better, now that I am talking to you,” Daniel said. “Hey, can I tell you something before we get too much further into this conversation? If it is going to ruin this new friendship, it might as well be early on,” he said.

“I guess, sure,” Cameron said. He had no idea what Daniel was talking about.

“Well, Cameron, I’m asexual,” Daniel said. “It is something that I would change if I could, but as it turns out, I cannot. Hate me yet?”

Cameron had to hold onto the phone tightly to keep from dropping it. “Really?” he asked. “You are not joking with me in any sort of way?”

“No… why?” Daniel asked.

“Because I’m asexual myself,” Cameron said. There was silence on the other end of the line. “Daniel…?”

“Yeah, I’m still here,” Daniel said. “I’m feeling some of the shock that you most likely just felt.” He laughed.

“How did you say that you found me on Facebook?” Cameron asked.

“I don’t know, your name randomly came into my mind… what a coincidence!” he said. “I don’t know how we found each other, but I’m not going to complain about it at all. Do your parents know about you?”

“Yeah,” Cameron replied. He hated the thought of sharing his parents’ feelings about him with Daniel.

“What is their take on it? My parents and sister take it just fine,” Daniel said.

“Well… they hate it, actually. They hate me. They are planning to send me off to some Christian Conversion Therapy Camp once summer gets into full swing here; they think that it can “cure” me or something. And I am really terrified, because this place uses electrical shocks, starvation, and other torture to try and change something that is completely unchangeable.”

Daniel listened to everything that Cameron said with a silent patience. “That is horrible, dude. They are actually stupid enough to think that those camps work?”

“Yeah,” Cameron replied. “Do you know if they actually do work at all?”

“Of course they don’t, and don’t let anyone convince you of anything counter to that!” Daniel said. “Many studies throughout the years have proved that the people who claim to have been “cured” by one of those camps have always turned back to their asexuality sometime in life; almost all of them had severe mental issues relating to what was done to them at their camps. Actually, I’m surprised that those things haven’t been outlawed yet.”

“Well, they aren’t,” Cameron said. “And now I’m going to be stuck in one of them until I turn out like one of those people that you were just talking about.”

Daniel did not reply immediately. “Hey, I just might have an idea,” he said.

“What is it?” Cameron asked, interested in what Daniel might suggest as a solution.

“Well, have you ever thought about running away from your home?”      “Of course I have! But where the hell would I go? I have no supporting family, no friends…” Cameron said.

“You have one.” Cameron could hear the smile in Daniel’s voice. “You could come here and live with me; my parents would not mind, and your parents would never suspect a thing!”

Cameron thought about it for a moment; it was a great idea, but what if he were caught in the process? He knew that is parents would not hesitate in the slightest before sending him to juvie, that he knew all too well. But then again, what if he did not get caught? He had lived his life in an almost totally isolated state, never taking any risks for fear of what the consequence would be. Enough was enough; he needed to take some sort of stand in his life. “You’re right; but how am I going to get to you?”

Daniel explained his plan carefully, never leaving out a single detail. When the phone call ended, Cameron knew every single facet of the plan, and was going to take every measure possible to ensure that it went off flawlessly. Freedom was about to become his; he was loving every single minute of it.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

The next morning, Cameron’s parents did not say anything to him at all. He left off for school feeling elated; as an added bonus, he discovered that he had aced quizzes in both Math and History (his two least favorite subjects); however, the greatest feeling of success came when the bell rang and he was able to walk home.

When Cameron arrived, he was alone; his parents were still at work, and would not return for two more hours. He packed his backpack full of clothes and other essentials, checking several times to make sure that he had packed everything. He logged into Facebook and changed his password so that his parents would never be able to log onto it; he then went onto the local bus company’s website, bought a ticket to Hamilton, Ohio, and then packed the laptop as well. Lastly, he put the NETWORK DOWN necklace around his neck and went outside. He took one last look at the home in which he had been raised in his entire life; he realized that he would not miss it at all. He then turned around and walked down the road, ready to start a new life with Daniel Robertson. It was the

happiest moment of his entire life.

Chapter 8

     Kelly Coleman flipped her boss’s desk upside down in a rage.

     “Kelly, you fucking bitch, you’d better stop it right about now!” Mr. Feldman said.

     “No! I’m sick of you being an asshole to me and the rest of your employees! We shouldn’t have to stand for this kind of thing!”

     “Well, you don’t see any of your coworkers destroying my workspace, now do you?” Mr. Feldman asked. He had a point; everyone who worked on the second floor of the factory was standing around at staring at the spectacle before them; not a one of them had offered even the slightest hint of support for Kelly and her rampage.

     “That’s because they’re all too afraid of getting fired to do anything even resembling the act of standing up for themselves! But I’m not, I am sick of it!” Kelly shouted.

     “Well, if you are so sick of me and my attitude, why don’t you get the hell out of my building and never return?” Mr. Feldman said. “I don’t want you, and if you don’t, I’ll call the fucking cops on you!”

     “You know, Mr. Feldman, you might just be right about something for once in your life!” Kelly shouted. She then turned on her heels and walked out the door without looking back to see what anyone’s reactions would be. She did not return.

     “What are you all staring at? The scene’s over, folks; get the fuck back to work unless you want to end up just like her!” Mr. Feldman said. He closed his office door, righted his desk, and sighed. Was he getting too soft for his job? Had that happened even two years ago, he would have shown her who was in charge and how employees should behave towards their employers. Losing an employee like that, even someone as horrible at the job as her, was unacceptable; the next time something of that nature took place, he would be ready. No employee of his would talk to him like that ever again.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

     Kelly Coleman walked back to her apartment, trying to hold back the tears that so desperately wanted to show themselves to the world. Instead of feeling proud of herself like she should have been, she simply felt defeated. Now she had no job, which meant that soon she would have no home; what could she do for herself when she reached such a state of being? There was no simple answer to that question.

     One the one hand, Kelly could go out and simply get another job; there had to be more out there, especially in a city as large as New York. It might not be the most enjoyable thing in the world to do, but it was doable; she could work until she either finally broke through into the art world in some way, or until she got old and wasted away to nothing.

     On the other hand, maybe Kelly’s father had been correct in his assessment of the art life; had she ever been truly happy at all ever since she had moved to New York City? Thinking back over the past two years of her life, she could not definitely say that she had been. Yes, there had been moments where she had found pleasure out of life for a short period of time; however, that pleasure had never lasted for any period of time that went longer than a week.

     Without fully realizing it, Kelly had pulled out her cell phone and was on the verge of calling her father. Doing so meant admitting total failure on her part, which she did not know if she was prepared for; however, after hitting the “CALL” button, she realized that she had never really had any choice in the first place.

     “Hello?” George Coleman said.

     Kelly paused for a moment, nervous. “Hi, father,” she said.

     “Kelly… what is it?” he asked, trying not to let any emotion, good or bad, creep through onto the phone.

     Kelly, however, broke down into tears immediately. “I’m so sorry, father,” she sobbed. “You were right, about everything! New York is a horrible place, and I can’t make it here as an artist!”

     “It is alright honey, everything will be completely fine,” George said. “How much trouble are you in?”

     “I lost my job and I’m going to lose my apartment and I-“

     “Stop,” George said. “That is enough. How soon can you get back down here to me?”

     “You mean that you’ll actually take me back?” Kelly asked, surprised.

     “Of course, Kelly! Over these past two years, I’ve felt horrible for the way that I acted on the day that you and I parted ways. I would love nothing more than for you to come back home; I won’t get in the way of your art this time, but please, do come back to me.”

     “I will, father, I will!” Kelly said. “I should be down there within a day or two, depending on the traffic.”

     They said their goodbyes and hung up, leaving Kelly feeling decent for the first time in quite a while. She immediately began to pack up her items and prepared to leave as quick as was possible; she did not own many items, so that task did not take long at all. She dragged her things downstairs and into her car; she then drove away from the city, feeling a certain relief wash over her in tides. Her life was about to return back to a normal state of being; it was about fucking time.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

     Kelly arrived into Georgia a day and a half later, having sped down the highways that led south towards the state. It did not appear to have changed much; a few stores had closed, while others had opened, but it was still the same state that she had grown up in and fallen in love with. On the way to her father’s house, she stopped by the Homestead Hill Cemetery where her mother had been resting in peace for over twenty years; her mother had been raped and cut up by a thug in the parking lot of the local mall, and then dumped in a trashcan. Kelly had been five years old.

     Kelly found her mother’s headstone easily enough; she used to visit at the grave during every single holiday right after she had gotten her driver’s license. “Hi mother,” Kelly said. “I know that it has been a long time since I’ve been back here to visit; I hope that you’re doing okay, and all of that…” Her waterworks started up again. “Anyways, I guess that I should get going, I need to get to father and see him…”

     Kelly walked back to her car; as she did so, a distinct feeling of being watched came upon her. She turned around, half-expecting there to be a dead person standing behind her; there was no one there except for herself. She got into the car, still not feeling okay; however, she did not see anything strange as she drove the few miles left down the road towards her childhood home.

     Kelly pulled up into the driveway. Her father’s Mercedes sat parked in its usual spot. However, something appeared to be quite wrong; the front door stood wide open, as if her father had forgotten to close it. That, or as if someone had kicked it in and broken into the house.

     “Father!” Kelly called out. “Father, are you okay?” There was no reply.

     Kelly walked cautiously up to the house. Although she was no expert, the door appeared to have been forced by someone. Or something. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and considered calling the police right that minute, but decided against it; after all, what if she were wrong? Her father would not be pleased with the idea of her returning back home with a full police escort in tow. She placed the phone back into her pocket and walked inside.

     The entrance hallway had not changed a bit since the last time that she had been in it, save for the fact that it was no longer the location of a disaster area. “Hello?” Kelly called out again. “Father, are you here? Anyone?” Only silence greeted her calls.

     Kelly continued on down the hallway and into the living room; her father’s newspaper sat neatly folded on the coffee table, obviously having not been read. She grabbed a fire poker from beside the fireplace and picked it up, suddenly feeling quite uneasy. Her father always read the daily paper right after breakfast; it was one of the annoying and undying habits that he had that had always gotten under her skin.

     Kelly walked to the base of the grand staircase. It was of typical Southern design, with ornate designs decorating both sides of the handles. She ascended it slowly, being careful to not make a single sound as she went up. As she reached the halfway point to the second floor, she noticed a soft humming sound that was coming from somewhere upstairs. She continued upward, curious to see what the source of the sound was.

     Kelly finally reached the second floor. All of the doors were shut tight except for the one at the end of the hall, which was cracked open slightly; that was where the sound of the humming was emitting from. She walked slowly down the hall, paranoid at the thought that someone besides her father might be inside of the house, waiting for her.

     Kelly reached the door. After a moment’s hesitation, she pushed the door open and looked inside the room.

     Kelly let out an ear-piercing scream; George Coleman lay on his bed, obviously dead. His eyes were opened wide in the ghost of fear, his mouth duct-taped. On the floor next to the bed sat a small circular electric hand saw, smeared with drying blood. It had been used to cut open her father’s stomach, revealing the guts and intestines inside; something had strung them out across the bed like macabre party streamers and chewed them into small splices of organic string. On his chest, someone had carved a demented-looking eye into his chest; it appeared to follow her movement as she backed out into the hallway in horror.

     Kelly ran back downstairs as quick as she could, wanting only to rid herself of the mental image of her dead father that had burned itself into her mind. The poker that she had been holding hit the wall and fell to the ground; she did not care at all. She ran through the living room and down the hallway towards the entrance-

     A lady stood in the doorway, her legs crossed, and shoulders leaning up against the doorframe. Kelly froze. The lady’s eyes were completely black; Kelly saw the terror on her own face reflected onto the eyes. The lady smiled. “Well, hello there! Do y’like what I did with old pops upstairs?”

     Kelly screamed again and backed up. “Who are you?” She asked shrilly.

     The lady laughed. “My name’s Pam; I was sent here to deal with you, but after I found out that your dad was the only one left here, I dealt with him to kill some time. But now you’re here! Let us play, then!”

     Pam leaped at Kelly with an unnatural speed and agility, and grabbed onto her shoulders. They tumbled backwards together; Kelly was within an inch of hitting her head on one of her father’s decorative rocks. They both struggled to get the upper hand; Pam clawed at Kelly’s face, trying to scratch her eyes out.

     Kelly backed away, grabbing up one of the rocks. Don’t get any closer to me, I’m warning you!” she shouted. Pam just grinned and proceeded to attack her again. Kelly raised the rock and swiftly brought it down onto her attacker’s skull without thinking at all. She felt something break under her hands and heard Pam let out one last grunt before going silent. She moved the body off of her lap, trying to avoid the large fountain of blood that was spreading from the dead woman’s head.

     That was when Kelly fully realized what she had just done. “Oh my God,” she muttered under her breath, hoping that it was not true. She felt for a pulse. There was none. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed, unable to come to terms with the fact that she had just killed another living human being, even if it had not been in cold blood. “Oh shit, oh no, I have to call the police…”

     Kelly pulled out her cell phone with a shaking hand and quickly dialed 911. It rang once. Twice. Three times. After thirteen rings, it went to a beeping sound that typically signaled that the line had gone dead. She tried it two more times, expecting a different result; there was none. What was happening? What in the hell could be so wrong to the point to where the police were no longer answering emergency calls? As she noticed an update from U.S. News and read the breaking news story, she found the answer to that question; it was the end of the world.

 

Chapter 9

     Barney Axton sat staring at his television with a perpetual look of horror set upon his face. His television had been turned onto U.S. News for the past six hours, yet he had only heard one story covered by its’ reporters; that was understandable enough, considering the nature of the report.

     Barney watched as the blonde reporter sat up to her desk and brushed a strand of untidy hair out of her eyes. “As we have been covering for the last several hours,” she said, “the U.S. is currently facing the most daunting and harrowing crisis in its’ 230-plus year history after the New U.S.S.R. has bombed the cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., destroying them completely. All residents of those cities affected are, at least at this point, presumed dead; that death toll includes the president and vice president, as well as the majority of both houses of Congress. As of this moment, there is no clear idea as to who is going to be sworn in as a temporary Commander-In-Chief, or as to what the U.S.’s retaliation strategy will be.

     “The New U.S.S.R. is believed to have launched four top-secret experimental nuclear warheads into the edge of space at around four-thirty a.m., Eastern Time this morning. These missiles were not detected by any of the military’s defense systems, so that the denizens of the four cities had a total of about ten minutes before the projectiles struck their intended targets. Other radical countries, such as Cuba and Vietnam, have withdrawn their alliances with the U.S. and signed onto Putin’s New Warsaw Pact, creating an alliance that is all-but-penetrable. Our sources have informed us that the New U.S.S.R., as well as North Korea and Cuba, are preparing more missiles for launch, aiming this time at various military bases both at home and abroad.” The news anchor wiped tears out of her eyes, not caring that she was becoming overly emotional live on national television.

     “Riots have been ensuing all around the country after U.S. citizens discovered that the internet had been, in effect, destroyed in the wake of the nuclear attacks; the hacker group Anonymous has claimed responsibility for the downfall of the internet, citing the fact that “in this new age of destruction, the last thing that people need is the internet, heroin of the technological advances, clogging up their minds any further than it already has.” The followers of Anonymous have started wearing and selling items with the anthem “NETWORK DOWN” imprinted upon them; this now-popular catchphrase originated a few years ago to stand not only for the fall of the internet, but for the fall of all socialist and communist programs in general. Although it cannot yet be confirmed, there have been rumors that at least three million teenagers have committed mass suicide, apparently viewing a life without internet as a life not fit to live.

     “In other, stranger news, there has been no communications whatsoever from anyone residing in Canada since about an hour after this morning’s attacks,” she said. “Americans have been attempting to reach their loved ones in the country, only to receive tones that indicate a disconnected line. U.S. News has attempted to reach our sister company, Canada United, located in the city of Toronto; we received that same disconnected line tone. Many are speculating that the entire country has gone on lockdown or some other type of martial order-type system, although there is no way to be sure of that. Please stick to our station for the most up-to-date information about this disaster; any information that can be given will be given, as right about now, we need to know all that we can concerning the survival of our country, and in effect, the survival of each and every one of us.”

     Barney shut off his television and wept. Why in the hell had the world come to this? What kind of force could have been so evil as to cause something of this disastrous magnitude to have come to pass? There seemed to be no answers to that question at all; at least, not logical answers. He reckoned that a lot could be said for the influence of religions at this point in time; the local Baptist minister had been calling everyone in the area to burn down the neighboring Mormon Church, believing that they were the cause for the day’s atrocities. Barney stayed out of the currently raging battle of words between the two churches; he intended to enjoy any talks that he might have with God all by himself.

     Barney pulled out the last of his heroin needles and quickly injected himself with it, savoring that feeling of relaxation and ease that always came with the action of shooting up. His tenseness eased, his worries waned. What was there to be worried about now? He was in the most beautiful, perfect state of mind that man had ever discovered; nothing in the entire world, no matter how big or how small, could touch him now. Not anymore.

     Barney turned on the television; after discovering that there was nothing else on besides the untiring drone that was the news, he shut it off again, not wanting to be depressed by any more of the depressing information that that channel was feeding to people by the millions. He stood up, grabbed his keys, and walked outside, not quite sure of what he was doing; even after climbing into his truck, he still did not understand what his subconscious mind was leading him to do.

     Barney pulled out onto the road, heading south towards Texas. He felt half-asleep the whole time, as if he were in some sort of drug-induced trance; his senses appeared to all be completely functional, the only difference being that he had no idea where his current train of thought was originating from. He hit the gas petal and went speeding on down the road, not knowing or caring who in the hell was watching him; the end of the world as everyone knew it seemed to him to be the perfect time to throw caution to the wind and finally do something wild and adventurous, something that he would never have done had the circumstances been less dire. What did that mean? He had no idea; little did he know that he was all too close to finding that out the hard way.

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Network Down Cover

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