Esther Velez

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The Watchtower: Episode 12

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EPISODE TWELVE: The Intern

“Excuse me, miss, can I help you?”

It was the first person who’d noticed her entrance since she stepped into the place. Of course, she couldn’t blame anyone for not stopping to ask her what she was doing there. The place was bustling with people and action; nurses and doctors in which coats and scrubs pushed gurneys of bleeding people down the hallway that wrapped around itself in a huge cylinder. The man outside was wrong about this place: it wasn’t church. It was a hospital for sick people, not a place where she could find the information she was looking for.

“Excuse me, miss, did you hear me?”

Rosemarie turned to the voice. It belonged to a young man, probably a few years older than her, holding a clipboard and dressed in a lab coat. His voice sounded impatient, but his eyes betrayed the care that he felt.

“Yes, I wanted to…” Rosemarie realized she didn’t know what she wanted. Why had she come in here? She couldn’t remember, only that she wanted to get off the streets, away from the terrified mobs running…where?

“I am sorry, miss, but if you aren’t sick, and if you don’t have anyone in here, you are going to have to leave.” His comment reminded her why she had come inside.

“Please, sir, I need to stay somewhere safe. I saw one of them, a few blocks away from here.” Her voice drifted. Rosemarie was still trying to process the dark, decaying mass of flesh that had once been Omar.

The man frowned and glanced at his clipboard. “You saw one of what?”

“I don’t know.”

He sighed. “Again, I am sorry miss, but you have to leave from here. We can’t let you inside if you’re not a patient, or a relative of one of our patients.”

“I have to get home,” Rosemarie said. She knew she sounded desperate, but she was desperate. She needed to get home, and she had absolutely no resources to get there. If this were a fairy tale, she’d be the sleeping princess, desperately in need of a prince to swoop in and wake her up.

And it sickened her. She hated feeling utterly helpless, a damsel in distress waiting for someone to come and save her. But she understood enough of her situation to accept the reality of it.

“Home?” The young man was doing a poor job of kicking her out, but she accepted his inquiries.

“I was…” she hesitated before continuing with her story. She knew that saying she had been kidnapped and then killed her captor after he turned into a strange creature would make this man think she was crazy. But, as she stumbled with her words, she knew that she could trust him. There was something in his eyes that told her it was safe.

He didn’t blink or change his facial expression throughout her entire story. When she finally closed her mouth, he cleared his throat.

“You’ve been through a lot,” he said softly. He offered her his hand, and gave her a solid, firm shake. “I didn’t introduce myself to you. My name is Jace.”

“Hello, Jace. My name is Rosemarie.”

“Listen, Rosemarie I want to help you.” He held up the clipboard he’d been holding. “This here is the list of patients we are transporting to our Homestead Branch.”

“Your Homestead Branch?” Rosemarie wasn’t sure she was hearing the words correctly. There was a chance she might be able to go home? “Why are you transporting them all the way to Homestead?”

“Well, you’ve been out there. You see how crazy it is. And they’re saying that Homestead is the only area safe from whatever this is. We’re putting together a shuttle to send out the healthiest patients, just to get them away from all of this.” Jace paused and looked behind her. A nurse was approaching them.

“Jace, we need to get moving,” she said, completely ignoring Rosemarie’s presence. The woman was sweating and had pulled her hair up in a quick bun that did little to keep the strands of hair out of her face.

“I know. I’m getting things ready.”

The woman was gone almost as quickly as she’d come.

Jace turned to Rosemarie, and she saw him clearly for the first time. He had no facial hair to speak of, and the hair on his head was cut low on the sides but swept across his forehead on top. Underneath his white lab coat, he wore a blue button down shirt and fitted khaki pants. Rosemarie didn’t even need to see his shoes to know that they were gray, suede boat shoes. This guy was one of those trendy/fashion types that she’d never gotten along with. Despite the fact that they wanted to be different, they were all just like each other.

But it didn’t matter what he was wearing, or what kind of person he was. There was a chance that she would be able to go home, and she was willing to follow that chance anywhere.

“I can try to make room for you on the shuttle, but we have to move quickly.” Jace led her by the arm around the hallway. “I am going to go upstairs and let our staff know who they can start loading on to the bus. You can wait here until I get back.”

They had stopped in front of what appeared to be a kitchen. A few people bustled inside the kitchen, carrying trays and preparing what appeared to be some kind of pasta. Rosemarie looked at Jace.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not really comfortable just waiting over here by myself.” The memories of the men pulling her off the road and stuffing them in their backseat were still fresh.

But how do you know you can trust this guy?

Jace nodded. “I’d forgotten.” He pulled a phone from his pocket and began to type. He waited a few seconds, then typed again. He put the phone away and looked at her.

“Okay, I told one of my friends. He’s going to start loading people onto the bus.” Jace pointed to a door on the opposite side of the kitchen. “We’ll wait a few more minutes, and then we’ll go out there, where the bus is parked.” He put his hand on her arm. “I won’t go anywhere.”

It was strange, but that hand gave her a comfort she didn’t think she needed.

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

Jace nodded. “So where do you live down in Homestead?” He asked, trying to make some kind of conversation while they waited.

Rosemarie sighed. “Well, I live very deep in Homestead, but I’m currently staying with my parents in Goulds.”

Jace raised an eyebrow. “Goulds? I heard on the radio that Goulds was one of the only contaminated areas down there. I hope your parents are going to be alright.”

“No, they aren’t contaminated,” said Rosemarie. “They were just quarantining the area when I left, because they said it was one of the only areas that wasn’t contaminated. That’s why I was heading down to Homestead. I was going to make sure that my boyfriend was doing okay.”

“I see.” Jace crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. “Have you managed to make contact with any of your family? Or with your boyfriend?”

Rosemarie blushed and looked away. “No. I…I don’t know any of their phone numbers.”

Jace’s laugh was friendly enough that she didn’t take it to heart. “I’m sorry. I know what that’s like. I don’t think I’ve memorized any number other than my own since I was a kid.”

“So what is this place? I thought it was a church, but…” Rosemarie let her sentence taper off.

Jace nodded and picked up where she left off. “But it looks more like a hospital than anything else, right? If you think about it, isn’t that what they say a church is supposed to be anyway? A hospital for the broken?”

Rosemarie frowned. “Well, if you think about it, the church is not really a place where we come to be made better. When you come to church, it’s to celebrate what God’s done, to worship him, to hear from his word, and to connect with other believers.”

Jace grew quiet.

“You didn’t think I knew anything about this, did you?”

“No, that’s not —”

“It’s okay. I’m just tired of those cliches, and I’m tired of people treating church like it’s just a place for them to come and get healed from Jesus. Because, sometimes, he doesn’t heal you.” The last sentence slipped out before she could stop it. It had always been there in the back of her mind, but she’d never been able to get it out, not in the dozens of talks she’d had with her pastors, not in the long conversations she’d had with Soren, pouring over scripture and spending time in prayer.

And, yet, it had surfaced, in the presence of a complete stranger, at that.

“Are you a Christian?” He asked.

She was confused. “Of course I’m a Christian,” she said. “Why would I be talking like this if I wasn’t?”

“I don’t know,” said Jace, slowly. “You sound a little bitter.”

Rosemarie pursed her lips. “Well, I can be bitter and a Christian. No one is perfect.”

And, just like that, her confession disappeared behind a wall of defense. If she had any luck, he’d forget about her comment. She didn’t need to wait for long for the tide of the conversation to turn elsewhere. A tiny buzz from his pocket caused his to pull out his phone. He read the message quickly.

“Okay, they are bringing them right now.”

Finally. Thank you, God.

Everything was going so well. Things were falling in place, and she didn’t even have to do anything. This was a rare thing for Rosemarie, especially since a few hours ago, she was tied up in a basement, about to be sold into slavery. Things didn’t just “go well” with Rosemarie. That was a fact of life that she had come to accept.

So when the first screams started coming from the kitchen, she had a sinking feeling that something much worse was on its way.

And she was right.

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The Watchtower: Episode 11

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EPISODE ELEVEN: An Unexpected Friend

The man stepped forward, shotgun raised, headed in their direction. “Hands up where I can see them!” The man shouted as he drew closer to them.

Toby lifted his hands slowly, trying to edge his way to the car. He had to get over to Lyn. If anything happened to her…He had to make sure she was safe.

The man noticed his movement.

“Hey! Stay where you are!” As he came closer, Toby realized the man was holding the gun awkwardly, as though he’d never held a weapon before.

“Sir, we’re stuck. Our car stopped a few blocks away and we pushed it into this lot,” Toby spat out as fast as he could. The man slowly lowered his gun.

“You aren’t from Lighthouse Church?”

Toby shook his head. “We aren’t part of any church. We were just seeing if anyone was inside when this little girl appeared out of nowhere.” He leaned closer to the man. “Do you know anything about this girl?”

The man knelt by the girl. He held his gun behind his back, away from the girl.

“Your name is Katie, isn’t it?”

Her eyes widened. “Y—yes, that’s me.”

“I knew your father,” the man said, taking the girl’s hand, as though he was holding his own daughter’s hand. “What are you doing out here?”

She sniffled. “They said I was sick and not allowed to stay inside anymore.”

The man sighed and looked up at Toby. “Yep. That sounds just like them.” He stood up and reached a hand out. “My name is Brian Miller. I used to be an elder of this church.”

Toby carefully shook his hand. “My name is Toby.” He gestured to the gun, which he still held behind his back like a teenager hiding something from his mother. “That’s an interesting choice of weapon, Elder.”

He laughed. “Oh, this is just a scare tactic, in case any of the Lighthouse folks decide they want to fight.”

“Sir, I’m sorry,” Toby began, “but we need some help with our car. Can you offer us any assistance?”

“There are two other people in that car, aren’t there?” Brian sighed. “I can’t offer you any help with your car. I’m not even that handy with this weapon, to tell you the truth. But I can offer you some shelter through the night.”

Toby stiffened at his words. Shelter. Through the night. The reality of it all hit him in the face: there was no way they were getting to Homestead before the quarantine took effect.

Lyn is going to kill me.

***

She couldn’t tell what they were saying, but at least the man had lowered the gun. Lyn watched as her husband shook hands with the weapon wielder, silently begging Toby to snatch the gun from his hands. They exchanged a few more words, and then they began to walk toward the car, the little girl grasping the man’s hand.

Lyn shifted in her seat. Lincoln was still standing by the trunk, hands in his pockets. She opened the car door and he looked up.

“What’s going on?” He asked. She shook her head. She couldn’t bring herself to say a word to him. The past had come to the surface, but it was too painful to look at. Lyn was afraid that if she acknowledged it, if she said anything to her brother, everything would come out, and this was neither the time nor the place to deal with it all.

How can you let something like this ruin you? You’re not acting like yourself, Lyn. Pull yourself together, she scolded.

Her husband gave her a small smile as he drew closer. She reached for his hand.

“Lyn, this is Brian Miller. He was an Elder for this church.”

The man smiled and reached out to shake her hand. He had tiny spots of gray in his hair, and a thick black goatee. He looked a few years older than her father, but his eyes retained a certain youthfulness that unnerved her. She had spent enough time in front of a mirror to know that her own eyes betrayed stress, anxiety, and maybe even some regret, but definitely not youthfulness, despite her relatively few years. How could this old man’s eyes hold youth?

“Sorry about the scare with the gun,” he said sheepishly, like a middle schooler talking to his crush. “I had to be certain your husband wasn’t one of my enemies.”

Lyn raised an eyebrow. “Well.”

“Brian says that he can provide us some shelter through the night.”

She was about to nod, when his words registered. “Through the night?

Toby tried to speak quickly. “I know, this isn’t what we planned—”

“No, this isn’t what we planned, Toby, this is crazy!” She looked into her husband’s eyes, hoping he would understand. “Toby, if we don’t get back in five hours, they’re going to close the quarantine, and we’ll be stuck out here.”

“Lyn, we’re stuck out here anyway,” he said, his voice getting that strain it did when he was trying not to get upset at her. “This car isn’t going anywhere any time soon. If you want to stay in the car by yourself, then be my guest.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t suggest that, my friend,” Brian said, shaking his head. They both turned to him.

“Why not?” Lincoln piped up from behind them.

Brian looked around at the empty lot. “This place isn’t safe. It doesn’t have any type of covering. If they come out, you’re going to be lunch. Or, actually, considering the time, you’re going to be dinner.”

“If who come out?” Toby slipped his arm around Lyn.

The man leaned forward and lowered his voice to a whisper.

“The zombies, my friends. Who else?”

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The Watchtower: Episode 10

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EPISODE TEN: The Voice of God

The streets were a mess. Rosemarie had only been to Downtown Miami once, for a friend’s party on the beach several summers ago. The place had been bustling with excitement, impaired judgment, and bare flesh, and it’d taken them more than an hour to find parking. The chaos of that day had left her scarred, but it could not compare to scene before her now. People ran in large groups in every direction, sweeping her along the current and dumping her in front of an old church building.

The police had been of no help. They weren’t interested in her descriptions of the creature, and they didn’t seem to care that she’d essentially murdered someone.

“We’ve got more than enough to deal with, ma’am,” the gruff young officer had said over the phone. “Your best bet is trying to get out the city, although I seriously doubt it would help much.”

“What’s going on?” She had asked, breathless. The creature’s blood was still on her clothes, and its foul stench was causing her to gag. “What are these things?”

“Ma’am, I don’t know. But I need to get going, and you need to find somewhere safe.”

He had hung up on her, and she had found her way into the crowds swimming on the pavement. The church they had swept her to was the largest church she’d ever seen, but the sign with the church’s name was faded and torn. An older gentleman sat in the middle of the empty parking lot adjacent to the building, and she made her way over to him.

“Excuse me, sir.”

The man looked up from his torn and dirty clothing, and smiled sadly. “Yes, young lady?”

“I was wondering if you knew what was going on.”

“Of course I know what’s going on.” The old man motioned for her to lean in closer. She obliged, and he whispered: “It’s the end of the world.”

“But this isn’t how the world is supposed to end,” she protested. “What about the Bible? It doesn’t say anything about this.”

The man laughed, stroking his small white beard. “Who are you to say what God will use to get the attention of his children?” He suddenly let out a loud cough and covered his mouth.

Rosemarie stepped away from him. “Excuse me, sir, I have to get going.” His cough alarmed her. She didn’t want anything to do with sick people. Omar’s pale, crushed face was still vivid in her mind.

“You can get some shelter in the church,” he said, sensing her thoughts. “It’s still safe in there.”

She stood up. “Thank you.” Rosemarie turned to the church. She hadn’t been inside a church building in years. Soren had reignited her faith in God, but something had happened, and she wasn’t comfortable walking into a place with other Christians. She was sure that what she had done was written on her face, and with one glance, they’d see her for what she was.

And now you’re a murderer, too.

It didn’t matter that it was self defense, and that what she had killed was a creature, not a human. Her mind always knew what words to say to make her feel guilty, the silky, menacing voice bringing up incidents of her failures at just the right moment to make her feel regret.

Rosemarie.

There it was. The voice again. But there was something different about the voice this time. It wasn’t the same voice from the darkness. She couldn’t remember where she’d heard it, but it was a voice she trusted. She felt compelled to walk into that church. It was going to be safe.

As the doors to the church slid open and she stepped into the air conditioned space, she recognized the voice. She had heard it once before, but only once, and never again since, until right now.

It was the voice of God.

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The Watchtower: Episode 9

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EPISODE NINE: The Lighthouse

“I thought you said it was called Christ Fellowship Redland.”

Toby opened the door for his wife. She hadn’t heard him. The color had returned to her face, which was a start. He had never seen her afraid in the years they’d been together. Lyn always kept her emotions under control. It wasn’t until she met up with her family again that she started to unravel.

It’s a good thing for me to see this now, he thought to himself. Wouldn’t want any of this to spring on me in ten years. By then, we’d have so many more problems, I’m not sure how I would handle it.

They had met the last year of high school. She was sweet, kind, and took care of him. He dated her for about two years before asking her father for her hand in marriage. Jamison didn’t like him, but Emmy thought he was sent from heaven. She convinced her husband to let him marry Lyn, and they lived happily ever after.

He had received the phone call from Custar Institute of the Arts three weeks ago. They loved his research on the influence of music on the lives of teenagers, and they wanted him to come in for an interview. He could have the job if he wanted it, they said; the interview was just a formality.

Lyn wanted him to take the job. She had already scouted ten possible homes close to the school. She wanted to get away from Miami, and she’d been begging him to move since the day they got married. He told her he would think about it. The next day, he purchased two tickets for Tennessee.

But what kind of future are we going to have now?

He couldn’t think of their future. With everything going on, he wasn’t sure if there would be one. The only thing he knew for certain were the next few hours before the quarantine set in. That was as much future as he could possibly handle.

“You said this was Christ Fellowship Redland.”

“That’s what it used to be called.”

The lot they pulled into was well lit, revealing two buildings connected by a covered walkway. He slipped his arm around Lyn and led her to the first building. It had a glass door framed in purple. He reached for the handle.

“Wait, what does that say?”

His wife pointed to a sign hanging on the door that he’d missed.

Because we love our children, no sick kids allowed inside.

Toby shook his head. “It’s for their church.”

“Their issuing their own quarantine,” Lincoln said from behind. “Keep the sick people out, leave the healthy ones inside. I still don’t see the sense in it.”

“Well, when all the sick ones die out, the healthy ones can emerge from the quarantine and start over.” Toby tugged on the handle. It didn’t budge.

“Just bust the glass.” Lincoln bent to search for a rock.

“That wouldn’t do,” Toby said, stepping away from the door. “We’re trying to find people to help us with my car. Breaking down their doors wouldn’t leave a good first impression.”

“We can check the other building,” Lyn said, pulling him away. Toby knew she was still afraid. He wanted to ask her what she had seen, but he wasn’t sure if she was ready. Whatever it was, it had changed her countenance completely.

“Lyn, what’s the matter?”

She looked up at him, her eyes still wide. “I saw my friend, Toby. And she’s been dead for years.”

Toby nodded slowly. “I can understand that. You were visiting a place where the two of you made memories. You were just remembering her.”

“No, Toby. We didn’t go to school together in middle school. She was already dead by then.”

“But you said…”Toby sighed. He knew she needed his patience. He took a deep breath. “How did she die?”

Lyn pulled away from him. “I’m not going to talk about it.” She turned her body and began to walk toward the car.

“Lyn, come back. We don’t have to talk about it.”

“Give me some space, Toby,” she said, opening the car door and stepping inside.

Lincoln put a hand on his shoulder. “Let the lady go,” he said.

“But she’s not well.”

“Yeah, well, what are you gonna do about it, huh? Do you have any control over her?”

“What are you talking about?” Toby turned to face his brother-in-law.

“I’m not saying she doesn’t respect you, I’m saying you don’t control her. Let her figure out what she saw and deal with it on her own. She’ll get over it.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I am beyond shocked hearing this from you, Lincoln. You’ve displayed nothing but hatred toward Lyn in all the years I’ve known you. Why all of this out of the blue?”

Lincoln frowned. “This isn’t anything at all. The girl that died was a family friend. Regardless of how it happened, she’s still dead, and we all lost her, including Lyn. She may have hated the girl’s guts, but once she was dead, Lyn changed her song.”

Toby crossed his arms. “Is that why you can’t stand Lyn? Because she pretended to miss the friend once she was dead?”

“No, Toby.” Lincoln leaned against the building. “Do you want to hear this now or later? Because it’s going to wreck you.”

What is this kid talking about it? Does he even know who I am or what I’ve been through? How many of his family has he had to bury, to disown, to pull out of the worst places? What could Lincoln possibly say that would wreck me?

“You know what, never mind. I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Lincoln said. “Let’s keep searching for a way into this place. Maybe, like you said, there are people inside that can help us.”

“Way to leave me hanging, Lincoln,” Toby said, hitting him lightly on the head. He made his way over to the second building. This one had an ornate wooden door with tiny glass panes. He pulled on the handle, but it, too, was locked.

“No luck.”

“There’s a building out back.” Lincoln gestured to the darkness behind the two buildings.

“How can you tell?”

“My eyes have adjusted to the dark.”

Toby shrugged and allowed Lincoln to lead the way to the back. The buildings were connected by a small walkway. The walls of the walkway were covered in paintings of cars, trains, palm trees, and flowers.

“Wow, these are some awesome paintings,” Toby said, running his hand on the wall. When he was younger, he’d been more interested in art than music. His mother told him that he had no talent in that area whatsoever, and that he should stick to his instruments. He had obeyed her, but still enjoyed marveling at paintings and learning about them.

Lincoln scoffed. “Looks like silly “kid church” nonsense. As though it has to be colorful and splashy for kids to enjoy it.”

“Hey, man, adults are the same way.”

They walked the rest of the hallway in silence until it opened into a huge field.

“We’ve just gotta cross over, and we’ll be there.”

“Wouldn’t they have turned the lights on if they were there?” Toby tried to make out any shapes in the darkness, but his eyes weren’t used to it yet.

“Hey, I can’t account for their actions, okay? Let’s just keep moving.”

Toby crossed his arms. “You’ve been here before, haven’t you?”

Lincoln shook his head. “What makes you say that?”

“Don’t lie to me, Lincoln,” Toby said, placing a hand on his shoulder. The kid looked up.

“Okay, maybe I’ve been here once or twice. What does it matter?”

“Why’d you keep it a secret?”

“Can we walk as we’re talking?”

Toby wouldn’t budge. “Answer my question, Lincoln.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Why are you making me dig up all these old things? I came here when I was still in high school. The church was just making its transition into Lighthouse Something-or-other. It was with a girl I used to date.”

“I take it you didn’t have a good experience here?”

Lincoln laughed. “As good of an experience anyone can have in church. Are we done with the interrogation, sir, or would you like to hear anything else?”

“No, I have what I need. Show me where the back of this place is.”

***

“Well, that was a waste.”

They’d walked all the way to the back to find two more buildings, both of them locked tight. They had also discovered some light switches, three of which still worked, and, when turned on, revealed a wide spread of concrete with a metal covering. It reminded Toby of the gym at his old school. They were too lazy to have it walled in, so it remained open and susceptible to the best, and worst, weather Florida had to offer.

Toby made his way back to the car as quickly as possible, with Lincoln closely in tow. He had to find a way to get that car working. There was no way he was going to sit here while Rosemarie was unaccounted for.

Toby had always had a soft spot for Rosemarie. She was the most conflicted of the family members, but she was also the strongest. Although he loved his wife to death and wouldn’t trade her for the world, Lyn pretended to be strong and put up acts. For Rosemarie, that strength was real. If there was one person that could bring the whole family back together again, it was Rosemarie. He knew she didn’t believe it, and he knew she wouldn’t believe him when he told her either. He had hoped for an opportunity to talk to her, but Lyn had prodded too many wounds, and she was gone before he could say anything.

That’s why he wanted to find her. Not because he thought she was in any real danger, but because he knew that the Varela family needed her. And, as much as he’d tried to stay away from them, he’d become a part of that family. He couldn’t let their family—no, his family—fall apart without at least trying something. It may not have been the best plan, but it was one he believed in.

“What are we going to do now?” Lyn stepped from the car and reached for his hand, thin, cold fingers weaving through his own.

“Well, we can’t push this car. There’s no way it would make the distance.”

“And, Homestead’s about six or so miles from here,” Lincoln put in. “We could walk it, but it’d take a couple of hours, and we don’t know what’s out there in the darkness.”

“But whatever we do, we can’t stay here,” Lyn said, squeezing his hand tighter. “We have to either continue toward Homestead, or head back home.”

“We’re not going back home,” Toby said. His voice was strong and forceful, and with the look she gave him, it was clear that he’d startled his wife. He lowered his voice. “We will find a way.”

They sat in silence for a full minute before the crying started. Toby looked down at his wife, but her face was emotionless. He glanced at Lincoln, but the young man only looked startled.

“Who is—?”

And that’s when he saw her. The little girl was crouched on her knees, pounding at the glass door leading to the first building of the church, sobbing.

“Okay, where’d that girl come from?” Lincoln turned to Toby, confused. “We were just over there, and there were no people inside.”

Toby released himself from Lyn’s grip. “It looks like this girl is just as lost as we are. She must’ve crawled up without us noticing.” He started to walk toward the girl when Lincoln put a hand on his shoulder.

“Wait a second. She crawled up without us noticing?” He gestured to the empty lot around them. “I’m pretty sure we would have seen her. There isn’t much seclusion in this place.”

“Unless she came from the back,” Toby replied, pushing the younger man off his shoulder. “I’m going to talk to this girl. You can come with me if you like.”

He walked on, not bothering to see if Lincoln would follow.

***

“Hey.”

The little girl kept pounding on the door, shaking the sign plastered to the glass. Toby knelt beside her. She wore a long blue dress, no socks or shoes, and she didn’t look up when he spoke.

“Hey, there,” he tried again. This time, he touched her shoulder and got an immediate reaction.

“Who are you?” The girl asked, backing away from him. She wiped a few tears with her sleeve. “Are you from the church?”

Toby shook his head. “No, sweetheart. My car got stuck.” He pointed to the parked vehicle behind him. “That’s my wife, Lyn, and her brother Lincoln.” He smiled at her. “And my name is Toby. What’s your name?”

The girl sniffled and took another step back. Toby sighed. It was gonna take more than an introduction to get this girl comfortable with him.

“Where are your parents?” He asked.

She shook her head. Toby frowned.

“How’d you end up all the way out here?”

The little girl shook her head again, her stringy brown hair whipping from side to side.

“Do you live around here?”

Her eyes darkened. “I live inside there.” She pointed to the glass door.

“So there are people inside the church?”

“Yes.” Her face crumpled as the sob returned.

“There are people inside the church, and it’s where you live.” Toby reached for her shoulder as her spoke. “Well, if you live in the church, why are you out here instead of with your family?”

She balled her hands into tiny fists and shook them in anger. “It’s because I’m sick and they won’t let me back inside!”

Toby froze. They threw this little girl out because she was sick? He looked up at the sign on the door: “Because we love our children, no sick kids allowed inside.”

What kind of —

“Hey, Toby, take a look!”

He turned around. Lincoln was pointing to the far end of the building. Toby followed his hand and realized something he hadn’t before — a wooden door. A second entrance. We have to try that door. Whoever is inside may have left it open by accident. How did we miss that the first time around?

He barely had time to register his mistake when the wooden door banged open and a man stepped out, shotgun against his cheek, barrel pointed in their direction.

 

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The Watchtower: Episode 8

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EPISODE EIGHT: A Secret

Jamison stood in front of the Main Office of the community. If he was right, the Big Three would be there. He laughed to himself. He’d been living in this community for over 25 years, and they still hadn’t inducted him into their leadership group.

The Big Three consisted of three longtime residents of this neighborhood who had decided long ago that they weren’t going to let an anonymous association run their community. They had banded together under a relatively unknown loophole in the Association Manual and pretty much ran everything.

Jamison had made it his first priority to get involved with these guys. One of the men, Trace Walker, had quickly become a friend. The other two had decided he was the enemy.

“It’s about time you showed up.” The door to the Main Office opened as Trace stepped through. “What took you so long?”

“Nice to see you, too,” Jamison replied, grabbing the door. “Is your family doing all right?”

Trace sighed. “They’re scared. I won’t let them watch the news, but Shayla wants to know.”

Jamison nodded. Shayla was a worrier, like Emmy. They had to know the facts, other wise they couldn’t rest. Emmy had gotten better at staying calm, but he could imagine that Shayla was a mess.

“What about your kids?” Trace crossed his arms. “Weren’t they coming over for a visit right about now?”

Jamison frowned. “They picked the worst time,” he replied. “One of them is down in Homestead, and the others decided it was a good idea to go fetch her.”

“And you disagree?”

“Rosemarie will come back when she’s ready,” Jamison said, stepping into the Main Office. “She always has, always will.”

“You keep saying that Jamison.”

“Well, I’m always right, aren’t I?”

 

*****

“How many hours has it been?”

She had been sitting in a car all afternoon on her way down here, but the drive down 248th street stretched on monotonously and felt a thousand times longer.

“We’ve only been driving for a few minutes, Lyn,” her husband said, pointing to the clock on the dashboard. “We’ll be in Homestead within a half an hour.”

“If only we’d have taken the highway,” Lincoln mumbled in the backseat. Lyn felt her face stiffen. He was so ungrateful. We’re coming all this way for him. The least he could do is stop complaining. She couldn’t fault him, though. He was still very young and immature.

“What is Rosemarie’s boyfriend like?” Toby asked.

“I’m actually not too sure,” Lincoln replied. “She started dating him when I moved away to college, and we’ve only talked about him a little.”

“Well, it’s a good thing Misty knew his address,” Lyn added, “otherwise, you would have been of no help.”

Lincoln ignored her. They continued to drive forward in silence. She turned to look out the window. It was too dark to see anything clearly, but she could make out a stop light further ahead. It was the only one in a row of stop signs and rolling stops. She wondered if cops spent any time hiding in the shadows, trying to catch people speeding. If she’d been driving, she would definitely have been pulled over. Toby was good, though. He didn’t like to speed, even when it was dark and no one else was around.

The car made a strange rumbling sound. She glanced at Toby. A red light flashed on the dashboard.

“What was that?”

“I don’t know.”

“I thought this was a new car,” Lincoln grumbled from the back.

“How much money do you think I have, Lincoln?” Toby shook his head. “This car is a piece of junk. It can die at any time.”

“Why didn’t you take my father’s car? And if it was so bad, why did you use it to drive us down here?”

Toby did not respond to her question. “The car is starting to overheat,” he said instead. “We need to pull over and give it a chance to cool off.”

“We never stopped when we were driving before.”

“Do you not believe me, Lyn? Do you want me to keep driving until the car explodes?”

“Is that what is going to happen?”

“Seriously, Lyn?”

“Fine,” she said, throwing her hands in the air. “Pull over wherever you want. So long as it’s not in the bushes somewhere.”

Toby turned on his highbeams. “There’s a parking lot up ahead.”

“It’s a school zone,” Lyn said, straining to read the signs. “What school is this, Lincoln?”

“Oh, so now I’m suddenly of use to you?”

Toby pulled the car into the lot. Dozens of yellow school buses were parked along the east side, with a few regular cars near them. Lyn searched for a sign on the school building, something that would let her know which one it was.

“I want to look around,” Lyn said, unlocking her door.

“Don’t go so far.” Toby opened the hood of the car and peered inside. “This shouldn’t take so long.”

Lyn slipped her phone into her back pocket. She walked toward the school’s entrance. It wouldn’t be open this late at night, but lights were on inside. To the left of the main entrance was a second building. It reminded her of one of the school’s she’d gone to growing up. Her fifth grade class was the first to move into the new buildings on the side. They called it an annex, and she always thought of the place where Anne Frank had lived in when she wrote her diary. It was also an annex.

Lyn had never liked reading the diary. She knew that Anne was going to die at the end, so every time the girl wrote about the future, Lyn knew it would never come to pass. Lyn told her teacher it was too sad for her to read, but her teacher wouldn’t listen.

She continued walking toward the second building. Dark, painted letters covered the side of the building, but she couldn’t make out their meaning. If I could get closer, maybe I could read it. Maybe it’ll tell me what school this is.

Lyn wondered why she wanted to know. Why did it matter to her what school this was? Because it reminded her of the school she’d gone to when she was — ?

A little girl appeared in front of her, running toward her. The girl was wearing a torn life vest, and she was calling out her name.

Lyn blinked.

The girl was gone.

 

*****

The room was suddenly alerted to his presence. Chris Adler rose from his seat.

“Who invited him?”

“Jamison has been attending our meetings for the last twenty five years,” Trace said, patting him on the back. “He didn’t need an invitation the first time, and he doesn’t need one now.”

“Whatever.” Chris took his seat. “So what do you make of all this? Does it fit into one of your ‘end times’ sermons? Is this foretold in the Book of Revelations?”

Jamison laughed. “Um, no, I didn’t see anything about an infection spreading through Florida the last time I read my Bible, but maybe I wasn’t being thorough enough.”

“Well, we’ve been doing as much research as we can, and we don’t understand this.” Harold Whitaker, the oldest of the three, had a loud, commanding voice. Jamison knew the man didn’t like him because he stayed with Emmy, even after she cheated on him. Harold was going on his seventh or eighth divorce, and he always tried to convince Jamison that being single was the only route to happiness. But more than all of that, Harold hated not understanding something. He poured himself into research and study to figure out anything he wasn’t sure of.

One of those things was forgiveness. He still hadn’t wrapped his mind around that one. It never made sense to Harold why Jamison had forgiven his wife. He was, after all, a veteran of divorces and affairs. He had perfected the art of blaming, accusing, shaming, and guilting. Forgiveness, of any sort, had no part in his life. He tolerated Jamison’s presence because Jamison had a lot to offer, and everyone, including Chris, knew it.

“The government is itching to close that barricade soon,” Chris said, shaking his head. “I don’t like this at all.”

“We’ve got at least four hours left,” Jamison cut in, taking a seat near Trace. “Before they barricade it, though, we need to make sure we have enough supplies.”

“I sent a few men to collect information from around the area. They should be back with reports in a few minutes,” Harold said.

“We should consider using this as a center for supplies. Everyone can bring what they have here, and we’ll dole it out as needed.”

“Uh, no, that won’t work,” Chris said, shaking his head. “Some of the newer families in this neighborhood are more affluent than others. We welcomed them because it was beneficial to our community, but they will not want to share their resources with those who didn’t think to stock anything up.”

Jamison sighed. “Chris, we’re in a time of crisis. We have to work together, affluent or not. Certainly they would understand that.”

“Well, it smells a little too communistic to me.”

“Are you going to help, Chris? Or are you just going to shoot down everything I say?”

“Bad ideas need to be weeded out.”

Jamison leaned back in his chair. Chris had never liked him, and he never knew why. He had never done anything to Chris in the twenty five years he’d known the man, but that didn’t stop Chris from hating him. Jamison knew he wouldn’t get anywhere in this meeting, not if Chris disagreed with everything he said for the sake of disagreeing. There was only one thing they could do, if this meeting was to get anywhere.

“I call for a vote,” Jamison said, raising his hand. “Although we’ve got the government here, setting up the barricade, they don’t care about our community. I propose that we vote a leader for ourselves, one who has the best interests of the neighborhood in mind.”

“And I suppose you vote yourself as this leader?” Chris asked, a sneer forming on his lip.

Jamison smiled. “That wouldn’t be such a bad idea.” He glanced at Trace. “What do you think?”

“A vote is a splendid idea.”

“Harold?”

The older man nodded slowly. “I’ll vote.”

“Excellent.” Jamison looked at Chris. “Who would you like to vote for?”

Chris scowled. “I will vote for myself.”

Trace raised his hand. “And I will vote for Jamison.” He turned to Harold.

“It’s up to you.”

Harold sighed. “I don’t really like you, Jamison,” he said, “but we need to do something. I’ll vote for you.”

“I knew this was going to happen,” Chris said, shaking his head, “but I’ve been with this community for too long to leave it in the hands of a newcomer.” He folded his hands. “So what’s our first order of business, leader?”

Jamison crossed his arms. It was time to get to work.

 

*****

I’ve seen her before.

Lyn turned around and headed for the car. She’d seen that little girl before, in a place that needed to stay buried in her memories. But why was she seeing the girl here? This wasn’t the place where it had happened.

“Oh, there you are.” Toby slammed the hood shut. “We’re ready to go.”

Lyn ignored him and pulled open her brother’s door.

“Lincoln, what school is this?”

“Hey, you don’t have to be so rough.”

“I asked you a question, Lincoln. Can you please answer it?”

Lincoln frowned and crossed his arms. “It’s Redland Elementary and Middle School. Are you satisfied now?”

Lyn closed his door. “Toby, we have to leave this place.”

“What are you talking about? Of course we’re leaving. The car is fixed.”

“No, we have to leave now.”

“Lyn, your face is white,” Toby said, grabbing her. “What’s going on?”

She looked up at him, shaking. This was it. The secret she’d been hiding for so long. She had to tell him. There was no way around it.

“This was my elementary school.”

Toby smiled. “Oh. I thought there was something wrong.”

“You don’t understand,” she said, clinging to him. “We have to leave from here.”

“Lyn—”

“This is where my friend died. I don’t want to stay here anymore.” Lyn felt tears coming on. “I saw her, Toby. She was running toward me, and—”

“Okay, we don’t have to talk about this anymore. Get in the car. We’re leaving.”

Lyn moved as quickly as possible. The memories of that day so long ago were flooding back to her. She tried to stop the wave, but there was nothing she could do. Her best friend was dead and there was no going back.

Toby slipped the keys into the ignition.

“How much farther do we have?” He tossed the question to Lincoln in the backseat.

“It’s about—”

“Quiet.” Toby held up his hand. “I hear something.”

He tried the ignition again. “It won’t start.”

Lyn began to cry. “We can’t stay here, Toby! We have to go!”

“I know,” he said, “but if I can’t get this car started, where are we going to go?”

“This car is a piece of junk!” Lincoln yelled. “All those hours you work, and you couldn’t afford a decent car?”

“Toby, we have to go,” Lyn begged. She was falling apart. She hated doing this in front of her brother, but she couldn’t stop it. “We have to leave before she comes back.”

Toby nodded. “All right. Lincoln, get out of the car. Lyn, I need you at the wheel.”

“What—?”

“We’re gonna push it, okay?” Toby leaned over and gave her a hug. “I’m gonna get you out of here, Lyn. Don’t worry.”

“Hey, wait, are you gonna push this car all the way to Homestead?” Lincoln shook his head. “Sorry, buddy, but I won’t help with that.”

“There’s a church around here,” Lyn said, suddenly remembering. It’d been a long time since she’d been in this area, but, somehow, she still remembered it. “One of my friends used to invite me to it all the time, although I never went.”

“You’re right. Dad never really liked churches.” Lincoln opened the side door. “Let’s get to pushing, Toby.”

“What’s the church called?” Toby asked, handing her a tissue to wipe her eyes.

Lyn swallowed back a sob.

“It’s called Christ Fellowship Redland.”

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