Chapter 1 of THE NOTHING MEN

CHAPTER ONE

They began calling numbers at an ungodly hour, in that sliver of night just before dawn when nothing good happened but bad things often did, not because they had to, but because they could.

Ben Sullivan had been dozing since midnight; the fatigue had finally closed in around him like a noose and left him hovering in that thin space between sleep and wakefulness. His body buzzed upon the call of each number, and when he finally heard his own, a loud, drawling NUMBER FOUR, laced with a Southern twang like good barbecue soaked in pepper vinegar, his eyes shot open and his heart began pounding like a coke-fueled hummingbird’s. He gently rubbed his eyes, ran his hands across his face, trying to massage some life back into his skin. The fear and stress had carved inside him deep canyons of exhaustion that would soon need to be filled with real sleep, but he didn’t have time for that now. He would sleep later.

“Here,” Ben called out as he staggered to his feet.

He pulled on the straps of his permanent companion, a haggard-looking blue backpack he’d carried during law school, now dirty, paper-thin, having lived up to its promised warranty and then some, in situations probably not envisioned by the good people at L.L. Bean. It held a pocketknife, two cans of ravioli, a canteen of water, some toiletries, a thin blanket, and his papers. Its straps had frayed, the zipper barely functioning. In other words, it was just hanging on. Like everything and everyone else.

They were in the parking lot of an abandoned shopping center in Short Pump, an unincorporated suburban community in Henrico County, just west of the city of Richmond, Virginia, camped out in a federal staging area known as the Cage. Years ago, the strip mall had been quilted together from a menu of suburban prerequisites, a mishmash of stand-alone fast-food joints, nail salons, and wireless phone stores. A huge Walmart at the southeastern tip had anchored the development in headier times. Now the one-acre parking lot served as a clearinghouse for government-sponsored job lotteries, swap meets, day-laborer pickups, and all manner of illicit commerce.

The U.S. Department of Reconstruction & Recovery had set up a cattle call in the southwest corner of the sprawling shopping center just outside an old Taco Bell restaurant. About three hundred people were packed into the Cage like hogs and not smelling much better. Portable spotlights ringed the perimeter, blasting the Cage with harsh sodium light from which there was no escape.

Despite the early hour, the air was swollen with humidity; it had been drizzling off and on all night. It was the sort of rain that seemed ready to burst, like an overripe piece of fruit, and wash away the stickiness. It never did, leaving you wanting, the itch unscratched, the sneeze un-sneezed. The sky simply perspired, the intermittent drip-drip-drip of the rain against the asphalt nothing short of maddening.

Ben had been in the Cage for sixteen hours now. It had been his luckiest break yet, finding out about the job fair before word of it had been announced on Freedom One. He’d been one of the first on site, scoring a very low lottery number, which meant that he’d be one of the first considered. The Department made its hires on the spot, and when all the slots were filled, that was that.

Thanks for playing, but you can return to your regularly scheduled programming of starving to death with your families.

The job lotteries, which started at four in the morning, were as organized as anything else these days, which was, to say, not very. They were first announced via Freedom One, the government-controlled communications network and then just as quickly by mouth. Hundreds of people lined up for each lottery, often for just a handful of job openings. Some days there were a dozen jobs; every now and again, you’d stumble across a job fair with thirty. The typical gig involved manual labor – debris cleanup, construction, body removal, the dirty work required after the closest thing the world had seen to total apocalypse since the asteroid had wiped out the dinosaurs.

Security was loosely maintained by a small platoon of Volunteers, the new federal security force that had been commissioned after the Panic ended. The lightly trained soldiers kept a disinterested eye on the corral; they usually didn’t get involved unless absolutely necessary, and the definition of “absolutely necessary” fluctuated from day to day, from platoon to platoon. The soldiers handed out lottery slips in a first-come, first-serve fashion starting twelve hours before the interviews began. When they ran out of slips, they locked the gates.

A pair of portable chemical toilets constituted the beginning and the end of the government-sponsored amenities, and those were normally rendered unusable within the first hour. Anyone was free to leave the pen, but if you left, you didn’t get back in. Abandoned spots fell to those on a waiting list, those ringing the pen like vultures.

As Ben wove through the waiting throngs of nameless, faceless strangers who just wanted to work again, he felt scores of eyes on him, the burning envy, the anguish, the hate of those holding higher lottery numbers, most of whom would leave today with nothing. He didn’t begrudge them these feelings because he’d felt them as well, but he wasn’t experiencing any survivor’s guilt either. You didn’t make it far these days by feeling sorry for other people.

The foreman nodded imperceptibly toward Ben before turning and making his way toward the small corrugated trailer at the north end of the cage. Ben hurried to catch up, falling in step behind the man. The foreman was a big fellow with an easy way about him, confident in his place in this new world.

“Your number?” he asked.

Ben handed him the slip of paper, stamped with the numeral 4, which had been issued to him upon his arrival at the camp. The man scanned it with a handheld electronic wand, and the machine emitted a satisfying beep upon confirming that Ben’s ticket was genuine.

“You got your papers, right?”

“Yes, right here,” he said, unzipping his backpack and removing the folder. He offered his papers toward the man, who simply waved them off.

“Wait until you’re inside.”

Ben closed the backpack, and they walked in silence as they covered the distance to the doublewide trailer. The aluminum siding glinted under the glare of the floodlights, the familiar U.S. Department of Reconstruction & Recovery logo emblazoned on the side. The ubiquitous seal, which had made its debut a few months after the Panic, consisted of a magnificent bald eagle in the foreground with a bright orange sun peeking out just behind its head. Ben had once wondered how they’d managed to come up with a logo so quickly, and he decided that maybe they’d had one all along, part of a contingency plan that had been drawn up, considered, revised, approved and then stuck in a drawer somewhere.

That is, at least, until they’d been faced with the question of What the hell do we do now?

Well, for starters, we’ve got this kick-ass logo we can use!

To his left stood the ruined shell of the Walmart, the store’s marquee still identifiable despite missing both letter A’s. A fire had consumed the building at some point, the edges of the doorways blackened with soot, as if smudged by the hands of a child giant. The burned-out chassis of an Army vehicle remained lodged in the front entrance. Its tires were gone, as was the canvas top. The devastation never got easier to look at, stark reminders of those terrible months three years ago when all seemed lost.

The foreman checked his watch as they reached the trailer. The place was quiet but for the rattle of an air-conditioner unit protruding from a side window like a cancerous growth. On the far side of the trailer, two yellow school buses bearing the words U.S. Department of Reconstruction & Recovery idled in the old drive-thru lane. A pair of soldiers walked the perimeter of the trailer, their rifles gripped tightly in their hands.

“You’ve got another five minutes or so,” he said. He lit a cigarette.

Ben pressed down each of his thumbnails firmly, a nervous tic of his. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Nervous?” the foreman asked, blowing smoke out through his nostrils. 

“Yeah,” Ben said. “First time I’ve made it inside.” 

“Just try and relax,” he said. “They’re looking for healthy, stable people for these jobs. There’s two dozen openings today. As long as you don’t piss yourself in there, you should be fine.”

Ben nodded.

“What’d you do before?” the man asked. 

“Nothing,” he said. “I haven’t worked in a while.”

“I mean before before,” the foreman said. “Before the Panic.”

Ben tensed. 

“Oh, before before,” he said. “Right.”

Before before, Ben thought. When America had spent its days watching YouTube videos and going to farmers’ markets and arguing about climate change.

Before.

“Lawyer,” Ben said, hoping the guy would drop this line of discussion. He didn’t want to talk about the Before Before or the Time Before That either. He spent enough time thinking about it. Most days it was all he thought about.

The foreman seemed to find this amusing and began cackling with delight, a big explosive thing that burst out of him, as if Ben had stepped on a laugh mine. He dropped his cigarette to the ground and crushed it with his boot.

“Damn lawyers,” he said, a sudden edge to his voice. “Bet you’re not used to this kind of cattle call. Golf and cocktail parties and strippers for you lawyer types.”

“No, sir,” Ben said, his heart clapping against his ribs like a frightened puppy trapped in a cage. He was terrified that he was blowing his chance. “I just want to work.”

Just then, the door to the trailer burst open, and a soldier emerged, dragging a thin man behind him. The man’s name was Milton; he’d gotten to the site a few moments before Ben and had drawn Ticket No. 3. He was a nervous fellow, twitchy, talking nonstop until the interviews had begun. The soldier, the name Kendrick stitched to his fatigues, had Milton by the lapels of his dirty work shirt. With his M4 rifle slung over his shoulder, Kendrick dragged Milton, who had let his legs go limp and seemed hell-bent on making his eviction from the trailer as complicated as possible, down the steps.

“Hey, fuck you!” Milton was barking, twisting and turning like a child refusing his medicine. “A monkey can do this job! I just want to work! Look at me!”

“No Reds,” Kendrick said. “You know the rules.”

The soldiers outside rushed over to help their comrade, but before they could get there, Milton cleared his throat and fired a loogie directly into the soldier’s face. That was that. With fresh spittle on his face, rife with only-God-knew-what pathogens, Kendrick unslung his rifle and drove the butt of the rifle directly into Milton’s stomach, doubling the man over. As Milton struggled back to his feet, moaning, Kendrick rotated the rifle and aimed it directly at him.

“Take this asshole into custody,” Kendrick barked. He turned his attention back to Milton. “Get your hands up.”

“You ruptured my spleen!”

The foreman took Ben by the arm and the two of them eased away from the scene. Not breathing, not making a sound, Ben stared at the barrel of Kendrick’s weapon, a steel snake hovering in the air. They were no more than ten feet away from Milton, just a few steps behind the soldier.

Milton remained rooted to his spot, not giving an inch. He looked each of the three soldiers in the face, and then he swung his gaze over toward Ben. Their eyes locked, and in Milton’s, Ben saw nothing. Just a total absence of light and hope and anything that once might have been good and pure in his life. Ben blinked and looked away, focusing his gaze on one of the school buses. This wasn’t his problem.

But from the corner of his eye, he saw Milton’s shoulders sag, about as perfect a case study in body language as there ever was, a man who’d just watched his very last straw flutter away, a child’s helium balloon caught on a thermal and disappearing from sight.

Milton’s body tensed, leaning forward ever so slightly, and then he bull-rushed the soldier, a manic howl erupting from the depths. Kendrick squeezed off a short burst from his rifle directly into Milton’s chest. It was a little thing, but a terrible thing all the same. A dark stain bloomed on Milton’s shirt like a dark flower portending an ominous future. He crashed to the ground in a heap, and he died there in the parking lot of a Taco Bell. Behind him, the crowd buzzed loudly, but they remained docile, conscious of the heavy guns that would be loosed upon them at the slightest provocation.

“Clean this piece of shit up,” Kendrick said to his comrades. Then he looked over at Ben and said: “You. Let’s go.”

Ben could barely move, his eyes locked on Milton’s body. He willed himself to take a step forward, and Kendrick searched him, pawing through his bag, confiscating his knife.

“Well, counselor,” the foreman said, his voice devoid of emotion, as though he watched soldiers kill unarmed civilians every day. Hey, perhaps he did. He clapped Ben on the shoulder. “You’re up.”

Ben’s knees nearly buckled with fear as he climbed the three steps to the screen door, Kendrick trailing close behind. He took a deep breath and briefly considered hauling ass out of there, but he couldn’t. He’d come too far. He’d invested too much. And certainly, he was better prepared than Milton had been.

It was time to push his chips to the center of the table.

Chapter 1 of ANOMALY

CHAPTER 1

Claire Hamilton stared at the time on her phone, wondering how only four minutes had elapsed since her twins’ soccer game had kicked off. She had held off checking the clock for as long as she could, certain that she could make it, if not all the way to halftime, then pretty close to it before checking. And when she had finally looked, when it felt like hours had gone by, that the referee would be reaching for her whistle at any moment, Claire’s stomach flipped. Nope. Four minutes, each second elongated by the stiff wind and cold drizzle pelting down on her and the other parents jamming the sideline of Field No. 9 at the Seattle Strikers soccer facility.

The clock stared back at her unflinchingly, not caring at all. 

Time did not lie.

A mere four minutes had passed.

She did the math in her head. Eight minutes left in the first half, plus the full twelve of the second, plus that wind coming in hard off the Elliott Bay that had her teeth chattering. She was glad she’d worn so many layers; she’d been burned too many times on that score. Today she wore flannel long johns underneath her jeans, two long-sleeve shirts, a sweatshirt, and a heavy coat. A wool University of Washington cap kept her head warm. This wasn’t her first rodeo. 

It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy watching her six-year-olds, Hugo and Miranda, play soccer. She did, really and truly. She loved how they looked in their little black shorts and turquoise jerseys and tiny little shin guards and how they tried so hard, well, Miranda a little harder than Hugo. And typically, she wouldn’t have it any other way. There would always be time to sip coffee and read the paper. Watching her kids just be kids filled her with a kind of joy she once believed would not be possible for her. But watching a bunch of first graders clump around a ball like malignant cells on a raw Saturday morning in October was not as appealing as, say, lying in bed with those kids and reading the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as the rain pattered against their roof and windows.

And when she’d called the weather hotline that morning, hopeful that the game would be canceled, her heart sank a little as the recorded voice had pleasantly informed her that all fields were open. Even the kids had been disappointed when she told them to hurry up, they needed to go. Time waited for no man or child. Their team, the Hurricanes, would be taking on the Tornadoes precisely at eight, rain or no rain.

Her phone buzzed in her hand. A text from her husband Jack. Like many of the other parents, she kept one eye on the field and the other on her screen.

How’s the game?

She typed a reply.

Cold.

What’s the score?

No clue LOL

She glanced up at the sideline, where her daughter was getting ready to throw the ball in. It never stopped being adorable, her tiny Miranda holding that ball over her head as she scanned the field while fielding suggestions from her coach and about twenty well-meaning but misguided parents. The tip of Miranda’s tongue protruded from her mouth just so, as it often did when she was deep in concentration. With all her might, she flung the ball into play; it traveled about four feet and landed right at the shoe of an opposing player, who proceeded to kick it right back out of bounds. Circle of life.

Claire’s phone buzzed again.

This coffee is good.

Her eyes narrowed. She had forgotten her travel mug on the counter in their rush out the door.

You better save me some.

She received the winking-eye emoji in return.

He would save her some, no doubt about that. Jack, a headmaster at an all-boys’ private school just outside Seattle, was the husband who got up and made the coffee, brought it to her in bed every morning because she was not a morning person and the aroma of the fancy shit he brewed was enough to get her stirring. He brewed it, dressed it up just the way she liked, two sugars and a splash of creamer, brought it to their bedroom. How lovely it would be to sit up in bed and lazily enjoy her coffee, but he drove a hard bargain. The deal was that she couldn’t have a sip until both her feet were on the floor. It wasn’t a bad deal.

It was, in fact, an excellent deal she had ended up with, and so it always flummoxed her to become hyper-aware of the locket hanging from her neck at the very moment she counted her blessings and good fortune. Even now, her hand had drifted to the hollow of her throat, tracing the outline of the necklace held snugly in place by her sweatshirt. The locket had a funny way of doing that. She could take it off and close that door forever, but that didn’t seem right.

“Big game tonight,” she heard someone say.

She glanced to her right; another parent - maybe Clementine’s father? She could never keep all the names straight - was pointing at the cap on her head. They were already six weeks into the season, but she had barely gotten to know any of the other parents. They seemed nice enough. But there was just never enough time to establish a real connection with these people, so why bother. It was a little depressing, to be honest, to know you were at that stage of life where you didn’t want to meet anyone new. There just wasn’t enough time.

“Oh, right, the game,” Claire said.

The University of Washington was playing host to its rival, the Oregon Ducks, that night under the lights. Claire didn’t care for football, but Jack was a die-hard Ducks fan, having earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there.

“If we can win this one, we’re in the driver’s seat for the Pac-12 title,” said the man. 

“I’m sorry, what was your name again?” Claire said.

“Jason,” he said. “I’m Clementine’s dad.” 

“Claire,” she replied. “The twins.”

“Nice to meet you. Miranda is quite the spitfire.”

“Thank you,” Claire said.

“So what year did you graduate?”

“Actually, I’m a professor there,” Claire said.

“Oh. What do you teach?”

“Astrobiology,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“It’s the study of the origin and evolution of life, both here on Earth and elsewhere,” she said, awaiting the inevitable reaction to her canned response. People meant well when they learned what her field of study was, and there really was intellectual curiosity percolating. All good things. But it always came back to the same thing.

“You mean like aliens?”

She smiled.

“Haven’t found any yet.”

“You think there are?”

“I do,” she said, and she meant it. “The universe is simply too big for us to be the only life form. We’ve just started to scratch the surface of what there is to know.”

“Wow,” came the reply.

“That being said, I think there’s a good chance we never find it.”

“Why?”

“Same reason. Because the universe is so big.”

“Then why study it?”

“Someone needs to set the table,” she said. “Future scientists will make breakthroughs, but they need something to build on.”

“Be pretty cool if we did,” he said.

“Yeah,” Claire said, with an eye toward agreeability. She still wasn’t sure she ever wanted to make contact. She didn’t know if the Jasons of the world could handle it because she wasn’t even sure that the Claires of the world could handle it.

“Well, good luck,” Jason said, as though she had signed up to run a half-marathon rather than devote her life to perhaps the most important scientific work in human history.

“Thanks,” she said, and the conversation fizzled out.

A ripple of depression. Interest in her work, in the sciences generally, in what made it all go was often shallow, unless, of course, the alien thing came up. She did believe there was life out there, somewhere, because it simply did not make sense otherwise. The firm belief always amused her, this faith she had, a woman of science and logic and reason. Claire had left the church long ago and struggled when talk turned to God and blessings and prayers and all of it. She could not, for the life of her, understand how people took on faith alone the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing deity; yet, she believed just as heartily in the existence of life beyond her home planet.

On the plus side, this little conversation had eaten up a good bit of time. Just as her fingers had stiffened into frozen rictus and her cheeks burned with wind, the referee blew her whistle to signal the end of the game. While another mom handed out snacks, Claire began packing away her chair, noticing that it was probably time to replace it. The mesh had torn and the metal rods were orange with rust. It seemed like they had just bought these chairs, but that’s the way time worked. Everything in her life always seemed like it had just happened. Momentous and mundane, events raced into the past while the memory of them burned brightly in your mind. Time was the enemy of all things.

It was a bit of a struggle to feed the folded-up chair into the fraying bag, leaving her to wonder why they didn’t make the opening for the bag just a few inches bigger in diameter. The cinch rope always got hung up on a chair leg and it took forever to get it just right. As she slung the chair bag over her shoulder, her twins, Miranda and Hugo, came bounding toward her, their sweet faces warm and pink in the cold. Steam curled off their sweaty heads.

“Mommy, did you see me?” each of them said, almost simultaneously.

“I did, guys, you were both so awesome.”

“Did we win?” Miranda asked. “I bet we won.”

“You played like a team,” replied Claire, not having the first damn clue who won the game. They didn’t even keep score at this age. Well, not officially at least. There was one dad who kept score religiously and yelled at his son after each game. As the old saying went, if you don’t know who the asshole is, it’s you. Always getting on his kid about his positioning, about his hustle, and the kid would stand there, his face holding together like porcelain that may or may not shatter. More often than not, it held. She didn’t know where the kid found the fortitude not to break down crying, but he did. He would either become a billionaire or a serial killer. Only time would tell.

“You always say that,” Miranda cut in. “Can we have our snack now?”

“No,” Claire said. She never understood the purpose of post-game snacks. Burn two hundred calories during the game and then inhale four hundred calories worth of fruit gummies. “You guys ate before we left.”

“Aww,” whined Hugo.

“Let’s go, guys.”

They fell in line behind her as they made their way to the car. It was Saturday, and they had nothing else scheduled for the day, which was both a curse and a blessing. At six, the twins were right at that age where they could entertain themselves for a bit, but just for a bit. They got along well enough, but rarely a day went by without some pitched battle being waged between them.

It had started drizzling, and rain was forecast through tonight, which meant that it would be an indoor type day. They could bundle up, drink hot chocolate, do that hygge thing they did in Norway. Curl up with blankets and books and movies. Feed them chicken nuggets and then order Chinese for her and Jack while they watched the game. Hugo loved watching football with his daddy.

“Everyone strapped in?” she asked after she had loaded the chair in the back of the Toyota Highlander.

“Yes, Mommy,” they replied, again almost in unison.

Both were able to buckle themselves into their car seats, which turned out to be a more significant milestone than she had ever imagined. When they were small, it had taken a good ten minutes to get them strapped in; it had been one of those things that ate up far more time than you realized, little temporal vampires. That’s what they didn’t tell you about parenting, how long even the littlest things took. Oh, your kid is dressed? Bravo. How about another ten minutes fighting about shoes and then another twenty when your son decides to change his shirt for the third time?

Every drive with the twins was different; sometimes they bickered, and sometimes they got along. Hugo was the cut-up of the pair and every once in a while he would have his sister laughing so hard she was crying. Claire stole a peek in the rearview mirror and saw Hugo making weird scrunched-up faces at Miranda, who was trying very hard to ignore him.

About halfway home, her phone rang.

“It’s Daddy!” cried out Hugo, leaning forward to catch a glimpse at the Caller ID on the vehicle’s information screen.

She clicked open the line using the button on the steering wheel.

“You save some of that coffee for me?” she asked.

“Where are you?” he asked, ignoring her question.

The tone of his voice chilled her more than the blustery conditions at the field had. If she hadn’t had the kids in the car with her, she would’ve thought he was calling to tell her something had happened to one of them, that Hugo had vanished from the park, that Miranda had choked on a piece of hot dog and she’d better get to the hospital as soon as she could. It was the worst thing about being a parent, the constant worry that gnawed at you like the ocean eating away at the beach. Anytime the phone rang and she wasn’t with them, her heart froze, her mind racing to the worst-case scenario. It felt like she was falling, her stomach pushed up against her rib cage until she confirmed otherwise.

“What’s wrong?”

“When will you be home?”

“Ten minutes,” she said, noticing a slight tremor in her voice. “What happened?”

“You’ve got visitors.”

Her heart fluttered.

“Who?”

“NASA.”

Claire struggled to keep her focus on the road. It had been a long time since she’d spoken to anyone from NASA. More than a decade.

“What do they want?” she asked.

“They said it’s about Peter.”

Peter.

Welcome!

Howdy! Welcome to my new website and the first post here. 

I'll try to update on a somewhat regular basis. 

Let's see.. 

Currently reading SICK IN THE HEAD by Judd Apatow. 

Have some fiction to get to soon. 

Also working on revisions for my new book, but it's not going very smoothly right now. More on that later.