For those of you have read Books One, Two and Three of the Oz Chronicles, Book Four is coming. I’ve decided to post
excerpts until such time the print version is available.
You will also find the first three chapters of Land of the Dead in the paperback edition of Lost Days.
I am responsible for the end of the world. Well, me and every other jerk like me who tortured the Storytellers. Only they weren’t Storytellers then. They were… different than us, slow, dumb, retarded. We didn’t think they deserved to be treated like human beings so we treated them like something less than human. But we were the ones being less than human. We ridiculed them and shamed them until all they saw was a world with monsters. They wrote stories about those monsters. Drew pictures. Created comic books. Eventually the monsters crawled out of the comic books and drawings and destroyed the world.
It doesn’t seem real. How could it be? Monsters, Storytellers… It can’t be, can it? Even though I live it every day, it’s hard for me to believe it. Some Doctor… Psychiatrist I think, taught the Storytellers to think things to life. He called it Hyper Mental Imaging. That’s how all this happened. Some shrink, Dr. Bashir caused all this. He is responsible…
No. I am responsible for the end of the world.
I sat in a rusted metal folding chair under the shabby awning of an abandon BP convenient store. My muscles ached. My feet throbbed. My hands cramped from my constant nervous habit of clenching and relaxing my fists. All of this was background noise to me in my head. I was only faintly aware of it. My focus was on my parents.
I missed them. I had not seen them in… I had no recollection of how much time had passed since I last saw them. It was in Atlanta… Délon City. In the Georgia Dome… No, wait. I couldn’t count that time. They weren’t them. Not exactly. They were… in transition. My father more so than my mother, but neither of them was human… more Délon than human.
The last time I really saw them. When they were human, and the sky was blue and there were no purple freaks or Takers or… pick your hellish monster. The last time was in Tullahoma. I was sick in bed with mono. I was so hot I was cold. I remember their worried faces. My mother stroked my forehead and cried. My dad rubbed his stubbly chin with his callused hand. This meant he was scared. My mother had told me this once when I was younger, six maybe. He had just gotten the news that his mother had passed away. He hung up the phone and stared at the wall, rubbing his chin just as he was the last time I saw him.
“He’s scared,” my mother said. She sat me in her lap and allowed me to watch my father from afar. For some reason it was important for me to see him at that moment. It was new to me. I had never seen him like that before. It concerned me, and yet fascinated me. “It’s okay, Oz. Scared is good. Scared means we’re confused. And we find confused right before we get to where we need to be. Do you know where that is, Oz? Where we need to be?”
I shook my head.
“Understanding,” she said. “We all need to understand. So you let your Pop be scared. He’s just trying to understand.”
It meant nothing to me at the time, but sitting in the unsteady chair, with black continents of clouds creeping overhead, and watching a Twix candy wrapper dance in a whirling stale wind across the cracked pavement of the BP station, I knew exactly what she meant. Only I wasn’t sure there was ever a time I was going to understand what was happening to me, to my friends, my world. I felt perpetually confused. There couldn’t possibly be any good in that.
I groaned as I repositioned myself in the chair. I did not think it possible to feel so entirely soar. I lifted my aching arm to rub my stiff neck and caught a glimpse of a girl I barely recognized staring at me from one of the defunct gas pumps. It was Lou, but it wasn’t. I was not used to seeing her like this… she wasn’t a little kid anymore. She was a full-fledged teenager. The wind blew her hair across her face. And suddenly I was struck by the notion that she was… pretty.
She brushed the hair from her face. “You can’t do that again, you know,” she said.
I didn’t answer right away. I was in the middle of trying to decide if I liked her being pretty when she spoke.
“Hey,” she said. “You hear me?”
“Yeah, I heard,” I said breaking eye contact with her. “Don’t know what you’re talking about though.”
“Leave,” she said stepping off the pump Island and strolling closer. “You were gone too long. Things nearly went all to pot. I didn’t like it much… that is to say, we didn’t like it much.”
“I wasn’t that thrilled about it myself.”
“Lost Valerie,” she said. I heard her voice break on the last syllable.
“I know. Wasn’t your fault.”
She took a deep breath and squeaked out, “Kinda was.” Her eyes welled up.
“We lost plenty on my watch,” I said. “Soldiers die in wars.”
“She was just a kid.” She dropped her chin to her chest and shook her head back and forth slowly. “You can’t leave again,” she said almost begging now.
I stood and approached her. “I promise, Lou. I’m never leaving you… all again.”
She sniffed and nodded. “We missed you.”
“Yeah,” I said. I fought the urge to reach out and pat her shoulder.
“Ain’t much in there,” Wes said exiting the building. He cradled a load of mix and match snacks against his protruding belly. “Pretzels, peanuts, cheese and crackers, pork rinds… couple of Twinkies. One of them is mine,” he said.
Gordy appeared from behind him favoring his wounded shoulder. Lou had dressed it, but it would need changing soon. “That’s a surprise. You like Twinkies.”
“Boy,” Wes said. “You been gone all this time and this is how you’re going to start in on me?”
“I’m just saying that’s all.” He took the cheese and crackers and held it up. “Y’all mind if I have this?”
Lou and I shook our heads.
He tore the wrapper with his teeth and hurriedly started to devour the snack.
Ajax lumbered over to us from the corner of the store followed by Kimball. It was good to see my best gorilla and my best dog again. I had forgotten how much I missed them. I took the remaining Twinkie and tossed it to Ajax. He grinned and nodded his massive head in excitement.
Kimball whined. I called him over and tore open the bag of pork rinds. I gave him one of the fried fatty treats, and he crunched it tentatively at first and then quickly assessed that he loved the taste of it. I dumped the rest of them on the pavement. He pounced on the rinds with reckless abandon.
I turned to Lou holding the peanuts in one hand and the pretzels in the other. She snatched the pretzels from me.
“One thing’s for sure,” Wes said. “This ain’t going to be nearly enough to keep up our strength. I feel weak as a kitten.”
Gordy laughed. “Lord, Wes if you don’t want me to make fun of you, you gotta stop saying things like that.”
Wes looked at me. “Can we send him back?”
I smiled and shook my head. “Like it or not we need him.”
“Gee thanks,” Gordy said.
“Got any ideas where we’re headed?” Wes asked.
I popped some peanuts in my mouth. “Playing it by ear.”
“What about Tyrone and April?” Lou asked staring a pretzel.
I searched for the perfect answer. The truth is I didn’t have much hope they were alive. They got separated from the rest of us and were in the middle of a pack of Myrmidons. I didn’t think it mattered much that I sent Ariabod and another gorilla to look for them. They wouldn’t find them. In fact, the gorillas were probably dead too. “Can’t worry about them.” It wasn’t perfect, but it was honest.
“What do you mean?” Wes asked.
“I mean they’re in good hands with Ariabod,” I lied. “He’s a great warrior. They’ll find us no matter where we go.” Ajax confirmed my statement with a nod and grin.
A strong wind whipped through the small parking area. Dust and debris tumbled across the asphalt. I looked down as an old brochure slammed into my leg. I kicked trying to work it free so it could go on its merry way, but it wouldn’t come loose. I bent down and grabbed it with the intention of tossing it aside without another thought. Instead, four letters caught my attention – Bilt. I looked closer at the trifold brochure. Biltmore House. I must have said it out loud because Lou asked me what I said.
I cleared my throat. “Biltmore House, in Ashville. My mom always wanted to go there. Dad promised her we’d go.”
Wes grabbed the brochure from me. “Biltmore, huh? Yeah, I heard of the place. Mansion. Castle, really. Built by the Vanderbilts I think.”
Lou approached, fixated on the photo of the Biltmore House. “It’s beautiful. How far is it from here?”
Wes thought about the question. He surveyed the road in front of the convenience store. “Two days walk, maybe less.”
“Let’s go,” Lou said.
“What?” I said sounding a little indigent. “We don’t have time to sightsee.”
“Really?” she said. “And why not? You said yourself you don’t know where we’re going.”
“Well yeah, but…”
“We need some time to figure it out,” she said. “We might as well figure it out in a pretty place.”
“We have to find the Land of the Dead,” I said.
She snickered. “It’s going to find us. You know that better than anyone.”
She was right. I shrugged my shoulders, and she smiled. It was all the happy she could muster. Visiting a genuine American castle was small consolation when things like castles and America didn’t matter anymore.
I thought about my parents again and realized that it wasn’t just them that were dead. The entire world was dead. Maybe we didn’t have to find the land of the dead. Maybe we were all ready in it.
The sky began to rumble and roar. Flashes of lightning burst over our heads.
“We should sit this out in the store,” Wes said.
No one argued. I was the last one to step inside the convenient store. A torrent of rain fell as soon as I did and beat the metal building relentlessly.
“Bad,” Gordy said.
“Ain’t much good about anything for awhile now,” Wes replied.
I turned to him. There was something in his tone… he was done. Defeated. I didn’t like the sound of it… I hated it. “You’re alive,” I said suppressing a visible display of my anger.
He huffed as if it were the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard.
“What?” I asked stepping toward him.
“Ain’t enough that’s all.”
“What is enough?”
He looked up at the ceiling and absorbed the unnaturally heavy sound of the rain. “A sunny day.” He looked at me. “You know? A real day. A yellow sun. A blue sky. Puffy white clouds.” Without warning he kicked at a rack of pine scented air fresheners. “While you’re at it, I’d like to see my sister, and her good for nothing husband, and Pepper…” He looked at Lou. “And Valerie.”
Lou bit her lip and looked away.
A crack of thunder shook the foundation of the convenient store.
“Stop it, Oz!” Wes roared. The power of his voice sent a heat wave through the tiny store. “Just stop!”
No one spoke for several minutes. We all were trying to understand Wes’ sudden outburst. Even Wes.
Finally he spoke in much softer tones. “I’m tired…”
“We all are,” I said.
“No,” he said, “let me finish. I’m tired of hoping for things that ain’t never going to happen. We gotta stop this foolishness.”
“Foolishness?” I said.
“That’s right, foolishness. We can’t go back.”
I looked at the faces of the others. They were stunned by his words. “Yes, we can.”
“No, we can’t,” Wes said. “We are being hunted down by… monsters.”
“Destroyers,” Gordy corrected him.
“Whatever. They’re in charge. This ain’t our world no more. We need to face that and…”
“Do what?” I asked. “What good will it do for us to just give up?”
“It will keep us off the warpath for one thing,” Wes said.
“No,” Lou said. “It won’t. They’ll keep coming after us. We can’t quit this.”
“That might not be true,” Wes said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The Délons are losing control.”
“So,” I said.
“So I figure they will be fightin’ among themselves soon enough. They won’t have time to fool with us. I say we head up North. Find a nice cold spot to lay low. Let the Destroyer’s wipe each other out.”
“Won’t work,” Lou said. “Oz is the key to finding their source.”
“No, I’m not.”
“They think you are,” Lou said. “That means you are.”
Wes looked at me. He wanted to say something, but he didn’t. He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m just having a bad day. Y’all don’t pay no attention to me.” He walked to the window behind the counter and watched the rain.
I stepped to the opposite end of the store bothered more by what Wes didn’t say than what he said. They were all better off without me.