Centuries Before Gray Skies...
When Emily heard the first scream, she became concerned.
When she heard the second scream, she grew scared.
When she heard the third scream, she was struck with terror.
But it was what Emily could not hear that frightened her the most.
Originally written as a short story for the anthology, From the Indie Side, the Going Gray novelette is available separately. After publishing, there was more of the story to tell, and soon the novelette grew to include two additional stories:
Into the Dark
Check back later this summer for the completed novel.
READ AN EXCERPT
“Emily… I need you to wake up.”
“Come on now!” a voice cracked.
The warm touch of someone’s hand.
“Huh?” she muttered.
Someone nudged her, squeezing her shoulder until she moved.
“What?” Groggy and disoriented.
“Emily! Girl, it’s an emergency!”
Reluctantly, her eyes swam dully in a sliver of fuzzy dim light. She found the outline of a familiar figure standing over her.
“Come on, Emily. You have to get up. We have to go, now!”
Emily peered over to her bedroom window and tried to focus. The night’s blackness encouraged her to go back to sleep.
“It’s still early… and teens need more sleep, anyway. ’Kay?”
Another shake came then, harder, pulling the sleep out of her.
“What, Mom?” Her voice sounded scratchy, caught in her dry throat. “What is it?”
“We’ve got to go. There’s something wrong… terribly wrong!”
Emily heard the sound of panic and something clicked inside her, some terrible notion. Thoughts of her father immediately came to mind. She searched the darkness, frantic. Something’s happened to him? But before she could ask, her mother yanked back her blanket. Cold air rushed over Emily’s bare legs. Her teeth chattered while she rubbed away the slumber in her eyes.
“Emily, I need you to move!”
“Mom?” she asked. She was awake now, and her voice shook with worry. Her mother stopped and let the blanket fall to the floor.
“Mom, is it Dad? Is Daddy okay?”
“I’m fine, but we have to go!” her father answered. She turned to see his tall silhouette against the light splintering through her bedroom door. “We need to get to the car. I don’t think the house is going to last much longer!”
Another storm? Emily swung her feet over the edge of her bed and stood up. She gripped the carpet, squeezing her toes. As the lure of sleep loosened its hold on her, she shook off the early chill and realized that she needed to pee. Storm or no storm, whatever the emergency, it would have to wait until she was done. Emily glanced at her window again.
“How early is it?”
“Almost morning,” her mother answered, throwing loose clothing onto her bed. “We need to get moving!”
Must be a storm. That would explain everything. It’s an evacuation, she concluded, and recalled the time when she was nine and they had to pack some things and hurry to the big shopping mall for safety.
Somewhere above her bedroom ceiling, Emily heard a crash. The sudden sound made her flinch. She didn’t just hear it, though—she felt it. Then a second crash came, dropping something even harder. She felt it rumble across the floor and into her feet.
“What was that?” she asked.
“Emily, it’s the house!” her father answered sharply, and then continued to shuffle what was in his hands before packing it away. He stopped a moment, and looked at her with firm eyes. “Listen to us, and get moving!”
And that’s when Emily realized what she wasn’t hearing: there was no wind, not even a breeze. Living near the beaches, she was accustomed to hearing the rough surf, especially when a seasonal storm came through. But now, she heard neither the rush of air nor the pounding of the waves: the outside was eerily silent. She should have heard something. What about the morning seabirds?
Two more thumps. But these came from below her window, outside. A neighbor? The sound of a car door creaked open and then closed, followed by the slamming of a trunk lid. A voice came next, escalating to a yell, telling someone that they needed to hurry it up. Another car door opened and then closed. Emily began to understand that whatever was happening, it was happening to everyone; the neighborhood was awake and in motion.
A scream came then, cutting through her bedroom. She jumped. Her mother cupped a hand over her lips while her father’s mouth fell open. The voice had a throaty and raw sound, tortured, and her body went cold as the hairs on her arms sprang to life. She exchanged a frightened glance with her mother and then looked over to her father.
“Daddy, what was that?” The first scared tears pricked her eyes. “Momma, why did someone scream like that?” Her father raised his hand, shushing her, and then waited. For a minute they just stood in her room, listening. Garbled sounds, wet and drowning, came next. The person tried to yell out, but to Emily, the voice sounded marred and deformed. The few words that she could make out were something about not leaving the house—Stay inside!—and then the shouting ended abruptly, punctuated by the crumpled sound of someone falling. Silence followed. Her father’s hand stayed in the air.
“The car never started,” her father whispered, talking to himself more than to her or her mother. “They never made it into the car. So strong and fast. Very fast.”
“What do you mean… fast?” Emily asked. “They could still be alive—we can help them!” But she knew what she’d heard. It was the sound of a body collapsing onto the street outside their home.
“No we can’t,” he answered, his voice subdued and in a near-whisper. He lowered his hand and leveled his eyes. “We can’t help anyone but ourselves now.”
“But they’re right outside!”
“Never mind them, Emily!” Her father spoke with a hard, scolding tone. “Hurry and get your things together!”
Emily bit down on her lower lip, hurt by her father’s stern voice. She rushed past her parents, keeping her head low and her sight fixed on the floor. She said nothing more as she crossed the hall. Another scream came from outside, slowing her step. The sound was thin and distant, but as real as the first. She picked up her feet, as if to run from the screams. Emily closed the bathroom door, trying to shut out the horrid sounds. What nightmare had she awaken to?
Alone, hidden away from the world, Emily began to cry. The toilet seat was cold, but she hardly noticed it. She heard a volley of sharp words. Emily cupped an ear, trying to make out what her parents were saying. Another set of screams crept under the door—loud enough to momentarily interrupt their chatter. When it became quiet again, her mother started to yell.
“Did you do this?” she hollered. Her voice was loud and shaking. “Tell me you didn’t do this, please! TELL ME, PHIL!”
“I don’t know what happened,” he snapped. “None of our models ever showed a reaction like this. Conditions are incorrect… it’s got to be wrong!”
“Incorrect! Wrong?” Emily’s mother shouted back sarcastically. “People are dying, Phil! Don’t you hear them? Did your precious machines do this?”
“I’m going to fix this,” her father stated flatly, resigned. Emotion was absent from his voice. “I can fix this.”
Her mother’s crying slowed, her hushed sobs moved past the bathroom. Two quick knocks rapped against the door, pulling Emily’s head up.
“Hurry it up, Emily. No time for anything else. Okay?”
“In a minute!”
The bathroom lights flickered, and the electricity shut off. Blackness swallowed everything, and Emily’s breathing became still. A moment later the lights blinked once, flickered back on. The lights sometimes did that when a hurricane blew through their small coastal town. But this wasn’t like any storm they’d been through before.
Emily breathed again, catching the first bitter taste of salt. Unlike the ocean breeze she’d grown up with, the briny taste was strong and chemical.
“Daddy, the lights!”
“Power is going to go out soon… we’re losing the substation.”
“I know, Hon. We all are, Emily. Hurry it up now,” he answered. The electricity popped, sounding a crisp break this time, shutting off all the lights. The blackness came again, forcing her eyes wide. She found a thin rail of light stretching beneath the bathroom door. A shuffle of shadow feet passed by. The quick pace and short steps told her it was her mother. Her father followed behind, continuing the argument from earlier. They were on the stairs next, moving down to the foyer.
Her world became silent. The outside. Her parents. She welcomed the quiet, but thought of the dead body. Or was it bodies? The dead make no sounds. Her throat tightened, her stomach cramped. The taste of heavy salt returned, and Emily had a sudden urge to heave. She coughed out the burn until stars were in her eyes, zipping around in a swirly dance. And at some point, her arms and legs had become itchy. Whatever was causing the screams outside had started to seep through the walls. Her father was right, the house wasn’t going to last. Emily wiped herself, dropped the tissue, and pulled up her panties. Her nightie fell over her itching legs as she rushed out of the bathroom.
Back in her bedroom, the sun had finally started to show. But it was different—off. The colors washed out. With the sunrise, a gray world was revealed to her. Heavy fog crowded her window, hiding what was outside. The entire world reduced to a square of roiling gray.
If only it blocked out the sounds, too. It seemed that as the gray light grew stronger, more people were venturing outside. Emily heard doors, an occasional scream. A car horn blasting across the street. Terse yells from a woman to her family. And as before, the loud voices soon became tortured screams. And ended with the sound of a body falling.
She tried to cover her ears, to close off all the sounds. Her eyes began to burn, watering more than just emotional tears. And the itch on her skin was starting to burrow underneath, becoming painful. She wondered if their house was simply going to melt, and then wondered how long before they’d melt, too.
This is just temporary, she told herself as she dressed.
Soon Emily was gripping the stairwell railing for the last time in her life. As she neared the bottom steps, the notion of saying goodbye to her room crossed her mind. It was silly, and maybe a little sentimental, but for a sixteen-year-old, sentimental was sometimes everything. Her parents’ voices—and another scream—kept her moving forward. But she’d become clumsy, missing the last step, and fell hard onto the foyer’s wood floors. Immediately, blood rushed to her ankle, making it feel warm and swollen.
“Mom!” she began, but stopped when she saw her mother’s body lying on the floor. Emily’s heart leaped into her throat. Had the poison—or whatever it was—killed her? Her mother’s face was hidden beneath her hands, but then Emily saw that her shoulders were shaking with a run of sobs.
Emily’s father was at her mother’s side, his face tight as he tried to remain composed. “Barbara, I’m going to fix this,” he insisted, wiping away a string of spittle from his chin. “I promise!”
More tortured screams. But the sound was louder this time, and seemed just outside. Emily stepped to the front door and heard a woman’s voice. Her heart beat harder as she leaned in closer.
“I’m dying… Please help me, I’m dying,” the woman rasped. Her voice had the same throaty, pained quality as the others. But Emily knew this voice—Ms. Quigly, she was sure of it. Ms. Quigly must have come from next door, making it across the lawn and to their front stoop. She’d probably gone outside for her cat and gotten caught up in the fog. The poison had her now. At once Emily’s mother jumped up, her hands reaching for the door. But her father rushed by, pushing Emily out of the way.
“Don’t you open that door!” he screamed. “It isn’t safe!”
“We have to help,” her mother pleaded. Emily pushed between them and took hold of the cold handle. What difference would it make? She’d open the door for just a moment—just long enough for Ms. Quigly to get inside. Not since she was three or four could she ever recall feeling a disciplinary hand, yet before she could turn the knob, a sharp sting struck the top of her hand. She pulled back and darted a hurt-filled look at her father. A crazy mix of fear and alarm in his expression made her back away.
“She’s already dead,” he told the both of them. “Ms. Quigly died before she reached our door. She just doesn’t know it yet.” Emily watched as her parents clung to one another, waiting. Her mother flinched when Ms. Quigly called to them again. They all flinched when the scratchy sound of fingernails ran the length of their front door. Fear and shame pressed on Emily’s chest, making it hard to breathe. When the sound of Ms. Quigly’s body fell against the door, she knew their neighbor was dead.
“I hate you for this,” Emily’s mother said, leaving for the kitchen. Her father’s head slumped and he pushed his hands over his face. Seeing him like that scared her. Emily pawed at her arms, and saw the first visible signs of what the poison was doing. Blotchy red patches had formed, some of them rising in watery blisters. She instinctively reached for her face, but found nothing. At once, the urge to leave became overpowering. It wouldn’t be long before Death’s poison breath took their home. They needed the security of a solid building; something more than just flimsy walls. What was done, was done. She loved Ms. Quigly, but dead is dead—you can’t fix that.
“Dad, we’re running out of time,” she told him. “Tell us what to do!” He lifted his head, and his eyes grew wide when he saw her arms.
“Emily, girl, let me see,” he answered, lifting her hand. “You’re so much more fairer than we are. You have to cover up more. Long sleeves—cover everything.” He looked at his own arms, which were clear of any welts. He ran his hand along the side of her long red hair, then leaned in, kissing her atop the head.
“I think I can even taste what’s out there. Can you?” Emily asked. He let out a phlegmy cough, and nodded.
“It’s the salt.” His tone was settled, but his face wandered, searching for her mother.
He started to speak, but then stopped. She could sense his uncertainty. “The salt in the ocean. We’re using it. But it was supposed to save us.” He turned away, glancing to the front window. A curtain of rolling mist pushed against the glass, sliding over the surface like heavy smoke. “But this isn’t right. The weight is pulling the clouds down, and changing them.”
“How long?” Emily asked. “How long do we have?” Her father closed his eyes. His lips danced without a sound. He was thinking. Calculating. It’s how he worked. She liked to tease him about it sometimes, but didn’t feel the urge to do so now. He shook his head, and the cramped expression from earlier returned.
“I’ve got to stop it!” he blurted, and then pulled her into his arms. “I’ve got to get to the machine and stop this!”
“What’s going on?” a small voice chirped from behind them. “Daddy, I’m itchy in my eyeballs and inside my mouth—yuk.” They turned to see Emily’s little brother, bleary-eyed, his security blanket hanging from one hand, dragging behind him. Emily knelt, running her fingers up the long sleeve of his pajamas to check his arms. No welts. Her brother had the same dark complexion as their father and mother. For now, she was the only one showing any signs of burning. But if they didn’t move, that’d change soon.
“Justin, listen to me.” Her father’s knee popped as he knelt down, spurring a giggle from the little boy. “I have to go to work today, and while I’m gone, you need to listen to your mother and sister. Understand?” Justin swiped at the salty sting on his skin, but gave his father a firm nod.
“But I… I always listen,” he answered, jumping into his father’s arms. “Daddy, I heard something. I don’t know, but I think I heard something bad.”
“Don’t you worry about what you heard. Don’t you listen to anything except for what your mom and sister tell you. Can you run upstairs and get dressed for me?”
Justin’s feet were moving before they hit the floor. The scratchy sound of footed pajamas skidded away from them, thumped up the stairs.
“Is Justin getting ready?” her mother asked. Her face had been wiped clean of tearstains, but her eyes stayed puffy and red. “I’ve packed all the food and water that we can carry. The batteries, radio and the flashlight are in the car too. How safe is the car?”
“The cars will last longer than the house,” he answered. “You went into the garage? How is it?”
“Stronger. I can smell it,” her mother said, shaking her head. “I can feel a bit of burn, too. But I think it’s safe.”
“Good… good, I can probably open the garage a minute and then close it.” Emily considered what her father said.
“But why would we do that?” she asked. “We won’t be coming back. Will we?” Her father didn’t answer. Instead he was counting again, his lips bumping up and down over numbers she couldn’t hear.
“I think we can time this,” he said to himself. “And I’ve already got stuff in my car, too.”
“Wait Phil! We’re going together,” her mother exclaimed. Emily watched her mother fold her arms and straighten her back, objecting to what he had planned. But her father only shook his head, resolute.
They all jumped when an explosion rumbled overhead, shaking their house. She heard something fall, crashing onto their roof, and pieces of ceiling fell behind her. But it wasn’t the roof. Like before, the sound had come from inside. It was their entire home, quickly succumbing to the outside air like Ms. Quigly had.
“So fast,” her father mumbled. His eyes stayed on the ceiling as if waiting for it squash them. Instinct brought his arms up to protect his family. “House isn’t going to last as long as I’d hoped. No stone or brick.”
“What does that mean?” Emily asked, as cracking and breaking sounds thundered through their home.
“Rafters are coming apart… not long before the roof collapses.” His answer was clinical, like some morbid diagnosis, and she felt hurt that he could sound so callous about their home. He looked at their faces and shook his head. “We’re out of time.”
“But you’re going with us!” her mother implored.
“I’m going to take my car. You take the kids in your car,” he started to say. But her mother was already shaking her head, disagreeing. Her father stepped forward and placed his hands on her arms. “Listen to me. Listen to me, Barbara. You need to be strong today.” He nodded his head encouragingly. “Get to the mall, like we did during the last hurricane. The building is safer than anything else around here.”
He’s not going with us? Emily became confused and scared by her parents’ exchange.
“But how safe is the machine?” she asked, suddenly realizing the danger. And when she saw her father’s expression change, a deep terrible intuition struck her. Her lips began to tremble and she grabbed her father’s arm. “Daddy, no! Don’t go. You have to come with us!”
He looked to her then, a desperate fear in his eyes. His lips were pressed firm, thinning until the color in them was gone, matching the gray that had taken their world.
“I have to stop the reactor before it’s too late.”
“How much time?” her mother asked. “How much time before it won’t make a difference what you try to do?” He pinched the bridge of his nose, and his lips began to move again. Counting. Revising.
“An hour… maybe two at most,” he answered. “But I have to get inside. I have to flood it with seawater.”
“But if you’re inside?” Emily started to ask, and felt the first tears before he could answer. Her father took hold of his daughter, his wife, pulling them both into his arms. Emily dug her fingers into his shirt, holding onto him, knowing he might not make it back.
“I’m going to make this right!” he said, and then was suddenly gone, leaving them alone.