Friday, June 20, 2014

Excerpt from The Darkest Place: A Surviving the Dead Novel

THE CAR WAS a 1998 Honda Accord.

Price: $2500.00. Odometer reading: 98, 319.

I could not have cared less about the mileage. After five summers at the Lazy J Ranch, and weekends mowing lawns around the neighborhood, and afternoons swapping bullet riddled paper targets at Black Wolf Tactical for five bucks an hour, it was mine. And any excuse to go for a ride was fine by me—a fact Lauren had no qualms about taking advantage of.

Caleb, could you run to the grocery store and pick up some milk?


Would you mind taking this package to the post office for me?

Not a problem.

Your dad forgot his lunch. Could you take it to him, please?

Be glad to.

I don’t think I ever said no. The day it happened, I wished I had. But not for me.

For Lauren.

It was early in the afternoon on a warm, pleasant Tuesday in May. She had sent me to the dry cleaners to pick up the dress she had worn to her friend Nancy’s baby shower. Mary Sue Lewellen, who my stepmother liked not at all, had spilled a glass of pinot noir on her cream-colored Burberry London. Afterward, there followed the requisite gasp of surprise, and a round of horrified apologies, and graceful forgiving noises on Lauren’s part, and her landing a real stinger when Mary Sue suggested she would buy a replacement.

“Oh no, honey,” Lauren said, smiling sweetly. “I wouldn’t want to put you out. Stan’s tire shop went under last month, didn’t it? Just save that money, sweetie. I’m sure you need it more than I do.”

So I took my time that day. I stopped at a gas station to fill up even though the tank was only a little over half empty. I bought a Slim-Jim and ate it as I cruised down the mostly empty streets. The little Vietnamese lady who owned the dry cleaning business recognized me and we had a short, pleasant chat. I paid with the twenty-dollar bill Lauren gave me, pocketed the change, then carefully hung her dress from a plastic hook above the back seat.

As I neared home, I had a strong feeling something wasn’t right. The front door was shut even though it was only seventy-five degrees that day. When the weather was cool enough, Lauren always opened every window in the house and held the doors open with wooden stops, leaving the screen doors latched to keep bugs out. She loved the scent of a warm spring breeze as it aired out the stuffiness leftover from winter. I tried to remember if I had shut the front door out of habit when I left, and decided no, I hadn’t.

So what was it doing closed?

Rather than slowing down, I kept going, circled the block, and parked on a street parallel to my house. After killing the engine, I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I was being paranoid.

There’s no such thing as paranoid, my father’s voice told me. It never hurts to be extra careful. If something doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t.

I could have credited the closed front door to an absentminded mistake on Lauren’s part, but that didn’t fit her patterns. She was a meticulous, detail-oriented woman. She folded all the towels in the bathrooms exactly the same way, her car went through the carwash every Saturday morning, weather permitting. She never missed an appointment. The spices in the kitchen were stored in identical little tins with magnets on them, stuck to the refrigerator, each one labeled in Lauren’s neat, precise handwriting. Each pair of shoes had assigned parking on the closet rack, her CD collection was in alphabetical order, and she never left a room without turning off the lights. Why would someone like that open every window in the house and then shut the front door by mistake? Why would she walk by and leave it shut if it wasn’t her habit to do so?

The answer was obvious: she wouldn’t.

Something had to be wrong.

I didn’t have a gun or a knife, not even the Gerber pocketknife I usually carried. I pondered my options for a moment, then popped the trunk, lifted the thick piece of cardboard under the upholstery, and took the lug wrench from beneath the spare tire—a heavy, L-shaped hunk of steel about the length of my forearm.

Better than nothing.

I tightened my belt and slid the lug wrench into my waistband. Once I was satisfied it wouldn’t fall out, I got moving.

The thought occurred to me to knock on a neighbor’s door and try to call Dad, but most people in the neighborhood were at school or work at that hour. And even if someone was home, how long would it take to get Dad on the line? What if he was at the range with a class? Even if I told whoever answered the phone it was an emergency, it would take a minimum of twenty minutes before Dad could get home.

Not fast enough.

So I hurried to the Taylors’ house, whose backyard shared a border with ours along a tall wooden privacy fence. There was an entrance on my side of the street, latched, but easily defeated by inserting a thin twig between the slats and lifting. I shut the gate behind me, crouched low, and crept into the Taylors’ yard hoping no one was home.

The backyard was empty except for the Taylors’ patio, a stainless steel grill, and a hammock off to my left. I stayed close to the edge of the fence and crouch-walked to the far side, watching the windows and straining my ears. There was no movement, but I thought I heard a thump in one of the upstairs rooms followed by a muffled shout.

The fence was over six feet tall, with sharp points atop the slats and 2x4 crossbeams between the support posts. I gripped the V between two slats, stepped up on a crossbeam, and leapt as high as I could. My feet cleared the fence as I did a 360 in mid-air and landed in a three-point stance. Looking up, I could see the inner part of the back door was open, but the screen section was latched shut.

Above me, I heard a whimper and the dull thud of flesh striking flesh.

The urge to run into the house was strong, but as it has many times since that day, my training took over. I knew it was stupid to run into a building of any kind when I didn’t know what was waiting for me inside. So I drew the lug wrench from my belt and took position beside the back door. A quick peek around the corner revealed the kitchen was empty, so using flat end of the wrench, I cut a hole in the flimsy screen and carefully undid the latch.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I turned the handle, opened the door, and waited. There were a few more thumping sounds from upstairs, but nothing else.

I stepped inside, lug wrench raised over my shoulder, ready to swing or throw it in an instant. My shoes made almost no sound on the laminate floor as I crossed the kitchen and turned the corner to the living room. Just inside the front door, the foyer table was overturned, the lamp atop it broken on the ground, and several family pictures along the wall had been knocked askew.

On the floor, a blood trail traced across the living room carpet and up the stairs.

Cold rage burned low in my stomach. I stepped back into the kitchen, closed my eyes, and breathed in through my nose, out through my mouth.

In through the nose, out through the mouth.

Think, dammit.

In through the nose, out through the mouth.  

Assessment: There is an intruder in the house, possibly more than one. Assume they are armed. They have Lauren, and she is most likely injured. Secure the house, then immediately call for police and medical assistance.

Dad had stashed firearms in five different places throughout the house. I was guessing Lauren had been attacked and subdued before she could get to one. The closest was a pistol under the kitchen sink, a CZ-75 9mm automatic. I grabbed a bottle of olive oil from the counter, rubbed some of it into the cupboard hinges to keep them from squeaking, and opened the door just enough to reach inside. After a bit of feeling around, my fingers grazed the pistol’s checkered grip. The holster did not have a retaining strap, just a thumb paddle, so I pressed it and drew the weapon. After checking to make sure there was a round in the chamber, I thumbed the safety off and headed for the stairwell.

Ascending stairs is one of the worst tactical situations a person can face. Your enemy has the high ground and multiple angles of attack, whereas the person going up the stairs has a limited range of motion and no cover. The best way to handle it is to keep your weapon up and move quickly, covering as many vectors as you can. 

The carpeted stairs were mercifully quiet. I kept my weight close to the wall to avoid making the steps creak. Once at the top, I checked my corners and crouch-walked toward my parents’ bedroom. The door was shut, but from behind it, I could hear a low moan and a sound like fabric tearing. The rage in my gut soared to a crescendo.

I pressed my ear gently to the door and listened. More sounds of fabric ripping. My stepmothers voice, speech slurred, a plaintive tone.

The lug wrench was still poised over my left shoulder, my right hand holding the gun. There was no way to know how many intruders I was facing or how well they were armed. But what I did know was that Lauren was in there, she was hurt, and I was the only person in a position to do anything about it. Equal parts rage and fear coursed through me as I took a half step back, lunged forward, and slammed a kick just left of the door handle.

The door burst open hard enough to crack the drywall behind it. I stepped into the room and darted my eyes from one side to the other. My parents’ bed was to the left, a dresser and Lauren’s jewelry stand against the wall to my right. Lauren lay flat on the bed, gagged and bound hand and foot with duct tape.

There were two intruders, Caucasian males, one young, maybe early twenties, the other in his mid to late forties. Both wore identical blue polo shirts and tan slacks with dark brown dress shoes—the kind of thing a door-to-door salesman might wear on a temperate spring day. One crouched to my right, rooting through Lauren’s jewelry stand, while the other sat astride Lauren’s hips, ripping away at her blouse. Pale pink fabric lay in tatters on the bed around them, one side of her bra torn away to reveal her small right breast. Both men looked up in almost comical surprise as I entered the room.

Without hesitation, I hurled the lug wrench in a straight overhand toss. By good fortune, the flat end hit the man astride Lauren full in the mouth, causing the lower half of his face to explode in a crimson burst of blood and broken teeth. He let out an inarticulate cry of agony and toppled backward off the bed.

The other man saw the gun and lunged.

It is hard to describe what happens to you in situations like that. The adrenaline rush, the taste of copper on the back of your tongue, the tunnel vision, the way the world goes gray around the edges, the sound of your heart hammering in your ears, the way everything happens in the course of seconds but there are so many details.

I once heard a commercial where a coach exhorted to his team how life was a game of inches. How the small distances—the space between a receivers hand and a football, how close a soccer ball rolls toward the goal line, whether a boxer’s punch connects with his opponent’s chin or empty air—those tiny gaps, or lack thereof, make the difference between victory and defeat.

In mortal combat, they make the difference between life and death.

The intruder crossed the space between us in less than a second, hands outstretched toward my gun. But as fast as his legs propelled him across the room, my trigger finger was faster.

The first shot went low, striking him in the abdomen. I’m not sure if he even felt it, he didn’t make a sound, but by then he was halfway across the room. I raised my aim to avoid his grasping hands and fired again the instant before he hit me. He was shorter than me, but heavier, his weight enough to send both of us tumbling into the hallway. I had the presence of mind hook my instep under his thigh as we went down, and by rolling with the fall and thrusting with my arms and legs, I flipped his body up and over me. He landed flat on the floor, the air whooshing out of his lungs.

I twisted on the ground, brought my gun to bear, and fired twice into his chest at point blank range. In the fraction of a second it took me to fire, I realized I was wasting ammo—there was a neat nine-millimeter hole in his forehead.

The hollow point slug had mushroomed upon impact and excavated a fist-sized chunk of brain and skull from the back of his head. Blood flowed from the wound like water from a faucet, and for a second or two, all I could do was stare in horrid fascination. Then I heard a curse and a thump from the bedroom.

Wake up! You’re not out of danger.

Just as I rolled flat on my back to face the doorway, a gunshot rang out. I could see the other man kneeling on the ground, one hand over his ruined mouth, the other holding a snub-nosed revolver. His shot went wide, smashing one into the drywall to my left and dusting my face with white powder. The floating grit forced me to close one eye.

With my legs pressed flat to the ground to avoid shooting them, I fired four times. The first three shots caught the intruder center of mass, causing him to jerk violently with the impacts. The last one went wide and perforated the wall behind him. His gun fell from nerveless fingers as he slumped over, coughing out a bright spray of blood. Wide, surprised eyes stared at me for an eternity of seconds, then went blank. The intruders face slackened just before I heard his bowels let go.  

Then there was silence.

I lay on the ground, eyes stinging from the drywall dust, my own harsh breath grating in my ears. The three white dots on the CZ’s sights stayed lined up on the intruder’s chest, finger tight on the trigger. I switched the gun to my right hand and used my left to stand up. The intruder’s corpse shuddered a few times as I approached, but soon went still. To my left, I heard Lauren groan.

I ran to her side and looked her over. One eye was badly swollen, and there was a nasty split on her lower lip. But aside from a few scrapes and scratches from where her blouse had been torn away, I couldn’t find any other injuries. Gently, I tapped her on the cheek and said her name. Her eyes rolled, then fluttered, then looked at me and began to focus.


“Yeah, it’s me, Lauren. Are you hurt?”

“My head…” One of her hands gingerly touched the swelling around her left eye. I grabbed it and put it back down at her side.

“How bad is it?”

“One of them…hit me…”

Her eyes aren’t tracking. Concussion. She needs an ambulance.

“Listen, Lauren. How many of them were there? Was it just the two, or were there more?”

“Just two, I think.” Her voice was getting stronger.

“Okay, just stay here. Try not to move, okay? I’ll be right back.”

I did a quick sweep of the house and found no other intruders. Before going back upstairs, I called 911 and explained the situation, requesting police and an ambulance.

“Are the intruders still in the house?” The dispatcher’s voice was female, older sounding, but firm and confident.

“Yes ma’am. Two of them. They’re both dead.”

A pause. “Are you sure?”

“Yes ma’am. One of them took a shot to the head, and the other one took three slugs to the heart. I checked them both for a pulse.”

“Did either one of them have a pulse?”

“No ma’am.”

“And you were the one who shot them?”

“Yes. I already told you that.”

“Do you still have the weapon?”

“Yes. I’m going to unload it and put it on the coffee table in the living room.”

“Okay, I’ll let the responding officers know. Are there any other weapons in the house?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Have you dispatched an ambulance yet?”

“Yes, I have. They’re on the way. Can you stay on the line with me until they get there?”

“How long until they get here?”

“I’m not sure, honey. They’re on the way, though. It shouldn’t be long.”

“I’m going upstairs and staying with my stepmom until they get here.”

“That’s fine, honey, just try not to move her, okay?”

I bit back an irritated retort; I probably had more first responder training than the paramedics answering my call. “Okay,” I said. “I”ll be careful.”

I knelt next to the bed and held Lauren’s hand, trying to keep her talking. Perhaps three minutes later, I heard sirens coming down the street. I went outside, flagged them down, and showed them where to find Lauren. I’ll never forget the look on their faces when they saw the bullet-riddled corpses of the intruders.

“Jesus Christ, kid,” one of them said, a big Hispanic guy. His nametag read Ortez. “You did all this?”

I nodded.

Ortez went to look over Lauren while his partner, a pretty blond woman with brown eyes and strong, useful looking arms, checked the corpses for signs of life. When she finished, she stepped in front of me and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. Despite her outward calm, she positioned her feet like a fighter and there was a touch of wariness in her eyes.

“Can you wait downstairs for the police to get here, please?” she said. “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of your mom.”

I thought about correcting her that Lauren was my stepmother, but decided against it. I simply nodded and went outside to wait.

Sitting there on the front porch, I thought about that hole in the drywall next to my head, and remembered something my dad once told me about marksmanship and ballistics. I think I was maybe eight or nine at the time, and we were eating kabobs at an outdoor picnic table at a bar-b-que place near downtown.

“Here’s something you need to understand about ballistics, son,” he said as he slid the meat and vegetables off a kabob and pointed it at the sky. “Here’s where you are when you’re shooting.” He pointed at the bottom of the kabob. “And here’s the bullet.” His finger touched the tip. “Any little movement on this side here at the bottom translates to a much larger movement here at the end.” He pivoted the kabob from left to right like the striker on a metronome. Looking at it that way, I understood the concept. A fraction of an inch of movement at the bottom of the kabob became several inches of movement at the pointy end.

“See what I’m saying, son?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so. If I move just a little bit when I’m shooting, it doesn’t look like much, but the bullet is going to travel for hundreds of yards. That little movement of the barrel makes a big difference as to where the bullet ends up.”

Dad smiled. “That’s right.”

The guy who shot at me as maybe ten feet away when he pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the wall about ten inches to my left, and to hit at that angle, it must have traveled over and across my face from the right. Judging by where it punctured the wall, I figured it missed me by no more than three inches. If the intruder had aimed the barrel just a bit lower, or had the presence of mind to make a follow up shot, I would be the one dead and not him. And God only knows what would have happened to Lauren.

As the sirens grew louder and my hands began to shake, I remembered that commercial again, the one with the coach giving a speech to his team. The old fellow had it right.

Life really is a game of inches.