Refuge

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CHAPTER 22 – Safe Haven

PETALUMA

FRIDAY

Like burglars and thieves, they moved through the house to the kitchen and pantry, the richness of their surroundings lost in the shadows cast by un-drawn drapes and fears that peopled those shadows with monsters.

They found worthwhile amounts of cans and packages of food, which they divided into pillow-case parcels each one could carry. While these tasks occupied the others, Jason searched through the huge house for survivors perhaps too terrified to come out of hiding, but the house was empty.

When they had gathered by the back door before venturing back outside, Adam peered out each window into the back yard and adjoining areas. Finally, reasonably assured that they would not be set upon as they emerged, he nodded that they could go.

Nate was the first out and held the spring-loaded door open for the others before easing it closed with his now bandaged hand. Still, he left a faint smear of red where he touched.

Adam led them through the sheltered back yards to emerge on the other side of the block. After checking the open space before them, Adam led them across the street and through the yards of the next block, and the next.

They traversed ribbons of devastation, and areas that appeared almost untouched. The demarcation lines were often sharp between the two worlds, but as often the boundaries were gradual. The spreading fires had made better headway in the hilly areas to the northwest where the licking flames from one house could easily reach the next. It was toward those blackened hills that Adam led the group.

Their course passed through the western edge of the downtown business district with its higher concentration of burned and wrecked cars along shattered storefronts. Bodies littered the streets and sidewalks, difficult to ignore with the clouds of buzzing flies hovering about them. The stench of corpses ripening under the July sun was almost overpowering.

Erin and Nate joined Jason who had stopped on the sidewalk and started back across the street before Adam motioned for him to wait there. Jason didn’t like it, but he relented. With his stomach twisting in knots, from afar, he watched Emmie kneel and tie a flopping shoelace she had tripped with twice as Adam hovered beside her, scanning about for danger.

Eerie silence bracketed frequent but distant gunfire, and, occasionally, not so distant. It occurred to Jason as they crept along that even on the quietest night, in the wee hours of the morning, even if not one person or car was on the street, the town, had never felt truly dead before. Not like now. No longer would the shops in the old buildings with the iron sculpted fronts echo with the excited voices of shoppers in the weeks before Christmas. Never again would be heard the love-spoiled children crying for an ice cream or a must-have new toy before heading home with patient parents. Gone forever was the music wafting out on a warm, summer evening from the open doors of crowded bars on a Friday or Saturday night. Never before had Jason considered that a town could die as dead as a man, or that its ghost might linger.

The hard muscles in Adam’s right arm bulged as his hand suddenly and without warning clamped onto the back of Emmie’s pants at the waistband, her slight body tilting forward like a doll’s as he lifted her. His left arm snaked around her front to stop her from pitching forward. Her long hair streamed over her face, and her arms flailed about.

“Shh, quiet!” Adam urged in a hoarse whisper before she had a chance to make a sound beyond an initial, “Eeep!”.

He clenched her tightly across his chest as he sprinted across the street. Even before he reached the others, he signaled with frantic hand movements to intensify coarsely whispered orders, “Quick! Get around the corner!”

Once behind the shielding brick wall, Adam set Emmie on her feet and into Erin’s outstretched arms, then spun to join Jason who had stopped to peek back around the corner and down the street they had just crossed.

“What is it?” Jason whispered. “Where?” He glimpsed down the street towards the heart of town then drew his head back again. “I don’t see anything.”

“Maybe it went in somewhere.” Adam edged just far enough around the corner for one eye to view most of the street. Jason dropped to his knees and held a like position just below Adam.

“There!” Adam whispered. “Across the street—that doorway past the blue front.”

Fascinated, Jason watched the almost-man-shaped thing stalk along the sidewalk half a block away from one recessed doorway to the next. It moved with a fluid, bird-like gait. It carried a stick-like object, gripping it with one hand about a third of its length from one end.

The thing was methodical in its search, stopping at each door and window...gazing inside...probing with its eyes, and any other senses it possessed, into the sooty shadows. Listening for telltale signs of life, then moving on to the next...peering about...glancing at the shadowy doorways across the street...and so it progressed.

About half way between their end of the block and the skulking alien, a man crept from a doorway recess as the being’s attention focused on the interior of the store behind the doorway recess it had just stepped into. He timed his moves to coincide with the alien’s, and in this way managed to stay far enough ahead to be concealed from his hunter when he slipped into the next doorway.

But the man’s ingenuity was about to be countered by sheer misfortune. He had just slipped into the last unblocked doorway before the corner at least fifty feet away. He would never be able to get to the corner before the alien finished its quick, visual inspection of the last store and returned its attention to the street. As soon as the creature finished its current inspection and came back out onto the sidewalk, the man would have no chance to move out of his hole without being seen. The stalk would be ended.

The man apparently chose to not be caught trapped inside his hole. With the suddenness of a quail flushed from cover, he broke into a fast sprint, hunched over and pumping his legs in panicky desperation.

The alien spun back onto the sidewalk at the sound. A thin, violet line lanced soundlessly from the tip of its weapon. It was a snap shot, though, and it missed the running man by several feet. It fired again, more carefully pointed, but still not aimed. The man ran in a zigzagging course, and it missed again.

“He’ll bring it this way!” Adam growled. “Quick, inside here!”

The building on the corner from which they had watched the silent drama was a two-story parking garage with a single drive-in portal at the far end half a block away. But just ten feet from their corner was a man-door.

Despite large windows all along the frontage with many of the panes broken out, the interior was dim. The place was over half filled with cars, but no people were in sight. Suspended smoke and dust lit by the glow of sunlight through the smoke-crusted windows gave the place a hushed, eerie feel. They sprinted to the north end and up the curving ramp to the upper floor, then half way to the opposite end where they ducked behind a van, crouched in the half-light and waited.

A soft thump downstairs…silence.

A scrape of something hard over a rough surface…silence.

The walls echoed the sudden ringing of hard metal—like the sound made by a large wrench or a tire iron thrown and bouncing hard across a concrete floor.

Running footsteps.

No longer muffled by distance and the barrier of the floor between them, the running feet clicked on the concrete floor of the upper floor, echoing from the top of the ramp…getting louder…getting closer. Just before reaching the van, they stopped.

Silence.

Each terrified member of the group suddenly spun to face Emmie. Her wide eyes peered back at each one, finally, beseechingly into her father’s eyes as she cupped her hand tightly over her mouth. Her convulsing diaphragm made another jerk, and a faint, nasal “eep” squeaked out from between her white fingers.

Erin reacted first. She pulled Emmie toward her and held her head to her breast, muffling the hiccups.

Adam chanced a quick peek around the corner of the van to see if it was already too late.

Nate picked up a two-foot long piece of angle iron from the floor, apparently dropped there with other debris when a laser strike had blasted a hole the building’s roof directly above the van. He hefted it in one hand while gripping his Renaissance dagger in the other.

Jason inched forward on his belly to just behind the rear tire of the van where he could see out into the open space of the garage.

The man he had last seen darting up the street now crouched behind the last vehicle, a big Suburban, parked across the center aisle and almost straight across from the van, but not quite. Unless he, or the hunter, continued another eight or ten feet past the Suburban, the space created behind the van parked at a slight angle to the wall would not be in view.

On his knees, the man had curled himself as much into a ball as he could manage. Except for his shoulders heaving from breathing, he remained immobile.

Jason glimpsed movement at the top of the ramp.

A figure emerged from the shadows of the half-spiral ramp. It stepped into the bright spot of sunlight from the first of the upper windows on that side of the building. Slowly and deliberately, the hunter advanced down the center between the lines of cars parked along both walls. Stalking towards the south end of the huge room, it pivoted its head from side to side, probing behind each parked vehicle.

Jason shot a look into the tight space between the corner of the van and the wall. It would be tight, but everyone might be able to fit through—one at a time. Could they all get through and out of sight in time before the alien drew abreast of the van if it did advance that far? If it spotted even one, they were all doomed.

Emmie’s shoulders shook briefly as her stomach lurched again, but no sound emitted. Erin’s hand gently stroked the girl’s back. Her own face was blanched with the terror tightening the skin around her eyes, drawing the lids making it difficult even to blink.

Jason edged backwards an inch or two, enough to maintain all but one eye behind the cover of the van. He watched the alien draw ever closer. The tip of its weapon swayed back and forth as it checked each possible place of concealment, even glancing inside the larger vehicles.

At last, inevitably, it reached a position from which it could see behind the Suburban, and it stopped.

Whether some sixth sense told the man that strange eyes peered at the top of his bowed head or simply a cramped muscle that demanded he tilt his head back, his head lifted.

Firing from a position midway between the alien’s hip and its shoulder, the featureless weapon shot the man full in the face. The violet light blinked silently, and the man sprawled forward without making a sound onto the cold concrete. A faint sweet odor of charred meat slowly wafted across open room.

The alien stepped forward to stand over the man’s body for a few seconds, and then it rolled the corpse onto its back and ripped open the sweat-stained shirt to expose the fleshy chest. Using a small instrument that it removed from a pouch, it appeared to remove a strip of flesh from the body. It stashed the tool and sampling, turned, and walked back to the ramp and down out of sight.

Jason glanced back at Adam who answered his silent query with shrugged shoulders.

After long minutes of fearful waiting, it appeared they had lucked out.

Stepping softly, they approached the corpse. Jason, Adam and Nate gathered around it, but Erin held back near the center aisle with Emmie.

Jason pulled back the edges of the torn shirt and examined the man’s mutilated chest. It was as it had appeared from behind the van; a narrow strip of hide down to the exposed layer of fat had been removed. The flayed strip was about an inch wide, and it extended across the chest to include both nipples.

“Oh, Lord! What in the world...” Nate mumbled.

“Good God!” Adam whispered. “Battle trophy? Like taking a scalp?”

“Who knows?” Jason responded. “Maybe it was hungry.”

“Oh, Christ! Jason!” Erin whispered hoarsely.

“It could be anything. We may never know.” Jason said as he glanced at the cauterized wound between the man’s eyes. He didn’t have to check the back of the head to confirm the killing beam had gone clear through; he had caught a glimpse of the violet flicker behind the man.

They all stood up when Adam said, “That thing’s had enough time to leave the area. Let’s get the hell out of here. I don’t want to go through that again if another one comes in.”

But when they ventured back down to the street level they found two aliens standing near the end of the block in the direction they wanted to go.

Motioning with hand signals, Adam led the group back through the garage to the door they had entered. They ducked out and dashed around the corner and across the street to temporary cover in the same, last doorway the man had found.

Adam put his shoulder to the closed door and pushed it open. The interior, a shoe-repair shop, was cool and dark. They listened for other occupants, human or otherwise, but they were alone.

They threaded their way back through stocked shelves to the back door, slipped out, and once again, began working their way around in a wide circle, through alleys, between buildings, across back yards, and any way they could to reach their goal.

Once they started up the slopes north of Washington Street, they had a better view of the destruction a good portion of Petaluma had sustained. Jason peered out over the flatter land of the downtown area and much of the rest of the town. Most of the buildings that marked the heart of town had sustained partial to total destruction, and many still stood as shells. To the left, he recognized the skeletal remains of a feed mill. Petaluma supported four other mills, but they were smaller and would more easily blend with their surroundings. This mill was, by far, the tallest structure in town. Rising near the east bank of the small river that bisected the town, it was a recognizable landmark with its multiple storage silos reaching a couple of hundred feet into the sky. Now it was nothing but twisted girders sagging out of shape and still spewing smoke from the store of contents that could smolder for weeks. It could have been one of the first targets that attracted the invaders who, not familiar with its actual use, may well have mistaken it for some powerful machine of war.

The staccato of distant gunfire—a sadly inadequate resistance to the invasion—sounded like popcorn in a microwave oven after the process slows to a last few sporadic pops.

Jason thought of the thousands of people that had lived there until Wednesday morning. True, it was an insignificant number when compared to the millions—no, billions—that must have perished around the world. But, to him, they were more real. The people that lived in Petaluma were more to him than just numbers—more than mere statistics. They were real people with real families and real homes that had burned down around them. He had come to know some of them personally and some professionally in the short time he and Emmie had lived here, and more than a few had become friends.

The sense of confusion, fear, outrage, and awe seemed to coalesce around a terrible feeling of loss that chilled his heart. His stomach began to sour. Into his mind roared, It’s real, Beth! It’s real!

“Dad?” Emmie touched Jason’s elbow and brought him back to the task at hand. “Daddy, are you okay?”

He gazed into her face and saw the resurgence of fear that she had been trying so hard to suppress. He looked up at the small group of new friends that had stopped to wait for him a few feet farther up the hill. He put his arm around Emmie’s shoulders and walked her up to join the others. He didn’t even try to smile.

After a circuitous route through the hilly neighborhoods northwest of downtown—just to make sure no aliens followed them—Adam and the new arrivals ended up at a big Victorian house dominating a wrought iron-fenced corner only a couple of blocks from downtown. Adam took them straight to the kitchen where they deposited their loads of cans and boxes.

A tall, elderly man stepped forward and held out his hand. “Welcome to my home. I’m Thomas Woodall.” Jason looked up into cool, gray eyes deep-set in a long, angular face topped by a full head of pure white hair. His long, reedy body stood erect, even though exhaustion showed in every movement of his sagging limbs. A smile softened the cadaverous lines around his aged eyes as he continued, “I can’t offer much, but you are welcome to what we have.”

A second man stepped forward and said, “Hi, I’m Charlie. The Judge here just goes by Judge.” he said, nodding toward the taller man. “You’re that new cop in town, ain’t you? Jason Wolfe, I think I heard someone say.”

Before Jason could react to another possible challenging situation, Adam spoke up. “Yes, he is, Charlie. We’re lucky I found him. His skills could be useful.”

“Yep, sure could.” Charlie nodded as he turned to resume putting boxes onto a shelf.

“Charlie, really!” said The Judge. “I apologize, Officer Wolfe. Although I retired from the bench a couple of years ago—five actually—Charlie refuses to let me forget it.”

“Well, that was before my time, your honor, but I’m with Charlie; a judgeship is something that stays with you, retired or not.”

Charlie turned his head just enough to catch Jason’s eye. He smiled and nodded with a wink before turning back to his work.

“But,” Jason continued, “I don’t think the title of Officer still applies in my case. Just call me Jason.”

With a tired smile and a welcoming hand on the shoulder, The Judge said, “If only names and titles were our only concern.”

While they ate sandwiches, Adam filled them in more on how the invasion had gone in Petaluma, different areas that had burned and some that had not.

Jason interrupted with, “Do you know the Cypress Gardens apartments on Seventh Street? Emmie and I live there.”

Adam nodded his head slowly with the hint of a pained grimace before responding. “Yeah, I know those apartments. Dated a young lady that lived there. I checked by there while I was out today. Nothing but a shell.”

A soft, “Oh. I’m very sorry,” was all Jason could say.

After a few awkward moments with no one speaking, Adam returned to the subject of the invaders. “I can’t really tell you much of anything about them. They’re all over town, but I doubt if very many people have been able to get a long, close look at them and got away alive. I’d say the encounter we had in the garage was about as close as anyone has managed to survive. They haven’t come up here into this area yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they work their way into the hills. At this point, we can probably do nothing more than try to keep a watch out for them and try to get out the back way when it happens.”

When Adam noticed the audience increasing, he said, “Jason, I’m sure everyone would like to hear what you can tell us about San Francisco and other places.”

Most of the house’s occupants were already in the kitchen, but others drifted in from other rooms, eager to hear any news from the outside, hoping, as Adam had, that rescue was imminent. They sat in rapt fascination during Jason’s narration. He described his and Emmie’s experiences since Wednesday morning, from the appearance of the huge ship to the destruction of the bay area cities and concluded with the flight with Nate and Erin from Muir Beach. When the tale ended with the crash into the tree several blocks away, his listeners stood for several moments without speaking, digesting the many fantastic events, and coming to terms with the idea that help was not going to come...ever.

Finally, one of the older ladies, Claire Flores, stood up and said, “Well, if you’ve all been on the go since yesterday morning, you must be exhausted. Judge, why don’t you let them get a few hours rest?”

“You’re right, Missus Flores,” said The Judge. “We’ve all gone through hell. We haven’t been doing much here, though, except trying to stay out of sight. Charlie, why don’t you show them upstairs? I can’t guarantee you won’t be interrupted, but I can promise you won’t be trapped up there with no warning.”

The four settled down onto some mattresses on the floor in one of the second-floor rooms. Jason hadn’t realized just how weary he was until the offer was made. He was fast asleep within minutes. His only disturbance came from his own churning mind that could not blank out the horrors of the last fifty-odd hours.

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