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First pages

FIRST STRIKE

Sometime in 2028…

INSIDE: The Detainee

Johnny Helks, who’d been sprawled out for a multitude of hours, was fast asleep on cold concrete. Inside the dank cell he so dolefully called home, his living quarters consisted of confining bars and defining scars.

“HOLY! WHAT IN THE…” A massive, life-altering explosion occurred suddenly just outside the prison where Johnny had been toiling away for nearly ten years, promptly jarring him awake with what seemed to be some sort of earthquake. The deafening shock wave shook the penitentiary, rattling all fortified sides of the holding pen as though they were flimsy window drapes.

That loud blast...what was that? And why am I on the floor instead of my bed?

The currently-in-the-dark prisoner’s confusion caused him to create a million and one different scenarios, fluctuating haphazardly until a certain scenario sprung to mind. Mentally jumping to a tragic—and conceivably premature—conclusion based solely on his own conjured fear, the detainee’s mind raced through a gamut of what-ifs and oh-nos.

Maybe some bomb just went off.

Johnny always knew that it was a possibility for a thing like that to occur, but never did he think it was something that could turn into a harsh reality.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. Still don’t know what’s happening here…”

Clearing the cobwebs from his solid stupor, the thirty-nine-year-old was oblivious to what was really going on. Or what he was about to be put up against.

“Hello?”

His scratchy rasp echoed down the lengthy corridor, carrying all the way to the end and back with no reciprocation from anyone.

“Seriously, guys. Answer me! What the hell happened out there??”

The second strike of nothing. Not a single sound. Johnny could’ve heard a pin drop from the prison yard blacktop—if someone were actually there to toss it up in the air. No one answered him. No footsteps. No acknowledgment of any kind or signs of life ascertained.

Just him and only him—quarantined.

Looking down at what was written on his shirt for the first time since awakening added even more confusion to his situation. “Double zeroes?? What is this? Where’s the top of my uniform?” Outfitted in a freshly pressed white tee and the bottom half of his mandatory orange jumpsuit, Johnny was momentarily perplexed as to who would want to switch shirts on him.

Don’t get the numbers thing at all. Double zeroes? What’s the significance?

“Whatever; a shirt’s a shirt, I guess.”

My God, if this is some form of sick joke they’re playing on me because I disgust them…

Shivering and twitching like a sewer rat, the malcontent of a male was definitively stuck in a rut. Trapped with no discernible sounds inside or outside except for the extraordinary explosion that had occurred seconds earlier, he had few options left at his disposal.

There’s one thing I could try to do...but let’s just wait a little bit longer until I’m sure I can…

“Is anybody around? Come on! What was that crash?”

Three strikes of utter silence now. It began to seep deep into Johnny’s psychosis that something was wrong, off. He’d been apprehended years ago for committing two shameful crimes, and although Johnny was used to being the odd man out, this wasn’t the normal type of shunning at play—not in the least.

What if everyone’s dead? What if I’m the only one left? NO; stop jumping to conclusions!

“Well, where is everybody, then?!”

The state prison continued to creak and crack in the background as if it were one giant ghost eerily floating about, haunting the jittery convict with spooks to spare. This wasn’t an elaborate scheme hatched by other mean-spirited cellmates—this was something else entirely.

This has gotta be something messed up; this has gotta be something awful.

“HELLO?!” the terrified man shouted. “ANSWER!!”

Again, no answer to his plea. Just one isolated voice, bouncing around like a ping-pong ball rich with pain and panic. Mulling over the catastrophic alienation for minutes had unexpectedly transitioned into deliberating for hours—a thing that Johnny Helks had grown accustomed to while serving hard time. Drawing blanks inside his head, Johnny finally recalled what his original plan had entailed.

It’s my only shot at getting any answers. I have to do it. No other way around it unless I wanna die in here!

Johnny scrambled over to his bed, retrieving a few rusted tools that he had crafted over several months—with high hopes that the stopgap gadgets could eventually lead him out of the enclosed mess and allow him to find out what was truly happening.

Not gonna get anywhere behind these bars. Never did and never will. I need to see what that blast was!

“Wait a second...” the bewildered man said irritably, as if he were a DMV employee. “Why in the world’s everyone gone? Even if some bomb did pop off, how come there are no inmates around? That doesn’t make any sense. Am I the only one left?” he questioned by his lonesome. “I just don’t understand. WHAT IS GOING ON?? PLEASE...SOMEONE...ANYONE!!”

Once more, his desperate plea was met unceremoniously with nothing at all as Johnny’s bellowing traveled down the penitentiary hallway with the distinct fluidity of a ballerina. With his frightened voice disintegrating, he felt more alone than he had ever felt before.

All right; you win! I’m scared now. You happy, God? Do I deserve this? Am I honestly that horrible? Left here to wither away...left here to suffer...left here to…

His original idea hit him over the head again like some souped-up car in the Daytona 500 smacking a wall. “Hey, I don’t have to die! I can get out...I KNOW I can…”

Just like Clint did in that old movie, Escape from Alcatraz!

Taking his tools and making his way to the one spot he knew he’d spend eons focusing on, Johnny suddenly felt the sprout of a faraway hope being instilled. It reassured him that it’d undoubtedly be worth it, that the reward would pay dividends once he finally broke through...and once he’d finally be able to see the light of day.

CLANK. CLANK. CLANK.

The first laborious thirty minutes were set to a feverish pace, with his hands working at more of a sprint on the track than a walk in the park. An hour elapsed. And then two. Beads of sweat dripped to the concrete floor at steady intervals. Johnny cursed like a sailor whenever the salty moisture entered his eyes, always wiping the pesky perspiration from his reddening canvas of a face with shaky frustration. For the entirety of an arduous stretch, he barely made a dent into the small crevice of his desired escape route. The wall had been modified aesthetically, but it was nowhere near the stage he’d like it to be.

Gotta keep clanging and banging, even if it takes me forever…

CLANK. CLANK. CLANK. CLANK. CLANK. CLANK.

Two hours of strenuous labor became several, quickly transitioning into one full day gone before Johnny Helks even knew what had happened. His hands started to feel like a pair of heavy bricks; his scarred body and mind were ready to give out, just a dehydrated man prepared to lie down and die. Insanely exhausted, he stopped chipping away at his unattainable master plan.

“Guess this is it for me. And what a way to go out: kicking the bucket in prison.”

Without getting an answer to this mystery...

BANG. BANG! BANG!!

Johnny’s dry lips cracked open from the sudden noise down the corridor. “What the hell?”

Once his whisper met the musty air, the trio of strange crashing sounds completely vanished. Utter silence after. Nothing—and no one—seemed to exist alongside Johnny in the big house. Hopelessness filled the dreary atmosphere with the certainty of a suicide hotline operator.

“Should I just throw in the towel? Call it quits? Curl up into a ball and wait for death?”

Well, there’s nothing left to do. I’m finished in here. No water, no food, no chance…

“Might as well get myself up so I can die like a man, though...tuck myself into that cot over yonder. That’ll give the guards an easy job,” Johnny said with a sly grin. “If there are any anymore.”

Willing himself up one overworked joint at a time, the prisoner took a look around the cell in a rare show of calm. Once vertical, spaghetti legs were born. Failing to keep upright for long, Johnny tripped awkwardly over nothing. Reaching out to break the fall instinctively, both of his worn hands grasped the ice-cold steel bars in a desperate attempt to seek support. But the beams surprisingly gave way, flying open and see-sawing back and forth. The cell block door was now unexpectedly ajar, and Johnny Helks could not contain his excitement—nor a growing amusement toward what he had just witnessed.

“I’ll be damned...” he guffawed.

After the tumble forward granted a wonderful discovery of impending freedom, the glint of a metallic object caught his eye, snapping him out of a drawn-out, fascinated trance. Beside the bars that he’d previously thought were enclosing him lay a silver key on the ground, mysteriously available.

Someone unlocked this cell! Why, though? Who in their right mind would allow me to walk right outta here??

“Who cares why it’s happened? I don’t have to be stuck. I don’t have to rot away; I don’t have to live this vapid existence anymore! I’M FREE! I can do whatever the HELL I want!!”

BOOM. BOOM. CRACK. CRACK.

Four sounds came out of nowhere, much louder than his clanks to the cemented surface.

What’s all that?!

“Who’s down there??” Johnny asked shakily.

No answer. Only the sound of a faucet running in the distance.

I didn’t hear that before...not even a drop…

“HELLO?! Stop playing with me!”

His receding echoes ricocheted off the paint-chipped walls.

“Look, the fun and games are over...because I’m coming out of my cell now...so drop these shenanigans and tell me exactly what’s going on here!!”

Met with silence once again, all he could do was sigh. Even the water refrained from cascading out of its faucet. Officially spooked, the fragile-minded prisoner cautiously set foot outside his cell to assess the situation.

AM I DEAD? IS THIS MY OWN VERSION OF HELL?

His thoughts continued to scream inside, yet on the outside, he remained quiet while walking down the corridors in timidness. Every cell checked was empty, yet electricity still ran through the prison as though everything was still running smoothly. But not a single person, dead or alive or comatose, was in any area of the prison. And with each nervous footstep taken, Johnny Helks became more and more frightened of the unknown circling around him.

This can’t be. Everybody can’t really be gone. Can they? Who’s manning the power?! Why’re all these rooms still lit up?

“That ‘splosion shoulda caused a blackout…” Johnny discerned.

As each second passed, the prisoner kept swimming in a sea of possibilities and theories. Yet none of them added up to make a lick of sense. In all the years of his lackluster life, this unexplained phenomenon had taken the cake when it came to outright alienation.

Oddly enough, nothing had been tampered with in any room visited. No matter which floor he meticulously patrolled, each small cell inspected only added to Johnny’s rising confusion. Beds were perfectly tucked in; reading materials were placed neatly by the pillows. It was like everybody had been plucked away, right out of thin air—like a brand-new penitentiary had just been built.

Even smells new around here now…

Surveying the abandoned areas, Johnny pondered a preposterous scenario. “Was everyone snatched up like in that HBO show The Leftovers? And that’s why it smells better? No more musky man-scents to endure? But those sounds...what were they? I can’t be alone, can I?!”

In a fit of rage curated by loneliness, a sweaty Johnny Helks lifted one particularly stained mattress and its metal frame over his head, throwing them down to the floor in ire. When the frame was done rattling about, an unforgiving silence introduced itself once more.

Somebody...anybody...come out and say this is just all a gag...please…

“I can’t be alone in this damn place. Either I’m going crazy or there’s definitely someone in here with me! And I’m thinking I ain’t no loon! I know what I heard. It’s not in my head, you sons of bitches...COME OUT!!”

Nothing yet again. No response to his urgent demand.

Just the echoes of a madman’s bellows.

After some time spent aimlessly slumming around, Johnny accepted his new reality. “All right, everybody. Have a laugh. ‘Cause I’m biting. You got me. I MUST BE THE ONLY ONE LEFT! Just me. JUST JOHNNY! Might as well head on out, then. I’ve already scoured this godforsaken establishment for everything it’s worth, right? After all, I’m pretty much a free man—and the last man, seemingly! Sounds great. I can go outside, be in peace. No gruff guards hovering, no burly prisoners trying to shank me or tattooing my neck! BEAUTIFUL; simply...beautiful.”

More talking, more vital energy wasted. Johnny had exhibited a fierce determination in his vocal capabilities, but he hadn’t a strong enough will embodied within to keep on moving. And if any other person could see him in this brittle state, the writing was on the wall. Delirium and exhaustion had set in snugly. Water began to go through the mind of the dehydrated man as he continued to patrol the drab halls in despair. Rapidly running out of strength to push on, the prisoner’s mindset wasn’t firing on all cylinders.

“I’d suck a dick for an ounce of water right now...” he said tiredly.

Wait a moment. I don’t have to perform fellatio on a fellow! Things are different now. That faucet was running…

“OF COURSE!”

Slightly off-kilter, a nearly broken Johnny Helks remembered an important factoid. Water—that precious giver of life—had been all around him every step of the way. Like traffic in Los Angeles: omnipresent, widespread, everywhere. Whether it be through the dingy sinks or the cafeteria where grizzled employees used to serve each prisoner slabs of slop for sustenance...it made no difference. The world-famous H2O wasn’t hard to find. He just had to go over to the tap. Any tap. Simple as that.

I’m not confined anymore. I now have what I’ve craved for so long.

“I can do this; hell...I can do anything I want...”

First destination: the faucets. Any which one would do, but Johnny arrived at the one that had been streaming just moments prior. Eyeing the dilapidated silver hook as if it were a woman’s breast, he grasped the nozzle with mouth-watering anticipation. Tilting his head to the left, the parched prisoner turned the knob and opened his kisser. However, what instantly met his lips wasn’t a refreshing stream of water, but instead a disgusting cough-up of rusted, discolored liquid.

“Shit!” he yelled, yanking his head out of the sink. “No clean tap water, even??”

Just check more; check ‘em all, check every single one! This doesn’t mean anything.

After coming to find that another five faucets weren’t working, Johnny lacked the motivation to continue plodding along—and the energy for it, more importantly. The scarcity of drinkable water was a buzzkill, and his valuable energy was dwindling by the second.

I’m going to lose my mind.

Rather quickly, things spiraled downward. The mentally pummeled male began to physically let loose. Several tumultuous years of holed-in frustration and pent-up aggression all came to the forefront of an abandoned slammer. No spectators were present for the anger, just a pissed-off person blowing off steam.

Beds were overturned. Bars were punched. Screams were released.

“Therapeutic...” he murmured in the aftermath of his conniption fit. “But I gotta get out of here...I’ve gotta drink...HEY, what’s that buzzing sound?”

A faint whirr could be heard near the right side of the prisoner’s ear.

Am I hearing random things now outta paranoia?

Dizzy from dehydration, giddy from desperation, and reeling from a slaphappy hysteria, Johnny collapsed onto the hard concrete of an empty cell. The backbreaking work of trying to claw his way out a day before had depleted him.

He had nothing left to expend.

And like so many times before while imprisoned, he gazed up to the ceiling in subservience. But this time was much different, for he no longer wanted to keep going. In fact, after living through so many hardships as well as creating so many of them for others, he wanted to die. The lids of Johnny’s heavily bagged eyes slowly shut as blaring, droning defeat welcomed him...

Peaceful darkness, greeting his final conscious moments, ushered in what he instinctively thought right then and there to be a decorous death.

INSIDE: The Selected

Lizzie Janis awoke to the perplexing sight of a school bus’s interior. Every glass window lining the left and right sides of the public transport had been blacked out by shutters, rejecting any possible hope of an outside view. Strapped into a semi-ripped seat, she looked on in complete horror as five other girls near her age came to in a daze. All of them were in the same exact predicament, and all had numbers on their plain white tees that resembled jerseys.

My head...it’s pounding like a freaking jackhammer…

“Why’re we trapped in here??” one of the younger-looking girls asked, crying quietly. “And WHY do I have the number two on me?!”

“I don’t know. Mine says three. Try and stay calm so we can figure out what’s going on,” another girl at the front of the bus responded kindly.

Due to an eclipsing shock taking over, Lizzie formally introduced herself to the other captives. “I’m Lizzie. Sixteen. From Columbus, Ohio. And if any of you are wondering what number I’ve been given, it’s one.”

The teen in front scoffed at the straightforwardness. “Um, yeah, hi, Liz! Are you for real right now? Who cares about our names, our ages, the numbers, or where we’re from?”

“Well, I care...and I’m sure the others do, too. So...I’m Chelsea, everyone. From Michigan, born and raised. I would say that it’s a pleasure to meet all of you, but I’d be lying if I did.”

“Shut da hell up. That ain’t even funny! Look at us, look at dis sitch! Don’t really think it’s time for a lame joke...” an African American teenager added.

Chelsea cracked a smile. “And what’s your name, sunshine?”

“Tamika Wilson. From da Bronx. And I am number four. Satisfied?!”

“Very. You’re a book now, by the way.”

“I’m a WHAT??” Tamika hollered.

“Listen, I’ve got a great idea. Don’t be snarky with each other, okay? Let’s try to recall how we got here and retrace our steps, since we might learn a thing or two about why this has happened to us...” Lizzie suggested.

“Yeah, yeah; good plan,” Tamika said. “So, um...what’s da last thing any uh you chicks ‘member?”

The girl who had scoffed rudely at Lizzie spoke up immediately. “I remember singing that vintage Coldplay song ‘Fix You’ in my car. You guys remember them?”

Every tied-up teen said no.

“Oh, it’s pretty. You should listen to it sometime!”

Chelsea laughed. “I’ll definitely check it out—if we ever get outta here.”

“Right; sorry. Anyway, lemme retrace. I recall driving back home from seeing a movie with my boyfriend. He had to work later on in the night, so we caught a chick flick, I Am Just for You. Y’know, with Derek Andrew? It was a special fifteenth anniversary re-release of the film and I knew he didn’t wanna see it, but that’s how much he lov—cares for me. I’ll admit, though, I was upset he couldn’t call off work. We could’ve had a LOT more fun...”

“And why were you so sad, girl? You one of those needy bitches who can’t be alone fo’ mo than ten secs?” Tamika snapped.

“Lay off...I’m simply telling my story. It’s pointless to throw shade, especially now. We’re all in this together. Oh yeah, and just in case ya care, I’m Riley. From Utah.”

“See? It does matter what our names are. ‘Cause now I don’t have to look at you as that one girl who thought it was stupid to say who we were and where we’re from anymore!” Lizzie joked.

“I suppose you’re right...guess I was just thrown for a loop there at the beginning. Still am, actually,” Riley said.

“Don’t blame ya one bit; it’s nuts!” Chelsea agreed.

“Hey, what do ya’ll think of those two girls ova dare? You think they number five? And who da hell wrote HELP US on dat back window?!”

“Not a clue. None of us did, that’s for sure. Strange how they’re seated beside each other, and we’re all spread apart. But it could be nothing, Tamika,” Lizzie opined. “Maybe they are five; we don’t even know what these assigned numbers mean!”

“True, true. Weird dat bofe of em’ haven’t said a word, dough. Notta peep!”

Chelsea tried her best to stare at the two silent girls. “I could be wrong, but they kinda look like they may be conjoined? By the way they’re moving and their head placement, it seems like that’s a possibility. Since they’re near the back, it’s hard to tell...”

“No way; that’s not even a thing. Is it?” Riley wondered.

“Uh, yeah, it is. You haven’t seen them people on TV who have it n’ shit? It’s def real. But dey muteness is weirding me out, I’ll say dat much,” Tamika said.

“This situation’s weird in general,” Lizzie followed up. “We just have to keep talking about what we remember and figure it out...”

“Sounds good. You’re up, then!” Riley exclaimed.

“Okay. Hmm, where to start...”

“How about ya start at da end?” Tamika offered snidely.

“‘Course. Um, let’s see...I was in my room, scrolling on my phone, checking social media—the usual for me.”

“Riveting,” Chelsea said sarcastically. “That used to be the usual for all teens—obviously back when the Internet was affordable and not government-dictated like it is now.”

“Yeah; no doubt. Only reason we have it is ‘cause my grandma—whom I live with—is even more addicted than me. After that crazy blackout hit, she freaked. But then when it came back, she couldn’t live without it...splurged her life savings on an annual plan. But you’re not missing much; it’s not that great now, since it’s so monitored and neutered. Anyway, I can’t remember anything else after being in my room. Like at all. But you know what? I do kind of remember feeling sick at dinner.”

“Hunh,” Riley blurted.

“What?” every girl asked, except for the twins.

“I remember being nauseous as well...”

Tamika rolled her eyes. “So what? My stomach be swimmin’ too; don’t mean nothin’. And even if it did, how da hell does that help us in here?”

Any information regarding our final waking memories is helpful right now. What isn’t helpful is your attitude, so why don’t you just chill and contribute?” Lizzie said bossily.

“I agree. If the four of us were feeling queasy, that HAS to mean something. It’s not a coincidence. I mean, it can’t be!” Chelsea said.

“Definitely; it could all correlate. But I have a confession to make...I may have been drunk before taking off from the theater. Not too much, though! Don’t judge me,” Riley requested.

“You a damn trip, ya know that? Drinking underage n’ driving intoxicated? What’s wrong wit yo pale white ass?” Tamika demanded.

“My boyfriend and I were loosening up, all right? He was heading out for a twelve-hour shift and wanted to drink—as did I. Guy works hard—for pennies, essentially. So we drank while watching the movie. Snuck in some gin. He was having me drink more than usual, but it doesn’t even matter! I bet you’re one to talk, Tamika. High and mighty, my ass. Bet you’ve downed some malt liquor in your day!! Some forties probably...”

“Fuck me, that’s racist.”

“Tamika, I know what she said is ridiculous, but don’t elevate. It’s not worth it. And it’ll only lead to more bickering between you two...” Lizzie advised.

Chelsea, preferring to avoid further confrontation, changed the subject in an attempt to attain more information. “So we got a head count, we got the names, the states, but we didn’t exactly say how old we all are...and I think we should.”

“Damn girl, does it matter? We young. Pristine teens, yo! So I honestly don’t need ta know. Stupid worryin’ ‘bout dat shallow shit, anyway!” Tamika said.

“Well, whatever...I’m seventeen—just turned it. Only four years to go until I can LEGALLY drink! Sorry for letting you down, Tamika,” Riley quipped. “I’ve been known to rebel.”

“Kiss my beautiful black ass.”

“Okay, I’ll sincerely do that, but only after you say your age and we manage to untie ourselves!”

“I’m fourteen, you bitch.”

Riley laughed at the smugness. “Ooh, quite the mouth for such a young one!”

“Once again, kiss my beau—”

“Girls, girls,” Lizzie verbally stepped in. “We aren’t getting anywhere doing this. You dislike each other; we get it! Move on. Chelsea, what do you remember?”

“Oh, it’s on me now?”

“Why the hell not...wouldn’t hurt,” Riley said.

“I—uh, well...I know this’ll sound incredibly boring, but I recall wanting to get in an afternoon nap. I’d just finished reading Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. Which is an absolutely awesome book if you’re wondering.”

“Ugh, get on with it! Nobody reads novels anymo. You goofy fo’ doin’ so!” Tamika insulted impatiently.

Chelsea continued, not missing a beat. “When I was situating myself on the couch for nap time, my dad handed me some piping hot cocoa. It was so danged good. And after I drank some, I pretty much passed out. Although I did have an upset tummy before crashing...”

“Man, none of this adds up. Were we all drugged and then dragged in here?? What is this, you guys?” Lizzie wondered.

“Are we bein’ held fo’ ransom? Any y’all’s parents loaded?” Tamika questioned the captives.

“Nope; I’ve been raised my whole life by a single mom who’s a struggling actress-slash-waitress. Bio dad left when I was five...” Riley said.

“My mom’s a bank teller and my dad’s a mechanic!” Chelsea answered happily. “They say it’s a basic, ho-hum existence, which leads to sporadic misery. But my parents are still together, surprisingly!”

“I didn’t even get to know my parents. They divorced when I was young—the age of six—because of this really crazy thing that happened with a guy babysitting my sister and me.”

No one spoke after Lizzie paused, which created an uncomfortable silence that filled the bus.

Feeling a strange need to continue, the blonde teen revealed more of her background. “He was a family friend, supposedly. And no, I don’t wanna talk about it, so don’t ask questions. I’ll just say this: nothing happened to me personally. After that, my mom and dad were never the same, though...so they both kinda quit being parents. Dropped us off at my grandparents’ one December weekend a little over ten years ago, and that was that. Been gone ever since...”

“Wow, I’m sorry, Lizzie. I don’t know what to say,” Riley said.

Tamika softened. “Yeah, me either. You’ve been through da ringer, girl. Heart goes out to ya…”

Chelsea sighed. “I’d give you a big ol’ hug right now if I could!”

“It’s all right. Thanks. I suppose I’ll never know why they chose to vanish. Things were just bad for us growing up.”

“Trauma wrecks certain people who can’t deal with awful things. I’m sorry your parents seem to have fallen into that category!”

“Ain’t that da truth, Riley…” Tamika said.

With a tear falling from her eye, Lizzie righted the ship. “So back to the age thing...how old are you, Chelsea? I believe you’re the only one who hasn’t said yet.”

“Right! I’m twelve. Twelve and a half!”

Riley acted like a clipboard-carrying manager. “There ya have it, then. I’m the oldest at seventeen. Lizzie’s sixteen. Tamika’s fourteen. And last but not least, Chelsea’s the youngest at twelve.”

“AND A HALF!” Chelsea shouted.

“You forgot dem freaks in the back, doe!” Tamika said. “Those mutes are our ongoing mystery...”

Twelve and a half? Holy crap. That’s the same age my sister was when everything changed for her, when she was taken advan

Suddenly a howling pierced through the pitch-black windows of the yellow four-wheeler entrapping the girls. Panicked screaming inside nearly silenced the roaring of an unknown entity gliding nearby outside. But it was too loud to ignore as fear seeped into each and every girl aboard.

“Da fuck is that noise?!” Tamika shrieked. “My heart’s in ma damn throat ry now! WHAT IS DAT??”

Before anyone could muster up anything, the school bus almost toppled over from the sheer force of one powerful—and currently invisible—monster. The veiled creature continuously rammed into each side with no relenting while the cries for help became deafening.

We’re dead. We are so dead.

Lizzie shut her eyes in the midst of an uncontrollable chaos, clasped her hands together tightly, and prayed very passionately for it all to just go away.

INSIDE: The Racket

Akin to a bloated beached whale on a sandy seaside, Johnny was laid out on the prison floor.

For the second time in under twenty-four hours.

Unresponsive for a long spell, he remained motionless until a bucket of water splashed onto his face. The icy-cold water instantly caused a jolting revival of uncorked animation.

AH! That’s ridiculous!!” Johnny barked, wiping the wetness from his barely-there hair. “Was I only dreaming about being free? I’m still in this cell...”

But while he’d indeed been sleeping, he hadn’t been dreaming. Upon gathering his senses after receiving such a shocking delivery of frigid water to the grill, Johnny Helks peered over to an open cell door. Everything was how it had been prior to his collapse. Not a sound emitting from anywhere, and not a person around the premises. Just like before.

Wasn’t a dream after all.

“Who did that? Who throws a bucket of water onto someone’s face and then runs away?? The whole point is to see the reaction!”

While steady in his thinking-out-loud reasoning, nothing was going as planned for the miffed, dripping man. Not even a splash to the face could bring him any reinvigoration. Without a doubt, conventional rise-and-fall actions and reactions weren’t the norm anymore. For Johnny and Johnny alone, this was a topsy-turvy world that he now inhabited. And whoever taunted him was an enigma, both in motive and in malice. As bizarre as it was, the sad truth was that after having woken up so startled, Johnny would’ve loved nothing more than to see another human being sneering back at him. His mind had started to play tricks on him. In this environment, what was real and what wasn’t? As confused as ever, the disturbed jailbird thoroughly questioned himself while dusting off and standing up.

Am I truly alone? Have I hallucinated all of this? Even the water? Is that it? Am I DEAD?

“Think, think, think!”

A head-scratching visual clue presented itself. After the shock of the splash had worn off, the prisoner noticed something rather peculiar on his left arm. It was a bandage—the kind of adhesive a person would have after having blood work—and it certainly hadn’t been there before he fainted. On top of that discovery, Johnny felt completely rejuvenated physically—a far cry from the previously depleted, near-death quandary that he’d been so entangled in. Gone were the aches and pains of a man flirting with the ripe age of forty, and in its place was a two-liter of piss and vinegar. Adrenaline coursed through his veins, making him feel like he was a rowdy, know-it-all teenager again—fully ready to tackle life with reckless abandon.

Johnny then had an epiphany.

“Someone’s helping here. Fucking hell, that is rich! Of all the people stuck in this oven, they’d pick ME? But why? Why me specifically...” he asked himself with genuine intrigue. “And who would want to??”

Going through a list of possible names and coming up terribly short, he became besieged by his own bewilderment. Wanting to know just why this could happen and imagining just who’d assist a perceived lowlife in such a strange way ate at him from the inside out. At a loss for what to do or where to go next, he went back to his old ways, unloading an arsenal of erratic behavior.

“WHAT IS THIS CRUELTY? HEY!” Johnny screamed at the top of his lungs. “ANSWER ME!!”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

In the past, I was born. In the present, I am living. In the future, I will be dead. We all have so much in common!

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
Since I work at a courthouse downtown, one day I started hatching a crazy scenario involving a mysteriously freed and problematic prisoner who's just trying to man his way through an ever-increasing insanity. Writing then led to many exciting epiphanies about how I should execute my grand plan.
Q. What did you learn while writing this book?
A.
I've learned that even when you think things are as tight as can be, they may still need some tightening. Editing this fic was just life-changing and author-affirming for me. I have also learned that I'm in possession of an over-the-top imagination and an insatiable drive to make my work hold worth.
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
Getting it all connected perfectly. It took such a long time to connect the dots in exactly the way that I wanted. But after almost two years of plugging away, I got precisely what I was aiming for and I'm so proud of the outcome. The Last Offender is a wild ride that isn't afraid to take risks.

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