Thursday, July 29, 2021

Y Signal [Finale ~ Last Train]

*The future and the past tear at 11-year-old Ray's very being. A signal that assaults the soul and leads you by the nose into a tomorrow of its own choosing has slipped into his reality. Is a desolate future what lies ahead for the boy, or is there more to this madness beyond what the man on the radio says? Someone has an answer. All Ray can do is head into the darkness of the Y Signal and find the truth for himself . . . *

"Y Signal"
by JD Cowan
Part 4: Last Train

It wasn’t the same as the last time Ray listened to the radio. Whereas the previous trip into the ephemeral space forcefully warped the world and his mind into a fever dream of impossibilities, this time it was more akin to the floor coming out from under him and falling into a moving crevice. He dropped through the earth, kissing air in a flailing somersault before landing directly on his face. The jarring sensation was over in an instant. Spikes of pain jabbed along his muscles with every attempt he made to lift himself back up.

Whispers in his ears faded to a harsh humidity that clung to his pores like bad summer weather. He wiped at his eyes, ignoring the sudden silence.

The shrill screech of a high whistle brought streaks of terror down Ray’s sore neck. Sound quickly returned to his world again. The clicking of large wheels rolling reverberated louder and louder in his numb mind. When he finally managed to rise, Ray quickly realized that clatter was coming in from the outside. A wall of glass windows on his left and right sheltered him from the source. A row of vacant blue seats lined up on either side of the thin aisle the boy had woken up in. Ray had been dropped into a train.

Who is this?” Yarbrough said. His voice played overhead like a PA system. “Children are not supposed to be here.

He’s my cousin,” Lenny replied. Ray’s cousin’s voice also echoed in the train. “I have no idea why he’s here. Billy brought him, for some reason.

Yarbrough growled. “Throw him out before I do.

Calm down. You’ve been so on edge recently. Remember the plan. It’s almost over, so why are you getting so upset?

I will not be thrown off schedule. Not now. Deal with this, or I will!

The voices clicked off in Ray’s voice like a light switch, leaving him alone in the rolling train again. He stared ahead into the empty car to find not a single soul waiting for him. That voice was Lenny's—but where was he? That conversation told him they were on this train.

Ray was so close. They had to be nearby.

Ray stood up, his weight leaning on the ugly blue seat next to him. It took a moment to realize this was a real train and his hand really was touching the interior of it. The seats were lined up two by two on either side with an empty overhead luggage rack above. Large grey doors blocked the way into the next car before and behind him. Aside from the fact that nothing but a pitch red sky waited outside the windows, it looked just like any normal train would. This car wasn’t too dissimilar to the ones he had taken on a vacation with his family across the country back in the second grade. Ray massaged his sore arms as he scanned the car ahead. Where should he go?

“Lenny is going to be at the front,” Billy said. The bald punk had sat alone in one of the seats behind Ray, staring blankly ahead. “You better find him before we arrive at the station. Yarbrough didn’t sound too happy to find you here.”

“How is there a train here? There’s never been a station in Burroughsvale.”

“The Y Signal gave form to the gate we all must cross. In order to traverse time and space our minds need to be able to comprehend the journey or else we cannot accept it. Lenny helped set this one up, I'm sure. He's always been too accommodating to others. Once we reach the station we will pick up the barely living and then we will leave for the real world.”

A sudden sickness washed over Ray. The barely living? That sounded wrong. It made him think of the weirdo who chased Ray and Andrew back at the balcony. Were they all like that? What is it that made so many of these people so dead-like? What was he missing here?

“There’s something seriously off with you all," Ray said. "Why do you trust this Yarbrough guy so much? Is it because he wrote a bunch of weird and catchy songs a few years ago? I’ve heard some of things he’s been saying, you know. He’s crazy--he should be locked up. He thinks he's some kind of psychic and can see the future. Did any of you think he might be lying about all this or might be confused? No one can tell the future, Spikes. How can you not understand that the guy is off his rocker?”

A flicker of anger passed over Billy’s face. He glanced out the window into the world of red and the rage vanished into a relaxed grin. “It’s you who doesn’t understand anything. Kids are so dumb. I’d know, since I was one back when I had to grow up in hell. This is the end of the line. There’s no future for you.”

“Because a crazy musician told you.”

“He can tell the future. He’s told us what is coming. You’ve heard the Y Signal he’s sent out, and so has Lenny. I’m sure your cousin has told you predictions that turned out to be true. Did you ever wonder where he got that information from?”

Doubt washed over Ray not unlike that stupid radio had done to his soul the other night. He remembered some of the things that had appeared in his head when he least expected them to. How did Lenny know about the movie the other night? He was so sure that Judge Dredd would be bad, too. Had Yarbrough really discovered a way of seeing the future? He was a musician in a well-known band--he could have just had inside info, right?

But the uncertainty didn’t stop on that notion. How did Yarbrough know he was actually being told the future? How did he know he wasn’t being fooled or played with like that crazy guy who burst into his apartment looking for Lenny? This could all be guesswork, parlor tricks, or inside information from some other source. Regardless, this was all too convenient. Why did Lenny believe all of this craziness so easily? If Yarbrough really could see the future, then why were they running away instead of fixing things? There were too many questions Ray didn’t have the answers for, and no no matter how much he thought on them he could not find an answer.

“I’ll bring Lenny home on my own,” Ray said. “I’ll get him to tell me everything.”

“Do whatever you want. No one would ever want to go back after knowing the truth. Nice meeting you. I’ll see you at the end of the line.”

Ray charged towards the front of the car. The only reason he could tell he was moving forward was because of the direction the seats were facing. The outside showed him nothing but a crimson glow of light with no wind or hint as to what the train even looked like--if it actually existed at all. The brightness outside only increased the further the train barreled forward into the emptiness. Were they fast approaching the station? There was no way to know exactly how much time he really had left.

The boy dashed through car after car, seemingly in an endless loop of train. Each door effortlessly opened for him without much in the way of resistance. The only reason he knew that it wasn’t a loop was because he never saw Billy appear again in his travels. Instead, that same voice played over the invisible speakers just as it did back in the food court earlier in the day. Yarbrough didn’t sound happy at his presence here.

This is you responsibility," the crazed musician said. "Deal with him! I’ve had enough distractions for one lifetime.

The voice fuzzed and bent overhead. Ray had to have been getting closer as it only cleared more and more as he ran through the train. Soon enough, a car door kicked open ahead of him. A familiar face stepped through it to meet him in the center of the car. Lenny wore a black t-shirt and blue jeans with his hair neatly combed for the first time in ages. Much of the anxiousness in his face from Friday had dissipated. He looked oddly relaxed, despite where he currently was. Despite his cleaner look, the dark circles under his eyes remained as they did before.

“What are you doing, Ray?” Lenny asked. “You weren’t supposed to use the radio, just give it to Billy.”

“Then why did you tell me all that cryptic junk?”

“Because I needed you to make sure the radio didn’t fall into the wrong hands, and Billy was too paranoid to leave his apartment. Anyone could have used it after I left, but no one else would have taken what I said seriously other than you. The rest of the family never listens to what I have to say. I don't blame them, though. Look around you. This was the only way to keep things secret from the outside world.”

“Well, one of your friends was at your apartment today—the one we saw at the pizzeria. He got into a fight with some creep who kicked your door in.”

“Brad? First the pizzeria and now this. Oh boy. He’s been asking about the Y Signal for weeks, but I wouldn’t tell him more about it, and the night we met at the pizza place he was starting to lose it. He isn’t fit for this. Not everyone is.” His glare sharpened towards Ray. "Especially not kids."

“He’s not the only weirdo. That other guy who showed up at your place while we were there looking for you was worse than him. He probably followed that Brad guy to the building. Is this why there are so many crazies around town? You hang with quite a crowd, Lenny. Forget about all these freaks. We’re going home. You don't belong here.”

"I don't, huh?" Lenny laughed. “I’ll bet your dad didn’t even know I was missing, did he?”

Ray paused. It was true that his father just thought Lenny was being his usual aloof self, but he could hardly be blamed for that, especially considering where his cousin actually was at this very moment. Lenny had always been considered a black sheep among their very average family. No one made him do the weird things he did.

“He just thought you were being you. But this isn’t you.”

Lenny nodded mindlessly, his gaze darting across the car towards the endless haze of the outside world. He let out a hard breath before he scratched the back of his head. Ray's cousin appeared to be trying to say something stuck on the tip of his tongue.  

“Billy was one of two people with his name when we ran in our group," Lenny said. "He had spiked hair which is why we called him Spikes instead. Do you know what happened to the other Billy? You remember the Strychnine Shooter guy in the news a few years back? No, you're too young. Some psycho went around pharmacies and drug stores injecting Strychnine into various medicines. Our friend unknowingly took some home with him inside his cold medicine. The Billy you met was the one who found our friend's lifeless body in the morning. He looked like he had crawled out of hell, and not a single soul was there to help.”

Ray's mouth dried instantly. How was he supposed to reply to that? He'd never even seen a dead body outside of a packed funeral home. However, despite the story, it still didn't explain anything at all about this mess, and he was running out time to learn it. They could be at this station at any moment. The boy decided a softer approach might be necessary.

“I’m sorry about your friend,” Ray said. It did explain Billy’s strange mood, but not why either of these guys would leave home to come to this place. “But you understand that it has nothing to do with the Y Signal.”

“No one showed up to the funeral. Not his mom, not his brothers, not any of the other guys. It was just me, Brad, and the ex-punk who followed you here through the radio. That was about five years ago, not long after they picked up John Gotti. Remember him? That one was all over the media. Billy wasn’t important enough for the news—he was insignificant to them. You’ve never been to the city, Ray. You don’t know what it’s like. They can clean and polish the stone and concrete all they want, and they can throw as many dirtbags in cells as they want, but it’s never going to be anything but a trash pile where people sink deep inside and are never seen again. My friend is dead, and no one even noticed, no one will ever notice, and soon enough all trace of him will be gone forever. I can’t just go on like everything’s normal with a happy grin like some kind of lobotomy patient. That’s not living a life; accepting this reality is giving up and embracing evil as if it’s just fine and dandy: as if it's all normal and supposed to be this way. I may be many things, but I will not accept a lie as truth.”

Ray took a moment to process what his cousin had just said. It was rambling and nearly incoherent, but there was a passion there he had a harder time understanding. His friend died and that meant the world is fake? No, it didn't connect at all. Ray might have just been a kid but he knew cowardice when he saw it.

“You’re running away!” the boy shouted. "Instead of talking with anyone or trying to work through this, you just decide to split and leave us all behind? What happened to you, Lenny?"

“I’m not running from anything." Ray's cousin jabbed a thumb backwards at the car doors behind him. "I don’t have anything to run away from. My parents split long ago, the bands I cared about are gone, and there is nothing left on the road ahead. Yarbrough might be rough around the edges, but you know he's right."

"He isn't. Nothing you've told me proves he isn't anything other than a . . . what's it called? A Charlatan! Come back to Burroughsvale and I'll show you how much better things can be. It's definitely better than this. Forget that dangerous creep and let's go home."

"We’re not hurting anyone with what we’re doing, Ray. Just go out the exit and you’ll return back home. It’s a long drop, and a bit scary the first time, but you’ll wake up fine. I promise. You have people to go back to. Enjoy the time you have left before you're me. You kids deserve it.”

"Don’t trust that guy!" Ray bared his teeth. "I remember that broadcast. Did you not notice the weird ape man waiting there or the gross plants all over? There was this giant bird outside the window that could have been a dinosaur. You just accept that? That is far less normal than anything that goes on back home. He’s hiding something from all of you and you don't want to face it. You guys aren’t being told the whole truth.”

Lenny grimaced and shook his head. “That’s the Lost Race. Yarbrough discovered them when he first explored the signal. They were banished there in the True World long ago. That's what our parents never told us. Or at least our parents' parents, however far that goes back. It's all lies regardless. Those weird apes helping him achieve his goal. We have a lot of lies to undo.”

“You don’t know that's true, Lenny! They could be using him to get you all lined up for a snack or maybe even as slaves in that dark world. It could be anything. Use your head! Why aren’t you thinking through this at all?”

“You misunderstand me, Ray. I don't care. None of us care. Whatever we meet over there will be better than here, even if it kills us.”

“Stop talking like that, you idiot. We’re family. Did you forget? Maybe I want you around. Some part of you refused to tell me about the Y Signal because you know it's not right. You might tell me differently, but I know you. You're the one lying. You're doing it to yourself.”

“Stop babbling," Lenny said. He glanced away from his cousin. "You’ll forget about me when I go, just like your dad already has. Maybe not soon, but someday. I'm pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Most of us are. It’s best you experience it now rather than later. Loss builds character.” Lenny chuckled to himself. "Now I sound like my dad."

“No. Enough.” Ray seized his cousin’s wrist. “I don't care what you want. Come on, we’re going home.”

The boy took a few steps towards the side exit with his cousin in tow when a harsh burst of static nearly deafened him. The entire train rocked as if an earthquake had rattled the car. Ray and Lenny each tumbled over sideways into the seats. The train seemed to spin like it was attempting an aileron roll, as impossible as that was. Reality spun around. Ray rolled about until he hit the floor on all fours and felt his breakfast against his teeth.

When the train finally stopped shaking, he noticed a familiar lean man wearing a green sweater and slacks walking through the door. This angry young man stomped over to the splayed out cousins. Yarbrough’s face was so red it looked as if it might melt off at any second.

“Throw the stupid git out already!”

Lenny struggled to sit up from his prone position in the seat. He gagged on a breath. “I was about to before you stormed in here. What are you so worried about? I have no intention of letting him come with us. Kids can’t handle this place. Most normal people can't, either.”

“This arrogant little puke is pissing me off, Leonard. He thinks he has it all figured out, butting into our business with his stupid, uneducated views he cobbled together in the sandbox. I walked Fear City in the ‘80s, I saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I was in town when Kurt supposedly killed himself. What's he seen but bad Hollywood movies that numb the mind into accepting decay? I’ve seen the future, and it is real. There is nothing ahead but death. At least this runt will live in ignorance until the end comes.”

Ray forced himself to stand up. His gut continued its acrobat act as he steadied himself. “Just because you got some predictions right doesn’t mean you got them all. You said it yourself the first time I went under: there are many futures. They can’t all be as bad as you believe.”

“And yet this is the world we live in, brat. I know all my predictions will come true because I’ve seen them already happen on a smaller scale, over and over. It’s human nature to do the wrong thing and drag everyone else into it. This is the one eternal truth of this whole evil existence. We are simply leaving the rest of them to their own devices while the less brain dead go off and find a better future in the Real World. They’ll all die, and they’ll all deserve it.”

Lenny looked at Yarbrough sideways, but Ray didn’t back down. Instead he shoved the former rock star with all the anger he could muster. “Shut up! You don’t get to decide that. Just because you lucked out and found this Y Signal doesn’t make you God.”

Yarbrough pushed him back with an unexpected zeal, sending Ray to the floor again. “Piss off, you know-nothing runt. I summoned the Y Signal myself through blood and sacrifice. That red view you are seeing outside is a result of all my effort to save us. That’s the power I earned. Anyone else could have found it, any of our parents, our ancestors, our leaders, but none of them did. Not only did they fail to harness this force, they sealed the world off, cast away an entire race, and left us alone in the dark with nothing but noise and plastic. They deserve the genocide they will cause to themselves and my only regret is that I won’t be there to laugh at them in the face about it.”

“Yarbrough,” Lenny said. He lowered his voice. “You’re losing it. This kid isn’t that big of a deal. Let it go. We came here because we didn’t want a part in the old world anymore, not because we want to destroy it or see people die.”

“I’m not planning on destroying anything, Leonard. I’m letting it die. I can see possibilities, hundreds of thousands of routes we can take to reach the future--this is the gift of the Y Signal. Using logic, pattern recognition, deduction, and probability--things they don't teach kindergartners like this brat--I can easily surmise the fate of the brainless sleepwalkers that inhabit the 20th century. I see a pit ahead, followed by an implosion like you've never seen before. And that's the truth. What prediction would you like next? A terrorist shooting in Israel or a bombing in Sri Lanka? I don't even need the Y Signal for something like that.”

Lenny rubbed at his clearly tired eyes. “You told me that leaving would be like we never existed. We would step out of existence. I thought that maybe us leaving would help change things for the better. One of those other futures you mentioned as a possibility might occur instead. Us taking off would be better for everyone.”

“Who cares?” Yarbrough replied, saliva splashing from his lips. “I don’t know what will happen when we’re gone. It doesn't matter. All I know is that a lot of people are going to get what is coming to them in the not so distant future. That's all I care about. Now, enough of this. The platform is waiting for us, as are our new friends who have chosen Truth over that lie we used to live. Throw this little punk off the train and let’s go.”

The boy’s anger flared and his voice rose despite himself. Ray jumped back up again. “I’m not going anywhere!”

He charged into Yarbrough with a sudden burst of adrenaline and knocked the jerk over. The two rolled backwards as the train rattled with their tossed bodies. The entire structure flipped was as if the car itself had been tackled. The whole train flopped around in an impossible barrel roll with Yarbrough, Ray, and Lenny, striving to maintain their balance as they were thrown about, banging against the interior. Somewhere in the mess screeched the sound of twisting metal. 

The boy and his enemy grabbed at each other. It didn’t matter that Yarbrough clearly had the strength and size advantage when he had been thrown so off balance. The train spun, sending the parties all over the inside of the car. Windows crunched as bodies landed slammed into them. The grappling pair landed against the door at the end of the car and Lenny dropped into the seats again. The train regained its proper balance at the same moment Yarbrough did.

“Get off my train!” the ex-rocker shouted. He seized Ray’s collar and punched him square in the stomach. Ray gagged as Yarbrough kicked his doubled-over body. He sneered at the boy hitting the ground again. “You have no place in my world.”

The boy gasped for air as Yarbrough threw open the side door to the outside. There was no wind, but dead silence flooded in from the outside. Ray gripped the nearby seat as his breath struggled in his chest. Humidity smacked his face from the rouge void outside where no ground existed--just endless red skies. He tried not to look at the unsettling sight. Only harsh scarlet light existed inside this foreign space--and whatever lay below.

Spittle splashed through Yarbrough’s pointed teeth as he dragged his victim. “Go home and fix your own damned world!”

“It’s your world, too,” Ray said. His breaths pumped jaggedly from his sore chest. “You can’t just walk away from everyone. What about your family, your band, and your fans? You're just gonna leave them all?”

“Sorry, but it’s already too late for them. They have chosen their fate, just as you have. You are all getting what you have coming to you.”

“Forget it, Yarbrough,” Lenny said. He put a hand on the ex-rock star’s shoulder. “You’ve done enough here today. It’s time to go home.”

Lenny shoved Yarbrough out the door to the train. The madman’s clasping fingers lost its grip on Ray’s shirt as he plummeted down into the crimson horizon. Ray fell against the side of the door, holding tightly as he watched his enemy drop. The former rock star fell out of sight and soon even his shouts disappeared into the bottomless infinity underneath them. All trace of Yarbrough in this world was lost in an instant.

Lenny pulled the flailing Ray back into the train. He steadied the boy, but still kept an eye on the endless pit of a world underneath the vehicle. “You have to go home, too.”

“Why did you push him out? Won’t he just come back?”

“It’s already past midnight back home. Time converges here at the time the Y Signal was sent out, and Yarbrough’s radio is the source of it. You and Billy sent it out when you came here. No one else can come through now until it is turned on again. Yarbrough won’t be able to come back because it is already after the broadcast time back on Earth. He'll try, but it's too late. The train has left the station, and there's not turning back. It’s time for you to leave, too. You don’t belong here, Ray. That’s the only thing I‘m certain of anymore.”

“He was manipulating you the entire time, Lenny. You know that now, right? He just wanted to set up shop in some new world as a king or whatever. He was crazy and full of himself. He didn’t want to help anybody.”

Lenny smiled weakly. “I knew he was on edge, but I thought he was getting over it. His obsession never quite died out, but it apparently just got worse the longer he was in the Y Signal. Maybe nobody really has resistance to it like I thought they might. He became better at hiding his slipping grip, until you showed up. That’s also why I didn’t just tell anyone about the Y Signal, by the way. At first I thought I’d just take a bunch of people like me to this new place like it was an adventure. You know, give them a second chance at life in a better place where they could find themselves. Sorta like moving to a new country or town, I guess. But after Yarbrough snapping like he did, I’m not so sure of that anymore. People like him need to find a place among the living. They can’t just separate themselves from life or else they slide deeper into their own ego.”

“Then come back with me. You don’t belong here, either, Lenny.”

“I can’t just abandon all those people on the platform, Ray. The whole reason they’re here is because they think the world has already left them behind. They’ve given up, just like I had. I need to take the train to the station, and tell them what happened with Yarbrough. I brought them to this place, so I have to talk them about it. That’s going to take some time. We aren't that far from the station, either. I should get ready.”

“I’ll go with you.”

Lenny shook his head. “I don’t know if I can even stop this train without Yarbrough. At least you can go home. Live your life. Enjoy your summer as best you can. You won’t get a lot of them in your life, regardless of whatever happens next. Don’t worry about me anymore, either. I took part in this mess and I have to take responsibility to make up for what I did. I'm not running away again.”

“What did I come here for, then?" Ray felt the anger boil in his sore gut. "Do you have any idea what I’ve been through since Friday? Now you’re just telling me to walk away?”

“Relax!” Lenny lightly laughed and smacked Ray on the back. “I’m not staying here for the same reason anymore. There’s something more important that I have to do. There are people I have to see and things to think about. Go home and tell your dad that I’ll be over to shoot pool with him again very soon. I’m not leaving; I’m fixing a mistake.”

"Please, stop this."

Lenny grinned. "If it's any consolation, the next Superman movie should be out in the next two years. It'll be worth it. Trust me."

"What do you--"

Before Ray could finish, Lenny shoved the boy out of the open door. Ray’s cousin waved to the falling boy as the scarlet fog enveloped the passing train whole. He dropped like a concrete block into the bay of emptiness. Eventually Ray saw nothing in the emptiness aside from his own flailing body spinning into the depths of this impossible space. He thought he was shouting, but eventually lost his voice in the choking silence. The red vortex closed above Ray at the same moment that the world turned white. All his senses cut out and died.

And then it was all gone. The world had disappeared just as suddenly as it first arrived. 

Then it all popped back into existence again. Reality returned as the train became nothing but a memory. He coughed on the stale apartment air.

Ray hit the solid floor, face first. His legs were trembling like he'd been left out in a blizzard. He rubbed at his sore jaw, and slowly sat back up. Everything inside of him hurt. The cheap carpet felt oddly soothing under his torn up palms.

When the realization that he was alive hit him, Ray sprang to his feet. “Lenny?!”

But his cousin didn’t answer.

Instead, only see the dark of night replied. Moonlight slipped through the blinds of Billy’s apartment and bathed the place in a harsh blue glow. There was no clock to be seen on the wall, but he knew the time. Lenny had already told him, and he always told the truth. Midnight had long since departed this place. The broadcast was over.

“Anyone here?” he called out. “Am I awake?”

“Not for much longer.”

Behind the couch emerged the limping body of Yarbrough. He clutched his right eye as if it had been punched in and his breaths pumped hard. Before Ray could say anything, Yarbrough kicked the boy with his twitching left leg, knocking him down to the floor.

Ray scampered backwards across the carpet on his elbows. “What are you doing here?”

“This is my radio, you git. I entered through it, same as you did. Where else did you think I’d fall when your stupid cousin pushed me out of my Y Signal? Now I have to work from nothing because of you and your wretch kin. This is why I hate kids and weaklings. Oh well, at least I’ll get to break your spine.”

“Just calm down,” Ray said. Through the shadows of the apartment behind Yarbrough he thought he saw a moving shadow slipping in through the moonlight beams of the small place. Was it Lenny? The boy decided to keep talking. “You can use your ability to fix the future now. You can make it so that those things you saw never happened. This is your second chance!”

“I don’t know by heart which of those events will occur and which won’t. Whatever the Y Signal was, whatever source lent me the power to see into the future, much of it was like putting pieces together of events already happening that lead to obvious conclusions. But sometimes they don’t always happen quite that way. It was more like it was showing me very educated guesses that only the most aware of us could puzzle out. Sort of like obvious conclusions to the path the world has decided to take. There are many futures.”

“Wait! That’s it! You just said it yourself. You don’t actually know. Now that you’re here you can change what you do know. You don’t have to run away anymore.”

“There is nothing to run from, and nothing to save. Nothing has changed with your meddling. It’s all going to burn, starting with you.”

Yarbrough took a step towards the fallen Ray, his smile dancing with joy in the harsh moonlight. Nothing would ever stop this crazed loon’s mad quest to reshape reality. He had long since left this world behind, much like those others who had heard his program after midnight. Yarbrough took one look over towards the window and stopped.

“Wait,” the madman said. “Where is my radio?”

Out of the dark behind Yarbrough moved a smaller figure. Andrew had a black bulky object between has hands as he jumped off the couch towards the psycho standing in front of him. Ray’s friend brought the radio down on top of Yarbrough’s head with a hard swing. The old equipment broke, sprinkling pieces of metal, plastic, and wires, across the floor. Yarbrough grunted and leaned over, clutching the back of his bleeding skull.

But something else burst from the broken device, and it wasn't a radio signal. Streams of red liquid ejected out of the shattered parts and twisted wires, almost like veins full of blood. It doused Yarbrough from head to toe like buckets of water. He shouted as heavy steam burned against his skin and wrapped around his limbs, chest, and throat. The shattered radio appeared to be grabbing at him. Was this thing actually alive?

“What is this?” Yarbrough shouted. “What did you do?”

The blood water clung to Yarbrough like a thousand tiny leaches growing into snakes. The mass stretched down to the carpet like living goo and attached against the carpet. It spread under his feet not unlike a living puddle. After spreading the circumference of Yarbrough’s twisting body, the gunk pulled him into the floor like quicksand. It was eating him.

You destroyed the future,” Yarbrough said, his voice croaking. He dropped down into the red tar, as if the ground gave out. “You deserve everything you’re going to get.”

With those last words, Yarbrough plummeted into the red haze. As soon as he vanished from sight, the blood liquid solidified and hardened on top of the carpet. Before Ray could even process what had happened, the crust of crimson evaporated into thin air, taking even the radio remains with it into mere particles of air. All that remained of Yarbrough’s Y Signal had completely disappeared like a bad dream in the morning light.

Ray and Andrew stared at the bare carpet for a long time before either of them spoke again. Whatever the Y Signal had been, it definitely was no friend. Whether Yarbrough understood that or not at the end was anyone's guess. All Ray could think was how thankful he was that he didn’t drop the radio when he was climbing down the balconies earlier in the day. Imagining himself in Yarbrough’s place sent a chill down his back into his trembling legs. He definitely didn't want to think about that now. Slowly he found the willpower to stand back up.

“My parents are going to ground me so bad,” Andrew said, blandly. He kept staring at the bare carpet. “I fell asleep in the backroom with my foot elevated on the bed. It feels a lot better now. I didn’t think you’d be gone that long. It’s past midnight, you know.”

Ray blinked. “Is that all you can think about right now?”

“I . . . no. I’d rather pretend nothing happened. Don’t even want to think about it.” 

There were many things Ray wanted to say, but they all felt rather unimportant in the grand scheme of things, especially considering what had just happened to the two. All traces or information about the Y Signal had just vanished before his eyes. The unreality had just been erased from his life in a single moment. It might as well have never happened.

“We should get out of here," Ray said. "Our parents really will kill us for staying out so late.”

The two boys made for the door, Andrew still unsteady on his feet. They closed the bare apartment behind them and took to their bikes outside. There wasn’t a single soul left on the playground, just as Ray figured there wouldn’t be so late at night. Even during summer vacation kids needed to sleep, and so did the town. Being able to go home after playing is what made playing worthwhile in the first place. He now believed that simple truth more than ever.

They rode their bikes back across the empty streets of Burroughsvale, seeing little in the way of passing cars. Perhaps Lenny was right and that their earlier pursuers had already departed through their own radios into the Y Signal to grab whatever future they thought awaited them. Unlike Yarbrough or Ray they didn’t appear to return at midnight, so did that mean they were trapped in that impossibly red light? Did Lenny fail at his task, or did something else happen to him inside the signal? That thought caused discomfort, but he couldn’t deny it as a possibility. Either way, there was little Ray could do about it now. He just had to trust in his cousin's words that he would handle it.

As Andrew and Ray rode their bikes down the barren streets of Burroughsvale, the quiet did little to ease the tension. Instead they talked in stilted tones about what they would be doing next week. There was plenty of summer left, after all. But still Ray couldn’t forget what had just happened, and he doubted he ever would.

Lenny had never given his cousin a reason to doubt him before. Even if he finally realized Yarbrough was full of it by the end, and told Ray to live regardless of whatever future awaited him, his older cousin shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place. Ray would never understand that generation. Things were not that bad and they always had the chance of getting better. The Y Signal was now gone, and the future was open again. They could once more look forward to whatever lay ahead. People weren't perfect, but they always had the chance to set it right again. His cousin proved that to him at the end.

Until Lenny came back, Ray would just have to keep being a kid. He would have to enjoy as much of whatever life threw his way as he could. Then the boy would show his cousin how wrong he was to run away from this world. It would be different next time. There are no real last trains--there is always another one in the morning.

A thousand Julys from now, summer would still be around, long after they were all gone from this Earth. Why waste throwing it all away on what might happen in the meantime? For now, he had many bright days ahead to look forward to, and he would do so with open arms. Summer meant promise, and it was promise he would fulfil. He pedaled madly ahead, his friend calling after him.

"Slow down, Ray. You want to get killed?"

"No way, man. I've got places to be!"

And he would make sure that he always did. That is, after all, what summer is all about.

[The End]

Monday, July 26, 2021

Shuriken Signal Boost!

Find it Here!

For a bit of a curveball, have a look at a new crowdfunding project based on an old property! Veteran comic writer and artist Reggie Byers has put together a crowdfunder to revive the 1980s ninja action series Shuriken. This is one of his earliest works, and he is revisiting it for this new kickstarter campaign.

In case you do not know, Shuriken released in the heyday of 1980s black and white indie comics and was wildly popular. This was before the comic industry cratered during the 1990s. And now Mr. Byers is going back to his roots to bring back on of the popular series from that bygone age. Can he do it? Well, check out the crowdfunding campaign and see!

"In 1985, I created a manga-inspired comic book series about a character named Kyoko Shidara also known as SHURIKEN. It was the story of a bodyguard who was a martial artist, skilled in lethal weapons, including throwing stars. I self-published it with a close group of friends, which resulted in being one of the top selling black and white comics of the 1980's. The final issue of the Kyoko Shidara "SHURIKEN" character that was originally created by me was last published in November 1991.

"30 years later, I am overjoyed to resurrect a fan favorite comic series, which was my very first creation, to a whole new generation of comic book and manga fans.

"I am raising funds to publish, print and distribute "Reggie Byers' SHURIKEN #1."

"This first edition will be manga inspired dynamic black, white & red interior illustrations and written by me.

"This is the first issue of what will be an ongoing series! I am in hopes that if I go above and beyond my initial target of $3000 (printing the edition, the limited edition and manufacture the rewards) then the funds will go to printing a second and third issue!

"Stand with me in bringing back in grand style the character who was the original "bad girl" before the "bad girl" comics craze of the late 80's even started!"

You can find the Shuriken campaign here!

There's a lot of interesting projects out there, and I'll still try to highlight them for you. I can't cover them all, but there is plenty to go around. Keep tuned to Wasteland & Sky and we'll find even more interesting projects together.

And for something else, here is a mythic book series you might enjoy!

An elite Watcher trainee, fifteen-year-old Princess Adana had everything going for her. Everything, that is, until her mother, the queen, dies. Too young to be queen herself, her mother’s last royal act is a decree that seals Adana’s fate—she’s to be sent to the neighboring Kingdom of Elwar for her own protection. When a vision shows her the existence of Maligon—a tyrant thought killed twenty years prior—she realizes everything is not as it seems in the Four Kingdoms. Evil is at work in the shadows, and Maligon will stop at nothing short of total control over the Four Kingdoms. 

Will she be ready in time to claim her birthright, or will Maligon succeed with his malevolent plans? There is only one way to learn.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Y Signal [Part III ~ Blindsided]

*Ray and Andrew are stuck between a rock and hard place in Lenny's abandoned apartment. Trapped between crazed killers and three story drop to their deaths, the boys decide to do the unthinkable: scale the building balconies down! But who is after them, and what was that mysterious broadcast that messed with Ray's mind? What does his missing cousin have to do with it? Before he gets any answers he'll have to survive the madness encircling him!*

"Y Signal"
By JD Cowan

Part 3: Blindsided

Ray descended the third floor balcony first, his backpack rattling behind him with the radio and notebook safely inside. His muscles strained, but it wasn’t any worse than climbing the many backyard fences around town—as long as he didn’t look down. Andrew waited above him as patiently as he could despite someone pounding on the apartment door inside. They didn't have the time to play it safe. Ray tried ignoring it all as he carefully shimmied down the bars towards the second floor.

Thankfully the metal bars were sturdy despite their thin nature. They allowed the boy to slide down and clasp his fingers on the bottom of the old grey platform. The cheap paint stained his fingers as his feet kicked for the top railing of the second floor balcony under him. Being eleven was only a real pain when your short stature came into play—like it did at this very moment. Ray stretched, doing his best to avoid looking down at certain death. His feet swung uselessly underneath him as he pushed himself.

“What’s wrong?” Andrew whispered from above. “Don’t tell me you’re too short?”

“Shut up! I don't need this right now.”

“Calm down and pay attention, Ray!”

There was no time to respond or doubt himself. Ray needed to make a gamble before his arms gave out and he met the earth below with his face. He swung himself back and forward. Warm air and sunlight brushed the back of his neck, but his sweating fingers were a bigger concern. On his third movement he pitched forward with all his strength and soared over the railing.

He landed hard on the balcony and his head hit into the bars on the opposite side. Blurry flashes of red light caused him to stumble on his knees. Sweat dripped across his eyes as he attempted to wipe them clean. Did he really just climb  down to the second floor?

Scuffling shoes landed beside the boy. Ray looked up as Andrew checked his friend’s certainly bruised forehead.

“You alright?” Andrew asked.

“Just need the buzzing in my head to stop then I'll be good. You’re fast, by the way.”

“I’ve done stupider things before. We should keep going before someone sees us out here.”

“Wait a second. Did you hear that?”

Cracking wood brought Ray’s attention back to the floor above them. Men shouted in the apartment that the boys had just abandoned moments ago. Ray could swear he heard furniture smashing and breaking. Had a fight broken out? Who was in there, anyway?

“This Lenny gave me the slip last month, but not this time,” someone said. “Last night’s broadcast said tonight was the last chance. Tell me where you're hiding him. The Y Signal is mine.”

A reedier voice grumbled. “You haven’t been chosen. I can tell by your smell. You belong in a dumpster, not paradise.”

“Say that to my face, psycho!” A loud thump echoed out of the apartment. "How about I fix your face to look as ugly as the rest of you?"

“Ray!” Andrew whispered. “Hurry up before they look out on the balcony. I don’t think they were searching for us, but I still don't want them to see us. They're here for that Y Signal you were talking about.”

They actually wanted this thing? Ray could barely process the stupidity on display. These punks wanted to get in on whatever madness Lenny had gotten himself into. They wouldn’t be so interested if they had any clue as to what that Y Signal was.

Or perhaps they did. Perhaps it was Ray that was missing the truth to this whole thing. After all, he only visited Yarbrough's world once. He might have missed something when he was there. Sure, it hurt, but was it really so bad? A warm nostalgia bathed his mind. He hadn't seen everything. Maybe if Ray visited that place a second time . . .

“Ray!” Andrew repeated.

Ray rubbed the bridge of his nose to fight off the growing migraine. What was he thinking? He could never go back to that place again. The boy exhaled a deep breath. “Sorry, Andrew, I drifted off. What do we do now?”

“The apartment this balcony belongs to is locked. I swear, no one lives in this stupid building. We need to head down again and we gotta do it faster. You gonna be okay?”

“I don’t have a choice. We can’t let them get this radio.”

“The radio? I just don't wanna die. What does that radio have to do with anything?”

Ray didn’t know, but a small voice buried in his jumbled thoughts told him to hold onto that stupid trinket no matter what happened. It was the only clue he had left to find Lenny, aside from that address book. All he needed to do was get past the first floor balcony, and survive the short drop to the ground floor. That should be easy enough! At least, he needed to tell himself it was. If he stopped to think about the insanity of what he was actually doing his guts would give out on him.

"Alright, Andrew. Let's go!"

Ray swung down on the balcony bars towards the next platform. He gripped onto the metal, his arms burning. The first floor was just ahead. This time Ray wasted little time finding his footing and touching down on the solid balcony. Just the ground level remained.

Andrew descended the opposite side and touched down beside him. How he moved so fast would always be a mystery to Ray. Andrew must have been part ape. The two each readied themselves on either end of the platform. They were almost out!

Shouts and crunching in the apartment above caused Ray to pause as he held onto the bars. The boy chanced a glance back up while he was still steadying himself for the jump.

The punk stared down at him from the top floor balcony. His sunken eyes glared at the two boys. Blood stained his bruised cheeks and his fat lip. He said nothing before swooping back into the apartment like a vampire.

“That freak’s coming down!” Ray said.

Andrew glanced around madly. “Who's coming?”

“The gross guy we saw on the stairs. We need to get to our bikes and get out of here.” Ray wasted no time bracing himself on the railing again. The ground was easily over ten feet down, and wouldn’t be a comfortable landing. He might even break something, or worse. There wasn’t much of a choice if he wanted to get away. “I’m making a leap for the grass. Once I land I'm going right for the bikes. We need to make it quick.”

“Wait a second, Ray!”

But he couldn’t. There was something in the way that punk stared at them in the hall and from the balcony that made it seem as if a piece of this guy was missing. That psycho wanted to catch them because they had what he wanted. Whatever that something was, Ray had no idea. It didn’t matter. All Ray knew was that he had to get away quick.

So he did.

Ray jumped from the first floor balcony with a bound. The summer sun baked his aching bones as he soared downwards and braced himself for a hard landing. Just before touching the grass, he hit it sideways in a roll. His backpack jiggled in his spin, rattling madly, and he hoped the radio didn’t break in his frantic momentum. Stings of red pain rippled across Ray’s arms and knees leading him to yelp as he flew across the grass off-kilter.

His sore legs trembled as he scrambled to stand back up. That fall hurt more than he let on, but he still had to get to his bicycle before that punk reached the bottom floor. Ray quickly regained his balance and flew towards the bikes lying on the walkway ahead of him.

A thud distracted him. Andrew shouted from behind. “Damn!

Ray chanced a glance back. Andrew rolled on the grass like a fish out of water. Ray’s friend slowly climbed to all fours, struggling to stand. A turtle on its back wouldn’t have looked more awkward than Andrew did at that moment in the middle of the grass. Ray rushed to his friend’s side, his ribs burning under the strain.

“My ankle won't move right,” Andrew said. “I think I twisted it.”

“Grab my shoulder. We just gotta get to the bikes and we can make tracks.”

The boys leaned against each other in their stumbling steps, moving much slower than Ray wanted them to. In any second, he expected the punk to burst out of the entranceway in a furious rage. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t seem like this entire neighborhood was completely vacant, meaning that he couldn’t even be sure anyone would come if they called for help. No one had heard the banging upstairs or had seen the two boys climb down to the ground floor, after all. It was like only the two kids existed in this world aside from the crazies chasing them. Ray pushed ahead with Andrew leaning on him, his mind on the bikes.

His tall friend groaned and swore with every awkward lope forward. Sweat poured down Ray’s neck as his muscles grinded with his jerky movements. Why did it feel like he was moving through molasses? A scream pitched out of the silent neighborhood from behind him. Andrew stumbled over to his bike and wobbled onto the seat and Ray followed. He didn't need to look back--knew who it was.


The punk ran out of the entranceway, his own legs wobbling like he had seen the front end of a Buick in rush hour. Ray cursed his luck and sat on his bike. This guy was too fast, despite his very obvious injuries.

Andrew shouted between clenched teeth as he tore out onto the road. Ray leaped onto his own bike and followed after his injured friend away from the building. They blitzed down the barren street, their speed a little sluggish at first, before they forced their legs to pedal like they hadn't before. The pair looked back only once.

The punk stood in the middle of the road, his formerly pale face a shade of red as he watched the two boys ride down the street and out of sight. All Ray could think about was where the other guy banging on the upstairs apartment went. He hoped the idiot just ran away or something. Ray let the thought fade and focused on the road ahead. The bloody punk soon faded from memory as they turned off St. Hubert Street.

The two boys rode down the road, Andrew falling back to let Ray take the lead. His face paled sheet white. Wherever they were going had to be a place they wouldn’t be followed to, or be alone in. Ray’s friend needed to rest, and he needed a plan.

“The mall,” Ray said. “We go in through the park and into the back entrance. No one drives through there. We lose anyone who might be tailing us, and we can decide what to do next.”

“If you say so, bud. My ankle is killing me. I just want to sit and take a breather.”

They pedaled off down the small slope back towards St. Joseph Street. Cars blitzed past the four way intersection as the duo waited at the stop sign. Ahead lay to possible destinations: the park in one direction and the mini-mall from Friday in the other. The mini-mall wouldn’t have enough cover: they needed to head for the real deal. Traffic was a bit busier than Ray expected, but not enough to throw off anyone potentially following them. Getting out of sight was the priority.

When the break in traffic came, the pair crossed the street and traveled left down the sidewalk towards the park. More apartment buildings met them in their journey, as did a familiar convenience store. The two turned between the buildings and rolled down a gravel path beyond recently trimmed overhanging brush into the park. Lush shrubs and old park benches met them as they glided through the stifling summer day.

It wasn’t a big park, though it was certainly an active one. At least two dozen kids climbed the jungle gym, running around in circles like wild apes. They hopped on the benches and swayed with the large swing sets in their own mad rhythms. This lot appeared to be part of some sort of playgroup from Centennial Elementary or the preschool as Ray didn’t recognize any of them. Nonetheless the pair rode past the crowd towards their destination. At least they would make good cover.

Across from the park they rode up a steep dirt hill through a torn opening into the fenced-off parking lot. Dirt kicked up under their tires. There they reached the rear entrance of the mall. Ray and Andrew glided towards the bike rack nearby and took a deep breath when they realized they could finally stop pedaling.

The duo parked their bicycles and relaxed. The barren backlot allowed them to sit at one of the two picnic tables placed by the lone line of parked cars. Most of the people who came here used the lot in front which meant privacy for anyone who came through this way. The thick line of brush on one side, and a large building on the other definitely helped. The two boys took advantage as they finally allowed themselves to breathe. Andrew rubbed his right ankle and Ray let his lungs catch up with the rest of him. It took about a minute before either spoke again.

“Put your ankle up, Andrew. You don’t want that sprain to get worse.”

“I’ve had worse.” Andrew complied with his friend's wishes by sitting on the shaded grass and placing his leg up on the bench of the table. “It’s not that bad, but I could use some ice.”

“Got any money?” Ray asked. “I don’t have much left since the movie on Friday.”

“I have a couple of bucks. Not enough for a . . . compress? Is that what it's called?”

“Well, I was thinking I’d get ice from the food court. I’ve barely got enough change, though.”

Andrew handed Ray a few dollar bills. “Keep the change. I’m not going anywhere ever again anyway. Not after today.”

“I’ll be right back.” Ray took out Lenny’s red book and nodded to his prone friend. “Stay still.”

"Funny guy."

The book burned in Ray’s torn up palms as he held it tight. While he moved through the rear entrance and passed the nearby phone booth he flipped through the pages trying to see if he recognized any names. That was difficult to do while he weaved through the packed crowds of the mall. This place was always packed on the weekends, and today was no different.

He had been to this mall hundreds of times, but it wasn’t all that impressive. Ray had visited so many of these things while on vacations and on cross-country trips with his extended family that he knew just how lame this one actually was. This was really just a glorified hallway with far too many boring clothes stores.

But it didn’t bother him. Since Burroughsvale wasn’t that big to begin with, neither was the mall. This building was comprised of a single floor that only had a thin row of stores along each side of a lone hall. It stretched about half a block, but for this town it was enough. The main attraction was the Woolworth that closed back when he was in third grade, but kids still poured in for the food court and the arcade at lunch and after school. The place being down the street from his own elementary school and the big school for the older kids probably helped.

“Hey, Ray, tell your mom I said hi!” a middle-aged woman said as he walked by. He waved back to her as he slipped through the crowd. Vera Tracey was apparently out with her two kids, checking the dollar store like she usually did. “Have a good day!”

This was June, summer vacation, which meant the flood of younger people and their mothers didn’t surprise him. They walked the mall, swarming in and out of the book store, the Electronic Boutique video game establishment, and even the pet shop. Ray didn’t have time for any of that today. He had a mission.

The food court in the Burroughsvale Mall was more or less a circle with a cache of tables littered in the center. Most of the stores were packed, leading him to believe it must have been around lunchtime. Without his watch he couldn’t be sure. That trek in the apartment already felt as if it had happened hours ago. He approached the Pizza Barn stall and waited behind a teenage couple, a sixth grader he hardly recognized outside of school, and a granny in a floral shirt and done-up grey hair. The noise in this place was oddly soothing, contrasting against the quiet of Lenny's place and the dread of the radio broadcast that stuck to him like dried sweat.

For once he could think of summer vacation and how things would soon go back to normal again. The sun, the happy faces, and the bustling activity, reminded him that the world really was a place of hopeful energy and smiles like Mom had said. He could forget about the Y Signal for at least a second. Hey, wasn't that Kristin Oliver over at the pet shop? Maybe he could--

Does the number nine-eleven mean anything to you? It should, because it means something to those who wish you dead.

Ray blinked. He scanned over the crowded food court. No one was using the speaker system. Where did that voice come from?

Do you get it yet, listeners? Yugoslavia is going to be shattered! A Canadian terrorist is going to blow up a Montreal bus in 1996. A falling satellite is going to crush a small village outside of Dusseldorf. Wait until you see what a simple Bird Flu will do to Hong Kong. The world is over. You can’t go back to your normal life and pretend it's all okay. It's not! It’s a lie. but you know this, whether you want to accept it or not. The last train rolls in tonight. Will you board it?

“Oh no,” Ray whispered. It was Yarbrough. The voice played overhead as if projecting through the PA system, but no one else appeared to hear it. They just went on doing what they always did, munching on their lunches and chatting away about summer reruns and sports. Why was it that only Ray was being subjected to this? Perhaps it wasn't real at all. Maybe he was just going mad. “Please, just go away already.”

I have the way out—the way out of the oncoming Armageddon. Follow me there. Tonight, we take the last train home.

“Where are you?” Ray asked.

“Hey, kid,” the cashier said. The middle-aged fat woman stared down at him from behind the counter, her large fingers tapping on a plastic tray. She wore a green cap and matching apron with the Pizza Barn logo on it and looked like she wanted to be anywhere else. “Are you gonna order or what? I've got places to be.”

Ray shook the rattling thoughts of doomsday from his head. “Sorry, ma’am.”

After being handed the cup and the pizza slice on a paper plate, Ray paid the annoyed woman, and slunk out of the food court. He made a beeline back out of the mall towards his injured friend, ignoring the world around him. He couldn't deal with this. Not now. Yarbrough’s voice had disappeared, but Ray's mind began to twist in weird ways.

The boy remembered odd visits with Lenny where he would talk about old food places that hadn’t existed since the older cousin was a kid himself. How they would come up, do well, vanish, and never be heard from again. It seemingly happened overnight. Names like G.D Ritzy, Gino’s Hamburgers, and Wag’s, which Lenny had discovered in his many journeys all disappeared from the collected consciousness. Sometimes he wondered if they really existed to begin with. Perhaps none of this was real. Now Ray questioned if he was experiencing the same thing. But that was crazy, right? Lenny was just the black sheep.

Nonetheless, he couldn't help but ponder on it. Did that mean all these places Ray knew so well might one day go away as well?

Ray fought the urge to look back at the food court. It would be there the next time he returned, and it always would be here in Burroughsvale no matter how much time had passed. Lenny was just being weird and it was rubbing off on his exhausted cousin. Once they found that jerk this would all get straightened out. Nothing was ending tonight. The world would go on same as it always did, and always would. Things changed, sure, but that didn’t mean they went away. Progress can’t just cast things aside or else it isn’t progressing to anything. People would never forget what mattered, how else would they learn? His mother always said so. She never steered him wrong. Parents knew everything, much as he hated to admit it.

Outside, Ray handed Andrew his paper plate and drink. Andrew dumped the soda and wrapped the ice in the paper plate. He kept his ankle elevated as he held the ice over his sock. Ray’s friend attempted to give him back the slice of pizza, but when Ray refused he ended up shoving the piece into his own mouth. It was just as well. Andrew needed the energy right now, not him.

“Did you get to take a look through the book?” Andrew asked between bites.

“No, I was a bit . . . distracted.”

“Better late than never, bud. Give it a look. We have all the time in the world.”

“Maybe not.”

“What do you mean?”

“Never mind. It's nothing.”

Ray dug into the book and poured through the names. He didn’t know any of these people, and at this point wasn’t even convinced they existed, or if anything did, and yet he was certain this Billy character that Lenny mentioned on Friday had to be in there. Lenny didn’t lie, even if he was insane. Eventually, Ray reached the only promising name. William Thwombly was listed beside a nickname that read Spikes. Ray traced the number with his finger.

While Andrew finished up his slice, Ray entered the phone booth beside the mall’s rear entrance and dialed the number.

The phone clicked on the fourth ring and a deep voice spoke on the other end. “Who is it?

“Is this Spikes?”

No. I’m an adult and this is 1995, kid. I don’t go by that name anymore.

“My name is Ray. This is about my cousin Lenny. He said Billy wanted an update. Is that you?”

A pause on the other end caused Ray’s breath to stiffen. For a second he thought he had been disconnected, losing his only living lead. Billy made a strange sound that could have been considered a cough and sucked on his teeth. It felt like an eternity before he spoke again. “I’ll give you my address. Make sure no one follows you.

After scribbling down the address this Spikes guy gave him, Ray didn’t even have the chance to ask another question before Billy told him not to call again and hung up. Whoever this guy was, paranoia was his middle name.

Andrew waited by the picnic table for his friend to return. He kept the ice on his ankle as he sat there nodding his head to an invisible beat. “I take it that you didn’t get anything?”

“No, I did. It’s just . . . it was weird. That guy sounded bored and annoyed until I mentioned my cousin. Then it was like he got a shot in the arm.”

“Lenny has some weird friends. Makes sense, since he's a nutjob. Are we going?”

“No other choice. I’m not risking a ride back home just yet. Those guys might still be out there hovering around St. Hubert. Whoever they were. We should stay away from that part of town for now. No one’s at home, anyway.”

“That means this guy doesn’t live near your cousin? I really don't want to go across town again.”

“He lives right over there, man.”

The directions Billy gave were fairly straightforward. In fact, they led back to one of the apartment buildings beside the very park they passed through. The two of them didn’t have to go far. Ray appreciated the short distance since Andrew wouldn’t need to move as much. The last thing Ray wanted to do was leave his friend alone alone or send him back home with those creeps somewhere out there. Leaving Andrew injured, defenseless, and on his own would be a punk move. Lenny would have looked down on him, too.

It only took two minutes to ride over to the apartment just behind the park. None of the kids reacted to their return, if they even remembered who they were to begin with, which made slipping into the building as easy as a free credit game at the arcade. Andrew hobbled a bit after him, but barely acted any different from his usual self otherwise. Ray's friend had quite the pokerface when he wanted one. You would never guess he just faced down death.

“You okay, Andrew?”

“Ankle’s not swollen, I’m good. I just want to keep off of it.”

Ray hit the buzzer at the front door and it clicked open almost instantly. Had this Billy guy been waiting since he called? Ray hoped this might be a sign that they would get in and out of there quick. He’d had enough running around for one summer, even if it was still only June.

Billy’s apartment was thankfully on the first floor, which meant a short walk. They crossed the small atrium of wide open black stairs and matching potting plants on either side. It was cheaper looking than Lenny’s building yet it felt somewhat livelier with the sounds of squawking kids and Sunday afternoon movies playing off too loud televisions. Having the park behind the building and a busy street nearby probably helped to liven this area up. Nonetheless, the duo only had to travel two doors over from the entrance before they reached the right apartment.

When Ray knocked on the door he wasn’t that surprised to see it answered so fast. No, he was far more surprised by the man who answered it.

Billy was surprisingly short, though with a bit of muscle under his too long t-shirt and torn jean shorts. He was not that much taller than the two boys. The long dark hair draping his face made it hard to see his green eyes under the mop. They looked somewhat unfocused as if they hadn't been allowed rest in far too long. He scratched the stubble on his chin as he looked them over.

“Take me to the radio,” Billy said.

“Well,” Ray began. He debated with himself about whether to tell the truth or not. He decided finding his cousin mattered more than testing his wits against Lenny's friends. “I have it on me.”

“Even better,” Billy replied. “We don’t have a lot of time if we want to catch up with Lenny.”

Ray and Andrew followed Lenny’s friend into the one bedroom apartment that had the blinds drawn. The lack of sunlight blocked much of the interior’s view. Not that it mattered since he only had a chair and a couch in the living room beside a pair of small tables. The two sat down on the bigger piece of furniture and Billy fell into the small chair by the darkened window.

“Do you have an icepack?” Andrew asked. “Not to be a jerk, but I could use one for my foot.”

“Sure.” Billy departed into the kitchen with relative quickness. He shuffled around a drawer and the freezer for a few seconds before he emerged with the ice pack and some cubes in a small plastic bag. Lenny’s friend handed them to Andrew. “Might want to sit on the floor and put that ankle up. Sorry if that sounds rough. This ain't the Ritz.”

“Why are you called Spikes, Billy?” Ray asked. “You don’t look very spikey.”

“My hair used to be up, and a different color. That was back when we . . . it’s ancient history, kid. Forget that. How do you know who I am, anyway? I asked Lenny never to tell anyone I was in this nowhere town for a reason. He mentioned this place he grew up in so many times back in the day and somehow I still moved here before he did. No idea why he waited so long to tell me about this Y Signal business either.”

Ray tried his best to explain everything since his wild Friday night, from the meeting with Lenny, to the dream, to escaping the apartment not even hours before. Even though he experienced it himself it was very hard to accept what actually occurred as reality. A part of Ray insisted he just had some sort of intense fever brought on by staying up too late, but a bigger part of him knew that definitely wasn’t true. The Y Signal had an answer for all of this, and that scared him more than any other possibility he could dream up.

Billy stared at Ray with half-closed lids as the boy spoke. The disheveled man's eyes nearly rolled back in his head. It was as if he was simultaneously enthralled and bored by the story. He was definitely Lenny's friend.

When the pesky kid finished, Spikes stood up from his chair. “Bring out the radio, boys."

Ray and Andrew exchanged glances. He believed this nonsense all too easily. Ray’s friend cleared his throat. “For what?”

“You'll see. Set it up. I’ll be right back.”

The man formerly known as Spikes slunk into his bathroom and closed the door. Ray did what Billy told them to and set up the radio on the small table by the window. While he reached down to plug it in, a buzzing sound screeched from Billy’s bathroom. A shaver? Ray tried to put this weirdo out of his mind and remind himself why he was there to begin with.

Andrew watched the radio like a mouse watches a housecat. “Didn’t you say that the Y Signal has to wait until after midnight?”

“Yes,” Ray said. “I thought he knew that. He is Lenny’s friend, after all. The guy looks a bit out there, but Lenny always ran with an odd crowd. He is the black sheep, remember?”

“This psychopath doesn’t even have any pictures up his wall or books or movies or any shelves to put them on. It's like he just moved in here yesterday. This isn't right. Maybe we should just leave, man. Are you sure you saw what you think you saw on Friday night? Maybe you just ate a bad clam or whatever.”

“No,” Ray replied. He finished propping the radio beside the window before he continued. “I thought I might be crazy, but there is too much happening at once. Why was that punk guy at Lenny’s apartment to begin with? Why did he chase us? Who was the other guy that kicked the door down? Why did my cousin meet with us on Friday in the first place? Why did he tell me to contact this guy if we didn't see him again? I need to know, Andrew. You can go home if your ankle is feeling any better. I’ll do this on my own if I have to.”

“After nearly breaking my leg following you off a cliff? I’ll stay right here, thank you.”

"Your funeral."

"Yeah, probably."  

The bathroom door swung open. Billy emerged with a freshly shaven head, revealing the pale white scalp that had once held his long dark hair not even minutes earlier. For a second, Ray regretted not heeding his friend’s words to abandon this place.

“That’s been bothering me for a while,” Billy said. “Finally time for a fresh start.”

“Okay, weirdo.” Andrew pointed to the radio. “Why do you want this thing so bad?”

“Because it’s a doorway, stupid. Now, get out. This isn’t for kids. Lenny must have told you that much. You wouldn’t understand any of this, and I can't even begin to.”

Ray waved Billy off. “It's my cousin that's missing, remember? I told you what I saw when I heard that creepy radio show the other night. It's dangerous. I have to find him and see if he's okay. I need to know the truth.”

"He is okay."

"How do you know?" Ray bit the inside of his cheek. "After all this craziness I've been through you can't expect me to believe that just by you saying it. Put yourself in my shoes. How would you react? Tell me where Lenny is, Spikes."

Billy stared blankly ahead for what felt like an eternity. It was impossible to tell if he was thinking of what to say or if he had forgotten where he even was. It didn't look like he'd thought about much in a long time, not with that empty glare on his face. Finally, after far too long, Billy opened his mouth and licked his lips.

“You’ve got a comfortable life, kid. You guys are lucky. This is a good town; I’ve seen it for the short time I’ve been here. You have family, friends, and a solid community that functions. Here is what you don't get, though. Most of that is gone outside of a few towns like this. You haven’t seen what we have—what we know is coming. Cherish what little time you’ve got left with those still here. Lenny’s already left this world behind and he isn't coming back. I’m next and so are many others. Come midnight, we’ll all be in a better place. A place where we belong. Just go home and forget you’ve seen anything.”

A dam broke in Ray's numb mind, and the heat rose in his gut. He bared his teeth at the bald punk. “Don’t give us that! After everything I've seen I deserve a real answer. Where are you planning on going? Why do you need the radio? Why did he leave in the first place?”

Billy rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed. “I’m only going to say this once more. That particular radio is a doorway. Lenny used it to make preparations and since he didn’t come back that means he’s finished. The radio program tonight is the last broadcast. Those who listen will be taken away to the Real World, and they will never come back. If you go through with me, you can’t return. That’s it. There isn't anything else. I told you that you wouldn't get it.”

“Then who were those guys at the apartment?”

“Those who only know half the story. As you've already experienced, the Y Signal doesn't take to everyone. Some times it . . . changes them. This is why Lenny didn't just parade it around like he was some kind of prophet with the elixir of life or some junk. The people showing up around town recently are those unworthy of the Signal, and they don't even know it. They're just trying to find the source, kinda like you. They only want it far more. That’s why Lenny barely went out of his apartment. How else would you deal with that sort of thing?”

Andrew slapped his own forehead. “You all belong in the loony bin.”

None of this made a difference. Ray really didn't know if any of this made sense, but he still needed answers from the person who mattered the most here. There was little point arguing over this with someone like Billy. Lenny had always been there for Ray, and that was reality. Whatever problems his cousin had, the boy would be there for him now and in whatever future waited ahead. That was what family was for. The little help a soon-to-be sixth grader could offer his wayward black sheep cousin would have to do. Leaving him with Yarbrough and that strange ape thing in an impossible alien space was not something Ray was willing to do.

“Well, I’m going with you,” Ray said. “Andrew, stay here. I’m going to have to risk it for Lenny. He needs to hear from me how crazy he's being.”

“Be my guest,” Billy replied. He tweaked the volume knob on the radio. “But I warned you.”

“Plug your ears and don't look, Andrew.” Ray knelt by his friend. “You don’t want to go where this leads.”

Andrew's lips creased hard against his teeth. “But why do you want to go there again? I don’t quite get all this, and I really don’t know why you won’t let this go, at this point. We returned the radio, and we know your cousin is gone. He wanted to go, right?  Just leave it there.”

“I can’t. Lenny wouldn’t leave me.”

Andrew sighed. “Didn't he just do that? You've always been a bit gullible. Families really aren’t that simple like you think. One wrong turn and they can flip on you. But I already know what you're like when you make a decision. Either way, I’m not good for running right now, so I’ll have to stay here. Don’t get yourself killed out there.”

“After today, I don’t think anything could kill me.”

Andrew forced himself up and moved towards the bathroom. He plugged his ears and closed his eyes as he left the living room. “Just make it quick.”

Billy fiddled with the knob and turned down the volume. He paused before tuning it correctly. Lenny's friend and Ray leaned close when the bald punk finally flicked the power on. Andrew made sure to close the door.

“It’s going to turn off automatically in a minute regardless,” Billy called out to the closed bathroom. The bald punk leaned next to Ray. “No one is ever going to hear this again after it shuts itself down. Do you realize that? Last chance to turn back, kid.”

“Ready when you are, Spikes.”

“That man is dead. Whatever I am now will be revealed in mere seconds.”

With those words the radio's speakers screeched a soundwave of static. The universe faded around them. Before Ray knew it he was no longer in the apartment, or even on Earth. He had left the old world behind, and a gnawing feeling in his gut told him he would never return home again. He would float in this limbo for eternity. A swirling fuzz of static cartwheeled through his brain. This was the end of the line.

Nonetheless, Lenny waited far ahead of him, somewhere at the end of the world, and Ray would find him. There was no turning back now. The Y Signal awaited him. Within seconds he just knew that he would reach it, and everything would come into focus again. He had to keep the faith alive. Ray would finish this right here and right now. No matter what it took, Ray would pierce this static and learn the truth.

Somewhere far away he heard the howl of a train whistle. It was getting closer. Ray felt his fists tighten beside his numb body. The last train was just ahead.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Obscure Horizons

Today I wanted to share with you a couple of projects. These have recently sprung up on the new Kindle Vella program and I find well worth the time to talk about. They are quite interesting ideas and both deserve highlighting.

For those unaware, Kindle Vella is a new idea from Amazon modeled after some other free fiction sites as a way to offer serialized fiction for cheap. how it works is that you get a new piece of story on a constant basis determined by the author. In essence, this is a way to give short fiction and the old style of serialized storytelling that was lost with the death of the pulps a shot in the arm. Potentially, that is. Will it be successful? Who knows. But it is worth talking about.

Unfortunately, and this is the biggest flaw with it, the service is only for America right now, which means writers and readers outside cannot contribute in any fashion as of now. For those who have sizeable audiences in the rest of North America or the world, they might think twice about limiting their reach. That limitation might change in the future, assuming the service lasts that long. In this day and age there is no way to tell.

Nonetheless, there are two new projects currently running on Vella that I wanted to highlight for you here. Should you have access to the service, be sure to give them a look over. You are guaranteed to have a good time.

The first up is The Perils of Sasha Reed by gonzo author Rawle Nyanzi. I heard about this one quite a bit from the author himself before he put it out, so I can tell you it is a passion project with a lot of love put into it. He wanted to create an old school-style serialized pulp story with a woman main character who uses her womanly charms to deal with the peril assaulting her. Very much a more traditional take on classical-style adventure tales. You can tell from the set up in the description just how much trouble she is going to be in:

"Pit girl Sasha Reed has a problem: every dirtbag on the planet wants to kidnap her! Her new subspace storage technology has attracted the attention of mutants, mad scientists, and the worst scum the Earth Sphere has to offer. Join Sasha and her gun-toting race car driver boyfriend as they deal with all sorts of peril in this short story series!"

Strap in for a fun time, ladies and gentlemen. 

You can find Rawle Nyanzi's The Perils of Sasha Reed on Kindle Vella here.

Nextup  is a different sort of story by author and bard in everything but name only David V Stewart called Bright Children. Unlike Mr. Nyanzi's Futuristic mayhem, Mr. Stewart's is a more classical Mythic approach to his adventure story. If you have read either author before, you know just how different they are!

Here is the description for Bright Children:

"The sun, like the goddess who rules it, is dead. The children of the gods, long divorced from their blessed origins, carry on in a world of darkness, aided by the last gift of their forebears: the light of magic. Aphella, a gifted student of the old magic, carries on in her town, surviving, but never prospering. When Frey, a mysterious traveler, enters her hometown, an immutable, eldritch force enters, too, and she is forced to go into the darkness to and draw the thing away..."

Once again, you can find Bright Children here on Kindle Vella. 

If you know the author's other works, then you might want to know that this takes place in the same world as his Water of Awakening and City of Silver books, though in the distant past. How does it tie in to the grand scheme of things? You'll have to read it to find out! 

That's all for now. A short little post to remind readers that, once again, they have no shortage of new options when it comes to NewPub! Even on these upcoming services, we've still got you covered. The revolution is here to stay.

Glad to be here!