“Is he going to die?”
Clark looked up at the faces searching his eyes for an answer. “I don’t know. I just don’t know . . .”
* * * * *
Present-day Chicago, four hours earlier ~
Man, this is the life! It’s not every day you get to sit in Wrigley Field and watch a game. Sure, I love traveling to new worlds and meeting new species. Heck, that’s about as exciting as life can get, but once in awhile it’s nice just to enjoy the creature comforts of home, especially an all-American baseball game. Yeah, the Cubs are having another lousy year, but they beat the Cards this afternoon and now tonight they’re pounding ‘em again. That’s all that matters today–
That’s when it happened. Clark and the other fans were stunned to see the lights go out in the stadium. The iconic buildings across the street, with stands built on their roofs, went dark. The tall apartment buildings in the distance went dark. The entire city of Chicago went dark.
Not here too. Not here! New York is a mess. Sure, at first when the lights went out there last week everyone acted all helpful and community-oriented. We heard stories of people taking in stranded travelers after the airports and trains shut down, and how restaurants and bars generously handed out free meals. But after four or five days, when temperatures rose, water and fresh food started getting scarce, then violence set in. Massive violence. Now the news channels can’t get enough of the widespread chaos. They keep showing the same images over and over of continuous fighting and blazing fires.
Then over the weekend, when the power went out in Philly, violence kicked in right away. It was almost as if people were waiting for an excuse to cut loose. Now you can’t turn on the TV without seeing fires and fighting.
Clark snapped back to the present and impatiently willed his eyes to adjust to the darkness. A moonless, cloudy sky darkened the night, but soon the stadium became relatively visible. He stood and surveyed his section. For a brief moment, no one moved. Several cheers rang out as intoxicated fans joked about not paying the electric bill. Many seemed to have a mild fascination with the interruption, especially knowing that the game was being televised nationally. Back home, this was likely becoming a national news story; the ballgame forced to pause. Then, a chilling hush fell over the crowd. Gradually, one cluster of fans after another rose to their feet. Soon, the entire crowd stood, talking in animated tones, furtively keeping watch, and searching for reassurance in a sea of uncertainty. Even at half-empty, the normally sold-out stadium held more than twenty thousand anxious fans.
The ball players stood talking in their own groups, one on the mound and the other out at center field. The darkness continued. After a few minutes, the players came in, congregating at the home team on-deck circle. Several talked with animated hand motions. Nervous energy overtook the crowd. Nearly everyone here would have seen the news footage from New York and Philadelphia. Those cities were still burning.
The players shook hands with their opponents before being ushered into the dugouts to disappear into the locker rooms. A murmur rippled through the stadium with increasingly anxious voices. Clark remained near his seat and stared at the field. He was pulled out of his trance by an excited voice three seats behind him.
“The lights are out in the buildings across the street, too.”
“In the buildings over there, too.”
“All of the buildings are dark.”
Voices surrounding Clark blended in rapidly excited tones– “Hey, my cell phone doesn’t . . . Mine either . . . My radio is . . . Mommy? Mo . . . What is . . . Is this normal? Wha . . . Don’t like the . . . No lights . . . Any danger . . .”
Fans around Clark were now agitated. Wide-eyed children clutched the hands of anyone who would hold them. Women inched closer to their partners and talked in quick, hushed voices. Men tensed and nervously eyed their neighbors, as all fans intensified their awareness of the surrounding area. A commotion startled several fans as a small scattering of anxious people hurried to the exits. Those that remained stood, playing with dead cell phones or talking in quiet groups while keeping an eye on the scene around them.
“Hey, the players are gone! Aren’t they supposed . . . I don’t think the lights are coming back . . . My cell is . . . My IPod . . . What is going on? . . . Creepy . . . Everyone doing . . . No way that . . . Can’t believe . . . My medicine is . . .”
The two men immediately to Clark’s right murmured inaudibly. He looked over at them. The two thirty-something men wore jeans, T-shirts, and ball caps. Catching their eye, he smiled and nodded. They looked at him with contempt, refusing to acknowledge his greeting. Clark inched away from them, bumping into the gentleman on his left, who quickly gathered his wife and son and headed toward the exit, looking back at Clark as he urged his family on.
“Sorry.” Clark looked after them as they reached the aisle and then the exit. He slid over to stand in front of the open seats, shrugging his shoulders and nodding to a young couple a few seats away. They smiled sheepishly and glanced nervously at the men still staring at him. Trying to ignore them, Clark scanned his section of the stadium. Hundreds of people fidgeted nervously in place. Keeping track of all movement around them became an obsession to Clark as well as others. They all watched together, waiting to see what would happen next.
I don’t like this. Feels like a bad night just waiting to happen.
Fifteen rows behind Clark another commotion developed. Fans pushed and shoved, shouting obscenities at each other. That was all that was needed to motivate people to get moving. The crowd started to dissipate quickly.
Maybe it’s time to –
“Leave me alone!”
The shriek drew Clark’s attention. He searched for the voice and found the commotion to his left. He could barely make out three figures grouped together, two rows down from his seat. A woman stood in front of a boy of about five or six, facing off a man at arm’s length. The man continued reaching for her arm to lead her away. Clark hurried down the steps toward them, pretending to be out of breath. He ignored the guy, looking into her eyes.
“There you are! I’m sorry I’m late, but you weren’t easy to find in this darkness, dear.”
Even in the relative darkness, her expression was easy to read. Clark responded to it. “Oh, don’t act surprised. I told you I would make it before the end of the game.” Clark looked at the man. “Who is this?”
The would-be assailant released her arm to take a step backward. He eyed Clark suspiciously. “You know this guy?”
“Si, yes, this is my boyfriend. Now leave us alone!”
Clark showed mock surprise. “Is this guy bothering you, dear?”
He raised his hands in a halting motion. “No, no. I mistook her for someone I know. Simple mistake. I was just leaving.”
Clark watched until he was certain the aggressor was leaving for good. He looked down at the boy. “Hi there, little guy. What’s your name?”
The child looked up at his mom for permission to speak.
The boy’s mother looked over Clark’s 5’10, thin, runner’s frame. Dressed in jeans, a tight polo shirt, and running shoes, he seemed harmless enough. She straightened and put effort into sounding confident. “It’s okay honey, tell him.”
Clark brightened. “Oh, like Joey Capuano, the third baseman.”
The boy nodded fervently. His mother looked at Clark. “Actually, that’s his favorite player. We came here today to try to get his autograph.”
Clark kneeled down to make eye contact with Joey. “Capuano is one of my favorite players too. I know where people stand and wait after the games to get autographs. I’ll have to show you sometime.”
He looked up at the boy’s mother. Clark considered himself to be an average guy with a good accountant job and a boring life. At least it was boring right up until his recent discovery. In the months since finding the secret invisible portal, he had visited dozens of planets and met just as many species of aliens. This woman had no way of knowing any of this, but some of his calm, confident personality allowed her to discard the notion that he posed an immediate threat. Her concern moved beyond him, her eyes searching for trouble that might come their way.
The boy blurted out, “My dad is a fireman! He will come and save us!”
Clark looked at her hopefully. She lowered her head. “His father moved to St. Louis. We’re . . . separated.”
“Don’t worry Miss; we’ll get through this just fine.”
“Thank you. By the way, my name is Maria.”
“I’m Clark, Clark Jackson.”
“Do you think it’s best if we just stay here and wait for the lights to come back on? Maybe we could lower ourselves to the ground and hide behind the seats.”
Clark surveyed the stadium. Each exit tunnel was packed with people trying to escape. Impatient individuals had begun pushing and shoving to move the processions along. No serious violence had erupted as of yet, but panic was setting in. Other pockets of fans stood together in the seating area, watching the scene unfold, with heads swiveling back and forth like owls.
“I don’t know if that’s really a good idea. It feels like we’re very exposed here and cut off from any authorities that might be in the area. Besides, I think we should go on the assumption that the lights aren’t coming back on. They’re still out in New York and Philly and this could be the same thing. We might need to find someplace safe to ride out the night.”
Maria’s voice caught in her throat. “O-Okay. You think this was done intentionally? Who would . . .?”
He looked at her blankly. “I have no idea . . .”
Not here on Earth . . . no, it couldn’t be . . . no . . .
“. . . but it’s probably safer to assume that the lights won’t be coming back on anytime soon.”
Maria’s stare drew his attention toward the field. A large group of families were gathered in the first row. The men had formed a perimeter around the women and children. Several of the men were now talking in raised voices, arguing about their next move. Two of them threw up their arms in disgust and walked away from the others. They looked at each other, nodded, and then jumped over the wall down onto the field. Clark and Joey watched as one-by-one, they entered the dugout emerging a moment later with baseball bats in hand.
Others took to the idea of arming themselves and quickly followed suit. Whether they had protection of their loved ones in mind or violent offense, Clark had no interest in finding out. He quickly grabbed Maria’s hand and ushered them toward the exit.
There was pandemonium outside the stadium. Thousands of fans remained within two blocks of where Clark, Maria, and Joey were standing. Added to that were the throes of bar and restaurant crowds. Intoxicated individuals laughed, hooted and hollered while holding up their beer. Other people gathered in groups looking intimidating, while most everyone else wandered about with nervous energy.
Clark and company tried to make their way through the crowd to the street without bumping into anyone. The last thing they needed was a confrontation of any sort. Clark led the way, moving from side to side trying to block the occasional drifter from getting too close to Maria and Joey. Maria held onto Clark’s shirtsleeve as they stopped and started every few steps. Clark scanned the faces of each approaching stranger, constantly searching for danger. They made it to a clearing near the sidewalk without incident.
The two adults stood facing each other. Clark alternated between scanning the crowd and looking at Maria. She was sweating now. Her forehead was dotted with perspiration and the top of her blue Cubs t-shirt looked damp. Her breathing came in short, labored spurts. Her eyes darted back and forth, as she clutched her son tightly with both arms. He needed to get her and Joey to a safe place quickly. It was time to get moving again. Clark spoke first.
“Which way do you think we should go? I’m from out of town. How familiar are you with this part of town?”
“What? Oh no, we don’t live here. We’re from Wisconsin. We . . . just came down for the ballgame. I thought you were a local.” Slight panic crept into her voice.
“No, me neither. I’m from Iowa myself. Well, I feel nervous about picking a direction. There is so much of downtown area we would have to go through in any direction we pick.”
Clark closed his eyes, trying to recall an image of the map he had studied that morning. “So much city.”
She leaned closer to Joey while brushing his hair aside. “What?”
“There’s just so much city to try to get through in almost every direction. Maybe we should head east toward the lake. I think it’s only about ten or twelve blocks. Twelve city blocks are supposed to be a mile, I think. Under normal conditions, we could walk a mile in fifteen to twenty minutes easy. That might be the least amount of urban area to try to get through in any direction.”
She repeated, “Under normal conditions . . .”
Clark looked at her. “Yeah. Well, in any case, it’s the shortest route out of this. I just don’t know if it’s the safest.”
Maria hesitated. “I . . . okay, maybe. What will we do when we get there?”
“Um, find a place to hide or try to catch a boat out of here I suppose. Heck, I’d even be happy to just jump in the water and watch from there, anything to get away from the mobs.”
“Okay, which way?”
He pointed south. “That way. I remember Addison Street from looking at the map. It heads right toward the lake.”
She acknowledged the point. “That seems to be where most everyone has headed anyway.”
“Mommieee!” Joey cried out.
“Oh honey, everything is going to be just fine. Shh . . .”
Maria scooped up Joey and they took off at a brisk pace, feeling exposed from standing still. Across the street from the entrance to the ballpark, crowds gathered in front of the bars and restaurants. The area was surprisingly well-lit from the increasing number of fires illuminating the streets. While loud and boisterous, the crowds had remained relatively calm thus far. Still, the sheer number of people in close proximity and the volume of noise left Clark feeling unsettled.
If only I had brought one of the laser guns I picked up on Tr’zez’s world, this would be so much less stressful. But of course, why would I ever need one on-planet even if it does involve a trip to Chicago? If it were just me to worry about, I could always use the invisible feature on the phone device I took from Tr’zez, or better yet, just fly out of here. That wouldn’t help these two though. However . . . using one of the features of the device would attract the feds and bring them here. Then they could pick up these two and get ‘em to safety. But then I’d have the new problem of being discovered and captured. It’s bad enough they almost caught up to me a few months ago. I was finally feeling like I’m off their radar. Better to just try to get out of this on our own.
One block further, roadblocks barricaded the street. A perimeter had been established around the entire city block. Dozens of police officers stood guard next to the wooden sawhorses. Some were outfitted in complete riot gear including Plexiglas shields; others were simply armed with shotguns.
“Oh thank God. A police station! You found a police station!” Maria set her son down, put her arms around Clark’s chest and squeezed the life out of him.
* * * * *
They sat on the floor of a small classroom in a school behind the police station. The chairs proved to be much too tiny for anyone other than the few children in the room. Two hours had passed while Clark watched the room fill up, going from a half-dozen to over twenty-five occupants. Tensions were high, yet everyone put on their “nice face” and used friendly tones. Someone had found blankets to pass out to everyone. No one was about to get any sleep but being covered somehow helped comfort frazzled nerves. Most of the occupants at least tried to close their eyes and find peace.
Whoa . . .
The ground shook a fraction of a second before the sound of an explosion reached their ears. People gasped and screamed out. Any sleeping children were now awake and crying. Everyone faced the classroom windows to get a better look at the disturbance. Clark’s heart raced. His eyes searched anxiously for some indication of what was going on. He stole a look at Maria. Appearing calm, her eyes betrayed a touch of panic. Another blast rang out, shaking the ground again. This time, screams could be heard from the front of the police station.
Outside, explosions and fires lit up the night. The few policemen assigned to the school rushed over toward the police station. Clark looked around. The school itself seemed to be safe for the time being. People continued to file out of the building with looks of awe and fear. Sounds of gunfire came from both the west and the east, all on the street in front of the station. Multiple fires illuminated the sky above the station.
“You stay here while I check this out.”
Maria gripped Clark’s arm. “There is no way I’m leaving your side. You’re the only person in this city I trust right now.”
Maria held Joey tightly and managed to keep up. They stopped just outside the back door. She listened to the commotion outside while Clark surveyed the police building in front of them and the sky above. She looked at the intensity in his eyes. “How well do you know your weapons?”
He stared ahead at the back of the police building as if he hadn’t heard her. Finally, without turning he answered, “Not that well. Not at all actually, but that certainly does sound like machine gun fire to me. I don’t think this place is going to be safe for much longer. It sounds like at least thirty or forty guns to me, probably a lot more. It’s a full-scale attack.”
She frowned. “You’re right; it sounds like a war zone up there. How could they get so close to the police station in the first place?”
“Lady, anything can happen on a night like this,” a scratchy voice next to her answered. Maria turned to look at the middle-aged man who introduced himself as George. A small group gathered around them, watching intently.
“We should go help the police,” Jose, a thirty-something man on her left proposed. His wife, Angela, nodded in agreement.
George raised his voice. “Oh really? And what do you propose we do? Those men and women out there are trained and armed. We’re just civilians caught in a bad place at a bad time.”
“We should do something. They’re protecting us. We should help out.”
“My responsibility is to these people.” George motioned to his wife, Sarah and two daughters. “I have to ensure their safety.”
You’re both right, but what could we really do against a violent, homicidal mob except get in the way?
The sounds of the skirmish intensified. Machine gun fire was almost constant now, accompanied by shotgun and handgun eruptions. Combatants screamed out in anguish as the shooting escalated. Dozens of objects smashed through windows of the station, setting off another round of gunfire. More explosions erupted, followed by more screams and shooting. It was difficult to determine if any of the attackers had penetrated the police station yet.
Clark decided it was time to get moving again. “I don’t know what to think on a night like this, but I don’t like what I’m hearing.” As he took two steps away from the school, Clark looked back in surprise that she wasn’t following. “We should get moving again while we still can.”
Maria stood her ground. “But this is a police station. This is where people go to be safe. It’s a place of safety. Isn’t it?”
He gave her his most impatient look. “Unfortunately, it also seems to have made itself a target.”
“Are you fo-folks thinking of le-leaving?”
They both turned to look into the petrified eyes of an elderly couple, who introduced themselves as Thomas and Joanna.
“Can we come with you?” Thomas asked.
Clark didn’t hesitate. “Of course. The more, the merrier. Who knows, maybe there’s strength in numbers. Makes us less of a target.”
The eleven of them made their way through the back alleys to the street just north of the police station and school. A block further, the sounds of gunfire diminished. They paused to survey the area. To their explosion-riddled ears, it was now quieter, but not quiet. Each of them strained their necks, listening for signs of immediate danger. Clark could see a faint glow in the sky in every direction, except to the east, which was pitch-black after about a mile. The group continued to listen. He raised his hand up to indicate they continue waiting. Still they listened . . .
Clark jumped. Everyone looked down at the source of the outburst. Before anyone could respond Maria gathered the children together. She spoke softly and calmly. “Everything is going to be just fine. We’re going to play a game. How does that sound, everyone? We’re going to the lake where all the pretty boats are, but we want to sneak past the people who live here, so we all have to be quiet . . .”
While she calmed the children, Jose addressed Clark. “Something feels wrong. It’s too quiet.”
George cut Clark off before he could reply. “It’s the middle of the night in a blackout. There’s no streetlights, no lights on in the windows, nothing. What’d you expect?”
“I know, I know, but this is a big city. There should be something happening, even under the circumstances.”
What . . . ?
Clark felt, but couldn’t see, the pair of eyes watch him. He looked up and down the street, paused, and then searched again. More slowly, he scrutinized the landscape across the street, surveying the entire block. Nothing caught his attention, but he couldn’t shake the feeling. He was looking down the street when a thought struck him. “Cars.”
“What’s that?” George asked.
“There’s no cars on the street.” Clark pondered this revelation as the conversation continued without him.
Jose nodded. “Yeah, that’s it. There should be traffic out and about. I haven’t seen or heard a vehicle the whole night.”
Sarah asked, “Maybe the electronics in cars are out too?”
Angela agreed. “Yeah, that’s right. I heard that about New York, too.”
George frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense. That shouldn’t happen just because some transformer or power station has a problem. Should it?”
Jose said, “Now that I think about it, I heard that about the power outage in New York, too. Something about all the electronics conking out, but the authorities were trying to deny it, saying there wasn’t evidence of that actually happening.”
George resisted the notion. “Wait, what kind of power outage takes out cars and cell phones too?”
They looked at each other in the glow of the background fires. They all noticed Thomas looking up at the sky.
George asked him, “What are you looking at?”
Thomas pointed upward. “Do you suppose it would take out planes, too?”
Everyone looked up.
* * * * *
George set the pace for the group, staying one step ahead of Clark. Maria and Joey followed behind Clark, while George’s family trailed behind him. Joanna and Thomas struggled to keep up, in the middle of the pack. Jose and Angela took up the rear, each turning their heads every few seconds to keep watch behind them.
Another two blocks further, the atmosphere changed. A few parked cars were on fire on both sides of the street and there was a great deal of activity in the surrounding neighborhood. The intermittent fires alternated lightening and darkening their vision, casting shadows that danced in the background. The odor of burning gasoline and rubber fouled the air. Some windows were broken on the lower floors of buildings lining the street. People were scrambling over each other to crawl into the windows. Screams, moans, and laughter echoed in the distance. Dogs barked continuously. Occasional gunshots and explosions rang out.
Sarah’s voice was weak. “How can all this damage happen so quickly?”
Maria’s eyes darted about. “Why do people behave this way?”
Sarah jerked her head to the left and searched the shadows across the street. Finding nothing, she sighed. “I knew it was a bad idea to go to the game.”
George glared at her. “Now isn’t the time . . .”
“Yeah, you said, ‘But I bought the tickets six months ago. I’m not missing this game.’ I told you–”
He sneered. “Hey! There are a lot of things that happen in New York that don’t happen here.” George stopped and waved his hands in her face. “Tell me, what are the odds that in this very city, on this very day, the exact same thing would happen here? What about years ago when all those states on the East Coast had that cascading blackout? Did we all stay home that day? Did they in L.A.? Phoenix?”
Clark held his hands up. “Okay, okay–”
Across the street, four teenagers sprinted by. Brandishing sticks, they busted car windows and screamed like monkeys until they reached the end of the block and turned the corner.
Thomas shook his head. “I don’t like this. Are you people sure this is the safest way to go? Do any of you live in this neighborhood?”
No one answered. Joanna and Thomas looked at each other. He continued. “How do we know this is the safest way to go?”
George looked at Clark. “Where are you taking us? What’s your plan?”
Clark stopped the group. “I want to head to the lake.”
Sarah frowned. “And then what?”
“Hopefully, find a boat.”
Joanna asked, “What if it won’t start either?”
Clark answered. “Then we row. At least we would be away from people and danger.”
Thomas blinked rapidly. “Maybe it would be safer to find some place to hide for the night.”
George started moving again. “No. I like his plan better.”
The entire entourage huddled together closely as they continued east. Clark kept his ears focused on the sounds of the neighborhood. A cat howled from half a block away, giving Thomas a start. Eyes watched the group from several windows between drawn curtains. A group of five homeless men in tattered rags sat against a building wall on the corner across the street, eyeing them intently as they passed.
They’re just sitting there. Just sitting. I’m sure they’re harmless.
Clark looked back at Maria and smiled. She gave a half-smile which didn’t match the intensity in her eyes. He turned to look over at the homeless people now behind them. They continued watching but remained in place.
“Ah!” George jumped.
Clark whipped his head around to see what had startled him. Two men and a woman stood between two parked cars, staring at the group from a distance of six feet. All three held large knives, tracing out figure eights in the air in front of them. Standing straight up and facing the group, each of the three kept their heads up and eyes alert, poised for quick action. They remained quiet, just staring at Clark and company. The entire group bunched up and slid over closer to the building next to them as they passed the three strangers. Suddenly, Thomas stumbled. He reached out for Joanna, pulling her down to the sidewalk with him. The group was forced to stop. Clark gasped and immediately looked over at the gawking individuals. They didn’t react to the stoppage, except to keep watch over them. Clark helped Thomas to his feet. Thomas looked at him with worry in his eyes.
Clark tried to comfort the old man. “It’s okay. We were going a little too fast anyway. Everyone’s on edge. We’ll slow down a little.”
“O-Okay. How is Joanna?”
“I’m just fine, honey. Just fine,” Joanna said as Maria helped her up.
George stared at the three individuals staring back. They remained stationary between the cars, now twenty feet from the group. Clark checked on Thomas and Joanna one more time, and then started the procession forward again while George and Jose kept an eye on the strangers. No one spoke until they had traveled another half-block further.
George looked at Clark. “Sorry. I didn’t see them until we were right up on them.”
“Don’t worry about it. Just relax. Everything’s going to be–”
They all heard it, a high-pitched scream that stood out from the other sounds in the neighborhood.
Sarah asked, “What was that?”
Angela’s voice quivered. “That scream . . . it was horrible. Some woman is in serious pain.”
Jose stopped. “Someone’s in trouble!”
George looked back and motioned for him to keep up. “So are we. That came from at least two blocks away. We can’t help her even if we knew where to go.”
Angel raised her hands to cover her ears.
The next block proved less eventful, though the number of cars on fire increased as they made their way down the street. Shadows shifted around them as they passed each burning car. They continued at a slower pace, Clark keeping watch on the others while George searched for signs of trouble. Two dogs barked at them from inside homes and occasionally, curtains stirred behind windows in the buildings along the way.
Okay, okay. We can do this. Can’t be more than four or five blocks to the lake now.
A block further brought them to a scene of all-out battle between two mobs of people. They consisted mostly of young adults, both male and female. At the moment, the battle was contained to the area in the center of the street between parked cars that were on fire. Baseball bats and knives swung through the air like swords. Four people fell to the ground in pain as the group scampered closer.
Jose stopped and called out to Clark. “Should we turn around and take a different street?’
George spoke up. “Let’s just keep going. This is happening on every street; or worse. Everyone keep your heads down, don’t stare and keep moving.”
Jose and Angela hesitated, falling behind the others until his wife nudged him forward. The group quickened their pace. As they neared the fight, the battle shifted toward the sidewalk, narrowing the gap to safely pass through. George forged ahead urging the others to hurry. Now in the middle of the group, Clark stopped as two men suddenly stepped in front of him.
“Uff.” He stepped back, narrowly avoiding the backward swing of a bat.
Maria grabbed his arm and huddled next to him, still clutching Joey in her right arm.
Two fighters with baseball bats faced each other, the closest one with his back to Clark. He took a right-handed swing, which his opponent blocked with his own bat. The opponent countered with a swing which was also blocked. The assailant nearest Clark stepped forward, driving the knob of his bat into his adversary’s stomach. With the other fighter doubled over, he dropped the man to the ground with a downward blow to his back. He kept his back to Clark as he swung his bat to pummel the downed enemy.
Clark whispered. “Let’s go!” He grabbed Maria’s hand and led her past the two, just before three more combatants staggered over onto the sidewalk. He took several more steps before looking back to see Jose and Angela had been cut off, trapped on the other side of the fighting groups.
Angela watched with panic as the combatants fought intensely without noticing the couple. Jose grabbed Angela’s hand and urged his wife to back up. Clark stood watching when George’s hand grabbed his shoulder.
“Come on, we don’t have time to waste and neither do they. We have to keep moving.”
Clark protested. “No, we can’t just leave them. We have to stay together. That’s the only chance we have to survive this night.”
Clark continued to watch as the couple turned to run back the way they had come.
We can’t just abandon them. There must be something I can do. But I can’t leave Maria and Joey . . .
“Come on, Mister! Let’s go! They have the same chances of getting out of here that we do.”
Jose and his wife were now nearly to the end of the block. Clark looked at Maria, who was prodding him with pleading eyes. He finally resigned himself to the situation, turning to jog over to the remainder of the group.
Sarah reached out and touched George’s arm. “Was there really nothing we could do?”
“Sarah, dear, we were drastically outnumbered and had no way to defend ourselves. They all had weapons, for crying out loud.”
“But . . . but now Jose and Angela are all alone out there.”
George looked back at the others. He sighed. “I know.” He paused and lowered his voice. “We did what we had to do.”
But at what price George? At what price?
Reaching up to feel his neck, Clark had no difficulty finding his pulse. It was racing. No need for a stopwatch, it was easily over a hundred beats per minute. Sweat drenched his face and armpits. In the relative darkness, the others showed the same signs of anxiety.
As they crept on down the block, they abruptly noticed a group of twenty-plus teenage boys wearing jeans and basketball jerseys. The youths stood menacingly in the center of the street, waiting for action. Clark stopped the group as the boys looked them over. Both groups eyed each other from half a block away, neither one making a move. Clark felt Maria’s trembling hand on his sleeve.
George was the first to react. “We should–”
Clark cut him off. “No! Shh!” He whispered, harshly, “Not a word!”
An uncomfortable silence ensued as both groups stood their ground. From that distance, Clark couldn’t see the facial expressions of the young men, but their body language was cocky and anxious.
Can’t outrun these guys. No way. Can’t fight ‘em either. Maybe . . .
The attention of every living thing on the block suddenly drew to a voice calling out, “Jenny? . . . Jenny? . . .” Faint at first; the unmistakable sound of a man in anguish drew nearer. A moment later, a middle-aged man appeared around the corner and approached the boys. The leader of the edgy group motioned for the others to accompany him into the street to intercept the distressed man.
“Come on, hurry!” George called out.
Clark hesitated, watching as the group of boys surrounded the straggler. Several of them pulled on his hoodie and jabbed his shoulder. He panicked, swinging blindly at the air surrounding the gang. Enraged, the leader of the group took one swing at the man’s face, knocking him down.
From behind Clark George bellowed, “Come on, it’s either him or us. Let’s go! This is the only way we were going to survive the night. Let’s not pass up this stroke of luck.”
His adopted group moved further away, picking up the pace. Maria stopped to stare at Clark with pleading eyes, once again, motioning dramatically with her left arm for him to follow. He shook his head and motioned for her to continue and rejoin the group.
Enough! This is wrong. If we just let this happen, we’re no better than anyone else on this night. Hmm, maybe no one has to know . . .
Standing at least thirty feet from the closest hoodlum in near total darkness, Clark switched on the phone device, setting the invisibility feature for sixty seconds. He stared at the mongrels before him. Having struck the victim several times on the ground, seven of them began kicking him, while the others looked on.
Clark picked up a board, part of a broken headboard resting near some garbage. Roughly the size of a baseball bat, the board became invisible in his hands, once grasped. Moving quickly and intently, his focus was on the attackers closest to the pedestrian.
Efficiency is the key here. No time for showboating or taking out my frustrations. Instilling fear is the point, not inflicting a beat-down.
Quietly, he sighed. Then, using the end of the board like a poker, he shoved one guy in the back propelling him forward into the two in front of him. This achieved two objectives. It drew everyone’s attention away from the fallen victim and cleared a path to the center of the gathering.
Clark turned to his right to hook the board under the kicking leg of another, using all of his strength to lift the attacker off the ground to fall on his back. Clark took a step to his right and swatted two more in the stomach with the flat of the board, collapsing the two to their knees. He spun around to cover the ground back to his left where he swatted two more, this time behind the knees, to bring them quickly to the ground. Then he lunged forward to poke a particularly nasty looking, grinning attacker in the stomach.
Clark paused to survey the scene, holding the board like a sword, ready to resume the offensive. By now, the group had quit attacking the victim. Six men lay on the ground in bewilderment scratching their heads, several stood with open mouths stepping back to watch, while a half-dozen took off running, murmuring about ghosts.
He crossed over to resume the attack, swatting two men at a time. Alternating between a strike to the stomach and one behind the knees, he put down six more offenders with his next flurry. That was enough to send the remaining youths running back into nearby buildings. Tossing the board to the side, Clark rushed back to the sidewalk, just as the invisibility feature expired, giving the appearance of only now coming upon the scene.
He yelled over to the fallen victim, “Hey! Are you all right?”
The surprised man sat up, clutching his chest. “Uh, I don’t know. My chest hurts real bad. Why did they stop?”
“Stay down. Rest for a second.” He approached the man and looked him over. “I don’t know why they stopped. I just got here. I didn’t see what happened. You really can’t wander around like that screaming out in this mess. You’re just a really attractive target.”
“I have to find my girl, Jenny. She’s the only child I have and I’m her only relative. We had a . . . fight tonight. She stayed out after curfew and I yelled at her. She ran out of the house before the power went out. She’s too young to be on the streets. I can’t just leave her out here all alone. I can’t.”
Clark reached up to rub his forehead. He glanced up the street at the others, then back down at the overweight, thirty-something man before him. The stranger attempted to get up but fell to the ground, wincing in pain and grabbing his chest. His breathing became labored as he sat motionless, wheezing in and out. Clark helped him up, wrapped an arm around his back and helped him stagger to the sidewalk.
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Paul, you’re in no shape to search by yourself and you can’t stay here. There’s a group of us just up ahead. We’re heading to the lakefront. Why don’t you join us? You won’t be of any use to her if you don’t take care of yourself first. We need to get you someplace safe and then some medical attention.”
“But . . .”
“I know, I know. You have to survive the night though. And, c’mon, you have to believe she’s holed up somewhere by now, anyway. There’s no way she’s out here in this mess. Let’s just get you to safety for now and figure out the rest later.”
Man, I sure hope this is the way to safety.
The group slowed as soon as they saw Clark heading toward them again. By the time Clark and the newcomer caught up with the others, they had traveled another two blocks toward the lake. In the short time he had been separated from the group they had grown by a total of four. There were two parents with a little girl and a teenage boy from the Cubs game. The adults had all gathered items along the way, mostly garbage can lids and sizeable sticks. They formed a tight perimeter around the children. A discussion had taken place regarding the merit of lighting several torches, but it was dismissed in fear of attracting further attention to themselves. Sounds of the still-raging battle at the police station were diminished behind them.
As Clark approached, Maria whispered, “What did you do?”
Clark tried his most innocent look. “Nothing. I just went back to invite him to join us.”
Maria’s look betrayed her disbelief. “You are a wonderful man. Now please just stay with us.”
Sarah perked up. “I think we might be almost there! It looks like open fields or something up ahead.” She craned her neck, trying to see down the street, as she walked.
The group sped up. After hurrying past the remaining tall buildings, they approached a major highway separating them from soccer and baseball fields and ultimately, their destination, the lake. Everyone stopped to survey the area for possible danger.
“What’s everyone waiting for? Let’s go.”
“It feels so . . . open, so exposed.”
Clark took the lead. “I’ll go. I’ll cross over the highway and motion for the rest of you when I think it’s safe.”
“Wait!” Maria reached out to touch his left arm while pointing forward. She tilted her head to listen carefully.
After a moment, they all heard it. Dogs. These dogs were not like all of the others they had heard that night barking randomly at the various sounds of the night. Growling and snarling dominated, as if an attack might be occurring. It was impossible to gauge if the dogs were strays or accompanied by their owners.
“C’mon, let’s work our way further down.” Clark pointed to the south.
Everyone followed without hesitation. Two blocks later they agreed to cross the highway. They quietly picked up their pace as they approached the lake. Maria broke the silence with her excited exclamation.
With excitement, the others rushed ahead of Clark. George stormed ahead, while Sarah smiled sheepishly at Clark, as they charged by with their children. Thomas and Joanna ambled along slowly, more relieved than anything. The newcomers were cautious at first, but fed off the enthusiasm of the others.
Clark stopped when he realized Paul was missing from the group. Turning to look back, he still couldn’t locate him. Taking a few steps toward the road, he caught sight of him sitting against a tree. Clark quickly approached Paul, who had his eyes closed. Clark knelt down and whispered.
“Paul. Paul . . .”
There was no response. Clark reached out to find a faint heartbeat in his neck. The weakened man managed to whisper a raspy single word before slumping over onto his back.
Clark replied with the only response he could. “We’ll find her Paul. We’ll find her.”
The rest of the group had noticed Paul and Clark had fallen behind. They backtracked and now gathered around the two. “Is he going to die?”
Clark looked up at the faces searching his eyes for an answer. “I don’t know. I just don’t know . . .”
Quietly, they watched intently as the man drew his last breath.