I. Rainstorms in July
His father showed him how to use the laptop. Every day, his father made him practice. Given his age, he was pretty good at it. He could type the words he knew and do the basics well enough. At five, one couldn't expect much more than that. When they were done practicing, his father patted him on the head and told him to go outside to play. All around them, there were no other houses and no trees save one oak in the backyard. His mother told him a long time ago, there used to be woods not far from their backyard and houses beyond it, but the area was poverty stricken and a major place of crime. The city had the neighborhood demolished, and the neighboring woods were cut down to make room for all the big houses they were going to build on the freed up land. Something fell through, and the new neighborhood was never built. Weeds and tall grass grew in place of where the trees and little homes once were, the red clay quickly hidden away again. His mother told him it was the earth's way of covering up the blood spilled by corporate greed, but he didn't understand anything about that. Father always did say his mother was an idiot when she was out of the room. Out in the yard, from all sides, he only saw tall grass and flowers when he perched himself high in the oak tree. His mother never said what used to be on the other empty side, but he didn't care. The field their home sat in was the boy's kingdom. His father never cut down the grass. He was still small enough to hide anywhere in it and young enough that the place where the grass met the horizon seemed an impossible distance to travel on foot. He asked his father to build him a tree house in the lonely oak, but it kept getting put off. Tomorrow, Thursday, next week. His older sister, Crystal, told him to let it go. She already tried to get him to build one for years and nothing ever came of that. Crystal was another mystery to him. In the morning, she wandered out into the field first. She wouldn't come home until sunset, and she always went somewhere beyond the horizon. He never caught her leaving. He was nearly convinced she used magic to move. He wanted to stay out there until she returned, but he knew his father would call him in again soon to tell him about something from work. His father and mother sometimes disappeared all day too, to some other horizon. He alone was left to stay in the field, like the lonely tree in the backyard, to wonder what sights were past where the sun rose and set. An hour after he left to play in the field, his father called for him. "Sky, come in here." He ran into the house. His father picked him up and carried him over to the couch. "My little man, it's time to talk of important things. Remember, your mother and sister mustn't know anything." His father's voice was sweet, but Sky felt uneasy every time his father said those words. "Yes, Father." "That's my boy. The time is coming soon where you must stay inside constantly. It won't be safe out there anymore. I've got plenty of food reserves prepared for us in the basement. Today, I officially resigned from my position. My work is done." His father patted him on the head. "Everyone needs to stay inside. It'll be dangerous out there. There will be creatures that roam and attack, humans seeking to steal what they can, and many, many sick people. We must stay underground while they roam about destroying each other." "But why is that gonna happen?" Sky asked. "It's part of the plan. When the population is reduced, they'll collect up who's left and move on to the next phase. This country will be reformed then." His father's eyes lit up when he spoke. "Why are we stayin' here?" His father never gave him a clear answer on the distance he was putting between him and his work. "Nevermind that, child. We'll live out our days here in peace." Two hours later, his sister and his mother returned home. His mother brought home groceries. Some were put in the basement shelter and the rest in the kitchen. She cooked dinner while his sister immediately went to her room. Sky noticed his sister looked ill and she walked strangely. More curious than worried, he went down the hall to her room. He knocked on the door. "Sis, can I come in? Please?" "Go away, Sky!" She yelled. "But I wanna play." He clawed at the door to be annoying. From the other side, he heard her stomping across the room. She opened the door. "Don't make a bunch of noise. I'm expecting a call." Sky stepped into the room and sat at his sister's desk to play with her computer. She never put a password on it and hardly used it. Her father tried to get her interested in it, but Crystal was never particularly interested in anything for long. That meant she let Sky do whatever he wanted with her computer and the other gadgets her father gifted her. Crystal ignored him and lay on her bed, checking her cell phone. Her phone buzzed shortly after and she quickly answered it. "Hello? Ben? Yeah, I got home just fine." Sky leaned back in her desk chair. "Who's Ben?" Crystal shushed him. "Oh, that was just my baby brother. He's being a little brat right now and wanting all my attention." Sky stuck his tongue out at her. While she talked on the phone, he pretended to be watching the TV that sat in the distance between them against the furthest wall from the door. He looked at his sister more closely. Her complexion was pale, almost grayish. There was no rosiness in her skin anymore. Her hair looked brittle. For some reason, she kept clutching her stomach. "Tonight? I don't know...You know my dad always watches everything at night...I don't know about tomorrow. I know, I know. We always see each other, but...I don't think I really want to do that anymore. No, I want to see you! I mean, I don't want to..." Crystal glanced over at Sky and whispered something close to the phone he couldn't hear. Sky heard a man yelling through the phone. The louder the man got, the more he recognized the voice. The name clicked. Ben Blackberry, a coworker of his father's. Ben had been over a few times, but his father usually referred to him by his last name. Sky wondered why his sister was talking to someone around their father's age when she was seventeen. That seemed off to him, but he was too young to tell if that was odd or not. "Okay...maybe tomorrow...Don't tell my daddy about us...I know he'll be so mad at me. Okay...bye." Crystal threw her phone on the bed and started crying. Sky hopped down from her desk chair and sat down in front of her bed. "What's wrong, Sis?" "Don't tell Daddy anything you heard me say. If you do, I'll..." Crystal raised her voice at him. "I don't tell secrets. Father says telling other people's secrets is bad." Sky said. Crystal lowered her voice back down. "You don't know what we were talking about, do you?" Sky shook his head. "Sis, are you sick? You look kinda sick. Do you have a cold?" "No, I don't." Crystal got up from the bed. Her face contorted in pain. She clutched her stomach. "Sis?" Sky was starting to get scared. Crystal looked like she was in agony. He noticed something else. Blood slid down both her legs and dripped onto the floor. "You're bleeding everywhere." Crystal looked between her legs. A little red returned to her pale face. She grabbed a few tissues off her nightstand. "That's just...my friend. The one that comes once a month. I'm not hurt or anything. I need to put a pad on. Go outside, okay? If Mom and Daddy ask, I'm not coming to dinner because I'm having really bad cramps." "How come your friend makes you bleed?" Sky asked. His mother and sister referenced this monthly friend sometimes, but he never saw anyone. He wondered if the person was invisible. "That's just what happens to women. You'll understand when you're older. It's..." Crystal dropped to her knees. She held her stomach again. A puddle of blood started to form on the floor. Crystal reached over toward her nightstand. She grabbed a bottle of medicine off of it and swallowed two pills. She tried to get up, but slipped in her own blood and tumbled back against the bed. Her skirt flipped up when she fell and revealed something that turned Sky's stomach. Her panties were completely soaked through, and all the skin near her underwear was discolored. Splotches of blackish-brown covered the area, the darkest coloration being on her inner thighs and her lower abdomen. The skin touching the strange areas was yellow, like a fading bruise. Where the discoloration was, the skin looked wet and soft in an unnatural way. It reminded him of rotting food. Crystal realized she was exposed. She repositioned herself to cover up most of the blood on the floor and fixed her skirt. "Don't tell them, please!" "What's wrong with you...down there?" Sky knew the word, but he thought he might get in trouble for saying it. "It's just an infection. It'll go away. Go eat dinner with Mom and Daddy." Her voice was strained. Sky did as he was told. He went to sit at the dinner table. His mother prepared the table and his father sat across from him reading through a big white book. When his mother started to put the food down, she looked around. "Where's Crystal?" She asked. "She says she wanted to lay down cause she's having cramps." Sky did as he was told. He never told other people's secrets. It was Father's number one rule. Never tell secrets to anyone. "Oh? That time of the month already? Huh. I would have sworn that came two weeks ago." His mother tilted her head as she thought back. "You're probably misremembering, Pixie." Sky's father thought nothing of it and dug into his food. Crystal stayed in her room for the rest of the night. Sky played on the laptop in the living room while his mother watched TV and his father read a book in his favorite chair in the other room. Sky wasn't paying much attention to them, busy playing a math game. At nine, his mother turned the TV to a music-focused channel. The station typically played recordings of recent and old concerts and interviews with musicians. His mother was always very interested in music, in spite of his father not allowing her to buy any or go to concerts in person. "Tonight, we have a special folksy group of ladies here. Here with me are the three beautiful and talented women of Hounding Rain-- Basset, Blood, and Fox. How are you all tonight?" The interviewer introduced the guests of the night. "We're doing great. We just released our fifth album last month and we have another single about to drop next week." Sky read the name on the screen. It said "Basset". Music didn't really interest him, so he turned away from the TV. He was going to ask his mother if he could have some ice cream, but he noticed she looked strange. Her eyes were wide open. Tears welled in her eyes. "Mama, you okay?" She blinked several times, then wiped her eyes. "Yeah, I'm fine, little one. Mama's head just hurts a little." "Do ya need some medicine?" Sky asked. "No, I think I'll be okay. Why don't you sit up here with Mama? That'll make me feel better." His mother patted the spot on the sofa beside her. "Okay." Sky sat down with her. He was worried. Sometimes, his mother acted strangely and forgot herself. She always said odd things then. Underneath his worry, he was also curious. His father's lessons taught him to be inquisitive about everything. He was building in his mind a database of those oddities his mother sometimes uttered, searching for a common thread to connect them all. The interviewer continued talking to the three musicians. "You guys really hit it big after the release of your second album, Howling at Three. There was a new intensity there that fans hadn't seen from you before." "I wrote the lyrics to every song on that album twice. The first time was when I was at the happiest point in my life, and the second time was after I lost that happiness." Basset said. "You're talking about what happened to your then girlfriend, Pamela Archer." The interviewer said. "Yes. To this day, there's never been any justice for her. Every album, I write at least one song for her." The longer Basset spoke, the more Sky's mother shifted uncomfortably on the couch. The tears started pouring out. Sky watched her as he listened to the woman on TV talk. "I've lost three important people in my life. Both of my parents and Pam. I think that pain is what gives that intensity to my music. It's given me more fame than I ever expected, but I wish I could go back to those days, working on that second album when we were nobody special and she was still there with us." Sky's mother broke down. She cried more than he'd seen her cry in a long time. He put his hand on her shoulder. "Mama, why are you crying?" She shook her head. "I don't know...it's a very sad story." The interviewer said. "Tonight, we'll be showing a concert from the tour you did after your second album was released. And don't change that channel once the concert's over. We will have a special live performance of Hounding Rain's newest single, 'Counting Stars', which goes on sale this Friday." The TV now showed a stage with the three women from earlier on it. The lady called Basset stood in the center of the stage and started to sing. "The moon and the emperor sitting in the night Emperor says call me, I got plenty of starlight I'll show you Jupiter and I'll show you Mars Put you in my mobile, my pretty work of art" His mother doubled over in pain. She clutched her head as she cried. "Come on, I ain't got no other motives Got these cuffs just in case, nothin' It ain't nothin', it ain't nothin' Took this photo when you weren't lookin' It ain't nothin', it ain't nothin' Took your photo when you weren't lookin'" His mother wiped off her face. She sat up disoriented and looked around the room. She shot up in a panic. "Kathy?! Kathy?! This...this isn't our apartment! Why am I here?! Why are you..." And then she fell to the ground. His father came in the room, holding his tablet. He stood over Sky's mother and tapped through a series of options on his screen. Sky looked over at his father. "Father, what are you doing?" "Kathy...Kathy...Kathy..." His mother muttered under her breath as one last tear fell from her. "Oh, your mother just needs some adjustments. I'm just fixing her personality and memories back to our family." His father said in a cheery tone. He finished what he was doing on the tablet. "There you go, Pixie. You've always been with me, my beautiful Pixie." His mother stood up, her previous panic gone. She smiled at his father. "Pixie. That's me." His father shut the TV off. "That's enough of that trash. You don't need to corrupt Sky with that. I thought I told you about listening to music. How many times do I have to remind you not to listen to any?" "I'm sorry, Tom. I can't help it. I love it." She said, her head hanging low. "Love doesn't make it any better. Stop doing that. You're setting a horrible example for our son. You've clearly already ruined the other one with your need to constantly bring distractions and disorder into the house." He grabbed her wrist and squeezed it tightly. "Don't turn that damn thing on again tonight. Do you understand?" "Yes." She looked away from him. "Sky, it's past your bed time. Go to your room." His father glared at him. Sky hurried down the hall to his room. Every few days, it was like this. His father looked angrier than usual tonight. He put in his earbuds, knowing it would be loud tonight, and listened to some of his lessons on his tablet. Sky dimmed the light as low as he could to still see, so as to not get his father's attention. He wanted to sleep, but it wouldn't be quiet enough for another hour or two. He'd have to wait out the night until twelve came. Sky hid himself under his blanket to make the light harder for anyone to see. He managed a delicate balance between keeping his volume low enough for his father to not hear it and high enough for him to not hear his father. Around eleven forty, he fell asleep listening to a discussion about matrices. The following day, he woke early in the morning. His father had already left for work. Crystal left to wander out beyond the field. His mother stayed behind. Whenever his father got mad at her, she didn't go to work the following day. He wondered if it was because of the marks, but Sky never asked. She seemed happiest on those days, when Father was gone and the two of them had the house to themselves. Sky found her in the living room playing with her pretty cards. She only brought them out when Father wasn't home. He once caught her with them, and she wore sunglasses for a week after that. Sky sat down beside her on the floor. He liked looking at the cards. Father didn't like him having anything brightly colored or decorative. Their walls were white and empty, and their furniture sparse. When she brought out that deck of cards, suddenly, their space had color again. "Mama, whatcha doing?" He asked. "Doing a tarot reading about my dreams." She wrote down something in a spiral bound notebook. Sky recognized it as one she only brought out when Father wasn't home. He would never allow such a bright color. "Dreams?" "There's a beautiful woman who always plays me songs. She sings and plays the piano, and we watch the stars together for hours. She'd play me covers and her own songs. We'd be so happy, until that man comes. I can't see his face. He's always in a business suit." She picked up the ten cards laid out on the floor and put them back into the deck. Absentmindedly, she shuffled the cards. "Why do you dream 'bout that?" Sky asked her. "I don't know. I think it's symbolic of something, but I don't know what. It makes no sense." "Are any of the songs in the dreams real?" "I don't know. I can't remember most of them. I remember the songs she would cover though. I think everything else is probably things my mind made up." She laid three cards down in a row. Sky read the words on them. The first read "Eight of Swords", the middle one "Ten of Swords" and the last card, "The Tower". He knew the cards had meanings assigned to them, but he didn't know them himself. His mother wrote more notes down on the paper. "There was a song she used to cover a lot. It's her favorite song in my dreams. I can't remember the name, but it was about...something related to making rain? I can't remember. There was a machine...." "Mama, what's that notebook for?" Sky touched the red notebook his mother wrote in. "It's my book of dreams...I write down all the dreams I have, and the readings I do about them. That way, I can piece it all together one day." She flipped through the pages. "At least, that's what I hope. Why don't you go play outside, little one? It's a nice day out. The weather's always so nice in the early hours in June." "Okay." Sky nodded. He understood she wanted to be alone for a while. He left her there and grabbed his tablet before going outside. The song intrigued him. He wanted to figure out what it was. Sky walked out and sat under the lonely oak. Sometimes, he got stuck on things like this, obsessively searching for answers to questions no one asked him to find. He remembered what his mother said. Making rain, and a machine. He would use those as his clues to find the song. About an hour later, he was certain he found the right one. Excited, he ran back inside to show his mother. She was in the kitchen now, making food. "Mama, I looked up songs. Is this the song?" He tugged at her sleeve and played the song for her. After the first line, her eyes widened like they did the previous night. Tears slid down her face, and then she collapsed to her knees. "Kathy, Kathy..." Then, his father came in. Sky froze. His father shouldn't be back yet. He must have forgotten something, Sky assumed. His father took out his tablet and opened up the program. He quickly went through the same sequences as yesterday. Within moments, his mother returned to her usual self. Today, his father directed his anger at Sky alone. "Don't play that song. Don't ever play that song again." His father yelled. With his left hand, he grabbed hold of Sky's wrist and tightened his grip so hard Sky thought he would break. His father dragged him out of the room and down the hall to Sky's bedroom. "You stay in your room today. I don't have time to deal with you. You keep this up, and I'll have to make a replacement." Sky didn't ask what that meant. He went into his room and closed the door. A tear escaped him. He wiped it away in a hurry. Father didn't like overt displays of emotions, and Sky didn't understand why he cried in the first place. He sat by the window and watched the oak tree's branches sway. An overcast sky tempted him to slip out that window, but he knew better. If his father caught him outside after telling him to go to his room, he would be severely punished. With as angry as his father was, Sky assumed he might really replace him, though he wasn't sure what that meant. He knew it must be something bad. Sky stayed inside his room for the rest of the day. No one called him for dinner, no one came to him. He was so afraid any noise might upset his father, he didn't move from the center of the room. When sunset came, the light in the room slowly faded until everything went dark. The hours after that were unnerving. He listened to his sister talk on the phone with Ben through the wall they shared. Around ten, she hung up the phone. Once Sky was sure everyone had gone to bed, he snuck out of his room to use the bathroom and went straight to bed. Every slight noise he made along the way sped up his heart's rhythm. He half expected his father to come down the hallway and drag him somewhere else for merely opening the bedroom door. The following morning, his father didn't come to get him for breakfast nor did his mother. He heard them leaving early and caught vague details about "advanced reprogramming" and "surgical alterations". He had an idea of what the words individually meant from the words his father made him study, but not what they meant together. With them gone, he wandered out into the field. Crystal woke up late this morning. He was not far behind her today. Sky was determined to see where she was really going. What magical place did she know of beyond the horizon--he was going to discover that. Giving himself a goal for the day made it easier to forget about the last two days. The grey above and the warm summer wind begged him to wander far. The time before a rain always excited him. It made him restless in a way nothing else did, and under those clouds, he didn't care about his father or his lessons. He wasn't like the lonely oak then. He was a spirit floating along with the wind. Crystal's long walk didn't bother him. He'd never been this far out before, and every little flower and bug excited him. The grass was growing taller, nearly hiding him away entirely. He crouched a little, pretending to be a cat stalking its prey. Crystal stopped when she saw him. Ben Blackberry, the man who worked with their father, waited for Crystal by a pine tree near the edge of the field. Crystal's body tensed at the sight of him. The man walked over to her and embraced her. Crystal tried to push him away. He held tightly to her. "Crystal, don't you love me?" "I do, but..." Crystal kept pushing, but she couldn't break free. "We'll go together. That's how we always wanted to die." Ben said, kissing her forehead. "I'm already...sick." Crystal put her hand on her lower abdomen. "Right here. It hurts." "It'll start feeling good once we're in the middle." Ben slipped his hand underneath the back of her skirt. Sky froze. He didn't recognize the feeling inside himself, but he hated it. Crystal cried against his chest. "I don't want to look at myself anymore. There's more than yesterday. You said it wouldn't spread this fast!" "You haven't had signs for that long. We still have time." Ben pulled up her skirt. Sky saw that the upper part of the back of her thighs were pitch black now. His stomach hurt, but he didn't know why. Ben pulled at her underwear. "Come on. Let's live out our last moments in ecstasy before the world ends." "I'm hideous." She covered her face as she cried. "Baby, you're not hideous. Look at me." Ben cupped her face and forced her to look up at him. He smiled in a way that made Sky nauseous. Ben pulled away from her and took his clothes off. More than half of his body was that pitch black color, and the edges of where the black met with his normal skin had the same color range as bruises. Most of his body had a strange wetness about it. "Do you think I'm hideous?" "No..." Crystal looked like she was trying hard not to vomit. "Come on, Baby. Show me everything." Ben tugged at her t-shirt. Reluctantly, Crystal removed her clothes. Sky now saw the full extent of the "infection" on her body. The black color had inched upwards nearly to her shoulders and was halfway toward reaching her knees. She put her hands over her breasts, out of shame for how they now looked. "That's a good girl." Ben rubbed his hands on her shoulders, then down her chest. Crystal winced. She pushed him away. "No, please. It hurts too much..." Sky didn't know what to do. He didn't know what he was watching. "Now, don't give me that. I came out all this way to see you. You know we don't have much time left. We have to live every moment to its fullest." Ben pulled her into an unwanted embrace. Crystal cried louder. "Why did you give it to me? If you love me, why are you making me die?" "Now, don't go blaming that on me. You're the one who spread your legs in the first place. You knew what you were getting into. I've told you everything about what's happening. This is the best way for us to leave this world. You know your daddy wouldn't be so kind. He's going to lock you up in that house forever until you rot of old age even though he's the reason most of this is even being set into motion. Blame him, not me." Ben forced her down to the ground. Crystal covered her face. "I don't want to die..." "Come on. You'll shut up when it starts feeling good." He kissed down her neck. "No. I'm going home." Crystal slipped out from under him and reached for her clothes. "Come here!" Ben's demeanor changed. He wore a look of rage and ran at her. Crystal dropped her clothes and ran. She didn't make it far before Ben grabbed her and pulled her back down. She fought back with all her strength. "No, let me go!" "You keep quiet or I'm going to tell your daddy every little dirty thing his daughter's been up to." Ben said. Crystal went quiet. "That's what I thought." Sky sunk down as far as he could into the long grass. He closed his eyes and covered his ears, but it wasn't enough to block out her cries of pain. There he stayed, silent, until both hers and his crying stopped. When it was over, Ben left and Crystal lay in the grass for a long time. Sky crawled through the grass over to her. He started crying again when he saw her body up close. The grass beneath her body was soaked in red, and where the skin was black, oozed a greenish liquid. Parts of her stomach seemed to be sinking inward. Crystal woke from her daze when she saw Sky there. "Sky, how did you get out here?" She covered her chest and sat up. Sky's cries grew louder. He couldn't hold it in. "Did you see?" Crystal cried with him. She dressed herself and held him close. Holding onto her, he could feel the difference between the infected skin and the rest of her body. It felt too soft, almost squishy. His mind thought of a rotten banana's peel. He wanted to throw up. His body pressing against hers pushed too far in. Sky feared if he held too tight to her, he would break through her skin and fall inside of her. When Sky calmed down some, the two siblings walked back to the house. Sky cried quietly. "Shh. You can't cry when we're home. Don't tell anyone what you saw, okay?" Crystal asked him. "I don't tell secrets." Sky said. He looked up at her, holding in as much pain as he could. "Sis, what did Ben do?" "A very evil thing." Crystal said. "Ben is a bad man." When they reached home, Crystal went to her room to lie down. She didn't tell him any more about what happened, nor what was wrong with her. It was her secret. He left her with that. When his father came home, he was in a better mood. He took him outside around sunset. The grey clouds held the red underneath them in the sky, darkening with the night and the rain they carried inside them. Sky's father walked him out into the field by the old oak tree. He handed Sky a photograph of the field before them with the oak, somewhat smaller, and a storm pouring down onto the land. "Look at this. Isn't it beautiful?" He asked. "That looks like the yard." Sky said. "It is, from a long time ago." His father lit up a cigarette. "It was so beautiful I had to have it. That's why I built our house here, and got rid of all the other unsightly things nearby. Now, it's absolutely perfect." "How'd you find this place?" "I didn't. Two of our test subjects did. It was their little romantic getaway. I pulled this from a recording of one of the subject's memories and had it printed off as a photo." His father laughed. "A rainstorm in July. It was her favorite kind of weather, in her favorite place." "Why'd you take it away from her?" Sky asked. His father turned to him and grinned. "She was a lab rat. Nothing belonged to her, not this place nor the organs she kept running for us. She had good taste though, in places like this. It's so stuffy in the lab. When I'm out here, I'm at peace." Sky didn't know his father to ever be at peace, but Sky had no intentions of revealing to his father how many lies he was telling himself. After all, he didn't tell anyone's secrets. He kept them all, quietly. "Hold onto that for me. Keep it as something to strive toward, inner peace. It gives you strength." His father put out his cigarette. "Now I have to go talk to the other one. I already know I'm going to be disappointed. Come on, Sky. Let's go." "Could I stay out a little longer? I like watching the clouds." Sky said. "No, it's getting close to that time. It's best to only be outside when you can see well." His father said. Sky walked with his father back inside the house. Inside, his mother and his sister were watching TV in the living room. His father approached Crystal. "Crystal, we need to talk." His father's tone made everyone in the room tense. "What about?" Crystal played dumb. "Have you been talking to Dr. Blackberry lately?" His father asked. "Sometimes. I asked him for help with some problems in my summer lessons." She said, keeping her eyes on the TV. "Is that all?" "Yes, why? Is he under some kind of investigation? Did something happen?" Crystal asked. "Dr. Blackberry was found dead this morning. His body was infected with a mysterious disease. Tomorrow, I'm going to bring you by my work to have a blood test done on you just in case." He said. Sky saw the panic in his sister's eyes. She turned to face her father. "You don't need to do all that. It's been ages since I saw him in person. We just talked on the phone on and off." "I see. Well, if you notice any strange symptoms, I want you to tell me immediately." He narrowed his eyes at her. "I will, Daddy." Crystal faked a smile. Their father now turned his attention back to Sky. "Sky, have you been with Crystal all day?" Sky flinched when his father spoke to him. "Yes, Father." "What have you two been up to?" He asked. "Playin' hide and seek." Sky said. He would follow his father's orders, even if it meant lying to him. He must never reveal anyone's secrets, no matter who asked him. His father never told Sky he was exempt from that, and Sky intended to never ask. "Tom, leave them be. They've said they haven't been around him." His mother interrupted to shield them. "Shut up, Pixie." His father said. "Tomorrow, I'm taking the day off, to monitor everyone. I expect to not be disappointed." With that, his father went to the basement. Though he was gone, the tension in the air didn't dissipate. It thickened, ripe with anticipation of sunrise and all the agony his father's watchful eyes brought in their gaze. Crystal was next to leave the room, retreating to her bedroom. She went to bed right away, or at least, pretended to. Everyone in the house was good at pretending to sleep to avoid Sky's father. Sky saw her light was off. Whether she was actually awake or not was besides the point. His mother ushered him to bed shortly after. "Come on, Sky. It's getting late. Let's turn in." "Yes, Mother." Sky said. It really wasn't late at all, but that didn't matter. He did as he was told and pretended to sleep. The following morning, he ate and then did his lessons in the living room. Crystal snuck out of the house before sunrise. Sky caught a glimpse of her running out into the field from his window. He wanted to follow her, but he knew she wanted to be alone. He stayed with his mother. She watched TV while he worked on his laptop. Last to rise, his father stormed into the living room. "Where's Crystal? She's not in her room." "Oh, I think she went outside for a walk." His mother said. "Damn, stupid girl. I told her I would be monitoring today. She does this again, and I'll leave her outside when the time comes. I should have replaced her a long time ago." His father grumbled under his breath. "Tom, you shouldn't say that about your own daughter. She's a teenager. You can't expect perfection out of..." His mother started to say. His father cut her off. "I should have replaced you a long time ago too." His mother went quiet. "Don't just stare at me. Let's go. We're bringing her back inside. No more walks. No one is to leave the house without my permission from now on!" His father yelled. "Do I make myself clear?" His mother nodded her head as her shoulders shook. Sky copied her, the shoulders part being unintentional. "Good. Let's go, Pixie." He yanked Sky's mother by the arm and dragged her outside. They didn't get far before his father stopped and turned around. "Sky, stay inside." Sky's stomach turned. Something in the way his father said those words made him more uneasy than what his father did before. "I will." "Keep the windows closed." His father said before shutting the front door. Sky ran over to the window facing the front of the house to see what his parents were looking at. Crystal lay face down in the grass in a pool of red and black. His mother tried to run over to her, but his father held her back. He approached Crystal cautiously. He covered his hand in a handerchief before turning her over. Her front side was covered in red and black, and her abdomen was sunken in. Her thighs, from what Sky could see, had a similar appearance to her stomach. Crystal's eyes were open, but they didn't move. Her eyelids hung halfway down, and her eyes stared out at nothing. His father pulled up Crystal's dress. Sky threw up in his mouth. What he saw that moment, he would never forget. It would be burned into him forever. His father covered Crystal's body back. "Pixie, go inside." "No, I'm not leaving my baby out here." His mother rushed over to Crystal's body. She tried to touch her, but his father held her back. "We have to help her." "She's dead. Go inside." His father pushed her away. "No! I won't! My baby..." His mother cried and reached out for Crystal again. "Pixie, get the hell away from her! She's contagious. We need to get away from the body right now." His father grabbed her to pull her away. "No! I won't leave her out here!" She broke free from his grip and threw herself onto the body, crying for her lost child. "Stop that! You're going to..." His father tried once more to pull her from Crystal. Before his father could finish his sentence, it happened. At her chest, Sky saw something crack and split open. A thick, black pus exploded out from her body onto both of Sky's parents. They both screamed in agony when it made contact with their skin. His father screamed louder than his mother. She accepted her fate quickly. "You stupid bitch!" His father grabbed his mother by the arm and then slapped her across the face. "You've doomed us both!" "Good. I'm free of you." She smiled at him and dropped down to her knees. She held Crystal's hand. "I'll be with you soon, my little girl. Mommy's coming to be with you." "You were a nuisance before and you're a nuisance now." Sky's father pulled out his pistol. He shot Sky's mother once in each arm, then both of her legs. She screamed with each shot. Lastly, he shot her in the stomach. He walked away from her, leaving her to writhe in agony on the ground. His father walked over to the window Sky was looking out of. He put his hand on the glass. "Sky, you'll need to stay here. Stay in here forever. Don't come back out here. Everything here is poison. Be a good boy." "Why did you shoot her?" Sky asked in a voice devoid of emotion. His body felt like it was moving away from him, though the rest of the world stood still. "She had to be punished. Idiots ruin everything. That's why we have to do all this to begin with. To get rid of people who can't do what they're told." His father said. "Are you going to die?" "In a few moments. Listen, don't tell a soul our secrets and stay inside. Everything's about to happen now. It's coming. Don't forget to always carry a gun on you, alright?" His father gave him his last orders. "Alright." Sky put his small hands on the glass. "That's a good boy." His father turned the gun on himself, pressing it against the side of his head. Without another word, he pulled the trigger. The splatter of thick red against the window was the deepest shade Sky had ever seen. He stared blankly at the dripping mess for a few moments, unable to move or speak. Slowly, his eyes started to water. The tears pooled in his eyes until the wallpaper and the painted window blurred into a strange picture. He didn't notice the burst of warmth flowing down his cheeks at first. When he dropped to his knees and screamed, his voice was too foreign for him to recognize. In his mind, he saw himself down below on that floor but he couldn't see it as himself. That was a stranger down there, and he was somewhere else above. That wasn't something happening to him. He felt sad for the person below him. An hour passed before the tears and sobs stopped. Sky couldn't remember when he went downstairs to the basement shelter, but the door was already locked and he held one of his father's guns in his hand. He stayed inside the basement for a month. He monitored the outside world with his father's security system. A year ago, his father showed him how to work it, because the time was coming near when they would need to stay inside. Seeing the bodies outside stirred nothing in him. He couldn't connect that those corpses were his family. They were broken open, their forms strange. He ignored when the coyotes came to eat them, and in turn became sickly with each passing day until he did not see them anymore. In time, people wandered onto their property and into the house. He wasn't worried. The basement could only be accessed by one door in the house, and it was hidden behind a secret wall and locked from the inside. No one found the door. They rummaged through the house, eating up what was in the kitchen, stealing everything they could carry from the house, and doing all sorts of strange things on the sofa and beds. People fought with each other over what they stole and stole what others already carried. They killed each other, the sick and healthy alike. The place he knew as home was filling up with bones. It wasn't long before he couldn't tell where his family's remains were anymore. After about two weeks from when the creatures came, it stopped. Everyone, beast and human alike, moved on. Nothing came through anymore. It was then, when it was quiet again, that he looked through his father's laptop. He knew the passwords to all his father's things, but he never looked into anything before. Those were his father's secrets, and he was told to keep quiet about them. The best way to keep quiet about a secret is to not know it at all. Sky didn't care about keeping secrets anymore. He opened up every file he could find. He remembered Ben said his father caused this. He wanted to know why, and what it was in the first place. His father's computer was surprisingly easy to get into for someone so concerned with secrecy. His father set things up exactly the same way he instructed Sky to set up his own laptop. He read through his father's emails, his journal, and his research notes. The journal was a text file that went back to the early 90s, many years before Sky was born. He read about his father stalking his mother and rewriting her memories to force her to marry him. He read about him forcing her to do unethical research with him. He read about the girl his father called a lab rat, the girl who's perfect memory was of a beautiful rainstorm in July--the girl his father had cut up piece by piece until nothing remained. Sky wrote her name on the back of the photograph, Sarah Winter. Then, he transferred all of the files on the computer to his own laptop and created a new text file. In the file, he wrote down a list of names of people to find. Sarah was only one of many victims, and his father one of many key scientists. The world order his father set in motion to create was an expansion of the sterile, toxic one Sky already experienced within his home. White walls, devoid of the echoes of any emotion, paired together with lessons and unquestioning obedience. That couldn't be achieved without getting rid of a large amount of people and starting over. He didn't yet understand why his father left them on the outside, but he intended to solve that mystery too. With his father, the man who kept his broken family trapped within their four walls of misery, now gone, there was no one left to instill in him the fear to stay there. When a month had passed since his family's demise, he packed a bag of supplies and unlocked the basement door. He wandered outside, not knowing what awaited him. He feared nothing. He only wanted answers. Outside, he checked the bodies to find which one belonged to his father, as the coyotes had moved them around. When he sorted out which corpse it was, he searched for his father's gun. He rolled the body over to find it underneath him. Sky cleaned it off and carried it with him. As he left and wandered into the field, he looked up at the sky. A storm brewed overhead. A strong wind swept through the field. In the distance, rain started to fall. The scene reminded him of the photograph. He took it out and looked at it. It was now July. "Sarah's memory, the rainstorm in July." He said. Sky put the photograph away. "I'll find all your secrets, Father. All of them, and I'm going to tell everyone what you've done." And so began his wandering. He would wander until he found that same scene once again.
II. The City in the Forest