STRANGE SKIES ADVANCED PREVIEW

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Mule Mountain Mixer. I am your host, Steve Richards; with me as always, is my long-suffering producer, Carol. Say ‘hello’ to the listeners, Carol. Carol sends her regards but, even if she wanted to say ‘hello,’ she can’t, since the only microphone in her booth feeds directly into my ear. You’ll just have to trust me.

“Speaking of trust, I have a few words for our infallible meteorologist, Mister Pete Marcus. Ole Pete promised us a weekend of sun and yours truly planned a trip to Roper Lake; I’ve packed my truck and I’m ready to go. I’m so jazzed that I’ve even contemplated leaving after the show this evening and driving straight up. Now, as many of you have likely noticed, an enormous thunderhead has set up shop to the Northeast; big, nasty son of a gun, spitting off heat lightning left and right.

“Me being me, I called Pete up, asked him about it, and, according to him, it just showed up on the radar about ninety minutes ago. He called me back just before I came on-air and said two more popped up: one in Hereford, the other over near McNeal so, if you had plans, you may reschedule. Thus concludes my weather rant; we’ll be taking your calls when we get back.”

Steve eased back in his chair and rubbed his forehead, hoping to stave off a burgeoning headache. “Have any big aspirations for the weekend, Carol?”

“Tim’s supposed to take me up to Tucson; dinner and a movie.”

“Damn, if that’s not a beautiful sentiment. You two spoken anymore about setting a date?”

Her right eyebrow raised, settling at an odd angle. “Jesus, Steve, I told you last week that we’re set for next March.”

“You sure did, didn’t you? I’m off my game this evening; damned callers are going to eat me alive.”

“I wouldn’t count on it.”

He cocked his head; Carol nodded. Summers could be a little slow around here, but no calls on a Friday night? That was damn near unheard of. The thought lingered on Steve’s mind as the lights flickered, drawing his eyes upward.

“What the hell?” he asked, turning back to Carol. “Are we still good?”

She shot him a thumbs-up and grinned. “Looks like we’ve got a call, too; you’re back in ten.”

The red light came on and all seemed well. “Welcome back, at least to those of you who can still hear us. It seems the grim storm that’s brewing wrought a little havoc on our equipment. The intrepid Carol tells me we’ve got a caller on the line who’s had their own little outage; Billy in Bisbee, you’re on Mule Mountain Mixer.”

“Hey, Steve; you looked outside the last little while?”

“No, sir, they didn’t afford us the luxury of windows here at the studio.”

“That cloud is still up there, flashing with lightning every few seconds, caused the power to flicker out at my place too.”

“Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s what storms do, right Billy?”

“See, that’s the thing; there no wind, no rain, and—despite all that lightning—no thunder. I’ve been on earth for sixty-two years, and I’ve never seen anything that rivals this.”

“Appreciate the call, Billy. Take it easy. Well, folks, I’m not sure what’s going on outside at the moment, but I am sure that if you’re looking for a new car, truck, or van, you need to get over to Shep Ward’s for his Summer Sales Marathon. With rebates up to—“

The lights flickered and dimmed, pulsing weakly before going out entirely. After a minute, Carol stepped out of the booth, her muted footfalls the only sound. 

“Where are you going?” Steve asked.

“The generator should have kicked in by now.”

“Hold up, I’ll go with you, just let me grab a flashlight.”

She didn’t hold up, but she didn’t go very far; he caught up with her at the front door; her head tilted upward, her arms dangling by her side. He saw why she stood dumbfounded. The sky glowed a brilliant shade of purple; it wasn’t due to lightning or dwindling sunlight. It was the thunderhead.

The surrounding air was pitch black however, the cloud emanated an ethereal luminescence. Just as Billy described, there was no wind, no rain, no thunder. There were no random cars on the road, no sound whatsoever; it felt like the storm encased the entire town inside a vacuum. Veins of light flickered through the cloud, turning it into a coke-fueled Tesla coil.

Carol turned towards Steve, her eyes a sea of confusion. “What the hell’s going on around here?”

“Beats the shit out of me; whatever it is, I don’t like it. Let’s hurry and check that generator. I don’t want to be out here any longer than we have to.”

“Aw, are you scared, Steve?”

“You go ahead and joke. I’ll be just as happy to go back inside and let you handle this.” He turned, catching sight of an old pickup that sat on the shoulder of the service road behind the station. The damned thing had been there for a week; Steve figured the ground would swallow it whole before the owner moved it.

They reached the small shed that housed the generator, finding it intact. After some trial and error, the duo reset the unit, bringing it humming back to life. Steve looked around the corner and saw the two yellow bulbs by the station’s door glowing. “We did it, Carol!”

“We?”

“I mean, I held the light.”

She shot him a sly grin, one that could be mirthful but could also show that she stood prepared to bash in his skull. He never could read Carol, not really; even after five years working together, she remained an enigma. They reached the front step when something urged Steve to look back. The light show—which had died down—exploded back to life, illuminating an area that stretched from the shed to the side road. Immediately, he realized the truck was gone.

“What the hell?”

Carol turned, concerned at his tone. “What’s wrong?”

“That old truck’s gone.”

“It’s been gone, Steve.”

“Bullshit! That goddamned rust bucket was sitting in the same damn spot its been for the last week.”

Carol shrugged it off and went inside. Steve should have shrugged it off too, but he couldn’t. There was no sensible reason behind it, just a feeling deep inside his chest. With doubt bubbling in his blood, Steve sat down at the console and prepared to resume the show.

“To the three or four of you still listening, I apologize for our little hiatus. It seems the storm knocked the power, but our trusty generator has us back on the air. Maybe I should apologize for that.”

Movement in the booth caught his eye; it was Carol, waving enthusiastically as her voice crackled through his headset.

“The lines are full.”

“Well,” Steve said, “for the first time I can recall, our phone lines are packed, so let’s get to it. First up, we have Maria from Bisbee. Go ahead, Maria, you’re on the air.”

Maria Delgado

51 Cochise Row

“Mom! Mom, come look at this!”

Maria exhaled, her face feeling hot and flush. She told Anthony to come inside fifteen minutes ago; naturally, he filed that away as a suggestion, opting instead to play in a thunderstorm. “Anthony Ivan Delgado, why in God’s name are you still outside?” She stepped onto the stoop, scowling at the fact that her son continued to ignore her. “Anthony!”

Without speaking, the boy raised his hand and pointed to the sky.

“Yeah,” Maria said, “it’s a storm cloud, doing what storm clouds do. The question, dear boy, is why aren’t you doing what you’re supposed to do.”

Anthony dropped his arm to his side, but his eyes never wavered. “Watch it, you’ll see when there’s lightning.”

She sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Okay, and what is it I’m going to see?”

“Something’s wrong, mama. These aren’t clouds.”

Maria laughed. Her son’s imagination was at work. Yes, he didn’t always listen, but the innocence in his voice hurt her heart. This doubled when she realized how angry she had been. She put her arm around his shoulder and pulled him tight as her eyes followed his upward.

A brilliant flash sliced through the cloud, illuminating the surrounding air. A gasp escaped before she could stifle it; her mind tried to make sense of what she saw. “Was that an airplane?”

Anthony turned towards his mother, shaking his head. “It’s been there for ten minutes.”

“Well, sometimes planes—“

“No, they don’t, mom.”

Her intestines were tightening. He was right, but admitting that meant she had to face the reality that something remarkable was occurring. She couldn’t bring herself to do that, not yet. Before that thought finished, Anthony tugged on her arm; he was pointing again, this time to the west.

“There’s another one!”

Maria waited for a half minute when a bolt of lightning proved her son correct. Her mouth moved, miming words she couldn’t coax out of hiding. Eyes closed, she drew in a deep breath, held it, then pushed it out slowly. “Anthony, go inside right now.”

The boy’s shoulders sagged. “But mom—“

“Right now.”

He walked towards the house, head down, when movement drew Maria’s attention away. A figure danced along the street, swaying from the sidewalk to the curb and back. After a moment, she realized it was Otto Grier; he wasn’t dancing; he was—as usual—drunk. “Otto, you should get home! Something’s going on and I don’t think it’s safe out here.”

Otto stopped, his upper half tilting backward before snapping upright. “Hello,” he called out. He raised a hand; clutched in it was a large bottle. “Beautiful evening, ain’t it?”

She repeated her warning, but a car horn interrupted her. An old sedan turned onto her street, stopping at the end of the block. The beams of its headlights lit Otto up; the drunkard raised an arm to shield his eyes. “Hey asshole,” he bellowed, “dim your goddamn lights!” He punctuated the exchange by raising a middle finger.

The car sat still, idling in place. Either the driver didn’t see Otto’s salute or they didn’t care. Whatever the reason, Maria’s guts continued clenching as she watched. The inebriated man took two uneasy steps when another horn filled the air. This one belonged to a big pickup that rolled to a stop at the opposite end of the street. A light bar on the truck’s roof turned on as its horn stopped.

Otto began shaking his hips, gyrating awkwardly. “Woo, block party!” As if acknowledging the man’s proclamation, the sedan’s windows rolled down. Music played from inside, the volume increasing until the speakers distorted. Otto raised his bottle and pointed towards the car.

This did not amuse Maria. “Otto, get your drunk ass inside!”

“Come dance with me,” he said. Otto never turned his back on a party, after all.

Okay, you drunken fuckhead, I’ll drag you inside if I have to. She took a single step towards the street when the sedan’s engine revved and fell off. She took one more step; this time the revving continued, the car’s rear wheels spinning and sending up clouds of smoke. “Get out of here, Otto!”

Whooping and hollering, Otto—like Anthony before—ignored Maria’s words. Unlike Anthony, Otto would receive a much harsher punishment. The sedan launched forward, swerving towards the sidewalk. Maria could only watch, frozen, as the speeding car closed in on its target. She barely noticed the truck as it began creeping forward. Otto’s intoxicated brain failed to register the danger, and he dropped his shoulder, apparently planning to check the car.

The sedan bucked the curb, striking Otto and throwing him into the air. The pickup—carefully timing its movements—accelerated, catching the wounded man as he came down and cutting across the front yard of the Johnson’s house across the street. It turned, running straight towards the house before coming to a sudden stop. Otto’s body slid off the hood and flew through the large bay window next to their porch. Over the idling engines and her own breathing, Maria heard screams from inside the house.

Both vehicles completed a series of doughnuts in the yard. Their lights flashed and horns emitted a series of blasts. God help us, they’re celebrating. They just killed a man and they’re fucking celebrating.

“Mom, what’s going on?”

She turned towards her son as the full weight of the situation hit her. “Get back inside.” She shuffled in behind Anthony, slammed the door, and locked it. “We need to call 911.”

“It’s busy,” Anthony said. “I just tried.”

“What? It can’t be busy, it’s 911.” Maria punched in the number; a busy signal promptly greeted her. “Oh Jesus, oh God; how the hell is it busy?” She tried twice more and twice more she got the same result. With his mom preoccupied, Anthony moved to the door, standing on tiptoes to reach the peephole.

After checking on his mom—she was on the phone, talking to someone—he disengaged the deadbolt, turned the knob slowly, and pulled the door open. The Johnson’s stood in their yard; Anthony saw that something shattered the big window at the front of their house. There were tire tracks running up to the home, but no cars around. Some drunk guy probably drove through the yard and hit their house. He walked towards the street to see if he could help them.

“Are you guys okay?”

Maria heard her son’s voice and turned to find him gone and the door open. “Oh my God, Anthony”—the cord ripped the handset out of her grasp—“get back inside!” She bounded outside and saw her son standing alongside Charlie Johnson, a classmate and friend. Check the street, she thought. No telling if those assholes are still around. The coast was clear, allowing her safe passage.

Dave and Samantha Johnson greeted her with a story that she already knew. Otto had burst through their window, taking out Dave’s bowl of ice cream and leaving one hell of a stain on their living room carpet. She asked if they called the police, fully knowing they hadn’t been able to get through.

She then asked if they knew where the two vehicles went, but neither noticed in the moment’s shock. After wishing her neighbors a good evening, Maria led Anthony back to their house—after checking for cars, of course. As they reached the far curb, the sky became incandescent and revealed three of whatever was in the sky. So entranced were they that neither registered the pickup zeroing in on them until it jumped the curb. Once Maria caught sight of it, the truck was within twenty feet and closing in on her.

Out of sheer instinct, she grabbed Anthony and shoved him towards the open door. She accepted the fact that this was the end of the line for her, but she refused to let her child go out this early in life. The force of the push coupled with wet grass spilled her to the ground, directly in line with the front driver’s-side tire rolling at her. Her lips curved into a smile with the belief that she saved her son; the optimism was short-lived.

The truck swerved inches from her head; she winced as a tire ran over her hair, ripping chunks of scalp out as it went. With horror, she watched as Anthony—thrown off balance by her intervention—bounced off the truck’s fender. The weight of the pickup threw him up, his head smashing open against the house’s door frame. She screamed her son’s name as his body twitched and convulsed, synapses firing at random. Still accelerating, the truck disappeared into the night, leaving the devastated mother in shock.

In her front hallway—less than ten feet away—the phone’s handset transmitted the horrifying soundtrack to the listeners of KTAZ.

* * *

“Are you okay, Maria?” Steve asked. “Maria, are you still with us?”

Seconds stretched on as the sound of a running engine grew fainter, accompanied by cries of terror and pain.

“Okay, if this is a prank, I don’t find it funny.” The words left his mouth with little conviction; it wasn’t a prank. Call it a gut feeling, but he knew it was real. “If we have any listeners on Cochise Row, call in and let me know what’s going on out there. If, by some miracle, anyone in the sheriff’s department is listening, let the people know that you’re there; let them know they’re not alone.”