1776 words (7 minute read)

One


Darren Barlow had never killed anyone until the night of December 31st, 2012, 10 days after the world was supposed to end, according to a culture that was long dead now. The world kept on. That’s the constant. Lives are ruined. Loved ones die. Men and women and children are starved and infected and beaten and enslaved and slaughtered and the world doesn’t end. Just keeps spinning until it doesn’t.

It came as no surprise then, that Armageddon had not arrived when Darren Barlow stepped into William Burke’s house on New Year’s Eve and ended three lives, setting his own on a trajectory straight into the abyss. A meteorite broken off of some larger source from some random impact and sent screaming from the cold depths of space, vast and limitless, hurled an unimaginably long journey before plummeting into an alien atmosphere where it is greeted by fire, incinerated before ever touching solid ground.

Traveled for a lifetime to be destroyed in an instant. The way of all things. The world keeps spinning until it doesn’t.

The city of Tavish sat on the foothills of Angeles National Forest on the western border of San Gabriel Valley, bisected by Angeles Crest Highway, a narrow road leading up into the deep cool dark of the iconic southern California mountain range, dotted with gravel turnouts which will be packed on any night with couples staring out at the shimmering lights, remarking how beautiful it all looks from this far away, and the occasional group of street racers waiting to turn the mountain road into a drift track. At the trailhead of this highway is a power station accessible by a small service road, a frequent hiking route to the Bachman Spring campground further east. Off of this, in a small dirt lot surrounded by chain link fence and illuminated by floodlights sat Darren in his cruiser, 30 minutes from the birth of a new year and an hour from the end of his shift. Between the two, the latter was what he was more concerned with.

Working as an officer in the Tavish Police Department did not offer much for the thrill seekers full of piss and vinegar straight out of the academy. Kids getting high up on the turnouts or in the park. Trucks coming in from the mountains and taking the curve too hard, rolling down the steep grade into the city in a dramatic and destructive display of driver inattention. Once in recent memory, a body dumped into the brush out near the campground. A suicide or two from one of the high electrical pylons scattered along the cliffs. The quieter side of Los Angeles County.

Tonight the noise complaints would be ignored by law enforcement unless some of the more diligent party animals were still going by 4:00 am.

The radio squawked to life, snapping Darren out of his moment of quiet reflection.

"Dispatch, Lima 120."

120 was Hawkins. He’d joined the department shortly before Darren just over two years ago. He was one of those piss and vinegar guys.

"Go ahead, 120"

"I have a 452 on Thienes Ave, suspect white male, mid-thirties, heavyset, does not appear to be carrying anything."

Darren snorted. "Better you than me."

The radio traffic continued on as Darren returned his attention to the open air theatre before him.

The cacophony of artillery shells undoubtedly purchased over the Nevada border weeks ago was constant and forceful. From up on that ridge Darren noted the stop and go symphony of sensitive car alarms jolted awake by the blasts. Their owners were pissed, sure, but were unlikely to complain in person.

Because this was a night of rebirth, 365 long, miserable days in the making. The festivities were reaching that critical mass approaching the reset button. Even Darren, who was typically uncontaminated by optimism, could feel that the merriment was positively brimming with energy, a smell like adrenaline sweating out through the pores, the metallic taste in the air after a lightning strike.

The citizens of Tavish were pleasantly floating on the spirits of their choice, flitting as butterflies through the atmosphere of imminent change. It seemed every street was alight with celebration, hollering and cheering and battering the sky with bursts of greens, reds, blues, an exploding rainbow marking some delusional victory. We made it, they said. One last blowout before the dirt of the old year would be washed clean, a new beginning in which anything was possible. Dead winter would fade into gentle spring. Hope had returned. Our sins would be forgiven.

"Not likely." Darren murmured.

In his experience, redemption wasn’t a holiday bonus. It didn’t reset or roll over like your vacation hours. There’s no paperwork to file. Earning it didn’t mean you actually receive it.

"The world keeps spinning ’til it doesn’t," Darren said with a groan as he shifted in his seat, twisting his torso to the right until his cheek touched the mesh cage separating the front of the car from the backseat. A satisfying crack from the middle of his spine was the reward for his effort. It was awkward while wearing a vest. He could hear the creak from the holster, housing the department issue Glock 22, at his side, the straps straining as he leaned into it.

Darren turned the key and removed it from the ignition. Over the speakers, Robert Plant had been explaining that all he sees turns to brown as the sun burns the ground, but was cut off before he could finish the thought. Darren opened his door and stepped out into the winter air. What passes for winter air in California at any rate. Originally from Massachusetts, the transition from the smothering heat of the cruiser to the frigid blast of the air outdoors , as mild as it may be in comparison to New England, brought him back 10 years to the days of huddling around the radio at 5 in the morning waiting to hear your school district read off of the storm cancellation list. The tension as your place of education gets passed over, again and again, the jubilant thrill when the bastards give in and grant you furlough from the obligation of becoming an adult. Even just for one day.

As Darren lit a cigarette, the first bad habit he’d returned to after Ashley broke off the engagement, he could hear Hawkins going through the motions on his "reckless burning" situation. Some drunk asshole must have run out of fireworks and decided to start a small bonfire in the backyard. Neighbors flagged Hawkins down, worried the guy was gonna start another wildfire. Big deal, Darren thought, it’s his shit and his problem when he sobers up tomorrow.

Ignoring the chatter, Darren checked the clock on his cell and noted that only three minutes had passed since the last time he checked.

Ok then. So this last hour is gonna be like that.

25 minutes until the New Year.

Darren had grown up in the northeast, but spent the last six years on the west coast. At 24 years old and now acclimated to year-round sunshine, he had lost his hard-won tolerance to cold. This long into it, fifty degrees felt like negative ten. Another check of Darren’s phone (and the time, just to be sure it had not quickened) revealed it had dipped to 47 degrees. No wonder. Hawkins’ new buddy was probably just sick of the gas bill.

Darren paced short circles to keep the blood flowing while he smoked. The coat and flak jacket underneath did a good job of keeping his torso warm however his legs and his ears were on their own. Cold always finds something to bite.

Darren’s phone chimed once. Text message. Oh shit.

Darren took a deliberately slow drag off his smoke in case this was the off chance it was a message from Ashley wishing him a happy new year (not likely), or to admit she was wrong (even less likely). Not looking right away would somehow tell the universe that he was over all of that and that he was more than capable of moving on and surviving without her.

One more puff and Darren casually slid the phone out of his coat pocket, depressing the power button with his thumb and glancing down at the screen.

It was from Hack. (and also 22 minutes until midnight)

"Happy fuckin new years, pig."

Lovely. Darren thought. With friends like these.

Hack Glanton managed a titty bar down on Stichman. At least that’s what was on his tax returns, maybe not word for word. He was known in certain circles around San Gabriel Valley. You need a piece and you have a referral, you go see Hack. At this juncture, this was just hearsay, counselor. Hack had never been convicted of anything except speeding. But word gets around.

The last time Hack had a visit from the police, he’d called them himself. A 16-year-old kid had stopped him in the alleyway looking to buy an AR without all the California shackles on. Darren had responded to the call with his training officer. Of course, Hack swore he had no idea how the kid got it into his head to come looking for him. Eventually, back at the little shithead’s parents house, a search of his room had revealed a 9mm Hi-Point, 3 mags, and some half-assed attempt at a pipe bomb.

A year later, Darren stopped at the bar once or twice, the second bad habit since Ashley broke off the engagement. Turns out he and Hack got along well enough. At least well enough to exchange contact information. Darren initially thought that a maybe-criminal like Hack might see some benefit of having an acquaintance in the police, but Darren never really got that feeling from him, at least not in person. In fact, they’d never discussed work. Some people just click.

Darren had turned his attention to the unrelenting fireworks out over the city, now partially obscured by a thin but wide smokescreen. He was formulating a retort to Hack when Hawkins’ ragged and frantic voice tore from the radio.

"DISPATCH LIMA 120, OFFICER NEEDS..."

Rush of static. Darren pitched his cigarette, had his keys out and the door open.

"Lima 120, repeat your last."

"...UCK FUCKING PSYCHO...SEND..."

Static.

Something that wanted to be a scream.

But came out as a wet choke.

Nothing.

Darren fired up the cruiser.

He was already down the service road, turning onto Angeles Crest and gunning it, sirens blaring, down towards Thienes by the time dispatch got their shit together.

19 minutes until the New Year.

Next Chapter: Two