Here are the first two chapters of a radical experiment in collaboration where readers get to decide what happens next. It’s a post-apocalyptic story of survival and more. The more part will unfold as the readers and I continue to co-create it on the fly. If you want to get involved, come join us in the FB group…
If you want to just read the chapters and not help decide where the story goes, you’ve come to the right place. Here is how the story begins…
TDDR – Chapter 1
“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
– Robert Frost
I awoke into darkness with howling sirens stabbing daggers into my ears. Hands clamped over them to muffle the bone-jarring volume. It took a second to realize the hands were mine.
The sound vibrated through my head, the pitch sliding up and down in rhythmic agony.
I glanced around, or at least thought I did. It was hard to know for sure because the uniform darkness gave no hint of movement, of difference, of variation.
There was nothing but the infernal noise.
A thought struck me.
Almost a physical blow.
Was I dead?
Was it possible to be dead and reflect about the experience?
Another sound floated to the surface. A thumping beat starting in my chest and echoing in the hollow of my throat.
Only it wasn’t a sound.
It was a feeling.
A heart thrashing in a chest like a madman in a straight jacket.
I shifted and lancing pain shot through my shoulder. I grunted and froze until the sensation ebbed.
That settled it.
I was definitely alive. Not unless corpses felt pain and were susceptible to siren-induced madness.
And then another thought hit me. This was harder than the last. Like an avalanche.
Who was I?
I tried to think back to anything that came before.
Weren’t memories supposed to work like a lightbulb?
You flicked the switch and they lit up in an instant.
Something flickered at the edges of my awareness. A round face with trusting eyes and a button nose. A child. A girl with rolling black hair that glistened like oil under the sun.
Who was she?
A realization bubbled up. I waited, eager with anticipation. But then it popped and left nothing behind.
My wandering focus noticed dampness in my right palm. I pulled away and rubbed sticky fingers together.
An electric jolt raced through my jaw.
The sirens at full volume!
The sound of the end of the world, shrieking higher and lower and back again.
I slapped my hand back over my ear and the squish hinted at blood. The impact sent another shockwave bouncing through my skull, bringing tears to my eyes.
A foul scent filled my nose. Like fresh dung baking in the sun. My nose wrinkled in disgust. Another scent mixed with it, a sharper stink. Old sweat that had long gone rancid.
A deep mineral flavor lingered on my tongue.
I had a brain to observe the physical sensations. A mind to consider them. I was definitely alive.
So, what was my name?
How could I not know it?
And then it appeared from the impenetrable shadows of my subconscious. This time, the thought stayed long enough to be captured.
It had a familiar feel like a pair of worn slippers.
Yes. Scout was my name.
Excited by the realization, I hurried to the next thought waiting in line.
Did I have a last name?
Those were normal, right?
I waited for it to follow, but nothing more came.
Bright white lights flickered from above and the sirens cut to eery silence.
The ringing still echoed in my head. I kept my ears covered in case the they started again.
The lights above continued to flicker until one snapped brighter than the rest and stayed on.
Through squinted eyes, I peered around. A large wooden desk took up most of the view. Intricate patterns of filigreed detail covered the surface. In the center, a carved eagle with spread wings. Letters on a flowing ribbon above its head. Arrows clenched in one claw. A branch covered with leaves and small berries in the other.
I reached out a fingertip to the shield on the eagle’s chest. Half expecting to pass through like a mirage. Half in awe at how my trembling hand moved almost by itself.
It stopped at the hard surface. I ran it along the spine of one spread wing. The golden wood cool to the touch.
It was real.
As real as the crimson covering my hand and soaked into what used to be the light blue cuff of a long sleeve shirt.
I rotated my hand back and forth, observing how the viscous liquid slid to the lowest point again and again.
Tiny drops broke free and splattered onto the plush cream carpet below.
There was a paper on the carpet. A children’s drawing done in bright crayon colors. A stick figure man with a blue outlined suit that hung from the figure like a hanger. Arms splayed out to the sides. One side held hands with a shorter stick figure. A girl with black hair and a round circle face. Both looking forward and smiling.
A message written in cursive above the figures. Yellow crayon with a smudge showing where a mistake had been fixed and written over.
I love you, Daddy.
She was the girl I’d remembered. There was a feeling of certainty, of rightness. But nothing more came.
A line of warmth trickled down my neck. I touched it with fingers that came away sticky with blood.
Why was I bleeding?
And why so much?
Furious pounding sounded through an unobtrusive door in the curved wall a dozen feet away. A gold-framed picture lay on the floor in front of it. A portrait of a pale man in a black suit with a black bow tie. A narrow face with wrinkled cheeks and a short beard.
A second later, the door crashed open and a broad shouldered man rushed in. His dark shoe stomped a hole through the canvas as he entered. He dropped to a knee beside me.
“Mr. President! Are you okay?”
TDDR – Chapter 2
His eyes scanned over me with calculated speed before connecting again with my own. “Sir, can you understand me?”
The word came from nothing and suddenly was.
I spoke it.
How exactly, I couldn’t say. It happened in a way that was both natural and not at the same time. Like walking through the front door of your home after an exhausting day at work, but you’ve never met the woman that kisses your lips nor the children that hug your waist.
Like stepping into another version of yourself.
The man turned away and raised his wrist to his mouth. “This is Agent Barrow. Scout needs immediate medical attention! I repeat, Scout is injured! We need a trauma team in the Oval Office ASAP!”
A distant explosion shook the room. A jagged lightning crack appeared in the plaster ceiling above. A fog of dust rained down filling the air.
I sucked in a breath thick with particulates. And choked as it scraped down my throat.
Agent Barrow wrapped an arm around under mine. “Sir! We have to get to the PEOB!”
I stuffed the drawing into my pant’s pocket as he pulled me up. I stumbled forward as he dragged me toward the open door across the room.
The tall, narrow windows lining the far side of the room shattered as one. A tornado of razor shards exploded into the room as we dove through the doorway and into the hallway beyond.
The explosion threw us both to the carpet. The agent somehow managed to fall on top of me and yet have none of his weight land on mine. His body covered and shielded mine. In another instant, we were back up and heading down the hall.
We ran through a stately conference room filled with a long rounded table surrounded by empty leather chairs. Then through a series of hallways and into another larger room.
An overturned podium lay on its side at the front. Facing it were several rows of theater style seating. A black camera with a gray barreled lens attached was pinched between the cushions of one of the collapsed seats.
We passed through several more rooms. The evidence of people was strewn everywhere. Papers and folders scattered across tabletops and the floor. A half-filled cup of coffee with whispers of steam curling up into the air. Someone’s security badge lost or forgotten. A blue high-heeled shoe.
But there were no people.
It was like walking onto a studio stage and everything had been meticulously placed for the scene about to be shot. But the director, the crew, and all the actors were still back in their trailers waiting for the call.
We entered a wide hall and a gust of chill wind blew through, making the hairs on my arms stand on end.
I glanced right and my mouth hung open.
The front half of the building was gone. Huge chunks of masonry peppered the floor. Exposed pipes, splintered lumber, bent and sheared metal beams, the open sores of the two stories above.
Outside, white pillars in various stages of decay lined an arched patio. They resembled the ancient ruins of Rome. Two were cut stumps. Another couple were shorn in half and crumbling away as I watched. Another couple stood tall. A section of roof arching between them was all that remained to hint at what had been before.
“Stop!” someone yelled.
Agent Barrow dove behind an upturned desk with me shoved forward in front. He pushed my head down with one hand and drew a pistol with the other. “Stay down! I’ll handle it!”
I nodded with eyes wide and mind numbed by the sights, the sounds, the situation.
“Mr. President!” the other voice shouted. “This is Agent McKenzie. The man you’re with isn’t who you think he is!”
Agent Barrow peeked around the corner, fired off several shots, and then ducked back behind cover. “Don’t listen to him! He’s trying to trick you!” He scanned the room and pointed. “When I say go, you run like hell. I’ll cover you. Okay?”
I saw the entry to another hall and nodded.
“Mr. President!” the other voice called. “You’ll die if you go with that man! Please listen to me!”
“Go!” Agent Barrow said.
I hesitated. I had no idea who this man was.
“Go! Now!” He rolled out of cover and snapped off several shots.
Crouching low, I sprinted toward the hallway.
The ground shook, knocking me to the floor.
My eyes squinted open to the world standing sideways. I lifted my head and righted the orientation.
The other man stood with his shoe pressing down on Agent Barrow’s chest and a pistol pointing at his head.
Two flashes of bright light and blood splattered onto the carpet.
The man spun around and saw me. He ran over and knelt next to me. “Mr. President, are you okay?” His hands slid over me, searching for wounds.
The scan ended at my head. He turned it and pressed his lips together in a tight, flat line. “Sir, you’re pretty beat up. We need to get you down to the PEOB. There’s a trauma team waiting.”
He pulled me to my feet as I studied his face.
Why couldn’t I remember it.
Who was this man? And who was Agent Barrow?
And what about what Barrow had said?
That I would die if I went with this man? This Agent McKenzie?
Shouting from somewhere nearby echoed into the room.
“We have to go now, Sir!”
I needed a minute to think.
A minute to figure out what was happening and who I should trust.
“Now, Sir! We don’t have a second to lose!”
He started to push me forward.
I went with the movement, to give my response space, time, and inertia.
I grabbed his wrist and rotated into the move, pulling him forward and off balance. My hips dug under his as my pulling and his falling worked toward the same end.
He catapulted head over heels and crashed to the floor. The hand holding the pistol wheeled around and slammed into the floor, knocking the gun free.
It bounced a couple of feet away and settled on the carpet.
The impact stunned him for a second.
No more though as he was already turning to right himself.
But it was long enough.
I dove for the pistol, grabbed it, and rolled sideways into a kneeling position with one knee down and the other foot out for balance.
The pistol snapped up and the muzzle centered on his chest as he stood. “Don’t move!” I yelled.
He raised his hands. “Mr. President! It’s me, McKenzie! You can trust me, Sir!”
1. Should I believe what Agent Barrow said and make a run for it?
2. Should I believe what Agent Barrow said and shoot Agent McKenzie to neutralize the threat, and then make a run for it?
3. Should I believe Agent McKenzie and go with him?
The readers in the FB group voted and option 3 handily won the day. Tune in next week to find out what happens. Leave a comment here as I’d love to know what you think about the story thus far.
Thanks for reading!