From Rod Walker’s new bestselling novel, YOUNG MAN’S WAR:
Dad had come into the living room. He was a big man, and he looked like the sort of cop who would kick down doors and come in with his carbine blazing. He kept his head shaved, even though it kind of made him look like a Nazi, but I think the comparison pleased him. Right now, he had a massive scowl on his face, and I cringed a little. If that whining sound ticked him off and he thought it was coming from the game console…
“Yeah, Dad?” I said.
“Mute that,” he said. “I need to listen.”
I nodded and hit the mute button on the remote. The game’s chipper music went quiet, and I could hear that whining sound. It was now louder than the noise coming from the console’s fans.
“It must be the air conditioner,” pronounced Maggie. She tended to be a bit of a know-it-all. “That sounds like an air conditioner motor.”
“Maybe one of the neighbors is fixing something,” I said. “Or their car won’t start.”
“No, it must be the air conditioning,” said Maggie. “A broken car doesn’t make that noise.”
I looked up at Dad to see what he thought, and I blinked in surprise. There was something on his face that I had never seen before.
He was frightened.
“Dad?” I said.
He didn’t say anything. I don’t think I can describe how shocking this was. Dad never showed fear about anything, ever. Chicago at that time wasn’t exactly a safe place, and people had tried to break into our house a couple of times. Dad had beaten the would-be burglars within an inch of their lives, his scowl never wavering. For him to show fear was as shocking as if the sun had gone dark in the middle of the day or had risen in the west.
“Dad?” said Maggie, concern in her voice.
“Oh, no,” he said in a quiet voice. “No, no, no. Not now. Not now.” He looked at Maggie and me. “I had really hoped you two would be spared this.”
“What’s wrong?” said Maggie.
Dad seemed to pull himself together, his face drawing into its usual hard mask. “Get your grab bags and go. We leave in five minutes.”
I pushed to my feet, puzzled, but I knew better than to disobey. “What’s going on?”
“And get your guns,” said Dad. I blinked at that. As you might guess, Dad was a gun nut, but he was equally fanatical about gun safety, and he had drilled into us that we were never to pick up a gun in a crisis unless we needed to use it, and never to point the weapon at anything unless we intended to kill it. “Guns, grab bags, kitchen in the five minutes. Go!”
He all but shouted the last word, which kicked us into motion. Dad didn’t shout. We scrambled up the stairs, and Maggie vanished into her bedroom, and I went into mine. My grab bag was the closet. Dad was ever careful, and the grab bag had been loaded with clothes, food, tools, weapons, supplies—everything you needed to survive in a disaster or a crisis. Part of our chores included packing and repacking the grab bags, making sure that everything worked and that nothing had expired.
I pried up one of the floorboards in my room and took my gun from its hiding place.
I say “my” gun, but it was technically Dad’s, and I was forbidden from touching it save at his express word or during a life-threatening emergency. It was a Glock 17 pistol, and while I would never win any shooting competitions, I was a decent shot with the thing. I checked that it was unloaded, and then pulled out the clips from the hiding place and tucked them into my grab bag.
Handling the heavy handgun seemed to send a shock through my brain. Before, the pure habit of obedience had taken over, but now I was beginning to wonder. Why were we doing this? All we had heard was an odd whining noise. Maybe it really was just the air conditioner acting up. The central air unit for our house was older than I was.
Then again, I had never seen Dad that freaked out by something. Angry, yes. He got angry and cold a lot. But frightened?
I shrugged, checked the grab bag one last time, and headed for the stairs. Maybe Dad was freaking out over nothing. If so, it was no big deal. Better to go along with what he had in mind that risk a punishment.
Maggie had beaten me downstairs, but she was always better organized than I was. Her eyes were wide in her face, though she seemed otherwise calm. I guess Dad’s alarm must have gotten to her. The whining noise had gotten louder, so loud that it was starting to get annoying.
“I guess,” said Maggie,” that’s not really the air conditioner.”
“No,” I said. I started to point out that I had told her so, but I stopped. The noise had gotten louder, and it also sounded…strange. I had thought it sounded like a broken machine, but now it didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard before, and it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
“It sounds like something screaming,” said Maggie.
“Yeah,” I said.
Then I saw the light.
It was nine o’clock at night, and the lights were off in the kitchen, the kitchen door closed. But around the edges of the door I saw a flickering, colorless light, almost like the fluorescent lights in a hospital emergency room. The light kept flickering, and I realized that it was flickering in time to the undulations of the whining noise.
“Roland,” said Maggie. “I think that’s coming from the alley.”
I started to answer, and Dad came hurrying down the stairs. He was dressed in something that looked like riot gear—body armor and cargo pants and a harness for weapons. He was carrying a lot of weapons, two pistols, several grenades, a pair of heavy tactical knives, and he was holding an AR-15 with a lot of custom modifications.
“Dad,” said Maggie. “If you go outside like that, you’re going to get arrested.”
“I’m not,” said Dad. “The force is about to have bigger problems. In a couple of hours there might not even be a police force. Are you both ready?”