Since I’m in a gererous mood today, I am going to go ahead and share the first chapter of Outbreak! I’m still looking at a late April/early May release provided I do not discover any major issues with the book. This will be the only part of the book I will be sharing online as I don’t want to ruin too much!
“Paul, up. Now. We don’t have time to waste.”
He forced his eyes open to his dad, who stared down at him with narrowed eyes and stubble he hadn’t had time to shave this morning. It was still dark in the fields outside and at the landlord’s house next door. Paul held back a groan that wouldn’t make a difference, anyway. That look was his dad’s silent signal. They needed to pack yet again.
“Come on. We’re not Marines. Ever heard of sleeping in a bit?” Paul yanked the covers over his head. If his Uncle Tanner was catching up with them again, it wasn’t his problem. His uncle never came over to argue with him.
Only it was his problem, and he didn’t want to deal with it before their farmer neighbors got out of bed. Every time his uncle and his dad got in a fight, or his uncle figured out where they lived–a move followed, and Paul had no choice but to go along. Why couldn’t Tanner stop blaming his dad for stuff that wasn’t his fault, and why couldn’t his dad stand up to Tanner?
“We’ve got to leave right now,” his father pressed on, shaking him. “Now. Up. Grab your textbooks. You can do your history test on the road.”
“Are you serious?” Paul shot out of bed and stared around at the boxes in his room. He hadn’t even gotten a chance to unpack everything into this house. “Tanner won’t get up this early, either. I guarantee you. I bet he was up programming until two in the morning. And we’ve been here less than a month. He couldn’t have found our address that fast.”
His father bent over, stacking a couple of Paul’s boxes on top of each other. “It’s not him this time.”
“Huh?” Paul shot awake, sitting up.
The back of his dad’s plaid shirt, still dusty from helping Mr. Dobson prepare farm equipment yesterday, was his only answer as he shoved Paul’s boxes around. His CD’s rattled inside one. Somewhere in the next room, his dad’s weather radio crackled through a set of headphones, never quite loud enough to make out.
“Then what is it?” Paul made a show of kicking a box of his textbooks across the room.
His father kept his back turned, stacking more boxes. “I just got back from the pay phone in town. Mobley’s mayor has requested something of us that has to be done today. If we do him this one favor, he’ll give us a huge discount on our house there, and we can finally move in. For good.”
The words made him sit up straight. Mobley. The town they’d been supposed to move to for years, but were unable to afford. They even had a house reserved there since before his mother had died. His father had talked about it on occasion, about how things would be stable if he could just work something out, but Paul had started to think they’d never go there, that they’d keep drifting around the Midwest forever.
The anger melted out of him as he stood and joined his father in hauling his guitar and music books out into the living room. He didn’t even care why his father had gone to the pay phone in town at this hour, or even what the mayor wanted. If it meant no more of this, he wouldn’t ask questions.
* * * * *
Paul dropped his magazine in his lap and hit his head on the back of the seat as his father braked suddenly.
“Dad!” He fished down between his feet and retrieved his copy of Rolling Stone, which had fallen on top of his textbooks on the floor. It wasn’t his newest, but he still needed something to read about on this road trip other than the Reconstruction era, and preferably something that wasn’t covered in footprints or dried mud. These magazines weren’t cheap, and his lawn mowing money was about gone.
His father didn’t apologize. That was strange for him. Instead, the side of his mouth wrinkled as he stared past Paul and to the horizon. “We’re here. Perfect timing.”
Sighing, he followed his father’s gaze out the van’s window. Wherever “here” was, it wasn’t Mobley. Tall grass blew down in the open fields ahead of some turbulence in the atmosphere. Only a large, low gray building with guard towers lined the horizon. It was the middle of nowhere out here, like it would be up in Oklahoma, too. “Middle of nowhere” was the story of Paul’s life up until now.
“Is that a prison?” he asked. It was a rhetorical question. He’d seen plenty of them sitting off lightly traveled roads, surrounded by barbed wire, concrete, and signs warning drivers not to pick up hitchhikers. A bad taste filled his mouth. “Does this have something to do with what Mobley’s mayor wanted us to do?”
“Correct,” his father said. He had that tone of voice, like he was planning something. His mustache wrinkled. His dad looked as uncomfortable as he felt. “It’s the North Texas Women’s Correctional Facility, to be exact. We have a pit stop to make right about here, and then we’re on our way up to Mobley. Of course, there’s something else, too.”
Something else. Paul wasn’t sure what to say, or what his father was even saying. Ahead, the cracked road stretched away into infinity. “Um, Dad? There’s nothing else out this way.” Unless you planned on taking a leak out in the field, and that didn’t count. “What are you pulling now? Is there someone we have to visit in there?” The thought sent a shudder down his spine.
“No,” his father said, staring hard at him. “Don’t panic, Paul, but there’s someone we need to get out of there. A friend of the mayor. Someone who’s going to be executed for a crime she didn’t commit.”
“What? You’re joking, right?” His father hadn’t joked about anything for years, not since that horrible morning that had sent his life into a tailspin. “Who, exactly? And how?” It sucked that he never got to watch television and his dad never bought papers. Paul felt like a caveman in the Ice Age.
His father readjusted his position but didn’t speak. His gaze stayed on the fields ahead.
That’s when he noticed the darkening on the horizon, a color between blue and black. Paul wanted to smack himself for not noticing it before. The waving grass grew bright for a second in the last of the sun before fading to a dark, ominous green. Suddenly, the magazine in his lap lost all its importance as his heart started to race. This was the second reason his dad had stopped.
His father’s hand clamped down on his shoulder. His tone lightened. The prison break must have been a joke after all. “Today might be the day. Feel anything?”
Paul concentrated as much as he could over the thudding of his heart, feeling for the signs his father had drilled him about millions of times already. Heaviness in the limbs? No. A sudden urge to take a nap? No. Tingling? Well, he was breaking a sweat, but it was the first big heat wave of the year. “Nothing.”
His father yawned, then glanced at him and sighed. Disappointment welled up between the two of them. Nothing had changed in Paul over the past winter. “I was a year younger than you when I had my first Outbreak.” He yawned again, a sure sign that one was coming on. No wonder he’d pulled over. They really didn’t need him to fall asleep at the wheel and get in an accident.
“Dad, you need me to drive?” Paul fingered his fresh new driver’s license in his pocket, squeezing the life out of it and trying to hide his anger and disappointment at the same time. How embarrassing. Almost seventeen and no Outbreak yet, while his dad was probably on his fortieth. Paul was probably going to be the only one in Mobley, which was going to suck.
“No. We need to be here. This is timing to kill for.” Another yawn, a silent one, filled half his father’s face as he eyed the prison again.
Paul sighed, studying his reflection in the side mirror. His brown eyes, flecked with pure black, stared back at him. Everyone who was ever going to Outbreak had those eyes. But maybe he was a fluke, and he hadn’t inherited the ability after all. “Are you sure you turned Mom into an Outbreaker before you guys had me?” The trait wasn’t always passed down, unless both parents were Outbreakers. Only then was there a hundred percent chance. Paul had entertained that possibility since last year.
Silence followed for a second. Mentioning his mother always brought a sad, distant look to his father’s eyes. He wished he could take his question back. The van felt so empty without her there, shuffling through the dash for Paul’s favorite CD’s. “I’ve told you before, Paul. Yes. There’s no chance that you aren’t one, too.” His voice, normally stern when he gave this lecture, sounded heavy and tired. It was almost time, and once again, Paul would get to sit there and watch.
A crack of thunder washed over the van, making the windows rattle. The first droplets of rain splashed across the glass. The storm was moving fast, faster than most of the ones his father had taken him out to last year. The wait would be short, at least.
“Watch the van, Paul. I’m sure she’s out there waiting,” his father said, and slumped into unconsciousness.
Watch the van. He’d heard that line countless times, every time he’d failed to Outbreak last summer. Paul sighed and slapped the magazine down on his lap as the rain beat harder on the van, turning the pattering into a roar. But who was she? A prisoner? Maybe his dad hadn’t been joking after all? Wow, his day had just managed to suck more.
Another crash of thunder rattled his surroundings. Wind howled past, whipping down every blade of grass outside and blowing waves of mist across the road ahead.
His father snored in the driver’s seat. He was no longer there. His awareness had left, gone soaring up into the turbulence above. They were going to be sitting here anywhere between two minutes and an hour, depending on how long the storm borrowed his dad for.
Well, at least he had his magazine.
Paul opened his magazine, flipping to the concert schedule for Executioner. April fourteenth in Oklahoma City, only a hundred miles from Mobley. He’d dog-eared the page, since he’d be going there soon and meeting up with Brian and Dominic. He hadn’t seen his old neighbors since he’d moved last year. It was the only thing that was going to keep this spring from sucking completely, because moving yet again sure wasn’t.
The rain abruptly stopped after a few minutes, and the space around the van cleared and opened up. The field snapped back into view, and Paul closed his magazine. He’d seen this on dozens of expeditions last spring and summer, but he couldn’t help but watch every time.
The grass in the field had stopped waving. Clouds hung low over the horizon now, and one section of sky had dropped lower than the rest, slowly rotating like an upside-down top. Paul gripped the armrest while his father—well, his father’s body—continued to breathe heavily next to him.
Then the gray cone descended, hanging there at first as if it wasn’t sure where it wanted to land. It took up the distance between itself and the ground in a second. Brown dust rose and swirled around the newly-formed tornado as it slowly approached, looming larger and larger. Paul’s heart started to race—he couldn’t help it—but he sucked in a few slow breaths, forcing himself to calm down. He was perfectly safe. No Outbreaker could hurt another. The tornado couldn’t come over here.
The grass kept waving gently at him, as if laughing at the fact that Paul wasn’t out there with his father. Again. Behind it, the tornado seemed to grow in size, a swirling wedge ripping the dust from the ground and flinging it hundreds of feet. It had to be an experience nothing short of awesome, one that he would never have.
It was also getting awfully close to the prison.
Paul seized the armrest, dropping his magazine again and not even caring this time. The gray building and guard towers barely stood out against the swirling dust, and it didn’t look like the tornado was going to move in time. He’d never seen it happen before–every tornado he’d seen had been out in endless fields–but he could only imagine that this wouldn’t have good results.
“Dad!” He slapped his father’s shoulder, to get no response other than a loud snore. “Careful! What if you do some dam—”
A bluish-white ball of light erupted from the edge of the prison. A transformer had blown. Paul held his breath as it faded a second later, to be replaced by something worse: chunks of something flying through the air, darkening the funnel even more. Pieces of building. Maybe even cars, joining the swirl of dust around the funnel. He’d seen plenty of tornadoes, of course…but nothing like this.
Paul slugged his father on the arm this time, hard enough to leave a bruise, but he didn’t care. Not now. This wasn’t right. His father had never had an Outbreak near buildings. It was always in a field somewhere, where there was room. “Dad! Knock it off! Do you realize what you’re doing?”
Another snore. His father’s head lolled to the side, empty. Meanwhile, the tornado continued its approach, looming larger outside the window. Debris fell to the ground all around it, littering the landscape as it slowed.
The tornado slowly grew more transparent as it approached the road ahead of him, letting dust and debris plop to the ground and into the ditch on either side. The tornado was dying, so his dad would return to his body any second now. Paul’s fists clenched as his stomach threatened to heave up the McDonalds he’d had earlier. He was going to have a talk with his dad as soon as that happened. He didn’t care if his dad was the parent and he was just the kid. This demanded some answers.
Paul’s heart stopped.
Something orange slowly fell to the side of the road ahead, as if being lowered on a falling feather. Something orange…with flailing arms and legs.
The tornado died, and his father grunted next to him, regaining consciousness.
Paul paid no attention. The person remained still on the ground ahead, facedown. Dead? No. His father wasn’t a murderer.
“You okay, Paul?” His dad blinked at him as if he hadn’t plowed through the prison a few minutes ago.
He lost it. Paul hit the glove compartment with his fist, making it pop open. Maps and CD’s toppled to the floor. “No, I’m not okay. What the hell were you doing? You could’ve…could’ve hurt somebody!” His own words made it all real to him somehow. He pointed to the body lying on the side of the road ahead. “Wh–“
“Paul. Calm down. She’s perfectly okay. Just dazed. I did not hurt anyone. I have more control than that.” The ignition started as his dad turned the keys. His voice took on a tremor as he spoke, like he was unsure, scared, or both. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to see that, but we had no choice. I should’ve warned you about this beforehand. It’s the only way we can get into Mobley.”
A chill rushed over Paul. The tremor in his dad’s voice matched the way he felt. He hadn’t been joking a few minutes ago. He’d broken a real convict out of prison. Suddenly, he felt dirty and guilty. This was a federal offense or something. Paul had a sudden urge to jump out of the van and hitchhike with the first vehicle that came down the road, regardless of the warning signs on the highway. “Dad–that’s illegal! We could get busted for this. And how do you know for sure you didn’t hurt anyone?” A bad taste rose in his mouth as the van rolled past a piece of metal on the side of the road. A chunk of barbed wire. Papers. But thankfully, no one else.
His father stared straight ahead, as if trying to see something in his own words. “I…I only scraped the side of the prison, Paul. She was outside on recreation hour. Ready.”
Ahead, the figure on the side of the road began to stir, pushing herself up on her hands. Short brown hair, growing out into blond, spilled around her head. Just then, Paul realized the stupidity of what he’d said. Nobody could tie the tornado to his dad.
At least the woman was alive. Okay. The thought helped to dispel the sickness gnawing at Paul’s insides. And the side of the prison…it definitely looked like his dad was telling the truth there. What he’d seen matched what he said. The building was still intact, although the fence might have taken a beating. “But she’s a prisoner, Dad. How do you know who she is? How do you know she’s innocent?” He didn’t like the thought of one getting in the van with them.
“They accused her of breaking a man’s neck in an airport parking ramp last October,” his father continued as he hit the gas, racing up to the now-standing woman on the side of the road. She was in a prison jumpsuit, all right, complete with a number on the front of her shirt. “Tell me, Paul. Does that look like someone who has the strength to do that? She’s not even an Outbreaker.”
He squinted. The woman had a thin frame, thinner than most. Skinny arms. Small bones. “They think she did that with her bare hands?” Paul felt stupid. If only his dad would buy a television or get a computer, he might actually know what was going on in the world. But he’d gotten rid of theirs after his mother died. Said they were a waste of time. Not that he’d let Paul watch it much to begin with.
“They’re not sure, but they accused her anyway. Figured she must have done it some way, because she had the guy’s car. I think she bought it off the murderer like she said at court, personally. But you know how Texas is with executions.”
The words swam around Paul’s head. He stared at the prison in the distance. The first red lights of emergency vehicles spun around it, no doubt inspecting the damage. The whole world was crashing around him. He could see his dad’s point, “but was this necessary? All this? How did you carry her without hurting her?”
At least, she didn’t look hurt. Dazed, yes, with hair flying everywhere and her jumpsuit ruffled. Hurt, no. His father pulled the van up to her and unlocked the doors with a click.
Paul shook his head. The world suddenly made even less sense to him. The woman scrambled to the van, as if she’d been expecting it for a very long time, and slid the door open without a word. He fought back the urge to jump out.
Leather creaked as the door shut. “Go,” she ordered, sliding across the seat.
The engine revved as his father hit the gas to continue their journey to Mobley. Paul stared at him, all words flying out of his mind and his life falling out from under him. Yes, Mobley would mean that they wouldn’t have to move anymore, but was it worth risking this?
In the rear view mirror, the woman’s eyes seemed to peer into his soul. They were a dark gray color, like the storm that had just gone through, but nothing like Outbreaker eyes at all. Still, they were strange, different somehow, and Paul couldn’t decide why.
His father glanced at him and smiled, then back at the woman, but it seemed awkward, forced somehow. “Ma’am, my name is Earl Collins. This is my son, Paul. We’ll be taking you to Mobley. Paul, this is the mayor’s girlfriend, Andrina Morgen.”