THE KING’S HIGHWAY Mid-grade chapter book, First book of the Days of Dread Trilogy
Main Characters : Oldest sibling at fifteen, Jackson Allison, his thirteen-year-old sister McKenzie, and nine-year-old brother Cooper; Albert Einstein Hawking, and Aria Angelica Aleigha Hernandez.
Premise : A mysterious dead man directs the small band on their journey to a much safer corridor he dubs The King’s Highway.
Synopsis : Airplanes falling out of the sky and all things electric rendered useless after a mysterious flash test the grit of fifteen-year-old Jackson Allison. The care and safety of his younger siblings fall solely to him. No one knows for sure what’s happened, but danger lurks if they stay. With a fierce determination to keep his thirteen-year-old sister McKenzie and nine-year-old brother Cooper safe, the high school freshman is compelled to leave their Irving home in the shadow of the DFW Airport for their grandparents’ farm a hundred-plus miles northeast.
Thrust into a lawless, chaotic world, he’s guided by an ever-changing cryptic note that leads his growing troupe along the King’s Highway. Bullies, Russians, wild animals, gang-bangers, and kidnappers thwart their progress while a lack of drinkable water and food is a constant concern. Will he ever get his people to safety in the Red River Valley in far Northeast Texas?
“In response to the escalating unrest in the Middle East, elements of three Russian army divisions have moved to the border.”
Jackson pointed the changer at the wide screen television and clicked the ‘previous channel’ button. The CNN talking-head sat in front of a map of China, most of it red. “The drought is reported to be the worst in –”
He keyed in channel eight. The handsome ABC weathercaster maintained a grim expression, pointing at a computer-generated map behind him. “There seems to be no escape in sight as this record heat continues across all seven continents. Scientists report both poles are melting at record rates.”
“Bye, sweetheart. I might be late tonight.”
“No problem. Have a good day, Mom.”
She smiled then hurried out the door. He took a sip of his sweet coffee and clicked the TV to Nickelodeon. Spongebob’s cheerful laugh belied Squidward’s antics. There was only so much he could take. He hated listening to all the bad reports on every news channel, yet still craved any word on what his father might be up against.
Why did he have to go and volunteer for a third tour, anyway?
He took another sip, but the sugar laden caffeine couldn’t trump the salt in his eyes. Just a few minutes, he promised himself.
“Jackson.” A small hand shook his shoulder. “Jackson, there’s a fire across the street.”
He opened his eyes. His little brother stood next to his chair. “What’s on fire?”
“A telephone pole.”
Jackson set the coffee cup on the side table. “The firemen will handle it.”
“There isn’t any of them out there, and I don’t think they’re coming. Everything stopped after the big flash.”
“What flash? Lightning?”
“No, it wasn’t lightning. There’s no clouds or thunder either, but it lit everything up real bright for a minute.”
Jackson stood and stretched then shuffled over to the big, double front window. He lifted a couple of the narrow blind slats. Flames licked the top of the telephone pole like a humongous birthday candle. The transformer popped, and sparks crackled, raining down to the lawn and street below. Reminded him of those candles you can’t blow out or July Fourth sparklers.
Then something else caught his attention.
The people milling about several empty cars parked right in the middle of the road. Many of them pointed toward the sky. A silver jumbo jet raced through the puffy clouds in a nose dive. The horrific sight only lasted a few seconds ending in a huge fire ball. His heart pounded against his chest. What was going on? Poor people!
He grabbed his cell and touched its screen, but got no response. He looked at Cooper. “Did you call nine-one-one?”
“Nope. House phone’s dead.”
“McKenzie up?” He glanced over at his alarm clock and swallowed. Its face, an empty black display, mirrored his phone’s. Great, just great. How was he supposed to know when it was time to leave for school?
“Yeah, she’s in the shower.”
Dressing quickly, Jackson hurried outside with his little brother on his heels. From his second story apartment, he had a good view. Up and down the street, all the transformers on the telephone poles still smoked, but the fireworks had stopped. More people had joined those who stood around.
No one seemed to have a clue as to what caused everything to stop, even though plenty of theories got bantered about. Cooper liked the aliens’ invasion one the best. Listening to one lady—who talked non-stop, no matter the occasion—he internally welcomed the neighbor-from-beneath-their-apartment’s interruption.
She pointed with one hand and covered her mouth with the other, eyes full of terror. “Look! There goes another one.”
Even the jabberbox remained speechless.
That airplane dove like a hawk after a field rat. It, too, erupted into a massive ball of flames on impact. Good grief, what in the world was going on?
One old man who’d recently moved in to the next four-plex wore one of those old timey wind-up watches. Ever since Jackson and Coop had come outside, the guy told anyone who would listen that it all went down at exactly six fifty-two. Almost seven o’clock, about the time his mother should’ve been getting to work.
“Did you see that?”
“Sure did. They’ve been falling like flies every since the flash; both ends of the airport. Bless all those souls. They’ll meet the Maker today. Hope they were ready.”
“But why? Why are all the planes crashing?”
“Who knows? Guess the same reason none of those cars will run.”
Jackson shook his head. “Man, I can’t believe this.”
Shortly, McKenzie joined the growing group and sidled up to him. Hair still damp, she looked a little undone. “What’s up, Bro? I think Mom forgot to pay the electric company again. Power’s off.”
“No, wasn’t Mom’s fault. Everyone’s is off, and nobody knows why. None of those cars or trucks will start either, and planes are falling out of the sky all around the airport.”
“There was this flash, Sisser! It’s the aliens, just like on TV.”
She glanced at Cooper and smiled. “Well, I’m leaving for school. Just wanted to let you know.”
Jackson shrugged. “Why would you? Nothing’s working.”
“So what? I have perfect attendance, and I’m going.” She looked at her little brother. “You coming?”
“Nope, I’m staying, I don’t want to miss the aliens.”
“Whatever.” She hefted her backpack higher onto her shoulder then stopped at the curb and looked both ways as though the dead cars might spring to life any minute. Jackson shook his head as she crossed the street. Why did she always have to be so bullheaded?
Cooper tugged on his sleeve. “I’m hungry, want to cook me some scrambled eggs?”
At least the gas stove still worked, except he had to light it with a match. The electronic clicker wouldn’t operate. Eggs, bacon, and grilled toast hit the spot with a tall glass of cold milk to wash it all down. But the lights being off—and not knowing what had caused it all—troubled him. He put the plates in the dishwasher and decided it was full enough to run.
Had to laugh at himself when he pushed the button, and it didn’t come to life.
His little brother came up the hall. “Want to play football?”
“What?” He focused on the boy.
“Football. Want to play?”
“Sure. Why not?”
After a while, a couple of kids from two buildings down joined them, and he led everyone across the street to the school’s football field. Soon enough, the game had enough guys for two teams. He loved it, but Coop wasn’t so thrilled. The little feller lasted until mid-morning then stood on the sideline with his hangdog look until Jackson decided to go home with him.
McKenzie sat at the kitchen table reading a book. She looked up. “Hey.”
“You’re back early.”
“I know.” She sighed. “They sent home those of us who bothered to come. At least they’ll know I was there when all the lights come back on.”
Coop plopped in his regular chair to her left. “Really? Did anyone there know anything about the electricity?”
“No, only a few teachers showed up. They all had plenty of ideas, but no one knew what’s happened for sure.”
“I think it’s the aliens, don’t you?”
Jackson nodded. “Could be you’re right, Bubba.”
“Jackson, really? Don’t encourage him.”
“Whatever. You have any better ideas? Anyway…I’ve been thinking and figure we should probably get some water put up.”
“What for? The faucet still works.”
“Yeah, for now. But only because there’s still water in the tower. Once that’s gone…it takes electricity to pump more up there, so the faucets will go dry.”
McKenzie gave him her yeah-right look, but didn’t verbally oppose his plan. “So what are we going to use?”
“Why don’t you and Cooper go get whatever empty jugs or bottles you can find in the recycle bins? I’ll look around here and start filling what I can come up with.”
After they both returned with arms full of two-liter soda bottles, some milk jugs, and a few of the regular smaller water bottles, he got busy washing then filled them back up. For the rest of the morning, he kept them busy hunting for more containers. “Don’t get any without lids or the jugs with clabbered milk either. And y’all stay together.”
He hoped he had them on a fools’ errand, but the longer the power stayed off and the cars and trucks sat lifeless in the streets, the more it seemed like the smart thing to do. With each bottle he filled, concern for his mother grew. Did she have something to drink? If whatever had happened here affected downtown Dallas, too, she might be in trouble.
Hopefully, she’d made it to Rockwall.
The back door flew open. He looked up with expectations of seeing her, but Cooper held out a single two-liter bottle. “I could only find this one. McKenzie doesn’t have any.”
She rolled her eyes. “I think the neighbors saw us and started grabbing them, too.”
Jackson glanced at the row of water-filled plastic containers lined against the wall and wished there were twice as many. “Guess that’ll have to do then.”
McKenzie stepped into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, looking around. “We’re hungry. How about we fix some lunch?”
“Okay, sure, but don’t stand there holding the door open. You’re letting the cold out.”
She shut it. “More like the heat in, but you’re still right.”
“Wow. Coop, did you hear her? It’s a miracle.”
“Hey, don’t be snarky. On the rare occasions when you’re right, I don’t begrudge you.”
He opened the freezer. The ice trays held mostly ice, but the melting cubes already swam in water. He took off the lid on the ice cream and checked it, pretty soft. After fried baloney sandwiches, a pile of grapes, and milkshakes, he decided to move everything he could to the freezer side of the refrigerator.
He let Cooper talk him into a game of chess, but had trouble concentrating. The little booger trapped his queen. Five moves later, he laid his king over.
“You win; you’re a nine-year-old genius.”
“Want another? I’ll play with only half my brain.”
Jackson closed his eyes and rubbed his brow. Something lurked at the edge of his mind, but he couldn’t quite put a finger to it. He looked up. “Maybe later, Bubba.” Then it dawned on him. Later meant dark—really dark—if the lights didn’t come back on.
She glanced up from her book. “No, thanks; I don’t want to play.”
“Do you know where Mom keeps the candles?”
“Well, get up and help us look. We better find them before dark, or we’re not going to be able to see anything.”
He hated rifling through his mother’s stuff, especially her girly-girl drawers, but that’s where he found the candles in a big zip-lock bag with extra matches. Her being out there by herself continued to gnaw his gut. He got why his father served, he did, but still hated all of his dad’s overseas deployments.
Sure seemed like after being a Marine for sixteen years, he’d have enough seniority to get a job closer to home.
The evening seemed to drag on forever. At first, he let them burn four candles, enough light for McKenzie to read by, but at the rate they melted, he decided to cut it back to one. When that burned down short, he wouldn’t let them light another. Cooper, always the first down and first up in the morning, drifted off on the couch.
His sister sat in the loveseat, now only a dark shadow. “What about Mom? Think she’s alright?”
Jackson nodded, not that she could see him. “I’m sure she’s fine. She’s resourceful and plenty smart. Probably found somewhere to get inside between downtown and Rockwall and right now is trying to go to sleep worrying about us. She’ll be home tomorrow.” He had no intention of letting his sister know that he was worried sick about her.
“You’re lying; I can hear it in your voice. I’m praying for her to get home.”
“Whatever. Go to bed.”
“Can I have a candle and some matches?”
“Duh. So I can see where I’m going.”
She had such an attitude sometimes, and he got so tired of it; mother always called it the middle-child syndrome. “Okay, but put it out as soon as you’re in bed. No more reading.”
“Fine.” She reached out and patted the coffee table until she found both candle and matches. “But, Jackson? Just to be perfectly clear. You are not the boss of me. I’m almost as old as you and way more mature, and you know it.”
“McKenzie, go to bed.”
She struck a match and lit her candle, glaring at him with that smart-alecky expression of hers. “I am, but not because you told me to.” She covered Cooper with a throw then turned and padded barefoot down the hall. “I’m sleeping in Mom’s room.”
He sighed and waited at his door until she snuffed out the candle then groped his way to bed where he tossed and turned for what seemed like hours. Sleep eluded him. He couldn’t stop thinking about his mother.
Why hadn’t she come home?
Racking his brain on what he was going to do if she didn’t, he stared into the darkness. He wanted to go look for her, but knew it was more important to stay with McKenzie and Cooper.
They were his responsibility now.
The last thing he wanted was to drag those two around anywhere. But if Mom didn’t come home soon, he’d have to do something. With each option, he ran the what-ifs as many moves forward as he could, just like in a chess game or something, but every scenario always seemed to end in checkmate.
A scream woke him.
Heart racing, he jumped up and found the door. His hand wiped the wall until he found the light switch. He flipped it, but it still didn’t work. He stood perfectly still, holding his breath. Though straining hard to listen, he couldn’t hear anything else.
Adrenalin outmaneuvered his sleep fog, and after getting his bearings, he realized the scream had at least come from outside the apartment.
The booming in his chest slowed. He swallowed and felt his way into the living room where he found a candle and matches then lit it. His little brother still slept curled on the couch. He checked to make sure the deadbolt was locked then made his way to his mother’s room and eased the door open.
The lump in the bed made the little sounds that usually drove him crazy, but on this night, reassured him.
Had he really even heard someone scream? Could it have been a dream? He felt the wall back to his room, but never could get back to sleep. At the first bit of light brightening the day, he rolled out again and went to the living room window. Sitting next to it, he watched his neighborhood come alive again.
The second day proved harder. The water stopped running mid-morning; then before the macaroni cooked soft enough, the gas stove sputtered out. He covered the pan and let it sit a while, then strained it and added extra butter and milk since it would spoil soon anyway. McKenzie cut up some smoked sausage to go in the mac-and-cheese.
Turned out to be a pretty good lunch.
The last bit of light faded that evening with no sign of his mother. Keeping quiet about it, Jackson refused to give voice to his fears, but it sure seemed to him that something must have happened to her.
Thinking about it soured his stomach. He made himself not dwell on it. No doubt, she should be home by then though.
Walking the fifteen or twenty miles from downtown Dallas to Irving shouldn’t take her that long. The summer before seventh-grade football, he and his father jogged ten miles early every morning. Dad had told him the military considered three miles an hour a forced march. Even at two, she could have been home the first evening.
A whole extra day had gone by.
The second night, another scream—this time followed by a gunshot—woke him. He jumped out of bed and eased to his window, but couldn’t see anything but blackness.
“Jackson? That you at the window?” Her voice sounded scared.
He turned around. A McKenzie-sized shadow stood in his doorway. “Yeah, go back to bed.”
“Was that a gunshot?”
He sighed. “Yeah, but it was pretty far away.” He didn’t like lying to her but –
“Can I stay in here with y’all?”
“Sure; get in bed with Coop.”
With no more gunshots or screams that night, Jackson managed to doze, but woke again before the sun rose on day three. Soon as it was light enough outside and folks started moving about, he left his siblings sleeping and slipped out. The old man with the windup watch sat in a lawn chair outside his ground floor apartment.
With a hot dog swaying on the end of a straightened coat hanger, he roasted his breakfast over a small fire.
“Good morning, sir.”
The old guy glanced up then back to his wiener. “Morning, son.”
He shrugged. “Guy three buildings down got shot dead last night over a bottle of hooch.” He pulled back his jacket revealing a holstered pistol. “Best arm yourself if your dad left any guns in the place. Things are getting bad.”
Jackson nodded. “Yes, sir, good idea.”
The old man pulled the hotdog back and looked it over. “Your mother get home?”
“No, sir. Not yet.”
“Guy I know says the grocery stores are all empty, pharmacies, too. Fires are burning all over the place. If I was young like you and had any place to go, I’d get far away from here before the crazies go totally bonkers. It’s only going to get worse.”
Jackson didn’t know what to say. Seemed to him the old man was right, but where could he go? After another guy wandered up, he headed back upstairs and pulled out the little grill Mom kept in the hall closet.
Filling it with charcoal, he stepped out the back door then lit it up. The complex had rules about cooking on the balconies, but he didn’t care. What were they going to do? Kick him out? Besides, he wasn’t too eager to be out in the yard with his food, and all the meat in the refrigerator needed to be cooked before it spoiled.
That evening after he wasted a gallon of water trying to flush the toilet that refused to be flushed, he decided to heed the old man’s advice.