Brandon struggles through adolescence and college, still troubled by hallucinations that are also witnessed by others, leading him to believe that someone-or something-is deliberately laying clues in his path. Doggedly pursuing one clue at a time, Brandon seeks the answers.
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Brandon Chambers awoke to the sound of gentle but persistent tapping on his bedroom window. Tap-tap-tap. He closed his eyes, trying to ignore the sound, but there it was again: tap-tap-tap.
The ten-year-old sat up and stared at the window. On that February night, the moonlight illuminated the glass panes, which sparkled with frost.
Three more taps repeated exactly as the others. Brandon listened and squinted, instinctively recognizing that the sound wasn't a restless woodpecker or anything else from nature.
Cautiously, the pajama-clad boy walked from his bed to the window. He peered outside where the snow blanketed the ground and glistened in the moonlight. A brown, lean hare stared back at him as if it had been expecting him to show up. The hare sat in the crouching position, its head pulled back to get a good look at Brandon.
Brandon was startled, but not merely at the hare's presence.
The animal was wearing a gas mask.
The gas mask wasn't sized for a human. It fit on the hare's face, just big enough to appear unwieldy. Its two, glass eyepieces reflected the moonlight as the hare looked straight at Brandon.
The hare wasn't struggling. It wasn't desperately pawing off the ominous gas mask, butting its head into the ground. It just was. Calm, composed, and as still and unmoving as any rabbit would be when it's been spotted by a human but is not yet in danger.
Mesmerized, he stood at the window. He continued his steady gaze.
Almost one minute later, the hare looked away. It moved slowly, painstakingly, as if the rabbit's limbs were hampered by severe arthritis. It hobbled off through the blanket of snow. The boy wondered if the odd animal had been mauled by a steel-jaw leghold trap. It labored across the snow, never faltering. Eventually, it reached the hedge that surrounded the backyard and looked back at Brandon before disappearing into the brush.CHAPTER 2
Three months later, Brandon was listening attentively to his teacher, Mrs. Fredenburgh, as she explained the concept of fractions to her fifth grade class. She drew two large circles on the blackboard with a stick of chalk, then drew lines to quarter the inside of each circle. Next, she shaded in certain segments in both circles.
"Now," she said, "we have three quarters here and one half over there. When you add them together, what do you get?"
Mrs. Fredenburgh wrote the equation on the board.
3/4 + 1/2 =
Brandon raised his hand, and Mrs. Fredenburgh looked like she was about to call on him, but her attention was redirected to the opening door to her left. Another teacher, Mr. Roy, gestured for her to come over.
I'll answer later, I guess, Brandon thought, as the two teachers whispered in the doorway. Excited at the break from the lesson, he turned to his friends, Andy and Scott, who sat behind him.
"You wanna play manhunt this afternoon?" he asked.
"I can't," Andy moaned. "My mom says I have to get new shoes."
The students in the classroom jabbered some more, ignorant of the date that would eventually stand out as one of the most memorable in American history — May 9. As adults, they would repeatedly tell others where they were at the exact time history occurred.
The students heard the door click open. Seeing Mrs. Fredenburgh step back into the classroom, the students stopped in mid-sentence, and the noise level in the room dropped dramatically.
Brandon wasn't one to notice his teacher's facial expressions, but he'd never seen her look quite like this.
She looks really sad, he thought.
Mrs. Fredenburgh uncomfortably cleared her throat before speaking. The class snapped to attention.
"Listen up, everybody. There's been an emergency declared in DuPont. We're at risk, so the principal is hard at work to contact all your parents to pick you up. We're all going to the gym as soon as there's an announcement on the PA."
DuPont was a suburb of Seattle, much like Gig Harbor. DuPont, a small town bordering the same Puget Sound, was just a bridge over, plus half an hour of driving.
"What's going on?" asked a student as she raised her hand.
"There's been an explosion in DuPont and people are being evacuated right now."
The stunned expressions of the students said it all. "What!", "Huh?", and "Whoa!" echoed throughout the room, as students looked at one another.
"Please, don't worry," said Mrs. Fredenburgh, who did look very worried. "When we get the principal's message, we'll walk to the gym and wait for the all-clear signal from the city. Then your parents will come pick you up." "No more school today?" asked Brandon.
"Definitely not. In fact, there may be no school tomorrow. The governor is looking into this serious situation right now."
"Are we ever coming back?" cried Jim, a red-haired student.
"Yes, yes. What I've heard is that there's a cloud of toxic chemicals passing by Puget Sound right now as a result of the explosion. We're supposed to stay in school until we get the all-clear."
"Cool," said Andy.
The principal's voice sounded on the PA system. "This is your principal speaking. As you may know, there's been a dangerous explosion in DuPont, and there's a cloud of toxins heading out to sea. At this point, we don't know if it will drift here. The important thing is to stay calm, and listen to your teacher. Under no circumstances is any student to leave the school without permission. I'll announce the name of a class teacher every two minutes so we have an orderly evacuation. Mrs. Tucker's class, please go to the gym now."
As everyone waited anxiously, the principal announced the names of the teachers, one by one, every two minutes.
Brandon fidgeted behind his desk. He thought of the strange rabbit with the gas mask.CHAPTER 3
As Brandon looked around the now-sweltering gym, he wondered for the umpteenth time, When is Mom gonna arrive? Two hours had passed since his class had filed into the gym. He knew too well it was exactly 4:37 p.m., since he kept glancing at the clock on the gym wall every three minutes, only to see the hands hadn't moved much. The wafts of body odor in the stale air bugged him. Every time he gulped down a breath, he felt like he immediately had to take another. He thought of himself on a mountain, breathing in pristine, cool, pure oxygen.
Finally, he heard the principal's announcement over the PA system.
"Hello, everyone. Good news. We've been given the allclear by the city."
There was a raucous cheer by the students packed together in the gym. Several teachers clapped, then the principal continued, "Your parents or guardians have all been notified. We've told them to come as soon as they hear the all-clear on the radio, so we can expect them shortly."
Again, more cheers.
"You have demonstrated remarkable patience," said the PA. "We will notify everyone if there will be school tomorrow, but it's likely there won't be."
The loudest round of cheers yet.
During the next half hour, the gym was the scene of an organized, yet fidgety, exodus as mothers, fathers, grandmothers, aunts, and uncles picked up the kids, one by one. Brandon was horrified to see several visitors wearing surgical masks as they hurried in, and attaching them to their kids' faces as they filed out. He recoiled in fear as two firemen arrived. Creepy, rubber masks concealed their faces, and heavy oxygen tanks burdened their backs.
As soon as the firemen entered, some of the younger kids started to cry. More than one wailed "I want my mommy!" In response, teachers hugged the distraught youngsters.
Whoa, this is crazy, Brandon thought. Is my mom safe? My dad? He imagined his dog, Mandy, lying on her back on the kitchen floor, all her legs sticking up in the air. He stifled a sob as he imagined his beloved dog dead.
Finally, his mother, Jenna Chambers, arrived. He was scared out of his wits as she approached wearing an ordinary dust mask. When she saw him, she pulled it down to her neck and relief washed over him as she bent over to embrace him, her arms radiating warmth.
"Brandon," she said, her face full of love, "are you feeling okay?"
"Yes," he lied.
"We're going home, okay?" she said, handing him a dust mask for his own face. "Just to be safe, can you please put this on?"
"Okay, Mom," he said, and did as she asked.
Her mask back up, tugging away at Brandon's hand, Jenna steered her son around the chaos of people leaving the school. Cars were backed up in the bus lanes. Several cars honked their horns and drivers swore at one another.
Brandon looked up at the grey, cloudy sky. His fervent imagination caused him to believe he was looking at the ominous cloud of death that was threatening the entire city. They got in the car and, as Jenna drove off, Brandon strapped on his seat belt.
"What's going on, Mom?" Brandon asked, eyes wide. "Is Dad okay? Is Mandy okay?"
"Yes, Dad's fine," Jenna said with a grim expression, as she pulled down her dust mask to her chin. "Mandy should be fine too. The contaminants shouldn't be headed our way."
"What contaminants?" he asked.
"Chemicals. Dangerous chemicals," she replied. "You know, like when Dad has paint thinner in the garage. Stuff that's not safe for you to touch."
"And that's in the sky?" Brandon looked up at the gloomy clouds through the windshield.
"Yes, but only over a certain area. It's not everywhere."
"The teacher said it was in DuPont."
"Yes." She turned to him, her eyes inquisitive. "Did the other kids seem nervous? How did it go at school?"
Brandon told her about the crowded gym, the oppressive body heat, the stinky gym air, and the teachers hurrying through the hallways.
Jenna turned on the radio. Brandon could comprehend only some of it. Phrases like state of emergency, and curfew, and yes, and that word his mom had used — contaminants — popped up repeatedly from one report to the next. The traffic inched forward, and Brandon could see cars for miles and miles everywhere, even backed up on residential streets. Jenna swerved around two stalled cars on the road. Two drivers were arguing with each other, their two vehicles still connected from a collision.
Normally, the trip home from school took about ten minutes, but it had taken about an hour due to the commuter free-for-all.
"When's Dad coming home?" Brandon asked, when they finally pulled into their driveway.
"He's not coming home tonight," Jenna said, appearing agitated. "He'll be very busy handling the crisis, but I'll have him call so you can talk to him. Does that sound good?"
Once they were inside, Jenna hugged him, making him feel everything would be alright. After she prepared him a bowl of his favorite cereal, letting him eat it in the living room, she sat on the sofa and switched on the television. No matter how many channels she flipped through, the reports were focused on one thing — the environmental catastrophe emerging in the Seattle area. The stern faces of news anchors — close up and superimposed over images of people fleeing and being rushed to the hospital in ambulances — dominated the airwaves. Brandon felt sick upon seeing all those unconscious — or perhaps dead — people being transported for medical attention.
One news anchor intoned with an air of solemnity, "So far, reports estimate that the death toll is now fifty-five, but there may be more. Six soldiers were killed as a direct result of the explosion, and forty-nine civilians were in the immediate area where the toxic cloud struck. We're still waiting for the head of the army to comment."
Repeating what he'd heard on the news earlier, Brandon turned to his mother. "They said the explosion was on the base. Was Dad there?"
Jenna, listening to someone on her phone, motioned for him to please wait. Turning it away from her face a few moments later, she whispered to him, "Oh yes! Dad's fine, but I really have to take these calls. These are emergencies from the base."
Brandon nodded glumly. She had been on her phone non-stop since they got home, and his stomach had been churning as he observed her anguished expressions. She kept shaking her heard and uttering exclamations of shock and surprise. He let Mandy inside from the yard and sat on the floor in front of the TV, petting her where she settled in front of him on the rug. He focused on her warm fur, and managed to stay calm.
"I'm very sorry for your loss. I'll get Major Lewis to get back to you. Again, I am very, very sorry for what happened to Brett, he was an outstanding ranger." Clicking off her phone, she looked at Brandon. She appeared emotionally drained. "It's complicated," she told him, before he could ask. "Dad was on the base, yes, but he wasn't near the explosion. He was probably in the path of the cloud, but we'll find out later if he's been contaminated."
There it was again. The Cloud. Brandon had heard the various names on the car radio — The Toxic Cloud, The Cloud of Death, or The Fallout. When he closed his eyes, he imagined an apparition with pointed teeth, gnarled fingers, and bony arms hovering in the air over their house, ready to attack.
"But he's alive. He's fine," Jenna said, getting up from the sofa to crouch down and hug Brandon, and kiss him on the cheek. "He'll probably stay overnight at the base, since he has to manage the crisis."
Brandon saw the hurt in his mother's eyes. She glanced away quickly, and he sensed she was not telling him everything.
"Do you have to go too?" Brandon asked, worried. His mother also worked on the base. U.S. Army Major Jenna Chambers. Mom and Dad had met serving in the army, and as the wedding pictures mounted on the living room wall attested, married in full military attire at the base.
"Not yet. All non-essential personnel have been ordered to stay out," she said. "I'll manage what I can by phone." She kept her arms wrapped around him. "It looks like we'll be spending a lot of time together."
"Get Daddy home," Brandon said, as he yielded to her embrace.CHAPTER 4
One month later
For the first time in months, the entire Chambers family of three sat together for a home-cooked supper on a Sunday night. As Jenna brought forth plates of steaming ovenbaked chicken, gravy, mashed potatoes, fried brussels sprouts, and roasted carrots, Brandon made a face at the green tiny cabbage-shaped vegetables. Mandy obediently stayed in her bed while they ate, but maybe he could still toss her the things he didn't like when his parents weren't looking.
Will Dad make me eat this stuff? He looked at his father's haggard face. Dark circles ringed his eyes, a clear sign of the lack of sleep that Matt had been experiencing since the explosion. His complexion was waxy and pallid. His chestnut-brown, curly hair, always neatly trimmed for army duty, now appeared slightly unkempt. It was a face immensely familiar to Brandon, but the story it conveyed was troubling to the ten-year-old.
"Brandon," Matt said, as he dabbed a chunk of butter on top of a peak of mashed potatoes, "I need to talk to you." It was evident to Brandon that his mom knew what Matt was about to say, since she was looking at Brandon, not Matt.
"Sure," Brandon said hesitantly.
"I'm going to be on the news tonight."
"And it's not going to be good."
Jenna watched her son closely.
"Well, a lot of people are concerned about the explosion that happened on the base. So they're blaming the president." He conveyed a look of hurt that troubled Brandon.
"I know, Dad, but you're not the president."
Matt shook his head. "It's more complicated than that. You see, I was in charge of the project behind all this." Brandon's eyes opened wider at the revelation, but he said nothing.
"I can't tell you much, because of top-level security, but it's going to be announced on the news tonight that I was in charge of the project, and there will be hearings."
"Well," said Matt, shifting in his seat, "it means there will be questions from our politicians. Uh, people are mad at the president, so he's going to try to let people talk and explain it. I may have to testify in front of Congress."
"Is it because of the cloud that shut down my school?"
Jenna jumped into the discussion. "Brandon, the contaminants that killed people were biotoxins."
"What's that?" Brandon asked. He had no idea what was going on. All he could envision was the dark, looming Cloud of Death and the images of people being rushed to the hospital that day. He didn't figure that there would be more consequences. It was over, wasn't it? The explosion occurred, and 103 people were dead, including those who had been exposed and died of complications days or weeks later. Six of them were soldiers who were right in the path of the explosion. Plus, he'd seen news footage, week after week, of angry family members and friends of the dead engaging in sit-down strikes in front of the gate to the base, holding signs and chanting calls of shame.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Strange Life of Brandon Chambers"
Copyright © 2018 Scott Spotson.
Excerpted by permission of CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
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