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Authors: Kirby Howell

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Autumn in the City of Angels

BOOK: Autumn in the City of Angels
4.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



A Novel by Kirby Howell


Text copyright © 2013, Kirby Howell

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.

Streelights Publishing

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

[email protected]

This book is dedicated to,
Anna & Dan, and Chris & Bob.
Without them, we would not be here,
and neither would this book.


Sail lines clinked and boats rubbed against their bumpers as I hurried through the marina on the way to my after-school job at the radio station.  Palm trees sparkled as they bobbed in the gentle seabreeze, and I glanced upwards, my eyes tracing the mast of a large boat.  A shadow flashed across me, and a metallic clang cracked the air.  A feathery mass fell to the dock with a dense thud just ahead of me.

I froze for a moment, then cautiously stepped toward it.  The seagull was still, its wings stretched across the wooden planks, and the grayish white feathers fluttered in the breeze as if still in flight.  A voice behind me made me jump.

“That mast did him a favor, trust me.  He won’t have to witness it.”  I turned and saw a man loading boxes into a boat.

“Witness what?” I asked.

“The end,” he said simply. “You better get on home, little girl, before you end up like that bird. There’s a storm coming.”

The temperature of my blood dropped several degrees, and I took a step back.  My heart quickened. “Storm?”  I prompted, looking at the boxes on the dock labeled “non-perishable.”

The man glanced wearily at the snarled traffic visible beyond the marina’s parking lot, mumbled something incoherent and continued to load his boat.  I took a few steps away, edging around the fallen seagull.  My feet ceased to move when its head came into view.  There was no blood, but its beak was broken. I gasped and stood transfixed, feeling my own blood beat through my veins.

Something made me look up, and suddenly I was staring into the man’s watery blue eyes.  His graying whiskers twitched as he watched me intently.  He said very quietly, “Get on home now.”

Feeling as though a leash around my neck had been cut, I turned and ran, my hair flowing over my backpack like a red cape.  As soon as I was out of the marina, the choking fear dissipated, and I felt foolish for being spooked by a crazy man.  Los Angeles was full of crazy people.  He wasn’t the first one I’d run in to.

I shook my head as I walked, feeling my head clear and my heartbeat return to normal.  My cell phone chirped the arrival of a text message.

It was from Sarah.  “Coffee?” was all it said.  It was only five after three.  I’d have time to stop and still make it to work.  I tapped out “on my way,” and my pace quickened as I thought of the cold spicy sweetness of an iced chai latte and the warm camaraderie of my best friend.

Sarah worked after school at Everland Coffee Company.  She’d been my closest friend since sixth grade when she’d punched Travis Bainbridge in the stomach after he teased me for being too short to reach the top shelf in my own locker.  Sarah and I were like puzzle pieces, complete opposites who just clicked.

She was already behind the counter when I arrived, wrapped in a black apron with a green frog logo embroidered on the top.  She looked up at me as I came in, grinned and stashed her cell phone in her apron pocket.  I looked around the empty café.

“Wow, slow today?” I asked, letting my school bag fall to the tile floor by my feet.

Sarah collapsed in a mock faint across the counter and mumbled, “Miserably.  Bad for tips.”  She sighed as she straightened and plucked a large cup off the top of a leaning tower nearby.  She squirted several pumps of dark brown chai concentrate into the cup and added milk, then threw back the lid of the ice maker with a crash and said over her shoulder, “I did get a raise though.  Mr. Boss Man stopped by and told me he was upping me to eight fifty an hour.”

“Maybe you can buy some new shoes now,” I joked.  Sarah’s favorite shoes were a pair of seriously old Jack Purcells that we’d doodled on during an infamously boring study hall last year.  After I noticed her sock poking through the side of them one day, I started teasing her about them and had never stopped.

“Ha.  Ha.  Ha.”  She said slowly and thumped my drink down on the counter.  Her slender fingers flew over the cash register keys as she rang me up.  I handed her four ones, and she glared at me as she gave me a penny in return.

“Don’t... you... dare...” she warned.

I raised my eyebrows innocently as my hand hovered over the ceramic tip jar and slowly let the penny slide off my palm.  It clanked noisily at the bottom.  Sarah groaned and dramatically fell onto the counter again.

While she wasn’t looking, I stuffed a dollar bill into her tip jar and said, “Something totally weird happened to me right before I got your text.  I was cutting through the marina on my way to the radio station and a bird flew into a boat mast.”

Sarah peeked up at me through a spray of brown hair.  “Was it okay?”

I peeled the wrapper off the straw and stabbed it through the lid of my cup.  “No.  It fell right in front me.  Its head was... well, I couldn’t stop looking at it.”

“You were staring at a dead bird?  That’s all kinds of morbid.”  She cocked an eyebrow at me.

“That’s only half of it.  There was this man...” My voice trailed off as I realized she wasn’t paying attention to me anymore.  I followed her gaze to the television mounted on the wall.  A news station was muted.

“It’s my mom,” she whispered.  She dug under the counter for the remote without taking her eyes off the screen.  Volume bars appeared with the sound.

“Where did you see your mom?”  I asked.  She didn’t respond and her hand disappeared into her apron pocket and fished out her cell phone.

Sarah’s mom was a local news anchor, but I didn’t recognize the woman behind the news desk.  The video clip replayed, and I saw a woman being shut into the back of an ambulance.  I recognized the chestnut hair her daughter inherited.  Her face was flushed an alarming shade of red, and she looked unconscious.

“What’s going on?  Sarah –” I looked at her, and the rest of my sentence crumbled apart.  Her face was as white as the frosted cupcakes in the display case, and her cell phone was pressed to her ear.  She muted the television again and had a hurried conversation, her eyes growing wide, then hung up quickly.

“My dad wants us both to ditch work and go to your place, right now.  My mom has some kind of fever.  He said a lot of people suddenly have it.  Like an epidemic or something.”

I felt disbelief etch across my face. I was about to ask if she was serious when she grabbed my arm and gasped.  My head snapped in the direction she was looking just in time to see a blue minivan hop a curb in the intersection outside, clip a metal newspaper stand, careen back into the street and run the red light.  A barrage of car horns followed in its wake.  In the brief moment the van passed by, I saw a panicked elderly man behind the wheel and a flushed woman reclined in the passenger seat beside him.

We stared at the intersection, and Sarah’s grip on my arm loosened.  Traffic quickly returned to normal, and the only indicator something out of the ordinary had happened was the red metal newspaper stand leaning to one side like a giant exotic flower growing out of the sidewalk.

“What the –” I nearly said a word my mother would have grounded me for, but Sarah cut me off.  She looked dazed.

“That was Mr. Cho.  He owns that market on the corner – the one with the rice crackers you like.  I saw him this morning.  He said his wife wasn’t feeling well – had a fever.”

“We should go,” I decided immediately.  I picked up my bag, ready to leave, but Sarah had the volume turned up on the television again.  “Come on, Sarah.”

“I’m going to stay here.”  Her eyes didn’t leave the screen.

“Your dad said we should go to my place and wait there,” I pressed.

“Shh, I want to see what the news is saying.”

I gently took her hand.  “We can watch the news from my place.  Let’s do what your dad said.  So he knows where to find you.”

When she finally agreed, she quickly closed up the coffee shop, reluctantly turned off the TV and locked the front door behind us.  We cut through the marina on the way home, following my earlier path.  When we passed the now-empty berth where the man warned me earlier, a shiver passed over me, despite the sun shining brightly on our shoulders.  The dead bird was gone, too.

When we reached the curved driveway leading to the tower of condos where I lived, Sarah suddenly broke away from me, dodged through a crowd of people wearing surgical masks and leapt onto a public bus.  I was too startled by her behavior to follow, but called her name as she disappeared.  I broke into a run as the bus began to move, and she reappeared at a window and yelled down to me, “I have to get to my mom.  I’m sorry!”

I yelled her name once more, panicked at her abrupt departure.  The bus engine growled loudly, and I saw her hold up her phone and pretend to type, her eyebrows raised, and I nodded helplessly as the bus picked up speed and disappeared.

*     *     *

The news anchor’s voice was pitched at a level just above normal and just under hysteria.  She tried valiantly to maintain a professional air, but her shirt was buttoned wrong and her microphone wire was showing.  Without warning, the signal cut off and a screen full of colored bars appeared.  “We’ll be back soon!” ran across the screen, and cheerful elevator music filled the living room, juxtaposing the earlier morbid news report.

Dazed, I tapped out a response to Sarah’s text message.  She’d reached the hospital where her mom was taken and was trying to find her in the massive crowds.  After hitting send, I held down the number one key on my phone, autodialing my dad’s cell.  It went directly to voicemail.  I didn’t leave a message.  I figured the three messages I’d already left would suffice.

I called the public radio station I interned at after school.  No one picked up.  I tried calling my boss’ cell phone, but he didn’t pick up either.  After that, I began rotating through all of my parents’ phone numbers again.  I was leaving a message for my mother’s personal assistant when the frazzled news anchor reappeared on the screen.

“...are showing flu-like symptoms.  The number of cases reported from Cedars Sinai and UCLA Medical Center has skyrocketed, nearly tripling in the last hour alone.  We don’t have a confirmed number of the infected for you at this time, however public health officials are urging everyone to stay in their homes and wait for more news here on KTLA.  Here’s Eric Melton, with traffic.  Eric?”

The picture cut to the map of Los Angeles’ freeways.  My brow furrowed as I looked at the tangled web of solid red freeways.  Even in the summer, when everyone tried to go to the beach and the congestion was the worst, the traffic maps didn’t turn completely red.

Eric appeared at the far edge of the screen, his fake tan contrasting with the fearful expression in his eyes.  “As you can see, the freeways are just a mess right now.  Several closures for you: the 101 North at Lankershim Boulevard, two left lanes closed.  Multiple lane closures on the 405 through the Westside and down to the 5, going both directions.  The 10 Westbound is completely shut down, as is the 15 North and 91 East.  Interstate 5 looks like it’ll be the next complete shutdown.  Stay at home, folks.  It’s a mess out there.”

The map disappeared suddenly, replaced by a commercial for a furniture warehouse.  When the commercial ended, the news anchor reappeared and I stood at attention.

“We have an update for you on the new flu virus strain, dubbed the Crimson Fever.  Cedars Sinai has confirmed the death of an elderly woman who was admitted this morning with a high fever.  The hospital will not confirm how many similar cases they’re treating, but we can tell you both Cedars and UCLA Medical Center are running at full staff to deal with the record volume of patients.  In an official press release from the Center for Disease Control, they’ve warned that the virus appears to be airborne and highly contagious.  They’re asking everyone to stay indoors until the situation is controlled.  If anyone in your home develops a fever, call the police for emergency assistance and quarantine them in a separate room until help arrives.”

I stood in the center of the living room, staring at the television screen, my hand covering my mouth.  It was like watching a movie.

I switched over to CNN.  The news anchor listed symptoms to watch for: high fever, chills, dementia, dilated pupils and a high pulse.  The ticker running across the bottom of the screen listed cities: New York City, Washington DC, Atlanta, Seattle, Dallas, Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Denver and Boston.

The news anchor turned to someone murmuring off screen.  I watched as his facial expression hardened and a slight sheen of sweat appeared on his forehead.  He stuttered before continuing his report, “We ha-have word from authorities who are now confirming similar cases in the following
locations: London, Moscow, Prague, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro...”

His voice faded, and I felt suddenly light-headed.  My mother was in London shooting a film at Elstree Studios.  I fumbled for my phone again and held down the number two button.  I paced the floor as I waited, but it wasn’t ringing.  “Hello?” I said, wondering if she’d picked up.  But then a computerized voice pleasantly told me all circuits were busy and that I should try my call at another time.  I hung up and immediately tried again.  Her phone rang three times and went straight to voicemail.  I tried not to let my voice get too high-pitched as I left her another message.

I was used to spending time at home by myself, but in all that time, I’d never really felt alone like I did now.  My famous mother would often be gone for long periods of time, shooting a movie on location somewhere.  She’d been acting since she was a little girl, and her schedule kept her busy.  My dad was an architect, but he worked from home as often as possible, so I was never on my own for long.  I sat down on the couch and wrapped my arms around myself, trying to ignore the panic fluttering in my stomach.

When it was just me and my dad, mellow strains of Willie Nelson drifted out of his office while I heated up frozen lasagnas.  My homework would be piled across the kitchen table, my sock monkey slippers lost underneath.  We’d eat standing up in the kitchen and drink root beer.  My dad would tell me about his current project and always ask for my opinion.

Those few weeks when my mother was in between projects, the atmosphere in our home changed drastically.  Big Band music blared while my mother danced from room to room as she gathered laundry or the forgotten mugs of coffee my dad left in a trail after him.  She joked that if she ever lost my dad, she could always follow the trail of coffee mugs.  My mother was one of those people who could have the television and radio on at the same time, and seem to pay attention to both as she cooked or looked at mail or ran on the treadmill.  She was the ultimate multi-tasker.  She was infectious.  And I loved everything about her.

BOOK: Autumn in the City of Angels
4.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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