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Lisa Criss Griffin
Rance Edwards steered the camouflaged Humvee provided by The Guardian through the desert quickly, carefully scanning the area for the shadow of the rocky overhang mostly hidden by the shifting sand. He was grateful he and his family had the good fortune of finding the shelter when they all fled the city sixteen months ago. Rage flooded his mind as he recalled the travesty perpetrated on his family, friends, and many other well-intentioned people by the vaccines mandated by the government to end the worldwide pandemic.
While his capable vehicle plowed through the desert, Rance relived the nightmare of his transformation from a pure human being into a hybrid beast. From the moment he had plucked the first translucent green scale from his leg to his complete transformation into a sentient being trapped in a hybrid form of a lizard/man, he vowed to use his scientific background in genetics to find a way to reverse the horror injected into his body. His fellow scientist Wes warned him the vaccines had not gone through the proper trials, but Rance had ignored his best friend’s advice.
Actually, the term vaccine was an inappropriate description for what a sizable portion of the global population had been injected with in order to control the worldwide pandemic. The syringes contained experimental genetic engineering, and the result could not have been more devastating if it had been planned. At the time, his social virtue-signaling had been a higher priority for Rance than truly researching the facts for himself.
The worst part of the entire travesty for Rance was the suffering of his unsuspecting family. His knuckles turned white as he gripped the steering wheel tightly in his frustration. He had not seen his family since he made the dangerous trek through the desert to the lab where he and Wes worked. He promised his family he would come back, whether or not he and Wes could find a way to reverse the hybridization triggered by the worldwide introduction of 5G technology.
Fortunately, their experimental treatment had been wildly successful for Rance. They easily found dozens of volunteers for trials who were whisked from the local jails by a friend in law enforcement. Horrified hybrids abruptly found themselves in custody, before being carted off to internment camps set up by the same government who had mandated their injections. Although it was true that a sizable portion of the hybrid beasts had become increasingly violent, most of the victims were merely in shock from the unthinkable transformation.
Rance and Wes recently secured an enormous amount of funding from a wealthy underground organization known only as The Guardian, to successfully treat more victims. The Guardian insisted on moving their operation to a more secure location since the roundup and subsequent incarceration of the unfortunate hybrids was still ongoing. Rance needed to find his family before the government located them.
The hint of a horizontal shadow by a smattering of midsized Saguaro cactus caught Rance’s eye. His heart raced in anticipation. He couldn’t wait to see Cindy, Grayson and Kaylee again! The unintentional hell he had put his wife, son, and daughter through was the reason he worked so diligently to develop a treatment to reverse the hybridization. Now, it was time to restore a semblance of their previous life back to his beloved family.
The Humvee rolled to a stop. Rance jumped out of the vehicle, shouting the names of his wife and children while sliding down the sand into the cooler thermocline of the dark, cavernous overhang. His voice bounced off the rocky enclosure unanswered. A slow, rhythmic drip of the tiny spring located in the back corner of the shelter told him he was in the right place.
Clicking on his flashlight, Rance scoured the alcove for any sign of his family. They only brought things they would need for survival with them during their flight from the city, along with a couple of small family heirlooms. Cindy chose a small picture of their family. Kaylee brought her flute, even though it was difficult for her to play it after her transformation. Grayson insisted on bringing the pocket watch his grandfather had gifted him before he died.
Grayson had spent many hours in his grandfather’s company, intrigued by the stories Rance’s father enjoyed telling about his own father’s daring adventures during World War II. Grayson’s great-grandfather carried the pocket watch with him during the war. It had a tender inscription from his beloved young wife engraved on it, and it was his good-luck charm.
The beam of light illuminated only a rumpled blanket partially covered by sand. Rance pulled the blanket out of the sand slowly, dreading to the depths of his soul what he was about to uncover. His stomach twisted into a painful knot as a dark object rolled out of the beam of his light. Dropping the blanket, Rance stepped forward to retrieve the object. Something crunched under his boot. He lifted his foot, dreading what he was about to see.
It was white, linear, and had splintered into the sand. Tears stung Rance’s eyes as he leaned down, almost sure he would be touching bone. He gasped in relief as he wrapped his fingers around a small picture frame. He pulled it from the sand and turned it over. A tear slid down his cheek as he looked into the smiling faces of his family. His heart sank. Cindy would never have parted with this picture voluntarily.
Rance ran his light across the floor of the overhang, searching for the object he had seen earlier. He stood and walked over to it. A tortured cry escaped his throat. It was Kaylee’s flute case. He snatched it up, sobs wracking his body. Where was his family? What had happened to them while he was gone?
Skimming the light over the rest of the alcove, Rance looked for any other remnants that could tell him something about the fate of his family. There was nothing else here. His family was gone. He climbed out of the rocky alcove, the fractured picture and the flute case solidly pinned against his chest. Flinging the door to the Humvee open, Rance fell into the seat, completely undone. He carefully placed his treasures on the passenger seat before he allowed his grief to pour out of the depths of his tortured soul.
The steering wheel took the brunt of his emotion, vibrating from the violent pummeling by Rance’s hands. He screamed his outrage. A startled collared lizard skittered away from under the Humvee to the shelter of a nearby cactus. Breathing deeply, he slowed his exhalations to calm himself. He needed to clear his head. Flexing his aching hands, Rance had a niggling sensation he was missing something. He wiped his face on his sleeve and started the Humvee.
The air above the distant desert horizon shimmered in the heat of the midday sun. The caress of cool water sliding down Rance’s raw throat was a relief. He poured a little of the liquid from the water bottle into his hands and rubbed his sweaty face. If his family had to make a run for their lives, where would they have gone? He stared blindly into the undulating horizon as he pondered the answer, savoring the cool breeze from the vehicle’s air vent. There was only one logical place they could have gone if they weren’t forcibly detained. It looked like they had been discovered and removed to an internment camp, but he had to know for sure. If there was any chance they had escaped, he knew where they would have headed.
The Humvee made good time through the desert. A flash of light reflecting off of something in the distant sky alerted Rance to the presence of military aircraft that regularly flew close to his destination. He pulled the Humvee under a mature Joshua tree and stopped, hoping the aircraft wouldn’t spot him. He held his breath as the aircraft roared above his hiding place. The overhead sounds quickly faded away towards the city. Rance exhaled slowly, reasonably certain he had not been detected. He waited a moment to be sure none of them doubled back before he resumed his journey.
It was evening by the time Rance reached the lab where he and Wes had worked on their initial restoration treatment together. The Guardian moved their lab to a more secure location and merely used their former worksite as a supply warehouse now. This was the only safe place his family would have known to come to if they were in trouble.
Magnificent streaks of orange, maroon and purple colored the evening sky. Rance stepped out onto the concrete that led to the building. He walked towards the front door, looking for any sign his family had been here. It had been deserted long enough that the sparse landscaping appeared disheveled. Shallow ripples of sand lay scattered across the parking lot and walkways now that the building was rarely used. He walked around the lab to the employee entrance on the west side of the building. Nothing. Rance ran his tender hands through his thick, regenerated hair in frustration.
He turned to complete his perusal of the building perimeter when a golden glint in the sand caught his eye. Whatever it was, rested under a yellow trumpet bush close to the employee entrance. He would never have seen it if the setting sun had not illuminated it. Rance leaned down to see what had caught his eye.
Only about a third of the pocket watch was visible. He gently pulled it from the sand, hope springing back to life in his heart. He turned it over carefully, praying he would find an inscription on the back of the watch. Rance swept the sand from the back of the timepiece and angled it to read the engraved message revealed in the fading sunlight.
“Return to me, my beloved.
I am waiting for you.”
It was Grayson’s pocket watch. He’d been here! Rance stepped back, shouting his son’s name. He made his way around the building, calling for Grayson. He was met by silence. Making his way back to the employee entrance, he tapped his code into the security keypad. The scientist was slightly surprised but delighted when the light turned green and he heard the tumblers unlock. He slipped inside and made his way down the dimly lit hallway towards his old office.
He passed the picture window of the lunchroom, stopping in surprise. What a mess! The vending machines were upended, their clear front panels bashed in and broken. Tables and chairs were haphazardly scattered about the room, most resting on their sides or upside down. He opened the door and flicked on the light switch. The dishevelment was catastrophic. What the hell? The whisper of a groan rumbled from the far corner, behind an upended vending machine.
Rance’s hair stood up on end. He was not alone. Something or someone was in here with him. He picked up a butter knife on the floor by his feet, realizing it was less than an ideal weapon. He straightened up to his full height and spoke with the most authoritative, commanding voice he could muster.
“Alright. We know you are here. Come out with your hands up and visible. We are not interested in hurting you.”
A rustling sound and what could have been a groan came from behind the overturned vending machine in the corner.
“Come on. Come out right now. We won’t hurt you.”
There was a pregnant pause before the intruder spoke. The voice was deeply guttural and almost unintelligible.
“Uuuuuuuuggggh…aaaaaad. Daaaaaaad. Daaad. Dad….”
“Grayson! Grayson! Is that you?”
Rance made his way through the chaotic mess on the floor to the upended vending machine. A large, scaly green hand with massive nails was barely visible from behind the toppled metal snack dispenser.
Rance pulled the crank-sided vending machine away from his son. The poor creature lying on the floor looked nothing like his son. It was obvious he was very weak and possibly injured.
“Look at me, son.”
Grayson turned his head and rolled his eyes up to be able to see his father. His familiar eyes filled with tears of relief that quickly flowed down his iridescent green face.
“Yes, son. And we have funding for it now. Can you get up? Are you hurt?”
“Uuuunn…just…weak. Need food…water. Help me…up?”
Rance steadied his hybrid son as he struggled to his feet. The two of them slowly made their way to the Humvee. Rance opened a bottle of water for Grayson and found a forgotten bag of jerky under the driver’s seat. Grayson clumsily drank his water between the pieces of jerky he stuffed in his mouth.
“What about your mother and sister, son? Where are they? What happened to them?”
“The Feds nabbed them, Dad. I was coming back from a hunt and saw them being forced into the back of a military vehicle parked by our hideaway. I finally decided to try to find you.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Not long…maybe a few weeks ago. I remembered your code, so I got in. But you weren’t here. I am sorry about the lunchroom. I was so hungry and thirsty, and I have these horrible, uncontrollable rages sometimes. Nobody ever came around until you showed up. That one machine fell on me, and I couldn’t get up. I was beginning to think I was going to die pinned under that thing.”
“You aren’t going to die, son. Let’s go get your restoration treatment started. When you become yourself again, we will go get your Mom and sister back, together. Ohhh, here. This belongs to you, Grayson.”
Rance placed the gold timepiece in his son’s scaly hand and folded his reptilian fingers around it.
“Your Grandfather was right. That pocket watch is good luck. Your chosen family heirloom was well hidden under a bush by the employee entrance door, but the setting sun lit it up for me. It returned me back to you…while you were waiting for me, my beloved son.”
Rance smiled in delight at Grayson as he started their vehicle. One rescued, two to go. The Humvee pulled out of the deserted parking lot, heading towards a secret, undisclosed location under the cover of a dark, star-spangled sky.
Copyright ©️ 2021 Lisa Criss Griffin
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