An Unlikely Hero
An Original Short Story by: Justine Manzano
Benny McShane didn’t exactly relish this job his mother had given to him. He was to go down to the army base and pick his mother’s boyfriend up so he could come home with him and stay the weekend in their house just on the other side of Jacksonville, Florida. This would be the first time that Col. Jack Martin had ever come to stay with them, and Benny had to admit that he wasn’t sure that he loved the idea. It wasn’t as though his mother hadn’t paid her dues for years after his father’s death, mourning his loss, but Benny was nineteen, and it was hard to get used to changes like this when you were nineteen years old. He didn’t like to tell his mother that it bothered him, but it did.
Benny was surprised that traffic was so backed up on the roads leading to the army base. But, it was the holiday weekend, and people wanted to be on leave when Christmas came, even if there was no snow in the winter and nothing but palm trees to surround them. As he waited in the slight traffic back-up in his lane, he was surprised to hear unbelievably loud rap music blaring from the car next to him.
Rap music was not something that you heard a lot in this neighborhood, and when he looked into the car next to him, he soon realized that it was probably the least likely person in the world who had thrown the volume up and began to sing along. For one thing, she was white. He wasn’t a prejudiced man, but apparently he had one or two preconceived notions about people, for the last thing in the world he had expected to see when he’d heard that music was a short white teenager who could barely see over the steering wheel of her car, but could gesture as angrily as anybody who’d ever gotten a record deal for gangsta rap.
Benny stifled a laugh, for he didn’t want her to see him staring at her. But he couldn’t help but stare. Here she was, singing like a person would in the shower, as though she was completely oblivious to the fact that there were in fact people in the world that could see her quite clearly. She was cute, but unconventionally so, with short chin-length black hair, blue eyes that were cold as steel, and rounded dimpled cheeks.
He hadn’t been able to imagine why she’d stopped singing so abruptly, but just moments afterwards, a cold shadow seemed to spread over the sunlit streets, and Benny followed the girl’s gaze to where it had been just settled. A large oval shape had blocked out the sun, and it was moving closer at a rapid rate of speed. It was so gigantic that it managed to cover the whole surface area of the army base.
He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. An oval object, over the sun. Lights switching on and off from within the oval which rotated as if settling into position for something. It was a flying saucer if he’d ever imagined one. There was a goddamned U.F.O. in the middle of his town! Drawn by it, Benny unbuckled his seatbelt, opened his car door and got out in an effort to get a closer look. He wasn’t alone.
Everybody that had been stuck in the traffic jam did the same, including the girl who had seemed so interesting to him just moments before and who now seemed so dull in comparison to the strange whirring sound of the alien ship.
“The army base,” the girl spoke softly, her voice filled with a mixture of awe and fear. “Why have they settled over the army base?”
Benny looked at her, realizing suddenly that she was right. Why the hell would an alien ship land over an army base? To share information? As a form of surrender? Or to blast it all to hell so that the rest of the town couldn’t defend itself?
It was as though the aliens above the ship had heard the questions they had both asked, for at that moment, the whirring sound began to grow increasingly intense, and a blue light shot from the bottom of the ship.
“No!” The girl screamed beside him, and Benny simply watched as the army base that had once been the center of his town simply melted down into ashes in seconds. Eyes wide with disbelief, Benny could only stare for a moment, even as the people around him became hysterical with grief, having watched their families disappear. Their world was now on it’s ear. Member’s of families had died and all from some unseen and unknown menace who until five minutes ago, no one would’ve believed to exist.
Benny’s world wasn’t on it’s ear. It was a little off-kilter, with the arrival of the strange ship that seemed to block out all sunlight, as it was now ten in the morning and it looked like ten at night, but he had had no true family in there, and so, as much as seeing an entire complex get incinerated could shock a person, that was all his feelings really could be. Shock. And definite fear.
I need to get the hell out of here, he thought, getting back into his car and preparing to do whatever it took, even if it meant going off road, to turn around and get back home to where his mother must be watching the news right now, sick with worry. Then, the girl came into view again as she prepared to do the unthinkable. On foot, she began to walk in the direction of what had once been the base.
Christ, his mind scolded him, when did you get so weak, Benny? He jumped back out of his car and ran to her, since nobody else seemed to notice her, being that they were so consumed with their own grief. He caught up to her quickly and grabbed her by the elbow, turning her to face him.
“Miss,” he said, trying to muster up the perfect combination of a forceful tone and a sympathetic one. “You should not be going in there. It looks dangerous. We don’t know what the hell that thing is, and we should really wait till the authorities get here. They’ll know what to do.”
Her face contorted with anger. “My father is in there, sir. I don’t like the idea any more than you do, but I’m not caring about me right now. I need to make sure.” Guilt fired through him. She was right.
Now, having said her piece, her face changed. Tears still streamed down her cheeks, but her face became stony and unreadable. “Besides, I don’t know why you expect the authorities to come. Do you think they specially chose this army base?”
Again, Benny saw her point. Why choose the army base in Jacksonville? It wasn’t any different from any others. Which meant to him and apparently the girl as well that this had been an organized strike. Whatever these things were, and wherever they came from, they meant to take out their defences and they had.
Seeing the hint of realization in his eyes, the girl turned and marched away from him. To his surprise, he followed. He wasn’t sure why. Had the girl gotten to him that quickly? Or had he simply decided that if he was going to return home and tell his mother that her boyfriend was dead, he better damn well have proof?
He walked along next to the girl through the crowd of screaming, running, and grieving people that surrounded the base. Once again, he was faced with the idea that he was walking in the wrong direction, that he should get out of here as fast as possible before whatever had destroyed the place destroyed him too. But, he couldn’t turn back. He wasn’t going to let this girl do this alone! It was too dangerous, and he was far too chivalrous.
If he was going to risk this with her, he might as well know her name. “My name is Benny,” he offered, unsure if she’d even noticed that he had followed her.
“I’m Carolina,” she answered in a clipped tone. “You don’t have to follow me, I guarantee you won’t be picking me up at a time like this.”
Benny grimaced at the statement. “You don’t even know me. What kind of an asshole do you think I am?”
“You could be any kind of asshole, but that’s not my concern,” she said, almost mechanically.
Benny didn’t like being abused, but he still felt like he needed a closer look and he followed her wordlessly for the rest of the way, until the shadow of the alien ship appeared to be directly above them. He looked up, and it was like the chilling feeling of looking down the barrel of a gun. Fear slowly became the more prevalent feeling within him. He’d just been about to suggest that they get out of there when Carolina stopped cold.
Then, she dropped into the ashes that they had been walking through. She sobbed loudly and he rushed to her side, suddenly realizing the full capacity of what they were walking in. They were walking in the structure of the army base. They were walking through the only thing that could defend them from a threat like this, and now it looked like nothing but charred remains. There was nothing but ashes all around them, and somewhere in this mess was a pile of ashes that had once been this girl’s father. Somewhere in the ashes, was a pile of ashes that had once been Col. Jack Martin, and his mother would be wrecked to know it.
Tears stung in his eyes, and he tenderly rubbed her shoulders in a gesture of comfort, trying his best to calm this stranger. When she had regained some tentative control over her emotions, she unzipped the pocket of the small jacket she wore, and dumped a handful of ashes in, before zipping it back up. Then she stood, methodical in her movements once again.
“Taking something to remember your father by?” He asked, but he did so nervously, afraid that he would hurt her.
The corners of her mouth upturned slightly as she answered, walking back towards where they had abandoned their cars. “I don’t need ashes to remember my father by. He was a good man. He made more than enough good memories.”
Benny second guessed his next question, but in the strange moment, he just couldn’t hold it to himself. “Then why the ashes in your pocket?”
Again, her answer was nearly robotic as though she hadn’t just lost it moments ago. “To analyze. Find out how the weapon works.”
Benny frowned. He wanted to argue that that was something she should leave for the authorities, but he already knew the answer. There weren’t any authorities anymore. At least not in Carolina’s mind. “You think you can do that?”
She smiled again, but this time, it was wicked. “Can’t you?”
So she was smart, too. “Actually, I probably can. Never tried it though,” he returned the wicked smile. He was incredibly smart, and he had always been an anomoly in school because of it. He was the Quarterback of the football team, and the school Valedictorian. He had only dated cheerleaders and hung out with jocks, but he never had any classes with them because he was in advanced classes. It had actually made his high school experience rather clumsy.
He wondered why he was thinking of this at all when the world seemed to be in danger.
“Carolina?” He asked suddenly. “Do you think we’re reacting to this strangely?”
She chuckled softly, tears still gleaming in her eyes. “Can’t you tell we’re in shock? You’re smart, right? The world just lost a lot of people, there is at least one alien ship looming in the sky, aliens are real. My father is dead. I know I should be feeling something, but compared to what I should be feeling, I don’t feel anything at all. It’s like it hasn’t sunk in yet.”
It was true. It hadn’t. But it was starting to, and it was definitely starting to hit his travel partner as well. She looked at their cars when they approached them. “Can I ride with you?” She asked, and there was a vulnerability in her eyes that he couldn’t turn down.
“What about your car?” He asked, hoping she had some excuse. It was a strange time for both of them. It was worse for her, but he didn’t really want to be alone right now either. He was feeling more and more shaken by the minute.
“I guess I have my father’s car now, too.” A tear rolled down her cheek.
Benny looked at his shoes. “Get in.”
They settled, and she told him where her spot in town was. He drove towards it, but when he saw his favorite small town diner, he realized he hadn’t eaten at all yet that day.
“Carolina?” He said gently. “Want to stop for breakfast? My treat?”
“You can call me Cara,” she said, her voice practically a whisper. “I am hungry, if you don’t mind.”
“Don’t mind? I offered,” he said pointedly, turning into the driveway of the small diner. They walked into the diner shakily and grabbed two seats at the counter. The television was on, and there was a small crowd surrounding it.
“Benjamin,” the waitress greeted him with an odd smile, examining his dirty clothes. “Is everything all right? Were you two down at the site?”
Benny glanced at the television. Naturally, the news was on. “Yeah, we were.”
“My goodness,” the waitress shook her head. “It’s horrible! Everyone just rushed in to see what the news was sayin’. They’re too scared to stay outside. Too scared to even head home until some time has passed.”
Benny glanced at the faces of the other patrons. They were terrified. It was written all over their faces. Some had been crying. Others had tears in their eyes. Benny felt for all of them, but he didn’t feel like all of them. At the moment, he felt numb. And one glance at Carolina told him she was feeling the same guilt that was tearing him up.
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” the waitress spoke again, taking Benny’s silence to mean he didn’t want to talk, when in reality, he just didn’t know what to say. “Let me get you two some pancakes or something.” She wandered off and Benny stared off after her, not knowing quite where he should be looking or what he should be doing.
There was a low buzz in the diner which ended abruptly when Carolina loudly hushed them all. Benny’s attention snapped back to the television, figuring it must be important.
As he listened, the news anchor tearfully recounted the entirety of the destruction caused by these unknown alien visitors. Not only had they in one single moment converged on all of the military bases around the world, but they had also aimed their weapons at all known locations of government officials around the world, and all law enforcement agencies. In a mere fifteen minutes near the Earth, they had blown up every possible defense the world had. They had destroyed defenders and potential defenders, tacticians, and all those that may try to recruit more. There was no military, no police force, no President, no Government. All that remained were the average joe’s of the world.
“Why only destroy these places?” Carolina wondered aloud. “And why not hospitals? Educational establishments?”
Benny tried to reason it out but simply shook his head. How could he guess why these evil creatures had done the things they had done? They were aliens for crying out loud!
“Enslavement. They want to enslave us, or possibly use us for food. But more likely enslavement,” she reasoned.
“Where would you get something like that?”
Benny snapped, suddenly annoyed by the fact that she seemed to be desperately
clinging to explaining a senseless act or attempting to start a fearful riot.
“Why else would they leave us with medicine to keep us alive?” She answered, challenging him. “They destroyed everything else! Besides, with weapons like that, they could’ve completely obliterated us if they’d wanted to.”
The few customers of the diner quieted down. They had been listening to her argument, and now, they had begun to fear its truth.
“Suddenly,” Benny said, his words coming out slowly, “I’m not so hungry anymore.”
Carolina nodded, sobered immediately by the fear her comments had struck into the hearts of all of the townspeople in the diner. The two hit the road again.
Once back in the car, Benny glared at the girl. “What the hell were you doing in there? Were you trying to insight a riot? Hysteria?”
“I was trying to raise awareness. To start the public outcry before I don’t have a chance anymore. Before I stop thinking about things logically and start realizing that my father is dead and I don’t know where the hell I’m gonna live or what the hell is going to happen to anyone here! I’m trying to make it so we fight back.” Real pain began to fill her eyes, and Benny realized that this whole thing was becoming more and more real for this stranger he had befriended.
They drove on in silence for a short while longer, uncomfortably and he followed her directions to a tee. “This is it,” she said suddenly, pointing towards a small country style home. He slowed to a stop in front of it. “Thank you for the ride,” she said as she got out of the car and walked around it, stopping at the passenger window.
“I think we both needed the company,” he smiled kindly, though it was the last expression in the world that his face wanted to make.
“Well, still, thank you,” she nodded. “It was nice to meet you.” She turned and headed towards her house, digging into her pocket and pulling her keys out.
“Cara?” He called out, surprising them both. She turned back towards him. “What will you be doing for the rest of the day? How are you going to make it through?”
“I’ll be analyzing those ashes,” she told him, an eyebrow raised.
Who the hell was this girl? How’d she get so smart?
“To find out how their weapons may work. I may not figure a damn thing out. I might not be that good, but I have to try. Don’t you get what they are doing? They are trying to take us over. I may not have enough in me to stop that, but maybe I can contribute. Maybe I can help resist them. I don’t have to mope about what happened. I can be a little more like my father. I can fight to keep us safe. In my own way.”
“Sounds like we may need it,” Benny nodded. “Good luck.”
With that, he drove back towards his home to break the horrible news to his mother. Despite the horrible task and the lack of sunlight that gnawed at him, his thoughts couldn’t help but wander to the last thing Carolina had said. The whole town was very obviously in shock, but Cara had fought to keep her head because that’s what her father would have done.
She was strong. She was smart. She seemed more than capable. She was a leader. He didn’t have that in him, or at least he didn’t think that he did. Tonight, realization would set in, and the human race would collapse in the pain of those they had lost, they would collapse in the fear of what they knew to be on it’s way. He would be one of those people. He would feel the fear and the self-pity, and he would probably do absolutely nothing. He wouldn’t know where to begin.
But that day, he had met an amazing person. He had seen something in her from the very first time he’d seen her-something good, and now he knew what it was. Somewhere deep inside, Benny could swear he had just met the very person that would save them all. The future looked bleak for the human race, but one thing surprised him. He would sleep better knowing that there was someone out there like Carolina. He would sleep better knowing there was someone out there who would fight as hard as they could to keep him and his family safe.
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