Aaron Steinmetz

...be very still...the bird's angry...and I think he can see us.

Cocoa Tales: Episode Eleven

They sprinted through the woods, leaping over logs, from tree branch to branch, they ran toward Redding. They were far east of Redding, and they had to make it to the west side to reach Shasta High School by dawn.

Darkness was Cocoa Tael’s friend that night. She knew her kitty bombs would have plenty of batteries to get them to West Redding, but would her strength hold out?

Clenching her teeth, she pushed harder and faster. Her strength would have to last the full run, because she knew this was it: this dawn was her last day to kill a single human being.

And what a strangely difficult task it had been. It seemed to Cocoa Tael she should have killed several by then, but along the way, mysterious forces seemed to be aligned against her, almost as though some puppeteer were dictating her every move and every turn and turning all luck against her.

But there was one thing even the puppeteer didn’t realize: Cocoa would kill someone that very day, whether he liked it or not.

Sitting with their backs to the wall, Faber and Floyd were quiet, their arms crossed as the night wore on.

"Man," Faber said, "protecting with our lives is boring."

"Death is exciting," Floyd replied, "so I’ll take boredom. Heard from Holiday?"

"Nope," Faber replied.

"Hm. I wonder what she’s up to," Floyd said.

"I don’t," Faber said. "I didn’t like her."

"She didn’t like you," Floyd added, nodding toward Faber.

"That was her problem," Faber said with a sigh. "Not mine."

"So very boring," Floyd muttered with his eyes closed.

Woah, woah, wait a minute: what was that about the puppeteer earlier?

I’d better keep an eye on that cat.

Anyway, Cocoa was racing toward Shasta High School with an army of kitty bombs at her side while Faber and Floyd sat, charged with protecting the school with their lives.

Faber said something sarcastic about the city being better off without high school, but I didn’t hear what he said exactly: my muse was shouting at me. I think she’s leaving for good this time.

Faber and Floyd both flinched as an enormous, deafening boom echoed through the skies. They looked up and around but could not find the source of the noise.

Cocoa skidded to a stop in dry leaves: she had heard the boom too and was looking for an explosion or the results of an explosion. But she saw no flames rising to the skies, heard no screams. She motioned with her head to her soldiers and they continued running.

Even The Sandman paused on the streets of Redding to look up at the night sky.

Indeed, all of Redding heard the boom that morning, many waking up to it. People called 911 and asked what happened. Many thought the bomber had returned. They were wrong, but not off by much.

How could they have guessed the explosive noise that echoed throughout Redding was nothing more than a door slamming shut in my world, my muse gone forever?

I need a drink.

Scratching his chin stubble, Faber turned to Floyd and said, "Is that our signal to run for our lives?"

"Gosh I hope not," Floyd replied, peering into the night sky, "because we’re not running."

"Not yet," Faber added.

After another moment of waiting, Faber leaned back and shut his eyes. "Tell me when it’s time to run, Floyd. I’m taking a nap."

Still looking up, Floyd said, "Will do."

Staring into the night sky, Floyd missed the first few kitty bombs running by him, darting from shadows to shadows.

On the south side of the school, The Sandman strolled casually along the street, looking down on it from the same vantage the detectives and their chief used earlier that night. He hadn’t missed the kitty bombs, distracted though he was by the unusual noise.

On the west side of the school, a young woman was playing with her toddler in the early morning hours before taking him to daycare, also newly rebuilt thanks to a donation from ole’ man Shasta.

On the east side, a squirrel foraged for nuts.

And several miles east of Redding, in a home tucked within the woods of eastern Shasta County, Harold stepped into his spare bedroom to see Cocoa Tael trapped within a net he hadn’t expected to see her in. "Why were you sniffing around my nightstand, Cocoa?" Harold asked.

"Oh dear sir," Cocoa replied, "I was merely trying to make sure it was both dust free and well scented for my master, dear master."

Staring at this obvious decoy, Harold’s blood ran cold. And when he remembered seeing something in the papers about the reopening of the newly rebuilt Shasta High School that very morning, Harold muttered, "Aw, hell."

Faber and Floyd, both having risen to their feet on the north side of the campus, were scanning the ground as several cats, all identical were running by them.

"This is not a good thing," Faber said slowly.

"I think now is running time," Floyd said with a nod.

They both burst into a sprint in the opposite direction of the cats.

"Look!" Faber said, pointing at another cat, identical to the rest. "That one is running in the opposite direction!" He pushed harder, a faster runner than Floyd. He sprinted as hard as he could, suddenly optimistic they might actually save the school.

"Faber, clear the line of fire!"

Faber turned around, and then flung his body to the side when he saw Floyd was pointing a gun at him. Clear of the shot, Faber flinched when he heard the gun fire and saw a burst of grass explode before the cat.

Cocoa clenched down harder on the detonator in her mouth, cursing herself for being spotted by these detectives.

Floyd fired again and missed, though the clump of grass exploded much closer to Cocoa causing the detonator to fly from her mouth. She skidded on her heels, but seeing Floyd lining up another shot–one he certainly wouldn’t miss this time–she hissed at him and disappeared into the bushes.

Faber came to a stop first, his right leg next to the detonator. Through heavy panting, he said, "We gotta find that cat!"

Floyd stopped next to him, oblivious to the detonator next to his left leg. Grabbing Faber by his arm, he turned him saying, "No, we gotta get those other cats!"

They turned to face the school and heard a whining sound. Stepping back, they both looked to the ground and saw the detonator one of them had stepped on. They made eye contact briefly before turning from the school. They had only a moment to run before the shockwave threw them into the very bushes Cocoa had hidden in.

Though her heart thrilled at the sight of the newly rebuilt school going up in flames, Cocoa couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed: it had blown up too soon. This early in the morning, there wasn’t a heartbeat in that school.

And she was right. The toddler on the west side of the school had been knocked to his bottom by the shockwave, but was cheering the explosion. He turned to his mother and said, "Do it again, Mommy!"

Even the squirrel on the east side was fine. He just glanced over at the flames, and then resumed searching for nuts.

The Sandman’s face still glowing orange from the flames was smiling. The Redding Cat Bomber was back.