Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Choose Your Own Adventure, Chapter 2

You grab the first book from the pile and start reading:

They're in the rearview mirror.  My time is up.  

The car in front slows at the approaching red light, trapping me.  I unbuckle my belt, slam the brakes, and open the door.  The asphalt burns, and tiny rocks bite into the soles of my bare feet with each step.  But it only takes four strides to cross the street, and I'm already pounding into soft grass when there's a crunch.  Behind me, my abandoned car must have idled into the one in front of it.  Brakes screech, and when I reach the top of the low ridge of land hugging the parkway, there are a series of bangs.  A volley of gunshots?  Or just car doors slamming as the hunt continues on foot?  If I turn to check, I'm a dead girl.

In front of me lies a choice.  Left: back toward houses and people.  Home, and dad, and certain death.  Or right: where the land climbs toward the base of Fallen Mountain, with its ugly thatch of forest barring passage to the cliffs and snows beyond.  Nature, Savages, and certain death.  Too much open space lies between my bleeding feet and the treeline.  There are at least five men in those two cars, which means ten guns at a minimum.  In ten, fifteen seconds, tops, I'll be a red stain spreading across a white shirt lying in a yellowing field.  My legs veer left, toward a six-foot fence and delay of the inevitable.

Downhill means speed, but it also means I'll slam into the wooden wall with the wrong momentum.  Dad always said "One elbow up or you're toast, Ellie."  I turn as my legs reach the steepest part of the descent, offering my right side as the target.  What would it matter, anyhow?  I'm much better off if the first shot kills me.  

I reach the wall at more of an angle than I'm used to, and in one horrible, slowed-down moment of hesitation, my foot slips into a hollow.  Pain shoots from the twisted ankle up to my knee, which buckles and slams into the fence.  I'm a crumpled heap of bony limbs and awkward angles, but the collapse saves my life.  There is an explosion of sound; then, three bullets whistle over me and lodge themselves into the splintered wood above my head.

I spring up like a gangly rabbit, and the next shots perforate the ground beneath my feet, sending puffs of dirt into the air.  This time I've jumped high enough to hook my forearm onto the top of the fence, but I know I can't risk it: in the second of hangtime it will take to pull myself over, I'm an easy target.  So I land on all fours and scurry alongside the fence, which sits in enough of a gully to shield part of my body.  The footfalls get closer, and out of the corner of my eye I see the first man slip and fall onto his butt where the incline changes.  There is a pile of rocks and gravel just in front of me.  I leap out of my crouch, plant the sole of my foot on the highest rock, and launch myself up so that both elbows land on the top edge of the wall.  The rockpile collapses under my weight: a stroke of luck, though these men seem tall and strong enough to climb the fence unassisted.  A bullet grazes my right calf before I'm entirely over, but I only process that fact after a twenty foot sprint that puts me on the other side of an aluminum garden shed.

It would be better not to leave a trail of blood.  I hear men barking commands to each other behind the fence; in the minute it takes for an alpha to emerge within their impromptu pack, I pull the elastic binding band out from under my shirt and wrap it around my leg.  It's strange to be free of it, outside, in broad daylight; strange to be able to pull in a full breath without resistance, and to feel the fabric of my T-shirt directly against my chest.  But it will help me more as a bandage.  Besides, they already know what I am.

"Give me a boost!"

Their new leader, undoubtedly.  Wood creaks behind me, and a muffled thud tells me someone has made it to my side of the fence.  In front of me a boy, no older than nine, opens the back door of his house and fixes me with wide blue eyes.  Of course: he's seen me through his kitchen window.  

Before he can say anything, I've closed the two yards separating us.  His reaction is slow, pitifully slow; but then again I'm probably the only kid in this town to be raised for death-quick reflexes and a hair-trigger panic instinct.  I was hoping to slide past him into the open door, but his body is still in the way, so I have to swing my arms up and knock him down to the side as I enter his house.  I'm limping a bit from the twisted ankle, but as it's already starting to feel better it must not be not a sprain.

All of these houses are laid out the same way as mine.  Kitchen to one side, in this case the left, and a family room occupying the remainder of the back.  The straightest route to the front door is through furniture.  Two boys, clearly twins and probably brothers of the boy I just assaulted, look over from their video game to watch me hurdle over beanbag chairs and a coffee table.  

Their eyes slide up but stop before reaching my own, and I hear gasps as I run straight toward them.  They're still not looking at me full in the face: how could they be so scared when they're twice my girth and no younger than I am?  I leap right onto the couch, one bare foot on the stripe of cushion between the twins and the other on the backrest; their fear fills me with courage as I jump off behind them and pivot toward the entryway.  It's when I'm out their front door and running across the street that I remember the binding around my leg...meaning the binding no longer around my torso.  Shock, not just fear, I realize.  I'm the first female those boys have seen in real life.

I race up the driveway of another house, adjusting my stride to account for the flip-flops I've just "borrowed" from the wide-eyed boy's foyer.  They belonged to him, most likely, as they're too small for the twins.  I'm not thrilled with the smack-smack-smacking noise of the shoe snapping against my foot, but my skin was protesting against each barefoot step and I know I have miles to go.  In the backyard, I scramble on top of a trash bin to jump over the fence and into the neighboring lawn.  I cut across at full speed and repeat at several more more fences, all the while listening for pursuers.  The fourth climb-and-drop puts me face to face with an enormous gray dog who looks very unhappy that I've interrupted her nap.  

She's chained to the fence, but I'm well within her circumference.  If she barks, it'll give away my position.  If she bites, I'll probably regret running away from a clean shooting death.  Guard dogs in Ribtown are all bitches, and all trained to kill.  The moist blackness of her nose twitches once, twice, and I know she's smelling the blood from my leg.  A low growl begins somewhere below her spiked metal collar, and she rises from sleek, rippling haunches to approach me.  

"Not here!"  The yell sounds like it's two plots over, and belongs to a different voice than the man requiring a boost to scale the border wall.  

"Or here!"  The reply sounds even closer, possibly the front yard of this very house.  If the dog barks now, the game is up.  Terror squeezes the last ounce of logic from what's left of my sanity.  She sniffs and stalks toward me, her growl unchanged.  Her mouth is a foot from my leg now.  Suddenly the growl stops, and she cocks her head to one side.  I know it could be suicide to look her in the eye, but it's my only chance.  She takes another great big sniff, probably to confirm her impression.

I sink to my knees, and stare right back.

Dad never lets me near anyone's bitch.  They act strange around me, and he's always been afraid it would give me away.  "You smell different.  They know, somewhere in those little brains, that you're the same as them.  They don't fear you like they fear their owners.  They don't hate you like they hate strangers.  They don't hate you like their owners hate you."

"Hate me...why?" I'd ask when I was younger.

"No, Eliot, not the you they know.  But girls.  Women.  And I misspoke.  It's really more like fear, not hate."

That was usually the end of the conversation.  Later...more recently...he's given me glimpses of why.

I cup my hands around the dog's jowls.  As I've never been allowed near dogs, we are each equally a curiosity to the other.  "Shh," I tell her, holding her face like an adult holds a child's face.  

"You're an adult now," Dad told me when I was twelve.  It made no sense then, but it was yet another in a long line of differences between me and the boys.  This particular difference had its advantages: at night, with the headlights off, he taught me how to drive a car.  On the other hand, he also stepped up the intensity of my exercise regimen.  Endurance.  Combat.  Speed.  All behind closed curtains, or out in the fields beyond the fences. Always in secret.  I'll never see him again, I realize.  If I go home right now, he's as dead as me.  

"She can't be far."  A dozen feet and and inch of wood are all that separates me from the voice.  I slide a hand under the dog's ear and along her collar to find the chain.  The clasp snaps shut with a click when I release her.  Her little house is close to where she's tethered; I only unhooked her to show she can trust me, and that I'm putting my trust in her as well.  

I crawl into the arched opening of the doghouse just as a pair of hands emerge over the fence.  Inside, as my eyes adjust to the dimness and my nose wrinkles at the musty, animal smell, I hear planks of wood creaking with the man's weight as he climbs over.

My new friend is as smart as she is loyal.  Now is the time to bark, she knows, and her wild baying echoes against the fences.  Rapid footsteps tell me she's got him on the run, heading away from the doghouse.

A bang rips through the air, causing me to jump out of my crouch and hit my head against the roof.  It wasn't loud enough to be this man's gun, I decide, as I rub the sore spot with my palm.  He can't have shot her.

"Nice one!"  His voice is indeed close...but then why isn't he running anymore?

Footsteps, no longer in any rush, move away and disappear.  The only sound now is a slither: something approaches with the whisper and rustle of weight dragging across dry grass.

"Not there either, then?"  This speaker is distant, but the slither grows closer.  There is ragged breathing, too, as my host's face appears in the archway, backlit by the sun.  The faintest of whimpers accompanies each breath.  She pulls her hindquarters toward the opening.  Her right leg is a mess of blood, matted fur, and exposed muscle: red, wet, pulsing.  It's a graze, but a much deeper one than mine.  She looks at me, the folds above her eyes creasing down in an expression I'd like to believe is commiseration and not reproach.  After two more steps, which pull her face and shoulders into the shade but leaves her injury outside, she collapses into the dirt.

"I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry," I whisper, scratching the top of her head like I've seen the boys do with their pets.  She allows herself a single whine, and I understand she's been making a heroic effort to stay quiet.

We sit like this for a while, my host and guard and bitch and only friend blocking any view of me.  After a few minutes, I unwrap my leg and bind the chest band tightly around the dog's haunch.  The backyard is deserted, and since no one came out to investigate the men and the shooting, I assume the house is empty as well.

What time is it now?  Does Dad know I'm missing yet?  It all happened so fast.  I was walking home from the Ceremony when I heard the announcement.  Savages within Ribtown.  Hadn't happened in years, not since I was a little girl (and I mean that literally: until eight years ago, when I turned seven, I didn't actually know I was a girl).  I figured dad would be home late, what with the commotion of having to track down this Savage and all.  I got to our house, took off my uniform, and went back outside in my T-shirt and shorts to check the mail.  I didn't even bother to put on shoes.  That's when I heard the shouts.

"There she is!" someone yelled...someone at the head of a dozen or so men rounding the corner of my street.  I panicked, pure and simple.  Something about hearing the word "she", so soon after the Ceremony, and so soon after shedding my woolen vest, made me sure they were talking about me.  It was a gut reaction, and for a moment I forgot all about the Savages warning.  

So in the heat of the moment I did what I thought I'd been preparing for this whole time.  I knew that taking my car was a death sentence for Dad.  Mailboxes for our entire street were clustered together in a steel box, and I counted on the fact that the men hadn''t seen which house I came from.  A garage was open across the street; the car inside had been backed in, so if I could locate the keys I'd have a quick escape.  Looking back, I'd have been better off if they were harder to find, because in the delay I'd have realized that the mob wasn't after me at all.  Instead the keys hung in plain sight, like Eve's apple, on the first in a row of shiny nails hammered in a straight line next to the door.  Within seconds I was behind the wheel and tires were squealing against the cement floor.

In three years of illicit driving lessons, I'd never once experienced a distraction.  Nothing roamed the streets of Ribtown at night.  Wild animals never survived long within the fences, with the population armed to the teeth.  Boys were in bed.  Men were at home (if they had small children) or at Council.  So as my getaway car sped down the driveway and a streaking figure caught my eye off to the right, I looked.  There she was, the Savage, wearing a toolbelt and nothing else, running between two houses to disappear from sight.  By the time I turned my attention back to the windshield, my bumper had already plowed into the crowd.

There were thuds, and cracks, and yells of pain as the wheels rolled over limbs of men who'd been knocked down by the car or each other.  Well, yeah, now they'd be after me.  I slammed the brakes, horrified at what I'd just done.  A sea of faces looked in at me: at a fifteen-year-old girl passing for a twelve-year-old boy, which is half a decade too young to be driving.  Even if no one was dead -- please don't let anyone be dead! -- I was in serious trouble.  For now, the Savage was forgotten.

And then, for the first time in my life, I was recognized.

He was old, with skin like wet paper: translucent folds of face looming at my open window.  Like bitches, old men were something to avoid: Dad said a few of them would have enough sensory memory, however subconscious, to see me for what I was.  
"Girl," the man said, pointing his finger right into the car and touching my shoulder, and how he could tell this, through cataract-clouded eyes and amid such chaos, I'll never know.

But it was enough.  Even if they thought he was nuts, or senile, there would be an easy enough way to check.  I slammed the gas and peeled out onto the road.  And the chase had begun.

At this point there is a noise down the aisle in front of you, so you look up from the page.  Another customer has dropped several books on the floor, and squats down to pick them up.  You can't see who it is, because he or she is in a wide-brimmed hat.  Then again, it's a small town, and you're not really sure you want to know who, exactly, is browsing the "Erotic Cookbooks" section.  As the hat-wearer re-shelves Eggs over Easy and One Hundred Buns, you glance back down to find that you've lost your place.

Do you keep reading?  Or move on to the next selection?

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