They say it’s a dog eat dog world out there, but they’re wrong; dogs don’t turn on each other the way that people do. They don’t hunt their own for the basest of reasons, like being small, like being different, like being a girl. The boys on my tail were chasing me like dogs, but they were so much worse.
I sprinted a block in the direction of the park and scaled the iron fence, throwing myself over the spikes and landing in the bush. Somewhere before that point I’d lost my shoes; a fact that only seemed to matter when twigs and prickles cut into the bottom of my feet.
From the darkness I could hear them laughing; laughing, like it was some kind of game. What kind of monster made other people afraid for fun? It wasn’t a point I could dwell on; they were closing in and fast. One of them was already searching for a way in.
There was no light where I was, and there were enough ditches and slopes I knew from the daylight hours to make fleeing dangerous, but what other choice did I have? Between falling down and whatever alternative Adrian and his friends had for me I’d rather take the trip.
I ran through the park with my hands in front; whenever they caught a tree I’d push myself on a different path and just kept moving. Through all of it I was blind; the streetlights were behind me and there were no stars in the sky. My only consolation was that they were just as lost.
“Did you see where he went?”
They were close. I hadn’t run far enough.
My feet ached almost as much as my chest. The air had been stolen from my lungs, first by panic and then by exhaustion. I couldn’t move anymore, but at the same time I couldn’t give myself away by breathing. My insides turned heavy and I burned as I curled into a ball and prayed to the gods they’d pass me by.
“I can’t see a thing,” Adrian huffed.
One of his friends laughed, “so what are we going to do when we catch him? Just scare him a bit, or…”
“Whatever Cade gets he’s got coming to him,” he seethed. Suddenly I was ten years old again and his foot was pressing down, drowning me in the toilet; he’d come to finish the job. Why couldn’t he just leave me alone?
“Probably a good thing we found it,” the other guy laughed. “Can you imagine the poor guy that might have been tricked into doing something gay?”
They didn’t understand, and I was paying the price. Wrapped at the base of the tree, bound so tightly against myself that I dared not even shake I waited for them to pass over, like a storm of a bad dream. All I had to do was sit still and survive, just like I always had; don’t run, don’t make a noise, don’t call attention to myself, just sit and wait for it to blow over.
One of Adrian’s friends made a discovery. “Hey, I have the flashlight app on my phone.”
A surge bolted down by legs and threw me away from the sudden beam. They must have heard my steps crunch as I ran through the foliage because the beam snapped to follow and with it an unpleasant end. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think, but worst of all I couldn’t stop; the nightmare marathon would go on until there was nothing left of me.
The bellow of thunder without lightning shook through my body and through the trees. It heralded a force of nature ahead, but no matter how unforgiving I wouldn’t let it stop me. The light on my tail faded, though; whatever it was stopped my attackers. I only hoped that meant I was running toward safety.
Suddenly I came across a path by a clearing, and with it a lamp, and under it a white van with the side door open. I didn’t stop to peer inside, and chose to keep running in the direction of the two men standing around the array of equipment positioned under a pair of flood lights.
I called out to them, but could barely choke out the words through the trembling in my throat. “H-help… m-me,” I stammered. It was all I could manage before my knees buckled and my body struck the dirt; but I couldn’t stop there. Who knew how long it would be before Adrian caught up?
One of the men by the station ran to help me. Imagine my surprise when it turned out I knew him.
Mr. Drew threw my arm over his shoulder and supported me as I found my feet. “Ma’am? Are you alright? Do I need to call the…” I guess that’s when he saw my face, not that my attention was totally there. “Justin? Is that you?”
Words failed me. Reason failed me. All I had were tears and sobs and pathetic fear that he couldn’t do anything about. Once I’d stopped the shaking set in and threatened to knock me down again, maybe long enough for me to find the ability to scream.
His partner came to check on us; it was the weird guy that interrupted the class. He didn’t look happy. “Put her down, Randall. We can take care of her in a moment,” he roused. You know, because a young woman terrified for her life was not on his list of priorities.
Mr. Drew fretted and tried to keep me stable. “You don’t understand, Teddy. This is one of my students. I can’t just ignore him.”
I tried to plead my case, but no sound would pass my lips.
Teddy stopped staring at read-outs long enough to look me up and down. “’Him’? That doesn’t look like a boy.”
“His sex is entirely academic right now, wouldn’t you say?” Mr. Drew snapped. “The point is he’s hurt and needs our help.” He showed me toward a box and guided me to sit, then knelt in front of me. He reached out and lifted my head, searching for injuries, I suppose. “Justin, are you alright? Tell me what happened.”
The thunder rumbled again, shaking the ground, rattling the equipment, and bringing Mr. Drew back to his feet. It was heavier that time, and I’d slowed just enough to realize how harmless it wasn’t. What had I stumbled into?
“Leave him be, Randall,” Teddy growled. “The incursion event is happening right now! I need you!”
I had no idea what was happening, but I was afraid. Gods, was I getting tired of being afraid. I sat to the side and clenched the seat as they ran from panel to panel, scribbling notes and recording… whatever it was they were recording. Earlier in class that Ted guy had said something about ‘the weather’; was this what he was talking about?
My eyes wandered. Looking away from the two men laboring over figures I turned back toward the way I came; I really wished I hadn’t. Stepping from the clearing I could make out the shape of Adrian and his friends, and they didn’t look any less determined to beat me to a pulp.
There was no thinking; only action. My feet knew what to do before the rest of me, propped me up, and ran through the agony cutting into my heels in the direction furthest away from the other three. Through it I thought Mr. Drew and this Ted guy were calling after me, but I couldn’t hear; there was only the rush of blood that packed my head and tightened my senses.
All I knew was the distance behind me, and the more that existed between Adrian and I, the better. Nothing else mattered; no obstacle would keep me from escaping. Everything I had hinged on it.
I heard a noise from behind; another set of feet darting through the foliage. Terror burst in my chest, but it didn’t give me the speed I required. When that failed me the fear passed, and though I didn’t stop I was overwhelmed by a sense of inevitability.
An arm reached around me, and together we crashed into the dirt. “Stupid kid,” the older voice growled. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Somehow I managed to process the irony of his asking.
Suddenly the ground shook. The thunder fell, rattling us harder than it had before. Ted gasped like he knew what it was, but I didn’t need his knowledge to know that it was big. Maybe I should have been afraid of it; that would have been the smart thing to do, but I’d already been pressed to my limit. This didn’t seem like something I could run from, but something I could survive if I held on long enough.
Then there was an explosion like a sun had just been born in the middle of the forest. I shielded by eyes but was still blinded by a light that shone but didn’t burn. It saturated everything it touched as though it beamed between atoms. How was I ever going to describe this to Tanya?
The moment before I lost consciousness I knew that I’d witnessed something unique, and that I would be changed by it.
To be continued…