Soft, slick mud. Gray and squishy under the tread of the small canvas shoes. Leaves cover the mud where they lay waiting for the rot to take them away. Dead and slippery, they add a thin slimy coating over the treacherous mud. The weight of the bearer pushes the shoe under, sinking deep into a divot of watery, claylike mud carefully hidden by the leaves. The foot pulls out quickly again, the earth making an unhappy sucking noise as it lets go of the shoe. Sprinting, or as close as possible to it in the conditions, the runner weaves through the trees. She is covered in mud. It lays caked in her hair, clinging to the long, wavy black threads. Splattered on her face, the smaller patches have dried into a crusty light gray powder that clung to where it had spattered up as she tore through the woods.
Mingling with the gray slim smeared across her body was a trickle of blood. Illuminated by the full moon, streams of sticky, crimson blood meanders down her pale skin. It oozes down her right arm where a long crescent shaped gash lies, carved into her skin. The blood contrasts starkly against the deep gray of the mud near the wound. As it tracks its way down her arm, it gradually becomes a mixture of the two until finally there is only a hint of crimson in the overwhelming gray.
She falls again, burying her left side in the silt, her right foot caught in the clay. She scrambles up, yanking her foot out of the mud pocket her shoe stays behind. Not giving it a second glance she continues onwards.
I’m drowned in paperwork. It seems like something a lot of people say, but I can't think of any other way to describe this. My desk was only around four feet by three, which I know is not large, I know, is completely covered in stacks of papers. My computer sits like a sullen high schooler with a year's worth of homework stacked about him. The screen looks tiny compared to the skyscrapers of paper stacks beside it.
I may or may not have been slacking a bit for the last couple of days. Okay. I was slaking. Recently I have begun to feel completely unsatisfied with my job. It was boring and repetitive. I sat in front of the screen for the day, and then I had the rest of my day to stress about the work that I hadn’t completed.
I want to feel alive again, to feel a rush of adrenaline. Not the adrenaline from almost toppling off my chair after falling asleep, but from doing something that mattered, something interesting, an adventure.
I look mournfully out of the window at the milling of the crowd. People from all walks of life move across the city. It is packed, as usual, with cars, pedestrians, and buses all swarmed together. I like imagining where they might be going and what they are thinking. Up here, high in the office window, they all look so small. Like maggots wriggling across an old carcass. Or bees on a honeycomb if you wanted to be less morbid.
A girl caught my eye. She was standing on the opposite side of the street to my office window. There was nothing that stood out about her per se. She wore the same clothes as the rest, the only distinction being a grey scarf looped over her hair. Her height appeared to be average, if not on the shorter side, though it was hard to tell from my angle. There was just something about the way she walked, maybe the way she held her shoulders or how she kept her head down, almost like she didn’t want to be seen.
I continue to watch her for a few seconds before she melts seamlessly into the crowd of people. I absently wonder what about her strikes me as being different from the usual passersby, but I quickly tire of the thought as no answer seemed easy to achieve. My attention soon slides back to the work in front of me, dismissing her as unimportant.
I almost forgot entirely about it until I saw her again a few months later.
Slow, steady steps. Casual and collected. I can’t show my fear. I must fit in seamlessly. I keep scanning the people milling around me. I watch their faces, their bodies trying to decipher their intent without being obvious. My heart is pounding. I can feel its strong beat urging the blood up to my face as a creeping flush threatens to heat my cheeks. Fighting against the strong desire to run, I pray that the redness on my face will be put down to the sunlight and not the fear devouring my chest.
All of a sudden, I become intensely aware of my surroundings. My eyes hone in, my focus point is brighter, lines become distinct and vivid, and my vision pinpoints where my gaze has rested while the rest of the world around me becomes hazy. The only thing I see now is her face. Subconsciously, my hand goes up to my right shoulder, seeking the long crescent scar: the only thing left from that night that I still carry.
Our eyes met, and for what felt like an entire year, but was probably only a split second, no one moved. We just stood like marble statues, about fifteen feet apart, staring. Her left hand, which is resting by her side, twitches in a small flicking motion, breaking the spell. I immediately react by backtracking, hoping to put as much distance between us as fast as possible. I kept facing her. If I turn now, it could be fatal. My eyes dart back and forth, searching for them. I know they are here. A man shifts in front of me, revealing a different angle. There. I have found all three. They come closing in on me from all sides like a pack of hungry wolves ready to take down their prey. She stands in front, the alpha, not moving a muscle, but I know she has orchestrated the entire thing.
That’s when I ran. Again.
A streak of gray catches the corner of my eye. Turning towards it, I instantly recognize it. It was the girl I had seen from my office a couple of months back. She was sprinting in my direction, her grey scarf flapping in the wind like a one-winged pigeon as it trails behind her. It has slipped down her head, revealing long, raven black hair. It was her face that held my attention, more like her expression. I found I could not look away. Her round, pale, moon-like face contrasted starkly with the two bright splashes of ruby on her cheeks. Flushed with fear, she was running for her life. I could see it.
Fast approaching me, arms and legs pumping like pistons, her eyes came into my focus. Lage, milky grey eyes, dilated as only fear does. They reminded me of the videos I had seen of calves as they went to the slaughterhouse. Young and innocent, yet fully aware of the fate which would befall them.
She was afraid, afraid of something or someone. Glancing behind her, I noticed movement. Someone must be chasing her, I realized. Before I even knew that I had decided to do something, I was already moving. I couldn’t save those little calves from becoming veal, but I could at least try to rescue her.
The wicker basket which had been hanging from my arm fell to the ground. The soft crunch as it hit the pavement was lost in the noise of the milling crowd. The fresh produce rolled out onto the warm, black asphalt. The vibrant, canary yellow peppers lay in striking disparity on the lifeless, inky pavement, as out of place as the sun in the night sky.
I grabbed her waist as she bolted past. Wrapping my arms as securely around her as I could, I used her momentum to half spin, half catapult us into a small alleyway. I had missed judging just how quickly she was moving. The fall winded both of us. I, however, had landed on my back and taken the brunt of the fall. I gasped for air. She must have been stunned as, for a split second, her boney frame lay still on top of me. Had I just killed the girl I was trying to rescue? Before I could muster the strength to panic, she sprung to life, scrambling frantically to her feet.
“No! Don’t go.” I sputtered as vehemently as I could despite the lack of air in my lungs “I want to help you. I know someone…” I couldn’t find the oxygen to continue. Feeling another wave of lightheadedness, all I could muster was one word. “Please.”
I felt strangely overwhelmed with an intense need for her to agree. I needed to help her, even if she didn’t want my help.
I stare down at this stranger, the stranger who just tackled me out of the blue. Many unexpected things have happened to me before, but this one took the cake. Common sense whispers to me to run, to keep going while I still have my lead. For all I know, this man is here for the same reason they are, but my gut tells me otherwise. Sprawled awkwardly in the gutter where the fall had left him and making no move to get up, he pleads me to let him help me. Run, run now! The little voice keeps whispering, but my feet don't move. I don't want to run anymore. I have spent so long on my own, and I was tired of it. Tired of having no one I can trust, tired of having to shoulder my burden alone. I haven’t actually spoken to anyone in months. It is too dangerous as someone could remember my description, so I slink through towns and keep to the darkest allies. The only constant I have is my fear of them driving me forward.
I know that I don’t have the time to stand around and ponder my decision, so I make it according to my gut, the only thing I can trust. I have learned that people lie, situations that seem good turn bad, and that life is a game that wishes me dead, but the one thing that has kept me breathing for so long is trusting myself. I extend my hand out to him, as I can't think of how to word an answer to his offer. I mean it more as a gesture, but he takes my hand with a firm grip and uses it to pull himself up.
Once he is on his feet, we start running down the alley. One right turn and then two left, I watch for landmarks as I map out the route in my mind. The nearest hideaway that I use on occasion is half a block away. If I need to make a run for it, I can make it there in under ten minutes.
He is puffing heavily by the time we reach the destination. He must not be very fit, I realize. Opening the door, he shoves me inside, then quickly follows suit. He points wordlessly up. I look at the cheaply tiled ceiling and then back at him, confused. He then points to something behind me. My heart jumps in my chest, and I spin around abruptly, ready to bolt. A stairwell meets my fearful gaze. Finally, I register what he meant. Scurrying towards the stairwell with the quiet, well-practiced movements I have learned out of necessity, I begin to ascend. My feet are noiseless as they make light work of the stairwell. He, on the other hand, is much less quiet. I stop once I am sure we are high enough to not be visible from the small window in the entryway. I turn around and glare at him. He seems to understand my intent as he nods his head. I feel vaguely surprised that he caught on so quickly. I resume climbing but maintain a slower pace to ensure he doesn't create such a racket.
We keep going up till we reach the third floor where he stopped. I scan the hallway and feel the familiar, sickening drop in my stomach. No hiding spots. No escape. This was not good for me. If they came, and they would, I was not going to have any other choice other than to jump. My brain swiftly registers the fact and begins planning the possible outcomes. If I survive the fall, I will probably have enough time to get to cover before they come down, unless they had others on the ground, which is most probable. On the other hand, it was a three-floor drop, I will most likely die on impact. At least, I can only pray that I do because I would rather die than be helpless and at their mercy when they get me.
The door he opens is near the middle of the hallway on the left. Door number 214. I instinctively memorize it. I don’t know why, for there is no scenario where I will try to find the place, but I just do.
“Please, go ahead.” He waves his hand to usher me in. I study his movements like a gazelle watching the lion devouring his mother's carcass, knowing that he will be next. I observe his mannerisms and watch for the little giveaways that could tell me if he is playing me.
I hesitate. I should run while I still have the chance to do so. Always being on the run is how I have stayed alive for so long. But I don't want this life anymore. I don't want to bolt to my feet in a cold sweat every time a small branch cracks in the distance or an owl hoots. I just want a normal life.
I look at his face. I can see in his eyes that he has never had to live in fear of his life as I do. He probably lives a very normal life, with a normal job. An office job, if I were to guess. His apartment would be normal, neatly decorated, not overly clean but not dirty. He has the life I crave. Against my better judgement, I feel myself giving in.
Only one question lingers in my mind as I step across the threshold: Is this the mistake that will kill me?