Bang! Bang! Bang! Someone pounded heavily on my door and I heard the deep, raspy voice of a Wolf demanding I open it immediately.
“This is Protector Ralph from the Precinct,” he added, when I hesitated in silence.
My nerves had been on edge ever since I’d seen Kara’s picture in the paper and the article about her upcoming “unveiling” of the true story of her horrific experience. I was terrified I was going to be in that painting.
I didn’t know what to do or what my next move should be. Should I wait for Kara? I had promised to help her get out, but both of us were being watched - especially her. And if I did go to the forest, how would I survive? Even if the Ostriches were not violent, I knew nothing about living off the land.
For the last few nights I couldn’t sleep, and stayed awake wondering how many people were in my position: able to see something was amiss, but unwilling to leave for fear that reality may be even more brutal than the charade.
Most of all, I wondered why Marcus didn’t try to save me too. After all, I had stuck my neck out for his sister. And now. . . maybe it was all over. With my heart in my throat and a wide, fake smile on my face, I opened the door.
Two Wolves in full uniform stood at the door, looking me up and down like I was a perfectly grilled pork chop.
“How can I help you, Officers?” I asked with as much confidence as I could manage.
“I’m Protector Ralph, and this is Protector Phil,” the biggest Wolf replied. “We are looking for a very dangerous traitor who was last seen in this neighborhood.”
“Oh!” I said, a little relieved. At least they weren’t here for me. “What does he. . .or is it a she. . . look like?”
“A little older than you, male, dark hair and eyes, thin and wiry, probably wearing a hooded jacket. Goes by the name Marcus.”
“I have not seen him,” I said truthfully, and with assertive confidence that stemmed from my irritation at the so-called bad guy.
“Hey, aren’t you the lady who brought those bacon bit treats by the Precinct?” Protector Phil asked, sniffing at the air in my apartment.
“Yes,” I said, “that was me. I do everything I can to support our brave Protectors. And. . . I was just making another batch of bacon bit treats for the Protector on the corner of my street. Would you strong fellows like one?”
They nodded eagerly, and I went to the kitchen to get a plate of treats I had waiting for just such a purpose. Bribes come in every shape and flavor.
“So what has this traitor done?” I asked, while they gulped down their treats. “I mean, if I should see him, just how dangerous is he?”
“He’s trying to kill his sister,” Protector Ralph answered around a mouth full. “He’s been hunting her for weeks, and he’s murdered several kids in the neighborhood.”
“Oh, dear!” I exclaimed, hiding trembling hands behind my back. “How dreadful! Are you watching the building carefully? I shall be terrified if I know he’s around and no one is looking out for me!”
“We have been,” Protector Phil assured me. “But we haven’t seen him for several days now, so he’s probably gone. If we believed you were in danger, we’d stick around, but, there’s no need now. Just be sure to call us if anyone suspicious shows up.”
“I certainly will!” I assured them as they left. I leaned against the closed door to breathe and collect my senses.
No sooner had I straightened up and taken a step toward the kitchen when another knock sounded on my door. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
“Who - who is it?” I asked with a shaking voice.
“Pizza take-out,” the voice on the other side answered. It was a voice I had never heard before and I immediately guessed who he must be.
I threw open the door, grabbed the delivery guy by the front of his shirt, jerked him inside and slammed the door shut behind him.
“Kyle Lee?” I asked, reading his name tag with nervous doubt.
“Easy, lady,” he protested mildly, grinning at me.
Marcus looked a lot like Kara, but older and saner. A lock of bleached hair hung across his forehead, hiding one laughing brown eye. Two jagged scratches on one cheek and a bruise made him look a little beat up, but considering the jeopardy he was in, Kara’s brother appeared surprisingly relaxed. His calm demeanor was the straw that broke the camel’s back of my self-control.
“What took you so long?” I demanded as pent-up anxiety made my voice and hands shake. Marcus’ smile faded, and he put the pizza box on the nearest table.
“They’ve been watching you and Kara both really closely. . .” he said, “ and thank you for helping me get word to her. That meant a lot to me.”
The weeks of stress and confusion had caught up with me, and to my great frustration, I started to cry. I turned away and made myself breathe deeply and rhythmically in order to get control of myself. Marcus waited.
“Did you really bring pizza?” I asked, trying to distract myself. Marcus laughed ruefully.
“No, I don’t have any money. I got the box out of a dumpster. Which reminds me — thanks for the protein bar. It was really good. I owe you one. Actually, I owe you several.”
“The protein bar?” I asked, confused.
“I was the homeless guy on the corner for a while,” Marcus explained.
“Oh.” I said and giggled in surprise. The laughter released a lot of my tension. I sat down on the couch and gestured toward a chair.
“Sit down, please. And tell me. . . tell me what’s going on.”
Marcus told me that he had been unable to get close to Kara, as the Wolves were watching her day and night. He told me how he had gotten so beat up, and about the four kids who made it safely to new homes in the forest. The description of the families there and the love and unity he described was hard for me to imagine. Especially because they all sounded so independent and individual. I had never seen a people so scattered and so united as the curious kind Marcus told me about. He sounded excited about going back, and about his plans to start his own place in The Valley Between.
“How are you going to get to Kara?” I asked when the conversation lulled.
“I’m going to try to deliver pizza to her next,” he said with a grin. “And then just talk to her and see if she wants to leave.”
“You think she might not?” I asked surprised.
“I don’t know,” Marcus answered somberly. “I — I don’t know.”
“Why did you come here?” I asked. I was fishing, hoping he would take me out with them too.
“Because you helped me,” he responded, smiling. “And because, I thought maybe you want to get out too. . .”
“I do. I was waiting for Kara. . . Well, to be honest, not just for Kara. I was waiting to find out more, I guess. I just had no idea what was out there, you know? And whether or not I can make it. . .”
“You’ll make it. And you’ll love it. There are already people waiting for you there. They’re looking forward to you getting out.”
“Really? That’s - hard to believe. I’m nobody.” I said, hoping what he said was true, but doubting it because of a lifetime of experience.
“They know you helped me,” Marcus said. “And they’re good people.”
“So what are you going to do?” I asked.
“Wait a little longer,” he said somberly. “I’ll try to get a note to her at least, but. . .there is a. . . a rule of reality. You can never really save someone else. You can hope and wait. You can be there when they turn to you. But you can’t save someone who isn’t already fighting to be free.”
“I think most people just don’t know. . . they don’t know the truth. If they did, a lot of them would leave.”
“My parents knew,” Marcus said quietly. “That old man in the asylum— Benny. He even left for a while. . .had a nice little orchard going in The Valley Between, but he came back to this Charade.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Sweets,” Marcus replied. “He missed his sweets. Said he was just going back to get a load of sweets, and then return. And my dad— he said it must be God’s will that we live under the rule of the Protectors. He said if we just kept all the laws, we’d be safe anyway.”
Marcus swallowed and looked me in the eyes, unashamed of his own grief.
“And the Ostriches?” I asked, “They don’t make you stay?”
“No. The Ostriches only stand between the predators and people who venture out of the city. Everyone in the mountains are free to leave if they want. It’s just that if they do, they never come back.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“I’m not back in the mountains yet,” Marcus replied soberly. “But I’m not here because I want to be. And if I die trying to save my sister, well. . . I’m alright with that.”