was an enigma to me. She sounded unbelievably stupid, but she discovered more about Kara in the space of a few days than I had in a week. Furthermore, the girl was so poor she walked everywhere to save up for buying gasoline for her piece-of-crap car. And yet, she always dropped change into my cup when she walked by. Every day I watched for the tall, slender girl to come home from work and pass me with a cheerful, “hello!” Janey didn’t know I existed, but she soon became of extreme importance to me.
I spent some of my nights in the city, but I often went out through the culvert to camp on the mountainside. Sometimes David came to join me, as he patrolled and hunted the edge of the forest. I met other perimeter defenders as well, all mostly young men and women who had families “back home” in the valley between.
The quest to save my sister and the mysterious Janey had become a topic of much interest among the forest folk. Some of them asked me to carry notes to young cousins or siblings they had left behind as well.
And so it was that I found “my place” among the mountain people without actually being one of them. I became the courier between two worlds. It was a very dangerous job, and not one usually desired by someone who had a home in the mountains.
But because I’d never yet been to the valley between, and because I was gambling with my life anyway, I became the “last chance” for many young people in the city.
“Go to the park again and check under the bridge,” David told me one evening as I dressed in filthy, homeless clothing for a journey into the city. “There are a couple of kids we think might try to make a run for it.”
“The wolves have been watching the railroad crossing around the clock since I helped Gavin escape,” I said worriedly. “I don’t think they’ll be able to get out.”
“That’s why you have to find them before they try,” David said. “They’re only ten and twelve years old— Amy’s brother and sister who were put in wolf foster care after their parents were killed. She got out a year ago, but they were in a different home.”
“Why the bridge?”
“She said she used to take them there and that she gave them a veiled hint in her letter that she would meet them there.”
“Thanks - thanks Marcus. You don’t know how much this means.”
“Just be there to cover us if we have to make a run for it.”
It was full moon, and I knew the hillside was being watched, so I hiked an hour south before making my way down to the fence line. Then I stayed close to the fence, hiding in the shadows as I made my way back to the culvert crossing.
I kept a fallen tree limb in the culvert opening with trash piled around it in a certain way so that I could always tell if anyone had been there. In order to go through the culvert the limb had to be moved. But today it was laying the way I had left it.
I came across a broken grocery cart laying behind a Chinese market and loaded it with a miscellaneous assortment of collectable garbage. Then I drew up my “shriveled arm” and dragged my leg behind me as I continued through the shadows, deeper into the city.
It was midnight, and the city was asleep, except for other homeless people and the occasional Protector wolf. I had come to know all the lights and cameras. My paths through the city lay from shadow to shadow, under burned out lights and past vacant buildings.
Slowly, I pushed the broken cart up the street to the house where I grew up, always, always waiting for the day when Kara might return home.
Unexpectedly, there was a light on in the upstairs window. I almost stopped in my tracks for the joy that surged through me. She was home! A gravelly snore in the shadows told me the house was being guarded by wolves. I faltered in the street, unwilling to walk past, but unable to stop without jeopardizing everything I’d worked so hard to achieve.
I limped to the darkest shadows on the street and stood watching the house for a long time, thinking about my sister. She had done it. She had convinced them she was brainwashed and had been released. I wondered if she was waiting for me to rescue her.
The bridge! I had to go check under the bridge in the park. After some hesitation I decided I would go to the bridge and help the kids escape (if they were there), and then return to the city to wait for Kara to leave the house the next day. Cheered considerably with this plan of action, I limped and pushed my broken cart down the road toward City Park.
Playing the part of a half-crazy cripple, I staggered to the nearest bench and sat there hugging myself and humming for half an hour while furtively watching all the shadows for predators. A wolf Protector strolled by and sniffed disdainfully at my foul smelling clothing.
“Smoke, smoke. . . gib me a smoke, Oh mighty defender of my Kingdom. . . my Kingdom. . . my. . .” I slurred and stammered as he passed by. He spat on me and sad a few foul things in passing, but did not slow in his measured trot past me and toward the 24 hour coffee and doughnut shop.
When he passed from view, I got up and pushed my cart to the edge of the bridge. There, I left the cart and stumbled down a steep path that led beneath the bridge. I heard a child gasp in fear and sank to my knees to make myself smaller.
It was so dark beneath the bridge I could not see anything, but I spoke quietly toward a dark cluster of figures huddled in the furthest corner.
“A girl named Amy sent me to get you,” I said quietly, and then my head exploded, and I lost consciousness.
I opened my eyes to the sensation of warm rain falling on my face. But it wasn’t rain. Four young faces were bent over mine, crying and afraid.
My brain felt like it was missing in a dumpster full of painful thoughts.
“It’s not that easy,” I tried to explain, sitting up with a grimace.
“Please, mister. . . please. We can’t go back. They’ll kill us or hurt us real bad if we go back. Please, you gotta take us.”
I couldn’t see their faces, but the young voices were desperate and tearful. God, how I needed my wit right now!
“Okay, okay. . . we’ll have to go in two trips though. I can’t take you all at once.”
This comment was met with dead silence. I could feel their fear of being left behind and knew that not one of these kids were going to let me out of their sight.
“Okay,” I sighed. “Let’s see how many of you will fit in the grocery cart. They followed me to the edge of the shadows and watched as I unloaded the trash in my grocery cart until it was empty.
“You,” I said, pointing at the second largest child. “You first. Climb in and curl up at the bottom.”
With surprising alacrity, the twelve year old boy got into the cart and curled up. He was small for his age, but he half-filled the cart.
“Now, you - the smallest,” I said, reaching for a little guy about six years of age. “Curl up right against his belly, if you can fit in there. . . can you?”
The little boy did his best, and I felt more hopeful. There was room for one more. Hopefully the cart wouldn’t be too heavy. I put the 10 year old little girl on top of her brother.
n helping them rearrange and make room for each other, I saw that the children all had teeth marks on their legs and arms
A wave of anger cleared my aching head and I clinched my fists in grief. What kind of lousy beast—
The older boy groaned and complained at the weight of his sister on top of him
“Look,” I said, my voice hoarse with emotions, “if you’re going to make a single noise, you’re the one that has to stay here and wait. Absolutely NO noise can come from this cart or we’re all dead. Got it?”
“Got it,” he said meekly. “But she’s heavy.”
“She’s alive,” I said, “as long as you keep your mouth shut.” All of the kids were silent at this.
“I’m going to cover you with a blanket and some trash. You can’t make any noise at all. . . no questions, no coughing, nothing, until I tell you we’re safe. A wolf might stop us to talk to me. Whatever you do, be still and silent.”
“Are you going to leave me here?” The oldest girl asked me quietly. She must have been around fifteen years of age, but her voice told me she had been old for a long time already.
“Wrap yourself in this,” I told her, and took off the filthy, hooded trench coat I usually wore. She was tall and thin, but it was still a bit too long. I showed her how to draw up her arm and drag her right leg.
“Now you look like me. You’ll have to follow us at a distance. Just barely keep me in sight, and don’t ever betray you know me. Stay in the shadows. Don’t forget to limp. Don’t panic and run. If a wolf speaks to you, slur your speech like you’re drunk and talk in a low voice. Don’t let him see your face. And don’t— can you do this? Because you can wait here and I’ll come back for you—“
“I can do it.” She interrupted me with a firm voice, wrapping the reeking coat around her and pulling her hair into her face before putting the hood up. “I can do it. Don’t worry about me. Just - just - go!”
I smiled at the fierceness in her voice.
She nodded affirmatively.
“You’re gonna make it.”
But my heart was pounding in my chest. This was crazy. Four kids at once. God help us. I pushed the cart out of the park, trying to stay in the shadows. Because of the twisted back wheel, the cart was hard to push when it was empty, but with 200 pounds of kids inside, it was nearly impossible. I shoved it forward with all my might, while at the same time trying to appear to be the pathetic cripple who was visually familiar to the protector wolves.
Every block of sidewalk was a challenge, but one by one we made our way from dark alley to dark alley, closer and closer to the muddy culvert I had come to love. Hours passed, and I was aware that the kids in the cart were terribly uncomfortable, but they stayed quiet.
We were only a block away from freedom when a gruff voice barked at me.
“You there! What’s your name?”
As I turned around, I saw Leah, a block behind us, edge into the deep shadows of a building and disappear.
“Odysseus. . . I am Odysseus, beleaguered inheritor of the earth!” I cried in a drunken voice. I heard a child in the cart gasp and another “shush” him. In nearly desperate haste, I left the cart and staggered toward the wolf who was now chuckling at my response.
“Well now, Odysseus, what have you got in that cart?” The protector wolf asked, without much interest in his voice.
“Oh, sir - you’ve gotta come and see!” I slurred and draped my arm around the wolf. “I rescued a skunk! It was dead on the road, and I’m going to make a fancy hat with it!”
“You reek, you filthy gutter trash!” The wolf snarled and shoved me away, leaving a bloody scratch mark on my face.
“Ow - you hurt me!” I squealed and wept like a child.
“Get out of here,” the wolf snarled, looking around pensively to see if anyone was watching.
“A fancy skunk hat, a fancy hat for Odysseus. You hurt me, you old meany,” I chanted, staggering back to my cart.
The wolf did not turn away, but continued to watch me with disgust and mild curiosity. I tried to push the cart without revealing the weight of it, but the wolf was unconvinced.
“Hey,” he called after me, and my heart dropped like a stone. We were going to have to make a run for it.
But then his radio buzzed and crackled and he stopped to answer it. In that second of reprieve, I rounded the corner into the alley and out of his sight.
“Get out and run!” I whispered urgently.
An explosion of excited whispers made me hiss “Quietly!” as I lifted the youngest kid out and put him on his feet.
“What about Leah?” he whispered.
“I’ll get her,” I assured him. “The rest of you run to the end of this alley, turn right and run to the culvert in the wall. Crawl through it and run up the hill.”
They were off, and I staggered back around the corner to face the wolf, who ran smack into me. His aspect had changed from lazy curiosity to vicious suspicion.
“The jig’s up, Hobo,” he snarled. “I know you’re hiding kids in there. Everybody’s out looking for them.”
“Yes, yes. . . a skunk child. . . but I threw it away because you hurt me.” I hiccuped and gagged as though I were going to vomit, and staggered into his path, trying to give the kids a few seconds longer to get out of the alley.
“Get out of my way,” he growled and bit my arm, throwing me to one side. I fell on the ground, and as I did, I saw Leah in the distance. The wolf was furiously searching through the trash in my cart and did not see me gesturing to her which direction she should run. She hesitated in confusion, and started to come toward me.
“No!” I shouted. “Go left a block, then right to the end! I am Odysseus of the high seas and I have spoken!”
Although my directions were shouted openly, they made no sense and the protector wolf ignored me completely while reporting on his radio that my cart was empty.
I laid on the road weeping and rocking myself like a retarded moron, while loudly lamenting my bleeding face and bitten arm. The wolf ran past me toward a Protector car rounding the corner, and in those seconds of reprieve I staggered to my feet, and ran after the kids.
Multiple sirens wailed as I raced to the end of the alley and turned the corner. Leah was flying toward me like a wraith with the trench coat billowing out around her. The kids were all standing there in a huddle waiting.
“The culvert!” I exclaimed, “You were supposed to go to the culvert!”
“But it - it’s full of mud and trash,” the little girl whimpered.
“Run!” I shouted, as wolves rounded the corner, howling and barking in pursuit. And they ran. Leah had her little brother by the hand, and I grabbed the little girl. The older boy followed.
I pushed and shoved them into the culvert, at the same time dragging the heavy fallen tree limb into the opening.
“Crawl all the way through! Faster! Go! Get all the way through and run for the forest as fast as you can go! Don’t stop. Don’t look back - run!”
The wolves were upon us, snarling and biting at the fallen tree limb, trying to drag it away from the culvert opening. I used a broken branch to swat and beat at them, trying to give the kids time to get through the culvert.
A concerted effort to move the limb was underway and I could wait no longer. I turned and crawled with desperate speed through the culvert and out the other side. The kids were ahead of me, and I could see them running up the hill as fast as their legs would carry them. The scratching sound of wolf paws on culvert metal told me they were right behind me, but I didn’t look back. I made one last scramble out into the open and stood up to run.
I’d only taken two long strides when I was knocked on my face by a wolf jumping onto my back. His teeth sank into the back of my neck, and then his body went limp on top of mine.
David! David and his little band of perimeter defenders were shooting crossbow bolts into the pack of snarling wolves. The last thing I remember was the body of the wolf being rolled off of me, and the weightless feeling of being carried by many hands.