My name is Elizabeth Jane Grey. I was named after a cranky old grandmother who raised me until I was eight years old. When she died, I bounced around from distant relatives to friends and acquaintances until I was sixteen and could reasonably pass for eighteen. I never knew my parents, and by the hints and dark looks my mother’s name elicited, I guessed it was probably for the best that she had left me with Grandma and disappeared out of my life. When I was sixteen years old, I sub-rented an apartment from an acquaintance and began to work for a living. It seems like I’ve always been alone, always fighting for the next meal and some sense of permanence.
Two and a half years later it was apparent I was making progress. I had my own apartment, small though it was, and a car to drive to work. And now - for the first time ever - I was going on a holiday! I hoped to spend a little money on some second hand clothing and eat at a sit-down restaurant in Tiny Town and be back for the late shift at work. I looked into the rearview mirror and grinned at myself. My auburn hair looked brighter red in the outdoor sunlight, and my eyes sparkled with enthusiasm. I turned on the radio and beat out the rhythm of the songs on the steering wheel with my hands.
It was one of those early summer days when the green of the oak trees is most brilliant, and the carpet of Jacob’s Ladder is blooming in vivid blue-purple patches along the road side. It had been so long since I walked barefoot in the grass or picked a flower. Years, actually; not since I was in elementary school and played in the park while Grandma slept on the bench. I slowed down, trying to ignore the warnings interrupting my view.
“Danger!!!” “Do Not Wander!” “Stay on the Road!” “Keep Moving!” Were posted in alarming red letters on white signage every 100 feet along the gray gravel shoulders of the two-lane, paved road.
The forested mountain pass between Super City and Tiny Town was all that remained of the natural world, and everyone was anxious for that 60 mile stretch to be burned as well. My mind flipped through bloody scenes of dismembered human bodies and images of people crying on TV, as they told the horror story of what had happened to them that one time they had left the road or wandered too near the perimeter of the city.
As I topped the last rise a muffled explosion and the violent twist of my steering wheel told me I had blown a back tire. I had known the tread was worn off, but hoped there were a few more months in those tires. Dang it! So much for my holiday!
As the old Nissan rolled and bumped to a stop and I turned off the ignition to save gas, I looked around me at the quiet forest. Fear rose in my throat and choked me. The urge I had to stop and pick flowers, only a few minutes earlier, now seemed like the memory of a crazy person.
As long as I stay on the road, I told myself.
Stay on the road and change the tire as quickly as possible.
I searched the woods with apprehensive eyes. Nothing in sight. I opened the door and got out.
The sound, or lack thereof, struck me. No engines, no voices, no sirens or clatter. And yet, it wasn’t silent either. At least five different bird voices filled the air, trilling and questioning my presence. The rustle of the wind in the oak leaves moved and flowed around me like liquid sloshing in a giant glass. Under my feet, Jacob’s Ladder flowers lay crushed and broken. I quickly stepped off of them and bent down to lift their heads. With my back exposed to the forest, I felt vulnerable and turned quickly again to open the trunk and get the spare tire.
I wrestled with the lug nuts, hoping someone else would drive down the road, and at least stop and wait for me to finish. Two cars past me, pale faces and wide eyes looked at me from the windows, but neither stopped. I got the jack situated and pumped the handle up and down. Nothing happened. Not being very handy, I assumed I was doing something wrong and pulled the jack out to examine it. Try again. And again. The dang jack was broken.
I sat down on the road, taking in the ramifications of the situation. A cool breeze dried the sweat on my forehead. A small bird hopped along the ground only a few feet away, her head cocked sideways as she studied me intently. This place was so peaceful and beautiful. How could it be so dangerous?
Then I saw them. Standing in the trees on the other side of the road, watching me. One. . . two. . . three. . . tall and white, fierce eyes gazing at me without blinking or turning away. My heart pounded like it was going to explode with fear. I got to my feet and stepped toward the door of the car, never taking my eyes from the predators who stood in the shadows.
It was said that they could silently sneak up on a person and disembowel him with one swift move of the giant spurs on their feet. They were the last great danger to Humanity, the man-eating White Ostriches of the mountains. Our Protectors worked day and night to keep us safe, to protect us from our own weak desire to roam and discover. But today, for me, there was no protection. I was alone and the Ostriches were coming to get me.
The Nissan was old, and I yanked so hard on the handle it got stuck in a popped-up position without actually opening the door. This had happened plenty of times before, and it always took a few minutes of jiggling the handle and coaxing it to go back into the correct position. I had no time. I glanced over my shoulder, again, frantically jiggling the door handle. The Ostriches had not moved.
In the distance I heard the sound of an approaching automobile. Thank God! I began to shout long before the car reached me, frantically shouting and waving my arms.
It was a Protector car! I was saved.
They pulled to a stop beside me and I ran forward in relief. Two Protector Wolves leaped from the car, and just the sight of their fierce faces, sharp teeth, and powerful bodies gave me a sense of well-being. All my life, we had been protected by the Wolves.
The Ostriches stood so still in the deep shadows of the trees, the Wolves had not yet seen them. I stumbled toward the Wolves, stuttering with relief,
“Thank God, you came in time!”
With black lips drawn back over glistening teeth, the Wolves circled me, growling low in their throats. I felt a momentary chill.
“I - I need help. . .” I stammered, confused by their aspect. Without answering, one of the Wolves crouched low, as if he were about to leap.
Adding to my distress, the Ostriches now stepped out of the shadows and onto the road behind the Wolves.
“Look out!” I screamed, “the Ostriches—“
The crouching Wolf turned around, snarling and staying low to the ground. Both Wolves crouched behind their car, facing the Ostriches who had now all come to the edge of the road. The Ostriches’ black eyes glittered without expression, their long lashes catching sunlight. But they weren’t looking at the Wolves. They were looking at me. They wanted me. I shuddered with fear.
The sound of another approaching vehicle made the Wolves pause in their barking, snarling, and (truth be told, some whimpering). It was the Channel 9 Media van.
They pulled to a stop behind the Wolves’ Protector car. A TV anchor, desperate for fame and glory, leaped out of the near side of the van with a camera guy close behind.
“Live from the Forest Pass, our brave Protectors stand between the prey and the predator: the diabolically violent White Ostriches!. . . The potential victim cringes, speechless with fear, as we wait in breathless suspense. Will she survive to tell her story? Stay tuned for updates, this is Malory Smith with Channel 9 Media. . .”
The situation was surreal. Were we actors on a stage? I looked from the News Anchor to the Wolves and then at the Ostriches. One of the tall white birds tilted his head, looking at me quizzically, just like the little bird on the road had—a lifetime ago.
“Get in the car,” one of the Wolves barked at me, opening the Protector car’s closest door.
I don’t know why I hesitated. I think it was because my brain hesitated, or perhaps it had stopped processing data altogether. I felt confused, bewildered with all the unexpected events of the day. I couldn’t make sense of it all.
“Get in,” the Wolf almost whined, licking his lips as he glanced nervously from the Ostriches to me.
I got in.
The Wolves leaped into the car as soon as I was inside. The Channel 9 guys also jumped back into their van, still filming and talking as they went. The Ostriches just stood there watching me, as we drove away.
I don’t remember the rest of the day very clearly. I was given medication to calm my nerves, and then there was a dark room with bright lights, and a person with bad hair and sharp teeth who told me exactly what had happened to me. She had me repeat the story back to her verbatim several times before I was taken to a media room and interviewed for the Evening News.
At last, when I was nearly staggering with fatigue, I was released to go home.
When I awoke, it was nearly noon the next day. As I lay in my bed recalling the day before, it all seemed like a bad dream, scarcely real at all. The elements I remembered most clearly were the little things: the crushed flowers I had lifted, the little bird who hopped near me and tilted her head, and the wind in the oak leaves.
Then I remembered the sunlight on Ostrich eyelashes, the inane reporter. . . Malory. . . his name was, and black wolf lips drawn back over sharp white teeth.
“That was a close call,” I said aloud and got out of bed. When my feet touched the floor, full realization hit me. I could not drive across the city to reach my work place. My car was still in the forest. And I had no money to have it towed.
Being broke was as familiar to me as skipping meals. I could not remember a day when there had been enough of everything. Jobs were scarce, and if I did not show up for work, my job would be given to someone else within 24 hours. Yesterday might be excused, seeing as how I had appeared on National TV as a lucky survivor. But today. . . at best, I had 6 hours leeway before my job was history. And then my flat. And then my life.
There was only one solution. I had to go back into the forest and get the Nissan. And I knew exactly who would get me there.
Guy Egareva made the drive over the pass every day as a delivery driver. He had more horror stories to tell than anyone else in Super City. And Guy had been hinting he’d like to take me out for months already. I looked at the clock. He would be heading south over the pass in - 10 minutes!
I was dressed in the same clothing, having fallen asleep shortly after reaching home the night before. I stuck my feet in my boots, and ran out the door.
When I reached main street, I ran to the coffee shop where Guy always stopped, and arrived just as he was coming out the door with his styrofoam cup of the latest and greatest Morshmucks special.
“Jan—ey!” He said in his slow, permanently-surprised way. “I saw you on TV.”
“I could really use a ride, Guy. To get my car. It’s still out there. Could you - would you give me a ride on your way over the pass?”
Guy was speechless. He just stood there staring at me with his mouth open. This did not alarm me as he frequently looked that way.
“Do you have a jack that works? Mine was broken.” I continued, going around his delivery van and getting into the passenger seat.
“Uh. . . Uh, yeah.” Guy said and got into the van slowly, still glancing at me with mixed expressions of confusion, alarm, shock and delight.
So I ended up back in the forest again, facing the greatest danger of my life.