My most important questions were answered now. All that was left was the decision to stay or leave. It struck me a little ironic that ultimately, fate was in my own hands after all. I knew the truth. It was my choice.
I contemplating going back to living life as normally as possible. It was so easy, it frightened me. Already I had less fear of the wolves and more tolerance of their deceit and violence. This, above all, spurred me to make the leap.
I was terrified the truth would be sandblasted from my mind as it had been from the concrete walls of the alley.
On my way home from work the next day I bought a can of spray paint and few items Marcus had recommended (seeds.) I went home and packed some things in an old backpack. Then I sat down and wrote a letter to the only relative who might believe my story, a young cousin, and put it in the out-going mail.
After it was dark, I went out to the alley. For a while, I stood quietly in the shadows, listening. I heard the sound of sirens and traffic, a child crying and the angry voice of an adult. I listened more intently, listened for footsteps or breathing. I neither saw nor heard anything out of the ordinary so I reached for the can of paint.
Suddenly running footsteps and sobbing breath stopped me. With my heart pounding, I stepped into the deepest shadows of the alley and pulled my hoodie low over my face.
A human form came running around the corner, panting in terror. The figure ran right past me and out the other end of the alley, into the street lights. I heard a voice shout,
“There she is!” And the sound of pursuit fading into the distance. This event set my pulse racing and shocked me out of my expectations of a slow and easy exit.
I decided to go back to the safety of my apartment and wait until the next day. But halfway up the stairwell, something inside told me it was now or never. I turned around, ran back into the alley, and without a taking any time to think it over, I took out the paint and left my message:
“The Danger Lies in What You Believe.”
Then I ran for my car as though the Wolves were already after me. It was like waking from a childhood nightmare; all I could think of was getting away from the monster under my bed.
The car started without any trouble, but as I drove around the corner onto the main street, I passed the same figure, still running frantically. I heard sirens a few blocks behind me, and resisted the urge to step on the gas pedal. How could I know if this running person was a common criminal or a slave pursuing freedom as I was?
As I passed the running figure I looked into the rearview mirror.
It was Kara!
I hit the brakes and leaned over to throw open the passenger door.
“Get in!” I shouted.
She did, without hesitation.
“Drive!” she screamed, for the second time in our brief acquaintance. And this time, I did.
With a blast of adrenaline I set the tires squealing just as the Protector cars came into view. Later I wondered if the Wolves would have even noticed us if I had played it cool. But my nerves were running away, and carrying me along with them.
The faster I drove, the slower time seemed to go, until the little details of our journey jumped out at me like moments frozen forever in my memory.
I saw a street bum shuffle out of an alley. He had a can of paint in one hand and I wondered with regret if I would ever read what he had written.
I saw people sitting inside a restaurant, lifting wine glasses as they smiled at one another and then paused in surprise as I blazed past.
I met the gaze of a young woman walking down the side walk. As our eyes locked, I wondered if she would live and die here, or if might meet her someday beyond the city perimeters.
And then, there it was: the edge of the city, and the dark forest beyond.
“No!” Kara cried, “They’ve blocked the road!” And so they had. A road block of Protector cars was set up a few hundred feet ahead of us. There was no way through or around it, and no way my piece-of-junk Nissan could blast through like it always happens in the movies.
Then it struck me that I might as well destroy the Nissan. Giving up now would be certain death.
“Hang on!” I told Kara through gritted teeth, and at the last second, I turned sharply off road and bumped out across an open field toward the distant tree line. I was still driving pretty fast and the shocks in my car were well worn. Kara and I had to keep our heads down because every bump threw us up against the roof.
I saw in the rearview mirror that the Protector cars were following us at a slower pace. Their lives were not at stake.
We were still a quarter mile from the forest when a tire blew.
“We’re going to have to run for it,” I said, looking over at Kara. Her face was white and her wide eyes reflected my own scared expression.
“I can run,” she said and opened her door. I grabbed my pack and followed her.
And so we both sprinted toward the forest as fast as we could go. My backpack bounced up and down and my breath came in ragged gasps.
A strange rhythmic pressure assaulted my ears and I was blinded by a spotlight. There was a helicopter right over our heads.
“Stop and lay face-down on the ground!” A voice on a megaphone instructed. I looked up and saw 4 Wolves in full SWAT gear rappelling down toward us.
Kara screamed and hesitated, frantically turning from side to side, as if looking for a new direction.
“Don’t stop!” I yelled and grabbed her hand. “Keep running!”
The helicopter followed us and the Wolves continued to dangle overhead. The end of a rope slapped me on the side of the head and blood trickled down my ear.
Then up ahead, I saw a figure running toward us. It was Marcus. I was so glad to see him, he glowed like a light bulb in my mind. There were others in the tree line behind him, and I felt a great surge of strength from those who had made their escape before us.
As Marcus ran toward us he yelled,
“Keep running! Don’t stop - you’re almost there!” His voice was joyous and had no fear in it.
The Wolves landed on the ground just behind us. I heard their heavy breathing ands staggered when set of teeth ripped the heel from my boot.
As I lurched forward, Marcus ran right past us and into the Wolves. Kara screamed, but neither of us turned around. I didn’t want to see what would happen to him. I was shocked and numb at his sacrifice.
Willing, friendly hands caught us at the tree line and I sank to the ground, drawing my breath in ragged sobs. Tears of horror and relief ran down my face.
Marcus. What have you done?
“Look, Janey.” I heard Kara say.
In the spotlight, between us and the Wolves, danced a great Bright Ostrich. His wings were spread in defiance and joy. His head bobbed as though with laughter, and the great talons on his feet left deep punctures in the ground as he danced, unafraid.
“Marcus?” I whispered. Kara’s hand gripped mine. She was laughing and crying at the same time.
The Wolves fell away in dismay, howling their frustration in unison. After they stopped, I heard Malory reporting for Channel 9:
“Tonight our Protectors grieve for a great loss of human life to the unspeakable terrors of the Mountain forest. How long will people give into their foolish desires to be free? How long will these deadly terrorists threaten the simple-minded populace? For the sake of our loved ones, we must report any troubled or suspicious behavior. . .”
Then they all began to leave. The helicopter and it’s spotlight turned away and we were finally left in quiet darkness.
A few minutes later, Marcus stepped out of the shadows and hugged his sister Kara. Other people gathered around and congratulated them, slapping Marcus on the back and shouting for joy.
I felt a little awkward and alone, as I always have. Then Marcus smiled at me over Kara’s head. He reached out to squeeze my shoulder and pulled me into the middle of the crowd.
“Thank you,” he whispered in my ear.
“I’ve known since the day you wrote “I’ll try,” on the alley wall that Janey Grey is very important girl.”