When I slipped through the front door my plan was to tiptoe up the stairs to my bedroom and come down for breakfast a few minutes later, as though I’d been there all night. But my dad was waiting for me on the other side.
“Where have you been!?” he asked with the passive but furious tone I’d come to know all too well. “The Protector station called, looking for you. I didn’t know what to tell them.”
“Just— just— I got coffee.” I stuttered, all the suave I’d used on the Protectors deserting me.
“You got coffee,” my dad repeated. “You got coffee?” His eyes glittered with fear and suspicion.
Suddenly I wanted to tell him everything. If I could know what he knew — I could make a decision. Life wouldn’t just go back to the way it had been before.
“I need to talk to you,” I said humbly, using his own Japanese mannerisms of respect and immovable nerve.
My dad’s posture deflated and he nodded with an acceptance that communicated he had some expectation of what I had to say. He gestured toward the open door of his office, followed me inside and shut the door.
I told him about the morning’s events, the overheard comments of the wolves who pursued me to the forest, and the writing on the alley wall. Then I asked him to be honest with me about everything. I was afraid of him, but not as afraid as I was of living a lie for the rest of my life. After a long silence he finally spoke.
“You look like me,” he said, “and you carry my name. But you are your mother’s son. She has never stopped asking me questions.”
“Isn’t the truth the most important thing?” I pressed.
“No!” he barked, finally raising his voice. “No, honor is most important. Respect for your family and those who depend on you. I will not be here forever. Kara will need you to care for her. Your mother will need you if I die before she does. You have an obligation to this family—“
“To perpetuate the lie?” I finished. “I am done, Dad. If you won’t tell me the truth, I will go out and find it.”
“And you will kill your mother. You will murder your sister. You will be the death of us all with your foolish quest for ‘the truth.’ It does not matter! You cannot change anything! You are one boy — one foolish, uneducated boy and I regret having trusted you with any truth at all!”
Silence filled the room. He had overstated himself. But pride left his statements howling echoes in the room.
Grief over the choice I had to make choked me and I couldn’t speak. Maybe he was right. Maybe my family could be killed if I continued seeking answers. I couldn’t bear that burden. It was too heavy.
“I won’t go out again like that,” I said quietly. “I won’t endanger my family. But I don’t think I can stop my own mind from asking questions. It will plague me forever. I will always look for answers. But I will do it carefully, for my family’s sake.”
My dad softened and sighed. He did love me, in spite of his own fear and lust for control.
“It’s not so bad,” he said. “We have a home, an income, and education. There is so much available to you. I really think, Marcus, that you would benefit from medication. These bouts of anxiety you experience could be taken care of and you can get on with your life and focus on fitting into the world.”
It was odd, how the light of the lamp on his desk, cast a shadow across his face that made his teeth look longer and whiter. His gray hair, usually combed smoothly down, now bushed out over his ears. I shuddered. Where had the wolves come from?
“Dad?” I said, and my voice sounded uncharacteristically tremulous.
“What?” he asked.
“Have you ever heard about people living out there — in the mountains?”
“Enough!” He snarled and slapped the surface of his orderly desk.
“Sorry.” I said, swallowing as much fear as I could in one gulp, “Sorry, dad. I - I’m sorry.”
I was desperate to get away; to go back to my room and grieve for the father I once had, for the human father I had lost. The alley wall flashed in my memory and again I saw the words;
Anyone still here is your enemy.
My father ushered me into the hall and returned to his desk to make a phone call to set up a mental evaluation appointment for me later in the day. When the door shut behind him my mother grabbed me by the sleeve and pulled me into the kitchen. There were tears in her wide blue eyes. I am half Anglo-American from my mother’s side.
“Marcus,” she whispered urgently, “don’t look back now. Go, before it’s too late!”
“I love you,” she said fiercely. “I love you SO much. Never forget that. And when you find a way, send for Kara. I’ll get her to you, I promise. Go! Go — now.” She was shoving me toward the back door, handing me a jacket, a backpack, and a bundle of food, even as she pushed me away.
“What about you?” I asked, “What if — Mom, what will happen to you?”
“Do you think I care about that?!” She cried aloud in a desperate whisper. “I would gladly die a thousand deaths to know you and Kara are safe. Don’t look back, Marcus. This is your moment, and there may never be another.”
I heard the door to my dad’s office open and shut and saw her eyes widen in fear. But she didn’t push me any further. Instead she stepped away, and looked at me with a lingering question in her eyes.
It was my choice. I bent to kiss my mother’s forehead, then I turned and ran.
I didn’t know where I was going. It was daylight. How could I cross the tracks in broad daylight? What about my bike? It was still on the front porch. Shouldn’t I be armed at least, before just walking into a potentially hostile environment?
My mind was turbulent with a thousand questions as I sightlessly walked the streets, going nowhere in particular. On a whim, I stopped and bought a can of spray paint and then made my way back to the alley of truth. In a faded, empty area, I wrote my message and then left the can sitting in the alley for the next artist-prophet to find. Then I saw my black hoodie still lying in the shadows and picked it up.
“Hey,” a voice startled me. “Aren’t you that kid from this morning?”
I looked up to see the human Protector I’d bought coffee for in the early hours of the morning. He had approached me so silently, I had not heard him. His eyes squinted suspiciously as he eyed the black hoodie in my hands.
“I came back to look at the wall,” I explained, trying to turn his attention away. “What does it all mean?”
“Nonsense,” the cop said gruffly. “Ought to be sandblasted.”
“Why? I mean, if it’s just nonsense?” I asked. He was still eyeing the black hoodie. It was too late to toss it aside.
“Those kind of questions could get you in trouble,” the officer said seriously now, looking me in the eyes. “A guy like you should be thinking about his future. Don’t you have a job or school or something?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I should go.” I said, feeling my adrenaline surge. “Take care.” I walked past him, toward the end of the alley, trying to resist the urge to run. I could feel his eyes on my back all the way. Near the end I heard him speak into his radio.
I turned left and ran, trying to retrace my steps to the dock I’d crossed in the morning. It was a lot further on foot than it had been on my bike. I ran out into a commercial area and slowed down, trying to blend into the pedestrians on the sidewalk. A protector car passed me and I turned my face away, pretending to look through a store window. In the window’s reflection I could see the car slow and come to a stop. I opened the door and ran through the store, looking for a back door. Employees looked up, surprised and curious.The back door was open and led to another alley. Shouts followed me and I swiftly left them behind, running, turning, and running again.
Somewhere along the way, store security grabbed me by the backpack and I came out of it, leaving behind whatever my mother had packed.
Finally I reached the industrial end of town. My side ached like I had a knife shoved under my ribs. I had been running for miles. But the sound of sirens faded into the distance and eventually I walked in relative peace and quiet past a factory toward the loading dock.
It was only late morning, but I felt like I’d been running for days. So much had happened. In the space of a few hours my whole life had changed. Even now I was trying to think of a way to stay in the city and find a place to think for just a little longer.
I had imagined this day before, but in my plans I’d always had camping gear, food, and a weapon to defend myself from the ostriches. I also hoped to see Kara one more time and explain why I was leaving. Besides all of that, maybe nobody was after me at all. Maybe those sirens and shouts and had been for someone else.
The loading dock and the train tracks were just ahead of me. It was surprisingly still and vacant for mid-morning on a weekday. In my hour of decision, no one was around to hold me back. My footsteps slowed down. I wasn’t ready yet. I couldn’t just walk out of my life like this.
Without warning, two protector cars pulled out from behind the buildings nearest the tracks and blocked the road ahead of me. Two other cars came screeching around the corner behind me, sirens blazing. They blocked the road behind me. A wolf with a megaphone blared into the open empty space,
“Marcus Tamotsu, lay face down on the pavement with your hands above your head.”
In the space of a split second I had reckoned my odds. There were two wolves in front of me and two behind. In the distance I could hear an ambulance coming. Channel 9 news was already pulling up in the nearest alley. Somewhere, out on the tracks, a coming train blew it’s horn.
I could see my father’s expressionless face in one of the patrol cars in front of me. He had betrayed me. But he would say that I had betrayed him. The way home was closed to me. So be it.
I put my hands in the air and walked toward the patrol car in which my father sat awaiting my fate.
“Stop where you are and lay down on the pavement!” The wolf with the megaphone insisted again.
“I want to speak to my father!” I called out and kept walking, with my hands in the air. I saw my dad lean over and talk to the Protector, urging him to wait for me. I was almost there. I could see the whites of my dad’s eyes and the deep furrow between them. I could see the six feet of space between the cars and the track beyond.
Just as my father started to open his door, I leaped forward and ran. The Protector wolves barked with anger and nervous anticipation, but they were caught off guard. I ran through the space between the cars and right past my father, who stared at me in disbelieving shock.
What happened next is a blur in my mind. There was a train coming, and it didn’t have time to stop. The conductor was blowing the horn without pause, desperate for me to get off the tracks. Behind me the wolves were raging with anger over my near escape. And before me, on the other side of the tracks, was a drop from the rail bridge down into the outskirts of the forest; a 25 foot drop. There was no time to jog down the tracks to a safer exit.
With some hope I spied a metal pole that extended from the railroad, across the bridge and out over the ground below. It was a weight meter, I think. I edged out onto it, hoping to get out of the oncoming train’s path. But the rush of the moment and the vibration of the train made me lose balance and I fell, grabbing the pole with my hands on my way down. There I hung, off the side of the bridge next to the dock while the train thundered past, still blowing it’s horn.
Through the spaces between the train cars, which were now slowing down considerably, I could see Mallory, the channel 9 anchor, and his camera man, filming the train and shouting with excitement. There were now six or eight Protector wolves barking furiously as they waited for the train to pass. But my father was no longer there.
Then I let go.