Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Hunted

The cold of the late January morning seeped into Danny’s exposed face and hands as he stood outside the Penitentiary, the cold metal doors clicked shut behind him. This is wrong, he thought. This is all wrong. The sun, just coming over the horizon beyond the thick stand of trees, bathed the world in gray from behind heavy, dark clouds. He wrapped his arms around his chest, the thin state-issued coat doing little to fight back the frigid air. Wrong. Overnight, those clouds had covered the forest with snow. He needed the snow to fall again to cover his tracks.
“Daniel David Wornall,” echoed from loudspeakers that dotted the twenty-foot-tall chain link fence that enclosed the Chase as he stood before the doors, reality starting to creep in. “The Hunters await deployment. You have five minutes.”
Danny’s legs, clad in thin, gray prison pants, didn’t move. The whole thing was a mistake. It had to be. Danny had brought the police to Kayla’s bloodstained body; he hadn’t killed her. He’d only …
“You have four minutes,” the monotone loudspeaker voice droned.
One, two, three, Danny. Run. Run goddamnit, RUN.
He pulled one leg forward; his gray slip-on tennis shoe disappeared into the drift, the snow bitingly cold pushed up his loose pant leg and over the ankle sock. His next leg moved faster. By the time the loudspeaker told Danny he only had three minutes to run, he had disappeared into the grayness of the snow-covered forest.
Danny ran awkwardly in the snow, not knowing what lay beneath the thick, white blanket that covered the deer trail he’d stumbled onto. He stopped, and listened. Quiet permeated the forest, like someone had sucked out all the air. No birds, no animals, not even a passing jet broke the silence. Just his deep, gasping breaths. His eyes grazed across the arm of his coat; the bright orange nearly glowed in the gray and white morning.
“Shit,” he hissed, and pulled at the buttons that held his coat tight, keeping in what little warmth it could. The cold clung to his skin like a wet towel as he peeled off the jacket, and threw it behind a snow-covered bramble. He stood in a gray T-shirt. The cold might kill him, he knew; but that orange coat made him an easy target for Hunters.
Danny wrapped his stiff, frozen fingers around the low-hanging branch of a young beech tree to steady himself. Gloves would have been nice, but Runners didn’t get gloves. The branch swayed as Danny sucked in air and exhaled it in heavy bursts of steam. Great flakes of snow began to fall steadily; within moments a white bead curtain weaved itself through the woods.
“Thank God,” he whispered, leaning heavily on the branch, his eyes trained behind him. Prints in the snow made by his state-issued tennis shoes no boots for you, dirtbag were going to bring every Hunter right to him. Maybe the snow would fall fast enough to erase those prints.
A shout. Somewhere in the forest behind him a Hunter had found his trail. Danny couldn’t hear their words, but he knew what they said. Goddamnit. Danny had jumped over a bush, and brushed away prints before running down the deer trail, but the Hunters found the deep footprints anyway. That call was from the man who found his trail. Danny knew that man. He released the branch, the small tree swaying slightly, and pulled his freezing feet into motion. The Hunters were well dressed. Heavy gloves, thick Carhartt coats, military boots, and hand warmers. The cold wouldn’t even slow them.
Danny just had to keep moving.
The season was just turning cool the night Kayla died.
The sky had begun to darken; a pastel wash spread across the western horizon past the Smithmeyer’s farm field that October night. Stubble from corn stalks ran in rows as far as Danny could see. Kayla stepped onto the wooden back deck where Karl Smithmeyer had grilled steaks just an hour before, her mother Gwen sitting in a deck chair sipping a glass of wine. Kayla leaned against the rail, and smiled, her parents now inside watching the news. “The movie starts in an hour,” she said. “We really need to go.”
A smile grew on his face. Kayla. Just looking at her made his breath come fast. He turned and tossed a soft, loose spiral to Kayla’s little sister. It hit her hands and skittered across the grass.
“Just one more,” he said.
“Five,” Katie called, the ball back in her hands. She never wanted to stop.
Danny turned to the girl, her hair tied in a ponytail. “Two.”
She frowned. “Deal.”
The snow now came hard. Danny paused; the visibility before him was about ten feet. I’m going to get through this. The snow didn’t affect his vision like it did the Hunters because they were looking for someone in a bright orange Penitentiary coat, not a gray T-shirt and light gray pants that blended in with the snow. His breath came heavily as he jogged. The Gate was out there somewhere, and he was ahead of everybody. All he had to do is get through the Gate, and he was free. He thought of the old time punishments. The electric chair, lethal injections, and the barbaric practice of making a criminal sit in a six-by-eight feet concrete jail cell, until they died – like an animal in a cage. But those punishments weren’t enough to deter most people from breaking the law; the Hunt was. Robberies were rare, murders almost non-existent.
As snow built on the trail, covering his hair in white, he wondered if a little barbarism might be better than the Hunt, because he knew who stalked him in the cold. Kayla’s parents Karl, and Gwen, and her sister Katie were in these woods looking for him, armed with M4A1 carbine rifles, and Beretta 9mms, and they wanted to cut out his heart.
The movie faded into the background as Danny held Kayla Smithmeyer in the dim light of the theater, the armrest folded back to form one large chair. Her hair smelled of coconut, her breath of cinnamon, and he inhaled deeply. They’d met their sophomore year in college. “You see that guy,” Kayla had said to Jenny Kappleman as they sat in the university library, anthropology books spread over the table. “I’m going to marry him.”
Jenny shrugged. “You don’t even know him.” She paused and took a long drink of the Chai mocha latte from the coffee shop downstairs.
“Watch me.” Kayla stood, and walked across the study lounge, the ΣΣΣ on the chest of purple sweatshirt like a shield. Danny sat alone at his own table, ‘The Collective Works of Shakespeare’ open to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’
“Are you Team Demetrius or Team Lysander?” Kayla asked, the fingers of her right hand curled around a strand of her auburn hair.
Danny looked up, pulling off his glasses. Just like Clark Kent, Kayla thought. How adorable.
“Hermia,” she said. “She’s supposed to marry Demetrius, but she loves Lysander. Who are you rooting for?”
He gently sat his glasses on the open pages of the book, and leaned back in the hard library chair, a smile teased the corners of his mouth. “Lysander,” Danny said softly. “How can you root against love?”
That was two years ago. They sat, wrapped around each other in the empty back row of the eight-screen theater in Kayla’s small hometown, their lips joined, the bad romantic comedy they’d come to see far away.
A stream cut across the trail, the falling snow melted as it struck its surface. Danny jumped over the three-foot-wide gap in the trail, then stopped, the gurgling of the moving water threatened death. He looked down the stream; the snowfall all but blinded him. There may be another trail downstream. If he could this is stupid, Wornall. You’ll freeze make it through the water without getting frostbite; the Hunters would lose his trail. The Gate was near. It had to be. He’d been on the run for at least an hour. The Chase wasn’t that big. Danny jogged up the trail about twenty feet, and slipped into the brush to the left of the trail, then slowly backtracked, placing his shoes in his deepening footprints until he reached the stream.
“You’re going to make it, Danny. You’re going to make it,” he whispered through chattering teeth. The Gate was freedom. He just had to reach it first, then Kayla Smithmeyer’s death would be forgiven.
If he could forgive himself.
Danny draped an arm around Kayla’s shoulders as he drove his roomy older model Buick. She kissed his neck. “Find a place to pull over,” she whispered in his ear.
Really? “Really?”
Kayla leaded away from him, and pulled her yellow cotton blouse over her head. He stole a quick glance as she worked the hooks on the back of the black lace bra. “Yes, really.”
The abandoned farmhouse sat about a quarter mile off the rural highway that connected the Smithmeyer farm to Collinwood. The headlights of Danny’s car bounced over the ancient front porch as it made it’s way slowly down the bumpy, unused lane. Tall, brittle yellowed weeds in the middle of old tracks folded under the bumper. White paint peeled off the old boards of the house like a sunburn, and black hollowed eyes stared from where windows once stood. The car turned in a big arc to point back toward the highway. The headlights suddenly shone over nothingness.
“Whoa.” The car lurched as Danny pushed the brakes to the floor. Kayla giggled; her jeans followed her shirt and bra onto the floor. The car sat at the edge of a ravine. Danny could see Kayla bite her lower lip in the soft green glow of the dash lights. She wormed her panties over her buttocks, pulled them slowly down her legs, and held them over the floorboard.
“I want you,” she said, and dropped her panties. Danny slammed the car into park and turned off the ignition as Kayla threw her arms around him and pulled him on top of her.
The sex in the front seat of his Buick was only their third time. Kayla’s fingers clutched Danny’s T-shirt as they moved; sweat beaded over his body in the cool fall night. She’d moaned, then screamed during their lovemaking, more from emotion than from the inexperience they both shared. “I love you, Danny,” she whispered as she pushed back against him.
Love? Yes. Love. “I love you, too.”
The water stung his feet, but Danny hardly noticed the cold anymore. The snow was his friend, but he knew it would kill him as surely as a bullet from Kayla’s family. They were out there, even Katie. A tear froze on his cheek. God, Kayla. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Icy water splashed his legs as he trudged through the stream, the pain numbed him. He wondered if he’d still have his toes if he made it through the Gate.
After a few minutes – or an hour, Danny no longer sensed time – a second deer trail appeared covered in a clean coating of spotless snow. No tracks crossed the trail, no deer, no rabbit, no people. Danny walked unsteadily back through the stream to a large branch that hung over the water. Sleep pulled at him; he shook his head to try and dislodge it. He knew exhaustion was one symptom of extreme hypothermia, and it terrified him. Oh, God. The exhaustion, the clumsy hands, the chattering teeth. I’m freezing to death.
Danny had to leave the stream now, if he didn’t, he’d die here in the cold water of the Chase. The deer trail was the key. His head slowly swung upstream, snow blinding him, but Danny knew the Hunters were there, following him. Maybe even down the stream; if not now, soon. They’d see his tracks on the deer trail if he just stepped out. Pain threatened to cripple Danny’s hands as he flexed his fingers, the skin gray, blotched with patches of blue. He didn’t know if his hands would support his weight. For Kayla. He leapt and wrapped his frozen fingers around the low branch. Danny’s hands worked; he held himself out of the water, his wet pants legs immediately began to freeze. He swung forward, and back, the branch moaned under his weight; then he launched himself over the brush on the far bank, and landed in a crunch. Snow-covered sticks snapped beneath his body as he crashed into the snow-covered timber; air shot from his lungs.
A rifle crack sounded from behind him. The Hunters had heard his fall.
Kayla put the blouse back on slower than she’d taken it off, and shimmied into her faded blue jeans. “That was beautiful,” she said. She grabbed Danny by his cheeks, and kissed him deeply. It was, honey. It was. Love? Yeah, I’m in love. Then she pulled away, and giggled. “I have to pee.” Her fingers caressed Danny’s smooth cheek, and she smiled. My god, that smile. “I’ll be right back,” she said.
The mechanism click was loud in the still night as she swung open the door and stepped outside. A slight breeze flowed through the boughs of the nearby trees, the grinding of the branches eerie in the darkness. Kayla pulled her jeans to her ankles, and squatted in the weeds as her right hand held onto the door.
The ravine. She should watch out. “Be careful,” slowly came from Danny’s mouth. Oh, the taste of her breath still lingered.
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I’m just …”
A squeal past her lips as her hand slipped from car door, and she tumbled backward.
“Kayla?” Danny scooted over the bench seats, his pants up, but unbuckled. “Kayla? Are you okay?”
A groan blended with the hush of the wind, and a thud, like somebody had dropped a watermelon. Then silence. Oh, dear God. Fingers numb with fear fumbled with the latch of the glove box. It sprang open, and papers flew. His insurance card, car manual, Sonic napkins. The flashlight sat at the bottom; he hoped the batteries still worked. “Kayla?” he called out the open door. There was no response but the wind in the trees.
Danny caught his toe on buried root and stumbled. A sharp pang lanced through his chest as his knee buried itself in the snow. He grabbed his right side with frozen hands. A rib, he figured, from the goddamned stupid jump from the creek. A warm, coppery taste filled his mouth, and he spat, a steaming crimson stain landed in the pure white that covered the ground, and melted out of sight. A hospital awaited on the other side of the Gate. He had to get to there. Danny pulled himself to his feet, and kept moving, each step stabbed his ribcage.
Ten yards farther through the driving snow his teeth stopped chattering, and he began to sway. I should rest, ran through his head. Danny limped toward a massive white oak tree, its bare branches reached out like comforting arms. I’ll just sit and close my eyes for a minute, and I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. His eyelids became heavy, and he stumbled. Don’t do it, Wornall. You’ll die out here. Then he heard the voice.
“Two hours,” the monotone loudspeaker echoed in the distance. “The Hunt has been two hours.”
Danny shook his head; some consciousness seeped back in. Two hours? Most hunts were over in two hours. It must be the snow, slowing the Hunters down. The loudspeaker meant the fence was close. If the fence was close, the Gate was close. Danny quickened his pace, steeling his jaw against the pain. He rounded a bend in the trail and stopped dead. He’d entered the Garden of Ghosts.
“Kayla,” Danny screamed as he spilled out the passenger door and onto the grassy lane. The ravine fell off the lane nearly straight down, the front passenger tire inches away from the edge. “Kayla. Answer me.”
The cool wind brushing his hair seemed the only thing alive in the night. He clicked on the flashlight, the dim yellow beam damn batteries nearly useless. Danny stood; his knees weak from sex were now weak from terror. “Kayla,” he called again. Twenty yards toward the crumbling house, the ground sloped to meet the lane. He scrambled down the weed-choked pitch toward the bottom, the flashlight beam bounced over decaying tires, and rusting metal; a fender, an oil drum, box springs, bits of rotting cloth hung off the spindly coils like spider webs. Danny crawled over the ruined husk of a 1940s truck bed and reached the bottom of the gorge, the shadow of his Buick in the moonlight hung over him.
“Kayla,” his voice softer now, almost a whisper.
The weak flashlight beam grazed something twisted awkwardly on the floor of the ravine. “Oh, my God.” Kayla’s leg lay at an impossible angle, unmoving from behind an ancient farm implement. Her shoe was gone. “Kayla,” Danny’s mouth moved, but no sound followed. Gooseflesh pricked his arms and legs as he slowly moved around the tiny, four-row planter that may have once been pulled behind an Oliver, or some other tractor from a company that no longer existed, and found Kayla.
She lie silent, eyes wide, her mouth open like she’d just been surprised. “Kayla, baby.” Danny stepped closer, his legs threatened to spill him onto the junk-strewn ground. “Say something, Kayla. Please, say something.”
Then he saw it. A rusted pipe gleaming wet with blood jutted from the center of her pale yellow blouse like it was giving Danny the finger.
He screamed.
Haunting eyeless sockets stared at Danny from peeling skulls. Mouths, some fleshless, some starting to decompose, hung agape as Danny stood at the edge of the clearing, the Garden of Ghosts. His eyes affixed to the bodies of the Runners nailed to crucifixes, and planted in the snow like scarecrows from a nightmare. Those killed in the Hunt were brought here, and pinned in the clearing like giant specimens in a bug collection, then put on television for everyone to see. Danny couldn’t tell how far the clearing stretched; the gray haze of the falling snow made the Garden look like it went forever. Maybe it did.
Placards marked “Child Molester,” “Rapist,” “Thief,” hung from what was left of the necks of the dead. Great spikes driven through arms, legs, and chests held these bodies to the rough wooden poles. These people were dead before the nails sunk into their flesh. The bodies were just here to slow you down, Wornall.
“Shit,” he whispered in a whiff of steam. He limped through the dangling bodies, legs in decayed gray prison pants, and feet, some in state-issued slip-on shoes, some bare and skeletal, hung at face level. Danny stared at the ground as he moved through the crucified. The faces. He couldn’t look at the faces.
A bit of orange at the base of one pole jutted from the snow. He reached toward it and pulled; a prison coat came free. He stood in the falling snow, holding the bright orange garment. Damn it, Wornall. You’re going to die from the cold if you don’t put it on. He’d tossed his into the brush, to help him hide from the hunters. But they knew where he was; he could hear them in the distance, closing. It wouldn’t make any difference. Danny shook snow from the coat, and slipped it on, his fingers didn’t function well enough to work the buttons, so he left it open.
More sounds in the distance, but closer now. Through the snow, a trailhead entered the trees. Danny lowered his gaze from the hanging bodies of the damned and stumbled toward it. A skeletal foot raked across his hair as he passed beneath the last crucifix; he caught the scream in his throat, and looked up. A grinning skeleton glared back, a patch of skin on its cheek held all that was left of its beard. The falling snow collected in that beard creating a macabre Father Christmas. The sign under its chin read “Murderer.”
Danny pulled the coat tighter around him, his frozen hands in the pockets, and disappeared back into the forest.
The side trail was old, underbrush starting to choke it closed. Danny almost missed it. The shouts behind him had grown silent, but he doubted the Hunters had gone a different direction; his tracks were too visible. He had to get off this trail quickly. Fifteen feet up the trail the underbrush grew short, short enough to step over. Danny hurried to the stunted bushes, and reached his aching leg to the other side, pins and needles stabbed his foot as he put his weight on it and stepped fully over. Gotta hide the evidence, Wornall. He pulled his cold, clumsy hands from the coat pocket to grab a branch to sweep away the new tracks, but something fell from the right pocket.
“What the hell?”
He bent, wincing as his side stabbed with pain. A book of matches lay on the snow. He picked them up and opened the cover; eight matches remained. Matches? Matches? Fire. Heat. No, no. They’ll see. The matchbook sat in his palm. But if I’m far enough off the trail, a little fire. Just a little fire. They won’t see that. They can’t see that.
Danny held the matches tightly in his right hand, and wrapped the aching fingers of his left around a dead, leafy branch, wiping fresh snow over his footprints as he backed toward the side trail.
The trial lasted less than an hour. Indisputable DNA evidence on Kayla Smithmeyer proved Daniel David Wornall had raped her minutes before throwing the twenty-two-year-old education major to her death. No one listened to his story; the stone faces in the jury had already decided he was guilty despite lack of evidence of a struggle. No bruising, no scratches, no skin under Kayla’s fingernails. The jury sentenced Danny to the Hunt in front of a national TV audience. Danny expected to see Katie cry as the deputies led him out of the courtroom in handcuffs and ankle chains. She simply stared at him like she wanted him dead.
A rocky overhang at the base of a small hill protected Danny from the worst of the snow. The side trail weaved through forest, and led him to this spot. Dear God, this is going to work. He slumped to the ground; sleep again tugged at him. Fire. Have to start the fire. He knew if he fell asleep he’d never wake. He rolled to his left side to push himself to his feet – then he saw the writing. Rusty smears in a jagged line on the rock wall read, “I DIDN’T DO IT.” Blood? The words were written in blood, drips of rust-red dotted the stone beneath the scrawl. Danny crouched before the wall, and traced his finger along the letters. They’d been written with a bleeding finger. I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it, either, pal.
On hands and knees Danny swept snow away from the foot of the overhang, making a spot to pile kindling. His hand hit something hard beneath the snow; he reached his hand around it, and pulled out the branch. It was white.
A stifled cry burst from Danny’s mouth as his brain finally registered the femur, bits of dried flesh still clung to the surface. He dropped the bone, and brushed away more snow. An orange sleeve appeared under the white carpet, then a bare skull, grinning.
“Did you fall asleep, buddy?” Danny mumbled, looking down at the corpse of a man, a Runner. They never found him. “You’re supposed to be in the Garden, dude. Hanging in the Garden, but you’re here, in this hidey hole.”
A painful smile tugged at his cracked lips. If this man was here, it was because no one found him. This place was safe; he could light his fire. Danny pulled the orange coat from the snow, bones and remains rattled out. “Sorry about that, but you’re going to save my life, mister.” He placed the coat on the cleared ground under the overhang, and stood, his body shrieked in pain. “It’s okay, pal. Happens all the time. Getting old. I’m nearly twenty-three.” Danny grabbed branches, dragged them to the coat, and began to break off twigs. “You’re going to help me make a fire, whoever you are.” He sprinkled the rotted Penitentiary jacket with twigs, added larger sticks, and bent over the pile. He still held the matches in his hand. “I don’t care what you did to wind up here. I didn’t do anything, myself. I just wasn’t fast enough to save my girlfriend.”
Horatio. Horatio. Were you guilty? Was anyone in the Garden guilty of the crimes that hung around their neck? Were pictures of the Garden of Ghosts enough to keep a desperate kid from robbing a liquor store? It didn’t matter. All Danny knew was that he hadn’t killed Kayla. He had to tell people that.
“I gotta get out of here.”
Stiff fingers fumbled with the matchbook. Danny used his thumbs to pull it open. Eight matches. I’ve got eight shots at this, or I’m going to die. He laughed, the sound loud against the snowy silence.
Come on, Wornall, goddamnit. Focus. Danny breathed in slowly; his fractured rib stabbed his chest. Light the match. Just light the match. Fingers deadened by the cold fumbled with the paper matches in the plain green book. The matchbook dropped to the snow.
Danny tried to flex his fingers, but couldn’t. The semi-frozen digits were locked into claws. His breath came fast. I’m not going to do it. I can’t do it. I can’t light a stupid goddamned match.
“Ease up, Wornall,” he whispered. “Ease up.”
Danny slowly scooped the matches from the snow, and pulled them open with the palm of his hand. The matches stood at awkward angles. “Come on, man,” he said as he brought his nearly useless hands toward his face, and felt for a match with his mouth. Danny’s stiff, cracked lips opened and closed around the book, a stick protruded awkwardly; he clenched his teeth onto it, and pulled. The match came free. Yes. Holy shit, yes. He took a deep breath through his nostrils; the cold burned his nose. Danny slowly pushed the match between the knuckles of his right index and middle fingers, and clamped them together.
Danny stared at it. This tiny, fragile paper stick tipped with phosphorus and potassium chlorate, was going to keep him alive. I did it. I freakin’ did it. Now light, damn you. He turned the matchbook clumsily in his hands, and pulled the match head awkwardly across the strike strip.
Nothing happened.
Danny took in a shallow breath and struck the match again.
Still nothing.
They’re too old. No. They can’t be. They just can’t.
He cursed, and dragged the match head across the strip again, and again, and again. Pop. The side of the match head fizzled, and sparked, then died, a thin whiff of smoke crawled upward into the onslaught of snow.
Danny giggled. The next match took fire immediately, but he dropped it, the snow killed the small, yellow flame. The third match lit, and he touched it to the arm of the prison coat; a tiny flame climbed over the old, faded fabric, then took hold, and ate its way up toward the kindling. The sticks began to crackle as they burned.
Heat flowed into Danny’s damaged hands and feet; the pain was intense. Fuel logs stacked in a teepee over the kindling popped as they burned. The loudspeaker had droned again as Danny built the teepee, he’d been on the run three hours. No one had lasted three hours, except the man whose skull Danny had pulled from the snow, and sat next to the fire.
“I don’t know who you were, Horatio, but thanks.” Danny tossed another fuel log onto the fire; the teepee collapsed in a shower of sparks. “I would have fallen asleep out here.” Smoke disappeared quickly into the snow that seemed to hang in the cold, still air. The hunters would have reached the Gate by now, Danny realized. Karl, Gwen, and Katie no, not Katie probably stood at the gate in their warm winter clothing, just waiting for a bright orange jacket to come running from the tree line. Or maybe they’ve reached the Gate, and have come back in, looking for me.
He flexed his fingers and toes, pain stabbed with every movement, but they worked. They needed to work. He was going to leave the Chase alive, and he needed fingers. And I am leaving the Chase alive. The fire popped and whizzed as pockets of sap in the logs exploded. Danny threw on another log.
“How am I going to get past them, Horatio?” he asked, the dancing flames cast grim shadows on the skull. “They’ll be waiting for me. How can I distract them long enough to run …” limp “…through the Gate?”
The fire cracked, and shifted again, and Danny grinned. He’d set the woods on fire.
Dead trees lie everywhere. The Chase was a deathtrap, not a recreation area. No one came through to clear the dead brush, and it clogged the ground. Danny dragged heavy branches over his fire; Horatio was now buried beneath the flames. The long-dead wood caught quickly, and the flames leapt into the snowy sky. No one would see the smoke through the snow, but they would smell it. The blaze rose to ten feet. I need more wood.
He scrambled up the small hill that overlooked the fire, snowflakes melted on his face as he climbed. On a clear day, he may have been able to see the Gate, or at least the fence, and maybe a glimpse of cars on the highway that stretched by the Penitentiary, but the gray haze was complete. A dead fir lay on the hilltop; brown nettles still clung to the branches. Danny smiled, ignoring his cracked, bleeding lips. This was it. The long dead tree went over the side of a short drop off easily; beneath Danny the dry fir burst into flames, and the fire quickly began to catch the boughs of nearby trees.
Someone shouted in the distance.
It’s started.
Twenty minutes later, Danny stood watching the Gate, which hung wide. He lurked behind the tree line, the dead man’s orange coat hidden in the snowy bushes behind him. Nothing moved. No guards, no Hunters, just the still falling snow. An ambulance waited outside the gate; exhaust spewed into the morning. That ambulance was for him. Warmth, food, water, healing. It was all there. Snowflakes gathered in his unkempt brown hair, hair that just a few months ago Kayla had run her fingers through. God, I miss you, Kayla. The only noise in the air came from behind him where he had burned the forest. Something was wrong. This part shouldn’t be so easy.
Go, Danny. Run.
But it was. His body flexed, and he limped from the protection of the trees and onto the last thirty yards to freedom. Twenty, fifteen, ten. Danny’s pace quickened, the lancing pain from the broken rib sent tears down his face. I’m going to visit Kayla’s grave, first thing. Yeah, first thing. Kayla, I promise. I … Five.
A gun fired from the trees behind Danny, and his shoulder exploded in fire. He stumbled, and his body twisted as he fell onto his back on the frigid, snow-covered ground. No, NO. Cold seeped quickly into him as he bled warmth into the snow.
“I’m glad it was me.”
That voice. I know that voice. That tiny, tiny voice.
Ten-year-old Katie appeared in his line of sight as he stared into the sky, her blond ponytail stuck from the back of a brown knit cap, her blue eyes cold as the day. She pulled a military rifle into his sight, and rested the hard, black muzzle on his forehead.
“I thought you were my friend, Danny.”
What? Katie. Oh, God, sweet Katie. “We are friends, honey. I always played catch with you.” He sucked in air; his face winced in pain. “I went to your soccer games. I am your friend. I’ll always be your friend.” He swallowed, his throat dry. “Don’t do this, Katie.”
She stood over him, her head cocked to one side. “They said you killed her, Danny.” Her voice was emotionless, flat. “Why did you kill my sister?”
Danny tried to shake his head, but it wouldn’t move. “I didn’t. It was an ac… an acc… .” His body shivered, the blood loss drained him. Katie. KATIE. “It was an accident.” I DIDN’T DO IT. “She just fell. I loved your sister, Katie. I loved her.”
Katie frowned. “Then you can tell her that if you see her,” she said, and pulled the trigger.