Chapter 1

 

 

The boy’s hands began to bleed as he ripped through the bushes into the darkened canyon. Behind him, across the dim parking lot, the warehouse door swung closed on rusty hinges.

He had to move quickly to distance himself; they’d be coming for him in a minute. Maybe less. He’d never truly run any real distance before, never having had the opportunity, but he pistoned his little legs wildly. They burned, as did his lungs, but the terror of what would happen if he got caught propelled him beyond the pain. The air felt different in the canyon. It smelled of dust and freedom. His foot caught on a rock and he tripped along the uneven ground. As he righted himself, he realized the outside world was showing its own perils.

 Back in the warehouse, he never had a name, or at least none he remembered. They just called him “boy”.

It was two moons past when they brought the girl. She had come from the outside already grown, unlike himself, who had been brought in as a baby. There were other people in the warehouses–young, old, men, women–but he rarely saw them. It was rarer still that he saw any a second time, except the people with the knives, and the spidery boy named Oliver. And then Ysenia.

She had told him of the world outside, something he had only read about or seen through the window of the warehouse. Thinking back, he remembered there had also been trips in one of the trucks that stopped there. He never recalled the journeys except exiting the truck and going in another building, always accompanied by the woman who had claimed to be his mother; the blonde woman named Nuala. Then nothing.

One day, with a grasp of his hand, the girl had shown him brief glimpses of his earlier life, when he was so very young. A woman held him and laughed. It was difficult to make out her features in the dreamlike trance that came over him, but she was not Nuala. This was his real mother, he could feel it in his bones. When the girl let go of him, the vision ceased, and he came face to face with the concept that Nuala was not his mother at all, something he’d suspected for years.

He wondered if the others knew the girl could do this. Awaken memories.

He never thought he’d be leaving the place he’d been confined to for so long. It was the only world he had ever remembered, until the girl had showed him how to get out. He was confused when she insisted that she would be staying behind, but assumed she had her reasons. The girl assured him she would be alright, that the captors were waiting for something that would come to pass after he was gone. She implored him to think of his own safety in the world outside.

Now, the boy’s eyes adjusted to the shadowy canyon landscape. The city’s lights glowed on the horizon, illuminating the huge wild area on the edge of town, just off the freeways.

She said there would be someone to help him, someone he could trust. How would he know? He pushed on, ripping his shirt on a fallen eucalyptus branch as he crawled along the drainage gulch.

A high pinging alarm tore through the air, coming from the warehouse. Now they knew he was gone, and would be coming with their two huge wolf dogs.

He ducked his head and sprinted up the dry creek bed toward the rendezvous point described to him, hoping whoever was there had an ironclad plan of escape. When he reached the pepper tree, he rounded the trunk and found the white stone that the roots had entwined, setting the tree apart from the others. This was where he needed to be. He looked around, dismayed to find no one there. The girl had been right about the rest, now where was the help? The dogs would be here soon. Very soon. He could hear their snarls and barks in the distance.

As he sank down in despair, he noticed a reflection from the bushes. It blinked. He jumped back as a medium-sized black-and-gold dog emerged, shook its head, and gave an almost silent bark.

The boy flinched, putting his arm up. The sight of the dog sent his mind reeling. The only dogs he had known were those two guards chasing him, plus the unfortunate stray he had seen thrown to them once. He fought to suppress that memory as the little dog cocked its head inquisitively. It didn’t seem like it was going to attack. The boy slowly lowered his arm, keeping a wary eye on it.

Was this the ally he was waiting for? How would the dog help his situation? There were two dogs headed for them right now, trained to maim and kill. Their barking was joined by the voices of the goons from the warehouse. This would end poorly.

The dog pulled a leash from the bushes and dropped it at the boy’s feet. He picked it up, but she growled when he put his hands toward her. Instead, he grabbed both ends and let the middle dangle. The dog wagged her tail, then charged into the bush and up a steep hill that became a small cliff, away from the dogs and the men’s voices.

He dutifully followed. There was no time to rest.

Grabbing at roots and small branches for handholds, he climbed, scraping and slipping at first, then getting the hang of it and slowly gaining on the little dog. Sweat began to form on his skin. His lungs strained, his breath wheezed, but with a concerned look from the dog he tried to push on in silence.

They finally paused for a look high up on the cliffside path. Steadying himself against a palm tree, the boy chanced a peek at their pursuers. The two men were just letting the dogs off their leashes. He could barely make out the two sleek shadows as they bounded away from the restraints and straight up the hill toward him and the little dog, weaving quickly between the dark bushes.

As he turned to run he saw the shadow of a smaller human, one his own size but with long spindly arms, quickly scampering after the dogs like half an animal.

Oliver. Nuala’s new favorite. The hopelessness of the situation just increased. Oliver was a freak, and they had given him a name. The boy had never understood why. Oliver was the one other kid he saw often, and he had seen far too much of him. He remembered the pain, most of all.

The small dogs bark made him double his time up the last few yards of the cliff’s face.

At the top was a semicircle of grass with a fenced-in play structure. The park was surrounded by canyons, with one street leading up to it. Squat one-story houses lined the road, silent in the night.

From the bushes, he looked down once more. The dogs were halfway up the cliff already. Oliver was just behind, nimbly crawling over rocks and plants like a spider.

Far faster than I can go, the boy thought.

The dog trotted to the center of the grassy area and sat down. The boy picked up two rocks, then ran around behind her, leash over his shoulder like a sash.

This plan seemed horrible. If this dog was trying to get him caught it was doing a pretty bang-up job. He slowly crept away from her before she barked fiercely, freezing him.

Full of rage, the wolf dogs exploded from the bush and charged the smaller dog, who, for what seemed an eternity to the boy, stood perfectly still. Just as the huge beasts were about to tear into her, she uttered a tinny whine and cocked her head to the side.

The wolf dogs yelped in fear, shaking as their eyes glazed over and the ferocity drained from them, replaced by abject panic. The boy’s bravery grew.

The little dog continued the whine, locked into the beasts’ eyes. Terror swam within their minds.

One fell on its back, piss raining down and splattering its fur. The other fled down the hill simultaneously barking and whining, twisting its head back and nipping at an invisible predator. Just after it sank beneath the cusp of the hill and out of the boy’s line of sight, a shriek rang out. The panicked barking stopped.

The bush rustled and bent as Oliver crept out of it, trails of steam rising off his body from the blood. He looked at them through dead eyes, his mouth a straight uncaring line. 

The boy had “played” with Oliver when they were younger, in what were called preparation games in the training rooms, deep inside the warehouses. But he hadn’t seen him in a while, since it was decided Oliver would be groomed for something unknown. The boy had been thankful for that. Oliver did not play well with others. The girl had told him tales of growing ruthlessness, things he was allowed to do to some of the other captives. The stories were chilling. Nothing, however, compared to now seeing Oliver with a glint in his cold eye, covered in the blood of his own pet.

The boy thought of saying something to confuse him, like they did in the books, but couldn’t find words. He simply looked at Oliver like a deer in headlights, frozen.

The little dog made the sound again, which sent Oliver into a rage. He charged. Whatever the little dog did to the wolf dogs was not working on the spidery youth. He closed with amazing speed.

The boy threw the rock, blasting Oliver full in the face. His neck snapped back from the blow, but his body still shot forward. Without registering pain or even emotion, Oliver ran, wiping the blood off and growling from the pit of his lungs. His eyes were full of crazed violence as he lunged through the air.

The boy pulled the leash from his shoulder as he ducked beneath the charge, and its loop hung in the air, intersecting Oliver’s trajectory. It caught on his ankle and sent him shooting to the ground, ramming his already-injured face into the turf. Before Oliver could respond, the boy brought the other rock down onto the side of his knee with a crack. Oliver’s howl pierced the night.

“Oliver!” The men’s voices could be heard approaching the ridge of the cliff.

The boy wrapped the leash around Oliver’s smashed leg and both wrists, slapping his hands out of the way while he tied a quick knot, then jumped back. Good enough. Oliver glared at the boy, who raised his middle finger and put it close to Oliver’s face.

The small dog put her forepaws on the boy’s leg, looked in his eye and bounded down the other side of the park and into another dark canyon. He understood he was to follow her, and not stop running. As they retreated, the voices of Markuz and Peik came from behind them. They’d found Oliver, and the carcass of the dog he had killed.

 

***

 

The dog led the boy west, over two cactus-and-brush-laden hills and out of the sprawling canyon. They stopped and turned around, having gone quite some distance. There was no movement on the cusp of the previous hill. It appeared they hadn’t been followed, but the boy had no way to be sure. The final hill had a path that ended at the terminus of a quiet street. They crept quickly through the shadows and disappeared into a dark, shadowy alley.

An unfamiliar feeling washed over the boy. This was the first time he had been unsupervised out in the world, and they had lost the predators on their tail. At this very moment, for the first time, he was truly free after a lifelong captivity. It was exhilarating and horrifying all at once. 

They crept close to the fences. The houses beyond were squat little things. He stopped to look into a little garden oasis. Fruit and nut trees grew alongside a covered patio behind a little blue-and-white house. It smelled heavenly, and the boy momentarily got lost in a feeling of comfort. The dog sniffed the gate, then prompted him with a small bark to hurry along, away from any watchers in the night. 

After three blocks, they came to another canyon and descended. A sign had a telephone number to call if you wanted to report someone with their dog off a leash, as well as several other illustrations depicting rules to follow. One of them warned against smoking, a symbol he recognized on the trucks that came to the warehouse. Another thing the sign showed that he had seen before was a rifle.

Glancing from the phone number to the dog, he remembered leaving her leash wrapped around Oliver. He scoured the ground for something he could use to give the illusion he had this dog under control, the way he had seen the men do with those horrible wolves. He found a bungee cord, a small length of rope, and a plastic shopping bag then tangled them into a seven-foot-long mutant thread. The dog scampered up a hill to the end of another street and sat, waiting for the boy to catch up.

 Once on the leash, the dog broke into a good trot, testing the boy’s underdeveloped and weary legs. When she saw he could still run, she picked up the pace until both were at a dead sprint. The sky behind them was getting lighter, and she had little time to get the boy where they would not be found.

 They saw the first car on the one semi-busy street they needed to cross. The woman driving thought nothing of a boy in filthy jeans and sweatshirt, sprinting with his dog tethered on a leash made of trash at 5:30 in the morning. She waved them through the stop sign, smiling, and they darted on.

A few people were stirring in their windows and some were beginning to leave their houses for early shifts at work. The first rays from the sun shot over the mountains to the east. They were late by the dog’s reckoning.

She barked, surprising the boy, but not half as much as what followed; a ring of translucent smoke shot from her mouth, defying logic as it stayed in form, flying through the air in front of them, impervious to the wind. The boy’s vision distorted in its wake, like rings on a murky pond, stretching out and away from them. As they followed in its draft, they went unnoticed by the wakening denizens of the street. Trails of colorless distortion wrapped around their bodies as they skirted the trees lining a golf course and hugged an alley that ended atop sandy desert cliffs. They crossed one last street, and disappeared into the bushes. The next hill steepened until they were completely hidden inside a copse of live oak and palm trees in the wild southeastern reaches of Balboa Park, the giant canyon system in the middle of San Diego.

The dog guided the boy to a tent nestled beneath the roots of an upended tree, fallen down the hill years before, completely hidden from public view.

The sun rose over the hills as the boy crawled into the tent and sat down, panting with exhilaration. He wrapped the sleeping bag around himself and looked at the little dog, who stood sentry at the mouth of the tent, and waited.

He’d made it out.