There were street lights up and down the road, but they didn’t provide much illumination. Much less so in between the buildings. I fumbled around in the dark, one hand on the brick wall of the building I was closest too, working my way around to the back of it. The alley behind the building was wide enough for a single vehicle to drive up and down. A street light was at the end of the row, where the alley met the street. It provided enough illumination for me to see that some buildings had garage doors, probably for deliveries. A couple were open. The rest just had regular doors leading into them. The area was largely abandoned. Which was probably why Anthony came this way to reach the edge of the city, less of a chance of being caught. Not that it did much good this time around for him.
I began walking in the general direction of the only neon sign in the area. Which seemed counterintuitive, since the whole purpose of it was to draw attention to itself. I came to the end of the row, and peered around the corner. About two blocks down, the police car had pulled over Anthony, where he had started to go in the opposite direction of where he had told me to go. He was standing next to the truck, hands braced on the side as one of the two them patted him down, looking for weapons. They were growling questions at him that I didn’t quite make it to me, as they were just far enough away that I could hear them, but not make out what they were saying. The officer that was patting him down, finally stood, grabbed him by the shoulder and yanked him back around. An accusatory finger was thrust into his face, Anthony trying to shrug it off. The other officer shoved a paper at him, pointing to the passenger seat of the truck. I could see him shaking his head as he tossed the paper back, and just imagine him telling them they’d made a mistake. The one with the paper started raising his voice, stabbing his finger at his face, the other grabbed him by the collar and shoved him against the truck.
They were looking for me. How had they discovered I was gone so quickly? My mother had to be in the hospital. I considered for a moment walking back over there, turning myself over. A part of me wanted to, wanted to save him from the whole ordeal. But I also knew that it wasn’t going to solve anything. They’d still recognize me as the person who was with him earlier. He had already lied to them, saying I wasn’t who they were looking for. I’d get drug back to my mother and the holy union she chose for me, and Anthony would be drug off to jail, if he survived that long. Turning myself over definitely wasn’t going to be helpful.
I turned back into the direction of the sign I was supposed to make my way too, working my way along the wall to stay in the shadows. I could hear the argument between him and the officers getting more heated by the second. I slipped around the corner of the next street, and could see the sign standing out above the buildings across from where I was currently. We were closer than I had thought we were. On the side of the road where I was hiding behind a trash can was mostly warehouses, abandoned and till functional store fronts with bars in their windows. Further down to my left it bled into apartment buildings, in front of me and to the right were smaller, shorter buildings. Some were stores, other businesses. Houses breaking it up every so often. In the middle of it all was that sign, with the city proper and all its lights behind me. I bolted across the street, making my way between the buildings. I could hear people talking down alleys, and through windows, but didn’t stop long enough to pay them any attention.
It didn’t take me long to reach the sign. It was above an old-world church with all of its windows boarded up. The threshold had a light on it, illuminating the shiny new chain and padlock that was secured on the inside, meaning the building was still in use for some purpose or other. Probably a charity given the neighborhood it was in. The sign read “Redemption Starts Here”, the irony of which was not lost on me. I hid behind a hedge, hunched down next to stairs across the street from the sign, watching for any sign of Anthony.
It hadn’t been more than a few minutes that I crouched down there, waiting, listening to the sounds of the city around me. Cars came and went, a few people walked by, sirens in the distance. A gunshot rang out not too far in the distance from the direction I came from, echoing through me. Dread followed in its wake. A cold sweat coated my body despite the cool night as I began to fear the worst. I began searching the sky for that telltale star that would tell me which direction to run in.
A police car turned down the road I was on a moment later. Its siren was off, but a spotlight was on, shining into every corner as it crept along the road. My heart hammered in my chest as I watched it ease around the corner, heading in the opposite direction. Once it was out of sight, I bolted across the street to the church. On the backside was a set of stairs that lead down to a door to their basement. I flew down them, throwing the pack around my body, nearly ripping it as I struggled to open it in my panic. Inside was a dark pair of jeans, a black long sleeve shirt, and sneakers that I’d wear while jogging around my family’s estate. Laura knew this might have been a possibility when she packed for me. I didn’t hesitate, tearing off the dress I wore, careful of Elia’s necklace around my neck. I shoved my legs into the pants, wiggling my feet into the shoes as I buttoned the pants and pulled the shirt over my head, pausing to kiss the charm quickly before shoving it inside my shirt. I tied my shoes quickly, turning to shove the clothes back into the bag and came face to face two dark eyes looking out of a filthy face split with a toothy grin. He had been watching me through the door that was cracked open mere inches. I started to back away.
“Don’t be shy now,” he whispered to me, stepping out into the night with me.
My feet hit the bottom step as he started to reach for me. He snagged the bag instead of my arm, tugging it to get at me. I nearly lost my balance, tipping towards him. I shoved the bag at him as hard as I could. The sudden change in momentum sent him tumbling backwards as I turned to stumble up the stairs. I hit the top and took off running to the south and my way out. I could hear him shouting at me as I rounded a corner, not slowing even a little.
I shot down street, sticking to the sidewalk, jumping over anything in my path. Occasionally a homeless person was sleeping on the ground and I’d vault over them. The sirens in the distance that I had heard earlier was closer now. They’d come to help search for me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a helicopter from the city center headed in the general direction of which I’d come from. I was running out of time. As soon as the helicopter reached where I had been, they’d widen the search radius. I may have ran in my free time, but there was no way I’d be able to outrun a helicopter.
My lungs were burning, my throat raw, but still I kept running. A dull ache settled into my legs as I kept pumping them, pushing myself on. I could feel sweat slide down between my shoulder blades, and I kept wiping it out of my eyes. Street after street, cutting down alleys, I moved in the direction of where Anthony had said the gateway was. I had no idea what to expect, or how I’d get through. I could just feel my mother at my back, nipping at my heels, spurring me on. Elia’s words echoed in my mind, telling me to find my freedom.
I was so lost in thought, that when I threw myself around the next corner, and I saw another checkpoint set up directly ahead of me between two brick buildings, I had to windmill my arms to help stop my forward momentum. I slammed back against the wall, my breath sawing through me. I couldn’t hear over my racing heart thundering in my ears. I was in shadow, watching the officers go over papers, shining lights into the vehicles trying to pass through in both directions. This one was considerably more relaxed than the one we had gone through not too long ago. I didn’t see any civilian vehicles though. They were all work trucks of varying kinds. A truck hauling trash, a truck with lumber came inside, a box truck that said medical supplies, and so on.
I searched through the officers on duty. A couple stood off to the side, talking and laughing together. They shifted, and I saw the one I was looking for on the other side of them, double checking papers and permits of those coming into the city, but pausing every so often to add to their conversation, usually followed by laughter. He was well liked for being in charge. Sirens closing in on me, and the helicopter circling closer spurred me on again.
I waited for a lull in the traffic going by and dashed across the street. Hugging the wall with hedges separating me from the street, and staying in the shadows, I eased my way over to where he was standing. He was only a few feet away from where I now stood. It dawned on me that I didn’t know how I was supposed to get his attention. What if one of his men turned me in? I was about to step back to rethink my next step, but he must have heard my feet scuffing in the dirt and turned towards me. He took me in, and looked behind me as if looking for my chaperone. I gave a slight shake of my head. Worry creased his brow, lips pursed tightly together, but he nodded towards the gatehouse where the controls for the arm that either allowed or denied entry was. He got there first, and sent the officer working to take over for him. He didn’t seem too worried about them seeing me, so I followed after him.
“Anderson?” I asked from the doorway. His back was partially to me as he let people through after glancing at their papers. The orange band shone brightly against the black of his helmet in the light. He looked over his shoulder at me with his brown eyes, and nodded. I could see blond hair sticking out from under his helmet. He was older than I had expected, tall and broad.
“What happened?” he asked, turning towards me. His voice was gravelly, even though he was trying to keep it down. If it weren’t for the kindness in his eyes, he might have been intimidating. A strong jaw and slightly crooked nose told me the kindness was easily put away as well.
“We were followed. He told me to run, and didn’t come back. And I was to come here if he didn’t come back.” My voice wobbled and my hands started to shake. The adrenaline from the fear and run still pumping through my system.
“Is that what all that mess over there is about?” he looked over to where the helicopter was circling. I nodded. “They’ve never made noise about someone slipping out before. Even a breeder.” He looked me up and down for a second, sighing with resignation. “You’re Laura’s patrician girl. I can tell by how you hold yourself. Slouch more, will you.”
I curved my shoulders in some, and dipped my head down. He laughed, shaking his head.
“Now you just look like you hurt your back. Look more like you have the weight of the world on you.” That wasn’t hard. I thought about what I’d lost briefly, and felt my weight shift. He nodded in approval. Looking over my shoulder, the amusement left his eyes. “We have about two minutes before they reach us. My guys won’t say anything, but that doesn’t mean any of the other scum passing through won’t. Let’s go.”
He waved over the guy he replaced and we rounded the gatehouse, heading to the other side of the fence. There was a thick line painted across the road and sidewalk signifying that I had officially passed out of the city and into the Borderlands. The Borderlands didn’t belong to either country. It was a strip of land between the two that had been agreed upon to be kept neutral, a buffer. Because if they were any closer to each other; skirmishes weren’t uncommon before they established the Borderlands. Because they didn’t belong to either country, there was not a whole lot of law or order there. Or at least that was what we had been told my whole life. It also meant that just because I was no longer on Puritan soil did not mean they couldn’t touch me there.
I followed Anderson across both lanes of traffic, and then along the building on the opposite side, to around the back. As we had crossed the road, I saw two prisoner transport vehicles in line to get through the gateway into the city. Pale faces were peering out the sides, fear widening their eyes. I could hear some of them crying. I didn’t have time to consider what they could have done before we were turning around the back of the building where there was a smaller truck with a camper on the back parked away from the building well into the shadows. A grizzled older man was snoring into his beard in the driver seat. Anderson banged on the hood of the truck, and the bearded man startled awake, hopping out of the truck. He was shorter than I was, with long grayed hair pulled back into a low ponytail at the back of his head. Cheerful blue eyes peered out from under bushy brows, and a dusty old-world prospector style hat on top of his head. From what I could see, he had a tanned, weathered complexion. I had thought that his beard was pushed out by the way he had been sitting, but no. It was naturally frizzed out, sticking out of his face like a gray, gnarled cloud. I suppressed a smile.
“This is Jasper. He’s going to take you to the train station that will take you the rest of the way to Sullied Country. He doesn’t speak. So, don’t be put off by all the quiet.” He gave me a grin and nod at that, as Anderson reached into the cab of the truck.
“I’m sure it will be fine.” I grinned back at him.
“Here is what you’ll need for the train.” He handed me a manila envelope that he had pulled from the truck. “Someone will be waiting for you when you disembark, they usually hold up a sign saying ‘Meadowlark Party’.”
I peered inside and saw a train ticket, money, and papers identifying me as someone I was not. I looked up at him over the top of the envelope. They were Puritan papers.
“They’re just for if you get stopped between here and where you’re going. They’ll have different papers for you there.” I nodded at that, closing it all back up.
“Thank you for this. If Anthony comes back, tell him I said thank you too, please. I do hope he’s okay.”
“Me, too. But I will when I see him.” He nodded once more and walked away.
I turned to Jasper who was waiting patiently. He bowed, gesturing to the passenger side door. I smiled at him and went to climb in. The truck rumbled to life, and we were off into the darkness once again. I signed deeply, watching as the city lights shrank away from us. I saw the flashing lights reach the gateway as we merged into the line of traffic. Jasper patted my shoulder, giving me a thumbs up when I looked over at him, signaling we’d be okay. I wanted to believe him, but apprehension still had my heart in a vice grip. It didn’t ease any, not even after I couldn’t see the gateway anymore and we still weren’t being followed. If I had learned anything from today, it was that things can go wrong in the blink of an eye. Your life can be over in the span of time between two heartbeats. So, I gave him a weak smile, but I kept up my vigil in silence, waiting for the other shoe to drop on me.