He awoke to screams, as always.
Sometimes, they were his own.
This was not one of those times.
The absolute dark of early morning. His face numb from the cold. His fingers unresponsive. They crept like dying spiders – slow, stiff, uncertain -- along the seam of his sleeping bag until they found, and seized, the frigid metal tab of the zipper. He worked it back and forth, catching every broken tooth and errant thread, until the gap widened enough to let him free. He rolled to the edge of the bare mattress, and listened.
The screams repeated.
They were insistent tonight.
They were not going to let him sleep.
He stood, and immediately froze. He put a hand to his lower back. He pushed in and twisted at the hips until his spine cracked. A sigh fading into a groan.
He counted the steps: Three to the edge of the bed. Turn. One and a half. Turn. Four to the door.
He ran his hand up across the wall. A soft plastic click. The lightswitch did nothing. It hadn't for some time. Just an old habit.
The living room was mostly bare. What furniture remained – no wood; all burned – was shoved against the walls. The space cleared for an emergency escape that had not come yet. He moved through the room with the begrudging trust of the blind.
He followed the gradient of cold: Already intolerable and only escalating. He padded to the broken windows. Outside, on the expansive balcony, light. A relative term. A less complete shade of black. He found the insubstantial outline of the rifle, and set hands to it. He leaned out over the railing. He watched the darkness below. He listened.
Grunts. Heavy breathing. The scuff of a foot, missing a step. He tracked the progress of the sounds. He kept the rifle close, locked his jaw against the chattering cold.
A woman emerged from the wall of black, moving at a full sprint. She skipped over the open manhole. She skirted around the dinosaur skeleton of a burned SUV. She paused at the intersection, only for a second, and rejected northbound Washington as an escape path. Too many cars there. Too many places she couldn't see. Too many variables. She chose westbound instead. Cut across the park. It was the right move.
She was fast, and alert.
But she did not see the chains that hung between the bollards – the ones meant to stop vehicles from entering. A small hop. A few inches and she would have made it. She caught both ankles and fell, momentum like a slingshot, firing her downward into the pavement. She was stunned. She rolled around pointlessly. She moaned. She clutched her face. She tried to stand.
From the darkness, more figures sprang into existence. They closed on the woman with the wary measure of predators. Keeping a loose formation; more the instinctual strategy of wolves than a planned action: The leader out front, two followers trailing wide to either side. A final brought up the rear.
They spoke to the woman. He could hear the sounds, but couldn't catch the meaning. Their voices were low and casual. Hers was louder, more emotional. A threat and an answering plea. He settled the butt of the rifle into his shoulder and pressed the cold, lacquered wood to his cheek. The scene below now framed by the harsh geometry of his iron sights. The context had changed. The play had a new director, though only he knew it.
The leader motioned to one of the flankers, who approached. The woman cried out again. Both ignored her. Engaged, the hunters looked away for a moment, and the prey took her chance.
Fast and alert.
She was halfway gone before they reacted. But she was slower than before. Her keen instincts clouded by the fall. There was only so much adrenalin could do. She disappeared into another thick slice of black. The pack whooped and laughed and followed. They spotted weakness. They knew the hunt was over, in all but formality.
And yet he still had a say.
He focused on the leader. A skinny one. Lanky. Dark hoody up. No details. Not even a person, just an abstract. It would be easy.
The prongs of his sights lashed inward, stabbing at his target, urging him toward trigger.
Without their leader, the other three might scatter. They might be distracted long enough to let the woman escape. They might not triangulate where the shot came from – not if there was only one – and find him.
But then again, they might.
And bullets are finite.
And he did not know the woman.
The skinny one disappeared into the shadows. The others followed after. Their manic sounds grew faint.
He lowered the rifle.
He bent and returned it to its place, resting in the corner where the two low walls of the balcony meet. He stood. He winced. He put his hand to his back and shook his head.
He walked carefully, like a man treading on glass. When he reached the raised metal lip that marked the broken window frame, he began to count his steps.
Ten to the doorway. Hand to a switch with no response. Four to the bed. Turn. One and a half to the edge. Turn. Three to the endtable.
He lowered himself gently into the sleeping bag. Easing a priceless work of art down from the bed of an unsteady truck. He felt for the cold metal tab of the zipper. He worked it up the stuttering, frustrating track. He closed his eyes. He waited for the next screams.
END OF PART 1. TO BE CONTINUED.
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The Absence of KnowledgeHorror
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