Freedom

Fiction
Andrew Griffard


Pound, pound, pound—splash! His rag-bundled feet slapped into the puddle, shooting water shards crashing down on the pockmarked asphalt. Gill glanced down at his hardened, bleeding toes as they quickly submerged into another small pool of dirty rainwater. Behind him he could hear the shouts and taunts, each one hurled between ragged breaths, coming closer. He hadn’t even heard the call. He was far from home today.

His small eyes darted around the gray and decaying buildings lining the barren street. Windows long ago gutted stared in open-mouthed screams at the insignificants scurrying below. Any names or markers had long ago been washed away from the buildings by the eternal rain.

Day had started the same as any other. Wake up, rub the mud off your face, crawl out of the hole and start looking for something to eat. Something to make the pain and tummy grumblings go away. They never did though. Not for long, anyway. Yesterday he’d found a nice big hunk of bread, only the outside crust had mold on it. The inside was mostly soft and white. He crammed it between his cheeks as fast as he could. One of the older ones had cuffed him once for eating so fast. Now, he always waited to eat his spoils until he was alone. But, he hadn’t found anything yet today. He and a few others had been scouring the ruins in the northern part of the city for anything, when suddenly they came.

His pace quickened as Gill spotted an open doorway ahead that a few of the other children were rushing towards. It was in the side of a large building that was decorated with faded pictures of coats and scarves. He pumped his legs harder, heart pounding in his chest as it sent hot spurts of blood through his clenched fists and temples.

A thin girl about his same age, with stringy, wet blonde hair stood at the small doorway, bouncing up and down on bony ankles, waiting for her turn to duck under the metal sheet that blocked the opening’s upper half. Annie, he thought her name was—one of only a few girls. Strange that she had a regular name—not a nickname like him. Strange, too, that she was out here at all. The women sometimes took pity on girls and let them sleep in their homes as long as they worked for their food and spot on the floor. That saved them. Only the homeless street brats like Gill and his friends were eligible for Freshmet.

The older, stronger boys had made their way into the building first and the smaller, weaker ones naturally had to settle for escape route leftovers. Annie, last at the door, paused for a second to watch him dodging his way through the puddles and potholes. Her pale eyes rested on him briefly before raising to something above his head, behind him. She turned back quickly and ducked into the darkness.

He could almost feel their panting on his neck now, could hear the pounding of their feet in his ears. Too many feet to ever outrun. He dared not look back even for a second for fear of not making it to the doorway in time. Gill barely slowed to duck down as he sprinted for the door. He scraped the top of his head on his way in and immediately disappeared into the darkness.

He shouldn’t have been as scared as he was. It was just that he’d never been last before, never been this close to them as they came with their sticks and clubs. Usually, there were the others right alongside him, running, almost having a little fun. Gill told himself not to worry, he’d gotten out of plenty of worse situations, he’d find a way this time, he was good at it. Once he’d even jumped into the river when it still had some ice on top and swam to the other side to get away from one of them. That’s why they gave him his name—because he must be able to breathe like a fish. His real name was Lars, but no one had called him that for a long time. And he didn’t tell anyone anymore—he was just Gill now.

Ignoring the fact that his eyes had not yet adjusted to the almost total darkness from the gray, cloud covered day outside, he shuffled quickly ahead and to the left towards the sounds of the other children’s feet. He stubbed his little toe on the corner of something heavy and quickly tucked it back into his makeshift foot rags. The rags didn’t protect very well against bruises, but sometimes they kept out a little of the cold.

Gill held his hands in front of him, running them along the edges of the doorway that he was walking through. A large shaft of light lit the wall beside him, enabling him to make out the room he was entering behind the rest of the ragged bunch.

Gill had never been this way before, usually keeping to the southern part of the city that he knew better. There were few people that lived in this part, but rumors abounded that some of the barons kept large hoards of food in basements. Unfortunately, Gill and his friends probably wouldn’t have any more time today to see if the rumors were true. Freshmet only happened a couple times a month, and only three kids at a time. Just to keep the brats from running rampant and stealing all the food, the older ones said. Gill thought the hunters just liked to do it. That’s why they always came running and hooting like they did.

Annie was following behind some of the older boys, holding to the edges of their wasted coats, trying to keep their larger bodies between her and the doorway through which Gill had just entered. And through which the sounds of pounding feet and shouts could be heard growing louder.

The group was splitting up, children breaking off in every direction. The main bunch of three older boys and Annie found a concrete staircase at the end of a hallway and quickly started climbing. A few other boys were making their way to the other side of the building, whispering desperately about a basement of some kind. Mole, with his moppish brown hair and big, red cheeks, was stuffing himself into a large drawer at the bottom of a wardrobe closet. He always found the best spots.

Gill glanced towards the younger boys making their way towards the other side of the building, then turned to see big shadows coming from the doorway where they had entered from the street.

He heard something around the corner and quickly ducked down behind a large wood desk with the legs missing. Two large feet shuffled into the room, kicking up dust. A sharp squeal echoed off the concrete walls from one of the other rooms and was immediately followed by a deep grunt and a thud. The big feet jumped towards the sound and ran.

Gill deftly moved around the desk and, still in a crouch, scrambled into the hall. He peered through the doorways into the room where he’d seen Mole hiding. Two sticks were moving up and down, in time with the soft thuds. Their beards were matted with sweat and grime and they grunted as each blow fell. Gill didn’t recognize the boy at their feet, he hoped it wasn’t Mole—he always hid out, always tucked himself safely away. Even if he could have seen the face, by this point it would have been useless. Some of the others were already starting to pull at the boy’s clothes and cut at his legs with their dull knives.

Gill took advantage of their preoccupation with the kill to run for the stairs. His foot slipped in the dust as he took off running. A surprised cry told him that they’d heard, but hopefully they’d be slow in responding. They had that crazed look—their eyes shifted fast and almost shone. They always looked you up and down, sizing you up, practically licking their lips, even when it wasn’t Freshmet. They said that once you’d had it a few times you acquired a taste for it and wanted it more, more than anything else. Gill hoped he never wanted it. Told himself he would never want it.

Gill flew up the stairs, concentrating only on placing one foot in front of another. He leapt to the top stair on the second floor and paused to get his bearings. His heart was beating so powerfully against his chest that he thought he would be sick. His adrenaline had been pumping for a few minutes now and he was beginning to come down from the rush. His legs were weak and trembling and he kept turning his head from side to side looking down each hallway, unsure of which way to go.

He saw Annie’s hair flip around as she darted through a doorway at the end of the hall to his left. He immediately rushed after her, ignoring the heavy sounds of large feet on the concrete stairs.

Gill rounded the corner just as he caught sight of the first one bounding up the stairs. He’d had blood on his hands. There was a door slowly swinging shut, then more stairs leading up. Annie was being dragged up the stairs, her knees bouncing as her other hand reached out for balance. Gill was right behind her. He slammed the door. Not that it would do much good.

The stairs twisted to the left. Hesitation flashed in his mind—they seemed to just keep going up and up, where were the stairs leading? They’d always been told to find someplace deep and dark, to burrow down and hide, wait for the sounds above to stop, “once they get three, then you’re free.” There weren’t that many tall buildings in the city anymore, how much higher could this one go?

Finally, the stairs ended in what appeared to have been some kind of storage room. There were piles of strange looking shoes—with thin straps and long pointed heels. None of them looked very warm.

There were many doors in the room, at least three or four on each wall. Two hallways led out to the right and left. In one of the corners a small step ladder hung from the ceiling with a pull-cord that came about to Gill’s chest.

The tall boy dragging Annie pushed the other two towards the hall leading to the left. Then, with a hand still tight around Annie’s wrist, he yanked open one of the doors. It was a small room filled with old cardboard boxes and more of the strange shoes.

He shoved Annie in first and started pulling the door closed behind him. Gill shot forward and grabbed the edge of the door, trying to keep it open. The older boy raised his fist up and brought it down into the middle of Gill’s chest, knocking him to the floor. The boy pointed angrily toward one of the other doors on the far side of the room, then pulled his closed.

Heavy footsteps were on the stairs. Gill ran across the room, almost tripping on the piles of shoes. He could almost imagine seeing the face of the first man as he came up the stairs into the room, club in hand, nasty smile on his face.

Gill dove inside one of the small rooms, pulling the door to with a soft whimper. He thought for just a second of a game that he and the others had often played when they were younger. All of them would hide and then one boy would try to find the others. With excitement and glee they would always run to their pre-selected hiding places and wait in fevered nervousness as the seeker looked around. This time, Gill thought, becoming the next seeker wasn’t the worst thing that could happen if he was found.

He could feel hot tears drifting out the corners of his eyes as he tried to bury himself in the boxes and mounds of shoes lying around in the darkness. The first few steps of the men in the room were plainly audible now. He froze and listened to them as they paused and kicked around at the hundreds of thin-strapped shoes.

Footsteps pounded down the hallways as the men set off in pursuit of the other boys. Gill’s head slowly dropped and his muscles eased as he relaxed on the dusty pile. It had been so close, they’d almost come right up the stairs and seen him before he could—

A small crash bounced off the walls as a body hit the floor with a deep thud. A few curses, then the man stood back up and stomped his feet, exhaling sharply through his nose. His footfalls were more definite now and slow: one right after the other, carefully pacing among the piles of unneeded shoes and overstocks of the last season.

Gill heard one of the doors quickly pulled open, the hinges yelping in fear. They whined again softly as they door swung closed and the footsteps continued. He couldn’t tell how far away they were—was he on this side of the room? Was he moving towards Gill’s door or away?

He tried to quietly bury himself deeper beneath the cardboard. A soft moan reached his ears and he wondered if Annie was crying, she was going to get caught if she didn’t— but then he realized it was his own voice, shaking and whining uncontrollably. He clamped his hands over his mouth and blinked through his tears in the darkness, holding his breath to try and hear any changes in the footsteps that seemed to be right outside his door.

Another door was yanked open and then the smashing of a stick against it as the man yelled and cursed again. Gill heard violent movement as the man scrambled for the next door, ripping it open and swinging his club against the wall and the shoes to get them out of the way. He was working his way down the wall, right towards Gill’s door.

Even if the hunter hadn’t heard his whimper, he must be able to hear the pounding of Gill’s heart in his chest, he thought. His hands shook with every beat and he felt like his head was going to explode. His breathing quickened and he wanted to squeeze his fingers around his own throat to stop the hollow rasping.

The man was only two doors away now, Gill was sure of it. In another few seconds, he’d rip open the door and see him laying there, half-buried under a heap of old shoes, unable to cover the rest of his scrawny, rag-wrapped body.

But, the footsteps stopped; the hunter seemed to pause, maybe listening for more sounds, trying to pinpoint the exact door so he wouldn’t have to waste any more time. Gill stopped breathing again. He was tired of hiding. Tired of the sick pain of fear in his throat and chest. He realized that he wanted the man to keep going. To quickly move along the wall and open his door and discover him there. Keep moving, keep going, open the door! He almost screamed it out at him, open the next door! Open this door! Open my door, I’m right here! Here I am! Find me, here I am!

He wanted it to be over, wanted to end the hunt. Yes, they’d catch him, kill him, tear him to pieces, but then it would be over. At least it would be over and he wouldn’t have to still be there, lying in the darkness waiting to see which door the stupid man would open next. Wondering if the next one was his, if those flesh-starved eyes would spot him and rain the heavy club blows down on his head and tear the skin off his face.

Gill was about to jump up and scream and burst out of his hiding spot into the man’s arms, when he heard a door from the other side of the room pop open and a body tumble into the mess of shoes. The man jumped across the piles to the other side of the room. Gill heard a small cry and pushed his door open just a crack to look through.

The bestial hunter pulled Annie from the floor by her hair and leered at her with his gleaming eyes. He threw her back down and yanked open the door she’d come out of—where the older boy was still trying to hide. The man swung into the darkness and a hollow crack sounded as the club bounced off the boy’s head. Gill could see the boy’s arm swing out in a weak attempt to fight off the man, but the hunter lunged forward and began raining more blows down.

Gill jumped out of his hiding place. Annie, tears streaming down her white cheeks, looked up at him in surprise from the floor. Gill heard the voices of some of the other men from down one of the halls and he raced for the small ladder sticking out of the ceiling in the corner.

His small hand grabbed the cord and yanked just as the first man poked his head out of the closet where he was just getting to work on the older boy. The ladder folded down and Gill scrambled his way up, feet and hands flying up the steps. A couple of men from the hallway rushed into the room. Both saw the prey escaping and lunged towards him as he flew up into the ceiling.

The step ladder led to another overhead hatch. Gill smashed his forearm into it and managed to bounce the lid off. Cold, dull daylight beat down on him. He could feel the other men on the ladder just as his feet were leaving the last rung.

Gill leapt out onto the roof and paused, temporarily dazed by the bright light. He turned every way around. Every direction looked the same. Old, pebble covered rooftop, broken machine boxes here and there and a small wall lining each of the four sides. The roof hatch lay open beside him. He ran towards the wall.

It came to about his waist and he knew he could easily make it over. But, just as he was about to swing his leg over the edge, he looked down. Four stories down. The street he’d run up to get to the building was below him. Piles of rubble and the occasional bed of weeds were strewn about over the damaged asphalt and concrete.

Gill turned around to see the first man emerging from the roof hatch, his wicked eyes blinking in the cold, afternoon light. That hatch was the only way back down. Well, not the only way. Gill’s gaze swung back again over the edge, to the street below, his cold, sweating hands still gripping the top of the wall tightly.

The first man smiled, his blackened teeth visible underneath his scraggly beard. He smacked his club in his palm threateningly and began advancing towards the wall. The other hunter crawled onto the roof and drew out a long knife.

Gill pushed himself up onto the wall and carefully stood as he eyed the two approaching men. He faced the street, but watched them as they slowly walked towards him, smiling and chuckling. The wind blew through his hair and he calmly looked back at the street and slowly raised his eyes towards the sky.

The first man rushed forward, a vicious cry tearing out of his face as his club arm swung around trying to reach Gill. Figures began to emerge from the half-covered doorway on the first floor.

In the briefest moment as Gill began to lean forward, his eyes rested on a fluffy, triangular cloud in the sky. It looked kind of like a pastry that he’d taken once from a small family home. The smell of smoke and baking had drawn him from the street, and he had taken one when they weren’t looking. He’d never had anything like it. The outside was soft and buttery and made his fingers sticky. Even after he’d finished it, he tried to keep the taste in his mouth for hours, running his tongue back over his teeth and lips, remembering the light sweetness that had been there. He kept his eyes focused on the triangular cloud, tasting that buttery sweetness again as he leaned forward and pushed with his legs away from the building. His arms were out as he fell, the blood-stained rags wrapped around his feet fluttering in the cold air.

The ground rushed at him and he heard a terrible crack. His mouth felt wet and hot and all he could see was the building, looming above him, the cold, gray sky behind. He couldn’t see any part of his body, couldn’t even really feel anything.

Gill heard footsteps from the building and soon felt a tugging at somewhere below his line of vision. His breathing was slowing now and he could smell something sweet and warm in the air. His mouth began to water and suddenly he could taste the carefully folded flakes again, just as real as they’d been the first time and the hundred times that he’d remembered and savored them since. He was vaguely aware of his body being carefully jerked from side to side, causing the lone building to move and quake before his eyes.

A strand of blonde hair swung in front of the building. Annie’s face hung over his, looking down at him. The tears had dried on her cheeks. He tried to move his mouth to warn her, the remembered taste of pastry now fast fading in his fear and alarm for her. All he managed to whisper was “run.”

She looked down at his body. Looked somewhere he couldn’t see. There wasn’t any fear in her eyes, nor sadness. She just looked, observing, taking everything in coldly. All Gill could hear were sounds of men grunting and tearing and pulling. Finally, she looked back into his eyes and shook her head.

“Now, we’re free,” she said. “They got their three.”

She moved out of his line of sight as the building and the sky and the gray and the clouds slowly faded from view.

pencil

Andrew is currently pursuing an MBA at Pepperdine University. In his bounteous spare time, he works on completing a short film, a historical novel and perfecting his racquetball backhand. E-mail: andrewgriffard[at]yahoo.com