Running From Lions
by Julian R. Vaca
“…Deliver me, lest they tear me like a lion, rending me in pieces, where there is none to deliver.”
-Book of Psalms, 7:1b-2
I am the star you gazed on when you were six and stood on the tips of your toes and looked out your bedroom window at the twinkling sky. I shot across the firmament. Left a fading streak behind me. You marveled. Said a prayer, maybe. Or a wish. I could sense your eyes on me then…even now, as I will myself to stop. Burn up. Crash. I need this to stop.
I have memories of hands. Legs. A head. All the functioning body parts that you undoubtedly take for granted. But, to me, they’re just memories. And even though I long to have myself back…to breathe and eat and sleep, like normal…I know it would do me no good up here in space…in my prison.
Yet, though my senses have abandoned me, I’m confident I haven’t lost my ability to feel.
Because up here, among the other stars, I feel cold. Always the cold binds me and chokes me, forcing me to spin and soar in this prison.
So much cold.
A landscape of distant, sparkling lights stretches before me: always, endless, forever. Expanses of black fill in the blanks between the stars, and there’s an occasional stroke of pale blue and purple hues.
The beauty is my hell.
Although I might posses memories of a host – a working body that I may or may not have occupied at some point in the past – I don’t posses memories of a why. Why I am here, that is. What damned me to this eternal cycle. This beautiful hell.
If I had some grasp on time, I would bet this has been going on for a millennia. Or two. Cursed galaxy, why not three? I could just as easily tell you how many other stars are up here with me. Stuck in their respective routes…their respective prisons.
How I long for freedom. To burn up. Or crash.
To not exist anymore.
Clearly, that’s the point. That’s the key. That’s why it’s prison.
I am fragments and particles.
Every way nothing and everything. I am lost, and yet straight on course. I am forever and –
Stop. You sound like you’ve accepted this fate. Like you’ve given up. I am none of those things. I am just a prisoner, trapped in this shell.
No, we are ending and eternal. Darkness. Light.
Stop. I need to break free. Think! How did this happen? What did this?
There is no “thinking.” There is only doing. And what we do, is shoot through space.
No. This isn’t natural. How long have I just accepted this? I can think…that’s got to count for something.
There is no “thinking.” There is only –
Shut up. Get out of me. I am thinking. That’s what this is. And that means there is hope.
If I can think…
…I can will.
There’s a change in me.
A spark ignites the flame, which trickles, then goes ablaze. The wildfire is my consciousness. I’m here. That much is true. Okay. Why am I here? I can’t remember much, if anything at all, but what I do remember is that being confined like this…trapped in space, touring the galaxies…is a lot like being confined to a single solitary place. A cell. A prison cell.
Good. Yes, keep going. My consciousness is back, and I’m definitely in some sort of prison. Two things. What else? The memories…
…what was that about memories…?
Hands! Arms, legs, a body. A body capable of living. Yes. That’s it! I am a life force. I’m a being that can think, and I’m trapped. And there was something else –
You. I could sense you watching me. Marveling. That’s it. You’re the missing piece. My way out. My freedom.
Chapter 6 | Farah
It’s not like you’ve never seen it before. Really, they’re just stars. Desert sky’s full of them. Watching down on us…hundreds of thousands of little strange gods.
I sit, cross-legged, in the wooden watchtower at the east end of my Village. My neck hurts, and my back too, but every time I sag a little I force myself to straighten up. Can’t afford to get comfortable. My job’s important, see.
Everyone my age has a job. It’s how you survive out here, in the bowl. Dad’s always reminiscing about a time – way before I was born, way before the great wars wiped out everything good – where you could pick any job you chose. Just like that. I smile, cooped up in this little perch two dozen feet above the ground, and dream about the prospect of picking my own job.
What would I choose? Probably something with animals. There aren’t too many left now, but any time we come across a stray dog on our weekly scavenges near the dunes, I beg dad to let me keep them. In fact, most of the animals in our Village are a direct result of my insistences.
Well, whatever hypothetical job I might’ve picked, it definitely wouldn’t have been night watcher. Seems the only time this place gets cold is at night, when all these stars are out. When I’m at my post. I sigh. Could be worse though. I could’ve been assigned to the stables, like my best friend, Lois. Any time I see her she’s got a strand of hay in her long black hair, and she scowls when I take it out for her.
Maybe I wouldn’t have picked a job with animals.
Near my feet sits a ratty, taped-up megaphone, and I scoot it away and stand up. The watchtower is made of scrap metal and slats of weathered wood, just like the tall fence that encloses our three hundred acre Village. The watchtower’s only as wide as my wingspan, and it has just enough room for me to stretch. Which I do. My joints pop. I exhale in relief.
Below my post, in the Village mess hall, the tantalizing scent of honey bread and various spices of tea sift through the rafters. One of the Village cooks is preparing a night meal for the patrol, who should be returning from their first shift any minute now.
I hear my stomach growl, and I blush despite myself. No. It wasn’t my stomach. I look over my shoulder and see three pickup trucks approaching under starlight. The patrol. Right on time, I think, as I check my wristwatch. I hear the grinding sound of the east gate opening to admit them entrance.
So. First shift’s over. Which means in approximately four hours my shift will be over and I can return home, to my room, where my bed and a stack of salvaged CDs await. I’m almost done with “More Songs About Buildings and Food” by the Talking Heads. It’s the only album I have by them. Could just as easily be the last copy of it in the world, too. That thought suddenly makes me appreciate having it.
Truck doors open and close, and the sound of banter fills the air faintly. The patrol, a select group of men and the occasional woman, talk and joke as they head for the mess hall. I try to pick out Alex, my boyfriend, amongst them, but all I can make out are shadows.
You know, Alex is always telling me, with as much as you complain about night watch, you should consider training for patrol.
The only thing I get out of that is he thinks I complain. Do I? That much? Do I sound like an ungrateful brat? I’m constantly looking for ways to impress him, to make sure he knows that – while I may only be sixteen – I’m just as driven and motivated as he is, at eighteen.
So I lie to him. Yeah, I say, patrol actually sounds like a good idea. The problem is, it doesn’t sound like a good idea. Can’t let him know that. He thinks it’s the greatest thing since…well, he thinks it’s the greatest thing. Period.
I sigh again. Been doing a lot of that lately. It’s not like I mean to, though, it’s just that I’m getting close to that age where, by Village standards, I should be prepping for that transition from “job” into “role.”
Is this my role? My destiny? To live out the extent of my life as grandmaster night watcher? How’s that for a scary thought? Really, what’s truly scary, is that I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. What shoes I’d love to fill. If there was a role where someone’s only task was to collect and log music, we wouldn’t have a problem here.
Only, that role doesn’t exist, and what does, is night watcher. My job. And, at the rate I’m going, my eventual role.
I lean against the watchtower railing and survey the desert horizon. I stare at the millions and millions of stars, and they stare back. Yeah, it’s not like you’ve never seen it, the view of the night sky, but at least it’s beautiful, right?
A shooting star catches my eye. I make a wish, like in books, and hope it comes true. I want to want something. Anything. I wish for a want.
Wow, what a terrible wish.
That’s when I hear a far off crack! and I spin my head. Eastward, from where the patrol came, the sky lights up with a radiant purple glow, a kind of spark, like lightning. Then, it fades.
What in the…?
Yes, there’s definitely been a change in me.
I’m certain now that I’m off course. Whatever course I was on. Was I even on a course? Well, if I was, I’m definitely off it now. My fellow stars whip past me faster than they usually do. That’s how I know. That’s how I’m certain.
Something blue and green approaches. It’s round. Bigger than the stars, bigger than me, and getting bigger the closer I get.
I’m heading toward a planet.
This is my chance! I will myself to head straight into the planet, but I’m not sure I’m even doing anything. I just keep thinking. Get there. Get there. GET THERE.
It must be working. The planet’s huge now. Massive. I feel a heat, such as I’ve never known, wash over me. It’s choking me. Suffocating. If I had lungs, which I’m sure I did at one point, they’d be full to the brim. Overflowing with this heat.
I’m suddenly praying for the coldness I once felt. I never thought that would happen. The surface I’m approaching widens, I get closer, and now I can’t see past it. The stars have left me. Space…it’s gone.
All I see now is a stretch of brown.
I’m about to make contact.
I’m about to crash.
Chapter 8 | Farah
I yank the megaphone off the watchtower floor and clamber down the rope ladder. My heart’s pounding in my chest. I’ve been assigned to the night watcher job for all of twelve months, and in that time I’ve only had to sound an alarm once. That first instance ended up being a mistake. A humiliating one. A costly one.
Here’s my chance for redemption.
My sneakers hit the sandy ground with a plop, and a small cloud rises up around my ankles. I bolt away from the watchtower and fumble with the megaphone controls. C’mon! There’s only like two buttons!
I huff. And then I puff. And then I gasp. I’m pathetic when it comes to exerting any physical energy. If that’s not reason enough to avoid patrol roles like the plague, I don’t know what is. I skid around a collection of rusty, sheet metal forts and merge onto the Village’s main road. That’s when I finally get the megaphone turned on.
“Twelfth alarm, twelfth alarm!” I bellow through the microphone. My frightened voice is amplified, and almost instantly lanterns begin to flick on inside forts and buildings. “Unidentified signal!”
I have no idea to where I should be running. The protocol’s fuzzy. All I think about is that purple flash in the sky and the lack of air in my lungs. Before I calculate my next move, I barrel through the side door of my fort.
Inside, dad sits at his workbench and peers through his makeshift magnifying glass. Using two pliers, he examines some kind of gear. My dad’s role in the Village isn’t that desirable. He’s been tasked with deconstructing various tools and trinkets, figuring out their inner workings, logging them, and then reassembling their parts. The product of this responsibility is that our living quarters is always stuffed with odd gizmos and metal things. When mom was still alive, she often scolded him for the mess, saying it was uninviting. She said the clutter and disorder was the reason they couldn’t keep friends. Dad said it was because their “friends” couldn’t appreciate the clutter and disorder.
“Dad!” I say, still using the megaphone without realizing it. “Did you hear? Twelfth alarm!”
“No, I didn’t,” he replies, rotating the gear under the glass. “Try using your megaphone.”
“I – oh, right.” I lower the instrument to my side and stride across the room. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine, hon’,” he says, smiling to himself. He sets the gear down gently and then takes off his square-framed glasses. “You know my hearing’s already as good as shot. So what’s up?”
What’s up is that I just sounded the twelfth alarm and you’re so calm! But then, when does he ever act with any semblance of urgency? “I saw something…in the sky.”
“What kind of something?” Now I have his full attention. He turns in his stool and looks up at me. I watch his brown eyes go back and forth between my green ones. “A U.F.O.?”
“Dad, no, not this again.”
“You said ‘something in the sky,’ didn’t you?”
“Yes, but not that kind of something. It was, I dunno, like a flash, kinda like lightning.”
“So…” he scratches his chin. “So a U.F.O. without the F?”
I roll my eyes. Before I can reply our door opens and Alex and a host of other patrol members step inside.
“Farah,” Alex says, taking the megaphone out of my hand and setting it on a random crate. He then holds both my hands in his firm, blistered ones. “What happened? What did you see?”
“Please,” dad says flatly, “come in. Knocking’s a thing of the past.”
“It…I’m not sure what it was,” I tell Alex. His desert goggles are up and resting on his short black hair. As always, my eyes fall from his gaze to the long twisted scar on his neck. He refuses to tell me how he got it, even though he didn’t have it before we started dating.
“She was probably daydreaming again, Al,” one of the patrol members says snidely. I look past Alex and see his uncle, Lark, standing in the doorway with his arms crossed. His rifle hangs over his shoulder by a leather strap, and the moonlight from outside outlines his clean-shaven head.
“Now see, how’s that possible, Lark?” dad replies, grabbing his cane and standing up. “You can’t very well daydream at night! Why, that’s a paradox, isn’t it?”
Lark’s smug face melts away immediately.
“Oh dear,” dad continues, “someone fetch the poor man a dictionary.”
“I know what paradox means, you crazy ol’ –”
“I was going to look up daydream for you.”
A couple members of the patrol start to snicker. Lark unfolds his arms and takes a step forward – flashing what is supposed to be a mean look, yet only makes him uglier – but Alex turns to face him before things escalate.
“Uncle,” he says, “why don’t you wait outside with the rest of the patrol? Leader will be out on the main road soon, looking for Farah.”
Lark, grinding his teeth, waves his hand and leads the rest of the patrol outside. Alex turns back around, grabs a chair, sits down, and looks up at me intently. “Now. What did you see?”
I tell him. He processes it, and slowly the concern in his eyes starts to fade.
“What?” I demand, hands on my hips. “You don’t believe me?”
“Of course I believe you,” he says, though in an unconvincing tone. “It’s just…you said it was lightning, so – ”
“Like,” I correct him. “It was like lightning. Besides, the sky patrol isn’t expecting a storm for another few months, right?”
Alex stands. “They’ve been wrong before.”
“And they’re wrong again?” I’m getting irritated, and I show it. “You think it’s lightning I saw.”
“Leader will want to send a team out there to investigate the source,” dad says, hobbling away from his workbench and brightening one of the hanging oil lamps in the room. “Always better to be safe than sorry.”
“You think it’s them?” I ask, turning to face dad. “You think it’s the undergrounders?”
“But how?” Alex says. “What in their limited arsenal could produce the type of affect Farah’s describing?”
Dad shakes his head. “Be careful, Alex. You shouldn’t put anything past them…you know that. Can’t take any chances if there’s a potential threat to our Village.”
“Spoken like a born Leader,” a female voice says. We all turn and watch the tall, slender form of our Village’s Leader step inside. She wears her customary duster jacket and boots, and the subtle streaks of grey in her yellow hair glow in the lamplight. We see her armed entourage as they wait outside.
Alex stands and joins dad and me as we dip our heads down respectfully.
“Now,” she continues, beaming at us. “Is that true? Is there a potential threat to our Village?”
I gulp. Something about standing in Leader’s presence always makes my throat dry up. I’d like to think it’s reverence, but I’m pretty sure she just scares me.
“Y-Yes,” I stammer, stepping forward. “Signaled twelfth alarm.”
“You were right to do that,” Leader assures, clasping her hands behind her back. “Could be the undergrounders signaling one another. Could be weapons testing. Or, it could end up being nothing at all.
“Either way, we have to be sure.”
I nod and start to feel the tension leaving my body. Good. She said I was right to sound the alarm.
“So, Farah,” she says, “be ready to roll out in fifteen minutes.”
At first I don’t realize what she means. Then, when I feel Alex and dad’s eyes on me, it seems to click.
“Wait, you want me to accompany the patrol?”
Alex starts to laugh, like he thinks this is a joke, and dad clears his throat – leaning his weight against his cane to step forward. “Leader, if I may, I don’t think it’s safe for – ”
“The patrol will need you there, Farah,” Leader says, cutting into dad. He swallows the rest of his sentence and stares at his boots. “They’ll need you to verify the location of the flash. You’re the only one who witnessed it, and you’re the only one who can adequately lead our men to the flash’s source.”
My heart starts hammering again like before. “It was probably just lightning…”
“Still,” Leader says, walking over to me and placing a hand on my soon-to-be-trembling shoulder, “can’t take any chances if there’s a potential threat to our Village.” She then squeezes the skin around my bone with a sense of finality and takes her leave.
I have nothing to say. No, that’s not true. I have plenty to say. To scream. I want to shout objections and tell Leader I can’t go out there. I’ve never been past the dunes, where they say bad things happen. And that’s where I’d have to lead Alex and the patrol…that’s where I saw the sliver of light touch down.
But I can’t move the muscles in my mouth. I just, stand.
“I won’t let her out of my sight,” Alex tells dad.
“Damn right you won’t,” he answers.
Oxygen starts at my nose, shoots down my throat and into my stomach, and then forces me to shake uncontrollably. My vision is obscured, but I choose to worry about that later. Right now the foreign sensation of breathing is all I can bear. My nostrils flare, working to compensate for my mouth, which, strangely, I cannot open yet.
Steady. Steady breaths ease the sharp pains and my body eventually goes lax. Good, one thing at a time. Slowly my lungs adjust and, before too long, there’s a rhythm to my inhaling and exhaling. I can do this. I start to welcome the crisp air instead of fighting it, and that expedites my recovery.
I start to pay attention to the details. Take in my surroundings blindly. At first I give a start. The ground is loose; millions and billions of little pebbles rub and slip against my naked body as I try to turn over. What is this? The touch and weight is familiar, but I can’t place it. Not yet. Seeing it would definitely help…
I raise my hands up to my eyes and start to rub. Tiny, dancing clips of white and blue permeate my sight, but after a short while it fades. Now I can see clearly, and before me – stretching well past the limits of my reacquired peripheral vision – is the night sky and her stars.
They’re so far away now, and I’m thankful. I’m free.
That’s when I hear several loud cracks! in quick succession and a powerful light envelops me.