A Short Story by Philip Goldberg
Another night, and once again the Runner hugged the building walls, still damp from the rain that had stopped falling not long ago. The scrawled messages and spray-painted symbols glistened on the wet concrete. Water drops dripped from the barbed wire wrapped around every mailbox. She passed it all with fluid steps. Her gray eyes were alert for any Sentry who might be lurking in the darkness. The gun she gripped was prepared for any armed patrol that crossed her path, and there had been a few.
Her mother had taught her well. She’d had the wherewithal to take them underground after the Leader was elected President by a hair-thin margin, had understood the man’s words were more than rhetoric. When he started turning his insane notions into action, rounding up what he’d called “undesirables” and incarcerating them behind barbed wire in disused warehouses and abandoned buildings, she joined the Resistance and brought her young daughter with her.
How the Runner longed for her mother back in her life. But there was no time for tears. She couldn’t let this hope slow her down, stop her from finding her mother. So she continued.
Daybreak approached, and the Runner sought a place to hide. She came upon a boarded-up building. Experience had taught her how to find an entry. Around the back, she found a window where some boards had been pried off. Boards were scavenged as fast as they went up. Probably used for firewood, she thought.
Once inside, she pulled the small flashlight from her pack and shined its beam ahead. A narrow hallway appeared before her. Doorways, most open, ran along the right and left. She knew better than to go through the first ones. Stories had reached her of those captured or killed hiding in the first apartments by hunting Sentries. She approached the fourth door on the left. It was shut. Pressing her ear against it, she listened, holding her breath. Silence. The door opened with only a small squeak. She kept it ajar, having learned this made it easier to hear anyone approaching. The flashlight’s thin beam illuminated a bit of the apartment. Some furniture remained, scattered about. She clicked off the light, sat on the floor, and placed the gun near her hand and her pack against her leg. Only then did she lean against the wall.
Her mother’s face, a smile curling her lips, appeared in the darkened room. A ghost? A memory? A comfort? They had last been together over a year ago, right after she’d turned fifteen.
Floorboards creaked, and the image of her mother disappeared. She grew alert. The gun back in her hand, her finger tightened around the trigger, the barrel aimed at the doorway. Someone appeared in the narrow opening and peered into the apartment. Whoever it was must’ve seen her, for the person receded into the hall. A Sentry wouldn’t flee. Perhaps a snitch? The Runner jumped to her feet in pursuit. Once in the hall, she said: “Stop—or I’ll shoot.”
The slight body stopped. Two hands shot up, frozen in the air.
With gun cocked, the Runner stepped close. “Turn… slowly.”
Now facing her was a teen girl, not much older than her. The girl’s dark hair was cropped short, and her amber eyes appeared tired. “Sentry?” The girl asked—her voice edgy.
“If I were, you’d be lying on the floor, bleeding.” She motioned for the girl to lower her hands and watched them drop to her sides. She relaxed her grip on the gun and let her own hand down.
The Runner nodded. “You?”
“Me? I should be long gone with the rest.”
The runner gazed at this white girl and arched her eyebrows. But before she could ask the question on her mind, the girl answered it.
“I’m Queer… Lesbian, whatever you want to call me. A disgrace in the eyes of God, you recall, a threat to girls everywhere, and all that bullshit.”
“I remember his rants.”
The cropped-haired girl shuffled her feet and stared at the floor. “Word on the street was they were rounding us up with the idea of imprisoning us in large Conversion centers. After two of my friends… disappeared, I dropped out of sight.”
The Runner remembered going to her friend, Rosa’s house, seeing the door wide open, the place ransacked, and the girl gone with all the other Mexicans. She had stood frozen there with a look of wild despair.
“You all right?”
She was unaware that she now wore that same look. “I’m okay.” She watched the girl run a hand over her sweatshirt and noticed it read, University of Pennsylvania. Her mother had been a professor at NYU. Julia had been her mother’s name then, and it seemed so long ago. “Come on.” The floorboards creaked under her footfalls, and she returned to the apartment, the girl’s steps echoing behind her, as the first streaks of morning light came through parts of the window where some boards had been pried away. “Stay out of view of those openings.” She sat on the floor by her pack in the room’s shadows and motioned for the girl to join her.
The girl took a similar darkened spot across from her. “Scarlet’s my name.”
“Destiny’s mine.” The name felt unfamiliar passing through her lips. Once underground, she had shed it. Now hearing it made her feel like it had belonged to someone else. “How long have you been on the run?”
“Two years give or take a few weeks.”
“You’ve eluded the Sentries that long. How?”
“Same as you probably. Good people are out there. They hid me, fed me, clothed me…” She eyed her hands and rubbed them together. “But there are less and less of them. Fewer hiding places.”
“I know. Sentries have infiltrated our ranks. Imprisoned and killed many members. Eliminated a lot of our hiders…” She studied the run-down room. “Tonight I’m moving on.”
“Free Boston.” Part of the Federation of Free City States, she knew, also including Philadelphia, Houston, Seattle, Oakland, and South Chicago, formed just before the Seven Month War had ended in the stalemate that had led to the fragile peace existing now, which each side expected the other to break.
“Free Boston,” the cropped-haired girl said it as if the City State was a planet in a distant galaxy. “That’s one dangerous trip.”
“Sneaking through these streets is dangerous. Seeking a hider’s home’s dangerous. Searching for food and drink’s dangerous.”
“I didn’t mean to—”
“—It’s okay. I have to go there, that’s all.”
“Boston,” she said the name with great interest. “My aunt and cousins live there. Haven’t spoken to them since…”
“You should come with me then. Better than remaining here—no matter how dangerous it’ll be getting there. No one will be hunting you there like some animal. You can stop running.”
“I’m tired of running.”
“So am I.”
Scarlet’s eyes possessed the look that came with deep reflection. After a few moments, she focused on the Runner and said: “I’ll go with you.”
“Good. Get some sleep. You’ll need it.”
That day, the Runner’s troubling dreams returned. In this one, she kept to the alleys, and dark spaces of the patrolled streets bringing important news to those incarcerated in the Sectors. Her mother’s voice echoed in her head, repeating: “Imagine you’re walking on cats’ paws.” Soft step after soft step, she continued until coming to the barbed-wire fence. She cut a hole at its bottom and crawled through.
In the shadows beyond the reach of the spotlights stood Miguel, head of the Mexican sector. His face was bloodied. “Believing what you tell me…” He let loose a defiant laugh, loud and chilling. Blood ran from the wounds on his face, his hands. “This is what believing you has brought me.”
A shot rang out from the darkness. Miguel fell.
Before he hit the ground, the Runner woke. A scream choked in her throat. Her breaths, fast. She wrapped both hands around her chest, tightened her grip. Her mother’s determined face appeared, hovered in the air before her eyes. Only then did she loosen her grip and noticed the few bars of sunlight shining through where the wood slats had been removed from the window.
When darkness came, the Runner pulled from her pack a bag of black powder. She applied it to her face and hands. She eyed the girl. “It comes off with a little water.”
Scarlet took some and smeared it across the same places as the Runner had. And then they headed out.
The Runner had heard of a break in the fence off Conner Street in Northeastern Bronx. Maybe the Leader and his minions had gotten cocky or sloppy not guarding this area because there was the hole at the base of the fence wide enough for both of them to crawl through and not a Sentry in sight. Once on the Westchester side, she led the way, holding her gun steady and ready. In the other hand was a compass. She stared at it and headed northeast, the old interstate on the right, now only traveled by the Sentries, the Keepers of Power, and those with political connections. Scarlet kept pace with her on empty small streets and roads. When the woods appeared, they went into them. The Runner pulled out her flashlight and held it. She aimed the beam ahead and made out the winding path laden with fallen leaves, as well as the tree branches growing naked. The breeze blew, and memories rustled through her: leaves changing colors, snow falling, blossoms blooming, summer rainbows. None brought joy, only pain of what she desperately missed, what she so badly wanted to reclaim. But her mother’s defiant voice consumed her: “Keep moving, keep fighting.” These words, the last her mother had said to her, became the motivation for each step she took.
The inky blue lightened. They quickened their steps until coming to an old cabin the Runner had heard about through the rumor chain.
Inside everything felt damp to the touch. Both teens checked the kitchen cabinets and found a few cans of beans. In one drawer, Scarlet located a can opener. Each grabbed a can and ate the beans cold. Somewhat sated and thoroughly exhausted, each found a place on the wood-planked floor and lay there. The Runner kept the gun by her side, as always. Despite being so tired, the Runner fought sleep but knew it was a battle she’d lose and did. She was roused out of sleep by strange noises and grabbed the gun, pointing it—for it had become a reflex—around the room, at the window, at the door. But it was only Scarlet, spitting out garbled words, twitching all over. She crawled to the cropped-haired girl and shook her awake.
Scarlet stared with bewilderment, appearing unaware of where she was. Gradually, she figured it out and sat up. The Runner noticed the tears glistening on her cheeks, setting off a strange feeling in her, at how long it had been since she’d cried. Even after losing her mother, no tears had come. She struggled to recall when tears had last fallen from her eyes. And then it came to her: still known as Destiny, she discovered a friend had posted a nasty lie about her on Facebook. Betrayed and hurt, she cried. Remembering this, she expelled a tortured breath.
“My parents, sister, and brother visit me in my sleep,” Scarlet said, her voice tiny. “They call out my name. But they never hear me when I answer.”
“Ever gone home again? See if they’re still there.”
“I went back to where we lived…”
Scarlet rubbed her cropped hair. “Gone.”
”Hopefully they fled, too.”
“You should know better.”
Silence, awkward and angry, clutched the room until the Runner asked with hesitancy: “Miss them?”
“I miss my mother.”
“Where is she?”
“Don’t know. Haven’t seen her in over a year. That’s why I’m heading to Free Boston, to see if anyone there knows anything.”
“Do you think someone will?”
The sound of a distant car passing made both look in its direction before Destiny faced her and said: “Can’t say. But I must go and ask.” She glanced at the window. “Sun will set soon. Try to get a little more rest.”
“You too.” Scarlet lay down.
But the Runner remained seated, her mind sorting out their conversation. A thought came to her: What would she do if no one knew where her mother was? She gazed out the window watching the sky darken. No answer came, but a stinging remembrance did.
She had come home that night over a year ago, tired from disseminating information to the new crop of Runners. When she’d opened the door to the apartment where she and her mother were hiding, the sight made her heart pump harder. The place had been ransacked, looking like Rosa’s house had. She ran into the room where their closet living area was. Its door had been ripped off the hinges, the small space within a mess—her mother—like Rosa and her family—gone.
This harrowing memory haunted her, as she trekked beside Scarlet, their path aided by the full moon. With each step, she felt the weight of those bitter recollections pulling her back into them. But she fought those dark thoughts, fought hard.
Scarlet looked at her, sensed something gnawing at her and wanted to ask her what it was but didn’t say a word, concluding that it was best to leave someone alone at moments like these. That’s how she’d want to be treated. So she continued walking. Crunching dry leaves crushed under their footsteps produced the only sound between them.
The tweeted ranting of the Leader followed the Runner on every street, down every alley. It was as if the typed words were his Sentries, prowling, pursuing her like prey. In one lightless corner, they found her, trapped her, wrapped their letters, hashtags, exclamation points around her throat and began choking the life from her.
Coughing, she bolted up from the floor of another deserted cabin in the woods. She grabbed the gun and dropped it, a shot rang out, the bullet lodging in the wood wall before her. She became aware of the cropped-haired girl sitting and staring at her with fearful eyes.
“Nightmare?” Scarlet asked, again rubbing what was left of her cut hair.
“Just another one.”
“Me… I’ve lost count.” She giggled in a nervous attempt to lighten the atmosphere.
“Sometimes I wake from them wishing I could go back to the way it was.” The faces of lost friends singing Happy Birthday, playgrounds filled with shrieks of laughter, going to the movies or ice-skating rinks hurtled through her mind. “But it always hits me that I can’t.”
Heavy sorrow weighed down the room.
“Is your father gone, too?”
His blank face replaced the memories of things she once prized. “Never knew him. Left my mom before I could remember. Little I know she told me… that I have his eyes, his chin, his smile… that he was one of her graduate students…”
“Do you miss him?”
“Miss not knowing him. At least wish I’d met him once.”
“I don’t know what’s worse.” Scarlet fidgeted with her fingers. “Knowing them and missing them… or not knowing them at all.”
“Wish I’d known him.”
“Funny, I wish I hadn’t known mine. He never took to what I was. Probably would’ve turned me in if I hadn’t fled.”
“You believe that?”
“So was he.”
Night’s thick black curtain descended, and the two teens left the cabin. The rain had fallen that afternoon. It had stopped, but the ground was still wet, and each step was sucked into the muddy earth, followed by an ongoing struggle to free the sunken boot. The wind had kicked up, blowing colder than the night before. Despite wearing coats, both girls steeled themselves against the frigid air. The gun felt heavy in the Runner’s hand, its grip like ice. Still, they trudged on.
A male voice cut through the cold woods. “Halt!”
She grabbed Scarlet’s hand and pulled her along, hoping to put some distance between them and their pursuer. Thudding footsteps, snaps of breaking branches came fast from behind. “Don’t look back,” she told the girl.
A shot rang out, a warning. “Stop now!”
Destiny wrapped her finger around the trigger. “Run!” She stopped, spun around and fired in the direction of her pursuer. Only then she saw there were two, not one, coming her way. Returned shots whizzed past her. She crouched, set herself and aimed at one, and fired. One Sentry dropped to the ground, but the other kept charging. She fired five shots. The last two hit and she watched the second Sentry fall. An uneasy quiet fell. She rose, surprised to see Scarlet standing a few feet away. Approaching the girl, she saw fear on her face, noticed her trembling.
“How do you kill?” The cropped haired girl’s voice, brittle.
The question wasn’t new. She’d asked it of herself. “I shoot to survive. Kill to keep going.”
The two teens came to a small town. Its streets were deserted. Still, the Runner remained vigilant, maintained her firm grip on the gun, and made sure they stayed close to the small facades that bordered the quiet, desolate main street. They passed stores long empty, their front windows grimy. When they came to an alley between two buildings, she led Scarlet down it. They wandered behind the buildings until she noticed a door ajar and stopped, looked at the cropped-haired girl, and whispered: “Stay here.”
Scarlet watched her step to the slightly open door and carefully push it open, squeaking as it did.
Pulling out her flashlight with one hand, aiming her gun in the other, she stepped inside. Floorboards groaned under her feet. The torch caught something in its beam: a mannequin of a woman, wearing a torn dress. She went to it, touched the fabric with a finger, and her eyes grew distant.
Destiny, all of nine, had come out of the department store’s fitting room, wearing the brightly colored spring dress.
Julia had stood before her, studying it. “Turn around.”
She spun around until facing her mother again. A smile graced the woman’s lips.
“You look pretty.”
She felt her cheeks grow warm. “Do I?”
The smile intensified. “You do.”
Then she ran her hand over the dress, felt the softness of it, and broke into an embarrassed smile.
The Runner released the piece of dress with heaviness in her heart. She took in the rest of the dusty room before returning to Scarlet, leaning against the building’s back brick wall. “We’ll stay here for the day.”
Inside, they opened a door that revealed stairs going down to the basement. The Runner took note and then looked at the cropped-haired girl. “I’m hungry. You?”
“Stay here. I’ll find us food and drink. If anything spooks you, go down there and be still. Got it?”
“Don’t worry. I know what to do.”
And she realized this girl probably did.
She prowled the main street, consumed by thoughts of how everything got this way. How someone so wrong convinced so many that he was their last hope, how they lapped up his lies like puppy dogs, and how they defended him when he was not defensible.
The rumbling of her stomach drowned out these thoughts. Before her stood a storefront and inside were shelves stacked with cans and packages of food. Her mouth watered. She wondered whether stores in a small town like this would be alarmed. Gazing up and down the street at the many empty storefronts, she suspected nothing around here would. Still, hunger and thirst were worth the risk.
She found another alley, followed it to the back and came to the rear door of the grocery. Nearby, there was a rusted rod on the ground. She grabbed it and jimmied the door open. The silence that followed proved her suspicion right.
They ripped open the packages and cans, which the Runner had made sure had pull-tops, and feasted on cold Spaghetti-Os, fruit cocktails, and cookies. Each washed it down with warm water from bottles. Rare smiles graced their faces, and occasional giggles escaped their lips. Each ate like it was her last supper and when finished, prided herself on a full belly. Sweet sleepiness came over them, and soon both were snoring.
The Runner felt her body being shaken, and her eyes shot open. Her gun raised and aimed at someone hovering over her. That’s when she heard: “Wake up, wake up.” Her eyes focused and saw it was Scarlet. She lowered the gun. “We slept too late. It’s already dark.”
“Crap.” She jumped up and gathered her few belongings, making sure to stuff the remaining food cans and packages in her backpack.
They fled, leaving the mannequin to guard the storeroom, and soon came upon a narrow river and followed its curving path. Cloud cover obscured the moon from shining down on them. Their mouths expelled chilled breaths, white fogs that scattered in the breeze.
Only then did the Runner realize how lucky they had been. Her theft had gone undetected.
Scarlet walked beside her and asked: “Ever been in love?”
The cropped-haired girl’s question bit her hard, and she replied in a somber tone: “No.”
“I have. Lara was her name.”
Scarlet’s silence was answer enough.
The rush of the nearby river’s water seized the air. The Runner cast her curious look on the cropped-haired girl. “Have you ever…”
The Runner’s steps picked up their pace. She moved ahead.
But Scarlet caught up and noticed the glum look on the Runner’s face. An awkward silence gripped them until Scarlet broke it. “You haven’t—
“—I’ve missed out on a lot of things.”
Scarlet gazed ahead without a word.
“Look, I shouldn’t be laying this on you. Things are what they are. That’s all.”
Scarlet peered at her. She placed a halting hand on her. “They don’t have to be. I mean, you and me, we could—”
The Runner stepped out of the crop-haired girl’s grasp. “Sorry, I’m not like you. Right now, I wish I was.”
“—I’d be faking it, and I don’t want to do that. Not to you, not to me.”
“It’s okay. I get it. I really do.” Her voice, understanding.
“Believe me, I do wish—”
Scarlet placed a finger on the Runner’s lips, silencing her, and then she smiled.
After eating and drinking from all of the remaining cans and packages, they snuck out of another cabin and headed into the rain. Their steps sloshed. The air thick with dampness clung to their faces, hands, even went through their boots and socks to their feet. The unpleasant sensations it produced made the Runner recall a night like this.
She had gone out to run information that night. The sky had opened up; the rain had fallen hard, chilling her body and bones, icing any exposed skin. Everything ached. By the next morning, she felt so sick, so feverish. Hallucinations plagued her. In one, the Leader, now a giant, chased her down dark, deserted streets wanting to catch her and devour her. In another, fireballs shot from his flaming hair and exploded around her.
But her mother had nursed her back from the illness, from its hell. When she recovered, her mother helped her regain the lost weight, the missing strength.
The time came when she wanted to return to running information, but her mother forbade her. She would give no explanation as to why the Runner couldn’t go.
So when the opportunity presented itself, she defied her mother and went out into the night. And what she found were empty internment camps. Places where she’d gone before and met with Miguel, Abbad, Rasheed, and others. The Leader had lived up to his word. The shock hit her, and she ran like she never had before. She finally stopped and glared at the glittering lights across the river where the Keepers of Power lived. A new determination overcame her, to fight harder against the Leader and his followers who lived behind those lighted windows.
This had been her sole plan until they’d seized her mother.
Glimmering lights were visible. Flashlight beams. Seeing them, the Runner grabbed Scarlet’s hand and led her deeper into the woods. She stopped at a safe distance from the road, pulling the cropped-haired girl onto the wet ground with her. She shivered. Scarlet shuddered. She focused on the moving beams of light coming closer. Dark figures walking along the road became visible. They were of four different heights and shapes. She wrapped her finger around the trigger, rose to her knees, ready to fire.
“Don’t just see, hear,” her mother had told her in training.
She listened hard, until picking up faint voices. That’s when she heard it: the voice of a woman. There were no female Sentries. Under the Leader, a woman’s role was in the home, caring for her husband, having babies for growing the White race. She stood and motioned Scarlet to do the same. Looking at the cropped-haired girl next to her, she said: “They’re Resistance.”
“How do you know?”
She told her how.
“We’ve made it.”
“Not so fast. We’re not there yet.”
“Let’s talk to them first.”
They headed to the road, where the Resistance fighters spun on their boot heels, their rifles aimed and ready. The Runner and Scarlet raised their hands. The four before them kept their firearms steady, their eyes locked on them.
“I’m Resistance,” she said. “Destiny Hartman. My mother’s Julia Hartman.”
The sole female in the patrol, not much older than her, stepped forward. A look of recognition filled her eyes. “I’ve heard of her. Wasn’t she—”
“—Over a year ago. Been searching for her since. Hoping someone in Free Boston can help me.”
She lowered her rifle and focused her eyes on Scarlet. “And you?”
“I’m seeking sanctuary there. Been on the run since the Great Conversion.”
“Lost some friends then…” She motioned with her head for the other three to lower their rifles. Looking at the two teens before her, she told them to lower their hands. “Come with us.”
Everyone marched up the road until they came to a truck, its side panel advertising a favorite beer. In the cab sat an older man at the steering wheel.
“Get in the back,” the patrol leader said.
Both climbed up and entered the empty space. A member of the patrol slid the back door down, and the space became lightless. The Runner turned on her flashlight. Both Scarlet and she sat on burlap sacks scattered about the floor. The cropped-haired girl was smiling.
The truck’s engine rumbled, vibrating along the metal walls of the container, as the big rig drove the road creating a soothing sound and rhythmic motion.
“Told you we made it,” Scarlet said, her voice relieved and happy.
The Runner didn’t reply.
The back doors of the truck slid open, flooding the container with sunlight. The Runner awoke, blinking furiously at her sleep being interrupted. She shaded her eyes with a hand, as the sunlight bothered her. She noticed Scarlet, awake and sitting with her back against the wall. Each rose and stepped to the open end. The hand of a Resistance fighter helped them down.
The Runner’s eyes acclimated to the sunlight, which she hadn’t been out in for some time, and then gazed with wonder at the towering steel and glass buildings shimmering in the bright light of day. Free Boston encircled her in all its tarnished glory. She looked at Scarlet, who fell into her arms, and she stood awkwardly embracing the cropped-haired girl. Like crying, it had been quite a while since she had hugged or had been hugged by someone. The last person to do so was her mother. Slowly, the hug felt less of a distant memory and more real, and she gave into it, accepting the comfort provided by it— and only then did a slight smile appear. For the moment, she was Destiny again. But she knew the moment wouldn’t last.
Later, the Runner was brought to the office of General Wright, the head of Free Boston’s Resistance Army. The windowed wall behind the General afforded her a breathtaking view of the skyscrapers of Free Boston in the now diminishing daylight.
She greeted the General. An imposing woman: tall, broad-shouldered, heart-faced with blue eyes that could mesmerize someone looking at them for too long.
The General placed her large hand over the Runner’s smaller one, obscuring it. “I must say you getting here from New York is… quite impressive.”
She fought off rising embarrassment by staring at her muddied boots. “My mother was a good teacher.”
Her eyes shot up. “You know her?”
“I met her in the early days… before everything changed.” The General’s eyes held more buried memories of Julia.
“Is she… alive?”
“From the intelligence, we’ve gathered… she is.”
The Runner gasped. “Where?”
“She’s being held in a former Federal Penitentiary in Northern Virginia.”
“I’ve got to go there. Find her—”
“—Impossible. The place is a fortress. Heavily guarded. Even if you made it there—and you seem capable of doing so, you’d never get inside. We’ve tried.“
Her expression turned downcast.
“He has done a good job of thinning our ranks… It’d be suicide sending anyone there.”
She averted the woman’s stare and looked again at the skyscrapers cast in a pumpkin hue.
That night back in her room in a former hotel, the Runner sat on her bed and peered at the rain-splotched window. Beyond it, the skyline of Free Boston was barely illuminated and hard to see through the raindrops on the glass panes. She thought about visiting Scarlet in the room next door and tell her everything she’d learned from General Wright. But she didn’t want to trouble the girl anymore with her burdens. So she stayed in her room and moved to the edge of the bed, staring out the window into the darkness. The face of her mother appeared there, a phantom floating before her, flashing fierce eyes. She became fixated on the eyes, growing certain of one absolute truth.
Her mother had trained her well.
Philip Goldberg’s short stories have appeared in both literary and small press publications including trampset, Junto, Thrice Fiction, Straylight, foliate oak, Borrowed Solace, The Chaffin Journal, and Twisted Vine Literary Art Journal. Two more of his stories have been accepted by The Halcyone/Black Mountain Press and by the Evening Street Review. Microfictions have appeared in Blink Ink and Starwheel. Three of his stories have been published in Best of collections and one was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is currently workshopping his novel.