Running From Lions


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
Chapter 1
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.
Chapter 2
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.
Why?
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.
Chapter 3 
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.
Chapter 4
          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.
Chapter 5

         There’s
a change in me.
            It’s
subtle.
            A spark.
            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.
            Now
            I
            am
            off
            course.
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…?
Chapter 7
            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.
            It’s…a
planet.
            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.


Chapter 9
            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.