The night of my escape was a beautiful one. The inky sky carried a full moon and a blanket of stars twinkling at me to join them. I promised myself I would, but not yet. Tonight I needed the trees.
I reached the forest’s edge and slipped into its cover seconds before the muffled sound of an alarm started up behind me. Distant voices called out as I wove through the pines, not even a footprint to mark where I’d been. The advantage was mine. They hadn’t seen which way I’d gone and the Eyes weren’t for miles. By then I hoped I’d be able to get above the treetops without being spotted, avoiding the cameras and trees altogether.
I was going fast. I could only maintain this speed for a little while. Soon I’d need rest, eventually water and food. I hoped it wouldn’t rain. But that was thinking too far ahead. For now, I only needed to go fast.
More shouting. My pulse pounded, a drum in my chest and a beat in my ears. They were closer than I thought they’d be. The sweet scent of pine needles filled my nostrils. My breath was quick and shallow. Branches scraped and scratched at me as I tried to push faster. I listened hard for where they might’ve been. It was difficult to hear over the wind and the branches passing by my ears. I made too much noise. I brushed trees in the dark. My own breathing was too loud.
Against every screaming instinct I had, I forced myself to slow, then stop.
I landed on the soft ground. It was difficult to hear over my pounding heart and heavy breath, but I tried. The wind and trees laughed, branches slapping each other playfully as they played a game of tag that I was no longer a part of. The moonlight only provided enough for an orchestra of outlines and shadows, no matter which way or how far I looked. I heard nothing. I saw no one.
For a split second, I thought about how the pines smelled different out here. Fresh and cool, with a hint of sweetness from nearby sap. This was what freedom smelled like, I thought, looking up at my ink sky again. Then a strong pale hand closed itself around my wrist.
I flew. I didn’t think. The grip was tight enough to hurt. It stopped me before I’d gone three feet and with a yank I hit the ground hard. The tiniest whimper escaped my lips despite myself. The grip relaxed but didn’t let go and I was pulled to my feet in the same second. Another hand clamped itself over my mouth. I was pulled against someone and held on to. The smell of the forest was replaced with the scent of old books and disinfectant. My face was pressed against warm cloth over someone’s chest. For a minute, neither of us moved.
A soft buzzing noise passed overhead. It took a second for me to register it, and another for it to disappear. In the quiet that followed, I listened to our two hearts beating rapidly, one faster than the other, until they synced up. Then the hands released me.
I said nothing as I stepped away, wiping my mouth with my sleeve where his hand had been and then rubbing my wrist. It would bruise.
“I’m sorry,” came a whisper. “Did I hurt you?”
The voice was a man’s, smooth except around the edges where his worry was betrayed. He was still in shadow, but I could make out his silver outline. The rest of him I had memorized. Dr. White.
“I knew it was you,” I said quietly. “Did you have to grab me so hard?”
“They have drones,” he said. “You were going to fly. I was scared. I’m sorry.”
Drones. Damn. I hadn’t planned for drones.
“You’ll have to navigate the Eyes without going over.”
“Obviously,” I replied.
“You’ll know you’re out when—“
“The Falls. I know.”
“Of course you do.”
There was pride in his voice as if he was taking each of my achievements personally. I didn’t understand it, but I was used to it. He shrugged off his backpack and his outline changed enough for me to see he was wearing night goggles. They had night vision, too. My odds of success were diminishing. He took my wrist again, gently this time, and put the handle of his backpack into my hand. It was heavy.
“This should help, but not forever. Find your parents. Make this a permanent vacation, okay?”
He put a hand on my head and I nodded in the dark.
“They’ll chase you for at least four hours before their first break. Don’t stop for at least five. Remember to pace yourself, don’t push too hard. Stay low around urban areas. Try to make what you have last for as long as possible.”
He pat my head once.
“I’ll miss you, Skye. I hope I never see you around here again.”
“You won’t,” I assured him.
I knew the exact happy-sad expression his face would’ve had on in that moment. We only stayed like that for another second with his hand on my head before we walked past each other and into the trees in opposite directions. I only went far enough for the sound of his footsteps to fade completely, then I put on the backpack and started flying through the trees again, slowly and carefully. The backpack was bulky and weighed me down. Part of me wanted to leave it and get through the Eyes quickly, but I’d need it to survive after that. I went on.