Don’t slip, Don’t Stop Running.
Run, that was today’s exercise, run and don’t let them catch you.
Today was the real test. All or nothing, and what does he do? He slips.
He stumbles into the ground, faceplanting into the dirt and shrubbery.
As he pushes himself up, cursing, he hears the others pass him, they’re shadowed forms flickering through the trees, the moonlight barely discerning their forms.
It was not a pleasant night for it, but that was precisely why it was this night. The fog covered the earth, hiding holes and fallen tree limbs.
He could hear the growling behind him, they were coming. He races off, this time with a wearier outlook. His heart beating rapidly, he twists around another runner, she glances at him, eyes wide and fearful.
Giving her a bare second glimpse, he moves on, moments later he hears a high-pitched scream, snarls and a ‘squelching’ sound that sends shivers down his spine. Then silence. The silence was more unsettling.
Too close, way too close. He hurries on, on quieter steps. He mustn’t let them hear him.
A large ivory tree twists upwards in a gangly fashion, in the branches he sees fearful eyes. Two boys. He contemplates joining them, but the trees limbs look like warped eating utensils in the dim moonlight. Unnerved by this vision he sprints forward.
Minutes later the sounds of shrill cries make him turn back. In the minimum light he sees something crawling up the white tree, and the two forms that were the boys are being dragged into the darkness. They don’t scream for long.
Breathing heavily, he shakes off the image, he needs to distance himself. He can’t hide in the trees, maybe he can take to the river. He hears the fast-moving water before he lays eyes on it, desperate he hurries forward, but slips again, slamming his knee into a rock by the shore. Grunting he swears again.
He sees the surface glistening through the brush but takes a moment to recover. It saved him.
Another three had thought of the river, two make a swim for it, while another pulls a log free and climbs onto it. For a second they smile, congratulating themselves then from the nearby tree line two long shadows dip into the river, grabbing one by the leg, the other by the arm, pulling them from the river like a berry from a bush. Their terrified shouts are short lived. The last one, a girl, frantically tries to swim back with her log, but as she climbs back to shore a large shadow appears in front of her, hidden in the mist. It lasts only a second, and she disappears. She never had a chance to scream.
Cursing silently, his heart thudding dangerously fast, he surveys his chances, he can’t swim it, or can he?
He looks around him and sees some floating discarded limbs half floating in the water. Mixed in was what looked like a large piece of tree bark. Crawling through the foliage he carefully enters the stream, grabbing the roots of a tree to keep himself from floating away. He takes a large breath, pulls the loose bark above his head and let’s go of the root. He is instantly whirled away.
The water tugs him passed the large shadows; snarls slightly discernable through the water. He holds his breath for as long as he can, until he feels he might pass out. Dizzy, he pushes himself to the surface. He brushes the debris to the side, still being dragged along. The current had increased, soon he is latching onto a large log to stay above surface. Possibly the same one the girl had used. He squeezes his eyes shut as he is tossed and thrown about by the water, he hits his limbs on more then one rock or fallen tree. He goes under the surface a few times but manages to keep hold of his natural lifesaver.
Soon the sounds of growling and snarling, screaming and begging are far off. The river wanes, slowing down. Too weak to move, he lets himself float further, until the water become full of reeds. He pushes himself through the plant life, and grabs a low hanging branch, pulling himself onto land with a loud ‘squelch’ from the mud.
Sore, but alive he walks along the river, when his legs feel less feeble, he takes to jogging lightly, then outright running. The likelihood that he will get to some place they can’t hunt is low, but the alternative is going back, and he has no qualms about trying to live away from those…things. The sun was rising.
Light dipped onto the swampy world. He smiled, it looked beautiful. He was raised for slaughter, to be hunted when he reached a certain age, but they didn’t walk in the day, he wouldn’t sleep yet, he had to put more distance from himself and them.
For hours he walked, afraid to rest for longer then then ten minutes, lest he fell into a doze. He found fruit and mushrooms to eat, and a light rain gave him some water.
He came to another river, this one larger than the other, more terrifying then its lesser. He walked along the shore for another hour, sure he had reached a dead end, when he came upon something astounding. A hut. An old decrepit hovel that had long since been used. Still he might find something useful. He approached cautiously.
It had a single window, that had possibly once held glass. The door was open, inside nature had taken up residence, covering the walls and furniture in green. He entered, breathing heavily. If they hid in here then he was done for, but nothing attacked him. From the look of the place, nothing had set foot in there for years. Maybe centuries. Most of the inside had rotted away, the ceiling was falling in. He walked carefully around broken twisted metal, most likely the remains of the door. It was rusted and covered in fungus.
He probably wouldn’t find much to help him here but…he had to keep looking. It was fascinating. It was known that people used to live more freely in previous times. No hunting, no running, just living their lives. He wondered what that was like. On the wall was a mural, he glanced at it and stopped. It wasn’t a moral painted on the wall, but a large square metal frame with a picture inside it. He had heard of photographs but had never seen one himself.
The children were always photographed on their birthdays, but they weren’t allowed to see themselves. He didn’t’ even know what he looked like. Mirrors were a luxury, and humans didn’t get that type of luxury anymore.
He stared at it transfixed. Curious, at how people used to look. The picture must have been more colorful at some point. Though the colors had long since faded he could make out red on the woman’s shirt, blue in the man’s pants. The girl between them grinned happily, two loving parents holding her. She couldn’t have been more than three. It was a beautiful picture, a testament to a time when parents kept their children, when fathers didn’t barter their son’s for food rations. He shivered, he barely remembered his mother, but he didn’t expect she would hold him like the mother in the photograph.
Shaking his head, he moved away, he didn’t have time to reminisce and lament his poor childhood. He was fifteen now, old enough to be hunted, he didn’t need a parent’s hug.
Stepping over loose floor he walked into the back of the hut and pushed a small door open. Inside a toilet was laying on its side, the roots of a tree having pushed its way through the pipes. He surveyed the room and beamed. Pushed against the wall by a multitude of tree roots was a small old tub. A bathtub.
He ran back to the front room and found what passed as a kitchen, he pulled at drawers, they fell apart in his hands from rot but finally in one he found a knife. Grinning wildly, he made his way to the bathroom, and started hacking at the vegetation holding the tub to the wall. It took two long sweaty hours, and more then once he cut his finger on the rusted blade, but eventually the old bath fell backwards with a soft thunk on the foliage.
Wiping his face with his arm he leaned against the wall, breath heavy but proud at his accomplishment.
He glanced out the window. The sun was further down then he had hoped. He might have to sleep here if he didn’t hurry. He grabbed the edges of the tub and pulled. It was heavy, and annoyingly hard to move through branches, weeds and thorns that covered the houses floor. Eventually, bruised, and red faced he dragged it through the broken door. He looked at the river.
The tub would be his boat, he wasn’t ready to give up yet. He wouldn’t have much control, he could make a sail but there was nothing in the house to help him with that, and he wasn’t sure he knew how. He just needed something to help him steer, maybe he could make a row from a broken limb? But the issue came with stopping. He didn’t have the strength to fight the river if he wanted to get to shore. Not with a piece of wood and a large bathtub as his transportation.
He ran back into the house to see what he could find. He found ripped up cloth, that disintegrated when he touched it, possibly a blanket? He looked through the kitchen, the rooms, the bathroom, before he stubbed his tow on something heavy. Glancing down he saw the remains of the metal door, twisted and snarled, it would be perfect as an anchor, he dragged it to the tub, and collected some vines.
There were plenty of vines, so he braided them together, making them stronger, it was the best he could do. He walked back into the house, took one more look around and thanked the previous occupants for his treasures. As he walked out, he looked once more at the photograph on the wall, protected by flimsy glass. Without thinking he picked it up, part of him wanted to keep it but it was much to large to lug around. He hung it back on the wall, the hook somehow able to hold its weight. Waving at the long-gone family he left the hut.
He pushed the tub into water, and jumped in. He used the large branch he had found to push off from the shore. Grinning again he flopped down and looked backwards. He watched as the old hut disappeared, it had saved him. He turned his head forward, looking into the distance. It wasn’t over, and he didn’t know where this river would take him. He would run until he was caught, or he found freedom, or he died, but he would never stop running.