by Jeremy Warach
Ruben peeked out from the convenience store's doorway and looked to the left, then the right, wondering which way the pursuit would come from. His heart was pounding hard and fast, his breath rapid and shallow. A customer pushed open the door and stepped down onto the sidewalk with her purchases, then turned left and ambled off. Ruben slipped behind her, quickly scanned the area, and sprinted to the right.
It was a hot summer afternoon. The air shimmered above the surface of the street. Ruben's sneakers barely touched the concrete as he ran, zigzagging to the left and right between the leisurely strolling pedestrians. Some of them turned and stared at him for a moment, but none took special notice — a teenager in jeans and a t-shirt running down the street was nothing terribly unusual.
He fought to maintain control over the panic which threatened to consume him. Don't hyperventilate, keep your eyes on the path ahead of you, try not to knock anyone down, but for god's sake, keep moving, fast. Convenience stores, burger joints, banks, discount clothing shops all zipped by him in a blur. People wandered up and down the street. Young mothers pushing strollers, old couples hand in hand, groups of teenage girls, workers of all sorts carrying packages or hauling handtrucks. Cars were parked bumper to bumper at the curb, and other cars were double-parked, waiting to pounce on an empty spot when someone pulled out.
He saw but didn't see all of these things. All he was conscious of — and even this was only in a half-conscious, animal-instinct kind of way — was looking for openings in the throng of people that he could race through. He reached a corner and ran out into the street. A car horn blared and brakes screeched, but he didn't stop, not even as he heard shouts and curses hurled his way. He raced on, to the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, then turned right. The street angled slightly downhill, and there were fewer people walking here, so he was able to pick up even more speed.
The neighborhood changed slightly for the worse. He passed liquor stores, pawn shops, run-down bodegas, but he didn't care. His feet burned in his sneakers, and his chest burned with every breath, but he barely noticed. Move, keep moving, don't stop, don't slow down, don't get caught!
As he ran into another intersection, a bead of sweat rolled in his eye, burning it. He blinked involuntarily and tripped over a crack in the asphalt. He turned as he fell, and his shoulder and hip hit the street. He rolled, pushed himself up onto his feet, and stumbled back into a run. Behind him, someone shouted, "Are you ok? Hey!"
He didn't think about what would happen when he ran out of steam. He couldn't consider it. His mind wouldn't accept the implications.
At the next intersection, he turned left into a narrow alley. Cars and vans were parked on the left, leaving four or five feet on the right for Ruben to run through. No people were visible. He passed doors on the left and right. None had signs or windows or any indication of what they opened into.
The alley opened onto a street that looked abandoned. Ruben paused on the cracked sidewalk, then turned right and continued running. Low rent apartment buildings lined both sides of the street. There were few people to be seen. A lonely looking middle-aged man sitting on the stoop of one building. An elderly woman wearing a coat which was much too warm for the weather on the opposite side of the street, walking a tired-looking mutt.
The street curved to the left, and when Ruben passed the turn, he saw that he had entered a cul-de-sac. He stopped short.
"Shit," he muttered, panting. Where next? To his right was an unbroken string of apartment buildings. To his left, across the street, was a fenced off, overgrown, abandoned-looking field or lot or park. He couldn't see through it to the other side, but it was his best and only choice. He sprinted across the street, scaled the locked chain-link fence, and vaulted over the top into the weed-choked space.
As he landed on a patch of broken concrete, his left foot fell on a large rock, twisting his ankle. He heard and felt something crack. His leg buckled and he fell to the ground, a wave of nausea accompanying the pain shooting up through his leg. He winced and gritted his teeth, hugging his knee to his chest. But he didn't linger more than a moment. He pushed himself up and began limping through the abandoned area.
Through cracks in the concrete grew ugly, evil looking, yet hearty weeds. Some had grown as tall as trees. Boxes, broken televisions, beer cans and other assorted refuse littered the ground. Ruben saw a fence on the opposite side from where he entered, about fifty feet away. Graffiti-covered brick walls of old, unmaintained buildings rose several stories high on his left and right.
He stumbled as quickly as he could on his injured leg towards the fence on the far side, angling to the left, towards the side of the building, hoping it might provide some cover. The ground was a danger to him here, so he looked down as often as he looked ahead — he could not afford another injury. He examined the fence as he moved toward it, but there was no apparent gate, and he didn't think he would be able to scale the fence with his ankle twisted so badly.
He reached the point where the fence met the side of the building, and he leaned against the brick wall. Another deserted street lay outside the lot. He peered to the left and the right, saw burnt-out apartments and storefronts, and a few lonely, abandoned-looking cars parked at the curb.
He pushed himself off the side of the building to make his way along the fence, hoping to find an opening in the chain link. He looked up and down the expanse of rusted metal.
Arms wrapped around him from behind, too quickly for him to react. They locked powerfully around him, pinning his arms against his sides. Ruben felt the breath hot against his ear and his pursuer's hissing voice, "Gotcha."
Ruben clenched his teeth as the arms squeezed him tighter, his captor's hairy paws pressed against his chest. He felt claws extend from the paws and tear through the fabric of his shirt. He tried to suppress a scream as the claws pierced his skin and began slowly rending his flesh. The last thing Ruben heard was low pitched, growling laughter.