Most fifteen year old girls are trying to figure out who they are; I’m trying to stay alive long enough to figure out what.
I’ve always been on the run. From my guilt about the things I couldn’t change, and from the voice in my head that won’t let me be normal. But yesterday Tommy and I were in a car accident on the way home from school. When I woke up, Tommy was gone, and so was the world I grew up in. Now I’m running less in a metaphorical way, and more in a “pick up the pace if you don’t want to die” way. Why? Because my eyes are blue, and I’m lost in a fantasy world where that means I’m different. It means I might not be human. It means I should already be extinct, and someone called “The Regent” is determined to make me that way.
I need to find the way home, and before I do that, I need to find Tommy. He’s only in this mess because of me. I can’t do it on my own, but it’s hard to know who to trust when everyone keeps trying to kill me.I’ve always been on the run. From my guilt about the things I couldn’t change, and from the voice in my head that won’t let me be normal. But yesterday Tommy and I were in a car accident on the way home from school. When I woke up, Tommy was gone, and so was the world I grew up in. Now I’m running less in a metaphorical way, and more in a “pick up the pace if you don’t want to die” way. Why? Because my eyes are blue, and I’m lost in a fantasy world where that means I’m different. It means I might not be human. It means I should already be extinct, and someone called “The Regent” is determined to make me that way.
I need to find the way home, and before I do that, I need to find Tommy. He’s only in this mess because of me. I can’t do it on my own, but it’s hard to know who to trust when everyone keeps trying to kill me.
We came out on the edge of the open-air market behind a stall that sold the carpets. The sky was the dark blue of pre-dawn, a sure sign that the rapid sunrise couldn’t be too far away. I looked all around me at the transformation I had caused. The market was destroyed. A twister could have moved through it. Some stalls, like the carpet one, still stood, but many were toppled over, some in pieces. Debris littered the ground everywhere, shards of broken pottery, pieces of fabric, and food intermingled in the dirt. Deserted as the market was without the protection of the sun, we could have been walking through the ruins of some great disaster. I didn’t know who owned the stalls, whether they sympathized with the Regime or not, but from where I stood it looked like the mob had torn through the market indiscriminately, destroying everything in its path. As we passed close to a collapsed stall, I saw dark splashes of dried blood on its canvas and felt a fresh wave of horror and guilt.
We hadn’t gone far when I saw a pale light move out of the corner of my eye some distance away. I froze and jerked my head, looking for the source. Trage followed my eyes and immediately pulled me close to him, slowly easing back into the relative shelter of one of the stalls that still stood. About twenty yards away, a naked child-sized figure was sifting through the rubble, picking up various objects and inspecting them with its nose and mouth before discarding them again. Its stance was crouched, its movements animalistic. It didn’t have any hair that I noticed, but I couldn’t pick out many details from that distance. The most notable thing about it was that it lit up like a glow stick in my vision, and I knew what it must be before Trage even spoke.
“Toddler,” Trage breathed quietly in my ear. “Best to avoid it, if we can.” I nodded mutely. There was no way I wanted to get anywhere near that thing. Trage slowly led the way out of the stall and along its side, heading toward the cover of buildings not far away. He kept a wary eye on the toddler as we went. The hair on the back of my neck prickled and I looked up, barely managing to contain a shriek of terror. Just above us on the canvas roof of the stall was another toddler, hunched like a gargoyle and sniffing the air frantically. Its eyes were all red, just as the Agents’ in the forest had been, but that was as far as the resemblance stretched. As I thought, it had no hair, and this close I could see that its face barely resembled a human’s. It appeared flattened, as if it had been smashed into a wall, its nostrils turned up and its nose reminiscent of a crushed soda can. Its ears were too long, floppy, and gnarled, and too high on its sickly pale head. It had its lips pulled back from its sharp, pointy teeth and it flicked its tongue out, tasting the air like a serpent. I realized belatedly that Trage must have cloaked us when we spotted the first toddler, but that the illusion would not hide our scent. This toddler would soon find us out.
Trage looked up and tensed as he spotted the creature. He pulled me behind him, placing himself between me and the toddler, drawing out the stake in the same motion. Some sound must have betrayed our movement, because a moment later the thing hissed and jumped off the tent suddenly, landing on the ground just feet in front of us. I bit my lip to keep from crying out, my eyes riveted to the thing, but then I noticed a glow in my peripheral vision. The first toddler had taken notice of the second’s movements, and was coming over to investigate. My heart pounded loudly in my chest, and I silently willed it to be quiet, afraid it would give us away. Trage backed away slowly, silently, pushing me along behind him. The toddler flicked out its tongue again, then fixed its eyes right on us.
Trage reacted instantly, shoving me away from him and rising to meet the toddler as it lunged at us. I stumbled back into the rubble of another stall, instinctively picking up a large splinter of wood from the debris scattered around. I watched the assault with my heart in my throat. I hadn’t seen much of the fight with the Agents in the forest, but I got the distinct feeling that the toddlers were more dangerous, feral and deadly fast.
Trage feinted to the right and the creature moved to match him. When Trage quickly leapt back to the left and made to strike with the stake, the toddler twisted so fast I could barely catch the movement. It scrambled up the side of the stall like some horrifying spider hybrid before launching off of it to collide with Trage full force. I cried out in dismay as the two tumbled down into the dirt, gripping my makeshift stake uselessly in my hands. Adrenaline heightened my senses and the faint sound of rubble shifting to my left alerted me to danger moments before the first toddler lunged for me.
I scrambled out of the way just in time, stumbling painfully over the wreckage of the stall, managing to hang onto my fragment of wood. The toddler slowly circled me like a cat stalking a mouse. I knew better than to take my eyes off of it, but I could hear Trage still struggling with the other one somewhere behind and knew he couldn’t help me. Adrenaline completely overwhelmed me, wiping out my useless fear. My blood pounded through my body, my eyes peeled wide to watch the toddler’s movements. I didn’t think, my body tensing to take action accordingly. The toddler stopped circling, eyeing with the intent to strike. A strange, breathtaking thrill overtook me.
“Go ahead,” I breathed, palming the stake as if I knew what to do with it.
SaraJean Panek has loved books since before she could read. One of her earliest memories is of sitting with one of her two older brothers and following along the page as he read her “Rapunzel.” She’s been telling her own stories nearly as long. “Between the Layers” is SaraJean’s debut novel. She travels at every opportunity, but currently lives in her hometown of Virginia Beach and spends most of her free time writing, the work she loves.
Learn more at http://spanek88.wix.com/sarapanek
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