Just One TouchBy: Maya Banks
SHE ran through the gnarled forest, her breaths of fear spilling raggedly from her lips as she sought to suck in precious oxygen. Another tree limb slapped her painfully in the face and she brought up her hand in automatic protection. She flung it out to protect herself from other obstacles shielded from her in the inky night where overcast skies hid the half moon, rendering her blind as she continued to crash haphazardly through the woods.
It was only a matter of time before her absence was detected and they wouldn’t wait until dawn, just an hour away, to set the dogs loose to track her. They had the advantage. She had none.
Her feet became entangled in exposed tree roots and she slammed face-first onto the ground, all the wind knocked brutally from her lungs. She lay there wheezing for breath as tears burned. Gritting her teeth in determination, she shoved herself upward and took off once more, ignoring the crippling pain that seized her entire body.
They would find her. They’d never rest until they had her back. She couldn’t stop. Couldn’t give up. She’d die before going back.
A shiver went up her spine when she heard a distant coyote howl. She pulled up sharply when she heard another and then a third, much closer than the first. The sound of the entire pack yipping and barking only to end in long, haunting howls made goose bumps rise on her skin, which was already prickled from the cold.
They were in front of her. They were the only obstacle between her and the open land that represented her freedom. Possible freedom. But then she realized if the coyotes were near her, then perhaps the dogs sent to track her would be reluctant to follow her this closely to them.
Her chances with wild coyotes were infinitely better than—and preferable to—the fate she knew awaited her if they dragged her back to the compound. Already the sky was beginning to lighten in the east, but not enough to give her a clear sight path. Knowing she had to keep moving at all costs, she plunged recklessly ahead, shoving thick bramble away as she tried to gain passage through the dense vegetation.
Her bare feet had no feeling in them. Cold and the many scrapes and bruises had rendered them numb. For that she was grateful. The moment she regained sensation she knew she would be helpless.
How much farther? She’d studied the maps, snatching stolen moments, taking great risks to delve into the off-limits areas of the compound. She knew the path she’d chosen—north—was the shortest path out of the heavy forest that encompassed the compound. She’d committed every marker to memory and had taken a due-north route from the northern edge of the compound walls.
What if she hadn’t taken a straight line? What if she was merely running in circles? A sob escaped her bloodied mouth but she bit it back, purposely injecting pain by sinking her teeth into her bottom lip.
And then another sound stopped her cold. Panic scuttled up her spine and she went rigid in terror. Dogs. Still a distance away, but the sound was unmistakable and one she was intimately acquainted with. Bloodhounds. And she’d certainly bled all over the woods, leaving a trail that would be child’s play for the dogs to track.
With a sob, she pushed forward again, her flight more desperate than before. She hurdled stumps and downed branches, falling half a dozen times in her frenzied flight, fueled by desperation and a lifetime of despair.
A cramp knotted her thigh and she gasped but ignored the crippling pain. And then another seized her side. Oh God. Slapping her hand over her side, pushing, massaging the taut muscle, she turned her tear-streaked face upward to heaven.
Please help me, God. I refuse to believe I’m the abomination they named me. That I’m to be punished for what wasn’t my choice. They don’t do your work. I can’t—won’t—believe that. Please. Grant me mercy and grace.
The dogs seemed closer and she could no longer hear a single coyote. Perhaps they were frightened away by the loud baying and sheer number of the dogs hunting her. Another cramp nearly sent her to her knees, and she realized that soon she’d no longer be able to continue running.
“Why, God?” she whispered. “What is my sin?”
And then suddenly she burst from the last snarl of bramble and bushes and was so shocked to have no further obstacle that she tripped and went tumbling forward, landing flat on her face on a . . . gravel road?