From the author: We leave the school, heads down, fear high.
We leave the school, heads down, fear high. Your hand sneaks into mine. Around us, others flee; rainbow smudges whipping by. White cement smudged by colored chalk slips into green scuffed grass. Faster, we run. Your sneaker sinks into a groundhog's tunnel and you trip. If you fall, you'll die.
Our arms stretch...
I tug, wrenching both our shoulders. A fleeing form catches on our clasped hands. It's William. He stares--at us, at our hands--then rips us apart as if we're a reluctant finish line. It's okay though, because you've found your feet. You yell, "Go, go." I barely hear you over the screams.
The ground beneath us quakes; behind us, the school collapses. Above--no, it's better not to look up.
Grass striped white, patches of dirt. We cross the soccer field lengthwise. Something crashes into the bleachers. To the left, a girl falls to her knees. I grab a fistful of shirt before you veer off to help her. I shake my head and you hate me, but know I'm right. In seconds, she is gone. We swerve around the goal post and hop a wooden fence. There is a reluctance to your stride. Already you regret choosing me.
I hurdle over a body, a lost shoe, a jettisoned backpack. I curse myself for wearing a yellow t-shirt. Might as well paint a bull's eye on my back. Yours is dark green--handy camouflage. You always were best at blending in.
I gesture right and we change course. Crash into the woods. Most headed to the road, towards town. They will die. Our attackers will go after easy prey first. The treetops should hide us from laser eyes, keep them and their wings out.
Dirt path, brambles, rotting log.
We pause to catch our breath. Bent over, hands on jean-clad knees. I take off my shirt, stain it with dirt. No more sunshine. How goddamn metaphorical.
You say, "William saw." I laugh because we're about to die and you're worried what some dickhead might say.
"He's probably dead." You don't like that. Scowl at me for thinking William's death solves your problem. I strive for contrite, but am better at being a jerk. "He's not going to tell your parents. If--when--he survives, he'll be too busy celebrating not dying to care about us." If I were as big a liar as you think I am, I'd add: Everything will be fine.
"They'll say we brought the angels." Your face is dappled; your expression torn.
"We didn't." You don't look convinced. I speak louder as if that will change your mind. "It wasn't us. We haven't done anything wrong."
You drop your gaze, head off, following the deer trail. I chase after you. The trail is so narrow we have to move single-file. A branch swipes my face, panic claws my insides. I want to push past you and sprint away. I want to grab you and hide. I want you to look at me. I settle for touching you, scoop your hand in mine. You try to shake me off. "Please," I say and you let it be.
Rock, leaf, flattened beer can, condom.
The woods peter out about a quarter mile from the school at the ass end of some cul-de-sac. We stand at the edge of someone's backyard. It's dead quiet. The grass is sprinkled with glass. I lift my eyes, not enough to view the heavens, just enough to see the houses are all broken and singed.
Proof, I think, they didn't come for us. Angels are only supposed to weed out the wicked, but after what happened at school, I believe they weed the way Mr. Simon hands out detentions--like candy to any kid in arm's reach. Say you see it now. Say we're good.
You lift our clasped hands. "You better let go."
"The angels destroyed this before the school."
You feel responsible--which is stupid. You say, "This is the end."
You plan to sacrifice yourself, us. I'm no martyr. I hang back in the shadows, safe under the awning of trees. You and I aren't wrong. Of all people, you should understand that.
I let go.
You walk into the sunlight. Stare at the ruins, tears in your eyes. I've got tears, too, but mine are from the smoke. "I wish the angels take you," I yell.
The sidewalks are buckled so you walk in the street. Away from me. To the angels. The asphalt is dusty so you leave shoeprints. I look away. Glare at canvas-covered toes, a broken twig.
I don't want the angels to get you. I shouldn't have said that. That was wrong.
I jog after you. When I reach the cross street, you're already gone. I chase wobbly yellow lines, skirting debris and bodies--which I don't eye too closely. My footsteps echo yours all the way to town.
A horn sounds. I automatically step up to the sidewalk--gum, penny, blood splatter--then remember it's not that kind of horn. I check doors. All locked. No helpful eyes peer out from store windows.
Behind me, you call my name. How did I miss you? Doesn't matter; I'm just relieved you're not the squishy bits stuck to my soles.
I turn, but you're not there. I take two steps. You whisper my name again. The voice: It's underneath me. I look down. Hell. Not you.
The grate is small and square. William peers from his cell beneath the sidewalk. He says, "They're coming for you."
Above, the sky thunders with approaching wings. My eyes watch his; my shoulders hunch.
Storm drain, safety, sludge.
William pushes at the grate, promises me I'll fit. "Hurry," he says, "Before it's too late."
This story originally appeared in Freeze Frame Fiction.