The tension in the car was so palpable it forced me to keep silent. There were so many things I wanted to ask Oliver, I didn’t know where to start. But the tension was so overbearing that I couldn’t fight against the force compelling my lips to stay shut tight. Instead, I nervously drummed the tips of my fingers against the steering wheel as I drove. I tried to concentrate on every aspect of the drive: the buildings, the street signs, the advertisements. I locked each detail away-anything to keep my mind from drifting into musings of the impending unknown.
We got to Amanda’s house just in time. As I was pulling into her small driveway, she was exiting her front door, keys in hand, preparing to find me. I parked my car quickly, simultaneously putting it into park, pulling the keys out of the ignition and exiting the car.
“Good. I’m glad you’re finally here,” she exhaled all in one anxious breath.
“Let’s get inside now,” I answered hastily. Who knew what secret eyes were watching me at that very moment.
Oliver was somehow there, right behind me, during the brief exchange between Amanda and me. It calmed me immensely. His nearness felt like a much needed shield from all of the danger that seemed to now be closing in on me. I wanted so badly to understand why all of this was happening to me. What made me so special? If special was even the right word to use to describe my current situation.
It was an unsettling feeling being forced into the epicenter of a conflict, being the focus of attention after so many years of living under the radar. I ignored this as the three of us walked hastily to her front door. As we were settling ourselves in her front room, she closed all of her blinds, warily assessing the scene outside before shutting each one. At that moment I wished that those blinds could do more than simply block those on the outside from seeing us within. I wished that it could create a magic shield, protecting me from what was sure to be lurking outside any door I happened to close in front of me. A childish thought, but at least it kept my mind occupied, distracted for a few fleeting seconds from the present.
“So…what’s your plan?” Amanda asked, breaking my thoughts.
“Umm…” I replied uneasily. What was the plan? I looked at Oliver, hoping that he would be able to say what I couldn’t. My only understanding was that Tampa was no longer a safe place for me to be. I didn’t know what my options were. I had some friends in Kentucky that would gladly house me, no questions asked, for as long as I needed. I started to weigh my options in case Oliver did not in fact have an answer to Amanda’s question.
Suddenly, it occurred to me. I couldn’t go north to Kentucky. I couldn’t go anywhere familiar. There was no safe place for me to go where I would find comfort in the known. Wherever it was that I was going, it couldn’t be predictable. And predictable definitely was anywhere I had been. I started going through the list of forbidden places: Florida, Kentucky, California, North Carolina…the list went on and on. Where was there left for me to go? I started picturing myself hovered over a pathetic campfire in the depths of some lonesome cave, battling against the fierce winter winds outside. I really could be overdramatic when I wanted to be. I chuckled ruefully at this thought.
Once again the silence of my thoughts was broken:
“I’m not sure exactly,” was his reply. Oh, great. Things were really looking up.
“Wherever it is, it can’t be anyplace that she’s gone to before,” Amanda stated, concern infused in every word she spoke. Sometimes I wondered how it could be so easy for her and me to be on the same mental wavelength. It was a thing I found comforting (and irritating at times) about our friendship. At this particular moment, it was comforting.
“Wherever we go at the moment,” Oliver amended, “it will be somewhere nearby but hidden. There are a few things we need to work out before we can escape what’s after us properly.” He ended in an ominous tone. And did he just say we were escaping “what’s after us”? Were those strange creatures after Amanda too? That didn’t make any sense…or was he referring to himself? That seemed to be more likely, but what were they after from him? The only thing that these animals seemed drawn to was the necklace that was securely fastened around my neck. The knowledge of that one clear fact made this tiny trinket weigh down on me like I was wearing an anvil instead of an inconsequential charm…or so at least I thought it was inconsequential until now.
And what did we need to “work out”? Escaping seemed straight forward enough for me: you run from what’s chasing you. You hide in a place where you can’t be found. You find something or someone that can stop what’s chasing you from finishing its job. But in this case, what would stop such a fantastic force? I couldn’t just stroll into the nearest police station and start babbling about monsters (and crows…and cats) having me on their hit list. I’d be laughed at. And then I’d be put away.
There were too many questions and not enough answers.
Our thoughts on the next move were interrupted by a crash at the door. We all jumped in response, fright painted on mine and Amanda’s face but not on Oliver’s. He stood between us and the source of the noise with a quiet strength. For a split second I believed that he would protect us from whatever it was that was trying to get into Amanda’s house. Appreciation swelled within me. And trust. It was good to have someone else to trust. Someone stronger than me.
There was a faint but indescribable noise coming from the front door. Whatever was on the other side was fatigued, and I hoped, harmless. Fear still kept me frozen in place. I didn’t dare to go nearer to the door. Perhaps it was a trick.
“Please, Oliver,” the voice on the other side finally gasped. “They’re coming.”
I felt instant relief and compassion, but they were soon replaced with undeniable dread. They were coming. How much time did we have to escape? My mind raced and my heart fluttered when I realized that we hadn’t even thought of a place to run to next.
Oliver ran to the door to let the person in. I wasn’t surprised to see that it was his companion from before. I was surprised, however, to see his current condition: drenched in sweat, bleeding and breathing heavily. He had been injured. Possibly attacked. And for my sake. I didn’t even know his name.
“Clarence, what’s happened?” Oliver asked, sadness in his voice.
“When you and the lady managed to escape the club, I ran to assess the scene to see where I would be needed most. Since the lady had gone safely with you, I wanted to do my best to ward off those beasts, to give the two of you more time to get away.” He sounded like he would slip away from us at any moment. Even through the weakness in his voice, he sounded regal, composed.
“I suspected that she would want to go to her home which was where I also figured those awful beasts would go next, so I pressed on ahead at a point that would intercept them. Needless to say, when I cut them off from getting to their next destination, they were pretty upset.”
He gasped for air. Tears began to well up in my eyes. Who was this man, and why did he forfeit his life for my own? I knew nothing about him. He could have a wife, a child, and I was the reason why he would not be returning to any of those comforts if he really did have them.
“Please, Clarence. You have to hold on. We need you now more than ever,” Oliver begged, clear strain in his voice.
“I’m so sorry,” was the only weak reply he could choke out between his breaths which grew shorter and shorter by the minute.
“How will I know what to do? Where to go? How will I know what to teach her what she needs to know?” Oliver pleaded again.
Wait. Now I was really confused. All of the questions that seemed to be overflowing in my mind, incapable of being vocalized now condensed into one thought. A thought that would somehow make all of my other questions pointless. “How will I know what to teach her what she needs to know?” came to the forefront of my mind. What was so important for me to know? Whatever it was, I thought hastily, I didn’t want to know. In fact, I was almost positive that whatever it was that he wanted to teach me would do nothing but bring more trouble to my front door than I already had. No, thanks.
Clarence didn’t have much time left. That was a hard but clear truth to come to grips with. For all of us.
“I’m sorry,” his voice barely more than a whisper, “I know you’ll find a way. I’ve taught you enough. Keep your eyes open and your mind sharp. You will find the way.”
And then he was gone.
It happened in an instant. Too quickly. I blinked my eyes, and in the brief moment my eyes curtained the scene before me, his life had disappeared. I didn’t know him at all, but I couldn’t stop the tears that were welling up, brimming over, streaming down my cheeks because, whether I fully understood or not, he had given up his life for me. So that I could continue living. No matter who makes that kind of sacrifice for you-whether it’s a parent or a complete stranger-there’s no escaping the intense feeling of gratitude mixed with the intense feeling of regret for not being able to express your appreciation. I would never be able to look Clarence in the eyes and say my thanks to him. That bothered me tremendously.
In my haze of thoughts, I didn’t realize that I was now kneeling on the floor beside Oliver, arms around his shoulder, while he cried just as intensely as I. I felt awkward and awkwardly jumped to my feet, looking away from Oliver. I didn’t know him that well either. Why was I comforting him? Not that he didn’t deserve some kind of comfort; it was clear that Clarence was a dear friend to him. But I didn’t know him well enough to break the physical contact barrier just yet. I had a feeling that we would be in close quarters for the duration of the near future, but still, I had to have some boundaries.
The last sound I wanted to hear came next. A long, low howl from the distance. That could only mean one thing. They were near. Near enough for us to know they knew exactly where to find us. The three of us locked eyes and slowly turned our gaze to the front door.
“We have to get out of here!” Amanda screamed, searching for her keys again.
Oliver was more deliberate, calm. Perhaps he was still in shock from losing his friend; perhaps he was finding the resolve Clarence suggested to him in his last moments of life. He walked quickly and steadily to the window and pulled a few blinds down so he could see what was happening outside.
“We can’t drive. Not yet,” he confirmed, a slight tone of defeat in his voice.
“And why the hell not?” Amanda spit, more form anxiety than anger.
“Because they’re just outside. We’d never make it,” he responded, calmly ignoring her rude tone, “Is there any way to exit through the back?”
“We can try,” she responded more calmly, still the edge in her voice was recognizable. “My backyard is just connected to three or four of my neighbor’s backyards.”
“It’s the only chance we’ve got now,” he said calmly.
We quietly went out the back door and made our way towards one of the fences Amanda did not share with a neighbor. She and I were just about to reach this fence and assess our chances in getting over it quietly in our escape plan.
It was then that I heard the sound of those inexplicable monsters prowling outside one of Amanda’s walls. I stifled a gasp. Oliver was next to us in an instant. He signaled to Amanda and me to be quiet. He had brought something with him from Amanda’s small porch-it was too dark to tell what it was. Whatever it was, he threw it with as much force as he could over Amanda’s low roof. I didn’t believe it would work, but like the sound of the final bell releasing you from school for the day, a sound crashed in the distance and served its purpose. The three beasts were distracted. They ran to the source of the noise, away from us, growling fiercely. It bought us enough time to jump a wall undetected, unseen.
We ran to the nearest corner. Luckily, there were some decorative shrubs in addition to shadow that camouflaged our hiding spot. We sank as low in the dirt as possible and waited. Every breath I took sounded like a clanging bell; I tried with all of my might to breathe as quietly as possible. I shut my eyes, pretending that the blackness I now saw somehow helped me to become more invisible. Childish, I know, but it calmed me somehow.
And then they came back. I heard the low thuds as each of them in their turn jumped over the wall into Amanda’s back yard. The only other sounds indicating their unwanted presence was the light squish of the yard that was now soaked in chlorine-water. Other than the sound of their breath, we were surrounded by complete silence. The noiselessness of their movements was more terrifying than anything I could’ve imagined. It weighed on my entire body. It felt as if the air around me was getting heavier, crushing my body against the earth, and I was suffocating in this vice-like grip of unsettling stillness. I felt like they could be right behind me at any moment, and I would have no idea they were there. The thought alone made my body quake, and Oliver pressed one hand calmly on my back to help me keep still. It stilled my body but not my racing heart.
The sound of the three of them in Amanda’s yard sent shivers down my spine. Time seemed to move in slow motion. They sniffed around the yard, perhaps searching for our scents-or where they had gone. Each time they did so, the hairs on my arms, on my neck would stand on end and quiver. It felt like my whole body had gone numb. I could feel that they were getting closer to the actual path we took to jump the wall. What would happen when they reached that? I dreaded the thought. But as soon as they reached that spot, they moved on to the next just as quickly. I guess we didn’t leave significant enough water marks in the process of scaling the fence-thank goodness! I couldn’t celebrate just yet. No sigh of relief. I didn’t want to do anything that would even have the slightest chance of directing them to me. They were too close as it was.
Fierce growls exploded in the silent air. I couldn’t help but shiver violently in response. Oliver held me still again, not releasing me from his hold this time around, even when I had calmed down.
They left just as silently as they arrived. The only indication of their departure was the sound of three different bodies running off into the distance, but even those noises could have been mistaken for any, normal nighttime noise.
I breathed my sigh of relief.
“It’s not over yet,” Oliver cut me short. “We have to move quickly now.”
The three of us flew back into Amanda’s house. I searched frantically for my bag…I couldn’t find it anywhere! It didn’t matter what was in my way-tables, chairs, books; they all flew randomly about the front room as if I were a tornado wreaking havoc on all that stood in my path. Still no bag. How much longer did we have until they came back?
“You left it in the car,” Oliver answered my internal question, reading my mind.
One down. Now, my eyes searched for Amanda. I could hear her scrambling around in her room, probably doing as much damage in there as I had done in her living room. I ran to her door and began helping her sort through her things, making snap decisions on what was essential for her to take. She didn’t stop to acknowledge my presence. All the same, I knew she appreciated the help. We didn’t even take time to stow things properly; anything that seemed like an essential was thrown hastily into her backpack. As she was dressing herself, I ran to the bathroom to gather more things that she may need.
We were out of the house in no time at all. Oliver was already waiting for us, car started and on the road, facing the direction we would flee towards. Only I didn’t know what we were running to, and, to be honest, I was almost positive Oliver didn’t either. At that moment, it didn’t matter. The only important thing for us to do now was to get as far away from this house as possible.
“What are you going to say to people, Amanda?” I asked. “Who’s going to watch after your things?” I wasn’t sure how long we would be gone. I noticed Oliver glance quickly at the two of us as I said these things. What was he thinking, and what was that look for? I didn’t like it. Something big was happening, bigger than I could’ve imagined. And I had a feeling that this kind of big would involve a lot of time away from the familiar. Not that I had anything to be overly attached to; it was just unsettling to think that I would be forced into the unknown for an even more unknown amount of time. Was I ready?
My mind was spinning. There were too many questions and not enough answers.
“It doesn’t matter,” Amanda finally answered, resolved. “Whatever happens, happens. I can make a few calls if necessary, and that’ll be that, I guess.”
“You won’t need to make any calls,” Oliver interjected, slowing down at a small motel.
Where were we? From the looks of it, we had stopped at some motel in a part of town I never ventured into-and for very good reasons. You didn’t come to this part of town unless you were looking for some kind of trouble. So naturally, I didn’t recognize anything around me. I looked at a small group of women smoking cigarettes on the street corner. They didn’t say a word to each other. A few of them drowsily looked in our direction with little to no interest. We didn’t have anything they wanted.
I resolved to get familiar with this feeling; the feeling of being completely and thoroughly overrun by the unknown; the feeling of complete discomfort in my surroundings. It would probably be the only familiar thing I could count on happening to me: not knowing where I was or where I was going.
As he pulled over in front of the tiny, shabby looking lobby, I noticed that he didn’t turn off the car. It didn’t register until I was kept from following Amanda’s lead in exiting the car. He held me back in the front seat. Oliver’s hand was gently, but firmly locked around my forearm, keeping me from exiting the car. I looked at him, completely confused as to what was happening. Then understanding hit like lightning. We weren’t stopping; we were dropping Amanda off. My confused look turned to one of earnestness as I turned my gaze towards Amanda. When I saw the acknowledgment in her eyes, I knew it was final. I’d be saying goodbye to her as well. She shut the door resolutely, trying to control her emotions. This was no time to cry.
I couldn’t, however, stop the tears from streaming down my face. I wanted to struggle. To fight for the one piece of familiarity that was left for me to hold onto. Part of me wanted to break from Oliver’s hold and cling to Amanda. I wanted to yell at him. To tell him to go away and leave us alone. But somehow I knew that I needed him. Whatever it was that was coming after me was somehow tied to him as well. If I needed any answers anytime soon, I would need to go with him, even if that meant leaving Amanda behind.
“How long until I can go back home?” she asked, sounding too cool for the situation at hand. I knew she was trying to be calm for me. She knew me so well.
“Give it a few days,” he answered, “They won’t go to your house again. They’re not after you. It’s us that they want.”
I shivered uncontrollably.
“Take care of her,” she demanded, passing the proverbial torch to this complete stranger.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to keep her safe,” he promised, sincerity brimming over in his resolute answer. “She’s too important to lose.”
I didn’t know what to make of that. For some reason he needed me, and I would figure out the reasons why. Unconsciously, I began to play with the tiny trinket that hung around my neck. I looked at it mechanically, watching it change color, taking in each letter and symbol that appeared. When I looked up from my necklace, I was met by his eyes, looking curiously down at the trinket around my neck. His eyes were full of wonder and interest; he met mine for a moment. In that brief period our eyes locked, it was as if he was trying to communicate something to me, some secret that I had not realized I was a part of or supposed to be a part of.
“Amanda…” I trailed, incapable of finding the words to say to her, incapable of meeting her eyes with my own. I was terrible with goodbyes. I was terrible with anything that required me to say exactly how I felt. Luckily, she knew this about me as well. She stopped me short.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine,” she assured, still keeping her voice calm. “You can trust him.”
My eyes shot to her face. She trusted him. Why? From what I could see in her eyes, she was confident in what she had just told me. She wasn’t lying to comfort me. She really thought I could trust him. A wave of comfort settled over me. I gave her a quick nod, wiping the tears off of my face. I wanted to leave her with a good last image which meant no tears. If I never came back, I wanted her to be sure of at least one thing: I left with no fear. Even though I was screaming on the inside, I didn’t want her to worry. I couldn’t let her know how scared I actually was. Suddenly, I was reminded of my final parting with my father. It was so long ago, and yet, it was as if history was repeating itself. I was saying goodbye, somehow acting out both parts of father and daughter. I had to be strong, but this time, I also had to be the one leaving.
And for the first time in my entire friendship with Amanda, I think I was able to convey just that. She finally accepted what she saw on the surface and didn’t dig deeper for what I was truly feeling. Perhaps she did it on purpose, also trying to be left with one last comforting image of her best friend. I didn’t look back as we drove away and left her at the motel.
I had a feeling she didn’t look back either.