Sunday, December 19, 2010
Chapter 8 (concluded)
They spent the afternoon roaming the woods of Rock Creek Park and its environs. They passed the occasional hiker or biker, depending on which paths they took, but often they were alone amongst the trees. It was a bit cooler here out of the sun, but very peaceful. At first Johnny had been a bit nervous, being away from the hustle and bustle of the city—this was more alone than he strictly wanted to be at the moment—but he had to admit that it was pleasant. This wasn’t a creepy, Hansel and Gretel sort of forest. It was more like when Amiira used to take him to Great Falls Park, just over the state line in Virginia. They had gone several times, without his parents of course, and he still had fond memories of it despite how young he had been at the time. It was like exploring their very own wilderness, away from the crowds of the suburbs. Still, as the day grew longer, he felt the vague nervousness returning. There was a sense of isolation, and a feeling of being watched.
Finally Johnny suggested that they head back into the city. Larissa studied him for a moment, then shrugged and struck off in a new direction through the trees. Johnny didn’t question that she knew where she was going. Larissa always knew.
They cut through the cemetery and came out onto the trail very close to where they’d first joined it, earlier that morning. This time they kept moving south, under Q Street, then under P Street. The trees were getting thinner and the city traffic was becoming clearer and louder off to their right. Twenty or thirty minutes later, Johnny was just starting to remark to himself that he’d never been this far south on the Georgetown side of The Creek, when a baseball diamond suddenly appeared to their right.
“Hunh,” Johnny said aloud. “Where the heck are we?”
“Rose Park,” Larissa replied. She stayed on the trail until just past the field, then cut off the path and headed to a small children’s playground. There were a couple of picnic tables on the outskirts, and Larissa picked one and sat down at it. On the far side of Georgetown, the sun was sinking, and the play area was deserted. Must be a weeknight, Johnny thought.
And so they had a quiet little picnic with booty from Sandra’s café: cold sandwiches, and cheese, and fruit, and some sort of cream cheese and mushroom puffs, and little dark chocolate cupcakes with pink cherry frosting. As the sunlight faded, Johnny felt full. This was an unusual feeling for him. Johnny had been full only a few times since he’d come to live on the streets, mostly coinciding with his stints in foster care. He leaned back and savored the feeling.
Larissa was looking towards the street, which Johnny figured was probably 26th or 27th or something like that. Something in her gaze brought him up out of his well-fed stupor. “See something?”
She shook her head briefly.
He didn’t see anything either. “Hear something, then?”
She cocked her head to one side and drew her eybrows together slightly.
Johnny listened. There was a bit of birdsong left, despite the dying day. There were traffic noises, despite the lack of visible cars. There was what was perhaps a fire engine, far away. There were occasional shouts or screeches or barks, probably from neighborhood kids and their pets, but those weren’t that close either. There were some rustlings in the bushes, certainly more squirrels. Squirrels were everywhere in the city. In fact, if he looked around, he could proably see some. Anywhere there were people and food, you could be sure to find a bold squirrel on the lookout for droppings.
But, actually, now that Johnny looked around, there were no squirrels. Or birds, either: all the chirping he could hear was from deeper in the trees towards The Creek. There were no cats, which should be fairly common this close to a residential area, or rabbits, which should be fairly common this close to Rock Creek Park, although they certainly weren’t as brave as the squirrels. There was, in fact, nothing moving as far as he could see.
“Say, Larissa, I think it’s time to be going.”
Larissa nodded, still searching the area towards the neighborhood. They both stood up and quickly packed away the leftovers. Then they both took a step ... in opposite directions.
Larissa gave him her studying look. Johnny waved at the sky vaguely. “Look, it’s getting dark. Traipsing through the trees in the daytime is fun and all, but I don’t want to be lost in the woods at night.” Larissa arched an eyebrow. “Not that we were ever lost today, of course!” Johnny put up his hands, palms out. “I’m not saying that, I’m just saying ... City. People. You know?”
Larissa pointed back towards the treeline. “That way is safer.”
Johnny started to give her a “you must be crazy” look, but was distracted by a soft chuff from the bushes between them and the neighborhood. He froze. There was a low growling purr that seemed to have an electronic whine embedded in it. “What the ...” Johnny started, but Larissa was already heading back towards the trail. Johnny quickly followed.
They ran along the trail for a few hundred yards, then Larissa cut through the trees back to the other path, that ran along the parkway. The remnants of rush hour were still clogging the road, and Johnny mentally applauded Larissa’s choice. He felt safer here, even though the commuters, in their single-minded drive to get back to comfortable suburban homes, were a world away from the two ragamuffin street children. They slowed down now; passing under another busy street that Johnny felt sure was M Street, the main drag in Georgetown. Still breathing heavily, they walked a couple hundred feet and passed under another road. “Pennsylvania,” Larissa said in answer to Johnny’s unasked question.
After emerging from the underpass, they walked past a short grassy area to where the trail crossed the Pennsylvania Street exit off the parkway. Waiting at the edge of the crosswalk for a few cars to pass, Larissa suddenly spun around and looked back toward the gloom under the bridge.
“What” Johnny started to ask, then he heard it too: a soft metallic click whose echo bounced around with all the carsound from the parkway. It was almost lost in all the traffic noise, and at first Johnny was sure it must be his imagination, but now he thought he caught a flash of small red light as well, and suddenly it seemed more prudent to assume that he wasn’t hearing things.
“Let’s go,” Johnny said, and Larissa nodded.
They crossed the crosswalk at the next convenient break and hustled, not quite running down the trail. Ahead was a bridge, and some waterway that intersected Rock Creek (“Chesapeake and Ohio Canal” Larissa muttered under her breath) and they made for it. Johnny had a flash of Amiira reading him “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” “If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.” To their left, the parkway too went over a bridge: Rock Creek was wending its way west to meet the old canal. Although the sound of the traffic and his own heavy breathing should have made hearing anything else impossible, Johnny would have sworn he could hear something in the water now, perhaps the splashing of a large animal, and when they were almost at the abutment of the bridge, a sound rang out, very loud over the sound of the traffic, a primal big cat scream as reproduced on a cheap Casio synthesizer with too much feedback, and Johnny knew that it wasn’t just in their heads because out of the corner of his eye he could see people in their cars looking wildly around for the source of the noise, and the traffic on the parkway slowed to even more of a crawl as the echoes of that cry rolled down Rock Creek. They froze. It was now almost full dark and they could see nothing outside of the flashing of car headlights. Then there was another great splash and then great, heavy wingbeats, followed by a screech that was surely produced by two pieces of rough metal grating against each other but somehow managed to sound like the cry of a great raptor: a hawk, or more likely an eagle. Johnny instinctively looked up, but the traffic lights had ruined any hope of night vision and it was just darkness up there. He felt Larissa’s hand clutch his upper arm and then there was a heavy metal scuttling from the other end of the bridge. Twin red pinpoints of light appeared in the darkness.
Instantly Larissa yanked his arm and plunged down the embankment towards the water. Without hesitation Johnny followed, although there was no path, the hill was steep, they couldn’t see, and there was water and likely rocks at the bottom. Fuck it, Johnny thought, and plunged after the small figure disappearing into the bushes in front of him.
They slid more than they ran, but they reached the bottom of the hill without injury and hit the water. It was cold, but there didn’t appear to be rocks threatening to snap a leg. Instead of being darker here, practically under the footbridge, it seemed lighter ... possibly the subtraction of the car headlights made it easier for them to see in the gathering twilight. The water was cold but not freezing, and was almost up to their waists, making it hard to maneuver.
Larissa turned away from the bridge, facing back toward the canal, but another huge splash sounded in front of them, and this time they could make out a large catlike shape. Johnny knew there were leopards at the National Zoo, which was just a few miles up The Creek. Not pleasant to imagine one of them having escaped, certainly, but right now it seemed more pleasant than the alternative. The big cat turned its head toward them, and there were the red dots of light again, not so small this close up, and the fur color was wrong—more tan than tawny—and then it reared up on its hind legs and just stood there, flashing claws that somehow were made of a bright, silvery metal. Larissa stared. “Cougar,” she said. “Puma. Mountain lion. Catamount. Puma concolor.”
Johnny was pulling the back of her light green jacket as he backpedalled under the bridge, where he could hear water rushing into the creekbed. “Yeah, right, red-eyed puma with silver claws standing on its hind legs. Don’t identify, just move!”
Suddenly there was more splashing behind them and for a moment Johnny’s heart stopped, but whatever it was rushed past them and planted itself between them and the cougar-creature. From this angle, it looked like a massive black wolf, big enough that the water just lapped at its belly, except for its heads, which looked more like coyotes. Johnny blinked. Yes, heads, with an S ... three, to be precise. Two of them snapped ferociously at the man-cougar, which in turn flashed back silver fangs. One narrow-muzzled head turned to look back over its shoulder and stared directly at them. The mouth did not open, but Johnny heard a voice nonetheless: Run!
You don’t need to tell me twice, thought Johnny, half-hysterical, and he pulled Larissa back towards the rushing water, which turned out to be a huge outflow pipe. It was covered with a sturdy metal grate to keep people from getting inside it. Johnny pulled at it, pointlessly. It was not going to budge in this lifetime.
“Jackals,” Larissa said calmly.
Johnny looked wildly at her. “What??” he barked.
“Not coyote heads, jackal heads,” she corrected. “Golden jackals. The ones that statues of the god Anubis were based on. Black-backed and side-striped jackals can’t bare their fangs, of course.”
Johnny gritted his teeth and shook the metal grating as hard as he could (which wasn’t very hard). “Not helping!” he said.
Larissa didn’t answer. She was busy watching the three-jackal-headed dog and the metal-fanged were-cougar circling each other, snarling and growling and snapping frenziedly. The canine had more teeth, but the feline had height and a longer reach. Johnny decided that Larissa wasn’t going to be immediately useful.
He was about to turn away from the pipe and head further down Rock Creek when he felt something on the other side of the grate. “Felt” wasn’t exactly the right word, though ... sensed it somehow, in a way that was slightly reminiscent of how he had perceived the mist, but also slightly different. Without thinking, he reached for it, both figuratively and literally, and nearly bit his tongue when he realized that his arm was now inside the pipe—not just stuck through the bars of the grate, but literally _through the metal, all the way to his shoulder, which now had crossbars running through it. For a moment, he almost lost a concentration he hadn’t even really known he had achieved, and he sensed this would have been disastrous. But he shoved the panic in his brain into a back corner and relaxed again. He flexed his arm forward. Now the grate was practically touching his neck. He flailed around behind him with his other arm, feeling for Larissa. For a moment he became convinced that the arm was just passing unnoticed through her as well, but then he connected. He pulled on her jacket and she floundered backwards, still calm, still not taking her eyes off the two creatures. He could still hear them, sort of, but sound was muffled again, as it had been with the mist. He pulled her again and brought her back into contact with the grate. Now was the time to see if he could do what he thought he could. He felt as if he ought to be able to, but then how could you trust any sort of instinct about something this alien?
He took a half-step forward himself, and now the metal bisected him nearly perfectly. He knew that if he lost control now, there would be two Johnny Hellebores, but neither one would be much use to anyone. He ignored the frenzied terror that fought to come bubbling out of his mind and spilling out of his ears. He twitched something inside him, and then he gave Larissa one last, good pull, and she stepped backward cleanly through the grate.
Slowly she put her hands up to touch the metal. Hastily Johnny pulled himself the rest of the way through and let go of everything. When Larissa’s hand brushed the metal grate, he could tell it was solid to her touch. And his hearing returned in a rush, and the sounds out there were frightful indeed. “Hey, L?” he said softly. “Let’s move a little further down this pipe, okay?” She turned and stared up into his eyes, but still didn’t speak. He wondered if something in her might have just snapped, but he comforted himself that she didn’t talk that much at the best of times.
He pulled her close and they moved cautiously down the outflow drain.