By Julia Shraytman
The boys were chasing her. They were dressed in slush-stained pants, their shoelaces hanging off their sneakers, leaving wormy trails in the snow. Their hot breaths rippled through the air in violent bursts of a well-oiled choir.
“There she is!” Jason stopped and shouted, pointing at their victim, who was hiding behind a birch tree. The white skin of the tree couldn’t hide Nina, dressed in a bright red coat, no matter how few breaths she took or how much she sucked in her stomach. Her butt was sticking out, and Jason, like a hawk, zeroed in on the red of it like a soldier through an M22 binocular.
This was war, and she was their enemy.
Nina stopped biting her nails long enough to yelp, push off the birch, and sprint. A little human blood stain, she sped toward the crowded marketplace, her shoes sliding over the fresh dusting of snow.
She turned nine yesterday, and the red coat was a gift from her mother. It was velvety, with a hood, and fur wrists. She spun around the room. Today, the fur, halfway ripped off the wrists, was flying through the snowy air like the shattered wings of a cardinal. Her coat was torn in several places and a footprint, like a brown bruise, adorned her back.
The marketplace, an ample stretch of avenues and streets, overflowed with bakeries and boutiques and shoppers. Nina piloted around the adults, their hulking tree trunk bodies popping up in front of her, blocking her escape route. She fell against a gray, polyester coat, its thick material scratchy against her cheeks. The wearer’s large hands clasped her shoulders, pulled her away from the polyester coat, and shook her, her head lolling side to side.
He bent down. She was looking up into the pale eyes of an adult, his skin a sea of wrinkled bed sheets. His eyes were reddened with anger.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the adult demanded. “Why are you running like a bitch in heat?” She shrank into herself, her eyes big and round in her face. She hiccupped from fear. His arms fell away, and she was alone again.
She could see the boys, gaining on her, swarming like bees. She swerved left, toward the highway. It was the city’s busiest artery that carried truck after truck; the huge monsters were cutting through the air; their massive, glistening bodies made the earth tremble and shake.
Nina bit the inside of her cheek. She paused at the lip of the highway next to the sign that said in large lettering: Do Not Cross. Between the running gaps of rushing traffic, she could see the other side. It tempted her. Come over, it whispered. Nina closed her eyes. She pictured blood oozing, inch-by-inch, coloring snow in warm crimson. Or maybe it was only the sunlight passing through the blood vessels of her eyelids. She opened her eyes.
She shivered as she placed one small foot on the road, feeling the pulsating wind from the trucks as they rushed by.
She took a deep breath, her muscles tightening around her frame, her mind zeroing in on the target, the sidewalk on the other side of the highway, when something caught her attention. She saw the gaping black hole, a yawning mouth only a few feet away. A pedestrian underpass. She took a step back onto the bustling pavement. She did not remember ever seeing that entrance there before.
Nina approached. She stood at the tiled entrance covered in graffiti, the stairs stretching down, the black abyss staring up at her. She counted to three and started to make her descent into the entrails of the earth. Above her, the rush of traffic hummed, but below it was as quiet as death. Small bursts of light appeared, showing her the way. Down, down, down.
Finally, the staircase ended, and her foot hit the cracked ceramic tiles of the floor. There was a smell of piss and decay. Her breaths pillowed out from between her lips, her thumbnail between her teeth, the nail just a ragged little stub, and she tasted blood.
Her mother always left a nightlight by her bed; otherwise, the monsters came in the dark and watched her. Here, there was no light. And no mother. Pregnant with a fear she could not outrun, she crept for an eternity through darkness.
Out of the umbra, a shape began to slowly emerge, revealing an ascending stairway. She raised her face and squinted. Yes, there was a drop of fresh light forcing its way down. She stretched her hand toward the light, and it slid across her palm, moving like a ballerina from right to left and back. It pulled away and beckoned her.
As she climbed higher, the darkness began to peel away; the street sounds intensified, drenching her in laughter and the hum of humans. She stepped out of the mouth of darkness onto the street.
A flock of birds flew overhead, their calls welcoming her back to the land of the living.
Things seemed a little different. She gazed across the highway. She gasped. She made it to the other side. She could see the spot across the highway where she stood an eternity ago, the boys on her heels.
I made it, she thought.
She looked down at the heavy shopping bags in each hand, her shoulders achy, her back slouching under the weight. Her dull, polyester coat a bit too tight around her rounded middle and sagging breasts. The wind ran its fingers through her thinning, gray hair.
Thudding footsteps and violent yelps drew her attention.
The boys were a breath away.
The sun darkened. She was nine years old again.
She sprinted onto the highway, feeling the pulsating wind from the trucks as they rushed by, her fear getting lost in the cacophony of screams and blasting horns. Between the running gaps of rushing traffic, she could see the other side.