Somewhere in the distance, behind him, Marc heard a hound baying.
He hesitated, breathing hard, wiping the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, straining to hear better.
The pines rustled around him, barely audible and producing no cooling breeze at ground level in the midday sun. A jay screeched overhead and showed a flash of brilliant purplish blue.
The hound bayed again, a lonely, fearsome sound.
Had he inadvertently strayed near some isolated cabin and been overheard by a watchdog? Or had they already missed him and called in bloodhounds to track him?
He felt as if he'd been running for hours, though it couldn't have been nearly that long. The mountainside was tufted with coarse grass and unfamiliar weeds, and there were hidden holes, probably snakes' or chipmunks' or rabbit burrows. Once he'd stuck his entire foot into a large one, and his ankle still ached where he'd twisted it. He was grateful he hadn't broken it. Nobody'd ever find him out here until he'd starved to death, he thought grimly, if he couldn't walk.
Beside him, Rat whined and licked at his jean-clad knee.
"We can't rest yet, buddy," Marc told the dog. "We haven't gone far enough. As soon as they find Stoner they'll be after us."
Rat licked him again, as if he understood. Rat would be the only one who did, he thought bleakly, and blinked the moisture from his eyes, determined not to cry. If he'd made it through this far without crying like a fourteen-year-old baby, it was no time to start now.
The hound had stopped making a racket, so maybe it wasn't following his scent after all. He wasn't kidding himself that they'd never catch up with him, but at least if he could reach his dad, he'd have somebody on his side. Somebody who could maybe do something.
What did they do to juveniles in California when they're convicted of murder? He could swear it was self-defense, but who knew if anybody would believe him? Would they accept that he was protecting his dog, after Stoner had kicked him into the bushes, and that Marc had known he was next?
He hit a steeper embankment, and the rough turf gave way to shale that broke and skidded under his feet, sliding him backward. He dropped to his knees to grab hold of a scrubby bush that tore his hands.
Rat whined again, tongue hanging out, and Marc knew the dog was as thirsty as he was. If he hadn't been in such a panic, he'd have grabbed a water bottle; Stoner's was right there on the ground beside him, probably full. Lifesaving, maybe, even if it did have blood on it.
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Sure. If, if, if.
Painfully, he began to crawl up the slope until he regained more level ground. There were more trees here, offering a small patch of shade. Rat flopped down on his belly, panting, and Marc gave in and sprawled too.
Behind him, around him on all sides, were dark green cedars and pines that faded into misty blue in the distance. The earth itself, between the rocks, raised a red powdery dust at his touch.
Somewhere above him, he was pretty sure, was Interstate 5, snaking its way through the Siskiyous on its way through the entire length of California, through Oregon, and on up into Washington State, all the way to Seattle and beyond to the Canadian border.
Seattle, where, if he was lucky, he'd make connections with his dad.
He wished he knew if it was safe to emerge onto the freeway, and if he'd have a chance of hitching a ride. Oh, he knew hitchhiking was dangerous, but not reaching his father was even more so, wasn't it?
How soon would they get the cops to get out an all points bulletin? Would his escape from the camp be on the news yet? Or did he still have a little time? If he crossed into Oregon, would they be looking for him there?
His breathing was quieting, and Rat nosed his hand. "Yeah, I'm thirsty too," Marc murmured, stroking the soft spotted head. "Maybe up on the interstate there's a rest stop where there's water. We might even come across a little stream somewhere before then."
He didn't move, though. It felt good just to sit there for a few minutes and try to think of the logical thing to do next.
There had been a time when he'd have prayed about it. That's what his parents and his grandmother had taught him when he was just a little kid. Pray for help when you're stuck. God's always with you, always hears you. It had been a long while since he'd felt God's presence in his life.
He no longer trusted God to make things right.
Not since they'd said all the prayers for Mallory, and she'd died anyway.
Instead of planning his strategy, he sat there and remembered.
He and his little sister had never been buddies. After all, when he was twelve, she was only six, and a girl at that. She didn't want to learn to throw or bat a ball, or wrestle, or read adventure books. She was into dolls and tea parties and dressing up in Mom's high heels and trailing fancy gowns on the floor.
To tell the truth, he'd hardly noticed her, most of the time. When he'd slammed the car door on her fingers, turning them purple, he'd been genuinely sorry and held ice on her hand, wrapped in a wet washcloth. When he'd been assigned the task of supervising her bath, because both Mom and Dad were busy doing something else, he'd sat on the toilet and read the latest Roland Smith or Bill Wallace adventure while Mallory splashed around in the tub until she was clean enough for him to wipe her off.
There were a few times when she'd gotten into his room and messed something up, and then he'd been annoyed with her. But when he'd scolded her for disturbing his papers, or for spilling the poster paints he'd been using on a school project, her blue eyes had filled with tears, and he hadn't been able to stay mad at her.
It was only when she got sick that Marc started thinking of her as an individual, one who suffered pain. Even then, he wasn't concerned much at first. He'd been busy doing things with his friends, adjusting to seventh grade and a new teacher, Mr. Hepner, who was a whole different ball of wax from Miss Schering and her fluttery manner. Mr. Hepner didn't put up with any nonsense of boys poking people with sharpened pencils or sticking their feet out into the aisles when anyone tried to walk by. He expected you to do your homework on time, and to be paying attention when he called on you so he didn't have to repeat himself.
But the teacher had led an interesting life, and every day he shared some of the things he'd learned, and the places he'd been. Marc was fascinated by the possibilities that lay ahead for a young guy who wanted to try a lot of different things.
He didn't pay any attention when Mom mentioned her concern about Mallory's gradual loss of energy and interest in things that had formerly kept her entertained. He heard Dad suggest taking his sister to the doctor for a checkup, but was really more interested himself in finishing up dinner and escaping for a game of sandlot softball before it got dark.
He heard Mom report that Dr. Uvaldi had ordered a bunch of lab work done, and Mallory displayed for him the bruise on her arm where they'd taken "a whole lot of blood. It hurted," she'd said.
"Bummer," Marc said, but he often had bruises and scrapes, and it didn't seem overly important.
Not until he came home one warm afternoon and met his dad, arriving home hours earlier than usual.
"You get fired?" Marc demanded jokingly, but Dad didn't laugh.
"Mom called. They got the results of Mallory's lab tests," he said. Even as self-absorbed as Marc was, he caught the hint of something serious.
"She's not really sick, is she?"
"That's what she called me home to tell me," Dad said, and strode into the house, with Marc following.
Mom's eyes met Dad's, then she licked her lips and swung her attention to Marc. "Honey, take Mallory out on the swing for a few minutes while I talk to your father," she said. Her voice quavered.
"Sure," Marc said, disappointed that he wasn't going to sit in on the family conference. "Come on, sprout, let's go swing."
Uncharacteristically, Mallory stuck out her lower lip. "I don't want to swing," she said. "It makes me feel sick."
Mom's hands clenched in her lap. "Take her for a walk then. Or read her a story."
Mallory opted for the story, and they went upstairs, where she picked out a book Mom had recently bought her. Mallory was very fond of Hooway for Wodney Wat, and though Marc was already tired of reading it, he resigned himself to putting up with it one more time.
It was a short book, and when he'd finished, he wasn't sure how much longer he had to keep his little sister occupied.
"I'm really tired," Mallory said. "I think I'll take a nap."
Marc looked at her sharply, and saw a child who had lost her usual color and showed bluish shadows under her eyes. Mallory never took naps.
He didn't argue, though. "Okay," he said, and left her curling up on one of her twin beds. Then he made his way down the stairs, quietly, so his parents wouldn't hear him coming.
He knew before he reached the doorway to the living room that his mother was crying.
"But it's not certain, yet, is it?" Dad was asking. "There's a chance they've made a mistake."
"The nurse wasn't supposed to have let me know; she just thought the doctor had already told me, and she was trying to be encouraging. Dr. Uvaldi was upset, because he said if there's bad news they try to always have both parents present when they tell them the prognosis."
"But he also said he wanted to repeat some of the tests, Patty. That means he wasn't satisfied with these first results," Dad said, sounding as if he was trying to convince himself as well as her. "We don't need to panic yet."
"But what if it's true? What if she really does have leukemia?" Marc's mother wailed softly, and Marc saw now that his parents were standing in an embrace in the middle of the room, each of them making an effort to hold the other up. Marc's father was a head taller than his mother.
Leukemia? Marc didn't know much about medicine, but that was a name he'd heard. It meant something awful, didn't it? He sucked in a painful breath and made his presence known.
"Leukemia? Mallory has leukemia?"
His father turned toward him, his face etched with lines that hadn't been there minutes earlier. "It's not certain yet. They have to repeat some of the tests."
"But they think she does? That's...People die from leukemia, don't they?" Marc asked, feeling numb, in shock. Mallory was only six. She couldn't die.
His mother, incapable of answering, collapsed in her husband's arms. He was clearly as stricken as she was. Marc had never seen either of them in the shape they were in at this moment. They'd always taken care of everything, protected their kids from any sort of peril. His entire world was rocked around him.
He'd actually considered his parents overprotective, insisting on crash helmets and shin guards and keeping them informed where he was all the time; warning him against trying drugs or getting into a car with anyone without their permission; setting curfews and requiring that they be met; knowing who his companions were and knowing their parents.
But they'd never made a rule against leukemia. What could anyone do against a hazard like that?
The Solie family had always been strong and united and happy. They lived in a decent house and drove nice cars and went to church and celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving and Easter with great joy and enthusiasm. Marc and Mallory usually got pretty much what they asked for their birthdays, within reason. They'd hardly ever been deprived of anything they needed or truly wanted.
Marc felt his universe crumbling, his foundations unable to hold him. It couldn't be true; nobody in their family could be dying. Yet he felt as if he were, the strength leaking out of his legs so that he was going to fall down.
"Marc, get Mom a glass of water," his father said then, and Marc made himself move, go to the kitchen, get a glass and fill it.
Patty Solie was sitting on the couch when he got back to the living room with it, her face streaked with tears. Her husband sat beside her and held the glass for her, putting an arm around her comfortingly.
Dad would make it all right, Marc thought desperately. He always did.
Only, incredibly, he did not.
Copyright © 2004 by Willo Davis Roberts