Happy weekend, everyone! Today I’m embarking on a new plan to post a short story every week and I’m calling it Flash Fiction Friday. Hopefully, I’ll have the discipline to keep it up. I have been working on some background stories for the secondary characters in my current novel-in-progress, so I thought I’d bring one of those stories to you today.
The Gray-Eyed Boy
He knew not where they were taking him and the others. Cages stacked five high, four wide, and sixteen deep on the truck, the boy was lucky enough to be on the perimeter. At least there he could breath the fresh air, escape the stench of feces and urine, feel the wind rush through his hair. If only he could stretch his legs.
Had he still had his teeth they would have been rattling along with the eighteen-wheeler that carried him and the other boys. But they had been removed when he was a toddler as soon as they came in—gripped with a pair of pliers and yanked free in a tortuous bloody mess. He was now five years old and could feel the ridges of a permanent tooth growing in when his tongue slid along the gums in the front of his mouth. He feared he wouldn’t live long enough to see it fully emerge.
A boy in his cage kicked him. He returned the gesture with an elbow jab to the chest. He heard a crack and the other boy bellowed. It meant nothing to him. There was no love lost between him and the other five boys he was caged with. He had no concept of love. They all knew. Nobody was ever willing to mess with the gray-eyed boy. Not intentionally anyway.
The truck jerked and the boy’s cage jolted. The bracket that held it to the frame had loosened. The boy gazed down at the blurred road, five cages down, as it rushed out from beneath the truck, like an out of control conveyer belt set to maximum speed. Feverish wind, spattered with eye-burning dust, slapped his shaggy bronze hair against his face and he held it back with one hand as he slipped the fingers of his other between the wires, grasped the bracket and tugged. The cage jostled again as the truck hit another bump in the road. The boy watched the gap in the bracket widen.
Both hands on the cage, the boy pushed and pulled. He got on both feet and though the cage was far too small for him to stand upright, he used his body weight to rattle the cage. Back and forth. Side to side. Again and again. All he needed was one more good pothole in the road and—
With the next jolt, the cage wrenched free from the upper corner of the truck. The boy watched in merciless anticipation as the rushing road rose to greet him. He pulled his hand back to cover his face and curled his body into a ball as the cage crashed into the pavement, rolling and clattering until it came to a stop on the double yellow line. The impact tore the cage open on one corner and the boy escaped with a few bruises and red-speckled road burn on his left thigh. Two of the boys in the cage lay motionless. Two cried at their wounds, while the other looked around in confusion, blood dripping from an oozing gash on his hairline.
The gray-eyed boy was not about to wait around for the next truck of hungry creatures to come by and snatch him up. He shot into the undergrowth of the forest by the side of the road. The leaves crunched and twigs cracked under his hardened bare feet. In the background an engine roared. The boy ignored the screams of the boys as the car engine died and doors slammed. And he ignored the resulting silence when the boys had undoubtedly been drained of every ounce of liquid life from their plump bodies. He just kept running.
He kept to the woods for two days and three nights, keeping shelter by a tiny freshwater stream that he nearly drank dry the first night. The truck had collected him and the others over three hours before the fall and they’d been denied food and water since the day before. The numbered tags that hung from both ears—the boy’s only identifying mark, #6192—scratched his neck and for two days he’d tried to detach them unsuccessfully. His earlobes were red and swollen from the effort.
The impetus that finally drew him out of the woods was his clenching hunger. He’d been born and raised in the captivity of industrialized food production, not in the wild. He had no concept of where food came from, having been fed slop from a trough throughout his short life. Though he knew nothing of the world surrounding him, something told him that the wooden rail fence he encountered was not a natural phenomenon. But in the distance beyond the fence were a grove of trees dotted with red.
Something about the red dots made the boy salivate like ravenous bloodhound. He slid under the fence and stumbled toward the trees, his energy quickly waning. He lost count the number of times he’d fallen, his determination strong enough to will him forward again and again. When he reached the closest tree, he collapsed from both exhaustion and relief. He’d have to rest a bit before he could climb high enough to reach the delectable crimson orb that called out to him.
His head fell against the column of bark and he gazed up at the cerulean sky and watched a series of feathered clouds drift by. For the first time in his life, he felt peace. He was free. It was foreign to him, disconcerting. But with that feeling came something he desperately needed. Deep sleep.
It was dark when he woke, but even in the bitter moonlight he could make out the staunch silhouette of an enormous man looming above him. But something was wrong. The boy felt as if someone had gripped him by the throat, prepared to squeeze until the life emptied from him. Self-preservation instincts kicked in. He clawed desperately at the corded collar that now circled his neck and yanked the attached leash ferociously.
“It’s okay, boy. You’ll be safe with me,” the man said, tightening his grip on the leash. Rabid panic boiled within the boy when the man grinned, flashing a set of razor sharp canines. The boy’s heart thumped violently, sending a pulsating cadence to his ears that seemed to scream rhythmically, “Run! Run! Run!” But there was nowhere to go. His freedom gone in a flash, the boy would never again sleep in peace.