John gone, p.13
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       John Gone, p.13

           Michael Kayatta
 

  Chapter 11

  John cupped his hand over Boone’s mouth and shook his head. He slowly removed his hand and used it to gesture Boone to follow him. With his other hand, John lifted a finger perpendicularly to his lips.

  Boone looked at John with confusion and shook his head. “We need to help them,” he asserted.

  “Who do you think fired the gun?” John whispered rapidly. “They’re here to kill me and anyone who’s seen me. I’m sorry you got wrapped into this, but we have to move if you don’t want to die.”

  Boone looked stunned by John’s assessment, but slowly walked after him when John turned and moved quietly away from the hillside toward the thicker part of the forest.

  “What about your lady friend?” Boone asked, moving a branch from his face.

  “We’ll check on her in a few moments when we get somewhere safe,” John responded.

  “Are these men tracking you?” Boone asked.

  “Yes.”

  “See what it’s like when someone is constantly asking you inane questions?” Kala interjected.

  “What was that?” Boone asked.

  “A walkie-talkie,” John answered, not allowing himself to be distracted from moving as quickly and as far from his pursuers as possible.

  “If these men are tracking you, you’re sure leaving them an easy trail to follow.”

  John stopped and turned back toward Boone, frustrated past his limit.

  “I can help,” Boone said. John calmed immediately.

  “How?”

  “You’re breaking twigs and snapping branches,” he explained. “It won’t even take much skill to find us. I’ll tell you what. Keep moving straight toward the sun. Be careful not to disturb more of the forest, even if it slows you. I’m going to break off and circle a fake trail in the other direction and catch up to you after. Just keep moving at the sun.”

  Before John could respond, Boone sped off quickly, skillfully shooting his hands in and out of the foliage and lightly shuffling his feet beneath him as he left.

  “He’s right,” Kala said. “Follow his instructions.”

  “Yeah, what else am I going to do?” John answered.

  Mouse, he thought suddenly. John looked into the pocket of his bag and found Mouse turned upside-down and missing an arm.

  “Hey! You there?” he said to the robot.

  “Yes!” Mouse replied, whisper-quiet. “Couldn’t you hear me?”

  “No,” John answered, “and I can’t hear you very well now.”

  “Turn the horizontal dial on my chest where the ribs would be,” it responded.

  John looked more closely at Mouse’s torso and saw the dial. The robot’s entire body was solid black, so seeing small components was difficult without first knowing where to look. He spun the dial to the right.

  “Better?” Mouse asked at normal volume.

  “Much,” John answered.

  “That’s the master volume for the unit. It must have been turned down by accident when we were rolling down the hill. I have a volume control on my end, but it’s superseded by Mouse’s dial,” Mouse explained. “What happened? I missed everything.”

  “I’ll explain later,” John said, carefully ducking beneath a delicate-looking branch. “We’re in the forest.”

  “Well, I can see that,” Mouse said.

  “And those guys with guns are out here somewhere too,” he explained. “Boone, that hobo guy from before, is leading them off our trail, or something.”

  “My arms aren’t working,” Mouse said. “I think something happened to them during the crash.”

  “One of them is still in the pocket,” John said.

  “What? For real? Oh well, I guess I can fix it later. Just bring the arm back with you if you can.”

  John continued through the trees for hours more, scared to stop for even a moment. The sun was setting and he worried at the prospect of late-night, pitch-black Canadian forest-travel. He’d been carefully following Boone’s earlier instructions and wondered when and if the man would return. Maybe they got him, John considered.

  “This can’t be fun for you, Mr. Popielarski,” Kala said.

  “I’ve never been hiking before,” John answered happily, already seeing where the doctor’s comment would lead. “I think I like it just fine.”

  “I mean living like this,” the hologram replied. “Running for your life from two men trained to find and capture you. You’ve been lucky thus far.”

  “You call this luck?”

  “Come to my lab. Let me help you!”

  “You sure define a lot of words differently than I do. Getting me stuck in a concrete box underground sounds a lot like not helping.”

  “Play the odds, John! What’s more probable? The eighty percent chance that I find a way to get you out in a few years or the zero percent chance you have of surviving otherwise. Even if the Advocates don’t get you--and they will, eventually--the sixth jump will kill you. What part of this do you not understand?”

  John ignored him and kept walking.

  “If you die before the last jump,” Kala continued, “or get caught by those men, then it will be too late to come to me. Too late, Mr. Popielarski.”

  Boone somersaulted in front of John from behind a nearby bush. John stumbled back in surprise.

  “Boone! Wow. What are you doing?” he asked.

  “We’re going to finish this conversation, Mr. Popielarski!” Kala yelled. The hologram vanished.

  “Who’s that on the other end of that walkie-talkie there?” Boone asked, back on his feet. “Was that a little blue man on your arm? Who are you people?”

  “Boone, can we talk about the little blue man later?” John asked. “How are we doing? Did you fake the trail?”

  “Only so much you can do,” Boone said. “Now it depends on how good they are at tracking folk. Almost dark though. Maybe they’ll quit and go home. Speaking of such, we need to stop for the night. Dangerous out here when the sun ain’t up.”

  “Stop and do what?”

  “Just follow me a bit. I’ll find the right spot soon enough. I’ll show you what we do for the predators, animal and person alike.”

  Forty minutes later they came upon a giant mass of leaves beneath a tree. The sun had set, and moonlight alone now illuminated the forest floor, giving the edges of John’s surroundings a surreal blue highlight. The noises coming from behind the trees had changed, as had the types of insects buzzing about his neck. The forest had a much different feeling after nightfall, more menacing and secretive. John was glad Boone was with him.

  “We stay here,” Boone said. “Under the leaves like the brocks.”

  “And what’s a brock exactly?” John asked.

  “I’ll show you,” Boone answered. “Hang on to your butt.”

  John raised an eyebrow.

  “Kyyyyyuuuuuuu!” the man shouted in a high-pitched holler. He dove into the leaves and thrashed about wildly.

  “Kyyyyyuuuuuuu!” he called again. Seven angry badgers emerged from the leaves, growling and grumbling, rolling and tumbling from the pile as Boone scooped them out of the leaves. One turned and hissed at him, and he responded by playfully pawing at the animal’s face.

  Another badger ran straight at John and crashed hard into his leg. John stumbled onto one knee and felt the badger bite into the back of his leg. He yelped in pain.

  “Did he get you?” Boone asked from the leaves. Only his head was exposed above the pile. “Darn little ankle-biters! Git! Git!” he yelled at the badgers. The cete hustled away into the darkness of the forest at Boone’s insistence.

  “All clear,” Boone called to John. “Come on in. The bottom leaves are damp. With both of us down here, it’ll warm up in no time.”

  John felt the back of his leg. It was wet and stung to his touch. He brought his hand back to his face and saw blood on his palm, dripping down his wrist toward the watch. He twisted his arm and the dark red blood pooled on the front glass.

/>   “You two go together perfectly, don’t you?” John said to the watch and the blood.

  “Me and the brocks?” Boone asked. “Nah! They’re little bastards, you ask me. You just got to bite back sometimes and they stop buggin’. Guess that’s why they call me King of the Open Forest!”

  “I thought it was ‘King of the Open Road,’” John said.

  “Well, that too. Some kings got more than one kingdom.”

  John wiped the blood from his watch and approached the large pile of leaves beside the tree. He turned his messenger bag to his front and slowly slid his body down next to Boone. The leaves changed in texture as he lowered himself deeper into their mass.

  The first layer crunched at his weight and the dried-out plants scratched at his skin like an angry cat. Moving beneath them, however, John found the bottom soft, damp, and oddly inviting.

  “Not so bad?” Boone asked.

  “You know a lot of weird things, Boone,” John said, maneuvering in the leaves to get comfortable.

  “I know a lot more, too,” he responded.

  “I’ll bet.”

  “I used to be rich, you know.”

  “Let me guess,” John replied. “Something ironic: Millionaire real-estate tycoon gets crushed by the housing market and ends up homeless.”

  “Good try, but the truth is more ironic still,” Boone said. “When I was a little one, my family was poor. I wanted nothing more then to make it big. Big! As big as they come. ‘One day,’ I always said. I thought I’d be an actor; get rich, famous.”

  John smiled and closed his eyes. Boone had an odd way of pronouncing most words, but his voice was soothing and John was tired.

  “One day I got me a small part on the stage as a hobo. Don’t know if it was a train hobo or a city hobo, now I think of it. Don’t matter. Anyway, they got me in costume for rehearsals. Once all dressed up, I went outside for a cigarette. A man on the sidewalk asked me for the time. We had a little conversation, and afterward he hands me two dollars! Two dollars! For what? I have no idea. Then, I remember the bum costume and make up. That’s when I heard it, my true calling.”

  John smiled and sank deeper into the leaves, stretching his legs and arms out under the pile.

  “For the next several years I pretended to be homeless,” Boone continued. “I was damn good at it. A terribly strange thing to be good at, I admit. I got a lot of the same guys passing by giving me something every day. You might not believe it, but eventually I was making sometimes six hundred dollars a day up in New York! It’s the truth! I was making about a hundred thousand dollars a year, all cash, no tax. Had a nice car and a pretty wife with a well-to-do father who thought I was a salesman.

  “Soon though, other bums, real bums, got suspicious and jealous. One of them found out about the secret. My work was getting dangerous. He followed me home one night and ... well ... I came out fine, but I knew that things couldn’t stay the same. I left.”

  John waited a few moments before realizing Boone had ended his story. “Yeah?” he asked, half-asleep. “What happened then?”

  “I left,” Boone repeated quietly. “Left my wife, my kid.” He paused and looked past the trees to the moon. “I just ... you know what? Let’s not talk about Boone anymore. Tell me about the little blue man, John. Or tell me about you. I want to know.”

  A cough sounded from somewhere in the forest. Boone’s hand struck out from the leaves like a snake and landed softly on John’s head, waking him instantly. Slowly, he pushed John down farther into the pile until completely submerged.

  John’s first reaction was to struggle, but he stopped once he heard the coughing Boone had heard moments before. Boone slid himself beneath the leaves as well, leaving no trace of either him or John beneath the tall tree beside them.

  John struggled to breathe beneath the top layer of leaves. Each time he tried to inhale, small bits of dirt and leaf sailed into his mouth, risking a revealing cough or gag. Boone’s hand slid silent through the pile and latched itself supportively to John’s shoulder. The warm contact calmed him, but only slightly. That cough in the woods was getting closer.

  Soon, the cough was accompanied by careful footsteps. The Advocates were coming toward him. John thought he could see a shape through the thick clump of leaves, maybe even two, moving toward his pile. They were getting closer. He worried that if he could see the men, they could surely see him too. He closed his eyes. The footsteps were falling all around them now; the two men were at the pile.

  Someone began coughing madly above John. Moments later, a black military-style boot crashed through the leaves next to him and stepped blindly onto his watch. Its back and sides bore into the skin of his wrist. The pain was crushing, and John was stricken with an immediate wave of nausea trying to contain the scream that would have normally followed the pain.

  After what seemed an eternity, the boot finally lifted from his arm and stepped down again, this time missing his head by inches. Then, the boot was gone and the forest fell silent.

  John wanted nothing more than to clutch his injured wrist, take it close to his chest, remove the watch and tend to the wound beneath it. But no matter the fantasy, John knew he could do nothing but lie helplessly, motionless and silent.

  Something small, wriggling, and damp crawled onto John’s cheek. The short steps of its tiny feet brushed against his skin, creating an itch that grew more and more maddening the longer he focused on it. Eventually, the creature made its way to his eye and rested still on his closed lid.

  John tried to listen for further footsteps, but heard none. Are they still there? Did they leave? Where are they? They know where I’m hiding; they’re toying with me. Why haven’t they caught me? What are they waiting for?

  He strained his ears, hoping to hear some clue to the Advocates’ whereabouts. Boone’s hand, still resting on John’s shoulder, squeezed lightly as if he could hear the frantic thoughts running through John’s mind. It was good to know that someone else was there with him.

  John continued to wait--they both did--hidden beneath the leaves, motionless and silent, for the remainder of the long black night.

 
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