I know what the deer feels like when the hunter has her in his sights, has the barrel of his rifle aimed at her head, finger slowly pressing down on the trigger. Every step, every breath I take feels like it’s on borrowed time and I hate it with such a passion that it makes that iron fist that always holds onto my gut, tighten with vicious enjoyment.
My muscles in my throat are taut as I turn my head and allow my eyes to travel up and down the busy street. I squint against the sun streaming down on my head. It’s cheerful brightness mocks me. The oversize sunglasses help against the glare, and maybe it helps to hide me a little too. I don’t know. If someone is watching me right now I’ll never be able to tell. I plan to get better at it soon.
Or else I’m going to be the one looking down the barrel of a gun.
My heart thuds as I cross Larkin and enter the cool hall of San Francisco’s main public library. I push the sunglasses up onto my head and scan the hall as I keep moving. The atrium is enough to stop any visitor in their tracks, high and airy and all glass, but I don’t stop to stare because I have a purpose. I’m not here to sight-see. I follow the signs to the first floor, worn sneakers silent on the marble floor tiles.
As I move I tug the leather cuff on my right wrist, ensuring it stays in place. The leather hides a truth that I’d rather not see. Call it denial, but I haven’t fallen apart yet so out of sight, out of mind has helped me this far.
I enter General Fiction and inhale the unique scent of books; ink and dust and paper. I hurry along the silent aisles, reading off the spine labels under my breath, in search of Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake. I smile, thinking how strange that Alexei would even know who Blake was.
But maybe I am being naive. How would I know what kind of life Alexei had led when I’d known him for only the briefest time. I hadn’t seen the old man in weeks and a few times I’d wondered how smart it was to have contacted him in the first place. He’d given me his card, yes, but that didn’t mean I should have used it. It didn’t mean I should have made him part of my problem.
My heels squeak on the polished wood floor, and the sound echoes around me. Too loud. I look around from beneath nondescript black bangs that skim my eyebrows, the edge jagged much like the rest of my short wig.
I look around. The room was far from empty, with the nearest person being a young guy his nose in a book as he stands beside a showcase of the latest bestsellers. He’s harmless.
My heart thumps and I try to calm my nerves. I’m careful, I’m aware. Nothing’s going to happen. And yet . . . I’m still nervous. I slip into a row and immediately I’m hemmed in by shelves that rise a foot higher than the top of my head. If I’ve disturbed anyone or drawn attention from the wrong sort, I can’t tell now.
I lift my weight onto the balls of my feet, and hurry down the aisle. Moving quickly, I find the B’s, and run a finger along the spines until I reach Blake. It takes seconds to find Songs, and I feel a sudden stab of fear. What if someone’s loaned out the copy I need? What then? Keep coming back for that particular copy? How would I explain why I want that specific book? Why hadn’t I thought this through?
I stiffen with fear.
Get a grip, Gray. Don’t borrow trouble. That’s what Dad used to say. Don’t go worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet, Gray. If you want to worry, just let the crap happen first. You never know, you just might have nothing to worry about in the end.
Taking a deep breath, I tilt the book toward me. A fine layer of dust coats the tops of the surrounding books and only my copy is clean. I slide it out and I hold its weight in my hand, then flip open the back cover.
My heart slams against my ribs. Please be the right one, I pray even when I know praying is stupid. What use are prayers when nobody hears them. I run my fingers over the paper that covers the hard surface of the inside cover. There. A small bump beneath the surface. Just where Alexei had said it would be.
I shut the cover and exit the stacks, forcing my gait to remain relaxed, my neck to stay calm. Anyone watching would see a girl with short cropped dark hair, long bangs, sloppy jeans and sneakers, off to the tables to read a book or to study. Not a girl so scared out of her wits, that the hands holding the book have a slight tremor to them.
I force myself to stroll to a desk at the far end of the library, one that’s hidden from prying eyes. I sit and try hard not to look around. Nonchalant. I have to act like I have no care in the world. It has taken weeks to learn to stop looking behind me all the time, to learn that even from a distance a person could notice the small things like the tightness in your neck or shoulder that indicates awareness and the desire to flee, that indicates fear. Sure, I’d learned not to look like I was running from something, but that didn’t mean I’d stopped completely. So, I can’t afford to get careless.
I whisper the words under my breath, like a prayer, over and over again. ‘Get careless, get dead.’ It’s kept me alive so far.
I calmly set the book on the table before me. I can see the age of the paper, yellow with ragged edges. I reach for the knife inside my bag, it’s nothing more than a letter-opener but it will do the job. I slide the sharp edge beneath the overlying paper glued to the hard back cover. The glue stretches, like strings of a stubborn cobweb. The knife slips through them, snapping the threads and releasing the paper to reveal what hides beneath.
A slim brown envelope.
Alexei had come through for me. I slide the envelope out of the space and close the book softly. With a sigh of relief, I shove the envelope into my stained backpack before throwing it over my shoulder. I grab the book and saunter back to the stacks to return it to its place. Then, my heart thudding, I head out of the library and down the stairs slowly, as if I have no place to be.
Emerging into the sunlight, I slide my sunglasses onto my face and skip down the steps. I scan the street, the cars, the bus that slows down at the stop, the trees across the street. So many faces but none seem interested in me. I don’t give myself the chance to enjoy any sense of relief. I turn and head home.
Or what I consider home for the next five minutes. I used to hear people say ‘Home is where the heart is’ but what about when you don’t have a heart or if you have no place in the world that you care to be in? What then? Well, then even a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere will do. Nobody even looks at the homeless anymore. And it saddens me that I must take advantage of the cold heart and the blind eye of society.
I have to make one stop before I am on my way. Hiding isn’t easy when you can’t cook yourself a meal, when food must be stolen or begged for, or the cheapest takeout available.
I walk in the direction of the nearest burger place. It doesn’t matter which one, as long as I can grab a couple of dirt-cheap burgers. I stand waiting for my order, head down, scanning faces beneath my lashes. I’m always watching, always searching.
The boy in the black jeans, skateboard in hand, could be anyone. FBI, undercover cop, killer for hire. Or maybe he’s just a kid with a skateboard. I sigh to myself, the ‘always on edge’ feeling rests against my chest like a tangible thing. Like one of those round weights that fit on the end of a barbell, maybe a fifty pound weight will be appropriate for what hangs around my heart.
My order is called and I grab the bag and head out into the fresh air, breathing deeply of sunshine and suspicion as I walk faster and faster. When I look behind me, skater boy is watching me, bag in hand. Then he crosses the street and rips his paper bag open, his eyes only for his burger.
I suppress the sigh of relief, then snap my gaze back to my route, the roundabout way I use so as to lose anyone who may be on my trail. I’m always careful, doubling back, watching out for anyone suspicious, eyes always peeled, bones always tense, jaw always tight. So much tension, but my life depends on it.