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Flight || Nick Young

by Nick Young

He plunged ahead, not caring that the dense underbrush was tearing at his skin and clothes, only intent on fleeing, eluding them.  He did not know the countryside; it didn't matter.  It was enough that he had made it into the woods, and he was ahead of them.  Yet, he was not safe.  Their voices came from behind and off to his left, drunken, hoarse—"we'll get the sonofabitch". . . "fuck his black ass up good!" . . . " goddamned nigger!"

He angled away, crouching, and scrambled between two big juniper bushes where he could catch his breath.  The night was in his favor—scraps of clouds adrift, the moon an ivory rind, illuminating almost nothing beneath the tall oaks and ironwood.  He knew he could not linger.  In the warm May air, the shouts of his young pursuers seemed to veer away.  But he sensed it was only momentary.  

Got to keep moving!   

His breathing came in short spasms.  He forced his mouth to stay clenched, lest the sound of a gasp give him away.  He wiped his forehead of sweat, yet rivulets ran along his spine causing him to shudder involuntarily.   And upon his upper lip, mingled with the salt of his perspiration was the warm taste of blood.  He swiped at it with a knuckle, brushing the trickle away.  He felt the sharp sting of the other places on his body that bled, too, where the brambles had caught him.  

He allowed his head to roll backward and his eyes to close.  Had terror not overwhelmed him, he might have lapsed into weeping over the course of events that had brought him to that wretched place.

Hunted like a goddamned animal!

His friend  had warned him.

"You better think twice about going to that bar, man.  You could get your ass into some serious trouble."

"Aww, come on," he had responded with his big-city naivete. "This is 1970, brother, not 1870."

"Yeah, but you still in southeast Missouri, man.  You ain't up north."

"All I want to do is listen to the band and have a couple of beers.  That's it."

And the night had started out with such benign intentions.  The roadhouse was packed, with many more white faces than black.  He hung at the edges of the crowd, enjoying the music, and though the atmosphere seemed to grow more charged as the alcohol flowed and the evening wore on, he had no cause to worry, remaining in the shadows.  

He had reason to celebrate, he told himself.  He was nearing the end of his scholarship year, soon to be awarded his master's  in chemical engineering, the first person in his family to earn such a rarified academic achievement.  He had plans then, degree in hand, to head back home to Chicago and, hopefully, the start of a promising career.  

As he cowered in the undergrowth, fingers reflexively clawing into the hard soil, his mind raced.

Has God turned against me?  Why would He do this to me?  Why won't He stop it?    

No answer would come, only the anguished memory of the moment that his life shifted irrevocably.   

With the band deep into its third set, he decided it was time to leave.  He was enjoying himself, but he was tired, and he wanted to be up the next morning for a racquetball match with his buddy.  

The floor in front of the bandstand was jammed, but there was no other way out than to wade  through the crowd to get to the door.  He began to slowly navigate his way, dodging couples who were dancing and edging around small knots of people.  As he gently shouldered his way past one group, his right hand brushed against the backside of a short blonde in tight jeans.  She reacted with a start, and he instantly excused himself as he moved on, finally reaching the door.

He was relieved to be out of the bar, free from the din and cigarette haze,  able to draw in fresh, clean air.  He looked skyward, noting the passing clouds, thinking there could be rain before sunup.  He began walking towards his car, parked near the back of a large gravel lot.   Behind him, he heard a blast of noise as the club door opened.  Then it slammed shut.

"Hey, you!" a man yelled.  "Hey, boy—I'm talking to you!"  He stopped dead in his tracks, chilled, and turned slowly.  Lurching unsteadily toward him were three strapping young white men, one with his arm around the tiny blonde.  When they reached him and formed a semi-circle, the one holding onto the girl drunkenly started in again.  "Who the fuck do you think you are?"

"What are you talking about?" he answered, trying to show no hint of hostility.

"Don't fucking play ignorant.  You know what I'm talking about."

"I don't, man.  Really."

"You push your way through like you own the fucking place and grab my girlfriend's ass while you're going by—"

"Whoa, now wait a minute!"

"—and you act like you don't know?"

"I never grabbed your girlfriend.  I wouldn't do that."

"You did," piped up the blonde. "You touched me."

"Well, yes, but it was an accident—I apologized right away.  Remember?  And I never 'grabbed' you."   His friend's admonition echoed—"You could get your ass into some serious trouble." 

"You did so," the girl insisted, feigning a look  of indignation.

"I didn't!"

"She says you did," said her boyfriend, swaying from the alcohol.

"And I'm saying it's not true, man."

"Don't fucking call me 'man,' nigger!"  His agitation was growing, stoked by his friends.

"Let's just beat the shit out of him," one of them said, his face twisted with hatred.

"Look.  I don't want any trouble."  He looked directly at the girl.  "I'm very sorry if I did anything to offend you, I really am, and I apologize."  The boyfriend looked down at his girl.

"That good enough for you, baby doll?"  It was obvious now that she was enjoying being the center of attention and watching a black man squirm.

"No."   That was all her boyfriend needed to hear.

"Well, then," he began, uncoiling his thick arm from around the girl's waist, "I guess we got no choice but to whip your fucking sorry ass."  That was the signal for his two hulking friends to stagger forward.  They came at him clumsily, raising their arms bear-like.  In that moment he saw his chance and took it, bolting ahead between the two drunks, his shoes scrabbling as they sought purchase in the loose gravel.  He cast a quick glance over his shoulder as he zigzagged around a half-dozen parked cars.  But instead of heading for his own car, he was seized with a blinding fear that drove him across the narrow blacktop road that ran in front of the bar and into the thick woods beyond.   

 How long ago had it been?  As he crouched regaining his breath, he felt it had been hours, yet he knew it was not.  He had run for all he was worth, hoping that would be enough; but instead of being content with terrorizing him as they had, the crackers chose to chase him.  

Now, from his left, their drunken voices rose anew and began to sound closer.

"He cut through here, I tell ya!" "Naw—this way!"  

He knew he must move.  

I am not going to end up like Emmit Till!

With a much stealth as he could, he crept from beneath the low bushes and, in a half-crouch,  began moving away from where he suspected the men to be. Five steps, ten, his shoes making little sound but a soft crunch on  the carpet of dead leaves.  The tension that squeezed his chest began to ease almost imperceptibly as he put distance between himself and his pursuers.  

But because the woods were deep and there was virtually no light from the moon to aid him, he was blind to the dead tree branch which cracked like a rifle shot when he stepped on it.  Instantly, he froze, praying the noise would be ignored.

"This way!  You heard it!  The sonofabitch is this way!"

The abject fear that had driven him into the woods in the first place seized him again, and he began running headlong into the deeper part of the timber.  Throwing his arms and hands before him as a shield, he rushed ahead, knowing nothing of where he was going, only certain it could be no worse than what lay in his wake.  Overhead, grey clouds placidly traversed the indigo sky.  In the treetops above him, a flutter of wings as an owl lifted away.  

He was athletic, and he ran like the halfback he'd played years before on his high school football team, cutting from side to side, picking up speed, hearing the shouts behind him begin to grow somewhat fainter. Was he shaking them?  

Can't let up now!

But danger not only pursued him, it lay ahead, for in the darkness he could not see the lip of a deep gully that cut through the thick trees.  Without warning,  he found himself flung through the air, tumbling and rolling down an embankment clotted with leaves, broken branches and stinging nettles.  Reflexively, he had clamped his eyes shut, tensing against the impact of his body, which struck the earth much as would a sack of potatoes, heavy, thudding, pitching forward, downward, rapidly until his head struck a rock. 

He was lucky.  He hit with the left side of his head, rolling  heavily onto his back, face to the nearly lightless moon, spared being submerged in the wet, rotting slime that filled the bottom of the ditch. 

#       

The rain had been falling for half-an-hour before he came to, brought back by the steady drip of water onto his face from the broad leaves of a tree whose lower branches arched over the gully.  He wrenched his right hand from beneath his body and mopped at the moisture on his face.  The more he emerged from his fog, the more he became aware of the pain that suffused the whole of his body.  Not knowing how long he had been unconscious, he was at first gripped by fear that he might still be discovered, so he held his breath and listened intently.  But there was nothing beyond the sound of the rainfall and the intermittent rustling of the leaves above as a light gusts of wind  swirled through.  After a long minute, he allowed himself to relax enough to slowly work his way up onto an elbow.  Then, using  both hands, he laboriously pushed his upper body out of the muck and higher up the embankment.  

He moved both legs and flexed his arms, relieved that there appeared to be no broken bones or significant sprains, so he eased his back down onto the wet earth to clear his head and take stock of his situation.  The deep shades of night seemed to be lightening, so he reckoned dawn was approaching,  

Rest a little bit longer and then get the hell out of here.

He had no idea where he was, how far he'd run or how he would find his way back.  

I'll figure it out.

As he lay there, his clothes soaked through, bruised and aching, he thought of his parents, how hard they had worked to make it possible for him to go to college, how horrified they would be if they could see him, and his anger grew white-hot. 

The same shit as it ever was —black skin, three strikes and your ass is out! 

It was a deep wound,  this sickening realization  that his fate could turn on a dime, on the whim of another whose superiority was assumed solely on the basis that they were white and he was not.  He shut his eyes against the welter of emotions roiling within himself.

When I get back up north, maybe  . . . 

He lay there for several minutes as the first faint light of the day began sifting through the trees and the rain eased to little more than drizzle.  With his eyes closed, he became more attuned to his hearing.  He caught his breath and held it, cocking his head slightly to the left.  He wondered if his mind was playing tricks on him, so he redoubled his concentration.  Now he realized there was no mistaking what he heard.  The sound was closing, away maybe fifty yards or so—the snuffle and panting of animals, mingled with the murmur of men's voices.

Awww, Jesus!  They're after me with dogs?!

Wincing, he rolled into his stomach, then began crawling crab-like up the embankment.  When he reached the lip of the gully, he coiled into a painful crouch and made his way forward as quietly as he could, around fallen branches and through underbrush.  At length, he clawed through a row of thick chokeberry bushes and found himself at the edge of a swath of pasture.  Beyond, there was a small farmhouse.  In the window, through the greyness of the fog, drizzle and encroaching dawn, he could see the dim yellow glow of what he took to be a lamp.  He looked behind him, and though he could not see his pursuers, he heard the dogs begin to whine and yelp, having picked up his scent.  

"Come on, boys—this way!  We've got the sumbitch now!"

He turned . . . 

I'm not gonna end up like Emmit Till!

. . . drew a deep breath and ran toward the light.


Image Credit: ©Ubisoft


***

Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent.
His short story "Golgotha" was published in the Review last August.  In addition, his writing has appeared in the Nonconformist Magazine, the San Antonio Review, Dark Horses Magazine, Backchannels Journal, Samjoko Magazine, Bookends Review, Short Story Town, Danse Macabre Magazine, Pigeon Review, CafeLit Magazine, the Green Silk Journal, Typeslash Review, The Potato Soup Journal, 50-Word Stories, Sein und Werden, Of Rust and Glass, Little Death Lit, Flyover Magazine, Sandpiper, The Chamber  Magazine, The Best of CafĆ©Lit 11and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.  He lives outside Chicago.


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