“Fledglings” by Joanna Delooze

Categories: ISSUE 01: Babe

Fledglings

They were close. So close she could hear the rattle of a boot buckle near her head as heavy feet smashed the rain soaked grass. The undergrowth fooled them, they passed right by, mere inches away. She looked at her watch. Still under two hours. Time had stretched and wavered and crawled limply as a dying slug. It felt like a lifetime. They’d been tracking her, across the mountain, the hard rain washing away her scent, muddling her footfall, and still it hadn’t even taken them two hours to get this close. They were much better than she’d anticipated.

If they found her, she was dead. It was that simple. But time was running out. Under the canopy of dripping leaves, her heart raced, her breath was hushed and strangled with the effort to keep quiet. Weary as she was, the thought of dying comforted her. Too often she’d been here recently, waiting for the end to come, watching the clock. It was inevitable. Death beckoned to her, teasing with it’s warm, soft, feathery fineness. It laughed at her drenching discomfort.

“Mine, I tell ya. When we find her, it’s my kill. Stop arguing,” one grumped.

“Not if I spot her first, you know the rules.”

“Yeah, but we’d have had her forty minutes ago if I hadn’t had to fish you out of that creek. You’re lucky we didn’t lose her.”

Listening as they squabbled, her heart fluttered a warning. They were still too close. Their voices echoed through the glistening trees, bounced off the surrounding mountainsides. And they were too cocky. A serious hunter would have known all that raging would give her an easy point of reference to escape from. She flattened and listened to their griping as they traversed the woods in ever shrinking circles. It would be over soon, another half hour at the most. If she didn’t make it, all her sacrifice and effort would have been wasted. She had to make it. Slinking away through the thicket, she crouched in a small crevice between two rocks, the rain seeping through the moss to trickle down the back of her shirt collar and slide between her hunched shoulder blades. A mix of salty, panic lashed sweat and rain stung her eyes. Balling up as small as she could manage, she glanced at her watch again, grateful that Matt had insisted on an expensive one that would hold up to the violent weather. The sky dulled and darkened, her muscles cramped. The rain hissed, covering any sound, any voices. It went both ways, that rain. It hid her, but it also hid them.

A sharp pain shot through the back of her thigh, warm blood seeped through her sodden trousers. A low snigger slithered through the crevice, mixing with the sounds of the rain.

“Get out here you minx,” the voice growled. In the downpour she couldn’t be sure which one it belonged to, the tall blond moody one, or the younger, thinner, dark one. She clutched the wound on her leg, almost grateful for the blood seeping across her puckered fingers. It was the only warmth she’d felt for hours.

Looking at her watch again, she sighed. Two hours and forty nine minutes. She’d almost made it.

Scrabbling backwards out of her hole, she stood and looked them over, their faces expectant, lank hair dripping into their eyes. Shifting anxiously from foot to foot the younger dropped his eyes to the ground, unable to meet her frank gaze. Why did rain make everyone look so young and defenceless? He still clutched a hunting knife. As she watched, the rain washed her blood from the tip.

“I make it two hours and forty nine minutes. Confirm?” She said.

Their faces fell. The oldest kicked the youngest in the ankle, muttered something about idiots in the creek. He pulled a stopwatch from his pocket. “Confirm.” He spat angrily.

“Not bad, but not good enough yet. You were really, really close. Especially taking the rain into account. Did your father help you?”

“No m’am. All on our own this time.”

“No maps?”

“No.”

“Well done then. Next time you’ll get it for sure. Let’s get out of this rain.”

They walked ahead, arms around each other, laughing. She trailed behind, the wounded leg holding her back. They looked so grown up from this angle, their large shoulders, broad backs, belying the youth in their faces. It wouldn’t be long before her job here was done. Missing out by twenty minutes was nothing. In this environment, with the added disadvantage of the rain, a professional would have struggled. Their only obstacle was the clock.

“We’ll get it next time for sure,” the oldest said, ruffling his brother’s wet hair. “But I get the kill. I’m oldest, it’s my right.”

“You get what you get, fool. If I find her first, she’s mine.”

“You’re on, then!” he laughed, landing a good natured punch on his brother’s upper arm.

They really were boys to be proud of. Manly, capable, skilled at surviving. Ready. She couldn’t be more thrilled.

They turned back to her, the youngest still brandishing the knife, the rain sticking their clothes to them like a second skin.

“Hey, slowpoke. What’s for supper?”

“So grown up and still you can’t feed yourselves? What am I gonna do with you?” she laughed.

Their laughs blended with hers, and they all linked arms as the blood loss made her wobble. Looking at each other over the top of her head, they nodded grimly.
Next time. They’d get her the next time. Especially with that wound.

Such lovely, strong boys, she thought smiling to herself. They’d make it, all right. They’d survive. They’d be safe.

This time next week, I’ll be dead for sure.

Again, the thought was oddly comforting.

It couldn’t come soon enough. Motherhood was exhausting.

Story by Joanna Delooze

Foreground photo by John Maloof