It took Emily and Candace only half a second longer than Naomi to react, and then they were on her heels, breaking across the narrow parking lot and down the sidewalk away from their masked pursuers. Panic-stricken, they ran without thinking, driven by the simple urge to get away! When the sidewalk ended, they tore across the street, oblivious to an oncoming pickup truck’s blaring horn, and continued on through the grass and down a path, under the trees of Beacon Hill Park.
The masked men dodged around the pickup truck and sprinted after them, while the white panel van peeled out of the parking lot, its still-open rear doors swaying madly, and swung down a lane that led into the middle of the park.
Emily had run track in high school and soon began to outpace the others, glancing wildly back over her shoulder every few seconds. Naomi had just enough presence of mind to avoid her friend’s eyes during those backward looks—Emily had already lost control once and thrown her into a panic attack earlier today—but Candace didn’t seem to recognize the risk.
“Emily, wait!” called Candace, and the cry for help drew Emily’s frightened gaze. Candace caught the unrestrained flood of emotions like a bullet between the eyes and dropped like a sack of bricks, letting go a deathly scream and catching Naomi around the legs as she went. The impact of the fall knocked the wind out of Naomi’s lungs. She rolled onto her back and sat upright, gasping, as Candace’s screeching, banshee-like wail assaulted her. There was raw horror in Candace’s eyes and in the flailing of her outstretched right hand. The smell of staleness and rot washed over Naomi like a tidal wave, the odour of Candace’s unbridled fear. Naomi gagged.
Grabbing Candace by the wrist, Naomi tried to stand, but her friend resisted, caught up in her throes of terror. A look up the path revealed Emily standing 20 metres away, hesitating. “Help me, Em!” said Naomi, but even as she struggled to her knees and tried to haul Candace to her feet, she saw that she was out of time. The fastest of the masked men was nearly there, his hard eyes glaring determinedly out of his balaclava and his arms pumping as he ran top speed towards them. In a frozen instant, Naomi recognized the shape of a gun in the man’s hand.
For the second time that day, Naomi felt Death bearing down on her, and once again she reacted without thinking: she squeezed her eyes shut and skipped.
The purple darkness swirled and churned, deep, overwhelming, nauseating. It was too thick to move; it was too heavy to breathe. It was wrong somehow, all wrong, deeper than it had ever been before, thicker, darker, the purpleness fading into black. Naomi’s fingers burned and her throat convulsed. She couldn’t breathe—she couldn’t breathe!
She was back, and choking down rot-scented oxygen, her hand still wrapped around Candace’s wrist as her friend’s horrible, howling cry continued unabated. What had just happened? Had she somehow brought Candace with her when she skipped?! Naomi had never done anything like that before.
Releasing her death grip on Candace’s wrist, Naomi scrambled backwards a few feet and surveyed the path. Emily was gone, nowhere to be seen, but there were scuff marks in the dirt near where she’d been standing six-and-a-half minutes ago. What had she done when she’d seen Naomi and Candace disappear? What had the masked men done?
A deep groan answered that question on behalf of one of her pursuers. The man who had been nearest to them pushed himself up onto his hands and knees and gingerly unwrapped his fingers from around Candace’s ankle. Naomi hadn’t just brought Candace along with her: she’d brought this guy, as well!
The man covered his ears with his hands and shook his head to clear away the cobwebs. Naomi recognized the symptoms: she’d felt much the same way the first few times she’d skipped. It had definitely taken some getting used to. Maybe if it took him a little longer to recover she could…
But she didn’t act fast enough. The man’s eyes hardened and he looked down at Candace, whose ceaseless screams were hardly leaving her time to breathe, let alone defend herself. Raising his gun, the masked man clubbed Candace on the back of the head, and she finally fell silent. The stench of rot that had been seeping out from her fingers began to clear.
The man stood, lifted Candace onto his shoulder, and only then noticed Naomi sitting and trembling on the dirt path nearby. He stared at her quizzically for a few moments, then came to some kind of decision. “Get up,” he ordered, gesturing with his gun.
Naomi obeyed, standing slowly. “Wh-what do you want with us?” she asked.
“‘Us’?” said the man. “I couldn’t care less about you. Don’t move.” He switched his gun into the hand that was holding Candace and used the other to fish out a cell phone, flip it open, and dial a call. “Where’d I go?” he snarled into his phone. “Where’d you go?…I dunno. I blacked out or something…Well I’ve got her now. One of her friends, too. Do we want ’em both alive, or just the one?…Yeah, will do. Come get me already, I haven’t gone anywhere.” He hung up. “Okay, darlin’, let’s take a few steps off the path here. That’s right.”
Naomi stepped into the shadows and put her back against a tree. Her mind was racing, searching for a way out. What had happened to Emily? Had the other men taken her already?
“We’ll be out of here in a minute,” the man said, eyeing Naomi warily, “so just sit tight. And don’t try to get too close to me. I’m not gonna let you knock me out again, or whatever that was. I’ll blow you away before you get a chance. You’re worth way less to me than this one is.” Candace had begun to slip off his shoulder, so he adjusted her weight.
They stood among the quiet trees for a long minute or two before they heard the sound of a vehicle approaching and saw the white van pull up in a lane at the far end of the path. “Get over there,” said the masked man, pointing with his gun.
But as she took the first step out onto the path, Naomi heard a different sound began to grow in the distance, a high-pitched whirling, wailing, wonderful sound: the sound of police sirens.
The masked man swore and broke into a jog towards the van, but Naomi slowed a little, letting him get closer. “Move,” he barked, but he was just about close enough now…
Naomi spun and leapt at the man, grabbing for Candace’s legs. If she could just knock him over and get hold of Candace while the guy wasn’t touching her, maybe she could—
His reflexes were too good. The man spun away from Naomi and planted a boot in the dirt in front of her, tripping her up. She sprawled out on the path, rolled over, and looked up into the barrel of the man’s gun. He narrowed his eyes, adjusted his aim to her forehead, and jerked the trigger.
The bullet passed through empty air and smacked into the bare dirt.