Painful starbursts exploded behind my eyes.
I clawed awake, tumbling forward, bouncing against a rough surface. Heat scorched my arms and legs. I tucked my head and shoulders. Sharp stones gouged my back and sand coated my sweaty body.
Slammed to a stop, I was flat on my face. Ears ringing. My next breath wheezed out, mouth dry as the hot dust singeing my body.
What was happening?
No answer. Brain scrambled.
“Get up, girl, if you value your life,” someone demanded in a deep male voice that sounded old.
Don’t push me right now if you value yours. I opened my gritty eyes to blinding light and a cockeyed view of an endless desert. Not a person in sight.
If he yelled one more time, he wouldn’t be happy when I did make it to my feet. I bit back the snarl curling to my lips. Who was he anyway? My head still spun and my stomach wasn’t much happier. Gravel bit the palms of my hands as I pushed up on shaky knees.
Every muscle screamed misery, my body battered as a kickball. I twisted around one way then the other, searching in a full circle. Still no one. Now I was dizzy.
Had I imagined that voice?
Where am I?
Blinking against the harsh sun, I struggled to my feet, weaving where I stood. Confused thoughts banged my aching skull. I rubbed my eyes, then focused and looked down at myself. Feet tucked inside short boots made of tanned skins. Familiar, but not. Buckskin material covered me from shoulders to skinned knees and I had a leather thong tied around my waist.
I swallowed, waiting for some memory to rise up from the empty gap in my mind and offer help. The longer I waited, the more nauseous I got.
Nerves had me brushing hair off my face and breathing fast, then I paused, clutching a handful of hair. I pulled the strands into view. Black. Long, thick and black.
Why didn’t I know that? My heart thumped hard and picked up speed. I took a quick glance at the barren landscape.
Was this home?
I didn’t know. Why can’t I remember?
Trembling started in my knees and traveled up through my chest. I forced a deep breath through my lungs, anything to stop the rising panic. Panic kills.
Someone had told me that once. Who?
Still no answers. Squinting, I looked for something familiar.
Mountains. Red mountains. Wait. I knew those. Think. I begged my mind to give me something. To remember.
Nothing. Closing my eyes, I tried harder.
Bright colors flashed behind my eyes and a sharp ache stabbed my skull. Grabbing my head did little to ease the throbbing, but the pain did clear some of my brain fog.
The name of those mountains. Sandia. Relief flooded through me so quickly my skin tingled. I’m just disoriented.
“You waste time, Rayen.”
I froze as I opened my eyes. I better see him when I turn around this time. And who was Rayen? I made a quarter turn to find the owner of that gravelly voice.
An old man. No, the shimmering image of an old man, an elder. This whole thing just shot up a level on the weird scale. With white stringy hair, light gray eyes and gnarled limbs, he flickered before me, the red and tan cliff rocks visible through his translucent body. Beyond that, an unbroken sky stretched overhead, wide and empty and so intensely blue it hurt my eyes.
The ghost man floated above the desert floor, legs crossed.
I was feeling a whole lot better until I saw that. “Who are-–”
The ground beneath me vibrated and shifted, cutting off my words. I stumbled sideways.
“Listen,” he ordered, his voice tense and urgent. “Three things you must know.” The ghost spoke louder with each word, competing with a heavy, shuddering sound not that far away.
I chugged in a deep breath, as if that would keep my rising fear at bay, and smelled a rotted stench. Cloying decay and smoke. A warning smell I couldn’t place, but something I sensed deep in my bones. Danger. I moved my head to look around, but the old man shouted, “You listening?”
Like I have a choice?
The spooky elder was determined to get his message said.
Nodding at him, I swallowed, not a spit of saliva in my mouth. The pounding of the ground seemed to come from a distance, reverberating through me. Adrenaline stirred my blood, urging me to be ready. But for what?
“First thing,” he enunciated as if I was slow. “You die if you eat peanuts and you are seventeen.”
Peanuts? Who cares about nuts, and isn’t that technically two things? I sniffed at the air. The burning stink thickened. I reached for a knife that wasn’t at my hip, but something told me it should be.
“Second. Your name Rayen.”
Rayen? I’m Rayen?
If I could believe a crazy hallucination. Fear snaked through me with icy fingers, paralyzing me. I don’t know my name…or what I’m doing here…or where here is, other than recognizing those mountains.
The ground shook harder, dust and pebbles scattering everywhere. I widened my stance to keep my balance.
That’s when I caught the distinct sound of hooves pounding.
Hard. Behind me…and gaining speed.
I looked over my shoulder. A beast. My muscles clenched at the sheer size of the thing. A hairy, rhino-hide gray creature blotting out the desert landscape behind it. Barreling forward, rocking back and forth on three legs, wide head low to the ground. Scary fast, churning geysers of sand and dirt, eating up distance quicker than anything its size should.
Air backed up in my lungs. “What the–”
“Third thing, Rayen,” the elder shouted, his voice nearly drowned by the rumble. “Run!”
Ghost Man vanished as I took off running.
Something clicked in my head, some instinct. I ran, arms pumping, and rocketed away from the beast. A quick leap over thorny bushes. My heels slammed hard rock, feet racing as if hell itself chased me.
Quick check over my shoulder.
The beast was gaining, yellow eyes burning for blood.
What was that thing? Shouldn’t I know?
Didn’t matter. Right now I had no place to hide and no idea how to escape. No trees large enough to dash behind. Nothing.
Except the mountains. They were my safe haven. I knew that, somehow. But how do I know? Was there a place to hide in those rocks up ahead? Maybe that beast couldn’t follow me up a sharp incline.
Ragged breaths chugged past my dry lips. Hot air scoarched my chest. I gagged on the creature’s nauseating smell. I could hear it gaining on me. Shaking the earth beneath my panicked feet.
I’m running too hard. Won’t last at this pace. My lungs were going to burst. Have to find cover.
Stinging sweat poured into my eyes when I lifted my gaze, searching boulders that had tumbled into a monolithic pile along the nearest ridge, as if stacked by a giant’s hand.
Tell me that beast can’t climb.
If I could just get far enough ahead. Reach the peak on the other side of those boulders.
I veered slightly left, pistoning my arms and breathing as hard as a small prey run to ground.
Fifty feet. Run faster.
Thirty feet. Not going to make it.
Ten feet. Come on. Almost there. Almost.
A roar screamed through the air.
I leaped from ground to rock. Slammed a knee. Slapped raw palms against jagged surfaces baked by the sun. Heat seared my skin. Ignore the pain.
Climb, climb, climb!
Scrambling like a lizard, I reached for crevices, grinding my knees and thighs.
Another scream, higher pitched this time but farther away. The thing pawed the ground. Dust erupted, choking the air.
I stretched for the next handhold and risked a quick glance back. What did that thing want?
At the base of the rocks, it started morphing from a huge, low-to-the-ground Rhino beast to a tall, thin whippet shape with a short, sleek coat of sand-colored hair.
No way. No way in blue blazes. I’m so dead.
I bit my lip, tasting blood. Can’t quit now. I sucked in a blast of baked air and clawed my way up the next rock. Sunlight poked through crevices. Maybe on the other side there’d be someplace to hide. Or people.
Like me? Where were my people? Friends? Family?
Did I have any?
Worry later. Right now, I’d take help from anyone I could find.
The sun roasted my exposed skin and beat down on my back. Muscles burned the harder I climbed. Blood pounded in my ears. I jammed the toes of my boots into whatever crack I could find and shoved my body higher, faster. My fingers clutched sandstone and slipped. I dug in deeper and scrambled hand-over-hand.
Hot breath licked the air around my legs.
The beast was almost on me.
A space between rocks gaped to my left. Crunching my shoulders as thin as possible, I plunged into the narrow V opening, raking my back raw.
A shaft of blue sky yawned on the other side.
Deadly panting echoed right behind me. Closing in.
Fighting panic, I scrambled forward and lunged for the far side…and too late saw nothing below.
My feet flipped over my head. I tumbled. An ocean of sky and rusty-brown rocks blurred through my vision.
I hit hard, face planted on dirt.
Knocked the breath out of me. My head spun and every bone reverberated. I took a wheezing gasp that hurt.
“Son of a bitch!” a strange young male voice called. “Hey, dude, we got a skydiver.”
Did I know the name Dude?
I opened my mouth and groaned. The only sound I could make.
“Hey, babe, where’s your chute?” the same voice asked, closer.
“Idiot, she fell from the rocks.” Another voice that sounded just as young and male joined the first. “She’s a mess. Leave her.”
“No way she fell. From those rocks?” First male’s voice. He whistled low. “Should be dead.” Then he whispered, “Hey. Maybe she is. We better go.”
We’ll all be dead if that beast follows me. I twisted my head just enough to look up at the cliff face I’d just dove from.
There. In the crevice of dusty-red boulders loomed a shadow. Long and thin. Waiting.
Even from this distance, I felt the danger. Predator eyeing prey. But what kept it from attacking? The other people? The distance? Could that thing not shift from land animal to a winged creature and swoop down?
Beware the beast whispered through my mind.
As if I hadn’t figured that out. That voice stirred a memory, almost. A female voice filled with worry. Who is she? Why can’t I remember?
The flicker of knowing slid away faster than dust through my fingers.
Fear coiled in my chest. I’m so confused. The blank spots in my mind threatened me on a gut-deep level, far more than the beast did.
But I’d gotten my wish. I’d found people.
I rolled onto my back, sucking air at the pain that movement caused. My entire body complained. Body slammed twice and feeling as if I’d been squeezed from the inside out.
The second voice called from a little further away. “Come on, Taylor, move it. We gotta get out of here before—”
A high-pitched screeching noise blasted over the top of the stranger’s words, followed by the echo of an older male voice. Not the ghost’s voice, a different one. His words boomed through a mechanical amplifier, shouting, “Stay where you are. Hands in the air. Stop!”
But instead of stopping, bodies swung into action. I angled my head to figure out who was doing what. I’d thought there were only one or two people nearby, but a dozen plus young ones erupted around me. Running in all directions. Dust devils with legs.
The booming voice barked more commands. “Stop where you are. Down on the ground. This is the APD.”
I had no problem complying. Flat on my back, I stared up at an empty, vast sky. Breathing was about all I could do.
Wonder what an APD is?
As if in answer, gravel crunched under approaching steps. A weathered face with skin as dark as mine hovered into view, indigo blue pants with a knife-sharp crease and dust-covered boots. One boot kicked my hip.
I gritted my teeth to hold back a groan of pain. A warrior never lets a threat see you flinch.
Had that been a random thought? Or did I know this as a truth?
“Stay right where you are, kid. No funny stuff and you won’t get hurt.”
Too late. Everything ached right down to the roots of my hair. And why had he called me kid? Was that anything like a dude? I dug around in my mind and came up with kid as a baby goat. Maybe I’m not the only one with scrambled brains.
The boot nudged me again. “Get up. Slow and easy.”
I eyed that boot, considering what would happen if I spun his foot to face the wrong way. But he had a black metal object on his hip that could be a weapon, and I still didn’t know where I was or what was going on.
Breaking his ankle didn’t seem too smart.
Rolling to my side, I shuddered to my knees. That settled it. I was in no shape to fight anyone right now. I’d made the right decision not to antagonize this person. Bracing myself, I lurched up to stand and anchored my feet shoulder width apart. Wiping at my arms was a mistake. Sand and grit clung to my skin so all I did was grind it into the raw places.
The man I faced stood barely taller than me. An elder I estimated to be three times my age if that old ghost had been right about me being seventeen. Age seamed this man’s face and voice. Eyes like coarse stone. “What kind of damn outfit you wearing, girl?”
He said girl as if I reminded him of a maggot. As for my clothes, what about his?
Couldn’t place what he wore, but I sensed the meaning behind his words and attitude–authority.
All the elders milling around wore the same covering–blue pants, light blue shirts, everything regulated and unyielding except for the sweat stains at their armpits and lower backs.
I cast another glance at myself. No one was dressed like me. Not even the others my age. They wore a different type of uniform–unusual words and designs across their chest coverings-PMS, Mad Cow Disease, Rangers. Loose pants that sagged at their hips, colorful footwear too short to be boots. The more I looked, the less I understood. I searched my memory for what was normal or how I’d ended up here.
And found only a cold emptiness filled with dark shadows.
Nothing. How could that be?
Fear turned into a rabid animal in my chest, fighting to get out.
With no idea who I was or where I belonged, what would these people…
“You going native?” the man asked me, guffawing. He shouted over his shoulder, “Hey Burt, we got one thinks she’s Pocahontas. Looks Navajo, like that other kid you got cuffed.”
Pocahontas? Could that be my name, too? Judging by the way he’d treated me so far he didn’t know me and didn’t care. The crazy old ghost had shown more concern.
The other elder this guy called Burt had clasped metal rings on the wrists of a scrawny boy younger than me–a kid?–who looked more malnourished than dangerous. What had he meant by saying we looked Navajo? What was a Navajo? I fingered my hair again. Straight and black like the skinny kid. Was my face as sharp as his? Were my eyes brown, too?
Nausea boiled up my throat.
I didn’t even know what I looked like.
Panic darted across the other young faces, but not like mine. They didn’t appear confused over who they were or why they were being captured.
And no one here recognized me.
Blue lights flashed on top of a dirty white box with wheels. Was that how the elders had arrived? That form of travel seemed wrong, but I couldn’t pinpoint why.
Who were these people? What did they want?
I scanned the cliff face again. The beast appeared gone. Or merged so deep into the shadow of the rocks as to be invisible. Unless?
Turning around, I eyed the male and female elders rounding up the struggling captives. Could the beast thing morph into a human? And if so, what were my chances of escaping?
“You got a name?” the man at my side barked.
I whispered through cracked, dry lips. “Rayen.”
“That a first name or a last?”
I shook my head. Big mistake. Pain shot through my battered skull. The elder waited for me to answer, but the ghost hadn’t given me more. “Don’t know.”
“Can’t hear you.”
“I don’t know.” Talk about the scary truth. An icy ball of terror jackknifed around inside me, but I kept my face passive, trying to figure out what to tell him. My eyes watered, but I blinked against tears. I was not one who cried. Strange, but I knew this.
Never expose a vulnerability rolled through my thoughts.
I might not know who I was, but some deep-seated instinct told me to trust myself to know how to survive.
“Where you from, kid?”
Just keep asking me questions I can’t answer, chewing up my insides. I shook my head.
“Don’t have a last name? Don’t have a home? Wrong answers, kid.” The elder reached for something in his belt. “Turn around. Hands behind your back.”
What choice did I have? There were too many of the blue uniforms with the black metal devices on their hips. I knew something discharged from a unit shaped like that. And even if I did try to run, that beast was out there, somewhere. I could feel its presence bone deep.
So I turned, willing to wait for my chance to escape. A narrow strip of rigid material looped against my bruised wrists. Tightened with a sharp tug.
“That’ll keep you.” The man sounded pleased. “Where’s transport, Davis?” he shouted to someone.
“On the way,” came a female answer.
“Captain’s going to be glad to know we got this gang corralled before they disappeared into the Sandias,” the man next to me bragged. “You were right about these kids holing up this side of the Del Agua Trail.”
Del Agua. I knew the name of that trail.
Another positive sign, right?
“Folks out at Piedra Lisa Park will be happier,” another laughed.
Piedra Lisa Park? I didn’t know that name or what they were talking about.
A sudden jerk on my arm sent me stumbling. I couldn’t swallow the groan that slid out this time.
“Keep up, kid. No lagging. We got room for one more in this van.” The man spoke out of the side of his mouth as he half dragged, half-shoved me toward one of the dusty boxes with wheels and iron mesh windows. This one already jammed full of snarling, angry prisoners. All who looked my age or younger.
Wary glares taut with anger and fear sized me up, judging me.
I stiffened at the thought of being caged and helpless. And no telling when that beast would attack again. Could it get inside these boxes? My instincts warned me this wasn’t a good idea, but those same instincts didn’t offer help on how to get out of this situation.
Stalling, I asked, “Where’re we going?”
“Why we’re taking you to the Hilton Albuquerque.” The man snickered.
A Hilton Albuquerque? Could the beast get to me there? I shoved a quick look up and over my shoulder again, searching. A shadow moved down the rocks, closer. “Where?”
“Don’t be a fool, girl.” The man thrust a meaty hand on the top of my head and shoved me inside toward the only remaining single seat. The taint of fear and sweat filled my nose. Heads hung down, shoulders hunched. I had the sense that the others knew where we were going and that knowledge had them trembling.
I tried once more. “Where are you taking me?”
“Where do ya think we take juvenile delinquents who steal twelve-thousand dollars worth of valuables and destroy a business just for fun?”
Stealing? Destruction? I wrenched at the tight bond around my wrists.
I wasn’t a criminal.