Fugitive. I whispered it quietly to myself, tasting it on my tongue like a piece of hard candy. I had never imagined that word applying to me before, but now, it seemed to be the only word that described me. Alexa Harlem, the fugitive. I whispered it quietly to myself as I stood in line at the convenience store checkout, heart hammering at an uneven, erratic pace. I pressed my lips together nervously and pulled my hood down lower over my eyes, feeling the lens of the security camera watching me; taking in the stolen coat and the tangled blonde hair that I had forgotten to dye.
“Will you stop doing that? You’re drawing attention.” Riley growled from behind me, his voice a quiet hiss that only I could hear. If anyone else had spoken to me like that, I would have fired back a retort and told him exactly where he could shove his opinions, but Riley was different. We were two of a kind. We had escaped Darven Juvenile Center together and saved each other from capture, injury or death countless times over the last few weeks. Partners in crime. Somehow those words sounded just as bad as fugitive, though they described our relationship perfectly.
“I don’t like this. Let’s get out of here. We ate this morning, we can go without food for one night,” I muttered. I turned towards the entrance and mentally calculated the steps between the door and where I stood. All of the food in the world wasn’t worth being sent back to juvie.
“Put the gun down! You ain’t getting any money!” came a sharp, terrified voice from the cashiers’ desk. People frantically backed away from the cash register, screaming and clutching at each other. I turned so quickly towards the cash register that I nearly tripped over my own feet. A handsome, black-haired man was holding a gun to the bald, bespectacled cashier’s head. Riley and I shared horrified looks. If any blood was spilt here, the police would soon be swarming the area, leaving us cornered. The town was tiny, with only one street leading out of the place. Don’t shoot. I inwardly begged the armed man, who couldn’t have been older than twenty five. Riley and I stood, rooted to the spot as terrified clients pushed past us, desperately trying to get to the door. My mind vaguely registered that I should be running with them, away from the man with the gun, not standing frozen in line, looking stupid.
“Get that gun outta my face! I’m calling the pol-” The cashier was silenced by a gunshot. The killer hopped over the checkout counter, ignoring the three of us who hadn’t run when he’d pulled the trigger.
“Let’s steal the food and go! Hopefully we’ll be long gone when the cops get here,” I growled, tugging Riley forcefully towards the door. He stumbled after me, dropping several cans on the floor. He bent to retrieve them, cursing.
“Leave the cans! Let’s go!” I exclaimed. Riley straightened up.
“There. Now we can steal some bikes and-” he broke off, frowning and staring at the flower basket dangling from the low ceiling. It was swaying and trembling.
“Come on, Riley. Who cares about the flower-”
Suddenly, there was a loud rumbling and the ground shook, sending everyone sprawling.
“What is that?” the killer shouted as the ground began to shake even more violently.
“WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?”
“There’s no way out. We’re completely screwed,” Riley said, after checking the building for the third time. He lit himself a cigarette with practiced ease, though he was only sixteen, a year older than I was.
“You must be joking!” the killer moaned, sinking to the ground with a single foul oath. The little red-haired girl standing by the door gasped. I pointed at the dead man behind the counter and glared furiously at the black-haired man.
“He could’ve helped, but you killed him, so now we’re stuck here until someone digs us out. It could take days, weeks even!” I snarled. The murderer stopped counting the money he’d stolen from the cash register and looked up. With his black clothes, black hair, white skin and pale gray eyes, he made me think of an old-time photograph.
“Why are you so hacked off? You’re not the one getting put away for life after this. While you get to go home to your daddies and mummies, I spend my last minutes of freedom in here,” He snapped, vaguely gesturing in the direction of the non-perishable food aisle. I smiled ruefully. Riley’s daddy had disowned him and my mummy was dead after I had pushed her down a flight of stairs.
“Well, at least the food here’s good. Enjoy it while you can.” Riley tossed a bag of chips to the murderer, shamelessly cheerful. The man ripped open the bag with a kind of vindictive savagery.
“We make a fine bunch, don’t we?” a man with bloodshot eyes slurred from the counter on which he was sitting. I hadn’t noticed him earlier and started slightly at the realisation that there were five, not four of us. “An alcoholic, a murderer, a little girl and you two jailbirds.” Riley’s blue eyes and my brown ones widened in unison at the man’s nonchalant, casual tone.
“Jailbirds?” Riley tried to laugh, but it came out tense, loud and fake.
“Alexa Harlem and Riley Collins. You two are famous!” the drunken man cried with a low, derisive snort of laughter. The criminal turned to us with new respect in his eyes.
“You two are all over the newspapers! I mean, you can’t watch the news for five seconds without seeing your faces on the TV screen! I’m Sebastian by the way.” He hesitated before continuing, “We’re doomed anyway so I guess I might as well tell you my real name. Sebastian Blattaria.” He spoke his name in a very pompous fashion, as if he were someone very important, not simply another gun-wielding lowlife.
“I’m Damian Calder.” The drunken man imitated Sebastian Blattaria’s arrogant tone, throwing his nose into the air. The store’s only other occupant, a little redheaded girl, giggled quietly. We all turned to stare at her.
“Bren- Brenna Lynch! I’m Brenna Lynch,” she said, stumbling over her words and blushing. She looked maybe seven or eight years old. Her green eyes were wide and her lip was trembling. Poor thing, buried alive in a store with a bunch of a criminals and a creepy drunk guy. No wonder she’s scared. I thought as I watched Sebastian spinning his gun in slow, lazy circles on the cheap laminate floor. Suddenly, I felt uneasy, as if I should be doing something, not just sitting there. I crossed my legs and tucked a stray piece of hair behind my ears.
“I know there’s probably no way out of here, but we should probably keep looking. I mean, we could bust a hole through the roof or something…” I mumbled, trailing off and staring at the others expectantly. Damian sighed loudly.
“She’s got a point. I mean, it’s not like we’ve got anything better to do. We might as well try to dig ourselves out.”
Two hours and countless botched efforts later, five of us collapsed on the floor in defeat. Riley had ripped the security cameras from the wall and was smashing them aggressively to bits with his steel-toed boot, Brenna was crying, and Damian was on his third cigarette. Sebastian was sitting silently, jaw clenched and eyes blazing. Somehow his silence was more unnerving than Riley’s fury.
“Washroom,” I muttered, dragging myself to my feet. Nobody even glanced upwards as I walked through the door at the far end of the store marked ‘Ladies’. I locked the door behind me and sat down on the toilet. I spotted a patch of light dancing on the wall and frowned. My eyes slid to the opposite wall and I gasped. An unobstructed window. I jumped to my feet, climbed onto the toilet seat and peered through the semifrosted glass. I could see a forest, the perfect place for a fugitive to hide. How could Riley have overlooked this?
As I prepared to climb down, I noticed a note jammed underneath the crank that opened the window. I smoothed it out with my fingers.
This is my second time searching the place for an escape and I hope you’ll find this in time. There’s no way I can fit through the window, but I hope you’ll be able to. Don’t smash it to get out. There are people in the front digging, they’ll hear you. Don’t tell the others. They won’t be able to fit and they’ll cause a racket.
When you read this, don’t come back to say goodbye, just go. Here’s all the money I have. Ditch the coat, dye your hair, and stay hidden.
I finished the letter and pocketed it along with the money, both grateful and guilty, fighting the lump in my throat as I listened to the voices outside the bathroom. I could hear Riley’s familiar cadence among them. He seemed to be telling Brenna a story. I couldn’t help wishing I was close enough to hear, though I’d probably heard the story already during that long night Riley and I had spent hidden in the storage compartment of a train, keeping each other awake and entertained with tales and stories of our lives before Darven Juvenile.
I cranked the bathroom window open and ripped it from its rusty hinges, placing it carefully in the sink. I threw my coat onto the ground and pushed my head and shoulders through the opening, grimacing as the broken hinges dug into my skin, drawing blood. I extricated myself from the bathroom and dragged myself to my feet using the convenience store roof.
I stayed low, crouched almost double to avoid being seen. Goodbye, Riley, I thought, casting one last glance at the buried convenience store. I shifted my gaze to the forest. Many trees had been uprooted and there were huge cracks in the forest floor from the earthquake, but wasn’t that what crime was all about; sacrifice and survival of the fittest? Riley had sacrificed and I had survived, or at least escaped. I was no longer a partner in crime, but I was still a fugitive. Alexa Harlem, the fugitive…