Stealing Souls, Chapter Eight: The Odds of Escape

This is a continuation of my novel. A new chapter will be published every other Sunday until my first hiatus in March. The story is a work in progress and posting will resume in the fall. The full archives can be found here. Please feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts, and thank you for reading!

Metropiads were not wasteful. When they had first discovered this vast parking lots abandoned under the city, they had seen treasures of metal, plastic and glass, of pre-made pistons and sockets ready to be scavaged. They had all done their best to protect them from rust, mice and the general forces of entropy. Secured deep underground, they had at least the advantage of stable temperature. Still, entropy would have its way. In Ainsel’s car, the engine had been removed decades ago, leaving a hollow space, and rust had slowly grown a hole between it and the driver’s seat. It only took some aimless plucking of the upholstery to reveal it. The hole was just Ainsel sized. The moment that she exposed it, she gingerly lowered herself past the jagged orange-brown edges, and dropped to the ground.

So far, Ainsel had not done anything unusual.

The Metropiads had done their best to secure the cars, but their inmates had always found ways to escape. An overlooked emergency release button in the trunk might be triggered, or the cord that had once run from the trunk to the button in the driver’s seat might be uncovered and tugged. Those larger and stronger than Ainsel occasionally broke windows. Their captors did not worry too much about these gaps in their security, for a very simple reason. There were more ways out of the cars than out of the garage.

Specifically, there were two real ways out, and one false way.

The false way out was the ramp to the surface, the one that the cars had once driven up. A boy called Abhorsen had gone that way two months ago. One of the handles on his car door had broken off, meaning that the chain locking it closed was useless, and he had wandered out. Abhorsen was not even thinking of escape. He had been locked up in the dark too long to remember that there was an outside to escape to. The Metropiad priests who attended to him believed he was happy, because he did not scream and sometimes, while working with the tiles, he smiled at them. They did not notice all the times he didn’t smile.

Abhorsen’s had wandered through the rows of cars, peeking in at first. Some of the faces he had seen were blank or sleeping, some absorbed in tearing up their surroundings or plucking their hair. But some had seen him, and lunged, slapping their windows, pleading with their eyes to be let out. He not only did not know how to do this, he did not quite understand what they wanted. He was not good at understanding facial expressions. Just because he didn’t understand them, though, did not mean he didn’t feel them. They pinched at his stomach, and drove him to run for the big empty space he saw.

He wandered up the smooth, curving ramp, skipping all the exits to more little prisons, until he came to the top. The Metropiads had discovered the simplest possible means to prevent escape. Their ancestors had a long, slatted descending door of metal, to keep people out when the garage was closed. The Metropiads had lowered it.

While it had no weaknesses that had promised escape, it did have cracks, holes, places that were bent. These let in a golden afternoon light that caught particles of dust and turned them into speck sized fairies. Along the bottom, blades of emerald glass poked through from outside. A coral ladybug had crawled through one opening a moment before Abhorsen’s arrival, and was flying around, trying to remember where the exit was. Abhorsen raised a finger, and the ladybug landed. He stood, transfixed and utterly sated by all the beauty in front of him. He stayed there, silently absorbing the perfection of the insect, until his captors found him and lead him back downstairs.

A week later, his heart stopped beating while he slept. He joined all those who had died of neglect and misery, and took with him the secret, beautiful moment.

So that was the deceptive exit. The first real one was the old gray door that lead to the stairs directly to the sidewalk above. It was next to the ramp, and the last person to take it was a girl named Piala. She was seven and angry. The Metropiads did not pretend that they loved her, like they did Abhorsen. They merely believed that she was a mean little thing, and thus impossible to love. She felt much the same about them.

Her mind was too active for its cage. It was too active for the world outside, and lead her to run around madly at anything that caught her attention. This, combined with an odd habit of staring at her hands and sing-songy speech that was hard to understand, had landed her in the garage at three. It then lead her to make her destruction more focused than Ainsel’s. Her car had avoided developing any structural weaknesses over the last century, but she made up for lost time. She kicked, clawed, tested every inch of the car methodically for weaknesses, until the cobweb scratches on the windows made them weak enough that she could shatter one.

She had ran for the door and charged up the stairs, only to meet a Metropiad guard. He had been startled and wrestled with her briefly, and knocked her down six flights of concrete steps. By the time her body reached the bottom, her neck had been broken.

The final way out was the door the Metropiads regularly took the children through. There wasn’t a single guard behind that one. There was no need, because behind it there was a long hallway with no hiding places and too many Metropiads for a scared, disoriented, conspicuous child to slip past.

Ainsel tried the ramp first. When she discovered the dead end, she doubled back and tried that second door. If she stretched her hands all the way up and jumped, her fingers could feel a brief tingle as the came in contact with the cold metal doorknob.

For the past year of her job, she had only had one job; to find ways to open doors for her pawed caretakers. She knew she could get through this door. For a moment she stood and looked, studying the door and its immediate surroundings, then she returned to her old prison of a car.

Once there, she began rooting through her own wreckage. She had previously played around with the organization of the debris, first scattering them across the floor and then sorting through the mess. Pieces of foam got chucked over the back seat into the hatchback’s trunk. They had settled like yellow-brown snow. Then pieces of plastic got stuck into the soft rubbery padding around the glass. It gave them nice jagged frames. The threads she had pulled out of the seats were deposited on top of the dashboard. She laid them all out lengthwise, because they were slightly silver tinted and if they were somewhat straight they all caught bits of light together. The effect was just shy of shiny.

She took a large handful of these long threads, and draped them around her neck before she went back down her hole. Once there, instead of heading for the door, she went to a large brown jeep that was parked next to a pillar.

She climbed from the floor to the rear bumper, the bumper to the tailgate, and from there she began to shimmy up, between the pillar and the supports for the now-absent canvas roof. From there, she had a jungle gym of pipes, joists and latticed supports. It was pure joy for her to maneuver through them, all the way to the doors. Ainsel got herself directly over the closed door. She waited a long time. The door swung open, and with careful timing, Ainsel dropped her handful of strings. Light, and soundless, they drifted to the closing door, where they draped like a towel or a bit of tinsel on a branch. There was just enough, just close enough to the hinge, to keep the door a crack open, barely enough to be noticed but perhaps, just enough for little fingers to reach in and push. Now she only had to crawl back down the way she came. Or so she thought. For all her cleverness, she still had a child’s mind, unable to notice calculate every variable. If she had been a little older, she would have thought about the fact that the door had only opened because a leather clad Metropiad had just come through.

At the same time Ainsel crawled overhead, the figure walked beneath her. Under the thick armor was a woman, a nurse named Nevada, carrying a little boy so emaciated he resembled a monkey. He was sleeping in her arms. She deposited him gently into the green Escapade that was his home, straightened up, and looked around to make sure all was well. As she turned, scanning, her eyes finally fell on the door, wedged open by silver cords.

As unique as the trick with the ceiling and the strings sounded, someone else had tried it before, with the slightest of variations. A slightly older boy named Othello had been able to strip away all the bits of rubber from the windows of his car. In this way he was able to maneuver the glass out as well, and smash it on the cement.

As he left, he had taken the rubber strips, tied into a long rope. He had also picked up a large shard of glass, for his own defense. The rest of his story went exactly as Ainsel’s had, except instead of crawling back, he had dropped directly from the ceiling to the floor, and run through. Sheer speed and determination had gotten him past many grasping hands, and when a hand finally caught hold of him, he began to use the glass shiv.

The Metropiad had that thick, hot leather armor on, but had taken the head covering off for comfort. That was where Othello had aimed; the face, the eyes, the nose. With every stab, the glass drove back into Othello’s hand as well as into the skin of his opponent. Soon it was too slippery to old; even so, he struggled so much that he returned with a broken rib. Both Othello and his captor had died of infection.

The woman had heard the story. Everyone heard it. It was The Cautionary Tale every new physician in this experiment needed to know. It was the ghost story that marked their initiation.

Under the leather and the sweat it had drenched her in, she turned pale. She had decide quickly whether the one who had done this was still here in the lot, or had already gone ahead.

She looked to the left, to the right, and saw no one. Then she raced ahead, grabbing every adult in sight. Did you see a child come this way? No, I was just with an Empty. I was just fetching some tiles. I needed some tea. If each one had taken the time to carefully compare their stories, they would realize that at no point had the long hall been empty, as it never was. Someone was always there. But, in their panic, each could think of a time in the last two or three minutes when they had not been looking. They assumed that all their gaps in attention had overlapped, and someone had already gotten past, out into the old lobby of a former hotel, where there were hiding places on the way to the great and sunny outdoors.

All who were not occupied with a child in the old restroom ran out to find this ghost, and so, when Ainsel made it to the hall, she stumbled along uninterrupted. She hid in the hiding places they had already checked, she inched forwards as they ran still further on, until she pushed open the grimy glass door that was the only remaining barrier between her and sunlight.

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