Breathless, you drop to your knees beside a quiet stream and lean forward on splayed hands. The mid-day sun illuminates your reflection in the slow water. For a moment you watch your brown face shimmering and shifting, your tired eyes blinking in disbelief, your open mouth snatching air. The abrasions on your wrists and the burning stripes on your back remind you that lingering here is perilous. They are in pursuit, with rifles and hate-filled voices and howling dogs. If they catch you this time, there will be no whips. They will not return you to the squalor of the quarter and the suffocating heat of the fields. They will hang you or burn you alive or make you watch as they slice open your belly. And they will laugh and spit on you as you die. You must press ahead, not toward something as uncertain as freedom but to the next footstep, the next breath, the next blink—whatever confirms you are still alive. First, however, you need a drink. You lower your face to the water and gulp as much as you can. Just then, bloated and covered with flies, a dark body floats past, and you throw up. Chest still heaving but pure terror driving you, you stagger to your feet and begin to run again.
The forest through which you push yourself opens onto a clearing with few trees, but you cannot miss the stinking men twisting in the breeze or the corpses killed without an audience and left on the ground to rot in the sun. Not daring to stop and talk to the Almighty forced upon you by those who owned you, you whisper a prayer as you pass—for all the good it will do, for all the good dreams of Heaven have ever done. The clearing ends on a well-trod path that rises into tree-lined hills. Ahead, horsemen with rifles watch men like you dig with pickaxes and shovels. Much as you’d like to bury the rusted metal in the heads and chests of the overseers, you know you cannot risk it. You take the long way around to avoid being seen. Eventually coming down out of the hills, you find yourself on an unpaved road toward Greenwood, in Tulsa. You pass burned-out cars and the skeletons of burned-out buildings and the not-yet skeletons of men, women, and children motionless in the dust. But you are not alone with those already dead. Others are near, screaming, running, hiding. Overhead is a coughing biplane whose pilot drops hand-made bombs amid those fleeing. Luck holding, you dodge the shell bursts but smoke chokes you and concussive explosions deafen you.
The ringing in your ears is still there when you join a crowd, black like you, gathered in a nameless downtown where the cars look forty years sleeker than Greenwood. Despite the ringing in your ears, you have no trouble hearing words like coon and jigaboo and nigger hurled at the crowd—and you. High-pressure water cannons tear the shirt and skin from your back as they slam you to the ground. Nightsticks pound your shoulders and head but scar tissue left by long-ago whips makes these new blows almost feel like tickles—or maybe you are so used to pain it doesn’t matter anymore. You keep crawling forward, beneath the broad white arch of a bridge, until a knee presses against your neck, forcing your face to scrape pavement. Somehow, you wriggle free, scramble to your feet, and take off again.
For a time, it feels as if no one can catch you. You slow to a trot, realizing your hunger is now overwhelming. But you see a market ahead, where you will find food. Then you’re inside, amid the lights and laughter and camaraderie of shoppers, part of a daily routine that is both comfortable and comforting. You are in the produce aisle when the shooting starts. A strangely familiar figure raises a rifle in your direction. You have no time to understand but your terror peaks and you raise a defensive arm as he pulls the trigger.
You are jerked from blackness by countless hands, by a hypodermic sliding into your arm, by wires detached from leads glued to your skin, by the removal of the headset that covers your eyes. You find yourself strapped to an upright table ratcheting downward. You gaze overhead at the mirror someone has fixed above you. You see your face—pale almost to the point of translucence and drawn from all the running but unmistakably YOURS. Still enraged. Still young. Still white. Thank God!
But your relief is short-lived as realization floods into you. Tomorrow this will all begin again. You will be dragged kicking and cursing from your cell, drugged, and buckled down as wires are reattached to your sensory centers. Then the VR helmet will be lowered and locked and the table returned to its upright position. Your last thought before you’re forced into another world, another series of bodies not your own, will be that maybe the needle nap would’ve been better than the plea deal that gave you reality-enhanced life without parole.
As always, however, the thought will be brief. When you open your eyes, your senses and virtual memories will kick in. Then you will run.
Edgar Award-winner and U Buffalo professor emeritus, Gary Earl Ross is the author of Beneath the Ice, Blackbird Rising, Nickel City Blues, NC Crossfire, NC Storm Warning, NC Naked Lady; and the plays Scavenger’s Daughter, Mark of Cain, The Trial of Trayvon Martin, Matter of Intent, Picture Perfect, and Stoker’s Guest.