Short Fiction: FREE by P.A. Cornell

By P.A. Cornell

I open the door to a dazzling light and it takes a fraction of a second for my eyes to adjust, but soon the images become clear. This is sunlight and I’m outside for the first time in my twelve years of life. I feel something unexpected. Fear. But I push back the fear and start running instead. I can’t believe I’ve made it this far.

There’s a wall up ahead. No a fence, the word comes to me. It’s made of interwoven strands of metal, and the top portion is lined with loops of metallic predatorial teeth. It’s at least twelve feet in height, but it’s the final barrier to my freedom. I run harder, faster. I don’t know for sure that I can make it, but at the last second I jump and then I’m flying over the fence and its menacing teeth. I don’t even get nicked. 

The landing is less successful. I come down hard on my right ankle and for a while I’m forced to continue at a limp. But the pain isn’t bad. It’s just a small fracture that should heal within minutes. 

I run for a group of trees. I recognize what they are from the vocabulary pictures Dr. Fenton used to show me. That’s when I hear the alarm. They’ve finally noticed my escape. As soon as my ankle feels better, I run harder.

As I immerse myself in the dense growth of trees, the light grows darker and doesn’t bother my eyes as much. I move with ease, seeing obstacles well in advance and logging them in my mind, running from memory. I wonder how far I can go before I get tired and need to stop. I’ve never had the space to run before.

The answer comes after I’ve been running at full speed for about two hours. I wonder if that’s good for someone who’s never run before. I stop not just because I need rest, but also because there’s a structure up ahead. It looks a lot like the picture of the “house” Dr. Fenton used to show me. Triangular roof, small square windows, a door. But this house is made entirely of felled trees. Logs, I think they call them. I move cautiously toward it.

A man comes around the corner and seems startled to see me, but then relaxes. To him I’m no threat. Just a little girl, like any other.

“Well, hello there,” he says. “You lost?” His eyes shift downward as he takes in my bare feet.

He has a white beard. Bushy. He reminds me of the Santa Claus man I saw in a story book one time. A book Dr. Fenton was not supposed to show me, but she couldn’t help herself. She also saw me as a little girl sometimes. 

I walk over to the man, who smiles in a kind way, but before I reach him an animal runs between us and begins to make an awful sound that hurts my ears. I cover them and sink to the ground, just wanting it to stop. Through the noise I hear the man say something, then the noise stops. When I look back he’s holding the animal, soothing him. 

Dog, I think. It looks somewhat different from the picture I was shown, but I’m sure it’s a dog. And it knows my truth. It knows I’m not entirely human, no matter what I look like. 

It stares at me. Restless still, not trusting me. It makes another sound, but this one is low and doesn’t bother my ears. I think at it, sending the thought that I mean no harm, but he doesn’t seem convinced. He must know danger follows me and will eventually find me.

I rise from the ground and the dog pulls free of his master. He’s not as fast as I am, but he catches me off-guard and I feel his bite before I register what’s happened. I’m surprised I was unprepared for him. I should not have underestimated him.

I consider killing him, but the man has already pulled him off and seems concerned about my leg. I don’t worry. It stings but I know it will heal in minutes. The man ties the dog to a tree and leads me inside the log house. 

“Let’s get that bite cleaned up,” he says.

I let him lead. He seems harmless and I don’t want to stay outside with the dog. He seems to care for it and I don’t want to break something he loves. 

The man cleans my wound with water first, then something that stings. He then puts a kind of white cloth on it and tapes it down. It feels okay but I’m surprised that the healing process seems delayed. Maybe my body still needs to recover from the run.

“Are you hungry?” the man asks.

“Yes,” I say. “And thirsty.”

He gets me a sandwich. I recognize it from the vocabulary pictures. Inside is something thick and light brown in color, mixed with something dark purple. It’s beautiful but smells odd. He calls it “PBNJ.” I wonder what the acronym stands for as I take my first bite. It’s wonderful. I’ve never tasted something so good. I eat it fast.

Next is a glass of something white. 

“What is it?” I ask.

“It’s milk.” He looks surprised that I don’t know. If only he knew that I’d spent my life limited to nutrition packs and water. I drink it. It’s odd but good. Thicker than water.

My body doesn’t like the milk though. It’s not used to it. My stomach begins to ache dully. I tell the man, who says I might be “lactose-intolerant.” He explains that some people’s bodies can’t process milk. He says he should have known when I didn’t recognize it. Probably the reason my parents never gave me it.

Parents. If only I’d had some.

He tells me it will pass. I know, of course. My body is nothing if not efficient at healing itself. A gift from the extraterrestrial half of my lineage.

And yet, my leg is still sore where the dog bit me.

“Do you know your phone number?” the man asks. “I should give your parents a call to let them know you’re alright.”

I shake my head. 

He seems to accept this, though I’m not sure if he thinks I don’t know my phone number or simply don’t want him to call. 

“I can call the police then,” he says. “They can help you.”

“No,” I say, though I don’t know who these police are. It’s bad enough this man and his dog know I’m here. As soon as my leg heals I’ll leave.

“What happened to your shoes?” he asks, pointing to my feet. 

Would he believe me if I told him that I’ve never had any? That the only reason I have clothes at all is because I stole them from Dr. Fenton after I knocked her unconscious? I didn’t want to hurt her, but she wouldn’t help me. Twelve years spent in a single room with blank walls and no windows. Counting the steps it took to get around it. Eight steps along the bed side. Turn left. Ten more steps. Turn left. Eight steps. Turn left. Eight more steps to the bed. It would have been ten if I could walk through it.

“I lost them,” I say, after what I think is too long for a standard response time. He doesn’t seem to notice and just nods.

“I’ll getcha some socks,” he tells me.

While he’s gone, I check the dog bite on my calf. The cloth peels back easily and I see the wound is still there. I’ve never taken so long to heal before. Part of me wonders if there was something at the facility that helped me heal and now that I’m not there it doesn’t work. But there’s no reason that should be. There’s something wrong with me, but I don’t know what it is.

I cover the wound again, just as the man returns with a pair of thick, gray socks that must be his. I don’t need them but he insists and I don’t want him to be sad, so I put them on. The heels are over my ankles as my feet are much smaller than his, but they feel soft and I find that I enjoy socks.

“I should go,” I tell him. I stand up but something is wrong and I feel the room spinning. Then there’s a sharp pain as my cheek hits the floor. I hear the dog making noise again but it seems distant and doesn’t bother me. 

I see the man’s face. He looks frightened. Then there’s nothing.

I awaken with a gap in memory. I don’t know what happened or how long it’s been. I’m afraid. The facility will come for me. I try to sit up but the man pushes me down. It’s then that I realise I’m on a soft chair of some kind. Long enough to fit my body. Like a bed, but clearly designed for sitting.

“You’re burning up,” the man tells me. “You’re sick.”

I don’t understand the reference to fire, especially since I feel so cold. But I do notice I’m covered in sweat. I never sweat.

“Can’t… be… sick,” I say, with more effort than should be required. “Don’t get sick…”

“I’ve never seen a fever so high,” he tells me.

He pats my forehead with a cool, wet cloth and I shiver, but somehow it feels good. Comforting.

I think of my leg and notice it no longer hurts. I’m relieved I’ve finally healed.

“My leg,” I say. “It’s better.”

He leans close and removes the bandage. His face looks like it can’t decide on an expression. Then he looks at me, having settled on “worried.”

I look down and see that the wound looks worse. The skin around the bite mark looks greenish and bumpy. Something oozes from the bite that isn’t blood. It’s far from healed and yet I feel nothing.

“I need to call a doctor,” the man says. “You have some kind of infection, but I’ve never seen one happen so fast.” He leaves before I can stop him. I hear him speaking in the other room, but I don’t know who to.

When he returns he brings me water and I drink it down. It feels good going down my throat. Strange that I never noticed until now.

The dog comes into the room and the man moves to stop him, but the dog makes no move toward me. He smells the air, notices my wound and whines a little. He doesn’t like it.

I don’t like it either.

The dog lies down and looks up at me. I think at it: “Hello.” It no longer worries for its master. I am no threat. I know now what is happening. I’m dying. My body can’t heal from this. 

“The bite,” I tell the man. “Something in the dog’s bite.”

I don’t know if he understands.

“It’s like lactose-intolerance,” I say. “My body wasn’t made to process dog bites.”

Whether the bacteria in the animal’s mouth, or simply the saliva itself, I’m poisoned. I’m dying. I feel no anger toward the dog. He was only protecting his man. A good man, deserving of love. 

He places a fresh cloth on my head.

“Thank you,” I tell him.

He looks down, quiet. Sad.

“It’s okay,” I say. “You gave me PBNJ to eat. And socks. And I will die free.”

I don’t think he understands. I’m not sure I’m even speaking aloud, but that’s alright. I see the movement of artificial light beams outside the window. The man looks up, briefly. 

“The facility,” I say. “They’ve found me.”

He frowns, and now I think I do see understanding in his eyes. There is knocking at the door but he ignores it. Even the dog remains where he is. Voices call but we don’t move. They’ll be inside soon. A door lock won’t stop them. But I smile. They’re already too late.

I close my eyes and think of running. My mind replays the memory. I’m moving so fast and then I leap over the fence. I’m flying… and this time I don’t come down.

P.A. Cornell is a Chilean-Canadian speculative fiction writer who was raised in a home with no
shortage of books. As a result, she fell in love with the craft of storytelling at an early age. She
wrote her first science-fiction story as a third-grade assignment, and still has it in her possession over three decades later. (For those curious, it’s about shape-shifting aliens.)
Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies, most recently A Punk Rock Future. She also has stories forthcoming in Galaxy’s Edge and Frozen Wavelets.
For a full bibliography and social media
links, visit pacornell.com.