Chapter 14

Chapter 14

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Bang, a gun fired and hit the grassy ground where the cat had been only a second ago.

A round of screaming, ducking, and cursing followed.

But Flora participated in none of that. Straight out of the forest, she ran after the kitty. For, thank heavens, the bullet had missed him. The fluffy orange fur ball dashed across the brilliantly green meadow, toward the cliff with the pit.

Another bang—and Flora felt a piercing ache in her arm, followed by something warm spilling uncontrollably. Her head spun. Adrenaline, and a bunch more hormones that the human body produced in dangerous moments, rushed through her veins. She could taste them—and through them, the alarm that they were supposed to mask. As the wind whipped against her, she knew without looking: the second bullet had grazed her arm. The wound burned more the faster she ran and the harder the wind slapped it.

And the cat, he didn’t stop. For him, there was no pause button, no stop button, no rewind button, no fast-forward either—for however long it took him to get to the cliff, he’d run, and after him, Flora would run.

Behind her, Viktor and Josephine shouted. The two men shouted. The stern woman shouted. Ellie didn’t shout, but it sounded like she was murmuring something to calm down Viktor.

The only person who was once again quiet, pretending not to be there, was Ursula.

Bang. Another shot was fired.

Flora hadn’t had time to have a closer look at Ursula. But she was sure that it was Ursula who was doing the shooting, because she was the only one not screaming. It didn’t seem to make sense to shout in panic while shooting, because that’d pretty much guarantee wasting a bullet.

Flora ran farther and farther away from the forest, toward the cliff, upstream.

“Wait for me,” she said, her breath short.

The cat didn’t wait.

“You can’t go there alone. Stop.”

He didn’t stop.

Fight, flight, freeze—those three reactions to a danger signal had often crossed Flora’s mind before.

Freeze was a great option. Freeze had been the only option in the pit. Flora’s default mode, whenever possible. Parked in front of the screen, frozen to the spot, she’d watched cat videos.

But this particular cat wasn’t of the pit. He operated from a different default mode. He’d chosen flight.

Flight toward that cliff meant fight. There were people in there. More pitkeepers. And even if those pitkeepers didn’t directly kill Flora and the cat, Ursula was bound to return to the pit. Then she’d kill the cat and Flora. And Viktor too—

Bang.

This time, the bullet didn’t come anywhere near the cat or Flora. Dare she look around…?

She did.

She stopped.

Close to the forest, two people stood: Viktor, still only wearing his pitkeeper pants, and a fully uniformed woman with a silver ponytail.

Viktor lowered his arm; he’d just shot at the sky. The silver-haired woman remained still; she was pointing a gun in Flora’s direction.

Behind Viktor, Josephine hugged Ellie, who covered her head with both arms. The two women crouched on the ground.

Behind the silver-haired woman, the two male pitkeepers and another female one—probably the woman with the stern voice—huddled together.

Flora guessed that the silver-haired woman was Ursula.

But Flora had no time to examine what exactly Ursula looked like. This was her chance to catch the cat and flee. Flora glanced around.

The orange lifeboat with the motor. There, by the river. It had been big enough for the pursuer group, all six of them, plus the camping gear that was strewn on the meadow near the forest. It might even have some food in there.

If only Flora could find the kitty—

There he was. He sat still on the grass, a patch of orange fur amidst green, staring at Flora.

“Hey, you,” she said, trying to sound calm.

The kitty meowed.

“I’m sorry we scared you.”

He licked his front paw. He didn’t seem particularly scared or annoyed.

Why had he run out of the shrubs at all? But then—who knows why cats do what they do at the time they do it?

No one. Absolutely no one.

Flora gingerly approached the kitty. With her T-shirt, she wiped the blood that flowed down from her arm wound. Then she lifted the cat from the grass. He didn’t resist.

The sun had begun to set. The air—from the top of the grass blades all the way to the clouds—seemed to thicken in order to manifest the change in color, from transparent to pinkish.

Flora backed away toward the lifeboat while glancing from Viktor to Ursula.

Viktor, look at me.

Then Flora could wave at him, signal that she planned on taking the lifeboat to the ocean, where half of the detergent bottles had gone to.

But his eyes rested on Ursula, and it was she who spoke in that forever-authoritative voice:

“You should have fired at me, not the sky. The sky did nothing wrong.”

“I mean you no harm, Ursula,” Viktor said.

“That makes me question your intelligence,” Ursula said.

“Just let us go.”

Ursula took a moment, gun pointed toward Flora, eyes on Viktor. Maybe Ursula smiled, maybe she frowned—Flora couldn’t see.

Then, Ursula said, “Flora, come here.”

“Don’t come here,” Viktor said, not letting Ursula out of sight. “Go.”

Abruptly, Ursula changed her posture, whirling around—

Bang.

Viktor collapsed on the ground.

Ursula had fired at him.

Ellie half yelled, half cried, “No!”

Josephine hugged Ellie closer. Ellie’s shoulders shook; she seemed to sob. The other pitkeepers huddled closer behind Ursula.

None of them had expected Ursula to actually fire just now. Carrying a gun and shooting it at faraway targets was one thing; firing it at a person only three feet away from you was another. Flora felt strangely vindicated. She’d known that Ursula was a psychopath.

Then Flora noticed more details about Viktor’s wound. He bled from his arm, precisely like Flora. A graze wound. Nothing more, nothing less.

Was it possible that Ursula was such a great markswoman that she’d precisely calculated each of her shots? Missed the kitty intentionally, hit Flora’s arm intentionally, and did the same with Viktor, intentionally?

“Come here, if you don’t want me to kill him,” Ursula said.

She still looked at Viktor and her gun was still pointed at him. But the statement was meant for Flora.

“Just go,” Viktor said—glaring at Ursula but also talking to Flora. “Remember, I wanted to die anyway.”

True. But Viktor jumping from the cliff was a different matter entirely from him being shot dead by Ursula because Flora hadn’t listened to her.

So, Flora approached Ursula.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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