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Gauntlet: Chapter 1

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Descent

“Taxi!”

A well-dressed woman in high-heeled sandals cut in front of Clio, throwing a harassed, almost suspicious look over her shoulder. Clio watched, her hand slowly falling, as the woman waved down the cab that pulled up.

Clio raised her eyebrows in amusement. The woman’s abrupt maneuver didn’t bother her.

“Excuse me,” Clio said, taking a step back from the woman teetering on the curb. The woman at least had the grace to look a little embarrassed at the show of politeness.

“Sorry. Were you waiting for…?” Even as she threw out the half-hearted apology, the woman was reaching for the cab’s door, her manicured nails aggressively signaling her true intent.

Clio shook her head and smiled. “No, no. It’s all yours.”

The woman’s face relaxed into softer lines, and she smiled back. “Isn’t the heat terrible?” she commented. “If you’re going east, we could share.”

For a moment, Clio was tempted. Her sandals were comfortable, but she’d done a lot of walking that day already, and she was prickly with heat. She could be home, showered, with her feet up, and a book in her lap in fifteen minutes.

A part of her admired the woman’s boldness–her selfishness, even–that had mellowed into this offer. Her rudeness seemed a part of her air of busy importance, from the expensive briefcase she carried to her perfect makeup and hair.

“Thank you.” Clio laughed, rejecting the thought only a little ruefully. “But I’m a glutton for punishment. I like to walk.”

They exchanged awkward nods, and the woman disappeared into the back of the taxi. Clio watched as the woman immediately lit a cigarette pulled from an expensive silver case, her thin fingers flashing that perfect manicure again. Clio could imagine the woman was rushing to an important meeting around a huge table in front of floor-to-ceiling windows. Someday, it could be Clio who rushed through the city with an air of distracted importance.

The taxi expertly merged into the speeding traffic. Hot, still air steamed from the sidewalks. Clio turned her face, trying to a find a breeze, as she continued on her way home.

Pink twilight washed the tall buildings scattered along the jagged sprawl of the skyscrapers. Clio enjoyed the muted feel of the sun on her back through the thin fabric of her white summer dress. Her exposed shoulders bore their own flushed color because she’d forgotten to bring sunscreen again. Spaghetti straps rubbed with slight discomfort against the tender skin, but it was satisfying, in a way–like the waterlogged fatigue after a day of playing in the water during childhood summers.

She laughed to herself about viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. She strode down the street, her backpack swinging from her hand with a confidence borne from three months in the city. She could provide for herself despite the fact that she had no ties here beyond her love for the city itself. She felt special here–grown-up. Her fresh, sleek haircut, blunt along the edges, swung with brisk jauntiness against her bare shoulder blades.

In moments like this, when she felt almost fearless, all of her insecurities briefly faded. She felt like she could hold her own against anyone.

Like that woman in the cab.

One day she would be just as polished, just as confident. She wondered for a moment what it would be like to have that extra edge of knowing that others truly saw her as an adult, that they would take her seriously–that they would see her.

If she had to be honest, she sometimes felt like she was playing at being an adult rather than actually being one.

I came here. I’m doing this, all on my own.

Instead of comforting her, a shade of unease prickled her at the thought. A brief, vague recall of past awkwardness and inexperienced fumbles caused her stomach to twist in remembered embarrassment. Her determined bravado wavered.

Clio brushed the half-formed memories aside with an unconscious shake of her head, as if to clear out the unpleasant drift of her thoughts.

Right now was enough. The shine of just being where she was hadn’t worn off. Even a simple action such as crossing the street seemed new and interesting, and produced a secret thrill inside her.

The city never failed to tease her with its impressive skyline and twisting corners, urging her to know it better. It was everything she had ever expected and so much more. The shops and smells and people enticed her while her sandals tapped against the pavement, taking her toward the comfort of her little apartment. She remained in her pleasant reverie until a catcall from a passing car startled her.

Her ankle wobbled on an uneven piece of sidewalk. Clio gasped, her hand flying up and waving for balance before she steadied. Blood rushed to her cheeks.

“Are you all right?”

Clio smiled at the friendly face of the white-haired man who stood in an open doorway. A strong, savory aroma rolled out from the restaurant behind him, punctuated when a small wave of laughing customers exited by his side. Her empty stomach made an almost soundless rumble.

“Yes, thank you,” she replied. “I’m fine. Just clumsy.”

Her smile remained a while longer as she passed by. The frank appreciation in the man’s eyes as they traveled over her face and body was something that she only acknowledged on the most abstract level. Converting stares, even comments, into a message of general goodwill was an exercise in mental gymnastics. She knew that, but it was better than allowing herself to be weighed down by the cumulative weight of the male gaze that seemed ever-present.

With the ease of practice, she shrugged off those thoughts. More tantalizing smells brought her hunger to life. She was tempted to claim a seat in one of the small eateries that lined the gently curving avenue, but a quick glance at the sky made her hesitate. The buildings weren’t so rosy now. A deeper, bruised purple had darkened their shapes and the globe of the sun was hidden behind the tall back of a pointed skyscraper.

She continued on, walking a little faster, until the delicious scent of baking bread drew her into a small bakery. Inside, she breathed deeply and smiled at the woman at the counter. A baking sheet holding fresh, steaming rolls enticed her to buy three, and the woman added a savory, curry meat pastry to her bag. Clio thanked her profusely and tucked the warm treats into her backpack.

Her brisk steps took her along a cobblestoned alley, past a neat, protected square lined with eclectic shops and waddling pigeons. The opposite alleyway spilled into the bustling pedestrian traffic of a street packed with restaurants, bank kiosks, and small clothing boutiques. Traffic roared past, filling the air with the smell of exhaust. Her nose wrinkled.

She still marveled at the intimate juxtaposition the city offered. Manicured perfection erupted into dirty gravel and upturned asphalt as giant machines drilled into the city’s core. The elite transformed into the rough and tumble so unexpectedly, often within the space of a block or two. It made Clio glow with pride to know she was learning to navigate here, developing that sixth sense that allowed city dwellers to make their way through the confusing jumble of streets and avenues. It made her one of them. She belonged.

It was that internal compass that made her neck prickle with just the faintest touch of unease when she came to an obstruction. She stopped in front of looming concrete cylinders, rubble, and raw earth. Orange-vested men called out to each other and matching cones barred the way. Clio frowned, not seeing a way through the construction.

The pedestrians around her seemed unfazed. Some crossed at the green light, turning right, as the honking cars piled up next to her. The rest smoothly veered to the left, down the bisecting avenue. Indecision stalled her. Just as she decided to dash across the road with the last of the stragglers, the traffic signal flashed its warning. She cursed under her breath.

The respectable number of people who took the left-hand path reassured her. She turned to follow them down the block, picking up speed as she diligently planned the changes to her trip home.

The early summer evening still promised a decent amount of time before the sun’s light faded into dusk. She had taken this walk before–once or twice–though only in the bright bustle of midday. Even so, her chin came up and she walked with a stubborn determination. It was silly to be concerned at all, despite the offhand rumors about the area’s somewhat unsavory reputation.

She had never been warned of this neighborhood precisely. It was cheek by jowl with an established thoroughfare, after all, and stretched but a few blocks to the south of that major artery. The buildings were squatter here, more mysterious with their unadorned gray façades and narrow windows. Their function was less clear than the taller, more striking buildings that lined busier streets, but their grouping seemed to indicate they belonged to each other. Exterior walls formed narrow walkways between the flat-roofed structures. Were they apartments, or perhaps an institution of some sort?

All she needed to do was turn and cross the unremarkable huddle of buildings. She knew the sidewalk would funnel her through their midst and deposit her back on track, almost at the doorstep of a major subway station. She could be home within ten minutes.

“Ice cream? The heat is still so bad at this hour.”

Startled, Clio looked at the man standing behind a street food stall. She’d unknowingly come to a halt in front of his kiosk.

“Oh.” His friendly face steadied her, and Clio smiled back. “No, thank you. But I will take a water, please.”

He pulled out a bottle from his cooler, exchanging it for a couple of limp bills. Her fingers wrapped around the narrow shape, dislodging the clumps of wet ice that clung to its surface. “Thank you.”

“Do you live near here?” he asked.

The inquiry didn’t feel intrusive because the man’s eyes–which seemed warm and kind–watched her with a mix of curiosity and concern.

“Not very, no. I’m just passing through.” Clio shifted her weight nervously as a line appeared between his brows. “I went to the gardens today, and I’m heading home now. It was so nice out that I thought I’d walk. I had to take a little detour, though.”

She suddenly felt a bit foolish–offering unnecessary information–but somehow the earlier comfort she’d taken in their simple exchange had disappeared.

Her awkward feelings deepened when the man’s smile faded entirely. He nodded toward the path she was set on.

“It can be confusing around here if you’re not familiar with the twists and turns,” he said. “I’d recommend you go back that way and cross over two blocks. The bus there runs straight east, if that’s where you’re heading.”

Pride made her quickly defend herself. “Oh, but I have been through here before, and the station is just on the other side. Thank you, though.” She smiled to soften her rejection of his advice.

“It’s different in the evening. You might lose your way.”

His voice seemed to grow sterner, and she gave a short laugh. She took a half-step back as unease bloomed in her stomach. “Well…”

She glanced over her shoulder. There were fewer people on the sidewalk now. She could still see the busy intersection where the traffic stalled and turned due to the construction; the workers swarmed over the site with reassuring activity. But between her and the way back stood a group of lounging young men. She had passed them before, but, surrounded by the other pedestrians, she had barely taken note of them.

If she did want to retrace her steps, she would have to walk past them without the comforting camouflage of other walkers. The young men loitered against the wall of a building about halfway down the block, laughing and roughhousing with each other. Clio hesitated, not quite willing to admit to any feelings of intimidation.

It was ridiculous. She had to go one way or another, and she was letting someone else’s worries affect her. She turned her head in the opposite direction, back at the shadow-blanketed neighborhood she’d been wary of in the first place. The clustered, unmarked buildings suddenly seemed too close together. They appeared to crouch in a secretive huddle, excluding anything that didn’t belong.

“Well…” Her gaze dragged back to the construction. “I think–”

Before she could complete her thought, one of the young men turned his head and met Clio’s gaze. An unpleasant thrill shot down her spine. One by one, each of the men turned to see what had captured their friend’s attention. Clio jerked her head around abruptly and met the kiosk man’s now neutral expression. Light laughter burst out behind her.

“Thank you for the water.” Clio forced a smile and made her body turn as naturally as possible. “Have a good evening.”

She felt the weight of his stare on her as she moved to the narrow walkway between the mass of buildings. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the loitering boys go back to their conversation and pay her no mind. She breathed a sigh of relief and gave herself a mental shake for getting worked up about something so small.

She realized she’d been clutching the water bottle hard enough to dent it. She loosened her grip and the abused plastic crunched back into place. She tucked it into a pocket of her backpack and resituated the bag on her shoulders, deliberately distracting herself from the vague unease as she walked between two of the squatting buildings.

She emerged into a smallish square. Her heart lightened when she saw an older woman carrying groceries. Clio smiled at her.

The woman merely stared at Clio and passed in silence.

Two small boys played in a corner, bouncing a ball off one of the walls. A distant female voice called out and echoed through the square. The boys grabbed their ball and ran off, cutting across Clio’s path and disappearing down a side alley. A drifting cloud chose that moment to dampen the fading sunlight, and a humorless laugh escaped Clio. She stubbornly kept walking toward the narrow alley in front of her.

She wasn’t scared. The place was just a little creepy.

The cloud slipped away, allowing the low-hanging sun to cast long shadows over the square. Clio watched her own shadow march up to the alleyway and disappear into its dark mouth.

Only a few more minutes, she told herself. Then she would be on the train and whizzing toward home.

Clio thought up a game to guess how many steps it was to the end of the passage. She counted them out steadily while her sandals kept time on the cement. She remembered that she needed to turn right at this particular corner. Then the sloping hill would curve around and the sidewalk would happily meet the main avenue. Almost there, she thought.

Clio rounded the corner, then stopped short as adrenaline exploded in her chest.

At the top of the gentle hill, two figures pulled a chain-link fence across the walkway. They were only silhouettes to her, but she heard the deep timbre of their voices rumble down toward her.

They called out–not to each other, but to others who must have been nearby. Clio suddenly doubted they were workers. There was something in the sound of those voices, perhaps a kind of ready glee that seemed troubling and unfriendly, that combined with the fading light and encroaching walls to send Clio back into the shadows of the alley. Answering calls seemed to come from all directions, youthful and wild.

Calling herself irrational had little effect on her pounding heart. She knew she should just walk up the hill. They were just locals, maybe getting ready for a street festival or something; whatever reason they had for closing off the neighborhood, surely they would let her out. But the sound of their laughter made her take another step back.

It would be just as easy to retrace her steps. Five minutes’ time would return her to the safety–no, to the familiarity, she reassured herself–of the well-traveled streets.

Clio’s fingers slid around the straps of her backpack as she rushed back the way she’d come. All she wanted was to escape the close walls of this alley. Clio wished herself back on the open lawns of the gardens, free of the cloistering effects of these ugly buildings that were really much too close together. Their claustrophobic proximity seemed to constrict her lungs as well as her way.

Her breath exhaled in one long rush when she found herself in the small square again. She sucked in more air and continued, not looking into corners this time as she barely kept herself from an outright run. Dread clenched her belly when she noticed a gate drawn across the sidewalk she had used only minutes before.

A padlock hung in thick, ugly reality from the latch. Clio’s eyes traveled up the path, hoping to catch sight of the street vendor who had sold her the water–but he and the stand were gone, as if they’d never been there. Even the sounds from the workers had ceased.

Think.

A nervous look around revealed a couple of side alleys. The street those little boys had gone down offered the only spark of comfort. That was the one she would follow. Despite her resolve, the tension in her neck and shoulders tightened.

Hugging the right wall, she went on. Her head jerked up when she thought she caught sight of movement in a narrow window above her. Nothing there. Her gaze wrenched forward again when a door slammed nearby. Spooked, she walked faster.

The alley branched. The sky was a deep, dark purple now. Clio took another right turn, hoping it would lead her out of this maze and not further in. She thought herself a fool to have ever found quiet, crooked lanes appealing. She’d give anything for a broad and busy avenue to open up in front of her.

Instead, she emerged into a large, wedge-shaped courtyard of sorts, formed by the intersection of three buildings and a high wall. Walkways branched off between them. Her heart sank at the thought of having to choose again, but then she received another jolt when she noticed two boys–young men, really–sitting on that high wall. They hunkered beneath a wavering streetlamp that cast a washed-out yellow circle around them and their dangling legs.

One of the boys whistled at her. Clio watched, her heart in her throat, as he jumped easily to the ground.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

His voice held honest shock, and no aggression. Clio’s breath came back to her a little.

“I was just– I’ve been trying to reach the station at–”

“The station?” The boy still seated on the wall scoffed. “Got turned around, did you?”

“Yes, I think so. The way through…it was blocked off.” Gathering the shreds of her courage, Clio took two measured steps forward. “Could you tell me how to get there from here, please?”

She turned her attention back to the boy who stood twenty feet in front of her. The lamp’s light allowed her to make out his messy shock of red hair and the mass of freckles that covered his face. He glanced up at the boy on the wall, and they both looked at the sky.

“They’re out and about a bit early today, I guess.”

The boy on the wall nodded. “You shouldn’t be worried about getting there,” he told Clio. “You should be worried about getting out.

Proceed to Chapter 1, page 2–>