Cobra sprinted down winding city streets. His namesake tattooed on his arm immediately identified him as a member of Snake Bite, one of the largest gangs in the city. Usually, other guys, when seeing the coiled serpent inked on Cobra's arm, they left him alone.
A rival gang called the Bleeders had been growing lately, and in the past few weeks they'd shown more aggression than many other gangs had in years. The twenty-six-year-old Cobra had been walking alone to a grocery store, unconcerned about his safety because members of Snake Bite were so rarely attacked, when three Bleeders had jumped him and forced him into an alley where they could beat him unseen.
Cobra hadn't joined the roughest gang in the city for nothing, however. He'd kicked and bit and fought and worked his tattooed biceps to bring down the men around him. Despite Cobra's talents, however, even he couldn't handle three-to-one odds.
Cobra felt a justified revulsion to the concept of retreating from any fight, even one he couldn't win. Anathema coursed through his veins at the thought of running from rival gang members, but from the way they continued to fight once it was clear that he wouldn't scare them off with a few punches and kicks, he knew they intended to kill him.
Cobra didn't want to flee, but he wanted to die even less. Knowing his gang mates would understand his motivation, Cobra punched the nearest Bleeder. The next day, the man would have a purple bruise on his face to offset the red bandanna tied around his head.
An opening appeared before Cobra as the other two gang members hung back, each waiting for the other to take the brunt of Cobra's defense. Feeling like some sort of coward, Cobra took his opportunity and dodged out of the alley.
As Cobra darted among shoppers on the crowded streets, he could hear the feet of the Bleeders slapping the pavement mere feet behind him. He didn't know what they would do once they caught him if they were still in a crowded area, but Cobra didn't want to find out.
He felt a trickle of blood seep out his nose, and without slowing, Cobra lifted one hand to his face to wipe the liquid away. He was sure there were other injuries all over his body that he would feel once the adrenaline wore off.
Cobra ran blindly, with no goal in mind besides that of escaping the other men behind him. Because he didn't seek a destination, Cobra was soon thoroughly lost. He continued to run, darting through alleyways that turned and wove labyrinthine around walled mansions. He'd never imagined there were such astute neighborhoods within running distance of his own, but as Cobra had lost all sense of time in his flight, he imagined that he could have sprinted miles.
Somehow, Cobra found himself trapped on both sides by high walls. The Bleeders remained behind him, but seemed to be slowing with each passing minute. Cobra would lose them eventually, if only he came to a place where he could exit the alley. For the time being, he had nowhere to go but straight and couldn't remain where he was lest the Bleeders eventually catch up.
Finally, Cobra's luck ran out. He came to a halt when the brick walls on either side met a third to form a dead end. HE could no longer hear the Bleeders behind, and wandered if they'd given up. Cobra didn't want to take the chance unless he had to.
Cobra surveyed the wall before him. It stood about eight feet tall, and when he stretched his arm he could just catch the top of it. If he had a running start, Cobra knew he could climb the wall. He didn't know what waited on the other side, but whether it offered freedom or more weaving tunnels, Cobra didn't care. Either option meant escape.
Panting from his run and promising himself that he'd only need to push himself a little longer, Cobra walked a few yards, then turned and sprinted towards the wall. At the last second, he jumped and caught the top. Cobra's muscles strained with fatigue as he pulled himself up.
The wall was about two feet wide at the top, and Cobra lay precariously on the ledge and rested for a few seconds. The sun beat his body, and finally the sweaty, exhausted Snake Bite member drug himself to a sitting position and dropped down to the other side of the wall. HE still didn't hear the Bleeders.
Once Cobra reached the other side of the wall, he shouted a few choice curse words. He'd hoped to find an open road or even more alleys. Instead, another wall greeted him.
Narrow walkways extended to Cobra's right and left following parallel routes. He arbitrarily chose the right side and began to walk. The walls curved together, and Cobra inferred that whatever was contained inside wasn't meant to be found. Why else would someone build two walls when one should be enough?
Cobra would have liked to jump one of the walls again and escape. Unfortunately, the space between the walls was too small for him to run, and Cobra couldn't climb the wall without some sort of running start. He tried several times without success.
For endless minutes, Cobra walked, hoping to reach an end to the walls or even a corner where he could run at a perpendicular one. Neither opportunity appeared.
Time continued to wear on. Although shadows from the walls provided some small respite from the heat of the sun, no breeze stirred and Cobra periodically suffered panic attacks. He'd never suffered from claustrophobia before, but Cobra couldn't help but feel that the two walls were slowly closing in on him.
The more time wore on, the more Cobra became aware of his injuries from the fight. His back ached, his shoulder throbbed where he must have twisted it in some unnatural angle, and tiny cuts all over his body stung when his salty sweat rolled over them. He could only imagine the bruises he'd find in the next few days.
Finally, Cobra reached an end to the walls. It wasn't an end per se, but rather, matching gates opened to the outside world or inward to whatever lay enclosed behind the brick walls. George couldn't see for himself because the wooden gates blocked any vision of the inside.
Sweat had stopped rolling down Cobra's back a few minutes before, and his mouth felt dry. Cobra remembered that those were bad signs, but he couldn't remember what they were supposed to indicate. His headache and his thirst prevented him from thinking too deeply of anything.
Cobra approached the wooden door that led to the outside. At least, he thought it led to the outside- during his time in the walkway, he'd forgotten which of the identical walls he'd scaled and which he hadn't. He'd tried to walk in the same direction the entire time so that the wall he'd climbed would always be by his right shoulder, but he couldn't remember whether he'd turned around during the endless hours.
On the verge of exhaustion, Cobra pawed at the door he'd designated as the outside door a few times, but couldn't open it. He didn't even try to scale it- although he'd almost certainly find more purchase in wood than he could have hoped for in brick, he was too weary to try. His current trial of endurance was far more arduous than the tests he'd needed to pass to join the Snake Bite gang.
Tasting defeat and feeling as though he might never leave the enclosure of the walls, Cobra sank to a sitting position with his back resting against the door he couldn't open. He imagined that he might die alone there, and never be found. His gang mates would never know what the Bleeders had almost done to him.
Cobra might have slept in the ensuing hours; everything passed in a haze. He told himself that his chances would have been better if he'd stood and fought rather than fleeing into the death trap. He pretended he had loved ones outside the gang and tried to imagine what he would say to them if they were with him when he was dying.
Cobra blinked a few times. The sun shown directly into his eyes to blind him, or perhaps the world had only grown hazy because he was so near collapse. He imagined that he saw God floating above the wall. Cobra didn't even believe in God, but he didn't know what else to think of the old man with who floated above him.
Then, the gates swung open. Cobra didn't know if "God" had done it; he couldn't see what he did because the brilliant sunlight behind him lit the man in profile and obscured most anything else he could see. All he knew was that he was being invited out of the walkway.
Cobra barely brought himself to a standing position. He staggered a few times before he walked through the gates, which had opened inward toward him. When he had walked through the door, he heard it close behind him.
Cobra blinked and recognized that he hadn't been released to the outside world. He felt like he'd staggered into a dream. A jungle or forest of some sort grew all around him. Various kinds of trees were scattered over an endless expanse of grass and flowers. The area was far lusher than even the most beautiful parks Cobra had only seen. He could only think of it as a garden.
Although the brilliant flowers and verdant trees provided a respite from the endless stretch of brick wall Cobra had become accustomed to in the past few hours, he needed to drink water and rest.
He trudged through the beauty that surrounded him, barely taking in its wonders. He dimly recognized how bright the natural colors were and how comforting the shade felt, but the first time Cobra truly felt amazed about the pseudo-natural garden was when he reached a tiny brook that wound its way through the trees.
Cobra fell to his knees, cupped his hands, and lifted the water to his mouth. Most if it ran out of his hands before it could reach his lips, so Cobra fell to all fours and dipped his chin into the water. The cool, sweet liquid washed down his throat like ambrosia.
A dim voice at the back of Cobra's mind protested about bacteria and disease and even the dirt that surely stained the water, but Cobra didn't care. He drank until he needed to stop for breath, then rocked back on his heels and wiped the dripping water from his chin. After gasping for air for a few minutes, Cobra knelt again and drank.
Several times, Cobra repeated the cycle of immersion, then a pause for breath, and immersion again. Finally, his stomach grumbled with its fill of water, and Cobra fell onto his back to indulge in the peace of the garden. After his endless day, Cobra wanted nothing more than to fall asleep, but his curiosity had been aroused, and Cobra wanted to at least get his bearings before he rested. Perhaps he reacted to a suspicion that had been well-honed during his time with the Snake Bite gang.
He walked through the garden and considered the vision of God he'd seen while between the walls. After a bit of consideration, Cobra concluded that the old man had been a mere hallucination triggered by dehydration.
He paused when he heard voices. The garden had been so quiet for the past few minutes, Cobra had never considered the possibility that others might have been within the walls as well. He froze, and listened. The voices he'd heard were the distinctively high-pitched vocalizations of children. Children were laughing, and probably playing. Maybe he had snuck into some sort of private park.
Cobra cautiously made his way toward the sound, darting behind trees and through bushes that he wouldn't be spotted unawares. Finally, he found the people he'd heard.
The children were playing in a small area that had been cleared of trees. Sandboxes, swings, and a single slide stood on well-mown grass that looked far tamer than the wild grass that had sprung among the trees where Cobra had walked.
The children ran and played so rambunctiously, Cobra needed to count them several times before he could confirm with certainty that five were in the garden. Each of the children looked to be younger than five or six years old, and each was old enough to walk. Three of the children were boys, and two were girls.
In addition, a very pretty teenage girl who may have been sixteen or seventeen sat beside a boy who looked to be a year or two older than her. Cobra didn't think they looked old enough to be the children's parents, although he'd heard of younger people who'd had children. Cobra had been lucky to never get any of his girlfriends pregnant, that he'd known of.
Perhaps the boy and girl were older brother and sister to the younger children then. They certainly weren't related to one another, if Cobra was any judge of the flirtatious looks thee pair cast one another. Each of the gathered children wore plain white clothes without decoration.
Behind the teenagers, some sort of building rose toward the sky. It was white, and green vines climbed the walls. Cobra imagined that the building might be some sort of mansion, although he couldn't rule out the possibility that it was a museum or some other building without going inside or at least seeing the building from the front.
As Cobra watched, hidden behind lilac bushes, the door to the building slowly swung open. HE heard no spoken words, but the open door seemed to be some sort of signal for the children. The five youngest ones abandoned the playground equipment to run for the door, while the teenagers approached it at a more leisurely pace. Something about their behavior seemed wrong to Cobra, although he couldn't' define what it was.
After a few seconds, all of the young people had disappeared. Cobra remained where he stood, watching the still open door. HE didn't know if anything else would happen, but he wanted to watch, just in case.
Something did indeed happen. An old man with white hair stepped outside. Cobra immediately recognized the old man- he'd mistaken him for God nearly an hour before. After his relaxing time in the garden, Cobra had gathered his wits enough to know he wasn't encountering God, although something about the man seemed vaguely unsettling.
The man's eyes instantly fell upon Cobra's hiding place. "Young man, come out and come inside," he ordered him.
Curiously, Cobra felt compelled to obey the man. Telling himself there was no point in hiding if the man knew where he was, Cobra stepped around the lilac bush and stepped toward the building, which he'd concluded to be a house.
The old man held the door open for Cobra as he stepped inside. Immediately, the air conditioning hit Cobra like a wall, and after too many hours of too much exertion, Cobra's adrenaline finally gave out. He was unconscious before he even hit the floor.