The children, for all their pluck, were no match for the stevedores. Perhaps it had been a hopeless endeavor from the beginning. Under Wigman’s urging, the giant men began to lay into their young foes with a renewed urgency, and the orphans collectively decided to make a run for it. They were pressed into the gravel pathway that Elsie and Rachel were slowly walking, with the blind man steadied between them. The cascade of children, orphans and Unadoptables, fell over them; it was all they could do to stay upright in the sudden flow.
They heard Roger barking madly behind them, “Forget the children! Get the old man! Get the maker!”
The tide of children had crested; only a few straggled behind, limping and nursing their bruised limbs, as they all made their way deeper into the heart of the Industrial Wastes. Elsie and Rachel tried to urge Carol on, but he was old and blind and his steps were slow and faltering. A discomfited look played across his face; the sound of the stevedores’ loud footsteps in the gravel was growing closer.
Michael, his eye blackened and his coverall in tatters, stopped in his retreat to yell at them. “Hurry!” he shouted.
Elsie, desperate tears pouring down her face, yelled back, “We can’t!”
“Carol, can you go any faster?” pleaded Rachel, her voice quick and frightened.
Carol shook his head dolefully. He stumbled a little, and the girls labored to keep him upright.
The sounds of the stevedores’ boots grew closer.
A figure broke away from the retreating pack of orphans ahead of them. It was goggled Martha, who grabbed Carol’s arm from Elsie’s grip and began to tug him, urgently, forward. She then yelled at Elsie and Rachel, “Get going! I’ll stay with Carol. We can’t let them get you guys, too.”
The Mehlberg sisters stared at her, dumbstruck. The idea of abandoning the old man seemed impossible. Besides, wouldn’t Martha also be captured? Martha guessed their feelings, shouting, “Better me than you. You have the whatever, the Woodsblood. You have to go.”
“No, Martha,” protested Elsie.
“Children,” said Carol. “She’s right. We can’t afford to let them have you. Your gift is too great.”
Rachel saw their reasoning. She grabbed Elsie. “C’mon, sis,” she said. “It’s true. We won’t be safe with them. We have to go.” It was the first admission she’d made regarding this extraordinary thing the two of them shared.
Martha smiled through the fear that was now descending on her face. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “I’ll be with Carol. I’ll look out for him.”
And so the Mehlberg sisters broke away from the old man’s side and ran, as fast as their feet could carry them, toward the busily escaping pack of children in the distance. Once they’d pulled far enough away, Elsie hazarded a look backward and saw the mob of stevedores fall on the old man and his young companion. Martha was whisked up in their strong arms, while two of the men roughly accosted Carol, pinning his arms behind him as the rest of the crowd arrived at the scene. But she couldn’t watch any more beyond that. It was too heart-wrenching. She turned and faced the road ahead: a long, winding path that led farther and farther into the unknown pale of the Industrial Wastes. She ran as fast as she’d ever run in her life.
The next thing Prue knew, she was lying cradled in what felt like a sheepskin rug. The far-off city lights reflected against the deep layer of clouds in the dark sky; the fall of rain had grown heavier, though she seemed to be sheltered from the worst of the weather by the body of the thing that held her in its arms. The face of a bear, its eyes weary and warm, looked down at her. She could feel the metallic chill of his prosthetics against her side.
“Esben?” she managed.
The bear did not respond. Prue’s right side, just above her hip, felt like someone had taken a jackhammer to it; her face was laced with an intense, needling pain. A low whistle sounded from afar and the bear looked up, steam jetting from his wide nostrils. This noise was followed by the whine of a train heaving itself into movement.
“The circus,” Prue managed. “They’re leaving.”
The bear only nodded; he shifted his arms under her body and carried her the few yards to a small lean-to made of corrugated metal. There, she was gently set down on a ratty blanket while the bear began stacking salvaged pieces of wood in the guttered fire pit.
“Why aren’t you with them? Why aren’t you going?” she pressed.
The bear paused in his labors, as if registering the girl’s question, before continuing (somewhat awkwardly, owing to his hooks) to attend to the fire.
Prue groaned as she tried to move; the pain was immobilizing. She laid her hand gingerly on her hip and felt that her clothes were wet with her blood. The moments prior to her rescue came back to her in fits and starts—the sudden and tremendous power she’d had over vegetation, the chiming of their voices, the roar of the creature who’d been somehow stretched between the animal and human world.
“Darla …,” Prue sputtered. “What’s happened to her? Is she dead?”
The bear only nodded.
“So you understand me. But you don’t talk?”
The bear stared at her, hard. He set down the remaining bits of wood in his hooks and took a deep breath. He then spoke, in a low, sonorous voice that sounded to Prue as if it was being emitted from the exhaust pipe of a car that hadn’t been driven in fifteen years. “No,” he said, before clearing his voice and saying, “I can talk. Though truth be told, I hadn’t expected I’d need to. Not till you came along.”
“But why?” asked Prue.
“Because maybe sometimes folks just want to be the things that they are. I wanted to be a bear. Not a Woodian. Not an Overdweller. A bear. That seem strange to you?”
“No,” said Prue. “Sorry.” She paused as the bear returned to his fire making; a stack of kindling had been built, and the bear began to fumble with a box of matches. “Here,” said Prue. “Let me help with that.”