I bolted, still with the plastic Jesus under my arm. I didn’t immediately hear any car doors open or shut, so I must’ve surprised them by jumping out of the car. My brother Paul had been the track star, not me, and while I was still in decent shape, I was not a demonically-fueled teenager. They would catch me unless I went all-out.
I sucked air in and out, pumping my arms as hard as I could and lengthening my stride to eat as much pavement as possible. The community center closed into view. I approached it from the side, my eyes fixed on the door that I prayed someone had the sense to unlock just in case a detective being pursued by demonically-possessed teenagers needed to use it.
I pushed down on the lever and pulled hard. It flew open so fast I staggered back a step, but then I surged forward. I felt a moment of triumph as I went inside, confident that had won the foot race. The inside of the door was lit, and I could see ropes and curtains. I was back stage, and could hear the rehearsal of the Christmas program as someone announced over a microphone,
“And there was no room in the inn. . . .”
Perfect timing. I can walk in with Baby Jesus right on cue. I’ll need that long before I can stand upright.
I hunched over, struggling to breathe, and my muscles felt like jelly. My lungs rasped and my vision wobbled in time to my heartbeat, a fact which intrigued and disturbed me at the same time. After a few moments, I managed to get my breathing under control, and took halting steps to where I could walk onto the stage, peering at the gathered people. The Nativity took up the far side of the stage, and the choir, mostly youths, filled in the side closest to me. My chest still burned, but I made myself stand upright, trying to figure out when best to walk onto the stage.
Hands seized me from behind, and then I was sailing through the air. I landed hard on my right foot, which buckled underneath me, and I yelled out in pain. First the ankle, protested, then my knees and shoulder as I tumbled raggedly onto the stage before ending in a slide. I halted up against some of the choir, taking note of one man’s argyle socks above his boat shoes.
More hands came around me and helped me to my feet, but I promptly fell down again when my ankle refused to support me. A general murmur of confusion passed through everyone there until microphone feedback silenced everyone.
“What’s with that look?” I asked.
Nikki glared daggers at me. “You’re lying,” she said flatly.
Jessie’s eyes darted back and forth between us, but she didn’t say anything.
“There is no way that your attackers were that cliched,” Nikki finished.
“Come on, this is standard villain dialogue. There have been whole books written on this. It’s practically mandatory.”
“The truth, Matthew.” Her foot bounced more quickly, a sign of her extended irritation.
“It’s not anywhere near as entertaining. Let me tell you, angsty teenagers really don’t sound good when delivering threats.
“I prefer this to be an accurate story rather than a colorful one.”
“Right, okay. You asked for it. Keep in mind this was a while ago, and I don’t remember every little thing they said, okay?”
“I know your memory is better than you claim, but very well, be as precise as you can.”