Peyton blamed herself for the predicament she was in. Had she trusted her gut feeling, she would not be now running for her life.
She sensed someone running alongside of her, that someone called to her, “Peyton!”
Intuition screamed ‘Keep running you fool!’
She would never doubt her intuition again if she got out of this alive. She recognized the voice of Cerci, the only other black female of the twenty people running for their lives. Individually, they were called ‘Runners’, collectively, ‘Running Game’. Mostly they were just called ‘Game’ or RG. She’d learned all this, and more, while in her cell, preparing for the hunt to begin.
She raced through an opening in the woods, into a small field of dry yellow grass. The pro was it was easier to rapidly cover ground, the con was that she was exposed like a tin duck in a shooting gallery.
Peyton kept running but chanced a glance sideways to her left.
Cersi’s head exploded in a cloud of red mist.
Peyton’s pulse pounded so loud in her ears, she’d barely registered the rifle crack a split second before. She felt her back pelted with peppercorns she didn’t want to think about. They would be red and grey, some mushy, some hard.
‘CARACKKK!’ Another shot. Then an anguished cry, “Unfff!” A male voice. But the footfalls resumed after a moment’s hesitation.
As Peyton veered off to her right, towards the woods, she heard the thumping of feet behind her. Then tall, sere grass whisking against running legs, and harsh rasping breath that echoed her own. She thought, ‘Not a Hunter. Another RG.’
Peyton’s muscular legs pumped like pistons in a NASCAR Ford’s engine. She wore short, tight, black running shorts, a long-sleeved runner’s top, and a camouflage vest, just like all the other RG. The small pack on her back contained a flashlight, flask, and sleeves that zipped onto the vest. Her wild chocolate afro bounced off her sweat slick cheeks, as she looked from side to side, calculating the fastest route through the piney forest. ‘There. An opening. Just past the log.’ A long, agonized scream wailed like a siren. It ended abruptly. ‘A close-up and personal kill,’ she thought.
Though exhausted, she leapt over the mossy old log like a gazelle and landed solidly on packed dirt, a poof of brown pine needles before her. She heard a stadium of Olympic fans cheering her ten-point landing.
She ran on.
Behind her, a ‘whump’ and another cry, louder this time, “AAAGHH!”
The woods densified with cedars and hemlock the farther she ran, creating welcome shadow. Low, aromatic, pampas-like boughs smacked her face like punishment in an old-time cartoon where the hero says, “thanks, I needed that.”
Footsteps no longer followed.
She stopped, panting, and bent over, willing her throat and mouth to expand for greater oxygen intake. She felt like a fish out of water. When she at last stood, she drank the last from her flask and looked up to the sky. Portholes high in the blackish-green canopy revealed a clear, purpling sky. It was growing dark. She had no idea how far she’d run. She figured it would take about eight hours to run forty miles, but during the spans she’d run through the forest, she’d been much slower.
“Karappp!” Another rifle shot, muffled by trees, from the direction she’d come. ‘It must have been the injured guy who’d fallen behind me’. From Black, she’d learned the expanse was 60 miles.
She listened to the voice of the forest around her. Birds sang, oblivious of her dire predicament, their high-pitched song not sweet but mocking, for they were free to fly far away. The deep resonating belch of a bullfrog was a far more welcoming sound. Where there were bullfrogs, there was water!
She had been headed steadily southeast. Now she altered her direction and headed northeast. The sky had gone from lavender to bruisey indigo in the time it took her to find the stream. To the west, a rifle shot cracked and echoed to the north. ‘The canyon wall’ she thought as she knelt to fill her canteen. Two more shots, then dueling echoes.
She needed to find a place to rest until dawn and thought about climbing into a tree. She had seen The Hunger Games; a tree seemed logical and would provide a view of the terrain and the hunters in it. But her gut ixnayed the idea, The HG was a popular show, perhaps even the catalyst for this maniac’s game, she had to assume the hunters had seen it too and, in a tree, she’d be trapped. She zipped the sleeves onto her vest.
She found a couple of thick, fir branches and tucked herself as far as she could under a wide-trunked log, pulling the branches over her body. She felt like a crab scuttling under a rock in a tidal pool. She was thankful for her dark skin. She thought back to this morning, it was the first time she’d had to assess this situation. The events that unfolded since they’d been set loose this morning had flown by like a visual recording on fast forward. She visualized pressing ‘stop’ then ‘rewind’ and the screen in her mind whirred backwards.
She pressed ‘play’ and saw herself in her cell.
Faint yellow light struggled to enter the cell from the tiny window high in the cinderblock wall. The heavy steel door clanged shut down the hall. This hall housed ten cells, five on each side. Across the corridor, was an identical hall, like a mirror image. Standing between the two halls felt like being in a M.C. Escher print. Twenty Running Game in all. She recalled hearing the handler’s approaching footsteps. They were that of her own guard, Jeremy Black. There was a handler for each section of the compound, in other words, one for every five RG. The footsteps continued towards her cell.
A female voice from the middle of the corridor said, “Hey Pey, here comes yer lover-boy!”
Her heart gave an involuntary hitch.
Two weeks earlier…
Peyton had turned eighteen. The other thirteen girls she shared a huge communal room with had shouted, “Happy Birthday!” As she walked back into the chilly, depressing room after her morning pee. The girls ranged from age ten through seventeen. At eighteen, they were encouraged to seek employment and move out. Rarely one from her quad were adopted, most were adopted from the other female dorm, the one that housed the younger girls. Theirs was a dorm filled with innocent lightness- the Dorm of Hope. Hers was the gloomy Dorm of Doom.
Peyton wore a rare grin, her white teeth a stark contrast to her deep, clear sienna skin and her large, nearly black eyes sparkled. She had found hope again. Just the day before, she had been contacted by a man with a faint southern accent and a smile in his voice. He offered her a job in his restaurant. Two dollars over minimum wage plus tips; they would teach her everything she needed to know… and the best part, they would give her an advance on her first couple of paychecks. This meant she’d be able to establish residency away from this depressing group home immediately.
The intuition she’d developed from her time on the streets she had honed to a sixth sense, one she trusted. It was, in fact, the only thing she trusted in the world. So, the more she thought about the caller’s offer, the more her intuition raged at her, “It’s too good to be true!” She had spoken to so many restaurant managers, about filling out applications, she had lost track and was not surprised that she didn’t recognize the voice. Nearly all of them told her to apply after she turned eighteen.
The caller with the pleasant voice told her the address of the restaurant and told her to come around to the back door, he’d meet her at ten AM.
She found the place and peeked in the windows. It was a nice establishment with white tablecloths and potted plants all over. It sat in the middle of the block, which meant the back door was down the alley halfway. Again, her gut clenched. She ignored it.
A man in a crisp white dress shirt and dark tie waited by a blue door next to a small loading dock. He waved, she waved back.
He said, “Hello Peyton. How ya doin?”
“Hi Mr.Neatson. I’m good thanks. You?”
“Couldn’t be a fahner day.” He smiled and a gold tooth glinted in the spring sunshine. Wrinkles creased the sides of his eyes. His face was tanned and clean shaven except for a sandy blond soul patch that matched his short, cropped hair. “Let’s get ta fillin’ out that apple-cation,” he drawled. He handed her a key and said, “Do you mind unlockin the door? The new applications are in m’ car.” He gestured to a newer model Honda minivan, black, with no windows.
“Uh…sure.” She watched him walk towards the van for a couple seconds and heard the side door slide open. She turned to the rust-spotted blue door. The key didn’t fit the lock in the knob. She frowned and tried the deadbolt. A cold, damp cloth clamped onto her face just as an iron-strength arm wrapped around her throat like the vise-grip of an alligator.
She had awoken in what appeared to be a jail cell. The old-fashioned kind you saw in old westerns, with three cinderblock walls, the fourth being thick, iron bars. Pickaxes violently hacked her brain as she looked around in confusion. Her throat burned and her dry mouth tasted as if she’d inhaled bug repellent. She was on a flat cot. Also, in the 10x8 space was a simple toilet, and a sink…’Water!’ She tried to stand and collapsed on the smooth, chilly cement floor. She groaned and crawled to the sink. She stood, wobbled, and turned the right knob. The water was clear and icy cold. She gulped as she splashed her face. Her stomach said no way and she vomited a waterfall back into the sink.
“Easy now. Go slow.”
She spun towards the man’s voice.
He was dressed in army green pants and shirt, with what looked like a glock in a holster on his hip. She stood up straight, ignoring the thumping behind her eyes, and went to the bars. The man was young with mocha colored skin and hazel eyes. Peyton thought he resembled a taller, clean shaven John Legend. The embroidered patch over his left pocket read BLACK0103.
He noted her eyes linger on the key ring on his belt and slowly shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
Peyton’s eyes jolted up to his face. He said, “Just checking to make sure you woke up okay.”
“You mean some people don’t?”
He shrugged and had the audacity to look ashamed. “You’ll feel better after you eat. Oh, and I can bring you reading material. Anything you like.”
Peyton frowned, shook her head, and winced.
“I’ll bring your supper in an hour. And I suggest your reading material be survivalist stuff, hikers’ handbooks and so on…I’m Jeremy Black by the way.”
Peyton said nothing. She felt like a levitating cloud, pressed high against the ceiling, looking down upon the unfolding, nightmarish scene. She only nodded. He left and she collapsed on her hard, thinly padded cot. She despised this man as much as she loathed the image of the devil who’d called himself Mr.Neatson.
An hour later the handler had brought a tray with a large, covered plate, a small, covered bowl, a plastic cup of cola, and a spoon. He slid it under the bars where there was a space just big enough to accommodate the 12-ounce cup.
Peyton uttered nothing. She glared at the man she could only call Black because it was impersonal, and she hated him. She wasn’t stupid though, and before he left, she said, “Books. Whatever you think I should read.” If she didn’t read, she’d be staring at the meager surroundings of the depressing cell.
He smiled. It was a small ray of sunshine and she had to force her mouth not to respond in kind.
After he left, she glared at the tray. As the door closed at the far end of the corridor, a breeze wafted the smell of the food to her. ‘Is that fried chicken?’ She salivated involuntarily.
That night, Black came to take away the empty tray and Peyton, now fully awake and a sponge for information, asked him to stay. Her mind was clear now and she needed to learn how to survive. Black had sat on the other side of her bars and answered all her questions.
At one AM she had asked the penultimate one, “Why do you do this?”
He couldn’t answer, but spirits of black fear swam through his eyes.
In retaliation, she’d clammed up. But Black had continued his nightly visits regardless. Every night, when the cells were filled with snores, He came and talked. She had no choice but to listen. He’d never met anyone he could open up to. It mattered not that she had no choice.
Two days before ‘the release’, all twenty cells were occupied. Peyton had surprised him by speaking. She asked, “Jeremy, what do they have on you?”
Black, now comfortable in her presence, had confessed that they had threatened to snatch his daughter, Millicent, who was eleven. Neatson had shown him horrifying video of young children, those who survived the rental years with their faculties intact became handlers. The ones with palimpsest minds became RG. She felt for him. The fact that Milly was autistic meant nothing to the monster. She’d not survive long. Jeremy actually had something to lose, where she had nothing but her life.
The next two nights they reciprocated conversation in whispers, about all things small and large, fact and secret, personal and dreamlike. Peyton, street smart and a good listener, had encouraged Jeremy to spill it all. He answered her every question. She answered his. He confessed his loneliness and the absence of it when talking with her.
The last night, Jeremy had said, “I showed Milly a picture of you, that one I took when you were still mad at me. The one where you’re shooting daggers at me with your eyes...”
“Yeah, really! She actually said, ‘she looks like me.’”
“No really. She really did see herself in that picture. Angry. Sullen. Glowering. It was like she had an epiphany.”
“Poor kid…she should be smiling and laughing and enjoying her childhood…”
“I never dated after her mother died. I had an epiphany too, when I saw how she looked at your picture. She needs a female in her life. Someone to turn to…like a role model.”
“---NO, I’m telling you. You are exactly the kind of role model she needs. And you need someone like her.”
The morning of the start, they had no privacy. Neatson himself had accompanied the handlers during the roundup. When Peyton’s cell door opened, she spat in Neatson’s face and hissed, “Rot in hell you bastard!” Jeremy had slapped her and flung her forward with a shove. She hadn’t expected anything less.
He fell in behind her and marched her outside to the line of Running Game. As he shoved her into line, he whispered something, but she had only caught, “…pock...”
When the gun fired the start, and the twenty RG ran for their lives.
Peyton awoke before dawn, carefully peeking out the fir branches. The day before, she’d been too frazzled to think of anything except running and survival. Now, in the gloomy light of pre-day, she recalled Jeremy’s voice. ‘He’d said something like ‘pock.’’
“Pocket!” she exclaimed.
She was amazed to find a note in her vest pocket. Her heart fluttered like a bird against the cage of her ribs. The note said, “toad pond heart rock.”
She recalled the stream where she had heard the bullfrogs. She went back and followed it until she came to a pond. She looked around with eyes narrowed. ‘There!’ a large, flat rock that looked out of place. She ran to it and saw it was indeed shaped like a lopsided heart. It seemed so out of place in this surreal nightmare. She heard a rifle crack behind her, ‘too close!’ and thought, ‘that’s seven shot and one killed up close and personal…STOP IT! This isn’t helping!’
Under the rock she found a plastic card, like the one’s hotels used now. On it wwere the words ‘south corner.’ She tucked it in her pocket and ran southeast. She figured she still had ten to fifteen miles to go to the fence.
During the flight, she heard three more shots. ‘Eleven down.’
A shot cracked to close. And a spur of bark burst by her head. ‘Not Twelve!’
Peyton ran. And ran.
She came to the fence much sooner than she thought. It was the southeast corner and there was a gate. The world dropped out from her feet as another shot cracked and ‘BINGED’ off the fence just a foot to her left.
She pulled out the card, slipped it into the lock slot and the gate miraculously opened. She slammed the gate shut behind her, Jeremy said the hunters did not have gate keys. She sobbed a burst of relief and was free.
A week later…
Peyton went to the door of the foster home. Jeremy had told them both a date- one to knock, one to answer.
An eleven-year-old girl opened the door, brows furrowed, eyes flashing familiar fire like an image she’d seen all her life, but in miniature. She smiled.
Peyton smiled- and became a mirror-image. She knelt before her and said, “Come on, let’s go enjoy life together.”