This is a fairly long chapter - I realise I haven't updated in forever, so I thought as I was updating my FanFiction I'd update this, too. There are gruesome scenes, as always. Enjoy, if that's even possible with this story.
I'm scared. My knees are shaking and I think I might be about to pass out. I'm actually glad that Gabriel hauls me back through to the dining room and past the table to the kitchen, just because I'm not sure I would have made it on my own.
He's going to kill me, I think. He'll slit my throat right here in the kitchen and throw me inside one of the ovens. I know he'll do it. I don't doubt it for a second. I can't get away. I can't fight him. My breathing is too quick, too raspy, and I think I'm going to faint. Is this how Ellen feels? Does she know her knees will buckle before Daemon kills her? Maybe I've saved her, by lying to the hunter. Maybe he'll spare her.
Gabriel tells me to sit down in a chair that he provides for me. I don't contest this, just sink into the seat. He's going to shoot me with my back to him. He'll be pulling out his gun from his belt now, loading it, but I can't hear anything because of the roaring in my ears. I try to breathe evenly.
I finally hear him opening one of the ovens. Maybe he'll burn me alive. I start to panic – I cannot be locked in one of those ovens. I'll beat my way out of it. I feel bile rising in my throat even before he dumps the huge metal tray in front of me, stretched out on the body table. It's Peri. Burned and blackened but still unmistakably her. The build is the same, the charred flesh that still clings to the bruised ribs and the stringy cheek meat helps me recognise her. I wonder whether Gabriel is simply making room, or whether he wants me to see her one more time.
"Eat," he barks, shoving a fork into my right hand. I stare up at him in utter shock, my eyes widening.
"No," I blatantly refuse. Gabriel laughs sharply.
"I'm not giving you a choice. Eat it now." I flinch at the word 'it'. Peri was not an it. She was my only friend. I've already seen her dead, with her guts spilling out, and now her charred remains, I will not fulfil wishes by cutting a slice of her and swallowing it. I can't. I physically can't.
"No," I tell him again. Gabriel drags up a chair next to me and grabs a knife from the table and begins to cut away at Peri's flesh. I try not to smell anything as the scent of roasted meat fills the air.
He stabs the slice with the fork and holds it to my mouth. I don't open it. I fold my lips in on each other, determined that I will beat him, I will win. He will not make me do this, not now, not ever.
Before I can react, Gabriel pinches my nose so hard that I'm startled for a second. My breathing is instantly cut off, and I start to see red. I won't open my mouth. I won't. I won-
I can't help it – I'm suffocating. I try to gulp in a breath quickly but Gabriel seizes his opportunity and thrusts the fork inside my mouth, slamming my jaw shut so I have no choice but to swallow as if the meat is a pill. I try, at least, not to taste it as it goes down, but I can't help it. I retch, and throw up right on the kitchen floor, thinking of Peri, of running, of everything except the fact that I just ate a piece of my best friend.
"You'll stay here until you've eaten the arm, then you can leave. We can do this the easy way, Asha, or the hard way. Whichever you choose, the arm meat will be gone. And clean up that vomit," Gabriel instructs, standing to wash his hands in the sink. I close my eyes and take a deep, shuddering breath before I tear off a bit of Peri's arm. No. Not Peri, I tell myself. If I think of Peri while I do this, I'll never get through it. I'll die in this very room.
I remember my earlier words to Glynn, that we do what we must to survive. I tell myself that this is what I must do. It isn't as bad as complying with Gabriel's wishes, I reason. It's not as if Peri can see me.
It's insanely easy, once I've started. As soon as Gabriel's back is turned, I sprinkle a bit of the meat into the vomit on the floor, and hide the rest in my jeans. I'll throw it away later. I add some of the arm meat to the floor, as if I have just dropped a little in the eating process, and then, suddenly, it's all gone. There. I'm safe, for now.
Once Gabriel has looked over the raw bone and nodded his satisfaction, I begin to mop up the vomit and scrub the floor until it is spotless. I rub until I can no longer smell anything but bleach, and the rotten smell of Peri's flesh has disappeared. Gabriel replaces the body in the oven.
"You can go," Gabriel says, "But you'll be running tonight, with Ellen. Not tomorrow. We're going to get this over with."
My breath catches in my airways, and I almost choke again. I regain my posture quickly, and force my stiff legs to walk casually back through the dining room and go straight to the bathroom, and flush the remains out of my pockets and down the toilet. All gone. Every trace of Peri's flesh is gone. I can breathe again.
I have to get ready for the run, I tell myself. I go up to the attic and change my jeans into a tighter pair, that are less likely to fall down as I run. I add a belt to my ensemble, and a t-shirt that hugs my stomach. A thin jacket that will protect me from the cold night air, and I'm ready. I lace up my sneakers sitting down on my cot, tie up my hair into a messy ponytail, then march downstairs.
They are all there, even Glynn, who looks pale-faced and distant. Ellen stands closest to the door, touching the wall with one hand, as if she'll fall if she doesn't. She casts a look back down the hall as we proceed outside, walking right down the sloping drive to the forest boundary. We'll get a five minute head start, and then the hunters will come after us. I slow my breathing, stretching out at the line and trying to loosen up. I will still need to run as far as the fence once I've left Ellen, and there's still a chance of Gabriel finding me before I get there. I don't know what to do – take my usual route and abandon Ellen, or do what I can to make her death a dignified one. She deserves more, I know, and I've brought her execution forward an entire night, so I know I have to do the right thing, but if my safety hangs in the balance I will choose myself over her. I have to.
Gabriel starts the timer, and counts down from three. I can't hear him over my own heartbeat, but Ellen starts off quickly, so I follow, rushing right under the canopy of trees, my sneakers squeaking in the mud. Faster, faster, until Ellen has to sprint at full pelt to keep up. We take a sharp left and she takes a second to catch her breath against a tree before lifting her head to look at me. I'm jogging on the spot, full of nervous energy that I can't seem to shake. Gabriel and Daemon will be after us soon – we should hurry.
"Will you do me this one thing, Asha?" she whispers once she can breathe again. I nod, hoping it is enough of a reply, itching to get back to running.
"Okay. I'll hang around here for a while, you need to get down the bank, at least. Just keep moving, all right? Don't let Gabriel catch you. I'll make sure Daemon gets to me first."
"You need to alert him to where you are. You need to run near the fence. I'll- I'll make sure you don't get killed, I promise," Ellen swallows visibly, "And, Asha, thank you. For this. For everything."
"That's okay," I tell her, forcing a smile, "I'd better go. I'll- I'll make sure Daemon... y'know."
"Thanks. Goodbye, Asha. Thank you."
I don't say more – I'm sprinting down the path before Ellen can stop me. She disappears from view after a couple of turns, and I can breathe again.
The fence is at least a mile away, but I carry on going, sure that I can make it if I just keep pushing myself. I don't want to be able to hear Ellen's screams or pleading with Daemon. I want to believe that she can be brave. I want to believe that she can be the better person.
I'm almost by the stream. I slide down the bank in the mud, knowing that I'll only stumble if I run down it, and splash across the stream, the water soaking the bottom of my jeans and freezing my legs. Branches smack at my face and scrape at my neck, but I ignore them and press forward. Through the thick trees. Further and further, deeper into the forest. They will be after me soon, I'm sure, so I take a sharp right and carry on that way before I hit the fence. I can see it from here, through the darkness – it isn't tall, but the fence itself isn't what keeps us from vaulting it. It's a simple wooden structure, the only sign of life out here other than our house and the cars that belong to the hunters, constructed by Gabriel some years ago when he relocated to the forest. I can see the eyes of the Creatures from here, glinting through the blackness, and fear grips my stomach. They could cross the fence so easily, but there are traps hidden along the fence, snares to keep them out. I could be killed so easily.
Anxiety is the only thing that keeps me moving, sprinting through the thick undergrowth, sticking to the shadows. If Gabriel is after me, I cannot hear his pounding footsteps over my frantic heart. I cannot hear Ellen, or Daemon, or her cries – I am so absorbed in my running.
Faster, ever faster, wincing in pain as a thorn snags my shirt and tears the fabric away. I cry out, raising a hand to cover my bleeding arm, and then Gabriel slams into me from my left side.
I scream as we topple to the ground, my face grinding into the mud, Gabriel pinning me from above. I see him bring his knife down so close to my head that he has almost delivered the fatal blow, but he stops himself and pulls himself up a little. I feel his breath on my neck and try to squirm away, but he's too heavy.
"What are you doing so close to the fence, Asha?" he rasps, making my vision swim. His breath still smells of Peri, "We had to track you. Didn't know where you'd gotten to."
"I-I didn't realise, I-"
"I don't want to hear your excuses, girl. You'll pay for this mistake – it'll cost you dearly."
Sickness grabs my stomach and I have to bite my tongue so that the bile doesn't rise up. I don't see a way out of this. He's going to kill me. I am not resigned as I was back at the house, I am not ready for this. I thought I had this victory down, I never even considered the possibility that Ellen could beat me-
"Please, don't-" I have resorted to begging, but it doesn't work. Gabriel smacks me, hard, across the face, and I try to clutch my burning cheek but he doesn't let me, shoving my arm back down, deeper into the dirt.
"I don't want to hear you beg, Asha. Begging is for the weak. And you are not weak, are you? You're the strongest, Asha. You don't need to beg," he whispers, "I've always admired you for that, you know. You think I don't know why you're doing this? So that your little friend can have a dignified death? You've got another thing coming, darling."
I frown, trying to gather my thoughts, "I don't have friends," I mutter. It's true, I don't. I don't think I could be friends with Ellen even in the real world, before all of this.
"She's dead already. Daemon found her up past the bank. Waiting on a tree for him. I wasn't going to watch. Thought I'd give them a little privacy, y'know, but then she told him she was pregnant, and he looked like he'd been hit right between the eyes."
Ellen... pregnant? Was this her plan all along? To save herself and make them kill me instead? Get rid of me first, send me down to the fence while she betrayed me? It sounded like Ellen, alright. She could be manipulative when she wanted to be.
"Of course I had to finish the job. Bitch wasn't getting away after that, so I sent Daemon away and stabbed her, right here..." He traced his knife along my abdomen, right where the baby would have been growing inside her, and I shiver.
"It would have been too hard for him, you see. Killing both of them, that is, if her absurd story was even true. I didn't give a shit if she was telling the truth or not. She was weak, that girl. Not like you. You're strong, Asha, you're the strongest. I've had my eye on you ever since I picked you up and set you down in that basement... I think you know it, don't you?"
I don't reply. It takes all of my strength to keep my eyes open, locked on his knife, because he won't hesitate to stab me if I make any sudden moves. I can't force myself to speak, because I'l either start screaming or begging, and I'm not sure which would be worse.
"I know you, Asha. I know that we'd be good together, don't you agree? The others are back at the house, I told them not to sound the siren so that we could have a little... alone time. She's dead now, Asha. She doesn't matter anymore. All that matters is the two of us, right here..."
"I guess I mustn't have heard the siren," I whisper, trying to change the subject. Gabriel nods slowly, kissing his way down my neck, the blade still hovering by my stomach. I want to roll away from him and try to make a run for it, but there's absolutely nothing to stop the knife sliding into my stomach and ripping me apart.
"I couldn't bear to lose you that way, darling. I don't ever want to let you go, you see? At least when you're gone, there'll be a part of you inside me forever..." His breath tickles my ear, and I squirm. I can't fight him off, and I can't run away, but I don't think I can lie here and let him do it either. I am out of options. I'd rather he kill me.
"Shh! Don't speak, darling. It's so quiet out here. Nobody will hear us out here. That's what you want, right? You don't want to go back to the house yet, right?"
"I think we'd better-"
"Don't you tell me what to do!" Gabriel yells suddenly, sitting up slightly, still straddling my chest. I see my window of opportunity and I seize it, ducking out from underneath his arms and rolling down the slope a little, so my body is close to the fence. I can see the eyes of the Creatures, unblinking, as I scamper away from the hunter, who lies stunned on the ground.
I sprint the whole way back to the house, and charge straight up to the attic once I'm back. I can't get the feeling of Gabriel's hands on my stomach, his knife so close to breaking the skin. I can hear his ragged breathing in my ear still, and it doesn't go away even when I have buried myself under the covers of my own bed.
I don't sleep all night – I'm wide awake, listening for any signs that he has followed me up to the attic. I watch the door from my bed, with the attic room bathed in moonlight because I insisted that Farah keep the curtains open. She wanted to know what happened, although it was blatantly obvious. Ellen was killed. I don't tell her about the pregnancy, because I'm not even sure if it's true. I can't bear to think of Gabriel delivering the fatal blow to Ellen's pregnant swell, although such a thing was still nonexistent. I should have been there for her. I should have taken her place.
"Asha? Are you getting up?" Farah is shaking me, as if I have had a wink of sleep all night. I shake my head, still watching the door, frozen in place. She dresses behind me and leaves the room. I leave the door open and watch the hallway instead.
I know that I should go downstairs, make myself eat something, but I can't bring myself to move. Gabriel will be down there. Although I'm sure he won't touch me in front of the others, I don't think I can face him, especially not after I've angered him. He will try to get back at me, I know he will. I don't have the willpower to resist anymore. Glynn was right when he asked why we didn't allow them to just kill us. I don't have the strength to fight anymore. I should give in to my inevitable fate.
Eventually, I force myself to move. I pull a thick sweater over my t-shirt and drag boots onto my feet – there's no way I'm going to sit around the breakfast table with the rest of them. I sneak out the back door and walk around the house to the forest, gravel spitting at my legs with every step. The path is shrouded in darkness, the trees casting evil shadows over the ground. I take a few sharp breaths, jump up and down on the spot to warm up, and then I run.
You'd think I'd get tired of running. It has been my whole life for as long as I can remember. Still, it drives something through me, fear and paranoia, but something else as well. The adrenaline makes me high. Euphoria floods through me with every step, every heartbeat. It's so easy to forget myself out in the forest, even when I know that the hunters are chasing me, that they will kill me if I am caught. So easy.
I take the normal path down to the stream and jog along it, my breath visible in the misty winter air. It must be at least November, but I have no way of telling – Gabriel doesn't let us read the newspapers he brings in every morning. The fact that newspapers are still available to us is a good sign – a sign that we are not alone.
Maybe one day someone will find us, and we'll be taken away from this place. I probably won't be alive when that day comes, but it's a good thought to hold onto, I suppose. Maybe they will come tomorrow, pulling up in giant cars with guns and grenades. They'll take us to safety, I know they will, and they'll execute every last one of the hunters. If my pipe dreams weren't so far away, I'd be tempted to run away now, to flee the house and the forest and just keep going past the fence. Maybe I'd be torn apart by Creatures, but then again, maybe not. They don't attack the cars when the hunters go out. I could easily follow the road, and then...
Then what? Then I'd carry on. I'd die of starvation, most likely. Starvation or dehydration or from being torn apart by Creatures. The hunters would catch up with me anyway, I'm sure of it. It's too risky a plan to ever succeed.
Finally, I turn back and jog back to the house. Being out here isn't doing me any good, I tell myself. I feel more trapped than ever.
Most of the others are watching a movie on TV when I return, their eyes simultaneously boring into the screen. I sink into an armchair next to Farah and watch it with them. I cannot bear to look around the room at Glynn, who is sitting with his back to the television, watching the hunters packing up the cars. He hasn't spoken since yesterday at dinner, and I don't really blame him. I hate him for getting me into trouble with Gabriel, but it isn't his fault, not really. It is theirs, all theirs. Everything is down to them.
When the credits roll, I go through to the other room to train on the treadmill for a while. I run for three hours, and I only stop because Kit is calling us for lunch. I can feel my ribs through the shirt that I am wearing – I have lost too much weight, I tell myself, although exercise is the only thing that makes me feel human, and I don't trust the food anymore, not since Peri-
I cannot think of Peri.
Lunch passes quickly. The meat is still a central dish, various hunks of it spread out on a serving platter in the centre of the large table, and we all avoid it. Since I missed breakfast, I force down a salad sandwich, trying to ignore the taste as I chew several times and swallow. I eat because it is necessary, not because I have felt a desire to touch food for weeks, because I haven't.
Gabriel doesn't show up at lunch, and I'm grateful for that, at least. I keep my eyes locked on the door that leads to the kitchen all the time, as if he will materialise from in there, but he doesn't. Kit attempts to make a half-hearted conversation with me, but I don't have the words to answer his questions, and the table soon lapses into silence once more. I end up watching Glynn, who doesn't eat, but sits rigidly next to West anyway, looking as if he'd rather be anywhere else. I wonder if he will survive the first run. I doubt it.
"We're going training for the afternoon, Asha, if you'd like to come?" Farah asks when the meal is finally over. I nod, wanting more than anything else to get back into the forest and run. It is decided – us girls will take the place of the hunters, and the boys will run. We line up beside the driveway and give them a head-start, timing the minute on Farah's watch. Phoebe, one of Peri's old friends, yells at the boys to run and they scatter, heading off at various directions. I notice that Glynn is among them – he has actually abandoned his armchair long enough to join in with the group activity.
"Okay, girls, go get 'em!" Cora screams at the top of her voice. Valencia, who is on my other side, shoots her a scathing look as we set off, because Cora chose not to compete and instead pushed her into doing so, and the forest holds haunting memories for all of us.
I take the path that I watched Glynn take off down, because I want to know how he will do. I use the trees as a cover and sprint through the forest, keeping close to the path so that I don't accidentally wander into Creature territory, although the odds of me doing so are about a million to one – I know the forest like the back of my own hand.
Almost an hour passes, and I don't see anything of Glynn. In fact, it's a little strange that he's gone, and for a moment I wonder whether he has attempted escape as he threatened to. I wish he'd waited for me. I wish I could have fled too, if that is indeed where he has gone.
Instead of searching for him as I first intended, I take the main path down to the stream again, and try in vain to catch up to the others. I pass Valencia as I cross the stream, and she raises her hand in a greeting, which I don't return. I am concentrating too hard on picking my way across the body of water, and land on the other side gasping after tripping over a hidden tree root. I pick myself up quickly, sensing that if I'm not the only one with a catch by the end of the session, the others will see me as weak, bait, even, although I am possibly the strongest girl in the group.
Eventually, I see West making his way along the fence line. He is fast, and resides in the boys' attic, but I am quicker, and manage to sneak up on him and tag him on the arm before he realises what's hit him. I grin quickly, forgetting myself for a moment, and he smiles back.
"You got me."
"Yeah," I mutter. He winks at me.
"Guess I'd better get back to the driveway then."
He flees without another word, and I revel in my victory for a few moments before forcing my stiff legs forward again. I am tired now – the adrenaline of the day's running has worn off, leaving me with an empty feeling in my chest. I am worried about Glynn, and grieving for Peri, and trying to be furious with Ellen and failing, because she is dead. I am frightened for my own life, and afraid of what Gabriel has in store for me tonight. I don't want to go back to the house. I want to run far away from here.
"Hey! Asha!" a voice calls, and I whip my head around to find Glynn standing a little way away from me. I frown.
"Isn't the purpose of this to avoid me?" I yell back, taking a couple of steps towards him. He manages a faint smile.
"Yeah, but I figured since Phoebe called us back a few minutes ago... I was safe."
"Oh. I didn't... I didn't hear."
"Yeah, you looked sort of... distant. Are you okay?"
"Sure. I'm... fine." Even this tiny white lie is exhausting. Glynn shrugs.
"We'd better head back then, right?"
"R-right," I mumble, and we start back to the house. I choose a route that leads us around the place I left Ellen last night (it's hard to believe that it happened such a short time ago – it feels like weeks have passed, at least) because there is still a bloodstain on one of the tree trunks around there, where Gabriel must have propped her up when he heard about the baby. I still cannot get my head around the fact that if she had been allowed to live, Ellen would have been a mother. I can't imagine trying to raise a child in this environment, but she must have been aware of the risks of her relationship with Daemon... I still can't make myself think that she planned it all perfectly.
"I tried to catch you," I admit as we stroll back to the path, and Glynn smirks.
"I thought you might."
"Why's that?!" My cry is outraged, and I have to clap my hand over my mouth to cover the sound. He chuckles.
"Thought you might want to apologise about last night."
"I have nothing to apologise for," I spit at him, suddenly furious, "I'm not the one who tried to make you eat it. In fact, I tried to stop you. Besides, I have much bigger problems to worry about now, than your stupidity and ignorance-"
"Calm down, Asha! I was joking!"
Joking. I scoff, rolling my eyes. Nobody has joked in so long, and I have forgotten how it feels to laugh. I don't feel at all like laughing now, as we make our sorry way back to the gravel drive.
"Look, I don't know why you're speaking to me after last night, if you're so obviously offended. In fact, I'd rather you left me alone completely. I'm not here to make friends," I mutter. Glynn wrinkles his nose at my statement.
"Then why are you here?" he whispers, taking my elbow to steer me away from the house entrance as he stares seriously into my eyes. I try not to flinch at the intensity of his glare.
"I don't know what you mean."
"Well, it's obviously not because you believe in the quality of life. Make every moment last, blah blah. So tell me, Asha, if you don't truly believe you can escape, why do you stay? Why not let them kill you?"
How can I explain to him that I can't stand the thought of Gabriel cutting me open even once I am dead, trapping my corpse in one of the ovens and then feasting on my flesh? How can I tell him that I am frightened of standing in the hunters' path while they murder me, knowing what is to come? How can I admit my pathetic fantasies of rescue, when I'm certain they will never come true?
I cannot, so I don't say anything, choosing to let him think that he has won, and storm inside. He must follow, but he doesn't call out to me as I barge upstairs to the attic and throw myself down on the bed.