One week left. Then six days. Five. Four. Three. There are two days to go and I still haven't come to a decision.
Looking at Gabriel makes me feel sick, and bile rises in my throat whenever he touches me, even in a simple gesture like to hold hands over the table. At night, he insists we play out scenarios our bedroom – he ordered in a double bed and brought it to the house in the cars, and he and Oliver set it up together. Now we sleep together like husband and wife as well as our other midnight exploits. I'm surprised none of the other hunters have complained over the noise yet. The bedroom feels like a prison, even with the paper thin walls.
We've pretty much tiptoed around the fact that I'll be eighteen in a couple of days, and nobody else has broached the subject. None of the other Runners know about the offer, and they haven't dared remind me that I'll probably be dying soon because they think I've don't realise I have thought of nothing else for months.
My final Run rolls around – it's set up for the night before Gabriel announces the new arrangements, the night before I have to choose. My head is totally void of thought as we gather on the driveway. I sneak a look at Glynn, who has been ignoring me for so long. Glynn, who I never got to know properly. Who I lied to. I wish I could take it all back, but it's too late now. It's time to go. The siren wails and we're off, feet pounding hard against the dirt path, ankles tangling in the bracken. I hope there aren't too many deaths tonight. I hope he is okay.
This last thought strikes me as odd, and I stop in my tracks, watching the others scatter ahead of me. Why do I care? He is just another Runner, just another pointless pawn, someone who I didn't expect to last long because of his initial fragile state, but progressed quicker than most others here. Who disappears whenever we run. Who I comforted when he was kidnapped, brought food, who asked me ridiculous questions that I couldn't answer. Glynn, who I think I'm falling for.
Love is such a stupid concept – how can I, of all people, know it? How can I recognise that it is love tugging at me now, urging me to follow him and see where it is that he disappears to? After Ellen and Daemon, and myself with Gabriel, love is messed up. I don't hold a place for it within myself, and I certainly didn't ever expect to feel it. I don't know why it clings to me now, when I don't even know him, not really. I know one thing – he managed to knock my carefully structured walls down and made me vulnerable. I'm not a vulnerable person, or at least, I didn't used to be, before Gabriel got his claws into me. I take a couple of deep breaths and set off down the slight path I saw Glynn take. I'm going to find him this time. This time, I'm not going to give up. I'll find him, and I'll explain why I acted so cruelly, why I couldn't give him answers, because I didn't have any. I will-
Something grabs me from behind and hurls me to the floor, my face grinding in the dirt. I can't breathe. I'm going to suffocate. Die just as I was finally coming up with a plan. I try to twist around to see my attacker's face and almost succeed before a heavy boot lands on the back of my neck, pressing down harder against my flesh. I'd recognise that boot anywhere – Wren is going to break my neck if she leans down any harder on her right leg. The pain is intense, too much for me to bear, almost, and I cry out with my mouth still pressed into the mud.
"Please!" I beg, although begging hasn't got me anywhere in the past. Wren doesn't let up, but crouches down a little to see my face.
"No use in crying, little girl." The nickname she uses bites hard – it's what she called Peri before she died. I struggle harder.
"I'm going to kill you either way. Not because I want to or anything."
"Then why?!" I spit, wriggling under her boot. She looks off into the distance for a second, almost wistfully.
"You're not one of us, little girl. You don't have what it takes to be a hunter. I know what Gabe's plan is. I know he wants to, ah, train you up. He's insane, if you ask me. I don't believe you could be anything more than this – a pathetic little girl, crying because she can't face up to her death. Not like I did. You need to man up, little Asha, else he'll kill you himself. You're making the wrong decision."
"What do you mean, not like you did?" I whisper.
"Oh, trust you to pick up on the details. Quite the observant one, aren't you? Fine, seeing as though you're going to die soon anyway, I'll tell you. I was one of you, once. I was a Runner myself. And then I found out the truth, and it damn near killed me. But I'm a survivor. Always have been. So I became one of the big fish, the hunters, instead of the hunted. Gabriel used me just as he's using you now. I thought he loved me. I goddamn loved him back. He was one of the first hunters, and I one of the first Runners, almost sixteen when I started. It didn't take much to survive those two years, although they were brutal. All of the friends I allowed myself to have got killed. He let me out in the cars. He said he'd show me where I'd come from, and-" Wren cuts off sharply, and suddenly her weight is lifted off me and her body thrown to the floor. Gabriel is standing over me, glaring down at Wren on the floor. Through her thin, lacy sleeve, I can just about make out where she was branded – no wonder she prefers long sleeves, if she had a secret that large to hide. The question is, how could I have neglected to notice that before? And what 'truth' was she talking about?
"Asha, I'm sorry, I didn't mean for this to happen. You get yourself away, honey. This won't happen again, I can guarantee it."
"What are you going to do to her?" I whisper brokenly. It's not like I really care what happens to Wren, but after what she told me, or almost told me... I don't want to see her killed.
"That's none of your concern, Asha. Just run away now, or you might cause me to think twice."
He doesn't have to ask again – I pick myself up off the floor and scamper away, still following Glynn's path. I'm almost at the fence by now, and I can see the eyes of the Creatures staring out at me, unblinking as always. I try to ignore them as I follow the footprints in the mud.
They go straight up to the fence.
I can't breathe. Has Glynn been torn apart, eaten? Killed by whatever Creatures lie out there? Has he attempted escape? The irrational thoughts come thick and fast, and I can't form anything close to coherent. All I can see are the masses of eyes staring out at me, and then-
The siren wails. I turn away from the fence, blinded by tears, and start to walk back up the bank, through the thicker trees up here, until the house comes into view. That's it. My last run is over. I had my chance, and I lost it. Now I will be watched forever, I will never escape, I will grow old here and die here and never see the forest from the eyes of a Runner ever again. And I can't even feel happy about it, because Wren's words keep coming back to me. Gabriel threw her away, and, although I don't value his so-called love or even companionship, I fear that once he tires of me and finds a younger girl to take my place, I'll be killed. Wren's right – I can't kill anyone. I have seen too much from their eyes to even contemplate it, but still, I have to give my reply to Gabriel before tomorrow... I can't even think about tomorrow.
They are all waiting in the driveway to see who is left. There have only been a few kills tonight, mostly newbies, who I don't care to put names to. And Glynn, of course. I count him with the dead, and have to steel myself to keep from collapsing into floods of pathetic tears. I didn't even know him, I remind myself. I spoke to him a couple of times, that was it. He probably didn't notice my existence most of the time. We were nothing to each other, I know that. I'm just being stupid.
Gabriel jogs up next to me and slips his arm around my shoulders, holding me close to his side for a second before he releases me. I cringe at his touch, unable to stop myself, but he doesn't seem to notice.
"Have you made your decision yet, honey?" he asks in a murmur. I nod grudgingly, biting my lip hard enough to draw blood. Everything is getting on top of me, and I can't concentrate. I feel like the ground is swinging up to meet me.
"Well, what did you choose?" he asks as the others enter the house ahead of us. We linger in the hallway as everyone else rushes through to the dormitory to sleep.
"I, um... I'd like to take you up on your offer, I guess," I say quickly and quietly. Gabriel's face lights up, and he beams around at no-one in particular just as Wren limps into the house. She's not dead then, I observe, which is more than can be said for some people. She glares at me as she hobbles agonisingly slowly down to the cellar, and we follow.
"I'll make the announcement tomorrow. Meanwhile... I think we should celebrate a little, don't you?" As if to officially decide this, he drags me down the cellar steps and unlocks the door to his office, taking a bottle of champagne down from the cabinet that he seems to have been storing for a special occasion. He pours two glasses and offers one to me, which I accept. The liquid bubbles on my tongue and burns going down.
"I can't explain how glad I am that you decided to join us, Asha. I think we have a bright and happy future together." Gabriel doesn't seem to pick up on the fact that I am trembling; he just pours me some more champagne. I wish the meagre amount of alcohol was enough to get me drunk, and sigh, knowing that nothing will be enough to erase where I am, and what lies ahead. How could I have chosen this path for myself?
We drink until the champagne bottle is empty, and then Gabriel draws a bottle of whisky from his bottom drawer and we hold a contest to see who can do the most shots, until the room blurs at the edges and I'm filled with a warm, fuzzy feeling. I feel better now, at least, and worry can wait until morning. I win the drinking contest hands down, even though my throat is on fire and Gabriel has to carry me to bed. I realise that I don't even mind that, even when he takes my clothes off because I'm too exhausted to change into my nightclothes by myself. I only ever get to wear jeans when we run, so I bid a sad farewell to the pair of denims as I collapse into bed. I'm almost instantly asleep, and the stress of the day disappears when my head hits the pillow.
Gabriel rouses me gently from slumber later than usual, which is okay, I guess, because it's my birthday. He brings me breakfast in bed, which is also okay, because the simple meal only consists of two rounds of buttered toast, a boiled egg, and a glass of orange juice. Nowhere for meat to be hidden, although I suppose I'll have to get over that soon, as well. Just as I'll have to learn to relax around Gabriel, if we plan to have a 'future'. After what Wren said, I'm not sure I'll have to worry about that particular problem for long.
"Happy birthday, sweetheart," he says now, his voice lowered so that he sounds seductive. I nibble at the toast, putting off the moment when he'll kiss me and push me back against the mattress.
"Thanks," I mumble around a bite. He flashes me a toothy smile, and edges a little closer. I wince.
"So, is there anything you'd particularly like to do today? Seeing as though it's your special day?"
"Uh, I don't... I don't mind."
"Of course, we'll have to tell the others... about the new arrangement. But that can wait until after breakfast. Kit made it up especially for you."
"It's great," I manage, although my stomach is churning. Gabriel strokes my hair as I drain the glass of juice, and place it heavily back on the tray.
"All finished, honey?" He smiles, and takes the tray from my lap to place it on the cabinet. I'm surprised when he opens the closet doors and throws my latest ensemble on the bed – a tiny pair of denim shorts and a pale pink tank top. I'll be close to decent, although pink has never been my colour.
I change quickly, secretly pleased that Gabriel doesn't want to carry on what he tried to start last night, when I was totally out of it. We head upstairs together, and find everybody gathered in the lounge, looking tense. The tension goes up a notch when I enter the room, and every eye turns to stare at me. I can only think of how unreasonably short the denims are as I sink into an armchair, with Gabriel by my side.
"Is no-one going to say happy birthday to my princess?" he asks sweetly, laying it on thick. I stare down at my lap as everyone mumbles 'happy birthday' in various states of enthusiasm.
"I'm sure you're all wondering why you're here," Gabriel says, "And you're about to find out..." His voice trails off into the distance as I notice Glynn – dead Glynn, who was torn apart by Creatures – sitting on the chair opposite my own. How could I have missed him? There was nowhere else he possibly could have gone. I frown unintentionally, forgetting for a second that everybody is watching, and try to catch his eye, but he refuses to look at me. Relief floods through me anyway – he has survived another night.
"Asha is going to become a hunter!" Gabriel exclaims loudly, and then the murmuring starts. I can't look up from my lap, can't bear to see the looks of accusation that is plain on their faces. How could they know that they wouldn't have chosen the same, had they been in my place? They couldn't. I'm doing what I have to to survive.
"Yes, isn't it great," Wren mutters sarcastically from the other side of the room. Slowly, I swivel to look at her, her face mottled with purplish bruises and one arm held to her chest at an odd angle, like it's almost been broken. She looks almost pitiful, even in her chunky combat boots and tight t-shirt. At least she's allowed to wear jeans.
"So, now that we've broken the good news, I think it's time for your gifts, don't you think?" Gabriel beams around the room, and reaches behind the couch to retrieve a black gift bag stuffed with tissue paper. I hope he doesn't pick up on my shaking hands as I take it from him, forcing a huge grin. Admittedly, I have never received a birthday present before, and it feels almost good to tear away the tissue paper and remove the velvet box from the bottom of the bag. I flip it open, filled with sudden apprehension – I don't know how to act in front of all these people. Inside the box lies a blue necklace studded with diamonds, with black jewels embedded into the blue stones. My face breaks into a genuine smile as I undo the clasp and allow Gabriel to fix it around my neck, although I don't miss the snide look I receive from Glynn, the narrowed eyes from the others. I ignore it all – this is my birthday, and for once I'm being treated like an actual person. Gabriel allows me to admire my new jewellery in a hand mirror for a second, before he delves into a plastic carrier bag and hands me a gift wrapped box. I'm revelling in all the attention, blushing and grinning despite myself. I tear the purple wrapping paper off and open up the cardboard, and then stop still.
Gabriel is kneeling before me, looking up with a mischievous glint in his eye. And inside the little box lies a huge diamond ring.
"Asha... will you marry me?" he asks, as if we're in the middle of a movie instead of sitting in the grotty lounge of the only home I've ever known. There are gasps from everyone else, and I have to squeeze the chair cushion to stop myself from keeling over. I realise in an instant that I have no choice but to accept his offer, because there is no other real choice. If I don't say yes, I'll be killed. I've chosen to survive so far, and I don't intend to change my mind now.
"Yes," I say simply, and there are more gasps, an 'aww' from a younger girl. She is quickly silenced by one of the older ones.
Wren claps slowly and sarcastically from where she stands, and gradually, after a wave of encouragement from Gabriel, the others join in. My cheeks are going to be painted permanently scarlet if every day is the same as this one.
I smile stiffly as Gabriel fits the ring onto my finger. It slides on easily, and I have to admit, it looks sort of beautiful sitting there. I can't help but watch Wren from the corner of my eye as I stand. She is staring at the floor, refusing to make eye contact with anyone else in the room, and I don't blame her. Now that I am looking for it, I can glimpse the brand under her shirt without having to search too hard.
"Well, Asha... my fiancee," Gabriel whispers the word like it is a secret shared between the two of us, and I feel my stomach clench again. I can't think of what is to come yet, not the wedding, or what comes afterwards. Everything is happening so quickly – it's even more likely he'll tire of me at the rate things are travelling at. I'm not quite sure how I feel about that, actually.
"What would you like to do? Watch a movie? Have a foot massage? Share a morning drink with your fiance?"
"It's up to you," I smile at him, and he slips his hand into mine, making me shiver.
"How about I fetch you some wine while you put your feet up? You must need it after the Run last night. Just think, that's the last time you'll ever have to endure that, sweetheart. Isn't that good news?" He beams at me before disappearing into the kitchen. I slump in a chair away from everybody else and curl in on myself, wishing I could shrink into a ball so small that I disappear completely. I want to scream in Gabriel's face that this whole thing is his fault, that I would not have to run at all if it weren't for him. I doubt he'd listen to me anyway.
The morning passes quickly, and at lunchtime, Gabriel orders Kit to bring my food to me on a tray. He places it carefully in my lap, avoiding my gaze, and I avert it so that only the plate is visible. The meal is lasagne. I don't know what it contains, and I suppose that's a blessing in disguise – how could I eat if I knew for certain? It's better not to dwell on that right now. Nevertheless, the food settles uncomfortably in the pit of my stomach as I fiddle with my new necklace, wishing that I was anywhere else. Wren has been absent from the room since this morning, and I don't care if she won't show her face, because at least I can deal with the disgusted glares from the others. It's more difficult from her, knowing that she is in love with my new fiance, knowing that she wants to rip my eyes out and eat them.
We watch a movie for most of the afternoon, and Gabriel sends some of the group out to collect last night's corpses. I'm glad this is one task I no longer have to complete – I can still see Peri's dead eyes staring up at me as I carried her back to the house with Ellen. My best friend in the world. I can still taste her flesh on my tongue, the bitter, putrid feeling in my mouth. I wonder if her remains have been discarded yet. Probably. It's been weeks, although I would expect it of Gabriel to store it to humiliate me.
"All right, guys, I'd like to announce that we're going for a Run tonight. It's Asha's big night, so I expect you to be on your best behaviour. Good luck, darling. I know you'll be fantastic," Gabriel whispers, leaning in close to my ear. He drags me downstairs before the Running period is due to start, and we stay together in the bed for a while until Oliver calls us up. As I am about to leave the house, once again dressed in my favourite jeans and a t-shirt, Tate grabs my arm and pulls me to one side.
"I suppose you already know that everyone will be watching, Asha, and I hope you understand that if you don't make a kill you'll be... Well, let's just say you won't be in our good books. Agreed?"
"Agreed," I mutter meekly, staring down at the ground. How can I ever murder these people, who have done nothing to wrong me except shoot me a few dirty looks over my recent engagement? I probably would have done the same – in fact, I did do the same, when Ellen tried so hard to impress Daemon, even though it didn't work out in the end. I can't think about it – I'll go crazy if I do. Instead, I force my numb legs forward, waiting for the siren although it doesn't come. Gabriel strides over to me with a laptop balanced in his arms, and offers it to me.
"I thought you might like to start them off," he grins, pointing out the controls. One quick press of a button, and the siren wails. So simple, yet so able to ignite fear in the latest batch of Runners, because they all scatter at the sound. It's so difficult to remember that I can't associate myself with the Runners anymore – I am a hunter now, and I need to be sure of my place.
Soon after, we hunters set off after the Runners, prowling the forest for fresh meat. I remember the look Glynn gave me today, such shame and accusation, and my knees almost buckle. At least now I can escape Gabriel's watchful gaze, out here in the trees, where I am most at home. I can almost forget what I am about to do.
I have gone about half a mile when I hear panting behind me. I have followed Glynn's path, maybe hoping to find him and talk, but once again, the footsteps stop once I reach the wooden border. Gabriel's building supplies are out here, gathered by this section where he planned to expand, and I can just make out the Creature eyes behind it. I've always thought the fence was a little low, with large gaps between the wooden slats – wouldn't it be easy for a Creature to simply leap over?
I am considering asking Gabriel about this when somebody ambushes me from behind. I have to catch myself to recall that I am no longer someone's prey, and to realise that I can fight back with everything I have now, no holding back. I am about to bite when I see the flash of Gabriel's knife clutched in Wren's grasp, the menace in her eyes. Before I can so much as cry out, she brings the blade down in my right thigh, and blood blossoms at the gaping wound, tearing a scream from my throat. The pain is so intense that I can do nothing but lie there in the dirt and sob, trying to clutch at my ruined leg but to no avail. Wren holds me down for a second, rubbing the wound into the mud and making me scream louder, before she releases me and hops off me.
"I hope you're happy, Asha. I hope you bleed out right here while he isn't here to save you. You don't love him. You only care about yourself. That's all there'll ever be, won't there? You. Even if you marry him, it'll always be about you." She takes a deep, shuddering breath, "Well I loved him. Really, genuinely loved him. And y'know what? He proposed to me, too. He's probably proposed to thousands of girls, all just as pathetic as me and you. I thought he loved me back. I thought I was the one. Who knows? Maybe now I will be. Maybe he'll think you killed yourself with the knife he gave you, because you were so damn scared. Just like a little baby."
I breathe a sigh of relief – she reminded me of the knife, and now I can feel it, shoved into the waistband of my jeans. Of course. Gabriel started me off with a hand to hand combat weapon, before he'd have chance to train me up in the use of a firearm. I swipe at Wren's ankles with the knife now, straining against the pain and against the dark spots clawing at my vision. If I can just complete this small task, I'll die happy. I'll have taken her down with me.
Wren is just a young girl that tried to make the right choices, I remind myself. A girl who fell in love with the wrong man and gave everything she had to him, only to have him break her heart. I lie there in the dirt and tell myself that she should get away, and as she scampers into the distance, I'm not even disappointed that she leaves me here. What did I expect? Wren to suddenly grow a soft side, a conscience? No, I never expected that.
At least now I won't have to kill anyone, I think as I succumb to the blackness threatening to envelope me, at least I don't have to be a hunter anymore. I won't have to marry Gabriel. But I never did get to tell Glynn that I love him. I never got to find out where he goes, or what Wren meant by 'the truth', or where the hunters go in their cars, what is really out there. I still know nothing of my past. But strangely, none of that matters now. It's like death has just taken it all away – I don't worry as I fall into a deeper state of unconsciousness, because whatever happens, I'll have done my best. I didn't give up, all through this, although I felt trapped and scared and alone. I'll die alone like so many others now. My corpse might be collected in the morning, and Gabriel will feast on my flesh. Maybe he'll even grieve for me, although I doubt it. I don't even care about that anymore.
I lie there for what seems like hours. I don't know if it's true about your life flashing before your eyes just before you die. It doesn't happen that way for me, although I try to conjure memories from my past. Nothing works. I'd like to see what my parents looked like, or if I had any childhood friends. I remember Peri, and the image of her lying dead, not far from where I'm lying now, brings another round of sobbing. I weep for all the people I've lost, and all the shit Gabriel and the other hunters have put us all through. I can only think of Wren, in the end, and how far she has fallen. Could I have really given up the only morals I had left to become a hunter? Just for survival, like so many others had? On the other hand, could I really have stood there while he pointed a gun at my head, knowing that the fatal blow was coming? At least this way I didn't have a choice.
I can hear footsteps approaching, close to my head, but I can't force my eyes to flutter open – I'm so tired. Exhaustion tries to drag me under, deeper into the darkness, but I don't let it. If I can just hold on, maybe Glynn will come back this way, maybe I'll have a chance to tell him...
It's too late for any of that. Death is standing over me, tall and cloaked. One last breath, one last blink, and then I close my eyes for the last time.