The Prey by Andrew Fukuda, now you can read online.
WE THOUGHT WE were finally free of them but we were wrong. That very night, they come at us.
We hear the pack of hunters mere minutes before they reach the riverbank: gritty cries flung into the night sky, coarse and sharp like glass shards crushed underfoot. The horse, nostrils flaring and eyes rolling back, rises from the ground with a start. Muscles fused together, it gallops away with ears pulled back, the whites of its eyes shining like demented moons, into the vast darkness of the land.
We grab our bags, the six of us, flee to the docked boat on legs that judder under us. The anchoring ropes are taut, and our shaking fingers are unable to loosen them. Ben trying to quiet his own whimpers, Epap already standing on the boat frozen with fear, head tilted toward the sound of their approach. Tufts of his hair stick up like surrendering arms, mussed from a slumber into which he was never supposed to slip.
Sissy hacks away at the ropes. Sparks fly off the blade as her strokes become swifter, more urgent with every passing second. She stops suddenly, blade held aloft. She’s staring into the distance. She sees them: ten silver dots, racing toward us down a distant meadow before disappearing behind the rise of a closer hill. The hairs on my neck freeze into icicles, snap and break in the wind.
They reappear, ten mercury beads cresting the hill with unflinching purpose. Silver dots, mercury beads, such quaint terms, my futile attempt to render the horrific into the innocuous, into jewelry accessories. But these are people. These are hunters. Coming to sink fangs into my flesh, to ravage me, to devour and savage my organs.
I grab the younger boys, push them aboard the boat. Sissy is hacking at the last rope, trying to ignore the wails screeching toward us, slippery and wet with saliva. I grab a pole, ready to start pushing off as soon as Sissy’s cut the rope. With only seconds to spare, she saws through the rope, and I push the boat into the river’s current. Sissy leaps on. The river wraps around us, draws us away from the bank.
The hunters gather on the riverbank, ten-strong, grotesque spillages of melted flesh and matted hair. I don’t recognize a single one of them—no sign of Crimson Lips, Abs, Gaunt Man, the Director—but the desire in their eyes is all too familiar. It is the impulse more powerful than lust, an all-consuming desire to devour and consume heper flesh and blood. Three hunters leap headlong into the swift river in a futile effort to reach us. Their heads bob once, twice, then sink harmlessly away.
For hours the remaining hunters follow us along the banks. We try not to look at them, affixing our eyes on the river and the wooden planks of the deck. But there’s no escaping their screams: full of unrequited lust, a keening despair. The four Dome boys—Ben, David, Jacob, and Epap—huddle in the cabin for most of the night. Sissy and I stay at the stern, guiding the boat with the long poles, keeping well away from the bank. As dawn approaches, the cloudy sky grows lighter in slow degrees. The remaining hunters, instead of becoming more languid with the approach of sunrise and the inevitability of death, only scream louder, their rage intensifying.
The sun rises slowly and glows dully from behind black clouds. A filtered, diffused burn. So the hunters die gradually, in degrees, horrendously. It takes almost an hour before the last bubbled scream gurgles away and there is nothing left of them to see or hear or smell.
Sissy speaks for the first time in hours. “I thought we’d journeyed far enough. Thought we’d seen the last of them.” It is only morning, and her voice is already spent.
“It’s been sunny,” I say. “Until the storm yesterday.” The rain and clouds had turned the day as dark as night and allowed the hunters to set off hours before dusk and reach us.
Sissy’s jaw juts out. “Better not rain today, then,” she says and walks into the cabin to check on the boys.
The river surges forward with propulsive insistence. I stare down its length until it fades into the distant darkness. I don’t know what lies ahead, and the uncertainty numbs me with fear. A raindrop lands on my forehead, then another, and another, until rainwater lines down my neck and along my goose-pimpled arms like protruding veins. I gaze up. Dark, turgid clouds shift, then rip open. Rain buckets down in dark, slanted bands. The skies are coated as black as a murder of crows at midnight.
The hunt has only begun. The hunt will never end.
WE SIT IN the cabin huddled together, trying to stay out of the rain. Our sodden clothes cling to our thin frames and concaved stomachs like mottled leathery skin. Every so often, someone will—driven by the illogic of hunger—open the food bag and find it (again) empty. All the berries and charred prairie dog meat long devoured.
With the heavy rain, the river current has picked up. We work shorter shifts steering the boat, our strength depleting quickly now. In the early afternoon, Sissy and I work together. Two hours later, we’re wiped out. We collapse in the cabin while Epap and Jacob take over.
I am exhausted but unable to sleep. A wind gusts across the river, rippling the surface already dappled by pelting rain. I rub my face, trying to chafe warmth into my cheeks. On the other side of the cabin, eyes closed, Sissy is curled on her side, her head resting atop her clasped hands. Her face, relaxed in sleep, is soft, the outlines stenciled in.
“You’ve been staring at me for the past few minutes,” she whispers, eyes still closed. I startle. Her lips curl upward in a faint smile. “Next time just wake me. You could sear through steel walls with that stare of yours.”
I scratch my wrists.
Her eyes peel open; she sits up. Thick brown hair flops across her face, as tousled as the blanket she now lays gently over Ben snoring next to her. She yawns, extends her arms high above her head, her back arching. She walks over, stepping around a stockpile of sticks we’d brought aboard, and plops down next to me.
“The current’s strong,” I say. “Maybe too strong. I’m worried.”
“No, it’s a good thing. Means more separation between us and them.”
Only a few days have passed since we escaped from the Heper Institute. We were chased by a mob ravenous for our blood and flesh. By the hundreds they poured out of the Institute, banquet guests driven by bloodlust. Against such a horde, the six of us had virtually no chance of survival. Our only hope lay frailly and solely in the Scientist’s journal, a cryptic notebook that suggested an escape by boat down this river. The river, by luck, we found; the boat, by greater miracle, we also found. But the reason why we’ve been led down this river by the Scientist: that, we have not found.
“It also means less distance between us and him,” she says as if reading my thoughts. She looks at me with steady eyes that are soft and knowing. I turn my eyes away.
Yesterday, when I’d come upon Epap’s portrait of my father, it was the first time I’d seen my father’s face in years: the deep-set eyes, the strong chiseled jawline, the thin lips, the stony expression that, even in a drawing, hinted at a deeper grace and sadness.
Now I think of the secrets those eye must have held, the agenda never uttered by those lips. On that very last day, my father had run into our home, sweating profusely, deathly pale. I saw the twin punctures in his neck. He had gone to such lengths to fake his turning. When he ran outdoors moments before sunrise, I thought he was running to his death to save me.
When he was only running to his freedom and killing me.
I pick up two thin branches from the stockpile and start filing them against one another as if sharpening knives. “You think he left this boat for you, don’t you?” I say. “That he planned this whole elaborate escape for you. You want my two cents? The boat wasn’t meant for you. It was meant for him, and for him alone. It was his escape vehicle. Only he wasn’t bright enough to find it. Or maybe he built it himself but was hunted down before he could escape.”