Home > The Hunt (The Hunt #1)

The Hunt (The Hunt #1)
Author: Andrew Fukuda

THERE USED TO be more of us. I'm certain of this. Not enough to fi l a sports stadium or even a movie theater, but certainly more than what's left today. Truth is, I don't think there's any of us left. Except me. It's what happens when you're a delicacy. When you're craved. You go extinct.

Eleven years ago, one was discovered in my school. A kindergarten student, on her fi rst day. She was devoured almost immediately.

What was she thinking? Maybe the sudden (and it's always sudden) loneliness at home drove her to school under some misbegotten idea that she'd fi nd companionship.

The teacher announced nap time, and the little tyke was left standing alone on the fl oor clutching her teddy bear as her classmates leaped feetfi rst toward the ceiling. At that point, it was over for her. Over. She might as wel have taken out her fake fangs and prostrated herself for the inevitable feasting. Her classmates stared down wide- eyed from above: Hello, what have we here? She started to cry, they tel me, bawl her eyes out. The teacher was the fi rst to get to her.

After kindergarten, when you're free and clear of naps, that's when you show up at school. Although you can still get caught by surprise. One time, my swimming coach was so enraged by the team's lethargic per for mance at a school meet, he forced all of us take a nap in the changing room. He was only making a point, of course, but that point near did me in.

By the way, swimming is fi ne, but don't do any other sport if you can help it. Because sweat is a dead giveaway. Sweat is what happens when we get hot; water droplets leak out like a baby drooling. I know, gross. Everyone else remains cool, clean, dry. Me? I'm a leaky faucet. So forget about cross- country, forget about tennis, forget about even competitive chess. But swimming is fi ne, because it hides the sweat.

That's just one of the rules. There're many others, all of them indoctrinated into me by my father from the time I was born. Never smile or laugh or giggle, never cry or get teary- eyed. At all times, carry a bland, stoic expression; the only emotions that ever crack the surface of people's faces are heper- cravings and romantic- lust, and I am obviously to have nothing to do with either. Never forget to apply butter liberal y all over your body when venturing out in the daytime. Because in a world like this, it's a tough task explaining a sunburn, or even a suntan. So many other rules, enough to fi l a notebook, not that I ever felt inclined to write them down. Being caught with a “rulebook” would be just as damning as a sunburn.

Besides, my father reminded me of the rules every day. As the sun was going down, over breakfast, he'd go over a few of the many rules. Like: Don't make friends; don't inadvertently fal asleep in class (boring classes and long bus rides were especial y dangerous); don't clear your throat; don't ace your exams, even though they insult your intel igence; don't let your good looks get the better of you; no matter how the girls might throw their hearts and bodies at you, never give in to that temptation. Because you must always remember that your looks are a curse, not a blessing. Never forget that. He'd say all this while giving my nails a quick once- over, making sure that they weren't chipped or scratched.

The rules are now so ingrained in me, they're as unbendable as the rules of na-ture. I've never been tempted to break any of them.

Except one. When I fi rst started taking the horse- drawn school bus, my father forbade me from looking back at him to wave good-bye. Because people never do that. That was a hard rule for me, initial y. For the fi rst few days of school, as I stepped onto the bus, it took everything in me to freeze myself, to not look back and wave good- bye. It was like a refl ex, an insuppressible cough. I was just a kid back then, too, which made it doubly hard.

I broke that rule only one time, seven years ago. It was the day after my father staggered into the house, his clothes disheveled as if he'd been in a tussle, his neck punctured.

He'd gotten careless, just a momentary lapse, and now he had two clear incisions in his neck. Sweat poured down his face, staining his shirt. You could see he already knew. A frenzied look in his eyes, panic running up his arms as he gripped me tight. “You're alone now, my son,” he said through clenched teeth, spasms starting to ripple across his chest.

Minutes later, when he started to shiver, his face shockingly cold to the touch, he stood up. He rushed out the door into the dawn light.

I locked the door as he'd instructed me to do and ran to my room.

I stuffed my face into the pil ow and screamed and screamed. I knew what he was doing at that very moment: running, as far away from the house before he transformed and the rays of sunlight became like waterfal s of acid burning through his hair, his muscles, his bones, his kidney, lungs, heart.

The next day, as the school bus pul ed up in front of my house, steam gushing from the horses' wide and wet nostrils, I broke the rule. I couldn't help myself: I turned around as I stepped onto the bus. But by then, it didn't matter. The driveway was empty in the dark birth of night. My father was not there. Not then or ever again.

My father was right. I became alone that day. We were once a family of four, but that was a long time ago. Then it was just my father and me, and it was enough. I missed my mother and sister, but I was too young to form any real attachments with them. They are vague shapes in my memory. Sometimes, though, even now, I hear the voice of a woman singing and it always catches me off guard. I hear it and I think: Mother had a really pretty voice. My father, though. He missed them terribly. I never saw him cry, not even after we had to burn all the photos and notebooks. But I'd wake up in the middle of the day and fi nd him staring out the un-shuttered window, a beam of sunshine plunging down on his heavy face, his broad shoulders shaking.

My father had prepared me to be alone. He knew that day would eventual y come, although I think deep down he believed it was he who would be the last one left, not me.

He spent years dril -ing the rules into me so I knew them better than my own self. Even now, as I get ready for school at dusk, that laborious pro cess of washing, fi ling my nails, shaving my arms and legs (and recently, even a few chest hairs), rubbing ointment (to mask the odor), polishing my fake fangs, I hear his voice in my head, going over the rules.

Like today. Just as I'm slipping on my socks, I hear his voice. The usual warnings: Don't go to sleepovers; don't hum or whistle. But then I hear this rule he'd say maybe just once or twice a year. He said it so infrequently, maybe it wasn't a rule but something else, like a life motto. Never forget who you are. I never knew why my father would say that. Because it's like saying don't forget water is wet, the sun is bright, snow is cold. It's redundant. There's no way I could ever forget who I am. I'm reminded every moment of every day. Every time I shave my legs or hold in a sneeze or stifl e a laugh or pretend to fl inch at a slip of stray light, I am reminded of who I am.

A fake person.

The Heper Lottery BECAUSE I TURNED seventeen this year, I'm no longer mandated to ride the school bus. I walk now, gladly.

The horses— dark, gargantuan brutes that came into favor long ago for their game- fi nding ability but are now consigned to pul ing carriages and buses— can detect my unique odor. More than once they've swung their noses in my direction, singling me out, their nostrils gaping wide, like a wet, silent scream. I much prefer the solitude of walking under the darkening dusk sky.

I leave home early, as I do every night. By the time I walk through the front gates, students and teachers are already streaming in on horse back and carriages, gray shapes in a murky blackness.

It is cloudy to night and especial y dark. “Dark” is this term my father used to describe the nighttime, when things get covered over in blackness. Darkness makes me squint, which is one reason it's so dangerous. Everyone else squints only when eating something sour or smel ing something putrid. Nobody ever squints just because it's dark; it's a dead giveaway, so I never let so much as a crease cross my brow. In every class, I sit near the mercurial lamps that emit the barest suggestion of light (most people prefer gray- dark over pitch-black). That cuts down on the risk of an inadvertent squint.

People hate those seats near the lamps— too much glare — so I can always fi nd a seat by one.

I also hate getting called on in class. I've survived by blending in, defl ecting attention. Getting called on in class puts the spotlight solely on me. Like this morning, when I get called on by the teacher in trig class. He cal s on students more than anyone else, which is why I detest the man. He also has the puniest handwriting ever, and his faint scribbles on the board are near impossible to see in the gray- dark.

“Wel , H6? What do you think?”

H6 is my designation. I'm in row H, seat 6: thus my designation.

My designation changes depending on where I am. In my social studies class, for example, I'm known as D4. “Mind if I pass on this one?” I say.

He stares blankly at me. “Actual y, I do. This is the second time in a week you've done this.”

I look at the blackboard. “It's got me stumped.” I resist trying to make out the numbers on the blackboard, afraid I might accidental y squint.

He closes his eyelids lightly. “No, no, I won't accept that. I know you can do it. You always ace the exams. You can do this equation in your sleep.”

Students are now turning to look at me. Only a few, but enough to make me ner vous. Including the person in front of me, Ashley June. Her designation in this class is actual y G6, but in my mind I've always called her Ashley June.

From the fi rst time I saw her years ago, that designation has stuck.

She turns around, looks at me with her opulent green eyes.

They seem comprehending, as if she's at last caught on: that I've often gazed longingly from behind at her lush auburn hair (the magnifi cent, dazzling color!), wistful y recal ing their silky feel in my hands so many moons ago. She holds my gaze, surprise lighting in them when I don't fl ick my eyes away the way I've been doing for years now. Ever since I sensed her interest in me, ever since I felt a pul in my own heart tugging toward her.

“H6?” The teacher starts tapping the chalk on the board.

“Give it a shot, come on now.”

“I really don't know.”

“What's gotten into you? This is basic stuff for you.” He peers at me. I'm one of the smarter students in school, and he knows that.

Truth is, I could easily be the top student if I wanted to— grades come that easily to me, I don't even have to study— but I deliberately dumb down. There'd be too much attention at the top. “Look here.

Let's work together on this. Just read the question fi rst.”

Suddenly the situation has intensifi ed. But nothing to panic over. Yet.

“Guess my brain's not quite awake yet.”

“But just read the question. That's all .” His voice now holds an edge of sternness.

Suddenly I don't like this at all . He's beginning to take it personal y.

More eyes start to peer back at me.

Out of ner vous ness, I begin to clear my throat. Then catch myself. Just in time. People never clear their throats. I breathe in, forc-ing myself to slow down time. I resist the urge to wipe my upper lip where I suspect smal beads of sweat are starting to form.

“Do I need to ask you again?”

In front of me, Ashley June is staring more intently at me.

For a moment, I wonder if she's staring at my upper lip.

Does she see a slight glisten of sweat there? Did I miss shaving a hair? Then she puts up an arm, a long slender pale arm like a swan's neck arising out of the water.

“I think I know,” she says, and gets up from her seat. She takes the chalk from the teacher, who is taken aback by her forthrightness.

Students don't usual y approach the board uninvited. But then again, this is Ashley June, who pretty much gets by with what ever she wants. She gazes up at the equation, then writes with a quick fl ourish in large letters and numbers. Moments later, she's done and adds her own check mark and an “A+” at the end. Dusting off her hands, she sits back down. Some of the students start scratching their wrists, as does the teacher. “That was pretty funny,” he says. “I like that.” He scratches his wrist faster, demonstrably, and more students join him. I hear the rasp rasp rasp of nails scratching against wrists.

I join them, scratching my wrists with my long nails, hating it.

Because my wrists are defective. They don't itch when I fi nd something humorous. My natural instinct is to smile— smiling is this thing I do by widening my mouth and exposing my teeth— and not to scratch my wrist. I have sensitive nerve endings there, not a funny bone.

A message on the PA system suddenly sounds over the loud-speakers. Instantly, everyone stops scratching and sits up. The voice is robotic, man- female, authoritative.

“An important announcement,” it blares. “To night, in just three hours at two A.M., there will be a nationwide Declaration made by the Ruler. all citizens are required to participate. Accordingly, all classes held at that time will be canceled. Teachers, students, and all administrative staff wil gather in the assembly hal to watch the live broadcast from our beloved Ruler.”

And that's it. After the sign- off chimes, nobody speaks.

We're stunned by this news. The Ruler— who hasn't been seen in stunned by this news. The Ruler— who hasn't been seen in public in decades— almost never makes a TV appearance. He usual y leaves Palatial and other administrative announcements to the four Ministers under him (Science, Education, Food, Law) or the fi fteen Directors (Horse Engineering, City Infrastructure, Heper Studies, and so on) under them.

And the fact that he is making a Declaration is missed by no one. Everyone starts speculating about the Declaration.

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