Blythe is one of ten young human women forced to enter The Running, a reality TV show in which they are hunted by Shifters. Rumors of what happens to the women are all Blythe has: some are eaten, and some become the monsters' unwilling mates. Can she fight her way out, or will she be caught and disappear forever?
Age Rating: 18+
To Whom It May Concern:
Congratulations! Your house has been chosen to participate in this year’s Running.
Please send the participant listed below to the arena in one week for preparation and the commencement of the Running.
There, in pristine typeface, was her name: Blythe Becker, smudged only by the tears that had fallen onto the page.
Blythe chewed on her fingernails, a nervous habit, as she passed the letter to her father. He read the text over again. Once, twice, thrice.
Her mother sat at the kitchen table, a raggedy but warm blanket around her shoulders. She watched her husband just as intently as Blythe did.
“Oh, Blythe…” he mourned, the letter clutched in his calloused fingers.
The sorrow in his voice sent Blythe’s vision blurry with tears, and she rushed into her father’s embrace, clinging tightly.
For all she knew, this could be the last time he could hold her without the strain of governmental supervision.
“I don’t want to go,” she wept, screwing her green eyes shut and letting the tears stream down her face.
“There must be something we can do,” her mother croaked. “Not our Blythe…”
“Anything we do will just postpone the inevitable at best,” her father said desolately. “If we hold her back, the Officials will come in and take her themselves.”
Every year, in each region of what had once been called the United States, ten young women were selected to enter an arena to face off against a horde of shifters—a breed of being that looked human but could shift into a ferocious animal form at will.
The arena itself stood in a location disclosed only to those transporting the Runners. “For the sake of security,” they insisted.
Each participant’s age sat within the range of eighteen to twenty-five.
Officials claimed this bracket would give the participants the best chance of making it out of the arena alive.
But the public always had their opinions, always tried to dig for the deeper meaning under it all.
Some claimed the Running served as a way to appease the monsters within the arena.
“Of course they’d all be young,” they’d say.
“Young and hot, you know what I mean? Those monsters want to breed, after all.”
Others, albeit fewer, came up with conspiracy theories left and right.
That it was the government’s excuse for selective mass murder.
That the families picked each year were considered dangerous by the upper class.
But Blythe was just the baker’s daughter.
What harm could I be?
She didn’t even know how to fight.
How am I supposed to survive a pack of shifters?
What a silly question. She wouldn’t. So few girls ever escaped.
Everyone knew: in the Running, you either disappeared—or you died.
Claude found it hard to make his feet move up the path to his small house.
He had been wandering aimlessly for the past several hours.
He had finally accepted that he must go home and face the disaster of his own making.
It was dark when he entered—well past curfew and lights out—so, when he flicked on the kitchen light and saw Karin sitting at the table, he jumped.
“Good God,” he choked, pressing a hand to his chest reflexively.
Karin had been crying in the gloom by the looks of it.
“Where’s Blythe?” he asked, irrationally afraid that she was already gone.
Karin swallowed, her movements slow. She smoothed her hands over the top of the kitchen table and licked her lips, then said, “In bed. Asleep, God willing.”
His hands crept together over his belly, his fingers interlacing and freeing themselves over and over. Finally, he stepped forward and took a chair opposite her.
“She’ll have a chance,” he said softly.
“A chance?” Karin choked. “A chance? Against those monsters?”
“Some girls make it out,” he protested.
“Do they? Have you ever known one?”
“What do you expect me to do, Karin?”
“I expect you to do something!” she replied. “We can’t just stand by and watch our daughter march off to her death!”
Claude stared at his wife, unable to summon any words. Closing his eyes, he rocked his head, the pain of this grotesque fate eating away at his ability to think.
“How can you just shake your head?” Karin demanded. “This is all your fault!”
His eyes shot up, meeting hers.
“You think I didn’t know?” she continued. “You think I’m blind, you old fool?”
His heart began to pound. “Karin…”
She stood up abruptly, turning her back to him and walking to the sink. “Don’t! Always so noble. Always so concerned for everyone. Well. Look where it’s gotten us!”
Claude stared at her back as she pressed her hands on either side of the sink, shoulders bunching, shoulder blades making sharp folds in the material of her blouse.
He thought back to the things he’d done.
An extra loaf to a family without enough tickets. An extra meat pie. Then a bit of creative accounting. A lie, here and there, about lost supplies.
A few secret messages from one rebel cell to another, passed on parchment paper used to wrap pastries.
All he’d ever wanted to do was help…and if he was honest, make things just a little bit harder for the government that crushed them all.
But he did nothing so terrible that he deserved this.
Nothing worth killing his daughter.
“I never meant for this to happen.”
“Of course not. You never considered that your petty acts of resistance…your minor rebellions…could mean the death of one of our own children!”
A sob bubbled from his throat.
It really is my fault.
Dear God, what have I done?
He managed, “At least—at least now, they’ll have to move us. A house with clean water, away from the Contamination—”
“Where we’ll be watched day and night!” Karin snapped.
“But think of the little ones, Karin. Think of Jonas, and his lungs—”
“You think it comforts me that Jonas will breathe cleaner air? At the cost of our daughter’s life?”
Karin grabbed a pot from where it was drying and slammed it on the counter. Claude flinched.
His legs acted for him: standing, hastening out of the door. He slammed it hard behind him, enraged—but mainly at himself.
The slamming door made the whole house shake.
Blythe winced and burrowed further into the bedclothes, pressing up against Jonas’ small body.
She shared the bed with him and her littlest sisters—for warmth and because they didn’t have the room for everyone to have a cot of their own.
Now they will, she thought, her mouth twisting with bitterness.
When you got chosen for The Running, your family was compensated. A larger house in a better area. More ration tickets, even.
Blythe listened to Jonas’ wheezing. He needed cleaner air.
But I don’t want to trade my life for it, she thought.
Because there was no way a simple baker’s daughter was going to survive.
Is it possible? Is her summoning a punishment for something Father had done?
Blythe thought about getting up. Seeking answers from whichever parent was still in the kitchen.
But a strong need not to know overwhelmed the impulse.
It doesn’t matter, she told herself. ~I’m dead either way.~
Better for everyone if I go quietly.
If I resist, they’ll come for all of us.
This way, at least the others will live better.
Tears built behind her eyelids and squeezed out, rolling down her cheeks. Her lips peeled back from her teeth in a grimace of agony.
I’m going to die, she thought. ~I’m going to die.~
All my dreams are over.
The extension to the bakery I was going to help Nattie and Thomas build?
It won’t ever happen now. They’ll have a new bakery, wherever they move to.
I’ll never marry.
Never have children of my own.
I’m going to walk into that arena. I’m going to face those…those things.
They’re going to tear me apart.
They had to pull her away from Momma when the time came.
Thomas, Nattie, and the rest of her siblings had come to the drop off point, all of them crying openly.
Father stood a few feet behind them, close to where the bus had stopped outside the community center to let them off. He touched no one.
Momma grabbed at Blythe’s hands as the guards—dressed head to foot in black, faces hidden behind visored helmets—pulled her by the shoulders.
“Please, no,” Momma sobbed, her fingers wiry and strong, entwining with Blythe’s. “Please, leave her. Take me.”
One of the helmets laughed.
He’s actually laughing at her, Blythe marveled.
The guards said nothing more, yanking Blythe free of her mother and pulling her away.
A short time later, in the stark locker room, she was wearing The Running-issued uniform:
Tight leggings and a short-sleeved shirt in camouflage. Athletic shoes, thin socks.
She tied her black hair up in a ponytail, pulling it off her face. It always managed to get in the way when she baked, tunneling her vision. She couldn’t let that happen now.
She met her own eyes in the mirror.
Well, I don’t look anything like a terrified rabbit. Oh, no! The picture of badass survivalism, that’s me.
God, I’m so fucked.
She dumped her old clothes in a bin marked “Rubbish” and made her way out to the waiting area where nine other girls paced.
It crossed her mind to introduce herself to them—see if she could make friends. If they worked together, they’d have a much better chance of surviving.
But then a woman with dyed hair, red as blood, wearing a black uniform similar to the guards, entered the room, followed by nine more people dressed as she was. She checked a tablet and stepped right up to Blythe.
“Blythe Becker,” she said. It was not a question.
Blythe’s teeth began to chatter, so she clenched her jaw, biting down on her panic.
She did as she was told, following the red-haired woman out of the room along a sterile corridor. The woman’s heels echoed on the polished floor as she went.
“I’m Lorna. I’m your guide. I’ll be going over the rules. Listen close, I’m not going to repeat myself. Questions at the end. Right?”
Lorna’s red hair fell into her face as she spoke. “Rule number one: every year, on the first day of spring, ten human females are to be placed in the Running arena and given weapons to defend themselves.”
Right. Blythe already knew that. Nobody could escape the countless televisions around town playing footage in real time as girl after girl ran, spearing and slashing their way through the arena.
Her gaze landed on a pile of weaponry in the distance: spears, axes, bows, arrows, rope. She’d have to make a run for it as soon as the clock’s bells rang—the proverbial gunshot to go. She had to make it there within the five minutes they gave her before the shifters were released.
“Rule number two: the women are not permitted to harm or help each other.”
That made a prickle of anger bloom in Blythe’s chest.
How is anyone expected to actually survive if nobody could help each other?
More specifically, how am I going to survive?
Her father, in her last week of freedom, had tried to teach her how to fight but had failed miserably. Blythe’s aim was shameful, her ability to throw a punch even worse. She didn’t even want to think about her reaction time.
“Rule number three: if a woman kills a shifter, she has a thirty-minute reprieve to find an exit. If she does not reach a door in thirty minutes, she is still in the Running.”
There was no way Blythe would be able to kill a shifter. They were actual animals, and their healing time was the most inhuman of all of their characteristics. The announcers on television always made a point of that. They’re monstrous—not like us.
And besides, does anyone know how to kill a shifter in the first place? Can they even be killed, or is that just false hope given to those culled for the Running?
The arena was called Lazarus, after all.
Blythe felt sick to her stomach, suddenly wishing they hadn’t fed her or the other contestants before throwing them into the arena.
In her head, she could hear a clock ticking down, closer and closer to noon.
She felt, in that moment, like a prisoner at the gallows, waiting to be hanged for a crime she didn’t know existed.
Her knees were weak, close to giving out, her eyes flooding once again with tears. She couldn’t do this. She was going to die.
And then, she heard it.
The clock struck noon, its resounding bell shaking the trees around her.
The Running had begun.