My eyes widened, globes of murky brown fear fixating back on the path I had come from, ears searching for a sign of movement aside from the faint chatter of wildlife, the chirp of a lonesome, passing bird. I panted, heart racing as I waited but all I could hear was my own ragged breathing consumed with dread and unease.
I didn’t have the luxury of time. I had to keep moving.
Desperately trying to muffle my whimpers of trepidation, I moved through the forest quick and low, bare feet flying over logs, skidding over gravel. The bottom edging of my dress, once white and meticulous, was now dirty and torn. The ground beneath me crunched and crackled. I kept going until the grass turned to grassy sand and then only sand. I ran from the cover of the forest, lungs burning for air, limbs begging for rest, but I could see it; the boat waiting to take me away. I had a few hundred yards left to cross but now I was exposed.
It was my undoing. I heard the shrill, loud cries announcing the discovery of my location, and I then the rush of bodies coming from behind. I screamed once, twice, and then I was taken down, pounced on from behind. All the breath left my body in a single cry of defeat. The smell of grapefruit and eucalyptus and alcohol told me I was being pinned down by a Ceremony Participant.
“Please!” I begged, shaking, trying to lift myself up, detach myself from the cinder-block-body bearing down on me.
More hands suddenly appeared on either of my arms and I was being hoisted to my feet as the body atop me disengaged.
I realized I was crying, silent tears streaming down my face. I raised my head and stared into the eyes of the man who would ultimately be responsible for what was about to happen.
“The Ceremony is a gift.” Ms. Delgado tittered on, walking around the classroom up and down the rows of desks. Her clunky, gray heels clacked against the tile. She wore a black skirt and a form-fitting white button-up with a high neck and black buttons; the uniform for teachers. She had thin lips and watery blue eyes hiding behind sharp-looking black glasses. She wore them with one of those glasses-strings that wound around her neck, little rhinestones in different colors that sparkled as she walked; the only sign of a personality. Her silver hair was tied on top of her head in a very tight, prim knot, no wisps askew.
The students she spoke to didn’t pay her much mind. They were all either on their cell phones or tapping their pencils in nonsensical beats. Two girls in the back row chattered on and on, their heads close together, voices low, subject vapid and decorative much like their appearances.
“If you are lucky enough to be called upon, it is your duty, your honorable pleasure, to see it through.”
I turned my head a little and looked at the desk once belonging to Shane Bennett. I made sure to keep my head mostly turned towards the front. We weren’t allowed to stare, to pity, to miss those who had been a part of The Ceremony. You’d be punished. I shuddered as I remembered Shane’s best friend, Miranda, being torn from class when she found out Shane was gone. She wailed in agony, and Ms. Delgado had immediately called security.
Miranda hadn’t been back yet.
Ms. Delgado cleared her throat and I snapped my eyes forward -- afraid I had been caught. “It is time, once again. Give your full attention to the television set and remember: The Ceremony is a gift.”
She shut the lights off and everyone’s attention went from lackadaisical to captivated. The tone in the room shifted. We all tried to play it off before the Ceremony, like it wasn’t a big deal, but I was sure that bile was rising in everyone’s throat. People shifted in their seats and I heard a couple people whispering under their breath, probably all begging to some otherworldly force to protect them. Please not me, please, I’ll be so good.
The television set bolted in the upmost right side of the classroom flickered on and showed a long, white desk holding four people; The Governors.
“Hello all!” The oldest, and most wrinkled began. He was a squat man with no hair and skin that sagged down past his bones. Despite his nearly shocking appearance he spoke with a lovable tone, as if he was addressing each of us individually, a grandfather presenting a bowl of caramel candy and a toothless grin.
“Thank you for joining us today!” As if we had a choice, as if we weren’t prisoners in our own homes, as if the threat of violence didn’t exist. I saw someone pass by in the halls, past the window on the door. A man in a helmet, carrying an AK-47. The patrols were happening, making sure people didn’t bolt. The cold shiver and tight terror that used to grip me didn’t rise up inside like usual. They had become as backdrop as the posters adorning the school halls advertising blood drives and school dances.
“Today is another monument to you, the people that help keep us alive.” A woman, younger and with a head of lustrous hair smiled a snake-grin, lips pulled too far back over her teeth. She was probably trying to be warm and encouraging, but instead came off slimy and villainous.
“Without further ado,” the third – tall, business-like with gel in his hair and an expensive suit on, “We present the one hundred and thirty-seventh Ceremony.”
The last Governor, another old man with nothing spectacular or noteworthy about him aside from a huge boil that sat against his left cheek, stood up and walked over to a huge wheel. The wheel held the name of every person in the town, each tiny sliver a different color. They were too small to read on-screen, but I knew everyone was squinting to recognize their name.
Every student held their breath as the man gave a sharp, aggressive turn of the wheel exceeding what would be expected of his physical stature.
It spun, each peg thwapping against the pointer.
A hundred years passed, or so it felt before it slowed to a stop.
“Congratulations to this year’s Entrant: Charlotte Turner.”
It was my name.
A bucket of ice washed down my back while my forehead broke out in a hot-flash fever.
Gasps sounded off across the room. Heads turned towards me before whipping back, guilt and fear leeching through the room like a thick smoke.
I realized I wasn’t breathing and let out a whoosh of air.
The walk home was quiet. I was marked now. An undesirable. No one would dare interact with me. Each step felt like I was marching towards death, like the ground would split open and I would fall down, slicing myself along jagged rocks until I fell into a dark, consuming heat.
I could hear the student’s around me stage-whispering like they were in a bad school play.
“I heard they kill you.”
“I heard they have sex with you then they kill you.”
“No one gets killed, I saw that pudgy girl from a couple Ceremonies back at the grocery store last month!”
“No, you did not! They most definitely kill you.”
“I heard they zap your youth!”
“Stop watching Goosebumps!”
Home was busy. There were cars parked along my street, a multi-colored metal trail leading to my front door.
Ah. The party. There was always a party.
The house was slap-in-the-face loud. My parents hadn’t even waited for me to come home from school. No one talked to me, just yelled at each other over music, mouths flapping wildly around handfuls of chips dripping with guacamole and sips of mojitos in plastic mason jars in hues of paradise-colored greens and pinks.
There was a dress on my bed and the assumption that I would be wearing it. It was all white with little stitched flowers in blues and purples and reds. If it weren’t the uniform of the Entrant, I would’ve loved it.
With my door shut, I finally let the dam of feelings break. I breathed in shallow, guttural gasps, openly sobbing and vibrating with fear.
I fell to my knees and gripped the edge of my bed, trying to calm myself. If I didn’t, I’d be taken away immediately.
I told myself I was allotted two minutes of tears before I would change, plait my hair, and descend down into my hellishly happy goodbye party.
There was a knock at my door, and I barely made out my mother’s voice speaking from the other side.
“Lottie?” She kept knocking as she opened my door. “Lottie? What are you doing?”
I’d already wiped my face dry and turned, a smile on my face. “Dropped my phone is all! The dress is beautiful mom!” I said, hoping that by some unearthly chance she could suddenly read my mind:
Save me! You’re my mother! I’m your child! Help me, please!
My mental cries went unnoticed and my mother helped me change, moving my arms and legs like I was a doll, turning me towards my vanity and braiding my hair for me. She talked the whole time, murmuring congratulations and encouragement, tears of gratitude in her eyes, a smug smile tugging on her lips; she’d be bragging about this, her own daughter! for weeks. Months. The parents always did that. They were always so proud, so blessed. It was abhorrent. As if a wheel of chance gave you elite status. She was most certainly the cat that had eaten the canary, imaginary feathers coming out of her mouth between slithering compliments.
Debilitating grief sat caught in my throat, but a waxy smile graced my face. My mother nodded in approval and I was ushered out of my room.
I had snuck a mojito. I was sitting on the roof, the cool wind making me shake, the chilly drink giving me goosebumps. I thought about falling from this height, and pondered if I would die, or if I would just break a leg. My thoughts were interrupted suddenly by movement below. It wasn’t someone coming from inside the house where the party was still in full swing. No momentum lost, only fueled by more booze and pot and little bags of cocaine.
No, this movement was coming from my backyard, coming towards me.
Something about it made me sit incredibly still and I could tell, in the moment, that this movement was incredibly important.
“Hey!” A voice whispered.
I strained to make out a shape, and I realized I was looking down into a pair of bright eyes.
“Heeey!” The voice whispered louder, more incessant.
I shimmied down from the roof and landed with a quiet thump on the ground.
It was a girl. Taller than me, dirt smeared across her face. She was dressed in all black and I could see a knife strapped to her leg, a gun strapped around her body.
“Come on, Turner.” She said with a nod, walking back the path she had come.
I stared at her retreating figure, unsure of what to do. I glanced back at my house, the yellow light and shadowed figures inside and thought of the morning to come.
I quickly followed the girl through my backyard, then another, then another till we neared the forest that surrounded our town.
Once we broke through the first layer of trees, we joined two other girls, both dressed similarly, both covered in dirt. I stared at them, perplexed.
The one who had retrieved me, with long black hair and bright green eyes, spoke first. “We’re getting you out.”
She didn’t whisper now.
“What?” I chirped, willing my voice not to wobble, but there was no certainty in my tone. Only fear.
“Out. We’re going to get you out of here.” Another girl, short auburn hair and brown eyes, repeated as if I was a small child.
I knew her voice.
“Miranda?” I hissed.
“Charlotte, listen to me.” Black-haired girl said, now entirely serious. She reached out and grabbed my shoulders, moving almost entirely too close. “We’ve been taking people, the one’s Chosen, and we’ve been getting them out of here. We’ve been doing it for years. You’re not going up to that place. You won’t be completing the Ceremony. Do you understand me?”
I stared into her eyes, long and hard, and then it struck me. “You’re in my class.”
The girls. In the back. The ones I always waved off as airheads, useless and inconsequential. The one with long dark hair was Abigail. The other, the one who hadn’t spoken, with blonde hair and gray-green eyes was Samantha.
Abigail smirked and it made me shiver, “Welcome to Cathedral.”
I struggled to keep up with them as they led the charge, sliding through the woods with competent ease. We walked for an hour, maybe two, before we arrived at a makeshift camp.
Samantha went to work starting a fire while Abigail explained.
“There’s a boat waiting to take you. There’s a map, a compass, and a few days’ worth of food. It’s that simple.”
“But…how have you been getting away with this?” I asked while Samantha set to roasting some meat over the flame.
“We don’t exactly advertise it.” Miranda said.
I turned my attention to her. “Where did they take you?” I asked her. “When the guards took you from class, what happened to you?”
It was too personal. She grew quiet and I could tell her walls were up; I wouldn’t get anything out of her.
I turned back to Abigail. “How many have you gotten out?”
She shrugged. “About forty-five, give or take in the last three years.”
“How did this start?” I asked, excitement bubbling inside. It was starting to hit me that I wouldn’t be roused from bed in the morning – or I suppose, a handful of hours from now. I wouldn’t be walked out at gunpoint to get into the big white van that took you off to perform The Ceremony.
Abigail sighed. “Charlotte, listen. I want to tell you…everything. I want you to know all of it. But I can’t. Not now. The most important thing is to get you out of here. If you make it to the island, you’ll get answers. I promise.”
We ate chunky stew and hunks of bread and it almost tasted good. Abigail led me into a single-person tent and told me they would keep watch through the night in shifts, that I would be safe, and I needed to get a little sleep before they sent me off.
“It’s too dark right now. Just sleep, Charlotte. I promise we will get you out of here.” She touched my arm and it felt strangely intimate. I nodded and she retreated. I zipped the flap shut and somehow managed to slip into a dreamless, tv-static void.
The sleep didn’t do much good and I was groggy and irritable when Abigail shook me awake.
“Here.” She shoved a canteen in my hands, and I took a swig. I was shocked that it was whiskey and I coughed at the burning sensation enveloping my throat.
Abigail laughed a little and I fixed her with a defying look, taking another long gulp.
She nodded once in approval and took the canteen back. I followed her out of the tent. It was almost light, a blue-gray-green. I could see, but only just.
“We’re going to be watching you. We’ll be in the trees, alright?”
The whiskey became a viscous rock in my stomach, my vision doubled for a moment. I bent down and put my hands on my knees, trying to steady myself.
Abigail put a hand on my back and waited.
I ran. I tried my hardest to remain silent. I saw one of the girls in a tree, but only for a second. I thought I heard footsteps. I didn’t know if it was them, or Them.
Reaching the beach had been easy, but it had been easier to take me down.
Once hoisted to my feet, I stared into my father’s eyes, and he looked back into mine as if I were a stranger. I could tell he was intoxicated and had been given The Ceremony Drugs. Everyone was hazy and high, but they had been faster.
Seemingly satisfied with my capture, the bulk of the crowd wandered off, headed back in the direction of town.
A rush of air flew past my ear.
For a second, nothing was different and then in the next moment, I realized there was something hot dripping down my shoulder. I looked up and to my right and saw an arrow had been shot through one of my captor’s eyes.
The injured man crumpled to the ground. The other one gasped and his grip loosened.
This was my last chance.
In half a second, everything went from still to chaotic. I turned and sprinted from the man who was loosely holding me, and there was screaming, screeching, and a flurry of movement.
I didn’t look back. I stumbled over the sand and reached the edge of the boat, my hands colliding with the wood and I pushed until I was knee-deep in water. I heard splashing behind me and with one last burst of adrenaline I jumped into the boat with no measure of grace.
I sprang into action, grabbing ahold of a paddle and stabbing it into the water, haphazardly moving the vessel through the water further and further away.
I stole a glance backwards. The Participants were sluggish with drugs and couldn’t keep up with me.
I don’t know who saved me, but I could’ve sworn I saw a flash of black hair from a tree.