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I watch as the secretary gets up from her desk and walks to the small refrigerator for her early-morning blood smoothie. She’s a tiny, mousy woman, really only in charge of keeping track of the quickly changing list of students and their rankings and also making sure that the new clones come in for the ten -year-olds on time. As soon as I see that her back is turned from my hiding place, I slide out the door down the ominous white hallway—a hallway that I have only been down once, and back then I could barely even walk yet. I do not stop to think that I may be the very first to escape.
My name is Alexa Foxglove, and I am escaping the Jefferson City School of Improvement.
It’s locally known as Jefferson City School of Zombiism.
No, I’m not joking—the school really teaches us how to fight, hunt, kill, and mostly eat zombies, zombies that used to be our classmates. It’s not a very complicated story: years ago, we ran out of food, so now we have to eat each other. That’s just the way it goes.
Well, I guess we technically don’t eat other people, usually—when the Hunt is far away, we eat clones of ourselves made by the Lab. We each get four clones of ourselves to eat during our lifetime—one at birth, another when we’re ten years old, another when we’re forty, and a last one when we’re fifty. The first thing that scientists found out when we started cannibalism is that human flesh is very filling—so filling that it takes just under ten years to eat one. Nevertheless, we’re all pretty thin unless you’re a really good Hunter.
The thing is that cannibalism of clones wasn’t enough—we had to resort to zombies, too. They say in history class that right after the food apocalypse, stupid people tried to simply eat dead bodies, which made them very sick. A couple years after that, the serum was invented—a serum that would take a living organism and kill it, but instantly reanimate its soulless body into a zombie. The zombies, they quickly found out, didn’t make people sick. So now whenever someone reaches their Expiration at age sixty, they get the serum and that’s that.
But even reanimating the bodies of Expired isn’t enough—we also have to do the Hunt. Expired, criminals, the sick, and the randomly selected are all given the serum throughout the year, and at the end of the year is the Hunt, where all the zombies are released to the town for the people to hunt. Whoever kills the zombie gets the zombie. It’s as simple as that. But there’s a slight risk in the Hunt as well—the zombies can kill the normal people just as easily. The Watchers make sure that the zombies don’t eat anyone (that would be a waste of meat), but if someone dies, they get the serum and join the zombies.
We even do the Hunt at school, but it’s even worse here. Basically, anyone who misbehaves in the slightest is made into a zombie for the Hunt at the end of the year. But since that scared all the kids into being good, they also had to add the Scale. It’s as simple as this: the ones that the teachers like the most are at the top, the ones they like the least are at the bottom. The way that the teachers judge if they like a student or not can be based on anything—personality, achievements in class, even physical appearance. At the end of the year, the bottoms are killed and zombified for the lucky student who hunts them to eat.
We just had our annual Hunt—that’s one of the reasons why I’m escaping, because I hope that maybe the adults will be too full to ring me in if they catch me. I’ve never been one of the favorites of my teachers, Desirables as they are called. I’ve never even really excelled in my classes—I’m not good at cloning or reanimating in science class, I forget everything in history, and I’m nowhere near the top in hunting class. So at the annual hunt, I sort of slunk to the back and hid from the zombies as usual. But as I was hiding in my usual spot in the camouflaged branches of a smaller fake tree, I saw Melina. Melina was really my only friend in Jefferson City School, but she was on the bottom of the Scale—an Undesirable, as they call them. She didn’t misbehave or anything, she was just sort of ugly to the teachers and didn’t really do so well in school. So of course, right before the Hunt she got the Serum and was reanimated, but when I saw her as a zombie from my place in the fake tree, it really made me start to rethink things.
So you can tell what sort of a risk I’m taking, trying to escape. If I get caught, there’s no doubt that I’ll get an instant public execution by Serum. Also, every child from newborn up to age twenty is in a boarding school like mine right now—once I get out I’ll be turned in even if an adult catches me. My best hope is the wild. I’ve heard rumors about the wild, but I have no idea where it would be. I know I live in Jefferson City, but I wouldn’t be able to even locate it on a world map if such a thing existed. All I know is that I need to get out.
As I near the end of the long, dull grey hallway, I begin to feel a little more confident. The exit should be coming up soon—maybe this could work. Class is in session at the moment, so the only person I really have to worry about is the secretary, who’s busy, and…and…
I push the thoughts out of my head as I round the final corner with a tired sigh. I know I shouldn’t stop, but I do. I stop and stare at the door, feeling as if I really didn’t make it here, as if this is all a dream. The door isn’t anything special to look at—just a door. But on the other side of the door lies the outside. I haven’t been outside since I was a baby.
Slowly, I reach out and turn the door handle, crossing my fingers that it doesn’t squeak loudly. It doesn’t make a sound as I push it open, and the outside air doesn’t feel any different either. The temperatures are both the same—neither hot, neither cold. I’ve wasted too much time already, so I hop out the door and shut it firmly. I scan the outdoors with a little disappointment---it looks basically the same as indoors. The sky is gray, just like in every single photograph I’ve seen. The sky’s always gray, and it’s never sunny. It never rains, either. It’s just always gray.
Outside is still different, though. For one, there are the many fake trees. There are fake trees in our indoor stadium for the Hunt, but not as many as out here. Real trees died out years ago, of course. There’s also the fake grass, and the office buildings across the road. Other than that, though, it looks just like the hunting stadium.
I don’t take too long to scan the scene but instead go for a full on sprint across the road. I don’t look back until I’m on the other side and half behind a fake tree, but what I see when I look back at the giant, large building of Jefferson City School makes my blood pound in my skull.
I’ve never seen any windows in the school before, but it appears that she has one of her own. In a large window on the side of the horrible building, I see her.
I see the Headmistress.
She is the scariest beast that I have ever seen. For one, she is absolutely massive—very tall and very wide. She is also the fattest person I have ever seen. Her legs are like tree trunks and her torso is completely covered by rolls of fat. The Headmistress has no neck, but a giant pouch of a chin. Her fat doesn’t add to a sense of ridicule, but instead it just makes her scarier, as if her very skin could swallow us whole. That isn’t even the scariest part, though. The scariest part about her is her face. It is common amongst serious Hunters to take parts from a zombie that they have killed that can fortify their bodies. Her teeth are extremely sharp and jagged, as if a single prick on a finger would draw stingy, infected blood. There are stitch marks around her different-colored nose where it was sewn on in place of her old one to enhance her sense of smell. Her sewn on ears are hidden by her brown, thin mass of hair that looks like it was glued to the top of her head. I guess it was—there have been rumors of spikes on the top of her head hidden by her hair.
But the scariest thing about the Headmistress is her eyes—her eyes are like that of a zombie, black and hating, like just staring at her long enough will consume you. This time, those black eyes are glued on me, and they’re laughing. They’re laughing like they have waited for a chase like this for a long time.
I am already sweating as I turn around and tear into the mass of office buildings, squeezing between their cold, stone walls and turning as many corners as I can just in case she’s following me. When I’m so tired that my legs are numb, I keep running. Soon I get to the housing part of town, and I walk down streets of houses all the same size, shape, and color—medium sized with a dull, lifeless gray. I finally stop running when I am about to collapse and stop for a second, just listening for the Headmistress or any signs of people. It’s the middle of the morning right now so most people should be at work, but there are always the housewives I have to worry about. The world is so quiet—I don’t hear anything except for my breath. I’m alone.
The thought finally hits me: I just escaped Jefferson City School. In fact, I’m probably the first non-Desirable kid to ever stand in the streets. The teachers take the Desirables on weekly runs, you see. Even though Desirables are well liked by the teachers, they still have to be chained together and monitored by a teacher…
My heart stops as I begin to hear the sound of feet running towards me far at the other end of the street, along with a large thomp that makes the ground shake. I begin to search for a place to hide as I realize that the weekly run for the Desirables is today. Right now, in fact. And based on the thomp…
The Headmistress is with them.
The Headmistress usually doesn’t accompany the Desirables on their runs, usually a teacher does. That means that she’s coming. She’s coming for me.
I desperately search for my hiding options—I’m too tired to run, and they’d catch me anyways. There’s a fake tree on a lawn to my right, but the branches are too exposed. My only option is a house. I run to the closest one and press my ear up to the door, but the only sounds I hear are the running footsteps, coming closer and closer. I throw open the unlocked door and close it quietly, then run up two flights of dull, gray stairs to the attic. There’s a tiny window looking out the front of the attic and another looking out the back at a fake tree, but otherwise the space is empty. I freeze when I hear the footsteps come running past the house. Keep going, I silently pray. Please don’t stop.
But immediately the footsteps freeze.
So does my breath.
I hear nothing but the panting of the Desirables outside for a moment, but then suddenly I hear her voice—her horrible, deep, scratchy voice.
“Don’t move,” she tells the Desirables. I hear the thomps of her footsteps coming towards me.
She knows. Somehow she knows I’m here.
I’m about to die.
My only option is the fake tree outside the far window. Stepping as lightly as I can, I run over to the window and throw it open as silently as possible. As I hear the front door being thrown open, I’m out the window and climbing out the tree.
I think that I can maybe just sneak into the next house without the Desirables seeing me, but it looks like they have made their way to the side of the house and they all gasp as I drop out of the tree. I freeze and stare at the group of them, realizing that there are only about ten people.
“A—Alexa?” one of them asks. Tanner Cambridge steps forward from the crowd and I gulp. Tanner Cambridge is possibly the biggest Desirable of them all—a top Hunter, best in all his classes, very handsome, very likable by the teachers, and so influential that every kid in school hangs on his every word. As soon as I see him, one thought enters my mind.
But surprisingly, Tanner doesn’t look like he’s about to either rip me apart or call the Headmistress. In fact, he looks a little respectful, and most surprisingly a little concerned. I freeze when I hear a thomp and sounds of wood and glass crashing from inside the house, and Tanner flinches along with me.
“You escaped?” he whispers so quietly that I can barely hear him. I slowly nod, looking at all the other Desirables. None of them seem like they’re about to call the Headmistress, either.
“Don’t run on the street,” Tanner instructs in a whisper. “She’ll see you if you do that. Go between the houses and try to lose our trail. And hurry.”
“Are you going to turn me in?” I ask, my voice cracking a little.
Tanner looks back at his fellow Desirables, who all shake their heads. “No.”
I gulp, not sure I should trust him. “You have to promise,” I blurt out. I know it’s stupid, but something tells me that he’ll be honest.
Tanner holds up his first two fingers and crosses them over his chest. “I promise,” he swears.
With that, I run across the back yard and between the houses directly behind it to the next block over. I dash between the houses until I cannot run any more. I stop every now and then to see if I hear any footsteps behind me, but they’re all gone. I run long into the night, blending into the shadows so that no one sees me. Soon I feel like a shadow, slipping between the houses with the black of the night. But along with the night, I begin to feel very tired. My eyelids droop as my run turns into an undetermined stumble, and soon I begin to feel very dizzy and thirsty. I decide to get just a little nap between two gray houses, well out of view of any windows. I’ll wake up at first dawn long before the adults. I lay my head up against the siding of one house and stare up at the stars. I haven’t seen real stars before except in textbooks, but they’re so beautiful. I realize that with everything we’ve messed up on this planet, the stars remain untouched. Even if they try their hardest, they cannot rearrange the stars. They can’t extinguish their lights.
Looking up at the stars, I fall asleep.
“Hello there, delicious.”
I open my eyes to the beaming face of the Headmistress.
I don’t scream as she drags me by the wrist down the streets, various teachers flanking me at my sides. I don’t cry as the street bloodies my knees, scraping my legs and sides. The teachers stare down at me victoriously, but their looks bounce off me. For a second, I wonder if Tanner and the other Desirables betrayed me to the Headmistress, but I decide not to waste my last few thoughts on my betrayers. I think about the stars, but it’s daytime now and I cannot see them. But I know. I know that my legacy will live on in the stars, the stars that will always remain above us, even when they try to hide them.
They drag me all the way back to Jefferson City School, my legs screaming with pain with all the gravel and rocks mixed in with my flesh and blood. As soon as we’re passed the secretary’s office and into the student section, the whole school begins to crowd around the girl who escaped. Some Desirables, not the ones I saw on the street, start laughing and shouting at me, but most of the school is quiet, most looking indifferent, although some have looks of respect or even compassion for me. I am dragged like a wheelbarrow to the Execution Room, where the whole school is assembled for my death. I am strapped down to the chopping block, although they never use the block for chopping. The execution is much worse.
Before I am executed, the Headmistress stands up in front of the school. “This is Alexa Foxglove, and this is what happens to those who escape,” she announces. The science teacher comes up with a needle impregnated with the Serum and I look out at the crowd of students.
At the front is Tanner along with all the other Desirables on the run with him. He gulps and looks like he is about to tear up. I’m the only one who notices as he crosses his first two fingers over his chest.
That’s the last thing I see before the needle pierces my neck.