The hunt, p.1

The Hunt, page 1

 part  #1 of  The Hunt Series


The Hunt
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The Hunt

  First published in the USA in 2012 by St Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.

  First published in Great Britain in 2012 by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd,


  Copyright © 2012 Andrew Fukuda

  This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.

  No reproduction without permission.

  All rights reserved.

  The right of Andrew Fukuda to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

  Simon & Schuster UK Ltd

  1st Floor, 222 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1X 8HB

  Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney

  Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

  TPB ISBN: 978-0-85707-541-3

  E-BOOK ISBN: 978-0-85707-543-7

  Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY.

  For Ching-Lee


  The Heper Lottery

  The Heper Institute

  Hunt Minus Four Nights

  Hunt Minus Three Nights

  Hunt Minus Two Nights

  Hunt Minus One Night

  The Heper Hunt


  The Prey

  THERE USED TO be more of us. I’m certain of this. Not enough to fill a sports stadium or even a movie theatre, 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 first 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 find companionship. The teacher announced nap time, and the little tyke was left standing alone on the floor clutching her teddy bear as her classmates leaped feet first towards the ceiling. At that point, it was over for her. Over. She might as well 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 tell me, bawl her eyes out. The teacher was the first 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 performance at a school meet, he forced all of us to 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 fine, 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 fine, 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 liberally 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 fill 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 fall asleep in class (boring classes and long bus rides were especially dangerous); don’t clear your throat; don’t ace your exams, even though they insult your intelligence; 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 nature. I’ve never been tempted to break any of them.

  Except one. When I first started taking the horse-drawn school bus, my father forbade me from looking back at him to wave goodbye. Because people never do that. That was a hard rule for me, initially. For the first few nights of school, as I stepped onto the bus, it took everything in me to freeze myself, to not look back and wave goodbye. It was like a reflex, 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 night after my father staggered into the house, his clothes dishevelled as if he’d been in a tussle, his neck punctured. He’d been 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 of 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 pillow 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 waterfalls of acid burning through his hair, his muscles, his bones, his kidney, lungs, heart.

  The next night, as the school bus pulled 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 find him staring out the unshuttered 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 eventually come, although I think deep down he believed it was he who would be the last one left, not me. He spent years drilling 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 process of washing, filing my nails, shaving my arms and legs (and recently, even a few chest hairs), rubbing ointment (to mask the odour), 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 stifle a laugh or pretend to flinch 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 favour long ago for their game-finding ability but are now consigned to pulling carriages and buses – can detect my unique odour. 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 horseback and carriages, grey shapes in a murky blackness.

  It is cloudy tonight and especially dark. “Dark” is this term my father used to describe the night-time, 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 smelling 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 grey-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 find a seat by one.

  I also hate getting called on in class. I’ve survived by blending in, deflecting 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 calls 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 grey-dark.

  “Well, 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. “Actually, 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 accidentally 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 nervous. Including the person in front of me, Ashley June. Her designation in this class is actually G6, but in my mind I’ve always called her Ashley June. From the first 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 magnificent, dazzling colour!), wistfully recalling their silky feel in my hands so many moons ago. She holds my gaze, surprise lighting in them when I don’t flick 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 pull in my own heart tugging towards 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 got 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 first.”

  Suddenly the situation has intensified. 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 personally.

  More eyes start to peer back at me.

  Out of nervousness, I begin to clear my throat. Then catch myself. Just in time. People never clear their throats. I breathe in, forcing myself to slow down time. I resist the urge to wipe my upper lip where I suspect small 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 usually approach the board uninvited. But then again, this is Ashley June, who pretty much gets away with whatever she wants. She gazes up at the equation, then writes with a quick flourish 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 find 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 loudspeakers. Instantly, everyone stops scratching and sits up. The voice is robotic, man-female, authoritative.

  “An important announcement,” it blares. “Tonight, 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 cancelled. Teachers, students, and all administrative staff will gather in the assembly hall 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 public in decades – almost never makes a TV appearance. He usually leaves Palatial and other administrative announcements to the four Ministers under him (Science, Education, Food, Law) or the fifteen 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. A nationwide Declaration is reserved for only the rarest of occasions. Over the past fifteen years, it’s happened only twice. Once to announce the Ruler’s marriage. And second, most famously, to announce the Heper Hunt.

  Although the last Heper Hunt occurred ten years ago, people still talk about it. The Palace surprised the public when it announced it had been secretly harbouring eight hepers. Eight living, blood-filled hepers. To lift morale during a time of economic depression, the Ruler decided to release the hepers into the wild. These hepers, kept under confinement for years, were fattened and slow, bewildered and frightened. Cast out into the wild like lambs to the slaughter, they never had a chance. They were given a twelve-hour head start. Then, a lucky group c
hosen by lottery were permitted to give chase after them. The Hunt was over in two hours. The event generated a surge in popularity for the Ruler.

  As I walk to the cafeteria for lunch, I hear the buzz of excitement. Many are hoping for an announcement of another Heper Hunt. There is talk of a lottery for citizens again. Others are sceptical – haven’t hepers become extinct? But even the doubters are drooling at the possibility, lines of saliva dripping down their chins and under their shirts. Nobody has tasted a heper, drunk its blood, feasted on its flesh, for years now. To think that the government might be harbouring some hepers, to think that every citizen might have a shot at winning the lottery for the Hunt . . . it sends the school into a tizzy.

  I remember the Hunt from ten years ago. How for months afterwards I didn’t dare fall asleep because of the nightmares that would invade my mind: hideous images of an imagined Hunt, wet and violent and full of blood. Horrific cries of fear and panic, the sound of flesh ripped and bones crushed puncturing the night stillness. I’d wake up screaming, inconsolable even as my father wrapped his arms protectively around me in a strong hug. He’d tell me everything was all right, that it was just a dream, that it wasn’t real; but what he didn’t know was that even as he spoke, I’d hear the lingering sounds of my sister’s and mother’s wretched screams echoing in my ears, spilling out of my nightmares and into the darkness of my all-too-real world.

  The cafeteria is packed and boisterous. Even the kitchen staff are discussing the Declaration as they scoop food – synthetic meats – onto plates. Lunchtime has always been a challenge for me because I don’t have any friends. I’m a loner, partly because it’s safer—less interaction, less chance of being found out. Mostly, though, it’s the prospect of being eaten alive by your so-called friend that kills any possibility of shared intimacy. Call me picky, but imminent death at the hands (or teeth) of a friend who would suckle blood out of you at the drop of a hat . . . that throws a monkey wrench into friendship building.

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