The Runners

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Photo by Saketh Garuda on Unsplash

The familiar ring of sirens blast throughout the city. I run searching for shelter, even though I know I’ll find none.

People everywhere freeze for the inevitable. Standing like statues down aisles of grocery stores, on sidewalks, at crosswalks, on the bridges and in the parks, sitting at tables in coffee shops. Everywhere. Frozen. The only giveaway is the gentle breeze that pushes someones hair, or makes a skirt dance. There’s an eerie desperation on each face, hoping they won’t be chosen. Hoping the loved one they’re standing next to will remain with them.

The monthly Taking has never become a comfortable habit.  And as I run past more human statues than I care to consider, I see eyes follow me with pity.

Every once in a while someone loses their mind from this horror. We call them Runners. I suppose I look like one. But I’m not. I just want to live.

Growls and other guttural noises come from somewhere behind me.

The Taking’s begun.

I push my feet harder against the pavement. Willing my legs to go faster. If I can make it past the Story Bridge I have a chance. It’s rare for them to check every hole in the wall shop or office that far West.

I don’t dare look back. Tears sting my eyes and a weak hope uncurls in my chest. Don’t let me lose anyone this time. Let everyone I love be safe from this Taking. Please.

The growls grow louder. If they’ve spotted me they’ll make a point to chase me, no matter where I run. I chance a look behind me. The long stretch of city road is still quiet. I’m not gonna make it past the bridge. Time to hide.

I run past more human statues standing silent as stone outside a towering office building, their faces fill with a recognisable sadness. Each begging me with their eyes to be still, each pitying the mental break they suspect me of. There’s no time to tell them I haven’t broken, no time to tell them I’m not a Runner.

The building is cooler than the warm summer day outside. I don’t know this building well, but I hope it has what I need. Most Runners would take the stairs, thinking they wouldn’t be pursued up the many flights. I’m not so foolish.

I’m not a Runner.

I swerve past the bank of elevators, past the reception desk and down a long corridor. If I’ve made an error they’ll find me for sure. Please let me be right. I turn another corner, passing more statue-like humans. Another bank of elevators and then I see the warm glow of daylight ahead.

I guessed right!

A wall of glass doors is there to envelope me. I run through them, catching flashes of others standing stock still. I race past them into the small courtyard of the immense building. The fake grass feels extra spongy as I run across and back into the building.

Now sure of my way, I keep running until I reach the large entrance on the other side of the building. The vaulted ceilings and glass windows and doors make it look like a frozen waterfall. There’s no time to marvel at it. I need to keep going.

Breaking back into the humid summer day, I take all of two seconds to figure out where I am and then keep running right. There’s a set of stairs up to the left, I direct my path toward it and take the stairs two at a time. A wide courtyard nestled among tall buildings greets my eyes. At the far end is a toilet block. I make my way to it.

The noise behind me is distant here, more muted. I might actually have a chance.

The cinder-block building is damp and cool as I run into it. I find the handicap toilet and race inside. Just as I’m closing the door, something rams at the other side. I’ve been discovered! How? There had been no one behind me!

“Please, let me in.” It’s a man’s voice.

I don’t even hesitate. I wrench the door open and the man pushes his way past me, only to turn back and help me shut the door, the hydraulic door-closer working against our efforts.

“There wasn’t a locked sign on the other side, right?”

“No.” I say.

“Good.”

The door finally closes and both our hands fly to the lock. Almost turning it together.

Other than our heavy breathing the room is filled with a muted silence. My feet keep moving backward, further into the white tiled space. There’s only a small slice of slated window at the top of the room, it’s more for air flow than anything else. We keep the lights off, knowing it’ll only attract Them.

There’s a large platform just under the farthest wall. I run to it and climb up. I want to see what’s going on outside. I have to stand on my toes to see out the dusty-blue slats. There’s more human statues than I’d realised in the courtyard.

The guttural noises are growing louder and I see one man, mid twenties by my guess, take a hesitant step. His wide eyes are panicked.

I shake my head, hoping it’ll help somehow. But as the far stairs, the ones I’d climbed only moments ago, are filled with decaying bodies and beastly faces, I know he’s going to run.

Seconds later, the young man screams. The pitch of it tells me he’s younger. Probably around sixteen. Something tells me he’s younger, but I don’t want to put a number to it. Not when I know what’s about to happen to the youth.

I can’t watch any more.

My legs give out and I sink to the floor.

The man is standing by the door still, catching his breath.

I’d forgotten him.

Our eyes meet and I try to smile, but it barely touches my eyes, let alone my lips. Tears are pushing against the corners of my eyes and the emotion building in me threatens to make my chin quiver.

He answers with a resigned smile and walks toward me. “May I?”

I nod.

He sits with a small grunt and I take the time to appraise this man I may die with. Even sitting, I can tell he’s tall. I could lean my head against his shoulder without having to scrunch down. His dark auburn hair flatters the blue of his eyes and the stubble on his sharp jaw. His long, thick arm curls around me and he pulls me closer.

It’s so cliché, but it makes me feel safe. The tears I’ve been managing to hold back flood my cheeks. I cover my mouth to keep silent.

“It’s gonna be ok.”

I want to believe him, but there’s no way either of us could know.

The guttural noises from outside grow louder. I hear the young man outside screaming still. I can tell when They’ve caught him because his screams turn into shrieks. It only excites Them more. The sirens and guttural noises do nothing to hide the youth’s plight.

I push closer against my stranger and feel his arms tighten around me. Closing my eyes against his shoulder I wait for the sirens to end. Wait for the youth’s shrieks to silence. Waiting and hoping we’ll be safe.

But safety will only last a month …

When the sirens finally do fade, the man takes my spot on the platform. He doesn’t have to stand on his toes to see out. His jaw clenches and unclenches several times, while his brow furrows. It must be bad out there. He looks down at me, “They’re gone.”

My whole body relaxes and my hands fall from my ears. I hadn’t even realised I was holding them there. I stand and the activity makes my muscles seize. It’s been longer than usual. Probably four or five hours. I glance at my watch. It’s been seven hours.

At the realisation my stomach growls.

“It’s bad.” the man says.

There’s only been two other times in the last ten years where it’s been this long. In each of those cases there had been more Runners than usual. My stomach drops, I’m not part of the cause, am I?

… But I’m not a Runner. Neither is this man. We still have our minds.

“You saw one didn’t you?”

“A Runner?” I say.

He nods.

My voice cracks, “Yeah.”

“Must have been at least three Runners just out here.”

I gulp.

He jumps down, his jaw working again. “It’s not right.”

His words aren’t untrue, but they don’t help. What can? The emotion building in me is stronger again. I bite the inside of my cheek to stop the tears, “Thank you.”

The man looks down at me and another resigned smile graces his face, “Should be safe now.”

Safe. Does the definition of the word even exist anymore?

He unlocks the door and the hydraulic’s emit a low hissing sound as he pushes it open. “Live well,” he says and then he’s gone.

And I try to do as he’s said. For three and a half weeks I try to live well. I’m patient with my friends who talk more than they listen. I honour my parents, even when they push my buttons. I eat well and exercise at least three times a week. I read as much wisdom as I can fill my mind with and I think only about the good life has to bring.

Then the sirens come and again I find myself running through the city, back to the toilet block on the overhead courtyard and again just as I’m pushing the door closed I hear the man, “Wait. Please, wait for me.”

I pull the door open so he can run in and together we push against the hydraulics to close and bolt the door. I don’t bother with looking out the slated windows this time. Instead I find my seat and the man comes to sit next to me. He doesn’t ask this time, just sinks to the floor and wraps his arm around me. I lean against his side, placing my hands over my ears and shutting my eyes against the horror of what’s happening outside.

Month after month it’s the same. Soon it’s a familiar routine. I know how to find the toilet block where ever I am in the city. I know every alley or building that will get me there quickest. No shortcut escapes my notice.

And each month he’s there too. We never meet outside the Taking, but as each Taking comes and goes, we comfort each other over the growing loses of those around us. He holds me tightest when I lose my parents to the same Taking. And I kiss his hair when he loses his sister, the last of his family. As time passes we become the most important part of each other’s lives.

Another Taking comes, more sirens, more human statues. More Runners. They seem to increase every month, but still I know I’m not a Runner. Neither is he. I run to the toilet block, he’s already there waiting for me. Together we push the door closed, lock it and huddle together in our usual spot, waiting for the sirens and noises to stop.

“It’s been five years,” he says, once the sirens cease and a deathly quiet replaces it. “It shouldn’t be like this.”

“I know …”

“It’s not right.” He says this every time.

“I’ve … there’s rumours …  of … people leaving …”

“The city?” his brow furrows.

I nod.

“That’s insane.” he says shaking his head and standing, “Suicide.”

“But what if it’s not? What if there’s a place out there that’s free of Them? Free of the law of the Taking.”

“The law’s the only thing keeping us safe.”

I scoff at his choice of words and rise, “Safe? This is safe?” I motion to our surroundings. “I don’t think that word has any meaning left. At least out there we wouldn’t have to dread the end of every month–”

“No, we’d dread every day.”

I shrug, “Maybe … but there would be nothing set in stone. No law forcing us to do what’s unnatural.”

I can see his mind at work. He hears the truth in what I say. Sighing, he nods and looks at me, “OK … where would we go?”

My mind is already picturing the place in the country I visited as a child, before They came. If it still stands we could make it a refuge against any enemy. “There’s a place I know.”

“If we do this it’ll have to be during a Taking.”

I gulp. I know he’s right, but the risk terrifies me.

“Are you ready for that?”

“… Yeah.”

He sinks to his haunches under the realisation of what we’re going to do.

I understand it. The weight of what we’re about to risk feels like the heaviest burden I’ve ever carried.

“It can only be us.” he says.

“I know,” I say. It’s no real lose. There’s no one left for either of us really. Only each other.

He nods, “Ok … let’s do this.”

As the city slowly comes back to life, we hash out the logistics of what we’ll need. What to bring and where we’ll meet. We say goodbye to our toilet block and hope it’ll rescue others once we’re gone. We engrave one of the tiles with our initials, the delicate letters a small rebellion against the Taking.

Standing in the door, he kisses the top of my head and whispers against my hair, “Live well.”

I nod, “You too.”

The next three and a half weeks are like a slow torture. I gather things as I can, filling my old spruce-blue rucksack with necessities only. As the days move closer to the next Taking, I worry at how heavy the bag is and repack it, taking out anything I can. The only non-essentials are a small rough-leather journal and a rose gold fountain pen. The rest is as much long-storage food as I can carry, a change of clothes, a warm coat, four water bottles and a water purifier that used to belong to my brother.

On the last couple days I don’t venture far from home. Each time I do, I plot the fastest course to my flat.

When the sirens come, I don’t hesitate I push my legs as fast as they’ll go. I reach my building and climb the stairs three at a time. The years of running have toned my body into a near perfection. I reach my door, which I’ve left unlocked, and grab the rucksack, push my arms through the straps, and turn back down the stairs in one swift movement. I don’t bother closing the door behind me. I hope my flat will be a good home to someone else now.

My feet pound the pavement, leading me further west, toward the cement stairs and half broken fence where we’ve planned on meeting. It’s one of a few forgotten areas surrounding the city and enclosing it like a giant prison. I pass more human statues than I care to count, trying to ignore those with small children. I can’t save them. I don’t even know if I can save myself.

I’m a block away from the fence when I spot him.

He sees me too and manoeuvres his running so we’re side by side, “Ready?”

“Yeah.” I say.

When we reach the top of the cement stairs, the fence is not abandoned like we’d thought. Frozen people stand all around, but what’s worse is They are here too. Decaying flesh and beastly faces choosing people for the Taking.

They haven’t seen us yet, but doubt plagues me. Can we make it the meter and a half to the hole in the fence? And even if we can manage that, where will we hide. The chain link fence won’t be any help.

I feel him take my hand and squeeze it. There seems to be so much behind his touch I suddenly worry at what he’s thinking. The look on his face does nothing to soothe the sudden horror building inside me.

A resigned smile fills his face and tears fall unchecked down the stubble of his cheek. “Live well.” he says and before I can stop him, his own pack falls to his feet and he runs toward Them.

As he runs I see people’s faces fill with pity. They think he’s a Runner. I can’t let his sacrifice be for nothing. I swallow the emotion threatening to tear me apart and I run through the hole in the fence and down onto the white sand beach. I spot a piece of canvas between tufts of beach grass. If I can reach it, maybe I can hide there until the Taking is over. I run toward it, but my foot slips and I land on the hard sand. Have they heard me? I want to look back but as I do, the sirens take on the familiar buzz of an alarm calling me away.

 

 

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