Kadence is crying. Sobs rack her body as Elijah tries to console her amongst his own tears. Honestly, if I hadn’t been the one to come up with this plan, I would be crying too. Suddenly, I’m very glad that the last words I spoke to my family were ‘I love you.’
“The Seeker this round will be Caleb Sanchez. Players, you have fifteen minutes to hide.”
I squeeze Caleb’s arm on the way out. Our plan now relies on him. “You’ve got this.”
He nods. “See you on the other side.”
I let go and take off out the door, slipping and sliding down the hill. Brambles and thorns scrape my thighs and face as I scramble down. We have fifteen minutes to make it at least believable, and we only have one place we cannot go. Our plan hinges on it.
That’s the thing about plans. One person can decide to not follow it, and the whole thing comes crashing down. If someone hides by the creek and Caleb finds them, it’s over. If Caleb decides to go searching, thinking he can still win, it’s over. If someone doesn’t come to the cliff, it’s over. If anything happens at all, it could all fall apart.
And if this plan doesn’t happen now, it won’t happen later. If we don’t end it now, then I will become a Seeker, and every one of these people will come to regret it.
If the plan falls apart now, I will have no regrets as their necks snap between my palms.
I scurry towards the old brick quarry, and squat down, pulling mud over me. I know that there’s a huge chance this won’t work, and I refuse to go down without fighting first. I shove my sweatshirt sleeve into my mouth, breathing against it. I quiet my breathing and attempt to quiet my heartbeat, but it pounds harder than anything. I can’t even hear the chirping of the birds that I know are there, for the sound of blood rushing through my veins.
Fifteen minutes pass. We hear the warning bell, signifying our time to hide is over and Caleb now begins his hunt. Another fifteen minutes, another bell, signalling we’ve managed to outlast the efforts of the Seeker. The third time it chimes, I stand. I faintly hear the whirring of a camera behind me as it refocuses. I imagine it has only just woken up, after spending forty-five minutes watching me squat in the mud.
Deliberately, I take soft steps forward. Up the hill, past the compound, ground turning from brown to green, to white and rocky. I can hear the waves crashing down against the beach below, the sounds growing louder as I go closer. I stand at the edge of the treeline, observing. Caleb is standing with his back towards us, staring out at the ocean. In his hands, he holds his rain jacket, letting the cool air caress his body. He’s no doubt hot after all his ‘searching’ for us.
“Everyone come up at once, so they can’t count the round over!” he shouts. I look to my right and see Braedyn, Elijah, and Siena coming up. On my left are Kadence and Tiarra. We share a look, and everyone steps out into the clearing. I can practically hear the executives trying to figure out what’s wrong, what in the world we’re doing. Even though they’re safe, hiding away in their plush offices and only watching us on their little screens, I can almost hear the way their heart rate picks up, the way telephones are picked up as they frantically dial their friends, trying to figure out what the heck is going on. A small self-satisfied smirk crosses my face.
As one, we stand in a curved wall around Caleb. I know that when the story comes out, Caleb will be the one credited with this plan. He’ll be the one remembered, not me, or Braedyn, or Elijah, or Siena. That doesn’t matter though. What matters is this.
He turns around, offering his jacket towards us. Braedyn takes it from him, shivering against the brisk air.
What month is it? I wonder. Is it still March? How long have we been here? It doesn’t matter. I decide. I’ll either find out or I won’t.
We all form a line, backs to the edge of the cliff, ready to fall at a moment’s notice. I call out, certain the cameras can hear.
“We know there is no way out! There is no escape from this sick arena you’ve trapped us in! And if you don’t want this going up in flames, we’re giving you one last chance to back out.”
At this, a low rumble becomes audible from beyond the horizon. A black dot appears, blades whirring. It doesn’t take long for the helicopter to reach us, flying so low that it whips up the sand around our feet. It starts to descend, and Caleb lets a hopeful grin cross his face. He steps forward and waves his hand in the air, shouting in joy.
A bullet slams through his forehead, almost too fast to register it. There isn’t time for the grin to leave his face before the life leaves his eyes. He falls backward, limbs trailing behind him as he falls from the cliff.
“NOW!” I scream. I grab Braedyn and Kadence’s hands, and they, in turn, grab the other’s until we’re one long chain. I let my left foot rest halfway on the cliff, just below the heel of my boot. My right foot swings back into the nothingness of the void, pitching my body off the edge. The breath leaves my lungs, and with it comes a choked sob.
The world changes to slow motion. Braedyn’s grip tightens as we stare up at the cliff and the helicopter hovering above it. Just as I believe it’s over, my eyes catch Siena’s.
She stares down at me with regret in her eyes from the top of the cliff. She stands alone, the victor of this sick, sick game.
Betrayal is the last thing I think of as the beach slams into my back.
I look down at the bottom of the cliff. Six people. Dead people. Elijah, Caleb, Braedyn, Finch, Kadence, and Tiarra. Blood pools under their heads, gushing out like a caterpillar that’s just been stepped on. They’re all still holding hands.
I wonder what my professors would say about the way their bodies lay. Something about unity, probably.
For a second, I feel guilt. That’s supposed to be me beside Elijah, with blood pooling underneath my hair that I’ve tried so hard to keep fixed during all this.
A wave comes up on the shore, washing over the top halves of their bodies. As it goes back into the ocean it drags their blood along with it, turning the white sand red. It makes me sick to look at, and I turn away, holding my stomach as I try not to puke.
As music plays from the helicopter that lands on the grass behind me, I feel the guilt slide away. For once, I was smart enough.
For once, I’m the winner.