PRW Runner-Up Tour: The One That Got Away by Ryanne Kap
Lea was the first to go. I remember missing the distraction her honeyed curls provided; they were just a breath away, practically begging to be pulled. It was such a simple yet acute loss. Even if her voice was pinched with frustration, I wolfed down any words she sent my way. I was ravenous for companionship, craving it so deeply my bones ached with the need of it.
I was a freak, an anomaly in a world where it was dangerous to be different. After all, our ancestors had spent centuries toying around with genetics, playing with strands of DNA until they had devised the Perfect Human. Sure, those experiments had led to countless civil wars, and produced thousands upon thousands of diseased, mutated Imperfections, but that’s why places like Elysium existed, to provide a genetically pure safe haven that would keep Perfect people producing Perfect children 99.9% of the time.
I was the 0.1%.
My own parents barely acknowledged my existence, ashamed to have created something that even distantly resembled an Imperfection. They brought my brother and sister into the world, in rapid succession, as if to atone for my imperfection. They covered me up like the fluke I was, a mistake that would perhaps be pardoned by the births of two acceptable, Perfect children.
It got to the point where people accused me of being disrespectful to our Great and Mighty ancestors by committing the colossal crime of existing. It wasn’t that I was especially foolish or ill-mannered. I got along with my siblings quite well, until they were old enough to be let in on the secret of my status as the 0.1% oddity. Even then, I never screamed or flew into fits. I was docile, obedient, and patient.
I just wasn’t Perfect.
After Lea, more and more children began to disappear. They were stolen away one by one, as to be discreet. A girl wandered into the forest that hedged our town in and never returned; a few weeks later, a boy took the long way home but never arrived. It was only after five children had vanished under similarly mysterious circumstances that the townspeople began to notice.
The Council issued an edict stating that both the forest was forbidden to any unsupervised child. Back then, they were foolish enough to believe that the disappearances were simply the victims’ fault, the result of children losing their way and stumbling into the darkness beyond the town, or perhaps running away in a fit of madness.
There were a few, like my parents, that weren’t so quick to believe the Council’s reassuring lies. How, my mother asked, could a child be lost in Elysium? Our town was nothing more than perfectly paved streets joining at perfectly perpendicular angles, hardly a labyrinth of old. Even the toddlers, barely knee-high, knew their way around before they knew how to read. Under normal circumstances, no one entered the forest at all. It was a gloomy, unsettling place that could give a grown man nightmares. The teenagers sent one another into its depths on dares—they’d almost snatched Adam as part of a kiddie initiation—but other than that, the forest remained untouched. It was our safety net, separating us from the “imperfect” beyond the gates.
Well, except for that dastardly 0.1%.
To suggest rumblings of discontent in Elysium, my father chimed in, was outrageous. Everything and everyone was Perfect, they’d chime together. The Perfect Protocols were their mantras; they tossed them into the conversation whenever they could, another way to compensate for my imperfection.
Protest or not, for a while the edict worked. Children clung tightly to their parents, the braver ones walking in huddles from place to place.
But like so many passing trends, our false sense of security only lasted so long.
I remember when the Call first came.
My parents were getting us ready for bed while nattering on and on about Council gossip.
“Evelyn! Adam!” Mother called sweetly down the hall. She tapped the side of her glasses and the hologram floating in front of her face flickered in response. A long wall of text appeared before her eyes, the electronic glow illuminating her mud-brown eyes. She swivelled her head towards my father, the text turning with her. “Stephen, would you look at this! It’s the latest poll for Mayor; looks like Thornton’s got a run for his money.”
Father shifted in his leather couch, reading the newspaper.
I sat on the couch across from him, hoping they’d forgotten about me—they did it so often. I didn’t know what I’d do with an extended curfew, but I sure wasn’t about to decline it.
As if reading my thoughts, Mother’s eyes jumped from Father to me, narrowing as they honed in on my right leg. My hand came to rest on it involuntarily.
“Don’t think you’re any exception, David,” she murmured. I shrunk back at the sound of her sugar-sweet voice. I later recognized it as the voice she used to speak to the Councilmen’s wives, right before coming home and insulting them with my father. “Get to bed.”
I swallowed a sigh, glaring at the floor as I picked up my crutches and heaved myself into a standing position. Both my parents watched my painstaking progress, hawk-eyes tracking every movement. I shuffled into the darkness, leaning awkwardly on my good leg to push open my bedroom door.
Across the hall, Adam and Evelyn were play-fighting, shoving each other around in a battle for the sink. I lowered myself down on my bed. They squirted toothpaste at each other, guffawing when it sprayed over their hands and splattered the bathroom mirror. They brushed their teeth until their mouths foamed over with Whitening No. 5, making garish faces at the mirror and at each other, acting like they had rabies and pretending to bite each other.
Their faces paled in synch as they heard approaching footsteps. I shrank back in bed, equally afraid though I had done nothing wrong. As Mother took one look at the dirtied mirror and the foaming mouths and erupted into a stern-faced lecture, I was suddenly glad to be buried in the shadows.
Still, I realized with a bitter envy, even though Adam and Evelyn were mischievous and sneaky and sometimes broke the rules, they were the ones whom my parents kissed goodnight, though they protested they were too old for it. They were the ones paraded in front of our parents when we had company, while I sat trapped in my room, staring at the blank walls. They were the ones who were showered with gifts and affection. All because they were Perfect and I was not.
I had stopped crying a few years ago, when my parents forgot to celebrate my sixth birthday. I had holed up in my room, waiting for the tears to come, but instead found only a hollow anger that burned through my lungs without the decency of making me feel something. So now, all I had left was that gnawing, acidic anger that was never strong enough to justify anything.
I was on the cusp of falling asleep when someone shook my shoulders, effectively startling me into full consciousness. I opened my mouth only to have a clammy hand clamp it closed.
I was just shy of hyperventilating when a well-known voice whispered, “Shh, David, it’s just me.” Me being Evelyn. The strong hands pushing me off the bed and forcing me into my slippers must have been Adam, then. “Promise you won’t scream?”
I nodded quickly, wanting nothing more than to have her damp, slimy hand off my lips. Once she complied, I asked quietly, “What’s going on?”
“Alan’s having a party,” Evelyn murmured.
“In the forest!” Adam piped excitedly, his words scattering the silence.
“Shut up!” Eve whisper-shouted.
My eyes adjusted to the darkness, revealing Adam and Evelyn outfitted in black hoodies and jeans, the toes of their sneakers glowing neon yellow.
“Glow-in-the-dark sneakers? Really?” I asked cuttingly.
I could almost hear them rolling their eyes.
“Just come,” Evelyn barked. Adam had the decency to wait for me to grab my crutches before half-guiding, half-dragging me out the door and into the crisp night air.
We didn’t talk much as we walked down the paved streets, trading the quiet reassurance of the suburbs in for the thrill of excitement of the forest. Well, they walked. I hobbled, arm slung around Adam’s shoulders.
Finally, I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer. “If Alan’s party is such a big deal, why are you bringing me?”
I saw Adam and Evelyn exchange a look. I swallowed dryly, hoping that maybe, just maybe, they’d correct me, tell me that of course, they wanted to include me; I was their brother after all. But we all knew the truth. People don’t bring freaks to parties.
“You’re our invitation,” Adam finally said, watching Evelyn as if for a cue. “He…” Here, he looked down at his feet. I could feel him tense.
Evelyn snorted. “You’re such a baby, Adam.” She turned to me. “Alan wants to see an Imperfection up close.”
My jaw fell open with the shock of it. I’d been called names before, but never an Imperfection. Imperfections were humans mutilated beyond recognition, their genes so distorted they were basically half-animal.
I lowered my eyes, fighting the stinging in my eyes.
“David,” Adam began to say, a twinge of remorse in his tone, but Evelyn held up her hand and he was quiet.
I frowned. Since when was Evelyn the boss in their relationship?
We went on in silence.
Even with Adam for support, my lame leg was throbbing. I was going to tire out before my sadistic siblings could use me for their twisted game of show-and-tell. But just as I’d found a glimmer of hope, our destination came in sight.
A large, billowing tent was pitched in a clearing a stone’s throw into the forest. Adam and Evelyn giggled nervously, increasing the pace until we were almost running towards the tent.
They shoved me inside first. I was overwhelmed by the putrid stench of sweat and incense; it sent me reeling backwards as if I’d been struck in the face. I barely felt Adam and Evelyn come stumbling in behind me.
Pinching my nose to avoid the odour, I made out a big blonde boy with piercing gray eyes and a smug grin. Holding a smoldering candle in one hand and an old, careworn book in the other, he sat at the head of a circle comprised of several girls and boys, mostly from the younger grades. I recognized a few of Adam and Evelyn’s friends, who gasped and pointed like it was the first time they’d laid eyes on me. I guessed the blonde boy was the Great and Mighty Alan, judging by the way everyone in the tent gazed reverently at him.
“Greetings, Adam and Evelyn. It is a pleasure to welcome you into the Inner Circle,” he intoned, his stormy eyes meeting mine. Any fear I might have held for him melted into the shadows; it was clear that he was nothing more than a boy playing pretend.
I had no problem staring back at him.
“Freak,” he said, addressing me. “You are also welcome. Unlike the ancestors, we appreciate and understand Imperfections.”
The children’s eyes all grew wider; a nervous murmuring spread through the circle. Adam and Evelyn ran out from behind me, pushing children out of the way so they could sit on Alan’s left and right.
“I’m not an Imperfection,” I growled softly, so quietly I was sure no one had heard, until I noticed Alan’s eyes glinting maliciously. Maybe there was something to be afraid of after all.
Alan raised a hand for silence. The mutters and giggles came to an absolute halt.
“Tonight,” he declared, in the voice of a boy pretending to be a man, “we will cleanse the world of its Imperfections!”
I dropped to the ground out of pure exhaustion; this was the farthest I’d ever walked in one stretch. Still, I wanted to be a thousand miles away. Alan might have been just a boy, but there was something eerie about the words he spoke. Something dark and dangerous.
“We begin with the story of how the Imperfections came to be.”
Despite myself, I settled in. I couldn’t help it; my interest was piqued.
Alan began with the history lesson we’d all been taught in school. Scientists had created genetic cocktails to inject into unwitting victims, who soon found their bones shifting and cracking and rearranging in inhuman ways. These victims spawned leagues of mutations known as Imperfections. Each generation became less and less recognizable as human. Rumours spreading in the big cities told of the Imperfections possessing animalistic qualities and supernatural abilities.
“Ever heard of werewolves, children?” Alan asked us. I almost laughed; he was a child himself. He prattled on about the early experiments combining human and animal DNA, and what repercussions that had on the test subjects. I had to admit, he was pretty smart for a kid just turned twelve. When some of the younger children began to fall asleep, he changed the tone of his story. Suddenly, his voice was reed-thin and taut with suspense.
“These mutilated monsters prowl this very forest,” he said, swaying slightly. I could see the fear rising in the children’s eyes; I felt my own heart clenching in anxiety. “Their leader once walked among us.”
A few children fluttered awake.
“They called him the Piper,” Alan murmured, lowering his voice so we all had to lean forward to hear him. A wicked grin danced at the corners of his lips. “He was a third-generation Imperfection, which meant that he had the face of a human but the DNA of a monster. Rumour has it that he was part rat.”
Adam’s face twisted in disgust; Evelyn bit her lip. I folded my hands and stared down at the grass poking through holes in the tent.
“Anyways. He was summoned to Elysium because once, our town was not always as perfect as it is today.”
His words elicited a few gasps.
“Back in its earliest days, Elysium was infested with rats, tiny creatures with long tails and sharp claws and bristly fur all down their backs. They’re ugly animals who deserve death as soon as they’re born.”
Involuntary shivers crawled down my spine.
“Legend has it, this Piper could call to the rats because, like I said, he had their DNA in his blood. He had a special bond with them. So the founders of Elysium agreed to pay him off if he could free the town of the rats. So he did.”
At this point, we were hanging on to every word as it dropped from his lips.
“He called to the rats, and as the sun set, they came to him. They did everything he asked; he could make them sit straight, he could make them run. He could even make them dance.”
Alan’s hands animated the story, moving jerkily as if to demonstrate dancing rats. It lightened the mood just enough; the children giggled into their hands.
Then Alan’s face grew as stormy as his eyes. The smile died on my lips.
“He could also make them fight to the death with their little rat teeth and claws.” Alan pantomimed clawing and tearing and death. Nobody laughed. “In the end, he summoned a thousand rats and made them dance all the way into the river at the heart of the forest.”
Complete silence. Alan cleared his throat.
“But when it came time to collect his reward, the founders refused to give him the money. He was an Imperfection, after all. He’d surely drink himself to death with such a large sum. They say he was so angry his eyes turned black. That day, almost a hundred years ago, he swore he would take revenge. But after that day, he became obsessed with black magic and other silly, superstitious things. He pushed the experiments to their limits, even trying to revive the Imperfections who hadn’t survived. His foolish experiments led to a massive fire that swallowed him whole.”
Alan’s voice dropped to an all-time low.
“But, impossible as it may seem, he has returned, children of Elysium! Lea. Cal. Abby. James. Robyn. John. They have all been claimed by the Piper. And if you don’t be careful…you’ll be next!” Alan roared.
Every child jumped or screamed or wetted themselves.
I did a combination of all three, to my lasting shame.
Alan laughed, but it was hollow.
“Now,” he continued, “Here is the final test. I have invited you all here because of your exceptional daring and courage.” He said that last part with a condescending ring; he was mocking us, us babies who were terrified of ghost stories.
“But what about us?” Evelyn cried. Her face was drained of colour, her eyes wide and pleading. “We brought the Freak—” here she pointed quite rudely at me. “That was our test. You said!”
Alan curled his lip at her; she shrank back. “That was too easy.” He turned to face the rest of us. “Tonight, we will cleanse the town of the Piper once and for all!”
It was meant to be a rallying cry to war, but we were hardly fit soldiers. Most of the children were whimpering softly, folding in on themselves.
“Now,” Alan started to say, but he never got that far.
Soft, unearthly strains of music began to emanate from the forest. We all paused, cocking our heads, confused. I felt the world fall away. There was nothing but the Call, its melody haunting and dark and beautiful. My eyes fell closed with the weight of it, and the blackness behind my eyelids gave way to the vast shimmering of the stars. In that sea of infinite light, I ran as I had always dreamt of doing. There were no limits or weaknesses or fear or hatred. I was flooded with light and warmth and strength and everything I’d always hungered for. The emptiness was no more and I was whole and I was good—
The music stopped. Suddenly I was plummeting through the stars, erupting into flame as I fell to the Earth. I gasped, my eyes flying open as unbidden tears trickling down my cheeks. I was consumed with the need to follow it, to obey its commands, to do anything and everything it asked of me, just to feel that alive again.
There! The faintest strains murmuring outside the tent.
My heart leapt. There was hope. Every nerve was live-wire, an electric buzz creeping through my veins. Without a second thought, I crawled outside the tent, pushing myself off my knees and to my feet. The Call danced on the breeze, just loudly enough for me to smell the stars. I ambled deeper into the forest, face upturned, ears cupped to trace the evocative music. I shifted to auto-pilot, letting my feet guide me. Even as I drifted into the unknown, being afraid never occurred to me. I was too lost in the wonder of the Call.
Here, the moonlit sky leaked through a web of spindly, gnarled branches. In the faint, silvery glow, I could see dark figures left and right, lurching towards the source of the music. I saw Alan and his invitees up ahead, faces upturned. We didn’t have to say anything—one look revealed that we were all chasing the same elusive Call. I don’t remember much about that night, but I do recall merging into one perfect single-file line, traipsing silently towards the mystery of the music.
I only noticed that my siblings had come as well when they came crashing clumsily through the undergrowth. I turned and saw their faces that were so familiar yet so foreign; they too were transformed by the allure of the Call. Their lips were frozen in an awed smile and their eyes shone and glimmered in the moonlight. I probably looked just as spell-bound.
The stars began to appear in the corner of my vision—I reached for them as they shimmered in short, staccato bursts. I saw the others doing the same, though I did not know what they reached for. Selfish indulgences, perhaps? Or maybe they chased the simple freedoms that I did. Either way, we were united in our pursuit. Despite the amazement and awe, no one uttered a single sound. There was nothing we wanted less than to crowd out the Call.
It was then, as our desires danced before us, that the Call rose to a crescendo. It shattered our silence, keening so wildly it almost hurt. The stars were flung wildly across my vision, flashing and popping so brightly it was just shy of too much to handle. Once again, I felt the music tug at me, calling to my inmost being. I was the puppet and the Call was my master, pulling all my strings at once.
Suddenly my heart was galloping with excitement and just a shred of terror, and it was all lights and noises and bells ringing in the distance, a light guiding us through the shadows. A voice sang along with the music, a voice so timeless it was to be trusted even as it led us farther from home than we’d ever been. It called us to come, come quickly now, come before the big bad adults hear, come before it’s too late, come quickly.
Our line sped up obediently, all thoughts that once belonged to us scattered, replaced by that one short command: Come. We hurried through the trees, through the underbrush, ignoring the jabs and stabs of thorns tearing at our ankles and knees. We clambered up hills and through deep thickets, winding our way through the army of trees like silent spies.
That was when my lame leg gave out; I had pushed the pain down so deep my body hadn’t had enough time to warn me. I leaned against a tree, trying in vain to get my leg to work again. Adam and Evelyn, behind me in line, were too captivated by the enchanting music that they didn’t notice I’d stopped. They tumbled into me in a mess of arms and legs. I hit the ground so hard my teeth knocked together and the air came rushing out between them with a soft whoosh.
Reality hit me with a sickening crack. All the pain that the Call had saved me from rose up inside of me in a nauseating wave of agony. I cried out in despair, tears springing to my eyes, but no one took pity. Instead, they cast me hateful glares for distracting them from the beauty of the Call, which I realized with deep and utter desolation I could no longer hear.
They walked on without me.
I fell into the abyss, crying out for what seemed like eternities. I cursed my leg, I cursed the world, I cursed the day I was born. It was the most torturous moment of my life. With all the strength I had left, I limped after the receding line.
I followed them to the crest of a hill, collapsing in a tangle of bushes and tree roots.
Beneath me, I could see the river, a vast cacophony of roaring waves and the hiss of spray where water met rock. The children stumbled down the slope, coming to a halt on a small cliff leaning out above the water littered with tiny bones. Without the Call to distract me, the horror of the situation was imminent.
He appeared out of the darkness, emerging from the water and stepping out onto the riverbank.
Even from the safety of my perch, I was deeply and truly afraid. I could see the grotesque way his limbs were mashed together, the skeletal grace he moved with. He held a golden pipe to his lips, an instrument from the olden days.
It was then that I noticed the rats. They swarmed at his feet, mapped out his mutilated figure with their scurrying bodies. He tipped back his head and laughed and I saw rats crawl out from his lips.
“Come, my children,” he uttered, in the same unearthly voice that had sang along with the Call. It carried all the way to me on an invisible breeze. “It is time for the Dance of Darkness, to submit to the waters and return in magnificence!”
I watched, frozen in terror, as the children shuffled to the riverbank. They stepped off the edge, plummeting into the abyss with the casualness of stones dropped one by one into darkness.
My mouth opened and closed but no words escaped me as Adam, then Evelyn, toppled over the cliff and into the raging river. I waited with foolish hope for them to break the surface, to gasp with breath and life, but no heads emerged once they’d plunged into the water. The moon rose higher into the sky as the Piper paced back and forth, that chilling voice murmuring foreign words into the night air. Tears coursed down my face, but I barely felt them.
Especially when the children rose from the river.
My heart soared with hope—perhaps it was not too late!
Then the Piper led the procession up the hill, towards me, and I saw them in the pale moonlight.
These were not the same children who had so innocently followed the call. No, they were twisted and monstrous. Their eyes were blank, the pupils swallowed up in a milky whiteness. Their lips were blue, their skin bloated. They were the walking dead.
Fear dug its claws into my flesh. I muffled a scream with my hands, crawling behind a thick copse of trees until I was certain that I could see them, but they could not see me with their dead, empty eyes.
There was Lea, her golden curls damp and hanging limply around her neck. I choked back a whimper. I recognized the children who had gone missing; Alan’s morbid ghost story had come true. Adam and Evelyn were the last in line; their familiar features were warped into something foul and malevolent. And, teeming at their feet, a plague of skeleton rats, a few of which scuttled over my fingers and slippers. I felt a despicable warmth spread between my legs, but I knew it would be my death to utter a single sound.
After I was sure they were too far away to hear me, I dragged myself after them. At that moment, my addled brain could focus on one thing, and one thing only: returning home. It never occurred to me that with the Piper’s return, there might not be a home to return to.
I don’t know how I did it. A rush of adrenaline, or primal desperation perhaps. Either way, I made it out of the forest in time to watch Elysium burn. I could hear the terrified screams as the Piper and his corpse army ravaged our town.
When the smoke finally began to clear, days after, hunger drove me into the charred ruins.
I don’t remember much, but I do remember crawling on hands and knees through the ashes, staring at the pile of rubble that used to be my house.
I remember curling up and finding one last tear to shed.
I remember, just before I fell into a dreamless sleep on the empty street, a pair of black eyes and the gentle brush of rat fur against my cheek.
I have long since fled Elysium. A neighbouring town was kind enough to take me in, but only long enough for me to be back on my feet; I was soon abandoned to wander as an Imperfection. That has been my life, up until now. Time and bitter memories have brought me back to the place where it all began. I’ve built myself a humble home in the dark forest to wait out the rest of my days; it’s in this modest cabin that I allow myself to relive that fateful night.
I sit in the whispering darkness, bones rattling with age. My leg is as lame as ever; some things never change. Nor do I wish them to; my weaknesses kept me alive. But not for long. I can hear the scrabbling beneath the floorboards, the sound of small sharp eyes watching from below. In the grass around the cabin, a million tiny pawprints merge into a trail of slender footprints. The Piper will come for me, the one who got away.
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