Every muscle in my body was on fire, but I forced myself forward. I wouldn’t sit and wait for them. They would have to come get me.
The ravine ended in a wide open grassy plot. A hunting blind stood at one end of it, and some deer were munching in the field. As soon as we burst from the trees, they scattered, silently disappearing back into the woods. The sun had risen higher than I’d thought. We’d spent at least an hour in the ravine. What time was it? Nine, ten?
For the first time since we started running, I entertained the hope that we could make it. That we could get far enough away to where they’d never catch us. The stale, dead grass grew waist high as we picked up speed on the open terrain. We jetted across, the faded trees at the edge of the grass becoming an oasis in the desert. If we could just make it through the field and into the woods on the other side, we could outwit Cal, outwit them all. It was like turning a page. Gavin must have felt it too, his feet thundering unevenly on the dirt as we pushed ourselves as fast as we could.
Then we heard the buzz, the familiar whir of flight. The drone had come back.
“Down,” Gavin hissed.
We both dropped, lying in the grass and hoping the drone hadn’t seen us. I held my breath as the sound grew closer, the hiss of the helicopter blades like a hand at my throat, cutting off my air.
The drone passed overhead and I could breathe again. The whir lessened, and I was about to get up when the noise grew louder and louder until horror atrophied my senses. I turned my head to the side and it was hovering over us, sitting in place. They’d seen.
“Fuck. Run, Stella!” Gavin lunged from the ground and took off.
I pushed my aching muscles, the stiffness already setting in even though I’d only been still for a few moments. I dashed after him as the machine lazily followed.
We finally made the tree line.
Gavin crashed ahead. Limbs scratched my face like clawing fingers as I tried to keep up.
The machine whirred above us now, floating above the trees and keeping track. Gavin stopped so quickly in front of me that I slammed into his back.
“We have to split up.” He ran a hand through his sweat-drenched hair.
“No.” I peered up through the branches. I could feel the drone staring back.
“We have to. It can’t follow us both. It’s our only chance.”
“No. I can’t. I’ve got your back, remember?”
His eyes softened, and he ran a cool hand across my cheek. “I know you do. We’ll still be alive. Remember that, okay? I’ll see you again.”
“Here.” I shucked his gloves off and handed them back to him. “My hands are warm. You need them.”
He tried to refuse but I shoved them into his palms. “Please.”
“Fine.” He pulled them on and hugged me tightly before glancing sideways at the woods around us. “Left or right?”
It didn’t matter. “I’ll go left.”
“Okay.” He kissed my forehead, his lips like ice. “Go.”
He limped to the right, and I hopped the fallen tree trunk to my left, skittering across the leaves and rushing between the trees. I stood at the base of a gentle slope. Turning back, I caught a flash of Gavin’s white pants before he was lost in the browns and grays of the woods. The rumble of engines cut over the sound of the drone, some sort of off-road vehicles moving far faster than I could ever hope to. I balled my hands into fists and forced myself to move, fear and rage mixing to give me one final jolt of energy.
I kept going, slower now, the pain in my body, the lack of food, and the constant exertion killing what little physical ability I had left. The sun still rose, the minutes ticking off the clock. The whir of the drone never stopped. It had chosen to follow me instead of Gavin. I couldn’t do anything about it, just keep moving, keep striving.
When I reached the top of the slope, I stopped to catch my breath. I felt heavy, heavier than I’d ever felt in my life. My dress was drenched with sweat, and my legs were an ugly shade of red. The wind and cold had burned them. My face was tight, the skin stinging as my silent tears flowed down over them. The sun continued its climb, but I still had at least an hour before noon.
“Stella!” A man yelled out in a perfect mimic of Marlon Brando from “Streetcar,” followed by howls of laughter from others. It was distant, but not distant enough. The yawning pit in my stomach opened even wider, dragging me down.