120 18 17

My breaths come ragged and quick, trying to keep time with my feet as they pound the gritty pavement. My heart outraces them both, beating with a fire that spreads to my lungs.

I veer right, easily vaulting over a rotting wooden fence. When I land, a sharp stone imbeds itself into the rubber sole of my left shoe. It presses against the tender bottom of my foot, making me wince with every stride.

It's coming, I tell myself, if you slow down it will catch you and kill you.

I ignore the discomfort, pushing onwards. I navigate the near-abandoned streets by the discrete pools of fluorescent light, relying on memory and intuition when they fail. Perhaps I should stop and conserve energy. The new moon is only a week away – overextending myself now could be deadly.

It won't care if you're tired or injured. You need to RUN.

I take a brief moment to turn, glancing down the narrow residential street where I've happened to turn. A man stands just inside a fence only three houses away. He looks at me. He's not the Stalker, but it doesn't matter.

He could be.

Fear strikes like lightning in my belly and adrenaline courses through my veins once more. It lends me the strength to keep running for another hour. I eventually duck under an unsuspecting resident's porch to catch my breath and pluck the stone from my shoe.

Red sunlight bleeds from the jagged horizon by the time I arrive at home, my lungs raw and my legs trembling. Mom is sitting on the porch steps. She claps.

"That's the longest you've gone," she stands, helping me up the three steps to the front door.

"Mm," is all I can manage.

"You're strong," she tells me, "And so fast. You'll be perfect."

I nod, her words washing over me. My bed welcomes my filthy, sweat-soaked body and I drop gratefully into oblivion.

My muscles burn for days after the trial run, but it doesn't stop me from performing my daily training. I envy my brother, Brad, coming and going to school and work. Even if he is sick, at least he has a life. And friends. 

I sit on the porch steps after a late afternoon jog and fiddle with the thin silver band on the middle finger of my right hand. I try to remember what it was like to trust people. What it was like to have friends and family instead of vulnerabilities and weaknesses. I wonder who the Stalker will choose this time. Which one of my loved ones it will use against me.

Nine years ago it was my father. My mother carried the ring then. She was the one who had to run from him while he called out to her. Begged her to listen to him. Told her how much he loved her. But she couldn't stop, no matter how badly she wanted to, because it wasn't my father. Not really. It was the Stalker, and if it put on the ring then it would be free. Free to return to its true form, hunting and eating humans as it pleased. I don't even know what its true form looks like; my family never talks about it even though it was our ancestors that trapped it inside a host body three hundred years ago. Sometimes I wonder if it's us who are really trapped.

I'm still staring at my feet, thinking and watching the sweat drip off of my hair and nose, when I feel a warm body sit beside me. I recognize the familiar rattle, like marbles rolling around his lungs whenever he breathes. Brad. He's the one who should have inherited the ring – he's the eldest after all. He's 19 and I'm barely 17. But when Mom decided she wasn't strong enough anymore, she gave it to me. Brad has always been sick – asthma and stuff. No endurance. You need endurance.

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