Friday, 8 p.m.
“I can’t choose,” Brandy Inkrott said. “I want to kill them all.” “Tag,” her mother said from her brocaded antique chair. “You want to Tag them all.” “No. I don’t.”
“Either way,” her father said, “I’m afraid you have to pick one.”
Brandy studied the images of the teenage girls on the screen. Brunettes. Blondes. Asians. Hispanics. Light-skinned. Dark-skinned. Every one of them gorgeous. Every one of them middle-class no-names. None of them like her. “They’re all so perfect. Can I pick more than one?”
A woman’s voice pierced the air, radiating from the Surround Sound speakers. “The price for two would be extravagant, Ms. Inkrott. Plus, Tagging more than one Runner would be difficult. Almost impossible.”
“I don’t care. I can do it.”
Her father shrugged. “If that’s what you want.”
“I suggest this,” the woman said. “Play this time with one. If you are successful you may play again, and then you can go after two. I know it’s tempting when you see all those beautiful faces, but you’d be setting yourself up for disappointment.”
“What do you know?” Brandy said. “You’re probably some fat old lady in a trailer park somewhere. I could Tag you.”
Silence sizzled over the speakers.
“I’m sorry, Madame Referee,” Brandy’s father said. “She didn’t mean it.”
“Bran, honey, please.”
The girls’ faces on the television disappeared, replaced by only one, which took up the entire surface of the eighty-inch screen. The woman shown there was miraculous, with ivory skin, midnight hair, and eyes the color of cobalt. She wore a white, fitted suit, and diamonds glittered on her throat. The room surrounding her was white as well, broken only by the blue of the ocean, visible through the windows behind her. She smiled. “You were saying?”
Brandy swallowed. “I’m sorry. I just thought…” “Oh my,” her mother said. “She’s—”
“—everything you want to be?” Her father’s voice was light. Amused, even.
Her mother blinked. And nodded. Her toy poodle yipped and wiggled from her arms.
“Me, too,” Brandy breathed. “I want to be just like her.”
The Referee smiled with a graceful tilt of her head. “Shall we continue our negotiations?”
“Please,” Brandy’s father said. “Brandy is sorry for the disrespect.”
“I am,” Brandy said. “I really am. I’m sorry, Ref.” “I know. Now, let’s get back to business.”
The images of the girls returned. Some of the photos were school shots, some candids. One was even a selfie, taken in the girl’s bedroom. The choice was as difficult as before.
“Start small,” the Ref said. “What characteristics could you do without?”
Brandy studied the faces. “That girl on the top row with the straight hair and the lipstick. I don’t like her.”
“She looks mean,” her mother said.
“It’s her squinty eyes.”
“She’s gone,” the Ref said. The image disappeared from the lineup.
Brandy let her gaze slide over the others, considering their eyes, hair, clothes…skin tone. “Get rid of all the ones who aren’t white,” she finally said.
“You’re sure?” her father asked. “That could be fun.” “They’re not even a little bit like me.”
“A good way to whittle down the list,” the Referee said. The non-Caucasians disappeared.
Three options left. The brunette, the blonde, and the one with dyed red hair.
“I don’t want the redhead,” Brandy said. “Take her out.” “Good choice,” her mother said. “That hair was awful.”
The final choice was hard. Both natural beauties, if you believed in that sort of thing. Pleasant smiles, modest clothes, an expression that said Happiness.
“These are your final two,” the Ref said. “Would you like to see their bios?”
“Do you care about that?” her father asked.
Brandy wrinkled her nose. She didn’t want to know these girls. They weren’t worth it.
“Send them,” her father said.
A document popped up on Brandy’s tablet, a dual-columned page, comparing the two possibilities. Much in their bios was the same. Both attended small, rural schools and had a mom and a dad, and siblings. One was in choir, one in band, both played sports, had seats on student council, and were members of a church. They always made the honor roll, had more than one best friend, and did kind, charitable things for other people.
Brandy felt like she might be sick. “What do you think?” her mother asked.
She still didn’t know. They were both annoying.
Brandy scrolled down to view their pets, their hobbies, their summer plans. And their boyfriends. Although that should just say boyfriend. Because the brunette didn’t have one. The blonde did.
“That one.” Brandy pointed to the blonde. “I want her.”
The screen on the television changed to display only the blonde’s face, bigger than life.
“You have made your choice,” the Ref said. “She will be your Runner.”
“When do I get to kill her?” “Tag her,” her mother said.
The Ref appeared on half of the screen, next to the blond Runner. She was smiling. “You still would like to buy the Elite package?”
Brandy’s father glanced at her, and she nodded. “Absolutely.” “I don’t know,” her mother said. “I really think the Deluxe package would be enough.”
“I want the best one,” Brandy said. “But it’s so dangerous.”
He looked at his wife, then at his daughter. Brandy’s lips trembled, and her eyes shone with tears.
“Fine.” He turned his gaze to the screen. “We want the Elite.” The Ref smiled. “I thought you would. You may send your money to the prearranged account. We already covered the contract price.”
Brandy’s father used his own tablet to make the transaction. “Wonderful,” the Ref said. “You will receive instructions shortly, apprising you of the Rules. I will inform you when it is time to Go. You are already in possession of your smartwatch.”
“What’s her name?” Brandy’s mother asked.
The Ref shook her head. “You will learn that when the time comes.”
“Doesn’t matter, anyway,” Brandy snapped.
The Ref disappeared from the screen, leaving only the face of the nameless girl.
Brandy hated her.
Laura Wingfield wiped down the counter and surveyed the kitchen. Dishes put away, crumbs swept from the floor, kids’ chore list updated. They would now spend the evening snuggling on the couch, watching the latest Pixar movie. She popped some popcorn and squeezed in between the two older children, the toddler filling up her lap, digging into the bowl with both hands. Laura didn’t stop her.
An hour later Wayne and Piper were yawning and Melody, already in her pajamas, had fallen asleep. Laura turned off the TV and carried the toddler to the bathroom, where the girl woke up long enough to let Laura brush her teeth before laying her in her crib. The other two fought the bedtime routine as much as they could, but within twenty minutes were asleep as well. Laura tiptoed into the living room, leaving the doors cracked in case the children called her.
She pulled out her phone, dropping into the comfy living room chair and flinging her legs over the arm. Her ponytail pulled, so she tugged off the band and stuck it in her pocket. Jeremy liked her hair down, anyway.
Kids asleep. What are you doing?
She sent the text and closed her eyes, relaxing for the first time that evening. The kids were awesome, but they still wore her out.
Watching the game. Wanna come over? Haha. You know I can’t.
I’ll come there.
She smiled and answered, I’d like that but I promised them—
A photo flashed onto the screen. Jeremy, wearing his best puppy dog look.
How can you resist this?
She laughed and took a selfie holding up her index finger.
I always behave. Video chat?
She set it up, and he answered immediately. “You know you want me to come over.”
She turned down the volume and whispered, “Not happening. The Wengers don’t trust you.”
He feigned shock, then resignation. “I guess this will have to do.” He settled back on his sofa and put a hand behind his head. “You look good.”
“Seriously? I’m wearing macaroni and cheese, and they drenched me during their baths. Plus, Melody ripped my pony- tail out.” She’d fixed it, of course, but it made a good story as to why her hair was down now. Jeremy couldn’t think she always did it for him.
“You still look hot. You always do.”
“You didn’t think so when we were eight.”
“I didn’t think any girls looked good when we were eight.” She laughed.
“See, that’s what I’m talking about, right there. You flash that smile and the world is yours.”
“You sound like that old Christmas movie. The one where the guy calls somebody a peach and says he’ll give the girl the moon.”
“That’s why you put up with me. My sappy language.”
She and Jeremy had always been together. They’d been born within days of each other, their mothers were great friends, and they attended the same church. When Laura was in kindergarten, she’d told her parents she was going to marry Jeremy. They’d laughed and said there were a lot of years and a lot of guys to go through before that could happen. But Laura knew. By the time they were in eighth grade Jeremy knew it, too, once Laura pointed it out to him. They’d been best friends for so long it seemed natural. Especially now that Jeremy had turned into this gorgeous eighteen-year-old with gentle hands and amazing eyes. Laura had no doubts.
A door opened on Jeremy’s end of the line, and Laura heard his mom’s voice. He winked at the phone. “Gotta go. Mom needs ice cream. Can’t say no to that. See you tomorrow night?”
“You bet.” She put a finger on his face. “Love you.” He touched his finger to hers. “Love you, too.”
She terminated the call and sighed. She wished he could come over, but she didn’t blame the Wengers for asking him not to. It wasn’t like she and Jeremy were little kids anymore, playing hide-and-seek or having staring contests. Now they were practi- cally adults, and it felt different when they were together. Way different. In a good way.
Laura grabbed the remote and turned on Say Yes to the Dress, with the sound low so she wouldn’t wake the kids. Normally, she loved the show, but this time, with the dad willing to spend fifteen grand on a gown, she got annoyed. She flipped the channel to the game Jeremy had been talking about, but she didn’t want to watch that. Nothing caught her eye, so she finally turned it off and grabbed The Grapes of Wrath, required reading for English. When that proved too depressing for a Friday night, she tossed it down and went to get a drink. Her phone buzzed, and she grabbed it, already smiling. But it wasn’t Jeremy. Rosie was texting this time, wondering what Laura had decided to wear for homecoming the next weekend.
I bought a black dress at the thrift store. I’m adding jewels.
Are you kidding me?
It’s not that bad & it’s cheap. YOU ARE ON THE COURT!!!
It doesn’t matter what I wear.
A car door slammed outside, and Laura glanced at the clock, surprised the Wengers were home so early. She gathered her stuff but no one came in. She peeked into the garage. It was dark, and the door was shut. Out the front window she could see her own car, the old Bug her parents let her drive, but there was nobody else. Hearing things, she guessed.
Jeremy finally called back, and Laura spent a pleasant hour and a half talking to him—texting Rosie and Brie and Amy in between—until the garage door made its grating sound, and the Wengers tiptoed in. Laura offered them a full report, got her money, and walked out to her Bug.
Seat belt buckled, she turned on the radio and backed out of the drive. She yawned and rubbed her eyes. Bed sounded awfully good after a long week of school. She’d sleep in the next morning, a rare treat.
She was a couple blocks from the Wengers’ when something cold pressed against the back of her neck.
“Do exactly as I say,” said a man, “and everything will be fine.”