Kuren pushed water from his eyes. He tasted sweat. Rain through the trees drowned all sound but his sneakers on the trail.
He steadied his pace: 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5. The odd number made him run more evenly.
He thought of Zanelle, her ivory skin, her rich red hair, her smile. She sat in the third row most days.
Professor Zimblebache hadn't presented “The Annals” as anything other than ancient mythology, studied for its literary value. The symbiosis between the human genome and the V-virus reached back as far into the evolutionary past as anyone could see. It accounted for humans' high protein requirements and the intolerance for ultraviolet light.
But “The Annals” imagined time before the virus, when humans walked in daylight, ate plants, and talked to higher beings.
His shirt tugged at his shoulders. He smelled the warm clay. He glanced around and listened.
The virus gave modern humans their remarkable ability to regenerate compared to other species, and neuroscientists were starting to suspect the virus also sharpened sensation, making hunger irresistible.
He had heard stories of mountain villagers, snowed in and running out of livestock, who bled one another dry.
He thought of how Zanelle's eyes sparkled in the moonlight and what it would be like to touch her cheek.
Then he felt guilty for having Zanelle and cannibals in the same train of thought.
He felt the vibration of his footfalls on the bridge and heard water gurgle over rocks below. The mist lent trees an erie animation.
His pace had quickened. Idly he wondered whether his subconscious was trying to make the semester go by faster.
The last week was when Professor Zimblebache would discuss the last book in “The Annals.”
The chapters he'd scanned, told how one king rebelled against the other two and cursed them. And in dying, the third king had said “the curse of night recoils on itself and will someday be undone by day.”
He caught the scent of a deer off the trail to the left. He heard it fleeing through the trees. He thought of its breathing, its heart hammering blood through its veins.
He was hungry.
The rain increased as the trail reached the lakeshore.
He wondered if those last villagers felt hunger or loneliness when spring finally came. It was one thing to leave the weak behind, in Kuren's mind, another thing to appropriate their lives.
Ms. Bertka, his high school health teacher, had assumed her students would experiment. “A relationship is good when each side gets something valued from the other,” she said, her index finger extended slightly, as though pulling some fine thread down into view.
The characters in “The Annals” seemed not to live on sliding scales between self-care and exploitation. That was the most attractive of the things that made them so far fetched.
Yesternight Zanelle caught him admiring her. He was on the cafeteria deck, partly for fresh air, partly to get away from the chattering crowd. He sipped his “bloodshake”―the student's name for the cafeteria's protein and hemoglobin drinks. She and some friends were at the table by the door.
Kuren jerked his mind back to the present. The only sounds he heard were rain, his breathing, and his footsteps. The flatness of the lake faded into gray.
He heard thunder to the west. The trail turned uphill.
Kuren focused on his stride, trying to take three steps each second, 1-2-3, 1-2-3.
His feet splashed through a puddle. He passed a giant elm. It smelled of earth.
Then he saw a blinding flash and felt himself thrown head first to the ground.
Kuren came to lying on his face, the elm, a steaming, splintered silhouette.
He felt raindrops on his neck.
He turned his head. Pain gripped his back and neck and shoulder. Half the tree had fallen on the trail.
Thoughts flashed through his mind. He'd have to feed to heal that big a wound. The deer. Zanelle.
A hooded figure stepped toward him. Kuren felt the stranger's gaze like searing light.
Kuren moved to drag himself away. Who, what was that? Pain ripped through his back. He gasped for air.
The stranger shouldered the branch, grasped Kuren under each arm, and pulled him free.
Kuren thought he must have screamed. He couldn't hear. What felt like light was burning through him. He couldn't see.
He felt his back against a tree and realized he was sitting up, no longer conscious of the pain.
He thought he recalled the stranger's face, but not details, except that burning light, the outline of a hood.
Kuren didn't know how long he sat there. Gradually he heard the rain. His body trembled.
Distant thunder startled him. Every movement hurt. He remembered where he was.
Zanelle. He wondered what she'd think. He hadn't wondered that before.
The rain had almost ceased as he turned into the lane leading to the house. The first hints of lighter gray worked their way into the eastern sky.