Sixteen-year-old Avene was sentenced to prison at thirteen for a crime she didn’t commit. Now she has a chance to win her freedom back – if she enters the Headhunters Race. Second prize isn’t so bad either, an upgrade to the Leisure Prison if you make it to the finish line. To win either prize, Avene and the other prisoners must navigate one hundred and fifty miles of dense forest, desert, and worst of all, cannibal territory.
With a mechanical collar timed to strangle the prisoners if they’re not back in nine days, Avene allies herself with seventeen-year-old McCoy, another prisoner that insists on helping her at every turn and a boy she’s trying hard not to fall for. Together they battle nature, other prisoners, and the timed death collars to win the coveted prize. But when Avene is tested with one deadly conflict after another, she realizes there is more at stake than winning her freedom – first she has to survive.
This excerpt is from the day the race starts and Avene is getting ready.
Hours later, when the birds start chirping, I know it’s almost time to wake up. I get out of bed and change into my special clothes. The ones I’ve been saving for this day: a sturdy pair of jeans and a man’s blue flannel shirt. Underneath I wear my white fitted tee-shirt, depicting a crudely drawn skull. I added the crossbones bearing a set of daggers with a nearly dried-up marker I found a year ago. It represents my mantra for the race: stay away from me or I’ll kill you.
I tie my sheath around my thigh, re-lace my boots with longer and sturdier cord I found on a pair of men’s boots in the goodie two shoes clothing pile, and then gulp down several handfuls of water. I wipe the droplets from my mouth while I pace like a caged panther. A few minutes later I slug down another five handfuls before I remember to fill my water bottle.
Zita leans up on her elbow. "You’re sure you want to do this?"
"I have to, Zita. It’s our only way out. The only way we’ll be free."
She throws off her cover and leaps to her feet. "Well, we better do something with that hair. They’ll start calling the prisoners out soon."
Zita snatches our slop container from the table. She fills it with dirt from the corner and mixes in a bit of water. "I’m not sure how well this will work," she says, stirring it with her finger. "Sit."
I sit on the ground cross-legged at her feet. She kneels beside me, takes a small lock of hair, and rubs mud all through the strands. The stringy tresses stick together, cold and wet against my cheek. After one side of my head is finished, she steps back and surveys her work. "Nope, this isn’t working. Your roots are still too light."
"Why don’t you wash her whole head in it?" says McCoy.
I stiffen. Leave it to him to think of dunking my whole head in mud.
"You’re a genius!" says Zita. She grabs my arm and pulls me to my feet. "Help me," she says to McCoy and I cringe at the thought of him touching my head when I’m a direct competitor. He might send his ninja blade across my neck.
He grabs the sink, half full of water, water I need to drink, and dumps three quarters of it into the corner. "Hey, I need to drink that!" I say.
"You can drink ours," says McCoy.
Right. I’m not going to drink theirs. He’d love that. Especially now that he’s going to have to hunt on his own and the only way he knows how is by poaching off me.
Zita stops short of pouring in handfuls of dirt. Instead she goes to the fire pit and scoops out gobs of ash. She swishes it around with her fingers, stares at it like she’s not satisfied, and goes ahead and dumps in a handful of dirt anyway. "Okay, bend over, girl."
I lean over the sink while Zita pours the murky mixture over my hair and massages it in. It’s gritty and gross.
"Hand me that old shirt in the corner," says Zita.
I’m looking upside down at McCoy while he retrieves the old shirt she uses as her dust rag. She wrings out my hair and then places the shirt over top and squeezes out the excess water. "I wish I had a comb," she says, flipping my head up and steering my behind back to the ground.
"It’s okay, I can use my fingers," I say.
McCoy dashes into their room. "Boom has one, hold on."
I lean my head back in defeat. He’s determined to help me, to make me feel obligated to help him in return, but his niceties aren’t going to work on me.
Kimberly is the mother of two awesome kids, wife of the nicest man in the world, and her dog’s best friend. She works by day and writes middle grade and young adult science fiction and fantasy novels in her spare time. She lives with her family in the beautiful Sonoran Desert.
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