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James and Katherine had been exploring the housing market for three months now, trying to find the perfect home to settle into before their first child made his grand entrance into the world.
Apple Valley seemed like the perfect place to plant their roots. Being a gated community, Katherine knew it would be safe. When Michael grew up he could make friends with the other kids on their block, and even attend the local preschool. Plus, the houses were marvelous and incredibly cheap.
James was dragging their heavy, floral-print couch into their new house when their neighbour from across the street made his way over. James was a scrawny guy, so it was easy to see why Mr. Hughes, a big, middle-aged balding man, would think James needed some help.
"There we go," Mr. Hughes said as he lifted the back end of the couch. The two men carried it inside, and then James went to get them both a glass of water.
"Thanks for the help."
"No problem. That's what neighbours are for, right?"
"So," Mr. Hughes said after he took a big gulp of water, "where did you two move from?"
"Ashwood. Not bad, but not exactly the best place to raise a child, either."
"Well, Apple Valley is wonderful. My wife, Maureen, is the chairman of the Homeowner's Association, so if you have any questions don't hesitate to ask."
Mr. Hughes was almost out the door when he stopped and stared at a photo of James and Katherine on a hike at Yosemite National Park. "The annual community dinner party is tonight. You should really drop by, it's always a good time." He looked back at James and smiled. "Our place at seven. And bring your wife, it's a family event."
James wanted to say no, but he didn't want their new neighbours to dislike them immediately. They had already had that problem when they first moved to Ashwood and refused to attend the drunken block party on Halloween.
"There's still time to back out, you know," Katherine said as she straightened her husband's tie. She had made it perfectly clear throughout the day that she didn't want to go, but also understood why they had to. James assured her they would just make a quick appearance and then leave early.
What's the worst that could happen?
When James and Katherine arrived the room was already buzzing. Champagne was being passed around, and as soon as they made eye contact with their new neighbours the questions started flying. Four separate times Katherine had to explain when she was due, and James told six different people that he was a freelance writer.
By the time dinner rolled around, Katherine was starving. The roast smelled amazing, and the glazed carrots were glistening under the dim dining room light. At six months pregnant she was used to eating for two, but today she hadn't even snacked since lunch.
When everyone had cleaned their plates, Mr. Hughes stood up and tapped his champagne glass with his fork. "Now, I know you're all anxious to get to the main event, but before you make your way to the backyard please stack your dishes in the sink to make it easier for Maria."
James and Katherine glanced at each other, wondering what the main event could be.
Everyone gathered behind the house and took a seat on the bleachers that had been constructed near the garage. It only took James a second to notice the big red circle that had been spray painted on the beautifully kept grass.
"Welcome, everyone, welcome," Mr. Hughes said as he shuffled people along. Mrs. Hughes, a short, chubby woman with big blonde hair, handed him a top hat with what looked like paper scraps inside. "Now, it's time to choose our annual competitors."
"Competitors?" James whispered to his wife. "Competitors for what?"
Mr. Hughes reached inside and pulled out the first slip. "Here we are. The first competitors are... Anthony and Maxine Mitchell!" The crowd cheered and, although they were smiling, the Mitchells looked uneasy. "The second family is... James and Katherine Williams!"
When James and Katherine refused to stand, Mr. Hughes pulled out a revolver and aimed directly at James' head. "It's your turn. You've been selected."
"For what?" Katherine asked the woman sitting next to her.
"A fight to the death."
James swallowed hard as Mr. Hughes handed each of them a small, serrated knife.
"This is a joke, right?"
"Of course not," Mr. Hughes said with a smile, "why do you think your house was on the market?"