Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Page 33

  I lurch against the claw-hold, but can’t break free. Fire fills my air-starved lungs, and I wonder if this is how I’m going to die, before I ever see the pits.

  “Taser! Cage eleven! Now! It’s going to kill the Ten!” someone screams.

  Electricity travels from the fingers gouging my flesh, into my blood, and heats the cuffs on my forearms. The fingers lose their power and fall away. The heat fizzles out of my body, but I’m too limp to move. I gasp and fill my burning lungs with air.

  Somewhere, someone is screaming, “He’s bending the bars! Taser thirteen!” Other voices call out orders and mingle with the scream. Cool hands find my neck and probe for a pulse.

  “I’m not dead,” I say, panting. My voice box hardly works.

  Hands clasp my ankles and drag me out of the cage, through the pile of cold uneaten food. Outside the cage, I’m lifted into a chair. Metal cinches down on my wrists, ankles, and neck, pinning me immobile into the chair. My pinky throbs. My neck aches. My hair is plastered to the side of my face with saliva and cold onion slop.

  I am wheeled past two clean-cut men talking to Arrin. One has a knife in his hand—a sparkling, new-looking blade. The man holding the knife looks at me as I pass and then hands the knife through the bars of the cage to Arrin. I crane my neck to see more, but someone smacks me on the back of the head.

  “Face forward,” the person pushing the chair orders. So I do.

  We pass rows and rows of cages. Those that are occupied hold muscular beasts or filthy, boney Fecs. No one else like me—no one normal. We come to a door at the end of the cage hallway. A young man, probably about my age, types something into a keypad and the door opens. I am wheeled into a tan-and-green-tiled room occupied by four muscle-heavy guards.

  I sit a little taller. Something about this place is familiar, with its rows of lockers and shower stalls, automatic hand dryers and sinks, and toilets in separate stalls. The air smells like … women—hairspray, lotion, perfume, powder—and bleach. Seeing the toilets reminds me how badly I need to go to the bathroom.

  “Can I use the toilet?” My throat hurts too much to talk louder than a whisper.

  There’s a collective inhale of breath. “She talks,” someone whispers.

  “Are they sure she’ll fight back?” another voice asks.

  “Of course she will. Two Tens in one match? That’s never happened before. If she doesn’t fight she’ll be killed,” the young man, the one pushing my wheelchair, says.

  My chair stops, and the metal bars release my neck and ankles. The young man walks to the front of my chair, followed by the four guards. From a hook on the wall, the young man takes a scrub brush affixed to the end of a ten-foot pole and examines me with nervous eyes.

  “Do you want me to cuff her ankles, Lance?” one of the guards asks.

  “I don’t think she needs them,” the young man—Lance—answers.

  The guard ignores him and steps up to me, ankle cuffs in hand. “Better safe than dead,” he says, kneeling in front of me. “Don’t kick me or I’ll zap you,” he warns. He lifts my pants and slides the cuffs into place. They clink together and I’m immobile.

  “Stand her up and hook her,” Lance orders.

  The metal slides off my neck and wrists, and retracts into the wheelchair. I am hoisted from the chair by two of the guards, their hands clamped on my elbows. They carry me, my feet dragging on the floor, to a shower stall, and hook my wrist cuffs onto a meat hook attached to a chain hanging down from the ceiling. The ankle cuffs are attached to another meat hook that’s chained on the floor. I’m stretched tight between them, immobile. All I can do is turn my head from side to side and blink. My pinky finger pounds with building pressure, and my shoulders feel on the verge of dislocating.

  Water turns on and falls onto me from above. Lance grips the ten-foot-long scrub brush, squirts something onto it, and swings it toward my head. He starts with my face, dragging the stiff bristles against my skin. Soap gets into my eyes, burning them, so I squeeze them shut. After a minute, Lance moves the scrubber to my hair and scrubs so hard I might go bald. When he’s satisfied with the cleanliness of my hair, he moves the brush over every inch of my body—both clothing and skin—rubbing me raw with his fervor.

  “What are you doing?” I splutter, and swallow a mouthful of soap.

  The scrub brush pauses and Lance looks at me. “Getting you ready to fight. We’ve discovered that people feel more sympathy for the fighters if they’re clean. And if they feel more sympathy, they make higher bets. ”

  The water stops and I’m released from the chains and, sopping wet, sat back in the chair. The metal bars lock me in.

  “Please don’t put me in the pits,” I say, my eyes darting between Lance and the four burly guards. The guards look at each other, then at Lance.

  “Are you sure she’s on the verge of turning?” one asks, his eyes worried.

  “No, I’m not!” I blurt, staring at him with pleading eyes. “I’m norm—”

  Lance’s hand slaps fire to my face. My head jolts to the side, my skin stings, and tears fill my eyes. “Don’t cry,” he orders, glaring at me. “Of course she’s on the verge. She’s a Ten!”

  “Why are you doing this?” I ask, blinking the tears down my cheeks.

  The guard folds his arms over his wide chest and steps in front of Lance. “This is wrong,” he says.

  “Shut up,” Lance replies, glancing nervously at me. “You’re getting paid a double ration of food for your family to keep your mouth shut, remember? And she’s a Ten!”

  “This is wrong,” he says again. “And I can’t let you pass. ”

  Lance looks over the guard’s shoulder and nods. The barrel of another guard’s gun is slammed into the back of the guard’s head, and he flops into a pile at my feet.

  With a renewed urgency, Lance locks me into the chair and wheels me to the other side of the locker room and through a door. The three remaining guards follow. And now I know why this place is so familiar. I’m in the old recreation center. The swimming pool is through a glass door on my right. But the pool looks different. Rows of stadium bleachers are set up around it. And people, mostly men, are filing in, fighting over the front-row seats.

  “Wow. Big crowd,” Lance says, pushing my chair away from the pool.

  “Who are you betting on?” a guard asks.

  “The female,” Lance says, as if it should be obvious.

  “Her? The Ten?”

  “No way I’d bet on her. She’s going down first. I’m betting on the female Five. ”

  I am wheeled into an elevator that smells like diesel exhaust and urine. The door slides shut with a rusty groan, the elevator hums, and we go down. When we come out, everything is dark, and the smell of chlorine stings my nose. The chair’s metal restraints open, and I’m prodded forward. I stand. The chair is whisked away, and behind me a door slams. My cuffs spring apart and I can move again.

  I am in the dark.

  And I am alone.

  Chapter 33

  The room is small and square, with a door at each end. A thin stream of light trickles around the frame of the door across from the one I came through, enough of a glow that I can barely see after my eyes have adjusted. The room holds nothing. It smells like urine and bleach and damp.

  Overhead, the ceiling rumbles with the sound of pounding feet. Excited voices carry to my room, shouting and clapping and whistling. I plug my ears, lean against the wall, and start humming Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess. ”

  Time passes, but I have no way to measure it. Cold from the cement wall bites through my wet shirt and seeps into my skin, making me shiver. My hollow stomach rumbles, and I need to use the bathroom. Judging by the smell, I could pee anywhere in this room—the whole thing is like a bathroom. But I don’t. Because I am not a beast.

  Overhead, the frenzy of feet grows louder, shakes the room around me. I
push harder against my ears, hum louder, but nothing will drown out the sound.

  I hear a deep, rumbling echo—hear it way down in my chest—and take my hands from my ears. The pounding feet and voices have grown quiet. Only one voice buzzes in my head—the source of the rumbling.

  “… a real treat. A twofer! A double match for the price of a single, two for one!” the voice booms. Noise explodes, cheering, and I cover my ears. After a minute the deep buzz of the broadcast voice is back. I drop my hands and listen.

  “That’s right. A double match, ladies and gents! We are—” The voice stops and the crowd goes silent. I wait a long moment, the only sound my own heart, before the commentator comes back on.

  “We have a special visitor, folks. It looks like Governor Soneschen is going to be joining us for today’s match! This is another first—a day of firsts! Let’s clear out the front row for him and his personal guard!” The crowd cheers again, but not with as much enthusiasm. “Now, like I was saying before our illustrious governor graced us with his presence, I’m going to start this twofer special with a matched fight—Level Four versus Level Four. So make your bets, get your popcorn, find your seats, and enjooooy the show!” The crowd grows eerily silent without so much as a pair of feet walking overhead. I strain to hear what’s going on, waiting.

  Something happens. Something changes. The air around me shifts, a faint stirring that carries with it the scents of fresh popcorn and body odor. Through the cracks in my door frame, I hear guttural breathing. I creep to the door and press my eye to the crack. My knees grow weak and I cling to the wall, but I don’t take my eye from the crack.

  Two boy beasts, the baby fat barely gone from their cheeks, stand in a brightly lit pale-blue room. They are facing each other, circling, their muscular bodies tense. One leaps for the other, and a clap of noise—cheering—vibrates my bones. The beasts throw their arms around each other, topple, and start rolling around on the floor. Scratching. Biting. Clawing. And people are cheering, like they’re at a basketball game and their team just scored.
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