Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Page 35

  Arris scrambles to his feet and leaps onto me, his knees pinning my wrists to the ground, and stares into my eyes. He lifts his knife and grins, watching for my reaction instead of striking. I don’t wait for his knife to find my flesh. With a grunt, I thrust my knee between his legs, hard. His eyes grow wide, the knife trembles in his hand, and he topples, rolling off of me to stare goggle-eyed at the glass seal overhead. And now there’s no doubt. He’s male.

  I jump to my feet and watch him. The advantage is mine. I could take the knife from his hand and eliminate him from the fight, but I don’t. The thought makes me sick. Instead, I creep past Jonah and the female Five to the other side of the pool and cower. Overhead, the crowd is staring, starved for action, insane with their desire for blood. The governor’s eyes never leave me.

  “What did I tell you, folks? Looks like our female Ten isn’t as soft as she appears to be,” the commentator cries.

  Across the pool, Arris drags himself to his feet and glares. Hunched over, gripping his stomach, he skirts around the two flailing beasts and cautiously approaches me. In spite of his youth, his eyes are old and filled with a hatred so deep, I can feel it.

  “Why are you trying to kill me?” I call out to him. “Why do you hate me so badly?”

  The noise of the crowd dulls to nothing. Confused by the sudden silence, I look up. The people crammed onto the stadium benches are staring down at me, mouths hanging open, eyebrows knit in confusion, shocked. The governor stands and walks to the edge of the pool, stopping beside a short man dressed all in white, with a round belly straining his shirt. The governor says something to the man.

  “Cut the pit sound,” the man in white says, his booming voice annoyed. He is the commentator, the Shadow Man. And he’s just been given an order he doesn’t like. The governor nods and returns to his seat. “Folks, don’t worry yourselves over the Ten. The governor just assured me that she can’t talk. That was the Three speaking. ”

  From the corner of my eye I see Arris leap. I lift my hands to defend myself and am slammed into the pool floor again, skidding across the rough cement. The breath whooshes out of me. Heat stabs my forearm as Arris’s knife connects with it, slicing downward. His eyes, mere inches above mine, fill with glee.

  I buck Arris off and roll onto him, grabbing his knife-hand wrist with both of my hands. But my injured hand won’t grip. And Arris is strong—his thin, wiry, vein-covered arm no match for me. Recognition niggles at my brain. I have seen this before, in myself and in my brother, symptoms of violence that are accompanied by an inhuman increase in strength.

  Arris is on the verge of turning.

  He shoves me off him like I’m a thin, limp blanket, perches on my chest with his bare feet, and leaning over, brings the knife to my throat. I clasp his wrist with both my hands and stop the knife a millimeter from my flesh.

  “I hate you,” he gasps, his body taut with the effort of getting his knife to my throat. “It’s not fair that you’re not a beast! And the militia helped you. Bowen helped you. No one ever helped me!” I struggle against him, trembling from the strain of keeping his knife off my skin, and he laughs. “All I have to do is kill you and the governor will let me live inside the wall,” he says. “Finally, someone is helping me. ”

  Heat fills my blood, fire tightens my muscles, and I move the knife an inch away from my neck. Confusion fills Arris’s eyes. “You’re strong. Stronger than you should be,” he says. The confusion in his eyes turns to satisfaction. “But my knife is already at your throat. ”

  The knife presses harder and Arris’s eyes grow darker. I squeeze my eyes shut and focus every bit of strength I have into keeping his knife from my throat.

  “Open your eyes and stare death in the face,” Arris growls.

  I open my eyes and stare into his. Little by little, the knife moves toward my neck until it brushes my skin.

  I grit my teeth and close my eyes, and an unexpected heaviness flattens my body into the ground. I can’t breathe, can’t move, am completely trapped beneath Arris’s slight body.

  Did he just kill me? Is this how it feels to die?

  I blink and stare into Arris’s shocked, bulging eyes. Blue bleeds into his full red lips, and tan hands are cinched around his pale, sinewy neck. Arris’s knife clatters to the pool floor beside my ear.

  Jonah lifts Arris from me and drags him to the far side of the pool, and I think I just might live for three more seconds. Until a warm, hard weight crushes me.

  The female beast stares down at me, knees straddling my hips. I grab Arris’s knife from the floor and swing it at her chest, but she swats it out of my hand without taking her eyes from mine. Her hands grip my hands and slam them beside my ears, making my broken finger snap and flame with pain. She peels her lips from her teeth and stares at my neck.

  “Look at this, folks! The female Five finally has her chance with the female Ten! She’s going for the throat!” the commentator shrieks. “And by the way the Five is taking control, I’d say she’s going to be victorious … but wait! Look at this, look at this!” He can barely contain his glee. “The male Ten! He’s coming in for a piece of the fun, too! Both of them against the female Ten!”

  Jonah jumps onto the female, crushing us both beneath his weight. He grabs her shoulders and yanks her up. She doesn’t let go of me, grips my hands more tightly and pulls me to my feet. Jonah wraps his arms around her shoulders and flings her to the side. Her hands lose their grip on mine, claws raking my flesh. She flies through the air and strikes the side of the pool. And then I am living my worst nightmare—Jonah coming for me. He takes me by the waist and heaves me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

  “What? This is new!” the commentator blares. “Maybe he’ll body slam her into the wall?” The crowd cheers. “Bash her brains out against the floor?” They cheer louder, and I cling to the threadbare shirt hanging on my brother’s back.

  Jonah hobbles to the side of the pit and stops, setting me gently on the floor with my back to the pool wall. He steps in front of me, faces the female, and crouches. I am stunned. Shocked. At this simple act of protection, tears sting my eyes, and my throat aches with the desire to sob.

  The crowd starts booing. The female Five doesn’t budge from her side of the pool—just stands panting and staring at Jonah.

  “What in the world? This is a first! It looks as though the male Ten is actually protecting the female Ten! I don’t believe it! Maybe he’s saving her for last? For dessert?” the commentator barks.

  The governor stands and walks over the top of the pool, his hard-soled shoes clicking on the glass seal, and stops beside the commentator. Unheard words pass between them, while Jonah remains crouched in front of me and the female beast stays on the far side of the pool. After a moment, the commentator grins and the governor sits back down.

  “It’s no wonder he got himself appointed governor! This guy is wily!” the commentator says with a chuckle. “He’s suggested another first for the day! Listen to this, folks … shall we add a … handicap … to the male Ten?”

  The crowd starts pounding their feet on the bleachers and chanting, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

  My cuffs fill with heat, but it is Jonah’s wrist cuffs that meld together. The female, as if sensing her sudden advantage, hisses and takes a step closer. Jonah crouches lower and waits. The female begins pacing back and forth, her blood-streaked body tense, eyes never leaving Jonah. It is like watching two caged lions.

  A drawn-out minute passes, and then two, and the crowd begins to lose some of its enthusiasm. I look up and meet the governor’s nervous eyes. His mouth hardens, and he waves the commentator over. More words pass between them, and then the commentator moves to the very center of the pool, right above Jonah.

  “Shall we add another handicap?” the commentator asks, lifting his hands into the air and spinning in a slow circle. The crowd cheers, chants again, yes yes yes. Jonah’s legs snap together
and he falls to his side. His elbow crunches when it impacts the cement and he screams, curling into a fetal ball. Bone, pink with blood, protrudes from his elbow.

  The female doesn’t wait. She’s soaring through the air, teeth bared, eyes locked on me. I stand to run and trip over Jonah, toppling to the floor, palms skidding on cement.

  Something cinches around my ankle just below the cuff, and I can’t move. I’m dragged across the floor, back over Jonah’s writhing body, and lifted up off the ground. The pool floor falls beneath me, wind whips my clean hair against my face, and with a hearty crunch, my shoulder and head smack into the cement wall. Stars flash before my open eyes, and a numb tingling works its way into my fingers and toes, legs and arms, saturating my whole body as darkness hovers around my open eyes.

  “Ha! Did you see that? Slammed into the side of the pool!” Delight fills the commentator’s voice. “And now, the male Ten has the Five’s ankle and he’s not letting go!”

  Unable to move, I stare up at the glass seal, at the crowd of people staring down at me and cheering for my death. At the women—gasping, disgusted, but not looking away. At the men—drooling for violence and blood. And it hits me. They all want me to die. Me! Who cowers at the side of the pool instead of inflicting pain and death. Not the violent female beast who is obviously insane. Me. The piano prodigy, daughter of a retired war veteran, gentle me.

  Because I have the oval with ten marks on my hand.

  I ask myself, as I stare up into those faces, Do I want to live? If I survive the pit, will I be forced to live in this world I see above me? From where I lie, it appears to be a world worth dying to avoid. And so I don’t care if I live or die.

  Then a pair of brown boots steps onto the glass and stops directly above me. Someone dressed in militia brown falls to his knees, palms on the glass seal, looking down. His fist thumps the glass, and his mouth starts moving with a silent onslaught of angry words. And all of a sudden I remember something. I do want to live. Because if I am with the person kneeling on the glass above, I am home.
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