I awoke from another troubled sleep. A dream that I couldn’t remember. The only things that would resurface were the glint of something sharp, the screams of a cheering crowd, and pain. So much pain. I sighed, turned over on my side and buried my head into my starchy pillow cover. I took a deep breath and smelled a mix of hair and cleaner that still lingered from the last time that they washed my bedding. Them. My “caretakers” as they liked to call themselves. Whenever asked why we needed caretakers, their reply would always be “Our job is to make sure you all stay healthy and strong, sweetie.” In other words, they were stationed here to make sure that none of us got out of control, had a break down, or went rampant and attacked everyone we knew. But I’m not crazy. I swear. This facility that I’m in, it’s just temporary -- or so I’m told. I was put here because I was “a menace to the public” and I had an “uncontrollable rage” which needed to be kept in check at all times by a staff of orderlies and a plethora of drugs. Ever since lobotomy was outlawed, anaphorodine has been used more and more often to control emotions and effectively keep our hormones down. In this facility, there are about 50 others like me. They come and go, all for various reasons. Nobody stays long; only for about a year, maybe two. Somehow, everyone is transferred or has miraculously been cured of their illness and are now “fit to reenter society.” The creak of my solid metal door opening jolted me from my thoughts. “Hello sweetie,” said a cheery high pitched voice. “You slept well, I hope?”
“It was delightful.” My response dripped with sarcasm.
My orderly, Katie, walked over to my bed, the sound of her heels clicking on the sterile linoleum floor. “Well, that’s fantastic! Are you still getting headaches from the drugs?”
Grunting in response, I flipped over again and opened my eyes for the first time that day. I stared up at the naked bulb hanging from my ceiling surrounded by plain white walls. According to Katie, I had qualified for a new drug which was supposed to help me concentrate and control my anger better. At first, I always woke up with massive headaches in the morning. As time went by I got used to the pains and now, I barely realized they were there.
“Well today you get to talk to Dr. Martin! Won’t that be exciting honey?”
Jesus, I had completely forgotten. Today was my big test. Dr. Martin was the facility’s psychiatrist and also the only male to work here. I had only seen him once, a year ago when I took my first test. After a year of being forced into this facility, the patient is required to meet with Dr. Martin in order for him to evaluate whether or not you are fit to be released back into society. If you fail his tests, you are required to stay another year until he tests you again. Today would be my second chance.
The day went by like a blur. I couldn’t’ focus in Control your Anger! motivational classes and I walked the stark white halls of the facility like a zombie. To make matters worse, the only person in the whole compound that I was remotely friendly with had been released back into society a week before. He promised to write to me but so far, I hadn’t received a single letter. With Fletcher gone, I had no one to talk to or even interact with. When 11 o’clock finally came, I was a nervous wreck. The fidgeting wouldn’t stop and my nails were down to stubs from being bitten so much. This was my chance to a normal life. If I could pass Dr. Martins stupid Rorschach tests and fake my way through his analysis I would be free!
“Sweetie, the doctor will see you now.”
My time had come.
I stepped into the soft blue office and took a seat in an old mahogany chair across from a solid man with a blonde, pointed beard and round, frameless glasses sat behind a metal desk. His fingers were bent into a steeple with his elbows resting on the laminated wood desk top. His angular face gave a rather timeless feeling and the man would have been quiet striking if it weren’t for his solid gray eyes that seemed to stare into my very soul. This was Dr. Martin. When I first met him, I knew I would never forget his face. For a while, Dr. Martin simply sat there staring into my eyes. A grandfather clock ticked in the corner counting the seconds as they went by. After what seemed like eons, Dr. Martin finally spoke.
“So this is your second visit, is it not?” He spoke with a strangely cultivated voice as if English was his second language. Every word was pronounced perfectly, every syllable was enunciated. “By now you should know the procedure,” he continued without waiting for a response. “I will give you a Rorschach test which will be followed with a ten question aptitude test. Are you ready?”
This was it. This was my chance to prove I was ready for society, ready for an actual human life. “Yes. I am ready.”
“What do you see?” He held up a picture of a knife dripping with blood. The next one was a gun pointed at someone’s head. The one after was a man stabbing another with a sword. On and on he showed me images, marking down my response on a pad of paper. After he showed me the last picture, Dr. Martin spoke. “Interesting, I do believe that I have enough information to conduct my analysis without the aptitude test. It should be but a moment. Please, wait outside while I discuss the results with your caretaker.”
I stood up, my legs feeling like the bean mush that they served on Wednesdays. Had I failed again? I simply answer with my honest opinions! Maybe I should have lied. Maybe I should have told him that I saw benign objects like spoons and computers. I sat in the waiting room destroying my nails with my teeth. Finally, Katie stepped out and ushered me back into the office. Once again I sat in the mahogany chair and awaited my verdict.
“After an analysis of your Rorschach test and Katie’s input on how you have behaved in the last year, I have come to the conclusion that you are ready.”
I was ready? Ready for what? Ready to come be released back to society? Ready to start my life over? “Ready? Ready for what?”
“Ready for the Arena.” I felt something sharp stick into my neck. Everything turned sideways and the last thing I saw was Dr. Martin standing up. “Katie, can you please take him to the cages. He will be ready to fight our champion when he awakes.”
When I finally woke up, my head felt as though a thousand hammers were pounding the inside of my skull. With a groan, I sat up and realized I was trapped in a steel cage with bars that jutted from the floor. Straw was strewn across the ground and bits of some kind of strange meat scattered the corners of the cage. The door was chained with a heavy padlock; when I pulled it hard I couldn’t snap it. The lighting was dark, and the air was musty with the stench of sweaty bodies and rotting flesh. I could hear some people breathing heavily and someone else was crying softly in the background. Every once in a while the dull roar of a crowd could be heard through some unseen door. Where the hell was I? Suddenly a door in the back opened, light spilled in from the doorway and the silhouette of a wide shouldered man blocked the light.
“Feeling better? I hope that you have the strength to stand; you’ll need to do much more than that in a few moments,” said a familiar voice with a soft chuckle. “You’ll be facing my champion. Which do you prefer, a sword and shield or a trident and net?”
Of course I recognized the voice, it was the last thing I heard before I awoke! The man stepped closer to the cage and I could make out pointed beard and angular face. “Sword? What are you saying? Is this some kind of sick joke or another test?”
“It is neither. You see, you are about to participate in a contest that is centuries old, dating all the way back to the Roman Empire. You should be honored to be a part of a game that has kept millions of people entertained and even more honored to fight for me, Emperor of Rome. So I repeat, sword or trident?”
Roman Empire? Choosing weapons? With a sinking feeling I realized what he was talking about. Gladiators. But it didn’t make sense. Gladiator fighting died with the Roman Empire didn’t it? It is not 1500 year after that! “Dr. Martin, please,” I begged. “Tell me you are joking. This can’t be real.”
“Oh but it is. We have been training you for this moment for a long time. The drugs, the food, and even your classes. Everything has been tailored so that you will die a valiant death or maybe, surprise the crowd and become our new champion. Since you refuse to choose, I will choose for you.” Dr. Martin strode over to a cart that contained hundreds of weapons and picked up a 4 foot broad sword that looked as though it still had blood crusted on the tip. He threw it down next to my cage and it landed with a metallic clang. “You will fight, or you will die. I’ll leave you to contemplate your last few hours.”
He was being serious. I couldn’t believe it. Fate had me draw straws and I drew the shortest of the shortest ones. As I sat there mourning my bad luck, a man clad in a full chainmail suit threw a piece of some kind of meat through the bars of my cage. “It’s your dinner. Eat. It is energy,” he said gruffly and left. I picked up what appeared to be an uncooked, oddly shaped, chicken leg of some kind and inspected it. I turned it over and realized that it must have been freshly cut; there was still blood seeping out of one end of it. As I inspected closer I became conscience of what I was holding. It was a human arm.
I immediately threw it away, turned around, and threw up what little sustenance I had in my stomach. A human arm? What kind of place is this? I wiped my mouth with my sleeve, gasped and then retched again. The smell of bile and stomach acids filled the air and combined with all of the other putrid aromas that were floating around. I turned away from my mess, leaned against the bars of my cage and cried. I don’t know how long I cried, but, after what seemed like hours, Dr. Martin stepped back into my room and opened my cage. “You will fight. You will die. And you will not resist. I crawled out of the cage, stood up slowly, bent over and picked up the sword. I had come to a resolution. I will fight. And I would survive.
Dr. Martin led me out of a door and down a long hallway. As we proceeded, the roar of the crowd got louder. My palms turned sweaty and I could barely grasp the handle of my sword. Finally, we reached another door on which was inscribed “Mori Fortiter. Mori Tragice.” Underneath it said, “Go on hero. Die with honor.”
“You will not interfere with the match that is happening. No matter what you see, you will not talk or move. If you do, I will have the guards shoot you where you stand.”
I gulped and nodded as Dr. Martin opened the door. The deafening rumble of the crowd filled my ears and I was blinded by an intense light from above. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a steel cage, about 30 feet high and 40 feet across. The metal bars arched up and connected at the top; a huge spotlight shone down upon the sandy ground in the cage. A massive pentagram was inscribed on the bloody sand. At each point was a word and another word in the center. Together they read “HONORA LUDOS. HONORA MORTEM. HONOREM GLADIATORES.” Surrounding the ring was rows upon rows of seats, all of them spilling over with screaming people. As I stared in wonder, I noticed two figures inside the ring. One was dressed in leather armor and carried nothing but a mace. The other was laden down with a huge bronze shield and fully cloaked in bronze armor. In his right hand, he carried a 9 foot spear. He was clearly losing. The man in the bronze tried to shield bash the other but he was too quick and nimbly leapt to the side. At the same time, he brought his mace smashed down upon his foes helmet; the other man staggered back with a huge dent in his helmet. He tried to stab the better man with his spear, but the leather clad one side stepped, grabbed it, snapped the spear in half, and kicked the man in the chest. Exhausted, he fell over, arms splayed out in defeat. The other man kicked off his helmet and raised his mace above his head. Before bringing it down, he turned to Dr. Martin, as if awaiting orders. When he turned, I recognized the man that held the mace. The man was Fletcher.
As I squinted in disbelief, I saw that it was Fletcher and at the same time it wasn’t him. His mouth was sewn shut and his forehead had a huge scar across it. The crowd started to chant “kill! Kill!” but Fletcher simply looked at Dr. Martin expectantly. Dr. Martin shook his head and held his thumb down. I shut my eyes and turned away as I heard the sickening crunch of skull and the crowds roaring approval. When I looked back, Fletcher was raising his hands in victory; the other man was being dragged away leaving a trail of blood. “Now it is your turn.” Dr. Martin pushed me towards the cage and forced me inside. He then raised his hands and the crowd became deathly silent. “After that spectacular show, I present to you a specimen that has been cultivated to extreme ferociousness!” Dr. Martin announced. “He has been receiving our specialty drug for months and it will make him stronger, faster, and ruthless! Will he be able to withstand our champion’s wrath? Place your bets as the final game for this evening begins!”
The crowd cheered as Dr. Martin stepped out of the cage and locked me in with Fletcher. Fletcher turned and I stared in his eyes trying to find the man I once knew. As I looked into the black abysses, I saw nothing of the former human, only a cold, calculated killing machine. A voice boomed “Fight!” and with that, Fletcher charged me with his mace held high. I side stepped and slashed at him with my elbow, just barely catching his back. Fletcher stumbled by and the crowd thundered with approval. I followed up with a kick that would have sent him flying put Fletcher grabbed my leg and flipped me over. I landed hard on my back, the wind getting knocked out of me, my sword flying to the side. Fletcher filled my vision, his mace coming down towards my unprotected chest. At the last second, I rolled away and tried to leg sweep him, but quick as lightning, Fletcher changed the course of his mace and connected with my leg. I heard a sickening crunch and pain flared up my leg. I fell over and I knew I was dead. Fletcher could sense defeat as well and threw away his mace as he walked over to my fallen sword. He picked it up and then came over and stood on my arms so that I couldn’t escape. With the sword point positioned above my chest, Fletcher looked at Dr. Martin for my verdict. When the crowd cried with bloodlust, I knew that I was doomed. The sword flashed as it was brought down upon my chest and it felt as though the weight of a thousand boulders had descended on my chest. The crowd’s cries faded as I looked up at the spotlight. The edges of my eyesight started to black out and if felt at peace. I knew I was dead and yet I felt relieved. Quietly, I took my last look at the world, closed my eyes, and slipped into a deep, peaceful darkness.
I awoke from another troubled sleep. A dream that I couldn’t remember. The only things that would resurface were the glint of something sharp, the screams of a cheering crowd, and pain. So much pain…..
© Copyright 2016 James Stoller. All rights reserved.
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