After the fight, I’m herded back into the holding pens and kept until another handler comes to get me. This one isn’t a black-clad Arena handler. He isn’t even wearing a gun or carrying a muzzle mask. Instead, this handler wears the navy blue uniform of my owner’s estate, his name embroidered in glittering gold thread on the left breast and a long chain of steel hanging from his belt.
In my adrenaline-induced hyperstate, I smell The Estate between the threads of his uniform—a mixture of different animal scents, fresh grown hay, pesticides, and sweat. Under everything else, there hides a hint of something more sinister. Something very specific.
The drop of citrus hidden on the handler’s clothes is placed there intentionally. Wayler knows exactly what he’s doing by placing that essence somewhere on the handler’s being, because that’s the scent they use to train me, to torture me, to subdue me. That’s the smell of my night terrors and hauntings, a misery that I can’t begin to explain or describe.
Whatever microscopic amount is on this new handler is enough to make me hold out my arms and cower as he clasps the chains around my wrists. It’s enough to make me—the now four-time Arena champion—allow a human to pull me out of the faux-safety of the pens and to an armored van painted the same shade of Navy as his uniform.
He opens the double back doors and motions for me to step inside. It’s empty, except for one metal ring hanging from the ceiling and a stool bolted to the floor. I do as I’m told, and he connects my chain to the metal ring and slams the door closed behind him.
I’m left completely alone in the soothing silence of our transport with my arms hanging awkwardly above my head.
Light filters down through the air holes drilled in the roof, casting long poles across the darkness. Each one illuminates a new polka dot on the floor, but they leave the thick comforter of darkness alone. I watch the little puffs of dirt in the air flutter through those beams of light and relax on the stool as well as I can. My chin slips down to my chest, desperate for rest. Long after the van has started moving, I drift off into a deep sleep.
The rides to and from the Arena are probably the best hours of my life. At the Estate, I’m constantly training. At the Arena, the nerves of an approaching fight render me incapable of relaxing for even a second. It’s in the blackness of the van that my brain shuts down for once and allows my body to catch up on much needed sleep.
Yet, with sleep comes dreams, and there’s nothing pleasant about dreams anymore.
I always start out back at home, at the little white house on the corner of Main. A long planter full of irises sits in front of the porch. Windchimes dance in a soft breeze. A single wooden rocking chair slowly moves back and forth and back and forth as I watch from the sidewalk. I’m barefoot, as always nowadays, and my feet are caked in dirt.
My mom is humming in the kitchen while she washes dishes. I can’t see her face; it’s one of the many things I’ve forgotten over the past five years. Yet, her soft, black hair stands bright and clear, a beacon, drawing me closer to the house.
Everything about the dream is calm and sweet to begin with; that’s how they always are. I stand on the sidewalk and listen to my mom humming, the birds chirping, and the wind chimes playing. I bask in the warm sunlight and run both hands over my hairless arms— just to feel how smooth they are.
As time ticks by, though, my body inches closer to the door. It isn’t my feet doing the taking, but instead, my body just seems to shift on its own accord. When I knock on the door, I notice that my hands are normal as well.
In my dreams, I’m always my past eleven-year-old self. One hundred percent human. Nothing more, nothing less.
Soon after I knock, the dream begins to fall apart. My mom stops humming, and her footsteps echo out towards me as she crosses the house. Time stalls as the knob turns and the dark, oak door opens slowly to reveal the shaky figure of a woman who I faintly remember looking like.
Although a blur has replaced her face, I can definitely hear her screaming. I stumble backwards, trying to open my mouth and tell her that it’s okay. It’s just me. Your only daughter. The child you raised for eleven years. The girl you used to drive to soccer games and piano practice, the one with straight A’s in school and a perfectly clean discipline record. The one who is too talkative, but you say means well and could be a politician one day because she knows how to debate with a wall.
Yet, my mouth doesn’t work. It won’t open, and I can’t force my tongue to do anything other than sit in my mouth like an anchor. When I take another step backwards, my foot slips off the porch. My arms windmill through the air, but I’m falling.
Head over heels. Forever. Screaming.
I can see the bottom, but I can’t ever reach it.
And no matter how many times this dream has repeated, I can’t seem to shake the feeling of utter terror or of total shame, because as I fall, I realize why my mom was scared of me.
I’m not human.
I never will be again.
I blink, and I’m strapped to the metal table I woke up on five years ago. Everything is cold and sterile, and the world smells of iodine and bleach. The restraints dig into my skin, but my mouth and hands hurt more than that. It feels as if someone has ripped my teeth out of my mouth and replaced them with lead weights. My fingers burn as if they’re torches instead of appendages.
I glance around the room, blinking back a headache that could knock down a grown man, and am appalled at all the wires and tubes that spider-web away from my body. Blood drips from the corners of the ceiling, pooling under the table. White shapes drift around the room and watch me with oozing yellow caverns for eyes.
One of them picks up a scalpel off a side table. It leans towards me, growing brighter and brighter as it gets closer. The knife presses up against my skin, and I wrench away from him. There’s nowhere to go, though. So, they cut into me while I thrash around on the metal table, splashing my own blood across the room and feeling it seep through my clothes.
The fragments of real-life that slip into my dreams scare me most. Do I remember the operation? Were there really a dozen doctors in white coats looming over me, or did my subconscious make that up? Did I wake up during the process, and do I truly remember a burning sensation coursing through my muscles, even vaguely? What’s real? What has my tortured mind exaggerated?
Either way, when the van doors open again, startling me awake, I’m somehow both rested and sore. Sweat coats my back, through the filthy Arena outfit I’m still wearing.
Two navy handlers come in and unhook my chain, leading me out into the open air. I cringe and fight the urge to growl at the bright light. However long I was in there must’ve done a number on me. I squint uselessly around, fumbling over my own feet like a drunk.
When my eyes finally adjust, I double-check to make sure I’m really at the Estate. The van has pulled all the way up to the Barn, a red-painted building where Wayler keeps all his Drecks. It looks and smells as if it used to house horses, but I’m positive those horses had better sleeping quarters than us.
I catch sight of the huge white, plantation style house in the distance, sitting like a king on his throne on the other side of a long, tree-lined driveway. That’s the only clue I have about where the Estate is actually located—plantation style housing could mean somewhere in the south, like Alabama or a Carolina. In school, before my procedure, we studied a lot of history—not my favorite subject—and I remember that I loved to imagine living in a house that big when I grew up. The house and the eternal year-round humidity are vague hints. Everything else is kept classified so there’s no chance I’ll run.
Like I would even try. I’m a monster. No one out there would want a sixteen-year-old, one-third human sleeping on their couch.
Dragging my eyes away from the house, I look past the barn where the rest of the land spreads out. It’s open fields for a long time, until the woods begin. Huge pine trees line the entire property behind an old wooden fence. You can’t see it from here, but very thin and very sharp electric wire lines that fence. I could jump it, and I’ve tried, but again, where would I go?
“Pick up the pace, 772,” a handler hissed, jerking me into the shade of the barn. A scuffle of animal feet starts up at the scent of me coming in, and my body slightly relaxes. Here, the Drecks aren’t my enemy. Wayler doesn’t train us against other Drecks that he owns. That would be a waste of money. The familiar faces that pop their heads over the gates at me aren’t exactly friends. Yet, they aren’t enemies either.
The handlers lead me all the way to the back of the Barn, to a gate marked with my ID number and the words “Homo Lupus.” It’s opened, my cuffs are removed, and I walk inside.
No fight. No arguments. No nonsense.
“Consider yourselves lucky!” one handler shouts as they head back to the door. “Seven-seventy-two earned y’all some food this evening. Make sure you thank her. She murdered someone for you. Unlike two-forty-four who got himself killed. Deserved it, disgusting sea-maggot.”
I glance down the aisle where 224’s stall door stands open. The janitors are cleaning it, brushing all the water out with this big, wiry broom. One of them looks up and shakes their head at the handlers as they leave, cackling at their own derogatory joke.
The soft, purr-like voice of my stall-neighbor comes shortly after the handlers are gone. It’s low enough that the janitors can’t hear it, but for ears like mine, it’s perfect. I leave my position at the gate and move to sit on the bench that lines our shared wall.
“Thank you.” It’s been days since I talked; my voice is full of grit and deeper than usual. I clear my throat twice to dislodge the cobwebs. “It’s unfortunate to hear about Charia,” I add. “She’s been here a long time.”
“I hear Wayler set her up against a killer whale. She didn’t even stand a chance. Word is, he even bid against her so he didn’t lose money.”
“Where do you even hear all this from?” I peek over the wall at the boy who is stretched out of the bench, lounging lazily with his hands folded behind his head. He smirks at the sight of me, neon yellow eyes shining like beacons. They always seem a little brighter at night.
“I listen to the janitors talk when they think we’re all sleeping. They forget I’m nocturnal.” He sits up, dropping the smirk and replacing it with a very serious look. “All gossip aside, welcome back. I was worried after three days passed. You’ve never been gone longer than that. How many this time?”
“Four,” I say softly. “When’s your next fight?”
“Two weeks. Wayler has me scheduled for straight combat training next week, and then I’ll go into the Hole for a few days.” We both grimace at the very mention of the Hole.
As far as his appearance goes, Fell and I both look about the same. His arms are scuffed from the fights, and patches of the thin, tan fur that lines them are missing. A fresh red bruise lines his left cheek bone. Otherwise, he came out in one piece. It’s not unusual for him to come back with patches of his tawny hair missing, even though it’s already cut short.
A loud noise at the door makes me jump, and I scramble away from the wall to a far corner. The janitor glares at me, her eyebrows joining to make one long unibrow.
“No talking,” she hisses. I nod, and she leaves.
Fell pops his head up just once more.
“Rest up, Cani. He won’t let you rest long, since you’re on a roll. I missed you.”
I sigh, dreading the upcoming days.
“I missed you too. Get some rest.”
He nods, and his disappearance is followed by a soft thump as he lays back down. Moments later, the sounds of him snoring drifts over the wall. I lay down on the hay-stuffed “mattress” and stare at the gate door.
It doesn’t terrify me as much as the other one did, mainly because on the other side of this door isn’t death. It’s freedom.