Sunday, December 25, 2011

Behind The Arena

I think my name is Luke. Luke Valencia. I've probably spent hours now sitting, arms around my knees. It feels nice and warm to wrap yourself up. The storage room is so cold when they've been opening the doors a lot. I can smell other flesh in here, and it riles me up until I get used to it. It's worst when they take the others in and out, because when they come back, they always reek like blood. It smells like pennies and meat and tastes like memories.

I'm a bad thing. I know that much. I'm a Blighter. The cops would call me Bravo, I think. Other people say other things. Demon. Devil. Lecter, for your non-religious types. Killer, alien, beast, whatever you want. The Horsemen would tear you down for that stuff, but I don't care. I'm a monster. I'll call me what I am, all of it. I'm a man-eating freak of nature.

It's times like this I can think. I realize how dark it is in here.  The sun doesn't rise or set; it's all just a dim fluorescent haze. Blighters don't really sleep on a normal schedule. We kind of hibernate a while whenever, just shut down in whatever shape we're in. I don't bother looking human much anymore. I'm not human at all. I don't notice time passing; it's like I'm in stasis or something. Like in those books I might have read. Or was that one of the other ten or fifteen people buried in me now?

The short stocky man comes back, smelling like sweat, booze, and snuff. He waddles a bit; I can see the screwed up knee even before I can see his face. He's the kind of guy I'd pick out of the herd: the meaty guy with the beer belly who can't run away. I guess I still think I'm a bit human, because I normally have a real face. Right now my human mouth is a little open. That stupid thing cats do when they're watching mice. I used to be ashamed. Maybe I still am. Did my girlfriend have a cat? Or was she the allergic one?

He notices me staring. His eyes are the color of pond muck. Sounds more filling than what I usually get. At least there's a lot of it.

"Not your turn, Lucy. Give it a few days."

He spits on the floor. It smells like breath. I'm against the wire before I can think. He laughs at me, crouching down to leer into the cage. It's small enough that he'd have to crawl if he tried to get in here. I can't ever stand up, even on four human limbs. I can't remember the last time I had four human limbs. I mostly keep a face and some fingers. I can't talk these days. If I try, I just end up gnawing on something. I tried to eat myself once. It's not really satisfying. It hurts and makes me more tired. Something about conservation of energy?

I try not to stare at the pit master like a piece of meat. It's too hard, but sometimes I can look at the cage where I chewed on it.

"What's your problem, huh?" He talks to me like I'm a dog, in that overdone tone you use when something can't really understand your words. Lots of the time, I'm really like that. Not today. He's right -- it's too soon. If he wants me to act like the dog he thinks I am, he's got to wait.

I know it's coming back. I used to wish it didn't, but it always does. Wasn't there a dog that got shocked until it never got back up again, just laid there and gave up?

What does it mean, if I'm that dog?

There's a taller man coming in now. His air tastes like ink and smoke. He's got papers in his hand. They look tasty, too.

"Hey, I remember this one." He jerks a thumb at me. I watch it move through the dusty air. Sometimes I scrape the dust off the cage floor. It's not filling. The new human stands beside the first. "Lucifer, yeah?"

"That's the one. You were poking him with a stick the other day or something."

"Just looking."

"Yeah, well, here he is, look all you want."

The guy leans down. It's that man from the match, the one with the notebook. He gave me a cigarette last match. Didn't he ask me how to smoke? No. He asked me what someone did with a cigarette. Testing my thinking. Seeing if I could respond.

So I did. It looked like I might have gotten through to him, somehow. He doesn't look at me the way the pit master does. He's okay getting right up to the cage. He doesn't sneer or look nauseous. Lots of people are disgusted by the way we look. I guess we do look like bloody flesh. Well, they look like cooked flesh, so we're even. Just like a roasted chicken. Did I ever cook chicken? I might have been a vegetarian. Or maybe that was Anderson.

"So what would happen if he got out?" Cigarette Man has another of his, well, cigarettes, dangling in two fingers. I don't like smoke and fire, because fire is one of the few things that kills me pretty well. The pit master once threw some coals into my cage, when I wouldn't shut up. That hurt. But I watch Cigarette Man with what I hope isn't too bright a look. I can't resist his words.

"What do you think? He runs wild, eats both of us, breaks out, takes out part of a city block, the fuzz comes in and flames him out, and there you go."

Can I do that? I thought most Blighters could only sweep maybe a room or two. Close range type stuff. I don't even remember my infection. Usually you see what someone can do when it takes over everything it can in the first loss of control. Little numbers float around in my head about death ranges, whatever those are.

I dig around a little in my recent memories. "Has a death range of three times our ring."

Does that mean I can sweep up an area that big? I think the ring is an oval, maybe fifty feet across, thirty feet wide?

I'm not so small, then, if they were talking about me.

All that says right now, is that I can eat a lot. That probably scares them, though. The ring doesn't have any food, so I can't grow in there. Neither does the cage.

I don't raise my head, but I roll my eyes to look at Cigarette Man. The pit master has already started wandering around, going to the other cages. His friend jabs out the cigarette on the ground and pokes it through my cage.

I manage to hold off for barely a minute to stare at it before chomping it in half. Tobacco and a body a week. How long until I blow away like dust? Isn't that what happens when we die?

"Hey, Lucifer."

I look up at him. The air around him tastes good, this close. Like more than one person. Maybe his friends? I can't touch the cage wire, but I can sniff through it. My face looks vaguely human right now, not like the last time he saw me. He stands up after taking a long look at it.

"Hey, Cole, gimme that prod and go get a couple beers. You've been at this a while. I'll make sure they're all still alive."

"Thanks, man." The pit master -- Cole? -- throws something through the air that makes me skitter way back in the cage. I slam against the back wall and throw myself onto my face. The hot lines on my back burn like a shot of fire, and they hiss, and they smell like death.  I feel some powder crumble off. I scrape it up.

Cigarette Man leans closer. He has Cole's stick, the one he jabs me with when I'm too loud. When Cole leaves, he puts it down and sits next to the cage. He sounds nervous. He rubs at his neck a lot and doesn't look at me much. "Hey. I don't know your real name, but I'd call you that if I did. You hearing me?"

I manage a shaky nod. The clunky industrial fans are blowing stale air back and forth, and some of it has his taste all over it. It washes over my skin, and I shiver and clatter my teeth. He's got a cut on his lip. I want to lick the blood off.

"I got a present for you."

I jump up so fast I nearly bang my head on the cage. My lower body moves into action, tensing up as I pull it into enough shape to coil around on the floor. Like a kid waiting for his birthday. Or maybe a puppy waiting for a treat.

"Here." He reaches into his big duffel bag, digs around under some clothes that throw old stink and salt into the air, and pull out a couple of big black plastic bags. "You have to listen to me, okay? I'll help you out. I'm Bray, remember that."

I'm all ears. Not literally. I can do that, but I don't. It's silly, and I don't really know how to process more than two ears. But I lean my head near the cage to listen.

"I'm going to open this door."

My jaw hangs open, and I rise up in the cage, ready to spring. First him? Yes. First him. Then the pit man. Then -- then--

"But he said if you get out, you're too far gone to be set free. So I can't let you go."

I scream and throw myself against the cage. Teeth scrape on steel. Claws throw sparks. The grate fries itself into my face. I come back smelling like ash. Pain flies back and forth through my body like fire, or maybe one of the other Blighters' tendrils. I hunch down and glare at him.

"You idiot, look at you, that's exactly what I mean. Now shut up and listen. There are four other guys in here like you. If I want to get them out, Cole has to trust me."

That...that made sense. Right. There were others. They were like me. But were we worth getting out? I guess we wanted it, whether we deserved it or not...

"There you go. Listen to me. Calm down." Bray hefts a bag into his arms. I can't really smell what's in it. He covered it up pretty well. It mostly smells like old cloth. "I'm going to help you get your brain back enough for us to start a plan. But you've got to act like you're still in a bad spot."
I make my brows wrinkle up. That's what the others in me did when they were confused. What humans do.

"You've got to act like you're still starving, and you have to fight your matches. And right now, I'm going to open this door, and if you kill me, you're doomed. Did you hear what he said before?"
I'm shaking in place so hard that I look like a bowl of jelly, but I nod. I start thinking, Don't go out the door. Don't go out the door. I close my eyes. I grab hold of the floor as best I can.

"All right. Here we go." He puts on some weird thick gloves and fumbles with the lock. "I stole the key from Cole and copied them after the match. He only keeps one on him at a time, just the one he's using for the match right then. I don't know where the rest are. But this one's yours." He holds it up when he's done, then jerks the lock out of place and swings the door open.

Freedom freedom freedom--

I shudder back into the cage, dragging my head on the ground, and Bray empties both of the bags in front of me. Then he slams the door and locks it back.

The turkeys are gone only minutes later, every last drop of blood and flake of bone scratched up from the floor, and I truly look at myself for the first time in...weeks? Months? I don't know. But I can focus now, and I can see my vaguely human hands, and I notice the meaty flesh-pile body behind me, shiny and liquid and curled up tight on the dirty floor. Most of all, I notice Bray, look at him, not just sniff him out anymore. He looks human, not just edible. He's rough, but he looks clean, unlike what I remember of Cole.

I sink down onto what would have been my knees but is now just another part of the tangle of viscera and muscle that makes up my lower half.

"There, that wasn't so bad." He picks up the prod again and stuffs a cigarette between his lips. I shake my head. "Huh?"

I think back to the other humans, to what I might have been, and I let myself feel the way it felt to speak...and my throat rearranges itself into a familiar pattern. I draw some air into my chest.

"I don't like smoke." My voice sounds thick and wet, but it comes out.

He coughs a laugh and stares. "So you can talk. Damn. I thought for sure--"

"That I was a really smart dog." It takes me a lot of effort to squeeze out the words, but contempt definitely helps.

"Well...okay, yeah, fine, I'll admit to that." He adjusts his collar and glances back at the doors. "I'll drop in with more food between your matches. I can't do too much, or you probably won't act right. But if you can strip down two hundred pounds of meat out there, I figure forty or fifty more is a good snack. So I'll bring you about that much of whatever's on sale, okay? It's November, so you get turkey. Don't bitch at me or I'll poke you with this thing here, whatever it is."

I glare at him. He shrugs and pockets the prod.

"Look, I'm trying to do you right, you can tell that. You got a name?"


"All right. Nice to meet you, or something."

I shrug. It definitely is, although the circumstances could be far, far better...

"Cole's gonna be back soon. I want your full name and the name of the last--"

I can't think about that now. Not when I have this much clarity. It's too powerful. I just spit out the names and turn my head away, my voice all blurring together into something soupy: "Luke Valencia. Joshua Marron was a bouncer. Chinatown bars. Drove a pickup truck something like ten years old. I think it was a Chevy." I pause to draw in another forced breath; anger to grease the wheels or not, it's hard to manage that many words after not saying much for this long. Bray stops with his mouth open. As I focus, the memories dull to a low roar, and Bray's hand rushes over a page in his notebook.

"Joshua Marron, bouncer, next to Chinatown, drove a Chevy pickup, I got that. Luke Valencia, ah, anything more about you?"

"What's this for?" I sit back on my serpentine haunches. It's a nice pillow, at least, if you get over the slimy, fluid feeling.

"I'm going to see if I can dig up a pattern to who this guy's kidnapping for the pits. You know, do a little sleuthing. You know anything about the other poor bastards in here?"

"No. They don't talk."

"Right." Bray stuffs the book and pen back in his pocket. "All right, Luke, sit tight. We'll see what we can break open, yeah?" He turns to leave.

"Wait." I sidle up to the cage door again, barely missing it. Bray glances over his shoulder.


"Why bother? Cole pays you."

"I don't know. Maybe I saw something funny in the way you looked at me. I didn't know you guys were smart. Or maybe I heard it, but I didn't believe it, and that Luthor guy shook me up a little, too. Joshua." Shrugging, he pulls a cigarette from the pack in his back pocket and raises it to his lips. "I think that if anyone's got half a brain to try, they should be given a shot at making it in the world. That's both people and creepy monster men, right? If you can think, you can live."

He lights the cigarette and strides away.

(I tried to bring out the inconsistent thoughts caused by Luke/Lucifer's chronic food deprivation. He has spurts of lucidity, but he's easily distracted. There's a method to the madness, though, and I'm trying to fish around for what that is.

I have no idea what this fascination with first-person-present is. I almost never write in it. I'm a die-hard fan of third-person-past.)

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