April 19th, 2019
Gold Aura Recreational Center
Joni stuck her number to her chest. Her heartbeat was nothing but dull thuds. She would be number ten in the Over-Twelve division, the Twelve-and-Under division having completed its tournament earlier that day. She'd watched the whole thing. She'd never seen such brutality in her life.
As she waited her turn on the platform, a high school freshman named Dudley took a blow to the face, and with no railing on the catwalk, fell into the Pit. Four rottweilers chained to the wall growled and barked at him, and if he didn't watch out, they'd latch their jaws onto him. No armor; the beam surgeons on the sidelines could heal injuries so rapidly it was like they never happened. From the Pit, Dudley could push a button to forfeit or free-climb an artificial rock wall to rejoin the queue and fight again. If he were to fall back in, he'd be eliminated. With the fire hose aimed at the wall, getting back up was easier said than done.
That morning Joni had watched two eight-year-olds fling bare-knuckle punches at each other, bloodying their noses and lips until finally they started pulling their hair, then tumbled together into the Pit. One rottweiler wouldn't let go of the girl's leg until the boy gave it a sharp kick in the side. They both forfeited.
By now those kids' injuries were healed. Not all the scars, but then, some scars are never visible.
Dudley made it past the rottweilers, and leapt at the wall, as Kaneisha from down the road took on the winner.
Joni's parents didn't know about the games before they moved to the subdivision of Gold Aura. Neither did Joni, though she had always heard that kids from that neighborhood seemed a little off. No one knew exactly how. Well, her parents would say, we're all made in the image of God, so let's give them a chance.
A week after they moved in, the head of the neighborhood association knocked on their door. A spritely, skinny woman with bright hair and bright teeth, she introduced herself, and after discussing the neighborhood watch and bake sales, she took a look at Joni and said, "And are you going to be competing in the Gold Aura Games?"
"Just a little friendly competition we have for our kids every year." The head of the neighborhood association slid some paperwork across the table. "A fun way to keep everybody active. I guess you'd be in the over-twelve division. Any little brothers or sisters who might be interested?"
"Nope," Joni said. "Only child." She folded up the paperwork. The image on the front made it look like a triathlon or an Iron Man event. She'd taken Aikido since she was seven, but she was rusty since before the move and needed to get her blood pumping. "I guess I'll think about it."
"Wonderful! My son was last year's champion. Application's due March 1st."
As the head of the neighborhood association left, Joni saw two boys from Biology jogging past. They looked as if they'd been jogging all day.
Kaneisha won by knock-out. Her brass knuckles probably didn't hurt her chances too much. Contestants could bring any blunt object that could be held in one hand. One kid behind Joni was holding a steel chain. A fifth grader that morning had brought a baseball bat.
Joni had already decided that whatever happened, she would not bring any weapons. Just her hands and her brain. She would have to take whatever was given to her. She wasn't here to prove she was the strongest, or the most aggressive, or the most wily.
She was there to show who she was.
Dudley reached the top of the rock wall, and marched to the back of the line.
Joni heard a scream. Kaneisha had fallen into the pit, and a dog had bitten onto her wrist. Her best hope would be to take the bottle of pepper spray hanging on a string from the wall. If she could reach it.
Joni muttered, "How do you do this every year?"
The boy in front of her answered, "Same reason as anybody else. Gotta make our parents proud."
Joni's heart dragged itself down. On the stands, parents and siblings were cheering, holding up hand-painted signs, some covered with glitter, others with LEDs.
"Plus," the girl behind Joni said, "there's the trip to Disneyworld. All expenses paid, FastPass, and! It'll get my dad to shut up about the money he spent on Krav Maga classes."
"I'm thinking I'll take the trip to Orbitville," the boy said. "I've always wanted to go up into space."
Joni kept her eye on the stands. As she hoped, her parents were nowhere to be seen. She had never told them that she'd decided to compete after all. They were both disgusted with Gold Aura, and Dad was already looking for a new place, with great difficulty.
A roar went through the crowd at another victory. Drones hovered over the field recording the action. A beam surgeon readied his Regen case, to close up any wounds, mend any fractures, and regrow any tissue.
All that was missing was the Emperor, to point his thumb toward a gladiator's fate.
Marilyn was the first friend Joni had made since moving to Gold Aura. The two were watching videos up in Joni's room when Marilyn saw the papers the head of the neighborhood association had given. "Are you competing in the games?"
"Oh, that?" Joni said. "Actually, I forgot all about that. What're they like?"
"Did you…" Marilyn leafed through the papers. "…not read this?" She passed them over. "Take a look."
Joni started reading, straight from the beginning. When she got to the part about the Pit, and the rottweilers, and fire hose, she shot to her feet, goosebumps raised. "People do this? To their kids?"
Marilyn flinched as if Joni had thrown a punch at her. "They're not that bad," Marilyn said. "I mean, look at those prizes. That's gotta be worth a little pain, right?"
"A little—?" Joni's own breath knocked itself out of her. "I'm not doing it. How is this not illegal?"
"Don't ask me. And anyway, aren't you a martial artist?" Marilyn gestured at the trophies on Joni's dresser.
"Of course, but the whole point of Aikido is to minimize harm. You just kinda let the flow win the fight for you."
"Okay. No reason you can't compete that way. I mean, you can win a match just by pinning the other person down for three seconds. I'm serious, this'll be a great way to get to know everybody."
Joni stared at the stock photo of a marathon runner on the front page. That lie to entice her into joining a gladiator match. If the way to get to know everybody was to bash their faces in, she wanted no part of it.
But now she knew where the rumors came from, why the kids from this neighborhood always seemed so skittish, so evasive. Every one of them had competed.
And why not? So much of the boilerplate on these papers was more for the parents than the children. The parents were the ones who got the discounts at local businesses, who got their names on the championship plaque along with their kids. And under the photo of the runner, a caption read:
SHOW THE WORLD WHOSE CHILD IS THE BEST!
Number Eight went up. He was only in seventh grade, but was tall and looked tough, and came armed with a bokken. His opponent was in fact Marilyn, who had just laid the previous winner out with a few well-placed jabs to the jaw, stomach, and groin. All things considered, she was a talented fighter. She belonged in an MMA cage. At least MMA fighters didn't have to deal with rottweilers.
By now two people had managed to climb back up to the platform. Two had forfeited. One had tried and failed the climb. Marilyn had the first KO.
She also wound up having the first pin. She swiftly dodged the sword, seized the wrist and elbow, slung him face first into the grating. Three seconds later, she'd won. The boy sulked to the other side of the catwalk, and climbed down.
Joni knew Marilyn could fight, all right. Despite her objections, she'd managed to let Marilyn rope her into helping her train, usually by holding a padded shield and absorbing her punches and kicks. It was like being buffeted with endless Major-League baseballs, and she couldn't imagine taking one unprotected.
"Guess I'm up," the boy in front of Joni said. He was unarmed, just like Marilyn. Just like Joni.
The head of the neighborhood association yelled from the stands, "Good luck, son! We're all counting on you!"
He waved uneasily.
As soon as Joni's father finished reading the paperwork, he slammed it on the table. "You are not doing this."
"Thank you!" Joni said. "It's absolutely insane!" She leaned against the back of the chair, finally able to relax. She'd been worried for days about asking her parents. Part of her thought they might have known all along, and were willing to go along with it.
Mom picked up the description and skimmed through it. "Who'd come up with such a thing? This… It's just monstrous."
Dad stroked his beard. "It reads like it was written by someone who thinks of kids like glorified show dogs."
Mom read aloud from the paper. "'You dress them in the latest fashions, put them in the best schools, provide them the finest health care, because you know they don't just express themselves—they express you." She put it down and shuddered and made the Sign of the Cross. "And you're friend's competing in this?"
"She does every year," Joni said. "Won the whole championship when she was ten."
Joni tapped the relevant paragraph on the paper. "At the end, the winners of the Junior Division and the Youth Division fight in a sudden-death match. Only one of them gets the prize."
Neither of her parents believed it until they each read it for themselves.
"I'm calling the police." Dad stood up and went to the next room, where his phone was charging.
Joni and her mother sat in silence.
"You can't get Marilyn to withdraw?"
"I tried. But her parents have her practicing every day. All the kids are. Even the kids who are already in clubs at school. For once in my life I'm glad to be left out." Yet even as Joni said that, something still gnawed at her…
"Who in God's name would sponsor this?" Mom checked the fine print. "I've never heard of any of these sponsors. Why do I get the feeling they're all shell companies?"
Dad returned with only a frown. "They acted like they didn't believe me. Made it sound like I was a jerk for objecting to 'extracurricular activities.' I knew something was off about this place. The price… the location… the school… they seemed too good to be true."
"Well we're not going back to Highpark Cove," Mom said. "I guess we're starting from square one. Joni, you can hang out with these kids as much as you want, but other than that, we're boycotting these games. Everyone agreed?"
"Double yes!" Joni said. At the same time, though…
Somehow her enthusiasm felt hollow. It seemed wrong to walk away, or to sit at home quietly protesting, when so many of the kids around her, of her new friends, stood to suffer. She couldn't leave them behind. She had to do something. Especially for Marilyn.
As Marilyn slammed her back of her fist into the boy's jaw, Joni heard someone shouting her name. Her parents were in the stands, hands on the fence, crying out to her.
"Don't do it!"
"Joni, we love you! Get out of there!"
Joni waved at them, trying to manage a smile. She hadn't meant to hurt them. She still felt the same way as the night Dad tried to call the police. But she couldn't leave Gold Aura without making some sort of statement for her friends. She couldn't leave without showing the other parents what she really thought of these games. She couldn't leave without proving to herself what she was capable of.
Otherwise, this day would haunt her forever.
The boy fell into the pit, and as Joni stepped onto the catwalk, he limped over to the wall and started climbing. Some of the water from the hose sprayed up onto Joni.
"It's okay!" she called back to her parents. "I know what I'm doing!" She'd filled out the application and snuck it into the mailbox just after midnight, the night before they were due. It was a spur of the moment decision, but she never once thought about taking it back.
She took her position opposite Marilyn.
They bowed at each other.
Marilyn raised her fists. "I knew you couldn't stay away."
Joni raised her fists. She'd wanted this to be a surprise for Marilyn. "Think of it as solidarity." She put in her mouth guard.
The horn blared.
Marilyn took a moment sizing her up. Joni waited for her to strike. She'd seen, felt how Marilyn could move. And Marilyn would know that Aikido is usually more defensive.
Marilyn threw her first punch.
Joni took it right below the eye.
Marilyn jumped back with a gasp. "Are you all right? I-I thought you'd…"
Joni kept her hands up, her face burning. "I'm fine. Come on."
Marilyn clenched her fists again. She threw another punch. Well telegraphed. Trying to signal to Joni when she could make her move.
Joni let it hit in her side, below her rib cage.
"What the hell are you doing?" Marilyn whispered. "It's not a fight if you don't fight back." Marilyn punched Joni's shoulder—this time softer than her other blows. "What, you not as good at Aikido as you told me?"
Another punch, and Joni slipped around it, caught it, caught Marilyn, maneuvered her around, whirled her off balance, but not enough to send her over the edge. By the time both regained their footing, they had switched sides on the catwalk.
"Okay," Marilyn said, "so now you're ready."
Two more punches. One in Joni's jaw, one in her stomach. For a moment Joni couldn't see anything. She pressed her tongue against her mouth guard.
Again she straightened up and raised her fists.
"Come on, Joni," Marilyn said. "This isn't fun."
"No," Joni said. "It isn't." She had a feeling it wasn't fun for the crowd, either. She didn't hear any cheers. No chants. Just the barking of dogs and the rushing of hose water. They'd come to watch their children fight. They got a young girl being senselessly assaulted. It would be up to them to figure out the difference.
"All right," Marilyn said. "I get it." She grabbed Joni by the lapel. She swept her leg out from under her. She pressed her face down on the ground. She held her there for three seconds.
She helped Joni back up.
Joni still didn't hear any cheering.
"Seriously, Joni, what the hell was that?"
"Sorry." Joni spat out her mouth guard. "I'm just glad it was you. Good luck. You're doing great."
"Sure." Marilyn let Joni go so she could climb off the platform. "If I win the trip to Disneyworld, I'll see if you can come with me."
Joni's side ached as she climbed down the ladder and the horn blared for the start of the next match. The parents of the other kids, and even some of the other contestants from earlier, now stared at her in horror. Marilyn could take her to a county fair with rickety rides, for all she cared. Joni had never tasted such a sweet victory.
Her mother and father waited at the fence, a doctor with a Regen case by their side. In mere moments the pain would be gone.
Joni hooked her fingers onto the chain-links. "Mom… Dad… Get me out of here."