I was pulled outta my cell this morning and thrown into a shitty, white coaster. You know, those hover pods they stopped making, like, twenty years ago. Next thing I know, I’m dumped in this field covered in plastic, green shit that crunches under my feet. I think it’s supposed to be grass, though I doubt anyone’s felt that stuff in decades or what I’m standing on is anything close to the real thing.
The field is bordered by trees with long roots that crawl upon the ground and tiger-orange leaves that glow from the lights inside them. The stripes, however, are saved for me. Black on yellow like a god-damn bee, or whatever those fuckers were called.
I feel like I’m standing in an ancient football field, which I’ve seen somewhere before, though I can’t remember where. Fucking memory. Can barely remember shit anymore, which makes me bat-shit-crazy. When I can’t recall a face, a fact, or something that’s happened, I bang my head with my hand until it comes to me. These days, I can bang so much I black out and wake on the floor as confused as ever. The officers on the other side of the bars laugh because they still have their banks—a small chip that enhances our memories — but I don’t.
The first thing they do when you’re thrown down is remove the chip. And because you’ve had your bank since you were born, it’s fucking bizarre to lose it. That’s why I can’t remember as much as I used to and bang my head like a shitty monkey while those assholes laugh at me. Unless your arm’s hangin’ off or your face is smashed, they don’t give a fuck.
I was surprised when they shackled me and led me to that white piece of shit that barely hovers. Aside from the freaky head banging, I was doin’ alright. I didn’t get into fights. I took my pills. I didn’t try to fuck in the shower. But I must’ve been wrong, ‘cause I was pushed into the coaster with three other punks and shuttled here. I think the coaster might’ve even hit the ground a few times on the way, which could’ve killed us all. Fucking piece of shit.
None of it matters, though, does it? We’re all gonna’ die today anyway. Well, all of us ‘cept for one lucky prick. I’d rather have died on that coaster. Trust me. Fast and quick would’ve been better than this shit.
I wait in the field where everything around me is made to look perfect — the green at my feet, big trees, and a clear, blue sky. It’s probably to fuck with us because the perfection freaks me out. Or maybe, it’s the wide-open space after years of being behind bars. Whatever the hell it is, it’s like being crazy high. Barely know what’s up and what’s down.
Vermin, a bitch with spider-like limbs, paces behind me and throws his arms into the air. “Fuck this. Why can’t the bastards just get it over with?”
The two other men, Jeeves and Diablo, glare at him, short eyes and all. Nobody likes a diaper-sniper.
“Today,” I say calmly, “is no day to be in a hurry.” I close my eyes and try to ignore the tightness in my chest, to remember what I can — my mom, my wife, my first and only kill. Had I known what our country’s prisons did to inmates, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so sloppy with the girl, perhaps I would’ve hidden her better. But, I had no idea. Deaths in prison are always publicized as accidental.
Now I know the truth, and it sickens me.
“You scared?” Vermin asks with mocked confidence.
I’m about to tell that chomo to shut the hell up when a high-pitched whistle zooms overhead. We look up simultaneously like trained animals, and when the sound wanes, we glance at each other, trembling and ashen.
Jeeves, who has fifty-two tattoos but only seven fingers, looks toward the sky. “So, where is it?”
I’m amazed because even with his ink and a face as red as the wood who was bloodied last month, his English accent makes him seem better than the rest of us. I glance at Jeeves’s clenched fist and count. …five, six, seven, and remind myself why he is better. He lost those fingers when he got too close to an IED in the last China war. A discharge, a bout of PTSD, and a murder later, he landed in the slammer with us.
Diablo follows Jeeves’s gaze, blocking the sun with his hand. “I don’t know, but y’all better watch it. I swear I’ll fuck you up.” He cracks his knuckles as his over-sized biceps bulge.
I know what Diablo did to get in here, so I know what he says is true. Let’s just say that a man who prefers stashing parts of his prey around his house is not one you want to mess with. I back away slowly. There’s no point in standing too close yet. We don’t even know where the damn ball’s gonna fall.
“There it is!” Jeeves points west, where the sun is starting to dip.
A rabbit-sized ball floats down from the sky, its flesh-colored skin crudely stitched together in a haphazard pattern. It gives me chills as it hovers above us, studying us, deciding who to give the advantage to. We circle it with bent knees, ready to run after it as soon as we know where it will go.
There are springs in my feet, and I leap for the ball as it darts right. The other men do, too, and now it’s a fight to the death. I’ve never been much of an athlete, and I fall behind Diablo and Vermin who get within grabbing distance of the ball. Still, it zips through the air, as if it has a mind of its own.
Somewhere though, the boss is controlling the ball and playing favorites. He must be watching us as though we are players in a video game. Characters without hearts or souls.
Jeeves runs behind me. “He’ll never let them get it. He thinks Vermin is a whiny bitch and Diablo an asshole.”
I keep my smile to myself, thinking I might be the favorite.
Suddenly, the ball flies our way, and Jeeves and I are after it. We’re evenly matched and he elbows me in the side, trying to push me down. I manage to stay on my feet and ram a shoulder into him. He stumbles, yet the ball remains close to him.
“Fuck,” I mutter. The boss has picked his winner, and it’s not me.
Jeeves reaches up from the ground to grab the ball, but I lunge forward and fall on top of it, trapping it between us. Both of our hands are on it, and we fight, pulling it back and forth, trying to kick each other aside. I see Diablo and Vermin charging toward us out of the corner of my eye.
Hell if I’m gonna to let them get it. I’m not dying today. I slam an elbow into Jeeves’s face and hear his nose break. Just as Diablo and Vermin are about to leap on us, I roll away, freeing myself from the heap.
I run like a fucking maniac toward a red line painted in the grass. In seconds, it’s a few feet in front of me. Jeeves, Diablo, and Vermin are at my heels. I hear their desperate panting. I push harder, my legs straining, and leap across the line. I fall heavily on my shoulder and hear a crack, though I don’t feel pain.
I’ve won, bitch.
Those poor bastards try to follow me across the red line, but there’s a loud snap, and they’re thrown back into the field. I smell burnt flesh and think I can recall a similar smell. Beef? Pork? I watch as they try to recover from the shock. A wall of near-invisible waves shimmers over the line. It’s the shield I’d heard about though didn’t believe to be real. I study the trees, hoping there’s a way out, and notice a barbed-wired fence hiding behind the trunks and orange leaves. How had I not seen it before?
The men are standing now, looking dazed. Sweat lines their brows as they pace and shout to the sky, their voices shrill. “Get us the fuck out of here!”
My pulse should have slowed, but it doesn’t. Rather, it races faster and faster as I realize I’ll be forced to watch. I glance upward, expecting several faces to be staring down at me: a prick controlling the ball, another filling out the appropriate paperwork, and a third ready to pull the beastly lever. Yet, all I see are clouds, the sun, and clear, blue sky.
Low growls come from behind the trees. They’re simultaneous and at different pitches. Without seeing the tigers, I know there are three. One for Jeeves, one for Diablo, and one for the bitch, Vermin.
The men fall quiet from fear and turn toward their executioners. Their silence sends a chill up my back, and I cling to the ball, wishing it would carry me away.
I shut my eyes but keep them closed for only a few seconds.
The tigers stalk, their shoulders hunched. They continue to growl, though now the sound is soft, purring-like. To them, the men are no competition, only bait on a hook. The tigers begin by swatting at Jeeves, who jumps back behind Vermin. Then Vermin is knocked down by a powerful paw. Diablo tries to run. But in an instant, all three tigers are on him.
I’m sure his screams will haunt me for the rest of my life. The sound of life being ripped from a man, of flesh being torn from bone. Jeeves and Vermin run to the far side of the field, but there’s no hope for them. All they can do is wait for the tigers to become hungry again.
The ball slips in my sweaty grip, so I hold it tighter, noting the familiarity of its surface. I rub a finger along its seam and shudder because I realize the ball is made from human skin. A reminder of our sins?
Vomit forms in the back of my throat, and I struggle to swallow it back down. My hair stands on end as the memory of the girl and my hands around her neck floods back to me.
Desperate for everything around me to disappear, I welcome the numb blanket that envelops me and pushes away the disgust and trembling that’s consumed me. I stand still, staring at the terror in front of me and thinking about the girl. Fuck, she struggled and screamed. I finger the ball and trick myself into thinking little of it.
A door opens in the ground behind me. There are stairs leading into a dark room, where I’ll be given back my chip and released to fill the government’s quota of rehabilitated inmates. I drop the heinous ball and watch it tumble down each step before it disappears into shadow.
I take a deep breath and follow it, leaving the screams behind.
Lindsay Diamond is a Colorado-based freelance writer and novelist who writes travel and fiction, particularly fantasy and magical realism. When she’s not writing, she’s seeking the nearest aspen grove or mountain bike trail. Her novel, Wrapped in Color and Light is on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/%20Wrapped-Color-Light-Lindsay-%20Diamond/dp/0692560874 You can find Lindsay at www.lindsay-diamond.com or on Twitter @lajdiamond