Escaping Eleven – Jerri Chisholm

I hold out open hands, palms down. Inches above hovers half a lemon, and even between pockets of mold, it sparkles with juice. The smell of citrus fills the cell. The anticipation is the worst, or it used to be, when I was small. But now I am grown and so my pulse is steady. Now I don’t flinch as the juice hits my knuckles, as acid seeps into open wounds. I glance sideways, but my face is otherwise indifferent, and I am, too. Only the initial jolt stings, then the pain fades into Compound Eleven’s dimly lit corridors. “Hurt?” I note how calm his voice is as he squeezes the lemon tight, wrings it so every last drop is pushed free. He enjoys our ritual; at least I think he does. I stare at him and shake my head. “Good,” he says. My strength pleases him. Then his eyebrows pull together. “Today’s fight is getting attention.

Are you ready?” I slap my right cheek; he slaps my left. Just like always. “I’m not worried,” I say, but I pause. My hands clench into fists, and I examine the effect of the lemon juice. Red slashes burn pink. “Why is it getting attention?” He must sound like a cruel man, my father. But I have been his only child since Jack was sent aboveground. No one can survive aboveground. And so he had only me to shape, and he shaped me into a fighter. I watch him carefully and see the corner of his mouth twitch.

He’s excited. “Your opponent is from upstairs.” “Probably that Upper Mean I beat last—” He shakes his head before I’m finished. “It’s a Preme you’ll be fighting.” My back straightens. A Preeminate, or Preme for short. That is big news. Premes don’t fight—they don’t even attend the fights, not usually. That would mean descending from the fifth floor to the second, where the Bowl is located, and Premes don’t often rub shoulders with Lower Means. Lower Means like me.

He is staring, waiting for a reaction. Instead I pull up both pants legs and lean back on the narrow bed that used to be my own. It squeaks under my weight. “My knees are skinned. Clean them, too.” “Please,” he reminds me. “Please.” He sighs as he shifts positions, and he looks older than I remember. His movements are stiff, and his hair is graying at the temples, skin pooling under his mouth. He picks up the other half of the rotted lemon from the concrete floor, and I shift my gaze to the ceiling as I wait for a fresh slice of pain.

I barely feel it when it comes; I’m too busy thinking about the news. A Preme. So it will be an easy fight, short and sweet. Hunter will be pleased; Maggie, too. And Emerald and the other fighters will have a good laugh. I smile in spite of myself. “Two weeks in your own place now,” my father says as he stands. He is tall and so his head nearly skims the ceiling. He throws the rind to the floor as he watches me; I am clean. “Two weeks tomorrow,” I agree.

“Settling in okay?” My eyes slide over pictures I drew as a child before I answer. They dot the walls of my parents’ cell—and pictures of Jack, too. From the early days, before he had to go. And some embroidery work by my mother, hung with pride on one of her better days. The ones that don’t come around very often. “I’m settling in fine. It’s nice to have some space to myself.” Immediately, I wince. It wasn’t a kind thing to say to my father. But something resembling amusement spreads across his face.

“An independent girl, Eve,” he says. “You always have been.” I swallow. A feeling I know well makes my stomach squeeze into a hard pit—guilt. I would prefer the feeling of lemon juice lashing my wounds. “Will you bother with the job tours, or are you settled on fighting?” “Not sure,” I lie. He thinks I’ll choose to be a fighter as my job. We must pick in six weeks’ time. I am sixteen now; schooling is complete. But I am not going to be a professional fighter.

And I am not going to bother with the job tours. There is no job I will choose. In six weeks’ time, I will be gone. CHAPTER TWO 11000535 right left right left right right right left 11000535. Every ten steps, I mutter it under my breath. Again. Again. My brain barely registers the thumping of feet close above my head, a sound that grows louder with every passing second. Same for the cathartic thundering of thousands of voices. It isn’t my first fight in the Bowl, and it won’t be my last.

I don’t need to pay attention; I don’t need to savor it. Not yet. And certainly I don’t need to fear it. Not when my opponent is a Preme. I push into the Blue Circuit training room, where I change, and from there into the tunnel that connects to the Bowl itself. It is a coiled metal half-cylinder where the air is stale, stained with sweat from fighters previous. I can feel it in my nostrils. And it is impossible to ignore the thunder in here; it is visceral. It vibrates my bones. The ref stands near the door, and though he nods at me, I don’t bother with pleasantries.

Instead I gaze down the tunnel to the mouth of the Bowl, to where someone warms up at a punching bag. The Preme. It must be, but I can’t know for certain until he takes off his hoodie. If he is my opponent, his arm will be wrapped in red. Mine is wrapped in blue, and it is hidden, too. I am Blue Circuit, classified as an occasional fighter. He is a guest fighter for Red Circuit. I walk in his direction, my eyes locked onto his back, and with every step I breathe harder. Deeper. Shit.

I can tell from here. He is going to destroy me. … My footsteps are silent under the noise of the crowd. But he must sense that he is no longer alone, because his head snaps left, his eyes meeting mine. They are piercing yet distant—a seemingly impossible combination. I look away, go to my punching bag. Deep breath in and out. In. Out. But every time I blink, I see his shoulder blades, wide and vast and imprinted on my brain.

He has a fighter’s build. Strong. Quick. Tall but not too tall. The lanky ones I can beat; they can’t move. The short ones I can beat, too; they lack power. But the Preme… He slides beside me as I take my first swing at the bag. The old wounds burst open upon impact. My father will have to clean them again. “What do you want?” I ask.

Another swing. Another tiny burst of blood. I glance at him between punches, enough to see that his eyes are wide set, his face square. Masculine. But his lips are smooth, and they curve gently. He has a kind mouth, I think. Or he would, if the rest of him didn’t glower at me. “Are you awake? I said, what do you want?” Eyes narrow over a perfect nose—a nose I will soon break. “What do you think you’re doing,” he asks me, though it sounds like a statement rather than a question. His low voice is clipped.

“What do you think I’m doing?” My knuckles crack loudly against the surface of the bag, loud enough to sound over the crowd. I don’t understand his confusion, and I don’t care about it. In fact, I wish he would leave me alone, because right now I should be thinking only about the match at hand. I should feel nerves fraying the lining of my stomach, clawing at my skin. I shouldn’t be distracted, and I can’t afford to be, either. I am about to tell him to get lost when he speaks again: “You’re bleeding.” Now I bite my lip, but I can’t hold back the smirk that pulls at my mouth. I can’t hold back the words bubbling to the surface. “What’s wrong, Preme? Never seen blood before?” He steps closer and grabs the punching bag, holds it still so that my next punch stuns the bones in my wrist. “Listen,” he snarls as I shake out my fist, “it’s a simple question.

Don’t think I want to be talking to you, either. You’re a waste of my time.” Light hazel eyes cool to brown, and I can see by how he holds his body—so rigid, so plank-like— that I am getting under his skin. Perfect. “There’s a fight scheduled soon, did you know? Get out of here.” He nods up the tunnel, away from the Bowl. Then he turns. The source of his confusion is now obvious, and I laugh. “Yeah, I do know,” I say loudly. “What do you think I’m doing, warming up to go write in my diary?” I turn my attention back to the bag, still faintly amused, but he grabs my shoulder before I can launch a punch.

“You’re my opponent?” I jerk myself free and pull off my sweatshirt, hold out my arm. Blue band. He is silent as he stares at it. So silent, it makes the roar of the crowd seem louder, like we’re being swallowed deep into the earth below Eleven. They are more excited than usual because of him. “Ass,” I mumble, and I expect him to hit me. Mouthing off to a Preme isn’t a smart thing to do. But instead, he walks away. Away from the crowd, away from the Bowl. For a moment I watch him, then shake my head.

I need to focus on the punching bag and nothing more. I don’t know why he distracts me so easily. One strike. Two. Blood stains the hide. I do it again. Again. My muscles feel warm; they bulge under pale skin. One strike. Two.

When I stop to shake out my arms, I see he is speaking with the ref. I can’t hear either one of them, not from this far away, and not over the thunder of feet or the vibration inside my chest. But I can see them through the webbing of punching bags that spreads through the tunnel, and I see the Preme shake his head, see him take a step toward the ref, see the ref step away. Neither looks happy. It is only when the Preme turns and stares at me that I shift my gaze. Focus, Eve. If I want to get in a few good strikes, I need to think. He moves quickly; I can see that. I need to be quicker. Quick like Anil, one of the professional fighters for Blue Circuit.

He is small, his wrists no wider than my own. But he wins because of speed, and so I need speed, too. I need to be good. I can’t be anything less or I could be dead. Behind me, the Preme is back, hitting the bag harder than before. His punches echo easily over the jeering crowd, and the next time I chance a look, I see two things. First, his face is flushed, his eyes fiery. Second, his hoodie is off, red band exposed. I see, too, that his arms are strong, forearms impossibly thick and leading to large fists. I imagine them connecting with my face and swallow.

Now the nerves are there, burning my insides like acid and making my heart slam against my ribs. But this isn’t the first time I have been up against someone I know will win. So I bag up my fear and the agonizing anticipation of pain. I put it aside. The only thing I need to focus on is drawing blood. Draw blood from the Preme. It will make Emerald and the other fighters happy: Anil and Bruno and Erick. It will make my father happy. Just a bit of blood is all I need. “Ready?” shouts the ref from over my shoulder.

He is short with white-gray hair, red-rimmed drinking eyes. My arms drop to my sides, and my stomach lurches. I nod—I am as ready as I will ever be. He shouts next to the Preme, but the Preme must not hear. He keeps punching the bag—he punches it with enough force to crack my skull. He is angry; there is no doubt about that now. Perhaps it was my attitude or calling him a name. I watch as the ref moves sideways until he falls into the Preme’s peripheral vision. The Preme glances at him, then hits the bag again. Complete and utter insolence, and I smile inwardly—I can’t help it.

Now the ref says something, something that makes the Preme stop and glare at him. But finally he turns to face me, blood dripping from large knuckles. His gaze is cemented low, to the side—not on me at all. “…Sportsmanlike conduct,” the ref says. “Respect…” The same old thing, and I don’t bother to listen. In truth, there are no rules. Not in the Fighter Bowl—not even in Compound Eleven. Violence is a way of life down here, and in the ring, it is even more than that. It is a celebrated form of entertainment. The more gruesome the fight, the happier the crowds.

The happier the crowds, the happier the Combat League—the one all us athletes must appease if we want match time. So the rules are simple: There are no rules. It hasn’t always been this way. There used to be other forms of entertainment, at least before the remnants of civilization moved underground. Football, the books on the fifth floor call it. Or maybe it was baseball. Whatever it was, it required space. An open field, big arenas. There is none of that here. I don’t know about the other compounds, but I do know Compound Eleven.

There is only fighting. The ref orders us to shake hands. I don’t have an intimidating face, but at least it looks disinterested, and that can be off-putting. So I stare evenly at the Preme as I extend a bloodied palm. Only he doesn’t take it. He doesn’t even look at me. Instead he strings his hands behind his head and stares at the metal ceiling. The ref looks as though he will insist upon a handshake—sportsmanlike conduct indeed—but after a second thought, he grabs his loudspeaker and brushes past us into the Bowl. He welcomes the crowd to the match, and they roar. Then he begins the haunting anthem of the compound… Mother dearest see us staring, stop the ticking clock Your beauty is unrivaled, from beasts to gilded rock One more chance for everything, oh the love you shall unlock Mother dearest hear us whisper, tick tock Mother dearest see us staring, stop the ticking clock Your betrayal is still stinging, a path of shame to walk Women, children cast aside, men you cruelly mock Mother dearest hear us singing, tick tock Mother dearest see us staring, stop the ticking clock Foolish is your thinking, your twisting of the lock A declaration of war, and us weakened by our shock Mother dearest hear us shouting, tick tock Mother dearest see us staring, stop the ticking clock Telling secrets, sharing lies, your love was just a crock Set the noose, start the fire, never again to talk Mother dearest hear us laughing, tick tock My brow digs together as I wrap my knuckles, as the crowd joins the ref for the last stanza, the one that always inspires anger.

The entire compound is founded upon it. I stare at the Preme. He doesn’t look my way, and when I throw him the roll of tape, he doesn’t move to catch it. Instead it falls to the floor, and he kicks it away. Now, instead of trying to make him feel uneasy, I feel uneasy. Fighters always tape their knuckles. Does he think it will be that quick a match? He faces the Bowl now, his gaze empty and unfixed. He doesn’t bounce to keep blood flowing or his muscles loose. He does nothing. Yes.

He must think this will be an easy fight indeed. I will show him otherwise. With a deep breath, I turn and face the Bowl myself, and my eyes sweep over the largest room in Compound Eleven, one that spans the second and third floor, even part of the fourth. The only room where the ceiling isn’t directly overhead. Black-and-white pendants hang from the rafters, along with large banners advertising upcoming matches—matches between well-known professional fighters. But this one must be just as well attended as those will be. Row after row, tier after tier, the seats are full. Except nobody sits. They all stand, stomp feet, clap hands. Scream.

I bounce up and down and stare at the raised ring in the center of the Bowl. It is surrounded by blinding white lights that remind me of Preme lights. Lower Mean lights are dim, lone bulbs strung across a low ceiling at too-long intervals, strands of wire hanging between. The bleached Preme floor glitters by comparison. Powerful jobs, elaborate schooling, lavish living quarters. All a far cry from Lower Mean life. But sport fighting is a Mean game, and most of the fighters are second-floor Lower Means like myself. This is my turf, not his. I slap myself and relish the feeling of my heart hammering in my throat. I let the screaming crowd fill my ears, the thumping boots fill my veins.

I stare at the glowing ring until my pupils tighten, until my muscles twitch. The ref puts down the loudspeaker and motions us forward.

.

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