Excerpt from Girl in the Arena
Uber enters the arena first to thundering applause. I’ve read in Sword and Shield that he rubs a quart of Glow on his skin before a match. With the black lights that rim the stadium, as soon as he starts to overheat it will look as if that peacock green sweat is pouring out of him like in those sports drink commercials.
My brother, Thad, tugs at me until I get a Freeway bar from my sack and peel back the wrapper for him. They make my mind too speedy and I think it would be easy to go into road rage even if you weren’t driving, but with Thad, they soothe him. His whole sense of time and space has always been jumbled up. Sometimes I think he’s living at the speed of light, only I can’t see it.
Uber checks his helmet repeatedly and then crosses himself.
When Tommy, our stepfather, steps into the arena, all of us stand and flood the air with sound. Everyone loves Tommy.
I see he’s chosen the short sword today. But he still looks off to me. There’s almost no swagger as he walks into the center of the arena and raises his arms.
—Tommy looks good, I say to Allison.
—Do you think so? our mother shouts back above the cheering.
—He’s all over this, I say.
—I’ve heard Uber wasn’t born in to the Helmet Wearers, she informs me.
Allison likes to make a point of these things. Born Ins are first- generation Glads, their relatives and descendents. Tommy’s a Born In. It’s a point of pride. I don’t know if Uber’s a gladiator born and bred but the blog Desperate Glad says: He lights up the game. And the Chicago Tribune says: He’s money in the treasury.
Time feels sped up as the cheers build. Tommy and Uber start to circle. I don’t know why, but I thought they would take longer to size each other up, that time would stretch out on this one. Competitions often feel slow to me, especially at the beginning.
Tommy slams his shield against Uber’s. They deliver several blows in succession, each one striking the other’s shield or sword, each sound enlarged by the sound system and the roar of the arena. I want to look away, but today I can’t.
Tommy knocks Uber’s shield so hard it flies out of his hand. As Uber moves to pick it up, Tommy makes several small slices up Uber’s left arm. That’s Tommy’s signature as he’s warming up, to make the small cuts. The crowd loves this. They chant, —Tommy, Tommy.
But then in one move, Uber suddenly grabs his shield, turns, and strikes Tommy with his long sword. When I open my eyes I see he’s practically taken off Tommy’s left kneecap.There’s blood everywhere, spurting and soaking into the sand. Before Tommy can right himself, Uber slices him across his stomach. Thank God that one’s a shallow cut.
—Why isn’t he fighting back? Allison asks.
—He’s waiting for the right moment, I say, though I’m wondering the same thing.
Thad’s trying to say something now, his mouth full of thick, sped-up chocolate. Everything about him looks urgent as I glance over. I don’t know if he understands what’s going on with Tommy, if he understands fully, or if this is about something else, because thoughts are often urgent with Thad. I kiss his forehead. I’m trying not to cry, and I tell him to chew slowly, and to wait, just wait. I tell him everything is going to be okay.
A low rolling chant starts as Uber seems to be giving Tommy time to concede, to pull himself together—I’m not sure what. I’d say this is not the kind of calm you want. If I were a forecaster, I’d say we’re in earthquake weather, just before it hits.
When Thad can’t take another moment of stillness, he stands in his chair and starts to leap toward Allison, jumping up and down. As I try to restrain Thad, I look at his big eyes, his soft square face, and I imagine how much would die with Tommy. Maybe everything, everything as we know it. Then Thad gets quiet again and slumps back into his seat. I want to take his hand and run away with him but this is one of the first bylaws I was taught; number 96:
Never leave the stadium when your father is dying.
So I’m here when Uber raises his sword suddenly and slices off Tommy’s right hand cleanly at the wrist joint.
I’m out of my seat, standing in the bleachers as his hand drops to the sandy floor like a chicken wing into flour. Tommy’s bludgeon flies and the bracelet I lent him for good luck launches from his arm and rolls to a stop at Uber’s black athletic shoes.
Sixty thousand fans rise to their feet shouting:
For a moment Tommy stands there in his blood- drenched Nikes as if he’s thinking over his next move. Of course the point, the whole point, of Glad existence is to die well. And I know Tommy G. is going to die well when it’s his time. But I’m looking at Allison now, looking for something in Allison’s face to say he’ll pull through this one. That the ambulance will scoop him up and get him to the hospital in time. I stare into Allison’s mirrored sunglasses, where I see Tommy suddenly arch back. His chain- mail guard swings out from his hips and lashes his groin. His legs buckle, and his body drops in both halves of her.
Tommy dies right there in Allison’s lenses.
Suddenly I realize that Uber might think my bracelet is actually Tommy’s because it’s a wide, flat band made in the man’s style. I feel sick knowing he could reach down and pluck it off the arena floor. It just sits there by his feet, like an eight ball ready to drop into a pocket and end my game. Because the thing is: No man is allowed to hold your dowry bracelet, except your father. If a man holds your dowry bracelet he’s required, according to GSA law, to marry you, Bylaw 87.
I watch Allison pull her small yellow coat around herself, as if this will wrap her tight enough to get through the worst day of her life. She says, — He shouldn’t even be in the league. They’re going to nail this guy, she says, looking at the penalty flag again.
–You watch. They’ll boot him right out.
Uber unclips his mic from his black and gold breastplate.
—Wait!! he shouts, slamming his voice into the sound system.
It’s eerie the way people go quiet in waves.
Here is this giant who will be able to sell anything to anyone, and he’s standing in the middle of the arena, Tommy cut to pieces in front of him, the penalty flag up, and then—and this is something I can only record and not explain—Uber hangs his head. He touches his chest. I swear I see him mouth the word: tommy. Even if no one else does, I see it. My skull freezes. This is like being in some kind of sick fairy tale. He has no right to look like he cares or that he’s pledging allegiance or something.
In the still, I hear the soft drink machines recharging, the sprinkler tanks filling, the cotton candy spinning in the dead quiet, in the rising heat as Uber looks dumbly at the ground. Everyone in the stadium stands up now, if they haven’t already, and they touch their hearts and they hang their heads to honor Tommy. And then, after what seems like minutes, though it must be seconds, Uber breaks his stance. He looks up at the crowds and he reaches down. His long black braid swings forward.
And he picks up the bracelet.
*Excerpted from Chapter 5 of Girl in the Arena