Tonya stood in front of the mirror, drying her hair and then putting it into a ponytail. Gathering her things, she went back to her locker where she placed everything in it. The break room was her next destination. It was announced over the speakers that the next event was delayed as several contestants were still in the labyrinth or unaccounted for.
The break room was bare of decor, but overflowing with food, drinks, and cots to rest on. Tonya plated some food and grabbed an orange sport drink. Finding a place away from the chatterbox men and women was difficult. The conversations carried over to her, so she ate in silence, trying to ignore the pointless prater. Disposing of her trash, Tonya found a cot to rest on.
With her drink half gone, she snugged the lid shut and placed it on the floor next to her cot. Tonya lay on her stomach and placed her closed eyes into the crook of her elbow. Her breathing deepened and the voices faded away.
She was sixteen now, when she still lived with her parents. Her father’s health declined as the years pulled at his vitality, nearly crippling him. He could no longer walk, the effort would send him into a coughing fit as oxygen strained to reach his lungs. Tonya’s mother had taken him to every specialist in the area with none able to provide relief or beneficial treatment. They were now preparing to travel out-of-state to a specialist who promised a treatment and rehabilitation schedule for him.
The morning arrived as Tonya helped her mother load him into the van, he grabbed Tonya’s arm with a commanding look in his eyes. “Listen to me.” The cough had ravaged his voice and it sounded like rusty steel pipes rubbing against each other. “I…I don’t know if this treatment is going to work.” He suppressed a cough, withholding the air that wanted desperately to come out. “I want you to pursue your life and do the things that you want to do. Don’t let anyone hold you back. Don’t let me hold you back. I will always be in your corner, in this life and the next.”
She squeezed his weakened hand.
The passenger door shut and the van rolled down the driveway with the speed of a funeral procession. It wasn’t long before the dark of the morning claimed the last light of the tail lights.
Tonya’s uncle, Jimmy, came a few hours later to pick her up. She would start her sophomore year of high school in a different town forty miles away.
A loud buzzer sounded, jerking Tonya from the memory. An announcement followed over the speaker that the next event would begin in less than an hour.
As Tonya stirred from her sleep, she rubbed her eyes and dried her cheeks. The same guy with blonde hair and the red jersey was walking away from the cots and towards the food tables. His head was down and one hand swung as he walked, the other hand held in front, blocked by his body.
Without looking, she reached down and grabbed her drink. It was slightly warm from the room temperature as she struggled with the lid. When she got it off, she took a small drink. The warmness of the liquid did nothing to enhance the flavor. She walked to the nearest trashcan, dropped it in, and headed to the locker room. She could feel all the eyes of the room on her as she left.
Tonya passed several rows of lockers before she turned where her’s was located. Ash’s locker door was ajar. Her heart dropped, knowing that she missed her chance to speak with Ash one last time. With a finger, she pulled the door open. It was like Ash never existed. The locker was void of contents. Tonya closed the door and walked to her locker.
Halfway to her locker, the room started to tilt to her right. Tonya caught herself on the lockers and held herself afoot. The room tilted one way and then the other like so many rooms of fun houses. She lost her balance as the room tilted to the left, falling over the bench in the middle as her head barely missed hitting the floor. She wrapped her arms around the steel foot of the bench and held on. The cool concrete floor was a relief to the rising heat of her forehead. Closing her eyes, she lay on the floor with her arms locked around the bench post.
Footsteps passed her row and turned back. “Hey, are you alright?” The woman’s voice sounded like it passed through a synthesizer. The woman ran to Tonya’s side, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“No.” Tonya said.
Tonya turned her head to the side and spoke, “I don’t know. I can’t keep my balance and the room tilts to the side.”
“Do you want me to go get help?”
Tonya gazed up at the woman as the room shifted slightly. Her skin was a shimmering, tangerine orange. Over-sized green eyes hid under a steeply pronounced forehead, and her teeth were small and compacted. Tonya looked around and saw the familiar lockers surrounding the alien woman. The room lurched to the side and she snapped her eyes shut.
The woman helped Tonya up to the bench and steadied her. Tonya refused to look at the morphed features of the woman.
“Here, drink some water.” The woman cracked the seal open of a water bottle and placed it in Tonya’s hand. Tonya put the water to her forehead as the chill went from her head to her tailbone. Half the bottle was downed in a couple seconds.
“Thank you. I think I’m okay now.” It was a blatant lie, but Tonya wanted the woman to leave.
“You sure? I guess I’ll see you at the next event, then.” With trepidation in her alien eyes, the woman turned the corner and exited the locker room.
The speaker announced that the next event would be starting in fifteen minutes. Tonya downed the rest of her water and staggered to the exit.
Crowds of people were surrounding enthusiastic dancers as lasers cut through the air over the smoke infused dance floor. Up on the main stage, women in tight, revealing outfits danced as a man rapped and beat-boxed his latest hit. But that wasn’t how Tonya saw things.
Everyone’s features had morphed into otherworldly atrocities. There wasn’t a person in the room that looked human. Skin tones were more diverse than colors of the rainbow. Facial features were more enlarged than a magnifying glass could produce. All the while the building continued to sway and tilt from side to side.
Tonya teetered and smashed into a solid male shoulder. When he looked at her, his under-bite was large enough to set a plate on. “What gives?” He pushed her away and she sought out the black and white stripped shirt of a staff member.
She stumbled like a drunk, bouncing off groups of people as they cussed and shoved her away. The black and white stripes stood out under the black light glow.
“I need to get to the event.” She said and held up her pass.
“No problem, Girl. I’ll get you there.” The oversized woman possessed an attitude matching her girth.
Tonya put a hand on the woman’s shoulder as they worked their way through the crowd. The woman was the equivalent to a cow catcher as her voice thundered over the music before she shouldered people aside. It took only a few minutes until Tonya stood in front of the registry table.
“Here ya go, Girl. Good luck.” She patted Tonya on the shoulder as she left.
The official behind the table scanned her I.D. card and assigned her to group C. Tonya found her place and gripped the chair to keep from falling over. Her group stood in a circle behind their chairs; twenty-five to a group. Several trash cans formed a smaller circle within the larger.
The other two groups were arranged in other parts of the massive room allowing everyone to see the event up close as well as watching the massive screen showing the live feed. After the announcer called attention to a few of the contestants, he faced the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please find your seats. Those with weak constitutions please leave the building and save the cleaning crew from your mess. Contestants, take your seats as we begin…The Feast!”
TO BE CONTINUED…