Tonya passed the break room filled with conversations about the prior event. The food spread was tempting, but she wanted a true appetite. Coming into the locker room, she heard other women already carrying out what she came to do. Finding an empty stall, Tonya locked the door behind her and emptied her stomach into the stool. The acid burned her throat as she spat the remains from her mouth and the water carried away the evidence.
She rinsed at the sink and splashed her face with cold water. The hallucinations were fading as she tied her hair in a ponytail. Looking into the mirror, she noticed her father’s facial features prominent among her own. Her eyes dropped away before any memories could bombard her thoughts.
The chatter of the break room grew as Tonya neared. Several of the same faces were still in the contest as the cliques began to form. The loud and outlandish group one-upping each other. The analytics with their heads together and hushed voices. And the loners like Tonya sprinkled about the room. Fingers from the huddled groups pointed at Tonya as she entered the food line.
“Didn’t get enough to eat earlier?” The male voice came from across the room and raucous laughter followed the statement.
Tonya ignored them, filling a plate with an assortment of cut fruit and raw, sliced vegetables. She shook the ice water off a bottle of water and found a seat on the opposite side of the room with her back to the wall. Her fork pushed around cucumber coins and carrot strips. The sweetness of the berries awakened her taste and the crispness of the vegetables brought a faint smile to her face.
Fond memories of her childhood came to mind. Her mother passed on her appreciation for food while her father struggled to eat anything not resembling army rations. She recalled the oldest memories of him tearing open a ration at supper while her mother shook her head and dished two plates of food. His favorite part was always the pudding. Tonya thought he possessed magic powers as he pulled out a packet of warm pudding from the ration. He loved watching her reaction when the warmth hit her tongue and the chocolate flavoring brightened her eyes. He never failed to smile, showing the world his war-hardened face could still show emotion.
A green blur flashed by her head bringing her eyes up from her plate. The group across the room pointed at her and laughed. She looked to the food bar and saw him with a piece of broccoli in his hand. “Catch.” He hurled the broccoli at her, just missing her head. She stared cold into his eyes. “What’s the matter? Not hungry?” He laughed at his own joke and looked to the group for a hearty confirmation.
Tonya picked up her plate and water and headed for the door. A shotgun effect of broccoli shattered against the wall in front of her face. “You can’t win the Arena Games. You’ve barely made it this far by yourself.” She turned to face the jerk in the red jersey.
“What, and you can? You’re nothing without your cronies laughing at your stupid jokes.”
“Come say that to my face.” The room grew silent as the two stared each other down.
Tonya threw the plate and water to the floor and strode towards him. “What did I do to you? What do you have against me?” She was a few feet away and the tension of the two fought for ground.
He thrust an accusing finger at her. “The only reason you’re here is because you know someone. There’s no way you could make it through the qualifying rounds.” His mouth was drawn tight. “You’re weak.”
“I could kick your ass in a heartbeat.”
“Whatever. Why don’t you quit and save us the effort of getting rid of you?”
“Like slipping me drugs?”
A satisfied smile spread across his face. “Too bad you didn’t drink more of it. I had it made special just for you.” More people were crowding around them. “You don’t belong here.”
“And you do?”
His smirk tickled the corners of his mouth, “I’ve got three straight podiums under my belt. This year, I’ll get gold and complete my collection.”
“I’m sure it will be an honest victory for you too.” Tonya stood her ground, but she fought this battle alone.
“And you’ve been honest during the Games?”
She didn’t want to answer, but lying would burn her pride. “No.”
“I thought so. Let’s just agree on one thing; there is no ‘honest’ way to win the Games. Not now, not ever.”
“Fine. Keep your distance, or you’ll regret it.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Sugar.”
Tonya refused to turn her eyes from him as she backtracked to the door. When she reached it, he flipped her both middle fingers. She finally broke eye contact and walked out of the room.
Laughter trailed behind her like a puppy. She headed to the locker room, escaping the ridicule. A few voices talked about trivial matters and missing their families. Tonya faced her locker and swiped her key card, opening the one safe place she could trust for the time being. Her eyes searched for the expected letter wrapped in ribbons, but her locker was as she left it. She ruffled through her bag, finding nothing misplaced. Her shoulders dropped as she sat on the bench. The weight of the world seemed to set upon her.
What do I do now?
She noticed the steady thumping of a mop bucket growing louder and heading her direction. Tonya wiped her eyes and squared her shoulders. She needed to be strong in everyone’s eyes. There was already enough rumors and angst working against her.
The anticipated yellow bucket rolled past her row of lockers and woman in her late forties with a definite Mediterranean heritage held a stoic face as they made eye contact. The woman looked around while holding up a finger to her lips. She reached in back pocket causing Tonya to shy away. She pulled out a small pad of paper and held it for Tonya to read.
Just answer the questions the woman asks you. It was the same handwriting as before, pressed hard into the paper. Some pencil strokes tore through the paper.
“Hi. Are you one of the contestants?” The woman spoke with perfect articulation, surprising Tonya. She flipped the page and handed it to Tonya.
I think they’re on to me. The woman speaking to you is a cover up in case there is a hidden mic nearby. Try to Act casual and don’t let me down.
“How are you finding the Arena Games? I’m too busy cleaning, so I don’t get a chance to see anything.” She acted out turning the pages and pointed to the pad. Tonya flipped the page and read on.
I’ve found your friend. I’ve arranged to get her out of here. It’s a matter of I’m going to try to get us out of here. Should you want to continue in the Games, point to your hair and she will give you my last aide.
“Um…it’s been a lot harder than I thought it would be. I thought it would be more like the shows on T.V.” Tonya pointed and the woman pulled a black tube from her pocket resembling a large lip balm tube. The woman then showed Tonya to open the cap and rub it into her hair.
“Yeah, that’s what people are saying. I’m not into sports. This is just a job for me. Is this your first time in the Games?” The woman looked around with nervous eyes. She pointed to the pad again and signaled to hurry.
It’s hair dye. I’ve arranged an inside person to help you in the next event. But you will have to trust them. They will have matching hair color as you. I’m always in your corner. Good luck.
The woman poked Tonya in the shoulder and mouthed, TALK!
“Uh, yes. Sorry. I’m tired from the long day so far.” She looked at the second-to-last sentence once more.
“Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you like that. I’ve got some work to do anyway. They made a big mess in the main area and I came to freshen my bucket. I wish you luck for the rest of the Games.” She held out her hand and Tonya returned the pad to her. The familiar thumping of the wheels subsided as she distanced herself from Tonya, disappearing into the rear of the room.
Tonya turned the last few familiar words of the note over in her mind as she stared at the black tube. Only one person ever said those words to her.
I’m always in your corner.
TO BE CONTINUED…