-65 DAYS BEFORE THE ANNUAL GAME-
Growing up in T1 is hard. I should know, since it’s where I’ve spent the last 17 years of my life. In T1, or the long version Tier 1, are the poorest of the poor. You know, the people who’ve either never participated in the Annual Game, or the people who weren’t successful enough to win. They never got the prize money to move up a tier, so they live here, in run down houses, eating scraps and struggling to find medicine to heal the sick or wounded. Most people’s goal is to live on any tier except mine, even if it is just T2. They claim it’s better than this. There are five tiers, 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest. The only way to move up a tier is to compete in the Annual Game and place in the top three spots. Nobody’s required to compete, so it is usually those who are desperate to reach to rich upper levels or those who are born with Gifts. These Gifts really are just extra abilities such as super speed, flight, divination, shapeshifting, telekinesis, enhanced hearing, element bending, and sight. Those with Gifts make their way to the top of the Tiers pretty quickly, but people like me usually stay at the bottom. Truthfully, I don’t mind it down here. I don’t have any siblings, and my mom died when I was little, so it’s just me and my dad living together. He’s practically all I need, except for my best friend Finneas of course.
We grew up as playdate buddies, and, since birth, we’ve been practically inseparable. Speaking of Finn, I’m actually on my way over to his house now. It’s only about a mile walk, which on a good day like today only takes about 10 minutes. I easily scale the tree next to his window and hop into his run-down flat. I’m trying my best to be quiet since it’s 6:00 a.m., and Finn has to share a room with his two younger brothers.
“Psst…Finn…psst…wake up. It’s time to go.” I’m less than an inch away from his face, and I see a blur out of the corner of my left eye before Finn’s hand playfully connects to the side of my head.
“It’s too earlyyyy.” Finn lets out a groan and turns away from me.
“Come on, sleepy head! It’s Choosing Day for the Game today. We have to have everything done before twelve.” I roll my eyes. Finn has always been such a lazy bum in the mornings. I don’t even think Finn would get out of bed if I didn’t wake him up in the morning. His parents go to work early, so they are rarely around to wake up Finn and his brother, Davis and Benny.
“I’ll wait outside for you,” I tell him. I get a thumbs up before turning and shimmying down the tree, trying to not wake his neighbors in the downstairs flat.
I swear I’ve been waiting for twenty minutes now, I mean, really, how long does it take someone to wipe off and put a shirt on? As if Finn had just read my thoughts, here he comes, a little less gracefully than I, down the tree. He shoots me a tired smile and I return one.
“All right, Leah, let’s go do our chores.”
We collect groceries using the spare change we have for his home first, then we use whatever we have left over for my dad and me. By the time we return to his flat, his brothers are wide awake and squirming around their small room, oblivious to what today has in store. Finn’s family has always been eager to move up a tier but has never gotten lucky enough with an age group or a playing field suited to its members’ abilities. They have no Gifts, like myself, and their parents can’t afford to take off work long enough to compete in the Games anymore. In the upper Tiers, you still get paid leave for the Games, but down here there’s barely enough to provide food.
With two hours until Choosing Day, we head to my flat, bringing the leftover groceries along. My dad greets us at the door with a sturdy hug, but I know he’s acting through the pain. He’s been slowly deteriorating from an illness due to the lack of medicine, and even if there were medicine, I wouldn’t be able to afford it. I look at Finn to see if he could detect my Dad’s sick condition, but Finn has the same shy expression that he always does.
“All right, kids, I’m going to head back to bed for a while. Leah, come back after Choosing and let me know what happens.” He retreats to his bed, trying to contain a raspy cough.
I turn to Finn. “I’ll see you at noon. I’m gonna clean up a little.”
“See you then,” he says and turns to return to his flat.
I make my way outside, give my neighbors a small wave, and check our water supply. In T1, we are limited to only a few gallons every couple weeks, so water is highly rationed. I decide I only should use a small amount to wash myself off, so I take my cup behind the curtained area behind our flat and scrub as much dirt off as possible. I put the same clothes back on and walk inside.
Only one hour until Choosing. Last year, the age group was 75-80, and, as predicted, there were very few participants. It also didn’t help that last year’s playing field was a scorching hot desert course. Only the lucky elderly survived. I’m starting to grow nervous thinking about what this year’s Game selection will be. What if 15-20 years is picked? Are Finn’s parents going to force him into the Game? My dad’s coughs interrupt my thoughts, and a new idea floats into my head: I can get my Dad medicine if I place in the Games.
– – –
“Please turn your attention towards the screen for the live results of the Annual Game.”
I stop my conversation with Finn and look at the white screen the T5 workers have set up.
It is the nicest thing that enters our Tier, and it is only a projector and a huge, white, hanging paper. Next to me, Finn is still mumbling something, but whatever he is saying I’m ignoring.
“First drawing will be for the age group.” The T5 man’s hand rustles around in the clear bowl of options until he finally grasps a small card. “Ages….” opening the card, “fifteen to twenty years.”
I close my mouth that I hadn’t realized was open and look at Finn. He has a grim expression on his face, making my nerves heighten even more.
“Now for the playing field.” More rustling occurs in the second bowl.
I just want it to be an easy course. If Finn is sent into the Games, I’m not confident he is going to come out unharmed or even… I don’t want to think about it.
“A jungle maze.”
Finn seems to have paled now, but he gets up and begins walking in the direction of his flat before I can even get a word out.
“Finn! Wait up.”And of course he doesn’t, so I begin to jog after him. I take a deep breath as I reach his side, “I’m going to compete in the Game.”
He abruptly stops, “Your dad will never allow that.”
“I’m not telling him.” I look him in the eyes. “He needs medicine, and I am going to win.”
-1 MONTH BEFORE THE ANNUAL GAME-
I’m on my daily walk, now a run, over to Finn’s house, but when I get there, he’s already gone. “Huh, that’s weird,” I say to myself. His brothers tell me he left over an hour ago and that he must’ve forgotten to tell me. I am about to question it, but I catch myself and thank them instead. I begin to head to a tree where Finn and I spend most of our free time. I can see him from a distance and chuckle to myself, “I know him too well for him to avoid me.” Well, he wouldn’t be avoiding me if we hadn’t gotten into a small and possibly heated discussion on Choosing Day.He told me he was competing in the Games this year, and I told him that it wouldn’t end well for him. That may have ticked him off, but it’s true. Finn can barely even take care of himself unless I’m there helping him along.
When I reach the tree, Finn is just sitting at the base, but he’s sweaty and a little red in the face. My guess is he’s probably just been doing chores and is out of breath from walking up the hill.
“Hey Finn, what are you up to?”
I know he’s mad at me, but he could at least answer my question or even acknowledge my presence. I decide I’m just going to get straight to the point and tell him. “Look, Finn… I’m worried. I don’t think you are going to come back safely after the Games. I just don’t want anything to happen to you, and a maze? Let’s be real; it’s one of the hardest playing fields that’s been picked in years, and you don’t have any Gifts.”
“Neither do you.”
“I mean, yeah, but I’ve been preparing for this since Dad got sick just in case our ages got selected.”
He turns and gives me a funny smile, “Then you should be able to help protect me.”
-DAY 1 OF THE ANNUAL GAME-
“GO! GO! GO!!!”
The wall is closing in front of me with Finn yelling on the other side. The wall has almost hit the floor, and I slide under with no more than a second to go. My fingers graze the bottom of the gray mass as the gears controlling the walls finally stop turning, and I come to a stop on the floor. I’m panting but relieved I made it. “Wow,” I say, taking a deep breath. “That definitely wasn’t a close one.”
Finn rolls his eyes and gestures that we should keep moving. “We should be getting close. Let’s take a right and see where it leads.”
As we round the corner, I just about smack into someone… or something. I stumble backwards, and my eyes almost pop out of my head. A massive snake, double the width of my body and at least 50 feet long, is coiled in front of me. Its head is only a couple feet from mine, and its yellow eyes are fixed on mine. I want to shoot a glance at Finn, but I have to turn my head to look, so I decide to remain still.
“Leah, try to back away slo-,” Finn whispers.
The snake swivels its head towards Finn, and he quickly stops talking. It seems to have both eyes fixed on him, so I decide now is my chance. I pick my foot up and slowly move it behind me. The snake is still occupied with Finn, so I step back again. I take my third step, but as I place my foot down, there’s a loud crunch. A branch in the path, just my luck. The snake snaps its attention back to me and hisses. Its large head begins to draw back, and it attempts to coil its reflective, scaled body into a more condensed budle. It hisses again, louder this time. My eyes widen; the snake is about to strike. “Finn, run down the left path on the count of three.” The snake draws back even more. “One… ” I don’t wait; I run.
“What are you-” Finn lets out a surprised remark, but then does the same.
We have managed to avoid getting struck, but the creature is now chasing us. I don’t look because it will slow me down, but I can hear Finn’s footsteps behind me and a loud whooshing sound I infer is the snake slithering. I am several feet in front of Finn now, and as I turn a corner of the maze, I spot a large crack in the wall. I yell out behind me, “There’s a big crack in the way up ahead! It won’t be able to reach us there!” Let’s hope my plan works.
I reach the crack a good ten seconds before Finn does and easily can tell that the inside of the crack is bigger than I thought. I poke my head out and grab Finn’s arm to pull him into the crack. Less than a second later, the snake is face to face with our hiding spot. It attempts to poke its head into our space, but the beast is much too large. Minutes are passing slowly, but after what feels like hours, it draws its head away and begins to slither back the direction we had just ran from.
I focus my attention back to Finn, who is currently hunched over in the much too short space, and he gives me a “What do we do now?” look.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I might have forgotten you are a tad bit taller than I am,” I say as I attempt a smile, but I receive an eye roll in return.
“So what’s your master plan now?”
“Well, we could take shifts sleeping since it’s getting dark. Even if it isn’t tall enough, there should be enough space to at least lie down.”
Finn sighs but agrees. “I guess we do need to sleep. I’ll take the first watch.” He steps outside and slides down against the wall. “I’ll wake you up in a couple of hours.”
“Sounds good to me. See you in a couple hours.” I hear a muffled reply as I try to make myself as comfortable as possible on the cold, hard floor or the maze.
-DAY 3 OF THE ANNUAL GAMES-
Finn’s quieter than he usually is. I mean, he is a quiet guy, but he hasn’t said anything since this morning, and it’s the afternoon now. “Hey, is something wrong, or did I do something? Say something to you?” He ignores me. “Hellooo, Earth to Finn. Can you hear me?”
“We are getting close.”
“To what? The end of the maze?”
“Yes.” He looks up and points to the branches and vines above the maze’s walls. “They’ve become thinner and thinner since we started. More sunlight is showing in the day, and we can see some of the stars at night.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Man, how did I not notice it, and how did he? All he does is sit around and not speak. I’ve been the one leading us through the maze. I open my mouth to make a remark, but decide to hold back.
Minutes later, I’m walking behind Finn, when he abruptly stops, causing me to run into him. “Why’d you stop? There’s nothing around us except walls.”
“Shh, listen. The gears are about to turn in one of the walls.”
Sure enough, I hear a faint clicking noise. It sounds like it’s coming from the wall to our left. Finn already has an ear to the wall and gives me a confirming nod. But there’s another noise: voices. We’ve heard other competitors a few times already, but these are the closest ones yet. The voices are coming from the other side of the wall and seem to
belong to two guys.
“Can you make out what they are saying?” I whisper.
“Something about the walls and the end of the maze. They just walked past.” The clicking is becoming more rapid, and the voices are becoming farther and farther away. The clicking stops. The left wall begins to shake, and the familiar sound of turning gears begins. I back away, and Finn does the same. A portion of the wall several feet down from us begins to turn, sealing off the direction from which we came. The wall in front of us begins to turn as well, giving us an opening to get to the side the voices came from. Finn moves before I do, but I jog through the newly made path as another wall behind us turns. The only way to go now is forwards. I expect Finn to have a grin on his face, but he does not share my confidence. The gears have now settled, and I can hear faint voices. We take off at a jog, and the voices become louder.
We round a corner leading to the right, and I see it. The end of the maze is a straight path from where we have turned. I can see the two competitors in front of us as well as another figure standing where the tall walls come to an end. I have no idea if anyone has finished yet, but I need to cross that finish line, and I need to do it fast. I need to get the medicine for Dad. I’m running at a full sprint. My legs are tired, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not thinking of anything else, not even Finn. I push myself faster and faster, but then, all of a sudden, my feet don’t connect to the ground anymore.
Before I realize it, I’m falling through a wide gap in the floor. I reach my arms out, and my torso slams into the edge of the wall. My feet catch a ledge as I start rapidly slipping away from the surface of the floor, and I’m struggling to keep from falling backwards. I look around to see if there’s anything I can grab and realize that the space is only about half of the width of the maze’s pathway. There are a few feet of space on either side of the hole, easily allowing a comfortable space to walk around the area I have fallen into. I dig my nails and fingers into the ground as hard as I can, but my body is still slipping.
All of a sudden, a hand grasps onto my wrist, and I look up to see it’s Finn. I’m on the verge of bursting out into tears of joy, but he doesn’t pull me up.
“Finn, pull me up,” I say, but I’m struggling to get the words out.
“You know, Leah, I thought we would be able to work together on this, 50/50 effort. I see now I was wrong.”
“Wha- what are..you talking about?” He has a firm hold on me, but I feel my hand slipping from his.
“You’ve always doubted my abilities, my strength, and my intelligence. You’ve always thought I was poor, little Finn who needed brave Leah around to do everything for him. You’ve been so self-centered ever since your mom died, and you’ve used me as nothing more than something to control and manipulate like I’m some helpless kid.”
“No..Finneas, please, I- I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. Just… help me up… and we can talk about it.”
“You should’ve thought about that before leaving me behind to get the prize money. You would’ve gotten third, and I would get fourth, leaving me with no money to move up. Now look where you are. You are relying on me to save you. It’s funny how ironic that is since you’ve always been ‘saving’ me.”
I feel the sweat between our hands increase, and I slip another inch. “I- I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“You mean you don’t know? I have been taking care of my family and myself without your help for years now. I haven’t been playing your games; you’ve been playing mine. I don’t need you. You’ve always needed me.”
I wish he were lying to me, but I know I’m lying to myself. I see that now I’ve just been too oblivious to realize the mornings where his brothers are already dressed and groceries are already put away. “Finneas, please, I’m begging you… just pull me up,” I plead, but my desperation isn’t working. His grip is loosening on my arm. I am going to be dropped by someone I thought was my best friend.
“Don’t worry, Leah, I’ll tell everyone you died heroically. Also, thanks for protecting me through the maze. I’ll see you in T2, except I won’t.”
A wicked smile is planted on his face, and he looks me dead in the eyes. I’m giving every effort in my body to stay attached to the wall and his hand, but my fingertips are the only thing still connected. I close my eyes and wish a goodbye to my Dad. I hope he will be okay by himself. I open my eyes and see Finneas’ smile widen, and then he lets go of my wrist. I try for one last attempt at the wall, but my hand misses. My blurry eyes make out Finneas at the top of the hole, and I shut them, knowing they won’t open again.