Friday, March 28, 2014
Today is the day that I might die. I never thought I‘d hope for my own death, but if it will save countless others, then it must be so.
“Alina?” my mother calls from her bed. Her voice chokes on the end of my name, and she falls into one of her coughing fits that have been growing steadily worse and more frequent.
I fasten the last button on my jacket and quickly pull on my warmest pair of boots.
“Alina… please… come in…. here,” Mother manages to wheeze out between her gagging coughs.
I run into her bedroom, breathless by the time I reach her side. I fear that every time she has one of these fits that it may be her last. She is so small under the covers that I can barely make out her tiny frame. Before she got sick, she was a strong, muscled warrior of a woman, but now the outlines of her bones peek through her crepe-thin skin.
I pick up the tin cup of water from the table beside the bed and pull the covers away from her face. I try not to cringe at the deep purple circles that run around her eyes. Mother looks up at me with a smile, despite that fact she knows she’s dying.
“Where are you going, baby?” she asks. She reaches up to run her fingers through my hair, and I feel a twinge of guilt. She doesn’t know what I’m about to do, nor will I tell her.
“I’m just going to see Ethan off. He’s in the Fight today.”
Her eyes immediately snap to attention. “That’s today? It can’t be time for that already…”
Her voice trails off, and the sparkle disappears from her eyes. I know I’ve lost her for now. Her lucidity never lasts very long these days. It’s why I have to win the fight. I need her to have the money pay for her treatments so she can finish her research and figure out how to stop this monstrosity forever. My life will cost nothing. Hers will cost everything.
I squeeze her hand and lean down to kiss her on the cheek. Despite being sick, she still smells like lavender. I don’t want to leave her, but I have to. I can’t be late today. Plus, I still have to go tell Ethan goodbye.
As I pick up my gloves and slide my cold-numbed hands into them, someone taps lightly on the front door. I already know it’s Ethan by rhythm of it—only he knocks that way. I swing the door open with a smile, glad to see him—even if it may be the last time. But my smile instantly falls when I see the look on his face.
I wasn’t going to tell him either.
“Alina. You cannot do this to your mother,” he pleads, barging through the front door and slamming it behind him.
We’ve already had this conversation, and he knows it’s the only way I will ever be able to get enough money for my mother’s medicine. I just never told him that I was serious about going through with it. Someone from the council must have called him. They don’t like it when women participate, even though it’s not illegal.
“I’m not doing this to her, I’m doing this for her,” I say. “You know good and well she’s the only one smart enough to figure out how to save everyone and stop this mess.”
His face crumples, and for a split second, my decision to Fight wavers. I don’t like it when he looks at me like that. It makes my blood go cold. I don’t blame him for being upset with me, but it’s my decision and mine only. I’ll sign my life over to the Council with a fingerprint of my own blood, and I will be sealed to them until I’m no longer breathing. Hopefully, anyway.
Because in the Fight, the only way to win is to die.
Ethan steps forward and circles my waist with his hands.
“Please,” he says, even though his mouth doesn’t open. He doesn’t need to speak right now. I know those eyes of his better than my own, and that is exactly why I refuse to look into them right now. I can’t let him influence my decision.
A piece of hair falls in front of my eyes and he lets go of my back to tuck it behind my ear. His fingers linger at the base of my chin, and his lips are so close to my own that I can feel the electricity of his skin burning in the air between us. I finally lift my eyes to his and it is the biggest mistake I ever could have made.
Ethan pushes me against the wall and cups my face in his hands. He kisses me gently, like I am the only thing in the world that matters. He sucks my bottom lip into his mouth and I have to gasp for air, but it doesn’t do me any good. Not even oxygen will help me breathe properly at this point.
"Ethan," I murmur against his mouth. His lips leave mine and travel to my cheek, down my chin, onto my neck. Soft, little kisses that barely feel like kisses at all.
"Ethan, stop it," I say again.
His body stiffens and he immediately pulls away. There are only about two inches of space between us, but it feels like miles. Everything has changed. He knows he can’t save me from this anymore than I can save my mother without medicine.
“I have to do this. You know I do,” I whisper.
He swallows hard and takes another step away from me. I hear the faintest whisper of a “goodbye,” as he steps out of the door and closes it behind him.
Panic wells in me as the realization of what I’m about to do seeps into my soul, and I know that I can’t let it end like this. I can’t let him leave like that. I yank my front door open, my mouth open with his name on my lips, ready to yell for him to come back. But a piece of paper crumpled on the top porch step catches my eye.
I lean over and grab it, carefully unwadding it as I stand back up. It’s a picture. A picture of a house scrawled out with a purple crayon. A picture that I have seen a million times before, hanging on the corner of the refrigerator. It’s a picture that I drew when I was five years old. But there’s now a bloody thumbprint on the bottom left corner.
I drop the paper and sprint down the steps and into the yard. By the time I reach the town square, I lineup has already begun. I spot his brown, curly head at the front of the line, thumb poised and ready to bleed on the scroll of Fighter’s names.
“Ethan!” I shout. “No! Please!”
This was supposed to be me. I was supposed to be the one to save her. This isn’t okay. I try to push my way through the thick crowd, but there is no way I’ll make it to the front to stop him in time. He raises his head just in time to look at me as he presses his bloodied thumb onto the long scroll.
He nods. Shrugs. Mouths, “I love you.” Then steps into the arena.
And the Fight begins.
Story By: Stefanie
Photo By: Graur Codrin