Are You Real?
Schk. Schk. Schk.
Maia’s mother was quite deft with her little peeling knife. Every once in a while, she would glance longingly, first at her daughter, and then at the growing pile of apple slices on the tray table before her.
Maia was swaddled up so tightly that she could barely move, stuck facing the unfortunate reality of her mother's persistent love. Outside, the rain had let up for about an hour, leaving the two of them less of an excuse to stare out the window instead of speaking.
Suffice to say, the neck brace limiting how well she could turn was the least of the girl’s concerns.
“Maia,” her mother tutted, breaking the silent deadlock. “You need to eat, please.”
Maia did what she could to crane her face away from her mother's pleading eyes.
“You'll heal faster if you eat,” her mother added, raising an apple slice. “Here, let me feed you.”
“No!” Maia pursed her lips to stop the apple slice from entering. “You don’t have to help me. I'll eat when I feel like eating.”
Miss Park clicked her teeth. “But the doctor said-”
“I don't care what the doctor said.” Maia mumbled. “I just… I don't want to talk or think about anything.”
“Maybe I should have brought a food processor,” her mother said, setting down the peeling knife. “I'm sorry if-”
“You’re disappointed in me. I can tell.”
“Aya-! Such nonsense.”
“Then you're mad at me. You're mad at me because I was stupid enough to end up like this. Because I didn't tell you anything, right?”
“Maia.” Miss Park ran a hand through the matted hair on her daughter's head. “I'm worried sick about you. But I know that you wouldn't keep a secret from me without your reasons. I just hope you tell me what they are before you leave this hospital.”
“My reasons?” Maia scoffed. “There was no good reason for what I did. For what I’m doing to you now. The hospital bills… they’ll crush us.”
“Don’t worry, I can handle it.”
“You shouldn’t have to!” Maia grimaced from the pain of yelling, forcing herself to calm down. “I did this to us. I’ve been doing this ever since I was born, being nothing but dead weight. Umma, I think about that almost every day. About how your life would’ve been so much better if I was never-”
“Look at me, Maia,” Miss Park interrupted. “LOOK!”
Her shrill shout was enough to make Maia slowly turn her face back around. When Maia did, the daughter’s eyes widened—for all her life, she had seen her mother’s face twist in sadness or anguish. But never had Maia seen pain so deeply reflected from Miss Park’s eyes until that very moment.
“I have many regrets.” Miss Park’s voice quivered. “But the only one I’ve ever had about you, was how I couldn’t give you an easier life. You work so hard between your job and school, because of me. So don’t you dare finish that sentence of yours, I won’t allow it!”
Maia could only stare at her, with the same bewilderment she felt the day she became Mad Dog. The mix of shame and guilt she felt was too confusing for her to say anything in reply. Her mother’s sigh made her jolt in place.
“I'll go get you some milk.” Miss Park got up. “It will help your bones.”
As her mother went to the door, Maia felt the immense, invisible pressure on her chest lighten. But only for the slightest bit—she didn’t know if she could take another second face-to-face with the woman.
Her mother's hand curled around the handle, only for there to be a knock on the other side.
“Doctor-” Miss Park started, opening the door.
But the man standing in the doorway was no doctor. As he stepped in Maia could instantly make out his distinct features. Tall, sharp, and dressed head-to-toe in a neat, black suit, the middle-aged stranger held out a hand.
“Good afternoon. I’m sorry to intrude,” he said, in a sterling voice that wouldn't be out of place on news radio. He turned to Maia. “How are you feeling, young lady?”
Between the wolflike gleam in his eyes and his overly perfect, toothy smile, Maia felt unnerved. The sheer, confident stillness of his hand in the air made it seem like there'd be claws growing out of it if it wasn't so well manicured.
“I’m good. Thanks,” Maia said, glibly.
Miss Park took a step back before jumping forward to clasp the man’s hand.
“You are Mister Volkov, yes?” She shook his hand with all the excitement in her bones. “Your policies. I'm a big fan.”
“They're not quite policies yet.” He gave her a well-practiced smile. “But I suppose there's no need to introduce myself then.”
Miss Park fervently nodded. “I saw you on the posters. Good luck in the election, yes?”
“I appreciate it, Miss Park. But I'm not here to talk about politics.” Mister Volkov withdrew his hand. “If you wouldn't mind stepping outside for a bit, I'd like to discuss what I can do for your daughter. It should only take a minute of your time.”
“Oh! Of course!” Miss Park briefly looked at Maia. “I'll be back with your milk, okay?”
The man politely ushered her mother out of the room, flashing Maia a smile of acknowledgement. But his eyes contained only a perfunctory level of warmth, sending a chill down the girl’s spine as the door swiped shut. Through the glazed side window beside the door, she saw the man tower over her mother as a great black shadow.
Unbeknownst to either adult however, this ward of the hospital was in some need of repairs. The door did not latch close fully, giving Maia just enough space to snoop on the conversation after she craned her neck.
“Miss Park. I feel very badly about what happened to your daughter. As such, I am willing to pay for her treatment in full.”
All that could escape Miss Park’s throat were choking noises. She shook her head, lowering her gaze to the ground.
“I-I don't understand! What have I done to deserve this?”
“It’s not what you have done, Miss Park. But what you will do. I'm going to cover all of your daughter's expenses, and in return, we will keep this incident away from the authorities.”
“What? But-?” Miss Park immediately raised her head. “But what about the people who attacked my daughter?”
“Worry not, I will see to it that I handle that matter personally. I only ask not to complicate the process by pursuing legal action. For you and your daughter’s sake.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your daughter has been involved in activities that could not only derail her academic career, but even spell out a criminal record.”
Maia's chest ached at the way that her mother said those words.
“Yes. At my expense, a private investigation has uncovered some worrying details. Namely, that she was running an illegal fighting ring between students of various schools.”
“Why would my Maia do something like this?”
“Furthermore, there was money involved.” Mister Volkov’s voice deepened in its grimness. “Which, as you may correctly assume, would only add to the legal charges that would be set against her.”
Miss Park fell silent. Through the window, Maia watched their silhouettes as Mister Volkov laid a hand on her mother’s shoulder.
“Miss Park, I was also informed that you may be concerned with the matter of a small amount of debt troubling your accounts. Bereavement and funeral expenses, if I recall correctly. I am offering to deal with that pittance, too.”
Her mother took a step back, shirking the man's hand. She had taken it upon herself to carry the world on her back, and it was now pitying her.
“Please.” The man’s voice was now as buttery as possible. “Consider what I'm doing as a token of mutual understanding. I know what it's like having a troubled child. As such, I understand that your pride might stop you from accepting this money-”
“No. It won’t.” Miss Park’s tone was firm and resolute. “My daughter is my pride. And that doesn't trouble me one bit.”
Maia wanted to scream, but she bit her tongue. The man's head bobbed in acknowledgement, and he produced what looked like a rectangular card from his silhouette.
“Then it's settled. If you have any concerns, please contact me here. I will respond as soon as my schedule allows. Thank you for your time.”
As Mister Volkov walked off, Miss Park entered the deepest bow that Maia had seen since that day in the principal's office. She remained there, frozen in pained gratitude, until the clip-clopping of the man's dress shoes fully vanished down the hall. The moment Maia realized her mother was coming back into the room, she let her head fall back onto her pillow, as if she was in the middle of taking a nap.
“Did you get the milk already?” Maia mumbled, putting on an air of sluggish exhaustion.
“Oh!” Her mother put a hand to her mouth in embarrassment. “How could I forget? I'll go get it right now, so please just keep resting.”
Miss Park hurried off, leaving her daughter staring at the wall across from her. Maia let herself go as limp and powerless as she felt. She pressed her sole free wrist to her eyes to dab up the moisture, letting out a single, stifled sob.
The Jungle was the liveliest it had been since its inception, its stands crowded with all the wrong types of people, and its contestants covering all the worst types of injuries.
Between the brutal slugfest below and the bloodthirsty clamor above, a persistent unease had lodged itself firmly in Sally's throat. She watched Birch firing off sports commentary and having the time of her life. Of course she was—her pet project was thriving. A rarity before, they were now even having their third consecutive Wednesday match due to the overwhelming demand, all because the Hood was in charge now.
The Hood descended to the ringside with the conclusion of the round. The last fighter standing, looking as ugly as a jackal from his wounds, glanced up at the Hood.
“I want out,” he coughed.
“Out? There is no out.” The Hood crouched down near the rim of the pit. “Either you fight to the end of your block, or you stay in.”
“You’re crazy, man. Screw this.” The fighter started scrambling up the side of the pit. “I’m getting an ice pack.”
“You want those bruises to be worth something or not? Leave now, you quit.” The Hood stopped him with a finger pressed to his forehead. “Quit, and you get nothing. ”
Sally watched the ugly jackal of a fighter slip back down to the ring. The reigning winner and his next opponent cooperated to lift the unconscious body of the loser out of the pit before sorting out into opposing corners to prepare for their next fight. Things seemed to be going smoothly, at least as much as they could be with the chaotic new norm and the additional day of fighting.
But deep down, Sally couldn't help feeling uncertain.
Maia hadn't shown up to school that day. Sally checked every class just to make sure, but to no avail. It didn't make any sense—Maia might not have been the best student, but she rarely missed a day of school even if she was sick.
Was it because of her argument with Birch?
She looked over at Birch, whose expression of excitement melted the instant she put down her megaphone. Coincidentally, Birch turned to Sally, giving Sally the chance to gesture towards the rear of the halfpipe for some privacy. Sally was the first to speak after they came down.
“I’m not the only one feeling uncomfortable by all this, right?” Sally asked.
“It's just growing pains.” Birch crossed her arms. “Things are better than ever right now.”
“I don’t think it’s just because of our popularity,” Sally said. “I think things are getting out of hand.”
“What do you mean? Just look at what we created together.” Birch frowned and motioned around them. “Isn't it wonderful how it brings people together?”
“Look,” Sally laid a hand on Birch’s shoulder. “I know it wasn't meant to be the prettiest thing in the world, but the Jungle’s unrecognizable now.”
Birch shook her head. “I don't think you're seeing the bigger picture here, Sal.”
Sally withdrew her hand. Her lips twisted in worry.
“Don't you think you're getting a little carried away with all this?”
“No. But I am carrying a lot of responsibility on my back, so I'd appreciate it if you didn't try to stick a knife in it right now.” Birch started walking off around the front side of the halfpipe, before stopping. “You know, like Maia did?”
Sally followed after her partner with hurried steps. “Birch, I think it's all a misunderstanding.”
“Listen,” Birch said, her tone sharpening. “See that crowd?”
The spectator stands were full of bloodthirsty anticipation, the kind that could turn sour in half a second if things went south. The smell of off-kilter grass, alcohol, and iron-tinged sweat was omnipresent.
“Even if we wanted to let up, do you really think we'd be able to get away with it now?” Birch asked.
As her partner walked away, Sally was left too dumbfounded and unsettled to respond. Of all the times Birch could’ve been wrong, Sally wished this was one of them. The two of them started clambering back onto the halfpipe, avoiding each other's eyes.
Then, they heard a whistle.
It ripped across the entire Jungle, disorienting everyone within for a few seconds. The spectators and the showrunners alike searched around for the source of the sound. A dozen dark, uniformed figures broke through the bush line.
“RAID!” Birch yelled into her megaphone. “RUN!”
The Jungle exploded into a struggling frenzy of yells and thrown objects. Birch threw down her megaphone, grabbing Sally by the hand. As they started to run, they realized their most obvious escape route behind the piperamp was cut off by a pair of charging officers.
One of them managed to grab Sally by the wrist as they tried to run past.
“No!” Sally screamed. “Let go!”
Before a pair of cuffs could click onto Sally’s wrists, Birch tackled the officer and shoved Sally to safety in the same motion.
“Birch!” Sally cried.
“Get out of here, Sal!” came Birch’s reply. “I’ll catch up later!”
Sally's heart told her to stand her ground, but her legs were as flighty as a rabbit's. She weaved past the second officer and darted out into the fray. Dodging between bottles arcing through the air and impromptu wrestling matches breaking out all around her, the girl arrived at the bush line.
With one final, fruitless look over her shoulder, she slipped into the dense greenery of the Jungle.