Puppets in Puppets
The sound of cheering permeated the coliseum. The shouts from this ocean of voices were as overwhelming as the crashing of waves from a stormy sea on the rocks of a steep cliffside. The object of spectacle, a man, or what looks like a man, stood helpless as two of his comrades, who might as well have been his family, were ripped to reddish-pink shreds by large reptilian monsters. Yet, while observing this heart-wrenching display of cruelty and violence from his front row seat, the only reaction Julius could muster was a bored yawn.
"Are you not enjoying yourself, sir?" A somewhat chubby man, clad in purple robes and holding a small tablet device, asked. "If there is anything you wish for me to add, I could-"
"It’s fine, Theo," Julius said, "Fine. It's just... look at this. The whole point of these battles was to make the people seriously contemplate death and violence, yet, after only a few years of using the puppets, I’ve already become desensitized. I just do not care anymore…"
He gestured to the cheering audience.
"... and neither do they."
"I agree, sir," Theocritus answered. "I’ve been thinking about that as well."
The reptilian monsters started to withdraw, causing the excited crowd to quiet down, leaving only silent murmurs and whispers. From an arched entrance on the side of the arena, a young woman wearing a red stola and a microphone headset appeared and walked into the center of the battleground before facing the audience. After a deep breath, her energetic, though somewhat diffident, voice was broadcast throughout the coliseum:
"Aaaaaallright folks! That was it for today," she said. "Also, please remember that we’ll have an additional show next week to celebrate the 538th anniversary of the founding of our great Novus Romanum! Tha- That is all!"
She made a small bow, answered by a loud applause, before walking off stage, conveying to the audience that it was time to leave. With a sigh, Julius pushed himself out of his chair and turned toward Theocritus.
"I’m busy today," he said, "so take care of any leftover business here. Also, give that new presenter a bonus. She did well for her first time."
"She’s a puppet, sir."
"Well then don’t, obviously." Julius answered.
"Sir, before you go," Theocritus said, "I have been working on a very experimental kind of show for a while now. I believe it may be exactly what you’re looking for. It doesn’t really work in this kind of large-scale setting, so I thought that perhaps we could run a private pilot at your house, sir."
"Whenever you wish, sir," Theocritus said, "but since you’re busy today, perhaps tomorrow evening could work?"
"Have everything ready by nine tomorrow."
The damp atmosphere. The combined sounds of animals rattling in their cages, water dripping from the ceiling, distant voices talking, and muffled footsteps up above echoed through the labyrinthine hallways. The first to enter this underground area of the coliseum was Yu. With tears in his eyes and his arms weakly swaying from side to side, he entered the living quarters, which offered no better quality of life than that of a spartan jail, and sat down on a steel bench next to Dee, who welcomed him with a strained smile.
"Where’re-," she began to say, but Yu’s damp eyes answered her question before she could even ask. She wrapped her arms around him and let out a soft ’shhhh’, followed by several utterances of the phrase ‘It’s gonna be okay’, even though both of them knew it wasn’t. After a few minutes, Dee let go and whispered:
"I’ll get us outta here, ya hear?"
"Can you promise me that?" Yu asked.
The second one to enter the room was Sea, who walked in with sweat dripping from her forehead. With a deep sigh and a violent tug, she pulled the headset off her head and swayed her long brown hair from left to right before focusing her attention on Yu.
"I- I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything," she said, "so tonight, let’s-"
"We will give them a proper funeral tonight," Yu said.
Dee and Sea both gave a nod before turning around and seeing the final person to enter the living quarters: me.
"And where’ve you been?" Dee asked, "You’d already left when I woke up."
"The manager said they were short on staff at a nearby building site," I answered, "so I was ordered to come help. Anyways, where are Em and Oh?"
"They were sent to the arena with me," Yu said, "they… did not make it out alive."
Upon hearing this, my expression turned sour. I took a breath in preparation to say something but was cut off by the sound of Dee’s fist slamming against the metal wall.
"That shithead, Julius!" She shouted, with a deep frown set on her face, “Thinks he can use us as his playthings just ‘cause we’re fucking puppets or whatever. I’ll show him. Oh, how I’ll fucking-"
Yu planted his index finger on Dee’s lips, letting out a hasty ‘shush’.
"The guards will hear you," he whispered. "We will escape. We will show them our power. But please be careful. Losing any more of you... I am not sure if I could take it."
"Right, sorry," Dee said. "I don’t wanna lose any of you either."
We didn’t say much after that. We just sat there in uncomfortable silence until, suddenly, the quiet was disrupted by a deep rumbling sound originating from Dee’s stomach.
"Are you hungry?" I asked.
"Why’d you ask?" she asked back.
"If you want some food, you should just... ‘taco’ ‘bout it."
A smile crept across her face as she realized what I was trying to start.
"That’s ‘nacho’ business." Dee said.
"Why are you being so ‘salty’ about it?" I asked.
"Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still ‘loaf’ you very much. 'Udon’ have to worry."
"You being so mean to me is pretty hard to ‘swallow’."
"Why are you two always like this?" Yu asked.
"No, ignore him. Please continue." Sea said.
"I hate all of you." Yu said, clearly suppressing a smile himself.
"No, you don’t." I said, "You’re smiling. Though I understand if you think our jokes are a little bit ‘corny',"
"Just ‘lettuce’ do our thing." Dee added.
"In that case," he said, "’donut’ let me ruin your fun."
‘Ay!’ Dee and I simultaneously cheered, followed by all four of us bursting out in laughter. We continued like this for several hours until a guard holding a tray with four plates on it entered the room. All of the plates had a small pile of colorful pills placed on them.
"So, no leftovers today?" Sea asked.
The guard didn’t answer. He simply placed the tray on the floor and left the room.
"This isn’t really givin’ us much to do a funeral with," Dee said.
"We will make do with what we have." Yu answered.
Yu took one of the plates, grabbed the pile of capsules from it with his right hand, and motioned for everyone to come and sit around the now empty dish. We followed his suggestion, each of us taking one pile of pills in our hands before sitting down. Yu placed two of his pills on the plate.
"Em, Oh, I will never forget you. I hope that, wherever you two are, it is better than here."
Next, Dee placed two pills on the plate.
"I’ve been training," she said. "Even today, while you were fighting, I was training. Someday I’ll take down those fuckin’ guards, and we’ll escape. Em, Oh, that’s a promise. And I’ll make sure none of us die like you did! That’s a promise too!"
After that, I put two capsules on the plate.
"I’ll write a story about this, okay?’ I said, ‘I’ll make sure you’ll never be forgotten, and I’ll make that damned Julius suffer!"
Lastly, Sea put two capsules on the plate.
"So, uh, now that you’re gone,’ she said, ‘I’ll work t- three times as hard as normal to help everyone here in your place, okay?"
"To Em and Oh!" Yu said.
"To Em and Oh!" we repeated.
"To our humanity!" Yu said.
"To our humanity!" we repeated.
"To our freedom!" Yu said.
"To our freedom!" we repeated, at which point we stuffed our mouths with all of our remaining pills at once.
Later that night, as Sea & Dee were already asleep and I was slowly drifting off, I heard Yu’s footsteps behind me.
"Zet," he whispered, "are you still awake?"
"Were you serious about writing a story?"
I turned around to face him and softly nodded.
"And you will not just angrily throw away our precious paper like last time you tried to write something?"
I nodded again.
"In that case," he said, revealing a blank notebook from behind his back, "Em managed to steal this from one of the guards a few days ago. Originally, he did not want to show you because he was afraid you would waste the paper, but if you really are serious, then I think he would have wished for you to have this."
I reached out my hands, and he handed me the notebook.
"I look forward to reading your story once it is finished," he said.
"Thank you." I whispered back.
I didn’t sleep that night. I just wrote.