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6| Fifteen minutes of fame

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After the Center, I'm whisked down to an underground basement, where, in the middle of the room is a white, raised podium with two sets of chains either side of it. Reyes takes me by the forearm, his calloused fingers digging into my tendons as he moves me onto the podium.

"Hey, watch the merchandise," I snap, my heart pounding wildly. The thought of standing in front of hundreds of people, most of which will be grieving families, fills me with panic.

Reyes ignores me and kneels down to chain each of my ankles to the podium. When he straightens up, a tendril of curly hair falls into his eyes. He brushes it aside before meeting my gaze. "When they're ready for you, this podium will rise into the air and the ceiling will open up."

I take a deep breath. This part of the Arena of Justice is never documented in the media, so I have no idea what to expect.

"Each inmate will be introduced one at a time to the family and friends of the victims," Reyes explains, as if able to read my mind. "You don't have to do or say anything but stand there, all right?"

I nod, but it feels as if I am barely registering his words. All I can think about is the way my heart is pounding against the walls of my chest.

The TV on the far wall switches on and both Reyes and I turn to watch as President Wilson's face flickers onto the screen. He looks the same as always—orange skin from countless trips to the tanning salon, wispy, gray hair and the whitest teeth I have ever seen.

"If we are to live in a society that values human life," the president begins, "then we must seek to protect ourselves from those who do not. To oppose the Arena of Justice is to side with the murderers right to live. It is to put their life before an innocent victim. Before justice. Criminals sacrifice their right to live the moment they murder, and if we spare their lives, we are saying the lives of murderers are more valuable than the lives of the innocent. The Arena of Justice ensures that justice will be served."

His words resonate with me. Before this, I would have agreed with him wholeheartedly. Murderers who steal the lives of others do deserve to suffer, just like their victims did, but now that category includes my brother, and do I think my brother deserves this?

Just because all murderers are given the death penalty doesn't mean all murders are equal. My brother shot a burglar and hadn't intended to kill him. Does that mean he should die the same way as a man who did intend to kill someone? Of course not, but there is a flaw in this justice system, one I had never noticed before because I'd never bothered to look. A flaw that fails to protect people like my brother from punishments like this.

A flaw I am now paying for.

I turn to Reyes, who is still staring at the TV intensely, the muscles in his neck contracted. "Have you regained the feeling in your hand yet?" I ask. "I'm sorry for grabbing it so hard earlier."

Slowly, Reyes tears his eyes from the screen to look at me. "It's all right," he says gruffly, flexing his hand. "No harm done." A mischievous glint now inhabits his eyes. "Well, maybe."

I smile, but there isn't time to say anything else. The podium I'm standing on begins to rise, and panic takes over. I glance up, watching as two halves of a circle open in the ceiling. With one last glance at Reyes, I'm pushed through the opening until my feet are on the stage of the ballroom.

The room is as big and as lavish as I expected, with high ceilings and low hanging, golden chandeliers. The colors red, white and blue dominate every corner, from the red and white flowers in the middle of the tables to the blue tablecloths. In the background, I can hear the faint sound of the National Anthem.

My skin begins to burn under the heat of the spotlight. Many of those here tonight will be the family and friends of the victims, and as my eyes scan the crowd, I manage to spot him at table number ten. 

A single drone hovers beside him, ready to capture the expressions of a man broken by the murder of his son. Another drone points at me, ready to capture the expressions of the girl who murdered him. The media might not be allowed into these reveals, but there will no doubt be a picture of both Owen and I in the local news tomorrow.

Even from here, I can see the redness of Owen's eyes, the sallowness of his skin; his brokenness. He is the only one paying for his son's crime, as I am the one paying for my brother's.  I scour the rest of the hall, realizing nothing the government does to us could ever be enough to put these broken people back together–not even the Arena of Justice.

Slowly, I turn to the Arena of Justice's formal speaker. I feel sick. I wish this floor would open back up and swallow me whole. No, if I'm wishing for things, I might as well wish that I wasn't here at all. That Lucas Reed had chosen somebody else's house to steal from, or that my brother hadn't gotten my dad's old gun from out of my mom's bedside table.

"Our fifth inmate is seventeen-year-old Zoe Gomez," the speaker says, his voice somber. "She shot an innocent man in the leg, severing an artery and causing him to bleed out."

There's an outbreak of cries from the audience, and I feel my cheeks begin to redden. Owen remains silent through the crowd's rowdiness, his face a blank canvas, but unlike Reyes, whose eyes give nothing away, Owen's give everything. He wears the eyes of a man who has nothing left to lose.

"Now, now," the speaker says, making a motion with his hand. "Settle down. Justice will be served in the arena, after all." The crowd simmers down and he turns to face me, the disgust etched into his features. "There's a special place in hell for murderers, Miss Gomez, and the sooner you get there, the better."

My podium lowers me back through the floor to a chorus of boos, and when the ceiling closes above me and my feet are back on solid ground, I crouch to the floor, feeling as though  the oxygen's been sucked from my lungs.

Reyes crouches down opposite me and grazes his thumb against the side of my cheek, forcing me to look at him. "Are you all right?" he asks.

I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to curb the queasiness growing inside of my stomach. What is wrong with me? I am going to be fighting to the death soon enough and here I am, breaking down over having to stand on a stage.

"I'm fine," I say, my voice sounding nothing like my own. I straighten up, but Reyes stays crouched, his eyes fixed on mine.

Then, without another word, he unchains me from the podium, stands up, and escorts me back to my room in silence.

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