“You are going to die today if you don’t do this right. And I mean literally.”
“I know,” I squeeze out between clenched teeth.
I pull the arrow as far as I possibly can without breaking the bow’s string and aim.
My fingers let go of the arrow.
It lands a few inches away from the centre of the target.
It’s my WWL today.
Who Wins Lives.
I’ve been training for this day for the entirety of my life.
To ensure that I have a life after WWL.
Quite simply, whoever wins, lives.
The title should have been Who Loses Dies.
That is a more accurate way of explaining it.
If I don’t win, they’ll kill me.
This is a necessary annual ritual in which every seventeen-year-old in Lakeshore must compete in, consisting of a written test, archery, and a sword fight.
This year, there are only two participants.
Me and Douglas.
Why ex, you ask?
We were forbidden from seeing each other when our families found out that we were the same age.
Oh no, not because they knew one of us would die and it would break the other’s heart.
It was because we might reveal strategies to each other by accident.
Yeah, I know, real sweet of them.
Right now, I’m practising my archery.
Let’s just say it’s not going too well.
Christina is getting increasingly worried, as I miss every target, my hands and eyes unable to coordinate.
“I can’t lose you today Catarina, please try to concentrate.”
“I’m trying, for god sake!”
I yell, and this time the arrow hits the target.
I enter the arena, Christina and Mother flanking me on my sides.
Mother’s face is worn out, greying hair visibly appearing at her temples.
She can’t lose another child.
She just started healing from the pain of losing Cassandra.
So, I need to win, for my mother’s sake.
But I can’t let Doug die either, now can I?
So, who do I choose, lover or mother?
“Residents of Lakeshore, welcome to the six hundredth edition of Who Wins Lives! This is a groundbreaking idea which was suggested by the scientists of the Future Life committee to ensure that the population consists of only the best individuals. Only the smartest, most focused and brave individuals will remain in society and will be able to contribute to its growth. No one else deserves to live.”
“All these people in the arena today have successfully passed this ritual, which is why they were able to continue their lives and bring in the next generation.”
“Our first participant for today is Catarina Maria, daughter of Victoria Maria!”
I get up from my seat and walk towards my assigned spot.
I think I’m going to throw up.
“Going against her is Douglas Jackson, son of Genevieve Jackson!”
Doug walks from the other end of the arena and flashes me a smile.
I smile back painfully.
He stands next to me, and I feel my stomach start to hurt.
I don’t want to die today.
But I don’t want him to die either.
Feeling him so close to me makes me want to pounce on him, but I restrain myself by thinking about WWL.
The nausea returns.
Writing a test may seem daunting by itself but having to do in the middle of an arena with an entire town noting your every move is a very different experience.
The test consists of questions about responding to real-life situations and some about archery and sword fighting.
It’s a pretty simple and straightforward test, with both of us acing it and passing with full points.
The targets begin to move around, and my fingers fumble trying to reach for the arrow.
By the time I get one arrow out, Doug has already shot three of his targets, hitting the centre each time.
He looks at me and smirks, and then his smirk disappears all of a sudden.
Now his expression becomes decisive as if he’s figured something out.
I shoot at my targets, still confused at his immediate mood change.
He slows down his shooting, on purpose.
He thinks I was trying to let him win.
Now he’s trying to let me win.
He doesn’t realise the simple fact that I’m terrible at archery.
Now I’ll show him.
Both of our movements slow down.
I take my time to reach for another arrow, and then drop it on the ground.
Then when I pick it up, it slips from my fingers once again.
Then he does the same thing.
We stop our movements, looking up at Mayor Connery, his voice still echoing through the arena.
“I think we’ve had enough of archery.”
“But who’s the winner?” I quip sweetly.
“It’s a tie.”
That means that everything depends on the sword fight now.
I look at Doug and regret it immediately.
He smiles at me in assurance, and I know what that means.
He’s going to let me win.
The clang of metal against metal.
The feel of dirt under my bare feet.
The sweat running down my back as I push my hair out of my face.
Doug is being lazy with his blows, letting me swing at him, but never letting me touch him.
We keep fighting, none of us touching the other, even when we leave a side exposed.
The fight lasts for a long time, none of us ready to let the other die.
I’m about ready to collapse.
The sweat blurs my vision, and my surroundings start to blackout.
Doug senses this and discards his sword.
He catches me right before I fall.
My head lolls backward, and I can barely make out his face.
I hear sounds in the background, people shouting, the mayor trying to calm them down, and asking us to continue the fight.
Doug slowly lowers me to the ground, placing my head on his lap.
I slowly open my eyes when I feel water being sprinkled on my face.
I’m met with Doug’s tired face, immediately relaxing when I regain consciousness.
“I think we’ve seen enough.”
I crane my head upward and see Mayor Connery standing at the podium, his wig looking tousled.
“Today’s WWL has proven that sometimes there are no winners. Sometimes there are only losers. Sometimes everyone deserves to die because no one deserves to live.”
Doug helps me up, holding my hip for support.
I’m unable to wrap my head around what he just said.
Did he mean that both of us…?
“Since today’s WWL has been inconclusive, and the participants seem to be unable to understand the rules, both Catarina and Douglas will die today.”
“Our future will be much brighter without them.”
We hear two cries emanate from two women, Mom and Genevieve.
I almost slump to the ground again but stop myself for Doug’s sake.
I can’t become weak again, especially at a time like this.
Dark clothed men leave the mayor’s side and walk towards us with handcuffs.
I quickly look around, trying to find an escape route.
But I’m too late.
A man is pulling my hands together, fingers digging into my arms.
The click of the handcuffs closing is followed by a rough push in the general direction of the guillotine.
I fall to the ground, Doug falling next to me, both of us helpless.
We’re kicked and shoved, our wrists bleeding by the time we reach the podium.
“No! Please don’t do this!”
The men don’t listen to my pleas as they position my head under the blade, the basket placed right under my head, ready to bear its weight.
I hear Doug resisting, and he finally breaks free of the men who were holding him.
“Kill me first!”
“No, kill me!”
Then the people started shouting too, some taking Doug’s side, some taking mine.
People I’ve grown up seeing every day, people who I’ve borrowed bread from, people who’ve loved me and blessed me like their own daughter, some of them in favour of my death.
Tears start running down my face.
I limp my way towards the podium.
“Can’t you see what’s happening? The goal of Future Life has been achieved. They claim to be doing this for our benefit, but what good has come out of it? I considered all of you my family. I loved you like my own. I’m sure Doug did as well. Today you are arguing on which one of your children to kill first.”
“I understand the sentiment behind this initiative of our wonderful scientists, population control and all, but what about love? What about all the experiences that we get to miss because of this stupid WWL? What about the people we can’t meet and the places we can’t go?”
“You claim to be making the future better, but you’re just making it lonelier.”
Dead silence still.
Then I hear a cheer.
Christina is on her feet, cheering and clapping.
Mother starts cheering too, wiping off tears.
Slowly, more people begin to cheer.
The entire town is cheering now.
All of them do love me.
They just needed to be reminded.
A few boys attack the mayor’s men and free me and Doug from the handcuffs.
I rub my wrists, feeling the pain but not feeling it too much.
I kiss Doug, finally feeling happy again.
“From now on, no more Who Wins Lives.”
“We are going to live our own lives, without having it taken away.”
“From now on, Who Loves Lives.”