Emmy’s forehead perspired beneath the arena lights. The circular crowd sat in anticipatory silence. You could almost hear it. A man on her right clutched a raggedy pamphlet close to his chest — tonight’s proceedings or fixtures for the match. To her left, a mother cradled a sleeping babe. The gleam in its mother’s eyes spoke of an unmovable passion, one that motherhood or the law could do nothing to stifle. This was her calling, the arena her home ground. Her gaze moved between the centerstage and a wad of paper tickets that she riffled through out of habit. They rarely fell upon the dozing baby, whose silent slumber only added to the evening’s disquiet.
Emmy wasn’t a mother, nor did she have one for reference — besides the fading photograph that her father kept from sunnier days. She was also too young to elope with addiction, and so the irony of the situation escaped her — that a child would depend on someone more dependent than it. Emmy was here, more simply, because her father was sick. She needed money to help pay for his treatment. She was too young to find legitimate work, and he was too sick to work. And so she weaselled her way in with the money she had made offloading her Beetlemania card collection to collectors with deeper pockets than hers.
She turned to the man on her right. “Umm, excuse me, but what’s that ya’ve got there?” His eyes dropped to the flimsy sheet in his hands, about eye level with Emmy. They didn’t turn to address the inquirer.
“Ohh, nothing that concerns you missy”. The man was wearing an expensive looking overcoat with a shiny fabric. He shoved the crumpled paper into a side pocket and proceeded to examine the girl. Her little head was wrapped in the hood of her jacket, which hung loosely about her meagre frame. Several holes punctured her right shoulder, exposing a white undershirt. Her brown fringe fell into her eyes, so that he couldn’t tell for sure whether she was actually looking at him.
He coughed into his vacant hands for want of a better gesture. “You’re a bit too young for this sorta place don’tcha think?”…is what he thought to say before noticing the baby the next seat down. “Well, umm, yes, umm… Good turnout tonight don’tcha think?”
Emmy nodded silently, not having the faintest clue of what a ‘good turnout’ was, or a bad one for that matter. This was her first real encounter with the sport. Until now her only exposure came from the videotapes in her father’s library — the ones that were pawned off to pay for his initial round of treatment. Still, the crowd seemed large by any standards, and was at least comparable to the ones in those videos. She put on a smile. “Are ya sure you can’t show me that paper mister?” she tried again, compelled to learn more about the world she had just entered. He nervously shrugged his shoulders, but before he could vocalise his objection his attention was pulled away.
Two conspicuous fellows stepped into the atrium from a pair of openings at either end of the building. One wore a dusty looking cap that hid the top half of his face. The other kept his head exposed, his greasy combover grabbing the light’s attention if not the audience’s. Cradled in both of their arms was a small cage, their contents hidden from view. A spotlight tracked the roof of the cage of the fellow closest to Emmy.
As both men reached the centre they placed their respective cages at the edge of the cylindrical tower that marked the battlefield.
The crowd burst into full life as the cage doors were lifted. A large beetle on the far end strutted into view, its front horn gleaming in the spotlight like a black sword. A smaller but equally menacing looking creature reared its head from the other cage, brandishing its own appendage like a poisoned dagger. It motioned in a circle as if playing to the audience before commencing to the middle of the arena. The keepers, more formally referred to as ‘trainers’, removed their cages from the table and moved to the sidelines.
“Stridaah, cauu gitim!” yelled the man with the combover at the bug with the sword, though Emmy couldn’t make out whether it was in English or some manner of bug speak. She watched on as the buzzer sounded, intoxicated by the sounds of the rapturous crowd — of the mother who cradled her baby and the man who clung to his precious sheet of paper — as well as the promise of the spectacle to come.
— — — — — — — —
The larger beetle kicked up its back right foot, then its left, preparing for one final assault. The crowd watched and waited. Emmy pulled on the drawstring of her hoodie, wrapping her head further back into the recess. Sweat painted her brow. The opponent clung to the edge of the arena for its life, parts of its anatomy strewn across the surface in a variety of places. She felt some sympathy for the creature, but its was sullied by the fact that her money was on the line. She had put everything on its success, but without any rationale (besides it looking slightly meaner of the two). Regret was beginning to bubble to the surface.
Through the array of CRT displays the black beetle made its charge, its sharp appendage aimed to strike and kill. The crowd threw off its veil of suspense and roared as the beetle rushed on towards its victim. As a final act the victim rolled off to one side, hoping to avoid the deathly collision and use its enemy’s momentum against it. But it was too late. The black beetle corrected its trajectory and ploughed its horn through the neck of its victim, forcing it up into the air. For a brief time it lay there in suspension, its feet splayed out helplessly. Then, as gravity caught up, it dropped with a resounding thud through the stadium speakers.
“Yesss!” cried the mother to her left, almost dropping the baby in her moment of ecstasy. The rest of the crowd exploded. The baby half opened its eyes before dozing off again, to Emmy’s surprise. She looked on enviously, imagining herself in its place, free of any cares. Her vision blurred as she thought back to sunnier days, before her father had fallen sick or she had known the value of money. Several more moments passed before she snapped out of it and realised that the man on her right had been speaking to her.
“Not a bad show aye? Didn’t suspect it’d be such a close one.”
“Umm, yes, not bad… ” she managed sullenly, not able to contain her disappointment. The man looked empathetically at Emmy, wondering how to brighten the mood.
“Well, you win some and lose some, that’s how the game goes. Nothing to sulk about, really.” He dusted his coat as he motioned to leave his seat. To Emmy’s surprise people had already started to leave. Their empty cups and half eaten snacks became relics of where they had once sat, cheered and cried.
“Wait mister!” He peered down from where he was standing, his tall frame elevated by the stall platform. “About that paper…” She trailed off. With a slight frown he tucked a hand into his pocket and pulled out the pamphlet, extending it to Emmy. She reached for it with her nimble fingers and began feverishly scanning the front page. It was a little crumpled, and covered in scrawls of blue and red ink, presumably the man’s. ‘Bugopedia — Weekly Catalogue’ read the title in a garish and bold font. Beneath this was a listing of various beetles, with tables of figures sandwiched between elaborate diagrams. She flicked through the pamphlet until her eyes fell on an image resembling tonight’s victor. ‘Strider — winner of Beetlemania 2047. Undefeated champion. Net worth…’ She sighed as she read this.
“That’d normally cost ya, but I hit the jackpot tonight, so consider it yours, free of charge.” Emmy looked up, slightly surprised that the man was still there. She managed a smile.
“Thanks mister!” Her eyes dropped back to the pamphlet, which she now lifted up to her face. The man grinned as he reached into his pocket.
“Here, and take this too. Treat yaself.” A dirty note fluttered between his stubby fingers. Emmy snatched it up hungrily.
“Thanks a bunch mister!” It vanished into her kangaroo pocket as quickly as it had appeared. Her thoughts oscillated between the artefact in her hands and a myriad of ingredients that she could pick up from the grocery store on her way back to the shack. The man took his leave then, the large grin pinned to his face.
“Ughumm.” Someone coughed nearby. Emmy looked up from her guidebook. A janitor was sweeping up a few seats down, while the rest of the stadium stood vacant. With slight alarm Emmy shoved the pamphlet into her pocket and jumped out of her seat. She proceeded to tiptoe around the empty bags of popcorn and baby drool until reaching the aisle, but before she could take another step the janitor called out behind her. “No use going thataway young miss. Main door’s already been shut. Better go out the back way.” He pointed out a large pair of doors at the bottom of the room. She bowed her head in gratitude before descending the flight of stairs towards the arena. Once brimming with life and carnage, it now appeared limp in the dim light. She leapt from the banisters onto the dusty floor, bending her knees to cushion her fall.
Half tempted to approach the sacred pedestal she decided against it and made her way to the doors. With a heavy creak they pushed open, their fabric lining coarse to Emmy’s touch. She pushed on through, down the drab corridor, and out through the metal door marked with an exit sign.
A gentle wind nipped against Emmy’s cheek, but she appreciated its freshness. She stretched her arms upwards and out, before bending down to touch her feet.
“Aaaarghhh, good for nothing!” The bark of a disgruntled man echoed from the left side of the alleyway. It was followed by a loud clunk and fading footsteps. Instinctive and ever curious, Emmy straightened up and wandered in the direction of the commotion.
A large wheelie bin rolled gradually against the concrete floor, its lid swung open. It rocked gently as it collided with the wall. The echo of the footsteps dampened until the only sounds left were the reverberations from the collision and some rustling from the bin. Emmy approached the bin, which stood an inch taller than her. She placed her foot on a protrusion near the base and bolted herself up to see what was causing the rustle. Between a wrapper and flier was the beetle from tonight’s match, scurrying amid the rubbish with a limp.
She reached into the bin and let it scamper onto her palm, which she drew towards her face in fascination. The beetle sat there motionless as Emmy peered on, its body riddled with scratches. She blew on it lightly to make sure it was still alive and, when satisfied, found an empty takeaway box to put it in. She then stepped off the bin with a twirl, box secure in both hands. Her mind raced with visions of the future, of Emmy and Chip (she had just then decided to call it) competing at the next Beeltemania tournament. Her father would be proud.