The officer produced a small, shiny key and released Tim’s handcuffs with a metallic click. Tim waited for instructions, rubbing his raw wrists. Three wheels stared down at him from the plastic counter. One black, one red, and one blue.
“Petty theft, not bad,” the officer said, reading over a piece of thin cream paper. His uniform was crisp and pressed. A stiff ebony cap with an American flag clipped onto it covered his balding head. The officer indicated the wheel to his right. “Take a number, please.”
Tim reached up and tore a number off the red wheel’s tongue. 77.
The officer smiled. “You’re lucky, Target. The reds are usually forgiving. Far enough away to not get too riddled.” The officer laughed long enough for Tim to join in if he wanted.
Tim didn’t. His hands shook as he stared down at his number.
It had been only three days ago he had made the decision to become a Target. He had stood before the judge and taken his sentence, straight-backed and head held high, just as his father would want.
“Mr. Rivers,” the judge had said. “Your crime has been logged. You can either accept four months in jail or four days in the Field.”
Tim could not wait four months. His family would starve. Ever since his father had lost his job they had been struggling to survive on the little money his mother hadn’t spent. His father had told Tim that his mother had a gambling problem, but Tim didn’t believe him.
Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. Tim’s mother had left two months ago, just days after Tim’s father lost his job. Now Tim’s brothers’ and sisters’ ribs had started to show and his grandparents had moved in. More mouths to feed. Jobs were few and prices were high. Tim would not let his family starve. He would steal again if he had to, but he couldn’t if he was in jail.
Tim licked his lips and replied, “The Field, ma’am.”
Small gasps crowded the room. The judge offered a faint smile and Tim held her gaze.
“Very well,” the judge said and banged the gavel. “Four days in the Field.”
He was led out in handcuffs, and as he exited the courtroom his stomach dropped. There was no going back now.
Three days later, with his number tightly in hand, Tim was led into another room by a tall guard with three jagged scars on his left cheek. Tim rushed to keep up with the guard’s long strides and had to catch his breath when they reached the next station. A petite old woman with a bucket and brush stood waiting for him. The guard pushed Tim forward, forcing him to step on a platform. Electric shocks stiffened Tim’s muscles as his eyes widened. He was paralyzed.
The old woman looked up at him with milky eyes and gently took the number from Tim’s hand. A black apron with pink tulips adorned her small frame.
“Seventy-seven,” she said as if every syllable held great importance. Then, placing the paper in her apron’s front pocket, she dipped her brush into the bucket and painted 77 onto his cotton gray shirt, front and back, with neon yellow paint that stung his eyes. When finished, she stepped back to observe her artwork and nodded in approval.
The guard pushed Tim off the platform, knocking him to his knees. Tim gasped as he felt the freedom of movement return. The guard pulled him to his feet and led him down the next hallway, bright and cold, where cameras covered the walls like gnats. The door at the end of the hallway opened with a clang, revealing a row of cells. Each had a number painted overhead.
The first was 10.
Ten yards, he thought, even I could shoot someone at ten yards. It was more an execution than punishment. Tim wondered if the doomed Target deserved it, even if the drawing was random with only fifteen 10s in a hundred numbers. Tim’s little sister had researched the probabilities a few days before his court date, just in case he was crazy enough to pick the Field. Desperate enough maybe, he thought. Sorry, sis.
The guard led Tim down the row of cells, passing each number in increments of ten. Some cells were empty, others were crammed. The cells were dimly lit and Tim couldn’t make out any faces. No one made a sound. The guard stopped at cell 70 and opened the door.
“But I got seventy-seven,” Tim said, his voice hoarse.
The guard smirked, wrinkling the scars on his cheek. “It’s a series, Target. When the doors open you can stay between zero and seventy-seven. If you step out of line, you will be shot.” The guard pushed Tim inside and locked the door.
Tim let out a shaky sigh and sat down on a hard bench bolted into the cell’s side wall. A woman who looked to be about his mother’s age sat across from him. Dirty blonde hair sprouted from her head like weeds. She was very plump and Tim felt guilty for being happy that she was a bigger Target than him. A bright 76 was painted on her shirt.
“Hello,” he said.
The woman smiled, revealing a row of chipped teeth. “You’re quite friendly. Too friendly to be in here. How long you got?”
“Four days,” he said. “You?”
The woman spat. Her spittle hit the cement floor with a wet splat. “Every day is a new number,” she said, “but it don’t matter ’cause you can get shot no matter what. Don’t think you’re safe at seventy-seven, boy.” She nodded at the bright number on his shirt. “Nowhere’s safe.”
Tim’s hands had stopped shaking, but they were damp with sweat. “Best of luck then.”
The woman laughed. “Name’s Mary,” she said, offering her hand.
“Tim,” he replied. He wiped his hand on his pant leg and shook her hand.
Her nails pricked his skin.
“What you in for?” Mary asked.
“Petty theft,” he said. “I stole some food.”
The woman frowned and rubbed her chin. “Why the hell you in here for? That’ll only be a few months in the can probably. Nothing more. Why you choose this hell?”
“Ah, you gonna die, boy,” Mary said with a quick laugh. “This is my fifth time here and my first was at the twenty mark. God, I was scared to death, so I just sat there. I guess the Shooters took pity on my poor lumpy soul. I didn’t offer them a challenge. So no one shot me.” She stopped and squinted at him. “But don’t you think for a minute you’ll get away with any of that. You’re a young man and not too bad looking.” She winked. “They’ll pick you off first chance they get.”
Tim swallowed. “That’s comforting.”
“We Targets have to stick together.” She winked her other eye.
They grew quiet. Tim started to shiver and Mary chewed her fingernails. He wondered why she had picked the Field. He couldn’t understand why anyone would pick it, yet here he was. Back in school he had read about the Field, how it came into effect after extreme overcrowding in the prisons. People could serve less time, or die trying. Either way, it cut down on the number of prisoners. As if that helps matters, Tim thought.
Hours ticked by until a loud bell resounded through the cell room.
Mary stood up. “Time to go, handsome,” she said.
He joined Mary facing the back wall. The wall slid open like a racehorse gate. Bright sunlight blinded them as a second bell rang, louder than the first.
“Don’t die,” Mary said and trotted out into the sunlight.
Tim froze. He couldn’t move. His legs felt like blocks of lead and his mouth was dry.
“Out!” a guard yelled from Tim’s cell door.
Taking a deep breath, Tim ran after Mary and ducked, smashing into the ground, as a loud bang came from across the Field. He heard Mary’s laughter and raised his head to see her sitting behind a large boulder made of knobby pink-speckled granite. The Field wasn’t a field, but a bumpy landscape filled with trees, rocks, and some brush. Large wooden signs indicated the yardage with bright neon letters. He had landed behind some low green bushes, but his head still stuck out, letting him see down the terrain.
Across the Field, the Shooters stood behind a low fence with walls between each station. He saw a flash and another bang resounded. Tim estimated there to be about fifty Targets in the Field. Some hid while others ran wildly about. He looked back for Mary but she had already moved behind a tree three yards ahead.
“You better move!” she said. “You can’t stay in one place for more than a minute or the guards will shoot at you.”
He looked back at the cells and saw guards aiming. Jumping up, he ran to Mary, who shoved him away.
“My tree!” she said.
A volley of bullets followed and Tim dove into the dirt, his knees and elbows scraping against the hard ground.
Mary laughed. “Don’t worry. Those are yards away. Most people aren’t good shots.”
Tim crawled behind a tree not far from Mary’s and sat down with a sigh. He covered his ears with his sweaty hands and focused on breathing as sounds of gunfire filled the air.
Someone screamed and he peeked around the tree.
About twenty yards away from Tim’s tree, a man collapsed, clutching his chest. Tim waited, watching the injured man, but no Target stopped to help and no guard emerged to drag the man off to the doctor. A bullet sung over Tim’s head, lodging itself into the tree. He jumped and looked over at a guard who motioned Tim to keep moving. Gritting his teeth, Tim sprinted to another tree, hugging the area closest to marker 77.
He couldn’t see Mary anymore so he watched the wounded man, waiting for someone to help, but no one did. His father would be appalled. He would never let someone else die like an animal, shot for sport, even if it was a punishment.
Tim cursed and ran towards the man. Bullets whizzed past him and he felt one sear his cheek. Landing behind a boulder a yard away from the injured man, Tim stopped to catch his breath. The noise grew louder. Tim looked up and saw he was at marker 53. He peered over the boulder. Farther down the Field, several other Targets bled out. He couldn’t imagine why no one was helping them. Tim’s little brother had told him that the guards attended to the injured, but still no guard appeared.
“Help,” the man said in a weak voice. The man lay on his back with both hands pressed to his chest where a pool of blood welled.
Looking up, Tim watched the muzzle flashes from the Shooters. He licked his lips and swallowed, trying to wet his sandpapered mouth.
He side-stepped around the boulder and kneeled down at the man’s side. At first, Tim pressed his hands to the man’s wound but then stopped and pulled off his gray cotton shirt. As he staunched the bleeding with the shirt, his eye caught a brightness on his chest and he saw that the number painted on his shirt had bled through. He was still 77. The man started to gurgle and cough. Blood wetted his lips.
“You’re going to be fine,” Tim said, knowing that his words were empty. A bullet clipped Tim’s arm and he hissed but kept his hands pressed to the man’s wound. Terror filled the man’s eyes as he coughed more, struggling to breathe. Tim didn’t know what to do so he sat the man up, looped his arms underneath the man’s, and started to drag him behind the boulder. A bullet thumped into the man’s stomach.
“No!” Tim raced to put his hands on the man’s second wound but the man grabbed Tim’s wrist, shaking his head and coughing until he grew still.
The man was dead.
“I’m sorry,” Tim whispered, and felt tears burn his eyes.
He was still exposed but the shooting had stopped and a loud bell rang. Slowly Targets migrated back to their cells. Tim looked up and saw a Target at marker 20 watching him. Mary grabbed Tim by the elbow and led him back into their cell, where a guard was waiting to bandage his arm.
When the guard had left and the wall clanged shut, Mary turned on him. “What the hell was that?” she said. “You don’t want to run towards the Shooters, idiot. That’s not how this works.”
Tim opened his mouth to answer but the words stuck in his throat. He felt nauseous and his vision swam as he rubbed his sticky hands.
Mary shook her head and sat Tim on the bench. “We get showers soon,” she said. “Best wash all that red off you…and your number. You’ll get a new one tomorrow.”
By the time the Targets were led to the showers, Tim was shaking. He tried to breath but his body wouldn’t let him. Sitting down on a wooden bench next to the men’s showers, he looked at his bloody hands.
“Don’t try to save them,” a voice said.
Tim lifted his gaze. A man with a dark curly beard looked down at him. Muscular arms crossed the man’s broad chest that read 24 and a tattoo inscribed Grizzly on the man’s forearm. It was the Target from marker 20.
“Your goal is to survive,” Grizzly said. “Don’t stop to help. You’ll get yourself killed.”
Tim nodded weakly and the man left, saying, “Clean yourself up.”
After a shower and a cold meal that he left untouched, Tim didn’t sleep that night. All he saw was the dying man’s terrified eyes and the blood that swirled down the shower drain. He spent the night in a cell with three other Targets who either ignored him or watched him curiously.
The next morning, Tim was led back to the room with the three wheels and asked to take another number. The same guard escorted him, his scars shiny against the bright lights’ glare. This time Tim picked the blue wheel and received 85.
“Luck’s on your side, Target,” the officer said.
“If he stays in his area,” the guard said with a snort as he led Tim back to the old woman who painted his shirt with the same dedication as she would show to a magnificent portrait of Napoleon.
Cell 80 housed three occupants. Two of whom, a boy with long dark hair and a girl with dainty features, were about the same age as Tim’s siblings. The third Target, a skinny man that smelled like gasoline, sat facing the wall and acted as if Tim and the kids weren’t there.
“That was crazy, man,” the boy said as the guard closed the cell door behind Tim. “You could’ve died for the dead man.”
“It was stupid,” the girl said, but smiled up at Tim with perfectly straight teeth.
“Sure, but crazy, wicked crazy,” the boy said.
“No one helped him,” Tim said. He had heard stories about the Field, but he never expected this much destruction and callousness. His best friend, Robert, with his pimpled skin and scruffy chin, had teased Tim the day before his trial, warning him not to pick the Field unless he had bulletproof skin.
“No one helps anyone if they want to live,” the girl said with a shrug.
“What about the guards?” Tim asked.
“They can’t help anyone until the bell goes off,” the boy said, picking his nose. “It’s a timer.”
“For how long?” Tim asked.
“About ten minutes,” the girl said.
“Yeah, it wasn’t too bad yesterday, though,” the boy said and flicked a booger at the wall. “Last week there was a birthday party. It was like Fourth of July in the Field. Everyone shot all at once. A lot of Targets at marker twenty and thirty died.”
“Senior citizen day is the best,” the girl said. “The old people can’t aim.”
“Except that one old timer who brings his shotgun,” the boy said, “and it’s harder to aim with one of those, but he’s a pro by now since he started coming every week. He must be rich. I heard it costs like two grand per shoot and even then you might be put on the waiting list.” The boy laughed.
Tim shivered. “Why would people do that?”
The girl and boy shrugged at the same time.
“People are weird, man,” the boy said.
“Or bored,” the girl said.
“Or evil,” Tim said. He looked at their fellow occupant but the man hadn’t moved from staring at the wall. The man started to hum and they grew quiet.
Soon the bells rang and the back walls slid open.
“Good luck,” the girl and boy sang and ran off.
The other Target slowly stood up and shuffled outside. Tim huffed and ran past the gasoline-smelling man, searching for a tree to hide behind, but the landscape had changed. Cacti dotted the Field. Several loud bangs sounded and Tim dove to the ground, nearly impaling himself on a cactus’ spikes. Screams echoed all around and tears stung Tim’s eyes.
“It’s Rifle Day!” the girl said from nearby. “Keep moving!”
Tim nodded and darted from cactus to cactus, watching the muzzle flashes from across the Field. He counted the minutes, praying for it to be over. He had ticked through almost nine minutes when he heard another scream closer by and saw the girl collapse.
Tim sprinted over to her, the rocky terrain jarring his steps, and arrived just as the boy did, his eyes wide with terror underneath his dark hair. Tim scooped the girl up into his arms and carried her to a large round cactus with the boy at his heels. Tim sat the girl down carefully.
“What hurts?” Tim asked.
The girl whimpered as she held her knee where a piece of bone peeked out from a large bullet hole. Her face had drained a pasty white. Tim took off his shirt and wrapped it around the girl’s knee.
“You’ll be fine,” Tim said. “There’s less than a minute left.”
The boy nodded in encouragement and the girl managed a pained smile.
A hail of bullets struck the cactus and one caught Tim’s hand. He hissed in pain and held his hand against his stomach. The bell rang and the shooting stopped. The cactus had been punctured like Swiss cheese. Tim and the boy helped the girl back to the cells. Tim saw Grizzly watching.
After Tim had showered, the doctor attended to his wounded hand, prying the bullet out of his flesh. The pain was unbearable, causing Tim to wonder if the shot they gave him from a translucent syringe was just a placebo. Three attendants had to hold Tim down, but he knew the girl would have it worse.
That night he stayed in a cell with several other Targets, including Grizzly, who watched him as he entered. The others nodded at Tim and some even smiled but Grizzly remained silent.
Tim slept a fitful sleep and woke up drenched in sweat. He couldn’t even remember what he had dreamed about, but his hand throbbed. He looked up and saw the bearded man watching him.
“You don’t listen very well,” Grizzly said. “If you want to survive, you can’t be stopping to help every Target that gets hit.”
Tim clutched his hand. “Why are you so concerned about me surviving?”
“You don’t understand.” Grizzly crossed his thick arms. “You saving people scares the Shooters. It wasn’t the Shooters that shot at you when you saved that girl, it was the guards. The Shooters who come here want to see another side of you. They want to see you use your fellow Targets as shields. They want you to do everything in your power to survive. And you’re not very good at that. So go on.” Grizzly tugged at his beard. “Be heroic. See where that gets you.”
“You’ve been here a long time.”
Grizzly nodded. “Most people don’t choose the Field. Some would rather spend their whole life in prison.” He snorted.
“You see them as cowards,” Tim said.
“It’s not us who should be in the Field, it should be the Shooters…especially those who bring their children.”
“How old do you have to be to shoot?”
Tim shook his head and sighed. “How much longer do you have?”
They grew silent and Tim had started to drift off when Grizzly cleared his throat and said, “Tomorrow will be your last day.”
“I have two days left. My sentence is four.”
“No,” Grizzly said. “It’ll only be three.” And with that the bearded man turned away and ignored Tim the rest of the night.
The next day Tim stood before the three wheels once more. Red, blue, or black. He was not sure which to choose. The officer tapped his pen and the scarred guard cleared his throat. Finally, Tim reached for the black wheel and tore off a number.
His heart jumped to his throat.
The officer frowned and took the number from Tim, examining it carefully. “How odd,” the officer said. “I’ve never seen a number less than ten before. The probability is impossible. One in…There must be an error.”
“There’s never been a mistake,” the guard said, “and he can’t redraw. Rules are rules.”
“Yes, rules are rules,” the officer said faintly and handed Tim back his number.
The guard walked slower this time and when they arrived at the old woman’s station he didn’t make Tim stand on the platform. The woman frowned as she took the number from Tim’s hand. She looked down at the number and her wrinkles deepened. She glanced at the guard who nodded. With a heavy sigh, she placed the number in her apron and painted 5 onto Tim’s shirt. Her paintbrush lingered when she had finished and her milky eyes met Tim’s.
“Let’s go,” the guard said and pushed Tim forward.
The old woman continued to watch Tim as he and the guard disappeared into the cell room. Once inside the guard paused, but then shoved Tim into cell 10. Grizzly greeted him with a solemn nod.
“We don’t have a zero cell,” the guard said. “Move to the five marker when the bells ring. Good luck, Target.” The guard paused once more, looked at him, and then left.
Tim turned to Grizzly. “I’m a five,” he said. A shiver shook his body. “I’m dead.”
“I told you what would happen,” Grizzly said, “but you didn’t listen.”
The bearded man’s shirt read 10.
“You’re dead too,” Tim said.
Grizzly twisted his beard with two fingers and said, “I’ve been a ten before.”
“How did you survive?”
Grizzly sighed. “Shooters don’t shoot at me.”
“Why?” When Grizzly didn’t answer, Tim stepped towards him. “Tell me!”
“Money,” the bearded man said.
“You pay off the Shooters?”
“My family does. My parents are quite…wealthy. That’s how I survive this hell.”
Tim stared at him, dumbfounded.
“I’m sorry,” Grizzly said. “And before you ask, no, I can’t pay for you either.”
Tim sat on the bench, holding his bandaged hand to his stomach as his heart pounded. He felt weak and helpless. Grizzly watched him but remained silent. Several minutes passed.
Tim cleared his throat. “What did you do?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Grizzly said.
Soon the guard returned and stood outside their cell. The bells rang and the walls opened.
“Good luck,” Grizzly said and trotted out into the sunlight.
“Five yards, Target!” the guard said to Tim.
Tim entered the Field. Every step was painful, but Tim took them. His whole body shook. He thought of his father and his siblings and his grandparents and even his mother. Their faces gave him strength. A breeze ruffled his hair while the sun burned his neck.
No one shot as he walked out in front of the shooting line. People lowered their weapons and stared at him, mouths slightly agape. Tim could see everyone’s face, everyone’s features. He could see their eyes. Blue, green, brown, black. All killers.
Tim continued to walk. Still, no one fired.
Halfway down, he stopped and faced the Shooter in front of him. Five yards away. It was a woman, freckled and slim. She stared at him in horror and he stared back.
It was his mother.
She screamed and threw down the pistol she held, backing away from the shooting wall.
Tim was speechless.
All that money, he thought.
Tim could hear Grizzly laughing behind him and, farther away, he heard Mary’s rough chuckle. He thought he heard children’s laughter, too, but all his senses were focused on the gun his mother had dropped.
An old man appeared suddenly where his mother had been and raised a double barrel shotgun.