Her whole life, Robin had been susceptible to illness, and it had often manifested itself in the form of fevers. The doctors had tried to explain them to her, but those attempts had always left her more confused than reassured. If it was natural, why was it so unpleasant? If her body was too hot, why did she feel so cold? If her system was just trying to kill the bad things in it, why did it have to be so hard on the good ones, too?
And, most of all, if it really was nothing more than a little excess heat, why did she see things?
Fever dreams and hallucinations had been a part of Robin's illness cycle for as long as she could remember. They didn't come up all the time—didn't even come up every time she had a fever—but they were a frequent enough occurrence that they no longer surprised her. Her parents told her that when she'd been younger, she would often experience sweeping and frightening scenes. They told her that she'd claimed there were waves on the floor, that they were all being pursued by rabbits, that the someone was laughing even though nobody was. She couldn't remember any of these things.
The earliest fever she could remember, Robin had been lying on the couch, bundled up in comforters, a glass of water up by her head. She had been very thirsty, her lips dry, her throat scratchy. Still, she'd been entirely unable to muster the energy to reach up and take the glass of water. She'd been stuck in this situation for what felt like hours, growing ever more frustrated with her own inability to move. She'd known with near-perfect clarity that she could pick up the glass. It would have represented a substantial output of energy compared to lying there, but it would have been easily worth it, because then she'd have been able to go back to lying flat without the discomfort of her progressively-escalating dehydration. What she'd lacked had simply been willpower. She'd been entirely unable to force herself to take that tiny little action, even knowing that it would mean a better situation for a substantial span of time.
She'd tried to distract herself by staring at the walls. Opposite the couch had been one part of her mother's collection of art pieces, an abstract painting in bright reds and yellows and oranges. The lines were organic, but there were instances of repetition. Robin had never really thought about the painting before, but as she looked at it she'd suddenly realized that it wasn't abstract at all. It was, in fact, a perfect depiction of a man being burned to death. As she'd watched, she'd seen the little details, the loving way in which the man's limbs had been rendered, the highlights where bone peeked through the skin and the dark bits where flesh had become charred. She'd started to shake, to cry. She hadn't been able to turn away, even as the flame started to flicker. Her thirst had seemed worse than ever, and she'd lain there and watched the horrible picture as it moved, as the man burned and burned but never seemed to get any smaller. She'd worried, had thought that if she took her eyes off the painting for a moment, something might change, and that hadn't made any sense because things had already been changing.
Her mother had found her crying. She had lifted the glass of water and had brought it over so Robin could drink. Elaine Pounds had held her daughter, and had listened as Robin babbled on and on, trying to explain what was so very wrong with the painting, the painting she had never paid any mind to before. Her mother's face had creased. She'd asked Robin if the painting still looked that way, and Robin had said yes, yes it was horrible, and could they maybe take it down, please? Her mother had obliged, and then she'd left the room and called the doctor and Robin had been examined on put on medicine.
A week later, she'd examined the painting again, and had discovered that it really was nothing more than lines and colors and shapes. She had tried to trace her logic, to follow the patterns that had suggested a man, but had found nothing. The painting had still held that emotional weight, though, and so she'd asked that it not be put back up, and her mother had agreed and had replaced it with something in cool colors, even though it had clashed a bit with the character of the room.
Now, in bed at night, having woken up for reasons she couldn't quite understand and then turned on the lights, Robin was once again having problems with patterns. She knew better than to focus, intellectually, but it didn't do her much good in the moment, when she was bored and tired and aching, and so she was looking at the wall and noticing how the little variations in the paint, the tiny bumps and dips, seemed almost to look like writing. She tried to read it, but it just wasn't distinct enough, and when she squinted the letters seemed to entirely change.
This was when she figured out that she was sick. It was the first real cold of the season. She'd known it would only be a matter of time, but had hoped that, perhaps, it could hold off just a little bit longer. She'd been doing a pretty good job of keeping up with her schoolwork, and she'd been enjoying spending time with her friends. Sometimes, Robin's friends ribbed her a bit, saying it must be nice to get time off as often as she did. She always laughed along with those comments, because she didn't want to bore anyone with exactly how far from fun being sick was for her. It didn't represent time to relax, at least not most of the time. Really, missing school just ensured days of discomfort and boredom followed by days of frustration upon her return to school, as she tried to figure out what she'd missed and catch up on homework and generally not fall behind.
Robin looked over at her clock. It was four in the morning. Sunrise was still a long ways away. She groaned.
For a while, Robin considered getting up. She didn't have anything to do if she got up. She was tired, but she didn't feel like sleeping. Instead, she took the glass of water off the table beside her bed and forced herself to drink it all the way down.
Water helped, most of the time, with regulating her temperature and keeping things from escalating. If she drank enough, sometimes she could even get back to normal by morning. The fevers were always worst for her at night. She knew she wouldn't be going to school no matter what, because she was probably pretty contagious, but she could at least hope to spend the day in slight comfort. Maybe she could avoid a trip to the doctor, too.
These days, Robin didn't go to see the doctor unless things were out of the ordinary. They'd long ago concluded that she just had a weak immune system. It wasn't anything too notable or dangerous, merely a constant inconvenience.
Finishing the water wasn't easy. Her throat was sore and a little constricted, and her nose was plugged. Still, when she finished, she found that she was still thirsty.
She reached over to the table again, and pulled a handful of tissues from the Kleenex box. Raising one to her nose, she blew, feeling her air passageway clear. It was a relief, but the tissue was full of yellow phlegm. She wadded it up, wrapped it in another tissue, and threw it into the trash, then blew her nose twice more with similar results, before there was nothing else to expel.
No, she most definitely would not be going to school today.
Robin sighed, forced herself out of bed, and tottered out of her room, down the hall, down the staircase, and to the kitchen. She could have just refilled her glass from the bathroom sink, but by the time she thought of that she was already halfway to the refrigerator, so she just soldiered on.
She refilled the glass from the filtered water in the fridge, drank it down and filled it again, then headed back to bed.
She did not sleep well, waking and finding herself thirsty again and shivering and overall getting very little rest.
Two and a half hours later, when it was time to get up for school, Robin was woken from the fitful doze she had finally fallen into by a knock on her door.
"Robin? It's time to get up."
It was her mother's voice. Robin had sort of forgotten that her family didn't already know her predicament.
"I'm sick, mom," she called. For a few moments, there was no response. Then, the door opened, and Elaine Pounds made her way to the bed.
She sat next to Robin and placed her hand on her daughter's head. After a few moments, she sighed.
"What are we going to do with you?" she said. Her voice didn't suggest any real irritation. This was practically a routine by now.
Robin gave a little smile, and her mother went out to fetch the thermometer. She returned, and Robin tucked it under her arm and waited for the three beeps. Looking at the results confirmed what she'd suspected: she did, indeed, have a fever, but it wasn't a very bad one.
"I'll call the school," he mother said, and then she left the room. Robin lay back in bed and pulled the covers up to her chin, trying to get comfortable. She fell back asleep a few minute later, and didn't get up until noon.
When she woke next, she simply went to the bathroom, took a shower, changed into a clean set of flannel pajamas, and went back to bed. She slept on and off, and she ate a little bit, mostly bread. She drank 7 Up. Even taking it easy, she could tell that this wasn't going to blow over in a day. She hoped she didn't have the flu, because whatever it was started creeping back up on her as night fell. Robin went to bed at eight o'clock, hoping that getting good rest might help her nip it in the bud, but she couldn't sleep.
Most nights, Robin turned music on before going to bed. The low level of background noise kept incidental sounds from the environment from waking her, and listening to music she liked was comforting on the occasions she had bad dreams. She'd learned years ago, though, to never ever listen to music while a fever was going. Yeah, songs helped her fight the boredom of being confined to her home, but only after the worst parts of an illness had passed.
With a fever, listening to music was just asking to have songs ruined forever y horrible associations. Robin had heard singers' voices morph into ungodly wails, or had found static hiss on recordings where none existed. No, she would have none of that, so she just closed her eyes and tried to let unconsciousness take her. Because she'd spent the bulk of the day sleeping, though, it didn't really work. She was exhausted, congested, sore, but sleep would not come.
Finally, around midnight, she managed to drift off, though she woke several more times with the chills.
Robin groaned. She didn't want to wake up. Her fever had come back with a vengeance overnight, and it was early. It was, in fact, the same time she usually had to get up for school. She didn't need to be up at six thirty.
"I'm sick, mom," she called back. Maybe her mother had somehow forgotten. Robin had been feeling a bit better during the day before, so maybe this was just a check-in.
"I know," her mother said. "You need to get up. It's Announcement Day."
That got Robin's attention. Somehow, she'd forgotten entirely that Announcement Day was coming up. She'd never paid too much attention to it during her years in school. It was just another event, where she had to turn up and stand in line while they were all uncomfortably reminded that everyone could be chosen to die at any moment. It had faded largely into the background, had become just another part of her yearly routine.
It was only now that it really made a big impression on her, and that impression was one of severe inconvenience. Not showing up to Announcement Day was a very big deal. At the very least, she'd be looking at serious academic consequences. There was the possibility of her getting thrown out of school, maybe even worse. She didn't actually know what would occur, but she did know that attending was mandatory, and nothing short of lying on death's doorstep would make it acceptable to skip out.
So, with a great sigh, Robin pulled herself out of bed. She felt like she was freezing. Her fever was clearly going again, but it still didn't seem insurmountably bad.
"Coming," she said.
"Alright," her mother said. "I'll excuse you from classes. You can just go to the assembly and then get some rest."
"Thanks," Robin said. She was only half paying attention to her mother's words by now, though. More important was getting ready.
Robin wasn't about to let being sick stop her from making a good impression. Image was important, especially to someone in her clique. When she was at home, she could laze around and be a bit sloppy, but that option went away the second she was set to spend time in public with peers. She was just glad her mom had gotten her up with enough time to get properly prepared.
It didn't take Robin too long to find what she wanted in her closet. She had quite the collection of clothes, but there were some things that worked better for situations such as these. First priority was something warm and bright. She had a couple coats that matched that description, but wearing them inside would be admitting that something was wrong. All her friends and classmates would know, of course, but Robin didn't like being seen when she was sick, and so she wanted to look like it was just another day at school.
That led her to her red sweater dress. It was comfortable, but it also looked fashionable. It looked normal enough. After that, it was just an exercise in matching.
From her closet, she made her way to the bathroom, showered, shaved her legs and armpits, toweled off, and got dressed. She put in earrings and applied makeup, checked her face in the mirror and fussed over it a bit, made sure she didn't look like a zombie. Her nose was a little red and rough around the nostrils, mostly because she'd been blowing it a few times an hour for the past day, but there wasn't anything she could do about that. Powder would just exacerbate her sneezing issue.
"You almost done in there?" her mother shouted.
"Yeah," Robin called. "Just a sec."
"Make sure you leave time for breakfast," her mother said.
Robin didn't want breakfast. She wasn't hungry at all, and her throat still hurt. She didn't say that, though. She knew her mother was right. She had to eat. She hadn't had much in the last day.
"Thanks," she said.
She did a final check of her face. Everything looked okay, and she had her compact in her purse in case anything needed touching up later. She left the bathroom and made her way down the hall and down the staircase, into the dining room.
It was a beautiful room, especially at this time of day. The largest windows faced east, and so the early morning sunlight came through them and lit everything up. There were light curtains which could be pulled to filter it if necessary, but today they were open, allowing Robin to look out on the world. The dining table had five chairs around it, one for each member of the family, though only four lived at home now. A plate of toast and eggs sat at Robin's place. A vase sat in the middle of the table, a small bouquet of roses in it. They were starting to look a little withered, but still added to the scene.
Robin had always loved eating with her family. Even now, being in the dining room made her feel comfortable and warm. She could remember laughing with her sisters and parents, sharing stories about their days and joking and eating.
She forced the toast and eggs down, even though they made her feel vaguely nauseous. Eating was never easy when she was sick. She had a cup of coffee, too, even though she usually didn't like coffee if it wasn't full of all kinds of sweets. She figured she'd need the energy today.
She mentally cursed her immune system for not holding out another two days. Being sick on Announcement Day was the biggest drag she could conceive of at the moment. She wasn't looking forward to getting blamed if half the school came down with whatever she had. They were all going to be in the same room, meaning everyone was going to be exposed to her germs.
Robin's mother turned up a few minutes after Robin had finished eating.
"You ready?" she asked.
"In just a sec," Robin said. She smiled, but she wasn't feeling very happy. She went to the closest restroom, pulled a handful of toilet paper loose, and blew her nose into it until no more phlegm came.
She wiped under her nose, then flushed the wad away.
"Ready," she shouted.
She met her mother in the garage. It was warm, thank goodness. The car—a nice American-made station wagon—was warm, too. With a little luck, Robin thought she might even be able to go the whole day without spending more than maybe five minutes outside.
The drive wasn't too long. The Pounds family lived fairly close to Patriot High School. All along the way, Robin leaned against the window, looking out at the sky and wishing that they'd just tell her she could go home.
Her mother talked to her as they drove, trying to cheer her up.
"At least there'll be something interesting to watch, right?" she said.
"Huh?" Robin kept her gaze trained outside.
"You know," her mother said. "You'll probably be home for a few days, so you can watch The Program."
Robin considered that.
"I don't think so," she said. She'd seen bits and pieces of The Program, but had never been too into it. It was just too violent. More than that, she wasn't really able to distance herself from the people who were fighting and dying. It was too easy to imagine them being her friends.
"Mm," her mother said. It occurred to Robin that she didn't really know if her mother watched it. If she did, it wasn't while anyone else was home, but she spent a lot of time around the house alone.
"I don't think it'd help me sleep, with the fever and all," Robin explained. At this, her mother nodded, seemingly convinced. Robin didn't pursue the topic further.
After a few minutes, the car pulled up in front of Patriot High School. Robin's mother leaned over to give her a kiss on the cheek and a squeeze on the shoulder.
"I'll wait right here, sweetie," she said. "I excused you from class, so you just have to go to the assembly. Then you can come straight back here, and we'll go home so you can go back to bed."
"Thanks, mom," Robin said.
She opened the door and stepped outside, wincing a little as the cool air hit her face. She definitely did not want to spend too much time in this weather. Just forcing herself out of bed was probably going to end up adding another day or two to the cycle of her sickness.
Robin slammed the door, waved goodbye to her mother, and made her way to the front doors of the school. She was there a little bit later than the other kids, because she wasn't going to class. The walkway leading to the front doors was very empty. There weren't many cars around, except in the student parking lot.
One odd thing caught Robin's eye, though: there was a bus outside. One of the other classes must have had a field trip planned for after the Announcement. Robin thought it in slightly poor taste, but the whole process was pretty much a joke anyways, so she couldn't disapprove too thoroughly. She wasn't one of the major patriots, more a casual one who was thoroughly bored by politics for the most part. The worst she had to say about the government was that mandatory service completely sucked. Robin didn't want to think about her friends and relatives being sent to fight, and, more than that, to risk dying. She would probably not be in too much personal risk, given how unsuited she was for combat, but that was a small comfort. She hated that things weren't like they used to be, with a volunteer army. More than that, she hated that the rest of the world needed to be so nasty and dangerous. She longed for the day when the United States finally completed its mission and pacified the terrorists and dissidents out there. Then, maybe everyone could live in peace again.
She tugged the doors of the school open, and then started walking towards the room where they always assembled for the Announcement. It turned out she was right on time, as a group of seniors came out of a classroom nearby and started making their way in the same direction. Robin fell in with them, especially when she caught sight of one of her friends in the group.
Hannah was a year older than Robin, but she wasn't very mature, so she felt like an equal. She was another one of the popular girls, and was often Robin's line into parties. Hannah wasn't too pretty—her face looked a bit squashed and she was maybe about fifteen pounds heavier than probably healthy—but she did a good job working around that, which Robin could respect a lot.
Robin quickened her pace so that she could tap her friend on the shoulder.
Hannah tensed a bit, startled, then turned.
"Oh," she said. "Why're you here?"
"I'm sick," Robin said. "I have to come in for this, though. What's happening?"
"Nothing," Hannah said. "Same shit as every year."
"I'm gonna make everyone sick," she said. "I have the plague. They're gonna have to quarantine Pittsburgh."
Hannah laughed too. Robin was feeling a little bit better, now. Talking to friends always raised her spirits. She had a better time when she was with friends, and since this was just a brief stop, she didn't have to worry about burning through too much of her energy. The caffeine from breakfast was buoying her mood, and the Announcement seemed more like something mildly humorous than totally obnoxious now.
She lined up with everyone else, standing right on the edge between the junior class and the senior class. She forced herself to keep a straight face when The General came on. As much as she wasn't a huge fan of The Program, the lead up struck her as a bit pompous and overblown.
And then he called their school, and all the fun was sucked straight out of the room.
Robin looked around, and she knew, for the first time in her life, that she'd never see some of the faces around her again.
Then The General said it would be the junior class, and the terror truly began. Now, it wasn't that Robin might lose friends. Now she was on the chopping block, her own life on the line. She was happy for Hannah and her other friends in the senior class, but at the same time, she worried. What would it be like if she wasn't called? How would the classrooms feel when they were missing kids?
With each name that was called, Robin felt a little more hope sneak into her mind. The odds of her being selected dropped each time some other poor kid was doomed to death. She didn't want them to die, but she wanted to die even less, and so she silently celebrated with every name.
And then she really was called.
It didn't sink in at first. It couldn't be right.
They'd called her, though. Robin Pounds. That was her name, and it had been called for The Program.
She didn't start crying or anything, like a few of the kids did. She didn't scream. She turned, and she gave Hannah a wave, and she filed out of the room. She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she didn't even really register the gunshots.
As they herded her into the bus, the bus that made so much more sense now, Robin glanced around desperately, trying to catch sight of the car. She couldn't see it, though. Her mother must have moved it a little further away, to a better parking spot.
All Robin wanted to do was say goodbye. It looked like she wasn't going to have the chance, though. Nobody came back from The Program. Even the kids who won, they just vanished.
Robin wanted to go back in time, to enjoy things a little more. She wanted to take a few more minutes in the shower, to chew her toast a little more slowly, to just have a few more seconds being safe and happy and comfortable.
The bus pulled away, and she thought she saw her mother's car and she tried to wave, but she couldn't tell if she was noticed or not, couldn't even tell if it was the right car.
The worst thing about the place where they were going to have to kill each other was the cold. Robin had not woken up quickly. The gas had hit her especially hard, and she'd barely shaken off her stupor enough to listen through the introductory speech. The second gassing had been even worse, leaving her blinking and groggy. The collar against her neck was metal, and it felt like it was sucking the warmth from her body.
She'd maintained enough poise to care about fashion for approximately ten minutes. Then she'd decided that it didn't matter who thought she looked like a dork, it beat freezing to death. She'd pulled the provided jacket on over her sweater dress. It wasn't a very comfortable jacket, but it at least kept her a bit warmer. Her legs were freezing, though. This was not a good time to be in lace tights.
At least she hadn't worn heels.
Robin had awoken way up near the top of a path, and was now waiting at one of the turns just a little below the top. The place she'd found was fairly flat and level, unlike the rest of the track. That was what had drawn her to it. She'd seen two figures make their way down the path earlier on, and it had looked like treacherous going indeed. Robin wasn't feeling anywhere near brave enough to follow their lead, at least not in anything more than small increments.
Her assigned weapon was long gone. Robin had opened her pack, found the stress ball, and pitched it off the side of the path. She'd watched it roll away, picking up momentum and kicking up small trails of dust and scree. It had been a valuable lesson on just how bad falling would be.
Her nose was clogged. She didn't have any of her personal belongings, which meant she was reduced to plugging one of her nostrils and just trying to blow the snot onto the ground. She'd already gotten one minor smear on her jacket.
She could tell that her fever was coming back. While it had been muted by a day's rest to a dull burn, it was now in an environment far more conducive to its growth. The chill crept up her legs, into her ears, down her throat. It felt like she was freezing from the inside out, too.
Robin pulled herself as far back as she could, pressing herself against the slope furthest from the drop. She took her duffel bag off her shoulder and dug through it, searching for something she might have missed, something that could help her. She didn't want to die, and she didn't want her last days to be nothing but agony.
All she could find was a few bottles of water.
It was enough. It was something.
Robin drank one of her bottles entirely in a few long gulps. It didn't do much, but it at least alleviated the scratching in her throat a bit.
She decided that she'd stay here for a while. It wasn't like anything else would make her any less doomed.