His name was Dustin Schlemmer, and I met him in the prep room. That’s what they called the room where the meat-socks waited. That’s what we called the first timers, and this was my first time. Music from the arena blasted through the speakers: heavy, bleak, adrenaline-pumping rock that is still rooted deep in my soul. The room was light, clean, like a dentist’s waiting room.
He sat near me, a chair between us, his head tilted back against the wall. His eyes were closed. We waited for some time, alone, as if we were freely choosing our fate. I watched the image on the TV screen.
I remember when he first spoke. “You don’t have to do what they tell you,” he said suddenly. “Their way is not the only way. It’s not right what they do. You can choose a different path. You can do right.”I thought at first he meant escape. After a few questions, I found that he was not a criminal, as I was, but a political prisoner, imprisoned for his faith. My first impression of him was his solemnity, a thing I’d seldom seen, for it was unmixed with anger, and the people I knew were rarely serious unless they were angry.
Soon, the producer came to prepare us for our roles. His name was Michael Smead. He’s dead now. He talked loquaciously, flashing us false smiles and goading us. Guards watched us closely, of course, and when he had explained all and insulted us to spur us on, we were left in the dressing room. Weapons and armor from all eras hung on the walls and on the stands placed around the room. Each bore two or three sponsors’ symbol.
Fifteen minutes counted down on the large digital display above the double doors. I hurriedly set to work strapping on a breastplate. Dustin stared at the dwindling seconds. After about a minute, he walked to the double doors and waited.
I tried to warn him. “Didn’t you hear the man? We don’t have much time. Find a weapon, at least.”
“I will not fight,” he said.
“You know what’s going on, don’t you? They’ll kill you.”
“There’s another world outside these doors,” he said, and he looked at me. “There’s a better world than this one. Let me tell you about it.”
My mind was preparing for battle, but I heard his words as he spoke. At that time, I scoffed at them.
The last thirty seconds passed with the constant pulse of a great electronic bell. The doors swung open. Smoke and light and noise and cheers rushed in. Guards (personal assistants, we called them) herded us out—but I was ready, sword in hand, knives in my belt. Dustin entered the arena empty-handed. Cameras followed us. The crowd booed when Dustin refused to fight. They cheered when Vengeance beat him with brass knuckles for twenty minutes.
I fought that day, and I won. I fought for days and weeks until I won my freedom. And then I fought on the other side, because the pay was good and I had learned to kill. But the scenes of Dustin’s last minutes, caught forever in the DVD set, stayed with me. How long his simple words took to take hold!
I understand now, and I long for that other world, for I am sorrowful unto death with this one.