[33] Sage

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"My brain hurts," I moan as Jake and I follow Maggie out of the essay Trial. Nicole and Deirdre are still writing. "I need food."

"You can go get some food, and I'll come get you when the results are in. As per usual," Maggie says calmly, ignoring my complaining.

"How did your essay turn out?" I ask Jake, then shake my head and hold up my hands. "No, don't answer that. It was probably fabulous. Like, unicorns-barfing-rainbows fabulous."

Jake grins, looking slightly embarrassed at the compliment. "I wouldn't go that far, but I feel pretty confident."

"Good. At least one of us will be in first place. Poor Deirdre, though." I bite my lip.

"Yeah, I would guess that she's gonna be at the bottom of the board." Jake grimaces, then shakes his head resolutely and moves on. "I've figured out that there's probably going to be ten Trials - "

"Yep." I nod.

" - and since the Albinos obviously only want one survivor - or winner or whatever - three of us have to die in the four remaining challenges. I would say the next Trials aren't going to be as quiet or boring as this one."

I haven't thought about the Trials that much. "Oh."

"You'll be fine. If anyone can survive this, it's you." Jake smiles slightly, but his expression is anything but humorous.

We had been discussing this quietly, but I have no doubts that Maggie overheard every word. She shows no sign of having eavesdropped, however - she is walking at the same steady pace with good posture and relaxed muscles, the epitome of calm.

When we reach the cafeteria, I order a half of a full sausage pizza and happily eat most of it. I think back to when I was thirteen, living without the Voice. I would have been apprehensive to eat over just two slices of plain pizza because I was "watching my weight," a more roundabout way of saying that I was feeling fat and wanting to not feel fat. Now, I'm eating a whole half pizza without a care. A definite upside to having the Voice.

"For someone who's so tiny, I have no idea how you can fit so much food into your body," Jake notes around a mouthful of cheeseburger.

"And you eat so little but are the size of a house. We're both weird." I smile with my lips pressed together to contain the pizza, cheeks puffed out with food. Jake snorts.

As I am polishing off yet another slice of pizza, Deirdre enters the cafeteria. She looks miserable.

"I'm kinda glad I can just switch off my emotions whenever I feel like it," the Voice comments. "It comes in handy when I would otherwise feel things such as crippling disappointment."

Jake shoots me a warning look. He thinks I am above these petty, rude, sarcastic comments, especially to someone as close to me as Deirdre. I am, of course. But try telling that to the Voice.

Then I remember that he doesn't even know about the existence of the Voice. It is a strange thought, that the very thing that is the reason for my being here is a secret to everyone who knows - or thinks they know - me.

Deirdre copies me and also orders a pizza, but leaves it at plain cheese and only gets three slices. She slides into the seat next to Jake and leans into his arm while she eats. It look comfortable, familiar. As if they are brother and sister. The only thing breaking the otherwise perfect illusion is the way Deirdre's face periodically crumples, likely as she thinks about her essay.

We sit in comfortable silence until we are all finished eating. "How did it go?" Jake asks Deirdre tentatively, likely more willing to test her mood when her blood sugar is steady.

"Horribly. I didn't know how to write it all down. I can say what I think just fine, so why can't I write it?" she cries out in frustration, smacking the tabletop.

"Hey, I bet mine sucked more," I reassure her casually. "At least you put a lot of effort into it. Teachers give you extra points for that."

"They do?" Deirdre looks skeptical at this.

"Oh, sure. That was the only way I passed seventh grade English."

"Oh." Deirdre squints at me, looking as though she is trying to solve a confusing mystery. "How old are you?"

"Sixteen." I am curious as to why she asks, but don't quite care enough to inquire.

Deirdre answers my unasked question without being prompted, however - "Just curious." - and starts tracing invisible designs on the table with her fingers.

Jake begins talking about handwriting and where he learned it - his apparently amazing third grade teacher - until finally, Maggie enters with Nicole trailing behind her. The latter looks worried, and of course, default anger floods her expression as soon as she sees us, chatting quietly like normal teenage friends. I detect slight pain, too, in the crinkles in her forehead, probably as she thinks of what she and Xavier had.

"Ready to see your results?" Maggie asks, chipper as ever, but it is a rhetorical question. Whether we are ready or not, we must see the results.

We must see who is most likely to next die.

*

Jake is in first place now, which makes me breathe a sigh of relief - his end is nowhere in sight. I am very, very close behind him, but just thanks to my overwhelming victories in the other Trials. My poorly constructed essay did nothing in the way of helping me secure second place. Deirdre is third and I feel another flash of relief that she is not at the very bottom. That spot is reserved for Nicole. 

She's been losing her edge ever since Xavier died, I think coldly. Not that she was ever very good.

Nicole immediately stares and, shockingly, begins to cry. It is the most emotion she has shown in a while - not counting fury or contempt - but I still ignore her, instead hugging Deirdre as the little girl sags against me in relief. Jake pats the child's head, casting worried glances at Nicole. How can he feel sorry for her? I wonder. I shrug it off and focus on Deirdre's rapidly beating heart, which I can feel thudding through our shirts.

"Do you want to go to the rec room for a bit or straight to sleep?" Maggie asks, raising her voice slightly over Nicole's sobs and sniffles.

We are all silent for several seconds before I finally speak up. "Let's just get this over with. The faster we go to sleep, the faster we wake up and face the next goddamn Trial." I am suddenly very tired - of having the Voice, of trying to remember the fine art of socialization, of the rec room, and especially of the Albinos and their idiotic Trials.

Deirdre bobs her head up and down, no longer afraid for her own safety, and Jake hesitantly follows suit. Nicole is staring at the results board with tears running silently down her face and obviously doesn't particularly care one way or another. I know what she is feeling - I felt it during my murders. She is a shell, barely holding it together.

And eventually, she will snap.

"Very well," Maggie says happily. "I think you'll like the next Trial."

We all know she is talking to me.

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