Brody was sitting in his corner, listening to the calming cascade of rain outside the gym and not the tirade Allen was unleashing in his ear.
“So you just didn’t show up for Finals?” Allen demanded. “Think you’re too smart to test or are you too dumb to realize grades matter?”
“I passed all my classes anyway,” Brody said, still looking out of the gym glass doors. People were still trickling in but he paid them little mind. Cece had even shown up but the most attention he gave her was a cordial nod before continuing his vigil.
“So you’re a ‘C’s get degrees’ ass clown now,” Allen said. Brody didn’t respond. Allen went on, “maybe I should just throw in the towel for you now, since you don’t seem to care about anything.”
Brody turned away from the doors but didn’t look at Allen. He looked across the ring at Daeron, who was talking to his trainer. In another world, Brody would have been upset that they were meeting in the opening round of their bracket of the Elite Eight tournament instead of the championship.
“I want this fight,” Brody said.
“You don’t deserve it,” Allen said.
“There’s a lot I’ve gotten I probably didn’t deserve,” Brody said. “You can just add this to the list.”
Allen grabbed Brody by the shoulder and swung him around to face him, just as Brody viewed a red head girl entering the gym with a tall muscular guy.
“Brody, I don’t know what happened that made you so apathetic. But I also don’t care. I told you, I took you on as my protege to help you fight. Which fight was completely your call. You’ve seemed to have made your choice so I’m going to make mine. I’m calling the fight.”
Brody stared Allen dead in his eyes and Allen saw something flash behind them. Something flaming that would put the sun to shame.
“If you try to cancel my fight, I’ll tell the ref you’re no longer my coach,” Brody said. “That is my decision.”
Allen stood back and stared at Brody as if he’d never actually seen him before. Like an arranged marriage where the bride was always hidden or behind a veil. But he was seeing him now.
“So you want to play it like that,” Allen said.
“I’m playing to win. Didn’t you teach me that?”
Allen nodded. “Alright. Do what you want.”
He stepped through the ropes and out of the ring. Brody watched him exit with a blank expression though he felt that there was more than ropes dividing them now.
How much more can I lose?
Brody turned back to the crowd. He was looking into the small collection of observers for a specific pair but Cece had come ringside. He looked down at her.
“Hey French. Good luck!” she said.
Her expression changed to one of confusion but he smiled briefly and she seemed to accept that it was just his game face before a fight. The ref ushered her away from the ring as the fighters names and colors were announced to the crowd. There was a polite smattering of applause for both. The ref called Brody to the center. Brody didn’t immediately rise. He saw the red head girl laugh at one of the tall man’s jokes.
Brody looked around. The ref was beckoning him to the center of the ring where Daeron was waiting. Brody rose and slouched over to him, staring him in the eyes. Daeron smiled as the ref was warning them about a fair fight. Brody didn’t. For the first time in two weeks, he felt. And it was the same emotion he always felt. Suddenly, Daeron being his opponent was a disappointment. He didn’t want to hurt Daeron. He wanted to direct his emotions at someone else.
“Touch gloves,” the ref said.
Brody and Daeron tapped gloves. The ref backed up & rang the bell.
Brody immediately went on the offensive. He threw straight punches, hooks, and uppercuts with no conscience. Daeron ducked, deflected and dodged them all. Brody’s onslaught was such that he didn’t give Daeron many opportunities to swing back.
And yet Daeron did, managing to hit his mark every time. He took a few hits but dealt out more. By the time the bell rang, Daeron returned to his corner, showing little signs of a confrontation. Brody returned to his corner in a huff, an angry bruise developing on the right side of his ribs.
He spit out his mouthguard and turned to Allen…
But Allen wasn’t there.
I am alone. Brody thought. And looking like a fool. Allen always lectured me about picking my fights. Right now, I’m fighting two opponents at once and neither one is Daeron.
Brody took a deep and then exhaled.
I wanted this fight and I got it. I had a strategy specifically for Daeron. I need to use that if I’m going to win.
Brody struggled to put his mouth guard back in with his hands still gloved. When the bell rang for the second of three rounds, he and Daeron met in the center again, only this time, Brody did not go berserk. He threw light jabs here and there. He backed off when Daeron went on offense. He used the steps he’d learned in ballroom to dance around Daeron. Daeron’s mouth also had a guard in it but his eyes spoke for them: there you go.
The two danced around one another, exchanging blows here and there. Brody’s head was clear for the first time.
Now this is a fight he thought.
He smiled and unleashed a combo on Daeron that took the latter by surprise. Daeron was on the ropes and Brody went for the finish. Only for Daeron to dodge and unleash a devastating hook right on Brody’s exposed bruised ribs.
Brody’s knees buckled and he fell to one knee. A woman in the crowd screamed “no!” Who, Brody couldn’t be sure. He was struggling to get back to his feet without falling over when the bell rang.
Brody looked to the referee who signaled the end of the second round. All was not lost, though Brody was hobbled.
“Can you continue?” asked the ref.
“Yes,” Brody said. The ref nodded and started to assist him to his corner but someone much larger lead Brody to the red corner.
“Boy he almost killed you,” Allen said.
“Funny, I never knew a pain so sweet,” Brody said.
“Death looks preferable to that hit,” Allen said.
“Allen, I’m sor-”
“Shut up,” Allen said. “You’re fighting the right opponent now. That’s all I wanted for you.”
Brody said nothing but nodded, appreciating having Allen by his side again.
“You nearly had him with that combo,” Allen said. “I don’t know whether it was God or Judas that saved him but you nearly knocked him out. You can win this fight but I wouldn’t use that combo again.”
“Obviously,” Brody said.
“Keep dancing around him. That’s what got you back in this fight. Stay on your toes and look for an opening. He’s a little punch drunk too after that last exchange.”
He shoved Brody’s mouthguard back in as the bell rang.
“And guard your ribs, for fucks sake!” Allen said.
Brody nodded as he approached the center of the ring again for the final round. He locked eyes and touched gloves with Daeron again as the round started. They paced around one another in a circle before Daeron lunged and began to swing like a hell hound loosed. Brody deflected and responded in earnest.
So you wanna dance? Then let’s dance!
They each threw, dodged, deflected and received a barrage from the other. Brody was elated to be in this type of fight but also careful to guard his ribs. He then went for his combo again. This time Daeron was ready for it but Brody switched up the last hit with an uppercut that knocked Daeron back into the ropes.
Daeron used the ropes to remain standing but was obviously stunned. Brody watched for a moment, sensing how dazed Daeron was, before advancing on his prey. He went for a jab but Daeron threw all his weight behind another hook to Brody’s ribs, which Brody deflected the worst of.
Daeron immediately followed with a straight punch.
Brody took it full in the face. He stumbled back and shook his head, trying to steady himself. Then his knees buckled again. However, he threw out his hands to keep his knee from touching.
The bell rang.
Brody looked up and saw that the ref was stepping over him and waving his arms for a TKO.
Brody spit out his mouthguard.
“But I can still fight!” Brody said. “My knee didn’t touch!”
“You were dropped twice,” the ref said. “Another hit and we could be talking about CTE. I’m calling it.”
“No!” Brody said, trying to push the ref aside. Allen entered the ring and pulled Brody back but he was fuming as he did so.
“There should have been a three knockdown rule and standing 8-count!” Allen yelled at the ref. “It was all Judas.”
Brody threw his hands over his head, though immediately grimaced as pain shot through his ribs. He cradled his ribs in one arm, while Allen tried to take off his gloves. The pain he could stand. But losing. And in front of her while she sat with him. That was almost too much to bear.
The ref beckoned both fighters to the center of the ring. He grabbed Brody’s wrist. It took extreme effort for Brody not to snatch away and walk out. The ref raised Daeron’s hand and declared him the victor. Brody had not paid any attention to the crowd before but now he noticed there was a small contingent of people booing. He was sure the boos weren’t directed at Daeron, as they began chanting insults at the ref.
Brody snatched his hand away and made to go to the locker room but a hand grabbed him by the shoulder.
Brody turned around and was immediately embraced by Daeron. He raised the arm on his good side and returned the hug.
“Nice combo,” Daeron said.
“For a second, I thought you had me.”
“For a second, I did have you.”
Daeron pulled away but held Brody by the shoulders. Brody saw his jaw and left eye were swollen. “I didn’t want to win like this. There was still 54 seconds on the clock. You had time to recover.”
Brody swallowed and nodded. “You probably would have won anyway. You were the better man today.”
“There 54 seconds left to decide that.”
Brody nodded again, noticing how dizzy it made him just to do so. Having nothing else to say, Brody said, “good luck in the championship.”
Daeron nodded and then detached himself from Brody and returned to his corner. Brody walked over to his corner and climb out of the ring, where Allen met him.
“Well I actually got a Judas chant started so it wasn’t a total loss,” Allen said, patting Brody on the shoulder. Brody looked up at him and smiled wanly.
Brody turned and saw Cece at his side.
“I’m sorry you lost. It was a good fight,” she said.
Not good enough Brody thought but his retort was lost as he hugged her. She stumbled a bit under his weight; she was a full head shorter and nearly thirty pounds lighter. He seemed to sag a bit as he embraced her, but she held him up and returned the affection.
“There goes Gaylord,” called a voice from behind Cece.
Brody looked up and saw Chris smiling down at him from behind Cece. Kókkennea was standing a short distance behind him. The look on her face was indiscernible but before Brody could speak, Chris said: “a loser, creeping on young girls. How old is that girl in your arms, 16?”
Cece was 19 but that wasn’t what triggered Brody, nor was it Chris’ jab about Brody’s loss – as Chris had already won his own fight the day before, much to Brody’s annoyance -it was that one word.
At that moment, all thought of Brody’s previous fight, his injuries, his affection for Cece were thrown into oblivion. Brody swung Cece out of the way and charged Chris. Chris put up his hands in defense and prepared to strike but Brody kicked his knee out from under him. As Chris fell head first, Brody raised his knee to meet Chris in the chin, causing the latter’s head to snap back. Both of Chris’ knees went out from under him and he was falling but not faster than Brody could rain closed fisted blows on Chris’s head, hitting him with every ounce of hatred in him all the way until Chris hit the ground.
Chris was unconscious but Brody wasn’t satisfied. He was glaring down with cold fury. His head was clear but for that one word. His heart was pounding, his blood was rushing but his voice came out soft and quiet, a whisper more ominous than a death rattle.
“All of that smiling…it’s just not me. It makes me ill to have to force it everyday. But not as ill as my thoughts. Nothing makes me feel more alive than acting out my dark fantasies. I’m always on the cusp of snapping. I spend most of my day trying to check my worst impulses. But this…is what truly makes my heart beat. Did you think you’d beat me down easily because I’m smaller? I looked forward to feeling you rain down blows on me just so that I can show you that your arms are too short to box with God. Some people like to hide their demons. Me, I prefer to dance with them. Thank you…for helping me to finally just be myself.”
The people had watched as Brody picked Chris up and powerbombed him on the floor, kicked him in the face as his head bounced off of the floor and then proceeded to stomp on his face. Brody snatched a cup of soda from a horror struck woman and dumped it on Chris’ face to wake him up. Chris moaned as Brody kicked him over onto his stomach and then grabbed both of his arms like bicycle handles, foot in the small of Chris’s back, his back arched, arms torqued until their was a gutwrenching snapping noise as both arms were popped out of their socket. Chris howled in pain and couldn’t hear the last word Brody whispered before Brody put his foot on the back of Chris’ head and stomped his face into the ground for the final time.
Chris lay still on the ground and didn’t move save for a few convulsions.
Brody looked down on his work with hollow eyes. His heart was still hammering, blood rushing, vision a haze of white but his head was clear. The room was silent. Brody both reveled and revolted against it. Then slowly, it dawned on him someone was saying a name. He didn’t know who was speaking or whose name they were saying. Then he heard a small voice whisper:
He looked around, his eyes hollow, the corners of his mouth twitched before a heavy fist crossed his face and all was black.
Brody was staring at a gray wall. He was wearing an orange jumpsuit, sitting on the top bunk of the bed he shared with his cellmate. One of his legs was bent towards him while the other was laid out straight. He was drumming the frame of his bed.
He’d been in jail a day and hadn’t slept for a moment since they placed him in his holding cell. Since they had put him in on a Friday, he wouldn’t be able to see a judge until Monday morning. He’d used his one call to contact his mother, who assured him she wouldn’t pay his bail after he embarrassed her by acting like a psycho. His eyes were bulging, his thoughts were racing and his ribs were throbbing but not nearly as much as his jaw in the place where Allen had planted his fist to lay him out.
He wished he had a pill to at least level him out but they confiscated those with all of his possessions when they locked him up. He’d spoken with his lawyer and told him that be didn’t remember much of the assault they blamed him for – which was the truth; he hardly had any recollection of assaulting Chris, save for seeing Chris’ body prone on the ground and hearing a woman call out “his” name. He felt like he had just woken up from a deep sleep before being hit over the head with a sledgehammer to slumber again. Though that’s said to have been a kindness compared to what they said he did to Chris.
The lawyer said that she would speak to his therapist and see if they could get his charges dropped with a temporary insanity plea due to his “condition” but he’d have to be evaluated by the state’s psychiatrist too. He also had to get his hands licensed but that was the least of his worries.
Brody couldn’t think of what was worse, snapping like that; losing carefully formulated control in a single instant, or seeing the look on her face after. The fear in her voice. The thought made him afraid. He really wanted a pill. Just one. Maybe three. It would take the edge off. And he’d be able to sleep. Although he wasn’t sure he wanted to be in a drug induced sleep around his cellmate. He wasn’t afraid of the man but he’d grown up hearing what happens in jail and didn’t want to have to deal with that on top of everything else. But his cellmate did nothing besides sit in his bed, in the Indian position, eyes closed, deep in thought. Or whatever it was he was doing. The man hadn’t even argued about who would get which bunk. He merely let Brody take his pick and sat on his bed, silent.
Brody hopped down from his bunk and went to the cell door, shaking the bars. It was 3 AM but he shook the bars anyway, and said, “guard! I need my pills!”
“He aint bringing ya no pills, kid.”
Brody turned around and looked at his cellmate, half astonished, half annoyed. “And how do you know that?”
“This aint the pharmacy,” said his cellmate. “Or your therapist’s office. Ya can’t just get those little magic pills just because ya ask for them. This is jail. Yer being punished for your crimes.”
“Oh, this is jail?” Brody said. “And I thought they dressed us all in orange as a fashion statement.”
“Yer jokes won’t get ya very far here either. But if that’s what you need to keep yourself alive in here.”
“I need my pills. Not your lectures.”
“Seeing as how yer in jail, I think ya could use a lecture.”
“From my cellmate? Right. Gonna teach me how to be the best bunkie possible?”
“Jails are temporary. I’d rather teach ya how to be a better man.”
“Ha. You’re full of gems. Whatcha gonna teach me old man? How to play the silent game?”
His cellmate opened his eyes and looked up. Brody noticed that his eyes were gray, much like the streaks in his hair, which was in a nappy afro. He had a two tattoos. One was on his wrist and looked like a gang sign. The other was on his inner forearm and was a set of serial numbers.
“You’re a repeat offender,” Brody said, gesturing at the numbers on his arm.
“I’m what ya’ll be if ya don’t learn to control yer temper. Violence isn’t the answer.”
Brody stared at his cellmate for a moment before asking, “what do you know about me?”
“Only what the guards told me,” the cellmate said. “Confidentiality is another perk ya don’t get in here. From what I heard, ya beat some big guy down real bad. Did it make ya feel good?”
Brody stared at him for a moment.
“It didn’t make me feel anything.”
“Yer lying. Ya had beef with the guy. He was with ya ex-”
“Ya beat him down and felt big doing it. But how do ya feel now?”
Brody was silent. His mind was buzzing, wondering how this stranger knew his crimes and secrets. But also with vague flashes of the beat down in question. He shook his head, which caused him a twinge of pain. He looked back at his cellmate.
“Yer a boxer. Ya fight to blow off some steam. But yer also a nutty buddy huh?”
“What did you call me-”
“Some doctor gives ya a label and some pills and ya think ya got all the answers. But what good did those pills do ya when the guy ya beat down trashed talked ya? Pushed ya buttons? Embarrassed ya?”
Brody remained silent.
“I got in the plant when I was old enough. Didn’t finish school. Family needed money. Living paycheck ta paycheck was hard so I joined a gang. Started selling weight. Got caught after a turf war with a rival gang. Did 20 solid in Jackson. Got out. Thought I’d do thing honest this time. Got my GED while I was locked up. Came out to a different world. All these computers and smartphones. The world had just got dumber ta me. And scarier. But I went ta Community College and got one of those papers that really aint good for shit. Got history, don’t I? So I had an old friend fix my resume. I didn’t snitch so I still had a few friends. The ones that stayed out or were still alive. Got a corporate job. Met a lady. We got on like white on rice. But she was half my age and liked things. Pretty soon corporate money wasn’t enough. She had to have more. So when a drug lord asked me to fix his books for some extra cash, ya thought I was gonna say no? Nah. I loved her. Anyway, I’m getting sent on jets across the country. Set up accounts here. Fix books there. It got really easy once I figured out that technology. I was always good at math. But one day, I have to meet a man from Japan. I’m supposed to set up an account with his company. So we have lunch. I give em my spill. He listens. Doesn’t say a word. After I finish, he closes his eyes and just sits there. Silent. For five minutes. Finally, I got irritated and told him if he was gonna waste my time, he could have just made a phone call. He opens his eyes and says ta me, ‘a phone call wouldn’t have told me who you were. Not like sitting and having lunch with you. You’re a dark man. You have anger in your heart. Hate. It speaks from your eyes. But your spirit is empty. You have no fight in you except with your fists. I listened to you speak. Then meditated on what I heard. I will not do business with you or your company. Thank you.’ And like dat he left. When I flew back home, found out I was fired. Got caught fixin books. Didn’t snitch on the spic, even though he cut me off. Told my wife. And ya know what? She threatens ta leave me. Ta leave me. After all I’d done for her. Well, I lost it. Beat her senseless. She fell and hit her head. She was dead right then and there. Tried to run for it but the neighbors heard us arguing. Uppity people are always minding other folks business, aint they? So cops come and hear I am. Back in jail. This time I got murder on my hands. They say I’ll get life. But ya know what, it’s not my wife, or the spic, or the cops I think about in here. It’s that Japanese man. I thought about how he sat in that chair and meditated. I figured he was meditating the whole time. Thought about how he said my spirit was empty. Well, it has to be to end up in a place like this. Again. So when I got here, I started meditating. At first it was scarier than when I first got out of prison. Empty spirit and dark thoughts don’t mix well. But after a while, things became clearer. Saw through the haze. Confronted my demons. Spoke to myself and heard a voice speak back. I know I’ll die in Jackson. But it aint a scary thought anymore. That’s just life. We all gotta choice. Ya aint always gotta fight with yer fists ta beat somebody. Sometimes all ya need is ya mind.”
Brody stared at his cellmate for a long time. He’d listened to everything he’d said. Somehow, his head seemed clearer. He knew he didn’t need to respond to the man.
He climbed back up onto his bunk, placed his back against the wall, crossed his legs and meditated. He saw things, both horrifying and wonderful, but he saw.
He didn’t know how much time had passed but he yawned. Without much conscious thought, he curled up in a ball and fell asleep. He didn’t dream of hotels, or forests, or flying, or falling or flames. He was on a beach, alone, the ocean breeze and waves singing to him. He sat and watched the sunset on the horizon with the feeling that if he reached for the sun, he could touch it. But he knew that would burn him. Sometimes it was better to just appreciate things from a distance.
And so Brody slept.