Authors: Richard Thomas
(This story was originally published in 2011
#15 as a shorter version.)
© Copyright Richard Thomas, 2011
It’s the third night in a row and my bloodlust can’t be quenched. There aren’t many women here, I’m one of the few. They don’t have the stomach for it. I do. This advancement in prison control, this thinning of the herd was inevitable. The people won’t stand for anything less. The guilty have an option now at the hands of their victims. There are no laws here, no punishment beyond this place. Fight or die. On some nights, fight
The warehouse is vast and yet we are on top of each other. Some are sweaty, wiping their foreheads with the back of their hands, taking deep breaths. Others have their arms wrapped around emaciated frames, shivering as if cold. In the center of the room is a patch of canvas, a lone dim bulb descending from the rafters, a sepia tone declaring this time history to be recorded. Risers are scattered around the ring, leading up to concrete walls and dusty windows with spiderweb cracks. Mottled red girders extend across the space.
The stench is nauseating, men who haven’t bathed in weeks, ripe and rotten. Sweaty socks and rancid feet fill my nostrils. But it is the scent of the man I must beat down in three days, so I inhale deeply, eyes watering. I come to prepare myself, to rid myself of this mark. This idea of victim. This hiding my eyes and looking away. I am here to gain every advantage I can and watch these men become beasts.
I stand at the top of the metal steps. Months I’ve prepared. Trimming every ounce of fat. Building up muscle where none existed. I fix my gaze on the distance, a place in time where we’ll meet again, and he will not know me then, not as he did before.
The bell rings, sharp and crisp. A mumble works its way through the crowd as the two men leave their corners. One is tall and gangly, his bony ribs protruding from his chest. He moves slowly, one step at a time, watching his opponent, mouth open, hands clenched. Across from him is a cloud of rage, black lines and insects, a sheet of rain occupying the space. It is pent up frustration. It is a blind, numb animal instinct. Must be family. They always look like that, the family of the victims. Dark eyes focused, arms trembling, his aging frame strong and pale. I guess father. He’s shaved his head as they often do, a ritual shedding of the past. His lumbering gait is a bit off, balance broken from years of remorse, eons of anguish drowned in buckets of amber.
Voices drift to me. Incest, rape, murder. A sister or daughter? Sex and an accident. A repeated accident. In truth, a plan. Odds are two-to-one in favor of the criminal. He is twenty years younger. Agile and slow, a grin eases across his face. He has faith it will work out. He is wrong.
The men that surround me are all the same. Variations on a theme. The short, dark toad in front of me holds a fistful of bills in one hand and a notepad in the other. Old school.
“Bookman,” I say. “Hey, Bookman.”
He turns around, glances to my left, to my right, finally to my eyes, as they bore into him.
“What’s up, lady. You want some action?”
“100 bucks on the old man. The father.”
“You sure, baby?”
I swallow my rage and take a deep breath.
I hand him a bill, and he sucks it into his fist, scrawling his mark and some numbers on the pad. His mouth parts in a toothless grin. He blinks and a twitch invades his left eye.
“Here you go.”
He tears off the scrap of paper and hands it to me.
I look up in time to see the scarecrow advance, a flurry of fast fists to the old man’s head.
Right, right, left, right.
He steps back. Forward.
Jab, jab, cross, uppercut.
Fists pulled back, he hesitates, full of pride and wonder. A grin sweeps across his face, a bounce in his step, this bag of sticks confident, as the balding hunchback straightens up.
The old man pulls his fist from ten years ago, up past his hip, and the crowd goes silent. We all see it. The left-right step, left hand crossing over, then cocking back, right hand moving forward, one smooth motion as if he composed it yesterday. I can’t believe I didn’t see these paws before. They were hidden on his flank, two sledgehammers at the end of his arms. Right before contact, a second before the stain’s nose is smashed into his face, before the blood flows and cartilage snaps, the smile leaves his face. Now he knows. He screwed up.
I feel a tingling sensation between my legs. My mouth opens and I gasp into the foul air, my secret lost in the screams of the room. It will be a long night. I have things to work out. And I won’t be alone.
The fist connects, filling the face until I fear it may push through. One shot. That’s all it will take. The old man exhales, the grunt of an avenging angel who has fallen so far that the only way is up. Up through the face of the random stranger who took it all away. The thin limbs shoot out as his face crumples in on itself, the nose shifting to one side, a flow of crimson pouring down his face. It covers his chest and seeps into his shorts. Teeth snap, and imbed in the knuckles of the giant fist that has eclipsed the sun. Legs kick out as he falls backwards with an empty thud. A jolt of his legs and he is still, a trickle of urine running out of his shorts, his bare skin pink, before it fades to gray.
Standing over him, the aging hulk wants more. He grabs the flaccid neck and picks it up. Cocking his fist, he holds the scrawny frame, arms trembling, a gust of air flowing out of him. And then another. He drops the man, and steps away, head hung. Turning to the side he retches. Wiping his mouth, he walks away. It is done now, and it was never what he wanted. But he had no choice.
The ape in front of me hands me back three bills and walks down the steps. My winnings will be spent, every cent. I can’t have that taint on me. Even in the death of the miserable, the wasted, I cannot celebrate. A smile fills my face as I plan his execution. I will practice tonight on the drunken flesh of the nearest golem.
They all blur together, these memories. Bits and pieces that I repressed for so long. That I chose not to believe, for my sanity. They have something in common, these moments he stole from me, these bits of me he took. They are all wrapped in an uneasy blanket. His hands were hands I trusted. His caress was one I longed for, out of love, this love of family, the undying depth we had, that filled me up and gave me peace. This ate at me, like a rash on my skin, and I scratched until it bled.
Some nights when I can’t sleep, they come to me, these moments. Scattered and grainy, fast cut edits, slicing through the dark sky. In these moments, I am restless and uneasy, and I hear his footsteps in the hall.
“Uncle Jon, is that you?”
“Shhhh baby, I just came to tuck you in.”
Crickets out the open window, fireflies flickering in the dark.
“You should be asleep Annabelle. School tomorrow.”
“I know. It’s too hot out.”
“Well take off your nightie sweetheart, I’ll help you.”
It was always my naked flesh, this innocence that I’d had forever, unable to act any other way. So I never considered what I did, or how he reacted. I didn’t think twice about the situations I was in, and how he appeared, a silent ghost on the wind, waiting to help me.
“Aren’t you going swimming Anna?”
“I’m coming, just putting my suit on. It keeps getting stuck, the crisscross thingy in the back.”
“Here sweetie, I’ll help you. You’ve got it all tangled up. Here, take it off. All the way off. Okay, now turn around and step into it. There you go. You got it now.”
Where were my parents? Oh. Right.
He was always eager to help out, to babysit. Go out and have some fun, he’d say. Go see that movie, have some drinks, relax. I’ll stay with Annabelle.
“It’s okay Uncle Jon, I can do it by myself.”
“I know you can, Anna. Just humor me. If anything happened to you, if you slipped in the tub, if you hit your head and drowned to death, well, your parents would never forgive me.”
“Baby, I’ve seen it all before. Ain’t no big thing. Here, I’ll help you wash that long brown hair. It must be a pain in the ass to take care of.”
“Look, the bubbles are all in there, how fun is that?”
“Uncle Jon, I’m too big for a bubble bath.”
“Nonsense, honey. Your mama takes bubble baths. Go ahead and get undressed.”
I toss and turn. His hands on me. Were they supporting me, holding me up, helping me? Or were they trapping me, pushing me down, hurting me? The bad dreams. For so many years. Being chased in the dark, these horrible beasts, trees with long arms, pointy branches, scratching my skin, poking me in the back, poking me in places that were foreign in every way. I dreamt so hard that some mornings I swear there were cuts on my skin, band-aids I don’t remember. Drops of blood in my panties. I didn’t understand.
Tonight I lay in my bed, alone. Again. The fight is a distant blur of rust and bone. Years ago it seems. I have blood on my hands again, but it’s not my own. No details remain, only his hands on me. Supporting me, holding me up, helping me to undress. His breath rich with bourbon and beer. The walk to my apartment is short, only a step or two, straight to my bed, my clothes falling off me like leaves in an autumn breeze. This dance I am doing now, it is recreating the act, over and over again. Muscle memory. Laughter and hair tossing, a batting of my eyes, and his skinny wrists slip into the handcuffs, a leer creeping over his mouth. Salivating, eager, ready for me, it is this point in the dead of the night, the gap before dawn, that I slip the gag into his mouth, and start cutting. The blade is quiet, a gasp in the night, slicing at arteries, blood spurting as his back arches, screaming into the cloth. I grab hold of whatever I can, cutting it off, slashing deep, gouging the flesh, bathed in sticky syrup, my eyes wide, a stranger to myself.
The crisp white sheets are clean and I’m alone. Again. At peace with the darkness, my eyes closed.
The gravel in the parking lot crunches under my bootheels. The shadow at the door stands with arms crossed, dimly lit by the opening behind him. The muffled sounds of a thousand stomping feet beat behind the thick metal door, a bass drum thudding in sync with my heart.
“Hey Belle, what’s up,” he says.
He is a mountain of pale, white flesh, bald head littered with scripture, manicured goatee pointing to his chest. I stay with his eyes, watching the pupils jump, as my lips part into a grin.
“Hey Cane. Keeping you busy?”
“You know it. Good crowd tonight. The usual.”
“Nothing strange going on?”
“Not yet,” he says, eyes drifting down to my skintight jeans, the black half-shirt clinging to my curves.
“The night is young,” I say.
“True. You ready for tomorrow?”
“I don’t have to worry about you do I? I’ll close up the front and come hang if you want...”
“Naw, it’s okay...”
“...really I don’t mind. Fuck the rules.”
I push up against him. It’s like trying to hug a redwood. I’m a moth fluttering against an Aztec sun.
“I’m good,” I say, the hush barely carrying to him, as he leans over to soak up every syllable.
“Alright. I don’t wanna see you get hurt, baby.”
We stand still for a moment, him the extended overhang of a dilapidated old building, me the silent furry beast skittering about under the pillars. The door pushes open, letting out a hot rush of sweaty noise. A skinny kid in torn denim and piercings stumbles out, his pockets inside out, knuckles bloody, his gait askew.
“Go. Go on in. Prepare yourself Annabelle.”
I ease towards the door frame, leaving his eyes to wander my backside. I can feel his hunger creeping up my spine and consider for a moment the possibilities. No. Too close to home.
Down the long hall, through the boroughs I move, passing one neighborhood and into the next. A huddle of goth whores suck down cigarettes in the corner. A ring of skinheads flex muscles to the right. A pile of retards squat in their own urine. And a trio of flesh peddlers soak up the moonlight, glossy lips like forbidden apples. Closer to the ring the serious boys beat on the mat, leather jackets in black and brown. Bookies and pimps, cokeheads and stoners, MILFS on the prowl and young turks circling, toying with skinjobs.
I can see Michael in the ring. I’m in time. He glances over to me as I pass. I nod and head up the rafters. Eyes on the prize, Mike. Watch your back. Sensing his foe advancing, his head pivots back like a Mastiff tracking its kill. The skeleton halts.
Michael is a legend here. The fighters are mostly family. Furious fathers, beaten down brothers, rage filled husbands, champing at the bit. All ready to die to avenge somebody. Michael is different. He’s none of these things.
When they come up for trial, they’re given the choice. Jury or the ring. Most take the ring. There’s always the chance that nobody will oppose them. Some of the men, the beasts, they go free without ever stepping on the canvas. If they’re smart they go underground and are never seen again. You don’t have to stand in the daylight to peddle your wares.
I watch him go around and around. He’s built like a bulldog, short and squat with a massive neck. He wears these stupid tight black shorts. I’d say he looks gay if I didn’t like him so much. Trust him so much. Want him. So. Much. But he’s family. He’s not ripped, he’s solid. Big arms, the same girth all the way down. Tree trunks for legs. His chest is as deep as my shoulders are wide. Wider. Hairy as a bear. When his black eyes turn to me, I go cold. They always find me, no matter where I stand, no matter what violence is unfolding in the ring. We’re kin.
Michael is here every night. He stands in for the weary, the weak. The no-shows. And there are plenty. He used to be a cop, private dick, security. Other. I don’t ask anymore. He stands in for those that chicken out, and his beat downs are historic. He has levels. Depending on what you’re in for. It starts at broken bones, and descends from there for the murderers and rapists. The child molesters. Those never leave alive. They never go easy. He offered to take mine for me. I told him no. He understood.