The enlistment office was a stark white room, decorated with pre-fab, faux-wood furniture. A large green decal on the front window was the only real color in the place, apart from a dead looking fake palm in the corner. Ross had taken three different rails just to get to the industrial park where it was located. The recruitment officer offered to come see him, but Ross was eager for an excuse to get out. Now he could see why they would rather come to him; the place was a pit. “So you made the journey ok?” Ross nodded and shook the hand extended to him warily, the place smelled like a microwave dinner. “Sit down, sit down.” He thrust Ross jovially into a seat. “Now look kid, I read your file from your application, and I wanna be frank with you. You don’t got a lot of options, now usually I’d dress it up as why we’re a better option than going to college, but you aren’t going to school are you. But if you sign up, we’ll send you, guaranteed.” “Yeah, no, Yeah, no I know.” Ross nodded continuously.
It riled him to no end, being talked down to like this, but the man was right, he didn’t have any other options, not unless he wanted to go out on the streets, and he’d seen what that did to his parents. This was going to be the way to do something with his life. “And it won’t be all bad we’ve got a lot more than training to offer you. You used to box, we’ve got boxing, you’ll get to travel, not just to this world but well beyond. This isn’t just a path to a better life, this life is better and we’ll make you better for it.”
Ross couldn’t say he came out entirely convinced, but what options did he have, where could he go? He was a legal adult as far as the orphanage was concerned. He had an education but it was worthless, and he had no money. He didn’t want to beg his way through tech school just to come out unemployed and in debt. All he wanted was to get as far away as possible. Then he could worry about what to make of himself. Off planet was a bout as far away as he could get, and the military would feed him, and house him, maybe even give him an opportunity to do something exciting with his life. And after all, it’s not as if there were a war on.
He arrived at basic with everything he owned, it fit in a back pack. “So, I pulled out this knife, yeah. And I swear I woulda killed him… but the cops showed up, and that scared fucker ran off, left me to take the heat… So, who the fuck are you?” Ross realized the voice was in his ear, and not just yammering endlessly as it had been. He shrugged, waved the voice away absentmindedly. “Fuck do you care?” “Hey man, don’t be an asshole.” Ross turned finally toward the pestoring voice. It’s owner was a freckled, chinless, smalleyed kid. “Yeah, well I’m from _____.” “Where’s that? Is that like Florida or something.” “Nah, it’s an institution in _____.” “Oooh, so what? You some kinda hardass killa’ then?” “Yeah, that’s me, a real hardass killer.” “hahahah, yeah right.” Ross regretted it, too soon. _____ had a big mouth; a few days later and everyone was calling him the _____ killa. And he felt like an idiot. THe drill sargent even made him do an extra hundred pushups for trying to prove how much of a badass he was. But, for all that, Ross took it in stride, or tried to, he was used to life under control, under surveilance.
“PRIVATES, FALL IN.” Ross fell in, almost pavlovian in his response. Command and reaction, it had been his whole life. “YOU IGNORANT FUCKING RETARDS HAVE BEEN WITH US FOR THREE MONTHS NOW, AND GOD HELP US IF WE DON’T HAVE YOUR SORRY FUCKING ASSES FOR ONE MONTH MORE.” The drill sergeants menace was undermined by its consistency, he was never quiet, never at ease, at least not around them, eventually he became a consistent drone of demands; like listening to the world’s most angry computer lead you through a program installation.
The drill sergeant’s voice emerged out of the background, he was moving into full rhetorical swing. “NOW YOU FAGGOTS MAY THINK YOU’VE LEARNED A THING OR TWO SINCE YOU GOT HERE, AND GOD KNOWS I’VE TRIED TO TEACH YOU SOMETHING, BUT DON’T THINK FOR ONE FUCKING SECOND THAT YOU’RE READY FOR ACTION. I WOULDN’T TRUST A BUNCH OF LISTLESS FUCKING COCKSUCKERS LIKE YOU TO WASH MY FUCKING CAR. D’YOU HEAR ME?” “YES SIR.” Ross responded automatically; they all did. “NOW WE ARE GOING ON A RUN, A TEN MILE RUN, WE WILL COMPLETE THIS RUN IN FOURTY FIVE MINUTES, IF ANY OF YOU CANT FUCKING FINISH IN FOURTY FIVE MINUTES I’LL HAVE YOU RUNNING OUT THERE UNTIL YOU CAN DO IT TWICE. NOW MOVE YOU FUCKING FAGGOTS, MOVE.” “SIR, YES SIR.” His feet began to move automatically carrying the rhythm of the platoon, Ross let his mind run blank as his lips began to chant a suitably humorous song in time with his feet.
The drill sargeant’s words washed over him like so much noise. The man was somewhere around fourty, heavily built, with a grayed bristle-brush moustache. He was hard, but no worse than any of the others. Career military all the way. he was especially hard on ____, but that little shit was spineless, and he talked constantly. So the drill sargeant pushed him. And when he wasn’t around he had senior cadets push him.
And that was fine, they were all pretty good, mostly, they’d been green, raw recruits themselves once. They knew what the kid was going though, and they were’nt hard on him. Except one, _______, and he was a real bastard. A prep schol grad on the NCO fast track. He was untouchable, a general’s son, slumming it in administrationto put his time in before he could be promoted up the ranks. And he treated ______ like a personal slave, taking any opportunity to lay into him, but always out of sight of the drill sargeant. Whe he was chosen to run with ____, whenever ______ got his inevitable extra five miles to run, ____ would kick his feet out from under him at random.
Ross once saw him urinating on _____ while he was scrubbing toilets, taunting him, knowing he couldn’t do a damn thing about it, Ross knew he couldn’t do anything about it either. For his part _____ had learned to keep quiet about the tormenting. He’d complained a couple of times, at first, and _____ had even gotten in some trouble, if a good talking to can be called trouble, but that only made it worse the next time. ____ Had beaten him with a sack full of oranges and when he’d shown up to morning drills, staggering and whining, nobody had asked, but everyone knew, everyone except the drill sargeant, who’d made him run extra laps. It was just better all around if he took his licks and shut up about it.
Deep down Ross hated to see it happen, but it was deep down. This wasn’t anything new to him. He’d seen it all his life; there was always one kid who was going to get the shit end of everything, and he just had to be happy it wasn’t him. So he, like the rest of them ignored the tension even as it began to simmer and boil.
It was Thursday, Ross had been there three weeks. In that time ______ had drawn into himself. No longer chirpy, no longer a troublemaker, now quiet and brooding. Today was a good day though, they were taking target practice with the new ZS32s, it was the first exciting bit of training they’d had. Finally a chance to use something new, get their hands on the kind of technology they’d been promised when they’d enlisted.
The guns popped quietly as they squeezed off rounds, the compression stock dampening the kick to the dull thud of a reflex hammer. ______ was a terrible shot, unlike his personality that hadn’t changed, he was still incompetent. He always seemed to hit high or left, or right, or low, never on target. ______ patrolled the lines like a child playing at soldiers, Ross kept his head down, his cheek into the stock of the gun. In the back of his mind he knew what was coming, but the id is seldom a guide, and his ego had no idea.
____ watched calmly as _____ took aim down field, he breathed deeply as _____ breathed deeply and clenched his fists as ______ squeezed the trigger. The bullet went high and left. ______ stepped forward in an unexpectedly balletic motion and kicked _____ squarely in the jaw. His head snapped back like a pez dispenser. He turned, left hand clutching at the mess of blood that was his mouth and spat, a bit of tooth dislodging and finding a home on _____ pant leg. There was a blind rage in his features, something that had been growing in the depths of his soul, feeding off the hatred his tormentor gave him had been released.
Ross saw his eyes as the eyes of a dead man, past thought, past sense, operating on pure hate-fueled instinct. An instinct that spurred his body into action. _____’s gun swung up as the tentacle of a leviathan, rising from some unknown depth. Ross closed his eyes and light flashed behind his lids as he heard the shot.
When he opened them again ________ was standing over _____, arm extended, pistol in hand. _____’s face was frozen in the rictus of his rage, his head pouring blood in a rivulet from the gaping hole in the back of it. Ross retched, he couldn’t stop himself; and that was an end to it, all the mindless torment, all the tension and the fear. It shouldn’t have been. There were witnesses, and everyone knew how _______ had been harrassing ________, picking away at him. But, the inquiry didn’t see it that way, they didn’t know, they hadn’t been there.
______ had been a troublesome recruit, and if the drill instructor had been hard on him, it was because he’d had to be, he was preparing men for battle after all, they needed to be strong. Perhaps signs were missed, but such things can be hard to interpret; _______ didn’t have a history of mental instability, so they couldn’t be held responsible for not screening him better. And ______ was just following orders. He’d been told to keep after the kid, be hard on him. He’d gone too far, there was no doubt about it; overzealous in the execution of his duty and it would be a permanent black mark on his record. But that was it, this was only a black mark, and the thing about black marks was that over time they tended to fade.
Ross knew it was wrong, but that was pointless. Everyone knew it was wrong, right down to the defense attorney who high-fived ______ as the verdict was read. What he really learned, what stuck with him, was that this was what he was worth. This was the short distance he’d travelled from being a forgotten face in the social services system, to an infinitely replaceable toy; to be pushed and played with, used and ultimately destroyed and replaced. That was what he knew now. A final realization that he’d been lied to. He wasn’t important here, he wasn’t going to make his mark. He was just so much cannon fodder and he’d better get used to it because it wouldn’t change anytime soon.
Tommy woke with a shudder. He had always been a sound sleeper. Correction, he always used to be a sound sleeper. Work was getting to him. He had been sheltered, he knew that. His life to this point had been free of responsibility, free from pressure. And suddenly his father had died, and responsibility had been thrust upon him.
Tonight, for the hell of it, he’d tried to recapture his old life. He’d texted all of his old friends and when that hadn’t worked he’d had them sent for. It was admittedly a luxury and a bastard thing to do, but he was desperate, and desperate men couldn’t afford to care if their friends thought they were stuck up assholes.
So he’d had them sent for by men in big cars with black suits and quiet demeanors. And then he’d gotten well and truely drunk. He’d tried to get them drunk has well and they drank, but in the sips of men and women drinking to stay sober if at all possible. He’d taken them to a swanky upscale penthouse club, the kind they’d always wanted to get into, but couldn’t. Or at lest, he reflected, they were the kind he’d always wanted to get into. The kind of place where everything was black and silver and looks new no matter how old it is; where conversation flits like a sparrow from group to group, never rising too high, but never silent.
They’d hated it, most of them anyway. One or two had seen this as a sycophantic opportunity to ride his tails of success, and he’d hated them for it. Their blatant sucking up just alienated him more and pushed him further into the bottle. And now he was wide awake, and covered in sweat. Next to him lay some woman who’d only gone home with him out of pity and who he’d been to pissed to make use of anyhow.
He sat for a moment panting under the pale red light of the moon. He’d had a nightmare. his father had just died, he was at the funeral, and everyone was there. His mother, his grandparents, his friends… it felt like everyone he’d ever known was there and they were waiting for him to step forward and give the eulogy. But he wasn’t supposed to, he didn’t know what to say. And so they sat silently watching him, waiting. Finally, the priest turned to him and mouthed “Dig him up.” “No, no, it’s not my job.” He’d responded. But his voice was filled with uncertainty. “Dig him up. Dig him up.” Suddenly everyone was saying it…
And that’s when he’d woken up, clawing at the blankets like loose soil. He threw the blankets off, his unknown date mumbled at him and rolled over. He poured himself a drink, but couldn’t bring himself to drink it. So he just swirled it and stared into space, watching the swirling clouds and the moonlight that played between them. He couldn’t live like this, like some kind of god damned pariah; something would have to be done.
The gym, when he found it was a shoddy little run down wreck of a place. Ross was immediately nostalgic. The owner was a short, swarthy, Slavic looking man. He looked about 20 years older than he probably was. He greeted Ross warily, it was obvious that he wasn’t happy to have him here, but he had been asked by the sort of people who never ask. So, he’d do as he was told. Ross put his hand out jovially. ____ eyed it wearily.
“So, _____ sent you, huh?” “Well, yeah, I suppose. He said you’d give me a place to train; just for the week.” “Huh… yeah, I suppose. You have any training.” “Yeah, I boxed when I was younger, and I was in the military, so I’ve had some basic combat training too.” “Eh… It’s better than most.” He grabbed a set of shot through gloves off a shelf by the door and threw them at him. “You, show me what you can do.” He motioned to a barrel of a man listlessly beating a heavy bag. “Gregor!”
He pointed to Ross and Gregor cracked a thin smile and ambled over to the simple steel and hemp ring. He slipped through the ropes in one decidedly ceremonious gesture and squatted in the corner. Ross’s foot caught as he tried to get through the ropes, and he could feel his grip on the situation fading, his confidence abandoning him. He slapped his gloves together determinedly and began to walk toward the center as ______ struck the round bell.
Ross bobbed and weaved as he got his left arm into position. He’d been practicing with it for a while now, and while it wasn’t perfect, he knew it would do well enough. to cover he tried to turn his body sideways and bring his right hand across his face. it was more defensive and required him to be a little slicker, but he figured he could make it work against a gorilla like Gregor. He barely had time to duck out of the way when the first punch came. The man wasn’t fast, but he was aggressive. Ross locked his left arm out straight and held it in front of him. If he rolled his shoulder it was an ok, peppering jab, just enough to give him room to move.
Gregor tried to charge through it, but Ross was able to circle out and catch him with a right to the body as he stumbled past. Ross was feeling pretty good about himself; a few punches later he was bleeding from the mouth and feeling less so, but he was still on his feet. He’d kept his left arm locked out, but folded it now to just a little over a ninety degree angle. he stepped inside and ate a couple of punches, but that was all part of the plan.
Two, three, Ross brought his left arm around in arc. It was a good punch, clean, all form. And if his arm had been flesh and bone it would have wobbled the big man a bit, but as it was, all metal and plastic, he followed through without reservation. The crack was palpable, he could feel it in his feet, and Gregor fell like a statue, not so much crumbling as tipping in one stiff, succinct gesture.
Ross went to his knees immediately, trying to revive him, to make sure he would be all right. He cradled his neck while ______ talked to him in a steady stream of polish. He was out a whole five minutes, but he came around smiling and blinking. “It’s no good, he slurred, I won’t fight with you anymore.” ____ looked up at him. “You don’t have a lot of time,” he said clapping Ross on the shoulder and pulling himself to his feet, “but you’ll do ok.”
He drug Gregor to his feet and went to get a pair of boxing mitts. “Alright, I already see a problem with your form. Every time you throw your left hand you bring it down and then back up, and not straight back to the shoulder, we’ll try some combinations, and I want you to focus on that.” Suddenly Ross felt very much at home, it was strange he realized because over the course of his life, little felt familiar to him, but this, this was right and good and he wanted to make something of his time here more than anything.
Fighting was a drug for Ross, the adrenaline gripped him as only addiction can. Janet found herself spending all her time at the gym, watching him train, helping him when she could, even throwing the occasional punch; it was either that or stay home alone. She still felt the whole idea was impatient and stupid,but she didn’t have a better plan, even in the long term.
She found herself laughing at him as the circuitry of his arm would break under the repetitive strain and leave the limb flailing like a cite-specific seizure. Of course it was problems like these that made her all the more adverse to the whole idea itself. He looked good when he was under control, but the moment that damn arm went on the fritz he was a complete tragedy. But he’d taken the money up front and for better or worse they were both tied to this thing now.
The night before the fight, he was a complete wretch. His face was a sheen of cold sweat, he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, and if he thought about tomorrow to hard he started throwing up. He knew to expect some anxiety like this, it was normal, mostly, but he couldn’t help shaking the feeling that something was going to go horribly wrong. There was a setup in all this somewhere, and even though he couldn’t just put his finger on it the dread was weighing on him.
That morning he awoke early. He didn’t really remember sleeping, but he didn’t remember lying down in a cold pool of sweat either and since that’s what he woke up in, he knew he must have passed out at some point. He stared at the wall and thought about backing out, but he knew that wasn’t an option. Even if he gave all the money back, they’d see him as a cheat, and as soft, and they’d kill him.
Eventually he dressed, grabbed his coat, and left. He needed an insurance policy. Of all the people he wanted to avoid right now, this was probably one of a very few people who wanted to avoid him. Dr. _______ rolled out of the cot he kept in his surgery. It had already been a long day/night/morning. He’d spent most of it removing shards of glass from and sewing up the wounds of a pair of men who’d fallen through a window in the midst of a drunken brawl.
Treating them at the same time, in the same place had been a mistake. They’d kept trying to fight each other throughout the night, exchanging drunken insults until one became mad enough to get up and try and take another swing at his antagonist. _____’d tried to sedate them and keep them calm, but there aren’t many sedatives you can give to someone that drunk, at least ones that won’t likely kill them or make them psychotic.
He’d ended up with a knot on the side of his head and a bloody lip for his trouble, but he charged them twice, so in the end it was fair enough. Either way, though, he was in no mood to see anyone who wasn’t beating back the hands of death right now. So when he looked through his door and saw a perfectly healthy man leaning against the railing his Hippocratic Oath was a mere utterance. “Closed” he barked at the peephole and turned away. “Hey, hey, c’mon Doc. I just need a minute from you. It’s important.”
He took another look at the man and his frazzled memory snapped into order. “Hey, I remember you. Kid that was in that crash right?” “Yeah, that’s m…” “Fuck off, I told you to stay the hell way from me.” “Yeah, look, sorry, I know, but I don’t know no other doctors but you… Look, I can tell you what I need through the door. I want a pain killer, a strong one, but not something that’ll slow me down, ok… I can pay you cash all right?” “…That arm causing you trouble?” “No, no not that, I got this fight… boxing match, but I think there might be some sort of fix on. If there is, I want an edge.” “Sounds like a bunch of bullshit to me, Kid.” “Look, you helped me out, when not a lotta’ people would. I respect you, and I’ve tried to stay outta’ your way, but I need help, and there aren’t many people I can trust.” “Shit… Look, alright, but it’ll cost you three hundred. This is some serious shit, and it aint cheap.”
He opened the door a few inches, the chain was still on. “Give me the money and I’ll give you the drug.” “Hey, look, I’m not stupid…” “Don’t fuck around. I’m not gonn’a rob your dumb ass. Just pay me and I’ll get the drug.” Ross sighed and passed the money through the crack in the door. It was more than he’d hoped to pay, but less than he was willing. A few minutes later he held a small bottle, marked ______. “Hey, I can’t thank you enough…” He said as the door slammed and bolted in front of him. “Just stay the fuck away from here, you hear me?!” “Yeah, yeah… hey fights at _____’s bar and casino at ten tonight. You should come of you want to see me put this to good use.” “Just get the hell outta’ here.” Ross heard footsteps retreating and another door closing in the distance. And for a moment he stood, looking at the bottle in his hand, in the silence of a building full of people, in the early hours of the morning.
When he got back to his apartment, Janet was up. She chewed lazily at a piece of toast, it looked burnt. “Where were you off to, huh? Trying to talk your way out of this damn foolish freakshow?” Ross looked at her sideways from the kitchen. He wasn’t in a mood to lash out at anyone, he was too distracted. “I wanna get going soon, get to the gym and get everything together, just get moving. I’m too antsy to just sit around here all morning.”
He ran his hand over the fingerprint scanner and the door unbolted with a hollow thrum. Inside, empty in the early morning he was aware how tomb-like the atmosphere was. A shaft of greenish light cut through the dust motes from a high window. For a moment he felt like an intruder in some ancient temple. But the moment passed. He picked up a jump rope and spun it lazily, trying to loosen the tension in his chest. It worked for a few minutes until his electronic wrist joint got out of sync and left him tangled and cursing. He knew this wasn’t going to work. The whole thing was a shambles. He lay on the mat trying not to feel defeated already. The only thing he had to cling to was that he had to fight; there was no out, no second options. All told, though, that wasn’t much.
Ross and _______ stepped out into the noonday sun. He shielded his eyes against the glare, squinting out over the broken pavement. For a while they wandered, walking through the neighborhood and into the more developed suburbs closer to the center of town. She needed clothes, he bought her some clothes; a pair of athletic pants made from a plasticy, blue material, a t-shirt with an old, faded high-school sports team logo on it, some jeans, a sweatshirt. Everything was used, but it seemed clean enough; the whole store smelled of detergent and clothing, and dust.
A street vendor sold them some iced coffee and sweet rolls, but everything was too sweet and Ross threw his away only half eaten. ____ looked up at his as he returned from the trash can. “Lotta hungry people out there.” “Well, let’m eat from the trash then.” He was tired and losing patience in the heat. “Look, where are we going?” “Mmh.” He shrugged and kept walking, she followed after him.
Ross looked across his drink at Janet, and as always seemed the case, he was a little puzzled by what he saw, she drank through half her drink quickly, it was a strange pink concoction that Ross was almost sure was mostly food coloring. She was practically sucking it out of the glass, but stopped just at halfway and slammed the glass on the table, she shot him a slightly goofy grin, her teeth dripping pink. Ross looked at her glass, it had turned a slightly glossy black color. He twisted his lip in disgust and she laughed at him. She was making him feel stupid and a bit dull, but he tried not to care.
“So what was your plan dragging us out here?” “Look, I talked to _______, he said that ______ runs some underground betting, organizes some races, fights and stuff, and he runs a lot of his business through this bar.” “What here?… And you’re going to gamble your money away? That’s a terrible plan.” “No, no, it’s not like that…” “Well then, what? You know words got around. Nobody’s gonna hire you for nothin’ right now.” Ross looked down into his drink, he felt a little stupid. It wasn’t a good idea. He didn’t really want time to think twice. It was time to jump in with both feet, and damn the consequences.
Behind them, across the plate metal floor, pockmarked and coated with the residue of strange liquids as it was, a man stood up. He was short, slightly built, and even from a distance a certain manic excitement could be felt. He gave the impression of a small frog, sitting, waiting, ready to spring away the moment you got too close. He’d seen Ross and Janet come in, heard them ask the bartender about him, watched as Ross’ stocky, muscular form stalked across the room, Janet’s gaunt, strung out frame pulled behind him like a buoy in a wake. He drank Ross in, his hands trembling a little in the excitement, in the playing of the game.
Ross was exactly what he was looking for. Muscular, predatory, and the fake arm glinted at him like a jewel. Everyone loved the freak angle. He’d heard from _____ that Ross was coming here, was looking for him. Otherwise he’d never have been here. he liked to think that he’d risen above doing business in dingy little pits like this. The ______ was one of a number of ___s, as they were called. Signless, unremarkable little bars, they dotted the streets, often being pulled down and rebuilt every few months or at most after a year or two to prevent drawing too much interest from the patina of law enforcement. The bars were often named, if at all, after anyone who died there. This particular establishment was built out of a string of abandoned and stolen construction equipment, most of it left behind by one of the early development firms, before organized crime moved in. It was covered with an old sheet of tin, the name Interplanetary Construction could be faintly seen stamped in big letters. The chairs were mostly broken, the tables all wobbled. It was a desperate hole, but as such a good place to conduct business especially if you were looking for desperate people.
_____ had used it for a while to run a few side bets and stay off everyone’s radar. But in a place like _______ that was impossible to do for too long, and one morning, he’d woken early, facing a serious choice, either go corporate, or lose his feet at the ankles. Some decisions are easier than others. He still ran illegal rackets now, but with approval, and a budget and a whole lot more fingers in the pie.
Today he was wearing a suit, silver sharkskin. In that bar, on him, it made him look like a prat. Ross heard his boots clicking across the sheet metal floor, ticking like a clock. Before Ross could turn and see who it was the man slid a chair around and pulled it up to their table. He sat straddling it leaning on the seat back. Small as he was he looked like a child trying to pass a note in class. “I hear you’ve been lookin’ for me.” Ross looked incredulous, the woman sitting across from him snorted derisively. _____ ignored her. “You look good kid, strong. What are you, about a hundred and eighty, maybe ninety pounds?” “Close enough.” Ross tired to sound dismissive, but _____ could here the tension in his voice. “What happened to your arm kid?” Ross shrugged. “I like the way it looks.” “Ha ha ha… That’s a good one, kid. I bet you do. You any good with that thing?” The attention was making him more uncomfortable, already he was beginning to think this was not a good idea. “I’m good enough.” he realized he was starting to sound a little stupid, but ______ just clapped him on the shoulder, and laughed. “Just what I wanted to hear.”
He flipped open a small steel case with a picture of a naked woman straddling a sports bike on it and handed Ross a business card. “Look, you meet me here tomorrow,” he pointed to his address in the corner “and we’ll make a deal. Bring your girlfriend; she can watch you make something of yourself.” He tried to brush back her hair and she spat at him, but missed. “Ha ha, see you tomorrow kid. Eleven AM, sharp.” “The fuck is that guy? What’s he want you to do anyway.” Janet was lived, or as lived as someone who doesn’t really care what’s going on can be.
“Okay look, he’s not just a bookie, he runs some fights too, unlicensed, take all comers. If I can win, they’ll pay. A coupl’a fights, and we’ll have enough money to get a better place, maybe even find a way off this rock.” Now it was her laughing at him. “Off… altogether. For what? You wanna go be poor someplace else.” Ross looked a little hurt. “I don’t know, but I need a future, and I’m pretty sure it aint here. Hell I’d rather try and re-enlist if I didn’t think they’d just throw me in jail. Any thing’s better than spending the rest of my life as some asshole’s flunky.” He looked over at her, but she had her eyes in her drink. “Everybody works for someone. Even when I was living with Steve, in that fucking hole, I was his and he was yours. It’s a nice thought, but that’s all it is.” With that she drank the rest of her drink, stood up, and walked out.
The next day, it was ten thirty and Ross was early. The office was in a little building, bright red, black trim, shiny in a street that seemed like it was entirely shiny, nameless and faceless offices. It looked new, new and cheap. He could see where the paint was already peeling at the corners, and the door rattled as he opened it. A mousey secretary sat in the front office and sucked her teeth at him impatiently, eventually _______ just poked his head out his office and called him back. _____ led him to a chair and sat down behind his desk. He plopped down in a sleek chair that was all tight fabric and sharp angles and watched him like a weasely dragon from atop its horde; absolutely predatory.
“Nice place you got here.” Janet said, keeping her sarcasm plain and honest. Ross sighed a little, but it all went right through _____ as he leaned forward and took Ross’s outstretched hand and shook it. “not bad for a small town crook, eh?” He beamed as though he’d just said something clever, and tried to look benevolent. “But hey, I don’t want to bore you. You’re here for business after all, right?” Ross hesitated. “Yeah… look, I…” “Hey, let me just tell you, I spoke to ______ last night. Word’s out on the street about you, you’re a big deal right now. A lotta people are interested in seeing you give some punk a beating in there.”
“Or get one.” That was Janet, she was picking at her nails distractedly. _______ looked affronted. “Are you kidding me, half of these guys are fucking smackheads, looking for enough money for a fix. You’ll rip ‘em apart. In fact, just because I’ve got faith in you, ______ told me to give you a few grand up front. Think of it like a loan against you showing up. Now I know you need this, so don’t try and tell me you’re not gonna take it. Just pick it up, and show up at ______ on the seventeenth before eight PM. Oh, and stop by ____’s down on fifth, he says he’d be willing to let you in his gym for a week to get ready.” Ross looked sideways at Janet, but she was still preoccupied with her nails. He looked back at ____, who was silently beckoning him to take the money and fuck off.
Finally he sighed, shrugged, and reached over and snagged the money, dragging it across the desk and into his pocket as he walked toward the door. As he put his hand on the handle _____ called out to him. “Ross, you remember, I know who you are, ______ knows where you live, and there are more than a few people who think you’ll be more trouble than you’re worth. So keep your head down, do as you’re told, and be damn sure you fuckin’ show up to fight.” Ross froze for a second, but didn’t turn around. “Yeah, I’ll be there, donchou worry.” “I’m not the one who needs to be worried, kid.”
It wasn’t hot out, but Ross was sweating as they got back out on the street. “Idiot.” Janet sounded spiteful. Ross tried to reason with her. “Hey, this’ll keep us on our feet. Besides, you got a better idea?” “It’s still damn foolish.” “Look, one, maybe two fights, win or lose, easy money. No big deal.” Janet just sighed and walked off ahead of him. “What? I’ll be fine, I’m sure.” But she wasn’t listening. And he was left to hurry after her.
He went to JJ’s Sports Bar and Grill. It was an old, rundown little dive (or at least as old as anything could be out here). It looked like it had started life as a fast food restaurant and had been continually re-purposed until it was bought up cheap. Ross could see where the old windows had been walled up, now just vauge outlines in the stained stucco exterior. Beer signs glowed invitingly over the door, promising that for all the bleak exterior there was a party waiting. He paused at the door and caught himself holding his breath. If he went to _____’s house they’d throw him out, or worse. So he was here at JJ’s. As he walked through the door, the ______, stepped out from behind the bar and pulled him aside.
“Look, you can’t be around here man. I’m gonna give you this, and that’s all you’re gonna git for that shit you pulled. _______ says you better lay low, you keep your head down for a while and they’ll help you out, you get yourself in trouble, you get out in public too much, and they’ll make sure you go down alone.” “Yeah, I got you, man.” “See that you do.” Ross left, and again he could hear it in ___’s voice. He didn’t care if Ross went down, just as long as he didn’t make trouble for the club, just as long as he was safe.
Ross was just another dumb thug to him; more trouble than he was worth. If he really looked at it, if he’d ever had enough time to stop running and really think about it, Ross would have realized that this was the point where all things started to change. He knew that he wouldn’t be the most welcome sign in the world, but ____ outright disdain was a warning. He wasn’t wanted, and as a street soldier, unwanted had a short shelf-life. At the moment, though, he was hungry and scared and he just wanted to get home and lay low a while.
Ross returned to his apartment a couple hours later. He would have been back sooner, but he wanted to walk, clear his head for a while. _____ was there, on the couch, dozing; in front of her the TV hummed away, a relentless stream of chatter. He sighed and turned it off. Ross brushed her arm, “Here, lunch.” she started a bit, and sat up, trying to look eager, but really only looking groggy. “Ugh, thanks.” She was still trying to clear her head. “Hey, don’t worry ’bout it kid, you look like you could use a good meal or thirty.” She glared at him a little, but even she had to admit that she was pretty sickly at this point. An hour later he stood on the balcony, smoking and staring out at the dead streets. It’s not that people weren’t out, occasionally a car would roll by, electric motor humming silently, music, blaring into the night.
People walked lazily to unknown destinations, shouting, arguing, laughing, and crying, all into the night. But they only served to mask the emptiness of it all. Everywhere buildings sat in a state of decay, people didn’t live there, they infested it like rats in a landfill. He looked over and _____ was standing next to him. “What happened to your arm.” she said poking the elbow joint. He looked down flexing it slightly.
“Crash, feels like a long time ago, but it wasn’t really. Smoke?” “Mmm… yeah.” He lit a cigarette and passed it to her. They leaned against the railing smoking silently. “You could…” he started, but she cut him off. “I could stay if you wanted, help you out. I’d like to stay, I don’t want to be alone.” She moved towards him, and brushed his arm softly. He sunk away from her. You can stay if you want, but you better work, I’m not gonna take you in trade.” “Fucking asshole.” But she said it under her breath, and stalked back into the apartment.
By the time he came back inside, she was asleep on the couch again. “What the hell am I gonna do with you?” But he said that under his breath as well. The next day he woke to the smell of something cooking. He rolled over lazily, and then his eyes popped open as he realized it was the smell of something burning. He ran into the kitchen just in time to see _____ tip a pan of grease and burned bread into the sink. “So, cooking’s out?” He tried to give her a wry smile, but blanched under her returned gaze. “Look just what the hell do you want me to do. You don’t wanna fuck, I can’t cook, and I sure as shit ain’t gonna get a job anytime soon.” “Alright, alright, look just stick it out for a little while, we’ll figure something out, for now lets go get a bite to eat.” He gave the pan a last mournful look and went to sit on the couch and wait while she got ready.
Ross and _______ stepped out into the noonday sun. He shielded his eyes against the glare, squinting out over the broken pavement. For a while they wandered, walking through the neighborhood and into the more developed suburbs closer to the center of town. She needed clothes, he bought her some clothes; a pair of athletic pants made from a plasticy, blue material, a t-shirt with an old, faded high-school sports team logo on it, some jeans, a sweatshirt. Everything was used, but it seemed clean enough; the whole store smelled of detergent and clothing, and dust. A street vendor sold them some iced coffee and sweet rolls, but everything was too sweet and Ross threw his away only half eaten. ____ looked up at his as he returned from the trash can. “Lotta hungry people out there.” “Well, let’m eat from the trash then.” He was tired and losing patience in the heat. “Look, where are we going?” “Mmh.” He shrugged and kept walking, she followed after him.
An interesting thing happened at UFC 133. Namely, Dennis Hallman wore these. They’re pretty silly looking, there’s no denying that. And there were a couple of times, when the fight was in certain positions, and the cameras were at specific angles, where Hallman looked pretty much naked.
It was definitely worthy of note, and it was noted; first by announcers, then by pundits, and finally by Dana White himself. I’m not saying that this outfit should have been supported, it’s fairly stupid looking, but the level of revulsion it received was disappointing, if unsurprising.
While I wouldn’t call it direct or absolute homophobia, there seemed to be a lot of “Oh god, it’s a nearly naked man, sick.” going on, and it’s time we were past that.
If this were a swimming event no one would bat an eye at a man in a speedo, or similarly skimpy bathing suit, and yet somehow the unexpected nature of it in the ring vaults it from merely surprising to absolutely revolting.
Of course what makes such semantics blindingly ridiculous is that fact that these fighters are surrounded by women in swimsuits waving cards around. Is there a beach somewhere, were they pulled from a swim meet? No, and yet somehow the image of a woman in a tiny bathing suit has become so normalized that one could show up anywhere and garner little more than a brief ogle.
It’s the sort of obvious double standard that makes me marvel at the power of conditioned stupidity. Like I said I don’t necessarily support Hallman’s suit (although he did it after losing a bet, which I think is pretty great) but he looked no more vulgar or out of place than any of the women bouncing around him, and any reaction that suggests otherwise speaks more to the need to reinforce traditional views of masculinity than it does appropriate fashion sense.
She headed straight for the shower, shrugging of her clothes unceremoniously. Ross was taken aback, first by her brevity, and then by her body. She might have been pretty once, but she was trending toward starved and her arms, and legs were a network of tell tale scarring and bruising. She appeared to have several sores, all in all, she was a total mess. He could understand why a shower would be the first thing she’d want. All he heard at first, was the thin drizzle of water, the pressure was always a bit weak. But eventually he could hear her humming softly, a sad sort of tune, not particularly special, but the sort of song that leaves a few bars stuck in the back of your mind. He sat down on the sofa and turned on the television.
He watched for a minute, as a smiling man explained how his sex life was better than ever now that he’d finally bought a new watch. The channel was mid episode of “City of Angels” a reality show about people becoming home care nurses in LA. He turned it off and lay back, trying to get his head straight. He thought about talking to Johnny and meeting _____, how she’d helped him get out of trouble… trouble…
Suddenly he snapped up off the couch, a tore off all his clothes, he’d forgotten that he was still had Johnny’s blood on his hands, that he’d killed him only a few hours ago. He stuffed his clothes into a garbage bag and started washing his hands. He knew he’d need a shower too, but that’d have to wait. He called ______, “Been waitin’ for you, Man. Heard about what you did to John. You gotta lay low ____ isn’t cool with this shit, you here me.” Ross felt a moment of panic as his pulse raced. “Yeah, yeah, I hear you man. Look I didn’t want it to go down like that, motherfucker was disrespecting me… I just snapped.” “Don’ matter now man, just lay low, you get caught, you go down for this, you hear.” _____ didn’t sound too angry, just blunt, uncaring; everyone sounded uncaring _____, Johnny, _____ .
Deep down he knew that’s what had set him off, got his blood boiling. No one cared, everyone knew how their lives were going to play out, and no one cared. He wanted to get off this rock more than ever, get out of this ghetto, but he needed to put money away, and he needed to stay safe, and if he didn’t play by the rules he knew neither of those things were very likely. _____, here, now, was still a part of it all, caring no more about what he did with her, than anyone else, just happy to have a warm place to stay for a while, but she helped him, and he owed her, and at least it was something.
That night Ross sat by a barrel in an underpass, he was burning his clothes. He knew nobody would look twice at another homeless guy trying to stay warm, and he wanted to make sure there were nothing but ashes left. He’d cleaned up his apartment as best he could, but if the police got that far he was fucked anyway. _____ was waiting back at his apartment, he was going to bring some burgers back for them, she was half-starved, anything was a feast at this point. Ross wandered back into the neighborhood, half looking for _____ he supposed to get some money for taking care of Johnny. They’d told him five grand, but after things went wrong he knew he’d have to take whatever they gave him.