“Hit him in the vagina!”
Yes, that’s actually what someone in the audience shouted as Neil Reed and I, two guys over six-feet tall and weighing more than two hundred pounds, circled each other in the ring. The guy who’d offered his unsolicited advice was an asshole, just one of many who’d paid three hundred bucks to watch an illegal, no-holds-barred, underground bare-knuckle boxing match in the basement of some shit hole in downtown LA. Reed and I were the evening’s entertainment, but I used that term loosely. Because while Reed and I were normally well-matched, able to duke it out long enough to put on an admirable show, that obviously wasn’t going to be the case tonight.
In simple terms, I was getting my ass kicked.
My head snapped back when Reed punched me, and I felt the skin over my right eye split open.
“What the fuck’s your problem, Ninety? Pull it together, man!”
It was a different voice I’d heard in the crowd just then. Encouragement coming from a fan who didn’t understand why I—nicknamed Ninety because of my unparalleled ability to knock out most of my opponents (Reed being the rare exception) in ninety seconds—was currently hugging the ropes to stay standing.
“Shane, hit me, you motherfucking asshole. What the fuck’s wrong with you?” Reed hissed at me even as he punched me in the face again. My guard flew out of my mouth and I hung my head, too weary to hold it up any longer.
I knew why Reed wanted me to hit him back. There was a recruiter from the UFC here, though of course no one would ever officially admit it. Reed’s afraid if he takes me so easily, the fight will look rigged. And then the Ultimate Fighting Championship recruiter wouldn’t take him seriously. Yet another person I’m letting down. The list was growing ridiculously long.
I’d thought I could do this tonight. I’d needed to do it. It’s my first fight since the accident three weeks ago, and there’s a lot riding on it—my pride, yes, but more importantly a pretty big pot, one I needed to get my younger sister Jenna out of the shit-hole nursing facility my aunt and uncle had put her in and into someplace decent.
But I couldn’t even do this right. I’d won fight after fight over the past few years, but I could barely lift my arms now. They felt covered in cement, and my mind was just as weighed down by an odd combination of numbness and grief. Reed’s blows were barely noticeable anymore, and I wanted to shout, Hit me harder, you cock sucker. Make me bleed. Make me fucking feel something. Anything but this.
But I don’t. I can’t.
My vision blurred around the edges, and I felt the rope I’d been clinging to slipping from my hands. I’m going to pass out and Reed is going to take the title and I’m going to be carried out of here like the loser I am. I should drop now. Make it easy on myself. Make sure he doesn’t beat me into a coma because, fuck, wouldn’t that just be the ticket.
Imagine the headlines now.
Brother responsible for his sister being in a coma is beaten into a coma himself.
Reed whipped my head back and forth with the force of his punches, yet amazingly, I felt myself smile at the lunacy of my thoughts.
“What are you smiling at, asshole? You think this is funny? You won’t be laughing when you’re in the hospital drinking through a straw unable to keep watch over your sisters anymore. They’re growing up to be quite the hotties, Shane, especially the youngest. What’s her name? Molly, right? I think while you’re in the hospital, I’ll pay her a visit. What do you think Molly will do when I fucking bend her over and fuck her in the—”
At Reed’s words, the world suddenly came into crystal clear focus and something inside of me snapped. With a bellow of rage, I lashed out with a wild punch, connecting squarely with his jaw and sending him stumbling backwards. It gave me just the opening I needed. In three seconds, I was on him, the cement covering my arms now being put to good use.
I landed a blow. Then another. Then another. Before I knew it, neither one of us was standing anymore. There was a roaring in my ears that was almost deafening.
Bastard thought he could threaten my sisters?
Not so long as I had breath inside me.
Thump, thump, thump.
Sweat dripped into my eyes, or maybe it was my own blood, and pain radiated from my fists but I didn’t stop landing punches. Then I felt someone pulling at me, trying to drag me away, and I fought him too.
“Mother fucker,” I chanted in time with my punches.
Over and over I said it.
Swearing at Reed—swearing at myself—until suddenly I felt a blow to my head and everything went dark.