My nerves have been on edge since I saw that girl from school at the entrance to the bar. She recognized me and that's the worst thing that could have possibly ended up happening.
I sigh and wrap up my knuckles, bouncing up and down on the tips of my toes and moving my neck from side to side to relieve the tension. I can hear people outside of the small prep room. The pressure of a new fight weighs down on me, but I push it aside, using it as momentum.
The door opens and I look up, nodding at Ethan as he walks in and sits down in the corner.
"Carl's not happy," he says.
I nod again. "No, he's not."
"Did he say anything to you?" Ethan asks.
I shake my head, resting my feet flat on the ground. "No," I say. "He's said nothing. Almost like he doesn't even know."
Ethan blows out a breath. "Except he does."
"I know," I snap, turning around to face him. His face is stern. "I know. There's nothing I can do about it, Ethan. What's the point in constantly going over it? Carl knows I want to quit and he probably hates me for it. There, the end. Done."
Ethan opens his mouth to answer but another voice cuts in. "Now, I wouldn't exactly say I hate you."
My body tenses. Carl stands in the open doorway, leaning against the frame. He's a small guy, not very muscular or tall. He's not lethal in his body power but instead his powers are more psychological than physical.
"You're one of my best guys," Carl says. "I can't hate you. Be angry at you, yes. Want to hit you, yes. Want to kill you . . . yes." I swallow, and Carl wipes his forehead. "But I don't hate you."
"Well, I'm here now," I say.
"And for how long is that?" Carl asks, his eyes glowing with sadistic humor. "Is that until one day you decide it's time and no longer show up to your fight?"
"I didn't realize I was under a contract," I say with hostility.
"No," Carl says, "you're right. You're not under any contract or obligation or oath. But that doesn't mean that you can just get up and walk away."
"Why not?" I ask tightly.
Carl sighs and steps forward, letting the door shut lightly behind him. He stops directly in front of me, his arms crossed over his chest. He leans in close to my ear. "Because you make me money. People don't give a shit about one big guy hitting another anymore. One big buy being beaten to a pulp by a smaller kid . . . now that's entertainment. You're bringing in the big bucks, kid. And if you fuck this up for me by trying to get out . . . " Carl places a cold hand on my bare shoulder. "I'll ruin you."
A chill sweeps down my spine and I straighten up. Carl opens the door and walks out. The small, almost silent click of the door behind him makes my blood run cold.
I look over at Ethan and he shakes his head at me. "I said it wasn't gonna be easy."
I let out a deep breath and finish wrapping my knuckles silently. I don't say a word to Ethan as I finish and then I walk out the door, slamming it behind me.
In the main room outside there are people everywhere and the smell of sweat and alcohol is overpowering my senses. I walk past a few people, having to shove a little and I hate the feeling of their clothes pressing against the bare skin of my arm. A few people fight with their shirts on but in the end, there isn't much point. Either way, their fist is going to leave a bruise. So you either hide behind clothing or just let the punch hit you. Perhaps that makes me immediately seem weaker as I walk out in a thin, white shirt.
A fight has just finished and a man limps off having been shoved onto the ground and then kicked continuously. I grimace as he walks past me, his face twisted in pain and his body slouching from the hits. I keep walking and stand at the side of the circle of people watching. I can smell alcohol on their breath and I glance over at the little place in the corner where Jonah is selling beer for twice as much as we bought it for.
People clap me on the back and I walk forward, standing inside the circle as everyone talks around me. I sigh and roll my neck again, releasing the tension. There's too much tension inside me and I don't like it, my body feels tight and uncomfortable. Usually I give myself more time to just relax and let go but today I was short on time and now I'm paying the consequences.
My opponent appears on the other side of the circle. He's a little bigger than me, but otherwise he's average, not too hard to take down. It should be a quick and simple fight. I nod but he doesn't acknowledge me and I frown a little but don't have time to overthink it because everyone is shouting for the fight to start.
I move forward, letting him get the first hit and when he reaches his arm back to hit me in the face, he smirks and his left hand suddenly comes out from the side and his fist slams into my gut. I cough and bend over immediately, the pain hitting me full on. My entire body coils in on itself. I straighten up and look at the man and see Carl behind him, eyes steady on mine.
I take a step back, and so does my opponent. I surge forward and manage to get a hit on the man's cheek and stomach but then he pulls back and slams his elbow right into my face. I grit my teeth and stumble back. My breaths are heavy and I feel myself weakening. I know that my heart isn't in the fight and I now feel like it never will be.
I want to leave, I want to be done with fighting. I look at Carl again and his eyes are dark and full of anger. But it's calculated, precise and not too harsh. He's playing with me and I know it.
My opponent moves in front of me, and it's obvious Carl told him he can bash me in as much as he wants. I take a deep breath and we're at it again. This time I get a hit in a second before he can react and he stumbles back as I kick him right in the gut, sending him to the floor. I kick him over and over as the people around me chant and applaud. I feel blood dripping down my nose and my body aches. My muscles are weak and my spirit is dead.
I send one last kick to my opponent's side and he raises a hand in surrender. I stagger backwards to the other side of the circle. My breathing is too hard and fast and my chest hurts with every intake.
I catch Carl's eye as he stands at the back of the room, arms crossed over his chest and face blank. We stare at each other for a moment until he turns away and walks off. I look down at the floor as my arm is raised in the air in victory, and see my opponent lying there, bloody and broken.
I push past the crowd without bothering to collect my pay. Ignoring Ethan, I pick up my bag and get out of there as fast as I can. My heart is beating erratically and the image of the body on the ground makes me feel sick.
Walking out into the cold, night air, I look down at the blood on my shirt and finally break when I realize most of it isn't mine.
You can follow my socials at EllieSPindolia on twitter, and authorelliesita on Instagram!
(French edition of my book ASK AMY is available in bookstores in France and online retailers outside France)
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