It’s the top of round three in a four round fight. You’ve never been knocked out before, but when a vicious uppercut connects with your chin, you wonder if you’re about to find out how it feels. Your mind fights for control of your body. Your knees wobble.
Ten minutes ago, you saw Olympic gold. You saw yourself standing triumphant over the broken body of Vicki McCauley. Now the fight isn’t even halfway to the finish and you’re seeing stars. How could you gas so early? Your cardio routine is insane. How can you get hit like this? You’ve fought Vicki before. You know firsthand she only has one deadly punch. How can you fail to hit her? You’ve studied her fights so much in recent weeks, her body is practically a celluloid extension of your own. Physically, you’re the superior. You’re faster, stronger, and pack more muscle. Mentally, though, Vicki is a beast. You realize your strength means shit against a cerebral fighter like Vicki, one so remarkable in her plan of attack. Every punch feels scripted, like she’s a goddamn playwright. Or a ventriloquist. She moves, you move, and she puts you right where she wants you. That’s how good she is. At the end of round two, you’re positive you can’t lose another round or the fight’s hers. Houston tells you to get inside and keep your jab in her face. It won’t earn you many points on the score card, but it’ll teach her to respect your space. Then you can set to work chiseling away at her. You nod, gasping for water. The bell to begin round three dings and suddenly you have a taste for blood. You feel stronger now than you did before the fight. You do what you always do when the cards are down. You let your pain be a fortress.
You chose this for survival. You never did this for the glory or the status or the money. No, you chose this so that the next time someone tried to mug your ass or hurt your baby sister, you could fight back. Survival. But something happened between then and now. You find yourself floating amidst bright lights and screaming blurs that are probably human faces but might be indications that one of your retinas has detached. You’re gassed. It’ll require all your strength and more just to stay standing for the remainder of the fight. Besides, your opponent has never been knocked down in her career. You’ve faced her once before. She beat you then. She’ll beat you now. The difference? If you lose here, your shot at the Olympics ends now and forever. You’re eighteen and will likely never get another chance. Those dreams of a gold medal, they’ll be gone. But is that really what you did this for? No, you think, as you keep swinging, dodging, bobbing and weaving. You’re dog tired, know she’s almost broken you, but you’re not sloppy. Your mechanics have never failed. Your heart, that’s another story.
A year ago, you ran away from the foster home in Riverside, only to be returned when a knife wound landed you in the hospital. Some wannabe gangsters had tried to rob you, and you lashed out. That was your first realization that your skills inside the ring would not always protect you outside of it.
You were raw talent, fury, survival. Shit for brains and lazy, but that didn’t matter yet. You’d destroyed the competition in regional tournaments, placing no worse than third in your weight class since strapping on a pair of gloves at the age of thirteen, when you first walked into PAL and asked to fight, when you still lived in Bakersfield. You, a shy little girl living in a world of hurt. With the proper training regimen, you’d be unstoppable, a beast.
It was in the foster home that you first began thinking seriously about the Olympics. If you qualified and went on to take the gold at eighteen, not only could you claim Shelly as her legal guardian—which you’d be doing either way, regardless of results—you could give her a life outside Cottonwood and foster homes. Show her the good life. Buy a car, a home. Send her off to college. Be a real loving family together. You saw it crisp as a movie in your mind, you returning home every night, still sweaty from the gym, Shelly studying at the kitchen table. Maybe you’d order pizza and watch a movie together, or maybe you’d just chill.
This fight, it’s in Denver. Maybe that’s why it feels like you fall a mile when you drop. All you know is, one moment you’re in the fight, gassed and still down on the cards but confident, keeping that jab in her face. Then the next thing you know you’re scraping your screaming bones off the canvas. You’re crying because you’re through with acting tough, with putting on a mean face. There will be no Olympics, and that means your dreams are finished.
Yeah, she broke you.
Houston ushers you into the locker room, where he makes you look him in the eye. “You fought like a warrior,” he says, “but sometimes warriors have to lose. Listen, you fought hard. There’s nothing more you can ask for.”
“But what am I gonna do?” You’re sobbing, uncertain whether your words are comprehensible or buried in the briny mush of tears and snot, the bruises swelling your face.
Houston hears you. He always does. “You’re gonna fight. You’re gonna find a job, enroll in community college, and continue to fight.”
“I’m done fighting.”
“You can do that too.”
The next day, you fly back to Bakersfield with Houston.
You stand with Houston in silence by the conveyor belt in baggage claim. This is when the idea comes.
“I want to visit Shelly tomorrow,” you say. Houston had arranged for you to stay in his home—a two bedroom bungalow where he lived with his wife and three kids—for two nights, a Friday and Saturday, following the fight. Everything will work out, if only he says yes.
“I’ll think about it,” he says, which with him usually means yes.
You spend the evening watching horror movies in the living room. Houston takes his family out for Mexican food, but you decline the invitation to join them. You cook a frozen pizza for dinner, but three bites in you turn flush and blasts of heat and white light glaze over you. Your stomach flips like the time you ate an entire roll of Dramamine and you rush to the bathroom, dodging punches from phantoms that look like Vicki McCauley the whole way. You throw up in the sink and feel better.
When Houston returns, he sits beside you on the couch and hands you the keys to his old Datsun pickup. “Be back by dark,” he says. “And just so you know, I’m proud of you. I’m proud of the way you fought.”
You go to sleep and dream about your sister, the life you’ll soon have together.
In the morning, you leave at daybreak.
You stop for coffee at McDonald’s but as you’re sitting in line at the drive-thru you decide you don’t need it, and when your turn comes up to place an order, you say, “I don’t want anything.”
The drive-thru employee fails to understand and repeats: “Welcome to McDonald’s. May I take your order?”
“I said I don’t want anything, bitch.”
You slam your fists against the steering wheel, screaming, “I don’t want anything! I don’t want anything!” But there’s two cars waiting for their orders in front of you, so you say, “Okay, gimme a hash brown.”
You’re in tears as you pay for your lone hash brown. The cashier looks at you strangely, but you don’t care.
You toss the hash brown out the window as you hit the freeway on-ramp.
Eighty-five miles-per-hour puts you in Visalia before eight in the morning.
You should have called ahead to let Shelly’s foster home know you’re coming, but when you arrive, they don’t hassle you about it. After all, you’re her sister and you drove all this way. They give Shelly leave for the day as long as you return her by six o’clock. Enough time to get far away from this place.
Shelly is surprised to see you. At first she looks delighted, then a nervous expression crosses her face. You give her the biggest hug of your life, not because you miss her, but to silence her.
She doesn’t ask about your recent bout. She never asks about your life. You’re sisters and you mean the world to each other, but that doesn’t mean she has to give a rat’s ass about what you do. The bond between you stems from a common, anguished history. Yours is a love forged by the endurance of pain, not mutual experience or talking about your problems.
“So where’re we going for lunch?” she asks in the car.
“North of here,” you say. “Way north.”
That’s when Shelly finally gets it. “We’re not coming back, are we?” she says.
“No, we’re not.”
You hit the highway to the coast, the one James Dean died on, slicing through arid mountains and cow pastures.
Shelly shrugs off your attempts at small talk. You attempt to turn on the radio but remember it’s broken. The silence should be comforting. Instead it hurts your heart.
Maybe you’re not paying attention. Maybe you are. All you know is one moment the clouds open up and light spills down in white rays that stab into the ground like swords of angels and the next, a car in the oncoming lane cuts into your lane, attempting to pass another car. The gap is too narrow. They’ll never make it, and that means neither will you.
“Hold on!” It’s your voice and you turn the wheel, sharp and to the right, hitting the hard dirt at the edge of the road and then overcorrecting, back onto the highway, but instead of evening out the truck’s tires catch on the lip of the road and the truck jerks hard to the right, through a barbwire fence, tumbling end of over end.
The truck rolls once.
The truck rolls twice.
The roof caves in.
The windows shatter.
The truck stops right-side up in a field and the sun pours down so thick, you can feel the warmth rolling down your forehead like honey.
A cow stares at you with one big eye.
It turns its head and you see its other eye is missing.
The one-eyed cow can’t see you now.
You think that’s kind of funny.
You laugh a little at the one-eyed cow.
You laugh like you and Shelly are children again, back home, in that one year when everything was good.
“Shelly,” you say, “look at that cow.”
Shelly sits there, silent.
“Yeah, okay, you be a little bitch and ignore me,” you say.
She sits still beside you as your laughter turns to shrieks, as a white sword from above stabs you in the mouth and the sword is held by a fifty-foot-tall Vicki McCauley. There are people walking through the field, shambling toward the truck, and for a moment you panic. You think they’re here to eat your brains, but all they do is ask you questions. Are you all right? Does anything hurt? Can you move? And you want to tell them that you are not all right, that everything hurts, has always hurt, and that’s what you’re doing. Moving. Getting on with what’s become of you.
“I love you,” you say, and you hope that Shelly is listening as men and women in uniforms pry off the door and lift you out of the skeleton of the truck and lay you down on a stretcher. And you want to ask what that black bag is for, the one they put Shelly in, but what you want most of all is to know that she heard you, you want her to know how much you love her. Maybe it’s a trick of the light raining down from heaven, but you’re pretty sure her lips beneath the black bag mouth the words, “I love you too.”