Chapter One - Kol
“Get up, Kol. C’mon, get up! Time is running out, motherfucker.” Dad’s hands are gripping my discarded t-shirt, shaking it like a fucking lunatic at the crowd. Money exchanges hands back and forth betting against me. “What did I tell you about falling on your back?” Blood and sweat burn my eyes and he’s lecturing me as he paces. The lights have a halo glow around them, making me dizzy. Or was it the punch I just took from Tommy? At twelve, he’s twice my size and hates me for doing better on my foster mom’s math tests than him. I don’t let him cheat off me. We may be home-schooled, but I’m not gonna sit in the corner without my dinner anymore.
He wasn’t even gonna fight tonight until he saw I was on the chalkboard. My foster dad agreed to allow the match since he wins either way, but the money is better if I win since I’m younger.
“Snake him, Kol,” my foster brother, Shawn, yells.
God hasn’t given me a lot of things. I say that loosely because I’m not sure there is a God, but the one thing I was born with was long arms. I slide one between our sweaty bodies and wrap it around the side of his neck. “Snake. Snake. Snake,” the crowd chants. I push against him with all my might. My teeth grit and grind until I can feel the dust of them in my mouth mixed with the coppery taste of blood.
The great part about being smaller than your opponent is that their size goes against them at some point. They tire more easily, while I never tire. I flip him over while wrapping my whole body around him like a King Cobra and squeeze. He attempts to kick me off, but I’ve got him wrapped up like a pretzel. After what seems like a very long minute of holding on to the slimy bastard, he taps out with submission, and I win.
I stand with my ‘brothers’ and wait for Dad to collect his crumpled dollars from the fists of evil strangers. He tucks the overly large wad of money in his pants pocket and tosses my shirt to me. He has a stare-down with Tommy as he approaches us.
We all know Tommy’s gonna get it for losing when we get home. The loser has to fight Dad as punishment, and so he’ll fail twice tonight because Dad always wins. The prize is teaching us motivation— the motivation to never lose.
He punches me hard in the arm. “Nice move. You’re what I call an Enigma, Kol. Do you know what that means?”
He backhands me across my already swollen jaw. “You mean, ‘No, Sir,’ don’t you?” His lips widen across his tobacco-stained teeth in a smug smile that makes me want to puke. Lesson number 462 about Max Porter: he’s evil when he smiles. My foster brothers all wince at the smack of his hand on my skin, and fan out away from us, too afraid they are next to get hit.
“No, Sir. What does it mean?”
“It means someone who is a mystery. They’re like a puzzle— meaning they are hard to figure out or difficult to understand.”
“Enigma? I like it, Sir.”
“You like it, huh?”
“Yeah, I like people not understanding me. It means they won’t know what I’m gonna do next.”
I WAKE UP HOT AND SWEATY from that nightmare. Feels like a fucked up day is on the horizon. Why is it so goddamn hot in here? I look around the room to see the clock flashing and the fan is off. The power must have gone out. Again.
My body is glued to the woman I brought home last night. I can’t remember her name, Rina, maybe? Her arm is thrown over my chest suctioning me tight in a puddle of sweat pooling where we touch. Her thigh is riding my leg, and I am close to suffocating in her hair and body heat. I lift her arm from me, and our skin separates from each other like jagged razor blades slicing my skin. Fuck!
She rolls away but doesn’t wake, so I turn the fan back on to cool the room. The heavy smell of sweat and sex fills the room. I set the fan knob to reciprocating to clear the odor and make a mental note to wash the sheets. She smells like the all-night eatery I picked her up in.
I step out from behind the glass block wall and make my way to the kitchen for some cold water. Pulling a glass from the strainer, I fill it with ice and hold it to my forehead before filling it with water. The coolness of it quenches my thirst as I drink the last drop and suck on an ice cube before filling it again.
My cell phone reads 3:57 am. Fuck. It’s cardio time.
I dress for the gym and leave a quick note for what’s her name. ‘Don’t forget to flip the lock before leaving’ and stick it to the door on my way out.
The Chinese market I live above is always empty at this hour. I don’t know why they stay open all night. I unchain my bike from the side hallway and wave to Mrs. Wong as I pass through. The ride to Rebel’s Gym is about twenty minutes on a good day. A bad one means there’s been a shooting or a fire and I have to find an alternate route; that happens at least twice a week around here.
I gotta get out of this fucking neighborhood. The only good thing is that they know I’m a fighter and don’t fuck with me. They used to mess with me bad. Oh, yeah, they tried...fucking gang bangers and drug dealers with their guns. I’m quick and merciless. And now they know it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a good guy. Foster home after foster home has fucked me up. I’ve taken money to beat other people up like cheating husbands, drug dealers, crooked cops, rapists and child molesters...you name it. It was like target practice for me when I was starving and needed rent money.
Wanting to be an MMA fighter and actually being one are two different things.
Sponsorship is hard to come by, and ranking is even harder since we fight a bunch of nobody’s to be seen by someone. The nobody’s keep piling up until one day, you get lucky, and someone takes notice. I’d like to say it’s all skill, but there’s a lot of luck involved too. So I keep eating my Lucking Charms and hoping the right ass is in a chair at one of my fights— a big ass with a fat wad of money.
I ride into Rebel’s Gym as Liam, the owner, rolls up the massive garage doors. I duck as one bounces back down almost knocking me off my bike. “You gotta be faster than that if you want to be a fighter,” Liam teases me.
I love Rebel’s. It’s my home away from home.
It’s an old converted Pep Boys garage that went out of business, you know— oil changes and tire rotations. That kinda shit. Six garage doors roll up, so the gym airs out with the ocean breeze blowing through it. It’s a beauty of a setup.
Liam doesn’t care if you work outside or in, as long as you put shit back where you got it from. That’s one of the rules, and when someone breaks the rules, he takes the privilege away from us, like we are kids. He calls it ‘team mentality.’ So now we all piss and moan at whoever leaves stuff out, watching them like a flock of vultures. We call it team harassment.
I look around for Lou and find him pulling the hand tape out of the cabinet. He’s prepping my day for me. Loyalty. If you’ve never seen it, that man is it.
We go way back. All the way back to my last foster home. The Porter’s. I was seventeen. Man, that place was fucked up. My body hurts thinking about it, but I can still remember those underground fights. I’ve come a long way since those days.
“Go start your cardio, and breathe through your belly on that damn machine. Not shallow or that shit will wear you out fast,” he barks at me.
I hop on the rower and try to get a good sweat going, but I can’t find a good rhythm today of all days. The cord keeps pulling off track, and one side of the handlebar is cutting into my palm. I give up ten minutes into it. Fuck it. I release the handle and let it fly back to its starting position.
Liam glances at me with a ‘what the fuck’ look. “Easy over there,” comes out of his mouth before I can apologize.
“Sorry, man. Today is pissing me off.”
“Today? Today just started.” He’s walking around sanitizing the heavy bags. When he gets close enough to me, he offers up a suggestion, “It’s low tide. Why don’t you go run outside?”
Lou silently waves me outside before throwing a towel at my chest. I wipe my face and toss it over my shoulder as I stretch on the patio.
Ten minutes into a good start of a run, I sink into some loose sand and roll my ankle. Damn it. It’s not swelling yet, so I continue. I know the minute I stop, it’ll blow up like an elephant trunk.
The sun rises, and the seagulls swoop down over the rolling waves searching for breakfast. I get to the lighthouse and take a five-second breather before attempting the stairs inside. The stench of stale beer and piss hits my nostrils as soon as I come through the broken door. My stomach rolls at the stench so I take the stairs two at a time.
At the top, I take a seat on the worn wicker chair someone placed up here a long time ago from the looks of it. It’s faded and weathered by the endless sun we get here in southern South Carolina.
My usual five-minute rest turns into ten since I can’t shake the bad vibes weighing on me. Lou’s been trying to schedule my next fight, but he’s having a hard time. No one wants to fight the Enigma. Scared motherfuckers. I’ll fight anybody; just give me an octagon and a fighter. Fuck, I don’t even need gloves. I’m a legend in this state. Too bad it’s a small state.
I should talk to Lou about branching out to Georgia or Florida. Find some nobody’s who don’t know me that want to try to make a name for themselves. Yeah, I’ll do that.
Stress churns my stomach as I jog back to Rebel’s. I gulp some lukewarm water from the fountain as soon as I hit the door to push the acid back down to where it belongs.
Lou hangs up his phone as I approach, stuffing his phone in his pocket and pulling off a long piece of hand wrap from the roll. His jaw clenches as he starts to roll the tape over my knuckles. He grunts and groans, working fast to wrap me up. He’s aggravated, and by the feel of how tight the tape is, he’s ready for a few rounds of sparring for stress-relief.
We go at it for a few minutes, but the noise coming from the front reception area is distracting. There’s a blond chic arguing with Liam.
I’ve seen her here before, but she usually leaves as quick as she arrives. She probably wants to join the gym. Any other man and she’d have worn them down by now, but not Liam. He doesn’t allow female fighters here. There’s only one locker room with open showers and urinals. There are three stalls, but trust me when I say you don’t want to use them.
Bits and pieces of her argument float to me as I punch the mitt Lou is holding. Yeah, she wants to join the gym. She means business because she’s tightening up her ponytail and is leaning into the counter from the tips of her toes. Her hands are doing as much talking as her lips are. And poor Liam is smiling while taking it all in. He keeps that smug smile for much longer, she might smack it off his face. Her biceps look as big as his.
“Alright, lover boy. Eyes back on me,” Lou says to gain my attention. I can’t use any jiu-jitsu moves on him because of his bad knees, but I’d like to try for that last comment.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see she’s pointing at something— actually, she’s flailing her arm, with her finger pointing in my direction. I stop and try to listen above my ragged breathing. Oh shit, they’re walking my way.
More acid erupts from my stomach and burns a trail up my throat to my mouth. I spit it out onto the towel hanging from my shorts. Fuck. Here comes trouble if I’ve ever seen it.