Authors: JJ Knight
Summary: An MMA fighter living in the shadow of his pro boxing father begins training a young woman with powerful raw talent, sparking a love affair that could jeopardize them both.
Copyright © 2014 by JJ Knight
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews, fan-made graphics, and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
For my MMA trainer Bryan
If anyone can train a fighter, it’s you!
(However, I do not recommend using me as an example of your work.)
I do not want to walk into this pawn shop.
The front of it is crammed with bicycles linked together with a chain. Some are pink with faded streamers. One has a tiny license plate that reads “Princess.”
The door to the shop is covered in iron bars. My reflection in the glass makes me look like a prisoner. My pale face has no makeup, and my hair is pulled back tight. An oversized hoodie hides any suggestion of a female figure. I like it that way.
I reach for the door handle, then pull back. My fingers snake inside my front pocket to touch the necklace one more time.
It’s my last tie to my family, to my father. But I have to let it go.
The chain slips around my fingers. I can picture every link, the circle of the clasp. I graze the pendant, then have to stop. Enough. Just get this done.
A sensor beeps when I push through the door. The room is stifling despite the cool outside, like it’s never known fresh air. It smells of dirt and neglect.
Piled in one corner is a stack of red wagons. I wonder about these kids whose parents sold their toys. I clutch my fist a little tighter around the gold chain. What I’m doing isn’t any better.
I try to make solid eye contact with the beefy man leaning over the glass counter. Light from the jewelry case sparkles across his head like a disco ball.
I know I need to show some moxie. I have to prove I’m not going to be taken advantage of. Still, I start to shrink as I walk up to him. He watches me with one squinty eye.
The leg of a table saw snags my toe, and I barely catch myself before I fall against the jagged edge of the broken safety shield. My face flushes hot with embarrassment.
“You need something?” he asks. He knows I’m not there to buy. Girls like me never are.
I extend a shaky arm. The gold chain drips from my fingers.
His fat hand lifts the charm. When he barks out a number, I feel shock. He can’t be asking that little.
“It’s worth more than that,” I insist.
He lets go. I feel the weight of the pendant, but I can’t look at it. I’ll want to keep it if I do.
The man settles back on his stool to wait on my decision. He’s got rings on every finger. A huge gold necklace that reads “Playah” floats on a snarl of chest hair.
I hate him.
He sniffs like I’m ragweed that he needs to sneeze out of his shop. “Nobody’s gonna buy a charm that ugly,” he says.
I steal a glance at the gold frog with a diamond-tipped crown. My grandfather gave it to my grandmother before leaving for Vietnam. He told her, “When I make it back, I might not look like much of a prince anymore.” He hadn’t made it back at all, leaving her to raise my father alone.
It isn’t much of an heirloom, but it’s all I have.
I need the money. Bad. I’m embarrassed that I’m getting so little for it. But it’s this or be homeless. I counter with an offer that will cover what I’m short on rent, and a little for food.
“All right,” he says, shaking his head. “Because you look like you haven’t eaten in a week.”
I drop the necklace on the counter. I’ll buy it back. I’ll get a job and march right to the shop. Like he said, nobody else is going to want it. Hopefully he won’t melt it down for the gold.
He pays me cash, and I shove the money in my pocket. I can’t get out of there fast enough.
I’ve been out of a job two weeks, since the pizzeria caught fire. I haven’t found anything else, even though my standards are low. It’s fall, and all the crap jobs just got filled by the influx of college kids.
At least I’ve pushed off being homeless for another month.
I’ve got nobody to fall back on. No family I want to talk to again, not ever. I’d rather sleep in a cardboard box. All the friends in my meager collection aren’t any better off than I am. Not that I’d ask for help.
I scurry down the sidewalk, head down. People pass, ignoring me like I’m invisible. That’s just the way I like it.
A group of guys my age are clustered in front of Sac ’n’ Pac. They’re standing around a Harley, admiring the ride.
Every muscle in my body tenses up. A punk in a red jacket thumps another guy on the arm. He points at me.
Damn. I pull my hood over my head and speed up. If I’m lucky, they’ll just insult me. If I’m not, they’ll decide to walk alongside me for a while.
“Hey, girl, whatcha got under that hood?” The red-jacket guy laughs like he’s the funniest thing since Jack Black.
I’d cross the street, but there’s too much traffic. I hunker down and walk faster, staying close to the curb. The parking lot’s small, though, just a car length of space to the door.
“I SAID, whatcha got under that hood?” His voice is raised now, pissed off. He can’t believe I’d ignore him.
They’re moving away from the bike. I’m screwed. I’ve got a vacant lot, then a shut-down strip of shops ahead. Nobody is walking my direction.
There’s plenty of time to catch me. If I can just get to the light at Cesar Chavez, I’ll be home free. Lots of people walk on that street. I won’t be so alone with them. I consider whether or not I should run.
A man comes out of the store, way out of his league for this part of town. He’s got a leather jacket and jeans that cost a month’s rent. His golden blonde hair is cut in the messy way that takes expert hands to get right.
He throws his leg over the bike. For a minute I think I’m safe, as the boys’ attention is drawn back. I hunker down in my hoodie and walk as fast as I can. The roar of the motorcycle drowns out anything the boys might say.
I’m at the end of the lot when I feel a jerk on my elbow. A strong arm whips me around.
“You dissin’ me?” It’s one of the boys. His face is tan, like he hangs outside all day. Little nicks along his jaw probably come from shaving with cheap razors. He makes me think of a weasel, long-nosed and beady-eyed.
Once he has my attention, he relaxes a bit, looking from side to side at his friends. “See, she’s liking me better already.” He sticks out his tongue to show off a gold barbell. “How ’bout you and me take a little walk? Get to know each other better?”
I yank my arm back, and he laughs. The Harley behind us quiets to an idle, then rumbles as Golden Boy pulls onto the street.
He rides alongside us, and I can see he’s looking. His helmet is turned our direction.
“Sweet ride,” Weasel Boy calls out. He tries to entwine his arm with mine, but I jerk free and try to walk away.
The other boys laugh, and this pisses him off. He steps in front of me. The motorcycle continues on by, and they all focus back on their girl prey.
“Come on, baby, don’t be like that.” He reaches for my hood like he’s going to pull it down.
I don’t get it, I really don’t. Why is he interested in me? Why is their day improved by messing up mine?
I try to shove past. We’re in the middle of the sidewalk. They can’t actually do anything.
But his hands closing on my shoulders are too familiar, too rough. The heat rises, and I can’t stop myself. Without thinking, I’m a whirlwind, all bony elbows flying at their faces, bellies, knees. I aim for soft spots that’ll drop them.
I can’t hear anything. The world is silent inside my hurricane. Faces are a blur as I spin around.
Then a roar fills my ears.
Golden Boy is back, his bike falling to the sidewalk as he pushes through. He grabs my arms. I’m pinned hard against his solid body.
I think I’ve traded one disaster for another, but he whispers, “Let me get you out of here.”
The boys stand back. They’re suddenly kids, and this is the man.
Weasel thinks about stepping up. His lips are curled around some insult. But one of his friends wraps an arm around his neck and pulls him back.
Golden Boy lifts his bike and swings a leg over. “Get on,” he says.
The hurricane is starting to collapse in on itself. I feel like a top that’s done spinning. I’m suddenly exhausted.
I manage to get on behind him, but I don’t know where to put my hands. I try to clutch the seat between my thighs, but as soon as the Harley leaps forward, I have to grab the man.
He’s hard and muscled beneath the jacket. I’ve never held a stranger like this before.
My daddy, long ago, sometimes let me ride his back like a horse. I was always afraid to sit up, so I wrapped my arms around him. That memory is the closest thing to what I am feeling now.
My throat tightens. I haven’t thought of my daddy in years. He died on an oil rig when I was eight. I pretty much haven’t been happy since then.
Although this is close.
The wind whips around me, pushing the hood off my head. I want to laugh now, free of the bad scene. I don’t even know where this guy is taking me. It could be someplace worse. Some other fate.
But for a minute I don’t care and just look at the city blurring by in a wash of color. The poverty and neglect disappear. Only impressions remain. A green tree on a boulevard. A little girl in a red coat. A long blue banner fluttering on an awning.
We pull up to a light and the dismal surroundings come back into focus. Golden Boy flips up his visor. “I’m headed to the gym a couple blocks up, but I can take you somewhere first.”
“The gym’s fine,” I say. I’m a little sad the ride is over. It’s been the best part of the day. The year, maybe. Heck, probably the best moment since I arrived in LA three years ago, seventeen and fresh off the bus from hell.
I’ve never gotten my bearings here. Never found a place I belong. But I’ve survived. That’s something I wasn’t sure I could do when I left home.
The light changes to green, and we fly down the last stretch. I know the gym we’re headed to. It’s across the street from the cafe where my friend Zero works.
During the summer when I can’t afford my own AC, I sit at the cafe window nursing a watered-down lemonade. Zero and I make up stories about the people coming in and out of that gym. We know most of the regulars, but I haven’t seen Golden Boy before.
He parks in front of the wide expanse of blacked-out windows. I get off, feeling the burn in my thighs even after such a short ride. He lifts his helmet and runs a hand across the top of his choppy hair, which still looks perfect.
I finally get a good look at his face. He’s damn beautiful, no denying it. His jaw could crack rock, and his eyes are that funny hazel that switches between light brown and green. He catches me looking. “You okay? Did they hurt you?”
I shake my head.
“You want to come inside a second? I could get you some water.” He locks his helmet to his handlebars.
I shake my head again.
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
I clear my throat, not sure how well words will come out now that we’re looking at each other. “Thank you.”
He rocks back on his heels, assessing me. “You know, I think you could have taken that whole group if I let you. Do you train?”
I don’t know what he means. “No.” I try to make eye contact with him, but just looking at his face makes me seize up. I want more of him. And the feeling is uncomfortable, unfamiliar.
The only boy I’ve felt good around since my daddy is Zero. But then, the first time I met him, he was dressed very convincingly like a girl.
Golden Boy nods, like it makes sense that I wouldn’t bother with training. “Well, I’ve got to go in. Duty calls.”
He backs toward the door. It’s almost like he can’t stop looking at me. I know that’s impossible, but I like holding on to the idea while I can.
“Thanks. Again.” I sound lame, but I want to talk now. Words I want to say are rushing at me. Who are you? How long have you been going to this gym? Why haven’t I seen you before?
He gives a little wave. “See you around.”
When he disappears inside, I drop onto a rusted bench. I feel cured, like my distrust of men actually has an end. I haven’t felt free of it for so many years. It’s like sinking into a bath after a lifetime of grime.