Nineteen is there in black on white, the license as fake as everything else about me. But I’ve found that when you’re small, female and Asian, exchanging the school uniform for a hoodie can be all that stands between fifteen and thirty. At least after dark.
It’s Thursday, a school night, but Mom is already too strung out to notice me missing. If all goes right, I’ll be long gone by the time she does.
The cars stand bumper-to-bumper outside, people hip-to-hip inside, skin and floor sticky with things I blank out.
The walls are paneled wood though, hanging lamps like something out of the last century. They tell me they’ve seen thousands such as I—desperate fools risking it all on impossible odds. I can trick the people, but not those bright lights. Luckily, the shadows are deep enough.
A bell clangs further in. I’m almost too late.
The crowd surges into the main hall, the ring in the center breaking the illusion of an old-world gentlemen’s club.
Two fighters stand confidently in the light, though one smiles wider than the other. His grin is too familiar, twisting my pain and the old longing to belong. I pull my hood up, hiding the swollen jaw, and turn to the betting table.
The MC announces the fighters. Connolly is up there, worshiped like at school, feared like on the estate, but the name the crowd shouts is as fake as mine. He’s bragged for years—as he used me as a punching bag, telling me to take my best shot—that the fighting will be his ticket out of the crappy ride life handed to kids like us. Now, it’ll be mine as well.
“10k on the challenger,” I say as I pull the envelope from my pocket. Money I stole, pawned and borrowed from Mom and her friends who say they want to be my friends. Something that others might call conscience twists inside me. I could still warn Conolly. Tell the bookie. Like so much else, I swallow it down. The prize is in sight. I can taste its iron tang—like blood and prison bars. After tonight, I’ll wash the taste of both away.
The show is starting, pulling me closer. I’d learned to avoid him on fight days—to subconsciously track his movements. It was impossible not to as he grew up in the apartment next to ours, the slaps on my side and curses on his piercing the paper-thin walls.
The fighters circle each other.
I check the wall clock. Check again. Sweat gathers at the base of my neck. I pull the hood tighter.
A minute in, I know the challenger wouldn’t stand a chance if I hadn’t taken mine.
Two minutes, Connolly wobbles.
I didn’t avoid him this afternoon.
Didn’t run as we both exited our apartments at the same time. As our eyes met—prey and predator.
Afterward, I didn’t crawl away when I dropped next to his sports bag.
He laughed with his friends while I bled, while I slipped the swiped drugs into the sports drink he always chugs before the fight.
His mind will be swimming by now. Psychedelics aren’t bad, but in a bareknuckle, underground boxing ring, they’re deadly.
What does he see?
When panic crosses his face, when I collect my winnings and leave it all behind, I want to laugh, but cry.
About the author:
Liv Strom is a Swiss-Swedish writer of short stories and novels featuring strong women. You can find her writing on https://www.livstromwrites.com/
Free flash fiction on the first and third weeks of the month.