Read an exclusive extract of Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan
7 months ago
Read an exclusive excerpt of shadowboxer by Tricia sullivan
Order: UK | US | DRM-free eBook
Some days I can feel the tornado weather in my bones before I even get out of bed. I just know I’m going to have a fight. It’s out of my control.
The first time I remember it happening was in seventh grade. I woke up with my angry bones on, and when Angel O’Donnell told me that my psycho dad was watching our school playground from a parked car my ears filled with a roaring. My dad wasn’t supposed to know where me and my mom were. We were supposed to be safe.
I just stood there, my mind playing out the last time I saw my dad, down on the floor beside my mom, crying, ‘I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean it.’ Me calling 911 from the bathroom, whispering into the phone.
When I found out Angel was playing with me, I rammed her head into a row of lockers. She got five stitches and I got suspended. ‘Why you so scared of him?’ she sobbed, bleeding all over her friends. ‘You’re just like him. He should be scared of you.’
I don’t want to be like my dad. Believe me, I try hard not to be like him. But some days when I get this weather inside me it seems no matter how I want to be good, sooner or later I’m going to let off on somebody.
This morning I was hung over from the beer and a half Malu had pushed on me for medicinal purposes (she said) after I’d messed up last night's qualifier match. I'd been crying most of the night, and I had a black eye. My reflection in the bathroom mirror looked like a koala minus the cute. I grabbed Malu's biggest, darkest pair of sunglasses, threw my gym bag over my shoulder, and went out.
It was pouring rain. The glasses fogged up and blurred with beaded water. A passing dude said, 'Nice shades,' and checked me out. I clamped down on myself. Not today. Besides, he had a point. I looked like an idiot.
Tommy Zhang, on the other hand, can make shades work even in the rain. That's because he's a movie star.
Tommy was getting out of his limo when I crossed the street from the bus stop to Mr. Big's Combat Sports Emporium. There were actually two limos parked in the disabled spaces plus a black van for the camera crew. Tommy Zhang was so beautiful, I could see his cheekbones from here. He was wearing his trademark dark suit and he had a whole bunch of WWE-style bodyguards. Posterboys for nandralone.
I'd forgotten Tommy would be here today. There would be pictures, and I'd have to hide in the locker room if I didn't want to be in them. I thought about turning around and going home, but I don't do running away.
I shifted my bag on my shoulder and limped towards the gym door. I put on the limp for show. It was a trick my dad taught me. 'You carry yourself like you no big deal,' he'd say. 'Let people underestimate you. Then, when they don’t expect it—bang!' And he'd mime an uppercut.
It's pretty hard not to underestimate somebody my size, since I'm outweighed by your average Twinkie-eating grade-schooler, but I walk like I'm hurting anyway. Whatever else I might think about my dad, I respect what he knows about the street.
Today I was limping a little extra because I had a mango-sized lump on the lower part of my right shin where it had connected to Kristi Lombardi's skull in last night's qualifier fight for Battle of the Bitches 3. The kick had knocked Kristi out, and everything would have been sweet and fine, except for my 'problem'. After I kicked her in the head I followed her where she fell and stomped her with the same foot, just to be safe.
The judges didn't like that. I was out.
It was my own fault, which pretty much just made it worse. Now all I wanted was to get in the gym, sweat, and refocus. I didn't want to think about how Battle would be getting international coverage, or the big fight at the end of it, or the prize money, or other fighters sailing through the qualifying rounds because they had a grip on the concept of rules.
I didn't want to think what my mom would say when she found out I'd stomped a girl's head into the mat.
I just wanted to train.
But of course on the days you really want people to leave you alone, they get all up in your face. Tommy Zhang's bodyguards stood in front of entrance to the gym and when I got closer, one of them blocked me off.
'Excuse me,' I said, head down, addressing the guy's belt buckle. 'I train here.'
'ID?' I could feel the bass of his voice in the bottom of my spine. He held out a hand. His fingers were about the size of my wrist.
I snorted. ‘Do I look like I’m here to drink?’
'What? You got ID or not?'
I guess you don't need a sense of humor to make it in the bodyguard profession. I sighed. Just inside the glass door, Tommy Zhang was on the phone speaking Cantonese. His voice was soft, and he was talking so fast I wondered whether they had to slow down his dialog scenes. I already knew they speeded up his fight sequences.
'No, I don't got no ID. I'm Jade Barrera. I train here. Who the fuck are you?'
'Hey. Watch the language. You can't come in without ID. I have to shield my client from unwanteds.'
Tommy was laughing. He kept sniffing and throwing his head back. Must have been doing coke in the limo.
I said, 'Did I miss something? Last I heard, this was Mr. B's fight club, not Tommy Zhang's beauty salon.'
The guard showed a white half-smile.
'With that attitude, the only place you'll be getting into this morning is a police cell,' he said. 'You don't want me to be calling to complain about harassment, do you?'
I swallowed a laugh. I was already in Mr B's doghouse because of the disqualification. Through the dull beating noise in my head I reminded myself that I needed to not screw up again. No wise-ass comments allowed.
'Sorry, man,' I said, with an effort. 'Nooffense . I'm just a little surprised. I train here every day. We get champions from Thailand and Russia and Brazil, but I never needed no ID to get in. I know Mr. Zhang is a real important star, but couldn't you just ask Mr B? He knows me.'
There. How much nicer could you get?
The perfect teeth reappeared. 'I would've been glad to do that if you made a respectful request in the first place. Now I need you to wait while Chip checks the contents of your bag.'
A giant stepped forward. He had blond hair in two braids like a frigging Viking.
'Oh, give me a break,' I said. Just then Khari's Corvette pulled up and parked. Khari got out first, then Eva. Her red hair was all done out in perfect ringlets and she had five-inch platforms on. Khari had to wait for her to get out the car, then wait again while she adjusted her hot pants and checked her hair. They came up to the door together, ring girl and MMA god. He put a possessive hand on her little bitty waist as they approached the Testosterone Wall.
Khari they recognize with a 'How you doing, sir', but Eva fumbled for her green card or whatever. A faintly panicked look came over her face; maybe she wasn't legal, after all.
Nandralone Man waved them through and Eva rushed inside nervously. Khari hung back.
'Hey, Jade, everything OK?'
'Man, I don't got no driver's license and Bruce Lee’s bodyguards have taken over the joint.'
My heart was racing now. Khari always makes me act all stupid.
'I'll tell the boss,' Khari said over his shoulder as he went in. 'Don't sweat it, baby.'
He called me baby.
Tommy Zhang lowered the phone from his ear. 'Let her through,' he snapped, waving a bossy hand to reinforce his words. 'I know who she is.'
That would have been all right, but then he added something else in Chinese. I couldn't understand all of it, but a few words were familiar and not in a good way. I'd heard Hong Kong girls use them in school. I wasn't sure of the exact translation, but I knew I was being called some kind of ugly.
Chip the Viking moved aside and I walked in. Tommy Zhang was even better-looking in person than he was on camera. What else can I say about him? He’s supposed to be the next Bruce Lee but he’s about as dangerous as Steven Seagal—by which I mean, a twelve-year-old could probably take care of the both of them put together. He’s acrobatic and moves like a dancer, and when he looked my way he was so beautiful that a part of me wanted to go, That's OK, be as rude as you want, let me kiss your perfect ass, but the minute you start doing shit like that it's all over. You can never get your credibility back.
'How ya doin,’' I said to Tommy, smiling sweetly as I moved past him. 'You were real good in Cloud Master.' I didn't glance at him to get his reaction, but I knew it wouldn't be good. Cloud Master had starred Tommy Zhang's big Hong Kong cinema rival, Lo Kuk Leung.
I limped into the gym, smiling.
The front end of Combat Sports Emporium looks like one of those fancy West-coast operations where they shot the first two Battle of the Bitches shows. It has a shiny new reception area decked out with trophies and a smoothie machine. On the training floor there are new weights and cardio equipment, a big mirror and clean mats. Monika and Eva were standing nervously in reception, waiting to have their Tommy Zhang DVDs autographed. On the main floor, a boxercise class made idiots of themselves to the sound of Jay-Z. Eva's perfect butt jagged to the beat.
I wondered if a ring girl had ever gotten knocked out in the line of duty. Like, what if somebody accidentally-on-purpose dropped her with a left hook? Hmm. There was a thought.
I probably needed to hit something.
Keeping my sunglasses on, I headed straight to the back room. It was always kind of dark and smelled of old sweat and leather. This was where the pros trained. We had an ancient ring and an alley of heavy bags that had been pounded so hard you couldn’t see the logos anymore. There was an open matted area for pad work and ground fighting. The boxercise music was muffled. I could hear the whipping sound of Cake jumping rope like a grasshopper on meth.
Khari was standing outside the locker room with Jamie Bell, a journalist from The Cage who was always hanging around. They were watching Cake train for his K-1 match in Holland next month. The look on Khari's face said, Hell, I'm glad I'm not in the same weight class as him.
Khari took in the state of me, whistled softly, and shrugged.
'You better keep those shades on, Jay-D,' Khari said, following me toward the locker rooms. 'Jamie just told me there's gonna be three camera crews coming later on.'
He shook his head like it was all just too decadent for him. In many ways Khari is an old-fashioned kind of guy. He can't understand why reality shows like Battle of the Bitches get so much attention these days. He can't understand why people like to see girls hitting each other, especially when some of the girls aren't very good fighters.
I guess that's why he dates a ring girl. She doesn't challenge his assumptions.
'You can have my photographers if I can have your paycheck,' I said.
'You're OK. You're the real deal,' Khari said.
'I screwed up bad last night,' I said.
'Hey,' Khari said, 'At least you were the one who done the stomping. At least it wasn't your head on the mat. Now get to work.'
Here's the truth. I'm happy in the gym. When I'm slippery as an eel with sweat, and my heart's going boom-boom-power in my ears. When Cake is my pad man, chasing me around the ring and I got incoming blows to deal with and I'm struggling to counter-time him and he's laughing at me, but I keep going anyway like my life depends on it. That's when I'm happy. Something wakes up inside me, opens its eyes, takes a deep breath. Something says yes. Give me some more.
It was a good workout. I only puked once. I even got it in the bucket. Khari offered me a towel to wipe my face, which is sweet, but then Eva came over to keep her claws in her man. I reeked of puke and she reeked of Estée Lauder. Who you think Khari be picking?
When I look back on it, I know this right here is the critical moment.
It’s like, every so often, on a given day, you do something really small. Don't mean nothing—or so you think at the time. But later on when you think about it, this tiny decision leads to everything changing. If only you'd known about this one little thing, maybe you would have done things differently.
And maybe you wouldn't.
So, I could have held my ground and showed my confidence to Khari. Let him know I wasn’t just a kid, but a woman to be reckoned with, you know what I’m saying? But I didn't. I let Eva spook me. I backed away from the two of them, went outside for some fresh air.
Bang. That was it, right there. Going outside just then was my Gwyneth Paltrow Sliding Doors moment—or it would have been if I'd been a white girl looking for the perfect man instead of a Latina looking for the perfect takedown defense.
It was still raining. I put a stick of gum in my mouth to kill the taste of vomit and looked around. Tommy Zhang's limo was pulled up around the side of the gym. The engine was running but I couldn't see anybody inside except the driver, who was reading a magazine. I went and stood under the awning behind Mattress World next door.
Quinton the tomcat was already sitting there, his paws folded under him, blinking as he watched the rain. Quinton has scars all over his big-jowled head, and one of his eyes only opens halfway. He's skinny and he limps, but he's my furry bambino. He gave me a hoarse chirp and rose to meet my hand when I bent to stroke the back of his head. There were always scabs under his fur.
I started to feel better. Animals are like that. They make you feel better without even trying. I wished I could adopt Quinton, but my mom’s lease had a no-pets clause and Malu already snuck in an iguana. Anyway, it wouldn't be fair to take him away from his natural environment.
Purring, he turned his head so I could scratch him under his jowls. The rain came down harder. Tommy’s driver shot out of the limo and ran around the back. He spread a huge umbrella, then opened a door. Tommy Zhang got out, talking on his i-phone, this time in fluent Thai. They walked towards me, the driver holding the umbrella over the star while he himself got wet.
'Mr. Zhang needs a place to smoke a cigarette,' the driver said, nodding at the awning. Apparently this meant I was supposed to leave. I was curious, though. I knew a little Thai because of Cake and Mr. B, and through watching endless fights on YouTube. I always hoped I could get over there to train someday. But Tommy was Chinese. Where had he learned Thai? I caught the phrases ‘foreign journalist’ and—he said this twice—‘no violence.’ Tommy sounded upset. Maybe somebody in Thailand had written a stitch-up of Tommy.
'Get rid of that dirty animal,' Tommy snapped in English. I stopped in the doorway and leaned back outside. The driver was making shooing motions at Quinton. Poor Quinton scurried a few feet on his belly, then stopped, ears flattening, and held his ground. He looked scared, but he wasn't running yet.
'Hey, take it easy,' I said, going out. 'That's only Quinton. He's the gym cat. See, he has a gold ring around his neck, like Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson, get it?'
Tommy Zhang didn't laugh. He didn't look at me. He bent, picked up a beer bottle, and threw it atQuinton. The bottle shattered, Quintonran, and I was pretty sure some of the pieces had hit him.
'Hey!' I shouted, positioning myself between Tommy Zhang andQuinton, who now shot off behind the cover of a dumpster. 'What’s your problem? He wasn't doing anything to you.'
'You better go inside,' Tommy Zhang's driver said. He wasn't as big as the bodyguards—they were still in the gym, I guess—but he was a lot bigger than me. 'Mr. Zhang doesn't want to be disturbed.'
'Mr. Zhang already is disturbed if he abuses animals.' I feinted moving left and then shot to the right, around the driver. He tried to grab me but he was slow and let's face it, I'm really fast. I've had a lot of practice at avoiding being grabbed. I saw the door of the gym open, but it was only Eva sticking her head out to get a better phone signal.
I went up to Tommy Zhang and said, ‘What kind of man are you? Don't you have enough money or you got to pick on some poor animal to make you feel all hard? '
'Get this trash away from me,' Tommy Zhang said to his driver, stepping back as if I had a disease. He held his lit cigarette poised like he was thinking about shoving it in my face.
'No,' I said. 'You get away from me, bitch.'
Or something like that. The truth is, I never exactly remember what I say or do when a fight kicks off. I can only approximate. Like, for example, I can't remember exactly what he said to me next, or whether he made the first move, or whether the driver did. I don't know. I do know that one minute the hottest martial arts action star in Hollywood was acting like a cat-hating jerk-off and the next his nose was all splattered across his face and he was doubled over against the back door of Mattress World. Judging by the blood on my knee, I'm guessing I maybe left-hooked him first, because nobody ever sees my left hook coming. I must've grabbed his head and pulled it down and banged him in the face with my knee maybe two, three, eighteen times? The main thing is, his nose was good and broken and then he was one stunned cat-hating movie star.
I felt good.
All of a sudden there were bodyguards trying to grab me and people were yelling—Eva was videoing us with her phone—and I had to run before somebody creamed me.
I ran right into Khari's arms.
'Whoa, whoa, whoa,' he said. 'This is not good.'
There you go. Khari's always real astute at pointing out the obvious.
I Let My Ass Do the Talking
So me and Eva got hustled into Mr. B's office behind the door with the white sparkly star and the name Bernard Jumsai stencilled under it. No biggie for me. I was used to being chewed out, detained, made to stand in line-ups. For Eva, though? Girl started to sweat and fan herself. She wasworried.
'It’s so stuffy in here,' she said, edging away from me. There wasn't much room in Mr. Big's office. Most of it was taken up by the desk, a cheap metal thing piled with papers and coffee cups and somewhere under it all, a keyboard and mouse. Mr. Big had a screen that showed him the CCTV views of the gym, and of course there was his special two-way mirror. He watched us train while he was wheeling and dealing on Skype, talking with promoters all over the world for hours at a time. The office had a back entrance, too, so you were never really sure whether he was in or out—or who was with him. Mr. Big liked to keep everybody guessing.
Behind the desk was Mr. B's shrine. In contrast to the rest of the office, the shrine was immaculate. Today there were fresh flowers and a pile of peanut M&Ms. A pair of Rangers tickets. I could never be sure whether Mr. B took his Buddhism as seriously as he seemed to, or whether he was just one of those people who want to cover all the bases. Either way, he never failed with the offerings.
There were dusty marks on the walls where pictures of Linda and the kids used to be. She'd left him two months ago for a carpet-cleaning franchise owner from Pearl River. Mr. B was upset. When I'm upset, I pound the bag until I can't move, then eat a whole carton of cookie dough ice cream, and then get over it. But Mr. B, he bought himself a consolation Humvee.
Seemed like we were waiting forever. I went behind the desk and pulled up one of the CCTV screens. The media people were standing out front, talking on their phones.
'Jade, what are you doing?' Eva hissed.
I turned up the sound on camera one.
'Yeah, his face was a mess. Looks like Khari Nkondo clocked him. Might have been a fight over this ring girl... what's her name? Eva Skye?'
Eva gasped when she heard this.
'Armando? Get me whatever you got on Khari Nkondo. Not just his fights, I want to know if he has a criminal record, any drug history, past issues of violence involving women... you name it.' The guy hung up and gestured to his cameraman to follow him inside.
Another reporter, standing close to the microphone pickup, whispered, 'Skye's real name is Kowalski. Leonard, check her out under that name.'
I grinned at Eva, who turned pink.
'Kowalski?' My voice cracked with laughter. 'Why'd you change it? It's so much more romantic than Skye.'
She looked away. Her foot started tapping.
'I can go over to Mattress World and interview the staff. Somebody might have gone outside for a smoke and witnessed it. And I'll try to get the CCTV.'
Mr. B's voice cut through them all. He appeared in shot, making grand gestures with his arms.
'Thank you all for coming, we are so honored to have you all here today. As you may have heard, Mr. Zhang had to leave on an urgent matter. You can call his press officer. Meanwhile, I have to ask you all to go home. Mr. Zhang's people will be clearing the building.'
Chip the Viking started herding everybody, grabbing cameras and phones as he went. 'Right, everybody, let's all be cool. Nothing to see here, nothing to see. Sorry, was that your camera? Here you go.'
'Where's my memory card?'
'I don't know where the memory card is, man, you must not have loaded one before you came.'
'Hey! Hey, that guy stole my pictures!'
'I'm not a thief,' said Chip in a rehearsed voice. 'I'm a security consultant. Do you wish to consult with me?'
'You'll hear from our legal department,' said the smaller man, backing away in a hurry. 'It's already all over Twitter, anyway. Ha!'
Me and Eva looked at each other. She was excited.
'You think they want to interview me?' she said. 'They think I'm playing Khari and Tommy Zhang at the same time. Wow. I could get in People for that.'
'Not so great for Khari,' I said. 'They all think he beat up Tommy Zhang, and he didn't.'
'I know.' She fixed me with pale green eyes. 'You did. What is wrong with you? Why you act like such a freak? Khari says you had some kind of bad childhood. Get over it.'
I felt my nostrils widen. I was about to unleash when Mr. B swaggered in.
'Girls, girls,' he said. 'This place is like Ringling Brothers circus.'
He reached out and patted Eva on the shoulder.
'You don't talk to nobody,' he said. 'Understand? Not one word.'
Her face fell.
'But Mr. B, they all want to interview me—'
Mr. B. let out a grunt and held up one commanding finger. Eva seemed to shrink before his daddy act.
'Not. One. Word. One phone call from me and you never work again in this business.'
'But I didn't do nothing!' Eva protested.
'You keep your mouth shut. Simple. You come out ahead. They offer you work, fine. They interview you for Cage? Fine. OK. But you say nothing about today. Nothing. Get it?'
'I get it.' Eva looked at me pointedly.
'You can go, Eva. And tell Monika. No talking. To nobody.'
Looking grouchy, Eva started to go out. In the doorway she paused. Looking at me as she addressed Mr. B, she said, 'Why you give this girl so many chances? She is not so special. And by the way, Jade, I am not ashamed of my name or my homeland.'
She shut the door. Mr. B turned to me. I gave him my detention-center stare. He shook his head, sighing.
'Don't you get it, Jade? You know I want to change image of fighters as thugs. I'm trying to go upmarket so I invite a high class, A-list celebrity to our gym to raise our profile on Battle of the Bitches, and—hello, anybody home?—this what pays rent for nobodies like you. And what you do? You embarrass me.'
'But what? But he's a jerk? But he's fake? You think this is some kind of excuse?'
No, actually my excuse is he's a... what's the scientific term for cat-hater? Like homophobe, but for cats. There has to be a word. I'll ask Malu later.
I said nothing. It had been a rhetorical question, anyway, because Mr. B plowed on.
'I know Tommy Zhang is all image. I know he can't fight. You know it. Deep down, he knows it. But we all got to keep up his front. He’s a movie star. Tommy’s career depends on image. Don't you get that?'
Still I said nothing. What could I say?
'You change your attitude or pick a different business. This ain't no sport, not no more. We are in show business. That means putting on a show. Tommy Zhang is huge. He’s starting up a new fight circuit give those criminals in Las Vegas a run for their money. It’s going to be big, and it’s going be clean.'
He was referring to the underworld connections of Cage Federation, the biggest fight organization in the country. Some people said the whole business was corrupt and based on backdoor dealing. Of course some people would say that about boxing, too. I didn't care. I just wanted a little piece of it, a chance to do something with my life.
'Come on, Mr. B,' I said. 'You're not telling me Tommy Zhang is putting up his own money? Who's backing him, and how clean are they? He didn’t sound happy on the phone to Thailand just now.'
Mr. B waved that away. 'Zhang got all kind of big money contacts. And he got better TV promotion. But thanks to you I got to go kiss his ass, make a fool of myself, and pray what really happened don’t get out. Or we got headlines saying: "Tommy Zhang beat up by girl"'
Well, I thought. If the pants fit...
'Everybody on our side been sworn to secrecy, but you never know what little rat might decide to cash in. Now Tommy’s gotta reschedule his photo shoot.'
I had to work so hard not to laugh. Mr. B saw my face and got really mad. 'He can't take pictures with a damn black eye, Jade. You’re costing me all kinds of money with your fucking childish temper!'
I winced when he dropped the f-bomb. One thing about Mr. Big is that he almost never swears. I better watch out.
I looked down at the cigarette burn in Mr. B's carpet. If I thought about anything else, I might crack and start to cry, and no way was that going to happen. No way.
'I am so close to giving up on you. Anybody else, they’d be gone already, and I would tell Tommy he can press charges.'
I said nothing. Mr. B’s tone changed. 'You know you are like my daughter.' I felt my cheeks getting hot. ‘Your mom and Linda are best friends. Your mom came to me when you got in trouble with the police. I took you on. I talked to your school to take you back, I helped you get that job you need. Me and Linda got our differences, but we promised your mother we would look out for you when she went to the Dominican Republic. Your mom didn’t want to leave you here. She let you stay because of me.’
‘And because Malu moved in to my house,’ I added. ‘You kept me so I could train.’
‘Exactly. You’re talented, only a year away from turning pro. But you’re not eighteen yet. You got to listen to us, Jade. Me, your mom, your cousin Malu, all of us are your family. If you don’t listen we can’t help you.’
He was expecting me to look at him or say something. I was still concentrating on the cigarette burn.
'I'm sorry,' I whispered, finally, without looking at him. 'I'm really sorry. I didn't think.'
I felt my throat tighten as I let myself think about what this gym meant to me. My future here, all my hard work, my dreams of a pro title... I blinked back tears, refocusing on the carpet. Nothing can get through to you if you focus your attention on something very specific and refuse to let go. Nothing.
'You ruined the deal,' Mr. B. said. 'Tommy Zhang won't do business now. If I keep you, he’ll find a way to hurt me. If I get rid of you and somebody offers you money to talk, and then the whole thing comes out.'
'I wouldn't! I wouldn't talk, I swear—'
'You’re just a kid. You don't know this business. Cage will find out. Somebody will find out. I got Khari wiping out all the memory cards. But Tommy Zhang hates us now.'
'He might change his mind,' I said. 'He must be worried, what if somebody finds out he got beat up so easy? If he stops doing business with you, he has to tell people why. There's the show. His lawyers will want to know. What's he gonna say? There must be a way to make it right. What can I do? Can I apologize? Send flowers? Should I grovel? What can I do, Mr. B?'
Mr B. snorted. 'What can you do? I don't know. Leave the country?'
He threw up his hands dramatically and spun around to turn his back on me. His elbow bumped into the gecko statue he kept on his shrine. I saw it start to fall. Before I even knew what I was doing, I'd lunged across the room and caught it.
He turned around and looked at me, astonished. Hell, I'm fast. I’m not bragging, but I got the reflexes of a fighter pilot.
I held the statue out to him.
'OK,' I said, giving him my biggest, cutest smile.
He didn't take the statue. He just looked at it, then at me. His face crunched up like he thought I was playing some trick on him.
'What you mean, OK?'
Good question. What did I mean? Think fast, Barrera.
'Um... don't you want your lucky gecko back?'
He took the gecko and nervously replaced it on the shelf. He made sure it lined up just right next to the incense holder. Then an idea flashed across my mind.
'OK, I'll leave the country,' I said. Actually, it wasn't even like I said it. I was totally talking out of my ass. Yeah, my ass must have said it. And the words came spilling out so easy they almost sounded plausible. 'How long should I go for? Two weeks? Three weeks? Until it blows over and the shows are under way and everybody's focusing on something else?'
Mr. Big rolled his eyes. He didn't believe I was serious.
'A month? My last exam is on Thursday. After that I could go stay with my Nana in the Dominican Republic, but you know she’s sick. And I wouldn’t be able to train there.’
When I said it I realized how much I was missing my mom. And how sad I was that Nana was dying and I’d never see her again unless I went out there…
Mr. B shook his head. He looked at the gecko. I knew I had him now. I saved his gecko. Or did he have another motive?
'Thailand,' he said suddenly, narrowing his eyes. 'You go anywhere, you go there. No age restrictions. You can fight pro there. Then we find out how tough you really are.'
This wasn’t what I had in mind, but I nodded, still letting my ass do the talking. 'I’ll ask my mom. Only thing is, I don’t have airfare.’
'I buy the ticket. You go in my cousin's camp. You train. That's it. No beach, no party. You train. And you fight.'
'Got it, boss,' my ass said. 'When?'
He shook his head. Went to his laptop and started looking up flights. Was he serious?
'You got a passport?'
'I think I know where it is...'
‘Your exam is Thursday? You leave Thursday night,' he said. 'Cheap ticket on standby. Until then I don't want to see you. Give me your phone.’
‘You don’t talk to media, you don’t talk to nobody.'
‘Not even my mom?’
‘Leave her to me.’
I thought for a second. If he didn’t tell my mom what I’d done, he was saving my life. Because she would flip out in an epic way. But me going to Thailand, alone? There was no way she was saying yes to that. She still holds my hand crossing the street to ShopRite.
‘You don’t need this in Bangkok. What you gonna do, play games on there? Twitter? No. This is serious. No distractions.’
‘Mr. B, please, not the phone…’ But I said it weakly.
‘You put up your hood and go out the back door. You don't say goodbye to nobody. You go to school, take your test, act normal until Thursday. I set it up with Coat.'
'My cousin. He coaches, like me. Small gym, some good fighters. He’s Cake's trainer, you know?'
'Isn’t he the guy who doesn’t want Americans in his gym?’
‘That’s him.' He handed me a printout. 'Your flight. Go home. Call me later.’
He reached in his desk and pulled out some Tiger Balm, spreading it on his forehead and closing his eyes.
'Thanks, Mr. B. I promise I won't let you down this time.'
He kept his eyes closed. 'I got a feeling you will, and I’m making a big mistake, but I got a soft spot for you, Jade. Now leave me. I got lot of brown-nosing to do and I hate that.'
I was leaking tears when I closed the door behind me. It always makes me feel worse when people are forgiving, and I guess Mr. B knew that. If somebody had belted me in the head, I would have been able to deal with it. The 'straighten up your act and by the way here's a cookie' approach totally threw me.
I took a deep breath and filled my mind with images of the good Jade I would become. The dedicated, sportsmanlike Jade. The non-vengeful, smiling, tolerant Jade. Helping old ladies cross the street. Turning the other cheek. Getting splashed on by buses and not swearing and kicking the bus. The New Jade. She would be me. Starting right now.
Khari intercepted me just outside the locker room. He grabbed my arm and pulled me against him, held me steady. Ooh, is he nice? In the next couple of seconds I flashed a mini-movie starring me and him on the mat. We’re working on grappling, but then it all turns horny. Images of Eva walking in on us, turning even paler than she already is, and Khari saying, 'Sorry, Eva, but Jade's all the woman I need.' Images of Eva then shooting herself in the head with a pair of sixguns and in a final, glorious picture, me and Khari are lying on the mat, arms and legs all mixed up, drinking Gatorade while Eva’s blood pools under the weight rack.
So much for the good Jade.
Unfortunately, Khari wasn't cooperating with my fantasy because when he leaned down to murmur in my ear, instead of offering to work naked submissions with me, he just said,
'Whatever else happens, I just wanted to tell you that was a sweet left hook, you know what I'm saying? Sweet. I'm gonna remember that one, girl.' Then he let me go, put his finger to his lips, and walked away slow—OMG what an ass!
'Thanks,' I whispered, forgetting all about the New Jade.
‘Faster, Mya,’ Mr Richard gasped. ‘I can’t stay here long.’
Mya’s muscles burned with the effort of dragging the injured man. Beside her, Mr. Richard did nothing to help. The altitude had set him gasping for breath from the moment Mya’s meditation had brought them to the forest. In the outer world it was rainy season, but everything was different here. Sometimes when Mya came to the immortal forest she found lush mangroves, sometimes bamboo jungle. Today it was cold and the air was thin. Trees spiked the blue sky, ending in the snowfields of the Himalayas. There were fir needles under her slippered feet.
The young man’s skin was fever-hot in the cold air. His face was bloody, clothes slathered in mud. Johnny and the boys had already beaten him into a stupor, and then Mr. Richard had injected the night orchid extract into his neck. The night orchid grew in the immortal forest, and Mr. Richard used small amounts of it himself to cross the border between worlds. A big enough dose would send a person into the forest even without a guide--but it was a poison. Without the antidote they could not return to the living world.
When the needle went in, Mya had expected the young man to disappear. But he didn’t.
Something in the young reporter had resisted.
That was why Mya had to bring him here herself. Now she tugged on his filthy arms. He was skinny but tall, a dead weight. His head lolled back, long hair falling away from his handsome face. There was foam in the corners of his mouth and his eyes were half-open, unfocused.
He needs a doctor, she thought.
But he was dangerous. Johnny had said so when he brought the unconscious man to Mr. Richard’s house. Mya had been cleaning the tiny room that passed for a lab when Johnny carried the man and dumped him on the covered porch.
‘We caught him spying, sir,’ Johnny had told Mr. Richard in English. ‘Sending pictures of the house back to a paper in London. He was Marco’s translator but he didn’t give up when we took care of Marco.’
Then he had handed Mr. Richard a silver phone, saying, ‘It’s password-protected.’
‘You disappoint me,’ Mr Richard had said. ‘If you knew there was a translator why didn’t you remove him?’
Mr Richard’s voice was soft and sweet. He trembled when he moved, and his body was weak. He had a long, sticklike nose and crooked yellow teeth. He had brown spots all over his pink skin and a few strands of white hair on his head. The old Englishman didn’t look as though he could harm an insect, let alone an overfed American ex-soldier like Johnny. But Johnny was as afraid of Mr. Richard as the servants were.
‘We have been looking for him, sir,’ Johnny had assured Mr. Richard, pacing up and down the covered porch of the stilt house and glancing out into the trees in the twitchy, slightly-paranoid way he had. ‘You want him to disappear? There’s always the river.’
‘No. Bodies have a way of washing up. He must go where Marco and the others went. There must be no evidence left behind.’
Mya scrubbed a beaker with assiduous attention. After only two years in Thailand, she understood both Thai and English but spoke both languages only haltingly. She didn’t let Mr. Richard know how much she understood because English was the language he used for speaking his secrets.
She had learned her first words of Thai from Som, the monk who had come to the prison camp and offered to sneak Mya and some other children across the river to Thailand—for a better life, Som said. Som had told Mya’s parents she would be safe in Thailand, for there was a kind Englishman who ran an orphanage there, a good Buddhist. Mr. Richard wouldn’t mind if Mya ‘travelled’ in meditation. He would see that she was cared for until the violence in Myanmar was over.
Mya could still see the look on her mother’s face. ‘Work hard and pray we will see each other again, but don’t disappear,’ her mother had said. ‘You know what I mean. Don’t go to your forest. It’s dangerous.’
Forbidding Mya to go to the forest was like forbidding a fish to swim. The forest called her. Her mind would merge with the trees and plants that were nearby, and then she would simply slip over the edge of this world and into that one—she’d wander for hours among immortal animals and unreal flowers beneath great, brooding trees. ‘I don’t know what’s worse,’ her mother would say, exasperated. ‘The way you disappear when you are supposed to be watching Thiri, or the fact that you see ghosts and they don’t frighten you.’
No wonder Mya had been the daughter that was sent away. But Som had not taken her to the orphanage with the others; instead, Mr. Richard had welcomed her into his own home. He had encouraged her to disappear. He needed her to harvest the medicines of the otherworld that she could enter so easily. He needed her to guide him when he took the night flower extract himself, so that he could visit the forest and return home safely with the help of the antidote. And sometimes she came on her own, to deliver packages to other children who had been sent into the forest from their masters in other parts of the world. She was a part of something; she’d known that for a long time. Until now she had believed she was part of something good.
But now she was helping Mr. Richard abandon this young man who was not yet dead, who had no means to escape the immortal forest on his own.
Mya’s throat was tight. She couldn’t believe any of this was happening. The young man was only a translator for Marco; half-Thai, half-British, according to Johnny, and probably innocent of whatever wrong his boss had done. If they left him here alone, he would die.
The forest was moving around her. There were immortal beings here instead of earthly animals. Things with big eyes, iridescent scales, flashing claws. Creatures that dissolved as smoke, then reappeared somewhere else, as bright and unreal as reflections on still water.
Mya could go no farther. She stopped dragging the man, as if to catch her breath. Mr. Richard caught her up.
'We have had a narrow escape,’ he said. ‘Why do you look at me like that?’
Mya said nothing.
‘This fool would have destroyed me and turned you over to the Burmese army. The orphanage would have been closed down, and then what would happen to all the refugee children I care for? Mya, the small-minded are always a danger to people like us. After this man’s soul has grown and learned, he will return to the world to try again in another life. Do you understand?'
Mya nodded, even though she didn't understand why someone who wasn't dead in the first place had to reincarnate. She offered a silent prayer for the man's protection. When Mr. Richard led her away, she tried hard not to look back, but she couldn't help taking one little glance over her shoulder.
In the darkness between trees, she saw golden eyes and a black mane. The lion’s gaze followed Mya.
Mr. Richard was not well. He appeared insubstantial, even as the apparitions in the trees were becoming more solid all the time. A group of deer were soundlessly keeping pace with the humans. Their coin-colored eyes flashed, and one of them assumed the form of a young woman just for a moment. She smiled at Mya.
Embarrassed, Mya looked away. Mr. Richard staggered a little.
'I must return,' he said. ‘The night orchid hurts me.’
He sank to his knees. His eyes closed. He wrapped his arms around his gut, clutching the pain from the plant extract he had injected in himself to come here. Tears streamed down his face.
Mya felt suddenly alone. She had lived her first eight years in a forest village and she was at ease with the smells and subtle sounds of the earthly jungle, but this forest was not the same. It was a place of many moods, and she would never understand it no matter how many times she came here. Now the trees seemed to crowd around her. They were huge and green with moss. Their leaves hissed and muttered. The deer girls had gone, but Mya knew there were other creatures living here, beings from stories and songs. You never knew what was waiting for you in the shifting green shadows.
Like that face. She could just make it out. A child's face, hovering in the air above the suggestion of hands and a body. A boy, not much older than Mya.
The ghost looked at Mya and before she could look away, he had appeared right beside her. Quick as a thought. He was vividly present, complete with the smell of rotting flowers.
'Do you know what he is praying for?' said the boy. Mya shrank away, shaking her head no. ‘Protection from ghosts. He has murdered so many, you see. Even a monk.'
Mya reeled. ‘That can’t be. No one would hurt a monk.’
'I was like you once,' the ghost said. 'You think if you do everything right it will get better. It won't. You will never be free.'
Mya shrank away, quivering. The ghost's ill-will flooded over her like cold water.
Mr. Richard got to his feet. The boy had gone without a sound. Mr Richard reached over and gripped Mya's hand.
'Let's go,' he said in Thai, reaching into his pocket for the envelope containing the antidote he needed to return home. His movements became quicker and more frantic as he didn't find it. Without the antidote, the night orchid that had brought him here would damage him—even kill him, as he was trying to kill the young stranger.
'Mya, where's the envelope?'
Mya stared blankly. He always carried some of the antidote with him. It was a blue powder made from the venom of a naga. Mr. Richard had all sorts of pills and ampules and atomisers in his many pockets. He was a chemist, after all.
His face was strained.
'Help me look,' he said. 'Must have dropped it. Retrace our steps...'
They began to search the forest floor, but Mya wasn't even sure which way they had come. She couldn't see any marks made by the young man’s body where it had been dragged. Mr. Richard moaned and clutched himself and began to froth.
'I can't see,' he said. 'I'm going blind. I mustn't die here. I am so close to immortality…’
He fell down. She stopped and went to him. She'd never seen him like this. He must have taken too much of the night orchid.
'What do I do, Mr. Richard?' she said, kneeling on fir needles. The boy’s ghost formed over Mr. Richard's head and she shuddered.
'Leave him here,' snapped the ghost. 'It's what he'll do to you one day, if he doesn't sell you.'
Mr. Richard didn't seem to hear. He let out another groan.
'Do what we always do,' he managed to say. 'Make the passage back to my house. Help me through... I need the antidote.' He coughed.
'Leave him here,' said the ghost urgently. 'Don't you know he's nothing without you? He can't come here, and he can't leave. Not without you.'
Never listen to ghosts, Mya reminded herself. Anyway, she wanted to be back in the solid world, with its heat and smells and safe walls. With her heart and mind as well as her hands, she felt for the way back through the foliage. The forest began to tremble as its reality gave way.
'Don't leave me,' Mr. Richard begged.
The ghost mocked, 'Ah, now you know how it feels, yes?'
But Mr. Richard still didn't hear the ghost. He clutched at Mya, who closed her eyes and focused her mind on the place where she had come from: the covered porch of Mr. Richard’s stilt house. The forest began to open. She stepped out of the forest and on to the wooden floor, leaving the angry ghost behind.
She was back in the heat of Mr. Richard’s wooden house in the forest. Under the stilt house chickens were squawking, and clouds of insects moved throu