On fight week, Kayla feels every muscle in her body harden. Electrical currents race around in her bloodstream; each movement is animated by a force that feels uncontrollable, uncontainable. Her coach keeps telling her to rest, to sleep, but how is she supposed to sleep? Her life has tapered to one fine and brilliant point. In bed at night she imagines each punch landing like a sledgehammer ripping through concrete.
This will be Kayla’s third fight. She lost her first, won her second. In the first, she felt caught in a herd of stampeding horses: overwhelmed, overpowered. In her second, the herd stilled and parted and her objective emerged from the dust with stunning clarity. She pressed forward, hurled the combinations she had spent countless hours honing. She pinned the other girl to the ropes and did not relent until the bell.
After that second fight, the adrenaline high soared for days. Insults bounced off her, at school and at home. She walked around feeling like nothing in this world could ever hurt her again.
Not long after that second fight, however, something irrevocable happened. Her best friend abandoned their coach for a rival gym. No conversation, no advance warning. Most afternoons, they met up in an empty field to do sprints and one day she simply was not there. When confronted over text, she said she wanted to win nationals this year and she didn’t see that happening with Coach, whom she called a washed-up old fuck. Kayla understands that this is a thing that happens in their world, that fighters come and go; she just did not think it would ever happen to them. They have not spoken since, though they still follow each other on social media. Every week they post photos: scowling in headgear on sparring days, flexing in dirty mirrors after lifting weights. Kayla feels like they are in silent competition with one another and maybe that has always been the case, even when they were still best friends. Same age. Same weight class. Only two white girls on the fight team. They both even have a dead parent knocking around in their pasts. Her former best friend’s father was killed in a car accident three years ago. Kayla’s own mother has been dead for a decade, after a blood vessel burst like a pipe in her brain. She collapsed in the grocery store, right by the citrus display. Life support for twenty-four hours and then gone.
The thing Kayla resents most is how her former best friend has managed to shake her confidence in her gym, which is to say her home. Just a little. Just enough. She feels like she’s seeing her family through the eyes of an outsider for the first time. All the small things she never paid much attention to before—now they’re all she notices. Coach’s habit of running late; the haphazard equipment (good luck finding two dumbbells that match); his mercurial moods. One day he waves his fighters off, sends them away to work the heavy bags on their own. Sometimes you have to do for yourselves, he tells them, like they’re a bunch of needy children. Another he spends an hour breaking down the jab in glorious detail. One day she can’t tie her shoes right; another she’s the greatest thing this gym has ever seen. On fight dates, Coach is like one of those performers who practically has to be carried to the venue only to transform into an entirely different person the moment he steps onstage. She is certain that the talks he delivered before her bouts did nothing less than alter the substance of her soul. The way he left her feeling so understood, so believed-in.
Two days before the fight, Kayla drives over to the gym to shadowbox in front of the mirrors, work her head movement with the slip bag. Then she sits ringside and watches Coach oversee two guys sparring. One is a newbie with a big mouth, the other a veteran who keeps landing crisp, effortless punches, driving the newbie into a pinched, sweaty silence. One thing she has always loved about boxing is the transparency, the way five minutes in the ring can tell you things about a person that otherwise might take years to learn.
Though she has to admit that this theory is another thing that has been rattled lately, considering her former best friend is, despite all the rounds they put in together, now behaving in a way that Kayla never could have predicted.
She looks up at the ring, at the two tall, thin men dancing around each other inside the ropes, at Coach calling out instructions from the corner, the brim of his baseball cap pulled low. Breadbasket means throw a straight punch to the body. Ticktock means move your head already. She remembers all the times she and her former best friend embraced in the ring’s slightly sunken center after a hard sparring session, heaving and drenched. For a moment, Kayla gets the outlandish idea that her friend has been kidnapped and a menacing stranger is posting under her name.
Before Kayla even sees the bout sheet, she knows who she is going to be matched with. There aren’t that many local girls in her weight class and division. The day before the fight her suspicion is confirmed.
“She only has two tricks,” Coach tells her. “You know them both.”
They spend the rest of the day reviewing how to dismantle those tricks, working slowly and lightly in the ring. Her former best friend’s first trick is catching someone with a looping left hook as they’re coming in. The second is feinting an overhand and digging the body instead. Coach reminds her of how to take each punch away and how to counter.
“Keep her out of your head.” Coach flicks her forehead with his index finger and thumb. “Don’t let her go where she doesn’t belong.”
The fight is in Kissimmee. Kayla leaves early in the morning, in order to make weigh-in. Coach is driving a few teenagers down in his van; she will meet everyone at the venue, a civic center on a large lake. On her way out of town, she swings by a gas station. The air is already torpid; the dawn sky is a luminous, tangerine veil. At the pump, the credit-card reader is broken, so she has to pay inside. She decides to use the bathroom, to grab a sports drink and a protein bar for after weigh-in, while she’s at it.
On a different day, she might have noticed the man hovering outside the entrance, right in front of the Florida Lottery sign, with the neon-pink flamingo balanced on one spindly leg. White and drawn, in black pants with some kind of pale dust on the knees, and a swamp-green hoodie, strange only because the temperature is already pushing ninety. Hood pulled tight around his face and eyes jumping all around the parking lot, like he’s waiting for someone else to arrive, like he’s waiting for a sign.
The gas station is just down the street from her house, where Kayla lives with her father, an employee of John E. Polk Correctional. She has been coming to this gas station for candy and slushies ever since she was a kid. It is one of the few places that remains untouched by time: same yellow linoleum floors, same dust-clotted light. Kayla is waiting to pay, the sports drink in one hand and the protein bar in the other, when she hears slamming, shouting, coming from the front of the line. Two people are ahead of her, a man in navy coveralls and a woman in jeans and a pink tank top and white sneakers. A maroon braid hangs between her shoulder blades. L’Oréal Babylon Intense Red—that’s Kayla’s best guess. The woman cradles a family-size bag of pretzels. The man in coveralls takes a step back, holds up his hands.
Kayla pops up on her toes; the man in the green hoodie is standing in front of the counter, up by the black-cherry cigarillos and the energy drinks and the winning ticket sold here signs that paper the wall behind the register. Does he think he can just cut the line? she thinks at first, but then she sees the small, black gun raised above his head.
The hoodie screams something and then the cashier screams something back and then the hoodie fires two shots into the ceiling. Plaster rains onto the floor. A choking white dust gusts down the aisles.
After that, the air around her begins to shimmer; every sound is amplified, overwhelming, an immense wave rearing up from the ocean and arcing overhead. The man in the coveralls lunges in the direction of the counter; he hurls himself at the hoodie and attempts to wrestle away the gun, but the hoodie gets free, skitters backward, and fires. The man in the coveralls collapses. The woman screams and drops the pretzels. She sinks to the floor, rocks on her heels, arms lashed around her knees. She looks to be around fifty, with a long face and feline-green eyes.
Kayla crouches beside the woman, taps her knee, points to the end of the aisle. Together they crawl to the humming refrigerators, take shelter behind a pyramid of Bud Light cases. The woman presses her hands over her ears. Kayla faces the refrigerators and watches the reflections, something she has seen action heroes do in movies. Up front, she can hear the hoodie screaming at the cashier to keep his hands up, to lay down on the ground. She scans the reflections for the man in the coveralls, but he is nowhere in sight.
Finally, she hears the entry chime; she pictures the hoodie bursting into the parking lot. Running and running.
Kayla stands, slowly, and peers down the aisle. The cashier is still behind the counter, alive; he is talking on the phone. She feels as though she has been huddled behind the beer cases for hours. The woman uncurls her body and looks around like she’s not quite sure how she ended up here.
“I feel sick.” She clutches her stomach. She has a slender build, one that Kayla guesses is deceptively strong, from the ribbons of muscle on her forearms. The kind of person who can hit harder than you think.
Kayla bends down and grabs the woman by a pointy elbow. Helps her up. “What’s your name?” she asks her, and the woman says, “Mary.”
Together they rush over to the man in the coveralls. He is conscious. He has been shot in the shoulder. Blood is pooling under his left side. Kayla kneels by his head. His hair is thinning; she can see straight through to his scalp, glistening with sweat. He’s wearing a gold wedding ring. His name—Julian—is stitched onto the chest of his coveralls with light-blue thread. She has never seen a shot person before; she has no idea what to do. “I’m so sorry,” she keeps saying to him. Useless, useless. The cashier has called 911. The woman crouches beside the man; she places a thin, pale hand to his forehead.
“Imagine you are in a warm cave,” she tells him. “A safe and quiet place.”
“My wife,” he says. “Can someone call my wife?”
“We’ll call whoever you want.” She speaks in a soft and soothing voice. Kayla wonders if she has a lot of experience talking to the injured or the critically ill.
A police car skids into the parking lot, followed by an ambulance. Sirens, flashing lights. The man is put on a stretcher and taken away.
No one can leave until they give a statement. Kayla, the woman, and the cashier all go outside, away from the wing-shaped bloodstain on the linoleum and the gaping hole in the ceiling. The cashier, a middle-aged man in glasses and a white T-shirt, gives his statement first. He keeps his hands crossed over his round stomach, breathes in huge gulps, like someone has been holding his head underwater and he’s just now been allowed to surface.
Running late, Kayla texts Coach. Be there as soon as I can.
The tangerine sky has faded into a muted blue; raft-like clouds drift overhead. A neon purple open sign blinks on and off behind them.
“Do you live around here?” Kayla asks the woman while they wait. She notices wet crescents under her armpits. Her jeans have an elastic waistband.
“I work over there.” She points at the diner across the street, Perks, located in a small strip mall. A black leather coin purse is wedged into the front of her pants. She keeps opening her mouth wide, like she has an ache in her jaw. When the police officer comes to collect their statements, she goes first and a few minutes in she stops talking and claws at the fabric just over her heart.
A second ambulance is summoned. Actually it turns out to be the same ambulance as before, piloted by two muscular, serious-looking young men with goatees. The moment they dropped the man in the coveralls at the emergency room, they were called right back.
Once the woman is on the stretcher, one of the paramedics turns to Kayla and asks if she’s family. She starts to shake her head, but then the woman sits up a little and cries out, “Why yes! That’s my daughter.”
At first, Kayla thinks she has misheard the woman. Or maybe the woman is in shock and has mistaken Kayla for someone else.
“Is that right?” the paramedic asks, impatient. “Are you two together?”
She looks at the woman being loaded into the ambulance, her sneaker soles dark with blood. She feels caught between her desire to make it to Kissimmee in time to fight and imagining her mother lying still by the citrus. She wonders if a stranger waited with her until the ambulance came. About the last face her mother peered into, the last hand she touched.
All these questions that she has never dared to ask her father.
“Okay,” Kayla says. “Yes. We are.”
The next thing she knows she’s grabbing her backpack from her car, making sure all the doors are locked, the windows rolled up. When the paramedic hands her the woman’s black coin purse, Kayla zips it into her backpack and then she is riding alongside this Mary, this perfect stranger, in the cool little cave of the ambulance.
The paramedic performs an EKG, a mess of wires and round electrodes. “The man that was shot,” Kayla asks the paramedic. “Is he going to die?”
“He’s going to be fine,” the young man says, sounding almost a little bored.
At the hospital, they are ushered straight into a long tan hallway with a row of beds, separated by blue privacy curtains. A nurse in mint-green scrubs tells them the doctor will read the EKG as soon as possible.
“Describe your pain,” the nurse says to Mary.
“I feel like I’ve been punched.” Her eyes are shut tight. She has a pronounced clavicle, long and straight as a beam, and a slender neck. Bangs that fall to her eyebrows. Her maroon hair is radiant under the hospital lights.
“Punched where?” says the nurse.
She touches her chest, her shoulder, her jaw. The nurse makes a note on her clipboard. She turns to Kayla and explains that they will draw blood and administer medications through her IV.
“Take two aspirin and call me from the great beyond.” The softness has evaporated from Mary’s voice; the words burst out of her sharp and loud.
The nurse ignores her. “What can you tell me about her medical history?”
“What?” Kayla is startled by the question. She’s wearing her backpack and slides her hands under the front straps. The backpack has all her fight gear inside: gloves, mouthpiece in its plastic case, headgear, lucky socks, a small round container of Vaseline.
The nurse glances down at her clipboard. “Aren’t you her daughter?”
“Oh,” Kayla says. “Yes, well, we haven’t spoken in a long time.”
The nurse nods curtly, makes another note, leaves. Kayla closes all the privacy curtains, buffering them from the hive of the nurses’ station and the dire cases rushing past. She wonders about the man who was shot in the shoulder, if he is somewhere on this floor.
“Take two aspirin and call me from the grave,” Mary says.
“They’re going to run some tests,” Kayla tells her. “They might need to do something called a cardiac cath?”
“They kill you and then they bill you.” Mary writhes around on the bed. “They kill you and then they kill you.”
“No one is getting killed,” Kayla says and right then the patient next door starts screaming, a cry so high and awful it could split the heavens. “Is there anything I should tell them about your medical history? Is there anyone you want me to call?”
She has to raise her voice to be heard over the neighbor’s skull-cracking screams. She is terrified to step into the hallway and see for herself what’s happening next door.
“No,” says Mary. “No calls.”
The screaming neighbor suddenly goes silent.
By the time the nurse returns, it is past lunchtime; a doctor has read the EKG. “You’ve had a heart attack,” the nurse says. “That’s the bad news.”
The good news is that the heart attack was relatively minor. Only a small portion of the muscle has been damaged. Still, Mary must be admitted to the coronary-care unit; it is possible that she will need surgery. Kayla feels bewildered by the pace of information: One minute she’s hearing minor and the next surgery. How to understand what it is that Mary is facing?
“When?” Kayla asks. A good daughter, she imagines, would ask questions.
“Soon,” says the nurse, but three hours pass and there is still no sign of a transport orderly or anyone else.
Eventually Mary rolls onto her side, falls asleep. Kayla goes down to the cafeteria. She buys a cheeseburger and a chocolate pudding topped with a stiff swirl of whipped cream, since making weight is no longer an immediate concern. It’s not until Kayla begins eating that she realizes she is raw with hunger; her hands tremble as she brings the food to her mouth. After she finishes, she checks her phone, finds about a hundred worried messages from Coach and one from her father, asking her if she’s fought yet. Her former best friend, meanwhile, has made a bitchy Instagram post, with an image of an empty ring and a caption talking about how the saddest thing is not a fighter losing, but a fighter being scared to fight.
Kayla sinks deeper into the booth. It’s true that she’s been nursing a small and secret relief that she will not have to battle her former best friend today after all. In sparring, she usually got the better of Kayla in small, tricky ways—counterpunching, angles. She knew just what to feed her and when. Tactics that could be exploited to ruinous ends in a real bout.
She opens her backpack and takes out Mary’s coin purse. She digs around and finds two damp ten-dollar bills, a credit card, her driver’s license, which she had to hand over to the nurse earlier to be copied, along with a health-insurance card; she has no idea what kind of plan Mary is on, if the expense will drive her into a debt that she will never be able to get free of. Mary is forty-eight. She is not an organ donor. She finds a small Polaroid of a marmalade cat stretched out on a bright-green lawn. An empty matchbook. From a side pocket, she pulls out three business cards: George’s Tavern, one of the few places in town where people can still smoke indoors; Rivera Family Chiropractic Center; a psychic adviser.
She knows that doctors have rules about who they can talk to, so she dials the number for the psychic adviser. She keeps thinking that someone must know this woman, that there must be someone out there that she should inform.
“I’m calling about Mary.” Kayla reads aloud her full name from the driver’s license. “I think she’s a client of yours?”
“I’m going to stop you right there,” the psychic adviser says, “and let you know that I am not in the business of giving refunds.”
“She’s in the hospital.”
“I am an innocent seer. I am not liable. I don’t make anything happen.”
“I’m just trying to figure out what to do,” says Kayla. “She might need surgery. Do you know if she has any family?”
“Honey,” the psychic adviser says. “Do you know how many Marys I talked to this week?”
“No,” Kayla admits.
“I could give the Bible a run for its money,” she says before hanging up.
Soon, Kayla is back in the rising elevator, her backpack between her feet. Her phone pings in her pocket. Her former best friend has just texted, wanting to know what happened today and if she is okay. As though she thinks that, in secret, she can go back to being the person she used to be. A teammate. A friend. Fuck you, Kayla thinks, and does not reply.
She finds Mary’s bed empty. A tangle of white sheets. Dangling tubes. She asks nurse after nurse what’s happened, begins to panic that she left at some critical juncture to eat a cheeseburger and a chocolate pudding. Finally, she learns that Mary has been transferred to the coronary-care unit. She crosses a sky bridge, moving briskly through the blue evening; she rushes down one long, bright-white hallway after another until she finds Mary’s room.
“You just missed the doctor,” Mary tells her, a little scolding.
Kayla pulls a hard, beige chair up to her bedside. “What did the doctor say?”
“I have two choices.” She sighs, crosses her arms over her chest, pushes out her lips. “Surgery or…surgery!”
“Tonight. Maybe. They don’t know.” The room is cramped and windowless, with a tart, medicinal smell and dim lighting, though the bed itself is spotlit. Kayla can make out blue veins running under Mary’s face, evidence of that deeper architecture currently under attack. Her bloody sneakers have been replaced with white ankle socks.
Eventually Kayla knows that she will need to drop this charade. Eventually she will need to go home.
“Earlier,” Mary says. “You asked me about my family history.”
“The nurse did. Yes.”
“My mother died of a heart attack. Well, that’s not exactly right. My father threw my mother down a flight of stairs. Then she had a heart attack and then she died.” She rests her hands on the small hump of her stomach. “I come from a long line of fragile and broken hearts.”
“How old were you?” Kayla asks. “When your mother died?”
“Fourteen,” she says. “Your age.”
Kayla sits up straight in the hard chair, a little insulted. “Actually, I’m seventeen.”
“Seventeen!” Mary pushes herself up on her elbows and squints. “Why are you so skinny?”
“I’ve been dieting.” She fights at 112 and has to cut ten or more pounds in the weeks before a bout. She has gotten used to the meager meals of chicken and boiled vegetables, the slow, steamy runs in her sauna suit, the clawing hunger.
“Do you have one of those mothers who is always on some kind of strange diet? My mother once ate nothing but cabbage soup for a month. ‘If I must be miserable, I might as well be thin.’ That was her motto.”
I have no mother, Kayla wants to tell her. “I’m a boxer,” she says instead.
“I was supposed to fight today.”
“All my life,” Mary says, “I have tried so hard to avoid violence.”
How did people come by their violences? For a moment, Kayla feels like she can perceive the whole miserable network. The hoodie got his violence from somewhere, as did her father. Eventually the hoodie will be apprehended and, if he ends up in Polk, their two violences will collide and create a violence larger than either of them.
To locate the dawn of her own violence, Kayla only has to recall her early days at the gym. Once another kid pinned her to the ropes during class, shuffled left and right so she couldn’t escape. She stabbed him with an uppercut to the solar plexus and he stumbled back, eyes wide. His submission, his surprise: She felt like she had spent years alone in a rollicking sea and suddenly someone had thrown her a rope, told her what direction to swim in.
“What now?” Kayla asks.
“Nothing happens.” Mary presses her head down into the white pillow. Her voice grows louder, filling all four corners of the room. “Nobody comes, nobody goes.”
“Didn’t the doctor just come by?”
“ ‘Let us do something, while we have the chance!’ It is not every day that we are needed. That we personally are needed.” Her eyes snap open. Her pupils are ringed with gold. “Do you know what you are doing here?”
Kayla jumps up from the chair, worried that Mary has turned delirious. She stands at the head of the bed and wonders if she should touch her forehead and talk about warm and quiet caves, like Mary did when the man in the coveralls was bleeding on the gas-station floor. She remembers a stray line from a song her mother used to sing when she was a child.
“To see a fine lady,” she whispers. “Upon a white horse.”
Mary closes her eyes again and appears to drift, her hands still at rest on her stomach. Kayla decides that she will stay until Mary is wheeled into the operating room. Then she will take a rideshare to the gas station, retrieve her car, drive home. She opens the black coin purse and digs out the psychic advisor’s card. She writes her name and number on the back, returns the card to the purse. She imagines sitting with Mary at Perks, when all of this is over. The fragrant heat of coffee. The sweet stick of pie.
At three in the morning, a nurse preps Mary for surgery. An orderly transfers her to a gurney and then they’re off. Kayla follows them into the elevator and then back across the skybridge—by now it feels like they are traversing a black sea—and into another elevator, which delivers them to an entirely different wing, on an even-higher floor. It is like a kingdom, this hospital. Labyrinthine, vast. All the hallways aggressively illuminated. She tries to recall where exactly in this kingdom her mother died, but she can’t remember the unit or the floor; she must have been too young to retain such details. She only remembers the way her mother’s skin had turned gray and spongy as putty.
“There, there,” Kayla says at the mouth of the operating room. She stares down at Mary’s long ashen face. Her maroon hair, her colorless lips. She tries to understand her role. Has she been a bystander? An innocent seer, as the psychic adviser claimed to be? “It’ll be over before you know it.”
Mary gazes up at Kayla with a strange opacity, as though she is just now starting to absorb all that has happened, and then the orderly rolls her away.
She leaves the black coin purse at the nurses’ station. An exhausted-looking young woman—puddles of mascara under her eyes—takes it without argument. Kayla walks to the end of the hallway and stands by a tall window. She sees something that looks at first like an oil spill below, but no: She’s looking down at a man-made lake.
In the window, Kayla’s reflection is sharp and bright, and she begins to slowly, softly shadowbox—uppercut, uppercut, hook, cross—an absentminded habit, something she’s caught herself doing in all kinds of places.
From the other end of the hall a gurney flies toward her, flanked by two orderlies in white, running like a pair of very athletic angels. Her hands drop. A voice crackles over the speakers. Some urgent missive. As the stretcher rounds the corner, the patient’s head rolls in her direction and she glimpses the man in the coveralls, the one who was shot in the shoulder, the one the paramedic said would be fine. Julian. Where could he be off to now?
A nurse trails behind. She walks with her hands in pockets, nodding at everyone she passes. She seems to be in no hurry at all. Kayla wonders if she is on a break.
“That view is the only thing in this hospital that no one ever complains about. Living or dead.” The nurse pauses by the window and explains to Kayla that the only problem is that the lake wasn’t built deep enough and so it floods when it rains; sometimes the water breaches the entrance and then it’s like trying to walk around on a Slip ’N Slide.
“Your mother is going to be fine.” The nurse pats her shoulder. “Don’t worry.”
Kayla blinks at the nurse, takes in her wine-dark scrubs and her frosted-blond hair. She is the one who prepped Mary for surgery. She feels a chill, for that is exactly what the paramedic said about the man in the coveralls. And yet, moments ago, she witnessed him being transferred to another part of the kingdom with tremendous urgency.
The nurse continues down the illuminated hallway. Kayla bats at the air a few more times, fists loosely curled, then reminds herself of where she is, makes her hands go still.
Three months later, she will get another chance to fight her former best friend and she will knock her out in the second round. She will move with a finely honed aggression that is beyond anything she has ever shown in the ring before; she will understand that she has now broken through to a different place. I never doubted, Coach will tell her as they embrace in the corner. After the fight, she will stride over to her former best friend’s corner and shake hands with her and her new coach; she will learn that nothing makes her feel like a badder bitch than showing magnanimity in victory. The hoodie who robbed the gas station will be shot dead by the police outside a laundromat. See? Kayla’s father will say after he hears the news. They kill white people too. Which is not the defense he thinks it is. She will not ever hear from Mary. She will go into the diner, Perks, and ask if Mary is on shift and the manager will tell her that Mary hasn’t worked there in years. “Are you sure?” she will ask, and the manager will say, “Look, kid, I know my Marys.”
Kayla stares down at the lake, which appears, at this hour, unfathomably deep. When the man passed on the gurney he seemed to be looking at her, as though he might have remembered her face from the early morning, her expression of terror and helplessness, but perhaps he was just casting a long, last look in the direction of the outside world. The starless night sky; the emerald curve of the lake; the rising tide.