I pick up my book bag from the corner of the gym, heft it over my shoulder and wait for Rob who has his back to me, talking quietly with Paul. The short, thin boy has a peculiar look on his face when he glances at me past Rob and shakes his head rapidly.
“Unless you don’t think you can take her.” Rob teases.
“I’m not going to fight a girl, I’ll break her.” Paul is incredulous. “You spar her.”
“I already have. And she’s good.” Rob answers. “Go easy. Just let her practice on you.”
I want to drop my book bag and run but all I can do is stand there frozen. The rest of the boys mill around listening to the conversation, taking great care in folding up their wraps and leisurely sipping their water. My heart hammers and my throat my goes dry, pictures of Danny flashing behind my eyelids when I blink. I’d remain motionless if not for the rage that finds my legs and drives me out the door without looking back.
“Hold on a sec,” he says to Paul and calls after me. “Marie!”
My nostrils flare and my stubborn legs keep pushing forward. He calls me again and I hear his quick footsteps behind me. “Thanks a lot,” I whirl around to face him. “As if I didn’t get enough humiliation from Danny now I have to deal with you embarrassing me too.”
“What are you talking about?”
I turn to start walking again but he steps in front of me, blocking my way and I stare up into his clueless face. “Next time you want to put on a good show for your friends find someone else to screw with. I liked coming here. This was my favorite place and now you’ve messed it all up.”
“Put on a good show? Are you kidding? You’d kill Paul and you know it. If there’s going to be a show it’s going to be a little girl beating on a dude.”
“I couldn’t even hit Danny and I wanted to hit him! I’ve got nothing against Paul, how am I supposed to beat him up?”
He coughs, ineffectively covering a laugh. “That’s not what sparring is about, you see us do it all the time. You know that. You’ve sparred with me haven’t you?”
“That was different.” The edge of my anger dulls, revealing a churning layer of fear underneath it.
“No it wasn’t.”
I sigh, looking past him at the entrance to the alley where only three months ago Rob rescued me from Danny while I stood pinned against a wall letting my fear win. “But why?” I ask him. “Why bother setting up a sparring match with Paul?”
“Because it’s going to be funny as hell when you beat him.”
“I’m not going to beat him.” I glare at Rob and his stupid grin.
“Just trust me, will ya?” He turns me by the shoulders and shoves me forward.
“Fine.” I concede. “But this is going to be a disaster.”
“I wouldn’t hurt you. You’re like the little brother I never had.”
“Shut up.” I shove his arm away when he playfully puts it around my shoulder.
We walk back to the gym where Rob wraps my hands and lets me borrow his gloves, which look big and silly on my scrawny arms. He fits me with headgear that smells like the dried sweat of the dozens of boys that have already used it. If anything, Paul is even more reluctant than I was but eventually gives in with Rob assuring him the whole time that he’s just helping me practice. We stand in our respective corners on opposite sides of the mat and cautiously step toward each other after Rob yells “ding ding” to signal the beginning of the round.
All I can hear is the sound of my own breathing as Paul and I stare at each other from the black padded cages around our faces. With an awkward smile, he throws a deliberately weak right hand and doesn’t even hit me in the face with it. He aims it purposely to the side of my head so I could easily block it, which I do and return the gesture with a slow punch of my own.
“Come on guys,” Rob says. “Let’s go. This is a fight, not a ballet.”
Paul throws a slow left hook, which I answer with a gentle body shot and he nods approvingly. If only he’d stop being so nice maybe I could punch him for real. I play with my distance, shuffling backward and forward until I find my reach. He completely misses the next punch as I get more comfortable with my head movement and easily bob out of the way. He misses the next and the next despite his increasing speed, both of which I counter with light jabs to the padding on his face. His smile fades into a look of concentration as his punches start coming with more force and he lands one on the side of my head throwing me off balance.
“Sorry.” He doesn’t have time to finish the word before my glove lands against his nose. All of the guys begin laughing and cheering me on, Rob’s voice barely audible over the din telling me to circle to the left away from Paul’s more powerful arm.
I move toward him and hit him with a series of body punches, taking advantage of the elbows he always forgets to tuck in. I parry his jab and counter with a straight right followed by a fast right to the body. Our force escalates with each exchange, the sound getting louder along with the voices of the onlookers. A strange feeling comes over me, the fear that quaked in my legs converts into energy that rushes through my veins and propels my fists into Paul’s sides, stomach and head. He answers with punches that are hard enough to surprise me when they land…luckily not many of them do.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I’m remembering the conversations Rob and I have had about the boys in his class and their various weaknesses. I recall our discussion of Paul and his haphazard blocking and tendency to telegraph his punches. His right arm rears back and I dance out of the way, jumping back into the pocket and sneaking a powerful right hook that whips his head to the side. He swears and his face flushes pink under the spattering of freckles across his nose. The guys go crazy, clapping and calling out to me, not one of them rooting for Paul.
“Shut up, I can’t concentrate!” He yells to their obvious delight.
He advances toward me, catching me with a combination of hooks and body shots that make me back up several steps but he keeps coming. For a moment I’m overwhelmed by the flurry of punches rocking me side to side and hold my arms in front of my face trying to get my bearings. My lungs are burning, my arms tingly where his gloves hit my skin. I can feel his confidence build as his arms swing back and forth sloppily raining punches. But the problem with too much confidence is that it makes people forgetful. I tune out the chaos of voices, absorb the punishment, and step to the side. Paul is so focused on hitting me that I easily sneak a left jab to the body. Just as I thought, he brings his arms down to block it leaving his face open for me to throw everything I have into a right uppercut. My fist hits him squarely on the chin and sends him stumbling backwards.
“Ding ding.” Rob can hardly be heard over the cacophony of laughing and applause for the little girl that just beat a dude.
I bite the Velcro straps, pull the gloves from my wrists and wrestle off my headgear, grinning in triumph.
Paul throws his arms out from his sides and shrugs, still red faced. “You told me to go easy!”
“Little brother!” Rob laughs and slaps my back. The other guys give me playful shoves and high-fives, catching on to the nickname, saying “nice work, little brother,” as they slowly file out the door. Paul gives up on trying to get anyone to listen to him and shakes his head as he walks out.
My heart is still pounding and my cheeks are sore from grinning, I’m so elated I don’t even mind be called little brother. I did it, I didn’t chicken out. If only Rob hadn’t scared off Danny I could finally do the same thing to him and show him that I’m not going to let anyone mess with me anymore.
“Told ya.” Rob finishes unraveling his hand wraps and stuffing the material unceremoniously into the opening of one of his gloves.
“Yeah. Guess you did.” I grab a paper towel from the dispenser on the wall to dry off my sweaty face and feel a sudden pang of guilt for getting so angry with him. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m gonna catch up with the guys. Are you cool walking home by yourself?”
“Yeah I’m good. Thanks.” I dig through my book bag for my cell phone with weak arms and text Bailey, “Just beat up a BOY.” I hit the send button with trembling fingers and throw my bag over my shoulders.