Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Science fiction
The warning whistle sounded. Zeb cursed, slipped the plastic guard back into Harris' mouth, and slipped out of the ring. Harris rose. The bell sounded, announcing the fifth round.
Harris got underway, resumed his erratic up-and-down, right-and-left motion, and headed toward the Smile again.
It took only a few moments. Walters switched tactics, went on the offensive, drove Harris into a corner. Harris blocked the blows coming in at his ribs, saw an opening, and automatically threw his backfist again. He felt Walters draw away from him.
Walters, still in retreat, caught the backfist on his left glove, then kicked high. His foot slammed into Harris' temple, a blast of pain as sharp and distinct as a cymbal crash from a symphony, and Harris watched through gray fog as the canvas rose up to slap him.
Cheers rolled over him. The crowd loved it. Damn them.
He got up. It took a while. The referee talked to him, and Harris didn't understand his words. Maybe it wasn't English. Maybe he was just concentrating too hard on staying upright to make sense of his speech. Then the referee went away and the crowd roared again.
Harris saw Sonny Walters dancing around, his arms high. The Smile had won. The Smile had been right all along. Harris headed for his corner. The faces there weren't smiling.
It took Harris a long time to tie his shoe. There didn't seem to be any reason to do it faster. And this way he didn't have to look up, to stare into disappointed faces.
Zeb sat on the locker-room bench in front of him and cleared his throat. "Harris, I think we're done."
"Okay. I'll see you Monday."
Good. Just leave. Don't make me look at you.
"No, that's not what I mean. I think you and I are done. I can't work with you anymore."
Finally Harris did look up, into Zeb's sympathetic, set expression. "What do you mean?"
"Harris, why did you get into kick-boxing?"
"Same reason you did."
"No, tell me."
Harris thought back. "Two Olympics on the tae kwon do team. I didn't take any medals, but hey, I was a kid for the first one. Everybody seemed to think I could go all the way. Be a champion. That's what it was. I wanted to be a champ."
"Want. I still want it."
"I don't think so." Zeb sighed. "Harris, you
a champion . . . in practice. In training, nobody can match you. You've got more speed and power than anyone your size. But when it turns into a competition, when the fight becomes real, you just fold up."
Harris felt a lump form in his throat as he realized Zeb meant it. "You're really cutting me loose, aren't you?"
"As a fighter, yeah. That's business. I need to manage fighters who are going to have careers. That's not you. But I'm not cutting you loose as a friend."
"Thanks." Harris looked back at his shoe. He pulled the knot out and began tying it again.
"Are you seeing Gaby tonight?"
"Yeah. We're having dinner." Great. He'd have to tell her, too.
Gaby, you know how I don't exactly have a job? Well, I just got fired anyway.
"Are you two serious?"
"You going to marry her?"
Harris heard the silence stretch out, felt the awkwardness grow between them. He ignored it, not letting Zeb off the hook. By millimeters, he adjusted the size of the bow in his shoelace.
Finally, Zeb held his hand out.
Harris looked at it a moment, then took it. "Okay, Zeb."
"You going to be all right?"
"You might think about teaching. Lotta schools out there would be happy to have you."
"Give me a call." Zeb left, looking nearly as gloomy as Harris felt.
Two Olympic appearances down the toilet.
What the hell. His life wasn't over. He had a great girlfriend and a pair of well-tied shoes.
Gaby was waiting for him on the sidewalk outside the Chinese restaurant. He spotted her from the corner across the street and took an extra minute just to watch her, as he always did when he had the chance.
She was an Aztec princess by way of
magazine. With her high cheekbones and blacker-than-night hair, she took after her Mexican mother more than her Irish-American father. She wore jeans and a simple red silk blouse with confidence enough to suggest that she surpassed the dress code of the island's trendiest club. At this distance, he couldn't see her eyes, but he knew the way they looked at everything, focusing on this and dismissing that with intensity and razory speed.
Then she spotted him. He expected her broad, welcoming smile, but all she did was wave. He crossed the street and joined her.
She looked at his battered face and winced, then stretched up on tiptoe to give him a quick kiss. "How'd it go?"
"Well, you'd know if you'd been there."
"Yes, I know. I'm sorry. Let's go in, I'm starved."
He held the door open for her. "So, what were you up to today?"
"Tell you later."
He ordered shrimp fried rice; she just asked for a cup of wonton soup. When the waitress left, he said, "I thought you were starving."
"I am. Well, sort of starving." She looked uncomfortable and shut up.
He let the silence hang between them for a moment. "Well, I've got some news," he said, just as she said, "I need to talk about something."
They both smiled at the awkwardness.
Harris didn't feel like smiling. Maybe she wanted to move in together. He didn't think he was ready for that. Maybe she even wanted to set a date. Oh, God; maybe, in spite of their precautions, she was pregnant. "You go first," he said.
"Okay." She took a deep breath. "Harris, I think maybe we . . . ought to kind of go our separate ways."
He put his head down on the table.
"Did you understand me?"
"I don't think so." He straightened up. Maybe she was speaking the same language as the referee earlier tonight. Taken apart, the words were English; put together, they made no sense.
"Harris, it's not working."
"What's not working?"
not working. Out. Working out."
"The hell we're not. How are we not working out? We hardly ever fight."
"I know we don't. You're one of the
men I've ever met."
"Am I lousing up your career? Did your parents forget to tell me that they hate me?"
"Nothing like that."
"Is there another guy?"
She almost smiled. "Harris."
"Look, if it's
career choice, let me tell you, I just went through a big change."
"Gaby, I love you." There they were, the magic words. He'd never had any problem saying them. He meant them.
He waited, but this time she didn't say them back. She just gave him a look full of hurtful sympathy.
"Oh, Jesus." He slumped back in his chair. "When did this happen?"
"Harris." She closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, he knew she'd found the words. "I think the world of you. I don't want to lose you as a friend. But . . . well, this is
fault. I keep expecting you to be something you're not."
"Which is what? Just where exactly do I fall short?" He searched her face for a clue.
She moved like a butterfly impaled on a pin, struggling with words that didn't seem to want to come out. "I don't think I can describe it."
"Try." His voice fell to a whisper. "I can change."
It was the wrong thing to say. He'd never known he could sound so pathetic. Suddenly he knew why she was doing this. He'd become a neighborhood dog and she was the woman he'd followed home.
He wouldn't want a dog, either.
Her next words were the rocks thrown to drive him off. "I think I need my keys back." She set down his own apartment key beside his silverware, then wiped at the tear that threatened to roll down her cheek.
He looked at the key. She didn't even want to come out to his doghouse anymore. He almost laughed.
He pulled out his keychain and wrestled her building and apartment keys off the metal coil. He set them down in front of her.
She put them in her fanny pack and zipped it up. Her voice was low, pained. "Good-bye, Harris." And she left.
Harris watched the door swing closed behind her. "Zeb should've put you in the ring tonight," he said. "You would've pounded Sonny flat."
The waitress set Gaby's soup down in front of him.
What the hell. His life wasn't over. He had a great bowl of wonton soup and a pair of well-tied shoes.
Phipps looked up as Gaby come out of the restaurant.
An interesting change. Before, she'd been alert. Now she walked with her head down, hands stuffed into her jeans pockets. A more likely target for a mugger. Phipps might actually have to protect her. The irony amused him.
The guy in the jeans jacket, the one who'd met her at the door, didn't come out with her. Phipps liked that. One less complication, assuming that she didn't hook up with him again later.
He glanced at his watch. Three hours until midnight. All he had to do was keep near her for a couple more hours and everything would be all right. He gathered up his newspaper and blended in with the sidewalk traffic as he followed her.
There was still some of the Stolichnaya in his cabinet. Harris uncapped it and carried it to his sagging couch. Gaby would be annoyed with him for treating the expensive vodka like common booze. He looked forward to that.
On the end table was the file full of newspaper clippings his mother had sent him over the years. He groaned when he saw it. That's a call he didn't want to make.
Hi, Mom, Dad. You know all that money you spent to support me while I beat people up in New York? Uncle Charlie was right: you wasted it.
He picked up the folder and shuffled through the clippings.
Some of it was college paper stuff about the theater productions he'd been involved with: a picture of him onstage in
Death of a Salesman
, another of him backstage doing his own makeup for
. But the majority of stories were about tae kwon do.
So many tournaments, competitions, demonstrations. His home-town newspaper had glowingly reported his Olympic career. It even made his first-round loss in Seoul sound like a moral victory. It wasn't; he'd just gone out there and gotten clobbered.
Harris looked at the pictures of the happy, cocky, eager kid he used to be. Dark hair, features that looked brooding even when he was happy. "A soap opera hero face," Gaby had said a long time ago. "You ought to go over to NBC and try out for a part. Put that theater major to some good use for once."
He tipped the bottle up and took a pull on it, felt the liquor burn down his throat. Maybe he'd do that now. They'd hire him to be the next bare-chested hunk. Gaby would be channel-surfing and would spot him licking the tonsils of some soap opera sweetheart. She'd drop her teeth.
The thought warmed him. Or maybe that was the vodka. He took another swallow.
Later, when the bottle barely sloshed as he set it down, it occurred to Harris that it was time to talk some sense into her. He needed to get out of the apartment anyway; ever since it had started rocking he'd felt seasick. Fresh air would help.
Down on the sidewalk, he tried to take another drink, but lifted a wad of newsprint to his mouth.
He stared accusingly at his hand. It had brought the wrong stuff. It failed him even when he wasn't throwing a backfist with it.
He smoothed out the wad of paper and smiled down at the expectation and hope he saw in his own younger face.
Then, with meticulous care, he tore the first article's headline free and let it flutter to the sidewalk. That felt good. Half a dozen words he no longer had to live up to.
Walking toward Gaby's home, he ripped loose another strip of words.
Gaby got her apartment door closed and threw the three deadbolts on it.
Her feet hurt. She must have walked for two hours after she left Harris.
And she still hadn't eaten. Small wonder. That talk had killed her appetite. She wondered if she'd be hungry again before summer.
Someone knocked on the front door, startling her. Her visitor must have come up the stairs right behind her. Gaby put her eye to the peephole.
Her visitor was an old man, elegantly dressed, his face merry—the perfect grandfather, obviously rich and good-natured. It had to be one of the other tenants; she hadn't buzzed anyone into the building. She'd never seen him before. "Who is it?" she asked.
"Miss, ah, Gabriela Donohue?"
"That's right." She waited patiently; no need to unlock the door, no matter how innocuous he looked, until he satisfied her that she had a reason to.
"Thank you," he said. Then he stepped away from the door, out of sight.
Someone moved in to take his place. It was a man in a dark overcoat, so tall that she could not see above the knot of his gray necktie, so wide that he seemed to match the door in breadth. Gaby took an involuntary step back.
There was a sharp
and the door crashed down, its locks and hinges shattered; it fell against Gaby and staggered her. Beyond, the huge man was striding forward, and the old man and another intruder came close behind. . . .
Gaby felt icy terror grip her stomach. She turned and ran. She had to reach her bedroom, the fire escape outside her window—
The huge man caught up to her before she reached the door to her room. He hit her like someone might swat a puppy. The blow took her on the hip and spun her to the floor, sent her rolling into the corner with her TV.
She stared up at him and got a good look at what served him as a face.
The sight froze the breath in her lungs. She sat unmoving as he came at her.
Harris dropped the last piece of the last article and watched it float off into the darkness.
There. A paper trail led from his apartment to Gaby's Greenwich Village brownstone. She could find her way back to him now.