Ivan seemed pleased to see me when I dropped into the gym. He didn’t comment on my face, just giving it a quick glance.
Instantly I could see that the people attending this session were more serious than the beginners classes I’d been to before. Other than the calm determination on their faces as sparred, the way they moved was definite, faster and more lethal. These were the people I had to learn how to fight, they took it seriously.
He introduced me to them, making it clear I was a beginner. There was no bravado or boasting, they each shook my hand and didn’t look down on me. I got curious but respectful looks, probably because of my height and age.
Ivan grouped everyone together to go through some exercises; simple ones, kicking and punching. It surprised me how people at this level still did that, but he seemed to point out problems with their method just as much as with mine. I kept my eye on the others around me and copied them as best I could.
We paired off and took it in turns to hold up heavy rectangular pads and strike them. I was getting tired but what little running I’d done since my injuries had already started to increase my fitness. I felt tired but I wasn’t out of breath.
Before the lesson ended we were paired up to do sparring, it was strike-only. I had real trouble getting in close enough given my height but I found that I was enjoying myself. I wouldn’t have thought practicing how to fight would have been so fun, but it was. I even had a laugh with the others when someone managed to trip themselves up kicking their opponent.
After just an hour I kind of felt at home with these people, more so than I did with those at school who I’d ‘known’ for years. When the session was over I felt like it hadn’t been long enough. I wanted more. Ivan said that they were meeting again on Tuesday, it wasn’t so long to wait…
* * *
The walk to school at this time of year was enough to wake anybody, especially with only a thin jacket and two t-shirts. I was skipping around puddles, keeping to the backstreets, away from crowds. My hands stung with the cold by the time I reached the school gates, even though I’d had them tucked into my pockets.
I was unsure whether to bring my knife. On one count there was the whole bringing a knife to school thing, on the other there was the walk… It was the time when I was most exposed, scheduled and predictable. I adjusted my route as much as I could, but it wouldn’t be hard to place a few men in a few choice places, the bridges perhaps, and catch me. None of my other weapons were easy enough to conceal and get away with.
It was a gym day… I could worry about that when I came to it.
There was one thing I was avoiding thinking about altogether. And I had been for a week.
How was I going to explain? Would I lie? I didn’t know what to do, which was why I’d been putting it off. Well, I wasn’t going to come to any epiphany now. I could put it off a bit more…
When I got to the school gates I took a deep breath before going in. I wasn’t so scared about seeing Haley and Mike as I was about seeing Beth, facing her Questions. At least it wouldn’t be until lunch time…
I got a few looks, and there were a few whispers about my face and likely my absence but I didn’t catch many of them. They were either probably saving it for when I was out of ear-shot or they didn’t even notice the now paling nearly-a-scar on my face. I tended to keep my head down.
Lunch time came faster than I wanted.
I took my time getting there, walking slowly and waiting for the crowds to pass me but even then I arrived before Beth. I stood, not even in the canteen, trying to spot her.
I had lost my acclimatisation to the crowds. There was probably double the number of students the school had been originally designed for. It left the corridors cramped, crowded, it wasn’t unusual to find yourself pressed against others in a ‘crush’ around the busy lunchtimes. I tried to avoid those situations. I was uncomfortable being pressed against people like that.
After giving the canteen a quick check, then a longer one when I didn’t see Beth, I decided to wait for her near the entrance. I would have felt out-of place, too visible, waiting with people walking past, but there were others doing the same thing in a few groups along the edges of the hall. I leaned with my back to the wall and scanned the faces.
I chewed on my lip, nervously waiting, when I spotted her. She was alone.
I waited, just watching as she came down the corridor. I refrained from getting her attention, I hadn’t spoken to her for over a week. Should I have tried to get in contact with her, by phone maybe? What if… No, I’ve been through this in my head before. She seemed to want to be my friend – if she really was she wouldn’t mind me not getting in contact for a week. She’d understand wouldn’t she?
Then why couldn’t I bring myself to give her a wave, or a shout?
I waited for her to spot me. She did a double take and she started smiling immediately. I relaxed; you wouldn’t smile if you saw someone you were angry at.
“Alex!” The name made me jump, I was used to Haley calling me ‘Alex’ as an insult. It didn’t sound so bad coming from Beth though… I could get used to it.
She skipped towards me and to my surprise threw her arms around me. I had to keep still, instincts screaming at having someone so close to me. On one side, my mind screamed danger. On the other, her hair smelled nice, and there was a warm feeling that I hadn’t really experienced before…
She pulled out of the hug.
“Where have you been? Are you ok? I was so worried I didn’t know if something had happened to you.” She was speaking too fast for me to actually reply. “Then your maths teacher came up to me in the corridor and was like ‘don’t worry Alexis is ok’ which totally freaked me out.”
That was nice of her.
“Mike’s been really weird about it too, I’m convinced he knew what was wrong but he wasn’t saying anything which annoyed the hell out of me and we kept getting into arguments…”
Oh no… But at least he didn’t say what had happened. Still, she’d been friends with Mike for years. Why would she get in an argument over me? Why risk a solid friendship for someone you’d only known for a month?
“So that really… Alex what happened to your face? Are you ok? What happened?”
I had to take a step back to take a breath, she was being too overwhelming. The direct question at least gave me a chance to get a word in. But what should I say?
“Uh… I kind of got in a fight.” That was technically true.
“Was that why you were off?” she said, looking concerned.
“Yeah.” I wasn’t lying yet.
“How did it happen? Were you mugged again?” Her eyes flashed with anger and she lowered her voice. “It wasn’t Haley was it? I’m going to kill her, that bitch!”
Whoa… “No, Beth. It wasn’t Haley. I just got unlucky. I was attacked, It happens.”
“It happens to you! I don’t see anyone else coming in with black eyes and…” she waved her hands in as exasperated gesture at my face, “this.”
“It’s not that bad.” She was making a bigger deal out of this than I thought, I was expecting her to be mad at me for not contacting her but she seemed to be more annoyed with me for getting hurt…
Her voice returned to a more normal level and she folded her arms and made a ‘humph’ noise.
“Well, I think it looks bad.” She said, sounding annoyed.
I didn’t reply to that.
She was conspicuously not looking at me, studying the people as they flowed into the canteen.
“Where’s Mike?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“He’s taking a few days off, some family emergency apparently,” she answered. A family emergency? I wondered what that was and if it had anything to do with me. “He was acting really weird last week, do you know why? I thought it might have been to do with you but he wouldn’t say anything.”
I hesitated a little.
“Uh, no idea. Maybe it was this family thing?” Ok. I lied. But I could hardly tell her could I? That he was the son of a crime lord, the grandson of one of the most famous gangers in the state?
I wouldn’t today, I’d try find out more – she might already know. Or at least, know some of it.
My stomach groaned and reminded me I hadn’t eaten all weekend, something I was no longer use to. “Come on, I’m hungry.”