Money exchanges hands constantly, nearly every time a blow is landed. Too much of a percentage goes to the house.
Writing by Dori Lumpkin
Art by Kiki Ren
You feel the weight of his hands around your neck before you can see him, and those hands do what they do best. They crush, crush, crush against your trachea, cutting off your air supply and aiming to kill. He isn’t supposed to kill you. That isn’t how these things are supposed to go. But he’s trying, of course he’s trying, he has to put on a show. You have to let him put on a show. He surprised you this time, from behind. Didn’t use his typical entrance into the ring, of course not, not for this, not for something as important as this. You ram a quick and unexpected elbow into his solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him with a painful-sounding crack.
The crowd roars, and you’re unsure of where their true allegiances lie. You know there are whispers amongst the crowd; people chosen by your family to spread a particular sort of influence. Money exchanges hands constantly, nearly every time a blow is landed. Too much of a percentage goes to the house. Your house. The house that raised you, that you’ve fought for since you were old enough to land a blow. Since you were a small, underestimated little girl who could hold her own through teeth and nails and whatever you could manage. The bets were always in your favor. Everyone loves an underdog. Tonight it would get them in trouble.
You use his distraction to your advantage, doubling over and slipping out of his grasp. Only fair, he tried to take your air and now you take his. He makes a weak lunge for your hair but he’s still collecting himself, still doubled over from your blow. They’ll be mad you did that, later. If there is a later. You don’t count on it for yourself, considering you were asked to lose this one. A bullshit joke, it was, that they asked you to lose a fight to him, considering with him, there is no losing. There’s only death.
So there you are, facing death in the form of your brother, staring you in the face, wanting to laugh at you. You can see the smirk dancing at the edges of his lips, desperate to make an appearance. In the few seconds you have before he regains composure, you aim a quick blow at his jaw, hoping to knock out that smile and maybe a few teeth alongside it. A foolish decision—the blow lands, but he grabs your wrist, twisting it around and forcing you to your knees. You can do something with this, you silently hope. Let him think you pray at his altar and then destroy it while he’s basking in his own ego.
He smiles anyway, and blood from the inconsequential blow you dealt stains his lips. He spits, only some of it landing on your face. He takes advantage of you being on your knees and uses his other hand—the one not restraining you—to deal you the same blow. Your vision goes white for a moment—bright white, searing white—and if the pain in your cheek is no indication, the crunch in the back of your mouth probably means that you’ve at least got a fractured—if not broken—jaw. You smile your own pitiful, bloody smile before leaning forward and taking a solid chunk out of his forearm with your teeth. He screams, instantly dropping his grip and allowing you to scramble away. You spit out a solid chunk of his arm meat and wipe your face, smearing the blood across it like some sort of bastardized war paint.
“You’re supposed to lose,” he hisses. He’ll never let this go, and the hole in his arm will produce a scar that will never fade.
You know this. You know this too well. You know that you had agreed. An arrangement that you would take with you to the grave, to lose this fight because it was rigged from the start, the people in the crowd being nothing more than pawns in your family’s game. They need the money, and you were a worthy enough sacrifice.
But you can’t die like this.
You feel your chest grow tight and the small symphony of no no no no nonononono rings out in your head. It’s too much. It’s too much.
They said you weren’t doing enough. They said you weren’t worth the trouble. They said your fights weren’t lucrative, that someone who wasn’t willing to take risks in the ring wasn’t someone who could be kept. Your brother, they said, was much more successful. Your brother, they said, would bring in money as long as they let him fight more. They’d let him fight you. They’d call it an accident. How could they have known? How could they have predicted such a tragic occurrence?
How could they have realized that the fight was fixed, that they were the ones who fixed it, and that you were never supposed to make it out alive?
The problem was that you did take risks. You fought tooth and nail, dirty, balanced, whatever was needed, for every penny you ever earned. All of it went to them. Every ounce of your being, you gave to them. They needed it, they said. It was difficult, they said, running an illegal fighting ring and raising two children. You never reminded them that it was not your choice to do this. That it was never your choice to be born. If you had a choice, it certainly wouldn’t have been that one.
You reminded them once, and it didn’t end well. You can still feel the crunch of your spine sometimes if you twist the wrong way—a wound long forgotten by them, but never by you. You weren’t the type to forget.
Your brother was always the one they loved. The one they doted on. Their hero, their champion. No matter how many fights you won, no matter how many times you risked your life and limb to make money for them, to keep people coming in, to do everything they had ever wanted you to do, they went back to him. He didn’t fight often. Maybe once a week, if he was lucky. They had to keep him healthy, they always said. They had to use him strategically because everyone knew how fights against him would end. Your brother was a murderer and they knew that. But the crowd was thirsty for blood.
You weren’t supposed to know what they said about you. But you weren’t supposed to know a lot of things. You gathered your information quickly, from hiding in forgotten spots and overhearing too-quiet exchanges.
That’s how you learned they were going to let you die, of course.
You couldn’t argue. You couldn’t even mention it because the moment they saw you, they fell silent. They pretended to have no other words and let you pass by them, silently, the ever-perfect daughter they refused to believe in.
As you exited, they informed you that this week you were to fight your brother.
You acted surprised.
You acted excited.
You told them it was an honor, and you could not wait.
And then the thoughts began.
You couldn’t stop them, so it wasn’t really your fault. It never was.
Your room, when you came back to it, had never felt more like a prison. It was small, more of a refurbished attic closet than anything else, and the walls were closing in on you. You lay on your cot, staring at the termite-infested ceiling, and not for the first time that month, or even that week, you wished desperately to be somewhere else. You pretended the ceiling was a sky you’d never seen and that the holes in it were stars that you could go mad counting.
You knew how it would go. You saw the fight play out in your head long before it happened, there on your small, dry-rotting mattress. You traced the wounds along your body, allowing yourself to spiral deep into pain, into fear, into everything that you often didn’t allow yourself to feel. You felt your jaw crack against his relentless blows. You cried—silently, as was your way. If they discovered you crying, they might not bother to wait to let your brother deal with you. You let yourself feel, which was uncomfortable, but deserved. If this was to be the last of it, you would not forget moments like this.
You let yourself spiral like that for a while—maybe an hour, maybe two. Sometimes it was just easier to let yourself go and then rein yourself back in instead of trying to calm yourself down.
In the end, when you were breathing slowly again and you could no longer feel the exact results of a fight yet to happen, you became resolute.
This was not to be the last of it. It couldn’t be.
You reached out into the darkness, and something took your hand.
This is not how you’re supposed to go this is not how you’re supposed to go this is not how you’re supposed to go this is not how you’re supposed to go this is not how you’re supposed to go this is not how you’re supposed to go.
For a moment, you consider going back on everything. You remember a promise you made, you remember being so desperate, knowing in your soul that you couldn’t die like this.
A thought sinks into your head—the idea that maybe it would simply be easier to die like this.
To let him take you.
To make their lives easier.
In the next five seconds, a lot of things happen for you. Your blood runs cold, but it isn’t from fear. This is pure power. You open your mouth—a wide, bloody yawn—and feel bones crack and muscles tear.
And you scream.
You scream and scream and scream and for once, your brother looks scared.
Let him be scared.
This will not be your legacy. You will not die at his hands today. You made deals, you made promises, and you aren’t going to give up on that. You’ve sacrificed so much, worked so hard, and they want to throw it away. You will not let them. You will not let them take advantage of you, and you will not let it all be for nothing.
You reach out again, just like that first night, and you know you are not alone.
You make your decision.
If the crowd is thirsty for blood, then blood you will give them.
This is where I come in.
You were desperate. I understood. It isn’t often that people reach out to me, specifically, so I have to admit I was excited about the opportunity. People balk at my inclination towards violence, my appearance, and my overall philosophy. But not you.
You reached out into the darkness and I took your hand, ready to embrace you with the kind of love you never thought you’d receive.
You weren’t even shocked when I answered. You didn’t even flinch. Maybe that made me a little more inclined to help you. I trailed blood across that tiny room and you smiled. You told me I was beautiful.
No one had ever said that to me before.
You asked me what I was. Why I answered.
I told you that maybe it was because I was bored, or maybe because I liked the way you sounded. Whatever, that didn’t matter. As far as what I was, well, I told you that there were a lot of names for that.
You asked if I was the devil.
I said, “If that’s what you want me to be, sure.”
It was enough for you.
Then it was time for me to ask you what you wanted. I already knew the basics, that you were desperate and didn’t want to die, but you took the time to explain to me the situation. It wasn’t that you didn’t want to die, it was that you didn’t want to lose.
My response was obvious, but I don’t think you had considered that it was possible.
I asked if you wanted to kill your brother.
“You can do that?” Your voice was small, and I wanted to laugh. It was sweet of you to underestimate me. Normally I would have been frustrated by it, but it’s like you were in awe of my power. I loved that feeling.
So I said of course, absolutely, you just have to let me in.
I sat on the bed next to you at this point, feeling the way the springs stuck through the mattress. It was impressive really, that you waited this long to reach out. But of course, I couldn’t have guaranteed that I would answer had you asked any earlier. I might not have even been listening. You looked sad, and it struck me that maybe I didn’t want you to look sad, so I wiped a tear from your face. You flinched. Maybe you didn’t know you had been crying. Maybe my skin was too hot against yours. I don’t know. Either way, you apologized.
You asked what it meant to let me in, and I responded simply just to accept me for what I was.
You said that you couldn’t imagine anything else.
So I took your hand in mine. You didn’t flinch this time I touched you, which I appreciated. It would have been more difficult if you had been scared. The space between us grew warm, and I loaned you some of my strength. I gave you the ability to do what you needed to do.
You felt your new strength and laughed. That part was always my favorite. The part where people realized exactly how I’ve helped them, and exactly what they’re going to do with the strength I’ve given them.
I wanted to cover the world in blood and only people like you could help me do that. You could break and tear and rip and shred and destroy and kill and all of the things that helped make the world a beautiful place. And what’s even better is that you wanted to. It took no convincing on my part. You had a sort of violence in you, the kind of violence bred from years of forgotten pain and abandonment.
Call it a need for justice.
Sometimes to get what you want, things have to get a little bit bloody.
After a moment, the strength faded. You turned to me, confused, but before you could speak, I shrugged.
“It’ll come back when you need it. You just have to trust me.”
Trust me you did.
I left you that night, with the promise that I would return when the time came. You didn’t question it, and I knew things would go perfectly.
Your vision goes white and you let me take over. All you experience is heat, hot and impossible. That is what I am, at my core. That is what anger is. I burn and burn and burn and burn.
You come to when the crowd goes silent. When the job is done. You look at your hands, and they are covered in blood. Your whole body is covered in blood, and you feel so, so tired. Before you lay your brother’s body, exactly how you wanted it. The spray of blood continues across the floor, where masses of gore and brains lie scattered. It’s hard for you not to admire my work.
As far as the body of your brother goes, well… His body itself is fine. His head is another story. There isn’t much of it left. His neck rises from his shoulders expectantly, and his lower jaw is visible, but anything above that is nothing more than a mess of deep red. If you hadn’t just been fighting him, you wouldn’t have known that this was your brother at all.
And that thought fills you with an unbridled, childish sort of joy.
He will never hurt you again.
Your parents will never hurt you again.
You feel free, so free, so impossibly, beautifully free.
The crowd breaks from their hesitant silence and the room erupts into a roar, unlike any you’ve heard before. They got what they wanted, which was a show beyond anything they could have possibly predicted. And you got what you wanted, which was the death of your brother and the break of whatever sort of familial ties you might’ve had to this place.
I love to help.
You needed to get out, though. Even though you had won, you knew that they would be after you soon, and you weren’t willing to face whatever consequences they would attempt to put on you. Even though you knew you could probably kill them too if you wanted.
Instead, you run.
Through the crowd, pushing and slamming people out of your way. They breathe down your neck, and you leave streaks of blood across them as you get closer and closer towards the door. Closer and closer to real freedom. It isn’t easy—the crowd is tugging on your clothes, pulling at your hair, desperate for a piece of you, to remember you. Some of them ask when you’re fighting next, and you leave them with no answer. Never again, you think, at least not here.
You finally break out of the door and feel breathless as the night air touches your skin. You should bathe, you absently think, but not now. You run.
And you run.
And you run until the warehouse is far behind you, no more than a distant memory.
You don’t stop until you are unable to recognize your surroundings, and finally, finally, you look up at the sky.
It’s bigger than you ever imagined it to be. There are more stars than you know what to do with. A tear rolls down your cheek, and for the first time, far away from any location you had ever known, you feel at home.
You turn back to that very same sky and you ask me, “Where next?”
About the Author
Dori Lumpkin is a queer writer and graduate student from South Alabama. Their work has been previously found in Susurrus and Soft Star Magazines, among others. They love all things speculative and weird, and strive to make fiction writing a more inclusive place.
Kiki is best described as 45% Elvira, 45% Dolly Parton, and 10% Danny Devito. Though she’s always been a lover of all forms of art, technology has always been her forte. She studied computer science for four years before dropping out and coasting through life in various retail management positions. That’s until she found her true calling: being an embarrassment to her family online. When she’s not whipping up websites or blessing the world with memes and generative art she’s hunting for oddities at thrift stores or reading the most disturbing pieces of experimental fiction she can find.
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