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Glove slammed into jaw. His glove, my jaw.

Back and forth, back and forth. Evenly matched, this still belonged to both of us. A drop of sweat dripped into my eye but I ignored the salty burn, never breaking away from our locked gaze.

Glove cracked into shoulder. My glove, his shoulder.

Jab, jab, jab. We measured distance by inches, by fractions of inches, pushing in, pulling away. His next punch only brushed the side of my head but it still hurt.

Then I saw it, his twitch of anticipated control. I ducked the confident punch and when I straightened my knees, I brought an uppercut with me.

Glove slammed into chin.

He had nothing, and I came at him again with a left hook.

His head fell to the side with my blow, and over his shoulder, I saw something.

In the fraction of a second it took me to glance at it, my opponent drove into my gut. I exhaled hard and my knees buckled. But I pushed at him again with another uppercut, my momentum tilting me back upright. He swayed but locked his gaze onto mine, and I had to unleash punch after punch to keep him on the defensive, keep my advantage.

A shout from below us: “It’s over! Let’s go!”

Halting my fist halfway to its target, I backed off. And I had to hand it to him—he held his ground until I turned away. I wrestled with my head gear. “You all right?” I called over my shoulder.

“I’m good.”

I collapsed on a stool in the closest corner of the ring, and remembered the glimmering distraction. I half stood, searching the spot I’d seen something. Then I surveyed the dark room, filled thick with sweat and ambition. No sparkles.

My sparring partner, Not-Rocky, walked over to me. A moment ago he was someone I had to take down. But now he was my friend again.

“I’ll probably need to suck up my dinner through a straw tonight,” I said, moving my lower jaw from side to side.

He grinned around his mouth guard before spitting it out and opening his mouth wide to let go of the hit to his chin. “I’m going to be hunched over for a week if it makes you feel any better.”

“It does.”

“I knew it would.” He slung an arm around me. “Ow,” I told him.


“No, you’re not.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I’m kinda not.”

Something shimmered in my periphery. It moved.

I shoved my friend’s arm away and spun around, raising gloves to my face. Ready to dodge, and ready to strike—


No, I thought, something. Something alive and formless and there. It hovered around chest-level, then the air seemed to shimmy into wavy watery lines. I put out my fat glove but it only slipped through the apparition. I snatched my hand back and in an instant the waves stilled, the life draining out, and it was nothing.

Of course, it had been nothing.

“What’s up?” Not-Rocky asked.

“I saw something. Just now. Out of the corner of my eye.”

“You saw stars, is what you saw.”

I blinked again, then squinted at still nothing. The air was quiet and empty. I let out a breath. Much as I hated to admit it, he had to be right. But I glanced back once as we walked away.


“Good thing you quit,” Mat shouted at Not-Rocky from the free weights at the back wall. “You’se about to get your ass kicked by a girl.”

“Bricks isn’t a girl,” Not-Rocky countered.

I was Gemma Cross to the outside world, the real world, but not here. Here we turned into our own superheroes, and our real-world names weren’t appropriate for the transformation. The guys were nicknamed for their quirky personalities, but bewildered by the ways of the female, they did the man thing and zeroed right in on my appearance—christening me the oh-so-not-original Brickhouse. I knew why. I was sort of Amazonian—hard and muscular, but not lacking in curves, thank you very much. Five-foot-ten and often indignant, I was pretty sure I scared a lot of other women. So I liked the company of my boys.

“I’m not a girl?” I asked. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“Ah, you know what I mean.”

I did. Every time I stepped into Smiley’s Gym, I left my femininity at the door.

Smiley’s, nestled in D.C.’s Chinatown, was not your trendy gym with generic dance mixes blaring from speakers on every wall and buzzing blenders mixing up fruity power drinks at members-only snack bars. No girls here in pink sweatpants with “Angel” splashed across a tiny ass—no girls here at all, really. Once in a while, a woman would walk in with a black eye or a split bottom lip, her quiet request for lessons tinged with bitterness and vengeance. These women punched hard but didn’t stay long, leaving me, as the representative for my gender, a little bit sadder and angrier on their behalf.

“Not bad for a chick,” Not-Rocky said as we walked slowly away from the ring.

“Not bad for a puny little punk.”

The usual end to our practice bouts.

My buddy Not-Rocky was about my size, so we were preferred sparring partners. He was our fair and blond Philly boy, and he’d admitted that the one time he tried Rocky’s famous run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he’d made it only halfway up before turning an about-face and jogging right back down behind a beautiful redhead. Not-Rocky had a very crooked nose—it tilted slightly to the viewer’s left—but he swore that when he was born, it was actually tilted to the right. He claimed there was a two-year period in junior high when it was knocked straight, but he had yet to provide photographic evidence.

He’d been coming to Smiley’s for a few years. I’d been coming here pretty much forever.

I’d thrown my duffel bag on a creaky, lopsided folding chair, and now I pulled out the sports section of the Washington Post that I’d folded inside this morning. I crumpled a few pages and stuffed them into each of my gloves to absorb my hand sweat, then shoved paper and gloves into the bag. I extracted a hand towel from a side pocket, wiped away the tracks of perspiration sliding down to my jaw line, then patted the back of my neck under my ponytail. There was a TV on an unsteady rolling stand near the free weights, and three guys were slowly lifting while watching with half-open mouths. Keyed up and pacing, I wandered over to the rickety TV stand as the guys simultaneously said, “Ohhh,” and winced.

They watched a bit more, then all three boxers exhaled the breath they’d been apparently holding. “Dude, I can’t believe he did that,” he said.

The others agreed: “That was harsh.” “He slept with her sister? Damn.”

I peered at the screen that held them rapt. “Oh, my God,” I said. “Soap operas? Really?”

“Shhh,” they hissed. Then, “Oh, come on.”

Breaking News. The trio threw up hands and turned away. “Always with the breaking news,” one said.

“Because,” I said, “no actual current event can be more important than what happens to a fictional spurned woman.”

Sarcasm did a flyover of three thick heads. One guy muttered, “Now we’ll never know what she says to him.”

I looked at the TV. A school shooting. Kids dead, teacher hurt, gunman suicide. This was the second school shooting in the D.C. area in six months, the news reminded the viewers. I watched enough to know I didn’t want to watch more, and I stepped away from the TV just as Not-Rocky reached my side. I shook my head at him. “The world is really disgusting,” I said to him.

He stationed himself in front of the screen and I headed back to my bag and stuffed the damp towel in a side pocket.

“I know that kid,” I thought I heard Not-Rocky say.

“What?” I called. “What are you talking about?”

“I remember him. He was here. It was a while ago.”

I joined him again and cut him a sideways glance. “You’ve been knocked around so much, you don’t remember what you had for breakfast this morning. How do you remember some kid?”

“I do,” he insisted, nodding and squinting to draw it out of his mind. “Maybe about a year ago or something. He came in here, little skinny kid. He wanted lessons. Smiley took one look at him and asked him where he lived, where his parents were. I couldn’t hear the kid but he musta told Smiley he lived in a nice house in the suburbs with his mom, because Smiley told him to beat it. He said, come back when you’re older and bigger. Chocolate doughnut.”


“That’s what I had for breakfast. Chocolate doughnut.”

“Breakfast of champions,” I said. “It’s no wonder I smacked you around.”

He began to protest, but I shushed him to watch a little more. The boy’s picture was now stationed at the bottom left corner of the screen while they continued breaking the story.

Yeah, I thought, Not-Rocky’s vague testimony made sense. Smiley was a saint, taking care of guys here who had no one and nothing more than a little bit of talent. He wasn’t going to train a junior-high kid unless that kid was on welfare or being beaten up at home. He would send a nice suburban kid packing, just like Not-Rocky said. It was the right decision; this place wasn’t for a boy like that. This room was full of contenders. It was no place for a lonely child who had anywhere else to go.

Of course, I knew Smiley had made an exception for me, but he’d had his reasons and his promises and he knew who I was.

I’d acted out, I’d been angry, I’d had misplaced aggression, but I was never violent for its own sake, and I was sure that even if this gym hadn’t become to me what it did, I still wouldn’t have been.

“You know,” I said to Not-Rocky, “it feels like this kid violence has become way more frequent.”

“Don’t know,” he said. “I don’t watch a lot of news.”

“I do. There was that kid a couple of weeks ago who pushed her brother out their second-floor window. He actually survived.” I thought a moment. “Wasn’t there a boy who took out his grandfather or … yeah, his grandfather. I think that was in Virginia. Right?”

“I told you I don’t watch news. This is why. All bad news.”

“Maybe I’m just paying closer attention these days.”

“Nah. This”—Not-Rocky gestured at the TV—“is nothing new. There’s stuff like this all the time.”

“I guess.” I stood. “It’s depressing. Turn it off.”

He lifted the remote with his gloves and pressed the power button with his sore chin. I laughed when he winced. “All bad kids don’t grab shotguns,” he pointed out. “I mean, look at us. This room is full of fuck-ups.”

“Not me.” I moved toward the chairs. “I’ve got my life in order, I think.”

“Finally. Only took forty years.”

“I’m thirty, moron.”

“So that new boyfriend of yours straightened you out, huh?”

“Yes.” I slung my bag over my shoulder. “He’s a public figure. So I have to behave in public.”

“Good luck with that.”

“Go home,” I told him, moving toward the door. “Lay off the doughnuts.”

“What am I supposed to do with the whole box I just bought?”

“Feed them to the pigeons.”

“I don’t think that’s good for them.”

“Well, it’s not good for you either.”

I blew him a kiss and he laughed when my hand shot up to cover my aching mouth. I waved him off and pushed the door open.

Gray clouds fat with threatening rain shifted across the sky, throwing shadowy light tricks onto the street.

The shimmer tickled my periphery.

My body became very still. Wind brushed my hair into my eyes, and caught in my lashes.

I didn’t know whether I wanted it to be someone or not. I’d lost fights, and lost them badly, but I’d only suffered humiliation and a few broken bones. Never weird sparkly hallucinations.

I stood in silence. It wasn’t hard to do. D.C. was a very quiet city. I was sure there must have been more bustle here than any other city in the country, considering this city ran the country—and was the hotbed of scandal—but I could never hear it. Not even now, when I was actively trying to hear something.

Nothing. But I saw it again.

I whirled, and my bag slammed me in the chest. Standing in front of me was a woman.

She didn’t shrink back from my sudden confrontation. I wasn’t certain she even blinked. She just looked at me.

Her hair was as blond as mine but far longer and thicker, made even more luxurious by the fact that it framed a tiny little head, attached to a little pixie body that was somewhere around size double-zero. She was smiling, a bright beam piercing the stormy darkness that was falling around us. I placed her at about forty, reconsidered her to be closer to my thirty, then finally gave up guessing. Each of her distinct features was something I’d seen on someone else at some point, but her particular combination was unique in a way I knew I’d never be able to describe.

Under her green-eyed appraisal, I had the uneasy—and unusual—urge to squirm.

“Gemma,” she said.

I noticed she didn’t raise her voice on the last syllable in a question; rather, it was a statement, as confident as if she’d added, of course.

“Do I know you?” I asked. I’d recovered from her apparent materialization from thin air, but I was genuinely puzzled at her assumption of familiarity.

“Not yet,” she said, as if it had merely been a matter of time until we’d crossed paths.

I raised a brow, not quite unfriendly, but intending to relay my growing impatience.

If she caught my meaning, she didn’t bother to apologize. “I’m Frederica Diamond,” she said. “I would like to talk to you about a business opportunity, Gemma.”

“A business opportunity,” I repeated. O-kay. “I’m already employed.”

“Not at the moment, I understand.”

I thought. “You’re a headhunter?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“And you came to find me here? Kind of aggressive recruiting techniques you’ve got there.”

You don’t approve?”

Well, at least she’d done her homework and knew the sort of person she was dealing with. Kudos for that. “Still,” I told her, “seems extreme to track me down here.”

“It’s quite an important opportunity. It was my job to find you. I’m very good at it.”

“Obviously,” I said, trying to process the creepiness of the whole situation. “But I’m currently on hiatus from full-time employment.”

“Yes. To avoid conflict with Mr. McCormack’s race for Congress,” Frederica said.

Okay, I supposed anyone at my office could have mentioned that to her. But my uneasiness was growing. I had about half a foot and forty pounds on this woman—not to mention I was dressed to fight—but not only did I feel completely non-intimidating, Frederica had the cool upper hand in this conversation.

And she’d never stopped smiling.

“It would really be worth your while,” she added, “to hear out my proposal.”

“This is creepy,” I said.

“It isn’t.”


“No.” She looked deep into my eyes, down into me, and rattled my core. “We need you, Gemma.”

Her delicate emphasis on “you” startled me, almost as much as the door slamming open behind me. Two boxers, now in T-shirts and with perspiration drying along their hairlines, nodded casual goodbyes at me.

“See you tomorrow,” I said, forcing a smile. I wasn’t sure why I waited until they rounded the corner to turn back around, but I did. And she was gone.

In her place was a shimmer of wavy, liquid energy, and then I blinked it away.

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