Her body relaxed, and she let her hands fall to her thighs. “That bad?”
“No,” I said, trying to find the words. “Not bad at all.”
With one hand I opened the door, and held out the other. With a bounce in her walk, Abby crossed the living room and intertwined her fingers in mine.
The Honda was slow to start, but we made it to Keaton in plenty of time. I called Trenton on the way, hoping to God he would come through for me like he’d promised.
Abby stood with me, waiting for Trenton beside the tall, seasoned north wall of Keaton. The east and west walls were protected with steel scaffolding. The university was preparing to give their oldest building a face-lift.
I lit a cigarette and took a drag, blowing smoke out of my nose.
Abby squeezed my hand. “He’ll be here.”
People were already filtering in from every direction, parking blocks away in different lots. The closer it came to fight time, the more people could be seen scaling the south fire escape.
I frowned. The building choice hadn’t been thought through. The last fight of the year always brought the more serious punters out, and they always came early so they could place their bets and secure a good view. The size of the pot also brought out the less experienced spectators, who showed up late and ended up flattened against the walls. This year’s was exceptionally large. Keaton was on the outskirts of campus, which was preferred, but its basement was one of the smallest.
“This is one of the worst ideas Adam has had yet,” I grumbled.
“It’s too late to change it now,” Abby said, her eyes traveling up the concrete blocks.
I popped open my cell and shot a sixth text to Trenton, and then snapped the phone shut.
“You seem nervous tonight,” Abby whispered.
“I’ll feel better when Trent gets his punk ass here.”
“I’m here, you whiny little girl,” Trenton said in a hushed voice.
I sighed with relief.
“How ya been, sis?” Trenton asked Abby, hugging her with one arm, and then playfully shoving me with the other.
“I’m good, Trent,” she said, amused.
I led Abby by the hand to the back of the building, glancing back to Trenton as we walked. “If the cops show and we get separated, meet me at Morgan Hall, okay?”
Trenton nodded just as I stopped next to an open window low to the ground.
“You’re fuckin’ with me,” Trenton said, staring down at the window. “Abby’s barely gonna fit through there.”
“You’ll fit,” I assured him, crawling down into the blackness inside.
Now accustomed to breaking and entering, Abby didn’t hesitate to crawl on the frozen ground and inch backward through the window, falling into my arms.
We waited for a few moments, and then Trenton grunted as he pushed off the ledge and landed on the floor, nearly losing his balance as his feet hit the concrete.
“You’re lucky I love Abby. I wouldn’t do this shit for just anyone,” he grumbled, brushing off his shirt.
I jumped up, shutting the window with one quick pull. “This way,” I said, leading Abby and my brother through the dark.
We weaved farther into the building until a small flicker of light could be seen ahead. A low hum of voices came from the same point, as our three pairs of feet grated against the loose concrete on the floor.
Trenton sighed after the third turn. “We’re never gonna find our way out of here.”
“Just follow me out. It’ll be fine,” I said.
It was easy to discern how close we were by the growing volume of the crowd waiting in the main room. Adam’s voice came over the bullhorn, yelling names and numbers.
I stopped in the next room, glancing around at the desks and chairs covered in white sheets. A sick feeling came over me. The venue was a mistake. Almost as big as bringing Abby somewhere so dangerous. If a fight broke out, Abby would be protected by Trenton, but the usual safe haven away from the crowd was full of furniture and equipment.
“So how you’re gonna play this?” Trenton asked.
“Divide and conquer.”
“His head from the rest of his body.”
Trenton nodded quickly. “Good plan.”
“Pigeon, I want you to stand by this doorway, okay?” Abby looked into the main room, her eyes wide as she took in the chaos. “Pigeon, did you hear me?” I asked, touching her arm.
“What?” she asked, blinking.
“I want you to stand by this doorway, okay? Keep hold of Trent’s arm at all times.”
“I won’t move,” she said. “I promise.”
I smiled at her sweet, overwhelmed expression. “Now you look nervous.”
She glanced to the doorway, and then back at me. “I don’t have a good feeling about this, Trav. Not about the fight, but . . . something. This place gives me the creeps.”
I couldn’t disagree. “We won’t be here long.”
Adam’s voice came over the horn, starting his opening announcement.
I touched each side of Abby’s face, and looked into her eyes. “I love you.” A ghost of a smile touched her lips, and I pulled her into me, holding her tight against my chest.
“. . . so don’t use your hos to scam the system, boys!” Adam’s voice said, amplified by the bullhorn.
I hooked Abby’s arm around Trenton’s. “Don’t take your eyes off her. Even for a second. This place’ll get crazy once the fight starts.”
“. . . so let’s welcome tonight’s contender—JOHN SAVAGE!”
“I’ll guard her with my life, little brother,” Trenton said, lightly tugging Abby’s arm for emphasis. “Now go kick this guy’s ass and let’s get out of here.”
“Shake in your boots, boys, and drop your panties, ladies! I give you: TRAVIS ‘MAD DOG’ MADDOX!”
At Adam’s introduction, I stepped into the main room. Arms flailed, and the voices of many boomed in unison. The sea of people parted before me, and I slowly made my way out to the Circle.
The room was lit only with lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Still trying to keep a low profile from nearly getting busted before, Adam didn’t want bright lights tipping anyone off.
Even in the dim light, I could see the severity of John Savage’s expression. He towered over me, his eyes wild and eager. He bounced from one foot to the other a few times, and then stood still, glowering down at me with murder in mind.
Savage was no amateur, but there were only three ways to win: knockout, submission, and decision. The reason the advantage had always been in my favor was because I had four brothers, who all fought different ways.
If John Savage fought like Trenton, he would rely on offense, speed, and surprise attacks—which I had trained for my entire life.
If he fought like the twins—with combinations of punches and kicks, or switching up his tactics to land blows—I had trained for that all my life.
Thomas was the most lethal. If Savage fought smart, and he probably did, judging by the way he was sizing me up, he would fight with the perfect balance of strength, speed, and strategy. I’d only traded blows with my eldest brother a handful of times in my life, but by the time I was sixteen, he couldn’t defeat me without help from my other brothers.
No matter how hard John Savage had trained, or what advantage he thought he had, I had fought him before. I had fought everyone that could fight worth a damn before . . . and I had won.
Adam blew the bullhorn, and Savage took a short step back before powering a blow in my direction.
I dodged. He would definitely fight like Thomas.
Savage got too close, so I pulled up my boot and launched him back into the crowd. They pushed him back into the circle, and he approached me with renewed purpose.
He landed two punches in a row, and then I grabbed him, shoving his face down into my knee. John stumbled backward, got his wits about him, and then charged again.
I swung and missed, and then he tried to wrap his arms around my middle. Already sweaty, it was easy to slip from his grasp. When I turned, his elbow met with my jaw, and the world stopped for less than a second before I shook it off and answered him with a left and right hook, landing one right after the other.
Savage’s bottom lip split and splattered. Drawing first blood heightened the volume in the room to a deafening decibel.
My elbow reared back, and my fist followed all the way through, making a short pit stop at Savage’s nose. I didn’t hold back, purposefully stunning him so I would have time to look back and check on Abby. She stood where I’d asked her to, her arm still hooked around Trenton’s.
Satisfied she was okay, I focused on the fight again, dodging quickly when Savage threw a wobbly punch, and then threw his arms around me, yanking us both to the ground.
John landed under me, and without even trying, my elbow rammed into his face. He put my body in a vise grip with his legs, locking them together at the ankles.
“I’m going to end you, you fucking punk!” John growled.
I smiled, and then pushed off the ground, lifting both of us. Savage struggled to take me off balance, but it was time to get Abby home.
Trenton’s voice erupted over the rest of the crowd. “Slam his ass, Travis!”
I fell forward and slightly to the side, slamming John’s back and head against the concrete in a devastating blow. My opponent now dazed, I reared back my elbow and shoved my fists into his face and the sides of his head over and over until a pair of arms hooked under my mine and pulled me away.
Adam threw a red square on Savage’s chest, and the room exploded as Adam grabbed my wrist and raised my hand in the air.
I looked to Abby, who was bobbing up and down, heads above the rest of the crowd, held up by my brother.
Trenton was yelling something, a huge smile on his face.
Just as the crowd began to disperse, I caught a horrified look on Abby’s face, and seconds later, a collective cry from the crowd sparked panic. A hanging lantern in the corner of the main room had fallen, catching a white sheet on fire. The blaze spread quickly to the sheet beside it, starting a chain reaction.
The screaming crowd rushed to the mouth of the stairs as smoke quickly filled the room. Frightened faces, both male and female, were highlighted by flames.
“Abby!” I screamed, realizing just how far away she was, and just how many people were between us. If I couldn’t get to her, she and Trenton would have to find their way back to the window through the maze of dark hallways. Terror dug into my core, spurring me to wildly push through whoever got in my way.
The room darkened, and a loud popping noise sounded from the other side of the room. The other lanterns were igniting and adding to the blaze in small explosions. I caught a glimpse of Trenton, who was grabbing at Abby’s arm, pulling her behind him as he tried to force his way through the crowd.
Abby shook her head, pulling back.
Trenton looked around, forming a plan of escape while they stood in the center of the confusion. If they tried to go out the fire escape, they would be the last ones out. The fire was growing fast. They wouldn’t make it through the crowd to get to the exit in time.
Any attempt I made to get to Abby was thwarted as the crowd surged and pushed me farther away. The excited cheering that filled the room before was replaced by horrified shrieks of fear and desperation as everyone fought to reach the exits.
Trenton pulled Abby to the doorway, but she struggled against him to look back. “Travis!” she yelled, reaching out for me.
I took a breath to yell back, but smoke filled my lungs. I coughed, waving the smoke away.
“This way, Trav!” Trenton yelled.
“Just get her out of here, Trent! Get Pigeon out!”
Abby’s eyes widened, and she shook her head. “Travis!”
“Just go!” I said. “I’ll catch up to you outside!”
Abby paused for a moment before her lips formed a hard line. Relief came over me. Abby Abernathy had a strong survival instinct, and it had just kicked in. She grabbed Trenton’s sleeve and pulled him back into the darkness, away from the fire.
I turned, looking for my own way out. Dozens of spectators were clawing their way to the narrow access to the stairs, screaming and fighting one another to get to the exit.
The room was nearly black with smoke, and I felt my lungs struggling for air. I kneeled to the ground, trying to remember the different doors that lined the main room. I turned back to the stairway. That was the way I wanted to go, away from the fire, but I refused to panic. There was a second exit that led to the fire escape, one only a few people would think to go through. I crouched and ran toward where I remembered it being, but I stopped.
Thoughts of Abby and Trenton getting lost flashed in my mind, pulling me away from the exit.
I heard my name, and squinted toward the sound.
“Travis! Travis! This way!” Adam stood in the doorway, waving me toward him.
I shook my head. “I’m going to get Pigeon!”
The path to the smaller room where Trenton and Abby escaped through was almost clear, so I sprinted across the room, hitting someone head-on. It was a girl, a freshman by the looks of her, her face covered with black streaks. She was terrified and scrambled to her feet.
“H-help me! I can’t . . . I don’t know the way out!” she said, coughing.
“Adam!” I yelled. I pushed her toward the direction of the exit. “Help her out of here!”
The girl raced for Adam, and he grabbed her hand before they disappeared through the exit before the smoke totally obscured it from view.
I pushed off the floor and ran toward Abby. Others were running around in the dark mazes too, crying and panting as they tried to find a way out.
“Abby!” I yelled into the darkness. I was terrified they had taken a wrong turn.
A small group of girls stood in the end of a hallway, crying. “Have you seen a guy and a girl go through here? Trenton’s about this tall, looks like me?” I said, holding a hand to my forehead.