By Damien McKeating
HE ran. His pounding footsteps matched his heart. Each breathless step brought with it cut-up, disjointed memories. Everything was out of order, but that was how his life had always felt. Nothing in quite the right place.
He was done.
“You’ve got a left hook that could knock out an angel,” a voice said.
Max snarled but his violent retort died as the figure stepped into the faded strip lighting of the changing room. They were… beautiful… whatever they were. Achingly androgynous with short, chopped hair, flawless skin and sculpted cheekbones. They wore a tailored, pinstripe suit and had the most magnificent blue eyes.
“I like a good underdog story,” they said. “I can do you a deal.”
“Don’t need no manager,” Max said and tore the wraps from his hands.
“I didn’t say anything about a manager. I said I can do you a deal,” they smiled. “Are you still a good Catholic boy, Max?”
He was stupid.
He’d always been stupid. Oh, he’d been educated, but that wasn’t the same thing. He knew the big words but he was still stupid. That’s why his ma had let him fight.
“Got to be good for something, boy,” she said and he heard her voice then and now and years from now. Whether she was alive or dead she was always saying it.
Max looked down at his hands and damn if they weren’t shaking.
Niamh leaned against him, the letter crumpled in her hands. She sobbed and they clung onto each other. She always said he was her rock; solid and dependable. Next to him she looked so slight she might blow away but Max knew that wasn’t the case. She kept him grounded. She was the strong one.
Then that damn letter.
“We can’t afford it,” she cried against his shoulder.
“We will,” he said.
He kept running. Running from things; running to things; just running. Running through the choking pain and fear that had flooded his insides. Running through fractured time.
Max had never been afraid before.
He was afraid now.
“Aren’t you Max Chill?” she said. “Niamh Smith,” she introduced herself with a smile.
Max felt his stomach flip. That smile… that smile was a supernova in the blackness of his life.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I’ve never seen anyone fight like that,” she said.
“I get lucky sometimes.”
She sat down next to him and her smile made him smile. “Yeah, you do.”
Run, run, run as fast as you can.
Max thought of the rhyme and gave a desperate laugh.
Work the body… work the soul…
Max looked down at his hands and they were still shaking but it was too late now. He’d done it. He’d signed. The fight was going to happen.
“… biggest fight of the century,” the television said. “Comeback king Max Chill, who retired after twelve undefeated bouts as world heavyweight champion, will face off against…”
Last time. Big money. And it would be his last fight. He’d made a deal. But it was worth it… for her.
He looked at Niamh, asleep in the bed, already looking thinner.
He’d save her even if he lost himself.
Are you still running, Max?
Of course you are.
Max looked down at his hands. They were shaking and there was blood on the wraps. His gloves lay on the floor at his feet.
He was done.
The figure clapped as they stepped into the changing room. “Beautiful,” they said in their sing-song voice. “Rags to riches, underdog, comeback, love; it had it all. It reminded me of my own story,” they smiled. They were still beautiful.
“I didn’t think I’d win,” Max said. “You said I’d get twelve fights and you’d take me in the thirteenth. Wasn’t sure you’d let me win it.”
“Oh, I might not have done, but the situation being what it was,” the figure shrugged, “I have a flair for dramatic timing.”
Max frowned. “Is that it then?”
“Is what it?”
“My soul,” he hesitated on the word. He’d never talked about the deal out loud. It sounded silly.
“I’m still here,” Max said.
“The deal was for your soul, Max. You’re the meat. Why would I want you?”
Max started running.
The figure laughed. “Ain’t I a stinker, Max? Ain’t I just?”
He ran and fell through the door and into the ward.
A doctor in a white coat tried to talk to him but he couldn’t hear. Max could only look at the figure on the bed, so still under the thin blanket.
He felt… empty…
Max Chill hit the floor.
© Damien McKeating 2016