REWIND: How To Commit Genocide in 48 Hours
The first thing they did was swipe his quarters. Renji was still hunched over on the sidewalk from the gut punch when they fished the money out of his pockets.
"Score! This is arcade moolah right here, boys."
"Give it… back…"
"Yeah, yeah, you can have whatever's left over. If there's anything left. Hah!"
Renji couldn't even lift his head to peer at them leaving. He could barely move, muscles screaming with pain. All it had taken was one hit to the stomach and he was ‘out for the count’, as they said back at the gym. He'd trained so much. Renji didn’t really get the whole picture because Grampa had been so vague, but he’d thought that he’d known what the bigger man was. The bigger man was a hero, rising to face their problems head on. The bigger man could be anyone as long as they had the guts. Maybe Renji was wrong. Maybe the bigger man really was physically larger. How else could they face the world with rules so simple as the strong prey on the weak?
"Get up, boy. It was only one punch. You're not dead yet."
The standing man was back: Grampa. The standing man loomed over you like a stony castle, rising out of the choppy ocean depths into lightning-stricken skies. The standing man was the opposite of the bigger man. He inspired nothing.
Renji hauled himself up and leaned on the brick building. "You saw it happen, Grampa? Why didn't you help me out?"
"Because there's an old saying: 'Finish what you started'. I didn't start this."
"Neither did I, I swear!"
"You started this as soon as you lost that fight. And the only way you can stop it is if you defeat them. If there's something you can do, then it isn’t over. If you give up when there’s still something left to do, you’ve failed."
What a dumb way of thinking. If Grampa helped him out, then it would all be over anyway. What was Renji supposed to do, train for months and then show those kids who’s boss? What would happen between now and then? He’d get his quarters stolen every day, that’s what. Grandpa was saying a real man didn't need anything but himself. But everyone needed food and water and shelter and time no matter how strong they were.
He tried to get away from the standing man, but Grampa grabbed him by the neck and lifted him off the ground.
"Gr-ampa! You're… choking me!"
"I ain't choking you. You're being choked by the gravity of your own weight!"
"That's… the same thing!"
"Think, boy! Are you gonna let me wring you out right here on the street? Are you gonna be a victim?"
Through squinted eyes Renji searched for help up and down the street. It was deserted. Light reflected off the top of water-logged potholes on the empty road. The rain would stay until it evaporated, because that was all rain could do. Help wouldn't come. But there was no way Grampa would kill him.
I didn't start this!
Renji moved like he was on a swing and used the momentum to slam the heels of his feet into Grampa's hairy chest. The grip loosened and he slammed to the sidewalk like a sack of rotten apples.
"Good, boy. You finished what you started."
"I didn't start that! I didn't start any of this!"
"You started this as soon as you was born.” Grampa got down on his butt slowly, arching his knees like cranes because they hurt bad if he did it any other way. That’s what getting old was. Grampa didn’t sit much. After all, he was a standing man. So Renji knew that he had something to say whenever he did.
Grampa said, “It's the Invisible Contract."
"What's the Invisible Contract?"
"It is the signage of your life to the powers that be, boy. As soon as you emerge from the hot recesses of the womb, you are in a boxing ring. This boxing ring is better than the others, because it's owned by the Big One."
Renji had just been exposed to new concepts, so preternatural that they simmered like a broiling pot in the witch's dungeon with capital-M Magic. Who knew that words could be so powerful in the mind that they transformed into titles? The Invisible Contract was not invisible at all to him, despite his not being sure what in the hell it even was. It was only played in theaters, surely, something people discussed heatedly and took passionate stances on.
"The Big One? Is he the Biggest Man?"
"Hehehe, yeah, I guess you could call it that. The Biggest Man owns this boxing ring he dubs Life, and it is not our choice as to whether we fight. The fight will come to us. That is the nature of all boxing rings."
"But what about the people who don't want to fight or can’t fight?"
"They die," surmised his Grampa, as if it was something that simple. "We all do, anyway. And maybe it's a mean thing that we die. But I'm not a bigger man, so I won't speak to that. The only question you should be asking is: do you want to die?”
"No, Grampa. Never."
"Never is a long time."
"Not even the biggest men of all time have been able to fight for that long."
"I'll do it. I'll finish all that I start. And I'll help people like you helped me. Because someone can't be in the ring for too long or else they might get Buzzed or Cornered. So I'll help them take breaks, and then I'll let them finish what they started. I'll be the bigger man."
"You're speaking to things you don't understand at your age. Promises should be kept." He ruffled Renji's hair like he always did, and for that moment he wasn't just a standing man. His silhouette took shape in the arm. A fat, scruffy hand with a golden ring around the pinkie. "If you keep at it, you'll either die young, or become the biggest man around. Except for Him, of course."
Renji wondered about Him in the past, but as of right now that wasn't his concern. Renji's present Him was Asano, his new standing man. But not everyone who stood over you seemed to do it as a teacher. Asano was his enemy.
“I’m…” Renji slipped his hand under Asano’s chokehold and wriggled downwards. “I’m the bigger man!”
And then he was free, and he spun around, arm still hooked around Asano’s now empty choke, hooked so tight that Asano couldn’t dodge the punch that landed square in his jaw.
The audience gasped as one collective, probably the closest thing around here that could be a cheer. Pure static rippled. Even Hermes seemed unsure of the outcome.
Asano drew back, actual surprise registering on his face. But it was fleeting, and he straightened out and smiled.
“Lucky boy. It won’t happen again.”
Renji raised his fists, now basking in that same yellow glow from the platform game. He had no idea how to control his power, but that wouldn’t be a problem. He didn’t plan on holding back. A word flashed through his mind like a dart whistling by. Sei with a capital-S. A capitalization that Renji now understood replaced Magic. In this new world, it was real.
“Let’s finish what I started,” Renji said.
“Yes,” said Asano. “Let’s.”