Are You Real?
“Come on, boys! Make some noise!”
Birch’s voice rang out across the skatepark to a backdrop of dull thuds. A full week having passed since the last mediocre fight, the crowd was even quieter than usual. In fact, for the first time since The Jungle’s inception, there was almost a degree or two of restraint.
Maia sat on top of the pipe ramp, her canine muzzle buried in her phone. Every so often between texts, she glanced at the fight before turning back to her screen. Every so often, Sally tried to give Birch an encouraging glance, but the Hodag was too busy with giving her all into casting for the brawl.
Sally would glance down into the pit, only to find the match had not gotten any less one-sided than it was during the last two rounds in a row. Even the steroid-level ripped Minotaur that was trouncing his Scorpion-bodied opponent seemed to be bored of the whole ordeal, taking frequent breaks from punching just to stretch.
After a minute and a half into the third round, the stubborn little Scorpion finally relented. He fell straight over onto his back without a single punch thrown at or by him for the last ten seconds. The crowd’s reaction to the knockout’s countdown was as excited as a ten-year-old at an opera.
The teenagers in the stands began to gather their things and leave before Birch’s dramatic counter even reached four.
“Where are you going, you cowards?!” Birch yelled. “It ain't over yet!”
But there wasn't even as much as an audience retort, and people kept piling out. For one brief moment, though, everyone stood still. Maia the Mad Dog stood atop her pipe ramp. In the place of an inspired speech, loaded with impassioned words, all Maia said was:
“Guess I’m headin’ off too.”
As the crowd continued to filter out, Sally blocked Maia's way after she jumped down. Maia grimaced.
“What is it this time?” Maia muttered.
Sally let out a deep sigh. “You know, I wasn't going to bring it up until today's matches were all over with, but I'm going to say it now since you're so keen on leaving. How serious are you about The Jungle?”
Maia shoved her hands in her pockets. “Look. y'all were the ones that wanted to set up this fight. I didn't beg for the extra dough, and I wasn't in the mood for it anyways. If anything, I’m busy between my job, class, and other things. But here we are.”
“Maia, I didn't ask you that,” Sally retorted, putting her hands on her hips. “You're not listening-”
“No,” Maia interrupted. “You're not listening. I'm going home. Seeya later.”
Sally could only watch Mad Dog walk away. The further Maia got, the lighter her steps seemed to be. The knockout countdown ended, and the rest of the crowd began to pass by them across the pit.
Birch ran up to Sally and took one look at her, then one to Maia.
“So you're just going to leave?!” Birch called. “After all the work we put into this?”
Sally tried putting a hand on her shoulder, but the other girl brushed it away.
“Guess it's true then, huh?!” Birch continued, her voice choking up. “You really do care more about that group of nerds than you do about us!”
Maia stopped with a foot in the air. She spun on her heel like a swivel and marched up to the two girls with her hands in her pockets.
“You were following me?”
Sally tried to wave the situation away with her hands and a pained grimace, only for Birch to speak up.
“Yeah,” Birch pushed on. “You were going to throw all this away for them. I thought we were friends, Mad Dog!”
Having beaten his opponent unconscious, the Minotaur in the pit raised his hands in the air. Upon noticing everyone’s attention was on the brewing argument at the pipe ramp, he let out an angry snort and threw his gloves on the ground.
“Y’Know what, Birch? You're right. We were friends.” Maia took her hands out of pockets, revealing that they were clenched into fists. “I'm done. If you care about this ring more than you respect me, then you can keep doing that without me. Bye.”
Maia took off again, swaggering away at a blistering pace. Birch grit her teeth.
“Fine!” Birch called after her, tears welling up in her eyes. “That's right, leave! We didn't need you anyways!”
This time, Maia didn't turn around. She disappeared around the bush line, leaving the two other girls with nothing but a profound sense of emptiness.
Clap. Clap. Clap.
Just as Sally was about to wrap her arm around Birch’s waist, the slow clap was right behind them. Turning around, they saw… someone standing there, their features unidentifiable below the shadow of their gray hoodie and their nondescript blue jeans.
“Honestly, that's the most entertaining thing that's happened since I got here.” They spoke with a strikingly pleasant and deep voice as they lowered their hands. “Bit embarrassing for you two, though.”
Birch rubbed at her eyes with her massive fists, hiding her rapidly reddening face. “Who the hell are you?”
The Hood glanced at the leaving crowd before turning back to the two girls.
“Evidently, I'm one of the few people that bother to stick around. This whole circus went up like a firecracker fuse.”
“Lay off.” Sally stepped in front of Birch and prodded the stranger’s chest with a finger. “This is none of your business.”
“Business,” the Hood replied, as if they were rolling the word around their mouth like a sommelier tasting wine. “Oh, I know a thing or two about business.”
Turning on their heels, they let out a loud whoop and ran for the pit. Everyone who was leaving glanced back to see the Hood do a flip and land in the basin across from the bored Minotaur.
Stepping over the unconscious scorpion, the Hood raised their hands into the air.
“Who wants to see a real show?!”
The departing crowd paused with a series of slowly escalating murmurs. The Minotaur scoffed, glaring down at the hooded figure that was no less than half a foot shorter than him.
“Hey, pal,” the Minotaur huffed. “Wait your turn. Featherweights are up next.”
“Nah, I don’t think so.” The Hood leaned down to the unconscious fighter’s side and began to untie their gloves. “You can take your gloves off, by the way.”
The Minotaur’s massive, singular brow went up. “Huh?”
Donning the gloves, the Hood turned back to the towering beast.
“You'll need the handicap, big guy.”
The Minotaur’s eyes reddened in an instant. In one motion, the horned jock ripped off his gloves and swung a ludicrously violent hook aimed straight for the hooded figure’s hidden face.
With as much effort as tying a shoelace, the Hood wove beneath the incredibly telegraphed swing, connecting an uppercut with the bottom of the Minotaur’s chin to a resounding POP. The Minotaur’s head shot back in shock as he stumbled backwards to the sudden holler of the crowd.
Before their larger opponent could recover, or even before anyone knew whether he could recover, the Hood grabbed onto his horns. With a brutally fast flash of a pant leg, the figure sunk a knee into the Minotaur’s wide nose. The impact of the blow and the ensuing crunch rang across the entire skatepark.
The crowd let out a gnarly, intrigued wave of Oooohs. Some even started returning to their seats.
“What are you doing?!” Sally yelled, running up to the side of the pit. “This is a boxing ring! Punches only!”
“He came at me before I was ready!” The Hood replied theatrically and loud enough for the entire park to hear. “Ain't that right, boys?!”
The crowd’s mumbling transformed into excitement. A couple of them even revived the call-and-response with an affirmative yell.
“It’s only fair!” the Hood continued. “And I don't know about you, but am I the only one who loves nothing more than a fair fight?!”
The crowd roared with an energy Sally and Birch almost ceased to recognize. Behind the hooded figure, their opponent sputtered to life. Huffing to his feet, the Minotaur pulled his way up with the help of the curving wall. A relentless stream of blood poured from his crooked nose and splattered onto the concrete, but his eyes were even more furiously red and focused then they were before.
With an ear-splitting roar, the Minotaur charged at his smaller opponent and let loose a blurringly rapid one-two combination. The Hood swayed their body, flowing past the punches like water before responding with a destabilizing hook and a swarm of punishing jobs. Despite the sheer number of blows, not a single one seemed any less powerful than the last, or even than the very first. All the crowd could do was cry in exhilaration as the barrage continued for a whole half a minute.
The Hood cut the attack short, his breathing still completely steady. They allowed their opponent to sway and stumble back, waiting until the horned beast regained enough consciousness to see them charge once more.
“W-wait!” cried the Minotaur, his eyes pale from fear.
For another monstrous, jaw-dropping half-minute, the Hood made a punching bag out of an opponent twice their size. The assault ended just as abruptly as the last one—this time, the Minotaur fell flat on his back with a crash.
He was out cold before he hit the ground.
The crowd went into a frenzy. Their cheers, hoots, and screams reached a bloodthirsty fever pitch that sent a chill down Birch and Sally’s spines. The Hood raised their hands to the uproar.
“Yeah, you like that?! You like that?!” They waved their gloved hands to themself. “I'm gonna show you what real fighting looks like!”
Sally and Birch turned to each other with widened eyes, their thoughts blotted out by the audience.