Are You Real?
The familiar, gruff voice snapped Maia out of her self-conflicted daze. She cast a sidelong glance at the figure, immediately recognizing both her and the person behind her as the two girls from the cafeteria.
“What do you want?” Maia asked.
“I-I’m sorry!” Birch coughed. “You know, for getting you in trouble.”
“Don’t be.” Maia scoffed. “I wanted to squash that annoying insect. You had nothing to do with it.”
To Maia’s surprise, Birch’s eyes lit up at the uninspired answer. Birch held in an excited squeal and turned to Sally.
“See Sally?” she whispered audibly, “I told you! She’s even cooler than I thought!”
“Yeah, right.” Sally said, stepping forward. “Listen, we appreciate what you did for us is what we're saying. And since you don't seem like the type of person that likes owing or being owed, I have something of a proposal.”
Maia's eyebrows went up. “Uh-huh.”
“What you did today’s been making waves across the whole school,” Sally continued. “Sure, you've made a lot of enemies among the pompous snobs here. But you also made an instant friend out of anyone who they wouldn't look twice at.”
“Get to the point,” Maia replied, her face scrunching up.
“I was, don’t worry.” Sally pointed past her. “Near here, there’s another school. Ducalton, if I remember correctly. Ever heard of it?”
Maia slowly nodded in recognition. “I have, yeah.”
“Then you should also know the place… isn’t up to code. I heard that because of district politics, they’ve had some pretty nasty budget cuts recently, and you can see it with all the meatheads picking fights there. What I'm saying is, wouldn't it be better to harness that?”
Maia cocked her head. “What do you mean?”
“Simple,” Sally snapped her fingers. “We host a little bit of a friendly competition. Wring the tension out of the troublemakers from V.I.A.S. and Ducalton and keep the heat off of the rest of us. In other words, a Fight Club. Boxing rules.”
Maia couldn't help but snort. "And why're you telling me all this?"
"Because they're all talking about you!" Birch beamed. "They say you went after the queen bee like a mad dog."
"And rumors spread," Sally added. “Even between schools that are close enough.”
"It'll be so cool!" Birch said. "We'd have the roughest and toughest with a whole roaring crowd, and-!"
"Stop. There's one itsy-bitsy detail I think you guys aren’t considering." Maia injected her words with a sarcastic edge. "I don't really care about any of that."
"Hang on a sec," Sally said. "We didn't tell you the best part. All these meatheads itching for a fight? They don't just want to watch. They want to bet. And we can get a piece of that pie if we give them a place to do it."
“Do I really look that desperate?”
Sally shook her head. “All I'm saying is, if we act on your clout, we could make the school a more peaceful place, insure ourselves against Victoria's influence with our little private army, and make a little money on the side.”
Maia scratched the side of her head. “Okay… let’s say this really does happen. What’s my part in all this?”
“All you need to do is show up and be yourself,” Sally said. “Birch and I will handle the organizing. We even have the perfect place in mind.”
Maia stared at them blankly, in a deep focus that they could have mistaken for zoning out. The image of her mother's streaming tears and the silhouette of her doubled over body mid-bow replayed in her head.
"I'll bite." She raised her face. "Show me."
A little over a year later, well into Maia’s junior year, Mad Dog had solidified itself as a household name. Even though so much had changed, her work schedule and the bags under her eyes didn’t.
Maia opened her eyes and took a deep breath.
“Look, I shouldn't have let you guys down. And I shouldn't have given you guys up just because I found new friends. I’m sorry-”
For whatever reason, her tongue wavered, as it had on every previous attempt. Her eyes, blurred from intense focus, readjusted to the brick wall in front of them. She watches the mold blooming along the angular cracks in the plasterwork, briefly feeling like even it had more purpose than her right now.
Maia sighed. “What am I doing...?”
C’mon. All you have to do is get those stupid words out and give them this dumb box. That's it.
She's been through worse, dealt with worse people. But for some reason, facing Birch and Sally now seemed like the hardest thing in the world. When faced with indecision like that, Maia learned that the best option was to not give herself a chance to overthink.
She stepped out of the alley and started her journey to V.IA.S. High.
Having stopped at home to pick up the box that she was now carrying, Maia made her way through the neighborhood of Duketown at her usual brisk, swaggering clip. After she boarded her bus, the windows around her went from barred to bare in a few minutes flat. A few more minutes, and the roofs went from tin and plaster to proper concrete and brick. By the time that she got off at the stop around the bend from V.I.A.S. High, the city had transformed into spacious condos and renovated lots.
With the greenery of the Jungle in sight, Maia put some spring in her step. If Birch and Sally were keeping to the tradition of Mondays and Fridays, that meant that there would be a fight on schedule today. The former, for when everyone would be most on edge at the start of the week, and the latter to excitedly celebrate the week’s end. Thanks to Sally's organizational skills, it was built perfectly around her work schedule on weekdays and weekends.
The thought of Sally brought a pang of empty sadness into her heart, one that was only quelled by the sight of the skate park’s massive pipe ramp visible between the trees. As she approached, she could even make out the silhouettes of Sally and Birch parked atop their opposite peaks.
And yet, once their faces came into view, Maia felt a disconcerting rock settle into her stomach. Both of the girls were staring pale-faced into the pit.
"Sally!" Maia called out. "Birch!"
But her voice was lost in the ferocious clamoring of the crowd. Her curiosity piqued, Maia jogged up past the bush line to get a better view, only to pause once she saw the sight within.
Both old and new, the stains polka dotted the entire surface area of the pit. Evidently, the resounding cheers of the crowd were aimed towards the one, tottering fighter standing, and against the one splayed out on the concrete unmoving. The victorious fighter raised his hands, seemingly more out of an attempt to cling onto consciousness than to celebrate. The only thing covering his massive knuckles was a web of welts, cuts, and bruises.
They were fighting bare-knuckled?!
Her mind shaken, Maia couldn't help but notice the half a dozen other things that were wrong. Most glaringly, she barely recognized the crowd. The usual troublemakers and jocks were almost doubly outnumbered by fresh faces, a good number of which were both shady and clearly not in high school. The air was marred with the sick stenches of both ashy and grassy smoke, mixed with reeking undertones of alcohol. Broken glass and burnt-up buds littered the makeshift stands.
“And the winner is decided!” screamed an unfamiliar voice, belonging to that of a hooded figure standing atop the pipe ramp.
The crowd roared in return, and the hooded figure climbed down from the pipe ramp to toss what looked like an ice pack into the pit below. The exhausted winner barely caught it, and slumped down along the curved wall of the pit. Judging by the fact that his entire upper body was covered in a slew of injuries, he must have been fighting non-stop for over half an hour. All that in return for a tiny little ice pack that was smaller than half his bruises.
Maia ran out onto the edge of the pit.
“What the hell is all this?!”
Sally and Birch looked at her with aghast expressions. The crowd's wild cheering trickled into a bubbling brook of whispers, and even the Hood turned to watch her.
“Maia?” Sally asked.
"I leave early once, and you turn the Jungle into this?!" Maia pointed into the pit with one hand and clutched her box with the other. "How the hell do you plan on cleaning and hiding all of this?!"
The crowd fell silent. After a long pause, Birch was the first to speak.
“Why do you care?”
Maia glared at her. “What?”
“Why do you care?” Birch repeated. “You left us, remember? You've got new friends now, right? Those nerds that you play dice with?”
“She's absolutely right!” came the Hood's voice. “You left because you were afraid things weren't going well. And now that everything's fun and games, you come crawling back for the crown?”
The Hood turned to the crowd, his tone still dripping with sarcasm. “It's not very in-character for a Mad Dog to be scrounging around for scraps, is it?!”
A handful of affirmative jeers broke out from the crowd. Maia shifted her ice-cold glare onto the Hood.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I'm the one that stepped up to run the show!” the Hood exclaimed. “After you left it out to dry.”
Maia took a couple of lumbering steps towards the half pipe. “And who agreed on that?”
“The audience that I built, and not to mention, your friends”. The Hood gestured with their palms out. “You know, the ones that you dropped after milking them for all the easy money they’re worth?”
Maia snarled. She dropped the box in her hands and charged at the Hood. Instead of sinking her knuckles into that cowardly bastard's frame, her fist was intercepted by Birch's shoulder.
Even after taking Maia's strongest, most anger-fueled wallop, Birch still stood. But Birch didn't just stand there for long, firing back with her own jab instead.
Maia was sent stumbling backwards from the sudden shot to the chest. Before she could fully close the gap with another wild charge, Sally jumped in between the two of them, wildly waving her arms.
“What's wrong, Mad Dog?!” Birch yelled, her voice quivering. “You used to always hit me so easily before!”
Maia stopped in place, her hands falling to her sides. Her face twisted with pained bitterness as she glanced between Sally and Birch. She stormed off in the opposite direction, stomping on the box she brought on her way out.
The crowd booed as she approached the bush line, tossing trash well after she disappeared past the tree-lined bend.
All Birch could do was stare at her disappearing silhouette, her chest aching beyond the hardest punch that either of them could have mustered. She sniffled, but before any tears came, the Hood's gloved hand slipped onto her shoulder.
“You shouldn't have stepped in her way," they said.
Birch turned around. “Huh? But she was going to hit you.”
“I know. I wanted her to try.” The Hood pulled their hand from her shoulder. “Sometimes, you need to put a bitch down yourself.”
Sally walked past the two of them and crouched beside the crushed box on the ground. The topmost flap bore a small circular logo with what looked like a dog wearing a chef's hat, but it was almost unrecognizably marred by a shoe print. Sally cracked the box open before a twinge of her heart forced her to close it.
In silent understanding, she looked up at the bend around which Maia disappeared.