It had all gone wrong. Fast. He’d been curled up on the couch with a glass of wine and their cat when his phone rang. There was a siren in the background, scrambling, it was loud.
It was Ben’s voice.
“Something happened. It’s bad, man, I’m with Rico, they’re taking him now—he won’t—” the end of the sentence was muffled. “St. Chris’s they’re taking him to St. Chris’s, I have to go, man, just get here as soon as you can.”
Before Ben was done talking Alex was out the door.
He was in a cab.
He was at the hospital. He fumbled over the keys trying to tell Hadrea where they were.
Ben met him when he walked into the emergency waiting room.
“Where is he?” Alex said. Ben was quiet. Alex looked around. Vic Monahan and a few other people from the gym were there. They looked at each other. “Where. Is. He,” Alex said again. He clenched his fist.
Ben reached out to put a hand on his shoulder. “Alex…”
Alex brushed the hand off. “Tell me.”
Ben hesitated. “He’s gone, Alex…he’s…he’s gone…”
Alex pulled away and stared at him.
“They did everything they could, he just…didn’t wake up—“ Ben reached out for him again and Alex glared.
“Don’t touch me,” he said. “I want to see him. I want to see him,” he said a little louder and he heard his own voice crack.
The lights in the morgue were chemical. Rico was laid out on a heavy metal table, his features placid. Alex was there. Just…there. For a long time with Ben to his right and the rattle of the air vent above their heads. Alex brushed the hair from Rico’s face. The official cause of death was a punctured lung, the doctor explained. The end result of a broken rib that never really healed. She’d showed them the x-rays and said I’m sorry for your loss.
Alex wasn’t sure when Hadrea got there but she was there now. Standing next to him. Holding Rico’s hand.
“Did anyone call his dad?” she said.
“He’s on his way up.” Alex said.
“Did you know he was still hurt?” she said.
Alex was quiet. She dropped Rico’s hand and looked at him.
“He said the doctor cleared him,” she said.
“He didn’t want you to worry, he—”
Alex felt a sharp slap across his face. He didn’t wince. There were tears in her eyes and he could hear her shoving down the shake in her voice.
“You could have stopped him,” she said.
“I tried. I told him he wasn’t ready.”
She raised her hand like she was going to slap him again, but this time Ben caught her wrist. She glared back at him and pulled her hand away, jamming a finger into Alex’s chest.
“All you are is violence Alex…” she said. “He should have been more than this…”
She shoved him once, hard, and left the room. Ben stayed behind.
“We should go too, Alex,” he said quietly.
Alex just stood there. There were bruises all over Rico’s skin, new ones on old ones. The harsh lights made them all the more glaring. He hadn’t really noticed before. Alex ran his fingers over Rico’s ribs and leaned down to kiss him.
“I think he always thought he had something to prove,” Alex said, looking up at Ben. “To you guys, to his dad…to me…” He frowned and looked back down at Rico. “I love him.” And saying it felt like a confession even though he’d said it so many times before.
Ben touched his arm. “We should go,” he said quietly. “I can drive.”
Alex just nodded without a word and followed him out.
It was a forty minute ride home. Ben had the radio on low and the windows cracked to let in the warm air. Alex sat in the passenger seat staring ahead but not really looking at anything. He turned the old dog tag on his keyring over in his fingers. The metal was flat and the feeling was—soothing.
“Who was the fight with?” he said after a while. “Rico was supposed to call and tell me. He never did.”
“I think I deserve to know.”
“It was an accident, Alex. You know it was an accident.”
“Was it Hector?”
Ben sighed. “Yeah, it was.”
Alex gritted his teeth. “Pull over.”
Ben pulled the car over. Alex got out, slamming the door behind him. He took a few deep breaths. Ben got out a few seconds later but left the car running.
“He shouldn’t have died Benny. Not now. Not in some, smoker against a guy twice as seasoned as him. Where were you, huh? Where were you? I told you to watch him. I told you to call it off if it was too much—“
“He wanted to fight. Get back in the car, come on.”
“No I’ll walk.”
“It’s twenty miles and it’s dark. Get back in.”
Alex wiped at his eyes and ran a hand through his hair. “He never should have been in that fight. Why didn’t you flag it, Benny?”
“Because he was winning,” Ben said, exasperated.
Alex threw a punch and Ben dodged it. He growled in frustration.
“Fight me,” he said, readying another punch. “Fight me, Ben.”
“I’m not going to fight you Alex, you’re not thinking straight.”
Alex lunged at him again and Ben caught his arm.
Alex tried to pull away.
“Stop, Alex. Please.”
Alex pulled away and tried to throw another fist and Ben punched him hard in the jaw. Alex stumbled back, taken off guard, and slid to his knees, digging his fingers into the sand and gravel. He was sobbing now and his lip was split.
He ran his tongue over his lip.
Ben knelt down with him and wrapped his arms around him.
“It’s my fault, Ben,” Alex said.
“No it wasn’t,” Ben said softly.
But Alex knew he was lying. They both knew if he hadn’t still been feuding with Vic that match would have been his.
By the time Alex managed to compose himself all his muscles felt like they were going to give out. He was tired but he knew he wasn’t going to sleep. He hadn’t slept alone since he was eighteen. Ben helped him up and back into the car before getting in himself. He turned off the radio. Alex tried calling Hadrea but she didn’t answer.
“She hates me now,” he said, setting his phone down.
“I don’t think she hates you.”
“Yeah...” He didn’t blame her.
“Do you want me to stay with you tonight?” Ben said.
“No,” Alex said.
“I don’t think you should be alone.”
Alex was quiet for a few seconds. Ben was probably right about that.
He didn’t want to go home.
“Take me to my mom’s?”
Ben nodded and drove there.
“I’ll talk to you tomorrow, ok?” he said.
Alex just got out of the car.
With shaky hands he let himself into the house. The windows were open and there was a nice cross breeze playing absent notes on the wind chimes hanging in the front room. The bamboo floor creaked under his feet. In the kitchen he found a cat curled up on the counter and felt it watching him as he rifled around on top of the fridge. He hadn’t wanted a cigarette in a long time but he wanted one now and found them stashed in the back of the bread box just as he had when he was a kid. He used the stove top to light one and slid down against the counter to the floor holding it loose between his lips. Sometime later his mother came in and sat down next to him. She had on a pair of silver-colored slippers and a lilac robe that she pulled closer against the breeze.
“When did you get a cat?” he said.
She glanced up in the cat’s direction. “He comes and goes.”
Alex hesitated for a long few seconds. “Rico’s gone,” he said quietly.
“Oh honey…” she said and put an arm around him.
He leaned his head on her shoulder. “It was in a fight and…I wasn’t even there…I should have been.”
She ran her fingers through his hair.
“I don’t know what to do, mom. I’m just so…angry…and I don’t know what to do.”
She put her hand on his and he looked up at her.
“There’s no easy fix to something like this, Alexander. I wish I could say there was.”
“I’m so sorry, honey…”
Alex leaned against her. “Can I stay here tonight?”
She hugged him. “Of course you can. Stay as long as you need.”
He closed his eyes and leaned against her.
Around sunrise he finally managed to drag himself to bed. He lay in his old room and looked at the constellations they’d painted on the ceiling when he was a kid. Aquila, Perseus, Cassiopeia—
All this had started over fucking contract negotiations. Because people were finally starting to notice him—sponsors were finally starting to notice him. One in particular, some energy bar company, had been seriously looking at him—that is until Vic, his manager, let slip that he wasn’t straight.
“You didn’t need them anyway,” she’d said with a condescending pat on his back. “There’ll be other sponsors.”
In the moment he hadn’t known what to say. Vic Monahan, a fighter he’d used to look up to, was trying to sabotage his career because she thought his ego needed to be knocked down a few pegs. But it wasn’t all ego. He was the best fighter to come out of Hellespont in a long time and he had the record to prove it. After that he walked out. He sat out the next two events and Hector’s gym had taken every advantage of the falling out. Hector’s people were good at spinning the story to make Monahan look incompetent. It had been amusing watching Vic go all red faced in front of the camera whenever someone asked about it. Rico hadn’t thought it was all that funny.
“You have to fight,” he’d said. They’d been out on the patio of their building lounging around in beach chairs when he brought it up.
“I don’t have to do anything,” Alex said. “Monahan says the gym doesn’t need me, fine. Let her see just how much she doesn’t need me.”
“That’s our livelihood you know. Are you really willing to watch the whole thing sink just for, what? Your pride? Everyone already knows how good you are, what are you trying to prove?”
Alex didn’t say anything. Rico shook his head.
“There’s a fight next week in Illius. I’m going.” Rico said.
“No you’re not.”
“Are you going to stop me?”
“We’re gonna show them we can beat them even down our best fighter. I’ve been training hard. I can take him.”
“They haven’t said yet, weigh in’s on Friday. Match is Saturday afternoon. We’re getting a hotel and staying up there.”
“I don’t like this.” Alex said.
“I didn’t ask you to like it.” Rico said.
Alex ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “Just promise you’ll be careful, no shame in tagging out.”
“Thanks for the confidence,” he said smiling a little.
Alex shoved him lightly. “You know what I mean.”
Rico leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Yeah I know.”
Alex rolled over on the bed and looked at his phone; the battery was almost dead. He tried to call Hadrea again.
She didn’t answer.
If she didn’t want to talk he didn’t either. He didn’t even know what they were without Rico. Were they still together? It had always just been the three of them. He’d never even thought about what they were apart.
The next day the gym was closed out of respect.
His phone died mid-morning and he spent most of the day in bed.
When he woke up some time that afternoon he found Rico’s gym bag and phone next to his bed.
“Did Benny bring this by?” he asked when his mom came in with soup.
She nodded. “He’s worried about you.”
Alex frowned slightly. She sat down next to him and offered him a bowl. He shook his head. “I’m not hungry.”
“You have to eat something,” she said.
He absently stirred the broth. “What did you do when Pop died?”
She ran her fingers through his hair. “Pretty much the same thing you’re doing now.”
“It hurts,” he said and she hugged him.
That night Alex catalogued Rico’s gym bag. One bottle of 3 in 1 Old Spice hair and body wash, two pairs of socks, a water bottle, a brush, a comb, one stick of deodorant, a t-shirt and jeans, a hoodie, headphones, his phone charger—
Alex pulled the hoodie on and plugged in Rico’s phone to let it charge.
The next day Alex got up before the sun and caught a bus to the gym. He had a key and let himself in. By the time it actually opened he’d been through his normal routine twice. He was working the bag when Ben walked up and caught it, breaking his concentration.
“You need to stop,” he said calmly, giving Alex a hard look. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
Alex glared. “Let. Go.”
Ben held the bag firm and stared him down. “You need to cool off. You shouldn’t even be here, not in your state.”
“Have you seen yourself?”
Alex gritted his teeth. “I’m fine.”
Ben shook his head. “Yeah you’re the picture of stability.”
Alex glared. “Tell Monahan I want back on the card. I want Hector.”
“Just fucking do what I said, Benny.” Alex threw his gloves on the ground and stalked off toward the door. Ben sighed and followed after him.
“Alex. Stop. The rate you’re going you’re gonna crash and burn.”
“I’ll win the fight.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
Alex turned back around and shoved Ben up against the wall. “What are you talking about?”
Ben looked him dead in the eye. “You gonna hit me again?”
Alex set his jaw.
“He was my friend too you know,” Ben said.
Alex let him go. “You, don’t know a damn thing, don’t pretend like you understand.”
“I know he wouldn’t have wanted to see you like this.”
Alex let out a bitter laugh. “Yeah you’re probably right. It doesn’t change anything though. Get me the fight, Benny. Do what you have to do, just get me the fight.”
Ben sighed. “Have you talked to Hadrea yet?”
Alex just glared and kept walking.
In the locker room he tied his hair back quickly and pulled on Rico’s hoodie. He shoved the rest of his stuff in the bag and left. He’d go for a run, he thought. He was sick of the gym anyway. Sick of the people. Sick of the stale smell.
Outside the air was chilly. It was a clear afternoon and he could smell the coast on the breeze. Alex took a deep breath and stretched. He slung his bag over his shoulders and put in Rico’s headphones before running off. He jogged east toward the docks. Past the condos and the car lots, the hotel with the plastic palm trees and the diner with the crescent moon in neon on its door. He ran until his legs started to burn and collapsed on a secluded piece of beach somewhere between the dunes with the spiny beach fences and the wind mill farm humming its single, low, droning note.
The sand bit at his knees while he caught his breath. When his heart stopped pounding he sat down properly and pulled out Rico’s phone. He scrolled through the pictures, through their old conversation logs. He fed the cats in Rico’s game. There was a video of the fight and Alex hesitated over playing it. Rico always had someone record them.
Alex hit play and Rico walked into the cage with the biggest grin on his face. Alex couldn’t help but smile a little. Rico wasn’t just some run-of-the-mill fist breaker. He was all technique. People underestimated him but it was a thing of beauty to watch him dancing circles around his opponent. They were into the third round before Hector even landed a good hit on him. Then another. And another. He was pinned against the cage and then he was down in splinters.
The video cut off.
Alex pulled it back to the beginning and watched it again.
There was a split second when Rico walked into the ring that he looked back at the camera. His smile. That’s what Alex wanted to remember.
He put the phone in the bag and tossed it in a nearby clump of beach grass before lying down in the sand.
He should have been there. If he wasn’t so stubborn—
Alex closed his eyes and listened to the seagulls.
When they were kids they used to spend hours here on the weekends—him and Rico and Hadrea—getting lost in the dunes, braiding crowns out of grass—his mom used to make them rock candy and their hands would get sticky from sugar and covered in sand. He remembered sunburns and salt in his hair. He remembered skinny dipping the night of senior prom and spending the night on the beach. It was always slow with Rico, soft, nice, and with Hadrea it was more visceral. He remembered trading kisses with both of them in the shade of a large jutting rock near the inlet.
He liked Hadrea. He liked what they had, but Rico was everything quiet in the world and there wasn’t anyone else that could be that.
He ran a hand over his face. Rico was a steady boxer, good even. But he wasn’t a fighter. Not at heart, even if he had wanted to be. That wasn’t supposed to be his future. It was a hobby for him. He was taking classes. He was going to be something.
He wanted to help people.
By the time he sat up again his clothes were soaked and the sun hung low in the sky. He brushed the sand out of his hair as best he could and started the long walk back to his apartment. He was going to fight Hector. He was going to win. After that he didn’t know what he was going to do, but of those two things he was sure.
They’d make a hell of a promotion out of it anyway.
By the time he got back to their block it was dark. He found Hadrea on the stoop outside. She was sitting cross legged and eating ice cream out of a tub. He cleared his throat and she looked up.
“The cat’s mad at you,” she said and held up an extra spoon for him.
He sat down and took it, turning it over in his hands. She went back to eating quietly.
“I’ve been trying to call you,” she said looking at him. “You should answer your phone.”
“The battery died,” he said. “You didn’t answer yours either.”
She shrugged. He took a spoonful of ice cream and sat back with her.
“Ben told me you were trying to work out to death this morning.”
“I might have over done it a little.”
“Then he said you stormed out.”
“You can’t burn all your bridges with all your friends, Alex. Not forever.”
“I know, I know…I’ll call him tomorrow.”
She nodded and leaned back against the wall. “I don’t hate you, you know,” she said.
He looked down. “You blame me though.”
“Yeah, but I shouldn’t.”
“I do. If I had been around they wouldn’t have even suggested he take that fight…”
“You know, shocking as it is, not everything’s about you. I know it’s hard to believe,” she sighed. “He wanted that fight, you and me both know that. It’s not easy living in your shadow. Even if he did love you. I shouldn’t have smacked you.”
Alex sighed. “It didn’t hurt.”
“That’s not the point.” She leaned her head on his shoulder.
“Did you hear anything about arrangements?” he said.
“Mr. Miranda called this morning. The funeral is for close family only…but they’re having a wake that’s open to everyone.”
Alex laughed a little bitterly. “He never liked me.”
“You corrupted his son, what did you expect?” She smiled a little.
He smiled a little too.
They sat there for a while in the quiet, watching flies buzz around the chipped enamel porch light. There was something comforting about just the rise and fall of her chest while she breathed.
“Why do you fight?” she said after a while. “I never understood it.”
“I’m good at it,” Alex said.
“Is that the only reason?”
He shrugged. He’d never thought about it before.
“Why did he?”
“I never asked.”
“He was applying to nursing programs you know.”
“I know, he would have been good at it.”
She nodded and was quiet for a few seconds. “What did you want to be? I mean before all this.”
“This is all I’ve ever wanted to be,” he said.
“Even when we were kids?”
He thought for a second. “A bee keeper.”
“I wanted to be a bee keeper.”
She laughed. “Really?”
“Yeah,” he smiled. “There was a guy in my dad’s building, it was before you moved in, he had an apiary on the roof, I always thought that was so cool. I learned everything I could about bees. I guess I always thought that one day we’d get away, get like a small house somewhere. I always wanted goats too.”
She smiled a little. “It’s a good dream.”
“That’s all it is I guess.”
She frowned. “The semester ends in a couple weeks…”
He hesitated. “Did you decide if you’re taking that fellowship yet?”
“I don’t know,” she said, and it sounded honest. “It’s a good opportunity. The lab there is amazing.”
He was quiet. “I don’t want to be alone.”
She squeezed his hand. “We should go inside.”
He nodded and he helped her up.
Alex took a long hot shower after that. He changed his clothes. With his hair still wet he lay on the bed and closed his eyes. Hadrea came in a while later and curled up next to him.
“Thought you didn’t do snuggling,” he said, but he didn’t pull away.
“I can make exceptions sometimes,” she said. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed the back of his neck.
Alex closed his eyes again.
He imagined the building where he grew up and they were twelve years old, sitting on the bed with his old Molosser, January.
Rico was bandaging up his knuckles with some gauze they’d found in the first aid kit that hung on the wall in the hallway. The med tape was old and dried out so they were using the cellophane tape from Rico’s dad’s junk drawer.
“You shouldn’t let people push you around like that,” Alex had said, watching Rico work.
“Well not all of us can punch like you do,” Rico said.
“I could show you,” he’d said. “I mean in case I’m not around next time.”
“Maybe,” he’d said and sat back to look at his handy work.
Alex sat down next to him tracing star charts in the freckles on his arm. “I really like you, you know…” he’d said. “You mean a lot to me.”
“You mean a lot to me too.”
“No I mean—”
“I know what you mean.” He’d leaned over and kissed Alex’s cheek.