“I understand, Mr. Ballard.“ Lou finally replied to the Headmaster's admonishments, her thoughts returned to the present. Her face remained expressionless.
Ballard sighed, his attempted tough guy facade melted away, replaced by the same cagey, slightly nervous, and invasive one he usually wore. He was clearly relieved. “Well now we gotten past that unpleasantness,“ Ballard gave Lou a watery smile, "I would like to ask you ask about your living situation. As I understand it you still reside at...“ Ballard looked down at some paper, “Brianne's Home for Girls? Is that correct?“
Lou nodded. She had been looking forward to the promised housing near the school.
Is this it? Is he going to offer me a bed at the school instead of an actual place?
“Well, that just ... I mean ... do you like it there?“ Ballard asked.
It was such an unexpected question Lou's stomach sank, she nearly lost control over her expression. Like all her experiences as a ward of the state it seemed every time you got something good they wanted to take it back. Lou braced herself inside for the coming blow. Whatever Ballard said Lou determined she would not let him see her hurt. And she was not giving up on Willow Prep, even if the original offer from Isabel Chatham had simply been a baited hook. It was her golden ticket and she knew it.
Ballard seemed sincere and Lou managed to croak out an answer. “No.“ she said, hanging to her calm by a broken fingernail. Ballard's eyebrow's shot up and he chuckled softly. “I appreciate the honesty, Ms. Rodriguez.“
Lou interrupted him. “Lou.“ He blinked at her several times then continued, “Well, your scholarship provides housing expenses, including an apartment across the Street from campus. I see you knew that already.“ Lou couldn't keep the hopeful look off of her face. “Of course you will be under the supervision of an appointed guardian, someone from the Willow Society, that is if you still wish to...“
Lou interrupted Ballard again, “Yes. When can I move in?“
Lying in the futon bed inside her studio apartment, her arms behind her head, the smile on her face feeling unreal, almost painful, Lou sighed happily. She was alone, in her first real home she could remember, the first place where she had privacy, where she did not feel hunted. Where she could rest and not feel like she was worthless. The place wasn't hers really, but right then, it felt like it was. It had a lock on the door, a wholly new experience for Lou. Only two people besides herself had a key for the lock, a realization more comforting than just about any she could recall. Besides herself, the building super and the guardian appointed from the Willow Society - a doddering old woman named Mrs. Jones - no one could enter unless Lou agreed. It seemed like magic. At times Lou would take out her key ring and stare at the lone key on it, fascinated. She would rub the grooves of the keys between her fingers, take comfort in the metal ridges pressing against the callouses on her fingers.
Mrs. Jones had come by Brianne's and helped Lou move out, the woman had also taken Lou to purchase clothes, toiletries, furniture and a thousand other odds and ends, most of which Mrs. Jones chose. Lou didn't know how to shop and had gotten by for so long on so little that she couldn't easily wrap her head around needing so many things, had tried to resist the old woman's shopping intentions. Lou quickly discovered how implacable Mrs. Jones could be, and how right she was. The place did need all these things. After Mrs. Jones helped Lou "homey-the-place-up,“ as she called it, Lou had wandered the three room apartment randomly touching things simply to remind herself they were real, and they were hers. Despite this, Mrs. Jones was not a regular visitor.
Lou resided in the apartment for almost a full year and the magic of it had not worn off. She lay on her futon, the window open, listened to the night sounds of New York City outside and said silent prayer of thanks for the millionth time since Mrs. Chatham had walked into her life.
During that year had Mrs. Jones made attempts at befriending Lou. Sometimes other women, Mrs. Chatham was one, would accompany Mrs. Jones, another being a very stern looking, bookish woman named Sue-Ann, who never smiled. Lou liked Sue-Ann, mainly for her intensity, but she rebuffed all attempts at being friends with these two women, not that Mrs. Chatham or Sue-Ann offered.
Lou was still too cautious.
Lou yawned, hoped sleep would come quickly. Tomorrow would be the first day of her second year at Willow Prep and she was excited. About school! Her first year had been hard, the coursework was exceedingly difficult, nearly impossible at times, but Lou had managed through sheer will to do fairly well. She had continued fighting in amateur MMA bouts and she was still undefeated, poised to win a state championship if she did as well this year. It would her first year being age-eligible to compete. That was part of the reason she was so excited about school. Mrs. Chatham had agreed to let Lou continue in her favorite sport, even offering funds to join, buy equipment, and cover travel costs. Lou practiced in a gym in the East Village area called Alphabet City, in a small dimly lit facility run by a Palestinian man named Zahi.
Lou yawned again and snuggled into a body pillow, closed her eyes and let the sounds of the night outside help drift her into sleep. The next day Lou's excitement carried her through her morning workout routine: a quick run around the neighborhood, some pull-ups and sit-ups in her apartment, followed by some work on the little punching bag hanging in her hallway. Showered and dressed, she walked through the halls of Willow Prep thirty minutes later, her excitement still peeked. She had yet to really make any friends at Willow Prep, despite having been there a year. Had she been the kind of girl to be introspective she might have thought the other students were afraid of her, or perhaps looked down upon her, but she wasn't and she didn't. When people ignored her, Lou moved on.
But every once in a while Lou would look around as she went from class to class, size up her fellow students: a girl who with apt, fast reflexes, or a boy who looked well-built and yet agile, quick and sure-footed; Lou would wonder if she should invite that girl or that boy to join her MMA team. She would wonder, even if for only a moment if she could be friends with them. But she never did. It just wasn't her style.
After school would be the Willow Prep MMA team's first meeting, in one of the club rooms. Signs had been up since halfway through term last year and Lou was eager to see how many people showed up. Lou walked into the room and looked around, disappointed. There were only three people in the room. The Faculty Advisor, a man Lou had only met twice before, who clearly had no experience in any kind of sport: he was fat and unkempt, and his name was Mr. Tate. The other two were both girls. One Lou recognized, Isadore Chatham. Everyone knew Isadore, or Izzy as she was called. She was a sophomore like Lou, but easily the most popular girl at the school. People were always buzzing about her social media posts, about the celebrities she was chummy with on Facebook and about the events she could get access to, access she occasionally offered up to her followers, like a queen giving out alms. Rumors even circulated that she had SnapChatted a photo of herself James Franco recently. Despite that, Izzy did not seem to be an intolerably horrible person, nothing like the Mean Girl Lou would have expected her to be. They had shared a class the year before, as freshmen, and Lou had found Izzy to be confident, but not cocky, and friendly somehow without offering much of herself.
Something rich people always seem to know how to do.
The other girl Lou had never seen before. She was small, not even five feet tall, judging by how her feet dangled from the bench she sat on. Her skin was quite dark and her hair piled on top of her head in twists was sprinkled with a red and purple that was wholly unnatural. She wore stylish eyeglasses, a bright pink lipstick, and punky-looking clothes completed by a pair of lilac combat boots.
Before Lou sat down the dark girl smiled at her and extended her small, delicate hand. Her fingernails were painted in alternating stripes of varying widths and colors. Lou stared at the girl's hand, looked up to her face. She wore such an open expression of naivete, of worldly innocence Lou almost wanted to smile. She took the girl's hand and shook it briefly, released it.
“I'm Myth,“ the girl said. “I mean, my real name is Myra. Myra Smith, but real names are so '87. I go by Myth.“ She seemed very forward, highly excitable, yet a touch nervous, as if she wanted Lou to accept her, but to accept her as presented, not as Lou may or may not perceive her. It was like the girl was saying “This is me, adjust your perceptions to match, pretty please?“
Every part of Lou's habitual distance screamed, but for some inexplicable reason Lou smiled at Myth. “I'm Lou.“ she replied, not bothering with her full name. She never did. Myth returned the smiled and answered the question Lou might have just thought to ask. “I'm only thirteen. That's why I'm so small, but I really want to learn how to kickbox!“
Lou grimaced, but Izzy saved the moment. The striking blond nodded to Lou and said, “Lou.“ Lou nodded back and said, “Izzy.“ It wasn't cold, but it wasn't warm either. Myth looked from girl to girl and said, “You two know each other?“
“We've had a class together.“ Izzy said right as Lou said, “Everyone knows Izzy.“ Both girls were taken aback for a moment, eyed each other warily. Myth was about to speak but then Mr. Tate looked up from the laptop he had been tinkering with and said, “Well, I guess we're all here then.“
“Not much of a kickboxing urge at Prep School, eh?“ Tate said, laughing. Lou winced inwardly, refused to show the expression on her face. She hated when people called it kickboxing. Lou had been twelve when she began what she thought of as her MMA career, with her fight against L'Jean. The girls at Juvie had scoffed at Lou when she had asked them how she could learn to kickbox like they did. It had almost caused a fight.
“It's called Mixed Martial Arts, yo. Kickboxing is some mad-eighties shit, all Jean Claude Van White Guy!“ one of the toughest girls at Juvie had said, doing a funny imitation of a fake karate move.
Lou said to Tate and Myth both, "It's called Mixed Martial Arts, MMA, not kickboxing . But if you really wanna learn... I'm glad you're here.“
Myth smiled huge and looked like she wanted to move in and give Lou a hug, but Lou pulled away. Lou had a moment of panic-fight response, coupled with an almost automatic rush of anger, tightly controlled and channeled into her fists, which had already balled up. Seeing her reaction Myth stopped cold and swallowed hard. Tate stepped in, oblivious and brought everyone's attention back to him.
“You two alright?” Tate said, rubbing his beard. “Expecting anyone else?“
“No.“ Lou said. Myth giggled.
“Well, if that's the case, then I'm sure you won't mind if I get back up to my office. If you guys need me for anything, you know where my office is?“ Tate asked, he hardly waited for the girls to nod before he gathered himself up and waddled out of the club room.
“Great. Good. Wonderful. I wish you girls the best, um knock em dead or something.“ He left, mumbling to himself about wishing he could fight like he used to and something about SatSig, whatever that was.
Lou threw a light punch in Myth's direction, unable to resist the smile which crept across her face when, for the first time Myth bobbed, ducked, weaved, and twisted herself away from a punch, then returned with one of her own. Myth wasn't tall enough to have the reach necessary to hit Lou in the face, so she had aimed for Lou's stomach and the blow was good, coming from Myth at least. Lou hardly felt it, her washboard stomach and trained reflexes easily absorbed what little force Myth's small, not very developed arm gave. As soon as she pulled back from the punch Myth looked up and saw Lou smile. The dark girl let out a giggle mixed with a shriek.
“Yes!“ Myth had shouted.
“That was good, Myth.“ Lou said. She felt something, quite aside from the punch, something she had been waiting for, but had not really expected to ever happen. Lou Rodriguez had affection for Myth. It was the feeling a big sister might feel for a little, the way a close friend might feel, if movies and TV shows could be trusted. It was altogether strange to Lou, if not unpleasant. She was still smiling inside long after her normal stoic expression had returned.
“Amazing, Myth,” Izzy said from outside the practice ring. While Myth had been to every practice and shown improvement, Izzy had been, at best, an indifferent fighter and oddly, at least to Lou, an infrequent attender of practice sessions. Lou had never thought of the other girl as being anything less than an overachiever, the kind of teenager who never missed any of her commitments. It was clear to the other girls Izzy's heart was not really in MMA.
A few weeks passed after Myth's first landed punch and the girl's skill grew until she was able to land a punch which would knock the wind out of most girls her age and size, if not most boys. Her aim improved daily and her dedication made Lou proud. But the same could not be said of Izzy. She wavered, attending less and less frequently until she simply stopped coming, and when she did attend she tended to watch Lou and Myth spar rather than participate herself. Lou would see the pretty girl in the hallways of Willow Prep and they would acknowledge each other, but Lou never cared to ask why Izzy stopped coming and Izzy's smile offered no answers.
It was near Thanksgiving when everything changed.