7 | Fighter
“What’s your major?” I asked Gia as I was washing the dishes after supper. She had been there for a few hours now and we’d hit it off great. I hadn’t quite known what I thought she’d be like, but she definitely had exceeded whatever expectations I had.
I loved her. She was funny and smart and always had a smile on her face. As soon as we were done eating, she’d insisted that Damen go out and get some ice cream while she and I got to know each other better.
We’d hadn’t stopped talking since the moment he left, and I’d just learned that she was getting ready to start her senior year at Oregon State.
“Music.” Gia replied, grabbing a rag and wiping down the counter. “I’ve always loved music.”
“Really?” I smiled. “Do you play anything?”
“Only piano, guitar, and clarinet.” She said, grinning. “And I can sing.”
“Wow.” I laughed and went back to washing dishes.
“What about you?” She asked, setting the rag down and hopping on the counter. “Do you play anything?”
I glanced at her. “Guitar.” I admitted. “And I sing sometimes too. I used to mess around with writing songs, but none of them were very good.”
I didn’t know why I’d told her that. I loved music, but the music that I played and wrote was very private to me. I’d never played or shared it with anyone. I hadn’t even told anyone about it before.
“I doubt that.” Gia smiled. “Damen has told me a lot about you. You’re very talented and I’m sure they are great pieces. I’d love to hear them.”
I wondered what Damen had told her. Had he told her about Dad and Demi? I frowned. Of course he had; they were dating.
“I’ve never played any of my songs for anyone.” I told her. “Most people don’t even know I can play.”
Gia frowned. “Why is that?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “Everything I’ve ever done has ended up being on display for everyone to see. Music is the one thing that is private to me. You know, it’s something that I can pull out to show to myself that everyone doesn’t know everything about me.”
I’d never said it out loud like that. I didn’t think I’d ever even thought it. Gia was just so easy to open up to and we’d just met, so it wasn’t like she thought she knew everything about me.
I realized right then that it could be that way with everyone here. If I played it right, no one had to know who I was or anything about my past. I could choose exactly who I wanted to be, and nobody would ever know I had ever been anyone else.
“So, you don’t think you’ll ever share your music with anyone?” Gia asked.
“No, I’d share it with the right person.” I realized if I was going to start showing different sides of me, I might as well start now. I glanced at her and smiled. “I have a few recordings on my phone if you want to hear.”
“I would love to.” Gia’s face was serious. “But only if you really want me to.”
I dried my hands off and grabbed my phone. “I really want you to.”
The time passed quickly. Gia was at the apartment every day. She was perfect for Damen and I loved watching them. Damen’s eyes were always on her when she was in the room and his face glowed when they were together.
I was pretty sure Gia spent the night a couple of times, but I didn’t say anything since they were obviously trying to hide it.
I didn’t mind, really. They’d been there first and I was the one intruding. I purposely made excuses throughout the week to leave them alone and go to bed early because I didn’t want to make them feel awkward.
A week after I arrived, the rest of my belongings arrived, and Damen took them all to my room. We still hadn’t talked about what had happened with Dad and Demi. It was fine by me, but I knew Damen would bring it up at some point.
Before he’d moved, Damen had been majoring in psychology at the University of Virginia. He used to tell me all about what he was learning and since I’d been here, I’d discovered that he’d continued his education at Portland State.
I was happy for him, but for me, it meant that at some point he’d bring up the scandal and try to give me psychological therapy.
Since Gia hadn’t come over today, Damen stuck around after delivering my stuff to my room and helped me unpack.
“Do you still do martial arts?” He asked, picking up my punching gloves from out of a box.
I shook my head. “Not officially. But I’ve been training a bit on my own recently.”
“Oh.” He set them down and pulled out the next item. “Do you want to go back to a dojo?” He asked.
I glanced at him. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.” Damen leaned against the desk. “You don’t play soccer anymore and—”
“How do you know that?” I snapped, cutting him off. We’d talked about the championship, but I hadn’t told him that I’d quit.
Damen gave me a look. “Seriously Hayden? The Hayden I knew before I moved was glued to a soccer ball. You haven’t touched one since you arrived. And,” He pointed to the closet.” You didn’t even open the boxes marked soccer, you just stuffed them in there.”
I glanced at the boxes in the closet and bit my lip. “I just don’t want to play anymore.” I told him.
Damen’s face softened and he came over next to me. “That’s fine. I was just saying since you don’t play anymore, maybe you wanted to get back into competitive martial arts.” He winked at me. “You know, make some friends.”
“I haven’t sparred with anyone in over two years.” I told him. “Kicking a bag is one thing. Kicking a moving person who kicks back is another.”
Damen gave me a look. “There’s a dojo less than a mile away and I’m friends with a sensei there. Just give it a try.” He lightly punched my shoulder. “For me? It’ll get you out of the apartment.”
I thought about it. Going back to a dojo and actually sparring with real people would be fun, but I didn’t want to have the pressure of training for competition. Sighing, I agreed. “Fine. But you have to get a punching bag for me to use here.”
Damen nodded. “Okay. But it’ll have to go in my garage outside. I don’t think my landlord and neighbors would want you punching away in here.”
“So we go this afternoon?” Damen asked.
“You think they’ll be okay if we just show up there?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I’ll give my friend a call and let him know we’re coming.”
“Okay then.” I went back to unpacking boxes.
I hoped that sparring with a real person wouldn’t set me off. Since Ashton died, the training had become a way for me to relieve my anger and stress. But I’d only been using punching bags and dummies. Sparring with a real person who hit back might really get me going in the wrong direction.
“Hey look at this.” Damen held out a framed picture. It was a picture of me, him, and Ashton from right before Ashton had left for bootcamp.
I took it and gave a sad smile. “We sure were happy.” I said, remembering how ecstatic Ashton had been and how excited we were for him.
“It seems like just yesterday.” Damen said.
“But also like he’s been gone forever.” I felt tears trying to form and took a deep breath, setting the picture down and going back to unpacking.
Damen watched me silently for several moments. “Are you okay?” He finally asked, a concerned look on his face.
I didn’t look at him but nodded. “Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”
He didn’t answer for a moment. “I heard you crying last night.” He said. “Are you having nightmares again?”
I froze, my back to him. I really didn’t want to have this conversation right now.
“Hayden.” I felt his hand rest on my shoulder. “I just want to know so I can help you.”
I swallowed. There was no helping it. “It was the first one in a long time.” I told him, turning around.
It wasn’t true and I could tell that he knew it. The truth was, I’d been having them more and more often since Dad and Demi and now it was pretty much every night again.
Damen searched my eyes a moment. “You would tell me if you weren’t okay, right?” He asked.
I nodded and turned back around. That wasn’t true either. I already knew deep down inside that I wasn’t okay, but I didn’t want to believe it. I needed to think everything was fine.
That afternoon, Damen drove me to the dojo he’d mentioned. I’d worn adidas sweats and a tank, hoping that I wouldn’t be made to put on a Gi. That was the other thing I hadn’t liked about training at a dojo.
When we walked in the door, we were immediately greeted by a man that I assumed was Damen’s friend.
“Damen!” The man gave Damen a hug. “It’s good to see you!” He turned to me. “So, you’re the kick-ass niece Damen mentioned.”
I grinned and held out my hand. “Hayden.”
“Good to meet you, Hayden.” He shook my hand. “My name is Grant, but,” He leaned forward a little. “While we’re here, you should probably address me as Master Denton.”
I nodded and smiled. He seemed like an interesting character, great for little kids, but not as good with teenagers.
“So Hayden, Damen told me you’re a black belt in both Taekwondo and Judo.” Grant said.
I glanced at Damen. “Yeah. Third-degree in Taekwondo and first-degree in Judo. I also have a red belt in Karate, but I haven’t sparred with anyone in over two years.”
“That is completely alright. We’ll just start out slow.” Grant ushered me into the main part of the building, where several kids were training. “Nadia!” He waved over a girl about my own age. “Hayden, this is my daughter, Nadia. Nadia, this is Damen’s niece, Hayden.”
Nadia grinned at me. “Nice to meet you. Do you do martial arts?” She asked.
I stared at her, frozen. I’d gotten so used to people’s cruelty that Nadia’s genuine politeness took me by surprise. “Uh, yeah.” I smiled at her. “Sort of.”
“She’s a black belt.” Grant told Nadia. “Could you show her around the place? Maybe have her spar with another student?” He smiled at me. “Don’t stress yourself out over it. She’ll have you take it slow
Nadia smiled at me. “Come on.”
“So, if you’re a black belt, what did you mean when you said you sort of do martial arts?” Nadia had shown me around the dojo, and we were now back in the main room, watching the rest of the kids.
I smiled. “I just meant I haven’t actually sparred with anyone in over two years. I’ve been training on my own.”
“Oh. What type of martial arts do you use?”
I gave a half smile. “Taekwondo, Judo, and Karate.”
“Do you want to do some sparring?” She asked. “I’m working right now, so I have to get back to that, but Russell knows both Taekwondo and Karate and I could probably get him to spar with you.” She said, pointing to a guy sparring with another kid.
I watched him for a minute. Both Russell and the guy he was sparring with were black belts, but Russell was obviously dominating the match.
I glanced at Nadia. “I don’t know. I’d probably just make a fool of myself.” I didn’t know why I’d suddenly lost all my confidence. Sure, I hadn’t sparred in a while, but it’s not like I had completely dropped my training.
“Come on! No one will care.” Nadia grinned. “I’m the only one who knows you’re a black belt, so if you do badly, everyone will just think you’re still a beginner, and if you do well…”
I raised an eyebrow and smiled. “A white belt sparring with a black belt?”
Nadia rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean. So are you in?”
I stood up and slipped off my shoes. “Totally.” I said, grinning.
Russell agreed to spar with me, and Nadia let him know that I was probably a little rusty.
“I’ll just take my cue from you.” He said, grinning
The only equipment Ashton and I had used when we sparred was gloves, so it had been a long time since I’d worn a helmet and vest and it felt weird.
Russell kept to his word and started out easy and slow on me. In the beginning, my reaction time was poor, but after a few minutes I got into rhythm and we quickened our pace.
It was an informal match, so we used a mix of Karate and Taekwondo. After several minutes of pretty equal scoring, I pulled Russell over.
“I don’t want you to go easy on me anymore.” I told him. I was more than warmed up and I wanted a tough match.
Russell gave me a look. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “If I can’t handle it, I’ll let you know.”
He nodded and we went back to sparring again.
The level of difficulty and speed definitely went up, but I still felt in control.
“You’re good.” Russell said.
“Thanks.” I delivered a solid roundhouse and then hook kick to his head. “You are too.”
He laughed, shaking it off, and we went back to sparring.
We were sparring at a pretty high level, but at this point, it was obvious that I was in control of the match. I dodged or blocked eighty percent of his punches or kicks and close to the same percentage of mine were solidly completed.
We took a small break and several of the other students gathered around, saying how good I was and asking me questions about myself. At first, I answered them naturally, but it quickly started feeling like back in Virginia, and I began to feel uneasy.
“You’re awesome!” One of the younger kids said. “Did your Dad teach you?”
No, my Dad just taught me betrayal, I wanted to say. Instead, I stood up, clenching my jaw.
“Let’s go again.” I said to Russell, heading back out on the mat.
“You okay?” He asked, following me.
“Yeah.” I strapped my helmet back on. “Let’s go.”
From the very start of the match, I was out of control of my emotions. Images of Dad, Demi, and even Ashton kept appearing in my head and I began throwing kicks and punches in anger.
The thing about emotion is that it’s powerful, but also dangerous. In a fight, it can give you enough power to knock someone down with just a well-placed punch, but it can also distract you and tear your focus away from the fight, making your kicks and punches inaccurate and leaving you exposed to a counter hit.
In this fight, my anger gave me power.
I knew my emotions were taking over, but instead of stopping the match, I sped it up, throwing a series of kicks and punches, most of which connected with Russell’s head.
“Woah.” Russell ducked, avoiding another kick I sent his way. “Maybe we should stop?”
I didn’t even hear him. Forgetting where I was and what I was doing, I launched a roundhouse kick immediately followed by a sort of soccer scissor kick, the force of which sent Russell sprawling.
When I hit the ground, I realized what happened and rushed over, helping him up and apologizing. I’d lost it. I couldn’t stay there with everyone talking about me, so I went over to the other end of the room and sat down, tearing off my helmet and vest.
“That was pretty impressive.” A voice said. I looked up and saw a guy, probably mid-twenties, standing there watching me. “What was that last kick?”
I pursed my lips. “What’s it to you?” He wasn’t wearing a Gi, so I was pretty sure he wasn’t a sensei, he probably wasn’t even a student here.
“You fight with emotion.” He said, sitting down next to me. “I’m guessing by the way you ran off so quickly, it’s anger.”
I glanced at him, a hard look on my face. Who was he and why did he care?
“I can see that I’m right.” He said, studying my face. “I’m Cody by the way.” He held out his hand.
I ignored his hand. “What do you want?”
“I want to help you.” He said, withdrawing his hand.
I gave him a look, but he continued. “What if I told you there was a way you could channel that anger without having to worry about hurting someone, and make some money out of it?”
“I’d say whatever idea you have is probably not something I’m interested in.” I told him, not interested in whatever he was selling.
He smiled again. “Have you ever tried street fighting?”
I looked at him, disbelief written all over my face. “Are you kidding me? I’m sixteen! Do I look like a street fighter to you?”
“So?” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what you look like. And we have guys that are only thirteen fight.”
“Yeah, well street fighting is dangerous, so no.” I said, preparing to leave.
“It’s not as dangerous as you might think.” Cody said. “It all depends on how you look at it.”
“Well I look at it as dangerous, so yeah.” I stood up and looked at him. “Not happening.”
He stood up too. “I know who you are, Hayden Starr.” He said softly.
“I know you’re a fighter at heart,” He continued. “And you have plenty of reasons to be angry. Let me show you how to get rid of that anger and make you a real star.” He handed me a card with some written information on it. “We meet tomorrow night. That’s the address. I hope you come.” With that, he walked away, leaving me shaken.
Swallowing, I glanced around to see if anyone had overheard our conversation, but everyone seemed occupied with their own business.
I hauled a dummy onto the floor and went back to training, listening to music through my air pods.
Thirty minutes later, I stopped to take a break. Glancing around, I realized I had been so engrossed in my own world that I hadn’t even seen that almost everyone else had left.
I noticed a teenage guy training in the opposite corner. He was dressed in street clothes and training with a bag. I didn’t know how long he’d been there, but I hadn’t noticed him before.
I stood there watching him, impressed. It’s not easy to tell someone’s skill level just from watching them train with a bag, but I could tell he was good. Better than me. The way he moved reminded me of Ashton, so intense, yet so smooth.
Suddenly, he looked at me.
I quickly averted my eyes, a little embarrassed that he’d caught me staring at him. After a moment, I glanced back and saw that he was still watching me.
Instead of looking away again, I stared back, meeting his gaze. Even from across the room I could see the hardness in his eyes.
I knew what it was because it was the same thing I’d started to see when I looked in the mirror.