Chapter 4

boxing   negscansix

Chris Donner ate brutal jab after jab to his swollen face within the dingy ring. He did his best to parry the shots, shallowly bobbing and weaving while struggling to force his way inside under the hot lights that burned his bare shoulders. He circled around Lester “The Bull” Burnham searching for an opening, his opponent pivoting to keep Donner in his sights.

“Stay with him!” Jack Fletcher, Chris’ corner man, commanded from ringside.

Despite several opportunities, Donner refused to seize the offensive; his caution amounting to paralysis to act. Burnham showed no such hesitation. A right cross caught Chris on the left cheek, snapping back his head. Lester followed up with a series of lefts and rights, forcing Chris to clinch. The Bull writhed in Donner’s sweaty grip, punching Chris’ kidneys. Donner continued to hang on, clasping his opponent to his chest.

“You better hold on for dear life, old man,” Lester hoarsely taunted in Chris’ ear.

The crowd crudely booed from the dark and smoky confines. Ralph Hewitt, a stocky man with the face of a bulldog, chewed angrily on his cigar while watching from the rear. He eyed the rabid crowd, readjusting his cigar nervously from left to right.

“You lousy bum!” a gruff voice yelled at Chris from the haze. Other drunken curses quickly followed, accompanied by debris thrown in the ring.

The ref stepped in to pull the two fighters apart. As they separated, Lester threw a quick left hook over the ref’s shoulder, splitting Chris’ right eye wide open. Chris staggered back; the blood blinding him as Lester callously pushed the ref aside and pressed forward. Donner took a series of punishing shots to the ribs, bile and blood fouling his mouth as he bit down and tried to cover up by pulling his arms in to ward off the blows.

“Damnit, Chris, get out of there!” Jack demanded, thumping the ring with his fist.

With Chris’ defenses centered on his body, Lester launched an uppercut into his chin, followed by a stiff left hook, cracking Donner senseless. Time slowed and sound died beneath the flickering lights. Ghostly faces screamed silently from the blackness surrounding the ring, castigating Chris for his lackadaisical performance. Muted booms echoed in the distance akin to stomping. Another uppercut crashed into Donner’s flimsy chin, sending his eyes skyward into the blinding spotlights.

Off balance, his heart pounding loudly in his ears, Chris struggled to hang on. The world exploded with a left hook. Donner’s legs buckled beneath him and he went down. Chris lay there on the grimy mat, listening to the ref’s count through the jeers. He glimpsed the crowd’s deprecating scowls in the shadows, heard the murmurs of discontent. Chris didn’t even bother to attempt to rise, instead closed his eyes to avoid their condemnation. He lay there waiting for the end.

The bell clanged, marking the close of the bout. While Lester thrust his sinewy arms triumphantly skyward, Jack came through the frayed ropes and hurried to Chris’ side. “How ya feelin’?” he asked as Chris unsteadily pushed himself up to his knees, and looked at his corner man. “That good, huh? Can you walk?” Chris shook his head no. Jack helped him to his feet and through the ropes out of the ring. Trash was thrown at the pair as they made their way to the back. Chris hung his head in shame the entire way.

In the drab locker room, Chris collapsed on the bench, cradling his battered ribs, each breath making him wince.

Jack stood over his fighter, hands on hips. “Let me take a look at ya.” When he failed to meet his trainer’s eyes, Jack slapped at Chris’ chin to convince him to look up. “Come on, I ain’t got all night.” Chris reluctantly raised his head. Jack failed to conceal his dismay at the mangled sight confronting him. “Christ, you took a beatin’ tonight.” He examined the gash over Chris’ right eye, frowning. The fighter grimaced as Jack prodded at it. “Doc’s gonna have to stitch that up.”

Chris jerked his head out of Jack’s hands. “I’ll be alright.”

“If you want a nasty scar, that’s your choice.” Jack’s eyes trailed down to Chris’ bruised body. “You’re gonna be feelin’ that come tomorrow.”

“Don’t remind me,” Chris wheezed.

“Can you breathe?”

Donner heaved several breaths. “Barely.”

Jack withdrew his kit from a locker and took out a pair of scissors. “Let’s get those gloves off.” He grabbed Chris’ limp right arm and proceeded to cut the tape free. Once the glove was removed, he unwrapped Chris’ fist. “Oh hell,” Jack let slip when he saw Donner’s broken hand, a bulge belying the damage. “I wondered why you stopped punching in the third. How’s the left?”

“Not much better.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because you would have thrown in the towel.”

“Yeah, getting tenderized is so much better.”

The doors to the locker room slammed open, Ralph storming through the door. “What the hell was that?” he demanded, chomping on his cigar and jutting his thumb over his shoulder. “Do you hear that crowd?”

“Like we care what a bunch of momos think,” Jack countered, coming between Ralph and Chris. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to tend to my fighter.”

Ralph pulled the cigar from his mouth and stabbed it at Jack. “Get the hell out of here, Fletcher. I don’t have a beef with you.” Jack continued to stand there, arms crossed in front of his chest. “I said get the hell out!” Jack turned to Chris who nodded it was okay. Reluctantly, Jack exited the locker room while Ralph turned to Chris. “You fought like a bum out there.”

Chris continued to stare at the floor, avoiding Ralph’s gaze, as he pulled off the other glove. “You were always my best critic.”

“I don’t know why I keep giving you chances. You sure don’t earn ‘em.”

“Look,” Chris said, putting his hand out to stop the abuse, “just give me my money. I’ve had enough of a beating tonight.”

“Oh no, I’m not giving you a cent.”

Chris looked up in surprise. “What?”
“You think I’m gonna pay you after the farce you put on out there? You were supposed to fight, not stand there and take a beating. Hell, half this town could do that.”

Chris stood up on shaking legs, his face contorting with the pain of moving. “I need the money, Ralph.”

“I don’t give a damn what you need. This ain’t no charity. If anyone earned their money tonight, it was Jack for keeping your face together. That’s a miracle in and of itself.” Ralph took a drag on his cigar while inspecting the damage, his lip curling in disgust. Exhaling the acrid smoke, he bluntly stated, “This is your last bout with me. You’re over.”

“You can’t do that,” Chris croaked.

“Yes I can. You hurt my reputation out there.”

“Your reputation -”

“You think people are gonna come to my club to watch fights if they see garbage like they did tonight? I have a hard enough time keeping customers. They want fights, not massacres.”

Chris took a measured breath through gritted teeth. “It just wasn’t my night tonight.”

“It’s never your night. I’ve watched you out there – you just ain’t got the skill. Hell, you ain’t got the heart. Takin’ shots like you deserve ‘em. You’re a bum.”

Chris bit his tongue, swallowing the bitter reply instinctively coming to mind. “Just give me another chance, Ralph.”

“I can’t use you no more, palooka. Don’t come ‘round again unless you’re a paying customer.” Ralph spun on his heel and left.

Dejected, Chris limped over to the stained sink. He gingerly clasped the porcelain with both hands, spitting a gob of coagulated blood into the drain before focusing on the broken figure staring pathetically back at him from the mirror. His face was a raw mass of meat, every trace of humanity beaten out of it until it was a puffy, numb, immobile mess of reds and purples. A skewed, thrice broken nose was clearly busted again, with blood trickling down his chin. His eyes were swollen to slits, dimming his vision. The nasty cut above his eye stung just looking at it. Donner’s split lip began to quiver at the reflection, his eyes burning.

Chris changed and emptied his locker for the final time. No one spoke to nor acknowledged him as he made his way through the club toward the bar. He eased onto an empty stool.

Vic, the bartender, approached from the right. “Geeze, Chris, I hurt just looking at ya.”

“Jack still around?”

“Nah. He had things to do. He wanted me to give you this.” Vic slid a sawbuck across to Chris. “I heard how Ralph stiffed ya.”

Chris sighed. “Not like I’m not used to it. I was with the Bonus Marchers after all.” He rolled his eyes. “Besides, he had his reasons.”

“Yeah, I guess he did. Right bastard, though. If you need any help -”

“I ain’t no charity case,” Donner retorted, cutting the bartender off.

“Okay, okay.” Vic noticed the cut over Chris’ eye. “The doc see that?”

“What?” Donner asked absently. Vic pointed at Chris’ right eye. “Oh, that. It’ll be alright.”

“Here.” Vic pulled a beer from behind the bar and placed the bottle in front of Chris. “On the house.”

“Thanks, Vic.” Chris picked up the cold bottle and pressed it against his right eye.

The bartender shook his head. “How do you see through those peepers?”

“I squint and pray.” As the bell clanged, signaling the start of another bout, Chris glanced over at the ring to watch the two boxers circle one another. One was a fresh face. “Who’s the new kid?”

“Oh, that’s Rick Pulver.”

Chris listened to the crowd cheer Rick on as he forced his opponent into a corner and began to wail on him. “He’s not bad.”

“Kid’s got hands of stone. Twelve fights. All KOs.”

A quick uppercut sent Pulver’s opponent to the mat, the crowd roaring in approval as Chris turned his back on them. “I think that makes thirteen.”

Vic nodded. “The kid is young and hungry. Brash, though. Charges his opponents like a madman. Reminds me of someone.” He gave Chris a sidelong glance.

“I wouldn’t know him.” Chris tongued the scab on his lip. “Guess I’m gonna have to find a new line of work.” He looked up at Vic. “You hiring?”

Vic snorted. “You’re better than this dive, Chris. Even if I had a position, you wouldn’t want to work here. Too damn depressing.”

Chris traced a circle on the bar. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Vic cocked his head. “They might be hiring at the refinery up in Ulysses. Pay is better than anything I could offer.”

Chris pursed his lips. “I’ve been thinking about going out west.”

“What? To California?”

“Yep.”

“What the hell for?”

“Look around, Vic. The question isn’t what the hell for – it’s why the hell not.”

“If you feel that way, why are you still here?”

“Yeah. Why the hell am I still here?” Chris nodded before passing the unopened bottle back to Vic. “Thanks for the beer, Vic. I gotta get going.”

After Donner had left, Vic noticed the crumpled ten dollar bill still resting on the bar.

*

Chris drove through the night, his dilapidated, rust-riddled Model-T rattling down KS-25. The wind was picking up, whistling loudly across the crumbling plains and kicking up a minor dust storm, partially blotting out the starry horizon. The desert had already started to creep onto the road, obscuring the asphalt in parts. Chris was forced to swerve as one strong gust threatened to brush him off the highway. As the winds increased, it became increasingly difficult to see where he was going, his headlights failing to pierce the black mess being spewed at him.

Chris rubbed at his sagging eyes, wincing when he grazed the gash on his right brow. Bouncing along the road, he clenched and relaxed his swollen hands in order to regain some feeling. Chris could feel the broken bones shift with every movement, the ache helping to keep him awake. He didn’t know how he was going to pay the doc to fix them. Even if he could find the money, he couldn’t afford to take the time off to let them heal. He had to find a job. But that didn’t matter right now. He just wanted to get home and go to sleep.

Driving through the night, Chris’ thoughts shifted to California. Bountiful fields, endless opportunity. The handbill he had gotten spoke of jobs and prosperity – but to Donner, California was more. It was a place to start over, a chance to rebuild. More importantly, it was a place where no one knew him and he could become someone else with no expectations to live up to save his own.

His thoughts were interrupted when the engine began to stall, coughing and clattering while the headlights dimmed. “Come on,” Chris urged. “Don’t quit on me now.” The engine sputtered for a few more seconds before it died. The car slowed and finally rolled to a stop a few hundred yards further down the road, as Chris guided it over to the shoulder.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Chris murmured. “When it rains it pours.” He turned the key over and over in frustration, jamming the small round pedal on the floor angrily with his foot, but the engine did not stir. Not even a wheeze. He hammered the steering wheel in frustration, only to wince at the sharp pain in his broken hand. “Damnit!”

Agitated, Chris struggled to grip the door handle with his busted left hand. Biting his lip, he finally took hold of the latch and opened the door. He stepped out, slamming the door behind him as hard as he could and giving it a kick for good measure. When he glanced ahead, a gust of grit slapped him in the face, stinging his eyes and momentarily blinding him. The wind had begun to howl, forcing him back a step with its newfound fierceness. The ebony gale violently rocked his car from side to side, the suspension squeaking.

Chris swiveled north and south on the highway, hoping to see headlights. Not a soul appeared. He debated whether to stay and wait or to hike the rest of the way home. His house was only five miles down the road. At worst, it would take him an hour to reach it, and as long as he stuck to the highway, he’d be fine. He could always come back later for his car. His only other alternative was to wait and hope someone passed by. As late as it was, help seemed unlikely. Even if someone did pass, they might not see him in this mess.

Chris pulled his jacket tight and bowed his head before moving out leaving his car behind. The wind was cruel and sharp, the sand roughly grazing his face. He had to keep a hand over his eyes to shield them from the dust. Chris could feel the dirt getting into his shirt and pants, scratching his chest and legs. It became harder and harder to see the road in the dark winds, the world seeming to come apart around him as the plains dissolved into the sky swallowing what little light the moon offered. The gusts became stronger, viciously shoving Chris back on his heels, forcing him to lean into the storm in order to keep going. Invisible hands clutched at him, as if to carry him away into the darkness.

All at once, the gale unexpectedly abated, the silence ominous. Chris noticed a light approaching from behind. He turned in hopes of seeing a car. What he glimpsed stunned him – the illumination came not from the road, but from the sky. Something streaked towards him, the glare growing stronger and larger with its approach, roaring with such strength the ground shook. Chris looked up in surprise and awe at the flaming object rushing overhead to crash in the fields beyond with a muffled thump.

“Christ,” Chris whispered in shock, the wind gradually picking up again. He squinted at the sky, his eyes soon drifting back to where the object had fallen, marked by burning scrub. What the hell was it? It began to dawn on him that perhaps it was an aircraft out of Garden City. The high winds could have given the pilot trouble and forced him down.

Chris hurriedly crossed the highway and jumped a barbed wire fence. He raced against the wind toward the downed object. “Hello?” he yelled. No one answered. God, the pilot must be injured, Chris thought. He went to yell again when a white light began to pulse in the distance, making him halt. Maybe the pilot had an acetylene lamp? But why was it flashing? And why was it so bright? It was an unearthly brilliance in the blackness, throbbing lucently in the night, shifting in hue and intensity.

Its alien nature paralyzed Chris with dread. His terror only grew when the wind drifted abnormally, no longer forcing him back, but now nudging him toward the light. He swallowed and inched backward despite the insistence of the wind. With his retreat, a change came over the light, and a sentience emerged. It called to him, but not in words – the light touched his mind. It soothed his senses. He felt his fear melt away only to be replaced with curiosity.

light

Chris stepped forward cautiously. As he neared the crash site, he noticed there was no debris to be seen. He searched about for remnants of the downed plane, anything to help him rationalize what was happening.

There was nothing.

Instead, he found a jagged, twenty-foot trench slashed deep into the earth. Something had definitely crashed into the field at great velocity, carving through the earth. The light was coming from the far end of the ditch.

Chris stood at the tail of the trench, a silhouette in the light. “Hello?”

A shining sphere rose from the lacerated earth to hover before Chris, its luminescence overwhelming him. He covered his eyes against the blaze until it gradually waned. The wind fell eerily silent. Chris removed his hand from his eyes and saw the sphere floating at the other end of the trench, as if watching him. There was a charge in the air, making his hair stand on end and filling his ears with a soft buzzing. He went to speak but the words caught in his dry throat. Chris licked his lips. The sphere gurgled in a language he could not understand.

“Are you trying to talk to me?”

The sphere babbled a response, followed by beaming a thin blue laser at Donner. The laser proceeded to scan his body, expanding horizontally and then vertically as it processed him. The laser then thinned once more and vanished.

“This is like something out of Weird Tales,” Chris muttered to himself excitedly. “What do you want?”

In reply, a bolt of electricity shot from the sphere, striking Chris in the chest. He went rigid as every pore of his being was set afire. The voltaic power of the sphere coursed into him, setting his clothes on fire as it lifted him off the ground and began to strip him down to the molecular level. The winds suddenly cut loose, obscuring the whole scene and swallowing his agonized screams.

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