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A door squeaks open at the far end of the barren hallway and the clicking of high heels echoes off the row of metal post-office boxes. I attempt to appear casual as I flip through the mail. All of it leftovers from our previous life: my brother’s mixed martial arts magazine, an American Girl doll catalog for my sister, another seed and gardening catalog for my mother.
Collection notices for my father.
There are more demands for payment. I wonder if I should give them to Dad or hand them off to my mother or grandfather. Maybe I should save us all from the reminder and set them on fire. It’s not like there won’t be a fresh batch tomorrow.
I juggle a few pieces to keep all of it from falling onto the floor. Beyond the windows, the sky darkens into dusk. I inhale deeply to calm the nervous adrenaline flooding my veins. Too much to do, not enough time: the mail, the grocery list from my aunt, convince the grandfather who hates me to write me a letter of recommendation, dropping off and picking up my father’s antianxiety medication. It’s Friday night and I’ve got two hours to make my uncle’s curfew or I’ll be spending the night on the streets.
The woman with the noisy heels continues down the hallway and doesn’t acknowledge my existence as she heads to the employee entrance. Unlike me, she’s dressed in a thick winter coat. Her hair is the same light brown as mine, but my hair is longer. I imagine my cheeks are painted red, like hers, from the February wind.
This building is normal for her. Nothing about this is normal for me. My family and I, we no longer have a brick-and-mortar mailing address in Louisville. We no longer have a home.
I pause at the last letter in the stack, and not in an enlightening way. No, this is the same pause I had when my father announced he’d lost his job. The same pause I had the day the county sheriff taped the eviction notice on our front door. It’s a thin white envelope. Its appearance wouldn’t cause anyone else’s heart to sink to their toes. For me, it does. It’s from the University of Notre Dame, and it’s obviously not an acceptance.
I slam the door of the mailbox shut. Today sucks.
* * *
Walking into my grandfather’s gym, I feel a little drunk on hope and a little like I’m marching to the gallows. Getting the rejection from Notre Dame left an emptiness and the thought of scoring a letter of recommendation for a scholarship to anywhere is definitely a potent wine. Alcohol and an empty stomach shouldn’t mix, but, at the moment, I’m feeling bold.
“My, oh my, the flies are drawing in the shit.” From the inside of an octagon cage, my cousin Jax shouts at me. Beads of sweat blanket him from head to toe. He wears boxing gloves on his hands and protective gear on his head. I say nothing as I’m fresh out of comebacks.
A group of newer fighters warms up by jumping rope to the pissed-off voice of Dr. Dre booming from the speakers. Returning here, I feel younger than eighteen, older than six, and, for a few seconds, like I’m home.
The gym is a metal building, a step above a warehouse and several steps below those fancy chain gyms. Black punching bags hang from metal framework, and pictures of my grandfather’s various award-winning fighters cover the wall. A sweet combination of bleach and a tropical plug-in overwhelms my senses.
In one corner, two guys go at it in a boxing ring, and in the other corner some guys, including Jax, watch a demonstration of a takedown in a caged-in octagon.
The rustling of nylon athletic pants gains my attention as my grandfather cocks a hip against the doorframe of his office. His name is John, and he requires us to call him that. As usual, he wears a white T-shirt with the black logo of his gym: Freedom Fighters. Like every guy here, John is toned and a fighting machine. Sixty-two years hasn’t slowed him down. In fact, the death of my grandmother a couple of years ago has driven him harder.
“It’s a bit chilly,” he says. “But not cold enough for hell to have frozen over.”
My chin lifts in response. “You said I was always welcome.”
“Thought you said you’d rather drink poison then step in here again.”
I did. And he has me exactly where he wants me, but I refuse to break eye contact. We stare at each other for what seems like a year. My grandfather has a weathered look: a firm face set in stone, crow’s-feet stamped near his eyes and lines creating parentheses around his mouth. Occasionally, my grandfather smiles, but he hasn’t shown me that feature since I left his gym a year ago.
“Is your uncle bothering you?” he asks.
My uncle. Jax’s dad. My father’s half brother. The guy whose house we’ve been living in since the bank repossessed our home and we moved out of the shelter. I’m sure a few terrorist organizations refer to him as The Dictator. The answer to John’s question is yes, but I say, “No.”
“Is it your mom?”
His daughter. “She’s fine.” Sort of.
“Is something wrong at school?”
Everything is wrong at school. “No.”
“Haley,” he says with an overabundance of exasperation. “I’ve got fighters to train. Whatever it is, spit it out.”
I glance away and focus on the fighters warming up, unsure what to do. They stare at me as the ropes go over their heads, then under their feet. Snap. Snap. Snap. It’s as if they jump in unison now. Some guys I know from school. Others I don’t. My older brother, the one who’s leading them, is the only one who looks away.
My grandfather sighs and pushes off the doorframe to head toward the fighters.