I wasn't wrong. Flagstaff High had a long boxing history, and it sported the town's boxing ring in its gym. As I walked into the gym beside Millie, I could already see Travis and three of his friends had torn their shirts off, wrapped linen around their hands, and were in the process of pulling on their gloves as we entered. Coach Cullingham, a powerful, energetic old guy who was about half a head shorter than me, split us all into pairs, one of us on gloves, the others on focus mitts. Millie ended up getting assigned with someone else, a blonde girl - and I somehow ended up with Travis.
I didn't like the look in his eye as I slipped on the focus mitts.
We were supposed to start with light contact and gradually build up.
Travis went hell for leather from the starting whistle.
He was a good boxer, there wasn't any doubting it. His footwork was practically perfect, and he hit like a truck, his technique and combinations technically flawless. But there was too much anger in it. He wasn't thinking straight, and that started to show. Jab. Jab. Hook. Cross. Jab. Hook. Uppercut. He ripped in one hell of an uppercut, and then I darted out with my mitt slapped him over the side of the head, pulling it back just in time to keep the rhythm of the punches. I grinned daringly at Travis, and he attacked harder, starting to add body shots to the mix, forcing me to keep up. It wasn't as easy as having him hit the pads - now I had to catch his punches. I had his rhythm figured out, but he stepped it up a notch again. I kept my eyes firmly on his pistoning shoulders, telling just where he was coming from and what kind of punch he was going to pull.
Sweat streamed from Travis' slick head.
My own hair was dripping, but I didn't notice.
Finally, the relentless pounding stopped, and I saw that the entire class had stopped to watch us. I saw Millie watching me with interest. She looked impressed. Cullingham laughed, a short, sharp bark.
"You look like you've got some serious problems with Fowler, Travis. Up into the ring."
The coach tossed him a mouthguard as he stepped up and in.
I slipped off the focus mitts and saw the coach gesture to me.
He spoke in an undertone. "I haven't seen skill like that for years. Give Travis a run in the ring. He's getting too confident and it's going to get him destroyed in the state competitions."
I couldn't protest, but he saw my eyes and understood.
"I'll call it back if it gets too harsh," he promised me.
Perfect. This was not what I was looking to do. Sure, boxing was good exercise, but competition with the school's top boxer wasn't what I was looking for. I wrapped up my hands, bit down on my teeth shield, and then pulled on my gloves. The entire class had gathered, and I knew that they were all looking for a bit of entertainment. I had no idea what Cullingham was thinking, putting this on. I pulled off my shoes, and then slipped into the ring, up under the ropes. Travis prowled his side of the ring, his eyes riveted on me, a strangely hungry look in his eyes, like I was a delicious piece of meat. The thought made me grimace, and I raised my hands. Glancing out of the corner of my eye, I could see Millie watching me intently.
Perfect. More pressure.
Then the ring's bell rang out. Travis came in like lighting. He didn't wait, try to size me up - he just powered in with a huge right that would've taken me out like a light if I'd let him. The shot slid off my gloves, and I countered with a none-too-gentle left jab that collided with his mouth and shot his head back. I followed up with a rapid body shot that thudded into his ribs, and then put all my weight behind an uppercut that caught the side of his head rather than his cheek and threw him back. Travis staggered for balance, and I hung back, waiting for the next onslaught. At least I'd taught him that I wasn't going to be a pushover. Travis came in again, boxing a hell of lot more carefully, testing, feinting, looking for an opening. I didn't give him one. I knew that his early burst of anger had cooled and hardened into cold rage, and he'd made it his mission to put me down.
I wasn't about to make it easy for him.
I could hear shouts of encouragement from the crowd now, backing Travis. No Millie, but then, she barely knew me. Travis put in a body shot, but I tensed and caught it straight in the midsection, dampening the blow and letting me clip him in the ear with a left that threw him into a volley of punches. I took most of them on the top of the head or the gloves, keeping my jaw and nose completely out of his reach. I saw his final crushing hook come in from a mile away and blocked it, hammering a left and a right squarely into his head. Travis had his hands up, though, and I knew that cracking his defence was going to be a hell of a trick. To shake things up, I played with my body shots, looking for a kidney punch but instead just getting ribs, making Travis flinch. He was tough, but I'd been taught in a harder school than him and his pain threshold was nowhere near as high as mine. A sudden injection of confidence had me move in, darting to the left and rip in a right that crunched solidly into his ribs, making him drop his guard for a split second. More than enough to drive in a left that rocked his world. I hit him with a right, and another left. Travis backpedalled for balance, but I kept in on him, taking advantage of the openings that he gave me. A final crashing impact to his jaw had him flat on his back on the canvas, panting, blood dripping from his busted lip.
I backed away, suddenly aware of how much sweat was pouring off my skin.
Everything came back into focus, and I heard a stunned silence.
Travis shook his head, trying to clear it, and sat up.
He saw me standing over him.
I offered him a hand up, but he dismissed it with an angry snarl and got back to his feet again. Cullingham bounced into the ring, placing himself between us and gracing me with a quick nod. I returned it, and then the bell for the end of class rang. Travis looked at me through rage-filled eyes, and I could tell that he was itching for a second round, but Cullingham turned and looked at him.
"You're beat, Travis. He might not have knocked you out, but he could've."
I tore off my gloves and tossed them into a pile with the others, and then unwrapped my hands, suppressing a smile. It was wrong, really - I shouldn't have felt such satisfaction in putting him down like that - but it was an amazing feeling and I hadn't felt so happy for months. The coach blew his whistle, and the watching crowd began to disperse. I slid under the ropes of the ring and found Millie waiting for me, a grin on her face. I couldn't help smiling myself.
"Might teach him to quit hitting on people," she said.
I shook my head. That was TERRIBLE.
She saw my unspoken message and laughed.
"Seriously, though, that was amazing. Who taught you?"
Dad, I told her in my quiet way.
She nodded. "Must've been a champion boxer."
Bouncer, I nodded, but it didn't really matter that much.
"Hey, Fowler!" Travis' angry voice followed me out of the gym.
I turned and saw him stalk towards me, an ugly look on his face. He was in the process of wiping his head and mouth with a towel, and I noted with a rush of satisfaction again that it came away red.
"You think you're hot stuff, huh?"
"You made me bleed, man. I'm going to return the favour, trust me."
"You really think so?" Millie asked, laughing. "He might just make you bleed more, Travis. Seriously, drop the whole testosterone 'I'm-better-than-the-world' attitude. You're just cheesed because you got beaten. Had to happen sooner or later. Do yourself a favour and work on your training."
"Did I ask you?" Travis demanded.
Millie shook her head. "Nope. But Todd's the quiet type."
I motioned to the girl and nodded, pointing out that I agreed with what she was saying.
Travis' pride was wounded more than he was. It was easy enough to see - he was spoiling for a fight, and if we hung around, he'd justify it in his own head and have a go at me. I really wasn't interested in facing off against him a second time, so I just shook my head and started walking away.
I hit the showers, and then found myself hanging with Millie again at lunch. She was outside, on the stairs that led upwards towards the school's main entrance. Most people were on their phones by now, texting, but she just sat there and watched the crowd of teenagers. I pulled out my notepad again before sitting down, behind her, and rapidly scrawled in a few words before tossing it next to her. Millie flinched, tracking the direction of the notepad and finding me.
I grinned at her.
She looked down at the paper.
Not a big fan of people either?
I got up, settling down beside her. Millie handed me my notebook, and a strange smile touched her face - like she was living in a dream. I knew it well enough. My uncle was a writer, and he'd come out of his study sometimes completely zoned out of what most of us called reality. I doubted that she was daydreaming - she looked like she was seeing something from her past, if I had to guess.
She blinked, and a moment later she was back with me again.
"Uh..." Millie shook her head. "Yeah, not really big on people."
You zoned out there for a sec. Remembering something?
She frowned at my words. "How'd you know?"
I thought about that one. I just know it when I see it.
"You're pretty perceptive, Todd. Yeah, just... family, y'know?"
This was taking something of a big leap, but I wrote down what I was thinking. If you want to talk about it, I'm happy to listen. I'm a pretty good listener. Kinda comes with not being able to sing out whatever it is that I'm thinking. And you don't have to worry about your secrets getting out, either.
Millie smiled at that - but it was a smile laced with sadness.
"That's sweet of you, really is. But I'm good."
I tilted my head as I looked at her.
I'm around if you need to talk.
Then she went dead still.
I followed her stare over the schoolyard, to the parking lot, where two expensive, tricked-out SUVs were sitting. Around them, three or four guys, probably in their early twenties, were smoking, watching the teenagers. I felt my mind click over into its more paranoid state, and I was already picking up signs that these guys weren't here because they'd run out of gas. There were tattoos, neck chains, jewellery... bling that you didn't find on people in Flagstaff. At least not in huge doses, not like this. These guys were from the big city, like Millie. She knew them, obviously, and judging from her reaction to their presence, she wasn't pleased to see them. My mind flashed back to her ivory-handled gun and her own tattoo. Was she part of them? Were they here for her?
I tapped Millie's elbow with my pen so she'd look at my notebook.
City boys. You know these guys, don't you? What are they doing here?
"Todd, the less you know about them, the better." Millie's voice was cold, hard, nothing like her light, joking tone that she normally used. "They won't be here long, I promise. Looks like there's a little... unfinished business between us. Look, just don't worry about it, K?"
It sure as hell wasn't OK with me, but I just nodded.
It was ridiculous of me to think that she'd trust an almost total stranger.
But these strangers... they weren't here for any kind of good.
I'd put my life on it.
And if Millie wasn't going to help me figure out who they were...
Then I was going to find out myself.
I watched them pile back into their flashy cars and pull out of the parking lot. But the tension that had come with them didn't drain out of Millie. She'd withdrawn into herself, and she wasn't about to let me try and help her. It'd be better if I sorted this out myself. Something told me that the spar with Travis was only a warm-up. If I didn't know better, I'd have said that a much bigger fight was about to start.