Say I'm Guilty
Her Jailbird signed her up for a match. She consented, but wasn’t reminded.
He caught her swelling her knuckles against her bedpost last night. He asked why, and she simply replied “School. 75.” The next night, he made good on his promise to “get ya someone that hits yo’ pretty face back, even with a cat between ya legs.”
Yeah, he got her someone alright. He got Ivory her ex to fight.
X’s and O’s haunted her bed. His image had soiled her pillow, the damn slug he was.
She reminded herself that she left him, ironic since she scattered salt to him, on him. He was weak‒ no, that ain’t right. On those school steps, she straightened her face, telling him off. Not through text, the coward’s way out. The relationship was hatched out of spite, to prove to some kids that bugs can stick together for those four high school years. They never made it past the first, much less stuck ‘till the end. Brushing past one another was enough to send disgusted shivers down both spines. His tail always came back to stung her. Her horns shone more than his cracked grin. That grin‒
Jailbird pulls her back from the same edge. “You were right to leave. Don’t dwell on ‘im.”
Her Jailbird fluttered about her, sharpening her horns to fine-tipped points, clasping the ends with metal clips. The ritual was done as delicately as a mother pinning up her daughter’s hair. Ivory’s four-pronged silhouette was ready to dip low and bust someone’s gut, much like a bull in a barely lit china shop. Yet she sneezes because of the dust sanded up.
Consequently, her Jailbird refused to lend her his infamous brass knuckles, saying she could do well without them. He bit his pointed lip as she scoffed her way out the door, hesitating as her red hair caught the streetlamp. He caught his breath, then rushed forward, grabbing her wrist. “Wait.” Without blinking, he slipped the brass into her hand. The metal was warm. He must’ve been twisting it ‘round his pocket the entire day.
She glances back at his yellow eyes, gleaming in the darkness with fear. Maybe he cares. He nods in return, the door closing behind her. His vultured form hunches behind the door, the feathers on his neck vibrating with anticipation.
Ivory clangs her way down rickety steps, her sneakers slipping, muted on concrete. From the mental facility she sleeps in, her route is seared red into her mind.
She crosses the deserted street, her head down, her horns tall in front of the lip of her hood. She curls and uncurls her fingers around the brass knuckles in her pocket as she slips around the curfew. She stuck to tatted walls, crept under fire escapes, lurked just below streetlamps to get her bearings, strolled down another street, take a right, stop, dash across that storefront, past the front steps of the school, a couple more feet‒ quick! Behind that car!
It’s the riot sweepers, with tarp-covered trucks, their rifles cocked and aimed at the slightest shadow. Hold your breath, don’t look at their tinted helmets...
Ivory lets out one breath, then another. With a peek, her tail is safe from cold benches. She’s off again, her hands trailing the edges of parked cars as she spots the final stairwell to her left. Just feet away from her plans tonight was Illisicon’s temple, pavilion steps littered with plastic everything, shed bug skin, the like.
Under the neon street signs, she skitters across the road. She waits at the top step, her foot feeling for the familiar chain nailed to the edge of the step, a lucky charm to ward off men in blue. She nudged the chain twice with her left foot, then stamped on it once, eyes plunging into the abyssal stairwell.
A bell rings somewhere down in the darkness of the stairwell, ascending with finality to her ears.
It was faint, but it was her ticket.
They know you're here. Now go.
Her hearing sharpens in the dark, her footfalls snapping, echoing back at her as she descends the closed stairwell.
On the last step, her breath hushes up against a metal door. She leans forward and taps the tips of her horns against the door. A clang, and the door opens from the inside, spilling yellow light in a bar at her feet. No one beckons her in, so she states her purpose. “Selenfe, Ivory. Here for the match at 1100. Opponent... Sikohi, Asin.”
“Finally, Miss Ivory. Come inside, the arena doesn’t like waiting.”
She steps through the door, her eyes adjusting to the sickly light. Beside the closing door, her guide adjusts his pants, huffing. He then inclines his spiked head towards his right, gaunt features and all. “Follow me. It starts in 5 minutes.” He starts off down the hallway.
She pauses, listing her head to faint chain clicking, rhythmic to a snare, bass thrumming in her bones. It’s music. There was an impact, heavy, somewhere down the hallway to her left. Dust scatters from the ceiling. A crowd roars. Ivory shakes her head, then follows two steps behind the guide’s back. Another down. I’m next.
He leads her down the hallway, impervious to the choking brick walls and scent of rust enclosing the fighter’s neck. She holds her breath, counting to ten, squeezing the brass knuckles in her pocket with each number tallied. Her guide looks back at her, young eyes, long face, wait‒ blunted horns!? He looks away first, giving Ivory the chance to glimpse his leaden tail. It was scarred down to a fleshy pink layer‒ he belongs to the Ring, alright‒ contrasting the blackness she’s familiar with. Her own tail was trimmed, trailing behind her like a mass of wires.
She opens her mouth to say something, but the guide suddenly slips left, clicking a door handle, wrestling it open. The second arena. The door frame was settled deep into the stone archway; the hinges squeaked as his hand settled on the edge of the door. Yellow mingled with red here, mingled with drunken yelling and creaking bleachers.
“The crowd has just about swarmed each other, waiting for you, so just play along with the announcer when he recites your backstory.”
She gulps, taking a tentative step towards the second bar of light. She then rolls her shoulders back and uncovers her head. Halfway through the door, the guide’s hand stops her cold. He pulls her back, his lips brushing up against her right ear. “Give that bastard hell for me. He sent my friend back in a coffin last week.” He pinches his breath between his teeth. “For your own good‒ and mine‒ grind him to dust.” He releases her. The door shuts.
She couldn’t agree more.
A spotlight lands on her, gleaming along her horns, catching the fighter off-guard. Her tail twitches, raising defensively behind her.
“Yes yes YES!!! The fight of the EVENING, folks. Come off your highs and take a gander at the match below you!”
Ivory takes in the smell of wet clay, the tang of iron from previous blood. Something primal jumps within her, lurching to stomach the scent. All at once, the floor brightens beyond her spotlight. The crowd chitters, with some taunts thrown at Ivory’s back. Her head is low.
A laugh over the speakers, then the host speaks again. “The late contestant arrives. Give her a hand! Alright now, let’s dial it down‒ SETTLE! Settle your applause for the returning champion, Asin!”
At this, the ground goes dark. The host clears his throat, and the crowd murmurs to a degree of silence as they settle for the one thing juicier than blood. They all bite down on their tongues, ready for the champion’s backstory.
“Asin, one sorry husk of a bug, but he loves what he does! MAN OH man. From the Courtyard, he’s the rich boy that hustles for his Momma’s attention, both in AND out of the cradle. Besides the contracts, he hustled THIS poor girl into his bed‒” Ivory looks up sharply, baring her teeth to the ceiling‒ “HEH! He chained her down in a way she liked, but they’re done, I’m told!” The audience whoops with encouragement as the disembodied voice lulls to faint chuckles. “Now, now, don’t let that pillow talk enSNARE ya, you hear? Don’t let that hinder the violence to UNFOLD!”
The crowd howls, finally able to associate an innocent name with a more infamous face.
Ivory growls at the far figure spotlighted in red; the light trims her sneakers in delightful fantasies, spilled blood‒
“How unfortunate indeed! Tonight we have the absolute HORROR of hosting a Miss IIVO. Name bludgeoned to caps‒ now let me say a GREAT nickname‒ a name for a blooming amateur, or that of lover former?!” To herself, He’s done it now. To the audience, she stamps her foot, cracking the ground.
Her fingers slip into the brass knuckles. She struggles out of her sweatshirt, revealing a bloodied tank top, throwing her protection off to the side. Ivory brandishes her shiny new fist, her right hand nearing her face. She steadies her stance.
“IIVO, spawned from the Middle Temple, daughter to our Empress Illisicon sleeping just above our very HEADS. She was caught doing, well uh‒ Asin-knows-WHAT‒ within the walls of her Mother’s house, so her caretaker entered her into the Ring, bend ‘er straight.” Ivory stamps her foot again, jolting some ants up her leg. “A typical teen ready to be picked CLEAN. Now, what say YOU, spectators?” He draws out the last vowel, rising in pitch.
It’s all red! The air vibrates as a slow bass builds up from speakers under Ivory’s feet. The bright lights are back again. Asin’s red spotlight fades to his mass of dreadlock antennae stemming from his forehead. His quilled tail settles into the dust. He grins at Ivory, slipping his coat from his shoulders, revealing a bare-chested figure clad in only sweatpants. Those damn sweatpants! The same ones I lost my‒ Accented by drums, the peak of the volume gives way to the host once more.
“ALRIGHT. Let’s get TO IT. Crawl along and fight, MAGGOTS!”
A toll in the song starts the fight. Twenty minutes.
Ivory leaps, covering the distance. “Ladies first!” She fakes her left fist, slipping away from his kick to throw her right one. She misses, and her momentum carries her into his ready hands. He clicks his tongue.
“Same old, same old. Always faking, like those times you came.” He examines her face, his hands snaking around her neck.
His pressure was gradual. “Now why don’t you lay down those knuckles before I make you?” She doesn’t claw at him. He wants that.
“A-at least let me get a h-hit in‒” she strains, her shoes slipping, balanced only by his hands.
“Let me see you try, girl.” He lets go. Her weight takes her to the ground.
She scrambles up, brushing off sand. He just waits.
She lunges again, her fist outstretched. He catches this and uppercuts her chin, sending her back once more. Another impact, and she’s looking back at him. His tail swishes as he tilts his head.
Her brass knuckles go up to brush the tender spot on her chin. She sucks in a breath as she sways to her feet.
Okay. Let's play.
“My jaw still hurts from before, y’know? You called me two, maybe three, weeks ago?”
The crowd lets go of its breath and trembles with laughter.
Asin turns red. He paces, looking at her through his teeth. “I know what you’re doing.”
“You liked it that time‒” She rolls her tongue out.
He falters, then shakes his head angrily. He walks over, towering over her.
“Land one.” He presents his face, tail settling. He taps his left cheek.
She grins, bringing up her foot instead.
It doesn’t land.
He catches her foot, lifts her, then slams her down, pouncing on her arms, pinning her stomach with his knee. He forces a laugh, bringing his face close to hers.
“Like hell you will. Give up.”
She screams at him. He flinches, tension let up. She has him.
She wrenches her right arm free, bringing her fist up. It cracks on his teeth.
He groans, his knee digging into her stomach as he stumbles up and back. Blood gushes from behind the curtain of his fingers.
A flash and she’s on him now, screeching as she knocks him down.
His arms are up in anticipation.
Suspending a fist, she straddles his waist, only to spring up again, covering her face.
“Disgusting!!! Now of all times!” She mocks him, breaking down with the crowd. “That’s why y’all wear sweatpants! To hide your shame!” She descends into laughter once more.
He’s still on the ground, but he scrambles up at this, seething.
“You little‒!” He lunges first this time, his tail fanning out behind him. He lands the punch squarely on her left eye, but she’s still laughing as she stumbles, bent over, hands on her knees.
He grabs the strap of her tank top, yanking her up. She’s too weak with laughter to even lift a finger.
“SHUT UP!” He slaps her across the face with the back of his hand.
She shuts up with a smile, panting, her nose leaking blood over her top lip.
“Tempt me.” He bares a chipped tooth, raising his open palm.
A beat passes.
He knees her in her chest instead. She groans, crumpling to the floor, hissing out a laugh every now and then.
He stands above her, rubbing his hands.
“What happened, Asin? Wh-Why did you stop?” She turns her face to him, looking up with the same smile on her eyelashes.
He spits up globs of blood. “Go sting yourself.”
“You’ll only get jealous if I do.”
“I’m done soiling my hands. Your panties were nice, but this is pathetic.” His hands cup his mouth as he says this. He yawns.
Ivory groans from the ground, the sand shifting under her as she lifts her head. “You beat me to the verge of social death and you’re tired?” A hand brushes past her cheek; her fingers flinch away as they tap her swollen eye.
“Buggin’ bastard, at least knock me out, save me the IV drip.”
He just stands there, digging the tip of his shoe into the ground.
“Why don’t you finish me off?”
The crowd is dead silent.
Asin tenses his fists again and leaps at her, slipping along the ground, arm outstretched‒
The dust settles.
His hand trembles in front of Ivory's face; she's tilted away, eyes closed, teeth bared in defiance.
Asin lets out a breath, then unclenches his fingers, his hand going to tilt her chin towards him. She can't resist, but her teeth ground together, paired with open weakened eyes.
His eyes flick to her horns, then look past her, at the crowd still drumming their feet.
“You wear your horns like a crown. I find that really hot.”
A few whoops here and there fall flat as nothing stirs behind Ivory’s eyes.
A lull in the song makes him more desperate.
He angles his gaze down his nose, but he’s biting his lip.
“You’re wearing those bruises I gave you.” He sighs around his teeth. “You don’t even hide them. That’s… nice of you, to remember me like that.”
Her breath sinks out of her lips in her waves, her eyelids pulled down all the same.
“Hey, c’mon now. Keep looking at me. Your eyes are too pretty to close.”
He’s nearing her face.
Her vision is swimming.
“Ivory, I’m…” his voice trails off as the adrenaline runs out.
Ivory wakes up on a bench, wakes up to her Jailbird frantically rattling the bars, shedding violet violent feathers and all. She’s alone. She’s bruised. There's a black eye in her socket, and her jaw aches to the bone. She’s on her side, her sweatshirt under her head. As she tries to sit up, a paper whispers from the pocket.
Jailbird’s cries soon fade away as her hearing hones in on the note. She digs around and pinches the paper, pulling it out. Something was scribbled down.
I won that match, but the riot sweepers busted everyone, especially your sleeping... Anyway, I got out. You owe me some bail money, but Jailbird won’t tell you that. Check under the fifth step going up to your floor, there’s something there. Flip this over if you need me.
She flips the paper over, expecting his number.
Sike. You know where to find me, baby.
Ivory crumples the paper, loathing the smile on her face.