Screams are muffled in a place like this. You can barely hear them unless you’re standing up close to the fenced competition area. This room holds thirty-six rings in total. I’ve stood on mats like these ever since I was a little girl. You grow up and see people come and go. The names and faces change so often that no one really pays attention anymore. Sure there’s small talk among us, but that’s all. Every competitor has played this game before. One speaks to someone to learn about their training. Certain strategies can be developed from there. Each motion is calculated, every stance is balanced, but when it comes down to it everyone is looking for the same thing: a weakness in technique.
The two girls sparring have been going for at least thirty seconds. I met one of them a couple years before down in Texas. She’s from Florida and has an affinity for using purple ribbons to keep her hair out of her face. The other girl, the one with the pink mouth guard, hasn’t said a word since the competition started. I haven’t seen her before today.
Both of them circle the ring until the new girl makes her move. She feints to the left before shuffling forward and lifting her front leg. Florida advances, forcing her to react sooner than I’m sure she wanted. The new girl loses her footing and hits the ground within seconds. A scream comes right after her knee snaps to the left.
“What the hell?” I’m working the angles and processing everything I had just seen. She shouldn’t have hurt herself. There’s no way. She did everything right: foot pivoted, knee bent, she even kept herself out of scoring range. All Florida did was close the distance.
The girl next to me, the one from Kansas, taps my shoulder with her helmet. “Woah, what happened to Ohio?”
I step back and shake my head. “I don’t know.”
I’ve never been squeamish, but I almost wish I was. The ring is its own self-contained world. The medical staff didn’t hear her so she’s left on her own for a little while. Someone tears off her helmet revealing tear stained cheeks as she tries to move her leg. The judges try to keep her still, but it’s no use. I don’t think I’d want to stay still either. Some people are starting to stare.
“That was weird.” New Jersey stands a half step behind me with her arms crossed. “Unlucky.”
The girl beside her, California, shrugs. “Well, it’s Vegas. Happens, right?”
What a stupid comment. Right now nothing matters except the girl shoving tears from her eyes while we witness the aftermath of her injury. Knees take a long time to heal, and even then training without a brace is almost unheard of.
“Hey, you’re from Canada!”
I look over my shoulder and see one of the girls stretching off to the side. “Yeah.”
Her hair is tied back in a messy bun. She stands and hurries over. “That is so cool. Never met anyone from up there before.”
“Really? Where are you from?”
She turns around and points to the champion title plastered on the back of her uniform. “Nebraska.”
Another scream. This one is forcibly suppressed when Ohio bites down on her sleeve. Her breaths are shallow. She looks like a kid who just fell off the monkey bars. Her knee is purple and twisted off-center. Something is definitely broken. A distinct lump sticks out just above the shin. She doesn’t look at it. I don’t blame her. Two names echo through the loudspeaker. I barely hear them. I’m still trying to figure out what happened.
Kansas rolls her eyes and takes off her glasses. “Well, looks like they’re moving us to ring fifteen. Come on, Canada. Let’s see what you got.”
A stretcher passes us. I don’t look back. From this point on it’s like nothing ever happened.
I find myself following the gated path towards an empty ring. The smell of disinfectant is strong. Someone must have been bleeding over here.
Outside these walls stands a city I visit every year. Tobacco lingers in mini clouds and seeps into your clothes when you leave whatever hotel room you’re staying in. It always happens. The slot machines with insane jackpots have new sponsors. They always do. And the number of people saying alcohol is as good as water are always the first ones in the buffets demanding a steak rare enough walk off their plate. I don’t care for the glamour of Vegas. Its constant changing is irrelevant because the atmosphere is destined to stay the same. I hate this place so why do I come here? I suppose it’s to keep playing for as long as I can.
I put on my helmet. Kansas clips back her hair and does the same. Each of us have two minutes to figure the other out. Once we make eye contact neither one of us breaks it. Any movement she makes will be seen in my periphery. Her eyes will tell me about her timing.
“Take your stances.” The judge stands between us and signals the other officials. “Go.”
Both of us start moving right away. Her kick grazes my arm as I advance, my hands up in a guarding position. She smiles as we exchange a barrage of techniques. Neither of us score a definitive point. We’re circling. Her hands drop. I react and commit to a straight lunge. She counters with a kick that snaps beneath my guard and into my stomach. I drop like Newton’s apple; it’s as simple as that. The flags go up and she gets the points. It was a good kick. Damn. She’s faster than I thought.
The judge stands over me. “You good to continue?”
I take a deep breath before pushing myself to my feet. “Oh yes.”
After a brief pause we’re off again. Her movement is extraordinary. We circle each other like a couple of kids playing an intense game of tag. Out there, outside of this ring, we’ll have to grow up. Kansas and I have talked, this is the last year either of us will be in this division. Winning each match means we still have a game to play for just a little bit longer.
A strand of deep brown hair edges loose beneath her helmet. Her tan is dark, her nose is scrunched, and I can see the team of people cheering her on out of the corner of my eye. I can tell she’s not accustomed to losing.
Two steps to the left and she’s starting to close the distance. I don’t retreat and this causes her to hesitate. She starts sliding back, but I’m already on the offensive. Whether she realizes it or not, the next points are mine. She attempts to turn away, but it’s too late. My foot strikes the side of her head with a little more power than I meant to unleash. Her balance becomes non-existent. Gravity pulls her down to the mat and the flags point in my direction this time.
She’s on her knees now, shaking her head, her eyes closed. The smile she had before is still there. I look to the scoreboard. Her name is Fe Brinkley. I won’t be forgetting it. When I turn back she’s standing, looking in the same direction I had only a few seconds before.
I take out my mouth guard and wipe the excess saliva on my sleeve. “You okay?”
She nods and retakes her stance.
I hear the crowd yelling now, but I’m not sure for who. I ignore the sweat rolling down my face and take a deep breath of heavily cooled air. The two of us want the same thing: glory. The judge says go and we’re advancing on each other again. I move with my fists clenched. She is my mirror, and the two of us are waiting for the next opening.
Fe Brinkley, I know this won’t be the last time we meet in competition. She’s from Kansas, the girl who takes a kick smiling. I look forward to our next meeting. After all, she’s the first one to have beaten me in four years.