Contest Winner - 1st Place
Mason Boyles works at Pizza Hut. His fiction has appeared in publications such as Cutthroat, the Chariton Review, the Worcester Review, and others. He is a recipient of the Chariton Review Prize, the Whispering Prairie Press Prize, the Stony Brook Prize, and others. He graduated from UNC in 2016.
Zamir walked right into the head kick. He was jabbing, circling, moving with that fourth round slouch that no amount of roadwork could knock out of him, and then—like a cartoon, like fucking teleportation—his face was flush with the Budweiser logo. Dropped anvil. Birds spinning. In his corner, Kanoa and Ridley wincing through the cage.
The Russian collapsed on top of him. The Russian had a longer reach, a better record, and apparently feet that could time travel. Had Zamir clipped him on the chin at weigh-ins? Had he leaned into the guy—giddy on diuretics—and whispered something vulgar he’d found on an online translator? No power, he’d told the media. No ground game. Three rounds, tops.
Now the Russian was landing elbows that sank all the way to the back of Zamir’s skull. Kanoa and Ridley yelling, for once telling him the same thing—no cursing or meditation cues. Chin down! Get guard!
It was one thing to visualize for five months: synching the armbar, three taps to the mat while the ref pulled them apart, hands up, hop the cage. But to make good when your whole spine had curled up to your brain and the roar of the crowd ached down on you? That was the part, Ridley always said, you could never practice. How easy it was to sink into the throb of your body and wait for the ref to pull him off.
What he needed to do was get guard. Roll him, take the back, finish with a triangle. Ridley making fists at him from the corner. Slurring. His own brother, mouth clamped in that permanent smirk. Ridley wanting this more than he did.
Zamir dropped his hands. He stopped moving.
The medics. The press conference. The swollen face and knuckles, his brain swollen, too—words coming at him slow, dispersing into nonsense before he could latch onto them.
No comment. Next question.
The Russian on the far side of the table. The Russian smoothing his three-piece suit, grinning for the promise of a title shot. All at once, the Russian behind him. Hands on his shoulders. The stale slash of cologne and vodka in his nose. The Russian was telling him something, then the Russian was kissing ground.
Zamir stumbled up. For a moment he thought he’d knocked him over, his body finally separating from his head, but then he saw Ridley, looming, rubbing the red out of his fist.
Lenses zoomed. Security unfolded from the wings. They pulled Ridley back and left Zamir marooned under the key lights.
He stooped to help the Russian up. The guy’s jaw was already purple—more damage than he’d taken for most of the fight. He held it with his big hands.
“You should ask your brother,” he said—his English clipped, loosened—“to teach you how to punch.”
Ridley had fought at 170. He’d signed a contract with the big show at twenty-two—they’d pulled him from the feeders in Thailand, where he’d kicked trees until his tibias were PVC-thick and calcified. That was just one of the stories. There were things Zamir had only found out about later, thirdhand through the Muay Thai forums: twenty-mile training runs, daily spars at full contact. His brother was a gym hero.
He’d had five good years. Two title shots—both lost in decision—and a highlight reel crowded with elbows and leg kicks. Ridley was a stand-and-swing kind of guy. A psycho punch eater. He’d swallow an uppercut and just grin at you.
When he’d started moving slower, no one could be sure if it was the punches or his joints that were catching up to him. Two consecutive fights he got stapled to the mat: steamrolled by a hook to the temple, then flattened by a jab from a rookie who had no business finishing him. Just like that, he was off the roster. A Japanese franchise scooped him up. He’d call Zamir from Okinawa and slur dick jokes through the phone line. Had he always talked like he was tipsy? Was it just the static that sliced through their connection?
If it had happened all at once, it might not have happened at all. Each face-bender left Ridley stargazing a little longer. He’d hang up on Zamir and call back ten minutes later to tell the same story. He was cutting down to 155. He was bullying guys.
Zamir—fighting in the UFC himself by now—had flown out to Tokyo to watch. Ridley was going to pick him up from the airport. The plan was to hang at Ridley’s condo and talk shit all day before weigh-ins. But he never showed.
Zamir had hung at baggage claim for two hours, thinking maybe he’d fucked up the time change. Ridley’s phone was going straight to voicemail. So he’d taken a taxi. He’d wandered around the condominium parking lot for ten minutes, no clue which of the characters stenciled on the doors meant 15-C, before noticing Ridley asleep in the front seat of a Honda. Keys in the ignition, engine on.
He’d hammered the window until Ridley blinked out at him.
“Hey,” Zamir had said. “Hey, fuckhead.”
Slow as a beer buzz, Ridley rolled down the window. That was when Zamir had seen it: the facial muscles seizing, the ceramic look to his pupils. Like his brain and his body were in two different time zones.
The MRI had looked like a hailstorm. Ridley slouching on the examination table, loose in the jaw, the doctor clenching his hands in front of them. Zamir staring at those hands and wondering if they’d ever had to hit anything.
“What are the white spots?” he’d asked.
The doctor had tapped the projector. “Those are the problem.”
Scar tissue. Plaque on the cerebrum. That was why Ridley shook when he talked. Why he fell asleep in the middle of conversations. Why he blinked awake sometimes and didn’t recognize his own brother.
Come home, Zamir had told him. Crash with me. Help me train.
So now he was a corner guy. He yelled combinations like bomb threats and held the mitts. Sometimes Zamir would snap through a sidekick, feel him catch it through the foam. Ridley treated the pads like they were gloves. He was groping for something he’d lost a long time ago, but that wasn’t why he’d punched the Russian. That had nothing to do with it.
Mind and body. Brother and brother. Two things unified, tangled like neurons.
In the hotel room, Zamir wilted. He sagged through the couch with both hands on the remote. There was a movie with the blonde one. Megan Fox—no, Alba. Jessica. His head kept tilting like his brain was sinking to the back of it. He’d lean forward—neck muscles crunching—and stare at the grout between his feet.
At least the suite was bougie. Twelfth floor, MGM Grand, the Vegas Strip unfurling in neon and steel through every window. Marble bathrooms and a full kitchen. Kanoa had been at the stovetop ever since they stumbled back from the press conference, brewing something leafy meant to soak up the ache of the concussion. He’d flown in from the Big Island to guide Zamir through fight prep; from the time he touched down in Stockton he hadn’t stopped moving. He was dense, thick-waisted, quietly demanding. He’d made some money fighting out of Honolulu in his twenties, then spent years on the Ucayali chanting himself into ayahuasca trances.
“This is what I’m worried about,” he said. The SCOBY that rimmed his flask of kombucha had been contaminated overnight. He was trying to show Ridley the bubbles cresting in the yeast, talking about Saturn and cosmic momentum. “The outer orbit leaves us open to infestation.”
Ridley rubbed a frosted beer over his knuckles. “Your asshole’s open to infestation.”
When Zamir had brought Kanoa into camp, he’d told Ridley the guy was a movement coach. How could he explain to his brother the suction that had been pooling in his chest? His stomach popped like an eardrum, like he’d cannonballed too quick to the bottom of the deep end. These pangs had split him out of sleep every night for months now. Sweating off the covers, stumbling naked out of the trailer—mornings on the mats, rolling with guys in a moving coma. He was getting three hours a night. He was pushing less weight in the gym. In drills he pulled punches early. His brother screaming at him, face going purple.
Ridley had never needed visualization. He’d stepped into the ring and had it—even when he lost, he’d had it. But Zamir was coming up empty. First day of fight prep, he’d seen the whole thing unraveling in front of him: that moment on the mat. The one where he decided.
So Kanoa. Guided meditation and eight weeks of waiting to spar until the right planets tumbled into their respective houses. Had Zamir still been waking with that rib-puckering ache? Had he still been pulling punches? Despite this, he’d felt—well, more whole, in some abstract way. The fact was that Kanoa didteach a kind of movement; chakra realignment, was what he called it. Still—in the cage, in that critical moment—the world had plummeted out from under him.
Ridley eased onto the other end of the couch. They hadn’t talked about the fight yet. They hadn’t talked about the press conference, either. Truce.
“You watching this?” Ridley asked.
On TV, a car unfolded into a glinting robot. Each pixel needled the backs of Zamir’s eyes. The reek from the kitchen, too—jagged, woodsy. He handed over the remote.
Ridley blinked through channels. He went all the way to the music stations, then all the way back down to pay-per-view. His second time through, he stopped at the same channel they’d been watching.
“Transformers,” he said. “Sick.”
Zamir stood up. His brain felt like it was sliding down his spine. He took a step, stumbled.
“You’re blocking the TV,” Ridley said.
Kanoa came over from the kitchen with a cup full of green shit, the stuff from the stove. He handed it to Zamir. “Drink this. We need to get your head right.”
The brew was steaming. Zamir swallowed it before the taste caught up to him—dirt, dry rot, prickling alloys and something sweet like benzene.
“Go on,” Kanoa said.
He was too tired to think. He leaned back and spluttered through it. There was the ceiling. The tile. Kanoa steadying him. His brother on the couch, craning his neck.
“If you’re going to fly me out here,” Ridley said, “If you’re going to make me stand in your corner and watch your lose four rounds without throwing one decent left, would you at least stop standing in front of the fucking TV?”
Kanoa dumped everything from his bag into the bedroom. Candles. Incense. Shafts of quartz like teeth arranged on the pillows.
Listen to me, he was saying, and Zamir was trying, really, but the whole world felt like it had plunged underwater.
He crawled into bed. He was still stoned off the concussion. When he’d been fighting on the undercard, sometimes he’d showed up in the gym two days after a bout. But two days had become four. Six. A week. Your chin could only take so much—each rattling stayed with you a little longer. It made your tongue go loose and dragged down the ends of your syllables. You forgot things. Got angry at things. If you got greedy like Ridley and took too many rattlings, you stayed that way.
The drink had gone heavy in Zamir’s stomach. The earthy taste of it stuck to his teeth. He noticed that. He ached his mouth open. “What did you give me?”
Kanoa was rearranging crystals. “You're vulnerable. Saturn’s exposed. I want you to lie down and let it pull the weakness out of you.”
The light of the Strip screamed through the window. It rose, darkened, plummeted to the rhythm of traffic and billboards and a million spitting, breathing mouths. The ceiling went green. Orange. Antiseptic blue.
“You’re part of the vine,” Kanoa said. “Go from the branch to the trunk. That’s the monad, the oversoul. The origin and sum of everything. See how you’re connected?”
He groped for the vine, but his brain felt like sheetrock. This was the same shit that kept him from meditating; every time Kanoa asked him to center himself his insides went hollow. There was no him in his head. All he could see were the guts of his eyelids.
“I can’t do it.”
“Let the medicine happen to you.”
He craned up from the pillow. “I don’t know how to think, okay? I can’t just sit still and picture shit.”
Ridley dripped through the doorway with a Budweiser. He jumped on the bed. Crystals scattered.
“Stop the voodoo,” he said. “Come get drunk with me.”
It was that simple: everything Kanoa had chanted together fractured.
Ridley picked up a crystal. He got tremors sometimes that shook him so hard his teeth chattered. Even then, his hands would stay steady. He pointed the quartz at Zamir.
“Who beat you up?”
“I fought today.”
Ridley’s pupils contracted. “Today. I know.”
He stood up. Kanoa stood up, too. Zamir tried getting to his elbows, but his head felt too far from his body.
Ridley waved the crystal. “Abracadabra, bitch. What’re you summoning this time?”
Kanoa’s hairline was even with Ridley’s chin, but his shoulders seemed twice as wide. He caught Ridley’s hand. “Tell you what—there’s Cap’n Crunch in the pantry. Pour yourself a bowl and go watch cartoons.”
Ridley’s bicep striating, straining out of Kanoa’s grip. He gasped. Covered it with a laugh. “Hey Z, you want some Nirvana? I’ll get you an eight ball.”
As smoothly as twisting a doorknob, Kanoa swiveled his wrist. Ridley’s fingers throbbed purple against the crystal. Still, he was treating it like a joke. Like they were dicking around.
“You need me out of the way?” He winced at Zamir. “I’ll leave, promise. If you can tell me you actually believe in Mother Earth or whatever I’ll fucking disappear.”
Kanoa and Ridley both watching him. He nodded, blinked; the medicine was feeling like a second head kick.
“I’m lying here, aren’t I?”
“Tell me you believe it.”
“I took the medicine.”
“Tell me you believe it.”
Believing was a brain thing. In the fourth round with a face full of canvas there were no vines or planets or spirits. There were only muscle and nerve and the ways you could trick them to keep your hands up a little longer. His body believed—his body was doing it. He just couldn’t articulate the logic behind it.
“Can’t hurt,” he said.
Ridley’s face lacquered. “Mafia. You gut-fucker.” He pinched back his lips, scrambling for language. “I mean, cool if you were brainwashed. If you were all zombie, I’d get it. But you’re going—hell, you’re only—Christmas, man.” His teeth chafed the words. “That pisses me. You don’t even think this shit’s true and you’re doing it.”
The medicine telescoped into Zamir’s pupils. For an instant, he swore he could see right through to the back of Ridley’s skull. No past, no mind, no dogma to shape either one of them but the curve of bone and sinew. They were hollow objects. Inanimate, practically—nothing inside but empty atoms. They lived off inertia.
“I get it,” Zamir said. “I’m a fucking echo.”
Ridley swung once. He was high, Kanoa slipped, released him, but still: the noise of that fist. Like the air was unzipping behind it.
Ridley stumbled with his own momentum. The crystal floated to the floor—no sound, leaflike—and he sprawled chin-first into the dresser. Standing, shaking, blood between his teeth. Leaving.
He slammed the door. Opened it again—looking at Zamir.
“Do your spiritual shit,” he said. “I don’t care. If you really wanted to win, you’d have pulled guard.”
Kanoa rearranged the crystals. He stayed quiet and didn’t look up and that was worse than if he’d followed Ridley out the door. Zamir laid back, aching from the practicals. Eight weeks of camp. Two-a-days, three-a-days, rewinding fight tape in the trailer between workouts. All that momentum halted in one crucial moment. What was it like to stand helpless on the far side of the cage while your guy folded up on the mat? Tearing your throat open yelling. All he’d needed to do was rework his hips and shrimp loose. Twist, bite, scream—anything.
He was tired in his nerves. Kanoa chanted, and the sound of that breath was incense in his nose. Neon, florescent, pitching shadows in his eyes. Zamir closed them. Finally, he slept.
Tumbleweed and trailers. Creosote splinting from puckered soil. Vision and memory:
He was fifteen. He was thick-lipped and greasy. Weekends Ridley picked him up in the VW, drove him out past Salinas. They made money moving crystal for an old Paiute named Yellow Foot, flaky stuff that he cooked right there in the kitchen of the Res lodge; two hundred each by Sunday and they were back in San Joaquin. They funneled down I-5 stapled to the skylight off fumes. They’d stop in Modesto to see Ridley’s girl, and there always seemed to be a girl hanging around for Zamir, too. You look like your brother, those girls would say, and they’d pull him onto the air mattress.
Years before that they’d been stamped into the news cycle. Dumped at the door to the children’s home in Stockton, naked and shivering, knotted together at the wrists with an extension cord. Both toddlers. Both speechless. The first of their memories honed down to heat and light: nicotine, plasma, the cluck and sting off a plastic lighter. Identical welts burnt into their backs. When the aids untied them Ridley had screamed himself silent. Police investigations turned up nothing—they’d crawled out from the sagebrush, orphans in the eyes of the state. The scars eased under their skin within a year, and the last of their history disappeared with them.
First thing Ridley taught him was how to get hit. He liked pushing the fosters. He’d work them up slow, loud music, cigarette prints on the furniture, pissing them off until their hands went heavy. When they smacked him he’d sag with the angle—eyes closed, slack in the neck. If you let your bones fall loose, the force would siphon right through you. Next day they’d be back in cots at the children’s home.
The last folks who took them had rooms in the back of an antique shop. The lady was all rasp and varicose. She pointed out chores for them from the sofa, haloing through Marlboros between hits of oxygen. The guy was small, swollen, maybe ten years younger. When he got purple with liquor he’d spit at them until his dentures fell out. Ridley would kick them under the couch and the guy would pull his Ruger. Zamir—sweeping or polishing the stovetop, old enough now to be scared—always kept his head down.
Mostly they lived on the sidewalk. They’d slide out of second period and lift Snickers from the Exxon, post up on Weber Street picking out kids to follow. Ridley’s mouth worked like his knuckles; even then he’d talk right into a haymaker. Zamir would lay back and wait for the friends to jump in. It was something to do, at least. That wet smack of bone on pavement was an honest sound, more real than chores or algebra. Every jab helped him put off thinking a little longer.
Things got worse with the fosters. Ridley and the old guy laid into each other nightly. If Ridley came for him he’d aim down with the Ruger and put a slug through the hardwood. Ridley would just laugh and walk off. He’d already started scraping for ways out. Where he ended up was the convention center, a citywide all-comers tournament with two grand for the winner. He ducked around the ring with socks on and pulped five guys in three hours. Zamir watched it all from the corner: the face-plants, the blown-up check. The way Ridley grinned when they handed it to him—he looked like someone who’d never have to think anymore.
With Ridley gone the house got meaner. Weekdays the fosters stacked dishes in the sink for Zamir to wash. He had a list on the fridge, three pages of boxes to check daily. Mopping, vacuuming, greasing down the guy’s ferret with a medicine that smelled like lighter fluid. Ridley was three years older, liberated, living out of his van and making some cash brawling on the local circuit. You come stay with me, he said. Next time those fuckers touch you, you call me.
But Ridley wasn’t around much anymore. He was getting flown to fight weekends in Reno. Houston. Jackson. He stopped showing up in his VW, and then he was calling long distance from Thailand. He’d sold the van for the plane ticket. He was all in.
You want to get out? You want to do something? There’s ways.
In the bedroom, the fosters were fighting again. Toppled furniture. Fractured glass. Zamir cupped a hand over his ear. Tell me.
What Ridley gave him was an address.
It was an old school kind of gym. It had bags out back that Ken Shamrock had trained on. They let Zamir in on the momentum of Ridley’s name, set him up in the closet with a sleeping bag and didn’t ask questions.
He sparred guys who were missing eyebrows from Ridley’s elbows. He cleaned mats, he washed towels, he crossed the street to McDonald’s and ate off the Dollar Menu. Every pad he hit, Ridley had hit before him. Every guy he fought, Ridley had beaten. He was getting sucked through the feeders, yanked into the vacuum left by his older brother.
You move like him, guys would say. He was eighteen, nineteen. He’d catch an armbar in the third round and people would shake his hand afterward, mistake him for Ridley. But he never stood and swung like Ridley. Zamir was a good fighter. He was technical, precise, consistently lucky. But if he ever got stapled to the mat, he stayed there.
Neon. Quartz. Incense.
The medicine twisting up his spine. He was awake and asleep. Talking and listening. One more time, he remembered:
They were in Tokyo. They were done with the doctors. The lease for the condo was up and the promotion had made its last payout. They were leaving Ridley’s place, taking a cab to the airport, luggage piled into the seat between them.
Three years. For three years Ridley had been fighting here, and now he was leaving with one suitcase.
He was still pissed over the doctors. My head’s fine, he’d been saying, but then he’d walk into a room and not know which way he’d come from. Whole ride, he’d been spitting fractured Japanese at their driver—arguing, threatening, sagging into the seat. Shaking his head.
The quiet was what got Zamir to look at him.
Ridley. The first part of two. The end of the branch. In the far window—in the damp glow of the
streetlights—their reflections had overlapped, and Zamir hadn’t been sure where he ended and his brother began.
The medicine was leaking out of him. He exhaled lungfuls, savored the last of it on the backs of his teeth. Three a.m. and the whole hallway was silent. It was Vegas, it was the biggest hotel on the Strip, it shouldn’t have been like this. Zamir moved through the ribs of the building as if he were alone. Under his shoes, the carpet still wobbled.
The elevator spat him into the lobby. He passed gutted restaurants. Chairs stacked on tables in alcoves the size of showrooms, everything closed. He walked for minutes without seeing the concierge desk. He needed a drink like he needed air.
He was going the wrong way. He floated down a hall full of room numbers. Two stairwells and an ice machine. A leather-slicked business lounge. He passed a fitness center, and then he stopped walking. Someone was shadowboxing in there.
His key card worked on the door. He squinted at the mirror. At the face squinting back at him.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Ridley said.
He dropped his hands, sagged onto a bench. The wicking fabric of the corner clothes hugged his shoulders; he was still at fighting weight. Every day of camp he’d run and lifted with Zamir. At night, when Zamir was meditating or looking over tape, Ridley had gone back to the gym to hit the bags. He’d gotten this far on the momentum of his body. Spinning elbows, uppercuts with his whole torso behind them—it was like he thought he’d lose all of it if he ever stopped moving.
“What else?” Zamir said.
“I’m just trying to think.”
He palmed his forehead, felt his pulse bruise up through swollen tissue. That hollow ache was back again. His ribs pinched, compressed, then—at atom-level, somewhere between cells and corpuscles—the empty transfixed into solid matter. It throbbed up his throat. He felt like confessing.
“It’s starting to seem like—well, you were fighting, then I was fighting, and now it’s like, look. All this shit we did. You check over your shoulder to figure out how you got here and nothing’s behind you.” He frowned, calibrated. “No, that’s not right. More—well, it’s like my whole life I’ve been falling, right, without thinking about it. Things just happened. I didn’t make choices.”
Ridley was elbow-deep in his duffel bag. “What the shit is that supposed to mean?”
“I ran out of gravity,” Zamir said. “I’m just now realizing. I never know why I do anything.”
He swallowed the hotel air, its cool convexity, the filtered strands of carpet cleaner and synthetic eucalyptus. It felt like surfacing. The medicine ebbed back and stranded him—no movement, no vector, halted in the apostrophe of three a.m. Vegas. A stitch throbbed through his chest. For the first time in months, he felt full.
“Come get a beer.”
“Not now.” Ridley bounced over to the counter, held a cup under the beverage dispenser. He waited; the cup stayed empty. He tilted the dispenser forward. Nothing. He picked it up and shook it.
“Here,” Zamir said. “Wait. Look.” He held down the tab.
Ridley laughed too loud. Under the spigot, his hand started shaking. “You don’t want to . . .”
“Don’t get like this. In your brain, you know? Like . . .” he pointed to his head, mimed chafing. “Cheese grater.”
Zamir watched him pant. They were asymptote close, poised for fusion.
“We’re different,” Ridley said. He might as well have kissed him.
Two brothers. One future. One mutual goal and outcome. Zamir could keep swinging after those face-benders. He could pull the anvil off his head and spit punches back if he hadn’t seen where that got you—asleep in the driver’s seat, confused in a country where no one knew your name, sweating through combos at three a.m. Groping for something that had left a long time ago.
Ridley was moving again. He coiled across the carpet, low stance, slipping invisible jabs. “I feel good,” he said. “Slippery. Like a shark.”
“Yeah.” Jab, cross, wheel kick. Air ribboned behind Ridley’s foot. “Sharks swim all night.”
Well it was night, wasn’t it? It was three a.m. in the fucking morning. Zamir pulled the mitts out of Ridley’s bag. He slid them on.
“Go ahead,” he said.
It was a cartoon. It was teleportation. Ridley sliced combos into his palms. The punches dragged heat past Zamir’s face. The sound his knuckles made; it was like a door closing. Like the sound of breath or thought leaving him. In the mirror, Ridley’s body blurred.