I was watching Tom. We’d just won. More than won. And Tom was up there, hands in the air. I could tell his shoulder had been damaged, badly. But that was okay, because we’d won and we could afford to get it fixed, and maybe to get his feet looked at too, and that back injury. And to buy a little tea, and I’d add some to the stash we were saving up for me so we could move in to somewhere that wasn’t infested by my parents and opium addicts. And then it was time to clear the ring, and by then I’d gone into the back to talk to Rufus and get the prize money.
That was when they told me.
I found Rufus in the halls, pale like he’d just had surgery and talking low and close to the Doc. Doc wasn’t pale. Doc’s never pale, and he works the Oil Pits.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t that Doc didn’t care. But Rufus was only pale because sometimes he remembered I was thirteen, and sometimes he remembered I was a girl, and now was one of those times. And now he had to tell me.
I didn’t know. I should have. I mean, how obvious could it be? But I walked right up, not even thinking it.
Rufus turned, big beefy well-fed shoulders rolling back. “Tessa.” He said, and his voice told me something was wrong, wronger even then his face had said.
So I said, “Yeah? You got our money, right?” And yeah, I wish I hadn’t now.
He closed his eyes. “Of course. We’ll go to the safe.”
And my eyes twitched to Doc. He didn’t smile at me. “Tommy okay?” He asked.
I nodded. “Walked himself off the ring, anyway. Harvey?” I liked Harvey, okay? He was a sweet guy, and he never hit me nor cussed at me.
But only Doc shook his head.
I looked to Rufus. He was looking away, at the ground, where grimy plywood wall met grimy plywood floor.
“He gonna be okay in a few weeks?” I asked. But my stomach was crawling up my intestines and trying to strangle my heart.
“He’s gone, Tessa.” It was Doc who said it. Not soft, no gentling. But he didn’t say it harsh, either. I met his eyes. Brown and firm. Maybe there was sadness there, buried deep.
I ran. I shouldn’t have. I should have gone to Tom, or gone to Harvey’s kids, or something. Anything at all…
I ain’t a proper woman. I ain’t hardly got a mother, and I don’t play the piano. I ain’t even hardly got a father, you understand me?
But the pits, they’re my life. It started when I was young, really little. Momma used to go, when I was a jit, just walking. I walked myself out of her arms and out of the crowd and deep into the winding bowels of the place.
Never came back out, in a way.
Met Tommy way back. Don’t even really know how far back. He’s a face, I’m a face. But I became his manager the day I turned eleven. Tom’s in debt to the army, always has been, because two metal arms don’t come cheap. He’d won the Brittleworn championship, two hundred pounds, and that ain’t no joke. And his manager at the time, Charley ‘Football’ Blaine, had jumped ship. With the money. All the money.
I heard. It’s a bad place to be, no money, no manager. So I wound my way to where he was sitting, head hanging, with Doc.
“Hey Tommy.” I said, because I never stood on formality, even then.
“Morning Tessa.” He said to me, and he looked up and gave me a smile, even though things was dark as pitch down there. “How are you today?”
“Mighty fine, Tommy. I hear you’re in need of a manager?” I just up and said it. No point in beating around.
“Sure am. You got someone you’re pulling for?” He didn’t perk up much, because a new manager in the face of two hundred missing pounds ain’t much. But he was interested anyway.
“Yeah. Me.” I gave him my bright smile.
Doc, tools stuck in Tom’s arm like so many spikes, pulled his hands away and raised his head and laughed and laughed.
Tom smiled too, but he looked at my eyes and he knew I was dead serious.
“C’mon Tom.” I said. “I been here longer than you. I know a thing or two.”
“How much do you charge?” The Doc asked, still laughing.
“Ten percent.” I said.
Tom shrugged, and his disabled arms whined in protest.
“Tell you what.” I said, “How about we try it out? See how we work together?” You think I was making this stuff up? I’d seen this done a hundred times. Managers recruiting talent.
He was still looking at me. I dunno what convinced him. Maybe because I ain’t no crook. I’ve never stolen nothing, me. Well, nothing that’d be missed anyway.
“Alright, Tess. Sounds good. Ten percent?” He said, and he was dead serious too.
I smiled and stuck out my hand. “Shake?”
“Sure.” And he grinned rueful. “Soon as I get my hands back.”
There’s a poetry too it. In the rhythm of the blows. Everyone sees it, everyone knows it. That’s why they’re here, leaning in and holding their breath, screaming. Watching it, hearing it, it makes you wanna get up and dance.
I’d been watching all my life. Girls, they don’t box. Not even girls with metal arms (although, how often you seen that?). And plenty of people who don’t know me, they give me grief for managing. But Tom don’t mind, and he won’t take it either.
Besides, I’m the best manager south of Sterling, and he knows it.
The morning after I felt peace enough. I hadn’t slept. Just sat in that tiny room with people breathing on every side and the cockroaches scratching and the mice chittering. After a few hours of that I got myself up and walked. I’m little, and I’m fast. Turmoil ain’t the safest place to be, but I made it through. And there ain’t nothing like staying up with your trouble until the sun rises to give you peace.
So I was feeling alright. Exhausted, maybe. And my eyes felt like they’d been washed with vinegar and rung dry. But I was feeling alright. The sun was shining, the clouds were keeping it warm, and the rain was starting nice and light. ‘Course, it had rained the day before, so all the puddles already had a head start.
I drifted back toward The Pits, scrounged some bread on the way. My feet were tired and all that mud made my toes damn cold. Went in the back way, of course, smelling those stables and walking on the planks someone had placed over that huge lake of a puddle back there.
Ace was on the door, smoking with Ben Alager, a fellow manager. Ace was a bookie back then. Me and Tom had put a bet with him on the match. Seeing him wasn’t so bad. But he handed me my money as I passed, and that was a right hook to the gut.
“That’s Tom’s share too.” Ace said. “Couldn’t find him this morning.”
I stopped at that. “He didn’t stay over?” Tommy had a place to stay. Rufus always griped about it. ‘I don’t run a boarding house!’ He’d grouse. But Tommy slept in his dressing room nights he’d been injured, nights he ached. Other nights too.
Ace shrugged. “No one answered when I knocked.” Sneaky was camped on his face. Not mean sneaky, but the kind of sneaky you use when you know something bad has happened, and you ain’t sure what anyone wants you to say about it, so you’re keeping your trap clapped.
I nodded my thanks. Ace don’t often keep his trap clapped.
Inside it was empty. Hollow. No one was up yet, no one was there. No life to fill the place, no fear and sweat. Even my little feet echoed on that mangy plywood. People got lost in the back of the Pits sometimes, new people. I never did. It’s two rights, a left, another right, two lefts and then hug the right wall. Number 23. I could do it in my sleep. I don’t though. The one I do in my sleep is the walk from 23 to the ring. But I wasn’t doing that now.
I tried the door. They didn’t lock, but something had been shoved up under the handle.
I knocked, and it rolled around that empty hallway just like my footsteps had.
I stood there. The silence came back. Nothing. I knocked again.
“Tom?” I asked. “You in there?”
For a moment I thought he wasn’t, that the room was really empty. Fear started to crawl out of my stomach. And then, shifting cloth. I breathed out, slow and quiet, as the fear began to melt away.
“C’mon Tommy. Let me in.”
“Tessa?” He said. Sounded hollow, like he was standing out there with me.
I snapped “No! It’s the other little girl!” I shouldn’t have, maybe. Sometimes the boys give me grief about my attitude.
There was the scrape of the chair being unwedged from the door, and then the rattle of the handle. The door opened.
Tom stood there, looking more lonely then I’d ever seen him. Looking pretty beat up too. His left shoulder was swelling where metal met bone, and the cut across his chest looked like it had been scabbing, breaking and bleeding all night.
“Doc look at that?” I pointed to his shoulder.
Tom shook his head.
“You didn’t let him in either?” I’d never seen him looking so uncertain, so scared. His eyes were swollen, like his shoulder.
“Didn’t want to see anyone.” Tom said, after a minute. His voice sounded rough, lost. Sounded like my thoughts did.
I looked up at him. He looked away from me. Something broke inside, and I couldn’t deal anymore. I could feel tears building up around the edges of my eyes at the state he was in, and the trouble and turmoil were flooding back in.
I planted my face in his belly and wrapped my arms around him, tight. He was still in his trunks, and he smelled like oil, blood and sweat. But I didn’t care.