Home > Outmatched

Author: Kristen Callihan







My dad once told me that most people didn’t intend to ruin their lives; they simply made a series of stupid choices. He’d been in his battered leather chair, wide shoulders hunched over the executive rosewood desk that had been the pride of his office. The same chair I slumped in now, facing the same expansive desk.

Idly, I traced a finger along the edge, the once-gleaming wood now dull and nicked. As a kid, it seemed odd to me that Dad wanted this ornate desk, more suited to a law firm, as the centerpiece of a bare-bones boxing and martial arts gym office. When I’d asked him about it, he’d smiled in that faint way of his.

“Lights Out is my pride and joy, boyo.” He’d spread his big, scarred hands over the shining desktop. “Here is where I represent it. Like it or not, appearances matter.”

Actions and words counted equal measure in his world. Act decisively, speak your piece with truth, and make good choices.

What would he think of my choices?

“Nothing good,” I muttered, then pressed the pads of my fingers to my aching eyes. At the moment, I wasn’t thinking much of my dad’s choices either.

Dad’s been gone for four years. The pain had dulled a little around the edges, but the emptiness remained. It was the fine, hot rage I felt toward him that freaked me out. Dad was never perfect. I’d known that for a long time. After Mom died, he’d fallen down a rabbit hole of his own making. But this shitshow he left on my hands was another story and made it hard to forgive and forget.

Shit, I wasn’t allowed to forget. The bank wouldn’t let that happen.

I was clueless that my finances and the gym were in so much trouble until the day I found my dad hunched over his desk. The day Dad told me he’d mismanaged my money—a toxic mixture of bad investments and gambling—and that he’d remortgaged the gym to try to cover it.

A month later, Dad was dead. Heart attack, the stress and shame of what he’d done catching up to him in the worst of ways. And I became the new owner of Lights Out, and a mountain of debt.

My jaw locked tight, the rage hitting me again. I wanted to get up, walk away, and never look back. From outside the glass walls of the office came the sound of juvenile laughter. The junior group was practicing capoeira, one of the gym’s newest offerings. The classes were all full, but only half of the boys could afford to pay. And while it was my prerogative to turn them away, I knew I’d never do that. This gym was their lifeline in a world that would easily drain their joy and leave them empty shells of their former selves.

“That’s a pretty nasty expression you got going.” Carlos stood by the door I’d made the mistake of leaving open. A grin split his face. “You find a rash or something?”

“Yeah, right under my balls,” I replied without heat. “You want to take a look?”

“I’ll leave that to your lady friends.”

Carlos knew I hadn’t been with any lady friends, as he put it, in a while. Don’t get me wrong—the opportunities were there, I just hadn’t wanted to take them. I didn’t have the stomach for… well, anything lately. First with Dad’s fucking debts, then with Jake—I didn’t want to think about Jake.

Carlos pushed away from the door and dropped his ass in the chair opposite my desk. “So,” he prompted, “what’s with the face?”

I rubbed the back of my aching neck. “The usual. Money.”

Carlos leaned forward, bracing his arms on his knees, his easy smile gone. Most people never saw Carlos without a smile. Between us, Carlos was considered the happy one, those big brown puppy eyes of his drawing ladies in like honey to bees. He’d played up the role with ease, hiding a darker interior almost no one knew about. That he trusted me enough to show his true self now and then was something I’d never take for granted.

“No change?” he asked.

“Not enough. I’m behind on the mortgage payments by a few months. Bank is breathing down my neck.”

“What about this Kyle Garret?”

Six months ago, a guy named Kyle Garret approached me about buying the gym. After looking into him, Carlos and I found out he was a big real estate mogul, buying up property all over Boston and the East Coast and turning it into swank condos and housing developments.

“I’m not that desperate.” Okay, I was. But this place had been everything to me growing up. It was filled with ghosts of my past, and while some of them were painful, others kept me going. All had to do was walk through the gym, and I’d remember: the juice bar in the lobby where mom would greet Jake, Carlos, and me after school with banana shakes and a big smile. Studio B where Jake and I took our first punches and truly learned why boxing was the Sweet Science.

My brother Dean and I used to hide under Dad’s desk and play “spy.” Which was to say, Dean would play spy and I’d humor him. That was until the day my parents slipped into the office for a quickie and didn’t know we were under there. Some memories aren’t pretty, but they were mine and they were all I had left. I wasn’t about to lose that too.

Carlos sighed. “You know if you got back into the game, I could set up a match—”

“No.” It wasn’t a shout but it damn near felt like one in my head. A cold sweat broke out on my lower back as I glared at Carlos. He damn well knew I was out of boxing. For good.

His expression was empathetic. “Look, man, I know. But I don’t think Jake would want—”

“I said no.”

Just thinking about Jake opened a hole in my chest. Best friends from the cradle, closer to me than my own meathead brother, we’d had each other’s backs. Both fighters. Both headed for greatness. Hell, we had greatness in our palms. Until an unlucky hit to the temple ended his life.

A greasy lump of horror and shame slid down my throat. Losing him was hard enough; knowing that Dad lost a crap ton of money because he’d bet on Jake and lost tainted every memory I had of both of them, of boxing.

Jake had left behind his wife Marcy and their baby girl, Rose. Hell, I’d grown up with Marcy, and I hadn’t seen her and Rose in months. Every time I did, guilt and grief crippled me for days.

“I’m done with that game,” I told Carlos, though I shouldn’t have to. He knew I was done.

The urge to scrub my skin rode me. I showered two hours ago, but I felt unclean, sticky with regret and rage. Dad’s shame had somehow transferred onto me and I couldn’t rid myself of it.

His smile was weary. “Yeah, I know. But this gym is all I have too. It goes and we all lose our home.”

I couldn’t sit there anymore. Lurching up, I paced the small space. “We need to bring in more business. No, what we need is a sponsor.” And a fucking miracle.

Carlos rubbed his chin and watched me pace. “That could work, but what would the draw be?”

“Fuck if I know.” My chest sagged with a sigh. “Tax write-off? The joys of helping inner-city youths?”

Dark humor lit Carlos’s eyes. “Your lack of enthusiasm isn’t exactly selling me here.”

“Because I’m no good at bullshitting. I’m a shit salesman.”

“That you are, bro,” said a voice from the door.

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