Long Lost Page 6

“Too many people around. There’s a clearing in the woods right behind that field,” he said, pointing the way. “No one will bother us there.”

Win asked, “How, pray tell, do you know about this clearing?”

“I went to high school here. Kicked a lot of ass back there.” He actually puffed out his chest as he added: “I was also captain of the football team.”

“Wow,” Win said in a perfect monotone. “Can I wear your varsity jacket to the prom?”

Coach Bobby pointed a beefy finger in Win’s direction. “You’ll be using it to soak up blood, you don’t shut up.”

Win tried very hard not to look overly giddy.

I thought about my promise to Ali. “We’re two mature adults,” I said. Each word felt like I was spitting out broken glass. “We should be above resorting to fisticuffs, don’t you think?”

I looked past him toward Win. Win was frowning. “Did you really use the term ‘fisticuffs’?”

Coach Bobby moved into my personal space. “You chicken?”

Again with the chicken.

But I was the bigger man—and the bigger man’s the one who walks away. Sure, right.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m chicken. Happy?”

“You hear that guys? He’s chicken.”

I winced but stayed strong. Or weak, depending on how you want to look at it. Yep, the bigger man. That was me.

I don’t think I have ever seen Win look so crestfallen.

“Do you mind moving your car now so I can go?” I asked.

“Okay,” Coach Bobby said, “but I warned you.”

“Warned me about what?”

He was back in my personal space. “You don’t want to fight, fine. But then it’s hunting season on your boy out there.”

I felt a rush of blood in my ears.

“What are you talking about?”

“The spastic kid who shot in the wrong basket? The rest of the season he’s a target. We have a chance at a cheap shot, we take it. We see an opportunity to get in his head, we go for it.”

My mouth may have dropped open, I’m not sure. I looked toward Win to make sure I heard right. Win no longer looked so crestfallen. He rubbed his hands together.

I turned back to Coach Bobby. “Are you serious?”

“Like a heart attack.”

I replayed my promise to Ali, looking for a loophole. After my career-ending basketball injury I needed to prove to the world that I was just fine, thank you very much. So I attended law school—at Harvard. Myron Bolitar, the complete package—scholar-athlete, overeducated-though-debonair attorney. I had a law degree. And that meant I could find loopholes.

What had I actually promised to do here? I thought about Ali’s exact words: “Don’t go to the bar tonight. Promise me.”

Well, this wasn’t a bar, was it? It was a wooded area behind a high school. Sure, I might be defying the intent of the law, but not the letter. And the letter was key here.

“Let’s do this,” I said.

The six of us started toward the woods. Win practically skipped. About twenty yards into the trees, there was an opening. The ground was littered with cigarette butts and beer cans. High school. It never changes.

Coach Bobby took his place in the center of the opening. He lifted his right arm and beckoned for me to join him. I did.

“Gentlemen,” Win said, “a moment of your time before they commence.”

All eyes turned to him. Win stood with Assistant Coach Pat and the two bruisers near a large maple tree.

“I would feel remiss,” Win continued, “if I failed to offer up this important advisory.”

“What the hell are you babbling about?” Coach Bobby said.

“I’m not speaking to you. This advisory is for your three chums.” Win’s gaze traveled over their faces. “You may be tempted to step in and help Coach Bobby at some point. That will be a huge mistake. The first one of you who takes even one step in their direction will be hospitalized. Note I did not say stopped, hurt, or even harmed. Hospitalized.”

They all just looked at him.

“That’s the end of my advisory.” He turned back toward Coach Bobby and me. “We now return you to our regularly scheduled brawl.”

Coach Bobby looked at me. “This guy for real?”

But I was in the zone right now and it wasn’t a good one. Rage was consuming me. That’s a mistake when you fight. You need to slow things down, keep your pulse from racing, keep your adrenaline rush from paralyzing you.

Bobby looked at me and for the first time I saw doubt in his eyes. But now I remembered how he laughed, how he pointed to the wrong basket, what he’d said:

“Hey, kid, do that again!”

I took a deep breath.

Coach Bobby put up his fists like a boxer. I did likewise, though my stance was far less rigid. I kept my knees flexed, bounced a bit. Bobby was a very big guy and local-neighborhood tough and used to intimidating opponents. But he was out of his league.

A few quick facts about fighting. One, the cardinal rule: You never really know how it is going to go. Anyone can land a lucky blow. Overconfidence is always a mistake. But the truth was, Coach Bobby had virtually no chance. I don’t say this to sound immodest or repetitive. Despite what the parents in those rickety stands want to believe with their private coaches and overly aggressive third-grade travel league schedules, athletes are mostly created in the womb. Yes, you need the hunger and the training and the practice, but the difference, the big difference, is natural ability.

Nature over nurture every time.

I had been gifted with ridiculously quick reflexes and hand-eye coordination. That’s not bragging. It’s like your hair color or your height or your hearing. It just is. And I’m not even talking here about the years of training I did to improve my body and to learn how to fight. But that’s there too.

Coach Bobby did the predictable thing. He stepped in and threw a wild roundhouse. A roundhouse isn’t an effective punch against a seasoned fighter. You learn quickly that when it counts, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. You are better off throwing blows with that knowledge.

I slid a little to the right. Not a lot. Just enough so that I could deflect the blow with my left hand and stay close enough to counter. I stepped inside Bobby’s exposed defense. Time had slowed down now. I could hit one of several soft targets.

I chose the throat.

I bent my right arm and smashed my forearm into the Adam’s apple.

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