12 October 2039
Down on my knees and bleeding from my mouth—this wasn’t how I’d hoped to spend my seventeenth birthday. I climbed to my feet despite shaking legs.
“Fight. Fight. Get her,” the boys and girls in the yard chanted, their bodies forming a wall around us—a barrier to block the wary eyes of the adult supervisors at the Woodlawn Youth Improvement Center. As if the staff cared whether we beat each other to a pulp. They usually ignored the footage from the hovering aerial drones and only intervened in brawls when one of us fell unconscious.
Today, I fought Marc—the biggest kid at Woodlawn. He faced me, fists raised before his chest. As he shuffled forward and threw a long jab, I ducked under his reach and slipped behind him.
Shifting my balance, I side-kicked Marc behind his knee. Just like Joanie had taught me all those years ago living on the streets in Hell’s Kitchen. Go for the weak spots, she’d said. Eyes, throat, crotch, knees. And so I did. Usually, it worked out well for me, but Marc was the largest boy I’d ever had to fight.
My kick caused him to stumble, but he recovered and snarled, “You bitch, you’re going to pay for that.” His face gleamed red and sweat matted his greasy brown hair to his forehead.
How had I gotten myself into this situation?
I glanced at Reed who lingered on the inner rim of the circle. The shortest of the kids, his smudged glasses had been knocked crooked, and the birthmark on his cheek—a port wine stain as he called it—could not mask the growing welt shining brightly where Marc had clobbered him.
Like an idiot, I’d told Marc what a piece of shit he was. You’re too much of a softie, Joanie used to tell me. You care too much, and one day it’s going to get you in trouble. Maybe she was right. How I missed her and my old New York crew.
Marc wasn’t used to anyone landing a punch, much less a kick. He lurched forward, swinging his arms. This time, I couldn’t avoid his attack, and he landed three solid hooks, knocking the wind out of me. The sound of his fists slamming into my ribs ricocheted off the institution’s brick walls.
I staggered, and Marc let up, smirking as he checked for an audience reaction.
“Come on, Ida,” Reed encouraged.
“Knockout,” the others chanted.
Doubled over, I gasped for air. Winded by Marc’s brutal blows, I barely had time to react before he lunged forward and caught my chin with a swift uppercut.
God, it hurt. I fell on my back, and darkness edged my vision. Get up! I could hear Joanie like a voice in the crowd. Never let your opponent get you on the ground. I rolled onto my stomach where my face would be more protected. I started to crawl, scanning for an escape through the legs of the circle.
But Marc gripped my ankles and dragged me to the center. He circled, then kicked me fiercely in the side. Then he booted me again. Each time his foot jammed into my ribs felt like a log bashing into me. Why had I picked a fight with someone so big?
I curled up in a fetal position, and a frowning Reed peered down. “I’ll get help,” he said and scurried through the mess of bodies.
“Not so tough now, are you?” Marc hissed in my ear as he squatted and seized my shoulder, twisting me onto my back. He gripped both shoulders and pulled my face toward his.
I hawked and spat. Red-faced, he flung me down and straightened as he wiped his face with a sleeve. “Bitch!”
The adolescent horde erupted in a frenzied chorus of jeers. “You gonna let her treat you like that, Marc? What the hell?”
He answered with a loud roar and clenched fists, parading for the rabid circle of fellow delinquents. Joanie’s voice echoed in my mind. Bold move. Girl, I hope you can back it up. She was right; she was always right. Now, I needed to be brave or this guy might do permanent damage.
Scrambling onto all fours, I crouched in wait. Caught up in a furious display as he paced the edges of the throng, Marc hadn’t noticed yet. I rose and straightened, feeling every tender inch of my battered torso. “Hey, asshole,” I said.
He turned in surprise and headed toward me. I swiveled on my left hip and swung my right leg out and up in a massive roundhouse kick that struck his shoulder. The kick, my most powerful, pushed him off kilter a few inches. Oh, crap. Was this guy made of steel?
He clamped his mouth into a thin line, eyes narrowed and fixated on me. He surged forward, meaty fists raised. But I pivoted my right knee forward and slammed my foot into his groin. A grunt emerged from deep in his throat. His hands flew to his crotch and he sunk to his knees. The mob grew quiet.
I followed up with another roundhouse that struck Marc’s temple. His massive frame dropped to the ground with a thud.
The onlookers withdrew a few steps. Then the outraged whispers began. “Damn, who does she think she is? How could she do that to Marc? Is he going to be okay?”
I was used to getting shuffled around between Improvement Centers. It meant coming up against the ringleader every single time. I had to send Marc and the other kids a message. Could I make life a little bit easier for Reed and the other bullied kids?
I dropped heavily onto him, my knee jammed into the small of his back. Then I grabbed his right arm and wrenched it sharply behind him, close to the breaking point. He yelped, a surprisingly shrill noise for such a large dude.
Reed had returned, and a huge grin lit up his face.
With my other hand, I seized a tangle of Marc’s hair at the scalp and yanked it hard, twisting his head so I could whisper in his ear. “Asshole, do I have your attention now?”
He panted and gulped. “Yargh.”
I twisted his arm tighter, sharpening his pain. “I can’t hear you.”
“Y-yes! Let go! Please!”
“Listen to me, douchebag. The next time you pick on someone smaller, I’m going to find you and hurt you real bad. If you even so much as look at Reed cross-eyed, I will hunt you down and make sure you never walk the same again. Got it?”
“Yes,” he whimpered.
“This holds even if I’m no longer here. I have spies here now, and they’ll tell me what you did, and I’ll send my gang to hurt you. If you think I’m tough to fight, you should meet my friend Joanie. She’ll come for you.”
I tossed him face first into the dirt and stormed off to my corner of the yard, under the small tree where I often sat alone.
The crowd dispersed. Marc’s entourage left with their chins down.
That afternoon, the younger bully victims like Reed carried themselves a little taller.