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Morning’s light forced open James's weary eyes.
He shielded his face with his left hand while the right fumbled for his cell phone. He noted the time digitally painted on the screen and threw off his covers.
His entire body ached and he moved with the speed of a crotchety eighty-year-old man in no hurry to answer the door. It was a five-minute trek to the bathroom and he laughed at the absurdity of it all.
Once in the bathroom, James checked his reflection and was relieved at what he saw. There was slight discoloration around his left eye, and his lip was a bit swollen, but nothing that would indicate just how thoroughly the man had beaten him.
Instead of looking like he had been jumped by a dozen Marines as he expected, his face displayed the normal wear of a hard spar. He was immensely grateful that he did not have to explain any significant damage to his uncle.
Wincing, James removed his clothing from the previous evening and turned on the shower. His right side was purple from where the man had tenderized him with incredibly powerful close range strikes. The sting of hot water made him flinch, but his body adjusted quickly and slowly the aches that had aged him several decades began to diminish.
As he lathered with and rinsed off the body wash from his skin, his mind wandered.
What was the connection between his opponent and Johari? She seemed as surprised by the man as James had been, yet the man had addressed her with familiarity.
Despite the embarrassment of the beat down, his desire to fight the man again was fueled not by payback but a sense of respect.
James's tryout had been against a world class mixed martial artist and even after the ensuing loss, he could visualize a path to victory. The previous night’s opponent was faster, stronger, and more resilient than anyone he had ever fought.
He lathered and rinsed twice more before ending his shower time. Towel wrapped around his waist, he exited the bathroom a few minutes later with significantly more pep in his step. Last night’s mysteries could be investigated after breakfast.
James pulled on a white tee shirt and checkerboard pajama bottoms then ventured towards the delicious smells originating from the kitchen.
Upon entering, he saw his uncle standing at the stove.
"Excuse me, sir, but do I know you?"
"Me? I'm the guy that lets you live in his house rent free."
"Oh! Uncle June, is that you? Wow, it's been so long since I saw you, I forgot what you looked like."
"Funny. How are you liking the institute?”
"More than you apparently. What’s this I hear about you taking a new job?"
"Possibly taking a new job.”
“Doing what?” James took a seat and took another whiff of the breakfast sausages that were literally making him salivate to the point he had to swallow.
“Nothing you’d be interested in. Old people stuff.”
"You don’t know that. We like the same music. I could go for some Otis Redding or Fela Kuti to scrub that new mumble rap from my brain.”
“What about you, Mr. Nosy? Anything new in your life? I know it’s only your third day, but you learn how to throw a decent punch yet?”
“If you weren’t so old, I’d demonstrate.”
“Don’t use that weak excuse. I’d beat you like you stole something.”
“Sad. They say the mind is the first thing to go.”
“No breakfast for you.”
“I mean not yours obviously. You’re the most brilliant man on the planet and I am honored to be your nephew.”
“Too late. I forgot you were here, so I only made enough for me. You know, the mind ain’t what it used to be.”
“I set myself up for that one.”
“If only you knew how to set up your takedowns better.”
“Can’t remember I live here but can criticize my technique. Typical.”
Uncle June set a plate in front of him.
“Quit whining and eat.”
“Love you, Unc.”
Ninety minutes later, James pressed his student ID card to the access reader to the training room where he fought the man the previous night.
He was the sole occupant. The initial inhalation of disinfectant made his eyes water and the squeak of his shoes was impossibly loud.
Ignoring the odd sensations, James entered a storage room and flipped the light switch.
James slipped on a pair of black MMA gloves and slipped off his shoes. He placed them on a shelf and turned off the light.
Back in the main training area, he began hitting the punching bag furthest from the entrance.
Slow punches gradually became faster until he developed his usual rhythm.
As his fist thudded against the canvas, he suddenly felt that he could hit faster and harder.
On his toes, James danced around the bag and tagged it with speedy punches that felt as if they packed more power than prior sessions. The usual divots his fist created were noticeably deeper. Suddenly, he felt a small shock wave travel the length of his spine.
James stopped to look at a slightly older man who had spoken.
Billy Henderson was dressed in a tank top and boxing shorts. A pair of boxing gloves hung around his neck and a small tote bag from his right shoulder.
“Hey, kid. Your uncle said you might be here.”
“Of course he did. He tell you to teach me a lesson since he’s too old and broken down to do it himself?”
“That old man would kick both our asses at the same time and you know it.” He set his tote bag on the floor.
“I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.”
“Meet me in my office and come get this work.”
“You want me to switch gloves?”
“Nope. Your strength is grappling. I don’t want to handicap you.”
James joined Billy in the ring as the older man tightened his gloves.
The two of them attempted to gauge one another's distance. Billy had always been quicker than James and until now James relied on blocking, then slipping in for a take-down.
This morning was different, however. Billy seemed slower, almost sluggish. James easily beat him to the punch. For the first time, James did not have to block or parry a single strike. There was no need for grappling Billy at all. Kicks missed by centimeters, and James slipped past punches like they were being thrown by a novice.
Billy crashed to the ground after a punishing left jab, right straight, left hook combination.
"You okay?" James asked as he squatted down next to Billy.
"Yeah. When the heck did you get so fast?"
"Man, stop playing. You were taking it easy on me."
"No, I wasn't. You keep improving like that and you might just be a match for your uncle before he really is too old for a fair fight.”
A little over two hours later, James returned home equal parts thrilled and confused by his victory over Billy.
“Where ya been?” The voice was not the one he had expected.
“You smell nice,” he told Michelle as he got closer to the woman sprawled on the sofa, watching a true crime show.
Her hair was tied back in a ponytail and she wore a sleeveless black blouse that revealed a hint of her stomach. A pair of form fitting jeans completed the look.
With little effort, James scooped her into his arms then sat down where her head had been.
"Uncle June said you got beat up."
"I hate him so very much.”
Michelle wiggled against his arms, then turned to face him.
"Oh, my God! Who beat you up that bad?"
"It’s not that bad."
"I'm sorry, but have you seen your face? You are not allowed to speak to me in public until your face heals."
"It is not that bad."
"Try to see this from a woman's point of view."
"My manliness will not allow me to."
In response, she poked him where his eye was discolored. Pain hissed its way through his gritted teeth.
"Okay, manly man. What happened?" She stared him down and he sighed.
"I lost my first challenge.”
"Of course you did. The whole reason I vouched for you was so you could get some actual training for a change before you go picking fights."
"You hear that?"
"The sound of the bus you just threw my pride under."
"You'll get over it. Or under it. Suck it up." Michelle maneuvered her body into a seated position in his lap. She kissed his discoloration. "Go get dressed. I'll give you money for some chocolate chip pancakes. But I'm dropping you off up the street."
Throughout the evening, James’s mind tried to make sense of the events of the last couple of days.
At random intervals during class, people’s breathing would suddenly sound as if they were right next to his ear. He could smell far too many scents to process properly. The air tasted funny. Had he ever tasted air before? The little body hair he had would stand at attention without warning. His vision was sharper as were his thoughts. He found it much easier to compartmentalize his curiosity and still focus on the lesson.
Absently, he grabbed his tablet and headed out of the classroom. A few steps away from the classroom, he felt a similar but more intense tingle in his spine.
“You’ve gotten a bit stronger. Good.” James’s focus narrowed then pierced the crowd of students.
His opponent from two nights ago was standing nonchalantly less than ten feet away from him.
“Five minutes. You know where to find me.”
Five minutes later, James was facing off with the man once again.
“Don’t hold back like you did the first time.”
“Sure, kid. Try to last a little longer this time.”
They both assumed fighting stances. James rushed forward as if propelled by an invisible force. He had closed the distance between them in a heartbeat.
Most of James’s punches missed him but each one got closer to the mark.
The man landed the first blow—a short hook to the jaw—but James ignored it.
James then lunged at his opponent and this time the man had to block the ensuing punch. The force alone was enough to knock the man off balance.
Even as he regained his balance, James was in his face and scored with a short hook to the body. The man stepped back then swung an impossibly quick kick, but James swatted the foot downwards and aimed a counter punch at the ribs.
Twisting his torso and sliding his foot slightly, the man simultaneously avoided the blow and put his next attack in range.
Surprised by his own speed, what should have been a knockout punch barely grazed James’ chin.
James dove at the man’s legs and caused him to backpedal. The man barely got his arms up when James suddenly spun from his crouch and thrust a foot aimed at the chest.
Again, the sheer power behind the attack was enough to do damage. The man stumbled back several steps before he could regain his balance.
James did not feel the usual stamina drain he would at this point despite hammering the man with punches until James found an opening and buried his knee into the other man’s stomach.
His opponent responded with a teeth-rattling uppercut but James simply bear hugged him and slammed him to the ground.
“James!” He looked up to see Johari and scooted away from his opponent.
“We’re running out of time.” Jabari sat up.
“So you beat him up again?”
“Hey, I think I was winning this time.”
“Sure you were. Anyway. I think I know what I’m doing. I am a man of considerable talents.”
“Save your business pitch for paying customers.”
“Not to be rude, but what exactly is going on?”
“I’ll tell you later. I sent you an address. Meet me there tonight. We will talk then. Let’s go, Mr. Man.”
“Of considerable talents. You gotta say the whole thing.”
“Don’t make me hurt you.”
“I surrender.” Jabari stood. “Hopefully, we get to play again real soon.”
He watched the two acquaintances leave then looked at his fist. His adrenaline was stuck in fight mode. Turning his attention towards the punching bags, he shook his head. They would have to do for now.
It had taken 90 minutes, but James had finally exhausted his energy.
As he entered his home, he was nearly brought to his knees by that increasingly familiar sensation. Someone was here; someone dangerous.
However, the danger was offset by the delicious aroma of steak, garlic mashed potatoes, and sweet potato pie.
On guard, James followed his nose to the kitchen.
"What’s the occasion, Unc?”
The aura of danger hit like a gale force. After the initial wave, James saw the source.
He opened his mouth, thought better of it, and sat down across from the strange woman at their table.
“Good evening, James.”
“Good evening, Miss…”
“De La Luna. Please call me Elisa.”
Just then, his uncle set a six-ounce cut of meat and a mountain of potatoes in from of him.
His eyes were drawn to Elisa’s corkscrew curls. They spiraled to her shoulders and framed her face very well. She was dressed in cream-colored business casual wear. Her lips wore a weary smile.
The atmosphere was tense. But the food smelled incredible.
“Go ahead and eat,” his uncle commanded. “Ms. De La Luna, would you excuse us for just a moment.”
“Of course, Professor. Where is your bathroom?”
“Next to the hallway closet.”
The moment she left, James gave into to his ravenous hunger and began shoveling buttery mashed potato into his mouth.
He ripped into the steak as if he had not eaten in days.
“Could've sworn I taught you better table manners.” Uncle June slid him a glass of water as he choked down a piece of meat he probably should have chewed more.
After downing the entire glass, James offered a meek apology. “What’s going on, Unc? Who is that lady?”
“Hopefully someone we can trust.” That got his attention.
“What do you mean? Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“That remains to be seen. Things are happening. Things I prepared for but had hoped would never happen.”
“Can you cut the man of mystery act for a sec and give me a straight answer?”
“What if I told you vampires were real?”