“I’m gonna die.”
The older man snorted, shaking his head. In the same Spanish tongue, he said, “You ain’t gonna die.”
Luca Gutiérrez looked down at his bruised hands, running a thumb over the still-healing crack across his knuckle. “I’m not a death match fighter, Papa. I don’t know… how to do it.”
“How to what? Fight? ‘Cause we both know that’s bullshit.”
Luca shook his head. “How to kill a man.” He turned away from the mirror to look at his father. “Fightin’ is one thing. How the hell am I supposed to kill someone?”
“You fight, but you keep doing it till the guy’s dead. It ain’t rocket science, son.”
“Why do I have to do it? You’ve fought in death matches before.”
“You know why.”
Unfortunately, Luca did know why. His father had been sick for a little over two years. Cancer, whatever the hell that meant. His dad wouldn’t give him specifics on the disease, but Luca knew the treatment wasn’t cheap. The cost was why Luca needed to take his father’s place in the fights, something he’d been doing since he’d shot up to well over six and a half feet soon after he turned twelve. He’d gotten his ass kicked a number of times since, but he had gotten better at winning. Enough nose bleeds and busted hands served as pretty good motivation to stop sucking at fighting.
“What happens if I lose?” Luca asked.
“You won’t lose.”
“It’s a fight to the death, I’ve never fought more than one round at a time, and I’m scrawny as hell.”
“You’ll get past that inability to gain weight and muscle when you get older. It’s your metabolism eating away at all of it.”
“What if I’m killed in one of these matches before I get to that point?”
A knock at the locker room door pulled both of their attention away from the focus of death. The man in the doorway said something in English, but the only part Luca caught was, “Mister G.”
Luca’s dad nodded. “Thank you.” After the man ducked out of the room, he turned back to Luca. Switching back to Spanish, he said, “Stop thinking about your death. You’ll get stuck in your head, and if you’re in your head, of course you’re gonna die.”
“You had to get out of your head to win the normal fights. You have to do the same for this.” Luca’s dad held out his hand. Luca blew out a harsh breath and crossed the room. Standing in front of his father, he stuck out his hands. His dad grabbed the wrap from the bench and used it to point at the boy. “You have done this before. The rules are different. The game goes on a little longer. But it is the same. You’ve done it before.”
“It’s not a game, though. It’s a fight. And someone will die.”
His dad stared wrapping the bandage around Luca’s wrist. “Yes, and it will not be you.”
Luca looked down, watching his dad wrap up wrists and hands. It was something Luca would eventually need to learn to do. If he didn’t die tonight. “You have far more faith in me than I do, Papa.”
“Because you’re my boy. Because I know you and your potential even better than you do.” His dad tightened the wrap before lifting his hands to Luca’s face. “Gutiérrez men are fighters, Luca. They will always be fighters. My generation, yours, and the next dozen down the line. It runs in our blood, my boy. I have faith in you because I know better than anyone what you’re capable of. You can do this. Just stay out of your head.”
Luca searched his dad’s face for what felt like an eternity before forcing himself to nod. “I’ll do my best.”
“That’s all I can ask.” His dad dropped his hands to his thighs. “Well… I think it’s time to go, Luca.”
Luca looked toward the locker room door, where the guard from before stood, arms crossed over his chest. “You’ll be in the stands?” Luca asked, turning back toward his dad.
He nodded. “I will be. I always am.” He grabbed Luca’s arm and pushed himself to his feet, using the boy for support. “Stay out of your head and you’ll be fine. Don’t focus on fear or it’ll eat you alive. You go out there, and you win this. That’s all there is to it.”
Luca figured it was pretty easy to treat it like an ‘all there is to it’ situation when you weren’t the one going out to fight someone else to the death. Luca tried not to even think about the fact that, unlike himself, the guy he would be put up against wasn’t going to be a teenager. They were never teenagers. Not in the normal fights. He doubted they’d switch that up for the death matches.
“Go out there. Win it. That’s all there is to it,” Luca repeated.
His dad smiled and gave his shoulder a tight smile. “You’ll do great, mijo. Just like you always do.”
Luca forced himself to nod. When his dad released his shoulder, he turned and walked toward the door. The man asked something in English, nothing more than a word or two, but it wasn’t directed toward Luca. The man was still looking back at his dad. Luca turned to look back at the old man too, who only nodded. The man at the door laid a hand on Luca’s back only long enough to push him forward and through the doorway.
The boy’s heart pounded in his chest as he followed the man down the long, dark hallway. As they walked, the bass of the music from the cage pulsed beneath his feet. He didn’t know if it was his heart or the music that made his chest tighten, that made it so difficult to breathe, but he tried not to focus on it. Focusing on the tightness and the breathing difficulty meant trapping himself in his own head, and his father was right.
That was a damn good way to get himself killed.
The man stopped walking and held out an arm to keep Luca from walking through the doorway into the main arena. The room itself was huge, filled to the brim with bleachers and a crowd of shouting drunks. In the middle of the room, down at floor level, the cage sat. It was a large battling area surrounded with tall metal fencing. Luca wasn’t sure what the fence had actually been made for, but it sure as hell wasn’t cage fights. He’d been shoved back into the wire more than once, the sharp edges ripping open the back of his shirt or digging into his arms.
Two men dragged another from the arena, his body thudding down the small set of stairs there. Luca swallowed. Maybe it was all a show for the audience. Maybe the guy wasn’t actually dead. Surely you couldn’t kill a man in front of hundreds of people and not be arrested for murder.
The men came toward the hall, still dragging the bloody man alongside them. Luca’s breath caught in his throat, nearly choking him. It wasn’t a show. The gaping slit in the man’s throat was proof enough of that. The gash was deep, so deep, in fact, Luca was certain he could see bone.
“Not happening to you.”
Luca looked up at the man that had practically led him to his death. Those words had been Spanish. “You speak Spanish?”
The man held up a hand, thumb and forefinger held close together. “Little bit.” He nodded to the corpse before it disappeared further down the hall. “That won’t happen to you. You’re strong.”
“Strong in fights. But I’ve never fought a murderer.”
The man tilted his head to the side for a moment before clearing his throat. “You have. You… you definitely have.” He grabbed Luca’s arm again and pulled him forward. The announcer said something, but Luca only caught the use of his own name. The man led him up the stairs and pulled open the cage door. “It won’t happen to you. Be strong and… and swift.”
With a less than gentle shove between his shoulders, the man pushed Luca into the arena. Luca couldn’t help but flinch as the door was pulled closed behind him, as the lock was forced into place.
Luca’s brow eyes settled on the pool of blood on the floor first, the bloody rag in his opponent’s hands second. He forced his gaze up to the man’s face. The man was shorter than Luca–most people were–but he was bigger. More muscular. Luca was tall and agile as hell, but he was a scrawny little shit, as his dad liked to say.
The announcer practically shouted into his microphone, but Luca picked up on absolutely nothing from it. His dad had been pretty firm in his belief that Luca shouldn’t learn English. Luca was certain that had more to do with being able to have secret conversations than anything else.
The thundering bass of the music grew louder, shaking the sides of the cage. The man pushed himself away from the metal and shoved the bloody rag out through one of the diamond-shaped spaces between the ragged metal wires. Unlike ‘legitimate’ matches, there was no bell or genuine signal to the beginning of a match. The deafening music served as the cue to attack.
The cue to try and kill each other.
The man snorted something from the back of his hand, shook his head, and charged at Luca. Luca jumped to the side, shoving the man into the cage wall. He growled, flinging himself off the fence. Luca barely managed to dodge him the second time. The third knocked him to the ground. Luca scrambled back, driving his boot into the man’s knee until he knocked the man down. He was used to doing little more than tiring the men out until he could get a few swings in and knock them down, but this guy was a lot faster than most of the others.
This guy had already killed at least one person during the fights tonight alone. Who knew how many lives those hands had taken in total.
Before Luca could get to his feet, the man charged him and knocked him to his back again. Luca pulled his knee up between them and drove it into the man’s chest, but the guy didn’t budge. Luca’s heart thundered in his chest. It was the only damn sound he could hear. It drowned out the music, the crowd, whatever the hell the guy was shouting at him.
He’d never been so fucking scared.
A hard shake on the cage drew Luca’s attention to his father. He had exactly enough time to register the confused anger on his face before the man drove a hard elbow into Luca’s throat. Luca gasped, his chest and stomach seizing, struggling for air. Tears clouding his vision, he clawed at the man’s face until his nails sunk into what felt like an eye.
God, he hoped it wasn’t an eye.
The man jumped away from Luca, stumbling back into the fence around the cage. Luca scrambled away on shaking hands until his back hit the fence. The clatter of something behind him pulled his attention away from the man again.
Luca rolled onto his stomach and shoved one shaking hand through the fence. His fingers brushed over the handle of the knife, but he couldn’t get a grip on the damn thing. He let out a desperate sound, shoving his shoulder into the pointed metal tips of the fence to try and give himself enough room to grab the knife.
A hand on his ankle yanked him back. Luca grabbed the fence with both hands, wincing as the points dug into his palms and tore at his fingers. He kicked at the man’s hand with his free foot, but it didn’t do any good. He tried to shake the man’s hand off. Nothing.
With a distressed groan, he drove the tip of his boot into the man’s jaw over and over again. It was the slip of his foot into the man’s throat that caused his grip to loosen. Luca yanked his foot free and drove both boots into the man’s chest. He stumbled back into the fence. Luca shoved his hand back through the fence. “Come on!”
He grabbed the knife just as the man yanked him away from the fence. Luca rolled onto his back and kicked at the man with his free foot, fingers tightening around the handle of the knife. Don’t get stuck in your head. Try not to think about it. Just don’t think about it. Just do it. Do it. Luca lifted the knife with a shout, driving it toward the man’s head.
The man caught his wrist, a twisted smile on his face. He jumped forward, twisting Luca’s arm. Luca tried to fight the knife coming toward him–the knife he still held in his own damn hand–but the man was a hell of a lot stronger than he was.
Luca’s breath nearly strangled him as the knife pierced his chest. He kicked at the man with everything he had left, shoved at him with his free hand. When the man fell to the side, the knife came out with him. Luca’s hand flew to the wound as he rolled to his stomach, reaching for the knife with his other hand.
His fingers closed around the handle before the man could get back to it. Do it. Just do it. Hauling himself to his feet, Luca drove the knife into the man’s chest over and over again, only stopping when the referee grabbed his wrist and pulled him to his feet, announcing him as a winner.
Luca’s chest heaved, his stomach convulsing with each labored breath he took. He dropped the knife and forced himself to step over the body and walk out of the ring.
His father grabbed his elbow and practically dragged him down the hall. “What the fuck was that?” he asked in Spanish.
“I-I’m sorry, Papa. I tried to stay out of my head. I—”
“Not you. He was high. Not you.” His dad pointed at the guard near the door to what served as a medical area. “What the fuck?”
The guard offered a shrug and said something in English. Whatever it was hadn’t been a good enough answer for Luca’s father. The rise in volume of his own English was proof enough of that.
His father shoved the man to the side and pushed open the door. Switching to Spanish once more, he said, “Go sit down. Doc will take care of you. I’ll be back, okay?”
“Okay,” Luca whispered.
His father moved his hands to Luca’s shoulders and gave them a tight squeeze. “You did great out there. I know it was scary. I know it was not easy. You did great. I just need to figure out what the hell happened.”
Luca forced himself to nod. His father squeezed his shoulders again before heading down the hall. Luca walked into the room, and the guard closed the door behind him.
Luca turned to the man seated at the desk. The white coat insinuated he was some kind of doctor. The bottle of whiskey in his hand begged to differ. “Umm… yes?”
He gestured to the exam table with his booze hand. “Let’s get those cuts looked at.”
Okay. Somehow, the whiskey was wrong. Luca lifted himself onto the exam table. “You speak… You speak Spanish?” Luca asked.
The guy snorted. “Someone has to.” He took a swig of his drink and set the bottle on the table. He rolled his stool over to the table and pulled Luca’s hand away from his chest. “This one probably hurts the most, huh?” Luca nodded. “How old are you, kid?”
“Umm…” Luca cleared his throat. “I-I’m not supposed to answer that.”
The doctor glanced up at him, one eyebrow raised. “Tells me about all I need to know.” He rolled back to his desk and prepared a rag soaked with something. If Luca had to guess, it was probably alcohol. Maybe even from the guy’s personal supply. “You know our fights are for soldiers eighteen and older?”
“So you’re over eighteen, huh?”
“This isn’t my first fight. I’ve been doing these for over a year.”
“I know. But we only figured out how long you had been taking your father’s place very recently..” The doctor came back to the table. He pulled Luca’s hand away and pressed the rag to his chest. Luca hissed. “How old are you? And don’t fucking toy with me. Don’t fuck with the guy in control of your healthcare.”
Luca stared at the doctor for a moment before shaking his head. “Withhold whatever care you want. I’m not a tattler.”
“How long have you had your son subbing in for you, Javier?”
Luca’s father, Javier, crossed his arms over his chest. “Who cares? How about instead we talk about that drug addict you put up against him tonight?”
“If we’d known a child was fighting, maybe we would’ve made sure the guy he was put up against wouldn’t be snorting anything mid-match, eh?”
“Fuck you,” Javier said through his teeth. “You almost got my boy killed.”
The suited man shook his head. “No.” He shook a finger at Javier as he lowered himself into his desk chair. “No, see, Javier, you almost got your boy killed tonight. You know how many soldiers we have that go through these fights. You know we add new rotations every single week, new fighters. You had no idea who he would’ve been up against tonight, and you still sent a child out to fight to the death. That isn’t my fault. You made that decision.”
“You’re going to come down here and start enforcing rules now, Lucchese?”
Antonio Lucchese Senior shook his head. “Not necessarily. But I did come down here to make you an offer, one that will keep your son alive.” He waved a hand vaguely in Javier’s direction. “One that will continue paying for your treatments.”
Slowly, Javier sat down in front of his desk. “I’m listening.”
Luca turned toward the door as it opened. His father walked into the room, a suited man behind him. The suited man said something in a language that wasn’t English, and the doctor stood and left the room. Clearing his throat, Luca’s father closed the door. Luca’s brow furrowed. “Papa?”
“Things are going to change, and they’re going to change fast.”
“What… what do you mean? What’s going to change?”
Luca’s father sat down on the stoll and rolled it closer to the exam table. He clasped his hands between his knees. “You know these fights are supposed to be closed to anyone below the age of eighteen.”
“Well, that rule is… It’s to keep kids safe. Street kids. Kids of immigrants. It makes sure they aren’t getting themselves killed. But because we’ve been breaking that rule, we aren’t keeping you safe. And tonight, I… I almost lost you to a fight I signed you up for.”
“I’ll get better at fighting, Papa. Now I know that not all of my opponents will be slow or easily tired.”
He shook his head. “He wasn’t slow because he was high. He wasn’t easy to tire out because he was high. He was difficult to shove away because the drugs messed with how his brain registered pain. He isn’t the only soldier you’ll face that will be high, and I can’t have you risking your life to pay for my treatments.”
“I-I’d risk my life all day if it kept you alive.”
“I know you would. But you shouldn’t have to.” He pushed himself to his feet and moved his hands to either side of Luca’s face. “It’s my job to take care of you, to keep you alive. Not the other way around. And right now, while I’m sick, I can’t do that the way I’d like to. So… so things are going to change. You’re going to work for Mister Lucchese.”
“But… he’s a mobster. Papa, he is the mob,” Luca said.
“I know.” Luca’s father nodded, dropping back into his seat. “But it’s the only way I can make sure you’re fed, that you have a roof over your head. And you won’t have to do death matches ever again. You’ll be safe. It’s the only way I can guarantee that.”
“But what about you?”
He closed his eyes for a moment. “Lucchese needs new soldiers, and someone of your height is appealing.”
“But I’m weak. Papa, come on, you’ve said it yourself. I’m scrawny as hell! I’m not intimidating. I can’t be a mobster.”
“You’ll be a soldier, a bodyguard. Your height gives you all the intimidation factor you need for now. They’ll train you for anything else they need you to be able to do. You’ll learn to fight, to defend yourself. You’ll learn everything you need to know to survive there.”
“What about you?” Luca asked again. “Your treatments. Y-you can’t work, Papa. Who’s going to take care of you?”
“Lucchese will be paying for my treatments for as long as you’re working for him. And in the meantime, you’ll have a room and three meals a day. And hopefully no more knives to the chest.”
“And you’ll have a room too?”
He let out a breath. “I’ll be at the house. You’ll be living with Lucchese. It’s easier that way. But I’ll make the trip out there every weekend.”
“Papa,” Luca whispered. I-I can’t—”
“You can. You’re a Gutiérrez. You keep fighting. You’ll win. Yeah?”
Luca swallowed roughly, forcing himself to nod. “Yeah.”
“That’s my boy.” He gave Luca’s arm a tight squeeze. “The doctor’s going to fix you up, and then I’ll… I’ll stick around to see you off. And then I’ll see you soon. Okay?”
The goodbye had been hard, but Luca had done everything he could not to cry. Crying was a emotional response not granted to men. In men, it served as a weakness, as proof that one was easy to defeat, easy to break. Luca didn’t want to stand for any of those things. He was a Gutiérrez, and he only planned to make his dad proud. If his dad thought working with Mister Lucchese was the right thing to do, then he’d do it. If it kept his dad alive, he’d do it.
The car pulled into a long, curved driveway, and the driver cut the engine in front of one of the biggest houses Luca had ever seen with his own eyes. As he climbed out of the car, Antonio Senior said something in the language Luca couldn’t identify.
The doctor cleared his throat. “Let’s go inside. Lucchese wants you to see your room.”
“Okay,” Luca said quietly. The doctor pushed open the back door, and Luca followed him out of the car. Hands shoved into the pockets of his ripped jeans, Luca followed Antonio Senior into the house, the doctor trailing behind them. Luca did his best to ignore the suited men staring at him, but it was easier said than done. He was used to getting stared at to some degree, but his experiences had only involved two or three people at a time. There were dozens upon dozens of men lining the halls and rooms they walked past, and almost every single set of eyes was on Luca.
“Why are they staring at me?”
“They prefer the idea that the mafia remain Italian,” the doctor said. “We have one other non-Italian serving as a made-man. You will be our second.”
Antonio Senior opened up a door and said something in the language Luca couldn’t place–though he was beginning to think it was Italian.
“Mister Lucchese would like to welcome you to your room. Go ahead and make yourself at home. Supper will be brought to you so you don’t have to eat around a bunch of strangers, and tomorrow we’ll work on a few introductions and get you slotted into some training sessions. Until then, enjoy the room.”
“Thank you,” Luca said. He walked into the room, and once the doctor closed the door, Luca wrapped his arms around himself. The room was empty, save for a bed. Luca’s room back home had been pretty empty too, but the emptinesses were different. The empty room he’d spent his life in felt like home. The empty room here felt… empty. Lonely.
The empty room here just made him miss his dad.
Thank you for reading Fighter 13! If you enjoyed the story, consider dropping a comment or a like down below!!
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