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Knock Out

It was miles away in the distance and the black stretch before them would be its food. Flames ate the suburban sprawl, turning high desert sage to cinder. The sky was alive with planes dumping fire retardant.

     He'd grown up in that city of earthquakes, riots, mudslides, ocean and fire. He thought it appropriate that there, on the edge of Western civilization was a metropolis that lived in destruction, partly of its own accord and partly as a result of those who lived there destroying themselves. These thoughts came from the edges, at times when his vision blurred, when the quiet made him realize that his hands were trembling. Sometimes his speech came out slurred and he pretended that he didn't know why.

     It was close to midnight and the gray concrete patio beneath their feet was speckled with black ash. The ash continued to blow through the wind, down onto her face at times and he would wipe it away, leaving smudges on her cheeks and forehead. He kissed the smudges. The fire continued. Her blue eyes beamed.

     The only form of optics they had were the mounted scopes on his hunting rifles. The guns were old family heirlooms from his grandfather and lived in the closet next to her photo enlarger. Pulling them out he'd thought to remove the scopes from the rifles, but lacking patience he hastily took the guns out to the patio where he handed one to her. The two leaned against the railing, naked and pointing empty weapons towards the skulking fire, watching it burn at them.

     Almost all of the neighbors had gone. The lights were out in the windows of his apartment complex. A voluntary evacuation notice had been given, of which they were unaware. He was somewhat of a luddite and he had very little money after his career ended. There was a radio, but the receiver was old and broken. He had a television but only for the purpose of watching movies. He refused to pay for cable or the Internet or anything like that. She loved him for this. His blatantly primitive refusal to join the rest of the world. She'd moved for him when he told her he'd be leaving to return to the city of movie stars and burning things. When he told her this, he'd also told her not to come. He didn't ever want to be with another woman but he was moving to look after his aging father and he knew that there would be nothing there for her but him, and that would not be enough. She protested.

<  2  >

     It was not that she'd truly wanted to move, or that she'd necessarily desired to stay in the little town where they'd met; it was more a fear of stagnancy and a need to confront her self. Five years his younger, she'd loved him since the onset of her twenties. She'd stood ringside and watched blow by blow as he fought men who seemed to come from God's forgotten lava pits. Each opponent more terrifying and muscle bound than the last. And the fights were bloody and the rounds lasted forever, and her hands were flushed and sweaty the entire time she sat there terrified, but she never let it show. She knew how to put on the face, how to be his woman, there, in the most difficult of places. How to stand and wait for the final bell no matter what. During one of his fights she'd thought of leaving, of turning and running out of the arena rather than sit and watch him be martyred in front of everyone. In that fight he was dissected, staggered and cut by a younger slim fighter with arms like black lashes. It took everything in her not to cry out, not to plead for his corner to throw in the towel; beg the ref to stop the contest. But she didn't. She'd seen him thrash other fighters to the point where their women ran out, crying with eyeliner streaking down their cheeks and she swore she'd never do that to him. She'd stayed. She watched him take his beating. And the crowd cheered. And he went down swinging. It was awful, and she had no idea what kept her from bursting into sobs. It was so different when it wasn't happening to her man, when it was he who delivered the crippling blows and stood over the fallen body of an opponent — at those moments she had cheered with the rest of everyone. Everyone who could view it like fireworks; a collision to be watched with distant awe. She talked to him about it only once, after he'd retired from the ring. She asked him how he'd gone through with it when he knew the risk.

     "You'll never see a knock out punch anyway," he said. "You'll never see it coming."

<  3  >

     His shoulder twitched for a moment as she leaned into his naked body. She'd placed the rifle he'd given her aside, leaned it against the patio wall. She couldn't look at the fire anymore through the little lens. It was an unchanging view, and given that there was a park and an abandoned baseball field in the lightless foreground, sighting in on the flames was a bit tedious. The riflescope created a tunnel vision that made acquisition of the flames a nauseating experience, though once acquired in the lens of the scope, the view itself was reward enough. She coaxed him into placing his rifle aside, her reaching embrace was enough to do so. He held her and the fire crept closer; it ate its way down through the national park and threatened to jump the thick asphalt road on the other side of the strip mall. They heard the sirens in the distance and they watched the flames gasping into the night and he thought that this must be what the end of the world was going to look like.

     The air was a soup of heat and ash. They went inside, shut the screen door and retired to the bedroom where they had each other. They hacked and broke one another in sweat and swallowing. Palms clutched palms, toes curled — foreheads, teeth, saliva. The fire stole closer as they raged. When they ended together, they lay in the orange glow watching the fire from the window. The mandatory evacuation call would come soon, he was sure of it. The fire department would knock on the door and they would have to find a hotel for the night, or head up the freeway to his father's home. The heat was enveloping. They clung to each other, bodies slick with sweat.

     "Don't ever leave me," he begged, in the dark with the heat warming his throat. She was pressed against him and he was trying to piece together the parts of his life that mattered. The punches, the blackouts, the trophies and her; she'd stayed by him through it all and he knew that no matter how fierce the fight, she would not abandon him.

<  4  >

     "I won't," she promised, and they kissed in the heat-soaked sheets, covered in their smell. "I won't ever leave."

     But she did. It was a few months later. She didn't come home and he called but she didn't answer the phone. She sent him an email instead, five days later, thanking him for understanding that they couldn't be together any more. He never saw it coming.

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