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One Bad Night

by Valerie Brook

 

Sometimes, one bad night is all it takes to change your life forever.

That’s what happens to teenage wrestler, Cuba, when he’s the victim of a brutal hate crime. It’s going to take every bit of endurance this elite athlete’s got to stay in the match, and survive this adrenaline-packed fight during the one night he will never forget.

Copyright © 2019 by Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.

First Published in Fiction River Magazine: Issue 29 © 2018

Published by Kickit Press/kickitpress.com

Cover and Layout Copyright © 2019 by Kickit Press

Cover Art: Anton Atanasov/Pexels.com

This is a work of fiction. Name, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction, in whole or in part in any form.

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CUBA’S WHOLE BODY THUDS with each pounding footfall in the night. 

Blood sprays off his face. 

He sucks in air through his wide open mouth and the taste of hot copper washes up his nose.

Sprinting lopsided with one bare foot and one yellow Nike high-top, he races down the center white line of the barren country road.

Slap-thud. Slap-thud. 

In the dark, the shadowy concrete spins underneath him like a too-fast treadmill trying to tilt up and smack his chin, and his legs stumble, trying to push the road back down.

His arms flash ghostly white under a streetlight. Then bam! he has no arms anymore because the inky dark jumps in all around. 

Slap-thud. Slap-thud.

There, in the shadows—the gravel entrance for the boat dock. 

Cuba turns sharply, his bare foot skidding out from under him on the little rocks, the teeth of a bottle cap snapping into the flesh of his arch like a biting dog.

The bottle cap flies off and Cuba’s still upright and running.

His raw throat tightens like a chokehold. He spits something hard out. It’s a little rock that was stuck in his cheek.

Blood’s in his eye now, squishing out.

There’s a growl far behind him, an engine revving up. 

Now the hairs shoot up his neck like a kill volt of electricity. He tries to run faster on the unstable gravel. The dark shoulders of pine trees loom over him, reaching down to grab him with hairy arms. 

A pine bough slaps his face. Whap!

Suddenly the big toe on his bare foot bends underneath him, crushed under the weight of his Missouri Huskers high-school wrestler’s leg, his tendon screaming no. Pain explodes. Even up through the back of his skull as his teeth snap.

Then he is weightless, flying in the dark. 

The air smells like wintergreen. Then a bright warm flash of light on impact.

Total stillness.

Total quiet.

* * *

Cuba can’t find his arms. 

They’re all tangled up in a knot and straitjacketed around his waist. He knows he’s wiggling his hand because a finger is scratching his lower back.

What’s wrong? Why won’t his brain work right?

In the distance, Monty’s jacked-up Ford F150 truck growls again, rear wheel spinning, stuck in the ditch back on Lohman Road. 

Cuba feels a groan vibrate in his throat before he even knows he’s making a sound.

I’m in real slow-mo, he thinks.

There’s the almost full moon hanging with a fuzzy white glow up above the serrated treetops. He just has to reach one arm up toward the sky and then his arms will unwind out of this crazy knot. 

His stomach muscles contract. Wrong. Then his shoulder. Wrong. 

Then Cuba’s hand finally reaches up to the sky and his fingers are silhouette like a black claw digging out of the grave.

There’s a hot feeling in his ribs, spreading down his stomach and he feels like someone poured hot water on him but he doesn’t have time to check.

Monty’s truck just put out a V6 scream and exploded out of the ditch by the angry sound of  the engine revving and rocks pinging against that metal stop sign.

Some kind of nocturnal bird calls out in the night, disturbed.

Cuba rolls onto his stomach and crawls up on his hands and knees. The gravel pinches the skin under his kneecaps, digging in. 

He pulls up into the wrestler’s neutral position on his feet, shoulders square. Now the referee can blow. 

Cuba’s going to take the first penetration step. He’s going to psych the opponent out—get fast into position to score because this is the A-show now.

Yeah, that’s it, Cuba thinks. I’m gonna take you down.

But there’s nobody else there on this gravel road. Not even a streetlight. The wind blows a little bit and feathers across his face.

Cuba refocuses his eyes. 

Bristol Lake is straight ahead at the end of the drive, reflecting the white light of the moon like ice chips on an oil slick. The boat dock stretches out into the depths, the wooden planks glowing like a single lane runway.

Takeoff, Cuba’s mind says. Take off now!

Running again but there’s a new catch in his hip. One leg feels tight as a rubber band.

Slapthud. 

The dark green trees on either side of the road suddenly light up, switching into their sunny happy daytime faces. The shadows slink away like demons on the ground.

Cuba’s still running but he whips his head over his shoulder to glance back. His eyes feel so wide they will never shut.

Monty’s F-150 skids to a stop with a plume of gravelly dust billowing up behind it. The light bar across the cab has four 100 watt blinding halogens. 

Cuba turns back toward the lake again but now all he can see are bright fireballs burnt into his retinas.

There’s a strange shout from behind. Like a mangled word. Then engine growls and eats up all the other sounds. The truck races right past Cuba, side mirror punching his shoulder as he’s still running toward the lake. 

Cuba stumbles but recovers.

The truck skids to a stop twenty feet ahead, brake lights bulging bloodshot red. Dry summer dust plumes up through the rays of bar lights pointing toward the lake in the dark. 

The front door whips open like a shotgun blast. 

The opponent driving Monty’s truck, in blue jeans and a polo shirt that reads Dubai in gold letters, takes one step forward and jerks his arm like he’s casting a fishing pole.

Cuba tries to duck. The silver flash of chain whips him in the ear. There’s a bolt of pain. He stumbles and falls to one knee.

English words are rolling over him but Cuba can only understand nasty. You nasty boy. You abomination.

Cuba’s head is ringing like a bell. 

It’s not a whistle but the ref must have called the start of the match. Cuba pulls into neutral  like a coiled snake. He’s done this a million times. That’s why Cuba’s the state champ. Coach Donovan says Dream Big.

The opponent is crunching gravel with big yellow Caterpillar work boots. The opponent walks right onto the mat painted in red brake lights on the ground. That’s a cheat. Boots aren’t allowed in a match.

The auditorium is cheering.

I can do this, Cuba thinks. I’m gonna penetrate like an airplane and score.

Cuba leads with his trail-leg hand and reaches out and snaps the back of his opponent’s neck with his lead hand. 

The opponent’s neck is oily. 

That’s a another cheat.

Cuba releases his grip. The opponent is off balance and Cuba drives his head into the opponent’s chest right where it reads Dubai, then Cuba grips the back of his opponent’s knees and slams him on his back. Take down.

Ooopph, the opponent says.

Cuba should rush in for the two-second pin and win the match. But something’s wrong with Cuba. His legs are quivering. He’s standing over the opponent and he doesn’t care if they revoke his champ title.

He has to get the hell out of here.

He limp-hops around the opponents ugly bald head and gets to the wide open door of the truck’s cab. All the orange dash lights are lit up like the cockpit of a jet fighter.

His ears are still ringing but now it’s like that emergency broadcast sound that happens on the radio. The volume goes up. You can’t think about anything else until that bellowing clang stops.

Cuba’s trying to think.

His tongue is growing fuzzy and his mouth tastes like clams.

Cuba raises himself up and sits in Monty’s seat, slams Monty’s driver’s door, and cranks Monty’s gear shaft into reverse. He coughs and blood sprays the windshield. I’m sorry ‘bout that Monty, he thinks.

Cuba rotates his torso to look through the back windshield. The opponent is gone. Cuba stomps hard on the gas to reverse back up to Lohman Road. 

But the truck leaps forward instead and Cuba realizes his gearshift mistake too late because his bloody bent-backward toe slips right off the brake pedal.

The F-150 jumps off the dock right into the lake like it’ll just go for a swim now. And Cuba’s forehead slams into the steering wheel. 

Now his body sloughs off the wheel like melting cheese, all his muscles relaxing. Maybe it’s a good time to lay down, take a rest. 

What a night it’s been.

There’s a floaty feeling. A warm feeling. 

Crack. Crack.

Cuba’s eyes flash open. (He takes a moment to realize he’s not at the firing range practicing with Uncle Frank shooting his 9mm at an IPSC popper).

Instead, the black lake water is swallowing the truck. 

The opponent is on the hood, ankle deep in swirling water. His bald head is reflecting like a polished egg in the moonlight. One hand is gripping a pulled-out windshield wiper, the other is firing a fat Glock pistol.

Crack.

The windshield spiderwebs with black lines. Murky lake water spouts in three holes like the lake is taking a piss in the cab around Cuba’s head.

Cuba feels like his body has grown swamp roots into the steering wheel. He’s limp against it, stuck on it. He wants to lift his arms and legs but his brain can’t find them.

Why won’t his brain work?

The Dubai lettering on the opponents shirt winks in gold flashes in the bright glare of the 100 watt halogen lights. Then the black sole of one of those stupid yellow Caterpillar boots grows huge like Cuba’s looking through a magnifying glass at the tread. 

Here comes the kick comes toward his face. 

Seems like it might take a thousand years for that booted leg to extend. 

Wow, slow-mo is so crazy. Cuba has all the time in the world to think about anything. His mind wanders to The Absolute Sandman Volume Two, because it’s sitting at home on his dresser still wrapped in the collector’s plastic sheath, and Cuba was planning to start reading it when he got home tonight. 

That’s frustrating. 

Because he’s never going to get home.

Smash! 

Time speeds up and safety glass sprays everywhere like diamonds pinging off Cuba’s eyelids.

Water flows in from the hood in a rush. The glacial cold jolts his chest and the truck is a submarine now plunging forward for a deep sea dive.  

Cuba’s body floats up a little just as the opponent reaches through the broken windshield with one hand, clenching Cuba’s neck, but his muscles fire up and flex into a steel wire rope.

Wrestlers have thick necks.

The water tastes like sesame oil when it flows into Cuba’s mouth and up his nose.

The opponent’s muddy brown eyes pound with rage. He’s not having any luck trying to choke Cuba out so he lets him go.

Behind the killer’s head another face floats up from the passenger floorboard of the truck, a beautiful porcelain face—it’s Monty’s body! Oh Monty!

One hour ago, Cuba and Monty had been swinging their legs on Monty’s tailgate. Just two Midwestern boys holding hands in the dark. The city lights twinkling like colorful stars in the distance. Kissing Monty’s honey sweet lips. 

Falling even more and more in love.

Monty had giggled at the oncoming headlights, joyous and lighthearted—don’t pull away be proud of who you are.

The first bullets of the attack were claps of thunder. Hot, searing pain in Cuba’s ribs and he pushed Monty down into the shadows by the rear wheel and screamed run. 

But now somehow Monty had not run. 

Because his body is floating up right here from the floor of the sinking truck—floating out of reach through the black hole windshield up into the deep, dark lake.

The truck engine dies. 

The bar lights flicker out.

It’s midnight underwater. Cuba is ashamed with himself because his brain had forgotten all about Monty. Right now he’s got to make up for that. Right now.

Cuba kicks off the bench seat, his arms out like a torpedo. His last shoe slips off. There’s a slicing feeling along his spine. His ears are mute.

He has glass marble eyes in the cold water. There’s the distorted white moon. Cuba kicks again. The moon is growing bigger and now there’s Monty’s fingers splayed in an underwater silhouette.

I’ve got you my love.

Cuba pulls them both up to the lake surface and gulps air. He swims them both to the dock. He lifts Monty up, lays him gently on his back. Does the rescue breaths and compressions they both learned in Mr. Feldbar’s Health class.

Does the CPR forever and ever.

Monty never wakes up.

There’s another crack sound. A bullet whizzes by Cuba’s ear and suddenly he’s madder than boiling water. His blood is molten.

Cuba stands the fuck up and every muscle in his body pumps with the adrenaline of an endurance athlete. He limp-runs toward the killer who’s forty feet away standing like a swamp monster with a little glowing head who just won’t go away. 

Crack again. 

Then Cuba succeeds the length of the dock, tackles the killer, pins him down, wrestles the Glock away and puts the very last bullet through the other man’s demented brain.

Red-and-blue lights and sirens explode all around. 

The pine trees turn on their happy green daylight faces again as multiple cars screech to a halt in the gravel, headlights spotlighting Cuba like the last man standing at the close of a Broadway production.

But the audience isn’t cheering this time.

All Cuba can think to do is put his arms up before the curtain draws.

* * *

“It’s okay, son,” the FBI man says. “You’re injured bad I know but it’s over now.”

The dual wail of ambulances rush down Lohman Road, getting closer. Cuba has been extracted from the scene and sits on the curb. 

“The Teen Killer’s dead,” the FBI man says. “My task force’s been twelve months solid months up and down the corridor but the unsub poofed. Then a few hours ago we got a lead on a license plate. I’ll wish forever we got here sooner but you did good son. It’s over now. You did good.”

“I wrecked Monty’s truck,” Cuba confesses. Then his chest heaves and his voice cracks. “My boyfriend’s gonna be really pissed and he’s dead, too.”

The FBI man’s radio crackles and he fiddles with it. 

“You’ve had one helluva of a bad night, son. One helluva one.” The FBI man says. “But we got vitals on the dock, the second vic’s alert and oriented now—your boyfriend is alive. He’s alive.”

Cuba never forgets this moment.

Every single time he tells this story publicly, in the years that follow his stellar career, no matter how talented and wizened an educational speaker he becomes about hate crimes over the years—this is the one part where he chokes up. 

Guaranteed. 

Because when you think someone you love is dead, and then they turn out to still be alive—well, there is no greater miracle. 

Cuba’s high school sweetheart, the man he was in love with, and would marry and raise kids with, (my amazing younger sister and I), and celebrate sixty-four wonderful anniversaries with (when it was all said and done)—was still alive. 

That this night transformed my dad, Cuba, and shaped the whole rest of his life, and ended his competitive wrestling and turned him firmly on the path of a career FBI profiler, THE most honored and accurate profiler in FBI history to this date; well that part always seems inconsequential.

I love you, Dad.

Rest in peace because you won this match.

Copyright © 2019 by Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.

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