Broken Arrow was nothing more than a drainage canal, the grate containing the small stream of storm water that fed it, and a small, flat spot where the brown grass was trampled flat. The canal was behind a chain link fence and surrounded by tangles of glossy-leaved buckthorn. A scrubby pine provided the only shade, and the canal meandered across a vast tract of undeveloped land that backed up to a strip mall. The neighborhood teenagers used the spot to party at night, and the ground was littered with beer cans and dew soaked cigarette butts. During the day, though, it was Matt and Charlie’s spot. They couldn’t remember how they came up with the name “Broken Arrow,” but it had always seemed to fit, so it stuck.
A week before school started, Matt’s father had brought home two pairs of brand new Everlast boxing gloves, just like the pros used. One pair was a gleaming red, and the other, a lustrous black. Boxing was a recently acquired interest for the boys, and they itched to test them out on each other. In holding with tradition, the boys held their annual last-day festival, the activities of which were scrawled haphazardly on notebook paper in the last night’s sleepover-and-caffeine-induced delirium. Water balloon fight, climb the big tree in the park, and a bike race were among the list items, but it was boxing that topped the list. They sat on Matt’s front step, pulling on their gloves.
“Ready to get your ass kicked?” Charlie asked hesitantly, feeling both brave and reticent, afraid an adult might hear him cursing and report to his parents.
“I guess we’ll just have to see what happens,” Matt said quietly, staring at the ground just beyond his front step, retying his sneakers.
Their gloves were on. Wordlessly, Matt and Charlie stood up and began to circle each other, Charlie with mock bravery thumping around in his skull and butterflies flapping violently in his stomach, roused to life by the ensuing physical contest. Matt’s front yard provided the perfect arena, complete with a tree, the driveway, and a basketball hoop. Matt was fluid in his movements like water swirling in a glass. His natural athletic prowess graced his body with smooth, elegant movement. He bobbed around the imaginary ring, raising high his arms and declaring, “I am the greatest!” just like Ali. Charlie punched his gloves together, concentrating on his movements and trying to look intimidating. His movements were staccato, more of an awkward, sideways skip than a proper boxing shuffle, and his pudgy body did not allow him to keep up with Matt. In fact, Matt was about to overtake him. Charlie decided to rush him now rather than face ridicule for being slow later. He charged Matt, forgetting all he had ever learned from watching famous boxers, arms swinging wildly, eyes locked shut. He could feel he was making contact, but his fists were only bouncing off Matt’s square shoulders. Charlie opened his eyes for a split second, and saw Matt’s fist travelling in a slow, straight line, capitalizing on Charlie’s unguarded head. One foot slightly forward, pivoting torso, shoulder and arm pushing the glove-covered fist directly towards Charlie’s face. Matt’s body had become Evander Holyfield’s, skin gleaming with perspiration under August’s afternoon sun. Charlie’s eyes snapped shut, bracing for contact.
Grass brushed his cheek and temples. Charlie opened his eyes. He was on the ground, his head throbbed, and his jaw ached. He remembered hearing Sugar Ray Robinson declare in an interview that body shots, in fact, were more devastating to a boxer than blows to the head. In that moment, Charlie knew Sugar Ray was a damned liar.
“You cheat!” he said as he pulled himself from the ground.
“What?” asked Matt; a twinge of hurt crossed his face.
“I said you’re a cheater and you fight dirty! This is stupid!” Charlie said, ripping his gloves off and throwing them at Matt’s feet. Charlie’s disappointment tended to manifest most frequently in anger, which often alienated him from his 4th grade classmates. It made competitive playground sports a challenge too, so he often squatted on the chalky first base line and watched the games, occasionally being asked to act as umpire.
Charlie stormed across the street, toward home. He slammed the front door of his house and ran up the stairs, over the old disintegrating carpet covering the floors, and into his room. Sickly yellow light pierced through the smudged windows in dusty shafts. The peeling wallpaper was covered with laughing clowns, who seemed to be jeering and mocking him, both as a boxer and as a friend. Charlie grabbed his backpack with the tear at the side seam and stuffed it full of Calvin and Hobbes books.
Charlie knew he was in the wrong. Matt had always been better than Charlie at everything. Matt was braver, was a better artist, he always won playing video games, and he always beat Charlie at basketball, baseball, soccer, table tennis, and now boxing. He always masterminded their most lofty schemes while Charlie played the supporting role: the good guy who meets an untimely end, the navigator, the Robin to Matt’s Batman.
Charlie felt the pang of guilt and regret knotted deep in his core, a cancer pushing up on the underside of his lung. He arrived at Broken Arrow breathless, having ridden his bike as fast and hard as he could, only wanting to get away from the mean things he had said to Matt. He could smell Broken Arrow from a football field away. The water had the acrid, nitrogenous stench of a deep swamp, one with tentacles of Spanish moss hanging from its gnarled trees. The smell trickled to the top of the stagnant water in little bubbles when the rotting vegetation at the bottom was disturbed. The boys had discovered this a few months ago after wading thigh deep into the water after a rainstorm to throw rocks at ducks and examine a small frog carcass wedged under a rock.
Charlie parked his bike by the chain link fence, under a large flowering bush. He scaled the fence and crashed through the tangle of weeds and vegetation surrounding this most sacred of spots, then he stopped, breathing heavily. The sun’s rays hadn’t quite reached fever pitch, so the shade and humidity saved the last disappearing drops of morning’s dew. It cooled Charlie’s bare shins and wet the tops of his socks. Matt was there, sitting on a slab of crumbling concrete, between the jutting, rust-covered rebar, reading.
“Hey,” said Charlie cautiously, stepping towards the steep, low bank of the canal.
“Hey,” Matt said without looking up from his copy of The Hobbit.
“Mind if I read here?”
Charlie sat down next to Matt, and neither one said anything. Faraway cicadas buried in waist high grass buzzed a constant, droning note. The water babbled to itself. The white-hot coal of regret and guilt stuffed in the back of his throat was burning a hole through the back of his neck. Matt’s face read “hurt and angry” in all capital letters across his furrowed brow. Charlie started to say something, trying to rectify his mistakes, but decided silence was best.
Christopher Quinn, originally from the Chicago suburbs, is in his third year at Baldwin-Wallace College, working on his BA in Creative Writing. He is currently the Assistant Editor of his college literary magazine The Mill and writes a biweekly literature column for his college newspaper. His work has previously appeared in The Mill and in Telling Tales, an audio CD by Hennen’s Observer. He has grown to love Ohio, and considers himself a true Clevelander.