Women and men from generations earlier erected the arena out of rusted chain link fencing, rope salvaged from fishing nets, and moth-eaten exercise mats. A warehouse battered by cluster bombs sheltered the arena, and fine mesh screens blanketed portions of the roof which these ancient explosions bred. Molten glass from window panes crystallized in disks inside and outside the dilapidated asylum. A multitude of raven specks hovered in the air creating a black murk that filtered the sunlight to cast grey light onto the warehouse and its inhabitants. The murk penetrated the warehouse and the surrounding shacks. Some women built their homes, some men took their homes from other who were beginning to show their first signs of sickness, and others still inherited their home from family members who breathed the last breath in a bout of coughing that culminated in spitting decayed parts of their lungs. The desperate inhabitants of this area congregated in the warehouse for the only past time that connected them to the last civilized generation.
The audience, the jumble of myriad races and ethnicities, of different facial features and different languages, arranged themselves in rows of chairs which were in various states of decay and sat based on a single rule: the strong sit closest to the action and all others rank behind. Desperate men and women contended for the best seats until the sun shone through the first crater in the ceiling, and when that dull light came through the all spectators respected the rankings only to be reignited the next week for another round of fights. As such, burly women and men sat in the first rows surrounding the arena and amongst themselves they carried conversations among their strength-based castes which were boisterous and loaded with testosterone. Von Beetle, one of the few remaining experts on plants, augmented the unruliness with a prickly pear alcohol that he distilled thanks to the heat of summer.
Donna Walker let the belligerent cacophony wash over her, she had been in this situation many times over and was no stranger to fighting a man. She sat and wrapped her hands in a thin layer of light brown bandage. She chanted to herself, “I seek refuge in the perfect words of God from the evil that He has created.” Her mother Coretta Walker prayed this way before putting Donna to sleep and, as she grew older, Donna heard her mother chant it three times again before she went to sleep. She never learned what it meant but she made it her pre-fight mantra, despite not knowing who God was.
A barrel-chested middle-aged man stepped into the changing room which was, at one point a bathroom, but necessity saw that the contents of the room were better off repurposed. He approached her with slow steps and a progressively slower breath and even though he stood in front of her he didn’t interrupt Donna’s process of bandaging her hands and chanting but he did this not because he was afraid, but because he believed proper pre-fight rituals separated a good fighter from a great one. So, he waited for her to finished by running his fingers through his mullet with the sides faded and looking at everything else in the room but her. When she stood up and looked in his direction, Marco Keats said, “Donna, they’re ready for us.” Donna followed Marco into the uproar.
A short but broad-shouldered man gestured at his fellow people to quiet down as he saw both fighters appear on opposite sides of the ring. An anticipatory quiet settled into the warehouse slowly starting from those seated furthest from the ring, and gradually it permeated through to the first row who knew they still had to talk but had run out of material. By this point anyone who spoke outside of the first row would be drug outside, beaten, and left to starve in the barren desert. The stout announcer spoke like a conman in their heyday, “Welcome again to Davis’s Arena. Remember that it is because of me and my father before me and his mother before him, that you can see this fight. So, remember when the blood spills, I was the one who financed this leisure for you.” He paused for a moment allowing anticipation to soak up into the remaining drywall. “Now let’s introduce our fighters,” he said at last. “Tyson Crews, 6’1 with a dynamite haymaker.” Tyson seemed taller than what Jaxton stated, his posture was immaculate that he towered over those who towered above him. The crowd yell with blood hungry anticipation as Tyson entered the ring and he did so with such ease and grace that most missed him even moving at all. To most, he suddenly appeared in the ring.
“Another veteran who needs no introduction, Donna Dawson. The fastest fighter alive.” And that’s exactly what Donna Dawson was. She wasn’t just the fastest female fighter alive, she was unequivocally the fastest fighter that any person, man, woman, in-between, or other had ever seen in the ring. She knew that Tyson’s grace was an act, graceful men want the appearance of quickness to intimidate their opponent, they want them to think they possessed the spirit of the jaguar. For a man to be graceful he had to withhold energy, speed however was pure depletion of energy. Donna climbed onto the stage and stood in the corner opposite Tyson.
Jaxton walked to the edge of the ring as the fighters faced each other and rung a solid brass bell the size of his head. They didn’t wear gloves, they were to fight until either one of them refused to get back up, or, if one was too stubborn to stay down, until they lost consciousness or died. Donna moved into reach Tyson and delivered a few jabs to his gut. Tyson absorbed the hits and countered with a wild right hook that missed Donna but when she felt the air from the swing she knew caution would serve her best. Dancing around him mockingly, Donna taunted Tyson with by repeating the same two words and Tyson biting the insult swung at her with less control each time than the last. Overly masculine men, Donna learned long ago take great personal offense to being called “Little dick”. She taunted, closed in the distance and delivered a series of jabs to Tyson’s stomach, and escaped out of his long reach. She did this over and over again until he made the inevitable mistake.
Tyson with all his power couldn’t land a solid and now after exerting himself in such a wild fashion, his foot speed and hooks slew down. His breath had become shallower. Concerned, Tyson rushed Donna and swung wide and uncontrolled. The grace he had at the beginning of the fight deteriorated while the speed which Donna had shown from the beginning had not staggered or waned. When Tyson got close to Donna, she launched two hooks and an uppercut and Tyson collapsed. Donna watched as Tyson bubbled like a drunk trying to get up and she hoped he would stay down with his face kissing the blue PVC of the exercise mats. Defying even his own expectation, Tyson Crews rose to his feet. Donna leapt to Tyson delivering another right hook to his face. He didn’t move this time.
Cheers and primal chants followed the knock out and some man in the front row demanded Jaxton to pick up Tyson so that Donna could send Tyson to his death. Jaxton, without saying a word denied the request and instead congratulated Donna with a booming voice. She ambled back to the bathroom and as she changed she said to herself, “I fucked up bad.” She opened the bathroom door with her bag in hand and was crouched low but Marco, with his glass eye was already there waiting.
“What the fuck, Donna?”
“I did what I had to.”
“Had to do? We had a fucking deal.”
“And you promised me I wouldn’t have to fake-lose to a shitty fighter. But I had to fight Tyson of all people. So, I changed plans.”
Marco shook his head, “You have no idea what you’ve done Donna, we’re both screwed. You’ll see.” Pouting like a child, the Marco stormed off and joined the crowd in the back most rows, the next fight was about to begin. Donna headed home in the thick of the grime. The wind churned about and grew stronger as the day went. Everything was coated in this greyness that nobody cared to get rid of. It was in the air, the particles that coated the world and tasted look soot and dust and coal. Donna yawned and got a taste of the air but it didn’t faze her. She strode over the rubble of disintegrated apartment buildings hardly minding the loose stones that would demand the careful footing of most. Then she went down a long stretch of black and brown colored road, where at the end was a battered building with a once lit neon sign that read “General Store”. The building’s innermost room was Donna’s home but no one else took claim of any of the other rooms.
After bathing Donna laid on her bed made of layers of palm fronds and allowed her mind to wander. That’s all there was to do for entertainment that didn’t involve raiding other villages or killing passersby. She imagined a place of green, green floors, green on the trees, green on the plants and on the mountains, and she understood this was naivety but she imagined the sky blue anyway. As she thought her foot and hands tapped about on the walls and the floor. She thought all day without thinking of the consequences of her rebellion at the arena.
She thought of the days prior. Von asked her to pick fruit off the prickly pear so that he could prepare some cheap alcohol for her coming fight and in exchange he was offering money but he didn’t specify the amount. Instead of assaulting Von for specifics she took the offer and the day after she set out in the morning to Von’s shack and in that charcoal colored home she found Tyson waiting inside. “He’s also offered to help,” Von said, I hope that isn’t a problem. Donna nodded and explained that she and Jaxton were friends. “Good.” He pulled out a tattered sheet of paper and handed it to Donna, “He’s a rough map of where you might find the fruit. If you’re not back by sun down, I’ll just assume you’re dead.”
They walked silently across the barren, cracked earth and shared no more than occasional glances indicating where they should go next, and all the while their supply of fruit slowly increased. The silence of the desert was complete and even Donna had no intention of breaking it, the quiet laws of the desert seemed more absolute than the laws of her own awkwardness, and so it took Tyson’s stumbling words to restore a sense of ease. “You know you’re fighting me tomorrow, right?” Donna hadn’t known but the news but she didn’t stop walking or falter on her words.
“Figures they’d pull some shit like this. Are you ready to lose?”
Tyson laughed, “I had something else in mind, why don’t I we stack things in both our favor. I’ll take the fall and we both put our money against me to lose?”
“That’d be too easy, they’d know we rigged it.”
“Well it’s already being rigged in the first place, I know Marco is planning for you to take the fall and he’s working with Jareth and his gang. We’d be better off trying to fight against them than not.”
Donna listened to whispers of the wind and breathed deeply, “if this works, I’m getting the hell out of here.”
“We’ll see when the time comes,” Tyson said after picking up a few fruits. “So, we have a deal?”
After her going over the details a last time, Donna went to bed. Jareth would take a day to get into town, everyone would leave her alone until then. Early the next morning, a scratching at the door startled Donna out of bed. Filling what seemed like the entire frame of the door way, stood man in a suit that faded from grey to a greasy black. Behind him were four similarly statured men with their arms crossed and smirks on their face. “You must be Donna, pleased to meet you.” Donna couldn’t swift through the sentence for sarcasm or authenticity.
“I am, and you are? Donna said making sure to keep distance from the man.
The man scoffed and the men behind him laughed but the lack of smile lines showed the four men were also intimidated. They were forcing smiles. “Me? I’m Jareth. That’s all you need to know. And you, Mrs. Donna, have screwed me out of a grip. You were supposed to lose that fight. Marco promised this money, did he know about it? Because I’m visiting him next. Why’d you do it Donna? What money did you get?”
“Money? I’m the poorest fighter here. I don’t have money just laying around. My pockets are empty and so is my house.” Donna moved to the side allowing Jareth to see all her home. The goons behind Jareth started forward but with a swift gesture, stopped them. He shrugged and said, “I’ll see you soon. It’s not like you can make it out of the city anyway.” The group of gangsters plodded along the rubble of the general store and out into the still air.
Donna rushed to grab a backpack and filled it with clothes, and within a few minutes she was out the door. She ran more than walked and if there were people outside she would have looked bizarre. Running in the thickness of the grime, Donna could feel the fine black particles coating her throat, and all could she taste was dirt. It was a minute jog to a small shack on the outskirts of the devastated town. The shack itself seemed it was built from salvage and complete with a sign taken from a pharmacy that now only read, “Jack’s Pharm”, and the rest of the word had been cut off in the shacks construction. Donna knocked on the door and Tyson Crews opened it.
“There onto us already?” Donna nodded
“What’s your pla…” he noticed the bag and shook his head. “You can’t be serious. There’s no way you can make it to the next town unless you’ve got water and food, you don’t have a horse or anything. You’d starve.”
“I’m leaving Tyson, I’d love for you to come with me but I’ve got no time to lose.”
“I’m staying here, that’s all I know. Venturing into nothingness like you want is crazy. Here’s your cut and good luck.” Tyson handed Donna a wad of money kept together with a few rubber bands. Donna looked a Tyson pleadingly but only said, “Thanks,” and she was quickly cloaked in the grit of the world.
Donna knew that the nearest town was to the north, a three to five-day trek on foot, and taking the main road would be the straightest route, but this meant going back through the city in the opposite direction. She would no doubt run into Jareth and is if she did go that way. She went north anyway.
The crumbled and decayed asphalt below her feet had weeds growing through the cracks and often, especially in the blazing days where Ra himself would seek refuge, the smell of tar would rise from the asphalt which led many to call it “Tar Road”. Heading north back into town, smelling tar and dust, Donna thought about the city. It had forced her to fight since her childhood and she was tired. She hated the city and the people, they were raiders and pillagers. They were barbarians. Even Marco who had raised her, he too was a barbarian at heart, he just expressed it differently. Marco was a savage for money.
The town baked under the sun and a haze of mirage captivated the way ahead. Donna walked back into the town and hoped it would be her last, and with each step she took she grew more resolute of the thought. Goodbye town, she thought as she continued on the path. She walked past the small crumbled homes, part of which were used to build shacks like Tysons. Donna was distracted in taking final notes of her childhood home, the intown shacks, the shops, and eventually the arena. All places she once frequented without much a thought and now she would be abandoning them and would let them be consumed completely by savages. Good riddance, she thought as the arena was behind her.
Five figures stood on the road just before the city surrendered to desert, and crowds gathered on either side of those five people. Donna heard the commotion grow before she noticed the men blocking her path. Donna looked for another path around but this was the only way out of the city, the other ways were blocked by toppled skyscrapers. She labored with each step and yet she had to take them and had to face the men who were certainly Jareth and his crew. She counted her steps to take her mind off the impending fight. Two. Ten. Twenty. Fifty steps. She was face to face with Jareth now and the chatter that rose to an uproar, fell once again to silence.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Away from this shit hole.”
“And taking off with all my money? Didn’t think I’d find out where it went that fast, did you? It wasn’t too hard to figure out. Knowing that Tyson bet against himself through a third party was all I needed to know that you were involved.”
“So what? You just want the money?” Donna showed the cash bound by rubber bands.
“That’d be a start. Then I’d like a public apology, and we’ll go from there.”
“I’m leaving. Deal with Tyson, he seemed bent on staying here.”
“Tyson will get his, but you’re the one wanting to leave.”
Donna wondered how Jareth had found out her leaving in the first place but the thought wasn’t worth the time. People in the town keep their mouths loose with other people’s business. The rule of the town was to trust no one, after all. Donna squared her shoulders to fight the five men in front of her. She whispered to herself, “I seek refuge in the perfect words of God from the evil that He has created.” There was a commotion on both sides of the road and laughter from Jareth.
“Come on kid, just give me the money and say you’re sorry.”
Donna said nothing. The wind blew sending the fine black particles into Donna’s face, she felt them hit her teeth and tasted coal. The scent of tar rose from the floor and all the while the side chatter grew.
The fight would pass on through drunken night for decades, they would tell it with gleam in their eyes about the gang and the fastest fighter alive. Each time a drunkard told it the wind blew harder, the men grew larger and the odds more frightful. Donna Dawson too grew more extraordinary until it was said she moved like lightning. When Donna Dawson confronted Jareth and his gang the crowd was on his side. They cheered as his men gained advantage and jeered as Donna made any headway in the fight.
“The wind blew so madly,” one drunkard said “That for a second no one could see Donna or the gang. But just as the dust settled it was only Donna who remained. She looked like hell. She was right beaten blacker and bluer than she’d ever been. But she’d beat them.”
The barbarians of the town celebrate the legend of Donna not because she stood up to the gang or because of any morality she might have shown but because her sheer ability, and though no one cheered her on that night, whenever he story is told those in the crowd tell it as if they were cheering. The townspeople had no true alignment to anyone other than to cheer for those who would win. Those townspeople who celebrate her legend, haven’t heard from Donna since.