As Becky came through the tennis court gate, Davis stuck out his leg and tripped her. Becky went sprawling in a sea of bouncing balls, skidding her hands on the ground. Davis, Garret and Elena burst out laughing, joined by everyone else who saw the epic stack.
My first instinct was to help Becky up and collect the balls, but I trusted Fiona and Ynez to do that, so I stepped over her and went straight for Davis. I shoved him against the fence, stunning him. Neither of his friends moved.
“What the fuck, Danielle?” he growled.
“No, what the fuck to you Davis. What right do you have to treat her like that?”
He tried to stand, but I pushed him back into the springy mesh of the fence.
“What are you on about?”
“I saw you, sending her out to play fetch. If you wanna pick on someone, how about you pick on someone who might actually fight back, huh?” I pushed him again. “You got some issues to work out with others, how about you try me, huh? Or are you too much of a coward to fight a girl?”
Something flickered in his eyes and his expression changed from shocked annoyance to anger. “I’m not a fucking coward,” Davis said, standing up straight.
He was a few inches taller than me – 6’2” to my 5’8” – so I was forced to look up at him. I saw Mrs Norris move into gear in my peripheral vision, so I lowered my voice.
“Fight me then. After school, behind the courts next to Old Wood House.” My eyes bore the challenge into his skin.
“You’re on,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Come now, children, what’s going on here?” Mrs Norris interjected, putting her hands on her hips.
I gave Davis one last glare, then turned back to Becky, who had my friends by her side and her eyes brimming with tears.
“Come on, Becky, you’re playing with us now.” I grabbed my racket off the ground and stormed away past our audience.
When Becky and the others caught up, I was already starting to deflate. Whatever courage and fury had bolstered my actions was now seeping out of my pores like sweat.
“Y-you didn’t have to do that,” Becky stammered in her mousy voice. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
I turned on her, my waning fury becoming annoyance. “Yes I did, Becky. Otherwise they would’ve kept doing it and even found other people to pick on. It needs to be stopped.”
I started walking again and she had to jog to keep up with me.
“B-but y-you’re not gonna f-fight him, are you?”
I didn’t reply, because I had no idea. I’d been in fights before – mainly with my three older brothers, but once with a boy in primary school and another with a girl at a party. The boy had been a coward and shoved me. I had fallen into a table, opening a gash under my chin that was still scarred today. We’d both been suspended for three days – I had broken his nose in retaliation – and when we returned to school he had the gall to claim he’d done it all because he liked me. The girl I’d fought with, Trina, had tried to kick Ynez out of a party because they were “too much like a dude to hang with girls”. A rather typical cat fight full of hair pulling and scratching had ensued, but a solid punch to the gut had kept her down. Trina has hated me ever since, even going so far as to spread rumours about me that broke up my relationship with Peter Randall. Turned out Peter was a bit of a gullible jerk anyway, but I had a right to find that out for myself without Trina’s help.
Other than those two, I had never won a fight. Against my older brothers, I always ended up tapping out. But giving up against Davis would mean not only a loss of pride, but also a loss of credibility. It would give Davis and his friends the freedom to pick on whomever they liked. I guess I really did have to fight him – and win.
“Don’t worry, Becky,” Ynez piped up, “Dani can handle Davis.”
“Yeah,” I added, flexing my arms. “I’m buff from lugging around my cello.”
Becky looked understandly skeptical.
“You know you don’t have to fight, Dani,” said Fiona, picking at the tape on her tattered racket. Her straight, blonde hair had fallen out of her bun at the front, a few wayward strands falling across her face. “You don’t have to solve everything with fighting.” She swiped at the air with her racket a few times, then stalked off back to her side of the court.
Nathan gave a kind wave goodbye and swapped into another group to allow Becky to join. But none of us had the motivation to play properly anymore. We pulled in close to the net and just began casually bouncing the ball back and forth, chatting idly until Mrs Norris called for us to pack up.
Davis shoved past me on the way back to the gym, throwing a glare over his shoulder. I poked my tongue out at him childishly, kicking myself for it as soon as he looked away.
Elena caught my eye, raising her arms as if to say ‘what the hell?’.
I rolled my eyes. She should’ve been the one to stop him, to rein her friends in, but instead she just piled on with them. Was there any of my old friend left in there?
My anxiety rose with every siren that afternoon. Even at lunchtimme, my knee was bouncing up and down so much that Fiona told me off.
My last class of the day was maths. Davis avoided me the whole time, but Elena shot me concerned looks and Garrett seemed to be laughing at me.
The end of school bell rang and Ms Bellow growled at us all to stay seated so she could dismiss us.
“Problems A to X on page 37 by Thursday. You may go.”
The majority of the class burst into movement as they packed up and left. I remained seated. My heart was pounding in my chest. I wasn’t regretting my challenge per say, but I was still terrified. I had put myself out there, and it was highly likely I would fall on my ass in a puddle of shame – or at least get the shit beaten out of me.
Ynez squeezed my shoulder. “I’m sorry I can’t stay, Dani. I wish I could be there to support you.”
I gave them a reassuring smile. “Thanks Ynez. I’m sure I’ll be fine, Say hi to your mum for me.”
I walked the outside and they gave a small wave before leaving. When I turned away, Fiona and Becky were waiting for me.
“You don’t have to do this,” Becky said.
“You shouldn’t do this,” Fiona stressed.
I sighed heavily and rolled my eyes. “If you’re not gonna support me, then just go home. I’m already facing a bunch of jerks, I don’t need a brick wall at my back as well.”
Becky’s shoulders slumped, but she nodded. Fiona pursed her lips, her hands on her hips.
“You can back out, you know,” Fiona continued. “You won’t lose face, you already made your point at the courts. Davis won’t wanna fight a girl anyway.”
I fixed Fiona with a hard stare. “You’re lucky Ynez didn’t hear that.” I pushed past her, heading out of the school towards Old Wood House. Fiona and Becky followed.
On a typical school day, all students would flood uphill to the student car park and bus stops. Today, small groups of kids were heading in the opposite direction with us. The word had gotten out. Not only people from our PE calss, but also our year and a few randoms – they were all glancing at me and whispering. Fingers crossed no one had let it slip to any teachers, otherwise this would be a very short fight.
Old Wood House was a heritage-listed colonial building behind our school with a gorgeous garden. We were told to stay off the premises so the garden wouldn’t be destroyed, but there was an area on the border between the House and school that was a legendary battleground. It was technically off school property and even if a teacher saw us from the tennis courts, there was a fence in between us and them, allowing ample time to escape. My two eldest brothers George and Anthony had both had a fight or two back there – my other brother Conner had been Head Boy and always played by the rules. I was a weird mix of all of them, though I’d probably never make Head Girl after today.
We passed under a mass of eucalypts and wattle, following a worn path. Behind us was Nathan, who seemed nervous, and his friend.
“I hope you’re here to cheer for me and not Davis,” I said with an anxious chuckle.
Nathan’s quiet monotone seemed flatter than usual when he replied. “Here to make sure no one gets properly hurt.”
I raised an eyebrow; did he really think he could hold me or Davis back? He’d never seemed like the most athletic person – we mainly knew each other from photography class.
His short friend Bobby piped up with an explanation. “Nathan competes in muay thai comps for the state.”
I was taken aback. Quiet, shy Nathan did muay thai? I guess that explained why he was so lean. Fingers crossed he was on my side. I noticed Fiona look him up and down in a new light, and I concealed my smirk by pressing my lips together. We both cared for Nathan because he was so introverted and we loved to coax him out of his shell with gentle teasing. The fact that he had shown up at all was quite touching. Maybe we really were friends, whether he liked it or not.
Between the tennis courts and Old Wood House, beside the banks of the Swan River, a crowd had gathered. Roughly thirty people stood in clumps in the clearing, all murmuring to one another excitedly. Through the crush, I found Davis’s slicked back hair. He was chatting with Garret and Elena, all three of them laughing without a care in the world.
I sighed. “Let’s get this over with.”
I strode into the fray, quieting the whispers. Everyone stepped aside until there was nothing but air and tension between me and my opponent. I swallowed hard.
Davis turned to me with a cocky smile. Even when I wanted to punch him in the face, I still found him painfully attractive. Even his stupid smirk was hot.
“Wow, you actually turned up,” he said loudly, and I quickly remembered why I was here. “You’re not really gonna make me fight you, are you?”
My face fell to a hard line. The crowd curved to encircle us, outlining our battleground. There was no backing out now.
“Someone has to,” I replied, curling my hands into fists at my sides.
Fiona and Becky were on my right; Nathan was on my left. Davis was only facing me side on, still listening to wise cracks from Garrett.
“Fight, fight, fight, fight.” The slow chant rose from the crowd, a few fists pumping in the air.
I did my best to block them out; I had to focus on strategy. I had one option to end this quickly – a shot which had worked once before against my brother George, but since then they all knew it was my go-to, so they were prepared. Davis wouldn’t be prepared though. From the ease of his posture, he probably doubted I would attack at all.
I clenched my fists and lunged forward, my right fist raised for a high punch. Davis tensed and moved to block his face with his forearm. But I feinted, the true power in my left fist which went straight into his throat. Davis doubled over and the crowd let out a combined whoop and hiss.
‘Go for the throat,’ my father had always told me whenever we watched action films together. I breathed a sigh of relief. I may have actually managed to get out of this unscathed.
But I let my guard down too soon. Even though Davis was still doubled over, he lurched forward and crash-tackled me to the ground. All the air left my lungs as I thumped against the earth with Davis on top of me. I gasped for air, feeling dizzy.
We both took a moment to regain our breath before the struggle began in earnest. I tried to buck him off, but he straddled my thighs and gripped my arms hard.
“Give it up, Stone,” Davis croaked, his throat still paining him. I’m stronger than you and I have the advantage.”
I glared up at him, my cheeks flushed. It was humiliating enough for him to have me in this position, but in front of all these people? I could already hear some of them sniggering. I tried to push them out of my mind to figure out a way to escape. I refused to give up.
I wriggled beneath him and Davis quirked an eyebrow suggestively – which gave me an idea. I had limited leg range, but I managed to yank my thigh upwards. It didn’t hurt him, but I succeeded in pushing him up enough for my headbutt to land. Head collided with head in an explosion of blood on both sides. Somehow I had managed to strike us both in the same place – the inside of the right eyebrow, close to the bridge of the nose – and both brows had split open, spraying blood.
Davis rolled onto the ground beside me, clutching his head. The circle broke as our friends ran forward. Becky fished some tissues out of her bag and gave us each half a pack. I turned onto my hands and knees so I wouldn’t cover my clothes in blood. Davis followed my example.
“Alright, show’s over!” Elena announced, shooing the crowd away. “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
To my surprise, as the crowd dispersed, Davis whispered to me. “You fight hard for a girl.”
I spat out some blood which had trickly down into my mouth. “Sometimes you have to.”
He peered over at me and I met his gaze. Even though we were both bleeding, some kind of peace settled between us. He even grinned.
Fiona helped me up, her tanned face marred with concern. Garrett and Elena pulled Davis to his feet and guided him away with the other onlookers. But before he disappeared in the crush of trees, Davis turned back to me.
“You win this round, Stone.”