Dan Conway had no problem with pain.  He wasn’t one of those sick bastards who liked it, but he’d taken more than his fair share of punishment.  When he broke his foot in high school during the Homecoming Game, he limped off the field and didn’t see a doctor until it swelled up like a football.  When he dislocated his shoulder in a bar fight, he put it back himself.  When he snapped his left pinky in an obtuse angle, he taped it to his ring finger and moved on with his day.  He never took a pain killer, never complained, and he never cried.

One-two.  One-two.  His fists bounced off of the bag like superballs off of concrete.  Hands up.  Elbows in.  Duck.  Weave.  Work the body.  Faster.  Faster.  Finish it.  Right hook.  Left hook.  Uppercut.  Straight right.  Follow through.

His last punch landed square on the heavy bag.  “Hell yeah!” He was a cruiserweight at 200 pounds, but he hit like a heavyweight.  He kept his hair as tight as his figure.  You couldn’t find an extra ounce of fat on this guy.

“Good.  Take a breather,” Jerry said.  Good ole Jerry.  Even in his middle ages, there wasn’t a better coach in the area.  He’d been training Dan for nearly five years.  He used to be one hell of a fighter himself, according to the newspaper cutouts all over the gym.  Back then, he was trim.  Big chest and slim waist.  He’d gotten soft as he aged, though – flabby in all the wrong places.  He still parted his hair to the right like he did in the pictures, but his temples showed his age.  “You fight like that on Friday, one of the big promoters’ll snatch you up in a minute.”

“I’m going to put on a show for them.  This ain’t making it out of the first round.”

“Make sure you keep your chin down.  You’re leaving it out there like a bullseye.  We’ll get some light sparing in after lunch, just to keep you sharp.”

Dan nodded and walked over to the lockers near the front door.  This wasn’t one of those top-of-the-line gyms with a sauna and a pool and a receptionist there to wipe your ass.  This gym was raw – a gritty kind of raw that rubbed dirt in your wounds and put hair on your chest.  Metal weights, metal benches, a few bags, and a ring – everything a boxer needed to be successful, if you asked Jerry.  Nothing more.  There weren’t even showers or a real locker room.  You left your shit at the door and used your own lock.  If you had to change, you did it in your car.

Dan took a seat on the bench in front of his locker and struggled to unlace his training gloves with his teeth.  One of the featherweights, Adam, was a few feet away flirting with the only female fighter Jerry trained.  It was a testament to Adam’s douchebaggery.  His hair was spiked, and his tips, frosted.  He wore the same pair of black compression shorts and matching compression shirt he wore every day, even on fight day.  He must have been too self-conscious to show off his lace-like arms or breakable neck.

Pussy.

“You look tired,” Adam said.

Dan tossed his gloves in his locker and began to unravel his hand wraps “And you look like it’s your first day in the gym.”

“Hey.” Adam looked like he was going to step up to Dan but thought better of a war of fists with a cruiserweight, instead opting for a war of words.  “4-0.  Remember that.  What’s your record now?”

“Fuck off.  You know damn well two of those fights should’ve gone my way.”

Adam smirked out of the side of his cheek.  “That’s not what the judges said.”

“I’d love to see you come fight up at 200 pounds.  They would tear your ass up.”

“Please.  You guys are slow up there.  Too much weight holding you back.  I’d run you guys ragged in the first round.”

“Whatever.”  Dan shook his head.  His wrap got caught on the pinky of his left hand.  Sometimes, that little finger made it hard for him to make a fist with the way it curved away from the rest.  It made him wish he could lob the thing off just to get it out of the way.

Adam threw his arm around the girl’s shoulder, boxing Dan out of the conversation.  “Anyway.  For a million bucks, I’d screw Jerry.”

“What the fuck?”  Dan shot them a sideways look as he tossed the wraps into the locker and slammed it shut.

The girl – Charlene “the Lighting” Hawthorn – made light eye contact with Dan like a kid on the playground with a little crush.  For once, she didn’t look like she was about to rip some poor sap’s junk off.  She giggled for a moment.  “Oh, it’s just a little game we’ve been playing.  You go back and forth telling each other the craziest thing you’d do for a million dollars.  Want to play?”

Dan glared into his locker.  Were they fourth graders?  “No.  I’m good.”

“Oh come on,” Charlene said.  “It’s fun!”

“I said I’m good.”

Apparently the girl had gotten too many concussions and had forgotten what “no” meant.  She fired off questions like she would punches when she trapped her opponent in a corner.  “Would you jump off a cliff?”

“I’d die,” Dan said.

“Fondle your grandma?”

“She’s dead.”

“Cuddle an alligator?”

“I’m not a fan of cold-blooded creatures.”

Adam chimed in on the assault.  “Oh, come on, Dan.  There’s got to be something.  It’s all in good fun.”

It was a stupid game.  Why did they care so much?  “I have to grab lunch and get back to work.  Fight’s Friday.”

Charlene rolled her neck and eyes all at once.  “Ugh.”  The grunt left her lips like it would a teenager’s.  “You’re no fun.”

Dan walked towards the door.  He could grab a sandwich at the deli down the street and be back by noon.  Perfect.  He’d have plenty of time to get a good sweat in before he went home for the night.

Charlene’s boyfriend walked in as Dan was walking out.  He didn’t even know the poor guy’s name.  Charlene only ever called him “Puppy.”  It didn’t matter why.  Fucking weirdos.  It looked like Adam was going to swoop in on her anyway.  They’d be a good match, especially since they fight in the same weight class.

Dan was almost out of the door when he heard Charlene holler out behind him.

“Wait!  One more!  Would you chop off your foot?”

Really?  Chop off his foot?  That was the best she could come up with.  Dan clenched his fist, trying to hold back the tongue lashing he wanted to give her so desperately for harassing him with stupid questions while he was trying to keep his head on straight during fight week.  He just wanted to get a fucking sandwich.  Then, he felt a twinge in his pinky when it didn’t quite close with the rest of his fingers.  “No,” He said.  “But, I’ll tell you what.  I’d chop off this pinky for ten grand.”

The girl jolted back as if Dan had actually taken a swing at her.  Then, she shook it off like a straight left to the forehead and curled up into her boyfriend’s arms.  She grabbed Puppy by the wrist as if it was his leash and dragged him away from the lockers.  Adam just stood there with his hands across his chest.  His eyebrow was raised, and he looked like he was going to say something he didn’t quite have the balls to say.

Idiots.  All of them.

That didn’t matter though.  Dan just wanted to get his sandwich, get back to training, and focus on winning that Friday night fight.

Yeah.  That would be good.  Real good.

 

###

He should have just gone home after lunch.  It would have been a better use of his time.  Instead, he hopped in the ring with a new sparring partner.  He didn’t even know the guy – just some punk Jerry pulled off the streets thinking he could turn this back-alley brawler into a real fighter.  Bullshit.  The guy didn’t know the first thing about fighting in the ring, let alone the intricacies of sparring a couple days before a big fight.  The guy tagged Dan with a right hook just under his left eye.  The edge of the glove caught the skin like a hook in a fish’s lip.  Dan sprung a leak, and red poured down his face like piss down an alley wall.

Face wounds always bleed the worst.

Jerry patched Dan up, and he didn’t think it was deep enough to need stitches.  Still, if it didn’t heal up fast, Dan would have to back out of the Friday night fight.  No referee would let him in the ring with a gash like that.

No fight. No pay.

Fuck.

 

###

 

Dan sulked through the dimly lit parking lot of the strip mall that housed Jerry’s gym, wondering how the hell he was going to pay his bills.  Maybe it was time for a new job?  How many countless, unpaid hours would he have to put into applications before he even got an interview?  No.  He could never do it.  This was the best place for him.  He was so close – so terribly close – to that big contract.  He just needed a couple more wins, but those wins seemed far down the road – even further if he didn’t fight on Friday.  It would be a while before he got a chance to sign that dream-worthy contract.  For now, he had to settle with ramen for dinner next to a stack of unpaid bills.

When he finally saw his fourth-hand Pinto at the back of the lot, he noticed some dick leaning against it with one foot resting on the bumper.  What now?  Repo?  No.  He only missed one payment.  Collections?  Couldn’t be them either.  He hadn’t missed a credit card payment in over a year.  He picked up the pace – not quite jogging, but not walking either.

“I thought you’d never finish up in there.  I’ve been out here for an hour.”

Dan squinted.  “Adam?”  The featherweight’s petite figure and frosted tips gave him away even in the sparse, florescent lighting of the street lamp.  “You mind getting the fuck off my car?”

Adam lowered his foot, but leaned his back up against the car.  “Things didn’t sound so good in there for you.”

“Get off my car.”

“That guy in there tagged you pretty good.  I heard you might not get to fight.”

“Do you have shit in your ears?  I said, ‘Get off my car.’ ” Dan clenched his fist.  It had been too long of a day for this.

“Easy.  Easy.  Fights are just hard to come by these days, is all I’m saying, especially at the local level.  You can find yourself struggling to stay afloat awfully quick.”

“I’m going to say it one more time.  Get your ass off of my goddamn car.”

The nerve.  The balls.

Adam sat up, raising that eyebrow of his towards the top of his forehead.

Dan took a deep breath, gritting his teeth.  He wanted so badly to step toe-to-toe with the featherweight – maybe knock a few of his teeth out on the concrete.  Yeah.  Dan would do that for a million bucks.

“Give me your hand.”  Adam grabbed Dan by his left palm before he had a chance to flinch.

“What the – ”  Dan couldn’t pull away.  It was like his hand was trapped in a crab’s claw.  Tight.  Threatening to break skin.

“Yeah.  That’ll do nicely.  Oh yeah.  Perfect.”

Dan reached back with his freehand and unloaded it into Adam’s nose.  “What’s your fucking problem?”

Adam held his nose.  Red oozed between his fingers.  He smiled through his blood-drenched lips.

“What the hell is the matter with you?”  Dan flexed his jaw – a warning sign like a rattlesnake shaking its tail.  He felt the fresh scab on his cheek tear, and blood began to trickle down as if he were weeping dark red tears.

“You’ve got the eyes we’re looking for,” Adam said.  “There.  Right there.  Those eyes of a madman.  Those eyes of a lunatic.  The audience will love you.”

Dan cocked his hand back.  “Don’t make me do it again.  I asked you a question.  Answer me!”

Adam smeared blood and snot across his face.  It looked like war paint around his upward turned lips.  “You said ten grand for your pinky.  I know a guy who will pay that to watch – him and all his friends.  A real, live amputation.  Yeah.  He’d definitely pay a premium for that.”

“Get the fuck out of here!”  Dan lunged at that bleeding freak, and narrowly missed with his second punch.  He didn’t need to try a third.  His victim staggered out of reach, and it wasn’t worth the chase.  Just so long as that sonofabitch never leaned on his car again, spouting off nonsense like that, they’d be cool.  Why get kicked out of the gym over a street fight when he could go home and patch his wounds?

Dan opened the door of his Pinto, but he noticed a piece of paper fluttered against his windshield before he had a chance to sit down.  It was probably just some advertisement from one of the local mom-and-pop shops, but it was annoying just the same.  He picked it up and flipped it over.

There was a message scrawled in sharpie across a sheet of printer paper.

When you change your mind, call me.  The offer always stands. We want to see crazy shit, and you will always need the money.   – Adam.

There was a number with an out-of-state area code scribbled under the name.

What a jackass!  …you will always need the money.  Sure, he always did need it in the past, but who’s to say that wasn’t going to change soon?  He could score the biggest contract since Mayweather.  He just needed that one, great fight.  Maybe two.  Then, he’d be a household name, and money would be a non-issue.

Instead of tearing the note up, Dan folded it up and put it in his glove box.  If Adam stepped over the line like that one more time, he’d have proof to show Jerry.  He’d get that crazy frosted-tipped asshole thrown out of the gym so fast he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.  Then who would need the money?

Dan felt the knuckles on his right hand begin to swell.  That’s why fighters wrap their hands: to protect the knuckles.  It would be sore in the morning, but not as sore as Adam’s face.

The whole ride home, Dan tried to convince himself that the rest of the week would be better.  His face would heal up.  He’d win his fight and get that paycheck in time to make the rent payment.  Maybe a scout would finally realize his potential and make his next fight really count?  His life would get better.  Just one more fight or two.

 

###

 

It didn’t get better.

 

###

 

Rent was four days past due.  Jerry told him the cut hadn’t healed enough.  Bullshit.  He just wanted to get the new guy in the ring for a couple rounds and keep Dan in the system for a little while longer.

What sort of life was this?

He had to get out.  More than ever, he needed a fight.  He wanted to ram his knuckles down the throat of his adversary.  Any adversary would do.  But no.  The only fight he would have that day was with a garbage bag.

He needed to start somewhere to clean up his shitty life, right?

So, he started with his car.  He tossed pieces of trash into the garbage bag: candy wrappers, paper cups, empty cans.  When he reached to the passenger-side floorboard, the glove box fell open, and piece of paper fluttered to the car floor.  He picked it up with his left hand, his disfigured pinky hanging off the edge.

…you will always need the money.

His eyes wandered to his pinky – such a useless appendage when in working order.  On him, it was as pointless as gills on a house cat.  Ten thousand dollars, though.  That would be useful.  He’d have a few months’ rent saved up.  Actually, almost a year’s worth.  He could even get himself a proper meal: prime rib, potatoes, gravy.  A real meal.  None of that cardboard ramen shit.

But, a finger?  What kind of fucked up lunacy was that?  He’d heard of weird shit on the internet – people cutting themselves up for sickos to watch.  He wasn’t part of that world.  He was a fighter.  He dealt pain and received it, but he sure as hell wouldn’t inflict it on himself.

He wanted to throw the note away, or at least put it back in the glove box.  He wanted to clean up the car and then head to the gym for some sparring practice, if Jerry would even let him.  His face was healing better than he could have hoped.  If he worked hard, maybe he could convince Jerry to get him on the next card.

But Jerry would never find him a fight.  He knew that.  There wasn’t enough time.  It was hard enough to find opponents a month before a bout.  Two weeks?  If a guy was desperate.  A little over a week?

No chance in hell.

Dan wished he’d never stepped in the ring with that amateur to spar.  He knew better.  Jerry knew better, especially fight week.  Anything would have been better than calling that phone number.

 

###

 

Three days later Dan drove fifty miles outside of town to the Aberville Asylum with Adam in the passenger’s seat.  Its gates were rusted, and nearly all the barbed wire had deteriorated from years exposed to the elements.  It seemed no one had been there for a century, even though the article Dan found online said it shut down in 1972.  All the power lines had been cut years ago, and the building was black against the night blue sky.  How in the hell were they going to shoot this show in there?

A giant of a man waited for the car at the gate.  He wore a leather vest and jeans, both of which were soaked by the torrential rains.  Water dripped off of his bald head, which he never bothered to wipe away.  He didn’t shiver or shake.  He just stood there, glaring at each car that approached the gate.

When Dan and Adam pulled up, the beast stepped over to the passenger side.

“Elijah!  How goes it?” Adam asked.

“What’s he doing here?”  He pointed a sausage-like finger at Dan.

“He’s our amputee.  Let us through.”

“Mmmm.”  The oaf pushed the gate open without another word.

Adam put his hand on Dan’s shoulder.  “Do exactly as they tell you.  Don’t ask questions.  After the show, I’ll take you to the hospital.”  He took a breath as if he was lecturing a child.  “Remember.  Your finger got caught in a car engine.  The show will take care of anything insurance won’t cover.”

“And my money?”

“Elijah probably already wired it to you.  Payment goes through when you enter the compound.  Check your account.”

Dan took out his phone.  A few buttons later, he saw it.  “Ten grand.  Fucking aye.”

They didn’t speak until they descended a crumpling staircase on the side of the building.  The door at the bottom of the stairs emanated the bluish glow of tubular bulbs.  Water flowed down the staircase behind them, and Dan almost slipped near the bottom.

He never liked the rain.  It felt too much like tears on his cheeks.

The door opened into a subbasement, where only a few people buzzed about.  One guy wore a leash around his neck and a thong to cover up his giblets.  A chick led him along on his knees.  She seemed familiar, but the black pants, purple bra, and thick mascara hid her identity well enough.  There was a smell of diesel in the air.  A generator idled in the corner providing power to the otherwise lifeless building.  A few other people dashed around a common middle area with cameras, lights, and microphones.  In the center of the room was an old, wooden table and, about ten feet behind it, a white chair with restraints for feet, hands, and head.  Fire spewed out of a fifty-gallon drum in the corner opposite of the generator.  There looked to be a metal rod sticking out of its middle.  The floor must have once been white, but, in years of absence, every tile had cracked and turned a shade of brownish-gray.

A man wearing nothing but cut-off jeans and a top hat strode through a door that led to the interior of the asylum.  His tan face was covered in white hash marks – like his cheeks had lost a fight to a house cat.  As soon as he entered, the whole room went silent.  “Places, everyone,” he said.  “Electrona, you and your boyfr – I mean dog – are up first.  Set up to the left.  As soon as Elijah gets in here, he’ll direct everyone else as to where they need to be.”

“Who’s that?” Dan whispered.

“He’s the Ring Master.” Adam said.  “He organizes every show.  He’s the one who paid you.  Every week we come here, and every week thousands of people pay twenty-five bucks a piece to watch us mess up our bodies live on the web.”

“What do you do?

“I let Elijah give me paper cuts between my fingers and toes.  It’s a warm-up act, but it pays 250 bucks a week.  Worth it in my book.”

“Right.”

Freak.

Dan scanned the room again, only to see the girl and her leashed friend running towards him.

“I’m surprised Adam actually got you to come.”

Dan could have picked that psycho-bitch’s voice out of a line-up.  She looked different in a push-up bra – almost sexy –  but there was no denying those wild eyes that had knocked out opponent after opponent.  “Jesus Christ.  You too, Charlene?”

She smiled.  “Damn right.  Pays better than half the fights Jerry gets me.  I can’t believe it, though.  An amputation.  That’s fucked.  When Adam told me, I didn’t believe it.  I figured you were one of those dumb asses that thought they could make it in the ring alone.”

Dan gritted his teeth.

Adam put his arm around Charlene, disregarding her half-naked, leashed boyfriend standing right next to them.  “Believe it, baby, but you better get you your spot.  The show’s about to start.”

“Definitely.  Come on Puppy.  We don’t want to keep Master waiting!”  She yanked her boyfriend along with the leash, and he nearly stumbled to the broken tiles.

For a moment, Dan almost felt sorry for him.

The Ring Master took his place in the center of the room.  Elijah stepped in from the rain, water still dripping off his smooth forehead.

One of the camera men counted down.  “Three. Two. One.”

The Ring Master snapped his head towards the camera, smiling like a man who needed to be restrained.  “Welcome to the Sadist’s Sanctuary, my little bastards, streamed live to you from our secret location.”  His voice was calm.  Almost soothing.  He reached into his pocket and produced a razor blade.  It glistened in the florescent lighting.  “Today marks our 32nd show, which means another hash mark for me.”  He slid the blade under his eye, allowing blood to squirt onto the wooden tabletop in front of him.  “We have a special show for you tonight.  For the first time on Sadist’s Sanctuary, we will be bringing you a live amputation.”  He paused as if he was waiting for an applause.  “But first, let me introduce to you, live in high definition, Electrona and her new puppy.”

Charlene and her nearly-naked counterpart pranced into the center of the clearing.  She wrapped the leash tightly around his wrists and tossed it through one of the overhead beams.  Then, she tied the slack tightly through his wrists, trapping him with his arms over his head.  She pulled a handkerchief from her bra and bent over for the camera, running the handkerchief back and forth between her legs.  She grinned, winking at who knows how many people on the other side of that camera.  She slid behind her victim and wrapped the handkerchief over his eyes.

“Are you ready, little puppy?”  She ran her tongue over her teeth, and he barked.  She slipped a little black box out of her waistband.  With the flip of a switch, lightning crackled at its tip.  Slowly, methodically, she tiptoed around him.  His head snapped back and forth, begging to follow her every movement even while blindfolded.

She jammed the little box into his left side.  He gritted his teeth, twitching violently.  She tiptoed again.  This time, she jammed it into his right thigh.  He yelped, his head flying backwards as he struggled against his restraints.  Again, she tiptoed.  He thrashed about like he was trying to slip by the next jolt.

The third jab found the top of his neck.

He screamed a high pitch tone that almost squeaked out of human hearing.  “Asparagus!”

The girl froze, her eyes dashing between her victim and the Ring Master.

“He said his safe word,” she said.  “Do I just take him down?”

The Ring Master’s jaw hung down slightly, but he composed himself in time to address the camera.  “Now, now.  I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”  He approached Puppy and ran a finger down his chest.  “You wouldn’t want to be labeled a coward, would you?”

Puppy began the sob.  “No.  Please.  I’m not a coward.  I’m not a coward.”

“Good.”  In one, fluid motion, the Ring Master snatched the Taser out of Charlene’s hand, and drove its glistening tip into the front of the Puppy’s thong.

He screamed, twitched, and went limp.

“Excellent.  Our next act will be…”

Charlene shuffled off to the side, while Elijah hoisted Puppy over his shoulder and carried him out of sight. The Ring Master continued with the next act – some guy in a clown mask putting a nail through his palm with a nail gun.

Dan leaned into Adam.  “That was fucked up.”  He rubbed his eyes as if he could rub that memory away forever.  “I need some air.”  He stepped out into the rain before Adam could protest.

What had he gotten himself into?  These people were fucking crazy.  All of them.  It wasn’t worth the cash – not to go through something like that.  The poor guy had asked them to stop, and these people didn’t give a shit.

Adam stepped out into the rain a few moments later.  “You aren’t getting cold feet on us, are you?”

“Did you see what they did to that guy’s dong?”

“It wasn’t even that bad.  He’ll be fine in a couple of hours.”

“I’m not doing this shit, man.  I’m not.”  Dan paced back and forth, wringing his hands in the rain crashing down on him.

“You can’t leave now.  They already paid you.”

Dan grabbed Adam by the collar.  “You tell your boss he can have his fucking money back.  I’m out of here.”  He headed up the stairs, imagining how safe he would feel in the driver’s seat of his Pinto.

“You don’t get it, do you?”  Adam grabbed him by both shoulders the way Jerry always grabbed him between rounds.  “These guys don’t play games.  You aren’t on some reality show.  These people don’t care if you live or die.  If you leave now, they’ll label you a coward.  They’ll get their money back, and then…” He breathed a deep, shuddering breath.  “You ever wonder why I wear that compression shirt all the time?  Even when I fight?”

Adam lifted his shirt.  His chest read COWARD in deep, black scars.  “I ran from my first stunt.  Piercing my tongue with a nail and hammer.  They tracked me down and did this.”  He turned away from Dan.  “You have to go through with it.  They always get the show they paid for.”

“Jesus fuck, dude.  So if I stay, I lose a finger.  And if I leave, they’ll brand me for life.”  Dan squeezed the back of his neck like that would relieve the tension of it all.  “I should snap your neck for getting me into this shit.  I can’t afford this, asshole.  And, as soon as my hand heals up, I’m going to make sure no one ever recognizes your face again.”  He turned his back on Adam.

“So that means you’ll do it?”

Dan raised the pinky on his left hand and the middle finger on his right as he stormed back down the stairs into the makeshift studio.  He had to do it.  He had to.

 

###

As each act passed, Dan wondered if he should have run while he had the chance.  He could skip town – maybe head to his cousin’s place out in Boston.  They’d never find him in a city like that.  Too many people.  He already had the money.  It’s not like these folks could call the police to say he violated a contract to cut off his finger during an underground torture show.  So, why was he still there?  Why wait for it to happen?  Why go through with it?  He had to run.  He had to escape.

He felt a twinge behind his eyes.

The Ring Master’s voice snapped him out of it.  “And now for our final act…”

Elijah pushed him forward.  “You’re on.”

Dan stumbled into frame, and into the Ring Master’s awaiting arm.  The camera lights blinded him for a moment, and he wondered if every actor felt like they were going to throw up on camera.  Maybe it was just him?  Not every actor got on camera to cut off a finger.

“We’ve got a newcomer here,” the Ring Master said, “but he’s brought us a special treat.”  He grabbed Dan’s left hand to show off the pinky.  “Look at that.  Isn’t it beautiful?  I might just frame it after he’s done with the…you know…snip snip.”  He giggled behind one palm like a geisha girl.

Dan closed his eyes and hoped he’d hold down his dinner.  Ramen.  Again.

“I’m just so excited, I think I’ll have a cigar.”  The Ring Master pulled a stogie out of his pocket along with a cigar cutter.  He slid the tip into the cutter and clamped down hard.  The tip tumbled to the floor.  “Oh.  I’m sorry.  This is actually for you.”  He slapped the cigar cutter onto the wooden table and winked.

The world was watching.  Thousands of people Dan didn’t know had paid good money to see him cut off his finger.  In a sick, twisted way, they were counting on him.  This was the big show.  This was the main event.  How many times had he pictured this lime-light in a Vegas ring?  How many times had he waited for his chance to shine?  Yet, this was his moment, with a cigar cutter and ten grand in his bank account.  There was no opponent.  It was only him.  The only blood would be his.

He slid his disfigured pinky into the cigar cutter.  In his mind, he snipped hard.  Blood squirted onto the Ring Master’s chest and shorts.  The finger flopped onto the floor next to the tip of the cigar like a fish after its final breath.  Everyone cheered, and he smiled while Adam wrapped a tourniquet around his wrist.

In that moment, he was a champion.

And yet, with the cameras eyeing him, and his hand wrapped tight around the cigar cutter, he couldn’t bring himself to squeeze it.

“Chop chop,” The Ring Master said.  The others in the room chuckled.  “We don’t have all night.”

Dan’s muscles flexed.  Who did this asshole think he was?  It wasn’t his finger in the cigar cutter.  It was Dan’s.  Couldn’t he mutilate himself on his own terms?  This clown was talking to a future champion.  No.  He was rushing a future champion who was about to do something no one else had the balls to do on that stage.  No one rushes a champion.

And there it was.  Dan wanted to be a champion, but not just any champion.  He wanted to be a champion in the ring.  Not this.  This was beneath him.  Just a few more fights, and he would be there.  He didn’t need to do this to himself.  He already had the money. He just needed to leave.  What could they do to stop him?  He was a fighter – a cruiserweight.  Sure, they got Adam, but he was a little guy.  Who in that room could take him toe-to-toe?  Not Adam, not Elijah, and definitely not this fucking Ring Master.

“You know what.”  Dan tossed the cigar cutter to the floor.  “Fuck you, fuck your people, and fuck your show.  I’m out of here.”

Everyone in the room eyed Dan as if he had insulted the Pope.  Their eyes didn’t stop Dan from walking towards the door, though.  He was nearly free when a large forearm grabbed him by his waist and hoisted him into the air.  Elijah put him down in the chair at the center of the room.  With one hand, he fended off each of Dan’s punches.  One-two. One-two.  Not a single punch landed.  With his free-hand, Elijah secured each of the straps attached to the chair.  First the head, then the wrists, and finally the ankles.

Dan thrashed and thrashed.  He couldn’t break the restraints.

One by one, the crowd crept in on him.  “Brand him. Brand him. Brand him.” They all chanted, first hushed, then louder and louder.

The Ring Master slid a thick glove over his hand and down his arm.  “It looks like we’ve got a coward in our midst tonight!”  He walked over to the fire and withdrew the metal pole that rested in its center the entire night.  Though it glowed red and composed of backwards letters, there was no mistaking what it read.

        COWARD.

The crowd closed in on Dan.  Their faces were so anxious – so excited.  Even Charlene’s Puppy joined in on the chant.  He had apparently recovered from his own traumatic experience just fine and seemed to enjoy someone else being in the limelight.

Asshole.

“Brand him. Brand him.”

Dan’s eyes snapped from side-to-side.  Where was Adam?  Where was that motherfucking, good for nothing asshole?  Dan would kill him.  He’d break the leather straps and kill him.

“Brand him.”

Towards the back of the group, he caught the glimpse of someone’s forehead.  One eyebrow was raised, and there was no denying that it was Adam.  It looked as if he was saying, “I told you so.”

“Brand him.  Brand him.”

The Ring Master ripped Dan’s shirt off with a swift tug at the collar.  Gently, he stroked Dan’s cheek with the back of his free hand.  “Don’t you worry.  This will all be over soon.  Then, we’ll just take that finger of yours and be on our merry way.”

Looking into the faces of the mentally unwell that had formed this ring around him, Dan’s eyes welled up with tears.  They trickled down his cheeks like rain.  But, these were not tears of fear, he told himself, nor were they tears mourning the pain that was to come.

No.  These were special tears.

With hell rising around him in the eyes of the tortured psychopaths, he only squeezed out these glistening droplets in the hopes that they would sooth his freshly charred skin.

END

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