My school, many years ago when I was in the high school, was a massive old building of Greek scholars, stone pillars, and confused Latin mottos, named Calving Conservative Preparatory School. It sprawled on several hundred acres, a well-to-do private school where many students and all of the teachers boarded.
Hidden in the recesses of the school, bricked up and guarded by her sharp tongue and evil dreams and fiery spirit, a girl named Beth lived and hated.
Beth was tall and thick, blue-streaked black hair in a pixie cut, with olive skin and a broken nose and iron glinty eyes that burned bright before she struck. We lived in fear of her. She was an upperclassman, for one, and also we’d seen her take down the Marine-hopeful Mark Eberhard, break his jaw and yank a handful of hair out, with half the school watching. He was twice her height and weight, and came off the worse.
Fighting made her blood run quick, gave her a sheen to her face and a spit in her eyes. She gleamed in hard anticipation when a fight was begun, blood drawn, or screams heard. Evilly bloodthirsty, like a hungry glinting dog watching a cockfight, with the roosters angry, the steel claws strapped to their natural claws, ready to shred skin.
She was the teacher’s pet, even though they all had a funny feeling about her, that something about Beth was not right, that perhaps she was hiding something from them. Rumor went that Beth had once killed a dog, just for the fun of it.
Mema my friend recoiled whenever Beth brushed past us in the hall. Once, in the locker room after school, Beth entered to find us all laughing. Immediately Mema stopped and her face took on a stony expression, one of doleful, grim resignation. Passing, Beth pulled Mema’s hair and shook the teeth in her head and laughed loudly.
“Hey-ya, Mema? Wanna fight? Huh? Wanna fight me?”
Mema shuddered and shook her head, looking at her feet.
“Cause if you’re too afraid I know a girl who’s willing to fight ya.”
“No, Beth,” she said quietly.
Later that evening, at the huge mess hall with no one around us, Mema leaned in and said in the strangest voice I’ve ever heard, “When I went to Bishop Gorman she was there too.”
I stopped eating the tasteless beans. “Really?” I didn’t know what to say. This was my first year at Calving Conservative.
“Hm. I was in the first grade there, and she must’ve been a fifth grader. She—she—”
Mema stopped and could not go on.
“Bullied you?” I said tonelessly. I had no sympathy any more. Everyone had the same affliction, under Beth.
She nodded, her eyes on her beans. “I can’t even begin—”
But that was all she said for a long time.
It was the end of the semester, and only a few girls would be going home for the holidays. Most of the teachers left, too, and only a couple matrons stayed to keep order.
The rest of the upperclassmen told us freshmen that Beth would relish the Christmas holiday, and this made us dread the locked-up weeks even more. One shy junior, who had an odd scar under her left eye, told us that Beth had a special tradition that she put into place as the year was turning new.
We slept less, talked in huddled groups, flinched when Beth caught sight of us.
But the day came. The matrons were asleep, and Beth rounded all of us up and herded us outside to the playing fields next to the dormitories on the night of the thirty-first. The younger girls ducked behind the seniors and even the boys shied away from Beth when stared at them.
“Out, everyone,” she barked. “Time for a little New Year’s celebration.”
We gathered in an unwilling circle, Beth at the center. Her power was such that as she turned in a tight circle to face each of us in turn, the circle grew ever wider as students stepped backward when she made eye contact. No one spoke a word.
“As a special tradition this year,” she snarled, a fierce no-going-back look on her face, “I shall give some privileged child the chance to fight me. Here and now, a fight—to the death.”
A collective shriek.
She smiled. “Figuratively, of course, you cowards. I’m not so sure your parents would like a death here at your school. The matrons would blame you, of course. Not me. They all love me.”
This was true.
“You stand here and will fight with the fists, with a field full of witnesses,” she swept wide her arm. “After the fight, everyone can go back inside to bed. Now, who will challenge me?”
She raked the crowd with her gaze. No one spoke or moved. Everyone held their breath.
“Here, now,” she screamed suddenly. “Choose or I will choose!”
Everyone shook, stepped back. No one said a thing.
“Fine,” she said, serenely, chilly. “I choose… you.”
She looked dead straight at me.
My heart stopped. My mouth opened wide. I stopped breathing. My skin turned cold. The bodies around me fell away and I was left standing, swaying slightly, in a ring with the bulldog named Beth.
I looked behind me, around me, in front of me. Mema’s face was stricken. The small group of friends I’d managed to collect looked horrified. The others, the boys and the older students, merely looked relieved that it wasn’t them.
Beth was smiling at me, across the ring.
"Why me?" A gasp.
"New girl," she sneered. "I've always liked new girls. So innocent, so easy to defeat."
Her face was paned, in slides of light and shadow, in the dark field. The only light came from the dormitories and left us in half-darkness. I could see the fear floating on the wind.
There was nothing to be done. I’d have to fight, and be beaten, of course.
I’d never been in a fight, I grew up homeschooled until freshman year. My brother taught me wrestling and a bit of karate, and my best friend showed me the way to punch and not break a thumb or elbow. Beyond that, the only fights I knew of were the ones in books, just a little sunny-haired girl reading about wrestling and judo. And the little spars I’d seen Beth in, obviously.
She stepped toward me. I tasted terror in the air.
I watched her slide her feet around. A shimmering fell through me, the fear working furiously trying to figure out how to live through the night. My ears buzzed. She cocked her fist and made a boxing movement.
I felt a hungry presence come over me. I felt strong, daring. Like I could do anything. An ethereal spirit settled throughout me.
A sharp twinge to my brain. I knew what she was going to do. An uppercut. I watched it happen, stepping out of myself in an eerily ghost-manner. I dodged her first swipe. She grinned. She was testing me, feeling, seeing if I could even fight. I watched myself. I thought of nothing but watching her, instinctively making a fist the way Cherith had taught me to, strong and iron-hard. I made it and sung as I struck.
A grunt. I’d hit her. Shoulder. I smiled. I tasted steely blood in my teeth. My own tongue’s blood. Bitten straight through. I felt no pain. I heard naught but her breathing and my own. The sweat shimmered in the air.
Beth stepped forward and slapped me across the face. The sting was minor. I raised my head, shuffling around as she followed my movements, both of us in a circle, dogging each other, watching ourselves, and met her gaze. For the first time, I sensed in her look… a misgiving. Could it be fear? Uncertainty?
I stepped, ran at her. I grunted and moved as I yelled, boxing up, watching as the fist hit home and Beth doubled over, a groan.
She straightened, a mixture of rage, respect, and steel in her eyes. I’d seen this look before. She got this expression before she hit, destroyed, killed. Her eyes were red as she attacked. She hit, slapped, bit, I dodged, punched, evaded, blocked.
Blood ran. My fist ached. She'd hit my jaw and I felt my cheek creak. Blood pooled underneath my tongue. My teeth clenched. My arm ached sharply. My bare foot throbbed where Beth had slammed her boot. Through the haze of red I saw her panting, fearful.
The air was cool and I was hot. I was running, jumping, evading. Smiling, grinning, breathing, hitting. I felt the blood coursing through my veins.
My breath was coming hard and fast, my blood running in the strongest, sharpest surge of adrenaline I’d ever experienced in my life. The sweat dripped, my breath gasped, and I felt the power in my own arms.
Made the fist again, stepped forward. She stepped backward instinctively and the students around us murmured and gasped quietly.
I felt for a fleeting moment that I had an advantage. I struck. Beth deserved to get anything and everything.
I felt nothing. I smelled the blood in the air and the honeysuckle climbing the dorm buildings near us. I listened to the younger girls whimper with each of the thuds, watched myself draw blood again and again, heard a bone shatter, heard Mema shout my name victoriously. The thoughts inside my mind were dead, beaten.
Dazed. Tired. Hurt. Hungry. Cold. My body shook, exhausted. My eyes closed. Someone raised my fist above my head, tried to lead me toward the dormitories, said something about a shower and bed. I looked for her. Beth was on the ground.