Gabriel collected a sleeping Benji from his next door neighbor and landlady, Mrs. Sergeyev, in apartment 5B when he returned from the hospice.
The elderly woman gave him a brief hug and a wet kiss on the cheek upon seeing him on her threshold, an almost excessive amount of emotion for the reticent Russian. She murmured some comforting words in her native tongue, the smoky bass of her voice blanketing Gabriel with empathy even though he did not understand what she said.
Cradling his son against his chest, Gabriel entered his own studio apartment and locked the door behind him. The cacophony outside his window in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, was mere background noise by now, and Benji didn’t so much as stir in his arms. Gabriel laid the boy in the full-size bed they shared since Olivia became hospitalized and tucked the covers securely around him.
Alone in the dark with his even darker thoughts, Gabriel sat next to Benji with his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands.
He would lose her soon, he knew.
The doctors said it was only a matter of time, varying between a handful of hours to as long as weeks. But there would be no miracle. She would not survive the winter. And in what days she had left, there would be little peace. She would ever shift between physical pain and mental delirium, often both. She would continue to deteriorate until only a dried husk remained.
Gabriel knew that this was the end. He knew, yet he couldn’t bring himself to accept the fact. It wasn’t in his DNA to give up.
The various doctors and specialists had all said the same: it was a hopeless cause. No surgery, no chemotherapy, no drugs or alternative medicine would be able to make his wife well again.
They’d discovered the second cancer too late. Her rapid decline from a stabilizing cancer patient to a veritable ghost took less than two months.
And in that time, Gabriel had sold his grandparents’ house in upstate New York, traded in the classic and impeccably maintained Ford Mustang for a cheap box with wheels, put on E-Bay and Craig’s List all of his own worldly possessions, quit his slave-labor job at one of New York’s premier architecture firms, got a couple of flexible-hours part-time jobs in the City instead, and moved his family to this rent-controlled five-hundred-square-foot studio in the Russian District.
It wasn’t enough.
Between Benji’s preschool fees and Olivia’s medical bills, his bank account was rapidly running dry. Last he checked there was less than two hundred dollars left.
Gabriel raised his head and pulled out a business card from the inner pocket of his shirt.
He knew what he had to do.
This was not how his shifu intended him to employ his training, but he had no other choice.
Quickly, he changed into a black hoodie and loose black joggers. He stopped by Mrs. Sergeyev’s apartment to have her keep an eye on Benji and swiftly departed the apartment, taking off at a brisk jog toward the nearby metro station.
It took almost an hour to arrive at his designated stop. Then, he walked another mile to an abandoned warehouse by the Bay. The night was pitch black save for a pasty moon low-hung in the sky. If not for a few flashes of dim light from the warehouse’s broken windows, Gabriel would have thought the Russian mobster who’d tipped him off had lied.
Now, he cautiously moved toward the dilapidated building, stepping around refuse and broken glass along the way. As he entered, muffled echoes from deep within clanged against the rusted rafters. He followed the distant noise and arrived at an iron door locked from the inside.
There was no going back.
Taking a deep breath, Gabriel raised his fist and rapped three times on the door.
A narrow bar slid open to reveal two bloodshot eyes that peered suspiciously back at him.
“Get lost,” the man on the other side growled in a rough, accented voice.
Gabriel stared back unrelentingly. “I came to fight.”
The beady eyes looked him up and down. Gabriel could almost see the accompanying sneer.
“You ain’t got what it takes, eblan.”
“But I bleed just like any other dumbass,” Gabriel returned. “It doesn’t cost you anything to let me in.”
A few moments of pause. Then—“Suit yourself. You lookin’ for suicide, it’s a guaranteed but nasty way to go.”
As the man drew out the sss in nasty like a viper’s hiss, he exposed three gold capped teeth in a monstrous grin.
The door opened with a groan after a complex series of levers and locks unwinding, and Gabriel narrowly slipped inside past the tattooed hulk guarding the entrance. Without a word, the Russian led him down a dark corridor to another iron door that opened to a steep flight of stairs, taking them into the hellish belly beneath the warehouse.
Gabriel was suddenly assaulted by the uproar of shouting men, their fists full of bet slips, of cackling women who lost their inhibitions through sustained inebriation, of bottles broken, flesh pummeled, bones cracked, blood splattered.
Welcome to the fight club.