Smoldering

“Pitch black smoke wafted into the air—and Anton punched until his whole world was ignited.”


It was time to bow. The students were lined up in a row, backs facing a wall that bore a giant mirror—it reflected the two instructors with both an American and a South Korean flag behind them. “Cha-ri-ut!” commanded the instructor on the right, loudly. Anton straightened his posture and put his arms to his sides. He stood at attention.

The students watched the instructors vigilantly. Focused. “Kyung-yay,” they said. They bowed.“

Sue-ash-mi-dah,” the class said in unison.

Claire, the right-most instructor began telling people to move around as if she was playing a game of chess, and the students were the pieces. Everyone had to be spaced out in the room so they could stretch. The other instructor, Derek, had a different task. His objective was to roam the room and make lazy stretchers feel the burn.

“Now go down for splits,” Claire shouted. “Ready?” She then counted to eight in Korean, and the class sounded off, counting to eight once again. A mirror image. “Hmm, I think we should try that again,” she said knowingly. She counted to eight louder.

Derek came over and gave Anton an evil smile. Behind that smile an intention, one of malicious friendship. Anton knew Derek was going to force his splits as far as he could get away with. It was Derek’s job after all. A job Anton was equally qualified for, and yet… Derek pulled on Anton’s left leg. The pain near his crotch was intense, but not unbearable.

“Thanks,” Anton said with a smug smile. “I’ve been working on my splits at home. Soon I’ll be all the way to the floor.”

“Well that’ll be better than me,” Derek whispered cheerfully. “I still can barely straighten my back when I lean forward.” Derek gave Anton a kind pat on the back before moving on to his next torture victim.

What an odd thing to do? A pat on the back.

It was more affectionate than Anton had expected. And once Derek had left—his gentle hand with him—Anton pushed his stretch further. This time of his own accord. Unnoticed by the instructors, unnoticed by Master Kim, unnoticed by the parents in the viewing room—his face grew red. Red as a hot coal. And he screamed silently to himself, closing his eyes tightly to fight the pain. To fight the audacity of Derek. Fire fueled Anton’s stretch. Burning rage that actually seared the inside of his dobok. And once the fire was lit, Anton found it hard to put out. The stretch lasted for only a few seconds more, but the embers took the rest of class to cool.   Directly after the 6:45 pm black belt class was a sparring class. Now it was just like in the times before. Derek was a merely a student in a class—like Anton. And Anton and Derek were paired up, because they were always paired up. Master Kim did the partnering himself, and even though they both knew that their pairing was inevitable, a moment of doubt always wafted through the air around their heads. As if maybe today they would get different partners. Someone else. Another skilled sparer sure, but someone else nevertheless. Someone not worth the fight.

They had been paired up for all manner of activities and exercises since they both started as white belts. Derek was older, but they weren’t put together because of their age. They both were the same height. The same size even. So every time without fail they would be chosen together, and they grew to love it. Every stretch, every self-defense technique, every spar, every form, it was Anton and Derek. Their competition throughout the years skirted the lines between friendly and hateful. It was an understood dance of strength and speed. And their constant rivalry meant that they were the best of the best. And yet last month Master Kim had asked Derek to join the leadership team, but not him.

Anton stood across from Derek. He wore red padded body armor, and a white padded helmet. Derek wore the same, but blue swapped from red. Derek smirked, revealing his mouth guard. Anton returned the smile but couldn’t help but fixate on Derek’s unadjusted guard. The mouth guard was supposed to be boiled and then fit to the mouth. Anton had done that the day his parents bought him the sparring gear. Derek’s was still just a mold.

The smell of sweat permeated the air, it was warm and repugnant, though it smelt to Anton like war. He had calmed down from earlier, barely. The instructors gave their signals, and the two friends bowed to each other. Then, they assumed battle stance.

One leg back, both feet parallel, and knees bent slightly. The right arm up near the chin, ready to block, and the left arm forward, both hands in fists. Anton and Derek gazed into each other’s eyes. And the fun began.

Anton stomped loudly with his front foot. It was a feint kick, but Derek took the bait and moved back. Reeling it back in, he moved closer slightly, just into range, and Anton let loose a powerful round house kick. Derek moved back and switched legs quickly. Back and forth, back and forth. Right leg forward. Left leg forward. He then began to kick with his left foot, and switched again mid-air, landing the kick with his right. It knocked Anton back, but only slightly. It was nowhere near as hard of a kick that Anton could produce. All Anton wanted to do was land one kick. That was all he needed. One straight to the chest or to the side maybe. Never the back though, the back and the head were against the rules.

They moved about, neither making an attack. Anton was hyper focused on Derek’s legs. Tae Kwon Do is all about the kicking, and though Derek couldn’t match Anton’s strength—his quick feet could still hit like a thousand rushing waterfalls.

He began to kick, but just as he did, Anton returned with the mirrored leg, forcing Derek to stop mid-way. This was it. Anton stormed him using his back leg, colliding forcefully with Derek’s chest. The sound wasn’t much, similar to a piece of cardboard being slapped, but it was so satisfying. The impact hurt Anton’s foot, but he didn’t care. Derek looked like he was in pain, the wind was maybe knocked out of him. But to Anton’s dismay he rebounded and used the opportunity to land another kick. After that it was over. No clear winner. It was time to move on. Until next week.

***

After school the next day, Anton made his way to the buses. He was alone, like always.

He rounded the school bus, and there was a line waiting to get on. “Anton, Anton!” came a voice. It was Alex Roylan. Roylan was always trying to challenge him. Just that morning in gym he practically begged him to see who could do more pushups. He was calling from the front entrance of the school. “Anton, hey! I was talking with some guys in my English class. They said you were a black belt?”

“Uh, yeah,” Anton replied tentatively. “Second degree actually.”

“Does that mean you can beat anybody up? Like anybody you wanted? How about that guy?” He pointed to a really tall and muscular teacher.

Anton sighed. “Well it’s not really like-“

“You can’t can you?” Roylan crossed his arms and curled his lip. “I bet you aren’t really a black belt.”

Anton clenched his fist digging his fingernails into his palms. “You don’t even know.”

“Don’t try to act all cool and pretend like you are a black belt,” he looked around to the other kids, gauging their interest. “You couldn’t beat anybody up. In fact, I believe I could take you, no problem.” He smiled to the crowd. “You look kinda wimpy anyways.” Others were watching intently at this point. They made a collective “oooooh” at Roylan’s claims.

“Yeah Anton, you’re not fooling anybody,” some voice said.

“Fuck. You.” Anton whispered under his breath, right into Roylan’s face. He couldn’t get into a fight with Roylan, or any kid, not again. Anton remembered the tears. They had burned his face as Master Kim removed his yellow tape. Of all the tapes a student needed before they could test for the next belt, yellow was the only optional one. Awarded for completing a good deed. “Control, Anton. Do you know what control means?” Master Kim said. Derek had stood at attention next to him. But as the tears flew Derek abandoned his forward-facing resolution. He broke form and looked at him with worried eyes, seemingly unsure what to do. Out of line. Out of place. Master Kim ushered Derek back into form.

Anton growled and forced himself to look away from Roylan. Anton walked to the other side of the bus, ignoring Roylan’s taunts. What does control mean, Anton?

The other side of the bus faced the road, and there were relatively few kids around. A single, furious fiery tear stained Anton’s eye. He let loose on the bus, punching it with his fists. His knuckles bloodied and they heated up to match his anger. Static cascaded through his arms with each impact. His hands were fire, and each blow singed the yellow paint of the bus slightly. Pitch black smoke wafted into the air—and Anton punched until his whole world was ignited.

***

The gym was smaller than Anton had thought it would be. “The building is so huge” Anton said. “I kinda thought it’d be giant.”

“Most of the community center is the swimming pool,” said his father. “Besides, we don’t need that much space to lift.”

Anton had been looking forward to this. He had just turned fourteen a month ago, and as promised his dad was going to teach him how to lift weights. The room was cold and the only other person there was a huge old man. The far wall was made out of glass, and through it the swimming pool could be seen. The blue reflection of the water kissed the weight room.

His dad grabbed a small black box and instructed him to sit down on it. “Hmm, okay stand up bud.” He grabbed a black circle, a weight with 35 etched onto it, and placed it on top of the box. “Here try sitting now.”

His father affixed a bar on his shoulders. But, Anton noticed, didn’t add any weights. “The bar itself is pretty heavy,” dad said, “we start here and add as we go.”

Anton was to hold the bar on his shoulders and squat down and sit on the box. As he bent his knees his thighs strained. It began to hurt, but he pressed onward. To grit through the pain Anton fixed his gaze at the swimming pool. Though somehow it was his father who saw him first.

“Oh look,” said his dad, “There’s Derek.”

Derek was walking with his mom; he wore a swimsuit and had a towel slung over his shoulder. She had a book in her hand, so it appeared that Derek was the only one doing the swimming.

“Do you think I have what it takes to be on leadership?” Anton asked suddenly.

His dad seemed startled. “Confidence, Anton. That’s what Master Kim says. Don’t ask for validation.”

“But I feel like…”

“Don’t worry about your feelings, Anton. You are strong. You are skilled. I’m sure once you are old enough Master Kim will invite you to join leadership.”

Anton racked his bar and soaked in the blue light from the pool. “It okay if I go say hi?”

“Of course.” He father smiled. He offered Anton a water bottle, but Anton rejected it.

The smell of the chlorine hit him as he stepped onto the wet concrete floor. The shift in humidity was jarring. Anton felt himself getting warm.

Derek had already taken to the water and was swimming laps back and forth. He glided easily through the pool. His form was picture perfect and he moved even faster here than he did in the dojang. Anton waited for him by the end of his lane.

When he returned to the wall, he halted his swim—Anton suspected he was simply aware that there was a human presence atop the concrete more so than Derek had actually seen him. When Derek removed his goggles, he could see Anton more clearly. “Hey!” He spat out a little bit of water. “What are you doing here, man? You doing laps too?”

“No, I was lifting in the weight room. You ever lifted here?”

Derek ran his hands over his hair squeezing out the water and wiped his face. “No, not really. I used to do swim lessons here, but then I finished all the levels they had,” he said. “So now I just come here to swim laps. It’s a really good cardio exercise, plus sort of works out all your muscles at once.” He paused for a moment as he stole a glance at Anton’s fist. It was bruised. The fire never seemed to severely burn Anton, but it did leave pink splotches—like sun burns. His whole hand was pink.

Anton hid his knuckles within his other hand behind his back. “Well, I just wanted to say hi, I’m going to go ba—”

“You want to talk about it?”

Anton was surprised. He clutched his knuckles. “Talk about what?”

“Just thought maybe… well never mind. You going to be in class Wednesday?”

His question reminded Anton of the pat on the back from class. Anton wondered just what kind of pity punch Derek was trying to hit him with, but he knew it pissed him off. Steam fumed from his knuckles which Anton hid behind his back. His thumb caught fire and he tucked it into his palm. How he wished he could quench the fire—the anger that seemed to go nowhere. Yet his wishes failed him, as the fire only fed off itself. “Oh, I’ll be there.”

***

They had gone through the motions like this was any other class. They bowed to the instructors and then they started with jumping jacks and a jog around the room to get the body warmed up. But Anton was already warmed up. It felt like a pitiful attempt to unleash his energy. He needed something more. A release. And he couldn’t wait to spar. Derek was going to lose today. He just knew it.

Master Kim paired them up. Because, of course, Master Kim always paired them up.

Derek smiled at him revealing his unmolded mouth guard. “Cha-ri-ot!” Master Kim shouted. “Kyung-yay.” They bowed at each other and assumed their battle stances. Arms up ready to defend, and legs poised to kick. Nothing even needed to happen to set Anton off. The fire was just always lit within him. He felt his body start to burn up. And the dance began.

Derek started with the quick leg switching that he did during their last fight. It was part of his fighting style. Over the years they had each learned how the other fought, which is what always made sparring so fun between them.

Not today though, Derek hadn’t yet caught onto the madness, but he did catch several hard kicks to the chest, and the side. Derek staggered backwards, recovering, and then quickly got back into the game. No doubt he found nothing out of the ordinary with being struck so early in the spar. He had no idea the fire show that was to be unleashed. He was quick though, once again. He feigned with his left leg only to kick with his right. His constant kicking pushed Anton backwards, but didn’t really do any damage.

Still, Derek was able to consistently land blows. Kick after kick. Even if one missed, he was fast enough to counter with his other leg. Hell, he was fast enough to counter with the same leg he had just missed with!

Fire seeped through Anton’s limbs. It was like the only way to extinguish the flame was to crash it, hard, into Derek’s chest. Anton’s kicks were stronger than ever, and Derek seemed very off put by it. His calm blue eyes widened at the sight of the fire. He had fear but that didn’t mean Derek gave up. He was too brave for that. They were too close of friends for him to back down. Derek tried to respond with the same amount of effort, if possible.

Anton had managed a hit on Derek’s side. The blow made it harder to move quickly. His attack had landed with great force. Not to mention the burn. Derek crouched slightly, to mask the pain in his stomach, and catch his breath a little bit.

There it was. An opportunity. Derek was vulnerable and it would only last for a moment. Just long enough to secure a victory. He knew they didn’t keep track of points, he knew this was all just for fun, he knew there were no winners and losers in class. All the same Anton’s entire leg had ignited and had become a twisting, churning inferno. The flame surrounded each limb and fed off of itself. The more it burned the hotter he felt. And his fire had just one destination. Anton brutally kicked the side of Derek’s head—sending his mold of a mouthguard flying toward the wall. Derek turned around dazed and grabbed his neck with his hand.

Something odd happened once Anton’s leg had return to the floor and his stance resumed. The red-hot anger that Anton had felt, was suddenly very blue, sullen, and ill. It was disgusting. A huge hole gaped in his chest. Not a real hole, but enough to make him feel empty. Numb. He watched his friend, aching in pain, covered in burns, try his best to walk it off. Seconds passed, but those seconds felt like an eternity. In those seconds instructors began to run to their location, Master Kim turned his head, and Anton felt like the biggest asshole on the planet.

“Derek, Derek,” Anton spat, “Man, hey dude, you alright? Man I’m sorry, I kicked too high.”

Derek turned around and attempted a smile. He was clearly in pain, but he didn’t seem mad. Why wasn’t he mad? The entire right side of his face was burned. But he wasn’t facing the mirror…he couldn’t see it. The burns… “It’s alright, my fault really,” he replied. “I was crouching pretty low. Gimme a second.” He rolled his shoulders, as if to loosen them up. Then he cocked his head to either side, popping his neck. Without warning, he vomited. A slew of brownish ooze spewed from his mouth and onto the padded floor. Anton leapt backwards with a jolt, then rushed to stabilize him. He wanted more than ever to give his friend an affectionate pat on the back. He finally knew.

Anton was stopped by Master Kim, who placed a firm hold on his shoulder. He nodded to the nearby instructor who carefully sat Derek down near the back wall. “What happened, Anton?” Master Kim said. His words were simple yet powerful, and his eyes never wandered from Anton’s face.

“He crouched too lo-he…he…I… I kicked his head. It was a strong kick too, right to the side.” Anton did all he could to hold back tears.

“We do not kick to the back nor the head Anton,” Master Kim said. Without averting eye contact, Master Kim gently held part of Anton’s belt. “What does control mean Anton? Hmm?” Anton looked down towards his belt, then back at Master Kim. “Only you are in control of your body. Go sit in the back-room Anton. You are done for the day.”

Master Kim’s back office was rarely seen by students. He did all his business meetings in the front office—but all his business was done here. It was dark. Lit only by a single table lamp. There was a hard metal desk and pictures of his wife and children everywhere. He even had pictures of him with his students—and with people Anton didn’t even recognize. His friends, Anton guessed. He had found himself in the private heart of Master Kim’s business. Never once had Anton considered Master Kim a man capable of crying, but if he did—this would have been the room.

There was a single cheap office chair that Anton sat in for a moment, but it felt wrong. If Master Kim came here the chair would undoubtedly be for him. Anton switched to the floor. He sat crisscross with his hands on his knees as they had been taught to do. It wasn’t a comfortable way to sit for very long, but he wanted to show control. He waited for ten minutes for Master Kim to enter and give him a stern talking to rife with life advice. Instead, when the door opened, he saw only his friend.

Derek closed the door behind him and sat crisscross on the floor facing Anton. He looked down at the ground solemnly. He didn’t offer a single word. Anton could feel his own face begin to burn as he looked at the red marks on Derek’s face. Instead of flame, tears flared from Anton’s eyes.

Through his sobs he mustered some words. “I need to apologize” Anton said. “I’ve been feeling… well… is it okay if I tell you how I feel?”

Derek straightened his back and finally locked eyes with him again. He smiled, but this time with no mouth guard. His teeth were bare and open now. “It’s always been okay,” he said.

Written by Adam McDonald

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