With the release of What Boys Are Made Of less than a month away, I’m excited to post the first chapter of it on my blog! For the next two weeks, I’ll be posting a chapter every Wednesday. Please feel free to read them over, share them with your friends, your enemies, that one neighbor you chat with down the street.
I hope you enjoy this short preview!
Warning: contains explicit language.
In this gritty debut set in a near-future Appalachia, S. Hunter Nisbet presents a stunning story of surviving the choices we make—and those that are made for us.
Simon “Saint” Flaherty is sixteen the day he enters a back-alley mixed martial arts fight in his Appalachian town. The odds are overwhelmingly in his favor, but no one expects him to win by accidentally killing his opponent, least of all Simon. His coach uses the publicity to set Simon up in the fight of his life in scarcely a month’s time, but physically ready doesn’t mean mentally ready.
Erin Livingston has taken care of Simon since he was orphaned at the age of eleven, a replacement son for the one stolen away from her by a war that tore the country apart and left her hometown in isolated ruin and at the hands of despot cartel leader Jeff Petrowski. Not only does Petrowski keep an iron grip on the community, but his grasp is also rapidly closing in on Erin as Simon’s limelight reveals a secret she’s desperate to keep hidden from the world. Now Erin is searching for a way out, any way out.
Nothing can stop Simon’s next fight, barreling toward them at the speed of a shotgun shell. No one dares help Erin, not if it means risking their lives against a man with no mercy. In this tightly woven story of enduring in the face of violence, Simon and Erin must decide whether a chance to escape a life not worth living is worth the danger of losing it altogether.
My opponent is some hick from across the river they put in shorts and called a contender. They got him ten feet away from me, surrounded by the guys who set up this match. They’re probably telling him he’s gonna win.
Yeah, no, ain’t gonna happen. The crowd filling this alley didn’t come for him.
Chris Hopkins stands on his toes to shout in my ear. “Got some big bets on you, boy!”
Art pushes him back into the crowd. “We’re busy, piss off.”
“Oh come on, Artie, I gave you good odds. Gimme a tip at least.”
“My boy Simon’s gonna win, that’s your tip.”
My opponent’s people are moving, the coach stepping out. Art meets him in the open space between our two crowds to shake hands, knuckles white. No refs in a street match, no. The only rules here are no eye gouging and no fishhooks, and the Market guards have already been paid off. Ain’t no one gonna stop this fight; we’ll go until one of us can’t swing no more.
I take one last drink from my water bottle before sliding my mouth guard in. Check the laces on my boots, ’cause there’s too much broken glass to fight barefoot. Across from me, my opponent’s taking off his shirt to show knife scars, with muscles underneath.
That’s okay. I got muscles too.
The coaches nod, the noise ramps up, and it’s time to get started. Ain’t no homework in this alley, no teachers, no nagging, just me and my fists and a thousand ways to win. Art takes my coat, and I strip down to my shorts, waiting, waiting, breath white in the air of All Saints’ Day. I’m ready for this, bouncing on the balls of my feet, taking a few practice jabs. Warmed up, taped up, let’s get this started.
Art leans in so close it’s like his voice is inside my head. “Fuck him up, Saint Flaherty.”
I stride forward, touch knuckles with my opponent. He’s big like me, got a reach like mine, exactly like we heard beforehand. If there’s a difference, it ain’t much.
Let’s do this.
I punch once, feint back. Land a hit on his shoulder that he don’t block in time. He tries a right straight but puts too much power in and I dump him on his ass. Twenty seconds in and I’m winning by a mile. Seriously? This guy’s supposed to be a contender?
His people hiss, like it’s my fault their guy’s shit.
“Don’t get cocky!”
That’s Art, and he knows what he’s talking about. I’m gonna win this not ’cause this guy’s bad but ’cause I’m good. I’m better.
The other guy’s up and swinging, and I’m on him quick, going for the gut. He fetches me a clip on the temple and I feel the impact, but it’s not enough to even make me pause. A kick to the leg distracts him enough for me to smash his nose.
He reels back, blood running down his chin. What the hell just happened there? I shouldn’t have been able to get that hit in this early. This is a fucking joke, a slaughter. Anyone can see he’s losing hard, standing there panting with his people flooding around, putting a towel to his face and—
A knife in his hands.
Holy shit. No way, there’s no fucking way.
I back up, ’cause the match goes until one of us can’t. Period.
What do I do now? That’ll cut my knuckle protection to ribbons, take a finger off if I don’t watch it. I fall, he’ll fucking stab me. Probably I could kick the knife out of his hands. Probably. Or…
I could be a legend, exactly like we practiced. I don’t do knives, ain’t never learned ’em, ’cause it takes time, but enough assholes pull ’em when they get cornered that we came up with a defense. It’s short and it’s quick and it’ll make people lose their minds.
I get my hand behind me, feel Art’s brush mine as he passes over the baseball bat. I’ll win ’cause I’m the best.
My opponent lunges in. The blade gouges deep in the wood, but I hold, knock him back. He slashes across this time. I jump aside, but his knife glides across my chest like my skin’s butter and I don’t feel it now but I know I will. This ain’t a game no more.
If I fuck up, I could die. Holy shit.
“C’mon, Saint Flaherty.”
I ain’t gonna die. I’m gonna win.
I catch his elbow on the downswing, hear him hiss in pain, good, but still he circles, swinging wildly now, like he’s crazy. Maybe he’s on something. Maybe they found a madman and set him on me. He’s gonna take off my fingers if he gets the chance, and that still won’t stop this fight.
“Take him out, Simon!” Art yells behind me, and I know, I know I gotta get my opponent before he gets me. I gotta knock him out, gotta end it now.
He closes in, teeth bared, knife aiming for my side in a wild attack, but I’m ready for this, and as he comes ’round, I put the bat up and swing.
It sounds like a boiled egg being smashed.
He hits the wall and slides down it in slow motion, like he’s just lying down to take a rest, only you don’t take a rest when your head looks like that.
Oh my God.
I can’t move. There’s a ringing in my ears, like someone’s boxed ’em. That guy should be getting up any second now, any second. Or moving. Or someone should at least be coming to check on him. Someone should check to see that he ain’t—
A hand touches my shoulder, icy fingers freezing my hot skin. “Put it down, Simon,” Art says.
Down. It. The bat that I hit the other boy with.
I drop it, wipe my hands on my chest to get the feel of the wood off. Only, my chest is slick with blood. My blood, bright red and sticky even in the alley shadows. Art pushes a towel in my hands, and they’re shaking, shaking from my heart beating so hard in my ears, ringing with the noise of that guy’s head hitting the wall. He looks so wrong. He should’ve moved by now, he should’ve—
“Get it together, Simon.” Art’s fingers dig into my chin, jerk my head around until he’s straight in front of me, blocking out the screaming crowd, screaming at the blood, so much blood. “Simon, c’mon, look at me.”
The other coach kneels next to the guy I fought. He picks up a wrist, feels around for a pulse. Shakes his head and stands back up.
No, no no no. The baseball bat was for show. I didn’t really just…I couldn’t’ve…
I try to force my lips to move, but I can’t. They feel like old rubber bands, not real, none of this is real.
The coach wipes his hands on his pants. “He’s dead.”
Art nods back. “Yeah. He is.”
“But…” They both look at me. My mouth won’t connect with my thoughts as I hear myself say, “I didn’t even swing that hard.”
Art’s grip on my chin goes slack. For once he don’t got nothing to say. Good, ’cause I just…oh my fucking God. His brains are on the wall and now the ground is heaving up ’cause there’s blood on my hands and everyone saw and I…and I…
Art hits me across the face. I stagger back, gasping for breath as he drapes my coat over my shoulders, hissing, “Don’t you dare pass out here, Simon, not in front of the fans.” He turns me around, gives me a shove so finally I can’t see the body no more. “Let’s go.”
Chris is still here, standing in the crowd collecting money, all those bets on what would happen. Bets on what I’d do to that guy.
Did they bet I’d kill him?
Kill him. I killed him. It echoes back and forth until it’s all I can hear with the sound of his head as it broke. I can’t seem to breathe right, but I can’t pass out here, so I look around for something, anything.
There, turning the corner ahead of us, is my dad.
He saw it all.
Art turns back long enough to clamp his fingers around my wrist and drag me along. “Come on, kiddo, let’s get you home.”
Remember, What Boys Are Made Of is due out on March 15th, 2016. You can put it on your to-read list on Goodreads here, where you can enter a contest to win one of two signed paperback copies.
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Copyright © 2016 by S. Hunter Nisbet
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.