By the time classes were dismissed that evening, I was more than ready for a good therapeutic karate match. Each teacher at Hereford was more dour than the last, and they all seemed to think that the only way to get through to the students was by inundating us with homework. I had more assignments in one day than I had been given in my first week at Stanford. That’s a top-ten college, people!
I ran to my room and changed into my karate robe, then headed for the gym. I hadn’t set eyes on the place yet, and I ended up getting completely turned around in the labyrinth of the school’s hallways. I was just about to give up on the whole thing and consider Marshall a lost cause when I finally heard the distant sounds of shouting male voices, followed by a smattering of applause. I followed the sounds, and eventually the hallway opened up onto a small lobby with the gym just beyond. I paused in the doorway of the cavernous room, taking it all in. So this was where all the school’s money went.
Toto, we’re not in Morrison High anymore.
This place was double the size of my old gym. The ceilings were so high it was like a cathedral, and the hardwood floors gleamed under the fluorescent lights. The bleachers were state-of-the-art—metal with cushioned seats, and obviously just recently installed. Burgundy-and-gold championship banners for myriad sports covered the walls. Apparently Hereford had won its division in every sport imaginable for the last three years.
“Impressed?” Marshall asked, breaking away from the rest of the team. He loomed over me.
“Not all of them,” Marshall said with a shrug. “The chicks won theirs on their own.”
I made a noise in the back of my throat. I was so going to enjoy vanquishing this guy.
“You sure you want to do this?” Marshall asked, looking me up and down derisively. Not that I could blame him. My karate robes only accentuated my petite size.
All the better to fool you with, my dear.
“Oh, yeah. Bring it on,” I said.
Marshall led me over to the mats where the rest of the team was sparring. Even if I wasn’t impressed by the multifarious championship wins, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of guys on the team. Not to mention their agility. The two kids who were battling were fast, smart and displayed some sophisticated moves. Still, I had a feeling I could take them.
I was, after all, a karate goddess.
As we watched, the tall blond guy flipped the shorter, less-blond guy over his shoulder and pinned him with a foot to the chest. Everyone cheered. Match over.
“All right, guys!” Marshall shouted, then whistled with both fingers in his mouth—a skill I had always wanted to master. “This is Kim. She thinks she can fight.” A few of the guys laughed. “Tom, why don’t you show her what the Hereford karate team is all about?”
I blinked, surprised. “Why don’t you show me yourself?” I asked Marshall as Tom, a rather gaunt guy, descended from the bleachers. A bunch of the guys “ooohed” predictably at my challenge.
Marshall laughed. “Trust me. You don’t want that.”
I could practically see the gears in Marshall’s head working. I was calling him out and if he ignored the challenge of a girl, he was going to look like a complete coward. His immature friends would never let him live it down.
“All right, fine,” he said, adjusting his belt. Tom sat down again. “Your funeral.”
“You said that already.”
As we took our places on opposite sides of the sparring circle, Marshall glowered at me, his nostrils flaring. I was probably a total aberration to him. Marshall was the kind of guy that people didn’t talk back to or denigrate in any way.
One of the guys I’d seen hanging out with Marshall at lunch blew a whistle, and I bowed to my opponent. Marshall barely tipped his head forward. Then the whistle sounded again, and the fight was on.
After eleven years of karate lessons and matches, I can tell when a guy is discomfited by the idea of fighting a girl. And I know how to use it to my advantage. Marshall was one of those guys. Instead of coming out no-holds-barred, he circled me tentatively for a few moments, unsure of what to make of me.
So I surprised him with a roundhouse kick to his upper chest. He was completely taken off guard and didn’t even get his hands up. When he stumbled back, the guys in the crowd groaned. In a formal match, a shot like that would’ve earned me a point. In this match, it just made me grin.
But after that, Marshall didn’t hold back.
He came at me with a one-two punch, and I dodged right, then left so he caught only air. While he was off balance I dropped to the ground and swept his feet out from under him. The bigger they are, the harder they—you know. And Marshall was definitely one of the bigger. There was an audible intake of breath as he went horizontal, hitting the ground with a thud. The rest of the team was clearly disheartened by their bumbling leader.
But Marshall wasn’t one to stay down for long. He popped to his feet and buffeted me with a flurry of frustrated punches. I backed up quickly, so most of them just glanced off my shoulders and chest, but he was fast for his size, and one finally hit home with full force, right in my ribs. The pain was mind-blowing, and I gasped for air. This guy was powerful.
He backed up, waiting for me to catch my breath, and I knew I couldn’t let him get in another shot like that or I was done for. This thing was going to have to end now.
I was about to do him in with my patented Kim Stratford jumping-kick-and-elbow-jab combination when something in his belligerent face triggered a realization within me and made me sick to my stomach.
I had to let him win.
This was a guy’s guy—the campus stud—captain of three championship teams in three different sports. Getting beaten by a girl would probably be the single most ignominious thing that could happen to a guy like that. How was I supposed to investigate him if he was reminded of his infamous defeat every time I stepped into a room? If I beat him, he’d never speak to me again.
I was going to have to throw the fight—something I’d never done in my life.
Damn. And I had so wanted to belittle Mr. Cocky. Oh, well.
It was heinous, it was reprehensible, but I took a dive. I left my right side wide open, and Marshall landed a chop across the back of my neck that took me right down. I could’ve gotten up again, but I didn’t. Instead I did my best dramatic rendition of a person too weak to go on, pushing myself up and then stumbling down again. Marshall’s friends went wild and soon, he was offering his hand to help me to my feet.
I was flushed from exertion but it was compounded by my frustration over what I’d just done and the fact that the guys were now jovially jeering at me. Oh, how I wished I could take every last one of them on in a match.
“All right, guys, that’s enough for tonight!” Marshall dismissed them, smiling triumphantly.
“Nice fighting,” a kid with curly blond hair said. He was hanging back with Marshall and they both seemed to be looking me over.
“So, am I on the team?” I asked.
“Well, I’m definitely impressed,” he said. “I gotta admit, you had me there for a while.”
I had you there ‘til the end, I thought.
“We do need a replacement for Dumbo,” the blond kid said.
“Dumbo?” I asked.
“This kid Danny Dumbrowski,” Blondie replied. “He got kicked outta school last week because he got caught with drugs.”
“So we’ve been calling him Dumbo ever since,” Marshall put in, wiping his face with a towel.
“Wow. That’s the second person I heard about getting booted,” I said. “Is this a school or a crack house?”
Marshall and Blondie both laughed. “The moral of the story is, don’t get caught,” Blondie said cryptically.
I wanted to punch him in the face. So typical. A bunch of his friends get expelled from school for drugs, and he still thinks it’s okay to do them as long as you don’t get caught. You’d think he’d learn something from his friends’ lives being ruined.
“Okay, I guess you can work out with us,” Marshall said finally. “You’re pretty cool, New Girl. It takes guts to do what you just did.”
I couldn’t believe he was actually conceding to my worth. Maybe he wasn’t so bad. Unless, of course, he was the dealer. “Thanks,” I said, shoving my feet into my sneakers. “And my name is Kim.”
“You know, you should ditch those losers you’ve been hanging out with and have lunch with me and mine tomorrow,” Marshall said.
Okay, scratch that. He is so bad.
“Omigod, you are such a—“
Marshall’s face darkened.
Dammit, Kim! Bite your tongue!
“Such a saint!” I improvised, smiling. “I would love to sit with you guys.”
“Cool,” Marshall said.
“Cool,” Blondie repeated.
As we walked across the gym together, I swallowed back the impertinent remarks that kept creeping their way into my mouth. I had to be nice to Marshall—it was one of the requirements of the job. But when all this was over, I really wanted to get him back on that mat. Big time.