Take Me On (Pushing the Limits #4)

by Katie McGarry

Chapter 1


A door squeaks open at the far end of the barren hallway and the clicking of high heels echoes off the row of metal post-office boxes. I attempt to appear casual as I flip through the mail. All of it leftovers from our previous life: my brother’s mixed martial arts magazine, an American Girl doll catalog for my sister, another seed and gardening catalog for my mother.

Collection notices for my father.

There are more demands for payment. I wonder if I should give them to Dad or hand them off to my mother or grandfather. Maybe I should save us all from the reminder and set them on fire. It’s not like there won’t be a fresh batch tomorrow.

I juggle a few pieces to keep all of it from falling onto the floor. Beyond the windows, the sky darkens into dusk. I inhale deeply to calm the nervous adrenaline flooding my veins. Too much to do, not enough time: the mail, the grocery list from my aunt, convince the grandfather who hates me to write me a letter of recommendation, dropping off and picking up my father’s antianxiety medication. It’s Friday night and I’ve got two hours to make my uncle’s curfew or I’ll be spending the night on the streets.

The woman with the noisy heels continues down the hallway and doesn’t acknowledge my existence as she heads to the employee entrance. Unlike me, she’s dressed in a thick winter coat. Her hair is the same light brown as mine, but my hair is longer. I imagine my cheeks are painted red, like hers, from the February wind.

This building is normal for her. Nothing about this is normal for me. My family and I, we no longer have a brick-and-mortar mailing address in Louisville. We no longer have a home.

I pause at the last letter in the stack, and not in an enlightening way. No, this is the same pause I had when my father announced he’d lost his job. The same pause I had the day the county sheriff taped the eviction notice on our front door. It’s a thin white envelope. Its appearance wouldn’t cause anyone else’s heart to sink to their toes. For me, it does. It’s from the University of Notre Dame, and it’s obviously not an acceptance.

I slam the door of the mailbox shut. Today sucks.

* * *

Walking into my grandfather’s gym, I feel a little drunk on hope and a little like I’m marching to the gallows. Getting the rejection from Notre Dame left an emptiness and the thought of scoring a letter of recommendation for a scholarship to anywhere is definitely a potent wine. Alcohol and an empty stomach shouldn’t mix, but, at the moment, I’m feeling bold.

“My, oh my, the flies are drawing in the shit.” From the inside of an octagon cage, my cousin Jax shouts at me. Beads of sweat blanket him from head to toe. He wears boxing gloves on his hands and protective gear on his head. I say nothing as I’m fresh out of comebacks.

A group of newer fighters warms up by jumping rope to the pissed-off voice of Dr. Dre booming from the speakers. Returning here, I feel younger than eighteen, older than six, and, for a few seconds, like I’m home.

The gym is a metal building, a step above a warehouse and several steps below those fancy chain gyms. Black punching bags hang from metal framework, and pictures of my grandfather’s various award-winning fighters cover the wall. A sweet combination of bleach and a tropical plug-in overwhelms my senses.

In one corner, two guys go at it in a boxing ring, and in the other corner some guys, including Jax, watch a demonstration of a takedown in a caged-in octagon.

The rustling of nylon athletic pants gains my attention as my grandfather cocks a hip against the doorframe of his office. His name is John, and he requires us to call him that. As usual, he wears a white T-shirt with the black logo of his gym: Freedom Fighters. Like every guy here, John is toned and a fighting machine. Sixty-two years hasn’t slowed him down. In fact, the death of my grandmother a couple of years ago has driven him harder.

“It’s a bit chilly,” he says. “But not cold enough for hell to have frozen over.”

My chin lifts in response. “You said I was always welcome.”

“Thought you said you’d rather drink poison then step in here again.”

I did. And he has me exactly where he wants me, but I refuse to break eye contact. We stare at each other for what seems like a year. My grandfather has a weathered look: a firm face set in stone, crow’s-feet stamped near his eyes and lines creating parentheses around his mouth. Occasionally, my grandfather smiles, but he hasn’t shown me that feature since I left his gym a year ago.

“Is your uncle bothering you?” he asks.

My uncle. Jax’s dad. My father’s half brother. The guy whose house we’ve been living in since the bank repossessed our home and we moved out of the shelter. I’m sure a few terrorist organizations refer to him as The Dictator. The answer to John’s question is yes, but I say, “No.”

“Is it your mom?”

His daughter. “She’s fine.” Sort of.

“Is something wrong at school?”

Everything is wrong at school. “No.”

“Haley,” he says with an overabundance of exasperation. “I’ve got fighters to train. Whatever it is, spit it out.”

I glance away and focus on the fighters warming up, unsure what to do. They stare at me as the ropes go over their heads, then under their feet. Snap. Snap. Snap. It’s as if they jump in unison now. Some guys I know from school. Others I don’t. My older brother, the one who’s leading them, is the only one who looks away.

My grandfather sighs and pushes off the doorframe to head toward the fighters.

“I can’t give him the collection notices again,” I whisper in a rush. “I...can’t...”

It’s not what I meant to say. I meant to ask for a recommendation, but somehow the intention became a traitorous ninja. Now that the spillway of the dam’s been opened, the words cascade like a long drop from a mountain.

“I don’t know what to do. Mom constantly works and she’s tired and she doesn’t know how to handle Dad and when I bring the notices home...” I hesitate. Not home. That hellhole is not a home. “To the house and—” that low-life slimeball of an uncle “—he sees them, then it gets worse and I can’t do it, okay? Not today.”

Not when I lost my dream. Not when everything inside me is so twisted it hurts to breathe. Not when I don’t know if I’ll ever get accepted to college or, if I do, whether I’ll have a way to pay for it.

The stone expression slides off John’s face and his dark eyes soften. Mom has his eyes. So do I. My grandmother loved our eyes. In two strides my grandfather reaches me and angles himself to hide me from the fighters. The moment I’m out of view, my shoulders sag and I close my eyes.

“It’s okay,” he says under his breath.

It’s not. It’s never going to be okay again. He places his hand on my arm, squeezes, and that one show of emotion, show of support, jostles the fragile foundation on which I stand. Tears form behind my closed lids. I shake my head, wishing he’d go back to being an as**ole.

“Give them to me,” he says. “I’ll take care of it.”

I swing the pack around and hand him the new notices. “What are you going to do with them?”

“Something.” John barely has the money to keep his gym open. “Don’t worry.”

I tuck my hair behind my ear and rub the back of my neck. Jax has stopped watching the demonstration and leans against the cage with his gloved hands resting on the fence over his head. He whistles at my brother, Kaden, and nods his chin at me.

Jax isn’t related to John, but after the first few years of family gatherings and witnessing how Jax’s father treats him like garbage, John became Jax’s surrogate grandfather. My grandfather does his best to counteract the evil that is Jax’s father.

Now not only do I have my grandfather’s full attention, but that of my cousin and brother. The fact that I’m here after a yearlong hiatus—six months when I left to train with the competing gym, Black Fire, and the past six months spent protesting the sport of kickboxing altogether—is reason enough for Jax and Kaden to be nosy. The fact that my grandfather and I have spoken without ripping each other into dog food is enough for them to be dying of curiosity.

“Is there something else, Haley?” And the warm, fuzzy moment we shared vanishes.

I pull out the scholarship application I found this morning in the guidance counselor’s office. It offers to pay for books for four years. It’s not huge, but it’s something, and sometimes in life you just need something, no matter how small it is.

“I thought you could help me with this.”

He snatches the papers out of my hand quick enough to cause a paper cut on my finger. My breathing hitches with the sting, and a discontented sigh escapes his lips. How easily I forgot he has no room for weakness.

His eyes roam the page before settling on me. “I don’t get it.”

“It’s a scholarship application.”

“I can read.”

“For kinesiology.”

Not big on repeating himself, he tilts his head with enough annoyance that I have to work on not shrinking.

“I have all the requirements.” I was a student athlete who showed leadership potential, my GPA is high and I’ll major in kinesiology if they grant me a scholarship. I’ll major in dinosaur dentistry if someone will give me money. “I need a letter of recommendation from someone who knows what I’m capable of, and no one knows what I can do better than you.”

Not true. My father was the complete expert when it came to me. He’s the one who taught me how to fight. He’s the reason I loved kickboxing, but a recommendation from a trainer of my grandfather’s caliber is what’s required. Not a letter from my father. Not a letter from someone who hasn’t fought or trained in years.

“Did the trainer from Black Fire turn you away?”

Even though I knew it would be coming, the mention of my ex-boyfriend Matt’s gym wrings me of energy like water from a sponge. “I won’t go to them.”

“So you’re saying you need a recommendation for betraying your teammates? Your family? For being a quitter?”

I honestly flinch, because that dagger stabbed into my heart hurt like hell.

John flips through the paperwork. “Kinesiology. Study of human movement. A study for people interested in physical therapy or becoming trainers. A degree for sports people.” John slams the papers back into my hand. “Not you.”

He leaves. His back turned to me like I don’t matter. No. This isn’t how it’s going down. An insane flash of anger propels me forward. “I hold a national title.”

“Held.” John weaves through the punching bags and I follow. Twice I have to jump out of the way of a bag kicked too hard.

“That’s right,” I say. “Held.” A bag flies in front of me and I push it back.

“Out of the way!” the fighter behind it shouts.

“Screw you,” I snap, and then I say to John, “That’s a hell of a lot more than most of the people training here.”

John rounds on me so fast I stumble into a bag. “The people in here are dedicated. They didn’t walk away. They didn’t forsake everything and everyone who loved them.”

I try one more time through gritted teeth. “I need this.”

“I only write letters for people who earn them. You want it, then get your ass in that locker room and start sweating on my floor. Or are you still a runner?”

His face is in mine and it’s a testament to my stubbornness that I haven’t broken into tears. A wave of nausea disorients me. John’s not going to help me, and, to protect the two people I love the most in life, I can’t work out in this gym again.

With all eyes on me, I pivot away from my grandfather and walk out the door.

Chapter 2