Fighting the Fall (Fighting #4)


by J.B. Salsbury

Prologue

Las Vegas

Fourteen years ago . . .

I walk into my home office for a reason. My eyes scan the room, but . . . what the fuck was it? As if my mind’s on perpetual vacation, I reach back and try to grasp at my thoughts from only seconds ago. Something led me here. A growl of frustration rumbles in my chest along with the heat of anger, which tenses my muscles.

Four months of neuropsychologists, occupational, speech, and physical therapists, and another therapist for comprehension, problem solving, and brain shit. I’m drowning in ’pists and getting pissed the shit isn’t working.

They said I’d be back—that a brain can heal over time—and yet I’m still stumbling around like a dumb shit. I squeeze my eyes shut. Think, dammit. My hands rake through my hair and pull as if I can yank the answer from my skull. There’s a mantra, a coping mechanism they teach in rehab. Slow down, backtrack, and give yourself permission to fail—no. Fuck no.

With a shove to the bohemian-bullshit mantra, I move to my desk and check my phone. Gripping it, I glare into the lifeless gadget, hoping it’ll remind me why the hell I walked in here.

I search my mind.

Blank.

Fuck it. I shove the phone into my pocket and head to the kitchen, the one place I’m guaranteed to remember why I’m there. Food. Besides, if D’lilah catches me in my office, staring around the room like an Alzheimer’s patient, I’ll never pull off the act that I’m healthy enough to fight again.

My phone vibrates in my pocket. I check the caller ID, and a tiny swell of satisfaction warms my chest. I must’ve gone in my office to get my phone, expecting this call. Bullshit. I grind my teeth at the tiny voice in my head that won’t stop reminding me what little progress I’ve made.

“Hey . . .” Shawn. It’s Shawn. His name runs through my head, but I’ve learned the hard way that my brain damage keeps it there rather than letting me speak the word. “Sh . . .” Fuck! “What’s up?” My jaw clenches, and the fire of frustration heats my skin.

“Cam, you got a minute?” The UFL owner sounds serious, but that’s pretty much his M.O.

The plan was for me to continue my training after Shawn received an okay from the gaggle of ’pists. Maybe he’s calling with good news? I pull back my shoulders and move to the window that looks into the backyard where my wife sunbathes by the pool while my toddling twins play in the grass nearby.

I can’t fuck this up, so I concentrate hard to bring the right word to my lips. “Yeah.” A breath of relief slides from my lips.

“I spoke with the doc today about clearing you to fight.”

I wait for him to continue, but after a few uncomfortable seconds of silence, it’s clear he’s waiting for a damn invitation. But why? Good news?

My muscles jump with excitement at the possibility of returning to the octagon. “And?”

He blows out a long breath, but I refuse to believe he’s calling me with anything but good news. “It’s a liability.”

“I’m . . . I’m . . .” Dammit, fuck! “Liability?”

He grunts and it sounds like agreement. “There’s more.”

No, no, no.

“He’s worried about how many more hits your brain can take. He . . . Fuck, Cam, there’s just no easy way to say this.”

He can’t mean it. He can’t. I want to tell him that he can’t do this! Fighting is my life. I can’t lose it. I will not lose everything over something I had zero control over.

“Saying . . .” The words, they push from my gut, rip at my throat, and die at my lips. “I’m out?”

“It’s a damn tragedy. A fighter like you lost because of a broken fucking tooth.” At least he has the decency to sound angry about all that I’ve been robbed of. “I get that you moved to Vegas for the UFL, brought your family along, and you need an income. I’d like for you to stay with us, Cam. There’s a lot of money in promotions.”

Promotions? Is he fucking crazy? “I’m a fight . . . fighter.” God, I sound like a babbling idiot. My chest tightens with humiliation.

“I know you are.”

His words drip with pity, and I pace the living room to match the beast inside me that thrashes to roar its protest.

“I can fight.” My brain is a scramble of nonsense and black holes, but I know my body, and I’m good to fight.

“Cam.” His voice is low. “You’re all over the place, you know that. Doc says you’re making improvements, but you’ll probably never be back to where you were before the infection. It’s been months, and the aphasia is still obvious in your speech.”

“Just words, Shawn. I can . . .” Fight. “Fight.”

“I’m not tryin’ to be a dick, but we can’t pussyfoot around the facts. You’re impulsive, have memory lapses—”

“Don’t need a rundown . . . livin’ it.” My heart pumps blood into my muscles, fueling for a fight. I’m being fired? Demoted? “I can—”

“Fight. I know, but think about your family. Does D’lilah want you to fight?”

She’s expressed her concern about my safety, but seems more interested in my paycheck. Not that I blame her. I dragged her from her modeling career in New York City to set up house in the desert. Things looked promising. I was on the cusp of a legendary career, in line for my first title fight, and then . . . the seizure. She went from a kept mother of young twins to nursing a grown man who needs his damn chin wiped after being fed.

My cheeks warm with humiliation, but it only increases my drive to get back all that was taken from me. “Doesn’t matter. Fighting comes first.”

“Jacked-up priorities, man. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for your loyalty to the organization, but as a friend, I have to make you aware of . . .”

As if summoned by my thoughts, D’lilah comes in from the backyard. Black string bikini, long legs, and all that blond hair. She looks at me and, seeing I’m on the phone, mouths “watch the kids” before heading to the bedroom. I nod and move to stand in the doorway to the backyard. My twins, Ryder and Rosie, tumble around the grass. Three years old and Ryder already knows to be gentle with his sister as he wrestles her to the ground in a flurry of blond hair and toddler limbs. The sound of their giggling permeates the air and warms my chest. A smile pulls at my lips.

“. . . make the decision.”

Oh, what? “Yeah.” I’m not sure what I’m answering, but I hope it makes sense since I don’t have a damn clue what he just said.

“So it’s settled.”

Fuck. Pay attention! I answer the unheard question the same way I have for the past few months. I lie. Pretend I’m not as scattered upstairs as I really am.

“I’m no . . . not giving up.” The twins squeal, and I move back into the kitchen so I can hear Shawn.

“I’d expect nothing less.” I hear papers rustle on the other end. “But in the meantime, I’m taking you off the roster, and you’re headed into promotions.”

I slam my fist onto the granite countertop. “No!”

“Not up for discussion.”

My breath comes faster, fists clenching.

“I’ll need you to come in and sign papers. Shit . . .” More rustling papers and a long sigh. “I’m sorry about how this turned out . . .”

My arms are heavy, and I blink to focus through a blur of fury. That’s it? It’s over just like that?

“. . . on the fifth and—are you writing this down?”

I head back to my office on autopilot, grasping for something, anything that might make him change his mind. But my head is like an empty well, dark and thick with silence. Sliding into my desk chair, I grab a pen and scribble on my palm. “I’m, uh . . . so the eighth.”

“Fifth. You using a planner as the therapist suggested?”

“Mm-hm.” My eyes scan the area, but quickly give up. I don’t even know where it is. Did I even bring it home?

He rattles off the date again along with a time, and I mark up my palm, vowing to transfer the words to paper when we get off the phone.

“You’ll do great with fight promotion, and maybe someday . . .”

He can’t even say it because he doesn’t believe it. I can hear the lie and the disappointment in his voice.

“Right.”

I hang up and sit in the silence of my office. My blood drums, and the stress only furthers my confusion. The octagon is my first love, the only place I truly feel alive. My life is fighting. What the hell do I do now? Sit behind a motherfucking desk all day?

My gaze swings around the room as a feeling of urgency pricks at the back of my neck. I scrub my face, shoving my hands up through my hair. This isn’t happening. My legs ache for a workout. My muscles coil and ready to light up a heavy bag. They can’t take this away from me.

I’ve never fallen, never dropped to my knees in defeat, and this is no different. They can keep me from the octagon now, but they can’t keep me outside it forever.

Panic races my heart and shoots adrenaline through my veins. One hit broke a tooth, one infection caused a seizure, and one surgery destroyed my brain and ended my career. Twenty-four fucking years old and it’s over.

With my head in my hands, I will my pulse to slow. The heels of my palms press deeply into my eyes, and I savor the ache that it brings.

“Shit. What am I gonna do?” I drop my hands and stare blindly at the smeared mess of letters and numbers on my palm.

I forgot to transfer what I wrote on my hand, and it was only minutes ago. No wonder the UFL thinks I’m a liability. They’re worried I’ll walk into the octagon on fight night and within seconds forget what the hell I’m doing there.

They’re probably right. I’m dizzy with the impact of the truth.

One of the kid’s cries filters into my office from the backyard. Maybe one of them fell and got hurt. The cry gets louder and triggers my internal alarm. Something’s wrong.

I head to the kitchen and crane my neck over the sink, and my gaze rakes through the yard, but I don’t see the twins. I shift my body weight to peer out the window towards ’Li’s lounge chair and—no D’lilah.

Where is . . .? Oh no!

I was supposed to be watching them. My body responds on instinct. I race to the backdoor and outside, blood pounding in my ears. My eyes scan, searching the area. My glare swings to movement under the patio table. Ryder is hunched over, his face bright red from screaming, and tears flow down his cheeks.

I crouch and hold out my arms. “Come here, buddy.”

He screams louder, his eyes fixed on a spot behind me. I turn, expecting to see what’s got him so upset, but there’s nothing there. “Are you hurt?” He doesn’t seem to be injured, but his piercing cry sounds like pure pain. What the fuck is going on? His little arm rises and points over my shoulder. “I don’t underst— Wait, where’s . . . ?

My heart stills; my breath freezes in my lungs. Where’s Rosie?

In slow motion, my vision shifts to the pool. The water ripples distort a tiny figure at the bottom. Dressed in pink. Lifeless.

I move and dive. Cold water rushes up my nose. My eyes scan, hands search. I grab her, pulling her up with me, surfacing for the life-giving air.

I gasp for it.

She doesn’t.

Out of the pool, I lay her body on the table. My mouth on hers, I blow. Nothing.

I press on her chest. “One, two . . . come on.”

Mouth again. Breathe.

The back door slams. “Cam, what . . .?” The guttural roar of my wife’s screams shreds through my skull. Words, questions, all of them are distorted by her wailing.

“Call 911!” I work harder. Water drips from my hair to her face that’s no longer flushed pink with life, but tinged with gray. God, please. Don’t let her die.