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The rings around him filled and the boys jostled one another. They were having more fun and landing fewer punches than Max expected. Perhaps this part would not be so bad. The two officers who had explained the rules walked away together, bored by the lack of blood after three rounds. They handed their stopwatches over to a couple of the older boys to keep time.
Bastian joined a ring with another boy around his size. They bounced from foot to foot, throwing a few punches. When there were fifteen seconds left, Bastian punched the boy in the nose, causing it to bloody and knowing it would be enough to move him on. The crowd cheered. They stepped out of the ring and someone threw Bastian’s hand into the air in victory. Max felt like he would vomit. What would happen if he were placed in the ring with Bastian?
Bastian winked at Max. He was laughing, enjoying himself.
At the far end of the field, a man in uniform walked toward them. When he was closer, Bastian saw that it was Hans. He was smiling in a sick sort of way, as if he knew something they didn’t.
“Doing a little boxing, boys?” he asked, addressing no one in particular. Hans moved toward Bastian. The boy who’d been holding his arm up in victory let it drop and stepped away. The three stitches on Hans’s forehead were almost healed, but the incident at the fence would leave a scar.
Instead of stopping in front of Bastian, Hans moved forward into the big sand ring. He gestured to Bastian, welcoming him into the pit. They locked into a dead stare while the other boys shot cautious glances at one another.
“Come on, Bastian,” Hans said. “Don’t I get a chance to get back at you for the cheap shot?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bastian said in a quiet voice. He stood stiffly, not looking at Hans. Max didn’t understand why Bastian didn’t just fight him. He was bigger than Hans and far stronger. Hans was built more like himself, not quite grown. Max looked at Bastian in question and then watched him step into the ring. All around them voices and gasps exploded like tiny firecrackers through the crowd.
“What? What is happening?” Max asked the young man next to him.
“Don’t you know?”
“Know what?” asked Max.
“Bastian can’t fight him,” the young man explained.
“We’re not allowed to fight a superior unless we want to get kicked out. Technically, officers aren’t allowed to challenge campers, but sometimes it happens anyway.”
“So, he gets kicked out. What’s the big deal?” Max asked, wishing he could be booted himself.
“You don’t know anything about Bastian, do you? If he got kicked out—that would be the end of him,” the boy said, shaking his head.
Before Max could ask another question, Hans took his first swing. Bastian’s arms stayed limp at his side. Max wove his fingers together, prayer like, and felt his pulse beat steady against his palms. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again, Bastian was looking at him and smiling, a small trail of blood already dripping from his nose.
Bastian turned his attention back to the ring and smiled instead at Hans. It infuriated Hans and he swung again, this time striking Bastian in the eye.
“Come on, Herr Mandel. You can do better than that,” Bastian taunted.
Hans hit him again, harder this time, and Bastian’s lip split open. The blood swelled and dripped onto the sand, congealing the tiny particles and creating a lump. The pain was blinding, but Bastian forced a smile, knowing what infuriated Hans the most—the impression that his beating was doing nothing. With each punch, Bastian heard the crowd suck in their breath in unison. He knew some of them had never liked him and were enjoying the show, and that made him smile all the more.
Bastian had learned to take a beating from his father, a connoisseur of the belt. He knew which belts cut and stung the most, a lesson Herr Fischer had been taught by his own father. Bastian carried the beatings on his skin, day to day, as the scars faded but did not disappear.
To take a beating was nothing. Early on, he’d found smiling angered his father and took some of the joy out of the act for him. And smiling reminded Bastian that eventually it would be over and he would be on his own again, in his room, safe.
A kick to the stomach brought Bastian to the ground. He crouched on all fours like a dog and took two more kicks, the first to his abdomen and the second to his side. He waited for the next, hoping it would finish him so he could be done with the show.
A pair of shoes appeared in his vision, but they did not belong to Hans. He heard a voice, familiar, but it sounded like it was coming through a thick fog.
“Stop it,” Max screamed, protecting Bastian’s body with his own.
“So, you’d like a beating too?” Hans said. His face was slick with sweat and he was enjoying himself more than he thought possible. He was exorcising every aggression that’d built up over the years against the young man, against the population at large.
“I just want you to stop,” Max repeated.
“I’ll make you a deal. I get to take three shots at you and then I’ll be done with him.”
Bastian gripped onto Max to pull himself up. His body was covered in blood and cuts; his right eye was half-closed so he had only partial vision.
“Max, go. This is not your fight,” he managed to say. Max stepped in front of him again, not even covering half of Bastian’s body with his thin limbs. He spoke to
Hans through clenched teeth. “Take your three shots.”
“No,” Bastian half-whimpered behind him. He was clutching his side. Trying to concentrate on something other than the pain.
The first swing hit Max so hard, he stumbled backwards into Bastian, who fell back to the ground with a groan.
“Stand up!” Hans yelled, his voice echoing through the field. “I still have two more to go.”
Max managed to get to his feet, only to be knocked off them again with a blow to his jaw. His molars loosened in his mouth and his body slammed against the sand.
He looked over to Bastian who had succumbed to the pain and passed out. Max was aware of the crowd of boys knitted around them, covering them in a blanket of shadow. No one spoke.
Max rolled over onto his side. “Bastian,” he said, hoping he would wake up. Trusting when this was over, his friend would be okay.
In the distance, he heard the pounding of boots running––other officers coming too late. Max said Bastian’s name once more before the final blow came. The kick landed so hard on Max’s face that there was a flash of hot, bright white light before he passed out and there was nothing.