JT ignored the gym stink and the matches going on in the rings to his right and left and the grunts at the red punching bags. He shook the sweat from his hair, ignoring the heckling from Simon’s home crowd, and motioned with his gloved hands. “Come on, big man. Bring it.”
Two hundred fifty pounds and six and a half feet of tattooed Polynesian muscle circled him on the elevated mat. Simon moved in and JT landed a quick jab to the man’s shoulder, smiling when it made him take a step back. Simon was built like the tanks he used to drive, and he had a right hook that could make a man see stars if he didn’t pay attention.
“You’re going down,” Simon said, a big-ass grin splitting the scar that ran across his cheek. “You know that, right?”
JT smiled right back. He might be a couple of inches shorter, a little lighter, but he could hold his own. “Not happening. And cocky doesn’t look good on you.”
“Losing, however, looks really good on you,” Simon said, coming in for a strike.
“If you two don’t stop yapping like little girls, I got better things to do.” Simon’s eighty-something-year-old grandfather and owner of this paint-peeling and duct-taped-together gym stood just outside the ring. As small as Simon was massive, he had that old-man, raisin-in-the-sun look, and was still very much the boss.
They obeyed like boys, put in their mouth guards, and got serious. JT bobbed and dodged, his below-knee prosthesis moving like an extension of his body. The recent changes he and his team had made to their newest model of the next-generation powered ankle seemed like good ones. The sensors in the ankle sampled real-time motion while the artificial intelligence continuously analyzed the data and calculated the best response.
They circled each other, each getting in a few good licks. Thanks to an IED in Afghanistan, Simon wore a similar style below his right knee and an above-the-knee prosthesis on his left. With the A.I. and automatic stumble recovery in their latest microprocessor knee, Simon was actually at an advantage.
Ten minutes later when neither man had gone down, Pops called it in JT’s favor, much to the dismay of the handful of spectators who’d put their dollars on Simon.
Breathing hard and dripping sweat, JT held the ropes apart for Simon, then slipped carefully through himself. He patted the old man’s shoulder. “Good job, Pops.”
Pops grumbled, then turned to the group as he walked away. “All right. That’s it. Everybody back to your business or get out.”
Simon pulled at the Velcro at his wrists and worked his gloves off. JT did the same, and they both grabbed towels on their way to the locker room that smelled even more gritty than the gym. He wanted to record his notes while the information they’d just gained was still fresh.
After getting his hands unwrapped, JT grabbed his tablet from his bag and sat on the wooden bench. Neither spoke while they took a few minutes to get down their notes for design improvements. This was his sixth trial and already the adaptive capabilities of this smart device far exceeded last year’s model.
Simon finished first and put his tablet in his bag. “The hot brunette pretending to work the bag was watching you again. Black bike shorts, red top barely containing the important parts. That’s as far as I got.”
JT switched out the bionic foot at the end of his prosthetic for the one he wore in the shower. “You think she’s hot, go for it,” JT said. “Or don’t. If she works out at this gym, you’re probably related to her.”
“I happen to know I’m not. She’s one of Layla’s friends. But she wasn’t looking at me, pretty boy, she was looking at you. Doing nasty things to you with her eyes,” Simon added, rolling a polyurethane cover over his left leg.
JT stood and peeled the sweat-soaked shirt over his head. “Well, if she’s one of your sister’s friends, then it’s a definite no.”
“Right. Because you don’t do serious. You’d rather eat my mom’s leftovers and watch Jeopardy! with your dog.”
“Boulder prefers Wheel of Fortune, if you must know, and he’s damn good,” he added with a smile, then dropped his shorts and stepped into the shower.
Resting his hands against the tile, he let the hot water beat at his back and his smile fell away. Not even Simon knew he’d been serious once and what a disaster that had been. His best friend had lost his legs being a hero. He had not.
Ten minutes later, he was dressed in jeans and a plain black T-shirt. He sat on the bench again to get his shoes. He tied one, attached the other.
They finished packing up and passed through the gym, giving a wave to Pops. Everyone continued with what they were doing, including the hot brunette in the black bicycle shorts. JT pushed against the glass door and the thick air of Southern California smacked him in the face. The summer sun was just dipping below the horizon, and he guessed it was still a balmy ninety-five degrees.
“You want to come to Ma’s for dinner? You know you’re always invited.”
“Not this time, but tell her I said thanks. I’m going to grab a quick bite around the corner, then head back to work.”
“I’ll tell her, but it’s no good eating alone. Neither is human avoidance.”
“It’s called dedication, so you can also tell her I work harder than her son.”
Simon huffed, then raised his hand in a wave and moved on to his own car.
JT was just climbing into his SUV when Simon stopped and turned back. “You know, I think I’ll come with you. It’s early. I can always eat twice, right?”