Shoulder held level, bicep tensed to keep the upper arm tucked close to the chest under strict control, a push of the elbow throwing out the right fist in a blurred jab before snapping it back to protect the face, a quick repeat of the same motion applied to the left fist, no hesitation between hits.
The pop, pop! against the heavy bag was almost satisfying. Almost.
Right, left – pop, pop!
Not enough. Feet shuffled around to the side of the bag, the upper body dipped and weaved to avoid hits from an imaginary opponent's swings.
Right, right, left – pop, pop, pop!
Rage flowed, frustration flared, and an angry dance was set to the song of failure.
Left, left, left, wide swing right – pop, pop, pop, slam!
Sweat poured into unprotected eyes, a growl escaped through clenched teeth.
Right, right, low blow left, right, right, left uppercut – pop, pop, whoomp, pop, pop, swish!
Unprotected knuckles grazed across thick leather, tearing open soft flesh. The pain felt good. The blood was deserved.
The dance continued around and around and around, the chain of the bag rattling with each strike, the floor turning a speckled shade of crimson in a near-perfect circle as one hit after another rained down a shower of penance.
A pause, followed by one more powerful right hook, the weight of everything wrong with the world, with him, channeled into the blow.
"I know, Jane." His hands fell down to his sides, fists clenched, allowing the blood to drip down slow, thick, and heavy. He sniffed once, kept his back turned to her, dropped his head. "Logically, I know. I just need…I'm sorting it out."
Footsteps signaled a quiet approach. A soft hand gripped his, pried open his fingers, and pressed a roll of tape into his palm.
"Wrap up and hold the bag. I need to sort it out, too."
More footsteps from behind, the sound of two people climbing up into the ring.
"You hit, first, Ethan. I'll hold the pads."
They all took turns "sorting it out."
Thwap, pop, swish, whoomp – hitters trade off – pop, thwap, thwap, swish, fwump!
It wasn't their fault. Fate stepped in and it wasn't their fault, but they still shared the guilt.
Not on him, not this time.
Frustration turned to careful focus, adrenaline turned to thoughtful calculation, and "sorting it out" became just another training session to hone fighting skills.
"Ethan, hold the bag for Jane. Benji, put your gloves on."
"Are you going to hit me in the face this time?"
He cracked his first small smile since the incident. "Not if you learn to keep your hands up."
Honing became teaching, teaching turned into teasing, teasing spiraled into round robin matches complete with betting pools, and self doubt gave way to team healing.
One playful punch too many with already damaged hands, a pained hiss, the match paused, knuckles unwrapped, a shake of the head.
"You're done for the day."
"I'm fine, Ethan, let me finish the match."
A united front to give him time to heal, a promise for a rematch later, an offer to buy a round of beer, a comforting feeling of familial camaraderie.
And a knowledge that there would be no more shameful, lonely downward spirals. Never again.