For his tenth birthday Dov received a black eye and a chipped front tooth.
For his twelfth, a simple fracture of a bone in his left arm.
And as he awoke from a violent bad dream, he looked around and realized his thirteenth birthday had carried on the family tradition.
It was dark outside and his father and brother were perched in visitor’s chairs on opposite sides of his hospital bed.
“Hi, Sport…” His father closed the magazine he was thumbing through and pretending to read. “Happy birthday. Y’know, you gave us a heck of a scare.”
“Hey,” Dove answered sleepily. “Sorry.”
“You gotta be more careful, Bird Boy,” Michael chimed in without taking his eyes off the Nintendo unit in his lap, looking for all the world like the ideal older sibling, here to visit his injured kid brother.
“Sorry, Michael. Guess I’m just…kinda clumsy.”
Michael, the perfect athlete.
The perfect son.
Dov looked away for a moment, replaying in his mind’s eye the scene from earlier that afternoon, when Michael nailed him at the top of the stairs with a shoulder block that sent him tumbling down the hardwood steps to the floor below and into this stupid hospital.
Summer doesn’t come gently to Chico.
It barges right in, a little after the middle of April.
Then it stubbornly hangs on for the next six months, an unyielding gauntlet of blazing sun, cloudless skies and hundred and fifteen-degree days.
Summers in Chico, time just seems to plod along at a more sedate and leisurely pace. Crops bake and wither in the fields. Trout and crawdads pass the afternoon under rocks and tree limbs hanging over the local creeks, seeking shade wherever they can find it. And on the county’s roads, asphalt softens and bubbles, sometimes sticking to the tires of passing cars.
Summers in Chico, dogs still chase cats. But from May until October, there’s a good chance they’ll both be walking. Slowly.
And with the mercury already above a hundred five degrees at ten o’clock in the morning, for fourteen-year old Dov Halek, it was going to be a typical kind of July day.
Climbing the steps from the relative coolness of the dirt-floored cellar, he paused for a second to gingerly touch the split skin on his lower lip, then the large bruise yellowing on the biceps of his right arm.
Maybe a little too typical.
During the worst of the summer months, Dov liked sleeping in the coolness and damp of the basement; it was the one place he knew in which he could be totally alone. Just the deepening shadows, the musty smell and the random, reassuring creaking sounds, as every now and then the aging house would settle a little more firmly onto its century-old foundation.
The old place stood at the top of a small rise, a couple of hundred yards in from the levee that kept this part of the Sacramento River at bay. Surrounded by several hundred acres of fertile ‘bottom’ land, it was built by Dov’s great grandfather and then handed down through the next two generations of Haleks. Back then, it was a leisurely hour-long wagon ride from the center of town. But between Chico’s gradual expansion and the sporadic selling off of Halek land for development, what began as a stately, isolated farm was now a run-down old place just far enough out of town to barely be considered in the “boonies”. The house was old; it was tired and beaten down, much like its current owner, Tomasz Halek. “Tom” to the rest of the guys on his crew, who spent their nights cleaning classrooms and lecture halls on the State University campus in town.
Tom Halek was born in Chico, the first child in the third generation of Haleks to call this part of the Sacramento Valley their home. Like his father, he grew up with strong ties to both the land and his Slovakian heritage. Naturally, everyone assumed he would join his father, working the family apricot and almond orchards when he graduated high school.
And, no one was surprised when at the age of seventeen, he and Francine Souçek announced their engagement. After all, she was tall, pretty and even if her ancestors didn’t hail from the Halek’s part of Slovakia, still, she was Czech. And with those hips, the old folks just knew that she and Tomasz would produce plenty of big, strapping healthy boys.
Unfortunately, none of the old folks were obstetricians, or things might have turned out differently.
Michael was born a year after the wedding, inheriting his father’s muscular frame, along with a talent and love for football that made him a standout high school player and even potential pro prospect.
His birth was followed by two consecutive miscarriages.
Then Dov was born, the hoped-for Halek “string” and his mother’s life ending with the massive hemorrhage that followed the premature birth of her second son. Even now, almost a decade and a half later, Tom was still just numbly going the motions of living, raising his two sons and trying to cope with the additional stress, workload and loneliness that came with his sudden single parenthood. On good days, he could lose himself for a few hours after work in the coolness before dawn, tending the dozens of beehives he kept on what was left of the family property. On bad days, there was always a bottle or two of strong Tokay wine to crawl inside and hide.
Either way, Tom Halek and his grandfather’s house were both showing the long-term effects of his loss of interest in living. Each was stooped from neglect, weathered and slowly, inexorably weakening; each was aged way beyond its years and just marking time, quietly waiting for the eventual collapse that would probably come sooner, rather than later.
And with his father’s bad days far outnumbering the good, Dov was pretty much left to raise himself. To get himself dressed every day and off to Bidwell High School, where his brains earned him an undistinguished spot in the middle of his freshman class and his appearance had gotten him shunned by every social group. He was definitely not jock material; not bright enough to hang with the physics or chess club geeks; not showy, loud or attention starved enough for the drama clique. Nor was he a cowboy. Or rich. Or pretentiously artistic.
He was small for his age, with baby-fine blond hair and a small, almost feminine face that was planted in front of a grotesquely large head. Five feet four and three quarter inches of rail-thin, poster child-like frailness, that thanks to his older brother, was usually sporting some sort of scar, bruise or contusion.
Dov had long since given up on loving or even maintaining any sort of relationship with Michael. To him, his big brother was, simply, pain. He was Mommy Dearest on steroids; all three evil stepsisters rolled into one big, violent jock body.
When he was in a good mood, Michael called him Bird Boy, his way of ridiculing Dov about his first name.
But when Michael was in a bad mood, which was almost always, his little brother was an annoying little turd who deserved whatever pain and punishment he could throw his way -- a gross looking little freak of nature who had already lived fourteen years too long.
And cost Michael his mother.
Dov stopped at the top of the stairs that led from the cellar into the back yard, listening.
He could hear the regular, rasping sound of his father’s loud snoring through the open second floor window directly above him.
Good, Pop’s asleep.
He quietly opened the back door and entered the kitchen. With a little luck, maybe Michael might already be gone.
Dov froze, aware of a noise coming from the front of the house, but still too faint to identify. He moved toward the long hallway that connected the kitchen with the entry hall, edging his way along the wall as silently as he could. The source of the noise was closer now, sounding like someone softly moaning. Another silent step and he was at the edge of the doorway that opened into the living room.
He inched his head forward to try and get a peek at what was going on, and winced.
It was Michael.
More than anything, Dov wanted to stop, to turn on his heel and silently head for the back door, but he couldn’t help himself. Every instinct screamed at him to sneak away while he still could, but he was powerless to obey.
He slowly peered around the scarred old wooden trim that framed the doorway.
Yup, it was his older brother, seated on the couch in the bay at the front of the room. His arms were stretched out horizontally across the back of the sofa and his head was arched back, resting on the same surface. Michael still had on his Bidwell High football practice jersey, but his shorts were bunched down around his ankles. Kneeling next to him on the couch was Meagan Kinross, his too blonde, too perky, too perfect girlfriend.
Her head was slowly moving down towards his lap, then slowly back up. Rhythmically, over and over, in time with Michael’s moans.
Dov stood there in silence, afraid to back away, knowing that if Michael spotted him, his life would be even less worth living. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
The floorboard beneath him suddenly creaked loudly, and his blood ran cold.
Michael’s head was still rolled back onto the cushion behind him. But as the floorboard under Dov’s foot complained, his brother’s eye snapped open, looking angrily in his direction.
Panic and terror galvanized him into instant flight. Dov bolted down the hall, racing for the back door. He hit the back steps and leaped, clearing the entire flight, headed for the levee that formed the western boundary of the property.
If he could make it over the levee before his brother caught him…
“BIRD BOY--!” His brother’s voice boomed at him from the front porch, more than a hundred yards away.
Dov was halfway across the yard now, fear and desperation pushing his spindly legs to pump even faster, even harder.
“You’re freakin’ dead! Ya hear me?!”
If he could just make the levee--.
His lungs were on fire and he could feel his heart pounding in his throat.
“I’m gonna break every bone in your twisted little body!” Michael’s voice was louder, closer.
But Dov was almost there. The old levee’s mounded dirt walls were only about twenty yards away.
Now, about fifteen.
Maybe he was going to make it.
Hope had begun to trickle in, displacing some of his terror. Maybe this time!
He was at the levee now, scrambling for a footing in the loose dirt. Had to get up and over. Had to get away—
Then the sky and the horizon suddenly seemed to change places, the air was driven from his starving lungs and the dirt wall of the levee came up to smack him in the face as he was hit from behind by two hundred twenty five pounds of enraged, anabolic steroid-crazed big brother.
Michael picked him up with almost no effort at all and slammed him to the ground. “You stinkin’ little piece of shit! You saw. Didn’t ya?!”
His fist hammered into Dov’s midsection, driving the last of his air out of his body.
“No!..Didn’t…see…nothing!” Dov desperately fought to answer and draw air back into his lungs.
“Lyin’ sack of shit!” Michael drove his fist into his little brother’s face, re-splitting the lip he injured a few days before. Then he went to work on everything else.
“But you’re not gonna tell the old man, are ya!?” He picked Dov up a second time and flung him, face first, to the ground.
“Yeah, you won’t tell nobody…will ya!?”
Dov could feel his arm being twisted behind his back, forced into a hammerlock.
“’Cause if you do…” He pushed hard on Dov’s arm, causing his little brother to scream in pain. “I swear to God, I’m gonna tear this off…” He pushed a little harder. “…And beat you to death with it!”
“Nobody, Michael. I won’t tell nobody!” The pain and fear were so intense Dov was sobbing.
“I can’t hear you, Bird Boy!”
Satisfied, Michael let go of the arm and stood up. Just for good measure, he planted a kick in his younger brother’s side before walking back to the house.
Dov lay motionless, fighting to control the sobbing. After a few moments he rose to his feet and slowly dusted himself off. His whole body hurt where Michael worked him over. The joint in his shoulder was still throbbing from his brother’s hammerlock and his lip was bleeding again.
He let out a long sigh that ended with the quiver of a suppressed sob.
It could have been worse.