Dov moved to the shade of one of the old apricot trees that still dotted the property, waiting for his brother to leave for the day and hoping the shadows and foliage would make him that much harder to spot. It had to be around ten thirty by now, and he knew both Michael and his girlfriend were already about an hour late for their respective football and cheerleading practices.
Still, it felt like they were taking forever. Why the Hell couldn’t they just leave?
His thoughts were interrupted by the noise of the front porch’s screen door slamming shut and the sound of the girl’s laughter as the two came into view from around the side of the house. Meagan slid in behind the wheel of the little red Mazda Miata parked on the gravel, then Michael climbed into the passenger seat.
She turned the key and as the engine idled for a moment, Michael pushed the convertible top down. Slipping the car into gear, they sped down the long driveway, a cloud of dust and a song by Pink trailing loudly, the whole way to the road.
Dov slowly shook his head as he moved out from under the tree. God, a cheerleader with a red Miata. Could it possibly get any more typical?
The walk back to the house was not fun. Everything hurt.
But that’s the way it usually felt whenever Michael got a little peeved with him.
And ever since he started taking the steroids to bulk up for football, Michael got plenty peeved, plenty often.
Stopping at the back door, Dov cocked his head to one side to listen. From the sounds coming through the second floor window, he could tell his father had slept through the whole thing. Yeah? So what else is new?
What he needed now was a long hot shower, and about half a tube of Neosporin antiseptic cream.
And maybe a gun.
Or an attack trained Doberman.
Or a couple of those gorillas from the World Wrestling Federation.
Turning on the shower, the thought made him chuckle. Yeah, imagine Michael trying to go postal like that on Hulk Hogan. Or the Rock.
The smile vanished as the hot water hit his freshly re-split lower lip.
He stayed in the shower for the better part of half an hour, the hot water helping to ease the soreness that blanketed his body. When he was done in the bathroom, Dov turned to the mirror to check himself. There were large, shiny patches of antiseptic cream on his elbows, his knees, the back of his right shoulder, part of his forehead and the outside of his left hip.
All he wanted to do now was get on his bike and, despite the heat of the day, take it for a long ride and hopefully work some of the aches out. Hey, it wasn’t like this kind of thing hadn’t happened a few times before.
Walking through the kitchen toward the back door, the blinking red light on the answering machine caught his eye. Somebody must have called while he was in the shower, or getting stomped by his older brother.
“Hey Dov, pick up. It’s Kim. ‘Cha doin’ today? Oh well…listen, call me back when you get this, ‘K? Have a good one. Bye.”
Kim wasn’t just his best friend; she was really his only one and had been since the second grade, not to mention his complete opposite.
Where he was short and underdeveloped, at fourteen she was within half an inch of six feet tall.
Where he had absolutely no ability when it came to sports, Kim was deadly at volleyball and girl’s basketball, and was almost ready to test for her black belt in Tai Kwan Do.
Where he was lost in the middle of the pack at Bidwell High, she was an academic standout at Notre Dame, a girl’s parochial high school her parents had transferred her into at the beginning of her freshman year.
Dov reached for the phone and quickly dialed her number, letting it ring about ten times before realizing that no one was home and hanging up. Just as well, he shrugged.
He really didn’t feel like being seen like this, at least not for the next day or two.
Besides, all he wanted to do right now was take a long ride. Put as much distance as he could between himself and the house and let the day’s heat, the sun and the miles burn all the pain out of his body. He grabbed a couple of oranges from the large bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter, quickly filled his water bottle at the sink, then stuffed it all into his school backpack. In another minute, he could already be at the end of the driveway. In ten, at the intersection where his country road met up with Highway 32. Take a left, pedal hard for ten miles and he could be in Hamilton City.
If that didn’t get it done, in another ten miles he could make it all the way to Orland, and Interstate 5.
And just in case he felt like taking a break along the way, he also tossed in his dog-eared copy of “The Outsiders”, S. E. Hinton’s novel about teenage misfits. He liked the character, Pony Boy and identified with him. Pony Boy was the youngest and smallest member of the gang, but he was one of the only ones brave enough to run into that burning house to save those little kids.
Hell, in his own strange way, he kind of liked that Michael’s derisive nickname for him was so close to that of his favorite character from the book.
Bird Boy, meet Pony Boy. Pony Boy, shake hands with Bird Boy. You two must have a lot to talk about.
By the time Dov pulled off the road a couple of miles past Hamilton City, the ride already had its desired effect and he was no longer filled with rage toward his brother.
A little angry, yes.
Totally intimidated and afraid of him, for sure.
But Michael just wasn’t worth the effort.
Yeah, some day, he would love to get even, maybe even force Michael to endure just a tiny percentage of what he had been put through. Make him understand just how it felt.
But c’mon, get real.
With his size and Michael’s, the chances of him ever accomplishing something like that were somewhere between slim and “what, exactly, were you smoking?”
Dov climbed off his bike, took an orange out of the backpack and sat down to enjoy his snack. Maybe this might turn out to be a decent day, after all.
The orange was warm, sweet and full of juice, some of which dribbled down his chin and onto his arm. Wiping off his arm, he brushed a yellow jacket away, which had been attracted to the juice.
Then it stung him and attempted to fly off.
“Ow! Fuckin’ bug!”
Dov’s mind filled with pain and a blind rage directed at the insect. As he glared at the fleeing yellow jacket, it seemed to stop in midair, unable to go up, down, forward, backward or to either side.
It simply hung there, buzzing its wings and going nowhere.
Then it flattened, as if crushed under a rolled up newspaper and fell to the ground.
“Weird...” Dov said to himself, gingerly rubbing the welt left on his arm by the sting.
He pulled on the backpack, climbed onto his bike and began pedaling back toward Chico, never giving the insect another thought.
The ride back went at a more leisurely pace than the ride out. He had already exorcised almost all of the demons his brother brought on that morning, so there was no need to really push it. Besides, it wasn’t like there was anything worth rushing home for, was there? He’d get there when he got there.
Dov stopped again halfway between Hamilton City and home, and polished off both the other orange and the rest of his water.
A little while later, as he was coming into the outskirts of town, he could hear the University’s bell tower chiming the hour, five pm.
Some bell; it was really just a big loudspeaker. According to his father, they took the bell out during World War II. Must have been a couple of tons of pure brass, so the college donated it to the war effort.
On a whim, Dov made a quick left off the two-lane highway onto Sacramento Avenue, followed it over the Southern Pacific freight tracks, then grabbed his first right and headed through the campus. With his father working five pm to three in the morning, he rarely got to see the man, except for weekends. But with a little luck, he might just catch his dad on his way to work.
He parked his bike in the large rack in front of the Industrial Technology building, walked inside and rode the elevator to the third floor. The janitorial supply closet was open and his father was there, pulling his cart out into the hall, the same collection of mops, brooms, sponges, jugs of cleaning solutions and rolls of toilet paper he’d pushed around this building throughout the night for more than a dozen years.
Tomasz turned around, his weathered face quickly forming into a smile. “Hey, sport. Good t’ see ya!”
He closed and locked the closet door.
“So, you come by to check up on the old man?”
Dov shook his head and smiled. “Nope. Just passing by the school and thought I’d say hi. Haven’t seen you in a few days, y’know.”
“It’s these hours. One of these days, they might just put me on days.” He started to chuckle at his tired old joke, then stopped, staring intently at the boy and gently reaching out for his chin.
“What the hell happened to you?”
Dov shrugged. “Nothin’”.
He nodded reluctantly. This was only going to make the whole thing worse.
Tomasz let out a dejected sigh and his shoulders slumped as if the weight of an entire Buick had just been parked there.
“I’ll speak to him again.”
Dov looked up at his father. “Actually, Dad…maybe you shouldn’t. It’ll just make him madder.”
The man nodded, indicating that he understood. Then he placed one hand on Dov’s shoulder and, with his other, began pushing the cart slowly down the hall. They walked along this way for a moment, sharing the silence, not really knowing what to say. Just before they got to the end of the hall and the first of the rooms he was supposed to clean, Tomasz reached into his pocket.
“Listen, you hungry? Want something to eat?”
Dov nodded, realizing that all he’d had to eat all day were those two oranges.
“OK, here...” In the man’s hand was a folded five dollar bill and three ones. He handed the five to Dov. “Take this and get a burger or something at the Student Union. Tell Raylene that I said she should be generous with the fries. Got it?”
“You sure? What about your lunch?”
Tomasz shrugged and gestured toward the cart, and the brown lunch bag sitting on top.
The boy smiled and nodded, taking the bills.
“Thanks, Pop.” He gave the man a quick hug and took off running down the hall, ravenous.
It was a few minutes before six when Dov left the Student Union. Raylene had been more than generous with the fries, not to mention everything else. By the time she was done pulling his order together, Dov had almost a pound of flame-broiled ground beef and a mound of french fries almost big enough to hide behind to polish off. She also threw in a forty-four ounce container of root beer. What the hay; he was a good kid, and he definitely looked like he could use a square meal.
Thoroughly stuffed, Dov paused outside the doors and let fly with a long and loud belch, the kind of eruption that usually punctuated at least one scene in every rowdy teenage comedy he’d ever seen. As the sound echoed around the brick and concrete surfaced courtyard, a pair of coeds sitting at one of the outdoor tables looked up from their books, a little annoyed at the rude disturbance, but amused by it at the same time. Just as the reverberations were dying away, they were answered by an even longer and louder belch from another student, a husky, goateed kid seated at one of the other tables, sporting dreadlocks, nose rings, the kind of stretched ear lobes one sometimes saw on Amazon tribesmen on National Geographic and a t-shirt that loudly proclaimed, “FOR PREVENTION OF DISEASE ONLY”. He and Dov exchanged a shared experience, male bonding kind of nod and smile, then Dov left for the bike rack, and the ride home.
* * *
“Hey Dov, it’s Kih-imm. A-gain. Hey, call me back when you get this, K? Please, bud. It’s important. Later.”
The message was on the answering machine when he came in. He picked up the phone and quickly returned the call.
On the third ring, Kim answered. “Speak.”
“Hey!” From the tone of her voice, Dov could tell she was glad to hear from him. “Hey, where you been? I was startin’ to get a little worried.”
“Oh, Michael and I kind of got into it again this morning. Then I took a long bike ride. Just got back.”
“Uh huh. No biggie. Really.”
“Seriously. I’m fine.”
“Dov, I don’t know why you don’t just—“ Kim’s voice trailed off. If Michael was her brother, she would have done something serious about it long ago. But then again, she was bigger than Dov, and stronger. And then there was the whole karate thing. But still… “Hey, you want to do something tomorrow after I get out of school?”
“Sure. Like, what?”
“Dunno. Maybe hit the high school and hang by the pool or something.”
“OK. Meet you there. What time?
“Works for me.”
They continued on for a few more minutes, talking about nothing in particular, then hung up.
Dov took a drink of water from the kitchen sink, then went back out and down the steps into the basement.
Switching on the light, he dug his copy of “The Outsiders” out of his backpack and stretched out on his cot to read.
Within a couple of minutes, he was sound asleep.