Dov coasted his bike to a stop in front of the bike rack outside the high school’s locker room at exactly one pm and Kim was already waiting.
No surprise there. Notre Dame, where she was almost done with a summer school semester of Geometry, was only about six blocks away. By bike, maybe a big four minutes -- two, if she was in a hurry. And Kim was always in a hurry.
He climbed off and rummaged around in his backpack, looking for the chain and lock.
But Kim made no move to get off hers. “Uh, listen. You mind if we get something to eat first? I’m totally starved.”
Dov shrugged. “No problem. The Circle OK?”
Kim smiled and nodded. The two pushed off, headed for the burger joint across the street and down a couple of blocks, The Circle.
Every high school in America has one nearby -- the neighborhood fast food joint, the local hangout – usually a modest white cinderblock building that had seen better days, surrounded by a large parking lot and cars, lots of cars.
From jacked-up pickups and 4 X 4’s to imported econoboxes tricked out with sound systems capable of annoying the recently deceased. From sensible mid-sized, 4-door dad mobiles on a couple of hours’ loan from anxious but trusting parents, to barely rolling wrecks.
It was always a building that dated back to the days just after World War II. With ancient, formerly gloss white paint and faded trim, usually in some shade of blue. And neon signage, some of which might still actually work. And the place would invariably offer just burgers, fries, hot dogs and maybe onion rings – plus whatever combinations could be created by shoveling on a thick of layer chili. Then, to wash it all down, there would either be Coke or Pepsi, plus some obscure local brand of root beer, lemon-lime or orange soda.
In most towns, the place would carry a catchy, memorable name like Tase-Tee Freeze. Or The Oasis. Or Whatta-Burger. Or Skinny’s. Or The Burger Hut.
But in Chico, it was the Arctic Circle Drive-In.
Dov locked their bikes to one of the steel poles supporting the far end of the roof that cantilevered out over the Circle’s patio.
Outside in the heat, the patio was deserted. But inside, cooled by the air conditioning, the place was alive. The atmosphere was electric, the buzz almost deafening, as if the entire high school had stopped in for lunch, or to just get in out of the heat. Kids were spilling out of booths and circulating around the floor. Every few seconds, someone would point their head skyward and, using their straw as a miniature blow gun, shoot the plastic excelsior-tipped toothpick that came with their burger into the acoustic tiles in the ceiling.
The two took seats in a booth designed for about six customers, the last remaining open seating in the busy place. A moment later their waitress, who couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than the two customers in her booth, appeared to take their order. She nodded while Dov ordered for both of them, then in a move she must have repeated hundreds of times since the start of her part-time food industry career, returned the ball point pen to her shirt pocket, tore off the top copy of the bill and spun on her heel.
As the waitress made her way back to her station behind the counter, Kim leaned across the table and in a loud voice said, “Be right back.” Then she took off for the ladies room.
She couldn’t have been gone more than four or five minutes. Emerging from the hallway that led to the pay phone and rest rooms, Kim momentarily froze at what she saw on the other side of the diner.
Dov was standing next to their booth, explaining something to the waitress and looking both embarrassed and upset.
His brother Michael and several of his buddies were now seated in their booth, laughing, carrying on and ignoring Dov.
But not totally.
As Dov talked to the waitress, Michael slowly pushed his little brother’s backpack off the edge of the seat and onto the floor.
“Dov, what’s going on?” Kim angrily gestured toward Michael. “What’s he doing here?”
“From the looks of things,” Dov answered, trying to make the best of an incredibly bad situation. “I’d say he just sat down for lunch.”
“But that’s our booth!”
“Well, there was a little confusion over that point.” There was no way on the planet that Dov could ever feel more helpless and embarrassed than he did right now. “But Michael was happy to clear it all up.”
“Yeah, Bird Boy.” Michael was enjoying this even more than usual. “Thanks for holding our booth.”
The waitress returned, handing Dov their order in a couple of paper bags. The buzz in the room went quiet as everyone watched the drama playing out around the booth.
Michael’s gloating grin suddenly vanished. “Now get the fuck out of my sight.”
“This is so unfair!“ If Dov wasn’t going to say something about this, Kim would.
Dov’s eyes pleaded with her.
It wasn’t enough that his older brother had once again made a significant contribution to the raging nightmare that was his life. No, Michael had to completely intimidate and humiliate him in front of almost every resident of the town who was still under twenty-one.
After several minutes of pedaling, they found an unused picnic table in a shaded grove about a hundred yards inside the entrance to the park.
Then again, in this heat, pretty much all the picnic tables were unused.
“I don’t get it,” Kim was still annoyed, not just at Michael, but at Dov, as well. “Why do you let him just push you around like that?”
“Like I have a choice?” Dov shot back, a little defensively. “You see this?” he pointed to the freshly split skin of his lower lip. “Hey, I don’t have to let Michael do anything, Kim. He can kick the crap out of me without my permission.”
They finished their burgers in silence. Kim, upset with herself for climbing all over her friend’s being trapped in a seriously abusive relationship, over which he could never, ever hope to have any control.
Meanwhile, Dov silently struggled to come to grips with the realization that his older brother wasn’t just a muscle-bound bully who could break him in half any time he wanted. No, Michael was more, way more. Living with him was like sharing a house with that rabid Saint Bernard Stephen King had written about.
But why, Dov asked himself. Christ, he had never asked to be born. And he sure as Hell never asked his mother to give up her place among the living so that he could have his.
All he knew, was that Michael hated his guts.
And very, very actively.
Dov also forced himself to acknowledge an even darker conclusion: his brother wanted him dead. No two ways about it.
Not even permanently maimed. No, Michael wanted his life functions terminated. Period.
Pretty scary thought.
Especially when your big brother is a six-foot two-inch, two hundred and twenty-five pound varsity nose tackle, who bench presses close to four hundred pounds, has a seriously short fuse and is usually whacked out on steroids and hate.
Which meant, if Dov planned on getting much older, he was going to have to do something to permanently get away from his brother. Or neutralize him.
He silently stuffed the last bite of the burger into his mouth, not even tasting it.
* * *
There were eight of them in the pickup truck as it rolled into the Bidwell High School parking lot, all seniors, and all of them first-string varsity football players boisterously returning from lunch. Five members of the offensive front line were squeezed into the bed of the truck, while Michael Halek rode up front, sandwiched in between two defensive ends. They were all returning for their second full practice of the day. This late in the summer, every high school and college team in the country took part in the ritual of “two-a-days”, a grueling schedule of practices with one three-hour session every morning, followed by another in the afternoon, all designed to make certain that everyone on the team was both familiar with the entire play book and in peak condition by the start of the season.
They found a parking space near the gate and noisily piled out of the truck, already in danger of being late for the one o’clock practice and being fined by the head coach.
Michael suddenly handed his helmet to one of the defensive ends.
“Here, hold this a minute.”
“C’mon, Halek. We don’t have time for this…”
“Just do it, OK?!”
He picked up his pace, stomping through the gate and over to where his younger brother was locking his and Kim’s bikes to the bike rack.
“YOU! BIRD BOY!”
Dov slowly stood upright and exhaled a long sigh, not sure of what was coming next. But whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be pleasant. Probably, just painful.
“You don’t listen very good. Do ya?” He took a menacing step closer to Dov, forcing him to back up. “I could swear I told you to get the fuck out of my sight.”
He angrily poked Dov’s chest with his index finger. “And now here you are…bigger ‘n shit…”
“C’mon, Mike. We’re gonna be late!” The other players from the truck were standing around uncomfortably. Not only were they on the verge of being tardy for practice, but no one wanted to be a part of this. Michael ignored them, angrily moving in on his little brother, forcing him to step backwards again.
“…And now you’re here? Here?! In front of my locker room..?”
Eyes wide with fear, Dov took another step backward and stumbled over the curb behind him, landing on his seat on the sidewalk that ran along the edge of the parking lot.
“You ugly little piece of shit!” Michael angrily reached out for Dov. He was going to deal with this deformed looking little bastard once and for all. His hand found Dov’s throat and closed around it. But in the heat and hatred of the moment, Michael didn’t notice the rapid movement to his right.
Suddenly, he was on the ground, trying to clear away the double vision and looking up at Kim, who had just nailed the side of his head with a flying front kick. She was standing in front of him, eyes locked on his, with her fists up and crouching slightly, waiting for him to make the next move. Michael quickly got to his feet and chuckled.
“So…Bird Boy’s got a girl to do his fighting for him? No problem.”
He charged down low and straight at Kim, as if she was an opposing halfback who had just taken a handoff.
Without changing her expression, she sidestepped Michael’s lunge. Then, in a series of moves that were almost too quick to follow, she broke his nose, dislocated his left knee and, despite the protective cup he was wearing, drove both of his testicles deep into his abdomen.
Michael landed back on the ground. His face was covered in his own blood and he was alternately screaming from the pain and vomiting.
Kim slowly turned on the seven remaining, stunned football players. “Maybe you’d better get him some help”. Four of them took off in a dead run for the locker room.
She moved over to Dov, held out her hand and pulled him to his feet. “You OK?”
Dov dumbly nodded and looked back toward his brother. Michael was still writhing, screaming and puking, and a small crowd started to gather. By now, two of the team’s trainers had appeared with a rolling stretcher, and were kneeling over him.
After a few minutes, they attempted to gently help Michael to the stretcher. Supported on either side by the trainers, he stopped their efforts for a moment and looked over to Dov.
Through the blood and vomit that covered his face, his eyes bored into Dov’s and he broke into a malevolent, almost demented grin.
“This ain’t over, Bird Boy.”
Then he vomited again as he was settled onto the stretcher.
The two watched silently while Michael was wheeled toward the locker room.
“He’s right, y’know”, Dov said, keeping his eyes on the building’s entrance and filled with a sense of fear and dread.
Kim shook her head. “No way. From now on, I bet he thinks twice about coming after you.”
“Just watch, I might be safe until he gets back on his feet and all. But then what? When that happens, nothing is going to keep him from hurting me worse than ever. You don’t know Michael like I do. This whole thing is a long way from over.”
The call came in, waking Tom Halek out of a sound sleep. Probably one of Michael’s buddies, he thought, reaching for the phone. Who else would call in the middle of the afternoon?
The voice on the other end of the line sounded just official enough to make Tom a little nervous. “Is this Tomasz Halek? You have a son named Michael Halek?”
“Uh, yeah. What’s this all about?”
“This is the Emergency Room at Hooker Oak Hospital, Mr. Halek. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your son was just brought in—“
The caller told him about some kind of accident at practice, or something. Michael was hurt, but he’s going to be all right. The doctor on duty would like to speak with you when you come in.
Tom absently thanked him and hung up. Then he bolted for the door.
* * *
“Uh, sorry to bother you…but, you think you could break this, so I can use the pay phone?”
Tom Halek handed a dollar bill to the elderly woman, a volunteer who came in every afternoon to run the gift shop cash register at Hooker Oak Hospital.
Hooker Oak was easily the best equipped, most modern medical facility between Sacramento and Redding, its construction underwritten more than twenty years earlier by just one man, Frank Tarlow. Frank wasn’t just one of Chico’s oldest residents, he was also its wealthiest and most powerful, owning among other things, the local newspaper; one of the town’s radio stations; thriving Chevy dealerships in both Chico and Oroville; two local Taco Bell franchises; the Holiday Inn out by the county airport; the county’s only enclosed shopping mall; and several thousand acres of ranchland outside of town.
And at eighty-eight years of age, he was extremely interested in prolonging his time above ground for as long as humanly and medically possible. So, when approached by a group of local doctors with a vision, he offered to donate a forty-acre parcel of land right next to his radio station and several million dollars toward the construction of the hospital, provided he and his family always receive first priority when it came to any medical care.
Ironically, two years later Frank Tarlow became one of the first patients to pass away at Hooker Oak Hospital, suffering a massive coronary and expiring in the Emergency Room, just three days after his hospital officially opened its doors.
“Yeah Sam, it’s Tom Halek. Listen, I’m sorry, but I can’t come in to work tonight. I’m over at Hooker Oak Hospital.” He listened for a moment to his supervisor, on the other end of the line.
“Not me, it’s Michael. Some kind of accident at practice a little while ago. He’s banged up pretty good, but they say he’s gonna be OK. Thank God.”
As he listened to Sam’s good wishes and words of support, he noticed the tall man with the glasses, beard and hospital “Greens” walking his way from the Emergency Room entrance. This had to be the doctor.
“Gotta go, Sam. Doctor’s here. I’ll call you when I know more.” Tom quickly hung up the phone and turned to face the approaching doctor.
“Mr. Halek?” He held out his hand. “I’m Doctor Enloe, the ER attending on duty. Your son’s kept us pretty busy for the last hour or so.”
This was a long way from reassuring. “Is he OK?”
“Fine, Mr. Halek. Michael’s nose was broken. We were able to retract the testicles. And there was some tearing in the cartilage in his knee, but all of that should heal just fine…”
The doctor turned away for a moment, then looked straight into Tomasz’s eyes, almost accusingly.
“Mr. Halek, how long has your son been abusing steroids?”