Jake woke, jerked out of sleep by clangour and chaos. He rolled over with a groan and glanced at the clock: 10:10 at night! The furious and incessant bang, bang, bang from outside rattled the caravan like an isolated, internal squall. Jake blinked the sand from his eyes - he'd only just drifted off - but the din had him awake and alert. Was it the cops?
Clambering out of bed, he threw the interior and outside light-switches on simultaneously, swearing under his breath "The fuck's going on?" then he swung open the door and there was Mike. He looked like he'd been through the wars, too: a large bruise was developing on the left side of his face - a real shiner - there was more than one bruise, but this one took the cake. His movements revealed that he had other injuries as well. "Red, what the hell happened to you?" he asked.
"Don't call me that,"' Mike said. "The brothers got me," he explained. "The Massis. They put cigarette butts out on me, Jake!"
Jake winced. They what? After a moment he went over to his tiny freezer to grab something to numb the bruise on his friend's face, and to treat his cigarette burns.
He'd moved out approximately six months ago but before he had his mother had written out a list of things he would need, insisting that he adhere to her advice. He'd mentally thanked her several times since, and he did so now. The list she'd organised included towels for dishes and drying, cutlery, plates, pots and pans, bathroom supplies and several other things - two ice-packs among them. He grabbed both ice-packs and said, "Take off your shirt" before handing one of them to him. Mike peeled his stained shirt off and Jake saw four angry burns - they would scar, ice-pack or not - before he applied ice to the contusion on his friend's cheek
After they'd applied the ice-packs to the affected areas for fifteen minutes or so Jake retreated to the kitchen of his little trailer, opened the cupboard above the sink and grabbed a bottle of over-proof rum - strong stuff he'd hardly sampled. He poured out two glasses, unmixed, and said to his friend, "Bottom's up!" Mike downed his drink in seconds and Jake poured him another, resolving to get him drunk. "Okay, Mike. Tell me what the fuckers did."
So Mike told him about the attack, finished up with: "If I had a second shot at it, man, I'd give 'em something to remember me by."
He rubbed his chest gingerly all the while and Jake's face heated more with each word. Fancy putting bloody cigarettes out on someone - on Mike! '"You won't be jogging alone anymore, Mike. They might think twice when they see the both of us." He'd intended to join Mike's regime for a while now and threw his lot in with his friend without hesitation - if they wanted to push Mike around they would find that he wouldn't just sit there and take it. He considered their options. "You know Ashley's dad's a cop, right?"
"Ashley-? No way. I thought about it on the way here - no police, no police report. What would I tell the cops anyway? They were black, one of them had a beard. And before you get started we're not telling my parents either.'"
Ah. Jake realised that that last was the real reason he didn't want to make a scene out of this. He knew at the least his friend could point the finger at the brothers - he had motive, evidence, witness statements if Jake spoke up - but what chance all six brothers would be taken care of? And how would Mike and his family pay the court fees? His parents were really slugging it out - there was no chance of them relocating again, not even back to their old place in Ventura. The story sounded preposterous to Jake's own ears: 'Hey Mum and Dad, you might have heard some talk about an older man that was killed trying to save Ben's life - turns out he's left six sons behind and they're each of them mad as a cut snake about your moving here.' Mike sounded angry, embittered, self-pitying - but at what cost would he hide those injuries from the people around him?
Then Mike was continuing, his anger rising, "I'm gonna get those bastards," his voice was dripping venom, "Think they can just bully me around-? They're fucked now. I don't know how or when, but I am gonna pay them back."
"Red, I'm with you-"
"You know what they called me, Jake?" he rasped. There was a strange look in Mike's eyes, almost psychotic. Then, not awaiting a reply, "They called me Big Red!"
Anguish strained Mike's voice, humiliation too. Jake surmised that the Massis had opened a bag of vipers, and if one or the other of them got bitten they'd have no-one but themselves to blame. He'd suspected something was going to go down, but burning Mike with cigarettes-? Mike was clearly in a fury, Jake heard his teeth grinding. '"So what do we do?" he asked his friend. "The cops are out of the question - the doctor's too, I suppose?" he raised an eyebrow.
"No doctors," Mike confirmed.
A little drunk by now, a little ardent, "Then we'll do what we have to, won't we? I mean, if we're running the track and they come back to get you, we'll both fight," He meant it, too. It probably wouldn't be wise to go hunting them down directly, but if they wanted to take Mike on again Jake would be there.
A rueful smile, then, "Appreciate it, mate."
"Our double-date's on Thursday," Jake said, "What are we going to tell the girls about this?"
Mike's expression, under other circumstances, might have been comical - he'd been caught completely off-guard. Twice in one night, Jake thought darkly, then grimaced at the spiteful nature of his thinking. After a moment's consideration Jake said, "We'll tell 'em that you were in Ottoville, for whatever reason, and you got jumped at the bus-stop-"
"That's great! I've got no idea what I was supposedly doing there, though."
Jake waved the thought away with a hand. "We'll think something up," he said. Then, "It's Sunday tomorrow, Mike." Jake was hoping to cheer his friend up, at least a little.
It took a moment for that to get through, then, "Oh, man. I've still got that smoke from Craig's the other night. Haven't had any of it yet," Mike said. "Out of the question at home:"
"Beauty! You want to hook in then?"
"Sure thing. We'll have our Sunday-session tonight," Mike replied. "One other thing: I don't want my parents finding out about this. Is there any chance I could stay here for a few days?"
"Of course, man. Stay as long as you like."
They finished the bottle, Jake chopped and Mike rolled and they relaxed - or tried to - listening to heavy metal until slumber called them to bed.
Ashley stepped in to Rocko's ten minutes past seven o' clock on Thursday night - the place was filled with people, the young and the old. She squinted in the time light still she she could make out the sound of the slot-machines, oldies swearing or cheering according to their luck, several couples sharing dinner and their affections, and of course the fixed half-dozen meeker laborers that had come to Rocko's for their evening drink in favour of the more turbulent Lark Head. She crinkled her nose at the smell of beer and sweat. Eww.
The time they'd all agreed on to get together had been seven, and she chafed at the delay - but what was ten minutes? Rocko's was only a short walk from where she lived, so she'd decided to make her own way there: the walk and the fresh air were good for her. She felt energised, spritely.
Ashley was looking forward to tonight. Ever since Mike and his friend had asked her and Teri out at the party she'd been in a buoyant mood. The few phone calls she and Mike had shared had been at first hesitant, tentative: like kids just beginning to date - no doubt her Dad would say that that's what they were - they'd struggled a little finding common ground. Art? Astrology? Not really, no. Really? Okay, so you like music - do you play an instrument? Again, no. Astronomy, physics, philosophy? Now they were getting somewhere: once they discovered each other's appreciation of space and time and the universe they'd begun talking animatedly. Did Mike think there was life on other planets? Affirmative. Did he believe in life after death? Again, affirmative. He avoided talking about his brother's suicide and she didn't discuss her mother's passing, but anything and everything else had passed between them. Was he religious? "Not overly, but my ma is" - she found it a cute affectation, his calling his mother ma. Ashley and Mike both believed in God, too, or at least a higher power, and they had each hated Maths, enjoyed English. It had been a long time since she'd had what felt like a deep and meaningful conversation with anyone - too long. Like the walk here, their talks had been good for her. The last philosophical musings Ashley had shared had been with Teri, what seemed like years ago-
"Hey there, can I grab you a drink?" She'd been so wrapped up in her thoughts of Mike she didn't see the guy that was trying to tune her up approach. He was dark of hair and eye, a little on the short side - attractive, though.
"Sorry," she said. "I'm waiting for my boyfriend." Did I just say that? There was no taking it back now, she supposed, though the notion brought more comfort than concern. She smiled at the little white admonition. The man that offered her the drink apologised politely and moved on. Ashley appreciated that - he took her refusal like a gentleman.
Deciding to grab a drink herself to kill the time, she stepped over to the bar and ordered a pint, took a sip, glanced at her watch. It was almost a quarter past seven - where were they?
A if her thoughts held an incantatory aspect Teri and Jake walk through the entrance of the place. Jake was decked out in blue jeans and a dress-shirt, Teri in a red skirt and kick-ass leather jacket.
"Hey babe, Mike not here yet?" That was Teri.
"No, not yet."
Then Jake, "He'll be here any minute, don't sweat it. Unless I miss my guess he got back from the gym a little late: we were both there a while ago but I left before him. Either that or he's ditching you at the altar," this with a grin.
Teri laughed and Ashley said in a thoughtful tone, "He mentioned that he trains a lot."
"Ha! That's an understatement. He trains like a bloody maniac."
"Who trains like what?" Mike said, slapping Jake on the back and catching them all unaware. He was grinning, though. After a quick greeting to the group - 'Hey, Jake, Teri' -, he hesitated. He's shy! Ashley realised as he handed her a gorgeous crimson carnation.
"Thank you, Mike.'" While some might find the gesture slight, Ashley was touched. The first tell-tale stirrings of affection were beginning to rise in her. His beautiful smile and obvious nervousness only heightened the sensation - was it really only a week ago that she'd been longing for feelings such as these?
Pulling herself together, she said to the others, "Don't mind me, I went ahead and got a beer while i was waiting. Why don't you join in?"
By this time Jake, Teri and Mike were all seated - there was an air of tension between them, and given an opportunity to act, Jake said, "Hey, sounds great. You don't have to twist my arm." Addressing Teri, "Can I grab you a drink, mon cheri?"
"You're on," she said. "But I'll come with, yeah?'"
They trotted over to the bar, leaving Ashley and Mike alone for a moment. Rocko's Diner was purpose-built to cater for couples, dating, romance - as well as a place to drink - so she couldn't make out Mike's profile in the gloom. Then Mike turned to Ashley and said, "How have you been?"
She noted for the first time that he'd been in some trouble. There was a puffy bruise just above his left eye that she hadn't seen when he had first arrived and she thought, How did I miss that? She replied,"Great - it's good to see you again." And it was - he didn't seem like the violent type, not at all, so what had happened?
Before she could ask anything, Mike waved a hand over his face, said, "I guess you're wondering what happened to me?"
Had she been staring? "I- Yeah, I hope you're okay."
"I'm fine," he said with a rueful smile. "I was down in Ottoville by myself, visiting one of my cousins. Anyway, I was at the bus-stop and this group of guys started hassling me for money. I told 'em to piss off and then one of them king-hit me. After that- Well, they got me pretty good, as you can see."
"Oh Mike," she said, sympathetic. "Did you know them? Or get a look at-"
"No, I don't have a clue who they were,'" he replied.
Ashley was about to ask a few more questions - had he gone to the police? Did anyone witness the attack? - when Teri and Jake came back with a pitcher of beer. They appeared to be enjoying themselves: Teri had her arm around Jake, who was holding the booze and grinning at something she was whispering in his ear. If Ashley guessed aright it was of a sexual nature - that was Teri for you.
"Alright guys, who's up for some food?" Jake said.
So they ordered, chatted, ate. After a few pleasantries, Teri went on to tell the group, "This date's turning out a lot better than the last one I was on. The guy I was with, Tad, was nice enough, but he'd gone on and on about his mother. It was almost creepy, y'know?" She sighed, made a telling gesture with her pinky-finger. "He was little too. I hope you're not Jake?"
Ashley choked on her beer and Mike's face flushed bright red, but Jake was cool. "That's not a problem for me." Then, smooth as shoe-polish he changed the subject "It's Mike's twentieth birthday next month. We should catch up for a drink or twelve."
"I'm keen," Teri said.
"And someone should get a photo of this," Jake interjected. "Mike's not all decked out in black! That's as rare as hen's teeth."
"I like how you were dressed at the party, Mike - I thought it was stylish," Ashley said.
"That there means something," Teri asserted. "Ashley here is a kind of fashion designer."
"What do you mean by that?"
So she told them about her little hobby. Both of the guys were impressed, which made her a lot more comfortable talking about it. She thought she might have something in mind for Mike's upcoming birthday, too, but said nothing, decided to keep it to herself.
The food arrived and Ashley's mouth was watering - the aroma of prime rib, slow-cooked, was irresistible. She hooked in along with the others and amidst the talking and eating she joked that Mike 'might be psychic'. He laughed it off - it had just been a coincidence, he said. A good coincidence, though.
Before long everyone was finished their food so Ashley lit a cigarette, offered Mike - he declined politely - and then they all went out to Jake's car where Teri and Jake bid the others farewell before hopping in and heading to Ventura.
"You wouldn't mind walking me home would you, Mike?" Ashley asked.
"I wouldn't be much of a gentleman if I did mind, right?" he replied, taking her by the hand and she thought, Does it get any better than this? She supposed it did and smiled.
By this time it was full-dark. Ashley pulled her cloak closer - while it as cool, the breeze was refreshing. It was a beautiful night, a fitting finale to a date that she didn't want to see the end of. She glanced above at the few clouds slowly making their way westward, the direction the wind was blowing, and noted that for the most part the stars had the sky to themselves.
Holding hands with Mike, she strode silently along the path that led away from the pub, east toward home. When they came near the town's only park Mike began walking briskly: he appeared furtive, wary - Ashley had no idea why - and kept this pace until they were a good five minutes out of the area.
They were almost home when, passing the corner store near her house, Ashley heard the squeaky - and, in this case, spiteful - voices of perhaps three or four adolescent males. She couldn't make out what they were saying, not yet, but it made her anxious: Mike was in no shape to fight and if they kept walking in the direction they were now they'd be accosted for sure. She could hear the young men clearly now.
"Look at the fat fuck! You're a worthless piece of shit, you know that Bob?"
Ashley hadn't given a thought to who the victim of these boys' torment was. The thud of fist striking flesh reached her, she heard a man cry out, then that same man crashed to the ground, incensing his attackers "Kick him, kick him!". Mike heard all this, too, appeared to be waging a war within himself - he was noticeably edgy, there was heat in his voice as he said, "Is that Big Bob those punks are picking on?"
"Mike-" What if those boys have a knife or something?
Then he was off, running toward the group, "Alright, you fuckers! You want to pick on someone that can't defend themselves? Why don't you try me?"
The gang took one look at Mike, considered their options, then fled down the street. Mike hollered out to them "Yeah, fuck off!" then he was at Big Bob's side, asking him if he was hurt, what he was doing out here on his own - the fact that Bob was a grown man didn't seem so far out at the moment. He pulled him to his feet carefully, though Bob didn't appear to be bruised or injured in any discernible way.
"Are you okay, Robert?"
Bob looked around, dazed. Ashley knew from her few encounters with him that this was how he always looked - it wasn't caused by head-injuries or anything those kids had done. It took a moment for his slow mind to see who had saved him, to make out Mike in the dank streetlight, then he said, "I appreciate," he stumbled over the word, "Appreciate you help." Then he was practically falling over himself thanking Mike, "I remember you, Red. No one hurt you, Red." Ashley blinked back tears at Bob's efforts to talk, however haltingly, to Mike and Mike's gentle treatment of him.
"It was nothing Robert. People - they shouldn't treat you like that."
"I- I won't forget." He said sincerely. He looked at both of them a moment. You poor thing! Then he shuffled off, his gaze perpetually lowered to the ground. Mike watched him as he went, sighed, and came back to her.
"I'm sorry you had to see that, Ashley. That sort of thing happens a lot in school, and they were just kids, but-"
"You really care, don't you?" she interrupted with true affection, and then she pulled him closer, put her arms around his neck and kissed him.
He hesitated at first, surprised, but he recovered quickly, kissing her slowly, savouring her. "Mike..."
He pulled away, looked about to say something, then shook himself. "Wow,'" he said. "What a way to end a night."
Ashley's thoughts were pretty much the same. She couldn't wait to see him again.