Mike traipsed through the tattered door of his parents rental, his legs and arms and back aching with the rhythmic throb that came with strenuous exercise. His mother looked up from her place on the couch almost hawkishly at his intrusion, puffed harshly on her cigarette and said, "You missed a couple calls while you were out wrecking yourself."
"It's just training, ma," he said. "Who called?"
His mother snorted at that first remark, told him, "She said her name was Ashley. I told her you'd call her back once you got home."
So Ashley had rang him this time? He'd spoken to her on the on the phone a total of two times since asking her out on Sunday, had been a little nervous at first, but they'd found plenty to talk about - physics, philosophy, astronomy. It had been four days since the party at Craig's.
"The second call was from your grandmother," she continued. "She says she wants to see you, Mikey. If you've got time today I'd like you to honour her wishes."
"Sure thing, ma" he said. His mother sighed heavily, lighting another smoke and he rolled his eyes at the irony. She thought his training was unhealthy? Good one. Without another word he removed his sweat soaked shirt and retreated to his bedroom.
His room, his sanctuary, was home to his few treasured possessions and was where he felt most at peace. He sat on the quilt-covered bed, glancing at the two framed photos positioned there: one, a black-and-white portrait he and Ben had gotten their ma for mother's day long ago - she still had her copy of Mike's portrait in her own room. The other showed two young boys, Ben and Mike, standing together on Mike's first day of high school. Life had been so good back then. He positioned the picture neatly, made sure it was in line with the other just so. Another of his prized possessions was, queerly, a chair - an old rocking-chair his grandfather had made for him when he'd been ten or eleven. He ran a finger down its smooth edge lovingly. Mike had few memories of his grandfather but the chair was what he remembered best - a nice, clean piece of work. If someone had asked Mike what was his most valued possession, though, he would tell them for sure it was the Gibson SG his brother had bought before the fire: Ben had been a pretty good guitarist when he was alivel but Mike knew that his own talents were less than adequate at best. He held on to the guitar because of its sentimental value, not just because it was worth a lot. He kept his bedroom studiously clean these days, too, which was a far cry from his old room in Ventura where clothes and discarded toys and other garbage had littered the floor like a wardrobe war-zone, a pig-pen of penury
Mike changed his shirt, throwing the saturated item in the clothes basket in the corner of his room and chucked a Metallica CD - "Ride the Lightning" - into the CD-player. The song kicked in and he sat down on the carpeted floor to stretch. In Mike's mind stretching was just as important to him as cleanliness - a ritual as beneficial to his mind as his body.
Stretching his legs, he cast his mind back to the party. He vaguely recalled losing his temper and loosening his tongue, bad-mouthing the Massis toward the end of the night, but what did it matter? He remembered asking Ashley if she was a Gemini too, remembered her amazement at his assertion. She'd been astounded when he'd guessed her star-sign correctly and he'd gotten it first time, but what was even more astounding was that his brother had told him to do it - "Take a crack at her horoscope, Mikey. I'm with ya." It was the first time Mike had heard Ben's voice without first being stoned, but this development did not alarm him: rather, it further cemented Mike's belief that his brother was trying to bridge the gap between the living and the dead. Ben? Can you hear me? I just wanted to say thanks. No reply.
Breathing deeply, he stretched his calves, thighs, groin, upper-body, neck and arms expertly. He would give Ashley a quick call soon, then he'd go for a run to his grandmother's place, see if there was anything he could do for her. The run there and back would be sufficient exercise until later on.
A little over half-an-hour later the album he was stretching to finished and he strode out to the lounge-room and dialed Ashley's number. "Ashley? Hey, it's Mike - you called?"
'Mike, how are you?' she started. 'I just wanted to let you know that I won't be able to keep our date next Thursday.' Mike's heart sank - over before they'd started? 'But Friday is good for both me and Teri. Is that cool for you guys?'
Thank God, he thought. What he said, though, was, 'Yeah, Friday would be awesome. How have you been?'
'Great, Mike. Yourself?'
'Great,' he replied. Then she was saying, 'Listen, I've gotta go to work. I'll probably be late as it is, but I'll call you tomorrow. Okay?'
'Sure,' Mike said. 'See you soon.'
He hung up the phone and strolled to the sink, drinking straight from the tap. After that he called out, "I'm on my way out, ma!" then headed to his grandma's and set off at a spirited run.
It only took about half-an-hour to get to the place, a cozy little flat on the east side of town. He noted on his arrival that the garden needed tending - the roses and violets and vibrant bougainvillea growing out front were almost swallowed by the surrounding high grass, and everywhere weeds suffocated the scape. Mike approached the front door and rang the bell twice. He hard shuffling footsteps from inside, then his grandma's withered inquiry, "Who is it?"
"It's Mike, grandma. I just came over to say hi, see how you're doing." She shouldn't have to live on her own like this, he thought. She's got cancer for fuck's sake.
"Mikey, come on in. I've got some tea boiling - can't get enough of it at my age, you know?" she chuckled thinly.
"I'd love some tea."
"And you've met somebody, haven't you?" she said, squinting at him through the door. It wasn't really a question, and it had never ceased to amaze Mike how his grandmother could know some things without anyone telling her. "No, your mother hasn't old me, Mikey. But come, now. I've been in love before - the way you walk, the way you speak, it's a change only the heart can bring about. Tell me her name?"
"It's Ashley,' he said, and went inside, seating himself at her wooded dining-room table. Just like that, he felt safe to talk around his grandma, though he certainly was not going to tell her of his hearing Ben's voice - it would only worry her - but he sensed that everything else was okay to speak of here.
"That's a lovely name, honey. I do hope that it works out for you. Now come, try the tea - good?"
"It's great, grandma. Thank you."
"I have to admit I have a reason for calling you over here today. I'd like to give you something-"
"Oh no, Grandma, there's no need to give me-"
"Hush, Mikey. It's a very special heirloom that your grandfather and I bought when Albert was still with us. I'd like you to safe-keep it for me. It holds your grandfather's ashes, and someday I would like it to hold mine, too," she said. "They'll be sending me off to the hospital before long, you understand? And well, with Ben not here - I thought that you would be the best person to fulfill my request."
"I will Grandma. I'd be honoured to."
They sipped from the tea and after some small talk the conversation took its inevitable turn, broaching Mike's grief. "It's like there's a hole in my heart," he said. "An emptiness that I can't fill. Talking to my ma and pa only makes it worse." His features clenched, his throat choking on a sob. "I just don't know how I'm going to get through the rest of my life without him."
Several minutes passed, then in the break between tears his grandma inserted, "One year from now, Mikey. One year from now."
Perplexed, Mike raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"I'm familiar with grief, honey. Your grandfather used to say that when a person passes on it means that they've served their penance. I didn't completely understand or agree with him for a long time, but the misery between losing him and then Ben - I can honestly say that I can't wait until my penance is served. One year from now is something I clung to when Albert first passed on, it's the simple logic that things will be easier in twelve months. However hard it gets, Mikey, always remember that one year from now the grief will be less, your life will be completely different, and who knows? Maybe you and your new girlfriend will be looking at moving out together? Having children? I understand that there's more you want to talk about than Ben, however. Is this not true?"
It was. As she led him toward the lounge-room of her flat, presumably the location of the urn, he said to her, "I had a bit of trouble on the drink before we left Ventura. Got in a fight with some mates, did some things I probably shouldn't have."
"I smoke pot sometimes, too, grandma. You know, marijuana?'"
She nodded along with an air understanding, and then in a blink her speech she became like a woman possessed, "Mikey, oh no," she said, closing her eyes. A spasm gripped her features.
"Grandma?" he said, alarmed. Had he set her into a panic?
She grimaced, fought it off. "I'm fine. It's just - there are dark days ahead, Mikey," she said ominously. "You're having some trouble fitting in here?" She had a touch of the sixth sense, his grandma, he knew that, and what she said concerned him perhaps more than it should have.
"Not really," he said. "Well... There are this group. A family, actually. The Massis. It's a long story-"
"We have plenty of time, Mikey," his grandma replied, sipping her tea.
Mike shrugged, took a breath and exhaled slowly. "It all started with this kid at the basketball court the other day," he began. There was just me, Jake and some other guys playing a game of two-on-two and then, toward the end, this little half-caste kid showed up and started digging into me, calling me a piece of shit and saying that his father was dead because of me and my family. I didn't know what he was on about, but I asked Jake later and he asked me if I recalled that someone had died trying to save Ben when he got caught in the fire - you remember that, right grandma? I told Jake I'd heard of him. Apparently his name was Edgar Massi and he worked at the same place as Ben. Anyway Edgar is the father of that same kid, and he's got bigger, meaner brothers. Jake says they've got a reputation as troublemakers and they're out for blood." Had he said too much? "But please don't tell ma and pa, Grandma. There' s no way we could afford to move again. If they thought I was in trouble they'd both stress about the move and money, whether it was the right thing to do-" his tone was verging on the hysterical.
"I won't tell a soul, Mikey."
Relieved, he changed the subject as smoothly as he could, "You were saying you had something to show me, grandma?"
'But please don't tell Ma and Dad, okay? We couldn't afford to move again. If they thought I was in trouble they'd both stress about money and the move and-' he realised he was babbling.
'It's fine, Mikey. I won't tell a soul. Now here, look. This is the heirloom I want you to hold onto.'
They were in the lounge-room and when Mike looked toward where she was pointing he saw
My Comment: Mike "looked and saw" is like "Mike heard" above...
an elegant vase combining greens and blues and yellows in intricately leaf-shaped patterns. It was only a small thing, perhaps forty centimetres long and ten wide. It looked expensive, though. My Comment: Good description, but what made it "look expensive?"
'Grandma, that is beautiful.'
'It is, isn't it?' she sighed. 'Go on then, honey, take it down. Mind yourself, it's fragile.'
Mike carefully took the urn down from its place on the aged shelf, set it on the ground next to him. His grandmother made them both another cup of tea and as he sipped Mike's thoughts drifted, reflecting on her earlier advice, One year from now. I'll remember that, Grandma.
When he'd finished his tea, he carefully retrieved her keepsake from where it sat, left her house and went home, carrying the urn cautiously.
My Comment: This is one of those weak verb/adverb combinations I mentioned above. Here, perhaps he "cradles" the urn, which would imply caution
Today, Thursday, offered little but exercise and dinner after that, and Friday was much the same - Saturday, however, proved much more noteworthy.
For the people of Lark Hill the day dawned like any other Saturday in town
My Comment: Story stops while the author tells the reader stuff...
- slowly. A fair few folk in the area were farmers, true, so they were up and about early, but the majority of residents greeted the new day at nine or even ten in the morning - not so Mike. Every morning, weekend or no, the alarm near his bed-head would waken him at seven o' clock and he'd climb out of bed, grab a glass or two of water straight from the tap and make himself a bowl of cereal - usually Weet-Bix. Afterward, he'd stretch to one or another of the CDs in his collection and complete at least eight-hundred crunches left to right and eight to nine hundred push-ups before setting out on a ten-kilometre run.
There were two exceptions to his daily ritual: on Monday, the day after he'd rested and smoked dope with Jake, Mike would perform perhaps six hundred reps of crunches and push-ups and forgo his morning run. On Saturday, knowing that he'd be taking it easy the following day, he really pushed it - a thousand crunches and push-ups, and a twelve (or more) kilometre run; he'd return home spent and within the hour he'd stretch again, prepare for the gym.
This particular Saturday started like any other, Mike had arisen from slumber fresh and driven, eaten breakfast, stretched, crunched and jogged - he'd hit the gym around midday and made it home just before three o' clock. His Dad was working over-time at the mill, he often did, and his Ma was out (grocery shopping?) running errands when he came home so he had the house to himself - presently. The fact barely registered, Mike was completely exhausted when he traipsed through the door. He grabbed a quick drink, went to his room and collapsed on the bed. He was unconscious within minutes.
He awoke from a dreamless sleep to shouting
My Comment: After some narration about how he spent his Saturday, the here-and-now of the story restarts here.
- his parents were having it out, breathing fire again. This was nothing new, though they usually tried to keep their antipathy toward each other from him. He put on a CD in an effort to drown out the noise (and avoid eavesdropping) and, realising their son was home, the argument stuttered, ceased, with Mike's mother saying, 'And if you think I'm going to forget this-' before retreating to the master bedroom at the opposite end of the house and slamming the door.
Mike sighed, emerged from his room, saw his father seated on the lounge with his head in his hands.
My Comment: Mike...saw...just describe his father directly.
'Everything okay, Dad?'
'It's fine, Mikey,' his Dad replied: maybe he thought Mike would believe him?
'I'm just headed out for a run,' he told him.
'Okay, son. I'll see you later tonight. If we're asleep when you get home you know where the spare key is.'
'I won't be gone that long, Dad.' The animosity growing between his parents was tough for him to witness
My Comment: Comma splice; need a period or semicolon after "replied.
but there was little he could do about it, so he ran out into the darkness, seeking to ease his troubled spirit.
The night was bleak, the encroaching cold numbed his exposed hands - his breath expired in mist and he was trembling with the chill. No matter, within ten minutes he'd be warmer. Tonight he'd only run half his normal route - he figured he'd done more than enough exercise for the day and five or six kilometres seemed sufficient to top it off.
Jake had mentioned the other day that he'd like to join Mike's training sessions, which had pleased Mike to no end - he'd claimed that, seeing as the trials for the martial-arts school and Crow's "disciples" were just over a week away, it was past time he got his shit together. Mike's anticipation of this venture was as keen as a just-sharpened knife - not only would he meet the martial-arts master for the first time, he was also hoping to make an impression, to earn his place as a disciple. Jake had told him several times that he was a shoe-in, that the level of fitness Mike had achieved practically guaranteed his acceptance - but who knew what the master's criterion entailed? He realised, too, that in order to train with Jake he would have to ease up on his exercise, at least a little. The thought galled, but Jake was his friend - Mike refused to leave him behind.
Within fifteen minutes Mike made it to the grounds that governed the majority of his runs. The park was not huge as Mike imagined one in the city would be, but it was more than sufficient for his purposes. He was just circling the perimeter, breath even, when he spied a light - a fire? - no less than two-hundred metres from whalere he was. He'd never seen it before tonight, which meant that it had been lit recently. He jogged over to see what was going on and then a man he had not noticed called out to him. He couldn't make out what the man was saying until he got a little closer.
'Mickey! You like the fire?'
Mickey? he thought. He'd heard that name somewhere before- too late he realised the figure silhouetted before the fire, the man fast approaching, was of Aboriginal descent. One of the fucking Massis. Okay. That was cool. Maybe now they could sort out their differences?
'Mickey, old boy! Come closer,' the man said. He sounded almost rapturous, alight with glee, but his confidence did not for a moment quell Mike's rising anger. As they approached each other he saw that the man was in his mid-twenties at least, that he could do with a shave. Then Mike spoke.
'Hey there, big shot. How can I do ya?' he slowed to a walk, advancing toward the fire when the man (Ethan? Jono?) picked a fair-sized stick up off the ground. Dirty fighter, eh? I can handle that. It was as Mike was squatting to pick up a handful of dirt - soon to be thrown in the bastard's face - when his assailant's features split in a grin and a blow from behind that almost split Mike's skull felled him, the sound echoing throughout the cold night. Two of them? Fuck. Within seconds his attackers were kicking him in the legs, the ribs, the head.
'So you think our Dad was suicidal, Mickey? That we're gonna miss his pay-cheque?' What the hell-?
Through a haze of red - and Mike was really pissed off now - he struggled to get up, but any chance he'd had at this was gone. One of the brothers managed to put him in a headlock, choking him thoroughly whenever he struggled to escape. The other straddled his chest, lit a cigarette, saying, 'You're a big boy, aren't ya Mickey? They call you Red, don't they?' he chuckled. 'A big boy, yeah. Big Red!' The other man - Mike had no idea of their names - laughed uproariously at the epithet. None of them missed the reference to Big Bob. Then the smoker dragged deeply on his cigarette and, while Mike struggled ferociously, he lowered the cherry to Mike's chest. The blow to his head had hurt, but this- try as he might Mike could not quell the tears that welled in the corners of his eyes.
Then, 'Look at Big Red cry,' the one said, lighting the smoke again, again lowering it to Mike's chest. 'Look at him cry.'
Mike was more than angry, he was absolutely blood-frenzied. 'I'll fuckin' kill ya! I'll kill ya, you fucking bastards!'
'Look at him cry.' Their laughter was burning its way into his psyche as effectively as the cigarette was burning into his flesh. 'If you think this is bad, you just wait till Henry's outta jail,' one of them said. 'Henry's gonna fuck you up!' What could be worse than this? But he knew this was only humiliation. The worst was yet to come.
'Get out of town, Big Red. just get on your scooter and go.'
After what seemed an hour - but was probably only ten minutes, maybe even less - they released him and sprinted off into the darkness. Mike didn't have a chance of chasing after them in the state he was in. He groaned, rose to his feet. Not knowing or caring if they were in earshot he screamed aloud: 'My name is Mike Stone! I'm gonna kill ALL you cunts! Never forget my name, I am Mike Francis Stone! I'll kill ya, I'll kill all of you!'
Bruised, burned and shamed, Mike considered where to go next - he couldn't go home, not like this. But after a little consideration he decided to visit his best friend - whatever the time.