"Come on, man! Only fifty push-ups to go!" Mike shouted. Jake was red-faced, panting, the muscles of his arms were quivering with the strain of his exertions and he looked like he'd rather be anywhere else - but Mike showed his friend no mercy. Jake was on the third and last of the day's exercise sets - keeping up with Mike's regime was a lot to ask, but Jake had done it every day since last week and Mike was proud of him. Mike counted out the last twenty push-ups and then, his quota reached, Jake crashed to the concrete floor outside his trailer, spent.
Mike and Jake should have been freezing - it was less than ten degrees today - but the work they'd put in made sweat spring out of seemingly every orifice, and the cool air was like a ghostly caress to Mike's perspiring flesh, as well as his friend's.
He looked at his wrist-watch, a none-too-stylish Casio. Four o' clock! he thought. Then, Time flies when you exercise. He laughed aloud at the crude rhyme and Jake glanced at him, a quizzical expression painting his features.
Mike had cut down on his regime over the last few days, both on account of his injuries, though they were almost gone now, and his friend's lack of conditioning - but in all honesty it was worth winding his efforts down a little to train with a partner. Truth be told he was excited. "I think you've earned yourself a cone, Jake," Mike said encouragingly. Then, further supporting the effort his friend had put in, "What song should I chuck on?"
"Fuck, Red. I don't know. Just - ugh. Aces High. Iron Maiden. "
Mike bit down a curse. He'd told Jake several times to stop calling him that. It was too close to Big Red - which was too close to Big Bob - for his liking, but he let it go, trotting over to the CD player and firing up the music. He avoided thinking too much about the Massis - he was still pissed, downright furious - but he knew their day would come. Soon.
He'd been holed up at Jake's for over a week, figured he'd return home tomorrow - what the hell, his injuries were almost non-existent by now. Tomorrow was also the date that Jake, Mike, Jimmy and Butcher - who'd been informed of the news days earlier - would all head to Ventura to sign up for the martial arts school. The couple of times Mike had spoken to Jimmy since the party - on the phone and at the store - he'd pestered him for more information on the place and it's proprietor, but Jimmy hadn't had much new to tell Mike: the school of fighting was jujitsu, the master's name was Steffen Crow and he was offering specialised private tuition for those that aspired to greatness - if they were deemed acceptable disciples by the master himself. All things Mike had already heard already. Nevertheless, each rehash spurred his enthusiasm more. With only a day to go, Mike's anticipation was akin to a kid's at Christmas time.
'"Mike!" Jake said in a tone that implied he was repeating himself. "Are you gonna roll?"
"Yeah, mate. Yeah, I'll roll." He did so, lit the joint and puffed. The high kicked in moments later, and Mike's thighs, calves and chest loosened, the music became almost transcendental, a wave of euphoria washed over him. As it often
did these days, Mike's mind turned to thoughts of Ashley The date had been a success, a true-blue winner, as Jake might say. He'd had a great time with Ashley, even the scene with Big Bob hadn't marred the night's enjoyment, and they'd shared a kiss before reaching her home. He recalled her saying he 'might be psychic', too, that had really resonated with him. If that star-sign shit wasn't just a coincidence, I really might be psychic. He didn't for a moment think
that such notions were crazy.
The thought and the high encouraged him to try talking to his brother - Jake had gone to the john so he had a moment to spare. He slowed his breathing and calmed his mind as much as he was able, he attuned his ears to the music that was playing - but did not focus on it - and thought, I love you, Ben. Things are going a lot better for me these days. How are you?
He didn't always hear his brother reply. The last time he'd heard anything had been two weeks ago - he still couldn't figure out what 'Feed your family first' meant - the session he'd had last week with Jake hadn't offered anything at all, cryptic or otherwise. He speculated: was there some way Ben could confirm that this was all an actuality? That they could actually hear each other? Then an idea came to him, his own idea - and he thought, What if I coached him, imagined his voice; how it used to sound. Would that make it easier to bridge the gap between us?
I'll go for it, he thought. Ben, is there some way you can legitimise, once and for all, that all this is real? That I'm not going crazy? Please-
He then pretended to say, "Let's see Mike," in Ben's gruff voice and listened for anything else. What he heard next was another cryptic phrase: 8, 9, Mikey.
What the hell does that mean?
He turned it over in his mind. 1989? 8, 9, 10? He couldn't grasp it, not yet, but he wasn't about to let this one go-
"Red," Jake said, interrupting the chain of Mike's thoughts. "Weren't you telling me the other day that we should stretch after we've gotten high?"
"Yeah, yeah. Sorry," Mike said. Then, "Don't call me that."
He slipped into lecture-mode, "If your body iss taut or strained or just sore in general, stretching after smoking dope can be a pleasurable experience. You know that stretching at the beginning and end of the day's work-out can lessen the strain of overworked muscles - we both do - but stretching after smoking takes that to another level." Mike finished the joint he'd been pulling on and lowered himself to the floor, "So you stretch your legs like so, touching your feet with your fingers - but this time you slow down your breathing. You breathe in when your muscles contract and out as they relax - easy."
As Mike was demonstrating the technique to his friend the words Ben had said converged in to comprehension.
If I were to take the first two numbers of that phrase, and convert them alpha-numerically, I'd be left with 'Hi'. 'Hi Mikey'.
Mike almost had pups. Ben! My God, Ben! You can hear me! Any idea that Mike was imagining things was now dispelled completely, at least in his own mind, and there was no turning back. He was convinced that he had the power to hear his deceased brother's thoughts, and he sailed on a sea of ecstasy and delusion.
"What's with the stupid grin, Mike?" Jake asked.
Mike's grin spread wider, "Just wasted, man. Just wasted."
* * *
I'm using a program called "WriteItNow" for this novel and it functions in such a way that scenes can be rearranged by clicking and dragging them. The two scenes I posted were edited with your advice, but I panicked and didn't realise that the scene below with Mike lets on to another scene with Mike before Jake's - this here is that unaccounted for first scene and I've had little time to work on it.
As such this excerpt will appear as though I haven't used any of your advice to adjust it, though the scenes before and afterward were painfully reconstructed (I'm a slow worker). I've included it immediately as there is something lacking if I don't.
In summary the scenes are: Mike, MIKE, Jake, with the the second of three being included last minute...
* * *
Mike felt better than he had in a long time. Ashley and himself spoke on the phone almost every day now, they had had another date - this time fish and chips at the park, just the two of them - and she had promised him 'something special' for his birthday (a little over two weeks away). Jake was doing well, too: he hadn't quite reached Mike's (fanatical) level of fitness - yet - but he ran at least eight kilometres every day with Mike, and both of them completed a minimum of one thousand crunches and push-ups daily as well. It had been slightly over a week since Ben had said, 'Hi, Mikey,' however cryptically, to his brother - there was nothing on God's green Earth that could bring Mike down after that - and exactly two weeks and two days since the party at Craig's.
It was seven-thirty on a cold Monday morning, the day Mike had been preparing for since the party - the day Mike, Jake and Butcher (who'd been notified of the venture days earlier) would start their training under Steffen Crow, ninth-dan black belt in jujitsu (for this was what Crow styled himself to be - although the he was already tenth dan, the illusion that he was ninth was crucial to his designs). Mike's anticipation bordered on trepidation - he actually had butterflies in his stomach - and he was grateful he wasn't going into the dojo on his own. Ridiculous, he thought. The anxiety he was feeling reminded him of how he'd felt when he'd gotten his first job at fourteen - what seemed a lifetime ago - nevertheless, butterflies or not, right now he wouldn't be anywhere else.
They were cruising along in Jake's ute at eighty kilometres an hour - that was the speed-limit, anyway - about ten minutes from Ventura, when Butcher spoke up. 'Guys, does the music have to be so loud?' While Mike and Jake loved heavy metal, nearly to the point of obsession, Butcher preferred R&B and rap and had a strong dislike for his friends' listening preferences - his taste in music was somewhat antithetical, considering his dislike (fear?) toward blacks.
"Wrong thing to say, Jason," Jake laughed, cranking the music up a few more notches. With little else to do, Mike became lost in his thoughts, tried to contact his brother mentally; music always helped him 'hear' Ben better. Bro, we're on our way to the martial-arts centre I told you about. I honestly can't wait.
After a moment, That's good, Mikey.
Mike was not absolutely positive it was his brother that replied, or just his imagination - after all, he had begun to 'listen' to his brother by recalling the sound of his voice - but he couldn't exactly ask him for proof that there was life after death: he didn't have any idea how Ben would go about substantiating Mike's beliefs either. After 8, 9, Mikey what proof did he really need anyway? Since the day he'd heard that, Mike had had much more success contacting Ben - and it was even easier if he was stoned first, Last night, during his Sunday session with Jake, Mike had had an almost full conversation with his brother.
He'd started with the conventional, How's things? and Ben had replied, clear as crystal, that he was good before asking what was happening. With so much going on in his life, Mike telepathically (he supposed one would call it that) sent a series of images and words: of Crow spinning his bo so fast it blurred; of his first kiss with Ashley, and then, his anger nowhere near resolved, he shared the memory of the Massis burning him with cigarettes, and of his (as yet unformed) plans to get the bastards back.
You know where one of them work. When Ben had said that it had gotten him thinking. Jono worked at the mill. He'd spoken about this to Jake shortly after the realisation and Jake had said it was past time they went down to the mill to pay Jono a visit. A little more than a visit-
The streets gave way to the steel-shed locale of Ventura's industrial area and after several more enfeebled attempts to stir conversation, Mike regrettably dissolved the link between his brother and himself. Driving for another five minutes or so, passing several ramshackle buildings - mostly mechanic repair shops and warehouses - they arrived at the refurbished wood-and-brick dojo. The building was easy to locate, being as it was so different to the rest of the architecture that it shared this part of town with: it was more akin to a small house (with windows set high) than the storage sheds crowding the area.
Just before they pulled up, walked in, Jake said to no one in particular, "I still can't believe we get to train under someone this good." The group's sense of awe was almost tangible.
The contrast between the exterior and interior of the dojo surprised Mike. On the outside the place looked run-down, a small and desolate house, the redbrick structure not quite a home, not quite a shed (though still very unbecoming), but inside the walls and floors were new and clean. Blue mats spread across half the floor and there was a projector in what Mike assumed to be the closed off lecturing area - where Steffen Crow stood, awaiting the beginning of his class. Crow was a broad-chested, bull-necked figure - his face was craggy, rugged, mustached, his eyes a dark brown and deep-set. Mike's most prominent impression of the master was that he was capable, confident and dangerous.
Mike looked around the class-room for a familiar face or two, saw Greig - Ashley's friend - Jimmy and two more guys he recognised among the twenty-odd students gathered inside. One was Jackson Morris, a friend from Ventura, and the other was Daniel Coppersmith - a troublemaker, also from school, that Mike thought would be unlikely to stick around. Mike remembered Coppersmith as a degenerate, few friends, with satanic interests and wannabe white-power ties. What's he doing here? He didn't have much of a chance to talk to anyone else, though - once they'd strolled through the double-doors the group were led to a small area, not quite a locker room, by someone Mike did not know (there were plenty of them) where they found their uniforms: several white-belts and the fighting jackets Sensei had called gi. The initial sign-up fee, and one month's instruction for all three classes, had been just over two-hundred dollars, but when Mike was clothed and ready to begin training his sense of pride and delight was well worth the cost.
A bearded man in his mid-twenties walked over, said to the group, 'Come on, guys, Sensei's about to start,' so those that hadn't changed quickly, went out and sat in front of the projector with the other students.
"Jujitsu is a form of combat that has existed for centuries," Crow - Sensei - began. "The art originated in Japan, and although jujitsu translates roughly as t the 'Gentleness Art', it was a warriors jutsu, practiced by the samurai of Japan, and anything but soft." He paused and a series of stills from the projector highlighted the back wall: pictures of beautiful and unusual gardens, mountain-ranges, lakes - Japan.
"Although many consider the Samurai the greatest swordsmen of all time, they were also, of necessity, excellent practitioners of unarmed combat." Now scenes of sword-bearing Samurai warriors entangled in battle were displayed. Crow continued, "Their jutsu - or war-skills - were tested and honed in life-or-death battles over the course of Japan's turbulent centuries-long history. It is a complete system containing strikes and kicks, throws and joint-locks, choke-holds.
"When facing an armed opponent, the Samurai would almost always have only one opportunity to disarm and kill him using evasive techniques and joint-locks - and these joint-locking techniques were designed to destroy the limbs by tearing apart the connecting muscles and tendons of the joints. A strike or kick to a vital area would quickly kill or disable the opponent. If the fight went to the ground, the Samurai had skills sufficient to quickly strangle his opponent with a variety of choke-holds - hence you understand why I call this art unarmed combat, and not self-defense."
Mike listened, rapt, while Sensei told them of the history of jujitsu. He made a note to himself to himself to find out all he could via the local library's internet services and after perhaps ten more minutes of jujitsu's rich - and fascinating - history ('The days of the samurai are gone forever, but the fighting techniques they developed are still practiced today, passed down from master to student') Sensei honoured his sensei - Ichira Oshima - with ten minutes of meditation, then told them that today they would be learning three fundamental techniques: basic grappling (he referred to the techniques as 'hands, wrists and underarms'); how to break-fall when thrown (vital to avoiding injury); and the correct method of punching. The latter was punctuated by a diagram displaying how properly to clench one's fist while striking and then how to punch by pulling one arm back as the other arm struck, producing maximum force and speed with minimum effort.
The class stretched for about twenty minutes and though Mike found the workout easy he did discover several stretching exercises that he immediately decided to begin using in his own regime - they were unique, clearly a part of the syllabus Sensei wanted them to learn, but best of all they were difficult, especially the leg-work. The students, perhaps twenty-five altogether, were then told to practice punching, remembering at all times to focus on a phantom assailant until they were ready ('Not today, but soon') to use the makiwara - a stiff, vertical wooden construction designed to condition and strengthen the hands. Inspecting the class to gauge whether each student was following the diagram correctly, and repeating several times that when striking one should go through the target, Sensei spent twenty minutes on punching alone before allowing them a five minute breather.
Mike was surprised: they'd been practicing striking in a form the master called the 'Horse stance' for a little over ten minutes, but still a lot of the men in the room looked like they needed the break to get their breath back. What does Sensei think of that? Probably standard for beginners, Mike figured. Jake, he noted, was doing well, Butcher too and in the interim the three of them went over to say hi to Jimmy, Greig and Jackson.
"Holding that stance was murderous, don't you think?" Greig said.
Jake and Butcher nodded then Mike and Jackson said at the same time, "Not really," and laughed. Jackson was a hard-faced, heavily built fellow with close-cropped black hair, dark blue eyes, pale skin - he was flushed now, though. Mike remembered him from high-school when they'd been on the Year 10 basketball team together. Jackson was two years older, so he'd be twenty-one or twenty-two by now. A gifted athlete and very competitive, he'd been pretty good with the girls, too.
"What are you doing with yourself these days, Jackson?" That was Jake.
He told them that he'd gotten a job in real-estate after school and had been with the same girl for the last twelve months ('She's a bloody keeper, then!'). He also said he'd spoken to Crow the day he'd signed up here, asked how many students the master was going to specially train - something that was on both Mike and Jake's minds. Jimmy's, too, apparently. He said he'd asked the same thing and the master had told them he'd be picking 'no more than ten, no less than six'. Then Jackson was continuing, "Everyone here's a student, Sensei said, but the ones lucky enough to get picked for private instruction, they're 'disciples'," Jackson paused. "I'm gonna get in whatever it takes."
Jimmy replied, "So am I," and Mike was about to say something similar but before he opened his mouth Sensei called out, "Come!" and they traipsed back inside.
The group was split into pairs to practice (hands, wrists and underarms) basic grappling and at the same time, throwing and break-falls. Mike was paired up with Jackson, and they watched while Sensei showed them three differing techniques to break a strangle-hold.
In the hour or so they had left Mike learned dozens of techniques, several different strikes (straight punch, forefist punch, backfist) and at the end of the class, after finally paying their tuition, those interested in enlistment as disciples were asked to leave their street address and phone number as a means of contact. If they were accepted into the specialist classes, they were told, they would receive a letter in the mail. All of those that left their contact addresses had no idea what Crow really wanted the information for, though. Call it blackmail.
It was just getting on ten o' clock in the morning when Butcher, Jake and Mike clambered into the car and headed home. The day had only just begun, however. After Jake and Mike dropped Butcher off, they had somewhere to be, someone to see.
"So what exactly is the plan, Mike?" Jake knew that this - driving down to Ottoville to pay Jon Massi a visit - was as inevitable as his mother's next cigarette. They could ignore facts all they wanted, but it only took one mention of Jake calling Mike 'Red' - which he'd been doing for years, and the discontinuation really irked him - and both of them were reminded of the scars on Mike's chest, the bruises he'd been given.
It was about time someone stood up to the Massis, and Jake couldn't think of anyone better to do the job than Mike. The brothers numbered five, but so what? They were a nuisance to the town and so had few friends, and if they went after Mike again he and Jake would crack their skulls. They'd only started training today, true, but Jake knew that within a matter of months he'd be knowledgeable enough to handle all of them on his own - just look who their instructor was. Any lingering doubts he may have had about doing this had been quashed by something Sensei had said earlier in the day: 'If you are bullied, strike back - a bully, and they come in all kinds, is essentially a coward that enjoys subjugating the weak. He will often balk at a display of strength. Don't allow yourself to be shamed by a coward, give him a taste of his own medicine.' There were exceptions, domestic abuse was one, but there'd been little argument from the gathered students - they were too in awe of the master to gainsay him - and the advice had encouraged and enfevered both Mike and Jake.
"I know you want me to stay out of this," Jake said to his mate. "But I've at least gotta have some idea what you're up to. Forewarned is forearmed, y'know?"
Mike flashed him a grin. He looked positively unnerving, and it didn't help when he reached into the bag that held his gi, white belt and water bottle and grabbed out a wicked knife, easily eight inches long. "Jesus, Mike! You're not going to-?"
"Easy, mate. I'm not gonna cut him," Mike said. "Just slash his tyres."
Jake said, "Oh, okay." He should have guessed his friend had something like that in mind. Two days ago he'd been plying Jake for info on Jono, had asked several questions about the make and model and colour of his car - "'You're sure you'd recognise it?" - now Jake knew why. He grinned straight back, "Right on!" Hell, he thought, Maybe the bastard won't even know who did it? Which would be perfect if it ended there - and if it didn't at least they could even up the score a little.
About forty minutes after dropping Butcher home they arrived in Ottoville and made their way toward the west of the town. The smell of the place was detestable, really full-on - as if the people living here didn't have enough of a raw deal already they had to cope with the stench, too. Jake supposed being born and raised here they'd grown up with it. Does being born and raised in poverty somehow make it easier to bear too?
Before he had a chance to give the thought further consideration they were on the old dirt road approaching the gate to the sugar mill. Jake expected Kennard to greet them, had planned out what to say to him - "Jono or not, we need the work, man" - so he was mildly surprised to see an red-headed fifty-something female manning the gate. He wound down his window, preparing a speech about looking for work but as it was he didn't need to: the woman glanced at the two of them then motioned for them to drive on. What do they even need a guard for? Jake thought, before realising that more than likely the guard was there to keep an eye on who came in and who out - as well as what occurred in between. We're no one lady. Go back to reading your Cosmopolitan.
They made their way over to the sparse car-park - there were a few vehicles evident but they located Jono's quickly, "That's the one." Jake recognised it as easily as he would have recognised Jono himself - the guy had fueled up at the servo several times when Jake had still been working there and he knew the man and his car by sight.
While Jake and Mike both got out of the car and looked around, clearly with trouble on their minds, a young man, unseen, noted their arrival and watched keenly as they pulled in before running off to fetch his friend. Though they hadn't seen Kennard, he had seen them, and he'd guessed aright that they were up to no good.
They'd parked a good fifty metres away but Jake was assured the job would take less than two minutes. Mike walked over to Jono's little shit-box with the knife close to his thigh, trying - but not quite managing - to look casual and after a moment Jake called to his friend, who was taking his sweet time "Come on, Mike! The coast is clear!"
"You sure about that?" someone from behind Jake said. He spun about-face only to see Kennard staring contemptuously at him. Damn!
Mike hadn't noticed the interruption; he'd just punctured the first tyre, was getting to the second one when Jake called out, "'Mike, look out!"
Mike looked up, almost comically, but he was a good twenty feet away - what if he didn't see Jono? "Shut up, Carter," Kennard said. "And stay right where you are. No need to make this an unfair fight." Jake almost choked at the irony. "If your friend there so much as considers using that knife on ol' Jono," Jake fervently hoped he did not, "I'll have you bastards arrested." Scornfully, "If he doesn't, well, Jono is gonna fuck him up for this. Why did you do it? Seriously?'
"Like you give two shits, Kennard."
Meanwhile, Jono and Mike had spotted each other. Both Kennard and Jake quieted, watching and listening.
"You like what I did to your car, Jono? Quite an improvement, wouldn't you say?" Jake laughed out loud - he couldn't help it. Kennard thought Jono was going to beat Mike up, but he didn't know Mike. Jake did - Jono was toast. The knife, he noticed with relief, was not in his friend's hand.
"You motherfucker! You thought last time was bad-"
"I'm right here, mate." Mike was confident, casual - Jake had seen him like this a few times. How does he always stay so calm?
"You're a cocky one, Big Red, but-"
That was as far as Jono got. Calm? A second after he loosed the words Big Red something in Mike snapped. He charged Jono - the expression on his face was all hate - and tackled him to the ground, raining punches on his chest, his face - he was almost in a frenzy. Grabbing Jono's skull with both hands Mike slammed it into the ground several times, "You wanna fuckin' call me that again? Well, do ya!?" That's what you get, Jono.
It was over in the blink of an eye. His victim almost unconscious, Mike called out to Jake, "Come on! Let's go!"
Jake didn't waste any time. He quickly said to Kennard, "I hope you enjoyed the show," then sprinted over to where they'd parked, hopped in and burned rubber.