My name is Jack Gordon. I have never had a karate lesson in my life. Or judo or jujitsu or kung fu, for that matter.
I saw The Karate Kid a couple of times and I’ve watched a few Bruce Lee movies with my favorite uncle, but that’s the extent of it. I’m 17 years old and before this weirdness began, I’d been in exactly one fistfight. That happened when I was 9 and Kenny Smotherman referred to the Little League team for which I played as a bunch of pansies.
Pansies! So I had to fight him. We went round and round a little bit on the grass in back of Brookside School, circling each other like the men we’d seen fight on TV. Then we got down to it and it was mostly just an ugly affair witnessed by two dozen kids who cheered us on. When 9 year olds get to brawling, it’s mostly a lot of wrestling and shirt ripping and wild punches that land everywhere but on human flesh.
I might have won that fight. It’s hard to say, really. Kenny got a bloody lip and he cried. He ran off and the next time I saw him, he was standing at my door next to his scowling mother. Kenny had a fat lip and he just stared at his feet. His mother, on the other hand, was red-faced and fuming. She demanded to speak to my father (my mother wasn’t home that day, thank God) and for an hour, Kenny and I sat in my living room, listening to them go at it in the kitchen. Kenny’s mom with the voice rising high and out of control. My dad’s voice just a low, defensive murmur you could barely hear at all.
Kenny and I made up at once. His lip stayed fat for a whole week so, yeah. I guess I won that fight. But I’m no scrapper. I’m a lean kid, five feet, ten inches tall and I can’t get over 140 pounds no matter how much I eat. I have a runner’s build, my father would say. And then he’d add: “He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day,” because my dad was always saying things like that.
But I didn’t have a chance to run on that Saturday in downtown Privilege. You can’t run when there are three bigger guys surrounding you on the sidewalk and you sure as hell can’t run when your companion is the prettiest girl in school and she’s wearing heels.
I was with Julie Drouin the day it happened. Julie and I were just about always together, but we went around telling everybody – and telling each other – that we were just friends. The best of friends. Nothing romantic here. It’s what teenagers do when they’re falling in love and don’t know how to handle it.
We were in Privilege because Julie, star of the Myrtle High Drama Club, wanted to see the new Kate Hudson movie. In Myrtle, where we live and go to school, there is only one dinky theater and it always seems to be playing movies from the summer before. It’s a crappy place called the Cinema Center. There’s always gum on the floor and some of the arm rests are actually held together with duct tape. Add to that the fact that the theater smells chronically of dirty feet and it’s not the place to go if you’ve got a thing for your “best friend” and you want to get a little closer and see what happens.
So we went to Privilege, which to me has always been a scary place. There are drug addicts there who are always robbing the pharmacies. There are gangs, too. Not Crips and Bloods like you see out west, but local bands of hoodlums who give themselves sinister names like The Folk or the P-City Outlaws. Wannabes, I guess, but you know what? Wannabes are as dangerous as the real thing. More so, maybe, because they try harder.
When I was a sophomore, there was a wave of violence in Privilege that spilled over into Myrtle. A cab driver was slashed across the throat by a gang of punks who had ordered him to drive them to the lot behind the United Methodist Church out on 201, which connects the two cities. The cabbie survived only because he was able to radio for help after the punks had left him for dead on the grimy floor of his cab.
Around the same time, there was a rash of home invasions during which elderly men and women were tied to chairs inside their own little houses as the marauding pukes demanded prescription drugs.
Animals, those kids who call themselves the P-City Outlaws. And so I stayed away from Privilege as much as I could, but I went there on that rainy Saturday because Julie wanted to see the Kate Hudson movie before any of her friends. And about two-thirds of the way through the flick, Julie looked at me and smiled and then she dropped her head onto my shoulder and took my arm in one of her hands. Just like that. I could smell her shampoo, the fragrance of apricots. I could feel the warmth of her on my skin and if I had been believing the lie about us being just good friends, I stopped believing it the moment I felt the weight of her head on my shoulder. While Kate Hudson did her thing on screen, I was sitting and thinking that I would fight every member of the P-City Outlaws just to make this moment last a few minutes longer.
There’s irony there, I suppose, because that’s kind of what happened.
They came at us between the theater and the parking garage in which I had left my pickup. It was on a short stub of a street where there was virtually no traffic on weekends. We were walking close together, our hands occasionally bumping and sending volts of electricity shooting up my arm. My whole body was tense. I was considering just reaching out and grabbing her hand to take it in my own. The thought was huge in my head. I remember that inner debate, as complex and important as anything I had tackled in my life. I was going to go for it and it just might be life-changing.
Then the husky man stepped out from an alley, appearing in the mist before us like some kind of grotesque mirage. He was tall and stout, beefy arms crawling with tattoos. He was wearing a grungy white tank top, the kind they call wife beaters if you happen to be watching COPS.
He had a blue bandana over the top of his head and prison-style jeans hanging below his waist. Gangsta through and through. He had one of those pudgy, squashed noses and thick lips. He was smiling a nasty little smile and – somehow worse than that – he was snapping his fingers, like some hipster out of the 1950s.
The thug stood be-bopping on the sidewalk and Julie and I were about to walk right into him. I began to slow and as I did, I stretched my right arm out to hold Julie back, like my mother does in the car whenever she hits the brakes.
I remember thinking: Well, that was a good thing to do. That’s looking out for your lady. Now just give the dude a little nod as you walk around him and everything will be okay. Aces, as they might have said back in the be-bopping 50s.
But everything wasn’t okay. As I tried to veer around the guy, he just sidestepped into our path. Sidestepped and kept on smiling, and that’s the moment I knew this was trouble of the big city kind. The kind of trouble that unfolds in Privilege all the time and occasionally on the edges of Myrtle, as well.
“Hey,” I said. “We don’t want…”
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Genre – YA / Thriller
Rating – PG
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