Well, Cage was big. He was broad in the shoulders and had big hands, and he had a meanness to him that would take him by surprise. He could not understand it. Could not place the thing within him that made him aggressive. Every now and then, for no reason and with no provocation, he would just snap.
We would be at the pool, or in the park. We would be catching big crawdads in the Kosciuszko Lagoon or swinging on the swings, and he would just snap out his arm and grab me. By the hair, the arm, the face. He would close his big hands around my leg or my crotch and squeeze. He would curl his fist and start to pound.
His fists hit like rock. It was as if his knuckles were made out of gravel. He had a look to him when he would do this. A dead-eye stare that chilled my blood. I would try to squirm away and he would fight to hold on to me, wrapping an arm around me like an anaconda and squeezing. He would pound into the same spot over and over again until I escaped him and was running.
Cage was athletic. He had long legs and could run like a deer. He kept pace as I ran, and he would laugh. He would snatch things up as he chased me and throw them at me. Never hitting me, but the stone or stick that he had picked up would sail wide. I knew he was back there, waiting for me to tire, letting me run.
He beat my ass so many times, and after the first few, I would run home and fall into my mother’s arms. I would grip tight to her and weep. She would pet me and coo.
Within an hour there would be a knock on the door. Within an hour Cage would be standing on my stoop asking for me. I would yell at him, tell him I hated him. Tell him I never wanted to see him again, but by the end of the conversation he would be crying.
See, Cage had a hard-working father. Worked construction, barely put food on the table, but he had money for beer. Every night he got drunk. He sat in his chair, staring at his television, waiting for the drink to kick in. A steaming man waiting for the blood to boil. Slowly getting hot with his own disappointments. Feeling the heat of every hard hour he put in and every hard word spoken to him during the day. He let it all rise and stew with the drink, then slapped the recliner down and stood swaying, his eyes roving, searching for a body to focus on.
I don’t know much about what Cage’s home life was like. I heard his father yelling. Often heard his sister Meek screaming. Cage never said what the house was like after his dad reached the boiling point, but I have one experience, one night I can remember, of a flaming man stomping into Cage’s bedroom while I was sleeping over.
The mother got in the way. “Not now, not with Jesse here!” she hissed. The father swatted her aside and reached for Cage. Dead eyes. Tight grip on Cage’s arm and his mother grabbed me and pulled me away. I heard my friend screaming and I cried.
Cage was violent and vicious for the first year I knew him. Until one particular day. I started running and he started chasing. I went across the street, out of the park, into the road to the sound of tires squealing and cruising as a Buick screeched to a stop a foot from me.
I went wide. I ran to the block up from my house and dipped between the Salvation Army store and the sports shop that sat beside it. The space between the two buildings, I stuffed myself in there sideways, inching down the crevasse. Trash had been thrown here for years. I stepped around it. I saw two windows, each looking into the side of the building next to it so close that to open the window and reach a hand out was to touch a neighbor. I scraped my way along until I saw Cage run up to the crack. His head swiveled back and forth, his feet stomping. He clenched his hands in tight fists and flexed them. He stared with his dead eyes.
I was halfway to the other side when he looked in at me and smiled. He stood staring at me. Then in a flash he was gone.
Where had he gone? Had he stepped a foot left and stood waiting for me to come back that way? Had he run around the building to wait for me on the other side? I stood between the two buildings whimpering, wishing I had any information to go on, wishing I could read his complex mind.
Because Cage was a genius. His grades were as good as he wanted them to be. He knew anything he wanted to know. When he decided to read a book, he was done already. When he worked a puzzle, it was over before it began. He was the brightest kid I knew and I knew he would outsmart me.
I had few options. Predicting him was impossible. So I edged my way in the direction closest to home and I ran. I shot out of the tight space like an arrow fired from a bow. I ran hard, pulling my speed up from within the wells of power at my command, and I ran.
I heard him laugh. It echoed through the alley and I knew he saw me.
I ran. I heard his footsteps behind me. A rock sailed past my head. I ran. Fought for every ounce of speed I had and won my back porch. I bolted up the stairs, hit the screen door hard and gripped the knob. It didn’t turn. The curtain pulled back and I saw my mother.
“Let me in!” I screamed. “He is coming for me!”
She stared down at me and shook her head. “Kick his ass,” she said.
My pounding heart stopped. Blood rushed in my ears and my skin broke out in gooseflesh.
“You are not getting in this house until you beat Cage’s ass. You have run from him for long enough. Stand and be a man, or let him beat you to death,” she said. The window muffled her words, making them sound surreal. “Good luck,” she said before she closed the curtain and I was alone.
I pressed my back to the door and stared out over the yard. It was wild and overgrown with grass knee high and strange weeds sticking up in places as high as my head in some parts. There was a picket fence between my house and Cage’s and a few of the boards were missing. I saw him standing there looking at me with his dead eyes waiting.
The fence on the other side was tall and unclimbable by a kid my size. The sidewalk between the two houses that led to the front of the house was blocked by him. I had no play but out the backyard.
I had no plan. I had no hope. He was faster, stronger, meaner than me. He had no fear, he had no restraint, and he had within him a hate pointed at me. I had nothing to fight him with at all.
I ran and he followed me.
“I’m going to stomp your ass into the ground, bitch,” he said, his seven-year-old mouth already so adept at swearing that it was seamless and natural coming from him.
I made it around the alleyway and ran toward his house. I ran into his backyard and past his garbage cans. A broom with no bristles stuck out of the can, and I grabbed it as I passed, unsheathing it from the trash like Excalibur from a stone.
I remember the handle was covered in blue paint and flaking. I remember it was too long to work for me as a sword. But I also knew I had no other hope. I stood behind his garage and pulled back.
He came around the corner and dropped that stare on me. I stepped out into the backyard. He came at me laughing.
“What are you going to do with that thing?” he said. He picked up a stick of his own, much shorter than mine but thicker. He swung it a few times and I stepped back.
I had no form. I spun in a circle, building up as much speed and power as I could, and he stepped forward. My arc was aimed at his head, and he held his stick up to block. In the last moment I dropped my swing to his belly.
My broom snapped.
Cage hit the ground screaming. Wailing. It was as if he was on fire. As if his heart had been punctured and he was in the final death throes. I dropped the broom and ran as he screamed in horror.
I came for home. I didn’t try the back door. I ran for the front. I got to the door and my mother had it open. I ran in and she slammed it behind me.
“Is he dying?” she asked. She looked scared.
I was crying already. Sobs with hot tears running down my face. I closed my eyes and summoned up the last image I had of him before I had turned to sprint away. He was down on the ground, his arms out wide, flat out on his back, his face contorted in horrid pain. I could still hear his screams. They shattered and echoed through the summer sun.
“I don’t know if I killed him or not,” I sobbed. “He is hurt pretty bad.”
“I swear if that woman calls the cops, I am going to tell them he earned it. If Cage’s mom tries to get the Kings involved, I am going to kill her myself.”
Cage’s mother brought him over about an hour later. About forty-five minutes after the screams died down. She brought him over and she was pissed. His face was bright red. He was sweating in the heat of his pain and could not meet my eye.
“Coffee?” my mother asked.
His mother dropped into a seat at the kitchen table.
“You’re gonna beat your boy’s ass for what he did to my Cage,” his mother said.
“Not a chance,” my mother said. “Jesse has been beat up for no reason by Cage so many times, I can’t count them. Tell me I’m wrong.”
His mother looked at the coffee cup handed to her, then looked up at me. She squinted for a minute before she nodded. “Cage has done his fair share of asskicking.”
“You could say that he was asking for it,” my mother said.
Cage’s mother looked at him and she sighed. She gripped the bottom hem of his shirt and gingerly picked it up. He winced as she lifted it above his head and displayed what I had done to him.
The bruise was four inches thick. It ran from his left flank to his right, almost to his back. That broom had whipped around his torso.
“This can’t happen again,” Cage’s mother said to me.
“Then Cage needs to watch how he treats Jesse, because I can guarantee you one thing right now. Next time it won’t be a broom handle. Next time it will be metal, and he won’t run after he has hit him, but will pound him into the ground with it.” My mother tussled my hair. “Next time Cage goes to the hospital.”
His mother turned to him. “Did you hear that?”
“Uh huh,” Cage groaned.
“Boy, what did I say? Did you hear what this woman said?” his mom shouted.
“Yes, momma, I got it.”
“Tell him to say sorry,” my mother said to his mother.
“Say sorry, Cage, for bringing it this far.”
“Sorry Jesse,” he said, still looking at the ground.
“Jesse?” my mother snapped.
“Sorry for almost killing you,” I said.
That was the last time I ever fought Cage. He knew now that he might have been stronger, faster, and meaner, but I had no rules. It was the end of the aggression between us. And the beginning of our aggression toward the streets around us. For now that we weren’t fighting ourselves, we were focused on others.