I had a friend once. He was a good kid. We were nine and we didn’t deserve what happened to us.
One day in a park I lived near, a teenager I call Dogshit and his two teenage friends tortured us. Beat us. Pissed on us and almost raped us. That day it was all we could do to look at each other before my friend showered, called his mother, and vanished out of my life forever. I never saw that kid again. I don’t know what happened to him. Can’t tell you anything about him. Lost his name in the effort of forgetting that day ever happened. I wish I could find him now. Find him and tell him this story. Find my friend and let him know about the Bold Boy I was the next day and about the girl we will call Gift.
I guess this story, I tell to him. I hope he had a day like this one I will now talk about.
Dogshit hit us in the summer. My mother was working the next day and so was my stepfather. Less would have been ten or eleven at the time, but my mother didn’t trust her, for obvious reasons. They hated each other. Less was still playing Char’s game of hate and manipulation, and Rose knew she couldn’t leave Less in charge. So, she called Cage’s mother from our old neighborhood. It was announced at breakfast that we were going to stay with them that day. Just this one time, we would not be left alone in the house. We were packed in a car and off we went.
We made it to the neighborhood and Rose didn’t even get out of the car. She shouted to be good and tell Cage’s mom thanks, and she sped off. I turned to face the house, broken from the day before and scared of what Cage would do if he found out. What he would do if he looked at me and saw the weakness in me.
We got to the backyard, and Cage and some kids from the block were standing there with Gift.
She was a pretty girl with frizzy red hair and a sundress. She had a smattering of freckles on her cheeks and her skin was pale as milk, and I wondered if it was soft. I could not meet her eyes. Adam could not even look at her body. He stole glances and looked away.
She was Chops’ daughter and, as such, she was untouchable. No one fucked with her, no one dared. He was still the most feared man on our block. Still the muscle for the Crimson Blades and was still master of Caesar, the unbreakable Doberman Pincher.
“What are you doing back here, Jesse?” Damned spat. “No one wants you here. You left us. You’re living with the spicks now. Get out of here.”
Adam curled up. He saw flashes of Dogshit and pulled back.
“If you ever speak to Jesse like that again I will laugh the whole time he beats you into the ground. Then I will step over you and take that bike you are so proud of,” Cage said.
I looked in the corner of the yard, where Damned’s bike sat, and I gasped. It was beautiful. BMX, red, hand brakes, mag wheels. In this neighborhood, it would be stolen in two days, maybe three, but Damned had it today.
“Well, you said we were riding bikes today, Cage,” Damned said. “I guess Jesse is out, unless he brought his. Did you bring that piece of shit bike you ride?”
I turned around and saw Chops on his back porch, his elbows resting on the banister, cigarette in hand. He squinted from the smoke in his eye when he took his drag, and he looked at Gift and scowled.
“We will walk our bikes,” Cage said.
“Why don’t we play motorcycle gang instead?” Damned said. “We can all be in a motorcycle gang and I’ll be the leader.”
“Not how it works, kid,” Chops yelled down to us. He flicked his cigarette and stared at all of us. “Strongest man leads the gang. Strongest of the gang decides what is what. You want to play like you ride, then you gotta decide who is strongest.”
He motioned to Gift. She walked to right below the porch. He looked at her and pointed with two fingers. “You decide who the leader is. You decide.” Chops nodded to her, winked, and walked away.
She turned to the group of us and smiled. It was a bright and shining thing that filled me with power.
“Whoever wins leader of the gang will be my boyfriend for the day,” Gift said. “Just today. Tomorrow, it is all over, but today will be our day.” She pulled her hands behind her back and something within me rolled over.
I did not know what to call it at the time. But now as I sit here, I can see that it had to have been Guardian. There was a girl. There was a girl to champion. She would be a queen for the day and he needed a win.
Guardian had almost been raped the day before. He had been beaten and humiliated. He came up roaring and looked at her. He bowed his head and said, “I will fight for you. Give me any challenge and I will perform it to be yours for the day.”
He looked up and she smiled.
“Arm wrestle,” she said.
Cage was going to win this. He was bigger and much stronger than any other boy in the neighborhood. We all dropped to the cement and the contest began. Cage won the first one. And the second. He won the third as more and more boys from the neighborhood heard about what was going on. Gift was giving herself to the winner.
Cage took a break, and other kids went at it. In all, there were eight of us that day, and when it was my turn to grip a hand and arm wrestle, I looked into the boy’s face and saw Dogshit.
I nearly broke his hand. He cried out and jumped to his feet. He made as if he would kick me but he didn’t. The next kid dropped down and, right there on the concrete, we went at it. I summoned up a face I hated, and this time it was Char. I slammed the kid’s hand on the cement so hard it broke the skin. One more, and it was me and Cage.
He smiled at me and winked when he grabbed my hand. Guardian looked at Gift. He didn’t look at his hand, or Cage, or even the ground. He looked up at her and, with little effort, he put Cage’s hand on the ground.
“Sword fight,” Gift said.
I stood and grabbed a branch. I swung it in a few dizzying circles and leaned against it.
Damned spoke. “I don’t know why he is even getting a chance to win. He doesn’t even have a bike. He can’t even play the game. How would it be for our gang leader to run beside the gang?”
I stepped up to him and Guardian glared at him. “Pick. Up. A. Stick,” Guardian said.
It did not take long for Guardian to win this contest. He was a backyard smith. A toy weapon maker that had built a sword for himself. He had seen all the movies, had mastered all the moves of the swordsmen of the shows and movies he had seen. Guardian was a master with a sword compared to these other boys. He sent a few of them hopping back and crying.
He turned to Gift and bowed. He looked up at Chops, who stared down at him and grinned.
“Good show, kid,” Chops said. “What next, Gift?”
“Punch each other in the arms,” she said. “The boy that can take the most punches is the winner. Jesse gets three free shots at everyone since he won both contests so far.”
Pain soaked every blow. Every time a boy came and punched with every ounce of force he could muster, Pain was the one who took the hit. They hit him in the same spot. Ten, twelve hits to the same spot on the meaty part of his shoulder. When it was done, no one could take another hit. And Guardian walked around, showing off his arm and yelling at them until they punched it one more time.
He was hard that day. He was bold. He was beyond explaining. But he didn’t have a bike.
“Well, he still can’t be gang leader if he doesn’t have a bike,” Damned said.
“Where is your old bike?” Cage said. “Can he borrow it?”
“I threw that piece of shit away,” Damned said. “Was worthless.”
Guardian turned to Gift. “I’ll be right back.” He took her hand and placed a delicate kiss on it. Just like he had seen in movies. Just as he had done with Eve.
He ran to Damned’s house and heard the boy laughing all the way there. When he got to the dumpster, he saw Damned’s old bike stuck half in and half out of it. He jerked it out. Man, I tell you he was so strong that day. He would not be able to heft a bike like that again for another three years, maybe four, but that day he pulled that bike out and set it on the ground.
The paint had been stripped from it when Damned got it. That meant he had bought it stolen. His dad had tried to cover this up by painting it white. But he had used house paint and the effect was a terrible smear job, streaked with thin white paint and covered in the tiny scratches you always find on a stripped bike from the machine they use to do the stripping. It was ugly. It was in horrible shape and when Guardian noticed it did not have a bike seat, he looked up to see Damned in the alley laughing. Cage stared and shook his head.
“Can’t be leader. You can’t ride,” Damned said.
Guardian stared at that bike, that hideous stolen, tossed out, garbage of a bike without a seat, and he growled. He stomped on the pedal and refused to sit. He had his foot on the other and rode it standing up. He rode all over the alleyway until he stopped in front of the boys.
“Gift, get on the handlebars,” he said.
She kissed his cheek and jumped on.
“Everyone behind me,” Guardian snapped. “Cage on my right. Damned in the back. You watch for stragglers.”
Chops came around the corner to look at us, and he crossed his arms and grinned with a cigarette in his mouth.
“Watch for stragglers. What does that mean?” Damned whined.
“It means that if anyone has trouble keeping up with the pace I set, you have to stay behind them so they are not alone back there,” Guardian said.
“You ready, baby?” Guardian said to Gift.
She looked over her shoulder at him and smiled. “Let’s go!” she said.
I looked at Chops, who nodded, and off we went.
I rode as fast as I could, never sitting down, always on my feet, standing on the pedals as I rode. Gift held on tight and rolled with the sway of the handlebars that came with standing and riding. We rode the neighborhood and Guardian was king.
We stopped and got candy at the Old Man’s House. We found and broke some beer bottles against the back wall of the school across the street from Cage’s block. We hit the drug store and I bought us two bottles of soda. The guys all shared one, and me and Gift shared the other. She held my hand. She whispered in my ear. At one point, Guardian was sitting at the picnic table at the park while the rest of the guys sat across from him. Gift stood behind him and draped her arms around him. She rested her chin on his shoulder and hugged her body to his.
That was Guardian’s favorite moment of life. That right there. Him leading men with his queen’s arms wrapped around him from behind. She was not interrupting. She was not trying to distract him. Gift was, at that moment, just displaying that she belonged with him. That she was his for the day. She even whispered in his ear when she wanted to go. The sensation of her breath on his ear gave him a shiver that ran straight through his body.
Guardian looked at his gang. He felt his woman’s arms around him, and he thought of Dogshit. But this time he did not think about the beating, the torture. He did not think about the pissing or even the threat of rape. All he could think about was rage. All he could think about right there, at that moment, was the sheer magnitude of the power he felt and the need to go back to that park, find that teenage boy, and pound him into the ground.
And he could have done it. In that moment. On that day. Guardian was invincible. He was the leader of a bike gang. He had a girl draped across him and he was a king. He was unbeatable.
It would be years beyond telling before Guardian felt powerful again. His life became about sacrifice and self-discipline. It became about the need to protect and the servitude of a guard.
But on that day, Guardian was a king. And he had a queen.
He never saw her again.
Gift, I don’t know where you are. I will never see you again, and if our paths ever do cross, I will never recognize you. But I want to tell you, you were the first of Guardian’s girls. You were the one who made him feel powerful instead of used. You were the one who taught him how to be bold. For that alone, I will always love you.