For David Rózsa
In the north, in spring, the snow starts to melt but the ground has yet to thaw. The wind still carries a bitter chill down from the mountains’ peaks, reminiscent of the season past. The central town – a valley cradled on all sides by soft, clay slopes – becomes a hazy bowl of mist that has risen off the river by dawn, curling over the valley’s edges to snake along paved roads towards high-rising, well-to-do residential housing. When the sun rises, it gives off a luminescent glare through the fog, and you can barely see a hand held out in front of your face.
The residential areas of town rest over the edges of the valley, divided by a strong sense of class distinction. Furthest out indicates highest class, with the middleclass buried in a maze of streets to the south end. Somewhere along the twelve minute stretch of road between there and downtown is a trailer park to one side of the highway and some poor-end housing tucked into the trees on the other.
* * *
In late spring, I began to spend most of my free time with Kandii at one of the many identical, white-washed trailers, held in place by wooden supports and poured concrete steps leading to the side door. Hallways and rooms were narrow, always thick with cigarette smoke which clung to my hair and clothes within minutes.
On the weekends, we took to wandering the streets in the late afternoon when nearby friends were unavailable by phone. The roads were lined with thick pines and spruce, renewing their faded needles. Kandii’s honey-sweet tone babbled incessantly about rave parties and music festivals in Edmonton that I’d never attend. A chickadee chastised her from a nearby tree as we passed.
Across the highway, the houses were all two floors – with a basement, if lucky. Thin, squared, the same pale blue or white side paneling and gray-slated roof. Alone those roads our mutual friend, David, lived with his mother and step-father in what had exceedingly become apparent to be a dysfunctional household over the years.
* * *
“The cellular customer you have dialed is currently unavailable. Please try your call again later.” David didn’t answer his cell-phone, though Kandii didn’t seem surprised.
“He’ll be home,” she assured me. She turned to walk down the road, assuming I’d follow her. I did.
David stood on his front porch, watching as we came up the road from a distance. As we drew up to the house, I had to remind myself that David’s a year younger than I – he stood almost a full head taller. I re-evaluated him: despite a thin frame, he’s lean and strong. His deep-set eyes tend to bear into one’s own in silent moments. His dark hair and sharp features lend to an intimidating air. His appearance is gentle in comparison to personality: a gruff attitude, quick wit and sharp tongue tend to keep others in his presence on edge.
David’s family lived plainly, but in disarray – clothing, magazines, dishes and newspapers littered their house even on a good day. In the kitchen, notes addressed to David were taped up. His step-father’s dirty scrawl degraded him in ‘colorful’ messages – a “worthless, bastard child” the drunk in the basement would never accept. David crumpled the one he read and thrust it into my hands as he brushed past. The front door clattered twice. I moved through the room, tore down the remaining paper, and mentally noted twenty-three beer cans stacked by the back door.
* * *
I found Kandii and David sitting on the porch steps, side-by-side. The crisp air brought a flush to my cheeks. Kandii lit a cigarette, its dim glow held in her chubby fingers felt like our sanctity in the fading light. I sat on the top step, pressed to David’s back – one leg on either side of his, arms around his torso. His heat held off the evening’s chill.
“How do you live like this?” I asked, muffled into his shoulder.
“Not that I have a choice, my mother married that bastard.”
“His mom’s blinded by her obsession over him,” Kandii interjected. She exhaled soft wisps of smoke and flicked the burnt embers off the cigarette butt.
“You don’t think of him as family,” I said. It wasn’t a question.
“He’s not my father,” David growled. “I’ve never had one.”
I slipped my hand into his back pocket. I curled my fingers around a lighter, drew it out and handed it to him. He’d already slid a cigarette from the pack, handed another to Kandii. Smoke curled away from their lips, grey and cancerous. For long minutes, I tried to make my eyes see familiar shapes in the tobacco clouds, squinting. The porch light flickered to life on a timer, buzzing. David’s head fell back onto my shoulder, cast sickly yellow under the light.
“Will you stay the night?” I frowned. Our David – tough-enough-David, never-show-them-weakness-David, better-than-thou-David, – was showing signs of faltering? I nodded and Kandii leaned into us both. We listened to the growing dusk for long minutes.
“It’s getting cold,” David said simply, leaning up slowly. Footsteps thumped through the hallway inside the house. “And John’s up.” We pulled ourselves up and followed him inside.
* * *
John was in the kitchen, throwing beer cans in a recycling bin. Hearing us approach from the main hallway, he turned. He was unshaven and his dark hair was unkempt. “Dishes, everywhere!” He frowned at his step-son and indicated around the kitchen. Plates and bowls filled the entire sink beside him. “Do something useful for once,” he admonished.
“You’ve been home all day. Do it yourself.” David snapped back quickly, earning a glare down from his step-father. Kandii and I stayed in the doorway behind David.
“Don’t use that tone with me,” John warned.
“Do something for once. I have a job, I have school. What the hell do you do?” David challenged him.
“I’m not listening to this.” John turned away and sauntered for the back door, flipping open his cell phone.
“That’s right, call mom,” David continued taunting. He turned to us with a quick, “stay here,” before following his step-father out the back door, shutting it firmly behind them. Wide-eyed, Kandii stayed planted in the doorway. I moved to the window, drawing the lace curtains away from wood paneling and peered out the dirty glass. She was at my side in an instant.
John and David stood on the back walkway, about ten paces apart, calling to each other with over exaggerated gestures. We could see them yelling, their mouths moving violently as whips. We couldn’t hear them through the thick windows. The silence of the old house felt thick, stuffy. David looked as delicate as a porcelain doll compared to the brute before him, I thought. I felt nauseous.
David turned quickly to the house and we dashed into the next room. His expression was hard. The back door crashed open as his step-father stormed to the basement with a new case of beer.
* * *
In the living room, Kandii and I lowered herself onto a couch with a sigh. The deep green leather gave under her weight, plush and cold against bare skin. My hands instinctively sought a coarse blanket as Kandii scrounged between the cushions, searching for the T.V. remote.
David barely made a motion to join us when footsteps sounded again back up the staircase. The lights we expected to flood the room never came, but his step-father’s dark frame appeared in the doorway, overbearing and exhaling alcohol.
“I want you all out of my house,” he bellowed.
“It isn’t your fucking house, John. You just came into our lives, you can leave at any time.” David moved to stand toe-to-toe with him, a good head shorter but confident, creating a wall between John and us.
John cursed him, calling him “ungrateful, worthless, punk ass” before he lashed out. They struggled only seconds – it seemed far longer as I held my breath – and David was pushed back into the darkness of the hallway. Beside me, Kandii was on her feet.
“Don’t you fucking touch David!”
I hadn’t realized I’d gotten up and stepped around the coffee table until my knee bumped the polished, black wood; I felt carpet under my bare toes.
Kandii’s voice echoed beside me as David fell back. His step-father looked towards us. “And take your little friends with you,” he slurred.
I paled as he lurched towards me. I had never seen David react so quickly as in that next moment, coiled and striking as a snake to its prey. He was up and between us in an instant; one hand connected to John’s shoulder, the other for his neck. John was forced to the wall, lifted an inch off the ground by his step-son – hardly his size, and half the weight. A light fixture on the wall shuddered loose with the force of impact, then clattered to the ground.
“My ‘little friends’ have names,” David growled, low and dangerous. He leaned in closer so his smoky breath overpowered the man’s senses. Reluctantly, he let John go. Immediately he gasped for breath and stumbled away for the safety of his basement suite. Silence and the dark of night pressed in on the three of us, silhouettes in the moonlight. A long minute passed.
Before I realized it, David closed the distance between us in two strides. His well-built frame blocked my sight; I could smell him, a sensual sort of musk. His hand brushed my hair. Though my heartbeat echoed erratically in my ears, I heard him murmur, “I won’t let you get hurt,” before walking past me briskly.
* * *
By daybreak, I watched the rising sun cast sulky, gray light over David’s sleeping form. I resisted the urge to trace the bruises forming on his chest in motley shades of purple. I rested my forehead against the window pane, watched Kandii getting into a taxi cab on the street below. A blackbird perched on a power line returned my stare, reproachful. The bed shifted. I looked down to meet David’s willowy eyes.
“She left?” he whispered, hoarse.
“She’s tired.” I shifted my weight and he frowned.
“Are you going, too?” He studied my expression. My eyes roved his body again; his skin was violently colored and his lip was splitting.
“Do you want me to stay?” I leaned forward, rested my chin in hands.
Seemingly appeased, he rolled over with a grunt, hugging a pillow. I studied the darkening pigmentation on his lower back as he settled. His breathing evened out again and eventually slowed into a dream. I looked back into the dusty awakening of dawn. Somewhere from the trees, a chickadee sang into the morning.