Jowls appeared like an apparition, an amalgamation of the Michelin Man and a ninja, pedaling toward us in a skin-tight karate gi. His chunky chest and gut were busting out of the white canvas jacket the way Pillsbury dough busts out of an opened can.
Wiley and I just stood there, gawking at the kid, absolutely awestruck. If it weren’t for the black belt tied around his waist, the gi would have flung open and flapped in the wind like a cape. That is, it would have flapped in the wind like a cape if he’d been moving faster. His 225-pound body belabored the frame of that bike. He couldn’t have topped five miles an hour on it. The thing creaked with every turn of the sprocket. I half expected the metal to collapse under his weight and spill him there on the asphalt.
The sun was already setting as Jowls approached, and the glow it cast upon him was like a spotlight. He rode right up onto the driveway, stopped, and placed his bare feet on the gravel. He stood and straddled the bike with his white-panted legs, propped his hands on his waist, pulled his shoulders back and pushed his chest forward. Then, like a dilapidated kind of superhero, he looked up and away from us. His huge mandible jaw for which he was nicknamed, Jowls, hung there like a precipice, soaking in the last rays of the sun, as if they were the source of some secret power we were unaware he possessed.
“Man, Jowls, where you been hiding that outfit?” I wished I had a full-length mirror to show him how ridiculous he looked.
“It’s called a gi,” Jowls said. He grabbed the lapels of the jacket with his hands and proudly pulled the chest of it together. He hooked both thumbs beneath the black belt and rested his hands there.
“Looks more like a bathrobe,” I said. I was thirteen years old at the time, about to enter high school. I’d hit my growth spurt when I was twelve and already stood six feet tall. I was stick figure skinny though. The polar opposite of Jowls.
Wiley snickered at my comment and then added his own. “Should have up-sized it.”
“Oh. Good. Another fat joke,” Jowls said. He dropped his bike to the ground and walked to us.
“For real,” Wiley said. “Where’d you get that?”
“I found it at the Goodwill,” Jowls said. “And I think it could solve all our problems.”
“Our problems?” I asked.
“Holt and Heel.”
He was talking about Jack Holt and Lincoln Heel, bullies from our high school who’d been terrorizing our neighborhood for a month. They’d pulled some pretty nasty pranks and the younger kids were getting real scared, deserting the streets, playing video games instead of riding bikes and organizing touch football tournaments. It was all downright unnatural given the fact it was summer.
“This some kind of joke?” I asked. “You think that outfits going to help?”
“They aren’t going to muddle with a black belt,” Jowls said.
“But you aren’t a black belt,” I reminded him.
“They don’t know that.”
Wiley gestured at Jowls as if he were a prize about to be given away on a game show. “Look at you. Of course, they know that. Now if you were wearing sumo-wrestler shorts, that might be more believable.”
“You mean a Mawashi,” Jowls said. “That’s what rikishi wear, or sumo wrestlers, as you call them.”
“See, man,” Wiley waved his hand at Jowls in disgust. “Nobody’s gonna take you seriously in that burrito shell.”
“You ever heard of Volstagg?” Jowls said.
“Who?” Wiley asked.
“Volstagg. He was one of Thor’s two fighting companions. Part of the Warriors Three. A bonafide superhero. He was fat and clumsy, but he could fight.”
“This isn’t a comic book,” I said.
“And ain’t nobody ever heard of Volstagg,” Wiley added.
“Maybe not,” Jowls said,” But that isn’t the point.”
“Then what is?” Wiley asked.
“The point is, I’ve got a plan.”
I turned away from Jowls and picked up a baseball mitt from the driveway. I tossed the ball up in the air and caught it and thought it might be best just to go inside for the night.
“The people have to learn to fight for themselves,”Jowls said. “We’ll rally them like William Wallace rallied the Scots.”
He was appealing to our emotions. We’d all watched Braveheart the week before.
“Fighting for freedom.” Wiley said.
“You got a big speech planned?” I said.
Jowls flashed a smile that was short of everything but confidence and spoke with his best Scottish intonation, “What will you do without freedom?”
“That’s a sick accent, Jowls,“ I said, actually impressed.
“Okay,” Wiley said. “Say we do get kids to join us. How are we going to pick a fight with a couple of seasoned bullies? Our guys will flee as soon as something goes wrong.”
“We use deception to our advantage. We don’t actually have to fight. Holt and Heel just have to believe we will.”
“And if they call our bluff?” I asked.
“That’s what this is for.” Jowls reached to the back of the gi and withdrew a four-pointed Shuriken throwing star he’d tucked between the black belt and jacket. He held it up and touched his finger to the tip of one of the sharp blades and then winked at us.
We moved closer, holding out our hands, wanting to possess the object.
“Did you get that at the Goodwill, too?” I asked, almost hypnotized. My eyes were no doubt the size of quarters. I’d never seen one up close.
“I took it from my brother’s room,” he said. “Got these, too.” He pulled a pair of nunchaku out from the belt and hefted the weapon in his hand.
“You really are a ninja,” Wiley said. He looked star struck.
“That’s exactly what Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dumb will think,” Jowls said.
Daydreaming ran wild for a moment, all sorts of unbridled thoughts about going Kung Fu on Hold and Heel. But then Wiley sobered us with a thought. “I heard they carry switchblades.”
“And brass knuckles,” I added.
“And a chainsaw,” Jowls joked. “Nope. Rumors blown out of proportion. The exaggeration of the oppressed, nothing more.”
Jowls liked to talk that way. I think he got it from all the comics he read. Seemed like he read two a day. Heck, he was almost unreachable on weekends ‘cause of it.
“What if you’re wrong?” Wiley asked.
“If they pull weapons on us, we’ll retreat,” he said. “They can’t catch all of us”
I looked at Wiley and knew we were thinking the same thing. Jowls couldn’t outrun a slug. But this was his idea, and that was his problem. I know we’d be safe as long as we could outrun him.
“What’s your plan?” Wiley said.
“An old-fashioned showdown. We’re gonna take what’s most precious to them and then offer it back in exchange for peace.” Jowls looked me in the eyes when he said it and waited for my response.
I gasped when I understood.
“The Firebird,” I covered my mouth with my hand.
The Firebird. The beautiful, Copper Red, 1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car was legendary. Heel took care of like it a newborn baby. Swaddled it every night in a canvas cover. Fed it the very best octane formula. Bathed it regularly. Warmed it up ten minutes before driving it. The throttle of the engine could be heard from three streets away each morning before school.
“You know you want to drive it.” Jowls said.
He was right. I couldn’t deny it. I’d been in amateur karting racing since I was ten. I was ready for something bigger. I wanted to sit in the driver’s seat of the Firebird. I wanted to wrap my fingers around the steering wheel. To push the pedal and make the exhaust pipes spit fire.
“I do want that.” I said, lost in reverie.
“Are you crazy?” Wiley snapped his fingers in front of my face. “Wake up. This isn’t karting.”
The desire continued to blind me.
“Let’s at least hear his plan,” I said.
Wiley turned around and said he was out. He began to walk away.
“Wiley.” Jowls said. “There is another part you’ll like.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“We’re gonna douse them with durian juice,” Jowls said.
Wiley and I were confused. At this point I was ready to walk away, too.
“You guys don’t know what durian is, do you?”
We rolled our eyes.
“It’s a fruit that smells like sulfur and rotten onions.” He continued when we didn’t react. “It’s basically like shooting them with raw sewage.”
Laughter erupted from our huddle. Took us a minute to settle down.
“Man, Jowls. You’re sick,” Wiley said, each word separated by a giggle. He covered his mouth after he said it, like a teenage boy in health class.
“That’s disgusting!” I said. I was bent over, cracking up.
Jowls hadn’t even smiled since suggesting the squirt gun idea.
“I told you, you don’t muddle with a black belt,” he said.
“I got a few Super Soakers at my house.” Wiley said, still laughing.
“I know you do,” Jowls said, straight faced.
Driving a firebird and shooting bullies with lasers of sewage was just too alluring to resist. Jowls had played to our interests like a seasoned salesman.
“For justice,” Jowls said. He lifted his right hand in the air.
“For justice,” Wiley and I repeated, still cackling. We raised and united our hands with his and imagined the fame that would follow if we pulled it off.
We regrouped the following day. Wiley showed up first and a few minutes later, Jowls strutted into my backyard dragging four spiked cannon balls behind him in a mesh sack.
“You brought more weapons?” I asked.
“This is durian,” he said.
The wind wafted the stench of the fruit our way. We covered our noses and shooed Jowls away. He ignored us and tugged at the bottom of the sack and dumped them on the ground. They lay there like medieval grenades, their stems sticking out like short fuses.
“Why don’t we just throw these at ‘em?” I asked.
“You’ll know why when you smell the inside,” Jowls said.
He presented an axe and handed it to Wiley, who smiled with delight and reached and grabbed the tool as if it was Thor’s hammer. He held it high and then swung and chopped into the fattest of the three durians. The fruit opened and exposed the source of the odor. It looked like there were three rancid brains inside. I could almost see them pulsing. Wiley started coughing ‘cause his gag reflex tripped like a breaker. I coughed too. It was like smelling spoiled milk and meat at the same time. Jowls didn’t budge, just handed each of us a bandana and recommended we cover our noses and mouth.
“This some kind of alien?” I asked.
“Nah, that’s just the aril,” Jowls said. “The flesh of the fruit.”
We shook it off and got back to work. We took turns opening the other three and dug out the tough and reeking aril with our bare hands. We tore it into small pieces and tossed the hand-made pulp into a 5-gallon bucket of water jowls had fetched.
“Gotta let it steep a couple of days,” Jowls said. “Like a cup of tea.”
“Long as I don’t have to drink it,” Wiley said.
Jowls smiled. “Holt and Heel are gonna drink it.”
I checked the juice for three days and called Jowls and Wiley when I noticed a fuzzy black film growing over the top like a lid. They hurried over to my place and we gathered around the bucket and wondered if we’d created a primordial soup. I expected a frog to jump out of it. That stuff was foul, perfect for our attack.
Jowls seemed very pleased. He unscrewed the tank from his Super Soaker, stooped, and sunk it into the bucket and watched bubbles float to the surface as the sludge poured into the canister and evicted the air inside. We followed suit and filled our tanks, too. Then we doused a few plants for target practice. They withered like someone poured bleach on them. We high-fived and agreed we were ready.
“Everybody’s hanging out of Jered Tingler’s house today. Like sitting ducks,” Jowls said. “This is our chance to catch Holt and Heel in the act.”
I suddenly got butterflies. I looked at Wiley. He nodded at me with confidence.
I took a deep breath. “Let’s go, then.”
Jowls reviewed the game plan while we geared up and armed ourselves. Then we mounted our bikes and rode out beneath a cloudless sky. We fell into a triangle formation, Jowls leading the way in his gi, the throwing star and nunchaku tightly tucked beneath the black belt. His electric-blue Super Soaker 100 slung over his back like a rifle. Wiley and I were on either side of him, trailing only slightly. I wore racing gloves and the bandana Jowls had given me. Wiley had a Super Soaker pistol holstered on each side of his belt. We cruised the streets of the neighborhood like patrol officers, armed and dangerous, ready to enact our disgusting justice upon Holt and Heel.
We rode until we found the group of middle schoolers at Tingler’s house. They were gathered inside the garage, sitting on flower-printed velour furniture and vinyl bean bags from a thrift store. They were playing games like Sorry and Uno. Chewing gum and sweating like they were in a sauna. It was the first sign of life we’d seen on the streets, but it was not encouraging. They weren’t talking to each other, just taking turns and occasionally making eye contact, drinking soda and passing time as safely as they could. They checked the road every few seconds to make sure the bullies weren’t there. It was pathetic, like some kind of underground summer break, the refugees hiding in fear of being discovered. Heck, school would have been better.
We stopped in Tingler’s driveway, laid our bikes down, and approached the garage cautiously, careful not to enter. Whatever fear they had was contagious.
“This looks stodgy as old news,” Jowls said loudly as he scanned the scene.
Tingler looked up and did a double-take. The rest of the kids did, too, trying to comprehend Jowls’ outfit. Their long pause even made me question the guy we’d chosen as our leader.
“Funny, Jowls.” Tingler said. “That’s a good look for you.”
Jowls extracted the compliment from Tingler’s words and discarded the sarcasm like the shell of a seed.
“Why don’t you come out and shoot hoops or something?” I glanced at the basketball goal.
Nobody answered. Tingler laid his Uno cards down on a plastic table and searched the faces of the other boys he was with.
“It’s too hot,” Tingler said.
“You mean you’re too scared,” I said.
Dispassionate protests erupted in the garage, and Tingler stood defensively. “Watch your mouth.”
“So you’re going to hide in your hole like a fluffle of rabbits?” Jowls asked. “Sweat it out in your burrows?”
“What did you call me?” Tingler said.
Jowls pressed. “You can’t stay in there forever. You know that. They know that. They don’t catch you now, they’ll find you at school.”
I scanned the faces in the garage. I could almost see tear stains on their cheeks.
“We need to stand up to them,” I said.
“Are you insane?” a short, blonde-haired boy said. “You heard about what they done to Kale, didn’t you? They lured him into a deserted backyard, stripped him down to his underwear, tied him around a tree, and spray painted his body green and red.”
“He looked like an elf,” Tingler said.
“I heard,” Jowls said. “It’s shameful.”
Another boy chimed in. “They want their victims to cry. Won’t stop until they do.”
“Pavlov conditioning,” Jowls said. “They want you to taste tears and associate the salty flavor with their names.”
Jowls took one step inside the garage and softened his face and relaxed his shoulders. “Fellow adolescents. May I borrow but a moment of your time? Is this the story you want to pass on from generation to generation? How you spent a summer in hiding because you were too afraid to fight? Or do you want to go down in neighborhood lore and be remembered as the vigilantes who took down Holt and Heel? I implore you. Think of the future. Think of your children!”
Silence. He’d played his hand too hard.
“Who’s with me?” he called.
A few small chuckles inside the garage.
“They can’t take all of us!” he cried.
Full out laughter silenced him. He looked back at us.
“Man, Jowls. You are a jokester.” Tingler was suddenly cocky and confident. The rest of the hiders laughed, too. They agreed with nods and grunts. “Let us know if you want us to call and reserve an ambulance for you.”
They picked up their Uno cards and dice and returned to their games. But not for long. Just as Jowls was about to say something else, the ferocious roar of the Firebird sounded in the distance. I turned and looked and time suddenly turned into slow motion.
There it was, maybe 200 yards away, shining. It was so clean that the surface of it reflected the sky like a lake. The chrome rims mirrored the ground. It was one with its surroundings. An unblemished piece of the natural world.
There was a long, silent pause in the garage, and then, mayhem. Random words spoken in confusion. The wooden legs of furniture screeching across the smooth garage floor. Sneakers squeaking from frantic footsteps in every direction. The thuds of colliding bodies. Aluminum cans tipping over, card tables falling on their sides.
A loud rev of the engine signaled they’d spotted us. We’d have been impossible to miss because Jowls was standing there in his gi like a white flag on a putting green.
I froze, as much in awe of the car as in fear.
“Sam. Go. Now.” Jowls said.
I didn’t move.
I regained awareness and sprinted across the street. I hid behind a parked car and took a deep breath to try to settle my nerves. That’s when I heard the sound of tires peeling out on asphalt. I peeked out and saw Jared Tingler smack the garage door button as hard as he could.
The door opener buzzed and the garage door began to lower, but when Jowls saw it, he hurried, bent over and waved his hand in front of the safety sensor. The door stopped momentarily and then reversed course.
“What are you doing?” Tingler’s voice was higher pitched than before. He punched the opener again, but Jowls stopped it a second time. Then a third.
“You’re going to watch this,” Jowls said.
“No. I’m not.” Tingler opened the door to his house, entered quickly, and closed the door behind him. A few of his friends tried to follow, but he’d locked the door from inside. They were stuck with us.
They turned around and looked to Jowls for guidance. It was pretty pitiful. All of it. The chaos. The hoping we could do anything to save them. At that moment, I thought about dashing for home and abandoning the cause. But there was the Firebird. And I wanted to drive it.
The car stopped in front of Tingler’s driveway, and Heel put it in park. He left the engine running and opened the door and popped out. He strutted toward Jowls in a black cut off t-shirt and skinny jeans. His ear lobes were weighed down by heavily gauged studs and his hair was long, black, and wavy. It was greasy, too, like he hadn’t washed it in a long time.
Holt also got out of the car, out of the passenger door, slowly. He was the older of the two. Eighteen, I think, though he was still at least two years from finishing high school. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and there were three fresh tattoos on his tan, hairless chest, each a different depiction of a skull. His blue jeans were cut-off at the knees and held up by a spiked black leather belt.
Their arrival made the whole garage hiding place seem like a pretty good idea. Just about anywhere had to be safer than that driveway, I thought. But nobody else moved, so I didn’t either. We were all frozen with deer-in-the-headlight fear. Except Jowls. He stood firm and looked at me and then Wiley and gave us each a very short and reassuring nod. Then he stepped forward, holding his Super Soaker confidently at his side like it were a submachine gun or something.
Holt and Heel stepped up to where the aggregate driveway met the road and they stopped and waited on the street, the Firebird idling behind them. What they were waiting for, I don’t know. I thought maybe they had some kind of moral code they were honoring, some ancient bully ritual that required them to be provoked before pulverizing someone. But as they stood there longer, peering at us with their arms crossed, I reckoned they were just taking in the moment, stretching it out so it would last a longer. Filling the day.
Heel glanced down at the squirt gun and finally spoke. “You got a permit for that?”
Holt snickered condescendingly at his partner’s remark and rolled his eyes.
“Get it all out now,” Jowls said. “This is your last laugh.”
The words were cheesy, I admit, but I admired Jowls for standing up to them. Nobody else had the guts to start this. It looked like he was going all in.
“Tell me something,” Heel said. “You think trottin’ around in a Halloween costume is gonna save you?”
Jowls smiled. “That coming from a ghoul-looking clown.”
There was a sort of gasp that came from the boys in the garage. They couldn’t believe Jowls had said it. Really, I couldn’t either. He flat didn’t plan to back down.
Heel looked over at Holt and nodded at him, confirming they’d received whatever invitation it was they were looking for. They had been handed the full right and freedom to beat the living daylight out of us, I supposed.
“Don’t step foot on the driveway,” Jowls said, as if he were reading their minds. He lifted the squirt gun and pointed it at Heel.
Heel pretended to be scared for a moment. He put his hands up in the air. Holt, however, simply stared at the gun and frowned, apparently disappointed in the lack of real threat it proposed.
“This isn’t water,” Jowls said.
Holt perked up and Heel suddenly turned serious. “You got battery acid in there or something?”
“It’s a surprise.”
Heel lowered his hands. “Why are you trying to be a hero? These kids gonna make you King of the Nerds?”
“I’m just doing what’s right,” Jowls said.
Heel pointed at Jowls’s gi and moved his finger up and down. “That cannot be right,” he said. Then he addressed the boys in the garage. “Y’all chose a real freak.”
Just as Jowls was about to respond, Heel surprised him. He charged, ducking low to the ground to avoid any line of fire. Before Jowls could pull the trigger, before his brain even responded to what was happening, Heel was a foot away with his hands wrapped tightly around the barrel of the gun. He snatched it away and pointed it back at Jowls.
Jowls raised his hands in the air like a criminal in an 80s movie. I lowered my eyes in shame. It was all over.
“Unless you want to swallow whatever’s in this gun, you better kiss the concrete,” Heel said.
I glanced at Wiley, and he appeared as if he was going to vomit. I expected him to take off at any moment. Instead of running though, he did something totally unexpected. He raised a squirt pistol and pointed it toward Heel. I don’t know where the inspiration came from, but it created a stand-off of sorts.
I glanced over at Holt to see what he would do in response, but he was still resting against the Firebird with his arms crossed. I wondered if he were brain dead or on drugs. He seemed disconnected with everything, almost bored, like he was sick of messing with kids and ready to step his game up. It appeared that he might just yawn and walk out on Heel. So, like a genius, Wiley pointed his other pistol at him, awakening the sleeping giant.
Without even a second a hesitation Holt withdrew a butterfly knife from his pocket and twirled it until the blade was free. Then he barreled toward Wiley. Wiley’s only instinct was to pull the trigger. He did it and doused his assailant’s chest with the stinking durian juice. Holt stopped immediately and studied his drenched skin. He sort of smiled and then finished charging and knocked Wiley to the ground. He flipped him on his back, lifted his head off the ground by the hair, and placed the edge of the butterfly knife blade against his throat.
Wiley lay there, silent. Still.
“You’re going to bleed,” Holt said. These were the first words he’d spoken. And I believe he meant them.
No one moved. Not Jowls. Not Heel. No one in the garage. Certainly not me.
“What’s in the gun?” Holt asked. There was no emotion in his voice. No change of inflection or volume.
“It’s just water,” Jowls said.
“Smells like urine.” He released Wiley’s hair and let his face fall back to the concrete. He picked up Wiley’s Super Soaker and unscrewed the tank. He sniffed the contents and jerked his nose back as if he’s just whiffed smelling salts.
“It’s pee.” He said.
“No…it’s not!” Wiley said.
“This kid shot me with pee.” Holt repeated.
Holt held the squirt gun tank over Wiley’s head and turned it over and poured its contents upon him, soaking his hair, neck, and face.
“You like that?” Holt asked.
Wiley coughed and spat on the concrete.
“Want more?” he said.
When Wiley didn’t reply, Holt got back on one knee and put the butterfly knife back up to his throat and asked again.
“Do you want more?”
“No,” Wiley said. Poor kid was trembling. I wondered what Jowls was going to do about all this. I could see him from the corner of my eye, but he just stood there like the fat white belt he was. I guess he was as shocked as the rest of us. His plan was failing.
“Come on,” Heel said to Holt. He tilted his head and eyes toward the idling car, suggesting they go. “Put the knife away.”
“You can leave,” Holt said. He looked at his partner and then glanced at the Firebird. “You can get in your car and leave. But this kid is gonna bleed for what he did.”
“It ain’t worth it,” Heel argued.
For a moment, Heel was one of us. I was surprised he was standing up for Wiley, though I knew he was more concerned about a criminal record than anyone’s well-being. I wondered if his plea was all just part of the act. Good cop, bad cop, maybe. Whatever it was, Holt didn’t remove the knife from Wiley’s neck. Instead, he grabbed his hair and lifted his head up again and pressed the knife harder into his Adam’s apple.
What I did next, I do not believe I would do again, not even today. But Wiley was in serious trouble. And the firebird beckoned me like a siren.
I took a deep breath and quickly but silently waddled toward the Firebird, hidden behind it as I went. When I came to the door, I noticed my reflection in the spotless paint. It made me look smaller than I already felt and that feeling brewed a fresh batch of doubt. Still, I had little choice. Wiley’s life seemed like it was on the line.
I held my breath and slowly lifted the chrome door handle. It unlatched without a sound. Just as slowly, I pulled the door open. The sound of the idling engine was more than enough white noise to muffle any creaks or cracks. Then I was face to face with the interior. The aroma of synthetic vanilla billowed out of the beast and brought with it a barrage of memories from my mother’s closet.
Almost everything in the interior was black leather— the chairs, the door, the steering wheel and the dashboard. The gauges were surrounded with glossy wood paneling and the speedometer’s numbers were bright and white. The maximum speed was 160 mph. The number sent a shot of adrenaline pulsing through my body.
Still squatted, I reached and grabbed hold of the steering wheel with both hands and pulled myself into the driver’s seat, careful to keep my head down. The leather was hot and burned my skin. I winced, but covered my mouth just in time. Then I closed the door and sat encapsulated inside the stuff of my dreams. For a moment it was a cocoon. The car was mine. Wiley was safe. Holt and Heel didn’t exist. Jowls really was a black belt. But Heel’s voice soon awoke me from my daydream. He was screaming at me.
I was caught, so it was fight or flight time. Or time for both, I suppose. The flight was the fight in that case— the fastest way out. The adrenaline propelled my foot toward the gas pedal, and I smashed it to the floorboard as hard as I could. The engine thundered. Louder and louder. But nothing else happened. No movement.
I was confused. I looked at the tachometer and it was redlined. I had forgotten about the transmission! I jostled the gear shifter into drive and slammed the pedal to the floorboard again. Movement this time. But not as I expected. The tires spun and the car started shaking, but I went nowhere. It felt like an earthquake. Heel was moving closer.
I let up on the gas a bit and the tires stuck to the pavement. Then the beast pounced like a lion. Centrifugal force propelled my body back into the seat. The power scared me, so I let go of the pedal and slammed on the brakes. My temples were throbbing. I looked in the rearview mirror and Heel was only twenty feet or so behind me. I pushed on the gas again, this time more gently. The firebird took off like a dream. In a moment Heel was a hundred feet away.
He chased me to the end of the street. I saw him in the rearview mirror for most of the way. I drove until I was able to park the car safely out of reach, and then I turned the engine off. My heart repeatedly pounded my rib cage. Boom. Boom. Boom. My hands trembled. I took a deep breath and turned on my walkie-talkie. And then waited and prayed I’d hear from Jowls soon.
To my regret, I didn’t get to witness the next part for myself. But by all accounts, that is the moment Jowls earned his black belt. All the commotion with the car had left Holt alone and distracted. While Holt was watching Heel chase after the Firebird, our ninja slid his hand behind his waist and pulled the Chinese star out from beneath his belt. He kept his hand hidden behind his back and rotated the star until it was in a throwing position. Then, after only a slight hesitation, he did what no one expected. He hurled the Chinese star directly at Holt.
Sunlight reflected off the weapon as it spun toward the attacker. Wiley said he heard it stick in Holt’s chest. When it did, Holt dropped the butterfly knife and rolled off of Wiley and onto the ground. Wiley scrambled to his feet and took a few steps back, trying to put some distance between them. Then he saw blood dripping out of the hand Holt was clutching his chest with.
Wiley picked up the butterfly knife and pointed it at Holt in case he came at him again. But Holt was no longer worried about Wiley. He was fixed on the star stuck in the middle of one of his new tattoos. And after he pulled the star out, he was concerned only about Jowls.
He rose and held the star out like a dagger, and he moved toward Jowls. But Jowls didn’t budge. He didn’t look away. He didn’t even appear as if he was going to defend himself. He just waited patiently until Holt was two feet away from him.
Then, he slid his hand behind his back again and withdrew the nunchucku. In one fluid motion he swung the weapon and blasted Holt in the cheekbone. Holt yelled out and bent over, writhing in pain. He grabbed his face and yelled obscenities at anyone and everyone who was listening.
At that moment, the rest of the kids, and I do mean all of them — even Jared Tingler who’d been watching from a window — came outside, moved toward Jowls, and stood behind him. They were ready to fight with him and for him. Ready to attack if Holt dared to make another wrong move.
That’s when Heel showed up again. He was panting like a dog from all the running and almost totally unconcerned about Holt’s condition, though he did glance at him kind of bewildered like.
“Gimme the car or I’m calling the cops,” he said.
Jowls was suddenly Bruce Lee, oozing with confidence. He tucked the nunchaku back in his belt like a cowboy holstering his six shooter.
“Somebody get him a phone. He wants to tell the police about today. About their threats, about the butterfly knife, and about what he did to Kale Karson with the spray paint.”
Holt was suddenly mute.
“You’re both eighteen, right? Old enough to be treated like adults? Most of us our fourteen.”
Heel looked rattled by the age difference. Holt was looking like he needed a hospital. His cheekbone was clearly broken. He needed the Firebird or an ambulance.
“We don’t need cops to settle this,” Jowls said. “Just your word.”
“Our word?” Heel asked.
“Yep. You agree to leave us and every other kid alone, or your car is gonna be trashed. Today. Tomorrow. Next week. You pick on anyone else, we know where you live. We know where you keep the car. It’s simple. We will spray paint it, key it, egg it. Everything you can imagine. Time and time again.”
Holt, desperate to leave, peered at Heel and nodded, “Just give us the car.”
Jowls withdrew a walkie-talkie from the inside of his gi, powered it up and pressed the talk button.
“We’re all good here.” Jowls said. He extended his arm and pointed the speaker toward Heel so that he could hear my reply.
I spoke into the other walkie-talkie. “Glad to hear it.”
“Bring the car around,” he said. “They’ve agreed.”
“I was thinking about keeping it,” I said.
Heel heard my comment and fumed. “One scratch. Just one scratch, and you’re dead.”
I slowly drove the car back to Tingler’s house. I didn’t want to let it go. It was always going to be part of my life story, like a stolen kiss from a girl I could never hope to win.
I turned the corner onto Tingler’s street and approached the house, stopping about fifty yards away. I left the engine running and opened the door but hesitated to exit. I let my fingers linger on the steering wheel and squeezed it one last time. Then I thanked the car and stepped out.
I jogged back to Tingler’s house, keeping a safe distance from Holt and Heel as they made their way to the Firebird. Holt was grabbing his cheek and Heel barely even noticed me. His eyes were fixed on his baby.
I joined the huddle of the crowd and we swarmed Jowls, giving him pats on the back and high fives. Wiley called him Volstagg, and we all laughed and chanted his name. And then I picked up the blood-stained Chinese star and handed it to him. Wiley also gave Jowls the butterfly knife Holt had left behind. We figured he deserved the weapon of the villain he’d defeated. It was his proof, his right, his trophy.
Wiley thanked me and Jowls for saving his life. Jowls just winked at Wiley and told him to be more careful next time. He told him not to shoot durian juice at psychos and encouraged him to learn the difference between a bully and a killer.
“Holt’s the real deal,” he said. “He’ll end up in prison one day because he likes to hurt people.”
“What about Heel?” I asked.
“He’ll work at Burger World,” he said.
I laughed and so did Jowls.
To this day, I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to see Jowls take Holt down. But in some ways, maybe it’s better. The way I imagine it is perhaps infinitely more romantic.
In my version of the story, Jowl’s goes into legitimate ninja mode. He twirls his nunchuka in the air and berates the bullies with a sequence of small body blows. He roundhouses Heel in the face and foot sweeps Holt. He throws a Chinese star into each of their chests, grabs them by their pants, drags them toward one another and props them up back-to-back. Then he ties them up with a grappling hook and removes his black belt and binds their heads together with it, blindfolding them simultaneously. He grabs his Super Soaker and pumps it and douses them with durian juice, never saying a word.
When he’s finished, he places a foot on Holt’s leg, as if the kid is some mountain he’s just conquered, and he places his hands on his waste and raises his jaw toward the sky. He pushes his chest out and straightens his back, and he lets his karate gi flap in the wind like a cape.
Thinking about it now, that’s not so different from what really happened that day.