“Wake up, homie!” A playful, heavily French-accented voice stirred Cava from his deep slumber; he did not have to open his eyes to recognize his best friend, his brother-in-arms: Luc Kalou.
“Jesus, Luc. What time is it?” He rolled into an obstruction on his left, then another on his right. His eyes still closed, he stretched his legs and rubbed his dry lids, feeling the welcome ache of his still-growing limbs.
“It’s time for you to get ready, Cava. You know what day it is. You better get ready!”
Cava opened his eyes to find Luc standing astride him. “Are you standing on my bed with your nasty-ass kicks on, man? Get your skinny punk-ass off my blanket! My own gramma would break your ankles.”
Luc closed the basement window he had just crawled through.
“I took them off,” Luc retorted, hopping off Cava’s futon and collecting his pristine, white basketball shoes. “I’m not a punk, man. I’m not Rat-Fink.”
“Yea, right.” Cava sat up and looked at his alarm. 9:00 a.m. “Man, I just left you, like, six hours ago, wasted. How are you awake? Why are you so… up?”
“It’s Saint Vince, yo! I could hardly sleep last night at all! All of Fury will be in New Am! We own that city today!”
Saint Vincent’s day is the official end of summer holiday for the citizens of the Quad-Cities—or, as the locals call them, the Four Fingers. The people of all four boroughs (New Amsterdam, Vincennes, Figaro, and Fury) descend on the centre of New Am for a day-long celebration capped off with a “world famous” fireworks display. Held on the first Sunday of September, it is the swan song of summer break for high school kids, who, almost as a rite of passage, attend the spectacle and then show up as disheveled as possible for the first day of school. Of course, showing up at all is the hardest part.
“You were makin’ out with La Rosee, hmm?” Luc leered at Cava, his shoes still held in his folded arms. “You take her home? I don’t see her little blonde head and snaggle-tooth up in here.”
“Nah,” Cava grunted. “The usual, the same old shit, man. She said that I was nice and that she thought of me more as a friend than a… a bang. Goddamn.”
“Mon frère, let me say that… she is not right for you. She is like a snake. And you, you are like a little hamster. You’d do better to meet a girl at the fireworks, or school, or somewhere. Anywhere.”
“I mean… Maybe?” Cava answered slowly. “But I’ve been crushing on her for, like, ever, man.” His eyes floated skyward. “She’s… just such a babe.”
“She’s okay. Great body… great damned body. That ass is sick. But she isn’t a… trustable broad, and, franchement? Not a great lay, man.”
“Well, I need to get laid at least once before I can decide what a great lay is and what a great lay isn’t. Besides, if she’s not so great, why do you always sleep with her?”
Cava asked the last question with irritation. Since they had met four years before, Cava had been drawn to Rosee. He couldn’t explain it, but he pined for her. She would seem interested, but then reject him. They could hang out, just the two of them, have a brown bottle and some herb, and talk and laugh and flirt, but when he thought the time was right, she would shoot him down. Sometimes, like last night, she would come on strong, make all the advances, and then change like the wind. Only hours ago, they had ventured to Cava’s window and kissed and touched each other for tantalizing minutes before she asked to go in his room. Cava climbed in first, but when he turned to take Rosee’s hand to help her through, she slipped away.
Despite Cava’s feelings, it was Luc who seemed destined to maintain a passionate, antagonistic relationship with Rosee. Cava tried hard not to blame him—he was who he was, after all. Nor could he blame Rosee. Cava knew he could not trick, or will, or persuade Rosee to grant him her affections. When she and Luc got tender in front of him, most often from booze, Cava would leave to hang out with someone else. Cava had learned to hide his emotions and take council from his other best friend, Sally. He was unable to fully appreciate Sally’s wisdom; he had learned to shield emotions but not defeat them.
“I dunno, man… She just… She just irritates me. She pisses me off. She gets under my skin... And I love it.” Luc snapped his fingers. “That’s it, man, you have to be an asshole to her. Like her old man and her psycho brother. She wants a guy that might slap her or call her a bitch. You are so nice to her, I worry that when she’s had a run through all the other guys, she’ll come crawling to you, and you’ll take her in like a stray kitten.”
“I know.” Luc sighed, then brightened. “Also, because I do just love sex. You’ll see, we’ll give that V-card of yours to someone this year. It’s way overdue!”
Cava’s cheeks reddened. He wasn’t the only virgin he knew, but his best friend was almost out of fingers to count his conquests. Which included Cava’s crush. He hated being teased about it, but what could he do? There was a surgery to fix it, but the doctor did not follow him through the window. He was hostage to Luc’s endless stories, brandished about with the cocky pride that was part of his charm. Cava wanted to be able to throw in a story of his own, too.
“I smell it, it’s happening soon.” Luc sniffed Cava’s still uncovered chest.
“Fuck off, man,” Cava laughed. Goddamn, Luc, he thought. I can’t stay mad at this guy for a second.
“Okay… I actually smell coffee and bacon in Mrs. Cavanaugh’s kitchen. Get ready fast, and I’ll save you half your breakfast.”
Cava was alone. As he stood up to pick out his clothes, he thought about Rosee and why he was so smitten with someone who pummeled his self-esteem so regularly. She had always reminded him of a fox: pretty and gritty, small and combative, and the shape of her mouth and sharp chin, which seemed to smile and snarl simultaneously. Could it just be that she was there? That by being a hot girl in the crew, she attracted him for reasons he could not explain? Were they reasons he made up to justify his attraction? He thought for a second that he might not be the only one, that maybe other boys longed for her the way he did.
“Aww man… When does Sally get home?” Cava muttered to himself before leaving his basement room and trudging up the three flights to the waiting shower.
The Cavanaugh house was the same as the Kalou house, which was the same as the Doktor house, which was the same as everybody else’s house in the Oxford Projects, one of many late 70s attempts to escape rising rents in the cities. The houses were clumsy stacks rising from the basement (traditionally occupied by the eldest kids and the laundry), four narrow floors up to the master bedroom where the adults were above it all. Each had a plinth of concrete as a backyard, which abutted the neighbouring lots and barely had space for a small table and a chair or two. A spindly row of hedges pretended to provide privacy from the path behind.
The Oxford projects were infested with the children of young, blue-collar and immigrant families. Cava’s family had come from the Maritimes and the Kalous from the Haitian community in Montreal. Ivan Doktor and his wife were gypsies, originally from Romania, or Bulgaria, or Hungary, or wherever the patriarch felt a glimmer of attachment to on any particular day. Rat-Fink’s parents, the Kosh clan, had moved from Crimea in the 80s.
Cava slid down staircases in socked feet, dressed, but still moist from the shower. The conversation between Luc and the Cavanaughs paused abruptly: “You pay for the water around here, Quinn?” Nora growled.
“No, Ma. You and Dad do.”
“What takes you so long? You’re not that tall or that wide, are you?”
Luc and Cava’s father, Joe, exchange playful smirks as Cava seated himself on the same chair as Luc. Half the bacon, half the toast, half the hash browns and one egg were pushed to the side with a whole cooked tomato and a full cup of black coffee.
“You Irish and your cooked tomatoes,” Luc said mockingly. “You know that’s pretty gross, right?”
“Pipe down, young fella,” Joe responded. “I don’t want to hear about your plantains again.”
“Yea, but they are sweet, easy to cook, and they don’t look like a stab wound,” Luc insisted.
“Your mouth will get your nose broken, Lucky Luc,” Nora said. “Quinny, you’ll be up for school tomorrow, will you?”
Cava was slowly and methodically trying to fit all the remaining items onto his slice of bread to eat as a sandwich. “Why you even have to ask?”
She tilted her eyes towards Luc, who was grinning dopily with cloudy eyes, tapping his fingers against the kitchen table.
Joe, Nora, Cava and Luc shared the table with Henry, nervous and excited about his first day of grade 8.
“Why can’t I come with you, Quinn? I’m going to Bendis this year, too!” Henry’s summer-long pestering of Cava about high school life hadn’t even begun to abate.
“Well, I can’t watch out for you there… There’s too many people, and I don’t want you to get hurt. It gets pretty rough.” Sensing his mother’s worried gaze, Cava quickly added: “Not rough, just… It’s pandemonium.”
“We can go on a family outing; you, me, and your mother,” Joe said calmly.
“No way, man! Only nerds go with their mommies and daddies!” Henry rolled his eyes.
“Listen,” Luc said. “Mr. and Mrs. Cava, no one is embarrassed to be seen with you. All the homies love you guys. Especially you, Nora. You make those bomb-ass cookies, and this breakfast, magnifique.” He then turned to Henry: “Young Cavs, you ain’t ready. There is a lot of craziness and, if you go, it should be with’dem,” he pointed to the elders. “My brothers didn’t take me until I was old enough, and when you’re old enough, me and Cava will take you.”
“Young Cavs? Dope! Alright, deal,” Henry said, pacified.
Luc looked at the clock on the oven. “Oh shi-shoot! We gotta get to the Bench. You know Sally’s home, right? She’s coming.”
“Really? She’s back from Europe? I figured…” Cava trailed off.
“Quinn Padraig Cavanaugh! You didn’t even know that Sally, who might as well be your sister, was home? What kind of boy did I raise to ignore the people closest to him?”
“Well, I guess I’ll get to see her now, okay? But don’t call her my sister, Ma. It’s weird.”
“He’s right, those two might get married one day,” Joe said, half-jokingly. “If you see Dok, tell him to bring the dobro and some moonshine, boys.”
The boys slid on their shoes—Jordans for Luc and skateboard sneakers for Cava—and hurried down the steps, leaving Nora to berate Joe for wanting to drink and strum guitars on a Sunday.
“Dude,” Cava said, “Your brothers took you to St. Vince when you were like eight.”
“Seven,” Luc said as he threw his backpack over his shoulder. “Young Cavs don’t need to know that.” A smile crept over Luc’s face: “Your parents still want you to be with Sally, huh? That’s cute. And… what’s that word? A-stute?”
“Yea, whatever, man. You got your stuff?” Cava tried to shake it off as the boys neared the Bench.
“Ink pens, eighth of bud, two micks of brown,” he slid one in Cava’s sack to polite acknowledgement. “Long-sleeve, and the spiked-knuckles, the snukts I calls ‘em, that Fabi made me. You?”
Cava shuffled the contents. “My pipe, a hoodie, white sharpie, two bottles of clear,” one of which he handed to Luc, to a nod of acceptance, “pack of darts, papers…”
“No weapon?” Luc stopped him.
“Nah man, I hate that shit,” Cava started, “Can’t we just have a good time?”
“Of course, but you know this thing: shit pops off, son. Cliff or Finkie will have something, I’m sure. Hell, even that little hood-mouse Rosee will have a cutter or something. She’s always got a blade on her.”
Cava and Luc could see the familiar figures of their friends as they approached the Bench: a simple wooden table and two benches bolted to the ground. It was the traditional meeting point for the kids of Ox. Even kids from other projects knew its name and location at the nexus of all the little paths and lanes of Ox. Thick conifers blocked any casual peeping from nosey neighbours, while the central location offered a vantage point to all the entrances to the Ox, which made it easy to stash contraband or steal over a fence when necessary.
The boys were first spotted by the giant Cliff, seated on the table with his feet on a bench; he raised a tall can of malt liquor above his head and bellowed, “Fury-Us!” Rat-Fink, or Marek Kosh to the attendance sheet, looked up briefly, then continued to write his tag, Krshr, on dozens of name-tag stickers. Rosee looked up and smiled, a cigarette dangling between her lips, then continued rolling a pile of joints. The last to look up was Salomea Doktor, standing with her hands on the straps of her backpack underneath a low-hanging, chartreuse tree limb. The boys slowed down, their eyes growing wider as Sally came more into focus. “Dude, what happened to Sally?” Luc whispered in astonishment.
Sally had left Fury before the second semester of grade 11 as an honour roll student, a volunteer, a superior volleyball and soccer player, and a fluent speaker of several languages. Despite her accomplishments, though, she was ridiculed for her appearance. An early growth spurt had left her far taller than all of the other girls, and puberty had only made her difference worse by endowing her with a thick unibrow, greasy skin and dreadful acne, hair with untameable curls, gangly limbs, and a nose that jutted from her face like an isosceles triangle. She looked like a cross between Olive Oyl and a starving coyote and smelled a bit more like the latter. Cava had always been protective of Sally, and the only fights he ever started were in her defence. Such heroism, of course, only provoked the kids to turn on him, too, taunting him about his “love” for the ugly girl. He hated it, but he tried never to let it show as he dried Sally’s tears with his sleeve.
Under the tree now stood a young woman the boys barely recognized. Her pale green eyes shone like jade against her smooth bronzed skin. The masses of wild curls had been tamed into a gleaming black ponytail, pulled back tight to reveal the now-fuller contours of her cheekbones. Her nose seemed graceful and somehow noble, like an impala.
Luc raced towards her. “Damn, damn, damn! You look fine as a motherfucker, girl. Shit!” Holding his arm against hers, he continued, “Damn girl, you almost as dark as me!”
“Luc wit da C,” Sally began while accepting a hug. “I missed you! Have you been staying out of trouble?”
“Nah!” Luc said, “Ha! I been having fun, baby!”
Cava came up and noticed Sally’s gaze shift to him. The two friends stood still, momentarily unable to maintain eye contact.
“Well,” Luc pushed Cava into Sally. “Give her a hug!”
The two hugged each other lightly, then sunk in to one another’s arms, pressing their entire bodies together. “I missed you,” they said at the same time.
“Jinx,” said Cliff, burping and already bleary eyed, taking another swig of his beer.
“Damn man, you drunk already?” Luc started. “Ain’t even noon!”
“Goddamn right. I got my aunt watching the kids and today is my summer vacation,” Cliff said with a broad smile on his round face.
Sally and Cava were still locked in an embrace, quietly sniffing each other, appreciating both the familiarity of old scents and gestures and the changes in their newly matured frames.
“All done,” Rosee said as she lit one of the joints, brushing the stems and crumbs off her thin, white thigh. “Jesus, you two need a room? Fags.”
Cava and Sally silently released each other, both slightly flushed.
“Alright, everybody got their bags? Booze? Loot? We good?” Luc asked.
“Yea, I got my stuff,” Cliff said.
Rat-Fink nodded with his head still down, and Rosee mumbled her assent as she puffed the herb, sealing a tear in the joint with a finger of saliva.
“Every fucking time!” Luc said as he was passed the joint and the lighter. “You roll too tight, girl. Way too tight for a Fury girl!”
As Rosee went to punch Luc below the belt, he shifted his hips back, taking a big pull.
“I got my some of dad’s moonshine, but we’ll need a chaser,” Sally said, waving her hand to refuse the joint.
“Ooh, Dok’s special reserve!” Luc laughed, “You got a pillow for when that shit sleeps the crew, Sal?”
They passed the joint, leaving Sally out, and headed to board the Quad-City Express at the infamous Fury Exchange, now rebranded as River City Central. Passing the Doktor house, they were not surprised to see Sally’s father Ivan and Joe peering under the hood of one of many of Ivan’s “projects,” drinking glasses of moonshine and orange juice.
“Hey, hey, Salomea! You kids be good, hey?” Ivan shouted as they all waved. “Quinny, you take care of my baby bird! But, no babies of your own yet! I’m a doctor, remember. I’ll know!”
Ivan was no doctor, though he claimed medical expertise, experience, and talent passed down from a long line of healers and surgeons. His wife, Danuta, who shot down all his tall tales except the one about his having kidnapped her to be his bride, maintained he had changed his name to make people believe that he was when a doctor he emigrated.
As the kids continued their way down Eckersley towards O’Connor (X and O, as they called the intersection), Cava walked beside Cliff Paul, two years his senior and massive. Having been held back two years, Cliff had left high school early to care for his much younger twin siblings after his father was incarcerated and his mother succumbed to the bottle. Aware of his family’s troubled history and his responsibility to the twins, Cliff rarely drank these days.
“So, you got the day off, Cliff?” Cava asked.
“Yup, my aunt has the kids for the night. Be nice for them to get away from our damned window. They see too much shit. I really gotta fix the goddamned TV.”
As the boys passed Cliff’s apartment, he peered up at the darkened window. “It’s hard, man. I can’t even leave them kids alone with Mom, and my auntie has enough shit going on. But I love them, you know? The only reason I didn’t end up like my old man is because I don’t want the same for Lightning and Thunder.” Cliff took a sip from his tall can and offered it to Cava.
“Nah,” Cava waved it off, “I’m good. Those are some badass names though. Yours, right?”
“Yup. You know what’s really fucked up? Mom named them Misty and Cliff. She forgot that she already had a kid named Cliff. So, I had to step in and celebrate the culture a little bit.”
“How long have you guys been in that apartment?”
“Three years, maybe? Crackheads and fiends everywhere, and a full-time job making sure no one kicks in the door. You can smell the meth cooking, you can hear the hookers bringing in dudes all night. It’s not cool. I mean, the trailer park was no heaven, but at least you had your own walls and roof. At least when a lab exploded there, you didn’t share a wall.”
“Word, man. So… you bring any weapons?”
“Ha!” Cliff crushed the tall boy like a tissue. “You think I need a weapon? Weapons are for pussies. What do I look like? Rat-Fink?”
Fink glanced up quickly, spat, and slapped one of his stickers on a lamppost.
Fink and Rosee walked along, not saying much. Rosee was fairly new to the crew, but Luc and Cava had been trying for years to ditch Fink, who seemed oblivious to their growing dislike for him and continued to hang around like a virus.
“Stinks like piss around here,” Fink remarked.
“Smells like this every summer, especially when it doesn’t rain,” Rosee replied.
Rosee and Fink attempted to join the other conversations, but Rosee found Cliff boring and couldn’t bring herself to compete with Sally for Luc’s attention. Meanwhile, Fink was above the flirty chatter between Luc and Sally and couldn’t stand Cliff. So the pairs stayed as they were.
“Look at all those damned gooks,” Rosee said. “Trading shitty darts for a VCR. Screaming at the top of their lungs. My daddy says that they aren’t even here legally.”
Rat-Fink nodded: “My pops says that the Flips, the Chinks, and the Nammers are taking all the jobs at the docks, taking money under the table, totally fucking up the game.”
Luc walked with his arm around Sally’s shoulder as the two laughed about their summer adventures.
“It was crazy,” Luc began. “I had community service for tagging, but instead of making me scrub walls they sent me to an animal shelter. I did nothing but play with dogs. They even gave me a key! So I did what anyone would do: I stole a shit ton of K, sold it to Tic-Tax, and bought me some new Jordans and a dope lid!”
“K?” asked Sally.
“Ketamine, baby doll! I think he gypped me, but whatever. Found mon-ay! I meant jewed, not gypped, sorry.”
“Oh, Luc. Would you please stop looking for trouble?”
“Bah, I’d already be with JJ right now if I weren’t so slick. Don’t worry, cherie. I’m straight.”
“Hmm. So when does JJ come home, anyway? Soon?”
“Oh, yea! He and Fabi are both coming home!” Luc squeezed Sally’s shoulders tight and she pushed him off. “And the fabulous Kalou brothers will be reunited!”
Janjak, Luc’s oldest brother, was serving a sentence out east for his part in a criminal network; Fabienne, the middle brother, had been sent up north by the Singh family to try to carve out an operation in Gainsborough. Luc was eager for their return, especially now that he felt he was old enough to contribute and make them as proud of him as he was of them.
“You’re excited, eh?”
“Are you kidding?” Luc picked up the sunglasses he’d dropped. “I’ve got your back, Sal! I’ve got brand new all-white Js on my feet and Scotty Summas on my face! We have the fireworks and the beach! And soon, I’ll have my brothers! We could run this town! Man, I miss them…”
“So, how was Europe, baby-doll?” Luc asked. “I can’t believe you ain’t said nothing about that yet.”
“It was good. I got to play sports, practiced different languages, and see so many beautiful towns and monuments. I traveled. It was great.”
“So… you got a boyfriend?”
Cava looked back at them from the front of the crew.
“Umm…” Sally dropped her head, put her hands in her pockets, and went silent.
As the kids approached the station, they joined a clamorous swarm of teenagers, adults, and families shoving their way onto the platform. Conversations stopped as the kids grew more serious about pushing their way through the crowd. The police formed several strong lines in an effort to limit the number of passengers pouring onto the trains, which ran in a non-stop flow from the station. Those foolish enough to wear bandanas over their faces or even just pull their hoods too far forward were plucked from the mob and had their bags searched.
The group moved as a unit and the pairs dissolved. Cava now stuck close to Sally, their forearms touching. Cliff easily shoved the crowds aside to follow Rosee’s mercurial zigzagging through small openings in the mob. Fink was on his own as Luc’s popularity drew him to different clusters of friends.
“Yo, Luc wit da C! What’s goodie?” A voice called from the top of the stairs.
“Yo, Apache! What up, son? Good look with them dunks, Martian!” Luc hollered to the platform. “Fury!”
“Us!” The well-known call and response began, quickly taken up by the rest of Luc’s crew and nearly everyone from 12-to-20-something. It was a calling card for the younger population of Fury. In the dark setting of parks, at the New Am Hammers games, anywhere that the Furious might turn up together, one side would yell "Fury" and the others roar back "Us!"
The line moved surprisingly quickly. People were hustled aboard the trains and the crew was shoved on by the teeming crowd behind them. Fink grabbed a seat in the back, throwing his backpack beside him. Cava and Sally had linked arms and took the seats in front of Fink.
“Watch it, asshole!” Cliff warned a bleary-eyed man who had shoved Rosee a little too violently for his liking.
“Fuck you, chug,”
Cliff threw his closed fist into the man’s chest, and his shoulders nearly touched. The crew backed up allowing him to land, crumpled, fetus-like, on the floor. Cliff moved Fink’s bag and took the seat next to him while Rosee stood and moved coquettishly in front of Cava. Luc eased himself through the crowd, handing out high-fives and greetings to friends and strangers alike.
As the train pulled out, the smell of weed became pervasive and the cacophony continued with chatter, laughter, and friendly cursing. Cans cracked and bottles popped open to the hiss of carbonation, and the scratching of lighter flints added a hint of regular percussion. The young Furians had packed the last car instinctively, knowing no one would complain about the sounds and smells.
Cava peered back at the River City Tower project. It was a massive undertaking known as the Singh-scraper, after Jack Singh, Fury businessman, entrepreneur, investor and father of one of the most infamous drug lords in the city. He always thought like it looked like a giant middle-finger, a big “fuck you” to the Quad Cities, which needed shelters and social programs, not ostentatious displays of wealth. But, also, a “fuck you” to the locals returning from their jobs or visits to the city.
“Fuck you for trying to leave, you’ll always be back! Welcome to Fury, bitches!”
Cava loved his city and had the pride of people who find an esprit de corps within a fraternity of fellow outcasts who choose hubris over humiliation. People who left Fury and never returned were vilified with the reflexive solidarity of an isolated tribe. Cava, who had never been outside the Quad, was torn between his loyalty to Fury and his fascination with everywhere else. He wanted to nibble at Sally’s ear and ask about her trip, but he was made shy by her magnificent blossoming and ashamed by his envy of her experiences. He secretly wanted to give the "fuck you" finger back to the Towers and explore the world, returning with his mind and imagination quenched by visions of London, Cairo, Montevideo, or wherever the winds carried him.
“What are you thinking, Quinn?” Sally asked.
“Ah, nothing much.” Cava’s gaze remained fixed on the window as the skyscraper began to shrink. “Just that…”
“Fury!” Luc yelled, cupping his mouth with one hand and hanging from the upper hand rail with the other.
“Us!” the entire train responded, so loud that the windows shook.