BANG-BANG. Someone struck the bathroom door. Mitch tried to drown it out with the rest of the noise, but another round of pounding rattled the room.
"Yeah?" Mitch yelled out. Relaxation lost.
"Bro, I don’t mean to interrupt, but there’s something I need to share with you!" A low, coarse voice made its way into Mitch's ears through the hiss of the shower.
"Me too!" Another very similar voice penetrated the steam. Only two guys Mitch knew could own voices at so low an octave.
"Boys, can’t you see I’m busy? What is it that you need to say?" Mitch threw them a bone.
"Happy Birthday! Now come give us a hug." This was a demand.
"But I'm enjoying a pleasant sh-"
"Sh-shut up. You have one minute left or we are breaking in." This was an ultimatum.
"I'll be butt naked and soaked, are you sure this is what you want?"
"I see terrors worse than you in the locker room every day, Kroy!" one of boys imitated a coach's voice back at him.
"I'm calling your bluff," Mitch was determined to stay put. "You wouldn’t break my door either, so don't even start."
"Thirty seconds!" one of the voices boomed with pleasure.
"Wow, fine!" Mitch washed his hair quickly and reluctantly cut the water. He threw a towel around his hips and didn’t bother to dry off; someone was getting a very wet hug. He opened the door and pushed his bangs back, on the alert of being tackled.
Clayton, a defensive lineman, called out, "Hercules! Hercules! Hercules!" Clayton's twin brother Josh, who was an offensive lineman, made a sharp whistle with his fingers.
"Yeah, you like that?" Mitch made a brief flex of his biceps and winked at Clayton.
"You know I do!" Clayton made a grab for Mitch's arm but Mitch batted his hand away.
"Ah! Hostility!" yelled Josh as he jumped up from his seated position and tackled Mitch onto the bed. Pinned down by Josh's bulky body, Mitch was entirely vulnerable to Clayton's repeated finger jabs to his ribs. This was Mitch's most tender spot, and as Mitch's best friends, Clayton and Josh knew it best. They mercilessly attacked his sides until Mitch made odd choking noises in the sheets from laughing too hard.
They let him go reluctantly, and all three boys were giddy with laughter. It was a miracle Mitch didn’t lose his towel.
Still catching his breath, Clayton managed to say, "We just wanted a proper hug, man," which sent them all into another laughing fit.
"Well then let's deal it out!" said Mitch as he stood up and tightened his towel around his hips. "Commence the 'proper hug', sirs," he announced in a British accent as all three boys wrapped up with an initial bear hug that brought them very close for a short period of time and then split apart to engage in the meat of the "hug". It included hand slaps, fist bumps, head flips, leg wiggles, finger snaps, and finished with a crazed yell. The whole act was created during their junior year when all three of them made the varsity team together, and has been their pre-game ritual ever since.
"That's what I'm talking about. I'm so ready for the season this year, we're gonna be a powerhouse. Us three, together, we're unstoppable. Owl Creek won’t know what hit them!" Mitch was pumped up from the handshake-hug.
"Yeah buddy, we just have to get through two-a-days first," Josh clutched his stomach and sighed, "I'm a little worried dude."
"Oh shut up, I'm fatter than both of you put together," Clayton had to chime in.
"Hey, guys, chill. You know what… " Mitch lowered into a soft voice, "I love you both just the way you are." Josh and Clayton looked at him for a moment without expression.
"You're a fruitcake, Mitchell Kroy." Clayton broke the silence. Josh followed with, "And that's why I you need me to save your ass from certain death on the field every Friday night."
“But in a weird, abstract way, I know were trying to give me a compliment. I appreciate that, and do you know what? Sometimes you make me a fruitcake too. I don’t just tackle anyone who’s wearing minimal clothing.” Mitch was gratified. "Now," Clayton continued, "on the tangent of being fat, Jay said the grub was ready." Clayton and Josh giggled and skipped out of Mitch's room like little kids after an ice cream truck. Mitch slipped on some boxers, board shorts and a bro-tank and followed their lead.
The exquisite smell of the mesquite-smoked ribs, charred burgers and homemade French fries filled the air. Drinks were served: Dr. Pepper, sparkling cider or whatever the guests fancied otherwise. All ate and drank their fill, and all were merry.
After dinner, the cake was brought out and lit with eighteen small sparklers. Everyone sang Happy Birthday to Mitch (who was smiling from ear to ear) and when they finished, he blew out the candles with gusto. It was official; Mitch was an adult. Everyone broke out in applause, cheers and shouts of jubilation.
After the filling of stomachs and the giving of gifts, Mitch took the kids that were actually his age over to the beach. Apart from his three best friends, Mitch discovered that at least six other acquaintances showed up later on- all of whom he knew reasonably well.
The waters tended to be more calm and serenading at night, and that was no exception. The moon had entered center stage dressed in a stunning white dress fit for any wedding, with her dainty ladies, the stars, nervously gathering around her.
“Tonight is definitely sweet,” Mitch noted to Kali.
“It’s amazing. The sky is so clear out here compared to the city, it's not fair,” she replied as the fantastic four lay down in the sand close together.
“Amen to that. And the beach is flawless. Almost like it knew today was a big day so it cleaned itself up for once just to impress me,” Clayton teased.
"Yeah I know, right? It's like you're Bro-siedon, God of good looking beaches."
"Excuse me?" asked Kali as she jabbed Mitch in the ribs.
"Hey, easy! Bro-siedon, like Poseidon you know? But with a bro?" Clayton and Josh looked at him with suppressed laughter, Kali just looked upset. "What?"
"Ladies’ ears," Kali winked at Mitch. He still didn't understand what he did wrong. "Oh, I'll really miss this. It's been swell, boys."
"Indeed it has been, Ham." Clayton answered back.
Miss this? Miss what? Mitch wondered. He felt completely out of the loop, like his three amigos were on a completely different brain wave than he was at the moment.
"Miss what, guys?" Mitch asked.
"Oh, you know," Kali made a pause and sighed. "Summers like this. There's so much peace in all this quiet and innocence. It's our senior year and big things are about to happen. I don’t know, I miss being a kid and stuff already, and high school has flown by."
"Real talk," Josh mumbled. Kali's nostalgia spread to the other three boys and fell over them like a veil. The night sky drew close to Mitch and became his temporary screen for replaying high school memories and childhood snapshots again. Mitch fell into his zone and lost track of everything around him. His gaze focused on a single star and wouldn't move for the world, because the memories he chose to re-live were too sweet. He reminisced on songs that his songbirds sang to him and Sarah, great victories, touchdowns, excellent runs, the first time he met Kalina Stryk. Ham. His better-than-best friend.
He imagined the sounds, smells and spirits of each memory, almost like he was living it once more. But eventually, they had to go. Just like they had to pass in real life. It was beautifully quiet again, peaceful like the silence that you never want to wake from.
"That’s pretty heavy." Mitch had to break the ice before the mood grew too melancholy.
"Yeah, I know." Kali replied with a patient exhalation. "Hey boys, I have to get back home and put the parents to bed. I'll talk to you later, Happy Birthday buddy!" Kali rolled over and gave Mitch a kiss. After the exchange, she whispered, "I left your gift on the nightstand."
"Oh, okay. Thanks Kali. Goodnight," he whispered back. Kali got up stiffly and trotted off the beach, leaving her three boys to their own devices.
"Oh Kali..." Clayton whispered in an overtly seductive voice. "Now 100 percent convinced you're a fruitcake." Clayton pushed Mitch over in the sand with his burly lineman arms.
"She whispered first," Mitch defended himself.
"I can't believe you guys aren't dating yet," Josh added.
"Yeah, seriously. But you'd probably get married first, anyhow," Clayton agreed.
"It's not like that, guys. She's almost like my sister, we've been through hell and back too many times."
"And that worsens the situation? That should be your glue! Take advantage of the strife you’ve experienced together!" Josh argued. Mitch thought of a decent analogy that Clayton and Josh could both comprehend.
"Have you ever kissed your sister? It's just not the same. I'm afraid that's what it might be like."
"We don't have a sister," the two of them replied together.
"Okay,” Mitch had to think longer. “It's like playing in the State Championship game and tying."
"Ohh," they said in unison as two tiny light bulbs appeared over their heads.
"Yeah. It's not what you want."
"Well it might be worth a try down the road, dude!" Clayton assured him.
"I'll see how the year plays out." Mitch implied that this was the concluding statement and any further speculation would be uncalled for. The juiceheads were obedient and left it alone for the remainder of the night.
Mitch said his goodbyes and thank-you’s afterwards to everyone as they left his house and gave a final handshake-hug to his linemen. It was past midnight at the Kroy household, and Mara ushered Mitch to go to bed. He indeed had a long and draining day, and his scorching summer practices started in just three short days. Mitch received a goodnight kiss on the cheek from Sarah, and she retreated to her room to crash. Mitch slipped on a hoodie in his room and his favorite pair of wool socks that kept his feet warm when his light blankets couldn't. His usual routine was followed: brush teeth, rinse mouth, wash face, count blessings, grab guitar and hop in bed.
On a normal night, he spent around thirty minutes strumming and singing internally. It used to be his parents' jobs to serenade the children to sleep up until Mitch decided he grew out of the old lullabies when he became a teenager. One came to him tonight, brought on by the beach’s revival of so many old and sweet memories. He recalled one of the oldest songs from very long ago that Mara sang to him by herself:
I'm always here, right by your side,
You're safe and sound, in love you hide.
No need to stay, these hours are done,
At peace you'll be when darkness come.
Be still my child, my all in all,
You know the sun is sure to fall.
So go to sleep and touch the skies,
Goodnight sweet child, just close your eyes.
Mitch found peace with its soothing melody even now as he plucked each chord softly.
He replayed the song over in his mind, trying to recreate her singing next to him. Soon though, his fingers lost their dexterity and his eyes grew lazy. He escorted the instrument to the designated corner of his room where it slept.
His pillow was cool and inviting, and he welcomed a good night's sleep with an open mind. However, before receding into his sweet dreams for good, Mitch noticed the shiny black box on his nightstand. Kali's present! Mitch garnered an impulse to let her know he was about to open it. He sent her a text: "Thanks for the present Ham, about to open it :)," he attached a picture of the small box just for the heck of it and sent the message. He attended the bathroom to relieve himself a final time while waiting for her to respond. From across the room, he heard the quick vibration rattle on the wooden desk.
He excitedly opened his phone and read the response: "See you soon.” Soon. Now he couldn’t wait to see her soon. With everything that has been happening between them lately, from the night rides together along the ocean in her old Jeep to tonight’s suggestive kiss, Mitch was certainly feeling a push from his heart, just tell her how you feel, Mitch. She’s the best for you and you know it. Clayton and Josh’s remarks had their effects as well.
When he slid his curious fingers over the glossy lid of the mystery package, the box opened automatically with a click. A note popped out. It read:
Underneath this note lies a necklace.
It's your choice to put it on or not.
So what have we here?
The necklace that Mitch was supposed to put on was comprised of a striking metal chain that felt surprisingly light for its complexity and size, and a pendant of what looked like a crystal cut in the shape of an exotic “t”.
Mitch placed it around his neck as he supposed it should be. He gazed at himself in the mirror, assessing his new look, moving the chain around, making faces, flirting with himself. It made him look tough and gave him confidence.
Looks expensive, she went all out! The crystal shimmered even in the faint light coming from his tiny lamp and almost seemed to have a soft glow to it. Mitch held the necklace just in front of his nose to inspect its superior cut, being careful of not touching the crystal to prevent smudges. At a closer proximity, Mitch discovered that the crystal was actually in the shape of a sword. The delicate figure was remarkably crafted and perfectly clear, and small characters were inscribed on the blade.
As he tried to decipher what the calligraphy read, faint whispers floated to him from around the room. Mitch spooked himself and he whipped his head around to the door. Alone. He noticed the whispers ceased when he broke eye contact with the pendant, so he attempted to read them again. He ran his eyes over each symbol carefully, which aggravated the whispers and made them more intense. Mitch let go of the chain immediately. The crystal made a brief vibration when it hit his chest and then began to emit a steady, oscillating flash. It gleamed a soft, red light that rose and fell every few seconds. The slow revolutions of flashing were mesmerizing, and after a solid minute of staring, Mitch had enough. He searched for the on and off button that he must have pushed, but could find no such thing.
He put the necklace back down on his desk, and the whispers once again stopped. Either someone spiked my coke tonight or I'm going insane. He pinched himself to make sure he hadn't actually fallen asleep instead of opened the box. Nope, real life. The crystal continued to flash. He shot a text to Kali asking where she got the necklace and how it worked, but after ten minutes and no answer, he grew anxious enough to grab the necklace again. This time, Mitch grabbed the sword by the blade without suspecting it to be sharp, and found that he was quite wrong. His index finger received the most damage: a clean, deep cut.
There soon was a small stream of blood dripping from the tip, and he took it over to his sink to play doctor. At first, the small deluge wouldn't quit. Mitch wanted to grab a Band-Aid or med-spray from his parents’ room, but he didn’t want to wake them up. The last thing he wanted to do was rummage around the house and leave a neat trail of blood in his wake.
Instead, he utilized the old vampire method- suck the blood until it clots. This left him with that sharp metallic taste in his mouth and a still steady stream, so he spat it out switched to toilet paper. He wrapped a healthy bundle around the sore appendage, and called it good. Mitch returned to check on the necklace, scared he might have gotten blood on it somewhere. The blade indeed had a slight red tint, indicating it had been stained. But he also noticed that the flashing had ceased. He returned to the bathroom and washed it carefully and thoroughly, confident he could efface all the marks.
On post-analysis of the rinse, he observed the slight red tint that the sword had picked up still remained. However, with further scrutiny, there were no surface stains on the sword. The tint was definitely inside the crystal, like the blood had seeped in and marbled the once pristine structure. Mitch was frustrated that he had damaged both his finger and the necklace with a single imprudent action, and angry with Kali for not warning him that it was razor sharp. With all things considered, he was tired and wanted sleep more than an argument. The necklace was gingerly placed back into the box and covered.
Suddenly, there was a distinct thump on the tile floor behind him and he turned around briskly, assuming he would find Jay. Unfortunately, his father could not embody the sound he heard. In fact, there was nothing to see at all. Was this one more trick that his mind was playing on him at such a late hour? It couldn’t be. He knew the sound was absolute and physical. Something heavy made it, that was for sure. Mitch stared widely at the half open door, terrified, confused, and petrified. There was a quick shimmer that started by the doorknob and moved upwards. Mitch barely heard the humming sound that led to the brief pinch on his neck. He helplessly lost the ability to swat it away, and all at once, a steady darkness seeped from the frame of his vision. Sparks flittered around the room and colors faded into each other, ultimately being consumed by blackness. He felt sick as his knees struck the floor, and his body folded over backwards. He let out a desperately weak moan with the remainder of strength that was quickly fading.
It all happened so fast. Mitch was escorted from the room just as the intruder came in, silently and unnoticed.