Big blue sky, snow-capped peaks, and windswept slopes of green. All the pieces were there, painted in bold solid colours, but Franco felt nothing when he looked at it. He wondered if the instructor would ask them to add some alpine sheep or a stunted forest. Maybe a happy little tree would make the difference he needed.
To his left, he saw Giada had already jumped ahead. Her mountainside, already flecked with more colour and nuance than his, was dotted with small white flowers clinging to squat bushes. Her sky was spooled with wispy white clouds that frayed at the peaks. Though they ticked the same boxes, Franco's painting looked nothing like hers.
"You just had to add flowers, didn't you?" Franco said.
Giada rolled her eyes. "They're blueberries, Dad. They're very practical."
"Yup, that's why they made the cut." She smiled. "The only reason, I promise."
"The rugged mountain peaks bedazzled by practical blueberries."
Giada laughed. "A little bedazzling never hurt anyone. How's yours coming along?"
Franco paused, then sat back from his easel. "It's, uh, it's alright. I had a little trouble on the edges of the sky at the mountains. I tried to fix them after we did the mountains which was kind of a bad idea."
"Oh, yeah. I can barely see it, though."
"I think it looks great!" Giada said.
"It's definitely a mountain." Franco smiled.
Around them, the other participants gathered their supplies and took down their easels. Within the hour the borrowed art space would be turned back into the confused but charming tea house/bar/music venue it normally was. Giada pulled her burlap art bag from under her seat and delicately packed her painting. Franco slowly stood and picked up his canvas. He held it turned toward his belly as they walked to the car.
"So what do you think?" Giada asked.
"Hmm? About what?"
Giada laughed again. "About painting, silly."
"It's not bad," Franco said. "Definitely different from painting a house."
"Do you think it could be your thing?"
Franco stopped. He started to respond but smiled sheepishly instead.
"No?" Giada asked.
"Well, I dunno. It's just not quite...I dunno."
Giada smiled as she took out her hair tie. Straight black strands fell across her shoulders. "Well, I think it's good that you tried. Nonno would be proud."
Franco felt a jolt of cold in his gut; it was chased away by a fluttering warmth.
"Yeah, maybe he would," he said as he climbed into the car.
The tea house hosting the painting night was one of several brave wildflowers cracking the pavement of a run-down part of Newark. Small shops had popped up offering obscure health foods, vaping materials, and a rainbow of coloured glass "water pipes." Franco wasn't sure whether it was a quirky grassroots revival brought about by cheap rent or a calculated, cynical push by unseen corporate players. Either way, it was gross.
Since it was a Tuesday evening and the traffic was light, he decided to take the main drag for once. The broad four-lane road was lined densely with gray buildings housing shops that were local institutions. A sandwich place next to a barbershop next to old Mancini Hardware. As the street stretched on toward suburbia the old gray buildings spooled out and were interspersed with chain restaurants and sparsely used parkettes.
Franco glanced at Giada and saw her engrossed in her phone. He looked back to the road. A few blocks later he spoke.
"How is the planning going?"
"Ugh, it's the worst," Giada said. "I mean, most of it is in place but the second band we booked just canceled."
Franco murmured in response.
"Like, I know a senior prom isn't going to be their big break, but a gig is a gig, right?" Giada said. "They might as well do it. It's not like there's anything else going on in Roselle Park that night."
Franco didn't reply. They sat in silence as they passed the plaza at the corner where the road narrowed to two lanes.
Franco's gaze was fixed on the plaza. He turned his head slowly to follow it as they passed, looking through his daughter as if she was invisible. Giada looked too, and she saw nothing but a Jiffy Lube, a modest karate studio, and a sun-bleached flower shop. She turned back and waved to Franco in sweeping slow motion with a short gasp-laugh.
"Sorry." Franco blinked hard. "Uh, yeah, that's a pain in the ass. Those bands should be happy to book something, and to book something and then back out is really shitty. They think they're just gonna get famous overnight these days. That's what you get with this...YouTube, Instagram, Myspace stuff."
Giada cocked her eyebrow. "Myspace?"
"Well, whatever," Franco said, guessing his mistake. "You know what I mean. They just want to skip the part where you put in the work. Maybe I don't know what 'you kids' are into these days, but I know that when you commit to a job you should finish it."
"I think so too," she replied. "No matter what decade we're talking about."
Giada returned to her phone and they finished the rest of the drive quietly. Marina was reading on their shaded porch and heard their car approach. She set down her book and approached the car when Franco killed the engine. Giada grabbed Franco's painting from the back seat and popped out.
"How did it go?" Marina asked.
"I present Dad's handiwork," Giada said. "The Unbedazzled Mountain."
"Oh, that's amazing!" Marina said, taking the painting. "You really did this?" she looked up at Franco, who was nearly a foot taller than she was. Blushing, Franco stooped to kiss her on the cheek.
"Yes, really. This old guy did that."
"Who knew you married such a deep soul, huh?" Giada brushed her mother's shoulder on her way into the house.
"It's beautiful," Marina said. "I knew you could do it."
The painting leaned against the wood-paneled wall of the den. Franco sat nearby, his eyes dry and reddening before the computer monitor. It was dark outside, long dark, and this light alone drew him through.
His father had left a glowing legacy when he passed. He was a kind man, big-hearted and sincere, and his stories weaved effortlessly between a decorated military career and the building of a successful automotive business. But what did Franco have?
His vision was starting dull; he couldn't see the fine details in the auto shop anymore. He couldn't even continue on the trail his father blazed for him. And what had he created for himself? Where were his stories of victory? It was like he had forgotten what it meant to be a man.
He felt it, this time. This would be different.
On the screen was the registration form for Raijin Karate.
Franco checked his watch. Nine minutes until class. He gave the steering wheel a squeeze and sighed. He climbed out of the car and gave a reflexive glance toward the Jiffy Lube as he approached the dojo. He was still in his street clothes: fading blue jeans and a black Budweiser t-shirt. The blue nylon bag slung over his shoulder held the karate gi he had picked up a couple of days before. He crossed the parking lot and yanked open the door of the dojo before he could stop himself again.
The air inside was humid and smelled faintly of sweat. Blue and white puzzle-mats lined the floor, shimmering where patches of cellophane tape caught the fluorescent lights above. Gi-clad fighters stood around in small packs separated by age: little boys rolled and wrestled on the mats; a group of teen boys and girls gathered by the window, talking and carefully reading each other's body language; a small crew of men Franco's age stood near the front, chatting with crossed arms and easy posture. One of them, a black belt with deeply tanned skin and silver hair, broke from the group and approached Franco.
"You must be Mr. Bonatti," he said.
"Franco, please," Franco said, offering his hand. "Are you the sensei?"
"Sensei James," he said with a handshake. "Welcome to Raijin."
"I'm kind of cutting it close. Sorry about that."
"It's alright," James said, "As long as you can change fast. We like to start right on the dot. You have your gi?"
"Yeah, yeah, sorry, I got it." Franco felt beads of sweat at his forehead. "Do I just-"
"Men's change room is just back there," James pointed a thumb over his shoulder.
With his street clothes rumpled on the floor around him, Franco fumbled with the gi. Which side did you close first? Did he have the belt cinched right? He tried to recall the karate movies he had seen over the years. Still not fully satisfied, he decided he was out of time. He threw his street clothes into the blue bag and left the change room. He dropped his bag alongside some others near the door and looked over the room. The unfamiliar coldness of the vinyl tiles against his bare feet gave way to the strange swishy texture of the mats as he found an empty spot near the far wall.
Sensei James stood before his pupils and began the evening's conditioning. Franco stumbled through it at first, willing stiff and heavy limbs through complex calisthenics. As the class went on, grueling as it was, he felt more limber and curiously free. In the final moments, he practiced newly learned punches while shouting out his kiai--his fighters' voice. A deep and primordial power awakened within him as his voice reverberated against the banner-draped walls.
That evening, Franco's plate sat three-quarters full with room-temperature chicken cacciatore. Giada and Marina had cleared their plates and now sat listening with muted smiles.
"It's only supposed to be used for self-defense, of course," Franco said, "So only if a guy starts something with you or thinks you're in his neighbourhood or whatever. But I mean if that happens you can totally- can totally mess them up. You just don't go looking for a fight."
"So you're not gonna roundhouse kick the mailman for leaving packages in the rain?" Giada asked.
Franco laughed. "No! No, Giada, it's a serious thing. It's an ancient tradition that goes back to Okinawa. Well, not ancient, maybe, but very old and very solemn. Almost sacred." He smiled. "It's a sacred thing."
"It is!" Franco cried.
Giada raised her hands. "I didn't say it wasn't!"
"I'm just getting to know it and I need to learn the moves and everything but..." he paused. "But I want to be a part of it. I want to carry it on."
"That's great, Dad!" Giada said.
"You'll be great at it with time, amore," Marina added as she poured out water for her tea.
For a moment Franco sat and stared beyond his chicken cacciatore. A warmth rose into his chest and he began to eat again.
Springtime sun shone across the high school campus, and Giada had chosen the shady side of a table to spare herself the glare. She had a spreadsheet open on her laptop that spelled out the prom's budget. She flipped the numbers around, trying to account for the worst-case scenario in ticket sales. The committee was thinking of lowering the price point, too, considering how many kids qualified for the free lunch program at their school.
"You can drop the photo booth," Darren said from behind her. She turned to him quickly, then smirked and turned back to the screen.
"What, you don't want any evidence of your antics?" she asked. Darren took a seat across from her. He squinted his beady gray eyes against the sunlight. His curly hair formed a short puff that was the same light brown as his freckles.
"Well, no, but also people will have their phones. They'll be taking pictures all night. If they want a serious one they can just get their friends to take it."
"I guess so..." Giada replied.
"A fancy backdrop would be nice to have, but not if it means some people can't be there to enjoy it. It's an easy thing to sacrifice so that everyone can have a good time."
Giada paused. She looked at Darren and wondered how something so adult could come from those puffy, kiddish lips.
"What?" Darren asked, grinning, "is the theme of the night A Photo Booth to Remember or something?"
Giada shook her head and looked at the screen. "No, not this year. If you had actually shown up to our last committee meeting you'd know the theme is Neon Chic."
"Oof," Darren replied, dropping his gaze.
"Yeah, 'oof.' Where were you?"
"I had...other business to attend to."
"What other business? What do you have going on that's more important than prom?"
"Well, now I don't wanna tell you." He cracked a smile.
"Because now you're gonna feel like an asshole."
Giada laughed, incredulous. "What?"
"My dad got a response from Social Security. I had to help with the appeal."
"Oh, fuck," Giada said.
"Yeah." Darren laughed dryly.
"They're still fighting his claim?"
"Yeah. They say that because he can still walk that he's not really in need. I guess they want to see him in a wheelchair before they'll give him any help."
"But if he got money for physiotherapy then he wouldn't need the wheelchair," Giada said.
"Not for a long time, anyway," Darren replied. "It's pretty messed up. All the stuff he does to try to stay independent is actually screwing him."
"It's bullshit," Giada said.
"It is. We sent in the appeal, but if this keeps up we'll probably need a lawyer, and I don't know if that's really worth it."
"Hmm," Giada agreed. She closed her laptop and lowered her head onto her arms. "You're right, you know."
"About the photo booth?"
"I do feel like an asshole." She smiled.
Darren laughed. "Well, you can't say I didn't warn you. Plus you're not an asshole. You've been doing some 'Dad support' stuff of your own, right? How was the painting class?"
Giada sat up. "Oh, it was okay. He wasn't really feeling it, but you know what he got into? Karate."
Darren's eyes widened. "Really? Where does he go?"
"That place at the corner of Elm and, uh, Radcliffe, I think."
"I think so. The one in the plaza there."
"Yeah, that's Raijin. That's where I go!"
"Yeah! Who's your dad?"
"His name's Franco," Giada replied. "He's like...average height I guess. Black hair. Kind of olive-toned."
Darren leaned back and stared into space. "I can't picture him. Does he look like a mob boss?"
Giada laughed. "No, more like one of the mob guys who stands in a doorway and doesn't say anything."
"Ohhh," Darren said, "I think I know him. One of the adult white belts, obviously. His voice is kinda gravelly?"
"He seems pretty intense. Like, not in a bad way. He's up there with the yellow belts and even some of the oranges, in terms of technique."
"Yeah, he's really eager to get into yellow."
"He'll get it, easy. Just a matter of time."
Giada smiled. "I guess my dad could beat up your dad, huh?"
Ichi! Ni! San! Shi!
Franco barked the numbers in unison with his peers as they began their stretches. He spoke with that new voice: his fighter's voice, which only spoke aloud the little Japanese he had learned through the art. Within, it spoke to Franco in a silent primal language he had yearned to discover.
Today his fighting spirit would be sated. One quadrant of the dojo's mats would become the proving grounds for the first sparring tournament held at Raijin since Franco joined. In the past month, he had surged ahead in progress, earning his yellow belt and studying new techniques, but he had yet to prove himself in the heat of battle. He hungered for a real fight.
Two rows of folding chairs were set up near the door. Giada and Marina sat among a sparse crowd--mostly parents of the younger kids--and watched Franco warm up. He was happy they were there, but scarcely noticed their presence as the borders of his focus tightened. At his sensei's command, the fighters sat in a wide square around the mat and the first two combatants were called.
The first pair were pre-teen novices. The two boys shot mid-level kicks at each other that were equally zealous and clumsy. As the fight heated up and they began landing scoring hits, Franco found himself pounding the mat in excitement. One reproachful look from Sensei James put a stop to this, and instead, he embraced the wild fury in his heart as he watched. The next fight whirred past with Franco relishing every detail until finally he was called.
His first opponent was Gary, a fellow geezer of the class and another yellow belt. Franco shook out his elbows and bounded to his starting mark. He and Gary bowed to each other and the combat began.
Immediately Franco could sense Gary's hesitance; he smelled it on the air like a bloodhound. He dashed forward and threw a punch that landed true on Gary's shoulder. He rode the adrenaline through their match: neither of them could land any kicks, but they traded several punches before the sensei called time. The final score was five to three in Franco's favour.
He bowed briskly to Gary and found his spot on the floor again. He cracked a stupid grin and strained to wipe it away. Above him, more fights continued between advanced students with superb technique, but Franco wasn't seeing them. He replayed his fight with Gary over and over in his head, clenching his fists when he got to his scoring punches.
Finally, the sensei's voice shook him from his reverie.
"Franco!" he shouted. Franco sprang up and took his position.
"Darren!" The sensei motioned to the other position. A teenage boy jumped up: a pale freckled kid. He was a blue belt, but a few inches shorter than Franco and much leaner. Franco had the reach and the brawn, he thought. This kid better have the brains.
They exchanged quick bows and began. Franco didn't smell any fear this time. He locked eyes with his opponent and advanced slowly but without flinching. He watched Darren's hands and waited for an opportunity. Finally, he saw the faintest twitch and fired his left fist at Darren's head. Darren ducked this swiftly and shot a jab into Franco's jaw, pulling it once it landed.
The sensei called for them to reset. Darren promptly did so. Franco stood in place for a moment then bounced back to his position, shaking out his knees. The judge confirmed Darren's point. One to nothing.
Franco felt the heat rising in his nostrils. He studied the teen closely and held his position when the bout resumed. He saw Darren's feint again and stepped into it, then immediately ducked backward. Darren skidded forward, stopped in an unfinished mid-kick that was now out of range. Franco sidestepped and hammered a kick of his own into Darren's lower back. He roared out his kiai. His heart pounded. They reset again. Two to one. Somewhere on the fringes of his awareness, he heard Giada cheer.
He watched Darren roll his shoulders a little before they resumed. This time Darren approached fast, swinging out a left mid-kick which he stopped when Franco darted back. Without losing momentum Darren planted his left foot and shot a high kick with his right. Franco raised his forearm too late to stop the kick from connecting at his cheekbone. Reeling a little, Franco heard the call to reset and made his way back.
A cold fear flashed through Franco when the fight resumed again. In an instant, Darren pivoted on his front heel and sent another kick into Franco's head. A mist of sweat sprayed off his hair. They reset again without needing to move. For Franco, the walls had closed in. He realized he could hear his breathing: a high and pathetic wheeze. The sensei bid them to continue, and he lifted his shaking fists as if in supplication. He toddled around slowly in a guarded stance, feeling a gnawing dread in his gut as the vulturine teen circled him. Franco flinched against a sudden movement, and Darren swept his front leg behind the knee. Franco crashed to the mat and Darren swiftly followed with a gentle punch to his belly, like a child ending a game of tag.
It was over. The sensei called it: Darren led by eight points, an instant win, and a total victory.
Darren helped Franco to his feet and clapped him on the back.
"Good fight, Mr. Bonatti! It's just technique. It's just a matter of time."
Stunned, Franco managed a half-bow to his opponent and the sensei before taking his place in the square again. An unwelcome heat rose to his cheeks and he blinked away tears as the tournament continued.
Franco sat in subjugation: a prisoner of war waiting to be marched. Over several matches, his breath had settled from the high wheeze he'd heard before, but still, it hitched and shuddered. He looked up at the action during the more intense moments, but couldn't bring himself to look the other fighters in the eye. He didn't deserve it.
A cold dread compelled him to watch the grand finals as if by sheer will he could prevent disaster. Darren was matched against Vijay, a purple belt in his early twenties. Franco had scarcely spoken to Vijay before today, but now he elected him his champion. He clenched his fists in a silent prayer to spare what remained of his dignity.
Their bout dragged on in agonizing closeness: at no time was either fighter more than a point ahead of the other. Their strengths were different but evenly matched. Vijay's superior speed countered Darren's boldness until the final seconds when Darren's unorthodox mid-kick caught Vijay off balance and sent him tumbling to the floor.
Darren's face lit up. He held it together until after their final bows, then laughed as Vijay and a few other guys rushed him with eager hugs and back claps.
Franco, too, struggled with his composure. He found himself acutely aware that he was sitting at the feet of his conqueror, and sprang up just as quickly as Darren's friends had. He hurried toward the door and saw Giada and Marina getting up to greet him. He stopped, frozen by fresh surprise and a roiling wave of shame.
"You did so good!" Giada squealed. She ran around the seats and hugged him. He returned the gesture automatically.
"Gary started before you, right?" Marina asked. "You showed him who's boss."
The word stung Franco deep inside his chest.
"What's wrong?" Marina asked. Her smile waned.
A roar of applause sounded behind them. Franco turned to see Sensei James presenting Darren with a small wooden plaque. He took a long, deliberate breath and turned back to Giada and Marina. They were the real prize, he told himself. Something that no one could take from him. He forced a smile.
"Nothing, amore. I feel great. Thanks so much for coming out. And...for everything."
He drew Marina in for a kiss. Over her shoulder, he locked eyes with Darren, who smiled and gave a nod. Franco stared him down as he snaked his hand down Marina's back and clenched her butt cheek.
"Dad, ew! Not now," Giada said.
He saw the light draining from Darren's eyes. That smug little smile faltered. He kissed Marina again and ran his other hand under the hem of her blouse, snapping off the bottom button. He pawed at her breasts and sucked noisy breaths through his nose, never taking his eyes off Darren.
"Franco, what is wrong with you?!" Marina cried. She pushed him away and fled into Giada's embrace.
"Fucking gross, Dad!" Giada said, fighting off tears. "What the hell was that?"
Franco didn't reply. Instead, he stared somewhere into the room and smirked. Giada followed his gaze and saw Darren, looking deflated with the plaque dangling from his grip. Giada slowly turned to Franco again, her face frozen in disgust. A heavy silence hung between them; Franco's cheeks reddened before he finally broke it.
"I gotta go change. I'll meet you at the car."
The next few days passed slowly. Franco slept so little. He woke around dawn each morning and couldn't fall asleep again. Instead, he got up, showered, packed a lunch, and went to stare at the bookkeeping and operations work he did for the auto shop. For ten minutes on the third day, he watched his cursor blinking away, dutiful in its monotony and blissfully unaware of its insignificance.
In the evenings we would sit on the porch with a glass of wine he rarely finished. Later, he would choose something to stream and realize he had spaced out through the first half of it. The next karate night came and went without him.
One night Marina made chicken cacciatore again. He ate it silently. Marina and Giada, tired of carrying the social load for so long, spoke just a few pleasantries to each other. At the bottom of his dish, he met the memory of a happier evening: a spark just bright enough to rekindle him.
He sighed aloud. "Why did they make me fight a blue belt?"
Giada looked up. "At the tournament?"
"I don't...I don't know all the moves yet. I don't know to how to counter everything."
"I think it was just supposed to be a casual thing," Giada said cautiously. "Besides, there's just not enough of you to separate it by belts."
"That blue belt sure thought he was hot shit. Darren." Franco spat the name.
"Well he won the whole thing," Marina said. Franco shot her an irritated look, then looked back at Giada.
"How did he know my name, anyway?"
"He called me Mr. Bonatti. Do you have pictures of me online or something?"
"No, Dad," Giada shifted in her seat. "I know him from school. I told him you're my dad."
Franco huffed. "The nerve of that little punk. 'It's just a matter of tiiime,'" he sneered. "What the fuck does that mean?"
"Come on, Dad!" Giada pleaded. "He just meant that you could beat him if you had more experience."
"And you'll be able to beat him soon," Marina added.
"I could have beaten him!" Franco cried. A silence hung for a moment. "It's just...it's bullshit that we were all in the same bracket."
"He knows, Dad."
"How do you know that?"
Giada sighed and set down her fork. She unlocked her phone and scrolled up into her texts with Darren. She turned her phone to face Franco, but held it close:
Yeah, he skipped it. He said he was feeling sick.
He's still pretty upset about the tournament.
Really? That sucks
You can't expect a yellow belt to beat a blue
Giada saw Franco's expression harden. He stared at the phone for many painful seconds. When he finally spoke, he startled her.
"Hey Giada, is Darren a ghost?"
Giada laughed. "What?"
"Darren. Is...is he ghost?"
"I don't get it." She waited. Franco said nothing. "No, he's not a ghost."
"Then why is his name 'Boo' in your phone?"
She flinched. She tried to hide it, but Franco noticed. She traced a circle on the table with her finger.
"Because we're dating."
Franco laughed. "Oh, so he went and got a source of pussy too, huh? Well, good for him. Fucking touché."
"A source of pussy?!" Giada shouted. She started to cry. "We've only been dating for two weeks, Dad! Do you think I'm like that?"
Franco rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, Giada. This isn't about you. No need to cry."
"Except my dad thinks I'm a slut!"
She shot up from the table and stormed to her room.
"Just lovely," Franco said, flinging his hands upward.
"What has gotten into you?!" Marina shouted. "First you embarrass me at the tournament and now you treat Giada like this?"
"Oh, I embarrassed you. You were the one embarrassed at the tournament. Okay."
"Yes! You know what you did and it-"
"Don't, you get it, Marina? That fucking kid is messing with me again! Am I just supposed to lie down and take it?"
"What kid, Franco? What are you even saying?"
Franco shook his head. "This has gotta stop. I have to stop this shit before it gets any worse."
Franco rushed past her into the garage.
Little stars swam and popped in Franco's vision as he drove in the reddening dusk. A restrained fury stoked him: despite the anger, he felt mechanical and certain--a mere implement of justice. The GPS guided him across Roselle Park to his target, though he paused to double-check it when it led him across a set of railroad tracks and past an industrial park.
As he came close he noticed the rows of near-identical townhouses, erected many decades before in dusty gray cinder blocks. Two men sat in lawn chairs on a scrubby field of dandelion drinking beer from tall cans. Further along, an older guy poked around under the hood of a muscle car parked on his lawn. Franco braked hard when a pair of little girls ran into the street dressed in drooping oversized t-shirts and screech-laughing at each other.
Franco shook his head and pulled a bit further forward before parking his car. His destination was a townhouse like the others: the bleakness of its design was seasoned by disrepair.
"Fit for a king," Franco said bitterly. He climbed out of the car and tested its lock as subtly as he could before walking up the shoddy concrete path to the door. He raised his fist and hammered away without hesitation. He waited, feeling his hot breath swirling in his chest.
After a moment, he heard the lock disengage. Darren opened the door.
"Why so formal, Darren? Aren't we family now?"
Darren hesitated. Hearing Franco's tone, he stepped forward and closed the door behind him.
"I thought you knew."
"Oh, yeah!" Franco nodded. "I bet you did. That was the whole point, right? That was your plan."
"My plan? I don't-"
"It wasn't enough to eliminate me, was it? You gotta take her too."
"Take her? What do you mean?"
Franco's nostrils flared. "You know exactly what I mean, you little prick. To the victor go the spoils, huh?"
Spittle flecked Darren's face. He recoiled.
"Look," Franco continued, "I don't know why you're so obsessed with me, but you need to fuck off already."
Darren started to tremble.
"Mr. Bonatti, Giada, and I have been dating for a few weeks. It wasn't because of the tourna-"
"Bullshit!" Franco interjected. "You saw- You saw what I had and you had to take that, too. You're fucking with me."
"I'm not!" Darren pleaded. "She asked me out a couple of weeks ago."
Franco shook his head. "No. No fucking way." He grinned bitterly. "Not Giada."
"It was her choice," Darren said.
"Her choice," Franco echoed. "This was her choice?" He waved his hand over Darren, then the townhouse.
Darren's face reddened. "Yes," he replied quietly, "and like it or not, you should respect that."
Franco laughed bitterly. "Oh, I should, huh? Well, in that case, you're welcome."
"For what?!" Franco scoffed. "I made her, kid!" he screamed, pointing to himself. "You got me to thank for that! Next time you have that tight pussy wrapped around your little pecker I hope you think of this face!"
"What's going on?" George called from inside the house.
"It's okay, Dad!" Darren called back. "Don't get up."
Franco covered his mouth in mock concern.
"Darren? I heard yelling."
"It's okay, it's just Giada's dad. We're talking." Darren saw Franco's face harden again.
"It's just me, huh? Figure you can just beat me up again?"
"There's no referee here, champ. No resets, no rules. Come on!" He assumed his karate stance, then stuck out his chin. "Free shot."
"Karate's only supposed to be used in self-defense," Darren said softly. The words hit Franco hard, regardless. This fucking kid.
"Look, Mr. Bonatti, you need to go," he added.
Franco broke from his stance and dashed forward until his chin was an inch from Darren's face. Darren flinched.
"So make me leave," Franco said. "I'm waiting."
Darren said nothing. He turned his face to the side.
"Not so clever when it's real, huh? Come on, do something to get rid of me."
"...the police," Darren muttered.
"What's that?" Franco jeered. "Speak up, son."
"I'll call the police!" Darren faced him again. Franco smiled when he saw the water in his eyes.
"So that's it? Just gonna tattle, huh?" He raised his eyebrows. "Big man."
"Hey, you get away from him!" George shouted. He appeared in the doorway hobbling with twin forearm crutches. His graying hair and the collar of his shirt were damp with sweat from the effort.
Franco took a step back. "Oh-ho!" he laughed, "Isn't this rich?"
"Why are you harassing my son?"
Franco raised his hands. "Look, don't worry about it. We were just having a little chat. I'll, uh," he laughed again. He looked again at the crumbling porch and the weed-choked sidewalk that led to it. "I'll leave you two to enjoy your little fairy tale life here." He widened his eyes and tipped an imaginary hat before turning toward his car.
George leaned forward and rubbed Darren's shoulder.
The following Saturday, Franco stood in the living room and absently thumbed the curtains. His dark purple button-down--the one Marina picked for him--felt stiff around his neck. He waited by the window and rehearsed his speech in his head.
Marina had told him in no uncertain terms that his behaviour at Darren's house was unacceptable. The old-world passion he'd fallen in love with had turned on him in fiery admonition. Giada's choices are hers, Marina said, and he isn't to inject himself into them. It could have been a police matter, and he was damn lucky they didn't make it one. He should be grateful. Finally, she said with dire gravity, she wouldn't have a thug for a husband.
So he stood and waited, a scolded schoolboy due for confession. He stared out onto the street and watched the sparse traffic impassively. He wondered if it had always been like this: if the pioneer tales and cowboy stories simply left out the part where the wife yanks the leash. He knew the world had come a long way from pistols at dawn, yet there was an alluring simplicity to it all.
"That's their car," Giada said, startling him.
"Oh it- it is?" he stammered. Giada hadn't said much to him in the days between.
"Giada, I put your pie on the cooling rack," Marina said. She wiped her hands with a dishtowel and walked in from the kitchen. "Oh, they're here!"
The three of them watched Darren turn off the engine and pop out of the car. He crossed in front of the hood as George cracked the passenger door and slowly worked it open. Darren reached in for George's crutches and leaned them against the rear door. They both laughed at some unheard joke while Darren gently hooked his arms under his father's and hoisted him upwards.
"Oh come on," Franco said.
"Franco!" Marina gasped. She and Giada stared at him in horror.
"Well, they don't have to make such a show of it."
George started to make his way to the front door. Darren opened the back door of the car and retrieved a small basket topped with red tissue paper. He caught up to his father and stood a step behind him as they climbed the steps to the porch.
Franco felt his pulse quicken.
Marina opened the door before they could knock. "Welcome!" she said. "Mr. Ward, it's so nice to meet you!" She stepped back to clear the way.
"Oh, it's just George, please," George said, stopping to shake her hand. "My son's got my secret recipe bread, there."
"Oh, wonderful," Marina said. "Darren," she beamed, "so nice to meet you too."
"Hi, Mrs. Bonatti."
"Oh, no no," Marina said teasingly, "Marina. First names here."
Darren smiled. He and Giada traded a quick glance, and Giada reached for the breadbasket.
"I'll take that, I guess," Giada said. She laughed nervously.
Franco hovered a few steps back. He had left his dress shoes on the floor of the doorway: with a quick glance, he judged Darren's dark blue Converse to be three sizes smaller.
"We are just about ready to eat," Marina said. She laughed. "Italian families, huh? That's the most important thing. Usually, anyway." With this, she turned to Franco.
He swallowed once and braced himself. He looked at George first, then Darren, and began.
"I want to apologize for the way I acted at your house the other night. I was rude and aggressive because of a...a misunderstanding on my part. I let my emotions get the best of me and treated you terribly," He looked down for a moment, then looked up again at George. "For that, I am truly sorry." He saw Marina's eyes boring into him. "I hope you can forgive me."
The room stood silent. George spoke first.
"Well, uh, Franco, I know sometimes people get carried away. It happens."
"Yeah," Darren said, "Just a little overheated."
"Darren and I talked about what happened and we figure it's behind us." George forced a laugh. "Let's just keep on keepin' on, okay?"
Franco nodded eagerly. He made himself smile. His relief was genuine, though stained with surrender. He stood back again as Marina led George into the dining room. Darren and Giada paired up, glad to be released from the formalities.
Half-empty salad bowls and casserole dishes were strewn across the table in the Bonattis' dining room. George's breadbasket sat at the centre holding just a few crumbs and the red tissue paper.
"That bread was really great, uh, George," Giada said, trying out the name.
"Thank you, Giada," he replied. "It's just something I've worked on over the years. Refined it a little here and there, you know? If I have an idea I try it out in the next batch. It's not always an improvement." He laughed. "'Course, it's come a long way from the sad little hardtack I baked in the Peace Corps."
"I really like this," Darren returned. "The...you said it was eggplant?" he asked Marina.
"That's right. Parmigiana. And you know, it's something I've been refining too!" She smiled at George, then looked at Darren again. "When I was a student in Milan, they had a potluck in my dorm the first weekend. I was so shy back then, but I thought I had to make an effort, right? So I baked a parmigiana: I tried really hard to make a good one. I brought it to the potluck and guess what?"
"What?" Darren asked, smiling.
"They loved it." She smiled. "Suddenly they all wanted to talk to me, like, 'who made this parmigiana?' and I put up my hand and said 'me!' I didn't know what else to say!"
"I guess you let the food do the talking."
Marina laughed loudly and patted Darren's hand. Franco's eyes darted to it.
"That's right!" she said, "I guess I did. Would you like some more of it?"
"Yeah, I'd love some more!"
Marina searched the table for the dish, humming her confusion.
"Oh, it's uh...Franco has it there," Darren said.
"Oh, duh!" Marina laughed. "I'm so blind sometimes. Franco?" She motioned for Darren to lift up his plate.
Franco heard her but pretended he didn't. He stared forward as if he was lost in thought. Within, he hoped that Giada or George would spare him this fate.
Marina's smile waned. The tick-ticking of the kitchen clock marked the seconds.
"Franco, serve Darren!" she said, exasperated.
His gut dropped. Hot shame nestled into his cheeks. Here in his own house, his domain. He remembered his back crashing into the dojo mat, the soft punch hitting his stomach. Even here.
"Okay, Marina!" he stung back. He slowly picked up the serving spoon and swept it through an exaggerated arc into the dish. He dug out a small portion of eggplant and slapped it onto Darren's plate hard enough to make it recoil.
"Is that enough?" he asked.
Darren hesitated. "Yeah, yeah that's good. Thanks."
"That's so little, Franco," Marina said. "Give him some more."
"He said it was fine."
"It's okay," Darren said. "It's plenty."
Franco tossed the spoon and it clattered in the dish. He smirked.
Marina looked at Franco for a long moment, then returned to Darren. "I'm glad you enjoy it, Darren. Giada doesn't like my parmigiana."
"I like it!" Giada protested. "It's just...not my favourite."
"She's all about the sausage, this one," Marina said.
"Uhn, sausage is amazing." Giada rolled back her eyes. "Put it in my mouth!"
Marina laughed. Franco chewed his lip. He felt his breath heating.
"I hope everyone has room for dessert," Giada said. "I made something. Maybe my own thing to refine over time."
Marina tapped Darren's hand again.
"Oh, Darren, you must taste Giada's cherry pie!"
"That's enough!" Franco cried. Beads of sweat formed at his brow. The ticking of the clock came again. The air was still.
"I think that's Franco's stomach talking," George said. "No room for dessert! 'That's enough!'" He laughed. The others laughed too and the tension dissolved.
A little band of pink sunset peaked over the horizon as they made their way to the door. Darren carried the breadbasket and a resealable container packed with parmigiana, at Marina's insistence.
"Thank you again for the invitation," George said. He leaned one crutch against the wall and bent down to pull on his shoes. "The food was lovely--and the company of course."
"Oh thank you, George. Darren," Marina replied.
Franco picked up the crutch and hefted it. He examined its textured grip.
"Hey George, I bet you could club someone pretty good with this," he said.
George chuckled. "Yeah, I probably could. But with my balance, I'd just knock myself over too. It would be kind of a wash."
"It's pretty cool!" Franco continued. "It's like a billy club that helps you walk."
George straightened up again. "Yeah, I'm a regular enforcer." He smiled and reached for the crutch. Franco lifted it above his head.
"You gotta jump for it," he said.
George laughed. "I don't have that kind of spring in my step anymore."
"Come on, give it a try."
George reached up. Franco raised it higher. Marina, Giada, and Darren looked on.
"I can't reach it, Franco."
"Franco," Marina said.
But Franco was looking at Darren. He kept his eyes on him as he flicked the crutch in and out of George's reach.
"Dad, stop!" Giada said.
He listened to the sounds of struggle, to George's puffing breath. He felt bigger--filled with a thrilling and prehistoric power. After many delicious seconds George finally stopped reaching.
"Just having some fun," Franco said. He finally looked away from Darren and handed the crutch to George.
Wild waves of moonlit green undulated all around him. After a moment they coalesced into the near-familiar lawns of his neighbours along Hillock Street, snapping into form with a shuddering vibration. Franco steadied himself and looked up to the sky, where stars of impossible size formed errant constellations. The sweep of a spotlight drew his eye to a distant house, which summoned him with an alien compulsion.
He began to walk, but the sidewalk slipped and rolled smoothly behind him with each step. The crest of the hill before him unspooled new scenery--trees, fences, postboxes--but the spotlit house grew no closer. Dismayed, he finally noticed an object in the middle of the road that was immune to the whirligig milling of the street: an old iron handcar. Rather than straddling a pair of rails, its wheels were set in channels in the asphalt.
Franco stepped onto it and tried the hand pump. It lifted only with extreme effort, then took the bearing of his full weight upon it to drive it down again. The cart crept forward, and as it gained momentum the pump began to ease. Franco heaved and pushed with fervor. He glided past trees and houses, then whizzed past more. He found himself drenched with sweat, muscles screaming in chorus with the shriek of aged metal, and the skittering of sparks along the street.
As he approached the spotlit house he stopped pumping, allowing his arms to flail limply with the handles as he coasted on. He panted and blinked the sweat from his eyes. He noticed, then, that he was being watched: on either side of the street late-night gawkers peered at him through windows or from unlit porches. They were curious in their banality: a picture of bland suburbia save for their mischievous grins and ill-suppressed laughter. A pair of them, two women, giggled girlishly and ran away as the handcar passed them and finally stopped.
Franco took one appraising look around at the strangers before stepping down from the cart. He stood before the spotlit house and with sudden recognition he understood it was his own. Between the sky-raking spotlights, a thin red carpet led the way to the familiar front door.
He pushed the door open and heard a pair of muffled voices in the space beyond. He could see no one but heard a flurry of footsteps running up the stairs. As Franco approached the stairs he heard them again: Marina's laughter rang out and the second voice hushed her in a whisper. Franco gripped the banister and heard Marina settle into a giggle.
A dull lamplight spilled out of the bedroom into the hall. Franco approached with leaden steps, imbued with dread yet unable to stop himself. In the middle of the bedroom stood his father's old workbench, inexplicably shanghaied from his workshop in the city. Marina knelt before it, nude from the waist up. Her head and neck bobbed forward and back in a slow, deliberate rhythm.
In front of her, Darren leaned lazily against the bench, clad in his full karate uniform. His blue belt was unfastened and fell in twin strips at the front of his open gi. His hand cradled Marina's head as he gently guided her along. His toes gripped the carpet reflexively with each pass of her lips.
He laughed softly and looked at Franco through half-closed eyes.
"It's just a matter of time, Franky."
Franco jolted awake. The warped image of his master bedroom--if he could call it that--melted away to the real thing. The familiar walls took shape in the dull red light of their bedside alarm clock. Beside him, Marina dozed softly. He stared at her for a while, then drew himself away and struggled back to sleep.
Marina stared at the lock with great focus as she worked the key into it. The lock rolled smoothly and she pushed the door open. As she entered she clipped her foot on the lip of the doorframe and stumbled, steadying herself with Franco's hand held in hers. She giggled.
Franco smiled. "The revenge of Pinot Grigio," he said.
Marina lightly slapped his shoulder. "I'm fine," she said. "It's that doorway."
"Came outta nowhere, did it?"
She laughed. "Uh-huh."
He shut the door and pulled her close. "You're right, though. You are fine." He looked her over, admiring her lustrous black hair and her ruby lips. She was dressed in a sleek black dress that flattered her small body, offering glimpses of her shoulders and neckline through windows of sheer fabric.
Marina giggled again. "You are not so bad yourself, amore." She fingered one of his belt loops. "Giada is staying at Larissa's house tonight."
Franco's eyes glinted. "She is? Tonight? She's leaving us unsupervised?"
Marina laughed. "I don't think she knows it's our anniversary." She leaned forward and kissed him. "Or maybe she just doesn't want to be around to hear it."
Franco laughed and let Marina lead him to the bedroom. He could feel himself becoming excited: within his chest and further below. When they reached the bedroom door, Marina turned to him with an adoring gaze before stepping inside.
She crossed to their nightstand and turned on the lamp. In the soft orange light, she returned to Franco. She turned away from him and lifted her hair. Wordlessly Franco unzipped her dress, electric with desire.
Marina faced him again. She grasped the dress and her bra straps and, with a sultry wink, slid both down to bare her breasts.
"It's just a matter of time, Franky."
The image hit him like a blow to the stomach. A surreal nervousness swept through him. He felt himself deflating.
A worried look pierced through Marina's wine-washed gaze. Franco blinked hard and willed himself to smile. She brightened again. She kissed him deeply and started to unbutton his shirt. Once undressed, they sank to the bed. Marina lay her head against the pillows and pulled Franco closer with her legs.
Franco's heart pounded. He returned her kisses dutifully, but the throbbing firmness she'd spied in the hallway was nowhere to be found. She must have noticed by now. He worked through the motions and willed himself, in vain, to perform. The minutes stretched on and on until he finally collapsed, crying. Marina sat up and embraced him.
"Franco? What's wrong, amore?"
He sobbed on top of her. His breath shuddered.
"It's that fucking kid."
Marina exhaled. "Oh my god, Franco," she said. "Not Darren."
Franco didn't reply. Marina sighed and pulled herself out from beneath his quaking body.
"This is crazy, Franco. How could this possibly be his fault?"
"It just is, Marina! I don't think you can understand."
She laughed bitterly. "I can't, Franco. I can't understand why I'm naked in bed with my husband on my anniversary and we're talking about my teenage daughter's boyfriend."
Franco continued to sob.
"You have nothing to say?" Marina said. "At least look at me, Franco."
He rolled over and wiped his eyes. "What he did to me at that tournament, Marina. I just...it was going so well and he just took it all from me."
"He beat you in a karate match, Franco. So what?"
"You don't get it. It's more than that." His lip quivered. "It's like he ripped my dick off and chucked it on the floor."
Marina opened her mouth to reply but stopped herself. Her eyes softened when she saw the wounded look in Franco's. She sighed again before she spoke.
"Franco, you love karate. In every karate match, somebody loses. There's nothing wrong with losing. You didn't have to stop going."
Franco sniffled. He watched her intently but said nothing.
"It's true of anything, amore. You have to fail sometimes. It's how you learn. Nonno wasn't an expert mechanic the first time he tried it. He made mistakes when he was in the army too, right? Remember that story he always told about forgetting all the food at the bottom of the ravine?"
Franco laughed gently. "Yeah." He sniffled again. "He thought the sergeant was gonna shoot him himself."
"He wasn't Rambo the first day. He had setbacks too."
"Yeah, you're right," Franco said. He sat up and put his arm over Marina's shoulders. "Thank you, amore."
They kissed in the gentle lamplight.
Franco's kiai echoed through the dojo. A mist of sawdust and splinters flew from his fist. The remains of the split board fell from Sensei James's hands onto the mat. The other students, seated in a square around him, applauded Franco's effort.
"Well done, Franco," James said. He stepped aside to let a brown belt sweep away the splinters. "With that, we've reached the final stage of the test for orange belt: the trial of endurance."
Franco shook off his fist. He watched his sensei attentively.
"You will face a series of opponents in open sparring, using competition rules. Attempt scoring hits. Pull your punches. The points will not be counted: what matters is that you are able to contend with multiple opponents without stopping. I will call for you to reset. When I do, go back to your mark, bow to your new opponent, and resume right away. Understand?"
"Yes, Sensei," Franco said.
"Alright, let's begin!"
With this, Gary bounded up to the mark opposite Franco. They traded bows and began. Franco fought with fervor, taking some hits he should have avoided, but brushing them off in a whirlwind of fighting spirit.
"Reset," James said. Gary sat down and Vijay sprang up. After their bows, they squared off in a moment of restrained calculation before Franco threw a mid-kick and the melee began. He shouted out his kiai again as a punch landed true, feeling his heart surging with primal vigour.
Franco shook out his shoulders and stepped back to his mark. He turned around and saw Darren standing across the mat. A frigid needle pricked his chest.
Darren bowed and assumed his stance. Franco stood paralyzed.
"Stop," James said. "Franco, you forgot to bow."
Franco said nothing. He heard his breath hitching.
Darren stepped back to his mark and bowed again. Franco stood there. Darren looked at James.
"Franco," James said, "You have to bow to your opponent. You know this."
Franco felt the heat in his cheeks. He began to tremble. He swallowed hard.
"Franco!" James shouted. "You're disrespecting Darren and you're disrespecting this dojo! If you're not going to show some respect for the art then you can leave."
Franco looked at James. He responded with the tiniest shake of his head. James's face contorted with fury.
"Bow to him!" he roared. "Now!"
Franco's breath came in spasms. He slowly looked back to Darren. Darkness enclosed the edges of his vision. He stared at the smallish teen and held his head high against the wresting forces of shame and indignity. Finally, he stepped off his mark and rushed off the mat. He snatched his bag and made a beeline for the door.
"You've made your choice, Franco!" James called, "I hope you're happy with it."
Franco shoved the door open and stormed barefoot to his car.
Giada lounged on top of her bed, scrolling through a post about mocktails. She had her window open, welcoming the evening breeze. For a moment she closed her eyes and lay back, lowering her phone to the bed beside her. She listened to the sounds of early summer: the chirping of birds and the distant buzzing of cicadas carried over humid air. These were soon joined by the humming of an engine and the wheels of Franco's car pulling up the driveway.
She sat up and glanced at her phone. It seemed too early for class to be over. Did students go home after their test? She tried to remember if he'd said anything like that. She heard the front door creak open, then Franco's heavy footsteps pounding up the stairs. She flinched when her door suddenly swung open to reveal a red-faced Franco in his white karate gi.
"Give me your phone," he said.
He stuck out his hand. "Now, Giada. I'm not going to tolerate any more of this."
"Any more of what, Dad? What happened to your test?"
"None of your business," Franco said, baring his teeth. "Or did he already tell you?" He grabbed at her phone and she clutched it to her chest.
"Dad, stop!" she cried.
"Already had a laugh session, I bet," he strained to pull the phone from her hands. With a solid tug, it pulled free and he stumbled backward.
"Dad, you're acting like a kid!" Giada said, misty-eyed.
Franco glared back. "I'm acting like a kid. Okay, Giada. I guess you think you're a real adult now. Now that you found yourself a real man. I guess you don't need a-" his voice faltered. "A kid like me anymore."
"I didn't say that, Dad! I didn't say anything like that."
Franco's face softened. "Things were so good before, Giada. What happened?"
They watched each other silently. A bird tweeted outside.
"Well, I'm going to help us go back," Franco said. "You are forbidden from seeing Darren again."
"And you're not getting your phone back until I know he's gone for good."
"Dad, that's bullshit! This isn't up to you!"
"As long as you're in my house, it's up to me!"
"What is your problem with Darren, anyway? Did he beat you at karate again?"
"No, Giada!" he shouted, "He's just...I don't know why you like him."
"You don't even know him! Who the fuck are you to judge him?"
"Who am I?" He scoffed. "I'm his target, Giada. His victim. His fucking plaything."
"What the fuck?" she said, her tears forgotten. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Oh, I suppose you haven't noticed."
She shook her head. "You're crazy."
"Can't you see what he's doing to me?! Why are you letting him destroy me like this?"
"He isn't destroying you! Jesus Christ, Dad!"
"You want a tough karate champ to keep you safe? To thrash anyone you don't like?"
"You want his diseased freak genes? Is that it?"
Giada paused. The fire in her face waned.
"How do you know about that?"
"His dad's a fucking cripple. You want crippled kids?"
"Who said anything about kids?" Giada said, steadying herself again.
Franco laughed. "He'll probably try to knock you up so you'll stick around. I've been to their place. It doesn't look like he has the money for college."
Giada tightened her lips and shook her head.
"Wrong. He's coming to Brown with me."
"Yeah, that's right," she nodded. "He got a scholarship. He's gonna study kinesiology and join the karate club there. They're grooming him to be coaching staff." She smiled bitterly. "So we're running away to Providence and we'll be together all the time. We'll make out in public all over campus and then go up to our dorm for freaky sex."
"Oh, Darren!" she moaned. "Darren!"
"Giada, stop!" Franco cried.
"You want to put it where? Anything you want, Sensei Darren!"
"Don't!" Franco wiped his eyes with his palms. Nausea surged through him. His vision blurred at the edges.
Giada narrowed her eyes. "Or maybe I'll call him Daddy."
Franco stumbled and ran out the door.
Franco sat at the bar among a lively Friday crowd, finally back in his street clothes. He stared into the rising bubbles of his untouched pilsner and relived the argument.
All the things Giada said were branded in his memory, but one transfixed him most of all:
"How do you know about that?"
How did he know? George was obviously crippled, and Franco had met him twice. It didn't take a genius to figure out that there could be something in the family. The strangest thing about it was the pained way she had said it. It was the only time she recoiled: the only point he had scored.
How did he know about what?
Darren sprang up in bed and posted on his hands. He sat in the still darkness of his room and wondered what had woken him. Outside, he heard rattling and scraping behind his building. He listened and was alarmed by the sentient rhythm of the sounds: this was either a very smart raccoon or a person up to no good.
He pulled the thin sheet off himself and stood up. He felt his way through the scattered clutter of his room until he reached the closet. He reached in and slowly withdrew the baseball bat he kept leaning against the inner frame. He paused for a moment, then, hearing more noise outside, made his way to the staircase.
Wearing only boxers, he eased himself down the stairs and skipped the creaky fourth step. He tightened his grip on the bat and followed the noise to the back of the house. He reached the door and held his breath, but hesitated.
The lid of the garbage bin slammed down with a loud report. Heavy footsteps rushed along the side of the house. Darren followed the noise from inside and walked back toward the front door. A car's ignition fired and an engine whirred. Darren opened the door in time to see a pair of taillights fading into the night.
Darren woke again with a start. He rubbed his dark-circled eyes and looked at his phone. Strong midday sun filtered into his room, but he hadn't set an alarm. What was it this time?
He heard a knock at the front door. He groaned and pulled a faded green t-shirt off the floor and put it on. When he stood, he banged his ankle on the baseball bat leaning against his nightstand and sucked air through his teeth. The knocking came again and he hurried down to the door.
He opened it to find Giada, puffy-eyed and distraught.
"I'm sorry, Darren. I couldn't text you,"
He stared back at her blearily.
"It's just...my dad took my phone, and I couldn't-"
"Oh, yeah, yeah no problem." Darren shook his head. "Come in. Please."
"We had a big fight yesterday," Giada continued as they climbed the stairs. "It was really intense. I mean, I don't think I was wrong but I could tell I really hurt him."
Darren looked back at her and nodded solemnly.
"The weird part, though, was this morning. He was so upset last night and then suddenly this morning he's totally fine. Happy, even. I tried to apologize and he said there's no need. He said he's got it all figured out."
Darren stopped. "All figured out?" he asked. "But you didn't even talk about it."
"Exactly. What does that mean?" They sat on Darren's bed. "I've heard about-" she fought off tears. "About people who get like this before they..." she swallowed. "Like they give away all their stuff and make amends..."
Darren's eyes widened. "Oh!"
Giada nodded. She started to cry. "And then this morning he drove off somewhere. He kissed my mom and told her not to worry. Worry about what? That's fucking weird, right?"
Darren took her hand, "Giada, it's alright. He wouldn't."
"And I can't even call him or anything because he took my phone. My mom says he's not answering her either! I don't know what to do." She started sobbing. Darren pulled her close and held her. He stroked her back for a minute and then suddenly stopped.
"Wait a second," he said. "you said he took your phone?"
Giada wiped her eyes. "Yeah."
"Does it still have charge?"
"I dunno. Probably."
Darren leaned forward and reached under the bed. He pulled out a dusty laptop engraved with a Roselle Park High School logo.
"Then let's find your phone," he said.
Giada leaned into him. "Oh my god, yes!"
Darren loaded up the app and Giada entered her login. A blue circle rolled in the centre of the screen. Suddenly Giada turned away and buried her face in Darren's shoulder.
"I don't wanna see!" she cried.
"What if it loads and it's at the bottom of the ocean? Or the base of a cliff along the Palisades?"
"I don't wanna look! You have to tell me."
"Giada, it's okay. He's in Providence."
She slowly turned to look at the laptop. "Providence?"
"Yep. Downtown Providence." He smiled at her. "I can think of scarier places than Providence," he said with a short laugh.
Giada laughed too. She wiped away tears again and pulled the laptop closer.
"What is he doing in Providence?"
It was the summer semester at Brown University, so Franco had no trouble finding a parking spot close to the dean's office. He hoped his luck would persist as he squinted in the bright sunlight, smoothing out a crumpled paper on his dashboard. He noticed a streak of dried garbage juice along one edge of it, but there was no helping that. He tucked it into the pocket of his jacket.
He stepped out of the car and walked toward the dignified brick building that held the office. He climbed its sweeping steps, opened its stout door, and approached the receptionist.
"Hello, I'm Franco Bonatti. I called this morning. I hope mister- uh, Professor Edmonds can see me."
"He can, Mr. Bonatti," she replied. "It's quiet today, so it's no problem. Please have a seat."
Franco unbuttoned his jacket and sat down. He smiled and looked around the room until he was summoned. The receptionist led him down the hall into a large, wood-trimmed office. The dean stood from his chair and offered Franco his hand.
"David Edmonds, Dean of Students," he said.
"Franco Bonatti," he replied. "Thanks for seeing me."
"Please have a seat,"
Franco sat down. He retrieved the paper from his pocket.
"What can I help you with today, Mr. Bonatti?"
"I understand that you've offered a scholarship to an incoming student. Darren Ward."
The dean squinted. "There are a lot of scholarships, Mr. Bonatti. I don't know that student in particular."
"Well it's-" Franco stammered. "It's an athletic scholarship for karate. Very competitive, and I understand it's a lot of money."
"Right, the athletic ones often are," the dean said. "They earn it back though; the terms are pretty strict."
"Yes, I'm sure they do. I'm just afraid that Darren might not be the best choice for this scholarship. I don't think it's a good investment."
The dean leaned back. "Mr. Bonatti, our committees carefully consider each applicant. They're very thorough. You might think your child is better, but that's just part of being a parent, right?" He laughed dryly.
"Oh no, that's not why," Franco said. "It's just...well, here." He handed him the paper.
The dean noticed the letterhead first: Overlook Medical Center – Union Campus.
"Mr. Bonatti, this is a HIPAA violation."
Franco's face reddened. "I know, but you'll want to see this. Sometimes you have to consider the whole picture."
The dean gave him a hard look, then continued reading. After many long seconds, he sighed.
"Familial ALS," he said.
Franco nodded. "Lou Gehrig's disease. His father has it too. Who knows when he'll start to show symptoms, but..." he shrugged. "If the idea is to recruit long-term coaching staff, then this is kind of a waste."
The dean rubbed his forehead. "I wish I hadn't seen this. Do you know how bad it would look if we pulled this now?"
"No one has to know, Professor. I won't say a word. You could offer it to another student. It would be a great investment and it would change someone's life."
"But what about this person?" The dean tapped the paper. "What is he supposed to do? And it's so close to the start of the school year."
"I know. But he's a great kid. He'll find another path, I'm sure." He smiled. "It's just a matter of time."
The dean took a deep breath and handed back the form.
"Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Mr. Bonatti. It looks like I have some hard decisions to make."
Franco nodded gravely. "I just want the money to be used wisely," he said. "That's all I want."