We were those friends who never knew just how we met.
Joshua Kang and Levi Cannon: we just came as a package. We carpooled to school, we took all the same classes at the same time, and we always ate together. It escaped me whenever I thought about it, when we first met. It’s like, the moment I met him, I was born. I can’t exactly explain it better than that.
But we weren’t normal friends. Most guys in the schools we’ve been through together were tech geeks, jocks, actors, or something. We didn’t fit into any given group. We were happy just to have each other to be with, even if it did make us the prey of whoever had more followers than us. We had no group but that was fine. We had no table to sit at during lunch and that was fine. No one wanted to talk to us, because we were weird, and that was fine.
Middle school didn’t happen to be a breeze for either of us. My family situation changed drastically. As far as up to that point in my life, my mom was a widow with two kids. But right as fifth grade gave way to hallowed sixth, she found a great guy that, all of a sudden, started asking her out on dates. At best, my Aunt Kiesha would come watch us while they were out, and Joshua was invited over however much he liked.
At worst, however, Gramma Patti would come over. She despised Joshua, thought him a bad influence, and even had the nerve to call him a thug. She banished him from our house whenever she was over, lest she call the police to take away this ‘godless delinquent’.
He was ten years old.
And, it wasn’t exactly his fault. Joshua was the kindest person in Bentley’s Cape Middle School, and no one would know it, because on a good day his clothes smelled often of tobacco, or maybe worse things. This was enough to send him to the principal’s office, his face paled beyond recognition and his small form shaking relentlessly. He got suspended at least once for coming to school with a cigarette butt found in his pocket.
But no one knew why. I did.
When high school came around, both of us were just praying things would get better. My mom married that great guy, we moved in with him in a house that was nicer than ours, but on the condition that I’d still be attending Powhatan High. This great guy wanted me to attend one of those nice schools in northern Maine, along with my sister, but I couldn’t just drop Joshua like that. He meant more to me as a friend than the fact that cafeteria food would be better and I’d be taking AP classes.
Joshua wasn’t better off than me, if that wasn’t obvious. He came from the opposite side of town, tended to walk everywhere despite having one pair of shoes, and preferred everywhere else to going home. I didn’t blame him. For that reason, he always came home with us. He was our family, my brother.
I didn’t leave my brother behind. I made that promise.
“What kind of marshmallows do you like?” I yelled over the TV in the family room. My stepdad and Lissa watching a docudrama on the Declaration of Independence while Miles was giggling happily on the floor, for reasons I couldn’t see. I opened the candy cabinet above the fridge and read the labels off of our many variants of marshmallows.
“How many are there?” Josh yelled back, with a touch of awe in his voice. He started making weird noises, and Miles’ laughter erupted again. I could take a guess at his amusement now.
Dad’s voice replied, “You’d be surprised, Josh. Do you want pumpkin spice marshmallows?”
“That’s a thing?”
I made a face to myself. “Pumpkin spice wouldn’t taste good in a s’more, though.”
“Can we just go traditional? I don’t want to overthink my s’more.”
I shrugged and pulled out the massive bag of jumbo marshmallows, slamming the cabinet shut. I scooped up the fixings that I had collected earlier and busted out of the kitchen.
The scene into which I entered wasn’t all that weird, I guess, to me. Lissa and Dad were calmly watching their show from the safety of the couch, while Josh lay on his stomach, scattered wildly across the carpet. Miles sat on top of him, squealing, shrieking, basically all the happy baby noises. Josh was laughing, so I guessed it was okay.
Miles found it infuriatingly easy to be annoying, but Josh always took to brunt of it. I could see how much he loved playing with my baby brother.
“I’m ready to go when the Milestrom lets you,” I said.
We often called Miles the Milestrom, because he was a hurricane of energy. However, Josh never called him that. He called him weird things, like Shoozy, or Munch. One time he even called him Milestone.
Josh’s eyes flicked from the TV to me, then he just barely nodded. He raised his arms behind him and grabbed Miles by the shirt. He pulled him off and rolled onto him. Miles immediately screamed, but then started laughing again. “No!” he shrieked. “Stop it!”
“I gotta go, buddy,” Josh bewailed, just as he relaxed on top of his opponent. “I’ll see you soon, okay?”
As Josh sat up, Miles started crying. “I wanna go with Dosh!”
I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. As I helped Josh up, I tickled Miles. “’Dosh’ is coming with me to the Cape,” I explained. “The fireworks will be too loud for you. You’ll be watching them with Dad and Lissa, okay?”
Miles gave me that look that portrayed his toddler wrath. His lip pointed upwards and his brow cut down into his bright hazel eyes. He gave me this look a lot, especially whenever he was having fun with ‘Dosh’.
“They won’t be too loud for me!” He wiggled furiously against me and tried his best to hit me with his little fists. “Daddy, I wanna go!”
But I was stronger. I smiled at him and stood up. “We’ll be back at eight, I think,” I said to Dad.
My stepdad nodded and grinned at both of us. “Please don’t blow your eadrums out.”
That was his only rule. Every year, I would just tell him when we’d be leaving, and he trusted me enough to have one law on the Fourth of July.
I nodded and gave the chocolate bars to Josh, who was waiting to take something from me. We were turning to leave the room when Miles again screamed and kicked on the floor.
“Why does Eevi get Dosh all the time?” he sobbed, feeling quite worthy of pity.
“Newsflash,” Lissa said over his indignant cries, “Josh is Levi’s friend.”
All I could really do with this kid was laugh at him and let Dad take care of it. I signaled to Josh to escape as quickly as possible. The same smile was on his face as we left Dad and Lissa to handle Miles.
I never knew what really instigated the adoration for Josh within Miles, but ever since the toddler was born, Josh had this attraction to being with him. He was most likely to be the one holding him, playing with him, and all that. It hasn’t changed in three years.
“Bye, Dad,” I called as I shut the door behind us. I didn’t think he heard me, but it was okay.
For a summer night, it was pretty cold. I was bundled up in a hoodie and my windbreaker, because I couldn’t be bothered to stand in the cold. I couldn’t tell if Josh was all good in his thin University of Minnesota sweater (he had never gone there, nor anyone in his family; he got it in a bundle of hand-me-downs at school). The thing was, Josh was all good with using blankets and all that, but was reluctant to borrow clothes. I didn’t really know why.
“Miles is great,” Josh said, kind of in his own head, but still out loud. He hefted the box of chocolate bars under his arm and met my eyes. “Let’s go.”
Josh had a gleam in his eyes. He did when he was actually happy. His eyes tended to look empty or distant when he was just living life, but the moment he had a good experience, a light ignited in his eyes. His whole face would beam, even if he wasn’t smiling. This light was kind of my signal that everything was okay with him.
As we walked down the quiet street, towards the beach, past the old-school houses whitewashed, I surveyed the decorations covering the properties. My family wasn’t one to spend a lot on decorations, so it was interesting to see what other people invested in. Banners, Uncle Sams, flags, stuffed animals. Josh watched a chandelier twirl in a porch, gleaming red, white, and blue.
I was relieved that Josh was taking things in stride. Yesterday he had been silent and unresponsive, and it scared me. I had to check in with him at least once every couple hours.
“It’s funny,” Josh all of a sudden began. He cocked his head to the side, his overgrown black hair shifting across his eyes. “People actually have the money for decorating their houses.”
I rummaged through the box of candies and chose a lollipop. I popped it in my mouth and nodded. “I guess.”
He shrugged and strolled on his way. I followed him.
The sun was almost set, and the sky exploded into bright, vivid colors. Deep purple fell to the east, and I could start seeing the stars.
“C’mon,” I said, taking the lollipop out of my mouth. “The fireworks’re gonna begin soon.”
Josh nodded and we took off running towards the Cape.
Bentley’s Cape wasn’t the best place to go surfing or anything. It was covered in rocks and the water was almost perpetually cold. The coolest thing about it was the crisp skies, the mists, and the massive lighthouse that stood proudly on the tip of the Cape. I found a long time ago that the lighthouse was the best place to see the fireworks.
We hiked over the rocks of the Cape and towards the lighthouse, careful to not drop our s’more fixings. There was a bonfire right outside of the lighthouse yard, where we set up camp. I kept a small stock of driftwood and kindling in the shed that was right outside, so we tossed it all in. Josh lit it, and we waited impatiently for our fire to be big enough to cook marshmallows.
The two of us sat against the fence of the yard, facing the outside of the Cape. A small crabber would leave the bay soon enough, with all the fireworks inside. I checked my watch. 7:30. It was going to start soon.
Josh took the cardboard box filled with candy from me, and started exploring its depths. “You were right,” he said, pulling out a small bag of marshmallows. “There are pumpkin spice.”
I laughed at his fascination and sucked on my lollipop. I had picked up a blanket on our way out, and presently I laid it out in front of us. Josh tended to take the blanket more than me, so I ended up just giving it to him. I wasn’t too cold, anyway.
I watched as the silhouette of the crabber slowly chugged its way out of the Cape. The Cape was slowly getting filled with families coming to see the fireworks, but no one really liked going as far as we did. Josh preferred up close and away from strangers. He never knew when someone from school would notice us, and perhaps pick him out.
Like I said about middle school, the tormenting didn’t get better through freshman or sophomore year. Now, going towards our junior year, Josh didn’t seem too hopeful for things to look up for him. And as much as I wanted to be the optimistic one, I didn’t either. Josh was too shy and soft, too complacent to really make a difference. I wanted to do something, but he wouldn’t let me. He just kept telling me it would get worse if something was said, but I didn’t know how it would.
I guess the principal didn’t like him, and would say something to the effect that Josh had it coming for being a substance abuser and a delinquent. It wouldn’t help my case if I punched that low-life leech.
No one knew the real Josh, and he was just fine letting them guess.
It didn’t matter. It was early into the summer, and we wouldn’t be seeing the jerks in another two months.
Music was being blasted from the inside of the Cape, and I heard people laughing, yelling, having fun. I wasn’t a guy who liked that kind of stuff, but I kind of think that was because Josh wasn’t. He liked it quiet and predictable, and I had gotten so used to it that I couldn’t imagine another way. I settled in my spot and tossed the stick of my lollipop back into the cardboard box.
“I think we should start the marshmallows now.” I pulled the skewers out of the box and handed them to Josh.
As we settled in by the bonfire, the crabber anchored just out of the Cape, not even a mile away from us. Josh leaned closer to the fire, as if expecting it.
Not much seemed to excite him, but every Fourth of July, he held his breath for something that made life worth living in the moment. I guess, every July gave him something to look forward to, away from his problems.
My marshmallow combusted just as the first firework was shot up. I yelped real quick as I attempted to blow it out, all the while Josh was laughing really hard at me. We didn’t even pay attention to the show, as Josh’s marshmallow also caught on fire, and we were trying to extinguish both of them. It was just explosives in the background as we dared each other to eat the sad, black chunks of carbon. Josh threw his towards the sea, but still managed to stuff mine in my face. We both ran towards the waves to wash the charcoal off of my face, and then we ended up sword fighting with our skewers.
Honestly, this was how our Fourth of Julys went. Generally.
I wouldn’t have changed it. After all, this was a day where Josh was perfectly fine, with no fake smiles, and absolutely no wounds to tend. If I could have more days like this, I’d sell a kidney for them.
I knew better than most that it wouldn’t be like this for long.
I glanced at Josh, who was licking his fingers clean of a melted marshmallow as he watched the fireworks fly into the sky.
In all honesty, I was really scared most of the time for him. Josh was living a sort of life I didn’t dare imagine. It was impossible for me to put myself in his shoes, even for a second, without feeling a deep anger – hatred – within me.
Josh didn’t come from a family like mine. It was pretty easy to say he didn’t have one anymore, after his mom died. When the police investigated her death (I think it was already ten years ago), they concluded that she had been driving while talking on the phone and ran into the back of a massive rig.
My friend told me a different story. At least, one with more detail, I guess. I believed Josh over his dad, because at least Josh was in the backseat when it happened.
Anyway, as the years rolled by, my parents did their best to win guardianship for Josh. However, the judge somehow saw something good in his dad, who had gone through drug rehabilitation at least twice by then. I don’t remember what the winning remark was, but it got the point across that Josh was the reason he stayed away from the stuff. If his poor little angel was taken away, he feared he’d fall right back in that pit of ‘the Devil’, as he put it.
He fell back in whether Josh helped or not.
And my friend had to pay the price. If he didn’t meet his father’s wildly unrealistic restrictions of living under his control, and got caught disobeying, then he was lucky if he was able to escape and sleep over at my house. Some days he was so afraid of returning to his house that he would make excuses with me not to leave yet. His dad would be waiting, either high or drunk, with a baseball bat, or maybe a gang of his goonies.
I never understood how someone could be so stripped of their humanity, to the point of finding solace, or entertainment, even, in tormenting another. My anger boiled whenever I saw Josh, whether covered in bruises or cuts, because his father was a monster and I couldn’t have been there to intervene.
People at school, at the park we went to, at the mall, all over the city, understood Joshua Kang to be a delinquent because of the evidence in his clothes. If you looked further, into the look in his eyes, or the scars on his skin, you’d know he was the innocent one.
People sometimes judge the victim as the culprit. I guess my parents always taught me to look deeper before making a judgement, and it made all the difference to me, because I was friends with Joshua Kang for it.
We were those friends who never knew just how we met.