Running on the treadmill at Vancouver Island University’s gym, listening to a playlist of old ’90s rap, “Shook Ones” by Mobb Deep begins playing. It triggers a landslide of memories. The day David Lacroix took a stand for me, a kid he barely knew, floods my mind and I have to decline my speed to think straight. The girl on the treadmill next to me glances over, then goes back to the video on her phone. A bead of sweat collides with my welling tear duct, stinging my eye as the two liquids mesh.
David Lacroix. I had only heard stories about him from the different crowds at Sequim High School (SHS), but everyone who was anyone seemed to know the name. The juvenile courts sent him to a youth military boot camp in Spokane as a consequence for some poor choices. When he came back, he was stocky from the high-protein diet, his skin olived from the intense heat. His head was shaved. He stood a little over average height and carried a sense of humour everywhere. I believe everything David experienced––drill Sergeants screaming in his face, constant conditioning through endless cardio, repetition, discipline, helping the man beside him through the treacherous hikes––molded him into the humble guy I will always know him as.
When I met David, I was a sophomore who wore my pants below the hips, smoked until my eyelids were at half-mast, and far overused the words fuck, damn and shit. My path collided with David’s at the spot to be after school: Half-Block. 2nd Avenue intersected with a path that led out of the school, and that path ran between the practice field for the Wolves, SHS’s football team, and the tennis courts that no one used. Half-Block was half of an actual city block. It was where all the underage delinquents hung out to get the eighteen-year-olds to pedal their parent’s hard-earned cash up to the Chinese-owned convenience store for smokes and chew. I was heading to Half-Block as soon as that glorious bell rang to flush as much of the algebra out of my head as I could, and make room for the head rush I’d get from the nicotine.
I have Breanna to thank for my introduction to David. She sat two desks away from me in the same row. She was talking about her current boyfriend with another girl.
“He’s so sweet, and I just love all of his tattoos. When we walk through the school, everyone says hi to him. Like he knows everybody,” Breanna said.
The prince charming she was referring to was named Anthony. He was a super Senior: a high school student taking way longer to graduate than everyone else. He was nearly nineteen and loved to scoop up the freshmen and sophomore girls. I shouldn’t have opened my mouth, but I did.
“He’s kind of a dick, to be honest,” I said. “I feel like he just has a big ego and people just say hi to him because they feel bad that he’s still here.”
Breanna slid her flip phone out of her pocket and glared at me while she texted under the desk. I thought it was odd that she didn’t, say, reply, but I was nicotine-deprived and just wanted to get up to Half-Block and take the first magical pull off a Marlboro. The craving was ravenous and untamable.
The bell rang, and the class filed out into the traffic of people quickly filling the hallway. There was a tug on the back of my backpack, and I turned around.
“You’re going to be sorry you said that,” Breanna said.
Her words and tone sent a shiver down my spine, knowing how inclined she was to stir up drama. She walked away quickly with her cellphone clasped in her hand. Whatever. What did I have to worry about? In a few short minutes, I’d be indulging in the sweet nectar of nicotine, and soon after that, I’d be damaging my brain cells somewhere, right?
I walked up 2nd Avenue, past Jared’s house, one of the few homes on Half-Block. But the hangout spot was dead. The occasional student walked by as I leaned on the green electrical box with a sticker of a stickman being electrocuted. I slid my phone out of my pocket, but there were no texts. No eighteen-year-old was in sight to run up to the store, so I resorted to the can of chew in my back pocket I used to get me through the school days.
I packed the can with a flick of the wrist and limp pointer finger; it bounced off the top of the can like a drumstick. I popped the can open, pinched a bit of tobacco, and then it was knocked out of my hand. Chewing tobacco exploded into the air, coating the white concrete with fine strands of black. I looked up, and there was Breanna’s boyfriend, Anthony. We were a near-identical match with our slender builds and luscious skater hair, but the sleeves of tattoos that wrapped his arms gave him a polished-by-the-streets look. That and all the red he wore to represent the Norteños (a Spanish street gang that spread up the west coast from California, though their presence wasn’t strong in small town Sequim; mainly just a bunch of “wannabes.”)
“You’re a punk. You thought you could talk shit about me to my girl?” Anthony said.
Before I could respond, Anthony threw a right hook. I dodged, jerking my head back, but it skimmed the edge of my chin. My earbuds were pulled out of my ears, falling to dangle at my feet. My fight-or-flight response picked a bad third option: freeze, but my mouth still worked.
“What the hell, dude,” I said.
Anthony said nothing and took a step forward, his fists clenched. He came within swinging distance and I put up my hands to block what was coming, when someone stepped between us. He put one arm out, like a stiff arm from an NFL running back, and made contact with Anthony’s sternum.
“Not here man, this isn’t cool,” David said. “He’s like four years younger than you.”
“David, I don’t have a problem with you.”
“I don’t care, this isn’t happening.”
Anthony continued to yell through David at me, and tried to get around him. David kept his extended palm in his chest and walked him slowly down the sidewalk, shaking his head and repeating the same thing: “This is not going to happen here.” After he was walked down the block to the intersection, Anthony gave up, threw his arms up in the air and stormed off down the street. David walked back up to me, as I scraped the particles of chewing tobacco off the sidewalk and into the grass. I bent down to grab the tangled mess of earbuds that swayed from my pocket, and David placed a hand on my shoulder. I looked at him in his bloodshot eyes as a smirk grew across his face.
“You alright, Zach?” David asked.
“Yeah, that was stupid man. I had it coming though, I guess,” I replied. “Hey, thank you, man.”
“It wasn’t fair, and he totally snuck up on you. What did you do?”
“I called him a super senior and said everyone just says hi to him because they feel bad for him,” I replied.
David’s reply was a loud, ha, and we did the traditional fist bump. As he talked, I realized that had been the first time anyone ever stood up for me; did he really just do that? Why would he do that?
I hit the red stop button on the treadmill and see my heart rate is at 130 beats per minute. The song ends. The next one starts with rapid gunfire, and I hold the volume button down to relieve my ears of the loud pops. The painful memory of David’s death bubbles up from deeply suppressed waters. He was shot standing up for the little guy, this time his mother from an abusive boyfriend who took an argument far beyond where he should have. I wipe down the treadmill and my right eye with my wrist. My chest feels tight. Is this grief? Am I grieving? A loud bang from the drop of weights snaps me back to the gym. I leave, walk down the hallway and look out the window at the rain and puddles forming on the asphalt.
I left Washington in 2011, the murder happened in 2012. I contemplated going back for the funeral but couldn’t bring myself to board that ferry in Victoria. I honour David by the lesson he left with me: take a stand for something, someone, a complete stranger.