Chapter 2 - The Birthday Party

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Six Months Earlier

Later on, after he slipped off the map into the shadows, Johnny would remember the day when it all started to change.

It was his eleventh birthday.

It was the day he found the .357 Magnum revolver in his grandmother’s dresser.

That was the day he knew his dreams could come true.

“You’re living in your own little world,” Johnny’s father said, as they drove to the party at Grandma Stella’s house. “Your imagination is running wild based on your comic books.”

“I want to be a hero, Dad. That’s the only thing I want. Nothing you can say will change that.”

“There are no heroes in the real world, only winners and losers. One day you’ll have to decide. Are you going to be a winner, or a loser? What’s it going to be?”

If the world really was made up of winners and losers, it was hard to say where Johnny’s dad, Frank Valentine, belonged. His father was always jumping from one job to another, until his mother finally left. She married the millionaire boss at her secretary job and moved across the country. In the divorce proceedings that followed, Johnny was asked to choose where he wanted to live. He remained in California with his father, close to his grandma, Stella Valentine.

“You’re eleven years old now,” Frank continued. “I lost my father when I was your age. I didn’t have time for fantasies.”

“Yeah, right, Dad. Whatever you say.”

After dropping off his son in the driveway, Frank backed out and sped away. He was off to meet an investor.

“You’re a big boy now, Johnny!” Grandma Stella announced, swinging open the screen door of her ranch-style house, and greeting him with a big hug. She was a sweet-faced, seventy-something-year-old lady with dyed blonde hair and the energy of a Mexican jumping bean.

She led him into the kitchen, where she was making homemade ravioli, Johnny’s favorite meal.

“Being a big boy means taking charge of your life. Look at me: I’m getting old, but I have my own place, I have friends that I love, and I do what I please.” She handed Johnny a rolling pin, wax paper, and a bowl full of dough.

“It’s good to be here,” Johnny said. “Good to be away from Dad.”

“Your father is a good guy, but he’s too worried about money,” Stella said, as she checked the chocolate cake that was baking in the oven. “Maybe he thinks if there was more money to go around, then there’d be more love. I love your father, but I’m going to give it to you straight. My son gets mixed up sometimes. He forgets the most important things.”

Johnny sprinkled flour across a sheet of wax paper and began flattening the dough for the ravioli with a rolling pin. Then he scooped the ricotta cheese into a mixing bowl and added parmesan, eggs, and chopped fresh parsley.

“So what do I do if my dad and I don’t see eye to eye?” Johnny lowered the ravioli into a pot of boiling water.

His grandmother shrugged and checked the flame under the pot.

“Like I said, you’re a big boy now. At the end of the day, you make your own decisions. Just remember, Johnny, it isn’t going to be a walk in the park. It’s a tough world. That means you have to be tough, too. Plenty of bullies out there.”

“I know about that,” he said.

Johnny felt a bruise on the back of his neck, the spot where the twin boys at school had smacked him from behind with a ruler. The brothers, Stan and Tim Maguire, were a year older than Johnny, but were in the same class at Santa Ramona Middle School.

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