The Pottingers lived next door to us for years, but it took until seventh grade—those carpools home from soccer games—for our moms to realize they needed each other. They tried to make friends by making us friends. “Such a nice boy,” my mother said absently, searching her purse for a Rolaid. We were staked out in the car again.
We dropped Mickey off at home after our scrimmages. Each time, he shut the door looking apologetic for having to slam something, then made his slow-dash toward the house—a flash of his green jersey disappearing into a mudroom. It was a horrible sight: his forward-thrusting hips, drawn-back shoulders, spine resting slightly on the air behind him as if his upper half was in a recliner. Coach put him on defense on account of what we called his idiot feet. One time he got possession of the ball, dribbled it down the field in the wrong direction and scored. The other team cheered, coach threw his clipboard, and after the game, we yanked his pants down in the locker room and took turns whipping him with towels. From then on Mickey spent games getting shoved face-first into the mud. We might have stopped if it seemed like he minded, but he didn’t. Mostly, Mickey laughed and went along.
“A very nice boy,” my mother said again. Who cared if he was nice? She told me not to be fresh and we both peered inside and waited. It was a known fact that Mickey had a disabled brother, Jared. He went to a school that was a ways away and could accommodate his needs. My mother told me this one day as she drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, and I wondered what Jared’s school was like—if they covered the same chapters in History and if they even had a soccer team. I wondered these things every time we dropped off Mickey, every time my mother and I waited in the car for Mrs. Pottinger to come out and say hello. And the two of us would sit there quietly as I squinted into the dark windows of their house, hoping to see something shocking.
Even when it was raining Mrs. Pottinger would trudge over in her galoshes carrying her wide umbrella, lean inside the open passenger window of my mother’s car, and talk forever. She was an older, girlier version of Mickey. Her cheeks were round and freckled and one of her front teeth was discreetly snaggletoothed, folding over the other like a curtsey. Mothers could worry about anything. The rate of erosion impacting local real estate, the spike in Lyme disease, the toxic levels of fluoride in our tap. I waited quietly while they worried, rain tearing across the roof of our car and beads rolling down the front of her umbrella. I watched her footprints leach into puddles and water getting sucked back into the earth.
It was only the beginning of October. Already, skeletons from Fun World were draped precisely over porch rocking chairs, clumpy white spider webs pulled taut between arched doorways, and the air at dusk was sugared with the smell of cheap acrylic and burning cookies. My friend Raphi was going as a pizza slice. Melanie, the US president. And porky Charlie, who we all called Chins, was going as a haunted house. The five of us gathered in the parking lot across from school one day, planning it all out.
“—the hell,” Chins said, lifting one foot. An ant colony of giant proportions. John bent over and blew on it with the full power of both his lungs and a dozen ants hurtled through the air. We took turns passing around a Gatorade, Cool Blue flavor, and doused the gross little city. Red specks scattered in the expanding turquoise. I bunched up the fabric around my crotch, scratched. Soccer season left me with massive heat-rash, rosy blisters, sneakers that smelled like warm bagels.
“Flounder should go as a flounder.” They called me Flounder since I couldn’t swim—just sank to the bottom of the deep end. It happened once in gym class, and there was that unforgettable feeling of water everywhere, in my mouth, my eyes, my ears. Then the muffled whistles from above, the whoosh of bubbles as our coach dove in to grab me off the concrete. Everyone watched me sit there like a drowned moron. Take their diss and make it your own—I knew that much by then.
“What are you guys doing?” Mickey stood a few feet away with his hands shoved into his pockets and frowned at our miniature genocide.
“Murder,” Raphi said without looking up.
“You missed these.” Melanie pointed to a swarm of ants overwhelming a peach pit. John doused it and a cluster of them clung tightly to the pocked surface, to the tendrils of fruit meat. He kicked it into the bushes.
“Can I try?” Mickey produced a water bottle from his backpack and wagged it in the air. No one answered. “Hi, William.”
“It’s Flounder,” I said.
“You two friends or something?” Chins was always calling me out.
“Our moms are,” Mickey chirped. “Will lives—I mean, Flounder lives down the block from me.”
“It’s a small town,” I said.
Mickey winced like he was in physical pain. What I wanted to ask him was, What are you doing talking to us if you can’t take it?
“All dead now,” Melanie said. She crouched to examine the wreckage.
“Nice!” Mickey put the water bottle back into the side pocket of his backpack. Was it nice? As soon as Mickey said it was nice, the whole thing became loserly. John threw the bottle into the woods beyond the chainlink, Mickey’s eyes followed it to an indistinct patch of leaves. A rush of distant highway traffic. Just like that we were bored again.
* * *
My father could be a real hardass. Unemployment turns a man into a wolf. That’s how my mother explained it: the recession. It was the reason he gritted his teeth whenever he had to re-align the car while attempting to parallel park. It was why he’d plunged his fist through a rotisserie chicken on his fiftieth birthday, grease splattering in every direction. He wasn’t always like this, my mother swore, but for as long as I’d known him, he was. I told kids at my school that my father worked for IBM, which had been true once, so it wasn’t a complete lie, and I enjoyed the flecks of truth in saying it.
My mother was a nurse. Because of that, she was always very careful, trying to protect everyone from harm. In the mornings, she set out my father’s Lipitor with his coffee, and whenever I was in the car with her, she would flip her blinker on just to turn into our driveway, even when no other cars were on the road. These precautions meant that when all three of us went somewhere together, my father was usually driving. He didn’t have time for it. Once, they got into a fight about keeping a defibrillator in the pantry. “That thing costs two grand,” my father said. He was sitting in his chair drinking a beer. “I know you’re not planning on keeping it.” The unwritten rule was that no one else could sit in this chair. It made things very awkward for guests who did not know this rule—all of us watching nervously as my father paced around the house like something was burning and only he could smell it.
“It’s not like we paid for it,” my mother said. “The hospital has extras. They donate these kinds of things all the time, and frankly they’re just good to have around.”
Three towns over, a boy had recently collapsed. Just like that—in the middle of a basketball game—his heart stopped. My mother and Mrs. Pottinger had worried over it through the open car window, the two of them like birds sharing food, but my father wasn’t concerned.
“We’ll sell it and put it towards our mortgage.”
“And if the day comes that our son drops dead in our driveway, you’ll still be glad we put that money toward our beloved wood and cement?”
“It’s that Isabel Pottinger,” he said. “You know why she has no other friends? No one can stand her—she makes people paranoid with her theories.”
“How dare you.” She placed a hand with frighteningly slowness onto her hip. “I’m a nurse, Roger. I know the difference between being paranoid and taking precautions.”
“All I’m saying is that this equipment is expensive and highly unnecessary.” His voice was low and smooth and controlled in a hideous way. “We’re getting rid of it.”
She scoffed. She was at the stove pushing the cubes of potatoes around in the pan and I was pretending to watch cartoons. Oil in the pan popped and crackled, an odor of burnt starch filling the room. She prodded a few of the bigger chunks and my father put his beer down.
“Janet.” Whenever he spoke her name aloud, it landed like a hammer. Janet. It’s a nice enough name, but my father has always had his own special way of saying it. Special-bad.
“We’re keeping it.”
Then for no reason at all, my father looked at me. His eyes taking on a heat, as if I was responsible for all this. “Get off the couch. Do something useful.” So I clicked off the TV, stood up, and left.
Upstairs in my room, the Battleground menu was already up. Ominous theme music cycled in 20 second increments, the big red letters RESUME GAME pulsed on tempo. My Razer Kraken Chroma headset was big and cushioned and gave my skull a hug—like maiden hands might hold a wounded head. The sound quality was spectacular and made the war uber real—machine guns and grenades exploding around me, from inside the house, downstairs, the bathroom, my parents’ room. It was always the same, ultra committed online players: Wrath_52_Attack, TheFirstSergrentEver, Bone_Breaker_01.
TheFirstSergrentEver: ur dead meat mercy
No_Mercy385: looking forward to blowing your brains out, sarge
[steelbullets41 logged on and is in close range]
[killfightwin logged on and is in close range]
TheFirstSergrentEver: ur ass is grass
Bone_Breaker_01: will u 2 kiss already?
A bright yellow light meaning damage bloomed across the TV screen. The controller vibrated in my hands. Damage. Damage. Someone kept hitting.
My mother poked her head through the door crack and moved her mouth. All I could hear was bombs. The timing couldn’t have been worse, and I assumed she’d get the message, but when she didn’t go away it became clear that I had no choice in the matter. Off went my headphones.
“Can we talk?” she said.
We had talks after I had stolen twenties from the cigar box that she used for emergency cash or when I had made bets with Raphi on who could spit farther by using our living room furniture as targets. I didn’t know what she wanted to talk about now. Her shearling slippers were old and worn and as she shuffled to my bed it looked like she had stepped in roadkill. She patted the empty space next to her.
“I know you’re stressed, baby. Your father and I take full responsibility.” Her eyes filled with a glassy sadness. Everything about her settling somewhere new or far away. “I just wonder if we’re doing right by you.”
Was it a question or a statement? She patted my leg a few times. I thought she would continue speaking but did not. I imagined her standing up and leaving. I imagined myself sitting there in peace, playing my game.
“We don’t say this enough, but we’re really proud of you. You’re turning into such a kind, mature young man.” Her voice had a tremor that made my stomach lurch. Then she cleared her throat. The muted figures on my Xbox glowed—previews of various levels of the game, soldiers ambushing abandoned buildings with machine guns, crouching behind crumbling brick barriers.
“Okay,” I told her.
She shook her head at the TV. “This stuff will rot your brain. I can’t believe we bought you this garbage.”
I told her it was more than that—a game of strategy.
She tilted her head and frowned.
“See.” I pointed. “That’s an assault rifle with a mounted chainsaw bayonet.” I told her how it could deal melee damage, which was key for close range combat.
She looked at me worriedly. “All right then.”
The loop of action started over. We were back at the crumbling brick barrier, tossing a grenade over our heads. She stood up, kissed the top of my head, and walked out. She didn’t look back before closing the door with a hollow click.
* * *
It’s true that one time we went over to the Pottingers’ for dinner. This was in September and my mother brought flowers and a veggie platter. Mickey greeted us at the door with a salute and asked us to remove our shoes. “Please,” he added with a deep bow. He wore track pants, a jewel green tee, and chunky gray socks. There was a natural Dad-ness to him, which was in part due to the socks, but also in part—I guessed—from helping to care for Jared. I had already considered the possibilities: Jared in a wheelchair, Jared with arm braces, Jared with some kind of voice machine to help him talk, swallow, think. I considered a scenario in which I was assigned a seat next to him at dinner and would have to spoon his macaroni, wipe his chin. No, thank you. Not in this lifetime, I thought, not No_Mercy385.
Our mothers greeted each other with excitement, their muted explosiveness like an underwater bomb. It was like they hadn’t seen each other in years, though it had only been a couple days. On Sundays they took their regular walks around the neighborhood, both of their faces relaxed and undone. I’d seen them through the kitchen window in moments that my mother looked unlike herself. This version of her seemed soothed and glad. I didn’t know what I was seeing then, the gradual undoing of things. I only knew that I felt uneasy, a little betrayed even.
The Pottingers’ house was cluttered and smelled like bananas, though I didn’t see bananas anywhere. Mr. Pottinger was in the kitchen wearing a long red apron that went down to his knees. He was poaching the chicken. My father said very little—just walked around the house showing everyone his teeth.
“Want to see my room?” Mickey produced two Cokes from the refrigerator and handed me one. The can hissed open.
On the way to Mickey’s room, we passed walls that were covered in needlepoint. Roosters and bunnies and phrases like Good Morning, Sunshine! and, Home, Sweet Home. A cheerfulness that made my fists tighten. His room was dark blue. Dark blue carpet, dark blue walls, dark blue bedspread. The curtains stuck out since they were checkered with red and white squares like dish towels, shut so no light would come in. The floor was covered in stray socks, jeans, long-sleeved shirts with the arms scrunched up like accordions. You couldn’t walk without landing on a tighty-whitie. The air was rank with French fries, and on his bed was a crinkled-up Wendy’s bag. In the corner, a small table with a stack of books and an Xbox.
“You play?” I asked.
“All the time.” Mickey turned on the TV and the menu to Battleground popped up.
I asked him his rank and slurped noisily at my Coke, fizz poking down my throat.
“Seven, halfway to eight,” Mickey said. “You?”
I had to focus hard not to choke. How could this be? Until then, I was proud to be on level five. “Ten,” I lied. “I’m on ten.”
“Wow.” Mickey glanced at the Xbox. “Wanna play a round? Show me your moves?”
“Nah,” I shrugged. “I didn’t come here to leak pro-tips.”
“Well, I’ll show you mine—” Mickey swiped a pile of clothes from his bed onto the floor. The density of the flannel and denim made a muffled thud, a hidden metal button clacking against the wood floor.
Mickey was a talented fighter but mainly his arsenal was huge with health at max. He possessed not one, not two, but three of the rarest and most lightweight armors any player could acquire. I sweat through my shirt as Mickey tore over cities in his tank, razed villages to the ground. His tongue poked out the side of his mouth and every time he made a sharp turn with the joystick, he jerked his shoulders in the same direction. His entire body like a shadow for his avatar. When Mickey won, he tossed the remote across the bed and made little circles with his fists. A victory dance. How could someone who danced like that be on level seven?
“Not bad,” I said.
“That’s nothing,” he said. “Level ten? You’d slay me.”
When Mrs. Pottinger called us into the kitchen for dinner, our parents were already sitting at the table with full wine glasses and stained red lips. Mrs. Pottinger shouted for Jared to come downstairs and Mr. Pottinger sorted out cloth napkins. Dark half-moons had grown beneath my mother’s armpits, and every time my parents took a sip of wine, Mrs. Pottinger hurried to pour them more. There was something taut in the air, like an invisible cloth pulling across the room. I didn’t notice the mechanical whirring from the stove until the fan shut off and the kitchen emptied of all its sound. Then I could hear everyone’s mouths as they creaked into smiles and swallowed their own spit.
Jared arrived like he had ropes cinched around his knees and elbows that drew them closer together, causing a jerkiness when he stood up and sat down. The first thing he did was walk over to me and shake my hand. “Jared,” he said, and I nodded. He had the slight shadow of an incoming beard and might have been in high-school. His eyes looked hyper, moving rapidly and unpredictably across the room like there was a ship sinking in his head and dozens of people were working to bail it out.
Throughout dinner, the adults directed the conversation in the worst ways. So, you’re a teacher, is that right? The kitchen remodel is tremendous. How did you cook the leeks? Why? What’s wrong with them? Nothing—nothing’s wrong. Jared said things like, “Please pass the salt,” and, “Please excuse me.” I could sense my parents looking at me with eyes that wanted to know, why can’t you be this polite? His fork trembled a little in his hand, but he never once needed someone to cut his chicken or fill his water. His napkin was tucked into the collar of his shirt, and during the dinner table conversation, his face flickered and warped behind the curve of his water glass. He told a few jokes that I didn’t understand, but made the adults erupt into honest laughter. I could never get adults to laugh. I could never get anyone to laugh. In trying to be funny I always ended up saying something cruel instead. It seemed to me like it was only when I wanted people to take me seriously—when what I was saying was not funny at all—that people found it laughable.
We passed the water pitcher to the left. Inside, ice cubes and lemons charmed the surface. Pink puddles bloomed beneath my steak. Hemoglobin, I thought, remembering biology. At some point, I lost track of what made me so worried about my mother and Mrs. Pottinger and my father and the rest of us. It was a good dinner. From the corner of my eye, I even saw my mother touch my father’s hand, all tenderness and goodwill. I had to tear my eyes away from a sight like that. Something I’d never seen before. The good feelings lasted through dessert and then it was time to go.
* * *
Mrs. Pottinger packed Mickey his own lunch—it was known. His lunch always seemed to contain canned tuna fish and, much to others’ envy, his own personal cup of Wendy’s French fries. Supposedly, his digestive system was too fragile for cafeteria food. But Wendy’s? We were suspicious. In Language Arts his stomach gurgled like he’d swallowed a radio.
“Weak ass bitch,” someone once muttered. Everyone heard it except for the teacher. Mickey flinched like a cat sprayed with water. Tuna fish and French fries? I should have known—there is no magic in those foods. Later I would learn from my mother that his packaged lunches were so that he wouldn’t have to sit in the cafeteria with everyone else. The social anxiety alone caused him to vomit whatever he could get down in the first place. But how were we supposed to know?
The rest of us shoveled chicken nuggets and veggie fried rice into our mouths. The nuggets left ear-shaped grease stains on our paper plates and others at our table used their forks to stir together fruit punch and scrambled egg. We five were stationed around the end of a long table. Between Raphi and John, who could eat more cranberry-creamed-egg-mash? Soon we would find out.
“Make Flounder eat it.” Melanie tapped the ice at the bottom of her cup, eyeing me. “Flounders are bottom feeders.”
My eyes locked on my own greasy plate. I waited hoping they would find a new point of interest, a new target.
“Oh, oh,” Raphi snapped a few times to get someone’s attention. “Mickey—get over here.”
Mickey was on his way to the juice bar holding two empty cups. It was unusual to see him in the cafeteria, but that day he had come to refill his juice in double portions. Red fruit punch haloed his lips.
“Mickey have you ever tried cranberry-creamed-egg-mash?” Raphi said.
Mickey paused, red-mouthed, and shook his head.
“Does he talk?” Melanie asked.
“He’s an idiot savant,” Raphi lectured. “Idiot savants don’t talk.”
“What’s an idiot savant?” Chins asked.
Mickey’s eyes darted back and forth between them, then landed on me and stayed.
“A genius, basically,” Raphi said. “A genius who shits himself.”
“There’s no such thing as genius,” John said defensively.
“Hey Mickey,” Chins said. “Are you an idiot savant?”
Mickey looked at Chins, then back at me. “I’ve tested an IQ of 118.” A long pause. “It’s high-average.” His eyes were wide and loony. If he would just blink, I thought. Blink. “I’m going to leave now.” Then Mickey pivoted unnaturally on both his feet and marched away.
Once he left I felt something release across my chest, and the group broke into stifled laughter. I sipped what was in my cup.
“And if he’s like that, can you imagine his brother?” Melanie said.
“Jared?” I said. “Total trip.” Why had I spoken his name? I felt the pieces inside me rearranging, like a name could build a wall around a person.
“You know him?” Chins narrowed his eyes.
“What’s he like?” Melanie said.
I pushed some food around with a fork. I wanted to leave but also, I wanted to stay. I wanted to go back in time and eat the cranberry-creamed-egg-mash. “It was hard—” I said. “A hard thing to witness.”
“What do you mean?” John said.
“Hard how?” Raphi pressed.
By the vending machine in the corner, Mrs. Heffenreffer stood solemnly, stabbing her Cup Noodles with a spork. A cook with stained clothes rolled a tray of bread rolls out from the kitchen and toward the salad bad. A pretty girl with long hair who I knew was a ninth grader whispered to someone and disappeared behind a column. And there was Mickey, an island in the middle of the room, hunched by the juice machine chugging punch.
“I went to his house one night for dinner,” I said. “Parents forced me.”
“What was it like?” John said.
“You really want to know?”
Everyone nodded. I looked down under the table and searched my hands.
“Mickey trapped me in his bedroom. Asked to see my you-know-what.”
Melanie clutched John’s arm. “No.”
“Are you serious?”
“So it’s settled,” said Raphi. “Mickey’s a homo.”
“Are you really that surprised?” Chins said.
“What about Jared?”
I shrugged and Chins’ eyes flickered.
“For once, can you not be a Flounder?” John said. “Tell us.”
I knew what they wanted. I, too, had wanted it. Because of that, it was easy to hand it to them. It was easy to let my body give in—do the movements they so badly wanted to see. So I dropped my jaw, unfurled a slackness across my face. I brought a hand to my chest, let it flop over like a dead fish and wagged it around, slapping my thumb against my body.
“Wow,” Melanie said.
“Finally.” John elbowed Raphi. “Someone you can hang with.”
Raphi looked disgusted and punched John hard on the arm. John gripped his shoulder, unhinged his mouth, screaming noiselessly.
* * *
When I got home from school that afternoon, my father was sitting on the couch watching Law & Order. “Sit with me,” he said. “Grab two Millers.”
I didn’t ask why he was in a good mood. I just did as I was told—located the beers, their white, dewy cans, and sat down. One of the beers was for me. I could tell because when he opened them in two swift gestures he put the first one in my hand. Both foamed and spilled a little onto the rug. I shifted in my seat to get paper towels and he grabbed roughly by the wrist. “No need.” He brought the beer to his lips and slurped the overflow. I watched, did the same. It fizzed bitterly down my throat. “Cheers,” he said and touched our cans together.
We sat there for a couple hours getting a little drunk and watching crime shows while my mother was out. At the time I didn’t know, but this was me participating in the celebration of something terrible. What I did know was that I had never felt so okay, and I didn’t want to break the spell. It wasn’t until years later that I put the pieces together—it had all been decided by that point. There had been a discussion earlier that day. The paperwork still needed to be signed and filled, but as for the rest of it, it was just a matter of time.
* * *
The next day, something was happening in the parking lot across from school—a group of kids gathered near the chainlink laughing and clutching their sides. I approached, fists in my pockets. There was a slight chill in the air, dry wind whipping and snapping at our faces.
Raphi, John, and Chins were all there. I recognized the shapes of their gaping, laughing mouths opening to a darkness—their necks craning toward the sky. Mickey was there too, standing farther away with his back to the group. As I got closer, I could see that at the center of the crowd was Melanie jerking her body around dramatically and grotesquely. She dragged one of her legs limply behind her, flapped her left hand at her chest. Mickey’s lips were drawn together tightly like a suture, his chin wrinkled into a knot. I thought he might have registered me in the corner of his eye but I couldn’t tell—his pupils were darting frantically around the scene like a horse trapped in a barn fire.
Melanie’s moans got louder. She began producing foamy spit in the corners of her mouth.
“You made your point,” I said, approaching. “Give it a rest.”
But Melanie’s body continued to spasm jerkily across the boundary of the lot, hair draped over her face.
When I looked again, Mickey was gone. My eyes caught his figure in the middle distance shrinking toward the athletic complex. It was only after he left that I realized my own disappointment—how I hoped he’d fight back. How I hoped he would do something, anything. Instead, he got smaller, crossed the baseball field and shrank into a dot.
I didn’t have a plan in mind when I went running after him. The blistering heat in my gut could only be soothed by moving my feet toward him as fast as possible, shattering leaves in my path and leaving powder in cracks of asphalt. Shockwaves traveled through my legs, up to my head, turning my brain into a sloshing water balloon.
Mickey was sitting on the edge of the baseball field where the dirt turned to grass. He had seen me coming, I was sure of it, but he kept his head down. His arms were wrapped around his knees like a neat package, and his hands grasped at his bony wrists. He waited politely for me to catch my breath before speaking.
“What’s your problem?” he said.
Any sense that might have existed of wanting to apologize snapped across my chest like a rubber band. There I was, an aggravated animal.
“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing’s my problem. What’s your problem?”
Mickey pushed himself up using both his hands. “Get lost, or else.” His voice had a tremor, and he lifted his fists nervously. I stepped toward him hopefully, then he dropped his hands and looked at his feet.
“Quit it,” I said. “You’re being a pussy.”
Mickey’s eyes met mine.
“I’m telling you. It’s for your own good. You gotta fight.”
With held breath, he seemed to consider this. I couldn’t have guessed what happened next, but Mickey drew back his right arm like a dancer. I thought he was about to fly away or do a jig or perform a pirouette but instead he rushed his fist into my face. Darkness, impressions. Light against shadow. My cheekbone was a sharp pain. I didn’t know if my eyes were open or closed, but I felt my legs stagger back, my fingers reaching for the spot on my face he had hit. When his body came back into view, he was shaking. He wiped his nose with the crusty sleeve of his sweatshirt.
“Sorry,” he said. “Oh, god.”
I slipped off my backpack and dropped it at my feet. A small puff of dirt rose from the ground, and wind roiled through the trees lining the baseball field, a shushing sound that swelled.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t do that,” I said.
“Don’t say you’re sorry. You’re not gonna survive this place unless you start acting normal.”
Mickey smoothed the wrinkles at the top of his pants, considering what I had said. My hands floated toward his shoulders and shoved. His body gave into mine like a rag doll. He blinked, surprised. His belly, like mine, pushed against his striped shirt.
“I told Melanie about Jared,” I said. “I told her your brother is retarded.”
Mickey looked confused. “But he’s not.”
“You don’t get it, man. I’m dissing you. Watch—your mom’s an old pig and you’re a waste of space.”
Mickey looked down again, solemnly this time, like he was searching the grass for an answer. When he looked up at me, his face contained renewed certainty, a happy light like an incineration. Then he stepped forward and drove his fist into my face again and again. At some point I hit the ground.
“I’m sorry.” He repeated the words while swinging. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” One for each hit or so.
Mickey was on top of me. I was face-up. Then, somehow, face-down. Fabric tightened around my neck and I coughed into the dirt. Sticks and grass blurred together with a wetness in my eyes. For a moment, it occurred to me that the grass and leaves and sticks were arranged in a way that were intentional. Some pattern was emerging and I knew I would never be able to see it, like the secret messages in those Magic-Eye books. A handful of brown and black leaves, wet with mud, was shoved into my mouth. I couldn’t breathe. I choked and hacked on the stems. Then I forgot about intentional patterns. The whole thing lasted longer than I could take.
“Please.” Mickey’s voice shook. “Please.”
I didn’t know what he was asking for, but I remember thinking I would give it to him.
When Mickey’s weight lifted from my body, air flooded my lungs. I rolled onto my back spitting toward the white sky. Wooshing sounds—an ocean in my brain—the blood rushing back someplace, and I knew without looking that Mickey was gone.
* * *
“You good, man?” Raphi passed me in the bathroom as I fingered the cut under my eye, rinsed it with sink water. “You look like you’ve been shat on.”
For the rest of the day, I wore my hood and jerked away from open doors. Generous classmates held them for me, all the while seeming to lunge forward in threatening postures. Custodians lifted their mops like they were winding up to swing. The Halloween decorations in my neighborhood haunted me with special dedication like they were holding my name in their minds. Skulls and witches and gremlins, all those fifty cent omens of death.
I felt every atom of my body turning itself sick trying to expel me. I decided that I wouldn’t allow myself candy that year—a commensurate punishment. As soon as I had been properly punished, this sickness would disappear.
At home I went directly to the shower so my mother wouldn’t ask about the slice on my face or the mud on my clothes. I rubbed the bar of soap over my arms. My mind combed through the week, the year. It tried to locate how this whole mess began: with Mickey when he decided to go to school that day wearing some easily razzable wolfpack tee? Or with Melanie, who was always taken less seriously than everyone else, who wanted to be in-with-the-guys, to have that same terrible power. Or maybe it was the cranberry-creamed-egg-mash, or my mother’s insistence, or Mr. and Mrs. Pottinger. Or maybe it began with my mother and father—how she was so desperate for structure, for a life, and how he was always resentful of abstract things like money and family and anything else that seemed to follow a natural rise and fall of fortune. Or maybe it all stemmed back to the moment I was born, when two people decided to make something out of nothing.
My parents orbited each other as usual that evening—two negative ends of a magnet, the same impossibility of contact. My mother was still dressed in her pediatric scrubs, which were patterned with yellow teddy bears. Her arms made little circles as she rinsed a colander of steaming pasta under the sink. White vapor ascended to the ceiling like she was tending to the flames of a small pyre, a house fire between her hands. She sniffled. Allergies, or something else. I went to the fridge for a Yoo-hoo.
“Baby,” she said. A dish clattered in the sink. “What happened to your face?
Elbowed during soccer practice, I told her. She pressed Bacitracin into the wound, stretched a Band-Aid over the bone. Meanwhile, my father was in the basement playing records, Phil Collins wants so badly for it to rain. 80s ballads, like those of Barry White and Peter Gabriel, were the most openly emotional aspect of my father. I didn’t have to ask to know that I’d never be allowed down there with him. Not while the music was on. There were some things you just didn’t let other people see.
* * *
On the phone, Mrs. Pottinger told my mother everything. Enough, at least. “He did what?” My mother’s hands were shaking, tightening around her rubber gloves. After the call she sent me to my room where I waited for her. I felt ready. Whatever I was about to get, I deserved it. Go ahead, I thought. Best for everyone if you give it to me the way Mickey did. But of course my mother would never, and what I received was so much worse: the sound of her crying freely into her hands while she stood there in the kitchen for a half hour, the longest thirty minutes of my life.
In considering my mother, I sometimes asked myself, What could make a person so sad? Was it because of what I did to Mickey? Or what Mickey did to me? Maybe it was because of who I had become, and how I had cost her a friend. It might have been obvious then—the way boys start becoming something from the moment they hit seventh grade, earlier even. But I suppose there were other reasons why everything felt so horrible, and it could have been because of something else entirely—something much bigger than any one person involved.
Upstairs, I sat on the carpet in front of Battleground. The joystick moved under my thumb with a familiar roll and snap, the round buttons warm and smooth under my fingers. It was the usual gang logged on. Wrath_52_Attack and Bone_Breaker_01.
No_Mercy385: hey guys
Wrath_52_Attack: howdy do
[m_pottinger04 logged on and is in close range]
I gripped the remote. My hands slid over a thin layer of sweat. There was Mickey’s avatar. His approached mine, then stood still, uncomfortably close and wearing all that armor.
No_Mercy385: switching levels
I directed my avatar through a nearby portal and landed in an abandoned barracks. No other players inside.
[m_pottinger04 entered the barracks and is in close range]
His armored fighter stood there again, doing nothing. His pixelated, metal-plated chest moved up and down with the illusion of breath and I waited for something to happen. I waited for him to blow me apart. I knew the weapons he had, the kind of damage he could do. Game-ending. And my own arsenal was pitiful. Just a torque bow, a bolo grenade, a rocket bomb. Blue light from the TV screen spilled onto the carpet and spread. And we just stood there for the longest time—neither of us making a move—as if we actually believed there was some other way to play this game.
Carla Diaz is from New York City. She is an M.F.A. candidate in fiction at Vanderbilt University, where she served as Nonfiction Editor for Nashville Review. Her work has been supported by scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference, and is forthcoming from The Kenyon Review.