Ten, Eleven, Twelve
They swim in circles around each other. Pink fish making ringlets, ripples, eddies, concentric circles. Giant, warm shafts of light lay down across them from the cracks in the edge of the quarry wall. The boy is slightly smaller than the girl, although they are the same age. The girl’s chest is flat and her hips no wider than his.
As the sun sets, the water grows cooler and the colors deeper shades of orange and green and blue. They settle in the small pockets of dusky light still stroking the water’s surface. The girl loves the look of the goosebumbs on the boy’s back. The boy loves the girl’s brown sugar hair and the way it fans out across the water around her neck.
Beneath the surface they shiver and brush their smooth limbs against each other. They listen to each other’s breathing for a while. Finally they begin to laugh again and splash at each other and talk.
True darkness arrives and they climb up the rope ladder that some kid of legend made long ago. They gather their towels about themselves tightly and walk close together, barefooted.
I’m in front of my class. There are a bunch of index cards in my hands. I can feel my swollen tongue scrape against my new braces. I wonder how long braces take. I feel like I have to pee. My teacher, Mrs. Long is hushing the class. For a minute I still hear laughter filtered through the hot, muffled ringing in my ears. Mrs. Long puts her hand on my arm and her voice suddenly comes through.
Okay, Will. Go ahead.
Her face goes away and I hear her shoes clacking for a second. The class is quiet and everyone is looking. The ones I hate are smiling. My voice is slow and I can’t speak right because of the braces. I know I sound stupid, even though I’m not. There is giggling and Mrs. Long says things, interrupting me. The ringing sound comes back and I can barely hear my own voice. I don’t look at anything but the words on the cards. I wish I could talk faster.
I hold my pee and say word after word about the Hittites and the Phoenicians and the Sumerians.
I think of Summer, and how close it is.
Will and Jessie race up to the top of the dogwood tree, scraping their elbows and screaming. Will reaches the spot where two smaller branches break off from a large one, creating a perfect seat. Thus he is Captain of the ship. Jessie throws hard little berries at him and sticks her tongue out. She is First Mate and Navigator, stationed on the large branch just below him. They look down to see Seth and Janet settling in to their places as Gunner and Bombardier. They’re younger and don’t compete for Captain.
Will gives orders and they fly away. The wind whips their hair and leaves float about with precise randomness. Jessie spots a lost space chimp and risks life and limb to retrieve it from the far reaches of the small, high branches. They bend and sway under her weight. The sun surrounds her dancing figure from behind, a pulsating eclipse above Will’s head as he cranes backward to look at her. Her space chimp noises make him laugh.
Seth tries to steer the story his way. Captain! he says, look on that planet! There are life readings! We should investigate!
Wait, says Will, my Xenocorder indicates that those life readings are fake! Very good fakes. It must be a Blargon trap. Bombardier, blast that planet.
Aye sir! screams Janet and begins some intense calculations. Her tiny back, covered in multi-colored thin striped knit, vibrates with intricate movements. Her round red hair bounces as she throws her head back. Bombardier ready! she says.
Will puts one arm out straight ahead and says: bombs away.
They all scream and shake and make explosion sound effects. Will feels air rush by him and the laughing is drowned out by the sound of hundreds of leaves twisting and tearing, twigs and branches snapping and two deep, heavy thuds as Jessie bounces off a chunky lower limb and then hits the ground.
They are all around and above her. Turning her over. Talking. Saying her name again and again. Will looks petrified. Jessie smiles and then remembers that she needs to breathe. Her arm hurts so bad. Suddenly that arm is on fire. Suddenly that whole invisible world inside there, all the veins and tendons, the muscles, the membranes, the bone, she can feel every tiny bit of it. Eventually she starts to cry.
Will helps her up, puts his arm around her waist. They walk toward her house, where her Mother is. He feels her hot tears on his neck when she leans her head onto him. He glances back and Janet and Seth are small as cats now, sitting still underneath the tree.
Will sees spots of sunlight waltzing on the ground in front of them.
I can faintly hear Richard counting in triplets: four five six, seven eight nine, ten eleven twelve. We sang a song with the same rhythm once in Music class. I’m hiding for Kick the Can. I crouch down behind some tall white roses in Mrs. Macready’s back yard, leaning against the wooden fence on my right. The front corner of her garage guards my left. Richard finishes fifty and starts to howl and taunt everyone. I can picture his long, skinny legs galloping around the street. If he finds me, I’ll never get to the Can before he does. I’ll go to Jail.
For a while, I can’t hear anything but crickets. On the side of the garage I find a translucent brown cicada shell. I pick it up and look at the perfectly hollow little skin. Even the eyes are there. Even the tiny barbs on its legs. It has a thin slit along the length of the back, like the bug used a knife to open it and then just stepped out.
I hear Richard go wooooo in a poltergeist voice. I hear him rustle the bushes in front of me. The moonlight is dark blue and makes a round pool on Mrs. Macready’s blacktop. I back up slowly, between the fence and the side of the garage. I make it around the back just as he comes out of the bushes. His long black hair is in his face. He looks like he has no face at all.
I circle around the back of the garage, listening for Richard. I can’t hear him anymore.
I almost back into him and he screams my name and pushes me into the ground. He cackles like a movie witch and runs. I’m right behind him, through the Watson’s yard and the Hellenberger’s but then he pulls away. My chest is burning and my legs aren’t doing what I want. I trip and feel only air for a second before my palms and chin plow into dark blue grass. I hear myself let out a huffing sound. Richard kicks the Can and does more maniac laughter.
He jogs over to me and dances around as I walk toward Jail. Aww yeah, he says, you’re my bitch now, man! Maybe I’ll make you dress up like a lady since you’re my jail bitch. You’re fresh fish man, you’re fresh fish!
I don’t know what he’s talking about.
Jail is the front porch of the Mullins’ house. It has a short, red brick wall around the edge and concrete steps painted to match. Jessie is already in jail. She’s sitting back against the weather door, which has a metal panel on the bottom and a screen on the top. Richard pushes me again and says to Jessie: here’s your boyfriend to keep you company, J.
I sit down beside Jessie and match her pose, elbows on knees, chin in hands. Richard skips away backwards, sticking his long tongue out at us and flicking it like a lizard. He makes the heavy metal devil horn salute with both hands and cackles some more. Then he runs off to put the rest of the kids in jail.
I look at Jessie’s cast. It’s dirty and gray and covered with little drawings in different colors of pen. It’s actually too dark to make them out but I know they’re there. One drawing says 1982 in Star Wars lettering. I did that. Jessie drew a Pegasus with huge wings. I also know that there is a line where her tan skin becomes pink underneath the edge of the cast.
I hate my brother, she says, I don’t care about the game. I’m going inside.
Do you wanna’ come? She stands up and the aluminum door pops behind her.
Will and Jessie and Seth run across damp lawns and the complicated black shadows of trees. The sky is dark orange and matches the light coming through the curtains of the Masterson’s front window. They slither underneath it as one long, single body. Seth’s wheezing reminds Will of his Uncle’s pug dog.
They crouch together in a little circle at the front door. Six arms locking around six shoulders with friendly geometry. Whispers form a plan: they will knock on the door and then run very fast. They call running very fast “booking”. They will book around the side of the house and over the fence into the next yard, which is Mr. and Mrs. Ribisi’s. They are very old and Italian, and sleep very soundly. When the Mastersons open the door they will find nobody.
This is called “Niggerknocking”.
Will actually calls it “Nickerknocking” because he knows “Nigger” is a bad word that people use to make fun of black people. Will is only friends with one black kid. His name is Kevin and he sits next to Will in Science class. Sometimes at lunch they trade snack cakes. Will would never, ever call Kevin a nigger.
Jessie counts down from ten in a high, soft, flutey voice and then their three fists rap on the glossy painted wood fast as hummingbirds. Jessie is the only one to use the left hand— because of the cast.
While they are running and climbing, Will thinks that the sound of the crickets has suddenly become much louder, like an electric shock. Jessie’s heart races and hurts in her chest and she thinks, ohgod ohgod ohgod, because she doesn’t do things that will get her in trouble. She cannot understand what she was thinking just a minute earlier. Her desire to not be in trouble is filling her up and spilling out her lungs.
They stop around the far side of the Ribisi’s and crawl around the corner on hands and knees. This is when they miss Seth’s wheezing, because he isn’t with them. They see him standing in front of Doug Masterson, who is wearing red and white, round bottom athletic shorts and sandals. He’s holding a tall bottle of Coke in his hand. Seth is shaking and his voice sounds like he’s crying.
Will thinks: shit oh shit, Seth.
His lips open and his teeth grit in a grimace of concern. Jessie grabs his arm and digs her nails in. She breathes deep and long.
Doug Masterson pats Seth’s trembling shoulder. Doug Masterson doesn’t seem angry at all. He waves Seth along and the stumpy little legs with their blue and yellow striped tube socks come alive like horses. Doug Masterson sips his Coke, shakes his smiling head, turns back into his house and shuts the glossy white door. His pretty wife Janine is probably just inside, on the couch.
Will and Jessie turn over on their backs and exhale. The sky above them has darkened and cleared the way for white stars and yellow fireflies. They feel each other’s hair blow around in the breeze.
Jessie is blowing out the candles on her birthday cake. The cake is really big and red. Her birthday is three months before mine. She has a lot of cousins so it takes a while to get a piece of cake. The frosting tastes like chemicals so I just eat the yellow insides. A piece of my plastic fork breaks off before I’m finished and I wonder what it would feel like if I swallowed it. A hard white point sticking in my throat.
Jessie opens her presents and hugs all her aunts and uncles and cousins and her Mom and Dad. She even hugs Richard, who is all in black and has a dangling earring on. My present to her is a purple watch with a calculator on it that also plays four different video games. I had to ask my Mom for three weeks allowance ahead of time to buy it. Jessie is psyched. She smiles really big and puts it on immediately. She gives me a hug, which makes me embarrassed, which makes me blush, which makes me more embarrassed. I can feel the heat in my neck and ears. She smells like perfume, which she’s never smelled like before.
The sun has gone down and we’ve planted sparklers all around the yard. Jessie is playing the Beatles on the stereo. It sits on a brown card table with an orange extension cord running into the house. We run around and sing all the lyrics to the songs and try to keep as many sparklers going at once as we can. Every once in a while I bump into one and feel the snapping and popping on the skin of my arm or leg. It doesn’t really hurt. We wave them in circles and the sparks make whole glowing rings that float in the air.
Later on, we need more sugar and so we roast marshmallows over a round charcoal grill. Richard puts about ten on a coat hanger and lets them burn until he has a thick black sludgy torch. He wings the flaming mallow heap at the garage door. It splatters and sticks to the metal. Little bits of it stay on fire for a while.
Jessie licks marshmallow off her fingers and laughs. She shuts her eyes and shows all her teeth.
I love her.
The boy sits in his room, in bed. There is a mountain of blankets around him. He has no undershirt on because he likes the feel of his skin against the cold sheets. He faces the window over his bed, which faces the street. He has this window and the window on the wall to his right open because he likes the sounds of night and the feel of the air. He always sleeps like this until it’s too cold in the winter. He likes snow, but nothing else about winter.
He has his father’s binoculars. They’re good ones and they make him look like a bug. Large, perfectly round, shiny glass eyes. He has no lights on because it’s late. It’s also easier to see through the binoculars that way and harder for someone outside to see him.
The boy watches the two yellow boxes across the street. They are square holes of light in the blue-black face of the house, and inside of them live two girls. They are older than he is but much younger than his mother. They are sisters. They often brush each other’s long hair. They’re just like girls in the movies. He knows their names and he has even talked to them once or twice.
The older girl sits down in front of a mirror inside one of the yellow squares. Her hair is blonde but looks dark because it is wet. She runs a comb through it again and again. She has a bright green towel on over her torso.
The boy’s penis is hard. He puts one hand in his underwear and rubs it lightly. The skin is tight and extremely warm. He feels his tongue scrape against his braces.
The younger girl walks through one yellow square and into the other. She’s wearing white bikini underwear with small pink flowers and a pink t-shirt that shows her bellybutton. She has light brown hair that is long and straight like her sister’s. She lies down on the bed, which is farther back in the room. They are both in the one square. The younger sister bounces on the bed. The boy can see her breasts move beneath her shirt. With the binoculars, he can even see the shape of her nipples underneath the fabric. There is an anxious electric feeling in his penis, which he enjoys.
The older girl stops combing her hair and stands up, momentarily blocking out her sister. Then they are lying together on the bed, talking. The boy can feel cold air on his back because the covers have slipped down. He looks at the girls’ legs because they are so beautiful and they are all together in a row. He rubs his penis faster and wonders if he is masturbating. He wonders if this is it.
The sisters start to giggle and wrestle and for about a minute the green towel is gone. Inside the yellow square, the two girls press their bodies together and scream in a silent movie. The older girl is naked and her breasts are bright white and perfectly round. They move in slow motion, the hot pink centers anchored like stoplights. Between her legs there is golden fuzz in the shape of a V, fading away into the skin of her belly.
The boy has never seen this before. Not in real life.
The movie ends, the towel comes back, the yellow squares go dark.
The boy lays on his naked back and drifts until he hears a whisper from the far window. He gets out of bed and goes to it. He bends down to look out with just his eyes above the sill. His penis is still hard.
I love you, the girl whispers.
It comes from out of the big flowering shrubs lining the side of the house next door.
I love you, she says in the funny loud-soft whisper.
Her watch beeps because it is midnight.
Richard is putting on a show for us. He sprays hairspray on his palm and lights it on fire. There are ten or twelve kids hanging out. Seth and Janet are here. Jessie is at home because she has measles. Janet keeps telling us she wants to leave. Richard makes a flame-thrower with a can of WD-40. He torches insects in midair. Their bodies leave trails of smoke as they fall, like fighter planes in World War II.
I’ve never been to the circus but I imagine this is kind of what it feels like. We’re standing around a bonfire in the middle of a dirt lot near a bunch of half finished new houses. There are rows of little trees around big open lawns in the distance. Above us is a power line with about twenty pairs of sneakers hanging from it.
We all look orange.
I try to smoke a cigarette that a teenage kid gives me. He laughs when I cough out a huge mouthful of smoke.
Man you keep trying, he says, punching me on the shoulder.
Richard is somehow launching flaming tennis balls out of their cans, bazooka style. The balls shoot about twenty feet and stick in a big chain link fence. I think he’s trying to spell out his initials, but the balls keep going out before he can get very far.
One girl stands too close to the bazooka and her hair catches fire when a big ball of flame comes out of the end of it. Somebody throws a denim jacket on her head and puts it out. She really freaks out. Her hair is really fried.
I walk home with Seth and Janet. We all have the same curfew.
That was crazy, Seth says.
I can’t get the burnt hair smell out of my nose the whole way home.
Will sits inside Richard’s army green, nylon pup tent. He listens to distant rumbling and waits for the heat lightening. It’s a warm night, even though it’s almost Fall.
Richard and Seth return from the house with beef jerky, potato chips, Oreos, cans of orange and strawberry soda, and cups of ice. Richard has also brought a portable radio. He puts on the classic rock station and starts chanting, Zeppelin Zeppelin Zeppelin, because it’s a commercial break. When the song arrives it’s Roundabout by Yes, which Will likes.
Fuck that, bellows Richard in his froggy baritone. He turns the radio off and falls backwards onto his shiny green sleeping bag. Seth is finishing off a bag of chips and is on his third soda. He has a bright red mustache.
Seth, turn that lantern off, says Richard, popping up onto his knees. Seth burps and looks dumbstruck for a second.
Turn it off.
He does so and they sit in a circle facing each other. Will notices that Richard is about a head taller than he is and Seth is about a head shorter than he is. The thunder outside is louder now, but still round and soft sounding. The lightening brings them from total darkness into a murky green light in almost regular intervals.
Richard turns a flashlight on, pointed at his face.
You guys ever jack off?
Will is quiet. He finds his flashlight and flips it on. Seth is looking back and forth between them, pushing his glasses up his nose again and again.
No, lies Will.
You even know what it is? demands Richard with a snort. The light under his face makes the wispy hairs on his upper lip appear darker, almost like the real thing.
Yeah, bleats Seth in a terribly unconvincing, automatic way. Richard leaks out an oily smile.
Really, he says, so how do you do it?
Seth squirms and breathes heavily, thinking. Richard repeats his question several times, getting progressively louder and faster, pushing his face closer and closer to Seth’s. Little flecks of spit spin out of his large, loose lips and decorate Seth’s plastic hornrims.
He doesn’t know, shouts Will and pushes Richard on the shoulder without thinking. Richard’s squinty eyes manage to go wide and he thrusts both of his fists into Will’s chest. The air rushes out of him in a thick lump and he feels his head bang the ground beneath the waxy layer of tent.
You fags have never jacked off, Richard sneers. Check this out: I’ll show you how to fuckin’ do it. He pitches his flashlight to Seth, who fails to catch it and instead gets hit in the stomach. Will sits up, rubbing the back of his head. Their flashlights make a bright circle together and Richard stands up into it, dropping his army pants and white briefs at the same time.
His penis is hard and red. It’s much larger than Will’s and has wiry black hair around it, which Will’s lacks. He puts his right hand around it and moves slowly up and down. The hanging testicles make Will think of a brown paper sack holding two eggs. Seth’s mouth is open and his glasses are down at the end of his nose. Richard moves his hand faster and faster and the end of his penis enlarges and darkens. The bright circles of the flashlights drift and move across one another as Richard’s hand pulls at his genitals like a jabbing boxer. For a moment, Will’s gaze shifts to the iron-on on Richard’s black muscle t: a huge cobra with fangs exploding and thin red tongue lashing outward.
Richard grunts and exhales strongly. His penis jerks and a thick, pearly string of semen hangs from it for a minute, swinging with the rhythm of his breathing, before it falls in a little pool on the tent floor.
Will has never seen this before.
He notices how quickly the penis becomes soft again.
Now you guys do it, Richard says, shimmying on his pants and plopping onto his bag. His hair hangs back revealing his pebbly forehead, glistening with sweat. He grabs the flashlights from them and shines one at each. Seth’s lower lip is wet and trembles.
They are all still and waiting. The sky grumbles outside. Richard grips Seth’s neck, shaking him.
C’mon man, you’re next. Take it out.
Seth is crying immediately, his face bunched up and red.
You faggot, scoffs Richard.
Will stands up, trailing his sleeping bag in one hand.
I have to go home, he says.
Then go fuck off! Fuck you little faggots.
Will and Seth walk away, their tennis shoes swishing in the damp grass. The crackling ghost of a Led Zeppelin song emanates from the glowing tent.
Jessie and I have built a fort in my room out of blankets and couch cushions. Some parts of it are almost completely dark, with only tiny cracks of light. Other parts have blue light or red light or yellow light, depending on the blankets we used for the roof.
We’ve taken all our clothes off and are lying down next to each other. We’re in the part of the fort that has dark blue light. Her skin is smooth and warm and smells like coconut.
We aren’t playing a game, like “Doctor”. We never take all of our clothes off when we do that.
Jessie kisses my stomach and it feels like little hot butterflies. She lays her palm on my penis and it becomes hard. She looks down at it from above and smiles. The ends of her soft hair brush my legs and tickle.
She lies down again and tells me I can touch her. Between her legs, three lines come together and make a Y. One more very short line comes up between the two on top. I put my fingers over the Y. The skin feels totally different than the rest of her. It’s hot. I think of a baked apple. Jessie opens her legs a bit and I hear her breathe out. I put my finger in the little short line.
I think that I’m absorbing her heat like a rock in the sun.
I lay my head on her stomach and listen to the sounds. It’s like whales and the ocean and sometimes like machines digging deep inside.
The boy wakes up to smoke and his Mom and Dad rushing. He thinks about all the things in his room and whether or not they will be burned. He imagines all the paperback books curling inward upon themselves. His Mom and Dad don’t let him take anything, even though he doesn’t see any flames, only smoke.
Outside, they sit on the Masterson’s lawn three houses down. They all wear fluffy robes. Most of the neighborhood gathers around them. He can see the flames now.
The girl finds him and asks him if he is still going to live here. He tells her that he doesn’t know. She puts her arm around him.
The firemen come and the truck is just like it appears on TV. Everyone is excited, even though they’re also concerned.
The boy becomes hot from the fire and takes his robe off. He looks down at his toes, framed by the blue plastic straps of his flipflops. They have black bits all over them. Gray morning light rises around the roofs and treetops and the boy watches as the colors of the fire fade away under the strain.
The fire trucks shoot water in high arcs and the flames eventually die away, but there isn’t much left that isn’t wet and black and crumbling. People have started to bring food and clothes out of their houses for them.
The boy wanders away from his Mom and Dad and the girl. He walks through each lawn and blacktop and concrete driveway until the end of his block. There he sees the girl’s older brother wearing jeans and Converse and a gray hooded sweatshirt. The girl’s older brother is smiling, sharp and white, beneath his black bangs and the boy knows that he is the one who set the house on fire.
They tangle just like a big dog and a little dog. You feel sorry for the little dog the whole time, because you know what’s going to happen, even when he gets in a few good bites, you know. And eventually those responsible for the dogs stop them, but not before the little dog is pretty bloody.
I wait for the school bus three blocks away from my new house. It’s near the dirt lot and the hanging sneakers and it has a row of little trees around a great big yard. I think about having to mow it.
I sit with Seth on the bus. He has new wire glasses. We talk about our new school. Jessie and Janet sit behind us. About halfway through the ride I finally turn around and lean over the seat. Jessie looks at me. She has a red plum in her hand with one bite out of it. Her eyes are wide and dark, dark brown. Her hair is held back by a sparkling metal band that I’ve never seen before.
Hey, I say.
She smiles a little but doesn’t show her teeth.
Hi, she says.
Do you wanna’ come see my new house after school?
She thinks and twitches her nose. I feel the inside of my braces with my tongue, which isn’t sore anymore.
Sure, if—if you don’t think your parents will care.
No. They won’t care.