This tale features the intensity and compression that make good short stories so memorable, as well as some wonderfully taut and gripping prose. Here’s a heady, dark flash on the wounded human heart. —Chang-rae Lee, contest judge
You could say the trouble started a couple weeks ago in art class, or you could say it started long before that, back when Kyle’s teeth started coming in crooked, when his chin buckled under his jaw and ceased to grow, when they first noticed his crossed eyes, when the neighbor’s freckled son first called him those names that made his throat close up, planted that seed in his mind that grew and made him cower from the world and especially other children.
He could feel that he didn’t look quite right, that he didn’t act quite right, that his clothes didn’t fit, sagged over his skinny shoulders and curved spine. He’d look in the bathroom mirror and see it. Even when they weren’t calling him names he knew that if they caught a good look at him they’d start in, so he kept his eyes down, bent his face away toward something on the ground or the wall, pretending to be absorbed by a poster or a book. Afraid to show his teeth, he would cover his mouth with his hand as he turned the pages and pray that no one noticed him. Sometimes he was sure he could hear his name being whispered behind his back. Sometimes he’d think he was only imagining it, but then he’d feel something hard or something wet or something sharp smack against his skin and he’d twist around and bat his arm in the air. Like a gerbil doing a trick. They’d laugh harder each time.
It had been like that forever, and Kyle could have endured it for one more year until high school, where there would be more kids, more distractions; it would be easier. But then in art class, he let his guard down. On his way back to his desk from the pencil sharpener in the corner, he bumped Joey’s desk. Yellow acrylic paint spilled onto the crotch of Kyle’s corduroys. Joey had been painting a lion under a tree, with a drip of blood on its whiskers and a pile of red flesh its feet. He looked up, locked eyes with Kyle, saw the fear, saw the stammering, slack jaw. Kyle took a step back, waving his wrists in front of him, a clumsy apology, but it was too late. Spit sprayed from Joey’s lips, and he pointed at Kyle’s crotch. Look, everyone, the freak pissed his pants, he howled, and the room howled with him. What happened next was strange and cruel, if an accident can be something like cruel. Kyle really did wet himself beneath the yellow paint.
The principal explained to Kyle’s mother what had happened while Kyle sat in the waiting room in his gym sweatpants with his corduroys in a plastic bag at his feet. He covered his mouth and turned his head away, staring at the knick-knacks on the secretary’s desk, careful not to let the gawkers in the hall see his face. Pissed his pants, pissed his pants, they whispered. They scattered when his mother and the principal finally came out.
Kyle was taken out of that art class and switched to music. The teachers were on the lookout, but the children were cunning. The teachers didn’t see them spray Kyle’s locker with ketchup, spelling the word “freak” on the door. They didn’t see the boys piss into a water bottle in the bathroom and pour it into Kyle’s open backpack while it sat on the floor in homeroom. Joey orchestrated the whole thing, whispering in the other boys’ ears, pointing, sneering, making sure Kyle could see them. The word, “freak,” was murmured constantly in the halls when he passed. He looked away, pretended not to notice. Joey spit down Kyle’s shirt and flicked his ears on the bus, leaning in close and whispering that word over and over, so often that it took on a new meaning, so often that Kyle believed it because it was the only explanation. When he got home he went straight to the bathroom, gripped the sides of the sink, and watched himself cry in the mirror.
His mother got him to open the bathroom door, helped him wash his face, sat him on the couch, and gently rubbed his back. He caught his breath and told her he didn’t want to go back to school anymore. You can’t run from your fears, she said. I should just beat the shit out of him. Violence doesn’t solve anything. You know that, Kyle. You just need to talk to him, like an adult, ask him to stop. He’ll listen. He won’t listen. He will. Just talk to him.
On the bus on Friday morning Kyle scribbled a note in his notebook—Joey, can we talk please? When Joey got on the bus and walked past him down the aisle, Kyle held it out for him and he took it, walked back a few rows and sat with his friends. Kyle turned toward the window, covering his mouth, straining to hear. He heard the unfolding of paper, a lot of whispers, but no laughter. When they reached the school and filed off onto the sidewalk, Joey handed Kyle a response. He stuck it into his pocket and didn’t read it until homeroom. It said, Meet me at bathroom before lunch.
That morning he rehearsed in his mind, repeating words and phrases over and over until they sounded right. Please . . . discuss this like adults . . . what did I do to you? . . . not fair
. . . yourself in my shoes. His leg shook as he covered his mouth and watched the clock on the wall.
After fourth period, before lunch, he went to the boy’s bathroom, and Joey was standing outside the door, waiting.
What do you want?
I want to talk.
Why are you picking on me?
Because you’re a freak. Look at you. Look at your fucking teeth. Your glasses. You’re disgusting.
Listen, I just want to talk, like adults, about this.
What, are you going to cry now? Are you crying?
I’m not crying.
You are! You’re such a fucking little wimp, you can’t even talk now, can you?
If you don’t stop, I’m gonna . . .
You’re gonna what? Kick my ass? Right! You’re going to piss your pants again, you fucking freak!
When the tears really started to come, the other boys rushed out of the bathroom, cackling. One sprayed more piss from a plastic bottle onto Kyle’s pants and another snapped a picture of Kyle, bawling, teeth protruding, pants wet.
Hit him in the nose first.
What a fucking little monster. I’m going to call his mother, she said. No mom, you can’t do that, he sobbed, that will only make it worse. What about the principal? I can call the principal. We can have a conference. No, you don’t understand. She looked away and clenched her jaw. What the hell can we do then? She rubbed her forehead, thinking hard. He was crying, trembling on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, hair still wet from the shower. She rubbed his back, pulled him close, feeling to blame for everything.
She went into the other room and called Kyle’s older brother, at college upstate, talked to him for a long time. He heard the sounds of arguing. No, no, no. He can’t. There must be another way. She came back into the room and sat down, put her hand on his back. He could feel her looking at his buckteeth, his crossed eyes, her heart aching. He said you have to beat him up, Kyle. He said that’s the only way. He said that everyone has to do it, sooner or later. He had to do it when he was your age, and then afterwards, things were better. Kyle stared at the floor, nodding, and she pulled him close again, apologizing.
Suddenly she got up and decided to call Kyle’s father. Kyle tried to hear what was said in hushed tones in the other room. There was some yelling. Maybe if he had a father around, she said. After a while she came into the room, her hair tousled, her eyes exhausted. Your father wants to talk to you, she said, holding out the receiver.
Hit him in the nose first.
It hurts like hell to get hit in the nose. Hit him in the nose first, and then keep on hitting him. Don’t stop until he goes down.
That night Kyle stayed up watching Bruce Willis chase bad guys through the streets, gun in hand. He wore a tight white T-shirt, his muscles bulging. When he caught the bad guys, he threw them up against brick walls, threw punches and kicks. They connected with a popping, slapping sound, the bad guys flew and landed in piles of black garbage bags. Kyle’s heart raced and sent a warm, stinging sensation down into his hands. He clenched his fists hard, until they turned white and trembled. Then the nausea started.
Saturday he went into the woods behind his house with his hunting knife, a gift from his older brother. He picked a tree and taunted it, called it Joey, practiced pulling the knife out of its sheath, waving it in front of him, lunging at the tree, stabbing it in the side, in the front, slicing it across. His lips curled over his teeth, he bit down hard, growling, stabbing fast and hard in the same spot until the bark chipped away. A car pulled into his neighbors’ driveway, so he hid the knife and paced around the tree, face to the ground, kicking dried leaves. He looked at the divot on the tree, at the clean whiteness underneath, the translucent sap beginning to seep out.
On Sunday morning his stomach still ached. His mother was silent and watchful, finding something to clean or rearrange wherever he went. She tried to get him to eat. She asked him once, only once, midday, if he was going to do it tomorrow, and he nodded his head. He sat on the couch, looking out the window at the cars driving by, wishing with every breath to be any one of those other people. On TV he saw more people fighting, punching, kicking. It seemed impossible. His mind wandered, lost, exhausted, until suddenly his whole body clenched and he threw a punch furiously in the air. Startled, he looked around to make sure his mother didn’t see.
He waited until he was on the bus, then he waited until he saw Joey pass down the aisle. He waited until they were at the school, and then he waited until first period. There were no whispers or taunts or laughter. It was as if they had all forgotten. After second period, on the way to his locker, he saw Joey and walked straight toward him, his heart racing, his hands on fire. Then, the sickness, and he ducked into the bathroom, catching his breath in the stall.
After fourth period, he decided, before lunch. Please God, he said to himself, just get it over with.
Third period came, and then fourth, the bile rising in his stomach with every tick of the clock, and then it was time.
He went to his locker first, to do something, anything until Joey came. He opened it and saw, tacked on the inside of the door, the photo: his face contorted and red, in pain and misery, bawling like a baby, his unfortunate teeth sticking out, his crotch wet with someone else’s urine.
He hit him in the nose first, like his father had said. Joey’s head snapped back into the locker, and Kyle kept going. He used only his right hand, over and over, all towards the nose, like a machine, and he felt something crack. So this is what it’s like, he thought. The buzzing in his ears, the tingling in his hands—not like the movies at all. So much faster, so far away, like a dream. Joey bent down and put up his hands but Kyle maneuvered around them, catching him in the chin, the head, the ear. He kept going. He had never touched a person like this before, felt their body, their weight, their density. Joey’s face felt wet and soon Kyle’s hand did too. He began to say things as he did it, using words he had never said before, explaining to Joey what was happening, showing him what was inside him, then asking if he understood. He wanted to be clear. He had never felt such strength, like he could do it forever, so simple, back and forth, over and over, with everything he was.
Someone from behind pulled him off, held his arms back tightly. He realized then that a crowd had formed, that the buzzing in his ears was the cheers of the other kids. They were watching and cheering for him. He looked down at Joey, kneeling there on the ground, touching his hands to his face and looking at them. The wetness was blood, and it was dripping from Joey’s face onto the porcelain floor into round, dark blots, almost as black as night. Kyle realized then—we really are all full of blood. But Joey wasn’t crying. In fact, he looked calm, almost pleased, like he didn’t feel a thing. He looked up at Kyle and said the word again. Freak. Kyle broke free, lunged forward, and tried to explain some more something that Joey didn’t understand.