The boy in this short and memorable story by Eugene Cross stands on the line between youth and adulthood, and yet he already has a past to bury. As many now good men were as teenagers, he is confused, unhappy, awkward, angry. There is a danger lurking in the heart of this story, between how much he already knows, and how much he has yet to learn, between how much he stands out and how much he wants to fit in. It is the danger of adolescence. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
Because it is Prom Night, and because the boys are too drunk or too nervous to do those things they would really like to do, they decide instead to push the girls down the hill. It will be like a game, they tell each other. The best kind of game, where one group scares another. They are huddled on the opposite side of the campfire from the girls who are all giggling, sipping from plastic glasses filled with lukewarm Boone’s Farm wine whispering to each other as they have been all night. Between them there is the fire into which the boys feed a steady supply of broken pallets and split wood, empty cans and bottles.
The boys are all juniors except for this one, standing at the edge of the circle, wild-haired with sprays of acne on both cheeks. He is short and wiry, but deceptively strong, so strong that he went out for wrestling his freshman year. He made the team and excelled for a time, quitting only when both parents ceased coming to his matches. Divorced and bitter, neither would agree to stay away if the other was going, and so instead, they both stopped. The boy was invited only for the booze he promised to secure. His father keeps cases in his garage, enough sometimes that he loses count. The others allow this senior a place in their circle, though none of them knows him well.
The party is being hosted by one of the girls whose parents have allowed her and her friends the use of their sprawling backyard. Because it is summer they are sleeping outdoors, their tents erected in twos and threes like the outpost of some nomadic tribe. The house sits above them, up the gradual slope of the hill. Below them is a cliff overlooking Presque Isle Bay and beyond that, Lake Erie. Even in the darkness the water is visible, a slab of black slate shimmering beneath the stars. The water is a 200-foot drop down the shear face of the cliff, which is lined with stunted maples and oaks that jut into the sky like arthritic fingers.
The plan is simple and decided upon quickly. Once the girls have entered their tents the boys will rush them and wrap duct tape around their sleeping bags. Together they will line the girls beside each other, head to foot, and roll them toward the cliff.
“Just to scare them,” one says, tipping his bottle, “to give them a little thrill.”
“Exactly what they’re not giving us,” another adds and several of them snicker. The wrestler laughs along with the others, not wanting to stand out. The boys are bored with the party, bored with the girls who continue to whisper and giggle and generally ignore them across the fire.
It is past two when the girls finally retire to their tents. By now some of them have made their way around the fire and are drinking with the boys, but when they see the general exodus they get up. The pack of them half-stumbles along the worn grass. Much to the delight of the entire party, one of the drunkest and least graceful collapses against the side of a tent, nearly bringing it down. The others roar with laughter. It does not take long for them to disappear from sight.
One of the boys fetches the tape from the bed of his pickup. The others finish their beers and move silently around the rim of firelight. Together they assemble on the far side of the tents, watching the canvas pop and settle as the girls maneuver inside. When the movement halts the boys wait. One of their leaders counts slowly to ten. Then they rush, whooping and hollering, tossing beer cans ahead of them like grenades. By the time they reach the tents the girls are already shrieking, unaware of anything but the intensity of their excitement and fear. Every boy grabs a girl, sleeping bag and all, while the boy with the tape wraps each hastily. The girls do not struggle, not even for show, but submit readily, secretly eager to see what is next. There are 12 of them.
When the initial rush is finished, the wrestler is still without a girl. He spots the last one, huddled in her sleeping bag in a corner of the tent, trying to hide, quivering and laughing. She is the party’s host and the wrestler carries her from the tent, pinning her arms to her sides in a tight embrace. She squeals like the others but in the outer edge of the firelight he sees the disappointment in her face when she realizes who it is that has her. It is a look he is not unused to. It is akin to the look his mother gives every time she reminds him how closely he resembles his father, the same look worn by a girl he once kissed who told him he tasted like cigarettes and ass.
By now the girls are all lined up, a daisy chain of bound sleeping bags, hair splayed. Someone yells Go and the boys begin to push, the girls tumbling down the hill like logs. The cliff’s edge is still far, but already the girls are yelling at the boys to stop, and some do. Others keep on, the girls’ hair fanning out as they pick up speed, their shrieks mingling into one. The wrestler keeps on. One of the girls is crying, though it is not his girl. She seems to have lost the ability to make sound. Or perhaps they are moving too quickly for any sound to be heard. The wrestler has never been a good student, but he knows the speed of light is far faster than the speed of sound. He knows about the laws of motion and mass and inertia. He keeps rolling his girl downhill, but as he does the weight of what he pushes increases. It is not just this one girl. It is many. Behind him, the others have all stopped. His girl continues to roll, clots of turf in her hair, and though the cliff is still some thirty yards away, the others have begun to yell for him to stop. The problem is that they do not know his name. He is only the guy who brought the beer, the dude with the zits, that weirdo. Enough they yell, and Stop, you. But he is not stopping, and the girl below him is still silent, and the cliff, which once seemed a far horizon, is growing closer. The others give chase, their footsteps pounding like a string of horses, but there is so much ground to gain, too much time to make up. The wrestler has always had to try tirelessly, do more: to make friends, get passing grades, please his parents. And so it is his nature to push harder now. The ground is soft beneath him. His sneakers barely find purchase. His hands, his arms, feel separate from his body. And finally there is the scream. A piercing howl that trumpets through the dark night as though the girl beneath him had saved all her sound for this one outburst.
Far above them this girl’s younger brother, her only sibling, has been sleeping. What he really wanted was to be down among his sister and her friends, observing the foreign world of high-schoolers with their rituals of drink and smoke. Banned, he spent the evening alone in his room playing online video games and watching TV. But now he bolts upward in bed. Not so much from an actual sound, he thinks, as from one he thought he heard. A loud noise from the TV, which is still on, leaking its watery light across his bedroom, or from the party far below their house, or from a dream that has startled him awake so that he is suddenly afraid to close his eyes. He grips the sheets on either side of him, still aware of the rising Soprano pitch that filled his room. The noise itself has vanished but the memory of it is sharp enough to send shivers down his spine. It lingers in the air above his bed like the steady hum of the tuning fork his band teacher showed them. He can sense it as he leans back on his pillow, resonating in his ears like something only just beginning.