This weekend, David James Poissant takes us into the world of boys discovering sex and leaving behind childhood. Yet it isn’t the nudie mags they find that change them. It’s something far more sinister. And the secret of that something they will always carry with them. This is a story about a fork in the road. This is a story about what makes us who we are. This is a story about what haunts us. Let this story haunt you. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
The summer before sixth grade, we both hoped we would turn into superheroes. When it was just the two of us, we went by our code names. I was Quicksilver, after the Marvel hero, a poor man’s Flash. I was a born runner. Since the first grade, I had always been the fastest kid on the playground, a fact undisputed at River Run Elementary, though, soon enough, middle school would find me in competition with older boys whose legs, dark with hair, would carry them at speeds I’d never match. Chris’s moniker was more original. He dreamed of being invisible, but the only invisible hero we could think of was the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl. I said he could be the Invisible Boy, but Chris said that was gay and dubbed himself The Disappearing Boy. We had our own gang too. Chris was the leader and I was his sidekick. We called ourselves the Wolverines, after another of our favorite comic book characters. There was no one else in the gang.
It was a strange time in our lives, a difficult time. It was the summer we began competing with one another for no good reason, seeing who could swim the most laps holding his breath underwater. By mid-June, Chris could do one lap and I could do two, the length of the public pool in both directions, kicking like a frog until the tiled wall tilted and flashes of light confused my underwater eyes.
This was the long, hot summer of war games and tree forts, ice cream sandwiches and backyard tents, ghost stories and PG-13 movies, which Chris’s mom rented whenever we asked, though we were two years too young. It was the summer of the new neighborhood and our secret hideout, the place where it all happened, where we first became acquainted with the flesh.
We found the magazines in the basement of an unfinished house, a place older kids went nights to smoke and make out. Days, though, we had the place to ourselves.
The magazines: Neither of us had seen anything like them before. Here were women, just like our mothers, but with no clothes. The first time, we only glanced. We knew we shouldn’t have seen what we’d seen. Otherwise, we would have been shown before. What we’d seen was wrong, we just weren’t sure how. We spoke of the pictures to no one. The next day we returned, just to make sure someone had come back for them, we told ourselves, but the magazines were still there, a small, mildewed stack in one dusty corner of the basement. After some deliberation, we decided it wouldn’t hurt to examine a few more.
Chris opened one to a picture that spanned two pages of red satin backdrop. On hands and knees, and wearing only a kind of lacey, black scarf, a woman arched her back like a cat stretching after a nap.
“Holy bastard!” Chris said. (This was also the summer we learned to cuss.) Chris was better at it than I was. He modeled his obscenities, best he could, after R-rated movies, the ones he watched alone on HBO when his mom was out, which was almost always. He modeled them on the words he heard from men his mom brought home, which was also often. My mother wouldn’t spring for cable, let alone HBO, and a man hadn’t set foot in our house in years. This put me at a disadvantage when it came to cursing and was one more reason I envied the life Chris led.
We spent our mornings in the basement, thumbing through glossy pages. By July, we had divided the magazines into two piles. Chris had his favorites. I had mine. I liked the thin girls with smaller breasts. They reminded me of girls I knew. Now, seeing girls around town, I considered their clothes and what must be beneath. I’d watch a girl and think of my other girls, the ones in the magazines, and I’d wonder which, undressed, she’d most resemble.
Chris, on the other hand, loved the boobs. Sweater cows, he called them. His favorite pages pictured women with heaving breasts and flat, brown nipples the size of silver dollars, so big they scared me.
Sometimes, a magazine in his lap, I’d catch Chris with his eyes closed, hands outstretched, groping the air.
“If you concentrate really hard, Nathan,” he said, “I swear you can feel them.”
The summer became one of bodies. We’d pull down our shorts to see who had more hair, whose was bigger, then we’d look at the magazines and pull our shorts down again to see whose was bigger now. Sometimes, after looking, Chris went upstairs to use the bathroom. Sometimes he was gone a long time.
My mom asked about Chris’s mom a lot.
“How is Marie doing?” she’d ask.
“Fine,” I’d say.
“House a mess?”
Marie and my mom weren’t like Chris and me. They rarely spoke, not to each other, not to anyone on our street. Chris had no brothers or sisters, no father, and neither did I. Chris’s dad was in prison in Salt Lake City. I never found out what for. I asked Chris once. I didn’t ask twice.
I have no memory of the father who left before I learned to crawl. He and my mom had been happy once, or so she said. I don’t know what drives people apart, or how a good man goes bad. I have two things from my father. One is the medal he gave my mother upon his return from Korea. The other’s a love letter he wrote while he was over there, before he and my mother married.
I didn’t find these until much later, as a young man helping his mother move in with her new husband. I liked that she’d kept them, liked the idea that there’d been love there once, that whatever force had brought me into the world had not been fueled by hate or lust alone.
Except, rereading the letter, I saw why she’d kept it. A confession of love, the letter was also a confession of the documents my dad fudged to get a medal he never earned. The letter, the medal, why Mom kept them in her sock drawer and was only too happy to hand them over, they weren’t there to remind her of what she’d had, but what she’d escaped.
The day it happened, the thing in the house that changed everything, was a Wednesday. Wednesdays were War Days because they both started with W. That was the rule Chris had made, and it made a kind of alphabetical sense, so I obeyed. There were no other gangs, so we’d declared war on the men in hard hats building River Run Heights, the big, fancy development rising from the tree-cleaved swath of mud down the street.
“Suburban sprawl,” my mom called it.
“A fucking amusement park,” Chris’s mom said.
“Bastard Heights” was Chris’s name for the neighborhood. A week earlier, a man in an orange vest had whistled and yelled something ugly at Chris’s mom as she stooped to pick up a newspaper from the driveway.
“Cock-sucking roof jockeys,” Chris said.
“Damnable asses,” I said.
Our headquarters was the tree fort in Chris’s backyard. The fort was a rope ladder and two boards nailed to a branch. We met there Wednesdays and hatched our battle plans, plans that had, as yet, never been carried out. This morning, though, would be different. This morning we were determined to get things done.
Since I was the fast one, I ran short reconnaissance missions, hiding behind the big brick sign at the neighborhood entrance, watching the workers, then reporting back to Chris whatever I’d seen. Chris waited in the fort and practiced being invisible.
“They’re taking another break,” I said, back from my last run.
“What are they doing?” Chris said.
“Eating donuts,” I said. “And coffee. Some of them are drinking coffee.”
“Excellent,” Chris said.
We drew up what Chris called a schematic. The new neighborhood was not large, not yet. The woods were cleared, divided into lots, but the subdivision’s main road had only been paved for a few blocks. At one end, the road met our street. At the other, the road turned to dirt and wound past houses in staggered stages of completion. That day, the workers poured sidewalks to run the length of the road and circle the cul-de-sacs, where the children of parents better off than ours would soon roller-skate and ride their bikes without having to worry about cars.
Chris’s plan was this: We would carve every vulgar word we knew into the soft concrete, ruining the laborers’ job. They’d be forced to repave, or, better yet, they’d leave the sidewalk scarred by our handiwork. Already we imagined it, the shock of the rich kids who slowed their silver ten-speeds to read…could it be…PENIS?
Chris pulled a triangle of glass from his pocket, the curve of a broken beer bottle. Chris lifted the glass. It caught the sun like caramel.
“Vengeance,” he said like a true superhero, “will be ours.”
By noon, the sun blazed and the workers had retreated to the shade of the bulldozers for lunch. One house at a time, we skirted our way down the road to the freshest sections of sidewalk, out of sight of the big men too busy eating and smoking to notice.
Chris kneeled on the curb, pulled the glass from his pocket, and bowed his head. There was something sacred in this, though, at the time, I thought only of being caught, imagined those enormous arms holding us down, the men kicking us, spitting in our faces.
“Hurry,” I said.
Chris was up to his knuckles in concrete. He slashed at the surface, and a trinity of genital slang took shape: COCK, CUNT, ASSHOLE.
Chris moved to a new square, carved words I had never seen before, words I only knew must represent things terrible and profound and obscene: CLITORIS, LABIA, VULVA.
“Your turn,” Chris said.
I took the shard from his hand and heard shouts, cries, hollers. The men were a long way off but coming fast.
“Fuckers!” one yelled. “You little fuckers!”
I dropped the glass. I turned to Chris.
“Well,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Oh, how we ran.
I’d never seen Chris move like that. Me, I’d always been the fast one, but Chris stayed with me the first 30,40 yards. Then, he slowed.
“Secret hideout,” he gasped.
“You little fuckers better run!”
I ran, glanced. A few men had stopped. They stood by the sidewalk and read Chris’s scribbles. The rest kept on, closing in. I cut between two houses and ours came into view, the basement door open like an invitation. I’d lost Chris. Then he turned the corner, moving as though in slow motion.
He crossed the threshold in time for me to shut the door and pull him away from the windows. In the shadows, shaking, his hand on my arm, we watched the men run past.
“One more,” Chris whispered. “There were five.”
In a moment, a single worker stopped before us. He pressed his face to the window. His skin was dark, his face unshaven, lips chapped. A line of dried blood divided his bottom lip. But his eyes, when he smiled, were kind. He saw us, winked. He would not tell.
When he was out of sight, Chris dropped to the floor. He didn’t say a word, didn’t shout or moan. He simply lifted his foot and I saw the nail protruding from the sole of his shoe.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” Chris said.
He sat cross-legged, his back to the wall. Every few minutes, he doubled over, his forehead touching the basement floor.
“Nathan, this really hurts,” he said.
“How deep?” I asked.
“Take off your shoe. Let’s see.”
“I can’t, dumbass. The nail’s through the shoe. I can’t do anything until the nail comes out.”
I thought back to health class, my mother’s warnings, a lone year of Cub Scouts, but I couldn’t remember what to do for a puncture wound, whether to leave the nail in or not.
“I have to get this thing out of my foot,” Chris said. “I can’t walk home this way.”
“Let me get your mom,” I say.
“You step outside, they’ll kill you.”
“I’ll run the whole way. I’m Quicksilver, remember?”
“And leave me here to get my ass kicked?”
“You’re the Disappearing Boy! Be invisible.”
“Nathan!” Chris said. “What the fuck’s wrong with you? This isn’t a game anymore. There is a nail in my foot. There are men who want to kick our asses. Grow the fuck up!”
His voice rose, high-pitched and hysterical. His face was white, his eyes wide. Watching him rock back and forth on the floor, foot cradled in his hands, I suddenly didn’t like him very much.
“My mom can’t find out,” he said. “I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not allowed to play at the construction site. This is exactly what she said would happen, that I’d step on a nail.”
“You can’t just not tell anybody.”
“Oh, yes I can. I cut myself last year. I got the shot. I’ll be all right once it’s out.”
It was insane, I knew that, but what choice did I have? A sidekick’s never in charge, and boys don’t tell on each other to their mothers, even when it’s what should be done.
“Okay,” I said.
“I have to pee,” Chris said.
“Okay,” I said and helped him up the stairs.
I’d never seen men kiss before. We came up the stairs, opened the door to the main floor, hobbled down a hall, and there they were, in the living room, facing each other on the new carpet before the empty fireplace, their faces pressed together, one’s hands down the other’s shorts.
They were in their twenties, thin and pale with matching haircuts, dark and spiked in every direction like horns, crusty with hairspray. Their shirts were off, and I was surprised by their armpits, how hairy they were. The room smelled stale and sweet.
Seeing us, they pulled away, but they took their time about it. They faced us, and they looked so much alike, they might have been brothers. One wore sunglasses, the other a tattoo that rode his stomach, blue stars around the bellybutton in a ring.
Chris, balancing on one leg, hopped back
“Well,” the man in the sunglasses said.
“Hello,” said the other. A choked laugh made the stars dance across his abdomen.
Chris hopped and winced. “We won’t tell!” he blurted. “Come on, Nathan. Let’s go.”
“Whoa,” Sunglasses said. He stood, trailing a black t-shirt from the fireplace hearth. “What’s the hurry?”
“My friend’s got a nail in his foot,” I said.
“Do what, now?” Sunglasses said. He pulled the shirt over his head.
“He stepped on a nail,” I said. “Out there.” I gestured toward the window, as though that explained everything.
“Jesus,” Stars said. “Let’s see!” He jumped up and stumbled forward, leaving his own shirt crumpled on the floor.
Chris met my eyes. He was ready to run. But it felt like the wrong time, like we might not make it to the door.
“Show them,” I said. I hoped they were harmless, that they’d see the foot, get their kicks, and let us go.
We made a circle on the floor and Chris lifted his sneaker.
“No way!” Stars said. He looked away. “Sickness.” The nail stuck out an inch or two, bent in the middle. It was orange, the head caked with dirt.
“Bad place to keep your nails,” Sunglasses said.
He smacked Stars’s arm, and the man leaned too far to one side. He righted himself, then ran a hand through his hair.
“Give me your knife, retard” Sunglasses said. Stars’s hand disappeared into his front pocket for what seemed like forever, then emerged wrapped around a black handle. His thumb stroked the handle’s side and a blade sprung from his fist. He stared at the knife a few seconds, as though confused by how it got there, there in his hand. He pointed the blade at Sunglasses.
Sunglasses grabbed the knife and turned to Chris. “First,” he said, “the shoe must come off.”
Chris, wide-eyed, didn’t move as Sunglasses perched over his foot. I put my hand on Chris’s shoulder. I’d seen people do this. It was supposed to bring comfort to a person in distress. Mostly, though, I was holding Chris down.
Sunglasses worked at the sole methodically, trimming away the rubber, carving a hole through which the head of the nail could slip as we pulled away the shoe. He hummed as he worked. Stars watched, entranced.
Sunglasses was careful, and the sneaker released. It was the sock that caught the nail and made Chris cry.
“Faggot,” Sunglasses said. Stars laughed, falling all the way over this time and rolling to his side. The sock off, Sunglasses retracted the knife. “Your turn,” he said.
Chris shook his head. “I can’t.” He coughed and cried harder. “I have to pee. I have to throw up.” The brave boy from the morning was gone. The superhero with the battle plans and schematics was nowhere to be seen.
We sat a few minutes, waiting for Chris to settle down. Stars smoked a cigarette. Sunglasses twirled the switchblade. The house yawned around us.
“Well,” Sunglasses said, “someone’s gotta pull it out.”
Stars extinguished his cigarette in the carpet, then flicked the butt into the fireplace. The spot was black, the fibers charred where he’d pressed the ash to the floor, and I thought it was a shame that he’d gone and ruined a perfectly good thing like that for no reason. Right then, I wanted to be out of the house, to get away fast as I could. I couldn’t leave Chris, but I could hurry things up.
“Let me,” I said.
Chris nodded. He thrust his bare foot onto my lap. The nail bloomed from his heel. There was no way to tell how far it went in. I grabbed the end like a syringe, my thumb against the head, two fingers beneath.
I pulled, up and out, fast. The foot rose then crashed to the floor. Chris screamed. Sunglasses jumped. Stars cursed. A line on the nail revealed the inch that had nested in the flesh. It came out clean. The hole was not wide and there was no blood. Still, I stretched a sock tight around the heel and tied it in a knot at the ankle like a tourniquet. I pulled the shoe on but left the laces loose.
Chris nodded and stood. He did not make a face when his foot touched the floor. He was himself again. He was in charge.
“I’m ready,” he said.
I didn’t see it coming, the hand that knocked Chris down. Stunned, Chris stood again, and again he was pushed to the floor. He stayed down. He drew his knees up to his chest. Sunglasses drew the knife.
“That’s it?” Sunglasses said. “After all we done for you? You’re out the door without so much as thank you?”
“Thank you,” Chris said.
“We did your ass a favor,” Stars said.
“Thank you,” Chris said, his voice grown shaky.
“Favors, favors,” Stars said. He undid the button at his waist, pulled on the zipper, and let his shorts fall to the floor. He wore no underwear. The stars did not end at his navel but followed a trail to a tangle of hair and something unfamiliar. What was between his legs was nothing like my own. It hung, swollen, distended, the end purple as a plum.
Chris began to cry softly.
One of the men laughed, and his laughter echoed in the open house. I’m not sure which of them it was, the man laughing, because I was already down the hall. I ran out the front door, down the steps, the driveway, the dirt road. Where were the workers? It was dark out, which didn’t seem possible. It had just been noon. I ran and I swear the moon rose overhead. The birds turned to crickets. The stars streaked overhead like confetti. The earth turned.
Chris didn’t come to school in August, and by Labor Day he was gone. His mother sold the house next door. They packed up their things and moved to Seattle. What they couldn’t fit in the moving van, they left on the front lawn. All of it vanished overnight: chairs, lamps, a card table, my friend.
“I think Marie wanted a fresh start,” my mother said. “I tried to tell her, a new city isn’t a new life, but whatever. Some people you can’t protect from themselves.”
Sometimes, when it was the two of us, over dinner or during a television commercial, my mother would ask, “What happened that summer, to you boys? You were so close, then it was like you weren’t friends at all.”
I’d shrug my shoulders.
“Was there a fight?” she’d ask. “A falling out?”
“Not that I can remember,” I’d say, and this would satisfy her, for a while anyway. She’d sigh and shake her head, saying, “Boys.”
I saw Chris once before he moved. Summer vacation was almost over. A few weeks had passed since I’d run from him, the men, the house. I’d spent the weeks worrying about what had happened, whether I should tell my mother, whether Chris had told anybody. I wasn’t sure what was done to Chris or what they’d made him do. That secret, I was afraid to keep it, and I was afraid to let it go.
In the end, I did nothing, save this: One morning, I walked next door. I rang the doorbell, but no one answered. I moved to the side of the house. Chris’s bedroom was on the main floor, and, standing on tiptoes, I could see in through his window. He was lying in bed, propped up on a pillow. The TV had been moved into his room and set on a plastic crate in the corner.
I tapped on the glass and Chris came to the window. He was thinner than I remembered. Dark circles stained his eye sockets. We stared at each other a minute. I didn’t know what to say. It was Chris who spoke first.
“You left me,” he said. His voice was different, muffled behind the windowpane, and I had to strain to hear him. “You ran away.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He moved closer to the window, his bangs licking the glass. “You haven’t said anything?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“To anyone? Promise?”
“I promise,” I said.
He didn’t smile, but I saw he was relieved. I watched him go back to the bed and lie down. I tried to see what show he was watching, but an open closet door threw a shadow across the screen. I couldn’t be sure the television was even on.
I never saw Chris again. After that day, he disappeared. In this way, we both lived up to our namesakes.