The Last Time I Was a Boy

Photo by Grzegorz Mleczek

Over the past 12 years, I’ve amassed hundreds of pages of stories on The Silver Family. Much of this material exists now in a manuscript I am shopping to agents, some of it has been published in All He Left Behind, and the rest exists currently in two unfinished manuscripts, tentatively titled The Black Sheep and Always a Bridesmaid. Here is a favorite section of mine from The Black Sheep to close out the month of June here.

Matt remembered the first time his grandfather told him about the photograph, a picture of Grampy and his sister taken on what Grampy called “the last day I was a boy.” It was a long story, but it held him rapt. And it had begun with a single question, a simple query posed just as the old man was wrapping up a rant about the real reason behind the binge eating of Matt’s cousin Ashley. “Have you ever felt guilty?” Matt had asked him. “Even once?”

Grampy had exhaled then, cigarette smoke pouring from his nostrils, a pained smirk playing across his lips.

“It was the kind of New England day that Rockwell might have painted for a cover of the Post. On Boston Common, the leaves were falling down like rain, like some peculiar brand of precipitation common only in our little corner of the world. It was the fall of ’44 and that day I was bound for the Sanatorium, the home for consumptives, where my sister Dottie was now a resident.

“I’d been sitting all morning on the low, wide sill of the family’s old brownstone on Beacon Hill. There was an old maple just in front of the place, barren but for a single, brittle leaf, and this leaf transfixed me, Matthew, it really did. For, as hard as the wind pushed through the streets of the hill, that leaf would not fall. It trembled, it looked as if it were about to snap loose, but it did not. I knew that it must succumb eventually, but I prayed that it would stay, stay there through the bitter winter cold and be resurrected in the spring just like all the rest.

“Such foolish notions... Yes, your grandfather had them once, too.

“Anyhow, when Dottie had come down with TB, I couldn’t exactly tell you. Since striking out on her own and leaving the brownstone when she was just a teenager, she’d never been one to give too much thought to how sanitary her living conditions were. And she was a woman who had never been shy in her affections—my father once called her a strumpet, but, to borrow a saying of your Uncle Albert’s, I prefer to remember her as a lover instead of a fighter. She was the kind of gal who showed up to our gigs by herself and shimmied her behind off, the kind of gal all the guys loved to play for, to look at while playing—hell, the kind of gal I loved to look at too, when it wasn’t my sister.

“So, she could have picked it up anywhere, but the important thing, the undeniable fact, was that she had it, and that she had it bad.

“I could hear her coughing before I’d even opened the door. It was a deep, guttural hacking, full of phlegm and bad tidings. When I stepped into her room she was sitting up in bed, something she’d strictly been forbidden to do, and she was hunched over a leather-bound sketchbook, her left hand wrapped around a charcoal pencil that was dancing across the page. She didn’t even look up at me as she said, ‘I know, I know… Thing is, I was inspired, and when the muse…’

“‘I know all about the muse,’ I told her. ‘You don’t need to explain her to me.’

“She smiled then, as she looked up at me—what a beautiful toothy smile she had, Matthew—and she shook her head, ‘You look like death warmed over, big brother. What’s eatin’ you?’

“‘Nothing,’ I told her. ‘Nothing’s eating me, Dot. You just look a little paler than I expected is all.’ And she did look bad, pale as a ghost except for the rouge she’d applied to her sunken cheeks.

“‘I’m fine, Lijah,’ she told me. ‘Don’t you go blowing your top over little old me.’

“Which might have been more convincing, Matthew, if she hadn’t been coughing between each sentence.

“‘Whatchu working on?’ I asked her.

‘She perked up and spun the sketchbook around on her lap for me to see. ‘I struck a deal with one of the orderlies. This coming Sunday during services, she’s going to sneak me in a canvas, some brushes, and some paint, and I’m going to give it one last go.’

“‘One last go? What are you on about? What do you mean, one last…?’

“She put a finger to my lips to quiet me and you’ve got to understand, Matthew, that when my sister asked me to do something—anything—I did it. No fooling around. She wanted me to be quiet, then I shut right up.

“‘Lijah,’ she said. ‘Let’s quit with the denying it. I’m gone before the year is out. Don’t be a sap. Let’s just enjoy our visit, okay?’

“And I nodded, because when a woman’s making that much sense, that’s what you do—you nod along. So, I nodded, and, as I did, I looked down at the sketchbook and finally got a good look at it.

“It was a drawing of me and my car, if you can believe it, just me and that old jalopy I was convinced would be with me forever. My sister and I were close, see. We were all the family we had, even if there was a distant cousin putting a roof over our heads from time to time. So, when she painted, she liked to paint me, and when I played trumpet, wherever it was—up in Montreal, over in Detroit, or down south in the bayou—wherever I played, I played as if I was playing for her. Because she was always the first one to tell me if I was stinking up a joint, and if I couldn’t impress her, I didn’t care about showing off for nobody else. And I served the same role for her, see, which is why, when she asked me what I thought, I had to tell her it seemed like pure, grade A crap.

“‘Crap?’ she asked me, her voice more agitated than hurt. ‘I know what crap is, Eli Silver, and this ain’t it. That gig you played at the Cocoanut Grove, before the fire—now that was crap…’

“‘Now, don’t get ugly with me, Dot.’ I pleaded. ‘Don’t get ugly.’

“‘What’s crap about it then? You were always queer for my car paintings.’

“‘Yeah, but your others always had a story. What’s the story here, Dot?’

“‘I oughta put your lights out, Lijah, I really oughta.’ She was fuming now, not so pale anymore. ‘Not every damn painting has to tell a story.’

“‘Okay,’ I told her, ‘Then it’s not crap. It just boring.’

“‘Yeah, well, we’ll see how important a story is when you’re raking in the chips with this after I’m gone. A painter doesn’t need to tell a good story to get famous. She just needs to shuffle off the mortal coil, or however that goes. And TB’s the way to do it, Lijah. TB’s the way to go.’

“I looked at the sketch again, because I couldn’t bear to look at her when she was talking like that. And I guessed that, if she did finish it before she was gone, there’d be a story for at least one person. For me, I mean. Because that painting would always remind me of that afternoon, of the things we said to each other. And that, I guessed, would have to do.”

Grampy sighed, but didn’t falter. “She stifled a cough as I kissed her on the cheek that afternoon, as we said our goodbyes. She called for an orderly to come and snap a picture for us. And as we waited for the girl to arrive, Dot asked me to ask our father about being buried in the family plot again. I said that I would, and as we posed for the picture, as I smiled big and bright, I honestly felt hopeful that everything was going to work out, that I was going to mend fences with my father, that when I told him what was happening to his daughter he would come around, and that the two of us by her bedside would help my sister make a miraculous recovery. But that was it, that was the last time I saw her.”

Matt remembered how he had nodded along then, feeling the novice’s need to sum up. “And you felt guilty that you’d called her painting crap, that that was the last conversation you two had.”

Grampy shook his head. “You would think so, but that wasn’t it. No, the one time I felt guilty was years later, when I heard that same cough coming out of my own body. I put down my trumpet that day and gave myself over to the rigamarole of a day job, toiling away at the garage for years and years. My Edna never asked me to stop, nor did my boys. No, I gave up my music, my passion, over a silly cough, whereas my sister kept at it until the very end. I felt guilty, unbelievably guilty, because I was sure that I’d let her down.”

I write and publish new fiction and drama once per week. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read new material a week in advance.

Ain't the Same as Love

Ain't the Same as Love is full-length play I've been working on for two years to produce at a local theater, and though the artistic committee there has passed on it twice now, I am quite happy with where it's at. Therefore, I'm sharing with you as this week's Weekly Writing (a series title that's still a work in progress; though I couldn't keep up with Draft a Day's frequency, I much preferred the music of that name).

Since the play is 90 pages long, I'm hiding the full text behind a Read More link. I try not to do that, but in this case it seemed appropriate. If you'd prefer to read it as a PDF, you can do that, too.

Iron Gretel

Illustration from Internet Archive Book Images

Once upon a time, when the prince was but a wee lad, still locked in the tower by his mother, he made a game of counting how long each huntsman lasted in the forest before the trees ate him. Many a moon passed before the king finally grew tired of listening to the howls of pain that issued from deep within the woods. Many a moon passed, and many a hunter, but the prince never tired of watching the trees close in. He liked to guess how many birds would flee from the uppermost branches as the trees leaned in. He liked to imagine what manner of beast could so easily devour the strapping young men who presented themselves to his father, their teeth gleaming, their chins chiseled, their hair cropped impossibly close to their heads in what was then the style. The huntsmen seemed invincible to the prince, even from his high perch in the tower, even at that distance. What could best them? What in the world?

After one final try to make safe the forest, the last seven of his majesty’s hunters embarking on the quest together and never returning, the king decreed that the woods were unsafe and off limits to all. The prince watched the proclamation from the tower, counting the wrinkles on his father’s forehead, watching as the old man rubbed the back of his neck on the way down from the dais, all pretense of bravery and assuredness gone from his weary countenance. There were three more wrinkles than the last time the prince had seen the king.

Years passed. The prince reached the precipice of manhood, his voice crackling and straining as his body stretched uncomfortably taller. He was reminded of an old tale his mother used to read to him by his bedside in the tower, the story of wing-makers, a father and son who flew too close to heaven and were struck down for their impertinence. The prince began to slump his shoulders forward, the way his father now did. Perhaps if he feigned the plight of the old, God could be tricked into sparing him their fate.

It was on the eve of his thirteenth birthday, the day he would be released from the tower, that prince spied a most peculiar sight. Through the courtyard came a hooded figure. The figure carried a crossbow, a sword, and a heavy satchel. A hunter, thought the prince. The first to arrive in their starving, cursed country in ages. And yet, that was not what made the sight peculiar. The strangeness of the scene was made plain only when the hood of the figure was lowered to reveal not a man, but a woman.

The prince, for the first time, felt a stirring in his loins. She was a pretty thing, now that the hood was down. Hair the color of copper, skin the color of milk, and, he now noticed, a goodly bosom beneath her cloak and tunic.

She shouted for the king or his representative, and the old man trudged out from the palace gates to meet her, leaning heavily upon his scepter.

They spoke in hushed tones, so that the prince could not make out the purpose of their intercourse no matter how hard he strained, no matter how far through the window he leaned.

But then, then the king raised a weary arm toward the forest. Weary, yet welcoming. The huntress bowed to him and made her way into the woods.

The prince began to count. When he reached one hundred and still she did not scream, the stirring in his loins became a full-on discomfort. He reached into his breeches to adjust himself and recoiled in horror at the tiny drop of moisture he found there. He breathed easier when, upon inspection, he saw that it was not blood.

And then he refocused. He stared out at the treetops, waiting. But they did not close in as they always had before. His curiosity was swelling.

When that night his mother came to read to him and serve his evening meal, he begged her to set him free then and there. ‘I will be a man in mere hours,’ he said. ‘Why should I be asleep in this prison when the clock strikes twelve?’

‘But what will you do in the dark?’ she asked him. ‘What will you do?’

‘I will rescue the huntress,’ he said. ‘It is what a prince should do. A man!’

And his mother, weary herself of years spent protecting the boy and serving the king, she sighed and she let him go.

He ran towards the forest, stopping only at the blacksmith to demand a sword he did not yet know how to wield. And then, into the woods he went.

The trees seemed to go on for ages, spreading out all around him, reaching up to heaven in a way that made him question why God did not punish them in the way He punished man for standing too tall. But the prince banished such blasphemy from his mind and came back to the task at hand. He focused his gaze on the footprints before him, the bootprints of the huntress, and he followed them.

After a good, long walk, the moon rising in the sky above him, the prince caught sight of a roaring fire in a clearing up ahead.

He drew closer, creeping from the shadows of one tree to another until he could see who sat by the light and warmth of the fire. She was drinking from a flask and smiling, her foot toying with something long and metal—her sword, he suddenly realized—which was planted in between the shoulder blades of a man covered in white-blonde hair from his head to his feet.

The prince’s foot crushed a fallen branch then, as he stepped back in amazement, and the crack echoed through the clearing.

The huntress stood in a flash, her crossbow aimed right at him.

‘You,’ she called out. ‘You there in the shadows, come into the light.’

The prince did as he was told.

‘You are the prince,’ the huntress said with a smile.

‘I am,’ he said.

‘If you will but lower your sword,’ she said, lowering her own weapon, ‘I will give you the bow you are owed.’

‘Oh,’ said the prince, not realizing that he still held the sword. He dropped it.

The huntress bowed, then said, ‘Will you join me?’

The prince stayed put. He asked, ‘Who is it you’ve killed?’

The huntress smiled again. ‘The monster what dwelled here,’ she said, pointing to a small pond the prince could only now make out, now that his eyes had begun to adjust to the light.

‘But he,’ the prince stammered, ‘he killed all those men.’

‘Indeed he did,’ said the huntress. ‘Please,’ she said. ‘Join me, your highness. It’s a lot warmer over here.’

The prince took a few steps toward her. ‘But how did you–?’ he said, trailing off, hoping she would finish his sentence for him.

She nudged the hilt of her sword with her foot. ‘With that,’ she said.

‘But you,’ said the prince. ‘You’re a… a woman.’

The huntress laughed, her chortle filling the clearing with a glee that sent the prince back a step, then two.

‘I surely am,’ she said. ‘And if you come closer, I’ll prove it to you. Manhood is upon you,’ she said. ‘Is it not?’

The prince said nothing as she did what she did next, as she stood and ambled toward him, unlacing her tunic as she drew nearer. When she was too close for comfort, when he could see that her green eyes were flecked with gold, he stared over her shoulder at the beast he’d long imagined. The body was so small. Muscled, yes. Hairy as a beast should be. But small.

The huntress draped her arms over the prince’s shoulders. ‘Are you ready?’ she asked.

‘No,’ the prince cried out as he ducked out from under her embrace. ‘No,’ he cried as he raced back toward the palace, the huntress’ laughter following him through the woods like a pack of dogs nipping at his heels, never seeming to grow fainter no matter how much distance he put between himself and her.

‘No,’ he said to his mother, as she ran her fingers through his disheveled hair, as she dried his tears with the sheet of his bed in the tower. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I am not ready.’

I write and publish new short fiction once per week. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read new stories a week in advance.

Trigger Warning 1994

Photo by Jon Eckert

Photo by Jon Eckert

“Stories are never finished; they’re only abandoned,” or so goes the old chestnut. This here is a story I wrote while working on my MFA in 2004. By my count, I wrote 5 drafts of this sucker before abandoning it. No one aside from a few trusted readers has ever read it.

Until now.

Each of the boys had something to hide that night: Quentin had a crush; Trevor, a gun; Peter, a can of WD-40. Courtney, the only girl, had no clue.

The four of them had walked the weathered train tracks so often as children that by seventeen, clad in matching maroon and white letterman’s jackets, they needed no flashlights to navigate the path. These tracks, at least in the stories Trevor regaled them with, used to run the length of their town. They came out of the city of Lowell, past the Route 3 Cinema, where the residue of soda pop, Snow Caps, and exchanged bodily fluids on the floor rivaled the adhesiveness of superglue. The tracks ran down the length of Chelmsford Street, weaving behind the old comic book store that smelled perpetually of cat piss, and the baseball fields where they used to play Little League together. In the old days, in their grandparents’ time, or maybe even before that, the train ran through the center of town, through the snarl of the six major roadways that converged there. But that part of the tracks had been paved over now. The town meeting had begun to discuss turning the entire length of it into a bike path. The four teenagers were part of the last generation to see them whole, to know where all the connections lay. By the time their own children were running about town, putting the legends of their exploits to shame, the tracks might be gone altogether.

The tracks crossed through the center and then, behind the abandoned brick and mortar of an old ginger-ale factory, they plunged into the thinning woods that separated the backyards of affluent High Street and the more humble homesteads of Littleton Road. The four teenagers walked in single file, negotiating the uneven trail of wood and gravel and dirt. Vivid maple and oak leaves, painted the many colors of death, fluttered down from above them, and crunched underfoot.

Though his friends kept their strides confined to the path defined by the rusted rails, whose hue Mother Nature seemed to render more orange and brown every year, Trevor Landon was more comfortable walking the right rail like a tight-rope, one foot in front of the other, only extending his arms outward for balance when absolutely necessary, keeping them in his pockets the rest of the time.

Trevor was the star pitcher for the Lions, feared throughout the Merrimack Valley Conference for his fastball, courted by a half-dozen Division 1 schools not only for his prowess on the diamond but also for his expertise in history—he was the only jock in the advanced placement class. Trevor was six feet tall, possessed of a perpetual baby face and a complexion that had been spared, for the most part, of the rigors of acne, that scourge of teenage social life. His black hair was thinning already at seventeen, but the girls hardly noticed. He seemed always to be wearing a baseball cap anyway.

By contrast, Peter Nichols, who led the way, was short, pale, and not altogether attractive. Some called Peter pudgy, but never to his face. Peter’s blond hair grew wild, curled—a tangled jungle atop his head. His face, it seemed, had suffered through all of the pimples that had passed his best friend over. But Peter had a defense for all that. He was the catcher and behind the mask and the pads it did not matter what he looked like. It mattered that he made plays with his hulking arms, his quick feet, and his massive frame. It mattered that the opposing team had to get through him to score runs. When he went up to bat, he closed the deal by hitting that ball with such power that many girls assumed he would have no trouble hitting home runs in the backseat of a car as well.

Courtney Whitford, now Trevor’s girlfriend, had played little league with the boys until her budding breasts began to get in the way of her swing. She had settled for the role of cheerleader after that, had lettered in it each year, and was co-captain of the squad. Courtney was an excellent writer to boot, had earned high grades and frequent praise for her work in a one-semester journalism class, but had never submitted anything to the school newspaper. The production editor, a gangly sophomore with beady eyes and a certifiable beak for a nose, had an unhealthy crush on her. He was not the only one, but he was the only one in the position to print a picture of her each issue, regardless of its relationship to any story, just for the sake of beautifying the publication. Courtney was thin, blonde, always smiling, and possessed of more cleavage than any teenage girl—especially one with so much tomboy left in her—knew what to do with.

Quentin Werty brought up the rear. Quentin used to hit home runs when the coaches were throwing the pitches. That was back in little league. Now he was lucky if he batted .200. His fielding skills, though, were still without par and they had earned him a place on varsity year after year despite the dead spot he provided in the lineup. Quentin was slender and lithe, and he shaved his body each swim season, which was no small feat considering the ample amount of coarse brown hair that puberty had brought to bear on him. Quentin’s cheekbones were high, his eyebrows thin, his jaw sharply angled. He was too pretty a young man. He had never had a girlfriend, and that made many of his teammates nervous.

It was quite good fortune that they needed nothing to light their way. While the houses on High Street were shielded from them by a fair amount of forest, the backyards of Littleton Road were much closer. Those prying residents, if drawn to the tracks by noise or light, might be apt to call the police, to report suspicious behavior. Dogs barked from both sides of the tracks—purebreds yelped from the High Street side, running out of doghouses as lavish as their owners’ mansions; mutts growled their displeasure from the Littleton Road side, dogs once bought as puppies from newspaper ads or brought home from the pound, tied to porches or thick trees with only the most inexpensive of chains. The doctors and lawyers of High Street often raised a ruckus in the town meeting and in the pages of the Independent when they found their precious pooches, with names like Margaret or Cecily, giving birth to litters of mongrels sired by dogs from the other side of the tracks, dogs with names like Max and Butch. But people in town who were separate from the issue knew that even the most humble of chains was better than these experimental new invisible fences all the doctors and lawyers were wasting their money on now. How were Max and Butch supposed to resist when Margaret—her friends called her Maggie—pranced right into their yards and shook her tail right in their faces?

Trevor lost his footing and stumbled off the rail. He fell into Quentin, who steadied his friend with a firm grip that seemed out of place coming as it did from such effeminate hands. Trevor shook his shoulders and shook Quentin’s hands free, then stepped forward and wrapped his arm around Courtney’s waist.

“You all right, man?” Quentin asked him.

“I’m fine, Werty,” Trevor said, keeping his eyes on the ground.

In front of them, Peter stepped over the left rail and started into the woods along the dirt path their Reeboks had worn down over the last decade. Trevor and Courtney stepped over the rail together. Trevor could hear Quentin’s light, padding footsteps behind them. With his free hand he patted around his midsection for the gun, which he had stuffed into the front of his pants. Trevor felt the handle. The barrel was cold against his skin, its tip nearly touching the head of his penis. He was sure he had shoved it too far down his pants. But that was what they did in the movies, right?

Quentin hummed a Pearl Jam song behind him. In front, the sound of Peter’s footsteps were joined by the ambience of running and crashing water. Like that SAT question, where the guy comes home from college and discovers how much smaller his town has become, Trevor noted how much shorter the venture from track to waterfall seemed.

By the moonlight they found seats at the water’s edge, Trevor’s eyes fixed on what he could see of the smallish waterfall that had been a place of wonder for as long as he could remember. The otherwise calm stream found chaos here, stepped up its speed, split itself deftly around rounded boulders, crashed over the gentle falls with violent force, as if it had something to prove. At the bottom, amidst the foam, the water composed itself, and then went quietly on its way.

They sat in a circle. Peter produced a dime bag and rolling papers from his pockets and handed them across to Courtney. She went to work as the boys made small talk.

“I don’t know about you,” Quentin started. “But I’m glad it’s almost Thanksgiving. I’m sick of football. Guys wearing their jerseys every Friday like they’re kings of the world. We don’t do that? We don’t show off. We just go out and play our game.”

“Yeah,” Peter said. “Yeah, I guess.”

Courtney ran her tongue along the edge of the first joint and sealed it. She handed it to Trevor. “You may be anxious,” she said. “But I’m basically done after football season. There aren’t any cheerleaders for baseball.”

“Well, I don’t understand why you never tried out for softball,” Quentin said.

Trevor paused in his attempts to light the joint. “Leave her alone, Werty. She knows softball is just a joke. It’s a,” he stammered, “What does your Dad call it, Court?”

“A mockery,” she said, pinching pot into another rolling paper. Courtney tried on her father’s voice, “A pathetic attempt by the establishment to relegate girls to second class status by not allowing them to play the only true version of the game.”

“Your dad’s a feminazi,” Peter teased.

“I don’t understand why girls are allowed to play little league with us but nothing after that,” Quentin offered. “It’s always seemed ridiculous to me, too.”

“Thank you, Quentin,” Courtney said with a smile, handing him the next joint.

Trevor scowled across the circle at Peter, who nodded his head.

“So, I hear you can’t stay late, Court,” Peter said.

“Yeah. It sucks,” she said, finishing her last creation and offering it to Peter. “Dad wants me home studying for finals.”

“But,” Quentin coughed, in between tokes, “They’re two weeks away.”

“Yeah, well, my midterms weren’t so good and, um, most of my scholarship money is based on my getting good grades this year, so…”

Trevor handed her his joint, which he had barely touched, and watched her inhale deeply off of it. He looked across the way and saw that Peter was sticking to the plan. He held the joint in his fingers, sometimes brought it close to his mouth for show, but never actually smoked it. Courtney and Quentin, after just a few puffs each, their slender bodies overpowered, hadn’t noticed.

Quentin handed his joint to Trevor and produced a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips from his jacket. He tore open the green bag and a pop echoed throughout the forest around them. A few dogs began to bark, but it didn’t last long. Quentin chortling was far more extended.

“Way to go, jackass,” Peter said. “Now they’re barking.”

Oblivious, Quentin offered the bag up to Peter. Peter shook his head, then stuffed his hammy fist into the bag anyway. When Peter was done, Quentin passed the chips around the circle and they each took a small handful. They smoked and ate.

Courtney asked, “What time is it?”

Quentin pressed a button on the side of his watch and soft green light lit his downturned face. “It’s about quarter to eight,” he said.

“Gotta go then,” Courtney said, tossing what was left of her joint into the water. She stood and brushed herself off. “You coming over after?” she asked Trevor.

He looked up at her and nodded, held her hand for a second and squeezed. Trevor looked over his shoulder as Courtney disappeared out of the light of the moon and down the wooded path behind him. It was good that she would not see this, would not bear witness to their crime. Trevor returned his attention to the boys.

“We should play a game,” Quentin said, and then Trevor saw him wrap his lips tight around the joint, saw the flesh under his cheeks contract as he sucked hard at it.

“What kind of game?” Trevor asked. “Spin the bottle?” he teased.

“That’s sick,” Peter admonished. “The only girl we had is already gone.”

“No,” Quentin began, “I was thinking, like, truth or dare, or something.”

Peter grumbled, “You really are a fucking faggo…”

Trevor punched Peter hard in the thigh. Peter snarled at him. With eyes wide and a serious expression across his face, Trevor shook his head.

“What did you say?” Quentin asked.

“He said you’re a fucking drag, Werty,” Trevor explained. “Truth or dare is a girl’s game.”

“Oh,” Quentin said. He took another hit.

Quentin had always been a little too girly for his own good. Even back in kindergarten, in Mrs. Cliff’s class at Westlands, Quentin had gotten on better with the girls than with the boys. His favorite activities seemed to be the times when they made Care Bears out of construction-paper, or when they wrote poetry for Valentine’s Day. He was invited to girls’ birthday parties, girls like Courtney, more often than he was invited to parties for boys. Quentin didn’t actually play with My Little Pony or Rainbow Bright or Barbie, but he had no problem going on about how he and his mom had gone out shopping for such things. Later, towards the end of the elementary school, when other guys were running across the street after class to Bagni’s to buy Garbage Pail Kids stickers with their lunch money, Quentin was busy playing saxophone in the school band, hanging out with all the girls and their flutes and clarinets.

He had become a bit more masculine throughout the years and he was an excellent short stop, but there had always been and would always be whispers about Quentin Werty. Trevor and Peter stuck by him, after all this time, after all the private insinuations made throughout the halls of Chelmsford High, mostly because Courtney still loved the kid like a brother.

Trevor stared at Quentin, who had begun to giggle. He was totally stoned now. Trevor saw that Peter was staring, too. Quentin’s joint had burned out. Peter handed him his own.

The boys had second period gym together and that was where the final straw had been cast upon the back of their strained friendship. The class was the bane of their high school existence. They had lobbied for the ninth period slot—many of the gym teachers were also coaches for the school’s athletic teams and were thus sympathetic to the boys’ needs—but had been denied, at least during the fall semester. The staff saved ninth period for varsity football, allowed them to use it as warm-up time for the afternoon practices. Second period gym meant a mid-morning shower. You couldn’t go through the rest of the day sweaty and reeking, though some boys tried. You had to squeeze it in, too. There wasn’t a lot of time between the end of class and the bell signaling the start of the next one.

“Hey Landon, you and Courtney boning yet?” Peter had asked that Monday.

Trevor’s laugh echoed off the linoleum, pierced through the veil of steam and hot spray. He tossed a glance over his shoulder, saw Peter lathering up his hefty, pimpled buttocks, and laughed some more. “Yeah, I guess you could say that we’re boning.”

“Is it good?” Peter wondered. “You know, we’ve all known her since little league. I think Werty and I have a right to know, too. Right Werty?”

“Yeah, sure,” Quentin said. “I, uh, I’m very curious.”

“She’s great,” Trevor said. “I have no complaints.”

“That’s it?” Peter whined, “Werty’s got a hard-on over here. Me, too. Give us a little something more to…”

“Wait, Werty’s got a hard-on?” Trevor said, stepping across the shower to see for himself.

“I seen it with my own two eyes,” Peter said, and sure enough, when Trevor got there, Quentin Werty’s penis was fully erect, the foreskin drawn back, hulking veins pulsing along the length of it. It pointed up and to the right. Trevor looked down at his own, soft and thick against his leg. Quentin’s, he ventured to guess, was actually bigger. His, he reassured himself, was at least better looking.

“What’s so weird about that?” Quentin wondered.

The other boys chuckled. “Nothing,” they said in unison.

And there really was nothing wrong with it. In fact, that first erection had served to allay some of their fears about him. If he was responding like that to simple conversations about a girl then maybe he was not gay after all. Trevor and Peter thought once or twice about loosing their story into the rumor mill, thought of using it to try and clear their friend’s name, but they hesitated. They had no desire to be interrogated as to why they spent so much time concerned with Quentin’s penis in the first place.

There was no trouble with the first erection. It was the ones that followed that made them queasy, that were the impetus for long conversations after school

Quentin showered every day that week, for the most part, with his eyes closed. He was oblivious to Trevor and Peter’s stares. They stared at the hard-on each day, wondering what was going through his mind, what he was daydreaming about behind closed eyelids. They had not spoken of Courtney since Monday.

Trevor and Peter skipped fourth period on Friday, the morning of their trip down the tracks, and snuck down Hawthorne hall to check out Quentin’s locker.

Quentin’s locker was halfway down the hall on the left. When they got there, his locker mate, a swimmer named Paul, had just finished twisting the combination lock. Paul was thinner than Quentin, with an obnoxious spiked coiffure and square-rimmed glasses. He shaved his body hair year round. That Quentin shared his locker with Paul did nothing to quell the rumors about him.

“What do you want?” Paul asked as Trevor and Peter hunkered over him.

“We’ve got to pick up some books for Werty,” Peter said.

“I don’t understand your whole preoccupation with last names. You and your whole, like, social set. When did you stop calling him Quentin?”

Peter grabbed two handfuls of Paul’s shirt and pulled him close. “Listen, you fairy,” Peter spat as Trevor began to rifle through the locker.

“You gonna kiss me, Nichols?” Paul smirked in the face of danger. “Cause if you are, you are going to need to some Mentos or something.”

Peter shoved the kid aside and joined Trevor in the search. Trevor pulled a hardbound notebook from under the pile of texts on Quentin’s shelf. It was brown, with decorative gold borders on its front cover. Paul hovered over them to see what it was.

“I found something,” Trevor said, flipping through the opening pages.

“I know that handwriting,” Peter said, pointing to the careful cursive script, “That’s Werty’s. It looks just like the notes he lets me copy.”

Paul tried to reach his hand in, to pry it away from them. “You shouldn’t be looking at that. That’s his journal.”

“Figures Werty’d have a diary,” Peter said as he hunched over Trevor—he really did need a breath mint. “What’s it say?”

“Problems, Pete.”

“What problems? He got a crush on Courtney or something?”

“He’s got a crush, but it isn’t on Courtney,” Trevor told him, slapping the book against Peter’s chest. “Sorry, man,” he said, walking a few steps away.

Trevor waited for the grunt, which came, and the sound of the book being slammed back into the locker, which came soon after the grunt. Then he heard Peter slam the locker shut.

Trevor turned to face him. Peter walked towards Trevor. Paul ran the other way. “Don’t make so much goddamned noise,” he admonished. “We’ll get caught.”

“The fucking faggot’s been taking peeks at my dick? I’m gonna kill that asshole,” Peter fumed.

They started down the hallway and took a left at the end of it, towards the lunchroom. On the way, Peter said, “We don’t got much time. We’ve got to do this before his butt-buddy has a chance to warn him.”

“Do what?” Trevor had wondered.

Peter stopped. “Tell Courtney to meet us at the tracks tonight. Have her bring some of that pot she just got off of whatshisname.”

“She’s got to study tonight.”

“Even better. She stops by for a couple minutes, puts him at ease, then takes off.” Peter smiled. “You need to get your dad’s gun.”

“Are you nuts? What do we need a—”

Peter cut him off, “You’ll find out tonight. That’s for damn sure.”

Trevor had followed Peter’s orders to the letter. He and Courtney had English together at the end of the day and he had slipped her a note while the teacher read from Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun with a somber, melodramatic intonation.

At the end of the school day, Trevor had driven his hand-me-down Volvo back to his home in the Farms. His father, knowing full well that theirs was the richest household on the street, kept a handgun in the top drawer of his nightstand, “just in case.” He was afraid of hoodlums. Hoodlums, for the most part, lived in other towns, not in Chelmsford.

Would Trevor be considered a hoodlum after tonight? He stared at Quentin, who sucked the last drag out of their final joint. Quentin pressed the final remnants into the dirt. He laughed as a wisp of smoke ascended from it. His eyes were glazing over, his eyelids hanging low. Quentin swayed forward and backward. His eyes closed. He fell backward. His head hit the hard ground with a thud and bounced back up just a little. Quentin began to snore.

Trevor looked over to Peter. “Now what?” he asked.

“Help me with his pants,” Peter said, getting on his knees and reaching under Quentin’s jacket and t-shirt to unbutton his jeans. Peter pulled the zipper down and tugged at the waistband. Trevor lent his hands to help. Quentin stirred and they slowed themselves. He grew still again and they finished pulling his pants down to his ankles. With a rough jerk, Peter tore down Quentin’s briefs.

“On his stomach?” Trevor wondered.

Peter nodded and the boys rolled their teammate onto his stomach, his pale buttocks glinting in the moonlight. Peter drew the can of WD-40 from his jacket and unscrewed the cap.

“That’s the best you could find?” Trevor asked.

“Does he deserve any better? Shit, does even deserve this?”

Trevor was quiet after that. He watched Peter squeeze the can of grease, the metal buckling, a metallic pop issuing from it as he did. Yellow oil trickled down from its stem and onto the small of Quentin’s back. Peter held it closer, aimed better. A steady stream slipped down into the crack of the boy’s bottom.

Peter pushed the greasy halves of Quentin’s ass apart, his hand struggling for a steady grip. He inched the nozzle of the can towards the hole, then plunged it in, wrung his fingers around it, and squeezed as hard as he could.

Quentin lurched awake. Peter’s hand fell free but the can of WD-40 remained firmly in place. Trevor threw a punch at Quentin’s head, his fist careening into the thrashing boy’s temple. Trevor watched as Quentin’s head fell and bounced off the ground again.

Peter ripped the can and its nozzle out of Quentin. The tip was covered in streaks of red and brown. He smirked at Trevor. “Your turn, man.”

Trevor drew the pistol and straddled Quentin’s legs. He stared down at the oily mess and then at the gun and wondered what he was doing.

“What are you waiting for? Don’t tell me you’re going chicken-shit on me?”

Trevor’s mind took a detour. He remembered Quentin’s last great at-bat, the last game of their last season truly spent as kids.

Quentin stood at home plate, under the lights, the traffic of Chelmsford Street ambling by behind him. He dragged the wooden bat across the packed dirt and took his stance, staring at Mister Whitford on the pitcher’s mound. The coach, Courtney’s father, didn’t scare him. They both wore the same blue and red Giants uniforms. Mister Whitford wound up and hurled the ball overhand. Quentin swung hard, connected, and drove it high into the hometown sky, the sound of the hit echoing throughout the park, the vibrations of the bat shaking his arms. He dropped the bat and ran towards first, his eyes seemingly locked on the Cubs left fielder, who searched the cloudless night for the descending baseball. It sailed over the startled boy’s head, over the chain-link fence, and onto the roof of the small equipment shed that stood in the aisle between their field and the next. Quentin rounded the bases. Trevor and Peter waited at home, gave him high-fives when he arrived. Courtney burst out of the dugout and wrapped her arms around each of them in turn. Her chest, once as hard and flat as their own, had begun to change. It felt odd as she pressed against you. It felt, strangely, good.

Peter tore the gun from Trevor’s hands and pushed him off of Quentin, onto the ground. Peter had no hesitation left in him. He thrust the barrel of the gun into Quentin and slapped at the boy’s head to wake him. Quentin did not stir. Peter growled, “How’s it feel faggot? How’s this fucking feel, you goddamned fairy?” Peter shrieked as he pulled the trigger.

A sharp click was all he got. Peter pulled the trigger again. Another click.

Peter pulled the gun free and stood, hulking over both Quentin’s body and Trevor’s. “You forgot to put bullets in the thing?”

Trevor stammered, “I, uh, um,” but stopped when the butt of the pistol slammed against his forehead. He cried, tears spilling down his face. Peter’s boot drove into his stomach and then into his face. Bone crunched. His head shook. He was aware of the salty taste of his own blood across his lips as he descended into unconsciousness. He dreamed his nose was not broken. He dreamed of dancing with Courtney at the prom, smiles on their faces. He dreamed of Quentin and himself as old men, laughing over the matter at a card table, sharing memories and a six-pack of Budweiser.

When he woke, he was alone. Even Quentin was gone. It was still dark and it was growing colder. Trevor pushed himself up off the ground. His head throbbed and pain lanced up his side from his waist to his armpit. He leaned against an old birch tree and caught his breath. Trevor stumbled up the path, then down the tracks. He got in his car, drove out from behind the withering ginger-ale factory, and headed down North Road. He had to get to Lowell General, but he would stop at the police station first. He would wait in the lobby, the black vinyl seat cushions creaking beneath him. An officer, one of the women, would give him an ice pack. When his turn came, he would confess. His nose bleeding, his head aching, his eyes watering and heavy, he held on to one thought, one hope, to keep him awake through the short drive. Trevor Landon prayed that absolution, in whatever form, might still be possible.

I write and publish new short fiction once per week. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read new stories a week in advance.

The Tiger That Swallowed the World, Part 6

Photo from NASA on The Commons

The tiger rose to all fours then and said simply, “You win.”

My mouth fell agape as he smirked down on me.

“Would you like to know what you win?” he said.

I said: “A stay of execution for my planet, I should hope.”

“That,” he said, “and more.”

Then, from between the toes on his massive right forepaw, he plucked a long, telescoping tube. He propped the wider end on the moon where he sat and pushed the other end down toward me. It landed with a seismic thud; the world shook one last time because of the tiger.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Why, it’s a telescope,” he said.

“And what I am to do with it?” I said.

And here, here was where he smiled the broadest, toothiest grin he had yet cast upon me. “Why,” he said, “it’s for watching.”

Before I could say anything more, he sprung from the moon and pounced on the planet that was our nearest neighbor. He opened his maw and ripped the thing in half with his jaws. The bits in his mouth he swallowed whole; the rest, he left to drift in space.

He sprang then from that debris to another planet. Then another. And the telescope, without me having to do anything, it always followed him. Its trick was that it always knew where he was going next.

And I couldn’t stop watching, as sick to the stomach as it made me. I can’t stop watching even now, after all these years. No one on our planet can. They’ve built more telescopes, all of them modeled on the first, and it is all we do between sleeps now. All we do is watch those places with less luck than ours.

Or more luck, I suppose. Depending on your perspective.

The End.

I wrote and published new short fiction for free every day from November 6, 2014 until today. Beginning in June 2015, I’ll be publishing longer work just once per week. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read new stories a week in advance.

The Tiger That Swallowed the World, Part 5

Photo from NASA on The Commons

On the third day, out of frustration and out of ideas, I asked him if he had ever considered eating only uninhabited planets. I asked him if the gas giants and the burnt-out, waterless terrestrial rocks of the universe might not be enough to sate him.

He roared with laughter at this, his guffaws so boisterous they knocked down the last of our cities and rendered our great monuments into dust. The great inverted pyramid, which had stood for a thousand generations upon its marble plinth in the Desert of the Gardens, finally toppled. The statue of Cadfaxis Roxmull that stood astride the Bay of Ybstag, a monument raised by the ancients themselves, collapsed into the churning sea below.

And the tiger did not care at all.

“Yesterday,” he said, “you told me the tale of a tree and a shrub.”

“Yes,” I said.

“They were living things,” he said, “beings.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Are the rocks not alive?” he said. “Are the many colored gases of Subudlissa and her moons any less beautiful than this place you call home?”

Yes, I wanted to say. Yes, they are far less beautiful. I wanted to say these things, but I did not.

He shook his head and chuckled some more.

“I am happy to have amused you,” I spat, before realizing the words I had let loose from my mouth, before thinking about them at all.

He ceased his laughter and stared again down his muzzle at me.

“I have amused you,” I said. “Have I not?”

He was silent. For a moment, he was also still. But then, then he nodded. And then, then he smiled.

To be concluded…

I write and publish new short fiction for free every day. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read tomorrow’s story today.

The Tiger That Swallowed the World, Part 4

On the second day, I told the tiger the best joke I had ever heard.

“There once was a tree,” I told him as he woke from his slumber, as he stretched his neck and yawned another maelstrom our way. “There once was a tree,” I repeated, in case he’d missed it the first time, “and in its shade there grew a shrub.

“It was a nice shrub, a respectable little fellow, but he could never manage a blossom. There was enough sun to keep him alive and warm, enough water to keep him sated, but his buds would never bloom. The tree above him grew too high; its branches reached too far. It took in everything, that tree, and left nothing behind that it could not grab for itself.

“And, oh, the flowers that the tree grew. They were pink and four-petalled, fading to white only near the center, as if God wished to give attention to the brilliant yellow of the stamens, rather than to take it away.”

“God,” the tiger mumbled with a snort, rolling his eyes.

“The flowers of that tree,” I continued, “were the envy of all that could see it, from our hero the shrub to the birds who delivered goods from the breadbasket of our fair world to the cities on its bleeding edges.

“But no one wished to hold one of those flowers in his own embrace more than the shrub. Each year, he called up to the tree to ask for just one petal, just one.

“The first year, the tree said no. The second year, the tree said no. But the third, the third he had something far crueler in mind.”

At this, the tiger’s ears perked up. I paused for a moment, relished in the rapt attention of that foul beast. And then, just before he could beseech me to go on, I continued.

“The tree called up to a bird while the shrub was asleep, called up to a raptor flying high overhead to beg him to let loose his cargo. And the bird, offered the promise of a bouquet for his lady fair in return, he let loose his heavy burden and circled back towards his nest.

“The sack fell from the sky, through branches the tree shrugged out of its way, and it exploded onto the poor shrub, covering him in a thick, white powder. It was only then, as the shrub awoke, that the tree spoke.

“‘Oh,’ said the tree, ‘I have gotten flour on you. Was that not what you asked for?’”

The tiger snorted back a laugh. Then he laid his head upon his forelegs and began to blink.

“What?” I said. “I’m not punny enough for you?!?”

But all that the tiger said before falling back to sleep was, “Try again tomorrow.”

To be continued…

I write and publish new short fiction for free every day. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read tomorrow’s story today.

The Tiger That Swallowed the World, Part 3

Illustration by Giacomo Merculiano

Illustration by Giacomo Merculiano

The rest of that day, I told of my misadventures burgling anemones all across the oceans. You see, I was a particular kind of scoundrel, the kind that liked to break and enter, but never to steal. I just liked to be in a place where I didn’t belong, where I wasn’t welcome. Just to be. And then I would leave.

Most of my kind, I told the tiger, could play amongst the tentacles of only the one anemone they called home. But me, I was unencumbered by that weakness. And I delighted in taunting, slapping fin against tentacle after tentacle to see if I could get the things to open their mouths in anger. It was a dangerous game. But, more often than not, I won. I made a name for myself. I was even swum out of the reef where I was born and raised. They feared me! Oh yes, they did.

“So,” said the tiger, yawning. “You are a thief and a braggart.”

I frowned. “You are unamused?” I said.

The tiger laid his weary head upon his forelegs and blinked once, then twice. “Try again tomorrow,” he said, and then he fell back to sleep.

To be continued

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The Tiger That Swallowed the World, Part 2

Photo by Paula Borowska

When the great cat woke at the end of the two weeks, he yawned and a hurricane swept across our globe. He blinked once, twice, three times before squinting to find me in the maelstrom. And then he smiled. I bobbed up and down upon the waves, struggling to keep eye contact, and the tiger seemed delighted at what the effort was costing me.

“Such a tiny morsel,” he said. “The tiniest I’ve yet seen.”

I gave him a smile in return, then said, “Judge me by my size, do you?”

His smile disappeared. Then he stared down the length of his muzzle at me.

“A joke,” I said, laughing. “Only a joke. I was under the impression you wished to be amused.”

“I’ve heard that one before,” he said, “and I am no great fan of plagiarists.”

“Nor am I,” I said. “But it was an opportunity too great to pass up,” I said. “The refugees from the last galaxy told me it elicited a great many chortles from you when they used it.”

He said nothing. Instead, he let his tongue loose from the cage of his mouth and licked his lips with the terrible thing. Rain fell general over all six of our continents, all seven of our seas.

“Is it true,” I asked him through the downpour, “that I have but three days to win you over?”

“Less than three now,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, my voice straining to overpower the rain pelting my face, my body. “Then I guess I’d better get started.”

To be continued…

I write and publish new short fiction for free every day. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read tomorrow’s story today.