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April 23, 2024 Fiction



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Today you are thinking about that time when you were thirteen years old.

Whenever it comes back, it’s important to remember that nothing truly bad ever happens to you. Indeed, this simple strategy provides no small degree of comfort, attenuating the worst of the remembering. Still, like any near miss of sufficient velocity and proportion, it’s stayed with you even after all these years, another irreversible entry carved into the flesh of your neurons. The purpose of the ledger is to selectively remove your autonomy if necessary for your survival. Some things you are not allowed to forget.

You’re thirteen when it happens; thirteen when the world tries to cleave you in half.

For whatever reason, the strongest part of the memory is the smell of the grass. Relative to Homo sapiens, grass is indigestible and therefore malodorous. Like any other plant you’re not supposed to put in your mouth, it’s an absolute motherfucker in your nostrils when you’re sprawled out with your face in the dirt because your brain is worried that you’re trying to eat it. I am, in fact, kind of eating it at this point—face-down with the tips of these green blades invading the gaps between my teeth and the holes I’m trying to breathe out of (alas, my nausea does not understand that my present position is anything but voluntary). The soil squeezes under my fingernails as I try to push up off the lawn, but Aaron drops his foot onto the dome of my skull, pinning my head to the ground like a stray basketball. As it becomes increasingly clear that he’s successfully fixed my body to the earth, a crowd of schoolchildren gathers to watch the violence unfold. By chronological age I might well be an adolescent, but as a student of the mind I’m still a child. Today, I am on the receiving end of a remedial lesson in the psychology of other primates.

The sole of his shoe sits rough and heavy as it flattens my cheek into pancaked flesh that wants to slide off the bone. Impotent, I make fists of my hands, cursing my own weakness. Aaron keeps asking if I want to be fucked in the ass and I’m starting to worry the question is rhetorical.

In a motion of apparent reprieve, he de-loads his foot from the side of my skull and tells me to get up off the ground. I turn over and brace myself to stand and he lands a soccer kick into the bulbous pit of my stomach, spraying my lunch onto the ceiling of my throat. From a prone position, a lesson enters the back of my head like a slot meeting its cartridge: I learn here the meaning of power, a mere grouping of letters that meant nothing until they assumed the form of another person. I’m thirteen years old, and I understand what it means to be strong. As the clarity of this threatens to overwhelm me in its meaning, so too do I understand its polar opposite.

Another blow to the back of my head rattles the vestibular balancers orienting the position of my limbs relative to the earth’s gravitational plane, shifting the sky out of planetary alignment. In my peripheral vision, the clouds are spinning around the apex of my cerebral axis while I try to figure out just how it is that I got here. It occurs to me that Aaron’s scorn was not entirely uninvited, and further, that my inciting infraction—calling him a faggot for enthusiastically collecting Pokémon cards—has somehow triggered an escalatory spiral far exceeding my initial expectations. Early into the tutelage of adolescence, the world is drilling me with the importance of the mind projection fallacy, another insight that plugs into the parameters of my still-developing psyche and prunes off the residual branches of a childlike naivete that have outlasted their usefulness. Although, personally speaking, I didn’t think that collecting special-edition Charizard or Blastoise illustrations constituted an age-appropriate pastime, deduced from the intensity of Aaron’s reaction it’s become critically apparent that my internal mental states do not seem to reliably map onto the minds of others.

Booting up from a static discombobulation, my senses migrate back to baseline and the mechanisms of survival rotate back into alignment. The spinning slows its centrifugal velocity and a summer wind blows gentle drafts over the radial circle of my closed anus. The sensate world rearranges its synaptic connections, restoring hidden percepts to a mainlined embodiment. My awareness spreads to the other parts of my body—I’m here, I’m pantsless, and I’m within moments of shitting myself.

In conjunction with an alliance of similarly minded friends, Aaron has pulled my jeans and exposed my naked ass to the air, a needlessly gratuitous display configured to amplify the quotient of my humiliation. As one of his accomplices sits on my back, he splits a thin branch from a nearby tree and whips me like a dog. This doesn’t actually hurt that much because most of the pain is focused in my mouth, where my lower lip has been split open by a blow from contact with a knuckle. As his friend inexplicably gets up off my back I try to stand, but vertigo turns me around, keeling me onto my back and exposing my genitals to the crowd. Aaron comments unfavorably on the size of my penis.

Immobilized in the fugue of post-concussive exhaustion, I can only lie still while a rising current of dread anticipates the imminent convergence between his stick and my body. Hovering over the present vulnerability of my posterior orifice, there’s a part of Aaron’s brain that understands the same thing but from an opposing perspective. Even without looking into his eyes, I can see the part of him that naturally seeks to manifest cruelty as a leap to the adjacent possible—which, in this case, involves the involuntary penetration of my asshole with a plant-based implement repurposed for as a tool for social domination.

“You’re just a little fucking faggot, aren’t you?” he says. “Just a little faggot that likes to get fucked in the ass,” he says, pushing the stick toward my anus. The stick slides up the crack of my ass, narrowly missing its target; I try to buck his foot off my back, but he’s too big, too strong, and my balance hasn’t come back yet. In the background, the other children are laughing. Something hardens in my chest; I promise myself that I’ll kill him when I have the chance.

Summoning the cores of hatred buried in my body, I scramble out from underneath him and the world tilts back to a level plane. For a couple of seconds there’s a moment of hope as my vertigo resolves and my hand-to-eye coordination slides back into place. The maneuver itself proves costly and juices my muscles with lactic acid, draining me to near-zero where it’s difficult to remain standing. Confident, Aaron feints a punch, causing me to overreact, trip, and fall backward. I manage to pull my pants back on before he mounts me again, kneeling on the center of my sternum. With one hand choking me and the other one holding his stick in the air, he goes spearfishing for my eyeballs, glancing sharp cuts off my cheekbones as I try to evade the incoming pain of blindness. When I shield my face with my arms, he jabs it directly at my Adam’s apple and I realize that he’s actually trying to kill me. I turn over and turtle up onto my knees, only to have him pull my pants down over the cheeks of my ass, humiliating me once again.

In the future you will learn of Hugh Everett’s theory of the multiverse—of the credible existence of infinite timelines where everything that is possible is everything that happens. Later, when you visualize the central point of inflection in the story of your life, you imagine a world composed of an alternative sequence of events, a universe born of a tangential branch into another timeline. Here, you glimpse the serpentine curl of Aaron’s lips as the arm of the tree knifes its way into your closed asshole, tearing you open from the inside. A switch flips in your brain and your muscles propel you away from the source of the violation. Your momentum pulls the stick out of your anus and evacuates a thin film of blood and shit that coats the tip of the wooden spear. Hoisting the weapon above his head, he rears his head into the sky, laughing with the kind of joy that only comes with absolute power. He asks you why you’re crying and his voice reminds you of your father’s.

You do not live in this universe.

Instead, you reside in an altogether separate branch of spacetime: a place where nothing truly bad ever happens to you, where your childhood-self wholly escapes the experience of anything that could be construed as genuinely traumatic, where fate intervenes as the great protector and you emerge from the chrysalis of adolescence as a relatively unscathed, fully functional member of society. With regard to your history of violence, your identity is a product of the order of operations where the difference in output is anything but marginal. There’s going to therapy for what other people have done to you, and there’s going to therapy for what you have done to them.

A man is either a warrior or a victim. There is no intermediate between these two states.

And so, the logic of bifurcation demands your forced entry into one of these two alternating paths. Whatever forces have deigned to place you in this particular universe—be they Norse gods or the probabilistic perturbations of quantum fields—they’ve landed you into a randomly distributed bubble of luck whose favored arrow has chosen to orient you in the merciful direction of war, not victimization. Thus, at the critical juncture immediately prior to the point of penetration, your primary antagonist spontaneously embarks on a theatrical intermission in the midst of his assault, drifting into a monologue about how and why he will use the branch on the various holes of my body and where he intends to make some new ones. It is here that a lanky figure with black hair and yellow skin—the moment stays clear, even years later—arcs his fist into the side of Aaron’s face, phase-shifting his moppy-headed hair into the laggard airborne hesitation of a slow-motion free-fall that brings the rest of his body into a limp collection of entangled crossing limbs resting at ground level.

An Asian boy, tall and sinewy, stares at me with a hollow intensity that defies a straightforward computation. I slide my pants back up to the beltline, covering my ass, cock and balls, confused by his generosity.

“Get up, kid,” he says.

The words don’t hit, so he has to repeat himself.

“Buddy, you’ve got to get up,” he says.

From above, the sun’s heat presses on the skin of my battered face and I recognize the intensity in his eyes as something other than a plainly negative emotion—as the absolute calm of a serenity I could never hope to understand. In parsing this as far as I am able, I grasp a fragment of the feeling in his eyes: a limbic bioelectricity that’s arcing between his pupils and mine, bridging into a seal born of ancient conflicts still circling the latent conduits of genetic memory. Like two keys being turned at once, a decision is made to refuse the possibility of my own demise, and I reach for the open palm of his outstretched hand. (Later, I will understand our coalition as a neurochemical coactivation born of the simultaneous secretion of oxytocin in our two brains.) Before he can help me stand, three of Aaron’s mystery meat friends sprint out from the crowd and rush him from multiple angles. The battle moves away from the grassy field and closer to the structure of the school building, where the boy backs up and finds himself with his back against a red-bricked wall. Trapped, he protects his face with a tight guard, slipping out counters between a volley of incoming fists from the trio of assailants. A stray hook catches him in the nose, and he starts wilting under pressure, his black bowl of hair trembling with every incoming punch that lands successfully on his head.

Heaving for breath, I stand and suck the air while he bears the full brunt of the assault. Under the force of three similarly sized adolescent males throwing an onslaught of looping haymakers, he bends but does not break—through periodic gaps in the flailing chaos of their arms and torsos, I watch him clench his jaw and maintain his forearms in a makeshift shield while blood streaks down his flat, pancaked face in red lines that trail onto the earth in small drops. From the lineage of our common ancestors, my body remembers its anger.

Our synchronicity deepens.

The automatisms glide out from the primary thrusting of the surge in adrenaline, a trigger that spills into the stream of my blood as my lungs pump out the acid accumulation of fatigue back into the atmosphere. The flow of time dilates and then compresses; the distance between us and them shrinks and closes. Sprinting into the forward posture of a horizontal shoulder, I tackle one of the three to the ground from behind, mirroring Aaron’s pressure on my sternum from moments prior. Before he has time to react, I sink my knee into his stomach and pin him to the grass. He squirms and tries to push me off, but the weight of my body makes his motion futile. By squeezing the cylinder of his windpipe with my left hand, I stabilize his head into a stationary target for the reception of blows. As my fist meets his face, the impact of bone-on-bone travels from hand to elbow. The skin scrapes off the edge of my knuckles like cheese coming off a grater, but I no longer feel any pain whatsoever; it’s become a stranger.

“Please,” he says, crying, “please, stop.”

It is the greatest feeling I have ever had.

I do not stop.

After about a minute, I’m too tired to continue; so—resting my hand against his cheek—I push myself up off the ground and return to my other antagonists. A dozen feet from my position, the Asian boy stands similarly victorious. One assailant, still conscious, cowers in a fetal position on the ground, and the other, unconscious, lies slumped against the wall. Acknowledging our mutual success with a simple nod of the head, the Asian boy soccer kicks the cowering figure in the back of the skull, eliciting a high-pitched scream. To seal our friendship, I walk to the one who saved me from desecration.

“Thanks for helping me out,” I say.

“Honestly, I didn’t even do it for you, dude,” he says.

“Really? Then why did you do it?”

“Four-on-one isn’t fair odds. If you’re gonna fight, it should be the right way. One-on-one—that’s fair. Four-on-one—that’s total fucking bullshit. Some real bullshit is what that is.”

I repeat my gratitude.

He shrugs, launching another kick at the fetal figure.

“Why are you still kicking him?” I say.

“Don’t have a choice,” he says.

“What do you mean?”

“There’s no going back, now. We have to make them afraid of us,” he says. He looks around, searching for any teachers who might appear. “Hopefully these guys don’t have a lot of friends. They have to be afraid of us.”


The question lands nowhere. Focused on the immediacy of the task at hand, he’s already gone back to kicking. Underneath his soles, a boy weeps and mutters for his mother. Around us, the eyes of the crowd settle into the tense uncertainty of an awkward neutrality, neither cheering nor jeering the mechanics of retribution.

Satisfied with the extent of my dominance, my friend rests his foot on the boy’s face.

“We’re in this together now—” he says, “—whether we like it or not.”

Together, we scan the horizon for the possibility of intervening adults, finding none. I am surprised by this. My friend speculates that the supervising teacher is likely chain-smoking cigarettes behind the dumpsters on the far side of the building.

“What’s your name?” I say.

“Jason,” he says. “Yours?”


With his finger taking the form of a suggestion, he points to Aaron, who’s semi-awake in the grass nearby. A glance communicates a sudden understanding: the urgency of finishing what I started. Channeling the absolute serenity of my newfound ally, I walk over to the groggy mess that remains of my antagonist, standing over my defeated opponent. Still stunned from the scythe of Jason’s arcing fist, Aaron’s sitting half-upright with his hands and ass on the ground. With this level of disorientation, he offers no resistance as I sit on his chest, spit in his face, and sink my thumbs into the open sockets of his eyes. He screams like a rabid animal, pushing away my hands and turning to retch over the grass. I’m disappointed by the unexpected resilience of his eyeballs, the globes of which are still intact. Before I break him, I stop to admire the thing I’m about to destroy: even with the ring of vomit painted over the perfect oval of his mouth, even with the animal noise of his panicked, guttural groans—even with the strange, half-Asian ambiguity coded into his eyes, nose, and lips—there’s a cold, Caucasoid beauty to the shape of his mewling, unbroken jaw, like a Greek statue panting to get shattered.

I get up, raise my heel into the air, and bring it down onto his face as hard as I can.