Summer was falling away. The hard, parochial boys played reckless, climbing higher trees, throwing harder punches; vandalism and petty theft codified the fleeting afternoons and early sunsets. Labor Day, glooming on the horizon, invoked long hours in detention, an unremitting pit in the stomach; every fallen leaf another tick on the clock.
Ransom Leggett stood at the edge of a forest above a small tourist town, watching three younger boys march uphill. “Don’t come in here,” he warned them. “It ain’t something you babies should see.”
“Can so,” said the others. “Can if you can.”
Martin Sprig came forward first. He pointed a chubby finger to the forest. “Who’s in there?”
Ransom folded his arms. “Lil’ Peanut. He split the rope and put out his teeth.”
“Why in the hell’d he try it?”
“I dared him to,” said Ransom. “I told him he didn’t have the set to do it.”
“I don’t believe you. Let’s see it,” said Martin.
“You gonna make me?”
“Come on, Ransom. Don’t be a dick,” said Stevie Akins. “Let’s get in there and have a look or it never happened.”
“Fine,” said Ransom. The little group followed him wide-eyed into the woods, passing a litany of boyish, summertime secretions; stick traps filled with berries and covered in moss, loose pages torn from sun-bleached porno mags, a botched tree fort. Eventually they came to a big three-trunked oak tree. Knotted high on one of the thick limbs was an ancient rope swing, the route of which arced above a bank covered in pricker bushes and over a muddy ditch littered with rocks and garbage. The rope had come apart, one ragged end gently swaying. Below, amongst the mud and scattered pop cans, Lil’ Peanut lay on a carpet of moss, a red hand covering his mouth.
The boys picked their way down the thorny bank. At the bottom, Lil’ Peanut came alert. He spat blood, smiled, and played his tongue in the gap where his top right lateral and cuspid should be. Shrugging, he held a hand out to display two ragged teeth gleaming like quartz in his grimy palm.
Martin backed away. “Nasty!”
Kyle Richardson said, “Eww!”
Stevie said broken teeth should be kept in milk.
“Why’s that?” asked Ransom.
“Keeps them preserved.”
“Don’t need them now anyways,” said Lil’ Peanut. The other four hushed. “They’re busted. You don’t need busted teeth.” He hawked a clam between Stevie’s shoes and threw his teeth into the bushes.
“Your old man is going to k-i-l-l you,” Martin said. “He does it for plenty less.”
Lil’ Peanut scrambled up and stabbed Martin in the shoulder with two fingers. “You gonna tell?”
“They’re gonna see.”
Everyone looked at Martin.
“You can’t hide it is all.”
“You gonna tell him?” Peanut bunched Martin’s shirt in his fist and shook.
“I won’t say anything, Jesus,” said Martin. “Offa me!” He drew away from Peanut’s grip and fell against Stevie and Kyle.
“Come on,” said Peanut. He pushed through the group with Ransom on his heels. The rest of the boys stayed at the ditch, admiring some blood that had pooled on a ribboned piece of limestone.
Ransom and Peanut followed a path down the ridge beneath humming power lines and came into town on a disused service trail. On Dutch Street a man with a black broom mustache pulled over, rolling the window of his Pontiac down. “What’s happened? You boys all right?”
“Better’n you with that skunk on your lip,” said Peanut. He showed off his missing teeth.
“Tough guys, huh?”
Ransom repeated the man’s words in a lisping voice.
The man frowned and the edges of his mustache were swallowed in the folds of his double chin. He left the boys in a cloud of exhaust.
“Snoop,” said Peanut.
“Whoa, look at your head,” said Ransom. “The temple is all purple. Your old man is going to hide you.”
They crossed Magnolia Street and turned left onto Castle Drive as an early street light fizzled into bloom. “You should wash off some of the blood,” said Ransom. “I don’t know how you are even walking around still. You should go home.” Four of Dunn’s Oil trucks drove by in convoy. On the side of each was red hand lettering that read ‘Oil heats best. From Mother Earth.’
Peanut inspected his shirtfront. It was still wet with a long, dark brown stain. “Let’s go to Friendly’s. My head is killing me.”
In a bright red booth, the boys pooled their money and ordered french fries and mozzarella sticks from a waitress wearing her bangs in coils that floated high above her forehead. She looked from Ransom to Peanut and asked if they had been in a fight. Lil’ Peanut slouched into his seat cushions and closed his eyes around the blooming ache behind his forehead and jaw. When the food finally came, a dark circle had formed under his right eye and he couldn’t eat.
“I’ll take yours if you ain’t eating,” said Ransom
In the bathroom Peanut stripped his shirt off and soaked it in warm water, dabbing his face like a mother patting at her newborn. He swished water, spat it out, tonguing the new gaps in his smile, inspecting the marbling of blood and saliva in the sink. The multiple reflections in the cracked and faceted mirror made him ill. Shaking, he wrung the shirt out, held it under the dryer for two pushes and put it back on.
When he got back to the booth, his older brother, Larry Jr. sat there with his friends Rich and Dougie West, the twins. “Holy shit, Ransom wasn’t lying,” said Larry Jr. He shoved Dougie in his glee. “You-fucked-your-face-up.”
“Fucked up!” said the twins.
“Leave me alone,” said Peanut.
“The old man’s gonna kill you this time,” said Larry Jr. He pounded the table. “Holy shit, he’s not just going to tan your ass this time, you better never come home! He’s going to kill you! I bet he’s gonna throw out your gay-ass rock collection too! He’s gonna murder you!”
“I’m not gonna tell him.”
“Yeah, right. You’re going to have to go to the doctor’s, the dentist. Everything. It’s going to cost a fortune. It’s going to cost a thousand dollars! Fifteen hundred! Your ass is grass.” He made lawn mower noises.
“He’s got a rock collection?”
“Hell yes!” said Larry Jr. “He finds all these stupid rocks and brings them home. Feldspar, hahaha! He sits in his room and stares at them. Don’t you, you little pussy!” He slugged Peanut in his shoulder and brought out a flask, passing it to the twins and even offering Ransom a sip. “I’m surprised the old man lets him keep it. He don’t go in for that fairy shit.”
The sun was setting when they left the restaurant. Larry Jr., Rich, and Dougie stayed, hovering over Peanut’s fries. “It looks real bad,” said Ransom. “Maybe you should go home.”
“Nt yt,” mumbled Peanut, shivering in the wet t-shirt. Enunciation was impossible. “Lttr.” Halfway across Downey Street, Peanut puked on Ransom’s shoes.
“Mmsorry,” said Peanut, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
Ransom dragged his feet in the grass to wipe off the spew. “Thanks a lot, they smell like barf now.”
“Srry. Hd hrts.”
Ransom took his shoes off and wiped the tops with more grass. “I read this thing once,” he said, “or maybe it was a movie I seen. I forget. It was about how in wars and stuff, when they take prisoners, what they do is, if they want him to tell them something, they put a special kind of rope around the guy’s head. The prisoner’s head. And so this rope, when it gets wet it stretches out. But they tie it real, real tight. Then it starts to dry,” he inspected his shoes, put one back on. “When it’s dry, it shrinks, right? So it gets tighter and tighter and tighter, ’til this guy tells them what they want. Or maybe his head pops before then, right? And so this guy’s buddies will talk because they don’t want to be popped next, you know? Pretty nasty. You feel like that?” He slipped on the other shoe.
“Lts jst wlk,” said Peanut.
“Can you even imagine it though? Popping some dude’s head that way? I mean, gross.”
Ransom led them by Elm Street School, where he threw rocks at the outside lights. At Henry Davis’s Mobil station, he chatted with Henry about deer season while Peanut stole a Three Musketeers he couldn’t eat. Ransom took a few bites and threw it at a dog that barked behind a chain fence as they walked up Staples Road.
“You boys get in a fight?” asked a man taking out his garbage.
“You boys been up to no good,” said Melissa Pinto, who used to babysit for Ransom.
“You boys been causing trouble,” said a red-haired woman walking a German Shepard.
As full dark eased in, more street lights came on, highlighting a few early falling leaves and gathering suicidal moths. A car dragging a bad muffler zipped by, trailing a deflated, doppler honk. All over town, windows were drawn and latched. Peanut felt as though he were wearing some fat man’s face, its contours bloated, unrecognizable and sore under his fingertips.
“I gotta get going soon.”
“Mm not gng hm.”
“I know how your old man is, but you’re gonna have to at some point. Besides, I’m getting cold and I scratched my leg on one of those pricker bushes by the swing, it’s killing me.”
They walked by a tract of new homes on Darby Lane.
“lts go nside.”
Made for weekenders and commuters in a Frankensteinian mismatch of styles, the homes were immense things with pillars and breakfast nooks, full of assembly line grandeur.
“I ain’t breaking in there,” said Ransom, “They got patrols.”
“No way. I gotta go home, you coming or not?”
“Fine then, but I’m leaving. I got hurt today too, you know. My leg is killing me. You shouldn’t be so selfish.”
Peanut leaned on a fence, panting, watching Ransom walk away under the staggered streetlights. The pain in his head was crystallizing, it shimmered and glinted. White facets strobed behind his eyes. He slipped between the bars of the gated construction area and meandered along a row of new homes. Sidewalks had been laid in a wooden framework, flagged at certain meaningful intervals, and a cement mixer sat on the curb. Everywhere were signs of recent construction, stacks of scrap aluminum studding, wayward shingles. A tire held down thirty feet of Tyvek that flapped in the breeze. Peanut tore yards of it away and wrapped his shivering shoulders like a cape. He entered the open doorway of a Tudor mansion, making his way through the hallway and into the living room where he lay on a bed of stacked sheetrock.
The pain in his head turned mineral. Crushed into shape by millions of years of pressure and heat. He gasped once and relaxed as his head opened up like a puzzle box, revealing a garden of shimmering crystal. The crystal expanded and folded, connected along fault lines, pressing itself into a lustrous strata of quartzes, oxides, halides, carbonates. It plowed through lawns, gathering moss and bracken, fissuring and merging.
Through a swarm of facets, he saw scurrying families populate the tract of homes around him. Broad-chinned, confidant husbands held sneeringly sexual, unapproachable wives. College-bound children played in long grass, made mud pies, stole kisses. The grass became his hair and he laughed with the children, and cried with them. He was angry when they were angry. He forgave them. Awareness expanded in halite patterns, he saw his brother as an old man. “I love you!” said Lil’ Peanut. “I forgive you.” His voice was the sound of cracking rock, but Larry Jr. understood all the same. He was on his knees, crying with shame and remorse, and finally, with joy.
Peanut saw oil men delivering their inky cargo, a beverage store clerk dropping the day’s receipts at the bank on the way home, a man inspecting the model train tracks he had carefully laid out. He saw the first settlers putting up sod huts sliced from his own arm. He saw a metropolis enveloped in a giant fireball. He saw beautiful things, the papery spiral of an ancient conch, the pure black of fertile soil, ripples etching the still plane of an underground pool; he saw ugly things too, and they became beautiful under his eye.
He saw the absurd little trailer he grew up in, a couch that inhabited his backyard all last summer, the litter of pull-tabs, an old sink, one leather shoe. His mother’s brown hair clumped in the shower drain. He cried to think of her and flooded a culvert. She was lowered into a hole cut from his own stomach. How perfect that was, how complete. Her bones were calcium.
Finally, Lil’ Peanut saw his father sitting on a faded floral print love seat. Larry Sr. was hundreds of years old now, covered in dust and moss. The room was so small! And how small his father looked sitting there, stooped over his remote control. The old man made no move at all but to glance at the clock, waiting to make his apology.