When we were nine, Logan and I played at the sawmill, climbing and sliding down sawdust mounds. One afternoon, his father stayed at the car as we played. Logan called me to follow him behind the far back mound, and I did, my feet sliding, some soft splinters digging between my toes and under my nails, dust sticking up my sweaty ankles. When I reached him he told me to pull down my pants.
“Why,” I asked.
He held up a thin piece of sawdust. “Stick this up your thing.”
“If you do this, when we go to my house we can play any video game you want.”
I took the piece from him and felt it, the one ridge that stretched down the side, the soft flakes that webbed at the ends. It was the first time I had thought about something going up.
“You do it first,” I said, and picked a piece for him, one that closely resembled what he gave me.
“I already did,” he said. “Now you do it.”
The warmth of the late afternoon sun faded into the cool shadows of the sawdust mounds. I unbuckled my brown, braided belt and felt the lurch of each tooth of the zipper unfold. And then I pulled it out, and Logan stared as I pinched it open to push the piece of sawdust inside. I grimaced at the pain, the sharp sticks of splinters. Tears spilled before I even knew I wanted to cry. The blurred image of Logan shot his head up, and then I heard the crunching steps of his father as he leaned over my shoulder.
“What’re y’all doing?” he said, his voice raised and raspy.
“Nothing,” Logan said.
His father looked at me, and I buried my face in my shoulder and cupped my hands around myself.
He knelt and moved my hand away. “I need to see if you’re hurt.”
“He’s fine,” Logan said.
“Get in the car, Logan.” He rubbed my shoulder. “Now.”
As he passed, Logan tapped my shoulder. “Let me know what game. That was so awesome.”
“I wanted to choose the game,” I said, sniffing back snot. I wiped a hand across my eyes and nose and mouth. “That’s all I wanted.”
“Take it out.”
I looked down. A dot of blood had collected at the opening. A small tug to remove the piece of sawdust, and a quick squirt and sting of pee. I clutched my hands around it and watched the pee splatter on his knee and arm. My cheeks reddened as if the sun beat down on only me. His father dipped his head and told me to put my shorts back on.
“I’m taking you home,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He didn’t answer and kept walking back to his car. Waiting for me to follow.
I kept my hands cupped in my lap to keep it from shifting around too much on the rough drive back home. The roads in east Texas were never without cracks, without a sudden end to the blacktop. Logan talked to his father a lot during that drive, about why we weren’t going home, about why I couldn’t stay as planned, about how nothing wrong happened. His dad told him to stay quiet.
Logan slumped and stared at me, propping his elbow and back against the window. I could feel the heat of his body. We bounced over a break in asphalt, and I clutched tighter, but that didn’t stop the tip from scratching against the zipper. I let out a small gasp of pain.
“You really need to toughen up,” Logan said. He leaned forward, pushed his hair out of his eyes, and lowered his voice. He glanced at his father to make sure he wasn’t listening and looked back at me. “I mean what’re you going to do when you’re with a girl?”
I shrugged. I hadn’t thought about girls or what they did when they liked you.
“Dude, you need to watch more television.” He leaned against the window.
“Logan,” his father said. His eyes appeared in the rearview. “Shut your mouth.”
“That’s all I’m saying,” Logan finished and then smirked at me.
When we pulled into my driveway, Logan’s father told him to stay in the car while he walked me to the door. I stuck my hands in my pockets for protection from the zipper. Mom answered after a few knocks, surprised to see me. She wore small cotton shorts and a tank top. Her hair was tangled and frizzled out, and her cheeks were flushed, and sweat dotted her forehead where a few thin strands of hair clumped.
“What’re you doing back?” she asked, her voice shaking as if she were out of breath. She drummed her fingers against the door.
“Sorry if I caught you at a bad time,” Logan’s father said.
I tried to walk inside, but she stopped me and nudged me back out. I stayed next to Logan’s father.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Logan’s father looked from me to Mom. “I need to have a talk with my son, and I think you need to have one with yours. I caught Logan forcing Noah to…to slide a piece of sawdust up his…you know…”
He looked down at me again and squeezed my shoulder. “Ms. Volling, if I may. I understand what my son did, but you should speak with Noah as well.”
Mom looked at me. “Noah. Don’t let other boys tell you what to do.” She looked back at Logan’s father. “Is that enough for you?”
“What’s going on out there,” a man said from the back of the house.
“Is that all?” Mom looked over her shoulder. A shadow stretched into the kitchen. She looked back at Logan’s father. “You can keep him. That’s what we agreed to, isn’t it?”
“I’m not comfortable bringing him home. I don’t know if you should have his doctor check on him. I saw blood.”
“I have a date,” Mom said. “That was the plan.” A man coughed, and she looked over her shoulder again. “You know that I mean.”
She squatted and touched my cheek. Chills rose where her fingers brushed, and then a rush of them spilled through my body. I leaned into her hand, feeling my weight rest between her fingers. “You’re okay to go play with Logan tonight, aren’t you?” She rubbed my cheek, her fingers running through my hair. I leaned into her hand, felt her nails scratch soft my scalp. I nodded, and she stood. “See,” she said. “He wants to play. That settles it.”
“I’ll have him back here at eight.” Logan’s father started walking me back to the car.
“We said ten,” Mom said.
He turned around. “Is he allergic to any ointments? I’d like to get something on him.”
“Can’t think of anything,” Mom said as she closed the door.
Logan lived in a cabin tucked off a dirt road, woods curling around it. The bedrooms were on the second floor loft, and the living room, kitchen, and study were open concept on the first floor, designated by furniture arrangements. When we walked in, Logan’s father guided me with a hand on my shoulder to the bathroom under the stairs. Logan tried to follow us, but his father told him to stay out.
“I’ll get the Nintendo going then,” he said.
“Fine,” his father said and shut the bathroom door.
It was a small bathroom. A toilet and a sink. Logan’s father opened the medicine cabinet and pulled out a tube of ointment.
“I want you to put this on,” he said. “It’ll sting, but you can’t get an infection.”
I sat on the closed toilet. “I feel fine.”
“Noah, you need to.” He looked at the door and then at me. “You want me to leave? You want me to do it for you?” He reached the tube out to me. “It’ll only get worse if you don’t.”
I took the tube. “I’ll do it.”
“Just set it on the back of the toilet when you’re done,” he said and then left.
I pulled my shorts down and looked at it for the first time since the sawmill. Red scabs flaked from the tip. I tried to pinch it open to see inside but it wouldn’t; it pulled on the scabs, sending stings and shocks to my jaw.
I squeezed a dot of ointment onto my finger and spread it across. Ah, the coolness, the relief. Scalp shivers shuddered down my back and shoulders. Like Mom’s fingers.
A knock on the door. “Everything okay?” Logan’s father asked.
I pulled my shorts back on and opened the door. “I’m fine,” I said and handed him the ointment tube.
He looked me up and down. “Did you really put it on?”
I nodded and kept my head down. “Do you want to check?”
He squatted. His knees were hairy with muscles knobbed on the ends like he used to be an athlete. “Noah,” he said. “I have no business checking you out. It’s your job to take care of yourself, your body. No one else’s. You hear me?”
“Good,” he said. “Go join Logan.”
“Thanks,” I said and stepped past him.
In the living room, Logan was vigorously clicking buttons. “So, your choice. What game?” He hit pause. “You earned it.”
“What do you have?”
He smiled wide and walked to the cabinet next to the television and opened both doors. Game cartridges were stacked to the top of all three shelves, at least fifty games. “I have Rampage, Smash Brothers, Goldeneye. What’s your poison?”
I ran my fingers over the games, feeling the smooth edges. Dust stuck to my fingerprints and I rubbed them together to clot the flakes into ball. I flicked it away. “I haven’t played a lot. What’s Rampage?”
“Killer game.” Logan slid out the cartridge and stuck it into the system. “You’re a monster and you destroy shit.”
“Awesome,” I said and clutched the controller as the game came to life. “How do you win?”
Logan stared at me and blinked once. “You…destroy the most shit.”
So we did: skyscrapers crashed down with thrown monkey fists, tail whips from a type of mutant dragon, and teeth crunching glass and metal into powder. We clicked buttons furiously, trying to demolish the most buildings. Logan won more times than I ever did. I guess that was what I should have expected given my lack of video games at home. Had we played card games I would have been better competition.
After the tenth round, I called for a break. We had played through the dinner hour, but his father didn’t interrupt us.
“You hungry?” I asked.
We went into the kitchen where Logan opened the freezer and pulled out a bag of pizza rolls and chicken nuggets and paninis. “What do you want?”
I looked at all of the colorful bags. At home, food came in generic white packages with labels printed in blue—biscuits, chicken, vegetables. I didn’t know which one to pick. It all looked so good. “You have such nice stuff,” I said.
Logan shrugged. “Some of everything then?”
I nodded. “Are we allowed?”
“Yeah. That’s why we have it all.”
He pulled out a baking tray and poured a pile of nuggets and pizza rolls onto it and then slid it into the oven. While we waited for them to bake, he opened a bag of chips for us to snack on.
“So, what’s the deal with your mom?” Logan asked through a crunch of chip. He cupped his hand under his chin to catch wild crumbs.
“What do you mean?”
“She didn’t want you.” Logan darted his eyes to the oven and then back to the bag. “That’s why you’re still here.” He leaned closer. “Which, let me tell you, I am so glad you’re here. You sure saved me from a lot of trouble.”
“My mom wants me,” I said.
“Whatever you say, dude.” He crunched another chip. “I’m just saying what I saw. Eyes don’t lie.”
My chest burned. I leaned my head onto the counter and looked at Logan and he smiled as if he had just beaten me at another round of Rampage. Crumbs stuck to his bottom lip. “I love my mom,” I said.
“Cheer up, Noah. It’s party night.” He opened the refrigerator again. “You want soda?”
He poured two plastic cups and handed me one.
Logan’s father came down the stairs. He had changed into gym shorts and a t-shirt. “What’re you making?”
“Everything,” Logan said. “Did you know Noah has like nothing at home?”
Logan’s father stopped walking and stared at Logan. The crunching of chips and the clicking of the oven echoed through the now silent kitchen. “Come outside, Logan.” Logan didn’t move. “Now,” his father said.
Logan pushed the chip bag toward me and grumbled, saying he hated it when his father pulled stuff like this. “Open anything else you might want to eat.”
His father held the door open and then closed it behind them.
I knew I shouldn’t listen to other people’s conversations, especially when they’re getting in trouble. At school, anytime the principal is scolding a student in the office, our teacher quickly moves us past them, standing in front of the office and waving her hands, as if that stopped us from hearing what the principal was saying.
Logan’s father turned away from the door, but windows only stopped so much. “You don’t tell people who have nothing that they have nothing,” he said. “I’ve told you this so many times.”
“But, Dad,” Logan said. “He knows. I was just—”
“I was just about to tell him that that’s why we’re friends. I have real stuff, and he doesn’t. You said that eyes don’t lie.”
My chest burned again, and I felt the brushing of Mom’s fingers on my cheek. Just this once, son. You’re okay without this, right? she would say when we went out for groceries. I would grab bright colored cereal or PopTarts, and I shuddered in the shivers of even thinking about her touch in the cold aisle. I’d ease the food back on the shelf, knowing maybe next time she would tell me I could keep it.
Logan’s father grabbed the back of his neck. “Be nicer to him.”
The burning crept up my throat, spread through my cheeks, and then it left, needling sweat.
They walked back inside, and Logan looked at me, brow wrinkled. “Uh, you okay, Noah?”
I wiped a hand across my forehead. It came back damp.
“What’s wrong with your face?” he asked.
“Nothing. Nothing, I’m fine.”
I took a bite from a chip, a small bite. The salt stung my mouth, but then it melted away by the grease that came afterward.
When I packed my backpack to leave the next morning, Logan watched me ball up my underwear, still dotted with blood. He quickly turned away and pulled shoes out of his closet to put on. His father was waiting for us.
As we were about to leave his bedroom, Logan turned back and dug a few sleeves of firecrackers and a handful of poppers out of his dresser. I looked at them confused. “Quick,” he said, shoving the firecracker sleeves into my backpack. “Before my dad might see.” He zipped it shut and then placed the wad of poppers into my palm. “Sometimes you just need to watch something bust to pieces.”
“You’ll see. Next time you have a few minutes alone,” he said. “Just try them for yourself. Don’t even let anyone else light them.”
I nodded. “I will.”
When I walked inside my house after Logan and his father dropped me off the next morning, a shirtless man was standing at the sink gulping a glass of water. Sweat shone down his back and his hair stuck out, clumped in oily patches. He set the glass down and turned off the sink. Mom shuffled out in a long T-shirt that hit just above her knee. She slid to a stop upon seeing me. I dropped my backpack.
“You’re back early,” she said.
I looked at the clock. 9:55. “Not really.”
“Hey, big guy,” the man said. “Why don’t you just wait in your room. I’m just about to leave.”
I looked at Mom, and she nodded. “Go ahead. I need to see him out.”
She didn’t touch me when I walked past her. Instead she stepped out of my way and stood next to him.
My room was clean, except for the green soldiers I kept stationed under my bed. They were ready for battle with two dirt-stained socks set for a barricade. I dropped my backpack in my closet and then laid on my stomach to check on the fight. There was Barry without a parachute, but his arm was stretched out, leading the charge into the fight. Ryan who always had binoculars to his eyes, spying what may lay ahead of the troop. Lyle was crouched, crawling to get into a better position. His pack slung over his shoulder and always stuck to his hip. Buster had the parachute because he dropped in at just the right moment. When the troops needed him the most. And then Dave just stood there holding a small blade. Always in the way. Always trying to take control and always getting shot. Sometimes it was by Buster when he dropped in to rescue a stranded team. Sometimes it was Barry who shot Dave. It always needed to happen. If they were to win the battle, Dave had to die.
“What’re you doing?” Mom stood in the doorway, dressed. I hadn’t even heard her friend leave.
I got onto my bed. “Nothing.”
She walked in and knelt by the side of my side of my bed. “This doesn’t look like nothing. I told you to clean this up before you went to school.”
I didn’t answer.
“Noah.” She got to her feet holding the edges of the socks between two fingers. She wagged them in my face. “These are disgusting,” she said and dropped them on my legs.
“The barricade needs to be camouflaged,” I said.
“What do you have to say?”
“Sorry my room was messy.”
She dropped the socks on top of the soldiers and straightened her shoulders. She looked so tall. “And?”
“I’ll clean it up.”
“Good,” she said. “I’ll be back to check in a few minutes.”
She walked out, leaving the door open. I heard her turn on the sink, probably to wash whatever dishes she and her friend dirtied.
I collected the brigade and dropped them back into their bucket, along with the socks. The socks never got washed because then their barricade wouldn’t be camouflaged. Mom didn’t know how to win battles. I pushed the plastic bucket back into the corner of my closet.
The sink faucet shut off and then I heard her footsteps coming back to my room. She stepped inside and immediately knelt to look under my bed again. She stood, looking pleased, a small relaxed smile like she got after she got home from going out at night, the nights when I didn’t have a friend to take me to their house.
“So much better, isn’t it?”
She sat on my bed. “How was Logan’s?”
“We had fun.” I looked at my feet.
“What’s wrong? Come here,” she said and pulled me onto the bed. Our knees touched and she pressed my head into the crook of her arm.
“Why. Why didn’t you want me?” I asked.
“I never said I didn’t want you. I just didn’t want your Friday night to be over.”
“Which friend was here?”
She gave my back a quick hot rub and then stood up.
“What’s that in your pocket?”
I looked down and saw the poppers bulging through my pocket. “Just plastic explosives Logan gave me for my brigade.” Mom grinned and cocked an eyebrow. “There’s going to be a bombing.”
“You’re such a silly boy.” She tousled my hair, but this time I didn’t melt. “I’m going to the store to pick up lunch and a few other things. I’ll be back in an hour.”
She gave me a quick peck on the top of my head and then left my room. I walked back into my closet and opened my soldier bucket. I picked up Dave and held him between my fingers. He was so small with a crinkled face, grooves that filled so easily with dust. I heard Mom’s car pull away.
Time to fight, Dave.
I grabbed my soldier bucket and carried it to the backyard, hardly able to step right it was so heavy, weighted down with all the soldiers carried back with them from the barracks. Outside, the sun beamed down on my rusted swing set. The old creaks from the chains sometimes rang their way into my bedroom at night. I set a few troops beneath the posts. This would be their fort. Fort Oh Angela. As Dave, or any of Mom’s friends, sometimes said at night when I was supposed to be sound asleep, those nights I couldn’t spend at Logan’s.
Spread out from there, the brigade was leading the charge to the fence. This time would be the time for them to break through. I wove the firecrackers through the front line and all the way back to Fort Oh Angela, still clutching Dave in my hand. He wouldn’t fight in this battle. He’d already been captured as a POW. I lit the fuses and ran back to the door, where I had a clear-eyed view of the brigade bombing. The fusing hissed its way through the grass, catching some blades on fire. Snake-thick smoke coiled above the heads of soldiers, disappearing into that air above the fort.
Then, the devastation. Firecrackers snapping like the shattering glass in Rampage, like the chips I crunched last night at Logan’s, like Mom’s friends clicking shut doors when they left early on Saturday mornings. All of it popping away because of this one fuse.
I tied a string of poppers around Dave. “Don’t let others tell you what to do with your body, Dave,” I said. I deployed him into the mayhem of Fort Oh Angela, where he landed with mushroom clouds of dust. His enemies have tired of him and decided it was time for him to die. In order to end fights, Dave had to die.
Three late pops and then it ended. Smoke and ash and blackened grass settled down, clearing in the small breeze that blew the smells of burning plastic and firecracker paper through the fort. All of it was gone. My brigade smoldering in clumps. So many good men lost to third degree burns. Some lost arms. Buster lost his parachute. He would never become airborne again. Ryan’s binoculars were blown out of his hands. He would never scout out enemies again. Some I couldn’t even find as I walked through the bloody field, stamping out a few red embers still trying to catch. No sign of Lyle or Barry or Nicholas. All of them were gone. I looked back at the plastic bucket by the door. Empty, just a bucket now. Mom would probably give it a rinse. Stash it under the sink. She’d be relieved to know my closet would no longer be wrecked. The space under my bed would finally be clean. How light and easy it’d be to carry it inside.
And then there was Dave, unharmed. Still green and healthy with the popper strings sizzled away. I quickly touched him, to make sure he wasn’t burning, and then picked him up. He was warm but not fevered. Dave never fought hard enough or long enough to ever work up a sweat. I squeezed him harder. Why won’t you die this time, Dave. Don’t you want to win the battle, Dave. I squeezed tighter and tighter. Dave’s sharp edges cut into my hand. And then his blade broke off and rested on the skin between my thumb and pointer, a blade the size of a splinter. Stick this into yourself, Dave. Stick yourself. I already did it. Now you do it. I stabbed him with his blade. Then stabbed him again. There’s no ointment, Dave. Keep dying. I stabbed him again. Why won’t you die, Dave. Please. I looked again at the destruction. The hallowed patches. Men strewn across the field. Someone needed to end this. Someone had to help. One soldier was head down in the soil, feet sticking up like Bahia Vs. I looked once more at Dave, his stupid face, snapped him at the waist like a piece of bark, and watched pieces of him ash to the ground. Where, surely, something new would soon begin to grow.