The day after his brother left the house for good, Marty Hanson picked out the smallest boy in his sixth grade class and waited until the boy was alone. He approached him, telling him that he’d found a dead dog decomposing in a far corner of the school’s courtyard. The boy, who was new at the school and whose name Marty could not remember, stuffed his hands deep into his pockets, nearly to the elbows, and said, “So?” He was looking at a dandelion near his sneaker’s toe.

“‘So?’” Marty said, staring at the boy. “So I dare you to come over and have a look.”

The boy kept his eyes trained on the ground, his head tilted forward. Marty saw the cowlick in the boy’s hair. Probably that morning his mother had tried to comb it down with a wet brush, Marty thought.

“I knew you were a pussy. Jimmy Dinuzio told me so.” Marty had seen the two hanging around.

“Jimmy didn’t say that.”

“Whatever,” Marty said. He began to turn away. Before he’d taken two full steps he heard the boy say, “Where is it?”

Marty led him to the southeast corner of the courtyard where two evergreens stood like sentries. He pointed to the base of one of the trees where the branches hung low and bare and darkened the ground. Dry pine needles were scattered everywhere.

“Over there,” Marty said. The boy walked slowly, waving his hand in front of him as though he was blind. Marty followed close behind, and by the time the boy realized there was no dog, it was too late, Marty already had him on the ground. He straddled his chest and pounded his head and torso with his fists. He had trapped one of the boy’s hands with his knee, and when the boy tried to shield his face with the other, Marty tore it away. He dropped his bony elbows onto the boy’s chest and ribs and he spit on him until his mouth went dry. The boy’s screams sounded to Marty like a car peeling out, like the high-pitched squeal of rubber on asphalt.

Marty had picked the spot by the evergreens, in part, because of its distance from Ms. Neppick, the recess proctor that week. By the time she arrived, the boy’s screaming had withered down to quiet sobs, more a gasping for air and heaving of the chest than anything. After she pulled Marty off, grabbing him with both hands by his hair and yanking him to the side, he lay in the grass panting as she said the boy’s name over and over. Marty stared at the cloudless sky and felt such a relief that he began to repeat it too. “Joshua,” he said. “Joshua, Joshua, Joshua.”

 

From the room where he was being kept, Marty could see the flashing red lights of the ambulance as it pulled up. A woman paramedic emerged from the driver’s side. She swung open the back doors like a gate and a fat man in shorts stepped out. He was carrying a black bag and had a walkie-talkie hanging from his belt. Marty watched the two of them jog into the building. At the front of the room, the school’s custodian, Phil, stood in front of the closed door. He was a wiry man with long veins that ran down his arms and into his hands. He was staring at Marty, shaking his head every now and again. When Marty looked up at him, Phil said, “A million other things I could be doing.”

Marty looked at his hands. The blood on his knuckles was beginning to dry. He rubbed at them with his thumb until the wounds began to seep.

“What makes you so special?” Phil suddenly asked. He was standing directly in front of Marty’s desk, though Marty hadn’t noticed him walking over.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Marty said.

“Yes, you damn well do,” Phil said. He took one of his big veiny hands, made a fist, and brought it down hard on the center of the desk. Marty didn’t flinch but noticed the bottom half of a tattoo sticking out from Phil’s shirt sleeve. A dragon’s tail, Marty thought, or a woman’s name written in big looping cursive. Phil saw him looking, ran his fingertips over the design, and smiled.  “Oh well,” he said, “just thought I’d see how it felt.” He turned and walked back to his post by the door. “Give me the boiler room any day.”

 

Joshua, the boy Marty had hurt, was kept overnight at the hospital for observation. One of his eyes had swollen shut and one rib had cracked. A plastic surgeon sewed several stitches near his lip using a suture so thin it became invisible when held up to light.

As part of his punishment, in addition to being expelled, Marty was to visit Joshua at home and offer an apology should he ever express a desire to hear it. It seemed he never would. Since the summer had almost arrived, Marty’s mother deferred enrolling him in a different school until the fall and instead sent him twice a week to the anger counseling sessions the juvenile judge had ordered. When she dropped him off at the first Tuesday night session she did not turn to look at him.

“I’ll be back at eight,” she said, staring at the gear shift. She looked exhausted, her eyes as dull and frosted-over as sea glass. The previous August, Marty’s father had been out jogging along his usual route when a car travelling eastbound slipped off the shoulder of the road and struck and killed him. The car did not stop, nor was there any indication that it had slowed. Marty’s father’s body was thrown several dozen feet through the air before it came to rest among a tangle of undergrowth and litter.

Marty had been at summer camp and did not find out till later that day. He was returning from a nature walk, and deep in his pocket was a turtle shell covered in intricate swirls that he’d taken from near the swamp when no one was looking. Marty wanted to show the shell to his brother, Nate. He wanted to ask Nate about the turtle that had carried the shell on its back to see if he had an answer as to what had happened to it. They were not supposed to take anything they found on the nature walk and, for one brief moment, when Marty emerged from the trailhead and saw Nate standing beside a state trooper near the camp’s office, he thought he’d been caught.

“Thanks for the ride,” Marty said, stepping out onto the sidewalk. His mother nodded and he shut the door being careful not to slam it.

 

The anger management sessions were held in a church basement, a long narrow room with columns supporting a low water-stained ceiling. At one end was a stage with a wooden podium and a large steel bingo cage. Folding tables and chairs were stacked against the walls and a line of windows near the ceiling looked out at the parking lot. The room smelled like a mixture of smoke and Play-Doh. Marty sat on one of the plastic chairs that had been arranged in a circle near the center of the room. A skinny boy with bug eyes sat down beside him.

“What are you in for?” he asked.

Marty hesitated for a few moments and then said, “Fighting.”

“Wow,” the boy said, “fighting.” He turned to an older boy who was sitting next to him. “Hey, Rodney, this kid’s in for fighting. Wow, huh?” The bug-eyed boy turned back to Marty and stuck out his tongue, his mouth stretched open like a cave. His breath was warm and sour. He kept his tongue out until Marty noticed that he’d written Get Fukd on it in green ink.

The session counselor, Ms. Higgins, reminded Marty of a catfish. She was heavyset with a sparse black mustache above a thin set of lips. She wore a flowing muumuu covered in a tropical design and a big turquoise medallion on a chain around her neck. She began by making each person stand and offer an introduction. Besides Marty there were seven others, most of them older, all of them boys except for one girl who sat directly across from him. The girl had close-cropped hair that she’d bleached the color out of. It looked to Marty as though her skull was showing through, and he wondered if that was the effect she’d intended. Marty waited while the others stood. Some of them introduced themselves with an annoyed tone as though speaking to a younger sibling. Others spoke with their heads down, chins glued to their chests. Most of them had been there before and seemed familiar with each other. When it was Marty’s turn to stand, the bug-eyed boy said, “He’s in here for fighting. Can you believe it?”

“Quiet, Elliot,” Ms. Higgins said, “or I’ll place a call to your father.” The boy’s head dropped.

“Go on, Marty,” Ms. Higgins said. Marty gave the information she had asked for. He was twelve years old. He liked dessert pizza and swimming. He had a hamster named Lebron James. He could not remember what he’d dreamed last.

For their first exercise they were split up in pairs. Marty was partnered with the girl, whose name was Clairie. They had been instructed to share the one thing of which they were most proud. Marty was having trouble coming up with something. For a long time neither of them spoke.

“I taught my hamster to fetch,” he finally said. It was true. Using peanuts and raisins, he’d trained Lebron to retrieve a ping-pong ball and roll it to the cage door. After a moment, Clairie began to nod very slowly as though she was beginning to understand how this could be a point of pride for someone. She had green eyes. Two moles near her eyebrow sat one above the other like a colon.

“I heard people put those up their asses,” she said, still nodding.

“Put what up their asses?” Marty asked.

“Hamsters. I read it online.” For one terrifying moment, Marty envisioned Lebron James skittering around inside his body, clawing at his organs, his light beige fur soaked in blood.

“That’s impossible,” he said. Clairie shrugged her shoulders.

“If you can teach them to fetch,” she said, “it seems to me anything’s possible.”

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EUGENE CROSS is the author of the short story collection Fires of Our Choosing (Dzanc Books, March 2012). He was born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania and received an MFA from The University of Pittsburgh. His stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine (which named him one of “20 Best New Writers” and his story “Harvesters” a “Top Five Story of 2009-2010”), American Short Fiction, Story Quarterly, TriQuarterly, and Callaloo, among other publications. His work was also listed among the 2010 Best American Short Stories' 100 Distinguished Stories. He is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Chautauqua Writers' Festival, and the winner of the 2009 Dzanc Prize for Excellence in Literary Fiction and Community Service. He currently lives in Chicago where he teaches in the Fiction Department at Columbia College Chicago.

2 responses to “Rosaleen, If You Know What I Mean: Excerpt from Fires of Our Choosing

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