I am seven turning eight and my two best friends are a pair of brothers that live down the street from me, Ricky and Steven. They are about a year apart and I am directly in the middle. It's a strange trio that works because we are similar in the ways we are different from others. Our sameness comes from our ability to hurt and hurt and hurt and keep going.
We find holes drilled in an empty field in our neighborhood, deep enough to fit each of our bodies. So we pop up and down out of these holes all day like gophers. Something is said and Steven is suddenly furious. Calm down, we say, it's only a game. I hide in my hovel while Steven rants and I know the level of anger is too high for these dirt hole games.
Calm down, I say. He will not. I peer out of my hole and I see it in his hand. The first of many rocks he will skip across the powdered dirt floor of that empty lot, hoping they will hit us, blind us, kill us. When he gets this mad there is nothing to be done but run and hide and wait and hope you are not found.
Their mother did drugs while they were in utero, my mother tells me, this is why they live with their aunt, Karen. Be nice about it, my mother says. Ricky seems sad. Steven is happy, happy, happy, then murderous. Pulling off strips of recycled rubber that hold sapling trees to small poles, chasing Ricky and I, the rubber with the nails still intact becomes a whip, hoping to snag one of us. I'm scared, I tell Aunt Karen. Steven, stop it, she says. What can she do? Boys will be boys, she says.
Steven is happy, happy, happy, then murderous.
I hear nothing for a while and I peak out of my manhole and I see Steven, standing very still, holding the rock. He does not see me because he's not looking for me. He is waiting for Ricky.
Steven, come on let's just go home, Ricky says from his hole. Come out then, and we'll go home, Steven says. You better not hit him, I say. Ricky secures a promise from Steven, if I come out you aren't allowed to hit me, it's a truce.
Come on come on, Steven says. I see Ricky's blond hair rising from the hole. I see something skipping, driving up red confectioner’s dirt. Steven casts the rock from his hand like a smooth stone over so much water.
I scream and never has a scream been more useless. Blood, so much blood, coming from Ricky's mouth. I scream and scream and scream and grab his hand and drag him home.
Ricky's mouth will heal but our minds refuse to. Every time Steven picks up a twig, a leaf, a flower, we scream at him to put it down. He is good to us to for a week, before going back to his ways. Boys will be boys, his aunt says. Ricky has burgundy-crusted butterfly sutures holding together the cupid’s bow of his lip.
We walk to our clubhouse, which is really just a dying oak tree whose branches are so heavy they rest on the ground. The effect is a Peter Pan sort of wonderland, you can walk standing upright to the heart of the tree, a flat perch in the center of the trunk. Climbing is only important in the sense that it takes you away from the place you just were. And as we walk up to the tree, another argument breaks out. You tried to kill us, Ricky says. No I didn't, you made me mad, you shouldn't have made me mad, Steven says. I am half way up the branch, legs swinging as I sit watching.
Now the anger is back, swirling like the creek behind our house we aren't supposed to go in. Take it back, Steven says. His fists are clenched. I climb higher toward the heart of the tree. Steven picks up rocks from around the set of boulders at the base of the tree. He throws them at Ricky, who hikes up his knee and pushes his hands out like a small running back. You're not supposed to do that, Ricky shouts. He runs toward home.
I don't want him to get me or pull me down or crack my mouth open with a projectile.
I am perched above but the problem is I'm afraid of going higher, the branches are thinner, and I don't think they'll hold me. Steven is not afraid and he does not care if the branches will hold so up he comes. I have no choice. I don't want him to get me or pull me down or crack my mouth open with a projectile. You'll never make it, Steven hisses. Leave me alone or I'll tell my mom, I say. You have to get down to do that, Steven says, blocking the best way.
I am climbing, climbing, climbing, and I feel the sun through the canopy and I'm almost there. When I get there I'll cry for help and my mother will hear me. Help, I’ll say, Steven is trying to kill me. I am so high now that Steven has stopped. The branches are too thin, he shouts.
I'm almost there, but like a game of Tetris this becomes about positioning: which branch to grab next to be able to move my feet to the next foothold. Swinging, swinging, swinging, I’m that monkey in Indiana Jones, Temple of Doom. I reach and give the final branch my full weight, only to find that it is dead, eaten from the inside out by some fungus. I can't catch myself. I put my hands out but this does nothing. Swipe swipe, things on my face, falling falling past Steven at his mediocre climb level. Swipe swipe, past the heart of the tree. Swipe swipe, my face is clear and I see the boulders, grey and somber and imminent. Then, Ricky appears. He is back with the perfect retort only to find us locked in a death climb.
His mouth is moving and his arms hit me like a linebacker. We land, to the side of the boulders. Your face, he says, your face. I am crying but I have to stop because it's burning so badly, a facemask of salt and friction and dirt. Ricky walks me home. Steven sits in the tree. It was just a game, he calls after us.
look at your fucking face. It’s like you did this on purpose.
We ring my doorbell because we are too tired to hoist one another up for the latch on the side gate. My mother answers and her eyes scream while her mouth says, “What have you done?”
Into the bathroom the three of us go and she inspects it and I see it all for the first time. From under my right eye socket, the entire right side of my face is road rash. Pieces of bark stuck into my nose and cheekbone, impact points. Your arm, too, Jesus Christ, my mother says. It's my right side, palm impregnated with bark, blood from armpit to fingertips. Small dustings cover me: green moss and the fungus that killed my tree and the branch I gave myself to.
Thank you Ricky, goodbye Ricky, my mother says shutting him out. It’s picture day tomorrow, my mother says, look at your fucking face. It’s like you did this on purpose. She says this as she cleans my hot tears and my bloody face with a washcloth and peroxide. It sizzles. Your face, she says.
Green aloe: cold out of the jug, onto my face, a warm mask holding the pieces together.
You'll be disfigured for life. I look down at my burst fingertips, puffy and sad. For life, she says.
ART BY ROBERT JAMES RUSSELL
Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don't Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com and on Twitter at @robhollywood.
Christine Quattro is a writer from California. Her work has appeared in Bridge Eight Magazine, New Limestone Review, and Breadcrumbs Magazine. Christine holds an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and a BA in literature from UNT. Find her tweets @ChrstineQuattro