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Fiction

Shell games

IsaiahWhen Isaiah finally drifted back toward the car, Kevin asked about Jodie’s suicide attempt, how long ago it had been, what he had done. Because Jodie didn’t seem like the type of person who would do that, he said. He seemed happy. Was it over something with Danielle?

Isaiah shook his head. His brow was knitted and his eyes had narrowed to slits. No no no, he said. This was like years before he even knew Danielle. Back in junior high. I’m pretty sure it was after he flunked seventh grade and had to repeat. I visited him in the hospital a couple times while he was there, with my brother. They had him up on the sixth floor, which was the floor for all of the headcases, you know, the weirdos and schizophrenics and the return customers who were always hurting themselves. They didn’t keep him long because his wounds weren’t bad enough. Isaiah puffed on his joint while he stepped backward a few paces. For a minute he stood and appraised the full sight of his car, where it was parked at a showy angle on the hill, head-on against the rest of the city. You know this used to be Jodie’s ride? I bought it off him when he got his Mustang, for only five hundred bucks. Pretty good deal, huh? This baby cooks. You should see. Isaiah continued to admire the Sunbird. He promised Kevin he would take him out to a back road some day late at night and show him how fast the car went. Zero to sixty, he said, in—well, I don’t know how fast. But it’s pretty fucking fast. Both boys laughed. The Sunbird was sun-fire yellow. A pair of red racing stripes stretched down the length of the car. The headlights were fogged like a severe case of cataracts, and there was a long gray scrape across the driver’s-side where the door appeared to buckle inward slightly, and rust was eating away the area beneath the fuel tank, but otherwise the car was in decent shape, and made Isaiah proud.

Anyway. See, back then Jodie used to cut himself. I only heard about it later, but I guess it got pretty bad. They say after a while it becomes an addiction. I don’t know about that, but maybe for him it was true. He kinda has an addictive personality, if you haven’t already figured that one out. Isaiah puffed the remainder of his joint and held it up so Kevin could see from across the hood of the car. I’m working on mine, he said of his addiction, grinning. He dropped the nub in among the gravel rocks and faced the interstate directly. The truth was, Isaiah doubted the seriousness of Jodie’s suicide attempt. He would never openly admit that to his friend, because he knew Jodie would have clubbed him in the nose, but the way he saw it, the attempt seemed more like a cry for help. Isaiah was glad it all turned out okay. He was glad he still had a friend to hang out with, even if hanging out meant smoking pot and sword-fighting with dildos. But Isaiah’s parents had talked with Jodie’s mom and step-father in the wake of his hospitalization, and the official story was that Jodie had panicked and phoned the police when he couldn’t stop the bleeding. And away in an ambulance he had went, with a story to boast about for as long as he felt like boasting.

Isaiah wandered off again toward the tan grassless slope, talking as if Kevin was close behind and still listening. But Kevin lingered for a minute. He stood beside the car and watched Isaiah go. For a time as he listened to the story about Jodie, Kevin had forgotten the rock in his hand. But when he looked down at his open palm the rock was still there, loose, its weight light but solid and sure, the surface dust-chalked and lunar and shining in the sunlight. He thought for a moment, and then he gazed at the horizon and down in the direction of his friend, and he waited. He waited until Isaiah wandered far enough that the slope appeared to have eaten everything but his head and torso, he waited until only the roar of the interstate could be heard, and then a redness curtained his vision and he bit the fleshy inside of his cheek and he chose to do it. He closed his fist around the rock, hard enough the pointed edges dug into his skin and his knuckles whitened, and he threw it at the Sunbird where it struck the rear quarter panel, on the passenger side. The hollow bang of the impact deeply satisfied him. Afterward he felt dizzy and consumed. He dreamed of picking up another rock and another, each one larger and heavier than the one before, and hurling them at the car with all of his might. But he didn’t, and he didn’t stay long to savor the hit from the first rock, or even to see if it had left a dent. He hurried over to the edge of the lot where the dirt began and followed the slope down after Isaiah, who by then was looking back over his shoulder and waving for him to follow, yelling, Come on. Together they followed the slope to where a tree leaned out crookedly over the dirt and weeds, like it wanted to uproot and cast itself down into traffic, and they sat beneath its boughs in the shade. They leaned back on their hands and stretched out their legs and watched the lanes of the interstate nearest them. For a time they were silent, and whenever an eighteen-wheeler tore by they resigned to the hurricane of its passage and didn’t try to speak or even think. But eventually Isaiah did. During a lull in traffic, he admitted to Kevin that he didn’t like Jodie all that much. He considered him a friend, but not a good friend, or even a best friend—not like Kevin had become. Jodie just couldn’t be trusted, said Isaiah. He wasn’t the kind of person you could open yourself up to. You couldn’t be free around him, and talk about all of the private and humiliating things going on in your life. Jodie would just find a way to mock you, make you feel worse than you already did. As Isaiah continued to talk and think and dwell, his eyes began to burn. You don’t know, he said to Kevin. The most depressing thing is that there’s no one in my neighborhood, not a single friend that I know, who isn’t like Jodie in some way, who wouldn’t do the same things to me. Laugh and ridicule me if I tried to be honest and say what I was feeling sometimes. Isaiah shook his head as if to dislodge his thoughts, but it was no use, and he continued. It’s like everybody is wearing a hard shell that says I’m tough, I’m mean, and I don’t give a fuck about anybody except myself. But the funny thing is we’re only wearing these shells because everybody else is wearing one, too. We’re all too afraid to go without because of how vulnerable that would feel, how easy it would be for somebody—some fuck like Jodie—to hurt us, tear us down. But that’s what’s kinda different about you, he said to Kevin. You don’t seem to be wearing one of those shells. Kevin sat with an arm around his knees and picked the sunny heads from dandelions with his free hand while he listened. The dappled sunlight and the shadow of the tree bough overhead, moving with the breeze, made his arms appear camouflaged. Isaiah wiped the corner of his eye. He glanced sidelong at Kevin and told him he would see. He blurted out a sudden, desperate laugh and said, You’ll get rid of those awful glasses and look cool for a change, and then all the girls in Hillview—and not just Sunny, either, but all the fine-ass, easy girls—will want you. They’ll be screaming for your dick, and you’ll be swimming in pussy, and you’ll have more of your own friends. After a while it’ll be clear who the real ones are. The friends who matter.

from a story in progress

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