Mikey Greenfield has always been shorter than me, but he’s always felt taller. It’s the way he carries himself: confident and upright, like a man. Even reclined next to him on a hill I can feel the difference.
We’re watching a baseball game, perched high up behind the small crowd of townies who line the third base line in beach chairs. Mikey chews a blade of grass. The orange sun sinks behind him, and in the twilight shadows he looks like James Dean sucking on a cigarette. I stick a strand in my own mouth but gag before my lips can even close. I try to hide my disgust from Mikey, but he’s not looking. His chin is up confidently, and he peers down at the field over his nose. From up this high, the players look like toy soldiers. I imagine picking one up, pinching their shirt collar between my thumb and forefinger, their legs squirming below them as they lift off the ground.
Mikey spits. I spit. The wet, earthy taste of grass still coats my tongue, makes me want to spit again. I take a slug from the communal gallon of Joose we bought at the corner store for a dollar, careful not to spill any down my shirt. It looks like radiator fluid, tastes like a liquid Pixie Stick. In my head I see my mother scolding me, you shouldn’t share drinks, you’re gonna get sick. I smile to myself. Relax, I tell her, it’s just a little spit, I won’t get sick. I am eleven. I am invincible.
A bat cracks below, and the tiny players scurry after the ball trying to make the play. The crowd cheers, their voices blurring into a rolling wave of excitement. I clap slowly, and hope the runner gets tagged out. I can barely tell what color uniform he’s wearing and I don’t care. If he’s out, we’re that much closer to the end. I hate baseball. I turn and see Mikey’s not cheering at all, just leaning his elbows back into the hill. I can’t even tell if he’s watching the game or just looking towards the field, seeing something else entirely. I lean back on my own elbows, feel the rocky dirt dig into my fresh cuts and quickly sit up again, loosely hugging my knees.
The runner is safe, but the next at bat strikes out. I’m pretty sure it’s Mikey’s brother who’s pitching, but I can’t make out the features of his face. I don’t even remember what color uniform his team is wearing. Blue or gray? I’ve already asked and been told twice. The following batter hits a pop fly towards left field. The ball peaks high, a white speck in a cloudless sky, and for a few moments it looks like it’s coming right towards me. A panic rises in me as I imagine trying to catch the ball or, worse, having to throw it back. Every time Mikey tries to play catch with me I skirt, try to convince him to do something else. Sometimes it works; other times he just tosses the ball up in the air to himself while I kick at the rocks in his driveway, pretending I’m having a blast. I won’t even play catch in gym class. It’s not worth the embarrassment. The teacher would have to chuck a ball at my nuts to get me to respond.
The fly ball drops into the outfield, landing in an outstretched glove with a slap. It never came close. The fielders hustle towards their dugout, tossing their mitts into the dirt. Mikey spits the grass out of his mouth. I watch it arc perfectly, like a fisherman’s cast.
“Grab the jug,” he tells me. He stands up and crests the hill, brushing dirt off the seat of his cargo shorts.
“Where are we going?” I follow Mikey across the parking lot, the murmur of the game fading behind us. “Don’t you want to watch Jim play?”
“Baseball is fucking stupid.”
Up until six months ago, Mikey loved baseball. He had Derek Jeter posters all over his bedroom walls, practiced his pitch with rocks at recess, and played catch every chance he could. In the spring he tried out for the town’s 11-12 league. Only one eleven-year-old boy made it: Kurt Boise, a pudgy kid with a crew cut who was an average catcher and had an above average swing. Mikey felt cheated, and since then Derek Jeter became Tony Hawk, and catch became skateboarding.
I’m not very good at skateboarding, but at least it’s better than baseball. Mikey’s right, as usual: baseball is fucking stupid.
We reach the playground on the other side of the parking lot. It looks particularly decrepit when it’s vacant, the slides bare and rusting, the swings hanging dead from a bowed crossbar. There is no breeze, the air heavy and wet with humidity. I anticipate the relief of swinging, the creaking joints threatening to burst while the wind rushes back and forth across my face, then jumping and landing in the hot sand, the weightlessness hanging in my stomach for a long moment. But Mikey walks right past the swings and I follow him.
“Where are we going?” I ask again.
“I have to take a piss.”
Mikey walks to a brick hut on the edge of the playground and disappears into the gaping mouth of a door-less entry. I slow my approach as I reach the building, the pungent stench of stale piss and shit forming an invisible cloud around the hut. I consider whether or not I have to go, and ultimately decide it’s not worth the unpleasant experience. I dig the toe of my sneaker into the cracks in the sidewalk, pulling up sand and stray blades of grass. The dirt in my elbows sting, and I touch the injury with cautious fingers. Beneath the dirt is a warm wetness, and I pull pus-filmed fingertips back. I expected blood, almost desired it.
I wait impatiently outside the hut for Mikey, who’s taking forever. Either he’s taking a shit or he’s got the world’s biggest bladder. I meander back to the swings. The chains are hot beneath my palms, but my shorts insulate me from the black plastic seat. I get a running start, then pump my legs hard. The higher I go, the faster the wind rushes past me, the greater the sense of relief, the rush of freedom.
I close my eyes and imagine I’m in a halfpipe. At every apex I kick my feet wildly, the weightless board beneath me spinning and flipping, then aligning perfectly beneath me as gravity brings both of us back to earth. I’m landing tricks like Tony Hawk, tricks Mikey can’t even do. It’s suddenly so easy, so fluid.
“Hey,” Mikey calls, and my eyes snap open. He’s standing just outside the bathroom, waving me over. I pump hard a few more times and jump off, my body hanging in the air for a split second. I land hard, tuck and roll, sand planting itself in my elbows. I force down the wince of pain. Mikey urges me on.
“Hurry up. I wanna show you something.”
“In there? No way.” I imagine something rancid triggering my gag reflex, which Mikey is fully aware of. He finds it funny, the deep throaty belch of a strong gag, while I can only feel the two sides of my stomach slam together and chills creeping up my back.
“It’s not gross. Trust me.”
I’m not sure if I trust him, but it’s only the two of us. He loves pulling pranks, especially on me, but usually only when we’re in a group. What good is embarrassing someone if no one else is around to see? I look at him hard, trying to determine what he’s up to. His face beams with excitement. My curiosity gets the better of me, and I agree to follow him inside. My insides tremble in anxious anticipation.
Stepping into the hut is like stepping into a sauna. The humidity is incredible. Beads of liquid form on my neck and trickle down my back. I silently hope it’s sweat and not tiny droplets of pee condensing on my skin. The only light comes from the setting sun spilling through the door, shadows graciously hiding the streaks and smears of sludge I imagine adorn the cement floor and the brick walls. Mikey walks past the sinks, urinals, and the first two stalls, nudges the farthest stall door open with his shoulder. He gestures inside, a sly grin on his face. I approach him slowly, my sneakers sticking to the floor like flypaper. The stench gets worse with each step, making my head pound and my stomach do backflips.
Mikey steps aside, holds the stall door open with his elbow. I peer in, bracing myself for a horrific mess, diarrhea covering the seat and shooting up the wall, shit-stained toilet paper littered around the bowl like dirty snowflakes. I see nothing of the kind, and my sigh of relief is audible. Mikey points to the blue divider. In amongst the scrawls of pens and markers, and the scratches of paper clips, is a fresh four-word poem in thick black Sharpie: Kurt Boise sucks dick. Beneath the poem is a crude drawing of a dick with lines of cum shooting out in all directions.
“Did you do that?” I ask, though I already know the answer. The handwriting is distinctively Mikey, childish and angular, and he’s been drawing the same graphic all over the place for months. It started out in his own notebook, then moved to other people’s notebooks. He stole the Sharpie from his mother’s desk and drew the picture on all the concrete storm drains in his neighborhood. Most recently, he’d scrawled it on the foundation of my parents’ house, in the backyard behind a bush. I wanted to kill him. Instead, I laughed, then caked dirt over the drawing after he left. For the next five nights I had nightmares about my father finding it, and what would happen to me, or to Mikey, and if I’d ever be able to see him again.
In the dank hut Mikey smiles, proud of his own work.
“You’re gonna get in so much trouble,” I inform him.
“No I won’t. No one’s gonna see it.”
“Everyone’s gonna see it. And they’ll know it’s you, too, from your handwriting and that stupid drawing.”
Mikey opens his mouth to defend himself, but before the words can come out he stops and puts a finger to his lips. I listen for a moment, and through the thick air I hear heavy footsteps on the concrete just outside the hut, approaching quickly. Without thinking I pull Mikey into the stall by his collar, shut and lock the door behind him. I half expect a punch in the arm or a scathing look, but I can tell he’s just as scared as I am. We’ve been caught, and if Mikey is scared of what happens next, Mikey the Invincible, then I should be terrified.
The sound of the footsteps changes as the intruder enters the building: they become deeper, more sinister. Underneath the stall door I can see the long stretch of sunlight streaming in get blotted out completely. I imagine the man as tall and stocky, red-in-the-face angry. He knows what we’ve done already, and he’s storming in to kick down the door and yank us out of the bathroom. Surely he’ll call the police, but not before teaching us a lesson himself. Damn kids are no better than two-bit criminals, he’ll say, standing over us like a monster, his fierce breath smelling like beer and body odor.
Our stall remains shut. We hear the man beeline for the first stall, the one closest to the door, and shut himself in. His belt buckle jingles as he undoes it, and the plastic toilet seat creaks weakly as he sets himself down.
My stomach sits next to my heart, clutching it for strength. I look down at my shoes, and wonder if the man can see our feet. Four legs sticking out the bottom of a stall looks funny, but if he sees them he clearly pays them no mind.
I breathe as little as possible.
The intruder rustles around in his stall six feet away. Separating him from us is two half-inch slats of plastic and a bunch of heavy, dead air. Between Mikey and me are mere inches. I angle myself so I’m not touching the bowl or the divider or, worst of all, Mikey himself. I can picture him now, wiping his arm off, disgusted, as if I were vermin. He’d call me a faggot, let the word penetrate my skin and cause bile to creep up into my throat. I’d argue, but it wouldn’t do any good. To Mikey, I am always being a faggot or a pussy or a bitch. It just depends on my mood which trait comes out strongest.
While contorting my body I’m listening for the sound of the toilet paper roll spinning or even a flush. Instead I hear a number of strange sounds I can’t place. I look to Mikey for some hint of what’s happening or, better yet, a plan he has to get us out of here.
He’s glowering at me, and I know what he’s thinking. It’s my fault for getting us stuck in this mess. He doesn’t have to say it; I know it already. If I hadn’t dawdled on the swings, had just come into the bathroom with him the first time, we’d have been gone before anyone else came in. When the man walked in, I could have just played it cool, walked out of the bathroom or slid into a stall myself. But no, like an idiot I pulled us both in. I was trying to hide us, trying to protect us from punishment. Now we’re trapped. I mouth the word Sorry. He rolls his eyes.
Before the heat of shame works its way to my fingertips, the intruder’s stall falls silent. My body tenses, and I sense Mikey’s does too. Long moments pass. An eternity. My lungs scream. Then a long exhale comes, slow and continuous. I imagine the man’s body deflating, the air from every corner of his body pouring out of his mouth, leaving his skin cinched tight around his skeleton like a mummy. The exhale fades out and I hear the soft creak of the toilet seat, followed by two loud thuds.
I feel the second thud in my feet, its vibrations dancing up my legs. I hear the squeak of a stall door, the unoiled hinges singing the same song as the swings outside. The squeak dies slowly. My feet are glued to the floor. The loud silence wraps me tightly, thicker than the humid air. It pinches my throat, only letting tiny puffs of air in and out. But, straining through the suffocating cloud, my ears pick up on a faint sound that shatters the stillness.
It sounds a bit like a bathtub drain slurping down shower runoff. I imagine it’s the intruder’s toilet clogging, old pipes running a maze beneath the hut burping out pockets of air as it tries to suck down the man’s business. Picturing a grown man’s shit makes me gag. I cover my mouth to muffle it. Mikey reaches for our stall door, and I grab his shoulder to stop him. He swats my hand away and shoots me a look, then reaches for the door again. The Adam’s apple bobs in his throat.
The unlocked door swings gently inward. There is no sound except the gurgling; even the old hinges only whisper. The alien noise surrounds me, swallows me up. I’m planted deep in the stall, the dirty bowl now rubbing against my bare calves. I don’t care anymore. I’m fully alert, ready to dart or to scream at a moment’s notice.
Mikey peeks his head around the divider. I try to gauge his facial expression, but I can only see his jawline and the corner of one eye. He stares out for a few long moments. My body tenses preparing for his reaction. Then he steps out of the stall and disappears behind the divider, the door swinging freely in his wake. I am suddenly alone, a sailor tossed overboard, floating helplessly in a dark and dirty sea. I fight the fear and shuffle to the front of the stall.
In the darkening hut everything is black with shadow. Mikey stands slump-shouldered in the middle of the room, still but for the rise and fall of his breathing. At his feet lies the dark mass of the intruder, a gangly body stretching into the first stall. The gurgling emanates from him, fills the room. Approaching Mikey slowly, I begin to see the intruder’s face in the orange light. It’s pocked with acne and patchy stubble, the face of a boy. His eyes are slits, and bubbly foam crests his dry lips. A pang of recognition hits me, but I can’t place it. I’m right behind Mikey, looking down on the boy, before I notice the belt wrapped around his bicep, the syringe dangling from the pit of his elbow.
“Remember him?” Mikey asks.
I shake my head, unable to speak.
Mikey snorts. “That’s Jeff Boise. Kurt’s brother.” He’s smiling down at the boy, and my stomach curls in on itself. The gurgling continues. Foam drips out of his mouth onto the dark concrete. It runs in rivulets to a drain in the floor.
“Let’s go,” I urge.
“Wait.” Mikey reaches into his pocket.
Mikey doesn’t hear me. He uncaps the Sharpie and crouches down by the boy’s head. Jeff’s eyes stare out through slits into an invisible distance while Mikey scrawls his signature artwork. He draws a shaft across the pale cheek, its tip at the corner of Jeff’s lips, then two balls akimbo, up by his ear. I watch in horror, unable to say anything, unable to move.
When Mikey stands up and caps the Sharpie he smiles, proud of his own work. A sputter of foam shoots out Jeff’s mouth, and Mikey giggles. I stare at the boy’s eyes, unable to look away. I wonder what he’s thinking, or if he’s thinking. He looks vacant, as if it were his soul pouring out of his mouth.
A distant sound cuts through the gurgling, the heavy sound of a large switch being flipped. Our heads shoot up and see the light has changed, the deep orange sunset now mingling with harsh white floodlights that hover over the baseball diamond. I follow Mikey out of the hut, my legs threatening to give beneath me. When we reach the playground I look back. The hut looks ordinary and plain, but the doorway looms sinister. I can’t see Jeff. I can’t hear the gurgling. Fear and guilt squeeze my chest like a vice, and my heart beats madly. Hot tears well up behind my eyes and leak down my face.
When I turn back Mikey’s darting into the distance, into the shadows lengthening beyond the baseball field. I watch him get smaller, the dust clouds behind him dissipating into darkness, until he’s gone.
Ben Winston works with motherboards by day and storyboards by night. "Invincible" is his first published piece.