Today, I'd like to share "Jumping In," a story originally published in Slices of Flesh. Happy reading and even happier weekend.
by Aaron Polson
Nick skips out on the game during the third quarter and heads for the shadowed trees on the other side of the parking lot. He goes because the older boys, the cool kids Derek Hullinger, Smack Willits, and B-rad Tibbits are there, smoking GPC cigarettes and lacing every sentence with superfluous “fucks” and “shits” like a bunch of Marine Corps jarheads on leave. Nick braves the shadows and trees because he wants to be something. Derek told Nick to come, promising a chance to show his stuff. A chance to be somebody and join the team.
Who gives a shit if B-rad and Smack are nineteen and still in high school? And nobody mentions Derek Hullinger’s name without a little bit of fear. Nick wants that. He wants to be something the other kinds at Jefferson East fear, especially those testosterone amped jock-assholes on the football team.
The shadows and tall trees on the other side of the stadium scared Nick when he was a kid, but not now. Hell no. This is his chance to roll with Derek, to get some genuine respect. It’s quiet at the edge of the woods, strangely so less than a hundred yards from the stadium and jeering fans, less than a football field from the actual field with its lights and sprayed on-lines.
The little kid in Nick holds his breath. He was afraid of monsters ten years ago, now he wants to be one. The too-pissed-off-to-care teenage Nick stomps on dead leaves and snaps twigs under his feet. When he feels like it’s all over, like the blackness of the trees have eaten the world, a little orange glow shows him the way.
B-rad flips his Zippo open and shut, lighting the flame in one motion. Click, click, click.
“Nicky. What’s the good word?” Derek smells of cigarettes and whiskey and day-old sex.
Nick squints. The shadows work magic with the others’ faces. Nick imagines a spare—four instead of the three he’d expected.
“Yes,” Derek says, his voice thick and heavy and laced with more years than he’s earned. “Yes, you are. You want to roll with us, little man?”
Nick sets his jaw. “Fuck yeah.”
Derek tilts his head over a shoulder. “Hear that, Smack? He’s hungry already. Give him a treat.”
The fourth face staggers into the space between Nick and the others. It belongs to a thin kid, a freshman. Nick has seen him around before. The only light comes from B-rad’s Zippo held aloft and sliver-blue starlight filtered through the black branches above.
The skinny kid’s face is pale and moony and lost. His arms look about as big as the twigs Nick crunched on the way into the woods. The funny thing though, the kid doesn’t flinch or shake or anything.
“You want in, Nicky, you give this bit of fresh meat here a good stomp down. You give him a good stomp down, and you’re one of us.” Derek crosses his arms. The shadows play with a scar on his face, splitting his mouth in two.
Nick’s hands ball together in a pair of fists. He doesn’t really want this, to beat this scrawny kid bloody, but he doesn’t want to be nobody, either. He wants to slash tires, drink whiskey, and kick ass with Derek and Smack and B-rad. Respect waits. He teeters on the balls of his feet. A memory of himself as a freshman tumbles through his brain like a bit of trash blown by the wind. He doesn’t think about the first punch.
The scrawny kid crumbles, clutching his stomach.
Power. Nick feels it, now. Blood thrums through his head. Smack and B-rad are cheering. Derek laughs like a machine gun. Nick brings his knee into the kid’s face. The kid’s neck jerks back, shiny black blood glistening under his nose.
“Fuck yeah, Nicky.”
“Kick his ass.”
Nick trips the kid, sending him over backwards. The thin body hits the ground and “oof” pops from his mouth. He’s down, and Nick pulls back his foot and kicks, hard. He kicks again, and again, each contact followed by the same, tiny “oof.” Panting, Nick steps back after five or six good kicks—he’s lost count—and brushes sweat from his forehead.
The scrawny kid, the freshman, whoever, doesn’t even whimper. No, he pulls himself to his feet while Nick takes a breather.
“You fucker,” Nick says. The kid’s blank eyes find Nick’s. They’re blank and black and tranquil almost, like a quiet night in the woods out beyond the stadium. Nick growls and swings a fist—he can feel it now, all the rage and old hate and venom. His eyes glaze over with red. He can feel the power of his memories, the hate for his dirty bastard of an uncle, the sons-of-bitches in uniform on the other side of the lot, and his mother for letting his father walk out four years ago. He puts all that swill in one punishing cross. The crack is audible. Nick feels it in his arm. The scrawny kid reels and spits teeth and blood.
“That’s good,” Derek says.
No, it’s not. Nick punches the kid again, this time in the side. He falls. Nick kicks him one final time, one time too many as a sickening, wet crack signals a broken rib. Nick leans on his knees, huffing and puffing, while the boy on the ground curls into a ball.
“I said that’s good.” Derek frowns slightly.
Nick flexes his sore fingers. He wipes sweat again, this time pulling his shirt to his face. When he’s done, he studies the others.
Derek’s cheek flinches. “So?”
“Am I… In?”
There’s a noise on the ground. The others watch as the scrawny kid pulls himself up one more time. As before, there is no sound, no groan, no moan of pain. Not even a dry sob. The scrawny kid stoops and picks his bloody teeth—two of them—from the ground. He pops them in his mouth and swishes them around.
Nick’s guts go cold. There’s a snake in his stomach made of ice.
“What the fuck…”
The scrawny kid—but it’s not really a kid, Nick knows that now—smiles. All the teeth are there in neat rows. All of them.
“My turn,” it says.
Nick looks at Derek, but Derek is looking at the thing. He nods and takes a step back. The snake in Nick’s stomach coils and uncoils. He feels his bowels go loose. Somewhere behind him, B-rad flicks his Zippo, click, click, click.
In the distance, across the lot, a cheer rises in the big stadium, but the trees and shadows have swallowed everything.