I was in the eighth grade when Duncan, the boy made of stone, moved in next door. Word got around that he’d gotten in big trouble at his old school and that’s how his family wound up in Lakeville. But unlike the kids whose reputations as brawlers or shoplifters made them cool, Duncan wasn’t the beneficiary of any dangerous chic. We hung out—first out of the happenstance of living so close by, then out of habit—but despite his insistence, I never wanted to call him my friend.
Why wasn’t Duncan cool? For one thing, he talked so slowly, elongating every vowel sound to a painful extreme. Small talk was excruciating and even the teachers stopped calling on him because he took three or four times as long as anybody else in class to get an idea across.
Another mark against Duncan: the kid was terrified of water, and particularly the lake in the middle of town. “Do you blame me?” he asked. “Imagine if you were made of two hundred-fifty pounds of rock. There’s no floating for me.” The thing is, everyone loved the lake. For tanning, for swimming, for kayaking. It’s where all of the high schoolers hung out in the warmer months, and on that outer edge of middle school, it’s where eighth graders with aspirations of cool wanted to be, too.
And then there was strike three. Becky Fieldings, the nicest girl in school from the wealthiest family in town, invited him to her thirteenth birthday party that September. Everyone was pretty annoyed with the way he talked. Some of the guys started poking fun at how he nervously rocked when he got anywhere near the swimming pool after the party moved out back, but what really sealed the deal was when Duncan petted Becky’s cocker spaniel too hard. I’m sure it was an accident and all, but he broke the dog’s back. Mr. Fieldings yelled at him and called him a criminal and Duncan shuffled off as fast as he could (which wasn’t very fast), chin tucked into his chest, shoulders caved in.
On top of all that, there was baseball. When you’re in the eighth grade, there are few things less cool than the inability to swing a bat and make contact with the ball in gym class, at recess, in pickup games at the park. It didn’t help that Duncan couldn’t run fast enough to field any play, but that swing, was just brutally slow. His only saving grace was his command of gravity. Every now and again, he could get his arms to drop at the right time, and slam the bat down on the ball, and make it ricochet off the ground into his version of a pop fly.
I wasn’t so good at hitting the ball myself—below average in hand-eye coordination, with little enough upper body strength that for every at-bat, the opposing team huddled in closer, certain my mightiest hit wouldn’t reach past the pitcher’s mound. My lone advantage in baseball—not to mention soccer, basketball, volleyball, and escaping a pounding from the rough kids at school—was that I could run like hell. It’s the sort of ability that makes you a smidge more socially acceptable, but perhaps more importantly let me run my way out of trouble, escaping noogies and swirlies.
In the years leading up to the eighth grade, I don’t know that I would have rejected Duncan’s friendship. But this was the eighth grade and I was deeply, profoundly in love with Anastasia, the girl made of glass.
Anastasia. Thin and delicate. My first imaginings of the female form climaxed in what it might look like to see straight through her sweater, her camisole, to her veins and to her heart. Her voice just shy of shrill, and she spoke up in class all of the time, not in that know-it-all kind of way, but as though she were really interested in Huckleberry Finn and the quadratic equation and geopolitical implications, until it made us—me and all of the other flesh-and-bone boys with crushes—wonder if we ought to be interested, too. All of a sudden lectures and readings and essays weren’t just work, but an opportunity to share headspace with Anastasia.
In April, the Spring Swing loomed. An annual dance for eighth graders, leading into the summer before high school. We talked about it then in similar ways to how we would talk about prom four years later. We weren’t after sex, but our first trips to first base, and the prayer of stealing second. I harbored dreams of leaving the dance with Anastasia for a girlfriend.
“Nobody asks Annie,” Howard said. He’d summoned us eighth grade boys into a huddle in the locker room before gym class. No one could corral people around him quite like Howard, the boy made of fire, who’d moved past self-consciousness about his flaming body in the first grade and assumed the role of prankster and bully, inflicting first degree burns if you wouldn’t let him copy off of your math quiz (and sometimes just for his own amusement). The edges of him would flicker in a white hot, smoky haze.
Howard called Anastasia Annie. She told him she didn’t like it, but he seemed to take it as banter rather than a meaningful complaint. “I’m taking her to the dance. You got a problem with that, Jordan?”
“No problem.” I didn’t know why he singled me out. If anything, I’d aimed to harden my face to not to show any concern, as though I’d never planned on going to the dance at all, let alone on asking Anastasia.
“Good.” Howard stood up straight and the boys behind him backed away. He had grown taller and broader than the rest of us, bigger by every dimension. Bigger, so that we weren’t certain he understood his own size and thought might burn someone even if he didn’t mean to.
I skipped stones over the water, at a shallow part of the lake by my house where hardly anyone ever went. The skipping was a habit from before Duncan moved to town, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take small pleasure in watching him wince as the stones bounce-bounce-bounced and finally sank. He never asked me to stop, just kept a safe distance from the water himself, sitting a couple feet behind me when I stepped to the water’s edge.
“Howard is a flaming turd,” Duncan said. “If she goes to the dance with anyone it should be you.”
This was another dimension of Duncan’s lack of cool. He was always saying motherly things. I knew he was getting more comfortable around me, though, because now and again he’d let the sweet exterior drop. Like when he was first figuring out my crush on Anastasia after he caught me staring at her at school, and asked, do you get more like me around her? and I asked what he meant and he knocked against his stone head. You know, hard. I kicked his shin, but it only hurt my foot and he laughed.
“Maybe she’ll say no to Howard.” I sat down beside him in the grass. “Then I can ask her.”
Duncan shook his head slowly. “She’s too nice.”
We both knew it was true. Anastasia, who never rolled her eyes when teachers asked her to transcribe notes on the board. Anastasia, who wrote a personal thank you note for every cardboard valentine she got in elementary school. Anastasia who rotated lunch tables to sit with every different group of girls. She wasn’t capable of saying no. The first person to ask would get to hold her hand, get to whisper in her ear, get that first slow dance.
“You have to ask her.”
The sun beat down at a sharp angle, too hot for this early in the spring. It reflected right off the water into our eyes, so it seemed to hit us from two different angles. “Howard would fry me if he saw me get close to her.”
“Let me take care of that.”
We formed a plan. Maybe Duncan saw it as a test: help me get the girl, and I couldn’t deny him as a friend—as my best friend—ever again, not to mention that he’d promised to have my back if Howard came after me. “You can’t burn stone. But you can stomp out a flame.”
It was a simple enough scheme. Anastasia went to Science Club after school every Wednesday. This week, I’d go too and as soon as the opportunity presented itself—Duncan was adamant about that part, after a lifetime of being just a little too slow—I’d ask her if she would go to the dance with me. In the meantime, Duncan would distract Howard. He and his friends usually played football after school, and Duncan would interject himself after the game, talking football, talking school, talking girls, even subjecting himself to abuse if he needed to keep Howard from coming to the science labs. Howard would be angry afterward, for sure, and might burn me or get some of his cronies to pummel me. But once Anastasia had agreed to go to the dance with me, he’d have to turn his attentions elsewhere—to finding his own date, or to making up his mind that the dance was stupid and he didn’t want to go in the first place.
Life would progress in new trajectories. Anastasia my girl. Duncan my friend.
I’d gone to Science Club a couple times before. When they were dissecting frogs because I wanted to see what the amphibious innards might look like, and when they built baking soda volcanos. The day I was going to ask Anastasia to the dance, spindly old Mr. Pawelec, compulsively clad in a stained white lab coat, stood in front of the lab and explained it was Day One of Two working on egg drops. There was a buffet of materials laid out in front of us—packing peanuts, paper towel rolls, scotch tape, aluminum foil, balloons. We would have all period to work in pairs to build our contraptions, and then experiment with dropping our eggs from increasingly great heights the following meeting.
He released us to find our partners. I had maneuvered my way to standing right beside Anastasia, but didn’t want to look over-eager. I wanted to be casual. Cool. But then Chester—a chubby boy with browned fingertips who always smelled like blueberries tapped my shoulder and asked if we could work together. I looked to Anastasia, just as she and Whitney Brooks agreed to partner up.
We worked on our egg drop, or rather Chester did. I was more invested in stealing snippets of what Anastasia had to say about fragility and safe packing, touching each piece of their own construction materials with glass fingertips.
When the after-school period was over, there was no obvious opportunity, no clear path, only brute force. When Anastasia came within arm’s reach, I called her name.
I stalled. Waiting for more people to file out, waiting for Mr. Pawelec to be too tied up in a student question to eavesdrop. She waited with me, but avoided eye contact while I fidgeted with a rubber band left over from Chester’s handiwork.
Finally, Anastasia and I were alone.
Once I got going, there was no choice but to be direct. The words tumbled out, simple and at least clear. “I want to go to the Spring Swing with you—what do you think?”
“That’s really nice, Jordan,” she said. “And I’d really like to. It’s just that Howard asked at lunchtime. But maybe the two of us can have a dance together? Assuming Howard doesn’t mind.”
My blood boiled. It was almost worse that she was nice. The confirmation that had I asked yesterday, I’d be going with her.
The only real solace I could take from the moment was if Howard had already asked, then he’d never have to know that I had defied him. And maybe Duncan—trying to slow him down, trying to keep him occupied—had made his afternoon just a little worse. There was something good in that, too. I could see Duncan and I skipping the dance and sitting by the lake that night. But no, I didn’t want to torture him with water anymore after he had tried to help, so maybe I’d even invite him over the house. I didn’t trust him not to break my Nintendo 64 controllers, but maybe we could eat pizza and watch TV.
I pictured all of this while Anastasia walked out of the room, her footsteps light as a child’s, so little to weigh her down until they stopped when she’d reached the hall. “Oh, hi Howard.”
Against all logic, against the glint of fire that reflected off the classroom windows and against the warmer air approaching from behind me, I was chilled.
Howard said something to her about how he forgot a notebook in the lab earlier today and how he was so excited to take her to the dance and about how he hoped she had a good afternoon. Then Anastasia was gone. And he was there.
He was there with Kevin Riley and Jamie Fowlkes, a pair of big, strong kids who were menaces in gym class dodgeball games and had engineered the biggest, soggiest spitballs known to man, settling not for the cafeteria straws, but bubble tea straws they got outside the school. Wider. More powerful.
Riley and Fowlkes each grabbed one of my upper arms and pinned my back to lab table, bent me over backward slightly so that when Howard got in my face he had to curve his body to match mine, and I hardly trusted him to do so with care—that if he didn’t burn me intentionally, there was every possibility he’d do so out of inattention to detail.
“I want to go to the dance with you. What do you think?” He repeated my words with a moron’s inflection, low and slow, not unlike Duncan when he got nervous and, rather than sputtering, worked himself up to almost the tempo of ordinary speech. “You don’t even know how to talk to a girl.”
“You’re right.” Sweat welled up in my armpits and over my forehead. Having Howard so close was like standing next to a furnace. I tried to concoct excuses. Along the lines that I was asking her, and asking her so poorly on purpose so Howard would look better by comparison. Not that Anastasia ever would have turned him down, of course, but to make the choice even clearer. To make her fall in love with him—strong, better spoken, clearly better than me.
“You’re lucky I already asked Annie to the dance.” Even his eyes were fire, his pupils a smidge darker than the rest of him. I wondered if he saw the world through a flickering orange filter. “You didn’t know I’d asked, did you?”
Mr. Pawelec would come back. He had to. I knew better than to call for him, knew how quickly Howard could hurt someone. But with Mr. Pawelec watching, he’d have to let me go.
I thought Howard smiled. It was impossible to tell when he was up close like that and looked more like a campfire. The best I could do was to read shapes in the whims of flames.
“Maybe I oughta burn you so you don’t keep making eyes at my girl.” He edged two fingers to within an inch of my eyes. If someone blew a fan behind him, much less if he lost his balance, or chose to move forward, my corneas were toast.
I cried. What else could I do? Take away Riley and Fowlkes and I don’t know if I would have trusted myself to run, even. He’d have caught up to me. This boy who brought his own aluminum bat for gym class, because he couldn’t hold the wooden one without engulfing it. This boy who always made contact and whose blur was almost beautiful as he streaked from home plate to first base and onward. I did my best to keep my body from convulsing, but didn’t bother to stop myself from crying. Tears rolled into sweat until my face was soaked.
“You’re pathetic, Jordan. A real pussy.” Howard backed away.
“Yeah, pussy,” Fowlkes echoed. He used a slow, low voice, too, but I thought that was how he actually talked—it was hard to tell because he hardly ever said a word in class.
The guys let me go and I crumpled to the floor.
And Duncan—Duncan was nowhere to be found.
I missed the late bus, so I’d need to walk back. I wasn’t in the mood to go home, though, so I took a winding route to a different part of the lake, and ambled along the perimeter toward my neighborhood. I imagined somehow luring Howard to the water’s edge and then shoving him in, just to watch him flail in the water. I wondered if he could die like that. I couldn’t imagine helping him. And in that moment, he’d know what it felt like to be helpless.
Alternately, I imagined seeing Anastasia in the water. In my fantasy, she was drowning and I saved her, and her whole body was trembling and so slippery as I ferried her to safety, as I cradled her close to warm her.
The sun was starting to set by the time I neared home. I was probably late for dinner and faced the damning situation of not wanting to listen to my mother scold me, and knowing she’d scold me worse for every minute longer I stayed outside.
Before I could get home, I came upon Duncan. It was strange to see him at the water, and I wondered if he’d somehow sensed I would come there to skip rocks and shout curse words.
There’s this feeling you get sometimes. When you’re too mad to forgive someone, even though you know you probably ought to. When you’re equal parts mad at them and mad yourself because you put yourself in a position to be mad over something that can’t be helped. I registered all of this. I figured I’d walk straight past him, maybe tell him to give me some goddamned space, but that would be the end of it.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
Hearing his slow, stupid voice, all I could do was hate him. I eyed his position, a few feet from the water. I’d seen him lose his balance sometimes and roll. He had hard time picking himself up, and a hard time stopping his body once it had gathered momentum.
“I tried to keep him there,” Duncan said, “but when I asked about the dance he knew something was up.”
I pushed him, scraping the palm of my hand against his surface.
“You’re a real piece of shit.” I curled my fingers into fist, imagining them something like balls of stone. Imagining hurting him. “This is why no one likes you. You’re worthless.”
“Please.” I managed the stretch e sound even longer than he had, so he could hear how ridiculous he was. I spat on him in the process. Then I punched his chin, and my fingers felt like they exploded on impact. He took a step back, tilted his head. He had felt it at least, even if he didn’t fall or cry out. Even if my knuckles gushed blood. “What are you going to do? Cry? You’re pathetic. You’re a pussy.”
He pushed me down. I’d never expected that, somehow. Maybe I’d never thought of him as so different from a stone I’d kick down the street, or one I’d skip over the surface of the lake—inconsequential and subject to my whims, never the other way around. I’d never seen him move so fast as he did when he fell on top of me, smashing my rib cage beneath his weight.
I angled my head to look to the water, thinking if I could inch our bodies that way, it might spook Duncan and he’d retreat for fear of falling in. The surface of the water was perfectly smooth and still in that moment.
When I looked back, Duncan had cocked back his fist to punch me. That’s the last sight I remember. My last thought was that I was going to die, and that I hardly cared. It was the worst day of my life and any way that it might end would be a mercy.
Duncan didn’t kill me. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand why. Maybe he remembered that he’d thought of me as his friend. Maybe he remembered the particulars of whatever happened in his last school, his last town. Whatever the reason, he mustered more restraint than I had that evening, stopping himself before he did something he couldn’t take back.
Someone found me at the side of the lake and called an ambulance. It’s possible Duncan had gotten away on foot—I’m fuzzy on the timeline—but I think it’s more likely he looked on from the thick of trees, standing stock still so no one would ever notice him watching over me.
I like to think that, anyway.
I told the police I didn’t remember what had happened. They assumed I got mugged, which didn’t make a ton of sense given my knapsack and my wallet were still intact, but they made up the excuse that someone came along and scared the criminals away. There was a period when parents were more nervous than usual about letting their kids walk home from school or hang out with friends after dusk. Like everything, that, too, would fade, and by summer life in Lakeville was back to normal.
I was banged up. A bad concussion and three broken ribs. I sat out the rest of the school year and took makeup exams at the end of the summer so I could still move on to high school.
I caught glimpses of Duncan a few times from my bedroom window, walking down the street. He never looked toward the house. I wondered if he meant for me to call out to him and invite him side. I almost did once.
Duncan’s family moved away that summer. I haven’t seen him since.
Howard left me alone the next school year. I guess he’d tortured me enough that I could confirm he was dangerous to anyone who asked. That fall, I was happy to see no sign of him and Anastasia dating. Then some seniors pulled a prank—they went at Howard with a fire extinguisher. He lashed out and burnt a couple of them pretty bad, plus one of the teachers who tried to split up the brawl. Everyone got suspended, but Howard never came back. Rumor had it the school told his family Lakeville High wasn’t a good fit for him.
I never talked much with Anastasia—not anything more than hellos and how are yous and the one time Mr. Barkley paired us in US History, junior year. She had been in a car accident the summer before and broken her arm—the kind of injury that would heal for most people, but everything between her right shoulder and her elbow had shattered, and she lost the whole arm in the process. She had been right-handed, so I, like all of her partners, did all of the writing for our assignment, and tried not to stare.
I was a senior when a gjrl named Stella transferred into Lakeville High, a sophomore who had previously lived in the city. Just the second person made of stone I’d ever seen. She smoked cigarettes and cursed a lot, and talked slowly, but had developed enough of a rhythm in her speech that she didn’t elongate words the way Duncan had. She had adapted. Normalized. Blended in.
We started dating in the late fall. I bought her a fourteen-karat gold necklace with a phony diamond pendant for Christmas and, she wore it faithfully for the months to follow, stone bouncing against stone at her chest. I borrowed my father’s car to take her to prom.
After the dance, there was a party on the opposite side of the lake from where I lived. The guys from the football team brought a keg. By the end of the night, there was skinny dipping. All of these naked bodies. The other boys underscored how scrawny I was with their broader frames, the athletes’ muscle. And the girls. It was bad form to stare after they’d let me into this inner circle, but how could a boy resist taking mental photographs of the breasts and the bare hips I’d only imagined up to that point? The wet hair clinging to bare shoulders?
I turned to Stella. I had held off on hanging out at the lake with her, never wanting to force her into the same slow psychological torture I’d subjected Duncan to. I understood the fear of water now. The practicalities of sinking, of getting in over your head. The thin line between breathing and feeling like your insides were on fire. The difference between control and feeling helpless, and how quickly a person could transition between the two. I told her I could take her home if she wanted.
She shook her head. “We should stay.” She pulled the straps of her dress down from her shoulders and then asked for my help to unzip her back. I stripped clumsily in front of her, embarrassed at how slight I was and the scar I still had over my stomach from the last time I’d seen Duncan.
I followed her into the cold, dark water. My arms floated slightly, buoyant. Hers dropped straight down and her steps seemed to grow slower and heavier as we got deeper.
“Are you all right?” I asked. “You’re not scared?”
She dipped down for a second, head under water. Stayed down longer than I wanted for her to as I looked around for someone to ask for help, someone who might help me bring her back up to the surface. But she made it back up on her own. Survived the sinking, the submersion. I realized the spring night of prom—of any big dance—wasn’t a climax or an ending.
We shivered at the water’s edge and while we made out afterward. Her eyes were bright, soaked stone gleaming in the moonlight.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Georgia with his wife and son. He has two full-length short story collections on the way: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books and Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle. He has also published three chapbooks: Autopsy and Everything After with Burrow Press, Distance Traveled with Bent Window Books, and The Leo Burke Finish with Gimmick Press. Find him online here and follow him on Twitter here.