No one knew what happened until after he hit the ground. Until after his eyes faded shut, after the arm wrapped around his neck loosened its grip and slipped off. Jonah had his back turned. Dave saw nothing at all. They circled around him, biting lips and standing still, because a minute ago he was wrestling around, headlock, fists blocked, and now he was on the tile floor with his legs splayed out and his backpack still on. They were stuck there, staring at the boy who had done it, the boy who had squeezed Jesse so tight that his cheeks flushed and his eyes bugged out and he made a little choking noise before he passed out.
“Oh, shit,” someone said. They thought he was kidding. And then they realized he wasn’t.
When they started shouting it was so muffled that no one could hear. They might as well have been shouting underwater, salt invading their mouths, pushing their voices into their bellies. That’s what they sounded like. Like they were stuck underwater. So Jonah and Dave ran up the stairs, down the hall and to the left into the empty nurses’ office and came back breathless just as Jesse woke up.
He didn’t move, just opened his eyes as silently as he had fallen. He stayed like that, crumpled on the floor, then licked his lips and asked if he was bleeding, and they all shook their heads no, a slow wave of syncopated circles. Not that they would have been able to tell. His blood would have blended in; it would have crept down tile lines and made the floor sticky and sweet. But when he stood up, there was no blood, and they let out the breath they didn’t know they were holding.
“What the fuck, man.” Jesse scowled, his hand rubbing the back of his head. His voice was hushed, as if he couldn’t bring himself to talk any louder and his eyes were dulled, his lids heavy. He didn’t even realize he had blacked out until someone’s hand reached out and pulled him up. He wasn’t even sure what had happened at all, until he looked up and saw everybody staring.
They didn’t know the kid that well. He wasn’t from the island; he only came for school because his dad was a teacher. He lived on the mainland and they were from the same criss-crossing streets, a trail they made on their walks, picking up and dropping each other off in an ever waning, waxing pattern. These were streets filled with old, half-rotting houses, where traffic lights turned off at midnight, blinking yellow on a haphazard downbeat.
“What the fuck,” Jesse said. It wasn’t a question. “What did you do that for?”
The boy didn’t say anything, just turned around and walked away. They shifted their heels and did not look in each other’s eyes. Dave’s house was the closest and as they hopped fences and sidestepped gardens, they didn’t talk about it.
“You sure you’re okay, Jess?” Jonah asked.
Jesse nodded. His head hurt, that was all. And he was a bit dizzy, but nothing too bad. He was fine. Until they got to the house and sat down to a table of cookies and milk, frozen peas, half a pizza and stale cereal and he had to leave to go throw up, knees on the ground, gagging loudly. It was then that they called Jesse’s dad, who was a scientist with a scraggly beard and lilting accent who told Jesse to take some Advil and lie down. Later, when Jesse went home, his parents took him to the hospital just to make sure. That night, Jesse’s dad called Jonah’s house and Jonah called Dave. That’s how they all found out.
It was the first day of summer and Jesse had a brain bleed.
“Sit down, Jonah,” his mother had said to him after she hung up the phone. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
“It’s not like he’s going to die,” Dave pointed out as they walked to Jesse’s house. Dave’s hands fluttered when he spoke and he walked a pace faster than Jonah did. He pulled at his nose when he was thinking or nervous, thumb and index finger moving together sharply. The freckles that used to cover his face had faded but his hair was just as blond, like straw in the light.
“Yeah, but he could have.” Jonah chewed the corner of his lip. “Didn’t you know that? Five more minutes and he could have.”
“Whoa.” Dave tugged on his nose again.
“Yeah.” Jonah muttered. Yeah. He wasn’t supposed to know, but he overheard his mother talking to Dave’s mom the day after Jesse’s operation. They were in the living room and Jonah was in the kitchen, sitting on the floor with his back against the fridge.
“It was just a normal MRI,” he could hear Dave’s mother say. “Beth was in the room with him and said the doctor’s face just fell looking at it and they rushed him into surgery.”
Jonah stopped listening then and pictured the blood getting sucked from Jesse’s brain with a tiny vacuum, pictured the screws they would put into his skull.
Jesse came home from the hospital that Sunday with half a head of hair and a long, twisted scar. His parents hung the iridescent X-rays on the window, the blurry white of Jesse’s skull brightening when the light hit the right way. All he really wanted to do was sleep, so the boys sat around and watched him, drifting in and out of the other rooms. There were seventeen stitches total. He ended up shaving his whole head and his mother scattered the clippings outside for the birds to make nests. She was the kind of woman whose eyes never focused on much of anything except when she spoke. When she spoke, her eyes were so green they looked like flames and she didn’t even blink. She didn’t have a job but was never home. She walked the streets with her eyes closed, stopping on sidewalks, chin tilted upward.
“She’s worshipping the sun god,” Jonah’s mom would say as she stood over the stove sautéing onions. “Maybe she should start paying attention to what’s going on down here. That would be a first.” Jonah’s mom had solid hips, strong bones and no hair. When Jonah sat on the edge of her bed in the mornings, which he did without saying anything out loud, he could see the tiny prickles of hair that hadn’t fallen out yet, the ones that looked like pepper, scattered across her skull in no pattern at all.
No matter how much they thought about it or how many times their parents asked, no one could really remember what happened.
“Why do you want to know anyways, Ma?” Jonah asked. “It’s not like we can do anything about it.” School was over and the kid didn’t apologize. They wouldn’t see him until September, and when they did they would look right through him, as if he wasn’t even there.
So different from the winter, which was barren and silent, summer on the island was murky and lush, like it was somewhere wild and far away, somewhere foreign. The heat didn’t leave. Not at night, not even before the sun rose. It was always there, filling them up, weighing them down, wrapping itself around their shoulders. Dave was so pale the sun reflected off his skin and the hair that curled around his ears was always damp. Jonah sweated silver. Jesse didn’t sweat at all. His cheeks flushed, his skin smelled like mowed grass and his scar turned a deep purple. When he could finally look at it in the mirror he saw how long it really was. He could peel the dry skin surrounding it in thin flakes, past where the thread poked loose in places, moving his fingers in between the rough stitches that hadn’t yet been taken out. The scar felt like a caterpillar, almost, but one that was sharp and scaly and really nothing like a caterpillar at all. By July it looked like nothing had happened. Except the front of his hair, which grew back white. Just one small patch, the size of a thumbprint. Bleach and baby powder. Flour. Jesse tried to cut it off, but it grew back the same. He kept cutting it, leaving himself with crooked tufts of hair that stuck straight up.
“You look like you’re five, Jesse,” laughed Jonah. “Keep it up.”
“Shut up,” Jesse mumbled through a cookie, spewing crumbs onto the porch steps.
They each sat on a different step, Dave, Jesse and Jonah did, sat without saying anything really, because there wasn’t anything else to say. Jesse couldn’t do much of anything. When he went on vacation, Jonah and Dave didn’t know what to do. They could have done whatever they wanted, and they tried-threw baseballs half-heartedly, shot baskets without looking. In the end, they just sat. Jonah was back-flat on the grass while Dave tossed a tennis ball at the garage, thud echoing down the empty street. If Jonah closed his eyes for long enough, he could feel the dirt shift underneath him. He tried to force the air off his chest. Dave moved like nothing bothered him, as if his long limbs let the heat breathe out of his fingers, his toes. He had grown two inches overnight and now he couldn’t do anything without his arms swinging too high or his legs going where he didn’t want them to go. He couldn’t stand still. He moved too fast, said too much, thought too little.
“Dave,” Jonah turned his head to the side. “Knock it off.”
Dave let the ball drop and sprawled out on the grass. There were planes overhead and Dave remembered the few days when they had stopped flying completely. The planes had come back only to leave again, to fly over boys in backyards, off to somewhere and something no one had bothered to explain to them. Lying next to Jonah, Dave breathed deep and willed his body to stop moving. Just stop.
Jonah wondered what it was like, to move like Dave did, like nothing weighed him down. Jonah’s house had winding hallways and crooked floors. At night, the buckled wood creaked, making noises of its own accord, like if you didn’t know any better you would think there was someone there besides yourself. The outside was covered with moss and the inside with a black mold the salt air brought, which his mother spent all summer scrubbing away. He watched her without helping, even when she got sick and he thought maybe she shouldn’t be standing on ladders for hours at a time, because it was the only thing she seemed to do besides lie on the couch.
“I can’t stand looking at it,” she would tell him, the air reeking of bleach, her arm moving furiously. “It’s all I can see and it’s just everywhere.”
He didn’t care about the mold, black speckles that he barely noticed, but he thought about the moss a lot, and the vines that twisted up the porch, thought about their thickness and density like something that could overtake the entire house and swallow his body whole. He thought about all the things he held inside himself. Jesse might have a brain bleed, and Dave might have felt like nothing he did was right, but Jonah knew what he had. Jonah had a mother with cancer and a sister who spent most days in bed and a father who was gone long before he actually left.
“He’s a ghost,” his sister had said to him once in one of her odd moments of clarity. “He was never even here to begin with,” she breathed out of the corner of her mouth before sneaking off to the basement to get high.
“Do you think I don’t know what you’re doing down there?” Their mother said to her one morning when she emerged up the stairs.
“What, are you going to stop me?” His sister asked, her hair smoky, her eyes blank. Their mother just sighed. His sister had stopped going to class during the year. Jonah would see her weave in and out of the twisted hallways of their school when he knew she wasn’t supposed to be there. She would go to class and put her bags down, then get up and leave, thinking no one would notice. Everyone did, her teachers and the other students, but no one said anything. It was a small island, and their mother was the only one on it with cancer. She almost didn’t graduate, and she certainly didn’t apply to college, and Jonah had no idea what her plans were come the fall. Would she stay on the island, perpetually stoned? Or would she get up one morning and leave without saying goodbye? There were so many things on this Earth that no one knew.
Jesse came back from vacation more golden than before. He had hit his head with a surfboard at the beach and now everyone was careful to touch him; they tapped his knees or swept the small of his back but got nowhere closer than that. They stayed mostly at Jesse’s, where no one bothered them. They lay on the trampoline, bare backs on black rubber, tops of their heads touching. They weren’t allowed to bounce. Instead, they wiggled, easing their hips until they rocked lazily without having to move anymore. Faces to the sky, they imagined new colors, new sports.
“Rifindelifi,” Jesse couldn’t stop laughing.
“We throw raw meat at passing cars,” Dave said, “and when they stop we just look at them, then run.”
“A more hardcore game of nut ball,” Jonah sat up, blood rushing to his head. “Instead of balls, we use fruit. Grapefruits. Oranges. Cantaloupes!”
“And you can’t wear pants,” Dave added. He had a laugh that sounded like he was holding his breath in the back of his throat. “No holding your nuts, either. We’re talking full exposure, fruit to groin.” They all groaned. They imagined the world upside down, words slipping between their teeth and snaking into the sky, and when they sat up, they were dizzy.
By the third week of the summer, they got restless. Their skin itched beneath the surface, red hot pinpricks all over their bodies. They threw punches back and forth, bruising and rebruising their arms, their backs, bruises that faded from the inside out. They walked for hours at a time, drifting from house to house, stopping only when Jonah found a dollar on the sidewalk and convinced the girl at the ice cream shop to give them a cone of mint chip. Double scoop.
“You stingy bastard,” Dave said. “I just want one bite.”
“Do you even know how many germs are in your mouth?” Jonah hollered. “Who even knows where Jesse’s mouth has been.”
And Jesse’s hand was in Jonah’s face, palm pushing the cone up, ice cream covering his face like a beard.
“Did you guys know that Katie Callahan gave Ben a blowjob in the janitor’s closet?” Dave said offhand.
“Which Ben?” Jesse asked.
“No way, she did not,” said Jonah. “No one gets a blowjob in a janitor’s closet.”
“I totally would,” said Jesse, sitting straight up.
“Fucking sick, Jesse,” yelled Dave. “You’d give a blowjob in a janitor’s closet.”
“Get, I said get,” Jesse yelled back. “I’d get a blowjob, asshole.”
“Shut up, Head Injury,” Jonah couldn’t keep a straight face.
“Say it one more time,” Jesse threatened and they just laughed. “Yeah, laugh,” he went on. “I’ll give you a brain bleed, dickface.”
They used words that were too big for them, that surprised even them when they came out of their mouths. Ridiculous, they’d say. Spectacular. Even when nothing at all had happened. They sat on benches low to the ground, watching cars kick up dirt from beneath their tires. As they trailed their way back, Jesse remembered he was lactose-intolerant until he remembered that it was actually his brother who was. Dave smacked him on the back of the head.
“You dumbass,” Dave rolled his eyes and Jonah smiled, biting the inside of his lip. Jesse rubbed his stomach absentmindedly, fingers snaking underneath the thin cotton border of his shirt. He had read somewhere you could have a tumor in your stomach and not even know it, until it grew so big it ate up your stomach lining, swelling the skin. He smiled then, turned and said, “Whatever, I just hope I’m not pregnant.”
At midnight, the phone rang five times in a row, and when Jonah picked up, it was no one. The next morning, it rang again and Jesse’s voice was tinny traveling on miles of telephone wire. He had walked into the house that night and fell down, curling his legs to his chest, rocking back and forth like a bug. They thought it was food poisoning, but it was actually his appendix.
The nurses came in three times that day, pausing in the doorway with quieting glares.
“I think we need to institute the pillow system.” Dave’s face fell serious.
“What?” Jesse’s voice crashed into every corner of the room.
Dave hit him with a pillow. Jesse spit up bile on the floor.
They left the hospital before Jesse had his blood drawn.
“See you guys in a few days,” he called to them.
“Take it easy, Jess,” Jonah turned back to him, but couldn’t bring himself to smile. “See you soon.”
Once they closed the door, Dave turned to Jonah and shrugged. “What is wrong with that kid?” Dave asked, more to himself than anyone else.
“Who knows,” Jonah said simply. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Yeah, exactly.” The words left Jonah’s mouth quickly and quietly, even though he had no idea what they meant.
Jesse got checked out of the hospital with a clear diagnosis and the advice to stay away from sharp objects and anything else hazardous to his health. He went to Jonah’s house as soon as he could. He walked slowly, bent forward, feet shuffling, but his face was bright and his voice was bells.
“Look what I got,” he called from the hallway, and Jonah came to see. It was his IV, taller than he was, a thin metal cross with tubes strung over the top.
“Jesse, what are you doing?” When Jonah laughed, his dimples deepened so much they looked permanently carved into his skin.
“I wanted to keep the appendix,” he explained, playing with one of the tubes, “but the nurses didn’t let me. So they gave me this instead.” He paused. “I mean, I had to use it for a few days at home, but still. It’s only fair, don’t you think?”
The IV stayed in Jonah’s hallway until it dusted over and Jonah’s mom made him call Jesse to come get it. He never did. One Sunday, Jonah put it in the back of the garage, behind the bikes and the pile of mulch that was always there. The garage smelled like spiderwebs and felt like sand, and soon the IV was pushed into a corner and forgotten about completely.
“What about an Injury Olympics?” Dave had suggested, feet up on the table, drinking milk from a measuring cup, and Jonah said he could supply the crutches and Jesse yelled something about Dave’s mom being injured and they raced into the backyard without another word.
When Jesse took his shirt off, they fell silent, staring at the scar, a thin layer of raised flesh. Jonah reached out to touch it without thinking and Jesse winced slightly, even though he couldn’t feel it. He had a scar on his head and a scar on his stomach and neither of them felt like anything anymore. Dave laughed then, a sharp bark that split the air, and jumped onto Jonah’s back. They had no idea how big their bodies were and the ground shook with the force of their fall. They rolled on the ground, dizzy with dirt inked into their skin and Jonah grabbed Jesse’s ankle and he fell into them with a shout. They had scrapes on their knees and grass in their mouths and they stumbled to their feet one after the other, fists flying, high rise voices saying nothing at all. They walked slowly at first, no need to rush, and then as if on cue, some silent word that only they heard, they took off through the streets, running.