When the officer first came to the door of Miss Epps’ fifth-grade class, Cam hoped the policeman brought word of his dad. Even bad news was sometimes better than no news at all. Like the time his dad was missing in New Jersey but was found in Nevada and had to go to jail in Maine. Miss Epps walked to the door and exchanged whispers with the officer. She pointed at Cam and shook her head. Cam opened The Red Badge of Courage and pretended to read. Even only skimming the words, the sentences absorbed him. The lights above became the hot glare of sun on the battlefield. The snickers of his classmates became the murmurs of anxious soldiers.
Moments later, Miss Epps touched his shoulder. “Cam,” she said, “he wants to speak with you outside.”
In the hallway, the cop’s mouth opened and closed, but Cam didn’t hear him. He could only see as far as the officer’s glinting teeth and bright blue shirt before everything blurred on account of his tears. He waited for the cop to call him a sissy wimp, but the officer said, “I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you’re not the playground bully your friend’s mom made you out to be.”
“I don’t go to recess,” Cam said. Sometimes the guidance counselor, Miss Sparrow, called Cam into her office and asked him to sketch his feelings with colored pencils. Other days he went to Coach P’s Real Men’s group. Coach P spiked his hair with gel and wore a leather jacket. He’d once belonged to a motorcycle gang called the Iron Horsemen but had straightened out and gone to community college. Now he ran groups for at-risk boys.
“Did I break the law?” Cam asked
“Hardly,” the cop said, chuckling. “But while I’ve got you out here, let me ask you a stupid question. Anything going on at school I should know about?”
Cam thought for a while. A few kids chewed dip. He’d spotted pretty Miss Epps getting a kiss on the cheek from Principal McGinnis.
“Good or bad things?” Cam asked.
The cop said, “Either.”
“I don’t think so,” Cam said.
The cop put his thick hand high on the back of Cam’s neck and guided him into the classroom. Inside, Cam sat in his chair and reached into his desk for his lucky rock. Sharp and grey, it was flecked with metal that shone like gold and was maybe precious. Cam stroked its surface and squeezed its sharp points into his palm. In the hallway, another boy, Tommy Peacock, trembled in the policeman’s shadow. They were out there talking for so long Cam almost forgot about them.
Tommy Peacock could roll his eyeballs into his head, disappearing his pupils. He could dangle a rope of spit down past his chin before slurping it up. Once Cam had heard Tommy burp the Pledge of Allegiance to two girls in Ms. Waddell’s class who insisted he try out for Star Search. Unlike Cam, who was pudgy and shy, Tommy was as tall as a radio tower, always broadcasting noise and signals.
The powers that be at Whittemore Elementary decided it was a good idea for Cam and Tommy to spend time together in Miss Sparrow’s office. Cam wasn’t supposed to see it as punishment. “An opportunity,” Miss Epps said, “to befriend a boy your age.” Miss Sparrow was young with long, hippy hair and loopy ideas about karma and energy. She wore colorful crystals that dangled between her breasts. From her, Cam learned that Tommy had cut his cheek with a piece of glass and blamed the cut on Cam. Tommy had told his mom that Cam had killed Winona, the class hamster, and bitten a girl named Jane. Other atrocities too, fire-starting, brick-throwing. Tommy’s mother had called the principal and the police.
“But why lie?” Miss Sparrow asked Tommy during their first session. “Did Cam do something to bother you?”
“No,” Tommy said.
“Then why make up all these stories?”
Tommy bit his thumbnail and stared at the clock.
“Forget it,” Cam said, longing to get out of there.
Miss Sparrow asked the boys if they felt great storms of hormones swirling inside them.
Both boys glanced at each other and said nothing.
Afterwards, walking back to Miss Epps’ class, Tommy said, “Miss Sparrow’s a quack.”
“I know,” Cam said. “I saw her nipples through her shirt. They point in opposite directions.”
Tommy cuffed his ear. “You should talk more.”
Cam stopped walking. “What else did you say about me?”
Tommy stared down the hallway where the rows of red lockers went on and on.
“Worse than stabbing girls with sharpened pencils?” Cam asked.
“That’s messed up,” Cam said.
Tommy said, “I know it.”
In Real Men’s group, Cam and Tommy sat far apart. Coach P had favorites, and Cam wasn’t one of them. Cam didn’t buy hair gel at CVS so he could sculpt his hair into inch-long spikes, and he didn’t drop his “r’s” and say “forevah” and “hamburgah” because Coach P was born in Mattapan and had a heavy Boston accent. Coach P said Real Men didn’t leave women or kids. Real Men had jobs, made responsible choices. Any boy could grow up to be a Real Man even if his father was a Zero Man.
Coach P took his favorites to McDonald’s for group process lunches. Cam had only gone once. He’d sat across from Coach P and Tommy and the Timmonds twins, Jeremy and Max, beside a window that overlooked a playground with a spiral slide and ball pit. As the boys picked over their french fries, Coach P asked them questions. How mad were they their dads were gone? Mad like punching a pillow or mad like smashing a window?
Cam dunked a french fry into a smear of ketchup. He wasn’t mad, he said. He just wished his dad would come home. He missed his dad’s stories about the Yukon. Once before his dad’s moving business had gone downhill, he’d done a stint up north, surveying the land for precious metals. He’d run into a Kodiak bear. For six hours, his dad had hugged the upper trunk of a tree while the bear tore through his satchel of food. Then the bear fell asleep, and his dad shimmied down the tree trunk and made a run for it, following a gold-studded stream all the way to Dawson City. Cam’s lucky rock had come from that stream.
Coach P set down his burger and looked Cam square on. “You and I haven’t really connected, have we?”
“I like the games we play in group,” Cam said. “I like it when you bring in the hacky sack.”
Coach P said, “Atta boy, but now we’re talking about anger.”
In the school cafeteria, Cam sat alone and pretended the lunch table was a piano. He practiced the tricky finger positions of the few Bach minuets he knew by heart. He tried to feel angrier at his father but mostly he felt sad. The last time his dad had called, he’d needed money. Cam had left his lockbox of limited-edition baseball cards behind a rock in the yard. He’d tucked the lockbox key inside the mailbox. By the time he’d come home from school the next day, both were gone. He’d waited for a note of thanks, of anything, from his father, but nothing had come.
During their sessions in Miss Sparrow’s office, Cam and Tommy arrived at a silent agreement. It was the two of them against her. As long as they kept talking, they could miss spelling and sometimes even writing workshop or long division. They made up problems. Mostly, Tommy did. He said his older sister walked around topless, and this made him feel strange and that his next-door neighbor, Mr. Benedetto, spied on his mother using a periscope. When Miss Sparrow scribbled notes in her notebook, Tommy glanced at Cam and winked. Cam bit his tongue so he wouldn’t crack-up laughing.
One day in the cafeteria, Tommy tapped Cam on the shoulder and said, “Follow me. I have something to show you.” Cam put down his school-lunch grilled cheese and wiped the grease from his hands on his pants. He followed Tommy into the boy’s bathroom where Tommy told him to wash his hands with soap. Cam used the mirror above the sink to watch behind his back for boys hiding in the stalls, waiting to leap out and beat the shit out of him. But no one was there. After Cam rinsed his hands for a solid minute, Tommy said, “Let’s go,” and guided Cam out of the bathroom, down the hallway, and through the school’s small library to a set of double doors that opened to the courtyard. The courtyard smelled like hay and urine. A dozen wooden hutches backed-up against the far brick wall. Tommy walked to one of the hutches and rapped its side.
“The fatso in there’s the mom,” Tommy said, pointing through the chicken wire to a massive fur ball, which on closer inspection turned out to be the largest rabbit Cam had ever seen. “We had to move her from her litter because she was trying to eat them. But we’ll have to move her back soon or else they’ll die without her milk.”
Cam peered inside the neighboring hutch, where half a dozen baby bunnies huddled inside a shoebox. They were pink and bald, except for a thin coat of fuzz, and reminded Cam of body organs—hearts, kidneys, lungs—he’d seen in a health class movie called Anatomy of Life.
“They’re three days old,” Tommy said. He gestured to one, the size of a thumb, identical to all the others except for a smudge of black between its ears. “I call that one Little Peaceful. She’s my favorite. You washed your hands, so you can hold her. Do you want to hold her?”
Cam stepped back. He had never held anything that new or that small.
Tommy unhooked the latch, and Cam watched through the chicken wire as Tommy scooped out the tiny rabbit and cupped her in his hands.
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll hurt her?” Cam asked.
Tommy touched his nose to the bunny’s head and blew gently on the tips of her ears. “She trusts me. I named her. If she keeps eating and growing stronger, I get to take her home.”
When Cam’s mom worked nights at the restaurant, he snuck snacks out of the cabinet and arranged them on the floor in a circle around a bottle of Pepsi. He spun the bottle and whatever snack the bottle pointed to, he opened and ate. He did this until all the snacks were gone. Ring Dings. Funny Bones. Little Debbie’s. Cheese Doodles and Cheetos Puffs. Then he went to the piano. His mom had found the upright on Buckskin Drive outside a big house with white columns that rich people were leaving to move into another house that was bigger still. She’d paid two cooks at T.G.I. Friday’s fifty-bucks to haul it up the stairs to their second-floor apartment. Someday, she was going to be a piano teacher, and someday he was going to be slim and brave with a room full of boisterous friends. In the meantime, she taught him sonatas she photocopied from music books at the public library. He practiced, leaving cheese-dust fingerprints and chocolate smudges on the keys. When he was tired, he flopped on his bed and turned on the radio. The sports men argued about cheating in baseball. He waited for his dad to call in about Pete Rose. “Being a boss takes hustle. Where’s the crime in that?” he imagined his father phoning in. By the time his mom rolled in, close to midnight, Cam was long asleep.
Cam didn’t see Tommy outside Miss Epps’ class for several days. He looked for him at recess and in the lunchroom, but Tommy wasn’t in any of his usual spots. In class, Tommy rested his head on his folded arms and wasn’t interested in talking. Finally, one morning, Cam caught Tommy outside his locker before the bell. Tommy’s eyes were bloodshot and his cheeks were streaked with tears. Tommy said two nights earlier the mother rabbit had died in her sleep. Maybe she’d had a weak heart. There was no way of knowing. Now Tommy was arriving at school early and staying long past the final bell in order to feed the six remaining bunnies formula from bottles. “Except they aren’t used to bottles,” Tommy said, “and two of them refuse to suck.”
“Does Little Peaceful suck?” Cam asked.
“Right now,” Tommy said. “But the others are wasting away. They sleep all the time. They’re too weak to eat.”
After school Cam went to the courtyard and watched as Tommy and the Timmonds twins cradled the bunnies against their dirty T-shirts and nudged dripping bottles into the rabbits’ gaping mouths. Formula squirted down their chins. The bunnies made wet, sputtering noises. Even Cam understood they were choking.
“Slow down,” Tommy pleaded. “Swallow.”
Coach P stormed through the doors and ran his hands through his hair. “Boys, this is not looking good.”
During the next week, two of them died. Three of the remaining four lost patches of fur. Somehow Little Peaceful grew fuzzier and more alert. When Cam went to the courtyard at lunch and helped Tommy and Coach P and the Timmonds twins scoop fresh alfalfa into the hutches or clear away the hard pellet poop that fell through the floorboards’ cracks to the cement below, Little Peaceful pressed against the chicken wire, and Cam touched a finger to her nose.
One day after school, Tommy said, “I built my own hutch. For when she comes home with me. Do you want to see it?”
It didn’t take long for them to walk there. A chain-link fence separated the edge of the soccer field from the town land beyond. After they ducked beneath it, they were in Tommy’s yard, right beside his sorry gray house and its flaps of peeling paint. Tommy pointed to a hutch arranged beside the porch. The hutch looked solid and professional, ten times better than the house itself.
“Did you build that with your dad?” Cam asked.
“My mom helped me with the table saw, but I nailed everything together myself.”
Cam peered inside. A ramp led to a platform with water and food. In the woodchips, Tommy had placed a stuffed pink mouse with a single eye.
“I don’t know what you heard about my dad,” Tommy said.
Cam hadn’t heard anything except what Tommy had shared in Real Men’s group, that his dad had a mind with holes in it, that his father no longer remembered his name.
“Do you want to see him?” Tommy asked.
Tommy showed Cam the metal spigot, which served as a step up to the living room window. Cam climbed on. The glass was smudged with fingerprints, but through the grime Cam saw a thin man in a brown bathrobe leaning over in a chair. The man stared ahead with blank, gargoyle eyes, his dark hair matted to one side, his mouth hanging open, a ladder of drool stretching down his chin. Cam ducked because he didn’t want to make the man sadder or more frightened.
“It’s okay,” Tommy said. “He forgets everything the second it’s gone.”
A minute later, Cam climbed up again. This time, he stayed at the window longer. He stuck out his tongue. The man inside stuck his tongue out too. Cam smiled, but the man did nothing. When Cam stuck out his tongue a second time, the man screamed, “Bastard, who’re you?” and Cam leapt down.
Tommy said, “You’re not laughing.”
“It’s not funny.”
Tommy said, “Most people laugh.”
The next day, during lunch in the school courtyard, Cam pulled his lucky rock from his pocket and set it down in Tommy’s hand.
“It’s from my dad,” Cam said. “I don’t know where he is now.”
Tommy turned the rock over. Parts of it sparkled in the sun. “Is that gold?” Tommy asked.
“I used to think so,” Cam said. “Now I think it’s just rock.”
“It looks expensive, like something in a museum.”
“Maybe he stole it from a museum. He’s been to jail a couple of times. Can I hold her now?” Cam said. “Little Peaceful?”
Tommy placed the rock on the ground and went to the rabbit’s cage. He opened the padlock, singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as he reached in and scooped the animal out and cradled Little Peaceful in his hands like a fragile egg. “Cup her to your chest,” he told Cam, passing her over, “so if she squirms you got a real solid hold. And keep your fingers locked or else she’ll wiggle through.”
The rabbit’s paws dug at Cam’s palms. He could feel her rapid pulse beneath his fingertips, a faint and frantic drumbeat. He made his piano hands, curved and firm, yet soft. Soon, the creature relaxed. She was warm and light, and Cam lowered his nose to her fur and inhaled her woodchip scent. “Little Peaceful,” he said, closing his eyes.
“I know, right?” Tommy said. “I should just sneak her home right now. Put her in my pocket, carry her away.”
“You think Coach P would notice?” Cam asked.
Tommy said, “I don’t care.”
“But you’re one of his favorites,” Cam said. “You’re one of his pets.”
A flush of red spread over Tommy’s face. “Watch,” he said. He picked up the plastic feed pail and flung it against the wall. Pellets exploded over the concrete, hundreds, maybe thousands. The pail rattled to the ground. A shard cracked off, spun away. Tommy’s jaw trembled.
Cam wanted to bend down and sweep it up. For Tommy, he would have plucked the pellets from the ground with his fingers, with his teeth. But the rabbit jerked inside his hands, and Cam held her closer so she wouldn’t slip loose.
“Why did you say that?” Tommy asked. “Why did you call me one of his pets?”
“He likes you better, I think.”
Tommy said, “Give her back.”
Tommy’s eyes were wild and violent. Cam wouldn’t let go of the bunny because he wanted to protect Tommy from doing something cruel and vicious.
“Breathe,” Cam said, and Tommy inhaled a gasp.
When Tommy said, “Give her back,” a second time, his voice was hoarser, softer.
Cam stepped forward and tipped Little Peaceful into Tommy’s open palms. “Most of the time,” he said, “I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about.”
Tommy said, “Same here.”
Tommy received the creature in his hands. For a moment, Cam imagined the rabbit lurching over the edge of Tommy’s fingers, plunging to the ground below. He imagined sitting alone at lunch again, pretending the piano was his girlfriend, pretending the radio men lived in his house. He had never had a friend or a friendly fight. He thought fights were endings. He worried Tommy was gone.
The bell rang, signaling the close of lunch. Tommy walked to the hutch, opened the door, and lowered the rabbit into the straw. They left the mess there. The janitor, Mr. Leo, was good at taking care of eyesores.
Cam was stepping on the school bus later that day when he reached inside his pocket for his lucky rock.
“I left something behind,” he said to the driver, rushing down the bus steps, out of the bus, past the flagpole, and into the school. He raced through the hallways toward the library, through the library to the courtyard. He tried to remember where he’d left it. By the hutches? Near the barrels? Beside the crates they’d sat on during lunch? He spotted it through the window on the ground. The mess was no longer there. Cam opened the door and moved through the courtyard to recover his rock. In his hands, it was hard and cold, more worthless than he remembered. He looked up at the sky and ordered his heart to calm down. The rabbits were too quiet. Finally, they rustled, and Cam was able to breathe again, and swallow.
His stomach rumbled, and he turned to leave. In the library, a study group swapped words in a foreign language. Cam passed the office where Coach P leaned back in his swivel chair when he wasn’t leading group. Cam edged up to the door and pressed his nose against the inset window. Coach P’s chair was upside-down on his desk so the janitor could mop the floor beneath. Near the wall, a tall and short shadow stood chest to chest. The tall one slapped the shorter one’s face. The tall one touched the shorter one’s cheek.
Cam knew who they were. He stepped back from the door. He ran past the history hall and the science corridor. He thought of calling his mom, or Tommy’s mom, even his dad, wherever he was. But Cam was through the double doors, chugging over the sidewalks. When he got home, he brushed his teeth. Later that evening, he practiced piano. He made a lot of mistakes. Every time he stopped practicing, in order to say something, his mom said, “What, honey?” and Cam said, “Nothing. I didn’t say anything.”
Then, his mom had to go to the restaurant to fill in for a no-show. Cam sat at the piano and didn’t move.
After that afternoon, Cam refused to leave Tommy’s side. He imagined he made Tommy invisible by standing near him, and it was true, more and more often, Coach P passed Tommy over and asked other boys to fetch the rabbits’ food, refresh the water, or clean the cages. In gym class, Tommy picked Cam first for Capture the Flag. They kicked soccer balls at recess, shared Hostess snack cakes at lunch. Up on Tommy’s roof, they talked about places they would go, people they would meet in the future. Sometimes they climbed up onto Tommy’s roof with handfuls of G.I. Joes in their pockets. They perched above the gutters and pitched these plastic soldiers at the windshields of passing cars.
In June, Tommy brought Little Peaceful home to live in the hutch he’d built. Soon it was summer vacation. Cam and Tommy took over Tommy’s garage and spent three weeks building a raft to float down the Charles. They water-sealed boards, constructed a fence-post mast, sewed a drop-sheet sail. They tried to launch their vessel in the river, but the raft only floated for several seconds before sinking in the muck. It was the first summer of Cam’s life blessed with a best friend. Each week was a delirious mix of stolen cigarettes and prank calls, playing Ding Dong Ditch and racing from the doorbells they rang and the homeowners who emerged befuddled. Cam didn’t mention Coach P. He had trouble saying his name. Even Little Peaceful, who had seemed so important during those final months of school, remained out of sight in her cage, and Cam forgot she existed except for two or three times when they set her down in the shade amidst the dandelions and let her hop and sniff around.
One night in August, they stole four cans of Bud from Mr. Benedetto’s garage refrigerator and snuck into the Velvet Theater. The theater was run-down, crumbling. Earlier in the summer, they’d slipped behind a curtain to see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre followed by Poltergeist II. In the corner of the theater, a high school couple French-kissed for forty-five minutes. Cam had watched the sloppy kissing when the on-screen butchering became too much. Tonight, the corridors were empty. A red blotch of light orbited an Exit sign, but otherwise the darkness was thick and deep. They crept toward the double doors that led toward the auditorium.
Inside the theater, small pinpricks of light lined a path to the stage. The air smelled like wet sneakers. Rows of upholstered seats, torn in places, coughed up yellowish foam.
They sat on the stage, and Tommy pulled beers from his backpack. Cam’s first sip was warm and bitter like the bile that rose in his throat when he got sick. They talked about getting drunk. Tommy said it made you calmer. He said his cousin had fallen off a roof at a party but was so relaxed from alcohol he hadn’t broken any bones.
“Do you feel anything?” Tommy asked.
Cam said, “Not yet.”
“Have your second one.”
When Cam was done, he lay back on the stage and looked up at the ceiling. Black holes darkened every inch. He stared at the holes until a speck peeled off and disappeared into a web of lights. Then two more shook loose and dipped into the curtains where they squeaked and clicked. When Cam realized they were bats, he didn’t move.
Whenever he went against his cowardly currents and faced his fears, he became braver. He’d stopped blushing in front of Tommy’s sisters. He’d stuffed pinches of dip inside his lower lip. Once in July, when his dad had called from the middle of nowhere, Cam had said, “I gotta go,” not because he had to but because he wanted to, because now he could.
“Do you ever think about Coach P?” Cam asked.
Tommy was staring at the bats too, watching them soar and plummet.
“He took me out for lunch last Friday,” Tommy said. “He picked me up.”
Cam sat upright. “You got on his motorcycle?”
“He was driving a car.”
“But you got in it?” Cam asked.
Tommy scooted toward the edge of the stage. The outline of his body shook. Cam inched over and put a hand on Tommy’s shoulder. He felt Tommy’s sobs in his palm.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Tommy said. He pressed his thumbs into his eyes. “I might have swallowed some dip on the ride over,” he said. “Maybe I’m high. Maybe that’s why I’m crying.”
Cam let go of Tommy’s shoulder and gripped the edge of the stage. He looked up at the bats, but they were dots now, tight and motionless. Cam wondered if he was crazy, if anything he saw could be trusted to be true.
“What do you want me to do to him?” Cam asked. “Do you want me to hurt him?”
“He won’t keep bothering me,” Tommy said.
“I could plant a knife in his classroom,” Cam went on. “I could stab the air out of his tires. I could pour powdered sugar into bags, call in a tip about drugs in the school. Cops would come search, lock him up. You wouldn’t need to say a word, if you didn’t want to.”
“I don’t want to,” Tommy said.
Cam said, “All right. I’ll do it. Decided then.”
They sat very still. Cam’s heart punched his ribs. His body was blubber, but his mind was a bullet, sharp and piercing. He wished he had more beer or something stronger. Liquid courage, he’d heard his dad say once. He grabbed another can and took a long, deep swill. The beer scorched his throat like a shot of fire, exactly what Cam needed with all those rows of seats staring back at him, witnessing his promise, daring him to become fearless.
Taryn Bowe’s short stories have received special mention in The Best American Non-Required Reading series and have appeared or are forthcoming in literary journals such as Boston Review, PANK, Bellevue Literary Review, Joyland, and The Greensboro Review.