This Story Won Second Prize in Our Contest
(Inspired by the poem “Rewinding an Overdose on a Projector by Sean Shearer)
The boy lies on a cot in juvenile hall with cartoon frogs and magic mushrooms stenciled on the walls, wearing thick orange sweatpants and sweatshirt, plastic sandals, and a rubbery wristband printed with his legal name—Maximus Bentley Schneider. He listens to the hoots and shouts reverberating back to rooms like his, all with heavy steel doors and open-view toilets.
He floats back to upright. The Styrofoam plate of fish sticks, powdered potatoes, and boiled broccoli—untouched and cold—on the rust-red floor, levitates into his hand that reaches for the slit in the door from where another hand returns the plate to a trolley of identical meals rolled back to the kitchen where cooks in hairnets restore the food to giant vats and trays.
The previous day he backpedals to the entry station at juvenile hall where information is withdrawn from a computer and transferred to his trembling mouth; then he walks back to the patrol car, where a five-point harness seals him against the hard plastic seat for the reverse to the main county jail where he’s detained in a holding cell, then escorted backwards to the booking station, ink from the paper imprinting his fingers, the flash of a mugshot, the cuffs tight on his wrists.
He’s the prime suspect identified in the crowd of other students, parents, teachers, and neighbors, transfixed by the Monday morning pile of rubble, twisted metal, and embers retracting steam, reconstituting into the ranch-like structure of Fulton High that sucks in fire and smoke at three a.m.
The flames retreat to the origin near the main doorway through which kids of all shapes and sizes regress at the start of each ordinary day.
A wave of incandescent blue withdraws to the point of initial contact with a wooden match, flaming bright, which arcs back to the hand of the boy reverse-striking the box, not a moment before the butane that has moistened the wall converges into the nozzle of the white plastic squeeze bottle where it is safely stored.
Standing in the cold night, matchbox in one hand, lighter fluid in the other, he thinks back to the previous Friday afternoon when he counts down to the start of his detention in the principal’s office while outside in the main hall; kids laugh viciously and inhale the phlegm that oozes in stainless-steel drinking fountains before they utter the onomatopoeic word hock, which—when said backwards—sounds almost exactly like cough.
Hock, the word that returns either way to so many young pairs of lungs.
Earlier that day, Friday, the phone regurgitates his mother’s cries while, on the other end of the line, the principal sits in his wood-veneered office speaking back the typed incident report that comes to the schoolyard proctor who, in the morning, strains his back before flinging boys into the dusty scrum of fists and legs—the scrum that collapses to a single punch that reloads into the tense arm of the lone boy that started it all at the beginning of the pre-lunch recess.
The boy that’s never seen trouble or thrown a punch.
He is in the yard, trembling in rage as hock, or rather its reverse, echoes off the walls of Fulton High and none of the school officials are willing to do anything about it, to strike at the source, to get at the origin. It’s the sound of yuck coming from lungs, but also the word that everyone recognizes as a reduction of ham hock, a popular synonym for gluteus maximus, the awareness of which traces back to a scene in science class earlier in the week when the students focus on a large poster that shows an illustrated man lacking skin. All the muscle groups that need to be memorized are rendered in Latin, the great root of English.
The entire class, including the teacher, swallows laughter to the moment that someone connects the name Maximus to butt, meaning that the boy with the funny name, who no one likes anyway, is the butt of all jokes.
Maximus Bentley Schneider, sitting in the front row.
He thinks back to that first day of high school, when his full name appears in plain print on the list of homeroom assignments for all to see. Previously, in middle school, he’d been just Max to those that know him—easier to pronounce than Maximus, harder for enemies to make fun of—and it could be Max once more, if he could travel back before juvenile hall, county jail, the arrest, the burning, the hacking snot, before the words hock, ham hock, and gluteus maximus, which are in fact evil names, before the teacher that thinks that kids need to roll with the punches and that names strengthen character. Before middle school, lower school, before a new PlayStation, reversing steps to a crawl, stripping underwear back to diapers, first words to inchoate babbling, shifting lips from bottle to breast. All the way back to when, on a cold mid-winter day, he slides feet first, kicking and screaming, through his mother’s vagina and—with reverse peristalsis—to a higher, warmer place where he first hears the pulsating rush of blood like the waves of some great ocean before everything has a name.