The Boys gather in a semi-circle, fists clenched in the cold, faces clouded with smoke-breath, stomping their feet. A choir without a songbook.
They chant, next one up until someone, a small boy, legs shaking from cold and fear, falls to his knees in the trampled grass, moisture already seeping into his pants. The boy wipes his eyes, but there’s nothing there. An invisible opponent.
The boy—The Smaller—knows. They all know as the circle creeps toward him, pushing him closer, each boy kicking out. A chorus line of hate.
The choreography keeps them firmly rooted in the circle, clutching at the shoulders of the boy next to them, waiting for the fight to begin and end, so they can all go home until next week. The Smaller, he wants to cry, acid constricting his throat as he stands and swings wildly. He’s never thrown a punch before, his anger poured into creepy drawings of hangings and guillotines. Pictures he keeps beneath his bed, the dark a suitable shrine to his inability to fight back.
A force, something akin to the wind, collides with The Smaller and he’s face down in the mud, spitting grit from his tongue. Help me, he screams, his throat rattling like the old furnace in their ancient elementary school, next to his desk, whispering hateful things. Things worse than his father’s threats, worse than his mother’s indifference.
The circle of boys boo, their shoulders pushing in and out, caught up in the mob, banishing The Smaller to his fate. Not one of them knows when the fight will end, just how badly he will be beaten. Whether The Invisible is real or a conjured specter of their collective imagination, the power of their numbers, the volume of their voices cages The Smaller, makes him their sacrifice.
The Smaller pulls at the twisted pockets of his jeans, pulls out his Swiss army knife. In the mist, nothing sparkles, but the instrument brings out a collective ahh from the circle. No one has tried a weapon before. They’ve lost count of the boys who were chosen to fight before, who left limping and covering up gashes on their elbows and knees, the few who left in ambulances, EMTs mystified, the circle silent, each knowing that to speak up would be to lose a different kind of fight, a secret curse of accidents and cancer, and violent ends enacted by The Invisible if they said anything.
This time, it’s The Smaller’s turn and he struggles to pull out the longest Swiss army blade, a three-inch knife that feels insufficient in his small hands. The Invisible darts around him, nipping at the soft places of his cheek and shoulders, a bird pecking for worms, making new holes. The Smaller swipes left and right, a mockery of a combo he saw once at a pirate show for kids in the same park. The other boys laugh, careful to keep their hands knitted on each other’s shoulders, knowing the power of The Invisible to pick its next victim.
The Smaller threatens them—the physical boys, the meat of arms and shins showing, glistening with rain drops, but their feet, a one-two tattoo dance, keeps him in the middle of the circle.
The Smaller curses and longs for home, thinks of his sister, mother and father in their separate warm rooms. He hates them and yet, wishes they were there to pull him from the wreckage, twist him between the arms and hips of this revolving circle of boys. His mother loved him once. He believes this, though the proof is scant, a bouquet of pictures of her holding him as an infant, her eyes dull, unfocused, but gripping him safely. They all owe him something fierce but unnamed.
The Smaller is offered up, each slash of his short blade a cut into the fabric of time and matter, a small glinting hope of cutting his way out. But the air doesn’t glimmer. Nothing shifts except the wind of the Invisible toying with him like a cat with a mouse. There’s something to be said, a password, something that The Smaller could utter, some kind of disavowment—but The Smaller can’t find it among the cruel faces he faces.
He gives into the danger, the violence, the lack of personal custody, brings the blade across his palm, blood flooding. Before the pain takes him to his knees, he swipes across his forearm, his elbow, the soft skin of his own thigh. He twirls, the red droplets spraying delicately into the air, mixing with the mist, landing in small bubbles across the other boys’ faces, marking The Invisible, giving rise to a shrieking mouth, a thunder clap of their collective rage, and then—gone.
The circle contracts, the tang of blood pulling the Boys near, their feet stomping, finally guarding their champion.