When I was a kid, I used to play games like “The Floor is Lava” with my brother, Greg. I didn’t like it too much. Greg was far more athletic than I. Older, too. He’d do all these graceful steps and great, balletic leaps that were way beyond anything my pudgy body could do. When I’d fall and lose the game, he’d gloat for a while and then we’d go off and play something else.
My neighbor, Mr. Clayton, would always watch us from the other side of the fence that separated our backyards. Mom said to stay away from him, but she couldn’t stop the guy from watching us play. He seemed harmless, if not a little weird. We didn’t pay him much attention. All afternoon, he’d watch us run races or throw the football around, only leaving his place behind the fence if he wanted to refresh his drink. Every so often, Greg would say, “hi Mr. Clayton” and give a big, exaggerated wave. Mr. Clayton just smiled awkwardly and looked down at the ground. To be honest, I felt a little bad for the man.
On an afternoon in late June, right after we’d gotten out of school and the day after Greg’s 15th birthday, he and I were roughhousing outside. We did that often. Even though he was older and taller, because of my extra heft, we were roughly the same weight. He was still much stronger and more agile, though, so he always got the better of me and pinned me down. After another win by Greg, he had me helpless on the ground while he crowed over me. While I waited for him to get off, I glanced over to the side. I could see Mr. Clayton watching us with rapt attention. His right shoulder was moving back and forth. Even though I was 11, I had a pretty good idea what he was doing.
“Let’s go inside,” I told Greg. The tone of my voice was much different than what Greg was used to, so he sensed something was going on and let me up. I didn’t tell him what I saw.
Mr. Clayton wasn’t in his yard for a few days after that. While I was reluctant to go out and play again, I kept reminding myself that the guy was harmless. Not only that, but Greg could certainly kick his ass if he ever tried anything. So things went on like they normally did, with Mr. Clayton reassuming his position behind the fence later that week.
After the July 4th weekend, Greg had a couple of his friends over. Dion and his brother, Rob. Dion was okay but Rob was a total asshole. A bully. I hated when he visited because Greg felt like he had to impress him. And that’s what was happening. The four of us had climbed into the dilapidated treehouse that’d been on the property before we’d moved in. The thing was a wreck. Floorboards were missing and countless spiders had made the place their home. Still, for whatever reason, there we were.
Rob was bragging about doing something to some girl over the weekend. Greg and Dion laughed along while I sat there, bored out of my mind. One of them had the great idea to have a pull-up contest using one of the branches above our heads. Rob took off his shirt to show off his muscular body, prompting the other two to take theirs off, as well. They did their pull-ups. Rob, unsurprisingly, won. After he’d made fun of them for being so weak, he turned his attention on me.
“Go ahead,” he sneered. “It’s your turn.”
I told him I didn’t want to. The others started to taunt me until I gave in and tried to do a pull-up. Obviously, I couldn’t. They all laughed.
“Come on, take your shirt off!,” laughed Rob. I did, with some reluctance. When Dion and Rob saw my chubby body, they started giggling. “Try again!,” Rob shouted. As I strained and pulled, I felt pain explode across my back. Rob had slapped me as hard as he could. I yelped and cowered, but he kept slapping my back and chest while Dion and Greg looked on without protesting. Once Rob stopped, he said, “now watch those handprints show up.”
They watched. True to his word, the prints rose out of the angry, red flesh while they giggled maniacally.
“Hey Steve,” said Greg. “The floor is lava.”
I told him I didn’t want to play and started to climb down from the treehouse. Rob blocked my exit. “You’re playing,” he informed me.
I was ordered to jump the gap between the floorboards. There was no way I’d be able to do it. I knew what I was capable of, and that just wasn’t even close. All three boys whooped and hollered at me to do it. I stood my ground. That’s when my brother started hitting me. Not slaps, either. Punches. He rained blows down on my lower back before getting in close to my ear and hissing, “just do it you fucking baby.”
As much as I tried to keep it in, I started crying. After a couple minutes, Greg got bored of hitting me. I curled up in the corner as Rob changed the subject back to the girl he’d been with over the weekend. While they laughed and asked typical, obscene questions, I sobbed pathetically. Rob looked at his watch and swore once he noticed it was much later than he’d thought. He and his brother climbed down the creaky ladder and left.
Greg followed them, leaving me alone in the treehouse. I stayed there for an hour, seething. It would still be another three hours before mom would be getting home from work. If I had to wait up there the whole time, so be it. I didn’t want to see my brother.
Mr. Clayton stared up at the entrance of the treehouse while I sat with my legs dangling over the side. Greg came back out an hour later. He climbed the ladder and pushed me backward onto the floor. I stared up at him as the splintery wood dug into my bare, handprint-covered back.
“You embarrassed me in front of my friends, you little piece of shit,” he hissed. “You fucking faggot. You fucking pussy.”
He circled around like he was about to start hitting me again. Then I noticed where he was. Without thinking, I kicked him in the knees as hard as I could. He gasped and stumbled backward. He dropped through the missing planks in the floor, striking his chin on the wood as he went, shattering his teeth. I heard a loud thump as he hit the ground below.
I took my time climbing down the ladder. Once I reached the ground, I walked over to my brother. His face was a rictus of blood and he drooled shards of teeth out of his mouth onto the grass.
“I can’t move,” he wheezed. “My legs. Arms.”
I kicked him in the chest. “I thought the floor was lava, you f**k,” I whispered. “Why didn’t you jump?” I kicked him again.
My neighbor watched from his side of the fence, his right shoulder moving furiously as he stared at our shirtless bodies. I smiled.
“He’s all yours,” I informed Mr. Clayton.
As walked back toward the house, I looked over my shoulder just in time to see my neighbor hauling himself over the fence.