THE NIGHT BEFORE his first day of high school, Shelby Crestfield stood naked before the full-length mirror on his closet door. His room was dark except for a small desk lamp placed at his feet, and he examined the shadows cast over his pale shape. It was a ritual he’d done every day since he was laughed out of tryouts for the freshman football team—he wanted to see what others saw. Shelby stood five-feet-two-inches tall and weighed eighty-four pounds. Fibrous muscles stretched like rubber bands from joint to joint, and his skin clung to the ridges of his ribs like wet cotton. He rubbed his freshly buzzed scalp and studied his knuckles, raw from hours of beating the heavy bag that hung over an exposed rafter in the ceiling. He looked at his face. His nose had a jagged kink halfway down—the second break from last year couldn’t be straightened—and speckled scars twisted over each eyebrow from the thirteen total stitches he’d received. A gust of wind blew loose the garbage bag taped over his bedroom window, broken two months now. He imagined himself without a body. If he was only a face, people might be scared of him, but put his head on top of sharp shoulders, collar bones sticking out thin as sorghum cane . . . That’s why they wouldn’t let him try out. Maybe it was why Curry Jackson had said what he said in front of everybody, even the coaches. Shelby stepped closer to the mirror. His left eye stared a couple degrees to the side, and he hated it. It made him look stupid.
But Shelby knew he wasn’t stupid. He knew all kinds of things. He knew bigger guys never expected a right-hand lead. He knew the Morse code alphabet and how to find the North Star even when the dipper sat below the ridge line. He knew where a .38 revolver was hidden in the house. He knew you could make another meal from a KFC bucket by boiling the bones. He knew his dad wasn’t dead like his mom said but had just run off before Shelby’s memory had kicked in. He knew the point of a fight wasn’t to win, but to make others know your worth, and he knew, given his first chance, he was going to kill Curry Jackson.
Some battles carry the weight of one’s world.
OF ALL HIS MOTHER'S boyfriends, Shelby liked the Marine best. He wasn’t around long, just two weeks when Shelby was in the sixth grade. He’d been in Afghanistan twice and volunteered narratives of missions and patrols. Shelby sat, trying to memorize all the names that sounded to him more like spells than places—Kandahar, Helmand, Lashkar Gah. The Marine once taped a butter knife to the end of a broom stick to demonstrate bayonet drills. Shelby’s mother told him to knock it off, that the boy got into enough trouble on his own, but she didn’t stop Shelby from practicing the moves, and she didn’t take the broom back after he started keeping it next to his bed while he slept.
Shelby liked the Marine best for what he left behind, a worn paperback copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. He’d been reading it in preparation for Officer Candidates School, to become a student of warfare. Flipping through the book, Shelby took to translating the ancient general’s words to fit his own time and place. He wrote these translations in a seven-subject spiral notebook he kept between his mattress and box spring. Not long after the tryouts, Shelby sat in bed with his notebook and thought of Curry—a junior all-state linebacker with recruiters from Alabama knocking on his door. Most fights Shelby was okay to lose, as long as some respect was gained. But Shelby didn’t want to send Curry a message. He wanted to rattle his teeth loose.
When victory is absolutely necessary, it can be necessary to sacrifice honor. Aim for the nuts.
Fuckin’ A, Shelby thought.
SHELBY SAT ON A PICNIC table near the student parking lot just before the final bell of the first day of school. He watched the black Mazda coupe he knew belonged to Curry, a mix of sand and fine gravel clutched in his right hand, a pair of leather boots laced high up his shins. When he saw his target approach the car, Shelby calmly and swiftly maneuvered through the parked rows and came to him from behind.
“Curry,” Shelby said.
Curry turned, and right as he smiled in recognition, Shelby flung the grit into his open eyes and kicked him between the legs. Curry doubled over, moaning. Shelby gave him another kick in the groin, shoved him to the ground, and drove his boot into his stomach and chest. Shelby stepped back, ignored the pain in his ankle, and swung his foot into Curry’s face. A tangle of blood shined against the dusty car door, and the linebacker’s eyes streamed tears of dirt.
Shelby caught his breath and hawked a roll of phlegm onto Curry’s back.
“Who’s the faggot now?” he said and walked off to catch the bus home.
Never stray from a challenge. Never be who they see you as.
THE NEXT SATURDAY afternoon, Shelby walked along the edge of a winding country highway to the county park near his house to shoot baskets. His shots flew in hard, flat arcs that careened off the rim. He heard hollering and turned to see an older kid smoking on a bench. Coming from behind him was Curry Jackson, walking with two of his teammates. The older boys stopped at the edge of the court, and Shelby noticed how the bruise across Curry’s nose had ripened to the color of mashed blackberries.
Curry looked to his friends. “Look at him smile,” and they each snickered at the untold joke.
Shards of anger pricked down Shelby’s spine.
“Everybody knows the only reason you start shit is to get rolling around with some dudes,” Curry said. “Three boys ganging up on you has gotta be a dream come true.”
The basketball pinged off Curry’s face, leaving a splotch of blood under his nose.
The boys circled Shelby, and his mind ticked through their motions: this would be no brawl. They didn’t want to need help.
There are many types of victory. It can be a denial of what your enemy sees as victory. Wear the bastards out.
Shelby stood in the middle, hands ready. Curry strode forward and launched an overhand haymaker. Shelby swayed, countered with a jab to the nose. Curry staggered back, a fresh confusion on his face, a look Shelby knew well, someone realizing he was much stronger than he looked. Curry swung again, wildly, and Shelby’s fist found an eye. Another boy lunged, and Shelby leapt out of the way, caught his balance, raised his hands, and watched his new attacker slink back to his spot in the circle.
“Can’t last forever,” Curry said.
In his mind, Shelby chanted, you hope not.
FROM THE BENCH, Clarkson was surprised to see the little shit doing so well. He knew who Shelby was. Everyone knew who Shelby was. Most people steered clear of him, not out of fear but because why would you want to get close to the psycho?
Clarkson stamped out his cigarette, which he’d stuffed with a few crumbles of weed to make into a half-hearted spliff, and watched the fight. He thought Curry and his boys were teasing Shelby. As the fight went on, as Curry’s curses grew more hateful, it was clear the kid was winning. Not that he would win. But that move with the basketball? Clarkson about spit his cigarette to the ground laughing. It’d be a shame to let a punk like Curry lay him out. There were gaps Shelby could burst through to take off running, but it seemed leaving the circle standing wasn’t his concern.
Clarkson stood, was about ten steps from the circle when Shelby finally slowed enough for Curry to catch him in the side of the face. One of the other boys hooked an arm around his neck from behind. It was about to get bad, nearly over. Then Clarkson’s shoulders wound back his right fist, and it was over.
• • •
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SEAN ROSE is a former newspaper reporter from Louisville, Kentucky, and a current writer, musician, and teacher living in Central Texas. His fiction has been published in Day One, and he was an L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark House writer-in-residence. At the moment, he is waist-deep in writing a novel. He will change your car’s oil for cheap.