Kevin Wilson’s “Kennedy,” first published in Subtropics Issue 27: Spring/Summer 2019, was included in The Best American Short Stories 2020.
John F. Kennedy was a boy in our high school, but he went by Kennedy. For a brief time, he made things pretty bad for us. We’d started our junior year without ever having exchanged a single word with him, had only seen him as he stalked the hallways, his long, greasy hair covering his face, his Coke-bottle glasses. He always wore this olive green military jacket with the name KENNEDY stitched across the right breast. Underneath that, he seemed to have every single Cannibal Corpse T-shirt in existence, a never-ending parade of skeletons and knives and blood and people with the skin ripped off their faces. He wasn’t allowed to wear the T-shirts at school, since they were against the dress code, so he wore the jacket over them, even when it was hot out, and if he sensed your weakness, he’d open his jacket and flash the T-shirt at you as he passed you in the hallway.
Ben and I were best friends, each other’s only friend, really. There were other people we liked fine enough, and sometimes we’d hang out, but Ben and I were constant. I liked the steadiness of his friendship, that if I ever reached out into the darkness, he would be there. We had known each other since we were six years old, when his family had moved here to Coalfield from Seattle because his dad taught sociology at the tiny liberal arts college in town. Ben was the only Japanese kid in Coalfield, though there were some Chinese kids who were adopted and a Korean family who ran a Chinese restaurant. He wrote experimental poetry, had won a national contest for high school kids the year before. I was just a regular kid, pretty smart, but I’d been protected by my parents, which had left me without street smarts, with no sense of how to navigate high school. My parents still kissed me on the lips, and when they hugged me, it was always for slightly longer than I wanted it to be. We played bridge after dinner, my parents and I and my younger sister; we listened to Simon and Garfunkel records, my mom singing along. The idea of going to a party, or the football game on Friday nights, never would have occurred to me or Ben. We hunkered down, made our own happiness, and hoped that maybe we’d figure things out by the time we left Coalfield and went off to college.
Kennedy ended up in our art class in our junior year. The room was some kind of converted garage, cement floors splattered with paint, and there were all these huge, heavy tables, where we sat on stools while the teacher, Mrs. Banks, lounged on a recliner in the corner of the room because her back was messed up. She barked out instructions, and we’d follow them to the best of our abilities. On the first day of classes, a minute after the late bell rang, Kennedy skulked over to the table where Ben and I were sitting and threw his backpack down so hard that it flew across the table’s surface and hit Ben’s arm. Ben took the pain without complaint. And maybe that was all Kennedy needed, that certainty that he could hurt us and we’d never tell.
Our first assignment was to do a figure drawing from this little twelve-inch wooden mannequin. Ben was pretty good at it, had always been a decent artist, and had sketched out a pretty perfect representation, but I was having trouble with it, couldn’t make the individual parts of the figure come together. Kennedy just took a graphite pencil and pressed it so hard to the paper that it nearly ripped it apart. He drew the most basic stick figure and then drew X’s where the eyes would be. “Look at this shit,” he said to me, but I tried to ignore him, still trying to get my drawing right. He suddenly punched me in the arm so hard that I gasped. “Look,” he said. Even though he was so greasy, so scuzzy, his skin was perfect and pale, not a mark of acne. His eyes looked wavy beneath the thick lenses of his glasses, but they were an intense blue.
I looked down at the drawing, the dead figure. “Yeah, OK,” I said. I went back to my own drawing. “That’s you,” he said. I just shrugged. Mrs. Banks was far away from us, maybe asleep. I stood up. “I need to get some water,” I said, and walked to the drinking fountain in the hallway, where I took a long, sustained sip. I could feel my face burning with the fear of what Kennedy might do to me, and I took several deep breaths. When I got back, Ben was staring at me with this look of alarm, like he was trying to silently warn me of some impending doom. I sat back down and
looked at my drawing. A huge, cartoonish dick had been appended to my figure. “Oh, man,” I said, looking at Kennedy, who was completely focused on his own drawing, acting like he had no idea what was going on. “C’mon, Kennedy. Please.”
“What?” he said. “Oh, wow, look at that. You like huge cocks, I guess? You look like you love big dicks.”
I tried to erase the dick, but even after I’d rubbed and rubbed, the outline was still visible on the paper. So I flipped to the next sheet of the pad and started over. While I drew, Kennedy leaned toward Ben and slapped his arm. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, you, Nip. What’s your name?”
“Ben,” Ben whispered.
“Hey, Ben,” Kennedy said. “You see that guy over there?”
I couldn’t help but look, too, and we turned to see Eric Murdock at one of the far tables. He had a full mustache and was wearing a tank top.
“That guy has a huge dick,” Kennedy said. “I saw it in the locker room. Twelve inches, probably.”
“OK,” Ben said.
“And he’s a virgin. Can’t get a girl to fuck him. Hey!” He punched Ben’s arm. “What do you think about that?”
“Nothing,” Ben said.
“What’s his name?” Kennedy asked Ben, pointing at me.
“Jamie,” Ben said.
“What about you, shithead?” Kennedy asked me.
“Well,” I said, “maybe girls don’t want to have sex with a twelve-inch penis.”
“I know a lot of girls who would like to bounce around on that thing,” Kennedy said. “Older girls. Women.”
When it became clear to Kennedy that we weren’t going to give him anything of substance, he started drawing devil horns and a tail on his stick figure and pentagrams dancing around its head. He didn’t talk to us again, like we didn’t exist, like he hadn’t punched both of us so goddamned hard, talked about huge dicks. Ben and I were grateful for the reprieve. We thought maybe that would be the end of things, that Kennedy would move on and we’d be safe.
After school, I drove Ben to his house in my hand-me-down Chevy Cavalier and we stumbled inside. We hadn’t said a word about Kennedy for the entire drive, partly because we didn’t know what to say, how we could talk about him without saying the word “dick” a bunch of times. We’d already done all of our homework during study hall, the work easy because it was only the first day, and so we ran past his mom, who translated poetry and complicated technical manuals from Japanese into English, and closed the door to his room. We decided to go old-school, put Contra in the Nintendo, eschewing the secret code that would have let us gain unlimited lives, and worked ourselves into a state of complete numbness, our eyes glazed over, like we’d plugged our brains into a machine and, in return for our full attention, it had made us happy, our bodies ice cold.
We were both obsessed with video games. We spent every dollar of our allowances on new games, and because we shared everything, we could buy twice as many. Ben had a Nintendo and a Super Nintendo, an old Atari 2600, plus a
Game Boy and even a Game Gear. I had the two Nintendo systems, plus a Sega Genesis and a Sega Master System. We would play for hours; sometimes I’d play until my hands were paralyzed, until I could no longer bend my fingers, and I would simply hand the controller, mid-game, to Ben, who would pick it up without missing a beat. It wasn’t enough to finish a game; we had to beat it in record time, playing the same board over and over and over until we figured out how to clear it as fast as possible. As each of us played, the other would whisper, “Go, go, go, go,” and it
sounded as steady as a heartbeat.
We had to have the highest scores. And when we got them, we took photos of the screen, turning off all the lights in the room until it was pitch black, wiping the screen clean with Windex so there were no smudges. Ben even had a tripod to steady the camera. And even with a perfect picture, when we got the photos developed, the images were still slightly blurred, and you could see the rounded
edges of the CRT screen. We’d get doubles, one for each of us. We kept them in a photo album, labeled and carefully curated. We thought, maybe, this might help us get into a top-notch college. Even if it didn’t, who cared? For those hours, our bodies were the bodies on the screen, and we kept them alive for as long as we possibly could.
Finally, after three hours of gaming, Ben’s mom called us to dinner. I always loved the food at Ben’s house, dishes like seaweed crumbled up in a bowl of pristine rice, a raw egg cracked over it. And Ben loved eating at my house, so many casseroles, so many variations of starch, cheese, and meat. That night, Ben’s mom had made somen noodles that we dipped into little bowls of hon-dashi and soy sauce,
little dried shrimp floating in the bowl, that fishy taste that made me so happy.
“How was school?” asked Mr. Nakamura, and Ben and I looked at each other for a second too long. “That bad?” Mr. Nakamura said.
“It was OK,” Ben finally said. How would we even begin to describe Kennedy? What could be done? I stuffed a bunch of noodles into my mouth, slurping them up. “It was fine,” I agreed. And that was that. It was like, in missing that moment when things were still normal, we had given up any chance of controlling Kennedy’s effect on our lives. He had us. If he wanted us, whatever he wanted, he could have us.
But things were OK for a week or two. Kennedy would tease us, trying to gross us out, prodding at our bodies, testing for weak spots. He’d grab my ear and twist it, making me yell out, which would rouse Mrs. Banks to an upright position, but she’d just call for order and that would be that. He once said that he doubted that Ben had
any pubic hair, and tried to pull down his pants, but Ben held on to his belt, until Kennedy grew bored. “You guys are the fucking worst,” he would say, staring at us like we were Sea-Monkeys he’d ordered that had immediately disappointed him.
We didn’t do anything. We didn’t tell Mrs. Banks, since we couldn’t imagine what she would do. We didn’t sit at another table, surround ourselves with other people for protection. We didn’t fight back. Now I understand it: we had stayed invisible for so long that we weren’t used to people noticing us, and so when Kennedy noticed us, shined a light on us, we simply froze, simply sat there and
took it, all these little indignities, and hoped that he would fuck up in some other class and get suspended, a temporary reprieve.
One day Mrs. Banks told us that we were going to work in groups. Each group was to create a replica of the Parthenon out of cardboard. The project was going to take a week to complete and would require a lot of precision work.
“How many people per group?” Ben asked, his voice quavery and weird.
“Three,” she said. “Yes, three per group.”
Ben visibly deflated, and Kennedy smiled. “You fuckers thought you could get away from me?” he asked.
“It’s not that,” I said. “We just like working with each other.”
“Yeah,” Kennedy said, leering. “I bet you like working with each other. Working each other’s dicks in your mouths.”
“C’mon, Kennedy,” I said.
“You are the fairiest fairy that I’ve ever seen. What kind of music do you like?”
There was no way that I was going to tell him that my favorite album was Tevin Campbell’s I’m Ready. I wasn’t going to tell him that I liked Britpop.
“Heavy metal,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” he said, slowly nodding. “Like what?”
“Ratt?” I said, like I was in a spelling bee and had never heard the word before in my life.
“Get the fuck out of here,” he said, laughing.
“That’s metal,” I said, confused. “I know it is.”
“You need to listen to death metal,” he said. “You need to listen to Mayhem.
The lead singer killed himself and then another guy in the band made a stew with his brains.”
“That’s awful,” Ben said, and he sounded like a grandmother who’d just heard that a lady at her church had cancer.
“You two …,” he said, but didn’t say anything else. He just stared at us. “I’m gonna work on you two.”
At my house, Ben and I played Donkey Kong Country. I used a stopwatch while Ben tried to run as quickly as possibly through the board, chaining rolls together to keep the speed boost, plowing through enemies instead of taking time to jump on them. It was hypnotic, so calming. “You’re doing it,” I said, smiling. Ben worked his hands on the controller, could almost do this blindfolded.
“I’m scared,” he suddenly said.
“Of the game?” I asked, confused, looking at the screen.
“Of Kennedy. I’m scared of him,” Ben said.
“Me, too, I guess,” I said.
“What do we do?” he asked.
“Nothing. What can we do?” I really had no clue.
“Go to the principal. Go to the police. He’s going to hurt us.”
“It would be so embarrassing,” I said.
“I know,” he said. Right at this moment, he got dinged by an enemy, and he cursed, tossing the controller to the ground. “Here,” he said, gesturing to the controller. “You take over.”
We switched positions and I started the game over, the side-scrolling making me wonder if the game would ever end, the way it kept opening up. I wanted it to never end.
“We should kill him,” I said.
“No way,” Ben said. “Not even as a joke.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s OK,” he said after a few seconds.
“We’ll be OK,” I said.
“OK,” he said, but he sounded sad. I turned away from the game, watched it reflected in Ben’s eyes, the colors so beautiful.
Our Parthenon was a disaster. Ben and I simply didn’t have the kind of brain for three-dimensional building. Nothing quite made sense, no matter how long we stared at the photo of the Parthenon—the one in Nashville, not in Greece. And Kennedy, dear Lord, he did everything possible to mess it up. I wondered how he’d made it this far in school when it was so clear how little he cared, how he would dare anyone in authority to do something about it. But it was like he was invisible to people in charge. I couldn’t figure it out.
We had to use a hot glue gun to set the pieces of cardboard, and Kennedy immediately took control of it. While we were holding the pieces together, waiting for the glue, Kennedy would touch the tip of the gun, burning hot, to our fingers, sometimes even squirting the hot glue onto our skin. We’d yelp, and Kennedy would howl with laughter.
“Kennedy, seriously,” Ben said. “Don’t do that again.”
“OK,” he said, still giggling. “OK, you’re right. Sorry. OK, hold it steady. I’ll really do it this time.”
And then he’d burn us again. At the end of the day, Ben and I held up our hands for inspection and noted all the little burns, purple and angry, that covered our hands. Looking back on it, I want to take myself and just shake and shake, like, What the fuck is wrong with you? Why did you let that happen? But I can still remember those moments, when it felt like I was paralyzed inside my own body, like I had to pull myself deeper and deeper inside of myself, away from the surface, in order to stay alive. I think Ben felt the same way. We tried not to talk about it.
That Friday, the last day of the project, we still had a lot to do, because Kennedy kept breaking our Parthenon out of spite. The night before, I’d had anxiety dreams where for the first time I got a grade lower than an A because Kennedy fucked it up for me. I couldn’t get into any colleges. In the dream, my parents kept asking, “What’s wrong? How did this happen?” which was crazy because my parents only asked that I do my best, barely even checked my grades. And now we had to stay after school, the three of us in the art room, in order to finish the Parthenon. We’d begged Kennedy to go home, to let us finish it on our own, but he’d insisted he wanted to be there, to make sure it was up to his standards.
So it was just the three of us, not even Mrs. Banks in her recliner, which was where Kennedy was now lounging, violently yanking on the lever to make the leg support unfold. He put a Morbid Angel album on the cassette player, which during class only ever played John Tesh jazz. After about an hour, we had something that resembled the Parthenon. We carried it over to the work table and put it next to the other Parthenons.
“OK, Kennedy,” Ben said. “We’re finished.”
“We’re not finished until I sign off,” Kennedy said, hopping out of the chair. He walked past the supply cabinet and grabbed an X-Acto knife, which made both of us instantly stiffen. He tested the point of the blade on the tip of his finger. A little pinprick of blood appeared. “C’mon, Kennedy,” I said. We backed away from him, putting a table between us.
“Calm down, pussies,” he finally said, slipping the blade into the front pocket of his jacket. Then he picked up our Parthenon and held it up in the air as if he was going to slam it to the ground.
“Kennedy!” we both shouted, and he gently put it back down on the table.
“Excellent work,” he said. “Makes these other Parthenons look like a fucking joke.”
“OK, great,” I said. “We have to go now.”
“Where are you going?” he asked, looking curious, as if he had never once considered the possibility that we had lives away from him.
“We’re going to my house,” I said. “Play some video games.”
“I could come over, too, if you want,” he said, and he wasn’t smiling. We couldn’t tell if he was serious.
“His mom’s pretty strict,” Ben said, thinking quickly. “She’s a hard-ass. I can’t bring people over without her OK first.”
“Well, tell you what. Next week, I’m coming over. Play some of these video games. Have fun. But right now, I need you guys to give me a ride. I missed my bus, because you fuckers couldn’t glue cardboard together. So give me a ride, OK?”
“OK,” I said. “I guess so.”
Kennedy got in the back seat of my car, and I was terrified of what he might do there, where I couldn’t quite see him. I thought he might cover my eyes while I was driving, kick at the back of my seat the entire ride. But he just kind of fell across the entire back seat, lying on his back.
“Drive out to the soccer fields,” he told us. “Over on Wrigley. Then turn onto Bald Knob Road. Bald fucking knob. Har-har. You two have bald knobs, I bet.”
For the rest of the ride, Kennedy just lay there, not making a sound. “OK,” I said as I made the turn, “I’m on Bald Knob Road.”
“Two twenty-two,” he replied. “Buncha shit in the front yard.”
We pulled up to a one-story ranch, and he was right, there was a bunch of shit in the front yard. There were two busted riding mowers, a burned-black steel drum with blackened pieces of wood sticking out of it.
He didn’t get out of the car.
“We’re here,” I said after a while.
“Just give me a minute,” he said. He didn’t move. I could hear him breathing, it was so quiet in the car.
“OK,” he said, jumping out of the car. “On Monday, I’m coming home with you.”
“Kennedy, I don’t—”
“Motherfucker, I’m coming over,” he said, leaning back through the open door, his face close to mine. “And if you try to leave me at school, drive off without me, I’ll look you up in the phone book and then I’ll come over there. And it will be bad fucking news for you two.”
“OK,” I said. “OK, you can come over.”
“Have a good weekend,” he said, running to the house.
We sat there for a while, my hands shaking.
“I think I’m sick, Jamie,” Ben said. I caught sight of myself in the rearview mirror and was surprised at how pale I looked.
“What are we going to do?” he asked.
“It’ll be OK,” I said. “He won’t do anything with my mom there, and my sister too.”
“Are you serious?” Ben asked. “He’s going to kill us.”
“He won’t,” I said. “He’s just testing us. He’s just messing with us.”
“Maybe,” Ben said, but his look was far off, like something had glitched in his brain.
“Do you want to play video games?” I asked.
“Maybe just drop me off at home,” he replied. “I don’t feel so great. I think I need to rest.”
When I dropped him off, I grabbed his arm, and I hated the way he flinched when I did it. But I still held on to him. “We’ll protect each other,” I said. “OK?”
Ben nodded. “OK,” he said.
“If he did something to you, Ben,” I said, almost crying, “I really would kill him.”
Ben smiled and got out of the car. I didn’t see him the rest of the weekend, didn’t even pick up the phone.
On Monday, when school was over, Ben and I stood outside my car, shifting from foot to foot, waiting for Kennedy. “We should just go right now,” Ben said. “Let’s just get out of here.”
“He’ll just follow us home,” I told him. I had completely given up. If Kennedy wanted to kill me, if he wanted to wrap his hands around my throat and squeeze, I would let him. Ben, I think, was still hoping there was some way out of this, some code we could punch in that would open up a secret room, a place we could hide, a place where we couldn’t be hurt. I was beyond that. Whatever happened, I just wanted to get it over with.
Kennedy finally showed up, nodding his approval that we’d waited for him. “Let’s go,” he said. “I have to be home by five or my dad will kick my fucking ass.”
My mom treated Kennedy like he was a street urchin in a Broadway musical, shaking his hand, saying how nice it was that Ben and I had added a friend to our little crew. Kennedy seemed stunned by her easy kindness, her offer of a Mountain Dew, because he barely even spoke, wouldn’t make eye contact with her. She let us get some snacks and then we were upstairs, in my room. Right away, my sister, Molly, peeked in, wanting to see this new boy, but we shouted her away, terrified, honestly. We had this unstable thing inside the house, and we wanted to keep it contained in my room so that we’d be the only people damaged when it blew up.
The night before, I’d hidden everything good, all my money, my comic books of any worth. I’d shoved it all in my closet, tossed some blankets over it. I even took the SNES, because I didn’t want it to get damaged, and put it away. I had looked around the room, wondering what I owned that Kennedy might linger on, that he might use against me. And, truly, it seemed like everything in the room would give him reason to beat me senseless.
“What game do you want to play?” I asked Kennedy, trying to be a good host.
“I never played a video game in my entire life,” he said without blinking.
I couldn’t tell if he was fucking with us.
“Are you serious?” Ben asked.
“Dead serious,” he said.
“What about the arcade?” Ben asked, as if it was unbelievable to him that someone our age had never played a video game.
“Nope,” Kennedy replied.
“Well, what do you want to play?” I asked. “What kind of game? Like, Mario Brothers or maybe a driving game?”
“Something where you kill people,” he said. “Duh.”
I looked at the games I had lined up on my bookshelf. Kennedy pushed me aside and brought his face close to the spines of the games. “Whoa,” he said finally. “Holy shit, this is Rambo. Like the movie Rambo?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s it.”
“Can we play this?”
“Sure. It’s two-player, so we can work together.”
“Cool, cool, cool.”
I handed Kennedy a controller and turned on the system. The blue and white letters showed up on the screen, and then there was Sylvester Stallone, all buff, that red headband.
I started the game. “OK,” I said, “this button shoots bullets and then this one here shoots exploding arrows. Use those to blow up the tents and you’ll rescue the hostages.”
“You’re the yellow headband and I’m the red headband.”
Within seconds of starting the game, Kennedy walked right into a bullet and his character fell over dead. But he started up again, another life. The same thing, dead.
“Jesus fuck!” he said. “This game is fucking hard.”
“Just try to dodge the bullets,” I said. “Don’t run ahead too far.”
“Oh, shit, thanks, fucker,” he said, his voice sarcastic.
“Avoid the bullets.”
We played a little and then Kennedy died again, which meant he’d have to restart, which he did. “This gun doesn’t do shit,” he said. “Let’s try these exploding arrows.”
“Wait, be careful,” I said, just as he fired an arrow right at my character, immediately killing me.
“Oh, shit, you can kill each other?” he said.
“Well—” I said, but before I could finish he shot another arrow at me, killing me again.
“OK,” Ben said, trying to help out, “but that’s not the point—”
“Eat shit, motherfucker,” Kennedy said, killing me again. After this third death, the game over screen came up for my side of the screen. I didn’t push the button to restart, just let Kennedy wander around until he finally got killed again.
“This is what you guys do all day?” he asked, throwing the controller on the ground. “This sucks.”
“Do you want to play something else?” I asked.
“You guys just play for now,” he said. “I’m going to look around, see where you hide your fucking dildos.”
Ben looked at me like How long can we do this? but we just picked up our controllers and started playing, clearing the board, moving up the screen. I tried not to look back at Kennedy, though I wondered what he was doing.
And then, just as we were settling into a groove, Kennedy slammed Ben to the ground, jumping on top of him and straddling him. He had a pillow in his hands, and he put it over Ben’s face. “Sneak attack!” Kennedy shouted, and Ben’s arms started flailing wildly, just pawing at the air, not doing anything to stop him. And I was frozen there, watching this, for at least five seconds, before I finally pushed Kennedy off of Ben, tackling him to the ground. Kennedy then grabbed me in a headlock, squeezing so hard that my ears popped.
“This is more like it,” he said. “This is fun.” His voice was monotone, like none of this was real, like he was acting in a play.
I couldn’t get free. After a while he got bored and let me go. I scooted away from him to the wall, where I panted, holding my neck.
“What is wrong with you?” Ben asked him, but his voice wasn’t angry. It was genuinely confused, hurt.
“What?” Kennedy said. “This is all me and my brother did, fucking wrestling, trying to beat the shit out of each other. And then he joined the army, and now it’s just me at home. I just wanted to fuck around.” He pointed at me. “You had some fight in you for like half a second and then you pussied out.”
“I think you better go home,” I said, almost crying, trying hard not to cry.
He looked at me like he couldn’t tell if I was joking or not, like he had no idea why I was upset. “Seriously?” he said finally. When I didn’t say anything, he just shrugged and said, “Well, you have to drive me home.”
“Fine,” I said, trying to breathe normally, trying to make my body move. “I’ll drive you home.”
“I better get home myself,” Ben said, not looking at me. “I’ve got homework to do.”
“What?” I said. “You’re not coming with me?”
“You’re not coming with me?” Kennedy said, his voice mocking and high-pitched.
“It’s just …” Ben looked toward the door. “I have all this homework.”
“Please?” I said. “Please come with me.”
Kennedy turned and walked out of the room. “Come on,” he said as he stomped down the stairs. I could hear him telling my mother goodbye, and her saying that he could come by anytime he liked.
“Please,” I asked Ben again, whimpering.
“OK,” Ben finally said. “OK.”
As we walked down the stairs, he stopped me for a second. “I’m sorry,” he said, “that wasn’t cool of me.”
“It’s OK,” I said, but I didn’t know what was going on, couldn’t tell if I was making too big a deal of this. In such a short time, my life, which was boring but tender, a thing that mattered to me even as I understood that it would eventually change, had become a kind of dream. I keep trying to explain to you why I didn’t try harder, but maybe you understand. Maybe you don’t think this is as strange as
it feels to me.
When we got to Kennedy’s house, he refused to get out of the car. “Come inside with me,” he kept saying—an insistent, monotonous refrain. “Come inside. Just come inside. Come inside. Come inside and see something.”
“Please, Kennedy,” I said. “It’s late.”
“We have homework,” Ben said.
“We have homework,” I corroborated.
“Just come inside,” he said again. “Come inside and let me just show you this one thing. This one thing and then you can go. Come inside. Come inside my house.”
Inside the house, his father, his head shaved bald, gray stubble for a beard, was sitting in a recliner, watching some old boxing match on TV.
“Hello, JFK,” his father said, muting the TV, but Kennedy didn’t respond, tried to push past. His father stood, was a giant in that room, his head nearly touching the ceiling. “Who did you bring into our house?”
“Just some guys,” Kennedy said.
“Friends?” his father asked, like it was the silliest thing in the world to suggest such a thing.
“What does it matter?” Kennedy asked.
“Who are you?” his father asked, turning to us.
“I’m Ben, Mr. Kennedy,” Ben replied, but I was still too nervous to respond.
“Ben’s Japanese, OK?” Kennedy said. “Not Vietnamese.”
“I know that,” his father said. “Jesus, son, do you think I don’t know what a Vietnamese looks like?” Then he turned back to Ben. “I respect your people. Let bygones be bygones and all that. You built a hell of a society out of the rubble of that mess. Hats off to you.”
“Thank you,” Ben said.
“Who are you?” he asked me.
“Jamie,” I said.
“You friends with Kennedy?”
“Kind of?” I said, like a question.
“We have, like, a class project to work on,” Kennedy said.
“Well, I guess I’ll let you get to it,” his father said. Awkwardly he resettled himself in the recliner and turned the volume back up. We walked down a long hallway, and as we passed each open room, I noted that it was much more ordered than I had expected, considering the disarray of the lawn. Perhaps it was thanks to his father’s military background that he kept the house so clean. He even used the same air freshener that my parents did. Inhaling its flowery scent, I had this temporary moment, this little period of grace, during which my body relaxed. And then we got to Kennedy’s room. There were two different locks on the door. He took some keys out of his pocket, undid them, and opened the door. Inside, his room was pretty well organized, the walls covered in posters of death metal bands, images that, if we hadn’t already been so bombarded by the ones on Kennedy’s T-shirts, would have terrified us. “Here, let me get some stuff out,” he said, and turned on his stereo. From the speakers a deep droning
“We need to go,” I said to Kennedy, but he wasn’t listening to me; it was kind of like we weren’t even there. He opened his closet and pulled out this long box, like you’d keep comic books in, and laid it at his feet. When he removed the top of the box, he gestured for us to come closer. I was certain that there would be human heads in the box, skeletal remains. I knew it would be bad. I knew it would be hard to forget.
Ben and I looked down into the box and saw all manner of chain and leather, everything shiny, pristine. Kennedy tapped the box with his foot and it rattled. “I ordered all this from a catalog,” he said. “I’ve got quite a collection.” He reached into the box and pulled up a bee’s nest of handcuffs, so many pairs that it was hard to count. He tossed them on his bed and then pulled out a black mask that had a zipper where the mouth should be. “Sometimes I sleep in this,” he said, smiling. He seemed so proud of these things, like we were all in a club together.
“I want you to do something for me,” he then said. “Can you do something for me?”
“We really want to go home, Kennedy,” Ben said, and now he really was crying.
“I want to go home.”
“You can go home in just a second,” Kennedy said. “All I need is for Jamie to lie down on the bed and put on those handcuffs.”
“I’m not going to do that,” I said.
“If you do it, then you and Ben can go home,” he said.
I don’t know why we didn’t run, but it didn’t even occur to me. It felt like the entire world had shrunk down to this single room, that the three of us were the only people still alive in it. And even though there were two of us and one of him, I knew that it didn’t matter. So I lay down on the bed.
“On your stomach,” he said, his voice forceful, deep.
I turned onto my stomach.
“And take off your shirt,” he said, which I did. Then he handcuffed my arms to some straps attached securely to the bed frame, one set of handcuffs for each hand. He clamped them so tight that the metal pinched my wrists and I gasped.
“Kennedy,” Ben said, but I choked out, “It’s OK, Ben. I’m OK.”
Kennedy was now cuffing my ankles, so that I was pinned to the bed. I heard him rustling around in the box, and then he returned to my line of sight, close to my face and holding a kind of whip, like an octopus, all these tendrils, solid black. “This is a flogger,” he said. “I’ve never used it on a real person before.”
“Kennedy,” I said. “I’m afraid.”
He knelt on the bed, and I felt the mattress sink. And then he whipped me, lightly at first, which just made me hiss, the air rushing out of me, and then harder—again, and again, and again. And I was outside my body, just floating
above it, and I was watching myself, and I was so sad that this was happening to me. I looked pretty bad; I could see it from up there. There were all these welts on my back, but I was just taking it, just lying there.
And then I heard Ben screaming, crying, and after a little while the door burst open. “What the fuck is going on?” Kennedy’s father yelled, and Kennedy dropped the flogger. I turned my head as far as I could, looking over my shoulder, just in time to see his father walk across the room, push Ben into one wall, and slam Kennedy against the other—once, then twice, leaving a ragged hole in the drywall. When he tossed his son a third time, Kennedy fell against the window, the glass shattering and tinkling on the ground outside.
“Get him out of those handcuffs,” his father shouted, but Kennedy was muttering.
“What?” his father said. Ben was now whimpering, lying on the ground. I could just barely see him if I turned my head at an angle.
“I dropped the keys,” Kennedy finally said.
“Well, find them,” his father said.
For about two minutes, I listened as Kennedy crawled around the room on his hands and knees while his father stood there, towering over us. He turned off the music, and it was so quiet, the most total silence I’ve ever heard.
“OK,” Kennedy finally said, “here they are.” And he unclasped all four sets of handcuffs. And I was free.
“Let’s keep all this between ourselves, OK, boys?” his father said to Ben and me, but we weren’t really listening, couldn’t respond. I put my shirt on inside out. My hands were shaking. “I’ll see that Kennedy is properly disciplined for this.”
Ben helped me up off the bed, and the two of us stumbled through the house. I stepped on a plate and cracked it in two, but we just kept moving. When we got in the car, Ben locked the doors. We sat there. I put my head on the steering wheel and tried to breathe, but I couldn’t tell if I was actually breathing or not. I couldn’t tell if I was still alive.
“Can you drive?” Ben finally asked me, but I didn’t respond. “Here,” he said. “Get in the back seat. I’ll drive us home.”
I don’t remember the drive home. I don’t remember saying goodbye to Ben, who must have walked the half mile to his own house. I don’t remember talking to my parents, though I must have. I don’t remember doing my homework, but in the morning it was all done. I don’t remember taking a shower, how badly it must have hurt when the water touched those welts, some of which were trickling blood. I only remember that I woke up around two in the morning, the entire house quiet, and I turned on my Nintendo, and I played Super Mario Bros., running so fast, finding every single shortcut, just running and jumping, not letting a single thing touch me, running and running, until I’d finished the game. And then I just started over, kept running, until the sun came up.
Kennedy wasn’t at school the next day. In art class, we were making African ceremonial masks out of clay, and Ben and I sat alone at our table, not talking, not saying anything. At the end of the day, I dropped Ben off at his house and then went home. I played video games. I let the pixels burn colors into my irises. I let my brain go away. I sat inside my room and made everything quiet.
And Kennedy wasn’t at school the next day, either, or the next, and with each day that he wasn’t there, I felt worse, this kind of dread building up in my stomach. I don’t remember much of those days except that Ben was not really a part of them, and how lonely that felt. It was worse than what Kennedy had done to us, the knowledge that Ben and I might not be friends anymore.
On the third day, my parents came into my bedroom and closed the door so my sister wouldn’t hear. “We’re worried about you, Jamie,” my mom said. “Something’s not right. We just got off the phone with Mrs. Nakamura and she said that Ben has been depressed, listless. We said we’d noticed the same with you. Now, here’s what we want to know. And we trust you, so we’re going to ask you this. And I hope you know how much we love you, and how nothing that you do will ever change that.”
“OK,” I said, slow to keep up.
“Are you and Ben experimenting with drugs?” she asked, both she and my father leaning in, like I was going to whisper some secret in their ears. I’d never even smoked a cigarette. I was good. I was a good kid. I kept telling myself this while they waited for me to respond, that I was a good kid, that I was good.
“We’re not taking drugs, Mom,” I told her, and they both let out this long exhalation, like they were so relieved and things could be normal again. “I’m just nervous, you know, about my grades, about school, about getting into a good college. Ben is, too. It’s a lot of pressure.”
Then they went on and on about how proud of me they were, how much they loved me, and how, no matter what, I was going to make something of myself, I was going to find a way to contribute to the world and make my mark. And it made me love them so much, I wanted to cry. But I also wanted them to leave, wanted them far, far away from me. Then they hugged me, and then they were gone.
Only once I was sure that they were gone for good did I pick up a controller and start playing.
The next day, Kennedy was back at school, sitting at our table in the art room before Ben or I had even arrived. We stood frozen in the doorway until a kid behind us bumped into us and pushed us farther into the room. Kennedy had a spectacular black eye, and two of his fingers were taped together with a splint. And this made me happy. It gave me the strength to walk over to that table and sit down.
“Long time no see, pussies,” Kennedy said, but his heart wasn’t in it. He looked sunken, sallow. He looked like a zombie.
Neither Ben nor I said a word. We went over to the work table and retrieved our African masks, which had hardened and which we were now painting. Mrs. Banks lectured Kennedy on how far behind he was and then plopped a lump of clay in front of him. After she went back to her recliner, he took a wire brush and simply stabbed the clay, over and over again, slowly.
We worked in silence, only the sounds of John Tesh: Live at Red Rocks playing on the boombox.
Toward the end of class, Kennedy leaned toward us. “I want you guys to come over again. Tonight. I want to show you something.”
“No way,” Ben said. “Never again.”
“You have to come,” Kennedy said. “If you don’t come, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.”
I couldn’t even speak, couldn’t look at Kennedy. Ben said, “Never. We’re never coming over.” And I think if Ben wasn’t there that day, I would have gone over to Kennedy’s that night.
“If you are not at my house tonight …” Kennedy said, but that was it. He just stared at us. He jabbed the brush into the clay and then walked out of the classroom, ten minutes before class was over. Mrs. Banks didn’t even notice.
“We’re not going, OK?” Ben said to me, and he touched my arm. He held it there until I looked at him. “OK?” he said. “We are not going.”
“OK,” I finally said, nodding. “OK.”
At the end of school, we were certain that Kennedy would be standing next to our car, waiting for us, but he wasn’t there. We got into the car as quickly as possible and actually burned rubber getting out of the parking lot, the back of the car swerving for a few seconds until I straightened it out. As we drove, I looked over at Ben, who was frowning.
“Can I come over today?” he asked me, and I thought about it for a few seconds.
“OK,” I said. “Yeah.”
We locked ourselves in our room and played Double Dragon, punching and kicking and whipping every cartoony thug that got in our way. We stood with our backs to each other and beat the living shit out of everyone that tried to hurt us. It was too easy to be therapeutic, but it didn’t make us feel worse. And a few hours passed, and my mom called us for dinner. “Are you OK?” Ben asked when I turned off the system.
“Not really,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Me either,” he said. “But it’ll get better, OK?”
“You’re my best friend,” I told him. I’m not sure why I said it. I guess I needed him to know it.
“You’re my best friend, too,” he said, smiling.
At the dinner table, over meatloaf and green bean casserole, my parents asked us about our day, and we talked about the masks we’d made in art class, how Ben’s kind of looked like a fish-man and how mine was supposed to be a wolf but looked more like an anteater. And my sister talked about gymnastics, some tumbling technique she’d learned, but it was hard to picture it from her description. And then the phone rang, and I jumped up to get it, walking back into the kitchen for the phone.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hey, Jamie,” Kennedy said, and I felt my whole body go numb. I dropped the phone, and it swung there on its cord for a few seconds.
“Who is it?” my dad asked. “Tell them it’s dinnertime.”
I picked up the phone again, and there was silence on the other end. Finally Kennedy said, “Hello?”
“It’s me,” I said.
“You didn’t come,” he said, and he sounded sad, betrayed.
“No,” I said.
“I shot my dad,” he said. “I just did it. With a shotgun. While he was watching TV. It was … it was pretty horrible.”
I didn’t say anything. I waited for him to start laughing. “I really did it. That’s what I wanted you and Ben to see. I wanted you to see it. I wanted all three of us to be here. But you didn’t come.”
“You’re lying,” I said.
“I’m not lying, motherfucker,” he said, his voice finally taking on some kind of life. “I just called the cops. They’re sending someone over here. That’s why I was calling too. I wondered if your parents could get me a good lawyer. I need someone really good. I’m eighteen, Jamie. I’m an adult. I’m fucked.”
“You’re lying,” I said, “to fuck with me and Ben.”
“Fair enough,” he said. I heard sirens on his end of the line.
“I wish you had come over,” he said. “I liked you guys. You and Ben. I thought you were OK.”
“I have to go, Kennedy,” I said.
“OK,” he said. “They’re here anyways.”
I hung up the phone and walked back into the dining room.
“Who the heck was that?” my dad asked.
I looked at Ben, and his eyes were so wide open.
“Some guy in our math class,” I said. “He wanted to know what the homework was.”
“Well, your food’s getting cold,” my mom said.
I sat next to Ben, and we both pushed our food around, listening to my parents talk to each other, their voices happy.
“Can Ben spend the night?” I asked them suddenly.
“On a school night?” my mom replied.
“Please?” I asked.
“If it’s OK with his parents, then yeah, OK,” my mother aid. Under the table, Ben reached for my hand and squeezed it. He held on to it for the rest of dinner, and it steadied me. It kept me inside my own body, because I wanted to float away again.
In my room, the door locked, I told Ben about Kennedy, what he said he’d done.
“I don’t think he’s lying,” Ben said.
“We’ll find out tomorrow,” I said. “I guess.”
We were silent. And then I started crying and shaking. And Ben held on to me. “I hope he did,” I said. “I really hope he did it, and he’s not coming back.”
“Me, too,” Ben said, and now he was crying, too, but not like me, not like I was.
“I’m so sorry,” Ben said. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too,” I said.
What were we apologizing for? That we hadn’t protected each other? That we hadn’t kept each other safe? But I knew that he was sorry. And he knew that I was sorry. And he held on to me. And I held on to him. I think about that moment all the time. I wonder where Ben is now. I wonder what he’s doing. I wonder if he thinks about it. I miss him so much.