Fitting In Will Cost You Your Soul
In the Heart of the Village by Emma Binder
All the kids in our year had started selling their souls to each other at the beginning of seventh grade. Terrible arrangements transpired. In September, Matt Cywinski sold his soul to Brian Counter for a pack of cigarettes, because he’d scored a date with eighth grader Laura Blosser and thought smoking would make him look mature. During their thirty-minute date at Klode Park, according to what became public knowledge, Matt smoked eight cigarettes in a row and puked on his bike handlebars as he rode home. Now, Brian could make Matt do his homework, carry his books, or steal Snicker’s bars from the Piggly Wiggly check-out on his behalf.
My friend Kirk owned Emily Gonzalez’s and Phil Baker’s souls. He’d gotten them both in exchange for giving them rides home from track practice on the pegs of his BMX bike. Whenever Kirk wanted something for lunch other than what his mom packed him, he located Emily and Phil in the cafeteria and picked through their lunches like a vulture. And rumor had it that Jason Robinson owned Missy Graeber’s soul and now forced her to go on long dates with him at the Birnamwood Cemetery, where they ambled between headstones and did Who Knows What.
As long as someone had your soul, they owned you and you had to do whatever they said. The arrangement continued until the soul’s new owner decided to return it, which hadn’t yet happened at Birnamwood Middle School.
By Halloween, people were more careful about selling their souls. I still had mine and I didn’t own anybody else’s. Truthfully, I was hoping that someday soon there would be a grand reset in which everyone’s souls would go back to their original keepers, like a debt forgiveness program. Every Sunday I attended services with my parents at Hartbrook, the Evangelical church in Birnamwood, where the pastor sometimes used this language of “debt forgiveness” to talk about what Jesus did when he died for our sins. Jesus paid a blood ransom, the pastor told us, in order to release us all from the cosmic debt that we acquired upon being born. To have one’s existential debt forgiven—to have our innate, sinful nature erased—was the greatest gift anyone could receive.
“Imagine,” the pastor had said, holding his hands to his heart. “Your soul is ensnared in the cage of sin. What would it take to be redeemed?”
That October, my friends and I biked to the Birnamwood Halloween Carnival, which our school district held every year on the high school soccer field. There were four of us boys that night: me, dressed in a cheap werewolf mask and a black sweatshirt, next to broad-shouldered, tight-lipped Kirk Dawson, who dressed as the Hulk every year in green face paint and Styrofoam hands. My best friend Andrew dressed as the WWE celebrity the Undertaker, while Buzz had taped tin-foil daggers to his knuckles to look like Freddie Kreuger. When we left for the night, Buzz had been dressed as the Undertaker and Andrew as Freddie Kreuger, but Buzz decided he wanted to switch costumes with Andrew. And since Andrew had sold Buzz his soul two weeks ago, he had to do it, even though he had spent hours in his mom’s basement making the aluminum foil claws.
The carnival was alive that night with string lights, laughter, crackly music over the loudspeaker. Little kids zig-zagged between people in foldable canvas lawn chairs, wearing crowns and witches’ hats. Banners of sponsoring businesses festooned the perimeter: the Birnamwood hunting club, Mike Parson’s hardware store, the tax man, the HVAC business that Mike Teare ran with his twin sons. In small white tents around the field, there was a horseshoe toss underway, apple bobbing, a loosely supervised jack-o-lantern carving station with flimsy Walmart knives whose blades snapped under pressure.
Across the field, we spotted our seventh-grade math teacher, Mr. Genley, dressed like Frankenstein. Styrofoam screws sprouted from his head, and chalky green paint covered his face and hands. Other than that, Kirk said, he looked about the same: same fucked-up loafers, same baggy pants held up by a cracked leather belt. He was given to rambling about the intuitive poetry and universal language of math, during which his glassy, blue eyes lit up with feeling.
Before biking to the carnival that night, we had decided to play a prank on Mr. Genley, for failing both Buzz and Kirk. Kirk found his little brother, Mikey Dawson, and pointed out our teacher across the field.
“Mikey,” Buzz said slowly, kneeling beside him. “You’re gonna give that guy the scare of his life.” Mikey was like a small, raging fire hose. He had ADHD, Kirk had warned us, and wouldn’t lock into the importance of his mission unless we explained it clearly and repeatedly.
“What do I do!” little Mikey said, his hands vibrating as if bewitched. “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it!”
Maybe it traced back to this business of selling souls, but our pranking had a blood-driven urgency that year; we wanted to embarrass someone worse than we’d ever done before. On the bike ride to the carnival, Buzz kept swerving fast in front of Andrew and spitting on the ground. Kirk, usually quiet, loosed bone-chilling screams for no reason. Hot, electrical tethers crackled between us.
We positioned ourselves at the perimeter of the carnival, trying to gain a distance from which we could see everything: all the teachers and parents surveilling from their canvas chairs, all the unruly kids darting between tents. We watched Mr. Genley fiddle with his Styrofoam screws. He was gangly, fresh out of teacher’s college, younger than any of our other teachers. He wore a tiny steel cross around his neck that surprised me the first time I saw it.
“Follow him around,” Kirk said to his brother, pointing at Mr. Genley, who was standing with two English teachers, Ms. Burkemper and Mrs. Knight. As they spoke, Ms. Burkemper, who was in her late-twenties and wore pencil skirts, kept squeezing Mr. Genley’s shoulder in a way that made Buzz pretend to gag.
“When he goes into the school to use the bathroom, follow him,” Andrew said to Mikey.
“Bathroom,” Mikey said. “Sure.”
“But don’t let him notice you,” I said.
Buzz was seething. He scraped his Freddie Kreuger claws against the chain-link fence until one of them tore loose from his knuckle.
“These are pieces of shit,” he said, waving the loose claw in his hand.
“Then don’t wear them,” Andrew said.
Buzz swiped the claws lightly against Andrew’s cheek.
We set Mikey loose and he ran breakneck across the grass like a cooped-up dog. That night, Mikey had come to the carnival dressed in a pale blue button-up, a black shoulder-bag, and a silver wig.
“What’s Mikey supposed to be?” I asked Kirk.
“He’s Brad,” he said. “Our mailman. Mikey wants to be a mailman someday.”
Beside me, I saw Buzz freeze and turn quickly toward us.
“I see Cameron,” he said. “Let’s go.”
The four of us ducked our heads and took a sharp left, toward the pumpkin carving station. Cameron Quade was one of the only kids in our grade who was as tall as Buzz, but he was more popular. There was nothing strange about Cameron, whereas Buzz used to have a stutter and his brow jutted prominently from his forehead, begetting his childhood nickname, the Caveman. Worse yet, Buzz had sold Cameron his soul that year in exchange for a half-eighth of stemmy weed, back in September, long before anyone knew how serious this business of selling souls was—how some people would never let you forget it, how they could leverage their ownership to exploit and humiliate you. Buzz had been paying for it ever since.
At the pumpkin carving station, we stood in the corner of the tent, angling ourselves to hide from Cameron. There seemed to be no adult supervision in this tent, I noticed, just kids and teenagers at long fold-out tables, wielding knives and scooping cold, seedy pumpkin guts with their bare hands. To my right, a kid half my size scraped his knifepoint against the plastic table, carving the word ASS into the plastic. Straightaway, I saw Buzz slip a carving knife into his pocket.
“What’s that for?” I asked him.
“What’s what for?” he said, and gave me his shoulder.
To my left, Kirk picked up a knife and stabbed a pumpkin several times, as if searching for its organs. I looked across the field toward Mr. Genley, who stood with Ms. Burkemper by the apple bobbing station, fiddling with the screws in his head. A tremor of light caught my eye; it was the momentary gleam of Mikey’s silver wig, flashing in the dark beyond the horseshoe toss.
Andrew came to stand beside me.
“I hate this fucking costume,” he muttered, tugging at the black undershirt he wore beneath a leather, knee-length jacket. “Buzz told me this coat is actually his mom’s.” He rifled through the pockets. “There are used tissues in here.”
“It’s just for tonight,” I said.
“Easy for you to say,” Andrew said.
We went on watching the field. What I didn’t say to Andrew was that he should have been more careful. The situation was his own fault. Next to Buzz and Kirk, Andrew and I looked like scrawny geeks in glasses. For kids like us, it was best to fade into the background, to keep our souls well-kept beneath layers of protection. By the time I was in seventh grade, I had already learned that any difference—like Andrew’s fishbowl glasses, or my crooked front teeth—made us vulnerable.
After a few minutes, Andrew nudged me.
“He’s going,” he said to me. “Look.”
Mr. Genley was walking toward the Birnamwood High School south entrance. A dark feeling boiled in my stomach. We both watched Mikey zigzag in the shadows behind him, crouched low to the ground, his mailman’s wig winking with light. After Mr. Genley disappeared into the school, Mikey paused at the door, then slipped inside behind him.
Toward the beginning of that school year, Mr. Genley had decided to keep a secret for me, but none of my friends knew about it.
Andrew and I were always doing weird things when Buzz and Kirk weren’t around: we ate slugs, drew hearts on our faces in mud. We got naked and burned each other’s stomachs with lit matches. We pretended to kill ourselves and laid for hours on the floor of Andrew’s basement, waiting for the other one to stand up first. We did things that, for whatever reason, Buzz and Kirk couldn’t know about.
Just a few months ago, Andrew and I had been sneaking around in the woods at the edge of the Dollar Tree parking lot, which sat at the southern border of Birnamwood. We found a pile of molding pallets half sunken in the wet earth, in the middle of which was a smooth-faced mannequin someone had drawn nipples on. It was Andrew’s idea to tie the mannequin to the stack of pallets and burn it in a Viking funeral, which he’d heard about on the History channel. We named the mannequin Erik the Red after the founder of Greenland, who was supposedly a bloodthirsty warrior, and conspired to burn him in the woods with a rusty Swiss army knife and a jar of pennies, to show that he was evil and rich.
It was August. Just a few weeks until school. I went rummaging in my family’s garage to look for lighter fluid.
There was nothing unusual about that day except the heat, which was reaching its thick, humid summer peak. Sweat beaded my temples while I rummaged through boxes of automotive fluid, half-empty bags of soil, and limp soccer balls. I turned to a closed box of dumbbells that my dad kept under his weight bench. In its lid, I found a sleeve with a few simple exercise diagrams and a small collection of four magazines, all filled with the same kinds of photographs.
I opened the first magazine: Leathermen. With each page, more heat rose to my neck and face. I was sweating so much that my fingers dampened the pages. It was a Saturday and Dad was home, and I kept remembering that he could walk through the garage door at any second. But I paged through each magazine slowly and meticulously, lingering on certain images: naked men chained to bedposts, men in leather collars and vests, their penises purplish and spidery with veins.
One image caught my eye and I stopped. It was a photograph of two men, one kneeling before the other. The standing man held a metal chain attached to a collar around the kneeling man’s neck. His leather boot was poised against the other’s chest, like he was about to kick him. The collared man stared at him with a soft, asking expression.
With great care, I tore this page out of the magazine as cleanly as I could. I folded the image up in my pocket, packed up the box, and left the garage.
This was how I came to have a secret entirely my own. Over the next few weeks, I kept returning to the garage, lifting the box of dumbbells, carefully tearing pages from Leathermen. By the time school started, I had a collection of eight or nine magazine pages in a shoebox under my bed, already softening from so much folding and unfolding. I tucked a few of them into the backs of my school folders and kept another folded at the bottom of my locker, so I could sneak glances while getting books in between classes. It wasn’t enough to keep them under my bed; I needed to see the photos in public, surrounded by people who could catch me.
On the subject of my dad, I didn’t linger. I figured he was like me—he was drawn to the pictures, but it didn’t have to mean anything. It was just a secret part of him that even his friends wouldn’t understand.
On a day toward the end of September, when I was the last one out of Mr. Genley’s math class, I accidentally dropped my math folder and spilled the contents, so that the pictures—there were three of them in my folder that day—fanned out across the floor like a centerfold. They couldn’t have been more visible than if I had laid them out on the floor, one by one, for Mr. Genley to see.
Mr. Genley hurried around his desk to help me.
“No,” I said, so loud it was almost a shout. But he was around his desk. He was already crouching down, gathering my pictures in his hands.
“Austin,” he said as he looked down. “Where did you get these?”
“Nowhere,” I said, reaching for them. “I don’t know.”
Mr. Genley looked at the pictures again, then handed them back to me.
“You can’t bring these to school,” he said, his voice high and strained. “You can’t bring these here.”
I took the pictures back, stuffed them into my backpack, and hurried out the door, cheeks burning. For days, I waited for consequence, so certain I was that Mr. Genley would tell someone: the principal, a guidance counselor, or my parents. But days passed. I walked in and out of math class, avoiding eye contact with Mr. Genley. And nothing happened.
After a few weeks of keeping the photos under my bed, the heat wore off from my cheeks. I started bringing the photos to school again. And for Mr. Genley, I reserved a strange, indefinite fondness, as if he had saved my life in a dream.
A minute or so after Mikey disappeared behind Mr. Genley into the high school, the fire alarm went off. The sound was loud enough to halt conversations across the carnival: a screeching, rhythmic noise, like a thousand high-pitched cicadas singing in rhythm.
“He did it,” Kirk said, a stripe of pride in his voice.
“Perfect,” Buzz said, tapping his remaining claws against a metal tent pole. “Genley’s about to get it.”
After a few moments, we saw Mikey sprint out of the school and dart sideways into a dark patch of field. Only a few seconds later, the alarm stopped, and out came Mr. Genley, his clothes soaked from the sprinklers.
To our surprise, he had a sheepish grin on his face. Ms. Burkemper ran up to him and gripped his arm with concern. Mike Teare, a big man around town, strode up to Mr. Genley, removed his own canvas jacket, and wrapped it around Mr. Genley’s shoulders.
“What the hell is this,” Buzz said, tapping his claws faster against the pole. “Mikey was supposed to lock him in the bathroom.” He looked at Kirk. “Did we not explain that to him?”
“At least he pulled the alarm,” I said.
“That’s not good enough.” Buzz gestured toward Mr. Genley. A woman from the apple bobbing tent was approaching him, reaching out with hot cider in a Styrofoam cup. “Now he’s getting treated like a hero. He was supposed to suffer.”
“Hey, Caveman!” a voice behind us called.
We all turned. There was Cameron Quade, dressed in a Brett Favre jersey with black glare strips on his cheeks. On either side of him were Jason Bartle and Mark Leverenz, both dressed as Men in Black in suits and sunglasses, which made them look like Cameron’s bodyguards.
“Go get me some cider,” Cameron said to Buzz.
Buzz stared at him for a moment.
“Are you deaf?” Cameron said. He pointed toward the bobbing tent. “Go.”
Buzz turned on his heel and headed toward the tent. The three of us watched him march away.
“This is bad,” Andrew said, tugging at the sleeves of his leather jacket. “He’s gonna take it out on me.”
“You shouldn’t have sold him your soul,” Kirk said. “You see him all the time.”
“Yeah,” Andrew said, his voice cracking. He looked at Kirk. “But what am I supposed to do about it now?”
Just then, I saw Mikey darting toward us from the corner of my eye, still crouching low to the dark ground. He ran up to us, panting.
“I did it,” he said.
“Idiot,” Kirk said. “You were supposed to lock him in there.”
I looked back at Mr. Genley. He was huddled in Mike Teare’s coat, surrounded by other teachers, eating a caramel apple and laughing. To my right, I saw Buzz head back across the field with a cup of cider and deliver it to Cameron Quade, just a few meters away from us. Buzz stood there before Cameron while he tasted it, as if waiting to see if he might need another. Then Cameron waved his hand, letting Buzz know he was satisfied.
I took off my werewolf mask and stuffed it into the front of my sweatshirt. I felt cold and jittery, like something awful was about to happen. From the north end of the field, near where Mr. Genley was, we watched Ms. Burkemper climb onto a metal folding chair, wobbling a little in her heeled boots, holding a handheld loudspeaker. She turned it on, eliciting a little static.
“Attention,” she said, broadcasting across the field. “Attention! We’re going to announce the winners of the costume contest.”
Buzz came and stood beside me. I could feel his energy, his unsettled rage, beaming from his chest and worming into mine.
“In third place, we have Susie Weatherby, dressed as Dolly Parton! All right, Susie!” Ten-year-old Susie emerged from the crowd in a jean jacket, straining beneath a mountainous blonde wig that was almost as tall as she was. Ms. Burkemper crouched to pin a small green ribbon on her jacket.
“And in second place,” Ms. Burkemper said, standing back up on the chair. “We have Ed Genley, dressed as wet Frankenstein!”
A warm, collective laugh rippled across the field. Ms. Burkemper turned to Mr. Genley at her left and handed him a yellow ribbon. Beside me, Buzz shuddered and looked to us.
“This is bullshit,” he said. “Let’s go.”
He turned away from the festivities and walked southward, toward the dark end of the field where we’d chained our bikes to a fence. Kirk turned around and followed him. I met Andrew’s eyes in the dark, as if we were sounding each other for alarm. But we both turned around at the same time and hurried to catch up to Buzz and Kirk, so tethered were we to each other.
“And in first place,” we heard Ms. Burkemper say as we walked away. “We have Jason Robinson! Who is dressed quite elaborately as a headless man . . . .”
For stretches, Buzz biked so fast that the rest of struggled to keep up with him. He stopped pedaling every so often and coasted, looking around wildly as if for something to burn. He led us off Birnamwood’s small Main Street and down Orchard Street, a sparse residential road that unraveled into dirt after a hundred yards. There was an abandoned dairy farm on the lefthand side, with a moldering tie stall barn and an orchard where Andrew and I sometimes picked apples in the fall.
Buzz rode fast into the grass. He jumped off his bike and let it fall to the ground. Kirk, Andrew, and I followed him, set our bikes down, and stood aside while Buzz paced and kicked dirt with the toe of his shoe. All his Freddie Kreuger claws were bent, hanging sideways off his knuckles.
“Cameron’s the worst,” I said.
Buzz looked at me. “I don’t care about him,” he said. “That contest was fucking rigged.”
“Yeah,” Kirk said. “Genley’s costume was busted.”
Andrew was standing a pace behind us, arms folded tight across his chest. “I’m cold,” he said. “What are we doing out here?”
“We’re plotting our next move against Genley,” Buzz said.
I looked at him, surprised.
“You want to do something else?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, snapping his eyes toward me. “We have to get him.” He kicked the ground again. “I heard he’s a perv. Jason said he fucks little boys.”
There was a long silence. Buzz kicked the dirt again, his face worked into a scowl, like he was thinking so hard it was hurting him.
“Can’t it wait?” Andrew said. “It’s cold out here.”
Buzz stopped pacing and looked square at Andrew. “It’s like you can’t handle anything.” He started to pace again, then stopped and looked back at Andrew. “Get on the ground and roll around,” he said.
Andrew got down and rolled around on the orchard grass. When he stood back up, mud caked the back of his leather jacket and Buzz was laughing.
“No,” he said. “Stay down. Get on all fours and bark like a dog.”
Andrew got down on all fours and barked like a dog.
“Wait, Austin,” Buzz said, looking at me. “Give him your wolf mask. That’ll make it more real.”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t sell my soul to you.”
“Who has your soul?” he said.
“Fuck you. What can I buy it for?”
“Nothing,” I said, holding my hands against my heart like my soul was floating in there, fragile as an underwater flower. “It’s important to me.”
“Fuck you,” he said again.
Then his head snapped toward Andrew, as if he had an idea.
“Andrew,” he said. “Didn’t you say you saw Mr. Genley going into his house?”
“Can I stand up now?” he said.
“Yeah,” Buzz said. “Didn’t you say that?”
Andrew stood up and folded his arms tight across his chest again. In the dim moonlight, I thought I saw his eyes glassed over with tears. “Yeah,” he said.
“Where was it?”
Andrew brushed dirt from his hair. “End of Mineral Point Road.”
“Let’s go,” Buzz said.
He ran back to his bike, picked it up, and kicked off hard into the grass. I tried to meet Andrew’s eyes in the dark, but he wouldn’t look at me. He mounted his bike and started after Buzz, Kirk and I a few paces behind.
“Hey,” I called ahead. “Why do you want to go to his house?”
Buzz didn’t answer. He biked fast into the darkness, lit by the reflecting discs he’d clamped in his wheel spokes. The rest of us biked after him, struggling to keep up. I wondered what Kirk and Andrew were thinking, but I couldn’t see their faces in the dark.
Mineral Point Road was fifteen minutes away, south of the dairy farm. We had to climb a hill to get there, which worked us all into a chilling sweat. Andrew’s teeth chattered; the leather jacket had a steep V-neck, so that even when Andrew buttoned it, cold wind must have poured down the front of his shirt.
At the end of Mineral Point, we slowed and dismounted. Two houses sat at the end of the road, facing one another. Buzz looked back at Andrew, waiting.
Andrew gestured to the house on our right. It was a little blue-gray cabin with a screened-in porch and a shed off to the left. We’d heard rumors that Genley lived in a trash heap, but the house was neat, painted a crisp light blue. Gardens wreathed the front porch and crept around both sides of the house. They looked meticulously kept, full of late-blooming purple and yellow flowers. In the moonlight, I glimpsed the yellowish, glowing skin of squash. Genley knew how to feed himself, I thought. He’d staked a wooden birdfeeder, shaped like a miniature version of his own house, into the grass.
“This place is small,” Buzz said, assessing the place. “I knew he would live in some stupid, small house.”
We followed Buzz’s lead, leaning our bikes in a pile beyond the rounded end of the road, buried in shadow. We walked up to the house, Buzz and Kirk boldly stepping close to the windows, while Andrew and I hung back.
“What do you think he wants to do?” I whispered to Andrew.
“I don’t know.” He pulled his coat tight around him. “I want to go home.”
Buzz and Kirk headed toward the cabin and peered in the window, shading their eyes with their hands. They looked at each other, circled the house once, and headed back to us.
“Did you see anything?” I said.
“Curtains are closed,” Buzz said.
Then Buzz started toward the small shed, the rest of us following closely behind. Buzz shone his bike light on the shed door, which was held shut by a small combination padlock that had been left open.
“Easy,” Buzz said, and slipped the padlock from its hinge. He dropped it in the grass.
“You’re going in?” I said.
“No,” he said. “Andrew is.”
I looked at Andrew’s face in the dark and found it pale, tortured. His teeth were still chattering, his hands deep in the pockets of the leather jacket that wasn’t even his. It occurred to me then that while Andrew, having given up his soul, was forced to stay, I could leave if I wanted to. Nobody could blame me. I could bike the long road home by myself, I could escape any further violation. I didn’t even have to watch.
Buzz opened the shed door and gestured toward Andrew, as if to say, After you. Andrew took Buzz’s bike light and raked it across the room, illuminating boxes of tools and cans of house paint with drippings on their edges, wrenches hanging by nails from a corkboard on the wall. When his light reached the right corner, Andrew lingered on a stack of canvases facing away from us.
“What are those?” Buzz said.
We watched Andrew step inside the shed, approach the canvases, and pull one away from the wall and shine his light down on its face.
“No way,” Andrew said.
The three of us stepped forward, suddenly curious. We angled beside Andrew to see the canvases. The first was a painting of Genley himself: a patchy depiction of his naked torso and head, bearing his distinctive glasses and patchy beard. Andrew flipped to the next, which showed a yellow prairie, then another of a tiny dog. He tore past these until we found a painting of two naked men locked in a tight embrace, tense and intimate, cheeks pressed together.
“I fucking knew it,” Kirk muttered in my ear.
Andrew paused on another, which showed a naked man—presumably Jacob—wrestling an angel, befit with white wings and an orb of pink radiance wreathing his head. In Genley’s painting, Jacob and the angel stared at each other with intensity and attention, their faces just inches apart.
“Here,” Buzz said. He reached into his pocket and produced the carving knife I’d seen him steal from the carnival tent. He handed it to Andrew. “Tear them up.”
Andrew took the knife and looked at it.
“It won’t take long,” Kirk said. “He deserves it.”
“Get ‘em, Andrew,” Buzz said.
I didn’t say anything.
Under the glare of Buzz’s bike light, we watched Andrew take the paintings from the wall and lay them out on the shed floor. Andrew raised the blade to the face of Genley’s self-portrait and dragged it across the canvas, riving it in half. He went on to a painting of a wheatfield under boiling clouds. And then another. My stomach turned.
Andrew turned and handed me the knife.
“You do it,” he said. His pace looked pale as a moon in the darkness of the shed.
I took the flimsy knife in my hand. Andrew stepped back. All three of them were now watching me. The sweat I’d worked up from our bike ride seemed to chill me from the inside, but my face burned and my stomach hurt. I circled the paintings on the floor, half of them already destroyed, trying to buy time.
“What are you doing?” Buzz said. “Quit stalling.”
I knelt beside the paintings. The concrete floor of Genley’s shed felt cold through my jeans. I could feel Buzz’s eyes on me, watching the movements of my wrist, the curve of my spine, how my eyes tracked across Genley’s paintings. Everything I did, he would notice and remember. The longer I knelt there, the more he would see of me, and the more likely he was to see something I didn’t mean to give away.
I sank the knifepoint into a painting of two figures, an angel and a man, grappling with each other. I carved the painting into pieces: wings into tattered rags, interlocked hands into severed fingers.
Afterward, we biked home almost in silence. Buzz was giddy for a little while, ecstatic over what he hailed as our greatest prank. It was the most extreme feat we’d ever orchestrated. He predicted that we would talk about it for years to come. And most importantly, Buzz said, it had happened to Genley, a creep who really deserved it. Genley, who didn’t belong in our town. Genley, who wore a cross around his neck but harbored a perverted private life in which he painted naked men.
After a few minutes, we all quieted down and rode home in silence. I put my werewolf mask back on and panted as I biked, my breath thick and hot against my own face.
Before the end of the year, my wish came true: we all received debt forgiveness.
Without discussion, everyone in our grade spontaneously moved on from this business of selling souls. There was no announcement, no grand gesture, no town hall meeting where everyone collectively decided to return each other’s souls for the betterment of civilization; everyone just forgot. Or the arrangements had grown so complicated that kids started to feel that it wasn’t worthwhile to keep track. And in that way, even though the problem was fixed, something unresolved lingered in the air. A weird tension endured in our grade that even our teachers noticed, transpiring in vicious fights among the boys and cattiness among the girls. Buzz got suspended for fighting Cameron Quade. Andrew slowly separated from our group and started eating lunch with the band kids.
I’d torn up my magazine pictures the morning after we rode home from Genley’s house, stricken with new certainty that no place was entirely safe, that every zone could be infiltrated, and that the consequences of someone finding the pictures were as dire as death.
On the last day of school before summer, Mr. Genley had us share our summer plans with the class. I laid my head on my desk while kids talked about vacations in the Wisconsin Dells, Christian summer camps in Eagle River. When everyone had finished, Mr. Genley gave a short speech about what a pleasure it had been to teach us, what promise we had, and how he would be cheering us on as we entered the eighth grade. After the bell rang, I lingered as I put my books away and zipped up my backpack.
“Good luck, Austin,” Genley said as I walked past his desk. He smiled at me with the same warm, crinkled expression he sometimes adopted while teaching, as if he’d worked all his life toward the goal of teaching math class at Birnamwood Middle School, and had finally arrived at his lucky star.
I looked back at Genley and scowled. Suddenly, my insides were twisted up with something that resembled anger. My face burned. I wanted to tell him that I’d been dreaming of his angels, the images of them intertwined in each other’s arms. Those pictures haunted me in a way that felt like a curse. I couldn’t stop thinking of their faces. Fingers gripping fistfuls of hair. Eyes rapt with attention. How they stared into each other’s eyes as if searching for something that would save their souls: freedom, instruction, mercy.
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