The dog is buried at the foot of the birdbath, only six inches deep because the first frost settled in last weekend and the ground is still too hard to go any further. After the funeral, the girl suggests they call her brother with the news. It was basically his dog; he had picked it out at the kill shelter and walked it every day before he left. Her father hesitates for a moment, and then scoffs, insisting they not upset the kid during exam season—they’re paying a king’s ransom for this school, colleges look at first year prep school grades, etc. Her mother nods and grips the stone edge of the birdbath: He’s too fragile to find out while he’s away, so far from us. She raises her hands and presses the fingers, white and bloodless, over her lips. The eyes focus on something directly in front of her, something no one else can see, but the girl can guess: it is her brother’s face—broken, uncomprehending—as he finally hears the news. And his body, breaking into a pile much smaller than himself, like a ceramic doll hit on the nose with a hammer.

Two weeks later, her parents must feel guilty, because instead of driving as a family to Union Station, they send her alone to pick up her brother. They had been slinking around the house, sheepish, like the dog used to do after eating deli meat off the counter.

To be honest, when the dog had died, she had felt sort of content. The event had, in a way, initiated her into adulthood. No one had ever died in their family before, and she often felt as if she was waiting for it to happen. At sixteen, she was too old to not have experienced death. It had happened to most of her friends: a grandparent here, an uncle there. So, this is it, she thought when she came down the stairs and saw her father bent over a limp mound of white curls on the living room floor. This is a huge part of life, and now I know what it feels like.

Maneuvering through D.C. traffic, she thinks about how she will broach the subject. Her little brother has always been moody, often falling into days-long bouts of grumpy, unexplained silence, but she will not sugarcoat the news, and she will not cry if he cries. He is the smarter one—he did, after all, get into the fancy boys school in upstate New York, while she’s still stuck at the public high school only accessible via the same grimy piss-yellow buses that her parents took in the eighties. But she is the one who is good in situations like this. Emotional situations.

Their father used to say, when one of them hurt or embarrassed themselves, It builds character. She wonders why he didn’t say it when the dog died.

If he had, this time, she would have agreed with him.


Her brother has been thinking about bone.

The sound it makes, the variety of sounds. The train is quiet, and no matter how badly he wants to sit in silence, his brain won’t let him. Phantom noises pop in and out of his ears—noises that the person sitting next to him, a young girl of maybe twelve, can’t hear. Bone, when it is forced into an unnatural position, bent almost to a breaking point, makes a noise even before it snaps. It is the sound of friction, of clothes on metal—of sliding down one of those tin playground slides that burn in the daylight. And then, when it breaks...oh, God, the sound. Not a clean little snap, but a messy, cacophonous break, like celery splitting: full of fibers, strands, holes. An orchestra. It hadn’t been at all what he expected.

Not that he had expected anything. He hadn’t planned anything. His face reddens as he stares out the window, digs his nails into his palms. The headmaster had called it a premeditated attack, but it sure hadn’t been premeditated on his part. Eds and Sully woke him up sometime around three in the morning on Wednesday, several hours after he had gone to bed in their shared triple. He was sleepy-eyed and delirious, still half-dreaming, but they clearly had not slept at all.

Hey, Eds said. Get up, you’re gonna come with us. 

Come where? he said.

We’re taking a field trip. To little Vicky’s dorm, Sully growled, his teeth flashing in the darkness as he knotted the laces on his left boot.

It seemed to be a senior tradition at Ingraham to single out one of the younger kids and collectively pick on him. Victor, who went to the junior school, was the skinniest, palest kid on campus, with ice-blue eyes and blonde hair that was thin and stringy like corn silk. Naturally, he was that year’s unlucky winner. Eds and Sully were only sophomores, and it was obvious how badly they wanted in with the seniors. He had seen the two of them, on several occasions, lingering on the border of the lawn where a particularly elite group of senior boys were known to spend their free period, lounging in the grass and vaping under cover of their hoodies. And he had heard the giddiness in their voices when they told him one morning how they snuck out after curfew the night before and made it into an off-campus party. Eds had laughed at him for sleeping so deeply that he hadn't even noticed their absence: We'll wake you up next time, he said.

For some reason, Eds and Sully had been kind; they had taken in the freshman from Buttfuck Nowhere as their friend, let him hang out with them at pep rallies and eat with them in the dining hall. And so, he followed them outside and across the square to Victor’s dorm at three in the morning. Sullenly, he followed Sully and Eds up the three flights of stairs. He didn’t know how they knew where Victor’s room was. The hallway seemed endless. He was groggy, and maybe that’s why he didn’t get that usual heaviness in his chest as they walked—the one that stifles his breathing when he grows anxious before a test, or when he’s running late to class. Eventually they stopped in front of a door, and when Sully grasped the knob, Victor's door swung right open. This made him hesitate for a moment—the sad fact that locking his door was not something Victor felt was necessary. Later, he would wonder whether Sully and Eds had known in advance that the door would be unlocked; if they chose Victor for his blind innocence. But he decided that this was not a question he necessarily wanted to know the answer to. Victor's bed was right against the wall, and he soon found himself helping Eds hold down the kid’s arms, Sully dragging him by the ankles out of his bed and down the hall.

But he didn’t plan anything. He wasn’t part of it. Wasn’t wasn’t wasn’t.

The letter says otherwise. The damned letter, printed above a large blood-red Ingraham masthead and signed in the headmaster’s grim handwriting. It’s in his backpack now, but folded up in the very back pocket, so he can pretend it doesn’t exist. He could study his parents’ signatures when he gets home, he could forge them and send it back, easy. But the letter is only part of it; the letter is a formality. His parents will get a call tomorrow night, regardless of what he decides to tell them beforehand. He considers unplugging the home phone, but his parents have cells, and surely Ingraham will try those next.

There are two sets of marble staircases in the junior dorm: one in the east wing and one in the west. Once out of the room, they moved towards the west wing, clumsily holding up Victor, who was really waking up now, making little noises and yelps and shaking his legs and arms. As Sully approached the end of the hall, Eds swung Victor’s head around to face the steps. The so-called “whole plan,” which Sully and Eds reported to the headmaster that night, was to disorient Victor—to leave him out in the cold in his pajamas, force him to walk back inside on his own. But instead what happened was that halfway down the first flight of steps, Sully lost his grip on Victor’s ankles and he and Eds fell into each other under Victor’s weight and Victor fell head-first the rest of the way down.

The letter is, in his opinion, a complete exaggeration and overstatement; he hadn’t killed the kid, for God’s sake. He's still in the hospital, living and breathing, well on his way to recovery in time for the start of January classes in three weeks.

He and Eds and Sully are bruised up, too—they had all fallen. They had all been hurt.

He could talk to his sister. Maybe she’d help him break the news to their parents. Would she do that for him? Or would she be disgusted? He’s been debating this since Thursday morning, when they were all three finally let back to their room.

Once, in elementary school, his sister shoved their family dog for slobbering on her shirt, and accidentally broke his paw. The incident upset all of them except for his sister, who plastered a fierce mask of stoicism across her face for the whole ride to the vet and only cried once she saw the little cast they had to put on the dog’s leg. But after a few days, he wasn’t really mad at her anymore, and everyone forgot that she was the reason the dog walked around with a cast. Is that the same thing? It was just a dog, and his sister was only a kid.

But technically he’s still a kid, too.

Sully and Eds were clearly closer with each other than with him. The headmaster took note of that, he’s sure, when they were all gathered in the office that night. Obviously he was just dragged into it because he rooms with them.

A text from his sister: i’ll be there in twenty. train still on time? 

This is slightly relieving. He can speak to her first, gauge her reaction. Finalize his plan.

The girl next to him yanks a stick of gum from her bag. He wonders who her parents are, to let such a young kid ride an interstate Amtrak alone. The gum, pink, slides into her mouth, leaves a little trace of white powder on her fingertips.

After Victor was taken to the hospital, he had felt something jolt in him, something that made him feel slightly off-kilter and slightly older. Some kind of buzz, powerful and alive but vaguely rotten. He liked it, but he knew he shouldn’t. Maybe, he thinks, that’s what growing up feels like.

In front of him, the seat back is covered in swirly geometric patterns like the ones in the bus he and his sister used to ride to school together, and he stares at it as the gum snaps and pops between the girl’s teeth. Pop. Pop. The sound is starting to get on his nerves.

His phone buzzes again. He closes his eyes, allows his fingers to curl into fists.

                         Pop.                 Pop.                             Pop.

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