The boys build bonfires every Thursday night, when all life has dimmed and needs to be woken up again in a hot colorful center of light. The boys don’t know what it is like to split an atom, to watch the smallest building block break apart, but Henry thinks it must be like the feeling of that first-caught kindling on Thursday night, the promise of a warm hour.
When El tells them to go to the woods on a Sunday, Henry knows there is some grave aberration in the unsplit atoms of the universe.
El’s not there when they arrive, Henry with his hair greasy, because, as he readily explains, this is an off day in terms of hair-washing, and usually it wouldn’t be this easy to see the muck in his hair by the light of the flames. Because it’s Sunday, and why is it Sunday? is the unspoken ending to the thought.
This part of the woods is mostly evergreens, spindly perpendiculars spiralling like a single helix of DNA into the rising April heat. Henry loves this bit of the forest, the part that never dies, that stays tall and verdant even when he and his friends are hibernating in their big brick houses, the part that looks soft and pliable from a distance but is sharp up close. The clearing where they light the bonfires is in a grove of these evergreens, and they are always protected, always guarded by the trees, even when they smoke or drink or, as Walsh claims to have done once, have awful teenage sex with a girl from St. Catherine’s. When Henry arrives, he looks up at the trees and, for some reason, wonders if they will protect him tonight.
Walsh jokes to Henry, as he lights the first tiny twig of the night, “We should wring your fucking greasy head out over the fire to light it up.” There is no need: Walsh, as always, is doing a good job as firemaster, and soon the signature glow rubs against the dark fabrics of their legs.
“Is he coming?” Of course he is coming, and Henry feels silly for asking, but he thinks it is one of those things that must be said in moments like these. Someone has to ask if “he” is coming. Someone has to wonder suspiciously, and out loud, what all the secrecy is for. Someone must float a theory, and have it be shot down as patently absurd. This abnormality is really, Henry thinks, textbook.
And El does come, not down the beaten path but lurchingly out of the clearing to their collective right, which Henry notes internally is a further, concerning aberration. El trips into their triangle, now a square, and is already, as if it, and not the fire before him, is the hot burning thing, tearing off his thick woollen sweater, speckled with a substance, exposing his thin and raucous frame for a moment before the shirt underneath falls back to his hip bone. He throws the sweater into the fire.
“Jesus—” Walsh leaps forward as the fire is almost suffocated by the cable and itch of El’s discard, but the fire makes a quick recovery and begins to eat at the coarse threads. Walsh settles, satisfied, but El is already moving to toss his shirt into the flames as well, and there’s a tense moment when Walsh blocks him from throwing it in, saying nothing, asking the obvious questions, protecting his little circle of combustion.
“I need to burn these. They’re evidence.” El takes their silences as an opportunity to add his shirt to the flames. Walsh, with his long firetending stick, adjusts the fabric in the fire, letting it catch in the most appropriate way. The burning smell of synthetic fibers adds to the heady choke of the smoke.
Henry is the only one, it seems, who wants to know why.
“I finally got him,” El says, unbuttoning his pants and stripping them off.
Henry does not have to ask who. “Harper?”
“Yeah.” El hands his pants to Walsh, submitting to the authority of the firemaster. Walsh holds them and waits patiently for the shirt to burn. He seems not to be listening, and Henry wonders if Walsh hears anything said while a fire is going, or if every neuron and synapse is taken up by the ebb and flow of burning oxygen. It occurs to him that he doesn’t know Walsh very well at all.
Henry starts zipping and unzipping his fleece, a buzzing sound that nearly overpowers the crackling. “He’s… Did you kill him? Is he dead?”
El says nothing about this, just folds over himself to rub his bare legs with his palms, chilly and getting chillier, and says, “I wasn’t very good at it. I wasn’t very slick about it.”
“Christ,” says Walsh, and he open-mouth chokes on the air. “Fuck, that smells bad.”
Henry is weak at the knees. He sits on wet leaves and doesn’t feel it and he asks, “How?”
El shivers. “Followed him back from the game. He was smoking behind his house. In the woods. I hit him with a rock.”
“Just like that?” Henry asks from below.
El nods. “It’s rock and a head. It’s not hard.”
They all fall silent then, and Walsh starts to light the khakis on fire. El continues rubbing his limbs, moving up to his arms now, and he’s so skinny and long Henry wonders if it all isn’t some vague misunderstanding—this too, he realizes, is a cliché thought—because he can’t see how it’s possible, under the laws of physics, for a man who is such a boy to pick up a rock, let alone raise it above someone’s head. Then again, he thinks, if he had gotten a chance to kill Harper himself, alone, in the woods, couldn’t he have found the strength also?
He decides no, but he is unsure.
Walsh speaks. “He deserved it.” The khakis are completely aflame now. He pokes them, and repeats, “He deserved it. It’s fine.”
Henry thinks about this. He doesn’t know if anyone, necessarily, is deserving of death, but he’s the weak one of the bunch. No one has ever said it out loud, but it’s true, he’s soft-hearted: you could push a finger into him. He digs his digits into the wet earth and rubs the particles between his pads and he recalls the day that Sam Harper became El’s target.
Sam Harper—a very bad man, a very bad dead man—is, or had been, a fellow student at their school. Henry thinks it’s very probable that Sam Harper is, or had been, a bit of a sociopath, but prep schools are full of sociopaths of the most mediocre sort, the sort to walk their own socio path (Henry laughs to himself when he thinks of this, and decides he must repeat it out loud at some point for comedic effect) and never actually, truly, ruin the lives of anyone else, because most never get the chance. Sam Harper’s chance had come two years earlier, when he found out that their history teacher, Mr. Egert, was engaged to an insurance adjuster named Jonathan. It is Henry’s belief that Sam Harper was not inordinately prejudiced against gay men in particular, and his personal theory about what happened was that Sam Harper, upon hearing this news, was given a spark of inspiration was to how he might get revenge on a teacher who, historically, had not been prone to putting up with his bullshit. On one very memorable occasion, Egert had compared Sam Harper—lightheartedly, but at the same time in full seriousness—to Nero, and once Sam Harper had figured out what that implied, he was not very appreciative of it.
Egert was—or is, probably, though Henry hasn’t seen him in two years—a jovial, heavily-built and tall sort of man, who seemed like he would have been intimidating if he wasn’t always wearing cable-knits in every shade from beige to mud and speaking in a lilting and deep singsong. He was from Minnesota, and loved movies about Egypt, and had very floppy hair. Henry thought he was a fine person but maybe not the most successful teacher. He had a habit of jumping around a topic or time period to tell interesting but unimportant historical anecdotes, which Henry found exhausting.
El (Ellis, as Egert had called him) was very fond of Egert, in a way he would never admit, because he’s El, and El is an undersharer, but that Walsh had once described perfectly in a gesture of his mouth upon seeing El emerge from Egert’s office hours, stuffing his extra credit project hastily into his backpack as if it would crumble upon exposure to light. Generally an average student—the grade rankings went Henry, then Walsh close behind, and then El behind them both—El’s grade in history was his report card’s reliable saving grace, always accompanied by the comment, A pleasure to have in class. This was the most suspect of all of the pieces of evidence that Henry had, without intention, catalogued over the years, because in no way, shape, or form is Ellis Louis McElroy, noted cynic, militant atheist, and heir to an industrial waste treatment facility, a pleasure to have in class.
Henry is sure that nothing concrete ever happened between Egert and El, or between Egert and any other student, but he does not have any evidence one way or another. Perhaps El burned that too.
Henry remembers now, as hot chain reactions occur before him, the way that El dragged him to the steps of their dorm to watch as Egert, still holding an overstuffed binder of quizzes, was handcuffed and loaded into a police cruiser. The police had not deigned to turn the lights off on their car, and curious students came pouring out of adjacent buildings to find the source of the dancing reds and blues suddenly projected through their windows. In a horrifyingly comical twist, the arresting officers were both (probably) under five foot six, and they looked so ridiculous guiding this giant of a man into a tiny car, and the giant of a man looked so ridiculous obeying them, that Henry almost burst into laughter. He is sure if he had that El would never have forgiven him. Even so, he remembers very clearly the terrible feeling that filled up his bones when El turned to him, as Egert was driven away and students started to cluster and theorize, and said, “It was Sam.”
Their school closed down for a few days in order to deal with the fallout. Rather than disappearing to recover emotionally from the events of the past few days, Sam Harper and his family did every type of press coverage there was: TV, print, radio, public speaking events. Walsh made a joke one time about Sam Harper “taking his talents to Ellen,” and El had silenced him with a look that made his entire thin and sandy body look suddenly like some very dangerous animal. Then he get got up and turned off the TV and left Walsh’s house. Walsh had just shrugged, and continued watching TV wordlessly, at which point Henry realized he, too, was dismissed, and left.
Egert pled not guilty to the charges leveled against him by Sam Harper’s very well-dressed lawyer: criminal sexual conduct, assault, and coercion. The insurance adjuster appeared in court with him, and had to watch, along with Henry, Walsh, El, and a girl from their history class who was also unhealthily invested in the case for reasons she had never explained and no one had asked about, as the jury came back with a unanimous guilty verdict. The insurance adjuster crumpled, as did Egert, and their lawyer, and El, and half the courtroom. The girl from their history class got up and left without saying a word to anyone. Sam Harper’s family, it should be noted, barely reacted; their investment in the conclusion of their son’s purported molestation ordeal was, apparently, minimal. Wendy Harper, Henry remembers, patted her son only twice on the shoulder with her spindly WASP fingers before searching in her bag for her car keys.
El didn’t say anything for a long time after they left the courtroom. Walsh drove him and Henry to his Oma’s house, forty-five minutes away from school, where they sat in Walsh’s very nice parlor as she showed them photos from her latest piano concert slash church benefit. El didn’t speak then either, not even to say bye to Oma, with whom he had, historically, had a very good rapport. Walsh, having used up his one idea of how to improve El’s mood, drove them back to school and turned off the car and they sat in silence in the parking lot as curfew came and went. Henry had just opened his mouth, letting out the tiniest exhalation, prepared to suggest that they go inside, when El punched the dashboard of Walsh’s Mazda so hard it left a visible crack in the plastic. Blood dripped from El’s knuckles, and he said, with more emotion than Henry had ever heard him use, “I’m going to fucking kill him.”
Two years later, Henry sits at the fire, while the smell of burning acrylic yarn disperses into the air, and thinks about what it is to be an accomplice in a murder case. He finds it very easy. He doesn’t even have to do anything.
Walsh asks El to hand him a log, and El, nearly-naked, brings him one from the pile they keep under a faded blue tarp. It’s public land, so they really shouldn’t, but it’s never been an issue; tarps are replaceable. Walsh, his broad shoulders so easily contrasted with El’s by the light before him, places it in an emptier part of the fire pit, leans back on his haunches, and asks, without looking up, “So, what now?”
El shrugs. “Nothing. No one saw me. No motive. Clothes are gone.”
Henry says, “The press is going to love it. He was going to Princeton, they’re not going to take it lying down.”
El rubs his toe against some flat rock in front of him. “I don’t give a shit what the press thinks, I care what the cops think.”
He shivers, but it doesn’t reach his face, and Henry, for a moment, has to remind himself of why El isn’t wearing clothes, and then it all comes at once, the truth of it all. The reason that they are here on a Sunday—a Sunday—is bleeding out in the next neighborhood over, or perhaps it’s stopped already, the bleeding, and perhaps Sam Harper’s body has already been found, maybe by his well-dressed mother, and maybe she screamed, or she’s screaming now, or maybe it’s still there and it won’t be found for a while, because Henry has no idea how far into the woods El was willing to go but he suspects it’s far, very far. Henry vomits collard greens into the fire. The gooey acid puddles sizzle instantly. It smells the way one would expect.
He looks up at Walsh, surprised to find that he’s on his hands and knees know, and he doesn’t know how long he’s been that way. Walsh is busy trying to recover the fire from the faltering caused by Henry’s emesis, and doesn’t say anything to him. El, on the other hand, makes a face, which he follows up with, “You alright?”
Henry vomits again, but less this time, and he wipes it off with the back of his hand, an absolutely vile smell now soaking into his skin, and he looks up at El asks, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
El seems confused by the question.
Henry stands, and points, not as firmly as he would have liked. “You’re insane. You’re fucking—you’ve ruined everything. Everything.”
An eye roll. “Don’t be a soap opera star about this.”
Henry runs his hands over his face, and he can smell the collard greens, but his senses aren’t working like they usually do, because he can smell them alright, awful and rancid and dead, but it’s not reaching him somehow, and his lips are rippled as he drags his unclean hands over and over and over his mouth. “All for what, Ellis, for a fucking history teacher? Just some guy?”
He stumbles away from El, then towards him, taunting this tiny skinny boy like in some kind of dance, and he wants to stop the words that are coming out of his mouth, because they’re the kind that you can’t ever shove back in. “You know what, the jury found him guilty. An impartial jury, they looked at all the evidence—maybe he even did it, Ellis, you don’t know.”
El’s face is blank. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
Henry is too far gone now, and some part of him is enjoying it, enjoying saying these awful things to the boy who has ruined all of their lives, the boy who for years treated him like a dependent dog. He is shivering, and naked, and is such an easy target. “I do! I do—”
It is at this moment that Henry was sent to the ground by El’s fist. The blow is well-placed, and Henry skids a little on landing, the layer of wet leaves he settles upon sliding over the base earth. He has not been knocked out, but he might as well have been. The only thought that occurs to him is that he can now see how El could kill someone with a rock.
El steps over him, between his legs, and Walsh crouches above him, and whistles low. That appears to be all he has to add to the discussion.
“If you say anything about this,” El says, crouching down and grabbing Henry’s neck firmly, but not tightly, “I’ll kill you too.”
Henry feels iron and copper in his mouth and he realizes, seeing the last dregs of sunlight washed out over the horizon between trees, that there is an order to the world, and that everyone has someone they will follow. Walsh will follow El endlessly, and Henry will follow them both, and El will follow Egert, and the world is just that, people following each other, moving forward, abandoning what’s behind.
He holds his hand out, dirty, covered in vomit and blood and dirt and ash, and El stops the gentle squeeze, straightens up, and asks, like Henry is the most pathetic of creatures, “What?”
Henry wets his lips, to little effect. “Where’s the rock?”
El doesn’t respond, just flits his eyes back and forth to Henry’s, like he’s thinking, but not really, and repeats, “What?
The arm Henry was holding out for some illusion of protection drops to the ground. “What did you do with the rock you hit him with?”
El blinks. He says nothing. He doesn’t have to speak out loud the answer, which Henry realizes is that he left it there, by the body. He came here and burned his clothes but he left the murder weapon at the scene.
As Henry struggles to sit up, El sinks to the ground. He looks so tiny, all bones, his bare skin against leaves and rocks, but if he notices this, he doesn’t show it. His mind is somewhere else, perhaps back in the woods behind Sam Harper’s house, perhaps at the state penitentiary a few miles away. They sit there, the three of them, all animosity suddenly dissipated, watching the fire, listening for sirens in the distance. They don’t hear anything but the fire.
Jojo Rinehart-Jones is a sophomore at Hamilton College and a descendant of Margaret Jones, the first woman killed during the Salem Witch Trials. She enjoys raw carrots and riding the subway in the early morning.