The Crippled One

Stephanie Marker


Dawnish and Hatchet pulled a torn and tattered winter glove through thick dirt and centipedes. The Crippled One stayed quiet, wanted to pull at the glove too, not much to say to Dawnish and Hatchet. They'd smear dirt over his cheeks if he said anyway; they'd push centipedes into the gaps between his teeth. Dummy, they'd say, so he sat on the knot of the weeping willow in the shade, watched the other boys pull that glove across the ground in their spot of sun, stayed quiet to keep the bug taste off his breath.

Dawnish scratched at the freckles under his chin, stuffed centipedes through a hole in the thumb of the glove with his other hand, drew his breath in slow and deliberate, so Hatchet would look up from the pocket knife he'd taken out, from the flakes of rust he'd scraped off the blade with the tips of his fingers.

Hatchet looked up slow, dragged his eyes across each grain of dirt, each writhing centipede, glowered at Dawnish with practiced disinterest. "What's it you want?"

Dawnish let his breath whoosh out, scattered bits of dirt and dried grass onto Hatchet's scabbed knees. "I was thinking what if we did some dares."

"Like what kinds of dares?" Hatchet lost interest in his pocket knife.

The Crippled One pushed his back against the weeping willow, tried to force his body into the cracks of the trunk, willed his skin brown, willed his lungs to go without air. Dares meant The Crippled One had to come out from beneath the shade of the tree, but not to pull the glove through the dirt and centipedes, not to get a turn with the pocket knife or to share a spot of sun with the other boys.

Dawnish flicked his eyes over to the Crippled One, back to Hatchet, down to the glove. "Usual dares. What would you do to him?"

Hatchet looked at The Crippled One then, too, like it was the first time they'd met, strangers until then. "Dare me something."

The Crippled One braced himself, squeezed wetted eyes tight, imagined his body puddle on the spot, a boy liquefied, escaping through the spaces between the dirt and the centipedes into a world underground.

Dawnish smiled wide, spread his flaky white lips over chipped and yellowed fangs, wiped a bit of sweat off his temples, became the brute of his muscles, the meanness of his steel-toed boots, the sting of a slap from his leathery palms. "Let's get a frog."

Hatchet smiled then, too, and both boys stretched their beefed arms and legs, rose off the ground, glove abandoned, until they stood to the height of sky scrapers. Their bodies pushed in on The Crippled One, crowded him in his spot on the knot of the weeping willow. Hatchet said, "Stay," and The Crippled One didn't dare but stay. They moved away then, toward the lily pad patch near the bend of the lake.

The air sat like thick dust on The Crippled One's shoulders, blocked up his ears, stuck to the edges of his eyes and the corners of his mouth. It never took long to catch a frog in that lily pad patch. Fat, lethargic things those frogs must have been. Slow, docile little green wrigglys, lazing in the wet of the lily pads, not a care in the world.

Not long and the sky scrapers were back, Hatchet with his pocket knife dangling from seaweed fingers, Dawnish with a frog squished in the palm of one massive hand. A frog that kicked a leg occasionally, but without aim. A frog that sat quietly squished, carried away from his patch. A frog that stuck around to see what would happen to him at the command of that leathery palm, amidst those sausage power fingers.

"Look at him. Still there." Dawnish laughed without smiling.

The Crippled One sank into himself as far as he could while the sky scrapers closed in on him, his bones softened and caved into themselves, formed pockets of thick air-covered skin that he could peak out of. Still coming. They were both still coming. He tucked his head into his knee pockets. He pushed his heels into the small of his deflated back.

Dawnish pushed Hatchet by the elbow. "Get him out of there."

A branchy shadow pulled itself over The Crippled One, immobilized against the weeping willow knot, twisted down his sagging body, tied itself around his ankles and choked the shallow breath out of his pouchy throat. Hatchet drew himself into the shade, pocket knife dangling from thoughtless fingertips, scabbed knees pumping ominously. The Crippled One kept his head in his knee pockets. Hatchet grabbed him by the loosened scruff of his birdy neck, dragged him off his knot, threw him in the sun spot of dirt next to the withering glove.

Dawnish walked over to The Crippled One's crumpled form on the ground. "Get him on his back."

"Gonna play now." Hatchet kicked at The Crippled One, flipped his fragile frame with one heavy booted toe. "Gonna play."

The sky scrapers kneeled, blocked the sun with their heft, breathed rot down all the time, laughed with blank expressions while they peeled The Crippled One's head from his sticky suction chest. Centipedes crawled across The Crippled One's jaw, through his hair and into his blocked ears. A steady drip of warm damp trickled down the insides of his mangled thighs. His stomach turned to sponge. His knee pockets filled with dirt and centipedes. The sky scrapers pinned his arms above his head.

"Whatchu gonna do with the frog." Hatchet flicked at his knife.

Dawnish held the frog above The Crippled One's head, turned him this way and that in the sun, shook lake scum from his dangling frog legs. "Open his mouth."

Hatchet stuck his knife in the dirt by his knees, pried The Crippled One's mouth opened with a thumb and a finger, first his lips and then his teeth. Rust flakes fell into the back of The Crippled One's throat.

Dawnish slapped at The Crippled One's chest as he coughed. "You're gonna eat this whole frog. You're gonna chew on him, face and webs and everything, and you're not gonna spit out even a single gut."

The Crippled One's eyes went slack and ran down his cheekbones, leaked over the centipedes that clung to his eyelashes, landed in pools inside his doughy earlobes. His lips oozed down to the tip of his chin, hung suspended above his collarbone. His teeth were soft white corn kernels, stuffed all in a line across his gelatin gums.

Dawnish slipped the frog between The Crippled One's corn kernel teeth until the tip of its nose touched the back of his throat. He gagged a little, the frog's eyes blinking against the roof of his mouth. His tongue turned to rubber against the frog's pulsing underbelly as Dawnish squeezed his jaws together around the frog. No more frog eye blinks, just oozing, and the lake scum working into the cracks between his corn kernel teeth.

Dawnish pulled The Crippled One's jaw back open. "Stuff the legs in."

"That's too much frog for his mouth, Dawnish." Hatchet hesitated, finally took the greasy frog legs between his fingers, tried to forced them into The Crippled One's overfilled mouth. "They're not gonna go."

Dawnish glared at Hatchet, loosed The Crippled One's good arm to reach for Hatchet's pocket knife, pulled the knife, slow and deliberate, out of the ground, tore the dead frog from The Crippled One's mouth with a sigh. "Can't do anything right. Gotta do everything for everyone."

The frog's body, slackened against Dawnish's leathery hand, juiced itself onto The Crippled One's collar bone, one webbed foot slicked to his cheek, a flower petal in the rain. Dawnish gripped its upper half and sliced clean through with Hatchet's rusty pocket knife. The legs fell to The Crippled One's chest with a sick slap. Small worms slithered from its skins, hurried away, got lost in the current of centipedes as Dawnish scooped frog bits the shade of eggplant from The Crippled One's armpits.

"One chunka frog for each cheek, what do you think?" Dawnish re-pried The Crippled One's sagged and taffyed mouth open with his free hand, pushed the frog head into The Crippled One's left cheek, paused to re-collect the drippings, stuffed those in too.

With two fingers holding the frog head in place, Dawnish grabbed at the legs and pushed them against the inside of The Crippled One's right cheek. His skin pinked, The Crippled One gagged uselessly in his wretched pile of dirt and centipedes and guts. His oozing eyes went wild, shifted side to side as they dripped and drained into his small blocked ears.

Dawnish pulled The Crippled One's thinned lips over the bulge of frog and scum and bile. "Chew."

The Crippled One flopped his good arm across his stomach helplessly, his fingernails turned to wax paper and scraped across his belly skin, purpled and exposed. His fingertips brushed against the tip of Hatchet's rusted pocket knife, caught on the crumbling blade, poured out with blood to soak fabrics and fingerprints and nests of resting centipedes camped out in his belly button.

Hatchet sat motionless as Dawnish held The Crippled One's mouth closed with both hands. He watched as centipedes crawled from The Crippled One's lips to Dawnish's sausage fingers and on up, over scaly elbows and into the sleeves of his shirt. The sun dipped a little and the sun spot shifted so that Dawnish and the crippled one were shadowed in front of Hatchet on the ground. "My knife's got guts now."

The Crippled One's arm continued to flail, seemingly aimless, whacked against Hatchet's scabby knees as Dawnish laughed again in his throat only. "Look at him try to move."

The air thinned out and the weeping willow branches swayed, reached out to the sky scrapers hunched over their puddle of boy. The Crippled One's hand pushed up against Hatchet's pocket knife again, his cork screw fingers gripped the cracked and crumbling wooden handle as if by mistake.

"He's got my knife." Hatchet twisted on his heels. "With the guts too."

Dawnish sighed and pushed his jaw out at Hatchet. "So grab it."

Hatchet continued to stare, planted back on his heels, as The Crippled One's arm moved in jerks and spurts around his body. His movements became more frantic and wide, eyes shut tight and oozing, frog skin and heart and eye trickling from his swollen mouth. His corkscrew fingers tightened around the knife handle, tightened as if the knife could save him, a life preserver thrown from the shore of his centipede river.

Dawnish sighed, shook his head at Hatchet, adjusted his hands around The Crippled One's mouth as if to grab the knife himself. He turned to steady The Crippled One's arm as it jerked madly upward, and without warning the rusted frog gut blade of Hatchet's pocket knife pushed its way into Dawnish's tender belly, sliced its way down with another wild twist of The Crippled One's good arm, then up again, deeper, and then stuck, The Crippled One's arm still twitching as if to break free, but unwilling to let go of the pocket knife's wet handle.

Dawnish's hands went slack, released The Crippled One's bruised and broken mouth, fell to his side with a soft rubbery thud. Frog and bile and blood ran from The Crippled One's mouth, over the side of his puffed cheeks, pooled in the dirt around the ends of his hair.

Hatchet pushed at Dawnish's lifeless body as it slid to one side and heaved to the softened ground. "He's stabbed to death now."

The Crippled One opened his oozing eyes, focused first on the weeping willow, then on the sky. His cheeks pulled themselves back together, hardened his once drooping lips as his corn kernel teeth turned to tough enamel inside his suddenly sparse pink gums. His sponge stomach soaked up his sagging skin, firmed itself back into flesh as his mangled bones filled back out in their frame. His corkscrew fingers were real, his hands real, the knife handle solid against the palm of his hand. His grip loosened and he let his good arm fall, sat up suddenly, mindlessly wiped the remaining frog pieces from the corners of his mouth.

Hatchet backed off from The Crippled One, looked into his soiled face, glanced once, quickly, into his eyes. "Dawnish. He's been stabbed."

Blood seeped from Dawnish's gutted abdomen, ran over the centipedes and down through the spaces between the dirt, soaked into the roots of the grass and the weeping willow. The sun dropped out of the sky and a shadow hardened over the dirt and the centipedes, over Dawnish's fallen frame, over Hatchet's pocket knife, over what was left of the skins of the frog. The Crippled One dragged himself across the ground towards his weeping willow, pressed his forehead against the rough trunk, wrapped himself around the knot at the base of the tree, and fell asleep.