The Masturbators

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Henry and his friends liked to play football when it was warm enough and dry enough outside at recess. Both sides had a dozen players at least, and routes crisscrossed the field like word match answers on Henry’s homework. Their games required either total improvisation or endless huddles.

One day, Henry’s friend Bryce got down on a knee in the dirt and told everybody to gather around him for one of those huddles. Henry wedged in with the rest of his team as Bryce dug something out of the pocket of his sweatshirt. Henry craned his neck over the boy in front of him and caught a mouthful of the boy’s curly hair. From his spot at the center of the circle, Bryce unfolded a sheet of paper. Henry couldn’t make out the creased image. He got up on tiptoes as the first giggles broke out below. Just then, the curly-haired boy ducked under Henry’s arm, and sunlight caught the paper in Bryce’s hands.

Henry recognized long blonde hair and the white borders of computer paper, but the rest of the image confused him. She was buck-naked. That much he could tell. And her boobs were showing.

Bryce clapped his hands closed again and the entire group collapsed in a fit of laughter. Henry didn’t join in. He stood thunderstruck as bodies rolled around his legs. His teammates laughed with hands on their bellies and forearms draped across their faces, but Henry was busy trying to remember the details of the picture. The woman had been leaning back against a chair or something, and her skin looked orange. He couldn’t recall much more.

“How’d you guys like the play?” Bryce asked. He stood up and the others followed his lead.

“What was that?” Henry asked.

“A naked lady. Duh!”

“But how’d you get it?”

“Found it on the computer. It’s Jenny McCarthy.”

Nobody said anything for a moment.

“You could get in trouble,” Henry said. It just came out.

“You could get in trouble,” Bryce sang, imitating him. The group broke into peals of laughter again. “What are you, a masturbator?”

Henry didn’t say anything.

“You know what a masturbator is, don’t you?” Bryce said. He made a gesture in the air with his thumb meeting his fingers in a loose circle.

Henry didn’t know what Bryce was talking about, but he said, “Of course.” Then, quickly, “Show us the picture again.”

Bryce folded the page into quarters and shoved it into his pocket as the boys in the huddle watched. “That’s all you’re gonna get,” he said. “Mrs. Green is coming, so act normal.”

Everybody turned to look for Mrs. Green, who was walking around the school on recess duty. As they drifted back toward the kids with the football, somebody asked, “Remember when she got hit in the head by that soccer ball and spazzed out?” Some of the boys laughed.

“Dad said that was a seizure,” Henry said, but nobody heard him.

Bryce played quarterback again and called anyone who didn’t catch a pass a masturbator. Their team lost to some boys from the other fifth grade class. Afterward, Bryce said he would have shown them the picture again if they had won. Henry and Bryce had been friends since kindergarten when they had played on the tire swing together until the older kids spun them so hard they would zig sideways and fall on their face as soon as they got off. Lately, Bryce had started acting like one of the older kids, especially when they were around others, and Henry didn’t know why.

At the end of the day, Bryce approached Henry as he was putting books in his backpack. “Here. You can hold on to it for now.” Bryce pulled the folded picture from his pocket and dropped it into Henry’s open bag.

“Bryce,” Henry said. “I don’t want it.”

The two boys stood alone at the back of the classroom next to Henry’s desk as their teacher, Mr. Willis, ushered students out the door. Mr. Willis turned and said, “You two coming?”

“Yes, Mr. Willis,” Bryce said in the voice he used for teachers and parents. As they walked out of the room, Henry zipped up his backpack until the zipper bit into a fold in the canvas and got stuck. He couldn’t fix the snag and walk at the same time, so he held the opening closed and shielded it from Mr. Willis as they passed him. Henry wanted to hit Bryce. Once out of earshot, Bryce turned to him and said, “Come on, Hank. Don’t be a baby. Mom’s been looking through my stuff.”

Henry didn’t want the picture. He didn’t know what to do with it and was worried he’d get caught with it. He would have kept saying so, but as they reached the parking lot, Bryce was preoccupied with looking for his mother’s minivan. Henry wondered if Bryce would call him a masturbator again if he tried to give the picture back.

A moment later Bryce’s mother pulled into the parking lot. “See ya, Hank,” Bryce said as he backpedaled away from Henry. “Mom says you and Justin can come over on Saturday if you want.”

Henry fixed his backpack as he waited for his brother Lee, who took longer collecting his things at the end of the day than Henry did. Henry’s first thought seeing Lee come out of the building was that Lee was lucky not to have to worry about the picture. Blooming guilt made Henry’s voice sound funny when he greeted Lee, and he wondered if his brother was looking at him strangely. Henry fixated on the picture as they walked, even as Lee described how somebody brought a cat skeleton to class and how a new girl had told him that she had never seen Power Rangers before. “Can you believe it?” Lee asked, and Henry said that he couldn’t. Henry imagined the square of paper shuffling down through the things in his backpack. He hoped it made it all the way to the bottom, like when he sank to the mesh floor of the McDonald’s ball pit as other kids jostled above him.

He thought about how he would hide the picture when he got home. He would either stash it in a pile of Sports Illustrated for Kids issues in his closet, or he would put it under his mattress. It would have been the kind of thing to hide under a loose floorboard—like in the movies—but his house was too new for loose floorboards and his bedroom was carpeted. Lee would sometimes sneak into Henry’s room to cut photos of his favorite athletes from the magazines for collages he made on construction paper with glue sticks. So Henry first thought to hide the picture under his mattress. But he didn’t know when his father would be coming for his sheets. When his mother was still alive, Henry had helped her with the laundry on Saturdays, but his father didn’t stick to a schedule. There were just some days when he would overturn the house in a frenzy of chores. If Lee found the picture he might tell on Henry, but there was a chance he wouldn’t if Henry let him look at it. Henry didn’t even want to think of his father finding it.

Once they arrived home, Henry had to wait for Lee to use the bathroom before he could run to his closet to hide the picture. He risked a quick look and this time was able to process its details. JM—as Henry code-named her in his mind—had large, round breasts with nipples that were much wider than Henry’s own, or even his father’s. She wore fancy black socks that came up to the middle of her thighs, and there was a strip of hair between her legs that was much darker than the hair tumbling down her shoulders. Henry felt a dizziness he had never felt before. He couldn’t tell what color her eyes were, but he felt his own drawn to them. She wasn’t smiling; not really. She was between faces. Like someone had told her to smile and she had only made it halfway there before the person took the photo. Henry wondered whether the cushions beneath her were stiff like the pillows in the guest bedroom. Maybe she was uncomfortable.

Henry remembered Lee and hurried to hide the picture. He pulled an issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids from his stack, but the cover had Michael Jordan on it. He reached for a different one: Ken Griffey, Jr. Baseball didn’t interest Lee. Henry found two pages without photos, and then realized the other sides of the pages couldn’t have photographs either. He didn’t have time to find four in a row without photos, so he settled on three toward the back and shoved the paper into the spine of the magazine. He steadied the top of the stack with his palm and slid the issue back into place toward the middle just as Lee banged out of the bathroom.

Later that night, Henry brought the family dictionary into the guest room while his father was watching TV and Lee was drying dishes. Henry tried to look up “masturbator” but couldn’t figure out the spelling and had to search down through the M’s. He found “masturbate” and read its definition: “to stimulate one’s genitals with one’s hand for sexual pleasure.” Henry didn’t know what “stimulate” meant but had heard grown-ups use it. He didn’t know “genitals” either, and he thought of gizzard and gonad, other words adults used. He kept reading the line over. His anticipation would build until he reached the phrase “sexual pleasure.” It felt wrong to read those words; worse yet to dwell on them. He returned the dictionary to its place in the den and repeated the definition under his breath until he could recite it like the naughty sounding commandments from Sunday school.

Henry spent the rest of the week sneaking moments with JM every chance he got. The folds of the paper began to swing freely like hinges and wore lines across the image. Luckily they didn’t ruin any of the good parts. Henry would look at JM’s breasts and privates and struggle to take in both at once. His vision would double if he stared for too long, and he would have to shake his head and blink. Then he would hear a noise and it was back to page forty-one for JM and back to the stack for Ken Griffey, Jr.

It got so that Henry couldn’t resist running to the closet the minute he was alone. When he went to sleep he stashed the picture and a penlight between his sheets and would awaken the next morning still clutching the paper under his pillow with the penlight at his feet or on the floor. He would smooth JM out and kiss each of her breasts before hiding her again. Kissing her sent soda bubbles crawling up his bones.

That Saturday, when Henry rode his bicycle to Bryce’s house, JM rode in his pocket. Bryce’s dad was waxing his Chevy Silverado in the driveway. He did that every weekend, or at least every weekend Henry was there. Henry said hello and Bryce’s dad waved but didn’t look up from the cloudy film on the truck as Henry went inside through the garage.

Justin was already there. He lived closer to Bryce than Henry did, and Henry felt a pang of jealousy seeing them together. They were playing loud music that sounded like lumberjack saws bending back and forth, and Bryce and Justin were taking turns jumping off the couch and rolling across the floor.

“Hey guys,” Henry shouted.

“Hey,” Justin said.

Bryce was too busy jumping around to respond. A decorative plate fell off a shelf onto the carpet without breaking.

“We’re head-banging,” Justin said.

“What’s this song?” Henry asked.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Justin nudged Bryce. “Can we try a chat room now?”

Bryce nodded and turned to Henry. “Did you bring my picture?”

“Yeah,” Henry said. He pulled out JM and handed her to Bryce.

“Aw man, look how messed up it is. What have you been doing with it?”

Henry stared at JM in Bryce’s hands and didn’t like how Bryce held her. “Nothing,” he said.

“Yeah right,” Bryce said. “Hank and Jenny sittin’ in a tree, H-U-M-P-I-N-G.” Bryce made the masturbator gesture with his hand again and laughed. “Come on. Let’s go see if any girls will cyber.”

Henry followed Bryce and Justin back to Bryce’s computer room. Bryce’s mother must have been running errands. Bryce’s family was repainting the room, so all of the furniture other than the desk and chair had been removed and a sheet of plastic covered most of the carpet. Bryce sat at the desk and Henry and Justin leaned over his shoulders.

“Last night Justin and I cybered with two high school girls from Texas,” Bryce said. Henry felt the pang again—he hadn’t known they were hanging out the night before. “We told them we were exchange students from Australia and they totally bought it. Right, Justin?”

“Fuckin’ A,” Justin said. He had started saying that, but Henry didn’t know what the “A” meant.

“Think any of them will cyber with us today?” Henry asked.

Bryce didn’t answer, because Justin had started saying the word “Barbie” in an Australian accent. They both started saying it and laughing, but Henry didn’t know why. He thought about Barbie dolls and wondered what they had to do with Australia.

As the three of them listened to the computer dialing up, Bryce asked, “What should our name be?”

Justin suggested “The Hockey Guys.”

“That’s stupid,” Bryce said.

Nobody said anything for a moment, so Henry said, “The Masturbators.”

Justin laughed, but Bryce said, “What are you talking about? You don’t even know what a masturbator is.”

“Do too,” Henry said.

“Then what is it?” Bryce asked. He swiveled his chair around to face Henry. Justin leaned back against the desk and looked around the room without meeting Henry’s eyes.

“It’s when you stimulate one’s genitals.”

Bryce blew air through his lips and laughed with a huff. “You’re such a moron. That’s not what masturbating is.”

“Is too. It’s in the dictionary.”

Bryce said, “No it’s not. Masturbating is when you pull on your wiener. My babysitter told me, and he’s in high school so he would know. He says that middle school is full of masturbators.”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Henry said. “Pulling on your wiener hurts.”

“See,” Bryce shouted, “you have been masturbating!” Bryce slapped Justin on the shoulder. “And duh, Hank. Of course it hurts. That’s why it’s a bad thing.” Justin laughed with Bryce, but Henry thought he was faking it. Henry wished Justin would say something to change the subject, but he just said, “Fuckin’ A.”

“Then why are there so many middle schoolers pulling their wieners?” Henry asked.

“How should I know?” Bryce asked. He suddenly sounded bored and turned back to the computer. “Such a masturbator,” he muttered. “We’re going to be called “Justin Jagr,” and we’re going to tell girls that we’re Jaromir Jagr’s brother.”

“They’re never going to believe that,” Henry said. “And why are we using Justin’s name?”

“I don’t mind,” Justin said.

“Because it’s more believable if you use a real name, and because he’s not being a masturbator.” Bryce said. He started typing “ASL?” in messages to usernames that sounded like girls. Henry knew that ASL meant “age, sex, location.”

As they waited for a response, the door to the garage opened in the kitchen, and Bryce’s dad shouted across the house for Bryce to turn down the music. They heard him open the refrigerator. Glass tinkled. Probably a Miller High Life. He always drank High Lifes when he worked on his truck. “And you better not be on the internet. You hear me? I’m waiting for a call about my shift.”

Bryce disconnected and turned off the monitor. “We’re not,” he shouted. He grinned at Justin and Henry as he left the room to turn down the stereo. Henry and Justin could hear Bryce’s father say, “Bullshit, you’re not. If your mother catches you again, she’ll be up my ass, so knock it off.” There was a pause as Bryce said something that Henry and Justin couldn’t hear.

“I don’t care,” Bryce’s father said. “Go outside and stay out of trouble or you’re not getting new goalie pads. End of story.”

The music cut out, and they could hear Bryce protesting, which embarrassed Henry as he and Justin stared at their reflections in the computer monitor.

“Enough,” Bryce’s father said. Then the door thumped closed.

Henry and Justin walked out into the hallway to find Bryce as Bryce’s father cracked the door open again and called out, “Did your mother say when she’d be home?”

“No,” Bryce said.

“Come get me if work calls.”

Justin had to leave to watch his sister’s soccer game. After he left, Henry paced around the living room. Bryce lay back across an ottoman with his head hanging upside down. His face slowly darkened. He didn’t say anything. Henry grew antsy and went to the kitchen.

“Can I have a Dew?” he called out, but Bryce didn’t answer.

When Henry walked back into the living room, Bryce was sitting right side up again. “You know what we should do?” Bryce asked.

“What?”

“We should burn the picture so Mom doesn’t find it.”

Henry felt all the bubbles in his body boil at once and considered stealing JM from Bryce. But the relief of no longer having to hide her and the excitement of starting a fire slowly replaced his anger.

“How’ll we do it?” Henry asked.

“Mom and Dad have matches in the medicine cabinet,” Bryce said. He left the living room as Henry sat down on the couch. A clock on the wall ticked loudly behind him, and he could hear a radio playing oldies in the garage.

Bryce came back and waved Henry up. They snuck out the back door of the kitchen and walked across a patio to a grill under a tree along the rear wall of the house. The grill’s cover lay in a heap to one side. Bryce handed Henry the picture and matches and ran around the house to check on his father. Henry felt better without Justin around. He liked how Bryce spoke to him directly when they were alone. He liked how Bryce laughed at his jokes.

When Bryce returned, he lifted up the lid of the grill and took the picture from Henry. Bryce unfolded it and set it down on the metal rack, where it lay open and creased at its folds. Henry clasped his hands together, nudged Bryce with his elbow until Bryce copied him, and said, “We come here today to say goodbye to this naked lady named Jenny McCarthy.”

Bryce started snickering, and Henry went on, “We’re all going to miss looking at her, and her big ole jugs.” Bryce cracked up. “Except for Mr. Willis, who’s probably never even seen a naked lady before.”

“What a lame-o,” Bryce said, and Henry felt a rush of confidence.

“Is there anything you’d like to say, Bryce?” Henry asked.

“Yes,” Bryce said, joining in the game and quickly bringing himself near to tears. “I-I-I,” he stuttered. “I would just like to say, ‘Goodbye, my darling! And goodbye to your big bazongas!’” Henry fell down laughing, and Bryce hollered, “Your big bazooka bazongas!”

Henry picked some clover blossoms from the grass and stood up and laid one on each of JM’s breasts. Bryce pulled out a match and started flicking it on the box. He tried twice before the head flew off. “Damnit,” he said, and he threw the spoiled match into a metal pail near the grill. “You try.” Bryce handed the matchbox to Henry.

Henry had never held a match before. He held the stick between his thumb and index finger like Bryce had done and scraped the match head against the red sandpaper stuff on the box. The match flared in a plume. He stared at it as it welled up and then settled into a small nub of flame.

“Nice one,” Bryce said. “Quick, before it goes out.”

Henry imitated his father lighting newspaper scraps for campfires. He held the flame under the edge of the picture until it caught. He kept holding on until its heat bit into the meat of his fingers. Then he dropped the match and shook his hand in the air.

The boys stood shoulder-to-shoulder watching the picture burn. The fire ate the paper in a steady orange wave that curled JM’s body into a black crescent as it disappeared. The clover blossoms blackened and fell to the bottom of the grill without fully burning, but the picture was reduced to charred flakes. Bryce lifted the rack with one hand and picked up the larger pieces. Then Henry helped him close the grill and they carried what was left of the picture to the back of the yard to scatter under a row of evergreen hedges. They each took turns consoling the other with pats on the back as the other wailed and grieved.

On Tuesday night the following week, Henry and Lee arrived home from school to find their father pulling a pizza out of the oven. He was still wearing a tie and loafers, so the boys knew he would be leaving soon, probably for a work dinner. He paused to hug them and gave Lee a peck on the top of his head. Then he ushered them to stools at the kitchen island and transferred the pizza to a cutting board on the counter in front of them. He cut the pizza with a big butcher knife, because he hated cleaning the wheeled cutter. He spun around to head upstairs and said over his shoulder, “Hank, grab the parmesan cheese from the fridge and a juice box for you and your brother.” He was up the stairs now and called out, “Lee, you better use a napkin.”

Lee had a slice and a half and then wandered off to the dining room to resume a battle of Ninja Turtles and GI Joes. Henry had three slices and was biting into a fourth when his father came back. He had removed his tie and put something in his hair. He smelled like aftershave. Henry watched him pick up keys and his wallet from the corner of the counter.

“Your cousin Corey should be here in a minute. You’re in charge of watching Lee until he gets here, Hank. No video games tonight. Uh uh, no interrupting. You played enough last night. And no friends over. You can be outside until it starts to get dark and then I want you both inside and your homework done before bed. Nine-thirty. Nine for Lee. No staying up with Corey to watch movies again. I don’t want to hear about any more nightmares.”

Henry’s father gathered up his stuff from the counter as he spoke and walked to the front door. “Come give me a hug. Then I gotta go.”

Henry hugged him and heard Lee shout, “Bye, Dad.” Then his father walked out to the Buick at the curb and drove off. Henry could hear Lee making shooting noises and then karate noises and then more shooting noises. The GI Joes seemed to have the upper hand.

Corey arrived as Henry was throwing a football to himself in the front yard. Corey was an eighth grader and rode a mountain bike, not a BMX like Henry and his friends did. Corey leaned the bike against a tree and said, “How’s it going, Hank?”

“Pretty good.”

“Your dad still here?”

“No, he had to leave. Lee’s inside.”

Corey put his hands out for a pass and Henry threw him the ball.

“Nice spiral,” Corey said. “Try throwing it lower, like a laser beam.” Corey tossed Henry the ball, and Henry wound up for a harder throw. He lost control, and it bounced off the ground at Corey’s feet. “Good power. Coach says the trick is keeping your aim on hard throws.”

They threw the ball back and forth for a while, but Henry never made it fly like a laser beam. He wanted to ask his cousin if he knew about masturbating. Corey was old enough to know about that stuff and wouldn’t tell on Henry. But a sense of shame tightened around Henry’s stomach every time he started to ask and the question stuck on his lips.

“Alright,” Corey said, “I need to check on Lee and call Jessica. He flipped the ball back to Henry underhanded and walked toward the house.

Henry hurried to catch up. “Who’s Jessica?”

“My new girlfriend,” Corey said. “Jessica Price. She’s on the volleyball team. She’s had a crush on me since like sixth grade camp.”

“Have you kissed her?” Henry asked.

“Of course.”

Corey reached the front door and Henry blurted out, “What does masturbator mean?”

Corey took his hand off the screen door and snorted. “Where’d you hear that?”

“Bryce Grant told us about it at school. He says it means pulling on your wiener, but the dictionary says it means when you stimulate one’s genitals.”

“That’s, well, that’s both kind of right,” Corey said. “But it’s pronounced ‘genitals.’” He emphasized the soft G.

“Oh,” Henry said. “Have you and Jessica Price masturbated?”

Corey started laughing, but not unkindly. “You don’t masturbate with someone else. Besides, girls don’t masturbate.” He paused and Henry turned back and forth in place, eyeing his shoes as they pivoted in the grass. “Don’t let Bryce mess with you. He probably doesn’t know anything about it.”

Henry felt embarrassed about mispronouncing “genitals” and just as confused about masturbating as before. But Corey punched him lightly on the arm as he went inside. Henry was glad he had asked.

Corey stood at the kitchen counter most of the night on the phone with Jessica Price, twisting the telephone cord until it coiled up to his elbow.

Henry and Lee watched “Home Improvement” while Corey was on the phone. Then they all watched a Discovery Channel special on cheetahs. Later, Henry helped Corey put Lee to bed.

When they were back downstairs, Corey switched to “Nick at Night” and they watched “The Munsters” for a while. During a commercial break, Corey said to Henry, “If Bryce teases you about sex words, just ask him if he knows what ‘69’ means.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like when you 69 with a girl. No way Bryce knows about that.”

“What’s 69?”

“Look,” Corey said, grabbing a TV Guide and a pen from the coffee table. “69’ing is when a boy and a girl are like this.” He drew the number 69 on the back cover of the TV Guide. Then he ran his pen around the 6 again from bottom to top. “See, this is the head and this is the rest of the body.” Then he ran his pen around the 9 again from top to bottom. “And this is the other person’s body. Get it?”

Henry didn’t get it.

“Then, ya know, they do it, and that’s 69’ing.”

Henry stared at the number on the magazine and tried to figure out what Corey meant. Corey reached for the TV Guide and ripped off the part of the cover that he had used for the drawing. Then, seeing that the pen had imprinted the number on the next few pages as well, he tore off more corners until he couldn’t make out the number anymore.

“By the way, don’t tell anybody about me and Jessica,” Corey said as he turned to face the television again. “She has to dump Lunchbox before we’re official.”

“Who’s Lunchbox?” Henry asked.

“I mean it, Hank.”

The next weekend Bryce and Justin came over to Henry’s house to play roller hockey in the street. Later, after dinner, they started talking about a sleepover, the way they always would when it got late and nobody wanted to go home. Sleepovers meant games of kick the can and ghost in the graveyard. They meant hall hockey tournaments with four players, even if Henry had to play with Lee on his team. They meant staying up late and trying to prank the person who fell asleep first.

Henry’s father thought it over and finally agreed when Henry started to beg. They followed the usual procedure: Bryce and Justin took turns calling home and asking, mentioning that the other was staying too, saying that they would behave and that Mr. Harver had enough sleeping bags and that Henry had extra pajamas they could borrow and that they could brush their teeth with their finger just this once.

Around ten o’clock Henry’s father went upstairs and told them to behave themselves because he didn’t want to have to come back down. They all said goodnight and then went back to paging through Henry’s fourth grade yearbook picking out the prettiest girls. Justin went upstairs to the kitchen on a mission for Oreos. He was gone a long time, and Bryce and Henry looked up expectantly from the yearbook when he started back down the stairs to the living room.

Justin had his hands behind his back, and when he pulled them out, he didn’t have cookies but rather a plastic videocassette case from the rental store. It was a double case, the kind for really long movies. Justin held it up to Henry and Bryce’s puzzled expressions.

“What’s that?” Bryce asked.

“Guess,” Justin said.

Dances with Wolves?” Henry asked. Henry’s father would sometimes rent that movie, or Braveheart, and they both came with two tapes like that. Henry wished he had said Braveheart instead.

Bryce started laughing. “That movie sounds stupid.”

“It’s not that,” Justin said. He slid down next to them and showed them the case. “It’s Titanic,” he whispered.

Bryce and Henry exchanged looks and Bryce rolled over, stifling a whoop. Even Henry knew about Titanic. He had heard that a lady got naked in it. His father must have rented it and left it on the counter next to his wallet and keys so that he would remember to return it.

“You shouldn’t have took that,” Henry whispered to Justin. “What if my dad catches us?”

“But he’s sleeping,” Justin whispered.

“Yeah, he’s sleeping, Hank,” Bryce said.

Henry knew his father wasn’t sleeping, but he also knew that he wouldn’t come downstairs unless the boys were making noise. “Ok,” Henry said at last. “We can watch, but we need to stay real quiet.”

Henry turned out the overhead light. Justin opened the case as Bryce did a couple silent somersaults, stood up dizzy, and crashed into the couch. Henry shushed Bryce. He grabbed the remote control for the television and hit the power button and the down volume button in quick succession. Then he turned to channel three, fed the tape into the VCR, and hit fast forward.

What seemed like an eternity later, Henry pressed play amid stifled commotion from Bryce and Justin alerting him that they had reached the scene. The two of them were lying on their stomachs in sleeping bags facing the television with their chins stilted on top their palms.  “Shh,” Henry said over his shoulder. He knelt next to the VCR and paused the tape to look up at the screen.

“Fuckin’ A,” Justin whispered.

“They’re okay,” Bryce said. He rolled over to look at them upside down.

“They’re better than okay,” Justin said in protest.

“Jenny McCarthy’s were bigger.”

“So what?” Justin said, a little too loudly.

“Quiet, guys,” Henry said. “My dad will hear.”

Justin said, “You’re just jealous because I had the idea and you didn’t.”

“Nuh-uh,” Bryce said. “I don’t even care about that. I just like Jenny McCarthy’s boobs better.”

Henry shushed them again, but Justin and Bryce paid no attention.

“What makes you the expert?” Justin asked.

“Because I’ve cybered, like, a million more girls than you,” Bryce shouted.

Henry exploded in a hiss. “Shut up, both of you. You’re going to get us in trouble when Dad wakes up.” Bryce and Justin turned to look at Henry as he kept talking. “You didn’t even have JM as long as I did, Bryce. You think you’re so cool because you know what masturbating is and you cyber and stuff. But I bet you don’t know what 69 means.”

Bryce said, “That’s not even a thing. And what’s JM?”

“Is too a thing! Corey told me all about it. And you don’t know.”

“So what. 69 is probably for losers. Doesn’t your cousin have anything better to do than talk to you about stupid numbers?” Bryce turned over in his sleeping bag. “This movie is boring. I’m going to sleep.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you were the one who knew about 69,” Henry said. “You would think it was cool.”

“Yeah,” Justin said. “Hank’s right. You’re always…”

The floor creaked loudly above their heads, followed by heavy footsteps.

“Shh,” Henry said. He spun back toward the television, but his momentum carried his face up against the glass, shocking his nose with static. He pulled his head back and realized he was staring at breasts. His eyes went unfocused at the nearness of the image, and he sat there dazed for a moment before trying to jab the power button on the television. His finger mashed the volume button instead, and the pop and fizzle of the paused video rose from the speakers as Henry’s father came down the stairs and Henry turned to face him. He was vaguely aware of Bryce pretending to be asleep in his sleeping bag and Justin looking back and forth from Henry to his father. Henry’s father scanned the darkened room by the glow of the television and turned to Henry. “What’s going on down here? You know you’re not allowed to watch this, Henry.”

“We were just…” Henry said.

“I told the three of you to behave and be quiet, and I meant it. Now turn that off and go to sleep, and we’ll talk about this in the morning.”

“It’s my fault, Mr. Harver,” Justin said.

Henry’s father looked at Justin, then at Henry, and then at Bryce lying in his sleeping bag. He turned around and started climbing the stairs. “Go to bed, boys.”

Henry awoke to a noise in the night and looked around in confusion. After his father left, they had ejected the tape and gone to sleep without talking. It was too dark to make out more than shapes in the room. Justin was a mound of sleeping bag on the couch, but Bryce’s bag was flat on the carpet. Henry could see a faint light from the kitchen upstairs and heard voices. He crawled out of his sleeping bag and crept over to the stairs.

“…bother you, Roxanne, but he says he wants to come home. I tried to sit with him again, but it’s no use.”

There was a pause, and Henry thought he heard a sniffle. Then his father said, “Thanks. I’d bring him myself, but the others can’t be here alone.” Another pause. “Okay then. See you in a bit.” Henry heard his father hang up and then say softly, “You can’t keep doing this, Bryce. If you want to sleep over, you have to stay the whole night. Do you want some chocolate milk?”

Henry found his sleeping bag again as he heard the refrigerator open. He lay down and turned toward the couch. Justin was awake. His eyes caught the light from upstairs.

“What’s going on?” Justin whispered. “Is Bryce going home again?”

“Yeah,” Henry said.

“He’s such a baby. I’m glad he’s leaving.”

Henry smiled and crossed his arms behind his head on the pillow.

“What does 69 mean?” Justin asked.

“I don’t really know,” Henry said.

“Is it a real thing?”

“Yeah. Corey said so. But I don’t know what he was talking about. He just drew the number and kept pointing at it with a pen.”

“Hmm.”

Henry thought about it and nestled further into his sleeping bag. “I think it’s when you sleep in the opposite direction of somebody in bed. Like with your feet next to their head. And that’s what the numbers mean.”

“The numbers?”

“The six and the nine are the people in bed because the round parts are their heads.”

“Oh.”

“So, like, you 69 when you do that,” Henry said.

“Like with your brother when you’re camping? That’s not cool.”

“Yeah, I don’t get it either. Maybe it’s only sexy with a girl.”

“Huh.” Justin turned in his sleeping bag. They heard Bryce’s mother pull into the driveway in her minivan and the front door of the house open and close. A minute later the kitchen light went out and they heard footsteps cross the ceiling again. After a while Justin said, “I’m sorry I got you in trouble, Hank.”

Henry stared at the ceiling. He had forgotten about having to talk to his father in the morning, and shame crept back into his stomach. “It’s okay,” he said.

“Goodnight.”

“’Night.”

Sleep set in slowly, but eventually it took them both. Henry even made sure to keep his hands inside his sleeping bag in case Justin tried dipping his fingers in warm water to make him pee. Bryce had told them how to do it, and he claimed it worked every time.

[spacer height=”20px”] Photo:“Torn”by Thomas Berg; licensed under CC BY 2.0 [spacer height=”20px”]

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