Second Place, Fiction
Steven and Tommy always warned Nick not to go tattling, and usually she didn't, as long as they let her try whatever they were doing. It was her only leverage to get in on the action. She was 8. They were 13 and they were boys, so they hated her, but she always liked them OK and mostly just wanted them to stop treating her like a baby. So they taught her to shoplift and throw Chinese stars. They showed her their gross porn and let her light some firecrackers. They all even blew up a bunch of frogs, and she never snitched about any of it. But on the night they smoked, she fell asleep on the living room floor, and when her mother came home from work and asked her what had happened, Nick was so confused that she forgot that she wasn't supposed to tell.
By the time Steven came home, Nick was in bed, but she heard everything from down the hall. Nick's mother shouted about working second shift at the hospital and needing just a little help around the house and staying away from Tommy. Steven talked back so bad that her mom started hitting him, but Steven only laughed. Nick heard her mother walk into the living room and back into the kitchen, and then there was a loud crash on the floor. Steven shouted, "My PlayStation," but then there was another crash, and her mother yelled that maybe their father would give him a new one if he stopped being such a fuck-up. Steven yelled, "Fuck you, then," but Nick could hear that he was crying, so it sounded pansy. When he got to their room, he shouted at Nick, "You're dead," and then hid his head under his pillow. Nick kept herself awake until he dozed off. A lot of times, he threatened to kill her in her sleep. He hated sharing a room with her. They had a small house.
After she told, Steven and Tommy ignored her for a whole week, until one day she was watching some stupid Jerry Springer thing about girls who dress like hos. Steven came to the doorway of the living room. "Hey, Nick, let's you and me and Tommy play a game."
Nick could hear Tommy laughing in the kitchen. "What game?"
"We want to see who has the biggest mouth."
"Shut up, Steven." She heard Tommy laughing harder. "You shut up, too, Tommy," she called.
"No, I'm serious," Steven said. "I'll bet you a dollar I can hold more water in my mouth than you can."
Nick turned away from the screen. "Without swallowing?"
"Yeah. You got such a big mouth, Tommy thinks you'll win, but I still say I'll beat you."
Nick got up, walked back to their room, slid her head under her dresser, and fished her allowance savings out of the slot she had cut in the bottom. She stuffed the bills in her front jeans pocket, walked into the kitchen, and sat down at the table. Steven had already poured three glasses of water, all with the same amount. Both boys had dollar bills in front of them. Tommy stuck his tongue out at her.
"OK, you guys," Nick said. "No cheating, or the bet's off." They each lifted their glasses. Nick tilted hers slowly as she leaned further and further back. When at last she had emptied the glass, her mouth wide open and nose toward the ceiling, she turned her head so she could see the boys out of the corner of her eye. Tommy had spilled most of his down his neck and soaked his shirt. Steven had given up with his glass still a third full. Nick ran to the sink, spit, and spun around. "I won!" She dodged back to the table and snatched the bills.
"Shit, Steve, I told you she'd win." Tommy punched Steven in the arm.
"Cut it out, dude, we can still get our money back." Steven turned Nick toward him by the shoulder. "Nick, let's try with bread now, and let's bet $2. Whoever can fit the most pieces of bread in their mouth wins."
Nick wrinkled her face up at him. "Are you stupid?"
"Come on, it'll be fun."
Nick smiled. This stuff was easy. "OK."
Steven grabbed the bag of bread out of the drawer. "Now you go first. We'll count."
Nick mushed one, two, three, four, and finally a fifth piece of bread into her mouth, until at last, her jaws painfully stretched, she could fit no more. She had to dig a bunch out with her fingers before spitting the rest into the garbage next to the stove.
"Fuck, Steve, we'll never beat that," Tommy said.
Steven swatted him on the side of the head. "Stop your whining and just try, you pussy."
"Yeah, you pussy," Nick added.
Tommy tried while Steven and Nick counted, but he only fit four. Steven tried, and he only fit four, too. Nick giggled and scooped up her winnings.
"Give us one more chance," Steven said. "We each bet $3, and whoever can fit their mouth around the doorknob wins." He pointed at the back door there in the kitchen, next to the toaster oven.
Nick hesitated, looking at her money. "Three dollars?"
"Aw, come on, you big baby," Tommy said. "You already won $6."
"What if more than one person can do it?"
"Then we split the money," Steven said.
Nick thought about it and then shrugged. "OK, but you guys are so dumb. I'm just gonna win again." She put her money down on the table. "Suckers."
She walked to the doorknob and knelt, but she was too short, so she stood up again and bent over. She opened wide, but her teeth still hit the round edges of the knob, and she couldn't just push them over. It was bigger than she had thought. She set her lips against the metal, stretched her jaw, and started slowly moving her head up and down, then left and right, until finally, her teeth slipped over the knob. Her mouth full, she let out a muffled cheer and raised her arms in the air. The boys were laughing behind her.
It took a second before she felt the burn on her lips and tasted the vinegar sting on the front of her tongue. Tears welled in her eyes and she coughed into the metal, an action which caused her to gag.
The boys laughed even harder now. Steven came over and shook a bottle of hot sauce near her eye, close enough so she could see it. "That's right, sucker, habanero," Steven said. Nick struggled to get herself off the knob. "What's the matter? Can't take it? I thought you were all big and grown-up."
Nick could hear Tommy behind her, picking up the bills from the table. Steven held her head against the knob and reached into her pocket for the rest of her money. Then he let her go. She struggled once again to wiggle off the knob, but she couldn't. The burn spread over her tongue and gums. Her face was sweating. Tears poured down her cheeks.
Steven began to laugh again. "Tommy, get a load of this." He kicked her in the ass. Nick grunted as the knob ground into her molars. "She can't get off."
Tommy laughed, too. "Aw, poor baby." He walked up behind her and began tickling her.
Nick screamed into the metal in her mouth, tried jerking her head to the side, but the knob only smashed against her teeth. She wasn't just tearing up anymore, she was crying. It hurt. Tommy kept tickling her. She tried kicking him, but he moved each time. Finally, she was able to grab a fistful of his hair.
He twisted out of her grip. "You little shit," he shouted. "I was just tickling you." He pinched a fistful of skin at the back of her neck, but then Steven pulled him away.
"That's enough, dude," Steven said. "Let's just let her stay there a while and think about the lesson she's learned."
"Yeah," Tommy added. "Don't fucking rat on your own brother, bitch."
Nick heard the freezer door open, and she knew they were taking money from their mom's stash. Then they walked into the living room. She tried to shout "no," and even tried to shout "don't leave me," but nothing came out except loud mumbles. Then she heard the front door close.
She cried the whole time, hard at first. Then the sobs calmed down a little. The sting of the hot sauce had dulled, but her jaw ached horribly. She tried the moves that had gotten her mouth over the knob. She tried pulling. She tried stretching her mouth open with her hands. Nothing worked. She could move the knob forward and back in her mouth, but she couldn't twist her teeth over it. She ran her left hand over the counter for a tool, a spatula, anything, but she could only reach the toaster oven. The drool dripped off her chin and onto the floor. She tried kneeling again because her back hurt in this position, but she was too short. Through the dusty curtains, she watched the sky turn orange, then gray, then black. Her jaw swelled. When she saw the moon, she became so angry that she swept the toaster oven off the counter, and when it crashed to the floor she cried harder. They had abandoned her. She hated them.
By the time she heard her mother's car on the gravel, just after 11, Nick wasn't so much crying as humming each time she exhaled. The vibrations helped. They felt good in her teeth. She had wet herself twice, her back throbbed, and she was cold. She could taste the warm metal tang all the way down her throat. When the front door opened, she pounded her hands against the back door so her mother wouldn't just turn on the TV and sit down.
Nick's mother flicked on the light. "Nick?" she said. "What are you doing there?" She came closer and said, "Oh my god, oh my god. Are you OK, honey?"
"Just stay there. It'll be OK." Nick's mom began saying "oh shit" over and over again as she opened and closed drawers. Then she returned with a screwdriver. The bottom screw came out quickly, but Nick's head was in the way of the top one. She could barely move because her neck was so stiff, but even once she did, the shaft of the screwdriver pressed into her left temple. When the screw finally fell out, Nick's mom dropped the screwdriver to the floor, placed one arm around Nick's torso, and with the other hand pulled the knob out of the door.
She carried Nick into the living room and set her down on the couch. Nick had begun to cry harder, but she didn't know why. It didn't hurt as much now. Her mother gently pushed the knob further into her mouth, pulled its shaft down toward her chin, and lifted it out. Nick gasped loudly then, and buried her face in her mother's soft chest, still unable to move her jaw. Her mother stroked her head and rocked back and forth. When Nick's sobs quieted a bit, her mother left and brought back some ice wrapped in a dishtowel, which she stretched from Nick's left ear, under her chin, to her right ear. "Hold this up on both sides," she said and gave Nick a kiss. "I'll call the doctor."
Staring into the orange stitching on the couch, Nick hoped that Steven would be grounded for life. She patted her face and found that her jaw had swollen past her earlobe. She touched her stiff tongue to the bloody ridges along the roof of her mouth. Her muscles relaxed very slowly between the spasms. She listened to her mother say "no chips" and "not much blood, just swollen open and all bruised." Then she said, "OK, I'll call you in the morning," and walked back into the living room, carrying Nick's pajamas. She helped Nick get them on and then squatted in front of her. She stroked the back of Nick's head. "Honey, I know you can't really talk, but can you try to tell me what happened? How did you do that?"
Nick took some breaths and then made some sounds.
Her mother's eyes widened. "Steven did this to you?"
Nick nodded and blinked. She was sleepy now.
Her mother looked around quickly. "Well, where is he?"
Nick raised her shoulders and tried to say "I don't know."
Her mother let out a loud breath and then sat on the couch next to her. "Oh, baby," she said. She pulled her daughter into her lap, rearranging the ice around her chin. "You just take it easy now," she said, and soon the girl's breathing slowed as she fell asleep. The ice began to melt through her sweater, soaking through the cup of her bra in a cool slick that eventually trickled into her pants. She thought she would kill that boy when he got home. She thought she ought to kill their father. She even thought, as she sometimes did, about killing herself. But she didn't kill anybody.
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