I was coming down the back stairs of Joshua Hall with two squished protein bars in my pocket and a handful of Swedish fish that I’d just lifted from Torino’s old room when I caught a fourth-year boy named Smith fucking an eighth grader named Conway. It was the long Memorial Day weekend and the barracks were locked up tight. I had been pillaging the empty rooms upstairs all morning and was systematically making my way down to the gunny sergeant’s office, saving the best for last. The gunny almost always kept a wad of singles in the top drawer of his filing cabinet, and I sometimes wondered if he left them there specifically for me. He was always in my corner, even as I was getting expelled. He knew I didn’t brand that mid-year plebe Reynolds, but his job was on the line, and I get that.
It was hot that Memorial Day, and as I got to the bottom of the stairs, balls deep in sweat and popping Swedish fish into my mouth two at a time, I heard the bunk creaking in Conway’s room. I stopped and listened close for a minute, then darted from the bottom of the stairwell to Fisher’s old room, where he used to shine shoes for spare change before he got kicked out with Torino. I didn’t know whose room it was after that, but I did know it had a decent view across the hall into Conway’s room.
I hoped to see something like the janitor fucking a dirty gym sock, thought maybe I’d have some fun scaring the shit out of that old PTSD-ridden bastard, watching him jump out the window like a mangy dog who just got caught eating the trash. I’d sneak up real close to Conway’s door and then, Boo! He’d leap out of his shoes.
I damn near choked on my red wad of Nordic sugar when I looked across the hall and saw that Smith character had little Conway bent over the bottom bunk with his pants around his ankles. I stepped further into Fisher’s old room and crouched behind the door so just my eyeballs could peek out. My breathing got so loud, I thought for certain someone would hear me, except all the cadets had gone into Philly for the parade, and the barracks were empty. Or at least, that’s what I thought before I came across these two, going about their perverted business like nothing was out of place.
Looking back on it all this time later, I don’t know what possessed me to stick around Bunker Hill after my expulsion. I guess my only other option was to head on back to the borough, but I had a better chance of surviving into adulthood if I just lived in the woods off Military Road. So that’s what I did. If there’s one thing I learned during my years at The Hill it was resourcefulness. I got pretty good at skinning squirrels and cooking them over a fire, and when I needed something of substance, I broke into the barracks. Most of those kids knew I was still living on campus somewhere, and that I was the one taking their shit, but they didn’t make a fuss. They must have figured it could’ve been them, just as easily as it was me. None of us loved that place, but we were all afraid to leave.
The Conway kid couldn’t have been more than twelve. But he bent over that bunk quite submissively, I must say, like this wasn’t the first time it happened. Everyone knew Smith only had five or six good minutes in him before he’d finish and be on his way. I stood up straight again and started into the hallway, figuring if I let them know I was there, Smith would dismount and they’d run separate ways. But then I didn’t, and the longer I stood there and watched them, the more I talked myself into believing this was a rite of passage at The Hill. If you didn’t get fucked by a high-ranking cadet at some point, you never really earned your cap shield, now did you.
The first time I got kicked out of The Hill, I was caught smoking dope with a bunch of college kids on the parade field. They’d been around long enough to know that if you get caught doing something stupid like that, you should say it won’t happen again and go on your merry way. Not me, though. I found it important to prove my manhood so I went apeshit on the gunny. He warned me at least three times to back down, but whenever he opened his mouth, I let into him again. “This school is so fucked up,” I said. “Ain’t nobody allowed to have a little fun in a fucked up place like this.” Next thing I knew, my old man was there with his truck and a bunch of suitcases, and I found myself back in the borough.
I went awful hungry those three weeks in the old man’s row home. He kept cheap beer in the fridge and nothing in the cabinets. I resorted to gobbling up my sister’s leftover Adderall, which she once told me acted as an appetite suppressant, before she died of anorexia. I told that to Torino once, not the part about the Adderall but the part about my sister starving to death, and he said if I think that’s bad, he’ll tell me about what happened to his mom one of these days. He never did tell me, though.
I guess my old man got sick of having me around, because somehow The Hill gave me a second chance. I was back in the barracks sweeping dustballs and scrubbing toilets in no time at all. I knew to keep my nose clean after that. That place was a shithole to say the least, but the borough was where people went to die, and I wasn’t ready to die.
I slithered across the hall and stood just outside Conway’s door. I was near enough that I could hear Smith’s balls flapping against that little kid’s thighs, which made my dick hard against my jeans despite the disgusted feeling that was rising up in my throat. I remember sticking my hand in my pocket and massaging one of Torino’s squished protein bars the same way my old man massaged his gun whenever he cleaned it. Maybe it was the heat, or maybe it was the thoughts swirling around my head, but all of a sudden it seemed everything in my stomach would come up and decorate the floor if I didn’t get the hell out of there.
I knew they wasn’t letting me back into The Hill after I got kicked out the second time. I wasn’t there when my old man showed up with his truck and the suitcases. I’d already retreated to the woods a half mile away, where I knew there was an old shopping cart and some moth ridden blankets that Polish bum slept on before he disappeared. I’d been hiding out there for about a month when I decided to hitch a ride into the borough. I guess I was hoping to get a hot meal from my grandma, who had a soft spot for me ever since I first told her I was going to military school.
But my grandma’s house was boarded up, and somebody had spray-painted pictures of cocks and titties all over the stucco. Mrs. Flaherty next door came outside when she saw me standing there. “Well if it ain’t Edward Quinn,” she said. “Your grandma would be real happy to know you’re here, feller, except she finally lost all her marbles and they put her in that home up on Ridge Avenue.” I stood there looking at the spot where my grandma’s front door used to be and wishing I could be in that old folks’ home on Ridge Avenue too. They probably fed you fruits and vegetables there and gave you a soft bed to sleep in. Mrs. Flaherty took pity on me, I guess, because she gave me a bag of pretzels and a lift back to The Hill. I reclaimed my slice of paradise inside the Polack’s shopping cart, and after that, I never felt like I was meant to be anywhere else in the world.
A few days later, The Hill sent the gunny into the woods to look for me. My old man must have heard from Mrs. Flaherty and realized I hadn’t strayed too far from the barracks. It was a full-on search party of one. I knew the gunny’s footsteps from a quarter mile away. He lost a leg in Afghanistan, so he projected an unmistakable boot followed by his bulky prosthetic. I came out from behind a tree and let him see me. Then I led him on a fucking bushwhack for the rest of the morning.
By lunchtime, I knew he was worn out because he was cursing about Iraqis and his crackhead mother. He called out into the woods, “No use running, Quinn.” But I wasn’t running so much as I was torturing him, which he didn’t deserve. Most likely, he had a cheeseburger for me, and maybe some fries. This goose chase was a matter of principle, though. This was about every borough-bred cadet like me who got kicked out of The Hill for doing stupid shit when in the meantime, those international rich kids barely spoke English and got away with murder. The gunny was just a distraction for me that day. Still, I led him down into the meadow where some of the Chinese moles would smoke cigarettes and read titty magazines on Saturday afternoons if the weather was nice enough. I’ve never been a rat, but I respect the concept of justice. It’s not fair I should be the only one getting in trouble when there’s plenty of trouble to go around. I just thought the gunny should know is all.
Somehow, I ended up with that Smith kid’s neck in my fists. I’m telling this as truthfully as it really fucking happened, but I don’t expect you to believe me because it was a long time ago and it’s become a legend at The Hill since then. Everyone knows legends are gross exaggerations of the truth, and they get densely distorted over the years.
I learned the hard way to be a pacifist at The Hill, but after enough time passed and my dick went limp, while I watched Smith jamming his giant ghetto cock into that little kid from the Main Line, a storm cloud exploded in my brain, and all that I could see was lightning and rage. I was a good four inches shorter than Smith, but when I swept up on him from behind, I grabbed underneath both armpits and took hold of him like a boa constrictor. I ran my fingers along his sweaty chest hair and tried to settle him down, but he started ranting on and on about refugees and feminists and his brother stationed in the Middle East.
In the meantime, Conway screeched like a girl, and I honestly thought the gunny might hear him overreacting from all the way in downtown Philly. So I held my fist up to his nose and told him I’d destroy his face if he couldn’t be quiet. But that made him carry on all that much more, and finally I had to stretch my arms from Smith’s chest and put my hands on Conway’s neck. I squeezed a little bit, just enough to calm him down until I could get straight with Smith.
Still, thinking about it, that wasn’t my smartest fucking move.
Nowadays I figure most people would seek charitable services before they’d try to live the way I did, after I was finally, inexcusably, irreversibly expelled from The Hill. But I learned back then a man can survive in this world without giving up his dignity if he don’t mind where he shits. When I was twenty, they started drafting boys against the Russians. Kids from The Hill got a higher pay grade and some enviable retirement benefits if they joined the Army on their own free will. I stayed in them woods throughout it all. I stayed as quiet as possible.
There was one time, my old man found me near the back gate, where The Hill’s property line comes up against the twelfth hole of that fancy golf course. He must have searched all day, but I never inquired about his hardships. “Your friends are off to war,” he said. “Your grandma would have wanted you to heed the call.” I gave him a long, hard look. Then I walked away, and I ain’t seen him since.
I haven’t been more than thirty miles from The Hill my whole life. I had classmates who went to Naval and West Point and the Merchant Marine Academy, and some who just plain enlisted. I suspect those guys have traveled the entire globe. Maybe even Torino and Fisher. And for what.
Smith was an accomplished wrestler. I was the one who got him into wrestling when we were ninth graders, in fact. I had been headlocking kids and winning tournaments years before Smith ever heard of the sport. He was a natural though, and once he got the skills down, no one could beat him. My problem against Smith was that I stopped growing around fifteen, and that mother fucker rose up taller and prouder every year we spent at The Hill. So when I held him and Conway in that double, chest-stroking chokehold, the state champ in Smith came raging to the surface. It only took him a second to wiggle free after he stopped blubbering about modern day politics. That’s when he reversed my hold on him, and before I knew it, I was on the floor looking up at the bottom of his boot. This is where the story loses its legendary appeal.
“Goddamn,” Smith said. Then he put his foot down next to my ear and pushed back his hair. “I can’t hurt you, Quinn. You’re just a kid from the borough. Same as me.” I stared up at him for a minute, then turned my attention toward Conway, who was sitting on the bunk now, his pants back around his waist where they belonged.
“You OK?” I asked him.
Conway nodded and replied, “This ain’t such a bad school, Quinn. You say some real garbage about The Hill, but it’s better than a lot of places.”
I stood up. Smith stared at me as I straightened my shirt. Then I turned around and left Conway’s room and sauntered down the hallway to the gunny’s office, where I took a wad of singles out of his top drawer and a pack of Post-It notes for no real reason. I figured it might annoy the fuck out of the gunny to find his Post-It notes missing. I was making my way out of the window at the end of the hallway when I heard that bunk creaking again.
Even back in these woods, a lot of things have changed since then. The horse stables were bulldozed five years ago, and McMaster Hall got boarded up when enrollment declined during the war. There’s a bunch of rich European cadets at this school, now. Their parents want to protect them from all the shooting and the drones and the crazy fucking Americans blowing everything to smithereens on the other side of the ocean. I stay back here along the fence mostly, but every now and then I still sneak into Joshua Hall during holiday weekends. When I was expelled from The Hill the second time, I was stealing video games, but these days, my loot includes things like pickled herring, jars of sauerkraut, and occasionally canned caviar if I’m lucky.
Sometimes, I’ll stand there in Conway’s old room and think about the good days. We did have some good days, believe it or not. And he was right. The Hill was better than a lot of places.Shannon Coghlan Reiss recently finished a three-year sabbatical studying literature and creative writing in Paris. She now resides in Philadelphia, where she works as a freelance writer. She documents her creative endeavors at www.rejectedinparis.com.