Elise Goldenbutton drowned Halloween night. Her picture was in the paper. For weeks the boy carried with him a sick feeling. She’d gone to a friend’s to spend the night, the paper said, and swam in Livingston Lake. They found the “nude teenager” by dragging the lake. The boy pictured a boat with a rake hooked up to it. The sharpened tines scraped the bottom, muddying the water until they found Elise.
The drowning faded into the days around which it occurred. The fright of it, and the hollow quality of Elise’s face, her tinsel eyes, how she’d bite her bottom lip as if in the deepest thought, and her tight jeans—it was memory only now, which was nothing. And nothing was something the boy understood. He was going on sixteen, and still had no friends. He didn’t believe in heaven, and was at a loss as to why his parents believed. They were idiots.
The boy often thought of the first time he saw Elise Goldenbutton. She’d entered the seventh grade in the middle of the term. A huge buzz made the rounds of Harriet Truman Middle School. “Have you seen the new girl?” everybody said. “She’s gorgeous!” When the boy’s eyes first met up with hers—they were in the cafeteria—he sort of froze in place and there was this weird connection. She seemed intelligent and mature, like she was old, or maybe she was a space alien. She just seemed smart, and craziest was that she smiled at him as if she liked him, as if she recognized something in him that the two of them shared. The boy had felt blessed by her momentary gaze.
Weeks later, during Math, it came about that Elise Goldenbutton passed the boy a note, the note saying “I love you, Elrod,” and saying, “Meet me after school at the big red doors.” The bell rang and she walked out, and as Elise walked out, she eyed him over her shoulder.
The boy went to the red doors of the gymnasium. It was deserted. He started to leave, but David Alligood, Larry Kastner and a couple of others ran around from the side of the building. They were on him, pushing him against the red doors. David said, “Elise says you’re always looking at her.”
“No,” the boy said.
“Who should I believe, Larry?”
“Elise,” Larry said.
David slammed the boy’s head and the world went black. Everything came back like snap your fingers, but when the boy walked around to catch his bus, there were no buses. Half his head was numb, his left half. He felt pieces of brain slipping down into his nasal cavity.
A few days later the face began, the face in his head that came and went as it pleased. The face was hairless and all smooth, the color and texture of dough as it rises in the oven. It had that bloated look, its eyes closed, all its features rounded and perfect. The face would appear so clearly inside of the boy’s mind.
The next time the boy saw Elise Goldenbutton he tried not to look, but she caught his eyes with her light gray sparkly tinsel eyes. Seemed like something was pained in her eyes, like she was sorry. The boy turned away.
The face came the way sneezes come, the building up of it to where you sense it ahead of time. The boy would sense it, then get to feeling sick.
After eating his lunch, the boy wandered the halls and grounds of the school. He’d walk by Elise Goldenbutton’s locker and, if nobody was watching, touch the lock and metal ribs.
In his wanderings the boy saw kids puff cigarettes, and witnessed fights. One day he saw some boys pushing Albert around, calling him a fag. Albert was the tall sweaty black guy that had failed the sixth grade three times. He was really out of place, had a lot of acne, all these white bubbles on his otherwise unblemished chin. One morning Albert cornered the boy in the bathroom when nobody else was in it. Albert said, “Show me your thang.” When the boy tried to escape, Albert grabbed his arm and dug his nails in. Luckily the bell rang and some other kids entered the bathroom.
They tripped Albert so he fell and when Albert hit the concrete, Albert’s eyes plopped right into line with the boy’s eyes. It was startling. “You faggot!” they shouted. Albert looked so afraid and weak and defenseless. Albert’s eyes were bloodshot as always and his pink wet lips had that same expectant quivering they’d had that time in the bathroom. If Albert wanted he could’ve stood up and mowed those boys down with a single swing. Albert just let them kick him.
That same lunch period, following the bell when the kids were rushing back to their classes, the boy saw David Alligood run up behind Elise Goldenbutton and grab her arms so that her books fell. David wrenched her arms behind her back and she started laughing as Larry Kastner walked her way, motioning with his hands that he was going to grab her womanly globes. Elise Goldenbutton laughed, shouting, “No! Stop it! Let me go!” The boy’s shoes froze to the concrete, and the face, jumping forth as if to bear witness, filled his head. The boy’s heart beat so fast and the face wasn’t white and bland now, but burned-up, black and bleeding. Its eyes were open. The face switched forward so that the boy felt as if he was now looking through the burned up thing’s eyes.
Elise Goldenbutton didn’t grow after sixth grade. Elise stayed short like a kid so that when high school rolled around she lost a lot of popularity. When the boy saw her in the halls with her friends, they never pampered her. They tolerated her. Elise wore glasses. Elise’s mother no longer dunked her face in the toilet.
That thing about the toilet was what the boy knew must’ve been why Elise was so pretty and special and popular. Every day after school, when Elise returned home, her mother dunked her face in there, getting the bad stuff that came out of a person’s body all over her. How else could Elise have been so beautiful?
A nightmare. The boy had not asked to be here, yet here he was, growing. He dreaded it, the slow agonizing encroachment of that hideous form of what his parents and teachers were. It made him sicker and sick, the getting older, the moving closer to the dying, the bridging of the distance between himself and, supposedly, his maker. He just felt mortified by the knowledge that nothing he could do could ever stop it. He wanted to grow backwards to a time before he existed, and stay there. Any two assholes anywhere in the world could get together and have a baby!
When the boy read in the paper about Elise’s death, he thought of the time Larry Kastner walked up to Elise while David Alligood held her arms behind her back. Larry actually grabbed her boobs, and Elise laughed and laughed, struggling, or was she pretending? It was hard to figure. It seemed like they were having fun. Larry started to unbutton her shirt from the top down. The boy saw freckles on Elise’s breastbone. The burned-up face that the boy watched this through opened its mouth as if to say something, but once again, the bell rang, and David let her go. The bell was always ringing.
Now in the tenth grade the boy appeared tranquil and composed, and told himself that he was fine, a normal boy. His real problem was that he saw the motives in the behavior of every person he came across. It was all about stomping flowers underfoot, and his hatred grew. What the boy wanted was to be so far removed that there was nothing he had in common with anyone.
Still, he saw, in his dreams and daydreams, them push Elise. He saw them kick Elise and make her stand. Here Elise opens her mouth for them to look inside to see her uvula. That’s how it went. They yank off her necklace in the laughter. Yank off her bikini, mess up her hair. Make her climb a tree, and then throw sticks at her until she falls. Pinch her, thump her, slap her. Together they hold her down on the bank of Livingston Lake and drool spit into her mouth, spread her legs and pour beer on the slit. And laugh. She cries, begging for them please to stop it, but the more she begs, the meaner they become. One boy gets a dog collar from his truck.
Was it ever going to end? The boy hated himself over this bullshit. Elise Goldenbutton was dead. How could he think of her this way? When the Osceola Eagle announced a few days later that “traces of sperm were found inside the nude teenager’s vagina,” the boy got a hammer from the garage and smashed his mother’s precious vase, what his father had bought for her from Gayfers. It had purple paisleys baked into the clay. The boy didn’t know why he smashed the vase, but it made him feel better. The vase had been an anniversary gift.
The face in the boy’s head spoke to him now, the soft face, appearing in the middle of his shameful visions as if to break them up, saying such things as, “Eat some Cheerios.”
He’d go in the kitchen, get his big plastic bowl from the cabinet, pour the milk, and as he lifted spoonfuls to his mouth he’d feel sick in thinking so many boys his age, at exactly this moment, were lifting spoonfuls of milk to their mouths. He’d stop the spoon midair, take the Cheerios into the back yard and dump them into the bushes. He could barely eat his dinner. He lost weight. At first sign of a bowel movement he’d rush to the bathroom to rid himself of all that stuff. He could not look at it. He did not look in the mirror.
In eleventh the boy got a job working for a farmer who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and a member of the church he attended. The boy treated raw fence posts in a tank of diesel fuel, and held down newborn calves while the farmer castrated them. As the boy treated the posts, he pictured Elise Goldenbutton in there getting treated. When he held the hot struggling calves in the dry grass, he imagined he was holding Elise down instead. Somewhere it had to end.
But it didn’t, the pictures played, changed weekly, getting meaner. Elise runs through the woods, chased by dogs and cannibals. When they catch her they’ll strip her and tie her to a big branch and carry her back to the camp to roast slowly over flames. It starts to rain. She falls in puddles, gets up and runs, and makes it to a road where cars are driving along, the dogs barking still, coming to get her, bite her. She sees a house, and runs up there and bangs on the door. A black woman lets her into a room filled with black men. The woman closes the door, locks it, and tells her she’ll catch a cold. “Take them thangs off.” Elise tries to keep them on, but the woman gets them off her and throws them, and tells a man who looks like Albert, to “dry her ass off.” Elise lies across the laps of the men who rub her with towels and dry her hair and feed her sandwiches.
On the last day of classes everyone in the boy’s geometry course received an award. Things such as Brightest Personality, Best Dressed, Wittiest Guy, Greatest Groomed Gal. The award the boy got was Best Smile. When the teacher read it out, everyone in the class laughed. The burned up face jumped forward in the boy’s head. It smiled and said, “Oh, look at that, you got the best smile.” The boy shook his head and the face disappeared.
The boy remained seated.
“Come up and get your award,” the teacher said.
“That’s all right,” the boy said.
“You can hang onto it,” the boy said.
The teacher put the boy’s award on her desk, then continued reading them off. The black face came back, looking ugly, mean, blood dripping from its eyes. Go away, the boy thought. Please. You can come back later if you want. The face winked at the boy and vanished.
After school the boy went up to get a blueberry snowcone from the snowcone man on the hill. As he walked back down toward the bus, Larry Kastner, who had also gotten a snowcone, followed behind him. It was sunny, the sidewalk burning like a bright ruler. Larry said, “Best smile, best smile.”
The boy didn’t turn around, just kept walking, taking bites of sweet ice.
Then Larry said, “You know you’re a fucking faggot.”
“Hey faggot,” Larry said.
Larry threw his snowcone at the boy. The snowcone hit the boy’s back. The boy felt the cold on it, knowing his shirt was now stained. That’s when the burned face came back with a roar, and just then the boy saw a stack of four foot long iron sticks of rebar. These were being used for the construction of the new ballet building, but the boy, without thinking, stepped over, grabbed the first one that came to hand, turned around with it and swung it across Larry Kastner’s face. It seemed to take a little piece out of Larry’s cheek. Larry fell, and with both hands, the boy jammed the bar straight down. The bar went into Larry’s mouth, somehow missing his teeth, but by the give it gave when pulling it out, the boy knew it had lodged into the back of Larry’s throat. The boy stabbed again, and this time the bar went into Larry’s eye. The boy pulled the bar out and threw it on the sidewalk and went and got on his bus.
The bus rolled along through the streets under the arched limbs of oaks drooling Spanish moss, the windows alive with trickling reflections, the sound of the bus engine peaceful, mellow in the boy’s ears. As the bus bounced and rounded corners, the boy saw Elise Goldenbutton, the drowned girl with sperm in her body, curled up in a wheelbarrow. She was naked and wet and white with dark smears of mud on her. A man with a bland face was carting her up a hill. When the man reached the top, he dumped her over the ledge. Elise fell through the air and landed ungracefully in a heap of garbage where the boy just happened to be also. The boy reached out to her. She was dead, but he climbed on top of her and gave mouth-to-mouth. As he blew what was inside of him, into her, he felt her rib cage expand against him. Suddenly she was alive, her eyes sparkled, and it was like the first time they saw each other, how there was a connection.
John Oliver Hodges wrote The Love Box, a collection of short stories published by Livingston Press in 2013. His writing and photography have appeared in numerous print and online journals and is newly appearing in White Whale Review, storySouth, Novella-T, The Insomniac Propagandist, Knee-Jerk Magazine, Mad Swirl, The Boiler, Red Fez, and Compose: a Journal of Simply Good Writing. As a graduate of the MFA program at Ole Miss, he currently lives in New Jersey and teaches writing at Montclair State University and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.