They began with frogs. Jim would catch them. That was his specialty. He knew just where to go, and that was his secret. Buddy would do the rest—the cutting and gutting and the stretching, while Jim squatted and watched. They’d been at it for weeks since Sgt. Miller, the biology teacher at Crydale Military Academy, showed them how.
“Smells like booze and hospital beds,” Jim had objected over the body.
“Nah,” Buddy had replied. “Frog’s a frog.”
And they had cut up at least twelve since then. Cut them up on the concrete floor of the bathroom in the boys bunk house while the rest of the seventh graders slept.
This morning, Jim found a toad. “A real fat boy,” he said after he pulled it, dazed and stone-like, from his pocket behind the cafeteria. He stashed it in his footlocker until they could find the time to operate. That’s what Buddy called it: operating.
When the day’s classes and drills were over, dinner eaten and prayers said, the commandant switched off the lights. It wasn’t long before most of the boys were asleep. The days were grueling. Buddy waited until he could hear Tom Belechant snoring before he kicked the bottom of Jim’s bunk.
Jim’s small face appeared in the dark.
Buddy made his hand into a pair of scissors and cut the air.
Jim nodded and slipped down to the floor with practiced silence. He lifted the lid of his footlocker, felt around for the sock that he’d put the toad in, and carried it to the bathroom.
Buddy counted to fifty before he eased himself out of bed and followed.
It was cold inside the bathroom. Jim had the toad out of the sock, and it sat, oblivious, in the middle of room. Jim hunched shirtless on the commode. His collar bones and ribs poked under his skin like poles in a tent.
“Damn, but he’s big,” Buddy said.
“Ayuh,” Jim said. “Biggest I’ve seen.”
Buddy took a pack of cigarettes and a bar of chocolate from the pocket of his pajama bottoms. The boys smoked and shared the chocolate, while the toad hopped into the corner of the room and stared at the wall.
Jim took a drag of his cigarette and coughed.
Buddy cut him a look.
“Sorry,” Jim whispered. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and held it like a piece of chalk.
Buddy’s cigarette flared and hissed as he sucked at it. He took it from his lips with two fingers. “Hold it like this,” he said.
Jim corrected his grip.
“Well,” Buddy clinched the cigarette in his teeth and produced a pocket knife from his pants. “Let’s fetch him up.” He opened the blade and examined it while Jim retrieved the patient.
The toad was laid on its back, its legs kicking. Seemed to Buddy they kicked in slow motion. The frogs didn’t fight much after they spent a day or two in Jim’s sock. Something about the long dark of the footlocker and the sudden light of the bathroom. Or the cold. The floor was frigid on the boy’s bare feet.
Buddy cut into the frog, and opened him up. The single, hanging bulb that lit the room made the grey and purple innards shine like ribbon. The toad croaked for a while before it hushed for good.
With the tip of the knife, Buddy lifted the pink lob of the liver and pierced the tiny heart beneath. Blood filled the chest cavity and ran down to the filmy white tissue that made the bladder. Smoke rose from Buddy’s mouth, and he sucked it back in through his nose.
“Rinse,” Buddy said aloud.
Jim turned on the sink, made his hands into a cup, and poured water into the frog. Rose colored juice welled out of the torso and snaked its way to the drain.
Buddy made two cuts and flipped the frog’s pale stomach out onto the concrete. The liver and heart followed. Then the lungs. Finally, the intestines and spleen. The organs were laid out on the concrete and examined.
Jim rolled his finger over the stomach and examined what squeezed out: grey phlegm and a small fish. This was cause for some talk.
There was a knock on the door.
Jim looked at Buddy.
Buddy shook his head.
The knock came again. Harder this time. “Come on. I know it’s you. Hurry up.”
It was Peters. Pissing Peters. Woe be the man that wets the bed in military school.
“Shitting,” Buddy said.
“Screw you!” the voice whined back.
“Want to smell?”
Peters’s feet slapped the concrete as he walked away.
When the organs had all been measured and recorded, felt and held, the boys dumped them into the toilet and flushed them. The knife was cleaned. The floor was rinsed. Jim and Buddy washed their hands, crowding the sink and scrubbing at the same time. It was during Jim’s second wash and rinse that Buddy stopped him with a hand to the wrist. He pulled Jim’s hand out of the sink.
“What?” Jim asked.
Buddy was studying the surface of Jim’s hand. He poked at a hard bulge that rose between the bones of Jim’s fingers, like a pinball under the skin. A vein ran along next to the bulge, and when Jim flexed his hand it squirmed and jumped to the other side of the growth.
“Where’d that come from?” Buddy asked.
“Don’t know. Guess it’s always been there.” Jim tried to pull his hand back, but Buddy held fast. He was a head taller than Jim and a deal heavier.
“Let go,” Jim said.
Buddy turned him loose, but his eyes stayed on the growth. “Tumor,” he said. “Probably cancerous.”
“That’s bad news, Jimmy.”
“It’s fine. Let’s go to bed.” But it was, Jim already knew, too late. The frog operations were getting mundane. Too easy. He had hoped that the size of this frog would have made a difference to Buddy, but it was cut up, examined, and flushed away like the dozen that came before it. Last week Buddy had suggested they move on to mammals and he had gone as far as laying out lunch meat soaked in bleach for stray dogs. The stuff had reeked, but Jim threw it away all the same. He liked the secrecy and the thrill of the surgeries, but that was too much.
Buddy took the little blue notepad that he recorded all the frog measurements in off the cistern of the commode and opened it to a fresh page. “Let’s just sketch it,” he said. “We can use that to research it later. Maybe even ask the sergeant.”
Jim allowed himself to be sat down in the center of the bathroom, where the harsh light of the bare, hanging bulb was strongest.
Buddy laid Jim’s hand on the paper and began by tracing around its edges. The graphite left a long smudge against the skin as Buddy slid it around the outline of Jim’s hand, pressing it hard against the hand to get a good shape. It was only a few years ago, Jim remembered, that they’d done this in art class. Making turkeys.
The pencil tip skipped on a burr in the concrete floor and made a slice in the meat of Jimmy’s thumb.
“Shut it!” Buddy said. The little blood that ran out of the cut soaked easily into the pulpy paper. “You’re fine.” He ripped a paper towel from the dispenser and pressed it against the cut.
“Shit hurts,” Jim said.
“Don’t be a baby.” Buddy was free-handing the bones of Jim’s hand over the tracing, sketching them out in long, quick strokes. The grey pencil lines were doubled in places by the blood left on the graphite. Soon, a fairly good sketch of Jim’s hand lay stretched out on the floor.
It was impressive, Jim thought, as he pressed the paper towel against his thumb, waiting for the bleeding to stop.
There was another knock at the door. “You freaks diddling each other in there?”
It was French this time. He came around most nights. Jim didn’t think he slept.
Buddy went to the door, turned the lock, and stuck his head out.
“You buying?” French asked, but it wasn’t a question. Miles French was the commandant’s kid and knew how to throw his weight around.
French dealt in vice. Cigarettes mostly, though he had once sold a hipflask of whiskey. He got his supply from his mother’s purse—two packs at a time. “And she can’t say boo to my dad because she’s supposed to be quitting,” he told Buddy once. French would sell you a cigarette for a dollar or a pack of twenty for fifteen bucks.
The deal was, you bought a cigarette or one turned up in your footlocker for the commandant’s morning inspection. Contraband like that could mean a couple hundred up-downs in the yard, latrine duty, a letter home; it could mean whatever the commandant wanted, really.
“I’ll take three,” Buddy said, and pulled a piece of folded paper from the pocket of his shorts.
“Money,” French said.
“This should do,” Buddy flashed a very passable sketch of a pair of breasts. In the picture, they were being pushed together by a woman’s hands, cut off at the wrist. Buddy had sketched it from a magazine they’d found over a year ago. The magazine had quickly become legend. It was passed, snatched, and sold from boy to boy, bunkhouse to bunkhouse; a secret the boys of Crydale Military Academy kept for three glorious months, until Randy Snider got caught in the lavatory with it. Jim was sure no one had spoken to Snider since, except to curse him.
So the magazine was gone, but Buddy, a genius as far as Jim was concerned, remained. Buddy and his sketches. They were good as gold at Crydale, and French was Buddy’s best customer.
“I’ve already got that one,” French complained.
Buddy returned the breasts to his back pocket and came back with another piece of paper, this one still folded. When French reached for it, Buddy pulled it back.
“This is special,” he said.
French looked around nervously. There were, occasionally, bunk checks performed by the commandant’s staff, and even Miles French wasn’t invincible. “Let me see it.”
“This is worth more than three of your dirty Camels. This is worth,” Buddy glanced back at Jim and grinned. “A pack.”
“Shut your ass,” French said.
“Remember page 17?” Buddy asked.
French hadn’t punched him yet, Jim thought. That was something. And page 17, that was something too. Page 17 had been a full spread, ambitious for even Buddy.
“Let me see it,” French repeated.
“Ten first. Ten after,” Buddy haggled.
French passed over a fistful of cigarettes, and Buddy passed the paper through the crack in the door. A few seconds passed before French shoved another wad of cigarettes into Buddy’s hand and slipped away.
“Pretty slick, Rick,” Jim said when the door was locked again, but Buddy had already shifted back to sketching the hand and seemed deaf to anything else. He tore the bloody paper from the notepad and started sketching again on a clean sheet.
“We should get to bed,” Jim said.
“Do you remember CJ Waits?” Buddy asked, his eyes flitting from the old picture of the hand to the new while his hands worked over the notepad.
CJ Waits had been a bully. A bad one. Before he’d been expelled, CJ had terrorized near every boy in the school, and he’d been particularly hard on Jim: calling him names, kicking him in the back when he stood at the urinal, bloodying his nose when he felt the urge, always with threats to do worse if Jim snitched.
“Yeah,” Jim said. “I remember.”
“Remember that thing he used to do at lunch? How he’d sit behind you and wait, wait, for you to start eating, then slap the back of your head. Just slap it a little. A little pop, every time you tried to eat?”
“And every time it got funnier to him. Every slap. He’d laugh so hard he’d shit.”
Every meal, it seemed, CJ found a way to sit behind Jim, and every meal he played “slaps.” Meals at Crydale were 20 minutes even—never 21, and CJ never took a break. Jim had taken to hiding food in his underwear and eating it, sweaty and crushed, in a locked bathroom stall, where CJ would often find him alone. All part of the plan.
This went on for some weeks until Buddy stuck a fork into CJ’s leg. Jim had been Buddy’s shadow ever since, even after CJ was expelled—for what, Jim never found out. Not that he cared why. He still had trouble swallowing in the mess hall.
“Yeah, I remember. Shut up about it, will you?”
“Just saying. I helped you out there.”
“Yeah,” Jim said.
“And now I think you can help me out.” Buddy set down his pencil. On the paper was the finished hand, and it was one of Buddy’s best. The veins stood out from the frail bones of the fingers. There was a spray of freckles across the back of the palm, and the bulge was depicted flawlessly. It seemed bigger on Buddy’s page, more pronounced. More malignant. Like a wild thing that would continue to grow until it covered the entire hand, unless, Jim thought, it slipped down inside his hand and snaked up his arm, searching for his heart where it would lodge itself like a jawbreaker sucked down a windpipe and kill him dead.
“You want to cut into my hand?”
“No,” Buddy said. “I want to help you. Just like I helped you with CJ. That thing’s no good. Look at it. Come here.” He waved for Jim to come sit down next to him where the sketch was.
“See this vein?” he said. “We’ll stay away from that. It’s getting pushed up by the bulge. I’m worried that soon it’ll restrict the blood. Stop it up. That’s bad news.”
Jim made a fist and watched the vein swim over the bulge. He felt his throat grow reedy. His palms pricked with sweat.
“But we can fix it,” Buddy said. “We’ll make a little half circle cut like this,” Buddy drew a crescent around one side of the bulge, so that the pocket of the “C” held the growth. “Then we’ll just peel back the skin a little and let the pressure off. The thing will probably pop right out by itself.”
“No way!” Jim said a little too loud.
“Shut it!” Buddy said. “Idiot.”
“You’re not cutting me with the frog knife.” Jim said quietly.
Buddy chuckled. “Of course not. We’re not doing it tonight. And we’ll clean the knife up good. We’ll get a new one. This is huge. It’ll take time. Materials. Planning.” The bright light of the bathroom made Buddy’s pupils shrink to sunken dots in his mossy green eyes, but they were dancing now—sparkling and huge—darting around the room as he planned out the operation.
“Why don’t I just go to the infirmary with it?”
“You could,” Buddy said, “but it would cost. Not you, but your parents.”
“And the doctors, they’ll want to study it too. They’ll take you away, keep you in a hospital room plugged up to machines for weeks.”
“They’ll use needles to numb you first. Before they cut it out. They’ll probably go up through your palm to get at the roots of it. You won’t be able to throw a baseball for beans after that.” Buddy held up his own hand, palm down, in the air. He pushed up on his palm, beneath where the bulge was on Jim’s hand. They flesh between Buddy’s finger bones rose a little each time he pressed from the other side. “They’ll cut right through. It’d be easy.”
Jim considered all of this. Buddy knew that Jim’s parents didn’t have much and that he was sensitive about it. Jim was at Crydale because of an aunt who worked in the office. But the rest made sense. Jim hated hospitals. His tonsils had been removed in fifth grade and the memory of his night in the Starr County Hospital was still fresh. The smell of bleach on the sheets and the cold kept him awake all night. A surgery like this would likely keep him overnight, especially if they cut all the way through his hand. He imagined the long needle they would use to put him to sleep. The cold liquid from the syringe pouring into his veins. And then he would just have to lie there all dead and wait on them to cut him up. That would be the worst part.
“You wouldn’t have to use a needle?” Jim asked.
“No way. I know something that’ll make it so you don’t feel a thing. And we’re just cutting the skin. Easy stuff.”
In the dark of the bunk house, Jim studied his hand.
A week later, Buddy jerked his head for Jim to come over during recreation period. He was under the pull-up bar, the tall one that nobody could reach. “Look at this,” he said, and pulled the edge of a squeeze-tube from his pocket. “The real deal: ‘Numbing Gel.’”
“Where’d you get it?”
Buddy smiled and tapped the metal tracks of his braces. He’d just gotten back from an emergency appointment.
It had been a good week for Jim. There’d been no late nights with Buddy, and, truth be told, Buddy had been quiet all week. “Preparing,” he had said seriously. There were notes about what the bulge was likely filled with all around the edges of the sketch Buddy had made of Jim’s hand. Buddy had even made a couple sketches of what he thought the growth would look like once it was out of Jim’s hand. Most looked like used chewing gum or blurry grapes.
Billy also filled a folder with other sketches, things he had copied from the library’s anatomy textbooks: the tiny parts of the throat, the musculature of the hand, the winding path the intestines made from the belly. But even with Buddy occupied, he and Jim had spent a lot of time together.
After this week’s lesson on pond ecology, Sgt. Miller asked Jim to stay after class. “I just need Jim,” he said, though Buddy remained to skulk near the jars of fetal pigs and deer.
“Everything OK?” Miller asked.
“Yeah,” Jim said. Ever since CJ Waits, the sergeant had been keeping tabs: buying him sodas, asking if Jim was happy here.
Miller was a young man and handsome. Jim hoped he wasn’t screwing his aunt.
“What’d he want?” Buddy asked when the boys were in the hall.
“Just asked if I wanted to redo the quiz essays,” Jim lied.
Under the pull up bar, Jim slipped a Garter Snake from his pocket. It was a baby, no more than four inches long. A curiosity, Jim hoped. “What do you think about this boy?” he asked, grinning.
But Buddy seemed to not even notice the snake. “Let that thing go before it bites you,” he said. “We’re past reptiles.”
Jim lowered the snake to the ground and watched it make delicate “S” cuts in the sand, dashing for some high grass nearby. “I’ve been thinking about the operation,” he said. “I think I want to keep the bump.”
Buddy smiled. “I know you’re scared. It’s okay. You won’t feel a thing. Look.” Buddy turned away from where the commandant sat talking to a group of boys holding jump ropes. He pulled the tube of gel from his pocket and squeezed some onto his hand. “Look at this,” he said.
Jim leaned in to see, and Buddy wiped the gel across his cheek. “Damnit!” Jim said, smearing the gel with the back of his hand.
“Rub it in,” Buddy said.
Feeling stupid, Jim complied. Soon the entire side of his face felt cold. The passage of the wind caught him by surprise. When he touched his cheek it felt doughy and alien under his fingers. His hand too, felt strange where it had touched the gel.
After a while Buddy pulled Jim behind a tree and pinched his cheek. Jim felt nothing. “Do it again,” he said, amazed.
Buddy pinched him again, then slapped him.
Jim couldn’t feel a thing.
They met that night in the bathroom. Buddy brought the frog knife, which, he assured Jim, had been sterilized. He also brought a white uniform undershirt, the one he had worn that day, along with a fresh, rolled pair of socks and his leather belt, the shiny black one that the cadets wore with their dress uniforms.
“Sit,” Buddy said and motioned to the commode.
Jim sat. His stomach was in knots and threatening to empty itself. He wanted to go back to bed. He had to pee.
“Hand,” Buddy commanded.
Jim put his hand out, and watched as Buddy emptied half the tube of gel onto the top of it.
“Rub it in,” Buddy said, and Jim began to massage the gel into his skin, making sure to cover the bulge, while Buddy marched around setting up his operating room. The undershirt was spread under the sink, next to the drainpipe. This would be the operating table. The belt and socks were laid on top of the shirt. The blue notepad was opened to a clean page, and a pencil, freshly sharpened, was laid on top.
Buddy washed his hands and smoked a cigarette, dropping the ash into the dripping sink. He was finishing his third, and the room was foggy with French’s Camels before he called Jim over. After a little fussing over the best way to position things, Buddy settled on having Jim sit under the sink in a half-crouch.
“Let’s not do it,” Jim said as Buddy was adjusting the belt, deciding where it should be lashed and how tight. “I don’t want to do it.”
Buddy sighed. Sweat sat in heavy beads on his brow and ran openly down his chest where dark hair was just beginning to sprout. “We don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” he said, still working at the belt that bound Jim’s arm to the drainpipe.
“Ok,” Jim said. He felt he guts uncoil. He shoulders relaxed; he hadn’t even known they were tight.
“Is it numb?” Buddy asked and flicked at Jim’s hand where it dangled, the arm securely fixed in place.
“It’s way numb,” Jim laughed. He flapped his hand in the air and felt the bizarre sensation of his flesh jiggling, as if detached, on his bones.
“Put this in your mouth,” Buddy said, holding the rolled socks.
“Put it in your mouth. If it hurts, you might yell.”
Jim’s pulled at the belt and it held fast. He reached to unfasten it, but Buddy pulled his hand away.
“What are you doing?”
Buddy reached to cover Jim’s mouth.
Jim ducked away. “Stop!” he said. He tried to push Buddy back, but his good hand was lashed to the pipe, and, anyway, he was hunched awkwardly under the sink, unable to stand. He kicked out at Buddy, but the bigger boy was already too close.
Buddy overpowered Jim easily, holding him by the throat to stifle the scream. Pinching the nose until the mouth dropped open and then shoving the socks into the mouth.
“Quiet in there,” French said through the bathroom door.
But Buddy barely heard him. His left hand clamped the Jim’s nostrils closed, while the right fended off blows. He watched Jim’s face turn from red to blue, watched the whites of his eyes wash over in spider webs of blood and the pants darken with urine. It was alarming. It was scary. But after a while, after some time, after the initial struggle was done, the patient would tire, would sleep. Then Buddy could work. Then he could finally work.
Stephen Hundley is a former high school science teacher. He currently works and studies as an MFA student at the University of Mississippi. He also serves as the fiction editor for The Swamp literary magazine. He was a finalist for Arts & Letter’s Fiction Prize in 2017. His recent work can be found in The MacGuffin, Driftwood Press, and BULL. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.