Wednesdays the boys are released for Free Fighting. Five minutes, in the courtyard, guards in towers. No weapons, maiming, deforming, or finishing. The rules do not explicitly mention broken bones, and maybe a dozen of the three hundred know the word maim, and there is always at least one cracked nose, arm, leg, foot, clavicle, vertebra.
They descend in chaotic unison, drawn to the low places, fists flailing, swears under breath until the first fist lands and knocks it out of the mouth. One boy catches another by the neck and they both go underfoot. Another throws a punch and returns with a bloody fist, a tooth gouged in the flesh between middle knuckles, the tooth’s previous owner lisping curse words and spitting blood in the thief’s face. A blood loogie lands in the thief’s mouth and returns on a spume of vomit.
Boys of smaller sizes and constitutions line the walls of the building, sliding side to side as bodies are flung toward them. Some of these Backrow Bettys are spotted and dragged into the fray by larger kids with no one else to pound. The Bettys disappear, sometimes popping out on the other side, but left lying there when the horn blows, bleeding and crying. At least crying. Always crying.
The horn blows and the fists wind down. Hands help others off the ground and the nurses rush into the courtyard to treat wounds. One boy off in the corner is not moving.
At dinner word gets around that somebody died during Free Fighting. Nobody knows who. Randy? Andy? Trey? Not a big kid. One of the Bettys? Kind of a faggy kid or just a little one? The really tiny one? No, there he is over there trying to keep the tears out of his spaghetti. Who then? It might be just a rumor, but everybody talks it into the ground, past cinnamon roll time and into Reading and Games.
Before lunch, the boys assemble in the multipurpose room. The population at BoyLife Adolescent Management are too young to be castrated, either voluntarily or mandatorily, but they’re old enough for Sex Ed. The castrating or not castrating comes after Ed provides the tools to make an informed decision. Due to a side effect of legislation limiting families to one child, males outnumber females two to one. The boys must choose whether they will enter a real world with an active sex drive and no available mates, or with the sluggishness and loss of motivation that result from castration.
Sex Ed steps out from behind the curtain, his flesh-colored fatigues pressed, his shirt stretched tight across his chest. Sex Ed waits, arms crossed, staring into the distance until the screen behind him displays an anterior diagram of the female anatomy. After weeks of build-up, today is the day. Misinformation spreads before Sex Ed speaks.
When you rub on a girl, hormones make a baby in that tube.
You don’t rub her; you pee on her.
False. The baby starts up there in one of those top pockets and slides down the tube.
No, you don’t pee on her.
Yeah, kissing can make a baby, but only during a certain time of the month.
Sex Ed marches to center stage. “Gentlemen.” He raises one hand to silence them. “In the old days, knowledge was passed down to younger generations through story. The human voice gives weight to words. Today, I have knowledge to pass down to you. Knowledge that you will carry out of here and into the rest of your lives.”
He aims a laser pointer at the outline of the vulva. “Let’s begin.”
At lunch, the boys process the information, wet chewing and an occasional clanging fork the only sounds. Had they heard the truth from a kid on the yard, they would be debating it right now. But they have no reason not to believe Sex Ed.
The stares they give one another are not only shock, but consideration.
“I see some of you squirming,” Sex Ed said in the assembly. “Some of you are aroused.” No one bothered asking what that meant.
They fork their potatoes and shove squares of cornbread into their mouths with the same muted vigor with which they shovel dirt or roll rocks.
“Others of you are not,” Ed said. “Self-control will be an important factor in your decision. Perhaps the most important.”
Some sip weak red juice from a plastic bottle. No one touches the yogurt.
“Once you’ve reached puberty, your testosterone levels will be monitored. Your psyche will be evaluated. The information will be placed on a data matrix, and you will consider those facts.”
They mash meatloaf into mountains and guns.
“But only you can answer the question of self-control. You will want something that will be unavailable to you. And you may be tempted to sate this desire in unhealthy ways.”
Dozens of boys adjust their crotch at the same time, and somebody on the end of a table drops his entire plate to the floor.
“If you choose to remain virile, but show signs of aggression and a lack of self-control, you may be placed in military service. Let this factor into your choice as well.”
Boys throughout the cafeteria begin quietly sobbing. Others grunt. Many bang their forks and knives.
Morning headcount reveals that nobody died yesterday during Free Fighting. None of the boys acknowledge their disappointment. Now, lining up for the Flag Run, there are hushed curses and hissed epithets, more shoving than usual, bruised ribs elbowed, fresh scabs scratched at. Comradery is absent in the presence of the Blue Flag at the top of the hill—exemption from Friday chores. Shouts drown out the whistle and dull the aches and pains, squelch the tears, funnel the fury, and pull their feet up the hill to get that motherfucking flag.
Matt McDonald’s stories have appeared in Loud Zoo, Eunoia Review, and Swamp Ape Review. He is from northeast Louisiana, where he works in higher education.