“All right Girl Scouts, lineup!” Robbie calls the patrols to attention. Here, he is The Law. He commands twenty boys, and they listen. Lineup he shouts, and they fall into three perfect lines. The all-powerful Senior Patrol Leader.
These aren’t Cub Scout meetings, where parents bring cookies and juice boxes for the kiddies. Parents who bother showing up sit at the back tables, bullshitting, fathers flirting miserably with the single mothers seeking a “positive male influence,” in their sons’ lives—all while Big Shot Robbie runs the show.
Mason joins the other scouts as the newest recruit to Troop 178, heir unapparent to his older brother Robbie. These are the boys that he will spend the next six years with every Wednesday night, from middle school to the end of high school.
“Okay dipshits, you know how much Jerry likes lines, form up. Brandon, you’re leading the oath today.”
Brandon, the only other newbie, tries to get Robbie’s attention, while he brings out the flag for the pledge and opening ceremonies. “Robbie, uhm, Rob, Mr. Robbie?” He runs up behind him and whispers, “Robbie, I don’t know the Scout Oath yet.”
Robbie spins on his heels and looks down into Brandon’s pale freckled face.
“Brandon, do you want to be a part of this troop?”
“You don’t have to call me sir, Brandon. I’m not a cop, I’m just your Senior Patrol Leader.”
“Did I say you could call me Robbie? It’s Senior Patrol Leader, I just said that.”
“Sorry, Senior Patrol Leader!”
“Senior Patrol Leader, sir!”
“Sorry, Senior Patrol Leader, sir, you just said that you weren’t a cop though.”
“I’m not a cop, my dad is a cop though. He deputized me, so call me Mr. Senior Patrol Leader sir, from now on.”
“Sorry Mr. Senior Patrol Leader sir, I didn’t know that sir!”
“That’s because it’s not true, my dad left our family and I don’t know what he is, probably an asshole.”
Brandon stands at attention. “Sorry.”
“Sorry why? Sorry that my dad left or that he’s an asshole? Are you calling my pops an asshole Brandon?”
“I…oh god.” Brandon turns around to see the rest of Troop 178 standing at attention, smiling, turning red, trying not to burst.
“Brandon, I’m just fucking with you,” says Robbie. “You don’t have to know the Oath yet, half these idiots still don’t.” Brandon wipes his face and tries not to show that he is almost in tears.
“Timmy, front and center, you’re leading the opening ceremonies.”
“Fuck,” he whispers.
“Timmy, that’s twenty push-ups.”
“I thought it was only ten!”
“Cock is ten. Fuck is twenty.”
“Goddamnit,” he mumbles.
“Goddamnit is five.”
Timmy stands beside Robbie, facing the three patrols, and the parents in the back of the room. “Parents please rise for the opening ceremonies,” he mutters under their chitchat.
“Everybody stand up, we’re starting!” yells Robbie. “Those in full uniform, please salute. Parents and others, hand over your hearts for the pledge.”
Timmy leads the congregation, hollowly reciting the oaths without a second’s thought to their meaning.
On my honor,
I will do my best,
To do my duty,
To God and my country,
To obey the Scout Law,
To help other people at all times,
To keep myself physically strong,
And morally straight.
After announcements, Robbie starts the boys through their physical fitness routines and pathetic attempts at push-ups. He drops to the ground beside each scout, makes a fist flush to the ground for their chests to reach, and has them fall until they can’t rise anymore, usually after two or three, sometimes as many as five. All except for Foster, who can do fifty, side-by-side with Robbie.
Meetings close with a game of Asses Up, and since the new scouts don’t have their handbooks yet, and since Robbie doesn’t feel like teaching some useless first aid for venomous snake bites that they’ll never use and forget by next week anyway, he skips right to it. No more reciting of oaths, pledges, mottos, or slogans, no more laws, treaties, queries, or theories. It’s game time.
Foster pulls a blue handball out of his pocket. He and Robbie smile—big boys with strong arms, long reaches, and fast reflexes. The other boys never smile.
Michael, the shit-stirrer, picks up the statue of the Virgin Mary, while Timmy grabs the flag, relocating them to the dark recesses of the supply closet. Elijah, the intellectual, hops up on a wooden table and watches from the sideline.
Robbie drops the ball into Mason’s hand. “First throw to the newbie.”
“I’m a newbie,” says Brandon.
“Nepotism is a bitch,” says Robbie, “get used to it.” He whispers in Mason’s ear, “Throw low.”
Mason turns to the wall. He steps in front of the boys, plants his foot, and throws. A small blue blur rips through the air. The pop off the globby paint-coated concrete echoes from wall to wall. Foster jumps in front of the crowd and makes the grab off the first bounce.
Mason drops back behind the other boys, taking shelter. He watches Foster throw the ball off the bottom of the wall—it bounces high and Timmy and Michael fight to make the catch. The ball escapes their hands and they both make a mad dash towards the wall, home base. Robbie picks up the ball and fires it into Michael’s back, nailing him half a step before he touches base. Timmy reaches safety a split-second later.
“Oooh, that’s a welt,” says Elijah.
Richie picks the ball up, but waits for Michael to get up from the ground. Timmy thanks Michael for taking the hit for him, and gets the finger in return.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you next,” Robbie says to Timmy.
Michael gets up and the game is back on. Richie throws off the middle of the wall and Foster dives to make the catch off the fly. It glances off his fingertips and bounces into Brandon’s reach. Richie is halfway to the wall already, while Foster scrambles to his feet. Brandon is frozen.
“Peg his ass!” Michael screams.
Brandon wakes up and flings the ball, not an overarm baseball throw, but a catapult, launching the ball high above his head. The ball flies off the ceiling before ricocheting off the wall, rolling past Richie, Timmy, Robbie, Foster, and Michael.
“Run newbie!” Elijah yells. Brandon bolts.
Mason sprints to the back of the court, grabs the ball, turns and fires, and from across the room, wings Brandon in the shoulder. He yelps and tries to walk off the hurt.
“Damn,” says Elijah. “That was a cannon.” Elijah and Foster stand in shock at Mason’s throw, surprised that he had it in him. Robbie turns his head from Mason to the wall and back, nods in approval.
“Late hit, late hit man,” says Michael. “He got Brandon right after he touched the wall. He was safe.”
Robbie gives Michael a hard stare, and Michael bows his head. “Brandon, did you touch?” Robbie asks. Brandon walks back to midcourt. He rubs his watery eyes.
“I touched with my fingertips.” His cheeks are flushed, his brows are taut, and his forehead wrinkled. His voice shakes.
“Hey, relax, I’m not the one who hit you,” says Robbie.
“He gets a revenge throw,” says Michael.
“But I got him,” says Mason.
“Just go to the wall, Mason,” Michael says. “Don’t be a pussy.”
Brandon’s fists are clenched at his side, and he can’t take his eyes off Mason. He wipes his forearm across his nose, spreading a film of pale green mucus across his cheek.
“Mason, just go,” says Foster. “You can’t play if you can’t take a hit.” He walks over to Mason and puts his hand out for the ball. “Elijah, judge’s ruling?”
Elijah kicks his free-swinging legs around from his tabletop seat. He looks over Mason’s tightened fists, and Brandon’s snot-dribbled face. “I didn’t see it. But judge rules that Brandon is being a big baby, so Mason might as well just man up and take the hit.”
“I can take a hit,” Mason says. He looks at the ball in his palm. Just a hollow sphere of blue rubber. “But I know he didn’t touch.” He drops the ball at Foster’s feet and walks away. It rolls off Foster’s toes and down the court to the other boys.
“Damn Robbie, I didn’t know your brother was gonna be such a little bitch,” says Michael. He reaches down for the ball and tosses it from hand to hand.
Mason walks out the double doors, up the stairs, and outside the church. Across the street, Scoutmaster Jerry is sharing a cigarette with Michael’s dad. Mason walks by, fights back tears beneath his hands, too old to let grown-ups wipe them away.
“Game over already?” His mother places her hand on his shoulder. “Baby what’s wrong?” She pulls his hands from his face and wipes his tears.
“Brandon said he touched the wall, but I got him first, and then he touched.”
She strokes his hair. He looks into his mother’s eyes. She has never stayed for a troop meeting. She drops her boys off, runs home to cook dinner and make the next day’s lunches, then comes back to pick them up. She has little knowledge of what goes on at the meetings, not for lack of care, but for a simple lack of time. What she does know is that her oldest son, Robbie, is a leader—that he is surrounded by men, and what she believes is that he is learning the skills and tools of manhood. She is eager for her youngest to do the same.
She takes a step back. “You know, sometimes, the important thing isn’t being right. What matters is that those boys respect you. If they believe that Brandon is right, and you walk away from that church, what are they going to think?”
He pauses. It might seem that he was lying, he says. She asks him what is more important, that he believes that he is an honest person, or that they believe. It is that they believe, he says. She musses his hair.
“Mason, I don’t want you to spend the next six years with boys who think that you’re a liar, or worse, that you’re weak. I wish I could always be there for you, but I can’t. And that’s the way it’ll be for the rest of your life.”
She takes his hand, and she squeezes tight.
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” he says.
She rubs his shoulders and tells him that she knew he was good. She is proud of him. She smacks him on the behind and tells him to run back.
Down the stairs, through the double doors, the pop and echoes seethe the air, and Mason connects his gaze with Brandon’s. Foster holds his throw, and the game goes silent. Mason holds his chin up, chest out, shoulders back, robotically, his breathing unnatural, shallow, then deep, then shallow, then deep.
He walks straight to the wall, back turned to the boys. He closes his eyes, tight. Clenches his fists. He waits. Whispers behind him. Electric lights flash beneath his eyelids. Little specks of blue and red fly up and around. He squeezes tighter, waiting. Shuffling feet. His hands shake with the force of his clenching, breathing gone deep, chest heaving, knees tremble, locks them up. Bites his lip. He constricts. Hot tears trickle out. Strong. Straight and true.
Robbie, Foster, Elijah, Brandon, Mason, and the rest of the boys share a booth in the back of the restaurant. “Welcome to the troop,” says Foster. They chow on garlic bread and mozzarella sticks. Michael slips a handful of black pepper into Richie’s marinara sauce, and Richie unscrews the saltshaker.
Robbie raises his soda to the table. “Brandon and Mason, you guys are real Scouts now. Welcome to F-Troop!”
“What’s F-Troop?” asks Brandon.
“We’re F-Troop, newbie,” says Foster. “The most fucked up fraternity of futureless failures in all of Boy Scouts!”
“You forgot foolish and fatuous,” says Elijah. “Remember when Jerry fudged all the names on our roster for the big camporee?”
“And when he forgot to get Jackson’s Eagle paperwork in before his 18th birthday and he never made rank,” said Michael.
“When every single one of us besides Robbie and Foster failed the physical fitness test at camp,” said Elijah. “F-Troop for a million different reasons. You get the idea, right?”
Brandon nods and clinks his glass with Robbie. Mason, sitting across from Robbie, taps his empty fist to his brother’s glass. He gets up and walks down the way to the bathroom. He feels a tap on his shoulder. Elijah stands tall, chin as high as the top of Mason’s head.
“Hey,” he says. “I’m proud of you. When you came back.”
“They never would’ve let you live it down.” He pauses, as if expecting a response to a simple question. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay, just have to go to the bathroom.”
“It’s cool to have you in the Troop. It’ll be fun. You, me, Robbie, Foster.”
He doesn’t want to, but his inclusion with his brother and the older boys, Mason can’t help but smile.
“You know we weren’t picking on you right? That’s just the way it is. Even for me and Foster and Robbie when we started. It’s just a game. Next time, you’ll get to hit the new kid.”
“I know,” he says with the smile gone. He turns toward the bathroom, but Elijah steps beside him with one long stride. They are at the end of the hallway leading down to the storage closet and bathrooms, at the far edge of the seating area, where voices travel down the corridor while the sounds of clinking glasses, and yelps of teenagers spilling salt onto their pizza and biting into pepper-soaked garlic bread reverberate.
Elijah looks Mason in the eye. “I know you’re not like your brother. It was never like that for him, pushed around and feeling small. I feel like we’re the same, a little, you and I.”
“Because we both hate getting lectured by slightly older people who think they know more about life than we do?”
He laughs, and then cuts himself off. “Yeah, that, and the smartass thing too.” He almost stops to reflect, but carries on. “You can’t just be quiet around these guys, because if you’re the pushover out of all the losers in the scouts, you’re gonna get shit on all the time. Yeah, it sucks to be a newbie now, but when you get to run the show one day, I’m telling you, this is the only place where you can learn something for yourself, and if you actually give a damn, maybe even plan a project, clean a park, make this neighborhood a little less messed up. Show people that kids can get shit done better than them sometimes, and, I don’t know, maybe you make Eagle and get a scholarship or something. I’ve seen newbies quit their first week, and I’m pretty sure your Mom would never let you, but don’t stick it out just for her. Honestly, it’s a shitty rep in Scouts, but once you get through snakebites and basket weaving and square knot bullshit, you can learn a little bit about helping people, community service, and maybe even meet some people worth knowing.”
Mason stares back, like before, turning his head towards the bathroom door. Elijah does not notice.
“You’re smart, but if you want to make it out of this, you gotta make some friends. If you can’t get a bunch of pussy-ass Boy Scouts to give you some respect, good fucking luck anywhere else.”
Mason looks at Elijah, then looks down the hall towards the bathroom. “Okay.”
“Okay? That’s it?”
Mason pauses. He stares him right in the eyes, this time not looking away. He looks dead serious. “I mean, I reaaally gotta pee.” He cracks a half-smile.
Elijah shoves him back, playfully. “You’ll be fine.” He smacks Mason on the back. “I hope you shit your pants.” He walks back to the table.
Mason opens the bathroom door, closes the stall, and pulls a long sheet of toilet paper off the roll. He folds it over, lays the double layered paper over the seat, and lays three more double sheets around the toilet seat, just like his mother taught him.
He sits down, and waits, and waits, and waits. He waits until he hopes the pizza has arrived, and Foster, Brandon, Elijah, Robbie, and the others are done eating. And he still sits. And he plays it back in his head. Standing, breathing, waiting. Brandon laughs. Michael cheers. Robbie nods. Elijah smiles. Mason waits.
Jonathan Green received his MFA from Stony Brook Southampton. He was a research assistant in a Biomedical Engineering Lab at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and a Wilderness Explorer at Walt Disney World. He doesn’t know what mapping audio-spatial fields of marmosets and teaching children about environmental conservation has to do with writing, but he hopes it sounds interesting. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Columbia Journal, The Westchester Review, The Barnes and Noble Review, New South, Gandy Dancer, and was awarded an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s 2017 Fiction Open. Instagram: thejohnsgreens https://www.instagram.com/thejohnsgreens/?hl=en