As Father Roberts delivered the Confirmation lesson, Jason glared at his shoes on another boy’s feet. The navy and white British Knights bulged on Marcus, a size too small. Jason had never had shoes like the Dymacels. Sickened, imagining the special silicon soles popping beneath the fat bully, he mashed his face between his hands. He didn’t care if he squeezed his heavy-lidded eyes further closed, didn’t care if the taunts came with more zeal: Crack Baby, Crack Baby. The pressure held in the anger.
Marcus snorted. His chest ballooned, unsettling his dress shirt and the teal Larry Johnson jersey layered on top.
“What’s funny, Mr. Thompson?”
“There’s no heaven. My cousin told me.”
Jason pulled down his hands. Other kids sat up. Father Roberts dragged his arm from the chalkboard, just as the period signal buzzed angrily. A cacophony rose slowly and beckoned from the halls of St. Anthony’s of West Cleveland.
“Come see me, Mr. Thompson. Right now.”
As he joined the nervous exit, Jason glanced back. Marcus cocked his head while Father Roberts lit into him. As the lashing went from words to a massive slapping hand, Marcus remained what he always wanted to be: gangsta.
Jason’s throat flared. The memory returned—Marcus choking him, others pulling away his shoes. Then Marcus’s arm really cinching, and Jason understanding he couldn’t stop the attack if it became lethal, if Marcus stayed enraged. Adults died all the time in the housing complex. Jason realizing that childhood was no protector.
He slid into the hallway traffic, terrified.
Marcus sat with a bunch of boys at lunch. They dared each other to eat weirder combinations of the Friday menu with ranch dressing. Somebody shouted that Marcus wouldn’t eat a banana peel.
“Oh, yeah?” A peel smashed into blobby sauce and disappeared down Marcus’s throat. He threw up his arms. “Gangsta!”
Jason made a fist around his fork.
On Sunday, his brother repeated his advice.
“You’ve got to smack him back,” James said.
Jason nodded and buttoned up his church shirt. Down below, their father called for them.
“I’m not as strong. Look.”
He threw a punch, hard as he could, into the mattress. James frowned, then rooted in a drawer.
“Don’t matter. You’ve got to hit him. He’ll keep doing it. Long as he thinks he can own you.”
“Can’t you do it?”
James turned back. He held a plastic baggie.
“Hell, no. That’d be worse.”
“Nothing,” James pushed the baggie down his pants. “Business.”
At the service, Father Roberts talked about the importance of souls. How a clean soul, a loving soul, was the most precious thing any of them would ever own. Jason leaned into the priest’s words, loving the sound, or, more accurately, the power the sound injected into the words. If strung together and recited just so, it felt like they might really move stone. He barely kept from writing rhymes in the hymnal.
“Do not sell it for anything out there!” Father Roberts pointed outside, to West Cleveland. “Do Not. Sell Yourself. Cheap!”
As the priest moved on, Jason scanned the pews. Every head turned itself forward—except one, leaned back, eyes ceiling-bound.
On Monday, Jason twisted his whole body with the punch. It caught Marcus’s jaw and turned the fat boy’s face towards the lockers. Then Marcus’s face and fist roared back. Jason’s head exploded with heat. He careened. A knee went into his kidney. He collapsed into shins and shoes. Wrapping his hands around his skull, he thought that it was good that Father Roberts had given the soul sermon. Even as shouts issued down the hall, sneakers squeaked, and a large hand dragged him up, he thought he would die.
That night, the fury returned. Jason pressed into his head, tried to press everything in, but the pain was too much. He gasped. James didn’t stir, but the pain did. Jason slipped out of bed. As quietly as possible, he pulled a baggie from the drawer. He’d never tried the powder, but he’d heard it made you feel good. He crept towards the bathroom, where he’d heard you used the powder—but then he thought about Marcus. About gangsta. He went back to his bunk and shoved the baggie into his pillowcase. Then he threw his head on top and tried to press himself to sleep.
The next day, the boys followed Jason and Marcus through the rusted turnstile behind the stadium. Jason unveiled the baggie and the boys seemed to grow in height, like cornstalks in fast-forward, rising and angling. Marcus snatched the bag and led them away.
A week later, when Jason couldn’t produce more powder, they beat him so badly one of his ears popped and the sound never returned. At home, when James learned about it, he went for something else in his drawer, something sharp, and rushed towards the door. Jason stopped him.
James was right. It’d only be worse. And if not Marcus, it’d be someone else. There was really only one thing to do. Jason dragged himself back to bed, lowered his head to the pillow, and pulled on his headphones. When the tape started, he listened to the words through one ear.
On Friday, they got him in the locker room. Marcus was a mad animal. He lifted Jason up against the brick wall.
“I’ll get it,” Jason said, trying not to gasp. “Much as you want. But I want something.”
Marcus’s face pinched tight.
Jason was ready. He’d heard the words all night.
“I want to dare you. You take it, you get all you want.”
“Dare me what?”
“I dare you to give me your soul.”
Marcus smacked Jason’s head into the bricks. He thought his dead ear hummed—but it was the sound of the other boys starting to shuffle, and whisper.
“Fuck you,” Marcus said.
“No heaven, right? You said so. So, no soul. Something for nothing. I dare you.”
Marcus started nodding. “Yeah. Okay. Fuck it.”
“Oh, shit,” one of the boys said.
“What the fuck?” Marcus said, twisting. “Who’s getting y’all some shit?”
A few of the other boys began to murmur. They filed inside, leaving the pair. Marcus bunched Jason’s shirt and pressed hard.
“You…” His gaze flickered now. “Get my shit.” He headed inside.
But Jason didn’t see Marcus over the weekend. On Monday, Marcus just stared at the chalkboard. At lunch, his boys sat with him, but there were no dares. By Wednesday, he sat alone. By Thursday, he’d stopped eating.
On Friday morning, Jason found his Dymacels outside the complex, discarded. He took them to James. But James had already heard.
“Gangsta. What they said you did. Said it was straight-up gangsta.”
On Sunday, Father Roberts pulled Jason aside.
“He won’t eat. He won’t even talk. You’ve got to give it back.”
Jason said nothing.
“You didn’t even take it. You can’t. It’s just an idea, but a powerful one. And he feels it.”
Jason cocked his head so he could hear better.
“Will you give it back to him?”
Jason listened hard. But the words weren’t like those from the pulpit. And he already had his answer.