national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014


Bryce Bortree  • 
Susquehanna University

Ceelie is seven when they find out Jim’s been touching her. The first thing I ask is when it started and Dad says hush, which is his way of making up for my not having a grandma if you ask me. I want to know, though. My seventh-grade health class just edged into sexual education and I curl tight around my desk while everyone chortles at our penises. I don’t find the thing very amusing at all. That’s not something a little cousin says out loud, that other people are being cruel.

After school this year, I can start taking an after school sport and I’m doing wrestling. Wrestling is all about the weights and measures of a body. There is a lot of clinging involved.  Our coach is a high school physics teacher so he mentions fulcrums and pulleys at practice. I picture it like a machine: the pulls and pushes of what I want and what the other guy wants and all of it feels so heavy at times. But there is nothing like the quick, steady heartbeat of a guy who knows he can’t get unpinned. I am the smallest boy on the team right now and I have to wrestle the ones who are bigger and maybe have been doing it longer. Their pulleys need less to start into motion but I am ready.


I was four when Mom left, which is unusual because I always hear about dads leaving now. We have a picture of her in the living room. Dad doesn’t sit in front of it on rainy days or anything like you’d expect him to; he just quietly polishes it when he’s doing the dusting. I think there is something strange about that, his not paying any extra attention to it. It draws the eye, the way he doesn’t care, even though he’s clearly the one who loved her more. Dad’s always been aware that he’s a single parent, that our trailer has wheels on it, that there are surely a few questions directed towards us. I don’t pay much attention but he does. We are two bachelors in a pod he says sometimes, and I nod my head like I know what he means. I think he means we are peas, or perhaps of a feather.

My cousins Ceelie and Jim used to live with their mom, who is my aunt. Their dad died, which isn’t weird because it happens all the time in the movies. He was maybe a war hero or something. I don’t know because I was so little when it happened and Jim was maybe nine.  Now Ceelie lives with two women and my aunt has Jim with her still and they go see a man and talk about what happened. It’s bullshit, Jim says, mouth mean and small. Ceelie’s lying. Only, Ceelie flinches when anyone touches her. Only, she is the one who my dad would always ask when we got into trouble: Who did it, Ceelie? What really happened? Ceelie’s off with those women who we don’t know right now but she still goes to the same school. It seems hopeful; she will be able to come home soon, they say.  Dad doesn’t tell me who they are, though.


I was seven when my father told me that Sodom and Gomorrah deserved to be burned down.  There had been a deal with God, didn’t I see? But there were kids there, I said. They hadn’t done anything wrong. Anyone under five living there was corrupted, he said. Five is when your values grow. Like a garden, I guessed, all the carrots nodding politely to each other.  It’s a lot to hold in your head when you are seven. You twist it and turn it like a key or a lock or a rock just slightly too large to skip with one hand.  Something is too big about a statement like that. That there is a course set for you before five that you have no hand in, but your parents work hard to make sure you do not steal or break or hurt. It seems impossible. This is what I think of when my seventh-grade history teacher says, Manifest Destiny.

They come and ask me about Ceelie. Turns out they are two people, a man and a woman, both in suits. What is Ceelie like? they ask. She is like spun gold from Rumpelstiltskin: always fair-haired and easy to find in a crowd. Only the story didn’t say the hair was made so fine.  Didn’t I spend some nights with Ceelie and Jim while Dad was working or looking for work? Yeah. Did I ever see anything happen? No. We mostly sat around and Jim would bully us about homework, which Ceelie had of the doing-some-coloring sort and I had some reading and math.  Did they ever spend time alone without me? Well, yeah. There was always chores time upstairs, I said. I feel stupid saying it. What was I thinking, believing that my aunt wouldn’t let me upstairs. Didn’t I care enough? Only they don’t ask me that. Did Jim ever do anything to me? I tell them about how when we were younger we would go hunting for salamanders in my back yard. He would wait for me to name one before he’d start squishing it, slow under a rock, limb by limb. I always wanted them to cry out, I said, right before the woman cut me off. That’s not the kind of information we’re looking for, she said.

I think it should be. There’s something about the way Jim found the perfect rock to crush them that seems like it matters more than they think. The way he left them alive, twitching and mouths open like they wanted to scream.


It doesn’t make sense that Ceelie is the one who has to leave while Jim stays at home. It doesn’t make sense that she is learning to have a new family, two nice women who are in love, according to some of their neighbors. Aunt Lisa is over at our house telling Dad this and she laughs deep in her throat when she says, Lesbians—like they could understand having children.

My manifest destiny is to have people leave me. It started before I was five years old and that means this is my life now. I practice being okay with it. Dad leaves me in the house alone for an hour between when wrestling practice lets out and he gets home, which is just barely legal for twelve. When he drops me off at the bus stop in the morning, I feel what it’s like to be left by watching his back recede. It feels like practice.


Aunt Lisa is leaving Jim alone after school. Dad doesn’t like that.  He should have someone to talk to, he says.  I don’t answer, just crack my knuckles and think about how much blood weighs. It must weigh a lot to Dad. The difference must be that I have my mother in me, with her always moving away, making me float off too, wanting to be away from this argument and examination from the neighbors.  Mostly I want to learn how to take Jim down and crush him like a man from the knees up.  Fulcrums are on my mind.

I’ve never understood what it’s like to have a sibling, which is fine. Dad says that I’m an old soul, probably because I can talk with the guys who work with him at the factory and because I can always say something to make them laugh. Months go by and then Dad says how Jim is doing better and Ceelie is coming home soon. I ask why we can’t just decide not to be related to Aunt Lisa anymore. Dad looks at me slow and sad for a few long minutes before he finishes up reading the newspaper. He is going to bed, I am sure, back bent like a sapling turned into a homemade catapult. He is almost to the breaking point, I can tell.

Then again, I guess Jim doesn’t know what it’s like to have a sibling either.

Ceelie will of course be seeing someone, Aunt Lisa says, when she is dropping her off at our house for after school. She and Dad went in on getting a babysitter for Ceelie and me even though I’m five years older than her, and all Jim is doing is working after at the gas station until Aunt Lisa picks him up. Now Dave, my dad says, just be nice to Ceelie for a while. I don’t know what he means. I’m always nice to Ceelie. Jim and I used to scrap it out but there is something about her big eyes that reminds me of a kitten we got one Christmas until Dad got allergic to it after a couple of hours. We had to return the kitten.  Besides, after practice I have only that hour of the babysitter trying to talk to me. She’s nice enough, I guess, but we always have to whisper.


During wrestling, I made a kid pass out. He was a good foot taller than me and that should count for something. Mom was built short and solid, even in the photo, but Dad and Aunt Lisa are long and lean. I wish I had more length to me for the leverage but all I have is the uniform and Dad in the audience, way too tall and cheering like a deer running running from a car at night, eyes wide open. I want to peel away from him and family but I wave at the end.

Dad brought Ceelie to a tournament match. Her hair stood out, like always. She started crying when I was slammed into the mat onto my lower lip and packed down in my own blood. I flipped onto him and pressed down as evenly as I could, letting go as soon as the whistle sounded. I was bleeding solidly onto the ground. Everyone acted like it was a new thing for Ceelie to be crying but after I mopped myself up, I let her check out how red my nose was and made her giggle. She’s always been like that, I explained to my dad, she’s just quiet. But Aunt Lisa sighed like I’d broken her again.  Ceelie seemed fine to me but our school lost the tournament.


Sometimes I think for hours about hurting Jim. Not particular ways, just the general hurt that can be caused when someone fights someone who doesn’t know how to fight.  I want to learn mixed martial arts, I tell Dad. At night I dream about man after man coming before me with their fists up to protect their faces as I beat them into the ground—but every practice I end up pummeled anyway.

I think about those summers back behind my house a lot, how long and quiet the afternoons could seem down along the creek. Ceelie was either four or five the last time Jim hurt a salamander in front of me because I threw a rock at his head and he ran away crying. I turned to the salamander squished and twitching in the dirt. Ceelie watched me quite seriously as I found a bigger rock and stared down at the little body. I hope she was five and not four and not still learning because I laid that stone on top of him and pushed down on his body to let gravity take him away. A perfect pin. I tell Ceelie, voice quiet, that sometimes they deserve to be put out of their misery.