By John Fried
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Destroy All Monsters
GIRLS INVADED OUR SCHOOL a month into sixth grade. We watched from the window of Mr. Harding's second-floor classroom, craning our necks to catch a glimpse of them, but their school bus, pristine and glowing orange against dark dirty brownstones, blocked our view. We could only hear their high-pitched voices vibrating outside the entrance of our school. As the sound grew closer, all of us ran to the door of the classroom, waiting to see what appeared at the top of the stairs.
"How long are they staying?" my friend Dave asked. All we had been told was that they were from our sister school across town and that there had been some kind of water-main break. Most of us didn't even know we had a sister school.
"I heard they're going to be here months," my friend Max, the perennial exaggerator, said. "Maybe all year."
"That's okay with me," Alan Oates, the classroom Casanova, said with a smirk. Alan wore his blazer with the sleeves pushed to his elbows, and his tie dangled loosely around his collar. Rumor was that he had made it to first base with a girl and got thrown out stretching it into a double, but most of us weren't even sure what that meant.
"Boys!" Mr. Harding, our sixth grade homeroom teacher, shouted. "Back to your seats, tout de suite!" Mr. Harding was also the middle school language teacher, English teacher, and math teacher, a compact man who wore oversized corduroy blazers and had a long beard that made his mouth vanish when he wasn't speaking.
We ran back to our seats, mine the last in the back row, a choice spot for keeping a low profile. I was a decent student, but I preferred to stay away from the action, particularly from Mr. Harding, who marched in front of the class, calling on random students. Kids in the front row, the easiest targets, often looked beaten up by the end of the day.
Mr. Harding shuffled to the door, his sneakers slapping against the linoleum floor. From the hallway, we could hear a woman's voice shouting out names, sending the girls to different rooms, including our own. When they appeared, Mr. Harding opened the door with a grand flourish, and said, "Bienvenue! Willkommen! Benvenuto!" The girls filed in, gathering by the blackboard. Like us, they were in matching uniforms—white dress shirts and plaid jumpers—but they looked very different from one another, some as tall as Mr. Harding while others were as small as lower school kids. The boys in my class all looked the same, small and childlike, our hair cut neatly close to our heads, our skin untouched by acne. It was hard to believe we shared anything in common with these girls.
Mr. Harding asked the girls to introduce themselves and they gave typical girl names. When they were done, he was about to say something when another girl came running into the room. Boys started to laugh, whispering to one another. This girl had bright red hair and a face full of freckles, but that wasn't what had set them off. It was the wire mouth gear circling her face from ear to ear and strapped around her head like a catcher's mask. "Silencio!!" Mr. Harding shouted.
I recognized the mouth gear immediately. I had worn one last year every night. I hated the way the retainer dug into my mouth, the straps pulling at my skin and hair as I slept. Wearing it during the day seemed like torture. Everyone continued to laugh, even me.
"Boys!" Mr. Harding shouted, and we quieted down. He turned to the new girl and said, "Welcome, my dear. What's your name?"
She said, "Alice Jakantowicz."
Her name sounded as jumbled as the tangle of metal in her mouth.
"Nice to meet you, Miss Jakantowicz. Now, boys," he said, returning to us, "it's your turn for introductions. And please offer these young ladies more than your name, rank, and serial number. An interesting fact about yourself perhaps."
Daniel Ashford started, announcing that his cat's name was Itchy. That set the trend. Peter Barson had a rabbit named Ruben. Alan Oates had a pair of guinea pigs named Peanut Butter and Jelly. Dave had a dog named Zipper.
"I'm Marty," I said, when it was my turn. "Martin Kelso. Eleven years old. I don't have a pet."
"What else, Martin?" Mr. Harding's tone was impatient. "Why don't you tell our guests something about our fine institution?"
All I could think about was food. Lunch was less than an hour away. "Today's lunch is meatloaf," I said. Mr. Harding pressed me with his eyes. "This means tomorrow's lunch will be hamburgers because no one eats the meatloaf. Which means the next day's lunch will be sloppy joes because they have to finish the meat. They're good. The sloppy joes." Mr. Harding raised his hand as if to change the topic, but I was rolling. "The next day it'll be something different because they can't do much with sloppy joes, although someone once said the chili dogs are just hot dogs with sloppy joe on them. Basically a hot dog with meatloaf on it." I paused. "Stay away from them. The chili dogs, I mean."
The boys around me nodded their heads. The girls looked bewildered. "Fascinating," Mr. Harding said, tugging on his beard. We finished introductions and then Mr. Harding said he would find places for the girls to sit. He looked around the room and pointed at the girl with the mouth gear. "Miss…" he said. "Miss…"
"Brace Face," I whispered to myself, but evidently it was loud enough for everyone to hear. I couldn't believe I had said it. I was just thinking about what I had been called when I first got braces, the way I had been teased for weeks until two other boys came in with braces and what had seemed so strange became normal. When I said it, all the boys started to laugh again, even some of the girls.
"Mr. Kelso," my teacher said. "Your first demerit. Che buona fortuna."
Demerits were these bright yellow note cards teachers handed out when kids did something wrong. Max got them for talking in class. Alan Oates collected them for wearing his shirt untucked. Even Dave, who never got in trouble, got one once for picking his nose in the middle of class. They really didn't mean anything unless you got three, because then you had to get the demerit signed by your parents. I hadn't gotten any so far this year. In fact, I had never gotten a demerit. It was a point of pride for me, like being the Attendance Iron Man (only three absences since kindergarten) or the Times Table Titan in third grade. But the day the girls arrived, I got my first demerit. It had to be their fault.
I didn't want to look at Brace Face and she clearly didn't want to look at me, but as she walked to her seat, our eyes met. She didn't look defeated or upset. Her expression was determined, almost fierce, as if she were prepared to attack. I turned away and tried my best not to look at her again the whole class.
* * *
Girls were invading my life at home as well. My mom's sister Beth was visiting for a few days with her daughter, Evie. Aunt Beth lived in upstate New York, but she was thinking about moving to the city and had pulled Evie out of school so they could look at apartments. They were sleeping in the guest room, which shared the bath off my room. I spent every trip to the bathroom holding the door closed with my foot.
When I walked into our apartment that afternoon, I found my mom and Aunt Beth in a smoky kitchen, shouting above the sound of the fire alarm. Evie was sitting at the kitchen table, turning pages of a magazine, as if nothing was going on around her.
"What's that smell?" I said.
"It's cassoulet," my mom said, standing on a chair to get to the alarm. Aunt Beth stirred a large pot on the stove. "It's been cooking since this morning," she added.
Ever since Uncle Karl died, Aunt Beth was always into something new. Two visits ago it was hairstyling, and when she left, my dad and I both had crooked haircuts. The last time she visited, it was palm reading. One evening she looked at my hand and told me I needed to stay away from alcohol and drugs and that she saw a career in either watercoloring or gynecology.
The alarm finally stopped. "It's French," my mom added, battery in hand. I nodded and turned to leave.
"Marty," my mom called. "You didn't say hello to your cousin."
I turned and looked at Evie, her eyes still locked on her magazine. For years our families had rented a house together every summer on Cape Cod. Evie and I had been inseparable. She was four years older than me and had ordered me around, but I didn't mind. She taught me how to snorkel and catch tadpoles in the tidal pool. Every night we would play hide-and-seek until bedtime. Evie was a master at squeezing into small cabinets and tiny crawl spaces of the dusty bungalow. I often gave up, wandering the house and shouting her name until she came out. Once a week, we would make our parents order pizza. Evie told me that the proper way to eat pizza was to rip off the crust first, then dab it over the surface to collect the oil. I followed her dutifully.
After her dad died two years ago, we didn't take the Cape trip again. We mostly saw them on holidays. It didn't matter, because Evie seemed to have changed, growing sullen and quiet. I knew that her dad's death had shaken her up, but it was also clear that she wanted nothing to do with me anymore. The four-year difference in our age had become insurmountable and only confirmed my theory that girls were creatures from an alien planet. "Hey," I said, and waved at her.
"Hey," Evie said, her expression blank, as if she barely knew me at all.
* * *
The next day, the girls were back at school. It had rained all morning and the hooks where we hung our dark blue school ponchos were covered with red and yellow and pink raincoats, the floor beneath them lined with matching boots. Mr. Harding rearranged the classroom alphabetically, which meant I was in the second row, way too close to the action. Brace Face sat in front of me. I stared at the back of her head, the strap of the brace caging the top of her skull. Her red hair, fiery in the fluorescent light, spilled out below the straps, draping over the back of the chair. I was about to reach out and touch it, when I realized Mr. Harding was calling my name.
"Attention, Mr. Kelso?"
"Yeah?" I said. "I mean, yes?"
Mr. Harding walked over to my desk, his beard hanging over me. "Can you tell me what a homonym is?"
"A homo-what?" I said.
Several boys snickered. Mr. Harding cleared his throat. "A homonym."
We had started a lesson about homonyms the day before the girls had gotten there, but I didn't remember any of it. My stomach gurgled, still digesting what little of the cassoulet I had managed to get down. "I don't know."
"You may not know," he said, with added emphasis, "but you just used one."
"Does anyone know," he said, pausing dramatically, "what homonym Mr. Kelso just used?" Again, silence. Brace Face's hand shot up.
"Ms. Jakantowicz," Mr. Harding said.
"Homonyms are words that sound the same but are spelled different. I mean, differently. Know, K-N-O-W, and no, N-O."
"Excellent," he said.
"We did that last year," she added, and all the girls around her nodded. Dave looked over at me and curled his lip into a snarl directed at Brace Face.
In the afternoon, we had music class with Mrs. Ablethorpe. Usually she had us listening to music from different cultures and marching around the room shaking tambourines and gourds, but with the girls visiting, Mrs. Ablethorpe wanted us to sing. "It'll be so nice to have the different pitches, the tonal variations," she said, her hands folded in front of her with delight. She read our names, arranging us alphabetically in a tight semicircle, shoulder to shoulder. "Alice Jakantowicz?" she called out.
"Coming," Brace Face said, as she stuffed something into her book bag. When she stood up and took her place, I almost didn't recognize her. She wasn't wearing her mouth gear. Her face was immediately rounder, almost softer, as if the brace had been contorting it into odd shapes. I hadn't noticed her eyes before, but now I couldn't stop looking at them—a bright, translucent candy green. Mrs. Ablethorpe called my name and I went to stand next to Brace Face.
"Hey," I said, but she ignored me.
We started out singing "De Colores," a Mexican folk song we had butchered all through fourth and fifth grade. Today wasn't much better. Alan Oates was on one side of me, booming out verse after verse, his voice as flat as the floor. It didn't matter. I was listening to Brace Face. It wasn't that her voice was so good, but rather that as she sang, I could not only hear her voice, but feel it resonating through our touching shoulders and down into my body. This closeness was a little unnerving at first, but after a few verses I started to enjoy it. I stopped singing just to feel her voice inside me. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. When the song ended and she stopped singing, I felt empty, as if I had been given something wonderful and then had it abruptly taken away. Brace Face turned to me and said, "You're not singing."
"Yes, I am," I said.
"No," she said. "You're moving your mouth, but nothing is coming out."
I didn't know what to say. "Shut up, Brace Face."
Her hand shot up.
"Yes? Ms. Jakantowicz?" the music teacher asked.
"Martin isn't singing," she said.
"Martin?" Mrs. Ablethorpe said, walking over to stand in front of me, her expression grave. "Is this true?"
"I'm singing," I said.
Mrs. Ablethorpe raised an eyebrow. "I hope so."
We started a new song, rounds of "The Erie Canal." Again, I mouthed the words, letting the sound of Brace Face's voice pour through me. I closed my eyes, losing myself in the hum of her voice vibrating across my skin. Halfway through the song, I heard a cough in front of me, and when I opened my eyes, there was Mrs. Ablethorpe, still conducting with one hand and waving a yellow note card with the other. A demerit. Next to me, Brace Face scooted away. Even with the space between us, I could still feel the heat from her shoulder on mine.
* * *
That afternoon, Dave came over to my house to watch Destroy All Monsters, one of our favorite afternoon monster movies. In the movie, a band of alien moon women used mind control to get the monsters to destroy major cities around the world. We had seen it dozens of times, but it never got old. Our favorite part was when the newscaster announced, "Godzilla is now in New York City! The city's been invaded by Godzilla!" People ran through the streets, screaming in terror. We would say the line and stomp around the living room carrying old toy trucks and police cars we never played with anymore, bashing down pretend buildings like a pair of Godzillas invading our own city. After, we sat in my room running through our favorite Godzilla battles: Godzilla versus Mothra. Godzilla versus King Ghidorah. Godzilla versus Mechagodzilla. Finally I said, "Who would win in a battle between Godzilla and Brace Face?"
"She'd be toast," Dave said. "He'd fry her with his atomic breath."
"I don't know," I said. "Brace Face might bite through him with her grill."
I got up and pretended to be a crazed monster, marching through the room. "I have to take a leak," I said, heading for the bathroom. As I opened the door, I saw my cousin Evie sitting on the toilet, bringing a wad of toilet paper from between her legs. Our eyes met, her expression as startled as mine. My gaze slipped to the shadowy space between her legs and she snapped her thighs together, covering herself with her hands. I stepped back into my room and shut the door.
Dave's head snapped up. "That was fast."
I didn't move, my hand still on the doorknob. "I just saw my cousin on the toilet."
Dave looked at me, awestruck. "Did you see anything?"
I leaned toward him, whispering, "I think I saw her vagina."
There was a pause as he considered this information, and then he said, "What'd it look like?"
I hadn't really seen anything, just a flash of thigh, but I'd put it out there. "Like Mothra when it gets really angry." Dave nodded, as if it all made sense.
At dinner that night, I avoided eye contact with Evie. Aunt Beth had made something called borscht, this purplish thick liquid that looked like the blood of one of the monsters from a Godzilla movie. She and my parents were talking about where to look for apartments, my mom suggesting a few neighborhoods and then my dad reminding her how expensive the rents were in those places. Evie was pushing a potato through her soup, not eating any of it. Finally, Aunt Beth took a sip of her soup and said, "This needs pepper." She looked at me. "Don't you think, Marty? Pepper might give it a kick in the pants."
And then, out of nowhere, Evie said, "This tastes like shit." It was true, but I couldn't believe she said it.
"Evie!" Aunt Beth said. "Watch your language!"
"This is awful, Mom," she said, throwing down her spoon. She pushed her chair out from the table, as if she was going to flip the whole thing over. I hadn't been able to look at her all evening and now I couldn't take my eyes off her. Her face turned red, her lips clenched in anger. She was like a monster, lying dormant for millions of years, suddenly set free again. "I don't even know why you try," Evie added.
"That's enough," Aunt Beth shouted, her voice angrier than I had ever heard. Her mouth trembled and I couldn't tell if she was going to scream or cry. She took a deep breath, resting her hands on the table as if she was trying to steady herself. "If you can't be civil, you can go to our room."
Evie got up and marched out of the dining room. Aunt Beth looked at my mom and dad. "I'm sorry," she said, rising and walking to the kitchen. My mom ran after her. My dad looked at me. "It's all right, buddy," he said. "Evie's having a rough time. I'm not sure she wants to move." I nodded, but I didn't get it. I couldn't imagine living upstate, where they were now. Way too quiet. My dad looked at the bowl of chunky liquid in front of him, raising his eyebrows suspiciously, before pushing his chair back and following my mother into the kitchen. I sat there, in silence, wondering if I was supposed to wait or I was excused.
* * *
At school the next day, Mr. Harding spent the morning reviewing homonyms for a quiz, but I couldn't get Evie's explosion out of my head. I wondered if it was all because I had walked in on her in the bathroom. Part of me wanted to tell her that I hadn't seen anything, but that would have meant talking to her, and I wasn't going to do that.
At lunch, I sat with a bunch of my friends while the girls clustered together at another table next to ours. It was sloppy joe day, the heavy smell of meat sauce all around us. I stared at Brace Face. She wasn't wearing her mouth gear and seemed to smile more without it. Someone at my table dared Alan Oates to go sit with the girls. He flipped up the collar of his blazer and walked to their table. I couldn't hear what he said, but a few moments later all the girls stood up and cleared out. "They said they were done," he told us when he returned. "Their loss."
I watched the girls clear their trays at the cleaning station and then hurry out the door. Alan started boasting about some girl he had met from another school who taught him how to French-kiss. I got up and took my tray over to the cleaning station.
That's when I saw it.
Nestled on a tray between a half-eaten sloppy joe and a crushed milk carton was Alice Jakantowicz's retainer box. You couldn't miss it, this round, bright blue container glowing in the pile of trash on her tray. In the cafeteria light, I could make out the outline of the retainer sitting inside, like a creature resting in its cave. There was no one behind me, so I grabbed the container and stuffed it into my jacket. Outside, in the hallway, I jammed the box into my book bag just before Brace Face reappeared, running toward the cafeteria. She looked at me for a moment, her expression worried, and then darted inside.
It took no time for news about the missing retainer to make it around our grade. Max came into the library and found Dave and me doing our search assignment, trying to find a book on giraffes by using the card catalogue. "Guess what," Max said. "Brace Face lost her grill."
I tried to look surprised.
"She's down at the dumpsters searching for it," he added.
I thought about telling them. They were my best friends. Still, I decided against it. Max was incapable of keeping a secret and I wasn't ready to tell Dave. Not yet. For some reason, I didn't want anyone to know. This was just between me and Brace Face.
Back in class, we were working on a math lesson, subtracting six-digit numbers. Brad Yost raised his hand to ask how that would ever be useful, and Mr. Harding dropped a demerit on Brad's desk. Fifteen minutes later, Brace Face returned to the room. Her hair was a tangled mess, her jumper and white shirt covered in stains. Her eyes were puffy and red, as if she had been crying. The boys in the class started giggling and Mr. Harding was having a difficult time quieting them down. Finally, he whispered something in her ear and she turned to leave. She looked devastated. I knew the feeling. I had lost several retainers myself in exactly the same way and had spent a few afternoons rummaging through garbage cans behind the school, only to come up empty-handed. I wanted to tell her I understood, but I just smiled at her, thoroughly delighted, not because I had the retainer, not because she was a mess, but because there was a connection between us that hadn't been there before. She looked back at me, her eyes suspicious, as if I alone was responsible for her losing it.
That night at dinner, I couldn't wait to be excused. Aunt Beth had made moussaka, which looked a lot like lasagna but tasted nothing like it. Evie wasn't feeling well so she stayed in her room. My dad worked at his food with the slow precision of a surgeon and a troubled expression on his face. My mom and Aunt Beth, though, seemed oddly chipper, telling stories about when they were younger, one after the other. The time Aunt Beth stuck an acorn up her nose. The time my mom crashed her dad's car. They kept telling the stories, laughing all the way through, even though they hardly seemed like the kinds of things you wanted to remember. Evie was the closest thing I had to a sibling, but I couldn't imagine we'd ever be as comfortable as my mom and Aunt Beth seemed with each other.
After dinner, I shut my door and retrieved the case from my book bag. I sat on my bed and put the blue case on a pillow in front of me. Rain was coming down, the sky outside the window so gray it felt as if our building was caught inside a cloud. I snapped open the box and a familiar mint scent drifted to my nose. I held my breath as I opened the box completely and saw it—a flimsy piece of pink plastic with a silver wire, the black strap balled up beside it. The whole thing looked exactly like the one I had worn last year, only smaller, more fragile.
I lay down on my back and held the retainer to the light, dragging my finger along the plastic. One side was smooth, but the other was covered with bumps and ridges, a mold of the top of Brace Face's mouth. It was strange to feel the terrain of the retainer as if I were touching the inside of her mouth. For a moment I wondered if maybe she could feel it too.
I sat up and tried to fit the strap around my head. It was too small for me, barely reaching all the way from one ear to the other, but I was able to stretch the strap, attaching each end to the retainer and fitting it into my mouth. I knew the drill. The retainer itself was small and didn't sit right, but I moved it with my thumb, forcing it into place. The rough side of the plastic tore into the flesh on the top of my mouth, but I didn't care. I rolled over onto my stomach and started to move my hips, rubbing against the bed. The plastic continued to give me trouble, catching the inside of my mouth on its rough finish. Outside, the rain fell, hammering my air conditioner like a drumroll.
I didn't hear the door open.
"What the hell are you doing?" Evie said, startling me.
I turned and saw her standing in the doorway.
"What are you wearing?" she said, and started to laugh. Her eyes drifted down to my pants, tented at my hips. "Gross!"
I turned away from her. "Evie!" I shouted. "Get out!"
"Oh, I see. It's okay if you walk in on me, but not the other way around?"
My heart raced. "Evie," I said, "please."
She didn't say anything for a moment, and then I heard the door close. I quickly took off the brace, stuffed it into its box, and buried it in the deepest corner of my closet.
* * *
The next day, Mr. Harding gave us our homonym quiz. He wrote a series of words on the board. Dear/Deer. Pail/Pale. Bear/Bare. Know/No. Tail/Tale. Each person had to go up and write a sentence or two that used both words. Dave got the first and wrote, Dear Diary, I shot a deer today with my rifle.
"Very creative, Mr. Pearson," Mr. Harding said, sitting in the back row. "The NRA would be proud. Next, why don't we have Mademoiselle Papoochis."
This girl we called "Pooch" stood and wrote, The pail was filled with pale water.
"Excellent," Mr. Harding said. "Almost poetic." He searched the room. "How about Mr. Kelso."
I walked up to the board and looked at my words. Bear/Bare.
- "Wise and winning, THE MARTIN CHRONICLES is a sumptuous evocation of those adolescent afternoons when every moment was equally fraught and full of possibility. A charming, marvelous debut." —Colson Whitehead, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning authorof The Underground Railroad
- "A beautiful debut. THE MARTIN CHRONICLES transforms a series of adolescent snapshots into a raw, unforgettable mosaic."—Stephen Chbosky, New York Times bestselling author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower
- "John Fried's debut is a funny, tender, honest coming-of-age story, brimming with heart. THE MARTIN CHRONICLES is about first love and family and loss, but also, set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the '80s, it's a nostalgic look into the past and, in the end, a love story about that specific place and time."—JuliannaBaggott, nationally bestselling author ofThe Seventh Book of Wonders
- "Fried's lighthearted humor shines through...offers playful moments and an evocative atmosphere."—Publishers Weekly
- "Fried infuses every page with warmth and wonder."—Booklist
- "Poignant and funny."—New York Post
- On Sale
- Jan 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Grand Central Publishing