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Life During Wartime

If we look to the past to learn from our mistakes,

Can we change the future by correcting those mistakes today?

Life During Wartime by Thomas Pluck



Come on, grab her pussy. Grab her by the pussy or you’re a fag.

Trip’s voice echoed in the empty coat room. Trip and Mike Reilly and Angelo Cundiff huddled in the dark corner around the girl.

The rest of our class was at recess. I’d snuck into the empty classroom to read my book so I wouldn’t get dragged into playing with the other kids. Pokémon Border Patrol isn’t my thing.

I’d heard a whimper and thought maybe Hamilton the class guinea pig had escaped again and I could be the one who saved him. No such luck. I peeked in  and Mike Reilly grabbed me by the shirt and then there were four of us around the girl at the end of the long coat room, the worn brass hooks all empty, pointing at us like accusing fingers.


Come on, do it. Do it, you fucking pussy. You never grabbed one before?

The girl shivered in the corner. Her name was Marissa Gutierrez. She liked to read in the library, like me.

She’s a fucking Zee Girl. We can do whatever we want.

I was there when the school librarian told Marissa she couldn’t take non-approved books home anymore. 

I don’t make the rules. I’m sorry, but I can’t lose this job.

Marissa said she’d put Slaughterhouse-Five back on the shelf and Mrs. Heller said no give it to her and Marissa dropped the book and ran out holding her wrist to her eye. I read Slaughterhouse-Five in seventh grade. I didn’t get some of it but I liked Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt. Dad said that was supposed to be a joke when Vonnegut wrote it, and that it was a worse one now. I wanted to give Marissa my copy, but he Dad we couldn’t risk getting in trouble.

Angie’s a fa-ag!

No I’m not, Angelo said. I’ve seen pussy before. He avoided my eyes.

If you like cock, mine’s huge. Trip wasn’t taller or bigger than the other boys but he had hooks of his own. One of my mom’s favorite songs goes words are weapons sharper than knives. I didn’t know what that meant until I met kids like Trip.

Angelo’s grabbed pussy before, I said. The words came out of my mouth like I was spitting up stones.

How the fuck do you know, Ronan?

Angelo froze.

I was there, I tell them. He put his fingers right in. Like a boss.

Yeah, Angelo said, and held two fingers to Trip’s face. Bet you can still smell it.

Gross, Trip said. You’re disgusting. What about you, Ronan? Did he do it too, Angelo?

Angelo’s eyes skirted the floor.

I’d known Angelo since first grade. He sucked at lies but he could keep secrets. I tried not to hate him for betraying me. No one helped each other anymore. It wasn’t his fault.

We’re all hanging by our own strings, Mom said.

Marissa shoved Mike Reilly and made a run for it. I scooted back to give her room but Trip grabbed her by the ponytail and yanked her to the wall. She was short and the coat hook only grazed the side of her head above her ear. She clutched her head and squealed.

You make noise and it’ll be a lot worse. A lot worse.

Marissa clenched her eyes shut.

So Ronan’s the real faggot, Trip said. Show us you got balls, Bone-in. Grab her pussy.

Oh I got balls, Trip. Big ones. Not like yours.

Whoa! Ooh! Mike Reilly did the school fight duet by himself.

Trip turned red.

He was always pulling his thing out in the locker room. Standing on a bench, biting his lower lip and showing it off. Like it was anything special. Like we wanted to see it. Not even Angelo did. I’ve seen a lot of them and his looked like the naked mole rats at the zoo, a little orange maggot.

Well let’s measure up. Whoever’s is bigger gets to grab her pussy.

Okay you go first, I said.

No way.

I called it, I said. What, you scared you’re gonna lose? Loser.

Trip looked between Angelo and Mike Reilly and saw he couldn’t back out.

Block the Zee bitch, I don’t want her to see.

Trip reached into his pants. Mike Reilly blocked Marissa against the wall. He watched just as intently as Angelo did.

Trip unzipped slow. In the closeness of the coat room it sounded like skin tearing in a horror movie.

He bit his lower lip and stuck his middle finger out the zipper hole. No way faggot, you go first. Show us your puny dick!

But I didn’t have one. Not yet. Dad said I have balls, they’re just on the inside. When I turned sixteen, we were gonna to drive to Montreal and start the process.

Show us your dick or grab her pussy, faggot! Bet you have balls like little cafeteria chicken nuggets.

Mike Reilly laughed and his stinky breath hit the back of my neck. That set me off. I grabbed Trip’s balls as hard as I could. His mouth made an O and he  doubled over.

Angelo always freaked out in fights. He blurted I’ll get a teacher! and ran.

I wanted to tell Marissa to run. To ask Trip what the hell was wrong with him. But nothing came out. I heard myself screaming like I did in the bathroom sometimes when the hand dryer’s blasting and no one can hear.

Big Mike Reilly grabbed me from behind and pulled me off Trip. Holy shit Rone’s got tits!

I keep them strapped down and wear my t-shirt on in the locker room like the chubby boys do. But he could tell.

Holy shit holy shit Ronan’s a GIRL.

Trip coughed and panted, red-faced. Bet you liked touching my balls you cunt freak. We’re gonna tell. You’re gonna get GRACKED!

GRAC was Gender Role Affirmation Camp. Electroshock until I was eighteen, if I was lucky. No more hormones. My stupid body would turn soft again and not be me anymore.

Mike Reilly looked at his hands like he had touched fresh dog shit.

Then Trip looked at me the same way. You’re going to Utah, freak!

Utah is an orange desert hell of rocks and highways. I read what they do to people like me there. They can do anything they want in the name of the cure. Anything.

Trip drew back a fist and it was my turn to freeze.

I was done. Mom and Dad had talked about what we would do if this happened. Drive to Vermont and sell the car and hire a border crosser. They made friends on a forum, a family in Ontario who said they would take us in. All I could think of was leaving everything except what was in my go-bag. Our dog Iggy would probably get gassed. Stupid hot tears ran down my cheeks. I wanted Trip to smash my stupid face.

Hit me! Go on and hit me! Do it! Who’s the pussy now? Who’s the pussy now?

But Trip just smiled. That ugly smile when he knew he had you and he was God.

Marissa snarled and charged him. What the hell’s wrong with you? Why you gotta be like this? What’d we ever do to you?

Trip swatted at her hands until she hooked him with a good swing. Then he shoved her, hard. Her face screwed up and she shoved him back into the wall. Trip’s face froze mid-laugh.

Mike Reilly gawped. What’s wrong bro?

Trip’s eyes darted right to left, like one of his trapped victims. He reached back, like to slick back his hair but his arm fell limp and blood oozed out both nostrils.

Mike Reilly ran first. Marissa covered her face and stared through her fingers. Hurting a Great American. She was dead now.

Just go, I said. Just go.

She ran and I watched Trip claw at his invisible cage until he slumped on the hook and Homeland Security dragged me away.

                                                                                        ***

My parents can’t afford to visit but they call. Angelo writes a lot, under fake names, from all over the country. He says he’s living on peanut butter, that his people have a van loaded with weapons, locked up and ready to go. They’re just waiting for the right time.

Sometimes passes messages Marissa sends from over the Wall.

I talked it out with my lawyer. Didn’t matter that they were born here. Marissa and her family got deported, but it was better than them all getting executed, if I hadn’t confessed. And prison don’t give a shit if I buzz my hair or do push-ups ‘til I puke. I get my testosterone from a CO. In exchange, he does me in an empty cell and yells take it all, you fucking dyke.

Nothing is beautiful and everything hurts. But at least it’s not Utah.


Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. He is the author of the action-adventure thriller Blade of Dishonor and over fifty published short stories. He also edited two charity anthologies to benefit PROTECT: The National Association to Protect Children, Protectors, and Protectors 2: Heroes. More at thomaspluck.com .