The Fall of King Marty
The punch almost sends Isaac’s head all the way around his body, kind of like those cartoons he used to watch when he was younger. He is suddenly spinning, gravity seizing control of his body and pulling all 72 pounds of his frail and skinny frame to the concrete below. He lands with a smack, his palms scraping against the sidewalk. Blood and spittle dangle loosely from his face, seeping together in a steady stream from where the impact had occurred.
Isaac is happy to land face down, happy to not have to look up at the mob of his peers that have gathered around him. A cacophony of laughs and chants reverberate through his eardrums. He recognizes some of the voices, kids who would never utter the slightest indecency towards him in any other circumstance. Through the raucous, he can make out the thunderous voice of Marty Ortiz, it seems to be feeding off the crowd.
“Get up! C’mon!” he roars.
But Isaac can’t move. He simply lays there—his overstuffed backpack pushed up at his head. He tastes blood in his mouth. It collides with the residue of his mother’s turkey sandwich from earlier.
“Get up!” Marty repeats. “Get up!”
Isaac’s double vision begins to align once more. He considers getting up and throwing a punch, but refrains.
“You’re really just going to sit there?”
Isaac says nothing.
“You’re no fun.“
WHACK! A kick goes straight to his stomach. The impact causes him to curl up into a ball, grabbing for his knees as the pain spiders its way across his body. A moment later, the crowd is dispersing. He glances up at Marty as he walks away, striding triumphantly as if he’d just won a game of dodge ball.
The 7th grader has enormous arms, his fingertips reach all the way down to his knees when he walks. His back is arched as if his shoulders are hard to carry. Isaac thinks that it is entirely plausible that one of his grandparents is a grizzly bear.
Once the last of Marty’s goons has cleared, Isaac pushes himself up from the ground. He wonders if the teachers will catch wind of the fight. He wonders if they’ll care. After last time, Marty learned his lesson about picking fights during school hours. He now has a strict thirty-minute post dismissal policy.
“My god you’re a mess!” cries Isaac’s mother. She almost drops her plate of organic kosher lasagna when he enters the room. Now, she’s got her son up on the kitchen table, dabbing his nose with wet paper towels to remove the dried blood.
“Is it broken?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Look at me.”
She maneuvers Isaac’s head to the left and then right. She touches each side gently.
“Does that hurt?”
“Who keeps doing this to you?”
“Why’d you put onions on my turkey sandwich?”
“Isaac, answer my question.”
Her scrubbing gets more intense as she realizes Isaac is not in pain.
“Different kids,” says Isaac. The thought of his mother calling Marty’s household is his worst nightmare. “I’m small, an easy target.”
“You’re not small.”
“To them I am.”
Isaac’s mom pulls his head into her chest.
“Why’d you put onions on my turkey sandwich?”
“You told me you like them now.”
“They taste like crap.”
“Watch your mouth!” she says, while resuming repairs.
Later that night, Juan moves Isaac’s desk chair underneath his doorknob, sealing away all figures of authority. Isaac slips into a pair of boxing gloves. They are too big on his hands. In his head, he looks like a lobster. Juan opens his backpack and pulls out two hitting mitts. He puts them on. Lobster best friends.
“Right!” Juan calls.
Isaac throws his right fist.
“Right! Left! Right! Right!”
Isaac throws the punches as best he can but Juan is significantly taller. Juan throws his right mitt. Isaac dodges. He throws his left, catches Isaac off guard. Flakes of dried blood bounce onto the leather.
“Careful!” shouts Juan. “Don’t bleed on my brother’s gloves.”
“Is this training even working?” asks Isaac.
“Of course it is! You’re much stronger than when we started. Left! Left! Right!”
“But I’m not gonna have these gloves when I fight Marty again.”
“Doesn’t matter, my brother says boxing is about form.”
Isaac begins to sweat. The salt stings the cut underneath his nose.
“Guard the face,” says Juan. “Always guard the face.”
“I can’t guard the face, I have to reach all the way up! He’s big—“
“But you’re fast. My brother says he’d rather be fast than big any day.”
Isaac pauses momentarily. He topples over on his knees, panting and out of breath.
“I’m scared,” Isaac admits in between wheezes.
Juan looks over at his best friend, studies his fragile frame. Juan is just as gawky and thin, but at least he has height on his side.
“Don’t be afraid. He’ll never see us coming. We’re going to take down King Marty once and for all. Got it?”
Isaac nods, his hands still pressed to his knees — They both know he hasn’t got it.
The next day Isaac stands at his locker. He will soon be in 6th grade, the supposed top of the elementary school food chain. He’s waited his whole life to be at the top, but right now it doesn’t seem like it matters. There will always be a bigger fish. Or in his case, a grizzly bear.
He rearranges his textbooks so that they are ordered alphabetically. He doesn’t remember when he started doing it, nor does he know why. Isaac feels a sense of safety by his locker, a sense of control. As a younger kid, Isaac was obsessed with hideouts and secret lairs. He would build forts out of blankets and chairs in his room. He would draw lavish maps of his house, complete with their own secret passages and hidden tunnels. His locker, a private space accessed only by the combination in his brain, appeals to that same sense of control.
And all control is relinquished. The call sends a shiver down Isaac’s spine, he can feel his fingers begin to tremble. He stares into the metal of his locker, trying to ignore the colossal mass moving into peripheral. A shove to his left shoulder wheels him around to catch a glimpse of the oncoming predator.
“Mommy clean you up alright?” Marty asks.
Three of his goons stand right behind him. They laugh on cue, almost as if the moment has been rehearsed. Marty is dressed in an oversized t-shirt. He wears a bandana across his forehead. He catches a glimpse of puffy swelling beneath Isaac’s nose.
“Doesn’t look too bad,” Marty continues. “You should consider yourself lucky.”
“Please leave me alone, Marty,” Isaac whispers.
“Oh, you can speak. I was beginning to worry.”
“Kick his ass again!” shouts a goon.
“Not during school hours, you know my policy.”
He turns back towards his victim.
“Heal up fast,” Marty says. “I’m itching for round two.”
He strides off down the hallway. Isaac begins to turn towards his locker.
“Jerk-face,” he mutters under his breath.
He’s not even conscious of it coming out, a verbal reflex spit up like a cough.
“What did you call me?”
Marty has stopped in his tracks and now Isaac’s stomach is twisting itself into a pretzel. He wants to throw up, he wants to run, but his feet ground themselves to the floor. In an instant, Marty has him pinned him against the lockers, screws rattling behind the aluminum exterior. Isaac turns his head, dejecting this intrusion into his personal space. He squirms behind the statue-like arms of his captor.
“Tomorrow, 3 pm,” growls Marty, his putrid breath seeping into Isaac’s pores. “I’ll beat you so bad mommy won’t even recognize you.”
He releases his grip and this time Isaac topples over, his back scrapping against the knobs of the lockers below. Isaac remains there for a moment before pulling himself to his feet. He continues to alphabetize his textbooks.
Juan finds Isaac in the cafeteria, eating alone and pulling onions off a turkey sandwich. Juan slams his hands onto the table, his face lit up with excitement.
“I need to talk to you,” he almost shouts.
Isaac follows his best friend out onto the schoolyard, the early afternoon sun baking the painted asphalt around them.
They make their way to a table where Becca Munson and Rachel Lee are selling Girl Scout cookies. They sit there, roasting in their green uniforms, container of cash to their right with brochures on their left. Behind them, a teacher halfheartedly patrols two enormous boxes of Girl Scout cookies.
“Becca!” Juan shouts as he approaches the table. “Becca, I need you to tell Isaac what you told me earlier.”
Becca glances up at the two. She shrugs her shoulders playing dumb.
“I’m not sure what I told you, Juan.”
“You know exactly what you told me.”
“Then why can’t you just tell him?”
“I need him to hear it from the source.”
“You’ll have to buy a box — Rah-Rah Raisins.”
Juan’s face drops in disgust.
“Raisins? You want me to buy raisin cookies? Are you out of your mind?”
“No one will buy them. We have to reach our goal.”
Isaac fishes around for a crumbled $5 bill in his pocket. He pulls it out and hands it to Becca.
“Rah Rah Raisins, Ms. Fisher,” Rachel calls back.
The teacher pulls out a box of cookies and tosses it onto the table, her eyes barely lifting from her cell phone screen. Isaac begins to wonder who is in charge of who.
“Alright,” Becca begins. “You never heard this from me, got it?”
“Marty Ortiz still sleeps with stuffed animals.”
Isaac’s eyes widen, the shouts and screams of the schoolyard begin to fade away. He takes a step closer to the table, his brain beginning to sputter through an array of hypotheticals.
“Go on,” is all he says.
“Well, Allie Keating and her mom were selling cookies on Marty’s block. If she sells all her cookies in three different districts she gets her community badge —”
“The stuffed animals, Becca,” Juan interrupts.
“Right, well Allie Keating’s mom and Marty Ortiz’s mom have been friends since Mommy and Me, so Marty’s Mom invited them in for a house tour. When they got to Marty’s room, his bed was COVERED in stuffed animals. Allie asked Marty’s Mom if they were all his and she said yes and that he has names for all of them. His favorite is a stuffed bunny rabbit known as Mr. Toothy that Allie’s Mom bought for Marty when he was only four.”
A smile flashes across his face, the biggest he’s worn in weeks. He’s a lawyer that’s found his case, a stockbroker primed to cash in on a big tip. His fingertips begin to pulse with the prospect of opportunity.
“Thanks Becca,” he says coolly.
Isaac grabs his box of raisin cookies and begins to make his way back across the yard. Juan tails him emphatically.
“What do you think?” Juan shouts.
“Marty wants to fight me again tomorrow. Can you imagine the look on his face when I pull Mr. Toothy out of my bag? He’s going to be the laughing stock of the 7th grade.”
“Wait, wait, wait. So that means you want to—”
“—Exactly Juan,” he says gleefully. “We’re going to kidnap Mr. Toothy.”
After school, they stand across the street from Marty’s house, a rectangular two-story structure. “Alright,” Isaac begins, “we’re not going to have a lot of time.”
He pulls out a homemade map of Marty’s house, a crude draft of lines and arrows complete with secret passageways and hidden vaults.
“If my calculations are correct, then Marty’s lair sits at the top left corner—”
“Whatever. It would be that window right over there.” He said, gesturing to a window sitting right above a cluster of thick green bushes.
“I can get out but I can’t get in. So you’ll be the distraction while I sneak in through the front. Then you’ll wait on the side of the house where I’ll hop out via that window.”
“What if Marty comes home?”
“He won’t. He’s got a 2:45 appointment to beat up Dennis Leftkowtiz.”
The two make their way to the front door where Juan stands stupidly. Isaac hides behind a nearby bush. Juan knocks. The door is opened by a stern looking woman who is ungodly tall. She wears workout clothes, tight black spandex, and a bright green tank top. To Isaac’s dismay, she looks nothing like a grizzly bear. He watches as Juan begins to fidget in place, the box of Girl Scout cookies by his side.
“Hello,” he stammers. “Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?”
He holds out the box of Rah-Rah Raisin Cookies.
Marty’s Mom stares back at him, entirely dumbfounded.
“You don’t look like a Girl Scout,” she replies.
“I’m selling them for my sister.”
Marty’s Mom still looks skeptical.
“She’s very busy but needs to sell out in three districts to get her community badge,” he adds.
“I see,” she says, thinking to herself. “How much?”
“How do I know you’re not just pocketing the money?” asks Marty’s Mom.
Juan says nothing. He looks stumped. Finally Marty’s Mom lets out a laugh.
“I’ll get my wallet.”
She turns to head inside. Juan shoots Isaac a thumbs up and suddenly Isaac is booking it for the door, the swaying of his backpack throwing him off balance. He slips into the house unnoticed.
Isaac’s first thought is that Marty’s home seems just like his, family photos and quirky artwork strung about. He finds himself in an entry hallway. He can hear Marty’s Mom fumbling around in the kitchen at the other end. Isaac turns and books it up the staircase on his left. He realizes his map is already wrong.
The first room that Isaac enters is clearly the master bedroom, much too large for Marty and not nearly evil enough. He continues down until he finds the room in the corner, which he had guessed to be that of his nemesis. He pushes open the door to reveal a teenager’s bedroom. Adolescent symbols coat the walls, everything from car posters to sports memorabilia. The room is pristine, clearly having just been made. And again, Isaac is struck with the unnerving revelation that he could just as easily live in this particular secret hideout.
Remembering his objective, he scans the room from left to right. A sense of horror overwhelms his body, the lump in his throat growing thicker by the second. There are no stuffed animals. Nothing. Not a single embarrassing item in plain view.
Isaac sifts through his options. He knows he doesn’t have too much time. There has to be something in this room that he could use. Maybe the stuffed animals were hidden by his mother or a maid. He gets to his knees and looks under the bed. Nothing. He opens the closet and peers behind a rack of shirts. Nothing. He checks the trunk by Marty’s bed. Nothing. Isaac can hear the door shut downstairs. He’s officially locked in.
Accepting his failure, Isaac heads to the window and begins to unlatch it. Suddenly, he notices a big drawer to the right of Marty’s desk. He shuffles over and pulls it open to reveal a stack of comic books and old school assignments. The drawer is stuffed to the brim, papers overflowing from each side. Isaac begins to frantically pull them out. No stuffed animals. No Mr. Toothy. He keeps digging and digging and then he stops. At the bottom of the drawer is a thick stack of magazines — with men — lots of them. They’re all naked, kissing and touching each other. They’re brightly colored. The covers feature strange words in weird fonts.
Isaac pauses. He glances around the room, deep in thought, his brain churning to make sense what he’s found. Then — he reaches for the pile and slips the stack of magazines into his backpack. He returns the rest of the drawer’s contents and heads for the window.
Isaac plops into the shrubbery below from the second story, his backpack absorbs the majority of the impact. Twigs and branches snap around him to accommodate his landing. He rolls out to the right side of the house, skin scraped and with leaves in his hair. Juan is there to greet him.
“Did you get it?” Juan asks. “Did you get Mr. Toothy?”
“No but I did—”
Isaac stops himself. He doesn’t know why. For some reason doesn’t want to tell Juan what he’s found.
“Allie Keating is a liar,” he says instead.
At 2:45 the next afternoon, Isaac stands at his locker. The halls are empty, classrooms deserted. He knows what waits for him outside. He can see the mass of bodies beginning to congregate at the school’s entrance. He reaches into his locker and pulls out a map of the premises, reassesses his exit routes. He imagines being able to will the secret passages he’s drawn into reality.
At 2:59 Isaac heads for the exit, a prisoner marching to his execution. He pushes himself through the front doors and attempts to sidestep the group of boys without being noticed. He hits the base of the steps and immediately starts in the direction of his house.
“Hey, jerk-face, where are you going so fast?!” shouts Marty playfully. He stands in front of a group of older boys, skateboard tucked underneath his arm. The goons take all shapes and sizes — they watch their leader subserviently.
“I’m going home, Marty,” Isaac replies stiffly, shocked by his own confidence.
“That’s bull,” Marty scoffs. “We have an appointment.”
“I’d like to reschedule.”
Marty emerges from the crowd and grabs Isaac by the strap of his backpack. He pulls him left and right, a puppeteer with masterful control. Finally, he lets go, the momentum change causes Isaac to fall and hit the lawn.
“No rescheduling,” Marty continues, a big smile across his face. “I was going to leave you alone for a while. I almost felt bad for bashing your nose in. But you had to be a smart ass yesterday.”
Isaac pulls himself to his knees, coughing loudly. His hands are covered in soot and soil. The grizzly bear approaches and squats next to his wounded prey.
“Don’t talk back to your elders, Isaac,” Marty whispers. “It’s not nice.”
He then stands up and heads back towards his goons, rolling up the sleeves of his pleather jacket and cracking his meaty knuckles. Isaac recognizes his opportunity. He gets to his feet, unzips the backpack and pulls out the stack of magazines he found earlier. He holds them high above his head, his hand trembling.
“Recognize these, Marty?” Isaac squeaks. “I thought you may want them back.”
And the smile drips off Marty’s face. His eyes widen, vulnerable and cracked. His body tenses up, he seems to sink into the concrete ever so slightly. The crowd of boys watch on, confused both by Isaac’s defiance as well as his method of defying.
And then — Marty snaps back, reverts to beast. His shoulders round once more, the lines begin to crease in his forehead. And like a firework, he explodes off the pavement, his arms wrapping around Isaac’s frame and sending him to the ground with a crack. Isaac’s neck snaps back against the grass as Marty drives his knee into his chest. Marty throws a clean punch squarely into Isaac’s jaw.
“You piece of shit!” he shouts. “You little piece of shit!”
And he’s whacking Isaac with everything he has, pulverizing him into the grass. Marty’s gone mad, rage sweeping through his body. The crowd is not laughing, they gaze on in horror, astonished by their king’s hysterics. Marty doesn’t fight like a predator or a bully or a king. He fights like a crazed dog, driven not by a sense of superiority but survival.
When Isaac comes to, he can barely see the tree branches above him through his swollen eyes. All he can taste is blood and dirt. His chest feels like it’s about to cave in. One of Marty’s goons crouches above him.
“Isaac,” the goon calls, his voice sounds miles away. “Can you stand up? We need to get you to the nurse.”
Isaac finds the strength to turn his head towards the boy next to him. He finds that the crowd has dispersed. Marty is gone. A few kids sit around him, watching intently for signs of life.
“I want to go home,” Isaac coughs. “Please, I want to go home.”
The next week, Isaac’s Mom pulls him out of school. She spends hours researching private institutions, reworks the family finances to try and come up with options.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Juan finds that Isaac has no interest in practicing boxing. His best friend has two black eyes, a busted lip, and abrasions on his forehead and cheek.
“C’mon! Don’t get discouraged,” Juan says. “My brother says that knockouts are a part of boxing. Next time, we’re going to get him good.”
“I don’t think so, Juan,” Isaac replies. “I don’t want to fight anyone ever again.”
“What are you talking about? He pulverized you. We need to get revenge.”
Isaac studies himself in the mirror, examines his battered face. Why doesn’t he feel like he lost the fight? There is a knock on his door.
“Isaac!” his mother calls from behind it. “There is someone at the door for you.”
Isaac and Juan both race to the window and glare out at the street below. There, on the sidewalk, stands Marty. Except he doesn’t look like Marty. He wears a hoodie and gym shorts. His head hangs low and his posture is extra slouched.
“Oh no,” Juan whispers. “What does he want?”
“I’m not sure,” replies Isaac.
“You want me to go down there with you?”
Isaac makes his way down the stairs and towards the front door. He is not afraid. He doesn’t know why, but he is not afraid.
He crosses the door frame and out onto the ledge. Marty is crying hysterically, with puffy eyes and bright red cheeks. He runs the sleeve of his sweater across a snotty nose, deep pulsing sobs shaking his entire body. Isaac simply stares. He remains perfectly still, afraid to make any sudden movements.
“Can I have my magazines back?” Marty whimpers.
The two stare silently at each other for a few minutes. And suddenly Isaac understands—he reads Marty like a map, secret passages and all.
He disappears inside for a moment before returning with Marty’s magazines. He silently hands them over. Marty takes the stack and holds it to his chest like a prized book. His crying intensifies. Then he turns and begins to walk away, dragging his legs over the concrete like they are too heavy to lift.
Isaac returns to his room to find Juan already on his feet. He’s watched the whole interaction from the window.
“What did he want?!” Juan shouts.
“He wanted to say ‘sorry,’” he replies.
“That’s not very king-like.”
“No,” Isaac says, thinking to himself, “I don’t think it is.”