The Boiler

Phillip Scott Mandel

I SWALLOWED THE SWORD OF SHANNARA AND LIVED TO TELL THIS TALE ABOUT IT

Over the summer at Jonah Yustein’s Bar Mitzvah they gave out itchy purple t-shirts that said, “I survived a whale of a time at Jonah Yustein’s Bar Mitzvah” and Jess Feingold wore it on the first day of school. We ate shrimp cocktails and danced the Roger Rabbit and the Electric Slide, so our lives were never really at risk, except for maybe dying of boredom. Jonah’s bubbe tripped on her way up to light a candle, so maybe her life was in danger momentarily, but one of the beefy backup dancers literally bounded over the cake to catch her before she broke her hip, so even that is an overstatement.

I, however, swallowed The Sword of Shannara and nobody even gives a care.

I love Jess Feingold. Dr. Feingold is my orthodontist and even though he screwed up my teeth, I still get quite a thrill when she teases me about needing extra-girth rubber bands, because it signifies a special bond between us. A bunch of other kids in our grade have braces too, but I don’t think she inquires on the status of their orthodontia as much as she does mine. 

Just last week during lunch she went out of her way to swing by my table with her friends to check in. “AJ,” she sang, “my dad wants to know if you’re braces are tight enough.”

Her friends all laughed but I know they’re just jealous of the attention she was paying to me. Adam and Rob both looked down into their sloppy joes and pretended Jess and the other popular girls weren’t standing right in front of us, but I smiled wide and showed off all the metal in my mouth. “Tight as a virgin bride on her wedding night,” I said.

Adam and Rob are barely even my friends anymore. I’ve come to understand they’ve been playing Warhammer 40K in Rob’s basement, like, every weekend, without me.

I’m anything but a fool. I know that the only reason I was even invited to Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah was because we’re in Hebrew School together and his parents were pressured to invite the whole class. That’s why Anna Reznikovskaya was there, and she’s the poorest person in town and barely even speaks English. She’s, like, eight inches taller than everybody and weighs at least seventy pounds more than me, has long, tangly black hair that goes down to her butt, and onyx-colored eyes, which she covers with black eye shadow. One time Anna cornered me in the hall on my way to earth science, my favorite class, and pushed me against a locker. Everyone just kept walking by and she planted a big wet sloppy kiss on me and tried to shove her tongue into my mouth but I kept my jaw locked tight, though I could feel the sharp wet tip of her tongue probing at my lips, like a slippery little goldfish nipping at the flakes floating at the surface of a bowl.

It took a couple of months before everyone stopped calling me Boris Yeltsin or The Russian Bride, but eventually they did. Anna still looks slyly out of the corner of her eyes at me and sometimes makes the most disgusting gesture with her two fingers spread in front of her mouth and her fleshy, fat tongue darting back and forth between them, but I mostly ignore her now. In five years she’ll either be a supermodel or a junky, and since I’ll be at Princeton or Dartmouth or Yale or Harvard, I don’t plan on being around to find out which.

Unlike Anna, Jess Feingold is classically beautiful. Anna is the kind of female that inspires myths like Medusa or Baba Yaga, while Jess has a face that could launch, if not a thousand ships, at least half a dozen. I’d captain a ship around the globe for her, that’s for sure. She has a long, freckled nose, unlike my stupid little one (“a cute little button,” my mother used to say, of my nose, until one day my father made us go to the doctor for a paternity test which I guess came back negative because after that they both kind of stopped talking to me).

She uses a blue, red, or pink scrunchie to put her long curly brown hair into a ponytail and it smells like, oh, the most wondrous citrus shampoo, strawberry or grapefruit, with a hint of vanilla and tea tree oil (that stays secret though, because I sit behind her in English and I do not think she would appreciate how often I sniff the back of her head). Also, she has tits.

Yes, real, big tits. She one time leaned over my desk to sign up for a field trip and she
was wearing a loose, wide-necked low-cut blouse with no bra, and I could see right down the
front of her shirt and I could see her tits! It was the first time I ever saw a girl’s tits! Well, it’s the
only time (so far!), but it was awesome.

I want to become a wizard and slay a dragon for her, which is why I practice magic tricks
at home all the time. I know it’s not the same thing — it’s not real magic — but real magic
doesn’t exist.

So, the Sword of Shannara.

Last Friday in English class Jess and I were assigned to the same group to write a book report. She wanted to write about The Outsiders. Tom Lynch, that sweaty tard, and Julio Garcia, he’s okay but whatever, both said they don’t care what book we do, as long as the fag (they meant me, I assume) does all the work, and I said I’d only do all the work if we did The Sword of Shannara, which is one of my favorite books of all time. (I know some people are going to say it’s just a rip off of The Lord of the Rings, but it’s totally not.)

Jess protested and said it wasn’t fair that the nerd (meaning me) does all the work, and I
said I didn’t mind, and then Tom asked Jess if she likes to spit or swallow (apparently the rumor
is that she made out with Jonah and gave him a beeje), and she got really embarrassed and turned
bright red and then laughed and smacked him on the arm. I swear to god I would never treat a
girl like that. It’s like, I don’t understand how Jess went from so mad to, like, flirting with him in
one second; he’s SUCH AN ASSHOLE!!!

So I had an epiphany and after class I asked Jess if she wanted to meet over the weekend at the library in town to work on our report, and she said yes! I couldn’t believe it.

It’s all I could think about, even while I was watching The X-Files. I sat in my bed listening to Boyz II Men (unequivocally my favorite band) and reading The Hobbit, but I kept daydreaming about her. Five or ten pages would go by and I would retain none of it, so I’d have to go back and reread it, but then I’d start fantasizing again: making out with Jess, right next to the medical encyclopedias. Also, I kept getting nosebleeds from my allergies.

So this is what happened: on Sunday I asked my dad to drive me to the library to meet up with Jess Feingold and he said he was busy, which I know he wasn’t because he was just watching the dumb Giants play the dumb Cowboys with my dumb brothers.

Davey threw the nerf football at me and it hit me in the head and they all laughed but it actually really hurt. “Why do you want to go to the library anyway, dork?” he said. “The Giants are on.”

“I have homework!” I said. And then I called him a butthead and they all laughed again, even my dad. And then my throat got all knotty and I felt like crying but I didn’t.

“Mom’ll take you,” my dad said.

“Mom’s at the store,” I said, a bit too loud.

“Then wait!” he said, even louder.

“But I have to go to the library now!” I screamed.

And then my dad jumped up. “You have no idea what I do for you!” he screamed, right in my face. “NO IDEA!”

And then I ran back upstairs to my room and locked the door and I started crying, but just like, a little. I thought I was going to miss my study date with Jess. But my mom came home eventually and drove me over. I could tell she was pissed, but I wasn’t sure if it was at me or my dad.

When I saw Jess I stuck out my hand and, too late, I realized I shouldn’t have done it. She grasped it weakly and we pumped hands awkwardly. “I’ve been practicing my prestidigitation,” I said, still holding on to her hand, shaking it up and down. “Card tricks and stuff.”

She drew her hand back — out of revulsion, I think — and wiped it on her jeans. “You’re late,” she said, as we sat down next to each other at adjacent study carrels. I pulled the novel and my dolphin trapper keeper out of my backpack.

“Sorry,” I said. “Did you start already?”

“No,” she said, sniffing loudly. Her eyes were red and puffy, and I assumed her allergies were acting up. A point of similarity!

“Are you okay?” I asked her. “Do you want a tissue? Is it hay fever?”

“I’m fine,” she said.

Then I thought maybe she was crying, so I asked her why she was crying.

“I’m not!” she said.

We kind of stared at each other for a minute, then I blinked my eyes and stuck out my tongue and gave her a Bronx cheer.

She actually laughed, and said, “I’m just sad. Me and Jonah broke up.”

I put my hand on her shoulder, and patted it gently. “It’s okay,” I said. I actually touched her!

She shrugged away from my hand. “I know,” she said. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She was wearing like, seven bracelets on her hand, which seemed like overkill. But she smelled so sweet and fresh, like a young doe prancing through the forest on the morning of a bow hunt.

I hoped my nose wouldn’t start bleeding.

“Do you want to see a magic trick?” I said, taking a deck of cards from my pocket.

“AJ,” she said, almost wistfully. “Why would I want to see a magic trick?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I had been banking on charming her with a magickal illusion — I
knew how to produce a card out of thin air or find the ace of clubs.

“Let’s just do the report,” she said. “90210 is on tonight and I really want to get home in
time to watch it.”

“Me too,” I said.

“You like 90210?”

I nodded.

“Jason Priestley,” she said. “Oh my god.”

“Yeah, he’s a hunk,” I said. “Did you see that show Melrose Place?” My mom doesn’t actually let me watch it, but I didn’t want her to know that.

“Uh, yeah of course,” she said. “It’s the bomb diggity.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s like, my favorite show.”

“Cool,” she said. Then she opened up her copy of The Outsiders, and I started to panic. This was my only chance to have a real conversation with her, and I was losing it.

“Do you know Anna?” I said.

She looked at me. “Anna Reznikovskaya?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, why?” Her eyes grew wide, and she slammed the book back on the desk. “Oh my god. Do you like Anna Reznikovskaya? Do you like, like like her?”

“Ew, no!” I said, wrinkling my nose in what I hoped was an obviously disgusted way. This was going all wrong. The last thing I wanted was for Jess to think I was the off the market.

“Oh,” she said.

“I did make out with her, though.”

She started to smile. “Really?”

“No doubt.”

“When?”

“Like, a few months ago.”

“Oh.” She smiled again, this time more sinister. “Yeah, I already knew about that.”

“You did?”

Everybody knew. Tom, like, gave her a dollar to kiss you in front of everyone.”

Tom Lynch, that bastard! I felt the adrenaline surge through my veins, and my face grew hot. I was humiliated all over again, just like the first time around. A dollar? I know Anna is like, super poor and all and she’s like, a Russian refugee, but still it felt so crappy. All it took was one measly dollar for her to ruin my reputation.

Jess picked up The Outsiders again, and cracked it open to what seemed like a random page. She leaned forward to her notebook and picked up her pencil. I needed better material than Anna. I’d actually brainstormed a list of conversation topics we could cover that morning, but I’d left the paper in my bedroom and I couldn’t remember what was on there.

“So did you really blow Jonah Yustein?” I said.

“What?” She turned towards me and her eyes were furious. “What did you say?”

“I—” I lowered my gaze. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“You can’t say that,” she said.

“I’m sorry. That’s none of my business.”

“You’re right,” she said. “It is none of your business.”

She put her book down gently. “This is why you have no friends,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing. It’s weird but it’s almost like I felt my heart break at that very instant, even though I know that hearts don’t actually break like that.

I just stared at her.

“Why did you even ask me that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m sorry. Just forget I said anything.” I picked up her pencil and
started waving it up and down. “Look,” I said. “I made your pencil turn into rubber. It’s all
bendy.”

She grabbed the pencil out of my hand. “Stop it.”

“Wait, that’s just sleight of hand. Let me pick your card out of a deck,” I said.

She started to pack up her stuff into her book bag.

“I can pull a rabbit out of a hat,” I said. I didn’t have all of my magic props, but I had a
few things in my bag, if I could just get her attention again. “I can turn a wand into a bouquet of
flowers,” I said.

I didn’t want her to leave, but she seemed intent on going. Though to be honest, part of
me actually felt a little relieved, to like, be alone. “I can spit fire!” I offered, in a last ditch effort.

“Yeah, right,” she said, standing up. “I’m out of here, AJ.”

“I can swallow a sword.” This isn’t true, I can’t.

“Whatever.”

“No, I’ll swallow a sword right now. I’ll bet you I can.”

“What sword?”

“The Sword of Shannara.” I took a bronze replica dagger out of my backpack and showed it to her. It’s actually called a “renaissance stiletto” in the catalogue — obviously not a claymore— but it’s got shiny fake gems on the hilt so I doubted she would even know the difference. It’s pretty phat, actually.

“Holy cow AJ!” she said, in like, a loud whisper. “Put that away!” Her eyes darted back
and forth, like we were going to get in trouble. “Where’d you even get that?”

“From an ancient Dwarven smithy,” I said. Actually, my mom got it for me for Chanukah, but I didn’t think that a necessary detail. A rogue keeps some secrets, after all.

“You are so weird, and so stupid. I’m going home. I’ll just tell Mrs. Peterson that we’re not working on the project together anymore. I’m going to do The Outsiders by myself, and you can work with Julio and Tom alone. Or whatever, I don’t care.”

I tapped the cold steel blade with my fingernail, like it would impress her. “I’ll swallow
the Sword of Shannara if you stay.”

“That doesn’t even make any sense,” she said, and walked away.

I watched her, mute, as she tromped down the library stairs into the quiet main atrium, under the tall domed ceiling that had baby angels and the christian god painted on it, past the old wood reception desk piled high with returns, her ponytail in that pink scrunchee, swishing behind her as she marched towards the automatic double doors and out of my life, forever.

I stared at the lobby for another minute or two, just in case she decided to come back and apologize for being so mean to me, but I knew she wouldn’t. She was probably calling her mom from a payphone already and asking to be picked up, and then her mom would tell my mom, and my mom would lecture me and punish me and tell me I had to make more friends and she would ask me if I was taking my Prozac and I’d have to lie to her.

The library’s paperback copy of The Sword of Shannara was resting on the desk of my study carrel. I’d read the book three times already, and, to be honest, was starting to get sick of it.

To be really honest, I just want to be like everyone else. I want to watch Melrose Place and play football with my brothers, and go to the mall, and most of all, I want to get bee-jays from girls like Jess Feingold.

But I’m not. I’m weird. I’m a loner. That’s why I was sitting in the library by myself, and I had to do the book report by myself, while everyone else in the world was happy and cool and had a lot of friends.

Very carefully, I tore the cover off of the library book, so slowly it barely made a sound. I ripped a little piece off a corner from the cover and put it in my mouth. The old ink and yellow paper tasted bitter and dry, and I sucked on it for a moment before swallowing. I didn’t want it to get stuck in my braces. I ripped off another shred from the cover and put that on my tongue next. My mother wasn’t coming back to pick me up for at least another hour, and I wanted to see how many pages I could devour before then.

____________________________

Phillip Mandel is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Texas State University and the editor of Front Porch Journal. He is originally from New York. This is his first published story.