Mom had already been crying when she found me sitting on the concrete floor of the garage with a hammer in my hand. I’d been smashing marbles. All of them — the clear ones with the sparkly centers that I won from Zane Bibble in a game of chicken on the monkey bars at recess. I hammered them all to powder in the middle of the floor, right where Dad’s car should have been.
Almost everybody in the 3rd grade hated Zane. One day at lunch, he poked Inez McIntosh with his thumbnail so hard she bled all over the table. There was the time he jabbed a stick — a stick he’d sharpened to a point by rubbing it against the playground slab — into all of Mrs. Wilson’s rubber four-square balls. Mom helped organize a bake sale at the school carnival to help buy new balls for the class, but Zane rode his bike over and tipped our card table, sending brownies and sugar cookies to the ground in a heap. We hated Zane.
So naturally, the day he brought the bag of marbles — the special marbles his dad sent from halfway around the world — naturally I wanted them. A jerk like Zane shouldn’t have marbles like that. During lunch, I fantasized about stealing them when we had afternoon reading group. I was no Zane Bibble, though. The best I could muster was a game of chicken.
“On the monkey bars,” I told him. “First one down loses.”
“What do I get?” he said. “These are special. My dad said all the men he’s killed are trapped inside.”
I didn’t really believe him because he was a compulsive liar — that’s what my mom said anyway — but those marbles did sparkle in a cool way, like little stars trapped in glass. I wanted them, souls or no souls.
“My new Power Ranger, the black one with the light-up face that says ‘Tranformation Go!’ when you push his belt.”
He narrowed his eyes.
“I brought it for show and tell last week.”
“Deal.” Zane had only one sort-of friend in class, Luke Gilmore, and that was only because Luke was a rotten kid who smelled like poop all the time. Nobody liked Luke either, mostly because he picked his boogers and stuck them to the underside of his desk. True story — I crawled under there during indoor recess once and saw the whole grey-brown clump. So Zane let Luke hold the bag while we mounted the monkey bars.
The metal bars were cold on a cloudy October afternoon, so cold they burned my hands as I started to swing toward Zane. We met in the middle, neither one conceding until I wrapped my legs around his waist like a pincer and pulled. His face turned red, and when his hands slipped off, he made a little sound like the McIntoshes’ dog did when Dad accidentally hit him with the car after having “another big fight” with Mom.
The other kids roared.
Luke might have been a smelly kid, but he was honest enough, and handed me the marble bag while Zane picked himself off the ground. It was heavy, that bag. Zane’s eyes burned like soul marbles, and he charged me. Wham. Flat on my back, I couldn’t fight back while he drummed on my chest with bony fists. Of course the recess monitors yanked him off and he howled and howled and spent the rest of the day in Mr. Bay’s office.
I had a bag of soul marbles and a couple of bruises.
The trouble started when I tried to go to bed. I hadn’t shown the marbles to Mom, and Dad was “working late” again. She tucked me in, her eyes red and puffy, and I lay there for a while, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how red and puffy Zane’s eyes were when we rode the bus earlier in the evening.
Then I heard them, the marbles.
First I stuffed my head under a pillow, but the voices cut through that like there was a speaker tucked inside. I couldn’t make out what they said, but the emotion was there. Sadness. Pain. Fear. Then I realized they were crying in a foreign language, whatever language they spoke in the country where Zane’s dad killed them. My throat felt hollow and cold and hurt so much I wanted to cry, too, like tears would dissolve the hurt.
But I couldn’t.
Mom was on the phone when I tiptoed downstairs, carrying the bag of soul marbles like a wounded baby. I used Dad’s big hammer, laid out the marbles on the floor of the garage where the car would be but he was working late — later than he ever had — and started smashing. The hammer made a sweet ting when it struck concrete. Each blow stung my arm.
I guess it was the pounding that brought Mom outside. Her face was wet and red from crying — maybe she’d heard the soul marbles, too. My eyes dropped to the mess, the little piles of white dust, all that was left of Zane’s marbles.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Dad’s hammer was still in my hand.
We were alone but not alone, standing in the cold of the garage with all the ghosts I’d set free. Mom just hugged me then, wrapped me in her arms and squeezed until I thought my ribcage would snap.
Aaron Polson was born on the Ides of March: a good day for him, unlucky for Julius Caesar. He currently lives and writes in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a tattooed rabbit. To pay the bills, Aaron attempts to teach high school students the difference between irony and coincidence. His stories have featured magic goldfish, monstrous beetles, and a book of lullabies for baby vampires.