cul de sac descending, by Clay McLeod Chapman

A 29-year-old pedophile posed as a 12-year-old boy for two years and attended an Arizona school for four months… even convincing two men who had been looking for boys on the internet that he was a minor and getting them to pretend to be his relatives. — News.com, 2007

The family all felt it’d be best if Uncle Lonnie enrolled me into middle school once we made it here. My transcripts were looking pretty patchy from all the transferring by then. Three schools in four months. Uncle Lonnie even came to one of those parent-teacher nights, hoping to be as hands-on with my education as possible. Get a feel for the school. Meet all my teachers. But they say the same thing, no matter what state we move through — Casey seems to keep to himself. Sits in the back of the classroom. A bit shy. Fairly quiet. Withdrawn. And the real clincher — Looks as if he’s been held back a couple times.

I’m the perpetual seventh grader. Some grade-school repeat offender. Been held back enough by now — one look at me sitting amongst all the other students and you can just sense that there’s something different.

Not my fault. It’s all because of puberty. Seventh grade’s when everything changes, see. That final calm before the hormonal storm. Your voice drops an octave. Hair weeds its way up from every crevice. And acne, acne everywhere. Suddenly there’s a scent to you that hadn’t been there before, cold cuts warming up in the microwave, your brand new body odor breaking out all over your skin.

Seventh graders can sense the shift in each other, like dogs sniffing each other’s assholes. They can just tell who’s gone through puberty and who hasn’t. But there’s always that one boy sitting at the back of the class, that one kid who’s been held back a grade or two, always a little older than the rest. His body’s already changed.

All I’m trying to do is fit in. Let everyone see I’m no different. Five feet, eight inches. Not like I’m the tallest seventh grader around. One hundred and twenty pounds. There are bigger boys in my class.

Arizona was supposed to be a clean slate for us. A fresh start for the whole family. First time in six months that our house wasn’t on a set of wheels. We were in a subdivision now, complete with kids. Finally had a chance to make some friends. I’d set up a bike ramp in the center of our cul de sac, popping wheelies in the street. Cul de sac. Even sounds like a scrotum. Looked like some peacock out there, flaunting its feathers in the road. Took a couple weekends of playing by myself before some boys finally walked over, asking if they could ride with me.

Befriending families during church services was easier than it should’ve been. A heck of a lot easier than in school. Lock-in’s are the best. The parishioners’ children all corralled together. No escape until next morning. No parents. Nothing but all-night movies, board games galore. And pizza. The empty boxes still laying out, lids flung open. No one ever eats their crust, tossing them back into the box when they’re done. Could’ve been bones, the remnants from the last slumber party strewn about the rec center floor.

My chin was feeling a bit bristly, so I brought my toiletry kit along with me. I had figured a quick shave before leaving for the lock-in that night would’ve lasted me all the way through to the morning, but sure enough — one look in the bathroom mirror and I could see there was a shadow already spreading across my face. I double-checked just to make sure everyone was still sleeping before pulling out the razor. My shaving cream. A little foundation and a tube of liquid camouflage for around the eyes.

I came up with the name Casey after making friends with this kid in Minnesota. Before that it’d been Billy. Then Peter. Neil. Every new charter school was a new start. Every state a new set of laws to keep one step ahead of. Grandpa helps me with homework, determined to make me maintain a C-average. When we first met in a chat room in Montana, he had told me he was twenty years old — so when we planned our rendezvous in a hotel room off Route 32, I was a bit taken aback by the old man sitting at the edge of the bed, a shock of white hair reaching out from the side of his head. His sunken chest, collapsing with every labored breath. The shriveled nipples. The wires of salt and pepper chest hair. A constellation of liverspots scattered over his whole body.

Family isn’t always bound by blood. Hunger does just the same sometimes. And to be a member of our family, everyone’s got responsibilities. Chores to do.

Mine’s to make friends. Invite them home.

Grandpa always calls it trawling. Drop your bait in and see what nibbles. I have a couple weeks to make a friend before the family packs up and pushes on to the next town. The best thing about being in the seventh grade is that while I’m growing older, everyone else seems to stay the same age. The name of the game is to not draw any attention to myself. Blend in. That means waxing.

Never had a sleepover in Arizona before. You’re the first. Which means you either wanted to be here — or you didn’t. If you did — well, you know what that makes you. And if you didn’t — everyone will believe you were, anyway. You know how boys are. The kind of names kids call you can follow you around for years, no matter how far away you move. Better to keep this sort of thing secret. Between you and me. Now that we trust each other, opening up like this — there’s something I want to tell you. Something I’ve never told anyone before.

I’m not really twelve.

Take how old you are and multiply that by two. Then add the number of public schools I’ve enrolled in over the last four months. Then add the number of days it took them to catch on in Phoenix. Chino Valley. Then subtract the last number of years that I’ve been capable of charading as a minor with the aid of razors and makeup. Then add every member of my family that’s in our house right now, cousins, uncles, grandparents, all just dying to meet you.

That’ll be in the ballpark.

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