Russell Hodge came back to school on Friday morning, looking like he'd been lifting weights in the hospital. He was wearing a yellow dress shirt, open to the waist. Spooner was sitting in the hallway beside his locker with one foot bare, attaching a Band-aid to a toe blister, when he apprehended a certain menace in the milieu, as Calmer might say, and looked up to find Russell Hodge standing over him, looming up there in the hallway's artificial light, and experienced in that moment a clear perception of himself as a lawn mower and Russell Hodge as a mower of lawns, about to set his boot on his chest to hold him in place while he grabbed the starter cord and yanked off his head.

Spooner put his shoe back on and got to his feet and, possibly making a bad situation worse, found himself staring at the spot where the baseball had broken through Russell's cranium and momentarily entered his brain. Not that there was much to see, really, at least no imprint of the ball. Only a short line of thick black stitching farther back on his head where they'd gone in to ease the pressure and swelling.

Spooner realized now that he was still holding his sock, and realized he'd been staring at Russell Hodges head a long time. Safety-wise, this was like napping on the highway, but he found himself unable to look away, and wondered idly if Coach Tinker would visit him in the hospital too. He ruminated awhile, there under the gaze of Russell Hodge, coming eventually to the realization that beyond pain and mortification, what was about to happen would embarrass [his stepfather] Calmer and mortify his mother, who still worked that pump like a spare lung --- the disgrace waiting for them all if he was ever in trouble at school. Public humiliation, a ruinous effect on Calmer's career, especially now that he was going to be principal. And the newspapers. The newspapers would have a field day.

Spooner's mother lived her life with the certain knowledge that the whole thing --- cradle to grave --- was an ambush. Spooner didn't necessarily disagree with that, but had never seen any reason to take it personally. The incident about to occur, for instance, would end up in the archives as one more piece of evidence that the world was out to ruin her.

But even as these things floated through Spooner's brain, some other information was coming in right behind it. As impossible as it seemed, Russell Hodge appeared at this moment to be having misgivings, that or had forgotten who Spooner was, or couldn't make up his mind how he wanted to kill him.

But wait, it was dread. Spooner saw dread in Russell Hodge, and he knew dread when he saw it like the palm of his hand. These two things, by the way, dread and masturbation, went together all of Spooner's life once the reproductive system checked in, initially preparing him perhaps for all the dilemmas and complexities that would mark the affairs of the heart all his life.

Right now, for instance, he faced the following choice every afternoon between fourth and fifth period: He could step into a bathroom stall and quiet his reproductive system or take his chances on being caught with an erection in music appreciation. Damned if you do, damned if you don't, which --- no happy coincidence --- was what the reproductive system was all about. Meaning the fear of being caught --- he himself had been in the bathroom when Mr. Craddock, the dean of boys, had stormed in and broken through a stall door trying to catch a kid named Wendell Jeeter smoking, and instead found him in the act of spilling his seed --- had to be weighed against the possibility of being called to the chalkboard by Miss Degruso. The problem with music appreciation was that Spooner's seat was directly in back of the smoldering figure of Dee Dee Victor, at whose back he stared all period long, studying her details through the sometimes translucent shirts she wore, in love with her shoulders, her shoulder blades, her blood pressure, every little pebble of her spine. And when she leaned forward to take notes, a narrow space would open along the line of her skirt, and he would lean forward too, inhaling the air like it was loaded with roast beef, thinking that what he was breathing that instant had just floated out from under her skirt. And then old Peckenpaw would float out too, like a piece of driftwood, and begin to leak, and what if at this critical, boned, leaking, helpless moment Miss Degruso asked him to come to the front and distinguish a piccolo from a fife? It was possible. In fact, that was what she'd asked Russell Hodge to do on the day he'd broken her leg in the storage locker.

Now, however, as he and Russell Hodge continued to stare at each other in the hallway, Russell's expression continued to change, dread to misgivings, misgivings to confusion, and settling finally almost on the same empty look he'd had lying on the dirt next to home plate after Spooner had plunked him in the head.

The fire alarm rang --- one of the Ploof twins at it again probably --- and Hodge jumped at the sudden noise, and then, regaining himself, turned and looked up the wall to the spot where the bell was installed, and, finding the source of the noise, he smiled. One of his front teeth had grown in crooked, and while Spooner watched, a line of saliva dropped half a foot from his lip and then held, dancing in the eerie, artificial light, and then broke off and landed on his shirt.

Which was when Spooner noticed that Russell had his shirt on inside out.

Spooner next saw Russell Hodge half an hour before baseball practice. Hodge was sitting on a wooden bench in the caged locker room area where the team dressed, naked except for his socks and cleats, studying a piece of stiff, crumpled gauze about the size of a finch. He turned it one way and another, trying to place what it was. The gauze was crusted with dried blood, and he abruptly shook it, and then held it up to his good ear to hear if it was ticking.

--- From Spooner
Peter Dexter
©2009 Grand Central Publishing
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