Because he is the fairest, wisest child in his fifth-grade class, Maxwell knows the seashell was destined for his fist. From along the shore, it beckoned, iridescent and ridged. Now, it pulses in his palm, which rests on the wide arm of the Adirondack chair where he lounges, watching his classmates play. Behind him, the buildings of the Northwest Maritime Center border the wide plaza, its giant compass rose. Beyond, in the cobalt water, a buoy bobs. A freighter bellows. A sea lion’s slick back crests and dips below the waves, and Maxwell imitates the motion, envisions himself as possessing an equivalent gloss and grace.
His classmates hoot and tumble across the rocky beach below, play the game they call “Shell Shop.” They collect shells, driftwood, sea-polished rocks—one girl wields a giant stem of kelp like a battle lance—then assemble elaborate, imaginary retail displays on logs, boulders, any flat surface they can find. The kids with the most sway command small armies of foot soldiers, who they send to fetch artifacts on their behalf, sometimes stealing from rival stores. Under the dock, the shit-stirring boys bunch behind the pylons, whisper, ask approaching children for “the password,” claim to operate a “black market.”
To Maxwell, this game is a loathsome tradition, repeated during Wilderness Weekend every year since the third grade. Later, when their teachers ask them to reflect on the week’s experience, they will coo and crow about everything they learned playing Shell Shop, how it taught them teamwork, how for once the whole grade played together, got along. All the while willfully ignoring the roles, the rigid hierarchy they inhabited, the bosses and the bossed.
Imbeciles, Maxwell mouths. He flares his eyes, pitches his chin, holds his head aloft, imagines it crowned, queenly. He conjures the other students. They approach him with offerings, fall to their knees, quake, beg for his mercy.
He feels a sharp shock on the side of his skull, struck by a rock. His classmate Griffin hovers with two of his minions.
“Hey faggotron, why are your legs crossed? You get a hard on when you saw me?”
Maxwell sniffs. “You wish!”
Griffin guffaws, then pumps his pelvis. “In your wet dreams, fairy.”
From above and behind, a loud voice bellows, “Griffin!”
Griffin sneers. “Yeah, dad?”
“I saw that. Apologize.”
Griffin mumbles, “Sorry.”
“I didn’t hear you.”
Griffin speaks a little louder, “SORRY.”
“Go wash your hands—it’s almost time for lunch.”
Griffin sulks away, his dogs nipping at his heels.
A hand settles on Maxwell’s shoulder, squeezes.
“You okay, bud?”
Griffin’s father is long and lean, tan arms unfolding from his soft cotton t-shirt and royal blue down vest. His close-cropped hair is flecked with vibrant grey, but his face flushes, youthful.
Maxwell nods. The dad extends his hand, “I’m Jase.”
Jase. They shake. Jase smiles, his bright white teeth capture the light. Maxwell feels a glow travel from Jase’s palm into his own, it buzzes through his body, a pulse. Jase. The sun pokes from behind a cloud. Maxwell dizzies, bathed in warmth.
Every night, Maxwell watches his favorite television show, a long forgotten, quickly cancelled nighttime soap opera from the 1990’s, uploaded on Youtube by some devoted fan. He can’t say for sure how he found it—One click led to another and then another, and suddenly he was staring at the most glorious creature he’d ever seen. Red-lipped, raven-haired, silk-robed, she stretched to fill the doorframe of her luxury loft, waited for her lover, the husband of her boss. Maxwell watched her swill a goblet of red wine in one hand, draw a cigarette to her lips with the other, hypnotized not just by her beauty, but by her strategies of seduction: how effortlessly she manipulated the people around her, made them melt or spit or scream. She cared nothing for the lover, only wanted what he could give her, the opportunity to later compel his wife, her boss, to sink into her desk chair, to leave her squirming in defeat. Only wanted what matters most: glamour, and the power to pull all the boring people’s strings.
At the Maritime Center, as the afternoon passes into evening, he sits cross-legged under the dock with his notebook, sketches his closest approximation of her pose. He spirals her curls, overdraws her lips. He labels the image: #GOALS.
He hears heavy feet pound the dock above him.
“Shhh,” says a voice. He recognizes Griffin’s friend Jay. “We’re not supposed to be out here.”
“Don’t be such a pussy,” says Griffin.
“Where is it,” Jay says. “You said you found a knife.”
They clomp to the far end of the dock, where the rocks give way to water that leaps and wraps around the wood.
“It was right under here, I swear,” Griffin says. He dangles over the edge, peeks beneath. Maxwell pulls himself into the pylon, making sure to stay unseen.
“Yeah right,” Jay says, “Who would leave a knife out here, anyway?”
He jumps on Griffin. They roll, wrestle near the edge. The dock creaks.
“Stop!” Griffin says. Maxwell hears a hard thud, Jay getting pushed, Griffin jumping to his feet.
“Afraid you’ll fall in?” Jay says. “What’s a matter, can’t you swim?”
“Yeah right.” Griffin says. “Of course I can swim.”
Griffin’s idiot doesn’t recognize the lie, but Maxwell picks it out immediately. He smirks. Every bully is just a poser, awaiting a true villain to position them, show them their next mark.
At night, the fifth graders lay their sleeping bags and pads down on the floor of the giant event hall, boys on one side of the accordion divider, girls on the other. Boys wrestle in mummy bags, kangaroo jump, try to kick out each other’s feet, land a crash. Others run, careen in stocking feet across the tile floor, whoop and shriek. Maxwell claims the room’s farthest corner, curls on his side, turns toward the wall, puts a pillow over his head to block out the noise.
“BOYS!” Jase booms as he enters through the double doors. “On the floor! I want to see two feet between each of you.”
He hushes their protests, separates the troublemakers, assigns them their space.
Later, once teeth are brushed, clothes changed, lights dimmed, Jase tells the boys a bedtime story.
Before Griffin and his younger sister were born, Jase and his wife trekked the Amazon. From a boat at dusk, they watched a jaguar stalk the shore. Their guide wrangled a cobra, showed them the mark on his skin where he once got bit, sucked out the venom. In their campsite one night, they were awoken by something lifting the floor beneath them, crawling, kneading their backs like a violent massage. They dived shouting and giggling from their tent, and spotted a large land crab at the very moment it disappeared into the woods.
Across the room, Griffin nuzzles into Jase’s shoulder. In his dad’s lap, pajamaed, the bully transforms back into a boy. Maxwell watches, suddenly knifed with jealousy. He can’t say exactly what he wants, knows only the intensity with which he wants it.
Maxwell dreams he’s in a tent. Outside, the hot wet night of the forest surrounds him, its monkeys howl their need. He sits on Jase’s lap, spine straight, enthroned, Jase’s wide arms the ledges where Maxwell rests his own, Jase’s chest the towering seatback that props Maxwell’s royal head. Maxwell feels his body lift and collapse in time with Jase’s breath. The father lowers his face and whispers, My queen.
In the morning, Maxwell finds a quarter-sized stain in his pajamas that smells like the bay.
In the shower house, Maxwell lathers. He coils his hair into shampooed curls, tries on a pose. Inspired by his icon, the diva from the soap, he cocks one hip, flicks the other hand, mouths Dismissed.
He hears a quick, quiet flurry of motion, and someone getting shushed. He pulls back the curtain, looks at the bench, and sees his belongings have disappeared—his towel, his clothes, his shoes. He peers out the window, watches Griffin and his posse careen toward the shore, Maxwell’s stuff flung on the rocks.
Jase finds Maxwell on the bench, bent over, staring at the floor, holding a paper towel across his genitals. He shivers, flesh dotted with bumps.
“Maxwell,” he says. He’s wrapped in a towel, steam rolls from the adjacent stall. He sits down beside him, fills Griffin’s view, a vast landscape, a horizon, of wet, golden skin. “Maxwell, what happened? What do you need?”
Maxwell tries to form words, but can think only of his seashell, lost now in the pocket of his stolen pants. If he could only hold it, hold it right this moment, feel it throb, squeeze.
“Did somebody take your clothes?”
“Do you want me to help you upstairs?”
“Don’t worry, buddy,” Jase says. “I can help you before anybody sees.”
Maxwell loosens, lets the man lift him. He sinks. The heat of contact, Jase’s heart beating against his ear.
Maxwell stands on the balcony outside the hall where the boys sleep. Mid-afternoon, the sun’s reddening orb sinks into the evergreens across the bay. He watches his classmates colonize the beach below, their shell shops reopened for another afternoon’s business. He grips the railing. He squeezes. He squeezes again, tighter. The sharp wood corner digs into his skin, leaves an indentation.
“Hey buddy,” Jase says, stepping through the sliding door from the room behind. “Feeling better?”
“Don’t let the other boys get to you,” Jase says. “You’re smarter than they’ll ever be.”
He pauses for a moment. Then adds, “My son included.”
Maxwell laughs, looks at Jase.
Jase smiles, and Maxwell thinks about how every queen has her most trusted advisor, to provide counsel, guide her decrees.
“Trust me,” Jase says. “Someday he’ll regret how he treats you.”
Someday, Maxwell thinks, or today. Is there truly a difference? It’s the meaning beneath the message that matters, for which Maxwell listens, appreciating most this messenger in all his lovely, elusive glory.
Jase smiles again. His warmth. The sun. Those teeth.
Just before dinner, Maxwell walks downstairs, spies Griffin near the edge of the water. He drags a twig in circles, makes eddies, for one rare moment alone. This will be the narrowest of windows, Maxwell knows. And he must act fast.
He channels his diva, pretends he dons a power suit like the one she wore to march into her boss’s office. Blow smoke rings in her face. He whispers Jase’s assurance, the assurance of his trusted advisor, Someday, they’ll regret this. Mouths his favorite line from his favorite show: Don’t make me do something we’ll both regret.
“Hey, Griffin,” he shouts. “I found something you’ll want to see.”
On a collision course with his bully, he struts, a cresting, brazen wave. In the wake of his crash, Griffin can only bend.
“Yeah?” he says.
He’s found the knife, Maxwell tells him, the one Griffin tried to show Jay.
“No way,” Griffin says. “You’re shitting me,” but Maxwell insists. He leads Griffin to the edge of the dock, points, says Look down there. Griffin crouches, rolls into his toes, his center of gravity pitched forward, toward the surf. It only takes the slightest nudge, a mere suggestion, to lead his body where it’s already primed to move.
Griffin splashes, sputters, shouts for help. He reaches out for Maxwell, his face a mangled symbol that signals desperation.
If Maxwell could pause this moment, he would, feel his blood pump to infinity with the thrill of Griffin’s panic, to listen to him beg.
“Please, what?” Maxwell says. “Do you want me to save you?”
Griffin’s head nods furiously, dips below the surface, reemerges, spits.
What Maxwell cannot have in reality, he will now imagine into being. Jase beside him, their fingers interlaced. A warm throb from the father’s palm into his own.
He will become a benevolent queen, Maxwell thinks, whose power resides in the fine art of the bargain, his ability to draw strength from his subjects through the debt they owe his grace.
“I will save you,” he declares. “But my salvation requires a sacrifice. That something…” He turns his gaze upon his phantom Jase, his corona, the pearl inside this beach’s every shell. “…or someone you love become mine alone.”
Jase falls to one knee. “My queen. I pledge my body and soul to your service.”
Maxwell dips his chin, says, “And so it shall be.” He grabs Griffin’s hands, pulls. Griffin collapses on the dock.
Maxwell draws Jase into him. Jase’s head sinks into Maxwell’s shoulder, his chest presses against his. It rises and falls. He speaks his gratitude and worship through breath. Every cell of Maxwell’s body awakens, throbs with emergent, worming life.
Below them, Griffin heaves. Maxwell lifts one hand into a vertical position, twists his wrist to grant him the royal wave.
Tim Jones-Yelvington is the author of the fiction volumes Don’t Make Me Do Something We’ll Both Regret (forthcoming, Texas Review Press), Strike a Prose: Memoirs of a Lit Diva Extraordinaire (co•im•press), This is a Dance Movie! (Tiny Hardcore Press), and “Evan’s House and the Other Boys who Live There” (in They Could No Longer Contain Themselves, Rose Metal Press). His debut poetry chapbook, Become On Yr Face, was winner of the 2016 DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press chapbook contest, and its follow up, Colton Behavioral Therapy, winner of the 2017 Gazing Grain contest, judged by Camille Rankine. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Puerto Del Sol, Harpur Palate, and others. From 2010-12, he guest edited [PANK]‘s annual queer issue.