In a Half Shell
The boy ties the orange mask around his head, fits the green plastic nose over his own. He breathes deep. He smiles. The smell reminds him of Christmas and Saturday mornings. He velcros his foam shell at his side, buckles a belt he borrowed from his father’s closet around the shell at his waist. He stuffs his orange nunchucks between the belt and shell.
He poses in the mirror. Karate stances and semi-sneers.
He says, “Cowabunga, dude,” then jumps on his bed, uses its springs to send him into the air. He kicks, yells hiyah, lands on his bedroom floor hard enough to knock over Krang’s battle-suit standing on his dresser.
He laughs, says, “Next time, Dimension X, ugly brain-dude,” and barrels through his door into the hallway.
His mother calls his name, says something he doesn’t listen to. He says, “Sorry, Mom.”
Then he slams into his brother’s locked door, crumples to the floor, says, “Whoa.”
This time he hears what his mother says. “Stop running around up there. You’re going to break your neck.”
From inside the bedroom his brother says, “Leave me alone. I’m sleeping.”
The boy calls his brother Raph, says, “Shredder took all the pizza.”
His mother, now at the bottom of the stairs, calls his name, says, “Leave your brother alone. If he doesn’t want to play he doesn’t have to play.”
The boy crawls across the floor. He lays on his stomach, presses his check down on the hardwood, closes one eye to look under the door. He whispers, “Raph, April’s getting mad at me. I think it’s because she wants pizza, too. I need your help.”
After a minute, two, the boy hears his mother’s footsteps move away from the staircase. He says, “Raph?”
There’s nothing from inside the bedroom.
He says Raph again.
He stands, presses his ear to the door. And for a moment, a sound. Another. Then the door’s pulled open, and the boy stumbles inside.
His face against a foam turtle shell, held up by arms decorated with elbow pads, he looks up into his brother’s eyes—seen through almond-shaped eyeholes cut into a red mask.
His brother says, “Let’s go get our pizza back.”
On the front lawn, the boy in the orange mask and his brother fight a hoard of Foot Clan.
Plastic sai swinging, stabbing, slashing, the boy’s bother maims the robotic soldiers. He punts the severed heads into the air, makes the sound of a metallic crash, the sizzle of ruined circuitry when they hit the blacktop.
The boy summersaults on the lawn. He pulls his nunchucks from his belt, twirls them to distract the Foot Clan, kicks one in the chest, punches another in the face. He screams they need to tell him where Shredder is right now or he’ll shred them. He laughs.
“Don’t laugh at your own jokes, Mikey,” his brother says.
“Shred, though, Raph. That’s funny.”
“Just keep fighting, there’s more coming.”
Back to back, the brothers swing their weapons, knock aside their enemies as they come.
The boy tumbles away. On his back, in the grass, he rolls side to side taking imaginary blows from the Foot Clan after they pin him to the ground.
His brother says, “I’m coming, Mikey.” But he’s knocked to the ground himself.
Two turtles on their backs, rolling, unable to get up, call for help. They yell for Leonardo. They yell for Donatello. They yell for Master Splinter. But no one comes.
The boy, still fending off punches, says, “Master Splinter’s in a prison in Dimension X. Krang took him before Shredder took the pizza.”
His brother says, “Donnie’s in the sewers trying to build a machine to shut down all the Foot all at once.”
The boy says, “Leo’s dead.”
His brother sits up, says, “What? You can’t kill Leo.”
Still rolling in the grass, the boy says, “I mean he’s knocked out.”
His brother lays back down, does a backward roll into a crouch, says, “Donnie’s machine’s working.”
Both brothers use their teeth and tongues to make the sound of sparks spraying from the dying Foot Soldiers’ necks and eyes.
They stand, brush themselves off, and look at each other. The boy watches his brother’s mouth morph, form silent numbers. Once it looks like a smile, it means three. And both brothers jump into the air. They high-five. Yell cowabunga.
But then the brother says, “Shit.”
“Swear jar,” the boy says, repeating his mother after his father would say the “S” word, or the “A” word, or sometimes the “F” word. Then he laughs. He doesn’t know for certain if he’s ever heard his brother say that. And it’s hilarious.
His brother says, “Shut up,” grabs the boy’s arm, and drags him across the lawn. The boy gets shushed every time he asks where they’re going, or says his arm hurts, or says stop it.
“Mikey, it’s Beebop and Rocksteady, okay?” his brother says, shoving him behind the hedges to the side of the house. “You have to be quiet and hide with me.”
The boy says, “Oh, okay,” and dives into the mulch, crawls into the bush, ignores the itchiness of the branches.
Behind him, his brother says they have to wait a minute to let the bad-guys pass.
Through the tangles of sharps leaves and brittle sticks, the boy keeps his eyes on the street, waits for invisible walking, talking, mutated animals to walk by. But all that comes are two boys on bikes, zig-zagging down the street past the house in slow helix-shaped patterns. He says, “Hey, that’s not Beebop and Rocksteady.”
His brother says, “No shit.”
The boy laughs. But he feels funny. Like he does when his parents yell at him.
The brothers says nothing until the boys on bikes pass.
The boy in the orange mask eats his lunch still dressed up.
His brother took his stuff off, left it on the garage floor before they came inside.
The boy stuffs his face, blows bubbles in his chocolate milk. He says, “Mom, do we have any pizza?”
His mother says, “You love ham and cheese.”
“But I’m Michelangelo, and I want pizza, dude,” he says, standing, fists on his hips, chin up. “Right, Raph?”
“That’s not how Mikey stands,” his brother says.
“That’s Superman, stupid.”
Their mother tells the boy’s brother to be nice, that if they can’t get along they’ll have to go to their rooms for the rest of the day.
The boy says, “Mom, I wasn’t even doing anything.”
“You’re being too silly,” she says.
The boy crosses his arms, stares across the table at his brother. His brother says nothing. The boy sticks out his tongue. His brother looks past him to their mother, then gives the boy the finger.
“Mom,” the boy says, dragging the “O” out.
His brother mouths, “Rat.”
“This is the second time, guys,” their mother says. “Stop. It.”
The boy crosses his arms over his chest, stares at his brother, out the window, at his half-eaten sandwich.
His brother pays him no mind. He eats his food, sits up straight, wipes his mouth after each bite, after each sip from his glass. He eats slow. Deliberate. After he finishes, in his polite voice, he says, “Mom. Can I ride my bike down to Shawn’s house?”
The boy says, “Hey,” loud and long.
Their mother says, “What about your brother?”
The boy’s brother says, “I’ll play with him when I get back. He can play my game in Super Mario World.”
“But we’re playing Ninja Turtles,” the boy says.
His brother mouths, “Shut up.”
“He just told me to shut up.”
At the kitchen sink, their mother says, “I didn’t hear anything.” Then she says, “Look. Guys. Don’t make me tell your father you’re being nasty to each other.” She says the boy’s name, tells him to play video games. She says his brother’s name, tells him to back before dinner, and to thank Shawn’s mother for having him over.
The boy in orange says, “This sucks.”
His mother says, “Swear jar, young man.”
He points to his brother, says, “He says sucks all the time. He said shit twice today.”
Their mother points, yells, tells the boy to go to his room and wait for his father to get home.
The boy’s bottom lip juts out. His eyes burn. He says, “Will you play with me when you come home?”
His brother turns to their mother.
Their mother says, “Not until your father and I decide your punishment.”
The boy says, “But you love the Turtles.”
His brother says, “Not as much as you do.”
The boy runs upstairs. He slams his door. Flings himself onto his bed. He cries loud enough so his mother and brother will hear him downstairs.
But neither of them come for him.
So he stops. Then he goes to the window, waits.
Once his brother rolls down the driveway on his bike, the boy knocks on the window. Not that he could have been heard, but his brother doesn’t look back anyway.
The boy sneaks into his brother’s room. He deletes his brother’s game in Super Mario World. He deletes his brother’s game in Super Metroid. He hides the Super Mario Land 2 Gameboy cartridge by dropping it behind the headboard.
Then he licks all the buttons on every controller and handheld gaming device in the room.
He has to cover his mouth to stop himself from laughing while he rubs his bare feet on his brother’s pillow. But the hand doesn’t work. He’s laughing so hard he’s crying while he drags every writing utensil in the room between his toes.
Back in his own room he cracks up. Face in a pillow, he laughs like he did the first time he and his brother ambushed their father, jumped on his back, called him Shredder.
Then he sits up. A pit in his stomach makes him think of the last time he had a stomach bug. He couldn’t make it to the toilet, filled the sink with half-digested Kentucky Fried Chicken.
But it passes.
Then it’s the digital clock next to his bed. Then it’s trying to subtract now from dinner time. Then it’s sneaking back into his brother’s room. Then it’s dying over and over again as he can’t afford to take his time through each level of Super Mario World.
Then it’s his mother busting into the room and asking him what exactly he thinks he’s doing, young man.
There’s screaming, yelling, crying. A hand around a wrist. Resistance. Nikes squeaking as they’re dragged along the hardwood floor in the hallway. Threats about what the boy’s father will do after he finds out how damn bad the boy’s being.
“Swear jar,” the boy says, screaming, jumping on his bed. He says the “S” word, the “A” word, the “F” word. Shrieking at random, he watches his words make his mother blink and take a step back with each one.
She slams his door behind her when she leaves.
Dressed in his shell, his mask, he pulls his nunchucks from his father’s belt. He swings them both around, around over his head. He jumps off the bed with a cowabunga, back on to it with a radical. Up and down on the bed, the Turtles theme song sung so loud his voice cracks as he screams the lyrics.
His mother doesn’t come back.
He gets bored.
Then he feels sick again. And this time it doesn’t go away.
The boy’s father holds the orange mask in his hands. He uses his hands when he speaks. The green plastic nose-piece flaps while his father talks about how to behave, how to talk to his mother. The wrinkled tips of orange fabric where the boy ties the mask around his head whip around while his father discusses curse words.
The boy listens. But he doesn’t pretend to like it. He sits with his back against the headboard, his Ninja Turtles pillow hugged to his chest, his chin resting on the top.
His father says, “Am I making sense?”
The boys says yes, draws out the “E” sound.
“It’s a wonderful thing you and your brother are so close. But he’s growing up. And you will, too. You can’t give him such a hard time about it. Then you’ll grow up and not be friends at all.”
The boy wants nothing to do with his brother. Or growing up. Or cutting his brother a break. But he nods, says that he didn’t mean anything by what he did. He says, “I was mad.”
“Well, now he’s mad. And your mother’s mad.”
“Are you mad?”
“Far as I’m concerned, no one’s killed anybody else. No one’s screaming. You guys are clean and clothed. I just need everyone to get along. Think you can do that for me?”
The boy nods again.
“Say ‘yes’ for me, pal.”
“Yes for me, pal.”
“Good one.” The boy’s father waves his hand, tells him to come down to dinner. Tells him he can suit up again for a little before bed if he wants.
The boy is introduced at the dinner table as someone who has something to say. And the boy makes his apologies. He kisses his mother’s cheek. He holds out his hand for his brother to shake. Then he sits down and eats. He doesn’t look up from his plate. Last time he got in trouble and got involved with dinner conversation he felt that people were nodding but not listening. So he concentrates on his food.
When he’s full, he asks to leave.
When he leaves, he goes upstairs.
From upstairs he hears the voices pick up their volume. Laughter. His brother using the voice he uses in front of teachers at school, and, now, his parents.
The boy doesn’t bother to get dressed back up again. He leaves his gear on the floor—where he threw it at the tail-end of his tantrum.
He puts on PJs, lays on top of the covers on his bed. He turns the Phillies game on the radio like his brother does before bed. But he gets bored.
So he stares at the ceiling and listens to his family downstairs speaking. And laughing.
He drifts off to sleep trying to tell the difference between his brother’s voice and his father’s.
Someone turned the light off. The boy doesn’t remember who did it. Or when it happened.
Sometimes, when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he sees things.
Sometimes it’s Shredder standing where his closest should be. Or Krang sitting on the TV stand across the room. But everything—after a flipped-on light, or a bit of convincing—turns out to be just a mess of hangers creating sharp angles in the darkness. Or the old television that sits across the room.
But now. Now there is something in the room. And it stands at the end of the bed moving slow, shifting its limbs into familiar shapes the boy has seen before. Has done before.
The boy says, “Raph?”
“Just practicing my moves,” the boy’s brother says. “Master Splinter told me to.”
In the dark, the boy focuses on the shell, the sai, the moves. He says, “I’m sleeping.”
“Not if you’re talking to me you’re not.”
The boy’s brother jumps up onto his bed. He doesn’t make much noise aside from the groaning springs under his feet. He says, “I need your help. Shredder erased my games on Super Nintendo. I can’t get them back alone.”
The boy smiles, rolls himself over, keeps himself from laughing by breathing into his pillow.
His brother says, “I’ll be in my room. Remember, if you’re going to help? Be ninja.”
The boy waits for his bedroom door to close. Then he slips out of bed. He puts his shell on, buckles his father’s belt around his waist, tucks his nunchucks between the belt and shell. Then he ties his mask on. He says, “Cowabunga.”
He doesn’t make a sound in the hallway, steps over the noisy spots in the hardwood. He turns the doorknob to his brother’s room slow enough to hear it working, clicking, unlatching.
Inside, his brother sits in front of the TV in his red mask and shell. He brings his finger to his lips, shushes, then waves the boy over.
The boy sits next to his brother.
Level after level the boy’s brother plays through the game.
The boy doesn’t ask for a turn, or speak at all. He watches while his brother plays. And this goes on for an hour.
Until the boy’s head is on his brother’s shoulder. Until he can’t fight his eyelids anymore. Until he lets himself just listen to the game being played.
Until he’s asleep. Sitting on the floor, next to his brother, who plays on.
Nick Gregorio lives, writes, and teaches in Philadelphia. His fiction has appeared in Wyvern Lit, Pantheon Magazine, and Driftwood Press. He writes for the arts and culture blog, Spectrum Culture, and is serving as guest fiction editor for Driftwood Press. He earned his MFA from Arcadia University in May 2015 and has fiction forthcoming in Crack the Spine and Zeit|Haus.
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Cover Photo: JD Hancock (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock/)