Runner-up for our 2022 flash fiction contest.
The boy watched The Wizard of Oz from the floor. Shirtless, he lay on his back and used the divot in his chest as a bowl for popcorn. His chest was inverted, sunken in the middle. When the mother came into the living room, she laughed. The father sat in his recliner and smoked and never laughed because that chest was a deformity, not a joke, not a quirk.
The father watched the boy’s hands pick through popcorn with careful, precise fingers, then slip the kernels, one at a time, into a parted mouth. A dumb tongue, not knowing it was watched, licked the thin fingers, again one by one. When the sternum-bowl had emptied, the hands picked at tufts of carpet then raised to cover eyes whenever the Witch was onscreen.
The father—this boy was not his son and never would be. The father had little hope, but the mother did not care. She did not marry him for hope.
From the floor, the boy watched the film, whispering every line. If the house were empty, he’d stand and dance. Oh, the Tin Man with his round chest and metal jaw, his high voice and his belief in a heart, the Tin Man with his echo—the boy touched his buttered chest and surveyed its emptiness. Hollow, he had less inside him than other boys.
A year later, the boy was going to have metal slid into his chest. When he went in for the surgery, the father stayed home. The mother said the doctors were wrong to use Latin names. This was not a deformity, not a mistake in his construction. There was nothing wrong, nothing broken, he was simply growing too fast, and his bones stretched too quickly and didn’t have time to take shape. That was okay, good, really, height was good for a man, and this was a small sacrifice. He would be a big strong boy with a bit of cold metal inside. Then he would be a man, and all this metal business, all this emptiness, it would be forgotten.
A surgeon slit him open on both sides and slid a rod through his center. The rod pushed his bones forward and popped his chest out. The boy spent time in a bed harder than the floor, unconscious, holding tufts of sheets. The mother guessed at his dreams and worried she was right.
He went home numb and babbling, a journey he wouldn’t remember. The father made the boy stand on the porch with his shirt off and spread his arms. He touched the boy’s stitches and said, “That’s a man’s chest.”
Pain caught up to the boy, so he dropped his arms and lay down for days.
A man’s chest only half-full, that is what the boy was left with. The extra room gave him space for tucked-away thoughts. Soon, they told him how to walk, coached him how to talk, and even stand. This is a man. The boy slipped every wrong thing into that empty space and, in the night, searched his hollowness, caressed the wrong.