The first-aid instructor lurched over Gus Garson, his latest victim, who lay splayed out on the tile floor. The scrawny eleven-year-old was in Eli’s den, not that Eli knew him well. This was Eli’s first year in scouts. Like basketball and so much else, his joining the scouts had been his dad’s idea: he said Eli needed to learn “practical life skills.”
The brutish and clumsy first-aid instructor was here at the church community center, where Eli’s scout troop held all its den meetings, to help the scouts complete their first-aid badge requirements. He traced his finger down Gus’s sternum. “You stop where the bone drops off and the chest becomes soft,” he told the group.
Eli did this on his own body, and he was a little surprised by that soft, vulnerable spot, that all along it had been there.
Earlier when the man had taught them how to treat flesh wounds, he’d emptied a blue plastic bin of white Styrofoam cylinders. The cylinders had various gashes and holes reddened with paint that was supposed to look like blood. The wounds had looked real somehow despite that the cylinders resembled human limbs about as well as table legs. Eli had held his arms protectively. It was a miracle it seemed to him now that he’d survived eleven years without suffering such catastrophes.
“Go up two fingers from the drop-off,” the first-aid instructor said, crawling those fingers back up Gus’s willowy chest. Then he stacked his hands on top of Gus’s sternum like he was making a sandwich with them. He said, “If he really weren’t breathing, I’d pump his chest so hard, I’d crack his ribs. But because he is breathing, and we’re just practicing, I’m being more gentle.”
The look on Gus’s face said not nearly gentle enough. Eli remembered the time his cat had come in from the backyard with a mouse dangling from her mouth. Pinned to the tile floor, Gus reminded Eli of that mouse. Eli wanted to do something to help Gus, but what? He looked around, and it didn’t seem that anybody else thought Gus needed helping.
Eli’s dad was over by the folding table talking to the white-mustached man with the money box. The two of them were laughing in that confident, careless way Eli had seen his dad laugh so many times—a manner of laughing which Eli’s body didn’t seem capable of. Neither man was paying any attention to Gus.
Outside of Eli’s dad and the den leaders—most of the den leaders were dads—the other parents present were moms. Some of the moms were joiners who were always volunteering for things. Other moms plopped down at tables around the edges of the room and hid behind their phones. The weirder ones, like Kyle Pierce’s mom, who had eyes that looked perpetually startled as though she were a character in a monster movie, stared off into space for the entire hour.
One of the joiner moms, the one who brought the chocolate chips for the pancakes the morning of the campout last month, intervened. She looked to the first-aid instructor and said, “But we shouldn’t do this with our little brothers and sisters at home, right? Because we could hurt them, right? So what should we practice on?”
She was doing that thing adults do in which “we” doesn’t really mean all of us, but “you kids.” Maybe that’s why a beat passed before the first-aid instructor realized she was looking for him to suggest some safe alternative that wouldn’t result in trips to the Emergency Room.
Finally, he jumped up and slapped down two life jackets one on top of the other, and said, “There!”
The mom, trying to translate life jackets into common household objects, said, “So maybe some pillows? A couch cushion?”
The first-aid instructor nodded, but Eli could see he was disinterested. For this guy, first aid wasn’t about injury prevention. First aid depended on injuries. In fact, for the first-aid instructor, first aid was to injuries like the remora fish was to the shark it swims alongside of, gobbling up parasites from the shark’s skin and mouth. That is to say, first aid and injuries had a symbiotic relationship.
When the first-aid instructor had taught them how to stop a wound from bleeding, he’d thrusted his finger into a reddened hole in one of the Styrofoam cylinders, like plugging a leak in a bucket. Eli had felt as though the man’s dirty fingernail were scraping something delicate inside him.
The man had such a variety of wounds that Eli thought of the activity-station toy his little sister had started to outgrow. Components to satisfy each of your infant’s senses—something scratchy, something soft, something squishy, something shiny, something that rattles. The burn scars on the first-aid instructor’s gnarled hands, a knot the size of a doorknob on his shin, two parallel lines like staples slashing his left eyebrow, the missing pinkie finger on his right hand. He’d said earlier in that hour, “You name it, I’ve done it” after telling them about striking his own kneecap with an axe. When Caroline Wilcox asked what kind of axe, the first-aid instructor said “felling axe” and proceeded to tell them that he had that axe, along with three others, in the back of his truck if they wanted to see later. Kids raised their arms. Moms raised their eyebrows.
When he’d demonstrated the Heimlich, or what he called the “belly thrust maneuver,” on Malcolm Fishbane, he’d leaned back as he thrusted his joined hands into Malcolm’s belly cavity, and so lifted poor Malcolm into the air on the fulcrum of his own belly. After, Malcolm folded his arms protectively over his middle, and he hadn’t removed his arms since.
When the first-aid instructor had demonstrated saving a drowning person by throwing them a lifesaver, he’d smacked Kyle Pierce, his volunteer victim for that round, in the mouth with that lifesaver. Kyle’s eyes went wide. Then his face crumpled and reddened. The first aid instructor looked at him, confused. “Grab the lifesaver,” he said. “Grab the lifesaver! Grab the lifesaver!”
To the guy’s credit, Eli guessed, he probably didn’t see the lifesaver smack Kyle in the face. He’d been looking at the rest of them, talking so fast you’d think Kyle really was drowning and there was no time to spare. One thing you could say for this guy was he was frantic with his enthusiasm for saving lives. His mantra was it’s better to do something than nothing at all. He said it over and over with each new demonstration. So, when Kyle said, “You hurt me,” Eli didn’t think the first-aid instructor understood what the heck Kyle was talking about. Also, though, Eli didn’t think the first-aid instructor would have cared if he had understood. He might have still said exactly what he said: “Suck it up, buttercup!” This was a phrase Eli’s dad said from time to time, like when Eli didn’t want to eat the chunky onions in his spaghetti sauce or he didn’t want to go to basketball practice. Even though Eli’s mom had explained that a buttercup is a flower, Eli always pictured a chocolate peanut-butter cup. Only he pictured a melted, smushed chocolate peanut-butter cup retrieved from the tight sliver of a jean pocket.
Needless to say, Kyle did not grab that lifesaver.
Also, nobody else volunteered to be the first-aid instructor’s victim after that.
But victims they became, nonetheless. The first-aid instructor pointed kids out and called them forward. Sometimes he grabbed one of them from behind like when he took Gus’s shoulders into his meaty hands and commanded him to lie down and act unconscious.
Even though the guy didn’t actually breathe into Gus’s mouth, and said as much aloud—“Because he’s breathing, I’m not actually going to perform mouth to mouth on him. I’m going to demonstrate by blowing to the side of his mouth”—anyone could see Gus was uncomfortable with how close the first-aid instructor’s red-cabbage head was to his face. Gus lay so still, like prey hoping that if it didn’t move, a nearby predator wouldn’t see it.
Eli thought again about that poor mouse his cat had brought in the house, the look of terror in its eyes. When the cat dropped it on the floor, the mouse didn’t move except to quiver in place. The creature literally shook with fear. To Eli’s horror, his dad had laughed. Then, seeing the look on Eli’s face, his dad said, “I don’t think the situation is funny. It’s just that the way that mouse is shaking is kind of funny, you have to admit.”
Finally, the first-aid instructor finished with Gus. He stood up. He moved on to reviewing the steps of CPR.
When everyone’s attention but Eli’s had left Gus, Gus scrambled to rejoin the circle of kids sitting around the first-aid instructor, only he kind of hid behind Cory Schaefer, the biggest kid in the group.
Eli realized that at some point his stomach had dropped into the bowl of his pelvis, leaving behind a hollow pit in that soft spot where his sternum dropped off.
When the first-aid instructor started to lay down on the tile himself and said he needed a volunteer to demonstrate what he’d just taught them, Eli didn’t feel too freaked out when the man pointed to him because at least the first-aid instructor wasn’t asking Eli to be a victim. But Eli was bothered. He didn’t even want to pretend to save that man’s life.
Eli knelt beside him, though. He played along.
When the first-aid instructor said, “Am I breathing?” Eli said, “Yes.”
The first-aid instructor said, “Wrong!” He said, “How do you check if I’m breathing?”
Eli said, “I look at your chest.”
The first-aid instructor said, “And you feel whether air is coming out of my mouth and nose.”
With that, he grabbed Eli’s head and pulled Eli’s cheek so close to his lips that Eli swore he could feel that crinkly skin brush the tiny hairs on his cheek. He smelled the man’s sour breath. And then there was the roughness of the man’s hands against his scalp.
When the first-aid instructor finally let go, and Eli pulled back, Eli saw that his dad was watching. He watched Eli intently, like he did at basketball games sometimes, a look that made Eli feel like he was being evaluated. Although his dad never said so directly, Eli knew his dad wished he were more like other boys on his team, boys like Freddie Laymon and Jorgé Garcia, who knew what to do with that ball, who weren’t afraid of the ball or the other kids trying to snatch it from them.
The first-aid instructor said, “Now what?”
Eli said, “I give you chest compressions.”
Eli started to stack his hands on the man’s sternum, but the first-aid instructor stopped Eli. “Is that the right spot? How do you find the right spot?”
Tracing the man’s sternum to that slightly soft, but not all that soft, spot below, Eli felt queasy. He tried to imagine he was tracing the smooth surface of a boulder to where it met the soft soil of a riverbank. He tried to concentrate on his form—pressing all his weight into his hands, keeping his arms straight as the man had instructed.
After only one compression, the first-aid instructor said, “Harder.”
Eli pumped harder.
“Harder!” the first-aid instructor said again. “Remember, don’t be afraid to hurt the person. Better to hurt them than to let them die.”
Eli pumped so hard, he thought he really might hurt the guy.
Still, the first-aid instructor said, “Harder!”
Eli glanced at Gus and the first-aid instructor’s other victims. They were watching so intently. They looked concerned, but also curious. And eager?
Eli’s dad also looked eager, like he did whenever the basketball somehow ended up in Eli’s hands. Maybe this time Eli would shoot and score. Maybe this time Eli would manage to dribble the ball through the crowd of other boys without losing it to one of the many hands snatching at him.
When Eli resumed, he went at this guy’s sternum so hard, it’s not just that he thought he might hurt him, Eli realized he was trying to hurt the man. He was trying to crack every bone in the man’s chest. It was weird, the way Eli’s body became new to him all over again, only this time not more vulnerable than he’d thought, but something he didn’t even know it could be—ruthless, vicious.
But the weirder thing was that the man lying on that tile also wanted Eli to hurt him. His eyes scrunched up, his mouth grimaced, but he said nothing. He just lay there, quiet for the first time all afternoon, as though this was what he’d been building up to this whole time, this was what he’d come here for.