Boy with Brick

Sydney Sackett

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H e cries for his mother on the first night. Somebody from one of the adjoining cages grabs the chain-links, rattling sharp enough to drown him out, and screams back. “Shut up! Shut up! She isn’t gonna come!”

He tries to stop crying. Rubs his eyes clear with his arm, like it would help him see anything in all this dark, and huddles in the corner under his frayed jacket. “I want to go home.”

“Nobody goes home! Just take it. Take it like the rest of us and give us a goddamned rest.”

“Let him cry tonight,” says someone else. Slower and older. A voice like a grandfather’s. “Everybody’s been there before.”

The screaming voice peters out with a snort. The boy leans on the fence to his left, in the old one’s direction, even though there could be one or two cages between them, populated with other sleepers. Metal cold and smooth. Good for the fat green bruise on his cheek. The funny part is, he didn’t get that one from here. “How long does it take,” he mumbles. “For this to be okay.”

“It won’t be.” The old man pauses. “It’s not okay. You just learn you’re better than what they can do to you.”

“How long’ll that be?”

A strange kind of chuckle. It’s the warmest and saddest sound, with exhaustion that brings tears to the corners of the boy’s eyes. “As long as it takes.”

He curls his fingers around a loop of wire, rubbing the cold into his bruise. It’s relieving in a way. Like a glass of lemonade in a dry summer. He’ll take what he can get.

“What’s your name?” he whispers, nearly certain it won’t carry all the way through the stale air.

The chuckle is lighter this time—almost surprised. “Tell me yours first.”

He does.

“You won’t remember mine for long,” the old man says, but tells him anyway. And he’s right.

Orbit-sml ><

T hey push him into the bright golden ring of sand hard enough for him to trip and fall, skinning his palms. The creatures above the ring—creatures, monstrous things that burn his eyes worse than the sand and make him glad he can’t see straight through the light—jeer and hoot. A menagerie of animal calls and other undefinable noises. His head swims as he pulls himself up with stinging hands, checking the dark gate behind him even though he knows he is already stranded.

From the other side, they shove out a skinny boy with glasses. At least as young as himself. He looks like he comes from money. Probably good schooling. He keeps his feet, but he’s dazed and squinting too. They look at each other as the hooting rises again.

His first thought is a kind of hot, sour indignity, prickling in his throat. They thought this was an equal match for him? A schoolboy with bad eyes and a dirty blazer? The kind of flinching prey he’d throw cherry pits at from the tenement window? Something this easy?

His second thought is nervous confusion, denial. That wasn’t him. They want him to think like that.

His third thought flickers back again. Something this easy? Don’t they think he can take it?

There’s nothing in the circle but the boy and the other boy and a red brick. They both look at the brick.

If the other boy moves first, he reasons, that’ll be all right. It’ll be self defense. If the blazer boy tries to get the brick first, he’ll have to get to it faster. Of course nobody would blame him if he didn’t move first.

Blazer boy doesn’t. Or, they’re both making tiny steps around the pit like fledgling boxers, but nobody’s getting closer. Both with their fists raised. Again there’s the derisive voice in his head. He’s not even in the right stance. He’s never thrown a punch that mattered.

It is not Blazer’s fault if he does not typically come home in the evening and choke down whatever’s been boiled for soup and wait for his pa to crack him across the face. It’s not really.

It does mean he doesn’t know how to take it. It probably means Blazer wasn’t going to survive this place anyway.

Still they make fragile circles around the brick. Come on, he pushes. You want to go for it. It’ll be your only chance. You want it, come on, damn it.

There! Blazer’s feet are angling. His thin shoulders lean forward like marionette hooks pulled on strings. His glassy expression doesn’t look any different, but they probably teach you that kind of thing in school after reading class. How to Stiff Your Upper Lip.

It takes one more movement. Blazer jerks unsteadily, like he’s not really set to do it. He’s not even dedicated to it. If he’s not brave enough to try to beat his way out of here, he was never going to make it.

Sprinting, just about five steps, and he gets there a second before Blazer, who has decided to throw himself in too late, which is only his own fault. He’s trying to pry the brick away, and that can’t be had. First, a punch thrown to the bridge of his nose. It stumbles him off balance, clutching his chipped glasses. A smear of red on the lens. But it wasn’t even that hard, come on, he could throw one back at least

Can’t wait for that, though, or Blazer might get the upper hand. He hefts the brick high in the air, and it’s so heavy he’s sure Blazer wouldn’t have been able to do anything with it if he did take it. His elbows lock.

“Mummy, I want my mum, I wanna go home,” Blazer is screaming thinly, the edge of his nose bleeding, with his skinny fingers wrestling for the brick at the same time, like they’re not connected to the body running his mouth at all. He would still be screaming for his mum if he got the weapon while he crashed down and down to break the skull. The discordance is ear-ringing. Even his voice is stuck-up, something in him sneers, and that’s not the right thought, not even his voice, but it won’t go away.

The glasses break first. They’re not a really satisfying crunch—more of a twist in the wire, inverting from the bridge, and then they fly off Blazer’s face. The brick crashes into his mouth next. The teeth must’ve popped straight out of his gums, because Blazer’s spitting them like anything, washed out in blood and foam. Nobody tells him to stop, and there is also a piston that seems to have replaced his shoulder while he wasn’t looking, maybe both shoulders, because he pushes Blazer down to the sand now and holds him with his knees while he turns his head into a bad painting.

This isn’t me, I’m not doing this, he tries to shout, but the noises from the creatures around the ring are too loud and he can’t hear anything else. It’s not my fault. You moved first.

Blazer’s still drumming his heels on the ground, erratically trying to push the bigger weight off him, even though his face isn’t worth protecting anymore, so the boy with the brick sets his knee down on his wrist and starts taking care of the fingers.

He’s warm, shivering and feverish-warm. His heart beats hard enough to hurt.

It’s easier to slip under, so he does.

Orbit-sml ><

T he big young man crashes backward into the fence surrounding this wet metal pit, a gong going off in his head. The watchers’ cheers crescendo. He shakes himself, rubbing the damp spot on the back of his head ruefully. Makes a swollen grin with a collection of pulverized molars and canines. Somehow they always grow back in, the same way his shoulders have gotten as hard as flanged maces and his hands are close to steel traps. The other guy, Flank, is grinning too, rocking on his feet, with the aftermath of the blow probably still ringing in his fist.

The young man holds up one finger and cracks his jaw into place again, gasping at the impact. Bloody tears well in his eyes. It’s not that he was hit there; that’s just how it happens now. “You trying to compensate for something, Flank?”

“You taking it easy on me, or you need a break already? I’m just warming up.” Flank blows imaginary dust off his knuckles. Gets a hooting laugh from the gallery.

“A break? I just got a break. I can barely move my face. C’mere, cocksucker, I’ll give you a break.”

Flank laughs fixedly as they start toward each other in the center again. The young man with the cracked jaw can tell he is spinning nervously for another good line. They have to help each other out here, at least inside the circle. In the beginning it was good enough just for them to tear each other apart in shrieking and wet, pounding silence. But now they’re better, and they can take more, and it’s got to be a thrill, it’s got to make the watchers happy…

Their arms lock for a second when they ram into each other like sweating bull elephants, Flank hoarsely muttering in his ear: “Nerves still ain’t fixed in my left foot—crack it, I’ll scream.”

Yeah, sure, Flank, my man, he conveys back at him with a chin jerk, but in his head the voice is reminding him, Flank ain’t all that good a faker whether he’s got his nerves or not.

As they tussle, Flank’s elbow in his ribs and his bone-hard nails scraping down Flank’s scalp, he lifts a heavy heel and brings down his weight in the center of the right foot, breaking several component bones.

It’s a really good scream. Flank folds and slaps into the ground like a wet rag.

“Warm that up and smoke it,” the young man says carelessly, and spits bubbled blood over his shoulder.

The watchers howl like haunted coyotes, all for him. They call out his name. They know his name. In the real world—the place rarely comes to his mind anymore, because it’s become less and less real compared to this, the fighting and roaring and the heat of the lights—nobody cared about him or his name, just a kid from the… wherever he came from.

One of the memories that’s dim, but not as dim as everything else, is getting beat on out there too. Someone much bigger than he was, and nearly every night. He’s not sure who it was, but he knows he couldn’t do anything about it. Bully for him. He’d be able to stomp that guy to the ground now. He wins his fights. He’s at the top of his game, and they love him for it. In this ring, he’s at the top of the world.

The watchers will let him out of the ring if he makes this decisive. He’ll get Flank’s food and his own too. There is a distinct possibility they will send one of the fair little things from the upper levels to keep him warm in his cage tonight, and it might be Calliope, who has soft, creamy butterfly fingers and a voice that could sing down the sky. So, with a mild twinge of guilt, hard luck, my guy, but if you can’t take it, you can’t take it, he unknots the drawstring of his trousers and pisses on Flank’s twitching form.

The watchers love the tuneless whistle he throws in, like he’s doing his business against a wall, all alone and unruffled. The gate opens behind him after he finishes. He bows for them and walks out, leaving Flank back there for the docs. He only allows himself to limp and wince once he has vanished in the cooling darkness.

All alone.

Orbit-sml ><

T here’s a prick of a new kid keeping him awake tonight, several cages away, sobbing his head off for his mum. Because she’s going to, what… rappel inside and lift him out of the dark? Great plan. Maybe if he gets even louder she’ll hear him.

“Shut up!” he bellows, backhanding the bars to make his point. His skin is tough enough. He doesn’t feel anything. He shouldn’t have to deal with this. He’s the king. “Shut that up! She can’t hear you! Nobody’s coming for you!”

It stops the blubbering, but the boy is still whimpering and sniffling and it’s about to split his head. All these emotions. They just make things painful and strange, and they smell like the old world. When the fair little things they send to his cage try to talk to him secretly, tell him about the things the watchers do to them upstairs, ask him about getting out of here, he tells them it ain’t their job to be talking at him.

“No, it’s all right,” some interfering hack soothes the boy from a cage farther down the line. “It’s good to cry. Let everything out. Let it go. We’ve all been there.”

But the rest of us proved we were better, the inner voice comments snidely. Good enough to take whatever they can throw at us.

Somehow he’s not sure he agrees with the voice entirely. Is that what he’s proved? Is he good enough, or is he in the same place as everybody else?

In a swaying network of cages that moves and breathes with the mass of them. In the back of his head, in a different, quieter voice, he asks himself what they would be able to do, if all of them tried to tear their way out at the same time. He knows he is terrifically strong, but even he couldn’t do it if he were alone.

The boy quiets down for the night, but the young man can’t seem to sleep anyway.

Orbit-sml ><

I n a small, upright tube of a ring, filled with water knee-deep, the man faces down a far older one. Scarred and pitted from his brows to his shins, with the rippled tissue on his knuckles marking how many times the docs have stitched him back together, this is an ex-fighter. They have finally put him out for retirement.

The huge man with the iron shoulders and cracked teeth and great millwheel fists is their retirer. Nobody has beaten him in a long time. The fighting and roaring and endless rewards have been dwindling. For the watchers, because he isn’t struggling anymore, he’s started to bore them.

When he’s good enough to take anything they can throw at him, there’s no point throwing it.

“Come on and put your fists up. I’ll give you a freebie,” the man says, without much energy in it. The watchers are baying for something good, something fresh. The scarface is giving him nothing. He can’t blame him. He never had a chance against the king.

“Against those cannons? With my derringers?” says the scarface, with a smile nothing like the blood-grin of the ring. He actually reaches out to squeeze one of the man’s biceps. The watchers laugh, but derisively, impatiently. They fling trash down to bob in the rank water.

“You’ve grown up hard, haven’t you,” says the scarface, with the same sad, warm smile, and something pings in the man’s head, in a place he hasn’t tried to look for a long time, and this is going wrong. He should be sowing this old wreck’s teeth around the ring like corn. But he’s standing here in the cold water, seven feet of scar tissue and muscle, like a goon with nothing in the world but cannons for arms.

“Into what?” he asks, pulse clumsy in his mouth. The watchers are silent. It isn’t supposed to be happening this way. Everything’s gone all wrong. “Grown into what?”

The wiry scarface spreads his arms, old muscle withered and kindly eyes set in a cracked face of so much memory. And he doesn’t have to say it, because the man sees it all in a moment, the terrible train of thought that will end nowhere he wants to go—will end here, in the ring again, when they are tired of him and there is a new arrogant king who will retire him one day like a broken dog—

And he will spread his arms like this, giving the opening, asking to be ended, to be beaten. Nameless and unknown. When he is better than what they can do to him.

“I can’t—” He staggers, water sloshing sickly around his legs. “I don’t—”

He breaks the scarface’s neck with a simple lock and twist. The body falls into the water without blood, and floats on its front, washing peacefully up and down.

All of them sleeping in a swaying nest, waiting for their turn to drown. And they agree to it.

Nobody cheers for him. The dirty water washes out and soaks the dark floors inside when they open the gate.

Orbit-sml ><

“I want to go home,” the new boy sobs. “I want my daddy. I want my mum. Please let me out of here. Please."

“Shut up, kid,” Blazer snaps. The ruthless, ruin-faced hunter who can’t see worth twopence but can sniff you out and shred you with the metal shards of his hands. “They can’t hear you. Shut up and just listen.”

“Appreciate it, Blazer,” says the iron-shouldered man. Even when he sits, he has to hunch to fit his cage. “Now, boy, listen. I know you’re in pain, and you can cry, but I need you to work on something with us. You need to start passing a message to the cages around you. We need it passed down the lines until everybody’s heard it.”

“We’re going to sway the structure,” Calliope says from Blazer’s cage, and the clarion of her voice travels through the dark like a force that could splinter steel. “All of us in unison. Left and right to loosen it from the ground.”

“Pass it through quickly, and tell them not to question it. Tell them who it’s coming from,” says Flank, who can’t walk on his two damaged feet any longer, but lopes on rough, inured hands.

The boy sniffs and coughs on his own tears. “So who is that?”

A cracked, unseeable smile. “Your name first.”

“Harry,” says the boy.

“Good name, Harry. I’ll remember that,” says the man. He knows he will. No matter who makes it out of here alive tonight. “I’m Brutus. Now we need to work.”

As the massive woven animal of a cage begins to stir, waking all the way to the forgotten corners, and everyone takes hold of their bars, Calliope starts to sing the way clear for them.

Brutus rocks the cage harder than any of them, with bleeding palms he cannot possibly care to wipe down. There is a distant memory which pulls strongly to him. There’s an old man out there in a tenement building somewhere, and he feels most strongly the urge to find him and to knock him all the way down a tall flight of stairs.


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Sydney Sackett

Author image of Sydney Sackett Sydney Sackett (she/her) is a newly graduated speculative fiction author and poet with experience in true crime journalism at Murder Murder News. Some of her work appears in Etherea, Menacing Hedge, Radon Journal, and Not One of Us. She can be found at, where she’s hoping to nab someone’s stories to edit.

© Sydney Sackett 2022 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using Midjourney, the AI image generator, plus a Creative Commons image by MabelAmber - many thanks!

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