By Brittany Smith
Muscle Man’s plastic hands are curled into fists. His chest muscles bulge. He wears yellow briefs over an orange bodysuit and his chiseled face is set in a confident smile.
Ever since his birthday, Carl has tried to destroy Muscle Man. He coiled a length of twine around Muscle Man’s ankles and strung him up by the feet. Then he buried him in the backyard. He even coated the toy with honey and watched ants cover his body in a writhing mass.
“Surrender, you coward,” Carl whispered. “Fine. You give me no choice.” Carl held a lighter to Muscle Man’s cheek. Instantly, the plastic sizzled and his features began to run. His face dried half-smeared, like he’d suffered a stroke.
Today, Muscle Man is submerged in a jar of water with the lid screwed tight. Carl rolls the jar from one end of the kitchen to the other. It hits the opposite wall and then he goes and retrieves it. Each time he rolls harder, daring the glass to break.
Mom enters the kitchen, her slippers slapping against the linoleum. Kio, her ferret twists around her feet. The ferret has oily fur and a twitching pink nose. Carl is afraid of it.
“Baby, a migraine’s coming on,” Mom says, “be a pet and get dinner going. And come shut these living room blinds.”
Mom stretches out on the couch and Kio slinks along her body and under her sweatshirt. The ferret rests sandwiched between her breasts as she watches television.
Back in the kitchen, Carl inspects the cupboards and fridge and decides on Popples. It’s the name his brother Stefan gave their creation. Carl gets a baking sheet and lays out six slices of bread. He puts a processed cheese square onto each piece. Then he sprinkles bacon bits on top. Finally, he turns the oven on and slides the tray under the broiler to toast.
Carl sits in front of the oven door to watch what happens. The oven is hot and the coils glow bright orange. In one hand he holds Muscle Man, the toy’s damaged face pressed against the glass.
Muscle Man was a gift from Stefan. Carl’s older brother has thick tanned arms and smells of shoe polish and sweat. Every day, he performs two hundred pushups in his room, counting them out in strained grunts. His damp undershirt clings to his back. The dark hair beneath his armpits resembles an animal’s pelt. His blond ponytail swings with each upward thrust and his eyes seem fixed on something Carl can’t see. Carl watches the routine silently. If he says anything, he’ll be kicked out of the room.
After the pushups, Stefan gets out Dad’s old shoeshine kit and works on his army boots. He polishes the leather with the same intense focus as the pushups. Only when the boots are gleaming, is Carl allowed to speak.
“What do you think?” Stefan said one afternoon, putting them on. “Perfect, right?” He stood up. “Get down there and have a look.”
Carl kneeled beside the boots.
“Can you see your reflection?”
“Sort of. Yeah.”
Stefan laughed. “I got something for you, little man,”
Out of the closet came a box and there was Muscle Man encased in plastic. “He’ll protect you when I’m not around, eh? Till we toughen you up.”
Carl couldn’t help hugging Stefan. He came away sticky with his brother’s sweat.
Under the broiler, the cheese slices begin to melt. They glisten and their edges soften. Then bubbles form and begin to rise. They grow brown and then black. It happens so quickly.
On Carl’s birthday, Stefan picked him up after school. Carl waited beside the curb with Muscle Man in his pocket. The red Pontiac Sunfire rounded the corner. The radio was loud and Stefan’s arm dangled out the driver’s side window, long and golden.
They stopped at the McDonalds drive through. “Anything you want, little man,” Stefan said. When they had their order, they pulled into a parking spot behind a Jeep with a license plate that read: TUF GUY.
“Would you look at that? What a pussy.” Stefan said, through a mouthful of fries.
Carl laughed and tried the word, the sounds soft and gummy like marshmallows in his mouth. “Pussy.”
Carl opened the hamburger from its paper wrapper and examined the white bun and serrated pickles, the onions chopped fine like grains of rice. Everything about it was perfect. He was just about to take his first bite when the Jeep in front reversed too fast, slamming into them.
The world rocked back and then forward. The burger hit the windshield and Carl’s forehead slammed against the dashboard. He felt a burst of pain above his eye. Then Stefan was shouting and climbing out of the car. The meat had left a brown smear on the glass. Through the grease-smudged window, Carl watched what happened next. It was like seeing the Popples scorch under the broiler from outside the oven door. The bread was burning, but it was happening somewhere else.
The owner of the Jeep didn’t look so tough at all, just an ordinary guy, a little overweight, with a doughy face set in an expression of apology. He opened his palms toward the sky and said something to Stefan.
Stefan responded and his words were louder, sharper. In the car, Carl reached for the door handle but couldn’t bring himself to pull it. Stefan paced in circles. He put his hands to his head and wrenched on his hair. Carl realized his bladder was tight and felt the urge to pee. Let’s go home, Stefan, he pleaded silently.
Then Stefan squared off and punched the man in the jaw. The man howled and stumbled back and Stefan hit him again. He toppled onto the pavement and Stefan kicked him in the stomach with his army boots. Carl felt warmth blossom in the crotch of his pants and realized with horror what he’d done.
A woman wearing a McDonalds uniform came from somewhere and tried to grab Stefan’s arm. He shoved her out of the way and went at the man again. And then the tough guy who wasn’t so tough was lying in a heap not moving, and he could have been a bag of trash someone had forgotten there.
Stefan climbed back inside the car with blood on his chewed-up knuckles and spittle at the corners of his mouth. He was panting and his eyes were wild. He turned the key in the ignition and put the car into reverse.
He looked at Carl. “You okay, little man?”
And Carl knew there was only one answer.
Stefan grinned. “That’s right,” he said.
The next day, Carl took Muscle Man outside, and at first he thought it was just to play. But then he pulled on Muscle Man’s leg, feeling the joint strain and finally give. One leg popped off, and then two. Eventually he’d wrenched off Muscle Man’s arms and the toy was a pile of plastic limbs.
“Coward. Pussy. How do you like that?” Carl said.
And then Carl was crying and he didn’t know what he was crying for. But it didn’t matter. Because before long, Muscle Man was back together again. And he was still strong.
Brittany is a freelance writer, blogger, and tire swing enthusiast who currently resides in Toronto. Britt is especially fond of three-toed sloths, flea markets, and office supplies. She hates winter sports.