Cover Photo: The Edge of Things by Noah Milligan

The Edge of Things

When I was seventeen years old, I lost 30 pounds in two days, and it took all the blood, shit, sweat, tears, snot, saliva I could live without. I ran and I ran and I ran and when I collapsed from exhaustion, I crawled. Only calories I got were from ice chips and Pedialyte, and when I shat, I hoped my insides didn’t seep out of me. I napped in 20-minute bursts wrapped in garbage bags in the bathroom with the hot water running. I didn’t eat, and I didn’t eat, and about 10 hours in, I thought I was going to die. But I didn’t stop—I figured I’d come too far to quit now.

            Two days prior to the match against Barnsdall, their 126-pounder had to drop out. Broke his arm in practice. Problem was they didn’t have a backup, and I had a scout from OSU coming. Did me no good if I wasn’t wrestling, so I started to lose. Had to get to 106 by weigh in the morning of the meet, and if I didn’t make it, I didn’t get to wrestle. And that, as far as I was concerned, just wasn’t going to happen.

            I first lost weight in my face. It tightened up. My skin turned paler, almost ashen. Next it was in my arms and my legs and then my stomach. I stared at myself in the mirror as it happened. I’d run thirty laps, take a look. Thirty laps take a look. I wanted to somehow measure my body changing, so I snapped pictures with my phone and flashed them up on Instagram in hopes that kid from Barnsdall saw it, so he realized just what kind of evil pent up rage was coming for him. I kept going and going and going until 18 hours had passed. I looked haggard, scary even. Cheeks sunken, eyes yellowed, red veined, and I loved every bit of it—nobody in their right mind would mess with me now, and that was all that mattered: being the baddest motherfucker in the gym.

            Dad tried to talk me out of it, though. “You’re going to get sick, Chuck,” he said. “You’re going to fuck up your body. You’re going to fuck up your brain and your organs and you’ll never recover from that. You hear me?” he asked. “Do you fucking hear me?”

            But I just kept running in circles as my teammates practiced. They shot single legs and arm drags and hip heists and barrel rolls, and I just ran. I ran until shit got dark. The orange mats looked brown. The white walls looked grey. I ran until my teammates looked like a single, large, vibrating animal without teeth or nose or eyes or face—they were just an amorphous blob, and I convinced myself I had to keep moving or it would eat me, I was certain of it, and the next thing I remember, I was on the floor, and coach was over me and so was Dad and they were yelling and they helped me up and got me in a corner and told me to drink this, to eat that, to just relax for a moment, that I could die, that it wasn’t worth it, but I just took two swigs of PediaLyte, grabbed a jump rope, and kept on moving.

            Next morning, I kept at it. Three hours sleep, breakfast of ice chips, PediaLyte, two bites of banana, and I was back in the mat room. Weighed in at 115, about halfway there with 24 hours to go. Dad hovered over me now, which made it difficult to shoot my diuretics: hydrochlorothiazide and carbonic anhydrase inhibitors and spironolactone and mannitol. Anything that made me piss and shit and drain the water out of me. Only way I was going to pull this off was to dehydrate to beef jerky. First my piss was clear. Then yellow. Then brown. Smelled like protein and oatmeal and the inside of a locker room. Then it got dark. Real dark. Crimson. Purple. Thick. It was just straight blood at one point, shooting hot pain straight out my dick. Tried not to think about, though, only the ref raising my hand over my head, the sweat and humidity and blood in my mouth, that surge of serotonin after hearing a grown man whimper. Nothing like it in the world.

            I shot up between my toes every hour. Couldn’t have track marks on my arms or ass or behind my knee—they always checked that shit before the match. Sometimes, the overzealous ones, they even split apart your butt cheeks, looking for little red welps. Too afraid seventeen-year-old fuckers were shooting up anabolic steroids. Never understood why. Hard to pull weight when juicing. Some kids chewed Creatine, but that was about it. Rest of us, we dehydrated with drugs until you felt like sand and rust and tasted wood rot.

            I took them in the bathroom stall, pretending to shit while Dad stood outside like he was monitoring a drug test.

            “They’ve seen tape, Chuckie. It doesn’t matter if you don’t wrestle. They know what you can do. One match isn’t going to change that.”

            I ignored him like I usually did. Middle-aged and long after his prime, my father was an embarrassment, a man who drove a school bus and whose wife left him when I’d only been three. At first, I liked it just the two of us—it was us against the world, father and son, like superheroes—but as I grew older, I saw him as he truly was, this sad, lonely man constantly thinking of how things should’ve been, if he’d done that or this or whatever, if he’d not quit football his senior year because he had a kid on the way, if he’d gone to college instead of marrying my mother right out of high school, if he’d never had me and didn’t stick around this shitty small ass hillbilly town, all the while looking longingly at the bottom of a Pabst can.

            “And even if it does matter, we could take out student loans, Chuckie. Go to NEO, instead of OSU—it’s cheaper. I could take extra shifts on the bus. You could get a part time job. Work study or whatever. We can make it work. It wouldn’t have to be permanent. Have a good couple years down in NAIA, and the scouts’ll come.”

             What made it even worse was that he knew what others said about him behind his back. The kids at school and their parents, they all called him a fag. A pedophile. They thought he was a loser and made fun of him and called him Frank the Skank to his face. They said he took the job as bus driver so he could be around kids, said he stared at the junior high girls with longing and this sick twisted perversion in his eyes, that he probably had a computer at home full of kiddy porn and touched himself while looking at the yearbook and even though I knew it was bullshit, I couldn’t help but be hurt by what they said—he was, after all, still my dad.

            “I know it’s not what you want. I know it’ll be a tough pill to swallow. But sometimes life just doesn’t end up the way you want. About time you learned that lesson. You’re a grown ass man, now. Time to realize happily ever after is just shit you tell little kids to get them to shut up.”

            After a few hours, my toes started to swell, and it was difficult to find a vein. Sores festered. Pus secreted. Smelled like pennies and felt like wet sawdust. It was painful. More than a pinch, injecting felt like stepping on a nail over and over and over again, the fissuring of muscle and tissue, the way dirt and gravel grate an open wound. The chemicals burned. They burned all the way up, from foot to ankle to calf to thigh to stomach, heart, face, and brain. It pulsated, too. I always felt like a video game character when I did it, like Mario after eating a magic mushroom, doubling in size.

            “You still in there, Chuckie?” Dad asked. He knocked on the stall. “I don’t hear anything dropping in the toilet.”

            I placed my gear back into the Ziploc bag and hid it in the backside of the toilet. When I stepped outside the stall, my dad was standing right there, nose to nose, and I couldn’t help but think how old he looked. His nose and ears, they were just so big. Had they always been that big? And veiny? And pockmarked with decades old acne scars, and stuffed with coarse, gray hair? And did he always seem so tired? And whiny? His voice resigned to this high-pitched whimper? Please, Chuckie. Don’t do this, Chuckie. You’re scaring me, Chuckie. It was all so damn pathetic, and sad, and just flat out sickening.

            My body started to shut down. I could tell something was wrong by my elevated heart rate. At rest, laying on the bathroom floor and wrapped in plastic, I was at 120 beats per minute. While working out, it escalated to over 200. My chest hurt, the pain switching from a sharp pinch to a searing burn. I suffered uncontrollable muscle spasms. My back, my arms, my eyebrows, my thighs, they twitched like I had a car battery attached to my temples. But I kept going. I had six pounds to go in six hours time.

            Dad and Coach were worried enough to wake the doctor, though, dragged his tired ass out at 2 o’clock in the morning because they were afraid I was going to die. Doc was an older man, sleepy-eyed and careless, the kind of guy who asked you to self-diagnose, and then when you told him you thought it was bronchitis, he’d prescribe Viagra instead of antibiotics on accident. But he’d been everyone’s doctor since everyone could remember, so he came, lugging around his doctor kit and smelling of onions and brandy and old man breath.

            “What seems to be the problem?” he asked as he shined a light into my eyes.

            “Nothing,” I said. “Feel pinker than a pig’s ass.”
            He stuck up his index finger and told me to follow it. “Not what your pops tells me. He tells me you’re trying to kill yourself.”

            “Nah. If I was doing that, I’d go out in a fireball. Stack my truck full of gas cans and drive straight into Shop-N-Save. Give the town a show.”

            “Hmmm,” he said as he pulled out his stethoscope and put it against my chest. “Don’t suppose that would be a bad way to go. I’d probably put some fireworks in the truck to do it right. Some roman candles. Black Jacks for sound effects.” He winked. “A show like that needs some colors. It needs to scare the shit out of people.”

            “Doc,” Dad said. “Cut the shit. Will you tell him to knock this crazy idea off?”

            The doc returned his stethoscope to his bag and checked out my ears and mouth and reflexes. “How much more weight you gotta pull?”

            “Six pounds,” I said. “Maybe five by now.”

            He raised my arm and shook it like a rope. “About a pound an hour?”

            “No more, no less.”

            “And you’re wrestling that Knopes kid from Barnsdall, right?”

            “Fuckin’-A.”

            “Jesus, Doc,” Dad said. “The boy looks like hell! He’s death walking for Christ’s sakes!”

            “You going to pin him?” Doc asked.

            “Going to make his butt hole pucker and shoot out his insides.”

            He slapped me on the knee. “That’s what I like to hear.”  To my dad, he said, “Look, Frank. I get why you’re worried. But five more pounds ain’t going to kill the kid. He’ll be down and out for a while after the match, but make him rest, pump him full of fluids, and he’ll be fine in a day or two. Just see.”
            Dad didn’t look convinced. He sucked his teeth like he’d just eaten a lemon, rind and all, but he no longer protested as the doc packed up his equipment, put back on his coat and hat, and turned to leave. To prove I was fine, I stood to see him to the door. My legs trembled, hands shook, teeth felt loose. I tasted copper, my gums bleeding. It took everything I had to keep standing. To keep waving. To say goodbye, Doc. Don’t you worry. You can count on me.

            Weigh in was at 8:00 am. The gym was much cooler than the mat room, and I couldn’t stop shivering. I wore my team hoodie and sweatpants and tights and gym shorts. I wore wool socks and a wool beanie, and I jogged in place, knees high, knees high, knees always high, while coach rubbed my shoulders to keep me lose. In my ear, he whispered belligerent things. Violent things. Things that would, if carried out, send me to jail.

            “You’re going to kill him,” he said. “You’re going to make him bleed. You’re going to break every bone in his body. Make his mother cry because she can’t do a goddamn thing about it. You can feel it.”

            “Yeah.”

            “You want him to bleed out.”

            “Yeah.”

            “You want to eat his tongue.”

            “Yeah.”

            You’re a killer,” he said. “You’re my killer.”

            When it was my turn to weigh in, I stripped down to my underwear. My veins were dark and bulging and pulsating. I didn’t even look human anymore. I looked like a science experiment. Like I was some lab rat guinea pig motherfucker shot up full of radioactive isotopes and left for dead, and I loved it. I loved the way the ref stared at me in disbelief. I loved how I could hear my blood flow. I loved how I could taste sandpaper and smell the layers of dried sweat coating the inside of my nostrils. My senses were elevated. Endorphins and serotonin overloaded my system. I wanted to hurt somebody. I wanted to scare somebody. I wanted to kill somebody. I really did. I can’t deny that now.

            I stepped onto the scale, and the ref adjusted the bars, sliding it down to balance it. He pushed it lower, and lower, 133 to 127 to 119 to 114 to 109. I felt my heart rate quicken. I felt my tongue tighten. Before stepping into the gym, I’d been close, fluctuating between 106 and 107, but every scale was different. Every ounce mattered. I could secrete a little snot and come out too heavy.

            108

            107

            The bar teetered here, oscillating back and forth, almost trembling, but then it fell, square above, 106.

            After weigh-in, I gorged. I gorged and gorged and gorged. High protein foods, dripping in carbohydrates. Chicken breasts and dinner rolls and mashed potatoes. Pork chops and apple hash and green beans. Pasta salad and corn bread and noodle casserole. I ate, and I ate, and I ate. I ate until I thought I was going to be sick. And I did. I puked. I puked half-digested corn meal up until I choked on it, and then I ate some more. I ate until I could feel my fingertips. I ate until the world returned to its normal color. I ate until I could control my tongue and say my name without choking. I ate until I felt human again. I ate until it was time to get out on that mat and hurt somebody. And I was a better man for it. I was sure of that as I was sure of anything—I was the best goddamn man I knew.

            Out on the mat, I got tunnel vision. The gymnasium collapsed. The benches. Coach, and the scout, and my father on the first row. There was just me and my opponent and the ref and the mat. That was all that existed. That was all that mattered. The kid I was wrestling was a strong kid, wiry, with biceps like cue balls and a steel chin. He was undefeated and mean and had a reputation for flawless technique. Whereas I was a bruiser, he outsmarted opponents, used his length and athleticism to put his opponents on their backs.

            At the opening whistle, we locked up at center mat. He wrapped his hands behind my neck and jerked downward, trying to get position. He tried my shoulder. He tried the back of my head, but I wouldn’t budge. I felt strong. I felt immovable.

            That’s when he shot for the single leg.

            I sprawled backward, flexing my legs, but he was able to get a hand behind my right thigh. It was a tenuous grasp, and he overextended when he shot, so I leaned forward, put weight on his back. He lost his balance, and I swiveled behind him in position, wrapping my arms around his waist. He regained his center of gravity as I tried to lift him off his feet and drive him to the ground, but he pushed out and grabbed my wrists. I couldn’t quite get him off the ground. He pushed down and down and walked away from me. Eventually, my grip failed me, and he broke free. I expected him to reestablish neutral position, but he didn’t. To my surprise, he immediately grabbed my wrist and pulled an arm drag, and before I knew it, I was on all fours with him behind me. The ref raised two fingers in the air, points for my opponent.

            This was a bad position to be in. He had his left arm underneath my stomach, and his right hand grabbed my right ankle, pulling it out to flatten me on the mat. I tried crawling. I tried pushing forward, like a sprinter at the starting line, to get back to my feet, but my legs gave out on me. They felt heavy. They felt like lead. And I couldn’t control them. They lagged behind my thoughts like I was underwater. They didn’t even feel like my legs anymore. They felt like prosthetics, and I couldn’t get any traction. I couldn’t break free.

            Knopes pulled my ankle, and I fell face first into the mat. I could hear a voice in the distance. It was my father. He was telling me to get back to my knees, get back to my knees, get back to my knees but Knopes was already on top of me, sliding his arm underneath mine. If he got it, he’d have enough leverage to pin me to my back. I didn’t have the strength to fight him off—I knew that much. My legs were already gone, and I could feel my stomach tighten and cramp. It wouldn’t be long before my entire body shut down. So I did the only thing I could: I balled up. I tensed every muscle in my body and curled into the fetal position. Coach counted down the end of the period. Nine, eight, seven, six, and all I had to do was wait it out, wait it out, keep Knopes from getting his arm underneath mine, and I was able to. The siren sounded the end of the period, and I was able to breathe.

            I sat on a stool and gulped down water while coach was in my face, yelling about how I got careless, to keep my hands close to my body until I was ready to strike, how I needed to get close to him and use my strength to get him on his back and to limit his options, but I wasn’t really paying attention. All I could think about was how I couldn’t feel my fingertips and how my breaths caught in my throat. It was like I could taste them, and it was making me nauseated and steeped in vertigo. I tried to calm myself, to take slow, deep breaths, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t get my heart rate to lower. I couldn’t keep from choking on my own snot.

            “You okay, Chuckie?” Coach kept asking. “You okay? You okay? You okay?”

            The second period started with us back in neutral position. He stared at me with this pompous little grin, like he knew he had me, like I was some little sparring chump that he was toying with, and I couldn’t help but get pissed. Like the first period, he went to grapple, but I didn’t lock up with him this time. Instead, I feigned it, dropped to a knee, and shot a single leg. This took him off guard, and he lost his balance. Soon, I was on top of him, bearing my weight down the middle of his back and tying the match.

            This was my chance, and we both knew it. By twenty seconds into the second period, my chest began to burn. It wasn’t a normal type of burn either, when you finish running five miles in the winter and you can’t catch your breath. This was something different. This was something that frightened me. My arm went numb, and I saw stars like fireworks exploding in my peripheral. It scared me. I convinced myself I was going to die. Right there on the mat, I was going to choke on my own tongue, bleed out internally, or have an aneurysm, start flopping and seizing and foaming at the mouth. The paramedics wouldn’t be able to do anything, and I’d die right there in front of God and Coach and that scout, and no one would be able to do anything about it.

            I had him on his stomach, and he had his arms bolted to his side. I jabbed my kneecap into the back of his thighs so they’d go limp. My knuckles I dug into his ribcage so he’d loosen his arms enough for me to flip him to his back, but the kid had a high tolerance for pain. I respected him for that. He didn’t squirm like a pussy, arching his back and swinging his elbows. He took it and took it and took it, with his face pressed down against the mat, his ear curled up underneath his face threatening to rip clean from his body, but he wouldn’t budge. He didn’t give an inch, and we rode out the period like that, me doing anything I could to hurt him, and he just taking it.

            At the intermission, I couldn’t see past a few feet. The rest was just a blur. Sound travelled to me as if underwater, my coach’s words inaudible. The pain in my chest worsened. My heartbeat pulsated through my veins and arteries, sounding like drums in my ears. Dad got in my face. He came to the corner and he grabbed my shoulder and he begged me to quit. “Please just throw in the towel,” he said. “There will be a next match. There will be another chance. You can still make everything right,” and I knew, deep down in my bones I knew, I would never be like my dad.

            The third period started in neutral position again, and this time Knopes didn’t lock up. He kept his distance, bouncing around me, trying to tire me out. I didn’t have the legs to follow him, so I stayed in the center of the mat and turned with him, waiting, all the while Coach and Dad yelling something incomprehensible, just mushy syllables as white noise. I tried to decipher it, concentrating on it, anything that would keep me breathing, that would keep me on my feet, so I didn’t just collapse where I stood, and it was starting to make sense, the words were forming in my brain, slowly at first, something along the lines of “What are you doing, Chuckie? What are you doing?”

            That’s when Knopes shot. I wasn’t ready for it, and he got my leg, and I went down. I scrambled to get on my stomach, but he was too quick for me. He got position and used his lower body to leverage me over to my back. He drove his elbow into my spine, and it was like an explosion. Time slowed down. Everything vibrated—Coach and Dad and the mat and my hands—nothing stayed still. My chest burned and my arm and my shoulder, and I thought, this is it, I am going into cardiac arrest.

            After the match I learned I actually had been. I suffered a series of small heart attacks, and the doctor claimed it was a miracle I hadn’t died on the spot.

            On the mat, I seized, and I bit my tongue, and soon I was on my side and then my back. I pushed up my core, arched my back, and tried to keep my shoulders from the ground, but Knopes had his arm wrapped around my neck, shutting off my oxygen supply. I couldn’t breathe. I just kept staring straight up at the gymnasium ceiling, trying not to blink because if I did I was afraid I would lose consciousness. I just stared up at those dome lights, and I knew if I had any chance at all, I had to get off my back. I had to get to my hands and knees and I had to fight.

            But I didn’t have the strength. The pain was too much. I’d lost all feeling to my extremities, and I couldn’t think. I couldn’t. Nothing made sense. It was like I wasn’t even a part of my body anymore. Pain felt differently. I was acutely aware of all my separate body parts, like they didn’t actually work in sync. My lungs filled and my heart pumped and my muscles burned but nothing affected anything else. I was a closed system. I was just the accumulation of individual parts. No longer human. No longer a living, breathing, conscientious thing and nothing mattered anymore. Nothing. Not me or Knopes or my dad or the scout or a scholarship. Not even winning. Nothing. And I was scared. So I bit him. I sunk my teeth into the fleshy part of his back and tore away a piece of him with my mouth. It tasted spongy and like copper wire. I remember there was screaming. Knopes rolled away and yelled, “He bit me! He bit me! The motherfucker bit me!” and he backed away and my father stared at me like I was crazy, like he was ashamed of me, blood covering my face, dripping down my chin, human flesh resting on my tongue, and in that moment I knew it was over. My scholarship. My wrestling career, everything. And I was sort of glad. It was like I lived in a world without consequence, like I existed out on the edge of things, and so I did the only thing that made sense: I stood, chewed, and swallowed.   

Noah Milligan's debut novel, An Elegant Theory, is forthcoming from Central Avenue Publishing in the fall of 2016. His short fiction has appeared in Rathalla Review, MAKE Literary Magazine, Storyscape Literary Journal, Empty Sink Publishing, Santa Clara Review, and elsewhere.