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Excerpt: 'The Instructions'

The Instructions
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.

Benji Nakamook thought we should waterboard each other, me and him and Vincie Portite. We wouldn't count the seconds to see who was bravest or whose lungs were deepest -- this wasn't for a contest. We'd each be held under til the moment the possibility of death became real to us, and in that moment, according to Benji, we'd have to draw one of the following conclusions: "My best friends are about to accidentally drown me!" or "My best friends are actually trying to drown me!" The point was to learn what it was we feared more: being misunderstood or being betrayed.

"That is so fucken stupid," Vincie Portite said. "No way I'd think you were trying to drown me."

"You don't know what you'll think," Nakamook told him. "Right now you're rational. Facing death, you won't be. That's how methods like waterboarding operate." Benji'd been reading a book about torture. "This one guy," he said, "Ali Al-Jahani, specifically stated that -- "

"Ali Al-Whatever whatever," said Vincie. "I'll do it if, one, you stop talking about that book -- it's getting fucken old -- and two, if Gurion's down. But it's stupid."

It did seem stupid, but Benji wasn't stupid, not even remotely, and I hated disappointing him. I said I was down.

Vincie said, "Fuck."

Splashing on a kickfloat a couple feet away was Isadore Momo, a shy foreign chubnik who barely spoke English, but the rest of the class was over in the deep end. Benji reached out, tapped Momo on the ankle. "You're wanted over there," he said, pointing to the others.

"By whom?" Momo said.

"By me," said Benji.

"Sorry. I am sorry. Sorry," said Momo. He got off the kickfloat and fled.

Benji told us: "I'll thrash before my death seems real. You'll have to keep me under for a little while after that."

"How long's a little while?" Vincie Portite said.

"Decide when I'm under. If I know, this won't work."

I clutched one shoulder, palmed the crown of his skull. Vincie clutched the other shoulder and the back of his neck. Benji exhaled all the breath in his body. He let his legs buckle.

We plunged him.

"How long then?" said Vincie.

A thirty-count, I said.

"How about a twenty?"

A twenty then, I said.

Benji started to thrash.

I counted off twenty inside of my head, tried pulling him up, but he wasn't coming up. He just kept thrashing. He was tilted toward Vincie, who was staring at the water.

Vincie, I said.

"Fuck," Vincie said. He pulled Benji up.

Benji sucked air.

Vincie said, "You count fast. Did you do Mississippis? I was doing Mississippis -- I only got to twelve. Gurion. Gurion."

In the deep end, some kids had rhymed "Izzy" with "Jizzy." I'd revolved to see who: Ronrico and the Janitor. Momo told them, "Izzy. I am Izzy, for Isadore. Isadore

Momo. You may call me Izzy Momo." "Jizzy!" said Ronrico. "Jizzy Homo!" said the Janitor. Momo leaned hard on his kickfloat and took it.

Benji cough-hiccuped, hands on his waist.

So? I said to him. What was the conclusion?

"Both," Benji said.

That doesn't make sense, I said. Which one was first?

"I said, ‘Both,'" Benji said.

That doesn't make sense.

"You'll see for yourself in a second," he said.

"No way," Vincie said. "I'm going fucken next. Okay? Okay? I want to be done with this."

We held Vincie under and he started to thrash. We counted fifteen and we pulled him back up.

"Both?" Benji said.

"Neither," gasped Vincie. His pupils were pinned. His flushed face trembled.

"So what then?" said Benji.

"Who -- " Vincie said, but he choked on some air. He showed us his pointer, laid hands on my shoulders. "Who cares?" he said, catching up with his lungs. "I don't even know. I feel fucken stupid. Dying is fucked. I don't want to die."

Then it was my turn. I let all my breath out. My friends held me under. They had a firm hold that I couldn't have broken, and the water got colder, and my chest drew tighter, and I thought I might drink, take little sips, that a series of sips imbibed at steady intervals could gradually lessen the pressure of the strangle, but before I'd even tested this chomsky hypothesis, air stung my face and fattened my chest. They'd pulled me back up before death seemed real.

What happened? I said.

"We waited and waited. You wouldn't start thrashing."

"Vincie thought you passed out."

I didn't, I said.

Nakamook asked me, "You want to go again?"

Not really, I said. If you think it's that important, though --

"Fuck ‘go again,'" Vincie Portite said. "I'm out. I'm done. You can drown him by yourself."

Benji said, "Vincie."

Vincie said, "Nakamook."

The whistle got blown. Free swim was over.

Benji said, "Vincie," and extended a fist.

"What?" Vincie said. "Fine. Okay." He made his own fist and banged it on


I counted to three and we raced to the showers.

Were Isadore gay, I'd have probably hurt the Janitor for calling him a homo, and were he my friend, I'd have certainly avenged him -- even just for "Jizzy" – but Momo was neither gay nor my friend. I'd had plans to fight the Janitor since late the night before.

I had never fought anyone without good reason, and I needed to learn what doing so felt like. I needed to see if it felt any different. I'd been fighting a lot since I got to Aptakisic, and I enjoyed it so much -- maybe too much. Each fight was better, more fun than the last, and I worried I was thrilling on the damage alone, rather than the justice the damage was enacting. I worried that the people I'd been getting in fights with might as well have been anyone, as far as the fun I had pummeling them went. The only way to find out was to get in a fight without justification. If the thrill was absent, or in some way different, all would be well, I'd cease to worry. If the thrill was the same, though… I didn't know what, but I'd have to change something. So I'd picked a kid at random the night before -- at least somewhat at random; I disliked the Janitor, he disliked me, we had Gym the same period – and decided I'd fight him in the lockerroom.

Benji and Vincie were still in the showers -- I'd won the race -- and though I wasn't finished dressing, I saw it was time. If my friends got involved it could bance up the test, and I didn't need a shirt to get in a fight. I buckled my belt and ran up on the Janitor. A couple steps short of him, I towel-snapped his neck.

He whined and revolved. He said, "You're B.D. and you smell like cigarettes, it's nasty!"

No thrill yet, but we weren't really fighting.

I snorted up a goozy and twetched it on his toes.

"Towel!" he shouted. "Gimme a towel!" The Janitor dreaded all forms of dishygiene. He hopped on one leg. He threw wild punches. One caught my shoulder.

Now it was a fight.

Excerpted from The Instructions by Adam Levin. Copyright 2010 by Adam Levin. Excerpted by permission of McSweeney's.

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Adam Levin