League of Mortals: a novel on illness
League of Mortals is a razor-sharp examination of youth, illness, hope, and death. It is the funniest, rawest, darkest, most honest novel you will ever read about illness. And you can read it free (for now).
The story begins with Wesley Peary, the narrator, discovering that he is ill, right before his senior year of high school in 1994. As gets sick, Wesley befriends Travis, a slightly older boy with a terminal immune disorder. Meanwhile, Wesley contends with his fussbudget English teacher and a girlfriend with hospital issues, each a monster in her own way.
League of Mortals tells a story that is invisible in literature, even as it unfolds in hundreds of thousands of lives across this country. In telling that story, I write embarrassing, humiliating, crushing things about my life – not because I enjoy over-sharing, but because I believe it is important that sick people tell their stories.
If you’re reading this, the odds are you’re sick, too. I want you to read it, of course, but I don’t want to take your money. You probably have financial issues, anyway. So here’s the deal: I will let you read the thing for free, provided you give me feedback that helps me improve it.
All you have to do is send me an email saying you promise not to distribute or modify my work, and I will send you an artfully formatted PDF. Read it, then let me know what you think.
Here’s the first chapter as it currently stands — just a taste to get you going.
League of Mortals
Chapter 1. Poo
In my junior year of high school, my girlfriend dumped me right before the prom. I didn’t go, even though the tickets were forty dollars each, non-refundable. I just stayed home and sulked and mashed her corsage to pulp. She broke up with me in the sort of manufactured crisis kids use to not admit theyʼve lost interest, which was fine except she made it out to be all my fault.
I remember thinking the world might as well end, because I was lonely and humiliated and out eighty dollars. My mom had bought me a new two-hundred dollar suit and paid to get it altered and I never wore it until months later, but at least the tie that matched the dress was returnable for store credit. I say she was my girlfriend junior year, but really we only dated for about three months. And that was just about the worst thing that ever happened growing up.
Otherwise, it was golden, like when politicians talk about a return to old-fashioned values, and you know they just mean nostalgia for their own childhood when black people were invisible and gay people were a secret. My childhood was that good, though not for the same reasons.
The rest of it started the summer after my senior year of high school. I finished with mostly As and Bs and was a sure thing for varsity water polo next year, and I had a car. College was too far away to worry about, so I was going to spend my summer doing precisely three things: working, surfing, and not much else. Apart from lacking a girlfriend, that was the best possible summer I could imagine. To get it going, I threw my end-of-the-year party. In earlier years this was also my birthday party, but the School Board kept creeping the year up so that my birthday was a couple weeks after the last day of school.
Our house had a pool, the care of which was my responsibility. I spent the last few days before my party cleaning it to tropical clarity: flocculant, chlorine, muriatic acid, and frequent vacuuming and filter cleanings. The pool was pristine; apart from the chemicals, I could have drunk from it. The blue Marzite bottom glowed and sparkled in the summer sun, cool and inviting against the heat – as beautiful as an advertisement. Lots of people in Florida half-ass their pools, letting them get cloudy and streaked with algae. Not my pool – not that summer – and I was proud to share it with my friends.
There was food, too. Mom bought a cake, and not the grocery store kind with plastic icing. She went to an actual bakery, and bought an awesome cake that she set on the snack table with no candles, since I didnʼt want to be obvious about it. It was like, ʻhey, hereʼs some cake, itʼs someoneʼs birthday sooner or later – no biggie.ʼ The cake and snacks and large bottles of Cokes and a cooler full of ice were set up in our sun porch, where mom and her friend Mrs. Walker kept an eye on things, just in case we decided to start having a teenage sex orgy. My sister used to babysit my parties, but she was gone for the summer so mom had to be there. Mrs. Walker was just there to keep her company, I guess.
The party started at one in the afternoon, and my friends trickled in over the next hour or so. By that point I had two distinct circles of friends: water polo players in one, nerds in the other. I sat almost alone in the awkward sliver in between. I started out a nerd: school did that, putting me in “gifted” classes, even though I never felt particularly smart. Some of the kids at my pool party that summer I had known since fourth or fifth grade, and these were people I probably would never have hung out with except that we were in gifted classes together all the way into Boeme High School. Itʼs supposed to be pronounced sort of like “Berm-uh”, but everyone says “Boom”. When schools were segregated, it was the white school; my dad did three years there in the ʻ60s. The school mascot was the “Bomber”, so our cheer at sporting events was to shout “Boom Boeme Bombers!” and clap hands twice to sound like sonic booms, but everybody was always just a little off and so it just sounded like applause. It was still mostly a white school.
Boeme was a typical high school, as near as I can tell, which meant the best thing about it was that at some point you left. It was a boring place if you were not in sports – but I was too short for basketball, too small for football, too easily distracted for baseball. Then right at the beginning of ninth grade, we moved to the new house with the pool, and I discovered I was good at swimming. I tried out for the swim team, but the flip-turn at the end of a lap is tricky; I once knocked my head on the side of the pool hard enough to make myself nauseated. Water polo seemed safer; it was a newish sport in central Florida, so I had no trouble making the team. Then suddenly I was not entirely a nerd, but not quite a jock, either, because the real jocks looked down upon the briefs-clad polo players as not real athletes and – Iʼm quoting here – “faggy”.
Labels didnʼt matter so much at the party. Thatʼs not to say it wasnʼt a little disorienting, seeing the jocks and nerds together in the pool – the former still in tournament form: taut, athletic, tanned, with hair still sun- and chlorine-streaked, legs depilated and smooth. And these were only the male players, since the girlsʼ team didnʼt show up, because my former girlfriend was on the girlsʼ team, and her teammates all took her side.
Like the other players, I wore my polo swimsuit, which did in fact feel a little ‘faggy’ when I first put it on. The briefs made obvious that I was a late bloomer. Even my sister made fun of me. The trick was, if anybody commented on your package, you could just say, “itʼs cold”; if they kept at it, you called them a ʻfagʼ and walked away disgusted. I am not proud of my use of that word – ‘fag’ – but it was high school in the 1990s and I was insecure.
The nerds all wore trunks, and not all took off their t-shirts to swim; those that did had not a hint of sun upon their torsos. One of the players, a sophomore named Matty, took it upon himself to point this out to a nerd: “Dude, your chest is so blinding white, I need sunglasses.”
The nerd, Nathan, looked at Matty as if he were an insect. “If you want, we can build you a pinhole box.” He could see Matty wasn’t tracking. “Like you would use for a solar eclipse.”
“Oh, snap,” said Matty. “Can you show me how that works on your whiteboard, Professor?”
As host, I felt obliged: “Matty, do you need a time out?”
“Yo, Wesley, my bad,” Matty said.
We swam around for a while, some of the guys splashing the girls, but not really doing anything, until the girls got tired of the pool and adjourned to long chairs on the patio. The thing about pool parties is that they are kind of pointless unless you have a game, and that game was always going to be water polo in my pool, but none of the girls knew how to play. A couple of the nerds played, but not for long, since the game requires treading water for inordinate amounts of time. It was exhausting if you werenʼt trained for it.
After fifteen minutes, we were down to four of us: Matty, Pete, Kevin, and me. Kevin was an aggressive, strong swimmer, but couldnʼt hit the goal to save his life. The goal was set up on the deep end of the pool, so every time he missed the ball pounded a panel of the screen enclosure behind.
“Damn, Kevin, go easy on my screen,” I said after his third miss. “I have to fix that shit.” It wasnʼt hard to fix, but I could already see a tear in the corner.
“Sorry, bro,” he said, as Matty scooped the ball up from the patio and threw it to Pete, who swam the ball to the shallow end while Matty reentered the pool. I let Kevin press Pete, but Pete skipped the ball past him to Matty, who took the shot and scored. Kevin mumbled a ʻfuckʼ, and the nerds still watching golf-clapped politely.
Kevin rebounded to me, and I swam it back in to play. Matty was pressing me, but I didnʼt see any opening to throw to Kevin. Since it was my pool, I had practiced enough to know that I could reliably hit the goal from exactly the point in the pool where I could just push off the bottom with my tip-toes. Since the pool dropped off sharply from there, Matty was in too deep water to follow. The extra push got me up over Mattyʼs reach, and I threw the ball hard at the net and scored. The spectators obliged with more golf-clap.
“Thatʼs a foul, you bastard,” said Matty.
“My pool, my rules,” I said, distractedly. I had noticed my stomach rumbling earlier, but had ignored it so I could play the game. With the push-off for the last shot, I felt my pucker give way just a bit, and an unmistakable warmth in my briefs.
I had shat my own pool party.
I looked down and fanned my hands around my trunks, but there was no stain in the water. I told everyone else I needed a break, and Nathan volunteered to play my spot. I swam to the shallow end and started up the steps. Karen, a nerd who had chosen not to swim, was sitting on my towel, but I didnʼt want to get too close in case I smelled funny. “Can you hand me that towel?” I asked, and she did. I wrapped it tightly around my waist and went inside through the bathroom entrance.
Once inside I took to the toilet and emptied my guts. I remember thinking, “I never have diarrhea”. While I sat there, I examined the inside of my briefs, which showed a minute amount of fecal material. I wiped it out with toilet paper, then rinsed the briefs under hot water from the tub faucet. Then I wrung out the briefs and slipped back into them. I washed my hands carefully and returned to the patio.
The ethical thing to do at this point was to get everyone out of the pool and hit it with enough chlorine to blister eyeballs. Recreational Waterborne Illness is a constant plague in summer months among young people, and itʼs largely due to kids shitting in pools. My accident might start a mini-epidemic.
On the other hand, there wasnʼt that much discharge, and I did keep the chlorine at a solid level. And if I closed the pool, I would have to explain why, to admit that I had pooped myself in my own pool at my own party. And Matty – goddamnit – could be trusted to recount the story to anyone who would listen, which would include the entire polo team, and for the rest of the next season people would give me shit about it – “Wesley, weʼre losing – take a dump so theyʼll forfeit!” They would probably give me a nick-name – Wesley Pooey, or something like that. Closing my pool, especially with Matty there, was social suicide.
Instead, I rejoined the game.
Later in the afternoon my dad grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, and the party dined on the deck sopping wet. I took a hot dog and a toasted bun, but avoided the condiments and ate timidly. Dad noticed. “No relish? Is something wrong?”
“Just a little upset tummy,” I said. “Iʼll be fine.” Which, it turns out, was more of a lie than I meant to tell.