Tay Sanchez
Fiction:  Bottle
In fifth grade, out back of the apartment complex next to the dumpsters, we dared Manny Martinez to stick his index finger all the way down to the knuckle into a Coronita bottle I found that morning under the stairs to my apartment.  The bottle had a big-ass fire ant crawling around the bottom and the sides, one of those bright red Southwestern ones so fucking huge you can see its eyes and its mean little pinchers and the stinger thing on its ass.  One of the ones that, when it gets you—and they always do—leaves a welt the size of a golf ball instead of a pea.  Here was the dare: stick the finger in, we count to five, then you’re out of there.  No shaking the bottle to keep the ant at the bottom while we counted.  Once we finished, we’d all go to the Stop and Go up the street and buy saladitos and probably dare each other to do something stupid with those, like hold them on our open eyes or see if anyone could fit one up his nose (can’t be done, not ever).  
	“Come on, Manny,” Pepe—real name Pablo, nickname because he smelled like ass—said, waving the bottle under Manny’s nose like a perfume lady in a department store.  Pepe was the smallest of us, the one with the biggest mouth.  He lived with his four sisters (three different dads) and his mom (revolving boyfriends) in a one-bedroom apartment, and the whole family was loud as hell.  “Just do it real quick so we can go.”  We stood in a circle, Manny and Pepe and Beto and Tall Tommy and me, and Tall Tommy said, “Yeah, yeah.  Come on already.”  Manny looked at Beto, then me; we both just nodded, eyes on anything but him, hands in our shorts pockets and sneakers kicking lightly at broken glass and asphalt pebbles.
	There were five of us guys in the same grade living in the same complex since we were in Pampers: ghetto apartment lifers.  A couple of years before, we’d spent hours every day out on the hot cracked sidewalk rolling Hotwheels down ramps made out of old cereal boxes and through tubes made out of toilet paper rolls.  A couple years after the bottle thing we’d be chasing all the girls who also lived in the complex, the ones we never noticed were there before eighth grade.  But this was the age of video games, skate boards, practical jokes, dares.  Mostly stupid dares.  Most of them were harmless, and all of them seemed harmless; we weren’t smart enough then to come up with anything that actually seemed dangerous that wouldn’t guaranteed get our collective asses whooped by our own moms and then by each other’s moms and then by our own moms again.  Street justice, mom edition.  
All of us lived with our moms—just our moms—except Manny, who lived with his grandma.  He was kind of a pussy, wore these little wire-framed glasses and was a little pudgy, and he stayed more at the edges of the group of us than in the middle, but he was okay.  A little slow in just about every way, but he was already almost as tall as Tall Tommy, the kind of guy you knew you’d want to have around when he got older, when he grew out of his chubbiness and into his huge hulking frame.  He was scared of his grandma, but we were all scared of that old bitch, about four-feet tall and straight from Mexico, with a metal flyswatter for ass-whooping her grandson and stray neighborhood kids, and not a word of English—reasonable explanations for any wrongdoings were lost on her—so no big thing, him being all the time nervous.
“Just give me a second,” Manny said, sitting down on the dusty curb, licking his lips and holding the bottle up to his puffy face, squinting one eye shut to take a good look.  “Man,” he said, watching the scrambling ant ascend the tube of the bottle in rapid, winding, pissed-off circles, “I don’t know.  That ant’s fast.  Man.”  
By the time we got to Manny that day, all of us had stuck our fingers in the damn bottle, so it wasn’t like he was a target or something.  We weren’t messing with him in particular, nothing like that, but it was late afternoon and hot as balls, and everybody was tired of the game and ready to move on, impatient.  Manny went last that day because he always went last, and he always went last because he was always a little scared of whatever stupid shit we were getting into—I think all of us were, but he’d just flat-out say so, think about it and maybe whine about it a little before he did it—but he never backed out, just closed his eyes eventually and ran head-first into it.  Took him a while to get going, that’s all.  Like a train pulling out of a station, groaning and grumping, and those little bars on the wheels straining to turn and then going faster and faster until you couldn’t even really see their movement.  At that moment, gazing into the bottle at the ant like it held the secret of immortality, Manny was straining enough so he looked like he needed to take a shit, so maybe he would if he didn’t watch it once that finger was in the Coronita.  Dude was mad scared of bugs.  
“Goddamn it, Manny, stick your fucking finger in there!” Pepe yelled, smacking the back of Manny’s head so he smashed his own nose into the bottle.  He rubbed his face with his hand and glanced behind him, fearful, like God was going to send a thunderbolt out of the blue sky that would bounce off Pepe’s shield of irreverence and strike him dead instead, or maybe checking for his grandma.  In that case, the consequences would probably be similar, maybe a little worse, and certainly lengthier.
  “All right,” Manny said, elongating the last word to buy himself a little more time, and then he stuck just the tip of his finger into the bottle.
“The whole thing, stupid,” Pepe said, tapping his foot, and Manny slid his finger in slowly, centimeter by centimeter, twisting when he got down past the second knuckle and the fit got tighter in the bottle lip, until it was all the way in.  He held it still in his lap, eyes squeezed shut, sweat dripping from his hair from the heat or from fear or both.  
	“One,” Pepe said, raising his finger and waiting an excruciatingly long moment (punishment for Manny’s delay) before continuing.  “Two.  Three.  Four.”  He stopped.
“Come on,” Beto said, taking pity on Manny, who was now completely hunched over with his head between his knees, his breathing rapid, the bottle resting next to his left foot and his arm dangling awkwardly around his leg, his other hand holding his stomach.  “Just say it so we can go.” 
“I’ll say it when it’s time,” Pepe said slowly, drawing out the sentence, smiling and wiggling his four raised fingers.
Then, without anyone knowing what the hell was going on, Manny jumped up from the curb and went total apeshit, screaming and pulling at the bottle, then running around in circles and whipping his arm through the air, trying to shake the thing off.  Funny for about five seconds, until I realized what had happened—the ant stung our boy on the finger.  None of us had had any problems getting the bottle off after the dare, but Manny was bigger than all of us, and his finger was stuck, and the swelling from the sting was going to make it way, way worse.  I don’t think it escaped any of our notice, then or later, that each one of us was only a few tacos shy of Manny’s fate, that it could have happened to any of us.  We hadn’t really thought things through.  
We started chasing him, “Manny!” but he dodged our asses like he was out to score the winning touchdown in a pro football game.  I guess he thought we were going to make him stop trying to get the bottle off (and I guess we were—nothing was really planned out by that point, and I don’t think anybody had any idea of what we were going to do with him once we got him to stop running), so he shoved anyone who got too close and just ran around in circles in that little patch of parking lot, screaming the whole time.  I heard much later, in high school maybe, that fingers have way more nerve endings than most other body parts, which is supposedly why paper cuts hurt so much, and I didn’t doubt the truth of that for a second.    
It still would have been pretty funny, had Manny gotten the bottle off at that point, but what happened next was one of those moments where everything goes wrong and you have no idea how everything got so fucked up so quickly, that one when you realize everything just turned to shit and you have no idea how it happened or how to fix it or anything at all but the awareness of your own gaping culpability—a metallic taste in your molars—and that you didn’t mean it, didn’t mean for it to happen that way at all.  Later, in high school, I’d feel the same way when I saw the crumpled face my girlfriend, Marisol, made when she caught me making out with some girl whose name I don’t even remember not two weeks after she’d given herself to me (not my first time, but hers).  I knew what I was doing at the time, but I hadn’t expected to get caught.  And again after I’d enlisted, when I got a weekend of leave that I spent partying with my friends without telling my mom, and I hadn’t expected her to die of heart failure the following Monday.  
That day, none of us expected Manny, completely freaked, to bust the bottle on the curb he’d sat on, nervous but more or less calm, less than five minutes before, and none of us expected the force of the breaking glass to slice his index finger almost completely off just below the second knuckle, to see it hanging there by a strip of skin and muscle, the lip of the bottle and jagged, bloody pieces of the neck still attached.  That moment, silent and overexposed in my memory of it, stretched out forever, until Manny looked at his hand, turned ashy, and passed out, the blood spreading quickly, a black pool on the asphalt, reflecting the sun.  
Then Tall Tommy ran to get his mom and she called the ambulance, and everything from that moment was like a video in fast forward.  The cut was clean, the hospital was close, and they sewed the finger back on without any complications.  Eventually, everything was fine, after a few months of recovery, with Manny’s grandma alternating between spoiling him with movies and sweets and beating the crap out of him with that flyswatter.  After we’d all been slapped, shaken, and chewed out by our moms, punished for all time without end, and then kicked back outside to play a few hours later because all we did around the house was mope and play video games.  Manny wasn’t crippled or dead.  We didn’t stop hanging out, didn’t stop daring each other to do dumb stuff, although Pepe was pretty much nice to Manny for a long time after that.  There was just that pause, that moment when the bottle struck the curb and suddenly I realized that the rules of everything we’d been doing had changed, that everything could change just that easy.

Tay Sanchez is currently earning an MFA in fiction from North Carolina State University.  She has been writing fiction and poetry for more than ten years, and her work has appeared in magazines and journals including Carolina Woman, Expression, and The Garden City Review.  She lives in Garner, North Carolina with her two children.