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Chris Sowers

3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206

(503) 536-5908 / email:

Out of Bounds (4637 Words)

Boys learn about boundaries at a young age or, at least, they should. I met Lukas in

Sunday School. I was in sixth grade. My mother, in an attempt to keep peace in the

family, took us to a new parish that was more in keeping with my father’s religious

viewpoints than the one we had previously attended. It seemed odd that my parents

would disagree over something as simple as where to receive Mass, but then again, my

parents specialized in odd.

I wandered my way through the maze of corridors, so often a result of multiple

church additions, until I found this small room in the corner of the “new” wing. Inside, a

young man intent on competing with home gaming systems and comic books, as though

the extent of God’s marketing resourcefulness was college age zealots, greeted me. He

smiled, introduced himself as John and nodded for me to sit down at the table where

several boys were already counting the minutes until they would be free to continue to

the recital of last week’s summer adventures involving tree forts, wars against invading

communists, and the ever-present bane of younger siblings.

I chose a seat at the end of the table next to a boy, with long brown hair that hung

over his face, who was doodling in a carefully hidden notebook under his randomly

opened Bible. He smiled at me when I sat down in the sort of way another prisoner smiles

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Chris Sowers
3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
(503) 536-5908 / email:

at another.

“I’m Jake,” I said.

“I’m Lukas,” he replied. The necessary introductions out of the way, he returned

to his doodling.

John, clearly more excited than anybody has a right to be in church, smiled

broadly at us like a collector who has just found that long lost piece that completes his

collection, and opened his Bible.

“It’s good to see everyone,” he began. “As I was just telling everyone when you

came in, Jake, this summer we are going to be learning about the Old Testament.” He

paused like an announcer on an award show before continuing. “Now, I know what

you’re thinking. The Old Testament? Boring. But, I think you’ll change your minds after

we have read about gruesome battles, awesome special effects, and superheroes greater

than even Superman.”

I looked around the table to see if my new cellmates were as skeptical as me.

Having been sentenced to this typical fair-weather punishment every summer since I

could remember, I already knew that John’s enthusiasm had gotten the best of him. And,

based on the dull looks of my peers, it was clear that everyone in the room thought the


Lukas nudged his notebook toward me and on it he had written, “Yeah, except

this is Bizarro World.” I laughed. I hadn’t intended to, learning long ago that church was

no laughing matter, but it was too late. Everyone’s gaze had shifted from trying to find

something interesting on the wall to stare at, to staring at me. The wood-patterned

Formica on the tabletop instantly fascinated me. Lukas, sensing the shift in attention

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Chris Sowers
3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
(503) 536-5908 / email:

without looking up from his doodles, inched ever so slightly away.

“Hard to believe, Jake? Well, it’s true” John said, not missing a beat as though our

entire exchange had been scripted. “Everyone grab a Bible and open it up to the first


I reached for one of the big tattered paperback Bibles sitting in the middle of the

table. On the front, there was a sticker noting that some blue-haired lady we had never

met had donated them to the parish. The pages were thin like newspaper. Inside the front

cover, a prior inmate from years past had boldly scrawled his name in red crayon.

“Zack,” it read. I looked around to see if I could spot any crayons or markers or even

colored pencils, thinking I might add my name to his, but found nothing. Apparently, the

consequence of Zack’s sacrilege was the banning of crayons, which seemed strangely

thorough. Of course, red crayons were dangerous and it was obvious we couldn’t be

trusted with them. But, surely, green or blue posed little threat.

It was then that I was struck by the quiet defiance of Lukas sitting next to me. Not

only was he not paying attention to the teacher, something I found extremely difficult to

do as my guilt often acted like a helium balloon pulling my head up away from my paper

whenever an adult stood in front of me, but he was using an ink pen dangerously close to

holy writ. I checked the window to see if maybe the blue-haired woman who always

yelled at you for running down the hall, likely the same one who donated the Bibles, was

peering through it. With no Mrs. Kraeger in the window and Lukas casually continuing to

doodle, I decided that he was the coolest boy I had ever met.

“Okay, before we get to the story, who can list all the books of the Old

Testament?” John looked around the room attempting to make eye contact with one of us.

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3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
(503) 536-5908 / email:

However, he had underestimated how adept we all were at avoiding a teacher’s gaze.

With long practice, I had reached such heights of skill that I could go a whole day in

school without being called upon.

Undeterred, John applied the press. “Come on, you guys. I know you know them.

What about you, Lukas? Remember how we learned them last summer?”

All of us in the room looked at Lukas. But, he continued to doodle. Clearly, no

stranger to the complicated power plays between teachers and students, he decided on the

Greg Maneuver. When I was in second grade, I had a friend in class, teachers always

called him Gregory but we knew better, who had developed the strange ability of only

hearing teachers when it was in his strategic advantage. Since there were only a few of us

in this small room, I knew that Lukas must have developed the same skill.

“Lukas? Did you hear me?” John asked.

It was a clever move. Lukas couldn’t deny hearing him without admitting that he

wasn’t paying attention. And, since he had previously taught Lukas the year before, the

standard counter move of feigning to be deaf was out of the question. He was trapped. He

would have to answer him. Several of the boys in the class shuffled their feet. The tension

was building with every passing second. It was difficult to see how Lukas could get out

of this. Personally, I thought the Greg Maneuver had been a poor choice—a brave one,

but poor. Given the circumstances, I would have gone with the classic stall.

Seeing the trap, Lukas moved quickly. “Yeah. I was just thinking,” he said.

Now, this wasn’t an outright lie. We all knew lying was bad and lying in church

was worse than bad. Lukas had been thinking, just not about the books of the Old

Testament. However, if he didn’t think faster, not even the classic stall could save him

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3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
(503) 536-5908 / email:


And, this is where I had to make a choice. Every kid has to make one of these

choices, eventually. I could help him, maybe by running interference, or leave him to flop

around till his death like a freshly caught fish under the greedy eye of a fisherman. On the

one hand, I thought Lukas was cool and I wanted to be his friend. But, this was church.

The slightest moral slip here and I was toast, literally. It was one thing to play these

games at school, where the separation of church and state insured that teachers couldn’t

endanger your immortal soul. Here, with Jesus and the saints staring down at you from

their cheap frames on the wall, you had to be careful.

“John,” I said, “someone has written their name in this one. Can I get a different

one?” I still don’t know what made me decide to help Lukas. But, I had thrown my hat

into the ring and we were now in it together.

“Oh, ah, sure, Jake,” he said as he turned around and grabbed a Bible off the shelf

behind him. With his back turned, I slipped Jake’s Bible under the table, onto my lap,

being careful to leave it open to the table of contents.

“Here you go,” John said as he tossed me a brand new one from across the table.

“Thanks,” I replied.

“Now, Lukas, how about naming those books for me?”

Leaning back in his chair, Lukas gave me a quick look of thanks. “Okay,” he said.

With that, being careful not to look directly at John or move in a way that would

obscure his view of the table of contents, Lukas repeated aloud the list. His performance

was perfect. Sometimes, he would pause, like he was thinking of the next book and at

other times, he would list off several in a row, as though his memory had been struck by

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3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
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lightning. Whether the boys in the class knew we were cheating, they never said. After

all, everyone knows the penalty for snitching.

John, having nodded along as he silently read the list from his own Bible, clapped

when Lukas had finished. “Thanks, Lukas, that was great!”

“Now, turn in your Bibles to the book of Exodus chapter fourteen. And, who can

tell me who Moses was?” He took a moment to look around the room at each of us in

turn. Hoping to avoid being called on, I paid extra attention to turning the crisp pages of

the new Bible. When no one said anything, I looked up and John looked at me

expectantly. At first, I thought I had made a critical mistake as everyone was

surreptitiously looking at their own Bibles as part of this weird form of tag. But, no

sooner had I resigned to having to answer the teacher’s question, when a small boy at the

front of the table raised his hand.

I didn’t know him. In fact, I wasn’t sure he had been there the whole time. He had

blond hair, very pale skin, and seemed to be using all his energy to hold his hand in the

air. Realizing that a volunteer, no matter how sallow, is better than a conscript, John

looked down at him.

“Yes,” he said expectantly.

“Moses led the Israelites to the promise land and was a mountain climber,” the

small boy said. Seemingly exhausted by the effort, he slid down in his chair and

practically out of sight.

“Very good, Adrian” John said.

The little part of his face that I could see appeared blotchy, either from the

attention or the effort, as if even his blushing was sickly. It didn’t take a rocket scientist

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3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
(503) 536-5908 / email:

to figure out that if Adrian lived long enough to get into high school he would wish he

hadn’t. He was one of those boys who had the unfortunate fate of looking like his name,

as though his parents were motivated by some twisted sense of humor. As every

playground bully knows, and every kid for that matter, the name says it all. I felt sorry for

him. The first thing I would have done if I had been given that name would have been to

change it to something cool like Max or Tony. Sixth grade is dangerous enough without

having a name the school bully would find hard to pronounce.

“Now, has everyone found the chapter?” the teacher asked. “Good. This is the

story of Moses parting the Red Sea. I’ll read it aloud and you follow along in your


A sigh of relief spread around the table. If there was one thing that was worse

than being called on to answer a question, it was reading aloud in class. But, after a quick

glance down the page, I’m not sure it would have made any difference. The story had

been written in that strange coded language that only priests and your grandparents could


“And when Moses had stretched forth his hand over the sea,” John recited, “the

Lord took it away by a strong and burning wind blowing all the night, and turned it into

dry ground: and the water was divided. And the children of Israel went in through the

midst of the sea dried up: for the water was as a wall on their right hand and on their left.

And the Egyptians pursuing went in after them, and all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots and

horsemen through the midst of the sea, and now the morning watch was come, and

behold the Lord looking upon the Egyptian army through the pillar of fire and of the

cloud, slew their host. And overthrew the wheels of the chariots, and they were carried

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3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
(503) 536-5908 / email:

into the deep.”

When he had finished the paragraph, John looked up excitedly at us. “Well,” he

said, “how about that!”

I didn’t get it. Judging from the blank look on the faces of my fellow prisoners,

they didn’t get it either. We had all been told the story of Moses parting the Red Sea but

this seemed all jumbled up.

“Come on, guys,” John pleaded. “Moses just held up is hand and the whole sea

split down the middle so that the Israelites were able to cross it without getting their feet

wet. And, then, when Pharaoh’s army tried to follow them, the sea filled back up and

drowned them.”

Now, John’s version of the story made more sense and sounded like the version

we had all heard since our first days in Sunday School. And, I had to admit that I was

always impressed by it. But, I could think of several superheroes that could have done the

same thing. It was difficult to figure out what made Moses better than any of them.

Despite being eleven years old, our generation’s skepticism of easy comparisons and

patent answers had already started to take root. If John was going to persuade us that

Moses was a greater superhero than Superman, he had his work cut out for him.

Beginning to sound a little frustrated with our lack of enthusiasm, John tried

again. “Didn’t I tell you there would be superheroes and awesome special effects?”

This question seemed to spark something in my companions. A large, round boy

with a large round face, pinched tight as though it was desperately trying to hang onto

something, raised his chubby arm. I didn’t know him either.

“Yeah, I guess. But, what about Superman stopping the earth and then spinning it

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3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
(503) 536-5908 / email:

in reverse?” he stuttered. “That was awesome.”

“Well, Tom,” John began but was cut off by a tall skinny boy, wearing clothes

that had clearly given up on trying to fit him.

“Yeah, that was cool. Superman could have just used his super breath to blow

away the sea and then use it to blow away the army” he interjected. The boy lived down

the street from me and would occasionally ride past my house on his bike. It was a bright

red Huffy. Whenever he did, I always wanted to ask him if I could try riding it but I had

yet to get up the nerve.

“Or, he could have used his heat vision to burn up all the water and then

disintegrate the army,” replied Tom excitedly.

“I think you guys are missing the point,” John said. But, it was too late. He had

unleashed our imaginations and our love of comics like a scientist who unwittingly

creates a virus that destroys everything.

“Well, what about Storm?” Lukas offered, looking up from his doodles now that

the topic had turned to something more engaging. “She could have created a storm that

would have moved the water out of the way and used its lightning to kill off the army.

And, she can fly too.”

Everyone nodded. Lukas had a good point. Storm, who looked cooler than

Superman in her black punk rock costume, could do the job just as easily as the Man of

Steel. And, if she was with the X-Men, then Pharaoh’s army didn’t stand a chance.

“But, what about the Green Lantern?” I asked. “With his power ring, he could

create a giant wall that would keep the water out. He could also make a big hammer and

smash the army to bits. And, he can fly as fast as Superman and in space too.”

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3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
(503) 536-5908 / email:

At first, all the boys thought that this was a good choice. I looked over at Lukas to

see if he thought so as well but he shook his head.

“The problem with the Green Lantern, though, is that he needs the power ring.

Without his ring, he is just a normal guy. Storm and Superman don’t need a ring,” he

pointed out. And, he had a point. I had overlooked a fatal flaw. “But, you’re right that the

Green Lantern is just as powerful as Moses.”

It was a small thing, really. He could have just pointed out my flaw and moved on

to arguing for his favorite superhero. But, he didn’t. It was then that I knew Lukas and I

would be friends forever.

“Now, fellas, hang on a minute,” John said loudly. “You’re missing the point.

We’re not here to discuss which superhero is better or which one could do a better job.

I’m trying to tell you about Moses.”

Like most adults, John had mistaken his confusion for ours. As far as I could see,

we were right on point. He was the one who had said that Moses was greater than

Superman and that the proof of this was the awesome special effects. Surely, he couldn’t

blame us for simply trying to figure out if what he said was true, when he was the one

who came up with the idea in the first place.

“Let’s get back to the story, guys.” And, just as he began to thumb through the

pages in his Bible, having lost his place in it too, Adrian raised his hand again.

Catching it out of the corner of his eye, John turned and asked, “Do you have a

question Adrian?” The boy nodded. “A question about the story?” The boy nodded again.

“Okay, what is your question?”

Marshalling his strength, Adrian asked, “What about Aquaman?”

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3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
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John sighed. And Tom replied, “Aquaman isn’t as good as Superman. I mean, he

can talk to fishes and stuff but he can’t fly. And, he doesn’t even have heat vision.”

Adrian, defeated, slid back down in his chair. This made me mad. Sure, Tom was

right but he could have been nicer about it.

“So,” I said. “Aquaman could push the sea back and he could make a hurricane to

wipe out the army.”

“But, how is that better than what Moses did?” asked the tall boy from my street.

It was true. Aquaman, like the Green Lantern, wasn’t any better than Moses. I looked

over at Adrian and shrugged my shoulders. He got blotchy again.

“What about Kryptonite?” Lukas said. “If Pharaoh’s army had weapons made of

Kryptonite, then Superman would be just as bad off as the Green Lantern. They could

simply shoot their arrows at him or hit him with their swords and he would die.”

“Oh yeah, well,” Tom started and then paused. Lukas had pointed out the

obvious. Tom had been hit by a Kryptonite arrow square between the eyes. “Well,

Superman would know that and he would use his super speed to dodge the arrows.”

I was beginning to wonder if Tom read a lot of comic books. It’s universally

known that you never want to sound stupid in front of your friends or other kids in your

class. And, there is always an acceptable amount of posturing to avoid doing so. But,

being accused of being a poser is worse than looking stupid.

“Storm wouldn’t have to have super speed or worry about Kryptonite arrows. I

think that makes her better than Superman,” Lukas concluded. He had done it. The debate

was over. We nodded together. Storm was better than Superman and better than Moses.

“That’s not true,” Tom stuttered. “One punch from Superman and Storm would be

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3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
(503) 536-5908 / email:

out cold.”

“So,” Lukas fired back, “we weren’t talking about them fighting each other. We

were talking about who could fight Pharaoh’s army.”

Tom was beginning to turn this odd shade of pink. It was the same shade my

father’s face always turned whenever the police brought me home after interrupting a

well-planned adventure. We all knew the debate was over but Tom wasn’t ready to throw

in the towel.

“So,” Tom sputtered, “Storm is just a dumb girl.”

Everyone but Lukas laughed. The boys thought Tom had finally found Storm’s

Kryptonite. And, that’s when it happened. The ugly voice that most days I could keep

quiet, buried deep under mud, toy guns, comic books, and video games, sprang to life.

Like Bruce Banner just before he turns into the Incredible Hulk, I knew I had precious

few moments before I was engulfed in its dark cloud.

As my ears were getting hot, I tried talking it down. You’re wrong. That’s not

true. Not here. Not now. I could feel the sting of tears forming at the corners of my eyes.

No, it’s not true! It’s not! I tried thinking of comic books, of my favorite video game

waiting for me at home, of anything. You’re a liar! I hate you! I tried reciting the prayer

to Mary that my grandmother had taught me. I clicked my heels together, wishing I had

Dorothy’s slippers. But, it was no use. The accusing voice simply grew louder and louder

until it echoed off the inside of my head.

Before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face and I was yelling. “Shut

up!” I wanted my words to sting him, to goad him the way his words had provoked me.

“What do you know? Girls aren’t dumb, you fatso! Maybe you should read comic books

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3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
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instead of eat them!”

Tom, looking deflated and small, leaned back from the table. His strained face,

instead of holding on to a thought, was holding back tears. Despite the dark voice’s

whispering words of justification, I felt sick. I knew what I said to Tom was wrong.

Wiping the tears from my eyes, I noticed Jesus looking at me from his picture frame.

And, I felt again the familiar sense of shame that hung heavy on me like my grandfather’s

winter coat. I wasn’t a child of God. I was some kind of mistake; an awful creature

allowed to live out of pity. I hate you, I whispered.

“Alright, that’s enough” John said sternly. “I had hoped we would talk about

Moses and the escape of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s army by the power of prayer. I’m

pretty disappointed in you guys.” He checked his watch. “Well, we’re out of time. I guess

we’ll try again next week. Put your Bibles away and don’t run down the hall when you

leave.” Looking at me, he said, “Jake, can you stay for a minute.”

Silenced by my outburst and John’s scolding, everyone got up from the table and

put their Bibles away on the shelf as they left the room. Only Lukas paused long enough

in the task to give me a sympathetic look. I just sat there, numb, like a condemned

prisoner awaiting his sentence.

After all the boys had left, John sat down in the chair formerly occupied by the

tall kid. It’s funny how adults always think this is a reassuring move. To me, it always

felt like condescension.

“Jake, what happened back there?”

“I don’t know,” I lied. Sometimes, you know exactly what you did and why, but

you don’t have the words to explain it. And, sometimes, you don’t know why you did

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3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
(503) 536-5908 / email:

what you did even if you do have words to describe it. However, in this case, I just

wanted to be anywhere but here.

John didn’t reply right away. He simply sat there looking at me. I imagined that

he was trying to figure out what kind of animal I was, like a scientist who has discovered

some new and strange beast by accident.

“You know, what you said to Tom was wrong. You hurt his feelings. And, I think

you need to apologize to him.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Do you want to talk about what made you angry?”


Again, he paused. I wondered if the boys were all gathered behind the church and

taking turns making fun of me; laughing at my tears or my suggestion of the Green

Lantern as a worthy superhero. I wondered if Lukas was with them or if he was waiting

in the hall to find out what sort of horrible torture I had experienced at John’s hands.

“Well, if you ever want to talk, you know that you can always talk to me. Okay?”


John sighed. “I guess you can go. Put your Bible away and don’t be late for


Hurriedly, as if any delay would be excuse enough for John to keep me in the

room longer, I got up from the table, threw the Bible on the shelf and ran out the door. If

they were behind the church making fun of me, I wanted to snag them. I was halfway

done the hall when I heard someone yell my name.

Wincing, expecting to see blue-haired Mrs. Kraeger and her tightened face, I

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3614 SE 60th Ave., Portland OR 97206
(503) 536-5908 / email:

stopped and turned on the spot. Relieved, I saw Lukas walking down the hall to me. He

smiled and I waited for him to meet me. Standing up, he was about my height, though his

shoulders were hunched forward, from what I guessed was too much doodling.

“What did John want?” Lukas asked.

We both knew why I had been asked to stay behind but it’s common courtesy to

give your friend a chance to tell the story, especially if the story involves a teacher.

“Nothing. He just yelled at me for yelling at Tom.” We started walking down the

hall, being careful to keep our voices down so that passing adults wouldn’t overhear us.

“Tom’s stupid.” Lukas brushed his hair out of his face. I was jealous of his hair.

My mother constantly fussed over mine. Either it was too long or too short or too unruly.

And, come Sunday, she would always spend valuable time applying gel and comb to it so

that my hair wouldn’t embarrass her.

“Yeah, I’m supposed to apologize to him for yelling.”

“That’s dumb. Who doesn’t know that Kryptonite kills Superman? And, who

cares if she’s a girl?”

“I know. But, John will probably tell my mom or Fr. Mark.” Entering the foyer, I

looked around to see if I could spot Tom or Adrian or any of the boys from class.

“They’re probably out by the church bus,” Lukas noted. “Why don’t you wait

until after Mass? Then, your parents will want to go and you can just say that you didn’t

have time.”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling better about the prospect of getting home without having

to humiliate myself further.

“Do you want to sit with me?”

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I wanted to tell Lukas how much it meant to me that being a girl didn’t matter or

how cool it was that his favorite superhero was Storm. I wanted to tell him that I loved

him for sticking up for me. I wanted to tell him that his friendship made me feel a little

less misshapen, a little less hurt, and a little more whole. But, I never did. With boys,

some things are just out of bounds.


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