Toby stood before the mirror, contemplating his penis. It just wasn’t as big as he’d like it to be. His face was, he dared to admit, exquisite. His eyes were green and his hair was a rich, dark brown. His eyelashes were long and fluttery. His cheekbones were high and his jawline strong. His lips were full and pouty, as if he were perpetually nursing a punch to the mouth (a look he knew drove girls wild). But his penis struck him as pathetic. He’d caught sight of it in the mirror as he stepped out of the shower this morning; especially shriveled today, looking nothing like the manhood it was supposed to be.

He Googled “average penis” on his phone for maybe the tenth time in the past month. He went to the images tab and his screen filled with penises. All of them looked larger than his. Or were they? Maybe it was just the angle at which the pictures had been taken, or the lighting. One could never know. He told himself to forget it, that he was back at school now, and that he couldn’t waste time worrying about such nonsense.

***

“I don’t understand why people bother eating lettuce,” said Shiv. “There’s literally like nothing in lettuce.” An hour later, Shiv and Toby were in the dining hall. Shiv stared absently at the salad bar, where hordes of other freshmen were tonging greens onto their plates. Toby thought of his mother and the two plates of dark romaine she ate a day, the lectures on her newfound veganism, which had been such a prominent feature of the quiet existence they had led together during break. Toby had tried the diet for a day himself trying to lose belly-fat, but this had ended on the kitchen floor late at night with a carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream.

“Did you know that lettuce contains more protein per pound than beef?” said Toby, recollecting one of the many pro-vegan facts his mother had shared with him.

“Really? No way.”

“Well, I guess you’d have to eat a whole head of it to get as much as like, a steak, but yeah.”

“Who the fuck wants to do that?”

Toby poked at his mac and cheese. The truth about whether it was worth eating lettuce was out there, but for the moment, he didn’t know who to trust: his well-researched mother or his gym-built suitemate, each of whom was as serious about their body as the other.

“How was your break?” Shiv asked after a moment.

“It was chill,” Toby said.

“The same here, man.”

The truth was that Toby had spent break alone, waiting for Facebook messages from Zoe. Zoe: the sophomore he’d been smitten with last semester. He’d gone out with her for a time; sort of, not technically officially. But she’d gotten distant towards the end, somehow cold, and in December, she’d said she wanted to take “some space.”  Her messages had come less and less frequently over break, until during the final week, when they hadn’t come at all. Toby worried constantly about what she was doing, if she was thinking about him, if she was seeing anyone else.

In order to fill the empty time, he’d committed himself to a rigid schedule of self-improvement, reading books, writing, working out, trying to get smarter and stronger. He’d been moderately successful on the second count, and as he leaned his elbows onto the table, he noticed Shiv noticing his arms.

“You work out over break?”

“I did, actually. Just pushups and sit-ups every day.”

“That’s what’s up! You should come lift with Demetri and me this semester.”

Toby laughed and looked down at his plate. Shiv said that no, seriously, he meant it.

Toby had had high hopes for the semester. He would submit his application to the English major, declaring a focus on poetry. He wanted to study the subject from a philosophical perspective: Yeats by way of Nietzsche, Plato through Gerard Manley Hopkins, things like that. He hoped that when Zoe saw his improved physique, she would scarcely be able to help but take him back. He intended to rush Sigma Phi Omega, her honors fraternity. The fraternity had a residential house, and if he got in, then that would guarantee they’d live together for the next three years. Even if she didn’t take him back right away, there was no way they’d be able to live together for that long without her realizing how great of a guy he was deep down, how worthy he was of her affection.

But when he’d stepped off the bus to return for that semester, he’d been sideswiped by a blast of icy wind. A wind which carried with it flurries of snow, and, for Toby, the unshakable sense that all the private hopes he had for the semester would be met with frustration.

***

As he lay in bed that night, he could smell Shiv and Dmitri, smoking weed next door. He could hear Victor and Tyler, his other two hallmates, screaming at the television in the lounge at whatever video game they were playing in the common room.

“Yo, I just fucked your fucking skull off!”

“Shut up, faggot.”

Toby masturbated beneath his comforter and came on the underside. He expected it would be a long while before he could fall asleep.

His thoughts drifted to the first night of last semester: his first night in college. Free of his mother for the first time in his life, he’d bought a pack of clove cigarettes and headed to University Avenue, where he’d heard you could get drunk. There he’d witnessed something that had amazed him: what looked like Lockden’s entire freshman class moving down the sidewalk in a throng. He’d lit a cigarette and idled alongside them for a while. He’d listened to their conversations. People relaying which houses they’d heard were letting people in, innocents asking how much vodka was a safe amount to drink, new friends making promises to look out for one another. He’d found no way into their procession or their conversations. He was about to give up when he heard someone calling from across the street.

“Free beer, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got free beer!”

He crossed. It was a stocky upperclassman in a Hawaiian shirt.

“You say you’ve got free beer?” Toby asked. The man looked him up and down before replying.

“Well yeah, man, but there’s just one problem. Do you know what that is?”

“What?”

“The one problem is that, man, you’ve got one too few X-chromosomes. You get it?”

Toby nodded.

“There’s a lot of ladies out tonight,” the man continued, pointing across the street. “You bring some of them, we’ll let you in, but if not…” He shrugged. Toby stared at him blankly, hating him.

“I’m sorry, man, it’s just that we’ve got a gender ratio to maintain, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” Toby said after a moment. “No, I totally get it.” He began to walk away.

“But seriously, man, you should go get ’em,” the man called after him. Toby kept walking.

“Come on, don’t be a pussy!” the man called again.

Toby stopped. His heart pounded. His shoulders tensed. He wanted to turn around, but he started walking away again, faster now. He wondered what it would be like to go back and punch the man’s face as hard as he could. To sucker punch him, the obnoxious frat boy in salmon shorts and a goddamned Hawaiian shirt. He had been built like a bull, but Toby was solidly a head taller than him. He would have reach! He could have struck him from an invulnerable distance, landed a fist in his mouth, maybe knocked teeth out. Maybe gotten him on his back and started pummeling him on the concrete. Inevitably, the man’s fraternity brothers would have stormed down from the porch and done to Toby twice whatever damage he had managed to inflict on their friend. But there would still have been the glory of the initial hits, the sweetest anesthetic as he lay bloodied on the blacktop, victimized for all passersby to see. The brave guy who beat up someone heftier and older than himself, but who was then outnumbered.

And this was the fantasy he returned to as he tossed and turned in bed. He was so much stronger now. His heart pounded as he played the scene out in his head. Overheating, he threw off his comforter. He sat upright. He promised himself that the next time he found himself in a similar situation, he would really do it: really reach out and assert himself with his fist.

***

He woke up early the next morning to go to the gym. He worked out with the resistance machines. Leg Press. Shoulder Press. Chest Press. As he did so, he felt a great optimism welling up within him. He would do this every morning. He would stay fit, stay strong.

He walked into the locker room to shower and change, happy thoughts in his head about getting an omelet at the dining hall. He was standing with a towel around his waist, getting ready to dress himself, when a tall, sandy-haired man walked in and gave him a friendly nod. Toby nodded back and turned away as the man began to undress. He did so just a few feet away, without any attempt at privacy, and with a snappy energy that made Toby uncomfortable. He heard him quickly unzip and take off his track jacket, the gentle crinkles and sliding sounds as he pulled off his jeans, the clap of his belt buckle hitting the floor.

Toby proceeded self-consciously. Bending down and sliding his boxer-briefs up beneath his towel, cautiously so as not to let the towel come undone and fall. Just as he finished doing this, he realized that he could no longer hear anything, that the man had stopped moving. Toby was struck by the mortifying thought that the man might be standing there watching him. He swung around.

The man was not looking at him. He stood still, his pelvis thrust forward, his hands on his hips like a champion. He seemed to be examining something on the floor. He slowly ran his tongue over his upper lip as if in concentration. There was a strange look of pleasure and pride in his eyes. Toby hesitated for a moment, and then followed their gaze downward. He saw the man’s penis for only an instant, but an instant was enough to initiate in him a creeping sense of defeat. Whereas images from the Internet were always questionable, this image from real life was unequivocal: the thing was huge, vastly bigger than his own. It wasn’t so much the length of the thing as the girth, like a fist hanging over a scrotum.

Toby swung back around. He tried to comprehend what had just happened. Had the man intended for him to see his penis? He had been standing in such a bizarre way, seeming to invite Toby to look downward. Toby had the strange feeling that he’d been propelled toward this moment by some powerful external force in the face of which he was powerless. He hoped desperately that the man hadn’t noticed him looking. He hadn’t given any indication that he had. Toby stood still, staring widely into the olive-green locker in front of him, longing to hear the sounds of the man getting dressed, and leaving the room.

But no sounds came. Instead, a pair of firm hands on his shoulders jolted Toby out of his hope.

“What was that all about, bud?” the man asked, patting his right shoulder.

Toby’s mouth went completely dry and he couldn’t speak.

“Sneaking glances, are we? I can’t say you’re the first fella I’ve ever had do that in here.”

“I… I’m sorry,” Toby said, his voice cracking pitifully in a way that made him want to kill himself. A pathetic pussy was all he’d ever be. He began to shake, in his knees and shoulders.

“Now, now,” said the man, “nothing to be ashamed of.”

Toby’s heart was pounding, and he began to feel lightheaded. He leaned his forehead into the locker in front of him. The man had not taken his hands off of his shoulders. Why wouldn’t he? What the fuck was he doing? Was he angry? Toby desperately needed to be alone.

He stiffened again as the man began to lightly massage him.

“Please stop touching me.”

The man made no reply and began to gently slide his calloused fingertips down Toby’s back.

“Fucking stop!”

Toby threw a hard elbow into the man’s ribcage, but almost as soon as it landed (with a satisfying resonance), the man’s hands sprang up, grabbed the hair on the back of Toby’s head, and slammed his face into the locker. His nose crunched into it, and dizziness flooded his senses. He stifled a scream. He couldn’t allow himself to scream. To scream would make him even more of a pussy.

He felt the man slide his other hand beneath his towel, where it was wrapped above his ass, felt the man’s long middle finger slide into the top of his crack. Here he screamed in a quick, grunting way like a wounded animal. It didn’t sound so bad. A masculine, reasonable scream. The towel fell away. Toby threw another elbow backwards, but this one didn’t land. He was still so dizzy. The man told him he’d better shut the fuck up and stop struggling or it was going to be more than just his nose bleeding (which Toby realized it was, feeling wetness down to his chin). The man pushed Toby’s head down and bent him over, and with that, Toby knew it was hopeless, that the man was totally in control.

The top of his scalp was now flat against the locker. He stared down at the floor, watching blood drip from his nose into the holes in the rubber tiling, as he felt the man’s large fingers enter his anus, working around to loosen it up. First, one finger; a rude stab. Then a second, what felt like the thumb; fatter, more painful. Then the penis. Surprisingly easily; a quick glide and it was in deep. A burning feeling like something opening inside of him. An intense mix of pleasure and pain. Toby squeezed his eyes shut. He saw a hillside off a highway somewhere, a highway he felt that he’d been driven down as a child. It was a sunny day, and men and women were lounging at the bottom of the hill, lying next to one another, sensuously outstretched in flowing white robes, babies crawling between them. Just a vision as his attacker thrust back and forth inside of him.

***

This is an excerpt from Matthew Pegan’s new novel, Dragon Day.