Chelsea Laine Wells’s work has previously appeared in PANK, Hobart, Knee-Jerk, The Butter, Third Point Press, Wigleaf, and Heavy Feather, among others, and she won a 2015 Best of the Net award. She is managing and fiction editor for Hypertext Magazine and founding editor of Hypernova Lit. You can find out more about her and read more of her work at chelsealainewells.com.
Thomas stands on the deck above the outdoor stingray tank with his hands in his pockets and watches the young mother on her cell phone and her child with his threadbare sleeves pushed up and his arms submerged to the elbow. The mother’s gaze lifts to him and he stares at her through the distance of his sunglasses. Her skin is bad and her child is underfed. He moves his attention back to the task at hand. Sun flashes off the surface of the water and the air is mild and clean. He tracks the dove grey discs of the stingrays in their endless glide around the glass
tank’s perimeter and breathes in the concrete and dank metal of the poorly maintained aquarium.
Thomas is ready, the dark center of him nested neatly into the animal construction of his body, muscle flat on bone, bones cupped in joint, perfectly built and perfectly ordinary in a way that allows him to move with simultaneous authority and invisibility into and out of any situation.
He leaves the deck and comes slowly down the stairs to the tank itself. Savoring. Wash hands before making contact with stingrays. He complies, standing over the shell-shaped cement sink studded by chewed gum imbued with indecent breath and mouth acids, and then moves to the tank. The girl who sells wet dead shrimp in small metal cups for the stingrays to eat slumps at an adjacent counter, her chin cupped in her hand, her attention nowhere nearby. He presses his pelvis against the glass and looks down into the water. Watches them flock and skim, sliding their scale-flat bodies over and below each other like lovers, rolling. They are docile as kittens. They nose against the child’s outstretched hands, furling their edges out of the water to splash, their whip tails graceful and denuded of weaponry.
Thomas is transfixed by their utter alienness. They belong in the vast outer-space heart of the ocean and yet they are here, clustered together in four feet of water thinned by daylight and shot through with the dirty arms of children like groping stalactites. He sinks his hand under the surface and trails his fingertips over their tight rubber skin dense and slick as soap. Then he eases his other hand from his pocket and the knife is down in the water without anyone having seen it.
By the time the mother notices, by the time the cowish girl at the counter drags her eyes from whatever nonexistent focal point holds her attention, it has already happened. The child sees first, blood clouding into the clear water like slow smoke, the other stingrays in a flurry of frantic response, but he says nothing.
Thomas coaxes a stingray to slide along the web of skin between his thumb and forefinger, gradually tightening his grip like a vise until he has contained it. He turns the body sideways underwater and catches a glimpse of its flat otherworldly face, the holes of its eyes and the broad threatless mouth smiling dimly like a retarded child. Then he eases the dead-sharp blade of the knife into the body of the stingray from the edge down into the meat of its white belly thick and clean as a scrubbed mushroom cap. It splits open soft and straight like a zipper, revealing the ridged pink meat inside, the grain of the flesh still beating with life, blood sifting out fine as red ash. The stingray thrashes in his hand amid a profusion of other stingrays blinking and flipping like scared eyelids. With a power like beating wings, in their ecstasy of fear, they churn the tank and water and blood touch Thomas’s open mouth.
Fewer than thirty seconds have passed. The stingray is dead or in shock, the others darting and disordered, and the tank is shadowed almost entirely red, the darkest part of which hides Thomas’s arms still under the water. Finally the mother sees.
“Mister, are you hurt?” she shouts, yanking her son backwards by the collar. She turns to the girl, “Hey, what the fuck kind of fish do you have in here?” and the girl is struggling down from her stool. Thomas releases the stingray and it sinks to the bottom. Then he pulls his arms from the water and they both catch the glint of the knife and the girl says, “Oh my god,” but Thomas is already halfway up the stairs, calm and unhurried. The knife is back in his pocket. He carries his body in a relaxed posture, as if he is not wet.
What they will remember is laughably generic: he was a teenager, white, blonde, handsome. He wore sunglasses. Because he paid with cash there is no record. Like a ghost he entered, and like a ghost he passes back through the glass doors into the broad sunshine and is gone.
He breathes raggedly through his mouth as he walks to his car, the velvet pressure of the knife sinking into smooth healthy flesh and the kick of life clouding slowly out running up the nerves of his arm and along every appendage like a tongue. Like honey rolling down slow. The bliss.
This is what cracks him open and allows the world to touch his cloistered heart, what shocks him, however temporarily, to life: the creation of suffering, the shudder and thrash of it.
Thomas was ten years old the day he learned that pain unlocked the armor holding him cold and motionless inside himself. He knew he was strange. He had been told by therapists that his inability to respond to emotional provocation made people uncomfortable. But until he touched his index finger to the splintered end of Bennett’s bone, he didn’t know there was a way out.
Though what exactly happened will be forever disputed, the end result was that Bennett fell crookedly down the curved side of the schoolyard jungle gym, catching his ankle in the bars and twisting it in a way that caused the snapped bone to puncture the tender skin above the heel. There he hung suspended, screaming a strange, breathless, cyclical scream that will ring inside Thomas for the remainder of his life.
Distantly Thomas was aware of the thunderous approach of other students, teachers, but time had slowed to an infinitesimal crawl and they were alone together inside the din of Bennett’s pain for what felt like hours. He laid his body flush along Bennett’s and slid his finger up the mottled skin of destroyed ankle to bone, tooth-white and exposed, cringing, newborn and sudden in the open air. It gave off a pale warmth from the inside of Bennett’s body. The idea of putting his mouth on it had just entered Thomas’s mind when a teacher reached him and yanked him away hard enough to tumble them both to the ground.
Thomas remained pinned under her, breathing in the smell of her ham salad lunch and sweat barely restrained by cheap floral deodorant, as they took Bennett down. Like ruined Jesus borne from the cross—this is how he regards Bennett’s livid ten-year-old body sullied with blood and vomit and urine and contorted in agony unhooked from the mooring that released all that noise and heat, all that energy.
This moment is Thomas’s spiritual awakening from which every other significant moment will directly hinge. Under the crushing weight of the teacher his eyes were blown wide and dilated and he sucked draughts of air through his mouth, rigid at every point from the wholly unfamiliar sensation of emotion. Bennett’s pain. The chaos of activity and commotion that it created. Like touch, like light, like a gout of thawing hot water, it poured down inside him.
And, as he heard the teacher who lay on him say to the principal and his parents from his position on the bench outside her office door, her voice quivering with disgust and indignation, he was aroused.
But it wasn’t anything so empty as sexual arousal. Sealed tight again, Thomas receded comfortably and moved sideways inside himself away from the prying questions about his behavior: the way he lay against Bennett, the way he touched him, his face flown open like a zealot struck by God, his erection. His lack of empathy was questioned, as it always was. It was exhausting and pointless for Thomas to explain to anyone, then or ever, his perception of humans as little more than meat tubes, one barely discernible from the next, taking in sustenance at one end and excreting it at the other, spilling their endless words unchecked like vomit, frantic to rub against each other and achieve five seconds of nerve-ending sensation.
This, like all regular human interaction, was something that held no appeal for Thomas, but increasingly his role as a conventionally attractive teenager from a rich family made it a point of contention: the pursuit of nerve-ending sensation. So he engaged in it when necessary as a part of his effort to move through the world with the least modicum of normalcy required to maintain isolation. When it seemed unavoidable he allowed girls access to his penis and looked on in detached bemusement as they did what they did until he ejaculated, at which point they moved on to something else. For Thomas it held all the fanfare of defecation.
It is the creation of suffering and the reaction to this suffering that gives him life, that gives him his moments of blessed openness. So he sips at it, as infrequently as he can bear, an addict unwilling to relent too often lest the drug lose its potency. Animals, children, the weak and unwatched. Little moments to sustain him. But instinctively he knows that one day his need will overflow and he will open a wound in the world that cannot be ignored.
And it happens like this.
He opens his eyes that morning and sees it laid out before him, his trajectory, clear as an arrow. That little current of desire inside him. Once his family has left the house, he removes the .45 caliber Sig Sauer handgun from the top right drawer of his father’s desk, slides it into his pocket, and leaves the house.
The air in the mall is sweet and false, heavily recycled, uniformly bright with captured sunlight like a dream. There are mothers with strollers, Mexican nannies chasing children, elderly people biding time until death. Thomas walks through them unhurried, his hand relaxed around the gun in his pocket.
Finally he reaches the pond in the center of the mall, a sunken rectangle lined with tile and paved with lily pads. Swimming aimlessly in the water are turtles and baby ducks, one of which left the mall in Thomas’s winter coat pocket several years ago to die slowly under close scrutiny in a shadowed corner of the parking garage. Thomas sits on one of the benches bordering the pond. He allows his eyes to unfocus and drift blindly over the forms of the people moving around him. He waits.
He doesn’t see them at first, the mother and daughter. It is only when the girl sidles next to him, glancing shyly from the corner of her eye, that Thomas sharpens his attention and zeros in. The mother is across the pond on another bench, shifting her gaze between her daughter and the people walking past. The little girl is pulling apart a soft pretzel and tossing bits of it to the ducks. She kneels in front of Thomas with her back to him. He could do it as she is now, from the back, but he wants to see her eyes. He wants to feel the convulsion, the release of heat, the shudder of life cleaved from her body. He wants to feel it against his skin.
He edges forward, his eyes on the mother who is at the moment looking elsewhere, and eases onto his knees next to the little girl. From close up he examines her snub nose, her brown hair gathered in a loose ponytail, her wide eyes moving from the ducks and turtles to him. Her mouth wants to smile. Thomas arranges his mouth in an upward fashion and she reflects this, her lips parting to reveal a missing front tooth. She holds out a bit of pretzel for him to take. With his left hand he takes it. His right hand arranges itself around the gun in his pocket and draws it out.
He touches the barrel to the hollow of her temple, soft, like a finger. The titanium is warm from his body so she doesn’t flinch as it makes contact with her skin. There is a sheer second of questioning that crosses her eyebrows, and fleetingly he considers taking the time to draw from her an increasing thread of fear and realization, but this isn’t his purpose.
With his mouth still arranged in the empty shape of a smile and her wide blank eyes tipped up to his, Thomas pulls the trigger.
The damage of a .45 caliber bullet entering the small head of a six-year-old girl at point blank range is infinitely more devastating than anything he has ever wrought. Thomas watches, rapt, as her skull devolves and releases its contents into the pond, her body falling sideways away from him so that her ruined head enters the water. Above the even row of her bottom teeth, her face is gone. He watches blood cloud out of the cavity and is pleasantly reminded of the stingrays. In his left hand is the bit of pretzel she handed to him within a heartbeat of her death, an offering, a communion. Thomas tosses it into the water and watches it turn red. Then he places the gun behind him on the bench, carefully, and turns his focus to the mall around him.
Every proximate human is now on a trajectory that leads directly to Thomas, leaden as lava in the crawl of slowed time.
Thomas sweeps his eyes across the contorted face of each person in their frantic velocity, flushed and furious, cartoonish with sudden emotion, but it is the mother who most completely captures his attention. It was her suffering, of course, that was the point all along. Her suffering, more potent than any conceivable physical pain, that slides inside him and begins to ease him open. Her love for the dead girl has taken on elemental properties and it courses strong as light, the agony of loss prying apart her features like an invisible hand, it flies out of her contorted mouth, the tips of her reaching fingers, her feet clumsy with shock as she stumbles towards them. Like Bennett’s bone, the beauty of her love is now nakedly external, prolapsed, given form and release by the creation of suffering.
When a vein of agony is opened in the universe, it acts as a magnet. The stingrays churning frantic against each other. Teachers and students flying toward Bennett. The mother, bystanders, perfect strangers flooding together. This is what he will never be able to explain to anyone: that darkness frees light with an unparalleled intensity.
Beside Thomas the girl’s body is limp, discharging thick coils of blood and brain matter into the pond, staining the duck feathers, feeding the turtles. The soft pretzel is still loosely gripped in her hand. He watches her mother surge toward them heavy and slow as a dream. His mouth is fallen open, eyes dilated, rigid with bliss everywhere. He has never split this wide. He has never thawed this deep. The mother’s love, distilled and rendered as physical as the girl’s cooling blood, flows from her into Thomas and he is humbled, he is supplicant.
Like a disciple the morning of the Resurrection, he lifts his arms to receive her.