Chelsea Laine Wells
He shot himself in a field so there would be no mess to clean.
In his wheelchair, laborious and alone, he fought his way out there - wheelchair, ugly feeble word, embarrassing. So we called it The Chair like capital punishment, that twist always of bitter morbidity as he decayed and decayed inside, as he palsied and loosened like someone cursed to unravel back towards infanthood. The rubber wheels caught and jolted over dirt ruts, dried mud, flattened stalks of the family farm gone to seed, carrying him away from the house and into open air. Shotgun wedged under his leg by his brother.
In that last moment he imagined standing, I think. That's how I see it. The Chair collapsing easy as a trick thing away from him as he stood steady legged like it meant nothing. Like it was a joke all along. Then in the aching blue dawn heavy as an insomniac eyelid, he propped the barrel against his bottom row of teeth the way we had practiced with a sawed off yardstick, a band of green electric tape where the trigger would fall, because I was too scared to confront the real thing. And found the scythe of the trigger, his finger jerk-shaking like a frantic trapped bird. Pressed back. Carefully back, the nail blanched white against the loop that cradled the trigger. I don't know the terminology. I don't know the anatomy of a gun. I won't know. Many things I thought I would never learn - drug dosages and uses, chromosome numbers, all twenty seven neatly ordered barbed letters spelling ALS - these things I learned, but I won't learn that.
Any hesitation was purely mechanical. Mustering control. This had been decided. His body was losing systematic biological grip in ways no one should have to suffer and he wouldn't tolerate it for him or for me, and this I had been made to understand. And I did understand, logically, though there would always be an inner child-like part of me that keened silent and anguished, understanding none of this.
His brother waited inside the farmhouse, drunk to the cusp of blackout, wavering over a scarred wood kitchen table from their childhood with one thumb on the nine ready to dial after it had been long enough to convince police he hadn't known, couldn't have stopped. His brother understood. The fevered blood and bedlam of Vietnam rose and fell forever inside the salted earth of him - he understood.
And where was I? Somewhere lost. I don't know where I was, when.
Maybe thinking in backwards arcs to the beginning of this, before, when life was a solid thing I could trust with my weight. Maybe thinking to the winter day we were on vacation somewhere, a few years married with money to burn and a handful of days off so we landed impulsively in some big city with museums and trains suspended above or plunging into the earth and people swarming like a kicked anthill. It doesn't seem possible that I've forgotten where exactly we went. But I have. Like sympathetic neuron disobedience, brain cells selectively shutting down to mirror his decline so he wasn't stranded and alone. In any case - somehow I don't remember where but it was iconic, New York, California, Washington, someplace important enough that we felt required to go. To say we'd been.
And it was strange. So different from the soft decay of the rural town where we'd been raised and still lived, a blend of farmland and city square perpetually lush from overgrowth and deep with a wealth of space, neglected but cherished in the reverent way of Greek ruins. In comparison the city felt like something mechanized fallen dormant and we walked in the metal bones of it. Skyscraper windows blinking empty smoked silver, mica chips embedded like shed scales in the concrete, suspension cables like city ribs. The whole weekend was a flurry of disorientation but we enjoyed it because we enjoyed everything. It all felt like choices we were making at that point, the things we did without much thought, before that ease was obliterated.
The weather was sharp cold and the high, train platform wind smacked my mouth like a hand. I wound my scarf around my neck all the way up to my nose while he stood loose bodied, hot blooded always. The wool steam of my breath channeled from the scarf up along my face and dampened my mascara. I blinked, and it smeared. He glanced at the paper subway map I was folding and unfolding, struggling to decode the hieroglyphs, red and blue dots, a thick black parallelogram, street names that in my quick panicky scan sounded like nothing close to our hotel. Then he checked my face and saw the mascara, always paying more attention to me than I paid myself, as was his way - and this was what would sting him deepest in the end. More than loss of physical dignity, more than loss of function, it was the unavoidable role flip that had me hovering and asking while my own life rusted over, ignored. He hated it.
I yanked at the map and breathed frustrated steam and blinked and smeared it further, oblivious the way I was then, and he touched the pad of his thumb to the beaded black like the city had made me cry soot, he would say later. To tend to me, to calm me. And the tremor was pronounced enough, his thumb jerking and grazing my eyelashes, to make me abandon the map and look up despite the urgency of approaching trains on both sides and neither of us sure which one to board. We met eyes. Even though this was nothing, a non-moment, we did that.
I asked him, Are you cold?
And he examined his own thumb as though surprised by it, for a heartbeat. Then blew past whatever question he had asked himself, balled his thumb into his fist. This first betrayal - anarchy of anatomy, he said later, grappling at words as though they mattered. This small but quietly sinister loss of control dismissed the way we dismiss innumerable potential warning signs every day, because how are we to know?
To the left of us, to the right of us, the north and south bound trains screamed in, brakes peeling, piercing, and the din shuddered inside my bones. Between his eyes, clouded blue like the deep water peace of the morning he chose to die, was a trace of frown so slight I could tell I wasn't meant to see it.
No, he said. Not really.
About the Writer
Chelsea Laine Wells has appeared in Little Fiction, Black Candies, decomP, Hobart, The Butter, Corium, The Collapsar, PANK, Third Point Press, The Other Stories, and Heavy Feather, among others, and has work forthcoming from Paper Darts. She’s been nominated for multiple Pushcarts and Best of the Nets and subsequently won a 2015 Best of the Net. She is managing and fiction editor for Hypertext Magazine and founding editor of Hypernova Lit, a journal publishing the work of teenagers. Chelsea lives in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, Texas, and is a high school librarian and creative writing teacher. Find out more about her at chelsealainewells.com and follow her on Twitter at @chelsea_l_w.