ETHAN STAYS IN
Don’t Pick at It
I’d grown up completely feral. Not the kind of feral most people would expect: dirty hair, devoid of language. Instead, I’m the kind of feral that makes it twenty-four years in civilization without anyone noticing. Stealth feral.
I learn this for myself one day when I feel something like a current of air running under my chin. I reach up to brush away the sensation, find that my pointer finger sinks into something warm and pliant. An alien texture in the ease of my kitchen—and I leaning over the stove, heat from an active eye, steam from a screaming kettle, sugar grit under palm, mucus in throat, breath stuck in lung. Finger extracted, I find a jelly smeared across. Gray, glittering. I stop the kettle's noise and step back. When I reach back up, I reach with three fingers that jitter.
My nails pierce through a surface that snaps like dough. My skin, I realize. “Stop,” says Reason. “Withdraw.”
“Haha,” says Me.
I push further, until my hand is tucked up to the lowest knuckle into a pocket under my chin. I rock my hand back and forth to get further in. Giddy, glad to finally get at the real meat of something, anything. My thumb rubs at the outside and meets the other fingers with a half-inch between them. Who’d have thought? Something like this? Under my chin? I wonder how long I’ve had this, how long it’s had to germinate, mature, develop its slime coat and hard little scales. I pull downward. The skin bulges, my breath catches. I’m in over my head.
The fingers still nestled—no doubt puckering up from the moisture—I decide to have a quick lie-down on the couch before my weak knees insist on the kitchen floor. The pillow I lay my cheek on is the scratchy one, like a movie theatre seat, all rough weave and tickling hairs. I will have to make a move sooner or later. Out or in.
Two hours of couch, during which the kettle has already shouted and gone cold and I have not managed to resist the occasional finger wiggle, like waving hello to a new part of myself. Some of the gray has slid out, down my hand, soaked into the fibers of the scratchy pillow. It’s high time, I decide and undo my first shirt button.
The skin strip comes away an inch wide as I worry it in small yanks from chin, down throat. There’s a sound like snapping. The only pain from stray hairs tugged from their follicles. High on the sternum, after eight or nine inches, I can pull no more. The strip detaches easily, and I toss it aside.
I’m glad I chose a weekend to do this. I can stay inside to prod and scratch and examine with a 24-hour recovery barrier. In front of the bathroom mirror, my reflection under the specks of wildly flung toothpaste shows the channel from chin to chest. The material inside stirs in lazy swirls, winks of light from solid pieces stuck at random intervals. I think it must not have a bottom. When I see it under my face, this is when I understand that I’ve found something malignant. I scoop out a handful of the gray and more slides into replace it. I scoop twice more with shaking hands.
Someone should have seen this. Someone should have pulled me aside and said, “Hey buddy, you got a little…” and “You should get that checked out.” Shouldn’t they? You can’t see this kind of thing for yourself without scraping away. That’s how I knew I was feral. Stealth feral.
After I’ve had my fill of scooping, I think about going to the woods behind my apartment complex that you can tell were planted because the first row of pines is spaced too evenly. There isn’t any undergrowth. My feet would crunch over the thick layer of pine needles. I can feel the gray stuff move without touching it by this point, lapping at the edges of my skin. The tree I would pick to sit against has a fallen limb and a healthy cushion of needles around its base. I know I couldn’t stay there. I’m not the normal type of feral. Sooner or later, I would have to go back, take action or refuse to change. It might feel nice, though, to run a fingertip through the yielding stuff, nudging at the little bits, under the sky, bark scratching my back, left to myself, watch ticking, smell of dirt, heart beating, open tear to prove I’d made it this far.
I don’t go. But I think about it.
Throwing Stars Shaped Like @
Every time I get an email, I bleed at the mouth. My phone tweetles and there it is—a warm trail leaking from the corner of my lips.
It’s because the default state of the universe is chaos. Because Yellowstone should’ve already erupted, a rogue planet already smashed the earth to bits, my musculoskeletal system already stopped taking orders from my brain, every combination of musical notes already used up. And the emails—they’re the minions of chaos, the imp messengers, decked out in binary and armed with throwing stars shaped like @.
My cousin has purchased actual throwing stars at some point in her life. She is seven months older than me. Sometimes sits on my counter. Sometimes brings over plastic bottles of vodka which always end up staying in my freezer with only a puddle left. She has deposited the third of such when she hears my phone chime, sees me cut my eyes to the couch where it lies.
The refrigerator rattles with the force she uses to slam the freezer door. Before I’ve made a move, she’s vaulted over the arm of the couch. Before I’ve crunched my toe on the coffee table, she’s cradled my phone in her hands.
She rumples her mouth. “You made it look like it’d be something fun. Nudes. Credit card fraud. A ‘u up?’ text at the least.”
“What is it?”
“I’m not telling.”
“You already said it’s not interesting. Might as well spill it.”
“Not interesting to me.” She ticks a nail against the screen. “But to you…”
I turn away, but this only exposes the way my shoulders have crept up, knit together.
“You are expecting something, though.”
“You’re expecting something.”
Should I lie? Say yes I am. I am expecting something obscene and entertaining and something you would like very much to see and that’s why I flinched. Or should I tell her: I spend all my energy putting things in order, but nobody emails you to say thanks for that, do they?
Four Times Fifty Living Men, A Million Million Slimy Things
He liked to pose contrapposto. He liked a crowd around him. He liked, occasionally, to look my way and say things like, “Ethan doesn’t understand. He’s innocent.” We went together—to parties, shows, bars—because we were neighbors; we wouldn’t have met otherwise. I preferred the company of my computer screen and the desk chair that let me hunch comfortably. I didn’t mind sitting up straight when I was around him, though, didn’t mind sitting just outside of his crowd.
Rudimentary knowledge of Samuel Taylor Coleridge was his party trick. He would say, “Opium fiend,” in a tone of voice suggesting he’d known the man himself. “Woman wailing for her demon lover,” he’d say, pop one eyebrow up. Most people bought the act, so he rolled it out whenever he could. I didn't buy it, wanted to call him a goon, never did. He would get drunk and I would drive him home, pretend I forgot to return his keys so he would have to come across the hallway to my apartment the next day.
Once—sober—he put his hands on me. One on each of my shoulders. A stray fingertip laid on the bare skin above my collar. I tried not to squirm. Squirmed.
“Don't be like me, Ethan,” he said.
“Wasn't planning on it,” I said.
The night before I heard his door slam. From the window, I watched Maria drop her car keys on the sidewalk and clutch her head between her hands before she picked them up, drove away.
“Ethan don’t say things before you think about them.”
“I rarely do.”
He stalked the length of the front room, bare feet skimming across the short-pile rug sometimes squinting hard at me. When he’d worn himself out, he stood in front of me. His eyes looked bigger than usual. He said my name and his voice scraped in his throat. I shivered, even though I knew he liked a crowd around him. He bent at the waist, put his forehead on my shoulder. I felt like I was enough. When I threaded my fingers through the hair that should have been washed the day before, I didn’t hesitate or pull away to mumble some ill-fated joke. He laughed, moved closer, stayed the night.
The next afternoon, I heard his door slam. From the window, I saw Maria’s car back in the parking lot. For three days, I hoped it would be gone when I came home from work. It stayed. I felt slimy, stupid, malleable.
I thought about telling her, pulling up a windshield wiper and pinning a note underneath. I even wrote the note out, but before I made it out of my door, a slick panic took hold of me and I ended up just leaning against the cool metal with the handle jabbing me in the hip. For three days, I hadn’t spoken to anyone who didn’t speak to me first, I realized—not without him or his crowd around.
It’s the fourth day before I realize I’ve forgotten to have a sense of humor. I remind myself that the world extends beyond here, that the concrete between our doors keeps going and then there’s grass, then sand, then ocean and sand again. Between those, people—some who have more insightful things to say about Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Then again, I haven’t met them.
Rose Kinney is a second-year MA fiction student. She is an amateur photographer and recovering theatre kid.