Chelsea Laine Wells

In the hallway at school Jake ignores you, so you follow him—the simplest kind of math. On the first day of summer you appear next to him at the snow-cone stand where he buys his brother a paper sleeve of red ice. A breeze creeps up the leg of your short shorts and sweat pricks under your crossed arms. He cuts his eyes at you, scowling, his lean mouth like a slash of scar tissue and his pickax jaw thrust forward, but he allows you to walk with the two of them over the dune and onto the beach where the sand is packed flat as brown sugar.

Something is wrong with Jake's little brother. Jake calls him Junior. Junior runs spraddle-legged and his voice is loose. You kneel with them at the edge of the grey ocean where Jake helps Junior dig out tiny mussels, their shells violet as eyelids. Their blind bodies taste the air and immediately retract and they burrow furiously back into the wet sand. You learn how to look into Junior's crooked face straight on, bravely, and you see Jake measuring this over his brother's small head through snake-slit eyes. The snow cone tilts and red ice falls into the thin wash of a wave. There is an anguished wail and Jake gathers Junior's sticky hand into his own and they leave.

Before long Jake begins to meet you alone, without Junior. He listens as you run your voice about nothing. Out of the corner of your eye you study the red grain of his skin, the stubble on his skull, the fine hairs downing his upper lip. He is scoured by a lifetime of the unending Texas heat and wind, raw-handed and long-boned like all of the poor Southern boys that mill around his trailer park raking you with narrowed eyes, but there is something else about him that holds him apart. He has something you want to possess or want to be. He throbs with heat and you think the sun lives in the surface of his skin like gold blood. When he speaks his accent is stronger than yours, long sweet vowels he spreads slowly like legs, and you feel it in your tongue strongly as a food you have been craving.

Jake burns a house down for you. It is abandoned and condemned. He takes you there one night and stands close to you in the shell of the living room and you are convinced that he is going to kiss you finally, with that angry wordless mouth, and sweat rolls down your back like slow fingertips. But instead he pulls a small can of lighter fluid from his pocket and you follow him as he walks from room and room, arcing the thin stream onto the walls like urine. The fumes creep into your nose. Your heart is furious with girlish fear, but you keep silent. When he strikes the match you trip backwards out the front door and down the porch steps and watch from there as he releases the flame with a neat snap. He stands motionless as fire opens like a zipper from the living room into the dining room and up the walls. Finally he turns, when you think you can't stand it anymore, and comes towards you haloed by his own damage. You cannot see his face. You think of what your father would say. You think of your last boyfriend sitting with your family in church, his head lifted towards the preacher. Jake stands next to you and you smell the wood burning black and the flat salt of the ocean behind you and the lighter fluid soaked into his dirty jeans. You look at him in the heaving orange light of the house eating itself. His face is wet with sweat and scored by acne. You are drawn to him the way you are drawn to things that repulse you, the way you are drawn to the thick feathery underside of mushrooms that nose out of the ground the day after a healing rain.

The next day you hear that Junior has been in the hospital since the morning before Jake set the house on fire, some complication of what is wrong with him. You go to Jake's trailer and stand outside, uncertain and uninvited, and then you see him sitting at the kitchen table opposite his mother, an obese woman you have never met but have seen from a distance. Her hands cradle his sharp face and she is talking steadily to him, and he nods every few minutes with his eyes cast down. You feel a stitch of jealousy at her physical ownership. You back away. You don't know what you expected to see, but it wasn't that.

That night you return and stand at his bedroom window. It is a few inches open and after only a slight hesitation, you shoulder it up and climb inside. He is prone in the narrow bed but his amber eyes are wide, collecting what little light comes through the dark glass. You want to say something about his brother but there is nothing to say so you crouch with your chin on the mattress and stare at his face. After a few heartbeats he lifts the covers like a wing and heat swarms out as though from the mouth of an oven, and the boy-smell of scalp and salt and unwashed skin, and you crawl in next to him with your back to his chest, and he closes the wing over both of you. His exhalation pours down your spine like hot water. And you feel it then, the moment when the story changes.

Chelsea Laine Wells has stories in or coming from PANK, Bluestem, Evergreen Review and others.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Sören Benter.

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