Alissa Nutting's debut novel, Tampa, was published by Ecco/HarperCollins in 2013. She is author of the short story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls (Starcherone/Dzanc 2010), which won the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction judged by Ben Marcus. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Norton Introduction to Literature, Tin House, the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, and other venues. An assistant professor of creative writing and English literature at John Carroll University, she lives in Ohio with her husband, her daughter, and two spoiled tiny dogs.
Lying in the grass just outside of school grounds, fifteen-year-old Kent Thomas was dressed with a boldness of style that meant he was either a budding rock star or a complete loser. White, oversized sunglasses—a fashion accessory that avails itself to people who are in the active throes of psychotropic drugs—eclipsed the majority of his face behind their perfect saucer circles. If they suggested to passers-by that Kent was high on something, his equally hyperbolic mouth, stretched into a toothy smile that didn't hold back, certainly didn't argue. Staring off into the gray, rainy distance with a possessed grin, sober Kent appeared to be tasting every flavor of some enviable chemical rainbow.
In truth, he was having one of his buzzing spells. It was something he couldn't shake, a static that brought on daydreams. This had begun when he was a child and grown steadily more frequent with the onset of puberty, as though his awakening groin was its volume control. He was utterly helpless against fighting their gravity; when a spell happened at school it was nearly impossible to pull away and concentrate. Not being able to describe the feeling made it somehow worse—it was a secret he had to harbor. He'd tried, on occasions when his mother was yelling in the high-pitched vowel sounds that meant he'd spaced out and wasn't listening, to tell her. "My head feels funny," he'd start. "Like when your arm falls asleep? Or maybe opposite that. If it feeling asleep was normal and then it woke up instead." She'd adjusted her hairnet, pulled her lips back slightly from her teeth with rodential flair like she was making an odd whistle that only a nonhuman species could hear. "Kent, I swear to our Jesus. You don't make any sense."
But he didn't have to worry about that right now. His right thumb was moving steadily across his other four fingers, stroking back and forth, as though he was feeding a string of wool into a loom. He always did this when the buzzing came; he didn't know why. In his head he was holding a giant fishhook that suspended Suzie Taylor, a chatty blonde in his first-period class who'd told her friends a little too loudly that Kent was "looking at them weird." Though in reality her cheek would never support her body weight in that way—it would just rip, Kent knew that of course—in his mind at the moment he was able to hold her up with just one of his thin young arms, standing proudly on a dock suspending his catch for all to see. She was naked and glistening wet; he could feel the clammy dampness of her back soaking through his shirt across his abdomen. Several photographers' flash bulbs went off. He didn't mind the attention; in fact, he welcomed it. A banner unfurled above his head that declared he'd made the catch of the day. "Suzie," he began, looking down at her. There on his waist next to his belt suddenly appeared a long knife. He became aware of a problem the same moment he became aware of the solution, before it was able to cause him a moment's distress: the cooler at his feet was tiny, no bigger than a lunch box. "I'm going to have to cut you into small pieces to fit you inside." It wouldn't be easy work, but sometimes that was the most rewarding kind—the tasks that challenge. Once it was over and he'd fit her inside, there'd be a proud sense of accomplishment that no one else could take away. Hadn't his father said something to that effect once—told him how victories live on in your memory to be replayed again and again? He thought he remembered him saying that. Though according to his mother, Kent made up things all the time and thought his father had said them. If Kent was honest with himself he didn't remember, but that made him uncomfortable, so he wasn't honest. Suzie's eyes bulged; her head retracted back in a gag and a bloody gurgle poured from her mouth. It dripped to the ground in long strings like syrup as the droplets of water from her body and hair made pattering sounds across the asphalt.
"What the hell you smiling at?" A homeless man in a dour mood had pushed his shopping cart across Kent's path and felt the boy was grinning at his expense. In his daydream, Kent had begun to squeeze Suzie's cold breasts. He could see her veins beneath her slick goosebumped skin; exposure to the air had hardened her nipples. Each time he squeezed her breast, more blood poured out of her mouth; it was like some reverse form of milking. The more he squeezed, the more blood came out. A shadowy figure of a fellow fisherman appeared—he couldn't see the man's face, and though he could hear his voice just fine, it was somehow too distorted and coming from too far away to place for certain. Was it his father's voice?—approached and offered him counsel. "Careful," he warned. "She's losing a lot of blood. You don't want her dead too soon, do you?" Kent did not. But he also did not want to stop squeezing her breast harder and harder; he was squeezing as hard as he could and it felt nice. "How much blood does she have?" he wondered aloud. With a sense of wonder he looked over at his other hand that held the hook suspended. He was so strong! His arm wasn't growing tired in the least; he couldn't even feel it. It was mounted in the air like a cement pole. On the ground the blood was pooling around his foot like a bright puddle of paint; he wriggled his flip-flopped toes around in the warm liquid.
When the buzzing began to fade Kent grimaced. Something sharp was hitting his face and chest. He shook his head when a few pebble-like pings clipped against his sunglasses. There was a man in front of him, Kent realized, a man in very dirty clothes who was reaching into a bag and tossing its contents at him. After a moment Kent realized the assaulting hail was dry cat food. "Wipe that smile off your face!" the man demanded. Kent's mind hadn't unplugged from his daydream yet; electric snapping noises were still ringing through his ears at an intermittent pace. He felt a piece of cat food enter the gape of his grinning mouth and rest on his tongue like a pill. He couldn't tell if he was smiling or not. He reached up and felt his face. It seemed that he was. When the buzzing stopped he'd have control back. That's just how it was: suddenly he'd see a hole of light behind his eyes and a vacuum of self-awareness would quickly drain in and he'd be able to tell his body what to do again. But it hadn't quite left, and he wasn't in any hurry for it to.
"Sorry mister," he finally managed. "I can't help it." But the apology coupled with the lasting smile only seemed facetious. The man began to make spitting sounds, which was fine by Kent—the drops of his saliva landing on Kent's bare arms and legs simply transported him back to Suzie's dripping body. "When you're ready," the shadowy figure said, "we'll dress her. Clean the fish." His oversize fingers thrummed against an identical knife hanging from his waist, which was at Kent's eye-level. "Get her clean and dress her." He didn't remember ever gutting a fish with his father, but he hoped he had. Maybe he had. Why not?
The sounds of the man pushing away his shopping cart filled with rattling cans became the noise of the metal canoe knocking up against the dock in the water. "We want some privacy," the man said. Kent had forgotten all about the crowd. He turned and saw their greedy eyes looking Suzie up and down, nodding with excitement. She wasn't theirs, though—they didn't catch her.
She'd been out of the water for a good bit now, and it was beginning to show. Her hair was drying, its ends becoming brightly dyed where they hung across the arch of spray coming from her mouth. Her struggling shakes, initially forceful, had grown into weak periodic twitches. The eyes were rolling back into her head and revealing the unbroken smooth white surface of boiled egg. "Let's get her back into the boat," Kent decided aloud. It was a good feeling to make this decision and be in charge. "Sail off to where we'll be alone." The shadowy man would steer; his responsibility was the body. He could put her back into the water and drag her alongside them, possibly revive her, have her kicking and full of spunk once more when they got to their destination. But he didn't want to part with her in that way. Today it was better for her to simply bleed out at his feet, safely beneath him, where he wouldn't have to take his eyes off her and she couldn't wriggle off the hook. He set her on the ground and her mouth began to dumbly open and close again and again in the shape of an "O"; as the boat pushed off and the tottery thrill of being atop water instead of land registered in his chest, he placed his foot atop her abdomen and pressed downward, first gently and then with increasing weight, and watched the circular shape of her lips disappear in the gush of blood that rose forth and poured overtop her cheeks and chin in a seemingly never-ending fountain, like he'd tapped into the well of life itself.