by James Wade

There's a story in my head, and sometimes it hides. It ducks down behind my brain and stays quiet. Other days—when the leaves are falling outside and I get to thinking about change, or when folks like y'all have gathered 'round to hear—my story tries to escape. It wiggles itself into my ear and starts beatin' on the drum, or gets to pressin' so hard on my gums I think my teeth might fall out. My story can be mean to me, and I don't care for mean things. So most times I just let it out—let it go on and tell whoever needs to know. I guess this is one of those times.

I killed a man. That's how the story always starts. I get older sometimes, or younger, in my head, but it always sets out the same way. The hills, west of Austin, rise up in my mind. I see 'em shoveled up against a blue sky, deciding the horizon. They're dotted with what West Texans call trees and East Texans call shrubs. I don't know whose terminology is best, and I don't know that it matters much to the dead man. His boots are sticking out from behind one of the dots, 'cause he was a tall fella'. His legs are baked into his jeans 'cause it's August. And the buzzards are pickin' at him 'cause they don't know much else. The law won't find no bullet holes or stab wounds on him—no blunt force trauma—just dead.

At first that's about all I can recollect—that there's a dead man, and I made him so. The story don't stop there, but it gets all jumbled up. Seems to spill out like pieces of a puzzle I gotta keep puttin' together every time. I usually start to work backward, from the dead fella'.

The sun ain't up yet. In my mind I can see his truck, except I'm drivin' it. I'm shiftin' gears and my hands are trembling something fierce. His body is in the back, under an old blue tarp I can hear whippin' around as I head out of town. The plan is to get lost in the hills and bury him, but somewhere along the way my brain starts to hurt in a strange way. I'm crying a bit, in between bouts of slapping myself. My face wells up, all red and angry. I know I ain't proud of what I done, but I can't bring myself to be all-the-way sorry neither. The pounding in my skull is liable to kill me right then and there. I pull off the road just as the eastern light starts to get curious about what's happening out west.

I yank the body down off the bed of the truck and it thuds pretty hard on the ground. No use being delicate at this point. I drag it a little ways up the hill, but the sun's half-hard now, and I imagine the world will start humming the day's tune pretty quick. So I leave it, mostly hidden, except for the boots, and get on back to the truck. I don't rightly know what to do with a dead man's truck, so I drive it out to my deer cabin and park it 'round back. It's almost like I wanted to get caught. I don't always see it that way in my head, when the story is coming out, but I'm seeing it today.

Before I wanted to get caught, I wanted to force that fella's mouth open, and fill his body up with pesticides. In my mind, I see him squirming around in that chair, looking scared and confused. I made sure to set up in the garage, 'cause I couldn't quite gauge how it'd all shake out when I tried to bag him. Turns out he didn't put up much of a fight. I was able to get it over his head without a real struggle, and then it was just a matter of holdin' on. He's bigger than me, so I couldn't bring him down. Instead, we go stumbling around the garage. He's leading, clawing at his neck and taking big 'ole breaths, and I'm behind, squeezing that bag and tryin' to ignore the flailing limbs whacking at me. He goes out, but not before we break a wall-mounted shelf and send Christmas tree decorations crashing down around us.

When he woke up, he started choking and gagging. I had him tied to that chair, and my sprayer-hose was halfway down his throat. Organochlorine is what I used. The EPA came in a few years back and said we couldn't spray it at the school anymore. Instead of letting it take up space in the shed, I brought it home with me. I thought maybe I'd use it one day. Turns out I was right.

I didn't talk, I just stood over him, pullin' on that trigger and watching him squirm. Wasn't nothing to be said, 'least not in my mind, that would've changed things for either one us. He was always going to be him, and I was always going to be me. So I just stayed quiet, and filled him up.

Before he was dead, he was a school teacher. I remember 'cause in my mind I can see his ID badge. Sometimes, like now, when I picture that badge the story starts to skip around in my head. I see him back in that chair, shittin' himself while his body seized up over and over. I imagine I could've just gone on inside and waited, but I didn't. I sat there and watched every second—from his pupils going pin-point, all the way to his skin turning blue. I watched him most of the night; and when my story escapes, that's the part where I know I'm not right. The term you would use is 'a danger to others.' I shouldn't have watched him like that. I shouldn't have enjoyed it.

That morning, I had told him my great-great-granddaddy fought for the Confederacy, and there was a good amount of artifacts and memorabilia in my garage. That was my second lie. I figured he might be interested on account of his ID badge said "U.S. History/8th Grade" at the bottom. I told him he could come look through it—see if there was anything he wanted to use in his class. It took a little bit, but he agreed to meet me that evening. When he rang the bell, I glanced out at his big truck, wondering what I'd do with it after. I opened the door and told him to come on out back to the garage.

Before I killed a teacher in my garage, I had been working the grounds at the middle school for somewhere close to 20 years. I'm not much of an educated man, and I wasn't never gonna have myself a career in the city. That set fine with me, though. I liked the country. I liked workin' an outside job. And I liked keepin' the grass green for them kids. I trimmed up the bushes next to the front door, and out on the curb by the welcome sign. I edged near the sidewalks that connected the main building and the cafeteria to the auditorium and the band hall. In August, I prepped the football field for Fall practice. So that morning, I was painting the endzone lines when he came striding across the field.

I had only seen his face in the picture on his badge when I took it. Maybe I would've recognized him anyway. He's a tall fella'—certainly taller than any of them kids. Either way, I knew who he was—and what he wanted. He asked if I had seen his school ID. I told him I had not. It was my first lie. He said he thought a student might be playing a back-to-school practical joke—taking his badge and hiding it somewhere. Maybe the shed? I told him he was welcome to go have a look. Then I told him about my Civil War collection.

All that is the easy part of the story, 'cause it was all part of my plan. I believe y'all would refer to it as the premeditated part, and I don't imagine I could correct you much. But the hard part is the shed, and it happened first—before the hills and the boots and the buzzards; before the truck and my trembling hands; before the blue tarp and the blue skin; before the chair and the bag and the falling angel that sits on top of my tree in December; before the lies and the invitation; before that son-of-a-bitch came walking across the football field; and before I grabbed his badge.

You see, it takes at least 30 aerosol cans to spray paint a football field. There are compressor-driven painters that use five-gallon buckets (usually about three) to paint, but the price on those is beyond the school's budget. So I use a much smaller, electric-pump painter that only holds a couple of cans at a time. I can carry between 10 and 12 aerosol cans in my pack, and I just replace the empty cans in the painter as I walk back and forth, striping the field. But midway through, I always run out and have to go back to the shed to reload.

The door on the shed doesn't shut right, there's a process to it. A process he didn't know. So it had swung back about two feet once he got started, and I imagine he was too overwhelmed to stop and shut it again.

This part is hard for you, because of what I saw: bodies—one tall, one not—thrusting, sweating, breathing heavy. A body that belonged to a grown man, taking something that should have belonged to a young girl for much longer. His invasion was brutal. She had been told to stay silent, but tears streamed down her face. Her mouth was open and I saw braces. Her legs were open and I saw blood. This part is hard for me too—harder still because of what I did next. Nothing. I didn't stop it, or call out, or go get help. I saw the badge on a table just inside the doorway and I grabbed it. Then I crept away, as quietly as I had approached.

Every time the story forces itself out of me, the question is asked, often by myself: Why didn't I stop it? Why didn't I tell someone? Maybe I was going to. I used to think maybe that's why I grabbed the badge, to turn him in. But I don't believe that now. So I'll try to tell you the 'why' of it, and I hope you understand—not for my case, but for the rest of them.

I could tell someone, and maybe they believe me and maybe they don't. Maybe there's an arrest made and maybe there isn't. Maybe that fella' goes to jail or maybe he gets off. And even if he goes in, when does he get out? When does he get a chance to tell folks like you that he's a new man—that he's found the Lord, or found his purpose? I could've beat him, left him hurt and scared. Maybe that causes him to stop for a while, while the beatin' is still fresh. But how long until he stops being scared? How long until he feels that evil pull at him again?

No, whether he got caught or got beat, that man wasn't gonna change. Look out the window at them trees. See how the leaves are orange and red and brown? Weren't too long ago those were all green. Won't be too long from now they'll be covering the ground. We call it the changing of the seasons. But the seasons don't change, not any more than them trees. It's just a rotation—a cycle, not a change. The trees might seem different to you, but they're the same trees. And the world we live in, no matter the season, is the same as it always has been. People can't change, either. He couldn't. I can't.

That's why it's best you keep me in here.

BIO: James Wade lives in Austin, Texas, where he writes fiction for his wife and two dogs. His wife is encouraging, but the dogs remain unimpressed. His story, "Eligible," received Honorable Mention in the Texas Observer's 2015 Short Story Contest. Other work from James is forthcoming in After the Pause and Yellow Chair Review.