Mom brought home the mantis shrimp on Monday while I was at school. Dad had just last Wednesday, during visitation, bought me the video game that even most of the fifth graders weren’t allowed to play. The game disappeared while I was sleeping, but I guess Mom wanted to make absolutely sure she was still keeping ahead of her competition. “It can see more colors than we can imagine,” she said on the ride back from school, and then, “I don’t know if it’s bigger than a breadbox. Ask another question.”
I’d had eight fish in my aquarium. One of them, Benjamin, had lived there for almost two whole years. By the time I got home, the mantis shrimp had killed them all.
My shrink says that I should use “I feel” statements to express myself whenever I can, especially when something in my environment or understanding changes. “I feel sick,” I told Mom, while we watched the mantis eat Benjamin with her deliberate mouth.
“Oh, fuck,” Mom said, and burst into tears.
She’s been cursing a lot more, lately. I feel uncomfortable when she does, but I don’t say it, because saying it would make her feel bad, and then I would feel guilty, and then she would feel sorry, and then I would feel how I always feel when she apologizes to me over and over, which is a feeling that I haven’t figured out how to name yet.
While she left to get a tissue, I went to the tank and pressed my nose against it. The water gleamed with specks of scales and meat, and the tank was tinted, ribboned with blood. The mantis scuttled under a rock, then changed her mind and came out, claws raging, and bashed herself against the tank, right at my nose, so hard I could feel the thud in my eardrums.
I told her, “I’m going to call you Murder.”
Before Murder, Patrick was my only friend. He was the only other boy at our old school who was weirder than I was. His parents won’t even let him have a phone until he’s a teenager. They don’t have a TV, either. If it was up to Patrick’s mom, all three of them would live in a log cabin in the middle of a forest. It’s not up to Patrick’s mom because of Patrick’s dad’s job, but they still try to “facilitate a wilderness existence in suburbia.” This means that when I hung out with Patrick, we spent a lot of time in the woods behind his house. I got all my best scars there.
This year they sent him to a new school, for gifted children. I was supposed to go with him—I took the test and everything, and I didn’t do as well as Patrick, but I did well enough to get in. After all the lawyer fees, though, my parents couldn’t afford it anymore. They say maybe next year, but I feel like it’s not going to happen. Which sucks not only because it’s my first year of middle school, but also because now my dad is special friends with one of the substitute teachers, Miss Becky, and I never know when she’s going to be there. When she is, she’s always looking at me with sad, hopeful eyes.
So now Patrick is my only ex-friend, like how mom is my dad’s ex-wife and dad is my mom’s ex-husband, even though they’re still technically working through the divorce. We all became exes at the same time, mom and dad and me and Patrick, at the end of the summer. I didn’t know for a while that Patrick and I were ex-friends, and I kept going to the big tree where we used to hang out right after school, but he never showed. Eventually, I got the message.
“I got the message” is what Mom says to her new support group friends when she’s talking about Dad and Miss Becky and she doesn’t think I’m listening. Dad doesn’t talk about Mom. He doesn’t have any friends other than Miss Becky, anyway, but two weeks ago, at the very end of visitation Wednesday, he told me not to believe everything I hear.
“Like what?” I asked. He shook his head.
Last week, he asked me if Mom ever had any guys around the house. I said no, and he shook his head again, looking sidelong, as if he wasn’t sure of me. The week before, he asked if I noticed any more alcohol in the fridge than there used to be, and we googled pictures of beer and vodka bottles so I would know how to tell.
This was around the same time that Mom’s lawyer started calling more again with his needle voice, and whenever I went into Mom’s room she was always just organizing papers, the folders stacked on her nightstand, marked in red, until I stopped going in. Whenever she came into my room she had always just washed her face, and her eyes were always red. And I was always just watching Murder’s tank, and sometimes I wished Mom would stop coming in too, but she didn’t.
Patrick still lives close enough to me, though, so yesterday he rode his bike to my house after school. I saw it lying on its side like a husk in our gravel driveway and I knew. He was in my room already when I got there, which made me feel annoyed, but I figured Mom probably felt happy because she thought this meant Patrick was still my friend. He was sitting on the bed, looking at the tank. I held a cup of frozen snails.
“Your mom told my mom about the fish,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I liked them.”
“I liked the fish, too,” I said, pouring the snails into the water, but even as I said it, the fish seemed like an old memory. I could barely picture them.
“It’s creepy,” he said, staring at Murder. She punched a snail shell over and over until it cracked open, then dragged it down into her cave, her tail flashing blue in the afternoon light.
“She,” I said. “She’s creepy.”
“Yeah.” Patrick shuddered and looked away. “Do you have any Light Ranger comic books?” he asked. “Everyone’s really into them at my school.”
“No,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “What comic books do you read at your school?”
“We don’t read comic books.” This was a lie. I’d seen Chad and his friends pass them around, glossy and bright-colored. They were almost definitely Light Ranger. “Everyone at my school thinks comic books are lame.”
“Oh,” he said. “What do you guys think is cool?”
“Lots of stuff,” I said. I felt more annoyed than I did when I first saw him. “I don’t really have time to talk about it. I have to meet my new friends.”
“Oh,” he said. He crouched down and tied his shoelace.
“We’re meeting at the big tree,” I said.
He was looking at his shoelace knot. “I thought you didn’t hang out at the tree anymore.”
I felt frustrated. “I hang out at the tree,” I said. “You don’t hang out at the tree.”
“You’re never there,” he said. He looked up. His face was red, but then he smiled. “Thomas,” he said, “What time do you get out of school?”
“I get out at three thirty-four,” he said. “I bet we’re just missing each other.”
I didn’t know whether to believe him or not, and I didn’t know why I was suspicious, either. I felt a colossally huge space between us, even though I knew that if we both stretched our arms out and spun around, we would hit each other. He looked at me, grinning, but I didn’t grin back. He shoved his hands in his pockets. I did too.
“Anyway,” he said.
“I should probably go.”
“Right,” he said, “your friends.”
I almost laughed when he said it, but I choked it down and turned it into a cough. I hacked into my hand until my throat hurt. He watched me, and I watched Murder’s tank, where she was hidden behind her favorite rock. She was good at hiding, which is amazing because she was the brightest thing I’d ever seen in my entire life.
“I’ll be at the tree tomorrow after school,” Patrick said, “so, if you’re not busy.”
I didn’t say anything, but I nodded. He left. There was a spot in the center of my forehead that felt like it was going to split open. I did long breaths like my shrink taught me to stop from hyperventilating. I pressed the heels of my hands into my eyeballs until I saw patterns, speckles and blobs, all the colors of Murder’s exoskeleton, and the colors made the ache throb lighter and lighter until it faded.
I sat on the ground and craned my neck up to watch the tank until Murder would come out again. While I waited, the light in my bedroom shifted. The tree branches out my window cast long shadows across the wood floor, grainy with gold and autumn-deep red-brown, and the braided scrap rug in its faded greens and blues. Dust caught in the light and sparkled like rain.
Outside, some cars drove by, always slowly because a lot of little kids live on this block. The car engines thrummed and purred while they passed. As the light got dimmer, headlights came on and crawled across the wall behind me, making me squint. I was sitting close enough to Murder’s tank that I could smell her water, faint and clean, part chemical and part alive.
It was almost about the time my mom would get home when Murder finally came out, shuffling toward the front of the tank, pointing her head around in all different directions as if she was looking for me. I knelt so that I was eye level with her. She nosed at the corner of the tank, and I pressed just the tips of my fingers against the glass. She punched at me with one of her incredible clubs and churned away, her feet fluttering in the water.
One of the coolest things about Murder is that she’s pretty much invulnerable to attack. Her exoskeleton hinges perfectly, folding over itself so that no matter how she moves, the only soft spot on her is her mouth.
“You’re beautiful,” I said and she scuttled back behind her favorite rock. I think if I loved her any more, I would burst and then she’d have to figure out how to climb out of the tank just so she could eat my guts.
“Listen, sweetie,” my mom said, a sudden shadow in my doorway, “I should have done more research. It turns out that the mantis shrimp can be very dangerous.”
“I know,” I said. She acts as if I don’t have a phone, as if I hadn’t been reading about Murder under my desk all day, even though Chad caught me when I was on a Wikipedia page about regular shrimp and told me that I was behind the rest of the class because we’d made our family trees in kindergarten. When I showed him a picture of a mantis shrimp, he said it looked like a monster, and he didn’t believe that I had one.
“You could come over and meet her,” I told him. “They see more colors than we can even imagine. More colors than the rainbow.”
“Whatever, shrimp-boy,” he said, and went back to his friends.
A good thing I learned in my research is that most fish don’t even feel pain. Now that I knew that, I felt relieved when I remembered Murder chewing on Benjamin’s remains.
Still, Mom looked uncertain. “Maybe we shouldn’t keep it,” she said.
“Her,” I said. “We’re keeping her.”
Mom bit her lip. She looked at me. I stared back as hard as I could, trying not to blink. My eyes burned. She sighed, her shoulders slumping, and closed her eyes for two Mississippi seconds.
“Okay,” she said. “But you can’t ever take her out of the tank. Got it?”
She started to laugh, which I hadn’t seen in a long time, aside from with her support group friends. “People call them the thumbsplitter,” she said. She drew her finger hard across her palm. “I practically bought you a living knife.”
“Awesome,” I said, and she gave me a look. Her face looked thinner than it used to, and her clothes hung off her body with new space. I gave her an overdramatic two-thumbs-up, and she smiled. “Remember it’s Wednesday. Your dad will be here in twenty minutes,” she said, and then she was gone and I was giving thumbs-up to no one, my face frozen in a big fake smile, my hands hanging in the air.
During visitation that night, I told Dad that I wanted to take Murder to show-and-tell tomorrow, before I saw Patrick. “Oh wow,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.” He rubbed the palm of his hand against the side of his sandpaper jaw. I remembered how when I was really little, I used to climb in bed with him and Mom. I would curl up between them and brush my fingers against the side of his face, and then the side of Mom’s, to feel how different they were. Now, I crossed my arms against my chest, pressing almost hard enough to crush my ribs in.
“Well, what else can I take?” I said. “I don’t have anything cool.”
“I could buy you something,” Dad said.
“It’s supposed to be something you care about.”
Dad sat back and thought. “You could take one of the drawings you made of Benjamin?”
“Benjamin is dead,” I said. I tried to say it in an exact monotone. Dad winced. Sometimes I think he misses Benjamin more than I do, which is stupid because Dad left Benjamin before he even died.
“You still have all those drawings, though,” Dad said. “Right?”
“I don’t know.” I felt upset. I pulled my arms together tighter and did long breaths, counting Mississippi seconds in my head.
“Listen, little man,” my dad said. He still gets on one knee to talk to me even though I’m getting too tall for it to make any sense. I could see his bald spot. He grabbed my elbows in his big hands, softly, not trying to pull my arms apart. “I’ve been meaning to ask. How would you feel about you coming and living with me for a while?”
I thought about dad’s nice new house, about video games I’m not allowed to play, about dinner with Miss Becky every night. Mom would be in the old house still, alone except for Murder.
Dad looked at my eyes. “Your therapist doesn’t think it’s a bad idea,” he said. “And you’d be closer to Patrick; that’d be pretty cool, right?”
“I feel like Murder needs me,” I said.
“You can bring him,” Dad said.
“Right,” Dad said. “You can bring her.”
But I felt like Mom would be sad without Murder. Late last night, when Mom got home, she came into my room and watched the tank for a long time. I pretended to be out cold. She sat on the very edge of my bed so she wouldn’t disturb me, and I pretended to be moving in my sleep just a little bit, so I could curl around to see her face. The trick is to kick my legs a little while I crane my neck: misdirection. She doesn’t know better; she looks at the wrong part of me every time.
When I woke up she was still there, curled up at my feet. Something smelled tangy and sour. I got ready for school in absolute silence. When I left, Murder was watching over her through the glass, her eye-stalks swiveling like she was trying to understand. I shook my head at Dad, with my lips clamped between my teeth. “Okay, little man,” he said, and he let go of my elbows. I got in the car, and we were both silent while he drove me back, the trees lanky, lurking like monsters over the winding backwoods road. When I got out of his car at the end of the long driveway, just before the court-mandated property line, he didn’t hug me goodbye.
“Today is show-and-tell,” I say to Mom at breakfast.
“That’s exciting,” she says. She has her laptop open in front of her. Whenever I move, she shifts the screen, which means she’s reading something from her lawyer.
“Can I bring Murder?”
“Murder. Can I bring her?”
She stares at me for a second before it registers. She smooths her hand across her forehead. There is still a weird tan line around her ring finger. “Sweetie, no,” she says. “It’s way too dangerous.” She turns back to her screen.
I stab my eggs so flecks of yellow spatter across my plate.
“Chad got to bring his pitbull,” I say.
“That’s different,” she says. Her phone buzzes.
She looks at the phone’s face and sighs. “For fuck’s sake, Thomas, a dog is a normal pet.”
I stab my eggs again.
“I’m sorry,” she says. Her phone buzzes again. She picks it up and leaves the room. As she walks by, she reaches out to ruffle my hair, but she misses, brushing her fingers barely by the tips.
Miss Becky is subbing for my class today, so there’s no show-and-tell anyway. I feel sick, but she asks me to try making it until the end of math. Because of my dad, she knows that math has been a problem area for me this year, even though it used to be my best subject. Thinking about it makes me feel embarrassed, so I always do my homework as fast as I can to get it over with. Sometimes I don’t do it at all. I miss when the problems made sense.
I ask to be excused at 10:22, when I know the art class will be outside, drawing flowers. I walk past the wing bathroom, up the dusty green stairs, trailing my fingers across the cool fronts of the puke-green lockers, all the way to the end of the hall, where the art room is. I open the door as if I’m supposed to be there. I borrow a rubber band ball, tossing it back and forth between my hands as I walk back down the hall. I shove it deep in my pocket and untuck my shirt to cover it before I go back into math.
The first rubber band is supposed to hit Jonny Kline, but I’m better at velocity than aim, and it misses. It careens into the corner of the room, slaps against the wall and falls in a crumpled pile on the floor. Nothing has ever looked more pathetic. Nobody notices. The second rubber band is supposed to hit Adam Snell, but it leaves a dark red welt on Chad’s neck instead.
“Thomas,” Miss Becky says, stalking to my desk with her loud high heels, leaning too close to me, “What’s gotten into you today? You know better.”
“I feel sad,” I say, but I yell it in her face.
She steps back. She opens her mouth and closes it. “Hmm,” she says. Her eyes are bright blue, prettier than my mom’s, but I would never tell either of them that. They look clear, like the rim of an aquarium if you’re glancing at it slantwise and there isn’t anything alive inside to distract you.
“Listen, shrimp, she doesn’t care how you feel,” Chad says.
“Chad!” Miss Becky cries, but I am glad. It feels more true than anything anyone has said to me in a long time, and I think he was brave to say it.
“Fuck off,” I say to Chad, and the way I feel is multi-colored lightning fizzing in my veins. I stand up from my desk, and then I climb on my chair so I’m taller than Miss Becky. “I hate you.”
Her face crumples a little bit. She breathes in for three long seconds. I wonder if she has a shrink who does breathing with her, too, and then I feel awful. I am still standing on my chair, and everyone is looking at me.
Miss Becky makes me stay after school and calls my dad, but my mom came at the normal time to pick me up, so now all three of them are here. It’s obvious that Miss Becky didn’t think this through. They decide to have a meeting in the classroom and make me wait outside. The building is after-school quiet, with only the occasional sound of sneakers squeaking or heels clacking down the hall. Teachers I don’t know yet walk by. One of them, an older woman with curly hair and dark red lipstick, asks me if I’m taken care of. When I say yes, my voice cracks for the first time ever, but she doesn’t notice. She smiles and hurries on.
I feel bored and anxious. I watch the clock. When the voices in the classroom get loud, I put my headphones on and play YouTube videos of Murder’s cousins, glimmering green and violet in their tanks, devouring snails, fish—even crabs, claws and all.
The adults have been talking for forty-three minutes. At Patrick’s school, the kids are starting to pack their things, thing by thing so the teacher doesn’t notice.
After forty-eight minutes, Patrick’s final bell has just rung and my dad storms out. He is wearing his work clothes, his jean cuffs hemmed in auto grease. Metal shards cling to the soles of his shoes so he clinks when he walks. He stops in front of me, but he doesn’t say anything, just looks at me with a sunken face. He starts to walk away.
“Wait,” I call out. “Can you take me? I need to meet Patrick.”
He looks at me. The colors of him are off: the whites of his eyes are red, the darks, usually gold-brown, are black.
“I can’t, little man,” he says. “It’s not Wednesday.”
“But I promised—”
“You see Patrick all the time,” Dad says, already shaking his head. “I’m sure he’ll understand.”
I feel like a color that he doesn’t know how to see. “Please.”
“It would be kidnapping,” Dad says. He laughs like he can’t believe it.
“Take it up with your mother,” he says, backing away, and then he is through the door and gone. I can still hear my mom and Miss Becky talking.
Patrick is riding his bike to the big tree. He is getting there, braking, letting it fall to the ground among the drying grass and dropped acorns. He is sitting nestled in the roots with a book or a notebook while leaves flutter down around him. He is watching the road, jerking up every time a car turns down it, and pretending not to care when it isn’t me.
After twenty-six more minutes, my mom comes out. “Come on,” she says, and she won’t tell me anything else as we go down the hall, across the parking lot to her car. “Not now,” she says when I start to speak. Her mouth is tight. She looks straight ahead while she drives, as if she’s trying to melt the windshield with her gaze. After a minute she looks at me. Her eyes are brimming wet, her voice unsteady. “Don’t you understand?” she says. “When you act out like this, it makes me look like a bad parent. I need you to be on your best behavior right now.”
“Why right now?”
She shakes her head hard. “Just trust me, sweetie, okay?”
“No,” I say. “I want to know.”
“Later,” she says. She is looking at her phone even though she is driving.
“I feel uncomfortable.”
She pulls over with a screech. A car zooms by us. She grabs my chin and yanks my face to look at her. My neck cracks.
“He can fucking take you away from me, okay?”
I start to cry, and her eyes go wide. Her hand drops. “I’m sorry. Oh god, Thomas, I’m so sorry.”
She pulls back out on the road with care, looking for a long time each way even though nobody is coming. Her knuckles are white around the wheel. I try to stop crying, but I can’t. She flinches every time I gasp.
When we drive past the big tree, it stands tall and red-gold majestic and alone, and I wonder whether Patrick was ever there at all.
Murder is crouched in the corner of the tank closest to my door. When I come in, she scuttles backwards, then rages up against the glass, punching with her brilliant orange fists. I wonder if glass has a color for her. I wonder if water does. I go up to the tank and press my eyes as close as they can get. My nose is in the way and it aches as I push it hard against the pane.
“I don’t care if you’re not a normal pet,” I say, loud enough for her to hear through the glass even though of course she can’t understand human speech. She twitches toward me, lurches back just a bit, then stops and is completely still. Downstairs, Mom is on the phone. I can hear her yelling.
“Don’t be scared,” I say. I stand on tiptoe and dip my fingers into the tank. The water is cool and thick against my palm. Murder dives back into her cave and then out again, wriggling her whole body. Her shell shifts over her back in a glorious ripple of color.
I reach in deeper, wetting the end of my t-shirt sleeve. She tenses, rears. Her eye-stalks bend to follow my arm’s movement, the bulbs at their ends turning. When she looks at me, I wonder what she sees.
This story appeared in Indiana Review 38.1, Summer 2016.
Maggie Su (Fiction Editor): Often a symbol can overdetermine a story, but in Kerry Cullen’s “Thumbsplitter,” the narrator’s relationship with his pet mantis shrimp, Murder, subtly pokes at both the hard and soft parts of growing up. This piece carefully renders a complex portrait of a child navigating through his parents’ divorce.
Kerry Cullen’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, One Teen Story, Monkeybicycle, Catapult, and more. She is an editorial assistant at Henry Holt and she earned her MFA at Columbia University. She is currently revising a novel about sex, god, and Christian rock.