And all around me, only disappointment: Only my house, slowly sinking into the ever-muddying earth. Only my horses, my one remaining milk-cow, lying together upon their sides, moaning in the swamp of our fields. Only my crops, my husk- barren corn plants unable to grow past my kneecaps.
Only my son, with his gray skin and strange skull, his cleft-lisped voice, his useless hands making the arts and crafts his mother taught him as all around us our world sinks into an earth suddenly less solid, less able to keep us above its porous skin.
While I spend my days adding new supports to our house, burying new beams in search of solid ground, this son—this boy I no longer wish to claim—he makes portraits of his mother with the cheap watercolors we bought him as a child. He paints her eyes wrong, colors her hair black instead of blond, and so every night I take away his papers and throw them into the puddle of our yard.
Every night, I tell him, Again you didn’t paint her right.
I say, Nothing better to do all day, and still you can’t remember your mother’s face.
I say, All our house surrounded by this new swamp, this mad earth that swallowed our neighbors, that sucked deep your mother, when you would not set down your dolls to save her.
This world has taken everything from me, and still there is you, sitting here doing nothing, while I have to farm, to herd, to build the struts and floats keeping our house atop this shivering earth.
I say, What use is a son, if he is a son like you?
Oh, and the hurt in his eyes! So unfair he thinks me, so cruel! Perhaps so, but in no less measure than he deserves, when even after this speech he only puts away his paints to pick up his clay, ready to begin another set of misshapen family figurines, another pairing of plump mothers and tiny crack-chested fathers.
What tears when I smash them with my fist, when I crush their bodies upon our food-bare table!
What good tears, so that he might get them out, so that without them he might become the man I want him to be!
For another week, I come in from the fields each night to pull down his construction-paper mobiles, to wreck his finger paintings, his collages cut from our family photo albums.
For another week, I indulge his teenage wastefulness, and then I say no more. Then I say, Follow me.
With my rifle in my hands, I say this.
On our porch—warped atop this land of mud-paths and quick-muck—I put my hand on his shoulder.
I put my hand on his shoulder, and then I take it off.
I say, I have decided I would rather have no son than have you.
I say, I will give you a fifty-yard head start, and then I will shoot just once.
If you aren’t killed, then good luck to you.
My sensitive son, always he cries! So unfair, he says. So wrong to do this to your own child, no matter what our differences, sending him out into a world unstable and wet, where who knows which paths might lead to safety, and which to sinking death?
I say, You don’t know, but I do. I know which paths, because I have tread them every day, growing what crops might grow, caring for what horse and cow might scrape by even now.
You have done none of these things, even when asked, even when I wished to teach you to be the man that I am, and so you do not know the world outside our walls, outside the confines of your stupid and strange head.
I say, I have never liked you. Not when you were a baby, and not now, when you are less than a man.
I say, I do not want to kill you, but I suppose I want a chance at it. Just to see what this thing I have dreamed for so long might feel like.
And then I kick him off the porch, and then I tell him to run.
I wait until he reaches the sycamore slanted at the edge of my once-yard, slanted as crooked as his own limping run, his body pulled this way and that by his heavy head, and then I raise the rifle.
I pull the trigger, glorious despite all this awful world left for me to live in all alone, and then I am no longer disappointed, for at least this moment: the short blaze of a muzzle flash, the uncertain flight of a bullet, the razor-edge of chance between one bad outcome and another.
Matt Bell is the author of the story collection How They Were Found. His fiction has been included in in Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. He is also the editor of The Collagist.
“Xarles, Xavier, Xenos” was originally published in Refrigerator Mothers (TLR, Fall 2010)