Tom the Sheller
We're in a furniture warehouse near the coast. The products are all antiques, and so is the building--the pounding rain leaks through the tin roof in several places. This is the drop-off--the Weitzman armoires and Brasilo cabinets and Harrison credenzas are filled with the goods, awaiting relocation. It is almost one in the morning, and Peter Danilov wasn't expecting us.
Mancini circles around him while I hover in the background, half in the shadow of a tall wardrobe. Danilov is rocking slightly at the hips. A nervous tick, I'm sure, because it's doing nothing to loosen the barbed wire around his wrists. It can't be pleasant for his knees either, rubbing against the concrete floor like that. Dark maroon on his jeans.
"Tell the truth, please. It really will make things a lot easier for everyone."
"Why should I? You're just gonna kill me anyway."
"Look Peter," Mancini says, squatting so his face is at the poor man's level. "We're going to find out. My friend over there? He's Tom the Sheller. He isn't as nice as I am. He's not gonna ask, you dig? He's not gonna ask, man. He's gonna take it from you and turn you into a vegetable. You'll probably wake up, but you won't remember your life. It's called dissociative fugue--irreversible amnesia, Pete. Maybe that sounds kinda nice to you--it'll sure take care of your little heroin problem--but what about your wife? She'll be mighty upset when her husband can't remember her name. Or her birthday. Or her favorite place to go out. Or where her sweet spot is. Or . . . oh wait, do you even know where her sweet spot is, Pete?"
"Go fuck yourself."
Mancini lets out an exaggerated sigh. He usually gets it out of them, but he prefers to fail. He wants to see me do it. He knows how much I hate myself. I cross my arms and wait. My palms tighten around the sleeves of my jacket.
Danilov is getting a maroon stripe down the ass of his jeans. At first I can't see where it's coming from, but then I see how the barbed wire perforates his lower back as he continues to sway back and forth on his knees. I don't think he even notices.
A few feet away, a line of water drips from the rafters. It collects in a small puddle on the concrete floor; all the furniture has been deftly arranged around it. I focus on the stream instead of Mancini and Danilov, looking up into the darkness as if I could find the little hole in the roof. I follow the water down and stare at the puddle, just staring, for several minutes.
"Can we cut the foreplay and skip to you killing me now?" Danilov says. The strength back in his voice makes me look away from the water. "Enough of this bullshit man. Enough. Just off me."
"Peter, my friend," Mancini says, draping an arm around Danilov's shoulders. "We've been through this. You are not going to die tonight. Relax. I'm gonna ask your sorry sniveling ass again, but I'm still gonna be nice about it. My friend's getting anxious."
He gives me a little smirk and a look from the top of his eyes. Jack Mancini is the only man I would consider shelling just to leave him helpless. But it wouldn't help me--he has friends.
"You realize that by telling us you could help yourself. After all, we're the good guys. We obey the law. I know you're afraid of your bosses, but we could hide you. Your family too."
"Don't play with me. You guys are no better than the people I work for. You're just as much criminals as we are, except you hide it. You play dirty, that's all. Guerrilla criminals."
Eye contact is the important thing--they are portholes into the brain. I've known there was something special--something powerful--about eye contact since I was a boy, as if it briefly linked the two minds.
I put my first person in the hospital when I was eight years old. His name was Mr. Vail, my third grade teacher. He was a nice guy, I guess, I don't really remember. It's ironic that he doesn't either.
I was a terrible test taker back then. The year before, I had wet my pants and run out of the classroom crying during a science test. This time, it was multiplication tables. I thought I knew them, but when test time came I couldn't remember anything. I thought if I could just get a hint it would all come back to me. I raised my skinny, shaky, sweaty arm.
Mr. Vail shrugged and smiled and looked away, as if to say, "Sorry little buddy, wish I could help, but this is a test. The pressure's all on you." Then he looked me in the eyes.
I didn't know what I was about to do, but I couldn't have stopped it anyway. I was a deep-sea diver, not an oceanographer. I took that answer.
I shelled him.
I didn't breathe for about thirty seconds. My heart didn't beat. I didn't hear the kids' pencils scraping on their tests, or smell Mr. Vail's English Leather cologne that he doused himself with every day. All senses were dull except sight. I saw everything. I saw Mr. Vail, first from memories of childhood, then throughout the bigger moments in his life--his college graduation, wedding, divorce court, oldest son's graduation from elementary school--then I was looking at myself, into my own dull, blue-green eyes, and I asked my question.
I call it shelling because it's kind of like cracking the shell off an egg. The mind has a layer around it that keeps all the other people away, but once someone breaks it, everything spills out. And once it's out, there's no getting it back in.
That's how I later thought of what happened to Mr. Vail. The other kids had no idea what was going on, didn't even notice anything was wrong until Mr. Vail started shaking and drooling and grunting. It was my first time, but it felt familiar anyway, as easy as peeling away the skin from a banana. It went down as a stroke, and I walked away unscathed except for the wet spot on my jeans. Looking back, I almost think Mr. Vail wanted to be shelled. He never seemed especially happy as a teacher. I heard he's in construction now.
I didn't shell anyone again until college. I went to a large university, the kind where there are lots of smart people and prize-winning professors and pressure to succeed. I had outgrown my test anxiety, but I found I was still susceptible to other kinds. One night sophomore year, sleep-deprived, behind in my work, and unprepared for a couple of exams the next day, I broke. My roommate, Kevin, called my name--I think he meant to ask if I could turn the lights off, but I can't be sure because he never got that far--and I looked into his eyes. I felt it swell up inside me like hunger pains, like a cigarette craving, like the need to breathe after being underwater, and it was out before I could stop it.
I saw old birthdays, Kevin's first kiss in a dark movie theatre, a close up of his dad's fist, Kevin catching a fifteen-yard pass to send his team to the playoffs, and finally myself, sitting at my desk in my Coca-Cola pajama pants. That was it for Kevin. I fell out of my chair and threw up on the tile floor, shaking. All my muscles were tense and twitching.
Once it passed, I looked at Kevin in his lofted bed. His eyes were open and glossy. A string of drool leaked out of the corner of his mouth and onto the futon. I stood up, testing my weight, squeezing my chair for support and to keep my arms steady. I did nothing for several minutes. I grabbed the paper towels, cleaned up the vomit, and threw them away in the bathroom trashcan. I tossed my Coca-Cola pants into the hamper. Then I called 9-1-1.
The urge became too much three other times before graduation. After the second one, I was able to sense a shelling attack coming on. At those times, I stayed away from my friends and family, but I couldn't keep away from everyone. It's really hard to avoid eye contact. All it takes is a moment.
School shut down after the fourth. Teams searched all the science labs for radiation leakage, and all the buildings for any kind of fungal or mold contamination. When they found nothing, a couple of medical detectives started interviewing students. They wanted to compare the victims' lives and try to find a common link. They deemed the instances unrelated anomalies.
I decided I wanted to be in control. Every couple of months, I would travel--fly, drive, take a bus, hitchhike, whatever I could afford--to a random city, find someone who looked like they were having a bad day, and shell them. Then I would be okay for a while.
A woman in a barber shop in South Boston. A man beside me in the subway line in Baltimore. A shroomer in New York who showed me amazing, unreal images of color like a kaleidoscope. A homeless man in San Francisco, who, I discovered, was the killer in three unsolved murders. A secret service guy in D.C. who showed me the positions of all the two-man sniper teams that lurked on the rooftops while the president's limo took him across town. Only the strongest memories lingered; the weaker ones faded too deep to retrieve, like ones formed in infancy.
Sometimes on the flight home, I would wonder if some scientist was examining these cases, trying to piece together my victims' lives like the detectives had done in college. Did they have a common diet? A common chromosomal defect? No, doctor. They'd all been visited by Tom the Sheller, the vampire of memories.
I despised what I had to do. I would have preferred to be a junkie, since will power is sometimes enough for them. I needed to shell people on purpose so I wouldn't shell anyone by accident. The guilt was never enough to suggest suicide, though, and I knew it never would be unless I slipped up and accidentally shelled my grandma or my girlfriend (though I had none). Once I saw the man sitting in my favorite booth at my favorite deli, I knew I should have put a pistol to my head and pulled the trigger a long time ago. I also knew it was too late.
I remember watching him walk from my old booth to my new table. He was an ordinary man--I had no reason to fear him. But I did--real fear, the kind you get when you're walking home in the dark and thinking about masked men jumping out and grabbing you, and one actually does. It must have been his smile. It was maniacal.
"Hello, Tom," he said. "I'm Jack. Pleasure to meet you."
"How do you know my name?" My tongue didn't feel like it was in the right spot.
"I know all about you, Tom. You and your little hobby. Have you ever heard of a man named Marcus Prouty?"
I shook my head and tried to remember to breathe. He unbuttoned his jacket, and I saw his shoulder holster.
"He was a member of the Secret Service. Not high ranking, but a good man, good agent. Last month, he inexplicably lost his memory. He had a wife and two kids, and he doesn't recognize their faces. Ring a bell yet?"
I looked him in the eyes--
"Don't try it!" he said, and the next thing I knew his holster was empty and his left hand had disappeared beneath the table. "If I start feelin' funny in my head, I'll end you right here. Even if you got me, you'd catch a bullet from a sniper rifle before you made it home tonight. Just look at your hands."
I did, barely seeing how much they trembled.
"Collin Michaels. Samuel Cortes. Sarah Webber. Richard Maxwell the Third. Your old roommate, Kevin Anderson. Nothing?"
This was a public place; there were other people here, witnesses. I glanced toward the exits and told my legs to prepare to run, but they were too stiff to listen.
"It's basically murder, Tom, what you do. You take their lives away. Have you ever considered that? No, I can see you haven't. You're just a sick little fuck who gets his kicks by killing people without actually killing them.
"But stop lookin' so tense, Tom. What am I gonna tell the judge? I could never convict you. What I could do is shoot you in your demented little brain and drop you in a river. I can do that, you know." He reached into an inside jacket pocket, retrieved some folded papers, and brandished them at me. "Orders to terminate you. If you don't cooperate, that is. Want to read them?"
He unfolded them so I could see a government seal at the top. I didn't recognize it--an eagle with a lightning bolt and a spear in its talons. He shoved them in my face, but I couldn't read anything. The letters swam together. My hands shook. My mouth was dry, my heart and breathing rates through the roof. I had to attack him, or run, or both, or something, anything. But the gun, and the papers, and that seal. I needed time to think.
"Who are you?
"Agent Jack Mancini, Office of Acute Affairs."
"Never heard of it."
"It's a division of Homeland Security. There are no records, no history or future. We're Homeland's Delta Force. You will never meet another OAA agent unless I'm killed. Do you understand why I'm here, Tommy? I'm offering you a way out. It seems like a waste to destroy such a unique talent. If you want me to, I will, by all means, right here in this booth. The orders say, 'In any manner deemed fit by Agent Mancini'--you want to burn to death? I don't give a fuck. I've got the power behind me, Tom, I've got your death warrant. I can get away with it. You know that?"
I think I nodded.
"What do you call it?"
I looked up at him, my eyes on his mouth. "What?" My voice was meek and trembling like my hands.
"I asked you what you called it. This talent of yours, this special thing you can do to people."
I cleared my throat. Cracked my knuckles. "I, uh." Cleared my throat again. Wiped my palms on my jeans. "Uh, sh-shelling. I call it shelling."
"Shelling?" Mancini laughed. "Shelling. That's good. Your own super ability. Tom the Sheller. Nice ring to it. You should get yourself some tights and roam the night."
"How did you find me?"
"You think you're the only guy with powers like this? We keep a few in a room, and once a new one surfaces, we bring the evidence to them. They can smell out their kind--your kind. That's how they describe it. All you fucks have some kind of stench that they can pick up and we can't. They say it reeks."
"What do you want?"
Images of all the people Mancini has made me shell flare across my mind. The man he didn't want remembering our faces. The teenage girl who had seen us interrogating someone. A couple of old men whose kids were in the Russian mob and active in the US. "Just to teach those Reds a lesson," Mancini had laughed. That time I had refused, and he whipped out his nine millimeter and shot them both. "They could be blissfully forgetful now. Because of you, they're dead."
That was the last time I put up a fight. I shelled a mob boss's wife and kids before his eyes so he'd give up some small bit of information. I could have just shelled the boss. But Mancini doesn't operate like that. So I did it, because amnesia is better than death.
Mancini motions to me and I come forward. Danilov rocks faster. Mancini takes a roll of masking tape from his back pocket, and in a few seconds he has Danilov's eyelids peeled back. He is going to show me everything he has ever known.
I slap Mancini across the face and he looks at me, eyes wide with shock, and that's all the time I need. It's over in less than a minute. I see Mancini as a kid, crouched in the corner as his mother storms out with a suitcase. I see him years later, smoking weed with his father and eating burgers and chips. They're hunting, they're boxing, they're rock climbing, they're shaking hands as Mancini leaves for the Marines.
Tours overseas, special operations, undercover assignments. Mancini never fails to accomplish a mission, and people are noticing. The recruiters for Homeland are noticing. One day Mancini walks into an executive office, dressed in his best blues and nervous and excited, and they are there. They have a proposition. It will be dangerous. Details are available only after acceptance. Mancini doesn't hesitate.
I let go of his shoulders and he slumps to the floor. I start toward the exit, leaving Mancini and a tearful Danilov behind among the Weitzman armoires and Brasilo cabinets and Harrison credenzas. I stop by the leaking water and look down into the puddle. I block the drips until the puddle smooths out, then look at my reflection. Eye contact is the important thing--they are portholes into the brain.
I have just started a countdown, and I will always know it will soon reach zero. I prefer ignorance and bliss. I've tried a mirror, the display cases at the local jewelry store, the window of a plane as I flew home with Mancini in the seat beside me. None of them worked. This puddle doesn't work. But I will keep trying.