“Ecotone” – Fiction by Chelsea Laine Wells

A Bear in a Moon Night – Niko Pirosmani, 1913

The grand finale of our Fall 2017 issue is “Ecotone,” Chelsea Laine Wells’ haunting & heartbreaking story of a young woman who feels “the edge of what she wants fitted close and suffocating against the edge of what she has.”

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SHE THROWS UP IN THE MOTEL BATHROOM with the light off so the crack in the toilet and the constellation of toothpaste spit on the mirror are hidden. Then she wafts out all slow languid like women in the movies stricken with love or fever, and drapes her body over the bed. Breathes. Flutter of the eyelids. Imagine what it looks like. Looks glamorous. Beleaguered by life. Like the bathroom, she is better with less light. Everything here is better with less light. The room is small and dirty but the bad details fade to nothing in the yellow bedside lamp glow.

She loves to throw up. The ritual of it, the euphoria of emptying, like turning back time. Redemption. You can change yourself and become new, if you reach far enough into yourself, turn inside out. After there is the fever of ache that comes with deprivation and physical strain and that too is a relief. Something to sink into and grow still inside of, sainted by sacrifice. Holy holy. Stomach flat under the fat and mouth sour. She lies moored in the forever inescapable horror of her body, pacified for now, stewing in heavy heartbeat bodyheat. She thinks of the throwing up and the reverse communion of it and then the cartoonish juvenile words boys have for it. Calling the dinosaurs on the big white phone. What does this mean? Worshipping at the porcelain God. She prefers that, but they say it with a backwards twist of sarcasm that denigrates the ritual. The toilet is not really godlike. Worship implies profanity. Everything pure must touch edges with impurity and in that lose meaning and significance.

Ecotone. This is the term for the point of contact between the natural world and the manmade one. She turns this word like a warmed coin in her fingers. Like the border between what is sacred and what is embarrassing and corrupted. Like the border between the holiness of purging and the ugly reality of vomit in a toilet. Even her internal use of the word ecotone embodies this idea – knowing this beautiful word, but in an unfortunate way as opposed to from a smart book she’d never read or a sophisticated conversation she’d never had. She knows it from a television show she watched at a birthday party she wasn’t really invited to, but overheard about, and then was reluctantly included in, and she went knowing she wasn’t wanted there but somehow her self-awareness did not extend to a behavior that prevented social pain. This was another ecotone. Understanding herself and her frailties with the separateness of a child you cared for and looked down on, but not possessing the ability to change anything.

Being here is beautiful. She is the one he chose to come with him, in spite of all her sickness and flaws, her body that stubbornly persists in a gelatinous layer of fat no matter how much she purges. This body, big and squared off, round broad shoulders, thick jaw. She isn’t pretty. But he looks past it and he touches her like she is small and sometimes she feels it, the smallness that might exist within her if she was able to carve herself physically away as strategically as meat for consumption. This is an ecotone of self, the way he makes her feel with his hands and mouth and body, rubbing itself sore against her offensive corporeal reality. His worship, the sacredness. Her body, the vomit in the toilet. Pure against impure.

Right now he is out getting something, which is how she was able to throw up. He would be mad, she thinks instinctively, for her to waste food. They don’t have much. They ran so fast and immediate. No time to think. Not that she would have arrived at any other conclusion, had she been given time to think, had the question been asked of her. There was nothing to stay for.

Her eyes wander up from the bleached light of old television shows to the painting above. It is a forest, a bear, dark colors and blunt forms. Unbeautiful, inelegant. A rough ugly version of something meant by design to be lovely. Girls are meant to be lovely, and loved. Nature is meant to be lovely. She, like this painting, is a crude representation. She wonders about the artist, if he thought the painting was good, if it looked different in his mind than it did on the canvas, from the outside. Ecotone: the border where your biased perception and understanding met with unforgiving reality. The border where what you wanted met with what was.


He’s my boyfriend, she told the counter girl at a diner where they stopped for a hot meal after a twelve hour stretch in the car. He was in the bathroom. She released these words like a breath she’d been holding underwater. The counter girl looked startled, maybe because she’d spoken, which she wasn’t supposed to do, so these were her first words, maybe because he was clearly older than she was, maybe because he looked furtive and angry instead of blissful like boyfriends on television looked, maybe because she’d seen his picture on the news and was planning on calling the hotline after they left. There is no way to know. There is no real way to know the inside of someone.

He isn’t her boyfriend. Of course she knows that. She knows herself, what she is and what she is not. She feels the ecotone edge of what she wants fitted close and suffocating against the edge of what she has. She throws up to redeem herself, to punish herself to a place of sacredness, to atone for her inconvenient body. But what it comes down to is vomit in the toilet. Not a porcelain god. Never quite worship. She will keep doing it even though it doesn’t work, even though it isn’t quite what she wants it to be, in deference.

He chose her. Pretty girls everywhere and he chose her. She wants it to be because she is special. But she knows it is because you can look at her from a mile away and understand that she will not be missed. That something in her life is wrong to have bloomed her as warped and wrong as she is, something systemic at the root. The news won’t want to show her picture. Businesses won’t want to display her flyer. The story will fade down quickly and the people responsible for her will let go and latch onto other things. Self awareness. She knows this. But not how to change it.

Maybe in him, in the light of his attention, she can change. Maybe she can transcend the ecotone, rid herself of the edge. Bring the world into third dimensional focus. She ponders this in the motel bed, saintly and empty and fevered with the energy of purging. She wants to. Wants to be what people want. Or maybe just what he wants.  Maybe that’s enough.

He touched her the first night and she acquiesced. Then she surged into it. If he was shocked at her enthusiasm she couldn’t detect it. Maybe in his mind it seemed different, maybe she seemed scared or innocent or whatever he needed her to seem like to make this what he wanted. The border of what she is against the border of what she seems to be, where does that intersect in the hidden inside of him? A cat’s cradle of perception. Ecotone of real against unreal.

Her head hurts. From the purging and from trying to puzzle all of this out. She asks herself whether she should try to tell him about the ecotone idea but decides no, he likes her to be quiet, he doesn’t want to be bothered. Sometimes when he comes back from an absence his hands are dirty, bruised, stained with what could be oil or blood. It’s best to be quiet when he’s like this, agitated and breathing heavily like an animal. Breathing hard and primal like the bear in the painting. The way everything connects, this is comforting. It is all a fictive dream, maybe. Fictive dream. She heard someone say that once. She doesn’t know what it means but likes the words in her mouth like a taste, turning in her fingers, a warmed coin she can manipulate and control. An idea she can make in her mind.

She watches the doorknob and waits for it to turn, for his bear breathing skin smelling heat pressing body to come back into the room and fit against the fever burrow she has dug on the bed. The border of him against the border of her. Everything is beautiful if you decide it is.

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CHELSEA LAINE WELLS has appeared in Little Fiction, Black Candies, HobartNew South, The Collapsar, PANKThe Other Stories, and Heavy Feather, among others. She’s been nominated for multiple Pushcarts and Best of the Nets and won a 2015 Best of the Net. Chelsea lives in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, Texas, and works as a public high school creative writing and reading teacher. She is also managing and fiction editor for Hypertext Magazine.

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