Sweat pooled at the crook of her arm, her belly, the fronts of her thighs—wherever her body touched little Eli’s. His face was flushed and puffy from his nightmare, but he was finally sleeping soundly. His sweaty hair had dried enough that strands of it rose and fell with the fan’s oscillation, although much of it remained matted to his forehead.
Once he’s in kindergarten, it’ll all get easier, or so the internet reported.
It was 4:45 a.m., and the black sky was beginning to gray. She thought of the green-gray creek at the edge of her yard, the creek that would be sloshing over its banks now, sliding south, the occasional whitecap at the sharpest of its turns. She could cross the yard, sit on the bank of the creek, and dip her legs into the quick-washing current that would tug at her feet and relax her. Eli always slept straight through the early morning hours; it was the night—when her own body needed sleep—that was the problem. She hadn’t been down to the stream alone since last summer, and going with Eli wasn’t the same. He wanted to get too close, to lean over the edge without her holding him, to pick poisonous berries. Everything was no, Eli, no, Eli, no.
She carefully crawled over him and stood among the scattered toys on the rug. Eli sucked his thumb, his mouth moving mechanically for a few seconds, then stopping, then starting again. Slurp, slurp, slurp, slurp, pause. Slurp, slurp, slurp, slurp, pause. She knew his patterns as well as she knew the freckles on her arms, as well as she knew it took one and a half minutes to heat oatmeal, 42 seconds to make Keurig coffee, and six and a half minutes to read The Cat in the Hat. Like she knew that her high school friends Sara and Trinity—was the 10-year reunion really this summer?—would comment on her Facebook posts when she shared funny quotes or memes but no one commented when she wrote about being bored or hinted at being unhappy. Like she knew that Scott would call tonight because he had his palm pilot set to remind him to call every other day while he was overseas; when he called he’d tell her about his boss, whom he didn’t like, and about the horrible food at the hotel, that he missed her and the boy, that he had trouble talking to the boy on the phone, that it just seemed to make both of them sad.
Downstairs, the house was quiet other than the burbling of the fish tank motor and the creaking hardwood floor under her bare feet. She grabbed the flashlight from the top of the refrigerator and pulled on her sneakers. Once in the yard, she left the sliding door open behind her, just in case Eli woke.
Just in case. She lived her whole life thinking about just in case.
A firefly lit and dimmed beneath a fingernail moon. She moved the flashlight around the yard, its concentric circles spotlighting Eli’s wading pool, which was half-deflated now, with a shiny, black maple branch immersed in the collected rain water. The toys at the bottom lay stranded in their water world amidst the leaves. Her lawn chair had folded up beside the pool. Everything outside the flashlight’s beam was black or gray; in the flashlight’s beam, the maple leaves shone vibrant green; the grass silver; the toys in the yard red, yellow and royal blue. She looked at the colors like she’d never seen them before. Some sort of odd bird repeated a loud call with a wavering pitch that sounded like the space gun on Eli’s Alien Invaders and she got spooked, jerking the flashlight beam around her.
As she entered the band of brambles, vines, berry bushes, and maples that lined the creek bed and formed a partial canopy, she could hear the water’s speed, could smell the wet earth. Between her thumb and forefinger, she pulled wet brambles out of her way. The air was darker here, scarier, but the flashlight beam hit the water and sparkled white in the dense green froth.
Lightning had hit one of the maples. A nearly amputated branch hung onto its trunk by a few fibers, the inside of the tree as white as moonlit skin. The branch dipped downward into the water, and the current tugged at its submerged foliage. She felt a buzz of fear, because the tree was unexpected, its angular position unnatural, unstable. And because of the obscure darkness of the cavern under the trees. And because she was rarely away from the house alone anymore.
She crouched on a rock ten or fifteen feet from the tree, lowered herself to sitting on the soggy moss, and removed her sneakers. The cold water enveloped her legs, and the stifling heat of the bedroom seemed like a faraway dream belonging to someone else.
She ran the flashlight along the length of the tree. The flashlight’s beam picked up the intricacies of the bark, the beautiful angles, the fluttering of the leaves in the water. In the shadows outside the beam of light, everything was gray-scale, and her gaze was drawn to the sharp illumination of colors and depth as the beam followed the branch downward into the rippling water, as if she, too, were a part of that light and everything it touched. Then, in between two leafy branches, she saw the man’s face.
As the flashlight’s beam spotlighted him, he covered his eyes as if his elbow and forearm were blocking a punch.
Her body quivered. Her legs scrambled out of the water. The roar of the cicadas droned louder, cloaking everything in terror.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. Around the edges of his words hung the high pitched anxiety of puberty and she paused in fleeing from him–she was standing on the mossy rock, half turned to run—and focused the light on him again. Yes, he was younger than she’d first imagined, maybe seventeen or eighteen. Still lanky. He was in the water to his shoulders, with only one arm and his head showing. In the shadow of his arm she could see his hair spiked wet and dark, the beginnings of facial hair on his jaw, one earring. He said, “I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s just that I heard you so I hid.”
“Well, you did scare me.”
“I know. But I didn’t mean to. Can you stop shining that on me?”
She adjusted the beam of light so that only the largest and dimmest circle of light rested on him. He lowered his hand back into the water. His face relaxed its squint. It was a sweet face, not attractive in the confident way of most that were called attractive, but a face that felt easy to know: big brown eyes, thick eyebrows, large nose and ears, skin splotched by hormones. A face in the midst of change. In another five years, he would be bearded and his eyes would be more guarded. In another thirty, he’d be almost a different person.
“This is private property,” she said, even though it wasn’t. People canoed the creek throughout the summer; she could hear them laughing and talking when she sat in the yard listening to Eli tell her she was playing superheroes wrong.
“I know,” he said.
“Why are you here?”
The man-boy sighed. The current pulled at him and he struggled to lean forward as it pinned him against the branch.
She stood watching him, feeling the squishy moss between her toes. “You should sit up on a rock, where you won’t get dragged away.”
“It’s nicer in here. And I don’t care if I get dragged away. My sister died yesterday. She took a bunch of pills, just wanted to sleep forever. No reason. She was unhappy, about a boy who didn’t like her as much as she liked him.” He wasn’t looking at her. He was facing the current, looking far away into the winding creek, and she could almost feel the mist hitting his face.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She watched him for a minute before she crossed her ankles and sat back down on the rock.
If he noticed that she had sat back down, he didn’t show it. “She was sixteen. She barely even knew the boy. She met him online. He played football and liked to take photos of oceans and had a twin brother named Steve who went around competing in contests to see who could eat the most before they threw up. This brother made money doing it. That’s what this guy told her. That’s what she told me about him. I don’t know if it was true, but she believed it. She must have believed something enough to fall in love with him.”
The creek continued to tug at him and he held onto a branch as he talked. The creek cared nothing about his despair, which poured out faster and faster now, as slippery on his tongue as the water against its banks. It expanded into the misted air above the creek, but the water pulled it under, drowned it, carried it away. She wondered if maybe this was why he came here in the first place, to be dragged down too, to follow his sister. But his skin was tinged pink from the cold water and she could see his breath in the beam of the light. He might have been more alive than anyone she’d ever seen.
“It was like you couldn’t even talk to her anymore,” he said. “She’d just start talking about him, or worse, she’d just nod and then go back into this own world of hers. This world that wasn’t real. You could see it in her eyes. She thought that made-up world out there was better than anything. That he was better than anything.”
She should nod and tell him she understood, ask guiding questions that would help him find some meaning in this death. But instead she found herself wishing the words would make better pictures in her head. She felt she could understand the girl better if she knew what color hair the girl had, if she were tall or short, if the sister liked the boy because of what he wrote to her or because of what he looked like, if she knew what the sister was like as a child, or whether she had a lot of girl friends to talk to.
“I don’t even know what this boy said to her. She didn’t even talk to our parents anymore. She never talked to me, even though I always thought we used to get along. There were a thousand lives she could have led. A thousand things she could have done instead of taking pills. But she left us all, and now we’re all lost.”
She ran her fingers over the fuzzy moss beside her leg. His words floated over her, around her, inside her but outside too, so that she couldn’t quite grasp them, as hard as she tried. She wanted to possess the words a thousand lives she could have led. She wanted to pin the words down and make them stop pulsing, but she couldn’t. Her mind kept focusing instead on the feel of the water curling around her legs and the dampness of the moss-covered rock beneath her. She liked the intimate smell of the creek banks, the promise that these banks held life, both past and present, and that there was more to come. She liked the persistent, confident space-gun call of the lone bird. Everything washed over her, into her. This was all the world was; everything was her, and none of it. But in that moment, it was enough.
Everything of the boy but his face was lost to her, below the current. A deep green piece of leaf clung to his cheek, but that was beautiful, too, like the fallen tree branch, like the water itself. She wanted to drop into the water and let the current push her to him, to stroke his wet hair, to tell him not to worry. There, there, she wanted to say.
“I’m sorry I keep talking. It’s like I can’t stop.” His gaze traveled over the water and then rose suddenly to her face. “What about you? Tell me something about you.”
She drew in a sharp breath and thought how her words would rush out into a giant bubble, which the mist would hold still for examination, if she could create it quickly enough, perfectly enough. But the words would burst open and drop their meaning before they reached him.
She could tell him how she had ridden horses every day on her parents’ farm until a mare named Butterscotch bucked her off and broke her leg, how she never rode again and always hated herself for not getting over it. She could tell him about when her grandfather died, how she’d been secretly glad, because she hated her grandfather for treating her grandmother like she was dumb and slow. She could tell him that she lost her virginity and got married for the same reasons: they were on a list of things to be done, and she never considered not getting them done as soon as she could. She could tell him that when Eli was born, she’d thought he would know instantly that she was his mother, but his eyes were dark and vapid, and after days of nursing, she gave up and started bottle-feeding him. But then she’d have to tell the boy that the first day Eli really did seem to see her was when she was staring at her naked body in the bathroom, pulling and releasing the new flab at her stomach, watching it jiggle, and she looked over and saw him smile, as if—even though she knew it wasn’t true—this would be his first memory of her. She could tell the boy all of this. She could create herself, string words together and say, This is me. These words are me. But they wouldn’t be.
He’d nod. Maybe he’d tell her it would all be okay. Or maybe he’d tell her it didn’t seem like she had any problems at all. Maybe he’d ask what color eyes Eli had or what she liked to watch on TV. Maybe he would think these details would help him understand who she was.
The creek seemed to slow, to wait.
Outside the canopy of trees, the new white-blue sky was beginning to blush, but the space beneath the trees remained dark, filled with damp, reticent shadows. The wet air was a lover, a trap, a riddle, a microcosm, a moment in time, a ritual, an answer. It listened. The water mouthed her calves and she thought if she swam inside the tongue of its current she might live forever.
“I like it here,” she finally said in a creaking voice filled with cobwebs. “This space. This morning. It feels… I don’t know the word for it. It feels… benevolent,” she said but instantly shook her head as if to erase the word from the air. Yet she felt it hang in the mist, felt its unresolved chord, the not-quite-the-right-word quality of its being.
“Benevolent?” he asked.
“I don’t know. That’s a strange word, isn’t it?” she asked.
He nodded slowly, as if he were hearing the word over and over in his head, perhaps even tasting it as it sat on his tongue. “I know what it means. But it’s a weird thing to say.” He smiled at her and wiped his hand over his face, dislodging the piece of leaf. When he stood, she could see how the water wasn’t as deep as she’d thought—how he’d been crouching, how his blue tee-shirt clung dark and tight to his body, how he was skinnier than she’d imagined. He lifted his hand in an awkward wave, and then, with the current knocking him against the branch, he made his zigzagged way to the opposite bank.
She thought about how she needed to get back. Eli would want a pile of pancakes made into the shape of cat faces. He would want the strawberry syrup poured directly onto the thin slice of butter so he could watch the butter slide off the top of the pancakes and onto the plate. He would laugh and say it looked like a boat. He would want orange juice in the Spiderman sippy cup with the side handles. She would kiss him on his temple, which would smell like sleep and soap and syrup and orange juice. She’d hug him tight, his torso soft but solid under his cotton pajamas.