Bourbon Penn 10


by Ken Hoover

It is the hottest part of the afternoon when Russell and Armando begin their search for the missing boy. Russell parks his Jeep on the shoulder of the road under the dappled light of cypress and palm trees. The swamp is inches away, creeping towards dry land, towards the sunlight.

He tightens his boot laces and puts his tan arms through a long-sleeved shirt, his limbs slender but firm, like tree branches. "I hate the water," he says, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his shirt sleeve. His thick hair is wet against his temples, and his work gloves smell of sweat and leather.

"You're in the wrong state," says Armando. He is a foot shorter than Russell, with a thin moustache that outlines his upper lip and a gut the size and shape of a beach ball, which he refers to as "the tool shed."

Sweat drips from Russell's elbows as he pulls two long rebar from the back of the Jeep. He hands one to Armando. They will use them to prod and test the depth of the water. Once you are in the swamp, it is easy to mistake water for dry land.

They were informed that the seven-year-old boy disappeared early this morning. He is autistic and likes to swim; they must find him before dark. Russell and Armando were laying the foundation of a new motel when the local police asked for assistance. Everyone agreed, even their foreman, just to get out of the sun for the afternoon. The police have rounded up everyone who can help, including paramedics, the county sheriff, and old men who know the swamp better than any map. Up the road, two white-haired men in tank tops board a small metal boat. They use oars instead of the motor.

Armando finds a deer path, a thin trail of dirt and leaves that cuts through the dark brush, and stabs his rebar into the ground. Russell follows, stepping carefully, probing the impenetrable brush off the trail where the sunlight is leeched away. Curtains of Spanish moss hang from branches. Water glitters in the shadows.

"We stick to the trails," says Armando. "I don't want to go in too deep."

"Why not?" asks Russell. Even though he's lived here his whole life, he's never truly explored the swamp.

"If the swamp doesn't get you, other things will," says Armando. "Drug dealers, serial killers, ghosts, brujas."

"I don't believe in witches."

Armando stops, stares at him. "My grandmother was a witch, a santeria. This shit is real, man. We stick to the trails."

Russell wonders how long it took the deer to make this trail, and how many generations passed down their knowledge, father-to-son. He thinks of his own infant son, and then remembers the missing boy. "What's the kid's name again?" he asks.

Armando's rebar sinks into the ground. He pulls it out and tries again, a little to the right. This time it strikes solid earth with a hollow chuck. "We're going to have to get wet eventually," he says, then answers, "Louis."

Russell shouts the boy's name. The two old men echo him in the distance. It starts a chain reaction, and Russell hears other voices out there, softer and softer until there is only the whisper of frogs and crickets and the crackling of twigs underfoot.

He thinks of Delmara, the woman he's been having an affair with for about a year, in nothing but the ratty blue bathrobe she wears around her apartment. The front hangs open, and from the proper angle he can see her breasts and dark nipples. She likes to take short showers, sometimes as many as five a day, gallons of water draining into the sewers. Her contacts are tinted, giving her eyes a blue-green color, like water. Her hair is tinged with gold highlights, but darkens and curls when it is wet. Sometimes she wraps her towel around her head like a turban. Even though she is Puerto Rican, this gives her an exotic appearance, enhanced by bronze-colored skin.

"Del won't call me by my first name," says Russell.

Armando pokes the brush to his left, laughing. "She calls you Woodward?"

"Even in bed. Bugs the shit out of me. I think that's how she first knew me, by my last name. You know, like she alphabetizes our names when she cuts the checks or something."

"Who knows? Maybe she's testing you, man. Women test us all the time. That's how they know us better than we do."

"Does Eva test you?" asks Russell. He has never seen Armando's wife, but pictures her looking a lot like Armando.

"All the damn time. Twenty-three years we've been married, but if I don't answer her questions in the way she expects me to, she gets pissed, man. I bet your wife does the same thing."

"No," says Russell, feeling suddenly guilty. "Not Kate."

The deer path weaves through the swamp. Several years ago, Russell went to the Everglades with Kate. They walked along elevated wooden bridges that cut through the swamp. High reeds made it impossible to see around the curves, and at every turn he expected to see an alligator waiting in ambush. At one point, he counted over a dozen alligators less than ten feet beneath them in the water, leering. Gravity played tricks on him, trying to pull him down into the darkness, and he had to steady himself by clutching the wooden rail. He worries that Louis is already dead. How could any boy survive out here alone? His thoughts fall upon Jacob, his six-month-old child, whom he hardly sees because he's always working, or at the bar, or at Delmara's apartment. Something stirs deep within him, and the need to find Louis makes his heart race.

The voices circle back. "Louis!" yells Russell, but the woods soak up the name. He hears the fluttering of birds, sees white wings flash through the trees. "I don't get it," he says. "What would Del be testing me for?"

"Loyalty?" says Armando, with his swindler's smirk.

Russell ignores the jab. "How hard can it be to call me Russell?" he mutters.

They walk into a sunlit clearing. Armando stops, and Russell nearly runs into him. The ground is covered with grass and white lilies. It looks solid, but water leaks through. The deer path takes a ninety degree turn, and they follow it until they see a snake, as thick as Russell's arm, coiled across the trail. Its belly is charcoal grey, like slick stones.

"Cottonmouth," says Armando softly. "Sunbathing."

Russell stares at the snake, inwardly terrified. "I don't see how the kid could have survived this long. And he's swimming in the middle of everything. If he's still alive, it's all over when the sun drops."

Armando tests the grass in the clearing. The rebar is wet when he pulls it out. "We need a boat," he says.

Russell looks across the clearing at the cypress trees. He knows there are places that can't be reached by land. There are even places that can't be reached by boat. Deer paths, roads, sewers, rivers. In Florida, all of them lead to the sea.

"It looks like solid ground on the other side," says Armando. "We can cross it or cross the snake." Without waiting for a response, he goes first, sinking to his knees on his first step, but not deeper.

Russell doesn't like this idea, but he thinks of the boy and follows. Cool water pours into his boots, wetting his socks and toes. "Louis!" he yells. He wades through the grass and lilies, trying not to think about what will happen if he steps on a gator, or if the cottonmouth decides to follow them into the water.

It is about thirty feet to the other side, and when they finally get close, they come to a slough that was obscured by the sawgrass. The current has swept grass and lilies aside. They can turn back or forge the river, and decide to keep going. Armando steps in, then Russell. The water rises to Russell's chest.

"Cabron," mutters Armando, straining his neck to keep his chin out of the water, like a talking, disembodied head.

Russell looks back the way they came. They've created their own water trail through the sawgrass, but it is slowly being reclaimed by the swamp, like a healing wound. The slough is only ten feet across and doesn't get any deeper. He hears the chattering of a bird or an insect, but it seems to come from the water. He stares down into the blackness at his chest. It smells musky, like the skin of a snake. Long shadows swirl around his legs and feet and crotch. Something touches his ankle. Darkness is sucking him down; the water squeezes him. He no longer feels his lower body, or the direction the current is moving. His head dips beneath the surface, swallowed in the darkness, and he feels something rough crisscross his forehead. He thinks: I could die. And like a drowning man, he grasps for something to keep him afloat. He pictures Kate reading a book in her favorite chair while Jacob sleeps in the playpen beside her, sprawled beneath the soft blankets. Russell concentrates on his wife and son until he is able to grab a fistful of grass and pull himself out of the water and up onto the bank.

He helps Armando out and they collapse. Russell's clothes are heavy now, clinging, and he looks back at the river and the clearing. Their path is gone now, swallowed by the swamp. He imagines the boy swimming out here, alone, the eyes and snouts of alligators lurking silently on all sides, watching, waiting to devour him.

"Let's find a different way back," says Armando, panting. He walks into the woods, stabbing the ground, his boots squishing out the water with each step.

• • •

Once a year, on the same day in summer, Louis went to see the old woman in the swamp. He couldn't explain it, but he knew it had to do with water. Words evaporated from his tongue before he even opened his mouth, and his memory was like watercolors, one thought bleeding into another. His backyard was the swamp, his favorite place, and he usually swam with his mother. He always kept his head above water. He didn't like to get his ears wet; it made him feel like he was drowning. He wasn't allowed to swim far, but every now and then his mother guided him into the cypress trees, where an intricate network of rivers spread through the swamp like puzzle mazes. He had been swimming all day, slow and steady and endless. When he walked, his body was slow and clumsy; his heavy legs were awkward, and he often stumbled on roots and plants. But when he swam, it was as if he were gliding like a bird. He saw an alligator floating on its back and stopped to look. Its clawed feet were sticking up, open wide like hands, and its tail descended into the water. Its teeth pointed up and down along the jagged line of its mouth. Its underside was yellowish, the same color as the flowers growing on the water. He pulled apart the flowers, plucking the milky petals and the anthers that left yellow dust on his fingertips. The alligator didn't move, and so he swam on through the tangle of mangrove. The colors of the sky changed, and the swamp became the colors of autumn. Oranges and golds, reds and yellows. There was a great commotion in the woods. The birds chattered, the frogs groaned. There were creaks and clicks and chirps. An owl hooted, joining in the song that he would normally listen to from his bedroom window.

• • •

Russell watches Del slip into her bathrobe and cross the room. A generous portion of her lean legs are exposed, and he wants to lick the undersides. He removes the towel from his waist and pulls his boxers on. When he sits, the waterbed ripples. She can't even sleep without water.

Russell tunes in to the local evening news. The boy's mother is being interviewed. It's been almost eleven hours, and he still hasn't been found. "He's not afraid of anything. He doesn't know any better," says the mother, whose worried eyes are swollen. The screen cuts to a wildlife expert, a bald man with a moustache and glasses, who says into a microphone that this may be Louis' key to survival. His name flashes at the bottom of the TV screen: Dr. Ronan McNally. Russell likes the sound of the man's name. It is heroic, like a pilot or an adventurer. "Animals are empathic; they sense things like fear and panic," says McNally. "As long as Louis remains calm, he'll send out signals that are key to his survival."

The local anchor asks anyone to call if they have seen Louis. Del notices this, and shakes her head. "That poor woman," she says.

"Search and Rescue goes out in the morning," says Russell. "If he lives until then, it'll be a miracle." He grabs the strap of Del's robe as she walks by, untying it. With a playful smile, she straddles him, taking his ear into her large mouth. Her lips are wide and soft. Her tongue flicks his ear.

"I've got to go home," he says. He kisses her neck and runs his thumb along the edge of her hip bone. She likes underwear decorated with lace and bows that don't untie. His other hand strokes the small of her back.

"Stay with me," she says, watching his reaction.

He stubbornly looks at the television. He realizes he is being tested, and it bothers him.

"You'll never leave her, Woodward," she says.

"How do you know?"

"You don't hide secrets very well."

"I wish you'd call me Russell," he says.

She drops her robe on the way to the bathroom, and he watches her hips sway with each step. "I'm going to take another shower," she says in the doorway. "Lock up."

Russell feels as though this too is a test, and weighs the consequences. Reluctantly, he puts on his clothes. His jeans smell like the swamp. When he got here, they fucked in the shower, and she yelled her version of his name in her high-pitched voice like some sort of bizarre marsh bird: "Woodward! Woodward! Woodward!" He thinks of her in the shower, naked and wet, her nipples as dark as raisins. He puts on his dirty socks. He clicks off the TV and leaves the room, holding his wet boots by his fingers. As he closes the door behind him, he hears the sound of running water.

On his way home, he tries to imagine his wife in the shower, but can't. He can only see the water at her feet, swirling down the drain.

• • •

At night, everything was blue or gray or unseen, except for small blinking lights like stars and planets orbiting around him, eyes opening and closing. Louis had seen many strange and wondrous things that day. The birds, all necks and legs, tilting heads back and forth and then darting into the water and bringing up fish in their slender beaks. Several took flight in a fluttering of wings and water. Other creatures made clicking sounds in the trees or on land. There were swimming things, too. Alligators swam with their heads above water, but he swam higher. None of them frightened him; they meant him no harm. Except the crashing and roaring that would say his name, sometimes in different voices. It had come close once, but he hid until the noise faded into the distance. When the birds came out again, he knew he was safe. He was not tired. Sometimes he didn't sleep, not even after his mother would sing or read to him. His teacher would read to him too, smiling, pointing at pictures in the books. Something brushed his foot in the water, just letting him know that it was there. A bird whistled to him as it flew overhead, unable to pronounce his name. He came to a clearing in a copse of mangrove trees. Sitting among the roots was the old woman. Vines covered her body like clothing; roots coiled through her hair like worms and snakes. Her face was old but kindly, and she beckoned him over with a twirl of her hand, which was wrinkled like bark. When he approached, she dipped her hand in the water, and touched his forehead with her thumb. Water ran down the bridge of his nose, tickling him. She smelled like the swamp and her skin was soft as a flower petal. She closed her eyes and said a few words, just like the old people at church, and then she smiled at him in a way that reminded him of his mother, and his teacher, and he smiled back. She said several words to him, but he could not hang onto them. They were like rocks skipping on water. His father was the best at throwing rocks. Her words were warm, though, like hot chocolate, one of his favorite things, and he felt safe, protected, blessed. For another year he would feel this way. When he left the clearing, the mangroves closed like curtains.

• • •

When Russell gets home, Kate is curled in the recliner with a book. The baby monitor hisses softly beside her on the coffee table, like radio static. Russell was never one for books; he could never pay attention to the words. Since high school, he has found as many odd jobs as he could find, always working with his hands. He has to sweat in order to feel like he is accomplishing something. Construction, road work, landscaping, sex.

He leans down and kisses the top of her head, her dark hair. His shirt falls in front of her face, and she wrinkles her nose. "Are these the clothes you wore today?" she asks.

"I've been in the swamp," he explains, thinking it sounds too much like an alibi. "Have you heard about the missing boy?"

"Isn't it awful?" she says.

"They asked us at the site to help with the search. Mando and I looked for him until it got dark," he lies, leaving out that they quit before dark and grabbed a beer before he went to Del's. Over time, lying has become effortless for him.

"No luck?" she asks.

"They think he went southwest, toward the Gulf. Search and Rescue goes out tomorrow, but they don't think he'll survive the night." There is a touch of sorrow in his voice.

"Poor thing," she says, looking absently down at the open pages as if they are calling to her.

After changing into clean shorts and a t-shirt, he watches the late news in the bedroom for any new developments on the missing boy. There are none.

When he is ready for bed, he finds Kate still reading, and Russell leans down to kiss her goodnight. She gives him her cheek. He sneaks into Jacob's room, and watches him sleep for a moment before kissing him on the forehead. He goes to bed to the hum of the fan, but when he closes his eyes, dark snakes swirl around him. He stares up at the ceiling instead.

His life, he thinks, is not what it is supposed to be. He has everything he has always wanted, yet it is not enough, and he cannot understand this. He wants to talk to Kate about it, deconstruct it, solve it, but he doesn't know how to begin such a conversation.

Later, he listens to Kate's feet on the carpet, her clothes coming away from her body. The bed springs squeak as she slips under the covers. She clicks on the baby monitor, and its gentle white noise fills the empty space. He pretends to stir, rolling over to face her, but she is turned away from him. Her dark hair shadows the pillow. He puts his hand on her waist, imagining her now in her nightgown, the shape of her soft body showing through the translucent material. His hand touches her leg; her skin is soft and smooth. Her lotion smells of lavender.

"Sorry I woke you," she says.

"I keep thinking about the swamp," says Russell.

"I have to work early in the morning. Tell me more tomorrow."

He wants to hold her now, to feel that rush of love like he has with Del, but by the time he thinks of this, Kate is already asleep. He listens to her breathe.

They sleep back to back.

• • •

Dawn began like dusk. The little birds praised the sun, prattling, zipping here and there. They were so happy that they couldn't make up their minds where to sit. But that was earlier. Louis was still swimming. Ahead, he saw an expanse of water, empty of trees and surrounded by sun-touched grass. A flock of white birds were sitting in the water. He paused at the edge of the woods, submerged except for his head, and then he swam out. He tried to speak to them, but the words came out in splashes of sounds. He didn't mean to frighten them, and in a frenzy they became wings; as they exploded before him, he smiled and laughed, splashing the water with his arms. He swam into the middle where the water still undulated in the birds' wake. The sun was hot on his skin, especially his ears and nose and shoulders. While he was there, he heard the noise. He sensed it was far away, but it was coming closer. A dull roaring and thumping that never stopped, not even to take a breath. Boat, he thought.

• • •

They listen to the radio news as they finish the foundation of the motel. Armando's boombox is turned up full blast. Usually, they listen to a Latino station, but the boy still hasn't been found and everyone is concerned. It has been twenty-six hours.

Russell is wearing a hard hat, coveralls, and boots, splotched and heavy with dried cement. The grayness of it is mirrored in the sky, overcast without rain. Armando operates the delivery system, helping wet concrete slide down the chute with his shovel, while Russell spreads it. They work section by section, leveling the foundation with wide trowels. Finally, they talk over the radio and the mixing drum about the boy, as if they'd been avoiding it superstitiously.

"What do you think happened to him?" asks Russell. He wants the boy to be alive.

"Gator bait," says Armando.

"We didn't see a single gator," says Russell. "Maybe they'll find him today." He realizes that since leaving the swamp he hasn't let himself think of the boy by name, as if it would make it too personal.

"He's gotta be dead," says Armando. "Nature is bad enough, but there are worse things."

Russell remembers the darkness beneath him, the touch on his forehead. "I doubt it."

"Just last week, some woman was found in three different rivers, man." He holds up a thumb and two fingers. "Three."

"Dead or alive, any news is better than not knowing," says Russell.

At eleven, they go to a truckstop up the road for lunch. It is simply called "Restaurant." They speculate about the upcoming NFL season and draft picks, and complain about their foreman.

When the waitress walks by, Armando holds up his mug to get her attention. "Coffee."

"Sugar and cream?" she asks.

"No. I'm sweet enough," he says, bobbing his eyebrows.

She laughs at him, like they always do, pats him on the shoulder and says she'll be right back.

Russell scowls into his coffee, knowing that Armando's innocent flirtations have never bothered him before. "I ended it with Del," he says. "She doesn't know it yet."

"Yeah, but does your dick know it yet?"

Russell laughs at the joke, sips his coffee.

Armando nods his approval. "You're going to lose a paycheck or two."

They laugh some more, make a few more follow-up jokes. This is what Russell needs. Armando is a master of small talk and humor, avoiding real conversation while allowing Russell to vent about big issues. Although Russell does his best to return the favor, he is not as fluent.

The waitress returns and fills their coffee mugs.

"Bless you," Armando says. "You're an angel." As she walks away, he leans over slightly to watch her. He is not subtle about it. When he leans back, he looks up at Russell. "What?"

"Nothing," says Russell.

"There's no harm in looking." Armando pats his gut. "Twenty-three years of marriage and this tool has always stayed in its shed."

Russell considers this. "Rusting away?"

"Rusting," says Armando, "but faithful, man. Marriage is about love and honor. Your wife and son deserve more respect. I'm glad you're finally getting it. I'm proud of you."

With a snort, Russell looks up at his friend. "Why didn't you say anything before?"

Armando grins wide. "Why do you think, man? I live vicariously through you."

Russell chuckles. "It was the swamp. It's made me see things differently."

Russell pictures Kate standing naked in front of the closet. The bed isn't made and the sunlight stretches across the sheets. The memory is unbidden. They used to spend more time together. In the mornings, they woke up, occasionally showered together, and met for lunch every day, talking and laughing, and they made love most nights before going to sleep. But once she got pregnant, that stopped. He blamed it on her moodiness and exhaustion, and the extra weight she gained, which didn't come off even after Jacob was born. The truth was that she didn't seem interested in sex anymore, and his needs found Del waiting for them. As he thinks of these things, he sees himself as a dark and shriveled thing that lives at the bottom of the swamp, and he is not sure that he can face Kate and Jacob now.

• • •

It was raining again, and Louis watched the drops fall through the canopy of leaves, forming circles on the water all around him. He wished his mother was here to see it. He saw a panther, its sleek and ghostly body moving through the leaves. With a flick of its black-tipped tail, the panther was gone, like a word from his mouth. His skin itched and his belly hurt. He arrived at the wooden steps, and he clambered out of the water. The air felt dense, heavy. Branches arched over him like a tunnel. He tromped up the pathway, slow and sluggish, barely able to keep his eyes open.

• • •

Russell is unloading the dishwasher while listening to the television when Kate comes home, carrying Jacob in the car seat. They are lucky that her parents live in town, or they'd have to pay for daycare. Plus, Kate gets to work at the library again, and he gets to continue his life as if nothing changed. Jacob's grin is hidden behind a binky, but Russell sees it in his eyes, which are the same mahogany color as Kate's.

"You're home," she says, surprised, dropping her keys on the coffee table.

"Rained us out, so I thought I'd come home instead." He unbuckles Jacob and picks him up. "Come here, kiddo," he says softly.

Kate flashes him a curious look. "You okay?"

"Yeah," he says, knowing that it's the correct answer, but feeling like it's a guess. "Why?"

"No reason."

Russell pulls Jacob into the recliner with him and watches the news.

"Any word on Louis?" she asks from the other room. He can hear her stepping out of her jeans and pulling her blouse over her head.

"Still missing," he calls out.

Jacob starts to cry. Maybe it's because Russell's voice was too loud and scared him, or maybe he's just hungry, but Russell doesn't understand one cry from another. He knows he is supposed to have that kind of awareness, but his son is still a complex mystery to him. Russell tries bouncing him on his knee, which sometimes works, but not this time. Kate returns, now wearing sweat pants. As soon as Jacob is in his mother's hands he stops crying. This tiny moment bothers Russell, like a splinter he just realized was embedded in a finger.

"Need a change?" asks Kate.

Russell thinks she is talking to him, but she is already on her way to Jacob's room. Russell follows them, watching from the doorway. As she changes the diaper, he realizes that they don't need him. They have worked this out between them, mother and son, and their routine excludes him.

"I'll get it, hon," he says, cutting in.

She gives him a wary look again. "Okay."

He changes the diaper, looking at his son, this pudgy baby who looks more like Kate than him. Jacob has her hair, her eyes, her fair skin, and he wonders where he, Russell, is. Does Jacob have his heart, his strong hands, his need to work, like the generations of Woodwards before him? Russell's father was a city worker, always working at night with concrete and tar on highways, roads, bridges, sidewalks. His grandfather was with the Forest Service, carving the roads out of the dense Florida marshlands and forests. But when Russell looks at Jacob, he doesn't see any trace of them. Sometimes, he even wonders if this is his child, but he knows Kate does not share his knack for infidelity. She, unlike him, could never do such a thing. She is too innocent, too naive, too loyal, and he knows that is precisely why he has gotten away with his affair as long as he has. Kate will not let herself think badly of him. He complains loudly enough about his hard job that she doesn't bother him about it anymore. He remembers the swamp suddenly, remembers how his trail in the grass was closing behind him, like something alive and ancient and dangerous. He remembers that touch on his forehead.

For the rest of the night, he does his part. He plays with Jacob while Kate microwaves their leftover dinner of spaghetti. After they eat, he gives Jacob a bottle, watching him fall asleep in the crook of one arm. With a smile that makes Russell feel like a good father, Kate scoops up their son and carries him off to bed. Russell shakes out the sleepiness in his arm, amazed at how heavy his son's head is now.

When Kate returns she says, "Good job, Daddy."

They watch television for the next hour, he on the sofa, she on the recliner. They share the moments of the drama they're watching, but don't actually say anything to each other. He enjoys her company, just being near her. When the show is over, she goes into the bedroom without an explanation.

Russell flips channels. The late news announces that the search is over.

He rushes to the bedroom where Kate is reading in bed. "The boy's been found. Alive!" he says, finding it hard to contain his excitement. He wants to shout, but Jacob is sleeping in the next room. "It's been almost thirty-six hours since he disappeared."

Kate politely marks the page she's on and puts the novel on the nightstand.

"He just came out of the swamp," says Russell. "He was in there the whole time, and he wasn't supposed to live past dark."

"Can you imagine what he's seen?" she says.

He nods. "I was there."

"Tell me," she says, patting the bed beside her.

He slides next to her, and he tells her about the deer path and the cottonmouth they almost stepped on. He tells her about the sawgrass, and wading into the slough, the water up to his chest, the darkness that nearly drowned him. "The swamp wouldn't have cared if I died," he says.

Kate puts a hand on his cheek and kisses him. It is tender and he sinks into it. He is surprised by her tongue. She pulls off his undershirt and jeans, and he kisses her neck and breasts and soft belly. They make quiet, gentle love on the bed with the lights off.

Afterward, they hold each other, their legs intertwined like roots.

When she gets up, he watches her pale figure walk to the bathroom. He cleans himself, then grabs a beer in the kitchen. He tries to think of the last time he felt so comfortable with Kate, and smiles on the way back to the bedroom. This is how it is supposed to feel, he thinks. This is right. He opens the blinds and watches the rain for a moment. When he hears the toilet flush, he closes the blinds. The room grows dark.

Kate comes out of the bathroom, wearing one of his large t-shirts. She sits on the edge of the bed, facing him. "A friend," she says.

"Come again?"

"A friend of mine saw you at the bar with another woman. She took a picture on her phone and sent it to me."

She looks right into his eyes when she says this, and he cannot bear it. The silence unfolds between them, and guilt crawls up from the bottom of his heart and lingers in his throat. He feigns ignorance, like a child, convincing himself that he didn't hear her correctly. He takes a drink and looks away. "What?" he says.

She doesn't answer him.

He tries to think of a way out of this, but when he looks at her, he knows there is not one. He closes his eyes and opens them.

"At first, I thought I was going crazy, but I'm not stupid."

"No. And you don't sound crazy. Or angry."

"I don't know what I am, Russell."

His head is murky, like swamp water, and he doesn't know what else to say. He looks down at the dark carpet.

She takes the beer from his hand and drinks. She keeps the bottle. "I am angry," she says, finally. "Furious. I want to kick you out and never see you again."

Russell's mind is stuck in deep mud. "Please don't," he says.

Kate pulls up the blinds, letting the pale moonlight spill into the room, across the front of her body. "You're never around anyway. It's like you don't even live here anymore. You're always working and then where do you go, Russell? Do you get a hotel room? Or do you go to the bar and just do it in your Jeep?" A pause, then she holds up a hand. "I don't want to know. It's bad enough thinking that your husband is with someone else. I don't want to know that it's actually happening. But what I do want to know is that while you're off doing whatever it is you're doing, do you ever think of us? Do you ever think that I'm working like a single mother here? Do you ever think that your son is without a father? Do you ever think that it is your fault?"

She has worked herself into tears now, and he can't stand it when she cries. His jaw tremors, and he clenches it tight. He wants to tell her that Del meant nothing, that the affair is over, and he wants to ask her forgiveness, but the clichés sound stupid, even in his head. She is waiting, and his answer is crucial to the rest of his life.

He remembers parting the water grass, and then the swamp, this living thing, pulled the wound closed as if nothing had ever happened. "When I was in the river," he says carefully, "I almost drowned. I felt it happening, and I thought of you and Jacob, and I didn't want to die. I didn't want to leave you."

She opens the sliding glass door that leads to the backyard, and stands there, arms folded, as a cool breeze fills the room. Raindrops patter on the cement patio he poured and smoothed with his own hands, and darken the grass he has groomed and weeded. The entire backyard he did himself, but he did it for them.

"One argument is not going to fix this," she says finally. "Or one night."

"But it can be fixed?" Russell's voice is soft, apologetic. Hopeful.

"We're married and we have a child, and we'll find a way. It needs to happen. It is going to happen. For us, but mostly for Jacob. I'll be damned if I'm going to let you do this to us anymore. From now on, you start doing your part, and you be here, okay? Be. Here."

He slips his arm around her, cupping her shoulder. She tries to move, but he pulls her in close, and he cannot let go or he will sink into darkness.

"You're the most selfish man I've ever known, and I should hate you," she says.

Gently, she pries his hands and arms loose and steps away from him. She keeps walking. Out the door she goes, onto the patio, and into the rain. It only takes her a few steps and then she is standing in a puddle that has formed on the patio, an imperfection in the concrete that he has never realized until now. As the rain soaks the t-shirt, molding it to her body's contours, he realizes that she is crying.

The door is open, and some of the water is splashing onto the carpet. Russell watches his wife, listening to the rain, smelling the earthiness of it, the air of permanence that reminds Russell of the swamp.

• • •

Louis got to ride in an ambulance. The man turned on the siren for him but it was too loud, and the man turned it off. There were lots of other people, too, smiling, clapping, whistling, and the noise was bright and flashed in his eyes. None of it was as alive as the swamp had been. Their songs weren't as beautiful. His skin was still itching when he got home, and so his mother let him take a warm bath and rubbed lotion all over his back and arms and legs when he got out. After he put on his pajamas, his parents held him and wept, and finally his father read their favorite story before turning off the light. For a long time, he stared at the textured ceiling, searching for shapes. He saw birds, ferns, trees, alligators, mangroves.

Ken Hoover is a bookstore manager by day and a word-slinger by night. His stories have appeared in Crowded Magazine, Azure Keep Quarterly, and in The Book of the Emissaries, a flash fiction anthology. He lives in New Mexico with his family.