Warren watched her stagger along the riverbank, drunk or maybe crazy. He thought about the definition of ‘alone’—a series of basic words that would’ve tumbled with her as she nearly fell. His legs buckled when she leaned. If she jumped, he thought, it would be his lungs that filled themselves with water. He looked at his watch—5:18 a.m.—then walked down the park steps toward her, his right hand chilled by spring dew that covered the metal rail. She stumbled again, trying to take a step forward but appearing to go back. Her red hair flamed in the glow from an arc lamp and then dimmed back into shadow. She came perilously close to the edge so quickly Warren didn’t have time to think about lunging for her. Instead, he stood frozen at the bottom of the steps, not ten feet away.
Seeing him, she straightened. “You shouldn’t have done it,” she said. After a long hesitation during which he stared at her, dumbfounded, she added, “That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?”
“No. I mean … what?” said Warren.
“Always the same. It’s what everyone says.”
Warren stood with mouth agape. The river-cooled wind brushed across his skin like cobwebs. Shivering, he nearly asked her what she shouldn’t have done. Changing his mind, he chose a different direction. “Aren’t you cold?”
She nodded. Of course she was, dressed in a thin-strapped, dusty-orchid lace shirt that showed too much of her skin and a black silk skirt that brushed the tops of her boots. She didn’t answer him. She said, “Give me that,” and pointed.
“Give you what?” said Warren.
“Your warmth,” she told him, staggering over and tugging on his worn gray button-up.
“You want my shirt?”
“Hurry.” Her lips trembled.
Warren started unbuttoning buttons. Luckily he had on a Captain Morgan’s tee underneath. All of a sudden it seemed like that was enough to keep him warm. Reaching out, he folded her into his shirt.
The girl sighed.
“Do you need a ride somewhere?” he asked.
“Can you drive me over to that park bench?”
“I think I can manage that.” He took her by the arm. As they walked, she staggered into him several times on the way to the bench but didn’t notice. Warren eased her onto the seat. It felt solid and kept her world from spinning. “Are you all right?”
She stretched out a hand and pointed at the vast, lit-up house across the river. “I would be if I were over there. I’m jealous of all those windows and everything they see. They can see me when I’m drunk, see children playing through the day or barges going by at their own pace. They see beach balls and basketballs drifting by after a flood. They see suicides and swimmers, murky and clear. I wish I could be there, looking out those windows.”
“Oh, the temple,” said Warren.
“I don’t know. I just call it the temple. I always have. That’s what it looks like to me at night. I imagine monks praying on the other side of those windows, drinking wine and wondering if their god really watches them. If he cares ….”
At this point sober, the girl might have changed the subject, perhaps saying, “I’m Lynn Lancaster. Nice to meet you,” and smiling or batting her eyes as he gave his name in return. Tonight, something inside compelled her to push on. “You’re religious?” she challenged.
“Maybe a little,” said Warren.
“What kind of little?”
“Christian by birth, I guess.”
She scooted a couple inches down the bench. “I hope it’s not contagious.”
Warren stared at her. “I’ve been inoculated since then.”
Lynn relaxed, leaning against the back of the bench. “Sorry. It’s just that I’ve heard so much preaching from good old Dad who loves his church but hasn’t made it to a single A.A. meeting in over forty years. His sermons drive me nuts. I don’t need any more of those.”
“Your father’s a minister? What kind?”
“The two-shots-before-church-on-Sunday, jumping-up-and-down-and-speaking-in-tongues kind.”
“Is it that bad? Sounds like you had a traumatic childhood.”
“Let’s put it this way: I’m twenty-three, and I still have monsters in my closet and underneath my bed.”
Warren kept quiet for a moment, studying her expression. She looked suddenly hopeless, eyes pulling away and aiming back across the river. After thinking about what she said, Warren responded by placing an arm around her shoulder in a comforting gesture. “Sounds like it’s your mother in the closet and your father under the bed.”
Feeling vulnerable, she stood as if to walk away but immediately changed her mind. She spun around so fast she almost fell down and, with a sudden influx of passion, said, “What are you, a fucking Psychology student? Generally I don’t make out with Psych majors.”
“No,” he said, waving his hands tenderly. “I’m not a student.”
“Oh, so you just use that angle to get laid?”
Warren didn’t know how to respond. He sat there wide-eyed and numb from both the chill and her intense, staring eyes.
Lynn let him off the hook, building a smile and breaking out with laughter. Then, since he didn’t respond, she turned as if distracted and headed back toward the river.
Afraid to lose her, Warren jumped up and followed.
She sensed him behind and said without looking, “So, are you here for the audition to be my latest stalker?”
“No,” he said. I mean … no. I just can’t let you get away with my favorite shirt.”
“In that case, you’ll have to come and take it.” She stumbled backward, nearly falling into his arms. Catching herself, she faced him and said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll trade you something for it. Something special.” She winked.
If it weren’t so dark, she would’ve seen Warren blush. “Uhm ….”
“Not that special.”
“Then what did you have in mind?”
She pulled out a Marlboro and said, “Do you smoke?”
“I’m not gonna trade my shirt for a cigarette,” he said.
Lynn shrugged and stuck the Marlboro in her mouth. She reached into her purse and pulled out a blue Bic lighter. As she flicked it, it slid out of her hand, dropping between the two of them. She reached for it, and Warren bent at the same time, trying to grab it himself. Realizing there was only a breath between them, she froze.
Warren stopped also, mesmerized by a hint of vanilla coming off her skin. He looked up, and their eyes met. In that moment to him, all other moments were lost in the purple of her eye shadow, her red hair escaping from behind an ear, the tiny line that bisected her upper lip. He almost said, “How about a kiss instead?” but he was too embarrassed to go through with it. Still, he wondered what it would feel like to explore that line on her lip and taste whatever liquor remained on her breath.
She must have had similar thoughts because she leaned toward him. Before their lips could meet, however, a loud splash jerked them both upright.
“What was that?” Warren asked, forgetting how close he’d been to a kiss.
Lynn teetered toward the water. Warren followed and grabbed her hand as she got too close. Using his grip for leverage, Lynn lowered herself to her knees and then let go. She gripped the concrete bank with both hands and peeked over the edge, staring down three feet to the dark water of the Ohio.
“What do you see?”
“I don’t know. It’s so dark. But something’s moving.” She tried to focus on whatever it was. Hints of moonlight and residual illumination from distant arc lamps revealed a form pushing through the water, creating a rippled V shape around it like in the wake of a boat.
Warren put his hand on her shoulder and knelt beside her, steadying himself and trying not to fall in. He saw the V just before it faded.
Lynn told him, “Whatever it was, it’s gone.” She had no sooner looked away from the water than she heard another splash.
“There!” said Warren, pointing.
She saw it submerge itself, smacking the water with a flat tail like a bat’s wing. “Isn’t it beavers that have flat tails?”
“A beaver? I’ve never heard of a beaver in the Ohio.” He paused, then joked, “It’d take an awful lot of work to damn this thing up.”
She giggled childishly, looking at Warren then turning back to the water. “It’s almost made it to the light. We should follow it.”
Normally following a beaver along the riverbank at 5:30 in the morning wasn’t Warren’s idea of a good time. But when Lynn stood up, brushed herself off, pushed her hair away from her face and started walking away, he followed her without words.
“Come on. We can’t let it get away.” Every few feet she leaned toward the river.
“What’s the rush? You think it’s got a hot date?”
“Speaking of dates, had one lately?” She turned and winked at him.
Before he could answer, the creature splashed again, louder this time. They both turned just soon enough to see the flat tail go under, now near the docks about five feet from the arc lamp where water came up closer to the bank. “Holy shit. You’re right. Maybe it is a beaver. I don’t understand. Right here in the Ohio?”
Lynn put her hands on her hips. “You didn’t believe me, did you?”
“Well, I …,” he said.
“What a healthy way to start a relationship.”
“Well ….” Warren felt himself blush again.
“You probably thought I was just drunk.” She staggered as she turned away from him.
He wanted to defend himself, but didn’t have the time.
They caught a glimpse of the tail.
“Amazing,” said Warren.
Lynn replied, “Me? Or the beaver?”
“Maybe both,” he said.
“Maybe? Ha! I’ll show you maybe.”
“I like you,” he said. “You’re a wild ride.”
She flipped her hair over her shoulder and gave Warren a pouty smile. “And I kind of like … your shirt,” she said.
Warren stared at her with a dumb expression. She stared back, a mix of mean and playful. Having momentarily forgotten about the creature in the water, the two were drawn back to it by twigs snapping and a scratching noise like a dog pawing at a screen door.
“I think it’s right there,” said Warren.
Both looked over the edge, where they were greeted by cold black eyes, a round head, and a gurgling hiss from the thing’s evil-looking mouth. Large claws tried to climb over a pile of debris—branches and empty bottles—lodged against the concrete embankment. The creature appeared to lunge as they watched, but it gained no foothold and got no closer.
“Hey, that doesn’t look like ….” Lynn paused. “Ooh, gross. It’s a rat.”
“Yeah, it’s a rat, all right.”
Lynn’s expression went from horror to dripping with disgust. Her eyes squinted and her lips pursed in a tight line.
Warren added, “We were so excited about it when it was a beaver. Now it’s just a rat.”
“It’s not just a rat. It’s the biggest damn rat I’ve ever seen. Bigger than the ones that used to chase compact cars over by the dumpster near my apartment. That mother’s huge. It can’t be normal. Must be on steroids or something.”
They stood staring for a long time before the river rat gave up its climb and swam further away from the bank. It left that familiar V shape in its wake. The last thing the two of them saw was one final look at its tail before the rat disappeared in the dark water. As if in harmony, they said, “I can’t believe it,” before Lynn added, “We spent all that time chasing a goddamned rat.” They laughed and shook their heads.
Just then, a voice behind them said, “Pardon me, kids.” Startled Warren and Lynn turned to find a shiny badge glowing on a dark uniform. The policeman shone his flashlight at each of their faces in turn. “I’m Deputy Randy Wilks with the Sheriff’s Department. I don’t mean to disturb you but …” He had slicked-black hair and a pencil-thin mustache that almost looked drawn on with charcoal. He strutted toward Lynn and Warren, tugging on a belt loop with his free hand. After a brief pause, he continued, “… there was almost a robbery earlier, and I’m looking for the suspect. Someone said he came this way.”
Trying to regain his calm after being startled by the cop, Warren coughed twice then asked, “Did you say there was almost a robbery?”
“What do you mean almost?”
Deputy Wilks replied, “The convenience store clerk realized he was being held up with a squirt gun when he saw the Made in China sticker still glued to the barrel.”
Warren didn’t know whether to laugh with Lynn or shake his head in disgust. Choosing the latter, he said, “The guy sounds like a real moron.”
The deputy nodded. “So, y’all seen anybody come this way?”
Warren glanced at Lynn, and Lynn eyed him back before meeting the cop’s gaze. “Do you know what the guy looks like?”
“Six-two, thinning hair, baggy pants, Marilyn Manson tee shirt. He apparently had a cleft chin and multiple piercings in his lip as well as one in his nose. Had a tattoo on his forearm—some kind of a fire-breathing dragon. That’s what we’ve got so far.”
Warren joked, “Hmm. Not only’s he stupid, but he looks ridiculous, too.”
“Sounds kind of like you,” Lynn said, pointing at Warren. “Deputy, look no further. I think you found your man.”
“Hey,” said Warren. “That’s ….”
Before he could finish, she stretched out both arms and put her hands on his face. “You look definitely doable when you’re in shock.” She leaned in and kissed him hard on the lips, holding him there and prodding with her tongue.
Warren couldn’t move. It took him several moments before he realized what was happening. Even then, he didn’t try to pull away. He was too happy with her cold lips pressed against his, her colder hands cooling his cheeks and the back of his neck.
Deputy Wilks interrupted them. “So, y’all think you’re funny, huh?”
Lynn pulled back, laughing hysterically. Wanting to quiet her, Warren nudged her gently with his elbow. She stumbled backward, laughing harder.
The deputy said, “Careful. Y’all watch ….”
Seeing how close Lynn was to the edge, Warren reached out to grab her by the hand. He missed and watched, helpless, as she tumbled backward off the bank, still laughing as she fell. The splash she made was twice that of the loudest from the rat.
“Jesus,” said Warren.
Wilks stood there with his mouth agape.
Not freezing up this time, Warren dove into the chilly black water after her. The cold and the wet both needled his skin as if with the stingers of a hundred bees. Then everything disappeared. He couldn’t see the moon, the stars, or the deputy standing rigid on the bank.
When Warren came up for air, he tried to call out for the girl, but what was her name? He splashed around, searching. Once he felt something brush against his leg and thought it might be the rat. But the touch faded and, anyway, he didn’t have time to worry about any creature who wasn’t drunk and didn’t have red hair.
I won’t let her go, he thought, remembering the kiss that now seemed hours or maybe weeks ago. He went under again and came back up. His arms flailed about like moth wings even as his chest wanted to explode from the river’s coldness and the speed of his own heartbeat. Warren refused to surrender. He meant to find her if only to claim the next kiss for himself. So, he struggled—searching, hoping. He went up and down and side to side, unable to see but looking nonetheless. Then, lacking strength to swim or breath to keep him under water any longer, he flung out his hands like lures trying not to let this redheaded fish get away and become myth. Only when all seemed lost did he feel the vibrations near him. With all his effort, he pushed in their direction, stretching out. Finally, as if that moment stretched until forever, he found her in the water and held on.
Ace Boggess was locked up for five years in the West Virginia prison system. During that time, he wrote the poetry collection The Prisoners. Prior to his incarceration, he earned his BA from Marshall University and his JD from West Virginia University. He has been awarded a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, and his poems have appeared in such journals as Harvard Review, Notre Dame Review, Southern Humanities Review, and The Florida Review. His first collection, The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled, appeared in 2003. He currently resides in Charleston, West Virginia.
Jennifer Lynn Hall resides in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. Her poetry has appeared in Confluence, Pebble Lake Review, SNReview, Copious, Poems Niederngasse, and other journals, along with the anthology Wild Sweet Notes II (Publisher’s Place, 2004).
Image: SDRandCo, morguefile.com