2nd Place Winner - 2022 Box Fiction Contest
He watched her in the backyard, through the screen of the kitchen window. She was walking in circles atop the yellow grass, the length of the drought now a local record. All he could think of was the land’s thirst as he watched her out there, surrounded by the laurel hedge she’d planted that spring.
She stood over the stump of the dying elm they’d cut down that fall, sweating, her palms pressed into the tops of her knees, her olive skin as flush as he’d ever seen it. The sun was inescapable. She vomited until there was nothing left but the motion of her sickness.
They’d known she was pregnant for the past three weeks, but the arrival of the news wasn’t pleasant. Months before, they’d decided to leave one another, the sale of the house the only legality left to be worked out. Their divorce was already in motion. Now they were at a standstill, uncertain how to proceed as life grew inside her.
“I’m tired. It’s exhausting. It never works,” she’d said. They were at the diner down the street, the one they often visited after they both worked night shifts—her as a nurse at the local hospice and he as a security guard at the hospital where they had first met.
He didn’t want to get divorced.
He watched as she perched her elbows on the slick oak table, covering her face with her hands.
A year earlier, her mother had unexpectedly died from an aneurysm. She was young, only in her late fifties. Shortly after the funeral, she quit her nursing job at the hospital and began working at the nearby hospice instead. She was thirty, but in moments, she often appeared to him like a scared but stubborn child, mostly when she was about to give up or was frightened by the bigness of something. He resented this, even though he knew it was unfair. He carried the guilt of the feeling around like a small stone he was unable to remove from his pocket.
“An elm tree used to be able to live for at least three hundred years,” she’d told him. “But Dutch elm disease has shortened the life of most by half. Did you know that?”
She cried when they cut down the elm. He used to watch her and her mother outside drinking pots of tea at a small folding table beneath the boughs. Her mother’s visits from England were often long, and he dreaded them—not only for the way her eyes lingered on his dark skin, never able to fully accept her daughter’s attraction—but also for the way his wife was when she left them, her feet shuffling from room to room in the middle of the night, unable to sleep as soon as her mother was gone.
She began to smell of dirt only a month after her mother died in the spring. He noticed first when he woke in the middle of the night, turning over to hold her, only to smell the musk of patchy grass, damp from fresh rain. He ran his nose over her shoulder and her arm, trying to make sense of her new smell, the usual scent of lavender soap gone from her skin.
He became accustomed to the earthy smell, even grew to like it, never saying anything to her so not to make her self-conscious. She’d begun a small garden that spring. By late summer, her skin darkened to a rich chestnut from weekend afternoons pulling weeds and planting seedlings while he maintained the house, wishing to feel her body close to his. Instead, they became increasingly unfamiliar to one another, apologizing for being in each other’s way as they passed in the hall.
After her mother died, he felt rooted to her in her grief. He would never say it, but a small part of him was relieved when that woman was finally gone.
For the first few weeks after her death, they lay together in bed. He held her while she cried, neither of them saying a word about it before or after. Some weekend mornings, they stayed in bed until the afternoon, and she told him everything she remembered about the few years she lived in Nepal as a girl—of the long walks her and her father would take through surreally green hills sometimes hidden behind blankets of fog, of the park where they saw rhinos and Bengal tigers, so large and beautiful she could hardly believe they were real. This was before her and her mother moved to England after her father’s death, before she moved to the States for college—her mother refusing to follow—staying behind in the same rundown flat they’d been in since they’d left her father’s body behind.
Some days, after working at the hospice, she would talk of her own death, how if she were to die before him, would he promise to take her back to Nepal? Would he give her a sky burial? Would he leave her body atop a mountain to decompose? To be taken by all that’s living that could use her?
He should have agreed. He looked at her long, thin arms. At her dark eyes shadowed by circles, appearing even more like light bruises since he last noticed them. The thought of her body being so exposed—eaten away? It disgusted him. “You aren’t even religious!” he’d said.
She looked at him without speaking, her gaze tunneling backwards to someplace deep and hidden. Later he would know, that’s when she really left him.
Her father died in an earthquake, buried in mud on an embankment near his brother’s house, the house he’d been helping repair that afternoon. It took his family more than a day to find him. She never saw her father’s drowned body, but she sometimes woke in the middle of the night, terrified and breathless, unable to see anything in her dreams but her father’s lifeless face, his mouth packed full of mud.
He too carried this image, and it haunted him ever since she’d shared it. His parents were both still alive and well. His aunts and uncles were in good health. His two older brothers and younger sister were happy and close. Why couldn’t his family’s happiness be enough for her? Why wasn’t he enough for her?
He thought there was a time when they were in love, when their lives ran steadily side by side, until they became entwined. At first, they only exchanged glances, then the glances turned to long conversations on her way out of the hospital, then the conversations turned into coffee and eggs and pancakes at the diner, then her—finally at his house—her smile, slowly taking her clothes off, him unreeling from fulfillment after months of anticipation. Perhaps that moment is when he stopped being able to see her outside the context of their shared history, as though she never existed before meeting him.
“He’s so American!” her mother had said after they first met, after being pleasant and kind to his face, after he and her daughter had already been dating for years. She’d laughed at everything her mother said. “I’m American now, too,” she’d said, forcing an accent that sounded closer to his than her own.
“I think she feels guilty,” she told him once. “That she was unable to keep me.”
He wanted the baby. He was ready to start a family. He could have stayed with her in that house forever.
The day he came home and couldn’t find her was like any other. He got home from work and shouted for her as he ran upstairs to change clothes, knowing she could have been working late or sitting outside in the garden. She was spending her early evenings there ever since they began working daylight shifts.
He watched television all night in a passive way. Whatever crime show or news program was on at the moment—he hardly took in the sound and images as he waited for her, slowly drinking a beer.
He texted her and he called.
By midnight, he phoned the hospice to see if they knew where she was. They said they hadn’t seen her in weeks.
He called her again. The phone barely rang before it went to an automated voicemail.
He called her friends. They were a chorus: “I haven’t heard from her much since the funeral. I’ve been trying to give her space.”
What did he feel then, when he finally called the police? Was it panic, dread, grief?
He could not have known this, but later, he will drive by their old house at night when he’s unable to sleep and sit outside until he grows tired. In the dark, he will look at what he can see of the laurel hedge she planted, of the shutters now painted navy instead of grey. Every night he will go to bed hoping to dream of her, but he never will. In front of the house, if he positions himself right, he will be able to see the elm he thought was dead all those years ago, the one he’s almost certain he had cut down.
But now, he watches the officers as they write everything down that he’s just told them—their uniforms dark and crisp, their hair shorn, their faces young and smooth—and he is unable to speak, as though his mouth is packed full of mud.
Bowie Rowan's work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Joyland, the Kenyon Review Online, and the Missouri Review, among others. Currently, they're at work on their first novel. You can see more of their work at bowierowan.com.