AWP Intro Award Winner, fiction
The baby wanted to eat again. Adrienne heard his squeals through the monitor and knew they were from hunger. Adrienne’s breasts ached, her nipples ached, one cracked and bleeding. She couldn’t imagine subjecting them to the vice grip of the baby’s jaws again. “Breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt,” she heard over and over again, from nurses, the lactation consultant at the hospital. “It hurts a little at first,” other moms said, “but it will get better.” But nursing her baby didn’t get better. Adrienne moved to the room farthest away from the baby’s, his cries echoing from the monitor, and Adrienne cried too.
Somehow she didn’t know that having a baby would be this hard. Sometimes when the baby screamed and Adrienne couldn’t figure out what was wrong, she would feel a surge of genuine surprise. This small creature came from her. Her body grew this body, grew these bones and muscles, the nerves and skin, and the brain that was telling the baby what he needed so shouldn’t she be able to figure it out? Shouldn’t she know, intuitively, somehow, what the baby was craving?
The baby was always craving milk. Adrienne’s milk. He sucked viciously, sometimes letting go and lying there panting as if gaining strength to do battle again. Adrienne worried about her supply. Maybe her body couldn’t make enough to satisfy the baby’s hunger. Adrienne had never felt that kind of hunger in her life, not that she remembered. The baby was ravenous. When she could get away from the baby, when he slept (Thank God! Adrienne thought when the baby slept), she ate oatmeal and drank special tea. She took fenugreek supplements that were supposed to help her make more milk. In the middle of the night, away from her husband’s eyes, she guzzled dark beer, another popular remedy on the mommy blogs and message boards. The baby must be starving. That was the only explanation for his constant hunger. The baby was starving, and she was supposed to feed him, and she would be at fault if he starved to death. Paul had wanted a baby –a daughter – so badly, and she had already failed him once by giving birth to a boy. Could a husband forgive a wife for something like that? Could her husband forgive her? Adrienne was not sure he could, so she ate and drank when she could so the baby could eat of her, could suck her dry down to the marrow and finally, maybe, be satisfied.
Except sometimes she couldn’t do it.
Sometimes when Paul wasn’t home and the baby cried again and Adrienne knew he couldn’t need another new diaper, or sleep, or whatever else a baby wants except milk, Adrienne couldn’t bring herself to lift him to her breast again. Not immediately. She sat in the hallway outside his room and prayed he would fall asleep instead. And when finally the baby’s cries couldn’t be louder or more frantic, when Adrienne realized the volume of the cries and what she was doing by ignoring the baby, she would creep into the room, lift the little boy from the crib, and lift her shirt. His mouth latched immediately to her breast, and Adrienne sobbed over the baby in her arms as the baby ate, somehow both frantic and content.
Once, Adrienne thought, I could shoot myself and this would all be over.
Then, That’s ridiculous. Where would I get a gun?
For years, she wouldn’t realize that the ridiculous part wasn’t that she thought about shooting herself because she had no access to a gun but that she thought about it at all.
People–from visitors to people in the street–asked if Adrienne had an epidural. Adrienne labored unmedicated. She read that she would feel present and aware in ways she couldn’t anticipate, in ways that an epidural would take away from her. With an epidural she wouldn’t feel anything, which sounded appealing, but she also might have a hard time pushing, or would push the wrong way, or the baby would get sleepy and labor would be more difficult. Her chance of needing another intervention went up and would go up again with each subsequent intervention. In some ways, Adrienne envied the women who had planned C-sections. She envied their knowledge: the date of their baby’s birth, a predictable amount of time for the procedure. For these women, Adrienne thought, there was no question of if they could do it. But Adrienne worried she wouldn’t be able to do it. She worried she would give up part way through labor. She imagined herself in the bed, her feet in the stirrups, and she heard herself say, “I can’t do it.” Her body refused; she refused. Everything shut down, and her baby would stay inside her. She imagined being pregnant forever, a thought almost as terrifying as birth.
Adrienne did not feel present during labor. She felt unmoored. She couldn’t move, couldn’t talk. Her mind was full of half-sentences, phrases she somehow recognized didn’t make sense. She opened her eyes and saw her husband’s face and thought, I should tell him I’m okay, but she couldn’t say the whole thing. She repeated, “Okay. Okay. Okay,” over and over until Paul said, “What’s okay?” Then, “It’s okay.” He smoothed a damp rag over her forehead and cheeks, and she wanted to cry and tell him she was sorry. The contractions rode over her body in waves. She fidgeted, trying to turn on her side. She pulled her legs up. She wanted to curl her body around the locus of her pain. She wanted to surround it and let the pain move outward. She was adrift. Paul seemed to sense what she was doing and adjusted the blankets. She felt his hand on her arm. A buoy. He was something stable she could hold. His hand was the only thing that anchored her.
Adrienne’s nurse came in the room. “I thought you turned,” she said. She pulled the blankets away from Adrienne and pulled her legs downward and started twisting the band that held the heart monitor against her belly. “I’m not picking up the heartbeat consistently this way,” the nurse said. Adrienne shook her head and started to roll on her back. The baby was more important than her comfort.
The contractions became harder, more intense, and Adrienne felt completely lost. They slammed into her body like breakers. She focused on trying to keep herself from being swept away. She closed her eyes as she felt a contraction building, and as the waves of pain moved outward, she saw a man standing waist-deep in the ocean, the outline of him barely visible in the night, fighting the waves as he tried to move deeper into the water.
That summer, nine months earlier, Adrienne stepped from the plane into the full heat of the North Carolina summer. She ducked through the plane door and stood fully on the stairs leading from plane to tarmac, blinded by the sudden light of the sun, and felt a surge of sympathy for every celebrity she’d ever watched emerge from an airplane into daylight, somehow smiling and acknowledging onlookers without so much as a moment to gain their bearings. Adrienne’s husband was behind her, still hunched in the plane’s doorframe. “Adrienne, step forward, hon,” he said.
She looked down the stairs at the line of people already weaving across the tarmac and into the airport terminal, the space of four or five bodies between herself and the person who was just in front of her. “Oh, sorry,” she murmured, and put her hand on the stair railing to steady herself. She waited for her husband at the bottom of the stairs, and he placed a hand on the small of her back as if to guide her toward the door. Her dress stuck to her back, and she couldn’t raise her eyes fully because of the sun. She felt like one of those celebrity women who was just released from rehab, or had just undergone a terrible public breakup, or was facing the morning after a full night’s bender of alcohol and some embarrassing event that landed her in jail, and her husband was her bodyguard, steering her through the press of camera and paparazzi. Her hair at the back of her neck was damp from sweat already.
“Are you okay?” Paul asked. His mouth was too close to her ear.
“Yes, yes,” she nodded and stepped away from his hand. “I can’t see well. The sun is so bright.”
They entered the smallest airport Adrienne had ever seen. She found the bathroom while Paul waited for their bags, and she shook out her hair and rewound it in a bun at the nape of her neck. She hated looking sloppy and disoriented after deplaning, but she never figured out how to look cool and unrumpled when traveling. She spent a lot of time in airport bathrooms adjusting her hair and reapplying makeup. Paul was waiting for her just outside the bathroom with their suitcases. “The car is this way,” he said, and gestured with his head. She reached for one of the bags, but he shook his head and led the way down the short hall to the parking lot.
Adrienne watched the landscape unfold as Paul drove. Everything was greener than she expected. There were more trees than she had imagined there would be, and she couldn’t see the water. Paul turned as she was craning her head sideways, trying to catch a glimpse of blue through all the green. “We’re too far inland to see anything yet,” he said. She had never been to the North Carolina coast and could probably count on one hand the times she had been to the ocean. She touched her thumb to each finger as she tried to count. Yes, this trip made her fifth time exactly. Adrienne had lived in the Midwest, flyover country, all her life. She was comfortable with lakes. She swam across a couple in high school, and she’d been to the Great Lakes often enough. But the ocean unnerved her. The water stretched so far. There was so much distance between the shore she stood on and the next piece of land, so much distance downward, and so much that could be between.
Paul’s family had rented a house on the shore, and Paul and Adrienne were the first to arrive. The house was huge, three stories, with decks extending from each and a wooden walkway across the dune leading down to the beach. Paul didn’t even take their bags from the trunk. He went inside immediately and beckoned for Adrienne to follow. He wove through the kitchen and the living area to the sliding glass doors, opened them, and stepped outside. Adrienne stood in the doorway, squinting through her sunglasses. “Is it always this bright?” she asked.
Paul looked over his shoulder at her, and she knew from the look on his face that she said the wrong thing. “It’s pretty,” she said. “The water. I just wasn’t ready for the sun.”
“It’s a beach,” Paul said. “You want sun on a beach.”
She walked out and stood next to him. She said, “I know that. I’m sorry. I think I’m just woozy from all the traveling. When does everyone else get in?”
Paul scanned the text messages on his phone to double-check arrival times, and Adrienne looked down the beach. It was pretty, the rows of brightly painted houses, the full expanse of sky, and the water stretching further than she could see. The waves seemed low, but she was still surprised at the noise. “The waves are loud,” she said.
“You’ll get used to it,” Paul told her. “We have a few hours before anyone else shows up. Do you want to go lie down? Rest up for everyone else?”
They walked back inside and checked all the rooms. Paul picked one overlooking the ocean and immediately opened the window. Adrienne pulled her dress over her head, and Paul hung it up in the closet while she climbed into the bed. “Don’t you want to nap too?” she asked.
Paul sat next to her on the bed and stared out the window. “Just think,” he said. “We could make our baby here.”
Adrienne stared out of the bedroom window for a while after Paul left the bedroom. Even the clouds were different at the beach, she thought. They were larger, billowing, and almost mountainous in ways even the thunderheads of the plains never were. She wasn’t sure she would sleep, but the act of traveling exhausted her. Traveling always energized Paul. She heard his footsteps coming up the stairs, and she closed her eyes as if she were sleeping. He carried their bags into the room, and after he left again, she heard him in the kitchen, opening and shutting cupboard doors, and wandering through the house. She finally heard the car leave, but she stayed in the bed and kept her eyes closed. We could make our baby here. Paul talked about having a baby so often, so openly, and with such undisguised desire. He wanted a child, and he wanted one soon.
Adrienne, however, was less sure. She was often less sure than Paul about many things, but she hadn’t resolved her feelings on having a baby. She had barely begun to explore them, she thought, mostly because the idea of becoming a mother frightened her. She thought about a baby in her body. She thought about the movement inside her swollen stomach. She lay on the bed and tried to imagine the weight pressing her into the mattress. She tried to imagine a tiny creature, the combination of her and Paul, that she would love as much or more than she loved Paul, but her imagination was confused and she couldn’t picture it, couldn’t imagine her heart swelling when she held a baby the same way it swelled when Paul held her. She turned on her side and hugged a pillow to her. Paul would certainly love a baby more than he loved her. She had admired the way he devoted himself to whatever needed his devotion. She imagined Paul with a baby in his arms. He spoke to the baby softly through his smile, and he called Adrienne “Mommy.” He leaned over to hand the baby to her. “Adrienne,” he said. She felt his fingers brush through the hair at her temple. “Adrienne,” he said again.
She sat up quickly. The baby was under her. She had rolled over on the baby and smothered it and Paul was there to take the baby back but she had done something terrible. She had to find the baby before Paul did. She pushed the blankets away from her body and picked up each pillow and threw them on the floor. “Where is it?” she said.
“Where is what?” Paul asked.
She smoothed her hands over the empty sheets. There was not a real baby, she remembered. She had been half asleep. She was imagining a baby. “I thought I felt something,” she said. “Never mind.”
Paul tossed the pillows back on the bed. “Everyone else will be here soon. You have time for a shower, if you want one. I have dinner going.”
Adrienne watched him leave, then turned to look out the window. The sun wouldn’t set for some time yet, and the beach was still full of people. Her skin was sticky and her hair tangled with the humidity. Below, a woman helped a small child dig shells out of the sand and drop them into a plastic bucket. Adrienne stood and slid the window shut.
Paul had a gin and tonic waiting for her when Adrienne came downstairs into the kitchen. Whatever Paul had in the oven smelled delicious, and Adrienne realized how much time had passed since she ate. She took a couple of cucumber slices from the salad on the counter and went to join Paul on the deck. His sister and family would arrive any minute with his parents close behind. He was watching the water, but she knew he was listening for a car to pull into the driveway. She took a long drink of her gin and tonic.
“Don’t drink that too fast,” Paul said. She knew he would open a bottle of wine or two during dinner, and wine went straight to her head.
She lifted her glass again. “Have you gone in yet?” she asked, gesturing toward the water.
“Haven’t even stepped into the sand.” He turned back into the house. “I think they’re here.”
Paul’s sister, Amy, was the first out of the car. She hugged Paul immediately, then opened the back doors and started unbuckling her children from their car and booster seats. Adrienne helped get the kids inside, pointed the oldest toward a bathroom, and kept the youngest from running out of the open porch door. “Yeah, we’re going to have to watch her with that,” Paul’s sister called as she walked through the room with an armful of inflatable water toys. Paul and his brother-in-law hauled the suitcases inside, and there was some general confusion as the adults and kids tried to pick rooms. Adrienne was in the kitchen with the oldest kid, Valerie, trying to convince her that she really didn’t need a cookie or a Coke before dinner, when Paul’s parents arrived. Valerie promptly forgot about the cookie as she ran to hug her grandmother, and Adrienne finished her drink.
Everyone sat down to dinner almost an hour later. Adrienne had quietly made herself another gin and tonic, and she finished it quickly before taking her place at the table. Paul’s sister circled the table with a bottle of wine in each hand and asked the adults which they would like. She filled Adrienne’s glass with Syrah. Paul commented on the amount, and his sister waved his comment away with, “We’re on vacation.” Adrienne held her glass up to her sister-in-law as if she were toasting.
Paul put two steaming pans of lasagna on the table. Again Adrienne realized how little she had eaten as she set her wine glass down a little too heavily. She reached for the bread while Paul was passing out salads.
“Mom says the bread goes with lasagna,” Valerie told her.
She pulled the crust away from the soft inside. “But I’m really hungry. And we’re on vacation.” She ate the crust as Valerie reached for the bread also. Amy said Valerie’s name in a warning, and Adrienne wondered briefly if she had overstepped a boundary.
She was the first to finish her salad, and sipped her wine while she waited for everyone else to finish before dishing out the lasagna. Her sister-in-law shook the bottle of wine in her direction, and Adrienne said, “Oh why not.” She saw her mother-in-law’s eyes watch the wine fill her glass.
“So,” her mother-in-law started. “Paul, Adrienne. I take it you don’t have any big news to share?”
“No,” Adrienne said. “Nothing’s changed. I’m thinking about painting the bathroom, but that’s not really news. We haven’t been expecting anything. Paul?”
Paul said, “No, Mom, not yet. There’s nothing to report yet.”
Oh, Adrienne thought. She was embarrassed and felt a surge of anger at Paul. He shouldn’t discuss plans with his mother before the plans were actually made. She saw him look in her direction for signs of anger. But of course he was making plans on her behalf. Of course he was. She finished her wine in a swallow.
That night, after the kids were in bed and her in-laws were unpacking, Paul took Adrienne down on to the beach. He led her over the wooden walkway across the dune and down the stairs into the sand. Paul immediately stooped to remove his sandals. Adrienne took a few steps forward. The sand spilled over the soles of her sandals, almost burying them. Adrienne kicked her shoes off also. She didn’t want to get her feet dirty, but walking through the sand was impossible. They walked down to the water’s edge, and Paul slipped his arm around her waist. A light pulsed far out on the water, a ship of some kind, Paul explained. A group of people, adults and kids—probably a family—Adrienne thought, moved along the beach behind them, swinging flashlights across the sand. A couple of the adults carried buckets. “There!” one shouted, and the children scurried to circle something in the sand. A little girl squealed as one of the adults leaned down and picked up a creature of some kind.
“Ghost crabs,” Paul said.
“Do you eat them?” Adrienne asked.
“No,” Paul answered. “Too small. But there are blue crab around here. You need a permit and all that to catch them.”
Adrienne couldn’t imagine picking up living creatures knowing you were going to eat them shortly. She kept staring at the family as they walked down the beach, the glow of their flashlights dimming. As they disappeared into the darkness of the beach, Adrienne noticed the outline of a man behind Paul. The man was a few feet down the sand, not close enough to them to be a threat, but closer than he needed to be on an otherwise empty beach. He wasn’t facing the water; he was facing them. She couldn’t see his face. “Paul,” she whispered. She took his hand and walked him in a circle, her feet stepping into the water, and stopped so they were facing the house. She gestured toward it as if commenting on something in that direction, but said, “Did you see him?”
“Yeah,” Paul shrugged. “He’s fine. That’s not too far for night.”
Adrienne turned to look at the man again. He had waded out into the water, not quite up to his knees. “I’m tired,” she said. “Should we go up to bed? I bet the girls will have everyone up early.” She pulled Paul’s hand slightly. “And don’t you want to fish tomorrow?”
Paul let Adrienne lead him back up the beach and in to the house. They went upstairs. Paul cracked the window again, and the sound of waves roared through the room. They both got in to the bed. Adrienne tried to read a magazine article but couldn’t focus. Paul folded the page of his book over and reached to turn off the bedside lamp. He snuggled further into the bed while Adrienne stared at the magazine pages. She finally dropped the magazine on the floor and moved to lie down. “Will you get that?” Paul said, pointing to the lit lamp in the corner of the room. Adrienne stood, crossed the room, and switched off the lamp. She paused before the window as she walked back to the bed. Below, sitting on the stairs of their walkway, was the clear outline of a man.
Paul was up early that morning. Adrienne heard him slip out of the room before the sun was fully up. She could smell the coffee brewing in the kitchen. She knew Paul and his father would already be up, and Paul’s brother-in-law would join them shortly thereafter. Adrienne knew she wouldn’t sleep anymore but wasn’t sure she wanted to go downstairs. The girls would be up before too long, and no one could sleep once they were up, despite their mother or grandmother’s constant shushing. These few moments may be her only time alone all day. She found herself thinking again about the man on the beach. She hadn’t been able to see much of him and certainly not his face. Still, there was something about his posture, the frank way he watched her and Paul or appeared to watch them that unnerved Adrienne. She couldn’t think of him as a threat—he’d done nothing to threaten them—but she felt his menace.
On the beach below, Paul was standing shin-deep in the water with his father and brother-in-law. They stood maybe five feet apart from each other, each with a fishing pole. Behind them was a bucket and a piece of plastic pipe that Paul’s father pounded into the sand to hold the fishing poles. Paul wore sunglasses, and when he turned, Adrienne could see the wind had already whipped his hair up in a swoop away from his forehead. She heard the sliding door downstairs, and the two small girls ran barefoot off the porch, along the walkway, and down the stairs. They stood in the sand in their nightgowns. Amy stood on the walkway and leaned her hip against the railing. She half-heartedly called for the girls to come back, and their father waved his arm up the beach toward them in a gesture meant to shoo them back to their mother. They walked further into the sand instead. Paul reeled in his line, put his pole in the pipe, and walked up to the girls. He picked them both up under his arms and carried them back up the stairs, smiling and talking, and handed the younger girl to her mother. The girls shrieked with laughter. Adrienne couldn’t hear Paul’s words, but she knew what he was feeling. She could sense his ache for a baby, for a daughter, in the way he acted with his nieces.
Adrienne went to the bathroom to brush her teeth and dress. There was no sense in showering yet. They would spend the day on the beach or on the porch. Her hair would be full of sand, her skin covered in dried saltwater and sunscreen. The humidity had already made her hair an unruly puff. She washed her face and wet her hair enough to tame and braid it. She met Paul on the stairs carrying a cup of coffee. He passed the cup to her. “You want to eat something? Mom has breakfast ready. Then we’re going to go stake out a spot on the beach before it gets too crowded,” he said. She followed him into the kitchen. Amy had coaxed the girls into eating, but both of them were already wearing their bathing suits. Valerie wore goggles around her neck, and the baby was wearing a sunhat. Buckets hung from the backs of their chairs.
“We’re going to catch fish,” Valerie exclaimed when she saw Adrienne.
But the girls forgot their idea as soon as they went down to the beach. The family set up a space with beach chairs and towels and a small cooler full of drinks. Adrienne settled into one of the chairs and rummaged in her bag for her magazine.
“Aren’t you going in the water?” her mother-in-law asked.
Adrienne looked up and watched Paul and the girls. Valerie ran toward the water as the waves rushed out and back up onto the sand as they came in. Paul lifted the younger girl as if she were jumping over each wave. “Not yet,” Adrienne said.
Amy stood with her hands on her hips, halfway between the water and where Adrienne sat. Adrienne found herself staring at her sister-in-law’s body. Adrienne had been with Paul for ten years, and Amy had been a part of her life for that time. They were bridesmaids for each other, and when Amy got pregnant with Valerie almost immediately after getting married, she told Adrienne before she told Paul. Adrienne knew Amy’s body had changed after having the girls, but she didn’t realize how much until that moment. Adrienne really let herself look. Amy had been smaller than Adrienne. She played soccer in high school and through most of college, and Adrienne remembered her long legs, lean and muscular, flashing as Amy ran full speed down the field. Now, Amy’s hips were wider, her thighs dimpled. Instead of a plunging V-neck, Amy wore a modest bathing suit, partially for the support, and partially to cover a tattoo she’d gotten on the top of her left breast on her eighteenth birthday. The tattoo stretched with her pregnancies and breastfeeding. Amy caught Adrienne looking at the tattoo once, shortly after Valerie was born and Adrienne was handing the baby to Amy to be fed. Amy shrugged and said, “Second stupidest place I could have gotten a tattoo. Don’t ever get a tattoo somewhere that will change shape.”
Amy caught Valerie as she ran up into the sand and helped her take the goggles from around her neck. Adrienne watched Amy’s belly bloom into rolls as she leaned over her daughter, and Adrienne suddenly felt embarrassed for watching. She lifted her magazine up in front of her face. Adrienne wasn’t sure she would have recognized the girl she met ten years ago in her sister-in-law now. She started wondering about the changes her own body would endure if she gave in to Paul. Would she recognize herself in five years? Less than that? Would she wear her hair long not for the style but because ponytails were easier? She was never particularly proud of her body, but would she find more reasons to be ashamed? She flipped the cover of the magazine closed and leaned her chair further back so her face was tipped toward the sky.
“It’s so nice of Paul to play with the girls like that,” her mother-in-law said. “I imagine Amy gets tired chasing after two little ones all the time. And Paul just loves those girls.”
“They love Paul,” Adrienne answered.
Amy dropped into a chair next to Adrienne. “Don’t do that, Mom,” she said. “And don’t even play innocent. We both know full well what you’re doing, and Adrienne is too nice to tell you to stop.”
Paul and the girls were sitting in the sand. Adrienne watched him help them scoop sand into their plastic buckets. Valerie carried a third toward the water, tipped it over, and let a small wave rush in. She carried the bucket back to her sister, slopping water over the side. “Watch her try to pour this on them,” Amy said.
If Valerie tried, they missed. A man walked between their chairs and Paul and the girls. He stopped briefly and stared at them. His shadow fell over Adrienne’s legs, and she pulled them tighter in to her body. “Excuse you,” Amy said.
He nodded at Adrienne. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” He was tall, his hair falling on to the back of his neck and far over his forehead. She couldn’t see his eyes through his dark sunglasses, and he carried a shirt balled up in one hand.
“No,” Adrienne said. “I don’t recognize you at all.”
The man stared at them for a beat longer before he left. “That was weird,” Amy said.
Adrienne’s mother-in-law watched him leave, and when he was a safe distance said, “I suppose it’s not too early for someone to be drunk. Are you sure you didn’t know him, Adrienne?”
“I can’t say I’ve ever seen him before in my life,” Adrienne said. “He doesn’t look a bit familiar.”
She couldn’t sleep at night. The waves were too loud. When they traveled, Adrienne used a noisemaker app on her phone so she would sleep better in the too quiet hotels, and she often set the sound to ocean waves. But the real thing was too much. She gave up and went to the bathroom for some water. As she walked back through the room, she stopped at the window and looked through the crack in the curtains. There he was again, the man from the night before. Or maybe this was a different man, but there was a man on the beach, alone, pacing the water’s edge. He turned occasionally to look at the houses just beyond the dune. He finally sat in the sand while the water rushed around him.
The man returned every night to pace the beach and walk partway into the water. Sometimes he came closer to the houses. He sat on the stairs leading to the beach, and once, Adrienne saw him climb onto the railing of their walkway and stand. He took a few steps along one railing, then leapt to the other. He balanced on one foot, then the other, then both feet. He bent his knees slightly and swung his arms back and forth, slowly at first and gaining in momentum. As his arms swung forward, he launched himself toward the walkway of the next house and disappeared from view.
Adrienne slept for a couple of hours when she first went to bed but woke up knowing the man was outside. You are being ridiculous, she would tell herself. She would stay in bed, refusing to allow herself to get up and look out the window for him. Paul slept soundly beside her, his breathing so deep that her frequent stirring didn’t wake him. The longer she was awake, the more she was convinced she heard something: someone creeping through the house, the glass door sliding open, footsteps through the first floor. She would eventually give in and tiptoe to the window. The man was always there. Every night. Sometimes he wasn’t there the first time she looked, and sometimes she didn’t see him immediately, but he came to the beach at some time each night. She would watch him for a few minutes. She never saw his face or anything about him that made him distinguishable from any other man she might see on the beach in the daytime. But his presence, his comfort and the ease with which he prowled the beach and near the houses, unnerved her.
Adrienne slid back into the bed next to Paul, who often didn’t notice she had been gone. She closed her eyes and tried to force herself to sleep again. She fell asleep for another hour or so before Paul got up to fish, and as quiet as he tried to be, she always startled awake. Her days and nights blurred. She began taking long naps in the afternoons when the sun was highest and the sand hottest. Some days Amy convinced the girls to nap, and the whole house would settle into quiet to preserve the girls’ sleep. Other days they wouldn’t sleep, or certain family members wanted to take a day trip further up the coast or go shopping. Adrienne slept through it all. One day Paul tried to convince Adrienne to come along kayaking and paddle boating. She refused, pleaded exhaustion, and stumbled her way upstairs to shower off the day’s sunscreen and fall asleep with her hair still wrapped in a towel.
“Is this normal?” Adrienne heard Paul’s mother ask. They stood on the landing outside the bedroom door. Neither made any attempt to lower their voice.
“We’re on vacation,” Paul said. “She’s allowed to nap on vacation.”
Adrienne could picture the thin line of her mother-in-law’s mouth, her signature sign of disapproval. “Well, you seem to be using vacation as an excuse for a lot of things.”
Adrienne sat on the porch with her feet on the railing and a blanket draped over her thighs. She wasn’t especially cold, but there was a slight chill and her dress was short. She was drinking a gin and tonic. The evening stretched before her. Amy took the girls to play mini-golf, and her in-laws were meeting friends in town. Only Paul stayed behind. She heard the dishwasher start, and a few moments later Paul joined her on the porch. The waves were quieter at low tide, and the very edge of the horizon was tinged pink. Paul drained the last of his beer. “Come on,” he said. She stood, dropped the blanket onto the chair, and left her sandals. Together they walked over the dune and on to the beach. The sand was already much cooler. They went down to the water’s edge to the damp sand where it was easier to walk. Far fewer people were on the beach than in the afternoon, and almost no one in the water. They passed a couple of people walking dogs. Groups gathered on the porches of beach houses. Adrienne and Paul headed south along the beach. The huge fishing pier towered in the distance. She could imagine the pier lined with people fishing—old men, yes, but also couples, women who took fishing more seriously than their partners. She had gone to the pier with Paul once. They climbed the stairs to the observation deck at the end of the pier. She couldn’t believe the blue of the water, how far it all stretched. She read that the end of the pier was 20 feet above sea level, and the water could be 30 feet deep at high tide. She didn’t know how high the observation deck was, but thinking about those numbers, that height from the ocean floor made her dizzy.
Paul took her hand and pulled her closer to the water so the waves ran over the tops of their feet. “How does this beach compare?” Paul asked.
All of Adrienne’s previous trips to the ocean had been with Paul. They went to Florida and Atlantic City early in their relationship, and later a beach on the Gulf Coast with his family. “I like this one,” she said. “I like that the beach is all houses.”
Paul said, “I want to bring our children here,” and Adrienne said, “Yes. Okay. Yes.”
They had the house to themselves so Adrienne couldn’t say no. She couldn’t mention his family overhearing them, the uncomfortable questions from the girls or knowing looks from his sister. She worried about the gravity of the decision she felt like she just made, a decision she didn’t mean to make then and wasn’t sure she meant. Yes, of course, they could take children to that beach, but Paul had said “our children,” and her acquiescence seemed to signal so much more than an eventuality. She had stumbled back up the beach with Paul, up the stairs to their room. The window was still cracked but the blinds were closed, and afterward the waves seemed louder than before but Paul held her and pressed his face into her neck. He slept, and she listened to the waves and tried to imagine their child, Paul’s daughter. She thought about tiny ruffled bathing suits, pigtails damp with saltwater, Paul’s nose in miniature and freckled, her own hands smoothing sunscreen across a pale back and small shoulder blades like fragile wings.
Paul slept on, and Adrienne heard his family return one by one. She heard them bid each other good night and their bedroom doors close. She lay there and listened to Paul’s breath and listened to the ocean outside and tried to listen to her body.
She couldn’t remember if she heard the click of the lock on the porch door. There was a telltale creak, one loose board just before the door that no one could avoid stepping on even if they knew it was there. The silence swelled around Adrienne while she listened for that creak. She finally rose from the bed, pulled on her dress again, and crept down the stairs to the living room to check the door. It was locked. She pulled the handle anyway to check, and the door didn’t move. She let herself look outside and saw her empty glass, her sandals, and her blanket still draped on the chair. She flipped the lock up with her thumb, slid open the door, and stepped out.
The wind had picked up since that evening. She retrieved the blanket from the deck chair and pulled it around her shoulders and stepped carefully down the wooden walkway. She moved quietly over the dune toward the steps, and there, at the bottom, the man.
He didn’t turn. I could turn, she thought. I could turn and go back to the house and he would never know I was here. No one would ever know. His elbows rested on his knees, and his folded hands hung between them. He wore shorts and a T-shirt. She stood above him on the walkway. If someone turned on a light in the house, her shadow would be thrown across him and he would know. He could do so much to her, all the violence she had imagined, show her if he was really capable of all the things she let herself believe he could do. But she had the advantage of the dark, her quiet, the height at which she stood above him and she thought, No. She imagined herself with a weapon of some kind, even a plank pulled from the walkway. To be someone with that kind of power.
“What are you doing here?” she said. Her voice was weak from hours of disuse.
“It’s quiet,” he said. He didn’t turn. “Sorry to disturb you. This your place?”
She twisted the end of the blanket in her fingers. Should she admit it was a rental? Claim it belonged to her in-laws? How much information was too much?
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I know you aren’t the owner. Why are you out here?”
“Why are you?”
“I told you: it’s quiet. The water is better at night.” He stood and took off his shirt in one motion. “Want to go for a night swim?”
“No,” Adrienne said. “My husband.” She gestured toward the house.
“Is asleep,” the man finished. “Come on.” He turned and stepped up the stairs, one at a time, until he was on the step below Adrienne but nearly even with her. “Come on.”
His skin smelled like banana sunscreen. He was too close, his face too close to hers. He breathed with his mouth slightly open, and when he exhaled, his breath smelled like sour milk. She could not turn. She forced her eyes away from his and stared at the strands of hair stuck to his forehead. “No,” she said. His chest would touch her if he inhaled deeply. “Please. I think you should go.”
He smiled, his teeth whiter than she expected. “What are you so scared of?”
She looked directly into his face. “Everything.”
Adrienne wouldn’t remember for sure how she got back to the house. She stood on the walkway and waited for the man to leave. She could not turn her back to him, and she could not move backward the entire length of the walkway. So she waited for him to lose interest. She could not remember the exact moment of his leaving, but she remembered his smirk, his dismissive laugh, and his sour breath on her face. When he receded far enough into the dark she couldn’t see him anymore, she ran. She ran back up the walkway, her bare feet thudding against the unfinished wood. She locked the door behind her, went upstairs, and hid in the dark bathroom. Her chest heaved, somewhere between panting and crying. She sat on the edge of the bathtub until she caught her breath, then slipped back into the bedroom where Paul slept. In the morning, Amy would find Adrienne’s blanket in a heap just inside the sliding glass door and smears of blood on alternating stairs. Paul found an arc of dried blood in the sheets where Adrienne’s foot swept as she turned in bed, and with Paul’s help, Adrienne pulled a sliver from the ball of her foot. She insisted she must have gotten it the night before when she came back to the house with Paul, and no, of course, she didn’t leave the house again. Her mother-in-law made Adrienne soak her foot in Epsom salt and warm water. Later that day, Adrienne opened the door to her room and found her blanket neatly folded at the end of the bed, returned unquestioned.
It would be months, her entire pregnancy, before she remembered the last time she saw the man. The smell of milk made her sick, and she was grateful that she could plead hormones as an explanation. She thought of his face in the dark, the quick movement as he removed his shirt when he asked her to take a midnight swim. But as she labored, when her body was no longer her own and her muscles and limbs shattered and tore over and over again, she closed her eyes and remembered. She had climbed back into bed with Paul, but she shook so much she was afraid she would wake him. The sound of waves was deafening. She stood to shut the window. As she did, she saw the man wading out into the ocean. He fought against the waves. The breakers tried to carry him back to shore, but he dove through them over and over again until he was past them. She saw the long lines of his arms pulling through the water, outward toward open sea. She watched until he disappeared, and she didn’t wait for his return.
Jessica Fokken’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Midwestern Gothic, Literary Mama, and Big Muddy. She earned her PhD from Oklahoma State University and teaches at Coastal Carolina University. Originally from the upper Midwest, she now lives near Myrtle Beach with her husband, son, and dogs.