Second Prize, New Ohio Review Fiction Contest selected by Maud Casey
By Susan Finch
Featured Art: Early Morning After a Storm at Sea by Winslow Homer
When Bob Miller slipped and fell from the rooftop deck of his ex-wife’s houseboat into the inky black of Rock Harbor, it almost appeared as if he’d done it on purpose. The fall took him feet over head, his flailing arms tightening into a V like he was performing a cartwheel. His fingers spread open in sunbursts, his legs stretched wide and long like a dancer’s, and his toes tensed into sharp points. As he tumbled the twenty-five feet into the shadowy water, his whole body seemed to expand and explode into a star.
The entire party saw Bob’s fall or, at least, when the police conducted the official investigation, partygoers would claim they had. And in truth, the spinning and twisting of Bob Miller’s body end-over-end was so spectacular that in hearing the story later in whispers passing across the marina from slip to slip, everyone felt they had seen it. Those who knew Bob assumed he’d been dared to do it. He had always been a bit of a showoff and couldn’t say no to a challenge. When he was thirteen, he’d purchased a dirt bike and had performed stunts for his friends on the weekend, vaulting over a campfire, navigating the narrow wall between the cornfield and the river, and once, after a double-dog-dare, he’d launched the bike from the hayloft of his father’s dilapidated barn and taken a nasty spill on the landing, fracturing his femur.
Bob’s descent from the houseboat was so perfectly timed with the end of the Fourth of July fireworks display that even the partygoers who didn’t know Bob thought he had jumped on purpose. Most of the crowd assumed it was inevitable that someone would end up in the water. There were simply too many kids and too many drunks scattered between the two long docks at Rock Harbor Marina for everyone to stay dry. Charlie Smithson, who lived on a pontoon houseboat at the end of B-dock, had already put on his life preserver. He didn’t swim well, and after a few mojitos, his doggy-paddle barely kept him afloat. A month ago, he’d nearly drowned after several Bud Lights helped him misjudge the distance between his boat and the wooden planks of his slip, and he wouldn’t make that mistake again. When Charlie heard about Bob’s accident, he shuddered, remembering the dark cocoon of the water, and tightened the straps on his life jacket.
The marina’s Fourth of July Bash cost almost ten thousand dollars—seven thousand spent on fireworks alone. They’d hoped to attract a new range of customers with their inaugural display, but in the end, the weather was dreary and gray, and they’d only drawn five percent more business. The marina’s manager knew he’d be fired. The Fourth of July barbecue had been entirely his idea, and now that he’d failed, he giggled to himself that at least he was going out with a bang. The last minute of the show alone cost $2500 and was so noisy, echoing off the old quarry walls of the harbor and ricocheting from the aluminum siding that sheltered the boat docks, that most people who were watching flinched away from the noise, covering their ears with their hands. Some of these people would see Bob Miller fall, backlit with the smoke from the fireworks, but none of them would hear him scream, a short bark of surprise as he tumbled.
Only Krista Jean, Bob’s ex-wife, witnessed the entire fall from beginning to end. Krista Jean Miller loved fireworks more than most people. As a teenager, she’d sat close enough to the launch area during a show that she’d not only seen every single spark as the rockets hurtled up into the darkness but the ashes from the starbursts had floated down and landed gently on her face and chest, covering her in a fine soot. Only minutes before Bob fell, Krista Jean had spun away from the deafening, sparkling spectacle to confront Bob. She had tried to let the fireworks divert her, to allow the rumble-and-thump hush the angry murmurings of her ex-husband, but she’d snapped. Only Krista Jean turned from the effervescence crackling in the sky and refracting off the water. Only Krista Jean knew what Bob said to her just before he fell. Only Krista Jean could remember the feel of his cotton polo as it stretched then slipped away from her as she let go.
Three months ago, Krista Jean Miller bought a 1979 Drifter Houseboat with a steel hull that was docked at Rock Harbor Marina just ten miles south of downtown Nashville. She paid two hundred a month for the slip rental and ten thousand dollars in cash for the boat, and she’d been surprised at how small that amount of money had felt when she handed it over. She’d imagined ten thousand dollars would be bulkier, wads of cash that she might need to carry in a bag or briefcase, but really, the money, one hundred crisp one-hundred-dollar bills straight from the bank vault, didn’t look or feel impressive. The stack was barely an inch in height and fit neatly into her small clutch. The only thing that made it indisputable was the currency wrapper, cinched around the waist of the money, announcing the amount in bright yellow numbers.
Krista Jean had never held so much cash in her hands at one time. Honestly, she felt relieved to part with it. The money was one of the few things that remained of her marriage. They’d finally sold the house, after nine agonizing months on the market, yet the remnants of Bob’s role in her life kept surfacing— his name on the title to her car, on her credit cards, his name in her mail, his name attached to hers forever. When the judge had asked her if she’d wanted to change back to her given name, Krista Jean Dingle, she’d refused. She hated the name Dingle. It had never felt like hers. Even as a child, she toyed with new last names, promising her mother she would change it on her eighteenth birthday. But, when she was an adult, the legal fees seemed expensive and frivolous, and what would she change it to anyway? She was relieved to take Miller, happy to feel like a family with Bob, and perhaps, the lingering memory of that joy is what had stopped her when the judge asked. But now, almost a year later, Miller didn’t seem quite right either.
“You should rename the boat Miller Time,” the boat’s previous owner told her as he passed her the title. “I wanted to name her Ship Faced. Get it?” He chuckled, and Krista Jean gave him a polite half-smile. “But my wife wouldn’t let me. That’s how we ended up with this.” He gestured toward the cursive script on the side panel: Reel Crazy. “It’s not as funny,” he assessed. He lingered a few more minutes, his hand resting on the railing along the deck. “You have fun out there,” he said. “She’s a good’un.” And finally, he left.
Krista Jean slipped off her flip-flops, leaving them on the dock, and stepped on the deck, taking a tour. Of course, she’d already walked through the boat before buying it, but now, as the owner, she saw it in a different light. The sale had included all of the furniture so there was very little to supply. The front deck housed a table and two chairs. She rubbed at the rings on the top of the glass left from years of beer bottles and margarita tumblers sweating on the surface. Past the sliding doors, one of which still included the impression of a nose print, the houseboat was divided into three basic spaces: a living area, a kitchen, and a bedroom. The living room included a captain’s chair and console from which to pilot. At the helm, there was a real ship’s wheel.
Krista stood behind it, placing her hand on the throttle. There were about a dozen switches that she didn’t know what to do with, but right now, she didn’t want to think about the fact that she barely knew how to steer a houseboat and that she’d probably just gotten in way over her head. Instead, she pictured anchoring her boat in the quiet of a cove on the river and reading a book on the upper deck. The river made her forget about the rest of her life—her struggle to make her sales quota at work, her inability to resist buying cookies at the grocery store, her alcoholic ex-husband who oscillated between telling her how much he wanted her back and how she was the bitch who’d ruined his life.
She turned the ship’s wheel and under her feet, imagined she felt the rudder move in response.
Tomorrow, Krista Jean would take the boat out on the water for the first time, but today, she would fall into the double bed. She would not think about her ex-husband or how when they’d left the home they shared together she’d refused to cry. She would not think about the furniture she’d put in storage or the fact that for almost a year she’d been living out of the two suitcases now in the closet next to her. She would not think about the fact that this life was one she had never planned or anticipated or imagined possible. Instead, she would open the windows over the double bed, roll back the green-and-yellow-striped duvet, and feel the coolness of the top sheet against her bare legs. She would look around at her tiny domain, content that everything she could see and touch was hers and hers alone. The carp would slap the hull all night as they loosened the algae to eat, and the sound of the dull thumping would eventually lull her to sleep.
When Bob Miller hit the water, Krista Jean expected him to pop right back up, to surface like a bad penny, finger pointed, ready to curse her very existence. It wouldn’t be the first time. But instead of Bob’s bloated and ruddy cheeks breaking the surface, his emptied beer can floated in the darkness of the water. The can rolled on its side, revealing a gold label with a star in the middle, before twisting once more, righting itself, filling with water and sinking to the bottom of the harbor. Bob was underwater for only twenty seconds before Krista Jean screamed for help.
Lance Lassiter, a retired radio deejay, was the first one to come running. Lance’s slip was two down from Krista’s. In the three months that Krista Jean had been living at the marina, Lance had tried to keep an eye on her. She reminded him of his daughter when she laughed at his bad jokes out of politeness or she ignored the stutter that appeared when he’d had a few too many G and Ts or when she tried to mask her sadness through work. He’d never seen anyone labor as hard on a boat as Krista had. She’d polished and scrubbed and waxed the outside of Reel Crazy until it looked the best a thirty-year-old houseboat could manage. She’d ripped out the mildewed green interior carpet and matching drapes and furnishings, and replaced them with a navy blue all-weather rug and maroon curtains that flattered the dark wood paneling. She’d re-covered pillows and bought a new futon for the living room, replacing a sleeper sofa that smelled like an old bait bucket. Lance had even helped her install a new generator when the one she’d inherited with the boat had sputtered to a stop.
“That thing was probably older than you are,” Lance assessed, and he’d helped her shop for a new one. He had always been good with electrical equipment. There was something so clear to him about the way wires connected, but he’d never been as good with people. He had no romantic aspirations about Krista. She was nearly thirty years his junior and at six feet, she was nearly six inches taller than him, but he couldn’t help but admire the way she studied his hands as they fastened the wires to the equipment it would power. He checked all the connections—refrigerator, air-conditioning, television—explaining everything as he went. “If you’re going to be a boat captain, you need to know this stuff,” he told her. She nodded and made notes in a journal so she could refresh herself later. “Tomorrow, we’ll change that squeaky belt on your engine,” he said, and she nodded solemnly. Krista Jean made Lance feel needed. She made him feel important, and it had been a while since anyone had.
Lance didn’t see Bob Miller’s fall. He had invited his daughter and grandson Elijah to watch the fireworks display, and he’d been distracted by their presence. He’d invited Krista Jean to join them for a hot dog earlier. She was having a small get-together too, but she promised to drop by and meet his kin. It was nearly dark and she still hadn’t showed, and when he glanced over to her slip, he saw her boat full of people, including the unmistakable bald head of her ex-husband. Lance had met Bob once before when he unintentionally let him into the locked gate of A-Dock. A keypad provided security for boat owners, and Bob had waited for someone to open the gate for him, slipping his hand between the metal gate and its latch. Lance had noticed but not thought anything of it. This wasn’t the first time he’d let a stranger follow him into the restricted portion of the docks. It was impossible to know everyone at the marina. Bob Miller didn’t look threatening—tall and skinny as a rail but with a bit of a gut beginning to show around his waistline. His head was shaved smooth and lily-white, and Lance considered that he must use a barrel of sunblock to keep his egghead skull from getting fried.
Bob had followed Lance down the dock, looking as if he knew where he was headed. When Lance reached his boat, he’d watched the egg-headed stranger stop at Krista Jean’s houseboat. She was on the upper deck, sitting in an Adirondack with one foot propped on a glass table, painting her toenails. When Bob stepped onto Krista Jean’s boat without removing his shoes on the welcome mat she’d left slip side, Lance knew Bob didn’t belong.
Bob climbed the ladder to the roof deck, and when his face appeared, Krista Jean knocked over her nail polish in surprise, the violet color spreading on the glass table. She lowered her foot to the deck and tensed as if she might run, but nothing happened. They talked for a half hour, and Lance kept watch, ready to spring into action if something got hinky. He’d never met Krista Jean’s ex-husband or even heard of him at that point, but there was no mistaking the tension with which she greeted him. The spilled nail polish grew tacky on the glass table, and Krista Jean didn’t even move to right the bottle. When Bob finally left, looking hangdog and brokenhearted, Krista Jean finally turned slowly over her shoulder. Even from two slips away, Lance could tell that she’d been crying. She nodded to him, just barely, and then escaped down the ladder to her cabin. Later, she would explain that Bob was a good man, but he was a drunk. “He’s never hit me,” she said, defending her ex, but Lance could tell that it had occurred to her that one day he might.
Lance had felt at fault for letting Bob into the marina, and he’d vowed to be more careful, so when he heard Krista Jean’s call for help, he’d been ready for it. He leapt off the deck of his boat onto the dock, a splinter lodging into his heel with a sharp stab, but it hardly slowed him. He was on board the Reel Crazy in a matter of seconds. She pointed to the dark water of the harbor where the last of the fireworks’ light glittered in the greasy, gassy sheen of the marina’s water. “Bob’s down there,” the words caught in her throat, and then, she dove gracefully into the water where she’d last seen her ex-husband, and Lance followed.
Rock Harbor’s warmth was a shock for Krista Jean. The Cumberland River was normally cool if not cold to the touch. The river’s swift current swirled in the mouth of the harbor, but seemingly stopped there, creating an eddy that often dragged big boats like Krista Jean’s dangerously close to the rocks. The harbor was black, full of discarded beer cans, lost sunglasses, abandoned Styrofoam coolers, and a half-a-million-dollar yacht that had sunk years ago. Duck and turtle feces were widespread, and a thin sheen of oil, gas, and sunscreen drifted on the surface. Despite opening her eyes in the murky depths, Krista Jean could not see anything. She spun frantically around, arms widespread, reaching for any shadow. She swam down desperately until the darkness was so complete that she could not tell which way was up. She felt lucky for the bubbles rising out of her mouth, forcing her to follow them back to the surface. As she broke the plane of murky water, she gulped in a mouthful, tasting the metallic slime of years of rusted hulls. She spat and wiped her mouth. Lance appeared next to her, treading water.
“Are you okay?” he asked, but she was already plunging back down, grabbing at anything that brushed her arms—a garbage bag, an old life preserver, a piece of driftwood. Above the surface, Lance was calling for help, recruiting his daughter to dial 911, instructing Krista Jean’s friends to flood the water with light, but these voices were muffled under the surface. All Krista Jean could hear was the sound of boats straining against their moorings, metal gently grinding metal. She wanted to plug her ears with her fingers.
The first time Bob Miller had told Krista Jean he loved her, she’d put her head in her hands, cupping her palms around her ears to dampen the sound of his voice. They’d been arguing about him showing up late to a family dinner. Her mother and sister had tried to avoid looking at their watches as they snacked on chips and salsa, and Krista Jean had covered for Bob, promising that he’d been kept overtime at work, but she’d known by the smell of beer on his breath that he’d been kept late by brews with his buddies. For a moment, she considered calling off the whole relationship. They’d only been dating for a few months, but Bob was handsome and funny and at thirty-three, Krista Jean was ready to get married. By the time dinner was over, Krista Jean’s mother had forgiven him for her daughter’s sake. “He’s a keeper,” she’d whispered. “Just get him a watch.” She laughed to indicate it was a joke, but Krista Jean still flushed.
That night, Krista Jean had refused to kiss Bob goodbye in the parking lot. His lateness still stung, and she turned away from him. His lips caught the side of her jaw.
“KJ,” he said, having picked up the nickname from her sister. “My sweet KJ, you know I love you. You’re the love of my life.”
“You’re drunk,” Krista Jean protested, but no one had ever told her they loved her before, much less that she was the love of his life. The phrase took hold of her, shaking loose her breath. Her stomach tumbled at the thought of this man, bright blue eyes searching her face for a different response.
“I adore you,” he said. “I love you.”
She shook her head.
“I love you.” He put a sharp, pointed finger in the middle of her chest. It hurt a little, but Krista Jean disregarded it. She put her hands over her ears, ignoring him, refusing to listen, but he persisted. After a minute, she let him pull her hands down from her face. His smile begged her to smile back, and she knew it was too late. She loved him too.
It took Krista Jean nearly two years to realize she’d married an alcoholic, and three more to confront it. Bob Miller could drink two six-packs every night and still get up for work in the morning. He didn’t feel good, but he managed, and by the time he made it to lunch, he rewarded himself with a Jack and Diet. Krista Jean didn’t know about those rewards, but she did know that their recycling was more full of beer, liquor and wine bottles than anything else. She knew the embarrassment of hauling the clanking bins out to the curb every other Thursday. She also knew the angles of Bob’s face had begun to disappear, taking on a swollen look like someone had over-inflated him. Bags appeared under his eyes, along with red spider web veins across his nose. Even the smell of his breath had changed, suddenly too sweet as if he’d stayed up all night eating ice cream, instead of polishing off the last of the Jim Beam that Krista Jean had tried to hide in the freezer, buried beneath bags of frozen spinach and carrots. She knew that Bob didn’t believe he was a drunk, that he never had, and he probably never would.
Krista Jean’s lungs felt tight, she needed to swim for air, and when she search- ed for the surface of the water, daylight danced across the sky. More fireworks? she thought, Sunrise? Rays of light sank into the darkness. The probing beams of flashlights, searchlights, and even cellphone lights hung in glowing arcs in the cloudy water. Her heart pounded, and as she surfaced from her last dive, she coughed and struggled to the side. Her legs were jelly, barely able to keep her chin up. More men jumped in. One of them saw her struggling and helped her to the dock, and his arm was warm around her waist. She began to cry quietly. Swimmers returned to the surface empty-handed again and again. A small fishing boat floated the avenue of water between docks, two men hunched over the side, ready to haul out a body.
Lance’s daughter helped yank Krista Jean back onto the dock where she then huddled on the side of her slip. Water dripped from her sundress and pooled around her thighs, soaking the wood. The hull of her houseboat bobbed next to her. Ripples slapped at the sides, splashing her legs and feet every so often with a fine mist. Her shoulders were shivering. Her guests had gone quiet, those who weren’t in the water peered over the edge, flashlights in hand, scanning every ripple and every floating leaf for some trace of their friend. Krista Jean’s friends didn’t understand the divorce. Bob had been unfaithful but Krista Jean had refused to forgive him—it made them both look bad. It’s a shame, they thought. They really do seem to love each other. For this reason, one friend had let Bob in the marina gates, gave him a beer, and slapped him on the back as a greeting. One of them had hugged Bob, feeling the rough stubble on Bob’s chin and catching the sugary smell of whiskey on his breath. One of them had watched Bob’s legs wobble as he climbed the ladder to the roof deck of the houseboat and thought that maybe this time, Bob had overdone it, but none of them intervened.
There were at least a dozen swimmers in the water, heads bobbing, disappearing and reappearing in the blackness. Strobes of light from a cop car circled the walls of the harbor, and heavy boots thundered down the ramp to the docks. Every so often a stray firework would explode in the night air set off by someone in the neighborhood, someone who didn’t know that Bob Miller had been missing for forty-five minutes.
The first time Krista Jean took her boat out on the river, she anchored in a bend about a mile and a half upstream. It was a Sunday morning, and the only traffic she encountered was a family of ducks that hugged the edges of the marina’s restaurant, begging for scraps. Krista Jean had left early enough that the waitresses in the restaurant were still wiping the dew from the plastic tabletops. On the river, a light mist hung in the corners, trapped in the low-hanging branches of the trees, but all of that would be gone by the time Krista Jean hauled her anchor overboard, letting the forty-pound weight sink and settle in the sludge of the riverbed. The boat was only twenty feet from shore, but the riverbed was steep and Krista Jean’s depth finder told her she had plenty of room to spare. She wasn’t in danger of scraping the hull or the prop.
She took a book and an iced tea and climbed to the roof deck to lie back on a folding chair. It wasn’t long before she’d abandoned her book, face down on her belly, to stare at the river. It was April and the leaves were a spring green dotted with the whites and pinks of the dogwoods’ blooms. The river was nearly deserted. Pleasure boaters wouldn’t be out until much later in the day, but every so often a tugboat passed pushing a barge full of sand or gravel, the captain giving her a wave or sometimes a short burst from his horn. The wake of his boat would send her rocking for several minutes, the waves rolling and echoing from bank to bank, and she gripped the deck’s railing so her chair wouldn’t slide back and forth. Some small aluminum fishing boats clung to the sides of the river, but mostly, sunshine was her only companion.
When she got hungry, she climbed down the ladder and made a chicken salad sandwich. She was surprised to find it was already after noon. Time on the water seemed to stand still, and yet it had passed so quickly. Sunburn radiated from her shoulders and chest. She went to her lower patio, sandwich in hand, and hung her feet over the edge. She could sit low enough on the swim platform where she could dip her toes in the current. The undertow tugged at her ankles and was surprisingly strong. She let her hand drag in the water and noticed her ring finger empty. She had taken off the wedding band months ago, yet even after all this time, she felt surprised to find the slender gold band missing. She still had the ring, tucked in the original ring box, buried at the back of her underwear drawer. She almost wished she’d lost it—that it had slipped off her finger down the garbage disposal or fallen as she dangled her hand out the car window. The idea of selling it felt dirty. It wasn’t worth much anyway. Yet, somehow knowing the ring was there on this very boat pained her. It represented everything she’d lost—her marriage, her thirties, her future family. She’d spent so much time investing in herself as a wife that she wasn’t sure who she was without it.
Bob never told Krista Jean that he was having an affair, but she knew it all the same. She knew it from the late-night phone calls that he claimed were from a friend, but she could hear the woman’s voice clear as her own as Bob held the receiver to his cheek. Krista Jean wasn’t wrong, and when she’d tracked the number down, she’d found the name Andrea Meadows attached to the other end. Krista Jean confronted her husband and begged him to end his affair, but he claimed to be in love. She knew she hadn’t heard him right. “But we’re married,” she said, as if that explained everything.
One morning, she’d left for work and when she came home, all of Bob’s clothes were gone. He spent the next month emptying the house of everything he owned, but he avoided her steadily, only coming to the house when she was at work. She began to get used to the half-empty home—it was quiet and no one was ever passed out on the couch at seven in the evening, reeking of bourbon. And then, just as suddenly, Bob started reappearing, begging Krista Jean to reconcile, telling her he’d made a huge mistake. The first time, he’d materialized on her front porch, so drunk that he could hardly keep his eyes open. He’d parked crookedly on the street, one tire swallowed by the muddy front yard. She let him sleep it off on the wicker love seat. She covered him with a blanket from the couch, but in tucking the blanket around his chin, she realized for the first time, he’d done her a huge favor. She loved him, but he was a problem that she would never be able to solve. She filed for divorce the next day. And just like that, the story changed—she was leaving him, she was abandoning him, and she had ruined his life.
Bob was a terrible ex-husband. He was angry and mean and he liked to wake Krista Jean up in the middle of the night, lecturing her about how she had spoiled everything. He left her twenty-seven texts and five angry voicemails in one hour. The story always started the same way—he was sorry and sad things had to be this way and if she would only hear him out she would understand but she didn’t listen, she never listened, and this was why he was so pissed because she was a bitch and she’d always been a bitch and she’d always be a bitch. She moved out of the house and changed her number, but somehow, Bob always found her.
Krista Jean stood up from the platform, dusting the crumbs off her lap. She went into the house and retrieved her wedding band from the back of her underwear drawer. She put it back on her finger, admiring the sleek simplicity, memorizing the shape, the color, the feel of marriage. She stepped back on the platform, removed the ring, and threw it as far as she could from the bow. The gold band flickered like a coin tossed into a fountain and then disappeared into the sunshine.
For over two hours, divers had bobbed in the water near Krista Jean. Each time they surfaced was a new disappointment. Krista Jean’s friends were either in the water, searching for Bob, or were whispering nearby, pretending to look busy cleaning up the party but they were really searching for something to say. Lance’s grandson Elijah didn’t know what to say, but he knew exactly what to do. He took his beach towel and wrapped it around Krista Jean’s shoulders. This wasn’t the first time Elijah had encountered a sad woman. His mother spent her nights hunched over the computer, typing long emails to the photos of men she’d never meet in person. She grinned when her inbox glowed with the cartoon heart numbering her responses, but more often, she sighed, turning away from an empty inbox and wrapping her arm around Elijah, saying that she knew she’d always have her sweet boy, even though they both understood that would never be enough.
Elijah sat next to Krista Jean, not near enough to touch her, but near enough to see that she was still shivering. He sat so close that he could hear Krista Jean repeat Bob Miller’s last words, the last things he’d shouted in his ex-wife’s face over the din of the fireworks. Krista Jean had been so surprised by these words that when Bob stumbled on the slickness of the roof of the houseboat she let go of his cotton polo shirt, letting him fall into the blackness of the marina water, and she thought momentarily, serves you right. Elijah could hear Krista Jean whisper those words but he couldn’t understand what she was talking about.
“Selfish bitch,” Krista Jean repeated. “You always loved yourself more than me.”
Elijah gently patted Krista Jean on the back. His palm almost perfectly matched the size of the starfish print on the towel as if it was saying “Place Hand Here.” He leaned in to see if Krista Jean might say something else, but she didn’t. Instead, a policeman would eventually come and take Krista Jean back to her boat. Elijah could see him through the window, perched on the edge of the futon. The cop looked concerned but Elijah knew he was supposed to look that way because that was part of his job. He wondered if he might make a good cop one day, and he wanted to test himself by looking at a dead body. He wanted to be on the dock when Bob Miller was pulled from the bottom of the marina, all waterlogged flesh and bloodshot eyes, but he wouldn’t be. Elijah’s mother would make him go home at midnight, and as Elijah lay in bed, he was secretly glad he hadn’t witnessed more than a sad stranger.
Bob Miller’s body was discovered at dawn—his neck broken and a long scratch down the side of one cheek. Rescue divers found him trapped underneath a sailboat across the harbor. No one could explain how he’d gotten there other than that there must have been currents underneath the marina, deeper than previously believed. Krista Jean certainly didn’t understand how this had happened. The rest of the night, she’d paced the back of her boat, waiting for news from the divers. When she heard they’d found him, she bent in grief, holding the thin railing of her boat so she wouldn’t slide into the water, now a murky green in the sunlight.
When Krista Jean identified the body, she placed a palm on Bob’s forehead, cool as a slab of marble, and she wanted to believe he looked peaceful. She took his hand in hers. His wedding ring had been removed, and the police would eventually return it to her with the rest of his belongings. They had no one else to give them to. She would run a finger along the inside of his ring where etched were the words, “I love you more than anything.”
Krista Jean took the ring to her houseboat, the only home she’d ever known to be her own. She puttered out to a cove and anchored at the same place where her wedding band was sunk in the mud of the riverbed, gone forever. She climbed to the top deck and stood for nearly an hour, preparing herself to throw Bob’s ring overboard, to let him join her in the muck. The weight of the band was nearly imperceptible in her fist, but she knew it was there all the same. She wanted to let it go, to let her arm swing wide, rainbowing the memory of her ex-husband far away, but instead, she held tight. She remembered hurling her own ring into the current—just before the golden circle disappeared into a sliver of sunshine, a burst of light flashed bright on the horizon, so brilliant that she’d had to turn away.
Susan Finch is an associate professor at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Crab Orchard Review, Nimrod, Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere. Currently, she is working on a novel and a story collection.
Originally published in NOR 18: Fall 2015