They were just learning to grow together then. But that twenty-year-old boy and his seventeen-year-old girl seemed inseparably in love. They lived on her parent’s land and worked at her family’s corner store to pay off their rent and utilities. Their little single level shack—all wood and very drafty, didn’t have much in it. Just two chairs, a kitchen table, a bed set, and a newly build crib.
The boy walked her hand-in-hand down to the high school her senior year, and never complained about waking up early to do so either. They would stop in a clearing just beyond the football practice fields and talk if they wanted to, sometimes until lunch. Sometimes the boy imaged himself practicing jump cuts and running sprints down the sidelines like he was the school’s star running back. The girl sat on a log or in a pile of leaves most days, by the river, listening to the running wind tossing leaves through patches of tall grass and weeds.
The girl use to talk about the big houses in Atlanta and Milledgeville. Anywhere except Douglasville. They had to leave, once and for all. She wanted to walk the little one to school there, to have a huge flower garden while he grew vegetables and tended the chicken stalls. She was always rubbing her belly by then.
Their daughter came along at the peak of largemouth season and its mother’s birthday came just around the corner from that. The boy spent his days fishing, which was part of it, you see.
One night, after the boy and girl, husband and wife, mother and father, had finished cleaning the store, the girl took the baby home to bed. The boy sat in the store’s office, propping his dusty boots up on the desk top, and called Philip Cartwright—an old childhood friend.
Phil and the boy met when they went through high school. They even left school at the same time, though only Phil had a diploma to show for it. Phil is a stocky man with deep black hair who lives in Tallapoosa with his wife, Patty.
Heya Phil, it’s been a while since I’ve heard from you. the boy said
You know, I passed through town the other day, Phil said. Just business, you know. I heard about the new bundle. Congratulations. How’s the wife holding up?
It’s been about three weeks now, the boy said. He’s just learning to sleep through the night. The wife’s fine now, too, since we began splitting sleep duties. Everybody’s fine, I guess.
Well that’s peachy, Phil said. If you called about going to the ol’ fishing spot, I’ll tell you I caught three bass this morning, and hell, I thought about going back tonight. Tomorrow morning might be better though. You aren’t interested in coming along, are you?
It’s crazy, the boy said, how you know just why I’m callin’ you, Phil. We’ve been knowing each other too long, I guess.
Well great. Just be here around six in the morning and I’ll see you then, Phil said quickly and hung up. He must be busy with another one of his carved bears, the boy thought.
The boy arrived back home under a bright moon. The dew had wet the rubber soles of his shoes, causing them to squeak over the linoleum floor when the boy entered. The house was dark, save for the moonlight crawling across the floor through the windows. Inside their room, the girl lay still. The boy gathered up some things—rod, wading-pants, tube socks, boots, bait, and his clothes.
The girl groaned, turning over, asking, when will you be home this time? She stretched her arms towards the ceiling and yawned. The boy couldn’t see her. He had intentionally left the light off to try and keep her asleep, but this handicapped his ability to find his fishing things, too.
Maybe noon if the fish ain’t biting, but probably around six or seven. You know how good Phil can be, the boy said. Is that okay?
We’ll be just fine without you, the girl said. You should have some fun. The neighbors, Tom and Kate, wanted to come over and visit in the morning, but I guess you don’t need to be here for that. The boy wasn’t sure if this was still a dream to her or not.
That sounds like a plan to me, the boy said.
Kate is the girl’s sister. The boy always felt a kind of love for her ever since the day they met. They were all out on their father’s boat: the girl, Kate, and the boy. The boy had just got his license, and the girl was being dragged behind in a large inner-tube. The boy never forgot how she looked that day. She had long blonde hair like the girl, but Kate was a little older and it showed. Her eyes were a murky brown like the Chattahoochee. The dimples on the small of her back bookended a small tattoo of a Pegasus, and her long, manicured hands were never far from anyone it seemed. She wore a pink bikini for most of that summer. The boy always said that he could have landed Kate. Never in front of the girl, of course.
The girl got up out of bed, turned on a lamp on the nightstand and went over to the crib to rock the baby.If I wasn’t around, you’d probably be with Kate anyway, the girl said. You know she thought you were cute, and I hated her for that. I’ve always thought she was much prettier than me. The baby was still sound asleep.
You know I can’t help that, babe, the boy said, chuckling. And she would love me too. I mean, how couldn’t you?
But who do you really care about? the girl asked.She was fighting to keep her eyes open.
You’re my girl now, the boy said kissing her on the forehead. The boy felt a smile creep up his cheeks as she lay half asleep on his chest.
Tell me we will be together forever, the girl said slowly.
We’ll be like Angelfish, the boy said. They live, hunt, travel together, and act like a team to defend their young, and even their friends. Once they mate, they’re stuck together for life. Sound familiar?
The girl asked softly, you’ve never caught one of them before, right?
Well, the boy paused, you remember that one time Phil and I went fishing in Mexico? We brought along the nets just in case we saw crabs. Phil ends up knocking them off the boat into the water just as we reach the first buoy. As we’re hauling them up, I saw a shiny blue reflection in the nets. When we finally got them all up and had begun digging through the trash, I found a little one flopping in there. Phil stuck his hand in there before I could and ended up tossing the fish in the bin where we keep the trophies. Phil said he wanted his daughter to see it.
Did you ever catch the other one? the girl said.
I don’t recall ever seeing it, the boy said. I’m sure if he had seen it in there it would have been taken too.
I would hate to just be left alone like that, the girl said.One day you’re swimming along, together, then zip, off you go forever. What a terrible feeling.
The girl let go of the boy and walked back to the crib. The baby was stirring. The boy looked over at the girl staring intently at the baby, motionless.
The boy watched her move toward the bed, remove her robe, and climb back in. The girl was asleep by the time her head hit the pillow. The clock on the nightstand read almost one in the morning.
By the time the boy unwound enough to fall asleep, the baby began to cry.
The girl quickly sprang to her feet and rocked the baby in her arms. Drowsily, the boy watched as he lay on his side, the girl bouncing back and forth steadily.
Again, later, the baby wailed. This time, the boy rolled over and checked the alarm—half past three—and saw the girl was snoring loudly into her pillow, unresponsive. The boy got up and shuffled towards the crib. The screaming grew louder and louder and the boy’s head began to pound. The boy picked up the baby and cradled it on his chest. .
They rocked for nearly twenty minutes in the room. The baby stopped screaming, but its skin began to burn, and sweat beads began to form on its forehead.
The boy took the baby out of the room and into the living room. Steam from the baby’s head began to accumulate on the window. The girl eventually joined them, wiping the sleep from her eyes with the sleeve of her robe. She wrapped her arms around the boy’s waist and rested her head on his back.
Should I hold him for a while? Do you think that will help? the girl asked softly.
Maybe so, the boy said. The boy handed the bundle over and went back to the bedroom. The boy could hear the baby whining. It was now four in the morning. .
Forty-five minutes later, the boy began dragging his things up to the truck, loading them in the bed. The air carried a thickness that stuck to the boy’s skin. Lighting a cigarette, the boy searched the truck for a t-shirt.
On his way back to the house, the boy ran into the girl outside the front door.
Where are you going? the girl said. The baby was crying, but not screaming. Its eyes were red and sank into its brow. The girl held the baby on her hip.
I told you last night I’m going to the hole with Phil this morning. It’s a hour drive to his house and I’m still in my boxer shorts, the boy said, looking down at his shivering legs. Besides, it’s about freezing out here.
How can you be thinking of Philip Cartwright at’ta time like this? the girl hollered. We have a sick child in there and you can only think about killing more miserable fish. For what? Fun? Is it fun for you to ruin someone else’s life for your own pleasures? Did you even feel his forehead!? He’s burning up!
What do you want me to do? Don’t get hysterical, the boy said. The child began to cry louder, this time, sending night birds flying from their trees.
What are you even saying? Don’t you care at all!? the girl hollered. You need to make a choice. It’s either Phil and those damn fish, or us!
The girl slammed the screen door as she went inside. The boy stood there listening to them stomp towards their bedroom. He needed steadying before he attempted to go after them. .
When the boy came inside, he found his fishing clothes neatly laid out on the bed. The girl and baby were nowhere to be seen. The boy got dressed, hopped in the truck, and sped off over to the family store.
The boy found a comfortable reclining spot in the office chair and called Philip Cartwright.
Phil, I don’t know what to tell you other than my wife needs me, man, the boy said when Phil picked up the receiver. She thinks the baby is sick. I’m sorry to keep you waiting, or waking you up and whatnot, but you should know. You aren’t mad, right? He held his head up with his chin against his chest, mumbling most of his speech.
Oh hell, I don’t feel much for going anyway, Phil said. I’m kinda groggy and I could use the time to carve some more of my wood bears, you know. It is holiday season. I might be busy real soon. Gotta get the wife something other than a blanket made of squirrel hide this year, or she’ll kill me. It’s no big deal.
The sun was high over the trees as the boy climbed in his truck and headed home.
When he arrived, the wooden bear holding a “party is this way” sign in a Canadian Mountie uniform was laying on its back in the flower garden next to the front door. Peering through the living room bay window, the boy saw a note on the kitchen counter. The boy walked around the side of the house, and off in the distance he saw the girl playing with the baby under the willow tree in the backyard. There was a blanket set out, and a bag of food from Bojangles.
The girl asked him how fishing went. She held the baby to the sky and brought him down to her chest. It could have been the sun in his eyes, but the boy had never seen her smile so bright.
I went to call Phil and cancel the trip when we got to talkin’, said the boy. His shirt was stained and dusty. The girl chuckled, blushing
I ended up in my parent’s living room cuddled up with the little one on the sofa, the girl said. I gave her a cool bath and she’s just fine. Slept like a rock, too.
The boy sat next to the girl, their backs to the tree, facing the fires of the horizon. The tree held the two with its roots, leaving just enough room for them to sprawl out in.
I’m sorry for earlier, the girl said, slowly. I really wasn’t mad. I don’t know what came over me.
It was my fault, the boy said. How was time with Tom and Kate?
They ended up running errands all day, the girl replied, putting her head on the boy’s shoulder. They’re real adults.
The baby was sound asleep when the girl put him on the blanket. She pulled out two chicken biscuits and gave one to the boy.
Thanks for breakfast, the boy said.
As he unwrapped his biscuit, he felt something crawling up his leg. He slapped at it, and sent his biscuit flying across the yard.
The girl looked at him, then at the expression on his face. She laughed.
If you could see your face right now, she said and kept laughing.
The boy looked across the yard at his biscuit laying open and the chicken patty slowly being consumed by ants.
I guess they was hungry, he said.
I guess so, said the girl. She handed him her biscuit and told him to eat it.
The boy asked if she was hungry or not, and the girl said she didn’t even like Bojangles, she had just gotten it for him, really.
The girl said, I promise we won’t fight like that anymore. It’s just not worth it.
The boy agreed, kissing her.
That’s all. No more, he said. I know it was a boring one. He nearly tripped over his chair heading to the kitchen
He grabbed the empty bottles from the table by their necks.
I was interested, she said, perking up. I listened to the whole thing. What happens next?
He came back slowly, walked past her, and went over to the window overlooking the street. The bars looked greased-up. The city sounded like a hive.
Things happen, he says. Time changes. People along with it. That’s the only fact of life I believe anymore.
In the reflection he sees her studying her nails. She picks her head up and speaking brightly, asks if he’s going to take her to the Bleeding Horse after all.
Put on your boots and let’s go, he says.
But he stayed near the window, watching the groups pass, thinking about that time. They had their laughs—trying to keep out the cold and all that runs with it outside for as long as possible.