by Thomas Kearnes
Ellen could not bear another moment in bed next to him, after their failed attempt at intimacy. The aborted gestures—the apologies, both sincere and otherwise. But she had no cause to leave the bed, no excuse that would not return her to Gary just moments later. The only thing worse, she decided, than remaining beside him would be rejoining him after a brief freedom.
“It's a nice night out,” he whispered to the back of her head.
“We've been inside watching TV.”
“I can see the moonlight.”
“How can you tell?”
“It's shining right through the blinds.”
“What do you want to do?” She pulled her knees toward her chest, brought her arms closer into herself, forming a ball.
“I wanna see that new swimsuit you bought.”
“You have a nice body.”
“Only in the dark.”
The pool area officially closed every night at ten, but Gary insisted a midnight soak was exactly what they needed. Enclosed behind an iron fence, the pool and hot tub were located at the center of the apartment complex, surrounded by the units' beige doors and oblong, green-shuttered windows. Ellen could envision the scattered shafts of hot light from neighbors still up; there would be no escaping their curiosity. She didn't want to get in trouble, but Gary was already out of the bed, flipping on the light. She reached up to shield her face, propped herself up on her elbow.
“It's already past eleven.”
“I see people out there after hours all the time.”
“I don't know.”
Gary stripped off his underwear and opened a drawer from the bureau across from the bed. He rummaged for his swimsuit. “Come on, we used to love adventures.”
This was true. They had backpacked through Central Texas the summer they were married. He always kept at least ten paces ahead of her, with his thick, taut legs and gaping stride. She toddled after him, feeling hobbled by the twenty pounds strapped to her back. They spent their first two years together shooting off down an interstate, taking the first exit advertised on a billboard if excitement or novelty beckoned. A traveling carnival, a swap meet, a parade of homes. They no longer did these things, and Ellen more and more often found herself waiting for the nightly news to end so they could retire to bed where she could then wait for sleep.
“The hot tub is not an adventure,” she said, her voice sharper than she intended.
Gary stood nude at the foot of the bed, his bright green swimming trunks in his hand. “It's something,” he said. “You've got to give me something.”
They made their way down the stone path that cut through the units toward the pool area. Ellen wrapped one of Gary's button-down shirts around herself as they walked; it was a chilly night. She watched the beach towel slung over Gary's shoulder swing back and forth as he strode before her. His long body, always darting ahead. She would never catch up.
Gary slipped his key inside the lock at the gate but the door creaked open before he had a chance to turn it. “You see,” he said, “it wasn't even locked.”
Ellen bowed her head and slipped past him as he held open the door for her. He lingered behind her as she made her way along the perimeter of the pool toward the in-ground hot tub. It was edged in red brick, about as long and wide as the small porch of their apartment. A small, wood-paneled pump house lay just beyond it. On the outside was the button-control that activated the tub.
“Fire that baby up.” Gary descended into the tub and sat down. The water came up to his chest. “You see, the water's still warm.”
Ellen punched the button. “Good, I'm cold.”
The water remained still. She noticed there was very little noise considering it was before midnight on a Saturday, just the occasional car passing on the highway a few units over. Like Gary had promised, the round, flat moon hung high and white in the dark velvet sky.
“Try it again.”
“Maybe it's turned off.”
“I told you, the water's still warm.”
If Gary could see her face pinch in frustration, he gave no indication of it. Ellen pressed the button again.
“Hold it this time.”
She did. Her palm depressed the button until it was flat against the side of the pump house. She felt the muscles in her forearm tense. The water gurgled to life. Gary clapped and hooted. Ellen hissed at him. “Someone's going to hear us.”
“Come on, get in. Let's get you wet.”
She crossed the pavement to the tub and slipped into the water. “Don't be gross.” She sat on the built-in seat adjacent to his.
“I wanted you to sit next to me.”
“This is fine.”
She watched the water bubble around them in the moonlight. She felt as if she were a cartoon animal plopped in a cauldron over a fire. She ran her hands over her upper arms, suddenly aware of their size. She frowned and let her shoulders dip below the water's surface.
“I told you it was a nice night.”
She nodded. They talked about what they should do the next day. Was there any shopping to be done? Should he go to the car wash? Was there anything good coming on TV that night? The cry startled both of them.
Gary shot to his feet, stood in the center of the hot tub. “Did you hear that?”
“It's a kid, a baby.”
He looked down at her, the panic now absent from his voice as suddenly as it had appeared. “It may not be.”
“I know what I heard.”
The cry continued. It sounded high and jagged, it rippled. Ellen was reminded of toddlers denied a candy bar in the checkout line at the market. But she detected a terror in the scream that chilled her. She twisted around in the tub, attempting to locate from which of the many units it emerged.
“What the hell is happening to him?” Gary asked, the words falling flatly from him.
Ellen placed her hands on the brick edge of the tub and began to lift herself out.
“Where are you going?”
“We have to find out where it's coming from.”
“It's not our business. We should just go back inside.”
She was still in the water, standing now. They were both standing, facing one another. “We can't leave him screaming like that.”
“What do you want to do?”
“We should call someone.”
Around them, a few more windows flickered to life, casting their white light into the pool area.
“You're the one who didn't want to be caught.”
“You said people are out here all the time after hours.”
The cry had neither stopped nor lessened in volume. They both stood helpless amid the bubbles and listened. Suddenly, the screams jumped in intensity, then there was silence.
“There, you see.” Gary climbed the seat and stepped out of the hot tub. He reached for the towel at the tub's edge and began drying himself. “It's over.”
Ellen listened to the damp chatter of the bubbles. She felt herself fall back onto the seat. The water slurped closed over her shoulders.
“What are you doing?”
“I think we should wait, just a little while.”
“In case it starts again.”
“So we can do what? More of nothing?”
He slipped his feet into his rubber flip-flops and tossed the towel over the hot tub. It landed behind Ellen on the pavement.
“I'm going inside.”
Ellen turned her head away from him. For a moment, the bubbles were the only sound in the night. Since their arrival, her eyes had adjusted to the dark and when she finally turned to see if her husband was still standing at the edge of the tub, she saw him slipping through the gate. It clanged shut behind him.
She rested her head against the edge of the tub and listened to the bubbles for a moment. But then, the jets shut off and the water grew still. Ellen would have to push the button on the pump house to reactivate the tub but she couldn't bring herself to leave. If she left the tub, she knew where she would go and she could not go back there, not then, not tonight. She slid further down on the seat, felt the water rise to meet her head. After a moment, she was completely submerged in the quiet water. Once she resurfaced, there would be a whole night, a whole life of silence to face. She would stay down there as long as she could.