Della, fiction by Jarrid Deaton

Dan says he’s get­ting tired of me talk­ing in my sleep. Says I mum­ble like a child and toss and turn, flail my arms. What I see is the inside of the school bus. I see forty kids laugh­ing. Then the bus tilts and the laugh­ter stops. Water rush­es in like a bib­li­cal down­pour and every­thing goes murky brown. My son, Samuel, is there. Samuel swal­lows water. He gulps it down like maybe that’s the only way he can save him­self. The last vision I always have is the bot­tom of his boots sucked out a win­dow like he weighs noth­ing at all, my nine-year-old son van­ish­ing into a swirl of mud­dy water.

It’s been almost a year since it hap­pened. One year and Dan thinks I should let it go.

Mis­ery ain’t but ankle deep, Del­la,” he tells me. “We’ve done our mourn­ing.”

Thing is, Samuel doesn’t whis­per to him. He doesn’t cry and tell him to come vis­it.

My hus­band doesn’t feel the water rush­ing around his body. Samuel doesn’t talk to him.

He talks to me.

It had been rain­ing hard for around a week when the wreck hap­pened. The deputy for the sheriff’s office told me what he knew. He said Hank Don­alds, who owns the junk shop about five miles up the road, slowed down to look at an old Ply­mouth down in the ditch.

That’s when the school bus came around the curve.

I sus­pect the dri­ver didn’t see him in time, and he hit the back of Hank’s truck,” the deputy told us that morn­ing. “Then he must have pan­icked, swerved across the road, and went over the embank­ment into the riv­er.”

I just sat down on the floor right in the door­way when he told me. Dan, first thing he did was ask if they had found Samuel’s body.

Coro­ner ain’t made any iden­ti­fi­ca­tions yet. They have thir­ty-six bod­ies down at the Nation­al Guard Armory. Reck­on they’re gonna use that for the time being.”

Dan sniffed twice, said, “I’ll dri­ve out there. Watch her for a spell, will you?”

I just kept sit­ting there. Every­thing they said sound­ed muf­fled like my ears were plugged up. I couldn’t hear the radio sit­ting on the desk near the door. It had been play­ing “Blue Boy” by Jim Reeves when the deputy knocked. The rain had blown in on me and the bot­tom of my dress was soaked. My eyes stayed fixed on the mud­dy dri­ve­way. The tire tracks from Dan’s truck had cut raised grooves in the wet ground.

The deputy tried to get me back inside, but I wouldn’t budge. Dan end­ed up com­ing home and going back to the riv­er sev­en times. I didn’t go. He only told me once that the searchers hadn’t found Samuel. They nev­er did.

That night, after a failed fight to sleep, I turned over to see noth­ing­ness beside me.

Dan wasn’t in bed. His side was cold and the glass of water he always brought with him to drink and then drop cig­a­rette butts in wasn’t on the night stand.

I got up and walked through the house, still in a sleep fog and filled with sad­ness.

He stood in the liv­ing room look­ing out the rain-wet win­dow. His eyes faced the creek, but it was too dark out to see any­thing. He tilt­ed his head a lit­tle as I came up behind him.

My Ma, when I was a kid, she told me that one peb­ble can change a whole pud­dle,” he said, and I reached up to put my hand on his shoul­der. He tensed up more. “A car in the ditch start­ed it, then a junk truck, then a curve, then the riv­er. One small thing and it’s all torn away.”

That night was the last time he talked about it on his own with­out try­ing to com­fort me or get me to hush.

A cou­ple of weeks lat­er when I could final­ly bring myself to form words about it, I talked to some fel­low out of Frank­fort who came all the way to Giv­en to inves­ti­gate the acci­dent.

I’m not sure you want to hear all of this,” he told me. I felt light­head­ed when he start­ed to talk. I didn’t make him stop. Not once.

He told me that they only found the bus because they saw a body. The body was stuck in the win­dow of the bus. When they were able to get the bus to land, they saw legs and arms stick­ing out of the mud that had filled up the inside. All those lit­tle arms and legs, stuck in the dark mud, reach­ing up for some­thing – their par­ents, God, an escape.

Samuel wasn’t there.

The cold clutch of the mud didn’t claim him. The water and its wild cur­rent did.The Frank­fort man told me this wasn’t just the worst school bus acci­dent in Ken­tucky

his­to­ry. He said it was the worst in the nation. He told me how every­body was mak­ing sug­ges­tions on how to find the body. Some peo­ple said that dyna­mite should be put in the riv­er. They said that fir­ing a can­non over the water would make a body float to the sur­face. They said a forked tree limb with a bird’s nest on the end would lead to the loca­tion of some­one that drowned. It was all super­sti­tion. Samuel was gone.

A lit­tle over half a year lat­er, ‘59, Samuel start­ed talk­ing to me. I had just start­ed a bath and was tak­ing my hair down, lean­ing back in the tub, when he whis­pered above the light lap­ping of the warm water.

Mama, I miss you. I don’t know where I am.

Dan had to pull me out of the bath. I don’t know how much time had passed. He said I must have slipped and hit my head.

Lucky your fool self didn’t drown,” he said, brush­ing the wet hair from my face.

Samuel has been talk­ing to me a lot more this year. He wants me to come to the riv­er and see him. Says he will lead me to where he is.

Dad don’t need to come this time. You can vis­it when he leaves.

Dan is head­ing out today, cart­ing cat­tle up to Indi­ana. That’s all he has been doing since Samuel went away. Tak­ing care of the cows and pigs. Giv­ing them all the atten­tion in the world. Keeps his mind off things. I can’t right­ly help him, I guess. He hasn’t touched me with affec­tion since the deputy paid us that vis­it a year ago. I guess he’s afraid I’ll get with child and the whole griev­ing process will start over again. I had Samuel when I was twen­ty-three. Even then, when Dan was thir­ty-five, he looked and felt fifty. Work­ing stooped in the sun had tak­en its toll on him, but rais­ing Samuel turned his cal­en­dar back to spring for all of those nine years. Dan says he’s too old now, any­way, too old to have any­thing to offer a child just com­ing into this world.

***

The sum­mer before Samuel was lost to us, Dan taught him how to care for the live­stock.

On the hottest day I ever remem­ber step­ping into, I took them iced tea and a cou­ple of bacon and toma­to sand­wich­es. They were sit­ting on the fence that start­ed at the cor­ner of the barn and ran along about ten feet away from the creek. Samuel was watch­ing the cows as they swat­ted tails at the flies that swarmed their flanks.

The hot­ter it gets the more water them cows will swal­low down,” Dan said to him. “Sam, ain’t nobody wants a dried-out cow.”

Samuel laughed and reached for the glass of tea.

See, they get all sick from the heat and then they won’t eat,” Dan said, and took a bite of the sand­wich. “You want ‘em to grow, you keep plen­ty of cool water around.”

How about tea?” Samuel asked, and Dan gave him a lit­tle push that sent him off the fence and into a pile of hay.

I see him falling, arms and legs flail­ing and kick­ing in the air. My mem­o­ry becomes blur­ry and every­thing turns brown. Samuel stays in the air, but the smile is gone from his face. His mouth is open, his eyes are wide. The hay blows around him in the brown air, then every­thing starts mov­ing again and Samuel hits the ground, flap­ping his arms at his side, the smile back on his face. He laughs and laughs.

Can you reach me my glass, Mama?” Samuel asked.

We were all laugh­ing while the sun scorched us. That was our last sum­mer with Samuel.

***

I walk into the bed­room as Dan’s get­ting a cou­ple of coats out of the clos­et.

I might be gone for a cou­ple of weeks,” he says. “Me and Roger Var­ney are going to the auc­tion while we are up there. Thing runs around a week or longer. Saw Al Finch down at the store yes­ter­day. He told me they have pret­ty good deals on steers. I nev­er thought that old sor­row soak­er would leave his house, let alone get up to Indi­ana.”

He used to live there, I think,” I say. I think about Finch. I know why he seems swollen with sor­row, but I could nev­er bring myself to tell Dan.

He puts one boot on and reach­es for the oth­er, look­ing up at me.

I don’t like leav­ing you here by your­self, but you nev­er was much on long trips,” he says. He slides the oth­er boot on, stands up, and stomps his feet on the floor. He walks over to me and wraps his arms around my waist. I think he’s going to kiss me. It’s been so long. But he just squeezes a lit­tle and pulls away like he didn’t mean for the hug to hap­pen. His but­ton-up flan­nel shirt smells like Old Spice and farm sweat. I want to bury my face in it, to have him real­ly hold me again. I start to reach for him but my arms go limp at my sides.

I’m going to run down to the store and get some extra feed. Bai­ley Parker’s boy said he would take care of the hogs and cows while I was gone,” he says. “Keep an eye on him, though. He might try and steal us blind.”

Do you want me to fix sup­per before you leave?” I ask.

Naw,” he says. “I’ll just pick up a cou­ple sand­wich­es at the store while I’m there. I’ll prob­a­bly head on out once I put the feed in the barn.”

All right,” I say.

You get too lone­ly and you call your sis­ter,” he says. “Get her to come over and spend a cou­ple of nights. Maybe even get her to help clean house.”

All right,” I say.

He walks over to the dress­er mir­ror and runs a comb through his thick, gray-brown hair.

I’m gone,” he says, nod­ding at me. He stands for maybe a sec­ond and then swings open the screen door and van­ish­es around the cor­ner of the house to where his truck and trail­er sit. I lis­ten for a minute before I hear the engine rum­ble to life. A cou­ple of the cows make ques­tion­ing moos as he backs out of the dri­ve­way and starts down the road.

I go over to the clos­et and get out the broom and dust­pan. I just hold them for a while and look out the screen door, watch the clouds. They scoot fast across the sky like they have some­where to be. Some of them are going black, fill­ing up with water. I put down the dust­pan and sweep.

I’m still sweep­ing through the silence of the house when I hear the truck dri­ve up to the barn. Pulling back the cur­tain gives me a view of Dan with­out him being able to see me. He has two sacks of feed, one on each shoul­der. He walks in the barn and comes back out in a few sec­onds. Lean­ing against the door, he lights a cig­a­rette and stares down the road that leads to our house. His gaze stays fixed for a few min­utes, then he glances at his watch, looks up at the sky, and stubs the still smok­ing cig­a­rette under the heel of his boot. He doesn’t look back at the house. Open­ing the door to the truck, he climbs in. He hadn’t shut off the engine. He turns around, care­ful to mind the trail­er, and pulls away.

I put the broom away and get a glass of water, drink it down in a cou­ple of gulps. I get my nerves about me and walk to Samuel’s room. We haven’t changed a thing in it. Dan want­ed to put things in stor­age, but I just couldn’t do it. This was Samuel’s room, and it will always be his. Dan doesn’t come in here. I only do it when he’s gone. He thinks it’s bad for me to look at Samuel’s things and think about the way things were. The bed’s neat and made, sheets and quilt tucked tight by his own hands that morn­ing he left for school. A char­coal draw­ing set sits at an angle on his desk along with a half-fin­ished draw­ing of a cow­boy. A com­ic book, Zane Grey's Sto­ries of the West, has fall­en off the dress­er. The house shakes some­times from the blast­ing at the mines. It prob­a­bly jarred it to the floor. Samuel wouldn’t have left it there. I kneel down at the foot of his bed and thrust my hands under it, com­ing back with an album of pho­tographs.

I open the album and every­thing starts to move in my head. The pic­tures come to life as I look at them and close my eyes, let­ting the images flood my mind.

Samuel comes run­ning from the creek hold­ing a snap­ping tur­tle by the tail. His wet-straw hair drip­ping on his fore­head, streaks of mud on his legs.

It ‘bout drug me in!” he says, out of breath.

Lord, you’re a mess,” I say.

Dan comes out of the house with the cam­era that his Uncle Paul lent him.

Boy, I told you to catch us some fish for sup­per, not rep­tiles,” he says, and starts laugh­ing.

I caught him with bacon,” Samuel says. “ Couldn’t find no worms to fish with. Birds must’ve got all of ‘em.”

You mean you took good bacon from the freez­er and it end­ed up in that dirty old creek?” I say, half-stern­ly.

The tur­tle snaps at me, and Samuel smiles.

He ain’t going nowhere, Mama,” he says, show­ing his grip on the tail.

Want me to clean it and have your mama fry it up for sup­per?” Dan asks.

I don’t think so,” Samuel says. “I’m going to take him back.”

Well, don’t fall in this time,” I say. “You’re already going to have to scrub with a wire brush.”

Samuel snick­ers and streaks away.

Let’s go swim­ming,” he yells.

You know your mama can’t swim,” I yell after him.

You can learn,” he says, van­ish­ing down the embank­ment to the creek.

I open my eyes again and real­ize I’ve been cry­ing. The buildup of tears make tracks down my face and into my mouth.

I miss you, Mama.

The day before Samuel was gone for­ev­er, I had to spank him. It wasn’t the first time, and I remem­ber think­ing it wouldn’t come close to being the last, but it sticks with me. I hope he for­gave me before he went to sleep that night.

I was out­side fill­ing the cow trough with water. The trough was nailed to the old fence to keep them from tip­ping it over, so I was just leaned over the fence and dumped the water in to keep from hav­ing to get in the pen with them because it was pret­ty mud­dy. I leaned over with the last buck­et of water when some­thing hit me from behind and I flipped over the fence and half of me land­ed in the trough. My legs sprawled out in the­mud. Wip­ing the water from my eyes, I saw Samuel laugh­ing. I got so mad that I jumped up and came straight back over the fence, grab­bing him by his shoul­der.

That wasn’t fun­ny,” I yelled, and spanked him hard with my hand.

It was just a joke,” he said, tears already stream­ing.

I slapped his bot­tom again, hard­er this time.

It was just a joke!” he yelled, and I swat­ted him again.

You don’t raise your voice at your moth­er!” I screamed.

I didn’t let him lis­ten to the radio that night, or read one of his cow­boys and Indi­ans comics. I made him go straight to bed.

It was just a joke, Mama.

***

I slide the album back under the bed and stand up too fast. I stag­ger a lit­tle and final­ly regain my bal­ance. Now’s the time to go. If I walk down to the store, then maybe I can get Jeff or Rita to give me a ride. They used to give me and Samuel rides into town when Dan was gone on his trips. The store is only about a fif­teen-minute walk from here. My legs are strong. We used to walk down there almost every day. I would buy him a Coca-Cola even though I knew it wasn’t good for him. I real­ize I’m cry­ing again and decide to get going while I can.

It doesn’t take me long to get to The Hitch­ing Post where they sell farm sup­plies and a few gro­ceries. The only car parked out­side is an old Ply­mouth that belongs to Albert Finch. Finch just moved to town a cou­ple of months before Samuel went away. He has fam­i­ly around these parts, so he came to town quite often before decid­ing to move here. He keeps to him­self for the most part, but he’s always been nice to me. Even bought a cou­ple of hogs off Dan last sum­mer when things were a lit­tle tight for us. I walk in the store, and Albert is sit­ting on a wob­bly barstool wolf­ing down a sand­wich. He has an unlit pipe in one hand and the quick­ly van­ish­ing sand­wich in the oth­er. He’s wear­ing a suit, wrin­kled, and the knees of the pants are dirty. A felt hat rests on his lap. His hair’s white and slicked to his head. I watch his mus­tache move up and down as he chews. I look around, but nobody else is in the store. I know that Albert has to take me to the riv­er.

I know, and, deep down, I think Albert knows. I know because of what Hank Don­alds told me two months after the acci­dent.

It was old Al Finch that I had to pull out of the ditch,” Hank told me. “He said a box of books slid out of the seat and he tried to catch them. Caused him to run off the road. Don’t reck­on he will ever be the same. He’s tak­ing it hard, Del­la.”

Watch­ing Finch, I feel no anger toward him. He’s just part of it all, like me and Samuel.

How’re you, Del­la?” he asks, turn­ing around when the bell at the top of the door starts tin­kling.

I’m fine, Mr. Finch,” I say. “I was won­der­ing if you would mind much about giv­ing me a ride out to the riv­er.”

I wouldn’t mind,” he says. “But I must say I’m a lit­tle curi­ous. It’s get­ting dark.”

You know already,” I say.

I sus­pect I do,” he says. “But I don’t like to take every­thing I hear to heart.”

Chances are you heard right in my case,” I say.

Peo­ple around here start­ed talk­ing not long after the acci­dent. They made note of each time I didn’t come to town with Dan. My sis­ter, Val, told me all about the things she heard them say. They said I went plum crazy, locked myself in Samuel’s room. A few of them said I went down to the riv­er every night and looked for him. They said all kinds of things.

Finch push­es the rest of the sand­wich into his mouth and grabs a Coke from the cool­er. He opens the bot­tle with the heel of his boot.

Don’t know where Jeff and Rita are. They made me a sand­wich, and I haven’t seen them since. About time for them to close up shop any­way,” he says.

He takes a long drink and starts to put the bot­tle on the floor but his hands start shak­ing. I reach and get the bot­tle, putting it on a shelf behind him.

Nerves,” he says, rub­bing his white mus­tache with his sleeve. “Had ‘em ever since I was a kid. The shakes, you know. You can have a drink if you like.”

Thanks, but I’m not thirsty,” I say, look­ing at the crumbs still stuck in his white whiskers.

I’d nev­er noticed how old Finch was until now. The deep creas­es next to his crawl­ing white eye­brows, his mud­dy brown eyes and age spots on his hands – all this said he was at least six­ty. Prob­a­bly old­er. I get the feel­ing that it all has tak­en just as much of a toll on Finch as it has me and Dan. Keep­ing it inside him­self, he looks so worn out. It was his car, but not his fault. I want to tell him that. I think he wants me to tell him that.

He wipes at his mouth again with his sleeve and then slow­ly stum­bles from his seat.

It’s no trou­ble to take you, but I’d like to know what you have in mind,” he says.

Dan doesn’t want me to go. Says I’m too frail, too emo­tion­al. I can’t get over things.”

I see,” he says, putting tobac­co in his pipe. “Do you feel guilty for not going?”

Yes,” I say. “I think if I just see it, see where it hap­pened, maybe I can rest.”

I can’t right­ful­ly argue with that,” he says, and blows smoke.

Finch puts the felt hat on his head and starts shuf­fling towards the door.

I’ll have to clean out a place for you,” he says.

He opens the pas­sen­ger door of the Ply­mouth and bends down with a deep groan.

He lifts a box up off the seat.

What’s that?” I ask.

Com­ic books,” he says. “It’s a fool thing for an old man to have, but I like to read them when I’m just sit­ting around. That, as you prob­a­bly guessed, is a lot of the time. I’m that way with every­thing I like. Can’t bring myself to get rid of it when I’m through. I’m a pack rat, can’t help it. Since I’m not used to hav­ing pas­sen­gers, I treat this old thing like my stor­age room.”

I glance at the box and see The Lone Ranger, Tales of the Unex­pect­ed, and Casper the Friend­ly Ghost. I think about how much Samuel would have liked Finch. He would have giv­en Samuel his old comics, told him about the good new ones that were com­ing out. Uncle Albert, Samuel might have called him.

He hefts the box up on his shrink­ing shoul­ders and takes it around to the trunk.

Finch's car, which I thought was sil­ver, is a dull gray. It might have been sil­ver when it was new, but now it’s washed out. It looks like it has been stripped of all col­or.

I sit down and the seat squeaks, reclin­ing a lit­tle as I adjust myself. The inside of the car smells like pipe smoke and pot­ting soil. A damp, old scent.

Finch push­es down on the trunk and then makes his way to the driver's door. He has one hand on his back and is stooped over.

"Thank you for doing this," I say.

"It's no trou­ble," he says. "Gives me a lit­tle com­pa­ny. Some­thing to do."

He turns the key and the Ply­mouth jerks to life with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

"I think you're doing the right thing," he says. "Grief can grow like a gar­den. My moth­er used to tell me that. If you get a chance to put things right, you should take it."

"He talks to me, Mr. Finch," I say.

"I have no issue in believ­ing that," he says.

"You're the first per­son I've ever told. Do you have chil­dren?"

"No, and I will be regret­ting it soon enough. I already do, a lit­tle, but I'm on the way down­stream in my life now and there's nobody with me."

"Are you mar­ried?" I ask.

"I was. She passed a lit­tle over sev­en years ago. Dis­ease of the heart. It came so quick."

He stops talk­ing and con­cen­trates on the sharp suc­ces­sion of curves that wind the road near the riv­er.

I watch his hands grip the steer­ing wheel. Thick veins criss­cross near his scabbed knuck­les. The last of the sun­light shines through the wind­shield and graces the tips of his fin­gers.

"Bet­ty always want­ed a lit­tle girl," he says, clear­ing the last curve. "But, for some rea­son, we just couldn't con­ceive. Nei­ther of us want­ed to go get checked out. I guess we both were afraid to find out whose fault it was. Afraid we might resent the oth­er one for it, you know."

"Dan doesn't want anoth­er child," I say.

I look down at the white hem of my dress. This is the first time I have worn it since I sat in the door­way and got soaked by rain. Dan told me he liked how the blue matched my eyes when I tried it on. I remem­ber he kissed me and called me his blue lady.

I reach back and pull the pin from my hair. It falls down to the top of my shoul­ders. Finch doesn't take his eyes off the road.

"So, Dan is on his way to Indi­ana with some live­stock. Is that right?" Finch asks.

"Yes,” I say. “How did you know?”

"I was at the Hitch­ing Post when he came in for feed," he says.

"Oh, yes. He men­tioned he saw you yes­ter­day too. You must stay there all the time," I say.

"I don't do much, Del­la. If I find a place I like then I tend to stay there for a while. I like hear­ing the peo­ple that come in tell sto­ries. They make some good sand­wich­es, too. Dan asked me if I would like to go, but I’m not much for long trips," he says, slow­ing down to avoid a pot­hole.

"You can pull off here," I say. "It's pret­ty close, and I want to walk a lit­tle any­way."

He turns his head and looks at me for the first time since we start­ed dri­ving.

"Do you want me to wait on you?” he asks. “I will. I don't have any plans."

"I'll be okay,” I say. “I need to do this by myself. I think that’s what Samuel wants.”

"I'll come back in about an hour to pick you up, then," he says.

"No, that's okay. I'll find my way home," I tell him, reach­ing for his hand.

Finch uncurls his fin­gers from the wheel and starts to shake my hand, but his entire arm goes into spasms and he pulls away.

"Nerves," he says. "Be safe, Del­la."

I tell him thanks again and open the door. It has start­ed to rain, just a light driz­zle. I smooth out my dress and start to push the door shut.

Del­la,” he says. “I want to tell you some­thing.”

It wasn’t your fault, Mr. Finch,” I say.

He clos­es his eyes and starts to trem­ble. I put my hand on his shoul­der and look at him one more time before step­ping out of the car.

I wave good­bye and then start walk­ing, look­ing for a place where I can safe­ly make it down the hill to the river­bank. Finch blows his horn once, sticks his hand out the win­dow and waves. His face is somber, wor­ried. I walk for a few min­utes and turn around to look. Finch still watch­es, and I imag­ine he’s con­sid­er­ing com­ing after me. When I find a place to go down the embank­ment, I wave my hand at him. He final­ly backs up and dri­ves away. I know he will just cir­cle the riv­er and watch. He will try and find a place where he can reach me if some­thing hap­pens, hop­ing that his car is hid­den in the gray­ing approach of night.

I find a clear­ing that looks like a path beat­en down by per­sis­tent fish­er­men. I pull the bot­tom of my dress up to my knees and slide-walk as care­ful­ly as I can. I slip down the embank­ment and almost fall. The hill is wet from rain, the dirt loose. I pull off my shoes and put them on top of a large sand­stone. My eyes turn to the riv­er. The water is fast and brown. I pick my shoes back up and sit down on the rock. The brown water of the riv­er runs hard, the waves remind­ing me of some­thing alive and try­ing to escape its banks. Some of the trees on the bank have roots that are out in the open. When the riv­er floods, it always eats the soil and cuts back under the road. The wind picks up, and I can feel a cool mist on my neck. It’s Octo­ber and the rust­ed leaves on the pained trees lin­ing the bank are start­ing to die.

I hear a rus­tle to my right and I turn to look. A small bird takes two hop-steps and lands on a sand­stone, tilts its head and exam­ines the riv­er.

Get,” I say, and wave my arms at it.

The bird takes flight and heads back towards the trees that cov­er the moun­tain on my side of the riv­er. I watch it until the small brown body dis­ap­pears into the dying leaves. I stand up and look around. It’s almost dark. I must have been here for over an hour just watch­ing the riv­er run. I close my eyes for a sec­ond and then step into the water. It’s the cold­est thing I have ever felt. My legs go numb, and I won­der if I can wade out any far­ther. I take a few more steps. Tiny min­nows swim around my feet before dart­ing off into deep­er waters. I think about Samuel catch­ing them out of the creek with the buck­et that Dan uses to feeds the cows.

The bot­tom of my dress clings to my legs. I back out of the water and walk over to the sand­stone. I pull the dress off and fold it, plac­ing the shoes on top so the wind won’t send it bil­low­ing away. I do the same with my under­things. My eyes find the riv­er again.

It’s okay, Mama. You can swim.

Walk­ing fast into the riv­er, I twist my hips to make sure the cur­rent doesn’t grab hold of me. The water is up to my shoul­ders when I notice the head­lights on the road along the oth­er side of the riv­er. I hear the faint rum­ble of an engine bounc­ing off the moun­tain. I strain my eyes and can make out a fig­ure sit­ting on the hood of the car. Finch adjusts his hat and then remains still. I look away, focus­ing back on the water. I can’t leave yet.

The churn­ing water caress­es me, and I feel unex­pect­ed­ly warm. I take anoth­er step. My feet start to slide on the mud-slick bot­tom. I catch myself for a sec­ond and imag­ine Dan’s arms around my waist, pulling me back. My eyes catch the glow of the head­lights again, and I wish they belonged to Dan’s truck. But this is the way it has to be. Finch hops down from the hood of the Ply­mouth.

You can swim, Mama.

My feet slip again, and the water goes over my head. Every­thing is a rush­ing, roar­ing dark­ness. My ears plug up, so all I hear is my heart­beat thun­der-clap­ping inside my skull. My legs fly off the silty bot­tom and sprawl out in front of me. I spin and try to stand. A sud­den force slings me side­ways, and I’m gone. The mud­dy water wash­es into my eyes like a sink drain. I blink and blink, but it does no good. I hope to turn my head and see Samuel. I want to reach out for him, catch his hand in mine, but I see what he saw. The rolling dark­ness of the water’s all there is. This is the last thing my son was able to see. I imag­ine Samuel tum­bling along beside me, we are trav­el­ing the riv­er togeth­er. His hair stuck to his fore­head, mine flail­ing wild­ly, we smile at each oth­er. The vision leaves me as Samuel is jerked away by the rush­ing riv­er and dis­ap­pears, gone from me again. My head bobs above the water once, and I see Finch slid­ing down the embank­ment, his arms mak­ing fran­tic move­ments as he tries to keep his bal­ance.

Del­la!” he yells.

He runs along the edge of the water try­ing to catch me, but the water car­ries me like a leaf, away from Finch’s shak­ing, out­stretched hands.

I try to grab a tree branch as I swirl by, but it’s no use. The water whips me past the wood­en cross rammed in the ground at the spot where the bus sailed over. I open my mouth and drink.

Jar­rid Deaton lives in east­ern Ken­tucky.  His work has appeared in mud lus­cious, > kill author, Under­ground Voic­es, Thieves Jar­gon, and else­where.

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