Dolly Reynolds is the recipient of a JD from University of California Hastings, and she is currently an MFA student at San Francisco State. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and published in journals such as Red Wheelbarrow and North American Review. She currently works as a veterinary technician and resides in San Francisco with her wonderful family, in a tiny house next to the ocean.
It’s nearly dawn when Henry leaves the hospital, his right hand splinted and wrapped like a claw, two knuckles shattered and a railroad track of black stitches running to the back of his wrist. The streets are silent and the snow’s still falling, softly though. The Dodge slips on the hill before his driveway but makes it. Henry holds the wheel with his left hand and keeps the radio off. Sherrie’s sprinkled sand over the driveway, and Henry can feel his chest tighten when he realizes he’s made it; he’s home.
The heat is off, and Sherrie has the kid on the couch by the wood stove in the living room, where it’s still warm and the embers glow. Henry can hear the whistle of the kid’s asthma; he can see the small red cheeks in the gathering light. He wants to touch the kid, to feel the weight of him and the breath, to stroke his damp hair and pull the small blanket over his heaving chest. But Henry sees that Sherrie is sleeping on the other couch, curled under the afghans, her hands in mittens covering her face. There’s no money for the oil man this month, but two cords of wood, at least, out back.
Henry pours some Jack Daniel’s into a Mason jar, swallows the Vicodin they gave him in the ER, and waits for the cops to come. He might have killed that lady in the reservoir, that pretty lady with her puppy and her soft brown hair and the small red freckles on her white, white neck—that lady all alone who kept screaming after he pounded her head with his fists and threw her down the ravine—until he went down after her, and wrapped the leash tight around her neck. It makes his face feel hot to think about it, too hot, somehow, to be contained inside his skin, too hot for this small kitchen, when everyone is asleep.
He makes himself leave that lady in the reservoir; he makes himself remember how it ended. There was a creek running next to the ravine, not yet completely frozen over. Henry had knelt at the edge and tried to wash the blood off his hands in the icy water. There was so much blood—most of it the lady’s but some of it his own. He didn’t know at first how badly his own hands were hurt. It was hard to climb up the hill and out of the ravine. He slipped on the leaves and the loose rocks. It had taken a long time; he could only use one hand.
Henry blinks, then swallows. He can see, outside the kitchen window, the coil of rope he left there last week. Maybe for a tire swing for the kid. Maybe something else. The rope’s too hard now, the coils frozen together with the snow. Why did he leave it outside? No room in the kitchen, but he should’ve kept it in the Dodge. Now it’s too late.
The Vicodin is working. He can feel the hum, deep inside. Sherrie’s hips look so good to him, a curvy little mountain under the ratty afghan on the couch, his pleasure trail. She’s a large woman, the way he likes them, a flesh woman. Not like the lady in the reservoir. Henry hated the way she was all sharp angles and tendons, stuck up. Sherrie is big and warm and soft and always willing. He wants to lay down behind her, be inside of her one last time. The cops are coming, he knows it. He doesn’t want the lady in the reservoir to be the last woman he’s ever touched.
But now the kid is coughing, moaning in his sleep. Henry hates that whistle at the end of every breath, like a scream a strangled person tries to make. Poor kid. He checks the humidifier and sees that Sherrie’s let it run dry. Again. He fills the plastic pitcher by the sink, careful not to wet the bandages on his hands, and slowly pours water into the humidifier, checking around the edges for mold. He takes a towel from the bathroom and throws it in the dryer, turns it on. It’s too damn cold in here for anyone sick, but Henry can’t load the woodstove with his hands like crap. His clothes from last night are still in the dryer. He washed them before he went to the hospital, but some of the stains are permanent.
When the towel is warm he lays it on top of the kid, pats his little back. The kid wraps his scrawny arms around Henry’s neck and pulls him down. Henry can feel the snot from the kid’s nose against his skin. He should’ve shaved last night; he hates the thought of his whiskers against the kid’s chapped cheeks. The kid is crying now, not making any sound, tears just sliding down his cheeks and that sick snot caught in his throat. Henry thinks about waking Sherrie, but instead he lies down on the couch and pulls the kid to his chest, careful to tuck the warm towel completely around his body. He holds him still and feels the kid’s heart beating against his chest. Christ, so fast.
It’s lighter now, and Henry can see the snow coming down harder, sticking, piling up on the windowsill. He can see his breath, but he’s not cold. The whiskey burns a little in his belly, such a sweet burn, the warmth spreading through his body and his blood. He feels the kid going heavily into sleep. God, he smells so good. The room is quiet now, there’s no sound at all but the rhythmic hum of the humidifier in the corner, the little guardian soldier, helping the kid to breathe.
For a minute, Henry allows himself to believe that last night in the reservoir with that lady and her freckles was all a dream, a fake life, a show put on by someone else. This moment, right now, is Henry’s real life. This second, with the kid warm and safe against his chest, and Sherrie snoring softly, and the snow so silent, so gentle, surrounding their house, keeping them safe. This is the very first moment he’s alive.