“Muddy Water” by Amanda Pauley

My brother dove first. I followed, my feet leaving the shale bank cliff of ferns and blood-red columbine. We swam underwater alongside iridescent, see-through minnows and curious bluegills, leaving trails of bubbles as we exhaled. Before surfacing, I opened my eyes to check and make sure that he opened his eyes to check on me. He always did. We swam together every afternoon in the summer. It used to be a family event, the two of us out of school, Mom taking a break from canning, and Dad coming home from the brickyard at four o’clock. Now we made an effort to be there by ourselves. Home had become volatile and silent over the years as my parents’ relationship decayed. We preferred to escape the entanglement of our parents and be just us, as free as a sixteen-year-old girl and a seventeen-year-old boy could be.

That day, Ethan came to the surface a few seconds after I did, though he had dove first. I was breathing heavily, but even so, he reached out a hand, curled his fingers gently around my shoulder and shoved me back under. I was ready, though, and I took enough air to go under, swim away, and resurface out of reach, in time to hear his laughter. He always played just the other side of unfair, but he never hurt me. In fact, he had become my protector from our parents’ fighting, misdirected anger, people at school who picked on me because I was shy, our trouble-making older cousins who got on everyone’s nerves, from everything. I had one more year of high school. Ethan had just graduated and would leave for the Navy in August. The thought made me ill.

We climbed out of the water that was cold even in July, and sat in the sun to warm up.

“You’re going to miss me.” Ethan thumped me softly on the forehead.

“Don’t bring that up.” I looked away.

“We’ve got two more months.”

I was silent.

“Sorry,” he said. “It bothers me, too. But I want to go places. And get paid.”

“You could do that from here,” I said.

“Hey. Look at me.”

I turned back toward my brother. I could see the tip of the ship’s anchor tattoo sticking out of his shorts, the tattoo that Mom and Dad didn’t know about yet.

“You’d better be careful.” I nodded toward his muscular abdomen where the top of the anchor was. “If they see that before you leave, they’ll give you hell.”

“It’s too late.”

“You’re right.”

“You know this is good for you, too.”

“How?”

This time he looked out at the water. Two kingfishers zoomed down the river, chattering a screechy song. A snapping turtle crawled up on the muddy bank on the other side. Ethan turned back to me.

“You’ll be okay. You’ve got one more year of school. You get your driver’s license next month. You won’t have time for me before long. God, look at you.” When he said it, he did it. He looked at me. I had filled out and then some. I had a model figure, like my mother’s. If anyone besides immediate family was around, she made me wear a shirt over my bathing suit.

I could feel my eyes starting to tear up. “Let’s dive again.”

I jumped up and ran for the cliff. He came running behind me. I dove first. From underwater I heard the muffled splash of his dive. I didn’t swim, but turned to watch him. His eyes were closed, bubbles everywhere. I turned away and started to swim, but he caught me by the ankle. I turned around to see him, his eyes open now, hair floating crazy above his head. He let go of my ankle and gave me two thumbs up, arms crossed at the wrist, thumbs touching, our own private signal for: We’re okay. We’ve got this. I felt a little better and surfaced in neck-deep water and waited for him. The minnows swarmed around us. He caught one and dumped it into my cupped hands. These minnows blew my mind. You could see all the way through them, their insides right there to look at. I imagined being able to see all the way through someone and know everything about them.

Ethan pointed at a great blue heron as it flew over us. The snapping turtle had descended back into the water and the mud was clouding up in the tree roots at the other bank where I knew it was digging around for a hiding place. The kingfishers came back up the river, soaring right above our heads. I felt the breeze from the lower one. I released the minnow back into the water where I was standing about a foot upstream from Ethan. We were still close from where he had passed the minnow to me. We held still while the blue gills swam up and checked out the freckles on our arms and the scratches on our legs.

“Shit!” Ethan said.

He was looking upriver past me so I turned around. It was coming right at me. There was no mistaking it. Shit. Human shit. A sizeable chunk floating right toward us.

“Gross,” I said. “Not again.”

“That son of a bitch! Come on.”

He headed for the bank, reaching back and taking me by the hand out of habit, though I didn’t need it. I let him. He grabbed his shoes and towel with the other.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re going to end this.”

I was not sure what we were ending, but I could see how pissed off he was. He stopped and turned around.

“That guy is asking for it!”

I looked around at the place we had been swimming in for as long as we could both remember. Cliffs and bending sycamore trees. Squirrel nests and bull frogs. Clear water down to the rock ridges, seven feet under in the deepest part. And some floating shit.

“We can’t do anything about the cow shit,” Ethan said. “Comes with the territory. But his shit? And his laundry water, and whatever else he decides to flush in here. No fucking way.”

I looked at his angry, good-looking face, his get-it-done-or-else, bad-ass attitude, and I was with him all the way. I smiled, so that he would know I was. We took off running for the house. There was no hurry, but the adrenaline pushed us up the hill. We ran like wild people in our swimsuits, laughing at ourselves all the way.

We both got quiet when we neared the barn. It was early yet and Dad wouldn’t be home. If we were lucky, Mom would still be in the kitchen canning squash. Inside the barn, Ethan stopped to put his shoes on. I followed suit.

“Do we need clothes for this?” I asked.

“No. The less, the better.”

I wasn’t sure what his plan was yet, but I trusted him. We had gone to war together too many times to count. Sometimes against our parents, other times against the neighbors. Dad couldn’t seem to get along with anyone. At one point, he had owned the two-mile driveway that ran from our house to the main road. Eight other neighbors had driveways that linked up to the main driveway, which meant constant confrontation. By the time the state bought the two-mile stretch and shoved an End State Maintenance sign into the ground at the end of our now very short driveway, Dad had pissed off every neighbor we had. Sometimes they fought back. Sometimes Ethan and I made our own contribution to the battles. We didn’t side with our parents or with the neighbors. After the neighbors left glass across our driveway one night, we returned the favor by filling their front door keyhole full of glue.

Ethan headed for the loft and I followed.

“We need some things. You can help carry,” he said.

The loft hid evidence of our war against the world, small holes drilled in the wall at different angles. Dad had quit using the loft years ago, so as kids we’d taken it over and used it as a command post. We kept tabs on Mom and Dad from the loft. Each hole gave us a different view; the car port, the front yard, the garden, a shed.

After half an hour, Ethan and I, still in our swimsuits, left the barn and headed back to the river. Ethan had explained the plan as we gathered supplies, and I had never been as impressed with him as I was this time.

Mr. Garner and our dad had had more than one altercation, and it was still unclear as to whether he was the one who had cut our fence the year before and let the cows loose near the railroad tracks. Years ago, Mr. Garner had moved into the rundown house – one intended to serve only as a hunting cabin – on a narrow piece of property upriver from us. This was long before either Ethan or I were born, and long before anyone out here bothered with building permits or inspections. We had no idea how old he was. He drove by our bus stop when we were kids and hurled insults about our father at us.

When Mr. Garner moved in to the house, it barely had electricity and it had no indoor plumbing, only an outhouse. Last summer, he finally added running water and an indoor bathroom, but instead of investing in a septic tank, he ran the pipe straight into the creek just above our property. After watching the suds from laundry detergent float down the river, Dad went to see him. Mr. Garner was unreceptive so Dad went to the county. The county moved very slowly, giving him first a warning and a deadline for putting in a septic tank. Eventually, we understood that Mr. Garner had put in a septic tank, but it was now apparent that he was running the tank straight to the river rather than into the ground. As far as Ethan and I were concerned, his time was up. We could fix him better than the county could.

It was eighty-five degrees and we were both sweating as we walked back to the river with our supplies.

“Let’s walk up the edge of the river. If he catches us, he can’t complain about us being on his property as long as we’re in the water,” Ethan said.

I smiled, remembering the time someone several miles upstream had called the sheriff on Ethan and me for wading in their part of the river. That was when we learned that as long as you are in the river, and if a river is considered navigable, there was nothing anyone could do to stop you from being in it. But one toe out, and you were trespassing.

Ethan gave me a sack full of mildewed hay that he had scraped off of the barn floor. He carried a five gallon bucket, a small bag of concrete mix, a funnel, and a long tent pole. We lifted our supplies above the waist high water along the edge of the river where the sycamore roots curled down into the water and sloshed our way upstream. When we got to Garner’s section of the river, we stopped near a black, plastic pipe that jutted out of the rocks, and piled our supplies on the bank. The pipe hung out over the water and dripped with Garner’s sink water, his washing machine water, his bath water, and worst of all, his shit. Ethan jumped up on the bank and looked around.

“Clear.”

The bank here was several feet higher than the water and the water was only a couple of feet deep.

First, we gathered up small rocks and piled them on the bank.

“Here, you hold the pipe upwards,” Ethan said. “It’s going to stink.”

It did, but I held that pipe up in the air even though a drizzle ran down my arms and legs. Just as Ethan was about to start pushing rocks into the pipe’s opening, the pipe came alive. It sputtered and gushed and we were both sprayed by God knows what. We closed our mouths and held our breath, expecting the worst. I had to breathe eventually though, and was relieved to smell detergent. Garner must have been doing laundry. Once the heavy flow wore off, Ethan went to work jamming dozens of little rocks inside of the pipe. He put in several, and then he used the tent pole to jam them farther back. Then he added more rocks. After that he stuffed the mildewed hay in the same way, little by little.

“Now, keep holding the end of the pipe up while I mix the concrete mix.”

He jumped up on the bank again and I held the pipe up as far as my arms could reach. I looked around us to make sure we were still alone. Then I watched Ethan stirring the mix in the bucket with a stick. He was tanned and muscles rippled everywhere. The entire top half of his tattoo showed above his shorts. The more he worked, the lower they sagged. My mouth was dry. With all of that water around us, my mouth was dry.

Back down in the water, he stuck the funnel in the end of the pipe and told me to hold it still, tilted upward. He lifted that enormous bucket over his head, his body shaking from the weight, and poured it in slowly. My arms were beginning to burn from holding the pipe up for so long, but I wasn’t about to give up, knowing how much harder Ethan was working. It felt like forever before he drained all of the concrete mix from the bucket and then he bent over to let his arms relax.

“You all right?” he asked.

“My arms won’t make it much longer.”

“I’ll hurry, but keep it as still as possible so the concrete mix sits in one place.”

He went back to adding rocks and hay and stuffing it in with the tent pole. My arms were shaking as he finished, threw the tent pole on the bank, and took the pipe from me. I dropped my arms, the muscles searing. He held it until I recovered and then we took turns holding the pipe until he said, “That’s long enough.”

I let go of the pipe and watched it for a minute. Nothing was coming out of it. Ethan smiled his good looking smile. It was the smile that the girls at school had loved. He had no shortage of female friends, but I was sure none of them shared what we did.

I smiled back at him. “What happens first?”

“Well, it could take a day or so for the pipe to back up to the tank and then the house. But after that it should go pretty quickly. Garner might do another wash, or dump some expired milk down the sink.” Ethan was clearly enjoying this. “The old bastard might even brush his teeth and spit in the sink, or flush the toilet, or wash some dishes. Anything. Whatever it is, at some point, everything is going to fill up. He might sit his hairy, fat ass on the commode and the flush might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The water might overflow from the toilet and run out of the bathroom.”

“And it might run down the hall,” I said.

“And soak the rug if he has one.”

I was falling apart. “It might even reach the kitchen where he lets that hound dog sleep.”

“The water might back up so bad that something in his house shorts out and he’s back to not having electricity again,” Ethan said.

My knees bent from laughter. Ethan broke down, and we both laughed ourselves into tears. It was us against the world. I lost my balance and tried to put my arms out to keep from falling against Ethan. My arms were useless, and I imagined his were, too. I couldn’t push myself off of him, nor could he offer any resistance. We leaned on one another as the laughter wore off, though I think I was partly crying when he was finally able to wrap his arms around me. Ethan had been my world growing up, and I didn’t care what anyone thought. I let him hold me chest to chest, cheek to cheek, and before I realized it, I was clinging to him with what little strength I had left. We stood next to that pipe, still covered in Garner’s filthy drizzle, both coated in sweat, and some cement mix that had missed the funnel and dried on our arms. When Ethan’s lips found mine, hesitantly, I was neither surprised, nor scared. Only thankful. If there was any surprise, it would have been on Ethan’s part, and it would have been because of the eagerness my response. By the time he got himself together and pulled away to save us both, I had already decided I didn’t want to be saved.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Ethan said.

“Okay.”

“Before anyone sees us.”

“Okay.”

We left behind a tent pole, a funnel, and a five gallon bucket with the remains of cement mix in the bottom of it. A small battle was won. Farther down the river we dove in and swam together underwater. I went as far as I could stand it. My lungs began to burn. Just before I surfaced, I looked at Ethan, suspended in that green river light, pointed toward the blazing surface and surrounded by blue gills and see-through minnows, and I knew, even then, that whatever happened, the sight of him like this, would carry me for years to come. We came up for air.


AmandaPauleyAmanda Pauley began writing fiction as an English major at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and continued through a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies degree at Hollins University. Later, she returned to Hollins University and completed the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program in 2014. Her stories have appeared in the Press 53 Open Awards Anthologies, Cargoes, The Clinch Mountain Review, The Canyon Review, The West Trade Review, and The Masters Review Anthology III, 2014. She was a 2012 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize finalist, a runner up for the 2013 Andrew James Purdy Prize for Short Fiction, the runner up in the 2013 Bevel Summers Short Short Story Contest, and the winner of the Arts & Letters Prize for Fiction in 2013.

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