Marlin Barton is from the Black Belt region of Alabama. His most recent book is a novel, The Cross Garden. Barton's collection of stories, The Dry Well, received the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook Award for the best first volume of short stories published that year. Other books include a novel, Broken Thing, and a second collection of stories, Dancing by the River. His stories have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Shenandoah, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Sewanee Review, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and The Best American Short Stories.

He teaches in, and helps direct, the Writing Our Stories project, a program for juvenile offenders in Alabama. He also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College.

Playing War

posted Feb 26, 2013

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Light shines through several windows. She wonders how long Foster has been home, and is afraid it's been long enough for him to want to know where she's been.

She finds dirty dishes in the sink that he must have used to heat leftovers. Then she hears water running through pipes and realizes he's taking a shower. She eats from a small plate of cold roast and not much else. The food is tasteless and the thin streaks of congealed grease manage to make her slightly sick.

When she enters the bedroom he's standing beside the bed, a towel wrapped around his body, his hair still damp. "Sorry I'm late," she says. "I went to a baby shower for Diane, from work."

"You must not have stayed too long," he says, which surprises her. "How come?"

She can't tell if there is doubt in his voice. What she thinks she might hear may be in her own mind. "Just wanted to come on home."

He turns from her and walks to his dresser. When he pulls away the towel and drapes it over his shoulder, she realizes she can't remember when she last saw him standing naked in front of her, even as casually as this. She imagines some other woman has, though, but not at all casually. He pulls on a pair of boxers. When he turns toward her again, he doesn't meet her eyes. It's as if he can't, or doesn't want to. She wonders what he might know, if maybe Dale has finally said something to him. She half expects him to turn on her now, demanding to know just what the hell she thinks she's been doing. She feels sicker and the queasiness spreads through her body. He goes over to the closet and pulls out a dark shirt, slips it on with deliberate movements. She has no idea what he's thinking, or what to say to him

"Won't be long before Lucinda's home." Her words sound feeble to her. "The semester's about over."

"Maybe we'll see her before then."

He steps close to her, his shirt hanging open, his chest and stomach partially exposed. "Aren't you going to change out of your work clothes?"

"I guess."

"Or are you just waiting for me to leave the room first?"

She doesn't expect this, but perhaps shouldn't be surprised. What does surprise her is how troubled, not angry, his words sound. They're heavy enough to push her down to the edge of the bed, and she sits with her head lowered for a moment. She takes her shoes off and without speaking begins to unbutton her top, then quits, looks up at him.

"If you really want, I'll leave you alone," he says. "If it's come to that."

"No. There's no reason you should have to leave." She finishes with the buttons and pulls off one side of her top. He sits then, and she lets him help her with the rest of it. She finally stands and slips out of the white slacks, then feels his warm hand at the small of her back, feels his fingers slide just beneath the waistband of her underwear.

It's been months, but she feels no desire, or even need, for him. All she wants is to change clothes, alone, but he's here, wanting her, and maybe she has some need she can't quite name and looks down at him just as she did earlier with Russell. Except now she places her hands on Foster's shoulders and pushes him away, feels a sense of strength in her arms as she does, and in what she's about to ask him.

"Have you ever cheated on me?"

He doesn't look away or act surprised. It's as if he has expected such a question, been ready for it. "No," he says. "I haven't." And then: "Have you?"

She isn't ready for the question, but she answers as best she can. If he doubts her he doesn't show it. Or perhaps he dealt with the question of her fidelity long ago and laid it to rest with the greatest of finalities, and was then free of it.

She moves slowly towards him, maybe only out of a need to prove with the deception of flesh that she's never been unfaithful, or maybe more out of a need to reduce him to his most base self, and to meet him there in that place of shame familiar to them both. She climbs onto his body not unlike she did with Bruce, and even further back to the very first boy whose heart she broke, but there is no pleasure, only a practiced motion, a knowledge of necessary movement buried in the center of her muscles. And in her mind, or heart, the opposite of what a wife should want to feel for the man she married and whose child she bore.

Moments afterward, his body quiet, hers still atop his, he looks up at her. "Am I so terrible?"

"I don't know," she says, then sees in his expression what can only be the purest of hurt.


The grocery store is crowded with people shopping after work, but she pushes her way through, bumping first one cart, then another with her own. Later, when she enters her father's house carrying heavily laden plastic bags, she sees right away something is wrong.

"I'm sorry," she says. "I know it's been a few days. I missed coming yesterday and should have called."

She carries the bags to the kitchen, and when she walks back into the living room, he turns the television off with the remote. "Just as well you didn't. If you'd come, I'd of probably still had company."

"Who?" she asks.

"Shouldn't be hard for you to figure out."

"Dale," she says quietly, answering the way a child might while suffering a scolding.

"No. Try again."

She knows, this time. "Russell."

"That's right. And he told me some things. Why in the world would you go to Dale? What I said to you was between us, for you to use against Foster only if you had to. That son of a bitch Russell shows up here last night and threatens me, tells me to keep my mouth shut. And no telling what Dale thinks of me now. He used to trust me. I should never have told you what I did. I shouldn't have trusted you."

She sits down across from him and looks at him sitting there, a walking cane at his side, his body shaped by age and arthritis, but his words to her, the disappointment in them, reshape him again into the father she remembers. "I let Dale think it was Foster who told me."

"But that didn't last."

"No, it didn't," she says. "What happened with Russell?"

"I threw him out, that's what."

"Do you think he's dangerous? You think he's the one who did it, shot Bruce?"

"I don't know. I think he's scared, and I think you sure created a mess. No way Foster ain't going to find out about all this."

"I don't think he knows yet," she said.

"So what are you going to do? If Foster comes to me, I'll have to tell him the truth."

She leans forward in her chair, as if she might be sick. "You won't say why you told me about Bruce, that I might leave him? Foster, I mean."

"Might? Make up your mind, Carrie. And no, I won't tell him why I told you what I did, but he'll want to know. You can count on that."

She knows she has to do something, that she holds people's lives in her small grasp, maybe not unlike someone in November woods with his fingers wrapped around the stock and trigger of a shotgun. But where to take aim?

"You still haven't told me why you went to Dale."

"To find out what happened and what kind of man I've been married to."

"You didn't want Dale for some other reason?" He's studying her carefully now. She knows what he's asking.

"No other reason," she says. He looks away from her, shakes his head at the brevity of her answer, as if he doesn't understand her, or doesn't want to. Sitting there, in her father's house, she feels she is still the girl she used to be and tried to leave behind. Maybe everyone's greatest sorrow is that they can't escape the worst of themselves, but whatever she might acknowledge within her, she knows she has to look beyond it now, past its bone-gray color and abstract shape.

Her father calls her name, and she waits for any further condemnation she can gather from his words, prepares herself for it. "Carrie," he says, and appears to grimace with arthritis pain, "it was Foster's idea to play war."


She follows the unlined blacktop, lets it carry her back on the arc of its curve, her headlights picking up just enough of the road in front of her so she can find her way. Then she turns onto gravel, follows the beam of her lights and the sound her front tires create on the small rocks beneath their treads. She catches the flash and reflection of lights across a still surface and imagines small planes breaking that surface, descending into wreckage, sharp-finned fish navigating among them.

Dale's trailer is as dark as the pond water. His truck isn't there. Lights shine from his parents' house, though, and she sees their vehicles. For a moment she feels relief, and then her anxiety grows larger. She knows she has to make herself face him. She begins to turn around in front of the trailer, but stops, feels compelled to get out of her car, and tries the door. It's unlocked. She isn't surprised. Its being left open seems the act of someone who doesn't care. There's a light switch beside the door, she remembers, and finds it under her palm. His parents, she knows, might see the light come on and wonder, but maybe she doesn't care.

The trailer is filled with as much disarray as before. She manages to locate a note pad beside his phone and writes the simplest words she can, I'm sorry. I need to see you, and then signs it, just her name, which seems cold to her, the same kind of cold brevity as in the answer she gave her father, but she doesn't know what else to write.

When she pulls away from the trailer, she sees a lone silhouette move forward in front of his parents' house. There is no porch light on, and she can't tell if the figure is male or female. She doesn't stop; she accelerates, gravel ricocheting off the undercarriage of her car like sprays of lead pellets.

She's afraid to go home, scared of what may, or may not, be waiting on her, but she crosses the Black Fork, follows the highway that threads the river's connected pools of backwater. When she parks in her drive, she sees that Foster isn't home. It's as if this absence is what she anticipated, and she now divines some connecting logic in the two absences that makes her more afraid.

Once inside, the house feels empty, hollowed out of something more than belongings, and holds no note of explanation left on a counter for her. She then checks her cell phone, sees her daughter tried to call. There is only one message. "Dale didn't come in today," he says, "didn't call. And his parents haven't seen him." He tells her he may be late, that he's going to go look for him. His voice doesn't sound particularly worried or upset, and she doesn't detect any anger or suspicion. If he finds him, though, what will he come home knowing?

She doesn't sleep, or if she does it comes without her knowledge and leaves with only a hint that it was taken from her. At a little past midnight, she hears him enter the house. She remains still, quiet, listens to his movements, then feels the bed give with his weight.

"I found him."


"Across the river," he says, his voice still low. "At Duff's Place."

"He all right?"

"Drunk as I've ever seen him. People said he showed up like that. I took him home and he passed out on the way."

"I'm glad you found him," she says. All she can think about is how they could have come to the trailer while she was there and wonders what she might have said. Then she remembers the note, her name signed at the bottom, like some confession.

"Go back to sleep," he says.

She can't, but in the morning she'll wake and find him gone.


At work she tries to stay focused. She pushes tongues out of the way, uses the small round mirror to search for build-up on molars and bicuspids, but she wanders into strange places, openings in her mind that don't seem to contain reason, and she imagines the hurtful words and lies these mouths have spoken to wives, husbands, lovers. She knows her patients, knows something about the lives they lead, the divorces, the abuse suffered, the cheating. She thinks that no mouth is ever really clean, that a human bite almost always infects.

At lunch she tries to call her daughter but gets no answer. Then she checks her voicemail, sees there's one message, and hopes for the sound of Dale's voice, realizes how badly she needs to hear it, and this need feels like a good thing to her, something hopeful in itself.

"Saw your note," she hears. "Don't know if Foster did. He could have." His voice is flat, cold even. "You do what you want. I'm here."

She supposes she deserves the words of punishment, but then she realizes the punishment was more in the sound of his voice than in the words themselves. Or perhaps what she heard lay beyond punishment, was something deeper, more troubling.

The afternoon passes slowly, and finally darkness closes against the small window near the ceiling of her examining room. She pulls on her long coat, buttons it against the cold that will be waiting on her. She wishes she could go home and change out of her work clothes, but there isn't time. She leaves the parking lot before everyone else, drives well above the posted speed limit.

She ends up having to sit and wait so long she cranks the car and runs the heater for warmth. Then she hears a vehicle behind her and turns her head, sees his truck. He parks near her, and by the time he opens the door to his apartment, she's beside him, startles him with her sudden presence, which she intends.

"What?" he says, blocking his doorway. "Foster got to you already?"

His question throws her. "No," she says, then pushes ahead. "I came to tell you to stay out of my father's house. Don't think you can threaten him to save your sorry self."

"You still don't understand," he says, and she follows him inside where they stand in the living room, each squared against the other.

"Just stay away. He doesn't need trouble from you. And if you want me to understand things, start talking."

"Far as I can see, you the one that brought the trouble. And as for me doing any talking"—he leans toward her and she smells some hard scent on him she can't name—"I decided it was time for that already, after the drunk Dale went on. I sat down in Foster's office this afternoon, and from the look of you a minute ago, I figured he'd already found you."

It's happened. Foster knows, she thinks, is bound to come at her now with what she set in motion. But how hard? "What did he say?"

"Didn't say a fucking word, but looked like he had plenty on his mind."

"Just how much did you tell him?"

"You ask him."

"Why'd you do it?"

"Dale," he says.

She shakes her head, knows further talk with him is useless, then walks out the door, imagines that very soon she may have to live in one of these apartments, call it home.

She stands in the cold and finds her keys at the bottom of her purse, hears the sound of people talking in the parking lot and pays it no mind. But the voices stop, all at once, and when she looks up she sees two young women whose faces she recognizes, and her daughter stands between them, looking at her as if she has just seen her mother step out of a motel room, one of those new places on the highway at the other end of town, where locals, it's rumored, take rooms on the back side that faces away from the highway. She has the odd feeling that somehow this is what's happened, that her daughter now knows some sordid truth about her that she didn't know before.

"What are you doing here?" she asks before her daughter can.

Lucinda doesn't seem able to regain a sense of herself. "I tried to call you. Decided I . . . was going to come home, so I just came on. Thought I'd stop and see friends, before I went to the house."

The two girls look from one to the other, as if something needs to be figured out before they should speak. She knows their names, Mary Kay and Barbara. The prettier of the two, Barbara, has finished college, and she knows that Mary Kay left for college too, but didn't leave for long. It is probably Mary Kay who lives in one of these buildings, works at some small office for little pay.

"How are you girls?" she asks.

"Fine," they answer, their voices too soft, as if they're afraid of intruding on some situation.

She looks at her daughter again. "I'm kind of in the middle of something," she says. "Trying to help an old friend. I'll see you tonight, won't I?"

"I'll be there, I guess." Lucinda doesn't sound sure, though, as if she thinks something changed at their home, something she might not want to see, or perhaps Carrie is imagining that her own fears also belong to her daughter who can only make guesses about her mother's life.

"Tell your father what I said, will you? If he's there."

Lucinda nods slowly, more puzzled now, it seems. "All right."

She wants to say more, wants to put Lucinda at ease, but knows she can't and walks away, perhaps too abruptly.

After she starts her car she lets the engine warm and turns on the heater. She looks in the rearview mirror, watches her daughter and her friends walk beyond the corner of a building and disappear, and imagines for a moment she is that age again. Imagination gives way to memory and she is newly married, starting her life with Foster in their own apartment. No daughter yet. Bruce is still alive. Then Foster comes home from a day of hunting down inside a creek bottom.

She waits for traffic to pass before she pulls onto the highway. Her cell rings, and she pulls it from her purse, determined to answer, to be somehow accountable to whatever voice she hears.

"I thought I would of seen you by now."

"I'm coming right this minute," she says. "I promise. I had to talk to Russell, but I'm on my way."

He doesn't respond to the mention of Russell's name, doesn't say anything. Lets only the quiet speak.

"Dale? Are you drinking?"

"A little. Enough."

"What do you mean 'enough'?"

He's quiet again, at first. "I'm glad it's you who's coming. Not somebody else. But I'm sorry for that too."

Someone pulls up behind her, their lights on bright, and she edges her car out of the way. When she opens her window and waves the driver around, she sees that it's Lucinda who passes, watching her, and has to be wondering what her mother is doing, who she is talking to, who she's seen, just as she wonders now why Lucinda is leaving so quickly. Then her daughter is gone, her red taillights melting into the highway's flow of traffic.

"Dale?" she says, finding her way back into the conversation. "Sorry for what? You don't have anything to apologize for. It's me who's sorry. More than I can say."

"It's all right. It doesn't matter. Nothing does."

"I'll be there in just a little while. Okay? I'll hurry."

"You don't have to. Hurrying won't matter either."

"Dale," she says again, waits to see if he's still there. She pulls onto the highway and the small beeps that signal called ended sound in her ear.

After she crosses the river, and the closer she gets to home, the more aware she becomes of the woods on either side of the road. It is as if the lines of woods are growing closer to the blacktop, edging in at her, and while they are more nearly shadows of woods in her vision than actual woods, more an abstraction of themselves than anything that might be considered real, the lack of color—no green smears of pines and cedars, no strokes of rusts and yellow-browns—strip her of the ability to create anything out of them within her imagination. Instead she feels entered farther and farther into their branches and thick trunks.

No porch light is on at his trailer, only a patina of light glows against an end window. His truck is there, parked askew. She knocks on his door, though she doesn't expect him to answer. She's certain the door will be unlocked, as before, and just as certain that she'll find him inside, though she is apprehensive now, a little afraid of the emotional state he may have crawled into, worse even than what she heard on the phone.

She walks into the dark, calls his name, and waits while her eyes adjust and she begins to see vague shapes around her. "Dale," she calls again. Dim light creates a passage down the one short hallway, and she follows it into what must be his bedroom. The bed she finds is unmade, and the light she followed bends itself into a wall, or the opening in a wall, and she supposes it's the bathroom.


She doesn't hear any kind of answer but enters the doorway. What she sees startles her. He's half submerged in water, his bare knees bent at wide angles just above the tub's sides. The shower curtain is gathered toward one end, and she can't see his face or any part of his head or shoulders. His body appears severed. She takes another step closer, afraid of what she'll have to face, but the water's surface isn't sanguine; its depths aren't stained. She sees what she can't help but see, a thickness of brown hair and his shriveled penis. The pale nakedness of his body makes her feel as if he's lain bare in a manner beyond the physical. He moves, closes his knees enough so that neither of them will have to be embarrassed by his body, and she sees a small rectangle of metal on the side of the tub, not the old fashioned two-sided blade her father once used, but the sort of blade workmen use for scraping, only one side honed sharp.

"I couldn't do it," he says. "I thought I could." His voice is quiet but distorted by the shape and finish of the tub and shower walls, but what she hears, while altered, sounds uncorrupted somehow.

Before she tries to speak, she lowers the commode lid and sits facing him so that she can finally see his face. He looks down at himself, though, pulls his legs up closer to his chest, and wraps his arms around them.

"I'm glad, Dale. No one wants to lose you. Losing your brother was too much already."

"That's right. It was too much. Worse for me than anybody, even my parents."

"I know," she says, and she does now.

"I can't live with it, or with myself. I don't know how. Even after all this time."

"But you are living with it. You do."

He looks up at her, his eyes resting in her vision beneath the hard ceiling light. "How is this living?"

"It's like everybody. Everybody's carrying around more than they think they can handle."

"Not like me."

"I guess that's true enough. Do your parents know?"

"They know what I could stand to tell them, and what I didn't tell anybody else. But they don't know we were playing war. I don't think they could forgive that, to know that's how it come about."

"You didn't ever tell my father?"

He shakes his head. "I told him the playing war part, just him. I shouldn't of done that. But telling my folks the worst part, and your father the other, it was almost like telling it all, except it wasn't."

"No," she says, "it wasn't. But playing war, that wasn't your idea."

"No." He looks at her again, waits.

"It was Foster's."

He nods.

"Dale, I know the water is getting cold. Let me get you a towel. Would that be all right?"

"Please," he says quietly.

She stands and reaches for a faded blue towel from a shelf and hands it to him while he rises, neither of them embarrassed now by anything as trivial as flesh. He wraps it around himself, and when she offers her hand, he takes it, steps out of the tub. She pulls him close and feels the wet skin of his back and shoulder blades against her hands, and his chest soaks her clothes, but she holds him tighter. "I'm sorry," she says, "for how I kept pushing you until . . . " She can't say the words, and she wonders how Dale ever spoke even a part of the truth to his parents, and to her father.

He responds only by letting her go. She knows he can't see anything beyond his own hurt. He walks out of the bathroom ahead of her, and she looks down for a moment, picks up the blade off the side of the tub and closes her hand against it, hard enough to feel its thin edge against her palm, right to the point of cutting into the folds of her skin and across her lifeline.

She leaves him in his bedroom to let him dress and stands beside the clutter of his kitchen counter, trying to decide what she should do. The idea of walking him over to his parents' house occurs to her. She knows she can't leave him alone, and she can't stay with him all night. There is really only one choice, and she knows it must be the right one because it's the hardest for her. She picks up Dale's phone and sees her note still lying beside it.

When she hears him answer, she quietly speaks his name.

"Where are you?" he says, his voice harsh. "I know where you been. Where are you now?"

"I'm at Dale's." She pauses, and then says all she can say. "He needs you."

She expects a hesitation on his part, but he says, "I'll be right there," so quickly it surprises her. It's as if he's been anticipating such a grave summons, and for a moment she finds herself hurt by how suddenly he responded, as if whatever anger he held toward her no longer mattered, and she no longer mattered. She cradles the receiver, lets it go, wonders if he has already let go of her.

Dale walks out of his bedroom in jeans and a shirt, his hair combed wet. He turns on the ceiling light but won't quite face her.

"I called Foster. He'll be here soon." He nods his head as though it's what he thought she might do, as if perhaps Foster is playing out his part in the way Dale expects, a way Foster has done before.

She sits on the small sofa, pushes a pile of clothes out of the way. "Sit with me while we wait," she says. "Please."

He finds room for himself, and the cushions sink, pushing them against each other. She takes his hand in both of hers and his skin is warm. "You can talk or not," she says. "It doesn't matter. Whatever you need."

He gently squeezes her hand, and she remains quiet, leans her shoulder deeper against his, and in her mind the images of what happened that day come clear, begin to play themselves out in slowed motion and in silence, perhaps the same way they've played themselves out in Dale's mind, and in dreams from which he can't awake but remembers in brutal detail so vivid as to be beyond real. Her husband moves through the trees and brush and leans down over the body, then finally pulls Dale away. And they stand talking, all of them, Dale no longer in tears but in a numb shock, listening as best he can while Foster tells them all what they will do, each of them nodding in turn, thankful for every word they hear, but resentful too in ways they don't understand yet because they have not lived with him, have not grown into men or into their lives the way she has now, with him and with their child, waiting for him to arrive and play out his part in front of the two of them who sit here beside each other and who can listen, or not.

Dale still doesn't speak; he simply waits. She would like to tell him it wasn't his fault, but she can't. She can't blame it all on Foster.

In a little while she hears him approach. When his truck door slams shut she experiences a jarring inside herself, and she wants to rise and meet him but Dale still holds her hand, squeezes tighter, and before she can stand, he's there, inside the door, his coat open, his face reddened from the cold, his hair blown out of place.

He's quiet at first, calm. He looks at Dale, then finally at her, walks toward them and kneels down in front of Dale, which strikes her as odd, makes her unsure of what he might do. He places a forearm across Dale's knee, and she sees a gentleness in him that surprises her at first, but also sees that Dale isn't surprised. "How bad is it this time?" he says.

"Pretty bad, as bad as before. You know. When . . ."

Foster nods. "That's been a long time now. I thought you made me a promise after that."

"I know. I did."

"Is that why you didn't call me this time? Why you called Carrie instead?" He looks at her for a moment, and the look is not gentle but accusing and reminds her of what she faced from Russell.

"I guess," Dale says.

"It's okay. I'm here now. We'll talk this through. Okay?" He stands and looks at her. "I want to talk with him alone, if you don't mind too much."

"You want me to leave?"

"No," he says. "Just give us a little time. Wait in your car, or my truck. My key's in it, and you can run the heater."

She lets go of Dale's hand, pushes herself up from the sofa, angry at being told what to do, but doesn't want to remain where she isn't wanted. And it could be that it's best for Dale this way. She doesn't want to second guess what might help him.

Foster opens the door for her, follows her onto the small porch. The air feels colder, sharper. "Do you see what you've done?" he says in a low voice. 'What you've pushed him to. My God, Carrie."

"What I've done?" she says, but he doesn't respond, merely turns and steps back inside, closes the door.

She goes to her car, cranks it, and thinks of leaving, but she doesn't. She knows she has a part in this too. After the engine warms she turns on the heat, lets it blow against her fingers and into her face until her skin feels it might burn. She wonders what Foster is telling Dale, or asking, maybe even demanding.

The outside light over the porch flicks on, and she watches for Foster to emerge, to signal for her to come back inside. She finally twists off the ignition, pulls her coat tight around her, and gets out of the car. They made this, she thinks. It belongs to them. I wasn't there, didn't pull a trigger or tell anyone what to do.

She walks out into the dark, no destination in mind. Soon she's aware of the flat surface and the reflected light of the moon and walks along its edge, imagines the two boys who fished here, waded out as far as they dared, trying to ignore the warnings they'd heard about water moccasins. She wonders how deep the water is, how far down lies the wreckage of wings and engines and small fuselages covered in mud and silt, such strange and unnatural objects for the sharp-finned fish that hover and glide through them, the water their air, the world above nothing that they have to contend with, only the world's wreckage that floats down to them. But those boys who walked out of this pond did have a world with which to contend; grown older they turned from play to other desires that grew in them and couldn't be let go like some toy plane thrown into the air. They carried guns together and shared a desire she had to contend with, but instead played with in the worst possible ways until she left one satisfied on the bank of a river and the other carrying both knowledge of that night and his own desire still, and maybe jealousy. She can't push the notion away any longer and wonders if Dale could have been carrying that jealousy along with him down in a creek bottom when he saw his older brother creeping among the trees. Maybe it spoke to him in a way he didn't understand or even realize he heard. But she doesn't want to think this, doesn't want to see his need for her all these years later as any kind of sign for what might have happened long ago in those late November woods. She reaches into her pocket, pulls out the razor blade, and pitches it into the water where it makes such a small sound against the surface.

The slam of a truck door carries across the pasture to her. He'll have to come to her, she decides, will have to find her where she stands. He calls, and she doesn't answer. He calls again, his voice rising until the last syllable of her name, that long vowel sound, thins across the cold air.

He turns slowly, searches every degree of the dark, and then must see her, or some semblance of her silhouette, and begins to walk toward her. He takes his time, and she lets him, doesn't move his way, even takes a few steps closer to the water, and waits.

When he reaches her his hands are plunged deep into his coat pockets, his arms drawn close to his body, and she stands in much the same attitude.

"How is he?" she says.

"What do you think, Carrie? Not good at all. You think I can work a miracle with him in twenty minutes time?" He lets his words hang, then keeps at her. "The damage you've done to him."

"You think this is my fault? Sounds like it isn't the first time he's tried this. And it might not be the last."

"I know that."

"So was it my fault before—when I had no idea what had really happened because you never told me anything but a lie?"

He waits before he answers, seems to study the water and the dark for something he can say. "We all promised to tell the same story, and stick with it. I had to keep my promise.

"No," she says. "You made them promise. I know you. You handled it all."

He turns away from her for a moment. "That's been a long time ago now."

"Not to Dale, or to me either. It's all pretty brand new to me."

"According to Russell, you've known a while."

"Not that long."

"How do you think it makes me feel, you sneaking around asking people about me? And what exactly were you trying to find out from Dale? You just had to hear all the awful details, wanted to think the worst of your husband."

"Maybe I wanted to find out if my husband had killed somebody."

"Killed somebody. You say that like I could have murdered Bruce."

"It crossed my mind," she says too quickly, without considering how it sounds or what his reaction will be.

He faces her more squarely now, the wind catching his open coat. "Why would you think such a thing?"

She can't search his face in the dark, can't see enough of it to judge what he might have known about her, and Bruce, and wants to hear her admit now. And he can't see her face, can't judge her the way he might want. The darkness, like their last attempt at intimacy, is evasion.

"I don't know. When I found out what happened, it seemed like anything was possible, and the worst I could imagine felt like what must be the truth."

Beyond her husband, she sees movement, a shadow approaching Dale's trailer, then realizes it isn't one person, but two, walking in slow step with one another. She watches them reach the porch and disappear inside. "You called his parents," she says.

"Right before I walked out here. He didn't want me to, but I did."

"How much more will he tell them?"

"I don't know. That's up to him."

"Is it? You really think that?"

"He's a grown man, Carrie."

"No. I'm sorry to say so, but he's not, and you know it. I think you've even counted on it."

"That's a hell of a thing to say to me. I did make the call, and told him he could tell them whatever he needed to."

"So you gave him permission after all this time. But you're betting he won't do it."

"I'm not betting anything. Maybe I'm scared, though. That what you want to hear?"

She faces the water again, sees the reflected light ripple along its surface with each gust of wind. "Why'd you make him keep hunting all those years, make him kill?"

She sees him shake his head, as if she can't understand any part of him or what happened. "He went with us, but he didn't really hunt, just carried a gun that he wouldn't even load. We'd kill one for him every once in a while, tell people he killed it, when he'd let us."

"And you think you did that to protect him?" He won't answer, and she doesn't blame him. "I know it was your idea."


"To play war."

A car passes out on the Loop, and the loud bass thump of an indistinguishable song rattles and punctuates the air with concussive sound.

"Yeah, it was my idea. You're right. It was just something to do, something to pass the time, maybe to play at being men, soldiers. I don't know. I always wanted to tell you."

"No way do I believe that."

"That's up to you. But before you go any further, let me ask you something. What if he'd done it?"

She's confused for a moment, caught between the past and the present, between a shotgun blast and the slice of a razor blade, between the blood of two brothers pooled in equal measure. "Done what?" she says, but she understands him now.

"What if you'd found him dead in that tub?"

She glances at the water and then out into the dark just as he had a few moments ago, as if the darkness could provide what one of them, if not the other, might need. All the abstractions of color and shape she could once create are gone now. "I guess I would have reached in to see if he was still alive, to see if I could save him." She knows this isn't an answer to his question but is simply another evasion.

"Yeah," he says, "and his blood would have been all over you too."

She imagines her arms in the water, her sleeves soaked. She doesn't speak, nor does he. There's a long silence, and she feels a balanced quietness. She can't move, can't do or say anything that might destroy the even divide between them. But she knows they can't remain where they stand, hands in pockets, arms stiff at their sides.

It's the calling of their names that makes them break apart. She turns first and sees Dale's father standing on the porch, waiting on them. They begin walking, Foster a step behind, and she keeps moving ahead. Dale's mother appears, and Carrie wonders what they know. As she and Foster cover ground, approach the cast of the porch light, the couple look first at her, then behind at Foster, and back at her again. It's as if they can't decide who should claim more of their attention, or scrutiny. Carrie wants to walk or drive away, but what she shares with Foster holds her there, prepares her for whatever they have to face, though she knows it won't be enough to keep them joined.