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And the short story winner is...The Water Ran Cold by Steven Baird

DarkWinter Lit is thrilled to announce that The Water Ran Cold by Steven Baird was chosen as the winning entry in our 2nd Anniversary Contest Short Story category by judge Rod Carley! About this piece, our judge said, "The Water Ran Cold is an intimate and haunting snapshot of a couple's contradictory reactions to an unexpected loss. Evocatively written, capturing the emotional rib-cracking of a secret relationship, served up with a cold, all too human twist." Thanks to all who entered the contest this year--it was an extremely talented field. Congratulations again to Steven Baird!




The Water Ran Cold


The water ran cold channeling down her back. She sighed and she mmm’d and she lifted her hair to expose her neck. Strays dangled between her fingers, the loose threads of age, she said. Tacks of diluted blood purled around her thighs. He squeezed the last of the soapsuds from the sponge, watched them glide down her skin in whorls and elongated S’s, across her freckles to the mole above the small of her back. That she would trust him in this, her purest state of vulnerability, troubled him. He reached his hand into the water to replenish the sponge. The water was colder than he liked, but she seemed to prefer it. Cold was primitive, she said, cold was what she needed. He pressed the sponge to her neck and she shook her head, insistent. No, she said. Please don’t. He relaxed his hand and the sponge splashed quietly behind her.

It’s not so bad tonight, is it? Do you need a fresh washcloth?

No, she said. Not yet.

Honey, you’re going to prune.

Let me sit here for a few more minutes. It felt nice, what you were doing. The sponge just felt scratchy. Everything feels scratchy. I feel it all over. Her. Here in the water with me, on my skin, dripped from my pores, exhaling herself from me, every drop of her sinks deeper whenever I move my hands or shift my weight.

Her voice was complicated, like the bubbles piled on her: bold, buoyant, finally disappearing. She wasn’t talking about itchiness or sponges, but of their child, a girl already established as brilliant and sweet, a lost child who never drew a breath.

I don’t know what to call this, she said. Help me with that, please. What do I call this?

He thought about it for several long minutes. She did not rush him. Perhaps she forgot she asked.

Grief? he finally said. That sounded too simple. It was the first word that came to mind. Complex questions were rarely solved so quickly. He closed his eyes and concentrated, but was distracted. Seeing her from this angle, behind her, he could not read her face, its expressiveness, the mood in her eyes. He was kneeling as if in uncertain prayer, her body submerged in Mister Bubble suds, wounded, her voice struggling for buoyancy. She looked pale, so pale. He didn’t know how he could help her if he didn’t know what she needed. He tried again, his own voice a gust of air: Longing?

Longing, she said. Yes, I. And she became quiet and still.

He licked his lips. His mouth was dry. He felt disconnected, didn't know how to adjust to the loss. Twenty hours ago they were excited and planning for all the changes, all the newness. Now they were just. This. Can I get you anything?

My hair feels filthy. Sweaty. Hospital pillowy. Would you wash it for me? Like you used to? A little Prell, just a little. It’s under the sink, used only for special occasions. I think this counts as a special occasion, don’t you? Get your hands good and soapy. You used to shield my eyes with one hand, remember? So valiant you were, my brave man. It got you hard, I remember.

He swallowed.

How many women have you slept with, I wonder? Ballpark? Washed their hair? Knelt before in contemplation? I think you told me once, but I’m sure that number has changed. You can tell me, I won’t get mad. I think I’d be relieved, honestly. A thing like that  puts so much pressure and distance between us, all that ambiguity and suspicion. Do you think those are the same thing, like grief and longing are almost the same? I think maybe they are.

I don’t know.

How many? Five? Twenty-five?

Why? Why does that matter now? His knees ached on the cool bathroom tiles.

Well, you mentioned longing, and this is something I’ve been longing to know, and something I’m sure you’ve been longing not to tell me.

I don’t have a number. I don’t remember, they didn’t matter to me.

Uh huh. I lay here awash in the last of our baby’s blood, and I wonder what is left.

Us. That’s what’s left, same as before.

No. You can’t use that, give me a number. To the best of your recollection. Simple, common math.

Seven?

Is that a question? There were eight, you said, when we first met.

Seven or eight, I don’t remember. There are no notches on my belt.

Nine? Does that sound about right? Let’s call it ten. A nice round number. That’s something I can use, something I can write on the calendar, right below the birth date of our dead baby girl.

Why this now? I’m trying to--

What?

I’m trying to help.

Yes. Help. I did ask, didn’t I?

She doesn’t know, he said. I mentioned divorce, she laughed. You don’t know. The elaborate paths I’ve taken, the bridges behind me i can’t even see for the density--

The lies, you mean.

Yes, I mean--

It’s alright. Wash my hair for me, would you? I don’t want to move my hands, they still feel her. You can use that glass pitcher -- the one with the sunflowers, it’s in the cupboard above the stove. Be careful, it's  my favorite. You can use it to rinse. But get in there good with the shampoo. The Prell. Use your fingers. My scalp feels gritty. It stinks from hospital disinfectant, nurses’ bloodied hands. And when we’re done and I’m all cleaned up, we’ll sit at the kitchen table and you can look me in the eye, and we’ll call your wife. You can tell her what you’ve been up to. And then you can begin mourning -- a little bit, I think -- just like I am. You see, mourning and longing are not quite the same thing.

His hands felt hot, and he dangled them in the cold water. He said nothing. All those elaborate pathways, the density, everything was visible again, everything was clear. He couldn’t see her face, but he knew every expression, every complicated line and pore. He couldn’t imagine how these new and deeper features looked on her. It was a face he never wanted to see again.

Wash my hair, please, she said, and her voice was light and cool, and the bubbles that surrounded her were swallowed by cold water.


Steven Baird is a native Canadian living in Virginia with his wife Angela, a beautiful Great Pyrenees/Shepherd cross named Orsa, and an incalculable number of chickens and rabbits. He is an author, amateur photographer, and 40-+ year newspaper compositor — 28 years in Southeast Ontario, and 16 years in North Carolina. He has published three novels and a short story collection and is looking forward to an eventual retirement.

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