He Left Early
by Emily Newsome
“This is where we’ll anchor.”
She looked toward Jay as he killed the houseboat’s engine. “Here?”
“Yeah, it’s perfect. Right between the mountains, no one around for miles…”
Her heart thundered as he trailed off. The spot he’d chosen on the lake was secluded indeed. An inlet pooled between white-clay, sandstone mountains surrounding them on all sides, stood stark against the clear black water. Like a canyon turned lake, in the middle of nowhere.
“I bet we’ll get a perfect view of the sunset, right here.” He held up his hands, making a square with his fingers.
She nodded, allowing a tight smile to splay across her lips. “Can’t wait.”
“What is it?” He frowned, his dark brows knitting together.
“Nothing, I’ll go get the girls.”
“Sophie, Mia!” Her voice rang through the tiny houseboat. The soft patter of running feet followed. “We’re anchored.”
“Can we go swimming?” Sophie asked, bouncing from foot to foot.
“I already told you, it’s too cold for swimming,” said Mia, her older sister.
“But I want to swim!”
Kristy looked down into Sophie’s young, hopeful face. “It’s too cold for swimming, sweet. But there are plenty of other things to do.”
“Like play board games or… tag!” She gently tapped her daughter’s arm, dramatically turning to run outside onto the deck. Mia followed suit as Sophie whined, “Hey! That’s not fair!”
Jay watched his wife and children run around the deck, playing chase.
“Play with us dad!”
“Yeah, play with us!”
He shook his head. “Not right now girls.”
Kristy slowed her steps to glance over at Jay. “Come on, play with the girls for a little.”
He looked at her from across the deck where he was seated. “Not right now, I’m enjoying the lake view.”
“Well, maybe I want to sit and enjoy the view too. But I’m playing with the girls, before I have to get dinner ready, unpack, and make sure everyone has what they need for bedtime.”
Jay rolled his tired eyes, sliding a hand through his hair. “You really wanna do this right now?”
“The whole point of this vacation was to spend time as a family.”
“We just got here.”
“Yeah, and already I’m the one having to take care of everything. While you sit there.”
“What have you had to take care of? I drove the boat, I anchored us! I mapped out the whole trip—”
“This trip was your idea!”
Sophie and Mia stopped playing.
“Mom, it’s ok. We don’t need four people to play.”
Mia’s light, tiny hand grasped her own, pulling her back toward the game. Letting out a sigh, she turned back toward her daughters. Plastering on a smile, going through the motions. Pretending to be content, to be happy.
She lay beside Jay that night, waiting for sleep. Her eyes began to flutter close, the desire for sleep pulling her down.
“Come here,” Jay said, sliding his hands over her body. “I’m sorry about early today.”
Silently, she turned into him, the warmth of his body suffocating.
“You know playing with the girls is hard for me. My dad never did those things.”
“It’s fine,” she corrected.
The tension tightened in the room. But after a moment, she felt his mouth press down on hers, hard. He didn’t ask permission. He never did. Even if he had, she’d likely given in anyway to save herself the trouble.
As he rove his hands through her hair in the darkness and over her body, she focused on the holes in the wood paneling of the ceiling, her mind numb. She thought about the icy black water they floated on while he thrust faster, his breath quickening. The whites of his eyes glistened in the darkness. She arched into him just the way he liked. Her urge for it to be over mistaken for pleasure. She let him flip her over, reveling the brief moment he pressed her face into the mattress and she couldn’t breathe. Mia and Sophie’s faces flashed in her mind. Delicate and slack with sleep in their bunks. She held on to them, a reminder of something good that had come from Jay. From them. From this.
When he finished, he peeled himself off her.
“Night,” he said.
She held the tears in her eyes and swallowed back the tightness closing around her chest. “Night.”
~ ~ ~
She took another sip from the glass, the smooth wine gliding down her throat. She looked across the table at Jay. After two days of walking on eggshells around each other, she could see it in his eyes. Tonight was going to be one of those nights. The girls knew it too, as they anxiously chewed their food, swallowing loud. She set the wine glass back down. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said.
“Then how did you mean it?”
“I just meant, maybe you’re overreacting.”
Jay slammed the fork down on the table sending the dishes clattering. She jumped in her seat. Sophie started crying.
“Stop crying!” Jay yelled. “All you do is cry!”
Sophie cried louder.
Kristy reached across the table to comfort her daughter. “Do you want to finish dinner in your room?”
Sophie nodded through her tears. Mia too.
“Ok, go ahead.” She glanced sideways at Jay, watching the girls grab their plates and head to their room on the boat. She shook her head. “Every vacation.”
“What was that?” Anger laced his voice.
“I said, do you have to ruin every vacation?”
His eyes widened, his face red with rage. “Nothing has been ruined.” He locked eyes with her. “We’ve been having a fine time.”
Casting her eyes down, she knew it was pointless. She finished the glass of wine, the silence thick and heavy between them, then rose to start the dishes. Her hands shook as she gathered up the unfinished food and plates, the boat tipping slightly back and forth as she walked. Her cheeks flushed from the wine she knew she shouldn’t have had. Just a few more nights on this boat, and they could go their separate ways.
She turned the sink on, listening to the water hit the metal basin. Gripping the counter to not stumble.
She looked over her shoulder at Jay, her mouth in a firm line.
“Just,” he brushed a hand through his hair, “don’t talk about my father.”
“I wasn’t talking about your father.” Or she hadn’t meant to. But in that moment, she couldn’t look past the similarities.
“Can you ever just apologize?”
“You say you hate fighting, especially in front of the kids, but then you do this shit.”
She turned the water in the sink on, hotter and hotter, then plunged her hands into the scalding heat, her eyes tearing up.
Jay shoved his chair back and stalked over to her. “Just apologize, I’ll forgive you, and we can forget about it. Continue having a nice vacation.”
“I’m sick of apologizing for nothing.”
His eyes widened at the sink. He grabbed her wrists, ripping them out of the steaming water. “What is wrong with you?”
She ripped her arms out of his grasp. “Don’t touch me.”
“Don’t touch you?”
“Don’t touch me!”
“You’re my wife!”
She felt his hands tighten around her wrists, pinning them against her chest. He forced her back against the wall. “As unfortunate as that is.”
She let her eyes lock with his. How had she ever loved this broken shell of a man? “Let go of me and I’ll stop.”
“That’s not how this works.”
“Let go of me,” she spat.
Anger flared across his face, every muscle in his body tightening. He grabbed her under the chin, forcing her to look at him. “You are making me angry.”
“Oh good, you’re trying what the therapist recommended.”
“At least I am trying.”
“I’m not the one who needs therapy.”
“Will you just stop!”
She felt her head ricochet off the wall as he shook her. Felt herself disconnecting from her body, her voice turning low and cold. “I’ll stop when you let go of me.”
All the air went out of the room. Jay released his grip enough for her to rip away.
“What is it?”
“I want to go home.” Tears threatened to spill from Mia’s eyes as she hid halfway behind the corner of the wall.
“We’re not going home,” Jay said.
She ignored him. “Everything’s alright sweetie. We can leave tomorrow morning.”
“We are not going home,” Jay walked over to Mia. “We are spending the week on the lake as planned, and everyone is going to have a good time.”
Mia looked between her parents, confused and scared.
“Why don’t you go start packing up your things and getting ready for bed?”
“Do not pack your things,” Jay seethed. “Your mother had a little too much wine tonight and is confused. We are all just going to get ready for bed, and then start a new day tomorrow. On. The. Lake.”
Mia shied away from Jay as he knelt down to brush a stray hair from her forehead.
His eyes ripped to his wife’s ashen face. “Now you’ve taught them to be scared of me?”
“You did that all on your own.”
“So I’m not allowed to touch my wife or my children?”
“Mia, just go get ready for bed with Sophie.”
Mia hesitated, looking into her mother’s eyes.
“Now.” She jerked her head.
Mia turned quickly, back into the safety of the small bedroom.
She tried to ignore the look on Jay’s face, the sympathy that threatened to bloom inside her chest for him.
“I’m going to bed.” Was all he said, as he turned away, defeated, retreating toward their tiny bedroom on the boat.
Her feet remained planted.
“Are you coming?”
“I need to finish the dishes.”
~ ~ ~
The wind was cold as it brushed ripples across the dark water. Undistinguishable, was the separation between horizon and water in the blackness that engulfed everything.
She sagged against the railing.
She could jump over. What would it feel like to plunge into the frigid water? To have her body found a week later? If it was found? Lapping against the shore. Bloated and discolored.
She could almost feel the frigid, black waves and icy water rushing down her throat. Filling her lungs.
“You’re still up?”
She started at the sound of his voice.
“Didn’t mean to scare you.”
She turned back out toward the water. “We need to talk.”
“I know. I’m sorry—”
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“I thought you said you wanted to talk.”
She let out a long sigh. “I want a divorce.”
“Look, I know we’ve been having issues. I know I’ve been going through a lot lately and it’s not easy being with me. But I’ve been working really hard on my anger and the issues with my dad—”
“I want a divorce.”
There was a long silence that wrapped around them. She could feel his eyes boring into her back, hear his breathing hitch as he battled with himself to remain in control.
“We’re not getting a divorce,” he said.
She turned to leave, wanting to be anywhere he wasn’t.
He grabbed her, threatening to bend her over the railing into the deep water below. “You think this is something only you get to decide?”
“Let go of me!”
“We are not getting a divorce!”
She refused to let any fear seep into her eyes, keeping her expression blank as she shoved him back. He was so much stronger than her though, so much bigger.
“Yes Jay, we are.”
~ ~ ~
Kristy struggled to stand, pulling herself up with the railing of the balcony. The world swayed around her as she stood and touched her forehead. Her fingers came away slick with blood.
Jay. Where was Jay?
She leaned over the railing, searching the water below. There was only darkness. It had happened so quickly, she almost couldn’t be sure he’d really— but he had. She stumbled across the deck, reaching for the life-ring and struggling to untangle the rope, when she heard him somewhere in the distance.
“Help, help me!” he choked, the freezing water taking his breath away.
She imagined him fighting against the numbness and tingling, the tightening of his lungs desperate for air. Would he be able to see the vague figure of the boat, visible against the night? There was a ladder on the back deck. He could swim to it. But would he remember it? She knew his body would be slowing, the water chilling him inside and out.
“Come on, come on,” she begged. Her shaking fingers ripped frantically at the ropes holding the raft to the railing. Knowing how cold the water was; there wasn’t much time.
Finally, she got it free, falling back from the force. She tried to stand but failed. Her head pounded, her vision fading in and out.
“Kristy, please!” he called, “I’m sorry!”
She imagined he was sorry as she crawled her way over to the other side of the deck where he’d fallen. Regret and fear were probably racing through his mind, knowing he had come outside to apologize but instead, had let the words die on his tongue. Their last moments together spent fighting, him hurting her—
Had he even kissed Sophie or Mia goodnight?
“Where are you?” she yelled.
She waited but heard no response. The night grew eerily quiet beside the pounding pulse in her ears.
“Jay!” she called.
She couldn’t tell where his voice was coming from so she threw the raft overboard, praying it’d find him.
Waiting for a tug on the rope, or a sign of movement, she called again. “Jay!”
There was no response.
She reeled in the raft and threw it over again in a different direction. And again, farther than before. How long had it been since he fell? She should jump in, find him. Save him. She raced down the deck stairs around to the back of the boat, but a wave of nausea ripped through her. She covered her hand over her mouth, the world spinning, as she lowered herself to the ground. Leaning against the railing, she gasped for air.
Then it dawned on her. He’d almost killed her. She’d probably be dead if he hadn’t fallen into the water. And the water—it was too cold. It had already been too long, and she knew. The chances of finding him in the darkness…
As the wave of nausea subsided, she slowed her breathing, shaking away the adrenaline coursing through her veins. She looked up into the night sky scattered with twinkling stars.
The sky was beautiful. Her breath echoed in her ears, sending puffs of mist into the cool night.
She didn’t know how long she’d sat there. Didn’t remember when she’d started to shiver, or when her cracked lips had faded to blue. When she’d slowly made her way to her feet, her body groaning in pain as she walked over the deck, the boards creaking beneath her feet. She didn’t remember slipping through the sliding door into the warmth of the boat’s interior. Then washing up in the bathroom and bandaging the gash on her head the best she could, knowing it probably needed stitches.
What she also didn’t remember, or maybe what she chose not to remember, was the feeling of relief that flooded through her as she lay down in bed that night, the side where Jay should be, empty.
~ ~ ~
Sun crept in behind the closed blinds of the small bedroom window the next morning. Kristy opened her eyes. Her head throbbed as she listened to the faint sound of water lapping against the boat.
She brushed her fingers over her bandaged forehead. It was tender. She knew the girls would ask about it, about Jay. But she would not cry. She knew her story, had gone over it a million times last night before she’d fallen asleep.
Taking her time, she got up, reveling in the silence and peace. She knew it might not last for long, but stepping out into the living area of the boat, she didn’t care.
Mia and Sophia were waiting at the table.
“Morning girls,” she said. She bent down to kiss them each on the forehead.
“Are we going home?” Sophia asked.
“Yes, sweet. We are.”
“Mmhm,” She shook her head yes and grabbed three bowls for them, filling each with cereal and milk.
“W-where’s dad?” Mia asked.
“He had to leave early,” she said, quietly humming to herself. “He left early.”
Kristy looked out across the water through the kitchen window of the boat. The sandstone mountains, that had seemed like a cage before, glittered in the sunlight. Their vibrant hues of clay splashed across the inky, black water, covering the darkness with light.
Emily Newsome is an emerging writer living in Upstate New York, currently pursuing an Associate Degree in Creative Writing at Monroe Community College. Following this, she plans to obtain her Bachelor’s degree. Her work has been published in MCC’s literary magazine: Cabbages and Kings, and she was a winner of The Sixth Act’s Annual Student Playwriting Competition in 2020. She loves reading and writing in all forms and genres, and cannot wait to share her work with the world.