Mount Helena

Emily Lundin

Illustration by Hugo Muecke

Doreen yawned. Into her pillow she mumbled, "This is the best sex of my life."

James, Doreen's capable lover and husband, still held her raised hips. Their bodies were covered in sweat. Mississippi sunlight gave shape to their bedroom. It hit the studs and shot grids across the floor. Restoration of their antebellum home was taking its sweet old time. The entire second story was only pine under-flooring marked with studs into empty squares. Without plaster or drywall, the upstairs was hot, available, victimized. That sun split Doreen's back into two states: lit Louisiana and shady Mississippi. His inscrutable bride. James tried not to think she smelled like the exposed wood of those studs or that she'd brought him all the way here from Atlanta for this, to do just this. She smelled like wood, cracked open and bleeding, if wood could bleed. If he'd told her, she'd call it with authority, woodblood. There was no point in telling her. He pushed her hips away and collapsed. His body echoed fireworks. "I love you, Baby."

Afterwards, they resumed recreational yard work even though it was a Monday. From the distance of their house, they oversaw the workers working unrecreationally, moving like nutrients down the rigid arteries of cotton. Doreen and James Sudduth were planters.

Their silver box terrier, Missy, made her way around the yard marking upturned dirt. An internal pissing compass stopped her near every other column along the front porch; she lifted her leg like a male dog and released at most a squirt.

Her urinary obsession wasn't the fault of the house. Stately and white, Mount Helena shone a half mile from the Delta's Highway 61, a four-story glare from the winding road on the way up from Vicksburg, or a bloated surprise coming down from Greenville. Built on a Choctaw burial mound, the house looked a bit like it was taking off. Doreen had told James not to worry, and to please live there with her and work Helena back to her glory because they weren't having a time on top of corpses, but probably just on top of pottery and arrows and goodies and such—a ceremonial mound, not a cemetery. The idea that Missy was responding to some unsettled spirits with her urination all over the property was preposterous to Doreen.

"Be reasonable. She's got a bladder problem is all. Happens to the best of us, toot la moaned."

James heard something new and old in his wife's voice. Was she mocking his Berlitz tapes?

They'd met at an Episcopalian investor's group at St. Luke's in Atlanta. They were forty-five, independent and childless. She'd been visiting her aunt in Atlanta and spilling vulgarities like kindness. Just after they met, she was asked by Mrs. Meade, able investor and elderly red-head, to leave the group because of her rancid sense of humor. Doreen had been waiting for a man to make her want to stop laughing. James enjoyed the hell out of sex and was otherwise quiet, with modest, transitory projects related to investing and reading. He'd memorized poems and passages enough to fill whole evenings with women (whose company he preferred) and float him from one bedroom to the next. A few asked why he didn't write himself, but James could find no reason to bother with an activity that, after much effort and heartache, would simply give him what he already had—that is, until he met Du, who had a way of turning good sense upside down. Within a year, they moved to Rolling Fork to look after the Sudduth legacy, Mount Helena.

"Not sudden like this, and not in such little pees," he insisted. "It's weird,"

Their cat, Frissie, deliberated around the boxwoods along the sidewalk, then sprayed.

Doreen wiped sweat from her eye and slapped what she thought was a mosquito off her calf. "Now her too? Shit."

"Du, that wasn't no bug, that's Frissie skedaddling behind you," said James.

The cat screeched like a tormented infant and kicked up dirt as she ran off.

"Bloodcurdling," mumbled Doreen. She balanced a young pine into its hole.

"I'm lucky to live with you here, Du," offered James. Mount Helena hadn't been lived in for nearly sixty years, which made it hardly livable, riddled with cracks, graffiti, and small wild animals.

While James called their meeting Fate, Doreen nodded and silently attributed it to nothing more than her need for a husband, and his appearance. She found the South too small to be anything other than a family with some parts forgotten, then recalled, depending on necessity. He still didn't think of himself as a Sudduth, but took the name at her request, an acceptance of the baggage they both brought to their marriage. This was how Doreen explained it, and although he disagreed, his leaden desire for her shut him up. He had one wife after college who left him promptly when he read novels all day instead of getting a job. She kept his last name somewhere: Jones. Doreen said James Jones was the name of a "not that good writer" who wrote about The Second World War. He didn't care; James Jones had done right by him thus far. But not really. For example, it hadn't won him Du, and if he had to lose the name to get her, then fuck it. She had this empty house from a dead grandfather she called Diddie, and family money, like him, and lovers from all over the world, unlike him. He'd only wanted to travel to those faraway places anyway to have an affair with someone like Du. Her good posture and her mystery made him want her every day. Since fucking her felt like such triumph, he could afford to lose Jones.

From the porch he watched her pick at the dirt. Heat gripped the late-August afternoon. Swarms of mosquitoes would arrive shortly for their routine gluttony. They're bloodthirsty, he thought. His wife dug at the earth with a soupspoon (une cuillère: feminine), squatting on her bare feet even though she'd been the one to warn about the invisible broken glass left by the workers. He stared at the rounded points her ass made in this position, taut within her Bermuda shorts. Doreen was a beautiful woman in pieces.

Sixty feet above her five thousand acres of cotton, this ground was turf-like and tough. She banged her spoon down in Neanderthal jabs. She didn't need help. From the edge of the front porch, between two columns, he announced quietly, "I'm going upstairs for a nap."

The porch's flaking paint crackled grain-like as he walked away. The sound made her sad. Her pet phrase surfaced like a belch, I relinquish thee. She was unsure of her ability to love as defined by people or the dictionary. He always naps after afternoon sex. Animals, she started to think, but returned to the ground.

That night, Frissie didn't show up for her dinner. Doreen wasn't worried. "I love Frissie, but she could get lost, or even get hit by some crazy driver, and I would keep loving her and not be sad, not grief-stricken. That's the goal. That's what's good about me. Free to be free." She smoothed her hair behind her ear. It was still wet from their shared shower. Candlelight bounced off the copper counter and drowned the scene in the rusted orange of lakewater in sunlight.

His wife's arm transported food in efficient movements to her heart-shaped mouth. James wanted to lick that mouth: open, closed, chewing, still. He needed the unfailing bump of her ass, the reassuring arrogance of her unencumbered life and her rare, shard-like laughter that unpeeled him with a thrill.

"You look so pretty, all golden in this light. Vous êtes belle."

"Thank you. Did you even hear me?"

Grimacing with hunger, Missy jumped up and smeared dirt on James' tennis shorts. He gave her a chunk of cheese and pushed her away, but she returned her muzzle on his foot. When he shoved her again, she walked to the center of the wide-open room and turned four circles before settling down, resting her face on her paws. Faint reaches of the light turned her into a loose silhouette, black and unquiet.

A breeze neither of them could feel moved the translucent curtain, revealing then concealing the cotton field and the crowd of trees along the creek. The burnt sky replaced itself with paling yellows. James was glad he'd put a temporary layer of white on the dry wall. It still caught the sun at nine o'clock, making shadows before everything became shadow.

Just before moving in a year ago, they'd pulled off the warped and moldy walls from their studs and pushed the trash into piles at the center of every room. He mused, Our walls are fresh and new. She would have left the paint job for later, the end. The end sure is taking its sweet old time.

"It'll be getting dark sooner, you know," he said with his mouth full of salad.

"It's getting dark now."

He placed his fork down and put the white linen napkin on his plate. Balsamic vinaigrette bled across it.

Doreen cringed.

"We're still going to have to look for her, Du."

She wedged her folded napkin under the edge of her plate. "Frissie will return if she fancies a homecoming."

After dinner, James smoked cigarettes on the back steps. His eyes adjusted to the night.

"Where is Frissie, Miz Missy?" he asked. "You hiding her? She got sucked down with the Choctaws?" Missy wagged her tail and licked his calf. She stood next to her master waiting for something, panting, then not. Nothing moved. The panorama solidified the way it did every night—fields, gravel, silt, unblossomed cotton plants, trees, and human absence. Cicadas screamed then mysteriously refrained from screaming, and he remembered that sound travels in waves through distance, and time? "Le temps," recited the Berlitz woman seductively, means season and temperature. He was appreciative of the Milky Way that looked like breath on a cold day. There's a Space-Time Continuum, he knew, because Doreen had read him an article about it in bed one Sunday as he stroked the tiny hairs on the thigh she'd laid across his belly.

"What the shit is a Space-Time Continuum?" he asked the night, annoyed. Missy began a growl, abandoned it to a gurgle.

"What?" called Doreen from the kitchen. The rush of the kitchen sink shut off.

"Nothing," he said, knowing she'd recognize those familiar syllables even if she didn't hear the word. The watery music of dishwashing recommenced.

He had no idea what the space-time continuum was—then or now, and it felt like a failure, and not even a significant one. He wanted to wonder more about distance and time, but the chardonnay on the rocks was sipping his desire into a pleasant complacency. Night.

Doreen's hands became tender and wrinkled in the running water. Outside was erased through the kitchen window they'd cut themselves above the stainless steel sink. Every dish had a problem and she was its solution. Suspended on the drying rack, the Tower Spode china was regal, Nordic. People used it in Copenhagen or Denmark—those are the same, one in the other, Dumbo Du. She felt the effects of the white wine over ice. So drinkable, so summery. This is everything: the water stroking my hands, the un-want, the glasses releasing water beneath themselves, the change from sullied to clean, chaos to order. She didn't want this to end. It won't. I've got my house. We've got it. She threw James's stained linen napkin away and flushed with pride at the extravagance. This plantation's a project, not a luxury. It's so odd that my mouth is shut tight and I'm thinking so many things. Everything else could fall away, just like I told him at dinner. Maybe Frissie's in the cotton now, rubbing stalks as if they're my legs. Maybe she's run away. Maybe there's nothing buried under this house: no cats, quaint pottery or people.

She rubbed her palms on a stiff handtowel, lotioned her hands, and shook them in front of her face to dry. She closed her eyes against the blur. Her hands smelled like pond water. She dared herself to glance at them, her hands: wrinkled, cold, and throbbing with life.

"Let's go to bed." She raised her voice, "Take me up to bed."

"Yup." There he was, already beside her. He extinguished his cigarette with a hiss in the sink. Missy whined.

"Can she stay downstairs tonight?"

"Whatever the Missus wants, the Missus gets."

"I'm serious."

"Yup." James placed his fingers lightly on her waist. She squeezed them as if they were handtowels too and could dry her off for good.

As they mounted the narrow servant's staircase, his arms sheathed her torso. "Baby, the floor guys called and said they'd be here any day now."

"After that, Missy won't be allowed back inside with those long toe-nails," she declared.

The next morning they drove to the grocery store in Anguilla to purchase a couple of runty pine trees for the other side of the lawn. Du put out food for Frissie and called for her once. James tried too. But nothing, no cat.

As usual, Doreen drove their stationwagon. They sunk down the driveway, below the house. Missy ran after them.

"See her?" asked Du. "That's when I love her best. She's got a goal. She's going from point A to point B. It's beautiful." The dog's nose led the way, turned up and focused on catching them.

James lifted the straw hat off his wife's head, sniffed the rim, and spoke through the hat's bowl: "She's cute when she runs."

She meant to highlight the dog's admirable sense of purpose and direction, but she decided not to press the point when Missy stopped, jerked to a new purpose by a phantom scent.

Sunlight stripped the dirt of its terra-cotta color. Some worker had been wise enough to zig zag the crop road to facilitate drainage. But it was dangerous to drive fast: with high cotton like this, a person could jump out in front of them and die. As could a small animal. His wife refused advice on how to do anything at Mount Helena, so he let her do her thing. It made him angry, although he'd never admit it aloud—that'd be more than she could handle, losing her cat and fan base in the same week. He lifted her hat again: garlic. You are what you eat.

Hot air slapped them in the car, though not a leaf twitched. Cicadas screamed.

There was an unfathomable number of people on the roads, walking and riding bicycles. James wasn't accustomed to the poverty and seasonal labor of the Delta, which looked to him like leisure and a piss-poor work ethic. Despite his own lack of employment, he always kept busy. His latest project was the Berlitz French because he wanted to make love to his wife leaning over a wrought iron balcony in Paris. These people aren't thinking about Paris, he thought. They can't even find it on a map.

Chunky greens dominated the landscape. Although the horizon was low—they were below sea level—the sky was shrunken with bilious clouds.

Every black person they passed nodded.

James waved cheerfully. "It's nice how courteous they are, real polite and well-mannered."

"I'm running the only real outfit around." Doreen was Sharkey County's patriarch. "They know not to shit where they eat." She turned the wheel with both hands, her legs spread as if in childbirth.

"I guess."

"It's your first season. Soon it'll be older'n Jesus' nut sack, and you won't even notice anymore."

He chirped a laugh. His wife's thighs were sweaty through her thin patterned skirt. He stretched his hand over one; it was surprisingly cool. Would her humor return for good and erase him? This thought made him tired. She closed her thighs on his hand and squeezed.

On the way home, they discussed Jerry Keith, how they'd never seen him out of that metal stool by the front door, so much that his backside dripped down around it.

"Most things don't change," declared James. It wasn't pre-destination or God he believed in, although he didn't not believe in them either. More like a shape. "Things just take a shape." Only after his wife said she didn't understand what he was getting at did he realize that Du was actually the opposite of a shape. Like a spilt glass of something.

They planted the pines with extreme care. She imagined them as trapped birds buried up to their knees. He joked about the trees predictably as their adopted children, chatting that they'd become addicted to video games and potato in chips, since their parents were too busy fucking—ha!—until Doreen spoke up. "Wait a week. If the cat doesn't come back, we'll look for her, like good parents."

"She's been gone three days."

"Two. I pay guys to be out there, looking after things." She managed her workers fine, although sometimes when they garbled on about leaf spans and weather, she imagined how one might summarize her, and if his lips would be relaxed when he did. "Look, I'll get Donny's help, and we'll comb my whole property for her if that'll make you happy."

"Our—" He rubbed his chin and stood up. He was no longer amused by their adopted, buried alive bird-child.

"Our property, James. We'll go out together looking for her. Forget Donny."

The cat didn't come back that day or the next, and the dog's pissing project progressed methodically down the mound. They drank iced tea on the porch swing and watched Missy's slow project on the green, a one-dog golfing tournament. "You think she'll be sweet enough to quit it before getting to the crop, or you reckon she'll mark that hers too?"

"Are you blaming me?" Missy was his dog. "Doreen?"

"No!" She handed him her glass and went inside.

Drama queen.

That night in bed, he figured Doreen didn't deserve to hear him say that he missed Frissie snuggling on the pillow above their heads. She had her feelings, and he had his. No need to force them to commune.

A rapprochement occurred on Thursday that involved only the idea of one, James Sudduth. His wife was speaking with the workers laying the original boards on the first floor. He heard them through a would-be air conditioning vent in the bedroom while studying French.

"We got to get them all down and let them settle before taking a break," she cautioned. Bo headed up their crew, creating a hierarchy Doreen didn't like. She preferred being construction coordinator, contractor, and client. "I don't want to see one nail—nothing but these boards expanding back into each other. If you lay them all at the same time, they'll set perfect."

"No, Ma'am, we going to lay these boards here first. Don't matter when we break, seeing as they been out settling into themselves in that barn long enough. They solid: been there, done that." Doreen left. When she returned, she carried a tray of iced tea for all the workers. They thanked her in turn and quieted in honor of the cool drink and the nice woman's effort. James overheard the tinkling bells of ice in tall glasses.

"So I just talked to Mr. Sudduth on his cell phone?"

James perked up at what he knew he was supposed to recognize as his own name.

"He's in the field and can't get back to discuss it, but said if he comes back and they're not all laid the way he told me to tell y'all, he was gonna make sure I understood it was my fault."

He felt seasick, at once emasculated and reinforced in his titular role at Mount Helena. Abusive in spirit. Productive in name alone.

At dinner, he didn't tell his wife what he'd heard through the floor. Instead he watched her chew her steak with stoic ferocity, quite the opposite of her, I relinquish thee. Try, I swallow thee. "The floors look beautiful, Doreen. You must feel good."

"Don't you?" she asked from behind her hand.

"I'd like to see Frissie running across them. That'd make me happy."

"Oh, my. You know sometimes, you sound like a wo—" She stopped herself. He let her. It was already ten o'clock by then; their dinner schedule had been delayed from all the work on the floors. The kitchen felt tighter. This wood had been in storage for so long, it housed a whole smell, confident and unflinching.

James awoke abruptly at three a.m. to a scraping noise. Mom's emphysema. He turned to Doreen. He placed his hand on her rib cage; it rose and fell with slow but perceptible progress. He whispered, "Missy?" but knew the dog was safely trapped in the library. He placed his hands on his own chest and felt his heart, rushing as if to meet someone. Bugs hummed rhythmically and in unison. But no scraping. No cat.

The sound James heard was from a dream, and the memory of its source clicked into place. It was a French word repeated over and over: cacahuettes—peanuts. In the dream, the word wore a formal woman's hat with a long feather of razors, iridescent in a sunset. That's all he could remember. When he saw the chapeau-ed word, he felt like he'd accidentally seen Frissie and wasn't supposed to. That feeling was what woke him up, or that sound, either one. Cacahuette scratched faintly above their heads somewhere, limping across the ceiling of a part of his mind that was walking away. That was all he could remember.

"Tomorrow," he said, "we're going to look for her in the fields. We'll go together."

"I'm sleeping." She kicked his calf with her heel.

While the floor guys were on their lunch break the next day, James and Doreen descended from the mound on foot. Men tended the fields, disappearing, then reappearing above the four and five feet high stalks like black buoys. Some wore baseball caps. Doreen wore her worn-limp sunhat and old Keds, knowing they would likely become stuck in the moist soil even though there'd been no rain for an anxiety-producing two weeks. She revealed her slim thighs in cut off jean shorts. James wore Birkenstocks and swim trunks. Their expressions were grim, harried. By all appearances, they were vacationers, on a safari.

He still couldn't get over the impressive order of the fields. Du complained about crabgrasses appearing in the undulating rows. They were invisible to James. She wanted to oversee the flooring, but wanted also to prove to James that there was no cat, that they'd find nothing out here, nothing that wasn't already clear as day from up at the house. If she succeeded, he'd be quiet and leave her to grind her teeth and do it alone, everything—cat, cotton, Helena.

"I'm getting eaten alive, Du." He swatted at his arms and legs as they tramped onward with marching strides, four narrow rows apart.

"That's what happens when you don't put on Skin So Soft."

"It stinks. Frissie! Frissie!" This was the worst hour for them to be out near the earth and under the sun. He'd wanted to wait until later in the day, but she'd insisted. He figured it was to spite him, or to spite the cat—to spite something.

"Frissie!" Doreen didn't call.

They walked fast. Out in the cotton, Mount Helena's perch seemed more precarious, as if the earth had blistered where the building sat, and might pop, crashing the white plantation into the sea of cotton.

"It feels like we're swimming." James rubbed sweat and sunblock from his eyes. He squinted as he walked to keep them from burning too much. He didn't notice that his wife had stopped some bit back.

"Come here, little kitty!" he called.

"James, look at this. Now, hurry." She stared down at her feet, at something hidden behind the crop's thick leaves.

"Can't you just tell me what it is?"

"A dead rabbit. And a hundred yards back, there's a dead squirrel." Curled into a fetal position as if held in an invisible hand, the rabbit hadn't been noticeably attacked by a predator. Its khaki fur poked out in different directions. Its eyes were closed.

James bobbed sluggish and thirsty toward her. "I been telling you, Du: something weird's going on."

She looked up, shaking her head with a mechanical jerk and hissed, "Why are my men leaving? It ain't raining. The sky couldn't be clearer."

"The floor guys?"

"The field hands. My pickers." Her jaw tightened. "I may be a woman, but I pay those ingrates a competitive wage, and—"

The men hurried out of the fields as if called by a siren or pulled by a magnetic force down the tight green aisles toward the loose sand of the plantation's exit roads.

"Hold your horses, Du. You don't know."

"Like shit I don't."

Something above them buzzed.

The attack was violent and swift. The crop duster descended severely. Doreen and James both yelled, "Down!" James tried to cover his wife, but didn't reach her in time. They stumbled over the stiff plants. She choked and coughed, as did he. They inhaled everything. Pesticide entered the leaves and silt. And their lungs. Groping toward one another, they tried to flee through the cotton, but were getting nowhere. Their progress only brought them closer to the duster's next path. So they turned down an aisle and submitted to the order of the plantation, its decreed avenues of work and escape. They ran, asphyxiating and burning under the one o'clock sun. In the distance, the yelling workers sounded like children playing. Groping up the backside of the mound, every advance was met with a slide, cuts, and finally the grip of the floor guys, pulling them up, holding them too firmly in frustration at their flailing bodies.

Bo held Doreen like a baby and ordered, "Will, get those cans of tomato juice and fill up that tub upstairs for Miss Sudduth. Mist' James, you gonna have to bathe her quick."

James was thankful that Bo didn't inquire why they were in the fields when Carlton was scheduled to crop-dust. Every third Friday. Why had Du forgot?

Bo did say, "She might get real sick, cause she's little, and a woman," as if James had forgotten her, her shape and sex—his own wife. "You go in after her. She's gonna be all out of sorts. Don't sniff that stuff up close. Drink lots of water."

James asked Bo about the scientific basis of this solution.

"It's the acid, cleans good and gets rid of the stink. You want like a theory?"

"I believe you."

Bo said to call him in an emergency and then disappeared with the others.

The bath looked like blood. James had feared it might, but assumed he was being superstitious. It was stored at Mount Helena for years in case of accidents like this, or skunks.

Doreen disrobed on the floor. She considered the bath over the lip of the claw-footed tub and whimpered, "Do I have to?"

"Yes. I'll help you in." He lifted her shaking frame into the pulpy, red liquid. Someone had opened four extra cans, and they sat next to two glasses of water. He took off his clothes and knelt by his bathing love.

"It's gonna clean you. Drink this water. I'm gonna clean you. Doreen, ma belle." He sang as he spread juice on her arms, "...sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble, très bien ensemble."

She stared at the faucet and let him rub her.

James' own face and arms were burning. The pesticide pricked his skin. He believed that, worst-case scenario, this top layer of flesh will be my only loss, and I can take that.

"Raise up your body parts, one at a time," he commanded. She began with her right knee. He poured straight tomato juice on it. They repeated this with one hip then the other, her thighs up together and head sunk low, her lean arms, her hands with fingers splayed wide, her breasts, her neck, flushed from fear or reaction to the chemicals.

"Un petit mort, ma belle. Tout, tout petit."

She rolled over and presented her ass in a familiar pose. "Don't talk French, James. We can just pretend you know it, please."


She slid back in. The thick liquid lapped around her. "It's not your native tongue. Should I not touch my face? Only you can touch it." He poured tomato juice over her head, transforming her into the victim of a scalping.

"It isn't your language, Du, and you par-lay. Some of the Indians who lived and died right here spoke French."

She thrust up her belly and pelvis, eyes and mouth shut tight. He massaged her as if his hands were made of water. She descended. He wiped her eyes clean with a wet towel so she could open them.

"Do I have cuts on my back? It feels like there's cuts."

"No." He splashed her back and pressed it with his hands.

"See, James, we live in Rolling Fork, in cotton, on an Indian mound, so let's not worry over Français. Just say 'I relinquish thee.' Let it go."

"Shshsh, Sweetie. You need to hush." Her pet phrase reminded him of his last name, Jones, relinquished in Georgia. Did she ever think of that?

"My cheeks are burning. Are they red? They burn."

"Of course they're red." James plunged his hand into the last can of tomato juice. There's no Choctaw in here, he assured himself. He smeared the round nubs of her cheeks. "They're covered in tomato juice."

She told him that everything felt scraped off, gone.

"But everything's the same. I won't let nothing bad happen to you. Nothing."

He wiped the juice off freckles dropped like excess jewels from a pirate's pillage above her breasts. "Your freckles look like seeds. That's how I'd plant cotton. I'd make a mess out of it."

"I hate cotton."

"You love it." He cupped his hands full of the blood-colored solution and spilt it on her brown nipples. Her heart was close enough to take out and place on the mantle. Doreen's heart is safe inside her. Leave it.

"Frissie's gone." This was the first time she'd spoken the cat's name all day, and it made her tremble. Tears ploughed through the red in lines down her cheeks. "I can't tell if I've been sprayed into craziness, Baby, or if I'm really—" A watery strangle rose up her throat and spread her face open in anguish. "I'm sorry. The chemicals make me weird, so weird. I'm scared and I'm sorry."

"Say something in French. Something pretty. Say, 'I love you.'"

She went to whisper in his ear, but instead rested her tomato-mottled head against his cheek. Her mouth hung open while she cried. James' face lit in potential speech. His erection pressed against the cool of the metal tub.

She reached up and kissed his eye before he could close it. "I wish I could really kiss your eyeballs." She hiccupped through her tears, "The things you see, that you see with. I'd be gentle, J. I swear it. I swear to fucking God."

James eased into the solution behind his wife, overflowing a heavy splash of red juice onto the pine floor. Pipes gurgled and clanged. His body encased her in belonging.

"I know. And you'd miss me forever if I died, Du. You'd never get over it ever. Don't talk back."