Eighth Annual Popular Fiction Awards Romance Winner: "Nightswimming"

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“Nightswimming,” by Mary Pat Bielecki, is the First Place winning story in the romance category for the Eighth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with Grand Prize winner Sandra Anthony and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. And click here for more information about entering the Ninth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.

In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Mary’s winning entry.

by Mary Pat Bielecki

The kids were sleeping like rocks after a long day of playing in the dunes. I crept across the living room--silly that I could not seem to stop feeling sneaky though no one knew my presence--and watched him try to read a book. A heavy political hardcover--not his genre. He did not mean to concentrate. He was creating an excuse to daydream.

I watched his weathered fingers slide up and down the dust jacket’s edge, his eyes not really focusing as they slid along the page in front of him. I sank down on the soft sofa next to him and reached to stroke the back of his hand.

He leaned his head back on the couch and closed his eyes. The house was silent, and outside the only sounds were crickets and the waves down below us. Everything but the lake was still, and I could smell the heavy humidity. Had I been alive, my hair would have been wild and frizzy and he would have laughed. He would have called me “Fluffernutter.”

“Right,” he said suddenly. His feet were propped up on the coffee table; he dropped them to the floor and stood. He tucked the book jacket to mark his page (like he would ever pick it up and actually read it) and moved to the bedroom for a moment.

I sucked in the air unnecessarily. He hadn’t done it since I’d been gone--could he do it without me? It was our favorite thing. He emerged from the bedroom then holding a fluffy yellow towel. He unplugged the baby monitor. He was going to do it without me.

I didn’t follow him immediately. I watched out the window as he knocked on the neighbor’s door. I couldn’t hear him from here, but his voice was in my head, asking the same favor we’d asked since we first moved in.

“Would you mind listening for the kids?” Of course they would say yes. They were older, our parents’ age, and stayed up late watching television at night. They never minded.

Only when he started for the stairs did I follow him, the sand puffing out under his heavy footsteps. It sprayed my ankles but did not tickle. My own feet left no trace behind them.

He didn’t hurry. When we went together, he would race me down the creaky old stairs onto the beach, holding his arms out to keep me from passing him. As if I might be able to keep up.

Now he took the stairs slowly, like he was remembering, too. I liked that, it made me feel less lonely. I smiled at him, but caught myself. He wouldn’t turn and smile back, and I didn’t want to feel disappointed. I didn’t want to spoil this.

He moved to the side where the brush was knee high. He dropped his clothes in a heap without fanfare. Before, we had chased each other, trying to rip the clothes from each other’s body. Our clothes would have been strewn across the sand all the way to the water, gleaming in the moonlight.

It was such a perfect night. I put my feet in the prints he left in the sand, imagining myself trying to keep stride with him like I used to. “Hey, wait!” I’d yell. He’d turn around, mischief in his eyes. “How ‘bout I come get you?” he’d growl, and I would shriek. He’d chase me all the way to the water’s edge.

My eyes felt so dry. Would this stinging never go away? If only I could cry. His toes were being lapped by the tiny waves now. The water was black

and inky, but in daylight it would have looked soft and silky, no edgy ripples because there was no movement in the air. Just him.

“I feel you,” he said out loud now.

I thought my chest would explode from the ache. He stretched his arms out to the sides, palms up, like I was the air and he was touching me. I closed my eyes and opened them again.

“I’m here,” I said uselessly.

He turned then, like he had heard me. I wiped away tears that weren’t there and straightened up. Could he see me, really? I missed him so much, the way it felt to have him really look at me, so I felt like all my insides were my outsides. Did I look beautiful in death? Did I match the darkness of the night, or the eerie glow of the moon? Would he reach for me, and feel me finally?

His eyes focused instead on the glowing house above us on the cliff. He had heard something. Was it the children? But no. I always heard them, no matter where I was. They slept now.

Maybe he had heard me, but it didn’t matter. He turned back to the lake and breathed it in, his favorite smell in the world. “Besides you,” he’d say, smiling out from under his long eyelashes. Shy, even after we were married for as long as we were. Friends and lovers for a lifetime, and still shy. I bit my lip and smiled. We were special. That was why I got to be here now.

“Dare me to go first?” he said then. I moved to be next to him. I put my hand behind the small of his back, imagining laughlessly what might have happened if I tried to push him. Most likely nothing. I dropped my arms at my sides and only watched him.

He hesitated so long, I wasn’t sure why. “Go, you ‘fraidy cat!” I hissed in his ear. He grinned.

“Who’s afraid?” he whispered. He let the water come up to his waist. I was beside him, not making a ripple. I looked down. My clothes were gone. I was as naked as he was, though my skin appeared dry. His had a slight sheen, partially from the humidity and then at his navel, where the water bumped him.

“On the count of three?” he asked. “One,” I said.

He breathed, his eyes closed. “Two.”

“Three,” I whispered now. He dove forward and was swallowed up by the darkness.

I had always cursed this moment. Too chicken, I never dove with him into the chilly water on the first count. He always had to give me a redo afterward, which usually resulted in being dunked. But the moment he dove was always more fearsome to me than the chill of water. He knew it bothered me, how long he stayed under, swimming until what seemed like forever. I always waited for his head to poke out from the inky blanket, so I could hear his gasp of breath and know he was all right.

But tonight was different. Selfishly, my arms around myself, I felt a rush of hope that maybe he would stay under. Maybe he wouldn’t come up in time, and I wouldn’t be alone anymore.

His head broke the surface and I felt guilty. How could I have wished that? I didn’t want my children alone, without him. I ran my teeth over my bottom lip again, praying no one had heard my egocentric pining.

“Where’s my girl?” he shouted out into the night. He whirled around to face me, some hundred feet away. He was grinning, his teeth glistening and his hair making drippy splatters in the softness around him.

“Hiding,” I said.

The water wasn’t cold for me tonight, however. I let myself sink in, knowing it hit me as the same temperature as the rest of me, whatever that was. I pushed off the sandy bottom and glided toward him. How strange to have my hair be underwater but still dry.

I glided until I bumped into his back, and I boldly wrapped my arms around him. My fingertips barely reached across the breadth of his torso, and I could not feel his warm wet skin against my own. But I had his nearness, his scent. His hair dripped on my face and the water ran down my neck.

“I feel you,” he said again, and he moved. He laid his hand on my forearm.

He could feel me! The rush I felt then was enormous, so much bigger than I was, or than any of this was. He could feel me! I squeezed him tighter, and watched his muscles cave against my unseen strength.

“I’ve missed you,” he whispered. His voice sounded thick, and I realized he was trying not to cry. His chest trembled. I held on.

“I miss you so much,” I said, laying my face in the curve between his shoulders. “It hurts so much, everywhere. All over.”

“I won’t move,” he said. “Because if I do, you might leave.” He choked then, holding in a sob.

“I can’t leave you,” I said. I could hear tears in my voice though I had none. My shoulders shook and I threw my face heavenward. Couldn’t I just cry this once? What a relief it would be!

“Don’t leave,” he said. Then, “Follow me.”

He could feel me, could he hear me? Not really. It would be too much to ask. I sighed, an empty songlike sound in the night. It would have to be enough.

He pulled away from me then, and dove in again. He meant for me to follow, and I did. He surfaced facing me, his arms wide open. I swam into them, and they wrapped around me.

“How is this possible?” he asked, his eyes closed. I buried my face in his neck, dug my fingers into his hair.

“I love you Angelina!” he said into the night. He could not see me, I knew. “They think I’m crazy! They all think I’m crazy! That I can’t feel you. But I do now!” His tears strangled his voice then, and I held him desperately against my naked body.

“I love you,” I whispered. “I love you I love you I love you…”

And we floated then. To anyone that night, it would have been a strange sight. A man, crying in the blackness, his arms wrapped around empty water as a smile settled on his face amidst his tears.

Adam, Adam, Adam. I love you so.

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