This story is by Ann Fowler and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ryan pulled a tackle box and two pairs of waders from Dave’s Outback. He slammed its gate and turned to Dave. “I feel the fish biting already.” He swept back his hair and grinned. Short sleeves would be comfortable for now, but he’d take his jacket to wear closer to sunset. He set the waders, his jacket and the tackle box on their cooler. Dave fetched both poles and locked his SUV. He joined Ryan. “Glad you’re so positive. Plenty of times I’ve hooked nothing.” “Like catching ex-wives?” Ryan elbowed Dave. “Aren’t they a bunch of nothing?” “Hardly. Every month, they cost a lot more than nothing.” “No, that’s your kids.” Dave swept his arm toward the trail. “We didn’t come here to talk about my screwed up marriages, did we?” Ryan loved to tease, but he also knew when to stop. In high school, he’d learned to badger friends to the limit and back off. Made life more interesting. He patted his chest. “My wife was too happy to get rid of me today. Works both ways, pal.” “Maybe she’s got a new hobby or something,” Dave said. “You can do that without kids.” Ryan and his wife, Sarah, had decided not to adopt once doctors determined she couldn’t get pregnant. Being childfree was fine with him, but Sarah had never gotten over it. “Yeah, but we still spend money as fast as we make it.” Ryan pointed at the cooler. “C’mon, the trout are waiting.” Dave gripped one handle and Ryan held the other. They turned sideways at the trailhead and stepped between exposed roots and rocks. When both poles snagged an overhead branch, Dave shook them free. The pair walked in silence until they reached the riverbank. After they set down the cooler, Ryan extended a pair of waders at arm’s length. “Take the clean ones.” Dave laughed. “Like I care, pretty boy.” He grabbed the waders and set them down in the mud. He pointed. “They’re even dirtier now.” Instead of answering, Ryan opened the tackle box. He retrieved a few fishing flies and handed them to Dave. He slipped on the other pair of waders and tightened the straps. As Dave prepared their lines, Ryan settled on a nearby log. He gazed across the water, hypnotized by its swirling motion. Recent rains had the river flowing higher and faster than the last time he’d been here. Despite perceived risks, Ryan would never back out of a river outing. Besides, Sarah remarked yesterday that she needed space. There’d been more bickering than usual last week, but Ryan wasn’t worried—yet. Once they stood in the water, he’d ask Dave for marital advice. He didn’t want to become their neighborhood’s latest ex-husband. Dave looked up from the pole. “Ready, Freddie?” He held it out to Ryan, who thanked him. Ryan went to the riverbank and cast his line. Step by step, he moved between rock outcroppings into deeper, swirling water. As he reeled, Dave splashed behind him. Ryan gazed over his shoulder. “Easy now, you’ll scare them.” Dave stopped twenty feet from Ryan, still abreast of him. “Relax, I’ve fished before. Just not with waders.” “10-4.” Ryan adjusted his cap and stood with the sun at his back. He glanced at Dave. He didn’t move until they stood together in waist-deep water. “Even though we haven’t known each other that long, I need advice.” “About what?” “Me and Sarah. She’s gotten so distant. When I asked her why, she blew it off. Like she didn’t care or her mind’s made up about something.” Dave reeled in the slack. “All relationships go up and down.” “I know,” said Ryan. He rotated to his left. “But this is different. I don’t know what to do.” Dave laughed. “You’re asking a guy with three ex-wives?” The irony was inescapable, but confiding in a new neighbor might be the best way to hear a neutral opinion. Ryan wiped his forehead with his forearm. “Who’s more likely to help? A twenty-two year old or you?” Dave shrugged. “Don’t be shy about what you think.” Dave moved closer. “If you ask Sarah point blank, you’ll probably find out.” “Why? She said something to you?” Dave shrugged again. Ryan turned hard, splashing water. “What do you know about my wife?” “Not much. Not yet, anyway,” Dave said. “But she seems really cool.” With the lower half of his pole submerged, Ryan sloshed up to Dave. His cap fell in the water and he seized it. Ryan’s heart raced faster than the river’s swirling current. “Did she say something about me?” “Wait until we’re back on the bank.” “What do you know?” Dave hesitated and his forehead glistened. “Your wife told me you’re gone a lot.” He looked away and softened his tone. “A woman gets lonely. Especially one with no kids.” Ryan set his jaw for a moment. He knows something. His voice trembled. “Did you sleep with my wife?” He yanked Dave’s suspenders. “Answer me!” Dave shoved his arm away. “Hell, no, man.” He looked away. He pointed at the riverbank. “Let’s get back.” Ryan let go of Dave’s suspender and shoved his shoulder. He sloshed toward the riverbank. Turning, Ryan adjusted his cap as Dave struggled against the current. Dave slipped and released his pole. The top of his waders dipped below the river’s surface. He extended his right arm. “Help me. There’s too much water in my waders.” Ryan laughed. “You can swim, can’t you?” Dave dragged himself closer to the riverbank. “Not like this.” Eyes wide, his face flushed. “I didn’t touch her.” He fought to stay upright. “Man, help me!” Dave pulled one leg forward, wobbling. Ryan had seen fear like this twice before. When his nephew was learning to swim, everyone saw the boy’s terrified expression from the high dive. And he’d never forgotten the anxiety on Sarah’s face right before she bungee jumped at the New River Gorge. As for Dave, why not hear what he had to say? If his neighbor hadn’t betrayed him, Ryan would never forgive himself if he allowed him to drown. “Don’t move.” At the bank, Ryan found his jacket and slipped his arm through one sleeve. He approached Dave. “Grab the other. Like a rope.” He flipped the sleeve toward him. On the second try, Dave seized it. Ryan dug his feet into the muck and pulled. “Hang on. I got you.” As Dave moved closer, Ryan stepped backwards, nearer to the riverbank. “You really didn’t sleep with her?” Dave shook his head. “I swear I didn’t.” Ryan stopped pulling. “But you want to, right?” “Every guy wants to sleep with beautiful women.” With another yank, Dave stood beside him. Ryan helped him stay upright. “One more time, what did you say to her?” “My legs feel like rocks.” Dave sputtered and coughed. “And it’s not what you think.” Ryan pulled his arm out of the jacket. “I’ll bet.” Only one of Dave’s suspenders was fastened. The free one dangled. “Why should I believe you?” “Nothing’s happened.” Ryan raised an eyebrow. He trusted his wife, but life’s temptations dangled everywhere, like bright, colorful fishing lures. If Sarah recently hinted about new possibilities behind his back, Dave should’ve respected her marriage. It didn’t sound like Dave cared about boundaries. Since Sarah was the only family Ryan had, he needed to be vigilant, even protective. “I’ll make sure nothing ever does.” He pushed Dave backward, forcing him to wobble. Arms flailing, Dave cried out. He slipped and gulps of muddy water poured into his waders. “You’ll pay for this.” “For a drowning accident? What’s premeditated?” “They’ll figure it out.” Dave began dog paddling. His face was twisted and red. “For the love of God, help me!” He extended his hand. Ryan crossed his arms over his chest. “If they figure it out, a first degree death’s still better than Sarah running off with you.” Sputtering, Dave struggled to speak. “Nothing’s happened.” He spit water and screamed just before his head disappeared under the ripples. Ryan waited for Dave’s arm or head to surface. Instead, bubbles popped and the jacket spun downstream, bobbing like a raft. With a shiver, Ryan returned to the riverbank. He loosened his waders and sat down on the cooler. He found his Marlboros and lit one. As he exhaled a few smoke rings, realizing the Outback’s keys were in Dave’s pocket. But wouldn’t that make his story more believable? He stretched out his legs. A favorite scene from Deliverance prompted Ryan to smile. By the time the police arrived, fake tears and the best fish story ever would be ready. He’d worry about Sarah’s dallies later.