It was July, and Eli was eight weeks old. Shelly and Frank had moved to South Carolina a month before, finding positions at the same college. His was adjunct; hers was tenure track. Every morning since they’d arrived, she took her four-year-old Adam and baby Eli on a walk around the lake in the center of the neighborhood. She’d always lived in the South, but delighted in the maritime forest plants like loblolly pines, magnolias and palmettos, which were new to her. There was color everywhere.
Something about the forest and the new baby filled her mind with sex. She saw a vagina in every flower. The bright green ferns at the base of the American hollies unrolled and stretched like erections. She walked deeper into the woods, blushing, and remembered a boy from high school, her first stirrings of desire. She couldn’t remember his name, only that she’d never felt longing in her body before. In that room, on the boy’s futon, there had been so much possibility. She wasn’t yet locked in by the choices she’d made.
Halfway through their walks, Eli always needed to eat, and she nursed and walked at the same time so Adam didn’t get bored. Her triceps were sore from holding the baby, who weighed over ten pounds at birth. Now that he was large enough, she could strap him to her chest in a carrier and just pop out her boob. He usually fell asleep after nursing, a puddle of sweat where his cheek smashed against her, his hot breath releasing a soft tang. The walks were peaceful. They rarely saw another soul.
When they reached a certain spot where the lake met a creek and opened up, they saw an alligator, his snout and back poking out of the green water. Shelly didn’t mind the alligator. They rarely attacked and were often afraid of humans.
Adam stumbled. He sometimes became overzealous in his running, like a puppy, whose exuberance ended in a tumble. The boy—in blue shorts and shirt, locally grown written in cursive across the front—held a stick out. “I’m going to get it!” he said, baring his teeth and heading toward the water where the alligator floated.
The sun overhead was so bright it was bleak. Shelly’s armpits were slick. Behind the canvas carrier, Eli rooted for her breast. She reached for Adam’s hand to pull him to safety, trying to keep him on the path to put distance between him and the alligator.
He whined. “I hate alligators. I want to see a shark! Remember when the shark killed the alligator?”
“That was a crocodile,” she said, regretting she’d shown him the YouTube video: Who Would Win? Shark or Croc.
“He’s small,” Adam said, pointing. “Is he a baby like Eli?”
“I’m not sure. You know as much about alligators as I do.”
She tried to remember the boy on the futon. Was it Eric? She’d never been to a house like his before. They had a monkey they kept caged in the den. It was her first realization that families could have different tastes and values.
In some places the trail was exposed, and in some, forested. They entered a shaded section where the soil beneath them was a mix of sand and dark organic matter. She couldn’t walk this trail without thinking of all that had died in the world. She wondered if she’d always be morbid now that she’d lost her father the year before from a heart attack. Since then, she couldn’t walk anywhere without thinking of her life as a trail of dead things under foot—flakes of skin, dried up animal feces, trampled leaves, the seconds passing by on a microwave.
Eli began to root more frantically and she gave him her right boob. It was stupid, she knew, to be modest, but she never felt comfortable feeding Eli in front of Adam. In front of anyone, really, even her husband. It was something she wanted to do alone, something that involved only her and Eli. It was impossible not to hold her child against her breast, to feel the sucking at her nipple and not think how she would someday dry up. How Eli would, and Adam. And Frank, of course, already well on his way. Or maybe not him, but what had once been their love for one another. It wasn’t exactly gone. Just parched.
In front of them, a man approached with his dog, a white freckled collie-looking breed. The man’s hand slid into the satchel resting against his hip. He pulled out something black and pointed it in Shelly’s direction. Shelly saw a gun in the man’s hand. She grabbed Adam and held him close. The beat of her heart pulsed in her breast as Eli sucked. The steady thump of pumping milk and blood filled her. It seemed fitting somehow that they’d go together, these small beings who’d been born of her.
But the man held a camera, not a gun, and when they got closer, she recognized him from flyers they’d received in the mailbox from the neighborhood beautification committee. He was taking photos of the flowers in bloom along the trail.
The man’s dog barked. Adam jumped up, landing in a fighting pose with his stick out. “Who’s there?” he shouted.
“Adam, please let the man pass.” Shelly moved her arm to shield any part of her breast exposed beneath the carrier, though she knew the man could see nothing. Seconds earlier, she’d thought they were to be shot and left dead in the forest. She inhaled to calm herself. “Sorry. My son has a vivid imagination.”
“Who do you think would win?” Adam said to the man. “A shark or a croc?”
The man put away the camera and squatted by his dog, one arm draped over the animal’s neck. He brought his hand to his chin and rubbed his stubble thoughtfully. “No contest, really. You’d have to go with the shark, right?”
Adam seemed pleased by the man and his taking the question seriously. When Adam had asked his father the same question after seeing the video, Frank had said, “That sounds a bit violent, bud.”
Something about the man’s willingness to engage struck Shelly. She imagined unbuckling the canvas carrier and letting it drop in front of her like an apron, then removing Eli from her chest, lying him in a bed of leaves at her feet. She wanted to expose herself in some way to the man with the dog—the softness in her postpartum stomach, her swollen and reddened nipples. She wanted to give him every part of her that had been damaged by motherhood.
The boy on the futon—Eric—had slipped his hand so easily into her underwear from the leg hole of her shorts. She remembered a coldness down there she’d never felt before, as if he’d exposed her vagina to a cool breeze, but it was only his cold fingers, moving in and out of her. She’d sucked in her breath at the sensation. A part of her had wanted to turn away from this side of her. Her childhood best friend always talked about embracing herself as a “sexual being,” but Shelly had been afraid.
Now that she had so much more to lose—children, a husband who tried to be good to her, a tenured teaching position—she wondered what she’d been scared of.
“Mommy thought the croc.” Adam’s hand lingered on the dog’s ear, rubbing his small fingers over the soft fur. The mother felt a pull of desire in her breast like she’d felt just before Eli latched, like an invisible thread of desire being tugged.
She wasn’t the sort of mother to obsess over her children. The need asserted itself to let the man know that she was more than a mother. She pondered how to casually mention her new position at the university. Something about him, about this trail, the child pressed against her and the one caressing the dog made her want the man. Or maybe she just wanted him to want her. She giggled, moving a sweaty clump of hair to behind her ear.
Past the man, a collection of flatwood pines stood, scraggly and thin. There were palms and live oaks lining the trail along with some jagged bushes. Shelly tried to think of something to say to the man. Were their words to express what she wanted from him?
She hadn’t even had sex with her husband since the birth. The doctor had said to wait six weeks, and it had been eight. Frank hadn’t mentioned it, so she hadn’t either. She wanted to see how long she could get away with not having sex with her husband, even though when they did have it, she always wished they did it more often.
Before, with the boy Eric, it had been about fear. With her husband, it was about giving away too much. How much of her was left for him?
“He looks like a shepherd of some kind,” she said.
The dog licked Adam’s palm, the tongue around his fingers, and Shelly thought his hands must still be sticky from the yogurt and banana he’d eaten for snack.
The man moved closer and held out his hand. “I’m Drake. This is Augustine. Auggie. He’s a rescue. We think he might have some border collie.”
She felt slighted by his wedding band and use of the word “we.” Shelly held on to Drake’s hand, feeling the need to overcompensate or exert control. He allowed himself to be pulled closer. Their bodies were less than a foot apart now if you counted Eli pooching out of her abdomen. “Named after the saint?” she said.
Disliking losing the man’s attention, Adam turned around and ran toward the baby alligator, with what action in mind, Shelly didn’t know.
“He’s just a baby, but he’d kill us if he could!” Adam yelled.
She called his name, moving toward him as she had earlier, but her limbs ached. There was a hesitancy to let go of the man’s hand. It seemed unfair Adam had ruined this moment.
Drake, sensing danger, pulled away and ran after Adam. The man’s concern snapped Shelly out of her reverie, and she moved faster, but then stumbled on a tree root. In order to protect Eli, she twisted in mid-fall, so that she landed on her side, cradling him. She turned on her back, and Eli’s body went rigid. He let out a wail. From the ground, she saw Drake scoop Adam away from the pond’s edge. He carried him back with one arm. Beside him, the dog’s tail wagged.
The alligator scuttled away after its own prey—a blue crab somewhat camouflaged by the greyish dead grasses.
“We’re okay,” Drake said.
Adam beamed at him, unfazed, clutching the man’s shoulder, a fist full of his shirt.
When Shelly righted herself, she saw Eli’s head plopped to the side, angled toward the earth. It reminded her of the time in third grade she’d let her hamster run around the floor while she took a bath. Getting out of the tub, she’d stepped on it accidentally, breaking its neck. She took a deep breath and cupped Eli’s skull, unlatching the front of the carrier and peeling him from her abdomen. His onesie and her tank top were soaked in sweat.
He was okay, just shaken from the fall, red-faced and whimpering.
“Shhh, shhh,” she said, bouncing him as he lay across her forearms. He looked up at her, blinking his cloudy eyes—which she hoped would turn hazel—finally quieting. She saw that her child trusted her to take care of him and wondered if she deserved it.
“Mommy!” Adam pointed at her chest.
Shelly had pulled the collar of her shirt underneath her breast to feed Eli. It hung out in an odd and unattractive way. Her engorged nipple, covered in Eli’s saliva, dripped milk. Drake’s eyes met hers. He put Adam down, then looked away, kneeling once again to pet his dog.
Shifting Eli to her left arm, Shelly slipped her boob back inside her nursing bra and tank top. “I’m so sorry,” she called, still adjusting.
With Drake kneeling, he and Adam were close to the same height. Adam seemed to have forgotten the intensity of the last few moments, speaking to Drake as a peer, someone interested in similar pursuits. “The shark grabbed the croc by the stomach and shook him like this.” Adam acted out the shark biting into the crocodile’s stomach and shaking it, adding sound effects.
Drake stood, brushing off his knees, pressing his shirt flat where Adam’s grip had wrinkled it. “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised,” he said. “Sharks are at the top of the food chain. They’re called apex predators. Everything’s below them. Though I do wonder how they came across one another. They live in different habitats.”
The man suddenly seemed like a know-it-all. Like someone humoring her son only to flaunt his knowledge of sea creatures. And who could even say if anything he said was right? There was no one to challenge him except a four-year-old and a tired mother. She strapped Eli back into the carrier and reached for Adam. “It’s time to leave. Say goodbye.”
After the initial excitement of Eric’s hand in her underwear, she’d realized he didn’t really know what he was doing. She lay back on the tie-dye fabric draped across the futon, bored. He told her he loved her. The words seemed ridiculous breathed in her ear, but pleasing, too. She liked that he loved her without having to love him back.
Shelly turned from Drake, retracing her steps on the trail. Adam followed for a moment, then ran back toward the lake, yelling, “Bye! I love your dog.”
Her son could be brash one moment and so generous the next. She was both awakened and exhausted by him.
At home, Adam skipped up to his father reading in the den and said, “The man was right! Drake. The man at the lake. He was right and Mommy was wrong. The shark killed the crocodile. It’s stomach was too soft. It didn’t have enough scales.”
Frank closed his book and put it down slowly. “It was one video,” he said. “You never know. Another time could be different. The croc might win.” Her husband had an annoying habit of playing devil’s advocate with Adam. He liked to be instructive. Usually, Shelly argued Adam’s side, but today, she was silent.
When she fed Eli that night, she closed her eyes and fantasized about the man by the lake. The memory on the trail with the man and her boys was another death, like Eric and the futon, like her father, like the dried out grass around the creek. So much of the world was imagined anyway, why not try to make something come alive again inside her head.
Finally, the children were asleep. Shelly was empty. She’d run out of the ability to give.
In the den, a soccer game flashed on the television. European playoffs. Outside, someone set off fireworks, which happened almost nightly. When they’d first moved there, she was afraid the noise would wake the children, but they’d already grown used to it. She turned off the television and sat next to her husband on the couch, then lay down with her legs across his lap. His hand fell against her ankle, then slowly moved toward the thigh, underneath the shorts, and finally, past the elastic of her underwear.
Frank was right that another time, the crocodile might win. The shark in the video was almost beaten. Bleeding from its eye, clouds of pink erupted from its flesh. But in the final seconds, the crocodile needed air. Seeing its last chance, the shark ripped into the belly of the croc as it swam to the surface for a breath. Like the tender abdomen of a new mother, its soft belly, with no scales, no armor, didn’t have a chance. As soon as the shark’s teeth lodged itself into the smooth underside of the crocodile, everything went silent and still. There wasn’t any twisting or trying to get away. Knowing its weaknesses, the crocodile had given itself up.