The Stench of the Hunt

What is that smell? And why are you wearing that?

“What is that smell?”

I wrestled the hip-waders off on the step, then peeled my socks off. Maya came to the open door. She was a head shorter than me, and considered plain by some. But the sparkle in her eyes and her questing mind made her shine. She came to the door now, and looked at me, watching me discard the protective gear, the poncho, the rubber gloves.

“And why are you wearing that?”

“I had a job today. Pass me a garbage bag from the closet?”

She passed me one of the bags, and I put the hooded poncho in, the goggles and the face mask, the waders, the socks. Some of the mess had gotten into the hip waders, so I peeled my pants off as well, leaving me in my boxers. Last to go were my rubber gloves.

“But you’re usually out for days on a job.”

“This one was in the city.”

She shook her head. “But that’s silly. Where would any real monster hide in the . . . oh.”

I smiled to myself. She was quick – part of the reason I loved her. “That’s right. You’re smelling the sewer. I’m going to tape this up and then shower before I touch anything.”

She followed me as I got out the duct tape. I twisted the neck of the garbage bag and started duct-taping. Then I bent it over itself and taped more.

“What did you catch?”

“Something changed down there. I think it was an iguana, once. Some asshole let a pet go, and it got into something, mutated. It was too big for the tunnels, or I would have had a harder time with it.”

“I wish you could retire.”

I sighed, going out back and putting the bag in the big plastic garbage can. We’d had this discussion before. “Two years. Then I can retire on a nice fat pension.”

She came around in front of me, and moved in to hold me — I backed out of reach, and her blue eyes turned up to mine, hurt.

“Shower, Maya. I’ve got disease and filth on me.” She grabbed my hand and dragged me behind her. “Maya?” I could feel the silent frustration rolling off of her, and I realized that she was leading me up to the master bath.

She went in and turned on the water, then began undressing. I took a moment to admire her. She was too heavy some places and too slim in others, to catch wolf whistles and catcalls at the beach. But she was strong, healthy, and the curves of her body flowed like fabric on the wind. “Get in here and get naked.”

I smiled, and stepped in, stripping down. She pushed me under the hot spray, then pressed to my chest and clutched me, trembling even under the heat. “I was scared!” Her small fist pounded my chest. “Do you think about me, left here to wonder if you’re even coming home?”

I lifted my hands to the hot spray, then stroked them through her hair, one hand sliding to the small of her back to hold her. “I always think about you. It’s why I struggle so hard to make sure I come home. For you.”

“You should quit. Sell vacuum cleaners or work a register. I can’t take this.”

I held her and rocked her in my arms. “Two more years’ work . . . then a fat pension. I can do anything I want, and we’ll have the financial freedom we need to start a family. It’s a risk, but it’s also safety. Right?”

She quieted, and then looked up at me. “At least tell your boss no more surprise deployments. I don’t want to stay up waiting without knowing.”

“How about this? I’ll talk to dispatch. I’ll tell them they need to keep you updated on my status. You’ll know if I’m called up, you’ll know when I’m in it, and you’ll know when I report that I’m out of it.”

“Thank you.” Her voice was small, submitting to practical needs. It wasn’t long; only a few more years. “I still wish you could just sell insurance or something.”

I stroked her back, playing with her hair, relaxing. Then my whole body froze with her next words.

“I’m pregnant.”

” . . . you’re . . . ”

“Pregnant. Please don’t be mad. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe a batch of pills was bad, or maybe–”

“Shhhhh. Easy. I’m not mad. It’s not what we planned, but I’m not mad. I’ll see if I can ask for a raise. It’ll be tight at first, but we’ll make it. We’ll dig into savings. Then we’ll have the pension, and we’ll be okay.”

“But . . . if something happens to you?”

“You’ll be taken care of, but you know I’ll be careful. I’ll just have to be doubly careful.” I looked at her, and put my hand over her stomach, and sighed. “So . . . I’m going to be a father.” She looked up at me, and I realized she was crying. “Maya? What’s wrong?”

A smile split her face, though tears still fell, then she nestled to my chest, her face hidden. “I was so worried what you’d say. My girlfriend said I shouldn’t tell you, that you’d leave, or make me . . . you know, not keep it. She said her last boyfriend told her –”

I cupped her cheek, and lifted her face to mine, silencing her with a kiss. I felt the tension run out of her, felt her body mold itself to mine as I reassured her. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not making you do anything. And we’re going to have a child. Right?” She looked up at me, her eyes shining through her tears, and her fierce kiss pressed me against the cold tile.

We spent a long time in that shower. We reassured one another. We expressed our love for one another. And we reminded each other of what it meant to be alive.

Author: Eric Eshleman

I'm not real.

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