Fiction: Before and After


Read More: A brief interview with Charlie Watts

Owen and Bea agree on this: not knowing how and when the scorpion came to be under their bed is worse than just knowing he or she is there, stinger arched.

“Nobody said—” Bea says as she steps up onto the blanket trunk. She’s wearing her bathing suit bottom and a towel turbaned around her hair. She crosses her forearms over her breasts.

Owen, lying on the floor with the can of repellent cradled in front of him like an awkward pistol, blasts the creature with spray. Nothing happens. The poison runs off his shell like olive oil.

“It’s not working,” Owen says, rolling out from under the bed. Bea looks at him as if he might give her a disease.

They are staying at a camptel – thatched huts on the beach in Belize that have real beds and cotton sheets. Each hut has an attached shower stall facing the ocean that’s lined with shiny black and white tile. In the evenings, Bea and Owen shower together, helping each other to scrub away the salt as they watch the owner lighting two rows of torches out on the beach. It looks as if he’s preparing a runway for tiny planes.

“Are you getting it in his face? Come on!”

Owen knows that Bea is not familiar with giving up, a fact that may be part of their larger set of issues. He wonders how things would unfold if the scorpion zapped him. Would he swell up and get bicycled into Dangriga? Helicoptered to Belize City? Would Bea buy authentic local textiles on the way to the hospital so that they would remember the trip as the time they got the batik table-runner and not as the weekend Owen spent chugging Benadryl to keep his airways from collapsing?

Owen rolls back under the bed. The scorpion has not moved. The poison makes a dark circle around his body.

“OK, asshole—”

Bea yelps.

“What, what!?” Owen says, smacking his head on the bedrail. He can taste bug spray on his tongue. Bea hugs the towel to her chest. She’s looking past Owen at the door.

“Hola!”

Owen sees Alejandro, the owner and caretaker, standing in the doorway.

“Scorpion,” Owen says, heaving himself up and pointing to the spray can. The poison had been on the ledge by the door when they checked in. It had made Bea laugh but then she cried, hard, for reasons neither of them could figure out.

“I’ve hit it three times,” Owen explains, one hand on his hip. “Nothing. He just sits there.”

Bea arranges the towel around her torso like an off-the-shoulder mini-dress. Owen appreciates Alejandro’s ability to maintain eye contact with him while still taking in all of Bea. Owen’s father had warned him before the wedding – in a way that Owen did not realize was intended to be serious – that it would be a challenge to have such a beautiful wife.

“Haha. Haha,” Alejandro says, reaching for the can. Owen hands it over and they both squat.

“See, he’s not reacting,” Owen explains, eager for Alejandro to appreciate that he has dealt with things in an appropriate manner. At this moment it occurs to Owen that perhaps the scorpion is already dead.

“No,” Alejandro says. Without hesitation, he chops the scorpion in half with the bottom lip of the can.

“Oh.”

“Did he get it?” Bea asks from her perch.

“Yezzzz,” Alejandro reports, using the can to scrape the remains out from under the bed. Bea comes over and the three of them look at the separated parts, still glossy from the poison. Now Owen can’t remember what it looked like before, when it was all just one piece. Bea curls her toes and backs away, smiling at Alejandro.

At the door, Alejandro sets the can on the ledge, hesitating long enough for Owen to realize he needs to give him a tip.

“Thanks again. I didn’t realize—”

“De nada,” their host responds, drawing air in through his nose as if hunting for a particular smell.

“Thank you,” Bea says. Owen puts two bills in Alejandro’s palm and then closes the screen door.

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Bea puts on her suit top and a lemon-colored wrap. She and Owen cross the beach and begin to walk south toward the village. It is noon on Christmas day and to Owen everything feels sandy and misplaced. The new bathing suit he has bought for the trip chaffs his crotch and the sunburn from yesterday’s ill advised jog makes him feel as if he’s been glazed for firing. Bea, who enjoys the action of the sun on her skin, flows along smoothly. She is glad to be out of the hut, breathing ocean air. She likes that her feet leave perfect emoji-style prints in the sand.

Owen and Bea feel as if they are a couple without a beginning. Neither remembers a pivotal moment of making a decision about being together. They just were. They know, generally, that it was during the first year of college that they met. But from the beginning, they had an organic familiarity that they experienced as both comforting and unnerving. And though neither one of them likes to admit it, they both feel some degree of disappointment. They have no ironic or romantic origin story. Owen can remember Bea pulling aside the shower curtain in the coed bathroom at school and asking him for her towel, which she had left on the sink. He believes that this must have been the first time he saw all of her naked body, but it doesn’t play that way in his mind. Her specific features – the two dark moles above her bellybutton that look like eyes, the whiteness of her breasts against her forearms, the prominent yoke of her collar bones  – seemed already known to him. They have talked about it and they both remember that she watched him watch her as she dried off, but there was no discussion. No rush to do anything about it because the feeling was, well, we have the rest of our lives. Delicious and real yet somehow dulled by the force of inevitability. That was six years before they were married.

“You OK?” Bea asks, taking Owen’s hand as they continue down the beach, scuffing in and out of the shallow water.

“Sure. Just a little sore.”

The decision point for this trip has also become obscured. Owen thinks it started with Bea sending him an article about eco-tourism. All Bea can remember is a fight she had with her boss about taking more time off and then, after what seemed like only a moment, she found herself sitting next to Owen in the airport lounge drinking a Bloody Mary in three long sips because she was sad that they seemed to have no body of vivid, self-directed experiences. She saw them as always continuing or arriving in the middle rather than setting off at the beginning. Even though, at that moment, she was sitting in an airport about to get on a plane. Owen rubbed her back, unable to translate.

Bea went directly from college into law school and then joined a firm specializing in tax. Both her mother and father were tax attorneys, so from the outside it seemed she’d been groomed for it. In fact, she had studied philosophy in college and hated dressing up. But now, just two years in, Bea could not remember what had sent her in this direction or what the big deal was about wearing high heals. The work came at her, she followed the rules, they paid her well. She thought she had no questions.

Owen, by contrast, was comfortable with not doing much other than reading and day trading, which no one, including Owen himself, saw as real work. His stock picks, however, had filled their bank account even faster than Bea’s generous salary. Owen’s father wanted him to sign on with a “real” firm, but Owen preferred his home office – a converted closet just big enough to embrace his screens, hard drives and phones. After he’d hit his daily time limit, he would push in his rolling chair and close the two louvered doors. At night, the machine lights came through the slats and made blue and green stripes in the hallway leading to the bathroom.

Prior to falling into their Caribbean get-away Christmas vacation, Bea had had a miscarriage. It was in August and she had been five-and-a-half months along. They had already painted the nursery and tested the baby monitor. On one channel, the machine picked up the voices of their downstairs neighbors who talked a lot about treatments for diaper rash and organic baby food recipes. Bea and Owen spent a week, on and off, listening for the sound of an actual baby, but they never heard one. Instead, they set their phone alarms for 3am so they could take turns practicing what it was like to wake up and go down the hall to the nursery without stubbing a toe.

The receptionist at Bea’s law firm was the one who called Owen, telling him in an antiseptic voice that Bea was already in an ambulance and that he should go directly to the hospital. Not until he slammed through the double doors of the ER did he even consider the idea that the baby hadn’t survived. In the room, Bea’s dark hair was wet with sweat against the sheets. Her eyes did not react to Owen’s arrival. He sat on the stool next to the bed and held her hand while the doctors did their thing. […]


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Charlie Watts grew up on the campus of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, and a family farm in Freedom, NH. He earned both his BFA (1986) and MFA (1992) from Brown University in Providence, RI, studying with writers including Meredith Steinbach, Robert Coover, John Hawkes, Edmund White, and Michael Ondaatje. Charlie, who returned to writing in 2013 after a long detour into communications consulting, has published in Clerestory, Carve, The Drum, Narrative and Philadelphia Stories. His story, Arrangements, won the 2015 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. He was also a finalist in the 2016 Hemingway Shorts contest sponsored by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. He and his wife, a chaplain, have three grown children and live in New Hampshire.

Read More: A brief interview with Charlie Watts