Prologue. SINISTER KISSES
She sits in the corner, trying to draw air out of a room which seemed to have plenty just a few minutes ago and now seems to have none. From what sounds like a great distance she can hear a thin whoop-whoop sound, and she knows this is air going down her throat and then sliding back out again in a series of feverish little gasps, but that doesn't change the feeling that she's drowning here in the corner of her living room, looking at the shredded remains of the paperback novel she was reading when her husband came home. Not that she cares much. The pain is too great for her to worry about such minor matters as respiration, or how there seems to be no air in the air she is breathing. The pain has swallowed her as the whale reputedly swallowed Jonah, that holy draft-dodger. It throbs like a poison sun glowing deep down in the middle of her, in a place where until tonight there was only the quiet sense of a new thing growing. There has never been any pain like this pain, not that she can remember-not even when she was thirteen and swerved her bike to avoid a pothole and wiped out, bouncing her head off the asphalt and opening up a cut that turned out to be exactly eleven stitches long. What she remembered about that was a silvery jolt of pain followed by starry dark surprise which had actually been a brief faint... but that pain had not been this agony. This terrible agony. Her hand on her belly registers flesh that is no longer like flesh at all; it is as if she has been unzipped and her living baby replaced with a hot rock. Oh God please, she thinks. Please let the baby be okay. But now, as her breath finally begins to ease a little, she realizes that the baby is not okay, that he has made sure of that much, anyway. When you're four months pregnant the baby is still more a part of you than of itself, and when you're sitting in a corner with your hair stuck in strings to your sweaty cheeks and it feels as if you've swallowed a hot stone. Something is putting sinister, slippery little kisses against the insides of her thighs.
"No," she whispers, "no". Oh my dear sweet God, no. Good God, sweet God, dear God, no." Let it be sweat, she thinks. Let it be sweat... or maybe I peed myself. Yes, that's probably it. It hurt so bad after he hit me the third time that I peed myself and didn't even know it. That's it. Except it isn't sweat and it isn't pee. It's blood. She's sitting here in the corner of the living room, looking at a dismembered paperback lying half on the sofa and half under the coffee-table, and her womb is getting ready to vomit up the baby it has so far carried with no complaint or problem whatsoever.
"No," she moans, "no, God, please say no." She can see her husband's shadow, as twisted and elongated as a cornfield effigy or the shadow of a hanged man, dancing and bobbing on the wall of the archway leading from the living room into the kitchen. She can see shadow-phone pressed to shadow-ear, and the long corkscrew shadow-cord. She can even see his shadow-fingers pulling the kinks out of the cord, holding for a moment and then releasing it back into its former curls again, like a bad habit you just can't get rid of. Her first thought is that he's calling the police. Ridiculous, of course-he is the police.
"Yes, it's an emergency," he's saying.
"You're goddam tooting it is, beautiful, she's pregnant." He listens, slipping the cord through his fingers, and when he speaks again his tone is testy. Just that faint irritation in his voice is enough to renew her terror and fill her mouth with a steely taste. Who would cross him, contradict him? Oh, who would be so foolish as to do that? Only someone who didn't know him, of course-someone who didn't know him the way she knew him.
"Of course I won't move her, do you think I'm an idiot?"
Her fingers creep under her dress and up her thigh to the soaked, hot cotton of her panties. Please, she thinks. How many times has that word gone through her mind since he tore the book out of her hands? She doesn't know, but here it is again. Please let the liquid on my fingers be clear. Please, God. Please let it be clear. But when she brings her hand out from under her dress the tips of her fingers are red with blood. As she looks at them, a monstrous cramp rips through her like a hacksaw blade. She has to slam her teeth together to stifle a scream. She knows better than to scream in this house.
"Never mind all that bullshit, just get here! Fast!" He slams the phone back into its cradle. His shadow swells and bobs on the wall and then he's standing in the archway, looking at her out of his flushed and handsome face. The eyes in that face are as expressionless as shards of glass twinkling beside a country road.
"Now look at this," he says, holding out both hands briefly and then letting them drop back to his sides with a soft clap.
"Look at this mess." She holds her own hand out to him, showing him the bloody tips of her fingers-it is as close to accusation as she can get.
"I know," he says, speaking as if his knowing explained everything, put the whole business in a coherent, rational context. He turns and stares fixedly at the dismembered paperback. He picks up the piece on the couch, then bends to get the one under the coffee-table. As he straightens up again, she can see the cover, which shows a woman in a white peasant blouse standing on the prow of a ship. Her hair is blowing back dramatically in the wind, exposing her creamy shoulders. The title, Misery's Journey, has been rendered in bright red foil.
"This is the trouble," he says, and wags the remains of the book at her like a man shaking a rolled-up newspaper at a puppy that has piddled on the floor.
"How many times have I told you how I feel about crap like this?" The answer, actually, is never. She knows she might be sitting here in the corner having a miscarriage if he had come home and found her watching the news on TV or sewing a button on one of his shirts or just napping on the couch. It has been a bad time for him, a woman named Wendy Yarrow has been making trouble for him, and what Norman does with trouble is share the wealth. How many times have I told you how I feel about that crap? he would have shouted, no matter what crap it was. And then, just before he started in with his fists: I want to talk to you, honey. Right up close. "don't you understand?" she whispers.
"I'm losing the baby!" Incredibly, he smiles.
"You can have another one," he says. He might be comforting a child who has dropped her ice cream cone. Then he takes the torn-up paperback out to the kitchen, where he will no doubt drop it in the trash. You bastard, she thinks, without knowing she thinks it. The cramps are coming again, not just one this time but many, swarming into her like terrific insects, and she pushes her head back deep into the corner and moans. You bastard, how I hate you. He comes back through the arch and walks toward her. She pedals with her feet, trying to shove herself into the wall, staring at him with frantic eyes. For a moment she's positive he means to kill her this time, not just hurt her, or rob her of the baby she has wanted for so long, but to really kill her. There is something inhuman about the way he looks as he comes toward her with his head lowered and his hands hanging at his sides and the long muscles in his thighs flexing. Before the kids called people like her husband fuzz they had another word for them, and that's the word that comes to her now as he crosses the room with his head down and his hands swinging at the ends of his arms like meat pendulums, because that's what he looks like-a bull. Moaning, shaking her head, pedaling with her feet. One loafer coming off and lying on its side. She can feel fresh pain, cramps sinking into her belly like anchors equipped with old rusty teeth, and she can feel more blood flowing, but she can't stop pedaling. What she sees in him when he's like this is nothing at all; a kind of terrible absence. He stands over her, shaking his head wearily. Then he squats and slides his arms beneath her.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he says as he kneels to fully pick her up, "so quit being a goose."
"I'm bleeding," she whispers, remembering he had told the person he'd been talking to on the phone that he wouldn't move her, of course he wouldn't.
"Yeah, I know," he replies, but without interest. He is looking around the room, trying to decide where the accident happened-she knows what he's thinking as surely as if she were inside his head.
"That's okay, it'll stop. They'll stop it." Will they be able to stop the miscarriage? she cries inside her own head, never thinking that if she can do it he can too, or noticing the careful way he's looking at her. And once again she won't let herself overhear the rest of what she is thinking: I hate you. Hate you. He carries her across the room to the stairs. He kneels, then settles her at the foot of them.
"Comfy?" he asks solicitously. She closes her eyes. She can't look at him anymore, not right now. She feels she'll go mad if she does.
"Good," he says, as if she had replied, and when she opens her eyes she sees the look he gets sometimes-that absence. As if his mind has flown off, leaving his body behind. If I had a knife I could stab him, she thinks... but again, it isn't an idea she will even allow herself to overhear, much less consider. It is only a deep echo, perhaps a reverberation of her husband's madness, as soft as a rustle of batwings in a cave. Animation floods back into his face all at once and he gets up, his knees popping. He looks down at his shirt to make sure there's no blood on it. It's okay. He looks over into the corner where she collapsed. There is blood there, a few little beads and splashes of it. More blood is coming out of her, faster and harder now; she can feel it soaking her with unhealthy, somehow avid warmth. It is rushing, as if it has wanted all along to flush the stranger out of its tiny apartment. It is almost as if- oh, horrible thought-her very blood has taken up for her husband's side of it... whatever mad side that is. He goes into the kitchen again and is out there for about five minutes. She can hear him moving around as the actual miscarriage happens and the pain crests and then lets go in a liquid squittering which is felt as much as heard. Suddenly it's as if she is sitting in a sitz bath full of warm, thick liquid. A kind of blood gravy. His elongate shadow bobs on the archway as the refrigerator opens and closes and then a cabinet (the minute squeak tells her it's the one under the sink) also opens and closes. Water runs in the sink and then he begins to hum something-she thinks it might be
"When a Man Loves a Woman"-as her baby runs out of her. When he comes back through the archway he has a sandwich in one hand-he has not gotten any supper yet, of course, and must be hungry-and a damp rag from the basket under the sink in the other. He squats in the corner to which she staggered after he tore the book from her hands and then administered three hard punches to her belly-bam, bam, bam, so long stranger-and begins to wipe up the spatters and drips of blood with the rag; most of the blood and the other mess will be over here at the foot of the stairs, right where he wants it. He eats his sandwich as he cleans. The stuff between the slices of bread smells to her like the leftover barbecued pork she was going to put together with some noodles for Saturday night-something easy they could eat as they sat in front of the TV, watching the early news. He looks at the rag, which is stained a faint pink, then into the corner, then at the rag again. He nods, tears a big bite out of his sandwich, and stands up. When he comes back from the kitchen this time, she can hear the faint howl of an approaching siren. Probably the ambulance he called. He crosses the room, kneels beside her, and takes her hands. He frowns at how cold they are, and begins to chafe them gently as he talks to her.
"I'm sorry," he says.
"It's just... stuffs been happening... that bitch from the motel..."
He stops, looks away for a moment, then looks back at her. He is wearing a strange, rueful smile. Look who I'm trying to explain to, that smile seems to say. That's how bad it's gotten-sheesh.
"Baby," she whispers.
"Baby." He squeezes her hands, squeezes them hard enough to hurt.
"Never mind the baby, just listen to me. They'll be here in a minute or two." Yes-the ambulance is very close now, whooping through the night like an unspeakable hound.
"You were coming downstairs and you missed your footing. You fell. Do you understand?" She looks at him, saying nothing. The pain in her middle is abating a little now, and when he squeezes her hands together this time-harder than ever-she really feels it, and gasps. "do you understand?" She looks into his sunken absent eyes and nods. Around her rises a flat saltwater-and-copper smell. No blood gravy now-now it is as if she were sitting in a spilled chemistry set.
"Good," he says. "do you know what will happen if you say anything else?" She nods. "say it. It'll be better for you if you do. Safer."
"You'd kill me," she whispers. He nods, looking pleased. Looking like a teacher who has coaxed a difficult answer from a slow student.
"That's right. And I'd make it last. Before I was done, what happened tonight would look like a cut finger." Outside, scarlet lights pulse into the driveway. He chews the last bite of his sandwich and starts to get up. He will go to the door to let them in, the concerned husband whose pregnant wife has suffered an unfortunate accident. Before he can turn away she grasps at the cuff of his shirt. He looks down at her.
"Why?" she whispers.
"Why the baby, Norman?" For a moment she sees an expression on his face she can hardly credit-it looks like fear. But why would he be afraid of her? Or the baby?
"It was an accident," he says.
"That's all, just an accident. I didn't have anything to do with it. And that's the way it better come out when you talk to them. So help you God." So help me God, she thinks.
Doors slam outside; feet run toward the house and there is the toothy metallic clash and rattle of the gurney on which she will be transported to her place beneath the siren. He turns back to her once again, his head lowered in that bullish posture, his eyes opaque.
"You'll have another baby, and this won't happen. The next one'll be fine. A girl. Or maybe a nice little boy. The flavor doesn't matter, does it? If it's a boy, we'll get him a little baseball player's suit. If it's a girl..."
He gestures vaguely.
"... a bonnet, or something. You wait and see. It'll happen." He smiles then, and the sight of it makes her feel like screaming. It is like watching a corpse grin in its coffin.
"If you mind me, everything will be fine. Take it to the bank, sweetheart."
Then he opens the door to let the ambulance EMTs in, telling them to hurry, telling them there's blood. She closes her eyes as they come toward her, not wanting to give them any opportunity to look into her, and she makes their voices come from far away. Don't worry, Rose, don't you fret, it's a minor matter, just a baby, you can have another one. A needle stings her arm, and then she is being lifted. She keeps her eyes closed, thinking Well all right, yes. I suppose I can have another baby. I can have it and take it beyond his reach. Beyond his murderous reach. But time passes and gradually the idea of leaving him-never fully articulated to begin with-slips away as the knowledge of a rational waking world slips away in sleep; gradually there is no world for her but the world of the dream in which she lives, a dream like the ones she had as a girl, where she ran and ran as if in a trackless wood or a shadowy maze, with the hoofbeats of some great animal behind her, a fearful insane creature which drew ever closer and would have her eventually, no matter how many times she twisted or turned or darted or doubled back. The concept of dreaming is known to the waking mind but to the dreamer there is no waking, no real world, no sanity; there is only the screaming bedlam of sleep. Rose McClendon Daniels slept within her husband's madness for nine more years.