It was still alive.
She could feel it inside her. It was moving again, twisting and writhing in her belly.
She'd hoped it would die.
Hoped. And prayed. Since the moment she first felt it inside her, she'd fallen to her knees, begging God to deliver her from the evil within herdesperate prayers that continued through long days and longer nights. Sleep never came, for she dared not ever let down her guard, not ever relax her vigilance against the evil even for a few seconds of blessed release from the terror. Lying awake on dank sheets, listening to the whine of insects beyond the window, how many times had she gotten up from her bed in the meanest hours to stand at the window, gazing out into the black abyss, wondering if she shouldn't open the screen and let the predators in?
Once, she slashed through the mesh with ragged nails, ripping the screen to shreds, tearing open her nightgown as if to a lover, presenting her tortured body to the horde of tiny creatures that spewed forth from the night to settle on her skin in a thick and pulsating scum: clinging to her with piercing barbs; miring in the oily sweat that oozed from her; pricking with stinging needles. Producing a thrill of pain as she willed them to suck out her blood, and along with it, the evil that pervaded her every pore.
But the vileness within her had prevailed, as even against her own will she swept the insects away, slammed the window shut, and stood beneath a scalding shower for hours in a vain attempt to cleanse herself of the poisons.
She had returned to the bed, cursing herself and the man who lay beside her, but most of all cursing the disease that ruled her.
Truly, that was what it was: an illness cast upon her in retribution for sins so vile that she had repressed even their faintest memory, leaving only the corruption inside, the monstrous horror that was metastasizing through her, consuming a little more of her every day.
"Dear God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"
The wordsthe cry of anguish that should have shattered the very airdribbled from her lips like the mewling of a baby, a pitiful, weak sound, but enough to drive the life within her wild. It sent her screaming and stumbling from the house, where her balance deserted her and she dropped to her knees, skinning them on the harsh paving of the driveway. Moaning, she sprawled out, and for the tiniest moment of ecstasy thought she might be dying. Then the fury within her eased, and after a while her ragged panting mellowed into a rhythmic breath. Deliverance was not yet at hand. She struggled back to her feet and stood staring at the house.
She had thought it beautiful once, with its high-peaked roof and many gables, the broad veranda that wrapped around it with the fullness of a petticoated skirt, the shutters and gingerbread that decorated its face like the millinery of an age gone by. Now, though, she saw the fancywork for what it was: a veil that only barely covered the wickedness that lay within; a mask peeling back to reveal the slatternly face of a whore.
A whore like me.
The words rose unbidden from the depths of her subconscious, in a choking sob.
The evil within her tested its strength, and the woman's body convulsed. She staggered forward, driven by pain. At the foot of the steps leading to the verandaand the cavernous rooms beyondshe stopped.
The certain knowledge that something was different, had changed in the seconds since she'd fled outside, made her turn away.
It's behind the house. As if under the power of an unseen force, the woman slowly groped her way around to the back of the house. The sun, close to its zenith now, beat down on her, making her skin tingle and burn in an angry, itching rash that spread scarlet from her belly across her torso, down her arms and legs, like claws scraping at her from the inside, pushing to tear free from the confines of her body.
Then she saw it.
Her hands rose reflexively to her face as if to blot out the vision before her, or even to tear her eyes from her head. Then they dropped away, and she gazed unblinking at the specter beneath the ancient magnolia tree that spread its limbs over the area beyond the house.
It was the man.
The man she had married.
The man who had brought her to this house.
The man who had delivered the disease upon her.
The man who had lain unconscious beside her as she'd prayed for a salvation she knew would never come.
Now he was gone, his body, stripped naked of even the tiniest shred of clothing, hung from the lowest branch of the tree, a thick hempen rope knotted tightly around his neck.
His head hung at an unnatural angle, and his lifeless eyes were fixed upon her with a gaze that chilled the remnants of her soul.
The knife with which he'd slit open his own belly was still clutched in the stiffened fingers of his right hand, and his entrails lay in a bloody tangle below his dangling feet.
A swarm of flies had already settled on his disemboweled corpse; soon their eggs would hatch, releasing millions of maggots to feast upon him.
He had found his escape.
He had left her alone.
Alone with the disease.
Nearly doubled over by a spasm of terror and revulsion, the woman turned away and lurched toward the shelter of the house.
Muttered words, unintelligible even to herself, tumbled from her lips. By the time she escaped the brilliant noon sun, her entire body was trembling.
Got to hide.
Hide from him.
Hide from it.
The corruption inside leaped to life again and, no longer aware of where she was or what she was doing, she obeyed the dictates of the foulness within.
A door opened before her, and she stumbled, then fell, plunging into the shadowy darkness, feeling blackness surround her, welcoming the release of death.
Her body slammed against the coldness of the cellar floor. She lay still. Against her will, her heart once more began to beat, her lungs to breathe.
And now the final agonythe agony she had always known would come.
It arrived as a point of white heat deep within, which spread and burned as it raced through her, igniting every nerve in her body into a fiery torment that sent a scream boiling up from her throat, instantly followed by a stream of vomit.
Every muscle in her body cramped. Limbs thrashing, hands and feet lashing out as if at some unseen tormentor, she was engulfed by the growing pain.
"NOOOooo ..." The single cry of anguish burst from her, then trailed off into hopeless silence.
For a long time she lay unmoving, as the fire withdrew, leaving at last an absence of pain. A blank emptiness where the disease had been.
She pulled herself up and gazed at the tiny thing that lay between her legs.
Still covered with bloody tissue, the baby stretched its tiny arms, as if reaching toward her.
The woman stared at it, then reached out and picked it up.
She cradled it in her left arm, and with the fingers of her right hand she stroked its face.
Then, her eyes still fixed upon the infant, her fingers closed around its neck.
She began to squeeze.
As her fingers tightened, she heard herself say the familiar words that lifted her spirit and filled her soul with peace. "Our Father, who art in Heaven ..."
The baby thrashed against her grasp, its fingers instinctively pulling at her own.
"...Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us ..."
The baby's tiny fingers fell away from hers; its struggles weakened. "... Deliver us from evil."
The movements stopped. The infant lay still in her hands.
They found her just after sunset.
She was still praying, but of the baby, there was no trace to be found. Indeed, it was as if the infant had never existed at all.
She offered no resistance when they lifted her to her feet, none as they led her from the house and put her in the ambulance.
As the ambulance drove away, she did not look back.
Her face was serene; she hummed softly to herself.
Deliverance, finally, was hers.