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Ned is snoring, a thick thunder that rolls up from his chest. His arm is flung over Rose’s ribs, and she takes a breath against the heft of it, the pressure that recently seems to have increased.
Back in the middle of summer, she mentioned getting twin beds, but his response was sharp. Typical Ned. “Whadda you crazy?” She explained how his arm made it hard for her to breathe, how she felt pinned down by it. “We’ve slept in the same bed for thirty-five years, Rosie,” he said, his gaze level. “Exactly when did my arm get so heavy?” Not willing to go where that subject might lead, she dropped it flat.
He snores again, a long, rippling snort with a catch in the middle, like he is swallowing his breath. It’s a wonder more women don’t kill their husbands. Half asleep, she imagines herself picking up the pillow, holding it over his open mouth.
What on earth is the matter with her, thinking something crazy like that? Ned is a good man. Where she would be without him she hates to think. She gives him a slight nudge, just enough to make him stop snoring, but not enough to wake him. The last thing in the world she needs right now is for him to wake and ask her what’s wrong.
This is a question she doesn’t want him to ask, not when all that is wrong swirls through the room, hangs above her face like smoke. The digital clock on the nightstand glows 1:40, red numerals that remind her of eyes, the alert eyes of some nocturnal animal. The time changes to 1:41. She wishes they still had their old dial-face clock, the one that didn’t need resetting every time there was a power failure. Very carefully she lifts Ned’s arm from its hold across her ribs and scratches her stomach, hard.
It’s still there. It’s bigger. Maybe.
The itchy spot first appeared toward the end of September, the same week Opal Gates and her boy moved into the house next door. At first Rose figured it was an insect bite of some kind, or dry skin, what with the furnace coming on in the evening now. Yesterday she finally took a reluctant look at it—she doesn’t much like looking at her stomach—and even without her reading glasses she was able to see the small, raised welt right over the mole on her stomach. Red circled out from the brown center. Definitely a bite she decided, pushing away darker possibilities conjured up by the Cancer Society leaflets she’s read in Doc Blessing’s waiting room, their bold letters enumerating the Seven Deadly Signs.
She doesn’t think it is anything significant. If something important was going on in your body, you’d know it. No, she’s sure it’s just an insect bite. They are into October now, late for mosquitoes, but it’s been a particularly mild fall, the first frost not coming until the last of September.
She lies in the dark, reminded suddenly of the mosquito bites she used to get summers at Crystal Lake when she was a girl, great welts that rose on her arms and legs and ankles until she looked like she had a tropical disease. “Don’t scratch,” her mother would say as she swabbed them with calamine lotion. “It makes it worse.” Rose scratched the bites until they bled. Then, the summer she was sixteen, she fell in love with her best friend’s cousin, and just like that she stopped scratching mosquito bites. Instead she dug her thumbnail directly across the swollen spot and then again in the opposite direction, forming the shape of a cross, her magic remedy, better than calamine.
Lord, she hasn’t thought about those things in years. Rachel’s cousin. The thin, dark boy from out of town who made all their mothers edgy. What was his name? Randy? Roy? She struggles futilely to reclaim it from the chasm of memory. His name she can’t dredge up, but the image of him surfaces as if she had seen him only last week. This was the summer of Elvis—someone else who made their mothers nervous—and he wore his hair in a DA just like the singer. He drove a motorcycle and—even in summer—dressed all in black. Rose remembers his leather jacket, the zippers at the wrists. The risks she had taken for him. She remembers the night she lied to her mother, the first falsehood she can recall telling, how she said she was going to Rachel’s and had pedaled her blue Raleigh over to the lake where he waited. When he kissed her, his tongue pushed insistently between her lips, filling her with a confusion of fear and desire—startling, hot desire—until she opened her mouth to him. As if, even in sleep, he can read her mind, Ned’s arm drops back across her ribs, tightens its hold.
It was on the same spot at Crystal Lake, enfolded by the scent of pine and her cologne, that Ned asked her to marry him. Two years after she kissed the boy with the Elvis hair, she lay in Ned’s arms, let him caress her, heard him promise to love her forever, eagerly returned the vow.
Forever. What is forever? How long has it been since she believed it possible to hold on to someone or something for eternity? How could she have known then that love is not as resilient as one might think? That loss and pain and life take a toll beyond what she could have imagined? That Ned’s sinewy arms, which held her so tenderly that summer night by the lake, would grow cumbersome over the years?
Crystal Lake. When she was a child, long before she lay in Ned’s young arms or before she kissed a dangerous dark-haired boy whose name she has forgotten, years before she taught Todd how to swim in its water, she and Rachel would go ice skating there. Once, while tightening her skates, she lost a glove, a red mitten knitted by her grandmother that one of the older boys swooped up and skated away with. By the time she went home, her fingers were deadened with the cold. At first it didn’t hurt, just a tingling numbness as if they had gone to sleep; but later, when her mother took her fingers between her palms and rubbed the heat back into chilled flesh, chafed the numbness away, then the pain began.
The itching is worse now. She raises Ned’s arm carefully, edges out of bed, almost makes it.
“Bathroom. Go back to sleep.” She freezes, willing his breath- ing to return to its heavy, half-snoring rhythm, then, using the il- lumination from the night-light at the top of the stairs, makes her way to the hall. The shadowy outline of Todd’s door beckons in the dim light, and she almost allows herself to give in, to sit in his room and wait.
It has been a long time.
Months have passed since she sat there and hoped for a sign from Todd. Hoped, not prayed. She has long since lost her belief in the power of prayers or God; the most she can hold on to is hope, and even that has dimmed lately. Five years. If she is going to get some sign from him, feel some connection, wouldn’t it have come by now? But even the dimming of active hope does not bring the resolution or the peace she might have expected, only more pain. She fears this deficiency of hope is bringing her one more step closer to really losing him. Memory and grief are all she has left, and after a while even memory dims. In spite of her attempts to hold on in her mind, the whole of him is beginning to fade.
In the bathroom she catches sight of herself in the mirror and, without glasses, sees a younger version of herself, her face firmer, without lines. She is trying to learn to look at herself with corrected vision, trying to see the truth of her aging face, which looks more and more like her mother’s. She opens the cabinet and removes the bottle of Jergens, slathers it across her belly, easing, for the moment, the itch of the mole that woke her earlier. She returns the lotion to the cabinet, automatically brushes her hand over the counter. The green Formica is specked with tiny black dots, the pattern a mistake. The dark grains remind her of the flecks that rim the sink after Ned shaves.
on her way back to her room, she checks the street. Next door, at the Montgomery place, light spills from the dining room. At this hour. It is nearly 2:00 a.m. If Louise Montgomery still lived there, Rose would be tempted to ring over, see if everything was all right, but she has no intention of getting involved with that girl. And yet, what in the name of heaven is she doing up in the middle of the night? When does she sleep? Rose supposes she should find comfort in the fact that Opal Gates is awake, that she is not the only one unable to sleep this night, but she feels no nocturnal bond with her new neighbor. In the few weeks since Opal moved in, it has become clear that there is nothing but tribulation in store for that one. All you need do is take one quick look and you can see the whole story. Plain as day. Girls like Opal suck trouble to them.
She leaves the window and returns to their bed. Ned snores on peacefully. The relief the lotion gave is short-lived, and she gives her stomach another quick scratch. Perhaps it’s an allergy. Or shingles. Shingles. Such an odd name for a disease. Who decides what to call an illness, anyway? She had a second cousin over in Athol who had shingles. The woman was married to a farmer, a nervous little man who worried about everything. Notice it was the wife who got the itching. She tries to remember what she has heard about shingles, something about if the inflamed skin encircles your waist, girdling it like a belt, you will die. Can this be true, or is it only an old wives’ tale? It seems to her that her cousin died of a heart attack, but she can’t recall for sure. She hitches her nightgown up slowly and risks two or three real gouges. Ned doesn’t move a muscle, and she is grateful for that. She doesn’t need his questions about what she is scratching. No doubt if he knew he’d take right over, have her at Doc’s before she could stop to tie her shoes. She doesn’t know. Maybe she should go. But the itch is worse at night. If it were really serious, wouldn’t it bother her during the day? She only has to get through the night, hold tight to the thought of dawn, and she will be all right. She certainly doesn’t want to go see Doc.
For a while, after the accident, when she couldn’t cook or do much of anything around the house and heaven knows she didn’t want Ned touching her, Doc gave her some little yellow pills to take. She didn’t want them, but under Ned’s insistence she caved in. They were tiny, octagonal-shaped pills potent beyond what their size suggested, making everything in sight seem sallow, jaundiced. Wavy and dull. After a while this was worse than anything, so she quit taking them. Plus all those drugs are chemicals, and Rose doesn’t trust chemicals. Who knows what they are really doing to a person? No, she thinks, better to wait and not let on to Ned about the red-edged mole that itches.
She twists her head on the pillow and looks at her husband, studies his face in the slippery light of the moon. Even in sleep he looks tired. She doesn’t need her glasses to see the deep lines that etch the skin between his eyes and make gutters from his nose to his chin. He is fifty-seven. We’re getting old, she thinks. Her heart almost softens.
Sometimes she wonders why it is so easy for Ned. Isn’t he angry about all the things that have been taken from them, simple things they have every right to expect would come to them, like Todd growing up, marrying, having a child of his own? For five years she has tracked all the things that will never happen, bitter anniversaries that keep grief alive and sharp but that she cannot stop her mind from recording: Todd’s senior prom. His high school graduation. The fall he would have entered college. Doesn’t Ned ever think about these things?
Once, three years ago, they were staring at some program on television and she blurted, “He would be in college now.”
“For Christ’s sake!” Ned shouted. The green recliner snapped to an upright position, and he stalked from the room. As far as he is concerned, Todd is over, closed subject.
Men are different, she thinks. But no, look at Claire Covington. The summer after their son drowned, she was back swimming at the lake, in the very water that still held the molecules of Brian Covington’s last breath. But maybe, Rose thinks in sudden inspiration, maybe submerging herself in the water was Claire’s way of getting close to her son. Lord knows, Rose can understand that. Then she pictures Claire laughing, splashing in the water, dressed in a bathing suit a good yard shy of the amount of material appropriate to a woman of her age. No, when Claire Covington went to the lake, it wasn’t to merge with whatever remained there of her son.
although she cannot remember falling asleep, she must have dozed off, for the next time she looks the clock reads 6:00. Beside her, she feels Ned move. Soon he will get up, releasing her. She’ll take a shower, let cold water flow over her stomach, cooling it down.
Ned moans softly; then he’s awake. This is how he does it every morning. One minute he’s asleep, the next he’s talking.
“Time to get up,” he says.
“Yes,” she says.
She lifts the weight of his arm from her ribs and takes a little breath, inhaling dawn. In the morning light, for one brief moment, she can almost believe she has only imagined the itch, can almost believe that she has already experienced her lifetime’s allotment of pain and grief.
From the Hardcover edition.