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Hush
     

Hush

by Mark Nykanen
 

See All Formats & Editions

An art therapist in Oregon becomes suspicious of weird drawings by a pupil. So begins the story of a serial killer who marries single mothers in order to abuse their children.

Overview

An art therapist in Oregon becomes suspicious of weird drawings by a pupil. So begins the story of a serial killer who marries single mothers in order to abuse their children.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
May 1998

Barnesandnoble.com offers you a glimpse into the mind of a psychopath. Author Mark Nykanen spent years as an investigative journalist gaining the confidence of such individuals, and now, in his debut novel, Hush, he has drawn from that experience to portray the chilling impulses at the heart of a charming and terrifyingly ingenious character.

Art therapist Celia Griswold works at a center for severely emotionally disturbed children in rural Oregon, encouraging them to express their feelings through drawing. When seven-year-old Davy Boyce, an elective mute, is brought in by his strange, threatening stepfather Chet, Celia senses that something is very wrong with the boy — his behavior is violent and his drawings suggest abuse. After attempting to voice her concerns to Chet, she is overcome with an ever-rising fear, until Chet realizes that Davy's drawings may reveal more truth than is acceptable, and what starts as a simple puzzle in her ordinary life becomes a harrowing and inescapable game of cat and mouse.

In this remarkable and spine-tingling debut, Mark Nykanen has created powerful, original characters in a gritty, bone-cold, and unforgettable thriller.

Kay Black
...[A] very frightening thriller....There is a plethora of graphic violence in Hush....The reader will be with Celia all the way, hoping for Davy's recovery, and not at all surprised or horrified at the final ironic incident. This is a very satisfying thriller that will keep the reader glued to the final page. — The Mystery Reader.com
St. Louis Post Dispatch
(Chet Boyce) makes Hannibal Lecter seem like a nice guy with an eating disorder.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A murderous child abuser takes aim at the woman who threatens to expose him in a debut thriller that is long on psychological complexity but short on action. At 38, Oregon art therapist Celia Griswold is having a rough time. At home, the dissolution of her marriage to a halfhearted philanderer is jeopardizing her chances to have a child; at work, while the Bentman Children Center's stiff new director upsets her most reassuring routines, she finds herself falling for a wacky, married colleague. Celia's troubles boil over, and her patience and skill with children are tested, when she begins to work with seven-year-old Davy Boyce. Davy has stopped speaking and started bitingand he's producing mysterious and disturbing artwork that hints at a terrifying crime. Emmy- and Edgar-winning journalist Nykanen uncovers his characters' psyches with wit, complexity and originality. Unfortunately, the plot is creaky, relying on implausible recklessness from the villain and generic scenes of suspense. Nevertheless, Nykanen's attractively unpredictable characters will keep a stubborn hold on readers' attention. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
Overly familiar debut melodrama somewhat redeemed by one fresh theme, the use of art therapy to overcome childhood mutism. Two poles of mental illness hold this novel in balance: the study of a sexual psychopath, and of the elective mutism he's driven his stepson into through sexual abuse. Chet Boyce marries Davy's plain-faced mother to get at seven-year-old Davy. When Davy tells her that his new stepfather has been hurting him "down there" and she confronts Chet, Chet kills her with a straight razor in front of Davy, then buries her, and takes Davy with him in a trailer to the far Oregon timberland town of Bentman. Chet, it turns out, is a serial murderer who marries and kills widows with sons. His threats have caused Davy to go mute, even around their trailer, which is parked in the woods. Not surprisingly, the boy does poorly in school, and so is later transferred to the Bentman Children's Center for psychological study, where he ends up in Celia Griswold's art therapy class. Two subthemes about cruelty to animals glance off the main storyline: Hunters kill deer illegally on the Griswolds' country property, and a retarded shepherd begins grazing his flock near their home. Meanwhile, Celia gets Davy to turn out endless drawings for herþwhich are nearly always of Batman with his crotch heavily blackened. Celia considers this a likely indication of child abuse, and her chats with Chet only strengthen her suspicions. We follow Chet as he sneaks into Celia's home while she's away. At the same time, Celia's husband Jack is having an affair with his secretary at the insurance agency he runs. When he and his lover go off for a weekend, Celia is left alone in the woods, andChet's fiendish schemes begin, with murder the lighter side of his joys. Chet's grim illness is ghastly, but the plot twists and climax are unsurprising, reducing this to a standard-issue thriller.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312968526
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
03/15/1999
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
4.25(w) x 6.75(h) x 0.84(d)

Read an Excerpt

1
Celia took off her smock and draped it over a chair, happy to shed the extra layer. The heat was starting to get to her, and she knew she’d better quit. Her Sunday-morning session at her easel had ended. As she walked out of her studio she glanced at the wall to her left, which was covered with children’s art, and smiled at her growing collection.
Jack was no longer in the living room where she’d left him with the newspaper, what, two hours ago? That long, really? She wandered out the front door and found it just as stifling outside as it was in the house, then walked around the corner of the deck to the bathroom window. Last weekend he’d painted the inside trim, but hadn’t taken the time to scrape the splatters off the glass. He said he’d clean them up today, and it looked as if he’d finished the job, but where was he? She had trouble seeing in because of the sunlight on the screen.
“Jack?”
She heard him quickly fold up the paper. “Yeah?”
“We better get moving on this. I’m going to go on down to the tank.”
“Okay, I’ll be right there.”
They had put off the fire drill for months, and she wanted to inspect the equipment and check the water supply before the temperature topped one hundred. The sun already burned directly overhead, and the trees offered little shade. The day was turning into a real scorcher. Smoky, too. Half of Oregon seemed to be in flames. Nothing but forest fires and drought from one end of the state to the other. Land as dry as a biscuit.
Celia and Jack Griswold lived on an exposed ridge twenty minutes from Bentman, far outside the reach of the town’s modest fire department. But they thought the inconveniences—even the dangers—were worth the solitude and the view. The Bentman River Valley spread out almost two thousand feet below them, and wherever they looked they saw irrigated orchards, mountains, streams, and rivers.
But they could also see thousands of acres of clear-cuts—more of them every year—and even on a hazy day big brown gaping holes appeared in the green fabric of the land, dead spaces, like abandoned buildings, where nothing much lived.
Celia walked down their well-rutted driveway, lined on her right by brittle grass and growths of scraggly scrub oak, and on her left by a row of young firs that looked like neatly trimmed Christmas trees. But when she stopped and rubbed the needles, they crumbled in her hand.
She looked up at the gray pall that hung over the valley.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Jack caught up to her. “That’s from the big forest fire near Portland. Seven thousand acres so far.”
Celia nodded. “Seems like half the state is burning. Let’s make sure everything is still working.”
They brushed past the branches of one of the young firs and made their way around bushes and trees to a large wooden cover that seemed to hover inches above the dry grass. It capped a round tank that had been sunk deep into the ground. The tank measured eight feet across and could store enough water to fight a serious blaze. A short weathered wooden shelter stood nearby. It housed a motor about twice the size of a lawn mower’s, and a long thick hose that looked exactly like the cream-colored ones Celia had seen stacked neatly on the backs of fire trucks. Only, Jack and Celia’s hose wasn’t stacked neatly; it had been tossed onto the motor like a tangled net, and Celia had a pretty good idea why.
“Jack, when was the last time you checked this?’
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess it’s been a while. I’ll take care of it.”
“I can help,” Celia said cheerfully. She really didn’t mind. She knew she needed a certain amount of physical activity, especially on weekends. It was such a welcome escape from the emotional demands of the workweek. Yesterday, for instance, when Jack went into his insurance agency to catch up on some claims, she hiked up Mount Bentman—a good fivehour effort—and later today, when it cooled off a bit, she might hit the trails near their house.
But now they had to deal with the hose. She and Jack hauled all of it out of the housing, then carefully laid it back in place.
As she bent over to check the gas can, she heard Jack lift up the cover of the tank and swear.
“Come over here and get a load of this.”
He pointed to more than a dozen dead rats floating on the surface of the water, which had receded a good six or seven feet.
“God, that’s disgusting. They’re huge. I’ve never seen rats that big.”
“They’re just bloated from the water. You would be too if you’d been down there that long.”
“That’s a horrible thought.”
“What’s that?”
“Being stuck down there. How long do you think they’ve been there?”
“Who knows?” Jack stared at the rotting rats. “I guess they drowned.”
“That’s a safe assumption.” She laughed and squeezed her husband’s shoulder affectionately before looking back into the tank. “There sure has been a lot of evaporation. The water level has gone way down.”
“My guess is the drought forced them to try and get something to drink, but once they fell in they couldn’t get out.” He nodded at the slick black plastic walls. “Now, Christ, I guess we’ve got to do it for them.”
“How about a shovel? We could scoop them out.” She thought it might work but Jack threw her a skeptical look.
“What about a crab net? Do we have one of those?” Celia knew that would be perfect. She had used one as a little girl to catch crabs all along the docks of her hometown. They were crafty little red-and-yellow creatures with dark beady eyes that stared up at you through the oil-streaked water. They had quick stubby legs and could scramble under the pilings so fast that if you didn’t scoop them up on the first pass, they disappeared.
Even so, she’d caught quite a few of them and dumped their struggling bodies into a bucket. Sometimes they hung on to the net as if they were holding on for dear life, and she’d had to take a rock or a stick and beat them till they let go. As the pail started to fill, they’d fight and tear off one another’s legs. That would really get to her, the way they’d hold up their pincers as if they were showing off their bloody prize. Then they’d start fighting all over again—when there was fresh meat to steal.
“A crab net? Sure, Cel, it’s right over there by the shrimp boat.” Jack laughed with good humor, much as his wife had moments ago.
“Okay, okay, but we’ve got to get them out or they might get sucked up into the line.” She nodded at the black intake line running down the far side of the tank.
“No, they won’t.” He rubbed drops of perspiration off his upper lip. “There’s a wire cage over the end of that thing.”
“Still . . .” Her voice faltered as she placed her hands on her hips. With short brown hair and pretty features, Celia could have been the girl next door, if there had been a next door.
“Yes, I know,” he sighed.
“I’ve got it!” She clapped her hands once, startling Jack. “We can fill up the tank, and then we can drag them out with the rake and shovel.”
“Yeah, that ought to do it,” he agreed without much enthusiasm.
They linked together two fifty-foot lengths of green garden hose and turned on the faucet. Celia could hear faint splashing sounds as they went inside to get a drink.
Their house was attractive—single-level cedar—and had three bedrooms, the smallest of which she used as her studio. Her favorite haunt for just hanging out was the living room. It had a cathedral ceiling with massive beams and a blue-enameled woodstove. The color matched the tile in the adjoining kitchen, which easily accommodated a full-sized antique oak table and chairs. Jack propped himself on one of them and yawned as Celia rooted in the refrigerator.
“Would you grab me a beer?” He sat down.
“Sure.”
She handed him a tall-necked bottle and poured herself some mineral water, which she doused with a splash of cranberry juice. The dark liquid blossomed into a pink cloud as it drifted to the bottom of the glass.
Celia took a deep, satisfying drink, and almost spilled the bubbly concoction on her cotton top. She quickly wiped away a dribble running down her chin, and tried mightily to put aside any thoughts of the rats because more than anything she wanted to make love. She’d been thinking about it all weekend. She was pretty sure she was ovulating, and if they were ever going to have children they’d have to make the most of these moments.
“How long do you think we should let those hoses go?”
“I think an hour ought to do it.” Jack sipped his beer and looked dreamily out the window.
Celia sat down and slid her hand across the table and toyed with his wedding band. “That ought to be enough time, don’t you think?”
She imagined his warm damp lips on her neck and ears and felt the first flush of arousal. It was true Jack had put on some weight over the years, but his blond hair remained rich and full and his smile still unsettled her in a pleasing way. Besides, she wanted to be held and hugged, and she wanted the rougher edges too.
He glanced at her. “What do you mean?”
She wondered why he was proving so difficult, but carried on despite her misgivings.
“I got a special-mail order, and I thought you might like to open the package and see what’s inside.”
He looked around the room, as though he might find a parcel suddenly appearing amid their well-ordered surroundings.
“Where is it?”
She took a deep breath and stood up.
“It’s right under here.” She lifted her top just high enough to give him a glimpse of the pink lace. “And here.” Her hands slipped inside the waistband of her shorts and slid them down slowly, seductively, until the sheer front panel of her panties appeared, bold and revealing in the sunlight. “From your favorite catalog, Victoria’s Secret.”
Jack groaned, and her heart sank.
“I’m sorry, Cel, but Victoria’s going to have to keep her secrets to herself today. I’m too hot and tired to move.”
She sat back down and stared at her glass. When she looked up, her inviting smile was gone.
“Look, we haven’t made love in weeks, and once again it’s that time of the month when all systems are on go. If we don’t go for it today, we’ll probably miss another month.” Her arms crossed her chest, as if she were cold all of a sudden. “It’s always one thing or another with you lately. Do you want kids or don’t you?”
He looked away as he talked. “Yes, I want kids very much, but I don’t find looking at a bunch of rats very romantic—”
“No, I can understand that, but—”
“And I’m hot and tired and it’s been nothing but chores all day long. I need a break.”
“Wait a minute, did you just say chores?” This stunned Celia, that making love to her should fall so casually into such a dreary category. “Thanks a lot.”
“That’s not—”
“I love being grouped along with scraping paint off the windows and cleaning up a bunch of dead rats.” Her eyebrows, dark brown like her hair, rose and fell with her words.
Jack shook his head slowly. “I didn’t say that. You’re twisting it all around.”
“No, I’m not. That’s exactly what you said.”
“Well, it’s not what I meant.”
She took a long swallow of her watered-down juice and tried to calm down. The thought of making love had made her nipples flutter to life like two little birds, but now they embarrassed her with their brazenness. She felt awkward sitting there as Jack once again stared out the window.
Another moment of uneasiness passed before he stood up and carried his beer into the living room. She watched him sink into the couch and pick his way through the remains of the paper. Her skin dampened from the heat of his humbling indifference and the flood of footlights she now trained on her every imagined flaw. The bathroom with its cool shower beckoned.
She saw the single-edge razor lying on the vanity, with dried paint curled along its edge, and stared at it for several seconds. Last weekend they’d painted the inside trim but hadn’t bothered to scrape off the splatters. Jack had said he’d clean them up.
“Are you through with the window, because—”
“Yeah, I’m done,” he shouted back; “you can put it away.”
She brushed the shavings into the wastebasket, then noticed a paint drip left on the window and scraped it off. She dusted the razor once more and placed it in the cabinet below the sink.
As she stood back up she looked into the full-length mirror on the back of the door and stepped out of her shorts and top. She unhooked her bra and slipped out of her panties with far less fanfare than she had anticipated when she put them on. After laying aside her clothing, she scrutinized herself.
More than Jack’s distance came into play here. Last month she had turned thirty-eight, and even though she considered it entirely unliberated she looked for the physical signs of decline that usually began to appear on the downhill side of the fourth decade. The sweaty humiliation that had beaded on her face and arms minutes ago now cooled, and she looked at herself candidly. She did not feel too abused by the experience.
Yes, I’m thirty-eight, and yes, I’m not quite what I used to be, but—her eyes moved up and down her body—things could be worse. A cheerfulness flickered, and an irrepressible good-naturedness soon smiled at the silliness of standing there. She thought of how she was approaching the autumn of her life, and consoled herself by quipping that at least the leaves hadn’t started to fall. She did regard her breasts suspiciously, as if they might let her down if she placed too much confidence in them. They were small, but hardly absent, and her nipples—damn them!—were still erect as church spires. She considered herself fortunate to have been poorly endowed. She hadn’t always felt so lucky. As a teenager she envied the larger cups of her classmates and had noticed the way the boys eyed them too, but after a period of almost ceaseless breast-building exercises (“We must, we must . . .”) she gave up and resigned herself to her diminutive status.
The braless seventies had been her first real hint that maybe small was indeed beautiful, and every year since had reinforced this opinion. She wore a bra to work for the sake of modesty, and she wore more suggestive styles at home for precisely the opposite reason. Not that it had done much good lately. She suffered her resentment of Jack briefly, and then her fingers threaded down through the dark hairs below her pale little belly.
She turned from the mirror to the tub with its promise of simple fulfillment. The window shade was up, and beyond the tile the tall pines stood. She leaned over and turned on the faucets for the bath; and now both of her hands were wet and warm, the one that touched herself and the one that tested the water.
She sat down and scooted close to the delightful pressure that spilled and puddled and warmed her bottom. She lay back, and as her heels climbed the cool ceramic wall she inched forward until her open legs welcomed the steady pulse that poured from the spout. She reached to turn up the hot water just a little and took a momentary pride in the neat tensioning of her stomach muscles. When she leaned back they relaxed, and the soothing flow soon warmed her entire body.

1
Celia took off her smock and draped it over a chair, happy to shed the extra layer. The heat was starting to get to her, and she knew she’d better quit. Her Sunday-morning session at her easel had ended. As she walked out of her studio she glanced at the wall to her left, which was covered with children’s art, and smiled at her growing collection.
Jack was no longer in the living room where she’d left him with the newspaper, what, two hours ago? That long, really? She wandered out the front door and found it just as stifling outside as it was in the house, then walked around the corner of the deck to the bathroom window. Last weekend he’d painted the inside trim, but hadn’t taken the time to scrape the splatters off the glass. He said he’d clean them up today, and it looked as if he’d finished the job, but where was he? She had trouble seeing in because of the sunlight on the screen.
“Jack?”
She heard him quickly fold up the paper. “Yeah?”
“We better get moving on this. I’m going to go on down to the tank.”
“Okay, I’ll be right there.”
They had put off the fire drill for months, and she wanted to inspect the equipment and check the water supply before the temperature topped one hundred. The sun already burned directly overhead, and the trees offered little shade. The day was turning into a real scorcher. Smoky, too. Half of Oregon seemed to be in flames. Nothing but forest fires and drought from one end of the state to the other. Land as dry as a biscuit.
Celia and Jack Griswold lived on an exposed ridge twenty minutes from Bentman, far outside the reach of the town’s modest fire department. But they thought the inconveniences—even the dangers—were worth the solitude and the view. The Bentman River Valley spread out almost two thousand feet below them, and wherever they looked they saw irrigated orchards, mountains, streams, and rivers.
But they could also see thousands of acres of clear-cuts—more of them every year—and even on a hazy day big brown gaping holes appeared in the green fabric of the land, dead spaces, like abandoned buildings, where nothing much lived.
Celia walked down their well-rutted driveway, lined on her right by brittle grass and growths of scraggly scrub oak, and on her left by a row of young firs that looked like neatly trimmed Christmas trees. But when she stopped and rubbed the needles, they crumbled in her hand.
She looked up at the gray pall that hung over the valley.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Jack caught up to her. “That’s from the big forest fire near Portland. Seven thousand acres so far.”
Celia nodded. “Seems like half the state is burning. Let’s make sure everything is still working.”
They brushed past the branches of one of the young firs and made their way around bushes and trees to a large wooden cover that seemed to hover inches above the dry grass. It capped a round tank that had been sunk deep into the ground. The tank measured eight feet across and could store enough water to fight a serious blaze. A short weathered wooden shelter stood nearby. It housed a motor about twice the size of a lawn mower’s, and a long thick hose that looked exactly like the cream-colored ones Celia had seen stacked neatly on the backs of fire trucks. Only, Jack and Celia’s hose wasn’t stacked neatly; it had been tossed onto the motor like a tangled net, and Celia had a pretty good idea why.
“Jack, when was the last time you checked this?’
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess it’s been a while. I’ll take care of it.”
“I can help,” Celia said cheerfully. She really didn’t mind. She knew she needed a certain amount of physical activity, especially on weekends. It was such a welcome escape from the emotional demands of the workweek. Yesterday, for instance, when Jack went into his insurance agency to catch up on some claims, she hiked up Mount Bentman—a good fivehour effort—and later today, when it cooled off a bit, she might hit the trails near their house.
But now they had to deal with the hose. She and Jack hauled all of it out of the housing, then carefully laid it back in place.
As she bent over to check the gas can, she heard Jack lift up the cover of the tank and swear.
“Come over here and get a load of this.”
He pointed to more than a dozen dead rats floating on the surface of the water, which had receded a good six or seven feet.
“God, that’s disgusting. They’re huge. I’ve never seen rats that big.”
“They’re just bloated from the water. You would be too if you’d been down there that long.”
“That’s a horrible thought.”
“What’s that?”
“Being stuck down there. How long do you think they’ve been there?”
“Who knows?” Jack stared at the rotting rats. “I guess they drowned.”
“That’s a safe assumption.” She laughed and squeezed her husband’s shoulder affectionately before looking back into the tank. “There sure has been a lot of evaporation. The water level has gone way down.”
“My guess is the drought forced them to try and get something to drink, but once they fell in they couldn’t get out.” He nodded at the slick black plastic walls. “Now, Christ, I guess we’ve got to do it for them.”
“How about a shovel? We could scoop them out.” She thought it might work but Jack threw her a skeptical look.
“What about a crab net? Do we have one of those?” Celia knew that would be perfect. She had used one as a little girl to catch crabs all along the docks of her hometown. They were crafty little red-and-yellow creatures with dark beady eyes that stared up at you through the oil-streaked water. They had quick stubby legs and could scramble under the pilings so fast that if you didn’t scoop them up on the first pass, they disappeared.
Even so, she’d caught quite a few of them and dumped their struggling bodies into a bucket. Sometimes they hung on to the net as if they were holding on for dear life, and she’d had to take a rock or a stick and beat them till they let go. As the pail started to fill, they’d fight and tear off one another’s legs. That would really get to her, the way they’d hold up their pincers as if they were showing off their bloody prize. Then they’d start fighting all over again—when there was fresh meat to steal.
“A crab net? Sure, Cel, it’s right over there by the shrimp boat.” Jack laughed with good humor, much as his wife had moments ago.
“Okay, okay, but we’ve got to get them out or they might get sucked up into the line.” She nodded at the black intake line running down the far side of the tank.
“No, they won’t.” He rubbed drops of perspiration off his upper lip. “There’s a wire cage over the end of that thing.”
“Still . . .” Her voice faltered as she placed her hands on her hips. With short brown hair and pretty features, Celia could have been the girl next door, if there had been a next door.
“Yes, I know,” he sighed.
“I’ve got it!” She clapped her hands once, startling Jack. “We can fill up the tank, and then we can drag them out with the rake and shovel.”
“Yeah, that ought to do it,” he agreed without much enthusiasm.
They linked together two fifty-foot lengths of green garden hose and turned on the faucet. Celia could hear faint splashing sounds as they went inside to get a drink.
Their house was attractive—single-level cedar—and had three bedrooms, the smallest of which she used as her studio. Her favorite haunt for just hanging out was the living room. It had a cathedral ceiling with massive beams and a blue-enameled woodstove. The color matched the tile in the adjoining kitchen, which easily accommodated a full-sized antique oak table and chairs. Jack propped himself on one of them and yawned as Celia rooted in the refrigerator.
“Would you grab me a beer?” He sat down.
“Sure.”
She handed him a tall-necked bottle and poured herself some mineral water, which she doused with a splash of cranberry juice. The dark liquid blossomed into a pink cloud as it drifted to the bottom of the glass.
Celia took a deep, satisfying drink, and almost spilled the bubbly concoction on her cotton top. She quickly wiped away a dribble running down her chin, and tried mightily to put aside any thoughts of the rats because more than anything she wanted to make love. She’d been thinking about it all weekend. She was pretty sure she was ovulating, and if they were ever going to have children they’d have to make the most of these moments.
“How long do you think we should let those hoses go?”
“I think an hour ought to do it.” Jack sipped his beer and looked dreamily out the window.
Celia sat down and slid her hand across the table and toyed with his wedding band. “That ought to be enough time, don’t you think?”
She imagined his warm damp lips on her neck and ears and felt the first flush of arousal. It was true Jack had put on some weight over the years, but his blond hair remained rich and full and his smile still unsettled her in a pleasing way. Besides, she wanted to be held and hugged, and she wanted the rougher edges too.
He glanced at her. “What do you mean?”
She wondered why he was proving so difficult, but carried on despite her misgivings.
“I got a special-mail order, and I thought you might like to open the package and see what’s inside.”
He looked around the room, as though he might find a parcel suddenly appearing amid their well-ordered surroundings.
“Where is it?”
She took a deep breath and stood up.
“It’s right under here.” She lifted her top just high enough to give him a glimpse of the pink lace. “And here.” Her hands slipped inside the waistband of her shorts and slid them down slowly, seductively, until the sheer front panel of her panties appeared, bold and revealing in the sunlight. “From your favorite catalog, Victoria’s Secret.”
Jack groaned, and her heart sank.
“I’m sorry, Cel, but Victoria’s going to have to keep her secrets to herself today. I’m too hot and tired to move.”
She sat back down and stared at her glass. When she looked up, her inviting smile was gone.
“Look, we haven’t made love in weeks, and once again it’s that time of the month when all systems are on go. If we don’t go for it today, we’ll probably miss another month.” Her arms crossed her chest, as if she were cold all of a sudden. “It’s always one thing or another with you lately. Do you want kids or don’t you?”
He looked away as he talked. “Yes, I want kids very much, but I don’t find looking at a bunch of rats very romantic—”
“No, I can understand that, but—”
“And I’m hot and tired and it’s been nothing but chores all day long. I need a break.”
“Wait a minute, did you just say chores?” This stunned Celia, that making love to her should fall so casually into such a dreary category. “Thanks a lot.”
“That’s not—”
“I love being grouped along with scraping paint off the windows and cleaning up a bunch of dead rats.” Her eyebrows, dark brown like her hair, rose and fell with her words.
Jack shook his head slowly. “I didn’t say that. You’re twisting it all around.”
“No, I’m not. That’s exactly what you said.”
“Well, it’s not what I meant.”
She took a long swallow of her watered-down juice and tried to calm down. The thought of making love had made her nipples flutter to life like two little birds, but now they embarrassed her with their brazenness. She felt awkward sitting there as Jack once again stared out the window.
Another moment of uneasiness passed before he stood up and carried his beer into the living room. She watched him sink into the couch and pick his way through the remains of the paper. Her skin dampened from the heat of his humbling indifference and the flood of footlights she now trained on her every imagined flaw. The bathroom with its cool shower beckoned.
She saw the single-edge razor lying on the vanity, with dried paint curled along its edge, and stared at it for several seconds. Last weekend they’d painted the inside trim but hadn’t bothered to scrape off the splatters. Jack had said he’d clean them up.
“Are you through with the window, because—”
“Yeah, I’m done,” he shouted back; “you can put it away.”
She brushed the shavings into the wastebasket, then noticed a paint drip left on the window and scraped it off. She dusted the razor once more and placed it in the cabinet below the sink.
As she stood back up she looked into the full-length mirror on the back of the door and stepped out of her shorts and top. She unhooked her bra and slipped out of her panties with far less fanfare than she had anticipated when she put them on. After laying aside her clothing, she scrutinized herself.
More than Jack’s distance came into play here. Last month she had turned thirty-eight, and even though she considered it entirely unliberated she looked for the physical signs of decline that usually began to appear on the downhill side of the fourth decade. The sweaty humiliation that had beaded on her face and arms minutes ago now cooled, and she looked at herself candidly. She did not feel too abused by the experience.
Yes, I’m thirty-eight, and yes, I’m not quite what I used to be, but—her eyes moved up and down her body—things could be worse. A cheerfulness flickered, and an irrepressible good-naturedness soon smiled at the silliness of standing there. She thought of how she was approaching the autumn of her life, and consoled herself by quipping that at least the leaves hadn’t started to fall. She did regard her breasts suspiciously, as if they might let her down if she placed too much confidence in them. They were small, but hardly absent, and her nipples—damn them!—were still erect as church spires. She considered herself fortunate to have been poorly endowed. She hadn’t always felt so lucky. As a teenager she envied the larger cups of her classmates and had noticed the way the boys eyed them too, but after a period of almost ceaseless breast-building exercises (“We must, we must . . .”) she gave up and resigned herself to her diminutive status.
The braless seventies had been her first real hint that maybe small was indeed beautiful, and every year since had reinforced this opinion. She wore a bra to work for the sake of modesty, and she wore more suggestive styles at home for precisely the opposite reason. Not that it had done much good lately. She suffered her resentment of Jack briefly, and then her fingers threaded down through the dark hairs below her pale little belly.
She turned from the mirror to the tub with its promise of simple fulfillment. The window shade was up, and beyond the tile the tall pines stood. She leaned over and turned on the faucets for the bath; and now both of her hands were wet and warm, the one that touched herself and the one that tested the water.
She sat down and scooted close to the delightful pressure that spilled and puddled and warmed her bottom. She lay back, and as her heels climbed the cool ceramic wall she inched forward until her open legs welcomed the steady pulse that poured from the spout. She reached to turn up the hot water just a little and took a momentary pride in the neat tensioning of her stomach muscles. When she leaned back they relaxed, and the soothing flow soon warmed her entire body.

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