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 her--desperate 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 words--the cry of anguish that should have shattered the very air--dribbled 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 veranda--and the cavernous rooms beyond--she 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 agony--the 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.
Janet Conway felt the first flush of humiliation even before the clerk spoke. She was already calculating the amount of cash in her wallet as he picked up the phone and listened to what Janet had long ago come to think of as the Voice. The Voice was always the same. Perfectly pleasant. Perfectly reasonable. So familiar she could easily have limned a sketch of the face that belonged to it--a bland face, mostly round, with the kind of soft features that were the most difficult to draw, and devoid of any emotion whatsoever. The pronouncement of the Voice would be final: "The credit limit is exceeded."She felt her face redden with embarrassment. You should be used to it by now, she told herself. After all these years, you should expect it. Unwilling to meet the clerk's eyes, she scanned the meager pile of supplies she'd put into her shopping basket: five tubes of paint, three of them shades of blue. She really needed only the cobalt. And she could do without two of the brushes, but the other one was absolutely necessary.
More necessary than food for tonight?
Her flush deepened, her humiliation turning into anger. Her gaze shifted from the artists' supplies on the counter to the young man--no more than two or three years older than her twins--who looked even more embarrassed than she felt. "It's not your fault," she assured him. And it's not mine, either, she could have added, but didn't. "We don't air our dirty laundry in public," her mother's voice--stilled by cancer five years ago--echoed in her mind. "I'm sure it's just a mix-up," she told the clerk, forcing a smile that she hoped might cover her true emotions, and imagining her mother's nod of approval. "I'll pick these things up this afternoon." As she strode from the shop and out into the sweltering Louisiana morning, she felt the clerk's gaze following her, and knew the young man didn't believe she'd be back any more than she did.
Maybe some afternoon next week, but certainly not this one.
She listened to the engine crank on her old Toyota, praying it would catch since there was no more chance her Visa card would be accepted at the garage than at the art supply store. Finally, she released the breath she hadn't realized she was holding as the motor sputtered into reluctant life.
Though the market was her next stop, and she knew the kids would be expecting her, she turned the car in the opposite direction, deciding it was more important to deal with the credit card issue right now than to put it off until Ted came home from work. If he came home, she thought, which was, as always, an everyday question in her life.
The Majestic Hotel might have been the pride of Shreveport--as its marquee proudly proclaimed--once upon a time, but once upon a time had been a long time ago. Parking in front of the ugly brick building in defiance of a GUESTS ONLY sign, Janet hesitated in front of the building, taking a last deep breath of fresh air against the stale cigarette odor she knew she would find inside, then pushing open the dirt-filmed glass door into the lobby. What next? she wondered as she stepped over a large tear in the threadbare carpeting. At least the last hotel in which Ted worked had managed to keep its lobby looking decent. Where would he wind up after this?
She didn't even want to think about it.
As she started toward the assistant manager's office, the desk clerk gave her a brief nod. "He ain't in his office, Miz Conway." He cocked his head toward the bar. "He's on break." Her anger, which had settled to a low smolder, flared up again. The desk clerk's lips twisted into a knowing smirk. "Been on break for about an hour now."
Once again Janet heard her mother's remembered voice in her head: "Don't kill the messenger just because you don't like the message!" She nodded a barely perceptible thanks to the clerk as she veered off toward the bar and a moment later stepped into its smoky interior. Half a dozen early drinkers littered the length of the bar. A bleached blonde of about forty, encased in a dress two sizes too small for her ample body, peered blearily at Janet just long enough to satisfy herself that she still had no competition in the room, then returned to her seduction of the shabbily dressed men sitting next to her. Apparently, she thought, the Majestic couldn't even attract a decent class of hooker anymore.
Spotting her husband on the second stool from the end of the bar, Janet brushed by the aging prostitute and took a stance in front of Ted with her arms crossed.
"It happened again," she said, lowering her voice so the bartender couldn't hear her. She could tell by Ted's expression that he knew exactly what she was talking about. To his credit, he at least didn't try to deny it.
"I ran short of cash," he told her. His eyes met hers, and, as always, the look of contrition on his face--the genuine sorrow in his chestnut eyes--chipped away at her anger. "All I put on it was a hundred."
"But it was a hundred more than we could afford," Janet objected, her voice rising more than she'd intended.
Tony, who was lazily rinsing glasses in the sink behind his bar, glanced their way. "And it's a hundred less than Ted owes."
Janet bit her lip, and Ted winced visibly.
"Look, honey, I'm really sorry. But you know how it is--"
"No, I don't know how it is," Janet interrupted, her anger flooding back in the face of his automatic expectation that no matter how bad things got, she would always understand. "I don't know why you keep on drinking up your paycheck every week when we barely have enough money to pay the rent and eat, let alone keep the car running and keep me in art supplies." She regretted the last words the moment they came out, for the look in Ted's eyes told her she'd offered him an escape.
"If you earned enough with your paintings, maybe I wouldn't have to pay for the supplies--" he began, but she didn't let him finish.
"The last three canvases I sold paid off the credit cards and bought the kids their Christmas presents. And if I have to, I can borrow some money from Keith at the gallery, since he's sure he won't have any trouble selling the two I'm working on." She hesitated, even tried to hold the next words back, but her anger won out. "And if I have to borrow money from Keith, you'd better believe I'm going to tell him why I need it. I'm not
going to make up any stories to cover for you." Her voice was rising, and suddenly everyone at the bar was looking at her. She could hear her mother clucking with disapproval, but she ignored the warning. "Is that what you want, Ted? Do you want me to start telling everyone why the credit cards are maxed out and the checks are starting to bounce again?" She glanced around the seedy bar and shook her head in disgust. "Even the manager of this place won't want you working for him anymore."
The look of sorrow was back in his eyes. "I'll stop," he promised. "I swear to God, hon, I won't have another drink until every bill we have is paid off." He fumbled in his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and handed her all the cash he had. "Take it," he said. "Take it all. Maybe it'll be enough for whatever you need."
Janet gazed at him for a long time. Even in the dim light of the bar, she could see the pain in his expression. Beneath the erosion alcohol had carved on his features, the remains of the boyish looks that had first attracted her to him were still visible. She reached out as if to take the money, but her hand fell back to her side and she shook her head. "It's not the money, Ted," she said, her anger finally draining away. "It's you. I don't want your money. I want you." Turning away from her husband, Janet fled the dim bar, emerging into the light and heat of the morning.
At least I didn't cry, she told herself as she got back in the Toyota. At least I didn't let any of them see me cry.
But as she drove away, the tears she'd managed to control in the bar finally overcame her, running freely down her face.
Ted Conway watched his wife hurry out of the bar, then pushed his empty glass away, stood, and shoved his wallet back in his pocket. But before he could start back to his office, his eye fell on the empty glass.
He looked at it for a long time, knowing he should leave it where it was and go back to work. Instead he sat back down on the stool and nudged the empty glass toward Tony. "I guess one more won't hurt, will it?"