(missed the last chapter? Go to 49: Snake in the Garden)
I’VE BEEN LYING in the sun only a few moments, it seems, when I hear the voices.
“… amazing recovery … looks twenty years younger.” A man, vaguely familiar.
“But she’s gone the other way. Or so I hear.” A woman. Smug.
“Maybe he stole the years from her.”
“He can suck my bus anytime.”
I yank myself up, suddenly sure they’re talking about John and me.
“Hello?” I call out.
“Hello!” I make my voice cheerful. “It’s Lacy, your neighbor.” I cast about for faces to match the voices. “I fell asleep. Wondering if you know what time it is?”
The wind has picked up. Rustling through the oak leaves like distant laughter. I spy a knothole in the fence and peer through. I see a flash of white, like the tail of man’s shirt, darting away.
The sun dims, blocked by rainclouds, fat and dark as rotting mushrooms. Shivering, I turn to go inside.
Were the voices real?” I feel a jab of doubt. Was I sleeping?
Inside, I turn on the gas burner and set the kettle to boil. The storm breaks, clattering against the window. The wind makes patterns in the air, pushing raindrops sideways in hypnotic gusts. If I stare too long, I can see shapes. Animals, birds, a screaming face, gripping the window like prophets.
I shiver and decide it’s a good day for comfort food. I peruse the cookbooks on the shelf, and choose one called Simply Delicious: Easy Appetizers and Soups.
When I flip to the recipe for creamy tomato soup with rosemary, I find a postcard of a hummingbird against a backdrop of red flowers. The Magic Caribbean. I turn it over and read the back. February 19, 1996. Dear Baby Sis, I am having the best time. Ever! I can’t wait to see you and tell you all about it. Are you okay? Having weird dreams about you. Love, Dorothy.
How did this card end up in my house? It was written to my mom when I was eleven. Back when my life resembled something normal. Two loving parents and aunt Dorothy across the street.
Suddenly, I feel bereft.
Dorothy. Whenever I ask to see her, John says that the rehab facility won’t allow visitors until she’d reaches level three, whatever that is. Dr. Rolfe let it slip that Dorothy only made it to level two before relapsing. He said Dorothy’s roommate, a level-three patient, had gotten a bunch of Oxycontin from one of her visitors and shared it with Dorothy. No telling when I was going to get to see her, now.
“There you are!” John slides his arms around my waist and leans in to kiss my cheek. “I was afraid you were getting soaked out there. Last time I checked, you were snoozing.”
“I heard the neighbors talking and woke up.” My voice sounds dull, muffled under the sound of the rain.
John’s body tenses. “What neighbors?”
A name pops into my head. “Louis. The gay guy from next door, and one of his friends … I forget her name.”
“You spoke with them?”
“No.” The teapot whistles. I pull away. “I called out, but I guess they already left.”
I pour hot water over a teabag, sit down at the antique mahogany kitchen table, and set the mug carefully on a coaster. What possessed us to get a kitchen table this impractical and grand?
“It must have been someone cutting through their yard.” John has his back to me, making coffee. “Louis is in Italy until next month.”
“But they were talking about us.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He said recovery, and …” I stop, remembering the miraculous recovery had been attributed to a “he.” The rest of the conversation—succubus, suck my bus—makes even less sense.
“Never mind. I was probably dreaming.” I gulp my tea and burn my tongue. “Damn it.” I stomp to the freezer for a cube of ice.
When I turn around, John gives me a quizzical look. “Are you all right?”
“Peachy!” I drop the ice cube in my tea. It splashes, probably marring the damned antique table. I swipe at it carelessly. In college, my friends and I used to make fun of people who spent all their time and money creating shiny little houses so they could feel better about their not-so-shiny little lives. Was I one of them now?
John brings his coffee to the table. “Is there something you’re not telling me about the voices you heard today?”
“They weren’t in my head, if that’s what you’re implying!”
“All right,” he says quietly.
“I’m sorry. My shitty mood isn’t your fault.”
“Lacy.” He frowns into his mug. “You know I hate that kind of language.”
“Sorry.” I slurp my tea, trying not to feel like a rebellious teenager.
“Is this mood about the painting?”
“The painting?” I say, stupidly. “I hate it!”
“I should have realized that when you covered it. But you were so sick, I couldn’t focus on anything else.” He gives a rueful laugh. “I think I even forgot to shower for a few days.”
“It’s not your fault. I should have said something before… I don’t … it’s hard for me to even ….” I feel jerky, as if someone is working me with wires. “It’s just a painting!”
John leans closer and puts his hand on my knee. “I know why it upsets you.”
Thank god. John will tell me why I painted the thing, and it will be over. I’ll never have to think about it again.
John squeezes my knee. “Well, we were trying to have a baby.”
I clench my jaw, feeling jittery.
“At first, we told ourselves it takes time. After a year, we had tests. The doctor said we were both capable. He thought maybe it was stress, you know?”
“You were working at that group home, doing art therapy. Warrick.”
Warrick. The name, like an incantation. The whitewashed plantation house with columns rising up three stories. The trim lawns and circular drive. Massive, leafless trees gathered around like a crowd of spectators.
It feels like I’m standing at the border of another world, looking down a long blank landscape at something that used to be a garden, now only a blackened crust.
“I remember the girls,” I say slowly. “Some of them didn’t have anyone outside of the system. And my boss … brilliant, sadistic … what was her name?”
John looks amused. “Dr. Grey.”
Ice blue Armani suit, blonde hair atop her head like a crown. I look at John. Something about her reminds me of him. The eyes? Light gray, changeable, like a morphing keyhole.
“Do you know her? Aside from being my boss, I mean.”
John shrugs. “Our paths cross from time to time. It’s a small city.”
“It’s not that small. The metropolitan area is over a million people.”
“Among our people, it’s very small.”
“What do you mean, our people?” I frown.
“Lacy, don’t be dense.” Impatience edges into John’s voice, and I watch his face start to change—like the swirl of tiny currents beneath a glassy lake—into something harder and more angular. “Dr. Grey and I both sit on the board of directors of the New Hope Children’s Fund and we attend many of the same social functions. You’ve seen her at a number of parties, yourself.”
The lines of his face soften again. “But it’s not your fault. Of course, you don’t remember all that … and why should you?” John waves Richmond’s elite away with a flick of his wrist. “All that matters to me is you. Now.”
John bends toward me, and for a moment I think he’s going to kiss me. Not the chaste pecks he’s confined himself to. A real kiss. But he stops with his face six inches away from mine, and smiles.
I beam back, giddily. His smile is so pure. It gives me hope that I’ll keep getting better, and even get over my obsession with Branson—the traitor who dumped me like a sack of garbage.
John’s face shifts again. “We were talking about your painting.”
I go rigid. Brain full of prickling needles. Part of me peels off, climbing out of my own skin to listen to John in detachment.
“You’d quit your job at Warrick. I’d cut back my hours at the hospital. We made love every day, trying to get pregnant.”
John rubs my knee lightly. It isn’t exactly sexual, the rub, but I haven’t had sex since … I literally don’t know when. Both aroused and anxious, I jump up on the pretext of making another cup of tea. The starter on the stove clicks three times. The gas flames whoosh up, blue.
“Okay. I still don’t understand what all that has to do with the painting.”
John comes to stand next to me, so close the sleeve of his charcoal gray sweater brushes my arm. “You got bored.”
I want to laugh, or scream. I created that soul-sucking abomination because I was bored?
“You did, after all, minor in art. Art for art therapy’s sake, you used to joke. I suppose you inherited your creative bent from Kitty.”
I shrug. I feel resistant to learning anything more about my mother. Kitty. Even the name seems wrong.
“The original painting showed a pregnant woman sunbathing in a garden of flowers. But as the months passed, you kept painting and painting. Vines covered the flowers. The woman transformed. You called it your fetish.”
“A fertility fetish, a totem. To help you get pregnant.”
I think of the vines twining my wrists and legs, trying to enter me, plant new life. Except the life they want to create isn’t quite human—or so my delusion insists.
“I was losing it,” I mutter. “ I had to be losing it to paint that.”
John grabs my hands. “There’s nothing more pleasurable than bringing new life into the world.” He gazes at me with longing so naked that I’m embarrassed. “But I pushed too hard. It became a chore. I could see what was happening, but I just kept thinking, this is the month. Once she’s pregnant, we’ll be happy again. And I almost lost you.”
“I’m sorry,” I murmur.
“Lacy, all I want is to put the past behind us, and start again. We can even renew our vows, if you want to. I would love that, in fact. Lacy, will you marry me?”
“John, I … you’re so …” My head pounds in time with the drumming rain, like voices chanting, Run, run, run, run.
The teakettle whistles. I jump to shut off the gas.
John puts his arms around me and pulls me close. I stay rigid, despite his heat, listening to the rain. Run, run, run, run.
“Does the rain sound strange to you?”
“What do you mean?”
I pull back so I can look up at him. “Just listen, please!”
We stand together in silence, staring out at the fog colored sky scattering drops of itself against the window.