You don’t go out with Rose any more. It’s easier. She stays home – you leave her at the kitchen table, bare legs tucked under her chair, knitting a sweater – and you drive to town. The car’s low on gas, the potholes in the road ought to be fixed but won’t be, and when you pull up outside the grocery store the old woman opposite stares at you from her porch like you’d just spat in her eye. You give her a glance as you walk past, acknowledgement, that’s all she gets. Her husband is watching you from the upstairs window; you learn to notice these things.
Someone’s taken your card down from the shop door again, but you brought another with you ('dave strider, all odd jobs, name your price'), so you stick it back up with the others. Today you manage to get the groceries, pay, and leave the shop without saying a word to the owner, which you think might be a record. There’s no one around as you get back in the car.
You kick your shoes off on the front porch and they stir eddies of dust in the dry air. The paint’s peeling off the front door and the wooden slats on either side of it, but inside it’s cooler, and Rose is still at the table. She’s set her knitting to one side.
“I got more tinned shit,” you say, swinging the grocery bag onto the table.
“Thank you, O Great Provider,” she says, and her shoulder is tense when you rest your hand on it. “I think we may be single-handedly responsible for the continued survival of the American tin industry.”
“Wish they’d give us something for it. Like, hey, you filled up your tinned shit reward card, congrats. Here’s a working refrigerator. Maybe your apple juice doesn’t have to go in the basement any more. Enjoy the life of luxury.”
She almost smiles.
There’s been another outbreak of something – you don’t bother asking any more – and you got a call, so you spend your morning at the Patricks’ farm down the road shooting cows in the head. By the end of it your shoes and the cuffs of your pants are spattered with blood and greenish drool, and there’s no way that’s not gonna stain now. You drive home barefoot, your filthy shoes in the trunk and a bundle of crumpled notes in your pocket, trying not to think at all.
Rose meets you on the porch, looks you over, takes you by the hand and pulls you upstairs. In the shower, under the inconsistent trickle of the water, she pushes you up against the tiled wall, bites her way down your neck, kisses your chest.
You’re muttering encouragements, pushing her wet hair off her face, when she makes a noise like something’s stabbed her in the chest. She tents her nails into your hipbone, sinks to the ground and curls into the corner, and if this wasn’t Rose you’d say her breaths sound more like sobs.
“Fuck,” you say, drop to your knees and wrap your arms around her shoulders. She’s shaking. You can feel her eyelashes against the skin of your throat; the showerhead sputters water that’s suddenly hot enough to scald across your back. None of it hits Rose.
The two of you sit next to each other on the porch, Rose with her legs crossed in front of her, watching the light die in bars of pink and grey and blue on the horizon. The trees and the far-off farmsteads and houses stand out black against the sky. You look at her, take in her back perfectly straight, hands clasped in her lap, the shadows under her eyes bringing out the colour of them.
“It feels-” she says, and pauses reflectively, “almost oceanic, in nature. It’s a sense of depth and age and vastness all at once, and certainly it’s dangerous, but I believe it’s benevolent.”
You think of the way her hands trembled for three hours straight this morning, how she started speaking in a language you couldn’t recognise, hunched over the kitchen table, and you had to close all the shutters in case a passing car heard her and hold her until she passed out, exhausted.
“I think I’m gonna have to disagree with you there,” you tell her quietly.
“Well- perhaps non-malevolent would be a more accurate term. I don’t think it’s aware of morality, not in the way we comprehend it. But it doesn’t want me to know any of this. Every time I think too much, every time I question it, even subconsciously—”
She winces, suddenly, the corners of her mouth twitching. You rest a hand on her thigh.
“Easy,” you say.
You dream you’re in town and all the buildings are pale and bloated, like they’re made of drowned skin. The dust on the road congeals and clings to your ankles, layer upon layer, thickening to slime that clogs your path. When you try to step forward the buildings strain and burst, and a cascade of pale water pours into the street; visceral, slippery things the size of your head float obscenely through the flood, and you can’t breathe –
When you jerk awake Rose is sitting up against the headboard, staring into nothing.
“Rose,” you say. “Rose.”
When she speaks to you it sounds like her throat is contracting and twisting around the words, or her tongue has split into five tongues and they’re tangling themselves into knots.
“Rose,” you say, desperate. You grab her wrists, kiss her mouth, and she arches her back to press herself against you, biting your lower lip until you can taste blood; you need to keep her here, that’s all, you just need to keep her here with you.
You open your eyes as the early morning sunlight streams, pale and greyish, through the gaps in the shutters. Rose is gone and the bed is cold, but it was cold last night when you were pressed against her, and when you leant into her shoulder her skin was colder still.
You go out front and start the car.