The town is comfortable and small; you've both always been small town people at heart, an irony that sits sharp in your throat when you swallow. Most importantly, Lakeside doesn't hold memories, for either of you, and that's as precious as your discovery of how Ben's laugh makes you smile and that he's ticklish.
(He's most ticklish across his stomach, where the crossbar of an ancient H still traces muscle. He doesn't like it when you touch him there. Anywhere but there.)
You rent a small apartment near the lake for two month, taking the time to enjoy the way the leaves darken and fall, laughing at how Wisconsin winters will seem tame after Maine. Late at night, Ben buries his face in your hair, breathing blowing warm on your neck. Embers to keep me warm, he murmurs, and in the morning you always have to unwind the curls from between his fingers.
By the second week, it's like you have always lived there.
You get a job part-time in the town gift shop, folding hand knit sweaters and learning how to make friendships again. You start designing clothes in free moments, sketches on scraps of paper, and it feels good for the first time in years. Ben sits in the apartment or in "his booth" at Mabel's diner, sketching plans and building mockups in between long talks with the town sheriff, who shares his sense of humor. At night you bring home rolls fresh from the bakery, and every time he kisses you hello is sweet and happy like your first kiss, lost in your forgotten childhood friendship.
(The town is small and practically perfect. Ben picks up fishing, and one afternoon you stop by to see Mr. Hinzelmann teach him to tie flies. He tells stories and jokes, looking gratified when you laugh. That night, though, your sleep is full of dreams, though you don't remember what exactly you dreamed of. The next morning you brush your teeth quickly and can't look at the sink drain. Must have been in part of your dream.)
Ben renews the lease through the winter, until March, and you spend a hilarious day picking out long underwear and other winter necessities. On the way out, you pass a pair of young girls who glow with an innocence you almost remember having. They giggle and smile at you. Was I ever pretty like that? you ask Ben.
Yes, Ben says, with the slow pause that means he doesn't really remember. Yes. Definitely.
When Allison goes missing, Ben joins the searchers while you hand out coffee and soup as the shifts change. At least here, they look, you almost say as the hours pass, but don't, because where did that thought come from?
The snow deepens, freezes. Allison McGovern is still missing. You enjoy seeing your breath mist in the cold and find yourself taking long walks. Ben worries that you'll catch cold, but you find that you sleep better and with fewer dreams whose residue clings to your days without actual substance.
Ben starts talking of building here, maybe just another store because Lakeside is small but booming and your sleep gets a little worse again, thinner, like you're streatching to find something, or someone.
It's been four months, and you've always lived here. Navigated the itchy patches of the bridge, watching Hinzelmann's old clunker resting on the solid surface of the lake. When you are taking one of your walks, they're getting longer and longer, you spend a whole five minutes staring at the water, until your fingers grow numb and stiff in their gloves.
(You have always been a small town person, but you realize that you hate the water, and no matter how clean or crisp the lake looks, the taste in your mouth is dark and rank and you feel like you've swallowed a sewer.)
Ben shows you drawing after drawing, firm pen strokes conjuring up walls and archways and beautiful, clean structures that beg for life. You smile and kiss him, and it's sweet and new and old, and you decide not to ask him if he remembers any of his dreams. You know he has them, because he wakes you when his fingers knot and tug at your hair.
The townspeople are friendly and warm, and share stories and laughter over Mabel's hot chocolate. They agree that Allison ran away to the city, poor thing, or disappeared off the highway while hitchhiking, what a tragedy. Only lets you appreciate what a great town this is, says one, says another, and you find yourself shivering at the flatness in their eyes, the empty energy on their tongues.
It's the end of February, and Ben is still teasing you about hoarding the last of the Valentine's Day chocolate he bought you. You wake up in the mornings happy and still find yourself smiling when Ben laughs. He'll always be ticklish. The snow is starting to crack and melt, the trees shedding ice like halting tears.
You and Ben begin to talk, with many hesitant starts, about starting a family.
(You fall asleep with a smile on your face and the calm beat of Ben's heart under your ear, but your dream is like ice melting, like leaves falling, the brisk crack of ice. There are names you don't know and names you can't forget you know and you're crying in your dream, like rain falling and water melting and you wake with them all—Ronnie Grogan George Denbrough Eddie Corcoran Allison McGovern Sandy Olsen Jo Ming—running behind your teeth, down your face as Ben grabs your arm and says Beverly, what's wrong?
Something, you say, and let him hold you, feel the steady beat of his heart in your ear. Something is wrong.
But this is Lakeside, small and comforting and the best town there is, so you go back to folding hand-knit sweaters, smiling at all the customers and wondering who they have lost. Ben sits in Mabel's and trades stories with the sheriff about small towns and how his building project is going. Ben swears it will break ground in the spring, but his drawings aren't done yet, mere balls of papered mistakes littering the apartment.
(Your next dream is the worst, because you remember it, and you wake not sure if you will laugh or cry. The town's children are there, laughing and running, and you realize that you are holding a small boy by the hand. Your boy, you realize, yours and Ben's and he is laughing and pointing and the day is beautiful and the sun is warm and all the children are happy. When you wake, you smile at the memory of the child in your dream, the one with Ben's laugh and your red hair. But the tears threaten to start when you remember what the boy was pointing at: a man doing tricks and jokes at the middle of the square, who at first glance looks like Hinzelmann, his smiling wrinkled face, but as a shadow falls over the sun, lookslike an old circus clown, a greasepainted grin of wrinkles. Smiling. Always smiling. With the certainty that comes with waking straight from a dream, you know the boy wanted to leave you, leave with all the children and follow the laughing man, and never come back. Never.)
March arrives with wind caught in its claws and you enter the kitchen to find Ben staring at the apartment lease. I was wondering what you thought of Chicago, he says. I've been thinking about a site that needs work there and I wondered but you stop his words with a kiss.
Yes, at the end of the month, you say. You then spend the whole afternoon spooned on the couch, watching old movies and discussing, with fewer hesitant pauses, Ben's plans and your designs.
You and Ben stand on the bridge, watching the crowd grow and ebb, like the flow of water. The abulance's siren is quiet and there is a slow procession of policemen working down the shore, carrying the bodies back to the surface. They started yesterday, the first sliding through the ice in the space left behind by Hinzelmann's clunker, sunk to the ground on the twenty-third. The bodies are identified: Allison McGovern, Sandy Olsen, Jo Ming and Sarah Lingquist and others, oh, so many others.
You let Ben wipe the tears from your cheeks before they sting in the cold March wind. You don't know why you're crying, for the children or for yourself or for the feeling that tingles your skin that says you've seen this, and worse. Maybe you only dreamed it. We'll leave in the morning, he murmurs, curling a finger in your hair.
Lakeside isn't perfect, like many small towns. You feel that you learned this long ago, but had forgotten until now. This betrayal feels familiar, like the lump in your throat, the burning in your eyes as you lock the door to the apartment and place the last bag in the car.
The leaving feels familiar, but leavings often do. Lakeside soon disappears into the rear window of your car and it's not many mornings later when you wake smiling at the sunlight at the window, the blooming of the flowers, and Ben's hands curled in your hair.
You never dream anymore. Ben begins work on a new building in downtown Chicago, while you slowly reacquaint yourself with the design business. William Edward, your son, is born just before Christmas.
Mama, your son, who Ben calls 'Bill', asks you one day. Who was I named for?
You pause for a moment, then tell him, We named you William because he was a very strong king, a long time ago. We wanted you to be big and strong, like him and you kiss him to hide the slip in your smile.
Your original answer still rests behind your teeth, stinging until you swallow it and follow your son, with Ben's laugh and your red hair, into the kitchen to make lunch.
I don't remember. But I wish I did.