Her body dissolves—air, just air, that’s all she ever was. She swallows it in heat and a burst of laughter, and he answers with the scrape of a tongue against her collarbone. Her own voice rings like an echo through a rill, thin and shrill, but gay. For now, gay. The noises of the casino filter in through the window alongside the howl of the wind, and she wonders just how it is that places like this can keep going when it’s cold outside. How people can keep showing up, glowing with warmth, and pretend that the world hasn't touched them at all.
There is nothing inside of her except his touch burning through the surface of her skin, nothing inside of her except the dying ember of someone already passing. There has never been anything inside of her at all.
People keep moving down the halls, the pump of blood in a grotesque heart.
Cigarette smoke filters down the empty halls, slipping in underneath the cracks in the doorways. It’s all she can smell, the easy indolence of the place, cigarette smoke, sweet tobacco, and stale alcohol turning in glasses. It gives her a headache, the rush of it. It gives her a headache, the noise of the roulette wheel and the slot machines ringing out their jackpots, and she wonders if this is what attracted him in the first place. All the noise, all the noise, like stands of baubles waiting to be touched, to be purchased.
If she closes her eyes, she can see the shadow of him hiding in the corner. Johnny, Johnny, and the voices that cluster around the windows calling for him. Johnny, Johnny, while she stood rooted indoors and elsewhere, hearing the muffle of his sirens calling through the thick paned glass. She sees him now, his tongue wetting his mouth as he watches her, white suit wrinkling at the corners as he folds his arms and studies her.
Her dress is pulled off, her body bared to the cool air, and she laughs. It cuts out of her like a piece of glass, and the man—Kramer—he lifts his head and looks at her. His eyes are dark, swallowed by the black of his own hollow. They are all the same, aren't they? Even John in his ironed white suit. Even the preacher's daughter in her dress, perfumed with sachet. She seizes the curves of his bare shoulders and pulls him down against her.
It feels like the desecration it is. His body scraping dry against her, a piercing that burns its way up through her center and makes her cry out. He murmurs an apology against the damp hair of her temple, and she smells the souring sweet of bourbon against his breath. The mattress beneath them creaks as he rocks his way into her, and she sees John laughing, hears the rough noise of his laugh as he looks at her and just watches, looks at her and calls priss, who are you fooling?
She bites her mouth and twists her body as if to hide from his gaze.
But the tables have turned, the tables have turned, and she knows that he is no more who he was than she is; they’ve each made their turn, and ended up exactly where they began. The pills are beginning to wear off, and the body on top of her pins her down. Her body dampens with sweat, and when he reaches to twist the bud of her breast between his fingers, she feels a flutter in her belly, something halfway between pain and sensation. The phantom of John laughs, and she bites her lip and waits for him to finish.
He bites her neck and kisses her and kisses her and it feels like she is being suffocated, swallowed into the cotton of the air itself. She lets it happen, her body already dissolving.
The water lilies knit chains around her head and bind her down.
She laughs and sudden heat pools between her legs. Kramer reaches his hand into her hair, pulls it into tangles around his fingers.
He doesn’t mean to watch her. It’s nearly three and he stands by the kitchen window, watching the flicker of the gas lamp at the front of the rectory, a glass of water in hand. She emerges out of the mist like a spirit, her hair still loose and blowing behind her in the wind, her face as pale and flat as when he left her. The front of her coat is open, the dress underneath it rumpled and wrinkled.
The water tastes of lime, sharp in his mouth. Somewhere miles away, he thinks, his fiancee sleeps in a bed, waiting for the day when they can be married.
She doesn’t go inside.
He watches her slide to sitting on the porch steps, her legs unfurling in front of her. Her shoes come off, her hands bracing behind her to arch her chest up towards the light of the moon. A bruise licks up against the exposed collar of her dress, and he wonders about the mouth that pressed it there. She laughs, a silent shaking of the shoulders, and he wonders if it’s safe to keep looking, to be caught staring from his window like a ghoul.
But she isn’t looking at him at all. Her eyes are turned towards the stars in the sky, her mouth twisted into a corkscrew of a smile. The knuckles of her hand push against the front of her mouth, swallowing back a hint of something bitter. They disappear into the pocket of her jacket and the little pill-box follows, her delicate fingers reaching in for a pill. It lands on her tongue, her mouth closing around it in a shadow of a kiss.
He wonders if she plans to sleep out on the porch where everyone could see. Where everyone could make comment. Oh, and Alma, that Alma--whatever happened to Miss Alma?
She shifts positions on the step, gathering her skirt together with one hand as she rises to stand.
He steps away from the window and draws the curtain shut.
She becomes a spirit passing through the yard, drifting across their joined yards in the middle of the night. It isn't always, isn't consistent enough to set his watch to, but he can see the way the house across the yard grows dim. The shades pull down more frequently, the bright lamp greeting visitors to the front porch turned down low to hide their new shame. But she laughs more, he knows. He hears it sometimes, creeping into his house like ivy splintering concrete. Her laugh, high and delicate as ever, but touched with something other than the brittleness he's come to view as belonging to her. Her laugh carries weight to it now. A new meanness.
Some nights, as he stands by the window, he studies her face sharpened by too little sleep and too little to eat, her body thinning beneath the heavy weight of her clothes until they seem to hang on her body.
No hard feelings, she says, passing through the entryway into his house. Her hand flutters over doorknobs, shaking even when it’s hot outside. It's always the nights that she visits like a restless spirit, the box trembling in her hand as she floats around the parlor and waits for him to write his usual script. Repentance, forgiveness, and dozens more of the little white pills.
They don’t talk about the gulf breeze much anymore.
He watches her float into the exam room, her hands still as she undoes the buttons of her dress. “Stethoscope?” she asks.
This is the extent of their conversations. He hasn’t yet learned how to ask for forgiveness.
Oh, there has been too much done for him to understand how to talk about it. The things he's done.
A handkerchief in a wrapped box, scented and luxurious, as an apology for twenty years ago. He wonders what happened to it, wonders if she keeps it buried beneath all of the other items she no longer wears, no longer looks at.
She finishes unbuttoning the front of her dress, bares the sparrow-bone of her chest to his gaze.
He drags the stethoscope over his shoulders and avoids looking at her. Those sharp eyes turned suddenly bright and searching, daring him to look at her. To eye her body as if she were any other of the women he saw those years ago. This isn’t an Alma he knows, he thinks, her eyes as still and flat as her fingers clasped in her own hands.
But he knows better. He has always seen this iron inside of her like the stone of the weeping angel.
She turns her face up towards him and a flicker of a smile flashes. “And?” she whispers. “Are we to do without the niceties?”
The metal is cool as he warms it against his palm. “The niceties?”
“I hear that Nellie has chosen her dress,” she says, as the metal glides over her skin. “I hear it’s all silk and organza.”
“Shh,” he says. Her heart is loud in his ears, slow and solid.
“Well?” she says.
He lifts the stethoscope and tucks it around his neck. “Well, what?”
“What’s the diagnosis?” she says. “Doppelganger back in place?”
“You don’t have a doppelganger,” he says.
“No,” she says, setting her hand to her throat. “Not anymore.”
“Why don’t you take what you came here for?”
Her laugh is smoky, lower than he expects. There was a time when she was all movement and noise, when he thought that it might kill her to try to stay still for a moment. Now, there’s nothing but silence, and the reminder that something has shifted inside of her. Something has died.
She twists her body towards the table where the prescription lies. “Are you passing judgment?” she says. “You?”
“Miss Alma,” he says. “You just ought to be careful, that’s all.”
“Careful,” she says, “is such a heavy word.” She repeats it once more, twice, looks at him and through him and tries to pin him with the weight of her look. Once, she looked at him like he might be able to heave the weight of the world onto his shoulders and carry it; and now the light has gone. He’s fallen, an Icarus from the sky.
He thinks about touching her, and doesn’t.
He thinks about touching her five months ago with the heat of the summer sun over their heads, with her pale hair exposed to the glare of the light, with the taste of her sweetness against his mouth.
He thinks about touching her five years ago when medical school hung around his neck like a millstone, when the cool touch of a woman’s hand was the only thing that reminded him that he still had heat.
He touches her now, his fingers grazing against her temple as he strokes a tendril of her hair away from her face.
She leans into his hand, her face lifting to look at him. Her mouth pulls up at the corners—not hope, but a shadow of it, an expectation of disappointment even before she opens her mouth. “Oh,” she breathes, “Pity? From you, John?”
His hand lingers against her skin, feeling the warmth of it underneath his hand, and he knows it’s dangerous to try to reach for an animal he spent years kicking down, but here he is, feeling repentant, here he is, reaching out and waiting to be bitten.
“Oh,” she says again, trembling with a soft laugh. She rises to her feet, leaning into his space, looking up at him through her lashes. “What is it that you’re looking for, John? What is it that’s wrong with me? It isn’t my doppelganger—not any longer, we’ve already ruled that out—and here you are, newly engaged and due to be married, and I to sing at your wedding, and you’re … what? You’re feeling badly? Sorry? About the harm that you’ve caused? Like you’ve always done? Only now there aren’t any teachers, any fathers, to come and tell you that it’s all right? Nellie is around here somewhere, isn’t she, and she’s yours now, to have tell you whatever it is that you please.”
He seizes her arm by the elbow, his fingers digging into the flesh of the muscle.
“What are you looking for, John?” she snarls. “Whatever it is that you think that I can give you, you better ask first. I haven’t got much of anything left. No, not that might interest you. Not that might be anything of value to you.”
“I’m sorry,” he hisses. He leans down, touching his forehead against hers with sudden force, and her body sways away from his. He can feel the heat of her breath against his skin, hear the frenzy of it as she struggles to get it under control. “I’m sorry.”
“What are you sorry for?” she asks. “What is it that you think you’ve done to me?”
“I wanted to…wait to tell you, but Nellie was so excited. She just…thinks the world—”
“Oh, she thinks the world of me, yes, that’s right,” she says. “And I’ll sing at the wedding, you needn’t worry about that. But it isn’t Nellie that’s here not letting me go, is it?” She takes a breath, rolling her shoulder to release her arm from his grip. “Months ago, you might have gotten what you wanted, but I have no more pain I can give you, John. It’s all gone. You’ve wasted it on all the little cruelties over the years. Your—your teasing me, your firecrackers, the kiss at the fountain—and now you’ve emptied me of everything, and there’s nothing. Nothing. So. What do you want?”
He pulls her towards him, crashes his mouth down against hers. He doesn’t know what he’s hoping for—a shock of something he recognizes, maybe, startling her back towards consciousness—but she only smiles into it and kisses him back. It makes him ache, a sling of a punch that strikes him somewhere in the jaw. There isn’t any restraint, just tongue and teeth and the sharpness of her smile cutting the inside of his cheek.
He drops his hand to her waist, dragging her into him, but she stays anchored, her smile curving her mouth around his.
He pulls away first, and her smile colors dark with satisfaction.
“Alma,” he says.
“Oh, Alma?” she repeats. “Not Miss anymore? You’d better be careful with that kind of talk. You wouldn’t want people to start talking…” Her voice filters into the background, continuing on, and all he can think to do is repeat her name.
She laughs at him.
“Alma, Alma, Alma,” she says. “That’s all you’ve got to say to me.”
It isn’t even a question.
He keeps closer track of her comings and goings. The nights when she returns at two, three in the morning, she glances towards the light in his window before she takes her usual seat on the front steps of her own house.
The yard sits between them both like a reckoning, an impassable distance. All he can do is stand at the window and watch.
He knows where she’s been going. Glorious Hill has never been a fortress of silence and, past the summer, the whispers have only grown stronger. She is pale, drawn, starving herself little by little. There are no hopes for the Winemillers, they say, between a mother so rotted and a daughter going the same way. And every night, he catches her slow shimmy towards the front steps, the dazed look in her eye as she takes her usual prescription, and closes her eyes, slipping into the dark.
Some nights, she glances towards the window with the curtains barely cracked, and waves.
Nellie says, “I’m worried about Miss Alma. After that long spell of her being ill over the fall, why, I’m not sure it’s good for her to be out again quite so much.”
Nellie says, “Maybe we ought to try to do something for her.”
Nellie says, “Don’t you think so?”
He comes out to the yard, stands on the edge of his own property line after midnight and waits. The night air is cool, the breeze strong enough for him to pull on a thin sweater. She passes through half an hour later, her face stretching with a laugh as she sees him.
She crosses the yard, moving to stand in front of him with her arms crossed. “Waiting for a lady?” she asks.
He shakes his head.
The fabric of her dress is thin, but her eyes are blown wide, working through the last of the pills she’s taken. She trails her hand along the tops of his shoulder, making as if to fix the fold of his collar. “What are you doing out here if you aren’t waiting?”
“It’s a cool night,” he says. “I thought I would see how the wind is.”
“And how do you find the wind?” she asks. “Cool?”
“Cool,” he answers.
Her laugh dies down to a hum in her chest. “Maybe you’re nervous,” she says. “Wedding is soon, isn’t it?”
He hums, his eyes scanning her face.
“You’re swallowing air,” she says, with a wry smile. “You shouldn’t worry so much. It’ll all work itself out.”
“And you’re all right?” he asks. “To sing at the wedding?”
“When one of my oldest students comes to ask me,” she says, “that’s not something that any teacher could say ‘no’ to.”
“You could,” he says.
“Say no,” he says. “You could say no. I would—we would understand.”
Her laugh is quiet. “Is that what you’re worried about?” she says, pressing her hand to her mouth. “Miss Alma Winemiller, making a scene at your wedding day because everyone knew for a long while something she couldn’t figure out for herself?”
“Miss Alma,” he says.
“Back to Miss, I see,” she says.
“I just didn’t want the strain of it to…”
“To send me into one of my attacks?” she says, drily. “Really, John—you don’t need to treat me like I’m at risk of dying.”
“You are one of my patients,” he says.
“In a manner of speaking,” she replies. “I was your father’s patient. You inherited me. That’s all.” She waves her hand. “There’s nothing to worry about. You’ve seen me sing at plenty of weddings. Or, well, you’ve known me to sing at a few—and under much less favorable circumstances. You don’t have anything to worry about.”
“And now without. What do you want, John?”
The wind gusts through the open yard and she shivers.
“Come inside,” he says.
“Aren’t you worried someone might see?”
“It’s hardly the first time you’ve burst into this house in the middle of the night,” he says. “And, besides, you’re my patient, aren’t you?”
She shrugs at that, and he leads the way into the house. He recalls a conversation from a lifetime ago, something about grates and furnaces and the improper cooling of homes, but it sinks into the rest of the noise in his head.
Inside, the house is quiet and dark, aching with emptiness.
She could have been a fixture here. He can picture it easily—the permission from his father, from Mr. Winemiller, the sight of her tending to his patients the way she had always tended to her father’s flock, smiling, gulping down lungfuls of air to feed that vengeful spirit lingering low inside of her. And then, in their private moments, to see her unveil herself, to push him and shout down his worse demons until all he could hear was the force of her fury.
“What are you looking at?” she asks. Her hand comes up to wipe at her eyes. “I’m tired.”
“No, you’re not,” he says. “I see your pupils and they’re big as stars.”
“The pills make me tired,” she says. “Pupils or not.”
“You plan on stopping those any time soon?”
She nearly scowls. “Why would I do that?” she says. “They’re…God’s little mercies.”
“Mercies,” he scoffs. “You’re killing yourself, one at a time.”
She smiles, coy and flirtatious as a schoolgirl. “But then, who gave them to me, John?” she asks.
“You’re not going soft on me, are you?” she asks. “After all of this? After all of your talk of going out into the world and feeding all those parts of yourself? I thought I didn’t live—didn’t do anything except feed that part of me that isn’t real, wasn’t that right? And now you’ve come around to me, and I to you, but none of it makes a difference.”
He shoves at her shoulders hard, but she resists. A summer ago, he would have picked her up and dragged her, shouted her down, but he’s been worn down by a fever epidemic and a fiancee, and all he can do is stare.
“You oughtn’t feel so badly,” she says. “It was bound to happen at some time or other.”
“What?” he says. “What happened to you?”
She bares her teeth. “Is that why you called me in here? To review the past with you?”
“You didn’t answer me,” he says.
“You deserve an answer?” she asks.
"What I deserve--" he says.
"What you deserve is something beyond me," she says.
“It wasn’t my idea to ask you to the wedding,” he says. “She didn't ask me. And I don’t see why you’d do it if you resent it like this.”
“Resent?” she shouts. “Resent? Oh, that it were resentment. You think that after all that I’ve felt for you, all that I’ve thought about you, done for you, that I resent you? I’d be honored to sing at your wedding, John. You’d like to think that it’s been the same over all of these years, that we’ve seen each other three or four times and made something that isn’t real, but you don’t know what real is to me—you don’t know—you haven’t looked out that window and seen that stretch of yard span years and miles like I have. I’m singing for Nellie and for you, John, yes, I’m singing for you just the same—it’s the only way I know how to—”
She pauses, panting, her hands balled into fists at her sides.
He reaches for her hand, pries her fingers from digging into her palm. The little crescent welts look like the footprints of crows. “How to what?” he says, lightly. “You started, you may as well finish.”
She smiles, watery and thin. “How to hurt you.”
“Hurt me,” he repeats.
“You’re going to stand up there before all of Glorious Hill, before my father, before God, and say that you love this woman beyond anyone else you’ve ever touched? You forget that I saw you with Rosa Gonzalez. You forget that I know you were going to marry her, too.”
“I don’t forget anything,” he says.
“No,” she says, “You’ve lived your life, and you’ve fed your belly, your sex, and your mind, and the rest of us follow after you, foolish and alone and hungry—that’s how you’ve always seen it, regardless of whatever people are actually like. I loved you, Rosa—for all of her faults—loved you, and you would just as soon make a wreck of it and leave it and move on to the next one. You exist in your own little world, John—you’d like to think that the only things that exist are the ones that are real in your head. But there are other people, other things. And now you’ve decided that you want there to be other things outside of yourself, you want people to see you with respect the way that they looked at your father, and you can leave behind everything else you’ve ever done. You might not consider that a thing worth remembering, but for the rest of us—but that doesn’t matter. Not to you. It never has. It never has, and you want me—all of us—to stand back and, what, congratulate you for it? For opening your eyes and being aware of other people in the world?” She huffs a sigh, twisting the ring around her finger. “What did you say—you told me that I ran away from the things I didn’t want to see, well, you’ve done the very same, John, and now you want to pretend like you haven’t. Remember that? You said you used to stand and watch me from out your window—like you do now, I suppose—and you said that you and I never knew each other at all—which is it, John? Which do you want to be true now, and which was true last summer? You think I lie to myself? And you think that you don’t?”
“I didn’t ask you here to fight.”
“You didn’t ask me at all!” she snaps.
“I didn’t bring you here to fight,” he repeats. “Better?”
She turns around the room, her hand fussing with twisting the ring into her hand. “So why did you?” she says. “What is it that you needed me in here for? To bring the stethoscope and undress me? Well, you needn’t do that anymore—all you need to do is ask, John, I haven’t got the troubles I had last summer—” Her hands fly to the buttons of her dress. They slip free one by one as she pulls it down and strips to her underthings.
“Get away from there,” he says, pulling her by the wrist into the hallway. “Someone might see you, for god’s sake—”
“—and now you’re worried about what they might say about you? John? The anointed, the prodigal son returned home? They wouldn’t so much as breathe a bad word about you—at least, not in your presence, or is it Nellie—”
“—I asked you here to apologize, for god’s sake—”
“—that you’re worried about—you didn’t ask me anything, so stop pretending that you did, that you ever acted like a gentleman or like a human being to me at all when all you’ve ever understood is the animal—”
“—will you be quiet—and—keep still—just—”
He reaches for her arms and shakes her, his hands digging bruises into her arms.
She leans into his space, her mouth an open cavern, gritting her teeth as if she might bite him.
“—Apologize?” she howls, slapping her hands against his chest. “You want forgiveness. Don’t you? You brought me in here to ask me to forgive you like you deserve it?” Her hands punctuate each pause with a shove of her hands against his chest, and he cages her like he’s always done, his hands bracing on her back and holding her force against the wall of his chest.
“—just be still—be still—”
She is no Nellie, succumbs to none of his charms, his calm, but doubles her effort. It’s something he has always admired about her, the depths of the fire that she has inside of her, even now, even with the force of his white tablets coursing through her blood. Her eyes are nearly black, glowing in the light, but she twists in his grasp, turning them around, her hair pushing up against his nose.
“—still—and you’re going to act like none of it ever happened, you’ve always been this way with me, this is how it’s always been with us—you’re going to—you’re going to—like nothing’s changed—well, let me tell you—”
He lowers his mouth to press against the cushion of her hair. “Alma,” he murmurs. “Alma, Alma, Alma…”
“—you wanted to be the first, you wanted to—well—you—it—it isn’t there—it’s gone—”
“What are you talking about?” he asks.
“I’ve fed all three,” she says. “I’ve fed all three.”
He staggers on his feet and she ducks, pulling out of his grasp and running towards the opposite side of the room.
“You’re running now?” he says.
She shakes her head, lifting a finger to stay his words. “You want to apologize,” she says, “then apologize. But I won’t give you anything less than you deserve.”
“And what do you deserve?” he asks.
“I deserved better than you,” she snaps.
He sniffs, thumbing at his nose. “Maybe that’s right.”
“But I don’t anymore,” she says. “That’s what you were thinking, wasn’t it? Alma, floating on the same Chinese lagoon like a water lily, listening to nothing but the sound of her own heart—a fool—isn’t that right?”
She sags, gripping the wall with her hand.
“I’ll sing at your wedding,” she says. “I’ll sing for you.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry. For everything.”
“That’s a big word, too,” she says.
“I’m tired,” she says. “And I’m going home. Find me at the rectory tomorrow, if you need to. I don’t go anywhere else.”
“Except Moon Lake Casino?”
She snorts. “You know where that is well enough too, if you want to try there.”
“You’re ruining yourself,” he says. “You know that?”
“You redeemed yourself,” she says.
“They won’t let you do that,” he says. “You know that. You do.”
She shrugs. “I was already ruined.”
“Not to me,” he says.
She snorts. “John, I wasn’t anything to you. You told me so yourself.”
He crosses towards her, pinning her in against the wall with his arms. He hovers so near to her he can feel the way her breathing quickens, the way her pulse starts fluttering beneath her skin, the last vestiges of her resolve trembling against her anger. Her eyes widen, her mouth parting as she glances up at him with a scoff.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
His hand cups her cheek and she strains away from his touch, her hands coming up to rest against his elbows. He’s never noticed how small her hands are, how translucent her skin is in the light. He feels as if he could see through her if he tried hard enough—but he’s never tried. He’s never tried to know her beyond the stone angel in the park. Even the shadow was enough.
Years ago, they were just children playing a game, but she saw him clearer than anyone else. Saw everything and understood it too, the size of the universe and the workings of God’s hands and the way to move between notes on a scale. She said it to him plain as anyone else talked about the weather, and he never looked at her because he was afraid of what he might find. That yellow face in that sweltering room again, that anguished yellow face that would seize him by the arm and read him his future.
He’s never tried to move out of that room. Never tried to live outside of that day.
“You want to run?” he whispers, voice hoarse. “You really want to run?”
“I want you to stop,” she says, her voice sliding through a crack on the last word. “I’m not a thing you can vandalize. I’m not here for you to make your mark on something, John. I won’t let you do it. Not to me. Not anymore.”
He leans his mouth in near enough to touch. When she sighs, he can feel it against his mouth. “You want me to stop?”
She sets her hand against his chest, and it’s cool as a winter wind. “I want you to tell me what you want from me,” she says. “Because when I wanted you, you wanted nothing more to do with me. And now you’re here, watching me from your window, calling me over and telling me…what? I thought you were a gentleman now.”
“I thought you said I wasn’t a gentleman. And you weren’t a lady.”
Her eyes are sharp as she scrutinizes him. “You’re the doctor now. You have a reputation to protect.”
“And you’re still the preacher’s daughter.”
She laughs, small and hard. “No,” she says.
“No, now I’m just—Mrs. Winemiller’s daughter. And isn’t it just a shame?”
He sneaks a peck against her mouth, watching her face as he pulls away.
“That’s all?” she says. “All this trouble for that little thing?”
“I still have that handkerchief,” he says. “The one that you gave me.”
She laughs. “That old thing? You gave me such trouble over it when I—I just wanted to—”
“I know,” he says.
“You think you know me now,” she says.
“I’ve lived next door to you all the days of my life,” he says. “You don’t think that I’ve learned to pay attention?”
“You never did before.”
“I never thought to let you know before.”
“Three or four times,” she says. “That’s what you said.”
“That’s the thing about doctors,” he says. “Sometimes we like to hit the knee just to see it kick.”
“No,” she says. “I don’t think that’s got anything to do with doctors. I think that’s got everything to do with you.”
He kisses her again, slanting his mouth over hers and licking slow into her mouth. She kisses him back. This is the new Alma—or, he thinks, the hidden Alma—the one who kisses him back.
He never thought about it. Not even that night at the casino. That was always something closer to scaling one of those gothic cathedrals she used to love. Just seeing how far he would let himself go before he would have to come back to the ground. She was never a body to him, not like she is now, all thin fabric and heat burning against him.
She gasps into his mouth, her body bowing towards him in a taut curve, and his hand settles against the side of her ribs, brushing her through the thin fabric of her slip. “Is this what you wanted?” she rasps.
He kisses her again, harder, his mouth bruising. He takes as much of her into his hands as he can, as if he could keep her together if he held her the right way. She whimpers into his mouth, real quiet, and he grunts, feeling himself growing hard as she grinds back against him.
He shoves his leg between hers and presses a kiss to the side of her neck, sucking hard.
She gasps, a hushed noise that sounds more like who she was. Quiet and thin, the way she always used to breathe.
Her hips bear down against his thigh as she rocks against him, searching for friction.
“What do you want, Alma?” he asks, kissing the corner of her mouth. “You never say. You’ve never said.”
“No,” she says, tilting her head back against the wall.
He slides his teeth against the side of her neck and she moans, and he feels the blood shoot straight down. All he wants is more of that noise, more of her falling apart in his hands like this. It’s like eating through a cloud of spun sugar—the more he tries to reach for her, to taste her, the less of her there seems to be.
She laughs, she laughs—a low, raspy noise that makes him think of the noise of barrooms he used to frequent, the secret rooms on barges that were more cigar smoke than air, more haze than reality, floating through the world on the whim of the river. He jerks her slip up towards her hips, his hand clumsy as it moves between her legs.
“You think I’m scared?” she breathes, and he can’t think—all he knows is what he sees, and all he sees are the beestung swells of her lips, the way her hair seems to be tumbling over her shoulders, the color tempered to a tarnished gold. He’s so hard he aches, and all he can think is how stupid he was to think that he wouldn’t want to touch her, that he wouldn’t want to bury himself inside of her at any opportunity. “I thought you couldn’t touch me.”
She’s always been able to read his mind, no matter how much he’s hated her for it.
“I thought you couldn’t bring yourself…” she says, as his fingers touch her through the fabric of her underwear, “to…”
Her breath hitches in her chest.
He can feel the wetness against his fingers and he strokes her lightly, just teasing her with the gentlest of touches. “You were saying?”
“To—to touch me,” she stammers.
“Touch you?” he whispers, easing the fabric of her underwear aside and sinking one finger deep inside her.
He can’t stop watching her face. Her eyes are shut, her teeth grit together as if she could hold back whatever it is that she’s feeling. She hates it, he knows, the way that she’s always hated how he’s always been able to affect her. He wants to see her eyes, to see them dark and hooded, to see how much it is that she wants him. There’s a rush that shoots down his spine every time he catches a glimpse of it, a kick of childhood glee that he’s been able to do something so small and so powerful. Like he’s marked some part of her that she’s never been able to erase.
“You want me to touch you?” he says.
Her hips cant forward, trying to drag his finger deeper. “Jesus,” she hisses. “John.”
“Alma,” he says.
“John,” she grunts, rocking her hips in search of friction.
“Tell me,” he says.
She opens her eyes to glare at him, a flash of fury, and he feels the satisfaction like warmth along his spine. He adds another finger and pushes them inside her, up to the knuckle, just to hear the catch in her breath. He fucks her like that, slow and careful, watching her face as she starts to lose control of herself.
Her hands still hang on his forearms, and he can feel the edge of her nails as she cuts them into his skin. She hates every minute of this, uncoiling in front of him, and he knows that, knows that the way that he knows his own name, the way that he knows what her name means because she told him once when they were children, because hers is the voice that he hears inside his head whenever the rest of him goes quiet.
Past the lust, past all of the tutting voices of Glorious Hill, it’s hers that he hears whenever he can’t fall asleep, whenever he hasn’t blotted it out with drugs and alcohol and women. He’s always been scared of her, that’s the truth. But he’s never been fully honest with her either. It’s more than just her soul that’s terrified him; it’s all of her, the force of her determination and her will, the strength of her beliefs. She’s never doubted. Not once, not anything, not even him—and he’s never been able to look that in the eye.
And now she’s hot and tight around his fingers, pulsing with want, and he can see all of the spite right there in her eyes. You, who were given everything! You, who have a real chance to alleviate suffering in the world!
So let him give back, he wants to say.
Let me repay you, he wants to say.
He doesn't. He kisses her instead, speeding the pace of his hand and grinding the butt of his palm against her clit.
She moans into his mouth, biting at his lip, digging scratches into his arm, but he doesn’t care. All he wants is to see her like this. All he wants is to remember her like this, looking like she’d rather skin him alive than let him see how much she wants him.
“You going to come for me?” he asks.
And she bites her lip, turning her head to the side as her wetness slicks his fingers, as her hips slam down against his hand and drive him deeper.
“Alma?” he says. “Miss Alma?”
She squeezes hard around his fingers when she comes, grunting his name like a litany, her hands scrabbling to hold onto him. Her head knocks against the wall, eyes rolling into the back of her head, as she rocks through her aftershocks, her voice ragged as she comes down.
He draws his fingers free, wiping them against his pants.
“You all right?” he asks.
She runs a hand through her hair, her cheeks pinked from the exertion. “What about you?” she asks.
He pecks another kiss against her mouth. “Go home,” he says.
She squeezes him through his pants instead, stroking him gently. He hisses through his teeth, biting down hard on his tongue as he tries not to lean into her touch.
She doesn’t speak, doesn’t kiss him, barely seems to move, but he hears the quiet noise of the buttons being undone and then she has him in her hand—her cool, cool hands—and he can’t breathe or think of anything besides her touch.
“You’ve never been one to give without taking,” she says, and he manages a soft groan in response. “You’ve never been shy about ordering people around or telling other people what you think.”
He swallows hard, his mind trying to track her words as she keeps stroking him.
“Come on,” she says. “Use your words.”
He bites at her neck.
She clicks her tongue. “All right, John,” she says. “If you want to make me guess.”
He brushes her hair over her shoulder and licks against her collarbone.
When she sinks to her knees, the only thing he can think to do is stammer her name like a broken prayer.
Nellie insists on asking Reverend Winemiller to officiate the wedding so he spends the early afternoon pacing on the front porch and escaping the glares of the old man as Nellie showers them with compliments.
Mrs. Winemiller cackles from the rear corner of the room, perched over a picture puzzle.
“Is Miss Alma feeling all right?” Nellie asks.
Reverend Winemiller only grunts.
“Now I know it’s last minute,” Nellie says, “But John and I would just die if we had to head anywhere else, I mean, we’ve grown up here and known you as Reverend all of our lives and it just wouldn’t feel right to use anybody else.”
The Reverend keeps his eyes leveled at John while she speaks, the only indication of his listening being the occasional tic of the corner of his mouth.
“Marriage,” he intones, “is a rather serious institution for serious-minded people.”
“Oh,” Nellie breathes, “Yes, of course, we know! We wouldn’t go into this with anything less than both of our eyes open. You can trust me on that after everything that I grew up with. And John—well…”
“Son?” Reverend Winemiller asks. “You’re entering into this with complete understanding of the responsibilities and duties that this requires? Marriage is not…always a simple matter of romance.” His hand fans through the air generally, but John can track who he’s indicating.
“Yes, of course,” he says. “Nellie and I love each other.”
There’s the creak of a wooden step and he sees Alma pass through the parlor.
“Why, Miss Alma!” Nellie cries, rushing to drag her towards them. “We were hoping we’d be able to see you today! How are you feeling?”
She’s pale today, her hair long and loose, hanging by her waist. Her smile is thin, complexion pale with exhaustion or withdrawal. She tries a smile, at least, and waves at both of them. When she speaks, her voice is barely audible. “Nellie, it’s so good to see you both,” she says, rubbing at her temples. “You’re here…about the wedding?”
“Oh, yes,” Nellie says. “We were just about to ask your father for his permission to officiate the wedding. We wouldn’t dream of having anyone else, and I hope you know that.”
She nods. “Of course, Nellie.” When she looks up, she catches his eye and holds his stare. “We would be honored to be part of your celebration. I know that—that there can be no bigger event in a young woman’s life than the day she dedicates herself, body and soul, to the person she has chosen for herself.”
He swallows and nods mutely.
Nellie exhales sharply with a rush of excitement. “Well, well, well! I would imagine that settles it, as long as your father agrees.”
“Father wouldn’t dare to decline, would he?”
The reverend turns to look at his daughter, his face blank. “I suppose there are some who would call into question just how this match came about.”
“Father would be happy to—we would all be happy to be a part of your day,” Alma says, “and if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling rather lightheaded, and I think it’d be best if I went to lie down for a little while.”
“Are you feeling all right?” John asks. “Do you need my arm?”
He can practically hear the Reverend’s head turning all the way around.
She takes it, leaning her weight against him.
“John will take good care of you, Miss Alma.”
Her weight is a comforting pull against him, and he walks her slowly towards the yard. “Thank you,” she says.
He clears his throat. “I figure there’s a lot I owe you for that I’ve never paid back.”
“Mm,” she says. “Are you excited? To be married?”
He stops, turning to look at her. “Marriage is…”
It’s everything he’s been expected to do, a culmination of all of the directions of his life. Medical school, resuming his father’s practice, returning to Glorious Hill—there is no more Panama in his life, no more excursions to South America to languish in the heat and pretend that he is forging his own way.
“Marriage,” she finishes. “You’re free.”
He tilts his head. “Free?”
She gestures to the house around her. “Free.”
He marries Nellie.
He stands in a small sunny room and holds her hand and looks into her smiling face, promising things he knows he will never be able to really deliver. The rest of his life, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer—they slide the rings on each other’s fingers, and he looks into her face and sees the girl he found in the boarding house. The girl whose room he burst in on, who saw a life penned in by the sins of her mother, by the reputation that tracked her through all of the social circles of her life.
All he did was try to do a good thing in his life.
He lifts the veil, and thinks, this is a good thing.
She grins at him, tears shining in her eyes.
He lifts the veil and recalls another conversation around the lake, the lifting of another veil for another kiss.
She mouths, we’re getting married!
He tries a grin.
He kisses her, a dead, decent thing. The room applauds.
Alma stands on the platform during the reception, her hands clasped together. Her voice is as clear as a nightingale’s, cutting through the thick, humid air.
He watches her through his fourth glass of champagne, feeling the tickle of the beginnings of a buzz.
Nellie grips his hand so hard it hurts, her smile pinching at the cheeks of her face. “Gosh,” she says, drawing the sound out until it nearly spans two words. “Who would have thought that getting married would be so exhausting?”
He drains the rest of his glass.
“And that isn’t to say anything about the wedding night, is it, husband?”
He smiles and pats her hand.
Alma’s voice rings in vibrato.
She finds him around eleven, as the reception just begins to wind down. Nellie sits in the corner, drunk and surrounded by the town matrons, peddling their advice for the wedding evening. Alma holds her champagne flute delicately between her fingers, and it’s nearly drained to the end.
“I thought you didn’t drink,” he says, slurring only slightly.
“Not your sour apple brandy,” she says.
“Applejack,” he says.
“Same difference,” she replies. Lifting her glass, she adds, “To you and Nellie. To your wedding.”
They clink glasses and he watches her drain hers.
“How are you feeling?” she says. “Mr. and Mrs. Buchanan.”
He shakes his head at the title. “Don’t say it like that,” he says. “I liked your song.”
She huffs. “You’ve never liked my singing.”
“You have not,” she says. “Every time you saw me even approach a music stand, you’d get up and walk out of the room. You just couldn’t do that today because, well…”
“Because that would send the wrong message?”
“I don’t think many people here thought you were the marrying kind.”
He flattens his mouth. “You did, I suppose,” he says, with a touch of acid.
She laughs, high and sharp. “I wasn’t blind to the person that you were—that you are, John, no matter what you think of me,” she says. “I never thought you’d get here without a strong rope to bind you with. Seems like Nellie didn’t need one.”
“She’s got rope on her own,” he says.
“I’m sure she does,” she says. She stands then, swaying gently on her feet. “I wanted to send you my congratulations, as I did to Nellie, but I’ve got to get going.”
He catches her wrist. “Why?” he says. “Got an appointment?”
Her eyes harden as she tries to tug her hand free. “You do, don’t you?” she says. “It’s your time to shine, Dr. Buchanan. You can really show Nellie what to make of the pictures in that book of yours.”
He harrumphs. “Where do you plan on running to so quick?”
“I don’t think that’s any of your business. Let me go.”
“Have another drink.”
“Let me go.”
“Have another drink with me.”
“Not with you,” she says. “But I’ll toast to your—to Nellie’s—future.”
He chuckles, releasing her hand and reaching for two full glasses. “Is that really what you’ll be toasting to?” he says, handing her one.
She takes a gulp. “What else is there?”
“You,” he says. “Me.”
She laughs. “There isn’t any you and me,” she says. “You know that as well as I do.”
He clinks his glass against hers. “Isn’t there?”
“I would have thought you were teasing me last summer, but now I know you too well.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Do you?”
“Yes, I do. You hate having your back up against a wall, even when people are only coming to you with well wishes for the future and expectations. Everyone is here to celebrate you, and you want to skulk around the shadows because you resent them for it.”
“I didn’t ask them for their celebrations and their well-wishes.”
She snorts. “You invited them to your wedding.”
He shakes his head. “It isn’t my wedding, and I didn’t invite them.”
“You’re going to say it was all Nellie?”
Finishing the last of her champagne, she nudges him with the toe of her shoe. “Sooner or later you might try taking responsibility for things.”
“Like what?” he asks, narrowing his eyes. “Like you, disappearing out late nights, finding new visitors at the casino?”
“You’re keeping track of me?”
“I still have connections there, Gonzalez or not.”
“So you may,” she says. “But I don’t see how my choice of entertainment should affect you at all. You’ve got nothing more to do with me.”
“Consider me another concerned citizen.”
She scoffs. “People stopped thinking of me in this town the minute they saw that I’d turn out like my mother. First, it was that I was too serious, and now, I’m too loose. They’d rather I be stuffed back into the rectory where they could understand me the way they always have.”
“Them and their malicious gossip?” he says, quirking an eyebrow.
“Maybe so,” she says. “And now you can go around and hear all of the vicious imitations of me that you’d like.”
He hums. “You know, I never liked to hear those imitations.”
“You said they were rather funny.”
“In a kind of way.”
“You’re changing your mind again,” she says. “You’ve never liked to just choose one thing to think and stick with it. Everything is always subject to the wind. Marriage isn’t like that, you know. It doesn’t come and go as it pleases.”
“John?” Nellie calls. “John, I want you to dance with me!”
Alma leans in, nearly brushing her mouth against his ear. “Marriage is for a lifetime, John. Until death.”
“I remember the promises I make,” he says.
“Do you?” she replies.
“John!” Nellie calls.
Alma stands, pulling the glass of champagne from his grasp. “Your wife,” she whispers. Raising her arm, she flags Nellie. “Over here, Nellie!”
“Oh, Miss Alma,” Nellie gushes. “Your song tonight was just beautiful, and we loved it so, didn’t we, John? I see he’s over here bothering you and hiding out from all our other comp’ny, but, well, I did say that you sang beautifully, didn’t I, Miss Alma, you know no one in Glorious Hill has got a voice like you—”
Alma touches a hand to Nellie’s arm, pecking a kiss to her cheek. “You were a beautiful bride,” she says. “And I’ll discharge your husband”—she says, smiling lightly—“to your care now.”
Nellie blushes. “Oh, Miss Alma. It doesn’t quite sound right when you say it like that.”
John’s gaze meets hers, halfway to curious and scornful.
She doesn’t look away. “You have a good night now.”
It is the first night Nellie sleeps in his father’s house. Strange to think of it still as his father’s house, the place he spent his entire life trying to escape. Strange to think it is where he will end up, day after day after day, until there isn’t anything left to count.
He takes her to bed and he takes his time, making sure that they take it slow, that she remains as comfortable as possible. She’s a forward, eager thing, all bright eyes and breathlessness, and he takes her to bed like he’s taken dozens of other girls to bed.
She doesn’t even wince when he enters her, just exhales his name on a sigh.
He takes her to bed and watches her fall asleep and thinks this is the beginning.
He drives to Moon Lake.
It’s been too many months, but the air drags its claws over his skin and dredges up old memories. The smell of Rosa’s perfume, and the pound of hangovers in the morning, and the ring of jazz out through the sultry night. He’s seen too many girls dance out their tragedies in the casino, and seen the weariness of men who commit themselves to the tables and believe that their fates are soon to change.
He never believed in fates or fortunes; he supposes that was always his trouble.
When he parks the car, there are stragglers hanging around outside the entrance, smoking cigars and watching the stars. A few of them, he recognizes and pretends not to. The others are strangers.
He locks the car and heads inside. He tells himself that he isn’t looking for her, that the decision to return to Moon Lake is nothing more than to remind himself of who he was and how far he’s come. His father would be proud of him now, he thinks, of the progress that he’s made in resurrecting his legacy. Everything else doesn’t matter.
Except he spies a sliver of blond and follows it as it passes down the hallway and out into the rear yard. He remembers the path, remembers the first time they took it in the hopes of evading the tension of the evening. He hadn’t been as blind as he’d pretended to be then; he just never figured on her actually meeting him halfway. A girl like a preacher’s daughter had no business at a place like a casino, but she’d let him take her and hung around long enough for them to have had a fight.
He recalls the evening well, the soap that clung like perfume to her collarbone, the way she seized up into his touch like a woman possessed. She never touched him—not like the others. She always seemed to draw in thrall to his touch, her body nearly flinching with how much she wanted him.
He wishes he could have understood just how to respond to it, to her. He’s never known what to do with the ones that want him. And Rosa, and the other girls, who made it so clear and who accepted him just as he was, who saw something in him that they wanted to preserve—she was never so clear. She saw something in him that she wanted, something in him that she would have fought the rest of his body, the rest of the world, to try to claim.
He wanted freedom.
He wanted freedom, and it was the first thing he gave up. All because she refused to see him. Like a petulant child.
“Hello,” he calls.
She barely stirs.
She drifts, her body listing backward, neck straining to support the weight of her head. She takes the fall hard, giggling as she lands, her limbs landing awkwardly around her. “H’lo,” she says, closing her eyes. “You aren’t s’posed to be here.”
“You floating on that Chinese lagoon again, Miss Alma?”
“Oh,” she breathes, “But you don’t understand just how nice it feels. To lay out in its warm water and feel yourself spreading out into the mud. Just like a water lily.”
He sets a hand on her forehead, smoothing back the baby hairs.
“Don’t tell me you came to see little old me,” she says. “All the way out here.”
“I drove as fast as I could,” he says. “I couldn’t sleep.”
She hums. “A fast car is the way to fix that, it’s true. I can still feel—feel the rumble—the vibration of it beating through me.” She shakes her head. “You’ll never take me back in there again.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“I like to come out here,” she says. “It helps me to think, all of the other people and the noise and the lap of the water by the lake. You can see the stars come out sometimes, if you’re paying close enough attention.”
“I don’t think it’s the stars that you’re looking at,” he says.
She shifts back up to sitting with a groan, shuffling closer to him. He grips her arms and holds her to keep her upright. “John,” she says. “It’s your wedding night.”
“Pretty eventful,” he says. “All things considered.”
“You ought to be sleeping with your wife,” she says. Lowering her voice to a stage whisper, she hisses, “What will your neighbors say?”
He leans his forehead against hers, his eyes studying hers. “Why don’t you tell me? Neighbor?”
She twists her face away from his grasp. “What are you playing at, John?”
“I wanted to see you,” he says.
“You didn’t,” she says. “You could see me any time you like. You came out here—now—at the dead of night…to do what?”
He kisses her.
She reaches to cup his face, dragging him closer as she crawls into his lap. Her legs shift on either side of his waist, her arms circling his neck.
“What do you want?” he says.
She blinks at him, her nose nudging his as she leans in to brush her mouth against his. “What do you want?”
She rocks in his lap, laughing when his hands force her to still.
“I think I know what you want.”
He shakes his head.
“There are still rooms,” she says, “above the casino.”
“You deserve better than this.”
She shakes her head. “You didn’t think so those few summers ago,” she says. “You took me here because you wanted…”
“Because I thought it would scare you. But nothing scares you.”
She sucks in a breath. “You hated ministering to my neuroses.”
“You remember too much of what I say.”
“I remember everything,” she says. “I remember everything.”
He tangles his hand in her hair and kisses her, plying her mouth open with his tongue and licking into her mouth. Her laugh gets muffled by his kiss, her hands teasing at the edge of his hairline.
“Do you want to go upstairs?” he asks.
She bites his mouth, her fingers undoing the buttons of his shirt. “Wherever you want,” she says.
He peppers her neck with kisses, his hands pushing at the sleeves of her dress to expose her shoulders. “You don’t know how I’ve wanted you,” he murmurs into her skin.
“You’re a liar,” she says.
“I wanted you before I even knew how to talk about it.”
“You couldn’t dream of it,” she repeats, dragging him in for another kiss. “You couldn’t figure out how you would ever be able to take me to bed.” She grinds herself slowly against his hard length. “And you can now?”
He cups her breast through her dress, and she arches into his touch with a gasp, her thighs squeezing in an attempt to relieve the tension.
She kisses him, sweet and soft.
“Let’s go upstairs,” he says.
She slips into the dark quickly. He chases the noise of her skirts.
He never imagined it. Not the silk feel of her hair snagging around his fingers, not the heat of her bare skin burning through the fabric of his pants as they cling tight to his hips. She was always unknowable, too cold, locked away from him. Every time he envisioned taking her, it was always conquest, breaking open the inner parts of her to spill loose around him, forcing her open with the heat of his mouth and the strength of his tongue and his cock. He has never once thought about what it would look like for her to offer himself to him—not the needy offering of her body, bent pliant and clinging to his, but to unmask herself.
She shakes as she kisses him, her mouth sliding along the column of his neck, fingers pulling to free his shirt from where it’s tucked into his pants.
“White,” she whispers, shucking him down to his undershirt. “Always white.”
He licks into her mouth and pulls her closer, nestling his hardness against the juncture of her legs. He stills, watching as she spreads her legs and ruts against him, need brazen on her face.
“Christ,” he murmurs, rocking himself against her. “You feel so good.”
She scoffs, laughing against his ear. “It was always leading here, wasn’t it?”
He runs his hands down her arms, squeezing at the muscle of her thighs through her slip.
“Well, go on,” she whispers. “Touch me. Or are you afraid?”
He slips his fingers beneath the fabric, grazing her through her undergarments. She hisses through her teeth, her nails digging hard into his shoulder as he brushes his fingers against her wetness.
“John,” she whispers.
He bites at her neck. “What do you want?” he says. “Tell me.”
She licks his ear. “No,” she says. Her hand reaches down, pushing his away, and he watches as she pulls her underwear down towards her knees and sinks two fingers inside of herself.
His eyes widen. “Alma,” he says.
She widens her legs, her eyes slipping half-shut as she pumps her fingers. Her mouth puckers as she sighs, the tendons in her wrist flexing from the awkward angle.
He clutches at her wrist, drawing her fingers free and into his mouth. His tongue strokes against the tips of her fingers, his eyes meeting hers as he savors the taste of her.
“What?” she says, batting her lashes. “Did you think that had anything to do with you?”
He jerks awkwardly at his trousers, pulling them down to his knees as he takes his cock in hand and grazes the tip of it against her sex. She stutters a breath, something closer to a sob or a laugh, though he doesn’t have the attention to figure out which. Her eyes are open, locked on his as he teases her entrance, nudging himself along her folds.
“Would you have given it to me?” he whispers, “All those months ago?”
She grins, her teeth locking together. “No,” she says, and he pushes himself inside of her. She gasps, her head tilting back as he buries himself inside of her.
Her muscles cling to him, squeezing around his cock as he settles himself inside of her. He squeezes his eyes shut, his head falling against the crook of her neck, and breathes her in. The smell of her, the way her muscles tighten around his when he moves, the quiet noises she makes when she’s still trying to hold everything back--it makes him feel like he's losing himself inside of her. “Jesus,” he says.
Her hands settle on his shoulders, her nails scratching down his back. When she rocks her hips against his, his hands clutch at her, fingers digging hard enough to bruise.
“I wouldn’t,” she says, as he thrusts into her. Their rhythm starts off clumsy, but her hand grips at his shoulder, panting to keep the time. They have never been an easy pair to fall together, but even here, he senses how she moves in counterpoint to him, forcing his pace. “I wouldn’t have—and you would have wanted to—”
He grinds his hips slow, leaning down to close his mouth over a breast. Her nipple tightens against the flat of his tongue, and her breathing speeds, just so slightly.
“You would have wanted to take it,” she says. “And I wouldn’t have—wouldn’t have let you--let you win.”
Her hands reach up to draw him in for a kiss, her mouth hot and desperate against his.
He bites at her jaw and fucks her hard, his hips slamming against hers as the headboard knocks its pace against the wall. Her hair tangles against the pillow, snagging against his fingers, but she gasps his name, baring her throat at his mouth, biting her lip hard enough to draw blood.
He leans down and sucks a bruise against her pulse.
He doesn't leave for hours.
Not before making her come twice more.
When he readies himself to leave at half-past four, she slips out of bed and stands before him, naked and shivering in the cool air, and buttons his shirt.
He lets himself touch the smooth bare skin of her belly, kisses her once.
"See you around," she whispers. "Enjoy your honeymoon."
The voices come in through the window sometimes, echoing like the wail of a spirit. Johnny, Johnny, Johnny—
Nellie has always known the reputation that tracks around John like mud on the back of a hog. She’s never paid much mind to it; she’s always been the one that people used to whisper about when they were wanting for gossip.
Johnny, Johnny, Johnny—
And besides, she figures, he’s a doctor and the best doctor in this town and nearly everybody knows that since he solved the problem of the fever epidemic, and it just makes sense that people would come to him with their troubles, even if it’s the middle of the night. It must be serious, she thinks, for people to bother him so late. He must be important, she thinks, for so many people to come.
Nellie knows that he loves her. He told her so, right there, before all of their friends and family. Before God.
Alma presses her hand to the window jamb and leans in to talk to her. “Why, Nellie,” she says. “I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“And are you feeling better, Miss Alma?” she says.
There is a hardness to her former teacher’s eyes that she doesn’t know how to read, an older wizened look that she’s seen around the eyes of her mother, of other adults in the town. Miss Alma never quite seemed touched by it in the same way, but now, it’s the only thing she wears on her face.
The careful turns of her language, the airiness of her expressions, none of it seems to be the same, even if she still looks and sounds like herself.
Nellie wonders if that’s the way people see her, if there’s something written in her own face that only others can see.
“Much better, Nellie,” Alma says. “It’s good to have you…so near. It reminds me of everything that went on…summers ago.”
“And will you go back to teaching, Miss Alma?”
Alma waves her hand. “We’ll just have to see what the spring brings, won’t we?” she says.
“Well, you come right over whenever you need anything,” Nellie says. “We’re just right across the yard, and you know John and I think the world of you.”
Her eyes soften as if remembering something. “Yes, Nellie,” she says. “I really appreciate everything that you’ve done for me. The way that you’ve remembered me all these years.”
Nellie reaches through the window and squeezes her hand.
John sits by the window and watches her pass through the yard, the long skirt of her dress catching against the grass of the lawn.
“John?” Nellie asks.
“Yes,” he says, watching Alma float through the yard.
“When will we go?”
“Soon,” he says, curling his fingers around the window.
Alma catches his eye and waves, her mouth curling into a scowl.
She opens her mouth and sings, and it all sounds like his name.