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Alice Doherty

Johnstown, Six Miles

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So silent Suzanna's husband is, or at least he tries to be, when he returns home so late that he is early. The door never slams unless one of them lets it, and she knows that Harry holds the knob until the last possible second before shutting it, to minimize the noise when he thinks she is asleep. But there is no point to it. The wall behind the headboard is too thin to offer anything in the way of soundproofing when it comes to the rush of water through the bathroom pipes. She pushes at her stomach, trying to soothe the cramp with the warmth of her palms while also imagining a small animal inside her: some flayed, squirrelly thing with its muscles knotted around her reproductive organs. She half-listens for its squeals as the shower runs, years past reminding Harry of the well advisories that arrive in their mailbox a few times a month. Her talk of lead and formaldehyde lurking in the tap only ever upsets him. Over the patter of running water, he hums a song she does not know.

Though she is sure she has cleaned all traces of blood off the linoleum, she worries that there is a spot that she has missed and he will find. On the crime shows she watched as a teenager, the perp would always forget to clean under the light switch. Had she cleaned under the light switch? There had been no blood underneath the light switch; there was no reason that blood would have worked its way from the rim of the toilet seat to the cracks in the tile to her fingernails to the light switch, and even if it had, she could easily lie and say that she is on her period. She may have to lie anyway, evidence or no evidence. In the blue dark of early morning, it is still light enough for him to notice the smears of blood on his fingers and the shaft of his penis in the fleeting capacity for focus all men seem to acquire immediately after sex.

It is not because she is afraid that he will leave her if he finds out that she has lost another child. He'd driven her the three hours to the abortion clinic when she was nineteen and rather stupid about taking the pill on time, if she was honest with herself. That one had been on her. She got much better about it, set a timer on her phone to go off at nine each morning, guaranteed to catch her asleep or on her way to the lunch shift at the Robin's Egg Diner. There had been no mistakes, right up until she was legally married and could finally be open over cigarettes with her Baptist supervisor about the more peculiar aspects of living with a man, physical and otherwise. She and Harry agreed on the drive home from the county courthouse that there was no longer any point in delaying something the both of them wanted. She quit refilling her prescriptions, looking forward to the extra fifty dollars a month, but it always somehow went toward groceries or the heating bill or mechanical problems with the pickup.

The second time, he had come home to find her eating Jif with a spoon in a state of delirium, seated Indian-style on the kitchen floor in a pool of half-congealed blood. His company health plan wasn't due to kick in for another six months, so she called in sick to work as many days as she could get away with, parked on the couch with Simpsons reruns and a box of maxi pads. Harry held her hair back as she vomited—mostly Mountain Dew and more peanut butter out of the jar—and asked her where she wanted it buried.

Bag it and throw it out with the garbage, she said. You try to flush a tampon in this house and the toilet overflows.

She adjusts the dishtowel she has clamped between her thighs, hobbles to the windowsill and draws the blinds. When Harry enters, she dives under the covers and shoves the towel under the bed. Noticing neither the dark matting on the terrycloth nor her haste to hide it, he strokes her hair like always, his fingertips still pruned and dripping into the oily heat of her scalp. She cannot keep herself from wincing when he rolls her nipple with his thumb and forefinger, but she cannot say anything without arousing suspicion, because it is something he knows she usually likes. He probably assumes from the tenderness there that she is on her period, which would not preclude sex for him the way it would for other men. She's overheard him with his brothers at a Sunday barbecue, after one too many beers.

A true gladiator isn't afraid of a little blood on his sword, boys.

As he moves inside her, she tries to match the rhythm of his oh-Suzannas to the song her father used to sing her when the Casselman mines had not blackened his lungs to the point of being unable to carry a tune without bleeding like the mouths of girls in old books: tuberculosis, or the plague, something natural like that, that tore sisters and lovers away from one another so the readers of penny-dreadfuls had the privilege of watching a young man cry. She never liked those books, the kind that read like television movies with all the caresses and murmurs and darling-don't-say-thats. Stories that seem to revel in the hard things.

She sinks her teeth into the skin above his collarbone to take her mind off the raw ache in her cervix, and the blood she knows is ruining their sheets. His pace quickens until the slow, final thrusting and the ease of exit that comes with semen lets her know that he has finished. It is daylight now. When he peels back the sheets, he will see the ruin written inside her spilled for the third time, and he will know that it is not coincidence. He will know her body is cursed. She pulls him back, grateful that he does not fight her, desperate for the delay and the silence it brings but for his breath. Against the speckled ceiling tiles, the floaters in her eyes dance translucent, wormlike, and she vaguely remembers that they are supposed to be cells, and she wonders, briefly, if they are alive.

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