Rose Madder by Stephen King

Stephen King Rose Madder

This book is for Joan Marks

I’m really Rosie,

And I’m Rosie Real,

You better believe me,

I’m a great big deal . . .

Maurice Sendak

A bloody

egg yolk. A burnt hole

spreading in a sheet. An en-

raged rose threatening to bloom.

May Swenson


Sinister Kisses

She sits in the corner, trying to draw air out of a room which seemed to have plenty just a few minutes ago and now seems to have none. From what sounds like a great distance she can hear a thin whoop-whoop sound, and she knows this is air going down her throat and then sliding back out again in a series of feverish little gasps, but that doesn’t change the feeling that she’s drowning here in the corner of her living room, looking at the shredded remains of the paperback novel she was reading when her husband came home.

Not that she cares much. The pain is too great for her to worry about such minor matters as respiration, or how there seems to be no air in the air she is breathing. The pain has swallowed her as the whale reputedly swallowed Jonah, that holy draft-dodger. It throbs like a poison sun glowing deep down in the middle of her, in a place where until tonight there was only the quiet sense of a new thing growing.

There has never been any pain like this pain, not that she can remember — not even when she was thirteen and swerved her bike to avoid a pothole and wiped out, bouncing her head off the asphalt and opening up a cut that turned out to be exactly eleven stitches long. What she remembered about that was a silvery jolt of pain followed by starry dark surprise which had actually been a brief faint . . . but that pain had not been this agony. This terrible agony.

Her hand on her belly registers flesh that is no longer like flesh at all; it is as if she has been unzipped and her living baby replaced with a hot rock.

Oh God please, she thinks. Please let the baby be okay.

But now, as her breath finally begins to ease a little, she realizes that the baby is not okay, that he has made sure of that much, anyway. When you’re four months pregnant the baby is still more a part of you than of itself, and when you’re sitting in a corner with your hair stuck in strings to your sweaty cheeks and it feels as if you’ve swallowed a hot stone—

Something is putting sinister, slippery little kisses against the insides of her thighs.

‘No,’ she whispers, ‘no. Oh my dear sweet God, no. Good God, sweet God, dear God, no.’

Let it be sweat, she thinks. Let it be sweat . . . or maybe I peed myself. Yes, that’s probably it. It hurt so bad after he hit me the third time that I peed myself and didn’t even know it.

That’s it.

Except it isn’t sweat and it isn’t pee. It’s blood. She’s sitting here in the corner of the living room, looking at a dismembered paperback lying half on the sofa and half under the coffee-table, and her womb is getting ready to vomit up the baby it has so far carried with no complaint or problem whatsoever.

‘No,’ she moans, ‘no, God, please say no.’

She can see her husband’s shadow, as twis ted and elongated as a cornfield effigy or the shadow of a hanged man, dancing and bobbing on the wall of the archway leading from the living room into the kitchen. She can see shadow-phone pressed to shadow-ear, and the long corkscrew shadow-cord. She can even see his shadow -fingers pulling the kinks out of the cord, holding for a moment and then releasing it back into its former curls again, like a bad habit you just can’t get rid of.

Her first thought is that he’s calling the police. Ridiculous, of course — he is the police.

‘Yes, it’s an emergency,’ he’s saying. ‘You’re goddam tooting it is, beautiful, she’s pregnant.’

He listens, slipping the cord through his fingers, and when he speaks again his tone is testy.

Just that faint irritation in his voice is enough to renew her terror and fill her mouth with a steely taste. Who would cross him, contradict him? Oh, who would be so foolish as to do that? Only someone who didn’t know him, of course — someone who didn’t know him the way she knew him. ‘Of course I won’t move her, do you think I’m an idiot?’

Her fingers creep under her dress and up her thigh to the soaked, hot cotton of her panties.

Please, she thinks. How many times has that word gone through her mind since he tore the book out of her hands? She doesn’t know, but here it is again. Please let the liquid on my fingers be clear. Please, God. Please let it be clear.

But when she brings her hand out from under her dress the tips of her fingers are red with blood. As she looks at them, a monstrous cramp rips through her like a hacksaw blade. She has to slam her teeth together to stifle a scream. She knows better than to scream in this house.

‘Never mind all that bullshit, just get here! Fast!’ He slams the phone back into its cradle.

His shadow swells and bobs on the wall and then he’s standing in the archway, looking at her out of his flushed and handsome face. The eyes in that face are as expressionless as shards of glass twinkling beside a country road.

‘Now look at this,’ he says, holding out both hands briefly and then letting them drop back to his sides with a soft clap. ‘Look at this mess.’

She holds her own hand out to him, showing him the bloody tips of her fingers — it is as close to accusation as she can get.

‘I know,’ he says, speaking as if his knowing explained everything, put the whole business in a coherent, rational context. He turns and stares fixedly at the dismembered paperback. He picks up the piece on the couch, then bends to get the one under the coffee-table. As he straightens up again, she can see the cover, which shows a woman in a white peasant blouse standing on the prow of a ship. Her hair is blowing back dramatically in the wind, exposing her creamy shoulders. The title, Misery’s Journey, has been rendered in bright red foil.

‘ This is the trouble,’ he says, and wags the remains of the book at her like a man shaking a rolled-up newspaper at a puppy that has piddled on the floor. ‘How many times have I told you how I feel about crap like this?’

The answer, actually, is never. She knows she might be sitting here in the corner having a miscarriage if he had come home and found her watching the news on TV or sewing a button on one of his shirts or just napping on the couch. It has been a bad time for him, a woman named Wendy Yarrow has been making trouble for him, and what Norman does with trouble is share the wealth. How many times have I told you how I feel about that crap? he would have shouted, no matter what crap it was. And then, just before he started in with his fists: I want to talk to you, honey. Right up close.

‘Don’t you understand?’ she whispers. ‘I’m losing the baby!’

Incredibly, he smiles. ‘You can have another one,’ he says. He might be comforting a child who has dropped her ice cream cone. Then he takes the torn-up paperback out to the kitchen, where he will no doubt drop it in the trash.

You bastard, she thinks, without knowing she thinks it. The cramps are coming again, not just one this time but many, swarming into her like terrific insects, and she pushes her head back deep into the corner and moans. You bastard, how I hate you.

He comes back through the arch and walks toward her. She pedals with her feet, trying to shove herself into the wall, staring at him with frantic eyes. For a moment she’s positive he means to kill her this time, not just hurt her, or rob her of the baby she has wanted for so long, but to really kill her. There is something inhuman about the way he looks as he comes toward her with his head lowered and his hands hanging at his sides and the long muscles in his thighs flexing. Before the kids called people like her husband fuzz they had another word for them, and that’s the word that comes to her now as he crosses the room with his head down and his hands swinging at the ends of his arms like meat pendulums, because that’s what he looks like — a bull.

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Categories: Stephen King