They were sitting on the back deck in the dying light, Mac drinking Scotch, Beth reading the paper. They’d been there for hours, silently, having forgotten (?) to eat dinner, since Mac had come home from work and found Beth in their bedroom, furiously scrubbing the mattress, crying “Out, damned spot! Out!” Mac went to stop her—it was a futile task; the mattress would have to go—and she broke down in violent sobs. He led her to the bathroom to wash her hands, and she scrubbed them raw and red. On the deck, she continued to rub them, occasionally bringing them to her face to smell.
Mac could only guess at Beth’s torments. Was it guilt that had stolen her sleep? She’d done nothing wrong, but it would be an obvious, lazy thing for him to say. Fear had taken his own sleep. Fear that they’d squandered their chance.
A mile down the road, the Bankses had just had a healthy baby boy.
How long would they nurse their secret fears? Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow? Every day till the brief candles of their lives were extinguished, would they be walking shadows of themselves?
“Listen,” Beth said in a register he’d not heard since before. She didn’t want him to listen to her, but was drawing his attention to something.
Mac set down his drink and sat up straight, though he was unsure for what he was listening.
“Someone’s out there,” Beth said.
Out there were the woods that stretched behind their road, hilly and dense with Black Walnut and Oak. They often saw deer there, but now there was a different gait in the darkness. Mac heard it and saw movement, too. He went to the railing for a closer look.
There were men in camouflage trespassing in their woods—what were they doing, hunting?—and Mac was going to give them a piece of his mind. His other private torment was his rage; after the initial grief came bouts of fear that they would never have a child and a growing rage with no object. Now here was one.
“Stay here,” he said.
He went down the deck stairs and charged into the woods, slowed only by his Oxfords’ poor grip on the rocky and root-covered ground and the constant snagging of his pants in the underbrush. He lost sight of them—he could barely see anything, it was so dark in there—so he followed their sounds: the crunching of boots, whispered laughter. Sinister, it sounded. As he got closer, the tone of the men’s muted words sobered. He’d been heard, though not yet seen, and the risk in this occurred to him, but failed to stop him.
Mac found himself on the barrel end of a half dozen rifles.
“You trying to get yourself killed?” one of the men said. The rifles were lowered, but still threateningly wielded.
“Get out of here,” Mac said, hands on his hips to show his resolve. “Go back wherever you came from. You’ve no right to be here.”
“Calm down, fella. We’re just passing through.”
“No, you’re not. Turn around.”
“Who died and made you king?”
Mac thrust a pointed forefinger in the speaker’s bearded face, and the men shifted back on their heels.
“Has he got a knife?”
“You bring a knife to a gunfight, man?”
“It’s not a knife, just a lot of bluster.”
It was only a dagger of the mind, but the men saw that Mac was unyielding. The man on the end of Mac’s finger turned to the others. “Come on—let’s go around this idiot.” The men stomped off in the opposite direction of the house.
Mac waited until he could no longer hear their steps, then fumbled through the dark toward the deck light, which Beth had turned on. He emerged from the woods, and Beth met him at the top of the stairs, wrapped now in a shawl. He put his arms around her, massaged her spine.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yeah.” There was no sense in frightening her with the details. “You all right?”
“I don’t know. I just feel so… vulnerable right now. What’s next?”
“I know. I know. But it was nothing. Just a lot of sound and fury.”
Mac led Beth to his chair, where he stretched out so she could lie against him. They grew drowsy from their heat. And there they found sleep.