The trip was to be a birthday present. The Outing Club at Terry's school had planned a week of camping and canoeing in Algonquin Park, and he was desperate to go. It wasn't the $200 fee that worried Gwen. What kept her awake at nights was the idea of Terry off in the wilderness for six days.
He argued that he had his lifesaving badge, he'd been in canoes before, there would be experienced adults along, and above all, he was no baby.
After a while he brought his father around, and Joe told Gwen that maybe it was time they let the boy spread his wings a little. The fee? They could scape it together.
It would be a magnificent birthday gift. Terry turned thirteen on the tenth of August, the fourth day of the trip.
She was careful to send him off with a joke. He had a horror of public displays of affection, just like his father. Even after the bus had disappeared around the corner she went on smiling, for Joe's benefit.
That night they dined in a fancy restaurant and went to a movie. They joked about their freedom.
"All the same," Joe said, later that night, "Funny how quiet the house is without him."
"Yes, funny," Gwen said. But she knew he didn't really know.
She was used to being alone when Joe was at the plant and Terry was at school. Then -- five days each week -- the house was not empty, not lonely, but filled with her sense of their nearness and their imminent return.
Now, with Terry gone, the clean silence rang in Gwen's ears. She drew up a list of special chores and exhausted it on the second day. There was no close friend to call -- Joe was Gwen's only close friend -- and there was no spare cash left to shop or go anywhere. She tried to read, but could not concentrate. She tried sunning herself, but the sun gave her a headache.
By afternoon of the third day she had lost the battle with fear. It swept over her in a cold flood and she retreated to the alcove in the bay window, where she curled up on the padded seat and looked out.
This was Gwen's favourite place in the house. A place at once sheltered and open. An eyrie, a watching-place. From here she watched the leaves burst out, the snow fall, the light change over the course of a day or a year. Here she sat in the evenings, and crocheted while Joe watched television.
This was where she dreamed. She never watched television while alone: never needed to. Images -- where did they come from? Out of books, the TV, out of the past, out of conversations overheard on the subway -- images grew in her head like frost crystals on a window in January.
All she had to do was to start them; the stories told themselves. Sometimes they were happy stories, sometimes frightening. She had read enough to know that these were her wishes and fears working themselves out.
Often she became lost in menacing dramas in which child molesters loomed, though not so much now that Terry was older. From these she would tear herself, shaking and in tears, and at once plunge into what she thought of as the cure: dramas where Terry would be saved in time, the evil one caught, the fear cancelled.
Sometimes she fantasized about coming into money, and what sort of full, beautiful existence would follow. After these she would shake herself and laugh, saying aloud, "Be sensible! Count your blessings!"
And she would count them: Joe, Terry, health, their own home (never mind the mortgage) -- and Joe had never been unemployed. There were plenty of people worse off.
Only, at times, she wondered about her sanity.
As a child she had been content with her own company and the companions she created, and banished when she tired of them. One or two had been harder to banish, the kind that creep around in the dark, but she outgrew them at last. Outlasted them.
In her teens she dreamed of romance. The grim, dark stranger on the train bound for an unknown destination, was he friend or enemy? She dreamed herself always beautiful and self-assured, and he was always, in the end, gentle, strong and good.
She had tried to write these stories down, but the words would not come. They stayed in her head. Nobody else knew what went on in there. On the outside she was pretty in a quiet way, smiling and inarticulate.
She married a man who was as quiet as she was, and only several years later understood that he was as gentle and strong as any of her fantasy lovers, though he was too slow, too massive to look the part.
After Terry was born she left her secretarial job. Joe preferred it and she was not keen, herself, on having some stranger raise her child. That was how she came to be alone in an empty house on this August afternoon, wishing she had somewhere else to go. A job, a club, some volunteer work: anything.
This is how it will be when Terry grows up and leaves home, she thought. It will be so lonely... She nearly panicked, then calmed herself by planning.
"Next year I'll take a refresher course, I'll brush up my skills. I won't stay here alone, I'd go crazy."
She knew what form the madness would take. One day, driven to desperation by the ringing emptiness in the house, she would run away into a dream so deep that she would never come out. She imagined herself wandering in her fantasy like someone lost in a lush jungle, full of lurking beasts and gorgeous flowers.
And, lost there, unable to control the story, God only knew what horrors she would perpetrate.
Gwen's father died when she was eleven years old. She had adored him, and he had given her all his attention: there were no other children. Heart disease put him in the hospital. She and her mother visited him every day.
Every night Gwen lay awake rehearsing her fears, filled with a dread which her mother never suspected. She began to imagine her father dying, her hand in his, his gaze turning blank. She hated this: she fought it, but the fear was so strong that she had no chance.
It was as if, kneeling on the riverbank, she had leaned out too far and fallen in, and the current had coiled around her and swept her away. The story was out of her control.
He did die, and she was there, her hand in his.
It never happened again. She thought of it as she sat in the window alcove this hot afternoon. The guilt was still with her. Nobody else, not her mother, not Joe, had ever known, or ever would know.
For years she had pondered on how she'd done it. Finally she came to believe it had happened because of some destructive quality in herself that normally lay buried deep inside, but at certain times could be released by fear or some other strong emotion.
Remembering her fear-dreams of the past -- the rapists, the child-murderers -- she shuddered. Suppose she had lost control then? But she never had. Always she'd pulled herself up sharply before the fear could take over. She had never again been swept away.
But suppose I go crazy? Then there'll be no control. I'll fall in that river and drown. Sometimes I think I'm half crazy already.
Drowning made her think of Terry. The cold crept over her in spite of the warm breeze that blew in the window. It smelled of leaves. She thought of the forest where Terry was. She hoped to heaven he was all right.
"Of course he's all right! Or I would have heard!"
But the cold still crept over her. She had been fighting it off ever since the bus disappeared around the corner.
Fear. Fear of the forest, of wild animals, of getting lost, of wandering weak with hunger, of falling and getting hurt. Most of all, fear of deep water.
Terry was a strong swimmer, but the northern lakes were cold, and the cold numbs you, and then you can't move your limbs...
She jumped up and ran out of the house. For the next two hours she walked about downtown, looking at shop windows, until it was time to go home and start dinner. In the evening she watched TV with Joe, then kept him up till one a.m. playing Scrabble. Then she was tired enough to sleep.
The next day was Terry's birthday. Gwen spent some time planning the special meal she would cook for him when he arrived home on the weekend. She made a list of groceries, then went out to buy them. She aired his bed and dusted his room. Then she dusted the whole house.
Exhausted, in the late afternoon, she sat in the alcove and let her head rest against the top of the seat. She was too tired to control her thoughts. They crowded in on her, seized her and swept her away.
When she came to herself she was still being carried. It was Joe: he had found her lying on the floor, shivering and sweating as if in a sickness. He picked her up and tenderly put her to bed.
The phone call came at eight o'clock that evening. There had been a storm. A canoe had capsized, two boys thrown into the water. One rescued.
The body was found the next day. The funeral was held two days after that. Nobody was to blame. It had been one of those freak squalls that blow up suddenly over the northern lakes. Everyone said how lucky it was that it hadn't been worse, that all the other boys and girls had come home safe.
Joe was numb. He went back to the plant and worked overtime. It helped a little. He felt bad about leaving Gwen so much alone, though. After a while, after she'd had time to get over the worst, he would suggest that she think about getting a job. He knew she was hiding her feelings: he often came home to find her scrubbing away the marks of tears. She seldom met his eyes.
One day she tried to tell him how much she blamed herself. He put his hand over her mouth, then wrapped his arms around her and rocked her.
"It was dangerous: we knew that when we let him go. But crossing the street's dangerous. What could we do, keep him in a box?"
Leaning gratefully into his embrace, she wondered how it would change if he learned the truth. She imagined how in rage and horror his muscular arms would harden around her, how easily he would crush her ribs, crush the life right out of her ...
Oh, no. Then would come punishment. She pictured him in prison, suffering in mind and body. No, Joe must not be punished, he was innocent. Only she must be punished.
He hugged her again and let her go. She went into the kitchen and turned on the stove. The sullen red glow of the element made her think of hellfire. Busy with the meal, she did not permit herself to dwell on this idea until later in the evening. The burns were on her hands the next morning. She told Joe she'd got them cooking breakfast.
In September Gwen began to dream again. Through the window she watched the leaves turn rusty and she thought of Terry. With the photo album open on her lap, she followed him through all the years from babyhood. He had been a loveable child: no angel, but impetuous and warm-hearted. She often thought of him as she had last seen him alive, hanging out of the bus window, laughing, his dark hair flying in the breeze. She brooded over these pictures and rocked herself.
There was nothing on earth she wanted but Terry back.
Fear used to be the great power in my life, she thought. But now there is nothing left to fear at all. There is only this hunger. And what good is it? Fear set loose the destruction that was in me. Maybe there's nothing else.
And yet, these days, she felt warm. While the rusty leaves were torn away she sat watching, warmed by a thought.
In November Joe saw Gwen smile for the first time since Terry's death. He began to hope that maybe, after all, the two of them would survive, would go ahead with their life together.
Coming home one day in mid-December he found her busy about the dining table. The aroma of roast spareribs filled the house. She wore a pretty red blouse and her cheeks were faintly flushed.
"Hey, gorgeous, where have I met you before?"
She laughed and kissed him. Then she backed away a few steps, still wearing a confident smile, carefully watching his expression.
"We're going to have a baby, Joe."
He stood silent, blank with shock. Then a look of pain crossed his face. He put an arm around her and firmly sat her down beside him on the sofa.
"Honey, listen. Remember how hard we tried to have a baby before Terry was born? And how hard we tried after? It's been how many years now? You're thirty-nine. It's not likely -- "
"Joe, it's better than likely. I've been to the doctor. This morning. He confirmed it."
Taking a sideways look at his face, she saw it start to kindle. "It's due next August," she added. "Probably the tenth."
"The tenth. Oh, God, no." He got up and walked around, while she watched with foreboding. He made a fist and softly hit the other palm. Then he walked back and sat down beside her again.
"I never even asked how you feel about this. Are you happy?"
"Oh, yes. Almost too happy!"
"Then, that's okay. Now." He took a breath and folded his hand around hers. "Let's think about names. I hope it's a girl. How about Sharon?"
"It's going to be a boy, Joe. We'll call him Terence."
Afraid to be near him, she pulled her hand free and went to the window seat. He sat perfectly still on the sofa. Something new was in his face. Not something she had ever seen before, not in him. It looked like fear. Was he afraid for her or of her?
When I see the fear change to loathing, she thought, then I'll know he knows. And I'll have to decide how to protect Terry and myself. Now I can do that: now I'm in control. The current has caught me, but I still have my sanity. I'm not lost, only changed.
Poor Joe! She looked at him across the room as if he were already far away. There he sat on the riverbank, bound to that one sad spot, while she was rushed away toward lands of mystery and delight.