About the Author
Stephen King is the author of more than sixty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes The Institute, Elevation, The Outsider, Sleeping Beauties (cowritten with his son Owen King), and the Bill Hodges trilogy: End of Watch, Finders Keepers, and Mr. Mercedes (an Edgar Award winner for Best Novel and an AT&T Audience Network original television series). His novel 11/22/63 was named a top ten book of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller. His epic works The Dark Tower and It are the basis for major motion pictures, with It now the highest grossing horror film of all time. He is the recipient of the 2018 PEN America Literary Service Award, the 2014 National Medal of Arts, and the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Rose Madder 1
It was fourteen years of hell, all told, but she hardly knew it. For most of those years she existed in a daze so deep it was like death, and on more than one occasion she found herself almost certain that her life wasn’t really happening, that she would eventually awaken, yawning and stretching as prettily as the heroine in a Walt Disney animated cartoon. This idea came to her most often after he had beaten her so badly that she had to go to bed for awhile in order to recover. He did that three or four times a year. In 1985—the year of Wendy Yarrow, the year of the official reprimand, the year of the “miscarriage”—it had happened almost a dozen times. September of that year had seen her second and last trip to the hospital as a result of Norman’s ministrations . . . the last so far, anyway. She’d been coughing up blood. He held off taking her for three days, hoping it would stop, but when it started getting worse instead, he told her just what to say (he always told her just what to say) and then took her to St. Mary’s. He took her there because the EMTs had taken her to City General following the “miscarriage.” It turned out she had a broken rib that was poking at her lung. She told the falling downstairs story for the second time in three months and didn’t think even the intern who’d been there observing the examination and the treatment believed it this time, but no one asked any uncomfortable questions; they just fixed her up and sent her home. Norman knew he had been lucky, however, and after that he was more careful.
Sometimes, when she was lying in bed at night, images would come swarming into her mind like strange comets. The most common was her husband’s fist, with blood grimed into the knuckles and smeared across the raised gold of his Police Academy ring. There had been mornings when she had seen the words on that ring—Service, Loyalty, Community—stamped into the flesh of her stomach or printed on one of her breasts. This often made her think of the blue FDA stamp you saw on roasts of pork or cuts of steak.
She was always on the verge of dropping off, relaxed and loose-limbed, when these images came. Then she would see the fist floating toward her and jerk fully awake again and lie trembling beside him, hoping he wouldn’t turn over, only half-awake himself, and drive a blow into her belly or thigh for disturbing him.
She passed into this hell when she was eighteen and awakened from her daze about a month after her thirty-second birthday, almost half a lifetime later. What woke her up was a single drop of blood, no larger than a dime.
She saw it while making the bed. It was on the top sheet, her side, close to where the pillow went when the bed was made. She could, in fact, slide the pillow slightly to the left and hide the spot, which had dried to an ugly maroon color. She saw how easy this would be and was tempted to do it, mostly because she could not just change the top sheet; she had no more clean white bed-linen, and if she put on one of the flower-patterned sheets to replace the plain white one with the spot of blood on it, she would have to put on the other patterned one, as well. If she didn’t he was apt to complain.
Look at this, she heard him saying. Goddam sheets don’t even match—you got a white one on the bottom, and one with flowers on it on top. Jesus, why do you have to be so lazy? Come over here—I want to talk to you up close.
She stood on her side of the bed in a bar of spring sunlight, the lazy slut who spent her days cleaning the little house (a single smeared fingerprint on the corner of the bathroom mirror could bring a blow) and obsessing over what to fix him for his dinner, she stood there looking down at the tiny spot of blood on the sheet, her face so slack and devoid of animation that an observer might well have decided she was mentally retarded. I thought my damned nose had stopped bleeding, she told herself. I was sure it had.
He didn’t hit her in the face often; he knew better. Face-hitting was for the sort of drunken assholes he had arrested by the hundreds in his career as a uniformed policeman and then as a city detective. You hit someone—your wife, for instance—in the face too often, and after awhile the stories about falling down the stairs or running into the bathroom door in the middle of the night or stepping on a rake in the back yard stopped working. People knew. People talked. And eventually you got into trouble, even if the woman kept her mouth shut, because the days when folks knew how to mind their own business were apparently over.
None of that took his temper into account, however. He had a bad one, very bad, and sometimes he slipped. That was what had happened last night, when she brought him a second glass of iced tea and spilled some on his hand. Pow, and her nose was gushing like a broken water-main before he even knew what he was doing. She saw the look of disgust on his face as the blood poured down over her mouth and chin, then the look of worried calculation—what if her nose was actually broken? That would mean another trip to the hospital. For a moment she’d thought one of the real beatings was coming, one of the ones that left her huddled in the corner, gasping and crying and trying to get back enough breath so she could vomit. In her apron. Always in her apron. You did not cry out in this house, or argue with the management, and you most certainly did not vomit on the floor—not if you wanted to keep your head screwed on tight, that was.
Then his sharply honed sense of self-preservation had kicked in, and he had gotten her a washcloth filled with ice and led her into the living room, where she had lain on the sofa with the makeshift icepack pressed down between her watering eyes. That was where you had to put it, he told her, if you wanted to stop the bleeding in a hurry and reduce the residual swelling. It was the swelling he was worried about, of course. Tomorrow was her day to go to the market, and you couldn’t hide a swollen nose with a pair of Oakleys the way you could hide a black eye.
He had gone back to finish his supper—broiled snapper and roasted new potatoes.
There hadn’t been much swelling, as a quick glance in the mirror this morning had shown her (he had already given her a close looking-over and then a dismissive nod before drinking a cup of coffee and leaving for work), and the bleeding had stopped after only fifteen minutes or so with the icepack . . . or so she’d thought. But sometime in the night, while she had been sleeping, one traitor drop of blood had crept out of her nose and left this spot, which meant she was going to have to strip the bed and remake it, in spite of her aching back. Her back always ached these days; even moderate bending and light lifting made it hurt. Her back was one of his favorite targets. Unlike what he called “face-hitting,” it was safe to hit someone in the back . . . if the someone in question knew how to keep her mouth shut, that was. Norman had been working on her kidneys for fourteen years, and the traces of blood she saw more and more frequently in her urine no longer surprised or worried her. It was just another unpleasant part of being married, that was all, and there were probably millions of women who had it worse. Thousands right in this town. So she had always seen it, anyway, until now.
She looked at the spot of blood, feeling unaccustomed resentment throbbing in her head, feeling something else, a pins-and-needles tingle, not knowing this was the way you felt when you finally woke up.
There was a small bentwood rocker on her side of the bed which she had always thought of, for no reason she could have explained, as Pooh’s Chair. She backed toward it now, never taking her eyes off the small drop of blood glaring off the white sheet, and sat down. She sat in Pooh’s Chair for almost five minutes, then jumped when a voice spoke in the room, not realizing at first that it was her own voice.
“If this goes on, he’ll kill me,” she said, and after she got over her momentary startle, she supposed it was the drop of blood—the little bit of herself that was already dead, that had crept out of her nose and died on the sheet—she was speaking to.
The answer that came back was inside her own head, and it was infinitely more terrible than the possibility she had spoken aloud:
Except he might not. Have you thought of that? He might not.
She hadn’t thought of it. The idea that someday he would hit her too hard, or in the wrong place, had often crossed her mind (although she had never said it out loud, even to herself, until today), but never the possibility that she might live . . .
The buzzing in her muscles and joints increased. Usually she only sat in Pooh’s Chair with her hands folded in her lap, looking across the bed and through the bathroom door at her own reflection in the mirror, but this morning she began to rock, moving the chair back and forth in short, jerky arcs. She had to rock. The buzzing, tingling sensation in her muscles demanded that she rock. And the last thing she wanted to do was to look at her own reflection, and never mind that her nose hadn’t swollen much.
Come over here, sweetheart, I want to talk to you up close.
Fourteen years of that. A hundred and sixty-eight months of it, beginning with his yanking her by the hair and biting her shoulder for slamming a door on their wedding night. One miscarriage. One scratched lung. The horrible thing he’d done with the tennis racket. The old marks, on parts of her body her clothes covered. Bite-marks, for the most part. Norman loved to bite. At first she had tried to tell herself they were lovebites. It was strange to think she had ever been that young, but she supposed she must have been.
Come over here—I want to talk to you up close.
Suddenly she was able to identify the buzzing, which had now spread to her entire body. It was anger she was feeling, rage, and realization brought wonder.
Get out of here, that deep part of her said suddenly. Get out of here right now, this very minute. Don’t even take the time to run a comb through your hair. Just go.
“That’s ridiculous,” she said, rocking back and forth faster than ever. The spot of blood on the sheet sizzled in her eye. From here, it looked like the dot under an exclamation point. “That’s ridiculous, where would I go?”
Anywhere he isn’t, the voice returned. But you have to do it right now. Before . . .
That one was easy. Before she fell asleep again.
A part of her mind—a habituated, cowed part—suddenly realized that she was seriously entertaining this thought and put up a terrified clamor. Leave her home of fourteen years? The house where she could put her hand on anything she wanted? The husband who, if a little short-tempered and quick to use his fists, had always been a good provider? The idea was ridiculous. She must forget it, and immediately.
And she might have done so, almost certainly would have done so, if not for that drop on the sheet. That single dark red drop.
Then don’t look at it! the part of herself which fancied itself practical and sensible shouted nervously. For Christ’s sake don’t look at it, it’s going to get you into trouble!
Except she found she could no longer look away. Her eyes remained fixed upon the spot, and she rocked faster than ever. Her feet, clad in white lowtop sneakers, patted the floor in a quickening rhythm (the buzzing was now mostly in her head, rattling her brains, heating her up), and what she thought was Fourteen years. Fourteen years of having him talk to me up close. The miscarriage. The tennis racket. Three teeth, one of which I swallowed. The broken rib. The punches. The pinches. And the bites, of course. Plenty of those. Plenty of—
Stop it! It’s useless, thinking like this, because you’re not going anywhere, he’d only come after you and bring you back, he’d find you, he’s a policeman and finding people is one of the things he does, one of the things he’s good at—
“Fourteen years,” she murmured, and now it wasn’t the last fourteen she was thinking about but the next. Because that other voice, the deep voice, was right. He might not kill her. He might not. And what would she be like after fourteen more years of having him talk to her up close? Would she be able to bend over? Would she have an hour—fifteen minutes, even—a day when her kidneys didn’t feel like hot stones buried in her back? Would he perhaps hit her hard enough to deaden some vital connection, so she could no longer raise one of her arms or legs, or perhaps leave one side of her face hanging slack and expressionless, like poor Mrs. Diamond, who clerked in the Store 24 at the bottom of the hill?
She got up suddenly and with such force that the back of Pooh’s Chair hit the wall. She stood there for a moment, breathing hard, wide eyes still fixed on the maroon spot, and then she headed for the door leading into the living room.
Where are you going? Ms. Practical-Sensible screamed inside her head—the part of her which seemed perfectly willing to be maimed or killed for the continued privilege of knowing where the teabags were in the cupboard and where the Scrubbies were kept under the sink. Just where do you think you’re—
She clapped a lid on the voice, something she’d had no idea she could do until this moment. She took her purse off the table by the sofa and walked across the living room toward the front door. The room suddenly seemed very big, and the walk very long.
I have to take this a step at a time. If I think even one step ahead, I’m going to lose my nerve.
She didn’t think that would be a problem, actually. For one thing, what she was doing had taken on a hallucinatory quality—surely she could not simply be walking out of her house and her marriage on the spur of the moment, could she? It had to be a dream, didn’t it? And there was something else, too: not thinking ahead had pretty much become a habit with her, one that had started on their wedding night, when he’d bitten her like a dog for slamming a door.
Well, you can’t go like this, even if you just make it to the bottom of the block before running out of steam, Practical-Sensible advised. At the very least change out of those jeans that show how wide your can’s getting. And run a comb through your hair.
She paused, and was for a moment close to giving the whole thing up before she even got to the front door. Then she recognized the advice for what it was—a desperate ploy to keep her in the house. And a shrewd one. It didn’t take long to swap a pair of jeans for a skirt or to mousse your hair and then use a comb on it, but for a woman in her position, it would almost certainly have been long enough.
For what? To go back to sleep again, of course. She’d be having serious doubts by the time she’d pulled the zipper up on the side of her skirt, and by the time she’d finished with her comb, she’d have decided she had simply suffered a brief fit of insanity, a transitory fugue state that was probably related to her cycle.
Then she would go back into the bedroom and change the sheets.
“No,” she murmured. “I won’t do that. I won’t.”
But with one hand on the doorknob, she paused again.
She shows sense! Practical-Sensible cried, her voice a mixture of relief, jubilation, and—was it possible—faint disappointment. Hallelujah, the girl shows sense! Better late than never!
The jubilation and relief in that mental voice turned to wordless horror as she crossed quickly to the mantel above the gas fire...
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