“Milk Fever” by Mary Lucille Hays

Ruth couldn’t quite forget that her husband, David, had slept with Diana before he slept with Ruth. Diana had just arrived at the farm from Seattle on her way to Canada. Ruth figured the detour had cost her a day and 600 miles. She caught herself probing for jealous feelings, but decided she was glad to see her old friend. Just now, Diana had rummaged through Ruth’s pantry for herbs, and concocted a brew of cayenne, ginger, and comfrey for Ruth, licorice root for herself, and added a splash of whisky to each mug.

“Do you think your breast infection has anything to do with my visit?”

Ruth swallowed a sip of tea as she considered. The tea steamed up into her face and burned the back of her throat. Maybe the cayenne would help her, but she wasn’t sure about the whisky. David had wanted her to go to the doctor, but Ruth downplayed it, even though she knew that a breast infection could be dangerous. She had been eating raw garlic with honey all morning, since waking up to find her right breast swollen and hot, as if a quarter she’d plucked from a scorching sidewalk were embedded in her flesh. Ruth told him that letting baby Duncan nurse was the best cure. The doctor would just give her antibiotics, and she didn’t want her digestive tract all screwed up.

“I mean, it’s awfully suspicious that you get a breast infection the day I arrive. Sometimes—” Diana paused to sip her own tea, then reached for the flask to add another splash of whisky, “—physical ailments reflect what is going on psychically.”

“You don’t believe that Freudian shit, do you?” David had just come into the kitchen with the last of Diana’s bags. “Where do you want this?” He shook an overstuffed duffel.

“Just put it wherever you want me to sleep. But seriously, David, it’s not ‘Freudian shit.’ It’s mind-body connections.”

Ruth laughed. “Don’t listen to him. He’s just scared to death someone will call him sentimental.”

“Well, I have to keep you in the real world, don’t I?” He turned to Diana. “I guess you’ll have to sleep on the fold-out couch in the living room. We’re putting a bedroom in the attic, but it’s not finished yet.”

“Yeah, David got sidetracked building a bed up there.”

“Hey, it’s almost done,” David called over his shoulder as he went to put Diana’s duffel away.

Beautiful Diana had the bone structure of an Amazon and thick, straight, ink-black hair that she periodically sheared off in a jagged crew cut way before that sort of thing was fashionable. Her skin had a dusky tint, and her long graceful fingers looked like they were fit only for the gentler arts of drawing, flute playing, loving, and anything associated with lamb’s wool or velvet. Her face was wide, and she was usually grinning a wild grin, but was sometimes furrowed of brow if she were in doubt or thought. Her voice and her words were as tough as she could cut them. Diana was a wild flower child, and she dressed the part—wearing long skirts with hiking boots, or pink flowered harem pants with a shirt made from muslin rice bags. Whatever she wore it was always threadbare and patched with a crazy quilt of velveteen. Diana dressed to please herself.

Years ago, Ruth, David, and Diana had all lived in the same commune. It was a Victorian house that had been cut up for apartments in the thirties, and then opened back up again when the hippies moved in. They called it “Rainbow House,” but sometimes, affectionately, “St. Margaret’s,” because somebody said Margaret of Cortona was the patron saint of unwed mothers. Diana was pregnant when she moved in, and three other girls were raising babies, one of them birthed on a futon on the living room floor with everyone in the whole house in attendance, singing and holding hands, crying and hugging during the crowning. By the time Diana left Rainbow House, she and David had already had their fling and split up again. She moved to Seattle, still pregnant.

Next it was Ruth who got knocked up with her boyfriend, Pete, who wasn’t even part of the commune. Ruth had moved out of Rainbow House to live with Pete, but that coupling didn’t last much beyond Ya’s birth. Ruth and David weren’t involved during Rainbow House days, though it could have easily happened in the young, noncommittal ways of hippie communities. It was a big house, and it was hard to keep track sometimes. But that was all ancient history. Ruth and David got together when Ya was three, and now he was six. Their baby, Duncan, was eighteen months old.

Diana’s daughter would be—Ruth did a quick calculation in her head—seven? And her younger son would be about four. Ruth had assumed Diana was bringing them, but they weren’t in the car when she arrived, and Ruth missed the moment when it would have been natural to ask. She had the perfect opportunity, too, since she had talked up the idea with Ya of playmates visiting, a boy and a girl around his age. He could show them how to climb on the hay in the barn and how to pick mulberries and how to watch quietly while the hummingbirds sipped nectar in the trumpet creeper that was the roof of his secret, outdoor house under the windmill. When Diana arrived, Ya looked into the car, and then accusingly at Ruth.

“Hey,” Ya tugged on Diana’s t-shirt. “Where’s your kids?” But the question was lost in the flurry of hugs and activity of Diana’s entrance.

Ya had run off to sulk, and Ruth was trying and failing here in the kitchen to think of a tactful way to bring it up again.

“Where’d you stash the kids?” asked David, when he came back into the kitchen, and Ruth shot him a look, but he was looking at Diana, who smiled brightly.

“They’re staying with their grandmother for a while.” She looked down into her hot toddy. “Until I get settled.”

David brought a mug over to the table and sat down between the women. “Well, moving is hard on kids. It’s better to send for them when you get there. Good idea.”

Ruth poured tea into his mug, and Diana laughed and added some whisky.

When Ruth had awakened that morning before dawn, feverish with the searing pain in her breast, she knew immediately what the problem was, and after swallowing a spoonful of minced garlic, she went into the boys’ bedroom and lay down beside Duncan to nurse. He didn’t open his eyes, just his mouth, and began to suck slowly. The infection made nursing hurt, but like a good massage hurts tight muscles. And she knew it was important to get all the milk out.

Ruth closed her eyes, and images of Diana drifted through her mind. Diana driving her school bus house straight across the Plains, wheat fields billowing. Conestoga wagons were called Prairie Schooners because they were like ships sailing through the waves of prairie grasses. Who was saying that? Was it Diana talking about it at Rainbow House before she took off for Seattle? Diana peeling the dry skin off of a red onion in the kitchen. Oh, Ruth hadn’t thought about Rainbow House for so long. Diana slow-dancing in the living room with various housemates, one after another: Paul and Ross and Jenny and Jim and….

The slant of the sunlight and the taste in her mouth told Ruth that she had managed to relax into another hour of sleep. She lay there for a moment, getting her bearings, then started when she remembered that Diana would arrive today. How had Duncan slipped away without waking her? Ruth was alone in the bed, except for Kali, the kitten, who lay curled up on Ruth’s belly, and she could hear David furiously and sloppily scrubbing the living room floor. Ya was up, too, and pestering David with questions about Diana’s kids. Ruth could hear Ya’s high voice (The girl is taller than me, right? Do they like to play legos? Can I show them my cat?), but she couldn’t quite make out David’s reassuring murmured answers between.

The garlic hadn’t cured her yet, and Ruth got up carefully and went to put on the cotton sundress that made her think of her hippie days. Lately, she had taken to wearing jeans and tee shirts, but Ruth had been saving this dress to wear for Diana’s visit. It was high-waisted and the skirt was cut full so that it billowed in the wind, and she loved to wear it outside.

By the time Ruth made it to the kitchen, David and the kids had moved on to the bathroom—David was singing his “scrub the potty” song amidst running water and the laughter of the two boys. Ruth brewed some comfrey tea and made her way slowly to the back yard. Every step was a painful jolt to her swollen breast. After checking for tractors in the neighboring fields, she found a thistle free spot, slipped out of her dress and lay down on her back in the sun. The tea and the sun warmed her, and she realized that she had chosen to come outside not only for the healing sunbath, but also so she could be the first one to greet Diana. She rehearsed how she would walk out, smiling, to meet the car. She thought about the hugging and the kissing and meeting Diana’s kids, and how, in the middle of it all, David would hear the racket and dash out wiping his hands on his pants. He would laugh and join in, and then they’d all go inside and have tea.

But that’s not the way it happened.

Instead, when the dog started barking, Ruth got up painfully and put her dress back on. She cupped her hand under the infected breast to keep it from bouncing, and she hurried around the corner of the house.

David came out the door just as Diana stepped out of the car, stretching after her long drive. She wore a greenish, bleach-mottled tee shirt. The sleeves were cut off short and hemmed with big straight stitches of colorful thread. Her faded shorts had red cotton pinstripes, and she wore old Birkenstocks. One was repaired with duct tape. Her skin was summer dark, and the hair on her arms and legs had sunned to a tawny brown. Slung around her waist she wore a loosely braided rope of green and gold cord. It tied at her left side and shells and keys and curious silver charms bounced and tinkled at the ends of the cords.

David was already running to embrace Diana. She grabbed him by the sides of his face and kissed him onetwothreefour times on the mouth. Then he kissed her back, and he kissed her again. David and Diana danced a little jig and then were locked in a rocking bear’s hug. Diana saw Ruth approach over David’s shoulder. She winked, and Ruth smiled. Diana gave David one last kiss and a lingering hug and then he looked over his shoulder and saw Ruth waiting behind him, and they disentangled themselves.

Diana swung her arms wide open, but the energy had peaked, and the passion was gone. The two women embraced carefully, and Ruth remembered the awkwardness she always felt hugging Diana, at being so much shorter. The top of Ruth’s head only reached Diana’s chin, and she felt like a child. Diana and David were about the same height. Ruth stepped back and asked, “How was your trip?” just as David was saying, “Let me show you around.” And then nobody was talking and Ruth felt stupid. But just as suddenly, everything seemed okay, and they all went inside to drink tea and hear about Diana’s plans for Canada, her life in Seattle, her stormy affairs with men, and the wreck of her latest romance.

The afternoon was heating up, and Ruth’s breast still hurt. As soon as lunch was over, Ruth took the boys out of the muggy house to play in the shade of the old apple tree. Diana and David came out the kitchen door. Diana was telling a story and emphasizing certain points by poking David on the shoulder. He was laughing.

“Hey,” Diana called when she saw Ruth. “This weather is lousy. Is there any place we can go skinny-dipping?”

“Not unless you want to fill that old horse trough with water.” Ruth pointed at the galvanized tub under the elm tree. “That’s what I do for the kids when it’s really hot.”

Diana and David came up to where Ruth was standing. They were both smiling. “Well,” said Diana. “We can at least sunbathe, can’t we? I’m not used to wearing so many clothes.”

“Sure, I was sitting out back before you got here. I think the sun on my breast helps.”

“Great,” Diana grinned. “I’m dying to get nekid.”

Ruth laughed. “Just make sure you get dressed if you hear the dog barking. It might be the neighbors. You’re not in the Pacific Northwest, you know.”

“Do you get many visitors?”

David smiled. “Just the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Brethren or the Mormons. I’m sure they’d love to see you nekid. They already think Ruth is the Devil’s oldest child. She can’t just say she’s not interested. She has to go and tell them what she thinks of missionaries.”

Ruth took off her dress and Diana pulled off her shirt. David brought a blanket to sit on and they all started telling stories about Rainbow House.

“Dave was the nicest person I ever went out with,” Diana looked sideways at David.

“Yeah,” Ruth nodded. “Me, too.”

“Oh, cut it out you guys. You’re making me sick.” David smiled and cut his eyes at Diana.

“No. Really. You were. I can’t find anyone as nice as you. I’m ready to give up on men.” Diana pulled up a fistful of grass, and then threw it over her shoulder. “For good.”

“You don’t mean that. You’ll find the right guy.”

“I do, David. I really do.” Diana paused and looked around. The corn had fenced off the yard on the east side, giving a feeling of privacy, and the sky was bright blue above the tassels. A breeze caught the blades of the old windmill, and it began to turn slowly with the groan of unoiled metal. “Jeez, I can’t believe how conservative you guys are now.”

Ruth and David looked at each other.

Ruth spoke first. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. I guess your style has changed. Your clothes, your hair. You guys have a couch for Christ’s sake.”

Ruth felt like she’d been slapped. “Well, it was my grandmother’s. It was here when we moved in. We didn’t—”

“Not just that. Look at Duncan. My kids used to run around without a diaper or anything—even in the yard. And then we lived in the city. Now, here, out on the land, with no neighbors for miles, Duncan has to wear diapers and rubber pants and shorts and shoes and socks.”

“But there are rusty nails all over where we tore down that old chicken coop,” Ruth was crestfallen. “And there’s broken glass and locust thorns.”

Diana laughed. “All right. But how come you have those plastic pants on him? Don’t you have any biobottoms?”

“Those wool soakers they advertise in the back of Mothering magazine for twelve-fifty a pair?”

“”They’re not twelve-fifty. They’re maybe six dollars.”

“Well, I can get rubber pants at a garage sale for ten cents apiece. Next time I see biobottoms for that price I’ll get a couple of dozen.” Ruth looked sideways at David. She imagined saying to him in the secret language of glances, “Look at the mother-of-the-year telling us how to dress our kids.” But David wasn’t looking at Ruth. He was smiling at Diana.

Afternoon wore on to evening, and Ruth was still sore. The pain was spreading from her breast down her arm, and her neck felt stiff. She stretched, but that brought more pain and the muscles in her back tightened between the shoulder blades.

“Do you want me to fix you a place to sleep?” asked Ruth.

Diana yawned. “Sure. Where are you going to put me?”

“You can have the couch if it’s not too suburban for you.”

David laughed. “Yeah, it even opens into a bed.”

“You guys are too much,” said Diana.

The next day they walked to the woods to pick the wild plums. David, Ruth and Diana were taking turns pulling Duncan and Ya in the red wagon.

“What’s this you’re wearing?” David pointed to the colorful and complicated belt at Diana’s waist. “It jingles.”

“Oh yeah—I forgot to tell you guys. This is my chastity belt.” Diana stopped walking and dropped the wagon handle. She held out the rope that loosely circled her waist. Ruth took it and fingered the objects that dangled at the ends of the cords. There was a shell and an ankh and a silver labrys and a jade ring. These were each tied at the end of a different string. A few loose braids hung down, weighted with beads.

“I wear it all the time,” Diana went on, “so I don’t forget.”

Ruth looked at David, and he shrugged ever so slightly, raising his eyebrows.

“Does it work?” Ruth asked Diana.

“I guess so. I haven’t slept with anyone for six months.”

Ruth let go of the belt and David picked up the wagon handle. The kids jerked backward as the wagon lurched into motion.

After they picked the plums, Ruth felt feverish, and David offered to pull the wagon with the kids back by way of the road, so Ruth and Diana could take a short cut across the bean field. Diana and Ruth had three white plastic buckets of plums. Diana carried two of them. Sweat trickled down Ruth’s back, and she could smell the sun on the fruit and on their bodies. She hoped she could sweat out the infection, walk out the stiffness. She stretched her neck, rotating it from side to side and up and down. Despite the pain in her breast, Ruth was happy walking with Diana in the sun—maybe happy to have her friend to herself for a while—and she talked about her plans for the plums.

Ruth wanted to make plum jelly like her grandmother used to. She pictured the jars sitting on the counter, the sun shining through them. She had some of her grandmother’s jelly jars, with a quilted imprint pressed in the glass. She would seal them with paraffin. She was telling the story now about trying last summer to make plum butter without sugar: “I just pitted those plums and simmered for about three days. The thing is, I burnt it—about a gallon. It wasn’t burnt too bad, but the smoke made it taste like barbecue sauce. I keep thinking about Grandma’s jars filled with red jelly. They should look like jewels or something, but they look like burnt applesauce. So this time I want to make red jelly for Grandma.”

“I hope there will be fruit trees where we’re going,” said Diana.

They beat David back to the house, and Ruth said she’d like to take a nap. She’d been feeling tired all day, but told herself she wanted to spend time with Diana. She pretended not to know that she didn’t trust Diana and David alone together. But now she decided that it was exhausting and ridiculous, this watchdog business. And she was stiff and feverish. The walk had tired her out. Maybe she could sleep a little.

She went into her room and lay down on her back. She tried all her sleep tricks, breathing deeply, systematically relaxing parts of her body, reading, stretching. Finally she got up and looked out the bedroom window.

Diana and David were sitting on the grass. They had taken off their shirts.

Diana was telling a story and gesturing wildly. David sat cross-legged pulling up pieces of grass. He laughed at something she said and nodded his head. They looked very comfortable and friendly together.

“It figures,” Ruth said and sat down on the bed. She didn’t know what to do. Her breast was hurting worse. She stood up and looked out the window again. David was gone, and Diana lay on her belly in the sun.

Ruth heard the attic door open and shut, and then heavy steps climbed the attic stairs. Soon she heard alternately the electric saw and hammering, and she knew he was working on that bed in the new room. Ruth stretched and closed her eyes.

When she woke two hours later, she felt even more feverish. Her neck was stiff, and she had to turn her whole upper body if she wanted to look at something. Her mouth was stale and dry, and she got up to get a drink of water. Diana and David were in the kitchen. Several pots simmered on the stove, and steam billowed overhead. David was packing plums into a jar and Diana was pulling steamy jars of fruit out of the boiling water bath with one hand, while she bounced baby Duncan on her hip. She and David were snickering confidentially and didn’t look up when Ruth came in.

Ruth walked stiffly to the sink and pulled a glass off of the dish rack. She turned on the cold-water faucet, and David turned toward the sound.

“Oh, hey,” he said. “Feel better? Look, Diana showed me how to can plums without sugar or honey or anything. It’s a lot easier and you don’t use so much gas because you process them fresh without cooking them first. There.” He emptied the rest of the plums from the bucket into the jar and screwed the lid on. “That’s the last of them. This should keep us in fruit for a while.”

Ruth sipped her water and looked at the jars lined up on the counter. The plums had lost their color. They were brown and waterlogged.

“Did you pit them?” she asked.

“Naw—too much work,” David turned back to the stove where Diana was lowering that final jar into the boiling water.

“Figures,” Ruth said under her breath and walked out of the kitchen.

That evening behind the machine shed, Ruth sat in a lawn chair and looked out over the field. Diana and David were lying in the grass, David on his stomach and Diana, next to him, on her back. They had come out to wait for the deer to graze on the rise beyond the bean field. Sometimes at sunset you could see the deer out there. If they came out in daylight they usually ran straight across without stopping. Then you could only see them if you happened to look up before they were over the ridge or into the woods. But at sunset they were quiet. They’d come out in twos or threes and graze. The sun shining red on their coats would at first highlight them. Then it would dim, but you could stay out and watch until it got too dark to see. The deer wouldn’t startle as long as you were quiet. Ruth was the only one looking out past the bean field. And so far there were no deer.

The windmill slowly caught the wind and creaked as it turned. Diana laughed. “I like it here.” She put her hands behind her head.

David sat up and tossed a pebble so it bounced off Diana’s belly. “Why don’t you stay?”

“Oh sure, where will I sleep? The barn? You can’t keep me on that couch; I’ll turn into a yuppy-guppy.”

“It’s not a barn. It’s a machine shed.” Ruth shot a sharp look at David, but he was still watching Diana.

“What’s the difference?” Diana turned toward Ruth.

“A barn is for animals. It has stalls, and it smells like manure and hay.” Ruth’s words were clipped. “That is for parking farm machinery. It’s empty inside. Like an airplane hangar.”

“No, really,” David broke in. “We’re fixing up the attic so someone can move in with us. Ruth is always harping about ‘living communally,’ plus it would be good for the kids to live all together.”

Diana shrugged. “I don’t want to live in Illinois. It’s so flat.” She gestured out toward the field. “And Midwesterners are so narrow-minded. God. I don’t know how you guys can stand it. Why don’t you come up to Canada with me? We could buy land together.”

Ruth looked out across the bean field. Two deer grazed in the high grass in the meadow. She didn’t say anything, and they disappeared over the rise.

After the sun went down, Duncan and Ya chased fireflies until the stars were bright and the fireflies faded. The boys sacked out on a blanket on the lawn, and David carried them in to bed one at a time while Diana gave Ruth a backrub to loosen her neck. Her hands were strong and gentle and warm, and it helped a little, but still Ruth couldn’t relax. At eleven-thirty they went inside, and Ruth pulled David toward the bedroom.

“Goodnight Diana.” Ruth tried to make a show of lingering but didn’t even realize she was tugging on David’s hand. “Have good dreams.”

As soon as he shut the bedroom door Ruth turned on David. “Look, if you want to live with Diana, you’re going to have to find somewhere else to do it. This is my family’s land.”

He stepped back. “What are you talking about?”

“What am I talking about? Why in the world would you invite your old lover to live with us?”

“But she said no.”

“But you invited her. Here. To live in my house.”

David raised his hands. “I thought you wanted someone to live here. I thought that was why we were fixing up the attic.”

“But not her. You know that.”

He looked at the floor. When he didn’t speak, she went on. “So. If you want to live with her, just go ahead. I’m sure she’d love your company in Canada. You can even take that bed you’re building.”

“Oh come on,” he pleaded. “Don’t start that again. I don’t want to live with her. Are you kidding? She’s a lunatic. Her and her crazy kids.”

“Then don’t encourage her anymore. OK?”

“I’m sorry, Ruth.”

They undressed and he turned out the light. In bed she lay next to him, and soon he was snoring. But she was still awake when the quarter moon came around to shine on her window.

The third day Ruth woke up still feverish, and she wondered if she should give in and see a doctor. Her whole body ached, and a stiffness had crept into all of her joints. She felt jaded and old, and she snapped at the kids like a dog grown arthritic and impatient. She was short with David and scrupulously polite to Diana. She waded through the day like it was a swamp she had to cross. And on the other side, the next day, Diana was scheduled to leave.

That evening Ruth sat on the couch with her eyes closed while Diana and David fixed dinner. She didn’t say more than she had to the whole evening. And she knew she wasn’t much help in getting the kids to bed. Ruth felt like a tortoise—moving slowly, with an urge to pull herself into her shell and shut the door.

After Diana and David had cleaned up the dishes Ruth decided to take a shower. She hoped they had left enough hot water—they seemed to be in the kitchen for an awfully long time. In the shower she stayed a while, letting the water pound on the back of her neck where she felt the most stiffness. She bent over, the warmth spilling across the base of her spine, and she could almost touch her toes after a few minutes. By the time the water began to cool she felt considerably looser. She dried herself and put on her summer robe. When she opened the bathroom door the hall was dark, and she hoped they had already gone to bed. She didn’t feel like talking to anybody. And she wanted to lie safely under the sheets with David holding her.

But when she rounded the corner, she saw the softly flickering light of candles. Diana lay on her back on the couch, completely naked. She was stroking the kitten, which lay curled up next to her shoulder. The candlelight tossed strange shapes on her body, and she was beautiful. David sat in a chair next to the couch. He still had his clothes on. They were talking in low tones. Ruth stood at the edge of the room for a few seconds before David looked up.

“Did the shower help any?” he asked.

“Not much.” Ruth pulled the rocking chair closer to David and sat down.

David turned back to Diana who was talking about her plans to make hammocks for a mail order company when she got to Canada.

Ruth looked at the candles. She thought about all the times she had tried to set the table for a candlelight supper. Always David would grumble that he couldn’t see what he was eating, and he’d turn the lights back on. The candles seemed so silly burning under the bright light, so she would blow them out and finish the meal in stony silence. David only consented to candles in the bedroom. And so she associated them with love making, and in that way candlelight had become sacred to her.

Diana was still going on about hammocks, and suddenly David interrupted. “Hey. If it’s mail order, why can’t you do it here? We have space in the attic and you and Ruth could make hammocks together. Ruth loves doing stuff like that. Don’t you, Rue—” He stopped when he saw the look on her face.

No one said anything. Ruth didn’t look to see if she was making Diana uncomfortable. She didn’t care. When David lowered his eyes, Ruth picked up a candle and carried it to the bedroom. She shut the door and set the candle on the chest. Then she threw her robe on the floor, got into bed, and buried herself under the covers. She lay still for a moment before she remembered that stupid chastity belt. Had Diana taken it off with the rest of her clothes? Ruth couldn’t be sure. There were too many shadows. She wanted to go back and find out, but it was too late for that. She discovered that she was shaking.

The door opened and shut, and David sat on the bed.

“Ruth?”

“Just go away,” she answered from beneath the covers.

“Come on—Ruth, listen. I’m sorry.”

“Go on out there. I’m sure she’d take off her chastity belt for you.”

“What? I don’t want to sleep with her.”

Ruth looked out from under the summer blanket. David was staring hard at his fingernails.

“Oh no? Then why—” Ruth was shaking now. “Why do you—” Her voice was rising, and her words kept catching in her throat, “—keep inviting her here to live?”

“I don’t know.” He looked at the floor. “I guess I didn’t think you were serious about not wanting her here. She’s your friend. And I thought you’d be a good influence on her.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, shit. She’s having a hard time. She keeps getting into messed-up relationships and having kids. And now she seems to have lost them. I guess I’ve always thought she was a little crazy.”

“But you love her?”

David sighed. “No. I don’t love her. I love you.”

“Oh, come on, David. For once can’t you be honest? Do you think I’m an idiot? Do you think I can’t see how happy you are that she’s here? You’re practically begging her to—” The door rattled suddenly, and Ruth stopped talking. Did their arguing wake the kids? Did Diana think she should come in here and, what? Apologize? Tell Ruth to stop being such a baby? Ruth waited for the door to open, but it just rattled again, and then she saw the kitten’s white paw reaching under the door up to its elbow. Then the other paw—the dark one—came under, too, both paws reaching in as far as they could, groping blindly for something.

In the pause Ruth sobbed, watching the kitten and wondered if Diana was listening. Everything seemed so terrible.

David touched her shoulder, and she turned from the door to look at him. “Ruth, don’t cry. Really I—“ He took a breath and gathered himself. “It’s you I love.”

Ruth sniffed loudly—God, she hated to cry like this with Diana out there. She sat up and reached over to fumble in the dresser drawer for a handkerchief. She didn’t want to look at David. She blew her nose thoroughly and then, finally, turned to him. He was peering at her. But as soon as she spoke, he looked away.

“Look,” she said. “I don’t think you’re going to leave me for her. I don’t even really think you’re going to sleep with her. I just want to know if you want to. I just need to know if you love her, and then we won’t have to talk about it anymore.”

She looked at him for a long moment, waiting. He pursed his lips and looked at the ceiling, then the floor. Next he studied the flickering candle. Finally, he met her gaze for an instant, but his eyes slid immediately away.

“”No,” he said. “You’re the only one I love.” Then he looked up at her and smiled like sunshine.

Ruth felt something deflate in her chest, and she saw that he was lying. But then she found that she had been lying, too, since they would have to talk about this more. Much more. Ruth lay back down in the bed. She let him cover her with the blanket and kiss her gently on the cheek. Then he pinched the candle with his thumb and forefinger and climbed in beside her in the sudden dark.

✶✶✶✶

Mary Lucille Hays writes in the Midwest, where she has lived most of her life. She has waited tables and done seamstress work. She once made sandwiches for a lunch cart for which she sewed an awning out of mattress ticking. It was festive with its blue and white stripes. Mary was named for both of her grandmothers. She holds an MFA from Murray State University in Kentucky. In 2015, she was its Jesse Stuart Fellow. She has published stories in Quiddity, Broad!, Every Day Fiction, Short Fiction Break, Coal City Review, Passagers, and previously in ACM (#34). Her story, “Tribute in Black, White, and Gray,” won first place in Sixfold’s contest (Summer 2017).