When Carole Anson pushed open the door of the WASH 'N' DRI, few lights were still burning in the windows along Front Street. It was only nine thirty, but South Millfield was a village that closed down early. Compared to the cool, windy darkness outside, the deserted laundromat was welcoming, warm and bright.
She set down her basket of clothes with a thud and opened a row of washer lids. Once she had loaded the machines and fed a handful of change into the coin slots, she watched the water seep in and the slow explosion of detergent into bubbling suds. Then she chose a chair by the window and sat down.
She had always preferred South Millfield at night. The silent street with its arched imitation gas lamps and neat Victorian brick storefronts reminded her of a postcard. During the day Front Street was crowded with farmers in trucks; their wives towing small children; and idle shopkeepers, who stood in their doorways to pass the time. Although she had lived in the area for two years, they still made Carole uncomfortable. She had grown up in the city and did not know how to chat, her words whittling their way to meaning in short, even strokes.
Scattered leaves rolled along the sidewalk. The hardware store across the street was decorated for Halloween with grinning paper jack o' lanterns. An old car, black and sleek with wax, drew up to the stoplight. An elderly couple sat side by side on the front seat, and the white-haired woman turned to stare at Carole as they came to a stop. She felt suddenly self-conscious, sitting alone in the brightly lit window, and turned her face away from the woman's scrutiny. The next moment they were gone. The washers rattled and roared in the silence.
Carole stirred, restless on her folding chair, and worried a button on her flannel shirt until it came off in her hand. If she could have, she would have waited a few more days before doing the wash, but once she had put off coming into the village for so long that Dick had become angry. He stood in the kitchen, stark naked and wet, shouting: "There isn't one dry towel in this whole goddamn house!" Then he dragged Carole by the arm into the bedroom to confront her with the soggy moldering pile on the closet floor.
The next day she had done the laundry and cooked corned beef for dinner. She had also cleaned the house and, as an afterthought, polished all of Dick's shoes.
When he came home he brought flowers and a bottle of wine. He was very pleased by all she had done until he saw the shoes. Then he sat down on the edge of their bed, his face pale, and started to cry. Carole, standing in the doorway with the bouquet of roses, did not know what to do.
Finally, the washers spun to a stop. She worked quickly, pulling out the wet lumps of clothing and tossing them into her basket. The sudden silence rang in her ears. She pushed the basket over to the row of driers with her foot, loaded the machines, and started them up. Soon she would be on her way back home. If she hurried, she could be there in time to watch the late news with Dick.
Close to Dick, with his arms around her, she felt rooted to the present. When he was away, she made herself lists of things to accomplish each hour. Still empty spaces of time yawned like chasms to be crossed on fragile bridges of ice. The important thing was to concentrate on the other side.
She stood looking at the lost-and-found cart for several minutes before she registered its presence. It had been shoved under the folding counter, almost hidden. She went over and pulled it out. Perhaps she would find some mates for Dick's socks.
The basket was full of the usual assortment of towels, torn sheets, underwear, and odd socks. Carole picked through them until her hand brushed against something wet and slightly sticky. She pulled it back and saw her fingers smeared with red. Without thinking, she pushed aside the clothes and saw, at the bottom of the basket, a sheet soaked with blood.
She screamed and pushed the cart away. It spun around slowly, drunkenly, on uneven legs, and came to rest back under the counter.
Doubled over and retching, she ran outside to crouch in the shadows of the building and vomit. Even with her eyes squeezed tight, the image appeared to her—as unmistakable as a splash of blood on snow—the baby with her fists curled against her chest like buds caught by a late frost. They would never open.
After a while, the cold air and colder cement wall at her back, steadier her. She looked up and down the empty street, bathed in blue moonlight. There was her car, waiting by the curb to take her home. She could reach it easily. Everything would be all right.
Over her head, the neon WASH 'N' DRI sign blinked on and off. She had no idea how much time had passed, but inside the driers were still going around and around. She didn't care. She pulled the wet laundry out of the machines as quickly as she could and dragged her basket to the car.
She drove fast until she came to the dirt road that led to her house. There she had to slow down. The road wound along the edge of a deep gorge and was dangerously narrow.
The house stood in a small clearing. Dick had built it himself with the help of friends. At first it had been primitive—nothing more than a cabin—until over the past summer they had installed electricity and a telephone. Now, Dick joked that it was almost like being in the suburbs, but Carole liked it better.
She found him in the living room, sleeping on the couch. The television was on, talking to itself. She turned it off, and he stirred, opening his eyes. "Home already?"
"Yes." Carole said, kneeling down beside him.
He rubbed her hair gently. "You're very pale," he said, taking her chin in his hand.
She turned her face away, but she was ready with a lie. "I'm all right, but I almost hit a deer on the way home."
"Honey, I've told you to be careful. The doctor said you probably shouldn't drive at all. You know that."
She hated when he talked that way. Hated that he was afraid too. What would he think if he knew what really happened?
"It was nothing. It just startled me. You know what it's like."
Dick frowned, the ends of his moustache drooping down, and from his expression she wondered if he believed her.
"I was hurrying because I wanted to be home with you." As a final touch, she added, "I wanted you."
He looked surprised, but she knew that this was something he'd been waiting a long time to hear. "Are you sure?" he asked.
She nodded and managed to smile as he lifted her to her feet.
In bed Carole tried to recall that she had once enjoyed this, but with every move of Dick's body against hers, she felt the pain in her belly sharpen. His sweat felt like blood running down her legs, on her hands. She heard the baby start to whimper—that desperate wail that grew louder and louder—until suddenly it stopped.
Her body lay stiff beneath his.
"It will be better next time, honey," he whispered in her ear. His damp cheek pressed heavily against hers, and she could feel his loneliness seeping into her. "Everything will work out. You'll see. There's still time."
But, of course, he was wrong. The time for some things had come and gone. Even Carole had accepted that. She wondered why he had not.
At first when Dick talked about having a big family, she had just smiled and said nothing. It had all seemed so far off. She was surprised and frightened when she became pregnant. She had not wanted a baby—not yet, she would say—but in her heart she wasn't sure she ever would. Dick, however, was ecstatic. He talked of the baby and nothing else.
Often that summer—the summer before last—she had sat in the garden, heavy-bellied and sweating, studying the vegetables. She watched the tiny green squashes burst from between the petals of the golden flowers. In a matter of days, the squashes sprawled across the garden, while the blossoms shriveled and died.
Dick laughed at her. She was a city girl, a silly girl to cry over flowers. He lay next to her stroking her belly with an expression on his face that made her feel like it wasn't her he was touching at all.
But now that was over. There would be no family.
Now in her dreams it was always snowing. Deep snow dragged at her feet and legs. Pains slowed her steps and she stumbled. Once. Twice. If she could only get to the main road, maybe someone would find her in time. She staggered on, but night after night, she did not make it.
She felt the rush of hot blood flowing from within her and fear clutched her, as it had when the pains first came. She was going to die. Alone. In the woods. She lay in the snow looking up through the trees at the white flakes whirling down into her face and suddenly the world turned upside down and she was falling.
When she awoke, she was alone in the bed and nauseous. Dick must have heard her get up to take her pills because he called from the kitchen: "Stay where you are! I'm bringing you breakfast in bed."
The smell of coffee and bacon stirred up memories of their first years together, when they shared an apartment in the city. They liked to take turns making each other breakfasts that they ate together in bed. Afterward they would make love amongst the crumbs. Carole looked in the mirror at her wan face and could hardly remember who she was then.
A few minutes later Dick came in with a tray full of food decorated with a vase of bright yellow and orange leaves. He smiled as he placed the tray on her knees, and she smiled back tentatively, embarrassed.
He was already dressed for work and glanced at his watch as she took a sip of her coffee. "I'll be home late tonight," he said. "About seven. OK?" His tone was offhand, but Carole felt resentment rise in her throat.
"Sure. Why not?" she said.
"You know I planned to wear one of the shirts you washed last night, but I couldn't. It was still wet."
"I know. I'm sorry. I wanted to get home. While I was in the mood. I didn't wait for things to dry."
"Then you'll take care of that today?" She saw the challenge in his eyes and knew that this was even more important to him than sex. That she do the logical thing.
"Yes. Of course," she said. She wasn't surprised to hear herself agree, but she was surprised that it didn't feel like a lie.
As soon as his truck pulled out of the drive, she showered and dressed, leaving the plate of yellow oozing eggs untouched. Overnight there had been a frost, and the woods were splashed with color. Standing on the front porch, she felt an unexpected surge of happiness and wellbeing. She had always liked autumn, that bright flash of color before the dark.
As she raced over the hills toward South Millfield, the brisk air lifted goose bumps of pleasure along her bare arms. She turned on the radio and sang, beating her palms against the steering wheel in time to the music. The faster she went, the more she felt as if air and light were rushing into her brain for the first time in months.
At the peak of the last rise, she threw back her head and laughed. The village stretched out below her for an instant and then she was in it.
Several women sat in the laundromat window, their row of round bottoms like pumpkins on a fence. Small children raced around playing tag, and two girls not more than seventeen slouched in front of the machines as if they were watching television. Babies wailed in strollers at their feet. Mr. Allen, the owner, stood behind his little counter, dispensing change.
Carole reminded herself that lots of people came in only to dry as she loaded her wet laundry into two driers. There was nothing odd about that.
She glanced around, but she didn't see the lost-and-found cart anywhere amongst the clutter of baskets and laundry bags. Maybe she had only imagined it. And if she had, what did it matter anyway?
Her doctor had talked to her at great length about what mattered "now." Children weren't everything, he said, in a way that made it clear he thought they were. She still had her husband, she must think of that.
Looking into his kind blue eyes, she knew he was trying to be helpful, but there was no way she could tell him how she lay awake at night listening to Dick cry or that the baby came and went, but was never far away, never ceased hovering just beyond the corners of her eyes. And she could never ask him the question that she could hardly bear to put to herself: if somehow she could have made this happen. So she thanked him, assured him she would do her best, and went home with his bottle of tranquilizers in her purse.
When she picked up a tattered copy of People magazine and thumbed through it, she thought with satisfaction that she must look just like everyone else. But then a small boy fell on his knees in front of her, and, when she leaned over to help him up, he screamed at her touch. His mother grabbed him away, glaring at her as if she must have stuck out her foot and tripped him on purpose.
Jerks, she thought trying to control her anger. This village is full of stupid jerks.
She got up to check her driers, impatiently feeling the clothes for dampness. They were not ready. She closed the door and leaned against the warm glass, picturing herself far away.
At his counter, Mr. Allen was deep in conversation with an enormously fat woman in a pink flowered housedress. "Can you believe it? When I came to close up, that cart was gone. Vanished."
The words "cart" and "vanished" caught Carole's attention, and she strained to hear what they were saying over the roar of machinery.
"The funniest damn thing is, I must of just missed whoever it was, 'cause two of the driers were still running with nothing in them."
The fat woman waggled her jaw and took a drag from her cigarette. "It was probably kids, Albert. You know how they get with Halloween coming. Most likely they took that cart and rode it right down the hill into the river."
"Now what makes you think of a prank like that, Mary?" She blushed and laughed loudly. Mr. Allen laughed too, his bald head turning pink.
Carole didn't see anything funny about what they said. She moved slowly back to her chair, thinking about kids. Not pranksters, but kids in love. Kids in trouble. Stealing down to wash away the evidence.
They must have been hiding. Watching. Waiting for her to leave. She flinched at the thought of what they must have seen. How they must have laughed at her. She looked anxiously at the driers that whirled on and on as if they would never stop.
Then there was a lull in the noise and the door opened. An elderly couple entered with their basket of laundry.
"Morning, Mr. Wilson, Mrs. Wilson, come hear the news!" said Mary. "Someone stole a laundry cart while Albert was home for supper."
"Ninety nine dollars that cart cost, and when I reported it to Joe, all he said was he would keep an eye out."
"What time did you say it disappeared?" asked Mrs. Wilson.
"Between ten and eleven, as I figure it."
He was about to launch into the story again but she cut him off. "You should ask that young woman about it then," she said, pointing directly at Carole. "She was here last night."
The group at the counter looked at Carole with surprise.
"I was not," she said hotly, her face flushing with fear.
"But you were. I saw you right in that window. Harry and I remarked on how late it was to be doing laundry."
"But the laundromat is open!"
Mrs. Wilson clucked her tongue against her teeth and began sorting clothes into the washers.
"Anyway I never touched a thing," she declared, but she could hear her voice was too loud. The conversations around her dwindled to silence.
"No one's accusing you, Miss," said Mr. Allen. "We just want to know if you saw the cart. That's all." The fat woman nodded in agreement, but Mrs. Wilson frowned.
"And why she's here again today," she added.
Carole cringed. The magazine dropped from her hands in shreds. All of the women were watching her now, their children pressed against their knees.
"I felt sick, that's all. I had to go home." She thought of the watching eyes, her terrified flight.
Mr. Allen and Mary nodded and Carole's confidence surged back. Anyone could be sick. There was nothing wrong with that. But Mrs. Wilson said, "She's lying. I can always tell."
"Why should I lie?" said Carole, measuring the distance to the door. If only she could get out, she would never come back. She started toward the door, keeping her back to the wall.
"Now, Miss, you're getting all upset over nothing," said Mary.
"Nothing. That's right! Nothing!" Carole laughed, her voice cracking.
"She knows something all right," said Mrs. Wilson.
"What do you want me to say? That I saw the blood? All right! I saw the blood. It was on my hand. But that doesn't mean anything. I see the baby too. And where is she? Gone. Like the cart. She's gone."
Mr. Allen looked confused, and Carole stopped, stunned. She could see from the expressions on the faces around her that she had gone too far. If only she could make it to the car, she would be safe.
But the car was stuck in the snow, precariously close to the edge of the gorge. As she pulled open the door, she stumbled in the deep powder, another pain pulling her down to her knees. The pains were coming regularly now, but the time wasn't right.
Suddenly an ashen-faced police officer carrying a small white bundle cradled in his arms appeared in the door of the laundromat.
"Joe! What is it? What have you found?" someone said.
"Oh God," said someone else, and then another voice called out: "Albert! Don't let her go. She'll get herself hurt," as Carole pushed past the man and out the door.
She headed down the road on foot, nearly blinded by the snow, but then pain formed a jagged hole in her and it seemed as if there were blood everywhere.
She couldn't remember getting home, only huddling behind the woodstove, the almost child clutched in her arms. The fire had gone out and there was no warmth in the house.
At last through the window, she saw Dick coming, floundering through the drifts, calling, searching, his face white with panic.
"You're too late," she cried, her tears wetting her daughter's still small cheeks. "Too late."
It was dark when she heard the sound of the truck and saw the sweep of headlights across the bedroom wall as Dick turned and parked. Then the kitchen door opened and he called: "Honey, I'm home!"
There was a pause before he said: "Carole, are you there? Is everything all right?"
Always he asked that same silly question.
"Carole?" he called again.
She rose then from the chair where she had been waiting. She knew she would have to tell him everything, but she paused a moment in the cool darkness, before she began.