He didn't see her again until late afternoon. He dry-swallowed two pills, then drifted for a while.
When he came back he thought at first he must be dreaming. It was just too surreal, like the night when she had rolled the barbecue pot in here. Annie was sitting on the side of his bed. She had set a water glass filled with pain pills on his bed-table. In her other hand she had a Victor rat-trap. There was rat in it, too- a large one with mottled gray-brown fur. the trap had broken the rat's back. Its rear feet hung over the sides of the trap's board, twitching randomly. There were beads of blood in it's whiskers.
This was no dream, just another day lost in the funhouse with Annie.
Her breath smelled like a corpse decomposing in rotting food.
"Annie?" He straightened up, eyes moving between her and the rat. Outside it was dusk, a strange blue dusk filled with rain. It sheeted against the window. Strong gusts of wind shook the house, making it creak.
Whatever had been wrong with her morning (You know this, Elph) was worse tonight. Much worse. He realized he was seeing her with all her masks put aside, this was the real Annie, the inside Annie. The flesh of her face, which had previously seemed so fearsomely solid, now hung like lifeless dough. Her eyes were blanks. She had dressed, but her skirt was on inside out. There were more weals on her flesh, more food splattered on her clothes. When she moved, they exhaled too many different aromas for Paul to count. Nearly one whole arm of her cardigan sweater was soaked with a half-dried substance that smelled like gravy.
She held up the trap. “They come into the cellar when it rains.” The pinned rat squeaked feebly, and snapped at the air. Its black eyes, infinitely more lively than those of its captor, rolled. “I put down traps. I have to. I smear the trip plates with bacon grease. I always catch eight or nine. Sometimes I find others“
She blanked then. Blanked for nearly three minutes, holding the rat in the air, a perfect case of waxy catatonia. Paul stared at her, stared at the rat as it squeaked and struggled, and realized that he had actually believed that things could get no worse. Untrue. Unfucking-true.
At last, as he had begun to think she had just sailed off into oblivion with no fuss or fanfare, she lowered the trap and went on as if she had never stopped speaking.
“-drowned in the corners. Poor things.”
She looked down at the rat and a tear fell down onto it’s matted fur.
“Poor poor things.”
She closed one of her strong hands around the rat and pulled back the spring with the other. It lashed in her hand, twisting as it tried to bite her. Its squeals were thin and horrible. Paul pressed the heel of a palm against his wincing mouth.
“How its heart beats! How it struggles to get away! As we do, Paul. As we do. We think we know so much, but we really don’t know any more than a rat in a trap – a rat with a broken back that thinks it still wants to live”
The hand holding the rat became a fist. Her eyes never lost that blank, distant cast. Paul wanted to look away and could not. Tendons began to stand out on her inner arm. Blood ran from the rat’s mouth in an abrupt thin stream. Paul heard its bones break, then the thick pads of her fingers punched into its body, disappearing up to the first knuckle. Blood pattered on the floor. The creatures dulling eyes bulged.
She tossed the body into the corner and wiped her hands indifferently on the sheet, leaving long red smears.
“Now it’s at peace.” She shrugged, then laughed. “I’ll get my gun , Paul, shall I? Maybe the next world is better. For rats and people both, not that there’s much difference between the two.”
“Not until I finish”, he said, trying to enunciate each word clearly. This was difficult, because he felt as if someone had shot his mouth full of Novocain. He had seen her low before, but he’d seen nothing like this; he wondered if she’d ever had a low as low as this before. This was how depressives got just before shooting all the members of their families, themselves last; it was the psychotic despair of the woman who dresses her children in their best, takes them out for ice cream, walks them down to the nearest bridge, lifts on into the crook of each arm, and jumps over the side. Depressives kill themselves. Psychotics, rocked in the poison cradles of their own egos, want to do everyone handy a favor and take them along.
I’m closer to death than I’ve ever been in my life before, he thought, because she means it. The bitch means it.
“Misery?” she asked, almost as if she had never heard the word before-but there had been a momentary fugitive sparkle in her eyes, hadn’t there? He thought so.
“Misery, yes.” He thought desperately about how he should go on. Every possible approach seemed mined. “I agree that the world is a pretty crappy place most of the time,” he said, and then added inanely: “Especially when it rains.”
Oh, you idiot, stop babbling!
“I mean, I’ve been in a lot of pain these last few weeks, and-“
“Pain?” she looked at him with sallow, sunken contempt. “You don’t know what pain is. You don’t have the slightest idea, Paul.”
“No…I suppose not. Not compared to you.”
“But-I want to finish the book. I want to see how it all turns out.” He paused. “And I’d like you to stick around and see, too. A person might as well not write a book at all, if there’s no one around to read it. Do you get me?”
He lay there looking at that terrible stone face, heart thumping.
“Annie? Do you get me?”
“Yes…” She sighed. “ I do want to know how it comes out. That’s the only thing left in the world that I still want, I suppose.” Slowly, apparently unaware of what she was doing, she began to suck the rat’s blood from her fingers. Paul jammed his teeth together and grimly told himself he would not vomit, would not, would not. “It’s like waiting for the end of one of those chapter plays.”
She looked around suddenly, the blood on her mouth like lipstick.
“Let me offer again, Paul. I can get my gun. I can end all of this for both of us. You are not a stupid man. You know I can never let you leave here. You’ve known that for some time, haven’t you?”
Don’t let your eyes waver. If she sees your eyes waver, she’ll kill you right now
“Yes, but it always ends, doesn’t it, Annie? In the end we all swing.”
A ghost of a smile at the corners of her mouth; she touched his face briefly, with some affection.
“I suppose you think of escape. So does a rat in a trap, I’m sure, it its way. But you’re not going to, Paul. You might if this was one of your stories, but it’s not. I can’t let you leave here…but I could go with you”
And suddenly, for just a moment, he thought of saying: All right, Annie-go ahead. Let’s just call this off. Then his need and will to live-and there was still quite a lot of each in him-rose up and clamored the temporary weakness away. Weakness was what it was. Fortunately or unfortunately, he did not have the crutch of mental illness to fall back on.
“Thank you,” he said, “but I want to finish what I’ve started.”
She sighed and stood up. “All right. I suppose I must have known you would, because I see I brought you some pills, although I don’t remember doing it.” She laughed-a small crazy titter which seemed to come from that slack face as if by ventriloquism. “I’ll have to go away for awhile. If I don’t, what you or I want won’t matter. Because I do things. I have a place I go when I feel like this. A place in the hills. Did you ever read the Uncle Remus stories, Paul?”
“Do you remember Brer Rabbit telling Brer Fox about his Laughing Place?”
“That’s what I call my place upcountry. My Laughing Place. Remember how I said I was coming back from Sidewinder when I found you?”
“Well, that was a fib. I fibbed because I didn’t know you well then. I was really coming back from my Laughing Place. It has a sign over the door that says that. Annie’s Laughing Place, it says. Sometimes I do laugh when I go there.
“But mostly I just scream.”
“How long will you be gone, Annie?:
She was drifting dreamily toward the door now. “I can’t tell. I’ve brought you pills. You’ll be all right. Take two every six hours. Or six every four hours. Or all of them at once.”
But what will I eat? he wanted to ask her, and didn’t. He didn’t want her attention to return to him-not at all. He wanted her gone. Being here with her was like being with the Angel of Death.
He lay stiffly in his bed for a long time, listening to her movements, first upstairs, then on the stairs, then in the kitchen, fully expecting her to change her mind and come back with the gun after all. He did not even relax when he heard the side door slam and lock, followed by splashing steps outside. The gun could just as easily be in the Cherokee.
The Cherokee’s motor whirred and caught. Annie gunned it fiercely. A fan of headlights came on, illuminating a shining silver curtain of rain. The lights began to retreat down the driveway. The swung around, dimming, and then Annie was gone. This time not heading downhill, toward Sidewinder, but up into the high country.
“Going to her Laughing Place,” Paul croaked, and began to laugh himself. She had hers; he was already in his. The wild gales of mirth ended when he looked at the mangled body of the rat in the corner.
A thought struck him.
“Who said she didn’t leave me anything to eat?” he asked the room, and laughed even harder. In the empty house Paul Sheldon’s Laughing Place sounded like the padded cell of a madman.