Page 29 of Mystic River

Celeste rolled over onto her back, realizing only at that moment that she was naked and had slept past ten. Neither circumstance had occurred much, if at all, since Michael could walk, and she felt a small wave of guilt roll through her chest, then die in the pit of her stomach as she remembered kissing the flesh around Dave's fresh scar in the kitchen at 4 A.M., on her knees, tasting the fear and adrenaline in his pores, any worries about AIDS or hepatitis conquered by this sudden need to taste him, to press herself as intimately as possible against him. She'd slid her bathrobe off her shoulders with her tongue still roaming along his skin, knelt there in a half-T-shirt and black underwear feeling the night slipping under the porch doorway and chilling her ankles and kneecaps. The fear had given Dave's flesh a half bitter, half sugary taste, and she ran her tongue up from the scar tissue to the base of his throat and cupped her hand between his thighs and felt him harden and heard his breathing grow shorter. She wanted this to last as long as possible, the taste of him, the power she suddenly possessed in her body, and she rose up and covered him. She slid her tongue over his and tightened her fingers in his hair and imagined she was sucking the pain of his parking lot encounter straight out of him and into her. She held his head and pressed her skin against his until he stripped off her shirt and sank his mouth over her breast, and she rocked herself against his groin and heard him moan. She wanted Dave to understand that this was what they were, this pressing of flesh, this enveloping of bodies and scent and need and love, yes, love, because she loved him as deeply as she ever had now that she knew she'd almost lost him.

His teeth pinched her breast, hurting, sucking too hard, and she pushed herself further into his mouth and welcomed the pain. She wouldn't have minded if he drew blood, because he was sucking at her, needing her, fingertips digging into her back, releasing the fear onto and into her. And she would take it all and spit it out for him, and they would both feel stronger than they'd ever felt before. She was sure of it.

When she'd first been dating Dave, their sex life had been characterized by a raw lack of boundaries; she'd come home to the apartment she shared with Rosemary covered in bruises and bite marks and scratches on her back, rubbed straight down to the bone with the kind of urgent exhaustion she imagined an addict felt between fixes. Since Michael's birth? well, actually, since Rosemary had moved in with them after cancer number one? Celeste and Dave had slipped into the type of predictable married-couple routine joked about nonstop on sitcoms, usually too weary or without enough privacy to do much more than a few perfunctory minutes of foreplay, a few oral, before moving on to the main event, which, over the years, seemed less like a main event and more like something to pass the time between the weather report and Leno.

But last night? last night had definitely been main event/title card sort of passion, leaving her, even now as she lay in the bed, bruised to the marrow with it.

It was when she heard Dave's voice from outside again, telling Michael to concentrate, concentrate, damn it, that she remembered what had been bothering her? before the pipes, before the memory of their crazy kitchen sex, maybe even before she'd crawled into bed this morning: Dave had lied to her.

She'd known in the bathroom when he'd first come home, but she'd decided to ignore it. Then, as she'd lain on the linoleum and raised her back and ass off the floor so he could enter her, she'd known it again. She watched his eyes, slightly glazed, as he inserted himself and pulled her calves over his hips, and she met his initial thrusts with the dawning certainty that his story didn't make sense.

For starters, who said things like, "Your wallet or your life, bitch. I'm leaving with one of them"? It was laughable. It was, as she had been sure in the bathroom, movie talk. And even if the mugger had prepared the line beforehand, no way he'd actually say it when the time came. No way. Celeste had been mugged once on the Common when she was in her late teens. The mugger, a high-yellow black man with flat, thin wrists and swimming brown eyes, had stepped up to her in the abandonment of a cold, late dusk, placed a switchblade to her hip, and let her see a glimpse of his winter eyes before he whispered, "Whatcha got?"

There had been nothing around them but trees stripped by December, the closest person a businessman hurrying home along Beacon on the other side of a wrought-iron fence, twenty yards away. The mugger had dug the knife a little harder into her jeans, not cutting, but applying pressure, and she smelled decay and chocolate on his breath. She'd handed over her wallet, trying to avoid his swimming brown eyes and the irrational feeling that he possessed more arms than he showed, and he'd slid her wallet into the pocket of his overcoat and said, "You lucky I'm short on time," and strolled off toward Park Street, no rush, no fear.

She'd heard similar stories from a lot of women. Men, at least in this city, rarely got mugged unless they were looking for it, but women, all the time. Always there was the threat of rape, either implied or intuited, and in all the stories she'd heard, she'd never come across a mugger with clever phrasing. They didn't have the time. They needed to be as succinct as possible. Get in and get out before someone screamed.

And then there was the issue of the punch thrown while the mugger held a knife in the other hand. If you assumed the knife hand was the favored hand, well, come on, who threw a punch with anything but their writing hand?

Yes, she believed Dave had been thrust into an awful situation where he'd been forced to succumb to a kill-or-be-killed mentality. Yes, she was sure he wasn't the type of guy to have gone looking for it. But?but, still, his story had flaws, gaps. It was like trying to explain lipstick on the inside of your shirt? you may very well have been faithful, but your explanation, no matter how ridiculous, had better add up.

She imagined the two detectives in their kitchen, asking them questions, and she felt sure Dave would crack. His story would fall apart under impersonal eyes and repeated questions. It would be like when she asked about his childhood. She'd heard the stories, of course; the Flats was nothing but a small town wrapped within a big city, and people whispered. So, she'd asked Dave once if something terrible had happened in his childhood, something he felt he couldn't share with anyone, letting him know that he could share it with her, his wife, pregnant with his baby at the time.

He'd looked at her as if confused. "Oh, you mean that thing?"

"What thing?"

"I'm playing with Jimmy and this kid, Sean Devine. Yeah, you know him. You cut his hair once or twice, right?"

Celeste remembered. He worked somewhere in law enforcement, but not with the city. He was tall, with curly hair and an amber voice that slid through you. He had that same effortless confidence Jimmy had? the kind that came to men who were either very good-looking or were rarely afflicted by doubt.