Once, when I was sixteen, a plane went supersonic directly over my head.

I was walking in the woods when it happened, thinking of some story I was going to write, perhaps, or how great it would be if Doreen Fournier weakened some Friday night and let me take off her panties while we were parked at the end of Cushman Road.

In any case I was travelling far roads in my own mind, and when that boom went off, I was caught totally by surprise. I went flat on the leafy ground with my hands over my head and my heart drumming crazily, sure I'd reached the end of my life (and while I was still a virgin). In my forty years, that was the only thing which equalled the final dream of the 'Manderley series' for utter terror.

I lay on the ground, waiting for the hammer to fall, and when thirty seconds or so passed and no hammer did fall, I began to realize it had just been some jet-jockey from the Brunswick Naval Air Station, too eager to wait until he was out over the Atlantic before going to Mach 1. But, holy shit, who ever could have guessed that it would be so loud?

I got slowly to my feet and as I stood there with my heart finally slowing down, I realized I wasn't the only thing that had been scared witless by that sudden clear-sky boom. For the first time in my memory, the little patch of woods behind our house in Prout's Neck was entirely silent. I stood there in a dusty bar of sunlight, crumbled leaves all over my tee-shirt and jeans, holding my breath, listening. I had never heard a silence like it. Even on a cold day in January, the woods would have been full of conversation.

At last a finch sang. There were two or three seconds of silence, and then a jay replied. Another two or three seconds went by, and then a crow added his two cents' worth. A woodpecker began to hammer for grubs. A chipmunk bumbled through some underbrush on my left. A minute after I had stood up, the woods were fully alive with little noises again; it was back to business as usual, and I continued with my own. I never forgot that unexpected boom, though, or the deathly silence which followed it.

I thought of that June day often in the wake of the nightmare, and there was nothing so remarkable in that. Things had changed, somehow, or could change . . . but first comes silence while we assure ourselves that we are still unhurt and that the danger ¡ª if there was danger ¡ª is gone.

Derry was shut down for most of the following week, anyway. Ice and high winds caused a great deal of damage during the storm, and a sudden twenty-degree plunge in the temperature afterward made the digging out hard and the cleanup slow. Added to that, the atmosphere after a March storm is always dour and pessimistic; we get them up this way every year (and two or three in April for good measure, if we're not lucky), but we never seem to expect them. Every time we get clouted, we take it personally.

On a day toward the end of that week, the weather finally started to break. I took advantage, going out for a cup of coffee and a mid-morning pastry at the little restaurant three doors down from the Rite Aid where Johanna did her last errand. I was sipping and chewing and working the newspaper crossword when someone asked, 'Could I share your booth, Mr. Noonan? It's pretty crowded in here today.'

I looked up and saw an old man that I knew but couldn't quite place.

'Ralph Roberts,' he said. 'I volunteer down at the Red Cross. Me and my wife, Lois.'

'Oh, okay, sure,' I said. I give blood at the Red Cross every six weeks or so. Ralph Roberts was one of the old parties who passed out juice and cookies afterward, telling you not to get up or make any sudden movements if you felt woozy. 'Please, sit down.' He looked at my paper, folded open to the crossword and lying in a patch of sun, as he slid into the booth. 'Don't you find that doing the crossword in the Derry News is sort of like striking out the pitcher in a baseball game?' he asked.

I laughed and nodded. 'I do it for the same reason folks climb Mount Everest, Mr. Roberts . . . because it's there. Only with the News crossword, no one ever falls off.'

'Call me Ralph. Please.'

'Okay. And I'm Mike.'

'Good.' He grinned, revealing teeth that were crooked and a little yellow, but all his own. 'I like getting to the first names. It's like being able to take off your tie. Was quite a little cap of wind we had, wasn't it?'

'Yes,' I said, 'but it's warming up nicely now.' The thermometer had made one of its nimble March leaps, climbing from twenty-five degrees the night before to fifty that morning. Better than the rise in air-temperature, the sun was warm again on your face. It was that warmth that had coaxed me out of the house. 'Spring'll get here, I guess. Some years it gets a little lost, but it always seems to find its way back home.' He sipped his coffee, then set the cup down. 'Haven't seen you at the Red Cross lately.'

'I'm recycling,' I said, but that was a fib; I'd come eligible to give another pint two weeks ago. The reminder card was up on the refrigerator. It had just slipped my mind. 'Next week, for sure.'

'I only mention it because I know you're an A, and we can always use that.'

'Save me a couch.'

'Count on it. Everything going all right? I only ask because you look tired. If it's insomnia, I can sympathize, believe me.'

He did have the look of an insomniac, I thought ¡ª too wide around the eyes, somehow. But he was also a man in his mid- to late seventies, and I don't think anyone gets that far without showing it. Stick around a little while, and life maybe only jabs at your cheeks and eyes. Stick around a long while and you end up looking like Jake La Motta after a hard fifteen. I opened my mouth to say what I always do when someone asks me if I'm all right, then wondered why I always felt I had to pull that tiresome Marlboro Man shit, just who I was trying to fool. What did I think would happen if I told the guy who gave me a chocolate-chip cookie down at the Red Cross after the nurse took the needle out of my arm that I wasn't feeling a hundred percent? Earthquakes? Fire and flood? Shit. 'No,' I said, 'I really haven't been feeling so great, Ralph.'

'Flu? It's been going around.'

'Nah. The flu missed me this time, actually. And I've been sleeping all right.' Which was true ¡ª there had been no recurrence of the Sara Laughs dream in either the normal or the high-octane version. 'I think I've just got the blues.'

'Well, you ought to take a vacation,' he said, then sipped his coffee. When he looked up at me again, he frowned and set his cup down. 'What? Is something wrong?'

No, I thought of saying. You were just the first bird to sing into the silence, Ralph, that's all.

'No, nothing wrong,' I said, and then, because I sort of wanted to see how the words tasted coming out of my own mouth, I repeated them. 'A vacation.'

'Ayuh,' he said, smiling. 'People do it all the time.'

People do it all the time. He was right about that; even people who couldn't strictly afford to went on vacation. When they got tired. When they got all balled up in their own shit. When the world was too much with them, getting and spending.

I could certainly afford a vacation, and I could certainly take the time off from work ¡ª what work, ha-ha? ¡ª and yet I'd needed the Red Cross cookie-man to point out what should have been self-evident to a college-educated guy like me: that I hadn't been on an actual vacation since Jo and I had gone to Bermuda, the winter before she died. My particular grindstone was no longer turning, but I had kept my nose to it all the same.

It wasn't until that summer, when I read Ralph Roberts's obituary in the News (he was struck by a car), that I fully realized how much I owed him. That advice was better than any glass of orange juice I ever got after giving blood, let me tell you.

When I left the restaurant, I didn't go home but tramped over half of the damned town, the section of newspaper with the partly completed crossword puzzle in it clamped under one arm. I walked until I was chilled in spite of the warming temperatures. I didn't think about anything, and yet I thought about everything. It was a special kind of thinking, the sort I'd always done when I was getting close to writing a book, and although I hadn't thought that way in years, I fell into it easily and naturally, as if I had never been away.

It's like some guys with a big truck have pulled up in your driveway and are moving things into your basement. I can't explain it any better than that. You can't see what these things are because they're all wrapped up in padded quilts, but you don't need to see them. It's furniture, everything you need to make your house a home, make it just right, just the way you wanted it.

When the guys have hopped back into their truck and driven away, you go down to the basement and walk around (the way I went walking around Derry that late morning, slopping up hill and down dale in my old galoshes), touching a padded curve here, a padded angle there. Is this one a sofa? Is that' one a dresser? It doesn't matter. Everything is here, the movers didn't forget a thing, and although you'll have to get it all upstairs yourself (straining your poor old back in the process, more often than not), that's okay. The important thing is that the delivery was complete.

This time I thought ¡ª hoped ¡ª the delivery truck had brought the stuff I needed for the back forty: the years I might have to spend in a No Writing Zone. To the cellar door they had come, and they had knocked politely, and when after several months there was still no answer, they had finally fetched a battering ram. HEY BUDDY, HOPE THE NOISE DIDN'T SCARE YOU TOO BAD, SORRY ABOUT THE DOOR!

I didn't care about the door; I cared about the furniture. Any pieces broken or missing? I didn't think so. I thought all I had to do was get it upstairs, pull off the furniture pads, and put it where it belonged.

On my way back home, I passed The Shade, Derry's charming little revival movie house, which has prospered in spite of (or perhaps because of) the video revolution. This month they were showing classic SF from the fifties, but April was dedicated to Humphrey Bogart, Jo's all-time favorite. I stood under the marquee for several moments, studying one of the Coming Attractions posters. Then I went home, picked a travel agent pretty much at random from the phone book, and told the guy I wanted to go to Key Largo. Key West, you mean, the guy said. No, I told him, I mean Key Largo, just like in the movie with Bogie and Bacall. Three weeks. Then I rethought that. I was wealthy, I was on my own, and I was retired. What was this 'three weeks' shit? Make it six, I said. Find me a cottage or something. Going to be expensive, he said. I told him I didn't care. When I came back to Derry, it would be spring. In the meantime, I had some furniture to unwrap.

I was enchanted with Key Largo for the first month and bored out of my mind for the last two weeks. I stayed, though, because boredom is good. People with a high tolerance for boredom can get a lot of thinking done. I ate about a billion shrimp, drank about a thousand margaritas, and read twenty-three John D. MacDonald novels by actual count. I burned, peeled, and finally tanned. I bought a long-billed cap with PARROTHEAD printed on it in bright green thread. I walked the same stretch of beach until I knew everybody by first name. And I unwrapped furniture. A lot of it I didn't like, but there was no doubt that it all fit the house.

I thought about Jo and our life together. I thought about saying to her that no one was ever going to confuse Being Two with Look Homeward, Angel. 'You aren't going to pull a lot of frustrated-artist crap on me, are you, Noonan?' she had replied . . . and during my time on Key Largo, those words kept coming back, always in Jo's voice: crap, frustrated-artist crap, all that fucking schoolboy frustrated-artist crap.

I thought about her long red woods apron, coming to me with a hatful of black trumpet mushrooms, laughing and triumphant: 'Nobody on the TR eats better than the Noonans tonight!' she'd cried. I thought of her painting her toenails, bent over between her own thighs in the way only women doing that particular piece of business can manage. I thought of her throwing a book at me because I laughed at some new haircut. I thought of her trying to learn how to play a breakdown on her banjo and of how she looked braless in a thin sweater. I thought of her crying and laughing and angry. I thought of her telling me it was crap, all that frustrated-artist crap.

And I thought about the dreams, especially the culminating dream. I could do that easily, because it never faded as the more ordinary ones do. The final Sara Laughs dream and my very first wet dream (coming upon a girl lying naked in a hammock and eating a plum) are the only two that remain perfectly clear to me, year after year; the rest are either hazy fragments or completely forgotten.

There were a great many clear details to the Sara dreams ¡ª the loons, the crickets, the evening star and my wish upon it, just to name a few ¡ª but I thought most of those things were just verisimilitude. Scene-setting, if you will. As such, they could be dismissed from my considerations. That left three major elements, three large pieces of furniture to be unwrapped.

As I sat on the beach, watching the sun go down between my sandy toes, I didn't think you had to be a shrink to see how those three things went together.

In the Sara dreams, the major elements were the woods behind me, the house below me, and Michael Noonan himself, frozen in the middle. It's getting dark and there's danger in the woods. It will be frightening to go to the house below, perhaps because it's been empty so long, but I never doubt I must go there; scary or not, it's the only shelter I have. Except I can't do it. I can't move. I've got writer's walk.

In the nightmare I am finally able to go toward shelter, only the shelter proves false. Proves more dangerous than I had ever expected in my . . . well, yes, in my wildest dreams. My dead wife rushes out, screaming and still tangled in her shroud, to attack me. Even five weeks later and almost three thousand miles from Derry, remembering that speedy white thing with its baggy arms would make me shiver and look back over my shoulder.

But was it Johanna? I didn't really know, did I? The thing was all wrapped up. The coffin looked like the one in which she had been buried, true, but that might just be misdirection.

Writer's walk, writer's block.

I can't write, I told the voice in the dream. The voice says I can. The voice says the writer's block is gone, and I believe it because the writer's walk is gone, I'm finally headed down the driveway, going to shelter. I'm afraid, though. Even before the shapeless white thing makes its appearance, I'm terrified. I say it's Mrs. Danvers I'm afraid of, but that's just my dreaming mind getting Sara Laughs and Manderley all mixed up. I'm afraid of ¡ª

'I'm afraid of writing,' I heard myself saying out loud. 'I'm afraid to even try.'

This was the night before I finally flew back to Maine, and I was half-past sober, going on drunk. By the end of my vacation, I was drinking a lot of evenings. 'It's not the block that scares me, it's undoing the block. I'm really fucked, boys and girls. I'm fucked big-time.'

Fucked or not, I had an idea I'd finally reached the heart of the matter. I was afraid of undoing the block, maybe afraid of picking up the strands of my life and going on without Jo. Yet some deep part of my mind believed I must do it; that's what the menacing noises behind me in the woods were about. And belief counts for a lot. Too much, maybe, especially if you're imaginative. When an imaginative person gets into mental trouble, the line between seeming and being has a way of disappearing.

Things in the woods, yes, sir. I had one of them right there in my hand as I was thinking these things. I lifted my drink, holding it toward the western sky so that the setting sun seemed to be burning in the glass. I was drinking a lot, and maybe that was okay on Key Largo ¡ª hell, people were supposed to drink a lot on vacation, it was almost the law ¡ª but I'd been drinking too much even before I left. The kind of drinking that could get out of hand in no time at all. The kind that could get a man in trouble.

Things in the woods, and the potentially safe place guarded by a scary bugbear that was not my wife, but perhaps my wife's memory. It made sense, because Sara Laughs had always been Jo's favorite place on earth. That thought led to another, one that made me swing my legs over the side of the chaise I'd been reclining on and sit up in excitement. Sara Laughs had also been the place where the ritual had begun . . . champagne, last line, and the all-important benediction: Well, then, that's all right, isn't it?

Did I want things to be all right again? Did I truly want that? A month or a year before I mightn't have been sure, but now I was. The answer was yes. I wanted to move on ¡ª let go of my dead wife, rehab my heart, move on. But to do that, I'd have to go back.

Back to the log house. Back to Sara Laughs. 'Yeah,' I said, and my body broke out in gooseflesh. 'Yeah, you got it.'

So why not? The question made me feel as stupid as Ralph Roberts's observation that I needed a vacation. If I needed to go back to Sara Laughs now that my vacation was over, indeed why not? It might be a little scary the first night or two, a hangover from my final dream, but just being there might dissolve the dream faster.

And (this last thought I allowed in only one humble corner of my conscious mind) something might happen with my writing. It wasn't likely . . . but it wasn't impossible, either. Barring a miracle, hadn't that been my thought on New Year's Day as I sat on the rim of the tub, holding a damp washcloth to the cut on my forehead? Yes. Barring a miracle. Sometimes blind people fall down, knock their heads, and regain their sight. Sometimes maybe cripples are able to throw their crutches away when they get to the top of the church steps.

I had eight or nine months before Harold and Debra started really bugging me for the next novel. I decided to spend the time at Sara Laughs. It would take me a little while to tie things up in Derry, and awhile for Bill Dean to get the house on the lake ready for a year-round resident, but I could be down there by the Fourth of July, easily. I decided that was a good date to shoot for, not just the birthday of our country, but pretty much the end of bug season in western Maine.

By the day I packed up my vacation gear (the John D. MacDonald paperbacks I left for the cabin's next inhabitant), shaved a week's worth of stubble off a face so tanned it no longer looked like my own to me, and flew back to Maine, I was decided: I'd go back to the place my subconscious mind had identified as shelter against the deepening dark; I'd go back even though my mind had also suggested that doing so would not be without risks. I would not go back expecting Sara to be Lourdes . . . but I would allow myself to hope, and when I saw the evening star peeping out over the lake for the first time, I would allow myself to wish on it.

Only one thing didn't fit into my neat deconstruction of the Sara dreams, and because I couldn't explain it, I tried to ignore it. I didn't have much luck, though; part of me was still a writer, I guess, and a writer is a man who has taught his mind to misbehave.

It was the cut on the back of my hand. That cut had been in all the dreams, I would swear it had . . . and then it had actually appeared. You didn't get that sort of shit in the works of Dr. Freud; stuff like that was strictly for the Psychic Friends hotline.

It was a coincidence, that's all, I thought as my plane started its descent. I was in seat A-2 (the nice thing about flying up front is that if the plane goes down, you're first to the crash site) and looking at pine forests as we slipped along the glidepath toward Bangor International Airport. The snow was gone for another year; I had vacationed it to death. Only coincidence. How many times have you cut your hands?  I mean, they're always out front, aren't they, waving themselves around? Practically begging for it.

All that should have rung true, and yet somehow it didn't, quite. It should have, but . . . well . . .

It was the boys in the basement. They were the ones who didn't buy it. The boys in the basement didn't buy it at all. At that point there was a thump as the 737 touched down, and I put the whole line of thought out of my mind.

One afternoon shortly after arriving back home, I rummaged the closets until I found the shoeboxes containing Jo's old photographs. I sorted them, then studied my way through the ones of Dark Score Lake. There were a staggering number of these, but because Johanna was the shutterbug, there weren't many with her in them. I found one, though, that I remembered taking in 1990 or '91.

Sometimes even an untalented photographer can take a good picture ¡ª  ¡ª if seven hundred monkeys spent seven hundred years bashing away at seven hundred typewriters, and all that ¡ª and this was good. In it Jo was standing on the float with the sun going down red-gold behind her. She was just out of the water, dripping wet, wearing a two-piece swimming suit, gray with red piping. I had caught her laughing and brushing her soaked hair back from her forehead and temples. Her nipples were very prominent against the cups of her halter. She looked like an actress on a movie poster for one of those guilty-pleasure B-pictures about monsters at Party Beach or a serial killer stalking the campus.

I was sucker-punched by a sudden powerful lust for her. I wanted her upstairs just as she was in that photograph, with strands of her hair pasted to her cheeks and that wet bathing suit clinging to her. I wanted to suck her nipples through the halter top, taste the cloth and feel their hardness through it. I wanted to suck water out of the cotton like milk, then yank the bottom of her suit off and fuck her until we both exploded.

Hands shaking a little, I put the photograph aside, with some others I liked (although there were no others I liked in quite that same way). I had a huge hard-on, one of those ones that feel like stone covered with skin. Get one of those and until it goes away you are good for nothing.

The quickest way to solve a problem like that when there's no woman around willing to help you solve it is to masturbate, but that time the idea never even crossed my mind. Instead I walked restlessly through the upstairs rooms of my house with my fists opening and closing and what looked like a hood ornament stuffed down the front of my jeans.

Anger may be a normal stage of the grieving process ¡ª I've read that it is ¡ª but I was never angry at Johanna in the wake of her death until the day I found that picture. Then, wow. There I was, walking around with a boner that just wouldn't quit, furious with her. Stupid bitch, why had she been running on one of the hottest days of the year? Stupid, inconsiderate bitch to leave me alone like this, not even able to work.

I sat down on the stairs and wondered what I should do. A drink was what I should do, I decided, and then maybe another drink to scratch the first one's back. I actually got up before deciding that wasn't a very good idea at all.

I went into my office instead, turned on the computer, and did a crossword puzzle. That night when I went to bed, I thought of looking at the picture of Jo in her bathing suit again. I decided that was almost as bad an idea as a few drinks when I was feeling angry and depressed. But I'll have the dream tonight, I thought as I turned off the light. I'll have the dream for sure.

I didn't, though. My dreams of Sara Laughs seemed to be finished.

A week's thought made the idea of at least summering at the lake seem better than ever. So, on a Saturday afternoon in early May when I calculated that any self-respecting Maine caretaker would be home watching the Red Sox, I called Bill Dean and told him I'd be at my lake place from the Fourth of July or so . . . and that if things went as I hoped, I'd be spending the fall and winter there as well.

'Well, that's good,' he said. 'That's real good news. A lot of folks down here've missed you, Mike. Quite a few that want to condole with you about your wife, don't you know.'

Was there the faintest note of reproach in his voice, or was that just my imagination? Certainly Jo and I had cast a shadow in the area; we had made significant contributions to the little library which served the Motton-Kashwakamak-Castle View area, and Jo had headed the successful fund drive to get an area bookmobile up and running. In addition to that, she had been part of a ladies' sewing circle (afghans were her specialty), and a member in good standing of the Castle County Crafts Co-op. Visits to the sick . . . helping out with the annual volunteer fire department blood drive . . . womaning a booth during Summerfest in Castle Rock . . . and stuff like that was only where she had started. She didn't do it in any ostentatious Lady Bountiful way, either, but unobtrusively and humbly, with her head lowered (often to hide a rather sharp smile, I should add ¡ª my Jo had a Biercean sense of humor). Christ, I thought, maybe old Bill had a right to sound reproachful.

'People miss her,' I said.

'Ayuh, they do.'

'I still miss her a lot myself. I think that's why I've stayed away from the lake. That's where a lot of our good times were.'

'I s'pose so. But it'll be damned good to see you down this way. I'll get busy. The place is all right ¡ª you could move into it this afternoon, if you was a mind ¡ª but when a house has stood empty the way Sara has, it gets stale.'

'I know.'

'I'll get Brenda Meserve to clean the whole shebang from top to bottom. Same gal you always had, don't you know.'

'Brenda's a little old for comprehensive spring cleaning, isn't she?'

The lady in question was about sixty-five, stout, kind, and gleefully vulgar. She was especially fond of jokes about the travelling salesman who spent the night like a rabbit, jumping from hole to hole. No Mrs. Danvers she.

'Ladies like Brenda Meserve never get too old to oversee the festivities,' Bill said. 'She'll get two or three girls to do the vacuuming and heavy lifting. Set you back maybe three hundred dollars. Sound all right?'

'Like a bargain.'

'The well needs to be tested, and the gennie, too, although I'm sure both of em's okay. I seen a hornet's nest by Jo's old studio that I want to smoke before the woods get dry. Oh, and the roof of the old house ¡ª you know, the middle piece ¡ª needs to be reshingled. I shoulda talked to you about that last year, but with you not using the place, I let her slide. You stand good for that, too?'

'Yes, up to ten grand. Beyond that, call me.'

'If we have to go over ten, I'll smile and kiss a pig.'

'Try to have it all done before I get down there, okay?'

'Coss. You'll want your privacy, I know that . . . just so long's you know you won't get any right away. We was shocked when she went so young; all of us were. Shocked and sad. She was a dear.' From a Yankee mouth, that word rhymes with Leah.

'Thank you, Bill.' I felt tears prickle my eyes. Grief is like a drunken house guest, always coming back for one more goodbye hug. 'Thanks for saying.'

'You'll get your share of carrot-cakes, chummy.' He laughed, but a little doubtfully, as if afraid he was committing an impropriety. 'I can eat a lot of carrot-cake,' I said, 'and if folks overdo it, well, hasn't Kenny Auster still got that big Irish wolfhound?'

'Yuh, that thing'd eat cake til he busted!' Bill cried in high good humor. He cackled until he was coughing. I waited, smiling a little myself. 'Blueberry, he calls that dog, damned if I know why. Ain't he the gormiest thing!' I assumed he meant the dog and not the dog's master. Kenny Auster, not much more than five feet tall and neatly made, was the opposite of gormy, that peculiar Maine adjective that means clumsy, awkward, and clay-footed.

I suddenly realized that I missed these people ¡ª Bill and Brenda and Buddy Jellison and Kenny Auster and all the others who lived year-round at the lake. I even missed Blueberry, the Irish wolfhound, who trotted everywhere with his head up just as if he had half a brain in it and long strands of saliva depending from his jaws.

'I've also got to get down there and clean up the winter blowdown,' Bill said. He sounded embarrassed. 'It ain't bad this year ¡ª that last big storm was all snow over our way, thank God ¡ª but there's still a fair amount of happy crappy I ain't got to yet. I shoulda put it behind me long before now. You not using the place ain't an excuse. I been cashing your checks.' There was something amusing about listening to the grizzled old fart beating his breast; Jo would have kicked her feet and giggled, I'm quite sure.

'If everything's right and running by July Fourth, Bill, I'll be happy.'

'You'll be happy as a clam in a mudflat, then. That's a promise.' Bill sounded as happy as a clam in a mudflat himself, and I was glad. 'Goingter come down and write a book by the water? Like in the old days? Not that the last couple ain't been fine, my wife couldn't put that last one down, but ¡ª '

'I don't know,' I said, which was the truth. And then an idea struck me. 'Bill, would you do me a favor before you clean up the driveway and turn Brenda Meserve loose?'

'Happy to if I can,' he said, so I told him what I wanted.

Four days later, I got a little package with this laconic return address: DEAN/GEN DELIV/TR-90 (DARK SCORE). I opened it and shook out twenty photographs which had been taken with one of those little cameras you use once and then throw away.

Bill had filled out the roll with various views of the house, most conveying that subtle air of neglect a place gets when it's not used enough . . . even a place that's caretook (to use Bill's word) gets that neglected feel after awhile.

I barely glanced at these. The first four were the ones I wanted, and I lined them up on the kitchen table, where the strong sunlight would fall directly on them. Bill had taken these from the top of the driveway, pointing the disposable camera down at the sprawl of Sara Laughs. I could see the moss which had grown not only on south wings, as well. I could see the litter of fallen branches and the drifts of pine needles on the driveway. Bill must have been tempted to clear all that away before taking his snaps, but he hadn't. I'd told him exactly what I wanted ¡ª 'warts and all' was the phrase I had used ¡ª and Bill had given it to me.

The bushes on either side of the driveway had thickened a lot since Jo and I had spent any significant amount of time at the lake; they hadn't exactly run wild, but yes, some of the longer branches did seem to yearn toward each other across the asphalt like separated lovers.

Yet what my eye came back to again and again was the stoop at the foot of the driveway. The other resemblances between the photographs and my dreams of Sara Laughs might only be coincidental (or the writer's often surprisingly practical imagination at work), but I could explain the sunflowers growing out through the boards of the stoop no more than I had been able to explain the cut on the back of my hand.

I turned one of the photos over. On the back, in a spidery script, Bill had written: These fellows are way early . . . and trespassing!

I flipped back to the picture side. Three sunflowers, growing up through the boards of the stoop. Not two, not four, but three large sunflowers with faces like searchlights.

Just like the ones in my dream.