Old age is an island, surrounded by death.

-Juan Mentalvo, "On Beauty"

No one-least of all Dr. Litchfield-came right out and told Ralph Roberts that his wife was going to die, but there came a time when Ralph understood without needing to be told. The months between March and June were a jangling, screaming time inside his head-a time of conferences with doctors, of evening runs to the hospital with Carolyn, of trips to other hospitals in other states for special tests (Ralph spent much of his travel time an these trips thanking God for Carolyn's Blue Cross/Major Medical coverage), of personal research in the Derry Public Library, at first Imaking for answers the specialists might have overlooked, later on just looking for hope and grasping at straws.

Those four months were like being dragged drunk through some malign carnival where the people on the rides were really screaming, the people lost in the mirror maze were really lost, and the denizens of Freak Alley looked at you with false smiles on their lips and terror in their eyes. Ralph began to see these things by the middle of May, and as June set in, he began to understand that the pitchmen along the medical midway had only quack remedies to sell, and the cheery quickstep of the calliope could no longer quite hide the fact that the tune spilling out of the loudspeakers was "The Funeral March." It was a carnival, all right; the carnival of lost souls.

Ralph continued to deny these terrible images-and the even more terrible idea lurking behind them-all through the early summer of 1992, but as June gave way to July, this finally became impossible. The worst midsummer heatwave since 1971 rolled over central Maine, and Derry simmered in a bath of hazy sun, humidity, and daily temperatures in the mid-nineties. The city-hardly a bustling metropolis at the best of times-fell into a complete Stupor, and it was in this hot silence that Ralph Roberts first heard the ticking of the deathwatch and understood that in the passage from June's cool damp greens to the baked stillness of July, Carolyn's slim chances had become no chances at all. She was going to die. Not this summer, probably-the doctors claimed to have quite a few tricks up their sleeves yet, and Ralph was sure they did-but this fall or this winter. His longtime companion, the only woman he had ever loved, was going to die. He tried to deny the idea, scolding himself for being a morbid old fool, but in the gasping silences of those long hot days, Ralph heard that ticking everywhere-it even seemed to be in the walls.

Yet it was loudest from within Carolyn herself, and when she turned her calm white face toward him-perhaps to ask him to turn on the radio so she could listen while she shelled some beans for their supper, or to ask him if he would go across to the Red Apple and get her an ice cream on a stick-he would see that she heard it, too. He would see it in her dark eyes, at first only when she was straight, but later even when her eyes were hazed by the pain medication she took.

By then the ticking had grown very loud, and when Ralph lay in bed beside her on those hot summer nights when even a single sheet seemed to weigh ten pounds and he believed every dog in Derry was barking at the moon, he listened to it, to the deathwatch ticking inside Carolyn, and it seemed to him that his heart would break with sorrow and terror.

How much would she be required to suffer before the end came? How much would he be required to suffer? And how could he possibly live without her-?

It was during this strange, fraught period that Ralph began to go for increasingly long walks through the hot summer afternoons and slow, twilit evenings, returning on many occasions too exhausted to eat. He kept expecting Carolyn to scold him for these outings, to say Why don't you stop it, You stupid old man? You'll kill yourself if you keep walking in this heat! But she never did, and he gradually realized she didn't even know. That he went out, yes-she knew that. But not all the miles he went, or that when he came home he was often trembling with exhaustion and near sunstroke. Once upon a time it had seemed to Ralph she