LAURA was in the cellar, doing some spring cleaning and hating every minute of it. She didn’t dislike the work itself; she was by nature an industrious girl who was happiest when she had chores to do. But she was afraid of the cellar.
For one thing, the place was gloomy. The four narrow windows, set high in the walls, were hardly larger than embrasures, and the dust-filmed panes of glass permitted only weak, chalky light to enter. Even brightened by a pair of lamps, the big room held on tenaciously to its shadows, unwilling to be completely disrobed. The flickering amber light from the lamps revealed damp stone walls and a hulking, coal-fired furnace that was cold and unused on this fine, warm May afternoon. On a series of long shelves, row upon row of quart jars reflected splinters of light, but their contents—home-canned fruit and vegetables that had been stored here for the past nine months—remained unilluminated. The corners of the morn were all dark, and the low, open-beamed ceiling was hung with shadows like long banners of funeral crepe.
The cellar always had a mildly unpleasant odor, too. It was musty, rather like a limestone cave. In the spring and summer, when the humidity was high, a mottled gray-green fungus sometimes sprang up in the corners, a disgusting scablike growth, fringed with hundreds of tiny white spores that resembled insect eggs; that grotesquery added its own thin but nonetheless displeasing fragrance to the cellar air.
However, neither the gloom nor the offending odors nor the fungus gave rise to Laura’s fears; it was the spiders that frightened her. Spiders ruled the cellar. Some of them were small, brown, and quick; others were charcoal gray, a bit bigger than the brown ones, but just as fast-moving as their smaller cousins. There were even a few blue-black giants as large as Laura’s thumb.
As she wiped dust and a few cobwebs from the jars of home-canned food, always alert for the scuttling movement of spiders, Laura grew increasingly angry with her mother. Mama could have let her clean some of the upstairs rooms instead of the cellar Aunt Rachael or Mama herself could have cleaned down here because neither of them worried about spiders. But Mama knew that Laura was afraid of the cellar, and Mama was in the mood to punish her. It was a terrible mood, black as thunderclouds. Laura had seen it before. Too often. It descended over Mama more frequently with every passing year, and when she was in its thrall, she was a different person from the smiling, always singing woman that she was at other times. Although Laura loved her mother, she did not love the short-tempered, mean-spirited woman that her mother sometimes became. She did not love the hateful woman who had sent her down into the cellar with the spiders.
Dusting the jars of peaches, pears, tomatoes, beets, beans, and pickled squash, nervously awaiting the inevitable appearance of a spider, wishing she were grown up and married and on her own, Laura was startled by a sudden, sharp sound that pierced the dank basement air. At first it was like the distant, forlorn wail of an exotic bird, but it quickly became louder and more urgent. She stopped dusting, looked up at the dark ceiling, and listened closely to the eerie ululation that came from overhead. After a moment she realized that it was her Aunt Rachael’s voice and that it was a cry of alarm.
Upstairs, something fell over with a crash. It sounded like shattering porcelain. It must have been Mama’s peacock vase, If it was the vase, Mama would be in an extremely foul mood for the rest of the week.
Laura stepped away from the shelves of canned goods and started toward the cellar stairs, but she stopped abruptly when she heard Mama scream. It wasn’t a scream of rage over the loss of the vase; there was a note of terror in it.
Footsteps thumped across the living room floor, toward the front door of the house. The screen door opened with the familiar singing of its long spring, then banged shut. Rachael was outside now, shouting, her words unintelligible but still conveying her fear.
Laura smelled smoke.
She hurried to the stairs and saw pale tongues of fire at the top. The smoke wasn’t heavy, but it had an acrid stench.
Heart pounding, Laura climbed to the uppermost step. Waves of heat forced her to squint, but she could see into the kitchen. The wall of fire wasn’t solid. There was a narrow route of escape, a corridor of cool safety; the door to the back porch was at the far end.
She lifted her long skirt and pulled it tight across her h*ps and thighs, bunching it in both hands to prevent it from trailing in the flames. She moved gingerly onto the fire-ringed landing, which creaked under her, but before she reached the open door, the kitchen exploded in yellow-blue flames that quickly turned orange. From wall to wall, floor to ceiling, the room was an inferno; there was no longer a path through the blaze. Crazily, the fire-choked doorway brought to Laura’s mind the image of a glittering eye in a jack-o’-lantern.
In the kitchen, windows exploded, and the fire eddied in the sudden change of drafts, pushing through the cellar door, lashing at Laura. Startled, she stumbled backwards, off the landing. She fell. Turning, she grabbed at the railing, missed it, and stumbled down the short flight, cracking her head against the stone floor at the bottom.
She held on to consciousness as if it were a raft and she a drowning swimmer. When she was certain she wouldn’t faint, she got to her feet. Pain coruscated across the top of her head. She raised one hand to her brow and found a trickle of blood, a small abrasion. She was dizzy and confused.
During the minute or less that she had been incapacitated, fire had spread across the entire landing at the head of the stairs. It was moving down onto the first step.
She couldn’t keep her eyes focused. The rising stairs and the descending fire repeatedly blurred together in an orange haze.
Ghosts of smoke drifted down the stairwell. They reached out with long, insubstantial arms, as if to embrace Laura.
She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Help!”
No one answered.
“Somebody help me! I’m in the cellar!”
“Aunt Rachael! Mama! For God’s sake, somebody help me!”
The only response was the steadily increasing roar of the fire.
Laura had never felt so alone before. In spite of the tides of heat washing over her, she felt cold inside. She shivered.
Although her head throbbed worse than ever, and although the abrasion above her right eye continued to weep blood, at least she was having less trouble keeping her eyes focused. The problem was that she didn’t like what she saw.
She stood statue-still, transfixed by the deadly spectacle of the flames. Fire crawled lizardlike down the steps, one by one, and it slithered up the rail posts, then crept down the rail with a crisp, chuckling sound.
The smoke reached the bottom of the steps and enfolded her. She coughed, and the coughing aggravated the pain in her head, making her dizzy again. She put one hand against the wall to steady herself.
Everything was happening too fast. The house was going up like a pile of well-seasoned tinder.
I’m going to die here.
That thought jolted her out of her trance. She wasn’t ready to die. She was far too young. There was so much of life ahead of her, so many wonderful things to do, things she had long dreamed about doing. It wasn’t fair. She refused to die.
She gagged on the smoke. Turning away from the burning stairs, she put a hand over her nose and mouth, but that didn’t help much.
She saw flames at the far end of the cellar, and for an instant she thought she was already encircled and that all hope of rescue was gone. She cried out in despair, but then she realized the blaze hadn’t found its way into the other end of the room after all. The two points of fire that she was seeing were only the twin oil lamps that had provided her with light. The flames in the lamps were harmless, safely ensconced in tall glass chimneys.
She coughed violently again, and the pain in her head settled down behind her eyes. She found it difficult to concentrate. Her thoughts were like droplets of quicksilver, sliding over one another and changing shape so often and so fast that she couldn’t make sense of some of them.
She prayed silently and fervently.
Directly overhead, the ceiling groaned and appeared to shift. For a few seconds she held her breath, clenched her teeth, and stood with her hands fisted at her sides, waiting to be buried in rubble. But then she saw that the ceiling wasn’t going to collapse— not yet.
Trembling, whimpering softly, she scurried to the nearest of the four high-set windows, It was rectangular, approximately eight inches from sill to top and eighteen inches from sash to sash, much too small to provide her with a means of escape. The other three windows were identical to the first; there was no use even taking a closer look at them.
The air was becoming less breathable by the second. Laura’s sinuses ached and burned. Her mouth was filled with the revulsive, bitter taste of the smoke.
For too long she stood beneath the window, staring up in frustration and confusion at the meager, milky light that came through the dirty pane and through the haze of smoke that pressed tightly against the glass. She had the feeling she was overlooking an obvious and convenient escape hatch; in fact she was sure of it. There was a way out, and it had nothing to do with the windows, but she couldn’t get her mind off the windows; she was fixated on them, just as she had been fixated on the sight of the advancing flames a couple of minutes ago. The pain in her head and behind her eyes throbbed more powerfully than ever, and with each agonizing pulsation, her thoughts became more muddled.
I’m going to die here.
A frightening vision flashed through her mind. She saw herself afire, her dark hair turned blond by the flames that consumed it and standing straight up on her head as if it were not hair but the wick of a candle. In the vision, she saw her face melting like wax, bubbling and steaming and liquefying, the features flowing together until her face no longer resembled that of a human being, until it was the hideously twisted countenance of a leering demon with empty eye sockets.
She shook her head, dispelling the vision.
She was dizzy and getting dizzier. She needed a draught of clean air to rinse out her polluted lungs, but with each breath she drew more smoke than she had drawn last time. Her chest ached.
Nearby, a rhythmic pounding began; the noise was even louder than her heartbeat, which drummed thunderously in her ears.
She turned in a circle, gagging and. coughing, searching for the source of the hammering sound, striving to regain control of herself, struggling hard to think.
The hammering stopped.
‘‘Laura . .
Above the incessant roar of the tire, she heard someone calling her name.
“I’m down here.. . in the cellar!” she shouted. But the shout came out as nothing more than a whispered croak. Her throat was constricted and already raw from the harsh smoke and the fiercely hot air.
The effort required to stay on her feet became too great for her. She sank to her knees on the stone floor, slumped against the wall, and slid down until she was lying on her side.
“Laura…” . .
The pounding began again. A fist beating on a door.
Laura discovered that the air at floor level was cleaner than that which she had been breathing. She gasped frantically, grateful for this reprieve from suffocation.
For a few seconds the throbbing pain behind her eyes abated, and her thoughts cleared, and she remembered the outside entrance to the cellar, a pair of doors slant-set against the north wall of the house. They were locked from the inside, so that no one could get in to rescue her, in the panic and confusion she had forgotten about those doors. But now, if she kept her wits about her, she would be able to save herself.
“Laura!” It was Aunt Rachael’s voice.
Laura crawled to the northwest corner of the room, where the doors sloped down at the top of a short flight of steps. She kept her head low, breathing the tainted but adequate air near the floor. The edges of the mortared stones tore her dress and scraped skin off her knees.
To her left, the entire stairwell was burning now, and flames were spreading across the wooden ceiling. Refracted and diffused by the smoky air, the firelight glowed on all sides of Laura, creating the illusion that she was crawling through a narrow tunnel of flames. At the rate the blaze was spreading, the illusion would soon be fact.
Her eyes were swollen and watery, and she wiped at them as she inched toward escape. She couldn’t see very much. She used Aunt Rachael’s voice as a beacon and otherwise relied on instinct.
“Laura!” The voice was near. Right above her.
She felt along the wall until she located the setback in the stone. She moved into that recess, onto the first step, lifted her head, but could see nothing: the darkness here was seamless.
“Laura, answer me. Baby, are you in there?“
Rachael was hysterical, screaming so loudly and pounding on the outside doors with such persistence that she wouldn’t have heard a response even if Laura had been capable of making one.
Where was Mama? Why wasn’t Mama pounding on the door, too? Didn’t Mama care?
Crouching in that cramped, hot, lightless space, Laura reached up and put her hand against one of the two slant-set doors above her bead. The sturdy barrier quivered and rattled under the impact of Rachael’s small fists. Laura groped blindly for the latch. She put her hand over the warm metal fixture—and squarely over something else, too. Something strange and unexpected. Something that squirmed and was alive. Small but alive. She jerked convulsively and pulled her hand away. But the thing she touched had shifted its grip from the latch to her flesh, and it came away from the door when she withdrew her hand. It skittered out of her palm and over her thumb and across the back of her hand and along her wrist and under the sleeve of her dress before she could brush it away.
She couldn’t see it, but she knew what it was. A spider. One of the really big ones, as large as her thumb, a plump black body that glistened like a fat drop of oil, inky black and ugly. For a moment she froze, unable even to draw a breath.
She felt the spider moving up her arm, and its bold advance snapped her into action. She slapped at it through the sleeve of her dress, but she missed. The spider bit her above the crook of her arm, and she winced at the tiny nip of pain, and the disgusting creature scurried into her armpit. It bit her there, too, and suddenly she felt as though she was living through her worst nightmare, for she feared spiders more than she feared anything else on earth—certainly more than she feared fire, for in her desperate attempt to kill the spider, she had forgotten all about the burning house that was dissolving into ruin above her— and she flailed in panic, lost her balance, rolled backwards off the steps, into the main room of the cellar, cracking one hip on the stone floor. The spider tickled its way along the inside of her bodice until it was
between her breasts. She screamed but could make no sound whatsoever. She put a hand to her bosom and pressed hard, and even through the fabric she could feel the spider squirming angrily against the palm of her hand, and she could feel its frenzied struggle even more directly on her bare breast, to which it was pressed, but she persisted until at last she crushed it, and she gagged again, but this time not merely because of the smoke.
For several seconds after killing the spider, she lay on the floor in a tight fetal position, shuddering violently and uncontrollably. The repulsive, wet mass of the smashed spider slid very slowly down the curve of her breast. She wanted to reach inside her bodice and pluck the foul wad from herself, but she hesitated because, irrationally, she was afraid it would somehow come to life again and sting her fingers.
She tasted blood. She had bitten her lip.
Mama had done this to her. Mama had sent her down here, knowing there were spiders. Why was Mama always so quick to deal out punishment, so eager to assign penance?
Overhead, a beam creaked, sagged. The kitchen floor cracked open. She felt as though she were staring up into Hell. Sparks showered down. Her dress caught fire, and she scorched her hands putting it out.
Mama did this to me.
Because her palms and fingers were blistered and peeling, she couldn’t crawl on her hands and knees any longer, so she got to her feet, although standing up required more strength and determination than she had thought she possessed. She swayed, dizzy and weak.
Mama sent me down here.
Laura could see only pulsing, all-encompassing orange luminescence, through which amorphous smoke ghosts glided and whirled. She shuffled toward the short flight of steps that led to the outside cellar doors, but after she had gone only two yards, she realized she was headed in the wrong direction. She turned back the way she had come—or back the way she thought she had come—but after a few steps she bumped into the furnace, which was nowhere near the outside doors. She was completely disoriented.
Mama did this to me.
Laura squeezed her ruined hands into raw, bloody fists. In a rage she pounded on the furnace, and with each blow she fervently wished that she were beating her mother.
The upper reaches of the burning house twisted and rumbled. In the distance, beyond an eternity of smoke, Aunt Rachael’s voice echoed hauntingly: “Laura… Laura. . .“
Why wasn’t Mama out there helping Rachael break down the cellar doors? Where in God’s name was she? Throwing coal and lamp oil on the fire?
Wheezing, gasping, Laura pushed away from the furnace and tried to follow Rachael’s voice to safety.
A beam tore loose of its moorings, slammed into her back, and catapulted her into the shelves of home canned food. Jars fell, shattered. Laura went down in a rain of glass. She could smell pickles, peaches.
Before she could determine if any bones were broken, before she could even lift her face out of the spilled food, another beam crashed down, pinning her legs.
There was so much pain that her mind simply blanked it out altogether. She was not even sixteen years old, and there was only so much she could bear. She sealed the pain in a dark corner of her mind; instead of succumbing to it, she twisted and thrashed hysterically, raged at her fate, and cursed her mother.
Her hatred for her mother wasn’t rational, but it was so passionately felt that it took the place of the pain she could not allow herself to feel. Hate flooded through her, filled her with so much demonic energy that she was nearly able to toss the heavy beam off her legs.
Damn you to Hell, Mama.
The top floor of the house caved in upon the ground floor with a sound like cannons blasting.
Damn you, Mama! Damn you!
The first two floors of flaming rubble broke through the already weakened cellar ceiling.
Something Wicked This Way
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
ACROSS the somber gray clouds, lightning followed a jagged course like cracks in a china plate. In the unsheltered courtyard outside Alfred O’Brian’s office, the parked cars glimmered briefly with hard-edged reflections of the storm light. The wind gusted, whipping the trees. Rain beat with sudden fury against the three tall office windows, then streamed down the glass, blurring the view beyond.
O’Brian sat with his back to the windows. While thunder reverberated through the low sky and seemed to hammer on the roof of the building, he read the application that Paul and Carol Tracy had just submitted to him.
He’s such a neat little man, Carol thought as she watched O’Brian. When he sits very still like that, you’d almost think he was a mannequin.
He was exceedingly well groomed. His carefully combed hair looked as if it had received the attention of a good barber less than an hour ago. His mustache was so expertly trimmed that the halves of it appeared to be perfectly symmetrical. He was wearing a gray suit with trouser creases as tight and straight as blades, and his black shoes gleamed. His fingernails were manicured, and his pink, well-scrubbed hands looked sterile.
When Carol had been introduced to O’Brian less than a week ago, she had thought he was prim, even prissy, and she had been prepared to dislike him. She was quickly won over by his smile, by his gracious manner, and by his sincere desire to help her and Paul.
She glanced at Paul, who was sitting in the chair next to hers, his own tensions betrayed by the angular position of his lean, usually graceful body. He was watching O’Brian intently, but when he sensed that Carol was looking at him, he turned and smiled. His smile was even nicer than O’Brian’s, and as usual, Carol’s spirits were lifted by the sight of it. He was neither handsome nor ugly, this man she loved; you might even say he was plain, yet his face was enormously appealing because the pleasing, open composition of it contained ample evidence of his gentleness and sensitivity. His hazel eyes were capable of conveying amazingly subtle degrees and mixtures of emotions. Six years ago, at a university symposium entitled “Abnormal Psychology and Modem American Fiction,” where Carol had met Paul, the first thing that had drawn her to him had been those warm, expressive eyes, and in the intervening years they had never ceased to intrigue her. Now he winked, and with that wink he seemed to be saying: Don’t worry;
O’Brian is on our side; the application will be accepted; everything will turn out all right; I love you.
She winked back at him and pretended to be confident, even though she was sure he could see through her brave front.
She wished that she could be certain of winning Mr. O’Brian’s approval. She knew she ought to be overflowing with confidence, for there really was no reason why O’Brian would reject them. They were healthy and young. Paul was thirty-five, and she was thirty-one, and those were excellent ages at which to set out upon the adventure they were contemplating. Both of them were successful in their work. They were financially solvent, even prosperous. They were respected in their community. Their marriage was happy and trouble-free, stronger now than at any time in the four years since their wedding. In short, their qualifications for adopting a child were pretty much impeccable, but she worried nonetheless.
She loved children, and she was looking forward to raising one or two of her own. During the past fourteen years—in which she had earned three degrees at three universities and had established herself in her profession—she had postponed many simple pleasures and had skipped others altogether. Getting an education and launching her career had always come first. She had missed too many good parties and had foregone an unremembered number of vacations and getaway weekends. Adopting a child was one pleasure she did not want to postpone any longer.
She had a strong psychological need—almost a physical need—to be a mother, to guide and shape children, to give them love and understanding. She was intelligent enough and sufficiently self-aware to
realize that this deep-seated need arose, at least in part, from her inability to conceive a child of her own flesh and blood.
The thing we want most, she thought, is always the thing we cannot have.
She was to blame for her sterility, which was the result of an unforgivable act of stupidity committed a long time ago; and of course her culpability made her condition harder to bear than it would have been if nature—rather than her own foolishness—had cursed her with a barren womb. She had been a severely troubled child, for she had been raised by violent, alcoholic parents who had frequently beaten her and who had dealt out large doses of psychological torture. By the time she was fifteen, she was a hellion, engaged in an angry rebellion against her parents and against the world at large. She hated everyone in those days, especially herself. In the blackest hours of her confused and tormented adolescence, she had gotten pregnant. Frightened, panicky, with no one to turn to, she tried to conceal her condition by wearing girdles, by binding herself with elastic cloth and tape, and by eating as lightly as possible to keep her weight down. Eventually, however, complications arose because of her attempts to hide her pregnancy, and she nearly died. The baby was born prematurely, but it was healthy. She had put it up for adoption and hadn’t given it much thought for a couple of years, though these days she often wondered about the child and wished she could have kept it somehow. At the time, the fact that her ordeal had left her sterile did not depress her, for she didn’t think she would ever want to be pregnant again. But with a lot of help and love from a child psychologist named Grace Mitowski,
who did charity work among juvenile wards of the court, Carol had turned her life completely around.
She had learned to like herself and, years later, had come to regret the thoughtless actions that had left her barren.
Fortunately, she regarded adoption as a more-than-adequate solution to her problem. She was capable of giving as much love to an adopted child as she would have given to her own offspring. She knew she would be a good and caring mother, and she longed to prove it—not to the world but to herself; she never needed to prove anything to anyone but herself, for she was always her own toughest critic.
Mr. O’Brian looked up from the application and smiled. His teeth were exceedingly white. “This looks really fine,” he said, indicating the form he had just finished reading. “In fact, it’s splendid. Not everyone that applies to us has credentials like these.”
“It’s kind of you to say so,” Paul told him.
O’Brian shook his head. “Not at all. It’s simply the truth. Very impressive.”
Carol said, “Thank you.”
Leaning back in his chair, folding his hands on his stomach, O’Brian said, “I do have a couple of questions. I’m sure they’re the same ones the recommendations committee will ask me, so I might as well get your responses now and save a lot of back-and-forth later on.”
Carol stiffened again.
O’Brian apparently noticed her reaction, for he quickly said, “Oh, it’s nothing terribly serious. Really, it isn’t. Believe me—I won’t be asking you half as many questions as I ask most couples who come to see us.”
In spite of O’Brian’s assurances, Carol remained tense.
Outside, the storm-dark afternoon sky grew steadily darker as the thunderheads changed color from gray to blue black, thickened, and pressed closer to the earth.
O’Brian swiveled in his chair to face Paul. “Dr. Tracy, would you say you’re an overachiever?”
Paul seemed surprised by the question. He blinked and said, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You are the chairman of the department of English at the college, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I’m on sabbatical this semester, and the vice-chairman is handling most things for the time being. Otherwise, I’ve been in charge of the department for the past year and a half.”
“Aren’t you rather young to hold such a post?”
“Somewhat young,” Paul admitted. “But that’s no credit to me. You see, it’s a thankless position, all work and no glory. My senior colleagues in the department craftily maneuvered me into it so that none of them would be stuck with the job.”
“You’re being modest.”
“No, I’m really not,” Paul said. “It’s nothing much.”
Carol knew that he was being modest. The departmental chairmanship was a prized position, an honor. But she understood why Paul was playing it down; he had been unsettled by O’Brian’s use of the word overachiever. She had been unsettled by it, too. Until this moment she had never thought that an unusually long list of achievements might count against them.
Beyond the tall windows, lightning zigzagged
down the sky. The day flickered and, just for a second or two, so did the electric lights in O’Brian’s office.
Still addressing Paul, O’Brian said, “You’re also an author.”
“You’ve written a very successful textbook for use in American literature courses. You’ve turned out a dozen monographs on a variety of subjects, and you’ve done a local history of the county. And two children’s books, and a novel
“The novel was about as successful as a horse trying to walk a tightrope,” Paul said. “The New York Times critic said it was ‘a perfect example of academic posturing, stuffed full of themes and symbols, utterly lacking in substance and narrative drive, infused with ivory-tower naiveté.”
O’Brian smiled. “Does every writer memorize his bad reviews?”
“I suppose not. But I have that one engraved on my cerebral cortex because there’s an uncomfortable amount of truth in it.”
“Are you writing another novel? Is that why you’ve taken a sabbatical?”
Paul was not surprised by the question. Clearly he now understood what O’Brian was digging for. “Yes, in fact I am writing a new novel. This one actually has a plot.” He laughed with easy self-deprecation.
“You’re also involved in charity work.”
“Quite a lot,” O’Brian disagreed. “The Children’s Hospital Fund, the Community Chest, the student scholarship program at the college—all of that in addition to your regular job and your writing. Yet you don’t think you’re an overachiever?”
“No, I really don’t think I am. The charity work
amounts to just a couple of meetings a month. It’s no big thing. It’s the least I can do, considering my own good fortune.” Paul edged forward on his chair.
“Maybe you’re worried that I won’t have time to give to a child, but if that’s what’s troubling you, then you can put your mind at rest. I’ll make the time. This adoption is extremely important to us, Mr. O’Brian. We both want a child very badly, and if we are lucky enough to get one, we certainly won’t ever neglect it.”
“Oh, I’m sure you won’t,” O’Brian said quickly, raising his hands placatingly. “That isn’t at all what I meant to imply. Oh, certainly not. I’m on your side in this matter. I mean that very sincerely.” He swiveled to face Carol. “Dr. Tracy—the other Dr. Tracy— what about you? Do you consider yourself an overachiever?”
Lightning slashed through the panoply of clouds again, nearer this time than before; it seemed to strike the ground no more than two blocks away. The ensuing crash of thunder rattled the tall windows.
Carol used the interruption provided by the thunderclap to consider her response, and she decided that O’Brian would appreciate forthrightness more than modesty. “Yes. I’d say I’m an overachiever. I’m involved in two of the three charities that Paul has his hand in. And I know I’m a bit young to have established a psychiatric practice as successful as mine is. I’m also a guest lecturer at the college on a fairly regular basis. And I’m doing post-doctoral research on autistic children. During the summer I manage to keep a little vegetable garden going, and I do some needlepoint in the winter months, and I even brush
my teeth three times a day, every day, without fail.” O’Brian laughed. “Three times a day, huh? Oh,
you’re most definitely an overachiever.”
The warmth of his laughter reassured Carol, and with renewed confidence she said, “I believe I understand what you’re concerned about. You’re wondering if Paul and I might expect too much of our child.”
“Exactly,” O’Brian said. He noticed a speck of lint on his coat sleeve and plucked it off. “Parents who are overachievers tend to push their kids too hard, too fast, too soon.”
Paul said, “That’s a problem that arises only when parents are unaware of the danger. Even if Carol and I are overachievers—which I’m not prepared to admit just yet—we wouldn’t pressure our kids to do more than they were capable of doing. Each of us has to find his own pace in life. Carol and I realize that a child should be guided, not hammered into a mold.”
“Of course,” Carol said.
O’Brian appeared to be pleased. “I knew you’d say that—or something very like it.”
Lightning flashed again. This time it seemed to strike even closer than before, only a block away. Thunder cracked, then cracked again. The overhead lights dimmed, fluttered, reluctantly came back to full power.
“In my psychiatric practice, I deal with a wide variety of patients who have all kinds of problems,”
Carol told O’Brian, “but I specialize in the mental disorders and emotional disturbances of children and adolescents. Sixty or seventy percent of my patients are seventeen or younger. I’ve treated several kids who’ve suffered serious psychological damage at the hands of parents who were too demanding, who pushed them too hard in their schoolwork, in every aspect of their intellectual and personal development. I’ve seen the wounded ones, Mr. O’Brian, and I’ve nursed them as best I could, and because of those experiences, I couldn’t possibly turn around and do to my children what I’ve seen some parents do to theirs. Not that I won’t make mistakes. I’m sure I will. My full share of them. But the one that you mentioned won’t be among them.”
“That’s valid,” O’Brian said, nodding. “Valid and very well put. I’m sure that when I tell the recommendations committee what you’ve just said, they’ll be quite satisfied on this point.” He spotted another tiny speck on his sleeve and removed it, frowning as if it were not merely lint, but offal. “Another question they’re bound to ask: Suppose the child you adopt turns out to be not only an underachiever but. . . well… basically less intelligent than either of you. For parents as oriented toward an intellectual life as you are, wouldn’t you be somewhat frustrated with a child of just average—or possibly slightly below average— intelligence?”
“Well, even if we were capable of having a child of our own,” Paul said, “there wouldn’t be any guarantee that he’d be a prodigy or anything of that sort. But if he was. . . slow. . . we’d still love him. Of course we would. And the same goes for any child we might adopt.”
To O’Brian, Carol said, “I think you’ve got too high an opinion of us. Neither of us is a genius, for heaven’s sake! We’ve gotten as far as we have primarily through hard work and perseverance, not be-
cause we were exceptionally bright. I wish it had come that easy, but it didn’t.”
“Besides,” Paul said, “you don’t love a person merely because he’s intelligent. It’s his entire personality that counts, the whole package, and a lot of factors contribute to that package, a great many things other than just intellect.”
“Good,” O’Brian said. “I’m glad to hear you feel that way. The committee will respond well to that answer, too.”
For the past few seconds, Carol had been aware of the distant wail of sirens. Fire engines. Now they were not as distant as they had been; they were rapidly growing nearer, louder.
“I think maybe one of those last two bolts of lightning caused some real damage when it touched down,” Paul said.
O’Brian swung his chair around toward the center window, which was directly behind his desk. “It did sound as if it struck nearby.”
Carol looked at each of the three windows, but she couldn’t see any smoke rising from behind the nearest rooftops. Then again, the view was blurred and visibility was reduced by the water-spotted panes of glass and by the curtains of mist and gray rain that wavered and whipped and billowed beyond the glass.
The sirens swelled.
“More than one truck,” O’Brian said.
The fire engines were right outside the office for a moment—at least two trucks, perhaps three—and then they passed, heading into the next block.
O’Brian pushed up from his chair and stepped to the window.
As the first sirens dwindled just a little, new ones shrieked in the street behind them.
“Must be serious,” Paul said. “Sounds as if at least two engine companies are responding.”
“I see smoke,” O’Brian said.
Paul rose from his chair and moved toward the windows to get a better look.
Something’s wrong here.
That thought snapped into Carol’s mind, startling her as if a whip had cracked in front of her face. A powerful, inexplicable current of panic surged through her, electrified her. She gripped the arms of her chair so tightly that one of her fingernails broke.
Something. . . is.. . wrong.. . very wrong…
Suddenly the air was oppressively heavy—hot, thick, as if it were not air at all but a bitter and poisonous gas of some kind. She tried to breathe, couldn’t. There was an invisible, crushing weight on her chest.
Get away from the windows!
She tried to shout that warning, but panic had short-circuited her voice. Paul and O’Brian were at different windows, but they both had their backs to her, so that neither of them could see she had been gripped by sudden, immobilizing fear.
Fear of what? she demanded of herself. What in the name of God am l so scared of?
She struggled against the unreasonable terror that had locked her muscles and joints. She started to get up from the chair, and that was when it happened.
A murderous barrage of lightning crashed like a volley of mortar fire, seven or eight tremendous bolts, perhaps more than that—she didn’t count them, couldn’t count them—one right after the other, with-
out a significant pause between them, each fierce boom overlapping the ones before and after it, yet each clearly louder than its predecessors, so loud that they made her teeth and bones vibrate, each bolt smashing down discernibly closer to the building than had the bolt before it, closer to the seven-foot-high windows—the gleaming, flashing, rattling, now-black, now-milky, now-shining, now-blank, now-silvery, now-coppery windows.
The sharp bursts of purple-white light produced a series of jerky, stroboscopic images that were burned forever into Carol’s memory: Paul and O’Brian standing there, silhouetted against the natural fireworks, looking small and vulnerable; outside, the rain descending in an illusion of hesitation; wind-lashed trees heaving in a strobe-choppy rage; lightning blasting into one of those trees, a big maple, and then an ominous dark shape rising from the midst of the explosion, a torpedo like thing, spinning straight toward the center window (all of this transpiring in only a second or two, but given a queer, slow-motion quality by the flickering lightning and, after a moment, by the overhead electric light as well, which began to flicker, too); O’Brian throwing one arm up in front of his face in what appeared to be half a dozen disconnected movements; Paul turning toward O’Brian and reaching for him, both men like figures on a motion picture screen when the film slips and stutters in the projector; O’Brian lurching sideways; Paul seizing him by a coat sleeve, pulling him back and down toward safety (only a fraction of a second after the lightning splintered the maple); a huge tree limb bursting through the center window even as Paul was pulling O’Brian out of the way; one leafy branch sweeping
across O’Brian’s head, ripping his glasses loose, tossing them into the air—his face, Carol thought, his eyes!—and then Paul and O’Brian falling to the floor, out of sight; the enormous limb of the shattered maple slamming down on top of O’Brian’s desk in a spray of water, glass, broken mullions, and smoking chips of bark; the legs of the desk cracking and collapsing under the brutal impact of the ruined tree.
Carol found herself on the floor, beside her overturned chair. She couldn’t remember falling.
The fluorescent tubes blinked off, stayed off.
She was lying on her stomach, one cheek pressed to the floor, staring in shock at the shards of glass and the torn maple leaves that littered the carpet. As lightning continued to stab down from the turbulent sky, wind roared through the missing window and stirred some of the loose leaves into a frantic, dervishlike dance; accompanied by the cacophonous music of the storm, they whirled and capered across the office, toward a row of green filing cabinets. A calendar flapped off the wall and swooped around on wings of January and December, darting and soaring and kiting as if it were a bat. Two paintings rattled on their wire hangers, trying to tear themselves free. Papers were everywhere—stationery, forms, small sheets from a note pad, bulletins, a newspaper—all rustling and skipping this way and that, floating up, diving down, bunching together and slithering along the floor with a snakelike hiss.
Carol had the eerie feeling that all of the movement in the room was not solely the result of the wind, that some of it was caused by a . . . presence. Something threatening. A bad poltergeist. Demonic spirits seemed
to be at work in the office, flexing their occult muscles, knocking things off the walls, briefly taking up residence in a body composed only of leaves and rumpled sheets of newsprint.
That was a crazy idea, not at all the sort of thing she would ordinarily think of. She was surprised and disconcerted by a thrill of superstitious fear that coursed through her.
Lightning flared again. And again.
Wincing at the painfully sharp sound, wondering if lightning could get into a room through an open window, she put her arms over her head, for what little protection they provided.
Her heart was pounding, and her mouth was dry.
She thought about Paul, and her heartbeat grew even more frantic. He was over by the windows, on the far side of the desk, out of sight, under some of the maple tree’s branches. She didn’t think he was dead. He hadn’t been directly in the path of the tree. O’Brian might be dead, yes, depending on how that small branch had struck his head, depending on whether he had been lucky or not, because maybe a pointed twig had been driven deep into his eye and his brain when his glasses had been knocked off, but Paul was surely alive. Surely. Nevertheless, he could be seriously injured, bleeding.
Carol started to push herself up onto her hands and knees, anxious to find Paul and give him any first aid he might need. But another bolt of blinding, ear shattering lightning spent itself just outside the building, and fear turned her muscles into wet rags. She didn’t even have the strength to crawl, and she was infuriated by her weakness, for she had always
been proud of her strength, determination, and unflagging willpower. Cursing herself, she slumped back to the floor.
Something’s trying to stop us from adopting a baby.
That incredible thought struck her with the same cold, hard force as had the forewarning of the window’s implosion, which had come to her an instant before the impossible barrage of lightning had blasted into the courtyard.
Something’s trying to stop us from adopting a baby.
No. That was ridiculous. The storm, the lightning—they were nothing more than acts of nature. They hadn’t been directed against Mr. O’Brian just because he was going to help them adopt a child.
Oh, yeah? she thought as the deafening thunder and the unholy light of the storm filled the room. Acts of nature, huh? When have you ever seen lightning like this before?
She hugged the floor, shaking, cold, more afraid than she had been since she was a little girl. She tried to tell herself that it was only the lightning that she was afraid of, for that was very much a legitimate, rational fear, but she knew she was lying. It was not just the lightning that terrified her. In fact, that was the least of it. There was something else, something she couldn’t identify, something formless and nameless in the room, and the very presence of it, whatever the hell it was, pushed a panic button deep inside her, on a sub-subconscious, primitive level; this fear was gut-deep, instinctive.
A dervish of windblown leaves and papers whirled across the floor, directly toward her. It was a big one:
a column about two feet in diameter, five or six feet
high, composed of a hundred or more pieces of this and that. It stopped very near her, writhing, churning, hissing, changing shape, glimmering silver-dark in the flashing storm light, and she felt threatened by it. As she stared up at the whirlwind, she had the mad notion that it was staring down at her. After a moment it moved off to the left a few feet, then returned, paused in front of her again, hesitated, then scurried busily to the right, but came back once more, looming above her as if it were trying to make up its mind whether or not to pounce and tear her to shreds and sweep her up along with the leaves, newspaper pages, envelopes, and other flotsam by which it defined itself.
It’s nothing more than a whirlwind of lifeless junk! she told herself angrily.
The wind-shaped phantom moved away from her.
See? she told herself scornfully. Just lifeless junk. What’s wrong with me? Am I losing my mind?
She recalled the old axiom that was supposed to provide comfort in moments like this: If you think you’re going mad, then you must be completely sane, for a lunatic never has doubts about his sanity. As a psychiatrist, she knew that hoary bit of wisdom was an oversimplification of complex psychological principles, but in essence it was true. So she must be sane.
Nevertheless, that frightening, irrational thought came to her again, unbidden, unwanted: Something’s trying to stop us from adopting a baby.
If the maelstrom in which she lay was not an act of nature, then what was it? Was she to believe that the lightning had been sent with the conscious intent of transforming Mr. O’Brian into a smoking heap of charred flesh? That was a fruitcake notion, for sure.
Who could use lightning as if it were a pistol? God? God wasn’t sitting up in Heaven, aiming at Mr. O’Brian, popping away at him with lightning bolts, just to screw up the adoption process for Carol and Paul Tracy. The Devil? Blasting away at poor Mr. O’Brian from the depths of Hell? That was a looney idea. Jesus!
She wasn’t even sure she believed in God, but she knew she definitely did not believe in the Devil.
Another window imploded, showering glass over her.
Then the lightning stopped.
The thunder decreased from a roar to a rumble, fading like the noise of a passing freight train.
There was a stench of ozone.
The wind was still pouring in through the broken windows, but apparently with less force than it had exerted a moment ago, for the whirling columns of leaves and papers subsided to the floor, where they lay in piles, fluttering and quivering as if exhausted.
Something’s trying to stop us from— She clamped off that unwanted thought as though
it were a spurting artery. She was an educated woman, dammit. She prided herself on her levelheadedness and common sense. She couldn’t permit herself to succumb to these disturbing, uncharacteristic, utterly superstitious fears.
Freaky weather—that was the explanation for the lightning. Freaky weather. You read about such things in the newspapers every once in a while. A half an inch of snow in Beverly Hills. An eighty-degree day in the middle of an otherwise frigid Minnesota winter.
Rain falling briefly from an apparently cloudless blue sky. Although a lightning strike of this magnitude and intensity was undoubtedly a rare occurrence, it probably had happened before, sometime, somewhere, probably more than once. Of course it had. Of course.
In fact, if you picked up one of those popular books in which the authors compiled all kinds of world records, and if you turned to the chapter on weather, and if you looked for a subsection entitled “Lightning,” you would most likely find an impressive list of other serial lightning strikes that would put this one to shame. Freaky weather. That’s what it was. That’s all it was. Nothing stranger than that, nothing worse.
For the time being, at least, Carol managed to put aside all thoughts of demons and ghosts and malign poltergeists and other such claptrap.
In the relative quiet that followed in the wake of the fast-diminishing thunder, she felt her strength returning. She pushed up from the floor, onto her knees. With the clinking sound of mildly disturbed wind chimes, pieces of glass fell from her gray skirt and green blouse; she wasn’t cut or even scratched. She was a bit dazed, however, and for a moment the floor appeared to roll sickeningly from side to side, as if this were a stateroom aboard a ship.
In the office next door, a woman began to cry hysterically. There were shouts of alarm, and someone began calling for Mr. O’Brian. No one had yet burst into the office to see what had happened, which meant that only a second or two had elapsed since the lightning had stopped, although it seemed to Carol as if a minute or two had passed.
Over by the windows, someone groaned softly.
‘Paul?” she said.
if there was an answer, it was drowned out by a sudden gust of wind that briefly stirred the papers and leaves again.
She recalled the way that branch had whipped across O’Brian’s head, and she shuddered. But Paul hadn’t been touched. The tree had missed him. Hadn’t it?
With renewed fear, she got to her feet and moved quickly around the desk, stepping over splintered maple branches and an overturned wastebasket.
THAT Wednesday afternoon, following a lunch of Campbell’s vegetable soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, Grace Mitowski went into her study and curled up on the sofa to sleep for an hour or so. She never napped in the bedroom because that formalized it somehow, and though she had been taking naps three or four days a week for the past year, she still had not reconciled herself to the fact that she needed a midday rest. To her way of thinking, naps were for children and for old, used-up, burnt-out people. She wasn’t in her childhood any more—neither the first nor the second, thank you—and although she was old, she certainly wasn’t used up or burnt out. Being in bed in the middle of the day made her feel lazy, and she couldn’t abide laziness in anyone, especially not in herself. Therefore, she took naps on the study sofa, with her back to the shuttered windows, lulled by the monotonous ticking of the mantel clock.
At seventy, Grace was still as mentally agile and energetic as she had ever been. Her gray matter hadn’t begun to deteriorate at all; it was only her treacherous body that caused her grief and frustration. She had a touch of arthritis in her hands, and when the humidity was high—as it was today—she also suffered from a dull but unrelenting ache of bursitis in her shoulders. Although she did all of the exercises that her doctor recommended, and although she walked two miles every morning, she found it increasingly difficult to maintain her muscle tone. From the time she was a young girl, throughout most of her life, she had been in love with books, and she had been able to read all morning, all afternoon, and most of the evening without eyestrain; nowadays, usually after only a couple of hours of reading, her eyes felt grainy and hot. She regarded each of her infirmities with extreme indignation, and she struggled against them, even though she knew this was a war she was destined to lose.
That Wednesday afternoon she took a break from the battle, a brief period of R and R. Two minutes after she stretched out on the sofa, she was asleep.
Grace did not dream often, and she was even less often plagued by bad dreams. But Wednesday afternoon, in the book-lined study, her sleep was continuously disturbed by nightmares. Several times she stirred, came half awake, and heard herself gasping in panic. Once, drifting up from some hideous and threatening vision, she heard her own voice crying out wordlessly in terror, and she realized she was thrashing on the couch, twisting and torturing her
aching shoulders. She tried to come fully awake, but she could not; something in the dream, something dark and menacing, reached up with icy, clammy hands and pulled her down into deep sleep again, down and down, all the way down into a lightless place where an unnamable creature gibbered and muttered and chuckled in a mucous-wet voice.
An hour later, when she finally woke up and managed to cast off the clutching dream, she was standing in the middle of the shadow-shrouded room, several steps away from the sofa, but she had no memory of getting to her feet. She was shaking, sheathed in sweat.
—I’ve got to tell Carol Tracy.
—Tell her what?
—Warn her about what?
—It’s coming. Oh, God…
—Just like in the dream.
—What about the dream?
Already her memory of the nightmare had begun to dissolve; only fragments of it remained with her, and each of those disassociated images was evaporating as if it were a splinter of dry ice. All she could remember was that Carol had been a part of it, and had been in awful danger. And somehow she knew that the dream had been more than just an ordinary dream….
As the nightmare receded, Grace became uncomfortably aware of how gloomy the study was. Before taking her nap, she had switched off the lamps. The shutters were all closed, and only thin blades of light Were visible between the wooden slats. She had the irrational but unshakable feeling that something had followed her up from the dream, something vicious and evil that had undergone a magical metamorphosis from a creature of the imagination into one composed of solid flesh, something that was now crouched in a corner, watching, waiting.
—But the dream was…
—Only a dream.
Along the edges of the shutters, the taut threads of light abruptly brightened, then dimmed, then grew bright again as lightning flashed outside. A roof-rattling crash of thunder quickly followed, and more lightning, too, an unbelievable amount of it, one blue-white explosion after another, so that for at least half a minute the cracks in the shutters looked like sputtering electrical wires, white-hot with sparking current.
Still drugged with sleep and slightly confused, Grace stood in the middle of the unlighted room, rocking from side to side, listening to the thunder and the wind, watching the intense pulse of lightning. The extreme violence of the storm seemed unreal, and she concluded that she was still under the influence of the dream, misinterpreting what she was seeing. It couldn’t possibly be as savage outside as it appeared to be.
She thought she heard something call to her from over by the tallest set of bookshelves, directly behind her. Judging from its slurred, distorted pronunciation of her name, its mouth was severely malformed.
There’s nothing behind me! Nothing.
Nevertheless, she did not turn around.
When the lightning finally stopped and the long-sustained crescendo of thunder subsided, the air seemed thicker than it had been a minute ago. She had difficulty breathing. The room was darker, too.
A confining mantle of claustrophobia settled over her. The dimly visible walls appeared to ripple and move closer, as if the chamber might shrink around her until it was precisely the size and shape of a coffin.
She stumbled to the nearest window, banging her hip against the desk, nearly tripping over a lamp cord. She fumbled with the lever on the shutters, her fingers stiff and unresponsive. At last the slats opened wide; gray but welcome light poured into the study; forcing her to squint but gladdening her as well. She leaned against the shutters and stared out at the cloud-plated sky, resisting the insane urge to look over her shoulder to see if there really was something monstrous lurking there with a hungry grin on its face. She drew deep, gasping breaths, as if the daylight itself—rather than the air—sustained her.
Grace’s house was atop a small knoll, at the end of a quiet street, sheltered by several large pine trees and by one enormous weeping willow; from her study window she could see the rain-swollen Susquehanna a couple of miles away. Harrisburg, the state capital, huddled solemnly, drearily along the river’s banks. The clouds hung low over the city, trailing bedraggled beards of mist that obscured the upper floors of the tallest buildings.
When she’d blinked the last grains of sleep out of her eyes, when her nerves had stopped jangling, she turned around and surveyed the room. A quiver of relief swept through her, unknotting her muscles.
She was alone.
With the storm temporarily quiet, she could hear the mantel clock again. It was the only sound.
Hell, yes, you’re alone, she told herself scornfully. What did you expect? A green goblin with three eyes and a mouthful of sharp teeth? You better watch yourself, Grace Louise Mitowski, or you’ll wind up in a rest home, sitting all day in a rocking chair, happily chatting with ghosts, while smiling nurses wipe drool off your chin.
Having led an active life of the mind for so many years, she worried more about creeping senility than about anything else. She knew she was as sharp and alert as she had ever been. But what about tomorrow and the day after? Because of her medical training, and because she had kept up with her professional reading even after closing down her psychiatric practice, she was up to date on all the latest findings about senility, and she knew that only fifteen percent of all elderly people suffered from it. She also knew that more than half of those cases were treatable with proper nutrition and exercise. She knew her chances of becoming mentally incapacitated were small, only about one in eighteen. Nevertheless, although she was conscious of her excessive sensitivity regarding the subject, she still worried. Consequently, she was understandably disturbed by this uncharacteristic notion that something had been in the study with her a few moments ago, something hostile and. . . supernatural. As a lifelong skeptic with little or no patience for astrologers and psychics and their ilk, she could not justify even a fleeting belief in such superstitious non-sense; to her way of thinking, beliefs of that nature were. . . well. . . feebleminded.
But good, sweet God, what a nightmare that had been!
She had never before experienced a dream even one-tenth as bad as that one. Although the grisly details had completely faded away, she could still clearly remember the mood of it—the terror, the gut-wrenching horror that had permeated every nasty image, every ticking sound.
The sweat that the dream had squeezed out of her was beginning to feel like a thin glaze of ice on her skin.
The only other thing she remembered from the nightmare was Carol. Screaming. Crying for help.
Until now, none of Grace’s infrequent dreams had included Carol, and there was a temptation to view her appearance in this one with alarm, to see it as an omen. But of course it wasn’t surprising that Carol should eventually have a role in one of Grace’s dreams, for the loved-one-in-danger theme was common in nightmares. Any psychologist would attest to that, and Grace was a psychologist, a good one, although she was entering her third year of retirement. She cared deeply about Carol. If she’d had a child of her own, she couldn’t have loved it any more than she loved Carol.
She had first met the girl sixteen years ago, when Carol had been an angry, obstinate, obstreperous fifteen-year-old delinquent who had recently given birth to a baby that had nearly killed her, and who, subsequent to that traumatic episode, had been remanded
to a juvenile detention facility for possession of marijuana and for a host of other offenses. In those days, in addition to a private psychiatric practice, Grace had performed eight hours a week of free service to assist the overworked counseling staff at the reform school in which Carol was held. Carol was incorrigible, determined to kick you in the teeth if you smiled at her, but even then her intelligence and innate goodness were there, to be seen by anyone who looked closely enough, beneath the rough exterior. Grace had taken a very close look indeed, and had been intrigued, impressed. The girl’s obsessively foul language, her vicious temper, and her amoral pose had been nothing more than defense mechanisms, shields with which she protected herself from the physical and psychological abuse dished out by her parents.
As Grace gradually unearthed the horrendous story of Carol’s monstrous home life, she became convinced that reform school was the wrong place for the girl. She used her influence with the court to get Carol permanently removed from the custody of her parents. Later, she arranged to serve as Carol’s foster parent. She had watched the girl respond to love and guidance, had watched her grow from a brooding, self centered, self-destructive teenager into a warm, self-assured, admirable young woman with hopes and dreams, a woman of character, a sensitive woman. Playing a part in that exciting transformation had been perhaps the most satisfying thing that Grace had ever done.
The only regret she had about her relationship with Carol was the role she had played in putting the baby up for adoption. But there had been no reasonable alternative. Carol simply hadn’t been financially or emotionally or mentally capable of providing for the infant. With that responsibility to attend to, she would never have had an opportunity to grow and change. She would have been miserable all her life, and she would have made her child miserable, too. Unfortunately, even now, sixteen years later, Carol felt guilty about giving her baby away. Her guilt became overpowering on each anniversary of the child’s birth. On that black day, Carol sank into a deep depression and became uncharacteristically uncommunicative. The excessive anguish that she suffered on that one day was evidence of the deep-seated, abiding guilt that she carried with her, to a lesser degree, during the rest of the year. Grace wished she had foreseen this reaction, wished she had done more to assuage Carol’s guilt.
I’m a psychologist, after all, she thought. I should have anticipated it.
Perhaps when Carol and Paul adopted someone else’s child, Carol would feel that the scales had at last been balanced. The adoption might relieve some of her guilt, in time.
Grace hoped it would. She loved Carol like a daughter and wanted only the best for her.
And of course she couldn’t bear the thought of losing Carol. Therefore, Carol’s appearance in a nightmare wasn’t the least bit mysterious. It was certainly not an omen.
Clammy with stale sweat, Grace turned to the study window again, seeking warmth and light, but the day was ashen, chilly, forbidding. Wind pressed on the glass, soughed softly under the eaves one floor above.
In the city, near the river, a roiling column of smoke rose into the rain and mist. She had not noticed it a minute ago, but it must have been there; it was too much smoke to have appeared in only a few seconds. Even from this distance, she could see a glint of fire at the base of the dark column.
She wondered if lightning had done the dirty work. She recalled the storm flashing and roaring with extraordinary power in those first seconds after she had awakened. At the time, groggy and bleary-eyed, she had thought her sleep-dulled senses were misleading her and that the extreme violence of the lightning was largely illusory or even imaginary. Could that incredible, destructive barrage have been real after all?
She glanced at her wristwatch.
Her favorite radio station would carry its hourly newscast in less than ten minutes. Maybe there would be a story about the fire and the lightning.
After she’d straightened the throw pillows on the sofa, she stepped out of the study and spotted Aristophanes at the far end of the downstairs hall, near the front door. He was sitting up straight and tall, his tail curled forward and across his front paws, his head held high, as if he were saying, “A Siamese cat is the very best thing on earth, and I am an exceedingly handsome example of the species, and don’t you dare forget it.”
Grace held one hand toward him, rapidly rubbing her thumb against her forefinger. “Kitty-kitty-kitty.”
Aristophanes didn’t move.
“Kitty-kitty-kitty. Come here, Ari. Come on, baby.”
Aristophanes got up and went through the archway on his left, into the dark living room.
“Stubborn damn cat,” she said affectionately.
She went into the downstairs bathroom and washed her face and combed her hair. The mundane task of grooming herself took her mind off the nightmare. Gradually, she began to relax. Her eyes were watery and bloodshot. She rinsed them out with a few drops of Murine.
When she came out of the bathroom, Aristophanes was sitting in the hallway again, watching her.
“Kitty-kitty-kitty,” she coaxed.
He stared unblinkingly.
Aristophanes rose to his feet, cocked his head, and examined her with curious, shining eyes. When she took a step toward him, he turned and quickly slunk away, casting one backward glance, then disappearing into the living room again.
“Okay,” Grace said. “Okay, buster. Have it your way. Snub me if you want. But just see if there’s any Meow Mix in your bowl tonight.”
In the kitchen she snapped on the lights, then the radio. The station came in clearly enough, though there was a continuous crackle of storm-generated static.
While she listened to tales of economic crises and breathless accounts of airplane hijackings and rumors of war, Grace put a clean paper filter in the coffee machine, filled the brewing basket with drip-ground Colombian, and added half a spoonful of chicory. The story of the fire came at the end of the newscast, and it was only a sketchy bulletin. The reporter knew nothing more than that lightning had struck a couple of buildings in the heart of the city and that one of them, a church, was afire. He promised more details on the half hour.
When the coffee was ready, Grace poured some for herself. She took her mug to the small table by the kitchen’s only window, pulled out a chair, and sat down.
In the backyard, the myriad roses—red, pink, orange, white, yellow—looked preternaturally bright, almost phosphorescent, against the cinereous backdrop of the rain.
Two psychology journals had arrived in the morning mail. Grace opened one of them with pleasant anticipation.
Halfway through an article about new findings in criminal psychology, as she finished her first mug of coffee, there was a pause between songs on the radio, a few seconds of dead air, and in that brief quietude, she heard furtive movement behind her. She turned in her chair and saw Aristophanes.
“Come to apologize?” she asked.
Then she realized that he appeared to have been sneaking up on her, and that now, confronted, he was frozen; every lithe muscle in his small body was spring-taut, and the fur bristled along his arched back.
“Ari? What’s wrong, you silly cat?”
He whirled and ran out of the kitchen.
CAROL sat in a chrome chair with shiny black vinyl cushions, and she slowly sipped whiskey from a paper cup.
Paul slumped in the chair next to hers. He didn’t sip his whiskey; he gulped the stuff. It was an excellent bourbon, Jack Daniel’s Black Label, thoughtfully provided by an attorney named Marvin Kwicker, who had offices down the hail from Alfred O’Brian and Who realized that a restorative was urgently needed. Pouring bourbon for Carol, Marvin had said, “Kwicker With liquor,” which he had probably said ten thousand times before, but he still enjoyed his own joke. “Kwicker with liquor,” he repeated when dispensing a double shot to Paul. Although Paul wasn’t much of a drinker, he needed every drop that the attorney gave him. His hands were still shaking.
The reception lounge that served O’Brian’s office was not large, but most of the people who worked on the same floor had congregated here to talk about the lightning that had shaken the building, to marvel that the place hadn’t caught fire, to express surprise that the electric power had been restored so quickly, and to wait their turns for a peek at the nibble and ruin in O’Brian’s inner sanctum. The resultant roar of conversation did nothing to soothe Paul’s nerves.
Every thirty seconds or so, a bleached blonde with a shrill voice repeated the same words of amazement:
“I can’t believe nobody got killed in all that! I can’t believe nobody got killed.” Each time she spoke, regardless of where she was in the room, her voice carried over the din and made Paul wince. “I can’t believe nobody got killed.” She sounded somewhat disappointed.
Alfred O’Brian was sitting at the reception desk. His secretary, a prim-looking woman whose hair was drawn back in a tight bun, was trying to apply Merthiolate to half a dozen scratches on her boss’s face, but O’Brian seemed more concerned about the condition of his suit than he was about himself. He plucked and brushed at the dirt, lint, and small fragments of tree bark that clung to his jacket.
Paul finished his whiskey and looked at Carol. She was still badly shaken. Contrasted with her glossy dark hair, her face was very pale.
Apparently, she saw the concern in his eyes, for she took his hand, squeezed it, and smiled reassuringly. However, the smile didn’t set well on her lips; it was tremulous.
He leaned close to her, so that she could hear him above the excited chatter of the others. “Ready to get out of here?”
Over by the window, a young executive type raised his voice. “Hey! Hey, everybody! Better look sharp. The TV news people just drove up to the front door.”
“If we get trapped by reporters,” Carol said, “we’ll be here an hour or more.”
They left without saying goodbye to O’Brian. In the hall, as they headed toward a side entrance, they slipped into their raincoats. Outside, Paul opened his umbrella and put one arm around Carol’s waist. They hurried across the slippery macadam parking lot, stepping gingerly around huge puddles. The gusting wind was chilly for early September, and it kept changing direction until it finally got under the umbrella and turned it inside out. The cold, wind-driven rain was falling so hard that it stung Paul’s face. By the time they reached the car, their hair was plastered to their heads, and a lot of water had found its way down the backs of their necks, under the collars of their coats.
Paul half expected the Pontiac to be lightning-damaged, but it was just as they had left it. The engine turned over without protest.
Leaving the parking lot, he started to turn left but put his foot on the brake pedal when he saw that the street was sealed off by police cars and fire trucks just half a block away. The church was still ablaze, in spite of the pouring rain and in defiance of the big streams of water that the firemen directed onto it.
Black smoke billowed into the gray day, and behind the blasted windows, flames spurted and churned.
Clearly, the church was going to be a total loss.
He turned right, instead, and drove home through rain-choked streets. where the gutters overflowed and where every depression in the pavement had been transformed into a treacherous lake that had to be negotiated with utmost caution to avoid drowning the engine and stalling out.
Carol slouched in her seat and huddled against the passenger-side door, hugging herself. Although the heater was on, she was obviously cold.
Paul realized his teeth were chattering.
The trip home took ten minutes. and during that time neither of them said a word. The only sounds were the whispery hiss of the tires on the wet pavement and the metronomic thump of the windshield wipers. The silence was not uncomfortable or strained, but there was a peculiar intensity about it, an aura of tremendous, pent-up energy. Paul had the feeling that if he did speak, the surprise would send Carol straight through the roof of the car.
They lived in a Tudor-style house, which they had painstakingly restored, and as always. the sight of it—the stone walk, the big oak doors framed by carriage lamps, the leaded-glass windows, the gabled roofline—pleased Paul and gave him the warm feeling that this was where he belonged. The automatic garage door rolled up, and he pulled the Pontiac inside, next to Carol’s red Volkswagen Rabbit.
In the house, they maintained their silence.
Paul’s hair was wet, and the legs of his trousers clung damply to him, and the back of his shirt was still soaked. He figured he was going to come down with a nasty cold if he didn’t get into some dry clothes right away. Apparently, Carol had the same thought, and they went straight upstairs to the master bedroom.
She opened the closet doors, and he switched on a bedside lamp. Shivering, they stripped out of their wet clothes.
When they were nearly undressed, they glanced at each other. Their eyes locked.
Still, they didn’t speak. They didn’t need to.
He took her in his arms, and they kissed lightly at first, tenderly. Her mouth was warm and soft and vaguely flavored with whiskey.
She clutched him, pulled him closer, her fingertips digging into the muscles of his back. She pushed her mouth hard against his, scraped his lip with her teeth, thrust her tongue deep, and abruptly their kisses grew hot, demanding.
Something seemed to snap in him, and in her, too, for their desire was suddenly marked by animal urgency. They responded to each other in a hungry, almost frenzied fashion, hastily casting off the last of their clothes, pawing at each other, squeezing, stroking. She nipped his shoulder with her teeth. He gripped her buttocks and kneaded them with uncharacteristic crudity, but she didn’t wince or try to pull away; indeed, she pressed even more insistently against him, rubbing her br**sts over his chest and grinding her h*ps against his. The soft whimpers that escaped from her were not sounds of pain; they clearly expressed her eagerness and need. In bed, his energy was manic, and his staying power amazed him. He was insatiable, and so was she. They thrust and thrashed and flexed and tensed in perfect harmony, as if they were not only joined but fused, as if they were a single organism, shaken by only one set of stimuli instead of two. Every vestige of civilization slipped from them, and for a long while the only noises they made were animal sounds: panting; groaning; throaty grunts of pleasure; short, sharp cries of excitement. At last Carol uttered the first word to pass between them since they had left O’Brian’s office:
“Yes.” And again, arching her slender, graceful body, tossing her head from side to side on the pillow: “Yes, yes!” It was not merely an orgasm to which she was saying yes, for she’d already had a couple of those and had announced them with only ragged breathing and soft mewling. She was saying yes to life, yes to the fact that she still existed and was not just a charred and oozing lump of unanimated flesh, yes to the miraculous fact that they had both survived the lightning and the deadly, splintered branches of the toppling maple tree. Their unrestrained, fiercely passionate coupling was a slap in Death’s face, a not wholly rational but nevertheless satisfying denial of the grim specter’s very existence. Paul repeated the word as if chanting an incantation—”Yes, yes, yes!”—as he emptied himself into her a second time, and it seemed as though his fear of death spurted out of him along with his seed.
Spent, they stretched out on their backs, side by side on the disheveled bed. For a long time they listened to the rain on the roof and to the persistent thunder, which was no longer loud enough to rattle the windows.
Carol lay with her eyes closed, her face completely relaxed. Paul studied her, and, as he had done on countless other occasions during the past four years, he wondered why she had ever consented to marry him. She was beautiful. He was not. Anyone putting together a dictionary could do worse than to use a picture of his face as the sole definition of the word plain. He had once jokingly expressed a similar opinion of his physical appearance, and Carol had been angry with him for talking about himself that way.
But it was true, and it didn’t really matter to him that he was not Burt Reynolds, just so long as Carol didn’t notice the difference. It was not only his plainness of which she seemed unaware; she could not comprehend her own beauty, and she insisted she was actually rather plain, or at least no more than “a little bit pretty, no, not even pretty, just sort of cute, but kind of funny-looking cute.” Her dark hair—even now, when it was matted and curled by rain and sweat—was thick, glossy, lovely. Her skin was flawless, and her cheekbones were so well sculpted that it was difficult to believe the clumsy hand of nature could have done the job. Carol was the kind of woman you saw on the arm of a tall, bronzed Adonis, not with the likes of Paul Tracy. Yet here she was, and he was grateful to have her beside him. He never ceased to be surprised that they were compatible in every respect—mentally, emotionally, physically.
Now, as rain began to beat on the roof and windows with renewed force, Carol sensed that he was staring at her, and she opened her eyes. They were so brown that, from a distance of more than a few inches, they looked black. She smiled. “I love you.”
“I love you,” he said.
“I thought you were dead.”
“After the lightning stopped, I called you, but you didn’t answer for the longest time.”
“I was busy with a call to Chicago,” he said, grinning.
“Okay. It was San Francisco.”
“I was scared.”
“I couldn’t answer you right away,” he said soothingly. “In case you’ve forgotten, O’Brian fell on top of me, Knocked the wind right out. He doesn’t look so big, but he’s as solid as a rock. I guess he builds a lot of muscles by picking lint off his suits and shining his shoes nine hours a day.”
“That was a pretty brave thing you did.”
“Making love m you? Think nothing of it.”
Playfully, she slapped his face. “You know what I mean. You save O’Brian’s life.”
“Yes, you did. He thought so, too.”
“For God’s sake, I didn’t step in front of him and shield him from the tree with mine own precious bod! I just pulled him out of the way. Anyone would have done the same.”
She shook her head. “Wrong. Not everyone thinks as fast as you do.”
“A fast thinker, huh? Yeah. That’s something I’ll admit to being. I’m a fast thinker, but I’m sure no hero. I won’t let you pin that label on me because then you’ll expect me to live up to it. Can you just imagine what a hell on earth Superman’s life would be if he ever married Lois Lane? Her expectations would be so high!”
“Anyway,” Carol said, “even if you won’t admit it, O’Brian knows you saved his life, and that’s the important thing.”
“Well, I was pretty sure the adoption agency would approve us. But now there’s not the slightest doubt about it.”
“There’s always a slim chance—”
“No,” she said, interrupting him. “O’Brian’s not going to fail you after you saved his life. Not a chance.
He’s going to wrap the recommendations committee around his finger.”
Paul blinked, then slowly broke into a smile. “I’ll
be damned. I didn’t think of that.”
“So you’re a hero, Papa.”
“Well.. . maybe I am, Mama.”
“I think I prefer ‘Mom.”
“And I prefer ‘Dad.”
“What about ‘Pop’?”
“Pop isn’t a name. It’s a sound a champagne cork makes.”
“Are you suggesting a celebration?” she asked.
“I thought we’d put on our robes, mosey down to the kitchen, and whip up an early dinner. If you’re hungry, that is.”
“You can make a mushroom salad,” he said. “I’ll whip up my famous fettuccine Alfredo. We’ve got a bottle or two of Mumm’s Extra Dry we’ve been saving for a special occasion. We’ll open that, pile our plates high with fettuccine Alfredo and mushrooms, come back up here, and have dinner in bed.”
“And watch the TV news while we eat.”
“Then pass the evening reading thrillers and sipping champagne until we can’t keep our eyes open.”
“Sounds wonderfully, sinfully lazy,” she said.
More evenings than not, he spent two hours proofreading and polishing his novel. And it was an unusual night when Carol didn’t have some paperwork to catch up on.
As they dressed in robes and bedroom slippers,
Paul said, “We’ve got to learn to take most evenings off. We’ll have to spend plenty of time with the kid. We’ll owe it to him.”
“Or them,” he said.
Her eyes shone. “You think they’ll let us adopt more than one?”
“Of course they will—once we’ve proven we can handle the first. After all,” he said self-mockingly, “am I not the hero who saved good old Al O’Brian’s life?”
On their way to the kitchen, halfway down the stairs, she stopped and turned and hugged him. ‘We’re really going to have a family.”
“So it seems.”
“Oh, Paul, I don’t remember when I’ve ever been so happy. Tell me this feeling’s going to last forever.”
He held her, and it was very fine to have her in his arms. When you got right down to it, affection was even better than sex; being needed and loved was better than making love.
“Tell me nothing can go wrong,” she said.
“Nothing can go wrong, and that feeling you have will last forever, and I’m glad you’re so happy. There.
She kissed his chin and the corners of his mouth, and he kissed her nose.
“Now,” he said, “can we please get some fettuccine before I start chewing my tongue?”
“Such a romantic.”
“Even romantics get hungry.”
As they reached the bottom of the steps, they were startled by a sudden, loud hammering sound. It was
steady but arrhythmic: Thwsk, thunk, thunk-thunkthunk, thunk-thunk…
Carol said, “What the devil’s that?”
“It’s coming from outside.. . and above us.”
They stood on the last step, looking up and back toward the second floor.
Thunk, thunk-thunk, thunk, thunk…
“Damn,” Paul said. “I’ll bet one of the shutters came loose in the wind.” They listened for a moment, and then he sighed. “I’ll have to go out and fix it,”
“Now? In the rain?”
“If I don’t do anything, the wind might tear it clean off the house. Worse yet, it might just hang there and clatter all night. We won’t get any sleep, and neither will half the neighborhood.”
She frowned. “But the lightning. . .Paul, after everything that’s happened, I don’t think you should risk climbing around on a ladder in the middle of a storm.”
He didn’t like the idea, either. The thought of being high on a ladder in the middle of a thunderstorm made his scalp prickle.
She said, “I don’t want you to go out there if—”
The hammering stopped.
Wind. The patter of rain. The branches of a tree scraping lightly against an outside wall.
At last, Paul said, “Too late. If it was a shutter, it’s been torn off.”
“I didn’t hear it fall.”
“It wouldn’t make much noise if it dropped in the grass or the shrubbery.”
“So you don’t have to go out in the rain,” she said, crossing the foyer toward the short hall that led to the kitchen.
He followed her. “Yeah, but now it’s a bigger repair job.
As they entered the kitchen, their footsteps echoing hollowly off the quarry-tile floor, she said, “You don’t have to worry about it until tomorrow or the day after. Right now, all you’ve got to worry about is the sauce for the fettuccine. Don’t let it curdle.”
Taking a copper saucepan from a rack of gleaming utensils that hung over the center utility island, he pretended to be insulted by her remark. “Have I ever curdled the sauce for the fettuccine?”
“Seems to me the last time you made it, the stuff
“Yes,” she said teasingly. “Yes, it definitely wasn’t up to par the last time.” She took a plastic bag of mushrooms from the big, stainless-steel refrigerator. “Although it breaks my heart to tell you this, the last time you made fettuccine Alfredo, the sauce was as lumpy as the mattress in a ten-dollar-a-night motel.”
“What a vile accusation! Besides, what makes you such an expert on ten-dollar-a-night motels? Are you leading a secret life I ought to know about?”
Together, they prepared dinner, chatting about this and that, bantering a lot, flying to amuse each other and to elicit a laugh now and then. For Paul, the world dwindled until they were the only two people in it. The universe was no larger than the warm, familiar kitchen.
Then lightning flickered, and the cozy mood was broken. It was soft lightning, nothing as dazzling and destructive as the bolts that had struck outside of
O’Brian’s office a few hours ago. Nevertheless, Paul stopped talking in midsentence, his attention captured by the flash, his eyes drawn to the long, many-paned window behind the sink. On the rear lawn, the trees appeared to writhe and shimmer and ripple in the fluttering storm light, so that it seemed he was looking not at the trees themselves but at their reflections in the surface of a lake.
Suddenly, another movement caught his eye, though he wasn’t sure what he was seeing. The afternoon, which had been gray and dark to begin with, was now gradually giving away to an early night, and thin fog was drifting in. Shadows lay everywhere.
The meager daylight was deceptive, muddy; it distorted rather than illuminated those things it touched. In that penumbral landscape, something abruptly darted out from behind the thick trunk of an oak tree, crossed a stretch of open grass, and quickly disappeared behind a lilac bush.
Carol said, “Paul? What’s wrong?”
“Someone’s out on the lawn.”
“In this rain? Who?”
“I don’t know.”
She joined him by the window. “I don’t see anybody.”
“Someone ran from the oak to the lilac bush. He was hunched over and moving pretty fast.”
“What’s he look like?”
“I can’t say. I’m not even sure it was a man. Might have been a woman.”
“Maybe it was just a dog.”
“Could’ve been Jasper.”
Jasper was the Great Dane that belonged to the
Hanrahan family, three doors down the street. He was a large, piercing-eyed, friendly animal with an amazing tolerance for small children and a liking for Oreo cookies.
“They wouldn’t let Jasper out in weather like this,” Paul said. “They pamper that mutt.”
Lightning pulsed softly again, and a violent gust of wind whipped the trees back and forth, and rain began to fall harder than before—and in the middle of that maelstrom, something rushed out from the lilac bush.
“There!” Paul said.
The intruder crouched low, obscured by the rain and the mist, a shadow among shadows. It was illuminated so briefly and strangely by the lightning that its true appearance remained tantalizingly at the edge of perception. It loped toward the brick wall that marked the perimeter of the property, vanished for a moment in an especially dense patch of fog, reappeared as an amorphous black shape, then changed direction, paralleling the wall now, heading toward the gate at the northwest corner of the rear lawn. As the darkening sky throbbed with lightning once more, the intruder fled through electric-blue flashes, through the open gate, into the street, and away.
“Just the dog,” Carol said.
Paul frowned. “I thought I saw… .
“A face. A woman looking back. . . just for a second, just as she went through the gate.”
“No,” Carol said. “It was Jasper.”
“You saw him?”
“Well, no, not clearly. But I could see enough to tell that it was a dog the size of a small pony, and Jasper’s the only pooch around who fits that description.”
“I guess Jasper’s a lot smarter than he used to be.”
Carol blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Well, he had to unlatch the gate to get into the yard. He never used to be able to do that trick.”
“Oh, of course he didn’t. We must have left the gate open.”
Paul shook his head. “I’m sure it was closed when we drove up a while ago.”
“Closed, maybe—but not latched. The wind pushed it open, and Jasper wandered in.”
Paul stared out at the rain-slashed fog, which glowed dully with the last somber rays of the fading twilight. “I guess you’re right,” he said, though he was not entirely convinced. “I better go latch the gate.”
“No, no,” Carol said quickly. “Not while the storm’s on.”
“Now look here, sugarface, I’m not going to jump into bed and pull the blankets over my head every time there’s a little thunder—just because of what happened this afternoon.”
“I don’t expect you to,” she said. “But before you start dancing in the rain like Gene Kelly, you’ve got to let me get over what happened today. It’s still too fresh in my mind for me to stand here watching you while you cavort across the lawn in the lightning.”
“it’ll only take a moment and—”
“Say, are you trying to get out of making that fettuccine?” she asked, cocking her head and looking at him suspiciously.
“Certainly not. I’ll finish making it as soon as I’ve gone and closed the gate.”
“I know what you’re up to, mister,” she said smugly. “You’re hoping you will be struck by lightning because you know your sauce is going to turn out lumpy, and you simply can’t take the humiliation.”
“That’s a base canard,” he said, falling easily into their game again. “I make the silkiest fettuccine Alfredo this side of Rome. Silkier than Sophia Loren’s thighs.”
“All I know is, the last time you made it, the stuff was as lumpy as a bowl of oatmeal.”
“I thought you said it was as lumpy as a mattress in a ten-dollar-a-night motel.”
She lifted her head proudly. “I’m not just a one-simile woman, you know.”
“How well I know.”
“So are you going to make fettuccine—or will you take the coward’s way out and get killed by lightning?”
“I’ll make you eat your words,” he said.
Grinning, she said, “That’s easier than eating your lumpy fettuccine.”
He laughed. “All right, all right. You win. I can latch the gate in the morning.”
He returned to the stove, and she went back to the cutting board where she was mincing parsley and scallions for the salad dressing.
He knew she was probably right about the intruder. Most likely, it had been Jasper, chasing a cat or looking for an Oreo handout. The thing he’d thought he had seen—the slightly twisted, moon-white face of a woman, lightning reflected in her eyes, her mouth curled into a snarl of hatred or rage—had surely been a trick of light and shadow. Still, the incident left him uneasy. He could not entirely regain the warm, cozy feeling he’d had just before he’d looked out the window.
Grace Mitowski filled the yellow plastic bowl with Meow Mix and put it in the corner by the kitchen door.
Aristophanes didn’t respond.
The kitchen wasn’t Ari’s favorite place in the house, for it was the only room in which he was not permitted to climb wherever he wished. He wasn’t actually much of a climber anyway. He lacked the spirit of adventure that many cats had, and he usually stayed on the floor. However, even though he had no burning desire to scamper up on the kitchen counters, he didn’t want anyone telling him he couldn’t do it.
Like most cats, he resisted discipline and despised all rules. Nevertheless, as little as he liked the kitchen, he never failed to put in an appearance at mealtime. In fact, he was often waiting impatiently by his bowl when Grace came to fill it.
She raised her voice. “Kitty-kitty-kitty.”
There was no answering meow. Aristophanes did not, as expected, come running, his tail curled up slightly, eager for his dinner.
“Ari-Ari-Ari! Soup’s on, you silly cat.”
She put away the box of cat food and washed her hands at the sink.
The hammering sound—one hard blow followed by two equally hard blows struck close together—was
so sudden and loud that Grace jerked in surprise and almost dropped the small towel on which she was drying her hands. The noise had come from the front of the house. She waited a moment, and there was only the sound of the wind and falling rain, and then— Thunk! Thunk!
She hung the towel on the rack and stepped into the downstairs hallway.
She walked hesitantly down the hail to the front door and snapped on the porch light. The door had a peephole, and the fish-eye lens provided a wide view. She couldn’t see anyone; the porch appeared to be deserted.
That blow was delivered with such force that Grace thought the door had been torn from its hinges. There was a splintering sound as she jumped back, and she expected to see chunks of wood exploding into the hall. But the door still hung firmly in place, though it vibrated noisily in its frame; the deadbolt rattled against the lock plate.
THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!
“Stop that!” she shouted. “Who are you? Who’s there?”
The pounding stopped, and she thought she heard
She had been on the verge of either calling the police or going for the pistol she kept in her nightstand, but when she heard the laughter, she changed her mind. She could certainly handle a few kids without help. She wasn’t so old and weak and fragile that she needed to call the cops to deal with a bunch of ornery little pranksters.
Cautiously, she drew aside the curtain on the long, narrow window beside the door. Tense, ready to step away quickly if someone made a threatening move toward the glass, she looked out. There was no one on the porch.
She heard the laughter again. It was high-pitched, musical, girlish.
Letting the curtain fall back into place, she turned to the door, unlocked it, and stepped onto the threshold.
The night wind was raw and wet. Rain drizzled off the scalloped eaves of the porch.
The immediate area in front of the house offered at least a hundred hiding places for the hoaxers. Bristling shrubbery rustled in the wind, just the other side of the railing, and the yellowish glow from the insect-repelling bulb in the porch ceiling illuminated little more than the center of the porch. The walkway that led from the bottom of the porch steps to the street was flanked by hedges that looked blue black in the darkness. Among the many shades of night, none of the pranksters were visible.
Grace waited, listened.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, but there was no laughter, no giggling in the darkness.
—Maybe it wasn’t kids.
—You see them on TV news all the time. The ironeyed ones who shoot and stab and strangle people for the fun of it. They seem to be everywhere these days, the misfits, the psychopaths.
—That was not adult laughter. This is kids’ work.
—Still, maybe! better get inside and lock the door.
—Stop thinking like a frightened old lady, dammit!
It was odd that any of the neighborhood children would harass her, for she was on excellent terms with all of them. Of course, maybe these weren’t kids from the immediate neighborhood. Just a couple of streets away, everyone was a stranger to her.
She turned and examined the outer face of the front door. She could find no indication that it had been struck repeatedly and violently only moments ago. The wood was not chipped or cracked; it wasn’t even slightly marred.
She was amazed because she was certain she had heard the wood splintering. What would kids use that would make a lot of noise while leaving absolutely no marks on the door? Bean bags or something of that nature? No. A bean bag wouldn’t have made such a horrendous racket; the impact of the bag against the door might have been loud, yes, very loud indeed, if it had been swung with sufficient force, but the sound wouldn’t have been so hard, so sharp.
Again, she slowly scanned the yard. Nothing moved out there except the wind-stirred foliage.
For nearly a minute she watched and listened. She would have waited longer, if only to prove to any mischievous young observers that she was not a frightened old lady who could be easily intimidated; but the air was damp and chilly, and she began to worry about catching a cold.
She went inside and closed the door.
She waited with her hand on the knob, expecting the kids to return shortly. The first time they hit the door, she would jerk it open and catch them red-handed, before they could dart off the porch and hide.
Two minutes passed. Three minutes. Five.
No one hammered on the door, which was distinctly strange. To pranksters, the fun wasn’t in the first assault so much as in the second and third and fourth; their intent was not to startle but to torment.
Apparently, the defiant stance she had taken in the doorway had discouraged them. Very likely, they were on their way to another house, seeking a more excitable victim.
She snapped the lock into place.
What kind of parents would allow their children to be out playing in an electrical storm like this?
Shaking her head in dismay at the irresponsibility of some parents, Grace headed back the hail, and with each step she half expected the hammering to start again. But it didn’t.
She had planned to have a light, nutritious dinner of steamed vegetables covered with Cheddar cheese, accompanied by a slice or two of home-baked cornbread, but she wasn’t hungry yet. She decided to watch the ABC evening news before preparing dinner—although she knew that, with the world in the state it was, the news might put her off her dinner altogether.
In the study, before she had a chance to turn on the television set and hear the latest atrocity stories, she found a mess on the seat of her big armchair. For a moment she could do nothing but stare at the ruin in disbelief: hundreds of feathers; shreds of cloth; colorful, unraveled threads that had once constituted a needlework pattern, but which now lay in a bright, meaningless tangle amidst drifts of goosedown. A couple of years ago, Carol Tracy had given her a set of three small, exceedingly lovely, handmade needlework throw pillows. It was one of those gifts that had been clawed to pieces and left on the armchair.
Ari hadn’t ripped up anything important since he was a kitten. An act as destructive as this was quite out of character for him, but he was surely the culprit. There was not really another suspect to be seriously considered.
“Ari! Where are you hiding, you sneaky Siamese?”
She went to the kitchen.
Aristophanes was standing at the yellow bowl, eating his Meow Mix. He glanced up as she entered the room.
“You fur-footed menace,” she said. “What in the world has gotten into you today?”
Aristophanes blinked, sneezed, rubbed his muzzle with one paw, and returned to his dinner with lofty, catlike indifference to her exasperation and puzzlement.
Later that night, in her darkened bedroom, Carol Tracy stared at the adumbral ceiling and listened to her husband’s soft, steady breathing. He had been asleep for only a few minutes.
The night was quiet. The rain had stopped, and the sky was no longer shaken by thunder. Occasionally, wind brushed across the shingled roof and sighed wearily at the windows, but the fury had gone out of it.
Carol teetered pleasantly on the edge of sleep. She was a bit lightheaded from the champagne she had been slowly sipping throughout the evening, and she felt as if she were floating in warm water, with gentle waves lapping at her sides.
She thought dreamily about the child they would adopt, tried to envision its appearance. A gallery of sweet young faces filled her imagination. If it was an infant, rather than a three- or four-year-old, they would name it themselves: Jason, if a boy; Julia, if a girl. Carol rocked herself on the thin line between wakefulness and dreams by rolling those two names back and forth in her mind: Jason, Julia, Jason, Julia, Jason…
Falling off the edge, dropping into a well of sleep, she had the ugly, unwelcome thought she had resisted so strenuously earlier in the day: Something’s trying to stop us from adopting a baby.
Then she was in a strange place where there was not much light, where something hissed and murmured sullenly just out of sight, where the purple-amber shadows had substance and crowded close with menacing intent. In that unknown place, the nightmare unrolled with the frantic, nerve-jarring rhythm of player-piano music.
At first she was running in utter lightlessness, and then she was suddenly running from one room to another in a large house, weaving through a forest of furniture, knocking over a floor lamp, banging one hip against the sharp corner of a credenza, stumbling and nearly falling over the loose edge of an oriental carpet. She plunged through an archway, into a long hall, and turned and looked back into the room from which she had come, but the room wasn’t there any longer. The house existed only in front of her; behind, there was perfect, featureless blackness.
Blackness. . . and then a glimmer of something. A glint. A splinter of light. A silvery, moving object. The thing swung from side to side, vanishing into darkness, reappearing with a gleam a second later, vanishing again, back and forth, back and forth, rather like a pendulum, never visible long enough to be identified. Although she couldn’t quite see what the silvery thing was, she could tell that it was moving toward her, and she knew she must get away from it or die. She ran along the hail to the foot of the stairs, climbed quickly to the second floor. She glanced back and down, but the stairs were not there any more. Just an inky pit. And then the brief flash of something swinging back and forth in that pit. . . again. . . again
like a ticking metronome. She rushed into the bedroom, slammed the door, grabbed a chair with the intention of bracing it under the knob—and discovered that, while her back was turned, the door had disappeared, as had the wail in which it had been set.
Where the wall had been, there was subterranean gloom. And a silvery flicker. Very close now. Closer still. She screamed but made no sound, and the mysteriously gleaming object arced over her head and— (Thunk!)
—This is more than just a dream, she thought desperately. Much more than that. This is a memory, a
prophecy, a warning. This is a— (Thunk!)
—She was running in another house that was altogether different from the first. This place was smaller, the furnishings less grand. She did not know where she was, yet she knew she had been here before. The house was familiar, just as the first place had been. She hurried through a doorway, into a kitchen.
Two bloody, severed heads were on the kitchen table. One of them was a man’s head, and the other was a woman’s. She recognized them, felt that she knew them well, but was unable to think of their names.
The four dead eyes were wide but sightless; the two mouths gaped, the swollen tongues protruding over the purple lips. As Carol stood transfixed by that grisly sight, the dead eyes rolled in their sockets and focused on her. The cold lips twisted into icy smiles. Carol turned, intending to flee, but there was only a void behind her and a glint of light off the hard surface of something silvery and then— (Thunk!)
-She was running through a mountain meadow in reddish, late-afternoon light. The grass was knee-high, and the trees loomed ahead of her. When she looked over her shoulder, the meadow was no longer back there. Only blackness, as before. And the rhythmically swinging, shimmering, steadily approaching thing to which she was unable to fix a name. Gasping, her heart racing, she ran faster, reached the trees, glanced back once more, saw that she had not run nearly fast enough to escape, cried out and— (Thunk!)
For a long time the nightmare shifted from one of
those three dreamscapes to the other—from the first house to the meadow to the second house to the meadow to the first house again—until at last she woke with an unvoiced scream caught in her throat.
She sat straight up, shuddering. She was cold and yet slick with sweat; she slept in just a T-shirt and panties, and both garments clung to her skin, unpleasantly sticky. The frightening sound from the nightmare continued to echo in her mind—thunk, thunk, thunk
thunk, thunk—and she realized that her subconscious had borrowed. that noise from reality, from the wind-loosened shutter that had startled her and Paul earlier.
Gradually, the pounding noise faded and blended with the thumping of her heart.
She drew back the covers and swung her bare legs out of bed. She sat on the edge of the mattress, hugging herself.
Dawn had come. Gray light seeped in around the drapes; it was too dim to reveal the details of the furniture, but it was just bright enough to deepen the shadows and distort the shapes of everything, so that the room seemed like an alien place.
The rain had stopped a couple of hours before she’d gone to bed, but the storm had returned while she’d been sleeping. Rain pattered on the roof and gurgled through the gutters and the downspouts. Low thunder rumbled like a distant cannonade.
Paul was still asleep, snoring softly.
Carol knew she wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. Like it or not, rested or not, she was up for the day.
Without turning on a light, she went into the master bathroom. In the weak glow of dawn, she stripped out of her damp T-shirt and panties. While soaping herself in the shower, she thought about the nightmare, which had been considerably more vivid than any dream she’d ever had before.
That strange, jarring sound—thunk, :hunk—had been the most frightening thing in the dream, and the memory of it still nagged her. It wasn’t just an ordinary hammering noise; there was an odd echo to it, a hardness and sharpness she couldn’t quite define. She decided it was not only a case of her subconscious mind borrowing the noise the shutter had made earlier. The terrifying sound in the dream was caused by something considerably more disturbing than the mere banging of an unmoored shutter. Furthermore, she was sure she had heard precisely that sound on another occasion, too. Not in the nightmare. In real life. In another place. . . a long time ago…
As she let the hot water stream over her, sluicing away the soap, she tried to recall where and when she had heard exactly that same unsettling sound, for it suddenly seemed important for her to identify it. Without understanding why, she felt vaguely threatened as long as she could not recall the source of the sound. But remembrance hung tantalizingly beyond the limits of her reach, like the title of a hauntingly familiar but unnamable piece of music.
AT 8:45, after breakfast, Carol left for work, and Paul went upstairs to the rear bedroom that he had converted into an office. He had created a Spartan atmosphere in which to write without distraction. The off-white walls were bare, unadorned by even a single painting. The room contained only an inexpensive desk, a typist’s chair, an electric typewriter, a jar bristling with pens and pencils, a deep letter tray that now contained nearly two hundred manuscript pages of the novel he had started at the beginning of his sabbatical, a telephone, a three-shelf bookcase filled with reference works, a bottled-water dispenser in one corner, and a small table upon which stood a Mr. Coffee machine.
This morning, as usual, he prepared a pot of coffee first thing. Just as he pressed the switch labeled BREWER and poured water into the top of the Mr.
Coffee, the telephone rang. He sat on the edge of the desk, picked up the receiver. “Hello.”
“Paul? Grace Mitowski.”
“Good morning, love. How are you?”
“Well, these old bones don’t like rainy weather, but otherwise I’m coping.”
Paul smiled. “Listen, I know you can still run circles around me any time.”
“Nonsense. You’re a compulsive worker with a guilt complex about leisure. Not even a nuclear reactor has your energy.”
He laughed. “Don’t psychoanalyze me, Grace. I get enough of that from my wife.”
“Speaking of whom. .
“Sorry, but you just missed her. You ought to be able to catch her at the office in half an hour.”
Hot coffee began to drizzle into the Pyrex pot, and the aroma of it swiftly filled the room.
Sensing tension in Grace’s hesitation, Paul said, “What’s wrong?”
“Well. . .“ She cleared her throat nervously. “Paul, how is she? She’s not ill or anything?”
“Carol? Oh, no. Of course not.”
“You’re sure? I mean, you know that girl’s like a daughter to me. if anything was wrong, I’d want to know.”
“She’s fine. Really. In fact she had a physical exam last week. The adoption agency required it. Both of us passed with flying colors.”
Grace was silent again.
Frowning, Paul said, “Why are you worried all of a sudden?”
“Well. . . you’ll think old Gracie is losing her marbles, but I’ve had two disturbing dreams, one during a nap yesterday, the other last night, and Carol was in both. I seldom dream, so when I have two nightmares and wake up both times feeling I’ve got to warn Carol. .
“Warn her about what?”
“I don’t know. All I remember about the dreams is that Carol was in them. I woke up thinking: it’s coming. I’ve got to warn Carol that it’s coming. I know that sounds silly. And don’t ask me what ‘it’ might be. I can’t remember. But I feel Carol’s in danger. Now Lord knows, I don’t believe in dream prophecies and garbage like that. I think I don’t believe in them—yet here I am calling you about this.”
The coffee was ready. Paul leaned over, turned off the brewer. “The strange thing is—Carol and I were nearly hurt in a freak accident yesterday.” He told her about the damage at O’Brian’s office.
“Good God,” she said, “I saw that lightning when I woke up from my nap, but it never occurred to me that you and Carol.. . that the lightning might be the very thing I was. . . the very thing my dream oh, hell! I’m afraid to say it because I might sound like a superstitious old fool, but here goes anyway:
Was there actually something prophetic about that dream? Did I foresee the lightning strike a few minutes before it happened?”
“If nothing else,” Paul said uneasily, “it’s at least a remarkable coincidence.”
They were silent for a moment, wondering, and then she said, “Listen, Paul, I don’t recall that we’ve ever discussed this subject much before, but tell me— do you believe in dream prophecies, clairvoyance, things of that nature?”
“I don’t believe, and I don’t disbelieve. I’ve never really made up my mind.”
“I’ve always been so smug about it. Always considered it a pack of lies, delusions, or just plain nonsense. But after this—”
“Let’s just say a tiny doubt has cropped up. And now I’m more worried about Carol than I was when I called you.”
“Why? I told you she wasn’t even scratched.”
“She escaped once,” Grace said, “but I had two dreams, and one of them came to me hours after the lightning. So maybe the ‘it’ is something else. I mean, if the first dream had some truth in it, then maybe the second does, too. God, isn’t this crazy? If you start believing in just a little bit of this nonsense, you get carried away with it real fast. But I can’t help it. I’m still concerned about her.”
“Even if your first dream was prophetic,” Paul said, “the second one was probably just a repeat of it, an echo, not a whole new dream.”
“You think so?”
“Sure. This never happened to you before, so why should it happen again? Most likely, it was just a freak thing.. . like the lightning yesterday.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re probably right,” she said, sounding somewhat relieved. “Maybe it could happen once. Maybe I can accept that. But I’m not Edgar Cayce or Nostradamus. And I can guarantee you I’m never going to be writing a weekly column of predictions for the National Enquirer.”
“Still,” she said, “I wish I could remember exactly what happened in both those nightmares.”
They talked a while longer, and when Paul finally hung up, he stared at the receiver for a moment, frowning. Although he was pretty much convinced that the timing of Grace’s dream had been merely a strange coincidence, he was nonetheless affected by it, more profoundly affected than seemed reasonable.
The moment Grace had voiced those two words, Paul had felt a gut-deep, bone-deep chill.
Coincidence, he told himself. Sheer coincidence and nonsense. Forget about it.
Gradually he became aware, once again, of the rich aroma of hot coffee. He rose from the edge of the desk and filled a mug with the steaming brew.
For a minute or two he stood at the window behind the desk, sipping coffee, staring out at the dirty, scudding clouds and at the incessant rain. Eventually he lowered his gaze and looked down into the rear yard, instantly recalling the intruder he had seen last evening while he and Carol had been making dinner:
that briefly glimpsed, pale, distorted, lightning-illuminated face; a woman’s face; shining eyes; mouth twisted into a snarl of rage or hatred. Or perhaps it had just been Jasper, the Great Dane, and a trick of light.
The sound was so loud and unexpected that Paul jumped in surprise. If his mug hadn’t been half empty, he would have spilled coffee all over the carpet.
It couldn’t be the same shutter they’d heard last
evening, for it would have continued banging all night. Which meant there were now two of them to repair.
Jeez, he thought, the old homestead is falling down around my ears.
The source of the sound was nearby; in fact it was so close that it seemed to originate within the room. Paul pressed his forehead against the cool window glass, peered out to the left, then to the right, trying to see if that pair of shutters was in place. As far as he could see, they were both properly anchored. Thwzk, thunk-thunk, thunk, thunk…
The noise grew softer but settled into a steady, arhythmical beat that was more irritating than the louder blows had been. And now it seemed to be coming from another part of the house.
Although he didn’t want to get up on a ladder and fix a shutter in the rain, that was exactly what had to be done, for he couldn’t get any writing accomplished with that constant clattering to distract him. At least there hadn’t been any lightning this morning.
He put his mug on the desk and started out of the room. Before he reached the door, the telephone rang.
So it’s going to be one of those days, he thought wearily.
Then he realized that the shutter had stopped banging the moment the phone had rung. Maybe the wind had wrenched it loose of the house, in which case repairs could wait until the weather improved.
He returned to his desk and answered the telephone. It was Alfred O’Brian, from the adoption agency. Initially, the conversation was awkward, and Paul was embarrassed by it. O’Brian insisted on ex
pressing his gratitude: “You saved my life; you really did!” He was equally insistent about repeatedly and quite unnecessarily apologizing for his failure to express that gratitude yesterday, immediately following the incident in his office: “But I was so shaken, stunned, I just wasn’t thinking clearly enough to thank you, which was unforgivable of me.” Each time Paul protested at the mention of words like “heroic,” and “brave,” O’Brian became even more vociferous than before. At last, Paul stifled his objections and allowed the man to get it out of his system; O’Brian was determined to cleanse his conscience in much the same way that he fussed with the minute specks of lint on his suit jacket. Finally, however, he seemed to feel he had atoned for his (largely imaginary) thoughtlessness, and Paul was relieved when the conversation changed directions.
O’Brian had a second reason for calling, and he got straight to it now, as if he, too, was suddenly embarrassed. He could not (he explained with more apologies) locate the application form that the Tracys had brought to his office the previous day. “Of course, when that tree crashed through the window, it scattered a lot of papers all over the floor. A terrible mess. Some of them were rumpled and dirty when we gathered them up, and a great many of them were damp from the rain. In spite of that, Margie. my secretary, was able to put them in order—except, of course, for your application. We can’t find it anywhere. I suppose it might have blown out through one of the broken windows. I don’t know why your papers should be the only ones we’ve lost, and of course we must have a completed, signed application before we can present your names to the recommendations committee. I’m extremely sorry about this inconvenience, Mr. Tracy, I truly am.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Paul said. “I’ll just stop in
later today and pick up another form. Carol and I can fill it out and sign it tonight.”
“Good,” O’Brian said. “I’m glad to hear that. It has to be back in my hands early tomorrow morning if we’re going to make the next meeting of the committee. Margie needs three full business days to run the required verifications on the information in your application, and that’s just about how much time we have before next Wednesday’s committee meeting.
If we miss that session, there’s not another one for two weeks.”
“I’ll be in to pick up the form before noon,” Paul assured him. “And I’ll have it back to you first thing Friday morning.”
They exchanged goodbyes, and Paul put down the phone.
When he heard that sound, he sagged, dispirited.
He was going to have to fix a shutter after all. And then drive into the city to pick up the new application. And then drive home. And by the time he did all of that, half the day would be shot, and he wouldn’t have written a single word.
“Dammit,” he said.
Thunk, thunk-thunk, thunk-thunk…
It definitely was going to be one of those days.
He went downstairs to the hail closet where he kept his raincoat and galoshes.
The windshield wipers flogged back and forth, back and forth, with a short, shrill squeak that made Carol grit her teeth. She hunched forward a bit, over the steering wheel, squinting through the streaming rain.
The streets glistened; the macadam was slick, greasy looking. Dirty water raced along the gutters and formed filthy pools around clogged drainage grids.
At ten minutes past nine, the morning rush hour was just over. Although the streets were still moderately busy, traffic was moving smoothly and swiftly. In fact everyone was driving too fast to suit Carol, and she hung back a little, watchful and cautious.
Two blocks from her office, her caution proved justified, but it still wasn’t enough to avert disaster altogether. Without bothering to look for oncoming traffic, a young blond woman stepped out from between two vans, directly into the path of the VW Rabbit.
“Christ!” Carol said, ramming her foot down on the brake pedal so hard that she lifted herself up off the seat.
The blonde glanced up and froze, wide-eyed.
Although the VW was moving at only twenty miles an hour, there was no hope of stopping it in time. The brakes shrieked. The tires bit—but also skidded—on the wet pavement.
God, no! Carol thought with a sick, sinking feeling.
The car hit the blonde and lifted her off the ground, tossed her backwards onto the hood, and then the rear end of the VW began to slide around to the left, into the path of an oncoming Cadillac, and the Caddy swerved, brakes squealing, and the other driver hit his horn as if he thought a sufficient volume of sound
might magically push Carol safely out of his way, and for an instant she was certain they would collide, but the Caddy slid past without scraping, missing her by only an inch or two—all of this in two or three or four seconds—and at the same time the blonde rolled off the hood, toward the right side, the curb side, and the VW came to a full stop, sitting aslant the street, rocking on its springs as if it were a child’s hobby horse.
None of the shutters was missing. Not one. None of them was loose and flapping in the wind, as Paul had thought.
Wearing galoshes and a raincoat with a hood, he walked all the way around the house, studying each set of shutters on the first and second floors, but he couldn’t see anything amiss. The place showed no sign of storm damage.
Perplexed, he circled the house again, each step resulting in a squishing noise as the rain-saturated lawn gave like a sodden sponge beneath him. This time around, he looked for broken tree limbs that might be swinging against the walls when the wind gusted. The trees were all intact.
Shivering in the unseasonably chilly autumn air, he just stood on the lawn for a minute or two, cocking his head to the right and then to the left, listening for the pounding that had filled the house moments ago. He couldn’t hear it now. The only sounds were the soughing wind, the rustling trees, and the rain driving into the grass with a soft, steady hiss.
At last, his face numbed by the cold wind and by
the heat-leaching rain, he decided to halt his search until the pounding started again and gave him something to get a fix on. Meanwhile, he could drive downtown and pick up the application form at the adoption agency. He put one hand to his face, felt his beard stubble, remembered Alfred O’Brian’s compulsive neatness, and figured he ought to shave before he went.
He reentered the house by way of the screened-in rear porch, leaving his dripping coat on a vinyl-upholstered glider and shedding his galoshes before going into the kitchen. Inside, he closed the door behind him and basked for a moment in the warm air.
THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!
The house shuddered as if it had received three extremely hard, rapid blows from the enormous fist of a giant. Above the kitchen’s central utility island, where a utensil rack was suspended from the ceiling, copper pots and pans swung on their hooks and clattered against one another.
The wall clock rattled on its hook; if it had been any less firmly attached than it was, it would have flung itself off the wall, onto the floor.
Paul moved toward the middle of the room, trying to ascertain the direction from which the pounding was coming.
The oven door fell open.
The two dozen small jars nestled in the spice rack began to clink against one another.
What the hell is happening here? he wondered uneasily.
He turned slowly, listening, seeking.
The pots and pans clattered again, and a large ladle slipped from its hook and fell with a clang to the butcher-block work surface that lay under it.
Paul looked up at the ceiling, tracking the sound.
He expected to see the plaster crack, but it didn’t.
Nevertheless, the source of the sound was definitely overhead.
Thwzk, thunk-thunk, thunk…
The pounding suddenly grew quieter than it had been, but it didn’t fade away altogether. At least the house stopped quivering, and the cooking utensils stopped banging together.
Paul headed for the stairs, determined to track down the cause of the disturbance.
The blonde was in the gutter, flat on her back, one arm out at her side with the palm up and the hand slack, the other arm draped across her belly. Her golden hair was muddy. A three-inch-deep stream of water surged
around her, carrying leaves and grit and scraps of paper litter toward the nearest storm drain, and her long hair fanned out around her head and rippled silkily in those filthy currents.
Carol knelt beside the woman and was shocked to
see that the victim wasn’t actually a woman at all. She was a girl, no older than fourteen or fifteen. She was exceptionally pretty, with delicate features, and at the moment she was frighteningly pale.
She was also inadequately dressed for inclement weather. She wore white tennis shoes, jeans, and a blue and white checkered blouse. She had neither a raincoat nor an umbrella.
With trembling hands, Carol lifted the girl’s right arm and felt the wrist for a pulse. She found the beat at once; it was strong and steady.
“Thank God,” Carol said shakily. “Thank God, thank God.”
She began to examine the girl for bleeding. There did not seem to be any serious injuries, no major blood loss, just a few shallow cuts and abrasions. Unless, of course, the bleeding was internal.
The driver of the Cadillac, a tall man with a goatee, stepped around the end of the VW Rabbit and looked down at the injured girl. “Is she dead?”
“No,” Carol said. She gently thumbed back one of the girl’s eyelids, then the other. “Just unconscious.
Probably a mild concussion. Is anyone calling an ambulance?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Then you call one. Quickly.”
He hurried away, splashing through a puddle that was deeper than the tops of his shoes.
Carol pressed down on the girl’s chin; the jaw was slack, and the mouth fell open easily. There was no visible obstruction, no blood, nothing that might choke her, and her tongue was in a safe position.
A gray-haired woman in a transparent plastic raincoat, carrying a red and orange umbrella, ‘appeared out of the rain. “It wasn’t your fault,” she told Carol.
“I saw it happen. I saw it all. The child darted out in front of you without looking. There wasn’t a thing you could have done to prevent it.”
“I saw it, too,” said a portly man who didn’t quite fit under his black umbrella. “I saw the kid walking
down the street like she was in a trance or something.
No coat, no umbrella. Eyes kind of blank. She stepped off the curb, between those two vans, and just stood there for a few seconds, like she was just waiting for someone to come along so she could step out and get herself killed. And by God, that’s what happened.”
“She’s not dead,” Carol said, unable to keep a tremor out of her voice. “There’s a first-aid kit on the back seat of my car. Will one of you get it for me?”
“Sure,” the portly man said, turning toward the vw.
The first-aid kit contained, among other things, a packet of tongue depressors, and Carol wanted to have those handy. Although the unconscious girl didn’t appear to be headed for imminent convulsions, Carol intended to be prepared for the worst.
A crowd had begun to gather.
A siren sounded a couple of blocks away, approaching fast. It was probably the police; the ambulance couldn’t have made it so fast.
“Such a pretty child,” the gray-haired woman said, staring down at the stricken girl.
Other onlookers murmured in agreement.
Carol stood up and stripped out of her raincoat.
There was no point in covering the girl, for she was already as wet as she could get. Instead, Carol folded the coat, knelt down again, and carefully slipped the makeshift pillow under the victim, elevating her head just a bit above the gushing water.
The girl didn’t open her eyes or stir in any way whatsoever. A tangled strand of golden hair had fallen across her face, and Carol carefully pushed it aside for her. The girl’s skin was hot to the touch, fevered, in spite of the cold rain that bathed it.
Suddenly, while her fingers were still touching the
girl’s cheek, Carol felt dizzy and was unable to get her breath. For a moment she thought she was going to pass out and collapse on top of the unconscious teenager. A black wave rose behind her eyes, and then in that darkness there was a brief flash of silver, a glint of light off a moving object, the mysterious thing from her nightmare.
She gritted her teeth, shook her head, and refused to be swept away in that dark wave. She pulled her hand away from the girl’s cheek, put it to her own face; the dizzy spell passed as abruptly as it had come. Until the ambulance arrived, she was responsible for the injured girl, and she was determined not to fail in that responsibility.
Huffing slightly, the portly man hurried back with the first-aid kit. Carol took one of the tongue depressors out of its crisp cellophane wrapper—just in case.
A police car rounded the corner and stopped behind the Volkswagen. Its revolving emergency beacons splashed red light across the wet pavement and appeared to transform the puddles of rainwater into pools of blood.
As the squad car’s siren died with a growl, another, more distant siren became audible. To Carol, that warbling, high-pitched wail was the sweetest sound in the world.
The horror is almost over, she thought.
But then she looked at the girl’s chalk-white face, and her relief was clouded with doubt. Perhaps the horror wasn’t over after all; perhaps it had only just begun.
Upstairs, Paul walked slowly from room to room, listening to the hammering sound.
Thunk. . . thunk…
The source was still overhead. In the attic. Or on the roof.
The attic stairs were behind a paneled door at the end of the second-floor hallway. They were narrow, unpainted, and they creaked as Paul climbed them.
Although the attic had full flooring, it was not otherwise a finished room. The construction of the walls was open for inspection; the pink fiber glass insulation, which somewhat resembled raw meat, and the regularly spaced supporting studs, like ribs of bone, were visible. Two naked, hundred-watt bulbs furnished light, and shadows coiled everywhere, especially toward the eaves. For all of its length and for half of its width, the attic was high enough to allow Paul to walk through it without stooping.
The patter of rain on the roof was more than just a patter up here. It was a steady hissing, a soft, all-encompassing roar.
Nevertheless, the other sound was audible above the drumming of the rain: Thunk.. . thunk-thunk…
Paul moved slowly past stacks of cardboard cartons and other items that had been consigned to storage: a pair of large touring trunks; an old six-pronged coat rack; a tarnished brass floor lamp; two busted-out, cane-bottomed chairs that he intended to restore some day. A thin film of whitish dust draped shroudlike over all the contents of the room.
Thunk. . . thunk…
He walked the length of the attic, then slowly returned to the center of it and stopped. The source of the sound seemed to be directly in front of his face, only inches away. But there was nothing here that could possibly be the cause of the disturbance; nothing moved.
Thunk.. . thunk. . thunk. . . thunk…
Although the hammering was softer now than it had been a few minutes ago, it was still solid and forceful; it reverberated through the frame of the house. The pounding had acquired a monotonously simple rhythm, too; each blow was separated from the ones before and after it by equal measures of time, resulting in a pattern not unlike the beating of a heart.
Paul stood in the attic, in the dust, smelling the musty odor common to all unused places, trying to get a fix on the sound, trying to understand how it could be coming out of thin air, and gradually his attitude toward the disturbance changed. He had been thinking of it as nothing more than the audible evidence of storm damage to the house, as nothing more than tedious and perhaps expensive repairs that might have to be made, an interruption in his writing schedule, an inconvenience, nothing more. But as he turned his head from side to side and squinted into every shadow, as he listened to the relentless thudding, he suddenly perceived that there was something ominous about the sound.
Thunk. . . thunk.. . thunk…
For reasons he could not define, the noise now seemed threatening, malevolent.
He felt colder in this sheltered place than he had felt outside in the wind and rain.
Carol wanted to ride to the hospital in the ambulance with the injured girl, but she knew she would only be in the way. Besides, the first police officer on the scene, a curly-headed young man named Tom Weatherby, needed to get a statement from her.
They sat in the front seat of the patrol car, which smelled like the peppermint lozenges on which Weatherby was sucking. The windows were made opaque by shimmering streams of rain. The police radio sputtered and crackled.
Weatherby frowned. “You’re soaked to the skin. I’ve got a blanket in the trunk. I’ll get it for you.”
“No, no,” she said. “I’ll be fine.” Her green knit suit had become saturated. Her rain-drenched hair was pasted to her head and hung slackly to her shoulders.
At the moment, however, she didn’t care about her appearance or about the goosebumps that prickled her skin. “Let’s just get this over with.”
“Well. . . if you’re sure you’re okay.”
As he turned up the thermostat on the car heater, Weatherby said, “By any chance, do you know the kid who stepped in front of your car?”
“Know her? No. Of course not.”
“She didn’t have any ID on her. Did you notice if she was carrying a purse when she walked into the street?”
“I can’t say for sure.”
“Try to remember.”
“I don’t think she was.”
“Probably not,” he said. “After all, if she goes walking in a storm like this without a raincoat or an umbrella, why would she bother to take a purse? We’ll search the street anyway. Maybe she dropped it somewhere.”
“What happens if you can’t find out who she is?
How will you get in touch with her parents? I mean, she shouldn’t be alone at a time like this.”
“No problem,” Weatherby said. “She’ll tell us her name when she regains consciousness.’
“If she does.”
“Hey, she will. There’s no need to be concerned about that. She didn’t seem seriously injured.”
Carol worried about it nonetheless.
For the next ten minutes, Weatherby asked questions, and she answered them. When he finished filling out the accident report, she quickly read over it, then signed at the bottom.
“You’re in the clear,” Weatherby said. “You were driving under the speed limit, and three witnesses say the girl stepped out of a blind spot right in front of you, without bothering to look for traffic. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I should have been more careful.”
“I don’t see what else you could have done.”
“Something. Surely I could have done something,”
she said miserably.
He shook his head. “No. Listen, Dr. Tracy, I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before. There’s an accident, and somebody’s hurt, and nobody’s really to blame—yet one of the people involved has a misplaced sense of responsibility and insists on feeling guilty. And in this case, if there is anybody to blame, it’s the kid herself, not you. According to the witnesses, she was behaving strangely just before you turned the corner, almost as if she intended to get herself run down.”
“But why would such a pretty girl want to throw herself in front of a car?”
Weatherby shrugged. “You told me you were a psychiatrist. You specialize in children and teenagers, right?”
“So you must know all the answers better than I do. Why would she want to kill herself? Could be trouble at home—a father who drinks too much and makes heavy passes at his own little girl, a mother who doesn’t want to hear about it. Or maybe the kid was just jilted by her boyfriend and thinks the world is coming to an end. Or just discovered she was pregnant and decided she couldn’t face her folks with the news. There must be hundreds of reasons, and I’m sure you’ve heard most of them in your line of work.”
What he said was true, but it didn’t make Carol feel better.
If only I’d been driving slower, she thought. If only I’d been quicker to react, maybe that poor girl wouldn’t be in the hospital now.
“She might have been on drugs, too,” Weatherby said. “Too damned many kids fool around with dope these days. I swear, some of they’ll swallow any pill they’re given. If it isn’t something that can be swallowed, they’ll sniff it or stick it in a vein. This kid you hit might have been so high she didn’t even know where she was when she stepped in front of your car.
Now, if that’s the case, are you going to tell me it’s still somehow your fault?”
Carol leaned back in the seat, closed her eyes, and let her breath out with a shudder. “God, I don’t know what to tell you. All I know is. . .I feel wrung out.”
“That’s perfectly natural, after what you’ve just been through. But it isn’t natural to feel guilty about this. It wasn’t your fault, so don’t dwell on it. Put it behind you and get on with your life.”
She opened her eyes, looked at him, and smiled. “You know, Officer Weatherby, I have a hunch you’d make a pretty good psychotherapist.”
He grinned. “Or a terrific bartender.”
“Feeling better?” he asked.
“A little bit.”
“Promise me you won’t lose any sleep over this.”
“I’ll try not to,” she said. “But I’m still concerned about the girl. Do you know which hospital they’ve taken her to?”
“I can find out,” he said.
“Would you do that for me? I’d like to go talk to the doctor who’s handling her case. If he tells me she’s going to be all right, I’ll find it a whole lot easier to take your advice about getting on with my life.”
Weatherby picked up the microphone and asked the police dispatcher to find out where the injured girl had been taken.
The television antenna!
Standing in the attic, staring up at the roof above his head, Paul laughed out loud when he realized what was causing the pounding noise. The sound wasn’t coming out of the empty air in front of his face, which was what he had thought for one unsettling moment. It was coming from the roof, where the television antenna was anchored. They had subscribed to cable TV a year ago, but they hadn’t removed the old antenna. It was a large, directional, remote-control model affixed to a heavy brace-plate; the plate was bolted through the shingles and attached directly to a roof beam. Apparently, a nut or some other fastener
had loosened slightly, and the wind was tugging at the antenna, rocking the brace-plate up and down on one of its bolts, slamming it repeatedly against the roof. The solution to the big mystery was amusingly mundane.
Or was it?
Thunk. . . thunk. . . thunk…
The sound was softer now than ever before, barely
audible above the roar of the rain on the roof, and it was easy to believe that the antenna could be the cause of it. Gradually, however, as Paul considered this answer to the puzzle, he began to doubt if it was the correct answer. He thought about how loud and violent the pounding had been a few minutes ago when he had been in the kitchen: the entire house quivering, the oven door falling open, bottles rattling in the spice rack. Could a loose antenna really generate so much noise and vibration?
Thunk. . . thunk…
As he stared up at the ceiling, he tried to make himself believe unequivocally in the antenna theory. If it was striking a roof beam in precisely the right way, at a very special angle, so that the impact was transmitted through the entire frame of the house, perhaps a loose antenna could cause the pots and pans to clatter against one another in the kitchen and could make it seem as if the ceilings were about to crack. After all, if you set up exactly the right vibrations in a steel suspension bridge, you could bring it to ruin in less than a minute, regardless of the number of bolts and welds and cables holding it together. And although Paul didn’t believe there was even a remote danger of a loose antenna causing that kind of apocalyptic destruction to a wood-frame house, he knew
that moderate force, applied with calculation and pinpoint accuracy, could have an effect quite out of proportion to the amount of energy expended. Besides, the TV antenna had to be the root of the disturbance, for it was the only explanation he had left.
The hammering noise became even softer and then faded altogether. He waited for a minute or two, but the only sound was the rain on the shingles overhead.
The wind must have changed direction. In time it would change back again, and the antenna would begin to rock on its brace-plate, and the pounding would start once more.
As soon as the storm was over, he would have to get the extension ladder out of the garage, go up onto the roof, and dismantle the antenna. He should have taken care of that chore shortly after they had subscribed to the cable television service. Now, because he had delayed, he was going to lose precious writing time—and at one of the most difficult and crucial points in his manuscript. That prospect frustrated him and made him nervous.
He decided to shave, drive downtown, and pick up the new set of application papers at the adoption agency. The storm might pass by the time he got home again. If it did, if he could be on the roof by eleven-thirty, he ought to be able to tear down the antenna, then have a bite of lunch, and work on his book all afternoon, barring further interruptions. But he suspected there would be further interruptions. He had already resigned himself to the fact that it was one of those days.
As he left the attic and turned out the lights, the house quivered under another blow.
Just one this time.
Then all was quiet again.
The visitors’ lounge at the hospital looked like an explosion in a clown’s wardrobe. The walls were canary yellow; the chairs were bright red; the carpet was orange; the magazine racks and end tables were made of heavy purple plastic; and the two large abstract paintings were done primarily in shades of blue and green.
The lounge—obviously the work of a designer who had read too much about the various psychological mood theories of color—was supposed to be positive, life-affirming. It was supposed to lift the spirits of visitors and take their minds off sick friends and dying relatives. In Carol, however, the determinedly cheery decor elicited the opposite reaction from that which the designer had intended, It was a frenetic room; it abraded the nerves as effectively as coarse sandpaper would abrade a stick of butter.
She sat on one of the red chairs, waiting for the doctor who had treated the injured girl. When he came, his stark white lab coat contrasted so boldly with the flashy decor that he appeared to radiate a saintlike aura.
Carol rose to meet him, and he asked if she was Mrs. Tracy, and he said his name was Sam Hannaport. He was tall, very husky, square-faced, florid, in his early fifties. He looked as if he would be loud and gruff, perhaps even obnoxious, but in fact he was soft-spoken and seemed genuinely concerned about how the accident had affected Carol both physically and emotionally. It took her a couple of minutes to assure him that she was all right on both counts, and then they sat down on facing red chairs.
Hannaport raised his bushy eyebrows and said,
“You look as if you could use a hot bath and a big glassful of warm brandy.”
“I was soaked to the skin,” she said, “but I’m pretty well dried out now. What about the girl?”
“Cuts, contusions, abrasions,” he said.
“Nothing showed up on the tests.”
“Not a broken bone in her body. She came through it amazingly well. You couldn’t have been driving very fast when you hit her.”
“I wasn’t. But considering the way she slipped up onto the hood and then rolled off into the gutter, I thought maybe. . .“ Carol shuddered, unwilling to put words to what she had thought.
“Well, the kid’s in good condition now. She regained consciousness in the ambulance, and she was alert by the time I saw her.”
“There’s no indication that she’s even mildly con-cussed. I don’t foresee any lasting effects.”
Relieved, Carol sagged back in the red chair. “I’d like to see her, talk to her.”
“She’s resting now,” Dr. Hannaport said. “I don’t want her disturbed at the moment. But if you’d like to come back this evening, during visiting hours, she’ll be able to see you then.”
“I’ll do that. I’ll definitely do that.” She blinked.
“Good heavens, I haven’t even asked you what her name is.”
His bushy eyebrows rose again. “Well, we’ve got a small problem about that.”
“Problem?” Carol tensed up again. “What do you mean? Can’t she remember her name?”
“She hasn’t remembered it yet, but—”
“You said no concussion—”
“I swear to you, it isn’t serious,” Hannaport said. He took her left hand in his big hard hands and held it as if it might crack and crumble at any moment.
“Please don’t excite yourself about this. The girl is going to be fine. Her inability to remember her name isn’t a symptom of severe concussion or any serious brain injury; not in her case, anyway. She isn’t confused or disoriented. Her field of vision is normal, and she has excellent depth perception. We tested her thought processes with some math problems—addition, subtraction, multiplication—and she got them all correct. She can spell any word you throw at her; she’s a damn good speller, that one. So she’s not severely concussed. She’s simply suffering from mild amnesia. It’s selective amnesia, you understand, just a loss of personal memories, not a loss of skills and education and whole blocks of social concepts. She hasn’t forgotten how to read and write, thank God; she’s only forgotten who she is, where she came from, and how she got to this place. Which sounds more serious than it really is. Of course, she’s disconcerted and apprehensive. But selective amnesia is the easiest kind to recover from.”
“I know,” Carol said. “But somehow that doesn’t make me feel a whole hell of a lot better.”
Hannaport squeezed her hand firmly and gently.
“This kind of amnesia is only very, very rarely permanent or even long-lasting. She’ll most likely remember who she is before dinnertime.”
“If she doesn’t?”
“Then the police will find out who she is, and the minute she hears her name, the mists will clear.”
“She wasn’t carrying any ID.”
“I know,” he said. “I’ve talked to the police.”
“So what happens if they can’t find out who she is?”
“They will.” He patted her hand one last time, then let go.
“I don’t see how you can be so sure.”
“Her parents will file a missing-persons report. They’ll have a photograph of her. When the police see the photograph, they’ll make a connection. It’ll be as simple as that.”
She frowned. “What if her parents don’t report her missing?”
“Why wouldn’t they?”
“Well, what if she’s a runaway from out of state? Even if her folks did file a missing-persons report back in her hometown, the police here wouldn’t necessarily be aware of it.”
“The last time I looked, runaway kids favored New York City, California, Florida—just about any place besides Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.”
“There’s always an exception to any rule.”
Hannaport laughed softly and shook his head. “If pessimism were a competitive sport, you’d win the world series.”
She blinked in surprise, then smiled. “I’m sorry. I guess I am being excessively gloomy.”
Glancing at his watch, getting up from his chair, he said, “Yes, I think you are. Especially considering how well the girl came through it all. It could have been a lot worse.”
Carol got to her feet, too. In a rush, the words falling over one another, she said, “I guess maybe the reason it bothers me so much is because I deal with disturbed children every day, and it’s my job to help them get well again, and that’s all I ever wanted to do since I was in high school—work with sick kids, be a healer—but now I’m responsible for all the pain this poor girl is going through.”
“You mustn’t feel that way. You didn’t intend to harm her.”
Carol nodded. “I know I’m not being entirely rational about the situation, but I can’t help feeling the way I feel.”
“I have some patients to see,” Hannaport said, glancing at his watch again. “But let me leave you with one thought that might help you handle this.”
“I’d like to hear it.”
“The girl suffered only minor physical injuries. I won’t say they were negligible injuries, but they were damned close to it. So you’ve got nothing to feel guilty about on that score. As for her amnesia.. . well, maybe the accident had nothing to do with it.”
“Nothing to do with it? But I assumed that when she hit her head on the car or on the pavement—”
“I’m sure you know a blow on the head isn’t the only cause of amnesia,” Dr. Hannaport said. “It’s not even the most common factor in such cases. Stress, emotional shock—they can result in loss of memory. In fact we don’t yet understand the human mind well enough to say for sure exactly what causes most cases of amnesia. As far as this girl is concerned, everything points to the conclusion that she was in her current state even before she stepped in front of your car.”
He emphasized each argument in favor of his theory by raising fingers on his right hand. “One: She wasn’t carrying any ID, Two: She was wandering around in the pouring rain without a coat or an umbrella, as if she was in a daze. Three: From what I understand, the witnesses say she was acting very strange before you ever came on the scene.” He waggled his three raised fingers. “Three very good reasons why you shouldn’t be so eager to blame yourself for the kid’s condition.”
“Maybe you’re right, but I still—”
“I am right,” he said. “There’s no maybe about it. Give yourself a break, Dr. Tracy.”
A woman with a sharp, nasal voice paged Dr. Hannaport on the hospital’s tinny public address system.
“Thank you for your time,” Carol said. “You’ve been more than kind.”
“Come back this evening and talk to the girl if you want. I’m sure you’ll find she doesn’t blame you one bit.”
He turned and hurried across the gaudy lounge, in answer to the page’s call; the tails of his white lab coat fluttered behind him.
Carol went to the pay phones and called her office. She explained the situation to her secretary, Thelma, and arranged for the rescheduling of the patients she had intended to see today. Then she dialed home, and Paul answered on the third ring.
“You just caught me as I was going out the door,” he said. “I’ve got to drive down to O’Brian’s office and pick up a new set of application papers. Ours
were lost in the mess yesterday. So far, this has been a day I should have slept through.”
“Ditto on this end,” she said.
She told him about the accident and briefly summarized her conversation with Dr. Hannaport.
“It could have been worse,” Paul said. “At least we can be thankful no one was killed or crippled.”
“That’s what everyone keeps telling me: ‘It could have been worse, Carol.’ But it seems plenty bad enough to me.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah. I told you. I wasn’t even scratched.”
“I don’t mean physically. I mean, are you together emotionally? You sound shaky.”
“I am. Just a little.”
“I’ll come to the hospital,” he said.
“No, no. That’s not necessary.”
“Are you sure you should drive?”
“I drove here after the accident without trouble, and I’m feeling better now than I did then. I’ll be okay. What I’m going to do is, I’m going over to Grace’s house. She’s only a mile from here; it’s easier than going home. I have to sponge off my clothes, dry them out, and press them. I need a shower, too. I’ll probably have an early dinner with Grace, if that’s all right by her, and then I’ll come back here during visiting hours this evening.”
“When will you be home?”
“Probably not until eight or eight-thirty.”
“I’ll miss you.”
“Miss you, too.”
“Give my best to Grace,” he said. “And tell her I think she is the next Nostradamus.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Grace called a while ago. Said she had two nightmares recently, and you figured in both. She was afraid something was going to happen to you.”
“Yeah. She was embarrassed about it. Afraid I’d think she was getting senile or something.”
“You told her about the lightning yesterday?”
“Yeah. But she felt something else would happen, something bad.”
“And it did.”
“Decidedly,” Carol said. She remembered her own nightmare: the black void; the flashing, silvery object drawing nearer, nearer.
“I’m sure Grace’ll tell you all about it,” Paul said. “And I’ll see you this evening.”
“I love you,” Carol said.
“Love you, too.”
She put down the phone and went outside to the parking lot.
Gray-black thunderheads churned across the sky, but only a thin rain was falling now. The wind was still cold and sharp; it sang in the power lines overhead, sounding like a swarm of angry wasps.
The semiprivate room had two beds, but the second one was not currently in use. At the moment, no nurse was present either. The girl was alone.
She lay under a crisp white sheet and a creamcolored blanket, staring at the acoustic-tile ceiling. She had a headache, and she could feel each dully throbbing, burning cut and abrasion on her battered body, but she knew she was not seriously hurt.
Fear, not pain, was her worst enemy. She was frightened by her inability to remember who she was. On the other hand, she was plagued by the inexplicable yet unshakable feeling that it would be foolish and exceedingly dangerous to remember her past. Without knowing why, she suspected that full remembrance would be the death of her—an odd notion that she found more frightening than anything else.
She knew her amnesia wasn’t the result of the accident. She had a misty recollection of walking along the street in the rain a minute or two before she had blundered in front of the Volkswagen. Even then, she had been disoriented, afraid, unable to remember her name, utterly unfamiliar with the strange city in which she found herself and unable to recall how she had gotten there. The thread of her memory definitely had begun unraveling prior to the accident.
She wondered if it was possible that her amnesia was like a shield, protecting her from something horrible in the past. Did forgetfulness somehow equal safety?
Why? Safety from what?
What could- I be running from? she asked herself.
She sensed that recovery of her identity was possible. In fact her memories seemed almost within her grasp. She felt as though the past lay at the bottom of a dark hole, close enough to touch; all she had to do was summon sufficient strength and courage to poke her hand into that lightless place and grope for the truth, without fear of what might bite her.
However, when she tried hard to remember, when she probed into that hole, her fear grew and grew until it was no longer just ordinary fear; it became incapacitating terror. Her stomach knotted, and her throat swelled tight, and she broke out in a greasy sweat, and she became so dizzy that she nearly fainted.
On the edge of unconsciousness, she saw and heard something disturbing, alarming—a fuzzy fragment of a dream, a vision—which she couldn’t quite identify but which frightened her nonetheless. The vision was composed of a single sound and a single, mysterious image. The image was hypnotic but simple:
a quick flash of light, a silvery glimmer from a not-quite-visible object that was swinging back and forth in deep shadows; a gleaming pendulum, perhaps. The sound was hard-edged and threatening but not identifiable, a loud hammering noise, yet more than that.
Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!
She jerked, quivered, as if something had struck her.
She wanted to scream, couldn’t.
She realized that her hands were fisted and that they were full of twisted, sweat-soaked sheets.
She stopped trying to remember who she was.
Maybe it’s better that I don’t know, she thought.
Her heartbeat gradually slowed to normal, and she was able to draw her breath without wheezing. Her stomach unknotted.
The hammering sound faded.
After a while she looked at the window. A flock of large, black birds reeled across the turbulent sky.
What’s going to happen to me? she wondered.
Even when the nurse came in to see how she was doing, and even when the doctor joined the nurse a moment later, the girl felt utterly, dishearteningly alone.
GRACE’S kitchen smelled of coffee and warm spice cake. Rain washed down the window, obscuring the view of the rose garden that lay behind the house.
“I’ve never believed in clairvoyance or premonitions.”
“Neither have I,” Grace said. “But now I wonder. After all, I have two nightmares about you getting hurt, and the next thing I hear is that you’ve had two close calls, just as if you were acting out a script or something.”
They sat at the small table by the kitchen window. Carol was wearing one of Grace’s robes and a pair of Grace’s slippers while her own clothes finished drying out.
“Only one close call,” she told Grace. “The lightning. That was a gut-wrencher, all right. But I wasn’t really in any danger this morning. That poor girl was the one who nearly got killed.”
Grace shook her head. “No. It was a close call for you, too. Didn’t you tell me you slid toward the oncoming traffic when you braked to avoid the girl? And didn’t you say the Cadillac missed you by an inch or less? Well, what if it hadn’t missed? If that Caddy had rammed your little VW, you certainly wouldn’t have walked away without a scratch.”
Frowning, Carol said, “I hadn’t looked at it that way.”
“You’ve been so busy worrying about the girl that you haven’t had a chance to think about yourself.”
Carol ate a bite of spice cake and washed it down with coffee. “You’re not the only one having nightmares.” She summarized her own dream: the severed heads, the houses that dissolved behind her as she passed through them, the flickering, silvery object.
Grace clasped her hands around her coffee cup and hunched over the table. There was worry in her blue eyes. “That’s one nasty dream. What do you make of it?”
“Oh, I don’t think it’s prophetic.”
“Why couldn’t it be? Mine appear to have been.”
“Yes, but—it doesn’t follow that both of us are turning into soothsayers. Besides, my dream didn’t make a whole lot of sense. It was just too wild to be taken seriously. I mean, severed heads that suddenly come to life—that sort of thing isn’t really going to happen.”
“It could be prophetic without being literally prophetic. I mean, it might be a symbolic warning.”
“I don’t see any easy interpretation of it. But I
really think you ought to be extra careful for a while. God, I know I’m starting to sound like a phony gypsy fortune-teller, like Maria Ouspenskya in all those old monster movies from the thirties, but I still don’t think you should dismiss it as just an ordinary dream. Especially not after what’s already happened.”
Later, after lunch, as Grace squirted some liquid soap into the sinkful of dirty dishes, she said, “How’s the situation with the adoption agency? Does it look like they’ll give you and Paul a child soon?”
Grace glanced at her. “Something wrong?”
Taking the dish towel from the rack and unfolding it, Carol said, “No. Not really. O’Brian says we’ll be approved. It’s a sure thing, he says.”
“But you’re still worried about it.”
“A little,” Carol admitted.
“I’m not sure. It’s just that.. I’ve had this feeling…”
“That it won’t work out.”
“Why shouldn’t it?”
“I can’t shake the idea that somebody’s trying to stop us from adopting.”
“O’Brian?” Grace asked.
“No, no. He’s on our side.”
“Someone on the recommendations committee?”
“I don’t know. I don’t actually have any evidence of ill will toward Paul and me. I can’t point my finger at anyone.”
Grace washed some silverware, put it in the drainage rack, and said, “You’ve wanted to adopt for so long that you can’t believe it’s finally happening, so you’re looking for boogeymen where there aren’t any.”
“You’re just spooked because of the lightning yesterday and the accident this morning.”
“That’s understandable. It spooks me, too. But the adoption will go through as smooth as can be.”
“I hope so,” Carol said. But she thought about the lost set of application forms, and she wondered.
By the time Paul got back from the adoption agency, the rain had stopped, though the wind was still cold and damp.
He got the ladder out of the garage and climbed onto the least slanted portion of the many-angled roof. The wet shingles squeaked under his feet as be moved cautiously across the slope toward the television antenna, which was anchored near a brick chimney.
His legs were rubbery. He suffered from a mild case of acrophobia, a fear that had never become incapacitating because he occasionally forced himself to challenge and overcome it, as he was doing now.
When he reached the chimney, he put a hand against it for support and looked out across the roofs of the neighboring homes. The storm-dark September sky had settled lower, lower, until it appeared to be
only six or eight feet above the tallest houses. He felt as if he could raise his arm and rap his knuckles on the bellies of the clouds, eliciting a hard, ironlike clank.
He crouched with his back to the chimney and inspected the TV antenna. The brace-plate was held down by four bolts that went through the shingles, either directly into a roof beam or into a stud linking two beams. None of the bolts was missing. None of them was loose. The plate was firmly attached to the house, and the antenna was anchored securely to the plate. The antenna could not possibly have been responsible for the hammering sound that had shaken the house.
After washing the dishes, Grace and Carol went into the study. The room reeked of cat urine and feces. Aristophanes had made his toilet on the seat of the big easy chair.
Stunned, Grace said, “I don’t believe it. Ari always uses the litter box like he’s supposed to do. He’s never done anything like this before.”
“He’s always been a fussy cat, hasn’t he? Fastidious.”
“Exactly. But now look what he’s done. That chair’ll have to be reupholstered. I guess I’d better find the silly beast, put his nose to this mess, and give him a good scolding. I don’t want this to become a habit, for God’s sake.”
They looked in every room, but they couldn’t find Aristophanes. Apparently, he had slipped out of the house by way of the pet door in the kitchen.
Returning to the study with Grace, Carol said, “Earlier, you mentioned something about Ari tearing up a few things.”
Grace winced. “Yes. I didn’t want to have to tell you—but he shredded two of those lovely little needlepoint pillows you made for me. I was sick about it. After all the work you put into those, and then he Just—,’
“Don’t worry about it,” Carol said. “I’ll make you a couple of new pillows. I enjoy doing it. Needlepoint relaxes me. I only asked because I thought maybe, if Ari’s been doing a lot of things that’re out of character, it might be a sign that he isn’t well.”
Grace frowned. “He looks healthy. His coat’s glossy, and he’s certainly as spry as ever.”
“Animals are like people in some ways. And when a person suddenly starts behaving strangely, that can
be an indication of a physical malady, anything from a brain tumor to an inbalanced diet.”
“I suppose I ought to take him to the vet.”
Carol said, “While there’s a break in the rain, why don’t we go outside and see if we can find him?”
“Wasted effort. When a cat doesn’t want to be found, it won’t be found. Besides, he’ll come back by dinnertime: I’ll keep him in all night, and take him to the vet’s in the morning.” Grace looked at the mess on the easy chair, grimaced, and shook her head. “This isn’t like my Ari,” she said worriedly. “It’s just not like him at all.”
The number on the open door was 316.
Hesitantly, Carol stepped into the white and blue hospital room and stopped just past the threshold. The place smelled vaguely of Lysol.
The girl was sitting up in the bed nearest the window, her face averted from the door, staring out at the twilight-shrouded hospital grounds. She turned her head when she realized she was no longer alone, and when she looked at Carol there was no recognition in her blue-gray eyes.
“May I come in?” Carol asked.
Carol went to the foot of the bed. “How are you feeling?”
“With all the scrapes and cuts and bruises, it must be hard to get comfortable.”
“Gee, I’m not banged up all that bad. I’m just a little sore. It’s nothing that’s going to kill me. Everyone’s so nice; you’re all making too much of a fuss about me.”
“How’s your head feel?”
“I had a headache when I first came to, but it’s been gone for hours.”
“Nothing like that,” the girl said. A strand of golden hair slipped from behind her ear and fell across her cheek; she tucked it back in place. “Are you a doctor?”
“Yes,” Carol said. “My name’s Carol Tracy.”
“You can call me Jane. That’s the name on my chart. Jane Doe. I guess it’s as good as any. It might even turn out to be a lot nicer than my real name. Maybe I’m actually Zelda or Myrtle or something like that.” She had a lovely smile. “You’re the umpteenth doctor who’s been in to see me. How many do I have, anyway?”
“I’m not one of yours,” Carol said. “I’m here because … well. . . it was my car you stepped in front of.”
“Oh. Hey, gee, I’m awfully sorry. 1 hope there wasn’t a lot of damage.”
Surprised by the girl’s statement and by the genuine look of concern on her face, Carol laughed. “For heaven’s sake, honey, don’t worry about my car. it’s your health that’s important, not the VW. And I’m the one who should be apologizing. I feel terrible about this.”
“You shouldn’t,” the girl said. “I still have all my teeth, and none of my bones are broken, and Dr. Hannaport says the boys will still be interested in me.” She grinned self-consciously.
“He’s certainly right about the boys,” Carol said.
“You’re a very pretty girl.”
The grin became a shy smile, and the girl looked down at the covers on her lap, blushing.
Carol said, “I was hoping I’d find you here with your folks.”
The girl tried to maintain a cheerful facade, but when she looked up, fear and doubt showed through the mask. “I guess they haven’t filed a missing-persons report yet. But it’s only a matter of time.”
“Have you remembered anything at all about your past?”
“Not yet. But I will.” She straightened the collar of her hospital gown and smoothed the covers over her lap as she talked. “Dr. Hannaport says everything’ll probably come back to me if I just don’t push too hard at remembering. He says I’m lucky I don’t have global amnesia. That’s when you even forget how to read and write. I’m not that bad off! Heck, no. Boy, wouldn’t that be something? What if I had to learn to read, write, add, subtract, multiply, divide, and spell all over again? What a bore!” She finished smoothing her covers and looked up again. “Anyway, I’ll most likely have my memory back in a day or two.,,
“I’m sure you will,” Carol said, though she wasn’t sure at all. “Is there anything you need?”
“No. They supply everything. Even tiny tubes of toothpaste.”
“What about books, magazines?”
The girl sighed. “I was bored out of my skull this afternoon. You think they might keep a pile of old magazines for the patients?”
“Probably. What do you like to read?”
“Everything. I love to read; I remember that much. But I can’t remember the titles of any books or magazines. This amnesia sure is funny, isn’t it?”
“Hilarious,” Carol said. “Sit tight. I’ll be right back.”
At the nurses’ station at the end of the hail, she explained who she was and arranged to rent a small television set for Jane Doe’s room. An orderly promised to hook it up right away.
The chief RN on duty—a stocky, gray-haired woman who wore her glasses on a chain around her neck—said, “She’s such a sweet girl. She’s charmed everyone. Hasn’t complained or uttered a cross word to a soul. There aren’t many teenagers with her composure.”
Carol took the elevator down to the ground-floor lobby and went to the newsstand. She bought a Hershey bar, an Almond Joy, and six magazines that looked as if they would appeal to a young girl. By the time she got back to room 316, the orderly had just finished installing the TV.
“You shouldn’t have done all this,” the girl said.
“When my parents show up, I’ll make sure they pay you back.”
“I won’t accept a dime,” Carol said.
“I don’t need to be pampered. I’m fine. Really. If you—”
“I’m not pampering you, honey. Just think of the magazines and the television as forms of therapy. In fact, they might be precisely the tools you need to break through this amnesia.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you watch enough television, you might see a show you remember seeing before. That might spark a sort of chain reaction of memories.”
“You think so?”
“It’s better than just sitting and staring at the walls or out the window. Nothing in this place is going to spark a memory because none of it is related to your past. But there’s a chance the TV will do the trick.”
The girl picked up the remote-control device that the orderly had given her, and she switched on the television set. A popular situation comedy was on.
“Familiar?” Carol asked.
The girl shook her head: no. Tears glistened in the corners of her eyes.
“Hey, don’t get upset,” Carol said. “It would be amazing if you remembered the first thing you saw. It’s bound to take time.”
She nodded and bit her lip, trying not to cry.
Carol moved close, took the girl’s hand; it was cool.
“Will you come back tomorrow?” Jane asked shakily.
“Of course I will.”
“I mean, if it’s not out of your way.”
“It’s no trouble at all.” “Sometimes.. .“
The girl shuddered. “Sometimes I’m so afraid.”
“Don’t be afraid, honey. Please don’t. It’ll all work out. You’ll see. You’re going to be back on the track in no time,” Carol said, wishing she could think of something more reassuring than those few hollow platitudes. But she knew her inadequate response was occasioned by her own nagging doubts.
The girl pulled a tissue out of the Kleenex dispenser that was built into the side of the tall metal nightstand. She blew her nose, used another tissue to daub at her eyes. She had slumped down in the bed; now she sat up straight, lifted her chin, squared her slender shoulders, and readjusted her covers. When she looked up at Carol, she was smiling again. “Sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what got into me. Being a crybaby isn’t going to solve anything. Anyway, you’re right. My folks will probably show up tomorrow, and everything’ll work out for the best. Look, Dr. Tracy, if you come to see me tomorrow—”
“I will .“
“If you do, promise not to bring me any more candy or magazines or anything. Okay? There’s no reason for you to spend your money like that. You’ve already done too much for me. Besides, the best thing you could do is just come. I mean, it’s nice to know someone outside the hospital cares about me. It’s nice to know I haven’t been lost or forgotten in here. Oh, sure, the nurses and the doctors are swell. They really are, and I’m grateful. They care about me, but it’s
sort of their job to care. You know? So that’s not exactly the same thing, is it?” She laughed nervously. “Am I making sense?”
“I know exactly what you’re feeling,” Carol assured her. She was achingly aware of the girl’s profound loneliness, for she had been lonely and frightened when she was the same age, before Grace Mitowski had taken custody of her and had given her large measures of guidance and love.
She stayed with Jane until visiting hours were over. Before she left, she planted a motherly kiss on the girl’s forehead, and it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do. A bond had formed between them in a surprisingly short time.
Outside, in the hospital parking lot, the sodium-vapor lights leached the true colors from the cars and made them all look yellowish.
The night was chilly. No rain had fallen during the afternoon or evening, but the air was heavy, damp. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and a new storm appeared to be on the way.
She sat for a moment behind the wheel of the VW, staring up at the third-floor window of the girl’s room.
‘What a terrific kid,” she said aloud.
She felt that someone quite special had come unexpectedly into her life.
Near midnight, a river-cold wind came out of the west and made the trees dance. The starless, moonless, utterly lightless night pressed close around the house and seemed to Grace to be a living thing; it snuffled at the doors and windows.
Rain began to fall.
She went to bed as the hail clock was striking twelve, and twenty minutes later she began to drift over the edge of sleep as if she were a leaf borne by cool currents toward a great waterfall. On the brink, with only darkness churning under her, she heard movement in the bedroom and instantly came awake again.
A series of stealthy sounds. A soft scrape. A rattle that died even as it began. A silken rustle.
She sat up, heart quickening, and opened the nightstand drawer. With one hand she felt blindly for the .22 pistol she kept in the drawer, and with the other hand she groped silently for the lamp switch. She touched the gun and lamp at the same moment.
With light, the source of the noise was clearly visible. Ari was crouched atop the highboy, staring down at her, as if he had been about to spring onto the bed.
“What are you doing in here? You know the rules.”
He blinked but didn’t move. His muscles were bunched and taut; his fur was standing up on the back of his neck.
For sanitary reasons, she would allow him to climb neither onto the kitchen counters nor into her bed; generally, she kept the master bedroom door firmly shut, day and night, rather than tempt him. Already, housecleaning required extra hours each week because of him, for she was determined that the air should not contain even the slightest trace of cat odor; likewise, she was not about to subject her visitors to furniture covered with loose animal hairs. She loved Ari, and she thought him fine company, and for the most part she gave him the run of the house in spite of the extra work he caused her. But she was not prepared to live with cat hairs in her food or in her sheets.
She got out of bed, stepped into her slippers.
“Come down from there this instant,” Grace said, looking up at him with her sternest expression.
His shining eyes were gas-flame blue.
Grace went to the bedroom door, opened it, stepped out of the way, and said, “Shoo.”
The cat’s muscles relaxed. He slumped in a furry puddle atop the highboy, as if his bones had melted. He yawned and began to lick one of his black paws.
“Hey!” she said.
Aristophanes raised his head languidly, peered down at her.
“Out,” she said gruffly. “Now.”
When he still didn’t move, she started toward the highboy, and he was at last encouraged to obey. He jumped down and darted past her so fast she didn’t have time to swat him. He went into the hall, and she closed the door.
In bed again, with the lights out, she remembered the way he had looked as he perched atop the highboy:
facing her, aimed at her, shoulders drawn up, head held low, haunches tense, his fur electrified, his eyes bright and slightly demented. He had intended to jump onto the bed and scare the bejesus out of her; there was no doubt about that. But such schemes were a kitten’s games; Ari had not been playful in that fashion for the past three or four years, ever since he had
attained a rather indolent maturity. What on earth had gotten into him?
That settles it, she told herself. We’ll pay a visit to the veterinarian first thing in the morning. Good Lord, I might have a schizophrenic cat on my hands!
Seeking rest, she let the night embrace her again. She allowed herself to be carried along by the riverlike sound of the soughing wind. Within a few minutes she was once more being borne toward the waterfall of sleep. She trembled on the edge of it, and a quiver of uneasiness passed through her, a chill that nearly broke the spell, but then she dropped down into darkness.
She dreamed that she was trekking across a vast underwater landscape of brilliantly colored coral and seaweed and strange, undulating plants. A cat lurked among the plants, a big one, much bigger than a tiger, but with the coloring of a Siamese. It was stalking her. She could see its saucer eyes peering at her through the murky sea, from among wavering stalks of marine vegetation. She could hear and feel its low purr transmitted by the water. She paused repeatedly during her suboceanic trek so that she could fill a series of yellow bowls with generous portions of Meow Mix in the hope of pacifying the cat, but she knew in her heart that the beast would not be content until it had sunk its claws into her. She moved steadily past towers of coral, past grottoes, across wide aquatic plains of shifting sand, waiting for the cat to snarl and lunge from concealment, waiting for it to rip open her face and gouge out her eyes.
Once, she woke and thought she heard Aristophanes scratching insistently on the other side of the
closed bedroom door. But she was groggy and couldn’t trust her senses; she wasn’t able to wrench herself fully awake, and in a few seconds she sank down into the dream once more.
At one o’clock in the morning, the third floor of the hospital was so quiet that Harriet Gilbey. the head nurse on the graveyard shift, felt as though she was deep underground, in some kind of military complex, tucked into the stony roots of a mountain, far from the real world and the background noises of real life. The only sounds were the whisper of the heating system and the occasional squeak of the nurses’ rubber-soled shoes on the highly polished tile floors.
Harriet—a small, pretty, neatly uniformed black woman—was at the nurses’ station, around the corner from the bank of elevators, entering data on patients’ charts, when the tranquility of the third floor was abruptly shattered by a piercing scream. She moved out from behind the reception desk and hurried along the hall, following the shrill cry. It came from room 316. When Harriet pushed open the door, stepped into the room, and snapped on the overhead lights, the screaming stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
The girl they called Jane Doe was in bed, flat on her back, one arm raised and angled across her face as if she were warding off a blow, the other hand hooked on to one of the safety rails. She had kicked the sheets and the blanket into a tangled wad at the foot of the bed, and her hospital gown was nicked up over her hips. She tossed her head violently from side to side, gasping, pleading with an imaginary assailant:
“No. . . no. . . no. Don’t! Please don’t kill me! No!” With gentle hands, a gentle voice, and patient insistence, Harriet tried to quiet the girl. At first Jane resisted all ministrations. She had been given a sedative earlier. Now she was having trouble waking up. Gradually, however, she shook off the nightmare and calmed down.
Another nurse, Kay Hamilton, appeared at Harriet’s side. “What happened? Must’ve woke up half the floor.”
“Just a bad dream,” Harriet said.
Jane blinked sleepily at them. “She was trying to kill me.”
“Hush now,” Harriet said. “It was only a dream.
No one here will hurt you.”
“A dream?” Jane asked, her voice slurred. “Oh. Yeah. Just a dream. Whew! What a dream.”
The girl’s thin white gown and the tangled sheets were damp with perspiration. Harriet and Kay replaced them with fresh linens.
As soon as the bed had been changed, Jane succumbed to the lingering tug of the sedative. She turned onto her side and murmured happily in her sleep; she even smiled.
“Looks like she switched to a better channel,” Harriet said.
“Poor kid. After what she’s been through, the least she deserves is a good night’s sleep.”
They watched her for a minute, then left the room, turning off the lights and closing the door.
Alone, deep in sleep, transported into a different dream from the one that had elicited her screams, Jane sighed, smiled, giggled quietly.
“The ax,” she whispered in her sleep. “The ax. Oh, the ax. Yes. Yes.”
Her hands curled slightly, as if she were clutching a solid but invisible object.
“The ax,” she whispered, and the second of those two words reverberated softly through the dark room.
Carol ran through the huge living room, across the oriental carpet, banging her hip against the edge of the credenza.
She dashed through the archway, into a long hall, headed toward the stairs that led to the second floor.
When she glanced behind her, she saw that the house had vanished in her wake and had been replaced by a pitch-black void in which something silvery flickered back and forth, back and forth.
Understanding came with a flash; she knew what the glimmering object was. An ax. The blade of an ax. Glinting as it swung from side to side.
Thunk. . . thunk-thunk…
Whimpering, she climbed the stairs toward the second floor.
At times the blade seemed to be biting into wood; the sound of it was dry, splintery. But at other times the sound had a subtly different quality, as if the blade were slicing brutally into a substance much softer than wood, into something wet and tender.
Carol groaned in her sleep, turned restlessly, flinging off the sheets.
Then she was running across the high meadow.
The trees ahead. The void behind. And the ax. The ax.
FRIDAY morning, there was another break in the rain, but the day was dressed in fog. The light coming through the hospital window was wintry, bleak.
Jane had only a hazy recollection of the nurses changing her sheets and her sweat-soaked bed gown during the night. She vaguely recalled having a frightening dream, too, but she couldn’t bring to mind a single detail of it.
She was still unable to remember her name or anything else about herself. She could cast her mind back as far as the accident yesterday morning, perhaps even to a point a minute or so on the other side of the accident, but beyond that there was only a blank wall where her past should have been.
During breakfast, she read an article in one of the magazines that Carol Tracy had bought for her. Although there were no visiting hours until this afternoon, Jane was already looking forward to seeing the woman again. Dr. Hannaport and the nurses were nice, every one of them, but none of them affected her as positively as Carol Tracy did. For reasons she could not understand, she felt more secure, more at ease, less frightened by her amnesia when she was with Dr. Tracy than when she was with the others. Maybe that was what people meant when they said a doctor had a good bedside manner.
Shortly after nine o’clock, when Paul was on the freeway, headed downtown to deliver the new set of application papers to Alfred O’Brian’s office, the Pontiac’s engine cut out. It didn’t sputter or cough; the pistons simply stopped firing while the car was hurtling along at nearly fifty miles an hour. As the Pontiac’s speed plummeted, its power steering began to freeze up. Traffic whizzed past on both sides at sixty and sixty-five, faster than the speed limit, too fast for the misty weather. Paul maneuvered the car across two lanes, toward the right-hand shoulder of the road. Second by second, he expected to hear a short squeal of brakes and feel the sickening impact of another car against his, but amazingly, he was able to avoid a collision. Wrestling with the stiffening steering wheel, he brought the Pontiac to a full stop on the berm.
He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes until he had regained his composure. When at last he leaned forward and twisted the key in the ignition, the starter didn’t make the slightest response; the battery had no juice to offer. He tried a few more times, then gave up.
A freeway exit was just ahead, and there was a service station less than a block from the off-ramp. Paul walked to it in ten minutes.
The station was busy, and the owner couldn’t spare his young assistant—a big, redheaded, open-faced kid named Corky—until the stream of customers subsided to a trickle shortly before ten o’clock. Then Paul and Corky rode back to the crippled Pontiac in a tow truck.
They tried jump-starting the car, but the battery wouldn’t hold a charge. The Pontiac had to be towed back to the station.
Corky intended to replace the battery and have the car running in half an hour. But it wasn’t the battery after all, and the estimated time for completion of the repairs was extended again and again. Finally, Corky found a problem with the electrical system and fixed it.
Paul was stranded for three hours, always sure he would be on his way in just another twenty or thirty minutes. But it was one-thirty when he finally parked the revitalized Pontiac in front of the adoption agency’s offices.
Alfred O’Brian came out to the reception lounge to greet Paul. He was wearing a well-tailored brown suit, a neatly pressed, cream-colored shirt, a neatly arranged, beige display handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit jacket, and a pair of neatly shined, brown wing-tip shoes. He accepted the application, but he wasn’t optimistic about the possibility of making all the required verifications prior to the recommendations committee’s meeting next Wednesday morning.
“We’ll try to do a rush job on your papers,” he told Paul. “I owe you that much at least! But in getting these verifications, we have to deal with people outside this office, and some of them won’t get back to us right away or won’t like being hurried. It always takes a minimum of three full business days to run a complete verification, sometimes four or five days, sometimes even longer, so I very much doubt that we’ll be ready for this session of the recommendations committee, even though I want to be. We’ll probably have to submit your application at the second September meeting, at the end of the month. I feel terrible about that, Mr. Tracy. I’m more sorry than I can say.
I truly am. If we hadn’t lost those papers in the turmoil yesterday—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Paul said. “The lightning wasn’t your doing, and neither was the problem with my car. Carol and I have waited a long, long time to adopt a child. Another two weeks isn’t much in the scheme of things.”
“When your papers are presented to the committee, you’ll be approved quickly,” O’Brian said. “I’ve never been more sure about a couple than I am about you. That’s what I’m going to tell them.”
“I appreciate that,” Paul said.
“If we can’t make Wednesday’s meeting—and I assure you we’ll try our best—then it’s only a minor, temporary setback. Nothing to be concerned about. Just a bit of bad luck.”
Dr. Brad Templeton was a fine veterinarian. However, to Grace, he always looked out of place when he was ministering to a cat or dog. He was a big man who would have looked more at home treating horses and farm animals in a country practice, where his massive shoulders and muscular arms would be of more use. He stood six-five, weighed about two hundred and twenty pounds, and had a ruddy, rugged, but pleasing face. When be plucked Aristophanes out of the padded travel basket, the cat looked like a toy in his enormous hands.
“He looks fit,” Brad said, putting Ari on the stainless-steel table that stood in the middle of the sparkling clean surgery.
“He’s never been one to tear up the furniture, not since he was just a kitten,” Grace said. “He’s never been a climber, either. But now, every time I turn around, he’s perched on top of something, peering down at me.”
Brad examined Ari, feeling for swollen glands and enlarged joints. The cat cooperated docilely, even when Brad used a rectal thermometer on him. “Temperature’s normal.”
“Something’s wrong,” Grace insisted.
Aristophanes purred, tolled onto his back, asking for his belly to be rubbed.
Brad rubbed him and was rewarded with an even louder purr. “Is he off his food?”
“No,” Grace said. “He stills eats well.”
“No. He hasn’t shown any symptoms like those.
It’s just that he’s.. . different. He’s not at all like he was. Every symptom I can point to is a symptom of a personality change, not an indication of physical deterioration. Like destroying the pillows. Leaving the mess on the armchair. The sudden interest he’s taken in climbing. And he’s gotten very sneaky lately, always creeping around, hiding from me, watching me when be thinks I don’t see him.”
“All cats are a bit sneaky,” Brad said, frowning. “That’s the nature of the beast.”
“Ari didn’t used to sneak,” Grace said. “Not like he’s been doing the last couple of days. And he’s not as friendly as he used to be. The last two days, he hasn’t wanted to be petted or cuddled.”
Still frowning, Brad lifted his gaze from the cat and met Grace’s eyes. “But dear, look at him.”
Ari was still on his back, getting his belly rubbed, and clearly relishing all the attention being directed at him. His tail swished back and forth across the steel table. He raised one paw and batted playfully at the doctor’s large, leathery hand.
Sighing, Grace said, “I know what you’re thinking. I’m an old woman. Old women get funny ideas.”
“No, no, no. I wasn’t thinking any such thing.”
“Old women become obsessively attached to their pets because sometimes their pets are the only company they have, their only real friends.”
“I am perfectly aware that doesn’t apply to you, Grace. Not with all the friends you’ve got in this town. I merely—”
She smiled and patted his cheek. “Don’t protest too strongly, Brad. I know what’s going through your mind. Some old women are so afraid of losing their pets that they think they see signs of illness where there are none. Your reaction is understandable. It doesn’t offend me. It does frustrate me because I know something is wrong with Ari.”
Brad looked down at the cat again, continued stroking its belly, and said, “Have you changed his diet in any way?”
“No. He gets the same brand of cat food, at the same times of day, in the same quantities he’s always gotten it.”
“Has the company changed the product recently?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, does the package say ‘new, improved,’ or
‘richer flavor,’ or anything like that?”
She thought about it for a moment, then shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Sometimes, when they change a formula, they add a new preservative or a new artificial flavoring or coloring agent, and some pets have an allergic reaction to it.”
“But wouldn’t that be a physical reaction? Like I said, this seems to be strictly a personality change.”
Brad nodded. “I’m sure you know food additives can cause behavioral problems in some children. A lot of hyperactive kids calm down when they’re put on a diet free of the major additives. Animals can be affected by these things, too. From what you’ve told me, it sounds like Aristophanes is intermittently hyperactive and may be responding to a subtle change in the formulation of his cat food. Switch him to another brand, wait a week for his system to purge itself of whatever additives have offended it, and he’ll probably be the old Ari again.”
“If he isn’t?”
“Then bring him in, leave him with me for a couple of days, and I’ll give him a really thorough going over. But I strongly recommend that we try changing his diet first, before we go to all that trouble and expense.”
You are humoring me, Grace thought. Just coddling an old lady.
“Very well,” she said. “I’ll try changing his food. But if he’s still not himself a week from now, I’ll want you to give him a complete battery of tests.”
“I’ll want an answer.”
On the stainless-steel table, Aristophanes purred, happily twitched his long tail, and looked infuriatingly normal.
Later, at home, just inside the front door, when Grace slipped the latch on the padded travel basket and opened the lid, Aristophanes exploded out of confinement with a hiss and a snarl, his fun bristling, his ears laid back against his head, eyes wild. He clawed her hand and squealed as she thrust him away from her. He sprinted down the hall, disappeared into the kitchen, where the pet door gave him access to the rear yard.
Shocked, Grace stared at her hand. Ari’s claws had made three short furrows in the meaty edge of her palm. Blood welled up and began to trickle down her wrist.
Carol’s last appointment on Friday was at one o’clock: a fifty-minute session with Kathy Lombino, a fifteen-year-old girl who was gradually recovering from anorexia nervosa. Five months ago, when she had first been brought to Carol, Kathy had weighed only seventy-five pounds, at least thirty pounds below her ideal weight. She had been teetering on the edge of starvation, repelled by the sight and even the thought of food, stubbornly refusing to eat more than an occasional soda cracker or slice of bread, often gagging on even those bland morsels. When she was put in front of a mirror and forced to confront the pathetic sight of her emaciated body, she still berated herself for being fat and could not be convinced that she was, in fact, frighteningly thin. Her prospects for survival had seemed slight. Now she weighed ninety pounds, up fifteen, still well below a healthy weight for a girl of her height and bone structure, but at least she was no longer in danger of dying. A loss of self-respect and self-confidence was nearly always the seed from which anorexia nervosa grew, and Kathy was beginning to like herself again, a sure sign that she was on her way back from the brink. She hadn’t yet regained a normal appetite; she still experienced mild revulsion at the sight and taste of food; but her attitude was far better than it had been, for now she recognized the need for food, even though she didn’t have any desire for it. The girl had a long way to go before she would be fully recovered, but the worst was past for her; in time she would learn to enjoy food again, and she would gain weight more rapidly than she had done thus far, stabilizing around a hundred and five or a hundred and ten pounds. Kathy’s progress had been immensely satisfying to Carol, and today’s session only added to that satisfaction. As had become customary, she and the girl hugged each other at the end of the session, and Kathy held on tighter and longer than usual. When the girl left the office, she was smiling.
A few minutes later, at two o’clock, Carol went to the hospital. In the gift shop off the lobby, she bought a deck of playing cards and a miniature checkerboard with nickle-sized checkers that all fit neatly into a vinyl carrying case.
Upstairs, in 316, the television was on, and Jane was reading a magazine. She looked up when Carol entered, and she said, “You really came.”
“Said I would, didn’t I?”
“What’ve you got?”
“Cards, checkers. I thought maybe they’d help you pass the time.”
“You promised you wouldn’t buy me anything else.”
“Hey, did I say I was giving these to you? No way. You think I’m a soft touch or something? I’m lending them, kid. I expect them back. And whenever you return them, they’d better be in as good condition as they are now, or I’ll take you all the way to the Supreme Court to get compensated for the damage.”
Jane grinned. “Boy, you’re tough.”
“I eat nails for breakfast.”
“Don’t they get stuck in your teeth?”
“I pluck ‘em out with pliers.”
“Ever eat barbed wire?”
“Never for breakfast. I have it for lunch now and then.”
They both laughed, and Carol said, “So do you play checkers?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
The girl shrugged.
“Nothing’s come back yet?” Carol asked.
“Not a thing.”
“Don’t worry. It will.”
“My folks haven’t shown up, either.”
“Well, you’ve only been missing for one day. Give them time to find you. It’s too soon to start worrying about that.”
They played three games of checkers. Jane remembered all of the rules, but she couldn’t recall where or with whom she had played before.
The afternoon passed quickly, and Carol enjoyed every minute of it. Jane was charming, bright, and blessed with a good sense of humor. Whether the game was checkers, hearts, or five-hundred rummy, she played to win, but she never pouted when she lost. She was very good company.
The girl’s charm and pleasing personality made it highly unlikely that she would go unclaimed for long. Some teenagers are so self-centered, spaced out on drugs, bullheaded, and destructive that when one of them decides to run away from home, his decision often elicits only a sigh of relief from his mother and father. But when a good kid like Jane Doe disappears, a lot of people start sounding alarms.
There must be a family that loves her, Carol
thought. They’re probably crazy with worry right now. Sooner or later they’ll turn up, crying and laughing with relief that their girl has been found alive. So why not sooner? Where are they?
The doorbell rang at precisely three-thirty. Paul answered it and found a pallid, gray-eyed man of about
fifty. He wore gray slacks, a pale gray shirt, and a dark gray sweater.
“Yes. Are you from Safe Homes?”
“That’s right,” the gray man said. “Name’s Bill Alsgood. I am Safe Homes. Started the company two years ago.”
They shook hands, and Alsgood entered the foyer, looking with interest at the interior of the house. “Lovely place. You’re lucky to get same-day service. Usually, I’m scheduled three days in advance. But when you called this morning and said it was an emergency, I’d just had a cancellation.”
“You’re a building inspector?” Paul asked, closing the door.
“Structural engineer, to be precise. What our company does is inspect the house before it’s sold, usually on behalf of the buyer, at his expense. We tell him if he’s buying into a heartache of any sort—a leaky roof, a cellar that floods, a crumbling foundation, faulty wiring, bad plumbing, that kind of thing. We’re fully bonded, so even if we overlook something, our client is protected. Are you the buyer or the seller?”
“Neither,” Paul said. “My wife and I own the place, but we aren’t ready to sell it. We’re having a problem with the house, and I can’t pinpoint the cause of it. I thought you might be able to help.”
Alsgood raised one gray eyebrow. “May I suggest that what you need is a good handyman. He’d be considerably cheaper, and once he’d found the trouble, he could fix it, too. We don’t do any repair work, you know. We only inspect.”
“I’m aware of that. I’m pretty handy myself, but I haven’t figured out what’s wrong or how to fix it.
I think I need the kind of expert advice that no handyman can give me.’
“You do know we charge two hundred and fifty dollars for an inspection?”
“I know,” Paul said. “But this is an extremely annoying problem, and it might be causing serious structural damage.”
“What is it?”
Paul told him about the hammering sounds that occasionally shook the house.
“That’s peculiar as hell,” Alsgood said. “I’ve never heard a complaint like it before.” He thought for a moment, then said, “Where’s your furnace?”
“In the cellar.”
“Maybe it’s a heating duct problem. Unlikely. But we can start down there and work our way up to the roof until we’ve found the cause.”
For the next two hours, Alsgood looked into every cranny of the house, poked and probed and rapped and visually inspected every inch of the interior, then every inch of the roof, while Paul tagged along, assisting wherever he could. A light rain began to fall when they were still on the roof, and they were both soaked by the time they finished the job and climbed down. Alsgood’s left foot slipped off the last rung of the ladder, just as he was about to step onto the waterlogged lawn, and he twisted his ankle painfully. All that risk and inconvenience was for nothing because Alsgood didn’t find anything out of the ordinary.
At five-thirty, in the kitchen, they warmed up with coffee while Alsgood filled out his report. Wet and bedraggled, he looked even more pallid than when Paul had first seen him. The rain had transformed his gray clothes—once a variety of shades — into a single, dull hue, so that he appeared to be wearing a drab uniform. “It’s basically a solid house, Mr. Tracy. The condition is really topnotch.”
“Then where the devil did that sound come from? And why was the whole house shaken by it?”
“I wish I’d heard it.”
“I was sure it’d start up at least once while you were here.”
Alsgood sipped his coffee, but the warm brew added no color to his cheeks. “Structurally, there’s not a thing wrong with this house. That’s what my report will say, and I’d stake my reputation on it.”
“Which puts me right back at square one,” Paul said, folding his hands around his coffee cup.
“I’m sorry you spent all this money without getting an answer,” Alsgood said. “I really feel bad about that.”
“It isn’t your fault. I’m convinced you did a thorough job. In fact, if I ever buy another house, I’ll definitely want you to inspect it first. At least I now know the trouble isn’t structural, which rules out possibilities and narrows the field of inquiry.”
“Maybe you won’t even hear it again. It might stop just as suddenly as it started.”
“Somehow, I suspect you’re wrong about that,” Paul said.
Later, at the front door, as Alsgood was leaving, he said, “One thought has occurred to me, but I hesitate to mention it.”
“You might think it’s off the wall.”
“Mr. Alsgood, I’m a desperate man. I’m willing to consider anything, no matter how farfetched it might be.”
Alsgood looked at the ceiling, then at the floor, then back along the hail that lay behind Paul, then down at his own feet. “A ghost,” he said quietly.
Paul stared at him, surprised.
Alsgood cleared his throat nervously, shifted his eyes to the floor again, then finally raised them and met Paul’s gaze. “Maybe you don’t believe in ghosts.”
“DO you?” Paul asked.
“Yes. I’ve been interested in the subject most of my life. I have a large collection of publications dealing with spiritualism of all sorts. I’ve had some personal experiences in haunted houses, too.”
“You’ve seen a ghost”
“I believe I have, yes, on four occasions. Ectoplasmic apparitions. Insubstantial, manlike shapes drifting in the air. I’ve also twice witnessed poltergeist phenomena. As far as this house is concerned..
His voice trailed away, and he licked his lips nervously. “If you find this boring or preposterous, I don’t want to waste your time.”
“Quite frankly,” Paul said, “I can’t picture myself calling an exorcist in to deal with this. But I’m not entirely close-minded where ghosts are concerned. I find it hard to accept, but I’m certainly willing to listen.”
“Reasonable enough,” Alsgood said. For the first time since he had rung the doorbell more than two hours ago, color rose into his milky complexion, and his watery eyes brightened with a spark of enthusiasm. “All right. Here’s something to consider. From what you’ve told me, I’d say there might be a poltergeist at work here. Of course, no objects have been hurled around by an unseen presence; there’s been no breakage, and poltergeists dearly love to break things. But the shaking of the house, the clattering pots and pans, the little bottles clinking against one another in the spice rack—those are all indications of a poltergeist at work, one that’s just beginning to test its powers. If it is a poltergeist, then you can expect worse to come. Oh, yes. Definitely. Furniture moving across the floor all by itself. Pictures flung off the walls, lamps knocked down and broken. Dishes flying around the room as if they were birds.” His wan countenance flushed with excitement as he considered the supernatural destruction. “Levitations of heavy objects like sofas and beds and refrigerators. Now mind you, there are some recorded cases of people being plagued by benign poltergeists that don’t break much of anything, but the overwhelming number of them are malign, and that’s what you’ll most likely have to deal with—if indeed you’ve got one here at all.’, Having warmed to his subject, he finished in an almost breathless rush of words: “In its most active form, even a benign poltergeist can completely disrupt a household, interfere with your sleep, and keep you so on edge that you don’t know whether you’re coming or going.”
Startled by Alsgood’s passionately delivered speech
and by the odd new light in the man’s eyes, Paul said, “Well.. . uh. . . it’s really not that bad. Not nearly that bad. Just a hammering sound and—”
“It’s not that bad yet,” Alsgood said somberly.
“But if you have a poltergeist here, the situation could deteriorate rapidly. If you’ve never seen one in action, Mr. Tracy, you simply can’t understand what it’s like.”
Paul was disconcerted by the change in the man. He felt as if he had opened the door to one of those
wholesome-looking types who turned out to be pushing crackpot religious pamphlets and who proclaimed the imminence of Judgment Day in the same bubbly, upbeat tone of voice that Donny Osmond might use to introduce his cute little sister, Marie, to a panting audience of Osmond fans. There was a disquieting zeal in Alsgood’s manner.
“If it does turn out to be a poltergeist,” Alsgood said, “if things do get a lot worse, will you call me right away? I’ve been fortunate enough to observe two poltergeists, as I said. I’d like nothing better than to see a third going through its tricks. The opportunity doesn’t arise very often.”