Rowena was seventy-seven in 1994, twenty-four years a widow and past her grief, a happy woman but opinionated. She'd been asked to play the devil's advocate, and she was adamant in her role.

"If not a fire, then a gas explosion," she declared.

"Gee, I don't want to be responsible for destroying the house," I said.

"Weena," Dad reasoned, "there hasn't been a house-destroying gas explosion in the entire history of Snow Village."

"So an airliner will crash into the place."

"Oh, and that happens weekly around here," my father said.

"There's a first time for everything," Rowena asserted.

"If there's a first time for an airliner to crash into our house, then there's a first time for vampires to move in next door, but I'm not going to start wearing a garlic necklace."

"If not an airliner, one of those Federal Express planes full of packages," Rowena said.

Dad gaped at her, shook his head. "Federal Express."

Mom interpreted: "What Mother means is that surely if fate has something planned for our Jimmy, he can't hide from it. Fate is fate. It'll find him."

"Maybe a United Parcel Service plane," said Rowena.

Over steaming bowls of pureed cauliflower soup enlivened with white beans and tarragon, we agreed that the wisest course for me would be to proceed as I would on any ordinary day off work-though always with caution.

"On the other hand," Grandma Rowena said, "caution could get him killed."

"Now, Weena, how could caution get a person killed?" my father wondered.

Grandma finished a spoonful of soup and smacked her lips as she had never done until she had turned seventy-five, two years previously. She smacked them with relish, repeatedly.

Halfway between her seventh and eighth decades, she had decided that longevity had earned her the right to indulge in certain small pleasures she had never previously allowed herself. These were pretty much limited to smacking her lips, blowing her nose as noisily as she wished (though never at the table), and leaving her spoon and/or fork turned useful side up on the plate at the end of each course, instead of useful side down as her mother, a true Victorian and a stickler for etiquette, had instructed her always to do in order properly to indicate that she had finished.

She smacked her lips again and explained why caution could be

dangerous: "Say Jimmy's going to cross the street, but he worries that a bus might hit him-"

"Or a garbage truck," Mom suggested. "Those great lumbering things on these hilly streets-why, if the brakes let go, what's to stop them? They'd go right through a house."

"Bus, garbage truck, might even be a speeding hearse," Grandma allowed.

"What reason would a hearse have to speed?" Dad asked.

"Speeding or not, if it was a hearse," said Grandma, "wouldn't that be ironic-run down by a hearse? God knows, life is often ironic in a way it's never shown on television."

"The viewing public could never handle it," Mom said. "Their capacity for genuine irony is exhausted halfway through an episode of Murder, She Wrote."

"What passes for irony on TV these days," my dad noted, "is just poor plotting."

I said, "I'm less spooked by garbage trucks than by those huge concrete mixers they drive to construction sites. I'm always sure the part that revolves is suddenly going to work loose of the truck, roll down the street, and flatten me."

"All right," Grandma Rowena said, "so it's a concrete mixer Jimmy's afraid of meeting up with."

"Not afraid exactly," I said. "Just leery."

"So he stands on the sidewalk, looks left, then looks right, then looks left again, being cautious, taking his time-and because he delays there on the curb too long, he's hit by a falling safe."

In the interest of a healthy debate, my father was willing to entertain some rather exotic speculations, but this stretched his patience too far. "A falling safe? Where would it fall ram

"From a tall building, of course," Grandma said.

"There aren't any tall buildings in Snow Village," Dad gently protested.

"Rudy, dear," Mom said, "I think you're forgetting the Alpine Hotel."

"That's only four stories."

"A safe dropped four stories would obliterate Jimmy," Grandma insisted. To me, in a concerned tone, she said, "I'm sorry. Is this upsetting you, sweetheart?"

"Not at all, Grandma."

"It's the simple truth, I'm afraid."

"I know, Grandma."

"It would obliterate you."

"Totally," I agreed.

"But it's such a final word-obliterate."

"It sure does focus the mind."

"I should've thought before I spoke. I should've said crushed."

In lambent red candlelight, Weena had a Mona Lisa smile.

I reached across the table and patted her hand.

Being a pastry chef, required to mix many ingredients in precise measure, my father has a greater respect for mathematics and reason than do my mother and grandmother, who are more" artistic in their temperaments and less slavishly devoted to logic than he is. "Why," he asked, "would anyone raise a safe to the top of the Alpine Hotel?"

"Well, of course, to keep their valuables in," said Grandma.

"Whose valuables?"

"The hotel's valuables."

Although Dad never triumphs in exchanges of this nature, he always remains hopeful that if only he persists, reason will prevail.

"Why," he asked, "wouldn't they put a big heavy safe on the ground floor? Why go to all the trouble of craning it to the roof?"

My mother said, "Because no doubt their valuables were on the top floor."

In moments like these, I have never been quite sure if Mom shares more than a little of Weena's cockeyed perspective on the world or if she's playing with my father.

Her face is guileless. Her eyes are never evasive, and always limpid.

She is by nature a straightforward woman. Her emotions are too clear for misinterpretation, and her intentions are never ambiguous.

Yet as Dad says, for a person so admirably open and direct by nature, she can turn inscrutable when it tickles her to, just as easily as throwing a light switch.

That's one of the things he loves about her.

Our conversation continued through an endive salad with pears, walnuts, and crumbled blue cheese, followed by filet mignon on a bed of potato-and-onion pancakes, with asparagus on the side.

Before Dad got up to roll the dessert cart in from the kitchen, we had agreed that, for the momentous day ahead, I should keep to my usual vacation routine. With caution. But not too much caution.

Midnight arrived.

September 15 began.

Nothing happened right away.

"Maybe nothing will," Mom said.

"Something will," Grandma disagreed, and smacked her lips. "Something will."

If I had not been obliterated or even badly crushed by nine o'clock the next evening, we would meet here for dinner again. Together, we would break bread while remaining alert for the whiff of natural gas and the drone of a descending airliner.

Now, after demi dessert followed by a full dessert, followed by petits fours, all accompanied by oceans of coffee, Dad went off to work, and I helped with the kitchen cleanup.

Then at one-thirty in the morning, I retired to the living room to read a new book for which I had high expectations. I have a great fondness for murder mysteries.

On the first page, a victim was found chopped up and packed in a trunk. His name was Jim.

I put that book aside, selected another from the stack on the coffee table, and returned to my armchair.

A beautiful dead blonde stared from the book jacket, strangled with an antique Japanese obi knotted colorfully around her throat.

The first victim was named Delores. With a sigh of contentment, I settled down in my chair.

Grandma sat on the sofa, busy with a needlepoint pillow. She had been a master of decorative stitching since her teenage years.

Since she had moved in with Mom and Dad almost two decades ago, she had kept baker's hours, sewing elaborate patterns through the night. My mother and I kept that schedule, too. Mom had home-schooled me because our family lived by night.

Recently, Grandma's preferred embroidery motifs were insects. Her butterfly wall hanging and even her ladybug chair cushions were charming, but I did not care for the spider-festooned antimacassars on my armchair or for the cockroach pillow.

In an adjacent alcove, which Mom had outfitted as her studio, she worked happily on a pet portrait. The subject was a glittery-eyed Gila monster named Killer.

Because Killer was hostile toward strangers and not housebroken, the proud owners had provided a series of photos from which Mom could work. A hissing, biting, pooping Gila monster can really spoil an otherwise pleasant evening.

The living room is small and the shallow art alcove is separated from it only by silk curtains in a wide archway. The curtains were open, so Mom could keep an eye on me and could be ready to move fast in case she recognized, say, signs of impending spontaneous human combustion.

For perhaps an hour, we were silent, immersed in our various pursuits, and then Mom said, "Sometimes I worry that we're becoming the Addams family."

The initial eight hours of my first terrible day passed without a disturbing incident.

At 8:15, his eyebrows white with flour, Dad came home from work. "I couldn't make a good creme plombieres to save my ass. I'll be glad when we've got through this day and I can focus again."

We had breakfast together at the kitchen table. By 9:00 a.m." after more than the usual day's-end hugs, we went to our bedrooms and hid beneath the sheets.

Perhaps the rest of my family wasn't hiding, but I pretty much was. I believed in my grandfather's predictions more than I cared to admit to the rest of them, and my nerves tightened with every tick of the clock.

Going to bed at an hour when most people are beginning their workday, I required blackout blinds overlaid by heavy drapes that absorbed both light and sound. My room was quiet and dead black.

After a few minutes, I urgently needed to turn on a bedside lamp. Not since early childhood had I been this disturbed by the dark.

From my nightstand drawer I withdrew a plastic sleeve in which was preserved the free pass to the circus that Officer Huey Foster had given to my father more than twenty years ago. The three-by-five card appeared newly printed, marred only by the crease through the middle, where Dad had folded it to fit in his wallet.

On the blank reverse, Dad had taken dictation from Josef on his deathbed. The five dates.

The front of the pass featured lions and elephants, admit two it directed in black letters, and in red blazed the promise free.

Toward the bottom were four words I had read uncounted times over the years: prepare to be enchanted.

Depending on my mood, sometimes that sentence seemed to betoken forthcoming adventure and wonder. At other times, I drew from it a more threatening interpretation: prepare to be scared shitless.

After returning the pass to the drawer, I lay awake for a while. I didn't think I would sleep. Then I slept.

Three hours later, I sat up in bed, instantly awake and alert. Trembling with fear.

To the best of my knowledge, I hadn't been awakened by a bad dream. No nightmare images lingered in memory.

Nevertheless, I woke with a completely formed and terrifying thought so oppressive that my heart felt as if it were being squeezed in a vise, and I could draw only quick shallow breaths.

If there were to be five terrible days in my life, I would not die on this one. In her inimitable way, however, Weena had pointed out that an exemption from death this September did not rule out severed limbs, mutilation, paralysis, and brain damage.

Neither could I rule out the death of someone else. Someone dear to me. My father, my mother, my grandmother... If this were to be a terrible day because one of them would suffer a painful and violent death that would haunt me for the rest of my life, then I might wish that I had been the one to die.

I sat on the edge of the bed, glad that I had gone to sleep with the night-stand lamp aglow. My hands were slick with sweat and shaking so badly that I might not have been able either to find the switch or to turn it.

A close and loving family is a blessing. But the more people we love and the more deeply we love them, the more vulnerable we are to loss and grief and loneliness.

I was finished with sleep.

The bedside clock reported 1:30 p.m.

Less than half the day remained, only ten and a half hours until midnight.

In that time, however, a life could be taken, a world could end- and hope.

Millions of years before the Travel Channel existed . to report the change, storms inside the earth had raised the land into serried waves, like a monsoon seascape, so any voyager in this territory is nearly always moving up or down, seldom on the horizontal.

Evergreen forests-pine and fir and spruce-navigate the waves of soil and rock, docking along every shore of Snow Village, but also finding harbors deep within town limits.

Fourteen thousand full-time residents live here. Most make their living directly or indirectly from nature as surely as do those who dwell in fishing ports in lower, balmier lands.

Snow Village Resort and Spa, and its world-famous network of ski runs, along with other area hotels and winter-sport facilities, draw so many vacationers that the town's population increases sixty percent from mid-October through March. Camping, hiking, boating, and white-water rafting pull in almost as many the rest of the year.

Autumn weather arrives early in the Rocky Mountains; but that day in September was not one of our refreshingly crisp afternoons. Pleasantly warm air, as still as the greatly compressed fathoms at the bottom of an ocean, conspired with golden afternoon sunlight to give Snow Village the look of a community petrified in amber.

Because my parents' house is in a perimeter neighborhood, I drove rather than walked into the heart of town, where I had a few errands to undertake.

In those days I owned a seven-year-old Dodge Daytona Shelby Z. Other than my mother and grandmother, I'd not yet met a woman I could love as much as I loved that sporty little coupe.

I have no mechanical skills, and I lack the talent to acquire any. The workings of an engine are as mysterious to me as is the enduring popularity of the tuna casserole.

I loved that peppy little Dodge sheerly for its form: the sleek lines, the black paint job, the harvest-moon-yellow racing stripes. That car was a piece of the night, driven down from the sky, with evidence of a lunar sideswipe on its flanks.