“Do you like him, Mark?” Rya asked. As she spoke her grin melted into a frown.
Paul saw why: the boy was close to tears. He wanted a squirrel of his own—but he knew they couldn’t take two of the animals home with them. His lower lip quivered; however, he was determined not to cry.
Rya recovered quickly. Smiling, she said, “Well, Mark? Do you like him? I’ll be upset if you don’t. I went to an awful lot of trouble to get him for you.”
You little sweetheart, Paul thought.
Blinking back tears, Mark said, “For me?”
“Of course,” she said.
“You mean you’re giving him to me?”
She feigned surprise. “Who else?”
I thought he was yours.” .
Now what would I want with a pet squirrel? she asked. “He’ll be a good pet for a boy. But he would be all wrong for a girl.” She put the animal on the ground and hunkered down beside it. Fishing a piece of candy from a pocket, she said, “Come on. You’ve got to feed him some chocolate if you really want to make friends with him.”
The squirrel plucked the candy from Mark’s hand and nibbled it with obvious pleasure. The boy was also in ecstasy as he gently stroked its flanks and long tail. When the chocolate was gone, the animal sniffed first at Mark and then at Rya; and when it realized there would be no more treats today, it slipped out from between them and dashed toward the trees.
“Hey!” Mark said. He ran after it until he saw that it was much faster than he.
“Don’t worry,” Rya said. “He’ll come back tomorrow, so long as we have some chocolate for him.”
“If we tame him,” Mark said, “can I take him into town next week?”
“We’ll see,” Paul said. He looked at his watch. “If we’re going to spend today in town, we’d better get moving.”
The station wagon was parked half a mile away, at the end of a weed-choked dirt lane that was used by hunters in late autumn and early winter.
True to form, Mark shouted, “Last one to the ear’s a dope!” He ran ahead along the path that snaked down through the woods, and in a few seconds he was out of sight.
Rya walked at Paul’s side.
“That was a very nice thing you did,” he said.
She pretended not to know what he meant. “Getting the squirrel for Mark? It was fun.”
“You didn’t get it for Mark.”
“Sure I did. Who else would I get it for?”
“Yourself,” Paul said. “But when you saw how much it meant to him to have a squirrel of his own, you gave it up.”
She grimaced. “You must think I’m a saint or something! If I’d really wanted that squirrel, I wouldn’t have given him away. Not in a million years.”
“You’re not a good liar,” he said affectionately.
Exasperated, she said, “Fathers!” Hoping he wouldn’t notice her embarrassment, she ran ahead, shouting to Mark, and was soon out of sight beyond a dense patch of mountain laurel.
“Children!” he said aloud. But there was no exasperation in his voice, only love.
Since Annie’s death he had spent more time with the children than he might have done if she had lived—partly because there was something of her in Mark and Rya, and he felt that he was keeping in touch with her through them. He had learned that each of them was quite different from the other, each with his unique outlook and abilities, and he cherished their individuality. Rya would always know more about life, people, and the rules of the game than Mark would. Curious, probing, patient, seeking knowledge, she would enjoy life from an intellectual vantage point. She would know that especially intense passion—sexual, emotional, mental—which none but the very bright ever experience. On the other hand, although Mark would face life with far less understanding than Rya, he was not to be pitied. Not for a moment! Brimming with enthusiasm, quick to laugh, overwhelmingly optimistic, he would live every one of his days with gusto. If he was denied complex pleasures and satisfactions—well, to compensate for that, he would ever be in tune with the simple joys of life in which Rya, while understanding them, would never be able to indulge herself fully without some self-consciousness. Paul knew that, in days to come, each of his children would bring him a special kind of happiness and pride—unless death took them from him.
As if he had walked into an invisible barrier, he stopped in the middle of the trail and swayed slightly from side to side.
That last thought had taken him completely by surprise. When he lost Annie, he had thought for a time that he had lost all that was worth having. Her death made him painfully aware that everything—even deeply felt, strong personal relationships that nothing in life could twist or destroy—was temporary, pawned to the grave. For the past three and a half years, in the back of his mind, a small voice had been telling him to be prepared for death, to expect it, and not to let the loss of Mark or Rya or anyone else, if it came, shatter him as Annie’s death had nearly done. But until now the voice had been almost subconscious, an urgent counsel of which he was only vaguely aware. This was the first time that he had let it pop loose from the subconscious. As it rose to the surface, it startled
him. A shiver passed through him from head to foot. He had an eerie sense of precognition. Then it was gone as quickly as it had come.
An animal moved in the underbrush.
Overhead, above the canopy of trees, a hawk screamed.
Suddenly the summer forest seemed much too dark, too dense, too wild: sinister.
You’re being foolish, he thought. You’re no fortune teller. You’re no clairvoyant.
Nevertheless, he hurried along the winding path, anxious to catch up with Mark and Rya.
At 11:15 that morning, Dr. Walter Troutman was at the big mahogany desk in his surgery. He was eating an early lunch— two roast beef sandwiches, an orange, a banana, an apple, a cup of butterscotch pudding, and several glasses of iced tea— and reading a medical journal.
As the only physician in Black River, he felt that he had two primary responsibilities to the people in the area. The first was to be certain that, in the event of a catastrophe at the mill or some other medical crisis, he would never find himself undernourished and in want of energy to fulfill his duties. The second was to be aware of all developments in medical techniques and theory, so that the people who came to him would receive the most modern treatment available. Scores of satisfied patients— and the reverence and affection with which the whole town regarded him—testified to his success in meeting his second responsibility. As for the first, he stood five eleven and weighed two hundred and seventy pounds.
When an overweight patient, in the middle of one of the doctor’s lectures, had the temerity to mention Troutman’s own excess poundage, he was always countered with the same joke. “Obese? Me?” Troutman would ask, clearly astonished. “This isn’t fat I’m carrying. It’s stored energy, ready to be tapped if there’s ever a catastrophe up at the mill.” Then he would continue his lecture.
In truth, of course, he was an almost compulsive eater and had been all of his life. By the time he was thirty, he had given
up dieting and psychotherapy as truly lost causes. The same year, having been guaranteed a handsome stipend by the Big Union Supply Company, he had come to Black River where the people were so pleased to have a doctor of their own that they didn’t care if he was fat, thin, white, black, or green. For twenty years now, he had been accommodating his compulsion, stuffing himself with cakes and cookies and pies and five square meals a day; and in sum he felt that his life held more enjoyment than that of any other man he knew.
As he was about to enjoy it even more, as he was picking up the second roast beef sandwich, the telephone rang. He considered not answering it. But he was the kind of doctor who went out on house calls at any hour of the day or night. Even lunch had to be put aside if a patient needed help. He picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
The voice on the other end of the line was cold and sharp. “I am the key, Dr. Troutman.”
“I am the lock,” Troutman said without hesitation.
“Are you alone in the house?”
“Where is your nurse, Miss MacDonald?”
“I don’t know. At home, I suppose.”
“When will she be coming to work?”
“Half an hour before the office opens.”
“And the office opens at one thirty?”
“That’s correct,” Troutman said.
“Are you expecting anyone else before one o’clock?”
“No. No one.”
The stranger was silent for a moment.
Troutman listened to his desk clock ticking. He glanced at the food laid out on a linen napkin in front of him, picked a Sliver of roast beef from the sandwich, and ate it quickly like a fish taking a fly.
When the man on the other end of the line had decided on his approach, he said, “I’m going to ask you a number of important questions, doctor. You will give me complete answers to the best of your ability.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Have you recently had an epidemic of any sort in Black River?”
“Yes, we have.”
“Explain what you mean by that term, doctor.”
“Severe chills, cold sweats, nausea but without vomiting-and the resultant insomnia.”
“When were the first cases reported to you?”
“Wednesday, the tenth of this month. Nine days ago.”
“Did any of your patients mention nightmares?”
“Every one of them said he’d been awakened by a terrible dream.”
“Could any of them remember what it was?”
“No. None of them.”
“What treatment did you provide?”
“I gave placebos to the first few. But when I suffered the chills myself on Wednesday night, and when there were scores of new cases on Thursday, I began to prescribe a low-grade antibiotic.”
“That had no effect, of course.”
“Did you refer any patients to another physician?”
“No. The nearest other doctor is sixty miles away—and he’s in his late seventies. However, I did request an investigation by the State Health Authority.”
The stranger was silent for a moment. Then: “You did that merely because there was an epidemic of rather mild influenza?”
“It was mild,” Troutman said, “but decidedly unusual. No fever. No swelling of the glands. And yet, for as mild as it was, it spread throughout the town and the mill within twenty-four hours. Everyone had it. Of course I wondered if it might not be influenza at all but some sort of poisoning.”
“Yes. Of a common food or water supply.”
“When did you contact the Health Authority?”
“Friday the twelfth, late in the afternoon.”
“And they sent a man?”
“Not until Monday.”
“Was there still an epidemic at that time?”
“No,” Troutman said. “Everyone in town had the chills, the cold sweats, and the nausea again Saturday night. But no one was ill Sunday night. Whatever it was, it disappeared even more suddenly than it came.”
“Did the State Health Authority still run an investigation?” Intently studying the food on the napkin, Troutman shifted in his chair and said, “Oh, yes. Dr. Evans, one of their junior field men, spent all of Monday and most of Tuesday interviewing people and taking tests.”
“Tests? You mean of food and water?”
“Yes. Blood and urine samples too.”
“Did he take water samples from the reservoir?”
“Yes. He filled at least twenty vials and bottles.”
“Has he filed his report yet?”
Troutman licked his lips and said, “Yes. He called me last evening to give me the results of the tests.”
“I suppose he found nothing?”
“That’s correct. All the tests were negative.”
“Does he have any theories?” the stranger asked, a vague trace of anxiety in his voice.
That bothered Troutman. The key should not be anxious. The key had all the answers. “He believes that we’ve experienced a rare case of mass psychological illness.”
“An epidemic of formulated hysteria?”
“Then he’s making no recommendations?”
“None that I know of.”
“He has terminated the investigation?”
“That’s what he told me.”
The stranger sighed softly. “Doctor, earlier you told me that
everyone in town and at the mill had experienced the night chills. Were you speaking figuratively or literally?”
“Figuratively,” Troutman said. “There were exceptions. Perhaps twenty children, all under eight years of age. And two adults. Sam Edison and his daughter, Jenny.”
“The people who run the general store?” “That’s correct.”
“They didn’t suffer from the chills at all?” “Not at all.”
“Are they connected to the town’s water supply?”
“Everyone in town is.”
“All right. What about the lumbermen who work in the planned forests beyond the mill? Some of them virtually live out there. Were they all affected?”
“Yes. That was something Dr. Evans wanted to know too,” Troutman said. “He interviewed all of them.”
The stranger said, “I’ve no more questions, Dr. Troutman, but I do have some orders for you. When you hang up your receiver, you will instantly wipe all memory of our conversation from your mind. Do you understand?”
“You’ll forget every word we’ve exchanged. You’ll erase this memory from both your conscious and subconscious, so that it can never be recalled no matter how much you might wish to recall it. Understood?”
Troutman nodded somberly. “Yes.”
“When you hang up your receiver, you will remember only that the phone rang—and that it was a wrong number. Is that clear?”
“A wrong number. Yes, that’s clear.”
“Very well. Hang up, doctor.”
Carelessness, Troutman thought, a bit irritably, as he put down the receiver. If people paid attention to what they were doing, they wouldn’t dial so many wrong numbers or make one tenth of the other mistakes that peppered their lives. How many patients, badly cut or burned, had he treated who had been injured only because they were inattentive, careless?