“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.”