The Mask / Page 12

Page 12



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.


“Sure.”


Carol went to the foot of the bed. “How are you feeling?”


“Okay.”


“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.”


“Double vision?”


“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.


“But—”


“No buts.”


“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.. .“


“What?”


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.


Ari watched.


“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.


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