“I guess not,” Paul said.
“So you’ll call me?”
“I very much doubt there’s a poltergeist involved here, Mr. Alsgood. If I keep looking long enough and hard enough, I’ll find a perfectly logical explanation for what’s been happening. But on the off-chance that it is a malign spirit, rest assured I’ll give you a call the moment the first refrigerator or chiffonier levitates.”
Alsgood wasn’t able to see anything amusing about their conversation. He frowned when he detected levity in Paul’s voice, and he said, “I didn’t really expect you to take me seriously.”
“Oh, please don’t think I’m not grateful for—”
“No, no,” Alsgood said, waving him to silence.
“I understand. No offense taken.” The excitement had gone out of his watery eyes. “You’ve been raised to believe strictly in science. You’ve been taught to put your faith only in things that can be seen and touched and measured. That’s the modem way.” His shoulders slumped. The color in his face faded, and his skin became pale, grayish, and slack, as it had been a few minutes ago. “Asking you to be open-minded about ghosts is as pointless as trying to convince a deep-sea creature that there are such things as birds. It’s sad but true, and I have no reason to be angry about it.”
He opened the front door, and the sound of the rain grew louder. “Anyway, for your sake, I hope it isn’t a poltergeist you’ve got here. I hope you find that logical explanation you’re looking for. I really do, Mr. Tracy.”
Before Paul could respond, Alsgood turned and walked out into the rain. He no longer seemed like a zealot; there was no trace of passion in him. He was just a thin, gray man, shuffling through the gray mist, head slightly bowed against the gray rain, illuminated by the gray light of the storm; he almost seemed like a ghost himself;
Paul closed the door, put his back against it, and looked around the hall, through the nearest archway, which opened onto the living room. Poltergeist? Not very damned likely.
He preferred Alsgood’s other suggestion: that the hammering might simply stop as suddenly and inexplicably as it had started, without the cause ever being known.
He glanced at his watch. 6:06.
Carol had said she would remain at the hospital until eight o’clock and would then come home for a late meal. That gave him an hour or so to work on his novel before he had to start cooking dinner— broiled chicken breasts, steamed vegetables, and rice with bits of green pepper.
He went upstairs to his office and sat down at the typewriter. He picked up the last page he had written, intending to reread it a few times and get back into the mood and tone of the story he was telling.
The house shook. The windows rattled.
He bolted up from his chair.
On his desk, the jar full of pens and pencils toppled over, cracked into several pieces, and spilled its contents onto the floor.
He waited. One minute. Two minutes.
There was no sound except the snapping of the rain against the windows and the drumming of it on the roof.
Only three hammer blows this time. Harder than any that had come before. But only three. Almost as if someone were playing games with him, taunting him.
Shortly before midnight, in room 316, the girl laughed softly in her sleep.
Outside her window, lightning pulsed, and the night flickered, and the darkness seemed to gallop for a moment, as if it were a huge and eager beast.
The girl turned onto her stomach without waking, murmured into her pillows. “The ax,” she said with a wistful sigh. “The ax. ..."
On the stroke of midnight, just forty minutes after she had fallen asleep, Carol bolted up from her pillows, trembling violently. As she struggled out of the grip of her nightmare, she heard someone say, “It’s coming! It’s coming!” She stared wildly, blindly into the lightless room until she realized the panic-stricken voice had been her own.
Suddenly she could not tolerate the darkness one second longer. She fumbled desperately for the switch on the bedside lamp, found it, and sagged with relief.
The light didn’t disturb Paul. He mumbled in his sleep but didn’t wake.
Carol leaned back against the headboard and listened to her racing heart as it gradually slowed to a normal beat.
Her hands were icy. She put them under the covers and curled them into warming fists.
The nightmares have got to stop, she told herself. I can’t go through this every night. I need my sleep.
Perhaps a vacation was called for. She had been working too hard for too long. The accumulated weariness was probably partly to blame for her bad dreams. She had also been under a great deal of unusual stress lately: the pending adoption, the near-tragic events in O’Brian’s office on Wednesday, the accident just yesterday morning, the girl’s amnesia for which she felt responsible. .. . Living with too much tension could cause exceptionally vivid nightmares of the sort she was experiencing. A week in the mountains, away from everyday problems, seemed like the perfect medicine.
In addition to all the other sources of stress, that day was approaching, the birthday of the child she had put up for adoption. A week from tomorrow, the
Saturday after next, would mark sixteen years since she had relinquished the baby. Already, eight days in advance of that anniversary, she was burdened by a heavy mantle of guilt. By the time next Saturday rolled around, she would most likely be thoroughly depressed, as usual. A week in the mountains, away from everyday problems, might be the perfect medicine for that ailment, too.
Last year, she and Paul had purchased a vacation cabin on an acre of timbered land in the mountains. It was a cozy place—two bedrooms, one bath, a living room with a big stone fireplace, and a complete kitchen—a retreat that combined all the comforts of civilization with the clean air, marvelous scenery, and tranquility that could not be found in the city.
They had planned to get away to the cabin at least two weekends every month during the summer, but they had made the trip only three times in the past four months, less than half as often as they had hoped.
Paul had labored hard to meet a series of self-imposed deadlines on his novel, and she had taken on more patients—a couple of really troubled kids who simply could not be turned away—and for both herself and Paul, work had expanded to fill every spare moment. Perhaps they were the overachievers that Alfred O’Brian had thought they might be.
But we’ll change when we have a child, Carol told herself. We’ll make lots of time for leisure and for family outings because creating the best environment for our child is the job we’re looking forward to more than any other.
Now, sitting up in bed, the grisly nightmare still chillingly fresh in her mind, she decided to start changing her life from this moment on. They would take off a few days, maybe a whole week, and go to the mountains before the recommendations committee's meeting at the end of the month, so they would be rested and composed when at last they met the child who would be theirs. They couldn’t take off this coming week, of course. She would need time to reschedule her appointments. Besides, she didn’t want to leave town until Jane Doe’s parents showed up and properly identified the girl; that might take a few more days. But they ought to be able to carve a large chunk of time out of the week after next, and she made up her mind to start nudging Paul about it first thing in the morning.
Having reached that decision, she felt better. The mere prospect of a vacation, even a brief one, relieved much of her tension.
She looked at Paul and said, “I love you.”
He continued to snore softly.
Smiling, she clicked off the light and settled under the covers again. For a couple of minutes she listened to the rain and to her husband’s rhythmic breathing; then she drifted into a sound, satisfying sleep.
Rain fell throughout Saturday, rounding out a monotonously watery, sunless week. The day was cool, too, and the wind had teeth.
Carol visited Jane in the hospital on Saturday afternoon. They played cards and talked about some of the articles the girl had read in the magazines Carol had bought for her. Through every conversation, regardless of the subject, Carol probed continuously but subtly at the girl’s amnesia, prodded her memory without letting her see that she was being prodded.
But it was all wasted effort, for Jane’s past remained beyond her grasp.
At the end of the afternoon visiting hours, as Carol was heading toward the elevators on the third floor, she encountered Dr. Sam Hannaport in the corridor.
“Haven’t the police come up with any leads at all?” she asked.
He shrugged his burly shoulders. “Not yet.”
“It’s been over two days since the accident.”
“Which isn’t all that long.”
“It seems like an eternity to that poor kid in there,” Carol said, gesturing toward the door of 316.
“I know,” Hannaport said. “And I feel just as bad about it as you do. But it’s still too soon to be pessimistic.”
“If I had a girl like her, and if my kid turned up missing for even one day, I’d be pushing the police hard, and I’d make damned sure the story was in all the papers, and I’d be pounding on doors and making a nuisance of myself all over the city.”
Hannaport nodded. “I know you would. I’ve seen how you operate, and I admire your style. And listen, I think your visits with the girl have an awful lot to do with keeping her spirits up. It’s good of you to take all this time with her.”
“Well, I’m not angling for a testimonial dinner,”
Carol said. “I don’t think I’m doing any more than I have to do. I mean, I’ve got a responsibility here.”
A nurse came along, pushing a patient in a wheelchair. Carol and Hannaport stepped out of the way.
“At least Jane seems to be in good physical shape,” Carol said.
“Like I told you on Wednesday—there were no
serious injuries. In fact, because she is in such good condition, she presents us with a problem. She doesn’t really belong in a hospital. I just hope her parents show up before I’m forced to discharge her.”
“Discharge her? But you can’t do that if she has nowhere to go. She can’t cope outside. For God’s sake, she doesn’t even know who she is!”
“Naturally, I’ll keep her here as long as I possibly can. But by late tonight or tomorrow morning, all of our beds are probably going to be full. Then, if the number of emergency admissions is greater than the number of discharges already scheduled, we’ll have to look around for a few other patients who can be safely released. Jane’s bound to be one of them. If some guy’s brought in here with a cracked skull from an auto accident, or if an ambulance delivers a woman who’s been stabbed by a jealous boyfriend, I can’t justify turning away seriously injured people while I’m keeping a perfectly healthy girl whose worst physical problem is a contusion on her left shoulder.”
“But her amnesia—”
“Is something we can’t treat anyway.”
“But she has nowhere to go,” Carol said. “What would happen to her?”
In his calm, soft, reassuring voice, Hannaport said, “She’ll be okay. Really. We’re not going to just abandon her. We’ll petition to have her declared a ward of the court until her parents show up. In the meantime, she’ll do just as well at some minimal-care facility as she would do here.”
“What facility are you talking about?”
“Just three blocks from here, there’s a borne for runaway and pregnant teenage girls, and it’s far
cleaner and better managed than the average state institution.”
“The Polmar Home,” Carol said. “I know it.”
“Then you know it’s not a dungeon or a dump.”
“I still don’t like moving her out of here,” Carol said. “She’s going to feel as if she’s being shunted aside, forgotten, and left to rot. She’s on very shaky ground already. This’II scare her half to death.”
Frowning, Hannaport said, “I don’t like it much myself, but! truly don’t have an option. If we’re short on bed space, the law says we’ve got to consider degrees of need and take in those patients who have the most to lose by being denied care or by having treatment delayed. I’m in a bind.”
“I understand. I’m not blaming you. Dammit, if someone would just come forward to claim her!”
“Someone might, any minute.”
Carol shook her head. “No. I’ve got a feeling it’s not going to be that easy. Have you told Jane yet?”
“No. We won’t make the petition to the court sooner than Monday morning, so I might as well wait until tomorrow to explain it to her. Maybe something'll happen between now and then to make it unnecessary. No use worrying her until we have to.”
Carol was depressed, remembering her own days in a state-run institution, before Grace had come along to rescue her. She had been a tough kid, street-smart, but the experience had nevertheless scarred her. Jane was bright and spunky and strong and sweet, but she wasn’t rough, not like Carol had been at her age. What would institutional living do to her if she had to endure it for more than a day or two? If she was simply dropped in among kids who were street-smart, among kids who had drug and behavioral problems, she would most likely be victimized, perhaps even violently. What she needed was a real home, love, guidance— “Of course!” Carol said. She grinned.
Hannaport looked at her questioningly.
“Why can’t she come with me?” Carol asked.
“Look, Dr. Hannaport, if it’s all right with Paul, my husband, why couldn’t you recommend to the court that I be awarded temporary custody of Jane until someone shows up who can identify her?”
“You really better think twice about that,” Hannaport said. “Taking her in, disrupting your lives—”
“It won’t be a disruption,” Carol said. “It’ll be a pleasure. She’s a delightful kid.”
Hannaport stared at her a long moment, searching her face and her eyes.
“After all,” Carol argued as persuasively as she could, “the only kind of doctor who might be able to cure Jane’s amnesia is a psychiatrist. And in case you’ve forgotten, that’s what I am. I’d not only be able to provide a decent home for her; I’d also be able to treat her rather intensively.”