When he lowered his arm, he saw there was no one standing beyond the doorway, no man with an ax. The chopper-of-doors was, after all, the unseen presence.
Paul stepped over a shattered section of the door and went out into the hallway
The fuse box was in the kitchen pantry. Carol engaged all the breaker switches, and the lights came on.
There was no telephone. That was virtually the only modern convenience the cabin lacked.
“Do you think it’s chilly in here?” Carol asked.
“We have a bottled-gas furnace, but unless it’s really cold, the fireplace is nicer. Let’s bring in some firewood.”
“You mean we’ve got to cut down a tree?”
Carol laughed. “That won’t be necessary. Come see.”
She led the girl outside, to the rear of the cabin, where an open porch ended in steps leading down to a short rear yard. The yard met the edge of a small meadow where the grass was knee-deep, and the meadow climbed up toward a wall of trees fifty yards away.
When Carol saw that familiar landscape, she stopped, surprised, remembering the dream that had spoiled her sleep several nights last week. In the nightmare, she had been running through one house, then through another house, then across a mountain meadow, while something silvery flickered in the darkness behind her. At the time, she had not realized that the meadow in the dream was this meadow.
“Something wrong?” Jane asked.
“Huh? Oh. No. Let’s get that firewood.”
She led the girl down the porch steps and to the left, to where a woodshed was attached to the southwest corner of the cabin.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. The rain hadn’t
begun to fall yet.
Carol keyed open the heavy-duty padlock on the woodshed, took it off the hasp, and slipped it in her jacket pocket. There would be no need to replace it until they were ready to return to Harrisburg, nine or ten days from now.
The woodshed door creaked open on unoiled hinges. Inside, Carol tugged on the chain-pull light, and a bare hundred-watt bulb revealed stacks of dry cordwood being protected from inclement weather.
A scuttle for carrying firewood hung from a ceiling hook. Carol got it down and handed it to the girl. “If you fill it up four or five times, we’ll have more than enough wood to last us until tomorrow morning.”
By the time Jane returned from taking the first scuttle-load into the cabin, Carol was at the chopping block, using an ax to split a short log into four sticks.
“What’re you doing?” the girl asked, stopping well
out of the way and staring warily at the ax.
“When I build a fire,” Carol said, “I put kindling on the bottom, a layer of these splits on top of that, and then the full logs to crown it off. It never fails to bum well that way. See? I’m a regular Daniel Boone.”
The girl scowled. “That ax looks awful sharp.”
“Has to be.”
“Are you sure it’s safe?”
“I’ve done it lots of times before, here and at home,” Carol said. “I’m an expert. Don’t worry, honey. I’m not going to accidentally amputate my toes.”
She picked up another short log and started to split it into quarters.
Jane went to the woodshed, giving the chopping block a wide berth. When she returned, carrying her second scuttle-load to the house, she repeatedly glanced over her shoulder, frowning.
Carol began quartering another log.
Carrying his suitcase, Paul walked down the second-floor hall to the stairway, and the poltergeist went with him. On both sides, doors opened and slammed shut, opened and slammed shut, again and again, all by themselves and with such tremendous force that it sounded as if he were walking through a murderous barrage of cannon fire.
As he descended the stairs, the chandelier at the top of the well began describing wide circles on the end of its chain, stirred by a breeze that Paul could not feel or moved by a hand that had no substance.
On the first floor, paintings were flung off walls as he passed by. Chairs toppled over. The living room sofa rocked wildly on its four graceful wooden legs. In the kitchen, the overhead utensil rack shook; pots and pans and ladles banged against one another.
By the time he reached the Pontiac in the garage, he knew he didn’t have to bother taking the entire suitcase to the mountains. He hadn’t wanted to go charging into the cabin with just a gun and the clothes on his back, for if nothing had been wrong, he would have looked like an idiot, and he would have done Jane a grave injustice. But now, because of the call from Polly at Maugham & Crichton, and because of the astounding display put on by the poltergeist, be knew that everything was wrong; there was no chance whatsoever that he would reach the cabin only to discover that all was peaceful. He would be walking into a nightmare of one kind or another. No doubt about it. So he opened the suitcase on the garage floor beside the car, took out the loaded revolver, and left the rest of his stuff behind.
As he was backing out of the driveway, he saw Grace Mitowski’s blue Ford turn the corner, too fast. It angled toward the curb in front of the house, scraping its sidewalls so badly that blue-white smoke rose from them.
Grace was out of the car the instant it stopped. She rushed to the Pontiac, moving faster than Paul had seen her move in years. She pulled open the front, passenger-side door and leaned in. Her hair was in complete disarray. Her face was eggshell white and spattered with blood.
“Good God, Grace, what’s happened to you?”
“She went to the cabin.”
“Damn? Exactly when?’
"Three hours ago.”
Grace’s eyes contained a haunted expression. “The girl went with her?”
She closed her eyes, and Paul could see she was on the edge of panic, trying to deal with it and calm herself. She opened her eyes and said, “We’ve got to go after them.”
“That’s where I’m headed.”
He saw her eyes widen as she noticed the revolver lying on the car seat beside him, the muzzle pointed forward, toward the dashboard.
She raised her eyes from the gun to his face. “You know what’s happening?” she asked, surprised.
“Not really,” he said, putting the gun in the glove compartment. “All I know for sure is that Carol’s in trouble. Damned serious trouble.”
“It’s not just Carol we’ve got to worry about,” Grace said. “It’s both of them.”
“Both? The girl, you mean? But I think the girl’s the one who’s going to—”
“Yes,” Grace said. “She’s going to try to kill Carol. But she might be the one who ends up dead. Like before.”
She got in the car and pulled the door shut.
“Like before?” Paul said. “I don’t—” He saw her blood-crusted hand. “That needs medical attention.”
“There’s no time.”
“What the hell’s happening?” he demanded, his fear for Carol briefly giving way to frustration.” I know something strange is going on, but I don’t know what in Christ’s name it is.”
“I do,” she said. “I know. In fact I know a lot more than maybe I want to know.”
“If you’ve got anything that makes sense, anything concrete,” he said, “we should call the cops. They can put in a call to the sheriff’s department up there and get help sent out to the cabin real fast, faster than we can get there.”
“What I’ve got, my information, is harder than concrete, so far as I’m concerned,” Grace said. “But the police wouldn’t see it the same way I do. They’d say I was just a senile old fool. They’d want to lock me up in a nice safe place for my own good. At best, they’d laugh at me.”
He thought about the poltergeist—the sound of the ax, the splintering door, the airborne ceramic figurines, the toppling chairs—and he said, “Yeah. I know exactly what you mean.”
“We’ll have to handle this ourselves,” Grace said. “Let’s get rolling. I can tell you everything I know on the way. Each minute we waste, I just get sicker and sicker, thinking about what might be happening in the mountains.”
Paul backed the car into the street and drove away from the house, heading for the nearest freeway entrance. When he was on the open highway, he floored the accelerator, and the car rocketed ahead.
“How long does it usually take to get there?” Grace asked.
“About two hours and fifteen minutes.”
“We’ll do better than that.”
The speedometer needle touched eighty.
THEY had brought a lot of food in cardboard cartons and ice chests. They transferred all of those items to the cupboards and refrigerator, agreeing to forgo lunch altogether in order to indulge themselves guiltlessly in a glutton’s dinner.
“All right,” Carol said, producing a list from one of the kitchen drawers, “here’s what we need to do to make this place livable.” She read from the list:
“Remove plastic dropcloths from furniture; dust
everything; scrub the kitchen sink; clean the bathroom; and put sheets and blankets on the beds.”
“You call this a vacation?” Jane asked.
“What’s wrong? Doesn’t that sound like a fun agenda to you?”
“Well, the cabin’s not enormous. The two of us will go through the list of chores in an hour or an hour and a half.”
They had barely started when they were interrupted by a knock at the door. It was Vince Gervis, the colony’s caretaker. He was a big, barrel-chested man with enormous shoulders, enormous biceps, enormous hands, and a smile to match the rest of him.
“Just makin’ my rounds,” he said. “Saw your car. Thought I’d say hello.” Carol introduced him to Jane and said she was a niece (a convenient white lie), and there was some polite chitchat, and then Gervis said, “Dr. Tracy, where’s the other Dr. Tracy? I’d like to give him my best, too.”
“Oh, he isn’t with us right now,” Carol said. “He’s coming up on Sunday, after he finishes some important work he couldn’t just put aside.”
Carol said, “Is something wrong?”
“Well. . . me and the missus was plannin’ to go into town to do some shoppin’, maybe see a movie, eat a restaurant meal. It’s what we generally do on Friday afternoons, you see. But there isn’t another soul up here besides you and Jane. Will be tomorrow, bein’ as it’s a Saturday, and seem’ as if the weather don’t get too bad so that everybody stays to home. But there’s no one else so far today except you.”
“Don’t worry about us,” Carol said. “We’ll be fine.
You and Peg go on into town like you planned.”
“Well.. . I’m not sure I like the idea of you two ladies out here all by your lonesome, twenty miles from other folks. No sir, I don’t like it much.”
“Nobody’s going to bother us, Vince. The road’s gated; you can’t even get in without a key card.”
“Anybody can walk in if he’s willin’ to go overland just a little ways.”
Carol required several minutes and a lot of words to reassure him, but at last he decided that he and his wife would keep to their usual Friday schedule.
Shortly after Vince left, the rains came. The soft roar of a hundred million droplets striking a hundred million rustling leaves was soothing to Carol.
But Jane found the noise somewhat unpleasant.
“I don’t know why,” she said, “but the sound makes me think of fire. Hissing. . . just like a lot of flames eating up everything in sight. Sizzle, sizzle, sizzle.. .“
The rain forced Paul to slow down to sixty, which was still too fast for highway conditions, but the situation called for the taking of some risks.
The windshield wipers thumped metronomically, and the tires sang softly on the wet macadam.
The day was dark and growing darker. It looked more like twilight than like midday. The wind blew obscuring curtains of rain across the treacherously wet pavement, and the gray-brown road spray flung up by other traffic hung in the air, a thick and dirty mist.
It seemed almost as if the Pontiac were a tiny vessel sailing through the deep currents of a vast, cold sea, the only pocket of warmth and light within a million miles.
Grace said, “You probably won’t believe what I’ve got to tell you, and that would be understandable.”
“After what’s happened to me today,” Paul said, “I’m ready to believe anything.”
And maybe that’s what the poltergeist meant to do, he thought. Maybe it meant to prepare me for whatever story Grace has to tell. In fact, if I hadn’t been delayed by the poltergeist, I would have left the house before Grace arrived.
“I’ll keep it as simple and straightforward as I can,” Grace said. “But it’s not a simple and straightforward matter.” She cradled her torn left hand in her right hand; the bleeding had stopped, and the cuts were all crusty, clotted. “It starts in 1865, in Shippensburg. The family was named Havenswood.”
Paul glanced her, startled by the name.
She looked straight ahead, at the rain-sodden land through which they were rushing. “The mother was Willa Havenswood, and the daughter’s name was Laura. Those two didn’t get along well. Not well at all. The fault was on both sides, and the reasons for their constant bickering aren’t really important here. What’s important is that one day in the spring of 1865, Willa sent Laura into the cellar to do some spring cleaning, even though she knew perfectly well that the girl was deathly afraid of the cellar. It was punishment, you see. And while Laura was down there in the cellar, a fire broke out upstairs. She was trapped and burned to death. She must have died blaming her mother for putting her in that trap in the first place. Maybe she even blamed Willa for starting the fire— which she didn’t. It was accidentally started by Rachael Adams, Laura’s aunt. It’s even possible that Laura wondered if her mother had started the fire on purpose, just to get rid of her. The child had emotional problems; she was capable of melodramatic notions of that sort. The mother had emotional problems, too; she was capable of inspiring paranoia, for sure. Anyway, Laura died a gruesome death, and we can be pretty certain that her last thought was an ardent wish for revenge. There was no way she could have known that her mother perished in that fire, too!”