“I’m not your mother,” Carol said. “Laura, you are-”
“I’m going to cut your goddamn head off this time, you bitch!”
The voice had changed.
It wasn’t Laura’s now.
It belonged to Linda Bektermann, the third identity.
“I’m going to cut your goddamn head off and put it on the kitchen table with Daddy’s.”
With a jolt, Carol recalled last week’s nightmare.
There had been a moment in the dream when she had stepped into the kitchen and had encountered two severed heads on the table, a man’s and a woman’s. But how could Jane know what had been in that nightmare?
Carol finally took a step backwards, then another. Although the rain was cold, she began to sweat.
“I’m only going to tell you one more time, Linda. You must put the ax down and—”
“I’m going to cut your head off and chop you into a thousand little pieces,” the girl said.
And the voice now belonged to Jane.
It wasn’t the voice of an identity heretofore only evident in a trance. This was Jane’s voice. She had come out of the trance on her own power. She knew who she was. She knew who Carol was. And she still wanted to use the ax.
Carol edged toward the back porch steps.
The girl quickly circled in that direction, blocking access to the cabin. Then she started toward Carol, moving fast, grinning.
Carol turned and ran toward the meadow.
In spite of the pounding rain, which snapped with bulletlike power into the windshield, in spite of the dirty mist that hung over the road, in spite of the treacherously greasy pavement, Paul slowly pressed the accelerator all the way to the floor and swung the Pontiac into the passing lane.
“It’s a mask,” he said.
Grace said, “What do you mean?”
“The Jane Doe identity, the Linda Bektermann and Millie Parker identities—each of them was just a mask. A very real, very convincing mask. But a mask nonetheless. Behind the mask there was always the same face, the same person. Laura.”
“And we’ve got to put an end to the masquerade once and for all,” Grace said. “If I can just talk to her as her Aunt Rachael, I’ll be able to stop this madness. I’m sure I will, She’ll listen to me.. . to Rachael. That’s who she was closest to. Closer than she was to her mother. I can make her understand that her mother, Willa, didn’t intentionally or even accidentally start that fire back in 1865. At last she’ll understand. She’ll see that there’s no justification for revenge. The cycle will come to an end.”
“If we’re in time,” Paul said.
“If,” Grace said.
Carol ran through the stinging rain and through the knee-high grass. She ran up the sloping meadow, her arms tucked in close to her side, legs pumping high, gasping for breath, each stride jarring her to the bones.
Ahead lay the forest, which seemed to be her only salvation. There were thousand of places to hide in the wilderness, countless trails on which she could lose the girl. After all, she was somewhat familiar with the land, but to the girl it was a strange place.
Halfway across the meadow, she risked a glance behind her. The girl was only fifteen feet away.
Lightning slashed through the bellies of the clouds, and the blade of the ax flashed once, twice, with a brilliant reflection of that icy electric glow.
Carol looked straight ahead once more and redoubled her efforts to reach the trees. The meadow was wet, spongy, and in some places slippery. She expected to fall or at least twist an ankle, but she reached the perimeter of the forest without trouble.
She plunged in among the trees, among the purple and brown and black shadows, into the lush undergrowth, and she began to think there was a chance— maybe only a very small chance, but a chance nonetheless—that she would come out of this alive.
Hunching over the steering wheel, squinting at the ram-swept highway, Paul said, “I want one thing perfectly clear between us.”
Grace said, “What’s that?”
“Carol’s my first concern.”
“If we walk into the middle of a nasty situation at the cabin, I’ll do whatever’s necessary to protect Carol.”
Grace glanced at the glove compartment. “You mean. . . the gun.”
“Yes. If! have to, if there’s no other way, I’ll use it, Grace. I’ll shoot the girl if there’s no other choice.”
“It’s unlikely that we’ll walk into the middle of a
confrontation,” Grace said. “Either it won’t have begun yet—or it’ll all be over with by the time we get there.”
“I won’t let her hurt Carol,” he said grimly. “And if worse comes to worst, I don’t want you trying to stop me.”
“There are some things you should consider,”
“First of all, it’ll be just as tragic if Carol kills the girl. And that’s the pattern, after all. Both Millie and Linda attacked their mothers, but they were the ones killed. What if that happens this time? What if Carol is forced to kill the girl in self-defense? You know she’s never stopped feeling guilty about putting the baby up for adoption. She carries that on her shoulders sixteen years after the fact. So what will happen when she discovers she’s killed her own daughter?”
“It’ll destroy her,” he said without hesitation.
“I think it very well might. And what’ll it do to your relationship with Carol if you kill her daughter, even if you do it to save Carol’s life?”
He thought about that for a moment. Then he said,
“It might destroy us, and he shuddered.
For a while, no matter how tortuous the path she followed through the woods, Carol could not lose the girl. She switched from one natural trail to another, crossed a small stream, doubled back the way she had come. She moved in a crouch at all times, staying out of sight below the brush line. She made no sound that could be heard above the constant hissing of the rain Most of the time she carefully stepped on old leaves or made her way from stone to stone, from log to log, leaving no footprints, in the damp, bare earth. Yet Jane pursued her with uncanny confidence, without hesitation, as if she were part bloodhound.
At last, however, Carol was certain she had lost the girl. She squatted under a huge pine, leaned back against the damp bark, and breathed deeply, rapidly, raggedly, while waiting for her heart to stop racing.
A minute passed. Two. Five.
The only sound was the rain drizzling down through the leaves and through the interlaced pine needles.
She became aware of the dank odor of heavy vegetation—moss and fungus and forest grass and more.
She was safe, at least for now.
But she couldn’t just sit beneath the tall pine, waiting for help to arrive. Eventually, Jane would stop searching for her and would try to find a way back to the cabin. If the girl didn’t get lost—which she most likely would do—if she somehow managed to return to the cabin, and if she was still in a psychotic fugue when she got there, she might murder the first person she encountered. If she took Vince Gervis by surprise, even his great size and impressive muscles would be of no use against the blade of an ax.
Carol stood up, moved away from the tree, and began to circle back toward the cabin. The keys to the Volkswagen were in her purse, and her purse was in one of the bedrooms. She had to get the keys, drive into town, and ask the county sheriff for assistance.
What went wrong? she wondered. girl shouldn’t have become violent. There was no indication that she was capable of such a thing. The potential to kill simply was not a part of her psychological profile. Paul was right to be worried. But why?
Proceeding with utmost caution, expecting the girl to leap at her from behind every tree and bush, Carol needed fifteen minutes to reach the edge of the forest at a point not far from the place at which she had
entered the trees with the girl in hot pursuit. The meadow was deserted. At the bottom of the slope, the cabin huddled in the pouring rain.
The kid’s lost, Carol thought. All of that twisting and turning and doubling back through unfamiliar territory was too much for her. She’ll never find the way home by herself.
The sheriff’s men weren’t going to like this one: a search in the rain, in the forest, for a violent girl who was armed with an ax. No, they weren’t going to like this one at all.
Carol navigated the meadow at a run.
The rear door of the cabin was standing open, just as she had left it.
She hurried inside, slammed the door, and threw the bolt. Relief swept through her.
She swallowed a couple of times, caught her breath, and crossed the kitchen to the door that led into the living room. She was about to step across that threshold when she was stopped by a sudden, terrible certainty that she was not alone.
She jumped back, spurred by intuition more than anything else, and even as she moved, the ax swung in from the left, through the doorway. It sliced the air where she had been. If she hadn’t moved, she would have been cut in half.
The girl stepped into the room, brandishing the ax. “Bitch.”
Carol backed to the door that she had just latched.
She fumbled behind her for the bolt. Couldn’t find it.
The girl closed in.
Whimpering, Carol turned to the door, seized the
latch. She sensed the ax rising, into the air behind her and knew she wouldn’t have time to open the door, and she jerked to one side, and the blade bit into the door just where her head would have been.
With superhuman strength, the girl wrenched the ax out of the wood.
Gasping, Carol ducked past her and ran into the living room. She looked for something with which to defend herself. The only thing available was a poker in the rack of fireplace tools. She grabbed it.
Behind her, Jane said, “I hate you!”
The girl swung the ax.
Carol brought the poker up without any time to spare, and it rang against the gleaming, viciously sharp blade, deflecting the blow.
The impact rang back the length of the poker, into Carol’s hands, numbing them. She couldn’t maintain her grip on the iron rod; it fell from her tingling hands.
The impact did not ring back along the wooden handle of the ax, and Jane still held that weapon with firm determination.
Carol backed up onto the wide hearth of the stone fireplace. She could feel the heat against her legs.
She had nowhere else to run.
“Now,” Jane said. “Now. At last.”
She lifted the ax high, and Carol cried out in anticipation of the pain, and the front door was flung open. It crashed against the wall. Paul was there. And Grace.
The girl glanced at them but was not going to be distracted; she brought the ax down toward Carol’s face.
Carol collapsed onto the hearth.
The ax struck the stone mantel over her head; sparks flew.
Paul rushed at the girl, but she sensed him coming. She turned toward him, slashed with the ax, and drove him back.
Then turned on Carol again.
“Cornered rat,” she said, grinning.
The ax came up.
This time it won’t miss, Carol thought.
Someone said, “Spiders!”
The girl froze.
The ax was suspended in midair.
“Spiders!” It was Grace. “There are spiders on your back, Laura. Oh God, they’re all over your back. Spiders! Laura, look out for the spiders!”
Carol watched, bewildered, as a look of stark terror took possession of the girl’s face.
“Spiders!” Grace shouted again. “Big, black, hairy spiders, Laura. Get them off! Get them off your back. Quick!”
The girl screamed and dropped the ax, which clattered against the stone hearth. She brushed frantically at her back, twisting her arms up behind her. She was snuffling and squealing like a very small child. “Help me!”
“Spiders,” Grace said again, as Paul picked up the ax and put it out of the way.
The girl tried to tear off her blouse. She dropped to her knees, then fell onto her side, gibbering in terror. She writhed on the floor, brushing imaginary spiders off her body. Within a minute she seemed to be in a state of shock; she lay shuddering, weeping.
“She was always afraid of spiders,” Grace said. “That was why she hated the cellar.”
"The cellar?” Carol asked.
“Where she died,” Grace said.
Carol didn’t understand. But at the moment she didn’t care. She watched the girl writhing on the floor, and she suddenly felt overwhelming pity for her. She knelt beside Jane, lifted her up, hugged her.
“You okay?” Paul asked her.
“Spiders,” the girl said, quivering uncontrollably.
“No, honey,” Carol said. “No spiders. There aren’t any spiders on you. Not now. Not any more.” And she looked at Grace, wondering.