Lightning slashed through the panoply of clouds again, nearer this time than before; it seemed to strike the ground no more than two blocks away. The ensuing crash of thunder rattled the tall windows.
Carol used the interruption provided by the thunderclap to consider her response, and she decided that O’Brian would appreciate forthrightness more than modesty. “Yes. I’d say I’m an overachiever. I’m involved in two of the three charities that Paul has his hand in. And I know I’m a bit young to have established a psychiatric practice as successful as mine is. I’m also a guest lecturer at the college on a fairly regular basis. And I’m doing post-doctoral research on autistic children. During the summer I manage to keep a little vegetable garden going, and I do some needlepoint in the winter months, and I even brush
my teeth three times a day, every day, without fail.” O’Brian laughed. “Three times a day, huh? Oh,
you’re most definitely an overachiever.”
The warmth of his laughter reassured Carol, and with renewed confidence she said, “I believe I understand what you’re concerned about. You’re wondering if Paul and I might expect too much of our child.”
“Exactly,” O’Brian said. He noticed a speck of lint on his coat sleeve and plucked it off. “Parents who are overachievers tend to push their kids too hard, too fast, too soon.”
Paul said, “That’s a problem that arises only when parents are unaware of the danger. Even if Carol and I are overachievers—which I’m not prepared to admit just yet—we wouldn’t pressure our kids to do more than they were capable of doing. Each of us has to find his own pace in life. Carol and I realize that a child should be guided, not hammered into a mold.”
“Of course,” Carol said.
O’Brian appeared to be pleased. “I knew you’d say that—or something very like it.”
Lightning flashed again. This time it seemed to strike even closer than before, only a block away. Thunder cracked, then cracked again. The overhead lights dimmed, fluttered, reluctantly came back to full power.
“In my psychiatric practice, I deal with a wide variety of patients who have all kinds of problems,”
Carol told O’Brian, “but I specialize in the mental disorders and emotional disturbances of children and adolescents. Sixty or seventy percent of my patients are seventeen or younger. I’ve treated several kids who’ve suffered serious psychological damage at the hands of parents who were too demanding, who pushed them too hard in their schoolwork, in every aspect of their intellectual and personal development. I’ve seen the wounded ones, Mr. O’Brian, and I’ve nursed them as best I could, and because of those experiences, I couldn’t possibly turn around and do to my children what I’ve seen some parents do to theirs. Not that I won’t make mistakes. I’m sure I will. My full share of them. But the one that you mentioned won’t be among them.”
“That’s valid,” O’Brian said, nodding. “Valid and very well put. I’m sure that when I tell the recommendations committee what you’ve just said, they’ll be quite satisfied on this point.” He spotted another tiny speck on his sleeve and removed it, frowning as if it were not merely lint, but offal. “Another question they’re bound to ask: Suppose the child you adopt turns out to be not only an underachiever but. . . well... basically less intelligent than either of you. For parents as oriented toward an intellectual life as you are, wouldn’t you be somewhat frustrated with a child of just average—or possibly slightly below average— intelligence?”
“Well, even if we were capable of having a child of our own,” Paul said, “there wouldn’t be any guarantee that he’d be a prodigy or anything of that sort. But if he was. . . slow. . . we’d still love him. Of course we would. And the same goes for any child we might adopt.”
To O’Brian, Carol said, “I think you’ve got too high an opinion of us. Neither of us is a genius, for heaven’s sake! We’ve gotten as far as we have primarily through hard work and perseverance, not be-
cause we were exceptionally bright. I wish it had come that easy, but it didn’t.”
“Besides,” Paul said, “you don’t love a person merely because he’s intelligent. It’s his entire personality that counts, the whole package, and a lot of factors contribute to that package, a great many things other than just intellect.”
“Good,” O’Brian said. “I’m glad to hear you feel that way. The committee will respond well to that answer, too.”
For the past few seconds, Carol had been aware of the distant wail of sirens. Fire engines. Now they were not as distant as they had been; they were rapidly growing nearer, louder.
“I think maybe one of those last two bolts of lightning caused some real damage when it touched down,” Paul said.
O’Brian swung his chair around toward the center window, which was directly behind his desk. “It did sound as if it struck nearby.”
Carol looked at each of the three windows, but she couldn’t see any smoke rising from behind the nearest rooftops. Then again, the view was blurred and visibility was reduced by the water-spotted panes of glass and by the curtains of mist and gray rain that wavered and whipped and billowed beyond the glass.
The sirens swelled.
“More than one truck,” O’Brian said.
The fire engines were right outside the office for a moment—at least two trucks, perhaps three—and then they passed, heading into the next block.
O’Brian pushed up from his chair and stepped to the window.
As the first sirens dwindled just a little, new ones shrieked in the street behind them.
“Must be serious,” Paul said. “Sounds as if at least two engine companies are responding.”
“I see smoke,” O’Brian said.
Paul rose from his chair and moved toward the windows to get a better look.
Something’s wrong here.
That thought snapped into Carol’s mind, startling her as if a whip had cracked in front of her face. A powerful, inexplicable current of panic surged through her, electrified her. She gripped the arms of her chair so tightly that one of her fingernails broke.
Something. . . is.. . wrong.. . very wrong...
Suddenly the air was oppressively heavy—hot, thick, as if it were not air at all but a bitter and poisonous gas of some kind. She tried to breathe, couldn’t. There was an invisible, crushing weight on her chest.
Get away from the windows!
She tried to shout that warning, but panic had short-circuited her voice. Paul and O’Brian were at different windows, but they both had their backs to her, so that neither of them could see she had been gripped by sudden, immobilizing fear.
Fear of what? she demanded of herself. What in the name of God am l so scared of?
She struggled against the unreasonable terror that had locked her muscles and joints. She started to get up from the chair, and that was when it happened.
A murderous barrage of lightning crashed like a volley of mortar fire, seven or eight tremendous bolts, perhaps more than that—she didn’t count them, couldn’t count them—one right after the other, with-
out a significant pause between them, each fierce boom overlapping the ones before and after it, yet each clearly louder than its predecessors, so loud that they made her teeth and bones vibrate, each bolt smashing down discernibly closer to the building than had the bolt before it, closer to the seven-foot-high windows—the gleaming, flashing, rattling, now-black, now-milky, now-shining, now-blank, now-silvery, now-coppery windows.
The sharp bursts of purple-white light produced a series of jerky, stroboscopic images that were burned forever into Carol’s memory: Paul and O’Brian standing there, silhouetted against the natural fireworks, looking small and vulnerable; outside, the rain descending in an illusion of hesitation; wind-lashed trees heaving in a strobe-choppy rage; lightning blasting into one of those trees, a big maple, and then an ominous dark shape rising from the midst of the explosion, a torpedo like thing, spinning straight toward the center window (all of this transpiring in only a second or two, but given a queer, slow-motion quality by the flickering lightning and, after a moment, by the overhead electric light as well, which began to flicker, too); O’Brian throwing one arm up in front of his face in what appeared to be half a dozen disconnected movements; Paul turning toward O’Brian and reaching for him, both men like figures on a motion picture screen when the film slips and stutters in the projector; O’Brian lurching sideways; Paul seizing him by a coat sleeve, pulling him back and down toward safety (only a fraction of a second after the lightning splintered the maple); a huge tree limb bursting through the center window even as Paul was pulling O’Brian out of the way; one leafy branch sweeping
across O’Brian’s head, ripping his glasses loose, tossing them into the air—his face, Carol thought, his eyes!—and then Paul and O’Brian falling to the floor, out of sight; the enormous limb of the shattered maple slamming down on top of O’Brian’s desk in a spray of water, glass, broken mullions, and smoking chips of bark; the legs of the desk cracking and collapsing under the brutal impact of the ruined tree.
Carol found herself on the floor, beside her overturned chair. She couldn’t remember falling.
The fluorescent tubes blinked off, stayed off.
She was lying on her stomach, one cheek pressed to the floor, staring in shock at the shards of glass and the torn maple leaves that littered the carpet. As lightning continued to stab down from the turbulent sky, wind roared through the missing window and stirred some of the loose leaves into a frantic, dervishlike dance; accompanied by the cacophonous music of the storm, they whirled and capered across the office, toward a row of green filing cabinets. A calendar flapped off the wall and swooped around on wings of January and December, darting and soaring and kiting as if it were a bat. Two paintings rattled on their wire hangers, trying to tear themselves free. Papers were everywhere—stationery, forms, small sheets from a note pad, bulletins, a newspaper—all rustling and skipping this way and that, floating up, diving down, bunching together and slithering along the floor with a snakelike hiss.
Carol had the eerie feeling that all of the movement in the room was not solely the result of the wind, that some of it was caused by a . . . presence. Something threatening. A bad poltergeist. Demonic spirits seemed
to be at work in the office, flexing their occult muscles, knocking things off the walls, briefly taking up residence in a body composed only of leaves and rumpled sheets of newsprint.
That was a crazy idea, not at all the sort of thing she would ordinarily think of. She was surprised and disconcerted by a thrill of superstitious fear that coursed through her.
Lightning flared again. And again.
Wincing at the painfully sharp sound, wondering if lightning could get into a room through an open window, she put her arms over her head, for what little protection they provided.
Her heart was pounding, and her mouth was dry.
She thought about Paul, and her heartbeat grew even more frantic. He was over by the windows, on the far side of the desk, out of sight, under some of the maple tree’s branches. She didn’t think he was dead. He hadn’t been directly in the path of the tree. O’Brian might be dead, yes, depending on how that small branch had struck his head, depending on whether he had been lucky or not, because maybe a pointed twig had been driven deep into his eye and his brain when his glasses had been knocked off, but Paul was surely alive. Surely. Nevertheless, he could be seriously injured, bleeding.
Carol started to push herself up onto her hands and knees, anxious to find Paul and give him any first aid he might need. But another bolt of blinding, ear shattering lightning spent itself just outside the building, and fear turned her muscles into wet rags. She didn’t even have the strength to crawl, and she was infuriated by her weakness, for she had always
been proud of her strength, determination, and unflagging willpower. Cursing herself, she slumped back to the floor.
Something’s trying to stop us from adopting a baby.
That incredible thought struck her with the same cold, hard force as had the forewarning of the window's implosion, which had come to her an instant before the impossible barrage of lightning had blasted into the courtyard.
Something’s trying to stop us from adopting a baby.
No. That was ridiculous. The storm, the lightning—they were nothing more than acts of nature. They hadn’t been directed against Mr. O’Brian just because he was going to help them adopt a child.
Oh, yeah? she thought as the deafening thunder and the unholy light of the storm filled the room. Acts of nature, huh? When have you ever seen lightning like this before?
She hugged the floor, shaking, cold, more afraid than she had been since she was a little girl. She tried to tell herself that it was only the lightning that she was afraid of, for that was very much a legitimate, rational fear, but she knew she was lying. It was not just the lightning that terrified her. In fact, that was the least of it. There was something else, something she couldn’t identify, something formless and nameless in the room, and the very presence of it, whatever the hell it was, pushed a panic button deep inside her, on a sub-subconscious, primitive level; this fear was gut-deep, instinctive.
A dervish of windblown leaves and papers whirled across the floor, directly toward her. It was a big one:
a column about two feet in diameter, five or six feet
high, composed of a hundred or more pieces of this and that. It stopped very near her, writhing, churning, hissing, changing shape, glimmering silver-dark in the flashing storm light, and she felt threatened by it. As she stared up at the whirlwind, she had the mad notion that it was staring down at her. After a moment it moved off to the left a few feet, then returned, paused in front of her again, hesitated, then scurried busily to the right, but came back once more, looming above her as if it were trying to make up its mind whether or not to pounce and tear her to shreds and sweep her up along with the leaves, newspaper pages, envelopes, and other flotsam by which it defined itself.
It’s nothing more than a whirlwind of lifeless junk! she told herself angrily.
The wind-shaped phantom moved away from her.
See? she told herself scornfully. Just lifeless junk. What’s wrong with me? Am I losing my mind?
She recalled the old axiom that was supposed to provide comfort in moments like this: If you think you’re going mad, then you must be completely sane, for a lunatic never has doubts about his sanity. As a psychiatrist, she knew that hoary bit of wisdom was an oversimplification of complex psychological principles, but in essence it was true. So she must be sane.