The only regret she had about her relationship with Carol was the role she had played in putting the baby up for adoption. But there had been no reasonable alternative. Carol simply hadn’t been financially or emotionally or mentally capable of providing for the infant. With that responsibility to attend to, she would never have had an opportunity to grow and change. She would have been miserable all her life, and she would have made her child miserable, too. Unfortunately, even now, sixteen years later, Carol felt guilty about giving her baby away. Her guilt became overpowering on each anniversary of the child’s birth. On that black day, Carol sank into a deep depression and became uncharacteristically uncommunicative. The excessive anguish that she suffered on that one day was evidence of the deep-seated, abiding guilt that she carried with her, to a lesser degree, during the rest of the year. Grace wished she had foreseen this reaction, wished she had done more to assuage Carol’s guilt.
I’m a psychologist, after all, she thought. I should have anticipated it.
Perhaps when Carol and Paul adopted someone else’s child, Carol would feel that the scales had at last been balanced. The adoption might relieve some of her guilt, in time.
Grace hoped it would. She loved Carol like a daughter and wanted only the best for her.
And of course she couldn’t bear the thought of losing Carol. Therefore, Carol’s appearance in a nightmare wasn’t the least bit mysterious. It was certainly not an omen.
Clammy with stale sweat, Grace turned to the study window again, seeking warmth and light, but the day was ashen, chilly, forbidding. Wind pressed on the glass, soughed softly under the eaves one floor above.
In the city, near the river, a roiling column of smoke rose into the rain and mist. She had not noticed it a minute ago, but it must have been there; it was too much smoke to have appeared in only a few seconds. Even from this distance, she could see a glint of fire at the base of the dark column.
She wondered if lightning had done the dirty work. She recalled the storm flashing and roaring with extraordinary power in those first seconds after she had awakened. At the time, groggy and bleary-eyed, she had thought her sleep-dulled senses were misleading her and that the extreme violence of the lightning was largely illusory or even imaginary. Could that incredible, destructive barrage have been real after all?
She glanced at her wristwatch.
Her favorite radio station would carry its hourly newscast in less than ten minutes. Maybe there would be a story about the fire and the lightning.
After she’d straightened the throw pillows on the sofa, she stepped out of the study and spotted Aristophanes at the far end of the downstairs hall, near the front door. He was sitting up straight and tall, his tail curled forward and across his front paws, his head held high, as if he were saying, “A Siamese cat is the very best thing on earth, and I am an exceedingly handsome example of the species, and don’t you dare forget it.”
Grace held one hand toward him, rapidly rubbing her thumb against her forefinger. “Kitty-kitty-kitty.”
Aristophanes didn’t move.
“Kitty-kitty-kitty. Come here, Ari. Come on, baby.”
Aristophanes got up and went through the archway on his left, into the dark living room.
“Stubborn damn cat,” she said affectionately.
She went into the downstairs bathroom and washed her face and combed her hair. The mundane task of grooming herself took her mind off the nightmare. Gradually, she began to relax. Her eyes were watery and bloodshot. She rinsed them out with a few drops of Murine.
When she came out of the bathroom, Aristophanes was sitting in the hallway again, watching her.
“Kitty-kitty-kitty,” she coaxed.
He stared unblinkingly.
Aristophanes rose to his feet, cocked his head, and examined her with curious, shining eyes. When she took a step toward him, he turned and quickly slunk away, casting one backward glance, then disappearing into the living room again.
“Okay,” Grace said. “Okay, buster. Have it your way. Snub me if you want. But just see if there’s any Meow Mix in your bowl tonight.”
In the kitchen she snapped on the lights, then the radio. The station came in clearly enough, though there was a continuous crackle of storm-generated static.
While she listened to tales of economic crises and breathless accounts of airplane hijackings and rumors of war, Grace put a clean paper filter in the coffee machine, filled the brewing basket with drip-ground Colombian, and added half a spoonful of chicory. The story of the fire came at the end of the newscast, and it was only a sketchy bulletin. The reporter knew nothing more than that lightning had struck a couple of buildings in the heart of the city and that one of them, a church, was afire. He promised more details on the half hour.
When the coffee was ready, Grace poured some for herself. She took her mug to the small table by the kitchen’s only window, pulled out a chair, and sat down.
In the backyard, the myriad roses—red, pink, orange, white, yellow—looked preternaturally bright, almost phosphorescent, against the cinereous backdrop of the rain.
Two psychology journals had arrived in the morning mail. Grace opened one of them with pleasant anticipation.
Halfway through an article about new findings in criminal psychology, as she finished her first mug of coffee, there was a pause between songs on the radio, a few seconds of dead air, and in that brief quietude, she heard furtive movement behind her. She turned in her chair and saw Aristophanes.
“Come to apologize?” she asked.
Then she realized that he appeared to have been sneaking up on her, and that now, confronted, he was frozen; every lithe muscle in his small body was spring-taut, and the fur bristled along his arched back.
“Ari? What’s wrong, you silly cat?”
He whirled and ran out of the kitchen.
CAROL sat in a chrome chair with shiny black vinyl cushions, and she slowly sipped whiskey from a paper cup.
Paul slumped in the chair next to hers. He didn’t sip his whiskey; he gulped the stuff. It was an excellent bourbon, Jack Daniel’s Black Label, thoughtfully provided by an attorney named Marvin Kwicker, who had offices down the hail from Alfred O’Brian and Who realized that a restorative was urgently needed. Pouring bourbon for Carol, Marvin had said, “Kwicker With liquor,” which he had probably said ten thousand times before, but he still enjoyed his own joke. “Kwicker with liquor,” he repeated when dispensing a double shot to Paul. Although Paul wasn’t much of a drinker, he needed every drop that the attorney gave him. His hands were still shaking.
The reception lounge that served O’Brian’s office was not large, but most of the people who worked on the same floor had congregated here to talk about the lightning that had shaken the building, to marvel that the place hadn’t caught fire, to express surprise that the electric power had been restored so quickly, and to wait their turns for a peek at the nibble and ruin in O’Brian’s inner sanctum. The resultant roar of conversation did nothing to soothe Paul’s nerves.
Every thirty seconds or so, a bleached blonde with a shrill voice repeated the same words of amazement:
“I can’t believe nobody got killed in all that! I can’t believe nobody got killed.” Each time she spoke, regardless of where she was in the room, her voice carried over the din and made Paul wince. “I can’t believe nobody got killed.” She sounded somewhat disappointed.
Alfred O’Brian was sitting at the reception desk. His secretary, a prim-looking woman whose hair was drawn back in a tight bun, was trying to apply Merthiolate to half a dozen scratches on her boss’s face, but O’Brian seemed more concerned about the condition of his suit than he was about himself. He plucked and brushed at the dirt, lint, and small fragments of tree bark that clung to his jacket.
Paul finished his whiskey and looked at Carol. She was still badly shaken. Contrasted with her glossy dark hair, her face was very pale.
Apparently, she saw the concern in his eyes, for she took his hand, squeezed it, and smiled reassuringly. However, the smile didn’t set well on her lips; it was tremulous.
He leaned close to her, so that she could hear him above the excited chatter of the others. “Ready to get out of here?”
Over by the window, a young executive type raised his voice. “Hey! Hey, everybody! Better look sharp. The TV news people just drove up to the front door.”
“If we get trapped by reporters,” Carol said, “we’ll be here an hour or more.”
They left without saying goodbye to O’Brian. In the hall, as they headed toward a side entrance, they slipped into their raincoats. Outside, Paul opened his umbrella and put one arm around Carol’s waist. They hurried across the slippery macadam parking lot, stepping gingerly around huge puddles. The gusting wind was chilly for early September, and it kept changing direction until it finally got under the umbrella and turned it inside out. The cold, wind-driven rain was falling so hard that it stung Paul’s face. By the time they reached the car, their hair was plastered to their heads, and a lot of water had found its way down the backs of their necks, under the collars of their coats.
Paul half expected the Pontiac to be lightning-damaged, but it was just as they had left it. The engine turned over without protest.
Leaving the parking lot, he started to turn left but put his foot on the brake pedal when he saw that the street was sealed off by police cars and fire trucks just half a block away. The church was still ablaze, in spite of the pouring rain and in defiance of the big streams of water that the firemen directed onto it.
Black smoke billowed into the gray day, and behind the blasted windows, flames spurted and churned.
Clearly, the church was going to be a total loss.
He turned right, instead, and drove home through rain-choked streets. where the gutters overflowed and where every depression in the pavement had been transformed into a treacherous lake that had to be negotiated with utmost caution to avoid drowning the engine and stalling out.
Carol slouched in her seat and huddled against the passenger-side door, hugging herself. Although the heater was on, she was obviously cold.
Paul realized his teeth were chattering.
The trip home took ten minutes. and during that time neither of them said a word. The only sounds were the whispery hiss of the tires on the wet pavement and the metronomic thump of the windshield wipers. The silence was not uncomfortable or strained, but there was a peculiar intensity about it, an aura of tremendous, pent-up energy. Paul had the feeling that if he did speak, the surprise would send Carol straight through the roof of the car.
They lived in a Tudor-style house, which they had painstakingly restored, and as always. the sight of it—the stone walk, the big oak doors framed by carriage lamps, the leaded-glass windows, the gabled roofline—pleased Paul and gave him the warm feeling that this was where he belonged. The automatic garage door rolled up, and he pulled the Pontiac inside, next to Carol’s red Volkswagen Rabbit.
In the house, they maintained their silence.
Paul’s hair was wet, and the legs of his trousers clung damply to him, and the back of his shirt was still soaked. He figured he was going to come down with a nasty cold if he didn’t get into some dry clothes right away. Apparently, Carol had the same thought, and they went straight upstairs to the master bedroom.
She opened the closet doors, and he switched on a bedside lamp. Shivering, they stripped out of their wet clothes.
When they were nearly undressed, they glanced at each other. Their eyes locked.
Still, they didn’t speak. They didn’t need to.
He took her in his arms, and they kissed lightly at first, tenderly. Her mouth was warm and soft and vaguely flavored with whiskey.
She clutched him, pulled him closer, her fingertips digging into the muscles of his back. She pushed her mouth hard against his, scraped his lip with her teeth, thrust her tongue deep, and abruptly their kisses grew hot, demanding.
Something seemed to snap in him, and in her, too, for their desire was suddenly marked by animal urgency. They responded to each other in a hungry, almost frenzied fashion, hastily casting off the last of their clothes, pawing at each other, squeezing, stroking. She nipped his shoulder with her teeth. He gripped her buttocks and kneaded them with uncharacteristic crudity, but she didn’t wince or try to pull away; indeed, she pressed even more insistently against him, rubbing her br**sts over his chest and grinding her h*ps against his. The soft whimpers that escaped from her were not sounds of pain; they clearly expressed her eagerness and need. In bed, his energy was manic, and his staying power amazed him. He was insatiable, and so was she. They thrust and thrashed and flexed and tensed in perfect harmony, as if they were not only joined but fused, as if they were a single organism, shaken by only one set of stimuli instead of two. Every vestige of civilization slipped from them, and for a long while the only noises they made were animal sounds: panting; groaning; throaty grunts of pleasure; short, sharp cries of excitement. At last Carol uttered the first word to pass between them since they had left O’Brian’s office:
“Yes.” And again, arching her slender, graceful body, tossing her head from side to side on the pillow: “Yes, yes!” It was not merely an orgasm to which she was saying yes, for she’d already had a couple of those and had announced them with only ragged breathing and soft mewling. She was saying yes to life, yes to the fact that she still existed and was not just a charred and oozing lump of unanimated flesh, yes to the miraculous fact that they had both survived the lightning and the deadly, splintered branches of the toppling maple tree. Their unrestrained, fiercely passionate coupling was a slap in Death’s face, a not wholly rational but nevertheless satisfying denial of the grim specter’s very existence. Paul repeated the word as if chanting an incantation—”Yes, yes, yes!”—as he emptied himself into her a second time, and it seemed as though his fear of death spurted out of him along with his seed.
Spent, they stretched out on their backs, side by side on the disheveled bed. For a long time they listened to the rain on the roof and to the persistent thunder, which was no longer loud enough to rattle the windows.
Carol lay with her eyes closed, her face completely relaxed. Paul studied her, and, as he had done on countless other occasions during the past four years, he wondered why she had ever consented to marry him. She was beautiful. He was not. Anyone putting together a dictionary could do worse than to use a picture of his face as the sole definition of the word plain. He had once jokingly expressed a similar opinion of his physical appearance, and Carol had been angry with him for talking about himself that way.
But it was true, and it didn’t really matter to him that he was not Burt Reynolds, just so long as Carol didn’t notice the difference. It was not only his plainness of which she seemed unaware; she could not comprehend her own beauty, and she insisted she was actually rather plain, or at least no more than “a little bit pretty, no, not even pretty, just sort of cute, but kind of funny-looking cute.” Her dark hair—even now, when it was matted and curled by rain and sweat—was thick, glossy, lovely. Her skin was flawless, and her cheekbones were so well sculpted that it was difficult to believe the clumsy hand of nature could have done the job. Carol was the kind of woman you saw on the arm of a tall, bronzed Adonis, not with the likes of Paul Tracy. Yet here she was, and he was grateful to have her beside him. He never ceased to be surprised that they were compatible in every respect—mentally, emotionally, physically.