He knew she was probably right about the intruder. Most likely, it had been Jasper, chasing a cat or looking for an Oreo handout. The thing he’d thought he had seen—the slightly twisted, moon-white face of a woman, lightning reflected in her eyes, her mouth curled into a snarl of hatred or rage—had surely been a trick of light and shadow. Still, the incident left him uneasy. He could not entirely regain the warm, cozy feeling he’d had just before he’d looked out the window.
Grace Mitowski filled the yellow plastic bowl with Meow Mix and put it in the corner by the kitchen door.
Aristophanes didn’t respond.
The kitchen wasn’t Ari’s favorite place in the house, for it was the only room in which he was not permitted to climb wherever he wished. He wasn’t actually much of a climber anyway. He lacked the spirit of adventure that many cats had, and he usually stayed on the floor. However, even though he had no burning desire to scamper up on the kitchen counters, he didn’t want anyone telling him he couldn’t do it.
Like most cats, he resisted discipline and despised all rules. Nevertheless, as little as he liked the kitchen, he never failed to put in an appearance at mealtime. In fact, he was often waiting impatiently by his bowl when Grace came to fill it.
She raised her voice. “Kitty-kitty-kitty.”
There was no answering meow. Aristophanes did not, as expected, come running, his tail curled up slightly, eager for his dinner.
“Ari-Ari-Ari! Soup’s on, you silly cat.”
She put away the box of cat food and washed her hands at the sink.
The hammering sound—one hard blow followed by two equally hard blows struck close together—was
so sudden and loud that Grace jerked in surprise and almost dropped the small towel on which she was drying her hands. The noise had come from the front of the house. She waited a moment, and there was only the sound of the wind and falling rain, and then— Thunk! Thunk!
She hung the towel on the rack and stepped into the downstairs hallway.
She walked hesitantly down the hail to the front door and snapped on the porch light. The door had a peephole, and the fish-eye lens provided a wide view. She couldn’t see anyone; the porch appeared to be deserted.
That blow was delivered with such force that Grace thought the door had been torn from its hinges. There was a splintering sound as she jumped back, and she expected to see chunks of wood exploding into the hall. But the door still hung firmly in place, though it vibrated noisily in its frame; the deadbolt rattled against the lock plate.
THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!
“Stop that!” she shouted. “Who are you? Who’s there?”
The pounding stopped, and she thought she heard
She had been on the verge of either calling the police or going for the pistol she kept in her nightstand, but when she heard the laughter, she changed her mind. She could certainly handle a few kids without help. She wasn’t so old and weak and fragile that she needed to call the cops to deal with a bunch of ornery little pranksters.
Cautiously, she drew aside the curtain on the long, narrow window beside the door. Tense, ready to step away quickly if someone made a threatening move toward the glass, she looked out. There was no one on the porch.
She heard the laughter again. It was high-pitched, musical, girlish.
Letting the curtain fall back into place, she turned to the door, unlocked it, and stepped onto the threshold.
The night wind was raw and wet. Rain drizzled off the scalloped eaves of the porch.
The immediate area in front of the house offered at least a hundred hiding places for the hoaxers. Bristling shrubbery rustled in the wind, just the other side of the railing, and the yellowish glow from the insect-repelling bulb in the porch ceiling illuminated little more than the center of the porch. The walkway that led from the bottom of the porch steps to the street was flanked by hedges that looked blue black in the darkness. Among the many shades of night, none of the pranksters were visible.
Grace waited, listened.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, but there was no laughter, no giggling in the darkness.
—Maybe it wasn’t kids.
—You see them on TV news all the time. The ironeyed ones who shoot and stab and strangle people for the fun of it. They seem to be everywhere these days, the misfits, the psychopaths.
—That was not adult laughter. This is kids’ work.
—Still, maybe! better get inside and lock the door.
—Stop thinking like a frightened old lady, dammit!
It was odd that any of the neighborhood children would harass her, for she was on excellent terms with all of them. Of course, maybe these weren’t kids from the immediate neighborhood. Just a couple of streets away, everyone was a stranger to her.
She turned and examined the outer face of the front door. She could find no indication that it had been struck repeatedly and violently only moments ago. The wood was not chipped or cracked; it wasn’t even slightly marred.
She was amazed because she was certain she had heard the wood splintering. What would kids use that would make a lot of noise while leaving absolutely no marks on the door? Bean bags or something of that nature? No. A bean bag wouldn’t have made such a horrendous racket; the impact of the bag against the door might have been loud, yes, very loud indeed, if it had been swung with sufficient force, but the sound wouldn’t have been so hard, so sharp.
Again, she slowly scanned the yard. Nothing moved out there except the wind-stirred foliage.
For nearly a minute she watched and listened. She would have waited longer, if only to prove to any mischievous young observers that she was not a frightened old lady who could be easily intimidated; but the air was damp and chilly, and she began to worry about catching a cold.
She went inside and closed the door.
She waited with her hand on the knob, expecting the kids to return shortly. The first time they hit the door, she would jerk it open and catch them red-handed, before they could dart off the porch and hide.
Two minutes passed. Three minutes. Five.
No one hammered on the door, which was distinctly strange. To pranksters, the fun wasn’t in the first assault so much as in the second and third and fourth; their intent was not to startle but to torment.
Apparently, the defiant stance she had taken in the doorway had discouraged them. Very likely, they were on their way to another house, seeking a more excitable victim.
She snapped the lock into place.
What kind of parents would allow their children to be out playing in an electrical storm like this?
Shaking her head in dismay at the irresponsibility of some parents, Grace headed back the hail, and with each step she half expected the hammering to start again. But it didn’t.
She had planned to have a light, nutritious dinner of steamed vegetables covered with Cheddar cheese, accompanied by a slice or two of home-baked cornbread, but she wasn’t hungry yet. She decided to watch the ABC evening news before preparing dinner—although she knew that, with the world in the state it was, the news might put her off her dinner altogether.
In the study, before she had a chance to turn on the television set and hear the latest atrocity stories, she found a mess on the seat of her big armchair. For a moment she could do nothing but stare at the ruin in disbelief: hundreds of feathers; shreds of cloth; colorful, unraveled threads that had once constituted a needlework pattern, but which now lay in a bright, meaningless tangle amidst drifts of goosedown. A couple of years ago, Carol Tracy had given her a set of three small, exceedingly lovely, handmade needlework throw pillows. It was one of those gifts that had been clawed to pieces and left on the armchair.
Ari hadn’t ripped up anything important since he was a kitten. An act as destructive as this was quite out of character for him, but he was surely the culprit. There was not really another suspect to be seriously considered.
“Ari! Where are you hiding, you sneaky Siamese?”
She went to the kitchen.
Aristophanes was standing at the yellow bowl, eating his Meow Mix. He glanced up as she entered the room.
“You fur-footed menace,” she said. “What in the world has gotten into you today?”
Aristophanes blinked, sneezed, rubbed his muzzle with one paw, and returned to his dinner with lofty, catlike indifference to her exasperation and puzzlement.
Later that night, in her darkened bedroom, Carol Tracy stared at the adumbral ceiling and listened to her husband’s soft, steady breathing. He had been asleep for only a few minutes.
The night was quiet. The rain had stopped, and the sky was no longer shaken by thunder. Occasionally, wind brushed across the shingled roof and sighed wearily at the windows, but the fury had gone out of it.
Carol teetered pleasantly on the edge of sleep. She was a bit lightheaded from the champagne she had been slowly sipping throughout the evening, and she felt as if she were floating in warm water, with gentle waves lapping at her sides.
She thought dreamily about the child they would adopt, tried to envision its appearance. A gallery of sweet young faces filled her imagination. If it was an infant, rather than a three- or four-year-old, they would name it themselves: Jason, if a boy; Julia, if a girl. Carol rocked herself on the thin line between wakefulness and dreams by rolling those two names back and forth in her mind: Jason, Julia, Jason, Julia, Jason...
Falling off the edge, dropping into a well of sleep, she had the ugly, unwelcome thought she had resisted so strenuously earlier in the day: Something’s trying to stop us from adopting a baby.
Then she was in a strange place where there was not much light, where something hissed and murmured sullenly just out of sight, where the purple-amber shadows had substance and crowded close with menacing intent. In that unknown place, the nightmare unrolled with the frantic, nerve-jarring rhythm of player-piano music.
At first she was running in utter lightlessness, and then she was suddenly running from one room to another in a large house, weaving through a forest of furniture, knocking over a floor lamp, banging one hip against the sharp corner of a credenza, stumbling and nearly falling over the loose edge of an oriental carpet. She plunged through an archway, into a long hall, and turned and looked back into the room from which she had come, but the room wasn’t there any longer. The house existed only in front of her; behind, there was perfect, featureless blackness.
Blackness. . . and then a glimmer of something. A glint. A splinter of light. A silvery, moving object. The thing swung from side to side, vanishing into darkness, reappearing with a gleam a second later, vanishing again, back and forth, back and forth, rather like a pendulum, never visible long enough to be identified. Although she couldn’t quite see what the silvery thing was, she could tell that it was moving toward her, and she knew she must get away from it or die. She ran along the hail to the foot of the stairs, climbed quickly to the second floor. She glanced back and down, but the stairs were not there any more. Just an inky pit. And then the brief flash of something swinging back and forth in that pit. . . again. . . again
like a ticking metronome. She rushed into the bedroom, slammed the door, grabbed a chair with the intention of bracing it under the knob—and discovered that, while her back was turned, the door had disappeared, as had the wail in which it had been set.
Where the wall had been, there was subterranean gloom. And a silvery flicker. Very close now. Closer still. She screamed but made no sound, and the mysteriously gleaming object arced over her head and— (Thunk!)
—This is more than just a dream, she thought desperately. Much more than that. This is a memory, a
prophecy, a warning. This is a— (Thunk!)
—She was running in another house that was altogether different from the first. This place was smaller, the furnishings less grand. She did not know where she was, yet she knew she had been here before. The house was familiar, just as the first place had been. She hurried through a doorway, into a kitchen.
Two bloody, severed heads were on the kitchen table. One of them was a man’s head, and the other was a woman’s. She recognized them, felt that she knew them well, but was unable to think of their names.
The four dead eyes were wide but sightless; the two mouths gaped, the swollen tongues protruding over the purple lips. As Carol stood transfixed by that grisly sight, the dead eyes rolled in their sockets and focused on her. The cold lips twisted into icy smiles. Carol turned, intending to flee, but there was only a void behind her and a glint of light off the hard surface of something silvery and then— (Thunk!)
-She was running through a mountain meadow in reddish, late-afternoon light. The grass was knee-high, and the trees loomed ahead of her. When she looked over her shoulder, the meadow was no longer back there. Only blackness, as before. And the rhythmically swinging, shimmering, steadily approaching thing to which she was unable to fix a name. Gasping, her heart racing, she ran faster, reached the trees, glanced back once more, saw that she had not run nearly fast enough to escape, cried out and— (Thunk!)
For a long time the nightmare shifted from one of
those three dreamscapes to the other—from the first house to the meadow to the second house to the meadow to the first house again—until at last she woke with an unvoiced scream caught in her throat.
She sat straight up, shuddering. She was cold and yet slick with sweat; she slept in just a T-shirt and panties, and both garments clung to her skin, unpleasantly sticky. The frightening sound from the nightmare continued to echo in her mind—thunk, thunk, thunk
thunk, thunk—and she realized that her subconscious had borrowed. that noise from reality, from the wind-loosened shutter that had startled her and Paul earlier.
Gradually, the pounding noise faded and blended with the thumping of her heart.
She drew back the covers and swung her bare legs out of bed. She sat on the edge of the mattress, hugging herself.
Dawn had come. Gray light seeped in around the drapes; it was too dim to reveal the details of the furniture, but it was just bright enough to deepen the shadows and distort the shapes of everything, so that the room seemed like an alien place.
The rain had stopped a couple of hours before she’d gone to bed, but the storm had returned while she’d been sleeping. Rain pattered on the roof and gurgled through the gutters and the downspouts. Low thunder rumbled like a distant cannonade.
Paul was still asleep, snoring softly.
Carol knew she wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. Like it or not, rested or not, she was up for the day.
Without turning on a light, she went into the master bathroom. In the weak glow of dawn, she stripped out of her damp T-shirt and panties. While soaping herself in the shower, she thought about the nightmare, which had been considerably more vivid than any dream she’d ever had before.