She could see nothing but bars of pale, pale light against part of the black ceiling, where the moonsoft glow of landscape lighting projected the image of the windowblind slats. She desperately wanted more light.
She was making pathetic whimpers of terror, and she so thoroughly despised herself for her weakness that she was finally able to shatter her paralysis. Gasping, she sat up. Clawed at the back of her neck, trying to tear off the oily, frigid, wormlike probe. Nothing there.
Nothing. Swung her legs over the edge of the bed. Fumbled for the lamp.
Almost knocked it over. Found the switch. Light.
She sprang off the bed. Felt the back of her head again. Her neck.
Between her shoulderblades. Nothing. Nothing there. Yet she felt it.
She was over the edge of hysteria and unable to return, making queer little animal sounds of fear and desperation. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw movement. Swung around. The wall behind the bed.
Glistening. The entire wall bulged toward her, as if it were a membrane against which a great and terrible mass was pressing insistently. It throbbed repulsively, like an enormous internal organ in the exposed and steaming guts of a prehistoric behemoth.
She backed away from the wet, malignantly animated wall. Turned.
Ran. Had to get out. Fast. The Enemy. It was coming. Had followed her.
Out of the dream. The door. Locked. Deadbolt. Disengaged it. Hands shaking. The Enemy. Coming. Brass security chain. Rattled it free.
Jerked it open. Something was on the threshold, filling the doorway, bigger than she was, something beyond human experience, simultaneously insectile and arachnoid and reptilian, squirming and jittering, a tangled mass of spider legs and antennae and serpentine coils and roachlike mandibles and multifaceted eyes and rattlesnake fangs and claws, a thousand nightmares rolled into one, but she was awake. It burst through the door, seized her, pain exploding from her sides where its talons tore at her, and she screamed -a night breeze.
That was the only thing coming through the open door. A soft, summery night breeze.
Holly stood in the doorway, shuddering and gasping for breath, looking out in astonishment at the concrete promenade of the motel. Lacy queen palms, Australian tree ferns, and other greenery swayed sensuously under the caress of the tropical zephyr. The surface of the swimming pool rippled gently, creating countless ever-changing facets, refracting the pool-bottom lights, so it seemed as if there was not a body of water in the middle of the courtyard but a hole filled with a pirate's treasure of polished sapphires.
The creature that had attacked her was gone as if it had never existed.
It had not scuttled away or scurried up some web; it had simply evaporated in an instant.
She no longer felt the icy, squirming tendril on the back of her neck or inside her skull.
A couple of other guests had come out of rooms farther along the promenade, evidently to investigate her scream.
Holly stepped back from the threshold. She did not want to attract their attention now.
She glanced over her shoulder. The wall behind the bed was only a wall again.
The clock built into the nightstand showed 5:08 A.M.
She eased the door shut, and suddenly she had to lean against it, because all the strength went out of her legs.
Instead of being relieved that the strange ordeal had ended, she was shattered. She hugged herself and shivered so hard, her teeth chattered. She began to cry softly, not from fear of the experience, concern for her: current safety, or concern about her sanity, but from a profound sense of having been totally violated. Briefly but for too long, she had been helplessly, victimized, enslaved by terror, controlled by an entity beyond her understanding. She'd been psychologically raped. Something needful had overpowered her, forced its way into her, denying her free will; though gone now, it had left traces of itself within her, a residue that stained her mind, her soul.
Just a dream, she told herself encouragingly.
But it had not been a dream when she sat up in bed and snapped on the lamp. The nightmare had followed her into the waking world.
Just a dream, don't make so much of it, get control of yourself, she thought, struggling to regain her equanimity. You dreamed you were in that lightless place, then you dreamed that you sat up in bed and turned on the light, then in your dream you saw the wall bulging and ran for the door. But you were only sleepwalking, you were still asleep when you pulled the door open, still asleep when you saw the boogeyman an screamed, which was when you finally woke up for real, screamed yourself awake.
She wanted to believe that explanation, but it was too pat to be credible.
No nightmare she'd ever known had been that elaborate in its texture and detail. Besides, she never sleepwalked.
Something real had been reaching for her. Maybe not the insect-reptile spider thing in the doorway. Maybe that was only an image in which another entity clad itself to frighten her. But something had been pushing through to this world from. . .
From where? It didn't matter where. From out there. From beyond. And it almost got her.
No. That was ridiculous. Tabloid stuff Even the National Enquirer didn't publish trash that trashy any more. I WAS MIND-RAPED BY A BEAST FROM BEYOND. Crap like that was three steps below SINGER ADMITS BEING SPACE ALIEN, two steps belOw JESUS SPEAKS TO NUN FROM INSIDE A MICROWAVE, and even a full step below ELVIS HAD BRAIN TRANSPLANTED, LIVES NOW AS ROSEANNE BARR.
The more foolish she felt for entertaining such thoughts, the calmer she became. Dealing with the experience was easier if she could believe that it was all a product of her overactive imagination, which had been unreasonably stimulated by the admittedly fantastic Ironheart case.
Finally she was able to stand on her own, without leaning on the door.
She relocked the deadbolt, reengaged the security chain.
As she stepped away from the door, she became aware of a hot, stinging pain in her left side. It wasn't serious, but it made her wince, and she realized that a similar but lesser pain sizzled in her right side as well.
She took hold of her T-shirt to lift it and look at herself and discovered that the fabric was slashed. Three places on the left side.
Two on the right.
It was spotted with blood.
With renewed dread, Holly went into the bathroom and switched on the harsh fluorescent light. She stood in front of the mirror, hesitated, then pulled the torn T-shirt over her head.
A thin flow of blood seeped down her left flank from three shallow gashes. The first laceration was just under her breast, and the others were spaced at two-inch intervals. Two scratches blazed on her right side, though they were not as deep as those on the left and were not bleeding freely.
Jim threw up in the toilet, flushed, then rinsed his mouth twice with mint-flavored Listerine.
The face in the mirror was the most troubled he had ever seen. He had to look away from the reflection of his own eyes.
He leaned against the sink. For at least the thousandth time in the year, he wondered what in God's name was happening to him.
In his sleep he had gone to the windmill again. Never before had the same nightmare troubled him two nights in a row. Usually, weeks passed between reoccurrences.
Worse, there had been an unsettling new element-more than just the rain on the narrow windows, the lambent flame of the candle and tire dancing shadows it produced, the sound of the big sails turning outside the low rumble of the millstones below, and an inexplicable pall of fear.
This time he'd been aware of a malevolent presence, out of sight but drawing nearer by the second, something so evil and alien that he could not even imagine its form or full intentions. He had expected it to burst out of the limestone wall, erupt through the plank floor, or explode in upon him from the heavy timbered door at the head of the mill stairs. He had been unable to decide which way to run. Finally he had yanked open the door and awakened with a scream. If anything had been there, he could not remember what it had looked like.
Regardless of the appearance it might have had, Jim knew what to call it: the enemy. Except that now he thought of it with a capital "T" and a capital "E." The Enemy. The amorphous beast that haunted many of his other nightmares had found its way into the windmill dream, where it had never terrorized him before.
Crazy as it seemed, he sensed that the creature was not merely a fantasy spawned by his subconscious while he slept. It was as real as he himself Sooner or later it would cross the barrier between the world dreams and the waking world as easily as it had crossed the barrier between different nightmares.
Holly never considered going back to bed. She knew she would not sleep again for many hours, until she was so exhausted that she would be unable to keep her eyes open no matter how much strong black coffee she drank.
Sleep had ceased to be a sanctuary. It was, instead, a source of danger, a highway to hell or somewhere worse, along which she might encounter an inhuman traveler.
That made her angry. Everyone needed and deserved the refuge of sleep.
As dawn came, she took a long shower, carefully but diligently scrubbing the shallow lacerations on her sides, although the soap and hot water stung the open flesh. She worried that she would develop an infection as strange as the briefly glimpsed monstrosity that had inflicted her wounds.
That sharpened her anger.
By nature, she was a good Girl Scout, always prepared for any eventuality. When traveling, she carried a few first-aid supplies in the same kit with her Lady Remington shaver: iodine, gauze pads, adhesive tape, Band-Aids, a small aerosol can of Bactine, and a tube of ointment that was useful for soothing minor burns. After toweling offù from the shower, she sat na*ed on the edge of the bed, sprayed Bactine on her wounds, then daubed at them with iodine.
She had become a reporter, in part, because as a younger woman she had believed that journalism had the power to explain the world, to make sense of events that sometimes seemed chaotic and meaningless.
More than a decade of newspaper employment had shaken her conviction that the human experience could be explained all or even most of the time. But she still kept a well-ordered desk, meticulously arranged files, and neat story notes. In her closets at home, her clothes were arranged according to season, then according to the occasion (formal, semi-formal, informal), then by color. If life insisted on being chaotic, and if journalism had failed her as a tool for bringing order to the world, at least she could depend on routine and habit to create a personal pocket universe of stability, however fragile, beyond which the disorder and tumult of life were kept at bay.
The iodine stung.
She was angrier. Seething.
The shower disturbed the clots that had coagulated in the deeper scratches on her left side. She was bleeding slightly again. She sat quietly on the edge of the bed for a while, holding a wad of Kleenex against the wounds, until the lacerations were no longer oozing.
By the time Holly had dressed in tan jeans and an emerald-green blouse, it was seven-thirty.
She already knew how she was going to start the day, and nothing could distract her from her plans. She had no appetite whatsoever for breakfast.
When she stepped outside, she discovered that the morning was cloudy and unusually temperate even for Orange County, but the sublime weather had no mellowing influence on her and did not tempt her to pause even for a moment to relish the early sun on her face. She drove the rental car across the parking lot, out to the street, and headed toward Laguna Niguel. She was going to ring James Ironheart's doorbell and demand a lot of answers.
She wanted his full story, the explanation of how he could know when people were about to die and why he took such extreme risks to save to strangers. But she also wanted to know why last night's bad dream had become real, how and why her bedroom wall had begun to glisten and; throb like flesh, and what manner of creature had popped out of her nightmare and seized her in talons formed of something more substantial than dreamstuff.
She was convinced that he would have the answers. Last night, for only the second time in her thirty-three years, she'd encountered the unknown been sideswiped by the supernatural. The first time had been on August 12 when Ironheart had miraculously saved Billy Jenkins from being mow down by a truck in front of the McAlbery School-although she hadn realized until later that he had stepped right out of the Twilight Zone: Though she was willing to cop to a lot of faults, stupidity was not one of them. Anyone but a fool could see that both collisions with the paranormal, Ironheart and the nightmare-made-real, were related.
She was more than merely angry. She was pissed.
As she cruised down Crown Valley Parkway, she realized that her anger sprang, in part, from the discovery that her big, career-making story was turning out not to be strictly about amazement and wonder and courage and hope and triumph, as she had anticipated. Like the vast majority articles that had appeared on the front pages of newspapers since invention of the printing press, this story had a dark side.
Jim had showered and dressed for church. He did not regularly attend Sunday Mass any more, or the services of any other of the religions to which he had been sporadically committed over the years. But having been in the control of a higher power since at least last May, when he had flown to Florida to save the lives of Sam and Emily Newsome, he was disposed to think about God more than usual. And since Father Geary had told him about the stigmata that had marked his body while he lay unconscious on the floor of Our Lady of the Desert, less than a week ago, he had felt the tidal pull of Catholicism for the first time in a couple of years. He didn't actually expect that the mystery of recent events would be cleared up by answers he would find in church-but he could hope.
As he plucked his car keys off the pegboard on the kitchen wall beside the door to the garage, he heard himself say, "Life line.”
Immediately, his plans for the day were changed. He froze, not sure what to do. Then the familiar feeling of being a marionette overcame him, and he hung the keys back on the pegboard.
He returned to the bedroom and stripped out of his loafers, gray slacks, dark-blue sportcoat, and white shirt. He dressed in chinos and a blousy Hawaiian shirt, which he wore over his pants in order to be as unhampered as possible by his clothing.
He needed to stay loose, flexible. He had no idea why looseness and flexibility were desirable for what lay ahead, but he felt the need just the same.
Sitting on the floor in front of the closet, he selected a pair of shoes-the most comfortable, broken-in pair of Rockports that he owned.
He tied them securely but not too tightly. He stood up and tested the fit. Good.
He reached for the suitcase on the top shelf, then hesitated. He was not sure that he would require luggage. A few seconds later, he knew that he would be traveling light. He slid the closet door shut without taking down the bag.
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