Page 12


Harry had come full circle from physical and mental exhaustion to thoughts of passion to exhaustion once more. It was almost like being an adolescent boy again.


He shut down the computer, switched off the lights, closed the office door, and filed copies of the reports in the front office.


Driving home in the depressingly leaden fall of rain, he hoped to God that he could sleep, and that his sleep would be without dreams.


When he woke refreshed in the morning, perhaps the answer to the mystery of the crimsoneyed hobo would be apparent.


Halfway home he almost switched on the radio, wanting music.


Just before he touched the controls, he stayed his hand. He was afraid that, instead of some topforty number, he would hear the voice of the vagrant chanting: ticktock, ticktock, ticktock....


Jennifer must have dozed off. It was ordinary sleep, however, not the delirium of the fantasy worlds that so frequently offered her escape.


When she woke, she did not have to shake off clinging visions of emeralddiamondsapphire temples or cheering audiences enthralled with her vocal virtuosity in a Carnegie Hall of the mind.


She was sticky because of the humidity, with a sour taste in her mouthstale orange juice and heavy sleep.


Rain was still falling. It drummed complicated rhythms on the roof of the hospital. Private sanitarium, actually. But not rhythms alone: chucklinggurglingburbling atonal melodies as well.


Sightless, Jennifer had no easy way to know with certainty the hour of the day or the season. However, blind for twenty years, she had developed a refined awareness of her circadian rhythms and was able to guess the time of year and day with surprising accuracy.


She knew that spring was drawing near. Perhaps it was March, the end of the rainy season in southern California. She knew not the day oc of the week, but she suspected it was early evening, between six and eight o'clock.


Perhaps she'd eaten dinner, though she did not remember it.


Sometimes she was barely conscious enough to swallow when they spoonfed her, but not sufficiently aware to enjoy what she ate. On other occasions, when in a deeper catatonic state, she received nutrients intravenously.


Although the room was cast in silence, she was aware of another presence, either because of some indefinable peculiarity of the air pressure or an odor only subconsciously perceived. She remained motionless, trying to breathe as if sound asleep, waiting for the unknown person to move or cough or sigh and, thereby, provide her with a clue to identity.


Her companion did not oblige her. Gradually, Jennifer came to suspect that she was alone with him.


She knew that a pretense of sleep was safest.


She struggled to stay perfectly still.


Finally she could no longer tolerate continued ignorance. She said, “Margaret?”


No one responded.


She knew the silence was false. She strove to recall the name of the swingshift nurse. “Angelina?”


No reply Only the rain.


He was torturing her. It was psychological torture, but that was by far the most effective weapon that could be used against her. She had known so much physical and emotional pain that she had developed defenses against those forms of abuse.


“Who's there?” she demanded.


“It's me,” he said.


Bryan. Her Bryan.


His voice was soft and gentle, even musical, in no way threatening, yet it caused ice to form in her blood.


She said, “Where's the nurse?”


“I asked her to leave us alone.”


“What do you want?”


“Just to be with you.”


“Why?”


“Because I love you.”


He sounded sincere, but she knew that he was not. He was congenitally incapable of sincerity.


“Go away,” she pleaded.


“Why do you hurry? I know what you are.”


“What am I?”


She did not respond.


He said, “How can you know what I am?”


“Who better to know?” she said harshly, consumed by bitterness, selfloathing, loathing, and despair.


Judging by the sound of his voice, he was standing near the window, closer to the plink and paradiddle of the rain than to the faint noises in the corridor She was terrified that he would come to the bed, take her hand, touch her cheek or brow.


She said, “I want Angelina.”


"Not yet.


“Please.”


“No.”


“Then go away.”


“Why do you hurt me?” he asked again. His voice remained as gentle as ever, melodic as that of a choirboy, untouched by anger or frustration, only sorrow. "I come twice a week. I sit with you.


Without you, what would I be? Nothing. I'm aware of that."


Jennifer bit her lip and did not reply.


Suddenly she sensed that he was moving. She could hear no footsteps, no ørustle of garments. He could be quieter than a cat when he wished to be.


She knew he was approaching the bed.


Desperately she sought the oblivion of her delusions, either the bright fantasies or dark terrors within her damaged mind, she cared not which, anything other than the horror of reality in that too, too private sanitarium room. But she could not retreat at will into those interior realms; periodic involuntary consciousness was, perhaps, the greatest curse of her pathetic, debilitated condition.


n She waited, trembling.


She listened.


He was ghostsilent.


The thunderous pummeling of rain on the roof was cut off from one second to the next, but she understood that the rain had not actually ceased to fall. Abruptly the world was clutched in the grip of an uncanny silence, stillness.


Jennifer brimmed with fear, even into the paralyzed extremities of her left side.


He took hold of her right hand.


She gasped and tried to pull away.


“No,” he said, and tightened his grip. He was strong.


She called for the nurse, knowing it was useless to do so.


He held her with one hand and caressed her fingers with the other. He tenderly massaged her wrist. He stroked the withered flesh of her forearm.


Blindly, she waited, trying not to speculate upon what cruelties would ensue.


He pinched her arm, and a wordless plea for mercy escaped her He pinched harder, then again, but probably not hard enough to leave a bruise.


Enduring, Jennifer wondered what his face was like, whether ugly or plain or handsome. She intuited that it would not be a blessing to recover her sight if she were required, just once, to gaze into his hateful eyes.


He pushed one finger into her ear, and his nail seemed as long and pointed as a needle. He twisted it and scraped, pressed harder still, until the pressurepain was unbearable.


She screamed, but no one responded.


He touched her pancake breasts, deflated from long years of supine existence and intravenous nourishment. Even in her sexless condition, her ni**les were a source of pain, and he knew how to deliver agony.


However, it was not so much anything he did to her that mattered ...


but what he might think to do next. He was endlessly inventive.


True terror lay in the anticipation of the unknown.


She screamed for someone, anyone, help, surcease. She begged God for death.


Her shrieks and cries for help fell into a void.


Finally she was silent and endured.


He released her, but she was acutely aware that he was still at her bedside.


“Love me,” Bryan said.


“Please go away.) Softly: ”Love me."


If Jennifer had been capable of producing tears, she would have wept.


“Love me, and I won't have any reason to hurt you again. All I want is for you to love me.”


She was no more capable of loving him than she was of producing tears from her ruined eyes. Easier to love a viper, a rock, or the cold indifferent blackness between the stars.


“I only need to be loved,” he insisted.


She knew that he was incapable of love. Indeed, he had no concept whatsoever of the meaning of the word. He wanted it only because he could not have it, could not feel it, because it was a mystery to him, a great unknown. Even if she were able to love him and convince him of her love, she would not be saved, for he would be unmoved by love when at last it was given to him, would deny its existence, and would continue to torture her out of habit.


Suddenly the rain sound resumed. Voices in the corridor. Squeaking wheels on the tiered cart that carried dinner trays.


The torment was over. For now.


“I can't stay long this evening,” Bryan said. “Not the usual eternity” He chuckled at that remark, amused by himself, but to Jennifer it was only an offensive wet sound in his throat, humorless.


He said, "I've had an unexpected increase in business. So much to do.


I'm afraid I've got to run."


As always, he marked his departure by bending over the bed railing and kissing the numb left side of her face. She could not feel the pressure or texture of his lips against her cheek, only a butterfly wing touch of coolness. She suspected that his kiss might have felt no different, maybe only colder, if planted on the stillsensitive right side of her face.


When he left, he chose to make noise, and she listened to his receding footsteps.


After a while, Angelina came to feed her dinner. Soft foods.


Mashed potatoes with gravy. Pureed beef. Pureed peas. Applesauce with a sprinkling of cinnamon and brown sugar. Ice cream. Things she would have no difficulty swallowing.


Jennifer said nothing about what had been done to her. From grim experience, she had learned that she would not be believed.


He must have the appearance of an angel, because everyone but her seemed disposed to trust him on first sight, attributing to him only the kindest motives and noblest intentions.


She wondered if her ordeal would ever end.


Ricky Estefan emptied half the box of rigatoni into the big pot of boiling water. A head of foam rose instantaneously, and an appealing starchy smell wafted up in a cloud of steam. On another burner stood a smaller pot of fragrantly bubbling spaghetti sauce.


As he adjusted the gas flames, he heard a strange noise toward the front of the house. A thump, not especially loud but solid. He cocked his head, listened. Just when he decided that he'd imagined the noise, it came again: thump.


He went down the hall to the front door, switched on the porch light, and looked through the fisheye lens in the peephole. As far as he could see, no one was out there.


He unlocked the door, opened it, and cautiously leaned outside to look both ways. None of the outdoor furniture had fallen over. The night was windless, so the bench swing hung motionless on its chains.


The rain continued to fall hard. In the street, the vaguely purplish light of the mercuryvapor lamps revealed rivers along both inn gutters, nearly to the tops of the curbs, churning toward the drains at the end of the block, glistening like streams of molten silver.


He was concerned that the thump had signaled storm damage of some kind, but that seemed unlikely without a good wind.


After he closed the door, he twisted the deadbolt into place and slid the security chain home. Since being gutshot and struggling back from the brink, he had developed a healthy paranoia. Well, healthy or unhealthy, it was a damned fine example of paranoia, shiny from use.


He kept the doors locked at all times, and with nightfall he drew the drapes shut at every window so no one could peer inside.


His fear embarrassed him. He had once been so strong, capable, and selfconfident. When Harry had left earlier, Ricky had pretended to stay at the kitchen table, working on the belt buckle.


But as soon as he heard the front door close, he shuffled down the hall to slip the deadbolt quietly into place while his old friend was still on the front porch. His face had been burning with shame, but he'd been uneasy about leaving a door unlocked even for a few minutes.


Now, as he turned away from the door, the mysterious noise came again.


Thump.


This time he thought it was located in the living room. He stepped through the archway to find the source.


Two table lamps were on in the living room. A warm amber glow suffused that cozy space. The coved ceiling was patterned with twin circles of light broken by the shadows of lamp shade wires and finials.


Ricky liked light throughout the house in the evening until he went to bed. He no longer was comfortable entering a dark room and tben flicking a switch.


Everything was in order. He even peered behind the sofa to be sure...


well, to be sure that nothing was amiss back there.


Thump.


His bedroom?


A door in the living room opened on a small vestibule with a simply but charmingly coffered ceiling. Three other doors ringed the vestibule: guest bath, a cramped guest bedroom, and a master bedroom of modest dimensions, one lamp aglow in each. Ricky checked everywhere, closets too, but found nothing that could have caused the thumping.


He pulled the drapes aside at each window to see if the latches were engaged and all the panes of glass intact. They were.


Thump.


This time it seemed to come from the garage.


From the nightstand beside his bed, he got a revolver. Smith & Wesson .38 Chief's Special. He knew it was fully loaded. He flipped the cylinder out and checked anyway. All five rounds were there.


Thump.


He developed a stitch in his lower left abdomen, a painful stretchingtwitching sensation with which he was too familiar, and although the bungalow was small, he needed more than a minute to reach the connecting door to the garage. It was off the hallway, just before the kitchen. He leaned against it, one ear to the crack of the jamb, listening.


Thump.


The sound had definitely come from the garage.


He pinched the deadbolt turn between thumb and forefinger ... then hesitated. He didn't want to go into the garage.


He became aware of a dew of perspiration on his brow.


“Come on, come on,” he said, but he didn't respond to his own urging.


He hated himself for being afraid. Although he remembered the terrible pain of the bullets smacking through his belly and scrambling his guts, although he could recall the agony of all the subsequent infections and the anguish of the months in the hospital under the shadow of death, although he knew that many other men would have given up when he persevered, and although he knew that his caution and fear were justified by all that he had experienced and survived, he hated himself nonetheless.


Thump.


Cursing himself, he disengaged the lock, opened the door, found the light switch. He stepped across the threshold.


The garage was wide enough for two cars, and his blue Mitsubishi tn was parked on the far side. The half nearest the house was occupied by his long wo:kbench, racks of tools, cabinets filled with supplies, and the gasfired forge in which he melted small ingots of silver to pour into the jewelry and buckle molds that he created.


The rataplan of the rain was louder here because there was no drop ceiling and the garage roof was not insulated. A damp chill rose off the concrete floor.

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