As a young girl, Susan had dreamed of being a musician with a major symphony orchestra. She was a fine violinist; not world-class, not so great that she could be the featured performer on a concert tour, but fine enough to ensure that her more modest dream could have become a reality. Somehow, she had settled for real-estate sales instead.
Even until late in her final year of high school, Martie had wanted to be a veterinarian. Now she designed video games.
Life offers infinite possible roads. Sometimes your head chooses the route, sometimes your heart. And sometimes, for better or worse, neither head nor heart can resist the stubborn pull of fate.
From time to time, Gould’s exquisite sprays of silvery notes reminded Martie that although the wind had diminished, cold rain was still falling outside, beyond the heavily draped windows. The apartment was so cloistered and cozy that she was tempted to succumb to the dangerously comforting notion that no world existed beyond these protective walls.
She and Susan talked about the old days, old friends. They devoted not a word to the future.
Susan wasn’t a serious drinker. Two beers were, to her, a binge. Usually, she got neither giddy nor mean with drink, but pleasantly sentimental. This time, she became steadily quieter and solemn.
Soon, Martie was doing most of the talking. To her own ear, she sounded increasingly inane, so at last she stopped babbling.
Their friendship was deep enough to make them comfortable with silence. This silence, however, had a weird and edgy quality, perhaps because Martie was surreptitiously watching her friend for signs of the trancelike condition that had previously overtaken her.
She couldn’t bear to listen to the Goldberg Variations yet again, because suddenly the music’s piercing beauty was depressing. Strangely, for her, it had come to signify loss, loneliness, and quiet desperation. The apartment quickly became stifling rather than cozy, claustrophobic rather than comforting.
When Susan used the remote control to replay the same CD, Martie consulted her watch and recited a series of nonexistent errands to which she must attend before five o’clock.
In the kitchen, after Martie slipped into her raincoat, she and Susan embraced, as they always did on parting. This time the hug was more fierce than usual, as though both of them were trying to convey a great many important and deeply felt things that neither was able to express in words.
As Martie turned the knob, Susan stepped behind the door, where she would be shielded from a glimpse of the fearsome world outside. With a note of anguish, as if suddenly deciding to reveal a troubling secret that she had been keeping with difficulty, she said, “He’s coming here at night, when I’m asleep.”
Martie had opened the door two inches. She closed it but left her hand on the knob. “Say what? Who’s coming here while you’re asleep?”
The green of Susan’s eyes seemed to be an icier shade than before, the color having been intensified and clarified by some new fear. “I mean, I think he is.” Susan lowered her gaze to the floor. Color had risen in her pale cheeks. “I don’t have proof it’s him, but who else could it be but Eric?”
Turning away from the door, Martie said, “Eric conies here at night while you’re asleep?”
“He says he doesn’t, but I think he’s lying.”
“He has a key?”
“I didn’t give him one.”
“And you’ve changed the locks.”
“Yeah. But somehow he gets in.”
“In the morning.. . when I realize he’s been here, I check all the windows, but they’re always locked.”
“How do you know he’s been here? I mean, what’s he do?”
Instead of answering, Susan said, “He comes . . . sneaking around . . . sneaking, slinking like some mongrel dog.” She shuddered.
Martie was no great fan of Eric’s, but she had difficulty picturing him slinking up the stairs at night and slithering into the apartment as if through a keyhole. For one thing, he didn’t have sufficient imagination to figure out an undetectable way to slip in here; he was an investment adviser with a head full of numbers and data, but with no sense of mystery. Besides, he knew Susan kept a handgun in her nightstand, and he was highly aversive to risk; he was the least likely of men to take a chance at being shot as a burglar, even if he might harbor a twisted desire to torment his wife.
“Do you find things disturbed in the morning—or what?”
Susan didn’t reply.
“You never heard him in the apartment? You never woke up when he’s been here?”
“So in the morning there are. . . clues?”
“Clues,” Susan agreed, but offered no specifics.
“Like things out of order? The smell of his cologne? Stuff like that?”
Still staring at the floor, Susan nodded.
“But exactly what?” Martie persisted.
“Hey, Sooz, could you look at me?”
When Susan raised her face, she was blushing brightly, not as if with mere embarrassment, but as if with shame.
“Sooz, what aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing. I’m just. . . being paranoid, I guess.”
“There is something you’re not saying. Why bring it up at all, and then hold out on me?”
Susan hugged herself and shivered. “I thought I was ready to talk about this, but I’m not. I’ve still got to.. . work some things out in my head.”
“Eric sneaking in here at night—that’s a weird damn thing. It’s creepy. What would he be doing—watching you sleep?”
“Later, Martie. I’ve got to think this through a little more, work up the courage. I’ll call you later.”
“You’ve got all those errands.”
“They’re not important.”
Susan frowned. “They sounded like they were pretty important a minute ago.”
Martie wasn’t capable of hurting Susan’s feelings by admitting that she had invented the errands as an excuse to get out of this dreary, suffocating place, into fresh air and the invigorating chill of cold rain. “If you don’t call me later and tell me all of it, every last detail, then I’ll drive back here tonight and sit on your chest and read you pages and pages of the latest book of literary criticism by Dusty’s old man. It’s The Meaning of Meaninglessness: Chaos as Structure, and halfway through any paragraph, you’ll swear that fire ants are crawling across the surface of your brain. Or what about Dare to Be Your Own Best Friend? That’s his stepfather’s latest. Listen to that one on audiotape, and it’ll make you want to cut off your ears. They’re a family of writing fools, and I could inflict them on you.”
Smiling thinly, Susan said, “I’m suitably terrified. I’ll call you for sure.”
“My solemn oath.”
Martie grasped the knob again, but she didn’t open the door. “Are you safe here, Sooz?” .
Of course, Susan said, but Martie thought she saw a flicker of uncertainty in those haunted green eyes.
“But if he’s sneaking—”
“Eric’s still my husband,” Susan said.
“Watch the news. Some husbands do terrible things.”
“You know Eric. Maybe he’s a pig—”
“He is a pig,” Martie insisted.
“—but he’s not dangerous.”
“He’s a wimp.”
Martie hesitated but then finally cracked open the door. “We’ll be finished with dinner by eight o’clock, maybe sooner. In bed by eleven, as usual. I’ll be waiting for your call.”
“Give Dusty a kiss for me.”
“It’ll be a dry peck on the cheek. All the good wet stuff comes strictly from me.”
Martie pulled her hood over her head, stepped out onto the landing, and drew the door shut behind her.
The air had grown still, as though the wind had been pressed out of the day by this enormous weight of falling rain, which came down like cataracts of iron pellets.
She waited until she heard Susan engage the dead bolt, a solid Schiage lock that would hold against serious assault. Then she quickly descended the long, steep flight of stairs.
At the bottom, she stopped, turned, and peered up toward the landing and the apartment door.
Susan Jagger seemed like a beautiful princess in a fairy tale, imprisoned in a tower, besieged by trolls and malevolent spirits, with no brave prince to save her.
As the gray day reverberated with the ceaseless booming of big storm waves on the nearby shore, Martie hurried along the beach promenade to the nearest street, where gutters overflowed and dirty water churned around the tires of her red Saturn.
She hoped Dusty had taken advantage of the bad weather to be domestic and to make his incomparable meatballs and spicy tomato sauce. Nothing would be more reassuring than stepping into the house and seeing him in a cooking apron, a glass of red wine near at hand. The air would be full of delicious aromas. Good retro pop music—maybe Dean Martin—on the stereo. Dusty’s smile, his embrace, his kiss. After this bizarre day, she needed all the cozy reassurances of home and hearth and husband.
As Martie started the car, a sickening vision blazed through her mind, burning away all hope that the day might yet bring her a small measure of peace and reassurance. This was more real than an ordinary mental picture, so detailed and intense that it seemed as if it were happening right here, right now. She was convinced that she was flashing forward to a terrible incident that would happen, receiving a glimpse of an inevitable moment in the future, toward which she was plunging as surely as if she’d thrown herself off a cliff. When she thrust the key into the ignition, her mind filled with an image of an eye pierced by the wicked point of the key, gouged by the serrated edge, which sank into the brain behind the eye. Even as she jammed the key into the car ignition, she twisted it, and simultaneously the key in her vivid premonition also twisted in the eye.
Without any conscious awareness of having opened the door, Martie found herself out of the car, leaning against the side of it, bringing up her lunch onto the rainwashed street.
She stood there for a long while, head bent.
Her raincoat hood had slipped back. Soon her hair was soaked.
When she was sure that she was fully purged, she reached into the car, plucked tissues from a box of Kleenex, and wiped her lips.
She always kept a small bottle of water in the car. Now she used it to rinse out her mouth.
Though still a little queasy, she got into the Saturn and pulled the door shut.
The engine was idling. She wouldn’t have to touch the key again until she was parked in her garage in Corona Del Mar.
Wet, cold, miserable, frightened, confused, she wanted more than anything to be safe at home, to be dry and warm and among familiar things.
She was shaking too much to drive. She waited almost fifteen minutes before she finally released the hand brake and put the car in gear.
Although she desperately wanted to go home, she was afraid of what might happen when she got there. No. She was being dishonest with herself. She wasn’t afraid of what would happen. She was afraid of what she might do.
The eye that she had seen in her premonition—if, indeed, that’s what it had been—was not merely any eye. It had been a distinctive shade of gray-blue, lustrous and beautiful. Just like Dusty’s eyes.
At New Life Clinic, the positive psychological influences provided by animals were thought to be useful in certain cases, and Valet was welcome. Dusty parked near the portico, and by the time they got into the building, they were only slightly damp, which was a disappointment to the dog. Valet was a retriever, after all, with webbed feet, a love of water, and enough aquatic talent to qualify him for the Olympic synchronized-swimming team.
In his second-floor quarters, Skeet was fast asleep atop the covers, fully clothed, shoes off.
The bleak winter afternoon pressed its fading face to the window, and shadows gathered in the room. The only other light issued from a small battery-powered reading lamp clipped to the book that Tom Wong, the male nurse, was reading.
After scratching Valet behind the ears, Tom took advantage of their visit to go on a break.
Dusty quietly unpacked both suitcases, stowed the contents in dresser drawers, and took up the vigil in the armchair. Valet settled at his feet.
Two hours of daylight remained, but the shadows in the corners spun expanding webs until Dusty switched on the pharmacy lamp beside the chair.
Although Skeet was curled in the fetal position, he looked not like a child, but like a desiccated corpse, so gaunt and thin that his clothes appeared to be draped over a fleshless skeleton.
Going home, Martie drove with extreme care not only because of the bad weather but also because of her condition. The prospect of a sudden-onset anxiety attack at sixty miles an hour was daunting. Fortunately, no freeways connected the Balboa Peninsula with Corona Del Mar; the entire trip was on surface streets, and she remained behind the slowest-moving vehicles.
On Pacific Coast Highway, before she was even halfway home, traffic came to a complete stop. Forty or fifty cars ahead, the revolving red and blue emergency beacons of ambulances and police cars marked the site of an accident.
Caught in the jam-up, she used her cell phone to call Dr. Closterman, her internist, hoping to get an appointment the next day, in the morning if possible. “It’s something of an emergency. I mean, I’m not in pain or anything, but I’d rather see him about this as soon as possible.”
“What’re your symptoms?” the receptionist asked.
Martie hesitated. “This is pretty personal. I’d rather talk about it only with Dr. Closterman.”
“He’s gone for the day, but we could squeeze you in the schedule about eight-thirty in the morning.”
“Thank you. I’ll be there,” Martie said, and she terminated the call.
A thin shroud of gray fog billowed in from the harbor, and needles of rain stitched it around the body of the dying day.
From the direction of the accident, an ambulance approached along the oncoming lanes, which contained little traffic.
Neither the siren nor the emergency beacons were in operation. Evidently the patient was beyond all medical help, not actually a patient anymore, but a package bound for a mortuary.
Solemnly, Martie watched the vehicle pass in the rain, and then turned her gaze to the side mirror, where the taillights dwindled in the mist. She had no way of knowing for sure that the ambulance was indeed now a morgue wagon; nevertheless, she was convinced that it held a corpse. She felt Death passing by.