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She dropped the package. The knives clattered together inside the box, a muffled but nonetheless gruesome sound.

Get rid of the knives altogether. Throw them away. That was the only solution.

Tomorrow was trash-pickup day. If she put the knives out with the trash, they would be hauled to the dump in the morning.

She didn’t know where the dump was located. Had no idea. Far out to the east somewhere, a remote landfill. Maybe even in another county. She’d never be able to find the knives again once they were taken to the dump. After the trash collectors visited, she would be safe.

‘With her heart rattling its cage of ribs, she snatched up the hated package and descended the porch steps.

Tom Wong timed Skeet’s pulse, listened to his heart, and took his blood pressure. The cold stethoscope diaphragm against the kid’s bare chest and the tightness of the pressure cuff around his right arm failed to elicit even a slight response from him. Not a twitch, blink, shiver, sigh, grunt, or grumble. He lay as limp and pale as a peeled, cooked zucchini.

“His pulse was forty-eight when I took it,” Dusty said, watching from the foot of the bed.

“Forty-six now.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Not necessarily. There’s no sign of distress.”

According to his chart, Skeet’s average normal pulse, when he was clean and sober and awake, was sixty-six. Ten or twelve points lower when sleeping.

“Sometimes you see sleeping pulse rates as low as forty,” Tom said, “although it’s rare.” He peeled back Skeet’s eyelids, one at a time, and examined his eyes with an ophthalmoscope. “Pupils are the same size, but it could still be apoplexy.”

“Brain hemorrhage?”

“Or an embolism. Even if it’s not apoplectic, it could be another type of coma. Diabetic. Uremic.”

“He’s not diabetic.”

“I better get the doctor,” Tom said as he left the room.

The rain had stopped, but the oval leaves of the Indian laurels wept as if with green-eyed grief.

Carrying the package of knives, Martie hurried to the east side of the house. She wrenched open the gate of the trash-can enclosure.

An observant part of her, a sane part of her imprisoned by her fear, was grimly aware that her posture and her movements were like those of a marionette: head thrust forward on a stiff neck, shoulders drawn up sharply, seemingly all elbows and knees, rushing forward in herky-jerky urgency.

If she were a marionette, then the puppeteer was Johnny Panic. In college, some of her friends had been devoted to the brilliant poetry of Sylvia Plath; and though Martie had found Plath’s work too nihilistic and too depressive to be appealing, she had remembered one painful observation by the poet—a convincing explanation of what motivated some people to be cruel to one another and to make so many self-destructive choices. From where 1 sit, Plath wrote, I figure the world is run by one thing and this one thing only. Panic with a dog-face, devil—face, hag-face, whore—face, panic in capital letters with no face at all—it’s the same Johnny Panic, awake or asleep.

For all her twenty-eight years, Martie’s world had been largely free of panic, rich instead with a serene sense of belonging, peace, purpose, and connection with creation, because her dad had brought her up to believe that every life had meaning. Smilin’ Bob said that if you were always guided by courage, honor, self-respect, honesty, and compassion, and if you kept your mind and your heart open to the lessons that this world teaches you, then you would eventually understand the meaning of your existence, perhaps even in this world, but certainly in the next. Such a philosophy virtually guaranteed a brighter life, less shadowed by fear than the lives of those who were convinced of meaninglessness. Yet here, at last, inexplicably, Johnny Panic came into Martie’s life, too, somehow snared her in his controlling strings, and was now jerking her through this demented performance.

In the trash enclosure alongside the house, Martie removed the clamp-on lid from the third of three hard-plastic cans, the only one that was empty. She dropped the tape-encased box of knives into the can, jammed the lid on, and fumbled the steel-wire clamp into place.

She should have felt relieved.

Instead, her anxiety grew.

Fundamentally, nothing had changed. She knew where the knives were. She could retrieve them if she was determined. They would not be beyond her reach until the trash collector tossed them into his truck and drove away with them in the morning.

Worse, these knives weren’t the only instruments with which she could give expression to the new violent thoughts that terrified her. Her brightly painted house, with its charming gingerbread millwork, might appear to be a place of peace, but it was in fact a well-equipped abattoir, an armory bulging with weapons; if you had a mind for mayhem, many apparently innocent items could be used as blades or bludgeons.

Frustrated, Martie clasped her hands to her temples as though she could physically suppress the riot of frightful thoughts that churned and shrieked through the dark, twisted streets of her mind. Her head throbbed against her palms and fingers; her skull suddenly seemed elastic. The harder she pressed, the greater her inner tumult became.

Action. Smilin’ Bob always said that action was the answer to most problems. Fear, despair, depression, and even a lot of anger result from a sense that we’re powerless, helpless. Taking action to resolve our problems is healthy, but we must apply some intelligence and a moral perspective if we have any hope of doing the right and most effective thing.

Martie didn’t have a clue as to whether she was doing either the right thing or the most effective thing when she pulled the big, wheeled trash can out of the enclosure and hurriedly rolled it along the walkway toward the back of the house. Applying intelligence and sound moral principles required a calm mind, but she was swept up in a mental tempest, and those inner storm winds were gaining power by the second.

Here, now, Martie knew not what she ought to do, only what she must do. She couldn’t wait for the serenity required to logically assess her options; she must act, do something, do anything, because when she remained still, even for a moment, a hard gale of spinning-tumbling dark thoughts battered her more fiercely than when she kept moving. If she dared to sit or even to pause for a few deep breaths, she would be torn asunder, scattered, blown away; however, if she kept moving, maybe she would do more things wrong than not, maybe she would take one stupid action after another, but there was always the chance, no matter how slim, that by sheer instinct she would do something right and thereby earn some relief, at least a small measure of peace.

Besides, on a gut level, where thought and reflection were not valued, where only feelings mattered, she knew that somehow she must alleviate her anxiety and regain control of herself before nightfall. The primitive in each of us climbs closer to the surface during the night, for the moon sings to it, and the cold void between the stars speaks its language. To that savage self, evil can look lovely in too little light. With darkness, a panic attack might degenerate into something worse, even into gibbering madness.

Although the rain had stopped, an ocean of black thunderheads remained overhead, from horizon to horizon, and a premature twilight drowned the day.

True twilight wasn’t far off, either. When it arrived, the cloud-throttled sky would seem as black as night.

Already, fat night crawlers squirmed out of the lawn, onto the walkway. Snails had come forth, too, oozing silvery trails behind them.

A fecund odor arose from the wet grass, from the mulch and the rotting leaves in the flower beds, from the darkly glistening shrubbery, and from the dripping trees.

In the gloaming, Martie was uneasily aware of the fertile life to which the sun was forbidding but to which the night offered hospitality. She was aware, too, that an awful centipedal part of herself shared an enthusiasm for the night with all the wriggling creeping-crawling-slithering life that came out of hiding between dusk and dawn. The squirming she felt within herself was not just fear; it was a dreadful hunger, a need, an urge that she dared not contemplate.

Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving, and make a safe house, make a refuge in which nothing remains that might be dangerous in violent hands.

New Life was staffed primarily by nurses and therapists, but a medical doctor was on site from six o’clock in the morning until eight o’clock at night. The current shift was covered by Dr. Henry Donklin, whom Dusty had first met during Skeet’s previous course of treatment at the clinic.

With curly white hair, with baby-pink skin remarkably smooth and supple for his age, Dr. Donidin had the cherubic good looks of a successful televangelist, although he was without the concomitant oiliness that suggested an easy slide into damnation for many of those electronic preachers.

After closing his private practice, Dr. Donidin had discovered that retirement was hardly more appealing than death. He had taken this position at New Life because the work was worthwhile even if not challenging and, in his words, “saves me from the stifling purgatory of endless golf and the living hell of shuffleboard.”

Donklin gripped Skeet’s left hand, and even in his sleep, the kid weakly returned the squeeze. The physician successfully repeated the test with Skeet’s right hand.

“No obvious signs of paralysis, no stertorous breathing,” Donklin said, “no puffing of the cheeks on expiration.”

“Pupils are equally dilated,” Tom Wong noted.

After checking the eyes himself, Donklin continued his brisk examination. “Skin isn’t clammy, normal surface temperature. I’d be surprised if this is apoplectic coma. Not hemorrhage, embolism, or thrombosis. But we’ll revisit that possibility and transfer him to a hospital if we can’t identify the problem quickly.”

Dusty allowed himself a measure of optimism.

Valet stood in a corner, head raised, intently watching the proceedings—perhaps alert for a return or reoccurrence of whatever had raised his hackles and had driven him from the room a short while ago.

At the doctor’s direction, Tom prepared to catheterize Skeet and obtain a urine sample.

After leaning close to his unconscious patient, Donklin said, “He doesn’t have sweet breath, but we’ll want to check the urine for albumin and sugar.”

“He’s not diabetic,” Dusty said.

“Doesn’t look like uremic coma, either,” the physician observed. “He’d have a hard, fast pulse. Elevated blood pressure. None of the symptoms here.”

“Could he be just sleeping?” Dusty asked.

“Sleep this deep,” Henry DonkJin said, “you need a wicked witch casting a spell or maybe a bite from Snow White’s apple.”

“The thing is—I got a little frustrated with him, the way he was behaving, and I told him to just go to sleep, said it sort of sharply, and the moment I said it, he zonked out.”

Donklin’s expression was so dry that his face looked as if it needed to be dusted. “Are you telling me you’re a witch?”

“Still a housepainter.”

Because he didn’t believe that apoplexy was involved, Donklin risked the application of a restorative; however, a whiff of ammonium carbonate—smelling salts—failed to revive Skeet.

“If he’s just sleeping,” the physician said, “then he must be a descendant of Rip van Winkle.”

Because the trash container held only the box of cutlery and because its wheels were large, Martie was able to drag it up the short flight of stairs onto the back porch with little difficulty. From inside the well-taped box, through the walls of the can, came the angry music of knives ringing against one another.

She had intended to roll the container inside. Now she realized that she would be bringing the knives into the house again.

Hands locked on the handle of the trash can, she was frozen by indecision.

Ridding her home of all potential weapons must be priority one. Before full darkness descended. Before she surrendered more control of herself to the primitive within.

Into her stillness came a greater storm of fear, rattling all the doors and windows of her soul.

Move, move, move.

She left the back door standing open and parked the wheeled trash can on the porch, at the threshold, where it was near enough to be convenient. She removed the lid and put it aside on the porch floor.

In the kitchen once more, she pulled open a cabinet drawer and scanned the gleaming contents: flatware. Salad forks. Dinner forks. Dinner knives. Butter knives. Also ten steak knives with wooden handles.

She didn’t touch the dangerous items. Instead, she carefully removed the safer pieces—tablespoons, teaspoons, coffee spoons— and placed them on the counter. Then she removed the drawer from the cabinet, carried it to the open door, and upended it.

Along with a set of plastic drawer dividers, a steely cascade of forks and knives clinked and jingled into the trash can. The marrow in Martie’s bones rang in sympathy with the icy sound.

She put the drawer on the kitchen floor, in a corner, out of her way. She didn’t have time to return the salvaged spoons to it and slide it back into the cabinet.

The false twilight was bleeding into true twilight. Through the open door, she could hear the first rough songs of the little winter toads that ventured forth only at night.

Another drawer. Miscellaneous culinary tools and gadgets. A bottle opener. A potato peeler. A lemon-peel shaver. A wicked-looking spikelike meat thermometer. A small meat-tenderizing hammer. A corkscrew. Miniature yellow-plastic ears of corn with two sharp pins protruding from one end, which could be jammed into a cob to make fresh corn easier to eat.

She was astonished by the number and variety of common household items that could also serve as weapons. On his way to an inquisition, any torturer would feel well prepared if his kit contained nothing more than the items now before Martie’s eyes.

The drawer also contained large plastic clips for bags of potato chips, measuring spoons, measuring cups, a melon scoop, a few rubber spatulas, wire whisks, and other items that didn’t look as if they would be lethal even in the possession of the cleverest of homicidal sociopaths.

Hesitantly, she reached into the drawer, intending to sort the dangerous items from the harmless things, but at once she snatched her hand back. She wasn’t willing to trust herself with the task.

“This is crazy, this is totally nuts,” she said, and her voice was so torqued by fear and by despair that she barely recognized it as her own.

She dumped the entire collection of gadgets into the trash can. She put the second empty drawer atop the first, in the corner.

Dusty, where the hell are you? I need you. I need you. Come home, please, come home.

Because she had to keep moving to avoid being paralyzed by fear, she found the courage to open a third drawer. Several big serving forks. Meat forks. An electric carving knife.