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Outside, the shrill singing of toads in the wet twilight.


22


Martie Rhodes, struggling to stave off total panic, pushed by obsession, pulled by compulsion, moved through a kitchen that now seemed no less filled with mortal threats than a battlefield torn by clashing armies.


She found a rolling pin in a drawer near the ovens. You could bash in someone’s face with a rolling pin, smash his nose, split his lips, club and club and club him until you fractured his skull, until you left him on the floor, gazing sightlessly at you, with starburst hemorrhages in both his eyes.


Although no potential victim was present, and although she knew she was incapable of bludgeoning anyone, Martie nonetheless had to talk herself into plucking the rolling pin from the drawer. “Get it, come on, for God’s sake, get it, get it out of here, get rid of it.”


Halfway to the trash can, she dropped the pin. It made a hard, sickening sound when it struck the floor.


She couldn’t immediately summon the nerve to pick up the pin again. She kicked it, and it rolled all the way to the threshold of the open door.


With the rain, the last of the wind had drained out of the day, but the twilight exhaled a cold draft across the porch and through the kitchen door. Hoping the chilly air would clear her head, she took deep breaths, shuddering with each.


She gazed down at the rolling pin, which lay at her feet. All she had to do was snatch up the damn thing and drop it into the can beyond the threshold. It wouldn’t be in her hand more than a second or two.


Alone, she couldn’t harm anyone. And even if she was seized by a self-destructive impulse, a rolling pin wasn’t the ideal weapon with which to commit hara-kiri, although it was better than a rubber spatula.


With that little joke, she humiliated herself into plucking the rolling pin off the floor and dropping it in the can.


When she searched the next drawer, she found an array of tools and devices that for the most part didn’t alarm her. A flour sifter. An egg timer. A garlic press. A basting brush. A colander. A juice strainer. A lettuce dryer.


Mortar and pestle. No good. The mortar was about the size of a baseball, carved out of a chunk of solid granite. You could brain someone with it. Step up behind him and swing it down hard, in a savage arc, cave in his skull.


The mortar had to go, right away, now, before Dusty came home or before some unwary neighbor rang the doorbell.


The pestle seemed harmless, but the two items composed a set, so she took both to the trash can. The granite mortar was cold in her cupped hand. Even after she threw it away, the memory of its coolness and satisfying heft tantalized her, and she knew that she had been right to dispose of it.


As she was pulling open another drawer, the telephone rang. She answered it hopefully: “Dusty?”


“It’s me,” Susan Jagger said.


“Oh.” Her heart withered with disappointment. She tried not to let her distress color her voice. “Hey, what’s up?”


“Are you all right, Martie?”


“Yeah, sure.”


“You sound funny.”


“I’m okay.”


“You sound out of breath.”


“I was just doing some heavy lifting.”


“Something is wrong.”


“Nothing is wrong. Don’t grind me, Sooz. I’ve got a mother for that. What’s up?”


Martie wanted to get off the phone. She had so much to do. So many kitchen drawers and cupboards had not yet been searched. And dangerous items, potential weapons, were in other rooms, as well. Instruments of death were scattered throughout the house, and she needed to find them all, dispose of every last one.


“This is a little embarrassing,” Susan said.


“What is?”


“I’m not paranoid, Martie.”


“I know you’re not.”


“He does come here sometimes, you know, sometimes at night when I’m sleeping.”


“Eric.”


“It must be him. All right, I know, he doesn’t have a key, and the doors and windows are all locked, there’s no way in, but it’s got to be him.”


Martie opened one of the drawers near the telephone. Among other things, it contained the pair of scissors that she had not been able to touch earlier, when she had wanted to cut the strapping tape.


Susan said, “You asked me how I know when he’s been here, were things out of order, the smell of his cologne on the air, anything like that.”


The handles of the scissors were coated in black rubber to provide a sure grip.


“But it’s a lot worse than cologne, Martie, it’s creepy. . . and embarrassing.”


The steel blades were as polished as mirrors on the outside, with a dull brushed finish on the inner cutting surfaces.


“Martie?”


“Yeah, I heard.” She was pressing the phone so tightly to her head that her ear hurt. “So tell me the creepy thing.”


“How I know he’s been here, he leaves his. . . his stuff.”


One of the blades was straight and sharp. The other had teeth. Both were wickedly pointed.


Martie struggled to keep track of the conversation, because her mind’s eye was suddenly filled with bright flashing images of the scissors in motion, slashing and stabbing, gouging and tearing. “His stuff?”


“You know.”


“His stuff.”


“What stuff?”


Engraved in one blade, just above the screwhead pivot, was the word Klick, which was probably the name of the manufacturer, although it resonated in a strange way with Martie, as if it were a magical word with secret power, mysterious and full of grave meaning.


Susan said, “His stuff, his . . . spunk.”


For a moment, Martie couldn’t make sense of the word spunk, simply couldn’t connect with it, couldn’t process it, as though it were a nonsense word invented by someone talking in tongues. Her mind was so preoccupied with the sight of the scissors lying in the drawer that she couldn’t concentrate on Susan.


“Martie?”


“Spunk,” Martie said, closing her eyes, striving to push all thoughts of the scissors out of her mind, trying to focus on the conversation with Susan.


“Semen,” Susan clarified.


“His stuff.”


“Yes.”


“That’s how you know he’s been there?”


“It’s impossible but it happens.”


“Semen.”


“Yes.”


Klick.


The sound of snipping scissors: klick-klick. But Martie wasn’t touching the scissors. Although her eyes were closed, she knew the shears were still in the drawer, because there was nowhere else they possibly could be. Klick-klick.


“I’m scared, Martie.”


Me too. Dear God, me too.


Martie’s left hand was clenched around the phone, and her right hand hung at her side, empty. The scissors couldn’t operate under their own power, and yet: klick-klick.


“I’m scared,” Susan repeated.


If Martie hadn’t been shaken by fear and struggling determinedly to conceal her anxiety from Susan, if she’d been able to concentrate better, perhaps she wouldn’t have found Susan’s claim to be bizarre. In her current condition, however, each turn of the conversation led her deeper into confusion. “You said he. . . leaves it? Where?”


“Well.. . in me, you know.”


To prove to herself that her right hand was empty, that the scissors weren’t in it, Martie brought it to her chest, pressed it over her pounding heart. Klick-klick.


“In you,” Martie said. She was aware that Susan was making truly astonishing statements with shocking implications and terrible potential consequences, but she wasn’t able to bring her mind to bear exclusively on her friend, not with that infernal klick-klick, klick-klick, klick-klick.


“I sleep in panties and a T-shirt,” Susan said.


“Me too,” Martie said inanely.


“Sometimes I wake up, and in my panties there’s this.. . this warm stickiness, you know.”


Klick-klick. The sound must be imaginary. Martie wanted to open her eyes just to confirm that the scissors were, indeed, in the drawer, but she would be entirely lost if she looked at them again, so she kept her eyes shut.


Susan said, “But I don’t understand how. It’s nuts, you know? I mean.. . how?”


“You wake up?”


“And I have to change underwear.”


“You’re sure that’s what it is? The stuff.”


“It’s disgusting. I feel dirty, used. Sometimes I have to shower, I just have to.”


Klick-klick. Martie’s heart was racing already, and she sensed that the sight of the gleaming blades would plunge her into a full-fledged panic attack far worse than anything that she had experienced previously. Klick-klick-klick.


“But, Sooz, good God, you mean he makes love to you—”


“There’s no love involved.”


“—he does you—”


“Rapes me. He’s still my husband, we’re just separated, I know, but it’s rape.”


“—but you don’t wake up during it?”


“You’ve got to believe me.”


“All right, of course, honey, I believe you. But—”


“Maybe I’m drugged somehow.”


“When would Eric be able to slip the drugs to you?”


“I don’t know. All right, yeah, it’s crazy. Totally whacked, paranoid. But it’s happening.”


Klick-kiick.


Without opening her eyes, Martie pushed the drawer shut.


“When you wake up,” she said shakily, “you’ve got your underwear on again.”


“Yes.”


Opening her eyes, staring at her right hand, which was knotted around the drawer pull, Martie said, “So he comes in, undresses you, rapes you. And then before he goes, he puts your T-shirt and panties on you again. Why?”


“So maybe I won’t realize he’s been here.”


“But there’s his stuff.”


“Nothing else has that same smell.”


“Sooz—”


“I know, I know, but I’m agoraphobic, not totally psychotic. Remember? That’s what you told me earlier. And listen, there’s more.”


From inside the closed drawer came a muffled klick-klick.


“Sometimes,” Susan continued, “I’m sore.”


“Sore?”


“Down there,” Susan said softly, discreetly. The depth of her anxiety and humiliation was more clearly revealed by this modesty than it had been by anything she’d previously said. “He’s not. . . gentle.”


Inside the drawer, blade pivoting against blade: klick-klick, klickklick.


Susan was whispering now, and she sounded farther away, too, as though a great tide had lifted her beachfront house and carried it out to sea, as if she were steadily drifting toward a far and dark horizon. “Sometimes my br**sts are sore, too, and once there were bruises on them. . . bruises the size of fingertips, where he’d squeezed too hard.”


“And Eric denies all this?”


“He denies being here. I haven’t. . . I haven’t discussed the explicit details with him.”


“What do you mean?”


“I haven’t accused him.”


Martie’s right hand remained on the drawer, pushing against it as though something inside might force its way out. She applied herself with such intensity that the muscles in her forearm began to ache.


Klick-klick.


“Sooz, for God’s sake, you think maybe he’s drugging you and screwing you in your sleep, but you haven’t confronted him about it?”


“I can’t. I shouldn’t. It’s forbidden.”


“Forbidden?”


“Well, you know, not right, not something I can do.”


“No, I don’t know. What an odd word—forbidden. By whom?”


“I didn’t mean forbidden. I don’t know why I said that. I just meant. . . well, I’m not sure what I meant. I’m so confused.”


Although she was distracted by her own anxiety, Martie sensed something profound in Susan’s word choice, and she wouldn’t drop the issue. “Forbidden by whom?”


“I’ve had the locks changed three times,” Susan said, instead of answering the question. Her voice rose from a whisper, sharpened by a brittle note of nascent hysteria that she was struggling mightily to repress. “Always a different company. Eric can’t know someone at every locksmith, can he? And I didn’t tell you this before, because maybe it makes me sound loopy, but I’ve dusted the windowsills with talcum powder, so if he did come through a locked window somehow, there’d be evidence of it, there’d be handprints in the powder, some mark of disturbance, but the talcum is always perfect in the morning. And I’ve wedged a kitchen chair under the doorknob, too, so even if the bastard has a key, he can’t open the door, and the next morning the chair is always there, where I put it, yet I’ve got his stuff in me, in my panties, and I’m sore, and I know I’ve been used, brutally, I know it, and I shower and shower, hotter and hotter water, so hot it hurts sometimes, but I can’t get clean. I never feel really clean anymore. Oh, God, sometimes I think what I need are exorcists—you know?— some priests to come here and pray over me, priests who really believe in the devil if there are any like that today, holy water and crucifixes, incense, because this is something that defies all logic, this is utterly supernatural, that’s what it is, supernatural. And now you’re thinking I’m a fully rounded nutball, but I’m really not, Martie, I’m not. I’m messed up, no question about that, okay, but this is apart from the agoraphobia, this is really happening, and I can’t go on like this, waking up and finding. . . It’s creepy, disgusting. It’s destroying me, but I don’t know what the hell to do. I feel helpless, Martie, I feel so vulnerable.”


Klick-klick.


Martie’s right arm ached from the wrist to the shoulder now; as she pressed on the drawer with all her weight, all her strength. Her jaw was clenched. Her teeth ground together.


Bright needles drew hot threads of pain up through her neck, and the pain sewed a little reason into her confusion-torn thoughts. In truth, she wasn’t concerned that something would escape from the drawer. The scissors weren’t magically animated like the brooms that plagued the beleaguered sorcerer’s apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia. The crisp dry sound—klick-klick—was in her mind. She was not actually afraid of the scissors or of the rolling pin, not afraid of the knives, the forks, the corkscrew, the corncob skewers, the meat thermometer. For hours now, she had known the true object of her terror, and she had fleetingly considered it several times during this strange day, but until now she had not faced it directly and without equivocation. The sole menace before which she cowered was Martine Eugenia Rhodes: She feared herself, not knives, not the hammers, not the scissors, but herself She was forcing the drawer shut with unwavering determination because she was convinced that otherwise she would yank it open, would seize the shears—and, in the absence of any other victim, would rip brutally at herself with the pointed blades.

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