“Neighborhoods like this,” Dusty said, “don’t want spectacles.”
Surveying the immense houses along the street, the regal palms and stately ficuses, the well-tended lawns and flower beds, the guard said, “I’ll give you ten minutes.”
Motherwell raised his right fist and shook it at Skeet.
Under the circling halo of crows, Skeet waved.
The security guard said, “Anyway, he doesn’t look suicidal.”
“The little geek says he’s happy because an angel of death is sitting beside him,” Motherwell explained, “and the angel has shown him what it’s like on the other side, and what it’s like, he says, is really awesomely cool.”
“I’ll go talk to him,” Dusty said.
Motherwell scowled. “Talk, hell. Give him a push.”
As the heavy sky, swollen with unspent rain, sagged toward the earth and as the wind rose, Martie and the dog returned home at a trot. She repeatedly glanced down at her pacing shadow, but then the storm clouds overwhelmed the sun, and her dark companion vanished as if it had seeped into the earth, returning to some nether-world.
She surveyed nearby houses as she passed them, wondering if anyone had been at a window to see her peculiar behavior, hoping that she hadn’t actually looked as odd as she’d felt.
In this picturesque neighborhood, the homes were generally old and small, though many were lovingly detailed, possessing more charm and character than half the people of Martie’s acquaintance. Spanish architecture dominated, but here were also Cotswold cottages, French chaumières, German Häuschens, and Art Deco bungalows. The eclectic mix was pleasing, woven together by a green embroidery of laurels, palms, fragrant eucalyptuses, ferns, and cascading bougainvillea.
Martie, Dusty, and Valet lived in a perfectly scaled, two-story, miniature Victorian with gingerbread millwork. Dusty had painted the structure in the colorful yet sophisticated tradition of Victorian houses on certain streets in San Francisco: pale yellow background; blue, gray, and green ornamentation; with a judicious use of pink in a single detail along the cornice and on the window pediments.
Martie loved their home and thought it was a fine testament to Dusty’s talent and craftsmanship.
Her mother, however, upon first seeing the paint job, had declared, “It looks as if clowns live here.”
As Martie opened the wooden gate at the north side of the house and followed Valet along the narrow brick walkway to the backyard, she wondered if her unreasonable fear somehow had its origins in the depressing telephone call from her mother. After all, the greatest source of stress in her life was Sabrina’s refusal to accept Dusty. These were the two people whom Martie loved most in all the world, and she longed for peace between them.
Dusty wasn’t part of the problem. Sabrina was the only combatant in this sad war. Frustratingly, Dusty’s refusal to engage in battle seemed only to harden her hostility.
Stopping at the trash enclosure near the back of the house, Martie removed the lid from one of the cans and deposited the blue plastic bag full of Valet’s finest.
Perhaps her sudden inexplicable anxiety had been spawned by her mother’s whining about Dusty’s supposed paucity of ambition and about his lack of what Sabrina deemed an adequate education. Martie was afraid that her mother’s venom would eventually poison her marriage. Against her will, she might start to see Dusty through her mother’s mercilessly critical eyes. Or maybe Dusty would begin to resent Martie for the low esteem in which Sabrina held him.
In fact, Dusty was the wisest man Martie had ever known. The engine between his ears was even more finely tuned than her father’s had been, and Smilin’ Bob had been immeasurably smarter than his nickname implied. As for ambition. . . Well, she would rather have a kind husband than an ambitious one, and you’d find more kindness in Dusty than you’d find greed in Vegas.
Besides, Martie’s own career didn’t fulfill the expectations her mother had for her. After earning a bachelor’s degree—majoring in business, minoring in marketing—followed by an M.B.A., she had detoured from the road that might have taken her to high-corporate executive glory. Instead, she became a freelance video-game designer. She’d sold a few minor hits entirely of her own creation, and on a for-hire basis she had designed scenarios, characters, and fantasy worlds based on concepts by others. She earned good money, if not yet great, and she suspected that being a woman in a male-dominated field would ultimately be an enormous advantage, as her point of view was fresh. She liked her work, and recently she’d signed a contract to create an entirely new game based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which might produce enough royalties to impress Scrooge McDuck. Nevertheless, her mother dismissively described her work as “carnival stuff,” apparently because Sabrina associated video games with arcades, arcades with amusement parks, and amusement parks with carnivals. Martie supposed she was lucky that her mother hadn’t gone one step further and described her as a sideshow freak.
As Valet accompanied her up the back steps and across the porch, Martie said, “Maybe a psychoanalyst would say, just for a minute back there, my shadow was a symbol of my mother her negativity—”
Valet grinned up at her and wagged his plumed tail.
“—and maybe my little anxiety attack expressed an unconscious concern that Mom is. . . well, that she’s going to be able to mess with my head eventually, pollute me with her toxic attitude.”
Martie fished a set of keys from a jacket pocket and unlocked the door.
“My God, I sound like a college sophomore halfway through Basic Psych.”
She often talked to the dog. The dog listened but never replied, and his silence was one of the pillars of their wonderful relationship.
“Most likely,” she said, as she followed Valet into the kitchen, “there was no psychological symbolism, and I’m just going totally nutball crazy.”
Valet chuffed as though agreeing with the diagnosis of madness, and then he enthusiastically lapped water from his bowl.
Five mornings a week, following a long walk, either she or Dusty spent half an hour grooming the dog on the back porch, combing and brushing. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, grooming followed the afternoon stroll. Their house was pretty much free of dog hair, and she intended to keep it that way.
“You are obliged,” she reminded Valet, “not to shed until further notice. And remember—just because we’re not here to catch you in the act, doesn’t mean suddenly you have furniture privileges and unlimited access to the refrigerator.”
He rolled his eyes at her as if to say he was offended by her lack of trust. Then he continued drinking.
In the half bath adjacent to the kitchen, Martie switched on the light. She intended to check her makeup and brush her windblown hair.
As she stepped to the sink, sudden fright cinched her chest again, and her heart felt as though it were painfully compressed. She wasn’t seized by the certainty that some mortal danger loomed behind her, as before. Instead, she was afraid to look in the mirror.
Abruptly weak, she bent forward, hunching her shoulders, feeling as if a great weight of stones had been stacked on her back. Gripping the pedestal sink with both hands, she gazed down at the empty bowl. She was so bowed by irrational fear that she was physically unable to look up.
A loose black hair, one of her own, lay on the curve of white porcelain, one end curling under the open brass drain plug, and even this filament seemed ominous. Not daring to raise her eyes, she fumbled for a faucet, turned on the hot water, and washed the hair away.
Letting the water run, she inhaled the rising steam, but it did not dispel the chill that had returned to her. Gradually the edges of the sink became warmer in her white-knuckled grip, though her hands remained cold.
The mirror waited. Martie could no longer think of it as a mere inanimate object, as a harmless sheet of glass with silvered backing. It waited.
Or, rather, something within the mirror waited to make eye contact with her. An entity. A presence.
Without lifting her head, she glanced to her right and saw Valet standing in the doorway. Ordinarily, the dog’s puzzled expression would have made her laugh; now, laughter would require a conscious effort, and it wouldn’t sound like laughter when it grated from her.
Although she was afraid of the mirror, she was also—and more intensely—frightened of her own bizarre behavior, of her utterly uncharacteristic loss of control.
The steam condensed on her face. It felt thick in her throat, suffocating. And the rushing, gurgling water began to sound like malevolent voices, wicked chuckling.
Martie shut off the faucet. In the comparative quiet, her breathing was alarmingly rapid and ragged with an unmistakable note of desperation.
Earlier, in the street, deep breathing had cleared her head, flushing away the fear, and her distorted shadow had then ceased to be threatening. This time, however, each inhalation seemed to fuel her terror, as oxygen feeds a fire.
She would have fled the room, but all her strength had drained out of her. Her legs were rubbery, and she worried that she would fall and strike her head against something. She needed the sink for support.
She tried to reason with herself, hoping to make her way back to stability with simple steps of logic. The mirror couldn’t harm her. It was not a presence. Just a thing. An inanimate object. Mere glass, for God’s sake.
Nothing she would see in it could be a threat to her. It was not a window at which some madman might be standing, peering in with a lunatic grin, eyes burning with homicidal intent, as in some cheesy screamfest movie. The mirror could not possibly reveal anything but a reflection of the half bath—and of Martie herself.
Logic wasn’t working. In a dark territory of her mind that she’d never traveled before, she found a twisted landscape of superstition.
She became convinced that an entity in the mirror was gaining substance and power because of her efforts to reason herself out of this terror, and she shut her eyes lest she glimpse that hostile spirit even peripherally. Every child knows that the boogeyman under the bed grows stronger and more murderous with each denial of its existence, that the best thing to do is not to think of the hungry beast down there with the dust bunnies under the box springs, with the blood of other children on its fetid breath. Just don’t think of it at all, with its mad-yellow eyes and thorny black tongue. Don’t think of it, whereupon it will fade entirely away, and blessed sleep will come at last, followed by morning, and you will wake in your cozy bed, snug under warm blankets, instead of inside some demon’s stomach.
Valet brushed against Martie, and she almost screamed.
When she opened her eyes, she saw the dog peering up with one of those simultaneously imploring and concerned expressions that golden retrievers have polished to near perfection.
Although she was leaning into the pedestal sink, certain that she couldn’t stand without its support, she let go of it with one hand. Trembling, she reached down to touch Valet.
As if the dog were a lightning rod, contact with him seemed to ground Martie, and like a crackling current of electricity, a portion of the paralyzing anxiety flowed out of her. High terror subsided to mere fear.
Although affectionate and sweet-tempered and beautiful, Valet was a timid creature. If nothing in this small room had frightened him, then no danger existed here. He licked her hand.
Taking courage from the dog, Martie finally raised her head. Slowly. Shaking with dire expectations.
The mirror revealed no monstrous countenance, no otherworldly landscape, no ghost: only her own face, drained of color, and the familiar half bath behind her.
When she looked into the reflection of her blue eyes, her heart raced anew, for in a fundamental sense, she had become a stranger to herself. This shaky woman who was spooked by her own shadow, who was stricken by panic at the prospect of confronting a mirror... this was not Martine Rhodes, Smilin’ Bob’s daughter, who had always gripped the reins of life and ridden with enthusiasm and poise.
“What’s happening to me?” she asked the woman in the mirror, but her reflection couldn’t explain, and neither could the dog.
The phone rang. She went into the kitchen to answer it.
Valet followed. He stared at her, puzzled, tail wagging at first, then not wagging.
“Sorry, wrong number,” she said eventually, and she hung up. She noticed the dog’s peculiar attitude. “What’s wrong with you?”
Valet stared at her, hackles slightly raised.
“I swear, it wasn’t the girl poodle next door, calling for you.”
When she returned to the half bath, to the mirror, she still did not like what she saw, but now she knew what to do about it.
Dusty walked under the softly rustling fronds of a wind-stirred phoenix palm and along the side of the house. Here he found Foster “Fig” Newton, the third member of the crew.
Hooked to Fig’s belt was a radio—his ever present electronic IV bottle. A pair of headphones dripped talk radio into his ears.
He didn’t listen to programs concerned with political issues or with the problems of modern life. Any hour, day or night, Fig knew where on the dial to tune in a show dealing with UFOs, alien abductions, telephone messages from the dead, fourth-dimensional beings, and Big Foot.
Fig was diligently sanding a window casing. His callused fingers were white with powdered paint.
“You know about Skeet?” Dusty asked as he followed the slate walkway past Fig.
Nodding, Fig said, “Roof.”
“Pretending he’s gonna jump.”
Dusty stopped and turned, surprised. “You really think so?”
Newton was usually so taciturn that Dusty didn’t expect more than a shrug of the shoulders byway of reply. Instead Fig said, “Skeet doesn’t believe in anything.”
“Anything what?” Dusty asked. “Anything period.”
“He isn’t a bad kid, really.”
Fig’s reply was, for him, the equivalent of an after-dinner speech:
“Problem is, he isn’t much of anything.”
Foster Newton’s pie-round face, plum of a chin, full mouth, cherry-red nose with cherry-round tip, and flushed cheeks ought to have made him look like a debauched hedonist; however, he was saved from caricature by clear gray eyes which, magnified by his thick eyeglasses, were full of sorrow. This was not a conditional sorrow, related to Skeet’s suicidal impulse, but a perpetual sorrow with which Fig appeared to regard everyone and everything.
“Hollow,” Fig added.