Page 21


She abruptly stopped resisting and backed away.


The door banged open so hard that Dusty winced as he stumbled across the threshold.


Martie retreated until she bumped against the entrance to the shower stall.


Catching the bathroom door as it rebounded from the rubber stop, Dusty kept his attention on Martie. He fumbled for the wall switch and clicked on the fluorescent panel in the soffit above the twin sinks.


Hard light ricocheted off mirrors, porcelain, white-and-green ceramic tile. Off nickel-plated fixtures as shiny as surgical steel.


Martie stood with her back to the glass-enclosed shower. Eyes shut. Face pinched. Hands fisted against her temples.


Her lips moved rapidly but produced not a sound, as if she had been stricken mute by terror.


Dusty suspected that she was praying again.


He took three steps, touched her arm.


As dire blue and full of trouble as a hurricane sea, her eyes snapped open. “Get away!”


Rocked by her vehemence, he relented.


The seal on the shower door popped with a twonk, and she eased backward over the raised sill, into the stall. “You don’t know what I’ll do, my God, you can’t imagine, you can’t conceive how vicious, how cruel.”


Before she could pull the shower door shut, he intervened and held it open. “Martie, I’m not afraid of you.”


“You should be, you’ve got to be.”


Bewildered, he said, “Tell me what’s wrong.”


The radiant patterns of striations in her blue eyes resembled cracks in thick glass, her black pupils like bullet holes at the center.


Explosive shatters of words broke from her: “There’s more to me than you see, another me down inside somewhere, full of hate, ready to hurt, cut, smash, or if maybe there’s no Other and there’s just me alone, then I’m not the person I always thought I was, I’m something twisted and horrible, horrible.”


In his worst dreams and in the most desperate moments of his waking life, Dusty had never been this profoundly frightened, and in his private image of himself as a man, he had not allowed for the possibility that he could be so utterly humbled by fear as he was now.


He sensed that Martie, as he had always known her, was slipping away from him, inexplicably but inexorably being sucked down into a psychological vortex stranger than any black hole at the far end of the universe, and that even if some aspect of her remained when the vortex closed, she would be as enigmatic as an alien life-form.


Although, until this moment, Dusty had never realized the depth of his capacity for terror, he had always understood how bleak this world would be if Martie were not in it. The prospect of life without her, joyless and lonely, was the source of the fear that racked him now.


Martie backed away from the glass door, until she wedged herself into a corner of the shower, shoulders cramped forward, arms crossed over her breasts, hands fisted in her armpits. All her bones seemed to be surfacing—knees, hips, elbows, shoulder blades, skull— as if her skeleton might secede from its union with her flesh.


When Dusty stepped into the shower, Martie said, “Don’t, oh, please, please, don’t,” her voice resonating hollowly along the tile walls


“I can help you.”


Weeping, face wrenched, mouth soft and trembling, she said, “Baby, no. Stay back.”


“Whatever this is about, I can help you.”


When Dusty reached for her, Martie slid down the wall and sat on the floor, because she could not back away from him any farther.


He dropped to his knees.


As he put a hand on her shoulder, she convulsed in panic around a word: "Key!"


“What?”


“Key, the key!” She extracted her fists from under her clamping arms and raised them to her face. Her clenched fingers sprang open, revealing an empty right hand, then an empty left, and Martie looked amazed, as if a magician had caused a coin or a wadded silk scarf to vanish from her grasp without her sensing a thing. “No, I had it, still have it, the car key, somewhere!” Frantically she patted the pockets of her jeans.


He recalled seeing the car key on the floor near the nightstand. “You dropped it in the bedroom.”


She regarded him with disbelief, but then appeared to remember. “I’m sorry. What I would’ve done. Thrust, twist. Oh, Jesus, God.” She shuddered. Shame welled in her eyes and washed across her face, imparting faint color to her unnaturally chalky skin.


When Dusty tried to put his arms around her, Martie resisted, urgently warning him not to trust her, to shield his eyes, because even if she didn’t possess the car key, she had acrylic fingernails sharp enough to gouge his eyes, and then suddenly she attempted to tear off those nails, clawing at her hands, acrylic scraping against acrylic with the insectile click-click-click of beetles swarming over one another. At last Dusty stopped trying to put his arms around her and just, damn it, put them around her, overwhelmed her, forced his loving embrace upon her, drew her fiercely against him, as though his body were a lightning rod with which he could ground her to reality. She went stiff, retreating into an emotional carapace, and though she was already physically drawn in upon herself, she curled tighter now, so it seemed the tremendous power of her fear would press her ever inward, condensing her, until she became as solid as stone, as hard as diamond, until she imploded into a black hole of her own making and vanished into the parallel universe where she’d briefly imagined that the car key had gone when it had been in neither of her fists. Undeterred, Dusty held her, rocked slowly back and forth with her on the floor of the shower, telling her that he loved her, that he cherished her, that she was not an evil Orc but a good Hobbit, telling her that her Hobbitness could be proved by taking one look at the curious, unfeminine, but charming toes that she had inherited from Smilin’ Bob, telling her anything he could think to tell her that might make her smile. Whether she smiled or not, he didn’t know, for her head was tucked down, face hidden. In time, however, she ceased resistance. After a while longer, her body unclenched, and she returned his embrace, tentatively at first, but then less tentatively, until by degrees she opened entirely and clung to him as he clung to her, with a desperate love, with an acute awareness that their lives had changed forever, and with an unnerving sense that they now existed under the shadow of a great looming unknown.


27


After watching the evening news, Susan Jagger went through the apartment, synchronizing all the clocks with her digital wristwatch. She performed this task every Tuesday evening at the same hour.


In the kitchen, clocks were built into the oven and microwave, and another hung on the wall. A stylish, battery-operated Art Deco clock stood on the fireplace mantel in the living room, and on the nightstand beside her bed was a clock radio.


On average, none of these timepieces lost or gained more than a minute during the week, but Susan took pleasure in keeping them running tick for tick.


Through sixteen months of near isolation and chronic anxiety, she had relied on ritual to save her sanity.


For every household chore, she established elaborate procedures to which she adhered as rigorously as an engineer would follow the operational manual in a nuclear power plant where imprecision might mean meltdown. Waxing floors or polishing furniture became a lengthy enterprise that filled otherwise empty hours. Performing any task to high standards, while conforming to codified housekeeping rules, gave her a sense of control that was comforting even though she recognized that it was fundamentally an illusion.


After the clocks were synchronized, Susan went into the kitchen to prepare dinner. A tomato-and-endive salad. Chicken marsala.


Cooking was her favorite work of the day. She followed recipes with scientific exactitude, measuring and combining ingredients as carefully as a bombmaker handling explosive, unstable chemicals. Culinary rituals and religious rituals, like no others, could calm the heart and quiet the mind, perhaps because the former fed the body and the latter fed the soul.


This evening, however, she wasn’t able to concentrate on dicing, grating, measuring, stirring. Her attention repeatedly strayed to the silent telephone. She was eager to hear from Martie, now that she’d at last found the courage to mention the mysterious night visitor.


Before recent events, she’d thought she could reveal anything to Martie with complete comfort, without feeling self-conscious. For six months, however, she’d been unable to speak of the sexual assaults committed against her while she slept.


Shame silenced her, but shame inhibited her less than did the concern that she’d be thought delusional. She herself found it hard to believe that she could have been stripped out of her sleepwear, raped, and re-dressed on numerous occasions without being awakened.


Eric was no sorcerer with the ability to steal in and out of the apartment—and in and out of Susan herself—utterly undetected.


Although Eric might be as weak and morally confused as Martie said, Susan was reluctant to consider that he might hate her enough to do these things to her, and hatred was undeniably at the heart of this abuse. They had loved each other, and their separation had been marked by regret, not by anger.


If he wanted her, even without the obligation to stand by her in time of need, she might welcome him. There was no reason, then, why he should scheme so elaborately to take her against her will.


Yet. . . if not Eric, who?


Having shared this house with her and having used this top floor as his home office, Eric might know a way to circumvent the doors and windows—as unlikely as that seemed. No one else was sufficiently familiar with the place to come and go undetected.


Her hand trembled, and salt spilled from the measuring spoon.


Turning from the dinner preparations, she blotted her suddenly damp palms on a dish towel.


At the apartment door, she checked the dead bolts. Both were engaged. The security chain was in place.


She leaned with her back against the door.


I am not delusional.


On the phone, Martie had seemed to believe her.


Convincing others, however, might not be easy.


Evidence supporting her contention of rape was inconclusive. Sometimes she experienced vaginal tenderness, but not always. Bruises the size of a man’s fingertips occasionally appeared on her thighs and breasts, but she couldn’t prove they were the work of a rap**t or that she hadn’t sustained them during ordinary physical activity.


Immediately on waking, she always knew when the phantom intruder had visited her during the night, even if she wasn’t sore or bruised, even before she grew aware of the deposit he left in her, because she felt violated, unclean.


Feelings, however, were not proof.


The se**n was the only evidence that she had been with a man, but it did not absolutely confirm rape.


Besides, presenting her stained panties to the authorities—or, worse yet, submitting to a vaginal swab in a hospital emergency room—would involve more embarrassment than she’d be able to endure in her current condition.


Indeed, her condition, the agoraphobia, was the primary reason she had been reluctant to confide in Martie, let alone in the police or other strangers. Although enlightened people knew that an extreme phobia wasn’t a form of madness, they could not help but regard it as odd. And when she claimed that she was being sexually violated in her sleep, by a ghostly assailant whom she’d never seen, by a man who could enter through bolted doors. . . Well, even her lifelong best friend might wonder if the agoraphobia, while not itself a form of madness, was a precursor to genuine mental illness.


Now, after checking the dead bolts yet again, Susan impatiently reached for the telephone. She couldn’t wait a minute longer for Martie’s considered response. She needed to be reassured that her best friend, if no one else, believed in the phantom rapist.


Susan keyed the first four digits of Martie’s number—but hung up. Patience. If she appeared fragile or too needy, she might seem less believable.


Returning to the marsala sauce, she realized she was too nervous to be lulled by culinary rituals. She wasn’t hungry, either.


She opened a bottle of Merlot, poured a glassful, and sat at the kitchen table. Lately, she was drinking more than usual.


After sipping the Merlot, she held the glass up to the light. The dark ruby liquid was clear, apparently uncontaminated.


For a while, she had been convinced that someone was drugging her. That possibility was still troubling but not as likely as it had once seemed.


Rohypnol—which the news media had dubbed the date-rape drug—might explain how she was able to remain unconscious, or at least oblivious, even during rough intercourse. Mix Rohypnol into a woman’s drink, and she appears to be in an advanced stage of inebriation: disoriented, pliant—defenseless. The drugged state ultimately gives way to genuine sleep, and upon waking, she has little or no memory of what took place during the night.


In the morning, however, after her mysterious visitor ravaged her, Susan never experienced any symptoms of Rohypnol hangover. No queasy stomach, no dry mouth, no blurring of vision, no throbbing headache, no lingering disorientation. Routinely, she woke clear-headed, even refreshed, though feeling violated.


Nevertheless, she had repeatedly changed grocers. Sometimes Susan relied on Martie to do her shopping, but for the most part she ordered groceries and other supplies from smaller family-owned markets that offered home delivery. Few provided that extra service these days, even for a charge. Although Susan had tried all of them, paranoically certain that someone was lacing her food with drugs, changing vendors didn’t bring an end to the postmidnight assaults.


In desperation, she had sought answers in the supernatural. The mobile library brought her lurid books about ghosts, vampires, demons, exorcism, black magic, and abductions by extraterrestrials.


The delivering librarian, to his credit, never once commented upon—or even raised an eyebrow at—Susan’s insatiable appetite for this peculiar subject matter. Anyway, it was no doubt healthier than an interest in contemporary politics or celebrity gossip.


Susan had been particularly fascinated by the legend of the incubus. This evil spirit visited women in their sleep and had sex with them while they dreamed.


Fascination had never become conviction. She hadn’t descended so far into superstition that she had slept with copies of the Bible at all four corners of her bed or while wearing a necklace of garlic.


Ultimately, she ceased researching the supernatural, because as she delved into those irrational realms, her agoraphobia intensified.


By sitting down to a banquet of unreason, she seemed to be feeding the sick part of her psyche in which her inexplicable fear thrived.


Her glass of Merlot was half empty. She refilled it.


Carrying the wine with her, Susan set out on a circuit of the apartment, to ascertain that all possible entrances were secured.

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