Between fits of retching, she gasped vehemently for breath, her throat surely parched and half raw from the sheer force of these inhalations. Shudders shook Martie, too, and with such violence that Dusty was shivered by a sympathetic cold revulsion, even though he could not imagine what ghastly visions plagued her.
He drove faster yet, weaving with greater aggression from lane to lane, taking bigger risks, to the accompaniment of more blaring horns and, now, the frequent squeal of brakes. He almost hoped that a policeman would pull him over. Considering Martie’s condition, any cop was likely to forgo issuing a traffic citation and, instead, provide an emergency escort, with siren.
Worsening condition. For the moment, her convulsive retching passed, but she began to rock back and forth in her seat, groaning, thumping her forehead against the padded dashboard, softly at first, slow and easy, as though to distract herself from the hobgoblins that seethed through her mind, but then with greater force, faster, and faster still, no longer groaning but grunting like a football player slamming into a tackling dummy, faster; harder: “Uh, uh, uh, uh, uuuhhh.”
Dusty spoke to her; urged her to calm down, to hang on, to remember that he was here for her, that he trusted her; and that everything was going to be all right. He didn’t know if she could hear him. Nothing he said appeared to comfort her.
He wanted desperately to reach out to her and gentle her with his touch, but he suspected that during this seizure, any contact would have the opposite effect of what he intended. His hand upon her shoulder might send her into even greater paroxysms of terror and revulsion.
Dr. Closterman’s offices were in a medical high-rise adjacent to the hospital. Both buildings rose in the next block, the tallest structures in sight.
Regardless of the padding, she was certain to hurt herself if she kept knocking her head against the dashboard, but she would not relent. She didn’t cry out in pain, only grunted with each impact, cursed, and quarreled with herself—”Stop it, stop it, stop it”—and seemed like nothing less than a woman possessed. More precisely, she was both the possessed and the exorcist, striving mightily to cast out her own demons.
At the medical complex, the surrounding parking lots were shaded by aisles of big carrotwood trees. He searched for and found a space close to the office high-rise, under a canopy of branches.
Even after he braked to a halt and put the car in park, Dusty felt as though he were still moving. A morning breeze shivered leaf shadows across the windshield, while interleaved blades of sunshine fluttered against the curve of glass and seemed to tumble away to each side as if they were bright scraps of foliage spinning into his wake on a slipstream.
As Dusty switched off the engine, Martie stopped butting the dash. Her hands, until now trapped between her clamped thighs, broke free. She clasped her head as though trying to suppress the waves of pain from a migraine headache, pressing so hard on her skull that the skin over her knuckles tightened until it was as smooth and white as the bone beneath.
She was no longer grunting or cursing, no longer quarreling with herself. Worse, bending forward once more, she began to scream. Shrill shrieks punctuated by hard swallows of air, like a swimmer in trouble. Terror in her cries. But also outrage, disgust, shock. Screams that shuddered with revulsion, as those of a swimmer who had felt something strange sliding past beneath the water; something cold and slick and terrible.
“Martie, what? Talk to me. Martie, let me help.”
Maybe her cries and the booming of her heart and the rush of blood in her ears didn’t allow her to hear him, or maybe there was simply nothing he could do, therefore no reason to answer him. She was struggling against riptides of powerful emotion that seemed to be dragging her out into deep waters, toward a drowning abyss that might be madness.
Against his better judgment, Dusty touched her. She reacted as he had been afraid she would, shrinking from him, swatting his hand off her shoulder, jamming herself up against the passenger’s door; still irrationally convinced that she was capable of blinding him or worse.
A young woman, crossing the parking lot with two small children, heard Martie’s screams, came closer to the Saturn, frowning-peering, and locked eyes with Dusty, her gaze darkening as if she saw in him the evil of every tower sniper; schoolboy assassin, serial strangler, mad bomber, and head-collector who had made the news in her lifetime. She pulled her kids close to her and moved them more quickly toward the hospital, probably seeking a security guard.
Martie’s frenzy passed more abruptly than it had arisen, not by slow degrees but nearly all at once. A final scream, resounding glass to glass to glass in this small space, gave way to quaking gasps, until soon the gasps were only deep shuddery breaths, and threaded through them was a disheartening wounded-animal mew!, as thin as a silken filament, fading in and out, sewing one ragged breath to the next.
Although Dusty had seen not one frame of the spook show that had stuttered through the sprockets of Martie’s mind, the ordeal of observation, in itself, had left him weak. His mouth was dry. His heart raced. He raised his hands to watch them tremble, and then blotted his damp palms on his jeans.
The keys still dangled from the ignition. He plucked them out, muffled their jingle in his clenched hand, and stuffed them into one of his pockets before Martie could raise her bowed head and catch sight of them.
He was not concerned that she would grab the keys and stab at his face in a furious determination to blind him, as she claimed to have seen herself doing in a vision. He was no more afraid of her now than he had been before this latest episode.
In the immediate aftermath of her seizure, however, perhaps a glimpse of the keys would be enough to send her tumbling down the stairs of panic yet again.
Silent now except for her hard breathing, she sat up straighter and lowered her hands from her head.
“I can’t take much more like that,” she whispered.
“I’m afraid it isn’t.”
“For now, anyway.”
Dappled with sunshine and leaf shadows, Martie’s face appeared to flicker, gold and black, as if it were no more substantial than a face in a dream, likely to glimmer less with gold and darkle more with black, until at last it lost all composition and sparkled into extinction like the last few bright crackles of a Roman candle in a bottomless night sky.
Though intellectually he rejected the possibility that he was losing her, in his heart he knew that she was slipping away from him, captive of a force that he could not understand and against which he could offer no defense.
No. Dr. Ahriman could help her. Could, would, must.
Perhaps Dr. Closterman, with MRIs and EEGs and PET scans and all the abbreviations and acronyms of high-tech medicine, would identify her condition, isolate the cause, and provide the cure.
But if not Closterman, then surely Ahriman.
From out of a wilderness of wind-stirred leaf shadows, as blue as the two jewels in the sockets of a jungle-wrapped stone goddess, Martie’s eyes met his. No illusions in her gaze. No superstitious surety that all would be well in this best of all possible worlds. Just a stark appreciation of her dilemma.
Somehow she overcame the dread of her lethal potential. She extended her left hand to him.
He held it gratefully.
“Poor Dusty,” she said. “A druggie brother and a crazy wife.”
“You’re not crazy.”
“I’m working at it.”
“Whatever happens to you,” he said, “won’t happen just to you. It happens to both of us. We’re in this together.”
“Butch and Sundance.”
“Mickey and Minnie.”
He didn’t smile. Neither did she. But with characteristic fortitude, Martie said, “Len go see if Doc Closterman learned any damn thing at all in medical school.”
Taking of the temperature, blood pressure, pulse rate, careful ophthalmoscope examination of the left eye, then the right, a peek with auriscope at the secrets of the ears, much solemn listening with stethoscope at the chest and the back—Breathe deep and hold, breathe out, breath deep and ho/d—palpation of the abdomen, a quick test of the audito-oculogyric reflex, one gentle rap of a small hammer on a pretty kneecap to gauge patellar reflex: All the easy stuff led Dr. Closterman to conclude that Martie was an exceptionally healthy young woman, physiologically even younger than her twenty-eight years.
From the spare chair in the corner of the examination room, Dusty said, “She seems to get younger week by week.”
To Martie, Closterman said, “Does he spread it on this heavy all the time?”
“I have to shovel out the house every morning.” She smiled at Dusty. “I love it.”
Closterman was in his late forties but, unlike Martie, looked— and no doubt tested—older than his age, and not solely because of his prematurely white hair. Double chins and dewlaps, generous jowls and a proud knob of a nose, eyes pink in the corners with a perpetual bloodshot sheen from too much time in salt air and wind and sun, and a tan that would leave any dermatologist hoarse from lecturing— all marked him as a dedicated gourmet, deep-sea fisherman, wind-surfer, and probably connoisseur of beer. From his broad brow to his broader belly, he was a living example of the consequences of ignoring the sound advice that he unabashedly doled out to his patients.
Doc—his surfer handle—had a mind as sharp as a scalpel, the bedside manner of a favorite grandfather with a storybook in hand, and a dedication to his practice that would have shamed Hippocrates, yet Dusty preferred him over all other possible internists less for those fine qualities than for his very human, if medically unsound, indulgences. Doc was that rare expert without arrogance, free of dogma, able to view a problem from a fresh perspective rather than through the lenses of preconception that often blinded others who claimed high expertise, humbled by an awareness of his weaknesses and his limitations.
“Gloriously healthy,” Closterman proclaimed as he entered notes in Martie’s file. “Tough constitution. Like your dad.”
Sitting on the edge of the examination table, in a paper gown and rolled red kneesocks, Martie did indeed appear to be as healthy as any aerobics instructor on one of those cable-television shows devoted to obsessive exercise with a host who believed that death was a personal choice rather than an inevitability.
Dusty could see the changes in Martie that Closterman, in spite of his sensitivity to his patients, couldn’t perceive. A bleak shadow in her eyes that dimmed her usually bright gaze. A persistent grim set to her mouth and a defeatist slump to her shoulders.
Although Closterman agreed to refer Martie to the hospital next door for a series of diagnostic procedures, he clearly was thinking of it as just an elaborate annual checkup, not as an essential step in diagnosing the cause of a life-threatening condition. Doe had listened to a highly abbreviated account of her bizarre behavior during the past twenty-four hours, and though she’d not described her violent visions in detail, she’d recounted enough to make Dusty wish he had not eaten that greasy doughnut. Nevertheless, as the physician finished making notes in his patient’s file, he launched into an explanation of the many sources of stress, the mental and physiological problems arising from stress, and the best techniques that one might use to deal with stress— as though Martie’s problem resulted from overwork, too little leisure, a tendency to sweat the small stuff, and a lumpy mattress.
She interrupted Closterman to ask if he would please put away the reflex hammer.
Blinking, derailed from the tracks of his stress homily, which had been chugging along so nicely, he said, “Put it away?”
“It makes me nervous. I keep looking at it. I’m afraid of what I might do with it.”
The polished-steel instrument was as small as a toy hammer and appeared to be of no use as a weapon.
“If I snatched it up and threw it at your face,” Martie said, her words more disturbing for the fact that her voice was soft and reasonable, “it would stun you, maybe worse, and then I’d have time to grab something more lethal. Like the pen. Would you put the pen away, please?”
Dusty moved to the edge of his chair.
Here we go.
Dr. Closterman looked at the ballpoint that lay atop the closed patient file. “It’s just a Paper Mate pen.”
“I’ll tell you what I could do with it, Doctor. A little sample of what goes through my mind, and I don’t know where it comes from, this evil stuff, or how to stop it from coming.” The blue paper gown made a crisp and ominous crinkling sound like a dry chrysalis within which something deadly was struggling to be born. Her voice remained soft, though now there was an edge to it. “I don’t really care if it’s a Montblanc or a Bic, because it’s also a stiletto, a skewer, and I could snatch it off that folder and be at you before you knew what was happening, ram it into your eye, shove it halfway back into your skull, twist it around, twist it, twist, really screw with your brain, and either you’d fall down dead on the spot or spend the rest of your life with the mental capacity of a flicking potato.” She was shaking. Her teeth chattered. She clasped both hands to her head, as she had done in the car, as though striving to repress the hideous images that bloomed unwanted in the midnight garden of her mind. “And whether you were dead or alive on the floor, there are all kinds of things I could do to you after the pen. You’ve got syringes in one of those drawers, needles—and there on that counter, a glass beaker full of tongue depressors. Break the glass, the shards are knives. I could carve your face—or slice it off in pieces and pin the pieces to the wall with hypodermic needles, make a collage from your face. I could do this. I can see.. . see it in my head right now.” She buried her face in her hands.
Closterman came to his feet on the word potato, rising like a dancer in spite of his size, and now Dusty rose, too.
“First thing,” said the rattled physician, “is a prescription for Valium. How many of these episodes have there been?”
“A few,” Dusty said. “I don’t know. But this one wasn’t bad.”
Closterman’s round face was better suited to a smile; his frown was unable to achieve sufficient gravity, buoyed as it was by his ball of a nose, rosy cheeks, and merry eyes. “Not bad? The others were worse? Then I wouldn’t recommend these tests without Valium. Some of these procedures, like an MRI, they disturb patients.”
“I’m disturbed going in,” Martie said.
“We’ll mellow you out, so it’s not such an ordeal.” Closterman stepped to the door, then hesitated with his hand on the knob. He glanced at Dusty. “Are you okay here?”