With the same surprising ease that she had gotten a plane out of San Francisco on a one-hour notice, Celestina booked two return seats on an early-evening flight from Oregon, as though she had a supernatural travel agent.

Airborne, Phimie complained of ringing in her ears, which might have been related to the flight. She also suffered an episode of double vision and, in the airport after landing, a nosebleed, which appeared to be related to her previous symptoms.

The sight of her sister's blood and the persistence of the flow made Celestina weak with apprehension. She was afraid she had done the wrong thing by delaying hospitalization.

Then from San Francisco International, through the fog-shrouded streets of the night city, to St. Mary's, to Room 724. And to the discovery that Phimie's blood pressure was so high-210 over 126-that she was in a hypertensive crisis, at risk of a stroke, renal failure, and other life-threatening complications.

Antihypertensive drugs were administered intravenously, and Phimie was confined to bed, attached to a heart monitor.

Dr. Leland Daines, Celestina's internist, arrived directly from dinner at the Ritz-Carlton. Although Dairies had receding white hair and a seamed face, time had been kind enough to make him look not so much old as dignified. Long in practice, he was nevertheless free of arrogance, soft-spoken and with a bottomless supply of patience.

After examining Phimie, who was nauseous, Daines prescribed an anticonvulsant, an antiemetic, and a sedative, all intravenously.

The sedative was mild, but Phimie was asleep in mere minutes. She was exhausted by her long ordeal and by her recent lack of sleep.

Dr. Daines spoke with Celestina in the corridor, outside the door to 724. Some of the passing nurses were nuns in wimples and full-length habits, drifting like spirits along the hallway.

“She's got preeclampsia. It's a condition that occurs in about five percent of pregnancies, virtually always after the twenty-fourth week, and usually it can be treated successfully. But I'm not going to sugarcoat this, Celestina. In her case, it's more serious. She hasn't been seeing a doctor, no prenatal care, and here she is in the middle of her thirtyeighth week, about ten days from delivery."

Because they knew the date of the rape, and because that attack had been Phimie's sole sexual experience, the day of impregnation could be fixed, delivery calculated with more precision than usual.

“As she comes closer to full term,” said Dairies, “she's at great risk of preeclampsia developing into full eclampsia."

“What could happen then?” Celestina asked, dreading the answer.

“Possible complications include cerebral hemorrage, pulmonary edema, kidney failure, necrosis of the liver, coma-to name a few."

“I should have gotten her into the hospital back home."

He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Don't beat up on yourself She's come this far. And though I don't know the hospital in Oregon, I doubt the level of care would equal what she'll receive here."

Now that efforts were being made to control the preeclampsia, Dr. Daines had scheduled a series of tests for the following day. He expected to recommend a cesarean section as soon as Phimie's e's blood pressure was reduced and stabilized, but he didn't want to risk this surgery before determining what complications might have resulted from her restricted diet and the compression of her abdomen.

Although she already knew that the answer could not be cheerily optimistic, Celestina wondered, “Is the baby likely to be . . . normal?"

“I hope it will,” the physician said, but his emphasis vas too solidly on the word hope.

In Room 724, standing alone at her sister's bedside, watching the girl sleep, Celestina told herself that she was coping well. She could handle this unnerving development without calling in either of her parents.

Then her breath caught repeatedly in her breast as her throat tightened against the influx of air. One particularly difficult inhalation dissolved into a sob, and she wept.

She was four years older than Phimie. They hadn't i;.mn a great deal of each other during the past three years, since Celestina had come to San Francisco. Although distance and time, the press of her studies, and the busyness of daily life had not made her forget that she loved Phimie, she had forgotten the purity and the power of love. Rediscovering it now, she was shaken so badly that she had to pull a chair to the side of the bed and sit down.

She hung her head, covered her face with her chilled hands, and wondered how her mother could sustain faith in God when such terrible things could happen to someone as innocent as Phimie.

Near midnight, she returned to her apartment. Lights out, in bed, staring at the ceiling, she was unable to sleep.

The blinds were raised, the windows bare. Usually, she liked the smoky, reddish-gold glow of the city at night, but this once it made her uneasy.

She was overcome by the odd notion that if she rose from the bed  and went to the nearest window, she would discover the buildings of the  metropolis dark, every streetlamp extinguished. This eerie light would  he rising, instead, from drainage grates in the street and out of open  manholes, not from the city, but from a netherworld below.

The inner eye of the artist, which she could never close even when  she slept, ceaselessly sought form and design and meaning, as it did in  the ceiling above the bed. In the play of light and shadow across the  hand-troweled plaster, she saw the solemn faces of babies-deformed, peering beseechingly—and images of death.

Nineteen hours following Phimie's admission to St. Mary's, while the  girl was undergoing the final tests ordered by Dr. Daines, the beetled  sky grew sullen in the early twilight, and the city once more arrayed itself in the red gesso and gold leaf that had indirectly illuminated Celestina's apartment ceiling the previous night.

After a day of work, the pencil portrait of Nella Lombardi was finished. The second piece in the series-an extrapolation of her appearance at age sixty-was begun.

Although Celestina had not slept in almost thirty-six hours, she was  clearheaded with anxiety. At the moment, her hands weren't shaking;

lines and shading flowed smoothly from her pencil, as words might  stream from the pen of a medium in a trance.

As she sat in a chair by the window, near Nella's bed, drawing on an  angled lapboard, she conducted a quiet, one-sided conversation with  the comatose woman. She recounted stories about growing up with  Phimie and was amazed by what a trove she had.

Sometimes Nella seemed to be listening, although her eyes never  opened and though she never moved. The silently bouncing green light  of the electrocardiograph maintained a steady pattern.

Shortly before dinner, an orderly and a nurse wheeled Phimie into  the room. They carefully transferred her into bed.

The girl looked better than Celestina expected. Though tired, she  was quick to smile, and her huge brown eyes were clear.

Phimie wanted to see the finished portrait of Nella and the one  herself that was half complete. “You'll be famous one day, Celie."

“No one is famous in the next world, nor glamorous, nor titled, nor proud,” she said, smiling as she quoted one of their father's most familiar sermons, “nor powerful-"

— nor cruel, nor hateful, nor envious, nor mean,” Phimie recited, “for all these are sicknesses of this fallen world-"

— and now when the offering plate passes among you-"

"—give as if you are already an enlightened citizen of the next life-"

"-and not a hypocritical, pitiful-"



"—Pecksniff of this sorry world."

They laughed and held hands. For the first time since Phimie's panicked phone call from Oregon, Celestina felt that everything would eventually be all right again.

Minutes later, once more in a corridor conference with Dr. Daines, she was forced to temper her new optimism.

Phimie's stubbornly high blood pressure, the presence of protein in her urine, and other symptoms indicated her preeclampsia wasn't a recent development; she was at increased risk of eclampsia. Her hypertension was gradually coming under control-but only by resort to more aggressive drug therapy than the physician preferred to use.

“In addition,” Daines said, “her pelvis is small, which would present problems of delivery even in an ordinary pregnancy. And the muscle fibers in the central canal of her cervix, which ought to be softening in anticipation of labor, are still tough. I don't believe the cervix will dilate well enough to facilitate birth."

“The baby?"

“There's no clear evidence of birth defects, but a couple tests reveal some worrisome anomalies. We'll know when we see the child."

A stab of horror punctured Celestina as she failed to repress a mental image of a carnival-sideshow monster, half dragon and half insect, coiled in her sister's womb. She hated the rapist's child but was appalled by her hatred, for the baby was blameless.

“If her blood pressure stabilizes through the night,” Dr. Daines continued, “I want her to undergo a cesarean at seven in the morning. The danger of eclampsia passes entirely after birth. I'd like to refer Phimie to Dr. Aaron Kaltenbach. He's a superb obstetrician."

“Of course."

In this case, I'll also be present during the procedure."

I'm grateful for that, Dr. Daines. For all you've done."

Celestina was hardly more than a child herself, pretending to have the strong shoulders and the breadth of experience to bear this burden. She felt half crushed “Go home. Sleep,” he said. “You'll be no help to your sister if you wind up a patient here yourself."

She remained with Phimie through dinner.

The girl's appetite was sharp, even though the food was soft and bland. Soon, she slept.

At home, after phoning her folks, Celestina made a ham sandwich. She ate a quarter of it. Then two bites of a chocolate croissant. One spoonful of butter pecan ice cream. Everything was without taste, more bland than Phimie's hospital food, and it cloyed in her throat.

Fully clothed, she lay atop the bedspread. She intended to listen to a little classical music before brushing her teeth..

She realized she hadn't turned on the radio. Before she could reach for the switch, she was asleep.

Four-fifteen in the morning, January 7.

In southern California, Agnes Lampion dreams of her newborn son. In Oregon, Junior Cain fearfully speaks a name in his sleep, and Detective Vanadium, waiting to tell the suspect about his dead wife's diary, leans forward in his chair to listen, while ceaselessly- turning a quarter across the thick knuckles of his right hand.

In San Francisco, a telephone rang.

Rolling onto her side, fumbling in the dark, Celestina White snared the phone on the third ring. Her hello was also a yawn.

“Come now,” said a woman with a frail voice.

Still half asleep, Celestina asked, “What?"

“Come now. Come quickly."

“Who's this?"

“Nella Lombardi. Come now. Your sister will soon be dying."

Abruptly alert, sitting up on the edge of the bed, Celestina knew the caller could not be the comatose old woman, so she said angrily, “Who the hell is this?"

The silence on the line was not merely that of a caller holding her tongue. It was abyssal and perfect, as no silence on a telephone ever can be, without the faintest hiss or crackle of static, no hint of breathing or of breath held.

The depth of this soundless void chilled Celestina. She dared not speak again, because suddenly and superstitiously, she feared this silence  as though it were a living thing capable of coming at her through the line.

She hung up, shot out of bed, snatched her leather jacket off one of the two chairs at the small kitchen table, grabbed her keys and purse, and ran.

Outside, the sounds of the night town-the growl of a few car engines in the nearly deserted streets, the hard clank of a loose manhole cover shifting under tires, a distant siren, the laughter of drunken revelers  wending their way home from an all-night party-were muffled by a shroud of silver fog.

These were familiar noises, and yet to Celestina, the city was an alien place, as it had never seemed before, full of menace, the buildings looming like great crypts or temples to unknown and fierce gods. The drunken laughter of the unseen partyers slithered eerily through the mist, not the sound of mirth but of madness and torment.

She didn't own a car, and the hospital was a twenty-five-minute walk from her apartment. Praying that a taxi would cruise past, she ran, and although no cab appeared in answer to her prayer, Celestina reached St. Mary's breathless, in little more than fifteen minutes.

The elevator creaked upward, infuriatingly slower than she remembered.

Her hard-drawn breath was loud in this claustrophobic space.

On the dark side of dawn, the seventh-floor corridors were quiet, deserted. The air was redolent of pine-scented disinfectant.

The door to Room 724 stood open. Lights blazed.

Both Phimie and Nella were gone. A nurse's aide was almost finished changing the linens on the old woman's bed. Phimie's bedclothe's were in disarray.

“Where's my sister?” Celestina gasped.

The aide looked up from her work, startled.

When a hand touched her shoulder, Celestina swiveled to face a nun with ruddy cheeks and twilight-blue eyes that would now and forever be the color of bad news. “I didn't know they'd been able to reach you. They only started trying ten minutes ago."

At least twenty minutes had passed since the call from Nella Lombardi.

“Where's Phimie?"

“Quickly,” the nun said, shepherding her along the hall to the elevators.

“What's happened?"

As they dropped toward the surgical floor, the solemn sister said, “Another hypertensive crisis.

The poor girl's blood pressure soared in spite of the medication. She suffered a violent seizure, eclamptic convulsions."

“Oh, God."

“She's in surgery now. Cesarean section."

Celestina expected to be taken to a waiting room, but instead the nun escorted her to surgical prep.

“I'm Sister Josephina.” She slipped Celestina's purse off her shoulder—“You can trust this with me”-and helped her out of her jacket.

A nurse in surgical greens appeared. “Pull up the sleeves of your scrub nearly to your elbows. Scrub hard. I'll tell you when to stop."

As the nurse slapped a bar of lye soap in Celestina's right hand, she turned on the water in the sink.

As luck would have it,” the nun said, “Dr. Lipscomb was in the when it happened. He'd just delivered another baby under emergency conditions. He's excellent."