Weatherby shrugged. “You told me you were a psychiatrist. You specialize in children and teenagers, right?”
“So you must know all the answers better than I do. Why would she want to kill herself? Could be trouble at home—a father who drinks too much and makes heavy passes at his own little girl, a mother who doesn’t want to hear about it. Or maybe the kid was just jilted by her boyfriend and thinks the world is coming to an end. Or just discovered she was pregnant and decided she couldn’t face her folks with the news. There must be hundreds of reasons, and I’m sure you’ve heard most of them in your line of work.”
What he said was true, but it didn’t make Carol feel better.
If only I’d been driving slower, she thought. If only I’d been quicker to react, maybe that poor girl wouldn’t be in the hospital now.
“She might have been on drugs, too,” Weatherby said. “Too damned many kids fool around with dope these days. I swear, some of they'll swallow any pill they’re given. If it isn’t something that can be swallowed, they’ll sniff it or stick it in a vein. This kid you hit might have been so high she didn’t even know where she was when she stepped in front of your car.
Now, if that’s the case, are you going to tell me it’s still somehow your fault?”
Carol leaned back in the seat, closed her eyes, and let her breath out with a shudder. “God, I don’t know what to tell you. All I know is. . .I feel wrung out.”
“That’s perfectly natural, after what you’ve just been through. But it isn’t natural to feel guilty about this. It wasn’t your fault, so don’t dwell on it. Put it behind you and get on with your life.”
She opened her eyes, looked at him, and smiled. “You know, Officer Weatherby, I have a hunch you’d make a pretty good psychotherapist.”
He grinned. “Or a terrific bartender.”
“Feeling better?” he asked.
“A little bit.”
“Promise me you won’t lose any sleep over this.”
“I’ll try not to,” she said. “But I’m still concerned about the girl. Do you know which hospital they’ve taken her to?”
“I can find out,” he said.
“Would you do that for me? I’d like to go talk to the doctor who’s handling her case. If he tells me she’s going to be all right, I’ll find it a whole lot easier to take your advice about getting on with my life.”
Weatherby picked up the microphone and asked the police dispatcher to find out where the injured girl had been taken.
The television antenna!
Standing in the attic, staring up at the roof above his head, Paul laughed out loud when he realized what was causing the pounding noise. The sound wasn’t coming out of the empty air in front of his face, which was what he had thought for one unsettling moment. It was coming from the roof, where the television antenna was anchored. They had subscribed to cable TV a year ago, but they hadn’t removed the old antenna. It was a large, directional, remote-control model affixed to a heavy brace-plate; the plate was bolted through the shingles and attached directly to a roof beam. Apparently, a nut or some other fastener
had loosened slightly, and the wind was tugging at the antenna, rocking the brace-plate up and down on one of its bolts, slamming it repeatedly against the roof. The solution to the big mystery was amusingly mundane.
Or was it?
Thunk. . . thunk. . . thunk...
The sound was softer now than ever before, barely
audible above the roar of the rain on the roof, and it was easy to believe that the antenna could be the cause of it. Gradually, however, as Paul considered this answer to the puzzle, he began to doubt if it was the correct answer. He thought about how loud and violent the pounding had been a few minutes ago when he had been in the kitchen: the entire house quivering, the oven door falling open, bottles rattling in the spice rack. Could a loose antenna really generate so much noise and vibration?
Thunk. . . thunk...
As he stared up at the ceiling, he tried to make himself believe unequivocally in the antenna theory. If it was striking a roof beam in precisely the right way, at a very special angle, so that the impact was transmitted through the entire frame of the house, perhaps a loose antenna could cause the pots and pans to clatter against one another in the kitchen and could make it seem as if the ceilings were about to crack. After all, if you set up exactly the right vibrations in a steel suspension bridge, you could bring it to ruin in less than a minute, regardless of the number of bolts and welds and cables holding it together. And although Paul didn’t believe there was even a remote danger of a loose antenna causing that kind of apocalyptic destruction to a wood-frame house, he knew
that moderate force, applied with calculation and pinpoint accuracy, could have an effect quite out of proportion to the amount of energy expended. Besides, the TV antenna had to be the root of the disturbance, for it was the only explanation he had left.
The hammering noise became even softer and then faded altogether. He waited for a minute or two, but the only sound was the rain on the shingles overhead.
The wind must have changed direction. In time it would change back again, and the antenna would begin to rock on its brace-plate, and the pounding would start once more.
As soon as the storm was over, he would have to get the extension ladder out of the garage, go up onto the roof, and dismantle the antenna. He should have taken care of that chore shortly after they had subscribed to the cable television service. Now, because he had delayed, he was going to lose precious writing time—and at one of the most difficult and crucial points in his manuscript. That prospect frustrated him and made him nervous.
He decided to shave, drive downtown, and pick up the new set of application papers at the adoption agency. The storm might pass by the time he got home again. If it did, if he could be on the roof by eleven-thirty, he ought to be able to tear down the antenna, then have a bite of lunch, and work on his book all afternoon, barring further interruptions. But he suspected there would be further interruptions. He had already resigned himself to the fact that it was one of those days.
As he left the attic and turned out the lights, the house quivered under another blow.
Just one this time.
Then all was quiet again.
The visitors’ lounge at the hospital looked like an explosion in a clown’s wardrobe. The walls were canary yellow; the chairs were bright red; the carpet was orange; the magazine racks and end tables were made of heavy purple plastic; and the two large abstract paintings were done primarily in shades of blue and green.
The lounge—obviously the work of a designer who had read too much about the various psychological mood theories of color—was supposed to be positive, life-affirming. It was supposed to lift the spirits of visitors and take their minds off sick friends and dying relatives. In Carol, however, the determinedly cheery decor elicited the opposite reaction from that which the designer had intended, It was a frenetic room; it abraded the nerves as effectively as coarse sandpaper would abrade a stick of butter.
She sat on one of the red chairs, waiting for the doctor who had treated the injured girl. When he came, his stark white lab coat contrasted so boldly with the flashy decor that he appeared to radiate a saintlike aura.
Carol rose to meet him, and he asked if she was Mrs. Tracy, and he said his name was Sam Hannaport. He was tall, very husky, square-faced, florid, in his early fifties. He looked as if he would be loud and gruff, perhaps even obnoxious, but in fact he was soft-spoken and seemed genuinely concerned about how the accident had affected Carol both physically and emotionally. It took her a couple of minutes to assure him that she was all right on both counts, and then they sat down on facing red chairs.
Hannaport raised his bushy eyebrows and said,
“You look as if you could use a hot bath and a big glassful of warm brandy.”
“I was soaked to the skin,” she said, “but I’m pretty well dried out now. What about the girl?”
“Cuts, contusions, abrasions,” he said.
“Nothing showed up on the tests.”
“Not a broken bone in her body. She came through it amazingly well. You couldn’t have been driving very fast when you hit her.”
“I wasn’t. But considering the way she slipped up onto the hood and then rolled off into the gutter, I thought maybe. . .“ Carol shuddered, unwilling to put words to what she had thought.
“Well, the kid’s in good condition now. She regained consciousness in the ambulance, and she was alert by the time I saw her.”
“There’s no indication that she’s even mildly con-cussed. I don’t foresee any lasting effects.”
Relieved, Carol sagged back in the red chair. “I’d like to see her, talk to her.”
“She’s resting now,” Dr. Hannaport said. “I don’t want her disturbed at the moment. But if you’d like to come back this evening, during visiting hours, she’ll be able to see you then.”
“I’ll do that. I’ll definitely do that.” She blinked.
“Good heavens, I haven’t even asked you what her name is.”
His bushy eyebrows rose again. “Well, we’ve got a small problem about that.”
“Problem?” Carol tensed up again. “What do you mean? Can’t she remember her name?”
“She hasn’t remembered it yet, but—”
“You said no concussion—”
“I swear to you, it isn’t serious,” Hannaport said. He took her left hand in his big hard hands and held it as if it might crack and crumble at any moment.
“Please don’t excite yourself about this. The girl is going to be fine. Her inability to remember her name isn’t a symptom of severe concussion or any serious brain injury; not in her case, anyway. She isn’t confused or disoriented. Her field of vision is normal, and she has excellent depth perception. We tested her thought processes with some math problems—addition, subtraction, multiplication—and she got them all correct. She can spell any word you throw at her; she’s a damn good speller, that one. So she’s not severely concussed. She’s simply suffering from mild amnesia. It’s selective amnesia, you understand, just a loss of personal memories, not a loss of skills and education and whole blocks of social concepts. She hasn’t forgotten how to read and write, thank God; she’s only forgotten who she is, where she came from, and how she got to this place. Which sounds more serious than it really is. Of course, she’s disconcerted and apprehensive. But selective amnesia is the easiest kind to recover from.”
“I know,” Carol said. “But somehow that doesn’t make me feel a whole hell of a lot better.”
Hannaport squeezed her hand firmly and gently.
“This kind of amnesia is only very, very rarely permanent or even long-lasting. She’ll most likely remember who she is before dinnertime.”
“If she doesn’t?”
"Then the police will find out who she is, and the minute she hears her name, the mists will clear.”
“She wasn’t carrying any ID.”
“I know,” he said. “I’ve talked to the police.”
“So what happens if they can’t find out who she is?”
“They will.” He patted her hand one last time, then let go.
“I don’t see how you can be so sure.”
“Her parents will file a missing-persons report. They’ll have a photograph of her. When the police see the photograph, they’ll make a connection. It’ll be as simple as that.”
She frowned. “What if her parents don’t report her missing?”
“Why wouldn’t they?”
“Well, what if she’s a runaway from out of state? Even if her folks did file a missing-persons report back in her hometown, the police here wouldn’t necessarily be aware of it.”
“The last time I looked, runaway kids favored New York City, California, Florida—just about any place besides Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.”
“There’s always an exception to any rule.”
Hannaport laughed softly and shook his head. “If pessimism were a competitive sport, you’d win the world series.”
She blinked in surprise, then smiled. “I’m sorry. I guess I am being excessively gloomy.”
Glancing at his watch, getting up from his chair, he said, “Yes, I think you are. Especially considering how well the girl came through it all. It could have been a lot worse.”
Carol got to her feet, too. In a rush, the words falling over one another, she said, “I guess maybe the reason it bothers me so much is because I deal with disturbed children every day, and it’s my job to help them get well again, and that’s all I ever wanted to do since I was in high school—work with sick kids, be a healer—but now I’m responsible for all the pain this poor girl is going through.”
“You mustn’t feel that way. You didn’t intend to harm her.”
Carol nodded. “I know I’m not being entirely rational about the situation, but I can’t help feeling the way I feel.”
“I have some patients to see,” Hannaport said, glancing at his watch again. “But let me leave you with one thought that might help you handle this.”
“I’d like to hear it.”
“The girl suffered only minor physical injuries. I won’t say they were negligible injuries, but they were damned close to it. So you’ve got nothing to feel guilty about on that score. As for her amnesia.. . well, maybe the accident had nothing to do with it.”
“Nothing to do with it? But I assumed that when she hit her head on the car or on the pavement—”
“I’m sure you know a blow on the head isn’t the only cause of amnesia,” Dr. Hannaport said. “It’s not even the most common factor in such cases. Stress, emotional shock—they can result in loss of memory. In fact we don’t yet understand the human mind well enough to say for sure exactly what causes most cases of amnesia. As far as this girl is concerned, everything points to the conclusion that she was in her current state even before she stepped in front of your car.”
He emphasized each argument in favor of his theory by raising fingers on his right hand. “One: She wasn’t carrying any ID, Two: She was wandering around in the pouring rain without a coat or an umbrella, as if she was in a daze. Three: From what I understand, the witnesses say she was acting very strange before you ever came on the scene.” He waggled his three raised fingers. "Three very good reasons why you shouldn’t be so eager to blame yourself for the kid’s condition.”
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