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Once, she woke and thought she heard Aristophanes scratching insistently on the other side of the


closed bedroom door. But she was groggy and couldn’t trust her senses; she wasn’t able to wrench herself fully awake, and in a few seconds she sank down into the dream once more.


At one o’clock in the morning, the third floor of the hospital was so quiet that Harriet Gilbey. the head nurse on the graveyard shift, felt as though she was deep underground, in some kind of military complex, tucked into the stony roots of a mountain, far from the real world and the background noises of real life. The only sounds were the whisper of the heating system and the occasional squeak of the nurses’ rubber-soled shoes on the highly polished tile floors.


Harriet—a small, pretty, neatly uniformed black woman—was at the nurses’ station, around the corner from the bank of elevators, entering data on patients’ charts, when the tranquility of the third floor was abruptly shattered by a piercing scream. She moved out from behind the reception desk and hurried along the hall, following the shrill cry. It came from room 316. When Harriet pushed open the door, stepped into the room, and snapped on the overhead lights, the screaming stopped as suddenly as it had begun.


The girl they called Jane Doe was in bed, flat on her back, one arm raised and angled across her face as if she were warding off a blow, the other hand hooked on to one of the safety rails. She had kicked the sheets and the blanket into a tangled wad at the foot of the bed, and her hospital gown was nicked up over her hips. She tossed her head violently from side to side, gasping, pleading with an imaginary assailant:


“No. . . no. . . no. Don’t! Please don’t kill me! No!” With gentle hands, a gentle voice, and patient insistence, Harriet tried to quiet the girl. At first Jane resisted all ministrations. She had been given a sedative earlier. Now she was having trouble waking up. Gradually, however, she shook off the nightmare and calmed down.


Another nurse, Kay Hamilton, appeared at Harriet’s side. “What happened? Must’ve woke up half the floor.”


“Just a bad dream,” Harriet said.


Jane blinked sleepily at them. “She was trying to kill me.”


“Hush now,” Harriet said. “It was only a dream.


No one here will hurt you.”


“A dream?” Jane asked, her voice slurred. “Oh. Yeah. Just a dream. Whew! What a dream.”


The girl’s thin white gown and the tangled sheets were damp with perspiration. Harriet and Kay replaced them with fresh linens.


As soon as the bed had been changed, Jane succumbed to the lingering tug of the sedative. She turned onto her side and murmured happily in her sleep; she even smiled.


“Looks like she switched to a better channel,” Harriet said.


“Poor kid. After what she’s been through, the least she deserves is a good night’s sleep.”


They watched her for a minute, then left the room, turning off the lights and closing the door.


Alone, deep in sleep, transported into a different dream from the one that had elicited her screams, Jane sighed, smiled, giggled quietly.


“The ax,” she whispered in her sleep. “The ax. Oh, the ax. Yes. Yes.”


Her hands curled slightly, as if she were clutching a solid but invisible object.


“The ax,” she whispered, and the second of those two words reverberated softly through the dark room.


Thunk!


Carol ran through the huge living room, across the oriental carpet, banging her hip against the edge of the credenza.


Thank! Thunk!


She dashed through the archway, into a long hall, headed toward the stairs that led to the second floor.


When she glanced behind her, she saw that the house had vanished in her wake and had been replaced by a pitch-black void in which something silvery flickered back and forth, back and forth.


Thunk!


Understanding came with a flash; she knew what the glimmering object was. An ax. The blade of an ax. Glinting as it swung from side to side.


Thunk. . . thunk-thunk...


Whimpering, she climbed the stairs toward the second floor.


Thunk.. thank...


At times the blade seemed to be biting into wood; the sound of it was dry, splintery. But at other times the sound had a subtly different quality, as if the blade were slicing brutally into a substance much softer than wood, into something wet and tender.


Into flesh?


Thank!


Carol groaned in her sleep, turned restlessly, flinging off the sheets.


Then she was running across the high meadow.


The trees ahead. The void behind. And the ax. The ax.


6


FRIDAY morning, there was another break in the rain, but the day was dressed in fog. The light coming through the hospital window was wintry, bleak.


Jane had only a hazy recollection of the nurses changing her sheets and her sweat-soaked bed gown during the night. She vaguely recalled having a frightening dream, too, but she couldn’t bring to mind a single detail of it.


She was still unable to remember her name or anything else about herself. She could cast her mind back as far as the accident yesterday morning, perhaps even to a point a minute or so on the other side of the accident, but beyond that there was only a blank wall where her past should have been.


During breakfast, she read an article in one of the magazines that Carol Tracy had bought for her. Although there were no visiting hours until this afternoon, Jane was already looking forward to seeing the woman again. Dr. Hannaport and the nurses were nice, every one of them, but none of them affected her as positively as Carol Tracy did. For reasons she could not understand, she felt more secure, more at ease, less frightened by her amnesia when she was with Dr. Tracy than when she was with the others. Maybe that was what people meant when they said a doctor had a good bedside manner.


Shortly after nine o’clock, when Paul was on the freeway, headed downtown to deliver the new set of application papers to Alfred O’Brian’s office, the Pontiac's engine cut out. It didn’t sputter or cough; the pistons simply stopped firing while the car was hurtling along at nearly fifty miles an hour. As the Pontiac's speed plummeted, its power steering began to freeze up. Traffic whizzed past on both sides at sixty and sixty-five, faster than the speed limit, too fast for the misty weather. Paul maneuvered the car across two lanes, toward the right-hand shoulder of the road. Second by second, he expected to hear a short squeal of brakes and feel the sickening impact of another car against his, but amazingly, he was able to avoid a collision. Wrestling with the stiffening steering wheel, he brought the Pontiac to a full stop on the berm.


He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes until he had regained his composure. When at last he leaned forward and twisted the key in the ignition, the starter didn’t make the slightest response; the battery had no juice to offer. He tried a few more times, then gave up.


A freeway exit was just ahead, and there was a service station less than a block from the off-ramp. Paul walked to it in ten minutes.


The station was busy, and the owner couldn’t spare his young assistant—a big, redheaded, open-faced kid named Corky—until the stream of customers subsided to a trickle shortly before ten o’clock. Then Paul and Corky rode back to the crippled Pontiac in a tow truck.


They tried jump-starting the car, but the battery wouldn’t hold a charge. The Pontiac had to be towed back to the station.


Corky intended to replace the battery and have the car running in half an hour. But it wasn’t the battery after all, and the estimated time for completion of the repairs was extended again and again. Finally, Corky found a problem with the electrical system and fixed it.


Paul was stranded for three hours, always sure he would be on his way in just another twenty or thirty minutes. But it was one-thirty when he finally parked the revitalized Pontiac in front of the adoption agency’s offices.


Alfred O’Brian came out to the reception lounge to greet Paul. He was wearing a well-tailored brown suit, a neatly pressed, cream-colored shirt, a neatly arranged, beige display handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit jacket, and a pair of neatly shined, brown wing-tip shoes. He accepted the application, but he wasn’t optimistic about the possibility of making all the required verifications prior to the recommendations committee’s meeting next Wednesday morning.


“We’ll try to do a rush job on your papers,” he told Paul. “I owe you that much at least! But in getting these verifications, we have to deal with people outside this office, and some of them won’t get back to us right away or won’t like being hurried. It always takes a minimum of three full business days to run a complete verification, sometimes four or five days, sometimes even longer, so I very much doubt that we’ll be ready for this session of the recommendations committee, even though I want to be. We’ll probably have to submit your application at the second September meeting, at the end of the month. I feel terrible about that, Mr. Tracy. I’m more sorry than I can say.


I truly am. If we hadn’t lost those papers in the turmoil yesterday—”


“Don’t worry about it,” Paul said. “The lightning wasn’t your doing, and neither was the problem with my car. Carol and I have waited a long, long time to adopt a child. Another two weeks isn’t much in the scheme of things.”


“When your papers are presented to the committee, you’ll be approved quickly,” O’Brian said. “I’ve never been more sure about a couple than I am about you. That’s what I’m going to tell them.”


“I appreciate that,” Paul said.


“If we can’t make Wednesday’s meeting—and I assure you we’ll try our best—then it’s only a minor, temporary setback. Nothing to be concerned about. Just a bit of bad luck.”


***


Dr. Brad Templeton was a fine veterinarian. However, to Grace, he always looked out of place when he was ministering to a cat or dog. He was a big man who would have looked more at home treating horses and farm animals in a country practice, where his massive shoulders and muscular arms would be of more use. He stood six-five, weighed about two hundred and twenty pounds, and had a ruddy, rugged, but pleasing face. When be plucked Aristophanes out of the padded travel basket, the cat looked like a toy in his enormous hands.


“He looks fit,” Brad said, putting Ari on the stainless-steel table that stood in the middle of the sparkling clean surgery.


“He’s never been one to tear up the furniture, not since he was just a kitten,” Grace said. “He’s never been a climber, either. But now, every time I turn around, he’s perched on top of something, peering down at me.”


Brad examined Ari, feeling for swollen glands and enlarged joints. The cat cooperated docilely, even when Brad used a rectal thermometer on him. "Temperature’s normal.”


“Something’s wrong,” Grace insisted.


Aristophanes purred, tolled onto his back, asking for his belly to be rubbed.


Brad rubbed him and was rewarded with an even louder purr. “Is he off his food?”


“No,” Grace said. “He stills eats well.”


“Vomiting?”


“No.”


“Diarrhea?”


“No. He hasn’t shown any symptoms like those.


It’s just that he’s.. . different. He’s not at all like he was. Every symptom I can point to is a symptom of a personality change, not an indication of physical deterioration. Like destroying the pillows. Leaving the mess on the armchair. The sudden interest he’s taken in climbing. And he’s gotten very sneaky lately, always creeping around, hiding from me, watching me when be thinks I don’t see him.”


“All cats are a bit sneaky,” Brad said, frowning. “That’s the nature of the beast.”


“Ari didn’t used to sneak,” Grace said. “Not like he’s been doing the last couple of days. And he’s not as friendly as he used to be. The last two days, he hasn’t wanted to be petted or cuddled.”


Still frowning, Brad lifted his gaze from the cat and met Grace’s eyes. “But dear, look at him.”


Ari was still on his back, getting his belly rubbed, and clearly relishing all the attention being directed at him. His tail swished back and forth across the steel table. He raised one paw and batted playfully at the doctor’s large, leathery hand.


Sighing, Grace said, “I know what you’re thinking. I’m an old woman. Old women get funny ideas.”


“No, no, no. I wasn’t thinking any such thing.”


“Old women become obsessively attached to their pets because sometimes their pets are the only company they have, their only real friends.”


“I am perfectly aware that doesn’t apply to you, Grace. Not with all the friends you’ve got in this town. I merely—”


She smiled and patted his cheek. “Don’t protest too strongly, Brad. I know what’s going through your mind. Some old women are so afraid of losing their pets that they think they see signs of illness where there are none. Your reaction is understandable. It doesn’t offend me. It does frustrate me because I know something is wrong with Ari.”


Brad looked down at the cat again, continued stroking its belly, and said, “Have you changed his diet in any way?”


“No. He gets the same brand of cat food, at the same times of day, in the same quantities he’s always gotten it.”


“Has the company changed the product recently?”


“How do you mean?”


“Well, does the package say ‘new, improved,’ or


‘richer flavor,’ or anything like that?”


She thought about it for a moment, then shook her head. “I don't think so.”


“Sometimes, when they change a formula, they add a new preservative or a new artificial flavoring or coloring agent, and some pets have an allergic reaction to it.”


“But wouldn’t that be a physical reaction? Like I said, this seems to be strictly a personality change.”


Brad nodded. “I’m sure you know food additives can cause behavioral problems in some children. A lot of hyperactive kids calm down when they’re put on a diet free of the major additives. Animals can be affected by these things, too. From what you’ve told me, it sounds like Aristophanes is intermittently hyperactive and may be responding to a subtle change in the formulation of his cat food. Switch him to another brand, wait a week for his system to purge itself of whatever additives have offended it, and he’ll probably be the old Ari again.”


“If he isn’t?”


“Then bring him in, leave him with me for a couple of days, and I’ll give him a really thorough going over. But I strongly recommend that we try changing his diet first, before we go to all that trouble and expense.”

***

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