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For several seconds after killing the spider, she lay on the floor in a tight fetal position, shuddering violently and uncontrollably. The repulsive, wet mass of the smashed spider slid very slowly down the curve of her breast. She wanted to reach inside her bodice and pluck the foul wad from herself, but she hesitated because, irrationally, she was afraid it would somehow come to life again and sting her fingers.


She tasted blood. She had bitten her lip.


Mama...


Mama had done this to her. Mama had sent her down here, knowing there were spiders. Why was Mama always so quick to deal out punishment, so eager to assign penance?


Overhead, a beam creaked, sagged. The kitchen floor cracked open. She felt as though she were staring up into Hell. Sparks showered down. Her dress caught fire, and she scorched her hands putting it out.


Mama did this to me.


Because her palms and fingers were blistered and peeling, she couldn’t crawl on her hands and knees any longer, so she got to her feet, although standing up required more strength and determination than she had thought she possessed. She swayed, dizzy and weak.


Mama sent me down here.


Laura could see only pulsing, all-encompassing orange luminescence, through which amorphous smoke ghosts glided and whirled. She shuffled toward the short flight of steps that led to the outside cellar doors, but after she had gone only two yards, she realized she was headed in the wrong direction. She turned back the way she had come—or back the way she thought she had come—but after a few steps she bumped into the furnace, which was nowhere near the outside doors. She was completely disoriented.


Mama did this to me.


Laura squeezed her ruined hands into raw, bloody fists. In a rage she pounded on the furnace, and with each blow she fervently wished that she were beating her mother.


The upper reaches of the burning house twisted and rumbled. In the distance, beyond an eternity of smoke, Aunt Rachael’s voice echoed hauntingly: “Laura... Laura. . .“


Why wasn’t Mama out there helping Rachael break down the cellar doors? Where in God’s name was she? Throwing coal and lamp oil on the fire?


Wheezing, gasping, Laura pushed away from the furnace and tried to follow Rachael’s voice to safety.


A beam tore loose of its moorings, slammed into her back, and catapulted her into the shelves of home canned food. Jars fell, shattered. Laura went down in a rain of glass. She could smell pickles, peaches.


Before she could determine if any bones were broken, before she could even lift her face out of the spilled food, another beam crashed down, pinning her legs.


There was so much pain that her mind simply blanked it out altogether. She was not even sixteen years old, and there was only so much she could bear. She sealed the pain in a dark corner of her mind; instead of succumbing to it, she twisted and thrashed hysterically, raged at her fate, and cursed her mother.


Her hatred for her mother wasn’t rational, but it was so passionately felt that it took the place of the pain she could not allow herself to feel. Hate flooded through her, filled her with so much demonic energy that she was nearly able to toss the heavy beam off her legs.


Damn you to Hell, Mama.


The top floor of the house caved in upon the ground floor with a sound like cannons blasting.


Damn you, Mama! Damn you!


The first two floors of flaming rubble broke through the already weakened cellar ceiling.


Mama—


PART ONE


Something Wicked This Way


Comes...


By the pricking of my thumbs,


Something wicked this way comes.


Open, locks,


whoever knocks!


—Shakespeare, Macbeth


1


ACROSS the somber gray clouds, lightning followed a jagged course like cracks in a china plate. In the unsheltered courtyard outside Alfred O’Brian’s office, the parked cars glimmered briefly with hard-edged reflections of the storm light. The wind gusted, whipping the trees. Rain beat with sudden fury against the three tall office windows, then streamed down the glass, blurring the view beyond.


O’Brian sat with his back to the windows. While thunder reverberated through the low sky and seemed to hammer on the roof of the building, he read the application that Paul and Carol Tracy had just submitted to him.


He’s such a neat little man, Carol thought as she watched O’Brian. When he sits very still like that, you’d almost think he was a mannequin.


He was exceedingly well groomed. His carefully combed hair looked as if it had received the attention of a good barber less than an hour ago. His mustache was so expertly trimmed that the halves of it appeared to be perfectly symmetrical. He was wearing a gray suit with trouser creases as tight and straight as blades, and his black shoes gleamed. His fingernails were manicured, and his pink, well-scrubbed hands looked sterile.


When Carol had been introduced to O’Brian less than a week ago, she had thought he was prim, even prissy, and she had been prepared to dislike him. She was quickly won over by his smile, by his gracious manner, and by his sincere desire to help her and Paul.


She glanced at Paul, who was sitting in the chair next to hers, his own tensions betrayed by the angular position of his lean, usually graceful body. He was watching O’Brian intently, but when he sensed that Carol was looking at him, he turned and smiled. His smile was even nicer than O’Brian’s, and as usual, Carol’s spirits were lifted by the sight of it. He was neither handsome nor ugly, this man she loved; you might even say he was plain, yet his face was enormously appealing because the pleasing, open composition of it contained ample evidence of his gentleness and sensitivity. His hazel eyes were capable of conveying amazingly subtle degrees and mixtures of emotions. Six years ago, at a university symposium entitled “Abnormal Psychology and Modem American Fiction,” where Carol had met Paul, the first thing that had drawn her to him had been those warm, expressive eyes, and in the intervening years they had never ceased to intrigue her. Now he winked, and with that wink he seemed to be saying: Don’t worry;


O’Brian is on our side; the application will be accepted; everything will turn out all right; I love you.


She winked back at him and pretended to be confident, even though she was sure he could see through her brave front.


She wished that she could be certain of winning Mr. O’Brian’s approval. She knew she ought to be overflowing with confidence, for there really was no reason why O’Brian would reject them. They were healthy and young. Paul was thirty-five, and she was thirty-one, and those were excellent ages at which to set out upon the adventure they were contemplating. Both of them were successful in their work. They were financially solvent, even prosperous. They were respected in their community. Their marriage was happy and trouble-free, stronger now than at any time in the four years since their wedding. In short, their qualifications for adopting a child were pretty much impeccable, but she worried nonetheless.


She loved children, and she was looking forward to raising one or two of her own. During the past fourteen years—in which she had earned three degrees at three universities and had established herself in her profession—she had postponed many simple pleasures and had skipped others altogether. Getting an education and launching her career had always come first. She had missed too many good parties and had foregone an unremembered number of vacations and getaway weekends. Adopting a child was one pleasure she did not want to postpone any longer.


She had a strong psychological need—almost a physical need—to be a mother, to guide and shape children, to give them love and understanding. She was intelligent enough and sufficiently self-aware to


realize that this deep-seated need arose, at least in part, from her inability to conceive a child of her own flesh and blood.


The thing we want most, she thought, is always the thing we cannot have.


She was to blame for her sterility, which was the result of an unforgivable act of stupidity committed a long time ago; and of course her culpability made her condition harder to bear than it would have been if nature—rather than her own foolishness—had cursed her with a barren womb. She had been a severely troubled child, for she had been raised by violent, alcoholic parents who had frequently beaten her and who had dealt out large doses of psychological torture. By the time she was fifteen, she was a hellion, engaged in an angry rebellion against her parents and against the world at large. She hated everyone in those days, especially herself. In the blackest hours of her confused and tormented adolescence, she had gotten pregnant. Frightened, panicky, with no one to turn to, she tried to conceal her condition by wearing girdles, by binding herself with elastic cloth and tape, and by eating as lightly as possible to keep her weight down. Eventually, however, complications arose because of her attempts to hide her pregnancy, and she nearly died. The baby was born prematurely, but it was healthy. She had put it up for adoption and hadn’t given it much thought for a couple of years, though these days she often wondered about the child and wished she could have kept it somehow. At the time, the fact that her ordeal had left her sterile did not depress her, for she didn’t think she would ever want to be pregnant again. But with a lot of help and love from a child psychologist named Grace Mitowski,


who did charity work among juvenile wards of the court, Carol had turned her life completely around.


She had learned to like herself and, years later, had come to regret the thoughtless actions that had left her barren.


Fortunately, she regarded adoption as a more-than-adequate solution to her problem. She was capable of giving as much love to an adopted child as she would have given to her own offspring. She knew she would be a good and caring mother, and she longed to prove it—not to the world but to herself; she never needed to prove anything to anyone but herself, for she was always her own toughest critic.


Mr. O’Brian looked up from the application and smiled. His teeth were exceedingly white. “This looks really fine,” he said, indicating the form he had just finished reading. “In fact, it’s splendid. Not everyone that applies to us has credentials like these.”


“It’s kind of you to say so,” Paul told him.


O’Brian shook his head. “Not at all. It’s simply the truth. Very impressive.”


Carol said, “Thank you.”


Leaning back in his chair, folding his hands on his stomach, O’Brian said, “I do have a couple of questions. I’m sure they’re the same ones the recommendations committee will ask me, so I might as well get your responses now and save a lot of back-and-forth later on.”


Carol stiffened again.


O’Brian apparently noticed her reaction, for he quickly said, “Oh, it’s nothing terribly serious. Really, it isn’t. Believe me—I won’t be asking you half as many questions as I ask most couples who come to see us.”


In spite of O’Brian’s assurances, Carol remained tense.


Outside, the storm-dark afternoon sky grew steadily darker as the thunderheads changed color from gray to blue black, thickened, and pressed closer to the earth.


O’Brian swiveled in his chair to face Paul. “Dr. Tracy, would you say you’re an overachiever?”


Paul seemed surprised by the question. He blinked and said, “I’m not sure what you mean.”


“You are the chairman of the department of English at the college, aren’t you?”


“Yes. I’m on sabbatical this semester, and the vice-chairman is handling most things for the time being. Otherwise, I’ve been in charge of the department for the past year and a half.”


“Aren’t you rather young to hold such a post?”


“Somewhat young,” Paul admitted. “But that’s no credit to me. You see, it’s a thankless position, all work and no glory. My senior colleagues in the department craftily maneuvered me into it so that none of them would be stuck with the job.”


“You’re being modest.”


“No, I’m really not,” Paul said. “It’s nothing much.”


Carol knew that he was being modest. The departmental chairmanship was a prized position, an honor. But she understood why Paul was playing it down; he had been unsettled by O’Brian’s use of the word overachiever. She had been unsettled by it, too. Until this moment she had never thought that an unusually long list of achievements might count against them.


Beyond the tall windows, lightning zigzagged


down the sky. The day flickered and, just for a second or two, so did the electric lights in O’Brian’s office.


Still addressing Paul, O’Brian said, “You’re also an author.”


“Yes.”


“You’ve written a very successful textbook for use in American literature courses. You’ve turned out a dozen monographs on a variety of subjects, and you’ve done a local history of the county. And two children’s books, and a novel


“The novel was about as successful as a horse trying to walk a tightrope,” Paul said. “The New York Times critic said it was ‘a perfect example of academic posturing, stuffed full of themes and symbols, utterly lacking in substance and narrative drive, infused with ivory-tower naiveté.”


O’Brian smiled. “Does every writer memorize his bad reviews?”


“I suppose not. But I have that one engraved on my cerebral cortex because there’s an uncomfortable amount of truth in it.”


“Are you writing another novel? Is that why you’ve taken a sabbatical?”


Paul was not surprised by the question. Clearly he now understood what O’Brian was digging for. “Yes, in fact I am writing a new novel. This one actually has a plot.” He laughed with easy self-deprecation.


“You’re also involved in charity work.”


“Not much.”


“Quite a lot,” O’Brian disagreed. “The Children’s Hospital Fund, the Community Chest, the student scholarship program at the college—all of that in addition to your regular job and your writing. Yet you don’t think you’re an overachiever?”


“No, I really don’t think I am. The charity work


amounts to just a couple of meetings a month. It’s no big thing. It’s the least I can do, considering my own good fortune.” Paul edged forward on his chair.


“Maybe you’re worried that I won’t have time to give to a child, but if that’s what’s troubling you, then you can put your mind at rest. I’ll make the time. This adoption is extremely important to us, Mr. O’Brian. We both want a child very badly, and if we are lucky enough to get one, we certainly won’t ever neglect it.”


“Oh, I’m sure you won’t,” O’Brian said quickly, raising his hands placatingly. “That isn’t at all what I meant to imply. Oh, certainly not. I’m on your side in this matter. I mean that very sincerely.” He swiveled to face Carol. “Dr. Tracy—the other Dr. Tracy— what about you? Do you consider yourself an overachiever?”

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