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Nevertheless, that frightening, irrational thought came to her again, unbidden, unwanted: Something’s trying to stop us from adopting a baby.


If the maelstrom in which she lay was not an act of nature, then what was it? Was she to believe that the lightning had been sent with the conscious intent of transforming Mr. O’Brian into a smoking heap of charred flesh? That was a fruitcake notion, for sure.


Who could use lightning as if it were a pistol? God? God wasn’t sitting up in Heaven, aiming at Mr. O’Brian, popping away at him with lightning bolts, just to screw up the adoption process for Carol and Paul Tracy. The Devil? Blasting away at poor Mr. O’Brian from the depths of Hell? That was a looney idea. Jesus!


She wasn’t even sure she believed in God, but she knew she definitely did not believe in the Devil.


Another window imploded, showering glass over her.


Then the lightning stopped.


The thunder decreased from a roar to a rumble, fading like the noise of a passing freight train.


There was a stench of ozone.


The wind was still pouring in through the broken windows, but apparently with less force than it had exerted a moment ago, for the whirling columns of leaves and papers subsided to the floor, where they lay in piles, fluttering and quivering as if exhausted.


Something...


Something...


Something’s trying to stop us from— She clamped off that unwanted thought as though


it were a spurting artery. She was an educated woman, dammit. She prided herself on her levelheadedness and common sense. She couldn’t permit herself to succumb to these disturbing, uncharacteristic, utterly superstitious fears.


Freaky weather—that was the explanation for the lightning. Freaky weather. You read about such things in the newspapers every once in a while. A half an inch of snow in Beverly Hills. An eighty-degree day in the middle of an otherwise frigid Minnesota winter.


Rain falling briefly from an apparently cloudless blue sky. Although a lightning strike of this magnitude and intensity was undoubtedly a rare occurrence, it probably had happened before, sometime, somewhere, probably more than once. Of course it had. Of course.


In fact, if you picked up one of those popular books in which the authors compiled all kinds of world records, and if you turned to the chapter on weather, and if you looked for a subsection entitled “Lightning,” you would most likely find an impressive list of other serial lightning strikes that would put this one to shame. Freaky weather. That’s what it was. That’s all it was. Nothing stranger than that, nothing worse.


For the time being, at least, Carol managed to put aside all thoughts of demons and ghosts and malign poltergeists and other such claptrap.


In the relative quiet that followed in the wake of the fast-diminishing thunder, she felt her strength returning. She pushed up from the floor, onto her knees. With the clinking sound of mildly disturbed wind chimes, pieces of glass fell from her gray skirt and green blouse; she wasn’t cut or even scratched. She was a bit dazed, however, and for a moment the floor appeared to roll sickeningly from side to side, as if this were a stateroom aboard a ship.


In the office next door, a woman began to cry hysterically. There were shouts of alarm, and someone began calling for Mr. O’Brian. No one had yet burst into the office to see what had happened, which meant that only a second or two had elapsed since the lightning had stopped, although it seemed to Carol as if a minute or two had passed.


Over by the windows, someone groaned softly.


‘Paul?” she said.


if there was an answer, it was drowned out by a sudden gust of wind that briefly stirred the papers and leaves again.


She recalled the way that branch had whipped across O’Brian’s head, and she shuddered. But Paul hadn’t been touched. The tree had missed him. Hadn’t it?


“Paul !“


With renewed fear, she got to her feet and moved quickly around the desk, stepping over splintered maple branches and an overturned wastebasket.


2


THAT Wednesday afternoon, following a lunch of Campbell’s vegetable soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, Grace Mitowski went into her study and curled up on the sofa to sleep for an hour or so. She never napped in the bedroom because that formalized it somehow, and though she had been taking naps three or four days a week for the past year, she still had not reconciled herself to the fact that she needed a midday rest. To her way of thinking, naps were for children and for old, used-up, burnt-out people. She wasn’t in her childhood any more—neither the first nor the second, thank you—and although she was old, she certainly wasn’t used up or burnt out. Being in bed in the middle of the day made her feel lazy, and she couldn’t abide laziness in anyone, especially not in herself. Therefore, she took naps on the study sofa, with her back to the shuttered windows, lulled by the monotonous ticking of the mantel clock.


At seventy, Grace was still as mentally agile and energetic as she had ever been. Her gray matter hadn’t begun to deteriorate at all; it was only her treacherous body that caused her grief and frustration. She had a touch of arthritis in her hands, and when the humidity was high—as it was today—she also suffered from a dull but unrelenting ache of bursitis in her shoulders. Although she did all of the exercises that her doctor recommended, and although she walked two miles every morning, she found it increasingly difficult to maintain her muscle tone. From the time she was a young girl, throughout most of her life, she had been in love with books, and she had been able to read all morning, all afternoon, and most of the evening without eyestrain; nowadays, usually after only a couple of hours of reading, her eyes felt grainy and hot. She regarded each of her infirmities with extreme indignation, and she struggled against them, even though she knew this was a war she was destined to lose.


That Wednesday afternoon she took a break from the battle, a brief period of R and R. Two minutes after she stretched out on the sofa, she was asleep.


Grace did not dream often, and she was even less often plagued by bad dreams. But Wednesday afternoon, in the book-lined study, her sleep was continuously disturbed by nightmares. Several times she stirred, came half awake, and heard herself gasping in panic. Once, drifting up from some hideous and threatening vision, she heard her own voice crying out wordlessly in terror, and she realized she was thrashing on the couch, twisting and torturing her


aching shoulders. She tried to come fully awake, but she could not; something in the dream, something dark and menacing, reached up with icy, clammy hands and pulled her down into deep sleep again, down and down, all the way down into a lightless place where an unnamable creature gibbered and muttered and chuckled in a mucous-wet voice.


An hour later, when she finally woke up and managed to cast off the clutching dream, she was standing in the middle of the shadow-shrouded room, several steps away from the sofa, but she had no memory of getting to her feet. She was shaking, sheathed in sweat.


—I’ve got to tell Carol Tracy.


—Tell her what?


—Warn her.


—Warn her about what?


—It’s coming. Oh, God...


—What’s coming?


—Just like in the dream.


—What about the dream?


Already her memory of the nightmare had begun to dissolve; only fragments of it remained with her, and each of those disassociated images was evaporating as if it were a splinter of dry ice. All she could remember was that Carol had been a part of it, and had been in awful danger. And somehow she knew that the dream had been more than just an ordinary dream....


As the nightmare receded, Grace became uncomfortably aware of how gloomy the study was. Before taking her nap, she had switched off the lamps. The shutters were all closed, and only thin blades of light Were visible between the wooden slats. She had the irrational but unshakable feeling that something had followed her up from the dream, something vicious and evil that had undergone a magical metamorphosis from a creature of the imagination into one composed of solid flesh, something that was now crouched in a corner, watching, waiting.


—Stop it!


—But the dream was...


—Only a dream.


Along the edges of the shutters, the taut threads of light abruptly brightened, then dimmed, then grew bright again as lightning flashed outside. A roof-rattling crash of thunder quickly followed, and more lightning, too, an unbelievable amount of it, one blue-white explosion after another, so that for at least half a minute the cracks in the shutters looked like sputtering electrical wires, white-hot with sparking current.


Still drugged with sleep and slightly confused, Grace stood in the middle of the unlighted room, rocking from side to side, listening to the thunder and the wind, watching the intense pulse of lightning. The extreme violence of the storm seemed unreal, and she concluded that she was still under the influence of the dream, misinterpreting what she was seeing. It couldn’t possibly be as savage outside as it appeared to be.


“Grace..."


She thought she heard something call to her from over by the tallest set of bookshelves, directly behind her. Judging from its slurred, distorted pronunciation of her name, its mouth was severely malformed.


There’s nothing behind me! Nothing.


Nevertheless, she did not turn around.


When the lightning finally stopped and the long-sustained crescendo of thunder subsided, the air seemed thicker than it had been a minute ago. She had difficulty breathing. The room was darker, too.


‘Grace. .


A confining mantle of claustrophobia settled over her. The dimly visible walls appeared to ripple and move closer, as if the chamber might shrink around her until it was precisely the size and shape of a coffin.


“Grace. .


She stumbled to the nearest window, banging her hip against the desk, nearly tripping over a lamp cord. She fumbled with the lever on the shutters, her fingers stiff and unresponsive. At last the slats opened wide; gray but welcome light poured into the study; forcing her to squint but gladdening her as well. She leaned against the shutters and stared out at the cloud-plated sky, resisting the insane urge to look over her shoulder to see if there really was something monstrous lurking there with a hungry grin on its face. She drew deep, gasping breaths, as if the daylight itself—rather than the air—sustained her.


Grace’s house was atop a small knoll, at the end of a quiet street, sheltered by several large pine trees and by one enormous weeping willow; from her study window she could see the rain-swollen Susquehanna a couple of miles away. Harrisburg, the state capital, huddled solemnly, drearily along the river’s banks. The clouds hung low over the city, trailing bedraggled beards of mist that obscured the upper floors of the tallest buildings.


When she’d blinked the last grains of sleep out of her eyes, when her nerves had stopped jangling, she turned around and surveyed the room. A quiver of relief swept through her, unknotting her muscles.


She was alone.


With the storm temporarily quiet, she could hear the mantel clock again. It was the only sound.


Hell, yes, you’re alone, she told herself scornfully. What did you expect? A green goblin with three eyes and a mouthful of sharp teeth? You better watch yourself, Grace Louise Mitowski, or you’ll wind up in a rest home, sitting all day in a rocking chair, happily chatting with ghosts, while smiling nurses wipe drool off your chin.


Having led an active life of the mind for so many years, she worried more about creeping senility than about anything else. She knew she was as sharp and alert as she had ever been. But what about tomorrow and the day after? Because of her medical training, and because she had kept up with her professional reading even after closing down her psychiatric practice, she was up to date on all the latest findings about senility, and she knew that only fifteen percent of all elderly people suffered from it. She also knew that more than half of those cases were treatable with proper nutrition and exercise. She knew her chances of becoming mentally incapacitated were small, only about one in eighteen. Nevertheless, although she was conscious of her excessive sensitivity regarding the subject, she still worried. Consequently, she was understandably disturbed by this uncharacteristic notion that something had been in the study with her a few moments ago, something hostile and. . . supernatural. As a lifelong skeptic with little or no patience for astrologers and psychics and their ilk, she could not justify even a fleeting belief in such superstitious non-sense; to her way of thinking, beliefs of that nature were. . . well. . . feebleminded.


But good, sweet God, what a nightmare that had been!


She had never before experienced a dream even one-tenth as bad as that one. Although the grisly details had completely faded away, she could still clearly remember the mood of it—the terror, the gut-wrenching horror that had permeated every nasty image, every ticking sound.


She shivered.


The sweat that the dream had squeezed out of her was beginning to feel like a thin glaze of ice on her skin.


The only other thing she remembered from the nightmare was Carol. Screaming. Crying for help.


Until now, none of Grace’s infrequent dreams had included Carol, and there was a temptation to view her appearance in this one with alarm, to see it as an omen. But of course it wasn’t surprising that Carol should eventually have a role in one of Grace’s dreams, for the loved-one-in-danger theme was common in nightmares. Any psychologist would attest to that, and Grace was a psychologist, a good one, although she was entering her third year of retirement. She cared deeply about Carol. If she’d had a child of her own, she couldn’t have loved it any more than she loved Carol.


She had first met the girl sixteen years ago, when Carol had been an angry, obstinate, obstreperous fifteen-year-old delinquent who had recently given birth to a baby that had nearly killed her, and who, subsequent to that traumatic episode, had been remanded


to a juvenile detention facility for possession of marijuana and for a host of other offenses. In those days, in addition to a private psychiatric practice, Grace had performed eight hours a week of free service to assist the overworked counseling staff at the reform school in which Carol was held. Carol was incorrigible, determined to kick you in the teeth if you smiled at her, but even then her intelligence and innate goodness were there, to be seen by anyone who looked closely enough, beneath the rough exterior. Grace had taken a very close look indeed, and had been intrigued, impressed. The girl’s obsessively foul language, her vicious temper, and her amoral pose had been nothing more than defense mechanisms, shields with which she protected herself from the physical and psychological abuse dished out by her parents.


As Grace gradually unearthed the horrendous story of Carol’s monstrous home life, she became convinced that reform school was the wrong place for the girl. She used her influence with the court to get Carol permanently removed from the custody of her parents. Later, she arranged to serve as Carol’s foster parent. She had watched the girl respond to love and guidance, had watched her grow from a brooding, self centered, self-destructive teenager into a warm, self-assured, admirable young woman with hopes and dreams, a woman of character, a sensitive woman. Playing a part in that exciting transformation had been perhaps the most satisfying thing that Grace had ever done.

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