That strange, jarring sound—thunk, :hunk—had been the most frightening thing in the dream, and the memory of it still nagged her. It wasn’t just an ordinary hammering noise; there was an odd echo to it, a hardness and sharpness she couldn’t quite define. She decided it was not only a case of her subconscious mind borrowing the noise the shutter had made earlier. The terrifying sound in the dream was caused by something considerably more disturbing than the mere banging of an unmoored shutter. Furthermore, she was sure she had heard precisely that sound on another occasion, too. Not in the nightmare. In real life. In another place. . . a long time ago...
As she let the hot water stream over her, sluicing away the soap, she tried to recall where and when she had heard exactly that same unsettling sound, for it suddenly seemed important for her to identify it. Without understanding why, she felt vaguely threatened as long as she could not recall the source of the sound. But remembrance hung tantalizingly beyond the limits of her reach, like the title of a hauntingly familiar but unnamable piece of music.
AT 8:45, after breakfast, Carol left for work, and Paul went upstairs to the rear bedroom that he had converted into an office. He had created a Spartan atmosphere in which to write without distraction. The off-white walls were bare, unadorned by even a single painting. The room contained only an inexpensive desk, a typist’s chair, an electric typewriter, a jar bristling with pens and pencils, a deep letter tray that now contained nearly two hundred manuscript pages of the novel he had started at the beginning of his sabbatical, a telephone, a three-shelf bookcase filled with reference works, a bottled-water dispenser in one corner, and a small table upon which stood a Mr. Coffee machine.
This morning, as usual, he prepared a pot of coffee first thing. Just as he pressed the switch labeled BREWER and poured water into the top of the Mr.
Coffee, the telephone rang. He sat on the edge of the desk, picked up the receiver. “Hello.”
“Paul? Grace Mitowski.”
“Good morning, love. How are you?”
“Well, these old bones don’t like rainy weather, but otherwise I’m coping.”
Paul smiled. “Listen, I know you can still run circles around me any time.”
“Nonsense. You’re a compulsive worker with a guilt complex about leisure. Not even a nuclear reactor has your energy.”
He laughed. “Don’t psychoanalyze me, Grace. I get enough of that from my wife.”
“Speaking of whom. .
“Sorry, but you just missed her. You ought to be able to catch her at the office in half an hour.”
Hot coffee began to drizzle into the Pyrex pot, and the aroma of it swiftly filled the room.
Sensing tension in Grace’s hesitation, Paul said, “What’s wrong?”
“Well. . .“ She cleared her throat nervously. “Paul, how is she? She’s not ill or anything?”
“Carol? Oh, no. Of course not.”
“You’re sure? I mean, you know that girl’s like a daughter to me. if anything was wrong, I’d want to know.”
“She’s fine. Really. In fact she had a physical exam last week. The adoption agency required it. Both of us passed with flying colors.”
Grace was silent again.
Frowning, Paul said, “Why are you worried all of a sudden?”
“Well. . . you’ll think old Gracie is losing her marbles, but I’ve had two disturbing dreams, one during a nap yesterday, the other last night, and Carol was in both. I seldom dream, so when I have two nightmares and wake up both times feeling I’ve got to warn Carol. .
“Warn her about what?”
“I don’t know. All I remember about the dreams is that Carol was in them. I woke up thinking: it’s coming. I’ve got to warn Carol that it’s coming. I know that sounds silly. And don’t ask me what ‘it’ might be. I can’t remember. But I feel Carol’s in danger. Now Lord knows, I don’t believe in dream prophecies and garbage like that. I think I don’t believe in them—yet here I am calling you about this.”
The coffee was ready. Paul leaned over, turned off the brewer. “The strange thing is—Carol and I were nearly hurt in a freak accident yesterday.” He told her about the damage at O’Brian’s office.
“Good God,” she said, “I saw that lightning when I woke up from my nap, but it never occurred to me that you and Carol.. . that the lightning might be the very thing I was. . . the very thing my dream oh, hell! I’m afraid to say it because I might sound like a superstitious old fool, but here goes anyway:
Was there actually something prophetic about that dream? Did I foresee the lightning strike a few minutes before it happened?”
“If nothing else,” Paul said uneasily, “it’s at least a remarkable coincidence.”
They were silent for a moment, wondering, and then she said, “Listen, Paul, I don’t recall that we’ve ever discussed this subject much before, but tell me— do you believe in dream prophecies, clairvoyance, things of that nature?”
“I don’t believe, and I don’t disbelieve. I’ve never really made up my mind.”
“I’ve always been so smug about it. Always considered it a pack of lies, delusions, or just plain nonsense. But after this—”
“Let’s just say a tiny doubt has cropped up. And now I’m more worried about Carol than I was when I called you.”
“Why? I told you she wasn’t even scratched.”
“She escaped once,” Grace said, “but I had two dreams, and one of them came to me hours after the lightning. So maybe the ‘it’ is something else. I mean, if the first dream had some truth in it, then maybe the second does, too. God, isn’t this crazy? If you start believing in just a little bit of this nonsense, you get carried away with it real fast. But I can’t help it. I’m still concerned about her.”
“Even if your first dream was prophetic,” Paul said, “the second one was probably just a repeat of it, an echo, not a whole new dream.”
“You think so?”
“Sure. This never happened to you before, so why should it happen again? Most likely, it was just a freak thing.. . like the lightning yesterday.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re probably right,” she said, sounding somewhat relieved. “Maybe it could happen once. Maybe I can accept that. But I’m not Edgar Cayce or Nostradamus. And I can guarantee you I’m never going to be writing a weekly column of predictions for the National Enquirer.”
“Still,” she said, “I wish I could remember exactly what happened in both those nightmares.”
They talked a while longer, and when Paul finally hung up, he stared at the receiver for a moment, frowning. Although he was pretty much convinced that the timing of Grace’s dream had been merely a strange coincidence, he was nonetheless affected by it, more profoundly affected than seemed reasonable.
The moment Grace had voiced those two words, Paul had felt a gut-deep, bone-deep chill.
Coincidence, he told himself. Sheer coincidence and nonsense. Forget about it.
Gradually he became aware, once again, of the rich aroma of hot coffee. He rose from the edge of the desk and filled a mug with the steaming brew.
For a minute or two he stood at the window behind the desk, sipping coffee, staring out at the dirty, scudding clouds and at the incessant rain. Eventually he lowered his gaze and looked down into the rear yard, instantly recalling the intruder he had seen last evening while he and Carol had been making dinner:
that briefly glimpsed, pale, distorted, lightning-illuminated face; a woman’s face; shining eyes; mouth twisted into a snarl of rage or hatred. Or perhaps it had just been Jasper, the Great Dane, and a trick of light.
The sound was so loud and unexpected that Paul jumped in surprise. If his mug hadn’t been half empty, he would have spilled coffee all over the carpet.
It couldn’t be the same shutter they’d heard last
evening, for it would have continued banging all night. Which meant there were now two of them to repair.
Jeez, he thought, the old homestead is falling down around my ears.
The source of the sound was nearby; in fact it was so close that it seemed to originate within the room. Paul pressed his forehead against the cool window glass, peered out to the left, then to the right, trying to see if that pair of shutters was in place. As far as he could see, they were both properly anchored. Thwzk, thunk-thunk, thunk, thunk...
The noise grew softer but settled into a steady, arhythmical beat that was more irritating than the louder blows had been. And now it seemed to be coming from another part of the house.
Although he didn’t want to get up on a ladder and fix a shutter in the rain, that was exactly what had to be done, for he couldn’t get any writing accomplished with that constant clattering to distract him. At least there hadn’t been any lightning this morning.
He put his mug on the desk and started out of the room. Before he reached the door, the telephone rang.
So it’s going to be one of those days, he thought wearily.
Then he realized that the shutter had stopped banging the moment the phone had rung. Maybe the wind had wrenched it loose of the house, in which case repairs could wait until the weather improved.
He returned to his desk and answered the telephone. It was Alfred O’Brian, from the adoption agency. Initially, the conversation was awkward, and Paul was embarrassed by it. O’Brian insisted on ex
pressing his gratitude: “You saved my life; you really did!” He was equally insistent about repeatedly and quite unnecessarily apologizing for his failure to express that gratitude yesterday, immediately following the incident in his office: “But I was so shaken, stunned, I just wasn’t thinking clearly enough to thank you, which was unforgivable of me.” Each time Paul protested at the mention of words like “heroic,” and “brave,” O’Brian became even more vociferous than before. At last, Paul stifled his objections and allowed the man to get it out of his system; O’Brian was determined to cleanse his conscience in much the same way that he fussed with the minute specks of lint on his suit jacket. Finally, however, he seemed to feel he had atoned for his (largely imaginary) thoughtlessness, and Paul was relieved when the conversation changed directions.
O’Brian had a second reason for calling, and he got straight to it now, as if he, too, was suddenly embarrassed. He could not (he explained with more apologies) locate the application form that the Tracys had brought to his office the previous day. “Of course, when that tree crashed through the window, it scattered a lot of papers all over the floor. A terrible mess. Some of them were rumpled and dirty when we gathered them up, and a great many of them were damp from the rain. In spite of that, Margie. my secretary, was able to put them in order—except, of course, for your application. We can’t find it anywhere. I suppose it might have blown out through one of the broken windows. I don’t know why your papers should be the only ones we’ve lost, and of course we must have a completed, signed application before we can present your names to the recommendations committee. I’m extremely sorry about this inconvenience, Mr. Tracy, I truly am.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Paul said. “I’ll just stop in
later today and pick up another form. Carol and I can fill it out and sign it tonight.”
“Good,” O’Brian said. “I’m glad to hear that. It has to be back in my hands early tomorrow morning if we’re going to make the next meeting of the committee. Margie needs three full business days to run the required verifications on the information in your application, and that’s just about how much time we have before next Wednesday’s committee meeting.
If we miss that session, there’s not another one for two weeks.”
“I’ll be in to pick up the form before noon,” Paul assured him. “And I’ll have it back to you first thing Friday morning.”
They exchanged goodbyes, and Paul put down the phone.
When he heard that sound, he sagged, dispirited.
He was going to have to fix a shutter after all. And then drive into the city to pick up the new application. And then drive home. And by the time he did all of that, half the day would be shot, and he wouldn’t have written a single word.
“Dammit,” he said.
Thunk, thunk-thunk, thunk-thunk...
It definitely was going to be one of those days.
He went downstairs to the hail closet where he kept his raincoat and galoshes.
The windshield wipers flogged back and forth, back and forth, with a short, shrill squeak that made Carol grit her teeth. She hunched forward a bit, over the steering wheel, squinting through the streaming rain.
The streets glistened; the macadam was slick, greasy looking. Dirty water raced along the gutters and formed filthy pools around clogged drainage grids.
At ten minutes past nine, the morning rush hour was just over. Although the streets were still moderately busy, traffic was moving smoothly and swiftly. In fact everyone was driving too fast to suit Carol, and she hung back a little, watchful and cautious.
Two blocks from her office, her caution proved justified, but it still wasn’t enough to avert disaster altogether. Without bothering to look for oncoming traffic, a young blond woman stepped out from between two vans, directly into the path of the VW Rabbit.
“Christ!” Carol said, ramming her foot down on the brake pedal so hard that she lifted herself up off the seat.
The blonde glanced up and froze, wide-eyed.
Although the VW was moving at only twenty miles an hour, there was no hope of stopping it in time. The brakes shrieked. The tires bit—but also skidded—on the wet pavement.
God, no! Carol thought with a sick, sinking feeling.
The car hit the blonde and lifted her off the ground, tossed her backwards onto the hood, and then the rear end of the VW began to slide around to the left, into the path of an oncoming Cadillac, and the Caddy swerved, brakes squealing, and the other driver hit his horn as if he thought a sufficient volume of sound
might magically push Carol safely out of his way, and for an instant she was certain they would collide, but the Caddy slid past without scraping, missing her by only an inch or two—all of this in two or three or four seconds—and at the same time the blonde rolled off the hood, toward the right side, the curb side, and the VW came to a full stop, sitting aslant the street, rocking on its springs as if it were a child’s hobby horse.
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