None of the shutters was missing. Not one. None of them was loose and flapping in the wind, as Paul had thought.
Wearing galoshes and a raincoat with a hood, he walked all the way around the house, studying each set of shutters on the first and second floors, but he couldn’t see anything amiss. The place showed no sign of storm damage.
Perplexed, he circled the house again, each step resulting in a squishing noise as the rain-saturated lawn gave like a sodden sponge beneath him. This time around, he looked for broken tree limbs that might be swinging against the walls when the wind gusted. The trees were all intact.
Shivering in the unseasonably chilly autumn air, he just stood on the lawn for a minute or two, cocking his head to the right and then to the left, listening for the pounding that had filled the house moments ago. He couldn’t hear it now. The only sounds were the soughing wind, the rustling trees, and the rain driving into the grass with a soft, steady hiss.
At last, his face numbed by the cold wind and by
the heat-leaching rain, he decided to halt his search until the pounding started again and gave him something to get a fix on. Meanwhile, he could drive downtown and pick up the application form at the adoption agency. He put one hand to his face, felt his beard stubble, remembered Alfred O’Brian’s compulsive neatness, and figured he ought to shave before he went.
He reentered the house by way of the screened-in rear porch, leaving his dripping coat on a vinyl-upholstered glider and shedding his galoshes before going into the kitchen. Inside, he closed the door behind him and basked for a moment in the warm air.
THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!
The house shuddered as if it had received three extremely hard, rapid blows from the enormous fist of a giant. Above the kitchen’s central utility island, where a utensil rack was suspended from the ceiling, copper pots and pans swung on their hooks and clattered against one another.
The wall clock rattled on its hook; if it had been any less firmly attached than it was, it would have flung itself off the wall, onto the floor.
Paul moved toward the middle of the room, trying to ascertain the direction from which the pounding was coming.
The oven door fell open.
The two dozen small jars nestled in the spice rack began to clink against one another.
What the hell is happening here? he wondered uneasily.
He turned slowly, listening, seeking.
The pots and pans clattered again, and a large ladle slipped from its hook and fell with a clang to the butcher-block work surface that lay under it.
Paul looked up at the ceiling, tracking the sound.
He expected to see the plaster crack, but it didn’t.
Nevertheless, the source of the sound was definitely overhead.
Thwzk, thunk-thunk, thunk...
The pounding suddenly grew quieter than it had been, but it didn’t fade away altogether. At least the house stopped quivering, and the cooking utensils stopped banging together.
Paul headed for the stairs, determined to track down the cause of the disturbance.
The blonde was in the gutter, flat on her back, one arm out at her side with the palm up and the hand slack, the other arm draped across her belly. Her golden hair was muddy. A three-inch-deep stream of water surged
around her, carrying leaves and grit and scraps of paper litter toward the nearest storm drain, and her long hair fanned out around her head and rippled silkily in those filthy currents.
Carol knelt beside the woman and was shocked to
see that the victim wasn’t actually a woman at all. She was a girl, no older than fourteen or fifteen. She was exceptionally pretty, with delicate features, and at the moment she was frighteningly pale.
She was also inadequately dressed for inclement weather. She wore white tennis shoes, jeans, and a blue and white checkered blouse. She had neither a raincoat nor an umbrella.
With trembling hands, Carol lifted the girl’s right arm and felt the wrist for a pulse. She found the beat at once; it was strong and steady.
“Thank God,” Carol said shakily. “Thank God, thank God.”
She began to examine the girl for bleeding. There did not seem to be any serious injuries, no major blood loss, just a few shallow cuts and abrasions. Unless, of course, the bleeding was internal.
The driver of the Cadillac, a tall man with a goatee, stepped around the end of the VW Rabbit and looked down at the injured girl. “Is she dead?”
“No,” Carol said. She gently thumbed back one of the girl’s eyelids, then the other. “Just unconscious.
Probably a mild concussion. Is anyone calling an ambulance?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Then you call one. Quickly.”
He hurried away, splashing through a puddle that was deeper than the tops of his shoes.
Carol pressed down on the girl’s chin; the jaw was slack, and the mouth fell open easily. There was no visible obstruction, no blood, nothing that might choke her, and her tongue was in a safe position.
A gray-haired woman in a transparent plastic raincoat, carrying a red and orange umbrella, ‘appeared out of the rain. “It wasn’t your fault,” she told Carol.
“I saw it happen. I saw it all. The child darted out in front of you without looking. There wasn’t a thing you could have done to prevent it.”
“I saw it, too,” said a portly man who didn’t quite fit under his black umbrella. “I saw the kid walking
down the street like she was in a trance or something.
No coat, no umbrella. Eyes kind of blank. She stepped off the curb, between those two vans, and just stood there for a few seconds, like she was just waiting for someone to come along so she could step out and get herself killed. And by God, that’s what happened.”
“She’s not dead,” Carol said, unable to keep a tremor out of her voice. “There’s a first-aid kit on the back seat of my car. Will one of you get it for me?”
“Sure,” the portly man said, turning toward the vw.
The first-aid kit contained, among other things, a packet of tongue depressors, and Carol wanted to have those handy. Although the unconscious girl didn’t appear to be headed for imminent convulsions, Carol intended to be prepared for the worst.
A crowd had begun to gather.
A siren sounded a couple of blocks away, approaching fast. It was probably the police; the ambulance couldn’t have made it so fast.
“Such a pretty child,” the gray-haired woman said, staring down at the stricken girl.
Other onlookers murmured in agreement.
Carol stood up and stripped out of her raincoat.
There was no point in covering the girl, for she was already as wet as she could get. Instead, Carol folded the coat, knelt down again, and carefully slipped the makeshift pillow under the victim, elevating her head just a bit above the gushing water.
The girl didn’t open her eyes or stir in any way whatsoever. A tangled strand of golden hair had fallen across her face, and Carol carefully pushed it aside for her. The girl’s skin was hot to the touch, fevered, in spite of the cold rain that bathed it.
Suddenly, while her fingers were still touching the
girl’s cheek, Carol felt dizzy and was unable to get her breath. For a moment she thought she was going to pass out and collapse on top of the unconscious teenager. A black wave rose behind her eyes, and then in that darkness there was a brief flash of silver, a glint of light off a moving object, the mysterious thing from her nightmare.
She gritted her teeth, shook her head, and refused to be swept away in that dark wave. She pulled her hand away from the girl’s cheek, put it to her own face; the dizzy spell passed as abruptly as it had come. Until the ambulance arrived, she was responsible for the injured girl, and she was determined not to fail in that responsibility.
Huffing slightly, the portly man hurried back with the first-aid kit. Carol took one of the tongue depressors out of its crisp cellophane wrapper—just in case.
A police car rounded the corner and stopped behind the Volkswagen. Its revolving emergency beacons splashed red light across the wet pavement and appeared to transform the puddles of rainwater into pools of blood.
As the squad car’s siren died with a growl, another, more distant siren became audible. To Carol, that warbling, high-pitched wail was the sweetest sound in the world.
The horror is almost over, she thought.
But then she looked at the girl’s chalk-white face, and her relief was clouded with doubt. Perhaps the horror wasn’t over after all; perhaps it had only just begun.
Upstairs, Paul walked slowly from room to room, listening to the hammering sound.
Thunk. . . thunk...
The source was still overhead. In the attic. Or on the roof.
The attic stairs were behind a paneled door at the end of the second-floor hallway. They were narrow, unpainted, and they creaked as Paul climbed them.
Although the attic had full flooring, it was not otherwise a finished room. The construction of the walls was open for inspection; the pink fiber glass insulation, which somewhat resembled raw meat, and the regularly spaced supporting studs, like ribs of bone, were visible. Two naked, hundred-watt bulbs furnished light, and shadows coiled everywhere, especially toward the eaves. For all of its length and for half of its width, the attic was high enough to allow Paul to walk through it without stooping.
The patter of rain on the roof was more than just a patter up here. It was a steady hissing, a soft, all-encompassing roar.
Nevertheless, the other sound was audible above the drumming of the rain: Thunk.. . thunk-thunk...
Paul moved slowly past stacks of cardboard cartons and other items that had been consigned to storage: a pair of large touring trunks; an old six-pronged coat rack; a tarnished brass floor lamp; two busted-out, cane-bottomed chairs that he intended to restore some day. A thin film of whitish dust draped shroudlike over all the contents of the room.
Thunk. . . thunk...
He walked the length of the attic, then slowly returned to the center of it and stopped. The source of the sound seemed to be directly in front of his face, only inches away. But there was nothing here that could possibly be the cause of the disturbance; nothing moved.
Thunk.. . thunk. . thunk. . . thunk...
Although the hammering was softer now than it had been a few minutes ago, it was still solid and forceful; it reverberated through the frame of the house. The pounding had acquired a monotonously simple rhythm, too; each blow was separated from the ones before and after it by equal measures of time, resulting in a pattern not unlike the beating of a heart.
Paul stood in the attic, in the dust, smelling the musty odor common to all unused places, trying to get a fix on the sound, trying to understand how it could be coming out of thin air, and gradually his attitude toward the disturbance changed. He had been thinking of it as nothing more than the audible evidence of storm damage to the house, as nothing more than tedious and perhaps expensive repairs that might have to be made, an interruption in his writing schedule, an inconvenience, nothing more. But as he turned his head from side to side and squinted into every shadow, as he listened to the relentless thudding, he suddenly perceived that there was something ominous about the sound.
Thunk. . . thunk.. . thunk...
For reasons he could not define, the noise now seemed threatening, malevolent.
He felt colder in this sheltered place than he had felt outside in the wind and rain.
Carol wanted to ride to the hospital in the ambulance with the injured girl, but she knew she would only be in the way. Besides, the first police officer on the scene, a curly-headed young man named Tom Weatherby, needed to get a statement from her.
They sat in the front seat of the patrol car, which smelled like the peppermint lozenges on which Weatherby was sucking. The windows were made opaque by shimmering streams of rain. The police radio sputtered and crackled.
Weatherby frowned. “You’re soaked to the skin. I’ve got a blanket in the trunk. I’ll get it for you.”
“No, no,” she said. “I’ll be fine.” Her green knit suit had become saturated. Her rain-drenched hair was pasted to her head and hung slackly to her shoulders.
At the moment, however, she didn’t care about her appearance or about the goosebumps that prickled her skin. “Let’s just get this over with.”
“Well. . . if you’re sure you’re okay.”
As he turned up the thermostat on the car heater, Weatherby said, “By any chance, do you know the kid who stepped in front of your car?”
“Know her? No. Of course not.”
“She didn’t have any ID on her. Did you notice if she was carrying a purse when she walked into the street?”
“I can’t say for sure.”
“Try to remember.”
“I don’t think she was.”
“Probably not,” he said. “After all, if she goes walking in a storm like this without a raincoat or an umbrella, why would she bother to take a purse? We’ll search the street anyway. Maybe she dropped it somewhere.”
“What happens if you can’t find out who she is?
How will you get in touch with her parents? I mean, she shouldn’t be alone at a time like this.”
“No problem,” Weatherby said. “She’ll tell us her name when she regains consciousness.’
“If she does.”
“Hey, she will. There’s no need to be concerned about that. She didn’t seem seriously injured.”
Carol worried about it nonetheless.
For the next ten minutes, Weatherby asked questions, and she answered them. When he finished filling out the accident report, she quickly read over it, then signed at the bottom.
“You’re in the clear,” Weatherby said. “You were driving under the speed limit, and three witnesses say the girl stepped out of a blind spot right in front of you, without bothering to look for traffic. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I should have been more careful.”
“I don’t see what else you could have done.”
“Something. Surely I could have done something,”
she said miserably.
He shook his head. “No. Listen, Dr. Tracy, I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before. There’s an accident, and somebody’s hurt, and nobody’s really to blame—yet one of the people involved has a misplaced sense of responsibility and insists on feeling guilty. And in this case, if there is anybody to blame, it’s the kid herself, not you. According to the witnesses, she was behaving strangely just before you turned the corner, almost as if she intended to get herself run down.”
“But why would such a pretty girl want to throw herself in front of a car?”
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