Page 3


Neil cried out again.


Molly glanced at the locked door, felt again the desire to flee with the coyotes into the night. Whatever else she might be—insane or as foolish and hysterical as a girl—she was not a coward.


She went to the knife drawer and drew the most wicked blade from its sheath.


3


MOLLY WANTED LIGHT, A GREAT BRIGHT DAZZLE of it, but she didn’t touch a switch. She knew the house better than any intruder could know it; in these rooms, darkness would be her ally.


Kitchen to hall to stairs, she cleaved the gloom with the point of the butcher knife and followed in its wake.


Some of the treads creaked, but the rumble of the downpour masked the sounds of her hurried ascent.


Upstairs, the storm still painted luminous galaxies on the skylights. Faint images of those patterns crawled the hallway floor.


Approaching the bedroom, she heard a groan followed by a softer cry than those that had preceded it.


Her heart clenched tight, knocked hard against its caging ribs.


As she pushed open the door and entered the dark bedroom, the butcher knife twitched and bobbed like a dowsing rod, as if divining the location of a hostile intruder, seeking not water but bad blood.


The mercurial light of the radiant rain, eddying through the room with a watery inconstancy, failed to illuminate every corner. Shadows shivered, throbbed; some of them might have been more than mere shadows.


Nevertheless, Molly lowered the knife. At this close range she realized that her husband’s groans and cries resulted from a struggle with nothing more threatening than a nightmare.


Neil’s sleep was usually as untroubled by narrative as it was deep and reliable. When slumber brought him a story, the plot was soothing, even comic.


She had sometimes watched him smiling in his sleep. On one occasion, without waking, he had laughed out loud.


As with everything else about the early hours of this Wednesday morning, the past did not serve as a guide to the present. Neil’s dream clearly was different from others he had experienced during the seven years that Molly had shared a bed with him. His panicked breathing and cries of dread suggested that he raced desperately through the forests of sleep, pursued by a terror that relentlessly gained ground on him.


Molly switched on a nightstand lamp. The sudden flush of light didn’t wake her husband.


Sweat darkened his brown hair almost to black. Wrung by anxiety, his face glistened.


Putting the knife on the nightstand, she said, “Neil?”


His name, softly spoken, didn’t break the spell of sleep.


Instead, he reacted as if he had heard the close, rough voice of Death. Head tossing, neck muscles taut, twisting fistfuls of the sheet as if it were a binding shroud in which he’d been prematurely buried, he took shallow, panicked breaths, working himself toward a scream.


Molly put a hand on his shoulder. “Honey, you’re dreaming.”


With a choked cry, he sat up in bed, seizing her wrist and twisting her hand away from his shoulder as though she were a dagger-wielding assassin.


Awake, he nevertheless seemed to see the menace from his dream. His eyes were wide with fright; his face had been broken into sharp new contours by the hammer of shock.


Molly winced with pain. “Hey, let go, it’s me.”


He blinked, shuddered, released her.


Taking a step backward, rubbing her pinched wrist, she said. “Are you all right?”


Throwing off the covers, Neil sat up, on the edge of the bed.


He was wearing only pajama bottoms. Although not a big man—five feet ten, and trim—he had powerful shoulders and muscular arms.


Molly liked to touch his arms, shoulders, chest. He felt so solid, therefore reliable.


His physique matched his character. She could depend on him, always.


Sometimes she touched him casually, with innocent intention—and passion followed as urgently as thunder in the wake of lightning.


He had always been a confident but quiet lover, patient and almost shy. The more aggressive of the two, Molly usually led him to bed instead of being led.


After seven years, her boldness still surprised and delighted her. She had never been that way with another man.


Even in this unnerving night, in spite of the roof-punishing rumble of radiant rain and the disquieting memory of the coyotes, Molly felt a certain sensual response at the sight of her husband. His tousled hair. His handsome, beard-stubbled face; his mouth as tender as that of a boy.


He wiped his face with his hands, pulling off cobwebs of sleep. When he looked up at her, his blue eyes seemed to be a deeper shade than usual, almost sapphire. Darker shadows moved in the blue, as if a nightmare memory of poisonous spiders still scurried across his field of waking vision.


“Are you all right?” Molly repeated.


“No.” His voice was rough, as though cracking from thirst and raw with exhaustion after a desperate chase across the fields of sleep. “Dear Jesus, what was that?”


“What was what?”


He got up from the bed. His body had a coiled-spring tension, every muscle taut. His dream had been a hard-turned key that left him as stressed as overwound clockworks.


“You were having a nightmare,” she said, “I heard you shouting in your sleep.”


“Not a nightmare. Worse.” With anxious bewilderment, he turned to survey the room. “That sound.”


“Rain,” she said, and pointed at a window.


Neil shook his head. “No. Not just rain. Something behind it…above it.”


His demeanor further unsettled Molly. He seemed to be half in a trance, unable fully to shake off his nightmare.


He shuddered. “There’s a mountain coming down.”


“Mountain?”


Tipping his head back, studying the bedroom ceiling with evident anxiety, the initial roughness in his voice smoothing into a solemn silken tone of mesmerizing intensity, he said, “Huge. In the dream. Massive. A mountain, rock blacker than iron, coming down in a slow fall. You run and you run…but you can’t get out from under. Its shadow grows ahead of you faster…faster than you can hope to move.”


Soft-spoken, yet as sharp as a harpist’s plectrums, his words plucked her nerves.


Intending to lighten the moment, Molly said, “Ah. A Chicken Little dream.”


Neil’s stare remained fixed on the ceiling. “Not just a dream. Here. Now.” He held his breath, listening. Then: “Something behind the rain…coming down.”


“Neil. You’re scaring me.”


Lowering his gaze, meeting her eyes, he said, “A crushing weight somewhere up there. A growing pressure. You feel it, too.”


Even if the moon itself had been falling, she would have been reluctant to acknowledge that its gravitational influence stirred powerful new tides in her blood. Until now, she had been a rider who kept tight reins on life, letting emotion break into full gallop only in the pages of her books, saving the drama for fiction.


“No,” she said. “It was just the sound of the rain getting to you in your dream, and your mind spun it into something weird, made a mountain of it.”


“You feel it, too,” he insisted, and he padded barefoot to a window.


The low amber light from the nightstand lamp was insufficient to disguise the luminous nature of the torrents that tinseled the forest and silvered the ground.


“What’s happening?” he asked.


“Unusual mineral content, pollution of some kind,” she replied, resorting to the explanations that she had already considered and largely rejected.


The curiosity and wonder that earlier compelled her to venture among the coyotes had curdled into trepidation. With uncharacteristic timidity, she yearned to return to bed, to shrink among the covers, to sleep away the freak storm and wake by the light of a normal dawn.


Neil disengaged the latch on the casement window and reached for the handle to crank it open.


“Don’t,” she warned with more urgency than she had intended.


Half turning from the window, he faced her.


She said, “The rain smells strange. It feels…unclean.”


Only now he noticed her robe. “How long have you been up?”


“Couldn’t sleep. Went downstairs to write. But…”


He looked at the ceiling again. “There. Do you feel that?”


Maybe she felt something. Or maybe her imagination was building mountains in the air.


His gaze tracked across the ceiling. “It’s not falling toward us anymore.” His voice quieted to a whisper. “It’s moving eastward…west to east.”


She didn’t share his apparently instinctual perception, though she found herself wiping her right hand on her robe—the hand that she had held out in the rain and had later washed so vigorously with orange-scented soap.


“As big as two mountains, three…so huge,” whispered Neil. He made the sign of the cross—forehead to breast, left shoulder to right—which she had not seen him do in years.


Suddenly she felt more than heard a great, deep, slow throbbing masked by the tremulous roar of the rain.


“…sift you as wheat…”


Those words of Neil’s, so strange and yet disturbingly familiar, refocused her attention from the ceiling to him. “What did you say?”


“It’s huge.”


“No. After that. What did you say about wheat?”


As if the words had escaped him without his awareness, he regarded her with bewilderment. “Wheat? What’re you talking about?”


A flickering at the periphery of her vision drew Molly’s attention to the clock on her nightstand. The glowing green digits changed rapidly, continuously, as though racing to keep pace with time run amok.


“Neil.”


“I see it.”


The numbers were sequencing neither forward toward morning nor backward toward midnight. Rather, they resembled the streaming mathematics of high-speed computer calculations rushing across a monitor.


Molly consulted her wristwatch, which was not a digital model. The hour hand swept clockwise, counting off a full day in half a minute, while the minute hand spun counterclockwise even faster, as though she were stranded on a rock in the river of time, with the future flowing away from her as swiftly as did the past.


The mysterious deep pulses of sound—almost below the threshold of human hearing but felt in blood and bone—seemed to swell her heart as they pushed through it.


The mood and moment were unique, like nothing that she had previously experienced, but the atmosphere was as unmistakably hostile as it was unprecedented.


With the coyotes, Molly’s instinct had seemed to divorce itself from her common sense. She had acted on the former, recklessly stepping onto the front porch.


Now instinct and common sense were married again. Both intuition and cold reason counseled that she and Neil were in serious trouble even though they could not yet grasp the nature of it.


In his eyes, she saw the recognition of this truth. During their years together, serving alternately as confessor and redeemer to each other, they had arrived at an intimacy of mind and spirit that often made words superfluous.


At her nightstand, she withdrew the 9-mm pistol from the drawer. She always kept it loaded; nevertheless, she ejected the magazine to confirm that it lacked no rounds. The gleam of brass. Ten cartridges.


After locking in the magazine again, she put the weapon on the vanity, beside her hairbrush and hand mirror, within easy reach.


Across the room, on the dresser, stood a collection of half a dozen antique music boxes inherited from her mother. Spontaneously, a steely plink-and-jangle issued from them: six different melodies woven into a bright discordance.


On the lids of two boxes, clockwork-driven porcelain figurines suddenly became animated. Here, a man and woman in Victorian finery danced a waltz. There, a carousel horse turned around, around.


The cacophony of brittle notes abraded her nerves and seemed to cut like a surgical saw through her skull bone.


These familiar objects, a part of her life since childhood, became in an instant strange, disquieting.


Neil stared at the tiny dancers for a moment, at the circling horse, and appeared to be unsettled by them. He made no attempt to switch off the music boxes.


Instead, he turned to the window once more, but he didn’t crank it open, as he had been prepared to do a minute ago. He engaged the latch that previously he had unlocked.


4


AS THEY HURRIEDLY DRESSED IN JEANS AND sweaters, Molly told him about the coyotes.


The somber drone of the rain, the manic plinking of the music boxes, and the almost subliminal pulsation of unknown source served as a musical score, without coherent melody, that made the adventure on the front porch seem far more ominous in the telling than it had been in actual experience. She tried—but knew that she failed—to convey to Neil the sense of wonder and the reverential awe that had characterized the incident.


Seated on the vanity bench, striving to describe the bond with nature that she had felt as she’d stood among the coyotes, she worked her feet into a pair of waterproof walking shoes. Her hands trembled. She fumbled with the laces, finally managed to tie them.


Still talking, she picked up, by habit, the brush that lay beside the pistol. Although she realized the absurdity of trying to deny the weirdness of the moment by resorting to mundane tasks, she turned to the mirror to assess the state of her hair.


Her reflection was as it should be, but everything else in the mirror was wrong. Behind her lay not the lamplit and cozy bedroom, neat except for the disarranged bedclothes; instead, she saw filth and ruin.


Her voice broke off in midsentence, and she dropped the hairbrush. She swung around on the bench to confirm that the room had changed. It was as it had always been.


In reality, only the bedside clock was out of order. A chaos of radiant green numbers continued to spill across the readout window.


In the mirror, however, stained walls were textured by moss or mold. One lamp remained, the shade cocked and rotting. Across the headboard of the broken-down bed crawled vines too succulent to be native to these California mountains; gray-green and glistening with moisture, the leaves hung like a host of panting tongues.


She was tempted again to believe that she had never risen from bed and gone downstairs, that instead she had been asleep through these events—and still slept. The rain and all the strangeness that began with it—from the coyotes to this mirror—made more sense if they were the fantasies of sleep.


Drawn to her side, Neil reached out to touch the vanity mirror, as though he expected to find that the image in it was not merely a flat reflection, but a three-dimensional reality, a world beyond the mirror.


Irrationally, Molly stayed his hand. “No.”


“Why?”

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