Ed Gorman

Nightmare Child

Deep into the steamy August afternoon they drove, Jeff with his allergies, Mindy with her menstrual cramps.

The little girl was not fortunate enough to be up front with the BMW's air conditioning blowing and festive rock music playing on the tape deck. No, nine-year-old Jenny lay inside a four-foot wooden box in the trunk. She had been blindfolded, her mouth taped shut, and her wrists bound together with clothesline cord. Inside the box it was dark. Inside the box it was one hundred six degrees above zero.

"You think we should check her?"

"Jeff, will you relax?"

"She could've worked her way loose or something."

"And then what? She's in the trunk, for God's sake. Where's she going to go?"

By now the red BMW was climbing up into the steep clay cliffs and rough timberland above Silver Lake. Tourists were everywhere, plump in gaudy vacation clothes as they broiled in the sun along the side of the road, bug-eyed in dark glasses, packed into the station wagons and campers that zipped by in the opposite lane.

Jeff was careful to drive fifty-five.

Please, God don't let me get stopped for anything now. Not now.

"I should never have started that diet yesterday," Mindy said. "Not with my period and all. But, I guess, I needed to."

"Oh, honey, you know I like you fine the way you are."

"Dr. Goldberg said I needed to lose twenty-five pounds."

"Did you ever see Dr. Goldberg's wife?"

"No. Have you?"

Jeff nodded. Blond, he was one of those handsome men who would appear boyish well into his fifties. He was thirty-seven. "A blimp."

"His wife's a blimp?"


Dark, fat Mindy slapped the dashboard. "Then where does he get off telling me I need to lose twenty-five pounds?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you. He wants to tell his own wife that she needs to lose twenty-five pounds but he doesn't have the nerve, so he takes it out on you."

"Oh Jeff, thanks. I really needed to hear that. I've had only seven hundred calories since yesterday. Now I can eat."

"Eating sensibly. That's the key, Mindy. Eating sensibly."

After another quarter-mile, Mindy said, "Do you suppose we could hit a DQ? There's one about a mile outside the park. I wouldn't get a big one. Just a dinky one. A real dinky one." Mindy always called Dairy Queen "DQ," and whenever she used the word "dinky" she illustrated it by putting her right forefinger and thumb about a tenth of an inch apart to show that "dinky" meant nearly infinitesimal. "Huh? Could we?"

"Sure," Jeff said. "Why not? A dinky one wouldn't hurt anything."

In the sunlight, the white DQ was blinding. Kids with stuff all over their faces tugged tirelessly on the tired arms of parents, wanting permission to pee or play or get another cone.

As Jeff aimed the BMW into a parking place, Mindy said, "Did you really see Dr. Goldberg's wife?"



"At the supermarket one day."

"How did you know it was her?"

"She was with him."

"You don't have to lie to spare my feelings."

"Now, honey."

"Really. You don't. If you think I'm fat just say so and I'll go right back on that diet."

"Honey. Please."

"Really. I will."

"You're not fat. And I love you."

"And you really did see Dr. Goldberg's wife?"

"And she was a blimp?"


She smiled. Made her "dinky" thumb-and-forefinger sign again. This "dinky" was slightly bigger than the last "dinky" she'd flashed. "Could I get a…well…not a big one, but not a small one, either?"

"Something in the middle?"

"Yes. That's right. In the middle." She kept her "dinky" sign up in the air.

As he got out of the car, Jeff wondered if he should have made up that lie about seeing Dr. Goldberg's wife. It was just giving Mindy permission to keep on gorging herself and she was getting so fat he could barely stand to look at her.

Dusk was purple. The windshield was fretted with the dead, black nubby bodies of mosquitoes. The air conditioning was almost cold now. Mindy, her head back against the seat rest, her mouth wide open, snored. She'd put a sweater across her knees.

Jeff drove through the dusk, glad for sight of occasional yellow headlights. With Mindy asleep, he felt isolated and afraid. All he could think of was Jenny in the trunk and what they were about to do.

While he couldn't actually say he loved Mindy's little sister, he certainly liked her. She was polite, obedient, and pretty. (He'd always felt uncomfortable acknowledging Jenny's good looks because she was so young, but, dammit, she was attractive and there was nothing wrong in admitting it.) Unfortunately, she was also the only person who stood between them and two million dollars, Jenny's inheritance. Mindy and Jeff had already squandered their part of the inheritance and now needed more. Lots more.

Getting her in the box had been no problem. Earlier that day he'd taken two Benadryl, an over-the-counter allergy medicine, and told her to take them too. Within fifteen minutes she was asleep. Within ten minutes she was in the box.

He hit his brights as he angled the BMW up a gravel road to the fishing cabin. Dusk in the forest was dark as night. Stars burned beyond a gray spectral haze.

Reaching the crest of the hill, Jeff gazed down at the ragged terrain of buffalo grass and scrub pines that was to be Jenny's final resting place.

He pulled the car off the road, yanked on the emergency brake, and turned off the ignition.

Mindy came awake immediately.

"God, what time is it?" she said, stretching as if she were in her own bed and this was some fine lazy yellow morning.

"Nearly nine."

"We here?"


"You don't sound too good."

"Uh-huh. You know."

She leaned over and kissed him with breath that could crack plaster. "Hon, by midnight we'll be back home. You can play that new video tape you got. The one with Candy Dane."

"How'd you know about that?"

"Well, I was cleaning your desk in the den and I just happened to find it."

"I thought we had an understanding about my desk."

"Hon, don't get cranky just because you're all plugged up with your allergies. Anyway, I don't mind if you have tapes like that. There's nothing wrong with masturbation. I do it, too. I just don't need videotapes to help me."

He knew he was blushing. He sat there and smelled the heat of the day dying and heard the nighttime crickets and gazed up at the lemon slice of quarter-moon and wondered just what it all meant anyway.

How did a former altar boy, Boy Scout, and Young Republican ever come to be sitting in a car in which his overweight wife told him masturbation was all right, while in the trunk a little girl waited to die?

How, exactly, did you get here, anyway?

"We'll have some smoked salmon."

"Huh?" Jeff said.

"You weren't paying attention."



"I said we'll have smoked salmon."


"Tonight. When we're home. We'll have smoked salmon and then we can watch that Candy Dane tape."


"Sure." She giggled. "Maybe it'll give me some new ideas."

He slumped in the seat. It was as if a giant invisible wrecking ball had just crashed into his stomach. "I can't do it."


"I can't go through with it."

"Hon, you're not thinking very straight."

"I'm not?"

"Hon, she's probably already dead."

"Oh, my God."

"You mean you didn't understand that?"


"Well, I didn't want to say anything in case you didn't understand that. But I'd bet you a hundred dollars that she's already…well, you know."

"My God."

And with that, he flung open the BMW door, leaped into the night, ran around to the trunk of the car, inserted his key, snapped up the lid, and peered inside with the help of the flashlight he'd brought along.

The wooden box had never looked more like a coffin. Cheap pine, unpainted. He opened the lock with such force that he cut his finger. Throwing back the lid, he shined the light inside.

She lay as he recalled, bound, gagged, blinded in her virginal white blouse, her loose jeans, her white anklets, and her new blue Reebok hightops. Blond and slender, she was the daughter every man wanted to have and so few would ever know.

Staring at her now, at her frail, unmoving chest and her tiny pale hands, he could hear her on another gentle Summer night, creaking in her rocker with her doll held tenderly to her beautiful cheeks, a sweet lullaby coming from her perfect pink lips.

"No!" he shouted.

And began undoing all the restraints Mindy had put on her during the day.

Off came the blindfold.

Off came the gag in her mouth.

Off came the cords wrapped around her wrists and legs.

He was just lifting her from the box when Mindy, coming around the car, said, "Oh, God, Jeff. I really didn't want to have to see her again. I really didn't. It's just going to make it all the harder. For both of us."

He sat on the ground, Jenny in his arms, as if she weighed no more than an infant. He rocked her gently as he kissed her face and spoke soft, insistent, meaningless words to her.

Finally Mindy sat plumply down next to him and put a soft hand gently on his shoulder and said, "Hon, I'm sorry but she's dead. She suffocated."

But far into the night, he rocked the little girl and sang to her, there in the buffalo grass with the crickets, which were later joined by barn owls and Savannah sparrows in crying tribute to the warm, starry night.

Finally, the little girl began to smell and Mindy, quieter than he had ever seen her, took Jenny from Jeff's arms and put her back in the box.

"We'd better get it over with," she said.

Nodding, numb, Jeff took a brand-new shovel from the trunk and followed Mindy down the hill.

They buried her where they planned to bury her, beneath a stand of heavy scrub pine where nobody would find her for a long time. The grave was four feet deep.

Jeff, exhausted, sat in the car running the air conditioning. He didn't care if he later got a chest cold. He needed relief and now. The digging had been incredibly exhausting.

In the shadow-light of quarter-moon, he saw the lumpen silhouette of his wife as she stood near the grave site. She was talking. To herself or to Jenny, he wasn't certain.

When she came back, she got in the car and quietly shut the door.

"You all right?" he said.

She said nothing.

"Honey," he said. She had taken care of him. Now it was his turn to take care of her.

"Please," she said. "Drive."

Forty-five minutes later they came to the DQ again. It was an oasis of light against the prairie night.

"You want a DQ?" he said.

"No, thanks."

"A nice big one?"

"No, thanks."

"A Buster Bar, then?"

"No, thanks. I don't want to look like Dr. Goldberg's wife," she said.

And then she started crying.

He had never heard her sob this way. She sobbed all the way back home. Once, he put his hand on her, hoping to stop her. But she pushed it gently away. Another time, he started saying "honey" there in the roaring highway darkness sweet with the smell of corn and grass and alfalfa, but that did no good, either.

She spoke only once. She said, "She was my little sister."


Today Mr. Culhane had a new diamond ring. In case you failed to note this fact, Mr. Culhane made it easy for you by rolling his pinkie finger back and forth and examining the ring the way a jeweler might.

Of course, if you did remark on it (and, by God, you'd better), he'd play coy and say, "Oh, it's nothing much. Just something my old football team gave me at the University Club last week when Hank…er…I mean the vice-president was in the city."

This disclaimer conveyed three important pieces of in-formation: 1) the "nothing much" told you that Mr. Culhane, though a millionaire many times over, still thought of himself as a self-effacing man of the people; 2) the "old football team" told you all over again that Mr. Culhane had been the star running back of the 1939 team at the U, the one that had gone to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, and to the record books forever; 3) the "vice-president was in town" told you that Mr. Culhane knew the vice-president of the United States well enough to call him Hank…er…V. P..

He was fat, pink, bald, usually dressed in a black pin-striped suit that only a Mafioso could love, and an indefatigable user of Binaca breath spray. He was also two other things: 1) the Foster Dawson Agency's largest account; and 2) Jeff McCay's wife's uncle, which, in some people's cynical minds, came to explain how a mediocre account executive like Jeff McCay came to handle the Reddy Teddy Dog Food account, Reddy Teddy being the four-decades-old drawing of a cocker spaniel that appeared on every can of RT food and every RT TV commercial.

"Gosh, that's a great ring."

"Oh, it's nothing much."

"Nothing much? Hey," Jeff said, "as if I didn't know the circumstances surrounding it. You guys hear about the dinner at the University Club last week?"

In the formal conference room, replete with Eames chairs, a mahogany table as long as a basketball court, and Impressionist paintings by a nineteenth-century French artist whose name no one could pronounce-three men shook their heads.

"God, Mr. Culhane, you didn't get another award, did you?" Ken Miner said.

"How many does that make this year? Twenty? Thirty?" Bob Conroy wanted to know.

"Is it another one from that organization for crippled kids?" George Hart inquired.

Mr. Culhane shook his bald head and put on his after dinner-speaker smile. "You boys just insist on flattering an old man like me."

All four agency men laughed along with Mr. Culhane's usual protestation of modesty.

So Jeff, enthusiastic as a game-show host, walked the other guys through all the brownie points: the football team's 1939 triumphs (heard at every meeting), and calling the vice-president "Hank" (heard at every other meeting and usually alternated with Mr. Culhane's story about having a date with Jane Russell right after World War II, and "making Howard Hughes damned mad, let me tell you").

The social amenities out of the way, Mr. Culhane leaned forward, steepled his pudgy fingers, and said, "Now I want to see some goddamned good advertising from you boys."

Reddy Teddy Dog Food had a problem. Three years ago it had changed formulas, and, while it was nutritionally a better dog food than ever before, it stank. Dogs would point their wet, black noses at the food bowl and then back away slowly and inexorably, never to eat the stuff no matter how long their masters starved them.

Reddy Teddy went from number one in its category (meat-based, medium price range) to number three, which scared the hell out of everybody involved, Mr. Ray Culhane included.

A year ago, finally perceiving the situation correctly, Reddy Teddy chemists found a way to leap all the new nutritional benefits while going back to the old texture (the new stuff goopy in the way diarrhea was goopy) and the old smell.

So Reddy Teddy was in phase two, phase one having been a successful campaign that told consumers the old smell was back.

But now Mr. Culhane wanted the agency to be bolder. Where before they'd been merely informational (You remember the good old smell of Reddy Teddy? Well, it's back and nobody knows it better than your dog), now he wanted them to sell the sizzle, the goddamned, you know, magic.

Jeff, trembling slightly, rose and walked to the rear of the conference room where a draped easel stood.

"I know you don't like any preamble, Mr. Culhane, but if you don't mind, I'd like to pay my respects to our creative department in advance. They hunkered down for this one. They hunkered way down." One of Mr. Culhane's favorite phrases was "hunkered down," so Jeff used it whenever possible. (Over beers one night, wanting to impress Mr. Culhane-he never called him Ray-with how much he loved Mindy, Jeff had said, "When I met Mindy, I knew I'd have to hunker down to win her love, Mr. Culhane, hunker way down," a piece of ass-kissing that had left him vaguely disgusted with himself for months after.)

"Just show me the advertising, son, and cut the bullshit."

Flushing, not liking to be berated in front of the rest of the team, Jeff said, "Yessir."

And whipped back the covering to reveal a brand-new print ad on which three brand-new TV commercials had been based.

Jeff read the theme line: "Reddy Teddy. With the smell and taste of charcoal-broiled steak."

What ensued then was what always ensued when you pitched a client. You sat and studied his face as he thought it over. If it twitched, was that a bad sign? If he cleared his throat, was that a good sign? Once they'd even had a client pass gas, and God only knew what that had meant.

Five minutes later Mr. Culhane said, "I'll tell you one thing, boys. It sure doesn't give me the chills. I guess I expected a lot better campaign than this."

Eleven months before, Diane Purcell wouldn't have been able to tell you the difference between an annual and a perennial. Tending soil, preparing plant beds, spacing seedlings properly, fertilizing-none of this had ever appealed to the forty-one-year-old schoolteacher until her husband, Charlie, had died so suddenly of a heart attack.

Now-having quit her job because of all the insurance money and because she vaguely had the idea of writing a book along the lines of the Victoria Holt novels she loved so much-her daily reality was her garden.

Wearing one of Charlie's blue work shirts and a faded pair of her own jeans, Diane worked in the garden, tending her nasturtiums and marigolds. The autumn wind coming down the hill was melancholy with the smells of smoke and sunlight. Here it was, already the first week of November, and the temperature remained at sixty-seven. The Midwest was rarely this warm.

Knees tired, Diane rose, dabbing at her face with her forearm, her rubber-gloved hand full with a trowel. A slender woman with dark hair usually worn in a soft chignon, Diane's blue-eyed face had clarity that some mistook for beauty. But she had long known better.

The slight hill her house sat on gave her the opportunity to look around the rest of Stoneridge Estates, seventeen expensive homes set against the backdrop of a massive forest. She particularly admired the way everybody had insisted on different styles for their homes, helping to avoid the look of a development. On her block, a U-shaped dead end, you found a Georgian next to a French Normandy-style farmhouse next to a sprawling, two-level ranch. Her own home was a country style with a dramatic two-story foyer, a formal living room with a marble fireplace, whitewashed oak floors, extensive wood moldings, and French doors. There was even a sumptuous master bath with a vaulted ceiling, skylights, and a sunken whirlpool tub, with planter boxes on the surrounding deck.

Their dream home, it had been. Both having come from relatively wealthy families, and Charlie being a most handsomely rewarded general surgeon, the Purcell's had spent the last six years there as blissful as any couple could be. Not even the fact that Diane was unable to bear children troubled them unduly. They had each other and that was more than enough.

Some nights now were unendurable, memories too vivid, lonely-ache too raw. She was beyond tears, into something far more vast and terrifying. A shrink had been suggested, and while she'd tried one twice, the sessions had yielded nothing but a certain embarrassing self-consciousness. Diane had always been a very private person.

She was just about to drop to her knees once more and resume working with the trowel when the caw of a silken blackbird caught her attention and she looked up the timbered, sloping hill behind her where sunlight dappled the brown grass of a clearing.

A young girl stood in the clearing, obviously staring at Diane.

Diane's first reaction was to reject what her eye told her was true. It could not be. Impossible.

Her second reaction was to whisper to herself, "My God, I don't believe it."

In the clearing stood nine-year-old Jenny, the next-door neighbor girl who had this past summer been kidnapped and presumably killed. Diane had always been enormously fond of the girl, perhaps even thinking of her subconsciously as a substitute for the daughter she could never have.

Dropping her trowel, putting out her arms, Diane started running up the hill, laughing and crying at the same time.

As she drew closer, she shouted, "It is you, Jenny! It is you! You're home!"

Mindy had not always been fat. She dated her obesity from the day she'd lost her first and only pregnancy to a miscarriage. In dreams, nightmares really, Mindy still spoke to the shadowy little girl who'd come to nothing but a bloody puddle. From then on, she'd eaten with an almost psychotic hunger.

Attempting to sate that hunger, she presently did jumping jacks on the sunny redwood deck in the rear of her opulent Mediterranean-style white-brick home, just west of the landscaped courtyard.

As the disco music pounded from the small Sony recorder, as the sweat inside her pink jogging suit with the black piping began to have the viscous texture of oil, she opened her eyes to see if there were any bunnies on the hill behind their place.

It was then that she saw the girl.

Doing a double take that Abbott and Costello would have been proud of, Mindy's stare became a glare and she stalked so abruptly to the edge of the deck that she stumbled over the tape recorder. So angry and frightened was she, that she drop-kicked the tape-player clear over the edge of the deck, into an orange swirl of autumn flowers.

It could not be.

No way.

But it was.

Fleeing inside, slamming into the sliding-glass door that led to the deck, Mindy began to hyperventilate. Within two more steps her nose began to bleed.

"Oh, God," she said, recalling what Dr. Moeller, the psychotherapist, had told her to do.

Stretching herself out on the oak floor of the living room, she was at once attacked by her golden toy poodle, Ringo.

Liking blood, the dog began to lap at her nose, his quick pink tongue sandpaper-rough on her face.

"Oh, please Ringo. I don't need any more grief," she said, trying to push the dog away.

But even this much movement caused her nose to spurt more red blood, so that all she could do was back-down, and let Ringo have at her.

"She's alive," Mindy said miserably. "We killed her, we buried her two hundred miles from here, but she's alive. Do you hear that, Ringo? She's alive!"

Ringo just continued to yip and lick her face.

Once Jenny was in her arms, Diane knelt next to the small girl for a closer look at her. Dirt darkened Jenny's face and smudged her white blouse, jeans, and Reeboks. Her blond hair was a bird's nest of tiny leaves. She looked as if she'd been traveling for days. But kneeling there in the clearing, the sun warm on her back, Diane was far more disturbed by Jenny's eyes, a blank blue that suggested shock.

"Where did you come from, Jenny?"

Jenny's gaze registered understanding but she said nothing, just stared at Diane.

"Why don't we go tell Mindy you're home? Do you know how happy she'll be?"

Diane rose and took Jenny's fragile hand, starting to lead her toward the McCay property.

Jenny's grip suddenly became iron. She jerked on Diane's hand, pulling Diane back.

"You don't want to go home? You don't want to see your sister?" Diane asked.

With the severe blue gaze unchanged, Jenny shook her head.

"Where do you want to go, then?" Diane said, her glee having turned abruptly to a curious exasperation.

With her free hand, Jenny pointed to the house: Diane's house.

"Do you have any idea how many people were looking for you? The TV stations estimated that more than one thousand people joined the search one Saturday. And that wasn't counting the police and the State Patrol and the State Bureau of Investigation." Diane said all this as they stood in the bathroom. She washed Jenny's face and hands with a soft pink washcloth soaked in warm, soapy water. "They searched parks and farmland and the clay hills to the north and they put your picture in all the supermarkets and sports arenas and department stores. And once a night, there was an update about you." Diane frowned. "I hate to say this, Jenny, but everybody started believing that you were dead. They just assumed that your kidnappers had gotten scared and murdered you."

As she finished washing off the girl's face, Diane noticed again how ominously silent the girl was. She listened to every word. You could see that by the way her expression changed as she listened. But she never spoke. Diane had the unnerving sensation that the girl wasn't human at all, but rather some life-size doll.

Drying her off, Diane said, "Now, why don't I take you over to see your sister?"

Anger shined in Jenny's gaze as she shook her head. "But, Jenny, why don't you want to go home?" Exasperation tightened her voice once more.

Jenny shook her head for a second time, then, seeming about to cry, ran out of the bathroom.

It took twenty minutes to find her. As a younger girl, Jenny had often come over to Diane's and played hide-and-seek, her favorite game. This time she hid in a cedar chest in Charlie's old office.

When Diane opened the trunk, she had the terrifying feeling that Jenny had died. She lay so still, hands folded across her chest, eyes closed tight, that that was the impression she gave.

Diane decided not to mention Mindy for a while. "You must be starving."

Getting out of the cedar chest, Jenny nodded.

"How about a turkey sandwich on rye and some potato chips on the side?"

Jenny nodded again.

"Whatever happened to that talkative little girl I used to know, anyway?" Diane said on the way downstairs to the kitchen.

Jenny ate two turkey sandwiches, a healthy wedge of cheesecake, a half-cup of spinach, and drank two glasses of milk.

They sat in the sun-splashed kitchen. Two tomcats sat across from them, watching.

"Autumn's my favorite time," Diane said. She realized she was chattering. It was her way of compensating for the fact that Jenny said nothing at all. "When I was your age, I liked to walk through the woods and smell leaves burning. It was the most exotic aroma I'd ever smelled. And I loved Halloween. I loved to dress up like a ghost and jump out from behind trees and scare my big brother, who always liked to pretend he was so brave."

As if to comment on her reverie, one of the cats yawned.

She stopped herself and looked across the butcher-block table at Jenny. "I wish you'd talk, hon. Are you afraid to talk?"

Jenny stared at her.

"Did they tell you they'd hurt you if you tried to talk?" Jenny shook her head.

"Do you know what happened to your kidnappers?" Jenny went back to staring.

Diane dropped her gaze. Sighed. "Maybe I'd better go call Mindy now."

A snake could not have moved faster than Jenny's hand. It clamped onto Diane's wrist, hurting her. It was obvious she did not intend to let go.

"Jenny," Diane said through her pain, "why don't you want me to call your sister?" Then: "Please, Jenny, you're hurting me."

Jenny let go at once.

Rubbing her wrist, letting the worst of the pain dissipate up the length of her arm, she said, "Then will you let me call a friend of mine, Jenny? He's a policeman. Chief Clark. Do you remember him?"

Jenny nodded.

"Is it all right if I call him?"

Jenny took a full minute thinking it over.

Finally, a wisp of a sigh escaping her small mouth, she tilted her head forward, meaning yes.

It was known as the Hubba-Hubba Room. Located in the dusty, shadowy basement of the Foster Dawson Agency, the ten-by-ten room was furnished in Salvation Army modern, equipped with a small wet bar and, most important, it could be used only by the four executives who had keys to it. In the era of liberation; this meant one female and three male vice-presidents. The room was used for "quickies," as the executives were prone to call them.

This afternoon, the Hubba-Hubba was being put to struggling use by Jeff McCay and a most appealing young woman named Brenda Kohl, who was an assistant art director and had been Jeff's lover for the past seven months. Red of hair, green of eyes, sumptuous of body, Brenda could most often be found straddled on top of Jeff in the overstuffed chair. As now.

"Oh-oh-oh," she said, tossing her head back, closing her in eyes in what Jeff took to be ecstasy.

"Oh-oh-oh," Jeff said right back, closing his own eyes in what he took to be ecstasy.

Finished a few minutes later, the skirt of her fashionable gray Jaeger suit pulled into place with fierce modesty, she said, as she always said, "Did you get a chance to talk to Barney yet?"

Now they were seated sensibly across from each other. She held a Coca-Cola, he a Diet Pepsi.

He smiled. "I'm sorry, babe."

"God, you did it again."

"Oh, I'm sorry. 'Babe,' you mean?"

"Yes. I hate that."

"I'm sorry."

"And stop apologizing. It's so…unmanly."

Jeff McCay had long had this dream of having an uncomplicated relationship with a woman. Other men, over drinks, always told him about their uncomplicated relationships with women. But somehow it never happened for Jeff. Certainly not with Mindy, who could be like living with an entire psychiatric ward all at once. And certainly not with the ten-or was it twelve? — women at Foster Dawson with whom he'd had "things" over the past four years. A little hot, quick, garter-snapping sex; that was all he asked for. But it quickly became so much more, sunk in that morass of failed expectation and enmity. Take gorgeous Brenda, here. She was one of those women who seemed basically to hate men. But, knowing it was men who more than not still dominated the business world, she was not in the least averse to sleeping with one of them now and then to get what she wanted.

And what she wanted was simple enough in agency terms: a full art directorship with all the commensurate salary increases, the real and imagined perks, and the real and imagined prestige that went with such a position.

In the beginning, part of his seduction scheme, Jeff had hinted (but was careful not to promise) that he would talk to Barney Graves, the Chief Art Director, and put in several million good words for Brenda. But all along, Jeff knew that he would not do this because he kept his own job only because the agency's largest client was his uncle-in-law. He was resented enough already; if he started getting his girlfriends promotions, he would be in dangerous waters indeed.

The second problem was that he was in love with Brenda and did not want her to get the promotion because once she did, she'd say good-bye for sure. In love. He thought about that as he stared across at her perfect white legs and her perfect white posture and her perfect tumbling red hair. God, he did love her; she could destroy him he loved her so much, and that made him feel both wonderful and terrible-wonderful because she made him feel so good, and terrible because he knew, deep down, that she'd dump him without a care and he would be maimed in some spiritual way forever.

"I checked his calendar," Brenda said.


"Yes. He's free for lunch tomorrow."

"Oh-you mean Barney and-"

"Barney and you."


"Why do you keep saying `oh'? It's almost as annoying as your saying 'babe.'"

"I'm sorry."

"God. There you go again."

Each time now, her distaste for him was more apparent. He wanted to have some kind of personality transplant-Why not? They were transplanting everything else these days-and emerge from surgery as just the kind of non-annoying man Brenda Kohl liked.

"I'll talk to him."

"When, Jeff?"


"How about today?"

"If I get a chance."

"You're that busy?"

"I'm afraid I am."

"I'm tired of your lies, Jeff."

Hearing her harsh words, seeing the anger in her green gaze, he thought again of how other men, particularly in bars, spoke and felt about women: as breasts, as bottoms, as legs and as laughs. Leave it to Jeff McCay to fall in love with a woman who essentially hated him.

"Why can't we be the way we used to be?" he said.

"We didn't use to be any way but the way we are right now, Jeff-me pleading, you evading."

"Who's evasive when the subject of love comes up?"

"Oh, God, Jeff, not 'love' again! I'm twenty-four years old and I've slept with four men in my life and one of them could barely get it up-what do I know about love?"

In that whining tone of his that he despised so much, he leaned forward, palms sweating, head pounding, cheeks ablaze with shame, and said, "You know how much I love you, Brenda. Doesn't that mean anything?"

"I used to think it would mean an art directorship. To be frank, I mean."

"Well, that's a fine thing to say, Brenda. That's a fine thing."

She indicated the small room with a regal turn of her slender white wrist. "Jeff, I almost feel sorry for you. This is the Hubba-Hubba Room. This is where people come to use each other-for sex or for promotions or for a way of alleviating boredom. But nobody, Jeff, nobody falls in love in the Hubba-Hubba Room. Can't you understand that, Jeff? Can't you?"

He was about to yield to her, collapse inside and make a bitter promise (which he intended to keep) to go up-stairs and talk to Barney right then, when something that almost never happened in the Hubba-Hubba Room happened.

Behind the bar was a battered old black phone, the type Humphrey Bogart used to speak into when he was playing Sam Spade. It almost never rang (the Hubba-Hubba Room was supposed to be for uninterrupted pleasure), but now it rang as shrilly as the scream of a dying person.

Brenda said, a touch sardonically, "It won't be for me. Assistant art directors aren't that important."

He flew to the phone and snatched up the receiver. "God, I'm so glad I got you. You've got to get home immediately."


Glancing over his shoulder at Brenda, who was studying her perfect red-painted nails, he said, "How did you know this number?"

"Your receptionist gave it to me. She didn't want to, the bitch, but then when I reminded her about my uncle- what's her name, anyway?"


"Your receptionist?"


"She sounds like a Sandra."

"How does a 'Sandra' sound?"

"Snotty. Bitchy. I'm going to ask Uncle Ray to have her fired." Mindy was not bluffing. Mindy never bluffed. Mindy had gotten any number of people at the Foster Dawson Agency fired. "But right now you've got to get home."


"Because I saw something."

"What did you see?"

Behind him, Brenda stood up and waved. He wanted to lunge at her, hold her from leaving and shout I love you! until she confessed her love for him back.

Brenda left.

"Jeff? Are you still there?"


"Why do you sound so surly all of a sudden?"

"Mindy, I'm just buried in work and I really don't have time to-"

"She's back."

"Who's back?"

"Who do you think?"

Still irritated and forlorn over Brenda's quick exit, he said, "I don't have time for guessing games."

"I had to take three Valiums. That's the only reason I'm calm. But I started hyperventilating so I got a nosebleed."

"Please try to make sense here, Mindy. Please."

"She's back. Jenny. Jenny's home."

"Oh, Mindy. Mindy. Please call Dr. Moeller and make an appointment and-"

"She's right next door. At Diane Purcell's home. And about five minutes ago a police car pulled into the drive."

"What are you talking about, Mindy? Jenny can't be home. We-" He thought of tapped phones. Given all the palace politics of advertising, you couldn't ever be sure. "You know why that's impossible."

"It may be impossible, but it's true."


"You get in your fancy-schmancy sports car that I bought for you and you get your buns home. Fast. Do you understand?"


"Do you understand, Jeff? Right now."

Mindy hung up.

He looked miserably about him and thought of Brenda's ironic words. How only he, Jeff McCay, would be stupid enough to give his heart away in the Hubba-Hubba Room.

Forty-two-year-old Robert Clark had had three dates with Diane Purcell. While none were especially a disaster, neither were they memorable. Clark, a tall, shaggy, dark-haired man who frequently made jokes about being the "Chief" of a police department consisting of six officers and three cars, had hoped that he would get somewhere with this most attractive widow. At his age, he'd had enough "relationships." A Vietnam veteran who'd kicked around the world for several years following his hitch, Clark was ready for marriage. Perhaps too ready. He secretly felt that his over eagerness had terrified Diane and driven her away.

At the time Diane's call came in telling him that Jenny had just sauntered into sight in her backyard, Clark was listening to a pitch from the local Plymouth dealer who felt it highly unfair that the last two times the department had purchased cars it had gone to Ford. Not only was a Chrysler product better than a Ford product, but it offered more features for fewer dollars.

"All right, Mike," Clark said toying with the pipe he rarely smoked. He shrugged at the Plymouth dealer. "Prove it to me."


"Take all the things I'll get in a new Ford Fairlane and put them in one column, and then take all the things I'm going to get from your Plymouth at the same price." The Plymouth dealer glowered.

"You said you could prove it, Mike. What's wrong with making out a comparative list?"

Which was when the phone call came through from Diane.

The Plymouth dealer, seeing immediately that Clark was going to be distracted for the third or fourth time during this presentation, stood up, waved good-bye, and exited the knotty-pine office, making no promise at all that he'd get back to the Chief with that list of comparisons.

As he pulled up on the gravel crest of the hill overlooking the Stoneridge Estates, Clark saw again how beautiful this region of the Midwest could be, especially with the trees run riot and a soft blue haze over everything. In the distance a chestnut mare ran along the grassy edge of a hill. Directly below, entering the Estates through the black iron gates, a tan Volvo passed a blue brook as a red cardinal soared above a golden collie.

The Estates spoke of a peace and comfort Clark had never known but now wanted to know quite badly.

Five minutes later, wheeling the white police vehicle into Diane's drive, Clark grabbed the two-way and told Ben Hibbs, the young officer catching squawks, that he would probably be at Diane's for at least a half-hour.

Walking up the drive, he noticed he was shaking. Nothing major, but shaking nonetheless. Diane had meant more to him than he'd cared to admit until this very moment.

Diane answered on the first ring. Even in faded work clothes, she radiated a gentle appeal.

"Come on in," she said. "I fixed some chocolate. With marshmallows, if I remember correctly?"

He smiled. "I'm flattered."

She laughed. "With the social life I have, it's not too difficult to remember things like that."

"Still a hermit?" he said as they passed through the cool, late-afternoon shadows collecting in the step-down living room.

"Afraid so," Diane said, leading him into the kitchen. Clark's first glance at Jenny told him that here was a seriously disturbed youngster.

It wasn't just the scruffy condition of her clothes, nor the fact that she looked pale and exhausted. No, it was more the blankness of her gaze. There was something… inhuman about it.

"Jenny, this is Chief Clark."

"Hi, Jenny," Clark said, breaking into a social smile. "We've been looking for you every day for the past three months."

At the worktable, pouring two cups of hot chocolate, Diane said, "I told her all about the search parties." She glanced at Clark. "I hope she was impressed." She paused. "The truth is Jenny hasn't said much since getting here." Pause. "In fact, Jenny hasn't said anything."

When she turned around and brought over the chocolate, Clark could see how concerned Diane looked.

The chocolate served, Diane went over and stood next to the girl, taking one tiny hand in her own.

"Jenny, are you afraid?"

Nothing. Just the stare.

"Jenny, do you remember me?"

The same stare.

"Jenny, do you know that I'm your friend?"


Diane turned back to Clark. "Do you see what I mean?"

Clark nodded. "Has she seen her sister yet?"

"That's the odd thing. She won't. Every time I try to take her over there, she grabs my wrist and stops me." She rubbed her wrist. "She's a very strong little girl."

Clark walked over to Jenny. "Do you feel all right, Jenny?"

Once more, the stare.

"Would you like us to get you a doctor?"

No response.

"Are you afraid of your sister, Jenny?"


Setting down his chocolate, Clark said, "Why don't we walk out on the deck, Diane? I'm sure Jenny will be all right here for a while."

Diane nodded. She looked at Jenny. "Will you be all right, hon?"

But of course Jenny did not let on that she'd heard a word.

"God only knows what they did to her."

"The kidnappers?"


Diane shuddered. "I don't even like to think about it."

They leaned on the deck, gazing up the hill at the scrub pine and the clear blue sky. Distantly, a train rumbled through the hills. Closer by, a blackbird cawed.

"I just wonder why Jenny acted so funny about Mindy."

"Makes me curious too." He leaned on his elbows and watched a hawk soar in a wide loop toward the sun.

"You've got a nice place to relax here, Diane." He smiled fondly. "You should try it sometime-relaxing, I mean."

"I'm afraid I've never been any good at that. I suppose that's why I was always so drawn to Jenny. She reminded me of myself at her age. There's always been an urgency about her. I suppose it's because of Mindy."

"What about Mindy?"

"Mindy's so…self-involved. I don't mean that critically, just as an observation. Her weight, her hair, her social calendar. There just hasn't ever been much time for poor little Jenny. And Mindy's had her for four years, ever since their parents were killed in a private-plane crash."

Clark shrugged. "Maybe that's why Jenny doesn't want to go back there. Maybe for right now she needs the warmth and reassurance of somebody who really cares about her."

Diane studied the hills. "I wonder where she's been all this time."

"Maybe she just escaped a while ago."

"She looks so…pale."

"It isn't her coloring that bothers me."


"No. It's her eyes. At first I thought we might be dealing with a very severe case of traumatic shock. But now I don't know. I've never seen eyes quite like hers."

"Neither have I."

"It's like she's-" He shook his head, not wanting to say it.

"Like she's what?"

"You know, Diane. You know what I want to say."

"Not quite…conscious. Is that it?"

"Something like that."

"That's impossible, of course. But she does-" Diane paused. "She does give that impression, doesn't she?"

"I think you should call Dr. Moeller."

"I was wondering about that."

"I've worked with him a couple of times. As shrinks go, he's a pretty sensible guy."

She smiled. "Is that an anti-shrink attitude I detect?"

He smiled back. "I suppose so. I'm not real fond of the way they always try to excuse everything by bringing in somebody's past. And I don't like the way they try to complicate everything with all these theories. Moeller's pretty straight ahead."

They moved away from the edge of the deck, brushing up against each other as they did so.

"Sorry," Diane said.

"I enjoyed it," he said. Then he snapped his fingers. "There I go again."

"There you go again?"

"Right. Being pushy." He sighed. "I guess I may as well say it. I think I frightened you away a few months ago-by coming on too strong. I think that's why you suddenly stopped seeing me."

She laughed softly. "You'd make a good shrink, Robert."

"I would?"

"Sure. You're doing the same thing you accuse them of doing."

"I am?"

She nodded. "You're making things more complicated than they need to be."


"I quit seeing you because I was…afraid. I liked you more than I was ready to like you, if that makes any sense. I just needed…time alone, I guess."

"I'm glad you told me that. Maybe sometime I'll ask you out again."

"I'd like that." She paused. "Sometime." She pointed to the shadowy interior of the house. "Let's go in and see how my new houseguest is doing."

They were ten steps into the kitchen when Clark saw that the stool Jenny had been sitting on was empty.

Diane ran through the house, to the front door. "There she is!" she called to Clark.

"Where?" Clark said, running to meet Diane. "She's going across the lawn. To Mindy's house."

As Clark came abreast of Diane, he said, "Well, maybe she worked through whatever difficulty she was having. Maybe she understands that it's a good thing to go home after all."

But Diane's eyes clouded with worry as she watched the retreating figure of the frail blond girl. "I hope that's why she's going back," Diane said. "I hope that's why."

Ordinarily, Mindy did not drink liquor. Sophomore year in college she'd gone on a kegger with some other Tri-Delts and ended up, near midnight, lying alone on the edge of a sandpit, nude and covered with chigger bites. She had never found out what she'd done-or what had been done to her-but whatever it was she blamed it all on drink.

Today, seeing Jenny coming across the lawn, she got down a fifth of Old Grand-dad from the kitchen cupboard, poured herself a shaky finger-full in a wineglass, and slugged it back.

"Oh, God," she said to no one in particular. "I know I'm going to hyperventilate and get a nosebleed. I know it."

Just then the doorbell rang an explosion of chimes on the sullen, silent air.

Jenny. Her younger sister. The girl she'd killed-or thought she'd killed-months ago. At the front door.

She had one more equally shaky drink, this one causing her to cough, and then she walked to the front door with as much dignity and purpose as she could summon.

Peeking through the spy-hole, she peered down on the familiar form of her sister, Jenny.

Mindy made a squealing noise when she saw the shades, those hideous red heart-shaped sunglasses little Jenny had always been so inexplicably fond of, the sunglasses that made her look like a midget version of a movie goddess.

Mindy, throwing the door open, dropped to one knee and said, "Come here, Kitten! Come here!"

Mindy held her arms out for Kitten, urging Jenny to run into her embrace.

Only that was not what happened.

Jenny took one step over the threshold and then did something most surprising for a girl her age and size.

She reached out and clawed her right hand down the side of Mindy's neck. Deep, dark blood appeared in long, ragged rivulets.

Mindy screamed.

Jenny had come home.

During this time, only a cleaning woman named Iona caught even so much as a glimpse of Jenny. One day when Iona was cleaning the bathroom in a master bedroom (you'd think a forty-nine-year-old man would learn to flush, for God's sake), she glanced outside and there in the window of the house next door was little Jenny, austere in her KISS T-shirt and almost ominous in those red, heart-shaped sunglasses she'd worn the past three Summers.

Jenny and the McCays were the one ceaseless topic of conversation in Stoneridge, their situation being even far more fun to speculate on than who was sleeping with whom in Parish Heights, the closed enclave estates twenty miles north, where the people were younger and more daring.

One thing everybody took note of, were the curtains in the McCay house.

They had not been opened once since the day Jenny had returned.


The Christmas season was beautiful in Stoneridge Estates. Not only were the rooftops and the scrub pines mantled festively in white, but on each home were hung elaborate electrical ornaments that at night were as spectacular as anything that could be seen in the downtown areas of large cities. Against the chill starry night sky you saw a red-cheeked Santa urging on his long team of reindeer; over the soft fall of feet through powdery snow, you heard a chorus sing "Silent Night" to a front-yard replica of the famous manger scene; and on a hill behind the Estates, you saw a large plastic Frosty the Snowman, lighted from inside, waving hello to all the good boys and girls.

This was also the time when the people of Stoneridge realized that they were friends and not just folks who happened to live next door to one another. Women exchanged recipes and cookies and holiday cakes; men exchanged Sunday-afternoon football highlights and hunting tips and helped in digging out a car buried in snow.

All the neighbors, that was, except the McCays.

From the time little Jenny had come home, the McCays had become almost suspiciously insular, showing a downright aversion to exchanging anything more than the briefest of greetings with their neighbors. Mindy-who had been variously "into" Amway, the Junior League, mall fashion shows, and the Negro-for-an-afternoon program that the country club once sponsored until one of the ungrateful little wretches bit the white hand that happened to be feeding it-was especially silent.

And skinnier.

The women of Stoneridge didn't know what kind of diet Mindy was on this time, but whatever it was, it certainly seemed to work. By Stoneridge estimates, Mindy had dropped as much as twenty-five pounds, the one drawback being that the woman's face looked terrible-gaunt, with eye rings as pronounced as a raccoon's, and a disposition problem that bordered on psychosis.

Eventually, the women of Stoneridge-who did not like to think of themselves as gossips but merely exchangers of information-came to realize that Mindy was on no diet at all.

No, the trouble was Jenny, whom none of the Stoneridge ladies had seen since the day of her return. Only Diane had seen her. Jenny's problems were so severe that they were causing Mindy to lose weight. That was the conclusion of the Stoneridge women, and presumably they were correct because since November 2, the day of Jenny's return, the McCay driveway had held the cars of three psychiatrists, a priest, a Bishop, an Orthodox Rabbi, a steel-haired Presbyterian Minister whom the Stoneridge women instantly dubbed "sexy," seven different officers from local, state, and federal bureaus, a psychic whom the Stoneridge ladies recognized from her show between bouts on the local professional wrestling "Saturday Wipeout," three women from a church bearing flowers, four men from the Jaycees bearing balloons, and two men in a hearse who said they were from Wisconsin and had devoted their lives to checking out stories of possible abductions by UFOs, of which poor little Jenny might be an example.

Ed Gorman

Nightmare Child


Diane knew why she'd baked the pie, of course. She just wouldn't quite admit it to herself.

All morning she fussed with the preparation — flour felt good on the fingers, and cutting the firm red apples with a paring knife was nice crisp work-and all afternoon she'd pause in her cleaning or her laundering to put her head into the kitchen and smell the sumptuous results of her labor.

Who could resist an apple pie? Could even secretive Mindy McCay turn her down?

At four, Diane went into the kitchen, tugged on a huge blue oven mitt, and brought forth her triumph, a plump, crusty pie that would serve six, or two extremely hungry ten-year-olds, especially if you served cold white milk on the side.

At five-thirty, the pie having cooled sufficiently, Diane wrapped up both it and herself, and proceeded across the snowy expanse separating her house from the McCay's. It was dark already, with stars bright in the gray-black firmament, and the pure chill evening excited her. She would see Robert Clark at seven-thirty. She would suggest a walk. He loved lagging behind, to knock off her festive red winter cap with a soft snowball.

No sound came from the house. Deep behind the downstairs curtain a faint light burned. The upstairs was utterly dark. She knocked.

A distant dog announced the night; a car somewhere fishtailed in too-deep snow, straining for traction; and over all lay the fine gray dusk and the fragile light of stars.

The door opened.

"Hi," Jeff McCay said. He left the chain lock on. Almost no one in Stoneridge Estates had chain locks on their front doors. It was tacky, redolent of brute life in the city.

"Hi. I brought a gift for you and your family."

Dressed in white shirt and dark slacks, smelling of cigarette tobacco and whiskey, handsome Jeff looked as hapless as his wife had lately.

"I'm afraid you'll have to open the door."

"Oh. Right."

Flustered, he first closed the door, ripped back the golden chain along its train, and then flung the door open again. Behind him the living room was lost in gloom. Farther back from the kitchen, came the soft yellow electric glow Diane had seen behind the curtains.

"Is everything all right?" Diane asked.

Too quickly, he said, "Everything's fine."

"I miss seeing Jenny."

"Well, she's not…quite right yet. You know, the kidnapping and all."

With that he bent forward and took the towel-wrapped pie from her.

"My God," he said, sniffing it. "This is wonderful. Homemade?"

She laughed. "You always did like my pies."

He held the pie even closer to his nose. His eyes closed; he seemed to be in some sort of sexual ecstasy. "You don't know how good this is."

She giggled uneasily. "It's just a pie, Jeff."

"No, what it represents, I mean."

"What it represents?"

"Yes." He glanced anxiously over his shoulder. "Normalcy, I mean. Life as we used to live it."

"You mean your life is…changed now?"

But before he could answer, a sharp voice that could only be Mindy's called from upstairs, "You're letting a draft in and Jenny's getting cold! Come up here right now, Jeff."

A draft? All the way upstairs? What a weak excuse to pull Jeff back from her, Diane thought.

"I'm sorry, I-"

"I understand," Diane said. She almost said "Mindy and her moods," but that was too presumptuous and bitchy so she stopped herself. "Just tell me one thing, if you can?"

"If I can."

"How is Jenny?"

He began closing the door.

"Did you hear me, Jeff?"

He met her eyes briefly. "I'd better not talk about that."


"Thank you very much for the pie, Diane. But I'd really better be going now."

And with that the door was abruptly shut, and Diane was left alone like a locked-out child there in the pink-streaked dusk, the dying sun an explosion of purple on the curve of the earth.

Upstairs, Mindy began shrieking at Jeff. Diane couldn't catch the words but she certainly understood the tone. As if a child was being chastised. Apparently Mindy treated Jeff no better than she used to treat Jenny.

Shuddering, and not quite knowing why, she set off back to her house, her footsteps crunchy in the snow that the night made dark blue.

"You haven't seen her in how long?"

"Not since the day she came back."

"They never take her out?"

"Not that I can see."

"Do they leave her alone?"

"Occasionally. Hmm," Diane said. "That's something I hadn't thought about."

"What's that?" Robert Clark asked.

Three hours after Diane took the pie over to the McCays', she and the Chief of police-though you'd never deduce his occupation from the dark turtleneck sweater and jeans he wore-sat in front, of the fire in Diane's place, discussing her odd visit with Jeff McCay.

"Why would they leave a young girl like that alone? Especially after all the traumas she had."

Firelight flashing on various corners of the darkened living room, Clark leaned forward, put another plump white marshmallow on the willow stick he'd whittled earlier, and set the willow on the edge of the grate. "Maybe they have a baby-sitter you don't know about."

"I don't think so."

"Why not?"

"Because I'd see her coming and leaving."

He smiled. "Weren't you the one who once told me how much she disliked nosy neighbors?"

She knew the heat on her cheeks was caused by more than the warmth of the fire. She laughed comfortably at herself. "Gosh, I was being a hypocrite when I gave you that speech, wasn't I?"

"That's all right. We're all hypocrites-and all busybodies. It's just human nature." He set a big, but gentle, hand on her shoulder. "Is it all right to tell you how much I'm enjoying myself?"

She set her slender hand on his. "It's fine, Robert. In fact, if you hadn't said it, I would have."

For the next few minutes, they stared without words into the lapping fire, the glowing coals pleasant and reassuring on a night of five degrees below zero, with a wind-chill factor of minus eighteen. No words were necessary. Over the past three months, Diane and Robert had had five dinner dates, Diane being careful to confine their meetings to public places, and to end them all with almost childlike pecks on Robert's cheek. Neither of them wanting to make the same mistakes they had the first few times they'd gone out. Diane told Robert the truth-that she'd been a virgin when she married her husband and, consequently, the prospect of dating, let alone going to bed with anyone, terrified her. Plus, there was the residual guilt to work through. She still was not sure if it was "proper" for her to see anyone less than a year after her husband had been buried. If Robert could accept all her anxieties and hang-ups, then she thought that going out for dinner dates made sense. If he couldn't, if he was going to push as hard as he had the first few times, then there was no sense in seeing each other because they'd both just end up frustrated and hurt. Robert accepted her terms.

Tonight was the first time she'd ever fixed a meal for them. She'd had first-date flutters all day, worrying about everything from how clean the downstairs bathroom was to the quality of the rump roast she'd bought for tonight. Fortunately, everything had turned out fine thus far.

"I have to warn you about something," Robert said.


"With the wind blowing and us nice and snug in here, I may be tempted to kiss you."

She laughed. "Now, that would be a shame, wouldn't it?"

"You mean, you wouldn't mind?"

"Not if that's all it is. A kiss."

"Like this, for instance?" he said.

And then they moved to embrace each other, the rustle of clothes temporarily louder than the crackle of the fire, the warmth of her vulnerable desire temporarily warmer than even the flames.

But while she should have been enjoying the kiss, she started worrying about all the things she'd always worried about during high school and college: Was her breath all right? Was she a good kisser? Did she seem interested but not forward?

Finally, she gave in to the moment, closing her eyes, running her fingers through the back of his hair, and letting him put his tongue in her mouth at least briefly.

Gently, then, she pushed him away.

"Now, that's what I'd call a good start." She laughed. "But this is a very slow track."

"Yes, I seem to remember you saying something about that."

"And I remember you giving your word about going slow."

He grinned and leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. "And I remember giving my word, too. This time I don't plan to spoil anything, Diane."

They spent the next two hours in the den watching a TV movie about an astronaut who came back to earth as an alien time bomb meant to kill the President of the United States. While it was not exactly an original premise, the script and acting were quite good, and Diane and Robert took turns telling each other how much they enjoyed it. Only a few times did Diane think of her husband and how, in much the same way, they'd sat so many nights in the den, similarly enjoying themselves.

Afterward, in the kitchen, Robert helped Diane load up the dishwasher. In no time the appliance was thrumming and Robert was glancing at his watch.

"I'd say it's time for a respectable couple without a chaperone to say good-bye for the evening," he said.

She kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks for keeping your word. I've had a great time."

"I hope I've earned another invitation."

"I was just thinking about asking you for Saturday night."

"How about if I rent a movie?"

"That sounds great. I hadn't thought of that."

"Did you ever see Cape Fear, with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck?"

"I don't think so."

"Then that's what I'll bring. If you like suspense movies, you'll love this one. I promise."

"Fantastic!" she said, walking him through the house to the front closet, where she gave him his rugged green parka.

Wrapping his tan wool scarf around his neck, he puckered his lips and pushed his face forward.

She kissed him quickly and withdrew.

"I've had a beautiful evening, Robert. I really have."

"So have I. And I almost hate to ruin it."

They were at the front door now.

"Ruin it? How?" she asked.

"By asking you to do me a little favor."


"Uh-huh." He nodded in the direction of the McCay home. "The next time you see that both Mindy and Jeff are out of the house, call me right away, all right?"

"Sure, if you'd like. But why?"

"Because I'm going to go in there and look around."

"For what?"

He shrugged. "I'm not sure. But there's something odd going on there. They won't let anybody in anymore-no doctors, no clergy, no social workers-nobody. And they won't let Jenny go to school…or go out anywhere, for that matter." He smiled. "Now, as one busybody to another, aren't you kind of curious about that?"

She opened the door. It was like throwing back the covering on a deep freeze. Even inside, the temperature seemed to drop by twenty degrees.

"I'll call you as soon as they both leave the house."

He took her hand and held it. "Maybe if I get lucky I can even persuade you to go in there with me."

She nodded. "I'd like that." Her dark eyes became somber. "I'd like to see Jenny again. I miss her."

He squeezed her hand, and then made his way out into the howling night.

Diane came awake around two o'clock that morning. At first she assumed it was the wind that had brought her up from the depths of a cozy, warm sleep, a wind furious enough to rattle windows and set chill invisible snakes of cold air slithering across the bedroom floor.

Beneath her electric blanket Diane stirred, but only grudgingly. She had been dreaming of a summer picnic with Robert Clark at which he had again been a perfect gentleman. She had felt secure, and no longer ashamed to like this first man since her husband.

And then she'd been awakened.

Silty white snow sprayed across the windows, making a soft shushing sound; shadows blue and black gave the bedroom a mysterious and somewhat ominous depth, the sort of depth from which the boogeyman of her girlhood might again appear; and moonlight the color of hammered silver was painted thinly across the top pane of the westerly window.

She did not want to move; she was too comfortable. But then the cry, almost lost on the wind, came again and she remembered now what had awakened her. It hadn't been the wind…

It had been someone crying out…

Throwing back the covers, simultaneously reaching for her robe and swinging her feet off the bed to find her slippers, she sprang from bed and rushed to the window.

This high up, she could see little more than the whipping snow.

The stair landing between the first and second floors would give her a much better view of the McCay house, from where she now knew the cries were coming.

Careful of the stairs in the darkness, she reached the landing and pulled back the curtains.

Her first glimpse of the house made her think that she'd been imagining things. Imposing in the winter night, the McCay home gave the impression of providing warmth and comfort for its occupants during the long winter darkness. No light burned anywhere; no sound, and certainly no cry, came on the currents of the wind. Tucked in for the night, the McCays were obviously asleep.

From where had the cry come? And had it, in fact, been a cry? Keening wind could certainly play tricks. As she stood there on the landing, gathering her robe around her in the chill, Diane smiled to herself and shook her head. She was so suggestible. She and Robert had spent much of the night speculating on the McCays, and obviously that speculation had planted all sorts of fantastic notions in her head, so that when she heard a particularly savage howl of wind, her mind interpreted it as a human cry.

Half-amused with herself, Diane took one last look at the darkened McCay house, then shook her head again and started up the stairs to her bedroom.

She was on the fourth step when she heard, unmistakably this time, a wailing sound that rode the edge of the wind and seemed to permeate every inch of the house.

Terrified but fascinated, she ran back down the stairs, stumbling once and falling into the wall as she went, dragging herself to the landing window, and pulling back the curtains.

At first glance, the McCay home still seemed happily bedded down for the night.

But when the cry came again and her eyes fell to the front yard, she saw that all her worst suspicions had come true.

Through the veil of blowing snow on this cold, dark night, she saw the white, naked figure of Jeff McCay wandering like a lost and perhaps deranged man toward the street.

She did not know which was more shocking-his nakedness or the peculiar wailing sound he made, a sound that was still more dominant even than the wind.

Her next glance was at the front door of the McCay house, to see if Mindy were coming out to get Jeff and bring him back inside.

But darkness still prevailed inside the house, and if Mindy were coming out to help Jeff, she as yet gave no sign of it.

Moving on instinct now, Diane started downstairs, careful to keep her hand on the banister. Falling from this height, she could injure herself seriously.

Walking across the floor to the entranceway closet, Diane found the light switch and clipped it on. From inside the closet, she took one of her own heavy winter coats and a pair of fleece-lined boots. She put them on quickly and then reached back into the closet for one of her husband's overcoats, one of the many items of clothing she'd been planning to give away but that sentiment stopped her from doing.

In moments, she opened the door and stepped outside. The wind raised her up slightly and slammed her back against the door. Now her own cry could be heard on the wind as she tried to stop herself from being thrown around and slammed once more against the door.

Ducking her head, angling her entire body against the wind, Diane started her careful, slippery way down from the steps.

Far ahead, she could see Jeff McCay in the road, still naked, still giving the impression of being crazed, his arms flapping at his sides almost comically.

Keeping her head down, Diane moved toward the man, through the piles of wet snow that had drifted along her walk, then along the deeper drifts piling up like a wall along the edge of the street. Already, her face felt frozen and chafed; her sinuses were plugged up; and her fingers — how could she have forgotten gloves? — were numb from the cold.

But she continued forward, pushed back momentarily every few steps by a particularly strong gust of wind.

She tried calling out to Jeff a few times but it was hopeless. Her calls were lost almost as soon as they left her lips.

She could see now that he was headed in an easterly direction, apparently toward the brook that traveled on one edge of Stoneridge Estates.

For a long stretch, thanks to a windbreak of poplars, there were no drifts so she could move faster, and cut down the distance between them.

Shouting for him once again, she pushed through a drift that nearly reached her knees, holding the coat she'd brought for him up against the smashing wind.

"Jeff! Jeff!" she shouted as she came near him.

He started to turn. She felt idiotically happy that perhaps he was finally hearing her, after all. But then his head swung around and he continued on his way down to the brook.

Fighting her way through the snowbanks, she came within ten feet of him, shouting so hard now she could feel her throat grow hoarse. He looked terribly white, almost ghostly in the faint silver moonlight.

Not until she was within five feet of him did she see what he was going to do-jump the twenty feet to the rocky brook below. In his condition, he would either be very seriously injured or even, perhaps, killed.

Wading through thigh-deep snow now, with the same torturous progress she would have made wading through thigh-deep water, she reached out to grab the back of his head, but it was no use.

As she stood by helplessly, Jeff vaulted from the snow, twisted twice in midair, and then fell to the darkness below. He made no sound and the lashing snow muted his collision with the rocky brook.

Shouting again, Diane dragged herself to the edge of the embankment. Cupping her hands against her eyebrows so she could see down into the brook, she moved as close to the edge as she dared.

He was there, a broken white figure who had smashed through the ice and was even now probably drowning.

An animal cry trapped in her throat, Diane began the steep descent, finding only scattered roots and rocks to hang onto.

Twice, she was afraid she would pitch forward herself, cracking her skull on the rocks below, and join Jeff in his grave.

By now, her face was so numb it was virtually devoid of feeling. Her eyes watered up, cutting down on her vision even more, and her feet were beginning to callus from the chafing boots. She had not had time to put on socks.

It took five minutes to reach the unmoving form of Jeff McCay as he lay sprawled across the ice, face down in the water.

Testing the ice to see if it would support her weight, Diane moved cautiously toward the unconscious man, kneeling next to him finally, pulling his head from the water.

He came up coughing and spluttering, and almost immediately began throwing up.

"Can you hear me all right?" she shouted.

Helping him to his feet, she thought of a demonstration she'd once seen in a wind tunnel. That was what this was like-standing in such a tunnel and trying to be heard.

Huddled into himself, obviously freezing, he glanced at her with huge, wounded eyes.

She draped the overcoat on his shoulders. He pulled it tightly around him. Without acknowledging her kindness in any way, he set off up the hill, stumbling and falling backward every few feet, but keeping enough momentum going to reach the top before Diane could quite do or say anything.

"Jeff wait!" she shouted, and started her own path up the hill.

By the time she reached the drifts above, Jeff was gone. Anxiously, she looked around, wondering if, in his obviously dazed mental state, he had gone off in the wrong direction. The churning snow made seeing impossible. He could well be out there somewhere wandering around-but there was nothing she could do for him except run to Mindy's and have her call the police.

The trek back to the McCay place took nearly fifteen minutes. Halfway there, through the haze of wind and snow, she saw the same faint downstairs light she'd noticed when she'd brought the pie over.

Sneezing, her head pounding with tension, wishing she would find both a steaming cup of tea and a certain lawman named Robert Clark waiting for her in her kitchen, Diane trudged through the last of the snow and up to the McCay door.

Rather than use the doorbell, she pounded thunderously-taking out some of her frustration-on the door. Jeff answered.

She was startled that he was already there. Even more startling was that he was fully dressed in blue cardigan sweater, white shirt, gray slacks, and comfy red-lined leather slippers.

But what did the images really mean?

Had such a thing-his fleeing the house naked, his diving into the brook-really taken place, or was it just her imagination?

"Hello, Diane. Kind of late for you to be out, isn't it? Everything all right?"

He spoke to her through the narrow crevice created by the chain.

"Me? Am I all right?" Diane said, knowing she sounded as if she were about to explode. "You're the one I'm concerned about!"

He offered a confused smile. "Diane, I'm fine. I've been in the basement working late on a campaign. Why would you worry about me?"

"But just a few minutes ago you were-"

She stopped, shaking her head.

"I was what, Diane? What were you going to say?"

She knew how foolish she would seem, telling him that he'd been wandering around in the bitter night naked, when obviously-when obviously he would tell her he'd been in the basement all that time working on a new campaign.

"Nothing," Diane said. "Nothing. I'm sorry I bothered you."

"I appreciate your concern."

"Right. Yes," Diane mumbled. "My concern."

Then she put her head down, started to push back into the freezing night for the last part of her journey back to her house.

I don't want to be this way. Help me.

Turning around, intending to ask Jeff if he had just said something, she found herself facing a closed door. Jeff hadn't said anything at all.

But words had imposed themselves distinctly on her mind. But whose words? And what had they meant?

Exhausted, Diane trudged the last yards back to her place. Neither a handsome law officer nor a steaming cup of tea awaited her.

Next morning, the headache started for Jeff McCay while he was fighting cross-town traffic on the expressway. Over the past few months, he had suffered headaches regularly and inexplicably. Before bed each night, he took three aspirin, and during the day he consumed as many as ten.

He was listening to a new rock song by Fleetwood Mac when the images began flashing before his eyes. Squeezing his head between his hands, Jeff's mind flashed and filled like a movie screen bombarded with Technicolor scenes of a nightmare…his nightmare:

Naked. Snow. Diving into the brook…a woman…Diane from next door… bending over him. An over-coat thrown over his shivering body. Pain. Fear. His own bed at last. Trembling from the cold even under the covers.

His first reaction was that he had suffered some kind of stroke and that his mind was playing dark tricks on him. Fighting the wheel to the left, he pulled off the macadam, letting cars whisk by him, their drivers straining curiously to see why a fellow yuppie was temporarily downed. Certainly, there couldn't be anything wrong with his BMW.

Shaking now, and suddenly covered with a pasty sweat, Jeff dropped the car back into gear and proceeded cautiously back onto the expressway. Just ahead, a yellow city truck dispensed sand, the expressway treacherous from last night's snow.

Last night's snow…

Diving head first into the brook…

The bruised, tender spot he'd found on the right side of his head this morning while shaving…

What was going on? Was his terrible loss of Brenda finally getting to him?

Or was it what he and Mindy had done to little Jenny this summer? Was his guilt finally taking its toll?

Fishtailing, a car behind him blaring its horn, Jeff made his uncertain way to the agency.

He snapped off the intercom, glanced around his office. Ray Culhane despised this particular office-"All those fruity paintings," as he liked to laugh, which translated to a Picasso, a Chagall, and a Monet print. The furnishings were inoffensive enough, traditional Eames lines and patterns, running to grays with complementary subdued blues. And a window that looked out over the frozen, frosty city as a fat, round, yellow sun beamed down on it.

There was a knock and then the door opened. No chance to say Hello! or Come in or Up yours. Just the knock and the virtual simultaneous opening of the door.

Today, Culhane was dressed in his oil-millionaire outfit, sleek western dress suit, string tie, white Stetson, and small unlit cigarillo to complete the picture. Ray Culhane liked to play dress-up just as much as any other eighty-year-old.

"Hope I'm not disturbing you," Culhane said, closing the door and sliding into a chair on the other side of the desk.

Not bothering to hide his irritation, Jeff said, "No, I was just trying to get some work done."

Culhane smiled unpleasantly. "You'd really like to throw me out that window, wouldn't you, kid?"

Jeff put his elbows on the messy desk and faced Culhane squarely. "What can I do for you?"

"You want the good news or bad news first?"

"How about the good news? I could use some."

"Well, the good news," Culhane said, fingering his Stetson, "is that I absolutely love that new ad campaign you boys came up with."

Eight complete campaigns later, they'd finally devised one that Ray Culhane liked. There had been some worry that they'd never come up with one that Culhane approved and that he would, uncle-in-law or not, take his business to some other agency.

"That is good news," Jeff said.

"I thought you'd like to hear that." Culhane angled his beefy body forward. "And here's something else you'll like to hear, son. We like that campaign so much we're going to double our spring budget."



"That's fantastic."

"You boys hunkered down and delivered the goods. Now it's our turn to repay your hard work."

"I really appreciate this."

"I know you do, and that's why it's a pleasure to do business with you. You appreciate things, and that's hard to come by these days."

Jeff almost felt guilty over Ray Culhane's uncharacteristic burst of flattery. All the things he'd said and thought about the overbearing older man.

"Now the bad news," Culhane said.

"Will I need a cup of coffee?"

"Make it easy on yourself"

Jeff smiled, anxious, and picked up a stick of gum. "I guess this will do."

Culhane didn't smile. His lips were pressed together tightly and his eyes were narrowed and almost hostile.

"I'm ready," Jeff said, still trying to sound unconcerned about whatever bad news awaited him. "Go ahead."

"I want to know why my niece won't return any of her aunt's phone calls. Or mine, for that matter."

For the first time in all the years he'd known Culhane, Jeff saw real hurt in Culhane's eyes.

"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about," Jeff said.

"You don't?"

"No. Why wouldn't Mindy return Irene's phone calls?"

"That's what I'm asking you."

"Mindy and Irene are friends."

"Mindy sure doesn't act that way anymore. No matter what time of night or day Irene calls, she gets that damned answering machine. She always asks Mindy to call her back and Mindy never does. What the hell is going on over there, anyway?"

Naked. Snow. Crashing through the ice in the brook Diane throwing coat around his shoulders.

"Nothing special," Jeff said cautiously.

"Do you know we haven't seen Jenny once since she got back?"

"I'm sorry. It's just all the shock-the doctors say that seeing people right now is just too stressful for her."

"We don't even get one peek at her in nearly three months?"

Jeff sat back, steepled his fingers, tried to exude the air of a relaxed, forthright young man. "We're planning to invite you over for dinner."

"You are?"

"Yes," Jeff said. He'd never been much of a liar, which was why he'd given up copywriting and had become an account executive.

Ray Curhane managed to look pacified and irritated at the same time. "Then why the hell doesn't Mindy call Irene and tell her that?"

"I'll see that she does it tonight," Jeff said.

But Culhane wasn't finished. "Do you have any idea how much we love you people?"

Jeff blushed. This definitely wasn't the kind of conversation he expected to have with former football great Ray Cuthane. "I appreciate your concern."

"And everything's fine?"

The snow. The brook. The curious light in the upstairs hallway.


"No…marital trouble?"


"No…drug problem or…psychiatric problem?"

Jeff shook his head. "Everything's fine. Everything. Honestly."

Mindy's screams, hiding in the closet. Hearing the footsteps come closer, closer…

Culhane sat back and sighed. He looked relaxed now, fingering the hard brim of his Stetson, glancing around the office. "Still haven't gotten rid of all those fruity paintings, I see."

Jeff laughed, almost grateful for the more familiar, arrogant Culhane tone. "I guess I'll have to burn them someday, won't I?"

Culhane, standing up, laughed, too. "You wouldn't get any objections from me if you did." After setting his Stetson back on his head, cocked at a jaunty angle, Culhane put out his hand. Jeff took it. "You're like my own son, Jeff. I know how corny that sounds, but you are. And Mindy's like my own daughter. When my brother and his wife died…" Culhane's eyes dropped for the moment. He had never made his peace with his brother's accident. The slightest mention of that terrible day always plunged him into what appeared to be clinical melancholy. He raised his eyes again. "When my brother died, I vowed that the one thing I could do for him was to see that his family was raised properly-and that meant not only Mindy and Jenny, but when you came along, you too."

Jeff smiled. "We know that and we appreciate it, Ray." He had never called him "Ray" before.

"I apologize for my anger a few minutes ago."

"I understand. I would have been angry, too. I'll see to it that Mindy starts returning those phone calls." Culhane met Jeff's eyes squarely. "You sure everything's all right?"

The blood over Mindy's face. Hiding in the attic. The footsteps.

"Everything's just fine, Ray. Fine."

Jeff walked him to the door, clapped him on the shoulder, and then held the door for him as he went out.

Dropping back behind his desk, picking up his Cross pen so he could get back to work, Jeff realized suddenly that for the first time in all the years he'd known the man, Jeff actually felt good about knowing Ray Culhane.

He tried not to notice his headache or the terrible vivid images that kept cutting through his consciousness every few minutes.

Everything was fine, just as he'd told Ray.


He had to remember that.

Had to.

Unless he jogged at noon, afternoons were generally lost to Jeff. Listless, sluggish, he generally found himself trying to sustain interest and energy by ingesting generous amounts of Snickers and Diet Pepsi.

This afternoon proved no different. Stranded at his desk, the sunny day having been replaced by a gray, oppressive one, Jeff worked through his papers with a mixture of anxiety and depression. Occasionally, the violent images still rent his mind; even more occasionally, he felt drained, as if he could lie right down on the floor and take a nap.

He was catching himself dozing when his intercom buzzed. He felt like a schoolboy who'd been caught sleeping through history class.


"Your wife on line three."

"Oh. Thanks."

He paused a moment, staring at the phone, trying to remember why he felt so nervous about speaking with Mindy. As if he had been drunk last night, he had spent a fourth of this day trying to reconstruct memories that seemed impossible to connect.








And for some reason even more unfathomable than the murky memories that teased at him…for some reason, Mindy was upset with him…though he had no clue as to why.

He picked up.

She said, "You didn't do it."


"You didn't do it, you bastard. You promised and you didn't do it."

"What do you mean, I didn't do it? I don't even know what you're talking about."

"Oh. Right. Don't even know what I'm talking about. Right."

"Mindy, are you…feeling okay?"

"What's going on here, Jeff? You give me your solemn word that today you'll take care of her, and then you don't do it."

"Take care of whom?"

"Of whom? Whom the hell do you think? Jenny, of course. Dear little Jenny."

"Mindy, I still don't have a clue as to what you're talking about. How was I supposed to take care of Jenny?"

"Holy shit, Jeff! She's done it again, hasn't she?"

"Done what?"

"Played with your mind. Taken away all of your memories. You don't remember anything about last night, do you?"

"Last night?"

Snow. Naked. Brook Crash. Diane.

"You know what she's doing, don't you?"

"Jenny, you mean-"

"Yes, dear heart-Jenny, I mean. She's playing with us. Pitting us against each other."


Mindy sighed. "Well, if you won't do it, I will."

He wondered if Mindy had snapped. Ever since the day they'd put Mindy in that box in the rear of the BMW-"Do what?" he said.

"Kill her."

"Kill Jenny?"

"Strangle the little bitch with my bare hands. Or at least give it the old college try."

"But she's just-"

"Just what, sweetie?"

"Just an innocent little girl."

"Right." She coughed. "God, she must have wiped your slate clean. Entirely. You don't remember anything, do you?"

"I don't know what you're talking about, Mindy, I admit, but before we say anything else, I want you to promise me that you won't lay a finger on Jenny."

"You didn't say it."

"I didn't say what?"

"Innocent little girl. She loves when you say stuff like that. It makes her laugh. But you wouldn't remember that, would you? Boy, she really did a number on your memory, Jeff. She really did."

"You've neatly evaded the issue."

Mindy sighed again. "Oh, okay, I promise I won't lay a hand on her. Not until you're here. Maybe I can bring you back up to speed again."

"You promise you won't hurt her in any way?" He wondered whom he should call: Police? Priest? Shrink?

"I promise." Her tone grew nasty. "You don't remember about my dog Ringo, then, do you?"

"What about Ringo?"

"You never did like him."

"I like Ringo all right."

"Listen to you. 'I like Ringo all right.' Now there's enthusiasm." Pause. "You don't remember, do you?"

"Remember what?"

"What you did to Ringo?"

"I didn't do anything to Ringo."

"Of course you did. And you weren't sorry about it, either."

"Sorry about what?"

"Not only won't you remember it, but you won't believe it when I tell you."

"Tell you what?"

"What you did to Ringo."

"Which was?"

Another sigh. "You tore him apart with your bare hands and then you ate him. You sat right at the kitchen table and ate him. You had a pile of entrails in front of you and you'd scoop up a handful and just…eat them. You even made slurping sounds. I just kept sobbing, thinking of poor Ringo."

"You're insane, Mindy. I've been needing to tell you this for some time. You are insane."

"Of course, I don't blame you for what you did. I mean, she made you. She took off her glasses and made you stare into her eyes and-" She coughed again. "Any way you could come home early?"

"Around five would be the earliest."

"Tonight's going to be the night. Tonight we're going to take care of her, Jeff. Or she'll take care of us."

"Mindy, I wish you'd please lie down."

"Oh, now, that would do a fat lot of good, wouldn't it?"

"Lie down. Take two of your tranquilizers."

"And just get some rest?"

"Exactly. Get some rest."

"You're the one who should get some rest, Jeffie-poo. You're going to need it for tonight."

"What's tonight?"

"We're going to kill Jenny. And this time do it the right way."

With that, she hung up.

It was by accident that Jeff ran into-literally-Brenda Kohl.

Out of coffee in his office, and his secretary having gone home early because her oldest boy was ill, Jeff carried his Mr. Coffee pot down to the lunchroom for more water and to see if there was any Danish left from that morning. Jeff liked Danish just as it started to turn stale.

Finished with his task, carrying both pot filled with water and peach Danish, he came around the corner and slammed directly into Brenda, dousing the front of her white linen suit with water.

Jeff made all the expected noises of apology and regret. He had not been in the Hubba-Hubba Room with Brenda in more than three months. Not that he hadn't asked her. He did so regularly, at least once a week. She always turned him down. Having finally gotten her promotion to Art Director-thanks to Jeff's intervening-it soon became obvious that she wanted no more to do with him. There was even talk that she had a new boyfriend, an intense, swarthy young man in the television production department named Gillian.

Finished daubing at her with several pieces of paper towels, he took her elbow and led her away, to an alcove in the hallway.

"You don't know how badly I feel," he said.

"It's not that big a deal. It's just water." She glanced at her diamond-studded watch, obviously eager to be gone.

"That's not what I mean. I mean-" He knew he was whining again. He couldn't help himself. "I mean, you're all I've been thinking about, and I finally get a chance to see you and I end up doing something stupid like this."

"It's all right, Jeff. It's really all right." This time she looked at her watch in a dramatic, unmistakable fashion so he'd get the point.

She started walking past him, but he stopped her with the hand carrying the Mr. Coffee.

"How about going-you know-downstairs?"

She seemed startled. "God, Jeff, don't be pathetic. You know it's over between us."

He had never seen a woman with less compassion in her eyes than Brenda displayed at this moment.

"I just want to talk to you for a few minutes."

Pretending not to hear him, she waved at two men passing by. One of them winked at her. Jeff's failed love for her was common knowledge in this pitiless hallway.

"A few minutes. In my office. We don't even have to go downstairs, then. In my office? How would that be?"

She frowned. "God, Jeff, you're really frightening me. You're losing it. Don't you see that? You're losing it."

He felt the heat begin in his belly. It was like the pain of an ulcer, only fifty times worse. He started to double over and clutch for the wall, but it was then that he noticed his hand and heard her begin to scream.

Across from where he stood was a framed oil painting of the agency founder, a white-haired man all got up in a white commodore's suit. In the glass of the painting, Jeff could see his own reflection. He understood why Brenda was screaming. He wanted to scream, too.

His head was a bubbling mass of leprosy-like open sores dripping green pus. Over this was a scraggly covering of oily black hair. His hands had also distended and were large, gnarled claws with the same open sores as on his head.

He reached for her to assure her everything would soon be all right, but she only screamed all the more and fled down the hall.

He could hear doors opening and male voices shouting, asking her what was wrong. She was so upset that she couldn't tell them in any coherent way.

Jeff glanced around. In either direction he went, he was bound to run into somebody. He had no idea what had happened to him, and there was no time right now to think about it.

Instinctively, he started down the carpeted hall. Footfalls sounded behind him. People-getting closer.

Seeing a broom closet, he dived forward, grasping the doorknob, and jumping inside.

In the darkness, pushed far back against the wall, he stood sweating, chest heaving, feeling the searing warmth cover his body, smelling a fetid odor that was like an animal that had lain dead for days in extreme heat.

At some point in his terror and delirium, he passed out, sliding down the wall, unconscious before he reached the floor in a heap.

He had no idea what time it was when he awoke. Disoriented, he grasped into the darkness, touching the edge of a tin bucket and the handle of a broom.


A few memories came flooding back. He had been talking-well, pleading was a more accurate term-with Brenda when suddenly he had…

He did not want to think about it.

On hands and knees, he crawled to the door, eased it open.

The hall was in shadow. The building thrummed with building sounds. No human voices, not even faint ones, could be heard.

He glanced down at his digital watch. It was nearly midnight.

Stunned, he realized he must have been in the closet for nearly…ten hours!

Grappling to his feet, he went down the hallway, past darkened and silent work areas, to his own office.

In the frost-rimmed window was a portrait of the city late at night, the red light on the fifty-story Hawthorne Building warning pilots, the downtown area still ablaze and vast display windows filled with goodies, and the further city, up in the timbered hills, an unbroken chain of lights from the suburbs.

He was enjoying a certain peace looking at all this when the phone rang.

He turned sharply and looked at it as if it were a gun that had just been fired at his back.

It continued ringing, shatteringly loud, almost ugly in its ceaselessness.

He picked it up.

"You should have seen yourself, Jeff. You were really scary this afternoon."

Then she started laughing as, lately, she always laughed.

She hung up.

He stood there, frozen, numb, listening to the words she'd just spoken, wondering how she'd known about- Naked. Snow. Brook Crash.

The terrible memories were a little plainer now. He felt last night's pain from the cold, from his suicide attempt.

Yes, she had had something to do with that, too. Just as she'd had something to do with turning him into a repellent beast this afternoon right in front of Brenda…

He looked back at the phone.

How had she known just when to call?

"Oh, God," he said, slipping down into his chair, covering his face with his damp hands. He was no longer a monster, but he was not quite a man, either.

Jenny and her phone call had seen to that.


The following morning, Diane got up early to bake chocolate-chip cookies for an orphanage she worked at a few hours a month. She found the young people of the orphanage very appreciative of her efforts. She'd gotten to know many of them and liked them.

By ten o'clock that morning, the temperature outside below zero, the kitchen was warm and smelled sweetly of baking.

A yellow apron tied around her thin waist, Diane sat at the counter sipping decaf coffee and reading the paper. A festive red ribbon was affixed to the side of her lustrous dark hair.

From across the way, the McCay house came a shout.

When she looked up, she recalled for the first time that morning how a similar shout had awakened her last night. Her initial impression had been that Jeff and Mindy had been having a furious argument. But while one voice was definitely Jeff's, the other voice did not necessarily belong to Mindy.

Now, she realized that voice definitely was not Mindy's. A harsh crone's voice, the person made screeching noises that Diane could not quite comprehend as words.

As abruptly as it had come up, the voice vanished. Diane sat in the kitchen, brow furrowed, looking across the way at the McCay house. The curtains all drawn, smoke curling up from the chimney, the place seemed quiet and normal enough.

Shrugging, Diane went back to her newspaper, reading for twenty minutes until the timer went off, and she took the first batch of cookies from the oven.

Using a spatula to pick the cookies up neatly from the cookie sheet, Diane was filling a plate with plump chocolate-chip dreams when she heard another shout from next door. The voice was positively that of Jeff McCay.

Sensing the urgency of his tone, she set the spatula down next to the cookie sheet, and then ran across the kitchen to the window.

Jeff, dressed for the cold weather this time, stood on the front porch shouting to a closed door, "This is your only chance, Mindy! You'd better take it!"

With that, he turned, picked up a lone leather suitcase, and started down the stairs to the shoveled drive, where the BMW was parked.

He turned around once again and addressed the house. Because there was no sign of Mindy at any of the windows, his shouts seemed theatrical, even a bit mad.

"Don't you understand, Mindy? Don't you understand by now? We've got to get out-and get out now! Mindy, please! Believe me!"

Maybe his tormented style would have seemed less crazy if it had not been a sunny winter morning and if "The Young and the Restless" hadn't been playing in the background.

Under the circumstances, however, he struck Diane as being insane, pathetically so.

Apparently waiting for a response, Jeff stood in the driveway rubbing his head with a black-gloved hand, staring up at a second-story window.

Three minutes went by, during which time Diane heard two complete plot turns take place on "The Young and the Restless."

"Mindy! I'm going to get in the car now! I mean it!"

With that, Jeff picked up the massive brown leather bag and walked down the driveway to where the red BMW had been parked overnight in front of the three-car garage.

Opening the trunk, Jeff set his suitcase inside, then walked around to the front of the car, opened the door, and leaned on the horn.

The noise was loud and irritating on the quiet, lovely winter morning. He kept it up, his dark gaze mad for sure now.

"Mindy!" he shouted over the sound of the horn. "Mindy, please come with me!"

Three or four minutes rolled by. Mindy, wherever she was inside, chose not to respond.

Finally, shoulders slumping, a tearful expression tightening his face, Jeff slid inside the BMW and started the engine. From the exhaust pipe a putt-putt of cold-morning exhaust could be seen and, anticipating the work of the defroster, Jeff wiped away steam from the inside windshield.

He had not given up entirely. The engine running smoothly now, he sat in the driveway and gave the horn one last try, a mournful, foghorn bass that seemed to rattle the windows of Diane's house. There was a pleading tone to the horn now, a futile summoning that Mindy, for whatever reason, was obviously not going to answer.

Slumping toward the steering wheel, Jeff started pounding the dashboard with his fists, a five-year-old throwing a tantrum.

Then, abruptly, he quit his pounding, sat back, put the car into gear, and started backing out of the driveway.

He had gone perhaps ten yards when smoke started pouring in thick gray clouds from the trunk.

Slamming on the brakes, jumping from the car, Jeff ran to the rear of the car, jammed in the key, and threw back the lid.

The smoke became massive now, and for a moment Jeff was lost to Diane-all but his trousers from the knees down-inside the smudgy gray-black smoke.

She heard him curse once and then she saw him emerging from the smoke. He carried the suitcase. It was on fire and was the source of all the smoke.

He hurled it into a snowbank and began scooping up soft white snow to put out the fire. It did not take long. Jeff worked with a certain manic compulsion, as if he needed something physical to do at this moment to keep from going clinically insane.

The fire out, Jeff closed the lid, stood looking up at the house a long moment, then went around and got back behind the wheel again.

He started the engine, put the car in reverse, and started out of the driveway again.

This time he reached the edge of the street before the engine caught on fire.

They were almost pretty, the red and yellow flames against the pure white snow, the pure blue sky.

His life was in no way endangered-he got out of the car in plenty of time-but the engine was most likely ruined, fire and smoke pouring up from under the hood.

He raised his eyes to his house. In the doorway now stood Mindy, dressed in a pale blue robe, gaunt from her loss of weight. She beckoned to him to return and so he did, leaving the car in the driveway to burn out.

He went inside his house and closed the door.

It had been a very short trip.

Dinner that Saturday night was braised beef tips, a salad, and whole-wheat bread that Diane had made from scratch.

She had not used the dining room since well before her husband's death. Now, the candlelight made the room luxurious with the gleam of light on mahogany, of rich warm shadows.

During the meal, Diane told Robert what had happened that day to Jeff McCay's trip.

"He just disappeared into the house," she explained. "Then around four this afternoon, he went out and pushed the car up the driveway, away from the road."

"Sounds pretty strange."

"That's what I hoped you'd say."

He glanced up from his salad. "Why?"

"Because then you can go over there and find out what's going on."

He shrugged. Tonight he wore a white shirt, gray cardigan sweater, and chinos. She felt far more comfortable with him than she wanted to admit to herself.

"Mindy would come to the door and that would be that."

"Meaning what?"

"Meaning that she'd say, yes, their car did catch on fire and that, yes, everything is all right now."

"In other words, she wouldn't let you inside?"


"On TV, detectives are always getting search warrants."

He laughed. "Maybe on TV, Diane. In real life, judges don't hand those out without a good reason."

"But something's going on over there."

"But what's going on exactly?"

"You said yourself it was 'pretty strange.'"

"Yes, I did. But that doesn't mean I can show cause."


He put his fork down and reached across the table, his hand brushing hers there in the romantic shadows. "A little girl lives in the house. She's sick. Two adults live with her. They're kind of funny sometimes, kind of odd. Today their car caught on fire. Nobody was injured, and later in the day Jeff pushed the car back up the drive. Now, does that sound like it's worth giving me a search warrant over?"

"You forgot about him running out into the night stark naked."

"A good point, but what does it prove? That he walks in his sleep? Obviously, he wasn't injured, and apparently nobody else was. You yourself saw Mindy in the doorway."

"She looked gaunt."

"Gaunt, but not in any trouble?"


"Or looking as if she needed help?"


"Or in any way asking you for help?"

"No, but-"

"I think you see what I'm talking about, Diane."

"But we know that something's going on over there."

"No, I'm afraid we don't know anything. What you're really saying is that we suspect, and as yet we don't have any hard evidence for even intelligent speculation. Just fears."

The timer went off, announcing that the chocolate cake she'd baked was ready for frosting.

Once they got off the subject of the McCays, they had a fine time.

Two hours later, snug in Robert's arms on the couch, White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly on television, she said, "Do you really think everything's all right over there?"

He smiled. "No, I don't. But right now there's nothing I can do about it except wait until you call me and tell me they're gone. Then we'll pay their house a quick, unofficial visit and make sure Jenny's all right."

"Jenny." Diane sighed. "It'd really be nice to see her again."

Twenty minutes later, Robert raised her face to his and kissed her tenderly on the lips.

"Is that going too fast?" he asked.

"No, that's just going the legal speed limit." She smiled.

He kissed her again.

Terry, the one they'd gotten to replace Ringo, the dog they'd said had run away.

At first, the sounds startled her, loud and sharp as gunshots on the silence. But then the sounds only reminded her of how much she disliked the little dog. Not his fault that he was so aggravating-always drooling all over your hand if you tried to pet him, always tearing your nylons, jumping at you in the street — but she would never feel any affection for him no matter what.

Not quite knowing why, she first rang the bell. She supposed it was her good middle-class training. Even when you're breaking into a place, always be polite.

It was one of those afternoons when she really enjoyed domestic work. In the morning she dusted and straightened up the living room and in the afternoon she worked in the warm, sunny kitchen rearranging shelves. Occasionally, memories of last Saturday night came to mind. Hard to believe four days had passed already. Certain things Robert had said and done remained so vivid.

Working on the shelf with all the spices, she sneezed when she held up the paprika, and climbed down from the stool to get some Kleenex from the counter.

Blowing her nose, she looked out over the startling brilliance of white snow. The sun wasn't hot enough to melt it; it just gave it an almost blinding surface.

Watching the way the wind whipped the snowflakes around in a dazzling, diamond-like display, she saw on the edge of her vision something that seemed wrong.

Leaving from the front door of their home, bundled up so heavily that Diane could not see their faces, were Mindy and Jeff McCay.

Expecting them to walk around to the side to get their second car, a blue Volvo station wagon, she was surprised when they kept going down the walk and then into the street and then straight across the snowy field Jeff had crossed the other night to reach the brook.

Where could they be going? And both of them at the same time? And why didn't they take the car?

Only then did Diane realize the opportunity she had. Robert had asked her to tell him if Mindy and Jeff ever left the house together, leaving Jenny alone.

Dashing to the yellow wall phone, Diane dialed the number of the police department, a number she knew by heart already.

"May I speak with the Chief, please?"

"One moment."

As she waited, she felt like a child, so excited she could scarcely stop herself from jumping up and down. She stood on the lowest rung of the stool to see if she could catch sight of Mindy and Jeff. Just now, their heads were disappearing on the other side of the hill, dark shapes against the brilliant white day.

"Hello," a male voice said.


"You're holding for the Chief?"


"Afraid he's tied up right now. There was a fire on the edge of the business district. Pretty bad one. Damage is probably going to run at least half a million."

"But isn't the fire department-"

He'd anticipated her objection. "Right now, the fire department needs all the official help it can get, including the Chief. Sorry. Is there something I can help you with?"

Diane thought about it but decided no. It probably wouldn't be a good idea to let one of Robert's co-workers know that he was at least contemplating "visiting" a place without a search warrant.

"No, thanks. I appreciate your time, though."

After hanging up and stepping down to the floor, Diane leaned against the counter for long moments in the sunshine. Her heart still pounding at the prospect of possibly seeing Jenny, she knew she would have to make a decision quickly.

What if they came back while she was in there? What if she found that Jenny had been abused in some horrible way that Diane could never forget?

Shaking her head at herself, knowing that she owed her young friend all the help she could give, Diane ran to the hall closet, took down her coat, tugged on her snow boots, and went out the back door.

Outside, the sun was even more blinding. It was one of those freezing days when you could scarcely breathe.

She paused a moment as she struggled through the knee-deep snow. She looked up at the McCay house. While it was one of the more expensive homes in Stone-ridge, there was still something sinister about it. She'd never been able to figure out what. In the dazzling sun-light and beautiful snow, it should have looked like an ordinary, friendly house. But there was a shut-away aspect to it, the windows too dark with drawn curtains, as if it were a place in which sick people were kept.

Shuddering, knowing she was being silly, Diane went the rest of the way to the McCays' front door, determined to go in there, find out Jenny's condition, and take whatever action was appropriate.

Reaching the front steps, she heard the yipping of the tiny golden toy poodle, try the bell first. Terry went crazy, even managing to sound fierce despite his diminutive size.

She rang the bell one more time. Its chimes sounded too full, almost corny on the clear afternoon.

Anxious again, her chest feeling tight, she put her right hand down to the knob and twisted gently. The door was open. She pushed it inward a bit farther. Terry flew at her like a heat-seeking missile.

Bending down to grab him, his pink tongue found her face and began inflicting big wet slurps.

Despite herself, she giggled. Terry's breath might be bad, but his tongue tickled.

Holding him to her side, she crossed over the threshold and took two steps inside the McCay's house.

Her first impression was that the place was badly in need of a straightening-up and dusting. Magazines, newspapers, pizza boxes, and beer cans were strewn everywhere, and the dust was thick enough to write your name in clearly. In all, the downstairs, with a chair overturned here and a shirt thrown over the couch there, resembled the world's most expensive dormitory for boys. A mess, but, in some strange way, a friendly mess.

The biggest mystery was how Mindy could live there. Mindy's house had always been her pride. Generally, she'd invited Diane over once or twice a month to view whatever gadget Jeff had brought home that time. The house was always immaculate, due, no doubt, to the full crew of cleaning women Mindy had in once a week.

What had happened to the cleaning women? Had they gone on strike? Had they been deported for being illegal aliens?


In the silence, Diane's voice sounded strained, unnatural.


No hint of a response came as Diane started through the house. On the dining room table were piled stacks of paper plates smeared with the residue of countless dinners. Ants crawled on the plates. Diane shuddered. What was going on there?

In the kitchen, she found two large sinks crammed with dirty dishes. The counters were packed with the empty tins of canned vegetables.

It was the floor, however, that held what appeared to be the worst secret so far.

A circle in crayon had been drawn near the refrigerator. In the center of the circle were large splotches of blood, and stuck to some of the splotches were dirty white feathers and shriveled-up animal innards that resembled feces. The handsome tile floor had suffered deep gouges. Only after Diane bent to look closer did she understand what had happened there. Blood, feathers, gouges-one or more animals, most likely chickens, had been slaughtered on the floor.

Standing up straight, feeling her chest contract again, Diane decided to get out of the house. Certainly what she could describe there would be enough for Robert to get a search warrant.

As she rushed back through the ground floor, she did not hear clearly the sound from upstairs. Only when she reached the front door, out of breath and frightened, did she glance upstairs toward where the noise appeared to be coming from. It was laughter. There was no other way to describe it. But no pleasant laughter. No, this was the essence of something dirty, salacious, vile; laughter that reflected unwholesome pleasures.

Her gaze followed the grand staircase that reached up past the landing window, brilliant with flat blue sky. The frost rimming the window reminded her that everything was most likely all right, that there might be some kind of reasonable explanation for the condition of the house, even for the blood in the circle in the kitchen. Momentarily, the house became knowable again as the laughter died. She had been there so many times and enjoyed herself. She had just let her fears get the best of her and-"Aunt Diane."

Her name being spoken was even clearer than the laughter had been.

Her eyes swept the staircase for sight of Jenny, for it had been Jenny's voice just then. But the staircase was empty.

"Aunt Diane."

Her hand falling away from the door, Diane took a few tentative steps back toward the center of the house. Shouldn't she leave now and call Robert? Have everything there checked out, just in case something was wrong?

"Aunt Diane."

But something in the girl's voice urged Diane on. She reached the staircase and gazed up at the massive crystal chandelier that caught the afternoon sun's brilliance. Beyond the glare of glass she heard her name called once more…

"Aunt Diane. Help me. Please."

Her hand touching the banister for the first time, Diane began the long climb up the sweeping staircase. "Jenny…Jenny, where are you?"

"Upstairs, Aunt Diane. Waiting for you."

"Are you all right, Jenny? Are you all right?"

But the only answer she got was her own echo on the still air.

The higher she rose, the warmer it became, both because of the sunlight and her anxiety.

"Jenny?" She called again, but it was no use. There was no response.

The house was once again a mysterious place, not the familiar refuge she used to enjoy. Shadows looked darker and deeper than they might have otherwise, and every small creak of wood seemed to carry sinister import.

When she reached the landing on the second floor, she clamped her hand over her nose and mouth, afraid she was going to vomit.

All she could liken the rancid smell to, was a dead possum that had been in a cabin she and her husband had once rented. The temperature had been at the one-hundred-degree mark for days and the cabin had been completely closed up.

Falling against the wall, tears filling the corners of her eyes, she took several deep breaths from inside her cupped hand. From inside her coat, she took a handkerchief and tied it bandit-style across her face. Finally, she moved away from the wall and began looking around.

If the downstairs was a mess, the upstairs resembled a war zone. The hallway was a jumble of smashed chairs, drawers, paintings, and torn clothes. Along the walls were large brown smears of what Diane guessed-with disgust and horror-were human feces. In the first room she looked into, a bedroom, the dressing-table mirror had been smashed, and dried blood and feces were painted all over the wall. In the center of the bed was a thick, dried pool of scarlet-more blood-as if somebody had been spread out on the savagely torn sheets and tortured.


Her voice sounded even more alien in this room, where unimaginable events had taken place.

She called once more. "Jenny." The word was warm and damp against the handkerchief covering her nose and mouth.

She could not even get in the door of the next room. It resembled a place where a grenade had been thrown. Fragments of furniture, clothing, books and paintings covered the doorway. Beyond, on the walls, were scribbled what appeared to be words in a language Diane had never seen before. The words had been written in feces.

Diane realized how dark and quiet it had grown up there. While the sunlight had been strong on the staircase, the hallway seemed trapped in some kind of false night, shadows long and deep, gray covering everything. The silence was just as deep. All Diane could hear was her own irregular breathing and the thrumming of various household appliances. Only minutes before, Jenny had called to her for help. Where was Jenny now?

In the third room, what had once been the den, Diane found the source of the horrible odor.

Inside a circle identical to the one she'd found on the kitchen floor downstairs, Diane discovered three animals in various stages of decomposition. Two had been cats, one a dog. All were at that point of disintegration where they looked like bad examples of taxidermy, limbs too eerily stiff, eyes little ghoulish buttons that seemed to stare at you no matter where you moved.

Clapping the handkerchief tighter to her mouth, she fell back out of the doorway. Panic overtook her for a moment and, unthinking, she ran back down the hall to the stairway. One of the animals-the Siamese-she had recognized as Fu Manchu, the cat the Gabrielson's down the street had given their young daughter for her birthday, the cat that had been missing for the past two months. The people of Stoneridge, who doted on pets almost as much as they doted on children, had just assumed that Fu Manchu had wandered out of the Estates and been struck by a car.

As Diane reached the stairway, her feet ready to fly down the carpeted steps and out the front door, the voice came again. "Aunt Diane. Help me."

The words were startling-clear and loud-on the rancid air.

Diane's head snapped alert. Was she only imagining the voice? Was she only hearing what she wanted to hear?

Just as she turned back to the hallway and its deep, ominous shadows, she glanced out a window and saw on the hill in the back of the place two heavily bundled, dark figures making their way toward the house. She had no doubt who they were: Mindy and Jeff.

Knowing she could not afford to be caught there, Diane started down the stairs again.

"Aunt Diane, please don't leave me here. Please don't leave me here."

At midpoint on the staircase, Diane stopped. "Where are you, Jenny? Tell me so I can help you."

"I'm upstairs, Aunt Diane. In the sewing room."

"Can't you come out here, Jenny? Mindy and Jeff-"

"I know, Aunt Diane. They're coming back."

Diane was struck, then, by the fact that Jenny's voice was as clear as if the girl were standing right next to her on the staircase. How was that possible? Where was Jenny hiding?

Diane started back up the staircase, her right hand gripping the banister tightly. Perhaps there was time…

Nearby, she heard a dog barking. Mindy and Jeff must be getting closer to the house.

No, she could not afford to be caught in there. That would help nobody.

"I'll be back today to get you, Jenny. Within a few hours. I promise."

Paralyzed on the stairs-a part of her wanting to go back up to find the girl; the more sensible part knowing she had to get out of there-she said, "Jenny, I love you."

Again, there was only the empty silence, gray as the shadows on the second floor.

"Aunt Diane," Jenny called again.

"Just hold on, honey. Just a little while longer."

Torn with guilt and a sense that she'd really let the little girl down, Diane started her descent again, taking the steps two at a time until, out of breath, she reached the front door.

She had only to open it a few inches to see that Mindy and Jeff were coming up the walk, gaunt and dark figures against the white snow, wrapped up like lepers in the eighteenth century.

The back presented her only means of escape. Starting through the house, stumbling against the edge of a chair, she reached the kitchen and the rear door. It was locked. As she fumbled with the doorknob, trying to open it, she heard tramping feet coming in through the front door.

The door would not unlock.

The footsteps were louder now, tramping toward the kitchen in heavy snow boots.

Damn this door!

Just as the footsteps reached the dining room, which was adjacent to the kitchen, she saw what her trouble had been. Hanging on a small nail behind the curtain was a tiny key. Taking it down, she inserted it in the lock. The door opened with no problem.

Gasping, saying a prayer of thanks at the same time, she had just taken a step onto the back porch when a voice behind her said, "Diane, what are you doing in our house?"

The voice was Jeff's.

When she turned to glance at him, she saw that his face, bundled inside a parka hood, seemed to have no details; it was just a dark area with burning, yellow eyes.

Screaming, she pushed even farther out onto the porch, slamming into the screen door and falling down three steps leading to the ground.

She fell head first into a snowbank, but even as she struck, she was already scrambling to her feet, ready to sprint across the yards of knee-deep white stuff separating the McCay's place from hers.

"Diane! Come back! We'd like to talk to you!"

This time it was Mindy's voice calling her. Diane did not even pause in her run, however. She wanted to be in her own home, on the phone to Robert, describing what she'd found, convincing him to get a search warrant.

The run was exhausting, the snow heavy as she lifted one foot and then the other to make her way.

When she reached her property, she turned back once and there they were, two people swathed in heavy clothes, their faces only dark emptiness, except for the burning, yellow eyes that watched her…

…watched her.

In her own kitchen, Diane threw off her coat and let it fall to the floor. Leaning toward the window for a secretive glance, she found that the McCays still stood on their back porch, their eyes glowing within the smoky darkness of their faces.

Struggling for breath, Diane pulled herself to the wall phone and lifted the receiver. Punching the proper digits for the police station, she forced her breathing to slow with the same exercises she used to instill calm.

A female voice answered this time.

"Chief Clark, please."

"I'm afraid he's not here. May I help you with something?"

"Is he still at the fire?"

The female officer sounded hesitant, as if she should neither confirm nor deny the question. "He's…not here at the moment."

"Thank you."

Hanging up, Diane allowed herself a brief smile. She probably hadn't made her best case when she'd called so out of breath.

Panting, she went into the half-bath beneath the staircase and carefully washed her face and hands, which relaxed her more than the breathing exercises had. The odor of the McCay's house still burned in her nose, and the sight of the dead, decaying animals still imposed itself on her vision.

In the hall, she found a blue knit cap she liked, put it on, buttoned up her coat once more, and then went through the breezeway to the double garage, where two cars stood in the gathering dusk of the afternoon, a gray Volvo sedan and a red Subaru station wagon.

She chose the Volvo. Once inside, she reached up and depressed the button on the garage door opener.

The door had long been in need of repair-something wrong with the motor-and it went up, creeping inch by creeping inch.

Diane sat behind the wheel, the engine running smoothly, waiting to shoot out through the open door.

In the meantime, while she waited, she busied herself by emptying the ashtray-filled with gum wrappers, mostly-into the small white plastic garbage bag that hung off one of the radio knobs.

Finished with this, she glanced in the rearview mirror again. Her response was a gasp.

The garage door was fully open now, but in it stood, outlined against the white snow, the two dark shapes she had come to fear, Mindy and Jeff McCay, their eyes tiny glowing circles in their otherwise empty faces.

They started walking into the garage, one on either side of the car.

Knowing she had to make a quick and dangerous decision, Diane floored the Volvo, screeching backward across the concrete floor, slamming into Jeff McCay as she did so.

Jeff went flying backward, the sound of his head smacking the garage wall with a sickening crunch.

Mindy shouted several obscenities at her, but nothing could deter Diane now. She left the garage doing twenty-two miles an hour in reverse, beginning to fishtail as soon as the steel-belted radials touched the ice-covered snow on the driveway.

She continued fishtailing all the way down the drive to the street, where, sliding, she ran into a wall of snow piled there by city graders. Mindy and Jeff ran down the drive toward her.

Letting a sob fill her throat, Diane started dropping the car into a forward gear, then slamming it back into re-verse in order to get traction and pull away from the wall of snow. Even through the closed window, she could smell tire rubber burning.

Jeff's gloved hand appeared from nowhere and started opening the door. Somewhere behind him, Mindy was shouting again.

Jeff's hand reached through the opening between the door and post.

Diane pulled the door shut quickly and viciously, making Jeff cry out.

Just then the car shot backward once again, both rear tires finally obtaining traction.

This time it was Mindy who she ran into as she escaped, Mindy throwing herself on the trunk of the car and beating on the back window, her glowing eyes larger and more furious now. Diane deliberately fishtailed this time so that Mindy was hurled off the trunk and thrown into the wall of snow.

Once on the street, Diane did not look back. She just drove, sobbing as she went. All she could think of was poor Jenny trapped in that terrible house and unable to escape.

Then she thought of empty faces and glowing eyes.

From two miles away, Diane could see the smoke smudge the dusk sky, heavy black smoke in several columns against wintry, crimson clouds, a silver slice of crescent moon in the west.

Roadblocks had been placed at several main intersections, traffic rerouted around the seven-block area affected by the fire. Diane listened to updates on the radio as finally, she realized she'd gone as far as she could by car. Pulling into an alley behind a medical complex, Diane parked her car and locked it, then set off walking.

The air, which should have been clear on such a chilly evening, was instead heavy with smoke. Diane coughed as she moved down crowded sidewalks toward the sky that was lighted now with dozens of emergency lights flashing across the clouds. Nearby, backup fire trucks rumbled down brick streets and emergency band radios crackled through the night like distant gunfire.

Huddling in her coat; not expecting to be this cold, Diane broke into a trot…

As she neared the intersection that was completely cordoned off, and where a block of buildings shot yellow-red dragon fire into the smoky sky, she saw a group of officials huddled around a police van.

The closer she got, the more she saw everything in silhouette, dozens of men in rubber fire suits standing in relief against smoke and fire and lights. Several different TV crews competed for position by running cameras as close to the burning buildings as officials would let them get. For Diane, this was a scene from hell-nature out of control, small men doing mighty battle against what seemed, at present, anyway, an implacable foe. An uncle of hers had been a fireman and had died of smoke inhalation. She'd never forgotten the man, and every time she was around a fire, she thought of him and his early death, and the way her mother had mourned for years afterward.

"Get the hell back, lady!" shouted a young fireman, drenched with water and holding a fire axe in his hand. "Nobody's allowed past that rope. Can't you read?" He sounded enraged.

An idiotic idea came to Diane. She would explain to this young man about her uncle and then he'd understand…

Shaking her head, hating her need for approval even under such circumstances as these, Diane said, as forcefully as possible, "I'm looking for the police Chief. Have you seen him?"

"No, I haven't," the fireman said. "Now, get the hell back!"

She was just about to give in to him when a familiar voice shouted, "Diane! Over here!"

From the left side of the frenzy she glimpsed Robert Clark moving quickly toward her. Dressed in a gray gabardine topcoat with a black fedora, he managed to look both dashing and official.

"It's all right," Clark said to the fireman, who merely shrugged and walked away. To Diane, he said, "People get a little testy after a while."

She nodded. "I'm sure I would, too."

"It's great to see you. And a surprise."

"I was wondering if I could borrow you for a few minutes."

He glanced around. "Sure. Even though the fire's still burning, everything seems to be pretty much under control. At least they've got it isolated now. Just give me a minute."

Moving back toward the knot of men gathered around a hook-and-ladder truck, Clark had a conversation that seemed especially animated in silhouette-lots of gesturing and nodding and pointing. Finally, after giving them something resembling a salute, he moved away from the truck and came back to Diane.

"I don't know about you, but I'm hungry."

She said, "I'll just have coffee. I'm too keyed up."

"I should stay within walking distance of the fire." She smiled. "That leaves us a choice of Arby's or Ma's Place."

He smiled back. "Any place named 'Ma's' is bound to be bad."

She laughed. "I'm afraid I agree."

The restaurant was crowded with young married couples and their children. The aroma of roast beef and French fries hung pleasantly over everything. I can just taste all the cholesterol, Diane thought to herself.

They took a booth near the back. Black night filled the windows. As Robert Clark went back up front for the napkins neither of them had remembered to bring, Diane looked out the window at a man and his small daughter in the parking lot. The wind was becoming so strong that they were being blown around as if in a hurricane. Finally, the man managed to get the car door open and his daughter installed in the front seat. Then he had to go through the arduous business of walking around the car and getting in on the driver's side.

"I just noticed something," Clark said, sitting down and setting napkins in front of them.

"That I went ahead and snuck a few French fries?"

"You did?"

"I confess."

"Well, since I'm the Police Chief, I guess I can refuse to press charges." His bantering tone ceased. He looked at her somberly. "You're afraid of something."

"How can you tell?"

"Little things. I've never seen you bite your nails before, but you take a nibble every few minutes tonight. And the sighing. You're pretty good at it."

"Anything else?"

"Your eyes. Very lovely as always, but very troubled, too. In fact, a few times you looked on the verge of tears."

"I sound like pretty great company."

He surprised her by reaching across the table and taking her hand. "That's one thing you never have to worry about, Diane. You're always great company."

Then he sat back, almost boyishly, and ate his formidable meal of roast beef sandwich, small order of fries, and vanilla shake. A few times, to complete the boyish image, he managed to have a vanilla moustache painted across his upper lip.

Several times, Diane tried to bring up what she'd seen that afternoon, and tell Robert everything that had happened. She thought again of Jenny's voice, asking for her help. She still felt guilty for leaving the McCay's place, but, given the fact that Mindy and Jeff had been coming back, she'd really had little choice.

Or was she simply rationalizing away her own cowardice?

"Now's as good a time as any."

Diane, lost in her own thoughts, glanced up from her coffee. "Pardon me?"

"I said now's as good a time as any-to tell me what's bothering you so much."

"I suppose you're right."

"I know I'm right. You really need to talk, Diane. You look more worried by the minute."

"I just keep thinking of Jenny."

"So something did happen this afternoon. I had a feeling that was it."

"I think I really let her down."

"Tell me about it," he said.

And so she did, the story coming out in a jumble of words and images. She described the appearance of the house, the curious circle on the kitchen floor with its evidence of animal slaughter, the dead animals upstairs, the feces and blood on the walls, and Jenny's voice, which curiously seemed to follow her throughout the upstairs.

"So you never actually saw her?" Clark asked.


"Did you have any sense of which room she might have been in?"


"Did you call out to her?"


"But you never actually saw her?"


"Then you left?"

Diane could tell by his tone that he thought it odd that she'd leave before finding Jenny. "I'm afraid I got scared."

"From what you're describing, I don't blame you. It sounds pretty eerie."

"I got frightened because the McCay's were coming back."

He shrugged. "I'm beginning to understand."

"You are?"

He nodded solemnly. "You feel guilty because you left before finding Jenny."

She felt her cheeks grow warm. "I'm afraid you're right. I wasn't very… brave."

He touched her hand again. "On the contrary, you were very brave. Even with a gun I wouldn't have been too happy about going into that house as you describe it. A few years ago I worked on a series of satanic murders and I got pretty scared. Damned scared, in fact."

She thought of the McCays' glowing eyes. Now seemed an ideal time to describe them to him. "So you believe in occult things?"

He smiled bleakly. "Afraid I don't. These turned out to be some young derelicts who liked to kill people and who had tried to convince themselves that they were following orders from Satan." He shook his head. "Nothing satanic about it, I'm afraid."

"Oh." She knew then that she would not tell him about the McCays' eyes. Suddenly, sitting there in the busy restaurant, she felt curiously alone, isolated.

"Did I say something wrong?"

"No. Why?"

"You look…sad."

"No, I'm fine."

He studied her a moment longer, then said, "Like some more coffee?"


While he was gone, Diane started thinking of Jenny again. Her voice. Her plea for help.

"Actually, I wouldn't mind something a little stronger right about now," Clark said, setting down Diane's coffee.

She looked up, forced a smile, nodded her thanks for the coffee.

Seated across from her again, he said, "How about tonight?"


"Sure. We go in the McCay's place."

"But how-"

"With a search warrant, of course. You've given me enough to get a warrant with. Sounds like a pretty grotesque example of child abuse of some kind."

"You're sure? That you can get a search warrant?" He sipped coffee and nodded.

Diane allowed herself a moment of relief. Now it would all be over and Jenny would be safe. "That would be great."

"I'll be at your place around nine. If you'll go with me, that is."

"All right."

"I don't want to make this any nastier than it has to be. The McCay's may be decent people who went astray somehow. But the blood and the feces-" He shook his head. "That sounds pretty serious."

"Yes," she said, "it does."

But what about their eyes, their glowing eyes? Doesn't that sound serious, too? But she knew, sitting there amid the clamor and the freezing wind that scooted up the aisle whenever anybody opened the side door-she knew that she could not tell him about their glowing eyes. It was her vanity. She did not want to put herself in the position of appearing…overwrought. And there's one more thing I should tell you, she could hear herself saying: Their eyes…they glow. Like…space creatures' or something.

How else to explain them? Had she in her panic simply imagined those terrifying, empty faces? Or were the faces real?

A little girl's laughter three booths away brought her back to reality. Arby's…Roast beef sandwiches…Little girls in pink parkas. These were the elements of reality…not people with empty faces and burning eyes.

"Am I allowed to tell you how pretty you look tonight?"

Coming back to the present, she said, "Now I know you must be interested in me. I'm a mess."

"Well, if you are, you're the best-looking mess I've ever seen."

This time, it was she who touched his hand. "I appreciate that, Robert, I really do."

"One promise, all right?"

Afraid he was going to say something that would make both of them uneasy, she said, "All right."

"Don't do anything crazy while I'm gone."

Relieved that he was talking about the situation with Jenny, she said, "I'm going home and locking my doors and waiting for you. Does that sound crazy?"

"Not at all. Just don't try to contact the McCay's in any way. Okay?"


"As I said, I shouldn't be any later than nine or so." He finished his coffee. "Maybe if we get lucky, there'll even be a good movie on the late show."

She created a pleasant fantasy. "Hot popcorn, apple cider, a cozy fire, and-"

"Clint Eastwood."

"You're kidding! I was thinking more of Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand."

Laughing, he got up, leaned over the table, and kissed her chastely on the forehead. "That's the only thing about you I don't like."

Standing up, she returned his chaste kiss, putting it on his cheek. "Oh, give me time." She smiled. "You'll find lots of other things to not like about me."

In cold turned bitter, she walked back to her car, wishing he were still by her side.

Ed Gorman

Nightmare Child

Home meant warmth, home meant comfort, home meant the snug feeling of looking out the front window and watching snow swirl and sprinkle in the silver moonlight.

On television Bob Newhart was cracking some funny lines with George the handyman. In the kitchen a pot of coffee was brewing and smelling wonderful in the process. Upstairs the electric blanket was already at work, preparing Diane's bed for her.

She wondered how Robert was coming with the search warrant. He'd said he'd need one before they could get into Jeff and Mindy's place. Just then, the phone rang.

Assuming it was Robert, she grabbed the receiver and let a smile make her voice rich with warmth. "Hello?"

A fierce crackling noise filled the receiver's earpiece. She held the phone away and stared at it, as if looking at it would do some good.

Putting the phone back to her ear, she said, "Hello? I've got a really bad connection on this end." An image came to her of phone lines downed in heavy snow.

If anything, the connection was worse than before, sounding like pieces of aluminum foil being crinkled.

"Hello? Why don't you hang up and call back? I can't hear a thing except static."

Hanging up, she touched her fingers to her face and realized she was trembling. It had been one of those days.

The phone rang, shrill even above the noise of the television.

"Hello?" She said.

The static again. This time it was not quite as bad, but still she could hear nothing.

Or could she? Faintly, a human voice muttered words hopelessly lost in the roar of the receiver.

"Hello?" she said again.

Almost about to hang up once more, the words coming from the other end became slightly more coherent. Goose bumps covered her arms when she was finally able to make sense of the syllables being spoken. "Aunt Diane. It's me, Jenny. I need your help." My God-Jenny!

"Jenny, listen to me. Where are you?"


"Jenny, can you hear me?" By now, Diane was shouting.

The static grew so bad that she had to jerk the receiver away from her ear and hold it away from her body.

She started biting her nails. Robert had been right. She always did that-tiny little nervous bites, like a cannibalistic version of the munchies-when she felt stressed out.

She lifted the receiver to her ear again. The static was back at its previously tolerable level.

"Jenny, can you hear me?"

Distantly, almost as if from another planet, a young girl's voice said, "Yes!"

"Are you in Mindy's house?"

Again distantly, the young girl's voice said "Yes!" for the second time.

"A policeman and I are going to come and get you in a little while. Did you understand what I said?"

At first there was no response, only the wave of static again. Then, Jenny said, even more distantly than before, "I understand."

"I love you, Jenny. I'm sorry I had to leave you this afternoon."

Diane's heart broke, thinking again of how she'd been frightened off by Mindy and Jeff, leaving little Jenny alone. Presently, she had an image of Jenny in some dark upstairs room, whispering into the telephone above the static. The room would probably be decorated in savage swaths of red blood and brown feces.

"Just say your prayers and everything will be all right, Jenny," Diane said. "Do you remember the special prayer I taught you that time? The one to Saint Christopher? He protects the unprotected, Jenny. Pray to him now."

Faintly, faintly: "I will, Aunt Diane. I will."

"I love you, Jenny."

"I love you, Aunt Diane."

And with that, the connection was broken.

For the next ten minutes, Diane paced, biting at her thumbnail as she did so.

She was overwhelmed by this sense of loss and vulnerability, imagining Jenny being held hostage somewhere in that dark and pagan house. She had still not been able to reconcile her impressions of Mindy and Jeff as the most upwardly mobile of yuppies with the two people who had defiled the house next door with satanic rites.

She had just gone out into the kitchen for a cup of coffee when the phone rang again.


Stepping quickly to the yellow wall phone, Diane lifted the receiver and said hello.

A breathless Robert said, "I got it."


"You don't know what I'm talking about, do you? You've forgotten already, haven't you?"

"I'm afraid I'm a little spacey today, Robert. Sorry."

"That's all right. I'm spacey every day." He caught his breath. "I got the warrant. Judge Slocum hemmed and hawed, but he finally came through. I just wanted to tell you that I'm on my way out to your place."

Knowing she would soon have to go back among the fetid, rank smells of the McCay house, Diane said, "I just want to get Jenny and get out of there."

"I've even arranged that with the judge. We can take Jenny and you can keep her overnight until the caseworkers move in. Have you ever worked with caseworkers before?"


"Boy, do you have an experience ahead of you."

Thinking of Jenny's tiny voice on the other end of the phone, Diane said, "Oh, hurry, Robert. Let's go get her as soon as possible."

"Ten minutes. Fifteen at most."

"I'm getting scared."

He laughed. "Just bite your nails some more. That should keep you calm."

And with that, he hung up.

In the doorway, a red woolen scarf wrapped around his neck, Robert looked as if he were about to go caroling.

"Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee before we go over?"

"Still scared, huh?"

"Not so much scared as…I just feel awkward, I guess. I've known them for a few years and-"

"I know what you're talking about." He nodded to the cozy house inside. "You can always stay here and I can handle it alone. I'm sure it won't be a big deal."

"Well…" She thought about his invitation for a moment. "No. Jenny's well-being is at stake. That's what I've got to keep remembering."

"So you're going to go?"

"Yes. Just give me a minute."

He stepped inside, closing the door against the freezing night, while she took her coat, hat, gloves and snow boots from the closet. Within a minute, she was well bundled against tie cold.

"Ready?" he said.


They went out the door, locking it behind them, Diane dropping the key in her coat pocket. A golden half-moon perched on the tops of the scrub pines on the crest of the hill behind Stoneridge, and clouds the color of sterling silver raced across the black sky.

As they tramped through the heavy snow, Diane took Robert's hand. "Do you mind?"

"I'm flattered."

She laughed. "That was exactly the right thing to say."

They went the rest of the way in silence, their footsteps crunching frozen snow, a nearby dog sounding cold and lonely in the night.

Lights shined beyond the curtains in the downstairs of the McCay's house. Smoke twisted gray from the chimney up into the night sky. Soundtrack laughter from a television sitcom became louder, the closer they got.

Diane took in a very deep breath and held it. "You all right?"

"Breathing exercises," she explained. "They're supposed to calm me down."

At the door, he knocked with a big gloved hand. They stood back, waiting. Diane continued her breathing exercises.

There was no response.

"Hmm," Robert said, inclining his head toward the door. The TV sitcom played on. Behind the curtains, the lights continued to shine.

Robert knocked again, louder this time, the report of it sharp on the silent winter air.

After a minute, he knocked once more. This time the force of his fist was thunderous.

When there was still no response, he tried the knob. Locked.

"Is there a back door?"

"Yes," Diane said. "Do you think she's all right?"

"I hope so. Why don't you show me the back entrance?"

As they walked around the side of the huge house, she told him about the phone call from Jenny. "But the connection was so bad I couldn't tell if she was all right or not."

"I guess we'll find out soon enough."

The screened-in porch in the rear was draped in moonlight and shadow. Dust devils of snow sprayed against the screening. He went up the steps and tried the door. That, too, was locked.

Before Diane realized what he was doing, he pulled his service revolver. "Why don't you wait here?"

"Where are you going?"

"Inside. Through this door."

But he had barely finished speaking when the dark night was flooded with warm yellow light from the ceiling of the porch.

In the back door stood Jeff McCay, dressed in a robe, pajamas, and holding a cup of what Diane sensed would be hot chocolate.

"Hi, Diane. Is everything all right?" Jeff called in a pleasant voice. "We were all upstairs in bed. We kept thinking we heard somebody knock, but we couldn't be sure."

By now, he had come across the porch and unlocked the door for them. "Why don't you come in? Doesn't take long to get frozen on a night like this." For the first time, he looked curious about Robert-who he was and what he was doing there.

Glancing over his shoulder and shrugging, Robert gave Diane a w hat-is-going-on-here? look. His service revolver had disappeared back into his shoulder holster.

In the center of the kitchen stood Mindy and Jenny, both turned out in pajamas, robes, fuzzy slippers, and holding steaming mugs of hot chocolate with plump white marshmallows bobbing in them.

"Hi, Diane," Mindy said. "You out for a walk?"

Not knowing what to say, Diane leaned down and looked at Jenny. "And how are you doing, honey?"

"Fine, Aunt Diane," Jenny said, shaking her pigtails as she raised her glass for Diane to inspect. "I love marshmallows, don't you?"

Diane's first impression was that she'd wandered onto the set of Saturday Night Live, which was in the process of doing a scathing satire on bland suburbanites. At best, the McCay's had always been cordial, but never more than that-certainly never this beaming, nearly ecstatic trio.

"We were just upstairs reading, sipping our hot chocolate and reading Jenny some American history," Jeff said.

Mindy patted Jenny on the shoulder. "She'd rather study American history and what made this country great than read anything else, wouldn't you, Jenny?"

"Oh, yes," Jenny said. "I love American history." She gave an impish little smile. "That, and helping Mindy with her work."

"You have a job now, Mindy?" Diane said.

Mindy shook her head dismissively. "Oh, it's not really a job. It's just…helping the elderly and the poor at the Coleman Center three days a week."

Jeff slid his arm around his wife. "Isn't she something? Helping the elderly and the poor and still finding time to make the best hot chocolate in the Midwest."

The three of them laughed with great satisfaction over what wonderful people they were.

Diane was torn between wanting to throw up-she hadn't heard such overly-sweet dialogue since "Father Knows Best"-and wondering just what was going on there.

A glance at Robert told her he was wondering the same thing, his eyes studying the kitchen curiously, and then looking beyond into the dining room. Obviously he was trying to reconcile the maid-perfect condition of this house with the description of mess, blood, and feces Diane had given him. It was as if a new house had been erected on the site of the old one.

"But why are we standing here? Why don't you come in the living room and Mindy will make you some hot chocolate?" Jeff said.

Before either of them could protest, Diane and Robert were escorted into the living room, which had looked, that afternoon, as if terrorists had worked it over. Now, it was fastidious, beautiful, and inviting, with not so much as a single magazine out of place.

Meeting Robert's increasingly puzzled look, Diane sat down on the edge of a divan.

"With or without?" Jeff said.

"With or without?" Diane asked.

"With or without marshmallows?" Jeff laughed. "Kind of a family joke."

"Oh-with, I guess," Diane said.

Robert nodded. "With for me, too."

"Great. Now you two just relax and have yourselves a nice little visit with Jenny."

After Jeff left, Jenny went over and seated herself primly in a wing chair. Her feet did not touch the floor. She took a drink of her hot chocolate and yawned.

"How are you feeling, Jenny?" Diane asked.

"Oh. Fine. I like when it's cold outside. I feel nice and snug inside." She gave Diane a most serious look. "Plus Jeff rented Cinderella tonight and it was great."

"You didn't…call me earlier tonight, did you?"

"You mean on the phone, Aunt Diane?"

"Yes. On the phone."

"No, I didn't. Why?"

"Oh, somebody called and I just thought it…might be you."

"No," Jenny said. "I was watching Cinderella"

"You sure seem to be doing well."

"Oh, I am. Jeff and Mindy are lots of fun." Again, there was that edge of burlesque in the child's voice-somebody playing at being happy rather than simply being it.

"Do you suppose you'll go back to school soon?"

Jenny raised her shoulders. "I guess. Maybe next fall. Right now I'm just supposed to be resting."

"I see."

"Say, excuse me," Robert said, "do you suppose I could go upstairs and use the bathroom?"

"Oh, sure," Jenny said. "Do you think you can find it okay? I can get Jeff to show you where it is."

"Oh, no, I'll be fine," Robert said, standing up.

Diane understood what he was doing, of course, besides maybe really having to go to the bathroom. He wanted to check out the upstairs.

While Robert was gone, Diane said, "So it wasn't you on the phone tonight?"

"No, it wasn't, Aunt Diane. You seem upset about that."

"It's just-just that I don't see you very often anymore. I thought it would be nice if you'd start phoning me again the way you did when you were a very little girl."

"You liked that, huh?"

"Yes, I did, honey, very much."

"Then I'll start calling you again."

"I'd really appreciate that."

She was just about to ask Jenny a few more questions when Jeff reappeared, bearing two steaming cups of hot chocolate. "Here you go, folks," he said in his game-show-host tone. Looking around, he said, "Where's your friend?"

"His name's Robert, and I'm sorry I forgot to introduce you. He went upstairs to use the bathroom."

"Oh, heck," Jeff said, handing Diane her cup. "He could've used the one down here."

Jeff went over and sat on the divan, facing Diane, who found herself staring closely at his face. That afternoon he'd had no features at all, only those glowing eyes…

"Well," Jeff said, "we haven't seen you in quite a while. Weeks, at least."

Was this his way of denying that that afternoon had taken place?

"I was just telling Jenny the same thing." Diane said. "Telling her how much I missed her calling me."

Jeff beamed. "Weren't those calls fun! We used to record them so we could hear Jenny try to talk like a grown-up." He turned his beam on Jenny. "So sweet. So precious."

What had happened, Diane wondered, to the old Yuppie Jeff, with his unceasing interest in material things, and his X-ray eyes for Diane's body. Drunk, he'd once even made a mild pass at her. Somehow, he'd now been converted into a sitcom daddy.

Robert walked down the staircase just as Mindy came in from the kitchen. Diane watched Robert's face as he sat down. A look of concern, perhaps even mixed with a little anger, had tightened his usually open features.

After introductions were made, Mindy said, "Jenny asked if you'd like to go to a movie next week."

Diane felt stunned by the invitation. She'd gone over there expecting to find…

"I'd love to."

"Maybe Robert would like to join you," Mindy said, standing behind the wing chair and playing with Jenny's pigtails.

"That would be nice, yes."

Casually, Jeff said, "You're the Chief of police, aren't you?"

"Why, yes, I am." Robert seemed only modestly uncomfortable about being recognized.

Jeff laughed. "Well, we're sure going to feel protected whenever you're in the neighborhood."

More talk ensued, the sort of small talk that most people endure rather than enjoy-this neighbor doing this, this neighbor doing that-and finally both Diane and Robert were finished with their hot chocolate, their cups sitting back in their saucers.

"Like some more?" Mindy said. "There's plenty." Robert held up a palm. "That was just right. Any more would make me full."


"No, I'm fine, Mindy, thanks."

Robert stood up and put his hand out for Diane. "I don't know about you, but I've got a full day ahead of me tomorrow. And I've had a full day today."

"Were you at the fire that was on the news?" Jeff asked.

"°I sure was. That's why I'm so tired."

Mindy handed them their coats.

Diane, shrugging into hers, bent down and kissed Jenny. The little girl's skin was almost startlingly cold. When Diane pulled back up, she saw Mindy watching her carefully.

"I've really enjoyed seeing you again. Let's get together more often," Jeff said. Clasping a manful hand into Robert's own manful hand, Jeff said, "And that includes you, Chief."

Diane threw one last, nervous glance back at Jenny, who waved politely. Diane preceded Robert out the back door.

When they were away from the house, the snow blew again from the night sky, cold snow demons swirling up into their faces, and Robert said, "I checked out every room upstairs."


"The place is so clean and orderly that it could be on the cover of House Beautiful next month."

Those were exactly the words Diane had been afraid he was going to use.

Half an hour later, in Diane's kitchen, she poured Robert his third cup of coffee. "I feel foolish," she said.

He sighed. "They cleaned it up. There's no other explanation."

But she could hear a faint questioning in his tone, as if her stress might be leading her to imagine things. A bone deep exhaustion had crept through Diane's body. She sat, elbows on the table, scarcely able to hold up her coffee cup. Not even massive amounts of caffeine had stirred her. Depressed, confused, she wanted to go to bed and forget everything that had happened that day-from Mindy and Jeff coming after her in the garage to the almost giggly happiness she'd seen in their living room that night.

Several times since sitting down across from Robert in the kitchen she'd been tempted to tell him about that afternoon. But how could she bring it up?

"If they did clean it up," she joked, "I'd sure like to hire them for my spring cleaning." She sipped coffee. "To turn that wreck I saw this afternoon into the showplace we saw tonight-I just don't see how it could be done."

"What other explanation is there?"

"I don't know."

And suddenly there were hot tears in her eyes.

Ordinarily, pride would have kept her from crying in front of Robert, but her exhaustion and her spent nerves gave her tears the feeling of balm. She was helping herself in the only way she could.

After a minute, Robert came around the table, pulled up a chair, and sat down next to her. He slid his arm easily and comfortably around her shoulders and took her to him. She put her face into his strong shoulder and let herself cry all the more.

"I just don't understand," she said. "I just don't see how they could have…"

She started crying again, then, deciding she was being self-indulgent, stopped herself. Using a blue paper napkin as a handkerchief, she blew her nose.

She laughed. "I'll bet I look lovely."

"A little bit like Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, but, other than that, pretty as usual."

"Thanks for letting me work through that. I guess it was frustration as much as anything. I'd been all ready to march in there so self-righteously and-"

"— and drive out the devils."


He smiled, patted her hand. "Well, I'm afraid neither one of us did a very good job of that."

He yawned.

"I'm being selfish," she said. "Keeping you up so late. You must be all in after a day like today."

He put his hand to her tear-warm cheek. "I'd like to play the big, macho policeman and tell you that I can handle days like this in stride. But the truth is I'm pooped."

"Boy, I'm glad we met," she said, sliding her arms around his waist.

They indulged in a sort of high-school make-out session, nothing heavy, just a series of pleasantly worn out kisses, embraces, pats, and rubs that made both tired bodies feel a little better.

Afterward, Robert struggled to his feet, struggled through the living room, and struggled to the hallway closet, where Diane had put his coat. She could see how he was literally dragging.

At the door, the wind spraying snow devils against the glass, he gave her one last kiss, which she happily accepted.

"You go to bed," he said, "right now."

"You, too," she said.

"You don't have to worry about that." He gave her hand a tiny squeeze and then started out the door.

Seeing him turn around, she felt a compulsion to take him in her arms again. Perhaps tomorrow…

"Good night," he said, waving as he walked to his car in the golden light of the drive.

"Good night," she said.

Twenty minutes after Robert left, Diane was under her electric blanket, reading the latest Sidney Sheldon novel. She got through three pages before falling asleep, the winter night vast and dark all around her house, the final light clipped off now that she slept.

Robert knew he should have gone straight home. Not only was he tired, he was perplexed.

He had begun to wonder if Diane was all right. While he had pretended that it was entirely possible for a ransacked house to be put back in perfect order in a matter of hours, he knew that it was an unlikely event, particularly when you added in blood and feces spread all over the walls.

Feeling deeply for Diane, even entertaining the thought of marrying her at some future date, his police training nonetheless made him a realist. The loss of a spouse was one of the major reasons people had breakdowns. While Diane was able to function superficially, he often sensed her loss and occasional despair. It would be easy enough, Clark knew, to transfer this loss and despair to a fantasy about the people in the house next door…whether that fantasy included blood and feces on the walls, or the man of the house running outside naked during a snowstorm.

Thinking of all this, he felt guilty, as if he were betraying his best friend. In a very real way, he was. He drove the narrow, two-lane blacktop that took him back to town, a golden oldie on the radio, the heater loud and warm beneath the dash. Snow blew in drifts across the road and every few miles he'd see the bright, sad eyes of some creature caught out in the storm.

He was almost back in town before he abruptly but carefully applied the brakes, found a driveway to turn into, then headed back to Stoneridge.

What he was about to do would at least make him feel that he'd given Diane every benefit of the doubt.

On his way back, he saw the moon in the cloudy sky. He had a sense of utter isolation as he drove along at twenty miles per hour, wire fencing around a cornfield to his right dragged down by wind and snow, the gently sloping hills to his left a perfect white in the moonlight.

Fifteen minutes later, he passed through the stone gates of the exclusive estate area, and then guided his car, lights off, to a small hill that looked down on both the McCay's place and Diane's.

Putting a piece of gum in his mouth-up to three years ago it would have been a Lucky Strike-he stretched his legs out to the other side of the car and proceeded to do something he hadn't done in years-stake out a house.

Memories of past stakeouts, especially during his post-Vietnam years as a Chicago detective, returned as he sat there watching the two dark houses. True to her word, Diane had gone to bed right away. As wind rocked the car, he started thinking of his vague wedding plans for them. He just hoped she was all right…

He had been there half an hour when he saw the strange green light flicker in a strobe-like effect on the second floor of the McCay house.

At first, he wondered if shadows weren't playing tricks on the darkened windows. But gradually, as he sat up and really began to watch, he saw that the intermittent flashes were in fact quite real.

Instinctively, he pushed himself to the door and out from under the steering wheel. The cold was immediate and without pity. Clapping his gloved hands together for warmth, he set off down the hill, knowing that if anyone were watching he would certainly be easy enough to see…a dark shape against the blue-white of midnight snow.

His nose numb, his eyes tearing up, he reached the edge of the McCay property already colder than he thought he could be in so short a time.

Upstairs, the green stroboscopic effect continued.

Walking around to one side of the house, his feet making loud crunching sounds, he began to hear, above the wind, a lewd kind of laughter, the sort he imagined would be heard at orgies. He had no idea to whom it belonged, only that in some terrible way it was disturbing.

Reaching the screened-in porch, staring a moment at the furniture, covered with tarpaulins for the winter, he eased himself up the steps, listening.

Once more, just above the edge of the furious wind, came the sounds of bawdy laughter. He tried to imagine any of the three people he'd seen that night-Jenny, Mindy, Jeff-laughing this way, but could not.

He opened the door, which made a scrawing sound from frozen hinges, and went inside.

From his coat pocket, he took a small metal pick, a type available to all classes of burglars. He fitted the pick to the lock on the doorknob and, within moments, stepped inside the kitchen.

Eerie shadows played across the refrigerator and the counters and cupboards. The scents of cinnamon and paprika almost forced him to sneeze. Silver frost rimmed the windows.

From upstairs, a muffled scream could be heard over the lewd laughter.

Cautiously, covered now with sweat and beginning to tremble, he moved toward the center of the house, and the wide, splendid staircase he had ascended earlier.

The first thing he noticed, the deeper he went into the home, was that several large pieces of expensive furniture had been smashed into shards, including the dining room table and a china cabinet. He began to see the same place Diane had described earlier-a ransacked jumble of smashed furnishings and decorations that had been decimated into junk.

Tripping over the television set, which looked as if it had been cleaved in half with an axe, he righted himself by grabbing onto the banister.

Slowly, his eyes rose up the long, winding staircase to the landing, where deep shadows lurked like waiting animals. All his boyhood fears of the dark-you know something waits for you in the shadows-returned as he started up the staircase. Suddenly, his mouth was dry and his heart seemed uncontrollable in his chest. His flesh was cold and dead with goose bumps. Wind whipped the roof and windows.

As he neared the top, the laughter came once more. But this time the tone of it was different, suggesting mourning rather than pleasure, a curious sobbing sound.

Tightening his grip on the banister, he went up the rest of the stairs, coming to the landing, which was filled with shadows, and letting himself be trapped inside them, like water that was over his head.

He pulled his service revolver from his shoulder holster. He was ready. He had no idea for what.

At the top of the stairs, he saw the outline of the hallway, and proceeded in that direction. Again, he had to be careful of where he walked because of the junk that had been strewn everywhere. The smell of human excrement — warm, oppressive-was in the air.

Two doors down, he heard the laughter once more. Thankful that he finally had a direction, he edged through the gloom of the hallway toward the noise.

Reaching the door, he pressed his ear to the wood, listening. Again, he thought of an orgy, for there were the sounds of moist sexual pleasure, of small sighs and groans of ecstasy, and, over all that, the laughter again. The mourning gone now, the laughter was lewd. He put his hand to the doorknob, turned.

As he did so, he saw along the bottom of the door the stroboscopic green flashes of light. In the shadows, even this thin line of light was almost blinding.

He turned the doorknob.

And that was when the laughter inside the room turned into the shrieks of the insane. As if he had been seized by invisible hands, he was pushed back against the far wall, his senses filled with it all now-the strong odor of excrement, the green light, the mad laughter that was somehow the worst of it all.

And then a voice he did not recognize said, "Mr. Clark wants to join us but he's afraid. Poor Mr. Clark. If only he knew what was going on here."

More laughter, followed by movements that suggested sexual satisfaction.

Spinning away from the wall, not knowing what to do next, he heard the voice say, "Don't be afraid, Mr. Clark. Soon you will be one of us and then you will know no fear whatsoever."

Laughter came as his eyes searched through the darkness for some clue as to where the voice originated. The hallway? One of the rooms down the hall? Where?

Knowing he needed to get out of this house and call for help, Clark started back down the hallway. Groping his way along the wall, knowing that his fingers were sliding through swaths of human feces, his trembling legs took him all the way to the top of the staircase before he heard screams and then the sound of the door opening back down the hall.

Even this far away, the green light bathed him. He glanced down at his arms. They were green.

More screams were followed, by the slapping of feet against the carpeting. Terrified to turn back to see what was coming for him, he clenched his service revolver tighter in his hand.

Just as he spun around, they leaped for him, Mindy and Jeff, completely naked in the stroboscopic green light, deep wounds pouring blood from various parts of their bodies, leprosy-like sores streaming pus. Mindy had no hair, her teeth were little more than black stubs, and her breath was fetid. One of Jeff's eyes had been ripped from its socket and the wound dripped blood. He carried a butcher knife that seemed to be as long as a spear. He raised it above Clark's head, about to bring it down, when Clark fired.

Three shots went into Jeff McCay's face.

His reaction was to keep on laughing.

Diane had been asleep two hours, when her bedroom curtains began making a rustling noise, as if someone were rubbing them together, sibilant as a snake.

She awakened to a room dark except for moonlight through yellow curtains. Her first impulse was to check the luminous face of her digital nightstand clock. Her second impulse was to draw the electric blanket up tighter around her chest. She had a sense she was not alone.

Shortly after her husband had died, Diane had begun having dreams in which he appeared to her in the form of a ghost. Diane did not have strong feelings either way about the possibility of the supernatural-it might well exist, it might well not. Boldly, she'd always told people that she wanted some kind of occult experience. That way she would become convinced that there was a life beyond this one. But now, leaning up in her bed, her entire body tense beneath her soft blue cotton nightgown, she knew that for all her brave talk, an occult experience would frighten her.

The curtains rustled again. She snapped her head in their direction.

"Aunt Diane."

In the silence of her bedroom, the clarity and plaintiveness of the voice was unmistakable. Jenny.

"Aunt Diane."

Hard as she looked, Diane saw no little girl anywhere in the room. All she noticed was a slight cooling of the air, and a faint sweet smell.

"Aunt Diane."

From behind the curtains she came, a little girl not quite formed yet, her body like that of an unfinished painting. But she was quickly being filled in as she stood there in the moonlight. All Diane could ludicrously think of was the transition stage of being "beamed up" on the old "Star Trek."

At last, then, a complete Jenny stood before her in a dark dress and white socks and black patent-leather strap shoes. Her hair hung in blond pigtails and her eyes gave an impression of unbearable sorrow.

"Jenny," Diane breathed, throwing back the covers and starting toward the girl.

"No," Jenny said, "stay there."


"It will be better, Aunt Diane, believe me."

The girl Diane had seen earlier that night had been sitcom sweet. This girl was more like the Jenny Diane had always known-reflective, intelligent, and mature far beyond her years.

"You saw what just happened? How I appeared to you, Aunt Diane?"


"So you understand what's…happened to me."

"Not completely, Jenny."

"I'm dead, Aunt Diane. And I have been dead since this summer."

"Oh." How stupid, even smug, that sounded: "Oh." But she had absolutely no idea of what else to say. "Do you know how I died?"

"They killed me."


Jenny pointed to the window. "Mindy and Jeff."

"But they love you."

Jenny shook her head sadly. "Maybe they did at one time, Aunt Diane. But they went through Mindy's part of the inheritance. The only way they could get my part of the money was to murder me, which they did."

Sitting there, hearing the words so clear in the shadows of the bedroom, Diane had no choice but to accept their reality. Several minutes ago she had convinced herself that this was no dream or nightmare. Jenny really had appeared in Diane's bedroom. And now Jenny was telling her, in effect, that she was a ghost.

"I want to die, Aunt Diane."

"But I thought-"

Jenny's head tilted downward. "My soul hasn't passed into heaven yet. A…demon took hold of me. A demon that wants vengeance." She parted the curtains, stared for a time at the moon. "You'd think that's what I'd want-vengeance. When I realized what they had done to me, I was very, very angry. I wanted to kill them myself. But then I walked down a long, white tunnel and I felt a great peace as I neared the end. I forgave them. I began to understand how petty most human concerns are, especially ugly ones such as murder and vengeance. But then, as I neared the end of the tunnel and I saw a huge door opening to receive me, I could feel the demon inside me struggling for dominance. All around me, the white light began to fade and I saw the door start to close. Before, there had been very gentle music, but now there was just this…terrible silence. I don't know how else to describe it. And when I touched my flesh, realized that it was no longer my flesh. It was gray and scaly and slimy. It was the demon's flesh and she wanted me to go back to earth and return to Mindy and Jeff. But before I killed them, she wanted me to torture them every way possible. And that's what I've been doing since that day you found me wandering around on the hill. I've destroyed their lives in every way I could through physical torture, mental torture, and fear. That's what you saw me doing tonight. Whenever guests come, I make sure the house is spotless and we're one big happy family so that if Mindy or Jeff happens to tell somebody what's going on-how I'm in control of things, how I'm actually a demon-nobody will believe them. When we're alone, I even turn them into demons-though not completely. I leave just enough of their minds human so that they can feel disgust over what they've become."

"Oh, Jenny."

"But tonight the demon wants me to kill them. She's done with them now. And she wants me to kill one other person, too."


"Your friend. The police Chief. He snuck back. He wanted to check out the situation one more time, by himself. So he went inside the house and-"

"He's there now."

"Yes. And that's why you've got to stop me."

"Stop you?"

Jenny nodded. "If you don't stop me, I won't…be in control, Aunt Diane. There's something inside me that-"

It was all so crazy. Diane wasn't even sure she was quite awake yet. Wind slammed at the windows. The digital clock made faint ratcheting sounds as it turned over its big luminous numbers. Diane reached out for Jenny and started to speak; but then a voice that could not possibly be Jenny's issued from the young girl's mouth.

"It's too late," the voice said. "It's too late."

And then a sound not unlike throaty laughter issued from Jenny's mouth, and Diane, screaming, fell back on the bed.

After beating him, they put him in the closet, promising him that he would prove useful later. The naked Mindy, touching her breasts as she spoke, seemed especially eager to see Clark again. It had been she who'd stopped Jeff from stabbing the police Chief to death.

The closet: utter, unyielding darkness, except for a thin line of moonlight between door and floor; dust motes that made him sneeze a few times; the hems of women's dresses brushing his shoulders.

He had no idea how long he'd been in there. Twenty minutes…two hours. It could easily be either.

He wondered where they had gone, shuddering as he thought about them: their open sores, their crazed eyes, their psychotic laughter. He knew now that whatever Diane had told him about this house was true…

Down the hall he heard distant, muffled sounds, but what they were he could not tell from there.

He sat forward, the clothesline binding his wrists and ankles together, pulling tight, cutting into his skin.

He slammed his head against the louvered closet door. It was the only way he was going to get it open. He had slammed his head three times when he heard the wailing start…

At first, it sounded as if an animal had been mortally wounded. The one thing that kept Clark from being a hunter was the suffering he'd seen animals go through. This sound was like that…an animal on a tightrope across the dark abyss of death…Only gradually did he learn that the sound was human.

Moonlight fell through the louvered door, casting faint bars on his face. Sweat in beads stood on his forehead. His bulky jaw muscles contracted as he listened to the wailing and the shrieking grow even worse.

Abruptly, footsteps began slapping down the hall toward this room, toward this closet…

"Oh, God! Help me! Help me!" A female voice screamed over and over.

He heard her fall through the door, cracking bones as she slammed to the floor.

"Oh, God!" She said, again and again, helpless curse, helpless prayer.

She began sobbing then, and all he could liken it to was the mother he'd had to inform one lovely July afternoon that both her young sons had drowned in a sandpit. He hadn't thought he'd ever get the woman to stop crying-she had literally torn out handfuls of her own hair-or to sit inside the squad car while he summoned an ambulance as much for her as for the dead boys…

She flung herself against the closet door, shattering it.

"Help me! Help me!" she cried.

Mindy tore the door away in pieces and stood there before him, naked, her body still covered with wounds and sores, but her ghoulishness was gone.

"Help me!" She screamed.

"I can't." He tried to show her the clothesline they'd lashed to his body.

"Oh, God!" she said, and fell to the floor, starting to untie him immediately.

She smelled so badly that he had to hold his breath. He cringed when some of the juices from her wounds sprayed across his face.

"I'm sorry we did this to you," she said. "It wasn't…us. It was Jenny."


"I know you don't believe that right now. But you will, you will."

Finished untying him, she helped him to his feet. They stood in a bedroom made silver by moonlight. When he stood away from her, he could smell sweet sachet on a dressing table.

"I don't know what to do," she said, walking around in frustrated circles. "I can't call the emergency ward. They'll send somebody out and-"

"You need to calm down and tell me what's wrong."

"It's Jeff. He's…going into one of his seizures she puts him in."

"Who puts him in?"

She glared at him as if he were the crazy one. "Why, Jenny, of course."

"Little Jenny-the one I saw tonight?"

She laughed bitterly. "Little Jenny. Oh, that's a good one. You'll have to tell that one to Jeff."

Just then there was a scream from down the hall that raised goose bumps on Clark's arms.

"Jeff!" she cried.

"Come on," Clark said, and ran out of the room and into the dark hall.

Mindy, sobbing, said, "We've got to help him before Jenny gets back here. She plans to kill us tonight-including you."

Her words only made Clark run that much faster.

It began as spasms, Jenny shaking uncontrollably as she stood in the dim light coming through the curtains.

Diane, dressed now in jeans and a sweat shirt and Reeboks, went immediately to Jenny and started to put her arms around her.

"Jenny, let me help you."

The voice that came from the small girl's mouth was no longer her own. It was masculine and throaty and ugly. "It's starting, Aunt Diane. The demon-"

Despite the warning, Diane threw her arms around Jenny and drew the girl to her. Even though her voice had changed, her frail body was familiar, and Diane hugged her.

"Do you remember when you used to come over and watch me make cookies?" Diane said, hoping that her recollection of more pleasant times would help Jenny. "And when you used to come over and sit on my lap and I'd read you Nancy Drew? I don't think you really understood Nancy, but you wanted me to keep on reading anyway. Do you remember that, Jenny?"

Diane had started to cry, the tears warm and full on her cheeks, because she could feel, there in her arms, a terrible transformation take place.

The demon was taking Jenny.

Diane, holding all the tighter, said, "Is there anything I can do, Jenny?"

"Pray for me, pray for me," Jenny said in her terrible, deep voice.

Before, her flesh had been cold. Now it was warm, almost fever-hot.

Diane began praying, random Hail Mary's, Our Fathers, holding Jenny as hard as she could.

"I don't want to kill Mindy and Jeff, even though they killed me," Jenny said. "Please don't let me kill them, Aunt Diane. Please stop me."

A powerful hand gripped Diane's shoulder suddenly and she was flung across the bedroom.

In Jenny's place stood a miniature crone, a witchlike creature of seething red eyes and stubby black teeth and crooked limbs. She had the shriveled, naked body of a very old woman, her breasts drooping sacks, her back bent, her fingers twisted arthritically.

She leaped at Diane now, slapping her with incredible force directly across the face, then pressing her gnarled hands to her shoulders and burning her in some method Diane did not understand. Screaming, reeling from pain, Diane smelled her own flesh sear from the witch's touch.

In the deep voice, but now grown even deeper, the witch said, "Only because the little girl loves you so much will I spare you. But don't try to stop me in any way or you will die. Do you understand?"

The hag moved toward the window, a grotesque shape in silhouette against the moonlit curtains.

She turned back toward Diane once and said, in a voice curiously softer now, "The little girl is struggling to take control again. She wants you to know how much she loves you."

Then the hag threw herself against the window, glass falling in shattered, silver pieces to the snowy ground below, and was gone in the whipping wind that came in through the smashed window frame.

Diane, sobbing now, pulled herself to her feet and began running down the stairs to the ground floor.

All she could think about was the witch's pledge to kill. And that could easily mean she would kill Robert Clark as well.

She ran out into the bitterly cold, but surprisingly bright, night, and kept on running until she reached the McCay house.

Jeff McCay lay writhing on the hallway floor. Bent over him, his wife, Mindy, kept calling his name.

Robert Clark knelt down next to her to see if he could help the man. McCay seemed to be choking. His hands were at his throat, as if he were trying to dislodge a piece of trapped food.

Clark took the man's hands away. Jeff McCay looked up at him with startled, terrified eyes. Clark had seen this kind of panic many times before in 'Nam. A man was injured and all he wanted to know from the medic was, A m I going to live?

Gasping, grasping at air, thrashing about insanely, Jeff McCay looked over at his wife and started sobbing.

She leaned past Clark and took her husband in her arms.

"This is how it's been," Mindy said there in the darkness of the hall. "We know she's going to kill us because we killed her. But she punishes us. She almost made Jeff commit suicide the night he ran out of here naked. She puts spells on us, like this one where he seems to be choking to death. I had a period so bloody I had to sit in the bathtub, and twice my whole body broke out with sores. And you saw how she turns us into ghouls. That's why we could never have company-or go to the police — because every time we tried, she would do something to prevent us. All she's done since she came back is torture us."

Jeff continued to cry out and gasp in his wife's arms.

Downstairs, glass smashed in the living room.

"God, it's her!" Mindy cried, and grabbed Clark with one hand, her other holding her arm. "Please help us! Please!"

Clark got to his feet and pulled out his service revolver, already sensing that it was going to do him little if any good.

Even up there, the air was choked, fetid. He could smell the presence of a demon. A disbeliever, he'd once been called to a house where a demonic infestation had taken place. He'd remained skeptical but there was one thing he'd been unable to dismiss, and that was the peculiar and terrible odor of the place. He found himself feeling nauseated as he moved carefully down the hallway to the staircase.

Footsteps crunched into broken glass somewhere in the living room. Irregular breathing, almost wheezing, could be heard against the whistling sound of the wind.

Reaching the stairs, Clark put one hand on the banister for support and with the other raised his service revolver, ready for whatever lay ahead.

The entire house was a deep pool of shadows. He felt he was being submerged, perhaps even drowned, in them. One step at a time, he continued his descent to the first floor.

Creaking wood made him start. His entire body was instantly bathed in a sticky sweat. He'd had no idea how terrified he'd become.

Reaching the bottom of the steps, he began to scan the gloom, to see if he could find one thing wrong, one thing that would show him where Jenny might be.

Shapes of furniture, the fireplace, the heavy, closed drapes appeared. His stomach and bowels were doing terrible things as he pressed deeper into the room. This was not the kind of fear he liked to admit to himself. He felt impossibly young and helpless, as if at any moment he might drop his revolver and begin crying out for help.

A noise caused him to spin around, drop to one knee and aim his revolver.

Hammer back, ready to fire, he watched the alcove to the right of the dining room, and it was there that she appeared.

She was as he remembered her, an innocent-looking little girl with freckles and pigtails. Her prim blue dress touched her knees, and her white anklets and black patent leather shoes were perfectly cared for.

She moved toward him in the center of a soft blue glow. She put her hand out to him and smiled. "You're afraid, aren't you, Robert?"

And he heard himself-as if from a great distance-saying, "Yes, Jenny, I am."

"There's no reason to be. You're with the forces of good now."

"The forces of good?"

She raised her lovely eyes to the floor above them. "You saw what the forces of evil do to people. Now you'll be with me and everything will be all right."

"With you?" He wasn't sure what she meant. All he knew was that her voice had a peculiarly soothing effect on him, almost like a drug.

"Yes," she said, moving even closer, "with me."

She put a hand out, touched his face. He still knelt on one knee. The palm of her hand was tender and warm, comforting on his cheek.

She leaned forward and put her small, damp mouth in to kiss on his forehead.

"You'll be with me now," she said again.

And he thought of summer days and lush green foliage and clear blue mountain streams and cardinals and jays that frolicked on the soft clean air.

"With you," he repeated. "With you."

Distantly, he heard the revolver fall from his hand and strike the floor.

There in the darkness, enshrined in the soft blue glow, Jenny reached forward now, to give him an even more intimate kiss, one on the mouth.

Knowing this was wrong-she was a little girl-he tried to stop her but somehow he could not.

Feeling her tiny, wriggling tongue inside his mouth, he tried once again to push her away.

"Jenny, no," he said.

The cackle was unlike anything he had ever heard. And there could be no doubt from where it came.

Before his face, innocent little Jenny became the ugliest, bent hag he had ever seen. He thought of the mad women panhandlers of the large cities-this twisted crone was a hundred times uglier.

"You shouldn't play with little girls." The witch laughed, and then raked her long nails across his face, scoring it.

Hot blood and almost unbearable pain spread across his cheeks as he fell to the floor, cupping his hands over his face to slow the bleeding.

His scream followed her up the stairs, up into the even deeper shadows, where the McCay's waited to die.

It could have been no longer than a minute before their screams started, covering his entirely.

Several times, he tried to get to his feet, but each attempt ended with his falling back to the floor.

He was losing blood so quickly that his strength was leaving him. Terror, confusion, and a distant sense of shame also took their toll. He almost prayed for unconsciousness…

He was not certain when the front door was hurled open. All he knew was that the last thing he saw when he rose up once more on his bloody hands…was the sight of Diane.

She stood in the doorway shouting, "Jenny! Jenny!" Over and over, almost as if she was transfixed.

She did not seem to notice as he began dragging his body across the parquet floor toward her.

She did not seem to notice that his face looked as if a dozen razors had slashed it.

She did not seem to notice the soft, almost prayerful name-hers-he uttered as he now started to lose consciousness for sure…

No, she was too busy looking at what was left of the creature on the staircase, the creature that had once been a woman named Mindy.

Breasts no more than bloody holes, head torn off at the shoulders, and blood coming in geysers from the trunk, the creature grasped uselessly for the banister and then came tumbling down the stairway as, upstairs, Jeff began pleading for mercy and then pleading for help.

That was the last thing Clark remembered.

A robin sat on the window ledge. Diane, pouring milk into a clear, tall glass, said, "That's all you're going to eat?"

Patting her stomach, Jenny said, "Let's see. That's one egg, a bowl of oat bran, a piece of toast, a glass of orange juice, two vitamins, and now a big glass of milk." She grinned. "I'd say that's a pretty healthy breakfast."

Diane laughed. "You caught me at it again, didn't you?"

"Overcompensating," Jenny said decisively.

"Overcompensating," Diane agreed, and sat down. On a talk show they'd both seen together a few weeks before, the host had talked about how people overcompensated for things that worried them. In Diane's case, this meant overcompensating for all that had happened to Jenny. These days, Diane overprotected her shamelessly.

A robin sat plump and sassy on the window. Cool May air glided into the kitchen. Outside, you could see blue and red and yellow flowers blooming on the new grass of the hill.

Diane said, "Better hurry, honey. Only five minutes for the school bus."

Jenny, dressed in a white blouse, blue-denim miniskirt, and black flats, turned away from the counter and said, "I heard you arguing last night, Aunt Diane. You don't have to stick up for me that way."

Diane felt her cheeks go warm and red. "Honey, we weren't arguing. We were just having a discussion. And I'm sorry if you woke up."

It seemed such a waste, discussing all this on a morning when birds were singing their fool heads off, when green things were sprouting up so quickly you could practically hear them, and when the air itself was as soft and sweet as a child's kiss.

"He wants to tell, doesn't he? Chief Clark, I mean."

Diane sighed. There was no sense in being evasive any longer. "He…just thinks…we should talk to some people at the state university. Some…parapsychologists who used to work with Dr. Rhine at Duke University. He was a very famous-"

"You know what they'd do to me."

Diane could not meet Jenny's gaze.

"I heard you say it yourself last night, Aunt Diane. They'll start examining me and studying me and questioning me and they'll make me tell what happened that night when-"

Diane put her hand up. Knowing the kind of traumatic response talking about that night still imposed on Jenny, Diane avoided the subject whenever possible. "You're right."

"Then you won't let him take me to the university?" Diane held out her hands. Jenny came into her embrace. "No, honey, I won't let him."

Nuzzled against Diane's neck, Jenny said, "You promise?"

"I promise."

Jenny put herself at arm's length from Diane. "We can be a family, can't we, Aunt Diane, you and I?"

"We are a family, honey."

"And we don't need…him."

"Honey, he's a-"

"I know, I know. 'Honey, he's a good friend of mine.' But I heard the way you cried when you went to bed last night. I was so worried I started saying prayers for you. That doesn't sound like he's a very good friend of yours, Aunt Diane."

Taking the frail girl back in her arms, Diane held her so tightly she was almost afraid she was hurting her. There had never been time for children in her first marriage, and then her husband had died and the prospect of having a child had grown even dimmer. Perhaps that was why she felt this incredible need to nurture and protect Jenny…

Holding the girl, Diane felt tears well up in her eyes. "Thank you, honey," she said, her voice shaky.

"For what, Aunt Diane?"

"For caring about me enough to say prayers for me."

"But I say prayers for you all the time, Aunt Diane."

"You do?"

"Yes. I say prayers for both of us-that we'll always be together."

A big horn blared outside.

"Oh, my gosh!" Diane said. "The school bus."

The next thirty seconds was a mad rush around the kitchen grabbing sweater, lunchbox, milk money, and books.

Then Diane was hurrying her down the walk to the bus.

"Look, Aunt Diane," Jenny said, and pointed to a beautiful orange-and-black admiral butterfly. "Isn't it beautiful?"

"It sure is." Diane laughed. "But the school bus is beautiful, too."

Jenny, squeezing her hand, said, "Someday when I'm all grown up, I can stay here all day with you. We'll be like sisters. We'll have a great time."

Then she skipped the rest of the way to the bus, a few kids behind windows waving to her.

Feeling like a real mother-feeling that Jenny was in fact her real daughter-Diane watched until the bus pulled out of sight around the bend and then walked back to the house, the admiral butterfly still perched on the mailbox.

She was trying very hard not to think about what was to take place three hours from now. Lunch with Robert…

Amy's was a holdover from the seventies, when restaurants tried to disguise themselves as terrariums. Diane and Robert sat near the back of the crowded place, placing their orders with a young waitress who looked overwhelmed by the sheer number of diners.

Diane decided on a roast-beef sandwich on rye with a small salad and a glass of iced tea. Robert chose the same sandwich but asked that it be served with French fries and coffee.

The waitress gone, Robert said, "You look great." She smiled. "A quick man with the compliment."

"A quick, sincere man."

"Well, thanks, I guess I kind of needed that." Obviously sensing the troubled quality of her tone, he said, "Still angry with me?"

"Angry isn't the right word."

"What is the right word, then?"

"More like…confused"

Sitting back in his chair, he said, "Maybe it's just the cop in me, Diane, but I can't help thinking we did the wrong thing."

"Even if it means sparing a little girl's sanity-maybe even her life?"

He stared somberly at her and said, "Are you sure she's a little girl, Diane? There's a very real possibility she's something very different. That's why I'd like the people at the university to-"

Diane reached across the table and touched Robert's hand. "Do we have to have the same argument we did last night?"

Robert sighed. "The fact is, Diane, that two people were murdered. Neither of us saw Jenny do it-but we have a strong suspicion that she did."

"We were downstairs when it was going on."

"Downstairs, right. And Jenny was upstairs with Mindy and Jeff. Who else could have killed them? And we're not even talking about…about her…condition…or whatever you want to call it." He glanced around the restaurant, as if watching for eavesdroppers. "She may not even be human, Diane."

"Of course she's human. She's a sweet little girl who nearly died when her own sister tried to kill her. Don't you think that's enough turmoil in her life?"

"So you're willing to let her walk away? Even if she's a killer?"

Diane knew this was not the answer Robert wanted. "Yes."

Robert shook his head and dropped his gaze.

"Living with me, she's going to get the love and guidance she's never had," Diane said. She hated the slightly defensive tone that had crept into her voice.

"How do you know that she won't turn on you?" Robert said. "Even if there isn't anything…supernaturally wrong with her, there's every possibility that she's deeply disturbed, maybe even sociopathic." He kept thinking about the official police version-that Jeff had savagely murdered Mindy, and then killed himself. Even now, Clark wondered what had really gone on there that night.

"Oh, God, Robert. Saying something like that-" She locked her jaw, and then surprised herself by standing up. "I'm just afraid we shouldn't see each other anymore."

He grabbed her hand. "Diane, please don't say that. You're upset, but-"

She saw the grief in his eyes. It was the same kind of grief she felt at this moment. First she'd felt she could never love anyone with the same passion she'd felt for her first husband, and then she'd met Robert and…

She took her hand away. "I'm sorry, Robert. What you're asking is for me to choose between you and Jenny. And I guess I've given you my answer."

She saw anger fill his gaze. "What happens if I report what really happened that night? Demand an investigation?"

Softly, knowing that many diners had started watching them, Diane said, "If you do that, Robert, you'll be thrown off the force for covering up the evidence in the first place. I don't think you'd be that foolish. You like your job too much."

She left the restaurant.

The police officers-one in uniform, one in a brown suit his wife had bought him at Sears for his last birthday-stood in the doorway of the Chief's office, nudging each other and shaking their heads in operatic disapproval.

Inside the office, the Chief had his feet up on the desk and was reading a paperback called The Supernatural Explained by Dr. T. J. MacGregor, M. F. A., the exact meaning of which was lost on the two men.

"What the hell's gotten into him these days, anyway?" the uniformed officer asked the other.

All the man in the brown suit could do was shake his head again.

Clark had been reading The Supernatural Explained for the past two hours, ever since his disappointing lunch with Diane.

Glancing up, becoming aware of the two officers in the doorway, he said, "Help you with anything, men?"

Steinberg, the man in the brown suit, said, "We were just wondering why you'd be reading a book like that."

Clark took the book away from his face and stared at it. "What's wrong with this book?"

"Well, you know," Maloney, the uniformed man, said.

"No, I don't know."

"Well, supernatural and stuff like that," Steinberg said.

"Oh, you mean you don't believe in it?"

"Yeah…uh…right. I mean…uh…yeah, we don't believe in it," Maloney said, apparently repeating himself for emphasis. "Uh…do you?"

"Are you going to start laughing if I say 'yes'?"

"Hell, no," Steinberg said. But he said it too quickly to be convincing. "I mean, what you believe in is your business. This is America, after all."

Clark put the book face down on the desk and then sat forward in his chair, elbows on the desk. "Well, for what it's worth, you two, I don't believe in the supernatural."

They started to smile, obviously happy that the Chief had taken the trouble to convince them of his sanity.

"On the other hand," Clark said, "I don't disbelieve it, either."

"Huh?" Maloney said.

"In other words, it's possible. You mean you don't even think it's possible?"

Maloney looked at Steinberg. "You think it's possible?"

Steinberg looked at Maloney. "You go first, Maloney. Do you think it's possible?"


Clark smiled. "You don't have to commit yourself, Maloney, don't worry."

Maloney seemed relieved.

"Maybe I'm just trying to expand my horizons a little," Clark said. He purposely kept the good-natured tone in his voice. It was his blue gaze that was troubled. He patted the book. "So if you two don't mind, I guess I'll get back to my reading."

Maloney said, "Oh, we don't mind, Chief. Do we, Steinberg?"

"No, Chief, we don't mind at all."

But before they left they gave each other worried looks. Whatever happened to the Chief Clark whose main concern was how the Red Sox were doing?

Clark spent the rest of the afternoon in his office, except for two trips to the bathroom and one trip to the pop machine.

On the other side of the wire mesh that covered his office windows, afternoon gave way to purple dusk and purple dusk to velvety black night. Shifts had changed, pizza and burgers and submarines had been delivered and devoured, and the more officious proceedings of the day had shifted to the more rowdy business of the night: drunks, derelicts, and drug addicts.

All this time, Clark read. He could not recall ever reading a book with so much intensity, except perhaps for Kiss Me Deadly by Mickey Spillane, a copy of said novel having been given him at age thirteen by an older cousin who had kindly underlined all the good parts.

By the time he had finished The Supernatural Explained, he had a headache, an empty stomach, a full bladder, and a singular desire to talk to Diane, even before he dealt with that full bladder.

Gazing at the spray of stars across the nighttime sky, he dialed her number. She picked up on the second ring. "Hello."




"Is this Robert?"

"Who else?"

"You're certainly in a lot better mood than you were at lunch."

"I'm sorry."

She sighed. "So am I. I've been miserable ever since."

"Me, too."

"So what's this about possession?"

"That's her problem. Jenny's. Listen to this, all right?"

"Give me a minute. She's running a bath upstairs and I want to make sure she's got fresh towels."

"You really love that girl."

An uncomfortable pause. "She's my…daughter. Now, Robert. I hope you can…understand that."

"I think I can."

"It doesn't have to be a choice between you and Jenny. It really doesn't."

"I hope not." His bladder was starting to hurt. "So is it all right if I stop over?"


"Maybe an hour, hour and a half."

"Make it an hour and a half. I can have Jenny in bed by then. Just…" She hesitated. "Just don't try to take her away from me, Robert. No more talk about the university or parapsychology or any of that. You promise?"

"I promise."

"Now, what were you going to tell me about possession?"

"Just listen to these two paragraphs." So he read to her from The Supernatural Explained. Finished, he said, "Sound familiar?"

"I hate to say it," she said. "But it does sound like some of the things Jenny's been going through."

Hearing this, he felt exultant. Hearing this, he knew that everything was going to work out. There would be a marriage, after all.

"See you in about, an hour and a half, honey," he said.

"Just please understand that I don't want to talk about…any of this…until I'm sure she's asleep. All right?"

"Fine," he said.

For ten minutes after Robert's call, Diane allowed herself to feel as if things would straighten themselves out. Jenny and Robert, each of whom disliked and greatly distrusted the other, would get along, and somehow Diane and Robert would be married, and the three of them would live in the big, beautiful house there in Stoneridge Estates, and they would be a real family.

She thought about all this as she went down into the basement and took clean towels from the drier-liking the aroma of fabric softener-and as she climbed the stairs to the second floor bathroom.

Jenny, submerged in huge bubbles, thanks to the bubble bath Diane had bought her, glanced up when Diane came into the bathroom.

"Fresh towels," Diane said, putting the terry cloth to her nose and smelling, then hanging the towels on the rack nearest the pink bathtub.

Jenny continued to stare at her. "Didn't I hear the phone, Aunt Diane?"

"Why, yes."

"Oh," Jenny said.

Diane knew Jenny wanted her to tell her who had called, but Diane didn't want to spoil this moment of bliss.

Deciding she was being silly, Diane said, "It was Robert."

"That's what I figured."

"Please don't take that tone."

"What tone?"

"Oh…hurt…I suppose you'd call it."

"I'm not hurt."

"Well, disappointed, then."

"I may be disappointed, Aunt Diane, but that's not the same thing as hurt."

"No, I suppose it isn't."

"If you want to like him-and trust him-as a friend, that's up to you."

Diane sat on the closed toilet seat. "I hope all three of us become friends, Jenny. I hope we become…a family."

"I see."

"You see what?"

"A family. That means you're expecting to marry him."

"Well, not right away. But someday, maybe."

"'Maybe. Sure."

"I'm sorry if this is painful for you."

"I just kept remembering the way he looked at me the night Mindy and Jeff died." She dropped her gaze, seemed to be staring into the impenetrable wall of soapsuds. "He thought I killed them, didn't he?"

She had to be careful there, Diane thought. She said, "He was just confused about what went on."

"Jeff killed Mindy and then killed himself. That's what the police report said."

"I know what the police report said. Robert wrote the police report and he…he wrote down some of the things I asked him to."

"Then you think I killed them?"

"I didn't say that, Jenny."

Tears glistened in her eyes. "Do you happen to remember that they tried to kill me?"

"I remember that, Jenny. Please don't let yourself get so upset."

"Oh, there's no reason to be upset, Aunt Diane. Just because the person I love most in the world thinks I'm a murderer-or worse."

Diane stood up, crossed over to the tub, knelt down. Taking Jenny's small, pretty face in her hands, Diane kissed the girl on the forehead, right where a splotch of bubbles lay. "I love you, Jenny. Don't you understand that?"

The girl calmed visibly. "I'm sorry, Aunt Diane."

"We're always going to be together," Diane said.

And then Jenny reached up through the soapsuds and grasped Diane's slender wrist. "Do you mean that, Aunt Diane?"

"Of course I do, honey. Of course I do."

Twenty minutes later, Diane tucked Jenny into bed, pulling the covers up high so they would reach her neck. Jenny yawned, kissed Diane good-night, and fell asleep almost immediately in the silver moonlight.


"Please," Robert said. This was forty-five minutes later.

They were in the kitchen, which still smelled of dinner: meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. They were at the butcher-block table, drinking Sanka from large gray-ceramic cups.

Robert nodded toward the upstairs. "She asleep?"


"Good. Then we can talk."

She reached across and touched his hand. "I want to talk, Robert, but not about Jenny."

"But I thought-"

"Don't you see? It's been pushing us apart, talking about her. Can't the three of us just learn to love one another and forget the past?"

Robert frowned. "I wish it was that easy, Diane."

"Can't it be that easy, Robert?"

He shook his head. "She needs help. At least a few sessions with a shrink. This book I told you about-"

"I don't care about the book, Robert. I don't care at all. Can't you see that? I just want peace and quiet and for the three of us-"

He drew his hand away from hers. "On the way out here, I made up my mind about something, Diane."

"About what?"

From his suit coat pocket, he took a single cigarette, set it in his mouth; and lighted it.

"You told me you'd quit," she said.

"Tonight I started again."

"Oh, Robert," she said, and in that terrible instant she knew it was not going to work for them. He would always be suspicious. Always remember that night.

"I'm going to the city council tomorrow morning and tell them I falsified that report." He exhaled heavily.

"You'll lose your job."

"If I don't tell them the truth, I'll lose my self-respect. Losing that's a lot worse than losing a job, Diane. You should know that."

"Don't talk down to me, Robert."

He had some more of his cigarette. "When I first met you, you were the most warm, caring, honest person I'd ever met. I loved you so deeply. But now-"

He shook his head.

"Now what, Robert?"

He looked up sorrowfully at her. "Now, Diane, you've given yourself over to that little girl entirely. You lie, evade, cover up-and it doesn't seem to bother you at all."

She had started crying. Softly, nothing dramatic, but deeply. "I wish you'd leave."

He stood up and put his hand on her shoulder. "All the way out here, I kept hoping it would work, hoping I could figure out some way that I wouldn't have to do my duty." Now he sounded as if he wanted to cry. "But I've got to tell people what happened. After I read that book I realized for sure that Jenny isn't a normal little girl. She's-" He sighed. "Well, you know what she is, Diane. I don't have to tell you. You know what she is and that's why you're so protective of her."

Now Diane's gentle tears had started to turn into sobbing. She touched the hand he'd put on her shoulder. "Please leave, Robert. Please."

"She's got you trapped, Diane, and you don't see that. Escape while you still can."

She put her head down on the table, shaking with her tears.

Robert left.

He had driven six miles along the icy road on his way back to town when he heard a noise in the backseat.

He glanced in the rearview mirror and saw her there. "I expected you," he said, and took out his service revolver.

Staring at him in the rearview mirror, she said, "You know what I am. You should know a gun won't help you."

Jenny leaned over in the seat. He didn't have time to fire a single shot.

In the spring they took a trip together. Jenny didn't tell Diane that the cabin in which they stayed was near the site where Mindy and Jeff had buried the little girl. She didn't want to ruin their vacation.

For three days and nights they swam and rode horses and played tennis and listened to campfire songs and slept in late, each in one of the comfortable single beds that the vacation ground provided.

On the fourth night, Jenny, curious, drifted into the woods and found the place where she'd been buried.

In the moonlit darkness, she sat on a rock and stared and stared at the slight incline of earth where her crude burial mound had been.

After a time, floating through the night air and the chill scent of pines, she heard Aunt Diane calling for her. Aunt Diane sounded upset, even terrified.

"Jenny!" she cried.

"Over here!" Jenny said.

Aunt Diane, seeing her, swept down upon her with relief and warm hands. "I was so frightened! I couldn't find you anywhere!"

She sat next to the quiet little girl, her breath coming in spasms.

She saw that Jenny's eyes were fixed on the swell of earth.

"What's so interesting?" Aunt Diane asked.

"This place."


"It's where they buried me. Mindy and Jeff."

Aunt Diane hugged her. "Oh, honey, I thought we agreed to not talk about the past anymore."

"They killed me."

"Now, honey, you know they didn't kill you. If they had, you wouldn't be alive today."

What would it take for Aunt Diane to understand? Robert Clark had repeatedly tried to tell her. So had Jenny, in her way.

"Aunt Diane, you know the truth but you won't admit it." She leaned over and put her head on Aunt Diane's shoulder. "I'm not alive today."

"Please don't ever say that again," Aunt Diane said, sounding young and scared.

"You know I killed Mindy and Jeff."

"No, please-"

"And you know I killed Robert. I waited for him in his car and-"

Aunt Diane jumped up suddenly and ran up the hill, stumbling several times.

Silhouetted against the full silver moon, Aunt Diane raised her folded hands in prayer.

Jenny did not go up the hill for a long time.

She just let Aunt Diane fall to the ground and cry and cry.

Finally, though, Jenny rose and went up the hill and knelt down and took Diane in her arms and said, "Please don't cry, Aunt Diane. Please."

"Then don't ever say that again, Jenny. You didn't kill Mindy and you didn't kill Jeff and you didn't kill Robert and you're not dead, you're alive. And you're a perfectly normal little girl. Won't you please believe that, honey? Won't you please believe that?"

Jenny listened to the vast night, the birds and grass and stones and water and stars and bones and flesh of this night. Jenny wanted to tell Aunt Diane of her great sadness for not being a part of this night, for being something despised and feared on this plane of existence.

But that was not what Aunt Diane wanted to hear, of course.

Jenny leaned over and kissed Aunt Diane tenderly on the cheek. "That's what I am, Aunt Diane," Jenny said, "a perfectly normal little girl."

After a time they went back to the cabin, where Aunt Diane made buttery popcorn and began laughing once more, the way she used to.