"The dark! It's watching me--make it go away!"
Wrenched out of sleep, Kate sat up in bed. From across the hall, Sara screamed again. "Mommy! Make it go away!"
Throwing the covers back, Kate glimpsed the glowing numerals on the alarm clock--one thirty-five in the morning. Nightgown tangled around her hips, she dashed into Sara's room and snapped on the light. Her daughter sat up in bed, rigid, her eyes wide, shrieking, "The dark! The dark!"
Blinking in the sudden glare, Kate sat on the edge of the bed and put her arms around Sara. The child's slender body felt as stiff as a mannequin. Stroking her hair, Kate found it damp, plastered to her scalp with sweat. Sara gave no sign of seeing, hearing, or feeling anything. She screamed over and over, emitting a siren wail like nothing Kate had ever heard. Shaking, she murmured Sara's name and massaged the tight knots of her shoulders under the Winnie-the-Pooh nightshirt.
Night terrors. Now, with her panic fading, Kate remembered reading about this phenomenon, a nightmare-like seizure so extreme nothing could break its grip until it ran its course. She'd never expected to see it in Sara, though.
She set her teeth, her own pulse pounding in her head, and waited for the attack to end. After several minutes, Sara abruptly fell silent and slumped back, eyes shut. Kate eased her onto the pillow, tucking sheet and quilt up to her neck. She looked sound asleep.
Kate watched for ten minutes before she could force herself, still trembling, to stumble back to her own bed. She lay awake for over an hour, straining her ears for any sound from the other room. Sara had never before expressed any kind of irrational fear, certainly not of the dark. Was she sick? She didn't have a fever. Was the stress of having no father and a working mother taking its psychological toll? I can't believe that, not when she's always handled it so well. And if I did believe it, what could I do about it? A succession of worries chased each other around Kate's skull like hamsters on a wheel until exhaustion stilled them.
* * * *
The next morning, she considered asking for the day off from work. To her surprise, though, Sara didn't mention her panic attack. She dressed herself and ate her whole-wheat raisin toast as calmly as ever. When Mrs. Pacheco, the widowed grandmother who lived upstairs, arrived to baby-sit as usual, Sara welcomed her with no apparent reluctance. Rather than upset Sara all over again, Kate left at her normal time.
When she came home that afternoon, though, Mrs. Pacheco greeted her with the whispered remark, "I don't understand what's gotten into Sara this afternoon. About an hour ago, she started acting, well, nervous."
"Nervous?" Kate kept her voice low, glancing from the foyer into the living room, where Sara sat on the rug in front of the TV, watching Sesame Street.
"It's not like her, Mrs. Jacobs, that's why it worried me," said Mrs. Pacheco. "She said something about a dream she had last night."
"A nightmare. She's never had one before that I know of." So she hasn't forgotten it, after all. Kate gnawed on her lower lip as she shrugged out of her jacket and hung it in the entryway closet.
Mrs. Pacheco whispered, "She said she didn't want you to leave tonight."
"But how could she possibly know--" Kate herself hadn't known until half an hour before quitting time that her boss had an assignment for her this evening. She stifled a twinge of guilt about having to go out. In this day and age, mothers are allowed to have careers. As if I had a choice, anyway!
Recalling last night's hysterical outburst gave her an almost physical chill. It contrasted so sharply with Sara's normal behavior. No mother could ask for a more self-possessed, composed four-year-old. The child probably got her competent manner from associating so much with adults. Now Kate didn't know how to cope with this sudden change. Could it come from the strain of acting older than her age? Did Sara think she had to act grown up because of her mother's job? Cut out the amateur psychology, Kate told herself. One nightmare does not mean a breakdown.
At that moment Oscar the Grouch finished his trash song, and Sara leaped up to run into the foyer. "Mommy, you're home!" she cried in a surprised tone as atypical as the fears. She flung her arms around Kate's waist.
"Of course, just like this time every day." Kate let Sara clasp her hand and tug her to the couch.
Barefoot, dressed in lime green shorts and T-shirt, Sara perched cross-legged on the couch, with her elbows resting on her knees and chin supported by her fists. "Please don't go out tonight. It's real important." Now she wasn't screaming or crying, just making a statement she obviously saw as plain fact.
"I have to. I promised." Sara usually understood about promises. Kate stroked her daughter's honey-colored, shoulder-length hair. "I've worked late plenty of times, and you didn't mind." She glanced up at Mrs. Pacheco, waiting in the entry hall. "I'm awfully sorry about the late notice, but could you possibly watch her this evening? Starting about six-thirty?"
"Of course, Mrs. Jacobs, no problem," said the older woman, though her worried frown didn't relax.
"It will be all right. I won't stay out any longer than I have to." Kate knew how lucky she was to have someone like Mrs. Pacheco living in the apartment right above hers. Comparable personal attention at a day care center would have gutted her budget.
Sara didn't speak again until the babysitter had left. "Who did you promise? Mr. Boyle?"
She nodded. Sara knew and liked Ned Boyle, not only Kate's employer but a long-time close friend of her deceased parents.
"He's a nice man," Sara persisted. "He'll let you stay home. Tell him it's important."
"Why, munchkin? What makes this time different?" Kate stepped across the room to turn down the sound on Sesame Street.
Sara's lips quivered. "The dark. I don't want the dark to get you."
"But you know the dark isn't an animal or a person. It can't 'get' anybody." The faded couch sagged in the familiar spot as Kate sat down again. "You've never been afraid of the nighttime before. It's just like in Goodnight Moon, remember?"
"Not that kind of dark." Sara's voice held the long-suffering patience with which she often explained things to her lovable but rather dim parent--or so it sounded to Kate. "This is a special kind. I saw it last night." Fear welled up in her blue eyes.
Worried that the child might talk herself into another panic, Kate stood up and said more firmly, "I wish I didn't have to go, too, but this time I don't have a choice. You like Mrs. Pacheco, and you know I'll come home as quick as I can. Don't you?"
Sara gave a tentative nod.
"You have to be brave, munchkin." She ruffled the girl's mop of hair. "All for one--"
"And one for all!" Sara managed a smile.
Kate turned up the TV and headed for her bedroom, her eyes stinging. No four-year-old should be required to "be brave". At moments like this, she felt an irrational anger at Johnny for abandoning the two of them.
Yeah, right, as if he planned the whole thing.
She plucked hairpins from her chignon and collected them in her palm as she walked. She'd have to hustle to make it to the Mark Hopkins by seven.
What a day for Ned Boyle to ask her to represent him at a book signing! But he wouldn't have done it on the spur of the moment without good reason. He'd been scheduled to attend the affair himself, until his wife had gone into the hospital with pneumonia barely an hour ago. The other three staff members had previous commitments; only Kate remained available. She couldn't say no to the man whom she owed so much. His small publishing firm, Golden Apple Press, had hired her straight out of college, with no qualifications beyond a B.A. in English from Berkeley and a year on the campus newspaper. Not only that, she owed him double for hiring her back after Sara's birth, when she'd desperately needed an income.
But tonight of all nights! And for Arthur Sandoval, of all people! She zipped through her shower, consoling herself that she could escape after a brief show of support. Ned believed Sandoval's latest treatise on occult and supernatural occurrences in modern California could be a breakout book for both author and publisher. The public's fascination with weird phenomena might give this release a wider appeal than Golden Apple's usual line, poetry and regional-emphasis material such as guidebooks. Kate kept her opinion to herself. She'd had to copyedit Sandoval's book as part of her job; otherwise, she wouldn't have touched the thing. After Sara's birth and Johnny's death, her indifference to the occult had changed to outright revulsion. And she didn't care for Sandoval himself, either. He wore a black goatee that looked doubly affected with his thinning hair and middle-aged pot-belly. Apparently, he was hoping to make himself resemble the head of that "Church of Satan" downtown.
Bundling on a robe over fresh underwear, Kate dashed from the bathroom to her bedroom. As she started working on her makeup at the scarred early-American dresser, she heard Sara switch off Mr. Rogers and patter down the hall. "Mommy, may I come in and watch you?" She seldom forgot to use "may" instead of "can" when appropriate.
"Sure. What do you want for supper?"
Kate sighed and blotted her lipstick. "Okay. Not the healthiest thing in the house, but it's quick."
Sara knelt on the end of the bed, behind her mother. "You really gots to go?"
"I really gots to go." Watching Sara in the mirror, Kate compared the child's reflection with the picture of Johnny on the dresser. The familiar resemblance struck her afresh. Sometimes she fancied that Johnny had produced Sara by a sort of male parthenogenesis, with Kate only an incubator. Father and daughter had the same thick, dark-honey hair, the same deep blue eye color that faded after infancy in most people, the same elfin features. Kate's own face was broad rather than delicate, though her height enabled her to eat what she liked without expanding from solidity to plumpness.
She began to French-braid her auburn hair. To her relief, Sara seemed to give up trying to make her stay home. Instead, Sara asked, apropos of nothing, "What's inn trow pee?"
She pronounced the three syllables so distinctly that Kate had to mouth them to herself a few times to come up with the word "entropy". Good grief, what did I do to deserve a precocious genius? "Chaos, I guess. Disintegration. Everything winding down like a worn-out clock." As if that will make any sense to her. "Where on earth did you hear that word?" Kate figured Sara must have accidentally viewed part of a science program on public TV. The concept couldn't have popped up in conversation with Mrs. Pacheco, who, for all her fine qualities, was no intellectual.
"Daddy told it to me." Sara made the remark in the same offhand way she always made these outrageous statements.
A chill prickled over Kate's skin. She'd given up trying to talk Sara out of these fantasies. Dwelling on them only made Kate herself miserable, without shaking the child's conviction. And why shouldn't a fatherless little girl indulge in compensatory fantasies? Other kids had imaginary friends; Sara had a phantom father. She appeared serene enough otherwise; she'd never shown any odd behavior that could indicate something--wrong. Until now. Until that nightmare and this stuff about the dark.
Kate ordered her fears to shut up. Sara didn't need a dithering, overprotective neurotic for a mother.
Sara herself clearly didn't attach any importance to what she'd said. "Will you read me Goodnight Moon before you leave?"
"Sure, munchkin, if there's time. I'd better get a move on." Though Sara had begun to puzzle out simple words, she was a long way from ready to give up her read-aloud time. Nor did Kate want to give it up, not for years to come. She tossed her robe on the bed and wiggled into an electric blue, crepe-de-chine cocktail dress, then hurried to the kitchen to zap a pair of hot dogs in the microwave.
When she set the single place in the dining nook, Sara asked, "Aren't you going to eat some hot dogs, too?"
"No, I'll get my supper out of the snacks at the party." In truth, Kate's stomach felt so knotted from anxiety that she had no interest in food.
After tidying up while Sara ate, she barely managed to finish Goodnight Moon before Mrs. Pacheco arrived. At the door Sara clung to her, another unusual action. But no tears, no begging. The child made the effort to act brave. All she said was, "Promise you'll be careful, Mommy."
Kate promised--and rushed off before she could succumb to the yearning to stay home.
Outside, she breathed deeply to quell the simmering brew of fear and resentment, while she scanned the street for the cab she had called. It would've been too much of a hassle trying to park in the hotel's garage. She drew her evening shawl tight around her shoulders. She didn't need it yet, but nightfall brought a nip to the San Francisco air, even in August.
At the Mark Hopkins, riding up in the elevator, she reminded herself to behave pleasantly to Sandoval. The Golden Apple Press prided itself on offering authors personal consideration in lieu of huge royalties and mass marketing. I can't let Ned down on this. It's not much to ask, just for an hour or two. Standing around in high heels and listening to a lot of boring chitchat hardly constituted medieval torture. She smiled to herself at the sudden memory of one of her late mother's favorite pronouncements: "Only boring people let themselves get bored."
A minute later, she scanned the room reserved for the book-signing party. She easily spotted Arthur Sandoval, holding forth at stage center--i.e., the table adorned with a pyramid of copies of Shades of the Golden State. He wore a rumpled blazer with the stem of a briar pipe sticking out of a side pocket. Kate had never seen him smoke the thing. Another prop, like the beard. He waved at her, and she walked over to him.
"Ms. Wade, meet one of the architects of my success," Sandoval said to the woman next to him, wearing a tailored suit and a hotel staff name tag. "Kathryn Christina Jacobs, my editor."
Gritting her teeth at the verbal flourishes, Kate pasted on a smile and shook hands with Ms. Wade, who turned out to be in charge of catering. After receiving Kate's thanks on behalf of Golden Apple, Ms. Wade excused herself. Sandoval introduced Kate to a silver-haired lady whose name promptly slid out of her mind. "We were just discussing the reality of the supernatural," he said.
The woman said, "I asked Mr. Sandoval if he really believes in it."
"Well, to paraphrase Horace Walpole, I don't believe in ghosts, but I'm afraid of them." That line got a polite laugh from the knot of people beginning to gather around him. "But seriously, why should the dimensional plane we live on be the only one that exists? I firmly believe that some people can get in touch with other levels of reality--other modes of being."
Kate hoped he wouldn't quote the "more things in Heaven and Earth" line from Hamlet again, as he had during a local talk show on which he'd guest-starred the day before. Listening to that rigmarole once had been more than enough for her.
The other woman said, "Suppose you're right? And suppose your books inspire weak-minded people to get in touch with these entities? If they contact evil powers, couldn't they get into serious danger?" Her tone suggested that she asked for the sake of argument, not out of genuine belief.
"Any great adventure can hold danger. As for evil, the question may not have any meaning. What makes you think that good and evil are any more than culture-specific referents?"
He had spouted the same lines on the talk show. Hearing them repeated word for word, Kate couldn't resist the opportunity to speak up. "Mr. Sandoval, are you saying that ultimate reality is amoral?"
"Why should our insignificant selves and our moral standards have any importance for the cosmos?" He waved his arms for emphasis, jarring a stack of books. Kate leaned over to rescue them. "All my research into the occult seems to indicate that they don't. After all, as Shakespeare says, 'nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so'. If these discarnate entities--assuming they exist--think they're acting in their own best interests, what gives us any grounds for arguing with them?" He chuckled at his own cleverness.
Kate refrained from pointing out that Shakespeare hadn't exactly made that remark; one of his invented characters had, at a particularly low moment. I've heard this guano in plenty of college bull sessions, expressed more intelligently, too. Why do I let this man get to me? She slipped away, murmuring something about the buffet table, and left Sandoval to his admirers.
At the bar she ordered a wine cooler and downed half of it, then drifted over to the food, nodding at a few acquaintances she passed. The hors d'oeuvres spread didn't appeal to her, but she knew she would regret it later if she didn't eat. She forced herself to nibble a carrot stick. When her stomach didn't revolt, she filled a plate with vegetables, crackers, and cheese cubes, picked up her drink, and zigzagged across the room exchanging greetings with the guests. When she got within Sandoval's range again, he had dropped the subject of the occult and was arguing with a professor from Berkeley about President Carter's foreign policy.
A balding man in horn-rimmed glasses at the fringe of Sandoval's group offered his hand to Kate. "Good to see you. I was expecting Ned."
Setting down her drink to shake hands, Kate explained about the Boyles' family emergency. After a moment's mental floundering, she recognized the man as owner of an independent bookshop near Fisherman's Wharf. "Glad you could make it, Jeff. Having a good time?"
Jeff glanced over at Sandoval, then said with a wry smile, "An interesting time, anyway. We'll stock the book, of course. People go wild over that stuff. I hear he's tackling UFOs next. How's your daughter?"
Flattered that he remembered that much about her, Kate gave a noncommittal answer while trying to suppress her anxiety. Maybe she ought to phone home, make sure Sara had settled down for bed all right? Only half hearing Jeff's remarks and her own automatic replies, she chatted with him about their respective families and Star Wars, which she had never seen. From what she'd heard, Sara might find parts of it fascinating, but Kate wasn't sure even a mature four-year-old could sit still for a movie of that length.
When Jeff excused himself and wandered off, she ate a couple of crackers and then looked around for her wine cooler. There, next to the stack of books where she'd left it. She picked up the glass but froze with it halfway to her lips. Hadn't she drunk down to the halfway mark? Now the glass was almost full. The shiver of alarm along her spine annoyed her. Don't be silly, somebody must have exchanged drinks by mistake. Yet she was suddenly possessed by the notion that the liquid smelled wrong.
Silently mocking her fantasies, she raised the glass to her mouth. A foul odor enveloped her like miasma from a sewer drain. Her stomach churned. At the same moment, Kate felt an animal prickling of nerves as if someone were watching her. Watching to see me drink? The situation was ridiculous, though. If the beverage really gave off such a stink, everybody around her would notice it. I must be coming down with the flu or something. Still, she would no more taste the cooler now than she would sip from Alice's "Drink Me" potion. She set down the glass and glanced around the room.
Something was wrong with her vision. The air seemed dense with smoke. Her eyes ached from peering into it. Yes, she must be sick; first imaginary odors, now imaginary fog. Again the sensation of watching eyes crept over her. Scanning the room, she found the source of the stare she felt. Earlier, she had looked out a window in that corner and seen, framed by crimson drapes, the cold sparkle of the downtown lights. Now the view was blocked by--Nothing. Not no-thing, but Nothing, if nothing could have substance.
She thought of black holes, dead stars so compressed that not even light could escape their gravity. She felt as if a black hole stood before her, a rip in the cosmos revealing a universe of negation.
A piece of the dark turned itself toward her.
Though the zone of negation was man-shaped, like a silhouette cut out of the air by a sharp blade, Kate couldn't distinguish a face. Yet she did see a pair of eyes. They glinted icy-blue.
Her stomach clenched. Her skin contracted with chill. The fog in the corners thickened and rolled toward her. Sara's cry from the previous night flashed into her head: "Mommy, the dark, the dark!"
Kate stumbled toward the door. The fetid mist stretched octopod tentacles after her. It entwined her ankles, slowing her steps. She staggered blindly to the door, careening against anonymous bodies whose voices made an insectile buzz in her ears. By the time her vision cleared, she'd made it to the ladies' room.
She leaned on the sink, water running, splashing her face and gasping. She became aware of someone beside her, a woman in a tailored suit. Focusing on the name tag, Kate recognized Ms. Wade, the hotel's catering director.
"Are you ill, Mrs. Jacobs? Maybe I'd better get you some help."
Somehow Kate managed to steady her heaving breath and speak calmly. "No, it was just the stuffy air. I felt dizzy for a minute. I'll rest a little while and get a cab home."
"Wouldn't you like me to sit with you?"
Kate shrugged off the woman's hand. "No, please don't fuss, I'll be fine."
Ms. Wade looked dubious but finally yielded to Kate's insistence. Relieved to find herself alone in the restroom, Kate swallowed hard a few times and stared at her panic-stricken face in the mirror. She had to get out of the hotel before some other well-meaning person delayed her. The memory of Sara's nightmare rang in Kate's head like a warning bell in a fogbound harbor. She had to get home right away.
Hurrying out of the restroom, she ignored the elevators and ran down the stairs. Nothing mattered but escape; the building felt like a trap, its atmosphere choking her. On the street level, she dashed through the lobby doors and looked around wildly. A cab--she had to find a cab. But panic still gripped her.
Dimly conscious of the sidewalk pounding under her feet, she ran toward Union Square. Car horns and shouting voices crashed around her like the noise of waves on rocks.
Sara's voice burst upon her: "Mommy, watch out! Stop!" Not a memory--this sound was real.
Kate abruptly halted. She was standing in the middle of the street, hemmed in by traffic. A row of headlights struck her in the eyes. The car behind them careened straight at her.
With Sara's cry still reverberating in her head, she took a half step backward. A massive impact, and she felt herself hurled from the pavement into the dark.