Miriam removed her work gloves and flexed her stiff fingers. She had planned to do so much work in the garden that morning, but she had tired rapidly, and besides, the day was so lovely—just perfect for day‑dreaming. She stretched her arms above her head and sighed.
“Isn’t it too early to be planting seeds?”
The unexpected sound of Mrs. Willet’s shaky, high‑pitched voice slashed through her thoughts, and before Miriam had realized it, a shriek escaped her lips.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you, dear,” the elderly woman apologized. “I thought you heard me call at the gate before I came in.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t hear you, but I’m glad you came in anyhow.” Miriam squinted up at her neighbor as she shifted her weight on her knees.
“And by the way, where is that dog?” asked Mrs. Willets as she looked around the small, neat yard for Max, the huge black and tan German shepherd that seemed to make Miriam’s small house and property even smaller than what it was.
Miriam smiled. “I think that he must be in the house.”
“I didn’t hear him bark when I called from the gate.” The older woman turned towards the gate as if ready to run for safety,
“Mrs. Willets, really, by now I think you know he is a terrible watch dog. He only barks when he chases the O’Brien’s cat, or plays with Justin.”
Mrs. Willets seemed unconvinced. “I don’t know why you keep him, especially in your condition; you have to be so careful. He could easily knock you down. He’s dangerous!”
“He’s only a puppy, really he is,” Miriam laughed at Mrs. Willets’ expression of horror mingled with acute distaste. “Max will settle down soon,” Miriam added.
“I certainly hope so, for your sake, and for the sake of the baby when it is born,” Mrs. Willets shook her head disapprovingly and pressed her very thin lips into a straight, narrow line. “Well, anyhow, you haven’t answered my question. Isn’t it too early for seed planting? And I’m sorry I startled you half to death.”
“You didn’t startle me, Mrs. Willets, it’s just that I’ve been nervous lately.”
“That’s understandable. I was too, for each and every one of mine.”
Miriam giggled for lack of anything to say.
“The seed?” Mrs. Willets prodded persistently.
“Oh, yes. No, it’s not too early to plant. This particular flower seed needs cold weather to germinate. It likes the cold, damp spring weather.”
“Well, I’m glad that something does. Here, why don’t you get up from your knees. That position can’t be doing you any good.” Mrs. Willets extended her arms to help Miriam.
“I’m okay, Mrs. Willets.”
“That’s what I used to say, too, when I was your age. Now look at me. My body is nothing but aches and pains. You have to take care of yourself, my dear,” she said as she shook her twisted arthritic finger directly under Miriam’s nose.
“Perhaps you’re right,” Miriam struggled to her feet. More than anything she had wanted to spend a little time working in her small garden. It didn’t seem like that would be possible, not with Mrs. Willets apparently settling down for a visit. “Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?” Miriam asked, half hoping that her elderly neighbor would decline.
“No, thank you dear,” the older woman said. “I merely came over to see if you’d like to come up into my attic with me.” Mrs. Willets’ cold blue eyes twinkled uncharacteristically. “There are some baby things up there, doing no one any good, that perhaps you can use. Mr. Willets and I would be very pleased if you would take them.”
Miriam’s response was immediate. “Oh, we haven’t bought a thing yet. This is so kind of you, Mrs. Willets, thank you! Can we go right now?” Miriam was ready to run ahead of her neighbor, much like a young puppy straining at the leash.
“Why, yes, we’ll go right away. Later I’ll take that cup of coffee that you so kindly offered.”
Mrs. Willets, smiled broadly; she was touched by Miriam’s warm and genuine expression of gratitude. Since the young couple had moved into the neighborhood, Mrs. Willets had favored Justin. It would be hard not to like Miriam’s husband, who always had a ready smile and a kind thing to say to a friend, or to a neighbor. Miriam, on the other hand, was unusually quiet and extremely shy. Most of the neighbors accused her of snobbery and aloofness. Mrs. Willets was truly happy to discover that the neighbor’s comments were untrue.
“All of the things in the attic are good,” Mrs. Willets, said. She felt happy that she had allowed her husband to bully her into coming over to offer the old nursery furniture to the Heywoods. “With a little bit of cleaning, and some paint, I think you’ll be able to furnish an entire nursery. It’s all yours, if you want it, and if Justin will bring it down. You know that Mr. Willets is not as active as he used to be.”
“Oh, Mrs. Willets, I’m sure I’ll like the things, and of course J ustin and his friends will bring them down, don’t you worry about that. How can I thank you?” Miriam squeezed the older woman’s hand.
Mrs. Willets was moved by Miriam’s warmth, her gratitude and the affectionate squeeze that she had received. How could she ever have considered this young woman to be cold? She would correct all of the neighbors’ gossip as soon as she could.
The two women started to move towards the front of the house when the huge German shepherd lunged out of the back door and came bounding and barking in their direction. Mrs. Willets shrieked as she hid behind Miriam.
“Please don’t worry, Mrs. Willets, Max won’t hurt you,” Miriam assured her neighbor as she bent over to rub the big dog’s head. “You big ninny, where were you a few minutes ago? Were you sleeping? I’ll bet that you were,” she laughed. “Some watch dog you turned out to be.”
“Please, Miriam, I’m afraid of him!”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Willets. He really is very gentle, all bark and no bite.”
“God gave him teeth for some reason,” muttered Mrs. Willets.
Miriam ignored her comment and merely smiled brightly. “He’s just a puppy,” she said, “in spite of his big size. All he wants to do is eat, play and sleep.”
“just the same, I prefer for you to leave him here in your yard,” Mrs. Willets pressed her thin lips disapprovingly as she watched Miriam scratch Max behind the ears.
“Of course, it’s just that he likes to follow me wherever I go. This time though, he’ll stay in the yard, don’t you worry,” Miriam said as she patted the woman’s arm.
“Now listen to me, you big, silly dog. You are going to stay here. Stay!” Miriam held
her palm in front of the dog’s nose, “Stay!” she repeated.
The big dog folded his ears neatly against his head as he sat down and offered his paw to Miriam. It was obvious to the two women that he paid no attention what‑so‑ever to Miriam’s command. As Miriam turned to leave him, he stood, alert and ready to follow.
“Listen, Max, stay! Understand? Stay here!” Miriam ordered in her sternest tone of voice as she and Mrs. Willets left the front yard. They barely managed to close the front gate without having Max push his way into the street the way that he always did whenever he was determined to follow her.
Mrs. Willets kept looking back with anxious looks as Max hurled himself at the fence barking, whining and protesting the injustice of being left behind.
“I’ve always been afraid of large, noisy dogs,” Mrs. Willets, commented. “Will he stay in your yard? I mean, he can’t break out, can he?”
Once again Miriam ignored her neighbor’s comments about her dog, and assured her that Max was very well behaved, trained and obedient. She smiled nervously as she thought to herself that Max had not jumped the fence for the last three weeks. Perhaps he had finally learned to stay in the yard.
The two women chatted about pregnancies and babies as they strolled along the tree‑lined street. Then suddenly as they reached the street corner Miriam froze.
Inches away from her feet, the earth seemed to have vanished! A black, gaping hole reached out in all directions. Hungrily, it swallowed everything that had existed at the intersection only moments before. Miriam whirled around to escape the ballooning blackness that by now absorbed every ray of light that she was able to see.
Miriam gasped in surprise when she turned. Everything was as it had been before, completely untouched by the voracious hunger of the all consuming sprawling blackness. The sidewalk, the houses, the bare trees and hedges and the green lawns, all was as it had been before. Miriam could feel a coldness at her back and a strong sucking sensation at her heels. She was too frightened to turn around again and look, but she had to; she had to see.
The emptiness in front of her seemed to stretch into infinity; only to the back of her was there any light. There, the road still glittered with long curling ribbons of ice, and people still strolled along the sidewalk only stopping to step gingerly over the ice. Children rode their bikes, or helped to rake their lawns clear of last autumn’s leaves.
Miriam opened her mouth to scream, but the sound never emerged. She stared in terror and disbelief at Mrs. Willets who seemed to be unconcerned, and was preparing to cross the street. Couldn’t the old woman see that there no longer existed a street, and that one more step would hurl her into the yawning chasm? Miriam tried to grasp Mrs. Willets to stop her, but the darkness, which was beginning to swirl around her, seemed to hold her immobile. Mrs. Willets, totally unaware of Miriam’s frantic efforts to attract her attention, continued to chat happily. One more time, Miriam had to try one more time to break loose of whatever held her. She had to escape and help Mrs. Willets to safety.
Terrified, Miriam struggled with the unyielding bonds that encircled her, twisted around her swollen waist, closed in around her chest, reached towards her throat, long black fingers that moved across her mouth … As she fought for control, she saw Mrs. Willets poised, ready to shift her balance onto the foot that already hovered over the throbbing and pulsating darkness of the chasm.
Was this what death was like? The thought flashed through Miriam’s mind at the same time that her struggle intensified. She found strength inside of her that she never realized existed. Suddenly, she was free.
Instantly, she threw herself against Mrs. Willets, grabbed her by her arm and swung her to safety. Both women screamed as they fell back into the light. As they fell, Miriam could see whirling globs of color spin crazily around them. The blackness broke up into minute specks of light, which immediately joined the colors in the mad spinning. The lights and the colors danced insanely around the two women who were sprawled at the base of a very old and gnarled Sycamore. Just as suddenly as it had all begun, it ended. Everything was back to normal; the street was there, and the traffic moved along it as usual. A split second later, a dark gray van turned the corner of the intersection, and moving at an unbelievable speed, roared past them.
Mrs. Willets’ screams joined with the high pitched whine and the onerous roar of the van’s motor. Miriam felt the air quiver, and she thought that she could feel the ground tremble slightly as the van rushed by them; its gasoline fumes choked her and burned her eyes. For a moment she wasn’t even certain that she had escaped being struck by the vehicle. It wasn’t until she felt the strong hands of the people who helped her up that she knew for sure that she was safe.
Later that afternoon, after all the excitement and confusion had died down, and the last concerned neighbor had left the house, Miriam found that she could still not relax. Furthermore, she could not put aside the growing feeling that she remained in some kind of danger.
Long after the cool March sunlight grew crimson, paled and faded into the evening, Miriam sat on the sofa. Her half empty cup of rose hip tea grew cold on the small mahogany table in front of her. She shifted her weight restlessly, and each time that she did, she disturbed Max who rested his head on her foot.
There had to be a reasonable explanation for what had happened, there had to be, but what was it? What had happened earlier was just one more terrifying incident in a series of incidents that had grown in scope and intensity. Was she going crazy?
Max raised his head and growled. She had never heard him growl before; the sound was a deep, low rumbling sound. Miriam held her breath as she reached for his choker; her shaking fingers felt his fur stand erect along the entire length of his spine. Knowing that the dog had never behaved like that before, frightened Miriam even more. What possibly could have made him shed his playful puppy manner to assume this primitive stance‑this instinctive pose of readiness that signalled the unmistakable approach of danger?
The house was almost dark; she had forgotten to turn on the lights when the sun set. Her eyes could barely pierce the darkness, and she strained her hearing. Miriam breathed deeply as she tried to control the feeling of panic that took hold of her.
The growls grew louder. In the dim light she could barely see the outline of the dog’s head. She saw him move his ears and cock his head from side to side. Max seemed to be following a sound. She wondered what it was that he could hear, and she could not. Suddenly, she felt the rippling of his muscles beneath her hand as he moved into a low, floor hugging crouch. He was ready to spring into action; Miriam knelt motionless by his side. She held onto him tightly and she listened, but she heard nothing except for his growl.
Max’s growling was not able to mask the pounding in her chest. Miriam was terrified and she could not control her trembling; she could do nothing except hold onto the dog. The dog started to move, and Miriam found herself being dragged in the direction of the door. Suddenly, he changed his mind, and lunged towards the side window; he barked and snarled at the curtains that stood between him and something outside.
The loud barking spurred Miriam into action; she ran into the kitchen to telephone for help. The dial tone was the most cheerful thing that she had heard in a long time. She dialed the emergency number, and when the dispatcher answered she shouted her name and address into the receiver, but the line went dead before she could tell her what she wanted. Miriam stumbled over to the wall light switch. She flicked it on and off several times, but nothing happened; the power had been cut! A feeling of helplessness overcame her as she leaned against the door that led into the living room. Rage and fear shook her body as she listened to Max bark and growl. She heard him hurl his huge body at the front door again, and she listened to the sounds of her favorite lamp shattering on the floor.
Miriam could see his outline in front of the hallway that led to the bedrooms. Had she forgotten to close the side door, or one of the windows there? She couldn’t remember. Miriam held onto the door as she waited. Infinitely long minutes passed before the police car pulled up in front of the house with its red lights flashing cheerfully and confidently. Within seconds, the lights in the house went on, the shadows vanished, Max had stopped barking, and a very young cop stood in front of her. He held his pad stiffly in front of him as he demanded the reason for her call. Miriam stammered and stuttered as she tried to explain what had happened, and she felt foolish when the young officer smiled, patted her shoulder and assured her that she had nothing to fear. She felt uncomfortable when he smiled, and told her to please call the police whenever she was frightened. After all, was their job, and that was what they were there for. He spoke to her as if she were a child, and she felt humiliated, yet she thanked him profusely for searching the tiny house and garage.
The policeman found no evidence that an attempted break‑in had taken place, and when he tried the telephone, it worked perfectly. Miriam couldn’t believe it. She grabbed the phone from him and tried it herself. With a sheepish grin, she replaced the receiver on the hook. “I’ve got to leave now, Mrs. Heywood,” he smiled.
God! How she hated that smug, confident smile!
“Give us another call whenever you think someone’s about to break in,” he added cheerfully as he turned to leave. “Who’s that?”
Justin’s car pulled into the driveway, from inside the house, Max barked with joy. Miriam sighed with relief; everything would be all right. She smiled as she watched Justin leap from his car and trip in his haste to reach her.
“What’s going on here?” he demanded. “Miriam, are you hurt? Is the baby okay?” He held her at arms length as he looked for evidence of injury before taking her in his arms.
“I’m okay, Justin. It’s just that . . .” She knew that she owed him an explanation, but how could she explain when she wasn’t sure herself
what had happened.
Seeing that he wasn’t needed any longer, the young cop got into the patrol car and drove away. Justin and Miriam went into the house to free Max from the bathroom where Miriam had put him so that the policeman could search the house. Max grabbed his toy rubber bone and greeted Justin enthusiastically, and when his dog sense told him that the greeting should be over, he went to lie down at Miriam’s feet. As always, he rested his head against her foot. Miriam reached down to scratch his ears; he looked up at her.
“You’ve been a good dog today,” she said softly, “such a good dog.”
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