Kate nibbled 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.