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Some odd experiences lately. Might be my failing mind, but might not. Will note them down here.

 

Interesting, Nickie thought. She put the notebook in the Stuff to Keep pile. She’d look at it later.

 



Otis, in the meantime, chewed quietly on a chair leg. By the time they realized it, he had made some rather deep tooth marks. Fortunately they were on the back leg of the chair and didn’t show too much.

 



Amanda took one of theNational Geographic magazines and leafed through it. “Oh, Lord, look at this,” she said. She held out the magazine, open to a picture of a volcano erupting, with flames and billows of black smoke. “This is kind of like what the Prophet saw.”

 



“Who?”

 



“The Prophet!” said Amanda. “Althea Tower! You haven’t heard of her? She’s famous! Everybody in this whole town follows her! Or just about everybody.”

 



“Why do you call her the Prophet?”

 



“Because she is one,” said Amanda. She propped her elbows on her knees and leaned forward. She spoke in the hushed voice people use for imparting awesome information. “She saw the future in a vision.”

 



“What did she see?” asked Nickie.

 



“Well, she couldn’t exactly tell, because it was so awful it made her sick. She could only give hints. Like she said ‘fire’ a lot, and ‘explosions.’ It musta looked sort of like this”—Amanda tapped her finger on the volcano picture—“except all over the world. Anyway, she took to her bed and she’s been there ever since.”

 



“That’s amazing,” said Nickie. “But I don’t understand. What did it mean? Was it like a bad dream?”

 



“It wasn’t adream, ” Amanda said scornfully. “It was thefuture . It was a warning. Mrs. Beeson figured that out.”

 



“Who’s Mrs. Beeson?” Nickie asked.

 



“This lady who lives down the street from here. She’s a real sweet, smart lady, used to be the school principal. She has a dog named Sausage; you’ll probably see her walking it sometimes.” She leaned forward again. “So anyway,” she said, “what happened is, people have strayed from God’s way, so that’s why everything is so awful and heading for doom. But God wants to save us, so he gave the vision to Althea. If we do right, we’ll be saved, and what she seen in her vision won’t happen. At least not tous.

 



“So what are we supposed to do?” Nickie asked.

 



“Everything the Prophet says, because it’s God’s orders coming through her. She tells us what things to give up.”

 



“Give up?”

 



“Yeah. Like one thing she says a lot is ‘No sinnies,’ which Mrs. Beeson says means ‘No sinners.’ We have to be real careful to be good. Also she says ‘No singing,’ so we don’t listen to the pop radio anymore, or CDs, or movies that have singing. And on TV we only watch the news.” Otis wandered over, and Amanda reached out absently to scratch him.

 



“But why?”

 



“It’s to practice not being selfish. So you have more love to give to God.” Amanda sat back, looked at Nickie in a satisfied way, and closed theNational Geographic with a slap.

 



Nickie pondered. It was true that giving things up was something that holy people often did. She knew that some monks and priests gave up marriage. Some of them even gave up talking and lived their lives in silence. In other countries, there were holy people who gave up comfortable beds and slept on nails. People like these, she supposed, were totally devoted to God. Maybe she herself should give something up, just to see how it felt.

 



“Didyou give anything up?” she asked Amanda.

 



“I did,” Amanda said. “I gave up romance books. Mrs. Beeson says they’re a waste of time anyway, so it was good to give them up.”

 



“Hmmm,” said Nickie. This was just the sort of thing that fired her imagination. It was like something out of a book, the kind of book where dark forces are trying to take over the universe and only a few valiant people know how to defeat them and are brave enough to do it. She thought of her Goal #3—to do something helpful for the world. Maybe giving things up was one way to do it. She wanted to ask more questions, but Amanda set down theNational Geographic at that point and stood up.

 



“I’m gonna get me a piece of toast,” she said. “Want to come?”

 



Nickie nodded. They left Otis closed into his room and went downstairs. In the kitchen, Amanda sliced the bread, and Nickie, thinking about how interesting it would be to have visions and what she would do if she had one, put on the teakettle for more hot chocolate. But just as Amanda was getting the peanut butter out of the cupboard, though they hadn’t heard a single footstep or a knock, a face appeared at the window of the back door. A voice cried, “Hello-o!” in a yoo-hoo sort of way, and before they could move, the door opened.

 



 



CHAPTER 6

______________

 



Mrs. Beeson’s Idea

 

“Excuse me, dears,” said the woman at Greenhaven’s back door. “I thought I’d stop by and say hello.” She stepped inside. “I’m Brenda Beeson,” she said.

 



Nickie stared. Brenda Beeson, the friend of the Prophet! But she didn’t look especially holy. She was a middle-aged woman, not exactly fat, but sort of pillowy, with round rosy cheeks. She had on a quilted red jacket, and her blue eyes gleamed out from beneath the visor of a red baseball cap. She looked like a mixture of a grandmother and a soccer coach, Nickie thought.

 



“You must be Professor Green’s granddaughter,” Mrs. Beeson said.

 



“Great-granddaughter,” said Nickie. She told Mrs. Beeson her name.

 



“Nickie?” said Mrs. Beeson. “Short for Nicole?”

 



“Yes.” Nickie never used her real name, Nicole. It was a pretty name, she thought, but it felttoo pretty for her, since she was rather stocky and had a round chin, a short nose, and straight, unstylish brown hair. She considered herself a smart person with a good imagination but sort of ordinary-looking, and so Nickie felt like a better name.

 



“Pleased to meet you,” said Mrs. Beeson. “I’m your neighbor. I live three houses down, across the street.” She took off her cap and stuffed it in her pocket, and Nickie saw that she had caramel-colored hair pulled back in a jaunty ponytail, and she wore little bobbly earrings. Mrs. Beeson turned her gaze on Amanda. “I didn’t expect to seeyou here, dear,” she said.

 



Amanda had backed up against the sink. She had a piece of bread in one hand and a jar of peanut butter in the other, and she looked scared.

 



“Why haven’t you left,” said Mrs. Beeson, “now that Professor Green has passed?”

 



“I’m about to go,” said Amanda. “Soon as I find a place.”

 



“Find a place? You have no family to go to?”

 



Amanda just shook her head.

 



“No parents?”

 



“My mom died,” Amanda said. “My dad took off.”

 



“No one else?”

 



“Just my cousin LouAnn,” Amanda said miserably. “I don’t like her.”

 



“Well, dear, this won’t do at all,” said Mrs. Beeson. She unzipped her jacket with one quick pull and sat down at the kitchen table, ready to handle Amanda’s future. Nickie noticed a round blue button pinned to her sweater. The picture on it looked like a little building. “I’m sure I can help,” Mrs. Beeson said. “I have several friends in social work. I’ll contact them right away. They’ll be able to place you in a home.” She pulled a little phone out of her pocket—a cell phone, Nickie guessed, though it had a different shape from the ones she was used to.

 



Amanda took a step forward. Terror was written on her face. She dropped the piece of bread and clunked down the peanut butter jar and raised her hands like stop signs in the direction of Mrs. Beeson. “I don’t want to go to any home,” she said. “I’m seventeen, I can get a job, I can find—”

 



“Nonsense,” said Mrs. Beeson kindly. “Everyone needs a home.” She paused, her mouth half open. An idea seemed to be forming behind her eyes. Her eyebrows rose. “In fact,” she said, “I know someone who needs a helper right now. A dear friend of mine.”

 



“What kind of helper?” asked Amanda suspiciously.

 



“A household helper,” Mrs. Beeson said. “A live-in helper.”

 



“I don’t know,” said Amanda. She hunched up her shoulders and scowled at the floor.

 



“The friend I am speaking of,” said Mrs. Beeson with a little smile, “is Miss Althea Tower.”

 



Amanda’s eyes went wide. She stood up straight. She said, in a voice that cracked in the middle, “The Prophet?”

 



“That’s right. You know she’s very unwell, and the girl we hired to take care of her is leaving. You could stay with her, couldn’t you? You were so good with the professor.”

 



In just five seconds, Amanda had become a whole new person. Her face shone with eagerness. She straightened her shoulders, hooked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “I could do it,” she said. “I’d reallylike to!”

 



“Wonderful,” said Mrs. Beeson. “If you can get ready, I’ll take you over there right now and see if we can make an arrangement.”

 



Nickie could see that Mrs. Brenda Beeson was the kind of person who moved fast and made firm decisions. She seemed nice, too. So after Amanda went upstairs, Nickie decided to ask some questions. But before she could say anything, there was a sudden pealing of tiny bells. Mrs. Beeson put her phone to her ear.

 



“Hello? Yes, Doralee, what is it?” She listened. “No, dear, I’m afraid not.” A pause. “I know you’re anxious, but, honey, Althea cannot see people’s futures on demand. No. She is a prophet, not a fortune-teller.” Another pause. “I’m sorry, Doralee dear, but it’s out of the question. Please don’t ask me again.” She put down the phone and sighed. “I get these requests all the time,” she said. “People are so nervous.”

 



Nickie plunged ahead with her question. “Mrs. Beeson,” she said, “do you think something terrible is going to happen? Like in the Prophet’s vision?”

 



“Well, I don’t want to scare you, honey,” said Mrs. Beeson, “but I’m afraid it might. There’s a lot of people in the world right now who want to hurt us. The forces of evil are strong. But our country is standing up against them, and here in Yonwood we are, too.” She picked up the peanut butter jar and the loaf of bread and put them back in the cupboard. She brushed some crumbs off the table. “Our Prophet,” she said, “is helping us.”

 



“I know,” said Nickie. “Amanda told me.”

 



“Did she tell you about the hotline?” Mrs. Beeson asked. “It’s a recorded phone message. Every day, people can call seven-seven-seven to hear her latest words and learn what to do about them. If there’s something urgent, I can buzz their phones so they all get the message immediately. I arranged it all with my DATT phone.” She showed Nickie the little phone, which had more tiny screens and buttons and sliding bits than any phone Nickie had seen. “I love high-tech gadgets, don’t you? DATT stands for Do A Thousand Things. It doesn’t really do quite a thousand, but just about.” She pressed a button. “Wait a sec, that’s the temperature.” She pressed another button. “There we go. Nearly eleven. Where is that girl? I need to get going.”

 



But Nickie wasn’t through asking questions. She spoke quickly. “You know what, Mrs. Beeson?” she said. “I really want to do something to help the world.”

 



“Then you’ve come to the right place,” said Mrs. Beeson, putting her phone back in her pocket. She smiled. “Everyone here is trying to help the world. We’re all quite passionate about it. We’ve had so many town meetings and church discussions and special votes—well, dangerous times bring people together. There are still a few who cling to their selfish ways, though, and that’s very troubling. Even one can ruin everything, just the way one moldy strawberry in a basket can mess up all the rest.”

 



Amanda’s steps sounded on the stairs, and Mrs. Beeson stood up. But Nickie had to ask one more question. “What should I do?”

 



Mrs. Beeson was pulling on her jacket. She stuck her red cap on her head and pulled her ponytail out through the gap in the back. “Do?” she said. “Well, let’s see. You might let me know if you happen to notice any trouble spots.”

 



“You mean,” Nickie said, “a trouble spot might be like—like what?”

 



Amanda came into the kitchen. “Here I am,” she said. She had on nice clothes, and her hair was carefully combed.

 



“You look lovely, honey,” said Mrs. Beeson. “I’ll go and get my car. Meet me in front of the house.”

 



“But Mrs. Beeson,” said Nickie urgently. “What would a trouble spot be?”

 



Mrs. Beeson paused in the doorway. Her eyes grew serious. “You look for sinners, Nickie,” she said. “It’s one of the things the Prophet says most often: ‘No sinners,’ she says. ‘No sinners.’”

 



“Sinners?” said Nickie. “You mean like lawbreakers?”

 



“Yes, but notonly them,” said Mrs. Beeson. “Sometimes they’re not actually breaking a law, and still you have a sense of wrongness about them. You can justfeel it.” Mrs. Beeson paused for a moment to zip up her jacket. “Do you know of the man named Hoyt McCoy? Who lives down on Raven Road?”

 



“No,” said Nickie. “I don’t know anyone.”

 



“No, of course you wouldn’t. But he’s an example. There’s something about him—a whiff of wrongness. It’s very strong.” She started down the hall but stopped and looked back. “Do you love God?”

 



Nickie was surprised. “Sure,” she said. “I guess so.” The truth was, she had never thought about it. Her parents hadn’t taken her to church, so she didn’t know much about God.

 



“Excellent,” said Mrs. Beeson. “We have to love God more than anything else. If you do, then you’ll do fine. You can help us build a shield of goodness.” With another beaming smile, she turned and headed out the door.

 



“Isn’t this just amazing?” Amanda said when Mrs. Beeson had left. “I was so scared when she came to the door. I mean, she’s a real nice person, but I thought sure she was going to send me to a home. I never thought something likethis could happen. Me taking care of the Prophet! Whoo! Do I look all right?”

 



“You look fine,” said Nickie. “But what about Otis?”

 



“Oh, Lord, Otis,” Amanda said. “Can you take care of him? He might hurt my chances to get hired. Can you feed him? And take him outside a couple times a day? Just for a little while? Please, please,please ?”

 



And of course Nickie said she would.

 



As soon as Amanda had gone off with Mrs. Beeson, Nickie found a pencil and a scrap of paper and wrote down these words:Sinners. Wrongness. Forces of evil. Shield of goodness. Those were the things to remember. It was so perfect—she could accomplish her Goal #3 by helping to battle the forces of evil and build the shield of goodness. Just the very words made her feel like a warrior. Maybe she should give something up, the way everyone else was. If she did, would she have more love to give to God? She thought probably her love for God was a little weak, since she didn’t know much about him and hadn’t really thought about whether she loved him or not. It was hard to love someone invisible that you’d never met. Giving up something might strengthen her devotion. What could she give up? She’d think about it.

 



Then she ran up to the nursery to see Otis. She knelt down and held him up by his front paws so that they could look at each other eye to eye. “Otis,” she said, “Amanda had to go away. I’m taking care of you now. Okay?” Otis gazed back at her. His eyes were like shiny deep-brown marbles. He cocked his head, as if trying to make sense of her words.

 



It was going to be a little tricky, taking care of Otis. She’d have to keep Crystal from coming up to the third floor. And she’d have to feed Otis and take him outside without letting Crystal see him. She hated leaving him all alone in the nursery room with nothing to do but chew things up. Did dogs get depressed from being alone too much? She didn’t want Otis to be depressed. Luckily, it looked as if Crystal had so many errands to do and people to talk to that Nickie could probably be alone at Greenhaven for hours every day.

 



She pulled Otis onto her lap and hugged him. He wiggled out of her arms—his small blond body was amazingly strong—and then he sort of danced in front of her, his front paws stretched out straight and patting the air. “Woof!” he said, and Nickie instantly understood thatwoof meantplay .

 



In the closet she found a little brown shoe that must have belonged to a child years ago. “Watchthis, Otis!” she cried, and she threw the shoe across the room.

 



Otis hurled himself after it. He snatched up the shoe and raced back to her. He gave it a shake to make sure it was dead, and then he dropped it and waited, his round brown eyes on hers, shining with expectation.

 



They played Retrieve the Shoe for a long time, until Otis got distracted by a spider on the floor. Nickie went downstairs for another cup of hot chocolate and got back to find Otis in a squatting position, his back humped and his tail up and a faraway look in his eyes. Just in time, she seized an old magazine, put it under his rear end, and caught what came out before it could stain the rug.

 



Take him outside twice a day, Amanda had said. She’d forgotten. She found a leash hanging in the closet, hooked it to Otis’s collar, and led him downstairs and out the kitchen door.

 



While he trotted among the bushes, she looked around. There was a clothesline back here and a concrete terrace bordered by a low stone wall. In the back of the house was a door that probably led to the basement. She tried it, but it was locked.

 



Once Otis was emptied out, they went back upstairs to the nursery. Nickie wondered if Amanda was having her interview with the Prophet at this very moment. She was so curious about the Prophet. She longed to meet her.

 



It was almost noon, but Crystal wasn’t back yet, so Nickie went into the next room, one of the rooms crammed with trunks and boxes. Moving aside a stack of old magazines, she opened the biggest, oldest-looking trunk and saw a great jumble of stuff—mostly papers—inside. She scooped up an armful and took it back to the nursery room to look through.

 



No one had bothered to put any of these things in order, or even to store them neatly so they didn’t get bent and crumpled. There were a lot of old Christmas cards, some faded snapshots of babies, and bunches of ancient bills and report cards and school papers. Toward the bottom of the pile, she found an envelope so old that its edges had come apart. Inside was a photograph on cardboard backing. She had just time to glance at it, and to notice that something about it was odd but she wasn’t sure what, when she saw Crystal’s car pull up outside. Nickie put the photograph back in its envelope. She scooped her piles off the window seat and put them in the toy cabinet, where Otis couldn’t get at them. “Now, you sleep,” she said to Otis. She left the room, closed the door behind her, and crammed some rags under it. Then she raced downstairs.

 



Crystal was just coming in the front door. She took her coat off and hung it on the coatrack in the hall. “Well, I met the real estate agent,” she said. “Len Caldwell, his name is. Quite nice and helpful. He’s very tall and has a funny little mustache.” She smiled at Nickie. “And what’s been happening here?”

 



Nickie opened her mouth and then quickly closed it. “Oh, I’ve just been wandering around,” she said. “I love how big and spacious this house is, don’t you?”

 



“It’s big, all right,” said Crystal. “Thereis something nice about having space to spread out. Of course, it’s just more space that has to be cleaned.”

 



Nickie was about to mention the beautiful curving staircase and the view of mountains from the back windows—but just then the phone rang.

 



Crystal picked it up. “Hello?” she said. “Rachel! How are you?”

 



It was Nickie’s mother.

 



“Uh-huh,” said Crystal. “Uh-huh, uh-huh. I know, it’s really hard.”

 



“I want to talk to her!” Nickie whispered loudly.

 



“You did?” said Crystal. “What did it say?”

 



“What didwhat say?” Nickie said.

 



“Huh,” said Crystal. “Odd. Here, tell Nickie; she wants to know.”

 



“Mom!” said Nickie into the phone. “Are you okay?”

 



“I’m okay,” said her mother’s weary voice. “I got a postcard from your father.”

 



“You did? What did he say?”

 



“Not much. I hope he’s all right. I just wish I knew where he was.”

 



“Read it to me,” Nickie said. “But wait a sec—I need to find a pencil. I want to write it down.”

 



So her mother read her the postcard, and Nickie wrote down what she said. Then they talked for a while about her mother’s job, about bomb alerts in the city, and about how cold it was. Nickie said how much she loved Greenhaven, and what a terrible mistake it would be to sell it. When they said goodbye, Nickie would have felt sad if she hadn’t had the words of the postcard to study:

 



 



Dear Rachel and Nickie,

 



All is fine here. Work is going well. Wish I could tell you where I am, but it’s strictly forbidden.

 



My love to you both, Dad

 



P.S. Three sparrows came to the bird feeder today!

 



 



Her mother was right. It didn’t say much. Though it did tell her something new about her father—she hadn’t known he was interested in birds at all.

 



 



CHAPTER 7

______________

 



The Short Way Home

 

Grover couldn’t concentrate at school that day. The classrooms were alive with whispers about the terrorist in the woods, and the bloody letter, and what Brenda Beeson said it meant. Even his teacher seemed nervous, Grover thought. She kept glancing out the window, and twice she came up with the wrong answers to the problems she was explaining.

 



After school, still more kids surrounded Grover and asked him to describe what he’d seen. He wished he could tell them that the Prophet herself had come to examine the bloody cloth. She was the one they were curious about. But no one had seen her since she’d had her vision—besides the doctor, no one but Mrs. Beeson and her small, devoted group. Grover remembered seeing Althea Tower in the bookshop sometimes before her vision, but she hadn’t been interesting then—just a sort of fluffy-haired woman with rimless glasses and dust on her fingertips from handling used books. She’d always smiled at him when he went in there, but she never said much. She was pale, as he recalled, and wispy, and had a quiet voice.

 



But now he’d like to get a glimpse of her, to see if her eyes looked scorched and her hair frizzled like electric wires, to see if her face looked blasted, or frozen into astonishment, or whatever look there might be on the face of a person who had been shown a vision by God. If it really was God—Grover didn’t know, and mostly he didn’t care, as long as the results didn’t affect him.

 



He ended up spending so much time talking to the kids in the schoolyard that he was in danger of getting home late. He was supposed to be home by three-thirty to help his grandmother with the kids; if he got home after his mother did, she’d tell his father, and his father was sure to yell at him. So he decided to do something he rarely did, because it was a bit of a risk: take the short way home.

 



The short way home was through Hoyt McCoy’s backyard. Actually,backyard was too small a word for it; Hoyt McCoy’s house lay within a large and brambly acreage. He had two or three times more land than most of his neighbors. At the rear part of it, a few slats of the fence had fallen sideways, making a hole big enough for a skinny boy to get through. Grover, holding his schoolbooks close to his chest, was just skinny enough.

 



Crossing Hoyt’s yard cut a good five minutes off the time it took to get home. Grover knew this because he’d done it a few times before. The only risky part was at the back corner of the property, where the house stood. Here he would be within view of some windows, if anyone happened to be standing by them. But so much overgrown shrubbery grew up the back of the house, and the windows were so coated with dust and grime, that he didn’t think the chance of being seen was very great.

 



This time, though, he was wrong. As he came up behind the house, staying as close to the fence as he could and trying not to crunch too much on the fallen leaves, an upstairs window flew open. The deep voice of Hoyt McCoy rang out.

 



“Halt, trespasser! I have you in my sights! Vacate these premises instantly!”

 



Grover stopped so fast that he dropped his books. He froze, hoping the bushes would hide him. He waited, watching the open window. Did Hoyt mean he had a rifle trained on him? Would he actually shoot it? Grover didn’t know. So he stayed where he was until finally the window closed. Then he waited a little longer, and at last he bent to pick his books up and moved on, staying in the shadows, setting each foot down with great care, until he came to the gravel drive that led out to the street. Then he ran.

 



Hoyt McCoy was one of Yonwood’s oddities. He’d moved there about ten years ago from a university town somewhere. For a year or so after he’d bought the house, workers from out of town had come every day, and sounds of drilling and sawing and hammering had issued from inside. People thought maybe Hoyt’s family was coming to live with him—but no. Hoyt lived alone. Sometimes he went away for weeks at a time, leaving the gate across his driveway padlocked. When he was at home, he seemed almost never to have visitors, although a few times Grover had seen a dark green sedan turning in at his driveway, in which there were always two men in suits. They were probably tax collectors, Grover thought. It wasn’t likely Hoyt McCoy would have friends. He was tall and gaunt, with caved-in cheeks and dark hollows around his eyes. He walked with his shoulders stooped and his head craned forward, as if he were looking for something to pounce on—and in his way, he did pounce on things. Everything met with his disapproval. On days when Hoyt showed up at the market or the post office or the drugstore, Grover had seen him tut-tutting at loud children, shaking his fist at cars that came too close to him, and scolding clerks for being rude. He also scoffed at everything Mrs. Beeson said about the Prophet’s vision. “Orders from heaven,” he would say, pursing his lips. “Nonsense.She doesn’t know. I’m the expert on heaven, not her. If you want to know about celestial matters, ask me.” But no one ever did ask him, as far as Grover could see. Hardly anyone ever spoke to him at all, if they could help it.

 



When Grover got home, only a little bit late, he found his grandmother in the living room in her usual spot, the armchair by the heater, with a baby on her lap. All around her, little kids of various ages crawled and toddled, babbled and cried and screeched. The TV was on. A newsman was saying that the president had set a deadline of one week, exactly seven days, for the Phalanx Nations to deactivate their missiles. Otherwise, the United States would have no choice but to—

 



His grandmother aimed the remote and flicked off the TV. “Heard there’s more trouble in town,” she said.

 



Grover dumped his books on a side table. “I was the first one there, Granny Carrie,” he said. “I was the one who told Andy.”

 



“Good for you,” said his grandmother. “On top of things as usual.”

 



One of Grover’s little brothers whacked his sister with a stuffed animal. The little girl wailed. The baby on his grandmother’s lap started to cry.

 



This was how it always was at Grover’s house. He had six brothers and sisters, all younger, who created a constant uproar. His father worked as a handyman, and his mother worked at the dress shop, so his grandmother was the one who minded the children. Grover had to mind them, too, when he came home from school. All of this meant he was always short of time—time for homework, and time for other things that were more important to him than homework.

 



“Look here, Grover,” Granny Carrie said. “I found some good ones for you.” She leaned over and picked up a stack of magazines from the floor. “There’s one that gets you ten thousand dollars. Another one gets you a car, but you could trade that for cash.”

 



“Great,” said Grover. He took the top magazine and opened it to the page his grandmother had dog-eared. “The Fabulous Dorfberry Sweepstakes!” it said in big red letters. “Hundreds of Prizes! Grand Prize $10,000!” He read the fine print. All you had to do was collect five box tops from Dorfberry’s Cornmeal Products and fill out an entry blank. Easy. His family ate a ton of corn muffins and cornbread. He could collect five box tops in less than a week.

 



“For this one here,” said Granny Carrie, opening another magazine, “you have to write a paragraph.” She showed it to him. “Why buy Armstrong Pickles?” said the ad. “You tell us! One hundred words or less.” The grand prize was five hundred dollars, which would be more than enough.

 



“This is good,” said Grover, moving the magazine away from the reaching fingers of his littlest brother. “Thanks. I’ll probably win a whole lot of these and have money left over. I’ll buy you a Cadillac.”

 



“You better not,” said Granny Carrie. “You can buy me some new slippers. These ones are getting worn out.” She stuck out her feet, on which she was wearing yellow slippers with duck heads on them. They were a little ragged around the edges.

 



“Okay,” said Grover. He’d be happy to buy his grandmother anything she wanted.

 



At five-thirty his mother came home, looking tired and carrying a bag of groceries. “Somebody’s lurking around in the woods,” she said, setting the bag down and taking off her coat.

 



“I know it,” said Grover.

 



“Don’t you go up there,” she said. “You stay around here for a change.” She started taking boxes and cans from the bag and putting them away.

 



A little later, Grover’s father came home. He came in the back door, leaving his toolbox on the porch. “Hear about the break-in?” he said.

 



“Yes,” said everyone.

 



“Gurney and his men ought to get up there in the woods and flush that guy out,” said Grover’s father. “Take their rifles with them.”

 



“Don’t talk about rifles,” said Grover’s mother. “It scares me.”

 



His father just shrugged. “Serious times call for serious solutions,” he said.

 



“A shield of goodness is a better protection,” his mother said.

 



“Fine,” said his father. “You work on being good; I’ll keep the gun loaded.”

 



“It could be just some poor wandering tramp up there,” said his grandmother.

 



“Trouble is,” said his father, “we don’tknow. He could be a tramp; he could be a guy scoping out bomb sites. Do you want to take the risk?”

 



Grover noticed a smear of grease on the side of his father’s neck. Probably he’d been doing a plumbing job today. He could do just about anything—plumbing, carpentry, electrical work. He always had a lot of jobs, and he always came home tired and slightly grumpy in the evening.

 



“I’m going down to the shed,” said Grover. There was still at least half an hour before dinner, and he wanted to use it.

 



“Now, listen here,” said his father. “You waste a lot of time fooling around in that shed. What about your homework? Don’t tell me you don’t have any.”

 



“I do, but I can do it later,” Grover said.

 



“What comes first, getting ready for your future or fiddling with your little hobbies?” Grover’s father put one foot up on a chair and untied his shoe. “If you’re going to do something useful with your life, you’ve got to get started.”

 



“Iam going to do something useful,” Grover said.

 



“Not the way you’re going, you’re not,” said his father, untying the other shoe and letting it thump to the floor. He started in on the rant Grover had heard a thousand times. “You have to thinkpractical. The world is headed for disaster; I think we can say that for sure. But afterward, assuming the human race survives, there’s going to be a big need for builders, architects, engineers. Study a little harder, and you could be one of them.”

 



But Grover had other ideas. He picked up his books and went back to his room. He flopped onto his bed. Instead of going down to the shed, he’d put the finishing touches on his application tonight, the one that was going to change his life. It was in the slim blue notebook he carried with him everywhere.

 



But where was the notebook? He had his English book, his math book, his history book—but not his blue notebook. Had he left it at school? He wouldn’t have done that. Could he have—? A terrible thought struck him.

 



His blue notebook—he suddenly knew—was lying in the weeds behind the horrible house of Hoyt McCoy.

 



 



CHAPTER 8

______________

 



A Crack in the Sky

 

He was going to have to go tonight, while it was dark. Otherwise, Hoyt would see him and try to shoot him again. This gave Grover a queasy feeling in his stomach, which made it hard to eat his dinner. When dinner was over and the little kids were in bed, his parents settled on the couch and flicked on the TV. A government spokesman was talking about the deadline the president had set for the Phalanx Nations to agree to the United States’ demands, and that if the demands weren’t met, the consequences would be serious, but no one should be alarmed, because emergency measures were planned, and—

 



“I’m going outside for a while,” Grover said.

 



“All right,” his mother said without looking at him. “Be back in by nine-thirty.”

 



Grover went out the back door as if he were going across the yard to his shed, but instead he circled around the side of the house and headed down the street. Lucky it wasn’t raining, he thought. Rain would turn his blue notebook into a soggy rag. And lucky the moon was just a sliver in the sky, shedding hardly any light. That would help him hide from Hoyt’s sharp eyes.

 



Grover hurried downhill. He wanted to get this over with. If he hadn’t already filled in so much of the application form, he could just leave it there and send for another one. But he’d put in hours trying to get it just right. And besides, the deadline was only a week away. He wouldn’t have time to send for another one, get it done, and turn it in on time. He had to find the one he’d lost.

 



He passed the last house on his street and turned left onto Raven Road. It was darker here, because there were fewer houses shining the light from their windows out into the night. In less than five minutes, he came to the drive that led back into Hoyt’s land and started walking up it. His shoes crunched on the gravel, a sound that seemed much too loud. He tried to walk on the edge of the drive, where the gravel merged into dirt, but his feet kept getting tangled in the brambles that grew there.

 



He crept along to the left, moving toward the back of the house, staying as close to the fence as he could. The house loomed tall and dark—only one window on the top story was lit. With thorns and stickers catching at his sleeves, Grover made his way through the thickets of brush to the place where, that afternoon, he’d frozen at the sound of Hoyt’s voice. He was sure this was where he’d dropped his books; his notebook should still be right there on the ground, as long as Hoyt hadn’t found it and thrown it in the trash, or some animal hadn’t taken it away to shred for its nest. There was a straight line of sight from here to the top window of the house, the one that now glowed yellow around the edges of the drawn shade.

 



He dropped to his knees. Where was the darned thing? The shadows of the trees and bushes were so thick here that he could hardly see at all. He’d have to find it by feel. He ran his hands over the ground. Pebbles, clumps of cold dirt, scratchy weeds, dry fallen leaves. But no notebook. He held back a groan of frustration. Hehad to find it, because if he didn’t find it, he wouldn’t be able to go, even if hedid get the money, and hehad to go, because his whole future depended on it, and he wasfurious with himself for dropping it, and—

 



At that moment, his fingers touched something smooth. He reached farther and felt the spiral wires. His notebook. He grabbed it and stood up. Carefully, he riffled the pages, feeling for the loose one. Yes, it was there, tucked into the middle, just where he’d put it. All right. Now to get out of there.

 



He turned back toward the driveway and felt his way forward between the tree trunks and the brush. He crept behind Hoyt’s black car, parked near the corner of the house. At the spot where he’d have to go out into the open, he paused and checked the house again. It was still all dark except for the rectangle of light around the top-floor window. But as he watched, the light went out. Startled, Grover stepped back into the shadows and stood still for a moment. It might just be that Hoyt had turned off his light to sleep. Or it might be that he’d heard something and was about to peer out his window. Grover waited and watched—and an odd thing happened.

 



At first he thought he was imagining it, it was so faint. A light seemed to be growing behind the curtained and shuttered windows on the ground floor. It was a bluish light, like moonlight. It gleamed very faintly around the edges of the windows, in the gaps between the shades and the frames, until a narrow, pale-bluish rectangle appeared around all the ground-floor windows. What was it? Did Hoyt have twenty televisions that went on all at once? Was he doing some weird sort of experiment? Whatever it was, it gave Grover an eerie feeling.

 



He stood still for a moment, staring. Then, as if his ears had suddenly been stuffed with cotton, the whole world seemed to go silent, and in the sky over Hoyt McCoy’s house, a brilliant line, thin as a wire, shot across the darkness. It was there for less than a second. It vanished, and the sounds came back—rustling leaves, a distant calling bird. But Grover had seen it—it wasn’t his imagination. It had looked like a long, narrow crack, as if the two great round halves of the night sky had slid apart just for a second, just enough to let through a light that was on the other side. It was the strangest thing he had ever seen.

 



But nothing else happened. The blue light continued to shine behind the windows; the house was silent; the sky stayed black. After another few minutes, Grover clutched his notebook tightly and moved toward the driveway, quiet as a cat and slow, until he got far enough from the house. Then he dashed along the driveway’s edge down to Raven Road, where he set out for home.

 



 



CHAPTER 9

______________

 




Date: 2015-12-18; view: 261


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