Nickie headed back toward Greenhaven by way of Raven Road. She hadn’t really planned to go that way; her mind was on what she’d just seen in Grover’s shed. But when she found herself passing the gravel drive that led back into Hoyt McCoy’s overgrown acres, she hesitated. She thought about what Grover had said—that Hoyt McCoy cracked open the sky. Surely that couldn’t be true. But whatever he’d seen might have been a sign of wickedness. Mrs. Beeson thought there was something strange about this man, that he was probably a trouble spot. And Nickie had promised to help her. So maybe, while she was here, she should check on Hoyt McCoy. She didn’t really want to; even her strong curiosity didn’t extend to creepy isolated houses and people with a whiff of wrongness about them. But if she was going to do her part to root out badness so that goodness could win, she had to be brave.
She gritted her teeth and took a deep, shaky breath. She would just dart in and have a quick look around, hoping to see something that would let her take back a clear report to Mrs. Beeson.
She started up the driveway. Brown, shriveled blackberry vines grew along the edges; weeds sprouted up through the gravel. Tall pine trees on the left cast a spiky line of shadows, and Nickie stayed within these shadows as much as she could. She rounded a curve, and there, up ahead, was the house, a mud-colored two-story building tucked back among great looming oaks and pines, its paint worn off, drifts of old leaves on its peaked roof. She stopped and looked for signs of movement. Three birds shot up from a clump of grass, but other than that, she saw nothing stirring, either outside the house or behind its windows. So, cautiously, she moved forward again.
What was she looking for? She didn’t really know. Something truly awful, like freshly dug graves or human bones? Signs of craziness, like Hoyt McCoy dancing around naked? Disgusting filthiness, like a smelly outhouse or rat-swarmed garbage? She didn’t see anything like that—nothing but a dusty black car parked at the head of the drive. Maybe bad things happened inside that dark, silent house, but she certainly wasn’t going to go close enough to peer in the windows. She would go up to the beginning of the brick path that led to the front door, she decided, and if she didn’t see anything notable by then, she’d leave.
So she crept away from the protective shadow of the trees and tiptoed across the open space in front of the house. She stood at the foot of the path. Her gaze scanned the front door, the windows to the left and right of the front door (heavily curtained), the windows on the second floor (where the blinds were closed), and a window in a gable above them, where—she took a sudden step backward, and her knees went weak—the barrel of a gun pointed at the sky.
And as she stood there, frozen with fear, the gun angled downward until it aimed straight at her. From inside the house, a voice called out, “Stop right there, trespasser, intruder, spy! Don’t move, on pain of dire consequences!”
But Nickie was not going to stand there and get shot. She dashed toward the shadow of the trees as fast as her jelly-like legs would carry her. Any second, she expected to hear a bang and feel the punch of a shot between her shoulder blades. At the edge of the driveway she stumbled and fell, and she lay there for a second, shaking, and looked back at the house. The gun was still pointing downward, but no one was shouting; no one was coming out the front door. So she staggered to her feet again. This time her legs worked, and she ran.
She knew Crystal wouldn’t be home yet. So she ran straight to Mrs. Beeson’s house, leapt up the steps, and rang the doorbell. When Mrs. Beeson answered, Nickie was breathing so hard she could barely speak. “Mrs. Beeson!” she gasped. “That McCoy man tried to shoot me!”
Mrs. Beeson’s eyes grew so wide that the whites showed all the way around. “What? Shoot you!”
Nickie told about the gun pointing out of the window and the voice that had bellowed at her.
“Oh!” Mrs. Beeson grasped Nickie by the arm and pulled her inside. “This is even worse than I thought. I must get the police—must get them out there right now—” She hurried away down the hall, leaving Nickie quivering by the door. In a moment Nickie heard her speaking to someone on the phone. “Raven Road,” she said. “Yes, McCoy. Be careful—he has guns. I’ll meet you out there.”
When she came back, she was pulling on her coat. “We’ll bring him in,” she said. “Don’t worry. You poor, brave little thing.” She gave Nickie a quick, sweet-smelling hug. “I should have known—that feeling I had. Why didn’t I—?” She clasped her hands and took a deep breath. “Slow down, Brenda,” she told herself. “Be calm.”
But Nickie wasn’t calm at all; she was terribly excited. “There’s more!” she said. “The boy with the snakes—he feeds them live baby mice! And that terrorist up in the woods—he saw him! And he told me that Hoyt McCoy cracks the sky open and sends signals to enemy nations!”
Mrs. Beeson snatched her purse from a table by the door. “I have to get out there right away,” she said. “You go back home now and keep yourself safe. Who knows, he might be—But we’ll get him, don’t worry. I’ll come and talk to you when it’s all over.”
Nickie went back to Greenhaven wishing, for once, that Crystal was around so she could tell her about what had happened. But the only sign of Crystal was a note she’d left on the hall table by the phone:
Your mom called. Sounded pretty tired and worried. Another postcard came from your dad. It said:
Dear Nickie and Rachel,
Everything here is going well. We’re working hard and making good progress. I hope both of you are taking excellent care of yourselves.
P.S. Stayed up till midnight last night reading Shakespeare!
I didn’t know your dad read Shakespeare.
Back by dinnertime—C.
I didn’t know he did, either, Nickie thought. There was something odd about these postcards. She needed to think about them. Was he trying to send a message of some kind? He’d always liked codes and puzzles. He’d explained a lot of different ones to Nickie, and they’d had fun working on them together. Could these postcards be in code?
She went up to the nursery and laid the three postcard messages in a row on the window seat. She studied them for a while, but if they were in code, she couldn’t figure it out. So she gave up for the moment and played with Otis for a long time. His happy spirit made her feel better. Everything about him made her feel better, in fact—his damp black nose, the way the wavy hair grew on the top of his head, the five little pads on the bottoms of his feet, even his doggy smell. They played all their favorite games, and Nickie pondered her father’s odd messages, and thoughts of horrible Hoyt McCoy gradually faded from her mind.
What Grover Saw
Something was going on at Hoyt McCoy’s. Grover, who was out by the street getting the mail just before dinnertime, saw two cars—one of them a police car—streaking down Trillium Street and veering left up Raven Road, and of course he followed to see where they were going. They turned in at Hoyt’s driveway. Obviously they weren’t just stopping for a friendly visit. They were going fast. Their wheels skidded on the driveway’s gravel.
Had Hoyt had a heart attack or something? Had he maybe shot himself in the foot with that rifle of his? Maybe he had shot someone else and they were going in to arrest him. Whatever was happening, Grover had to see it.
He ran up Hoyt’s driveway in the wake of the cars and stepped in among some trees at the side of the drive so he could watch without being seen. Both cars had pulled up in the open space in front of Hoyt’s awful-looking house, and from them sprang Yonwood’s policemen and Mrs. Brenda Beeson. The cops had taken their guns from their holsters and were pointing them at the front door of the house. The chief, Officer Gurney, roared in his chest-deep voice, “Hoyt McCoy! Come out with your hands up! We have you surrounded!”
Actually, they didn’t have him surrounded. They were all in front of the house. But when Gurney said that, a couple of police scurried around to the back. Mrs. Beeson, in her red baseball cap, stood behind the other two. Her fists were clenched at her sides, her nose slightly wrinkled, as if she were sniffing the air, and her eyes fixed like searchlight beams on the front door of the house.
In a moment, the door opened. The tall, stooped figure of Hoyt McCoy appeared. He had on a baggy olive green sweater and black pants, and his shaggy hair stuck together in bunches, as if he hadn’t combed it for several weeks.
“Hands up! Hands up!” yelled Officer Gurney, who must have learned his lines, Grover thought, from watching cop shows on TV.
But Hoyt did not put his hands up. He came out onto his front step and stared at the crowd in his driveway as if he thought he must be having a nightmare. Then he raised one hand, but not in surrender. He pointed a finger straight at Officer Gurney. “Off…my…property!” he shouted. “All of you.Out! What do you think you’re doing here?”
“You’re under arrest!” yelled Officer Gurney, though he didn’t take a step closer to Hoyt. “Attempted murder!”
At this, Hoyt lowered his arm and smiled. Smiled? Grover crept a little closer to make sure. Yes, he was smiling, a strange look on that long, bloodhound face of his. He smiled and shook his head slowly. He came down his front steps and approached Officer Gurney, apparently not worried that he was about to be shot. Gurney raised his other arm and took hold of his gun with both hands, as if a tank or an enraged rhinoceros were charging at him.
“Officer,” said Hoyt, “a mistake has been made, and I see the source of it standing just behind you.” He nodded at Mrs. Beeson, who didn’t move. “For some reason, this lady is determined tohound me. She sends her spies to trespass on my land. Now she accuses me of murder, which is so ludicrous that I can only smile.” He smiled again, a thin, grim smile that had no humor in it.
Mrs. Beeson stepped forward, and Grover stepped forward, too, to hear what she was going to say. It didn’t seem to matter if he came out a little from among the trees; no one was paying any attention to him.
“Attemptedmurder,” Mrs. Beeson said in a voice that quivered with outrage. “I have always known that you were a bad one. But now we have found you out before you could—”
“Attempted murder ofwhom, madam?” said Hoyt.
“A child! A little girl who had strayed onto your land and was perfectly innocently gazing at your dreadful—”
“Now, wait just a moment, dear lady,” Hoyt said. His smile vanished. His face grew dark with anger. “This is really too much! Lately my estate has beencrawling with prowlers. A boy, a girl, and no doubt others I have not spotted.”
Grover knew who the boy prowler had been. But who was the girl? He didn’t know any girls who would even think of setting foot on Hoyt McCoy’s land.
Hoyt railed on. “Why,a person would like to know?Why? I happen to be intensely busy at the moment—busy with matters of great importance, matters that could alter the world’s future—and yours, madam. And yet you send spies to pester me.” He shook his finger at Mrs. Beeson. “And when I call out at them, when I rightfully demand that they leave the premises, I am accused of attemptedmurder ? It is quite beyond belief.”
All this time, the police remained in a half-crouching position, like runners at the start of a race, ready at any second to leap forward and wrestle Hoyt McCoy to the ground. Hoyt didn’t seem to be alarmed by this. He glared straight past them and fixed his eyes on Mrs. Beeson.
She glared back. “You trained a rifle on a little girl,” said Mrs. Beeson in a breathless, furious voice. “Arifle. She saw it, and she saw you lower it—to point straight at her! She heard you—you threatened her. You—” Here she seemed to run out of both words and breath. Her face was as red as her cap.
Officer Gurney took a bold stride forward. “Come quietly now,” he said to Hoyt. “We’re taking you in.”
But an expression of great amusement slowly spread across Hoyt’s face. “Ah,” he said, ignoring Gurney. “Now I understand. Look up there, ladies and gentlemen.” He pointed upward and backward, over his shoulder. “There’s your murder weapon.”
Grover looked up. So did the cops, and so did Mrs. Beeson. In a gable window above the second story, the barrel of a rifle pointed at the sky. At least, it looked to Grover like a rifle, although it was bigger than the rifle his father had, and its shape was slightly different. Maybe it was actually a shotgun. That would explain why it was pointed at the sky—Hoyt was using it to shoot birds, when he wasn’t shooting trespassers.
“That,” said Hoyt, “is not a gun. That is the telescope with which I scan the skies.” He turned back to glare at Mrs. Beeson again. “And also scan my property for trespassers. I wish to be left alone. But you, Brenda Beeson, send one spy after another. Why?Why? Why cannot a person be left in peace?”
It was an interesting moment. Grover held his breath, waiting to hear what Mrs. Beeson and her men would say. Everyone waited. Mrs. Beeson, too, seemed to be waiting, perhaps for a cue from God. Grover could see her face tightening—eyes narrowing, forehead furrowing. Really, he thought, she ought to be relieved. She ought to be saying, Oh, good, no crime has taken place after all! My mistake! Very sorry!
Instead she told Officer Gurney to take one of his men and go upstairs to make sure that Hoyt McCoy was telling the truth. “And look around as you go,” she added. “In case—you know—there might be—”
“Absolutely,” said Officer Gurney.
“What!” cried Hoyt. “You assume you may come barging into my house without a search warrant?”
“It’s a matter of security,” Officer Gurney said. “In times like these, a threat to security changes the rules.”
“Outrageous,” said Hoyt. “But I won’t take the trouble to stop you. You will find nothing in my house that has the faintest whiff of criminality.”
He went inside with the two men, and they were gone for about fifteen minutes—a very boring fifteen minutes for Grover, who didn’t want to draw attention to himself by walking away. The cold from the ground was seeping up into his feet. Mrs. Beeson got into her car and sat there waiting. She looked cross and huddled, as ifshe were the suspect about to be taken in. Grover thought this was rather funny. He didn’t really favor one side over the other in this dispute. He hadn’t enjoyed being yelled at and scared by Hoyt McCoy the day he crossed his property. But he didn’t care much for Mrs. Beeson, either. These days she was seeing something wicked everywhere she looked.
The police came out of the house, finally, and Hoyt stood on his step with his hands on his hips and watched them triumphantly as they got back into their car.
“Your timing was excellent,” he said. “If you’d come tomorrow, you’d not have found me here, as I am about to go away for a few days on a mission of more importance than you can imagine. You might have tried to interfere with my trip, which would have been a very bad decision. As it is, we’ve got this little matter out of the way and I hope never to have the pleasure of your company here again.”
The men weren’t bothering to listen to him. “Weirdest place I’ve ever seen,” Grover heard Officer Gurney say before he slammed the car door. “Messiest, too. The guy’s a nutcase.”
The cars started up their engines and drove off down the driveway. Hoyt stood where he was, watching until both cars had turned onto Raven Road. Grover waited for him to go back inside, but he kept standing there, and finally Grover realized that Hoyt was looking right athim.
“I see my trespasser is back,” Hoyt said. There was no anger in his tone.
“I’m leaving,” said Grover. “I just wanted to see what was going on.”
“Since you’re here,” said Hoyt, “let me tell you something.”
Uh-oh, thought Grover. Now I get yelled at. But he stood his ground. At least no one was shooting at him.
Hoyt came down the steps, stalked over to Grover, and stood right in front of him. There were grease stains on his sweater, Grover noticed, and his pants were unraveling at the cuffs. He smelled like burned toast. “What Lady Brenda doesn’t know,” Hoyt said, “is that she has the wrong information. Heaven ismy territory. I know what goes on there. I know what the universe has in store for us.”
“You do?” said Grover. Not being yelled at surprised him so much that he answered as if they were having a normal conversation.
“As well as anyone,” said Hoyt.
“Well,” said Grover, “whatdoes the universe have in store?”
“Ceaseless marvels,” said Hoyt McCoy. “Infinite astonishment. But only for those who care to pay attention.”
“I saw a crack of light over your house,” Grover said.
“Aha,” said Hoyt. He narrowed his eyes and looked hard at Grover. “Never mind aboutthat, ” he said.
“Why?” said Grover. “Is it a secret?”
Hoyt McCoy ignored his question. “If you were to simply ring my doorbell like a civilized person instead of sneaking around my property, I might show you a few things. Assuming you were interested.”
But Grover wasn’t nearly interested enough for that. “Maybe sometime,” he said. “But right now I have to go.” He moved backward a few steps.
“Let me tell you one more thing,” said Hoyt, raising his voice. “You may tell this to your Mrs. Beeson, if you like, who likes everything to be neat and clean and normal. I amnot particularly neat or clean; I am certainlynot what anyone would call normal. But I am asgood as anyone else.”
And very loony, thought Grover. He murmured a few more polite words and made his exit, trotting down the gravel drive and heading home with a great sense of relief.
Grover couldn’t sleep that night. Thoughts swarmed through his mind; he couldn’t shut them off. So he got up, being quiet so he wouldn’t wake his brothers. He put his clothes on and went outside. He would take a short, fast walk—just up the hill to Main Street, down a few blocks, and back home. He’d done it before when he couldn’t sleep, and it usually helped.
He wasn’t afraid. There was nothing in Yonwood that could hurt him, unless that terrorist was roaming around town again. And if he was, Grover could watch him from some safe place and see what he was up to and turn him in. The thought was invigorating. Grover started off. He climbed the hill at a rapid pace, breathing in cold night air, looking up at the stars, wondering why he didn’t do this more often. Being out alone at night made him feel free.
He went up Trillium Street, around behind the Cozy Corner (no terrorists there tonight), and down Main Street, where the streetlamps were out, as they were all over town. He saw nothing stirring—not a night watchman or an alley cat or even a spider—until, as he passed the dark windows of the grocery store, he happened to glance up Grackle Street and saw someone about a block away. Whoever it was didn’t walk purposefully but drifted a little this way, a little that way, as if lost or looking for something. Was it a sleepwalker? Grover stopped and stared. He was too far away to be sure who he was seeing, but suddenly he thought he knew. It must be her; it was the right street. Why would she be outside? She seemed to be wearing—what? A nightgown? Something pale and floaty. He started in that direction. But before he’d gone more than a few steps, another figure appeared, a skinny girl, who dashed up behind the lost-looking one and took her arm and led her back into the house.
Grover turned downhill and headed for home. What he’d seen had given him a sad, shaky feeling. Poor Prophet, he thought. It must be awful to have God speak to you and turn your mind to ashes.
Nickie woke on Tuesday morning to the sound of rain roaring on the roof and slashing against the window glass, coming in gusts as the wind blew one way and then another. It was the sort of day when you want to stay inside, make a fire, and sit by it with your cup of hot chocolate. But of course Nickie had given up hot chocolate, so she drank mint tea that morning instead. She actually felt quite virtuous doing it, because it was so hard. She could tell that her willpower was being exercised, like a muscle. This didn’t make herhappy, exactly. She missed the chocolate. But it made her feel strong. Could it be that the more things you gave up, the stronger you would feel?
Crystal went out early to talk with Len about plans for the open house. “Meet me at the café at six,” she said as she went out the door. “We’ll have dinner together and you can tell me all about your adventures.”
Otis’s outing was very short that morning. He stood on the threshold of the back door and looked doubtfully at the rain. Nickie had to push him outside. Once there, he did his duty in record time and dashed back in. Nickie took him upstairs.
The nursery room was especially cozy that morning, with the sky so dark outside, and the sound of the rain on the windows, and the pools of golden light from the lamps. Nickie set Otis up on the window seat and gave him a new bone to chew. She propped up some cushions to lean against, and then she looked around for something to read. Her eyes fell on the books that Amanda had left behind. Why not try one of those? She picked the one with the dark-haired beauty on the cover and opened it at random:
In the candlelight, Blaine’s eyes glittered like jewels. Clarissa caught her breath as he leaned toward her. What a magnificent man he was! His square jaw, his thick glossy black hair, his wide shoulders—her heart raced. When he reached out and stroked her cheek, she trembled all over. “Blaine,” she said. “You must never leave me. I want to be with you always.”
Nickie raised her eyes to the rain-spattered window. She tried to imagine feeling this way about someone. First she pictured Martin, with his hazel eyes and short red hair. Did she think he was magnificent? Not really. He seemed nice, and he was on the side of goodness. But he didn’t make her heart race. She pictured Grover instead. His hair was cute, in a floppy sort of way. He was smart and interesting. He had a sense of humor, if you liked that kind of humor. But he was also a bit peculiar. She had no idea if he was on the side of goodness or not. And she certainly wouldn’t say he was magnificent. If he stroked her cheek, would her heart race? No. She would think it was weird and creepy. Did she want to be with him always? Definitely not. It was hard to imagine wanting to be with anyonealways. There’d be times when you wanted to be alone, or with someone else.
She turned a few pages and read some more:
Clarissa fled down the stone steps to the windswept beach, her raven tresses flowing out behind her. She scanned the empty sands, and when she saw no sign of Blaine, a great cry of anguish escaped her lips. She could not live without him! She would sooner die!
Nickie shut the book. There was no doubt about it: if that was love, she was not in love with Martinor Grover. She could live without either of them perfectly well.
She looked out the window, where the rain was still pelting down. At the end of the block, she noticed someone approaching, wearing a wide-brimmed pink rain hat and carrying a canvas tote bag. When the person came closer, she saw who it was: Mrs. Beeson! How perfect. If she ran fast downstairs, she could catch her and ask her what had happened to horrible Hoyt McCoy.
She didn’t bother to grab an umbrella—she just threw on her jacket and ran out into the rain. Rivers of water streamed through the gutters. All along the street, bare tree branches flailed against house walls and shut-tight windows. She ran to meet Mrs. Beeson, who smiled when she saw Nickie coming.
“Hi!” said Nickie. “I saw you from the window, and I was wondering—”
“I was just thinking of you,” Mrs. Beeson said. She looked a little frazzled around the edges. Her lipstick was slightly crooked, and her ponytail, beneath the rain hat, was damp and drooping. “You’ve been such a help. Walk with me, if you’d like. I’m delivering a few notices.”
“Notices?” said Nickie.
“Yes, urgent ones. I’m getting a little impatient. Here we have such a miraculous chance to save ourselves, and a few people are about to ruin it for everyone. Such selfishness! I have to make them understand. We have a terrorist in the woods! The Crisis gets worse all the time! In three days we might face war!” Mrs. Beeson shook her head at people’s foolishness. “So I’ve decided it’s time to take some drastic action. I’ve done the downhill ones and most of the uphill; only one more to go.” She drew Nickie in next to her, under the umbrella. Her sugary smell enveloped them both.
“What are the notices about?” Nickie asked.
But Mrs. Beeson was already on a different subject. “It was just too bad about Hoyt McCoy,” she said, “wasn’t it? About your mistake, I mean, honey. But I still feel sure that he has something to hide. Don’t you?”
Nickie was puzzled. “I don’tknow what happened with Hoyt McCoy,” she said. “That’s what I wanted to ask you. Didn’t you arrest him? Did I make a mistake?”
Mrs. Beeson looked at her in surprise. “You didn’t know?” She explained about the police action and the rifle that was really a telescope. “However,” she said, “I’m sure we were rightessentially. He just reeks of wrongness. I canfeel it, and doing this work makes me trust my feelings more every day. It’s just a matter of catching him in the act, that’s all. But never mind. Here’s the last house.”
Nickie was so stunned by this news about Hoyt McCoy that she could hardly breathe. A telescope! And the police had gone out and aimed guns at him! Because of her.
They had stopped at a brick house with a collapsing woodshed next to it. Mrs. Beeson opened the mailbox. She reached into the canvas bag and took out a blue envelope. In the upper left corner were the words “Urgent: From B. Beeson.” She put it in the mailbox, and they moved on.
Nickie started to ask again what was in the envelopes, but Mrs. Beeson was already talking. “Sometimes I’m sorry this ever happened,” she said. “That vision of Althea’s, and then the instructions afterward. Some parts of it are very hard. The punishment part, for instance.”
“Punishment?” said Nickie.
Mrs. Beeson turned a corner and headed up Fern Street, walking so quickly that Nickie kept getting left behind. “Yes, for people who just won’t cooperate,” Mrs. Beeson said. “We can’t allow that, can we? It would be letting down everyone else in Yonwood.”
“What’s the punishment?” Nickie asked.
But Mrs. Beeson must not have heard her over the splash of the rain. “It’s such a responsibility,” she went on. “I’ve agonized over it, I must admit. Some of the things she says—I don’t know. I hate to think she really means—” She shook her head, staring down at the wet sidewalk. “I just hesitate to—”
Then suddenly she stopped, and a little rush of water flowed off the top of her pink hat onto Nickie’s head. Her voice became strong again. “What am I saying? I hesitate? Just because something is hard? Just because it means making a sacrifice? No, no, no. That’s what faith is, isn’t it? Believing even when you don’t understand.”
Nickie looked up at her. She was gazing at the sky, her eyes shining, paying no attention to the rain falling on her face. “It is?” Nickie said.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Beeson. “It is.” And with that, she hurried away.
Back at Greenhaven, Nickie went upstairs, passing some men who were polishing the floors with a roaring machine. Mrs. Beeson, she thought, seemed more fired up than ever, like an engine revved to a higher level. Nickie had the feeling something was going to happen.
In the nursery, Otis greeted her energetically. “Oty-Oty-Otis!” she cried. She rolled him over and scratched his pink tummy, and he paddled his feet and stretched his head out so she could scratch his throat, too. “You are a darling, Otis,” she said. She lifted him up onto the window seat, and she turned on the lamp. As the rain pounded down outside, she started in again on the stack of papers she’d taken from the big trunk.
She found some letters written to “Mommy and Daddy” from a girl at summer camp in 1955, and an article cut from a newspaper’s social pages about an elegant birthday party held at Greenhaven in 1940. After setting aside still more bent postcards and ancient Christmas cards and faded photographs, she came upon a fragile old envelope with a strange-looking letter inside that she thought at first was just a page of crazy scribbling. But when she looked at it closely, she could see that it was writing after all. It was a sort ofdouble writing. The letter writer (someone named Elizabeth) had written on the page in the usual way and then had turned the paper and written rightacross what she’d written before! The result looked totally unreadable—like two barbed-wire fences laid on top of each other. But she found that if she held the paper in a certain way, slightly tipped, the writing going one direction faded into the background, and the writing going the other direction became clear.
The letter was dated January 4, 1919. Most of it wasn’t really worth the trouble it took to read. Elizabeth wrote about ordinary things: visitors who’d arrived, a party, new clothes, a new horse. One bit was intriguing, though: “I hope your dear mother is not so terribly sad as she was. I see as I write this that it’s been a year today since the fever took darling baby Frederick. Such a great sorrow! But time must have healed her a little by now.”
Nickie imagined the mother, young and beautiful and wearing one of those long, slender dresses she’d seen in the photographs, sitting in anguish at the bedside of her baby, not able to give him the right medicine because it hadn’t been invented yet. It would be dreadful to watch your baby die. No wonder she was still sad a year later.
She decided to keep this letter because of the strange way it was written. She set it on the shelf with the picture of the twins.
It was time to meet Crystal for dinner. Nickie walked toward downtown. Overhead, she heard the fighter jets again, roaring across the sky, above the clouds. She shivered, thinking of the president’s deadline. Only three days left.
The whole town had a gloomy, closed-in look tonight. Nearly all the houses were dark, their blinds and curtains drawn. A small house on Birch Street had lighted windows, though, and as Nickie passed she saw a police car draw up in front of it. Good, she thought. They’re going to make those people follow the rules.
When she got to the Cozy Corner and pushed open the door, warm food-scented air greeted her. The restaurant was dim because its lights were off, but candles on each table made it seem cozy anyhow. She spotted Crystal right away: she was sitting with her back to Nickie, at a table beside the window, and across from her sat a tall man with a little mustache. It must be Len, the real estate agent. Why washe here? Crystal hadn’t said she was meeting Len for dinner. She’d said she andNickie would have dinner together and Nickie would tell about her adventures. Not that she had any adventures she wanted to tell about.
Len saw her standing there. He said something to Crystal, and she turned around and called, “Nickie! Here we are!”
When Nickie sat down, Crystal said, “I talked to your mother today. She got a card from your father. Didn’t say where he was or what he was doing, but he said he might have a surprise for her pretty soon.”
“He must be coming home!” Nickie said. “Oh, I hope he is.” She missed her father with a terrible ache all of a sudden. He called her his chickadee and made paper airplanes for her. She wished he were here right now.
She wanted to ask if her mother had said anything else, but Crystal had moved on to another subject. “We’ve been planning,” she said. “We’re thinking this Saturday for the open house.”
“Crossing our fingers for good weather,” said Len, grinning, and holding up two sets of crossed fingers and wagging them at Nickie.
“That means a lot of work has to get done during the next three days,” said Crystal. She sounded quite cheerful about it. She took her notebook out of her purse, and she and Len started in on still another to-do list as if it were the most fun thing in the world.
Nickie ordered her soup and stared out the window. The last of the sunlight edged the top of the mountain in gold. Someone in a “Don’t Do It!” T-shirt walked by, and someone else with a cell phone clapped to her ear. Across the street, a black car pulled into the gas station. Hoyt McCoy got out of it. Just the sight of him made Nickie feel guilty. She watched as he filled up his gas tank, and she was glad when he drove off, heading down the road that led to the highway.
Dinner took forever. Crystal’s to-do list got longer and longer, and every item had to be discussed in tedious detail. Now and then Nickie commented on something, but no one paid attention to her. She was just about to say she was going back to Greenhaven when there was a loud tap on the window next to her. Startled, she turned. Outside stood Grover, his eyes round and worried-looking.
“Who’sthat ?” said Crystal.
“The handyman’s son,” Nickie said. “I sort of know him.” She laughed, thinking he was joking around as usual. But instead of breaking into a smile or a maniac face, Grover shook his head and beckoned to her. His mouth moved, making exaggerated words: “Come out.” Nickie’s smile froze on her face. What was wrong?
She stood up from the table. “I have to go ask him something,” she said, and before Crystal and Len could say a word, she dashed out the door and hurried after Grover.
He was waiting for her a few steps farther up the block, outside a shoe store.
“What’s the matter?” she said. “Why were you looking at me like that?”
“Something bad has happened,” he said. “You know my snakes?”
“They told me I have to get rid of them.”
“What? Who told you?”
“Brenda Beeson. I went home for lunch and there was a note for me in the mailbox. It said snakes are touched with evil and it isn’t good to keep them and I have to get rid of them.”
“Oh,” said Nickie, with a shock of dismay.
“Someone must have told her,” Grover said. “I think I know who: my so-called friend Martin.”
Nickie didn’t answer. She stared at a man taking the display tables of on-sale shoes inside for the night. She didn’t want to meet Grover’s eyes.
“He was lurking around outside my shed a few days ago,” Grover went on. “Someone was, anyway. He ran away before I could see who it was.” He scowled. “I don’twant to get rid of my snakes.”
Nickie felt a sickening dizziness. She couldn’t remember, all of a sudden, whose side she was on. Was she God’s helper or Grover’s friend? Her mind went numb. She didn’t know what to say.
“I had to tell someone,” Grover said. “I saw you in there, so…” He shrugged, looking at her curiously, probably wondering why she was standing there like a dummy.
Without her even wanting it to, the truth pushed its way out of her. “It wasn’t a he,” she said, looking down at the sidewalk.
“What? Who wasn’t?”
“It was me. Outside your shed. It was me who told her about the snakes.”
Grover’s mouth dropped open. “You?You? ”
“I’ve been helping her,” Nickie said. “Looking for things that are bad, you know, helping her root them out. I didn’tknow if keeping snakes was bad. I just asked her about it. That’s all I did.”
“Why are youhelping her?” Grover said. He flung his hands out and looked at her with an “I can’t believe this” expression.
“Because I want to fight against evil,” Nickie said. “Find trouble spots. Help keep everything on the side of good, so we’ll be safe.”
“You know what they’re going to do if I don’t get rid of my snakes?” Grover said.
“Put one of those bracelet things on me. Hah!” he cried out suddenly. A woman passing by gave him a startled look. “Let ’em try it. They’re never gonna touch me.”
“What bracelet things?” Nickie asked.
“You don’t know about them?” Grover circled his wrist with his thumb and forefinger. “They hum. They goMMMMmmmm-MMMMmmmm. Some little nonstop battery thing powers them. You can’t get them off, even with a hammer or a hacksaw, because they’re made of something incredibly hard. Anybody they say is a sinner gets one. Nobody can talk to a person with a bracelet, and they won’t take it off till you either quit sinning or leave.”
“Leave town. Move somewhere else.”
“That must be what I’ve heard, then,” Nickie said. “Twice I heard it.”
“There’s three or four people who have them right now. They don’t come out much. They don’t want to be seen. Jonathan Small has one. So does Ricky Platt.”
“What did they do wrong?”
“I don’t know about Ricky, but Jonathan sings,” said Grover. “No one is supposed to, since the Prophet said ‘No singing.’ But he sings these loud show tunes in the shower every morning. His neighbors heard him, and the cops came and snapped the bracelet on him. He said he wouldn’t quit singing, but I think he’s about ready to change his mind. That bracelet thing drives a person crazy.” He twisted his lips in a disgusted way. “A whole lot of people got these letters in their mailboxes. I heard about two of ’em already: The Elwoods got one for yelling at each other. Maryessa Brown got one for smoking. And you should have seen what happened to old Hoyt McCoy. They brought out the whole police force and tried to arrest him. I saw it—I was there.”
Nickie’s heart had started beating rapidly. “Maybe you should let the snakes go,” she said.
“Why should I?” he said. “What harm are they doing?”
“They could bite someone,” Nickie said weakly.
“There’s a lock on the shed! No one goes in there but me!” Grover was shouting now, and people passing by were frowning at him. His face took on its wild-eyed look. “And anyway,” he yelled, “they’renot venomous snakes !”
Nickie stepped back. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I was just trying to…I don’t know, to do the right thing.” She took a deep, shaky breath. “If they try to put one of those bracelets on you, what will you do?”
“Run. They won’t catch me.” Grover’s chin jutted out, and his lips pressed together in a hard line. He pointed a finger at her and shook it in her face. “You shouldthink about what’s the right thing to do. Not just take someone’s word for it.” And with that he turned around and stalked away, leaving Nickie standing beside the door of the shoe store, with dark feelings swirling through her like storm clouds.
The storm in her mind got worse when she tried to sleep that night. She couldn’t stop thinking about the blue envelopes. Mrs. Beeson must have given one to every person who was doing something they’d decided was wrong. How many of them were people Nickie herself had talked about? And were they all going to do what they were told? Or were there others like Grover, who would refuse? And whatwas the right thing to do?
She didn’t feel well. Her stomach was all unsettled. She lay in bed for a long time, not sleeping, thinking about Grover’s snakes, and the humming bracelets, and the Prophet, and the president, and God, and about good versus evil, until her mind was a swirl of confusion. Finally, she crept out of bed. She felt her way down the hall in the dark to the back stairs, and she tiptoed up to the third floor and into the nursery. Otis, who’d been asleep on the bed that had been Amanda’s, jumped down and ran to her, wagging his rear end, and Nickie picked him up and got into the bed herself. She could feel the warm spot where he’d been lying—it was right by her knees. She put him back there and laid one arm across his furry body, and after that she felt better. But she didn’t sleep soundly that night. A dark feeling stayed with her. She wasn’t sure if it was guilt or dread.