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The Emergency Meeting

 

From the uphill and downhill neighborhoods, people converged on Main Street—frowning, worried-looking men, mothers holding the hands of young children, older children following along, unusually quiet. Everyone was unusually quiet, in fact; when they spoke at all, it was in low voices, just to exchange a few questions: What’s this about, do you know? Have no idea. Must be something serious. Maybe something new from the Prophet. Maybe so. They hurried past the dark windows of the stores, which had closed early, down past the deserted park, down toward the very end of Main Street—a stream of people, almost all the citizens of Yonwood. Though not quite all, Nickie remembered. Hoyt McCoy wouldn’t be here, and Grover wouldn’t, because he was up in the woods somewhere, and no doubt there were a few other Yonwood citizens who didn’t come when Brenda Beeson called.

 

But certainly most of the town was now pouring into the narrow, upright building that was the Church of the Fiery Vision. Once Nickie got past the crush of people at the door, she saw a long room filled with rows of wooden pews. High in the walls were windows of stained glass, but because the sky outside was growing dark, she couldn’t make out the pictures in them. The light inside the church was dim, too. It came from candles placed in dozens of spots around the room. They lit up the aisles and the seats, but the space above, up to the ceiling, was a gulf of darkness.

 

Quickly and quietly, people filed into the pews and sat down. Nickie sat toward the back. Then came long moments when nothing happened. People whispered and rustled, waiting. At last a door opened behind the pulpit, and Mrs. Beeson came out. She climbed up the steps to the pulpit and stood there looking out at the crowd. The whispering immediately died down.

 

There was no hat of any kind today. Mrs. Beeson’s hair was fluffed out in a cloud around her head, and she wore a red dress with her round blue Tower button pinned to the front. She stood looking out at them in silence for a long time, her eyes flitting from one face to another. At last she spoke. There was a wave of creaks and rustles as everyone leaned forward to hear.

 

“Well, friends,” she said, “we’re in a dark time.”

 

There was a murmur of agreement from the crowd.

 

“Our Prophet has seen a dreadful disaster in the world’s future. It could be the war that might be coming. It could have to do with the terrorist in our woods.”

 

The crowd murmured again.

 

“But she’s also tried to tell us how to be safe from this disaster. I call that a miracle. It’s like being taken under God’s wing.”

 

Mrs. Beeson smiled, and Nickie could tell that the people in the room were feeling that smile’s warm glow.

 

“And so most of us,” Mrs. Beeson went on, “have done our best to do what our Prophet tells us to do. It’s not always easy to know what that is. Sometimes the Prophet says things that even I can’t interpret. She says ‘No words,’ for example. Unless she means swearwords, which we don’t say anyhow, I must admit I’m mystified. And there’s something else she says that until now I’ve thought I must be hearing wrongly. But as danger comes closer, I’m forced to believe she means exactly what she says.”



 

Mrs. Beeson paused. She stood still, her blue eyes scanning the crowd. She looked like a queen, Nickie thought, in her ruby red dress, with the light from the candles gilding her hair. The people in the church seemed to hold their breath.

 

Finally, Mrs. Beeson squared her shoulders and spoke. “What I am about to say is for the good of us all,” she said. “We must be obedient, whether we understand or not. God’s ways are beyond our knowing.” She paused again, for a long time. Tension twisted in Nickie’s stomach. People sat so still that the whole room was utterly silent.

 

When Mrs. Beeson spoke next, her voice was hardly above a whisper, but it was so fierce that you could hear every word. “Althea has said it over and over, but I haven’t wanted to hear it. ‘No dogs,’ she says. ‘No dogs.’ It’s quite clear. Somehow, our dogs are standing in the way.”

 

“What?!” cried a woman a few rows up, but someone else shushed her.

 

Mrs. Beeson’s voice rose. “Yes,” she said. “I see it now. I see it in myself, in my own feelings for my little Sausage.” She leaned forward, gripping the pulpit with both hands. “Why should we give an animal love that should go to our families? Why should we give an animal love that should go to God? We have to act, my dear friends. I know it’s hard, but the dogs—all of them—must go.”

 

Nickie’s heart started rapid-fire beating. Dogs must go? What was she saying?

 

A clamor arose from the people in the church. Voices cried, What? and No! but Mrs. Beeson spread her arms out and stood like an angel about to rise. “Listen!” she cried.

 

Everyone grew silent again.

 

“It’s painful, I know,” she said. “But terrible times demand extraordinary sacrifices. Seems to me what the Prophet is saying to us is this: the more we say no to the things of the world, all those things we’re too attached to, the more we can say yes to God. It’s what I’ve told you before: when you have faith that you’re right—youknow it from the bottom of your soul—you’re willing to do anything for it. Anything.”

 

At that, the people grew silent again. A few stood up and left the church—one man shouted “She’s wrong!” as he went out the door—but all the rest stayed. Nickie saw some of them look at each other with stern, brave looks and nod. Then they looked back at her again, waiting for instructions.

 

“It will be like this,” she said. “The day after tomorrow, I will send a bus to all dog-owning households. You will put your dog aboard the bus, and the driver will take the dogs to a wild place many miles from here, where the dogs will be free to go back into nature, where they belong. No animal will be harmed, and we here in Yonwood will have followed our instructions to the letter. We will be free to love God with all our hearts.”

 

Nickie felt as if she’d been set on fire. They won’t take Otis, she thought. Never.

 

But she realized after a moment that she didn’t have to worry about Otis. No one knew that Greenhaven was “a dog-owning household.” The only people besides herself who knew about Otis were Amanda and Grover, and they wouldn’t hurt him. She would keep him safe—she’d be extra super careful when she took him out to pee—and when the house was sold, she’d take him away with her, back to the city.

 

Because she knew now that she would fail at her Goal #1, which was to live at Greenhaven with her parents. She still loved Greenhaven, and Yonwood, too, but she no longer wanted to live in a place where Mrs. Beeson and her Prophet delivered instructions from God.

 

 

CHAPTER 24

______________

 

The Bracelet

 

On Friday morning, as Grover was on his way to school, two men had jumped him as he passed the car-repair garage. They’d been standing behind a gate that led into an alley beside the building, and when Grover came past they simply stepped out into his path and blocked his way. Before he realized what was happening, each of them grabbed one of his arms. One of them whipped the bracelet out of his pocket, snapped it around Grover’s right wrist, clicked a button on a remote control, and the bracelet was activated. It started up its noise:MMMM-mmmm-MMMMM-mmmmm.

 

He wrenched free and ran, but by then, of course, it was too late. The noise screamed from his wrist. He shook his arm as if the thing were a scorpion biting him, as if it were a cloud of bees attacking, but there was no stopping it. Get away, get away, was all he could think. He ran around the far side of his house and down Woodfield Road, where there were fewer people, though the few he passed stared at him in horror. He didn’t look at them. Get away, get away. He ran past the school, staying far out at the edge of the playing fields, past the end of Main Street, where the windows of the Cozy Corner Café were still dark, and then, all the time with the noise streaming out behind him like a kite tail, he ran up the path into the woods.

 

When he’d run uphill for ten minutes or so, he stopped. The whine of the bracelet—MMMM-mmmm- MMMMM-mmmmm—zinged around his head like a monster mosquito. He had to do something about it. Though the morning was cold, he was warm from running. So he took off his jacket and the sweatshirt he was wearing underneath it. He put his jacket back on, and he wrapped the sweatshirt around his wrist, tying it as tightly as he could by the sleeves. It made his arm into a sort of club, with a great lump at the end. The sound was deadened, but not silenced. He could still hear it, and of course anyone walking in the woods—human or animal—would be able to hear it, too. So he unwound the sweatshirt. He took off his jacket and his T-shirt, put his jacket back on (because he wouldn’t be able to once he’d made his hand into a club), and wrapped the T-shirt around the bracelet as a first layer. Then he wrapped the sweatshirt around that. This made a wad as big as a soccer ball. His arm looked like a giant lollipop. It might make a good weapon, he thought. Too bad Teddy Crane and Bill Willard weren’t around for him to clobber.

 

The double wrapping muted the noise of the bracelet down to a faint hum. It was good enough. Grover strode on.

 

What he was going to do he didn’t know. He had no plan, other than to escape the town and all the pitying, tut-tutting faces that would be trained on him—people on the street, his teachers, the other kids at school. No. He would figure out a way to get the thing off. He wouldn’t go home until he had.

 

He climbed fast, fueled by rage. After half an hour or so, he came to the place he’d been a few days before, where the path led down to the stream. This was a good spot to stop for a moment, he thought. He was thirsty. He’d have a drink.

 

As he knelt by the stream and splashed water into his mouth with his left hand, he remembered the person he’d seen moving through the woods when he was last here—the pale patch off in the distance. For a second, with water dripping down his chin, he stopped moving and listened for footsteps. But as soon as he wasn’t making the noise of footsteps himself, crunching over twigs, rustling in the leaves, all he could hear was the thin whine of the bracelet, sounding through its wrappings:MMMM-mmmm-MMMMM-mmmmm, like a faraway siren.

 

So he wiped his wet hand on his pants and walked on. He thought of singing really loud to cover up the noise. But if therewas some evil person lurking up here, singing would just attract his attention. He tried to tune his ears to the tweeting of the birds instead.

 

The path wound up the mountainside. Every now and then he came to a place where the trees thinned out and he had a view over the town below. School would have started by now. They’d notice he wasn’t there. Would Bill and Teddy have gone to his house after they’d clapped the bracelet on him and told his parents? Would anyone come looking for him?

 

By midday, he was close to the top of the ridge, and he was starting to feel hungry. He happened to have a couple of stale crackers in his jacket pocket, so he ate those. But it wasn’t much of a lunch. At this season of the year, he wouldn’t be able to find much in the woods that he could eat. The berries would be gone, and although there were lots of mushrooms, he didn’t know enough about them to tell the edible ones from the poisonous. He’d just have to be hungry for a while, that’s all. Good thing he’d had a big breakfast.

 

When he came to a small open field, he decided to stop for a while and attack the bracelet. There was a shelf of rock at the edge of the field, large and low. Here he sat down. He unwrapped the sweatshirt from around his wrist, and then the T-shirt. The hideous noise wailed out into the air. Grover winced. It was like having skewers poked in his ears.

 

The bracelet was a flat metal band about a quarter of an inch thick, a dull silver color. There was a small hinge at one point on it, and a couple of grooves that went all the way around. The sound came from inside, but Grover couldn’t see any way of getting at it—no switch or slot or sliding panel.

 

Maybe he could just slip the thing off. He curled his hand into a tube shape and tried to work the bracelet over his knuckles—but it wouldn’t go. He slipped the fingers of his left hand under it and pulled as hard as he could, hoping to break the hinge, but all he accomplished was to make the edge of the bracelet dig into his skin. In furious frustration, he banged the bracelet against the rock, but the silver surface of it was barely even scratched. The noise went on without a pause,MMMM-mmmm-MMMMM-mmmmm, making him want to scream.

 

One more try. He found a rock about the size of a baseball and, placing his wrist on the bigger rock, smashed at the bracelet over and over. After five minutes of pounding, he’d made a tiny dent in the bracelet’s surface and a sizable scrape on his hand. With a yell, he flung the rock away and gave up. He put the wrappings back on his wrist. Failure.

 

He lay back on the warm rock and stared at the sky, where a hawk was circling far, far above. What had he done wrong? Nothing. Who was he hurting? No one. So why was he being tortured? He didn’t know. Had Althea Tower muttered something about snakes? Was there a law against snakes in some holy book? He didn’t know. And he didn’t know what he could do about any of it.

 

Stymied, he closed his eyes. The sun shone on him, and he grew sleepy and dozed off.

 

When he woke up, he could see that it was late afternoon. The shadows of the trees crept across the field, and the air had grown chillier. Grover felt bleak. What was he going to do when night came? What would he do tomorrow? He was hungry, and he was cold, too, because with his T-shirt and his sweatshirt wrapping up his wrist, all he had on was a flannel shirt and his jacket. Which was better, to be warm and have that noise screaming at him, or be cold and without the noise? He decided to be cold, at least for the moment.

 

For the first time, he realized that he was going to spend the night up here. He hadn’t really thought about it before, when all he wanted was to get away. But he saw that he would have to. Darkness would fall before he could get down the trail—and he didn’t want to be back in town anyway.

 

So he’d better use the daylight that was left to get ready. He’d make himself some sort of den to sleep in, and he’d look as hard as he could for some nuts or shriveled-up berries to eat.

 

First the den. He wanted to be in among the trees, not out in the open. So he crossed to the west side of the field and made his way into the thicket of undergrowth, stamping down brush and breaking off twigs that got in his way. It was like burrowing through barbed wire, he thought, so many stickers and scratchers. Underfoot, the ground was leaf-littered and rocky and uneven. And damp. It wasn’t a great place for a campout.

 

But after creeping around for a while, he found a sort of scooped-out place in the ground surrounded by a group of pines. The pine needles were thick on the ground, and he mounded them up to make a mattress. This wouldn’t be too bad, he thought. Now for food.

 

A few rays of sunlight still fell across the top of the mountain and lit up the trees on the other side of the field. Grover started to make his way out of the woods, back through the brush the way he’d come. But just as he got to the edge of the clearing, he saw, within the trees on the opposite side, something white moving.

 

He stood still. The trees would hide him, he thought, if he didn’t move. If only he had binoculars! His heart began a quick, steady thudding. Could the terrorist hear the faint hum of the bracelet?

 

The white patch moved slowly. It seemed to be coming toward the clearing. Grover held his breath. He squinted, trying to see more clearly in the failing light. The white patch moved, stood still, moved again, and at last came out from the shelter of the trees and into the field.

 

And Grover’s heart gave a great lurch. This terrorist was not human. And it was not a terrorist, either. It was a bear. A white bear—something Grover had never seen nor heard of.

 

The bear came out into the field. It walked with a lopsided motion, as if maybe one of its feet hurt. Its nose was down; its head swung slightly from side to side. Its coat, Grover could see, was not pure white at all. It was a dirty cream color, smudged with gray.

 

It came closer. Grover held his breath. He didn’t really think the bear would attack him. He’d caught sight of bears up here before, and he knew that the main thing was not to take the bear by surprise. Make a noise, let it know you were there, and it would turn around and shuffle off. Still, he was nervous. It was almost night, he was all alone, and he was making a strange noise the bear would soon start to hear.

 

And as soon as he had that thought, the bear lifted its head. It stopped moving and looked straight toward Grover. The last rays of the sun shone on its small round ears, turning them pink.

 

So Grover did what he knew he should do. He stepped out from the trees and stood in the open. He raised his right arm, so that the humming ball at the end of it stood up in the air like a stop sign. In as strong a voice as he could muster, he called out: “Bear! Here I am! I’m your friend, not your dinner!”

 

They stared at each other. Grover saw that the bear’s nose was a pale tan, and its eyes shone in the slanting sunlight like little rubies. He called out again, waving his arm. “I see what you are!” he said. “You should get away from here! You’re not safe!”

 

And as if it understood, the bear turned away. It didn’t hurry. It turned around and trundled back the way it had come. In a few minutes, it had gone into the woods and disappeared.

 

Grover slept that night on his cushion of pine needles. He covered himself with more pine needles, and he used the wad around his wrist as a pillow. The bracelet whined in his ear and, when he finally fell asleep, made its way into his dreams as a screaming jet plane diving toward him and swooping away, over and over. When he awoke in the morning, he was very cold and very hungry, and he knew there was nothing to do but go home. At least it was Saturday; no one would try to make him go to school.

 

 

CHAPTER 25

______________

 

The Open House

 

The house looked beautiful on Saturday morning. Its floors were polished, its paint was bright, and the pieces of furniture that remained were the finest antiques of the lot, and dust-free. Big vases stood here and there, with artistically arranged pine branches and bare twigs arching out of them.

 

Now Crystal was scuttling among the downstairs rooms, looking for anything that might discourage a buyer. Was there a crack in the plaster? Cover it with an antique portrait in a gold frame! A scuffed place on the floor? Put a Persian rug there! She puttered and fussed, fixed and fidgeted, talking the whole time. “The Tiffany lamp! Here would be the perfect spot. And wait, these cushions…Nickie, would you get those green ones from the middle bedroom? That’s better. Really, it’s looking good. Except for…hold on a sec…maybe the leather-topped game table over here…Help me move it, Nickie.”

 

Over an hour went by, during which Nickie could not stop thinking about Otis two floors above, needing his breakfast, needing to go outside, ready any second to start whining or barking. But Crystal, for once, wasn’t in a hurry.

 

At ten o’clock, she turned on the radio. “There ought to be some news,” she said. She stopped dashing around and sat down to listen. Nickie listened, too. “We are expecting an announcement from the White House at any moment,” said the newscaster. “The president’s deadline ran out yesterday, but so far there has been no word on the status of the situation.”

 

They kept listening, but no announcement came. There was a report about an earthquake somewhere, and a riot somewhere else, and then something about two movie stars getting married, and finally the announcer came back on and said that there was still no news about the tense international situation and that people should stay tuned.

 

“It’s odd,” said Crystal, flicking off the radio. “But at least it’s not war. Not yet.”

 

She went back to work. For another half hour, she wandered around adding final touches here and there. Finally she flopped down on the red plush sofa in the front parlor and surveyed what she had done. “Not bad,” she said. She checked her watch. “Ten forty-two. We open at eleven. Len should be here any minute.”

 

“Do you need me anymore?” Nickie asked.

 

“No, no,” said Crystal, waving a hand. “You go off and play.”

 

“Okay,” Nickie said. “I just have to get some stuff from upstairs first.”

 

Crystal nodded. She reached for a spray bottle and squirted a fine mist at a potted fern.

 

Nickie dashed up the stairs. Poor Otis, poor Otis; if he’d made a puddle on the floor, she wouldn’t say a single scolding word. She burst through the door at the top of the stairs, closed it behind her, flung open the nursery door, and there was Otis scrambling backward, yelping and squealing with a desperate tone in his voice. He’d been standing right there, she could picture it, nose to the place where the door would open, waiting for her. She scanned the room. Only one small puddle, which she quickly mopped up.

 

“Okay, Otis,” she said, “just a couple more minutes. I’ll be really quick.” Otis jumped up and down beside her leg. “I know you’re hungry, but we have to get out of here first. You have to beincredibly quiet.

 

She hooked Otis’s leash to his collar and wound it once around his muzzle so he couldn’t bark. Then she picked him up and carried him down the hall and down the stairs. She paused at the second floor, listening for Crystal. Heard nothing. Went down the next flight to the door that led to the hall behind the kitchen. Listened again. This time she heard voices.

 

“Looks great!” said Len’s voice. “You do, too.”

 

“Well, thanks! You’re such a sweetie.”

 

That was Crystal. They were by the front door, Nickie thought. Good. She darted into the kitchen, grabbed an apple and a muffin from a bowl on the table, opened the door to the back garden, and shouted, “Bye, I’m leaving! Good luck!” Before anyone even answered, she shut the door behind her and took off.

 

It was not a beautiful day for a walk. Gray clouds hung low and dark in the sky, and the air was cold enough to bite. Nickie had on her warmest jacket and a thick knitted scarf around her neck and a knitted hat that came down over her ears, and she was still chilly. She’d warm up as she walked, probably, but it would be nice if the wind would die down. She snuggled Otis’s head up under her chin.

 

At the end of the block, she went around the corner, turned onto Fern Street, and started up the path that led in among the trees. A few yards along, she stopped and set Otis down on the ground. Instantly, he pulled the leash tight, making a beeline for the base of a tree, where he lifted his back leg and sent a stream of pee against the bark. “Good boy,” said Nickie. Suddenly she felt happy and free. The cold didn’t matter. The woods stretched before her, mysterious, unexplored. No danger of running into the dog-napping Prophet out here, or any of her spies. And if there was a terrorist wandering around in the woods—well, if she saw him, she’d just hide, that’s all.

 

So they hiked, Nickie striding along on legs that felt strong and glad to be exercised, and Otis zigzagging across the path from one fascinating smell to the next. The ground crackled underfoot—icy dead leaves, brittle twigs, dirt hardened by cold. In all directions stood the endless ranks of gray-brown tree trunks, their bare branches making a dense weave that reminded her of the crosshatched writing on the old letter. Wind rattled the branches against each other, and here and there a few last rags of leaf fell down.

 

It was a little after eleven o’clock. In a while, she’d find a place to sit, and she’d eat the muffin and the apple she had with her. But now all she wanted to do was walk, and walk fast.

 

The trail wound back and forth, always sloping upward, but never very steep. Most of the time, all Nickie could see was the deep forest on both sides, but after a while she came to a clearing where the trees thinned out on the downhill side, and she could look down the mountain and see the roofs of the town below. It looked small and peaceful from here. No people were visible. She tried to make out which house was Greenhaven, but she couldn’t tell. It made her a little sad, this view of Yonwood, the place where she had been sure she wanted to live. In her imagination, it had been so perfect—peaceful and beautiful, safe from the troubles of the cities. If someone had told her then that Yonwood was working to battle the forces of evil by building a shield of goodness, she would have been happy to hear it. Those things were exactly what she wanted. How strange that it could all turn out so differently.

 

She walked on. It wasn’t a steady walk, because Otis had to stop every few yards and thrust his nose beneath a bush or into the leaf litter that covered the ground. Some spots were so interesting that he had to snuffle in them for quite a while. During these times, Nickie stood still and gazed around her. Birds flitted among the branches, twittering in a muted way. Overhead, clouds moved slowly across the sky, so the forest was sometimes in shadow, sometimes in sunlight. When the sun shone down, crystals of frost and patches of ice glistened like glass.

 

When she’d walked for an hour or so, she started thinking it was time to rest, and time to eat. She looked for somewhere to sit down. A few yards farther on she came to a fallen tree that lay alongside the trail, covered in a tangle of brown stickery vines and furred with green moss along the top. She tore the vines away to make a clear space, and she tied her end of Otis’s leash to the stump of a branch sticking up from the log. Then she sat down, took the muffin and the apple out of her paper bag, and ate them both, except for the last chunk of muffin, which she gave to Otis. She crushed the paper bag into a ball and stuck it in her pocket.

 

That was when she heard the footsteps. There was no mistaking them—firm and steady, a tramp, tramp, tramp that came from above her on the trail, not far distant. Nickie’s heart started racing. Could she duck behind a tree? Crouch down behind this fallen log? But Otis had heard the footsteps, too, and after a moment of cocking his head and pricking up his ears, he let out a string of loud barks. So there was no use hiding. Whoever was coming would have heard them already. He would come around the bend in a moment and see them, and Nickie would just have to hope that if it was a terrorist or some other sort of wild person, he would have more important things on his mind than a girl eating lunch.

 

So she sat frozen on the log and waited, and in a few seconds the person came around the bend, and it wasn’t a terrorist; it was Grover.

 

“Hey!” he cried when he saw her. He stopped and stared. Then he made a face of extreme horror, pulling down the corners of his mouth and making his eyes bulge out. “Aaaaaiiieee!” he yelled. “It’s a terrifying terrorist! And a savage monster! Save me, save me!”

 

“Stop that,” said Nickie. Relief swept through her, and she grinned.

 

Otis bounded over to Grover and stood up against his legs, and Grover stooped to pet him—with his left hand, because his right hand was bundled up in a clump of clothes. When he came closer, Nickie could hear the hum of the bracelet:MMMM-mmmm-MMMMM-mmmmm.

 

“Can I see it?” she said.

 

“Five dollars per view,” said Grover.

 

“Come on.”

 

So he unwrapped his wrist, and the noise came out loud and shrill in the cold air. Nickie peered at the thing. “It’s awful,” she said. “You can’t break it with a rock or anything?”

 

“Not without breaking my arm, too. I tried.” He wrapped it up again. “What are you doing here?”

 

“It’s the open house today,” Nickie said. “I have to keep Otis away. Not just because of the open house, but the Prophet, too.”

 

Grover sat down on the log. “Why?”

 

Nickie told him what Mrs. Beeson had said. “It’s tomorrow. She’s going to take all the dogs away.”

 

Grover responded to this by rearing backward and nearly falling off the log, as if knocked off balance by astonishment. “I am stunned,” he said.

 

“Me too,” said Nickie. “You don’t think she could be right, do you? That dogs take up too much love? Which should go to God?”

 

“I don’t think so,” said Grover, sitting up straight again. Otis sniffed at his wrist, which hummed faintly. “I really don’t think so.”

 

“But Otis is all right because nobody knows about him. Hardly anybody. You do, but you wouldn’t tell, would you?”

 

“Nope,” said Grover. He rumpled Otis’s ears. “Guess what?” he said.

 

“What?”

 

“I saw the terrorist.”

 

“Notreally, ” said Nickie. “Did you?”

 

“I did.” He told her about the bear. “It was an albino,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it was, because I’ve never heard of a white bear. Except polar bears, and there aren’t any in North Carolina.” He looked thoughtful, and a little sad. “I told it to go away,” he said, “for its own good. People here don’t like things that are different.”

 

“Was it beautiful?” Nickie said.

 

“Not really. It was sort of dirty-looking. It had smudges on it. And it was limping.”

 

“Were you afraid?” Nickie asked.

 

But Grover didn’t answer. He was staring into space with his eyebrows raised. “I just thought of something,” he said.

 

“What?”

 

“The broken window. I bet it was the bear. Put its foot through the glass.”

 

“You mean at the restaurant?”

 

“Right. Snatched up that chicken and snagged the napkin with a claw, I bet. And that blood. She said it was anR, but I always thought it was just a blot. It was bear blood. Bet you anything.”

 

He explained, and Nickie listened. “Bear blood,” she said wonderingly. “No one guessed.”

 

They sat without talking for a few moments. The bracelet hummed beneath its wrappings.

 

“You have to get that thing off you,” said Nickie. “What are you going to do?”

 

Grover stood up. The wind was blowing harder now, and dark clouds were coming in from the east. “It doesn’t matter about my snakes, I guess. I can let them go. I studied them a lot already. And in the summer, when I leave, I was going to let them go anyway.”

 

Nickie looked up in surprise. “You mean you made enough money?”

 

“I will,” said Grover. “I made ninety-seven words out of ‘Sparklewash for Dishes.’ That ought to be enough to win.”

 

They walked back down the trail together. Grover talked about albino animals most of the way—how rare they were, how he’d never heard of an albino bear before, how some people had considered them sacred in other times and places. Nickie listened with half her attention. A sadness had come over her. She was sad that Grover probably wasn’t going to win his contest and go on his expedition, and she was sad that Greenhaven might have a new owner by now, some stranger who wouldn’t love it as she did. She felt tired, and sad, and cold.

 

Overhead, the clouds had gathered and darkened, filling in the whole sky.

 

“Looks like it’s going to snow,” said Grover.

 

 

CHAPTER 26

______________

 

Catastrophe

 

“How was the open house?” Nickie asked.

 

“Lovely,” said Crystal.

 

“And did anyone want to buy the house?”

 

“Well, we have an offer,” said Crystal. She didn’t sound as happy as Nickie thought she would.

 

“From who?”

 

“A couple named Hardesty. Retired, children grown. Looking to start a senior health center. Vitamins, herbal remedies, exercise equipment. A library with books about how to cope with hair loss and stiff joints and swollen ankles and that sort of thing.” Crystal looked dispirited. “I don’t love the idea,” she said. “But they offered a good price, and they’re ready to sign as soon as they sell their house in the city. I called your mother about it. She thinks we should accept.”

 

So it was over. Goal #1 lost—no hope at all. Once again, that night Nickie crept upstairs after Crystal had gone to sleep and spent the night in the nursery with Otis. He curled up close under her chin. His fur smelled of the woods.

 

In the morning, Nickie got up while the sky was still dark. She took Otis out, stood with him in the cold while he did what he needed to do, and took him back upstairs. Then she climbed into the bed in her regular room to wait for the light.

 

As soon as a gray streak showed in the gap between the curtains, Nickie got up and got dressed. She moved quietly. In the chilly kitchen, she made herself some toast and drank a glass of milk. Then she went out to see what was going to happen when Mrs. Beeson’s helpers came to get the dogs.

 

She didn’t know when or where the dog pickups would start—but as it turned out, it was easy to find them. As soon as she got down the hill, she saw a school bus moving slowly down Main Street. There were no children in it. At Trillium Street, it turned right. A blue van behind it made the same turn; on the van’s side, in white letters, was printed “Church of the Fiery Vision.” In the front seat, next to the driver, Nickie saw Mrs. Beeson. Other people were in the van, too. It was full.

 

Nickie followed the bus, walking fast.

 

The bus and the van pulled up at a small brown house. Out of the van climbed Mrs. Beeson and several men, including all four of Yonwood’s police officers. One of the policemen knocked on the front door of the house.

 

A man came to the door, leading a medium-sized brown-and-white spaniel. He patted the dog twice and then went quickly back inside and shut the door. The policeman led the dog to the bus and lifted it inside. Everyone got back in the van, and it moved on.

 

This is how it went—Nickie followed and watched it all. Other people trailed after the bus, too; she saw Martin among them, nodding sternly as he watched the dogs being collected. How could she ever have thought she liked him?

 

All around her, people commented on what was happening. Most of them had decided, it seemed, that Mrs. Beeson was doing the right thing. “It’s hard, of course,” said a stout middle-aged woman in a green knit hat. “But doing the right thing justis hard sometimes, isn’t it? I don’t have a dog myself, but if I did, I’d give it up in a heartbeat.”

 

A bald man in round glasses nodded. “I know a lot of people who had trouble with this,” he said, “but once they made the decision, they were proud of themselves. They feltstrong, you know what I mean?”

 

Nickie thought of how giving up hot chocolate had made her feel: strong, yes, and proud of herself for doing a hard thing. But how could you feel that way about your dog, who was going to be thrown out into the cold? It wasn’t justyou giving something up; you were making the dogs give up their home, and maybe their lives.

 

The woman in the green hat nodded. “We have to trust in our Prophet and put aside our own selfish feelings,” she said. “For the good of all.”

 

But it was hard for Nickie to see the good in what was going on. At each dog-owning household, the bus stopped, the police went to the door, knocked, and then waited while the people inside put the leash on their dog and brought him or her out. Some people put on a brave or saintly face like the first man: they simply patted the dog once or twice on the head and then went back inside and closed the door and did not watch the men lead the dog away. At other houses, there were scenes, especially if children lived there. Loud crying came from inside, and some children even broke away from their parents and ran out and grabbed their dog’s collar, screaming, “No, no, you can’t take him!” and the policeman had the sad duty of uncurling the fingers from the collar, and the parents had to wrestle the child back inside. A very few families refused to open their doors at all. Mrs. Beeson wrote down their addresses.

 

After about an hour, when a second and third bus had been added to the first to hold all the dogs, and a chorus of barking, whining, and howling came from the bus windows, Nickie began to tremble, as if she had a hard-beating heart in every part of her body. Her teeth chattered, but not just from the cold. Suddenly she couldn’t stand it anymore. She ran, heading back home to get Otis and hide him where no one could find him, just in case, just incase, somehow the dog bus came to Greenhaven.

 

As she ran, she kept saying to herself, It’s all right, it’s all right, no one knows he’s there, I have plenty of time, he’s safe, no one knows about him, only Amanda and Grover, so he’s all right. But still, the sound of barking and shouting followed her as she ran.

 

Crystal would probably be there. But Nickie didn’t care anymore if Crystal found out about Otis. She’d have to find out soon anyway. It was time for her to know. And Crystal would help her hide him—wouldn’t she? She wouldn’t let him be taken away.

 

But when she got to Greenhaven, Crystal’s car wasn’t there. Where could she have gone? Out to breakfast? It didn’t matter. Nickie raced up the path and bounded up the stone steps. She opened the front door and dashed inside and started up the stairs. And stopped short just before reaching the second floor, because there was Amanda, standing at the top of the stairs with Otis in her arms.

 

Nickie stared—but then relief swept through her. “Oh!” she said. “You thought of it, too!”

 

Amanda didn’t move. “Thought of what?” she said. Otis licked her neck, and she lifted her chin to get away from his tongue.

 

“To hide Otis,” said Nickie. “So they won’t find him. Even though nobody knows he’s here, it would be better—”

 

“They do know he’s here,” said Amanda. She still didn’t move.

 

“Oh, no! They do? Then we have to hurry! How do they know? Come on, let’s—”

 

“I told Mrs. Beeson,” said Amanda in a cool, flat voice.

 

“You what?” Nickie’s heart seemed to stop.

 

“I called her up and told her. Course I did. Did you think I’d want to mess up everything? Did you think I’d go against the Prophet?”

 

Nickie ran at Amanda and grabbed at Otis with both hands. Amanda pulled him away. “No!” she cried. “She said no dogs! I have to take him!”

 

“You can’t take him!” Nickie reached again for Otis, who was now thrashing wildly in Amanda’s grip, but Amanda darted to the side and turned her back, clutching Otis close to her chest, and when Nickie came at her again and grabbed her arm, she made a sudden ferocious twist, sending Nickie staggering across the floor, and turned back toward the stairway. Nickie got her balance and came after her.

 

When Amanda reached the top of the stairs, Nickie was close behind. She could have pushed her. It would have been easy. Amanda would have dropped Otis, who’d have scrambled away, and she would have fallen down the whole length of those hard, polished steps. She might have broken bones. She might have been killed. The urge to push her was so strong that Nickie just barely kept herself from doing it. Instead she grabbed for Amanda’s shirttail, Amanda jerked away, and Nickie fell back and sat down hard on the top step.

 

Before she could get up, Amanda was halfway down the stairs. Nickie followed, but Amanda was too far ahead. When Nickie reached the bottom step, Amanda was at the front door, throwing it open. When Nickie got to the front door, Amanda was racing down the path toward the sidewalk. And when Nickie made it to the sidewalk, Amanda was running as fast as she could toward the corner of Cloud and Trillium streets, where the blunt yellow nose of the school bus was just coming into view.

 

That was when the sobs came up in Nickie’s throat and the tears flew from her eyes, and she kept running and crying, but only for half a block, because she could see the man coming down from the bus and Amanda running up to him and holding out Otis, and the man taking Otis into the bus. At that point Nickie stood still and screamed. Someone came out of a house and scowled at her. She screamed again. The bus moved on, turning a corner. She ran after it, crying so hard she could scarcely breathe, but it turned another corner and disappeared.

 

Two desperate urges arose in her: one was to find Amanda and choke her to death, and the other was to find Crystal and make her drive after the school bus, so she could get Otis back.

 

Finding Otis was more important than choking Amanda. But where was Crystal? Nickie stood in the street looking wildly around, rooted to the spot, trying to think what to do. Maybe Crystal had left her a note. She ran back to Greenhaven and dashed from room to room, but no note was there. Maybe Crystal was at the restaurant. With trembling hands, she fumbled through the phone book and found the number, but when she asked if Crystal was there, the person who answered said no. Finally she ran outside again and stood in the street. Could she run downtown and try to find the school bus and somehow bash her way into it and rescue Otis? She didn’t know. She couldn’t think. Her breath came in hiccupy sobs, and her heart was running like an engine out of control. She wailed; she couldn’t help it—a long, wavery wail.

 

And at that moment, Crystal’s car came around the corner. It drove up the street and pulled in at the curb, and instantly Nickie was beside it, pounding on the window, which Crystal rolled down.

 

“They’ve taken Otis!” Nickie cried. “Amanda—she came—shebetrayed me and stole Otis and he’s in the bus with all the dogs! You have to help! Please, please! If we follow the bus, we could get him—”

 

Crystal gaped at her. She had a paper cup of coffee in her hand. A white bakery bag was on the seat beside her. “What in the world are you talking about?” she said.

 

“They’re taking thedogs !” Nickie cried. “There’s no time to explain! Please, please, can you just drive me? And I’ll tell you about it while we go.”

 

Nickie’s frantic face must have persuaded Crystal. “All right,” she said. “Jump in.”

 

 

CHAPTER 27

______________

 

The Chase

 

As fast as she could, in a few short sentences, Nickie told Crystal everything.

 

Crystal kept interrupting, turning to Nickie with wide eyes and a dropped jaw.

 

“You mean you’ve had adog up there all this time?”

 

“There was agirl in thecloset ?”

 

“You’ve beenbattling the forces ofevil ?”

 

“She says dogs are doingwhat ?”

 

But all Nickie wanted was to find out where the buses had gone. “Never mind, never mind,” she said. She was still having trouble talking because of breathing so hard and shaking. “I’ll tell you later. Go that way.” She pointed down Cloud Street. “That’s where Amanda gave—But then it turned the corner, I think onto Birch Street—and that was maybe five minutes ago, or ten, so I don’t know where the bus is now.”

 

Crystal headed down Cloud Street. “Where did this Prophet woman say they were going to take the dogs?”

 

“Into the woods, she said. Far away, into the woods where they belong, and then let them go so they can be wild the way they’re supposed to be.”

 

“Odd,” said Crystal, driving through the neighborhood as fast as possible without actually squealing the tires. “Dogs haven’t been wild for several hundred thousand years. Not most dogs, anyway. They need us.”

 

“And we need them!” Nickie wailed. “I need Otis!”

 

They curved up onto Spruce Street but saw nothing. No one was in the street. A few snowflakes sifted down from the sky and landed on the car’s windshield. Crystal put on the wipers. She headed down Grackle Street and turned onto Main Street.

 

Nickie shouted, “Look!” and pointed ahead. Far down at the other end of Main Street was a patch of bright yellow. “The bus!”

 

But a moment later it turned off Main Street and was gone.

 

“It went to the right,” said Nickie. “That’s High Peak Road; it goes up the mountain. So that means they’ve finished collecting the dogs, and they’re taking them away. Can we go faster?”

 

Crystal stepped on the gas. “If wedo catch up to the buses,” she said, “what happens next?”

 

“We just follow them till they stop.” Nickie was leaning forward, both hands gripping the dashboard. “Then when they let the dogs out, we grab Otis.”

 

“What about everybody else’s dogs?”

 

“I don’t know. I wish we could save them, too.”

 

“What if the people on the bus refuse to let us have Otis?”

 

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” said Nickie. “Let’s just go really fast.”

 

They turned up High Peak Road. It was a narrow, winding road, with the ranks of trees standing close on either side. The snow was falling faster now, whirling toward them, making it hard to see. Crystal slowed down. There was no sign of the buses.

 

“I don’t know,” said Crystal. “This might not be a good idea.”

 

Nickie said nothing. She kept her eyes glued forward, staring through the spinning whiteness. How would Otis survive in a snowstorm? He was little. He didn’t know how to get his own food.

 

Crystal glanced over at her. “Why didn’t you tell me about this dog before?”

 

“I thought you’d take him to the pound. You said you would.”

 

“I did?” Crystal shook her head. “So you’ve been getting fond of him all this time, haven’t you?”

 

Nickie nodded. Tears came to her eyes again, and she couldn’t speak.

 

“I don’t get it,” Crystal said. “This Prophet woman says the love you give a dog is subtracted from the love you give God. Have I got that right?”

 

Nickie nodded. The sky was growing darker as afternoon turned to evening. The shadows in the woods were so thick she could no longer see between the trees.

 

“So would that apply to cats, too, I wonder? Parakeets? Hamsters? Undeserving people? How do you decide what’s okay to love, according to the Prophet?”

 

“I don’t know,” said Nickie. She didn’t want to talk about this now. She just wanted Crystal to hurry up. The car was going slowly around the curves. Crystal had turned on the headlights, but they brightened the spiraling snow more than the road ahead. Nickie’s neck hurt from craning forward, trying to see.

 

“Love is love, seems to me,” said Crystal. “As long as what you love isn’t armed robbery, or bombing airplanes, or kidnapping little children.”

 

“Can we go faster?” Nickie asked.

 

“Not without sliding off the road.” Crystal shook her head. “We’re going to have to give this up, I think. It’s dangerous.” She slowed down even more to go around a bend in the road, and then suddenly she stamped on the brakes and the car slid sideways. Careening toward them out of the blinding whiteness was something big and yellow.

 

“The bus!” screamed Nickie. “It’s coming down!”

 

Crystal pulled over and stopped. Behind the first bus was another one, and another, each one furred with white on top. They passed by and trundled on downhill.

 

“But are the dogs still in there?” Nickie said. “Or did they let them out?”

 

Crystal pulled the car back out onto the road. “My guess is that those bus drivers didn’t want to drive in this weather any more than I do. I bet they just dumped the dogs and turned around.”

 

“Then let’s keep going!” Nickie cried, bouncing frantically in her seat. “We can find them!”

 

Crystal drove on, but she was frowning at the road and going slower than ever. After about ten minutes, they came to a place where the trees thinned out, and on the right was an open field, lightly dusted with snow. Nickie could see a dark mush of tire tracks here. “Stop!” she cried. “I think this is where the buses turned around. Can we get out and see?”

 

“We’re turning around, too,” said Crystal, but she stopped the car. Nickie flung the door open and jumped out. She ran toward the tire tracks and scanned the field. At the far edge, where the forest resumed, she saw something moving. A dog—no, two dogs, or three—leaping across the snow-dusted ground, heading for the trees.

 

“Otis!” Nickie shouted, though the dogs she saw were too big to be Otis. “Otis, Otis, come! Come back!”

 

But the dogs disappeared into the woods. If they heard her at all, they paid no attention. It was just an adventure to them, a thrilling freedom—at least at first. They didn’t understand yet that there were no food bowls in the woods, no warm fires, no people.

 

Crystal came up and stood beside her.

 

“I want to go after them,” Nickie said. “Will you wait for me? I’ll just run across there and call Otis again from where he can hear me—”

 

“We’ve got a snowstorm starting up,” Crystal said, “and it’s almost dark. I can’t let you go plunging around in the woods. I’m afraid we’re too late.”

 

“No!” cried Nickie. “It’s just over there,” she said, pointing across the wide field to where the trees made a dark line in the distance. “Otis!” she screamed again.

 

But nothing moved out in the field, and the snow whirled faster, filling the air, until the trees had vanished behind a blur of white.

 

“We have to go,” said Crystal. Her voice was sad and kind.

 

All the way back down the mountain, Nickie said hardly a word. She sat staring through the passenger-side window at the tree trunks ghostly in the snow, knowing it was too dark to see anything moving among them, but unable to make her eyes look anywhere else. She felt as if a hundred stones had collected inside her.

 

Crystal pulled up outside Greenhaven. “I’m sorry about this, sweetie,” she said. “I just had no idea any of this was going on. How could I not have known it?”

 

“You were busy,” said Nickie. “With other things.” She was so tired all of a sudden. She barely had the strength to open the car door.

 

But even after they got inside, Crystal kept asking questions, and Nickie kept having to explain things, and then they had to have something to eat, which Nickie wasn’t hungry for at all, and Crystal had to talk about how strange it was that no word had come from the president about whether there was going to be war. It seemed like forever before Nickie could get into bed and close her eyes. And of course by then she wasn’t sleepy anymore. She lay there thinking about Otis out in the snowstorm, cold and hungry and alone. She thought about the white bear, which might eat small dogs. She thought about Mrs. Beeson, who was trying to do good and was causing so much pain, and about Althea Tower, the Prophet, whose vision had started everything. And she thought about what she herself had done, and at that she buried her face in the pillow and tried not to think at all. “I want my mother,” she whispered, “and my father. I want to go home.”

 

 

CHAPTER 28

______________

 


Date: 2015-12-18; view: 120


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