In the morning, a white cloak of snow lay across the ground. Rooftops and tree branches wore caps of white, and from the bedroom window, Nickie saw that the mountainside had turned from gray to silver. The sun shone down on this white world and made it glitter.
It was beautiful. If she hadn’t been so sad, Nickie would have rushed outside to make snow angels and snow caves. But she didn’t have the heart for it this morning. Besides, Crystal had plenty of work for her.
Nickie begged Crystal to drive her up High Peak Road again so she could look for Otis. But Crystal said no. This was a busy day. They’d never find the dog—the woods were vast, and besides, everything was buried in snow. And anyhow, they’d be leaving soon, and what would Nickie do with a dog?
Nickie’s orders were to clean out the nursery—put the lamps and furniture back where they came from, pack up the toys and games and other things, throw out anything old and useless. All morning she worked on this. It was awful not having Otis there. When she picked up his food bowl and his water bowl, a lump of sorrow rose into her throat. She put the bowls in a big plastic bag so she wouldn’t have to look at them.
She was going to keep the picture of the Siamese twins. Crystal had told her she could have it, either to keep or to sell. She’d called an antique expert and asked about it, and he offered to pay $350 for it, sight unseen. But Nickie wanted to keep it, along with the cross-written letter. After all, these were among the few souvenirs she’d have from this whole trip. She put them carefully at the bottom of her suitcase.
She’d asked Crystal if she could keep her great-grandfather’s notebook, too. She felt as if he’d kept her company, a little, while she was here in his house. Now she picked up the notebook and riffled the pages, thinking again about the mystery they contained. The professor had encountered a pool of sadness in the west bedroom, and he had seen something there, too, or thought he had. She sat down on the window seat and flipped through until she found that entry:
Extraordinary experience last night: Went into the back bedroom to look for the scissors, thought I saw someone in there, over by the bed—dark-haired figure, transparent swirl of skirt. Dreadful feeling of sorrow hit me like a wave. Had to grab the doorknob, almost fell. Figure faded, vanished. Maybe something wrong with my eyes. Or heart.
Reading this again, she remembered something: the long-ago death of a child, and the mother’s grief. And the dates: January 4 for the death, January 4 for the echo her great-grandfather had felt. If that’s what he’d really felt, an echo.
Could it be? When the child died, the mother would have felt such a knife-like sorrow that it might have left a scar somehow beside the bed in the west bedroom, a scar so deep it could last through a hundred years and more. And the old professor, near death himself, might have felt it, might even have caught the merest glimpse of the grief-stricken mother as she had stood there on that awful day.
Or, thought Nickie, closing the notebook and staring outside at the light on the snow, maybe the professor had read about this tragedy somewhere and forgotten that he knew it. Maybe he’d just imagined what he saw and what he felt. Or maybe he’d made it all up to go with the theories of “parallel worlds” that he was interested in, those “leaks” between the past and present, present and future.
Had he really caught a glimpse of the past? Did the Prophet catch glimpses of the future? There was no way to know.
She put the notebook in her suitcase with the photograph of the twins and the crosshatched letter, and she went back to work on the nursery. When she was finished, the room looked just the way it had when she’d first seen it: empty except for the rolled-up rug and the rocking chair and the iron bed, with a slanted rectangle of sunlight on the wooden floor. What would this room be when the new owners moved in? She hated to think of it filled with dumbbells and stationary bicycles. It wasn’t meant to be that kind of room; she just knew it. It wasn’t meant to be someone’s office, either, full of humming computers and gizmos with little flashing lights. It was meant for children.
After that, she went down to Grover’s house to say goodbye. A snowplow had cleared the streets, pushing the snow in lumpy banks to either side. Already, the snow was starting to melt; trickles of water ran down into the street.
Nickie heard bits of conversation as she passed people. Mostly it was about the silence from the White House. No declaration of war. No declaration of peace, either. Just nothing. The nothingness seemed to upset everyone. They argued about what it meant. Good news or bad news?
Nickie couldn’t worry about it. Her mind was full of so much else that the question of war seemed far away. She headed down Trillium Street.
No one was sitting on the porch when she got to Grover’s house—it was much too cold. She knocked on the door, and Grover’s grandmother opened it.
“Hi,” Nickie said. “Is Grover here?”
“Down in his snake shack,” said Granny Carrie. “They came and took that thing off of him,” she added.
“Good,” said Nickie.
“That woman has her notions,” Granny Carrie said.
Nickie figured she meant Mrs. Beeson. “She wants the town to be perfect,” she said.
“In this life,” said Granny Carrie, “you don’t get to have things perfect. Life is messy, no way around it.” She beckoned Nickie into the house, and Nickie went down the hall and out the back door and across the slippery yard to the shed. Inside, Grover was stacking the empty glass cases.
“Hi,” said Nickie.
“Hi,” he said. For once he didn’t make a comic production out of it.
“I came to say goodbye,” Nickie said. “We’re leaving the day after tomorrow.”
“Wish I was,” said Grover. He put the cases on a lower shelf and started to spread out some magazines in the empty space. “Did your dog get taken?”
Nickie nodded. She still couldn’t talk about it without crying, so she changed the subject. “Did you find out yet if you won any of those contests?”
“I hope you did.”
“I probably didn’t. I’ll probably be stuck here forever.”
“You don’t know. Anything could happen.”
Grover made a round-eyed, open-mouthed, fake-excited face. “Right!” he said. “All kinds of possibilities! I could get a great job waiting tables at the café! Or I could go be a soldier! Or—oh, boy—the world could blow up!”
“I don’t think any of those will happen,” Nickie said. Actually, it seemed to her that any of them might; but she could see that Grover was discouraged, and she wanted to cheer him up. “I think you’re going to get to go on your trip.”
“Hah,” said Grover. “You’re just saying that to cheer me up.”
“No, I’m not,” said Nickie, because an idea had hit her, a really good idea, and all at once she was telling the truth. “I can see into the future,” she said, “and Iknow it’s going to happen.”
“Well, fine,” said Grover. “And you’re going to be president of the world.”
Nickie just smiled. “You’ll see,” she said. “It’s been nice knowing you.” And she walked back to Greenhaven feeling, for the first time in two days, a little bit good.
The next day the sun shone brightly again. Nickie stood on the sidewalk in front of Greenhaven and watched as a crew of burly men carried one piece after another of heavy, dark, carved-wood furniture down the steps and down the path, grunting and swearing, and heaved the beds and sofas and sideboards into the truck bound for the auction house. She saw the lamp go, the one with the parchment shade. The rocking chair went, too, piled into the back of the truck like a prisoner being carted off to jail. When that truck was full, another one arrived. This time the burly men went down into the basement, where decades’ worth of beds and chairs and dining tables were stacked on top of one another. It took hours just to empty out the basement.
When the trucks were finally gone, Nickie and Crystal wandered through the house. Their footsteps thudded hollowly on the bare floors, and their voices, when they called to each other from room to room, shivered with echoes. Strangely enough, though, the house didn’t seem sad. Nickie had the feeling it was glad to be emptied out and unburdened. It was taking a deep breath of fresh, cool air, looking out through its clean windows, ready for whatever was coming next. Even Crystal seemed to sense this.
“Really,” she said, “it’s a fine old place. Without all that ghastly Victorian furniture, it’s much improved. You could put, for instance, a white couch right there by the front parlor windows, and a glass-topped coffee table…” She held out her arm and tilted her head to one side, imagining it, and then wandered into the dining room. “And then of course a total kitchen remodel. A slate floor would tone in well, and maybe cabinets in birch or white pine to lighten the look….” She stopped in the kitchen doorway, and her arm dropped to her side. “But what am I thinking? It’s going to be Senior Haven.” She sighed. Nickie sighed, too.
It was sad the way things had turned out. Losing Otis was the worst, but she hadn’t achieved a single one of the goals she’d set for herself, either. She wasn’t going to live here with her parents after all; she hadn’t fallen in love; and she hadn’t done a single thing to make the world a better place.
She’d be going away from here next morning, probably forever, so she decided to go up into the woods and look for Otis one more time. And say goodbye to Yonwood.
With the last of her money, she bought herself a snack at the café: a bag of corn chips, two peanut butter cookies, and a bottle of grape juice. She put these in her backpack, along with a small plastic bag full of dog crunchies and Otis’s food and water bowls, just in case. She set off up the trail and was soon in the woods, where the sun striped blue tree-trunk shadows across the snow. The sun was warm on her face. She walked with stubborn energy, and every five minutes or so, she stopped and called for Otis. But she heard no distant barking—no sound at all, except for the patter of melting snow dripping from the branches.
She came to the log where she’d sat with Grover three days before. Here she looked out over the view of the town. The sky was deep, deep blue, an upside-down ocean of air. Was God up there somewhere, looking down on the whole world at once? Deciding who was good and who wasn’t, figuring out what was normal, planning to sweep everything clean? She wanted to know. She wanted to be sure. But this was one area where her overactive imagination didn’t seem to work. She simply could not figure out how a being in the sky, no matter how vast he was, could see everywhere. She didn’t see why God would say one thing to the Prophet of Yonwood and another thing to another prophet halfway across the world. Because clearly not all these people who said that God spoke to them heard the same thing. All the fighting nations said God was on their side. How could God be on everyone’s side?
Nickie could only think that either there were lots of different Gods all saying different things to different people, or that God didn’t really speak to people at all, or that peoplethought they were hearing God speak when really they were hearing something else.
A bird flew across the sky, level with her line of sight. It lit on the top branch of a pine tree, pointed its beak upward, and sang out a long, warbling burble of notes. Did God speak to birds? Or were birds speaking to God?
She called Otis one more time, shouting his name out into the vast air. No answer. Just the bird, singing its heart out. Suddenly she felt finished here. She was ready to go, ready to get out of this place that made her heart hurt. She took off her backpack and got out Otis’s bowls. From her water bottle, she filled his water dish. She poured the crunchies into his food bowl. Both of these she set at the side of the trail, next to the end of the fallen log. Maybe he would find them, or maybe one of the other dogs would, and remember its home, and go on down the trail back to its family.
The bag with her snack in it was still in her backpack. She realized she wasn’t hungry. The very thought of food made her stomach clench. So she set the bag on the log. She liked the look of that—a present for a dog, and a present for a person. An offering to whoever might need it. Why not make it even nicer? She walked a little way off the trail, poking around in the leaf litter, looking up into the branches. Some pinecones lay beneath a tree, and she picked up the best one, a perfect fat sturdy shape, all its little wooden tabs lined up in a spiral. She went farther, though in the deep shade of the pines the snow still covered the ground, and her shoes sank into it and got wet. She found a bush with red berries and broke off a branch of it. She found a smooth, plum-sized stone patterned with veins of white. She brought these things back to the log and arranged them around the bag of snacks. The branch was like an arm around the bag; the berries were jewels. The stone was for her heart, which was heavy and hard. And the pinecone was just a pinecone—something nature had made that looked nearly perfect.
She stepped back and gazed at what she’d done. Very nice, but it needed a finishing touch. What did she have that she could add to it? She put her hands in her pockets and felt around. In her left pocket was a piece of paper. She pulled it out. It was the picture of the dust mite, a little bent. She stuck it between the pinecone and the stone, so that it stood up. It added a note of strangeness that was exactly right. It seemed to say, “Remember, I am here, too, along with other things you can’t see. The world is full of endless strange surprises.”
She started back down the trail. If no dogs find the food, she thought, maybe squirrels will. Or that white bear. Or if no one finds it, then it can all be for God. Only not for the Prophet’s God, her mean, picky God who dislikes so many things. It’s formy God, the god of dogs and snakes and dust mites and albino bears and Siamese twins, the god of stars and starships and other dimensions, the god who loves everyone and who makes everything marvelous.
The Last Day
The next morning, Crystal had a great deal of business with the post office. There were twenty or thirty boxes of stuff she’d decided to save from Greenhaven that had to be shipped back to her house in New Jersey, so much of it that she couldn’t fit it all in the car at once. It took her three trips.
While Crystal was at the post office, Nickie roamed around the empty, gleaming house. She went into every room and said goodbye to it—the front parlor, the dining room, the cleaned-up kitchen, the bedrooms, all swept and empty. In the west bedroom, she waited to see if she might feel a trace of the sadness that had washed over her great-grandfather, the grief left there from all those years ago. But all she felt was her own sadness at leaving this house behind.
Finally she went up to the third floor. Here the two trunk rooms were still crammed with the things of the past, waiting for Crystal’s decisions. The nursery was empty, but as she stood by the window seat, she could almost feel the presence of the beings she’d encountered there—the letter writers and journal keepers, those who had taken pictures and had their pictures taken, those who had made scrapbooks and saved postcards and lived their lives in this place. And, with an ache, she felt the bouncing, wriggling, eager spirit of Otis.
Down below, the doorbell rang. She was the only one here, so she’d have to answer it. She went downstairs to the front hall, and when she opened the door, there stood Amanda with her suitcase. She looked terrible. Her hair was falling out of its barrettes, her skin was broken out. On her face was the look of someone expecting to be shot in the next three seconds.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” Nickie said.
“No, you have to let me,” said Amanda. Her mouth wrinkled as if she was going to cry. “I have to tell you something.”
“You killed Otis!”Nickie said. She swung the door hard, but Amanda put her hand out to stop it and took a step in through the doorway.
“But listen,” she said, and now she really was starting to cry. “I thought it was right. It was a sacrifice! It wasso hard to do it, but Mrs. Beeson said the harder the better. If it’s real, real hard, you know it’s right! That’s what she said.” She looked imploringly at Nickie, but Nickie glowered at her. “And,” Amanda added, “everybody else was givin’ uptheir dogs, so I thought it must be right.”
Nickie turned her back on Amanda, but she didn’t try again to close the door. She went into the front parlor and sat down on the bare floor with her back to the wall beneath the windows. Amanda followed.
“I wish I hadn’t-a done it,” she said. “I been thinkin’ about him all this time, out there in the snow.” She actually said “snow-ow-ow,” because a sob came up inside the word. She lifted up the hem of her sweater to wipe her nose.
“Well, how come you changed your mind?” Nickie said.
“Because I couldn’t stop thinking about Otis,” said Amanda, “and because I found Mrs. Beeson’s list.”
Amanda sat down on the floor facing Nickie. She took off her jacket—the sun was warming the room now—and Nickie saw that she looked thinner than ever. “It was this piece of paper in Althea’s kitchen,” Amanda said. “A little edge of it stickin’ out from under the telephone book. So I looked at it. I shouldn’t’ve. But I did.”
“So what was it?” Nickie kept her voice cold and hard so Amanda wouldn’t think they were friends. But she was interested.
“Names,” said Amanda. “About fifty of ’em. At the top of the list it said ‘Sinners’—just that one word. Then there was names, and by each name a couple words. Like ‘Chad Morris, defiant, surly.’ And ‘Lindabell Truefoot, sluttish.’ And ‘Morton Wilsnap, queer.’ And then ‘Amanda Stokes.’”
“You?” Nickie forgot to stay cold and hard, she was so surprised.
“Yeah. And after my name it said, ‘disobedient.’ How could that be true?” Amanda’s voice rose in a wounded wail. “I always did every single thing she told me to do.”
“You sure did,” said Nickie, going hard again.
“Except for one thing, which was I bought a couple of those romance books I like to read. She found ’em and scolded me. They’d sway me in evil directions, she said.”
“What’s supposed to happen to the people on this list?” Nickie said.
“Bracelets. It said that at the bottom. They’re all supposed to get those bracelets. Evenme !” Amanda crossed her arms over her thin chest. “Well, I’m not havin’ one. I’m leavin’ on my own, goin’ to my cousin in Tennessee. I don’t much like her, but it’s better than being here. But I had to come to you first and tell you I’m sorry. About Otis. I wish I hadn’t-a done it, I really do.”
She looked so miserable that Nickie almost felt sorry for her. But she thought of Otis out there in the melting snow, his feet wet and cold, his belly empty, and she tried to steel herself against Amanda.
“So do you forgive me?” Amanda said.
“If you could get Otis back, I might,” said Nickie.
“But I can’t. I’m catchin’ a bus in twenty minutes.” Amanda actually clasped her hands together and held them up under her chin like someone in an old-fashioned picture.“Please,” she said.
And Nickie remembered that she, too, had wanted to do whatever Mrs. Beeson told her, that she, too, had wanted very badly to be right. And also that she’d been just a hair away from pushing Amanda down the stairs. So she looked at Amanda’s tear-stained face and hauled up forgiveness out of herself. “All right,” she said. “I guess I forgive you.” It was a grudging forgiveness but the best she could do.
Amanda sprang up. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m goin’ now.”
“Right now?” said Nickie. “You mean you left the Prophet by herself?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Amanda said. “They’ll find someone else to take care of her.”
“But you left her alone? She’s alone right now?”
“She is, but it’s okay. She’s just sleeping.” Amanda picked up her suitcase and went to the door. “Bye,” she said, and she walked away.
Nickie watched as she went down the sidewalk, moving with a sideways tilt because of the suitcases. And as soon as Amanda was out of sight, she threw on her jacket and dashed out the door, heading for the Prophet’s house.