Nothing was moving around the house on Grackle Street except for a bird that fluttered around the empty feeder and then flew away, disappointed. Nickie tried the front door and found it open. She stepped into the silent house. No one was in the living room, so she went down the hallway, looking into all the rooms. A kitchen. A study. A bathroom. No one was in any of them. At the back of the hall was a flight of stairs, and she went up them. At the top, she found herself facing two doors. She hesitated a moment. Then she chose one of the doors and pushed it open.
She saw a room full of books. Shelves to the ceiling, books on every shelf, and at the end a big soft armchair by a window. Books on the floor, books on a desk. The chilly light coming in through the glass. Outside the window, another empty bird feeder. But no one there.
So she backed out and tried the other door, and when it opened, she saw that she had found the Prophet’s room.
What had she expected? A dark den? Something like a church, with holy paintings and statues of angels? It wasn’t like either of those. It was an ordinary room, with a bed beside a tall window. The window was closed; the air was stale. In the bed was a woman with ripply light brown hair spread out against a pile of white pillows. Her face was small and pale, and her huge frightened-looking gray eyes seemed to be staring past Nickie, or through her. Her mouth was partly open, but she didn’t speak.
Nickie stepped in. Her heart was pounding like a drum. She hadn’t thought about what she would say when she saw the Prophet, and now her mind went blank for a moment.
“Ms. Prophet?” she said. “I have to ask you…,” she began. The Prophet didn’t move. Was she listening to her? Did she even see her? Nickie started again, louder this time. “Ms. Prophet! I’m Nickie! I have to talk to you!”
The Prophet’s hands fluttered on the covers, but she said nothing.
So Nickie hurried on. “It’s about the dogs,” she said. “Why did you say ‘No dogs’? I have to know.”
The Prophet’s eyebrows came together in a puzzled frown, as if she were hearing a foreign language. She gazed down at her hands. Her lips moved, but no sound came out.
Nickie spoke more loudly. “They took the dogs!” she said. “Did you know it? It was because of you! They took Otis—he’s up in the mountains, he’s gone—and they took Grover’s snakes! Why? I have to know why!”
The Prophet’s mouth opened. She looked confused, or afraid. Strands of hair fell across her face, but she didn’t brush them aside.
Suddenly Nickie couldn’t bear it. All her grief and anger rushed up in her like hot steam, and she took three fast steps toward the Prophet and grabbed her by the arm and shouted right into her face: “Talk! Talk! You have to tell me why they took the dogs! Youhave to!”
At that, the Prophet finally spoke. “Dogs?” she said in a feeble voice. “Dogs?”
“Yes!” cried Nickie, shaking the Prophet’s arm. “Mrs. Beeson told us the dogs had to go! She said we shouldn’t love dogs, we should love only God. I don’t understand it. I want you to explain it!”
For a second the Prophet gazed at her with burning eyes. Then she sank back onto her pillows and went silent again.
Nickie let go of her arm. It was hopeless. Maybe the Prophet’s mind had been vaporized by her vision. Maybe she couldn’t communicate with human beings anymore, only God.
So Nickie turned away. She went to the window and looked down. There was the backyard where, she’d heard, the Prophet had had her vision. It was such an ordinary backyard—a small brownish lawn, a chair, some trees, a few birds fluttering around. Nickie pushed the window open, and a draft of cool air flowed in, along with a few notes of birdsong. She stood there staring down, breathing the fresh air, feeling sort of empty, like a sack that everything’s been spilled out of.
Behind her, the bed creaked.
Nickie spun around. The Prophet was sitting up. Her hair fell over her white nightgown, tangled and long. She pushed her covers away, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and stood next to it, trembling all over. She was hardly taller than Nickie. When she spoke, her voice was soft and raspy, as if she hadn’t used it much for a long time, but her words were clear. “I forgot to fill the bird feeders,” she said. “When did I last fill them?”
“I don’t know,” Nickie said. “Months ago.”
“Months?” The Prophet passed a hand over her eyes. “How could it be months?”
“It was,” said Nickie.
The Prophet just shook her head. “You were saying something to me,” she said. “I didn’t understand. Tell me again.”
So Nickie explained again about how they’d taken the dogs.
“And what else?”
“They stopped the church choir, and radios, and movie musicals, because you said, ‘No singing.’ It was God’s orders, Mrs. Beeson told us.”
“God’s orders?” said the Prophet.
“Yes,” Nickie said. “And you said, ‘No lights,’ so people turned all the lights off.”
The Prophet swept tangles of hair away from her face, stared at the floor, wrapped her arms around herself, and shivered. She stood without speaking, and Nickie thought maybe she had gone back into silence. But abruptly she raised her head again, and this time when she spoke her voice was stronger. “Listen,” she said. “I’ve been ill. I have been ill and heartbroken and drowned in my vision. It’s time for me to come back. Will you help me get dressed?”
So Nickie did. She brought clothes from the dresser and the closet, gray pants and a thick white sweater, and she helped the Prophet put them on. When she was dressed, the Prophet sat back down on the edge of her bed, tired. “Explain it again,” she said. “Brenda Beeson—what has she been saying?”
Nickie explained again about Mrs. Beeson figuring out what the Prophet meant, and looking for anything that was wrong or evil, and how people were supposed to love only God, not singing or snakes or dogs….
And while she was talking, the Prophet’s great gray eyes filled with tears, and the tears rolled down her pale cheeks. “I understand now,” she said. “She made a mistake. It was what I wasseeing, that’s what I was talking about. The vision—I couldn’t stop seeing it. It was dreadful beyond words. A world burned and ruined. A world with no cities. Everything gone! All gone, all gone.”
“You said ‘sinnies.’ Mrs. Beeson thought you meant ‘sinners.’ But you meant cities?”
“Yes, yes. The cities all destroyed. People gone. No singing or dancing. No lights. No animals. No dogs, even. All gone! It was what Isaw. It wasn’t orders from God.”
Nickie was so astonished that her mouth fell open and she forgot to close it for a second. “It wasn’t?” she said when she could find her voice.
The Prophet shook her head. “It was just me.”
“Oh!” Nickie stood still, feeling stunned, to let this sink in. She thought of something else. “Why did you say, ‘No words, no words’? That was one Mrs. Beeson couldn’t figure out.”
“No words?” The Prophet put a hand to her forehead. “I don’t know. Why would I say that?” She murmured, “No words, no words.” Then she looked up, and tears sprang to her eyes again. “Oh!” she cried. “It must have been ‘no birds’!No birds! Think of a world without birds! It’s not bearable.” She picked up the nightgown lying next to her and wiped her eyes.
“Maybe your vision wasn’t true,” Nickie said. She felt sorry for the Prophet, who seemed so frail and sad. She wanted to comfort her. “Maybe it won’t happen.”
“Maybe not,” said the Prophet. “I don’t know. I keep having these terrible dreams where my vision starts up all over again. I see the leaders about to begin the war, and I cry out, ‘Don’t do it!’ but they don’t hear me.” She shuddered.
Nickie came and stood close to her. “I just want to make sure,” she said. “You didn’t say we shouldn’t love dogs?”
“No,” said the Prophet. She reached out and took both of Nickie’s hands in hers. “Oh, no,” she said, softly but very clearly. “No, I would never say that. I love dogs. I love the whole world—all of it.” For the first time, she smiled.
“Well, good,” Nickie said. “I guess I’ll go, then. If you’re all right, Ms. Prophet.”
“Oh, please,” said the Prophet. “Call me Althea. I don’t want to be a prophet. And what shall I call you?”
Nickie said her name.
“Thank you, Nickie,” said Althea. “I believe you’ve wakened me up.” She stood up rather unsteadily and immediately sat back down again. “Maybe if I got some fresh air,” she said.
Nickie walked with her to the window, and Althea took a long, deep breath. “It feels so good,” she said. “And listen—birds.”
But Nickie was listening to something else. It was a faint sound, off in the distance, but clear. It was the sound of barking.
Nickie’s heart gave a huge thump. “Dogs!” she said. “It sounds like dogs! I have to go.”
“Yes, yes,” said Althea. “Go! I’m so glad you came, but go now—quick!”
Nickie ran down the stairs and outside. The barking was louder, a yipping and yelping, with some ruffs and woofs mixed in, a chorus of dog noise. Where were they?
She ran toward the park. Other people were coming out of their houses, too, shouting to each other. When Nickie got to Main Street, she joined a stream of people. Cars on the street slowed down to see what was happening—and among them, Nickie suddenly saw, was Crystal.
“Crystal!” shouted Nickie. “Stop! Come here!”
Crystal rolled down her window. “What?” she called. “What’s going on?”
Nickie just pointed—because at that moment she saw the dogs coming from the uphill end of the road, a jouncing, prancing, jostling gaggle of dogs pouring around the bend and down toward the town, ten dogs or twenty or thirty. She ran toward them, and in just a few seconds the pack was all around her, streaking by, and she turned to race after them. “Otis!” she screamed, trying to make out his small body among the flail of legs and tails. “Otis, where are you?”
They were coming through downtown now, and people burst out of the stores and halted, open-mouthed, on the sidewalks. The dogs ran down the middle of Main Street, and it looked to Nickie, pounding after them, as if they might just run on through the town, out the other side, and back into the woods. But instead they swept around the corner when they came to Grackle Street, raced through the little park, and whirled in a circle, the lead dogs veering around to chase the dogs at the rear, around and around like a tornado, until finally a few dogs broke away, and then more did, until most of them had stopped running and were nosing around the garbage cans or raising their legs against the trees.
By now a crowd of people had rushed down the street to the park. Nickie was among them. Their voices flew all around her. “I see Max!” someone cried joyously, and someone else called out, “Look! There’s Missy! Here, girl! Come on!”
Right in front of Nickie, a few people wearing “Don’t Do It!” T-shirts halted at the edge of the park. They stood there with their shoulders hunched and arms folded, as if to ward off any dog that might come near. “This is a bad sign,” one of them said. The other muttered something that Nickie didn’t stop to hear.
She pushed past them. Where in that swirl of dogs was Otis? Was he there? She didn’t see him. A boxer had knocked over a garbage can, and five or six dogs rushed to paw through the contents. A black dog was on its hind legs at the drinking fountain, lapping water from the stopped-up bowl. People rushed every which way, calling dogs’ names, clutching them by the collar, and the dogs leapt up, licked faces, thrashed tails back and forth.
But where washer dog? A dread seized her. What if he wasn’t—?
But he was. There, under a picnic table, nose to the ground, sniffing at a scrap of paper, tail pointing straight up. “Otis!” Nickie screamed, and he looked up in surprise. When he saw her, he cocked his head, stared a moment, and then ambled toward her with the scrap of paper sticking to his nose.
She caught him up in her arms, squeezed him tight, rumpled the top of his head, and told him how happy she was over and over. He wiggled. He licked her chin. Twigs and burrs were tangled in his coat, and his feet were wet and packed with mud between the pads. He smelled like earth and rot and dog doo. He was a mess.
Then a sharp voice rang out above the noise of the crowd. “Wait! Wait!” it cried. “This is wrong! We mustn’t do this! We can’t take them back!” And Nickie saw Brenda Beeson standing at the edge of the park, wearing her red baseball cap and waving her arms above her head.
A few people turned to look at her; a few of them paused. Then a dark-haired woman bent down, scooped up a small dog, and took it over to Mrs. Beeson. It was Sausage, Nickie saw—with her droopy ears all stuck with burrs.
Mrs. Beeson stared at Sausage. She reached out—and then she pulled her arms back. She turned away, she turned back again, and finally she just stood frozen, with a look of desperate confusion on her face.
And at that moment, a gasp arose from the Grackle Street side of the crowd, and all heads turned. Down the sidewalk, slowly and slightly tippily, came Althea Tower. She was wrapped in a voluminous gray cape, and although she had tried to fasten her hair back with a ribbon, most of it had come loose, and the breeze made it float around her head. She was so short and slight that she looked almost like a child—a frail, excited child, hurrying toward the place where something was happening.
People were so amazed to see her that they just stared as she came closer. At last, two young men ran forward to help her. They led her into the park. People crowded around her, and Nickie heard her say, “Yes, thank you, yes, I’m all right. A girl came and shouted at me—that girl right there”—she pointed at Nickie, smiling—“and, well, I woke up.” Then she murmured something to the young man on her left and tilted her head in the direction of Mrs. Beeson. They walked with her to where Mrs. Beeson stood flabbergasted, her eyes darting back and forth between Althea coming toward her and Sausage squirming in the arms of the dark-haired woman. Althea took Mrs. Beeson by the arm, and the two of them went apart from the crowd to talk.
Nickie, who knew what they would be talking about, saw no need to stay any longer. She left the park and the chaos of people and dogs behind and carried Otis back toward Greenhaven. When she was halfway there, Crystal, who had driven home and parked the car, came running toward her. “What in the heck is going on?” she said.
“The dogs are back,” said Nickie. “Look. This is Otis.”
Crystal stooped over and looked Otis in the face. He opened his long pink mouth and yawned at her.
“Cute,” she said.
“I’m keeping him,” said Nickie.
“I don’t know,” said Crystal. “Does the building you live in allow—”
“It does,” Nickie said, though she didn’t know if this was true. She didn’t care. She’d make them change the rules if she had to. If they wouldn’t, she’d make her mother move.
“Well,” said Crystal. “Hmm.” But she didn’t argue.
Back at Greenhaven, they put the last of their belongings into their suitcases and carried them out to the street. The sun blazed down, glinting off the car and the scraps of snow still left from three days before. They put their suitcases in the trunk. “I have to stop at the real estate office on our way out,” Crystal said. “Just for a second.”
While Crystal was in there, Nickie sat in the car with Otis on her lap and picked the stickers out of his fur. Dirty as he was, and smelly, she adored the feel of him leaning against her. After a while he got sleepy and lay down with his head hanging sideways over her leg, and she adored the way his mouth looked upside down, with his black lips and the tips of his teeth showing. She picked the dried mud out from between the pads of his feet and didn’t mind at all that she got dirt under her fingernails.
Crystal came out of the real estate office quite a while later, just as Nickie was starting to wonder what was taking her so long. Len was with her. When she got into the car, she rolled down the window, and he bent over, curling his hands over the windowsill. “So I’ll let you know,” he said. “It should be tomorrow or the next day.”
Crystal nodded. “I don’t even know how to feel about it,” she said. “But you’ll call me.”
“Oh, yes,” said Len. He looked at her in a meaningful way. “Oh, yes, I’ll call you. Never fear.”
Crystal smiled. She put one of her hands over one of his. “Goodbye, then,” she said, looking up at him, and quickly he poked his head a bit farther through the window and kissed her on the mouth. It was just a peck, but even Nickie, with her limited experience of being in love, could feel that it was quite thrilling to both of them.
Crystal pushed the Up button to close the window. She put on her sunglasses. She stepped on the gas. They sailed down Main Street and out of Yonwood.
“What’s he going to call you about?” Nickie asked as they rounded the curve toward the highway.
“The offer on the house. Looks like the Hardestys are vacillating. They’ve found another place they think might be better for their purpose. They might withdraw their offer.”
“Then what?” said Nickie.
“I’m not sure.” Crystal accelerated and merged with the traffic on the freeway. “It depends on…I don’t know. We’ll see.”
They rode in silence for a while. Nickie worked on getting a twig untangled from Otis’s ear hairs. Then she said, “Len sure likes you.”
A small smile appeared on Crystal’s face. “I know,” she said. “I like him, too.”
“Is he going to come to New Jersey and be your boyfriend?”
“Oh, heavens,” said Crystal. “I don’t think so.” She stepped hard on the accelerator and passed two slow trucks. Still smiling that small smile, she glanced over at Nickie, who was working very slowly on the twig, trying not to pull Otis’s hair. “I think you’re in love,” she said.
Nickie looked up, startled.
“With that pup,” said Crystal.
And with a sort of shock, Nickie realized it was true. She had definitely fallen in love with Otis. Thiswas being in love, wasn’t it? Looking forward to seeing him every day, feeling like a hole was ripped in her heart when he was gone, jumping for joy when he came back, not minding if he smelled bad, wanting to take care of him, actuallyliking the dirty and funny-looking parts of him? Surely it was being in love. It was true that she hadn’t fallen in love with Grover, the obvious candidate. She’d fallen in love with a dog instead of a person. But that didn’t matter. It was still love. She’d apply it to a person later on.
They drove back to the city. There Nickie carried out the good idea she’d had. With Crystal’s help, she sold the photograph of the Siamese twins for $350. She added $25 of her own, and she sent that money to Grover. She put it in an envelope with a note that said, “Congratulations! You have won first prize in the Grand Amalgamated Products Association Sweepstakes!” A few days later, she got a postcard from Grover that said, “A very nice specimen of the Triple-Fanged Magenta-Spotted Rat Snake will soon be on its way to you in the mail. Thank you.” Fortunately, no rat snake arrived.
It turned out that their building in the city didnot allow dogs. But it also turned out that this didn’t matter, because of the letter that came from her father the very day Nickie got home. Her mother opened it and gave a joyful shout. “He says his job has been made permanent, and he wants us to come and join him!” she said. “You’ll never guess where he is!”
“Oh,” said Nickie. “I forgot to tell you. I know where he is—California.”
“You’re right,” her mother said. “But how did you know?”
“He told me, in those postcards,” said Nickie. “I figured it out. I knew he wouldn’t be writing those strange P.S.s for no reason.”
“They made no sense to me at all,” said her mother. “What did they mean?”
“If you’ll get the postcards,” Nickie said, “I’ll show you.”
Her mother brought her the postcards, and Nickie laid them on the table. “Look,” she said. “It took me a while to get it, but I finally did. Each one of these messages has a number in it. ‘Three sparrows.’ ‘One peanut butter cookie.’ ‘Midnight’—that’s twelve. And ‘ninth birthday.’ It’s the very simplest code—Dad taught it to me. The numbers stand for letters in the alphabet. Three isC. One isA. Twelve isL. Nine isI. By the time I got that much, I knew where he was.”
“Aren’t you clever!” said her mother. “And isn’t it wonderful—California!”
“Yes!” Nickie threw an arm around her mother’s waist and hugged her. She knew what California meant to her mother, who’d grown up there and whose family had lived there for generations. For her mother, going to California would be going home.
They spent the next week packing, and as they packed Nickie told her mother everything about what had happened in Yonwood—about Otis and Amanda, about the Prophet, about Grover and his snakes, and about the three goals she’d set for herself.
“What happened with those goals?” her mother asked. “Did you reach them?”
“No,” said Nickie. “Not really, except for falling in love with Otis. I didn’t reach a single one.”
But she was wrong about that. Sometimes it takes much longer than you think it will to reach the goals you set for yourself. And sometimes—as it happened with Nickie—you reach your goals in strange and unpredictable ways.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Published in the United States by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Dust mite photo courtesy of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Chang and Eng photo courtesy of Picture History.
RANDOM HOUSEand colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The prophet of Yonwood / by Jeanne DuPrau.—1st ed.
SUMMARY: While visiting the small town of Yonwood, North Carolina, eleven-year-old Nickie makes some decisions about how to identify both good and evil when she witnesses the townspeople’s reactions to the apocalyptic visions of one of their neighbors.
[1. Prophecies—Fiction. 2. Conduct of life—Fiction. 3. Fantasy—Fiction.] I. Title. PZ7.D927Pro 2006 [Fic]—dc22 2005022423
The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than wecanimagine.
On a warm July afternoon in the town of Yonwood, North Carolina, a woman named Althea Tower went out to her backyard to fill the bird feeder. She opened her sack of sunflower seeds, lifted the bird feeder’s lid—and that was when, without warning, the vision assailed her.
It was like a waking dream. The trees and grass and birds faded away, and in their place she saw blinding flashes of light so searingly bright she staggered backward, dropped her sack of birdseed, and fell to the ground. Billows of fire rose around her, and a hot wind roared. She felt herself flung high into the sky, and from there she looked down on a dreadful scene. The whole earth boiled with flames and black smoke. The noise was terrible—a howling and crashing and crackling—and finally, when the firestorm subsided, there came a silence that was more terrible still.
When the vision finally faded, it left Althea stunned. She lay on the ground, unable to move, with her mind all jumbled and birds pecking at the spilled birdseed around her. She might have lain there for hours if Mrs. Brenda Beeson had not happened to come by a few minutes later to bring her a basket of strawberries.
Seeing Althea on the ground, Mrs. Beeson rushed forward. She bent over her friend and spoke to her, but Althea only moaned. So Mrs. Beeson used her cell phone to call for help. Within minutes, four of her best friends—the doctor, the police chief, the town mayor, and the minister of the church—had all arrived. The doctor squatted beside Althea and spoke slowly and loudly. “Can you tell us what’s wrong?” he said. “What is it?”
Althea shivered. Her lips twisted as she tried to speak. Everyone leaned in to hear.
“It’s God,” she whispered. “God. I saw…I saw…” She trailed off.
“Merciful heavens,” said Brenda Beeson. “She’s had a vision.”
Of course they didn’t know at first what her vision had been. They thought maybe she’d seen God. But why would that frighten her so? Why would she be muttering about fire and smoke and disaster?
Days went by, and Althea didn’t get better. She lay on her bed hardly moving, staring into the air and mumbling. Then, exactly a week later, a clue to the mystery came. The president of the United States announced that talks with the Phalanx Nations had reached a crisis. Their leaders would not give in on any of their demands, and the leaders of the United States would not give in on theirs. Unless some sort of agreement could be reached, the president said, it might be necessary to go to war.
Brenda Beeson made the connection right away: War! That must be what Althea Tower had seen. Mrs. Beeson called her friends, they told their friends, the newspaper wrote it up, and soon the whole town knew: Althea Tower had seen the future, and it was terrible.
All over Yonwood, people gathered in frightened clusters to talk. Could it be true? The more they thought about it, the more it seemed it could be. Althea had always been a quiet, sensible person, not the sort to make things up. And these were strange times, what with conflicts and terrorists and talk of the end of the world—just the kind of times when visions and miracles were likely to happen.
Brenda Beeson formed a committee to take care of Althea and pay attention to anything else she might say. People wrote letters to the newspaper about her and left flowers and ribbons and handwritten notes in front of her house. The minister spoke of her in church.
After a few weeks, nearly everyone was calling her the Prophet.