Nickie stared. The girl stared back. The dog wriggled in her arms and paddled its hind legs frantically.
“Who are you?” Nickie asked.
The girl hunched up her shoulders and craned her head toward Nickie. She had a long face and thin brown straggly hair. Her front teeth were a little crooked. “Please,” she said in a hoarse whisper. “Don’t tell that I’m here. Please don’t tell.” The girl stepped cautiously out of the closet. “I’m not supposed to be here,” she said. The dog wrenched its muzzle out of her hands and yelped. She grabbed it again. She was wearing jeans and a limp green sweater. Nickie could see that the girl was older than she was—a teenager.
“But whyare you here?” said Nickie.
“I took care of the old man,” the girl said. She spoke in a trembly whisper. “For the last six months, till he died. But now I don’t have nowhere to go, and if they find me, they’ll put me in a home. And take him away.” She ducked her chin toward the dog. “So I need to stay here till I can figure out what to do next.”
“What’s your name?” Nickie asked. She spoke in a whisper, too.
“Amanda Stokes,” said the girl. “What’s yours?”
Nickie told her. “Arthur Green was my great-grandfather,” she said. “My family owns this house now.”
“Oh, Lord,” said Amanda. She had a worried-looking face, as if she’d been worrying all her life. “Are you going to come and live here?”
“Yes,” said Nickie firmly. “But not right away.”
“So you won’t tell that I’m here?”
Nickie considered. Would it be wrong to keep this girl a secret? She didn’t want to do anything wrong. But it seemed to her that telling on Amanda would cause more harm than not. What would it matter if she stayed here a few days longer?
“I can live here real quietly,” Amanda said. The dog jerked in her arms and tried to yelp. “Even with him. He’s pretty quiet, usually.”
“What’s his name?”
“Otis. I found him a couple days ago out by the dump. I know he doesn’t have no owner, because he didn’t have a collar and he was real dirty. I washed him in the laundry sink.”
Nickie scratched the dog behind his small, pointed ears. He was a light-colored dog, a sort of strawberry blond, with round brown eyes. His fur grew in a way that made his face look like a ragged sunflower.
From somewhere downstairs came Crystal’s voice. “Nickie! Where are you?”
Nickie dashed into the hall and shouted down. “Upstairs!”
“Come on down!” called her aunt. “Let’s get settled in.”
She went back into the bedroom. “Okay,” she said. “I won’t tell about you, but you have to be really quiet. Stuff some rags under the door—this door and the hall door both. I’ll try and keep my aunt from coming up here. If she’s going to, I’ll try to warn you.”
“Oh, thank you,” Amanda said. “Thank you a lot. It’s just for a couple days. I’m looking for a job, and when I get one I’ll find me a place of my own.”
Nickie nodded. “Goodbye,” she said, and she dashed back down the stairs.
For dinner that night, they had tomato soup from a can Crystal found in a cupboard. They sat at the big dining room table and ate while the rain beat on the windows. On a pad of paper, Crystal started making a list of all the things she’d have to do to get the house ready for sale:Call cleaning service. Call auction house. Call salvage place. Talk to lawyer. Call painters. Call plumbers. It was clear to Nickie that Crystal would be spending a lot of time on the phone.
“Crystal,” Nickie said. “I don’t see anything so awful about Greenhaven. Why do you say it’s awful?”
“It’s huge and dark and impossible to clean. The kitchen is unspeakable. The plumbing is ancient. The whole place smells like mice. That’s just for a start.”
“But it could be repaired, couldn’t it?”
“With great effort and expense.” Crystal went back to her list.Schedule open house, she wrote. She tapped a long red fingernail on the table, thinking.
Crystal wasn’t exactly beautiful, but she always wore stylish clothes and fixed herself up—nail polish, earrings, makeup. Her hair was a sort of streaky blondish color that required frequent visits to the beauty salon. She’d been married twice. First there’d been Uncle Brent, and later there’d been Uncle Brandon. Now there was no one, which was probably one reason Crystal was more snappish and impatient than usual.
“Crystal,” said Nickie, “if you could live in any kind of house, what kind would it be?”
Crystal looked up. She gazed at Nickie blankly for a second, her mind elsewhere. Then she said, “Well, I can tell you what itwouldn’t be. It wouldn’t be an old pile like Greenhaven. And it wouldn’t be a dinky, tacky little apartment like the one I live in now.”
“What, then?” said Nickie.
“A gracious house,” said Crystal. “Big rooms, big windows, a big garden. And—” She leaned forward and smiled a wry little smile. “A nice big man to live in it with me.”
Nickie laughed. “Anotherhusband?” she said.
“The first two weren’t quite right,” said Crystal.
“Would you want to have a dog?”
“Adog ? Heavens no. Dogs ruin furniture.”
“But if a dog just showed up and needed a home, would you keep it?”
“Certainly not. It would go straight to the pound to wait for a happy life with someone else.” She spooned up the last of her soup. “Why are you asking about dogs?”
“Just wondering,” said Nickie, with a sinking heart. “I like dogs.”
After dinner, Crystal went to take a bath and Nickie dashed up to the third floor. She tapped on the door of the nursery, and Amanda, in her pajamas, opened it. Otis stood on his hind legs to greet Nickie, and she hugged and petted him. “Everything okay?” she asked Amanda.
“Yeah,” Amanda said. “I’m being real quiet.”
“Good,” said Nickie. “Because I found out Crystal doesn’t like dogs. We have to be extremely careful.”
“Okay,” said Amanda. “I’ll put him under the covers with me tonight.”
Nickie gave Otis one more pat and hurried back downstairs. For a while, she and Crystal sat in the front parlor and watched the news.
A local announcer was talking. “Several residents in Hickory Cove and Creekside,” he said, “have reported signs of unusual activity in nearby wooded areas. A hiker claims to have caught a glimpse, in a remote part of the woods, of a man wearing a white or light tan coat. Residents of the area are advised to be alert to anything out of the ordinary, including unknown persons arriving in town; evidence of tampering with buildings, pipelines, or electrical equipment; and strange behavior of any kind.”
Then the president came on. Nickie didn’t like listening to him because his voice always sounded too smooth. He said something about the Phalanx Nations and missile deployment and fourteen countries and Level Seven alerts. Crystal frowned. “It gets closer every day,” she said.
Crystal just shook her head. “Big trouble,” she said.
The president ended with his usual sentence: “Let us pray to God for the safety of our people and the success of our endeavors.” Nickie always wondered about this. The idea seemed to be that if you prayed extremely hard—especially if alot of people prayed at once—maybe God would change things. The trouble was, what if your enemy was praying, too? Which prayer would God listen to?
She sighed. “Crystal,” she said, “I’m so sick of the Crisis.”
“I know,” said Crystal. She flicked off the TV. “We all are. But it doesn’t help to worry. All we can do is keep our wits about us. Not let fear take over. And try to be good little people and not add to the badness.” She smiled at Nickie and stood up. “Tired?”
“Which room would you like to sleep in?” Crystal asked. “You can have first pick.”
The room she really wanted was the one on the third floor, but right now it was occupied. So Nickie chose one of the bedrooms on the first floor, and Crystal took the one next to it. They found sheets and blankets in a linen closet and made up the beds, and they unpacked their suitcases and hung their clothes in the closets. Nickie put her nightie on and slid between the sheets of the enormous bed. She thought about Amanda and the little dog, hidden away upstairs. They would be going to bed now, too. It would be nice, she thought, to sleep with a dog curled up next to you.
The bed’s black posts rose toward the ceiling; in the darkness, they looked like two thin soldiers standing guard. Nickie wondered who this room had belonged to in years past. Who else had lain here looking at those posts, and at the violet-flowered wallpaper, and the stains on the ceiling? She wished she could know about their lives—not just her grandfather’s but all the lives of this house, all those ancestors she’d never known.
This is how Nickie was: she wanted to know about everybody and everything—not just encyclopedia-type information, but ordinary things like what people did at their jobs and what their houses looked like inside and what they talked about. When she passed two or three people walking together on the street, she always hoped to catch an intriguing bit of conversation, like “I found her lying there dead!” Or “…and he left that very day without telling a soul and was never seen again!” But almost always, all she heard were the dull, connecting bits of the conversation, things like “And so I said to her…” and “Yeah, I think so, too,” and “So it’s really kind of like…” And by the time they said whatever came next, they were out of earshot.
She also wanted to know about things that weren’t so ordinary, strangeextra ordinary things like, Were there people on other planets? Was ESP real? Were there still places on Earth where no one had ever been? Were there animals that no one had yet discovered? In a magazine, she had come across a photograph of a dust mite taken with an electron microscope. A dust mite was much too small to see with the naked eye, but when you took its picture and magnified it many times, you could see that it was as complicated and weird as a monster in a science-fiction movie, with fangs and feelers and bristles.
When Nickie saw this picture, she suddenly understood that a whole other world existed right alongside the world of things she could see. In the dust under the furniture, in between the strands of the carpet, even crawling on her very own skin and inside her guts were creatures of unbelievable strangeness. She loved knowing this. She took the dust mite picture with her everywhere she went.
Now she listened to the rain pattering steadily at the windows and closed her eyes. She thought about the spirits of all the people who had lived here. Maybe they were still hovering around, wondering who was coming next. It’s going to be me, she told them silently.I’m going to live here. And this reminded her of something she’d forgotten to do. She sat up and turned the light back on. In the drawer of the bedside table, she rummaged around until she found a stubby pencil and a scrap of paper. On the paper she wrote:
1. Keep Greenhaven.
2. Fall in love.
3. Help the world.
Her three goals. She was determined to accomplish them all.
Sometime in the middle of that night, as the rain fell and Nickie slept, someone—or something—came out of the forest above the town. The night was dark and moonless, and whoever it was came so quietly that no one heard him. Wayne Hollister, who ran the Black Oak Inn at the north end of town, glanced out the window when he got up to go to the bathroom around 2:00 a.m., and he was pretty sure he saw something moving on the road, but he didn’t have his glasses on, so he couldn’t tell what it was. Maybe a man in a raincoat.
Early the next morning—it was a Friday—a boy named Grover Persons was walking up the alley in back of the Cozy Corner Café, hunting for a particular kind of wildlife on his way to school, when he noticed that the glass window next to the café’s back door was broken. He stopped to investigate. He could see that the window must have been punched in from the outside. A few fragments lay on the ground below the window, but most of the glass was inside, scattered across the restaurant’s kitchen counter. Some jagged shards remained in the window frame, and something else was there, too: it looked like a white dish towel snagged on the broken glass. On the towel was a dark stain. Grover peered at it. It looked like blood.
He went around to the front of the restaurant, where Andy Hart, the manager, was just opening up.
“Andy,” said Grover, “someone broke your back window last night.”
Andy stood stock-still and gaped at him for a second. Sunlight, which shone through gaps in the leftover rain clouds, flashed on his glasses and lit up his high, shiny forehead. Then he charged around to the back, with Grover behind him. When he saw the broken window and the stained cloth, he let out a shriek that brought people running from all around. In minutes, the entire four-man police force and ten or twelve other people had gathered behind the Cozy Corner. They stared at the broken window, which looked like a great snaggle-toothed mouth with a bloody tongue hanging out the bottom.
“Stay back,” said Chief of Police Ralph Gurney. “Don’t touch anything. This is a crime scene.”
People moved back. Grover could hear them murmuring to each other in worried voices.
“Andy, you in there?” called Officer Gurney through the window. “What’s been taken?”
From inside, Andy called, “Nothing much. It looks like just a package of chicken.”
“So,” said Officer Gurney. “This must be either a prank or a threat.”
Again came the uneasy murmurs from the crowd.
At another time, this broken window might have seemed like a minor incident. After all, no one was hurt; not much was stolen. But people were already on edge. It had been more than six months since Althea Tower had had her terrible vision, and every day that vision seemed closer to coming true. Just last night, the Phalanx Nations had announced that they had missiles deployed in fourteen countries. The United States had replied by raising the alert level to Seven. Everyone knew that terrorists were all over the place. It seemed that the evils of the world were coming far too close for comfort.
Officer Gurney ran a strip of yellow tape around the back area of the café, roping it off so no one could disturb the site. Then he scanned the crowd. His eyes lit on a comfortably plump woman wearing a red down jacket that made her look even plumper. She had a short brownish-blond ponytail that stuck out through a hole in her red baseball hat.
“Brenda,” said Officer Gurney. “What do you think?”
Grover was in danger of being late for school by this time. He’d already been late twice this month. If he was late again, he might get a note sent home to his parents. But he had to risk it. This was too interesting to miss.
The woman stepped forward. Grover knew her, of course; everyone did. Mrs. Brenda Beeson was the one who had figured out the Prophet’s mumbled words and explained what they meant. She and her committee—the Reverend Loomis, Mayor Orville Milton, Police Chief Ralph Gurney, and a few others—were the most important people in the town.
Officer Gurney raised the yellow tape so Mrs. Beeson could duck under it. She stood before the window a long time, her back to the crowd, while everyone waited to see what she would say. Clouds sailed slowly across the sun, turning everything dark and light and dark again.
To Grover, it seemed like ages they all stood there, holding their breath. He resigned himself to being late for school and started thinking up creative excuses. The front door of his house had stuck and he couldn’t get it open? His father needed him to help fish drowned rats out of flooded basements? His knee had popped out of joint and stayed out for half an hour?
Finally Mrs. Beeson turned to face them. “Well, it just goes to show,” she said. “We neverused to have people breaking windows and stealing things. For all our hard work, we’vestill got bad eggs among us.” She gave an exasperated sigh, and her breath made a puff of fog in the chilly air. “If this is someone’s idea of fun, that person should be very, very ashamed of himself. This is no time for wild, stupid behavior.”
“It’s probably kids,” said a man standing near Grover. Why did people always blame kids for things like this? As far as Grover could tell, grown-ups caused a lot more trouble in the world than kids.
“On the other hand,” said Mrs. Beeson, “it could be a threat, or a warning. We’ve heard the reports about someone wandering around in the hills.” She glanced back at the bloody rag hanging in the window. “It might even be a message of some sort. It looks to me like that stain could be a letter, maybe anS, or anR. ”
Grover squinted at the stain on the cloth. To him it looked more like anA, or maybe even just a random blotch.
“It might be aB, ” said someone standing near him.
“Or anH, ” said someone else.
Mrs. Beeson nodded. “Could be,” she said. “TheS could stand forsin . Or if it’s anR it could stand forruin . If you’ll let me have that piece of cloth, Ralph, I’ll show it to Althea and see if she has anything to say about it.”
Just then Wayne Hollister happened to pass by, saw the crowd, and chimed in about what he’d seen in the night. His story frightened people even more than the blood and the broken glass. All around him, Grover heard them murmuring: Someone’s out there. He’s given us a warning. What does he mean to do? He’s trying to scare us. One woman began to cry. Hoyt McCoy, as usual, said that Brenda Beeson should not pronounce upon things until she was in full possession of the facts, which she was not, and that to him the blotches of blood looked more like a soupspoon than anR. Several people told him angrily to be quiet.
But Grover had lost interest now that he’d heard Mrs. Beeson’s verdict. If he ran really fast, he might not be late after all. He took off.
When he got to school, he told the first person he saw about the break-in, and then he told the next person, and pretty soon kids were crowding up around him. His friend Martin handed him a piece of paper and told him to draw the blood blot on it, exactly the way it was.
“I can’t remember itexactly, ” he said. “But it was more or less like this.” He drew a gloppy string of blotches.
“That’s supposed to look like a letter?” Martin frowned, peering at Grover’s drawing through his thick-framed glasses.
“Well, I’m not drawing it perfect. Maybe it was more like this.” He drew a different blob. “That’s not it, either.” He laughed.
But Martin frowned again. “Do it right,” he said. “I don’t appreciate the way you’re clowning around.”
Grover drew it again, as well as he could remember.
“And she said it was anS or anR ?” Martin wanted to know.
“She wasn’t sure which,” said Grover.
“And what did she say it stood for?” someone asked.
He told them, and he answered a lot of other questions, too, showing how Officer Gurney had strung the yellow tape, and repeating what Mrs. Beeson had said, and imitating, with a few high-pitched screams thrown in, the sobs of the woman who’d been so frightened. He imitated Hoyt McCoy, too, copying his gloomy look so well that everyone laughed. “Hoyt McCoy said it looked like a soupspoon,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Martin, “but Hoyt McCoy is a weirdo.”
“Maybe so,” said Grover, “but Mrs. Beeson doesn’t know everything.”
“Grover!” said Martin. His voice rose, and his face turned almost the same red as his hair. “Shetook the Prophet’s vision seriously, even ifyou didn’t.”
The bell rang. Grover was late after all, and so was everyone who’d been listening to him. “Gotta go,” he said.
Martin scowled at him. “This will be my first late mark of the whole year,” he said.
“It’s notmy fault,” said Grover. “You didn’t have to stand around talking to me.”
But Martin just turned away. He’d changed, thought Grover as he hurried toward his classroom. He used to be nicer than he was now.
The Fiery Vision
That morning, Crystal poked around in the kitchen cupboards and found just about nothing fit to eat. “Would you feel like walking downtown and getting us a few groceries?” she asked Nickie. “I’ll start cleaning up this foul kitchen.”
So Nickie put on her jacket and went downhill two blocks to Main Street, thinking how nice it was to be out by herself, as she couldn’t safely be in the city. The stores were just opening. It was cold, but the sun came out sometimes from between the clouds, and the town looked washed clean. Quite a few people were already out. She noticed that nearly all of them held cell phones to their ears as they walked. Of course she was used to seeing cell phones in the city; there, half the people you passed were jabbering away. But here people weren’ttalking into their phones; they were just listening. It was odd.
She passed a small restaurant called the Cozy Corner Café, where several people were standing outside, talking in excited voices, and a police car was just pulling away. Something must have happened there—maybe a customer had taken sick.
She passed a drugstore, a bakery, and a shoe store. She passed a closed-up movie theater, where a sign stuck over the ticket window said, “Pray instead!” In the window of a clothing store, she saw a display of white T-shirts that said, “Don’t Do It!” in big red letters on the front, and after that she kept noticing people on the street wearing these T-shirts. Don’t do what? she wondered.
As she passed an alley between a hardware store and a computer repair shop, she heard a strange sound. It was a kind of hum with a rhythm to it—MMMM-mmmm-MMMM-mmmm—a sound that a machine might make. She stopped and looked around, but she couldn’t see where it was coming from. She could tell that other people on the sidewalk noticed the sound, too. They frowned, but they didn’t seem puzzled by it, just annoyed, or maybe a little frightened—a few of them started walking faster, as if to get away. The sound faded after a moment. Nickie decided it must be some gadget in the computer shop.
Farther on, she found the Yonwood Market, and there she bought some bread, milk, eggs, and powdered cocoa. She bought a small box of dog biscuits, too, and tucked this under her jacket.
Nickie was just turning off Main Street on the way back to Greenhaven when, from high overhead, there came a distant roar that quickly rose to a piercing scream, and five fighter jets streaked across the sky. Jets came often these days; they scared her. She stopped walking, set down the bag of groceries, and put her hands over her ears until the jets were gone.
Then she felt someone touch her shoulder. She looked up to see an elderly woman standing over her. “It might be starting,” the woman said in a shaky voice. “It might be starting right now—you never know—but it’s best not to be scared if you can help it. You need to have faith; that’s what I say. We’ll be all right here because of what we’re doing, as long as we have faith, that’s the main thing.” The spidery hand patted Nickie’s shoulder. “So don’t worry, little girl, and remember to pray, and…” The woman glanced upward. “We’ll be all right, because…” She trailed off and tottered away, leaving Nickie feeling the opposite of reassured. Maybe people here were just as scared as they were in the city. That made her heart sink a little. But on the other hand, the woman had said, “We’ll be all right.” It was confusing.
Once she got back to Greenhaven, though, she forgot about it. She hid the dog biscuits in her bedroom and then went into the kitchen, where Crystal made hot chocolate for them. They sat at the huge, elegant dining room table. Crystal got out her to-do list.
“This room is so…majestic,” Nickie said. She had decided to point out good things about Greenhaven as often as she could, to change Crystal’s mind about selling it.
“I suppose so,” said Crystal, glancing up. “Certainly this table is very fine. It should fetch a good price.” She went back to her list. “I’ll start by talking to the real estate agent,” she said. “Then I’ll go make arrangements at the auction house and find a cleaning service. I should be back by noon.”
“I’ll stay here,” said Nickie. “I can start going through stuff.”
“You’ll be all right? You won’t fall down the stairs or lean out high windows?”
“Of course I won’t,” said Nickie. “I’ll just take stuff out of cupboards and boxes and look at it. I’ll separate it into Stuff to Keep and Stuff to Throw Away.”
“Throw Away will be the big pile,” Crystal said.
When Crystal had gone, Nickie fetched the dog biscuits and dashed up the stairs. “Amanda!” she called. “It’s me!” She heard barking when she came to the door at the top. When she opened it, she saw Otis rocketing toward her. He skidded to a stop in front of her and rose to his hind feet, stretching his front paws up as if he wanted to pat her face. She knelt down and scratched his ears. “Hi, Otis,” she said. “You sure are cute.”
Amanda came out into the hall. She was still in her bathrobe.
“I heard Otis barking when I came up the stairs,” Nickie said. “I don’t see how we can keep him a secret if he barks. Crystal will hear him.”
“Oh, Lord,” said Amanda. “Maybe I could get him a muzzle.”
“That seems kind of cruel,” Nickie said. “There must be a better way.”
Nickie went into the nursery room and looked around. The long tube of rolled-up rug gave her an idea. “We could soundproof this room,” she said. “I’m sure we could.”
They spent the next two hours doing it. They unrolled the big rug. They found small rugs in other rooms, brought them up to the nursery, and spread them out to cover the entire floor. From bathrooms and linen closets they brought towels and blankets, which they hung over the windows and the door with thumbtacks. Every now and then Nickie would go downstairs, Amanda would get Otis to bark, and Nickie would listen hard. Finally, after four tries, Nickie couldn’t hear a thing.
“It works!” she said when she came back up. She surveyed what they’d done. It was more than a soundproof room: it was also a strange and beautiful room, almost like the inside of a tent, with its carpeted floor and walls hung with blankets. It glowed with patterns and colors—faded blue and faded red on the floor, rose and lavender, pale green and gold on the walls. The light was dim now, because they’d covered some of the windows, so they brought up a lamp with a parchment shade from one of the rooms below, and more cushions for the window seat, and another rocking chair.
“If only we could make a fire in the fireplace,” Nickie said, “this would be the coziest room in the world.”
“It’s real nice,” Amanda agreed. “Otis might chew these rugs, though.”
“I’ll buy him some toys,” Nickie said. “You can teach him to chew those instead.” She bent down and rumpled Otis’s ears. “Now,” she said, “I’m going to start looking through stuff.”
“Looking through what?”
“Everything in the house. I want to see it all,” Nickie said. “Have you noticed any scrapbooks while you’ve been here? Or diaries, or photograph albums?”
Amanda pondered. “Maybe in the front parlor cabinet,” she said.
So Nickie went downstairs, filled a box with stuff she found in the parlor cabinets, and took it back up to the nursery. She and Amanda sat on the window seat beneath a lamp and looked through it. A great deal of it was boring: old packs of bent playing cards, a calendar from 1973, a photo album containing eighteen faded photos, every one of them of a black cocker spaniel. But there were also some old letters, someNational Geographic magazines, and quite a few albums with pictures of people. Jammed way in the back, she found three very old-looking cards with black borders. They were from different people, but all of them were dated 1918, and all of them, in old-fashioned handwriting, said more or less the same thing: “We send heartfelt condolences for your tragic loss.” What was the tragic loss? she wondered. None of the cards said.
“Hey, I thought of something else you’d probably want to look at,” Amanda said. “I’ll go get it.”
She went downstairs and came back up in a minute with a little brown notebook. “The old man wrote in this sometimes when I was taking care of him,” she said, handing it to Nickie.
Nickie opened the notebook. Her great-grandfather’s name was written inside the front cover: Arthur Green. She leafed through it. It looked more like a series of jottings than a real journal. He’d made the first entry at the beginning of December, just a couple of months ago. It said: