Saturday morning, Crystal bustled everywhere, checking on things, adding items to her list. Plumbers arrived and began clanking away in the kitchen and in the bathrooms. Painters arrived and started sanding down windowsills and spreading out tarps in the parlor. Crystal marched from room to room, giving directions.
Now and then people stopped by to tell her how sorry they were about Professor Green. Some of them stood chatting for a long time. Nickie could see that they were curious about Crystal and maybe a little suspicious. They asked her all kinds of questions—“Are you married, dear?” “Will you be coming to live in Yonwood?” “What church do you attend?” “Have you met our Mrs. Beeson yet?”—until Crystal said it was lovely talking with them, but she had so much to do that she must say goodbye.
“I’m off to see some antique dealers,” she said to Nickie when they were gone, “about selling some of this ghastly furniture. After that I have a meeting with the real estate agent. I’ll see you sometime this afternoon.”
As soon as Crystal had left, Nickie ran past the painters and up the stairs. She opened the hall door, then the nursery door, and there was Otis waiting for her, looking up with his round brown eyes and wagging his rear end, his short comma-shaped tail pointing at the ceiling. She took him downstairs and, when he was finished, brought him back inside. In the kitchen, she made herself a cup of hot chocolate. As she was doing that, the telephone rang.
She hardly ever answered the telephone here, since it was never for her. The answering machine answered if Crystal wasn’t home. Usually the voice on the answering machine belonged to someone talking about house repairs. But this time the voice was Amanda’s.
“Hello,” it said. “Um…uh…Well, this is Amanda Stokes, and I…uh…”
Nickie snatched up the receiver. “Amanda!” she said. “It’s me.”
“Oh, good,” said Amanda. “I didn’t know what to say if it was your aunt getting the message.”
“Did you get the job? With the Prophet?”
“I did!” said Amanda. “I am so lucky! But I’m calling up because I need my stuff. Can you bring it to me?”
“Sure,” Nickie said. “Just tell me what to bring.”
“It’s all in my suitcase, under the bed. Except don’t bring the books that are in there. Those are the ones I gave up. You can have them.”
“Okay. I’ll come right now. What’s the Prophet’s address?”
“It’s 248 Grackle Street,” Amanda said. She explained how to get there and said thanks, and Nickie hung up and did a little dance of excitement right there in the hall. She was going to see the Prophet’s house! She was going to meet the Prophet herself!
She took Otis upstairs. She pulled out Amanda’s suitcase from beneath the bed and opened it up, then rummaged through it to find the books (and also because she was curious). Underwear, socks, a striped flannel nightgown, some T-shirts, and a few pairs of pants. A floppy pink stuffed kitten, so old its fur was mostly worn away. A battered postcard with a picture of a beach. Nickie couldn’t resist reading it. In big round handwriting, it said, “Dear Pumpkin, What a great place! Lots of beaches! See you soon, Your Mama.” The date on the postcard was twelve years ago. Nickie wondered if this was all Amanda had of her mother.
She found the books underneath everything else. There were four of them, all paperbacks. She picked one up. On the cover was a woman with hair like a black waterfall, swooning in the arms of a man who was gazing at her hungrily. It was calledHeaven in His Arms. Another one was calledA Heart in Flames. Its cover showed a clasped-together couple standing on a windswept cliff with a blazing sunset in the sky behind them. All the books were like that. They looked interesting. She would read them herself. They might help her with Goal #2.
She put everything else back into the suitcase, went downstairs, edging past a carpenter repairing the front door, and set off for the Prophet’s house.
It was a blustery morning. Big heaps of cloud rushed across the sky, and the wind was chilly. A few dead leaves skittered along the sidewalk. Nickie turned onto Main Street. Downtown, something seemed to be going on. Clusters of people stood here and there on the sidewalks, talking excitedly. As Nickie passed the drugstore, she saw that the TV inside was on, and people had gathered around it and were listening to the news. There were more people around the TV in the video store and also at the Cozy Corner Café. The president must be making some kind of announcement—she could see his solemn face and white hair on the screen—but she didn’t want to stop and listen to him right now. She wanted to get on to the Prophet’s house. Later she could find out what he’d said.
She walked four blocks up Grackle Street to number 248. It was a neat white house with a front porch, more or less like the other houses on the street, except that there were some bunches of limp flowers tied to the fence, along with a Christmas tree angel, a couple of holy-looking pictures, and a couple of handwritten signs. One said, “Althea, Our Prophet!” and the other one said, “We believe!” A bird feeder hung from the porch roof, but there were no seeds in it. The curtains in all the windows were closed.
Nickie rang the bell, and after a moment Amanda opened the door. “Oh, hi,” she said, reaching for the suitcase. “Thanks for bringing this.”
“You’re welcome,” Nickie said.
“Well,” said Amanda. “See you later.” She took a step back and started to close the door.
“But can’t I come in?” Nickie said. “Can’t I meet the Prophet?” She tried to look past Amanda into the room. Were there people in there? She thought she heard the sound of voices.
“Oh, gosh, no,” said Amanda. Her eyebrows bunched into a worried line, and she backed up another step. “There’s strict rules.”
“Even if I just peeked in her door and said hello in a really soft voice?”
“Oh, yeah, even that. I can’t let you,” Amanda said. “I’d get in trouble.”
“Well, who gets to visit her?”
“Just Mrs. Beeson and her committee. You know, Reverend Loomis, and the mayor, and the police chief, and the others. One or two of them’s here most of the time, sitting with her, in case she says something important,” said Amanda. She glanced back over her shoulder. “A couple of ’em are here right now.”
“Yeah, having a meeting about stuff she’s said.”
“You mean she talks to them?”
“She sort of mumbles,” Amanda said, “and then they hover over her and listen and whisper about what they think she said. And then they tiptoe out, and sometimes, like now, they stand around in the living room arguing about what she meant.”
At that moment, a car pulled up at the curb.
“Uh-oh,” Amanda said. “Mrs. Beeson is here. I got to get back to work.”
Mrs. Beeson got out of her car and bustled up to the door. “Excuse me, dears,” she said. “Urgent business.” She pushed past them and disappeared into the house.
“I have to go,” Amanda said. “But listen—how’s Otis?”
“He’s fine,” Nickie said.
“I’m getting up my nerve to ask Mrs. Beeson if I can have him here,” said Amanda.
Nickie’s heart sank. She’d already forgotten that Otis wasn’t hers.
“But I don’t think she’s going to let me,” Amanda went on. “So I don’t know. Do you think you—?”
“Oh, yes,” said Nickie, relieved. “I’ll take care of him. I don’t mind at all. Don’t worry about it.” Her heart sprang up again. She said goodbye and headed down the path.
Clouds sailed across the sun, turning the day dark. She hurried to keep warm, down Grackle Street and past the park to Main Street. Maybe she could find out now what the president’s announcement had been.
She made her way toward the Cozy Corner Café, thinking she could go in and ask someone there. But before she got there she heard a sort of buzz in the air, like a distant swarm of bees, and all around her people stopped in their tracks and pulled cell phones from their pockets and purses.
What was happening? It must be news from Mrs. Beeson, maybe about the “urgent business” that had taken her to the Prophet’s house. She had to know. Who could she ask?
She spotted a red-haired boy wearing glasses with heavy frames. He was coming out of the café, carrying a doughnut, and had his phone pressed to his ear. He looked about her age, or a little older. She’d ask him.
She stepped up beside him and said, “Excuse me,” into the ear that didn’t have the phone against it.
He turned and looked at her.
“What’s going on?” Nickie said. “Can you tell me?”
He frowned. “Wait,” he said, holding up the hand with the doughnut. He was still listening intently. She waited. Finally, he folded up his phone.
“Who are you?” he said. “I don’t know you.”
She explained who she was. He stared at her suspiciously for a moment, but he must have decided she couldn’t be a terrorist, because he said, “I’m Martin. Did you hear the president’s announcement?”
“No,” said Nickie. “What did he say?”
“Well, look,” said Martin. “I’ve got it on my DATT.” He flicked a tiny switch on his phone, and on a tiny screen the tiny face of the president appeared.
He looked grim. His face was grayish, as if he hadn’t slept or eaten well for a while. “Six days remain,” he said in a tiny version of his usual voice, “before time runs out for the Phalanx Nations. They have remained uncooperative. Therefore I am asking all directors of defense to activate their emergency plans, in case an attack is imminent.” He went on about evacuations and shelters and troop movements, and he ended in the usual way: “Let us pray to God for the safety of our people and the success of our endeavors.”
Nickie gulped. She looked up from the little screen. “So is that why—,” she began. But she stopped, because something strange was happening. All up and down the street, the lights in the stores were going off. One after another, the windows went dark. “What’s going on?” she said.
“It’s because of Mrs. Beeson’s bulletin,” said Martin. “She’s just figured out a new instruction from the Prophet. See, for a long time the Prophet has been saying ‘No lies,’ or ‘No lines,’ or ‘No lights,’ but no one could tell which. Mrs. Beeson thought it was ‘No lies,’ because it’s bad to tell lies. But now she realizes it must be ‘No lights,’ because that matches up with what the president just said.”
“Obviously,” said Martin, folding up his phone and putting it in his pocket. “The president is warning us about an attack. It might come any minute. If we turn our lights out, we won’t be seen from the air.”
Nickie looked up and down Main Street. It seemed almost like night, with all the windows dark and the sky clouded over. For the first time, she felt a real shiver of fear at the war that might come. It must have shown, because Martin said, “You shouldn’t worry too much. Thereis destruction coming, but we’re probably safe here.”
“You mean because of the Prophet?”
“That’s right. It’s like having a phone line direct to God. As long as we follow directions, we should be okay. Even though there’s a terrorist in the woods.”
Martin nodded. “He broke into the restaurant just yesterday morning.”
“That’s awful,” Nickie said. She had thought she’d escaped all that by coming to Yonwood. Clearly she’d been wrong.
Martin was peering at her as if trying to decide what kind of creature she was. “Do you love God?” he said.
Having been asked this question once before, Nickie was prepared. “Oh, yes!” she said. “I really do.”
Martin smiled. His teeth were white and even, and Nickie noticed that his eyes, behind his glasses, were hazel, an interesting color that went well with his red hair. “That’s good,” he said. “Well, I have to get going. See you.” He strode away, leaving Nickie standing there on the strangely darkened street, beneath the darkening sky. She felt excited and uneasy at the same time. She’d met a boy—that was progress on Goal #2. But the danger to the world had just gotten worse—which made Goal #3, doing something to help, more urgent than ever.