Could past, present, and future all exist at the same time? And certain people slip around between them? See theories set forth in recent sci. journals. Ask M.
Hmmm. What was that about?
A movement on the sidewalk below caught her attention. She looked out the window. There was Mrs. Beeson, wearing a rain jacket with the hood up over her baseball cap, walking a long-bodied, short-legged dog on a leash. That must be Sausage, Nickie thought. She watched as Mrs. Beeson passed, walked on, and turned in at a house across the street. It was a brick house, old but well cared for, with a straight path that led to a white front door with a tall, narrow window on each side. Two bushes flanked the door, both of them trimmed into neat round shapes like green beach balls. It was a perfect-looking house, Nickie thought, just right for Mrs. Beeson, who was aiming to get rid of all the wrongness in Yonwood. If only the wholeworld could be that way!
She watched until Mrs. Beeson and Sausage had disappeared into the house. Then she lay back on the big red pillow to think for a while, and the next thing she knew, it was twilight outside and Crystal’s voice was calling from downstairs.
She leapt up and rushed out of the room, not forgetting to cram the rags under the door, and she sped downstairs before Crystal could come up looking for her.
“What a day!” Crystal said. She hung her coat on the coatrack that stood in the hall. “I’ve been all over the place. What have you been doing? Just reading?”
“Mostly,” said Nickie.
“Found anything interesting?”
“Lots,” Nickie said. “This house is just full of interesting stuff. I don’t see how you can stand to sell it!”
Crystal just shrugged. “Interesting stuff like what?” she said.
“I found a really strange old photograph, for one thing. Wait a second and I’ll show you.”
She dashed upstairs again. Otis trotted over to her when she went in. Feeling sorry that he’d be alone from now till morning, she knelt down and patted him for a while. She rumpled his ears and, when he rolled over, scratched his stomach. Then she took the picture of the twins from its envelope and hurried back downstairs, where she found Crystal talking on the phone.
“Try not to worry,” Crystal said. “I’m sure he’s fine. Okay. Okay. Bye.” She hung up. “That was your mother,” she said.
Nickie cried, “But I wanted to talk to her!”
“She was exhausted,” said Crystal, “too tired to talk. She just wanted to let us know that she’s had another postcard from your father. I wrote it down for you.” She handed Nickie a scrap of paper.
Dear Rachel and Nickie,
We are working hard here on a big project.
I am well, and I hope both of you are, too. I miss you.
P.S. Sure would like to have one of Rachel’s peanut butter cookies right now!
Again, not much news. But also again, a puzzling P.S. She couldn’t remember her motherever making peanut butter cookies. What was going on in her father’s mind?
Crystal had gone into the kitchen, and Nickie followed her. “Here’s the picture,” she said, putting it on the table.
“Oh, yes!” Crystal said. “I remember hearing about this! These men are Chang and Eng, who came from Siam—that’s what we now call Thailand. They were the original ‘Siamese twins.’ They came to the United States and traveled around being exhibited for years, and then they retired to North Carolina, not far from here. Grandfather told me they’d visited this house once—it was at the time of his great-grandfather, sometime after the Civil War. They must have given this photo to the family as a sort of thank-you gift.” She turned the photograph over. “Look at this!” she exclaimed. “They’ve written on the back.”
Nickie peered at the old-fashioned handwriting. It said, “With gratitude for your hospitality,” and it was signed with two names.
“If this is authentic,” said Crystal, “it could be worth something.”
“How much?” said Nickie.
“I have no idea. Not a great deal, probably, but something.”
Nickie took the photo and turned it over again. “I guess those two boys are their children,” she said.
“Yes,” said Crystal. “In fact, I think they had something like ten children apiece.”
“Wouldn’t it be hard to be married to Siamese twins?” said Nickie, looking at the grumpy faces of the two big women.
“I surely think so,” said Crystal. “In fact, as I recall, the two women were sisters, but they didn’t get along. After a while, the twins got themselves two houses, one for each wife, and the husbands alternated between them.” She shook her head. “Amazing, isn’t it, that they managed to work things out at all? I tried twice, under much easier circumstances, and failed both times.” She opened up a cupboard and took down a can of soup. “Can you bear to have soup again for dinner?” she said. “I’m too tired to do anything else.”
“That’s okay,” said Nickie. She wondered if she should tell Crystal about the Prophet, and Mrs. Beeson, and how Yonwood was battling the forces of evil by building a shield of goodness. But she hesitated. Crystal might decide that Nickie shouldn’t be getting involved in that battle. She might decide that Nickie needed more supervision. Nickie didn’t want that at all. So all she said was, “Crystal, do you think there’s going to be a war?”
“I don’t know,” Crystal said. “Fortunately, I’m too busy to think much about it.” She cast a quick look at Nickie. “Don’tyou think about it, either,” she said. “There’s not much we can do.”
“Just live good lives, right?” Nickie said. “Not add to the badness. That’s what you said before.”
“Uh-huh,” said Crystal. She opened the can and scooped the soup into a pot.
“So ifeveryone lives good lives, then maybe bad things won’t happen,” Nickie said. “At least not to us.” But she could tell Crystal wasn’t really listening. She was holding the soup can under the faucet to fill it, but only a feeble trickle of water was coming out.
“Something is wrong with the water pressure,” she said. “We must have a leaky pipe somewhere. And the plumbers were just here! They’ve made it worse instead of better. And of course tomorrow is Sunday, so a plumber will be hard to find.” She sighed. “There’sso much to do. I suppose I should face the third floor. I haven’t even been up there.”
Nickie’s heart jumped into her throat. “It’s just rooms full of boxes,” she said. “You don’t need to see it.”
“No, I really should.” Crystal stirred the soup with one hand and ran the other hand wearily through her hair. “I need to see what I have to deal with. Not tonight, though. I’ll do it first thing tomorrow morning.” Crystal reached for two bowls. “It’s getting dark,” she said. “Would you switch the light on?”
That was when Nickie remembered. “We have to close all the curtains and blinds,” she said.
“We do? Why?”
“So we can’t be seen from the air,” said Nickie. “In case there’s an attack.” She pulled down the kitchen blinds.
“Oh, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Crystal said. “But if it makes you feel better, go ahead.”
Nickie went from room to room, closing curtains and blinds all over the house.
The next morning after breakfast, as soon as Crystal had washed her dishes and disappeared into the bathroom, Nickie raced upstairs. She hooked Otis to his leash and flew down the stairs again. She tiptoed past Crystal’s room, where she heard the roar of the hair dryer, and zipped out the back door.
At the far end of the garden, she looped Otis’s leash around the trunk of a tree. “Now, Otis,” she said, “try to be quiet. I’ll come back for you as soon as I can.”
Inside again, past Crystal’s room (this time she heard thepssst-pssst of the hair spray), up the stairs to the nursery. She hid the dog dishes and the dog food in a box of old toys in the closet, tore down the blanket that they’d hung over the door—and then came Crystal’s steps on the stairs, and her voice calling, “Are you up there?”
Nickie showed her the two storage rooms first. “Oh, horrors,” said Crystal, looking at the cobwebby trunks and boxes and suitcases. “It’strue that they never threw anything away. Just looking at it gives me a headache.” She went toward the nursery. “What’s in here?”
“I’ve been sort of staying in here,” Nickie said.
Crystal strode in. She gazed at the rugs, the blankets hung on the walls, the rocking chair and lamps.
“I did it,” Nickie said. “I wanted to make it cozy.”
Crystal smiled at her. “Well, it is cozy,” she said. “It’s actually quite a nice room. It smells a little funny, though.” She wrinkled her nose. “Probably there are rats up under the roof. Let’s let some air in.” She went to the window and thrust it open. The sound of barking and whining floated up from below, but Crystal paid no attention. “When we get ready to put the house on the market,” she said, “we can sell this as a perfect space for a home gym. Or maybe a media center. Screen over there”—she raised her hands, measuring a wall-sized screen—“theater seats here. Could be quite lovely. What do you think?”
But she didn’t pause to hear what Nickie thought (which was that she didn’t like any of those ideas). She went right on to say that she would decide what to do about all this later, but today, since it was Sunday and she couldn’t do much shopping, she was going to take a drive with Len. “I don’t suppose you want to come,” she said.
“Who’s Len?” said Nickie.
“The real estate agent.”
“Oh,” said Nickie. “No, I don’t want to come.”
Once Crystal had left, Nickie rescued Otis from the back garden and played with him a long time to make up for his exile. The shoe they’d been using for a toy had turned into a shapeless wad by now, so Nickie found an ancient yellow tennis ball in the closet. Otis adored it. He had to stretch his jaws wide apart to hold it, which made him look as if he were trying to swallow a grapefruit.
When Otis lost interest in chasing the ball and settled down to gnaw on it, Nickie decided that today would be her day to explore Yonwood. It was going to be her home, after all, if she accomplished her Goal #1. And while she was at it, she would keep her eyes open for sinners and trouble spots and anything that had a feeling of wrongness. If she was going to accomplish Goal #3, she needed to understand all this. She would keep her eyes open for Martin, too. She might happen to run into him somewhere, and they might happen to talk to each other. She needed to find out if he was someone she could fall in love with (Goal #2). So far, she couldn’t tell. He was nice-looking. He was friendly, sort of. That was enough for a start.
She walked to the upper end of Main Street, where the school was, empty today because it was Sunday. Though it was still cold and windy, the sun was out. Some boys were shooting baskets in the schoolyard. She looked to see if Martin was one of them, but he was not.
A few blocks farther on and she was in downtown Yonwood. A few stores were open, but their lights were still off. They looked uninviting, like dim caves. Small clusters of people gathered in places where a TV was on, showing the news. Nickie heard snippets as she passed: “Five days remaining until the deadline…,” said the president’s voice from the Cozy Corner Café. “Ambassador has been assassinated,” he said from the newsstand. “Group calling itself the Warriors of God has claimed…,” he said from the drugstore. The familiar nervous feeling started up in Nickie’s stomach as she heard these words, and she could tell that other people were nervous, too. A woman behind her was talking about how the tension was just killing her, and another woman answered that it was killing her, too, but that they had to have faith that they’d be all right, and the first person said, Yes, she did believe that, but she just wished everyone did…. Nickie hurried on, not wanting to hear any more.
Half a block down, she suddenly heard the strange hum she’d heard before:MMMM-mmmm-MMMM-mmmm. Where was it coming from? A machine inside a building? Some kind of car or engine on the street? She looked around but saw nothing. The hum grew slightly louder. Was it behind the grocery store? She peered up a narrow alley and thought she saw someone darting across the other end—but she wasn’t sure. The hum faded.
Nickie turned around. Behind her were two of the people who’d been watching the president at the drugstore a minute ago: a short bald man and a gray-haired woman. “Did you hear that funny sound?” she said. “Do you know what it was?”
Neither one answered. They kept on walking. The man cast a suspicious glance at her, and the woman pressed her lips together and shook her head.
“I just wondered—,” Nickie said.
The woman stopped and glared at her. “You shouldknow, ” she said. “Why don’t you know? Whose childare you?” But she didn’t wait for an answer. She reached for the man’s arm, and they hastened away.
Nickie felt as if she’d been slapped. She wasn’t supposed to ask about the hum; that was clear. But why not? How was she supposed to find out if she didn’t ask?
She went on. Toward the end of Main Street she came to the grocery store, and beyond that was the church she’d seen when she and Crystal had first arrived. “The Church of the Fiery Vision,” the sign said, but she could also make out the old name that had been crossed out: “Yonwood Community Church.” Today the sign also said, “Today’s Sermon: Pulling Together in Dark Times.” A lot of people were gathered here, milling about and greeting one another in low voices. Many of them were wearing the round blue button she’d first seen on Mrs. Beeson. The doors of the church stood open, and beside them was a thin-faced man dressed in a sort of robe, dark blue with a white border. Was that the Reverend Loomis? Nickie wondered. She saw Mrs. Beeson standing near him, though she almost didn’t recognize her at first, because Mrs. Beeson was wearing a woolly gray hat like an upside-down bowl, and her hair was brushed and fluffy instead of in a ponytail. She spoke to all the people as they went inside. Nickie waved to her, and Mrs. Beeson flashed her a smile.
Nickie turned around and walked back the way she’d come, but on the other side of the street this time. She noticed a few things that might be examples of wrongness. By the park, she saw an old man spitting on the sidewalk. Surely that was a wrong thing to do. She also saw an angry little boy pulling a cat’s tail. She told him not to, and he scowled at her. It was wicked to hurt animals, but was it wicked if a six-year-old did it? She wasn’t sure. In an alley beside the boarded-up movie theater, she saw three teenage girls smoking. She wasn’t sure about that one, either. Was it bad to smoke? Or only bad before a certain age? She would ask Mrs. Beeson.
For a few minutes, she followed along behind a group of kids to see if they were being cruel to each other, the way kids sometimes were. She saw some teasing, and a little roughhousing, but nothing much. She looked for Martin in this group, but he wasn’t there.
When she was back where she had started, at the north end of Main Street, she headed downhill. The houses were farther apart here than in Greenhaven’s neighborhood, and smaller. She saw a woman sitting on her front porch, reading the paper. A few children played ball in the street. No one was doing anything wrong, as far as she could tell. Really, Yonwood seemed like a very good town, so much better than dirty, crime-riddled Philadelphia. Following the words of the Prophet must be working.
Farther on, she came to what looked at first like a big, wild vacant lot. A high fence ran alongside it, and beyond the fence grew tall, unkempt trees. After a hundred yards or so, she came to a gravel drive with a mailbox beside it. “H. McCoy, 600 Raven Rd.” was printed in black paint on the mailbox, and a “No Trespassing” sign was nailed to a tree. She recognized the name McCoy. Mrs. Beeson had mentioned this person. He was the one she was worried about, for some reason. She peered up the driveway. At the end, rising from a tangle of trees and rangy shrubs, she could just glimpse the peak of a roof. Tree branches threw shadows across it, and the shadows danced in the wind like long, thin ghosts. Should she go in there and see what H. McCoy was up to? Not today, she thought. Some other time. She walked on.
A block or so farther on, an alley led off Raven Road—really more of a wide path, rutted and unpaved. It went behind the houses on Trillium Street. Curious, Nickie turned that way.
From the alley, she could see into backyards. Most of them were empty and quiet. At one house she heard loud voices through an open window. She paused a moment to listen. The people inside were insulting each other and swearing. Surely that was bad. Did it mean they counted as sinners?
At the next house, a wire fence bordered the alley. Beyond the fence she could see the gnarled bare branches of fruit trees, and beyond those, the back of a house that badly needed a coat of paint. Just inside the fence, so close to the alley that she could have touched it if she’d wanted to, stood a shed made of weatherworn planks.
At this place, there was a lot going on. Two small children charged around among the tree trunks yelling at each other. One of them had a toy truck that the other seemed to want, and he chased his brother wildly, falling down on skids of slippery leaves, shrieking the whole time. A window in the back of the house opened, and an old woman stuck her head out and cried, “You kids quit that!” but the kids paid no attention.
Nickie watched them, peeking out from behind the shed so she wouldn’t be noticed. The shrieking boy finally grabbed the truck away from the other boy, and that boy wailed furiously. Another child appeared, a girl maybe four or five years old, and scolded the boy who was crying. And then a bigger boy, closer to Nickie’s age, burst out the back door. He had curly blond hair, big ears, and a strong, skinny body.
The boy leapt down the porch steps. “Hey, Roddie, lost your truck?” he called. “Want an airplane instead?” And he took hold of the little boy’s hands and whirled him around so that he flew off the ground, squealing with laughter.
“Fly me!” said the other boy, and the big boy did. He flew the girl, too. Then he said, “Now, all of you quit making such a racket. There’s plenty of toys inside. Go on.”
“But I want—” the little boy started to wail.
“Go on,”said the big boy. “And leave me alone.”
Nickie expected that he’d disappear back into the house, but instead he came toward the shed at the end of the yard. She ducked down quickly. He fiddled with the door for a moment—maybe it was locked, she couldn’t see—and then opened it and went inside.
Nickie should probably have left at this point. She had no reason to think this was a trouble spot. But, as usual, curiosity took hold of her. What was the boy doing in this falling-down shed? Because the shed backed up against the fence, and because there was a dusty window in the back of the shed, just the right height for looking into, she might be able to see in without being noticed. She put her eye to the glass.