I could barely see the pale forms of my hands—one fisted, the other clenching the pistol. As I took a two-hand grip on the weapon, it remained all but invisible, and I almost squeezed off a shot just to see the muzzle flash and know that I wasn’t going blind.
Although I wanted to put more distance between me and the door of the shed, wanted to find something behind which I could hide—chimney stacks, air-conditioner housings, anything—my feet seemed to be embedded ankle-deep in long-settled roof tar. But my inability to move was entirely psychological, the blackness above pressing down like deep strata of soil and rock, squeezing upon me from all sides, until it seemed that Fate, in league with Nature, intended that I should become nothing more than a brittle fossil in a thick vein of anthracite.
With effort, I shuffled backward a step, another and another, but then halted as a dizziness overcame me and as I began to think that I must be turning as I retreated, gradually arcing away from the roof shed, where the man from the wasteland might at any moment appear. I needed to keep the pistol trained upon that door, because if the stranger came through it with the obvious intent to attack, he would be backlighted only briefly. I would have but a second to discern his intent and another second to squeeze off a shot before the door fell shut.
When he was no longer silhouetted by the lighted shed, I might discover that he could see in the lightlessness of this wretched reality as well as I was able to see in the full sun of the day. He could then stalk me at his leisure, while in a growing panic I shot at phantoms until I expended all ten rounds in the pistol’s magazine.
Although I am an optimist, my imagination can conjure countless deadly hands from any shuffled deck before the cards are dealt. I am, therefore, perplexed by so many people who, whether they’re optimists or pessimists, trust any dealer as long as he claims to share their vision of how all things ought to be, who trust their own vision to the extent that they never question it, and who believe that four of a kind and royal flushes always fall by chance in a world without meaning. To such folks, Hitler was a distant and half-comic figure—until he wasn’t; and mad mullahs promising to use nuclear weapons as soon as they obtain them are likewise harmless—until they aren’t. I, on the other hand, believe life has profound meaning and that the meaning of Creation itself is benign, but I also know that there are such things as card mechanics who can manipulate any deck to their great advantage. In life, little happens by chance, and most bad hands we’re dealt are the consequence of our actions, which are shaped by our wisdom and our ignorance. In my experience, survival depends on hoping for the best while recognizing that disaster is more likely and that it can’t be averted if it can’t be imagined.
The roof-shed door opened. The man out of the wasteland appeared with the jaundice-yellow light behind him, a silhouette of which I could see no details whatsoever.
Standing five-ten or five-eleven, he seemed to have an athletic physique, though he wasn’t the hulking terminator or the sinuous shape-shifter that I might have feared. As far as I could tell, he held no weapon.
No light from the stairs managed to leak out onto the roof, as if some magical barrier contained it, and I couldn’t know whether or not he saw me. But he didn’t slip quickly out of the shed and dodge to one side; he paused in the doorway instead, blocking the door with his body, giving me plenty of time to kill him. His confidence seemed to suggest that he didn’t bear me any ill will and therefore assumed I would not harm him, that he was merely curious about me and anticipated nothing more than curiosity in return.
The longer he dared to stand there, however, the more his confidence seemed to be a troubling boldness, even effrontery. His continued silence made little sense if his sole reason for pursuing me was mere curiosity. Moment by moment, I found his attitude more arrogant and threatening.
Unless his vision was cat-clear in the dark, he could not know that I held a pistol. He might be convinced to explain himself if he was made aware that, at a distance of perhaps fifteen feet, I could blow him out of this hostile world into another.
Intuition told me not to speak a word. His stillness might be a taunt, inviting me to ask who he was and what he intended. If he wanted me to speak first, then my doing so would in some way surely disadvantage me.
As much as it is anything else, my life is a series of pursuits and confrontations. Suddenly I realized that when this man appeared and came after me, I fell into my usual habits and routines, allowing the strangeness of this dark world to recede from my awareness, as if I were grateful to escape into the familiar game of cat and mouse. As a result, giving myself to action, I’d failed to consider that the issues and ideas and needs motivating this man might be as different from my desires and motives as his world was different from mine.
Whatever his hesitation in the doorway might imply, whatever his silence was meant to convey, my interpretation of his behavior would most likely be wrong. I was in new territory in every sense of the word, standing waist-deep in the surging waters of the unknown, which is the worst place to find oneself, for that riverbed is treacherous underfoot and those currents are as unpredictable as they are deadly.
Intuition and reason told me to remain mute and to be prepared that when he spoke, if he spoke, what little I thought I knew about this place and this man would be washed away. And then events would rush forward in waves, in drowning cataracts.
My expectation was fulfilled a moment later, when the silhouette declared, “My name is Odd Thomas. I see the spirits of the lingering dead.” His voice was mine.
He stepped forward, and the door swung shut behind him, sweeping away the dirty-yellow light in the stairwell.
THERE CAN BE NO MORE DREAMLIKE MOMENT THAN TO encounter yourself in a dark place and to know in your marrow as surely as in your mind that only one of you will leave this rendezvous alive.
Yet this was not a dream.
In the worst nightmares, a threshold of terror is reached at which your pounding heart achieves a pace that would set off a cardiac-monitor alarm if you were in an ER, hyperventilation and elevated blood pressure lead to an attack of pulmonary hypertension, and you are violently ejected from sleep, heart hammering so loud that your eardrums seem about to split from the concussions, chest aching, unable to draw an adequate breath. For a moment, you are convinced that the malevolent presence from the nightmare, whatever its nature, is still upon you, smothering you, but within seconds, the familiarity of the waking world is an antidote for your panic.
As the man who claimed to be me approached and as the door fell shut behind him, leaving us in an abyssal dark, my heart achieved the requisite pace to trigger an alarm, my breathing became so fast and shallow that a pain rose in my breast, but I did not wake because I was not sleeping.
Intuition urgently insisted that I move quickly to my right and squeeze off three spread shots at where the Other Odd Thomas would be if he continued on a straight line toward my original position. I regret to say that I allowed my intuition to be overruled by instinct—which urged me to Shoot now, this instant, shoot or run, run!—but which simultaneously raised in me an existential horror of shooting someone who claimed to be me and who sounded exactly like me. In human beings, low superstition is inevitably entwined with instinct—one struggling for dominance over the other in moments of high risk—a linkage that no doubt dates to our caveman days. And so fright shivered through muscle, sinew, and blood—a dread that if I killed this Other, I would at the same time kill myself.
Instinct is an animal faculty, independent of instruction and reasoning, but far inferior to intuition, which is a grace unique to humanity. Instinct will never mislead a deer that senses a hunter in the woods and bolts for the cover of a thicker stand of trees, because animals are not subject to superstition that can pollute pure instinct, as we are.
Besides, instinct always triggers instant action, the fight-or-flight impulse. But because modern human beings are accustomed to the comforts of Starbucks and smartphones and aerosol cheese and athletic shoes with air-cushion insoles, we rarely find ourselves in crises that can be resolved as easily as choosing to run or attack, other than in the competitive crowds at an electronics store on the first bargain-price shopping day after Thanksgiving. Intuition, on the other hand, arises from the perpetual calm in the core of the soul, and it requires of us discrimination and adroitness if it is to serve us well.
During that blackout on the roof, I was no more discriminating and adroit than a night-grazing rabbit abruptly paralyzed by a double flash of lightning and a hammerstrike of thunder loud enough to cleave stone. The Other had spoken in my voice, therefore I was him and he was me, and to shoot seemed to be suicide.
In my defense, I was stupidly immobilized only for a moment, but that proved long enough for him to seize me by the throat with both hands. His touch was cold, his grip tight.
Even at less than arm’s length, I couldn’t discern the barest outlines of his face. If I had been able to see him, to stare into my own face sans mirror, perhaps I would have been further inhibited, but blindness allowed me to squeeze the trigger, and I pumped two rounds into his chest at point-blank range. The hard reports echoed through the darkness, not only out across the vast wasteland but off something overhead, as though the sky might in fact be plated over with a material more substantial than clouds.
Unfortunately, two hollow-point 9-mm slugs seemed to have less effect on him than flea bites. His left hand continued to clutch my throat as if his fingers were the steel digits of a robot, but now he clasped the back of my head with his right hand and pulled my face closer to his.
I fired again, again, and twice again, but four bullets had no greater effect than two. Even if he had been wearing a Kevlar vest, the impact of the rounds would have been like fist blows, staggering him if not dropping him to his knees.
He pulled me closer, and he seemed to be whispering something, but the gunfire had left me temporarily half deaf, and I couldn’t understand what he was saying.
Although he wasn’t choking me, just holding fast to my throat, I inhaled no less violently than a man trapped in a submerged car as he hungrily sought the last air in the bubble near the ceiling.
Relinquishing my double grip on the pistol, I felt for his face and found his chin, which I tried to force upward with the heel of my left hand. With my right, I thrust the business end of the weapon against his exposed throat. Because my arm was trapped between us and my elbow jammed firmly against my abdomen, the recoil was absorbed so that the muzzle didn’t jump off target, and I emptied the magazine of the last four rounds.
Even though the first six shots had had no effect, I steeled myself for gouting blood, a spray of flesh and bone and brains, but these last four rounds were likewise ineffective, as if the pistol had been loaded with blanks.
I dropped the gun or it was wrenched out of my hand, and we were at each other in what should have been evenly matched combat, but he was stronger, uncannily strong. Only a spirit could be impervious to ten bullets, but no spirit could harm me except by going poltergeist, not with its hands, only with inanimate objects hurled in raptures of rage with streams of spiritual power drawn from a malignant well.
With one hand against the back of my head, the other on my throat, unfazed by my punches, he succeeded in drawing me closer, until our foreheads knocked together. Still I was unable to see anything of the Other in this father of all darknesses.
His lips were close to mine, but I couldn’t feel the barest exhalation issue with his words when he said urgently, roughly, “I need your breath.”
Clutching his throat with both hands, I tried to strangle him, while he seemed to want to force me into an unholy kiss. I found the muscles of his throat flaccid, soft, disgusting, as though in spite of his great strength, no life existed in him. The tissues of his neck compressed under my throttling hands, but I couldn’t choke him, as if he had no breath that could be denied him, no blood in his carotid arteries that might be withheld from his brain. And yet he was strong, insistent, an immovable object and at the same time an irresistible force.
“Your breath, piglet,” he demanded in a wolfish snarl, “your breath.”
His flesh felt more gelid than that of a room-temperature corpse before the heat of decomposition begins to warm it again, chill and clammy and reminiscent of a fish pulled from a cold lake. I felt in the presence of something unclean, although no smell whatsoever rose from him, neither pleasant nor offensive, which further suggested that what animated him was not life as we think of it.
As he chanted your breath, I somehow knew that I still must not speak, that to say anything would be to concede that he might be worthy of my curses, and in so acknowledging him, I would give him some crucial advantage in our struggle, which was growing more desperate by the moment.
His voice was mine but sinister, suited to the pitch-darkness enveloping us, a voice from the endless night, of the endless night. He was so close to administering the kiss of death that, although I could not feel his exhalations, his words vibrated faintly against my lips: “Give me your breath, piglet, your breath, and the sweet fruit at the end of it.”
I couldn’t shove him away, couldn’t pull away, couldn’t wound or stagger him. He was as deadly as a tar pit, quicksand personified, and he would draw the life from me as greedily as a henhouse fox draining yolk and egg white out of a bitten shell.
Abruptly, gray light from a storm sky dispelled the darkness, and with the reappearance of the filtered sun fell cool rain in torrents, thousands of silvery droplets performing a fairy dance across the roof. The Other had vanished. The resurrected city of my reality lay round about, blurred by the downpour. The parapet again marked the perimeter of the building. Evidently, I didn’t need to be within the envelope of the structure to be returned here, only in contact with it, and it seemed that while I could move between worlds, albeit involuntarily, the Other Odd Thomas—whatever it had been—could not, a creature solely of that wasteland.
Although I have a competent command of language, I cannot string together a beadwork of words sufficient to express the gratitude I felt for being brought out of that dark land into this world of light and hope, this manifest yet mystical world of ours, where sorrowful mysteries are outnumbered two to one by those that are joyful and glorious. Trembling violently, I sank to my knees. In disgust, with one hand and then with the other, I scrubbed my lips, although the thing that would have kissed away my life—and more than my life—had not quite been able to do so.
I didn’t mind being soaked to the skin and chilled, because the rain washed from me the feeling that I was unclean where the Other had touched me. With relief but also with some apprehension that the blinding dark might again depose the daylight, I recovered the dropped pistol, crossed the roof to the shed, and opened the door.
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