Carrying the suitcase, she left Room 724.

In the corridor, she halted, looked left, looked right, and didn't know where to go.

Had Nella Lombardi, no longer of this beautiful world, reached  back across the void to bring two sisters together in time for them to  say good-bye to each other?

And had Phimie, retrieved from death by the resuscitation procedures of the surgical team, repaid Nella's kindness with her own stunning message to Lipscomb?

From childhood, Celestina was encouraged to be confident that life had meaning, and when she'd needed to share that belief with Dr. Lipscomb as he struggled to come to terms with his experience in the operating room, she'd done so without hesitation. Strangely, however, she herself was having difficulty absorbing these two small miracles.

Although she was aware that these extraordinary events would shape the rest of her life, beginning with her actions in the hours immediately ahead of her, she could not clearly see what she ought to do next. At the core of her confusion was a conflict of mind and heart, reason and faith, but also a battle between desire and duty. Until she was able to reconcile these opposed forces, she was all but paralyzed by indecision.

She walked the corridor until she came to a room with empty beds. Without turning on the lights, she entered, put down the suitcase, and sat in a chair by the window.

Even as the morning matured, the fog and the rain conspired to bar all but a faint gray daylight from St. Mary's. Shadows flourished.

Celestina sat studying her hands, so dark in the darkness.

Eventually she discovered within herself all the light that she needed to find her way through the crucial hours immediately ahead. At last she knew what she must do, but she was not certain that she possessed the fortitude to do it.

Her hands were slender, long-fingered, graceful. The hands of an artist. They were not powerful hands.

She thought of herself as a creative person, a capable and efficient and committed person, but she did not think of herself as a strong person. Yet she would need great strength for what lay ahead.

Time to go. Time to do what must be done.

She could not get up from the chair.

Do what must he done.

She was too scared to move.

Chapter 24

EDOM AND THE PIES, into the blue morning following the storm, had a schedule to keep and the hungry to satisfy.

He drove his yellow-and-white 1955 Ford Country Squire station wagon. He'd bought the car with some of the last money he earned in the years when he had been able to hold a job, before his ... problem.

Once, he had been a superb driver. For the past decade, his performance behind the wheel depended on his mood.

Sometimes, just the thought of getting in the car and venturing into the dangerous world was intolerable. Then he settled into his La-ZBoy and waited for the natural disaster that would soon scrub him off the earth as though he had never existed.

This morning, only his love for his sister, Agnes, gave him the courage to drive and to become the pie man.

Agnes's big brother by six years, Edom had lived in one of the two apartments above the large detached garage, behind the main house, since he was twenty-five, when he'd left the working world. He was now thirty-six.

Edom's twin, Jacob, who had never held a job, lived in the second apartment. He'd been there since graduating from high school.

Agnes, who inherited the property, would have welcomed her brothers in the main house. Although both were willing to visit her for an occasional dinner or to sit in rocking chairs on the porch, on a summer night, neither could abide living in that ominous place.

Too much had happened in those rooms. They were stained dark with family history, and in the night, when either Edom or Jacob slept under that gabled roof, the past came alive again in dreams.

Edom marveled at Agnes's ability to rise above the past and to transcend so many years of torment. She was able to see the house as simple shelter, whereas to her brothers, it was-and always would be-the place in which their spirits had been shattered. Even living within sight of it would have been out of the question if they had been employed, with options.

This was one of many things about Agnes that amazed Edom. If he had dared to make a list of all the qualities that he admired in her, he would have sunk into despair at the consideration of how much better she had coped with adversity than either he or Jacob.

When Agnes had asked him to deliver the pies, before she had set out with Joey for the hospital the previous day, Edom had wanted to beg off, but he had agreed without hesitation. He was prepared to suffer every viciousness that nature could throw at him in this life, but he could not endure seeing disappointment in his sister's eyes.

Not that she ever gave any indication that her brothers were other than a source of pride for her. She treated them always with respect, tenderness, and love-as if unaware of their shortcomings.

She dealt with them equally, too, favoring neither-except in-the matter of pie delivery. On those rare occasions when she could not make these rounds herself and when she had no one to turn to but a brother, Agnes always asked for Edom's help.

Jacob scared people. He was 'Edom's identical twin, with Edom's boyish and pleasant face, as soft-spoken as Edom, well barbered and neatly groomed. Nevertheless, on the same mission of mercy as Edom, Jacob would leave the pie recipients in a state of deep uneasiness if not outright terror. In his wake, they would bar the doors, load guns if they owned any, and lay sleepless for a night or two.

Consequently, Edom was abroad in the land with pies and parcels, following a list of names and addresses provided by his sister, even though he believed an unprecedentedly violent earthquake, the fabled Big One, was likely to strike before noon, certainly before dinner. This was the last day of the rest of his life.

The strange barrage of lightning, putting an end to the rain rather than initiating it, had been a clue. The rapid clearing of the sky-indicating a stiff wind at high altitudes, while stillness prevailed at ground level-a sudden plunge in the humidity, and an unseasonable warmth confirmed the coming catastrophe.

Earthquake weather. Southern Californians had many definitions of that term, but Edom knew he was right this time. Thunder would roll again soon, but it would arise from underfoot.

Driving defensively—keenly alert for toppling telephone poles, collapsing bridges, and not least of all the abrupt appearance of car-swallowing  fissures in the pavement—Edom arrived at the first 'address on Agnes's list.

The modest clapboard house had received no maintenance in a  long time. Silvered by years of insistent sun, bare wood showed through  peeling paint, like dark bones. At the end of a gravel driveway, a battered Chevy pickup stood on bald tires under a sagging carport.

Here on the eastern outskirts of Bright Beach, on the side of the  hills that offered no view of the sea, the tireless desert encroached when  residents were not diligent. Sage and wild sorrel and all manner of  scrub bristled where backyards ended.

The recent storm had blown tumbleweeds out of the barrens. They  were snared in domestic shrubs, piled against one wall of the house.

Green during this rainy season, the lawn, lacking a sprinkler system, would be crisp and brown April through November. Even in this  lush phase, it was as much weeds and creeping sandbur as grass.

Carrying one of the six blueberry pies, Edom walked through the  unmown lawn and up the swaybacked steps onto the front porch.

This was not a house he would choose to occupy when the quake of  the century rocked the coast and leveled mighty cities. Agnes's instructions, unfortunately, were that Edom must not merely drop the gifts  and run but must visit for a short while and be as neighborly as it was  within his nature to be.

Jolene Klefton answered his knock: dowdy, in her early fifties, wear  ing a shapeless housedress. Flyaway brown hair as lusterless as Mojave  dust. Her face was enlivened by a wealth of freckles, however, and her  voice was both musical and warm.

“Edom, you look as handsome as that singer on the Lawrence Welk  Show, you really do! Come in, come in!"

As Jolene stepped aside to let him enter, Edom said, “Agnes was in a  baking frenzy again. We'll be eating blueberry pie till we're blue. She  said maybe you'd relieve us of one."

“Thank you, Edom. Where is herself this morning?

Though she tried to hide it, Jolene was disappointed-anybody  would have been—that Edom rather than Agnes was at her door. He  took no offense.

Bill swung into a chair and hooked the canes on the back of it. He held out his right hand to Edom.

The hand was gnarled, the knuckles swollen and misshapen. Edom pressed it lightly, afraid of causing pain even with a gentle touch.

“Tell us all about the baby,” Bill encouraged. “Where did they get the name-Bartholomew?"

“I'm not really sure.” Edom accepted a plate with a slice of cake from Jolene. “Far as I know, it wasn't on their list of favorites."

He didn't have much to say about the baby, only what Agnes had told him. He'd already related most of those details to Jolene.

Nevertheless, he went through it all again. He embellished a little, in fact, stalling for time, dreading a question that would force him to share with them the bad news.

And here it came, from Bill: “Is Joey just bursting with pride?"

Edom's mouth was full, so he was spared the expectation of an immediate answer. He chewed until it seemed that his slice of cake must be as tough as gristle, and when he realized Jolene was staring curiously, he nodded as though answering Bill's question.

He paid for this deception, the nod, when he tried to swallow the cake and couldn't get it down. Afraid of choking, he grabbed his coffee and dislodged the stubborn wad with hot black brew.

He couldn't talk about Joey. Breaking the news would be like murder.

Until Edom actually told someone about the accident, Joey wasn't really dead. Words made it real. Until Edom spoke the words, Joey was still alive somehow, at least for Jolene and Bill.

This was a crazy thought. Irrational. Nevertheless, the news about Joey stuck in his throat more stubbornly than the wad of cake.

He spoke instead about a subject with which he was comfortable:

doomsday. “Does this seem like earthquake weather to you?"

Surprised, Bill said, “It's a fine day for January."

“The thousand-year quake is overdue,” Edom warned.

“Thousand-year? “ Jolene said, frowning.

“The San Andreas should have a magnitude eight-point-five or greater quake once every thousand years, to relieve stress on the fault.

It's hundreds of years overdue."

Well, it won't happen on the day Agnes's baby is born, I'll guarantee you that,” said Jolene.

“He was born yesterday, not today,” Edom said glumly. “When the thousand-year quake hits, skyscrapers will pancake, bridges crumble, dams break. In three minutes, a million people will die between San Diego and Santa Barbara."

“Then I better have more cake,” Bill said, pushing his plate toward Jolene.

“Oil and natural-gas pipelines will fracture, explode. A sea of fire will wash cities, killing hundreds of thousands more."

“You figure all this,” Jolene asked, “because Mother Nature gives us a nice warm day in January?"

“Nature has no maternal instincts,” Edom said quietly but with conviction. “To think otherwise is sheer sentimentality at its worst. Nature is our enemy. She's a vicious killer."

Jolene started to refill his coffee mug-then thought better of it. “Maybe you don't need more caffeine, Edom."

“Do you know about the earthquake that destroyed seventy percent of Tokyo and all of Yokohama on September 1, 1923?” he asked.

“They still had enough gumption left to fight World War Two, Bill noted.

“After the quake,” Edom said, “forty thousand people took refuge in a two-hundred-acre open area, a military depot. A quake-related fire swept through so fast they were killed standing up, so tightly packed together they died as a solid mass of bodies."

“Well, we have earthquakes here,” Jolene said, “but back east they have all those hurricanes."

“Our new roof,” Bill said, pointing overhead, “will hold through any hurricane. Fine work. You tell Agnes what fine work it is."

Having gotten the new roof for them at cost, Agnes subsequently put together donations from a dozen individuals and one church group to cover all but two hundred dollars of the outlay.

“The hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas, back in 1900, killed six thousand people,” Edom said. “Virtually obliterated the place."

“That was all of sixty-five years ago,” Jolene said.

“Less than a year and a half ago, Hurricane Flora—she killed over six thousand in the Caribbean."

“Wouldn't live in the Caribbean if you paid me,” Bill said. “All that humidity. All those bugs."

“But nothing equals a quake for killing. Big one in Shaanxi, China, killed eight hundred thirty thousand."

Bill wasn't impressed. “They build houses out of mud in China. No wonder everything falls down."

“This was back on January 24, 1556,” said Edom with unhesitating authority, for he had memorized tens of thousands of facts about the worst natural disasters in history.

“Fifteen fifty-six?” Bill frowned. “Hell, the Chinese probably didn't even have mud back then."

Fortifying herself with more coffee, Jolene said, “Edom, you were going to tell us how Joey's coping with fatherhood."

Glancing at his wristwatch with alarm, Edom bolted up from his chair. “Look at the time! Agnes gave me a lot to do, and here I am rattling on about earthquakes and cyclones."

“Hurricanes,” Bill corrected. “They're different from cyclones, aren't they?"

“Don't get me started on cyclones!” Edom hurried through the house and out to the station wagon, to fetch the boxes of groceries.

The blue vault above, cloudless now, was the most threatening sky that Edom had ever seen. The air was astonishingly dry so soon after a storm. And still. Hushed. Earthquake weather. Before this momentous day was done, great temblors and five-hundred-foot tidal waves would rock and swamp the coast.

Chapter 25

OF THE SEVEN NEWBORNS, none was fussing, too fresh to the world to realize how much was here to fear.

One nurse and one nun brought Celestina into the creche behind the viewing window.

She strove to appear calm, and she must have succeeded, because neither woman seemed to realize that she was scared almost to the point of paralysis. She moved woodenly, joints stiff, muscles tense.