She hadn't sung since the early-morning hours of October 18, and no other paranormal event had occurred since then. The waiting between manifestations scraped at Junior's nerves worse than the manifestations themselves.
Something was due to happen in this peculiar, extended, almost casual haunting under which he had suffered for more than two years, since finding the quarter in his cheeseburger. While all around him in the streets, people bustled in good cheer, Junior slouched along in a sour mood, temporarily having forgotten to look for the bright side.
Inevitably, man of the arts that he was, his slouching brought him to several galleries. In the window of the fourth, not one of his favorite establishments, he saw an eight-by-ten photograph of Seraphim White.
The girl smiled, as stunningly beautiful as he remembered her, but she was no longer fifteen, as she had been when last he'd seen her. Since her death in childbirth nearly three years ago, she'd matured and grown lovelier than ever.
If Junior had not been such a rational man, schooled in logic and reason by the books of Caesar Zedd, he might have snapped there in the street, before the photograph of Seraphim, might have begun to shake and sob and babble until he wound up in a psychiatric ward. But although his trembling knees felt no more supportive than aspic, they didn't dissolve under him. He couldn't breathe for a minute, and his vision darkened at the periphery, and the noise of passing traffic suddenly sounded like the agonized shrieks of people tortured beyond endurance, but he held fast to his wits long enough to realize that the name under the photo, which served as the centerpiece of a poster, read Celestina White in four-inch letters, not Seraphim.
The poster announced an upcoming show, titled “This Momentous Day,” by the young artist calling herself Celestina White. Dates for the exhibition were Friday, January 12, through Saturday, January 2 7.
Warily, Junior ventured into the gallery to make inquiries. He expected the staff to express utter bafflement at the name Celestina White, expected the poster to have vanished when he returned to the display window.
Instead, he was given a small color brochure featuring samples of the artist's work. It also contained the same photograph of her smiling face that graced the window.
According to the brief biographic note with the picture, Celestina White was a graduate of San Francisco's Academy of Art College. She had been born and raised in Spruce Hills, Oregon, the daughter of a minister.
AGNES ALWAYS ENJOYED Christmas Eve dinner with Edom and Jacob, because even they tempered their pessimism on this night of nights. Whether the season touched their hearts or they wanted even more than usual to please their sister, she didn't know. If gentle Edom spoke of killer tornadoes or if dear Jacob was reminded of massive explosions, each dwelt not on horrible death, as usual, but on feats of courage in the midst of dire catastrophe, recounting astonishing rescues and miraculous escapes.
With Barty's presence, Christmas Eve dinners had become even more agreeable, especially this year when he was almost-three-going-on-twenty. He talked about the visits to friends that he and his mother and Edom had made earlier in the day, about Father Brown, as if that cleric-detective were real, about the puddle-jumping toads that had been singing in the backyard when he and his mother had arrived home from the cemetery, and his chatter was engaging because it was full of a child's charm yet peppered with enough precocious observations to make it of interest to adults.
From the corn soup to the baked ham to the plum pudding, he did not speak of his dry walk in wet weather.
Agnes hadn't asked him to keep his strange feat a secret from his uncles. In truth, she had come home in such a curious state of mind that even as she'd worked with Jacob to prepare dinner and even as she'd overseen Edom's setting of the table, she hesitated to tell them what had happened on the run from Joey's grave to the station wagon. She fluctuated between guarded euphoria and fear bordering on panic, and she didn't trust herself to recount the experience until she had taken more time to absorb it.
That night, in Barty's room, after Agnes had listened to his prayers and then had tucked him in for the night, she sat on the edge of his bed. “Honey, I was wondering.... Now that you've had more time to think, could you explain to me what happened?"
He rolled his head back and forth on the pillow. “Nope. It's still just something you gotta feel."
“All the ways things are."
“We'll need to talk about this a lot in the days to come, as we both have more time to think about it."
Softened by a Shantung shade, the lamplight was golden on his small smooth face, but sapphire and emerald in his eyes.
“You didn't mention it to Uncle Edom or Uncle Jacob,” she said.
“You were scared, huh?"
“Yes, I was.” She didn't tell him that her fear had not been allayed by his assurances or by his second walk in the rain.
“And you,” Barty said, “you're never scared of anything."
“You mean ... Edom and Jacob are already afraid of so much."
The boy nodded. “If we told 'em, maybe they'd have to wash their shorts. “
“Where did you hear that expression,” she demanded, though she couldn't conceal her amusement.
Barty grinned mischievously. “One of the places we visited today. Some big kids. They saw this scary movie, said they had to wash their shorts after."
“Big kids aren't always smart just because they're big."
“Yeah, I know."
She hesitated. “Edom and Jacob have had hard lives, Barty''
“Were they coal miners?"
“On TV, it said coal miners have hard lives."
“Not only coal miners. Old as you are in some ways, you're still too young for me to explain. I will someday."
“You remember, we've talked before about the stories they're always telling."
“Hurricane. Galveston, Texas, back in 1900. Six thousand people died."
Frowning, Agnes said. “Yes, those stories. Sweetie, when Uncle Edom and Uncle Jacob go on about big storms blowing people away and explosions blowing people up ... that's not what life's about."
“It happens,” the boy said.
“Yes. Yes, it does."
Agnes had struggled recently to find a way to explain to Barty that his uncles had lost their hope, to convey also what it meant to live without hope-and somehow to tell the boy all this without burdening him, at such a young age, with the details of what his monstrous grandfather, Agnes's father, had done to her and to her brothers. The task was beyond her abilities. The fact that Barty was a prodigy six times over didn't make his mother's work easier, because in order to understand her, he would require experience and emotional maturity, not just intellect.
Frustrated again, she said simply, “Whenever Edom and Jacob talk about these things, I want you to be sure always to keep in mind that life's about living and being happy, not about dying."
“I wish they knew that,” Barty said.
For those five words, Agnes adored him.
“So do I, honey. Oh, Lord, so do I.” She kissed his forehead. “Listen, kiddo, in spite of their stories and all their funny ways, your uncles are good men."
“Sure, I know."
“And they love you very much."
“I love them, too, Mommy."
Earlier, the dirty-sheet clouds had been wrung dry. Now, the trees that overhung the house had finally stopped dripping on the cedar shingled roof The night was so still that Agnes could hear the sea softly breaking upon the shore more than half a mile away.
“Sleepy?” she asked.
“Santa Claus won't come if you don't sleep."
“I'm not sure he's real."
“What makes you say that?"
“Something I read."
A pang of regret pierced her, that her boy's precocity should deny him this fine fantasy, as her morose father had denied it to her. “He's real,” she asserted.
“You think so?"
“I don't just think so. And I don't just know it. I feel it, exactly like you feel all the ways things are. I'll bet you feel it, too."
Bright though they were at all times, Barty's Tiffany eyes shone brighter now with beams of North Pole magic. “Maybe I do feel it."
“If you don't, your feeling gland isn't working. Want me to read you to sleep?"
“No, that's okay. I'll close my eyes and tell myself a story."
She kissed his cheek, and he pulled his arms out from under the covers to hug her. Such small arms, but such a fierce hug.
As she tucked the bedclothes around him again, she said, “Barty, I don't think you should let anyone else see how you can walk in the rain without getting wet. Not Edom and Jacob. Not anyone at all. And anything else special that you discover you can do ... we should keep it a secret between you and me."
Furrowing her brow and narrowing her eyes as though prepared to scold him, she slowly lowered her face to his, until their noses were touching, and she whispered, “Because it's more fun if it's secret."
Matching his mother's whisper, taking obvious delight in their conspiracy, he said, “Our own secret society."
“What would you know about secret societies?"
“Just what's in books and TV”
“Which is?” His eyes widened, and his voice became husky with pretended fear. “They're always ... evil.
Her whisper grew softer yet more hoarse. “Should we be evil?"
“What happens to people in evil secret societies?"
“They go to jail,” he whispered solemnly.
“Then let's not be evil."
“Ours will be a good secret society."
“We gotta have a secret handshake."
“Nah. Every secret society has a secret handshake. We'll have this instead.” Her face was still close to his, and she rubbed noses with him.
He stifled a giggle. “And a secret word."
“And a name."
“The North Pole Society of Not Evil Adventurers."
“That's a great name!"
Agnes rubbed noses with him again, kissed him, and rose from the edge of the bed.
Gazing up at her, Barty said, “You've got a halo, Mommy."
“You're sweet, kiddo."
“No, you really do."
She switched off the lamp. “Sleep tight, angel boy."
The soft hallway light didn't penetrate far past the open door.
From the plush pillowy shadows of the bed, Barty said, “Oh, look. Christmas lights."
Assuming that the boy had closed his eyes and was talking to himself, somewhere between his self-told bedtime story and a dream, Agnes retreated from the room, pulling the door only half shut behind her.
“Good-night,” she whispered.
She switched off the hall light and stood at the half-open door, listening, waiting.
Such quiet filled the house that Agnes couldn't hear even the murmuring miseries of the past.
Although she had never seen snow other than in pictures and on film, this deep-settled silence seemed to speak of failing flakes, of white muffling mantles, and she wouldn't have been in the least surprised if, stepping outside, she had found herself in a glorious winter landscape, cold and crystalline, here on the always-snowless hills and shores of the California Pacific.
Her special son, walking where the rain wasn't, had made all things seem possible.
From, the darkness of his room, Barty now spoke the words for which Agnes had been waiting, his whisper soft yet resonant in the quiet house: “Good-night, Daddy."
On other nights, she had overheard this and been touched. On this Christmas Eve, however, it filled her with wonder and wondering, for she recalled their conversation earlier, at Joey's grave:
I wish your dad could have known you.
Somewhere, he does. Daddy died here, but be didn't die every place I am. it's lonely for me here, but not lonely for me everywhere.
Soundlessly, reluctantly, Agnes pulled the bedroom door nearly shut, and went down to the kitchen, where she sat alone, drinking coffee and nibbling at mysteries. Of all the gifts that Barty opened on Christmas morning, the hardback copy of Robert Heinlein's The Star Beast was his favorite. Instantly enchanted by the promise of an amusing alien creature, space travel, an exotic future, and lots of adventure, he seized every opportunity throughout the busy day to crack open those pages and to step out of Bright Beach into stranger places.
As outgoing as his twin uncles were introverted, Barty didn't withdraw from the festivities. Agnes never needed to remind him that family and guests took precedence over even the most fascinating characters in fiction, and the boy's delight in the company of others pleased his mother and made her proud.
From late morning until dinner, people arrived and departed, raised toasts to a merry Christmas and to peace on earth, to health and to happiness, reminisced about Christmases past, marveled about the first heart transplant performed this very month in South Africa, and prayed that the soldiers in Vietnam would come home soon and that Bright Beach would lose no precious sons in those far jungles.
The cheerful tides of friends and neighbors, over the years, had washed away nearly all the stains that the dark rage of Agnes's father had impressed on these rooms. She hoped her brothers might eventually see that hatred and anger are only scars upon a beach, while love is the rolling surf that ceaselessly smooths the sand.
Maria Elena Gonzalez-no longer a seamstress in a dry-cleaners, but proprietor of Elena's Fashions, a small dress shop one block off the town square-joined Agnes, Barty, Edom, and Jacob on Christmas evening. She brought her daughters, seven-year-old Bonita and six year-old Francesca, who came with their newest Barbie dolls-Color Magic Barbie, the Barbie Beautiful Blues Gift Set, Barbie's friends Casey and Tutti, her sister Skipper, and dreamboat Ken-and soon the girls had Barty enthusiastically involved in a make-believe world far different from the one in which Heinlein's teenage lead owned an extraordinary alien pet with eight legs, the temperament of a kitten, and an appetite for everything from grizzly bears to Buicks.
Later, when the seven of them were gathered at the dinner table, the adults raised glasses of Chardonnay, the children raised tumblers of Pepsi, and Maria gave the toast. “To Bartholomew, the image of his father, who was the kindest man I've ever known. To my Bonita and my Francesca, who brighten every day. To Edom and Jacob, from who ... from whom I've learned so much that has made me think about the fragility of life and made me realize how precious is every day. And to Agnes, my dearest friend, who has given me, oh, so much, including all these words. God bless us, every one."
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