By gesture, Celestina indicated that she wanted to see Tom alone.


While Angel continued her relentless interrogation of Paul Damascus, Tom joined her mother in front of the large window at the end of the room farthest from the dinner table.


The ship of night floated over the city and cast down nets of darkness, gathering millions of lights like luminous fishes in its black toils.


Celestina stared out for a moment, and then turned her head to look at Tom, with both the shade of the night and the sparkle of the metropolis still captured in her eyes. “What was that all about?"


He briefly considered playing dumb, but he knew she was too smart for that. “Gunsmoke, you mean. Listen, I know you'll do whatever's necessary to keep Angel safe, because you love her so much. Love will give you greater strength and determination than any other motive. But you should know this much.... You need to keep her safe for another reason. She's special. I don't want to explain why she's special or how I know that she is, because this isn't the time or place, not with your dad's death and Wally in the hospital and you still shaky from the attack."


“But I need to know."


He nodded. “You do. Yes. But you don't need to know right now. Later, when you're calmer, when you're clearer. It's too important to rush you through it now."


“Wally gave her tests. She's got an exceptional understanding of color, spatial relationships, and geometric forms for a child her age. She may be a visual prodigy."


“Oh, I know she is,” he said. “I know how clearly she sees."


Eye to eye with Tom, Celestina herself did some clear-seeing. “You're special, too, in lots of obvious ways. But like Angel, you're special in some secret way ... aren't you?"


“I'm gifted to a small extent, and it's an unusual gift,” he admitted. “Nothing world-shaking. More than anything, really, it's a special perception I've been given. Angel's gift seems to be different from mine but related. In fifty years, she's the first I've ever met who's somewhat like me. I'm still shaking inside from the shock of finding her. But please, let's save this for Bright Beach and a better evening. You go down there tomorrow with Paul, okay? I'll stay here to look after Wally. When he's able to travel, I'll bring him with me. I know you'll want him to hear what I have to say, too. Is it a deal?"


Tom between curiosity and emotional exhaustion, Celestina held his gaze, thinking, and finally she said, “Deal."


Tom stared down into the oceanic depths of the city, through the reefs of buildings, to the lamp-fish cars schooling through the great trenches.


“I'm going to tell you something about your father that might comfort you,” he said, “but you can't ask me for more than I'm ready to say right now. It's all a part of what I'll discuss with you in Bright Beach."


She said nothing.


Taking her silence for assent, Tom continued: “Your father is gone from here, gone forever, but he still lives in other worlds. This isn't a statement of faith alone. If Albert Einstein were still alive and standing here, he'd tell you that it's true. Your father is with you in many places, and so is Phimie. In many places, she didn't die in childbirth. In some worlds, she was never raped, her life never blighted. But there's an irony in that, isn't there? Because in those worlds, Angel doesn't exist-yet Angel is a miracle and a blessing.” He looked up from the city to the woman. “So when you're lying in bed tonight, kept awake by grief, don't think just about what you've lost with your father and Phimie. Think about what you have in this world that you've never known in some others-Angel. Whether God's a Catholic, a Baptist, a Jew, a Muslim, or a quantum mechanic, He gives us compensation for our pain, compensation right here in this world, not just in those parallel to it and not just in some afterlife. Always compensation for the pain ... if we recognize it when we see it."


Her eyes, lustrous pools, brimmed with the need to know, but she respected the deal. “I only half understood all that, and I don't even know which half, but in some strange way, it feels true. Thank you. I will think about it tonight, when I can't sleep.” She stepped close and kissed him on the cheek. “Who are you, Tom Vanadium?"


He smiled and shrugged. “I used to be a fisher of men. Now I hunt them. One in particular."


Chapter 78


LATE TUESDAY AFTERNOON in Bright Beach, as a darker blue and iridescent tide rolled across the sky, seagulls rowed toward their safe harbors, and on the land below, shadows that had been upright at work all day now stretched out, recumbent, preparing for the night.


From San Francisco south to Orange County Airport on a crowded commuter flight, then farther south along the coast by rental car, Paul Damascus brought Grace, Celestina, and Angel to the Lampion house. “Before we go to my place, there's someone I very much want you to meet. She's not expecting us, but I'm sure it'll be okay."


With a smudge of flour on one cheek, wiping her hands on a red-and-white checkered dishtowel, Agnes answered the door, saw the car in the driveway, and said, “Paul! You're not walking?"


“Couldn't carry these three ladies,” he said. “Svelte as they are, they still weigh more than a backpack."


Quick introductions were made in the process of moving from the porch to the foyer, and Agnes said, “Come on back to the kitchen, I'm baking pies."


The rich aromas on the air would have thwarted the will of the most devout monks on a fast of penitence.


Grace said, “What is that wonderful smell?"


“Peach, raisin, walnut pies,” Agnes said, “with regular bottom crust and a chocolate-crackle top crust."


“This is the devil's workshop,” Celestina declared.


In the kitchen, Barty sat at the table, and Paul's heart pinched at the sight of the boy in padded eyepatches.


“You must be Barty,” Grace said. “I've heard all about you."


“Sit down, sit down,” Agnes urged. “I can offer coffee now and pie in a little bit."


Celestina had a delayed reaction to Barty's name. An odd look came over her. “Barty? Short for ... Bartholomew?"


“That's me,” said Barty.


To her mother, Celestina said, “What did you mean when you said you'd heard all about Barty here?"


“Paul told us the night he first came to the parsonage. About Agnes here ... and what had happened to Barty. And all about his late wife, Perri. I feel like I know Bright Beach already."


“Then you have a big advantage, and you'll have to tell us all about yourselves,” Agnes said. “I'll get the coffee brewing ... unless you'd like to help."


Grace and Celestina fell at once into the rhythms of kitchen work, not only brewing the coffee, but also helping Agnes with the pies.


Six captain's chairs encircled the big round table, one for everybody, including Agnes, but only Paul and Barty stayed seated.


Fascinated by this strange new realm, Angel returned to her chair periodically, between explorations, to sip apple juice and to reveal her latest discoveries: “They got yellow shelf paper. They got potatoes in a drawer. They got four kinds of pickles in the refrigerator. They got a toaster under a sock with pictures of birds on it."


“It's not a sock,” Barty explained. “It's a cozy."


“A what?” Angel asked.


“A toaster cozy."


“Why's it have birds on it? Do birds like toast?"


“Sure they do,” Barty said. “But I think Maria embroidered the birds just because they were pretty."


“Do you have a goat?"


“I hope not,” Barty said.


“Me too,” Angel said, and then she went exploring again.


Agnes, Celestina, and Grace were soon working together with a harmony that was kitchen poetry. Paul had noticed that most women seemed to like or dislike one another within a minute of their first encounter, and when they found one another companionable, they were as open and easy on their first meeting as though they were friends of long duration. Within half an hour, these three sounded as if they were of one age, inseparable since childhood. He had not seen Grace or Celestina free of despair since the reverend's murder, but here they were able for the first time to veil their anguish in the bustle of baking and the pleasure of making a new friend.


“Nice,” Barty said, as though reading Paul's mind.


“Yeah. Nice,” he agreed.


He closed his eyes to know the kitchen as Barty knew it. The fine aromas, the musical clink of spoons, the tinny rattle of pans, the liquid swish of a stirring whisk, the heat from the ovens, the women's voices: Gradually, denying himself sight, he was aware of his other senses sharpening.


“Nice, too,” Paul said, but opened his eyes.


Angel returned to the table for apple juice and to announce, “They got a cookie-jar Jesus!"


“Maria brought that from Mexico,” Barty said. “She thought it was pretty funny. So do I. It's a hoot. Mom says it isn't really blasphemous, because it wasn't meant to be by the people who made it, and because Jesus would want you to have cookies, and, besides, it reminds us to be thankful for all the good things we get."


“Your mother's wise,” Paul said. “More than all the owls in the world,” the boy agreed.


“Why're you wearing cozies on your eyes?” Angel asked.


Barty laughed. “They're not cozies."


“Well, they aren't socks."


“They're eyepatches,” Barty explained. “I'm blind."


Angel peered closely, suspiciously, at the patches. “Really?"


“I've been blind fifteen days."


“Why?"


Barty shrugged. “Something new to do."


These kids were the same age, yet listening to them was akin to hearing Angel do her charming shtick with an adult who had a lot of patience, a sense of humor, and an awareness of generational ironies.


“What's that on the table?” Angel asked.


Putting one hand on the object to which she referred, Barty said, “Mom and I were listening to a book when you got here. This is a talking book."


“Books talk?” Angel asked with a note of wonder.


“They do if you're blind as a stone, and if you know where to get them."


“Do you think dogs talk?” she asked.


“If they did, one of them would be president by now. Everyone likes dogs."


“Horses talk."


“Only on television."


“I'm going to get a puppy that talks."


“If anyone can, you will,” Barty said.


Agnes invited everyone to stay for dinner. The pies were no sooner finished than large cook pots, saucepans, colanders, and other heavy artillery were requisitioned from the Lampion culinary arsenal.


“Maria is coming by with Francesca and Bonita,” Agnes said. “We might as well put all the extensions in the table. Barty, call Uncle Jacob and Uncle Edom and invite them for dinner."


Paul watched as Barty hopped down from his chair and crossed the busy kitchen in a straight line to the wall phone, without one hesitant move.


Angel followed him and observed as he climbed a stepstool and unhooked the telephone handset. He dialed with little pause between digits, and spoke with each of his uncles.


From the phone, Barty proceeded directly to the refrigerator. He opened the door, got a can of orange soda, and returned without hesitation to his chair at the table.


Angel followed him at two steps, and when she stood beside his chair, watching him open the soft drink, Barty said, “Why were you following me?"


“How'd you know I was?"


“I know.” To Paul, he said, “She did, didn't she?"


“Everywhere you went,” Paul confirmed.


Angel said, “I wanted to see you fall down."


“I don't fall. Well, not much."


Maria Gonzalez arrived with her daughters, and while it was natural for Angel to be drawn to the company of older girls, she had no interest in anyone but Barty.


“Why patches?"


“Cause I don't have my new eyes yet."


“Where do you get new eyes?"


“The supermarket."


“Don't you tease me,” Angel said. “You're not one of them."


“One of who?"


“Grownups. It's okay if they do it. But if you do it, it'll be just mean."


“All right. I get my new eyes from a doctor. They're not real eyes, just plastic, to fill in where my eyes used to be."


“Why?"


“To support my eyelids. And because without anything in the sockets, I look gross. People barf. Old ladies pass out. Little girls like you Pee their pants and run screaming."


“Show me,” Angel said.


“Did you bring clean pants?"


“You afraid to show me?"


The patches were held by the same two elastic strips, so Barty flipped up both at the same time.


Ferocious pirates, ruthless secret agents, brain-eating aliens from distant galaxies, super criminals hell-bent on ruling the world, bloodthirsty vampires, face-gnawing werewolves, savage Gestapo thugs, mad scientists, satanic cultists, insane carnival freaks, hate-crazed Ku Klux Klansmen, knife-worshiping thrill killers, and emotionless robot soldiers from other planets had slashed, stabbed, burned, shot, gouged, torn, clubbed, crushed, stomped, hanged, bitten, eviscerated, beheaded, poisoned, drowned, radiated, blown up, mangled, mutilated, and tortured uncounted victims in the pulp magazines that Paul had been reading since childhood. Yet not one scene in those hundreds upon hundreds of issues of colorful tales withered a corner of his soul as did a glimpse of Barty's empty sockets. The sight wasn't in the least gory, nor even gruesome. Paul cringed and looked away only because this evidence of the boy's loss too pointedly made him think about the terrible vulnerability of the innocent in the freight-train path of nature, and threatened to tear off the fragile scab on the anguish that he still felt over Perri's death.


Instead of staring at Barty directly, he watched Angel as she studied the eyeless boy. She had exhibited no horror at the concave slackness of his closed lids, and when one lid fluttered up to reveal the dark hollow socket, she hadn't shown any revulsion. Now she moved closer to Barty's chair, and when she touched his cheek, just below his missing left eye, the boy didn't flinch in surprise.


“Were you scared?” she asked.

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