“Ma’am, it might be dangerous to sleep.”

“Then I won’t sleep.”

“Should I get you some black coffee from the diner?”

“Why?”

“To help you stay awake.”

“I suppose you sleep when you need to. But you see, young man, I only sleep when I want to.”

“How does that work?”

“Splendidly.”

“Don’t you want to know why it could be dangerous to sleep?”

“Because I might fall out of bed? Oddie, I trust your admonition isn’t frivolous, and I will remain awake. Now go do whatever you have to do.”

“I’m going to snoop around.”

“Then snoop, snoop,” she says, making a shooing motion.

I retreat from her cottage and close the door behind me.

Already Boo is walking toward the diner. I follow him.

He fades away like fog evaporating.

I don’t know where he goes when he dematerializes. Maybe a ghost dog can travel to and from the Other Side as he pleases. I have never studied theology.

For the last day of January along the central coast, the night is mild. And quiet. The air smells faintly, pleasantly, of the sea. Nevertheless, my sense of impending peril is so great that I won’t be surprised if the ground opens under my feet and swallows me.

Big moths caper around the sign on the roof of the diner. Their natural color must be white, because they become entirely blue or red depending on which neon is closer to them. Bats, dark and changeless, circle ceaselessly, feeding on the bright swarm.

I don’t see signs and portents in everything. The voracious yet silent flying rodents chill me, however, and I decide not to stop first at the diner, as had been my intention.

Past the three eighteen-wheelers, at the service station, the Jaguar is gone. The mechanic is sweeping the floor of the garage.

At the open bay door, I say, “Good morning, sir,” as cheerfully as if a gorgeous pink dawn has already painted the sky and choirs of songbirds are celebrating the gift of life.

When he looks up from his work with the push broom, it’s a Phantom of the Opera moment. A grisly scar extends from his left ear, across his upper lip, through his lower lip, to the right side of his chin. Whatever the cause of the wound, it appears as if it might have been sewn up not by a doctor but instead by a fisherman using a hook and a length of leader wire.

With no apparent self-consciousness about his appearance, he says, “Hello there, son,” and favors me with a grin that would make Dracula back off. “You’re up even before Wally and Wanda have thought about goin’ to bed.”

“Wally and Wanda?”

“Oh, sorry. Our possums. Some say them two is just big ugly red-eyed rats. But a marsupial isn’t no rat. And ugly is like they say about beauty—it’s in the eye of the beholder. How you feel about possums?”

“Live and let live.”

“I make sure Wally and Wanda get the throw-away food from the diner each and every night. It makes ’em fat. But their life is hard, what with mountain lions and bobcats and packs of coyotes with a taste for possum. Don’t you think possums they have a hard life?”

“Well, sir, at least Wally has Wanda and she has Wally.”

Abruptly his blue eyes glimmer with unshed tears and his scarred lips tremble, as if he is nearly undone by the thought of possum love.

He appears to be about forty, though his hair is iron gray. In spite of the horrific scar, he has an avuncular quality suggesting that he’s as good with children as he is kind to animals.

“You’ve gone right to the very heart of it. Wally has Wanda, and Donny has Denise, which makes anythin’ tolerable.”

Stitched on the breast pocket of his uniform shirt is the name DONNY.

He blinks back his tears and says, “What can I do for you, son?”

“I’ve been up awhile, need to stay awake awhile longer. I figure anyplace truckers stop must sell caffeine tablets.”

“I’ve got NoDoz in the gum-and-candy case. Or in the vendin’ machine, there’s high-octane stuff like Red Bull or Mountain Dew, or that new energy drink called Kick-Ass.”

“They really named it Kick-Ass?”

“Aren’t no standards anymore, anywhere, in anythin’. If they thought it would sell better, they’d call the stuff Good Shit. Excuse my language.”

“No problem, sir. I’ll take a package of NoDoz.”

Leading me through the garage to the station office, Donny says, “Our seven-year-old, he learned about sex from some Saturday-mornin’ cartoon show. Out of nowhere one day, Ricky he says he don’t want to be either straight or gay, it’s all disgustin’. We unplugged our satellite dish. No standards anymore. Now Ricky he watches all them old Disney and Warner Brothers toons on DVD. You never have to worry if maybe Bugs Bunny is goin’ to get it on with Daffy Duck.”

In addition to the NoDoz, I purchase two candy bars. “Does the vending machine accept dollars or do I need change?”

“It takes bills just fine,” Donny says. “Young as you look, you can’t have been drivin’ a rig long.”

“I’m not a trucker, sir. I’m an out-of-work fry cook.”

Donny follows me outside, where I get a can of Mountain Dew from the vending machine. “My Denise, she’s a fry cook over to the diner. You got yourself your own private language.”

“Who does?”

“You fry cooks.” The two sections of his scar become misaligned when he grins, as if his face is coming apart like a piece of dropped crockery. “Two cows, make ’em cry, give ’em blankets, and mate ’em with pigs.”

“Diner lingo. That’s a waitress calling out an order for two hamburgers with onions, cheese, and bacon.”

“That stuff tickles me,” he says, and indeed he looks tickled. “Where you been a fry cook—when you had work, I mean?”

“Well, sir, I’ve been bouncing around all over.”

“It must be nice seein’ new places. Haven’t seen no new place in a long time. Sure would like to take Denise somewhere fresh. Just the two of us.” His eyes fill with tears again. He must be the most sentimental auto mechanic on the West Coast. “Just the two of us,” he repeats, and under the tenderness in his voice, which any mention of his wife seems to evoke, I hear a note of desperation.

“I guess with children it’s hard to get away, just you two.”

“There’s never no gettin’ away. No way, no how.”

Maybe I’m imagining more in his eyes than is really there, but I suspect that these latest unshed tears are as bitter as they are salty.

When I wash down a pair of NoDoz with the soda, he says, “You jolt your system like this a lot?”

“Not a lot.”

“You do too much of this, son, you’ll give yourself a for-sure bleedin’ ulcer. Too much caffeine eats away the stomach linin’.”

I tilt my head back and drain the too-sweet soda in a few long swallows.

When I drop the empty can in a nearby trash barrel, Donny says, “What’s your name, boy?”

The voice is the same, but the tone is different. His affability is gone. When I meet his eyes, they’re still blue, but they have a steely quality that I have not seen before, a new directness.

Sometimes an unlikely story can seem too unlikely to be a lie, and therefore it allays suspicion. So I decide on: “Potter. Harry Potter.”

His stare is as sharp as the stylus on a polygraph. “That sounds as real as if you’d said ‘Bond. James Bond.’ ”

“Well, sir, it’s the name I’ve got. I always liked it until the books and movies. About the thousandth time someone asked me if I was really a wizard, I started wishing my name was just about anything else, like Lex Luthor or something.”

Donny’s friendliness and folksy manner have for a moment made Harmony Corner seem almost as benign as Pooh Corner. But now the air smells less of the salty sea than of decaying seaweed, the pump-island glare seems as harsh as the lights of an interrogation room in a police station, and when I look up at the sky, I cannot find Cassiopeia or any constellation that I know, as if Earth has turned away from all that is familiar and comforting.

“So if you’re not a wizard, Harry, what line of work do you claim to be in?”

Not only is his tone different, but also his diction. And he seems to have developed a problem with his short-term memory.

Perhaps he registers my surprise and correctly surmises the cause of it, because he says, “Yeah, I know what you said, but I suspect that’s not the half of it.”

“Sorry, but fry cook is the whole of it, sir. I’m not a guy of many talents.”

His eyes narrow with suspicion. “Eggs—wreck ’em and stretch ’em. Cardiac shingles.”

I translate as before. “Serving three eggs instead of two is stretching them. Wrecking them means scrambling. Cardiac shingles are toast with extra butter.”

With his eyes squinted to slits, Donny reminds me of Clint Eastwood, if Clint Eastwood were eight inches shorter, thirty pounds heavier, less good-looking, with male-pattern baldness, and badly scarred.

He makes a simple statement sound like a threat: “Harmony doesn’t need another short-order cook.”

“I’m not applying for a job, sir.”

“What are you doing here, Harry Potter?”

“Seeking the meaning of my life.”

“Maybe your life doesn’t have any meaning.”

“I’m pretty sure it does.”

“Life is meaningless. Every life.”

“Maybe that works for you. It doesn’t work for me.”

He clears his throat with a noise that makes me wonder if he indulges in unconventional personal grooming habits and has a nasty hairball stuck in his esophagus. When he spits, a disgusting wad of mucus splatters the pavement, two inches from my right shoe, which no doubt was his intended target.

“Life is meaningless except in your case. Is that it, Harry? You’re better than the rest of us, huh?”

His face tightens with inexplicable anger. Gentle, sentimental Donny has morphed into Donny the Hun, descendant of Attila, who seems capable of sudden mindless violence.

“Not better, sir. Probably worse than a lot of people. Anyway, it isn’t a matter of better or worse. I’m just different. Sort of like a porpoise, which looks like a fish and swims like a fish but isn’t a fish because it’s a mammal and because no one wants to eat it with a side of chips. Or maybe like a prairie dog, which everyone calls a dog but isn’t really a dog at all. It looks like maybe a chubby squirrel, but it isn’t a squirrel, either, because it lives in tunnels, not in trees, and it hibernates in the winter but it isn’t a bear. A prairie dog wouldn’t say it was better than real dogs or better than squirrels or bears, just different like a porpoise is different, but of course it’s nothing like a porpoise, either. So I think I’ll go back to my cottage and eat my candy bars and think about porpoises and prairie dogs until I can express this analogy more clearly.”

Sometimes, if I pretend to be an airhead and a bit screwy, I can convince a bad guy that I’m no threat to him and that I’m not worth the waste of time and energy he would have to expend to do bad things to me. On other occasions, my pretense infuriates them. Walking away, I half expect to be clubbed to the ground with a tire iron.

THREE

The door to Cottage 6 opens as I approach it, but no one appears on the threshold.

When I step inside, closing the door behind me, I find Annamaria on her knees, brushing the golden retriever’s teeth.

She says, “Blossom once had a dog. She put an extra toothbrush in the hamper for Raphael, and a tube of liver-flavored toothpaste.”

The golden sits with head lifted, remarkably patient, letting Annamaria lift his flews to expose his teeth, refraining from licking the paste off the brush before it can be put to work. He rolls his eyes at me, as if to say This is annoying, but she means well.

“Ma’am, I wish you’d keep your door locked.”

“It’s locked when it’s closed.”

“It keeps drifting open.”

“Only for you.”

“Why does that happen?”

“Why shouldn’t it?”

“I ought to have asked—how does that happen?”

“Yes, that would have been the better question.”

The liver-flavored toothpaste has precipitated significant doggy drool. Annamaria pauses in the brushing and uses a hand towel to rub dry the soaked fur on Raphael’s jaws and chin.

“Before I went snooping, I should have warned you not to watch television. That’s why I came back. To warn you.”

“I’m aware of what’s on TV, young man. I’d as soon set myself on fire as watch most of it.”

“Don’t even watch the good stuff. Don’t switch it on. I think television is a pathway.”

As she squeezes more toothpaste onto the brush, she says, “Pathway for what?”

“That’s an excellent question. When I have an answer, I’ll know why I’ve been drawn to Harmony Corner. So how does the door open just for me?”

“What door?”

“This door.”

“That door is closed.”

“Yes, I just closed it.”

“You lovely boy, pull your tongue in,” she instructs the dog, because he’s been letting it loll.

Raphael pulls in his tongue, and she sets to work on his front teeth as just the tip of his tail wags.

The caffeine has not yet begun to kick in, and I have no more energy to pursue the issue of the door. “Up at the service station, there’s this mechanic named Donny. He has two personalities, and the second one is likely to use a lug wrench in ways its manufacturer never intended. If he comes knocking at your door, don’t let him in.”

“I don’t intend to let anyone in but you.”

“That waitress you spoke to when you rented the cottages—”

“Holly Harmony.”

“Was she … normal?”

“She was lovely, friendly, and efficient.”

“She didn’t do anything strange?”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. Like … she didn’t pluck a fly out of the air and eat it or anything?”

“What a curious thing to ask.”

“Did she?”

“No. Of course not.”

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