My sixth sense is peculiar but humble. I am no superhero. In fact, I screw up sometimes, and people die when I want desperately to save them. Indeed, my primary strange talent, the ability to see the spirits of the lingering dead, has not come into play here, and I am left with only uncannily sharp intuition, psychic magnetism, a ghost dog that keeps wandering off somewhere, and an appreciation for the role that absurdity plays in our lives. If Superman lost his ability to fly, his strength, his X-ray vision, his imperviousness to blades and bullets, and was left only with his costume and his confidence, he would be of more help to the Harmony family than I am likely to be.

“I’m leaving now,” I inform the darkness, my voice echoing hollowly along the curves of concrete. “I hope you’re not afraid of me. I’m not afraid of you. I only want to be your friend.”

I am beginning to wonder if I might be alone. Perhaps the figure I’d seen had found a way through the brush and up the embankment, in which case the timid girl to whom I now spoke was as imaginary as the homicidal one with the carving knife.

As I have learned before, it is possible to feel as foolish when alone as when one’s lapse in judgment or behavior is witnessed by an astonished crowd.

To avoid feeling even sillier, I decide not to exit the pipe backward, but instead to turn and walk out with no concern about who might be at my back. With the first step, my imagination conjures a knife arcing through the darkness, and by my third step, I expect the point of the weapon to stab past my left shoulder blade and into my heart.

I exit the drainpipe without being wounded, turn left on the beach, and walk away with the increasing conviction that, whatever kind of movie I’m in, it’s not a slasher film. When I reach the rutted track littered with broken shells, I look back, but the girl—if it had been a girl—is nowhere to be seen.

Returning to the blacktop lane and the last of the seven houses, where lamplight brightens a couple of ground-floor rooms, I decide to reconnoiter window-to-window. As I climb the front steps with catlike stealth and mouselike caution, a woman says, “What do you want?”

Pistol still in hand, I hold it down at my side, counting on the gloom to conceal it. At the top of the steps, I see what seem to be four wicker chairs with cushions, all in a row on the porch. The woman sits in the third of them, barely revealed by the glow that emanates from the curtained window behind her. I smell the coffee then, and I can see her just well enough to discern that she holds a mug in both hands.

“I want to help,” I tell her.

“Help what?”

“All of you.”

“What makes you think we need help?”

“Donny’s scarred face. Holly’s amputated fingers.”

She drinks her coffee.

“And a thing that almost happened to me as I drank a beer and watched TV.”

Still she does not reply.

The rhythmic rumble of the surf is hushed from here.

Finally she says, “We’ve been warned about you.”

“Warned by whom?”

Instead of answering, she says, “We’ve been warned to avoid you … and we think we know why.”

In the west, the moon is as round as the face of a pocket watch, and in this exceptionally clear sky, it seems to have a fob of stars.

The dawn is still more than an hour from the eastern horizon. I don’t know why, but I think that getting one of them to speak frankly will be easier in the dark.

She says, “I’ll be punished if I tell you anything. Punished severely.”

Had she already decided not to speak with me, she would have no need to suggest that she will pay dearly for doing so. She simply would tell me to go away.

She needs a reason to take the risk, and I think that I know what might motivate her. “Is that your daughter I saw on the beach?”

The woman’s eyes glisten faintly with ambient light.

I take the first seat, leaving an empty chair between us, and hold the pistol in my lap.

With less dismay than I ought to feel, I seek to manipulate her. “Is your daughter scarred yet? Does she still have all her fingers? Has she been punished severely?”

“You don’t need to do that.”

“Do what, ma’am?”

“Push me so hard.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What are you?” she asks. “Who do you work for?”

“I’m an agent, ma’am, but I can’t say of what.”

That is true enough. I could tell her what I’m not an agent of: the FBI, the CIA, the BATF.… The office that I hold comes without a badge or a paycheck, and although it seems to me that my gift makes me the agent of some higher power, I can’t prove it and dare not say as much for fear of being thought delusional.

Strangely emotionless considering her words, she says, “Jolie, my daughter, is twelve. She’s smart and strong and good. And she’s going to be killed.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Because she’s too beautiful to live.”

FIVE

The woman’s name is Ardys, the wife of William Harmony, whose parents created Harmony Corner.

A time existed, she says, when life here was as ideal as it can be anywhere. They enjoyed the grace of a close-knit family and the blessing of a sustaining enterprise in which they labored together, without conflict, perhaps much as pioneer families of another era worked a plot of land, producing together what they needed to survive and producing, at the same time, a history of accomplishment and shared experience that bound them together in the best of ways.

From the start of the Corner, the family’s children have been homeschooled, and both children and adults have preferred to spend most of their leisure time fishing in this cove, sunning on this beach, walking in these meadowy hills. There were field trips for the school-age kids, of course, and vacations beyond the boundaries of their property—until five years previously. Then Harmony Corner became for them a prison.

She recounts that much in a calm voice so quiet that, at times, I lean sideways in my chair to be sure of hearing every word. She allows herself none of the grief in advance of loss that you might expect if she really believes that young Jolie, as punishment for her beauty, will be killed. Neither does a note of fear enter her voice, and I suspect she must speak without emotion or otherwise entirely lose the self-control that is required to speak to me at all.

Literally a prison, she says. No one any longer vacations off these grounds. No day trips are taken. Long-time friendships with people outside the family have been terminated, often with a rudeness and pretended anger that will ensure that the former friends make no attempt to patch things up. Only one of them at a time may leave the property, and then only to conduct banking or a limited number of other tasks. They no longer go shopping for anything; what they need must be ordered by phone and delivered.

Although her manner and her tone remain matter-of-fact, her voice is haunting, because she is a haunted woman. The revelation toward which she is leading me has bound her spirit but not yet broken it. I sense in her a despondency that is an incapacity for the current exercise of hope, a despondency that arises when resistance to some adversity has long proved futile. But she does not seem to have fallen all the way into the settled hopelessness of despair.

I’m surprised, therefore, when she stops speaking. When I press her to continue, she remains silent, staring solemnly at the dark sea as if it calls to her to drown herself in its cold waters.

Waiting is one of the things that human beings cannot do well, though it is one of the essential things we must do successfully if we are to know happiness. We are impatient for the future and try to craft it with our own powers, but the future will come as it comes and will not be hurried. If we are good at waiting, we discover that what we wanted of the future, in our impatience, is no longer what we want, that waiting has brought wisdom. I have become good at waiting, as I wait to see what action or sacrifice is wanted of me, wait to discover where I must go next, and wait for the day when the fortune-teller’s promise will be fulfilled. Hope, love, and faith are in the waiting.

After a few minutes, Ardys says, “For a moment, I thought I felt it opening.”

“What?”

“The door. My own private door. How do I tell you more when I’m afraid that mentioning his name or describing him might bring him to me before I can explain our plight?”

When she falls silent again, I recall this: “They say you should never speak the devil’s name because next thing you know, you’ll hear his footsteps on the stairs.”

“At least there are ways of dealing with the devil,” she says, implying that there may be no way to deal with her nameless enemy.

As I wait for her to continue and as she waits to find a route to her truth that will be safe, the darkness beyond the porch railing seems vast, seems to be washing in around us as the black sea washes to the nearby shore. Night itself is the sea of all seas, reaching to the farthest end of the universe, the moon and every planet and every star afloat in it. Here in this waiting moment, I almost feel that this house and the other six houses, the distant diner and service station—the lights of which seem like ship lights—are being lifted and turned in the night, in danger of coming loose of their moorings.

Having found a way to approach her truth indirectly, without mentioning the devil’s name, Ardys says, “You’ve met Donny. You saw his scar. He transgressed, and that was his punishment. He thought that if he was sufficiently deceitful and quick enough, he would win our freedom with a knife. Instead, he turned it upon himself and slashed his own face.”

I thought I must have misunderstood. “He did that to himself?”

She holds up a hand as if to say Wait. She sets aside her coffee mug. She lays her arms on the arms of the chair, but there is nothing relaxed about her posture. “If I am too specific … if I explain why he would do such a thing to himself, then I will say what I must not say, the thing that will be heard and that will summon to us what must not be summoned.”

My mention of the devil seems more apt by the moment, for there is in what she just said something that reminds me of the cadences of Scripture.

“Donny might have died if his death had been wanted, but what was wanted was his suffering. Though he was bleeding profusely and in terrible pain, he remained calm. Though his speech was impeded by his cut lips, he told us to tie him down to a kitchen table and to put a folded cloth in his mouth to stifle the screams that would shortly come and to ensure that he would not bite his tongue.”

She continues speaking in a quiet voice from which all drama and most inflection are edited, and it is this self-control, which takes such a great effort of will, that lends credence to her incredible story. Her hands have closed into tightly clenched fists.

“His wife, Denise, who is screaming and near collapse, seems suddenly to collect herself—just as Donny at last begins to scream. She tells us what she will need to staunch the bleeding, sterilize the wound as best she can, and sew it up. You see, she must share in Donny’s punishment by being the instrument that ensures his permanent disfigurement, which a first-rate surgeon might have minimized. There will be nerve damage and numbness. And every time she looks at him for the rest of their lives, she will in part blame herself for not being able to resist … to resist being used in this fashion. We know that if we fail to assist her, any one of us might be the next to slash his own face. We assist. She closes the wound.”

Ardys’s fists unclench, and she lowers her head. She has about her an air of exhaustion, as if analyzing her words before speaking them, with an ear for those that might summon the Presence that she fears, has drained both her physical and mental reserves.

Less than an hour of darkness remains, yet the night seems to be rising, submerging the hills, lifting the houses out of anchorage to set them adrift. This perception is nothing more than a reflection of my state of mind; a change in my conception of reality, of what’s possible or not, is what has actually for a moment unmoored me.

If I understand Ardys, then the Presence that entered my dream and tried to explore the archives of my memory is more than a reader. It is in their case a controller of great power and greater cruelty, a tyrannical puppeteer. Beginning five years earlier, it has made of Harmony Corner not precisely a prison and not in scope an empire, but a pocket universe akin to a primitive island on which a god carved of stone demands absolute obedience, with the difference that this false deity is capable of brutally enforcing its commands. It entered rebellious Donny and forced him to mutilate himself, and thereafter it entered Denise and, using her hands, made sure that Donny’s face would always testify to the dire consequence of disobedience.

Earlier, when Sweet Donny became Angry Donny, the Presence must have entered him and taken control. I had suddenly been talking not to the mechanic’s second and less appealing personality, but instead to another individual entirely, the puppetmaster.

The service station had no television, and Donny was wide awake when he was abruptly possessed. My understanding of how the Presence travels and how it takes up tenancy in another’s mind is incomplete. Watching the boob tube might not be an invitation to this particular damnation, after all—though it’s still not a wise idea to spend a lot of time watching reality-TV shows about celebrity families living in the wild with gorillas.

I realize, too, that by “my own private door” Ardys means the door to her mind. For a moment, she thought that she felt it opening.

They live in unceasing expectation of being invaded, controlled. How they have held fast to their sanity for five years is beyond my comprehension.

Although I assume Ardys has said as much as she dares to say, she raises her head and continues, speaking softly and in a voice that might seem weary if I didn’t know the effort required of her to make it sound so. “My sister-in-law, Laura, is a Harmony, but her married name is Jorgenson. She and Steve, her husband, have three children. The middle one was a boy named Maxwell. We called him Maxy.”

I am sobered by her determination to maintain a voice without dramatic emphasis and, presumably, also to repress internally the emotions that these revelations should inflame. Her effort suggests that on some level the Presence is always aware of the general mood of each of the subjects in its little kingdom. Perhaps it’s alerted to a possibility of disobedience when one of them becomes a bit too agitated emotionally, in much the way that our nation’s security forces employ computers to monitor millions of phone calls, not listening to every exchange but scanning for certain combinations of words that might identify a conversation between two terrorists.

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