I can’t pretend that I remember the next minute with clarity. We struck at each other when we saw an opening. We grabbed anything that might serve as a weapon, swung it, flung it. A flurry of blows staggered both of us into a clinch, and I felt his hot breath on my face, a spray of spittle, and heard his teeth snapping, snapping at my right ear, as panic pressed upon him the tactics of a beast.
I broke the clinch, shoved him away with an elbow under the chin and with a knee that missed the crotch for which it was intended.
Sirens arose in the distance just as Stevie’s mom appeared at the open door, butcher knife glinting and ready: two cavalries, one in pa­jamas, the other in the blue-and-black uniform of the Pico Mundo Police Department.
Harlo couldn’t get past both me and the armed woman. He couldn’t reach Stevie, his longed-for shield, under the bed. If he threw
open a window and climbed onto the front-porch roof, he would be fleeing directly into the arms of the arriving cops.
As the sirens swelled louder, nearer, Harlo backed into a corner where he stood gasping, shuddering. Wringing his hands, his face gray with anguish, he looked at the floor, the walls, the ceiling, not in the manner of a trapped man assessing the dimensions of his cage, but with bewilderment, as though he could not recall how he had come to be in this place and predicament.
Unlike the beasts of the wild, the many cruel varieties of human monsters, when at last cornered, seldom fight with greater ferocity. Instead, they reveal the cowardice at the core of their brutality.
Harlo’s wringing hands twisted free of each other and covered his face. Through the chinks in that ten-fingered armor, I could see his eyes twitching with bright terror.
Back jammed into the corner, he slid down the junction of walls and sat on the floor with his legs splayed in front of him, hiding be­hind his hands as though they were a mask of invisibility that would allow him to escape the attention of justice.
The sirens reached a peak of volume half a block away, and then subsided from squeal to growl to waning groan in front of the house.
The day had dawned less than an hour ago, and I had spent every minute of the morning living up to my name.
THE DEAD DON’T TALK. I DON’T KNOW WHY.
Harlo Landerson had been taken away by the authorities. In his wallet they had found two Polaroids of Penny Kallisto. In the first, she was na*ed and alive. In the second, she was dead.
Stevie was downstairs, in his mother’s arms.
Wyatt Porter, chief of the Pico Mundo Police Department, had asked me to wait in Stevie’s room. I sat on the edge of the boy’s un­made bed.
I had not been alone long when Penny Kallisto walked through a wall and sat beside me. The ligature marks were gone from her neck. She looked as though she had never been strangled, had never died.
As before, she remained mute.
I tend to believe in the traditional architecture of life and the after-life. This world is a journey of discovery and purification. The next world consists of two destinations: One is a palace for the spirit and an endless kingdom of wonder, while the other is cold and dark and un­thinkable.
Call me simple-minded. Others do.
Stormy Llewellyn, a woman of unconventional views, believes in­stead that our passage through this world is intended to toughen us for the next life. She says that our honesty, integrity, courage, and de­termined resistance to evil are evaluated at the end of our days here, and that if we come up to muster, we will be conscripted into an army of souls engaged in some great mission in the next world. Those who fail the test simply cease to exist.
In short, Stormy sees this life as boot camp. She calls the next life “service.”
I sure hope she’s wrong, because one of the implications of her cos­mology is that the many terrors we know here are an inoculation against worse in the world to come.
Stormy says that whatever’s expected of us in the next life will be worth enduring, partly for the sheer adventure of it but primarily be­cause the reward for service comes in our third life.
Personally, I’d prefer to receive my reward one life sooner than she foresees.
Stormy, however, is into delayed gratification. If on Monday she thirsts for a root-beer float, she’ll wait until Tuesday or Wednesday to treat herself to one. She insists that the wait makes the float taste better.
My point of view is this: If you like root-beer floats so much, have one on Monday, another on Tuesday, and a third on Wednesday.
According to Stormy if I live by this philosophy too long, I’m going to be one of those eight-hundred-pound men who, when they fall ill, must be extracted from their homes by construction crews and cranes.
“If you want to suffer the humiliation of being hauled to the hospi­tal on a flatbed truck,” she once said, “don’t expect me to sit on your great bloated gut like Jiminy Cricket on the brow of the whale, singing ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’”
I’m reasonably sure that in Disney’s Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket never sits on the brow of the whale. In fact I’m not convinced that he him­self encounters the whale.
If I were to make this observation to Stormy, however, she would favor me with one of those wry looks that means Are you hopelessly stu­pid or just being pissy? This is a look to be avoided if not dreaded.
As I waited there on the edge of the boy’s bed, even thinking about Stormy couldn’t lift my spirits. Indeed, if the grinning images of Scooby-Doo, imprinted on the sheets, didn’t cheer me, perhaps noth­ing could.
I kept thinking about Harlo losing his mother at six, about how his life might have been a memorial to her, about how instead he had shamed her memory.
And I thought about Penny, of course: her life brought to such an early end, the terrible loss to her family, the enduring pain that had changed their lives forever.
Penny put her left hand in my right and squeezed reassuringly.
Her hand felt as real as that of a living child, as firm, as warm. I didn’t understand how she could be this real to me and yet walk through walls, this real to me and yet invisible to others.
I wept a little. Sometimes I do. I’m not embarrassed by tears. At times like this, tears exorcise emotions that would otherwise haunt me and, by their haunting, embitter me.
Even as my vision blurred at the first shimmer of tears not yet spent, Penny clasped my hand in both of hers. She smiled, and winked as if to say, It’s all right, Odd Thomas. Get it out, be rid of it.
The dead are sensitive to the living. They have walked this path ahead of us and know our fears, our failings, our desperate hopes, and how much we cherish what cannot last. They pity us, I think, and no doubt they should.
When my tears dried, Penny rose to her feet, smiled again, and with one hand smoothed the hair back from my brow. Good-bye, this gesture seemed to say. Thank you, and good-bye.
She walked across the room, through the wall, into the August morning one story above the front yard - or into another realm even brighter than a Pico Mundo summer.
A moment later, Wyatt Porter appeared in the bedroom doorway.
Our chief of police is a big man, but he isn’t threatening in appear­ance. With basset eyes and bloodhound jowls, his face has been af­fected by Earth’s gravity more than has the rest of him. I’ve seen him move fast and decisively, but in action and in repose he seems to carry a great weight on his beefy, rounded shoulders.
Over the years, as the low hills encircling our town have been sculpted into neighborhoods of tract houses, swelling our population, and as the meanness of an ever crueler world has crept into the last havens of civility, like Pico Mundo, perhaps Chief Porter has seen too much of human treachery. Perhaps the weight he carries is a load of memories that he would prefer to shed, but can’t.
“So here we are again,” he said, entering the room,
“Here we are,” I agreed.
“Busted patio door, busted furniture.”
“Didn’t bust most of it myself. Except the lamp.”
“But you created the situation that led to it.”
“Why didn’t you come to me, give me a chance to figure a way Harlo could entrap himself?”
We had worked together in that fashion in the past.
“My feeling,” I said, “was that he needed to be confronted right away, that maybe he was going to do it again real soon.”
“Yes, sir. That’s what I think Penny wanted to convey. There was a quiet urgency about her.”
The chief sighed. He settled upon the only chair in the room: a child-size, purple upholstered number on which Barney the dinosaur’s torso and head served as the back support. He appeared to be sitting in Barney’s lap. “Son, you sure complicate my life.”
“They complicate your life, sir, and mine much more than yours,” I said, meaning the dead.
“True enough. If I were you, I’d have gone crazy years ago.”
“I’ve considered it,” I admitted.
“Now listen, Odd, I want to find a way to keep you out of the courtroom on this one, if it comes to that.”
“I want to find a way, too.”
Few people know any of my strange secrets. Only Stormy Llewellyn knows all of them.
I want anonymity, a simple and quiet life, or at least as simple as the spirits will allow.
The chief said, “I think he’s going to give us a confession in the presence of his attorney. There may be no trial. But if there is, we’ll say that he opened his wallet to pay some bet he’d made with you, maybe on a baseball game, and the Polaroids of Penny fell out.”
“I can sell that,” I assured him.
“I’ll speak with Horton Barks. He’ll minimize your involvement when he writes it up.”
Horton Barks was the publisher of the Maravilla County Times. Twenty years ago in the Oregon woods, while hiking, he’d had dinner with Big Foot - if you can call some trail mix and canned sausages dinner.
In truth, I don’t know for a fact that Horton had dinner with Big Foot, but that’s what he claims. Given my daily experiences, I’m in no position to doubt Horton or anyone else who has a story to tell about an encounter with anything from aliens to leprechauns.
“You all right?” Chief Porter asked.
“Pretty much. But I sure hate being late for work. This is the busiest time at the Grille.”
“You called in?”
“Yeah.” I held up my little cell phone, which had been clipped to my belt when I went into the pool. “Still works.”
“I’ll probably stop in later, have a pile of home fries and a mess of eggs.”
“Breakfast all day,” I said, which has been a solemn promise of the Pico Mundo Grille since 1946.
Chief Porter shifted from one butt cheek to the other, causing Barney to groan. “Son, you figure to be a short-order cook forever?”
“No, sir. I’ve been thinking about a career change to tires.”
“Maybe sales first, then installation. They’ve always got job open­ings out at Tire World.”
I shrugged. “People need them. And it’s something I don’t know, something new to learn. I’d like to see what that life’s like, the tire life.”
We sat there half a minute or so, neither of us saying anything. Then he asked, ‘And that’s the only thing you see on the horizon? Tires, I mean.”
“Swimming-pool maintenance looks intriguing. With all these new communities going in around us, there’s a new pool about ev­ery day.”
Chief Porter nodded thoughtfully.
‘And it must be nice working in a bowling alley,” I said. ‘All the new people coming and going, the excitement of competition.”
“What would you do in a bowling alley?”
“For one thing, take care of the rental shoes. They need to be irra­diated or something between uses. And polished. You have to check the laces regularly.”
The chief nodded, and the purple Barney chair squeaked more like a mouse than like a dinosaur.
My clothes had nearly dried, but they were badly wrinkled. I checked my watch. “I better get moving. I’m going to have to change before I can go to the Grille.”
We both rose to our feet.
The Barney chair collapsed.
Looking at the purple ruins, Chief Porter said, “That could have happened when you were fighting Harlo.”
“Could have,” I said.
“Insurance will cover it with the rest.”
“There’s always insurance,” I agreed.
We went downstairs, where Stevie was sitting on a stool in the kitchen, happily eating a lemon cupcake.
“I’m sorry, but I broke your bedroom chair,” Chief Porter told him, for the chief is not a liar.
“That’s just a stupid old Barney chair, anyway,” the boy said. “I out­grew that stupid old Barney stuff weeks ago.”
With a broom and a dustpan, Stevie’s mom was sweeping up the broken glass.
Chief Porter told her about the chair, and she was inclined to dis­miss it as unimportant, but he secured from her a promise that she would look up the original cost and let him know the figure.
He offered me a ride home, but I said, “Quickest for me is just to go back the way I came.”
I left the house through the hole where the glass door had been, walked around the pool instead of splashing through it, climbed the slumpstone wall, crossed the narrow alleyway climbed the wrought-iron fence, walked the lawn around another house, crossed Marigold Lane, and returned to my apartment above the garage.
I SEE DEAD PEOPLE. BUT THEN, BY GOD, I DO SOMETHING about it.
This proactive strategy is rewarding but dangerous. Some days it results in an unusual amount of laundry.
After I changed into clean jeans and a fresh white T-shirt, I went around to Mrs. Sanchez’s back porch to confirm for her that she was visible, which I did every morning. Through the screen door, I saw her sitting at the kitchen table.
I knocked, and she said, “Can you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I hear you just fine.”
“Who do you hear?”
“You. Rosalia Sanchez.”
“Come in then, Odd Thomas,” she said.
Her kitchen smelled like chiles and corn flour, fried eggs and jack cheese. I’m a terrific short-order cook, but Rosalia Sanchez is a natural-born chef.
Everything in her kitchen is old and well worn but scrupulously clean. Antiques are more valuable when time and wear have laid a
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