As much as I admired the Bard of Avon, it seemed to me that goodness needed to be fearful of those slouching shapes in the fog if goodness wanted to avoid being chewed up and swallowed.
A FEW BLOCKS BEFORE WE ARRIVED AT THE Cottage of the Happy Monster, our skulking escorts faded away into the fallen clouds and did not return, although I suspected that we had not seen the last of them.
The house stood alone at the end of a narrow lane of cracked and runneled blacktop. Huge deodar cedars flanked the road, their drooping branches seeming to carry the fog as if it had the weight of snow.
With a thatched and dormered roof, cedar-shingle walls, trumpet vines espaliered along the roof line, and a bougainvillea-covered porte-cochere, the large cottage could have been copied from one of the romantic paintings of Thomas Kinkade.
Like curious spooks, pale shapes of curdled mist pressed to the casement windows, gazing in, as though deciding whether the rooms inside were conducive to haunting.
A dark amber glow of considerable appeal shone through those phantom spirits. As we drew closer, I saw that this cheerful light glimmered and twinkled along the beveled edges of the diamond-shaped panes of glass, as though a person of magical power resided within.
As we had approached along the lane, I had prepared Annamaria for Blossom Rosedale, with whom she would be staying for an hour or two. Forty-five years ago, when Blossom had been six years old, her drunk and angry father dropped her headfirst into a barrel in which he had been burning trash primed with a little kerosene.
Fortunately, she had been wearing tightly fitted glasses, which spared her from blindness and saved her eyelids. Even at six, she’d had the presence of mind to hold her breath, which saved her lungs. She managed to topple the barrel and quickly crawl out, though by then aflame.
Surgeons saved one ear, rebuilt her nose—although not to the extent that it resembled a normal nose—and reconstructed her lips. Blossom never had hair thereafter. Her face remained forever seamed and puckered with keloid scars too terrible to be addressed by any surgical technique.
Out walking a week previously, I had encountered her as, with a flat tire, she pulled to the side of the road. Although she insisted that she could change the tire herself, I did the job because Blossom stood under five feet, had only a thumb and forefinger on her burned left hand, and had not been dressed for the rain that threatened.
With the spare tire in place, she had insisted that I come with her for coffee and a slice of her incomparable cinnamon-pecan cake. She called her home the Cottage of the Happy Monster, and though the place was a cottage and she was a deeply happy person, she was no more a monster than was Spielberg’s E.T., whom she somewhat resembled.
I had visited her once again in the week since we had met, for an evening of five-hundred rummy and conversation. Although she had won three games out of three, with stakes of a penny for every ten points of spread, she and I were on the way to becoming good friends. However, she did not know about the supernatural side of my life.
Now, when she opened the door in answer to my knock, Blossom said, Ah! Come in, come in. God has sent me a sucker to fleece at cards. Another prayer answered. I’ll have my Mercedes yet.
You won fifty cents the last time. You’ll need to beat me every day for a thousand years.
And won’t that be fun! Blossom closed the door and smiled at Annamaria. You remind me of my cousin Melvina—the married Melvina, not the Cousin Melvina who’s an old maid. Of course, Cousin Melvina is crazy, and presumably you are not.
I made introductions while Blossom helped Annamaria out of her coat and hung it on a wall peg.
Cousin Melvina, Blossom said, has a problem with a time traveler. Dear, do you believe time travel is possible?
Annamaria said, Twenty-four hours ago, I was in yesterday.
And now here you are in today. I’ll have to tell my cousin about you.
Taking Annamaria by the arm, Blossom walked her toward the back of the cottage.
Cousin Melvina says a time traveler from 10,000 A.D. secretly visits her kitchen when she’s sleeping.
As I followed them, Annamaria asked, Why her kitchen?
She suspects they don’t have cake in the far future.
The cottage was magically lit by Tiffany-inspired stained-glass lamps and sconces, the shades of which Blossom had crafted herself.
Does Melvina have a lot of cake in her kitchen?
She’s a positive fanatic for cake.
On a living-room wall hung a colorful and intricately detailed quilt of great beauty. Blossom’s quilts sold in art galleries; a few museums had acquired them.
Perhaps her husband is having midnight snacks, Annamaria said.
No. Melvina lives in Florida, and her husband, Norman, he lives in a former Cold War missile silo in Nebraska.
From a kitchen cabinet, Blossom took a container of coffee and a package of filters, and gave them to Annamaria.
As Annamaria began to prepare the brewer, she said, Why would anyone want to live in an old missile silo?
Opening a tin of cookies, Blossom said, To avoid living with Melvina. She’d go anywhere with him, but not into a missile silo.
Why wouldn’t there be cake in the far future? Annamaria asked.
With pastry tongs, Blossom transferred cookies from the tin to a plate. Melvina says maybe they lost all the best recipes in a world war.
They had a war over cake?
Probably the war was for the usual reasons. Cake would have been collateral damage.
She does sound kind of crazy.
Oh, yes, said Blossom, but not in a bad way.
Standing in the open door, I said, Annamaria is in a little trouble—
Pregnancy isn’t trouble, Blossom said, it’s a blessing.
Not that. Some bad guys are looking for her.
Bad guys? Blossom asked Annamaria.
Nobody’s inherently bad, said Annamaria. It’s all about the choices we make.
And the Deceiver, said Blossom, is always there to whisper the wrong choice in your ear. But I believe remorse can lead to redemption.
Some people, I said, the only way they get around to remorse is after you break a baseball bat over their head.
When he sobered up, my father regretted what he did to me, said Blossom.
Some people, I testified, they lock you in a car trunk with two dead rhesus monkeys, put the car in one of those huge hydraulic crushers, push the SQUISH-IT button, and just laugh. They don’t even know the word regret.
Did you forgive your father? Annamaria asked.
He’s eighty-two, Blossom said. I pay his nursing-home bills. But I don’t see him.
Some people, I said, they lose their temper and you have to take a gun away from them, and you give them a chance to rethink what they did, and they say they were wrong, they’re remorseful, but then they let you walk into a room where they know there’s a crocodile that hasn’t been fed in a week.
Both women gave me the kind of look you usually reserve for a two-headed man walking a blue dog.
I’m not saying everyone, I clarified. Just some people.
To Blossom, Annamaria said, But you forgave your father.
Yes. A long, long time ago. It wasn’t easy. The reason I don’t see him is because he can’t take it. Seeing me tears him apart. The guilt. It’s too hard on him.
Annamaria held out a hand, and Blossom took it, and then they hugged each other.
I said, So, these bad guys looking for Annamaria and me—I need to poke around, learn more about them. I thought she’d be safe here with you for a couple hours, if you’re cool with that.
To Annamaria, Blossom said, We could play cards or Scrabble or backgammon or something.
I like backgammon, Annamaria said. Do you ever add a little vanilla to your coffee when you brew it?
Sometimes vanilla, sometimes cinnamon.
Cinnamon. That sounds good.
Cousin Melvina—not the one married to Norman in the missile silo, the other one—she likes to add a half-teaspoon of cinnamon and a full teaspoon of cocoa to a twelve-cup pot.
That sounds good to me. Let’s do that. Why would parents name both daughters Melvina?
Oh, said Blossom, fetching the can of cocoa powder, they aren’t sisters. They’re cousins to each other. They were both named after our maternal grandmother, Melvina Belmont Singleton, who was famous in her time.
Famous? For what?
For living with gorillas.
What gorillas did she live with?
Oh, anywhere they had gorillas, sooner or later, she went there to live with them.
What was she—a naturalist or an anthropologist?
No, she wasn’t any of that. She just thought the world and all of gorillas, couldn’t get enough of watching them, and the gorillas didn’t seem to mind.
I’d think they would mind, Annamaria said.
Well, when scientists move in to study them, the gorillas sometimes give them a lot of grief, but they didn’t object to Grandma Melvina.
She must have been a formidable person.
We have strong women in our family, said Blossom.
I can see that, said Annamaria, and they smiled at each other.
Blossom said, Grandma Melvina taught a gorilla named Percy to write poetry.
Annamaria said, Free verse, I imagine.
No sane person would have paid for it, Blossom said, and they both laughed.
I wanted to hear more about Grandma Melvina and the gorillas, but I needed to have a serious talk with Flashlight Guy. Blossom and Annamaria were having such a good time, I didn’t interrupt to tell them that their Odysseus was about to set sail on his warship.
Crossing the living room, I noticed that the mantel clock read one minute till midnight.
According to my wristwatch, the time was 7:52.
At the mantel, I put one ear to the clock, but it seemed to have spent its treasure of time, and it did not pay out a single tick.
Throughout my life, when the supernatural had become apparent to me in the natural world, it had always been through my paranormal senses, shared by no one else: the ability to see the lingering spirits of the dead, the frustrating gift of enigmatic predictive dreams, and psychic magnetism.
The stopped clock in Annamaria’s one-room apartment had not been a vision but a reality, seen not just by me, but visible to her as well. I had no doubt that if I were to call her and Blossom from the kitchen, they would see what I saw on the mantel.
One clock frozen at a minute until midnight is nothing more than a broken clock. In this night of fog and spellbound coyotes and porch swings that swung themselves, however, meaning could not be denied upon the discovery of a second timepiece with its hands fixed at the very minute of the same hour.
The supernatural had entered the natural world in ways new to my experience, and this development struck me as ominous.
I could think of only one interpretation to be made of broken but synchronized clocks. Only a little more than four hours remained for me to prevent the many deaths and the vast destruction planned by the yellow-eyed giant and his associates.
A DOVE DESCENDING THROUGH CANDESCENT air, a bush bursting into fire and from the fire a voice, stars shifting from their timeless constellations to form new and meaningful patterns in the heavens…
Those were some of the signs upon which prophets historically had based their predictions and their actions. I received, instead, two stopped clocks.
If I am not just a freak whose extrasensory perceptions are the result of a few mutated synapses making strange connections in my brain, if my gift has a giver other than indifferent Nature and comes with a purpose, then the angel in charge of the Odd Thomas account must be operating on a shoestring budget.
Making my way through Magic Beach, toward the address I had found in the wallet of Sam Whittle—alias Sam Bittel, known to me affectionately as Flashlight Guy—I felt as if the fog drowning the town had flooded into my head. In that internal mist, my thoughts were as disconnected as, in the outer world, houses on the same block seemed to be separate islands, each a stranger to the other, in a white sea.
More traffic rolled through the quiet night than I had seen earlier.
Some of the vehicles were at such a distance, passing across the streets on which I traveled, that I could make out little more than the submerged glow of their headlights. Perhaps some were driven by ordinary men and women engaged upon the mundane tasks of daily life, with neither an unworthy thought nor an evil purpose among them.
At the first sight of any vehicle that shared a street with me, I hid behind the nearest cover and, from concealment, watched as it drifted past. One after another proved either to be labeled HARBOR DEPARTMENT or to be a police car.
Perhaps the police had put their entire motor pool on the streets because the cloaking fog facilitated burglary and other crimes. Call me paranoid, but I suspected the authorities were out in force only to support certain friends in the harbor department.
Through windshields and side windows, I glimpsed a few faces barely and queerly revealed in the glow of instrument panels and computer screens. None looked suitable for a poster celebrating the friendliness and selflessness of our public servants.
I felt as though extraterrestrial seeds, come quietly to Earth behind the curtains of fog, had grown swiftly into large pods that had been busily disgorging men who were not men.
Sam Whittle lived on Oaks Avenue, which was not grand enough to warrant being called an avenue, and was not shaded by oaks. Formerly called Founders Street, it had been renamed in honor of John Oaks, a sports star who never lived in Magic Beach or even visited, but whose cousin—or a woman who claimed to be his cousin—served on the city council.
Whittle lived in a bungalow as unremarkable as a cracker box, graced by no ornamental millwork, as plain as the fog that embraced it. The front porch was unfurnished, the yard devoid of landscape lighting, and the back porch as empty as the front.
No light brightened any window. No vehicle stood in the carport.
At the back door, I took a laminated driver’s license from Sam Whittle’s wallet and used it to loid the lock. The deadbolt had not been engaged, and when the license pressed back the latch, the door swung inward with a faint creak of hinges.
For a moment I remained on the porch, letting the fog precede me, searching the perfect darkness within, listening for the telltale sound of an impatient adversary shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he waited for the fly to come into the web.
Warily I stepped across the threshold. I left the door open for the moment, to facilitate sudden flight.
The digital clocks on the oven and the microwave had not frozen at a minute until midnight, but neither did the green glow of those numbers alleviate the gloom.
I smelled some kind of whiskey, and I hoped that it didn’t come to me on the exhalations of a man with a gun.
When I held my breath, I heard nothing—except perhaps another man holding his breath.
Finally I committed. I closed the door behind me.