As I sought Annamaria, the currents of opaque mist increasingly seemed to me not just the shadow of the sea, but a foreshadowing of a tide to come, the red tide of my dream.
Street after street, every tree stood turbaned, robed, and bearded—until I arrived at the foot of a broad-leafed giant from which the fog appeared to shrink. This specimen towered sixty or seventy feet, and it offered a magnificent architecture of wide-spreading limbs.
Because knowing the names of things is a way to pay respect to the beauty of the world, I know the names of many trees; but I did not know the name of this one and could not recall having seen one like it before.
The leaves had two lamina, each with four lobes. Between thumb and forefinger, they felt thick and waxy.
Among the black branches, white flowers as large as bowls seemed radiant in the dark. They were reminiscent of magnolia blooms, though more imposing, but this was not a magnolia. Water dripped from the petals, as if the tree had condensed the fog to form these flowers.
Behind the tree stood a half-seen, two-story Victorian house, dressed with less gingerbread than was standard for the style, with a modest porch rather than a grand veranda.
Although the fog seemed to retreat from the tree, it conquered the house. The pale lights inside were barely able to pierce the windowpanes.
I passed under the tree, and psychic magnetism drew me not toward the residence but toward the detached garage, where a ruddy glow pressed out from the second-floor windows, tinting the fog.
Behind the garage, a flight of stairs led to a landing. At the top, the four French panes in the door were curtained with pleated sheers.
As I was about to knock, the latch slipped from the striker plate in the jamb, and the door eased inward a few inches. Through the gap, I could see a plastered wall where soft ringlets of shadow pulsed in a shimmerous coppery light.
I expected the door to be caught by a security chain and to see Annamaria peering warily past those links. But no chain was engaged, and no face appeared.
After a hesitation, I pushed the door open. Beyond lay a large room softly illuminated by five oil lamps.
One lamp rested on a dinette table at which stood two chairs. Annamaria sat facing the door.
She smiled as I crossed the threshold. She raised her right hand to motion me to the empty chair.
Pleased to be out of the dampness and chilly air, I closed the door and engaged the lock.
In addition to the table and two chairs, the humble furniture included a narrow bed in one corner, a nightstand on which stood a gooseneck desk lamp, a worn and sagging armchair with a footstool, and an end table.
Distributed around the room, the five oil lamps were squat, long-necked glass vessels in which floated burning wicks. Two were the color of brandy, and three were red.
When I sat across the table from her, I found dinner waiting. Two kinds of cheese and two kinds of olives. Tomatoes cut in wedges. Circlets of cucumber. Dishes of herb-seasoned yogurt glistening with a drizzle of olive oil. A plate of ripe figs. A loaf of crusty bread.
I didn’t realize how thirsty I was until I saw the mug of tea, which tasted as if it had been sweetened with peach juice.
As decoration, in a wide shallow bowl floated three of the white flowers from the tree at the front of the property.
Without a word, we began to eat, as if there were nothing unusual about my having found her or about her expecting me.
One of the oil lamps stood on the counter in the kitchenette, the others in the main space. On the ceiling above each lamp were circles of light and tremulous watery shadows of the glass vessels.
Very nice, I said eventually. The oil lamps.
She said, The light of other days.
The sun grows the plants. The plants express essential oils. And the oils fire the lamps—giving back the light of other days.
I’d never thought of the light of an oil lamp being the stored, converted, and then liberated sunshine of years past, but of course it was.
Lamplight reminds me of my parents.
Tell me about them.
You would be bored.
A smile. A shake of the head. She continued eating and said no more.
She wore the white tennis shoes, the dark-gray slacks, and the roomy pink sweater that she had worn earlier on the pier. The long sleeves were rolled up now to form thick cuffs, exposing her slender wrists.
The graceful silver bell gleamed on the silver chain.
The pendant is lovely, I said.
She did not reply.
Does it have any significance?
She met my eyes. Doesn’t everything?
Something in her stare made me look away, and fear found me. Not fear of her. Fear of…I knew not what. I felt a helpless sinking of the heart for reasons that eluded me.
She fetched a ceramic pitcher from the kitchen and refreshed my tea.
When she returned to her chair, I reached across the table to her, palm turned up. Will you take my hand?
You want to confirm what you already know.
I continued to reach out to her.
She acquiesced, and took my hand.
The garage apartment vanished, and I no longer sat on a chrome-and-vinyl chair, but stood upon a beach in bloody light, with the sky afire and molten masses rising in the sea.
When she released my hand, the dream relented. The only fires were those burning on the lamp wicks, safely contained in glass.
You’re part of it, I said.
Not like the big man on the pier is part of it.
He had been surprised by the vision that I had passed to him; but Annamaria was not surprised.
She said, That man and I are in different camps. What camp are you in, Odd Thomas?
Have you had the dream, too?
It isn’t a dream.
I looked into the palm of my hand, by the touch of which she had summoned the nightmare.
When I lifted my gaze, her dark eyes were ages older than her face, yet they seemed gentle and kind.
What’s going to happen? When? Where—here in Magic Beach? And how are you a part of it?
That isn’t for me to say.
All things in their time.
What does that mean?
Her smile reminded me of the smile of someone else, but I could not remember who. It means—all things in their time.
Perhaps because time was the subject, I glanced at the lighted wall clock in the kitchen. I compared its declaration to that of my wristwatch.
The correct time was one minute until seven. The kitchen clock showed one minute until midnight, a five-hour error.
Then I realized that the thin red hand counting off the seconds had frozen on the 12. The broken wall clock had stopped.
Your clock doesn’t work.
That depends on what you want from a clock.
The time, I suggested.
When I returned my attention to Annamaria, I discovered that she had unclasped the silver chain and had taken it from around her neck. She held it out to me, the tiny bell suspended.
Will you die for me? she asked.
I said at once, Yes, and took the offered bell.
WE CONTINUED EATING, AS IF THE CONVERSATION and the events that had occurred since I had walked through the door were as ordinary as those of any dinner hour.
In fact, people were not in the habit of asking if I would die for them. And I was not accustomed to answering in the positive, without hesitation.
I would have died for Stormy Llewellyn, and she would have died for me, and neither of us would have needed to ask the other the question that Annamaria had posed to me. Stormy and I had understood, at a level more profound than mind or heart, at the level of blood and bone, that we were committed to each other at any cost.
Although I would have given my life for my lost girl, Fate had not allowed me to make that trade. Since the bullet-shattered day in which she died, I have lived a life I don’t need.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not seek death. I love life, and I love the world as its exquisite design is revealed in each small portion of the whole.
No one can genuinely love the world, which is too large to love entire. To love all the world at once is pretense or dangerous self-delusion. Loving the world is like loving the idea of love, which is perilous because, feeling virtuous about this grand affection, you are freed from the struggles and the duties that come with loving people as individuals, with loving one place—home—above all others.
I embrace the world on a scale that allows genuine love—the small places like a town, a neighborhood, a street—and I love life, because of what the beauty of this world and of this life portend. I don’t love them to excess, and I stand in awe of them only to the extent that an architect might stand in the receiving room of a magnificent palace, amazed and thrilled by what he sees, while knowing that all this is as nothing compared to the wondrous sights that lie beyond the next threshold.
Since that day of death in Pico Mundo, seventeen months earlier, my life had not been mine. I had been spared for a reason I could not understand. I had known the day would come when I would give my life in the right cause.
Will you die for me?
Instantly upon hearing the fateful question, I felt that I had been waiting to hear it since Stormy’s death, and that the answer had been on my tongue before the question had been spoken.
Although I had committed myself to this cause with no knowledge of it, I was nevertheless curious about what the men on the pier were planning, how Annamaria figured in their plans, and why she needed my protection.
With the silver chain around my neck and the small bell pendant against my breastbone, I said, Where is your husband?
I’m not married.
I waited for her to say more.
With her fork she held down a fig, and with her knife trimmed off the stem.
Where do you work? I asked.
Setting the knife aside, she said, I don’t work. She patted her swollen abdomen, and smiled. I labor.
Surveying the modest accommodations, I said, I suppose the rent is low.
Very low. I stay here free.
The people in the house are relatives?
No. Before me, a poor family of three lived here free for two years, until they had saved enough to move on.
So the owners are just…good people?
You can’t be surprised by that.
You have known many good people in your young life.
I thought of Ozzie Boone, Chief Wyatt Porter and his wife, Karla, Terri Stambaugh, and all of my friends in Pico Mundo, thought of the monks at St. Bartholomew’s, of Sister Angela and the nuns who ran the orphanage and school for special-needs children.
Even in this rough and cynical age, she said, you’re neither rough nor cynical yourself.
With all due respect, Annamaria, you don’t really know me.
I know you well, she disagreed.
Be patient and you’ll understand.
All things in their time, huh?
I sort of think the time is now.
But you are wrong.
How can I help you if I don’t know what kind of fix you’re in?
I’m not in a fix.
Okay, then what kind of mess, what kind of pickle, what kind of trap?
Finished eating, she blotted her mouth with a paper napkin.
No mess, pickle, or trap, she said, with a trace of amusement in her gentle voice.
Then what would you call it?
The way of things.
You’re in the way of things? What things are you standing in the way of?
You misheard me. What lies before me is just the way of things, not a fix from which I need to be extricated.
Out of the shallow bowl, she retrieved one of the huge floating flowers, and she placed it on her folded napkin.
Then why did you ask that question, why did you give me the bell, what do you need me to do for you?
Keep them from killing me, she said.
Well, there you go. That sounds like a pickle to me.
She plucked one thick white petal from the flower and set it aside on the table.
I said, Who wants to kill you?
The men on the pier, she replied, plucking another petal from the flower. And others.
How many others?
Innumerable—as in countless, as in the countless grains of sand on the oceans’ shores?
That would be more like infinite. Those who want me dead can be counted, and have been, but there are too many for the number to matter.
Well, I don’t know. I think it matters to me.
But you’re wrong about that, she quietly assured me.
She continued to disassemble the flower. She had made a separate pile of half its petals.
Her self-possession and calm demeanor did not change when she spoke of being the target of killers.
For a while I waited for her eyes to meet mine again, but her attention remained on the flower.
I said, The men on the pier—who are they?
I don’t know their names.
Why do they want to kill you?
They don’t yet know they want to kill me.
After considering that response for a moment and being unable to make sense of it, I said, When will they know that they want to kill you?
I see, I lied.
You will, she said.
Impurities in the wicks periodically caused the flames to leap, flutter, and subside. The reflections on the ceiling swelled, shrank, shivered.
I said, And when these guys finally realize that they want to kill you, why will they want to kill you?
For the wrong reason.
Okay. All right. What would the wrong reason be?
Because they’ll think that I know what horror they intend to perpetrate.
Do you know what horror they intend to perpetrate?
Only in the most general terms.
Why not share those general terms with me?
Many deaths, she said, and much destruction.
Those are some spooky terms. And way too general.
My knowledge here is limited, she said. I’m only human, like you.
Does that mean—a little bit psychic like me?
Not psychic. It only means that I am human, not omniscient.
She had plucked all the petals from the flower, leaving only the fleshy green receptacle, the sepals that had protected the petals, a spray of stamens, and the pistil.
I plunged into our monkey-barrel conversation once more: When you say they’ll want to kill you for the wrong reason, that implies there’s a right reason for them to want to kill you.
Not a right reason, she corrected, but from their point of view, a better one.
And what would be that better reason?
At last she met my eyes. What have I done to this flower, odd one?
Stormy and only Stormy had sometimes called me odd one.
Annamaria smiled, as though she knew what thought had passed through my mind, what association she had triggered.
Indicating the pile of petals, I said, You’re just nervous, that’s all.
I’m not nervous, she said with quiet conviction. I was not asking you why I did it, only to tell me what it is that I’ve done to the flower.