Brother Odd

Page 14



I rose from the chair. “Sister Angela, there’s something I want you to do, but I’d rather you didn’t ask me why.”


“What is it?”


“Be sure all the doors are dead-bolted, all the windows locked. And instruct the sisters not to go outside.”


I preferred not to tell her about the creature that I had seen in the storm. For one thing, on that day I stood in her office I did not yet have words to describe the apparition. Also, when nerves are too frayed, clear thinking unravels, so I needed her to be alert to danger without being in a continuous state of alarm.


Most important, I didn’t want her to worry that she had allied herself with someone who might be not merely a fry cook, and not merely a fry cook with a sixth sense, but a totally insane fry cook with a sixth sense.


“All right,” she said. “We’ll be sure we’re locked, and there’s no reason to go out in that storm, anyway.”


“Would you call Abbot Bernard and ask him to do the same thing? For the remaining hours of the Divine Office, the brothers shouldn’t go outside to enter the church through the grand cloister. Tell them to use the interior door between the abbey and the church.”


In these solemn circumstances, Sister Angela had been robbed of her most effective instrument of interrogation: that lovely smile sustained in patient and intimidating silence.


The storm drew her attention. As ominous as ashes, clouds of snow smoked across the window.


She looked up at me again. “Who’s out there, Oddie?”


“I don’t know yet,” I replied, which was true to the extent that I could not name what I had seen. “But they mean to do us harm.”


CHAPTER 19


WEARING AN IMAGINARY DOG COLLAR, I LET intuition have my leash, and was led in a circuitous route through the ground-floor rooms and hallways of the school, to a set of stairs, to the second floor, where the Christmas decorations did not inspire in me a merry mood.


When I stopped at the open door to Room 32, I suspected that I had deceived myself. I had not given myself to intuition, after all, but had been guided by an unconscious desire to repeat the experience of the previous night, when it seemed that Stormy had spoken to me through sleeping Annamarie by way of mute Justine.


At the time, as much as I had desired the contact, I had spurned it. I had been right to do so.


Stormy is my past, and she will be my future only after my life in this world is over, when time finishes and eternity begins. What is required of me now is patience and perseverance. The only way back is the way forward.


I told myself to turn away, to wander farther onto the second floor. Instead I crossed the threshold and stood just inside the room.


Drowned by her father at four, left for dead but still alive eight years later, the radiantly beautiful girl sat in bed, leaning against plump pillows, eyes closed.


Her hands lay in her lap, both palms upturned, as though she waited to receive some gift.


The voices of the wind were muffled but legion: chanting, snarling, hissing at the single window.


The collection of plush-toy kittens watched me from the shelves near her bed.


Annamarie and her wheelchair were gone. I had seen her in the recreation room, where behind the laughter of children, quiet Walter, who could not dress himself without assistance, played classical piano.


The air seemed heavy, like the atmosphere between the first flash of lightning and the first peal of thunder, when the rain has formed miles above but has not yet reached the earth, when fat drops are descending by the millions, compressing the air below them as one last warning of their drenching approach.


I stood in light-headed anticipation.


Beyond the window, frenzies of driven snow chased down the day, and though obviously the wind still flogged the morning, its voices faded, and slowly a cone of silence settled upon the room.


Justine opened her eyes. Although usually she looks through everything in this world, now she met my gaze.


I became aware of a familiar fragrance. Peaches.


When I worked as a short-order cook in Pico Mundo, before the world grew as dark as it is now, I washed my hair in a peach-scented shampoo that Stormy had given me. It effectively replaced the aromas of bacon and hamburgers and fried onions that lingered in my locks after a long shift at the griddle and grill.


At first dubious about peach shampoo, I had suggested that a bacon-hamburgers-fried-onions scent ought to be appealing, ought to make the mouth water, and that most people had quasi-erotic reactions to the aromas of fried food.


Stormy had said, “Listen, griddle boy, you’re not as suave as Ronald McDonald, but you’re cute enough to eat without smelling like a sandwich.”


As any red-blooded boy would have done, I thereafter used peach-scented shampoo every day.


The fragrance that now rose in Room 32 was not of peaches but, more precisely, was of that particular peach shampoo, which I had not brought with me to St. Bart’s.


This was wrong. I knew that I should leave at once. The scent of peach shampoo immobilized me.


The past cannot be redeemed. What has been and what might have been both bring us to what is.


To know grief, we must be in the river of time, because grief thrives in the present and promises to be with us in the future until the end point. Only time conquers time and its burdens. There is no grief before or after time, which is all the consolation we should need.


Nevertheless, I stood there, waiting, full of hope that was the wrong hope.


Stormy is dead and does not belong in this world, and Justine is profoundly brain-damaged from prolonged oxygen deprivation and cannot speak. Yet the girl attempted to communicate, not on her own behalf but for another who had no voice at all this side of the grave.


What came from Justine were not words but thick knots of sound that reflected the wrenched and buckled nature of her brain, eerily bringing to mind a desperate drowner struggling for air underwater, wretched sounds that were sodden and bloated and unbearably sad.


An anguished no escaped me, and the girl at once stopped trying to speak.


Justine’s usually unexpressive features tightened into a look of frustration. Her gaze slid away from me, tracked left, tracked right, and then to the window.


She suffered from a partial paralysis general in nature, though her left side was more profoundly affected than her right. With some effort, she raised her more useful arm from the bed. Her slender hand reached toward me, as though beseeching me to come closer, but then pointed to the window.


I saw only the bleak shrouded daylight and the falling snow.


Her eyes met mine, more focused than I had ever seen them, as pellucid as always but also with a yearning in those blue depths that I had never glimpsed before, not even when I had been in this room the previous night and had heard sleeping Annamarie say Loop me in.


Her intense stare moved from me to the window, returned to me, slid once more to the window, at which she still pointed. Her hand trembled with the effort to control it.


I moved deeper into Room 32.


The single window provided a view of the cloister below, where the brothers had daily gathered when this had been their first abbey. The open courtyard lay deserted. No one lurked between the columns in the portion of the colonnade that I could see.


Across the courtyard, its stone face softened by veils of snow, rose another wing of the abbey. On the second floor, a few windows shone softly with lamplight in the white gloom of the storm, though most of the children were downstairs at this hour.


The window directly opposite from the panes at which I stood glowed brighter than the others. The longer I gazed at it, the more the light seemed to draw me, as though it were a signal lamp set out by someone in distress.


A figure appeared at that window, a backlighted silhouette, as featureless as a bodach, though it was not one of them.


Justine had lowered her arm to the bed.


Her stare remained demanding.


“All right,” I whispered, turning away from the window, “all right,” but said no more.


I dared not continue, because on my tongue was a name that I longed to speak.


The girl closed her eyes. Her lips parted, and she began to breathe as if, exhausted, she had fallen into sleep.


I went to the open door but did not leave.


Gradually the strange silence lifted, and the wind breathed at the window again, and muttered as if cursing in a brutal language.


If I had properly understood what had happened, I had been given direction in my search for the meaning of the gathering bodachs. The hour of violence approached, perhaps was not imminent, but approached nonetheless, and duty called me elsewhere.


Yet I stood in Room 32 until the fragrance of peach shampoo faded, until I could detect no trace of it, until certain memories would relinquish their grip on me.


CHAPTER 20


ROOM 14 LAY DIRECTLY ACROSS THE courtyard from Room 32, in the north corridor. A single plaque had been fixed to the door, bearing one name: JACOB.


A floor lamp beside an armchair, a squat nightstand lamp, and a fluorescent ceiling fixture compensated for daylight so drear that it could press itself inside no farther than the window sill.


Because Room 14 contained only a single bed, the space could accommodate a four-foot-square oak table, at which sat Jacob.


I had seen him a couple of times, but I did not know him. “May I come in?”


He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no, either. Deciding to take his silence as an invitation, I sat across from him at the table.


Jacob is one of the few adults housed at the school. He is in his middle twenties.


I didn’t know the name of the condition with which he had been born, but evidently it involved a chromosomal abnormality.


About five feet tall, with a head slightly too small for his body, a sloped forehead, low-set ears, and soft heavy features, he exhibited some of the characteristics of Down’s syndrome.


The bridge of his nose was not flat, however, which is an indicator of Down’s, and his eyes did not have the inner epicanthic folds that give the eyes of Down’s people an Asian cast.


More telling, he did not exhibit the quick smile or the sunny and gentle disposition virtually universal among those with Down’s. He did not look at me, and his expression remained dour.


His head was misshapen as no Down’s person’s head would ever be. A greater weight of bone accumulated in the left side of his skull than in the right. His features were not symmetrical, but were subtly out of balance, one eye set slightly lower than the other, his left jaw more prominent than his right, his left temple convex and his right temple more than usually concave.


Stocky, with heavy shoulders and a thick neck, he hunched over the table, intent on the task before him. His tongue, which appeared to be thicker than a normal tongue but which didn’t usually protrude, was at the moment pinched gently between his teeth.


On the table were two large tablets of drawing paper. One lay to the right of him, closed. The second was propped on a slant-board.


Jacob was drawing on the second tablet. Ordered in an open case, an array of pencils offered lead in many thicknesses and in different degrees of softness.


His current project was a portrait of a strikingly lovely woman, nearly finished. Presented in three-quarter profile, she stared past the artist’s left shoulder.


Inevitably I thought of the hunchback of Notre Dame: Quasimodo, his tragic hope, his unrequited love.


“You’re very talented,” I said, which was true.


He did not reply.


Although his hands were short and broad, his stubby fingers wielded the pencil with dexterity and exquisite precision.


“My name is Odd Thomas.”


He took his tongue into his mouth, tucked it into one cheek, and pressed his lips together.


“I’m staying in the guesthouse at the abbey.”


Looking around at the room, I saw that the dozen framed pencil portraits decorating the walls were of this woman. Here she smiled; there she laughed; most often she appeared contemplative, serene.


In an especially compelling piece, she had been rendered full-face, eyes brimming bright, cheeks jeweled with tears. Her features had not been melodramatically distorted; instead, you could see that her anguish was great but also that she strove with some success to conceal the depth of it.


Such a complex emotional state, rendered so subtly, suggested that my praise of Jacob’s talent had been inadequate. The woman’s emotion was palpable.


The condition of the artist’s heart, while he had labored on this portrait, was also evident, somehow infused into the work. Drawing, he had been in torment.


“Who is she?” I asked.


“Do you float away when the dark comes?” He had only a mild speech impediment. His thick tongue apparently wasn’t fissured.


“I’m not sure I know what you mean, Jacob.”


Too shy to look at me, he continued drawing, and after a silence said, “I seen the ocean some days, but not that day.”


“What day, Jacob?”


“The day they went and the bell rung.”


Although already I sensed a rhythm to his conversation and knew that rhythm was a sign of meaning, I couldn’t find the beat.


He was willing to count cadence alone. “Jacob’s scared he’ll float wrong when the dark comes.”


From the pencil case, he selected a new instrument.


“Jacob’s gotta float where the bell rung.”


As he paused in his work and studied the unfinished portrait, his tragic features were beautified by a look of intense affection.


“Never seen where the bell rung, and the ocean it moves, and it moves, so where the bell rung is gone somewhere new.”


Sadness captured his face, but the look of affection did not entirely retreat.


For a while, he chewed worriedly on his lower lip.


When he set to work with the new pencil, he said, “And the dark is gonna come with the dark.”


“What do you mean, Jacob — the dark is going to come with the dark?”


He glanced at the snow-scrubbed window. “When there’s no light again, the dark is gonna come, too. Maybe. Maybe the dark is gonna come, too.”


“When there’s no light again — that means tonight?”


Jacob nodded. “Maybe tonight.”


“And the other dark that’s coming with the night … do you mean death, Jacob?”


He thrust his tongue between his teeth again. After rolling the pencil in his fingers to find the right grip, he set to work once more on the portrait.


I wondered if I had been too straightforward when I had used the word death. Perhaps he expressed himself obliquely not because that was the only way his mind worked, but because speaking about some subjects too directly disturbed him.


After a while, he said, “He wants me dead.”


CHAPTER 21