They were emotional at the news that Brother Constantine had not committed suicide. But the faceless figure of Death in the bell tower intrigued more than frightened them, and they were in agreement that if a traditional exorcism would be effective with either of these two recent apparitions, it would be more likely to work on the tower phantom than on an uberskeleton that could overturn an SUV.
I couldn’t tell whether Brother Leopold and Rodion Romanovich believed me, but I didn’t owe those two any evidence beyond the sincerity of my story.
To Leopold, I said, “I don’t believe that an exorcism will work in either case — do you?”
The novice lowered his gaze to the place on the floor where the cubes had been. He nervously licked his lips.
The Russian spared his comrade the need to answer: “Mr. Thomas, I am fully prepared to believe that you live on a ledge between this world and the next, that you see what we cannot. And now you have seen apparitions previously unknown to you.”
“Are they previously unknown to you?” I asked.
“I am merely a librarian, Mr. Thomas, with no sixth sense. But I am a man of faith, whether you believe that or not, and now that I have heard your story, I am worried about the children as much as you are. How much time do we have? Whatever will happen, when will it happen?”
I shook my head. “I only saw seven bodachs this morning. There would be more if the violence was imminent.”
“That was this morning. Do you think we should have a look now — past one-thirty in the afternoon?”
“Bring all your tools and the … weapons,” Abbot Bernard advised his brothers.
The snow had melted off my boots. I wiped them on the mat at the door between the garage and the basement of the school, while the other men, who were all veterans of winter and all more considerate than I, shucked off their zippered rubber boots and left them behind.
With lunch finished, most of the kids were in the rehabilitation and recreation rooms, each of which I visited with the abbot, a few brothers, and Romanovich.
Sooty shadows, cast by nothing in this world, slid through these rooms and along the hallway, quivering with anticipation, wolfish and eager, seeming to thrill to the sight of so many innocent children who they somehow knew would in time be screaming in terror and agony. I counted seventy-two bodachs and knew that others would be prowling the corridors on the second floor.
“Soon,” I told the abbot. “It’s coming soon.”
WHILE THE SIXTEEN WARRIOR MONKS AND the one duplicitous novice determined how to fortify the two stairwells that served the second floor of the school, Sister Angela was present to ensure that her nuns were prepared to offer any assistance that might be wanted.
As I headed toward the northwest nurses’ station, she fell in beside me. “Oddie, I hear something happened on the trip back from the abbey.”
“Yes, ma’am. Sure did. I don’t have time to go into it now, but your insurance carrier is going to have a lot of questions.”
“Do we have bodachs here?”
I looked left and right into the rooms we passed. “The place is crawling with them, Sister.”
Rodion Romanovich followed us with the authoritarian air of one of those librarians who rules the stacks with an intimidating scowl, whispers quiet sharply enough to lacerate the tender inner tissues of the ear, and will pursue an overdue-book fine with the ferocity of a rabid ferret.
“How is Mr. Romanovich assisting here?” Sister Angela asked.
“He isn’t assisting, ma’am.”
“Then what’s he doing?”
“Scheming, most likely.”
“Shall I throw him out?” she asked.
Through my mind flickered a short film of the mother superior wrenching the Russian’s arm up hard behind his back in some clever tae kwon do move, muscling him downstairs to the kitchen, and making him sit in a corner on a stool for the duration.
“Actually, ma’am, I’d rather have him hovering over me than have to wonder where he is and what he’s up to.”
At the nurses’ station, Sister Miriam, with Thanks be to God forever on her lips, or at least forever on the lower one, was still behind the counter.
She said, “Dear, the dark clouds of mystery surrounding you are getting so thick I soon won’t be able to see you. This sooty whirl of smog will go past, and people will say, ‘There’s Odd Thomas. Wonder what he looks like these days.’ “
“Ma’am, I need your help. You know Justine in Room Thirty-two?”
“Dear, I not only know every child here, but I love them like they were my own.”
“When she was four, her father drowned her in the bathtub but didn’t finish the job the way he did with her mother. Is that correct, do I have it right?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t want to think in what sort of place his soul is festering now.” She glanced at her mother superior and said, with an edge of guilt in her voice, “Actually, I not only sometimes think about it, I enjoy thinking about it.”
“What I need to know, Sister, is maybe he did finish the job, and Justine was dead for a couple minutes before the police or the paramedics revived her. Could that have happened?”
Sister Angela said, “Yes, Oddie. We can check her file, but I believe that was the case. She suffered brain damage from prolonged lack of oxygen, and in fact had no vital signs when the police broke into the house and found her.”
This was why the girl could serve as a bridge between our world and the next: She had once been over there, if only briefly, and had been pulled back by men who had all the best intentions. Stormy had been able to reach out to me through Justine because Justine belonged on the Other Side more than she did here.
I asked, “Are there other children here who suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation?”
“A few,” Sister Miriam confirmed.
“Are they — are any of them — more alert than Justine? No, that’s not the issue. Are they capable of speech? That’s what I need to know.”
Having moved to the counter beside the mother superior, Rodion Romanovich scowled intently at me, like a mortician who, in need of work, believed that I would soon be a candidate for embalming.
“Yes,” said Sister Angela. “There are at least two.”
“Three,” Sister Miriam amended.
“Ma’am, were any of the three clinically dead and then revived by police or paramedics, the way Justine was?”
Frowning, Sister Miriam looked at her mother superior. “Do you know?”
Sister Angela shook her head. “I suppose it would be in the patient records.”
“How long will it take you to review the records, ma’am?”
“Half an hour, forty minutes? Maybe we’ll find something like that in the first file.”
“Would you please do it, Sister, fast as you can? I need a child who was dead once but can still talk.”
Of the three of them, only Sister Miriam knew nothing about my sixth sense. “Dear, you are starting to get downright spooky.”
“I’ve always been, ma’am.”
IN ROOM 14, JACOB HAD FINISHED THE LATEST portrait of his mother and had sprayed it with fixative. He carefully sharpened each of his many pencils on the sandpaper block, in anticipation of the blank page of the drawing tablet on the slantboard.
Also on the table was a lunch tray laden with empty dishes and dirty flatware.
No bodachs were currently present, although the darksome spirit who called himself Rodion Romanovich stood in the open doorway, his coat draped over one arm but his fur hat still on his head. I had forbidden him to enter the room because his glowering presence might intimidate the shy young artist.
If the Russian entered against my wishes, I would snatch his hat from his head, park my butt on it, and threaten to scent it with essence of Odd if he didn’t back off. I can be ruthless.
I sat across the table from Jacob and said, “It’s me again. The Odd Thomas.”
Toward the end of my previous visit, he had met my every comment and question with such silence that I’d become convinced he had gone into an internal redoubt where he didn’t any longer hear me or even recognize that I was present.
“The new portrait of your mother came out very well. It’s one of your best.”
I had hoped that he would be in a more garrulous mood than when I had last seen him. This proved to be a false hope.
“She must have been very proud of your talent.”
Jacob finished sharpening the last of the pencils, kept it in his hand, and shifted his attention to the drawing tablet, studying the blank page.
“Since I was last here,” I told him, “I had a wonderful roast-beef sandwich and a crisp dill pickle that probably wasn’t poisoned.”
His thick tongue appeared, and he bit gently on it, perhaps deciding what his first pencil strokes should be.
“Then this nasty guy almost hanged me from the bell tower, and I got chased through a tunnel by a big bad scary thing, and I went on a snow adventure with Elvis Presley.”
He began lightly and fluidly to sketch the outline of something that I could not recognize at once from my upside-down point of view.
At the doorway, Romanovich sighed impatiently.
Without looking at him, I said, “Sorry. I know my interrogation techniques aren’t as direct as those of a librarian.”
To Jacob, I said, “Sister Miriam says you lost your mother when you were thirteen, more than twelve years ago.”
He was sketching a boat from a high perspective.
“I’ve never lost a mother because I never really had one. But I lost a girl I loved. She meant everything to me.”
With a few lines he suggested that the sea, when fully drawn, would be gently rolling.
“She was beautiful, this girl, and beautiful in her heart. She was kind and tough, sweet and determined. Smart, she was smarter than me. And so funny”
Jacob paused to study what he had thus far put on the paper.
“Life had been hard on this girl, Jacob, but she had enough courage for an army.”
His tongue retreated, and he bit instead on his lower lip.
“We never made love. Because of a bad thing that happened to her when she was a little girl, she wanted to wait. Wait until we could afford to be married.”
With two styles of cross-hatching, he began to give substance to the hull of the boat.
“Sometimes I thought I couldn’t wait, but then I always could. Because she gave me so much else, and everything she gave me was more than a thousand other girls could ever give. All she wanted was love with respect, respect was so important to her, and I could give her that. I don’t know what she saw in me, you know? But I could give her that much.”
The pencil whispered over the paper.
“She took four bullets in the chest and abdomen. My sweet girl, who never hurt a soul.”
The moving pencil gave Jacob comfort. I could see how he took comfort from creation.
“I killed the man who killed her, Jacob. If I had gotten there two minutes sooner, I might have killed him before he killed her.”
The pencil hesitated, but then moved on.
“We were destined to be together forever, my girl and I. We had a fortune-teller’s card that said so. And we will be … forever.
This here, now — this is just an intermission between act one and act two.”
Perhaps Jacob trusts God to guide his hand and show him the very boat and the precise place on the ocean where the bell rang, so he will know it, after all, when his own time comes to float away.
“They didn’t scatter my girl’s ashes at sea. They gave them to me in an urn. A friend in my hometown keeps it safe for me.”
As the pencil whispered, Jacob murmured, “She could sing.”
“If her voice was as lovely as her face, it must have been sweet. What did she sing?”
“So pretty. Just for me. When the dark came.”
“She sang you to sleep.”
“When I woke up and the dark wasn’t gone yet, and the dark seemed so big, then she sang soft and made the dark small again.”
That is the best of all things we can do for one another: Make the dark small.
“Jacob, earlier you told me about someone called the Neverwas.”
“He’s the Neverwas, and we don’t care.”
“You said he came to see you when you were ‘full of the black.’ “
“Jacob was full of the black, and the Neverwas said, ‘Let him die.’ “
“So ‘full of the black’ means you were ill. Very ill. Was the man who said they should let you die — was he a doctor?”
“He was the Neverwas. That’s all he was. And we don’t care.”
I watched the graceful lines emerge from the simple pencil gripped by the stubby fingers of the short broad hand.
“Jacob, do you remember the face of the Neverwas?”
“A long time ago.”
He shook his head. “A long time ago.”
Cataracts of falling snow made a blind eye of the window.
In the doorway, Romanovich tapped one finger against the face of his watch and raised his eyebrows.
We might have precious little time remaining, but I could think of nowhere better to spend it than here, where I had been sent by the medium of the once-dead Justine.
Intuition raised a question that at once seemed important to me.
“Jacob, you know my name, my full name.”
“The Odd Thomas.”
“Yes. My last name is Thomas. Do you know your last name?”
“That’s right. It would be your mother’s last name, too.”
“That’s a first name, like Jacob.”
The pencil stopped moving, as if the memory of his mother came so vividly to him that no part of his mind or heart remained free to guide his drawing.
“Jenny,” he said. “Jenny Calvino.”
“So you are Jacob Calvino.”
“Jacob Calvino,” he confirmed.
Intuition had told me that the name would be revealing, but it meant nothing to me.
Again the pencil moved, and the boat took further form, the vessel from which Jenny Calvino’s ashes had been dispersed.
As during my previous visit, a second large drawing tablet lay closed on the table.
The longer I tried and dismally failed to think of questions that might extract vital information from Jacob, the more my attention was compelled toward that tablet.
If I inspected the second tablet without permission, Jacob might consider my curiosity a violation of his privacy. Offended, he might withdraw again, and give me nothing further.