Romanovich and I locked eyes, and I said, “Sir, have you ever seen the movie Forbidden Planet?”
“No, Mr. Thomas, I have not.”
“When this is all over, I think we should watch it together.”
“I will make the popcorn.”
“With salt and just a pinch of chili powder?”
“So shall it be.”
Brother John said, “Are you sure you won’t have some cookies, Odd Thomas? I know you like my cookies.”
I expected him to make sorcerous gestures toward the table beside my chair, conjuring chocolate-chip treats from thin air.
Romanovich said, “Brother John, you said earlier that you have applied the lesson of your computer model, the lesson being that all matter as we know it has arisen out of thought. The universe, our world, the trees and the flowers and the animals … all imagined into existence.”
“Yes. You see, my science has led me back to faith.”
“How do you mean you applied what you believe you’ve learned?”
The monk leaned forward in his wingback chair, his hands fisted on his knees as if he were struggling to contain his excitement. His face appeared to have shed forty years, returning him to boyhood and the wonder thereof.
“I have,” he whispered, “created life.”
THIS WAS THE CALIFORNIA SIERRA, NOT THE Carpathian Mountains. Outside, snow flew rather than rain, without thunderclaps or bolts of lightning. In this room I found a disappointing lack of bizarre machines with gold-plated gyroscopes, crackling arcs of electricity, and demented hunchbacks with lantern eyes. In the days of Karloff and Lugosi, they really understood the demands of melodrama better than our mad scientists do these days.
On the other hand, it is true that Brother John Heineman was less mad than misguided. You will see that this is true, though you will also see that between the mad and the misguided, the line is as thin as a split hair that has been split again.
“This chamber,” said Brother John with a curious mix of glee and solemnity, “isn’t merely a room but is also a revolutionary machine.”
To me, Rodion Romanovich said, “This is always trouble.”
“If I envision an object and consciously project that image,” Brother John continued, “the machine receives it, recognizes the projected nature of it separate from all other kinds of thought, amplifies my directed mental energy to several million times its initial power, and produces the object imagined.”
“Good Lord, sir, your electrical bill must be outrageous.”
“It’s not inconsiderable,” he acknowledged, “but it isn’t as bad as you might think. For one thing, it’s not volts that matter so much as amps.”
“And I suppose you receive a high-user discount.”
“Not only that, Odd Thomas, my laboratory has certain rate advantages because it is in fact a religious organization.”
Romanovich said, “When you say you can imagine an object and the room will produce it — you mean like the cookies you have mentioned.”
Brother John nodded. “Certainly, Mr. Romanovich. Would you like some cookies?”
Glowering, the Russian said, “Cookies are not alive. You said you had created life.”
The monk sobered. “Yes. You’re correct. Let’s not make a parlor game out of it. This is about First Things, man’s relationship to God and the meaning of existence. Let’s go directly to the main show. I will create a floppy for you.”
“You will see,” Brother John promised, and smiled knowingly.
He sat back in his chair, closed his eyes, and furrowed his forehead as if in thought.
“Are you doing it now?” I asked.
“If I am allowed to concentrate, yes.”
“I thought you would need a helmet of some kind, you know, with all kinds of wires trailing from it.”
“Nothing so primitive, Odd Thomas.
The room is attuned to the precise frequency of my brain waves. It’s a receiver and an amplifier, but only of my projected thoughts, no one else’s.”
I glanced at Romanovich. He looked as bearishly disapproving as ever I had seen him.
Perhaps twenty seconds had passed before the air felt thicker, as though the humidity had abruptly increased, but this heaviness had no moist quality. Pressure pushed in upon me from all sides, as if we had been descending into oceanic depths.
On the Persian carpet, in front of Brother John’s chair, arose a silvery shimmering, like a reflection of light that had bounced off a bright object elsewhere in the room, although that was not the explanation for it.
After a moment, tiny white cubes had formed apparently out of nothing, as rock sugar crystallizes on a string that is suspended in a glass of highly sweetened water. The number of tiny cubes rapidly increased, and at the same time they began to fuse with one another, as if I were watching a rewinding video of the incident in the garage.
Romanovich and I rose to our feet, no doubt motivated by the same thought: What if a “floppy” is the pet name Brother John has given to the ambulatory boneyards?
We need not have been alarmed. What formed before us was a creature the size of a hamster. All white, combining features of a puppy, a kitten, and a baby bunny, it opened huge eyes that were as blue as — but less predatory than — the eyes of Tom Cruise, gave me a winning smile, and made an appealing, musical burbling sound.
Brother John opened his eyes, smiled at his creation, and said, “Gentlemen, meet your first floppy.”
I was not present in the school to witness this, but following is what I was told of events unfolding parallel to Brother John’s revelations in the Mew:
In Room 14, as Jacob does needlepoint, Brother Knuckles places a chair in the open doorway, where he sits, a baseball bat across his knees, and observes the activity in the hallway.
Brother Maxwell, fifteen years downriver from his journalism career, is perhaps hoping that he has not come all this way and time only to encounter the same mindless violence that he could have had without a vow of poverty, in Los Angeles.
Maxwell sits in a chair near the only window. Because the whirl of snow half hypnotized him, he has not been focusing on the fading day beyond the glass.
A noise more crisp than the wind, a series of faint clinks and squeaks, draws his attention to the window. Pressed to the far side of the panes is a shifting kaleidoscope of bones.
Rising slowly from his chair, as if a sudden movement might agitate the visitor, Maxwell whispers, “Brother Salvatore.”
In the open doorway, with his back to the room, Brother Knuckles is thinking about the latest book by his favorite author, which isn’t about either a china rabbit or a mouse who saves a princess, but is nonetheless wonderful. He doesn’t hear Brother Maxwell.
Backing away from the window, Brother Maxwell realizes that he has left both his baseball bats beside the chair he vacated. He again whispers for Salvatore, but perhaps no louder than before.
The patterns of bone at the window constantly change, but not in an agitated fashion, almost lazily, conveying the impression that the creature may be in a state similar to sleep.
The dreamy quality of the kaleidoscopic movement encourages Brother Maxwell to return to his chair to pick up one of the baseball bats.
As he bends down and grips that weapon, he hears a pane of glass crack above him, and as he startles upright, he shouts, “Salvatore!”
Although it had formed out of cubes, the floppy was as furry, cuddly, and floppy as its name. Its huge ears drooped over its face, and it brushed them back with one paw, then rose on its hind feet. The Pillsbury Doughboy might have something like this as his pet.
His face a portrait of enchantment, Brother John said, “All my life, I’ve been obsessed with order. With finding order within chaos. With imposing order on chaos. And here is this sweet little thing, born out of the chaos of thought, out of the void, out of nothing.”
Still standing, no less wary than when he had expected one of the boneyards to rise up before him, Romanovich said, “Surely you have not shown this to the abbot.”
“Not yet,” Brother John said. “In fact, you’re the first to see this … this proof of God.”
“Does the abbot even know your research was leading to … this?”
Brother John shook his head. “He understands that I intended to prove that at the bottom of physical reality, under the last layer of apparent chaos is ordered thought waves, the mind of God. But I never told him that I would create living proof.”
“You never told him,” Romanovich said, his voice groaning under the weight of his astonishment.
Smiling at his creation as it tottered this way and that, Brother John said, “I wanted to surprise him.”
“Surprise him?” Romanovich traded astonishment for disbelief. “Surprise him?”
“Yes. With proof of God.”
With barely throttled contempt, more directly than I might have said it under these circumstances, Romanovich declared, “This is not proof of God. This is blasphemy.”
Brother John flinched as if he had been slapped, but recovered at once. “I’m afraid you haven’t entirely followed what I’ve told you, Mr. Romanovich.”
The giggling, toddling, big-eyed floppy did not at first glance seem like a work of supreme blasphemy. My initial take was: furry, cute, cuddly, adorable.
When I sat down on the edge of my chair and leaned forward to have a closer look at it, however, I got a chill as sharp as an icicle in the eye.
The floppy’s big blue peepers did not engage me, did not have the curiosity of a kitten’s or puppy’s eyes. They were vacant; a void lay beyond them.
The musical burbling and the giggle charmed, like the recorded voice of a toy — until I reminded myself that here was not a toy, that here was a living being. Then its utterances reminded me of the low muttering of dead-eyed dolls in nightmares.
I rose from the chair and took a step or two back from Brother John’s dark miracle.
“Dr. Heineman,” Romanovich said, “you do not know yourself. You do not know what you have done.”
Brother John appeared bewildered by the Russian’s hostility. “We have a different perspective, I see, but—“
“Twenty-five years ago, you rejected your deformed and disabled child, disowned and abandoned him.”
Shocked that the Russian was privy to that transgression but also clearly stricken by shame, Brother John said, “I am not that man anymore.”
“I will grant that you became remorseful, even contrite, and you did an amazingly generous thing by giving away your fortune, taking vows. You are reformed, you may be a better man, but you are not a different man. How can you convince yourself of such a thing when you are so conversant with the theology of your faith? From one end of this life to the other, you carry with you all that you have done. Absolution grants you forgiveness for it, but does not expunge the past. The man you were still lives within you, repressed by the man you have struggled to become.”
I said, “Brother John, have you ever seen Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? If we get through this alive, maybe we can watch it together.”
THE ATMOSPHERE IN THE MEW WAS NOT healthy, which is like saying that you might not want to have a picnic in the cone of a dormant volcano if the ground is rumbling underfoot.
Brother John’s feelings had been hurt when his miraculous work had been received with less enthusiasm than he had expected. And his disappointment had about it a quality of wounded pride, a thinly masked resentment, a disturbing childlike peevishness.
The cute, creepy, cuddly, soulless floppy sat on the floor, playing with its feet, making all the noises of a creature that was wonderfully amused with itself, showing off for us, as if confident that we would at any moment coo with admiration for it. Its giggle, however, sounded more humorless by the second.
The bone beasts, the tower phantom, and now this demonic Beanie Baby had exhibited a vanity unseen in genuine supernatural entities. They existed outside the vertical sacred order of human beings and spirits. Their vanity reflected the vanity of their troubled creator.
I thought of Tommy Cloudwalker’s three-headed coyote-man and realized that another difference between the genuinely supernatural and the bizarre things we had seen in the past twelve hours was the fundamentally organic character of what is supernatural, which is no surprise, really, since true spirits once lived as flesh.
The bone beasts had seemed not organic but like machines. When Death had leaped from the bell tower, it had disassembled in flight, had broken apart into geometric fragments, as might a failed machine. The floppy was not the equivalent of a puppy or a kitten, but of a wind-up toy.
Standing with his hands in the pockets of his coat, as if he would at any moment withdraw the .50-caliber Desert Eagle and blow the floppy to smithereens, Rodion Romanovich said, “Dr. Heineman, what you have made is not life. Upon death, it does not decompose. It deconstructs itself in some process similar to fission but not fission, producing no heat, leaving nothing. What you have created is anti-life.”
“You simply do not grasp the achievement,” said Brother John. Like the facade of a summer hotel being boarded up for the off-season, his face steadily put away its former light and animation.
“Doctor,” Romanovich continued, “I am sure that you built the school as atonement for abandoning your son, and I am sure that you had Jacob brought here as an act of contrition.”
Brother John stared at him, still withdrawing behind shutters and boarded windows.
“But the man you were is still within the man you are, and he had his own motivations.”
This accusation aroused Brother John from his withdrawal. “What are you implying?”
Pointing to the floppy, Romanovich said, “How can you put an end to that thing?”
“I am able to think it out of existence as efficiently as I created it.”
“Then for the love of God, do so.”
For a moment, Brother John’s jaw clenched, his eyes narrowed, and he did not appear disposed to oblige the request.
The Russian radiated not just the authority of an officer of the state but also moral authority. He removed his left hand from a coat pocket and made a hurry-up gesture.
Closing his eyes, furrowing his forehead, Brother John imagined the floppy out of existence. Mercifully, the giggling stopped. Then the thing disassembled into rattling, twitching cubes. It vanished.
When the scientist monk opened his eyes, Romanovich said, “You yourself noted that you have been obsessed with order all your life.”