Chapters 2 & 3
No one ever guessed by looking at Tom Nash that he was extraordinary, and that was just fine with him.
He was taller than most folks he met, well over six feet. He was also broad shouldered, lean, and weathered from years of hard work with his hands, much of it outdoors. He’d worked as a handyman most of his life — fixing cars and doing a little carpentry, a bit of plumbing, and some landscaping. He’d even earned a license to work as a locksmith, but there wasn’t much call for it in Sawyer, Pennsylvania, thanks to a couple of big lock companies that had pretty much cornered the market.
None of that made him particularly special, though.
His truck certainly didn’t set him apart. Plenty of folks in Sawyer and the local area drove pickups, and more than a few had their cargo beds capped like Tom’s, to keep both thieves and the weather off the gear stored inside. Tom was sure there were probably a few whose mileage put his red beast’s 98,000-plus odometer total to shame, but he didn’t know anybody who owned one.
Tom made a left into his driveway and brought his truck to a stop in front of the garage door, which had been stuck shut for going on two years. He keyed off his truck’s engine, which rattle-shuddered into silence, as if its parts had been spinning in a whirlwind and now were collapsing in a heap beneath the scratched and dented hood. One of these days the truck’s death groans would be genuine, but he had no idea how he’d be able to tell the difference.
He got out of the truck, inhaled the cool night air, and walked to the house, where he found Scout, his neurotic but lovable border collie, lying in the dark on the front steps. She gazed up at him with her most remorseful expression.
“C’mere, girl,” he said, patting his thigh. Scout whimpered in response. “Trouble, huh?” More high-pitched lamentations expressed the dog’s dismay. “For you or for me?” Scout tucked her snout beneath one gray-speckled paw and hid her eyes. A tired grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. “No, don’t tell me. It’d just ruin the surprise.” He stepped over his cowering dog, opened the scraped and scuffed front door, and walked into his living room.
As houses went, Tom’s was comfortable. It was on the small side, but it had two floors, a few small bedrooms, and two full bathrooms with showers. He and his wife, Karen, had made the down payment with money they’d inherited after his father died. Most of their furniture was secondhand stuff left over from their first few years of married life, when they’d lived in a small apartment. None of the pieces matched the house or one another, but taking a loan to buy furniture when he could barely keep up with the mortgage rubbed Tom the wrong way.
Especially with their first child on the way — an experience that was teaching Tom all kinds of new anxiety about the future.
The aroma of frying chicken lured him into the kitchen, where Karen — enormously pregnant and three weeks from her due date — was toiling over a deep skillet filled with hot olive oil, boneless chicken, and crispy sage leaves.
He stepped up behind her, laid his hands on her shoulders, and gently pressed his lips to her neck. “Hey there.”
“Guess what your dog did today,” she said while turning over a sizzling piece of chicken with a pair of tongs.
Not ready to take the bait, he kissed the other side of her neck. “Oh, not bad,” he said, teasing her with a deliberate non sequitur. “How was your day?”
She flipped another chicken breast. The oil spat and crackled. “Your dog showed us why we can’t have new furniture.”
“You know, it never ceases to amaze me,” Tom said. “When Scout does something useful, like chase a raccoon out of your garden, she’s ‘our’ dog. But when she wrecks something, she instantly becomes ‘my’ dog.”
Karen scowled jokingly over her shoulder. “Your point?”
“No point,” Tom replied.
“Get used to it,” Karen said. “Same rule goes for kids.”
“Great.” He started rolling up the sleeves of his red plaid flannel shirt. “Anything I can do to help out in here?”
She gestured with her chin toward the mountain of soiled pans and utensils in the sink. “You can get started on those.”
The one drawback to Karen’s amazing culinary gift was that she generated more dirty dishes than any three other people Tom had ever met. He was convinced that she could find a way to make a greasy mess out of the broiler pan and half the forks in the silverware drawer just to serve a bowl of cold cereal.
It took about a minute for the water from the tap to run hot enough to wash dishes. He started shifting things around, figuring out what he ought to wash first.
Beside him, Karen lowered the heat underneath a steamer filled with something green. “Did you finish that roofing job today?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, squeezing some grapefruit-scented liquid detergent onto a scrubber sponge. “Won’t get the check till next week, though. Deeley’s always slow about paying up.”
She took the skillet of chicken off the heat and set it on a hot pad on the counter. “And what about your other project?”
He lifted one eyebrow in wry amusement. “It went fine.”
One thing about Tom’s life made him extraordinary. Karen was the only other living person who knew what it was, and one of only three people he had ever trusted with his secret: for seventeen years, since he was sixteen years old, he’d been hearing other people’s prayers.
Tom didn’t know how it happened, or why it had happened to him. It wasn’t something he could control. He couldn’t choose whose prayers to hear or which ones or when. At first he’d thought it was a weird kind of telepathy, but he’d never been able to read other people’s thoughts or send his thoughts to others.
His mother had decided he was crazy. Father Keir, an elderly history teacher at the Jesuit-run high school he’d attended, had told him it was a vocation — a spiritual calling — but one that had to be pursued with caution and discretion.
The only thing Tom knew for certain about his gift was that whenever he heard a prayer, he felt compelled to act. To get involved. To help in whatever way he could.
“So what was it this time?” Karen asked. “Another shut-in?”
He shook his head. “No. Just a regular guy.” He left it at that, and Karen understood from the lack of details that the situation was one best kept private.
In this case it had been a fired teacher who’d prayed for help to fight his alcoholism. Tom had found the man at 6:45 a.m. sitting on the railing of an isolated bridge beside his parked car, with curses on his lips and vodka on his breath. Persuading him not to jump had been easy; getting him to meet Tom that afternoon when he’d dried out for a visit to a local AA meeting had been more difficult.
Fortunately, Tom had learned over the years that he could be very persuasive when it was for someone else’s benefit. To his chagrin, his knack hadn’t enabled him to haggle a better price when he bought his truck.
Karen sighed. She opened the cupboard and removed two large orange dinner plates. “Just tell me we didn’t make another interest-free loan or give away something important.”
“Nothing like that,” Tom assured her. “I promise.”
A sidelong glance told him that Karen was still a bit miffed about one of his recent acts of charity for a stranger. “This time,” she said. “What about next time?”
“Won’t know till it happens,” he said. He rinsed a glass under running water hot enough to scald his fingertips.
She shook her head but said nothing as she used the tongs to lift a chicken breast out of the oil and put it onto a plate. After nine years together, she no longer needed to speak in order for Tom to know she was annoyed with him.
He turned off the water and dried his hands with a dish towel. “You think I’ll do something dumb, right? Give away our house? Let a stray dog eat all our food?”
Karen’s shoulders slumped, and a deep weariness infused her voice. “No,” she said. “Not exactly. But I worry about you, Tom.” She lifted the lid from the steamer, releasing a cloud of roiling gray vapor that billowed and dispersed beneath the oven hood. She spooned some broccoli onto his plate and handed it to him. “Don’t forget to take some salad.”
Tom set his plate on the counter next to a large bowl and served himself a small pile of tossed greens rich with the fragrance of balsamic vinegar. “What’re you worried about? It’s not like I do anything dangerous.”
“No, but you snoop in other people’s business. One of these days someone’s gonna get ticked off.”
Wouldn’t be the first time, he mused, but he knew better than to tell her that. “Relax,” he said. “I’ll be okay.”
Karen served herself dinner. “What if you’re not, Tom? What if you get hurt? Or killed?”
“In other words,” Tom said, “what’ll happen to you?”
“Are you kidding?” she snapped. She slammed her plate down on the counter. Broccoli crowns rolled off the plate and fell to the floor. “Which one of us makes sure the bills get paid on time? Who keeps gas in our cars and food on the table? Which one of us actually has health insurance?”
Chastised, he looked at the floor and brooded over the answer: You do.
She picked up the fallen vegetables. “Honestly, Tom, if I had to raise our son alone, I could — and you know that.” With a sigh, she tossed the dog-fur-covered broccoli into the sink. “But what the hell makes you think I’d wantto?”
Tom put down his plate and stepped softly behind Karen. He rested his hands on her shoulders, then caressed her arms, which were hard and tense. “I never said that. That’s not how I feel.” He kissed the back of her head through her light brown hair.
She remained distant, closed off from him. “Don’t,” she said. “I need to be angry at you for a few more minutes, okay?” Pulling away from his touch, she rested her hands on the edge of the sink and leaned forward. “You know I believe in you, in what you do. I’ve always supported you — always.” She laid a protective hand on top of her rounded womb. Tears shimmered in her eyes. “But right now, just this once, I need you to be here for me, okay?”
Tom felt ashamed for failing her when she’d done so much for him. He set his left hand on her hip and let his right hand gently stroke the side of her enlarged belly. “I’m sorry I worry you,” he said softly in her ear. “I don’t mean to. And you’re right; there’s no way I can know what’s gonna happen. But that’d be true no matter what I did. It’s true for everybody, all the time.”
She set her right hand over his. He took it as a sign that he could keep talking. “But whatever it is that sends me on these errands, it’s never given me more than I could handle. It’s never put me in danger.” With a gentle tug on her shoulder, he turned her to face him. “I’d never lie to you,” he said, wiping a tear from her cheek. As she looked up at him with tear-reddened eyes, he added, “This is all gonna be okay. I promise.”
“I believe you,” she said, resting her head against his chest. Her voice trembled with fear. “But what if you’re wrong?”
He wanted to tell her not to be afraid, that nothing would happen … but he knew that would be a lie.
Because sooner or later, something always did.
Seven words flew through the darkness, moving on wings of music and fire, racing westward against the turning world.
Like an arrow slicing through the ether, the words left the city behind, passed over suburbia, and soared over sparse stretches of undeveloped woodland. Stray thoughts rose from the Earth as if it were an endless spring of consciousness, a fountainhead of desire and dread, a geyser of hope and fear.
Guided by steady hands of spirit, the words broke through the barrier between the ethereal and the physical, pierced the clouds, and fell toward a landscape dotted with small houses.
So many ears could not hear what was spoken.
So many eyes could not see what was shown.
None bore witness save the one whose mind lingered now in the shade of dreams, a beacon shining in the gloom.
Most mortals could not hear the words that sailed on the ether … but a Seeker could.
The seven words sped like a feather on a gale then fell like a stone into the Seeker’s soul, shredding the fabric of his dream and rousing him from a troubled sleep.
The message had been delivered. The words had been heard, and the Seeker would know what to do.
The rest was up to him.
Tom jolted awake in the dead of night, all but knocked from his bed. All the prayers he’d ever heard had come to him as whispers.
This one had fallen with the force of a command.
Seven words echoed in his mind as he scrambled from bed wearing just his frayed green sweatpants.
He hurried barefoot downstairs, ran through the kitchen, and hurtled out the back door to his autumn-browned backyard, where he stared eastward through tear-filled eyes, his chest heaving with ragged breaths.
That was where the words had come from.
He felt it. He knew it.
They’d come from over a hundred miles away, from a place he’d never been, from a little girl whose name he didn’t know but whose voice he would never forget and whose life now depended on him.
It was a cry for help, a plea made in terror. Seven simple words that would haunt Tom Nash for the rest of his life.
Please, God … don’t let them kill me.
Karen Nash turned her head and peeked through half-open eyes at the empty other side of her bed.
Gray predawn light behind the window blinds was barely distinguishable from darkness. She glanced at the clock on her end table. It was just after 5:30 a.m., about five hours earlier than Tom normally staggered to consciousness on a Sunday. Never a good sign, she thought, remembering all the odd hours at which his bizarre gift had made its demands on him.
She pushed off the sheet and comforter. In slow, stiff movements, she lowered her legs over the side of the bed.
Chronic backaches and hip pain had plagued her for weeks, and sitting up first thing in the morning had become a challenge. The enormous parasite inside her — which in polite company she was always careful to refer to as “the baby” — had made just about everything in her life difficult and uncomfortable. Even the paste that coated her tongue in the mornings tasted worse.
A gentle push on her back with both hands enabled her to sit mostly upright. I don’t know how I let him talk me into this, she mused, looking down at her round belly — but then, despite all the discomfort and inconvenience, she couldn’t help herself, and she smiled. She slid her feet into a pair of soft, well-padded slippers, sighed with relief, and started to stand up.
Her moment of bliss faded as a hot, sour surge of heartburn worked its way up from her stomach into the back of her throat.
After a visit to the bathroom to swallow some antacids and relieve her bladder, she waddled down the hall and descended the deep-plush carpeted stairs in slow, plodding steps. The house was quiet. Normally when Tom couldn’t sleep he’d camp out on the sofa and watch old movies on TV with the volume turned low, but there was no telltale blue flicker in the living room.
At the bottom of the stairs she stopped and listened. Then she heard it: a scrape of shoes on the asphalt driveway, followed by the hollow, metallic sound of the truck’s liftgate being shut.
Now what? she wondered as she pulled open the front door. Chilly air not yet touched by the dawn made her shiver.
Tom was in the driveway, looking haggard but ready to travel in his slate boatbuilder jacket, dark green canvas shirt, faded blue jeans, and flat-soled sneakers. Scout trailed him and whined softly as Tom circled the idling truck, checking its tires. He passed through its gray exhaust cloud and saw Karen staring at him. She stood with her arms folded across her chest, a cold, dry whisper of a breeze rippling the silk of her maternity nightgown.
“Morning,” he said flatly, as if his mind was elsewhere.
A weary blink and a frown was all the reproach she could muster so early in the day. “Where the hell are you going?”
He broke eye contact with her — another bad sign. “Long story,” he said, and he opened the driver’s side door.
It frightened Karen when he was taciturn, because it meant he was hiding something unpleasant. “Tom,” she said, adding steel to her voice. “What’s going on? Another errand?”
With one hand on the door and the other on the truck’s roof, Tom slumped at the shoulders, and his head drooped. His sigh was muffled by the engine’s idling purr.
He gently shut the door and turned back to face Karen. “Not exactly.”
The way he said it gave Karen a completely different kind of chill from the one the wind inflicted.
She took measured steps down the front stairs and walked toward her husband. “Something’s wrong, isn’t it?” He stared at the ground and wore a forlorn expression. After a moment he nodded. “Tom, what is it? … Was it a prayer?” Another nod. “For God’s sake, please talk to me.”
He looked up. Now that she was closer, she saw that his eyes were bloodshot and his face ashen. “It wasn’t like any prayer I ever heard before,” he said. “It’s life or death.” He was quiet for a moment. In a haunted tone, he continued, “It was a girl. A child. … She asked God not to let them kill her.”
“Let who kill her?” Karen asked. “Kill who?”
Tom shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know who she is or who they are. All I know is she’s in trouble.”
His fear was contagious. She grabbed his arms and tried to make him look at her. “Tom! You have to call the police.”
“And tell them what?” He averted his eyes and stared toward the back of their house. “Besides, this isn’t local.”
She looked at the truck. “Where are you going?”
“East.” He turned his head to face her. “New York.”
Everything was coming so quickly that Karen had no idea how to react. It was like a nightmare coming true. “New York? Now? Tom, I could go into labor any day, you know that.”
“I know,” he said, like a guilty man making a confession.
She pressed on. “Why does it have to be you? And why now, so far from home?” She shook him. “Tom, I need you here.”
“Yes, you do.” He reached up and grasped her cold fingers with his large, warm hands. “But right now she needs me more.”
He gently pried her hands from his arms. His voice softened and took on a mellifluous timbre that Karen had always found impossible to resist. “I’ve always believed I hear prayers for a reason. That someone or something wants me to get involved.” A note of fear crept into his voice. “There has to be a reason I heard this girl’s prayer. A reason why it has to be me.”
“You don’t know that,” she said, desperate to make him stay. “Maybe someone else can do it.”
“How?” Resolve hardened his tone. “As far as I know, I’m the only one who heard her prayer, which means I’m the only one who can help her. I can’t walk away from this. Please believe me. However this happened, it wasn’t a request — it’s an order. I have to go.”
There was something in his voice as he’d said that, some mysterious quality that Karen had heard only a few times before in all their years together. She didn’t know what it was, but when it was there, he could talk her into anything. Besides, how many times had she told him he was doing God’s work? She’d believed it then, and she still did, no matter how many times Tom had denied it.
His eyes were calm. She knew that he was committed.
“What you’re doing could be really dangerous,” she said, surrendering. “You know that, right?” He nodded in reply. “Promise me you’ll be careful.”
“I will,” he said. “You know I will.”
She started to cry. “And don’t eat junk food. Remember your cholesterol and your triglycerides.”
“I’ll remember,” he said with a put-upon smile.
“How long will you be gone?”
“No idea,” he said. “As long as it takes.”
Tears stung her eyes and traced salty trails down her cheek to the corners of her mouth. “I don’t think I could take it if I lost you,” she said, fighting not to collapse into a sobbing mess. Damned third-trimester hormones, she fumed. With his thumbs, Tom gently wiped the tears from her face as she added, “What if you don’t come home?”
He cupped her face in his palms and fixed his blue eyes on hers. Then he said with absolute conviction, “I will always come home to you. That’s a promise I’ll never break.”
And she knew it was the truth.
Her husband leaned forward and kissed her with tenderness, with love, and with sorrow. The morning air was cold on her back, but his body was warm beneath his jacket. She wished she could simply anchor him to the ground and forbid him to go, but that wasn’t possible. She had known from the beginning that she shared him with something greater than either of them — just as she also had known that, sooner or later, this terrible day would come.
Their embrace parted slowly, and he took a step back. “Time to go,” he said with a sad smile. He opened his door, got into the idling truck, and pulled the door shut. Scout, who had been lying flat on the browned front lawn, stood up and trotted over beside Karen as she watched Tom shift the pickup into reverse, filling the air with exhaust fumes.
The truck’s engine rumbled as Tom backed out of the driveway into the narrow street. Karen laid one hand on Scout’s head and skritched the dog’s wiry fur as a wintry breeze blustered past, tearing loose a flurry of dried leaves from the large tree in the front yard. A lull in the truck’s engine noise signaled a change of gears as Tom shifted it into drive. He bade farewell with one final, simple wave before he accelerated away.
Karen watched the truck grow smaller as it retreated down the long residential street, carrying the man she loved away from home and into the unknown. As much as she admired all the good deeds he’d done with his peculiar calling, she would have traded them all to avoid this moment.
Her husband was riding off into danger … and she was alone.