Chapter 1. Blue Ribbon
There was strength in how she stood defiant, but not enough to disguise her inherent vulnerability. The young girl wore a white spring dress with green embroidery over the heart and a blue ribbon in her hair. Twelve years old, she still had the elfin-like build of a small child. Throughout her neighborhood she was known to be polite and kind. An air of joy surrounded her and her presence brightened any gathering. Strangers felt a pull to assist her in moments of distress. Unfortunately, at that moment, the street was empty save for one dark figure and his creature.
Before her stood a snarling beast. The animal was a savage German Shepherd, with feral muscles rippling under greasy hair. Time slowed for the girl as the beast focused its considerable blood lust upon her. The dog’s ears peeled back, its hackles raised. Ridges formed in its face, and teeth flashed beneath curled lips. Worst of all, its eyes shone like lasers; bloodshot red, they bored deep into the girl’s soul and reflected no hint of mercy or compassion.
Next to the dog the stranger stood with long hair protruding from beneath a black Stetson hat like strands of a soiled mop. A self-satisfied smirk was plastered across his face and he seemed to draw pleasure from beholding the girl’s terror. He waited, neither commanding the dog to attack nor to heel; savoring the moment, fixated on the girl’s terrified trembles.
The cowboy stood over six feet tall, thin with hard muscle. Darkness emanated from him. The girl could sense something beyond the lurking rot of a corrupt adult. She often saw things others could not, things that existed on a plain of reality between sleep and consciousness. Through the filter of her special vision, midnight smoke billowed from the sockets of the cowboy’s eyes.
The cowboy had moved into a rental property a few houses down two weeks before and appeared to have a supernatural awareness of the exact places and times when he could find her alone. She realized now he’d been scouting before. This time was different.
“I like your blue ribbon,” the cowboy said. “My mother used to wear a ribbon like that.”
The girl, Carlie, did not reply.
“Is this you?” the cowboy asked with a menacing drawl. He lifted up the newspaper clipping he was clutching.
Carlie stood her ground even as the dog began to lunge in her direction again and again. She was on her way home from St. Asors. The nuns had told her not to talk to strangers, but they’d never given any practical advice about a situation like this. The beast’s repugnant breath produced a foul cloud that polluted the air and addled her thinking. The cowboy brandished the clipping. Even at a distance, Carlie recognized the image. She wished not to respond, but felt her head dip in an involuntary nod. The intrusion on Carlie’s psyche awakened a defense she didn’t know she had.
“Ahhhh,” the stranger replied, but then he paused, noticing the determined look that crossed Carlie’s face. Before he could explore the subtle change, a man’s angry voice interrupted them.
“What’s going on here?”
Carlie felt something snap in her mind, and only then was she able to take a step back, away from the snarling animal. The voice belonged to her dad, Alan, but her newfound power came from within. Instinctively, she focused on a tingling electric feeling in her chest until it felt as if she were forming a psychic shield. The stranger seemed to sense it too, and he backed off as if he had been shocked. Just then her dad came charging across the lawn in a state halfway between hysteria and rage.
“Sorry, pod’ner,” the cowboy said, turning his attention to the man and surreptitiously folding the clipping into a wad which he shoved into his back pocket. “I apologize for the behavior of ol’ Scorpio. He’s a bit excitable. But it is a public sidewalk.”
The cowboy seemed to deflate. To Carlie’s perspective, he condensed down from a spectral creature wreathed in smoke to the less intimidating form of a lanky street dweller. Cowed, the cowboy turned to go, yanking hard on Scorpio’s leash. Carlie noticed he had a limp and wore a funny fat shoe that protruded beneath the cuff of his bell bottoms.
“I’ve seen you around before,” Carlie’s dad stated, his brow furrowed in fruitless concentration. Carlie watched her dad try to push through some obvious discomfort, but something seemed to block him from completing his thought. Carlie instinctively recognized that the cowboy was exerting his power. Frustrated, her dad changed tactics. “You leave now. I am calling the police. Your dog is never to bother my girl again.”
Offering a weak smirk, the cowboy cast a final glance at Carlie. If he’d intended to instill one final dose of intimidation, he’d miscalculated. Carlie was shy; her parents were working with her to look people in the eye. This was the last person for whom they’d intended that lesson to apply, but something made Carlie look up. Her eyes fused with those of the stranger. With a jolt of pure willpower, she sent the energy gathering within her breast into an assault on the dark stranger. She couldn’t be entirely sure if her humiliation and fear had deluded her into playing games, but she felt a primordial need to respond to the threat he represented. A shock went through her body like touching the sparkplug on a lawn mower, and Carlie was surprised to see the cowboy flinch.
The hound picked that moment to lunge again, and this time the beast took its owner by surprise. The jaws flashed, but Carlie recoiled and the salivating maw snapped shut inches from her cheek.
“Get that monster out of here!” her dad howled. He stepped forward to pull Carlie behind him and kicked the dog as the cowboy grabbed the snarling monster by his spiked collar. The cowboy lumbered away without looking back as Carlie’s dad pulled his little girl to the house, slammed the door, and then knelt before her to inspect for injuries.
“Did he bite you?” he said, trembling all over.
“No Dad, I’m fine.”
“Did he bite you, did he bite you?” her dad continued, becoming frantic as he checked her.
“Dad, I’m fine!” Carlie replied, then resorted to the trick she’d seen her mom use. “Alan, it’s OK!”
At the invocation of his name, her dad returned to himself and enveloped Carlie in a warm hug.
“I’m sorry, honey, I’m sorry.” He embraced Carlie, then held her away to look her in the eyes. “Stay away from that man, do you hear me?”
“Promise me you’ll stay away.”
He grabbed her close.
“The newspaper brought this,” he muttered, “some mistakes you never stop paying for.” Carlie didn’t know what mistakes her dad had made, but at that moment it became clear that the consequences would be hers to pay.
Chapter 2. Curly’s Suit
The coin sang at the flick of Curly’s thumb.
“Heads!” Mickey cried. He was ten years old and wore the typical combination of scuffed blue jeans and pocket T-shirt common to children in the 60s. In addition to his simple clothing, Mickey Haddon perpetually wore a sincere smile that brought out dimples on his cheeks. His eyes glistened with the honest mischief of all young boys, and though he didn’t know it yet, his heart was good. He watched the coin tumble through the air and reflected on how deeply he enjoyed friendly activities with his jovial neighbor.
After flashing for a split second, the coin came down to land in Curly’s palm with a satisfying smack. Curly completed the flip by slapping his hand down upon the back of his arm. He gave Mickey an anticipatory nod before lifting his hand away to reveal the result.
It was heads.
“By golly, that’s ten in a row,” Curly said with a laugh. He was a large man, not tall, but well-filled out. He had curly hair, of course, which he affected in the manner of a Caucasian Afro set off by a full beard. The result was that his head resembled a giant fuzzy tennis ball. Despite his saturnine and hirsute appearance, he was a gentle soul, respected by his peers at Kelley Construction. His friendship with Mickey had been cemented earlier that summer when they’d crowded around Curly’s little TV to watch the moon landing. Curly treated Mickey more like a nephew than a neighbor. “Come on, kid, what’s the trick?”
“There’s no trick,” Mickey replied. For the life of him, he couldn’t understand why Curly kept asking him whether the coin would come up tails or heads. The game seemed pointless to Mickey since the answer was so obvious. Might as well ask the color of the grass or the sky.
“One more time,” Curly said.
“Oh come on, Curly,” Mickey replied, “let’s play catch instead.”
“Once more,” Curly insisted with a smile, “heads or tails?”
Sensing victory, Curly sent the quarter spinning. As he reached to catch it, the quarter took an odd flip and bounced off Curly’s finger to roll down the sidewalk and into the drain.
Curly sat stupefied for a moment before turning to look at Mickey with a respect that all of a sudden began to border on concern. For the first time, he seemed to realize this wasn’t a trick.
“It might be better not to mention this to anyone,” Curly said after a lengthy pause.
The big man’s demeanor sent a chill down Mickey’s spine. Curly had clearly been shaken on a profound level. Mickey didn’t fully understand, but a child is sensitive to signs of an adult in distress, and he knew better than to push the issue. He resolved to keep his predictions to himself in the future.
A few weeks later, Mickey’s resolve about suppressing his talent of foresight was put to its first test. Curiously, the incident revolved around his friendly neighbor’s Brooks Brothers suit.
There was no need for a man of Curly’s modest taste and lifestyle to own a good suit, so he didn’t—until his wife put her foot down.
“Curly, with all due respect, I’ve spent thirty years going to weddings and reunions and holiday dances with a husband wearing jeans and a sweater. I’m getting you a suit for your birthday.”
Curly’s protests were in vain. A trip to Boston resulted in the purchase of a brown Brooks Brothers suit. Two hundred dollars changed hands; big money in those days. To everyone’s surprise, Curly developed a sense of pride in his suit and looked forward to his few opportunities to wear it. But his social circle tended toward Friday night fish fries and trips to the bowling alley, so there was little call for his Brooks Brothers pride and joy. When not in use, the suit stayed well-pressed and safe in a plastic bag in the closet.
There are two types of people; those who preserve the few nice things they have, and those who view every one of their possessions as objects to be used and discarded. Curly’s co-worker Wayne was a member of the second group.
Totally out of the blue, as was his wont, Wayne came over to Curly’s house with a request.
“Curly, I like this woman. I want to make a good impression. Can I borrow your suit?”
Wayne resembled Curly, physically anyway. Emotionally, not so much. Whereas Curly exuded a quiet demeanor that put people at ease, Wayne was cold and distant. Wayne ignored children and seemed perpetually peeved. Nobody liked him, except Curly. Curly liked him in the way that kind-hearted souls adopt feral cats rather than let them suffer.
The request occurred in the driveway that Curly shared with Mickey Haddon. Mickey was there, playing in his yard, biding his time in the hope that Curly would have some time for catch later. Children did not exist as far as Wayne was concerned, so he didn’t even notice the perceptive fourth grader.
Wayne’s request to borrow the suit shocked Mickey as if he had touched the supernatural third rail. He experienced a physical sting as if his whole body was a funny bone and he’d just collided with a table. All the energy focused into a single point and burst out in an exclamation of surprising volume. “Don’t let him!” Mickey howled.
The rebuke was so loud that Mickey’s mom came running out of the house.
“What happened?” Mrs. Haddon said.
Curly and Wayne were regarding Mickey with very different expressions. Wayne’s face reflected shock and confusion at the boy’s outburst. Curly’s face contained a resigned understanding. Curly was the first to speak.
“Ma’am, I think Mickey’s a little upset about our conversation. It’s our fault. We were talking about women.”
Without giving Mickey a chance to explain, Mrs. Haddon grabbed her son by the ear. She pulled him into the kitchen, up the stairs, into his room and slammed the door. Mickey knew better than to protest. Instead, he grabbed a Big Chief tablet and a pencil and put down the first entry in a record of premonitions that would span many years.
Back outside, Mickey’s outburst was just another in a long list of reasons Curly had to not lend out his suit. But he found his self-interest, as always, overruled by his gentle nature.
“Sure, Wayne, just have it dry-cleaned before you bring it back.”
Mickey heard the final fate of Curly’s suit a few days later while practicing his spy skills by eavesdropping on his parents after they thought he was asleep. From the top of the stairs, Mickey observed his dad sipping at his nightly shot of Old Crow while his mother enjoyed a modest few ounces of Gallo burgundy out of a purple Melmac coffee cup.
“You’re not going to believe what happened today,” Mr. Haddon said. “Curly stopped me in the driveway and told me about his latest misadventure with Wayne.”
Mickey’s mom took a drag off an unfiltered Chesterfield cigarette, her single one of the day. She was generally disinterested in news about Wayne, but she enjoyed a good piece of gossip as much as anyone. She settled back in a relaxed posture and exhaled a plume of smoke.
“Tell me about it.”
“Apparently, Wayne had a terrible date and he decided to finish the evening by railroading Curly on the phone. The call came around 10 p.m., so you know what that means.”
“Wayne had already had a few?”
Mickey’s dad nodded. “More than a few if I know Wayne. Anyway, Wayne had borrowed Curly’s suit for the date—”
“The Brooks Brothers suit?” Mrs. Haddon had an eye for fashionable things.
“Yup. Well, things weren’t going well on the date and they got worse when Wayne yelled ‘I wore my best suit for you!’ at the poor woman.”
“The nerve of that guy,” Mickey’s mom said, shaking her head.
“Well,” the girl snapped, “‘Clothes don’t make the man!’”
“She’s right about that...”
“And she stormed out.”
“Good for her, but let me guess,” Mrs. Haddon said. “Wayne is mad at Curly because the suit didn’t work.”
“Well, it’s more complicated than that, get this. Curly hasn’t been able to get the suit back.”
“And he’s not going to get it back.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, apparently Wayne got so worked up chewing Curly out on the phone he had a heart attack.”
Mrs. Haddon was not without compassion. “Is he OK?”
“No, he’s dead.”
“Yeah, he didn’t come in to work, so the landlord went to investigate. Found him in bed.” Mickey’s dad knocked on the table as he took a drink. “Dead as a doornail. Kind of makes you think.”
“I’m glad somebody found him at least,” Mickey’s mom said. “Guys like Wayne tend to go unmissed. But why didn’t you start off by saying that Wayne died?”
“Well, this story isn’t about Wayne; it’s about Curly’s suit. Wayne didn’t have a nice suit and now he’s in need of one again.”
Mickey’s mom went white. “Don’t tell me...”
Her response was interrupted by a loud sneeze. It was Mickey, who had been trying to hold it in until the end of the story but couldn’t quite get there. The conversation came to a halt as the young boy was escorted back to bed by the ear.
Wayne’s visitation was on Friday.
The Haddons were a church-going family and so despite the fact that Mickey had never seen a dead body and did not want to start, his parents insisted they all go to pray for the deceased, and to support their friend Curly, whose kind nature had burdened him with an unwarranted sense of responsibility for Wayne’s demise.
The Haddons showed up for the visitation early, intending to beat the rush. Their worries were unfounded because they were the first ones to walk up the steps to the door of the funeral home, a converted three-story house. Mickey followed his mom and dad up four gray wooden steps with the risers painted white, walked across the broad porch and entered. Mickey knew his parents had had a small argument over whether Wayne was deserving of fifty cents for a sympathy card. He knew the outcome when his mother went over to a small podium, signed the guest book and dropped a somber-looking Hallmark envelope into a slotted oaken box.
The entryway opened into a sitting room. There were a dozen folding chairs, all unoccupied except for one in which Wayne’s mother sat. Wayne’s sister stood by the casket. In the casket was Wayne. As they say, “He looked just like himself.” He did look like himself. Himself in Curly’s suit.
Mr. Haddon laughed.
Mrs. Haddon elbowed him. If Mickey’s dad had been ten, she would have pulled his ear. It was clearly time to go. The family piled back into the car, mother and dad in the front and Mickey centered in the back seat. A somber mood didn’t mean Mickey couldn’t open his mouth and make it worse. The boy leaned over.
“Dad, this is weird. I’m worried.”
“Nothing to worry about,” Mr. Haddon answered. “A man died. It happens, ok?”
“No, no, Dad, not that. I mean I knew too much ahead of time…”
Mr. Haddon looked over his shoulder. “What in the hell are you talking about?”
The car came to a stop sign. Mickey reached over his dad’s shoulder and put the Big Chief tablet in front of his face. He shook it.
“Dad! I knew something was going to happen. This is a problem.”
“Get that thing out of my face, I’m trying to drive.”
Mickey grew desperate and pointed insistently at the notebook. The words were dated the day of the driveway conversation. They said: “Curly is not going to get his suit back.”
“Dad, look!” Mickey implored.
“Mickey, I can’t see!” Mickey’s dad howled. With a quick motion, he grabbed his son’s tablet and threw it out the window. “Problem solved!”
They drove the rest of the way home in uncomfortable silence. Mickey did not get escorted to his room by the ear and for that he was grateful.
Later that afternoon, Mickey hopped onto his Schwinn Sting Ray, thumbed the Sturmey-Archer three speed shift lever into high gear and sped back to that corner. As he pedaled, the sting of his father’s rejection slowly dissipated. He knew his dad to be a meat and potatoes guy, there was no room in his world view for extra-sensory perception.
Arriving at the corner, Mickey got lucky and found his tablet, half-buried in oak leaves in the gutter. A few pages had been blown out but not the important ones.
There was also something new. A sketch had appeared on one of the back pages. The sketch was of a little girl’s face. She was holding her finger up to her lips and in a comic strip balloon coming out of her mouth was written, “Shhhhhh!”
Mickey didn’t know what to make of the drawing, but Curly’s warning and his dad’s reaction had taught him a lesson about discussing things that didn’t make sense. He kept making notes, but he resolved never to snow them to anyone. He kept that resolution for many years, never showing anyone until decades later during a fateful meeting at the Lenmel Hotel.
Chapter 3. Smoke
Mort LeFrance was conceived in the cab of a pickup truck in the parking lot of Folsom prison in the spring of 1946. His dad, Lenny, had been doing five for aggravated assault but secured an early release when he was offered the option of taking an experimental drug in exchange for an early parole. He never asked about the risk, and called the situation nothing more than “tossing back some shots for a bunch of skinny, limp-wrist, government pencil-pushers.” Lenny was never much on details, so he neglected to ask the contents of the tincture he imbibed. Upon his release, as he stumbled through the Folsom gates he recalled seeing what years later in Haight-Ashbury would be called chem trails. He paid little attention, intent on expelling two years of pent-up frustration on his long-suffering wife, Sissy. Whatever drugs he’d been given came along for the ride and something was passed to his firstborn and only son, Mort.
Very early in his life, Mort began seeing things that weren’t there. Generally the visions came to him in the form of smoke. He saw a haze invisible to others. The black mirage would twist and dance in the air like ink poured into water. Mort could watch the show for hours, and sometimes his mother would find him with a far-off look that seemed to focus on everything and nothing all at once.
The toughening of Mort began early. The more he was beaten, the angrier he became. He was a hellion with everyone except his mother. To the rest, he was a malevolent force of nature, just like his dad. That worked fine on the playground because he was bigger and tougher than all the other kids. No one ever made fun of his club foot more than once.
He grew tall and lanky with shoulder-length hair and knuckles perpetually scuffed from work or fights.
Mort was in his late teens when he rolled in to watch the 49ers game at the 81-Z where his mother worked. He should have been in school, but he’d been kicked out. He was too young to drink but that had never stopped him before.
“What’ll ya have?” asked Sissy with a tender smile.
“Anchor Steam,” Mort replied.
Sissy winked and lifted the selection from behind the bar. She’d had it ready.
Mort kept one eye on the smeary screen and the other on Sissy as she strolled away to the other customers. There was a drunk sailor down at the end who was watching Sissy with more intensity than Mort cared to allow.
The screen above crackled as the announcers began to spout their endless verbal refuse.
“They should play these games without narration,” Mort mumbled. “All I want to hear is the sound of helmets crashing and cries of impact. I can’t take the false poetry of these TV punks.”
Nobody answered. That meant nothing to Mort; he was used to talking to himself.
He glanced to the end of the bar just in time to see the sailor slap Sissy on the behind. Sissy jumped as if stung and the sailor flashed her a lecherous smile. Mort made sure to look away before Sissy glanced in his direction. He wanted to allow her the dignity of pretending it had never happened, but he clenched his jaw so tight his teeth hurt. He took a flavorless swig of his Anchor Steam and tried hard to keep his hand from trembling.
Over the course of years, Mort had lost all tolerance for any sort of physical aggression against his mother. Mort’s old man, Lenny, was never slow to raise his hand against either mother or child. Mort’s early attempts to defend Sissy were successful only in drawing attention onto himself. After those beatings, Lenny would usually take off to this very bar. In those moments, Sissy would hold Mort close and try to quench the fire inside him.
Rinse, dry, repeat.
Comfort was harder to come by when Mort reached puberty and became too big to cuddle. Sometimes Mort feared his rage was so insatiable that he might take it out on his mother, so he took to leaving the house.
“And here’s the kickoff!” the announcer blathered.
Mort glanced up to watch the ball go high, high, high into the air and then plummet down into the hands of the returner, who took two steps before nearly getting his head taken off by a gunner who hit him at full speed.
The returner lay still on the grass as his teammates waved for the trainers.
A few minutes later, the returner was hauled off on a stretcher and the game resumed. Mort liked the kickoff the best.
“Need a refill?” Sissy asked.
“Not yet, thanks, Mom.”
Growing up, Mort had not had much supervision. When he ran into problems with authority at school, which became more frequent as he aged, he would take days off and find trouble around town. He’d wander along the docks where hundreds of houseboats were moored. Eventually the sewage and noise and chaos of the floating neighborhood caused a crackdown. The houseboats got cleaned up, and the fleet became a fraction of what used to be docked in Sausalito. In Mort’s childhood, the docks area was a city unto itself, populated by free spirits, beatniks, musicians, artists, retirees, and grifters. Interesting types who did not want to be tied down to dry land. Mort learned a lot of lessons there; some of them hard.
Mort never finished high school. He was combustible. As a freshman, the high school staff held him in check by suspending him whenever he went off the rails and beat up other kids, but when he punched out a teacher his sophomore year, he was expelled. At his final expulsion hearing, his principal said to his parents in front of Mort, “Mark my words. This young man is ruthless.” Sissy cried. Lenny spit on the floor and said, “He’s too good for this soft school. You can’t kick him out. We quit.”
Back up on the big screen, the 49ers lasted three plays and had to punt. At the end of the bar, the sailor cried out in disgust, “What a bunch of losers!” He then pushed himself away from the bar and stumbled into the bathroom.
Mort tipped his beer back again; the bottle trembled less now. Without realizing it, Mort issued a low whistle as he put the empty bottle back on the bar: a long single note that he bent slightly higher at the end.
Back in school, he’d gotten into the habit of whistling. He could do it like a songbird. As the years passed his whistling became sinister, so much so that it preceded him like the ticking clock of the crocodile in Peter Pan.
He began running away. His parents were not around, so it was easy to skip out. Lenny would be out riding with the boys and Mom would be working one of her two jobs, trying to keep food on the table. When the boy did not show up, Lenny would go find him and another beating would ensue, until one night when Mort was fourteen and six-foot-two, he hit the old man in the head with the chain he used to lock his bike—knocking him out. Lenny was drunk and between the concussive whack of the chain and the beer, he hit the deck and stayed there until morning. When he woke up, he went up to Mort’s room, looked in and said, “You’re old enough to start riding with us. I’ll have a hog for you tonight. Get ready.”
That night, the club pickup truck pulled up in front of Lenny’s house and the boys rolled out a stolen softail; a classic motorcycle of the day. They showed Mort how to kick-start it and had him follow them down to Big Sur, where they stopped and told him to go in and rob the liquor store. No problem. He walked in with the bicycle chain and walked out with eighty-seven dollars cash and two bottles of Jack Daniels.
Mort had lost interest in the 49ers’ game. He pushed himself away from the bar and headed in the direction of the bathroom.
Riding with the Angels brought a sense of purpose for a while, but it didn’t last. Around the fringes, Mort always had a vision of the smoke. With time, the dancing ink became clearer, more sinister, and impossible to escape. He could see faces, he could see acts.
Mort came to understand that Lenny was pure evil. Sissy was not. Mort suffered an unbearable tension caused by enjoying his father’s gift of bullying and hurting on the one hand, and nursing a love for his mother that went so deep that when he thought about it, emotion welled up inside him as if he were going to throw up. He took his inner conflict on long strolls down by the dock and tried to let it out in low, haunting whistles.
Most men were bad. The smoke showed him that. Striking first became self-defense when you had premonitions of what was to come. They all had it coming, and would respond tenfold if given the chance.
The bathroom door creaked open as Mort entered. It was a smallish room with cheap fixtures.
“Hey, buddy,” the sailor said, “I think there’s only room for one.”
Mort glanced around and nodded. He stepped forward and shut the door.
“I’ll be done in a minute,” the sailor said, glancing back without turning his head.
When the sailor resumed focus on his business, Mort hit him with the chain. He hit the sailor much harder than he had hit his dad or the liquor store owner. The sailor lurched forward over the urinal before slumping back down onto the tiles, still clutching his manhood in his hand.
The sailor wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon.
Mort was smart enough to keep on going out the backdoor and not even Sissy ever really knew what had happened. Walking home, Mort wondered if he had killed the man. He felt a tingling anticipation. The darkness at the fringes of his consciousness came tighter into focus and soothed him.
“You’ve done right,” it seemed to say. “He shouldn’t have treated Sissy that way. He got what he had coming.”
It was the smoke talking, but the words came out in Mort’s voice, low and quiet like a sad whistle.
Chapter 4. Carlie
If Carlie had received the same advice Mickey got from Curly, perhaps there would have been less pain in her life. But instead of a pragmatic neighbor to rely on for guidance, she had Alan and Shalla Stillman, loving parents who sometimes let curiosity get the better of them.
Alan had met Shalla when they were undergrads at Stanford. They were both after their doctorate; Alan in biochemistry and Shalla in psychology. Like many men in those days, Alan’s career had started in the military, but the end of World War II had kept him from seeing any combat. His involvement with the military continued in some capacity that Shalla didn’t understand. Whenever she queried Alan on the matter, he dodged the questions. It became clear to Shalla that some part of Alan’s work required confidentiality, which she came to accept as a condition of knowing him. Shalla was busy enough with the demands of her own career, and as long as the bills were paid, she decided she didn’t need to know.
As a hobby, Alan had an interest in parapsychology which, when brought up in social gatherings of academic colleagues, always elicited a round of nervous coughs and hastily contrived excuses to withdraw. Alan’s work kept him busy. Sometimes the phone would ring in the middle of the night and Shalla would hear Alan’s indecipherable muttering in the study, only to have him return to bed tight-lipped and pallid.
They were married January 1st, 1950 because that made it easy for Alan to remember their anniversary. Typical of academic couples, they had children late; Robert was born in ’55 with Carlie coming along in ’58.
Carlie’s first childhood memory was of the phone ringing, except it had not rung.
“Grandma’s on the phone,” she told her mother, despite being an infant new to words. There was the kind of excitement in her voice that made Shalla pay attention, although she thought the girl was playing make-believe.
“Oh,” Shalla said, “what does she have to say?”
“Ask her yourself,” Carlie replied.
Then the phone rang and Shalla picked it up. “Oh, hi Mom, we were just talking about you.” Shalla paused and gave Carlie a puzzled look, but Carlie had already returned to her innocent playing.
The second time Carlie predicted a phone call, Shalla took it more seriously. On the third occasion, Shalla mentioned the phenomenon to Alan.
“Hmmm,” Alan said, neither accepting nor dismissing the story. He merely pulled out a graph paper notebook and began making entries.
When a supposition becomes data, it’s easy for a conclusion to change. Still, there were factors to be considered. Having been a mother herself, Shalla’s mom knew not to call during nap time. Also, Carlie didn’t make predictions for other callers. It could have been a simple coincidence that Carlie called out for her grandma just before the phone rang. More careful observation would reveal what was happening.
After a year of record keeping, Alan discovered some trends. If Carlie’s declarations were random, it followed there would be occasions when she predicted a call that never came.
But Carlie was never wrong, nor did she fail to anticipate Grandma’s call.
“There’s something different about our child,” Alan told Shalla. “She has a gift, and it’s our job to help her develop it.”
Shalla and Alan were both well-versed in doing research. Their small home was stacked with books, magazines and inter-library loan articles. As caring parents, they did their best to guide their exceptional daughter through a world they themselves could not see.
With encouragement, Carlie’s gift began to develop.
The incident with the golf ball took things to a different level.