My name is Odd Thomas, and I've heard all the jokes.
For the last year or two, I've been travelling with the mysterious Annamaria, Lady of the Bell (as I call her, because she wore one when we first met), who looks about 19 years old and seven months pregnant, but is really much older and in that condition a lot longer; and Tim, who looks like a boy of 12 but is really several times that. I, on the other hand, am in my 20s, but look and act older; partly because I lost the love of my life, Ms. Stormy Llewellyn, to an act of senseless violence, and partly because I see ghosts, especially ghosts no-one else can see. It's not something I can explain (much less teach); I was born with it, gift or curse (usually both), and I'd be rid of it if I could, but I can't. They're real, though; I've had to bet my life on it, and the lives of many others, several times. What Annamaria wants with me, I don't know; but I go where she goes, and do all she says, and generally treat her like the older sister I never had, because whatever mysterious thing she represents, is almost undoubtedly better than anything I've ever seen or done in my short and sordid life, and for some reason, I'm useful.
So there we were, Annamaria, Tim, and I, gathering groceries in a local convenience store, when I was violently hit by a sudden sense that something terrible was about to happen. I get these feelings once in a while, and I've learned, the hard way, never to ignore them. I was justified an instant later, when an unattended cart charged me like a bull charging a matador, and several watermelons exploded. People screamed, and packages jumped off the shelves.
Normally, when something like that happens, I put it down to poltergeist activity, and look around for the poltergeist. To other people, they're invisible; but to me, they look just like people, in a kind of berserk state which comes over certain ghosts. This time, though, Annamaria told me to duck, and I did, and followed her out, with Tim still clinging to her skirts. I looked back, and saw something like bodiless shadows, moving about; but I've seen that kind of thing before, and they don't normally throw things. I call them bodachs. They're some sort of immaterial entity which congregates around the scene of impending disaster.
I heard about them from another man who could see them; but he hadn't told me more than a few minutes before a truck ran him down and killed him. Only I saw the bodachs take hold of the driver and make him do it. I've kept their existence mostly secret since; but I know to expect the worst when I see them coming. But whatever was in the store that minute, wasn't bodachs; it looked like nothing I'd seen before. The world's full of unexpected terrors, and wonders, for a guy like me. But it frightened Annamaria, which nothing else does, and that was enough.
We got outside, and looked around, and there were more of those shadows at our rental car. Now, I could see they were men and women, but somehow invisible to anyone except somebody like me. I saw others go by and not notice them (hard to determine, I know, in these days of privacy and personal space, when most people try not to make eye-contact with anyone else; but still discernible, for someone who lives by observation, as I do).
I said to Annamaria: 'We're cut off; they're waiting for us'.
She answered: 'I know that, odd one'. (She's the only one to call me by that name; Stormy did, and I've never felt right around it since, except from Annamaria, since Stormy died). 'I know, and we're going a different route'.
With that, she led us along the sidewalk a little way, to a place where the line of stores and warehouses was broken by a round arch, big enough to drive a truck through. All I could see through it was blue sky and summer-dry grassland; but there was a strange vibration in the air, which no normal person could've seen, which suggested it was no ordinary passage. She rushed us through it, and the next thing I knew, we were on a grassy yellow hill-top on the outskirts of town.
I asked: 'How;––?!', but she said: 'All in good time, odd one. Now we wait for our ride'.
We didn't have to wait long. All of a sudden, the air filled with the noise of gigantic wings; and then the world went crazy.
Flying toward us, on two enormous wings, was a dragon; a real, live, vermillion-red dragon, about the size of a humpback whale. He was coming our way like a fighter-plane in an air-show, and there was a man on his back; about my age, sort of Near-Eastern-looking, with black hair and a long moustache. They landed right beside us, and Annamaria said: 'Odd Thomas, this is A.E. Clipson, and his partner Traroth. Artaxerxes and Traroth, this is Odd Thomas, and this is Tim. We'll be going with you'.
The man on the dragon's back said: 'Pleased to meet you all. Just you mount up here, Mr. Thomas, and put Tim and Madame ahead of you on Traroth's back; I'll sit behind you all'.
So that's what we did. I was a little worried about falling off, but there was a heavy cotton pad draped over Traroth's back, like a series of saddles, and each of us found its seat on that, with a sort of seat belt.
I'd thought I was surprised out of my mind by the sudden discover that dragons existed, when I'd never seen one before in spite of years of exposure to the supernatural; but I was surprised even more, when he spoke: 'All aboard! Buckle up! Up, up, and away!'.
With that, he leapt into the sky.
In which we see more of our heroes' flight and landing, and the conversation that followed…
We were in the air, where I'd never been before, totally exposed to the weather, with nothing but a cotton saddle and a dragon's muscles between our rear ends and a long drop with a sudden stop at the end. A bit of a metaphor for life, if you think of it that way. Were we more secure than usual, or less? I was too shaken to know.
We flew, or rather rode, what felt like hours but wasn't, trying (in my case) very hard not to look down, until we came to a place where Traroth landed on a hill, above a municipal reservoir, and walked the rest of the way to a small stream, which kept the reservoir from overflowing. There he stopped, and there he drank, and there Annamaria took Tim off to a shady spot under some trees, and left me with Traroth and Clipson.
The latter looked me in the eye for the first time, smiled, and said: 'Have a drink, Oddworld?', and pulled out two cups from his knapsack, which he filled at the stream, a little above Traroth, and handed one of them to me. Then he said, 'So, now, Mr. Thomas, what exactly are we waiting for?'.
I said, a little surprised: 'Don't you know?'.
He answered: 'All I know, Oddball, is, Madame called on me a few days ago, and asked if I wanted to help her and you in something, and if I did, we two should be where we found you at the time you were, as we valued our lives. So, there we were. It surprised me a little she knew about the two of us; but I wasn't looking a gift horse in the mouth'.
I said: 'But, if he's real, why aren't you making headlines?'.
He answered: 'Who'd believe us? Let's face it; I'm not considered the most reliable of witnesses. If I say anything the audience didn't learn at their mothers' knees, they say, That's not true, and he might as well be a child's imaginary dragon-in-the-garage for all the good it does to explain'.
I asked: 'Why do they treat you like that? And who does, anyway?'.
He answered: 'It's the usual way; and everyone, nearly. But enough about me. Let's talk about you. How long have you known that lady?'.
I said: 'Not too long; what about you?'.
He said: 'Less than you; but I expect you know better than to question her, by now. Have you any idea of what she is?'.
I answered: 'Yeah, I know better. What do you mean, What she is?'.
He said: 'I mean something you'd never believe, dragon or no dragon. But you're not jumping out of your skin at him, either'.
I answered: 'I've seen strange things, too'.
Said he: 'That makes us even, in spite of your name'.
I asked: 'Speaking of names, what's the E for, in yours?'. (I half-expected it to stand for Even, or some similar name, which would give a further background to his wisecrack.)
He answered: 'It's not for anything; but people expect something in its place (a middle-name as they call it), and I got tired of writing None Given on official forms. So I gave myself an E. Commonest letter in English usage, after all'.
I tried: 'Do you know why you needed to come for us?'.
He answered: 'Something was after you, which even you and Madame and Little Big Eyes couldn't face'. (Which obviously meant Tim).
I tried again: 'Do you know what?'.
He answered: 'Nothing you haven't seen before, I expect; or me, either. But never mind that now. The important part is already said'.
I wasn't getting anywhere with that line of inquiry, so I changed the subject: 'Do you know there's a cat sitting on your shoulders?'.
'A cat? What's it look like?'.
'Like a Maine coon, but with tabby markings'.
At that, Clipson gave me a long sad look and said: 'So it's true; you can see the dead. How does he look to you?'.
I caught the changed pronoun, and realized what must be going on. I said: 'He looks fine; like he's happy to be with you, whatever that means to cats. He's nuzzling you, now;–– O no, now he's come over to me', and held out a hand to him.
Said Clipson: 'I wish I could stroke him, too. He died years ago'.
'What was his name?'.
'Mogget;–– which means, "Kitling". Simple, yet dramatic. Here, now, let's not stay maudlin over it; have a sandwich. There's a long road ahead of us all'.
So he passed out sandwiches;–– cheese, tomato, onion, pickled beets, roasted red pepper, and a dash of vinegar for him and us, and tuna fish, chocolate sauce, pastrami, and motor-oil for Traroth;–– and we ate, with Mogget on our laps. After a while, Annamaria and Tim came back, and I asked: 'Where were you, and what were you doing?'.
She answered: 'Just explaining Tim's next step to him. Pass me a sandwich, too, odd one', and so I did.
We sat, and ate, and watched the sunlight through the trees, for maybe an hour or two, and I felt more peaceful than I'd ever felt, before or since. It was almost soporific. I almost did fall asleep, but woke myself just in time, only to hear Annamaria say, 'No need to jump up again, odd one. No need to do anything more than relax'.
So there we stayed, until even relaxing got too tiring for us, and we started off again.
In the air again; a little more comfortable this time, but not much. I tried to break the tension (okay, I admit it: tried to distract myself) with a stab at conversation: 'So, about the wings: aren't they supposed to be attached at the waist, not just the shoulders?'.
I expected Clipson to answer, but it was Traroth himself who did: 'Why should they? I'm not a bat. It's only bats and flying squirrels and gliding possums and such things with their wings attached at the waist; all more refined evolutions, like insects, birds, and most of the extinct flying reptiles (except the Longisquamata and other winged lizards) had them attached at the shoulders. Even hummingbirds do, and they're the best flying vertebrates in the world'.
I tried again: 'But even so, the surface ratio;––'
He said: 'It's a mistake to imagine a larger wingspan is attached at more points. An eagle's wings or a ship's sails, or even the wings of a jet-plane, are all attached at a shoulder. That's where evolution begins. Same as I do'.
I tried a third time: 'But even the little flying lizards, which are even called "Draco volans", have the wings attached to the middle of the body'.
He said: 'They glide. I soar. It's a different evolutionary path through the air. I have to flap a little to get into the air; they have to climb. Flying snakes and the Oriental dragons had to spring up, exactly like coiled springs. Jet-planes have to leap'.
Clipson took over: 'He's right: there are ways and ways of getting into the air, and this is one'.
I tried once more: 'But, to lift a body this size;––'.
Traroth snapped: 'Come off it! Does an airplane need its own length and breadth in wingspan to get off the ground?! Does a penguin need as much to stay afloat in the water? Does an elk need pillars for legs, like a hippopotamus? An albatross has narrower wings in proportion than I have, and it stays aloft for days on end! Enough of this rubbish between you and me!'.
I changed the subject: 'Who were those things you rescued us from? Or do you even know?'.
Clipson answered: ‘Only they know what they call themselves! The people of Chiloé call them the Warlocks (Brujería in the original Spanish), or the Council of the Cave. In Russia, they are known as the Readers of the Dark Book. The people of Livonia, and those of Friuli, used to put on wolf’s-head masks, to chase them off. I call them the Dark Order, after a throwaway line in a thriller I read as a boy. They're troublemakers and not much else. World domination and all that jazz. Haven't you met them before?'.
I answered: 'Maybe I have. I remember something;–––' (actually, what I remembered was an adventure rescuing some lost children, and the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock; but I didn't expect him to believe that).
Clipson guessed: 'But not something like you saw today, no? Not quite identical?'.
I admitted: 'No, not quite identical. But same idea'.
So we flew on, with Traroth pointing out the sights as we flew over them, until about sunset, when we stopped in front of a house.
Clipson said: 'This is where we leave you, Odd; though I'd be glad if we meet again. Until then, farewell'.
He clasped my hand in a mock-military way; then he and Traroth took off, and I waited and watched them until I couldn't see them anymore.
Annamaria said: 'Let's go in, odd one. Our hosts will be waiting'.
With that, she led the way inside.