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HERE IS THE CENTRAL MYSTERY: HOW I GOT from the portcullis-style gate in the flood tunnel to the kitchen door of the Blue Moon Cafe, a journey of which I have no slightest recollection.

I do believe that I died. The visits I paid to Ozzie, to Terri, and to the Porters in their kitchen were not figments of a dream.

Later, when I shared my story with them, my description of what each of them was doing when I visited comports perfectly with their separate recollections of their evenings.

Bill Burton says I arrived battered and bedraggled at the back door of his restaurant, asking him to call Chief Porter. By then the rain had stopped, and I was so filthy that he set a chair outside for me and fetched a bottle of beer, which in his opinion, I needed.

I don’t recall that part. The first thing that I remember is being in the chair, drinking Heineken, while Bill examined the wound in my chest.

“Shallow,” he said. “Hardly more than a scratch. The bleeding’s stopped on its own.”

“He was dying when he took that swipe at me,” I said. “There wasn’t any force behind it.”

Maybe that was true. Or maybe it was the explanation that I needed to tell myself.

Soon a Pico Mundo Police Department cruiser came along the alley, without siren or flashing lights, and parked behind the cafe.

Chief Porter and Karla got out of the car and came to me.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get to finish the spaghetti,” I said.

They exchanged a puzzled look.

“Oddie,” said Karla, “your ear’s torn up. What’s all the blood on your T-shirt? Wyatt, he needs an ambulance.”

“I’m all right,” I assured her. “I was dead, but someone didn’t want me to be, so I’m back.”

To Bill Burton, Wyatt said, “How many beers has he had?”

“That’s the first one here,” Bill said.

“Wyatt,” Karla declared, “he needs an ambulance.”

“I don’t really,” I said. “But Danny’s in bad shape, and we might need a couple paramedics to carry him down all those stairs.”

While Karla brought another chair out of the restaurant, put it next to mine, sat down, and fussed over me, Wyatt used the police-band radio to order an ambulance.

When he returned, I said, “Sir, you know what’s wrong with humanity?”

“Plenty,” he said.

“The greatest gift we were given is our free will, and we keep misusing it.”

“Don’t worry yourself about that now,” Karla advised me.

“You know what’s wrong with nature,” I asked her, “with all its poison plants, predatory animals, earthquakes, and floods?”

“You’re upsetting yourself, sweetie.”

“When we envied, when we killed for what we envied, we fell. And when we fell, we broke the whole shebang, nature, too.”

A kitchen worker whom I knew, who had worked part time at the Grille, Manuel Nuñez, arrived with a fresh beer.

“I don’t think he should have that,” Karla worried.

Taking the beer from him, I said, “Manuel, how’re you doing?”

“Looks like better than you.”

“I was just dead for a while, that’s all. Manuel, do you know what’s wrong with cosmic time, as we know it, which steals everything from us?”

“Isn’t it ‘spring forward, fall back’?” Manuel asked, thinking that we were talking about Daylight Savings Time.

“When we fell and broke,” I said, “we broke nature, too, and when we broke nature, we broke time.”

“Is that from Star Trek?” Manuel asked.

“Probably. But it’s true.”

“I liked that show. It helped me learn English.”

“You speak it well,” I told him.

“I had a brogue for a while because I got so into Scotty’s character,” Manuel said.

“Once, there were no predators, no prey. Only harmony. There were no quakes, no storms, everything in balance. In the beginning, time was all at once and forever—no past, present, and future, no death. We broke it all.”

Chief Porter tried to take the fresh Heineken from me.

I held on to it. “Sir, do you know what sucks the worst about the human condition?”

Bill Burton said, “Taxes.”

“It’s even worse than that,” I told him.

Manuel said, “Gasoline costs too much, and low mortgage rates are gone.”

“What sucks the worst is…this world was a gift to us, and we broke it, and part of the deal is that if we want things right, we have to fix it ourselves. But we can’t. We try, but we can’t.”

I started to cry. The tears surprised me. I thought I was done with tears for the duration.

Manuel put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Maybe we can fix it, Odd. You know? Maybe.”

I shook my head. “No. We’re broken. A broken thing can’t fix itself.”

“Maybe it can,” Karla said, putting a hand on my other shoulder.

I sat there, just a faucet. All snot and tears. Embarrassed but not enough to get my act together.

“Son,” said Chief Porter, “it’s not your job alone, you know.”

“I know.”

“So the broken world’s not all on your shoulders.”

“Lucky for the world.”

The chief crouched beside me. “I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t say that at all.”

“Or me,” Karla agreed.

“I’m a mess,” I apologized.

Karla said, “Me too.”

“I could use a beer,” Manuel said.

“You’re working,” Bill Burton reminded him. Then he said, “Get me one, too.”

To the chief, I said, “There’re two dead at the Panamint and two more in the flood-control tunnel.”

“You just tell me what,” he said, “and we’ll handle it.”

“What had to be done…it was so bad. Real bad. But the hard thing is…”

Karla gave me a wad of tissues.

The chief said, “What’s the hard thing, son?”

“The hard thing is, I was dead, too, but somebody didn’t want me to be, so I’m back.”

“Yes. You said before.”

My chest swelled. My throat thickened. I could hardly breathe. “Chief, I was this close to Stormy, this close to service.”

He cupped my wet face in his hands and made me look at him. “Nothing before its time, son. Everything in its own time, to its own schedule.”

“I guess so.”

“You know that’s true.”

“This was a very hard day, sir. I had to do…terrible things. Things no one should have to live with.”

Karla whispered, “Oh, God, Oddie. Oh, sweetie, don’t.” To her husband, she said plaintively, “Wyatt?”

“Son, you can’t fix a broken thing by breaking another part of it. You understand me?”

I nodded. I did understand. But understanding doesn’t always help.

“Giving up—that would be breaking another part of yourself.”

“Perseverance,” I said.

“That’s right.”

At the end of the block, with flashing emergency beacons but without a siren, the ambulance turned into the alley.

“I think Danny had some broken bones but was trying not to let me know,” I told the chief.

“We’ll get him. We’ll handle him like glass, son.”

“He doesn’t know about his dad.”

“All right.”

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