She admired the apparent confidence with which he had embraced his calling, and she knew without asking that he'd never entertained a backup plan if he failed as an artist, not as she had fantasized about a fallback career as a best-selling novelist. She envied his evident certainty, but instead of being able to use that envy to stoke a little fire of healthy anger that might chase off the chill of inadequacy, she settled deeper into a cold bath of humility.
In her self-imposed silence, Jilly heard once more the faint silvery laughter of children, or heard only the memory of it; she could not be sure which. As ephemeral as a cool draft against her arms and throat and face, whether felt or imagined, feathery wings flicked, flicked, and trembled.
Closing her eyes, determined not to succumb to another mirage if one might be pending, she succeeded in deafening herself to the children's laughter.
The wings withdrew, as well, but an even more disturbing and astonishing sensation overcame her: She grew intimately, acutely aware of every nerve pathway in her body, could feel – as heat, as a tingle of current – the exact location and the complex course of all twelve pairs of cranial nerves, all thirty-one pairs of spinal nerves. If she'd been an artist, she could have drawn an exquisitely accurate map of the thousands upon thousands of axons in her body, and could have rendered each axon to the precise number of neurons that comprised its filamentous length. She was aware of millions of electrical impulses carrying information along sensory fibers from far points of her body to her spinal cord and brain, and of an equally high traffic of impulses conveying instructions from the brain to muscles and organs and glands. Into her mind came the three-dimensional cartography of the central nervous system: the billions of interconnected nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, seen as points of light in numerous colors, alive in shimmering and vibrant function.
She became conscious of a universe within herself, galaxy after galaxy of scintillant neurons, and suddenly she felt as though she were spiraling into a cold vastness of stars, as though she were an astronaut who, on an extravehicular walk, had snapped the tether that linked her safely to her spacecraft. Eternity yawned before her, a great swallowing maw, and she drifted fast, faster, faster still, into this internal immensity, toward oblivion.
Her eyes snapped open. The unnatural self-awareness of neurons, axons, and nerve pathways faded as abruptly as it had seized her.
Now the only thing that felt peculiar was the point at which she had received the injection. An itch. A throbbing. Under the bunny Band-Aid.
Paralyzed by dread, she could not peel off the bandage. Shaken by shudders, she could only stare at the tiny spot of blood that had darkened the gauze from the underside.
When this paralytic fear began to subside, she looked up from the crook of her arm and saw a river of white doves flowing directly toward the Expedition. Silently they came out of the night, flying westward in these eastbound lanes, came by the hundreds, by the thousands, great winged multitudes, dividing into parallel currents that flowed around the flanks of the vehicle, forming a third current that swept across the hood, up and over the windshield, following the slipstream away into the night, as hushed as birds in a dream without sound.
Although these uncountable legions rushed toward the truck with all the blinding density of any blizzard, allowing not one glimpse of the highway ahead, Dylan neither spoke of them nor reduced his speed in respect of them. He gazed forward into these white onrushing shoals and seemed to see not one wing or gimlet eye.
Jilly knew this must be an apparition only she could perceive, a flood of doves where none existed. She fisted her hands in her lap and chewed on her lower lip, and while her pounding heart provided the drumming not furnished by the soundless wings of the birds, she prayed for these feathered phantoms to pass, even though she feared what might come after them.
Phantasm soon gave way to reality, and the highway clarified out of the last seething shoals of doves gone now to boughs and belfries.
Gradually Jilly's heart rate subsided from its frantic pace, but each slower beat seemed as hard struck as when her fear had been more tightly wound.
Moon behind them, wheel of stars turning overhead, they traveled in the hum of tires, in the whoosh-and-swish of passing cars, in the grind-and-grumble of behemoth trucks for a mile or two before Dylan's voice added melody to the rhythm: 'What's your modus operandi? As a comedian.'
Her mouth was dry, her tongue thick, but she sounded normal when she spoke. 'My material, I guess you mean. Human stupidity. I make fun of it as best I can. Stupidity, envy, betrayal, faithlessness, greed, self-importance, lust, vanity, hatred, senseless violence... There's never a shortage of targets for a comedian.' Listening to herself, she cringed at the difference between the inspirations he claimed for his art and those she acknowledged for her stage work. 'But that's how all comedians operate,' she elaborated, dismayed by this impulse to justify herself, yet unable to repress it. 'Comedy is dirty work, but someone has to do it.'
'People need to laugh,' he said inanely, reaching for this trite bit of reassurance as though he sensed what she'd been thinking.
'I want to make them laugh till they cry,' Jilly said, and at once wondered where that had come from. 'I want to make them feel...'
The word that she had almost spoken was so inappropriate, so out of phase with what everyone expected a comedian's motivations to be, that she was confused and disturbed to hear it in the echo chamber of her mind. Pain. She'd almost said, I want to make them feel pain. She swallowed the word unspoken and grimaced as if it had a bitter taste.
The dark charm of self-examination abruptly had less appeal than the threat-filled night from which they'd both taken a brief holiday and to which she preferred to return. Frowning at the highway, she said, 'We're headed east.'
'Black Suburbans, explosions, gorillas in golf clothes,' he reminded her.
'But I was headed west before all this... all this excrement happened. I've got a three-night gig in Phoenix next week.'
In the backseat, Shepherd broke his silence: 'Feces. Feculence. Defecation.'
'You can't go to Phoenix now,' Dylan objected. 'Not after all this, after your mirage—'
'Hey, end of the world or not, I need the money. Besides, you don't book a date, then back out at the last minute. Not if you want to work again.'
'Movement. Stool. Droppings,' said Shep.
'Did you forget about your Cadillac?' Dylan asked.
'How could I forget? The bastards blew it up. My beautiful Coupe DeVille.' She sighed. 'Wasn't it beautiful?'
'A jewel,' he agreed.
'I loved those tastefully subdued tail fins.'
'Its howitzer-shell front bumper.'
'They put the name, Coupe DeVille, in gold script on the sides. That was such a sweet detail. Now it's all blown up, burned, and stinking of one toasted Frankenstein. Who forgets such a thing?'
Shep said, 'Manure. Ordure.'
Jilly asked, 'What's he doing now?'
'A while ago,' Dylan reminded her, 'you told me I was crude. You suggested I find polite synonyms for a certain word that offended you. Shep accepted your challenge.'
'But that was back before we left the motel,' she said.
'Shep's sense of time isn't like yours and mine. Past, present, and future aren't easily differentiated for him, and sometimes he acts as if they're all the same thing and happening simultaneously.'
'Poopoo,' said Shep. 'Kaka.'
'My point about the Caddy,' Dylan continued, 'is that when those thugs in polo shirts discover it doesn't belong to Frankenstein, that it's registered to one Jillian Jackson, then they're going to come looking for you. They'll want to know how he got your car, whether you gave it to him willingly.'
'I knew I should've gone to the cops. Should've filed a stolen-vehicle report like a good citizen would. Now I look suspicious.'
'Doodoo. Diaper dump.'
'If Frankenstein was right,' Dylan warned, 'maybe the cops can't protect you. Maybe these people can pull rank on the cops.'
'Then I guess we'd have to go to – who? The FBI?'
'Maybe you can't escape these guys. Maybe they can pull rank on the FBI, too.'
'Who in God's name are they – the Secret Service, the CIA, Santa Claus's elf gestapo out making their who's-been-naughty list?'
'Cow pie. Waste.'
'Frankenstein didn't say who they were,' Dylan reported. 'He just said if they find the stuff in our blood, we'll be as dead as dinosaurs and buried where our bones won't ever be found.'
'Yeah, maybe that's what he said, but why should we believe him anyway? He was a mad scientist.'
'Evacuation. Voidance. Toilet treasure.'
'He wasn't mad,' Dylan averred.
'You called him a lunatic.'
'And you called him a salesman. We've called him a lot of things in the heat of the moment—'
'Potty packing. Outhouse input. Excreta.'
'—but given his options,' Dylan continued, 'considering that he knew those guys were on his tail and were going to kill him, he took the most logical, rational action available to him.'
Her mouth opened as wide as if she were assuming the cooperative position for a root canal. 'Logical? Rational?' She reminded herself that she didn't really know Mr. Dylan O'Conner. In the end, he might prove to be more peculiar than his brother. 'Okay, let me get this straight. The smiley creep chloroforms me, shoots Dr. Jekyll juice or something into my veins, steals my fabulous car, gets himself blown up – and in your enlightened view, that behavior qualifies him to coach the university debating team?'
'Obviously, they'd pushed him into a corner, time was running out, and he did the only thing he could do to save his life's work. I'm sure he didn't intend to get himself blown up.'
'You're as insane as he was,' Jilly decided.
'I'm not saying that what he did was right,' Dylan clarified. 'Only that it was logical. If we operate under the assumption that he was just nuttier than a one-pound jar of Jif, we're making a mistake that could get us killed. Think about it: If we die, he loses. So he wants us to stay alive, if only because we're his... I don't know... because we're his living experiments or something. Consequently, I have to assume that everything he told me was meant to help us stay alive.'
'Filth. Dung. A withdrawal from the bowel bank.'
Immediately to the north and south of the interstate lay plains as black as ancient hearthstones stained by the char of ten thousand fires, with isolated mottlings as gray as ashes where moonlight and starlight glimmered off the reflective surfaces of desert vegetation and mica-flecked rock formations. Directly east, but also curving toward the highway with viselike relentlessness from the northeast and the southeast, the Peloncillo Mountains presented a barren and forbidding silhouette: hard, black, jagged slabs darker than the night sky into which they thrust.
This wasteland offered no comfort to the mind, no consolation to the heart, and except for the interstate, it provided no evidence that it existed on a populated planet. Even along these paved lanes, the lights of the oncoming and receding traffic made no conclusive argument for a living population. The scene possessed an eerie quality that suggested the science-fiction scenario of a world on which all species had perished centuries before, leaving their domain as morbidly still as a glass-encased diorama through which the only movement was the periodic bustle of perpetual-motion machines engaged in ancient programmed tasks that no longer held any meaning.
To Jilly, this bleak vastness began to look like the landscape of Hell with all the fires put out. 'We're not going to get out of this alive, are we?' she asked in a tone entirely rhetorical.
'What? Of course we will.'
'Of course?' she said with a rich measure of disbelief. 'No doubt at all?'
'Of course,' he insisted. 'The worst is already behind us.'
'It's not behind us.'
'Yes, it is.'
'Don't be ridiculous.'
'The worst is behind us,' he repeated stubbornly.
'How can you say the worst is behind us when we have no idea what's coming next?'
'Creation is an act of will,' he said.
'What's that supposed to mean?'
'Before I create a painting, I conceive it in my mind. It exists from the instant it's conceived, and all that's needed to transform the conception into a tangible work of art are time and effort, paint and canvas.'
'Are we in the same conversation?' she wondered.
In the backseat, Shepherd sat in silence again, but now his brother spewed a prattle more disturbing than Shep's. 'Positive thinking. Mind over matter. If God created the heavens and the earth merely by thinking them into existence, the ultimate power in the universe is willpower.'
'Evidently not, or otherwise I'd have my own hit sitcom and be partying in my Malibu mansion right now.'
'Our creativity reflects divine creativity because we think new things into existence every day – new inventions, new architectures, new chemical compounds, new manufacturing processes, new works of art, new recipes for bread and pie and pot roast.'
'I'm not going to risk eternal damnation by claiming I make a pot roast as good as God's. I'm sure His would be tastier.'
Ignoring her interruption, Dylan said, 'We don't have godlike power, so we aren't able to transform our thought energy directly into matter—'
'God would whip up better side dishes than me, too, and I'm sure He's a whiz at beautiful table settings.'
'—but guided by thought and reason,' Dylan continued patiently, 'we can use other kinds of energy to transform existing matter into virtually anything we conceive. I mean, we spin thread to make cloth to sew into clothes. And we cut down trees to make lumber to build shelter. Our process of creation is a lot slower, clumsier, but it's fundamentally just one step removed from God's. Do you understand what I'm saying?'
'If I ever do, I absolutely insist you have me committed.'
Gradually accelerating once more, he said, 'Work with me here, okay? Can you make an effort?'