Jilly was irritated by his childlike earnestness and by his Pollyanna optimism in the shadow of the mortal danger that confronted them. Nevertheless, recalling how his eloquence had earlier humbled her, she felt a flush of warmth rise in her face, and for the moment she managed to put a lid on the sarcasm that a fire of frustration had set boiling. 'Okay, all right, whatever. Go ahead.'
'Assume we were made in God's image.'
'All right. Yeah? So?'
'Then it's also reasonable to assume that although we aren't able to create matter out of nothing and although we can't change existing matter solely by the application of thought, nevertheless even our less than godlike willpower might be able to influence the shape of things to come.'
'The shape of things to come,' she repeated.
'The shape of things to come.'
'Exactly,' he confirmed, nodding happily, glancing away from the interstate to smile at her.
'The shape of things to come,' she repeated yet again, and then she realized that in her frustration and bewilderment, she sounded disturbingly like Shepherd. 'What things?'
'Future events,' he explained. 'If we're in God's image, then maybe we possess a small measure – a tiny but still useful fraction – of the divine power to shape things. Not matter, in our case, but the future. Maybe with the exercise of willpower, maybe we can shape our destiny, in part if not entirely.'
'What – I just imagine a future in which I'm a millionaire, then I'll become one?'
'You still have to make the right decisions and work hard... but, yeah, I believe all of us can shape our futures if we apply enough willpower.'
Still suppressing her frustration, keeping her tone light, she said, 'Then why aren't you a famous billionaire artist?'
'I don't want to be famous or rich.'
'Everyone wants to be famous and rich.'
'Not me. Life is complicated enough.'
'Money complicates,' he disagreed, 'and fame. I just want to paint well, and to paint better every day.'
'So,' she said, as the lid flew off her boiling pot of sarcasm, 'you're gonna imagine yourself a future where you're the next Vincent van Gogh, and just by wishing on a star, you'll one day see your work hanging in museums.'
'I'm sure going to try, anyway. Vincent van Gogh – except I'm imagining a future in which I keep both ears.'
Dylan's persistent good humor in the face of dire adversity had an effect on Jilly no less distressing than the damage that would be wrought with sandpaper vigorously applied to the tongue. 'And to make you get real about our situation, I'm imagining a future where I have to kick your cojones into your esophagus.'
'You're a very angry person, aren't you?'
'I'm a scared person.'
'Scared right now, sure, but always angry.'
'Not always. Fred and I were having a lovely relaxed evening before all this started.'
'You must have some pretty heavy unresolved conflicts from your childhood.'
'Oh, wow, you get more impressive by the minute, don't you? Now you're licensed to provide psychoanalysis when you're not painting circles around van Gogh.'
'Pump up your blood pressure any further,' Dylan warned, 'and you'll pop a carotid artery.'
Jilly strained a shriek of vexation through clenched teeth, because by swallowing it unexpressed, she might have imploded.
'All I'm saying,' Dylan pressed in an infuriatingly reasonable tone of voice, 'is that maybe if we think positive, the worst will be behind us. And for sure, there's nothing to be gained by negative thinking.'
She almost swung her legs off the seat, almost stomped her feet against the floorboard in a fit of frustration before she remembered that poor defenseless Fred would be trampled. Instead, she drew a deep breath and confronted Dylan: 'If it's so easy, why have you let Shepherd live such a miserable existence all these years? Why haven't you imagined that he just magically comes out of his autism and leads a normal life?'
'I have imagined it,' he replied softly and with a poignancy that revealed a plumbless sorrow over the condition of his brother. 'I've imagined it intensely, vividly, with all my heart, every day of my life, since as far back as I can remember.'
Infinite sky. Trackless desert. A vastness had been created inside the SUV to equal the daunting immensities of darkness and vacuum beyond these doors and windows, a vastness of her making. Succumbing to fear and frustration, she had unthinkingly crossed a line between legitimate argument and unwarranted meanness, needling Dylan O'Conner where she knew that he was already sorest. The distance between them, although but an arm's length, seemed now unbridgeable.
Both in the glare of the oncoming headlights and in the softer pearlescent glow of the instrument panel, Dylan's eyes glimmered as though he had repressed so many tears for so long that within his gaze were pent-up oceans. As Jilly studied him with more sympathy than she'd felt previously, even dim light proved bright enough to clarify that what had resembled sorrow might be a more acute pain: grief, long-sustained and unrelenting grief, as if his brother were not autistic, but dead and lost forever.
She didn't know what to say to make amends for her meanness. Whether she spoke in a whisper or in a shout, the usual words of an apology seemed insufficiently powerful to carry across the gulf that she had created between herself and Dylan O'Conner.
She felt like a pile of toilet treasure.
Infinite sky. Trackless desert. The bee hum of tires and the drone of engine wove a white noise that she quickly tuned out, until she might as well have been sitting in the dead silence that abides on the surface of an airless moon. She couldn't hear even the faint tide of her breathing or the slogging of her heart, or the singing of her old church choir that occasionally came to her in memory when she felt alone and adrift. She had not possessed a voice fine enough to perform a solo, but she'd shown a talent for harmony, and among her choral sisters and her brothers all robed alike, holding a hymnal identical to each of theirs, she had been warmed by a profound sense of community that she had not known before or since. Sometimes Jilly felt that the excruciatingly difficult task of establishing rapport with an audience of strangers and inducing them to laugh against their will at the stupidity and meanness of humanity was far easier than closing the distance between any two human beings and keeping them even tenuously bonded for any length of time whatsoever. The infinite sky, the trackless desert, and the isolation of each armored heart were characterized by the same nearly impenetrable remoteness.
Along the shoulder of the highway, tongues of light licked up here and there from the dark gravel, and for an instant Jilly feared a return of votive candles and of displaced church pews, feared the reappearance of bloodless birds and sprays of ectoplasmic blood, but she quickly realized that these quick cold flames were nothing but reflections of their headlights flaring off the curved shards of broken bottles.
The silence fell not to her or to Dylan, but to the gentle ax of Shepherd's voice monotonously chopping through the same three-word mantra familiar from television commercials: 'Fries not flies, fries not flies, fries not flies....'
Jilly was baffled as to why Shep would choose to chant the advertising slogan of the very restaurant at which she had bought dinner less than two hours ago, but then she realized that he must have seen the promotional button that the counter clerk had pinned to her blouse.
'Fries not flies, fries not flies...'
Dylan said, 'I was clubbed down as I was returning to the room with the bags of takeout. We never had dinner. I guess he's hungry.'
'Fries not flies, fries not flies,' said Shep, rocking from side to side in his seat.
As Dylan took one hand off the steering wheel and reached to the breast pocket of his Hawaiian shirt, Jilly realized he wore a toad pin that matched hers. Against the tropical-flower pattern of the colorful fabric, the grinning cartoon amphibian had not been easy to see.
'Fries not flies, fries not flies...'
When Dylan removed the promotional gimcrack from his shirt, a strange thing happened, and the night took another unexpected turn. Holding the button between thumb and forefinger, reaching toward the console that separated the front seats, as though he was intending to deposit the unwanted pin in the trash receptacle, he appeared to vibrate, not violently, yet with too much force for the episode to be deemed a mere shudder, vibrated as though an electrical current were quivering through his body. His tongue fluttered rapidly against the roof of his mouth, producing a peculiar noise not unlike that of a stalled car straining to start: 'Hunnn-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na!'
He managed to hold on to the steering wheel with his left hand, but his foot either eased up on the accelerator or slipped off the pedal altogether. The Expedition's reckless speed began to plummet from a perilous 95 miles per hour to a merely dangerous 85, to a still hazardous 75.
'Hunnn-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na,' he stuttered, and with the final syllable, he snapped the toad button out of his fingers as though he were shooting a game of marbles. He stopped vibrating as abruptly as he had begun.
The little metal disc pinged off the window in the passenger's door, inches from Jilly's face, ricocheted off the dashboard, dropped out of sight among Fred's maze of branches and succulent leaves.
Although they were decelerating, Jilly sensed that because she had slipped out of her safety harness, she was at grave risk, sensed also that she didn't have enough time to shrug into the straps and engage the buckle. Instead she pivoted to face front, clutched the seat with her left hand almost desperately enough to puncture the leather upholstery, and with her right hand grabbed the padded assist bar immediately above the passenger's door. Just as Dylan confirmed the value of her intuition by all but standing on the brakes, she braced her feet against the dashboard. Knees bent to absorb whatever shock might come, she launched into a mental recitation of the Hail Mary prayer, not with a petition to be spared from the curse of a fat ass but with a plea to save her ass regardless of what grotesque dimensions it might acquire in years to come.
Maybe the Expedition's speed fell as far as 60, maybe even as low as 50, in two seconds flat, but it was still traveling so fast that no sane person would have tried to execute a hard turn at this velocity. Evidently, Dylan O'Conner fully embraced madness: He let up on the brakes, pulled the steering wheel hand-over-hand to the left, pumped the brakes again, swung the truck off the pavement, and cranked it through a rubber-burning spin.
Whirling up a cloud of dust, the Expedition rotated on the wide shoulder of the highway. Gravel tattooed the undercarriage: a fierce ponk-plink-crack as unnerving as machine-gun fire. Spinning into the glare of approaching headlights, Jilly inhaled a lung-stretching breath with the desperate greediness for life of a condemned woman hearing the thin whistle of a descending guillotine blade. She shrieked as they came around to their starting position, and she failed to use a polite synonym for feces as they spun yet another 120 degrees and jolted to a stop facing northwest.
Here the eastbound and westbound lanes of the interstate were separated by a sixty-foot-wide median without a guardrail, relying solely on a center swale to prevent out-of-control vehicles from crossing easily into oncoming traffic. The instant that the SUV rocked to a stop, as Jilly sucked in another here-comes-the-death-blow breath deep enough to sustain her during an underwater swim across the English Channel, Dylan abandoned the brake pedal for the accelerator and drove down the slope, diagonally crossing the median.
'What're you doing?' she demanded.
He was extraordinarily focused, as she'd never seen him before, concentrating more intensely on the descent into the shallow swale than he had on the sight of her blazing Coupe DeVille, than he had concentrated on self-battered Shep in the backseat confessional. Bruin big, he filled his half of the front seat to overflowing. Even in normal circumstances – or in as normal as any circumstances under which Jilly had known him – he hulked over the steering wheel, but now he hulked more aggressively than before, head thrust toward the windshield, face screwed into a bearish scowl, stare fixed on the bright swaths that the headlights cut through the dark depression into which he piloted the SUV.
He failed to answer her question. His mouth hung open as if in astonishment, as though he couldn't quite believe that he had put the Expedition through a controlled spin or that he was barreling across the median toward the westbound lanes.
All right, he wasn't barreling yet, but the truck continued to accelerate as it reached the low point of the swale. If they crossed the declivity and hit the rising slope at the wrong angle and at too high a speed, the SUV would roll because rolling was something that SUVs did well when they were badly driven and when the terrain was, like this, composed of shifting sand and loose shale.
She shouted – 'Don't!' – but he did. As the Expedition churned across the crumbling face of the upgrade, Jilly jammed her feet harder against the dashboard, wondering where the impact air bag might be stowed, dreading what would happen if the bag was in the dashboard and if it exploded around her feet, wondering whether it would jam her knees into her face, whether it would rupture around her shoes and spew skin-peeling hot gas at high pressure across her entire body. Those grotesque images and worse flashed through her mind, instead of the standard replay of her life to date (with the Looney Tunes soundtrack that would have been most appropriate), but she couldn't block them, so she held fast to the seat and to the assist bar and shouted – 'Don't!' – again to no avail.
Riddling the night behind them with twin barrages of tire-cast shale and sand, Dylan forced the Expedition up the northern incline of the median at an oblique angle, putting the vehicle to the ultimate roll test. Judging by the relentlessness with which gravity pulled Jilly toward the driver, just one more degree of tilt would tumble the SUV back into the swale.
Repeatedly as they ascended, four-wheel drive seemed to be at least two wheels shy of an adequate number to maintain traction. The truck lurched, rocked, but finally topped the rise onto the shoulder of the westbound lanes.
Dylan checked the rearview mirror, glanced at the side mirror, and rocketed into a gap in traffic, heading back the way they had come. Toward town. Toward the motel where the Coupe DeVille no doubt still smoldered. Into the trouble they had been trying to outrun.
Jilly had the crazy notion that the dangerous crossing of the median had been motivated by Shep's reminder – 'Fries not flies' – that he had not eaten dinner. The older brother's impressively deep commitment to the younger was admirable to a point, but a return to that burger bistro under these circumstances represented a colossal leap from the high ground of responsible stewardship into a swamp of reckless devotion.