'What're you doing?' she demanded again.
He answered this time, but his reply was neither reassuring nor informative: 'I don't know.'
She sensed a quality in his demeanor that was reminiscent of her desperate state of mind each time she found herself in the thrall of a mirage. Alarmed by the prospect of being driven at high speed by a man distracted by hallucinations or worse, she said, 'Slow down, for God's sake. Where are you going?'
Accelerating, he said, 'West. Somewhere west. A place. Some place.'
'I feel the pull.'
'The pull of what?'
'The west. I don't know. I don't know what or where.'
'Then why are you going anywhere at all?'
As if he were the simplest of men for whom this conversation had taken a philosophical turn no less beyond his comprehension than the arcane discoveries of molecular biology, Dylan rolled his gaze toward her, revealing as much white of the eyes as does a dog cringing in bewilderment from harsh words that it can't understand. 'It just... feels right.'
'What feels right?'
'Going this direction, going west again.'
'Aren't we driving straight back into trouble?'
'Yeah, probably, I think so.'
'Then pull over, stop.'
'Can't.' An instant sweat slicked his face. 'Can't.'
'Frankenstein. The needle. The stuff. It's started. Something's happening to me.'
'Some weird shit.'
In the backseat, Shepherd said, 'Manure.'
Weird manure indeed.
As though he were fleeing from a fast-moving fire or outrunning an avalanche of tumbling rock and ice and snow, Dylan O'Conner was flogged by a sense of urgency so intense that his heart jumped like that of a rabbit running in the shadow of a wolf. He had never suffered feelings of persecution and had never taken methamphetamine, but he supposed this must be how a man with paranoid delusions would feel if he mainlined a near-lethal dose of liquid speed.
'I'm jacked up,' he told Jilly, pressing the accelerator, 'and I don't know why, and I can't get down.'
God alone knew what she made of that. Dylan himself wasn't sure what he'd been trying to convey.
In fact, he didn't feel that he was running from danger, but that he was being drawn inexorably toward something by the world's largest electromagnet, which pulled him by the iron in his blood. His sense of urgency was matched by an irresistible compulsion to move.
The urgency had no apparent cause, and the compulsion related to no specific object. He simply needed to go west, and he felt constrained to race after the setting moon with all possible haste.
Instinct, he told Jilly. Something in his blood that said go, something in his bones that said hurry, a race-memory voice speaking through his genes, a voice that he knew he dared not ignore, because if he resisted its message, something terrible would happen.
'Terrible?' she asked. 'What?'
He didn't know, he only felt, as a stalked antelope feels the cheetah lurking a hundred yards away behind a screen of tall grass, and as a parched cheetah senses the presence of a water hole miles away across the veldt.
Trying to explain himself, he'd let up on the accelerator. The speedometer needle quivered at 85. He pumped it toward 90.
In this traffic, on this highway, in this vehicle, driving at ninety miles per hour wasn't only illegal and imprudent, but foolish, and worse than foolish – moronic.
He wasn't able either to shame or argue himself into reacting responsibly to the risk. Shep's life and Jilly's, as well as his own, were jeopardized by this monomaniacal determination to move and to move fast, faster, always west, west. On another night or even at an earlier hour this night, the mere recognition of his accountability for their safety would have caused Dylan to slow down, but now all moral considerations and even his survival instinct were overruled by this feverish compulsion.
Macks and Peterbilts, sedans, coupes, SUVs, pickups, vans, auto carriers, motor homes, tanker trucks raced westward, weaving back and forth from lane to lane, and without once slowing, Dylan plunged the Expedition through the gaps in traffic as expertly as an eagle-eyed tailor speed-threading a long series of needles.
As the speedometer indicated 92, his fear of crashing into another vehicle influenced him less than did the pure animal need to move. When it eased past 93, he grew concerned about the waves of vibrations that rattled the chassis, but not concerned enough to be able to cut their speed.
This urgent necessity, this sense that he must drive hard or die, exceeded mere compulsion, possessed him so fully as to be no less than an obsession, until with every rushing breath he heard within his mind the dire admonition You're running out of time, and heard with every racing heartbeat the exhortation Faster!
Encountering chuckholes, cracks, and patches in the pavement, the tires stuttered as hard as rapping hammers, and Dylan worried about the consequences of a blowout at this lightning pace, but he pressed the Expedition to 96, taxing the shock absorbers, torturing the springs, onward to 97, with engine screaming and wind of their own manufacture shrieking at the windows, to 98, between bracketing big rigs, around a sleek Jaguar with a cruise-missile whoosh that elicited a disapproving blast of the sports car's horn, to 99.
He remained aware of Jilly beside him, still braced for disaster with her sneakered feet against the dashboard, frantically struggling to shrug into her safety harness and to buckle herself to the seat. Peripheral vision suggested and a glance confirmed that she'd fallen into a state of unadulterated terror. He supposed she was saying something to him, shouting objections to his heedless, headlong westward rush. In fact he could hear her voice, which had grown hollow and low and distorted, as though hers was a taped recitation being replayed at the wrong speed; he couldn't understand a word.
Before the speedometer registered 100, to an even greater degree when it read 101, each irregularity in the pavement translated with magnified effect to the steering wheel, which tried to spin out of his grip. Fortunately, the sudden sweat that earlier slathered his face and moistened his palms had already dried in the steady blast of air conditioning. He maintained control at 102, at 103, but though he held the wheel, he couldn't lift his foot from the accelerator.
Greater velocity didn't at all diminish his overwhelming need for speed, and indeed, the faster the Expedition went, the greater Dylan's sense of urgency grew, and the more compelled he became to push the vehicle still harder, more relentlessly. He felt drawn by black-hole gravity, across the event horizon, beyond which neither matter nor radiation could escape the power of a crushing vortex. Move, move, MOVE became his mantra, movement with no deducible purpose, movement for movement's sake, westward, westward, on the trail of the long-lost sun and the still visible but receding moon.
Perhaps this frenzied plunge toward an unknown yet desperately needed object was how Frankenstein's unluckiest injected subjects felt in the frantic moments before their plummeting IQs dropped them through a trapdoor to the land of imbecility, idiocy.
If it doesn't obliterate your personality or totally disrupt your capacity for linear thinking, or reduce your IQ by sixty points...
Ahead loomed the town that they had departed with such haste a short while ago, when they'd feared nothing more than the appearance of a train of black Suburbans in the rearview mirror, gleaming like Death's gondolas given wheels.
Dylan expected to experience an irresistible pull toward the freeway exit near the motel where Jilly's Coupe DeVille had served as their tormentor's flaming casket. A glance at the instrument panel – 104 miles per hour – caused his briskly trotting heart to break into a gallop. He couldn't navigate that curving ramp at half their current velocity. He prayed that if compelled to leave the interstate, he would overcome this rage for speed in time to avoid crashing through the guardrail and tumbling to the bottom of an embankment in a test-to-destruction of Ford Motor Company's safety engineering.
As they approached the dreaded exit, he tensed, but he felt no strange attraction for it. They shot past the off-ramp as though they were a stunt team gearing up toward a jump over sixteen parked buses.
South of the interstate, among the bright clutter of road-service enterprises, the motel sign glowed with an ominous quality. The red neon inspired thoughts of blood, fire; it brought to mind myriad scenes of Hell as conceived with morbid passion by everyone from pre-Renaissance artists to contemporary comic-book illustrators.
The rhythmic spurt of roof-rack beacons atop emergency vehicles splashed the walls of the distant motel. Thin ribbons of gray smoke still rose from the charred hulk of the Coupe DeVille.
In little more than half a minute, the smoldering carnage lay a mile behind them. They were closing rapidly on the second of two exits that served the town, more than three miles west of the first.
As their speed at last began to fall rapidly and as Dylan flicked the right-turn signal, Jilly might have thought that he'd regained control of himself. He was, however, no more the master of his fate than he'd been when he'd spun the SUV out of the eastbound lanes and crossed the median. Something called him, like a siren to a sailor, and he continued to be powerless to resist this unknown summoning force.
He took the western exit too fast, but not fast enough to slide or roll the Expedition. At the bottom of the ramp, when he saw no traffic on the quiet surface street, he ran the stop sign without hesitation and turned left into a residential area, with utter disregard for the laws of man and physics.
'Euca, euca, euca, eucalyptus,' Dylan heard himself chanting, speaking without volition, spooked by this new turn of events not solely because it was weird, but because he sounded dismayingly like Shep. 'Eucalyptus, eucalyptus five, no, not five, eucalyptus six, no, eucalyptus sixty.'
Although visually oriented, he was a bookish man as well; and over the years he'd read a few novels about people seized by mind-controlling aliens, one about a girl possessed by a demon, one about a guy ridden by the ghost of a dead twin, and he supposed that this was how he might feel if, in reality, an evil extraterrestrial or a malevolent spirit took up residence in his body with the power to override his will. He wasn't aware, however, of any invading entity squirming within his flesh or crawling the surface of his brain; he remained rational enough to reason that what had gotten into him was nothing more than the mysterious contents of that 18-cc syringe.
This analysis did not reassure him.
For no reason, just because it felt right, he turned left at the first cross street, drove three blocks, his voice growing more urgent by the moment, insistent and loud enough to drown out whatever Jilly was saying: 'Eucalyptus six, eucalyptus zero, eucalyptus five, sixty-five, no, five sixty, maybe, or fifty-six....'
Although he had slowed to forty miles an hour, he almost sped past the street sign bearing the name of the very tree about which he had been babbling: EUCALYPTUS AVENUE.
He tapped the brakes, wheeled left, climbed and descended the curb at the corner of the intersection, drove into Eucalyptus Avenue.
Too narrow to be correctly called an avenue, hardly wider than a lane, the street featured not a single eucalyptus, as far as he could discern, but was flanked by Indian laurels and by old olive trees with exquisitely gnarled trunks and limbs that cast a wild wickerwork of shadows in the amber glow of streetlamps. Either the eucalyptuses had perished and had been replaced ages ago, or the street had been named by an arboricultural ignoramus.
Beyond the trees stood modest houses, old but for the most part well maintained: stucco casetas with barrel-tile roofs, suburban ranch-style houses with clean lines but little character, here and there a two-story structure that seemed to have been displaced from Indiana or Ohio.
He began to accelerate, but then impetuously braked and swung the Expedition to the curb in front of 506 Eucalyptus Avenue. At the end of a brick walkway stood a two-story clapboard house with a deep front porch.
Switching off the engine, popping the release on his safety harness, he said, 'Stay here with Shep.'
Jilly responded, but Dylan didn't understand her. Although from this point he would be on foot, the urgency and sense of mission that had swiveled him out of an eastward flight into this westward odyssey had not diminished. His heart still knocked so forcibly and so fast that the inner percussion half deafened him, and he had neither the patience nor the presence of mind to ask her to repeat herself.
When he threw open the driver's door, she snared a handful of his Hawaiian shirt and held fast. She had the grip of a griffin; her fingers hooked like talons in the fabric.
Dark anxiety clouded her beauty, and her sable-brown eyes, once as limpid and sharp with purpose as those of a sentinel eagle, were muddy with worry. 'Where did you go?' she demanded.
'Here,' he said, pointing to the clapboard house.
'I mean on the road. You were a world away. You forgot I was even with you.'
'Didn't forget,' he disagreed. 'No time. Stay with Shep.'
Griffin-tough, she tried to hold him back. 'What's going on here?'
'Hell if I know.'
Maybe he didn't pry Jilly's fingers out of his shirt with a cruel force uncharacteristic of him, and maybe he didn't shove her violently away from him. He wasn't sure how he tore loose of the woman, but he got out of the Expedition. Leaving the driver's door hanging open behind him, he rounded the front of the SUV, heading toward the house.
Darkness ruled the first floor, but light shone behind the curtains of half the upstairs windows. Someone was home. He wondered if they were aware of his approach, if they were waiting for him – or if his appearance at their doorstep would come as a surprise to them. Perhaps they instinctively sensed something rushing toward them as Dylan himself had been aware of being drawn to an unknown place, by a power inexplicable.
He heard a noise that seemed to come from the right, at the side of the house.
Halfway along the front walk toward the porch, he veered off the herringbone bricks. He crossed the lawn to the driveway.
Attached to the house: a carport. Under the carport, an aging Buick stood beyond the reach of the waning moonlight as during the day it would shelter from the fierce desert sun.
Hot metal pinged and ticked as it cooled. The vehicle had arrived here only recently.
Past the open end of the carport, toward the back of the house, a noise arose: a jangling, as of keys on a ring.
Though a sense of urgency continued to plague him undiminished, Dylan stood motionless beside the car. Listening. Waiting. Uncertain what to do next.
He didn't belong here. He felt as if he were a lurking thief, although as far as he knew, he hadn't come to this place to steal anything.