A riot of bizarre thoughts tumbled through his head, like an immense load of colorful laundry in a laundromat-size clothes dryer. One of those thoughts was that Shep had gone into the first stall but had come out of the fourth.
Dylan went to the fourth stall. The door stood ajar, and he shouldered it open.
Partitions separated the stalls, with twelve or fourteen inches of air space at the bottom. Shepherd could have dropped flat on the floor and wriggled from stall one to number four, under intervening partitions. Possible but highly unlikely.
'Pee,' Shep repeated, but with less enthusiasm, reluctantly coming to the conclusion that his brother would not participate any longer.
As fastidious about personal cleanliness as he was about the geometrical presentation of his meals, Shep had a post-toilet routine from which he never deviated: vigorously scrub the hands once, rinse them thoroughly, then scrub and rinse again. Indeed, as Dylan watched, Shep began the second scrub.
The kid had a special concern about the sanitary conditions in public lavatories. He regarded even the most well-maintained restroom with paranoid suspicion, certain that all known diseases and some not yet discovered were busily festering on every surface. Having read the American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine, Shep could recite a list of virtually all known diseases and infections if you were foolish enough to ask him to do so, and if he happened to be relating to the outer world well enough to hear your request – and if you had a sufficient number of hours to listen, since he would be all but impossible to stop once he got started.
Now, with the second rinse completed, Shep's hands were red from excessive scrubbing and from water turned up so hot that he'd hissed in discomfort as he had endured it. Mindful of the deadly and cunning microorganisms hiding in plain sight on the chrome faucet handle, he turned the water off with his elbow.
Dylan could not imagine any circumstances under which Shepherd would lie facedown on a lavatory floor and slither under a series of partitions between toilet stalls. In fact, if it ever were to happen, you could be certain that simultaneously, in a sporting-goods store somewhere, Satan would be buying ice skates.
Besides, his white T-shirt remained immaculate. He hadn't been mopping the floor with it.
Holding his hands high, like a surgeon expecting an assisting nurse to sheath them in latex gloves, Shep crossed the room to the towel dispenser. He waited for his brother to turn the crank, which he would not touch with clean hands.
'Didn't you go into the first stall?' Dylan asked.
Head lowered in his customary shy posture, but also cocked so he could look up sideways at the towel machine, Shepherd frowned at the handle and said, 'Germs.'
'Shep, when we came in here, didn't you go straight into the first stall?'
'Hey, come on, listen to me, buddy.'
'Give me a break, Shep. Will you listen to me, please?'
Dylan cranked out a few towels, tore them off the perforated roll, and handed them to his brother. 'But then didn't you come out of the fourth stall?'
Scowling at his hands, drying them energetically, obsessively, instead of merely blotting them on the paper, Shep said, 'Here.'
'What'd you say?'
'What do you hear?'
'I don't hear anything, little bro.'
'H-e-r-e,' Shep spelled with some effort, as if pronouncing each letter at an emotional cost.
'What do you want, bro?'
Shep trembled. 'Here.'
'Here what?' Dylan asked, seeking clarification even though he knew that clarification wasn't likely to be granted.
'There,' said Shep.
'There?' Dylan asked.
'There,' Shep agreed, nodding, though continuing to focus intently on his hands, still trembling.
'Here.' The note in Shep's voice might have been impatience.
'What're we talking about, buddy?'
'Here,' Dylan repeated.
'There,' said Shep, and what had seemed to be impatience matured instead into a strained note of anxiety.
Trying to understand, Dylan said, 'Here, there.'
'Here, th-th-there,' Shep repeated with a shudder.
'Shep, what's wrong? Shep, are you scared?'
'Scared,' Shep confirmed. 'Yeah. Scared. Yeah.'
'What're you scared of, buddy?'
'Shep is scared.'
'Shep is scared,' he said, beginning to shake more violently. 'Shep is scared.'
Dylan put his hands on his brother's shoulders. 'Easy, easy now. It's okay, Shep. There's nothing to be scared about. I'm right here with you, little bro.'
'Shep is scared.' The kid's averted face had faded as pale as whatever haunting spirits he might have glimpsed.
'Your hands are clean, no germs, just you and me, nothing to be afraid of. Okay?'
Shepherd didn't reply but continued to shake.
Resorting to the singsong cadences with which his brother most often could be calmed in moments of emotional turmoil, Dylan said, 'Good clean hands, no dirty germs, good clean hands. Gonna go now, go now, hit the road now. Okay? Gonna roll. Okay? You like the road, on the road again, on the road, goin' places where we never been. Okay? On the road again, like old Willie Nelson, you and me, rollin' along. Like always, rollin'. The old rhythm, the rhythm of the road. You can read your book, read and ride, read and ride. Okay?'
'Okay,' said Shep.
'Read and ride.'
'Read and ride,' Shep echoed. The urgency and tension drained out of his voice even though he still shivered. 'Read and ride.'
As Dylan had calmed his brother, Shep had continued to dry his hands with such energy that the towels had shredded. Crumpled rags and frayed curls of damp paper littered the floor at his feet.
Dylan held Shep's hands until they stopped trembling. Gently, he pried open the clenched fingers and removed the remaining tatters of the paper towels. He wadded this debris and threw it in the nearby trash can.
Placing a hand under Shep's chin, he tipped the kid's head up.
The moment their eyes met, Shep closed his.
'You okay?' Dylan asked.
'Read and ride.'
'I love you, Shep.'
'Read and ride.'
A pinch of color had returned to the kid's wintry cheeks. The lines of anxiety in his face slowly smoothed away as crow tracks might be erased from a mantle of snow by a persistent breeze.
Although Shep's outer tranquility became complete, his inner weather remained troubled. Shuttered, his eyes twitched behind his pale lids, jumping from sight to sight in a world that only he could see.
'Read and ride,' Shep repeated, as if those three words were a calming mantra.
Dylan regarded the bank of toilet stalls. The door of the fourth stood open, as he had left it after he'd checked on the nature of the partitions. The doors of the two middle stalls were ajar, and that of the first remained tightly closed.
'Read and ride,' said Shep.
'Read and ride,' Dylan assured him. 'I'll get your book.'
Leaving his brother beside the towel dispenser, Dylan retrieved Great Expectations from the shelf above the sinks.
Shep stood where he'd been left, head still raised even though Dylan's supporting hand had been removed. Eyes closed, but busy.
Carrying the book, Dylan went to the first stall. He tried the door. It wouldn't open.
'Here, there,' Shep whispered. Standing with his eyes closed, arms slack at his sides, and hands open with both palms facing front, Shepherd had an otherworldly quality, as though he were a medium in a trance, bisected by the membrane between this world and the next. If he had risen off the floor, his levitation would have conformed to his appearance so completely that you would not have been much surprised to see him floating in the air. Although Shep's voice remained recognizably his own, he almost seemed to speak for a séance-summoned entity from Beyond: 'Here, there.'
Dylan knew that no one could be in the first stall. Nevertheless he dropped to one knee and peered under the door to confirm what he understood to be a certainty.
He got up and tried the door again. Not just stuck. Locked. From the inside, of course.
A faulty latch, perhaps. Loose, the drop bar might have fallen into the latch channel when no one had been in the stall.
Maybe Shepherd had approached this first compartment, as Dylan had seen him do, but had found it inaccessible, and had at once moved to the fourth without Dylan noticing.
The chill found bone first, not skin, and radiated through Dylan from the core of every limb. Fear iced his marrow, although not fear alone; this was also a chill of not entirely unpleasant expectation and of awe inspired by some mysterious looming event that he sensed much in the manner that a storm petrel, winging under curdled black clouds, senses the glorious tempest before being alerted by either lightning or thunder.
Strangely, he glanced at the mirror above the sink, prepared to see a room other than the lavatory in which he stood. His expectation of wonders outstripped the capacity of the moment to deliver them, however, and the reflection proved to be the mundane facts of toilet stalls and urinals. He and Shep were the only figures occupying the reversed image, though he didn't know who or what else he might have expected.
With one last puzzled glance at the locked stall door, Dylan returned to his brother and put one hand on his shoulder.
At Dylan's touch, Shepherd opened his eyes, lowered his head, let his shoulders slump forward, and in general reassumed the humble posture in which he shuffled through life.
'Read and ride,' Shep said, and Dylan said, 'Let's roll.'
Jilly waited pensively near the cashier's station, by the front door, gazing out at the night, as radiant as a princess, perhaps the heir of a handsome Roman emperor who had ventured in conquest south of Sidra's shores.
Dylan nearly stopped midrestaurant to study her and to lock in his memory every detail of the way she looked at this moment in the dialed-down, bevel-sheared light from the cut-glass ceiling fixtures, for he wanted to paint her eventually just as she stood now.
Always preferring to remain in motion in any public place, lest a hesitation should encourage a stranger to speak to him, Shepherd allowed no slightest pause, and Dylan was drawn after his brother by their invisible chain.
Bringing hand to hat brim, a departing customer graciously tipped his Stetson to Jilly as she stepped aside to give him easier access to the door.
When she looked up and saw Dylan and Shep approaching, palpable relief chased the pensive expression from her face. Something had happened to her in their absence.
'What's wrong?' he asked when he reached her.
'I'll tell you in the truck. Let's get out of here. Let's go.'
Opening the door, Dylan put his hand on fresh spoor. Bleakness, an oppressive sense of solitude, a dark-night-of-the-soul loneliness pierced him and filled him with an emotional desolation as blasted, burnt, and ash-shrouded as a landscape in the aftermath of an all-consuming fire.
He tried immediately to insulate himself from the power of the latent psychic print on the door handle, as he had learned to do with the restaurant menu. This time, however, he wasn't able to resist the influx of energy.
With no memory of crossing the threshold, Dylan found himself outside and on the move. Even hours past sundown, the mild desert night withdrew the banked heat of the day from the blacktop, and he detected the faint scent of tar under the kitchen odors that rose from the restaurant roof vents.
Glancing back, he saw Jilly and Shep standing in the open door, already ten feet behind him. He had dropped Shep's book, which lay on the pavement between him and them. He wanted to retrieve the book and return to Shep and Jilly. He could not. 'Wait here for me.'
Car to pickup to SUV, he was impelled to venture farther into the parking lot, not with the urgency that had earlier caused him to turn the Expedition on a dime and leave nine cents change, but with a nonetheless motivating perception that an important opportunity would shortly be foreclosed if he didn't act. He knew that he wasn't out of control, that on a subconscious level he understood exactly what he was doing, and why, as he had subconsciously understood his purpose when he had driven pell-mell and hell-bent to the house on Eucalyptus Avenue, but he felt out of control just the same.
This time the magnet proved to be not a grandmotherly woman in a candy-striped uniform, but an aging cowboy wearing tan Levi's and a chambray shirt. Arriving just as the guy settled behind the wheel of a Mercury Mountaineer, Dylan prevented him from shutting the door.
From the psychic trace on this door handle, he again encountered the heart-deadening loneliness familiar from the imprint back at the restaurant, a despondency bordering on despair.
A lifetime of outdoor work had given the man in the Mountaineer a cured-leather face, but the decades of sun that crimped and cockled his skin had not left any light in him, and the years of wind had not piped much life into his bones. Burnt out, worn thin, he seemed to be a scraggy gnarl of tumbleweed tenuously rooted to the earth, waiting only for the gust that would break him loose from life.
The old man didn't tip his Stetson as he'd tipped it at Jilly upon leaving the restaurant, but he didn't react with irritation or alarm, either, when Dylan blocked the door. He had the look of a guy who had always been able to take care of himself, regardless of the nature of the threat or tribulation – but there was also about him the aura of a man who didn't much care what happened next.
'You've been searching for something,' Dylan said, although he had no idea what words were coming from him until he'd spoken them and could afterward review their meaning.
'Don't need Jesus, son,' the cowboy replied. 'Already found him twice.' His azurite-blue eyes took in more light than they gave out. 'Don't need trouble, either, nor do you.'
'Not something,' Dylan corrected. 'You're looking for someone.'
'Isn't just about everybody, one way or another?'
'You've been looking a long time,' Dylan said, though he still had no idea where this might be leading.
Through a squint that seemed wise enough to filter truth from illusion, the old man studied him. 'What's your name, son?'
'Never heard of you. So how'd you hear of me?'