Although Jilly, at his side, remained less directly illuminated than Dylan, her face had a faint red sheen. With one glance, he saw that she, too, experienced the extraordinary tactility of this light. With a start and with a little grimace of revulsion, she wiped at her face with one hand, as though she had walked into the clingy spokes and spirals of a spider's web.
Dylan wasn't a science buff, except as knowledge in the fields of biology and botany served to improve the accuracy of his depiction of the natural world in his paintings, and he didn't qualify as even an armchair physicist. But he knew that deadly types of radiation, including that from a nuclear bomb, never stimulated the sense of touch, just as the less mortal X-rays administered in a dentist's office never caused the slightest tingle when passing through your jaw; the survivors of the historic blast in Hiroshima, who later died of radiation poisoning, had never felt the many billions of subatomic particles piercing their bodies.
Although he doubted that the flesh-prickling effect of the light represented a danger, he hesitated anyway. He might have pulled the door shut, might have turned away, leaving his curiosity unsatisfied, if Shep had not been on the other side and perhaps in need of help.
When he spoke his brother's name, he didn't receive a reply. This came as no surprise. While Shep was more talkative than your average stone, he often proved no more responsive than granite. Dylan called out again, and pushed open the door after the second silence. He was prepared for the sight of the shower stall. The toilet, too. The sink, the mirror, the towel rack.
What Dylan had not been prepared for, what caused his adrenal gland to squirt another dose of epinephrine into his bloodstream, what caused his guts to tweak in a less than pleasant fashion was the doorway in the wall beside the sink, where earlier no door had been. The source of the strange red light lay beyond this postern.
Hesitantly, he crossed the threshold into the bathroom.
Doorway didn't accurately convey the nature of this mysterious opening. It wasn't rectangular, but round, like a hatch in a bulkhead between two compartments in a submarine. Hatch didn't qualify as the mot juste, either, because no architrave surrounded the hole in the wall.
Indeed, the six-foot-diameter opening itself appeared to lack depth, as though it had been painted on the wall. No header, no jamb, no threshold. And yet the scene beyond appeared convincingly three-dimensional: a radiant red tunnel dwindling to a disc of blue light.
Dylan had seen masterpieces of trompe l'oeil in which artists, relying on nothing more than paint and their talent, had created illusions of space and depth that completely deceived the eye. This, however, was not merely a clever painting.
For one thing, the murky red glow from the luminous walls of the tunnel penetrated to the motel bathroom. This queer light glimmered in the vinyl floor, reflected off the mirror – and crawled on his exposed skin.
Furthermore, those tunnel walls ceaselessly turned, as if this were a passage in a carnival funhouse, a sideshow monkey barrel in which to test your balance. Trompe 1'oeil painting could produce the illusion of depth, texture, and reality – but it could not provide an illusion of motion.
Jilly stepped into the bathroom beside Dylan.
He placed a restraining hand on her shoulder.
Together they marveled at the tunnel, which appeared to be at least thirty feet long.
Impossible, of course. Another motel unit backed up to this one; plumbing-to-plumbing design saved construction costs. A hole cut in the wall would reveal only another bathroom identical to theirs. Not a tunnel, never a tunnel. There was nothing to bore a tunnel through; the bathroom had not been built into the side of a mountain.
Nonetheless, a tunnel. He closed his eyes. Opened them. Tunnel. Six feet in diameter. Glowing, revolving.
Welcome to the monkey barrel. Buy a ticket, test your balance.
In fact, someone had already entered the barrel. Silhouetted against a disc of azure light, a man stood at the far end of the passageway.
Dylan had no doubt that the distant figure was Shep. Out there past the terminus of the tunnel, his back to them, Shepherd gazed into the blue beyond.
So if under Dylan the floor seemed to shift, if he felt that he might drop through a hole into a shaft as deep as eternity, this was not an associated effect of the tunnel. This was just a psychological response to the sudden perception that reality, as he'd always known it, was less stable than he had assumed.
Breathing hard, exhaling words in a hot rush, Jilly sought an explanation for the impossible: 'The hell with this, the hell with it, I'm not awake, I can't be awake.'
'You're probably part of the dream.'
'This isn't a dream,' he said, sounding shakier than she did.
'Yeah, right, not a dream – that's exactly what you'd say if you were part of the dream.'
He had put a restraining hand on her shoulder not because he feared that she would rush forward into the tunnel, but because he half expected that she would be swept into it against her will. The revolving walls suggested a whirlpool that might inexorably swallow anyone who ventured too close to the mouth of it. Second by second, however, his fear of a cyclone suction receded.
'What's happening,' she asked, 'what is this, what the hell is this?'
Not a whisper of sound issued from the realm beyond the wall. The turning surface of the tunnel looked as though it ought to be emitting a noisy scrape and rumble, or at least the liquid sound of churning magma, but it revolved in absolute silence.
No air escaped the opening, neither a breath of heat nor the faintest cool draft. No scent, either. Only the light.
Dylan moved closer to the portal.
'Don't,' Jilly worried.
At the brink, he tried first to examine the transition point between the bathroom wall and the entrance to the tunnel, but the junction of the two proved to be... fuzzy... a blur that would not resolve into concrete detail no matter how hard he squinted at it. In fact, his hackles rose and his gaze repeatedly slid away from the joint line as though some deep primitive part of him knew that by looking too directly at such a thing, he would risk glimpsing a secret kingdom of fearsome entities behind the veil of this world, beings that operated the machinery of the universe itself, and that such a sight invited instant madness.
When he'd been thirteen, fourteen, he'd read H. P. Lovecraft and thrilled to those macabre tales. Now he couldn't shake the unnerving feeling that Lovecraft had written more truth than fiction.
Abandoning an attempt to examine the point of transition between bathroom and tunnel, he stood at the brink and squinted at a spot on the revolving walls, trying to determine the nature of the material, its solidity. On closer study, the passage seemed to be formed from shining mist, or maybe he was peering along a tunnel of pure energy; this was not unlike a god's-eye view down the funnel of a tornado.
Tentatively, he placed his right hand on the wall beside the mysterious gateway. The painted sheetrock felt slightly warm and gratifyingly normal.
Sliding his hand to the left, across the bathroom wall, toward the opening, he hoped to be able to feel the point of transition from motel to tunnel and to understand how the connection was made. But as his hand slid off the sheetrock and into the apparently open doorway, he detected no details of structure, nothing but a coldness – and also the red light crawling more vigorously than ever across his upraised palm.
'No, don't, no!' Jilly warned.
'No, don't go in there.'
'I'm not going in there.'
'You look like you're going in there.'
'Why would I go in there?'
'No way am I going in there.'
'You'd jump off a cliff after Shep.'
'I wouldn't jump off a cliff,' he impatiently assured her.
'You'd jump off a cliff,' she insisted. 'Hope to catch him on the way down, hope to carry him down into a haystack. You'd jump, all right.'
He just wanted to test the reality of the scene before him, to confirm that indeed it had true dimension, that it was a gateway and not just a window, an actual entry point to some otherworldly place rather than merely a view of it. Then he would retreat and think over the situation, try to arrive at a logical course of action with which to approach this monumentally illogical development.
Firmly pressing his right hand against the plane where the wall should have been, he discovered no sheetrock underlying the image of the tunnel, encountered no resistance whatsoever. He reached out of the bathroom, into that forbidding other realm, where the air proved to be icy, and where the baleful light squirmed over and around his fingers not like hundreds of ants any longer but like thousands of hard-shell beetles that might strip the flesh from his bones.
If he'd allowed himself to be guided by instinct, he would have withdrawn his hand at once; but he believed that he needed to explore this incredible situation more fully. He reached farther through the gateway, extending his hand in there to the wrist, and although he winced at the bitter cold, was nearly overwhelmed by revulsion at the hideous crawly sensation, he reached in still farther, all the way to his elbow, and then, of course, as instinct might have warned him if he had been listening, the tunnel took him.
Dylan didn't walk the length of the tunnel, didn't run, didn't tumble, didn't fly through it, had no sense of being in transit, but went from the motel bathroom to Shep's side in an instant. He felt his shoes slip off the vinyl tiles and simultaneously bite into soft earth, and when he looked down, he discovered that he was standing in knee-high grass.
His abrupt arrival stirred scores of tiny midges into spiraling flight from the golden-brown grass, which appeared crisp from months of summer heat. A few startled grasshoppers leaped for safety.
Upon touchdown, Dylan explosively spoke his brother's name – 'Shep!' – but Shepherd didn't acknowledge his arrival.
Even as Dylan registered that he stood upon a hilltop, under a blue sky, on a warm day, in a mild breeze, he turned from the vista that fascinated Shepherd and looked back where he expected the tunnel to be. Instead, he found a six-foot-diameter view of Jillian Jackson standing in the motel bathroom, not at the end of the red passageway, but immediately in front of him, as though she were a foot from him, as though he were looking at her through a round window that had no frame.
From the bathroom, Shepherd had appeared to be standing far away, a fragile silhouette against blue light. Viewed from this end, however, Jilly loomed life-size. Yet Dylan knew at once that from where she stood, the woman perceived him as a tiny figure at Shep's side, for she leaned toward the tunnel entrance where he himself had so recently stood, and she squinted worriedly at him, straining to see his distant face.
Her mouth opened, her lips moved. Perhaps she called his name, but though she appeared to be only inches from him, Dylan couldn't hear her, not even faintly.
The view of the bathroom, floating like a huge bubble here on the hilltop, disoriented him. He grew lightheaded. The land seemed to slide under him as though it were a sea, and he felt that he had been shanghaied by a dream.
He wanted to step at once out of the dry grass and back into the motel, for in spite of the fact that he had arrived on this hilltop physically intact, he feared that he must nevertheless have left some vital part of himself back there, some essential thread of mind or spirit, without which he'd soon unravel.
Instead, propelled by curiosity, he moved around the gateway, wondering what side view it presented. He discovered that the portal wasn't in the least similar either to a window or a bubble, but more resembled a giant coin balanced on edge. From the side, it had the narrow profile of a dime, though it lacked the serrations to be found on the milled edges of most coins. The thin silvery line, arcing out of the sun-browned grass and all but vanishing against the backdrop of bright blue sky, might in fact have been narrower than the edge of a dime, hardly more than a filament, as though this gate were but a disc as translucent and thin as the membrane of a fly's wing.
Dylan waded through grass all the way around to the back of the portal, out of sight of his brother.
Viewed from a point 180 degrees opposite his first position, the gateway offered the identical sight as from the front. The shabby motel bathroom. Jilly anxiously leaning forward – squinting, worried.
Not being within sight of Shep made Dylan nervous. He quickly continued around the gate to the point at his brother's side from which he had begun this inspection.
Shep stood as Dylan had left him: arms hanging slackly at his sides, head cocked to the right, gazing west and down upon a familiar vista. His wistful smile expressed both melancholy and pleasure.
Rolling hills mantled in golden grass lay to the north and south, here and there graced by widely separated California live oaks that cast long morning shadows, and this particular hill rolled down to a long meadow. West of the meadow stood a Victorian house with an expansive back porch. Beyond the house: more lush meadows, a gravel driveway leading to a highway that followed the coastline. A quarter of a mile to the west of those blacktop lanes, the Pacific Ocean, a vast mirror, took the color of the sky and condensed it into a deeper and more solemn blue.
Miles north of Santa Barbara, California, on a lightly populated stretch of coast, half a mile from the nearest neighbor, this was the house in which Dylan had grown up. In this place, their mother had died more than ten years ago, and to this place, Dylan and Shep still returned between their long road trips to arts festival after arts festival across the West and Southwest.
'This is nuts!' His frustration burst from him in those three words much the way This sucks! might have erupted from him if he'd learned that his lottery ticket had missed the hundred-million-dollar prize by one digit, and as Ouch! or something more rude might have passed his lips if he'd hit his thumb with a hammer. He was confused. he was scared, and because his head might have exploded if he'd stood here as silent as Shep, he said again, 'This is nuts!'
Miles farther north, in the deserted parking lot of a state beach, their father had committed suicide fifteen years ago. From this hill, unaware that their lives were soon to change, Dylan and Shep had watched the spectacular December sunset that their dad had viewed through a haze of Nembutal and carbon-monoxide poisoning as he had settled into an everlasting sleep.
They were hundreds of miles from Holbrook, Arizona, where they had gone to bed.
'Nuts, this is nuts,' he expanded, 'totally, fully nuts with a nut filling and more nuts on top.'
Warm sunshine, fresh air faintly scented by the sea, crickets singing in the dry grass: As much as it might feel like a dream, all of it was real.