Ordinarily, Dylan would not have turned to his brother for the answer to any mystery. Shepherd O'Conner wasn't a source of answers, not a wellhead of clarifying insights. Shep was instead a bubbling font of confusion, a gushing fountain of enigmas, a veritable geyser of mysteries.
In this instance, however, if he didn't turn to Shepherd, he might as well seek answers from the crickets in the grass, from the fairy midges that swooned through the day on lazy currents of sun-warmed air.
'Shep, are you listening to me?'
Shep smiled a half-sorrowful smile at the house below them.
'Shep, I need you to be with me now. Talk to me now. Shep, I need you to tell me how you got here.'
'Almond,' Shep said, 'filbert, peanut, walnut—'
'Don't do this, Shep.'
'—black walnut, beechnut, butternut—'
'This isn't acceptable, Shep.'
'—cashew, Brazil nut—'
Dylan stepped in front of his brother, seized him firmly by the shoulders, shook him to get his attention. 'Shep, look at me, see me, be with me. How did you get here?'
'—coconut, hickory nut—'
Shaking his brother harder, violently enough to make the litany of nuts stutter out of the boy, Dylan said, 'That's it, enough, no more of this shit, no more!'
'—chestnut, kola nut—'
Dylan let go of Shep's shoulders, clasped his hands around his brother's face, holding his head in a ten-finger vice. 'Don't you hide from me, don't you pull your usual crap, not with this going on, Shep, not now.'
'—pistachio, pine nut.'
Although Shepherd strove mightily to keep his chin down, Dylan relentlessly forced his brother's head up. 'Listen to me, talk to me, look at me!'
Muscled into a confrontation, Shepherd closed his eyes. 'Acorn, betel nut—'
Ten years of frustration, ten years of patience and sacrifice, ten years of vigilance to prevent Shep from unintentionally hurting himself, thousands of days of shaping food into neat rectangular and square morsels, uncounted hours of worrying about what would happen to Shepherd if fate conspired to have him outlive his brother: All of these things and so many more had pressed on Dylan, each a great psychological stone, had piled one atop another, atop another, dear God, until he felt crushed by the cumulative weight, until he could no longer say with any sincerity, He ain't heavy, he's my brother, because Shepherd was heavy, all right, a burden immeasurable, heavier than the boulder that Sisyphus had been condemned forever to roll up a long dark hill in Hades, heavier than the world on the back of Atlas.
'—pecan, litchi nut—'
Pressed between Dylan's big hands, Shepherd's features were scrunched together, puckered and pouted like those of a baby about to burst into tears, and his speech was distorted.
'—almond, cashew, walnut—'
'You're repeating yourself now,' Dylan said angrily. 'Always repeating yourself. Day after day, week after week, the maddening routine, year after year, always the same clothes, the narrow little list of crap you'll eat, always washing your hands twice, always nine minutes under the shower, never eight, never ten, always precisely nine, and all your life with your head bowed, staring at your shoes, always the same stupid fears, the same maddening tics and twitches, deedle-doodle-deedle, always the endless repetition, the endless stupid repetition!'
'—filbert, coconut, peanut—'
With the index finger of his right hand, Dylan attempted to lift the lid of his brother's left eye, tried to pry it open. 'Look at me, Shep, look at me, look, look.'
'—chestnut, hickory nut—'
Although standing with his arms slack at his sides and offering no other resistance, Shep squeezed his eyes shut, foiling Dylan's insistent finger.
'—butternut, Brazil nut—'
'Look at me, you little shit!'
'—kola nut, pistachio—'
'LOOK AT ME!'
Shep stopped resisting, and his left eye flew open, with the lid pressed almost to his eyebrow under the tip of Dylan's finger. Shep's one-eyed stare, as direct a moment of contact as ever he'd made with his brother, was an image suitable for any horror-movie poster: the essence of terror, the look of the victim just before the alien from another world rips his throat open, just before the zombie tears his heart out, just before the lunatic psychiatrist trepans his skull and devours his brain with a good Cabernet.
LOOK AT ME... LOOK AT ME... Look at me...
Dylan heard those three words echoing back from the surrounding hills, decreasing in volume with each repetition, and though he knew that he was listening to his own furious shout, the voice sounded like that of a stranger, hard and sharp with a steely anger of which Dylan would have thought himself incapable, but also cracking with a fear that he recognized too well.
One eye tight shut, the other popped to the max, Shepherd said, 'Shep is scared.'
They were looking at each other now, just like Dylan had wanted, eye to eye, a direct and uncompromising connection. He felt pierced by his brother's panicked stare, as breathless as if his lungs had been punctured, and his heart clenched in pain as though skewered by a needle.
'Shep is s-s-scared.'
The kid was scared, sure enough, flat-out terrified, no denying that, perhaps more frightened than he'd ever been in twenty years of frequent bouts of fright. And while but a moment ago he might have been afraid of the radiant tunnel by which he had traveled in a blink from the eastern Arizona desert to the California coast, his alarm now arose from another cause: his brother, who in an instant had become a stranger to him, a shouting and abusive stranger, as though the sun had played a moon trick, transforming Dylan from a man into a vicious wolf.
'Sh-shep is scared.'
Horrified by the expression of dread with which his brother regarded him, Dylan withdrew his pinning finger from Shep's arched eyelid, let go of the kid's head, and stepped back, shaking with self-disgust, remorse.
'Shep is scared,' the kid said, both eyes open wide.
'I'm sorry, Shep.'
'Shep is scared.'
'I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to scare you, buddy. I didn't mean what I said, not any of it, forget all that.'
Shepherd's shocked-wide eyelids lowered. He let his shoulders slump, too, and bowed his head and cocked it to one side, assuming the meek demeanor and the awkward posture with which he announced to the world that he was harmless, the humble pose that he hoped would allow him to shuffle through life without calling attention to himself, without inviting any notice from dangerous people.
The kid hadn't forgotten the confrontation this quickly. He was still plenty scared. He hadn't gotten over his hurt feelings, either, not in a wink; he might never get over them. Shepherd's sole defense in every situation, however, was to mimic a turtle: quickly pull all the vulnerable parts under the shell, hunker down, hide in the armor of indifference.
'I'm sorry, bro. I don't know what got into me. No. No, that isn't true. I know exactly what got into me. The old jimjams, the whimwhams, the old boogeyman bitin' on my bones. I got scared, Shep. Hell, I am scared, so scared I can't think straight. And I don't like being scared, don't like it one bit. It's not something I'm used to, and so I took my frustration out on you, and I never should've done that.'
Shepherd shifted his weight from left foot to right, right foot to left. The expression with which he stared at his Rockports wasn't difficult to read. He didn't appear to be terrified anymore – anxious, yes, but at least not electrified with fright. Instead he seemed to be startled, as though surprised that anything could scare his big brother.
Dylan peered past Shepherd to the magical round gateway, at the motel bathroom for which he would never have imagined that he could feel a nostalgic yearning as intense as what swelled in his heart at this moment.
One hand visored over her eyes, squinting the length of the red tunnel, clearer to Dylan than he must be to her, Jilly looked terrified. He hoped that she remained more frightened of reaching into the tunnel than of being left behind and alone, because her arrival here on the hilltop could only complicate matters.
He poured out further effusive apologies to Shepherd, until he realized that too many mea culpas could be worse than none at all. He was salving his own conscience at the cost of making his brother nervous, essentially poking at Shep in his shell. The kid shifted more agitatedly from one foot to the other.
'Anyway,' Dylan said, 'the stupid thing is, I shouted at you because I wanted you to tell me how you got here – but I already knew somehow you must have done it yourself, some new wild talent of your own. I don't understand the mechanics of what you've done. Even you probably don't grasp the mechanics of it any more than I understand how I feel a psychic trace on a door handle, how I read the spoor. But I knew the rest of what must've happened before I asked.'
With an effort, Dylan silenced himself. The surest way to calm Shepherd was to stop jabbering at him, stop overloading him with sensory input, grant him a little quiet.
In the barest breath of ocean-scented breeze, the grass stirred as languidly as seaweed in deep watery gardens. Gnats nearly as tiny as dust motes circled lazily through the air.
High in the summer sky, a hawk glided on thermal currents, in search of field mice three hundred feet below.
At a distance, traffic on the coast highway raised a susurration so faint that even the feeble breeze sometimes erased the sound. When the growl of a single engine rose out of the background murmur, Dylan shifted his attention from the hunting hawk to the graveled driveway and saw a motorcycle approaching his house.
The Harley belonged to Vonetta Beesley, the housekeeper who came once a week, whether Dylan and Shep were in residence or not. During inclement weather, she drove a supercharged Ford pickup perched high on fifty-four-inch-diameter tires and painted like a crimson dragon.
Vonetta was a fortyish woman with the winning personality and the recreational interests of many a Southern good old boy. A superb housekeeper and a first-rate cook, she had the strength and the guts – and would most likely be delighted – to serve as a bodyguard in a pinch.
The hilltop lay so far behind and above the house that Vonetta would not be able to identify Dylan and Shep at this distance. If she noticed them, however, and if she found them to be suspicious, she might take the Harley off-trail and come up here for a closer look. Concern for her own safety would not be an issue, and she would be motivated both by a sense of duty and a taste for adventure.
Maybe Dylan could concoct a half-assed story to explain what he and his brother were doing here when they were supposed to be on the road in New Mexico, but he didn't have the talent for deception or the time to craft a story to explain the gateway, the motel bathroom here on the hill, and Jilly peering cluelessly out at them as though she were Alice unsuccessfully attempting to scope the nature of the enchanted realm on the far side of the looking glass.
He turned to his little brother, prepared to risk agitating the kid anew by suggesting that the time had come to return to Holbrook, Arizona.
Before Dylan could speak, Shepherd said, 'Here, there.'
Dylan was reminded of the men's restroom at the restaurant in Safford, the previous evening. Here had referred to stall number one. There had referred to stall number four. Shep's first jaunt had been short, toilet to toilet.
Dylan recalled no eerie red radiance on that occasion. Perhaps because Shep had closed the gateway behind him as soon as he'd passed through it.
'Here, there,' Shep repeated.
Head lowered, Shep looked up from under his brow, not at Dylan but at the house below the hill, beyond the meadow, and at Vonetta on the Harley.
'What're you trying to say, Shep?'
'Where is there?'
'Here,' said Shep, scuffing the grass with his right foot.
'And where is here?'
'There,' said Shep, tucking his head down farther and turning it to the right, peering back past his shoulder toward Jilly.
'Can we go back where we started,' Dylan urged.
On her motorcycle, Vonetta Beesley followed the driveway around the house to the detached garage.
'Here, there,' Shep said.
'How do we get back to the motel safely?' Dylan asked. 'Just reach in from this end, just step into the gateway?'
He worried that if he went through the portal first and found himself back in the motel, Shep wouldn't follow him.
'Here, there. There, here,' said Shep.
On the other hand, if Shep made the return trip first, the gate might immediately close up after him, stranding Dylan in California until he could get back to Holbrook, Arizona, by conventional means, thus requiring Jilly to fend for herself and the kid in the meantime.
Common sense insisted that everything strange happening to them came out of Frankenstein's syringes. Therefore, Shepherd must have been injected and must have acquired the power to open the gate. He found it, activated it. Or more likely he created it. Consequently, in a sense, the gate operated according to Shep's rules, which were unknown and unknowable, which meant that traveling by means of the gate was like playing poker with the devil using an unconventional deck of cards with three additional suits and a whole new court of royals between jack and queen.
Vonetta brought the Harley to a stop near the garage. The engine swallowed its growl.
Dylan was reluctant to take Shepherd's hand and plunge together into the gateway. If they had come to California by teleportation – and what else but teleportation could explain this? – if each of them had been instantaneously deconstructed into megatrillions of fellow-traveling atomic particles upon falling out of the motel bathroom and had then been perfectly reconstructed upon emerging onto this hilltop, they might find it necessary or at least wise to make such a journey one at a time, to avoid... commingling their assets. Dylan had seen the old movie The Fly, in which a teleporting scientist had undertaken a short trip from one end of his laboratory to the other, hardly farther than Shepherd's toilet-to-toilet experiment, unaware that a lowly housefly accompanied him, resulting in disaster on a scale usually achieved only by politicians. Dylan didn't want to wind up back at the motel wearing Shepherd's nose on his forehead or with Shepherd's thumb bristling from one of his eye sockets.
'Here, there. There, here,' Shep repeated.
Behind the house, Vonetta put down the kickstand. She climbed off the Harley.
'No here. No there. Herethere,' Shep said, making a single noun from two. 'Herethere.'