Perhaps he imagined that he felt the bullet passing through him, but when he turned in horror toward his beloved mother, he could have described in intimate detail the shape, texture, weight, and heat of the round that killed her. And he felt bullet-punched, pierced, not when the slug hissed through him, but when he saw her falling, and saw her face clenched in shock, in pain.
Dylan knelt before her, desperate with the need to hold her, to comfort his mother in her last seconds of life, but here in her time, he had less substance than a ghost of a ghost.
From where she lay, she gazed directly through Dylan toward ten-year-old Shep. Fifteen feet away, the boy stood slump-shouldered, his head half bowed. Though he didn't approach his mother, he met her gaze with a rare directness.
By the look of him, this younger Shep either didn't understand fully what he had just seen or understood too well and was in shock. He stood motionless. He said nothing, nor did he cry.
Over near Blair's favorite armchair, Jilly embraced the older Shepherd, who did not shrink from the hug as usually he would have done. She kept him turned away from the sight of his mother, but she regarded Dylan with an anguish and a sympathy that proved she had ceased to be a stranger and had become, in less than twenty-four hours, part of their family.
Staring through Dylan at young Shep, their mother said, 'It's okay, sweetheart. You're not alone. Never alone. Dylan will always take care of you.'
In the story of her life, Death placed his comma, and she was gone.
'I love you,' Dylan said to her, the doubly dead, speaking across the river of the past ten years and across that other river that has an even more distant shore than the banks of time.
Although he'd been shaken to his deepest foundations by bearing witness to her death, he had been equally shaken by her final words: You're not alone. Never alone. Dylan will always take care of you.
He was deeply moved to hear her express such confidence in his character as a brother and as a man.
Yet he trembled when he thought of the nights he had lain awake, emotionally exhausted from a difficult day with Shepherd, stewing in self-pity. Discouragement – at worst, despondency – had been as close as he'd ever gotten to despair; but in those darker moments, he'd argued with himself that Shep would be better off in what the masters of euphemism called 'a loving, professional-care environment.'
He knew there would have been no shame in finding a first-rate facility for Shep, and knew also that his commitment to his brother came at a cost to his own happiness that psychologists would declare indicative of an emotional disorder. In truth he regretted this life of service at some point every day, and he supposed that in his old age he might feel bitterly that he had wasted too many years.
Yet such a life had its special rewards – not the least of which was this discovery that he had fulfilled his mother's faith in him. His perseverance with Shepherd, all these years, suddenly seemed to have an uncanny dimension, as if he'd somehow known about the pledge his dying mother had made in his name, although Shepherd had never mentioned it. He could almost believe that she had come to him in dreams, which he did not remember, and in his sleep had spoken to him of her love for him and of her confidence in his sense of duty.
For ten years, if not longer, Dylan had thought he understood the frustrations with which Shepherd lived, had thought he fully grasped the chronic sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces with which an autistic person daily struggled. Until now, however, his understanding had been woefully incomplete. Not until he had been required to stand by helplessly and watch his mother shot, had tried to hold her in her dying moment and could not, had longed to speak with her before she passed but couldn't make himself heard – not until this terrible moment had he felt a powerlessness like that with which his brother had always lived. Kneeling beside his mother, riveted by her glazed eyes, Dylan shook with humiliation, with fear, with a rage that could not be vented because it had no single and no easy object, a rage at his weakness and at the way things were and always would be. A scream of anger built in him, but he didn't let it out because, displaced in time, his shout would go largely unheard – and also because this scream, once begun, would be difficult to stop.
Not much blood. Be thankful for that.
And she didn't linger. Suffered little.
Then he realized what ghastly spectacle must come next. 'No.'
* * *
Holding Shepherd close, looking over his shoulder, Jilly watched Lincoln Proctor with a loathing that heretofore she had been able to work up only for her father at his meanest. And it didn't matter that ten years hence, Proctor would be a smoking carcass in the ruins of her Coupe DeVille: She loathed him bitterly and none the less.
Shot fired, he returned the pistol to the shoulder holster under his leather jacket. He appeared to be confident of his marksmanship.
From a coat pocket he removed a pair of latex gloves and worked his hands into them, all the while watching ten-year-old Shep.
Even to Jilly, who knew how to read the subtleties of expression in Shepherd's guarded face, the boy appeared to be unmoved by his mother's death. This couldn't be the case, for ten years later he had brought them back in time to bear witness; in his older incarnation, he'd come to this scene with palpable dread, repeating Shep is brave.
Features slack, no tremor at the mouth, without tears, the boy turned from his mother's body. He walked to the nearest corner, where he stood staring at the meeting of the walls.
Overwhelmed by traumatic experience, he reduced his world to a narrow space, where he felt safer. Likewise, he dealt with grief.
Flexing his latex-sheathed hands, Proctor went to the boy and stood over him, watching.
Rocking slowly back and forth, young Shepherd began to murmur a rhythmic series of words that Jilly could not quite hear.
Dylan still knelt at his mother's side, his head bowed as though in prayer. He wasn't ready to leave her yet.
Satisfied that corner-focused Shepherd would serve diligently as the warden of his own imprisonment, Proctor walked out of the living room, crossed the entrance hall, and opened the door to another room.
If they weren't going to fold out of here immediately, then it made sense to follow Proctor and learn what he was doing.
With an affectionate squeeze, she released Shep. 'Let's see what the bastard is up to. Will you come with me, sweetie?'
Leaving Shep alone wasn't an option. Still scared and grieving, he needed companionship. Besides, though Jilly doubted that he would fold out of here without her and Dylan, she dared not chance it.
'Will you come with me, Shepherd?'
'Rat, Mole, Mr. Toad.'
'What does that mean, Shep? What do you want?'
'Rat, Mole, Mr. Toad. Rat, Mole, Mr. Toad.'
By the third time he recited this mantra, he had synchronized his words to those of ten-year-old Shepherd in the corner, and the resonance between them revealed the words that the younger Shep was murmuring as he rocked. 'Rat, Mole, Mr. Toad.'
Jilly didn't know the meaning of this, and she didn't have the time to get involved in one of those long, circuitous conversations with Shepherd. 'Rat, Mole, Mr. Toad. We'll talk about that later, sweetie. Right now, just come with me. Come along with me.'
Somewhat to her surprise, without hesitation, Shep followed her out of the living room.
As they entered the study, Proctor used the computer keyboard to smash the monitor. He shoved the entire machine off the desk, onto the floor. He exhibited no glee, even winced at the mess he'd made.
Drawer by drawer, he quickly searched for diskettes. He found a few, stacked them aside. He tossed the other contents of the drawers on the floor, scattering them widely, evidently hoping to create the impression that the person or persons responsible for the death of Dylan's mother had been ordinary thieves and vandals.
File cabinets in the bottom of the study closet contained only paper records. He dismissed these at once.
Atop the file cabinets were double-wide diskette-storage boxes: three of them, each capable of holding perhaps a hundred diskettes.
Proctor snatched diskettes out of the boxes, tossing them aside in handfuls without reading labels. In the third box, he found four diskettes different from the others, in canary-yellow paper sleeves.
'Bingo,' Proctor said, bringing these four to the desk.
Holding Shep's hand, Jilly moved close to Proctor, expecting him to cry out as if he'd seen a ghost. His breath smelled of peanuts.
The yellow sleeve of each diskette blazed with the word WARNING! printed in red. The rest of the printing was in black: legalistic prose stating that these diskettes contained private files protected by lawyer-client privilege, that criminal and civil prosecution would be undertaken against anyone in wrongful possession of same, and that anyone not in the employment of the below-referenced law firm would automatically be in wrongful possession.
Proctor slid one diskette out of its sleeve to read the label. Satisfied, he tucked all four into an inner jacket pocket.
Now that he had what he'd come for, Proctor played vandal once more, pulling books off the study shelves and slinging them across the room. With flapping pages, the volumes flew through Jilly and Shepherd, dropping like dead birds to the floor.
* * *
When the computer crashed off the study desk, Dylan remembered the mess in which parts of the house had been found that February night long ago. Thus far he had remained at his mother's side with the irrational hope that even though he had been unable to save her from the bullet, he would somehow spare her from the indignity yet to come. The racket in the study forced him to accept that in this matter, he was indeed as helpless as his brother.
His mother was gone, ten years gone, and all that had followed her death remained immutable. His concern now must be for the living.
He didn't care to watch Proctor engaged in set-dressing. He knew what the ultimate look of the scene would be.
Instead, he went to the corner where ten-year-old Shep rocked back and forth, murmuring. 'Rat, Mole, Mr. Toad.'
This was not what Dylan might have expected to hear his brother chanting, but it did not mystify him.
After the complete works of Dr. Seuss and others, the first story for older children that their mother read to Shep was Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Shep had so adored the tale of Rat, Mole, Toad, Badger, and the other colorful characters of the Wild Wood that he had insisted she read it to him again and again during the year that followed. By the time he was ten, he'd read it at least twenty times on his own.
He wanted the company of Rat, Mole, and Mr. Toad, the story of friendship and hope, the dream of life in warm and secure burrows, in deep lamplit warrens, in sheltered glades, wanted the reassurance that after fearful adventures, after chaos, there would be always the circle of friends, the firelit hearth, quiet evenings when the world shrank to the size of a family and when no heart beat in a stranger.
Dylan couldn't give him that. In fact, if such a life could be lived in this world, the likelihood was that it could be enjoyed only by characters in books.
In the downstairs hall, the mirror by the front door shattered. If memory served, it had been broken with the vase that had stood on the small entry table.
From the living-room doorway, Jilly called to Dylan, 'He's going upstairs!'
'Let him go. I know what he does. Sacks the master bedroom and steals Mom's jewelry... I guess to make it look like a robbery. Her purse is up there. He empties it, takes the money from her wallet.'
Jilly and Shepherd joined him, gathering behind the long-ago Shepherd in the long-ago corner.
This was not where Shep had been found on the night of February 12, 1992. Dylan wanted to remain in this time until he knew if Shep had been spared bearing witness to what was yet to come.
From upstairs echoed the hard crashes of drawers being pulled out of the bureau and thrown against the walls.
'Rat, Mole, Mr. Toad,' said the younger Shepherd, and the older Shep, armoring himself against a scary world and perhaps speaking also to his ten-year-old self, said, 'Shep is brave, Shep is brave.'
After a minute, the noises of destruction ceased upstairs. Proctor had probably found the purse. Or he was loading his pockets with her jewelry, none of which had great value.
Head bowed in his posture of eternal supplication, the younger Shep moved out of the corner and shuffled to the dining-room door, and the older Shep closely followed him. Like processional monks, they were, in a brotherhood of the genteel estranged.
Relieved, Dylan would have followed them anyway, but when he heard Proctor's footsteps thundering as hard as knocking hooves on the stairs, he stepped after his brother more quickly, pulling Jilly with him, out of the living room.
Ten-year-old Shep rounded the table and returned to his chair. He sat and stared at his puzzle.
The golden-retriever puppies in the basket revealed a moment of peace and charm that couldn't possibly exist in this violent fallen world, that must instead represent a glimpse into a burrow in the Wild Wood.
Shepherd stood across the table from his younger self, flanked by Jilly and Dylan, watching.
In the living room, Proctor began to overturn furniture, tear paintings from the walls, and smash bibelots, further developing the scenario that would lead the police away from any consideration that the intruder might have been other than a common drug-pumped thug.
Younger Shep selected a piece of the jigsaw from the puzzle box. He scanned the incomplete picture. He tried the fragment in a wrong hole, another wrong hole, but inserted it correctly on his third try. The next piece he placed at once. And the next, faster.
After the loudest of the crashes, the living room grew quiet.
Dylan tried to focus on the gracefulness with which ten-year-old Shep turned chaos into puppies and a basket. He hoped to block from his mind images of the final bit of scene-setting in which Proctor must be now engaged.
Inevitably, he failed.
To suggest that the initial intentions of the murderous intruder had included rape as well as robbery, Proctor would tear open Blair O'Conner's blouse, popping the buttons from throat to belt line. To suggest that the victim had fought back before she could be sexually assaulted, and that she'd been shot accidentally during a struggle or on purpose by a man enraged when rejected, Proctor would tear at her bra, snapping one shoulder strap, jerking the cups below her breasts.
With these indignities committed, he came into the dining room, flushed from his exertions.
If ever Dylan had been capable of murder, this was the moment. He had the will, but he did not have the way. His fists were less than smoke to Proctor here. Even if he'd come with a revolver from his own time, the bullet would drill Proctor without shredding one filament of flesh.