He dared not drop the knife. If it fell on the floor, Shepherd wouldn't pick it up for him. To retrieve it, Dylan would have to rock the chair, topple it sideways, and risk injury. Risking injury remained always near the top of his list of Things That Smart People Don't Do. Even if he toppled the chair without catastrophe, from that new and more awkward position, he might have a hard time getting his mouth around the handle again, especially if the knife bounced under the bed.
He closed his eyes and brooded on his options for a moment before making another move.
Because he was an artist, brooding was supposed to come easily to Dylan; however, he had never been that kind of artist, never one to wallow in bleak thoughts about the human condition or to despair over man's inhumanity to man. On an individual level, the human condition changed day by day, even hour by hour, and while you were soaking in self-pity over a misfortune, you might miss an opportunity for a redeeming triumph. And for every act of inhumanity, the species managed to commit a hundred acts of kindness; so if you were the type to brood, you would be more sensible if you dwelt on the remarkable goodwill with which most people treated others even in a society where the cultural elites routinely mocked virtue and celebrated brutality.
In this case, his options were so severely limited that although he might be an unskilled brooder, he was able quickly to arrive at a plan of action. Leaning forward again, he brought the cutting edge of the blade to one of the loops of glossy black tape that fixed his left wrist to an arm of the chair. Much like a goose bobbing its head, much as Shep sometimes spent hours imitating a goose bobbing its head, Dylan sawed with the pocketknife. The bonds began to part, and once his left hand was freed, he transferred the knife from teeth to fingers.
As Dylan quickly cut away the remaining restraints, the jigsaw junkie – now locking pieces in the picture at a frenetic pace that even methamphetamine could not have precipitated – altered his nonsense chant: 'Deedle-doodle-diddle.'
'I feel a pressure in my middle.'
'I think I have to piddle.'
Jilly opened her eyes and saw, blearily, the salesman and his identical twin bending over the bed on which she reclined.
Although she knew that she ought to be afraid, she had no fear. She felt relaxed. She yawned.
If the first brother was evil – and no doubt he was – then the second must be good, so she was not without a protector. In movies and often in books, moral character was distributed in exactly that ratio between identical siblings: one evil, one good.
She'd never known twins in real life. If she ever met any, she would not be able to trust both. Your trust ensured that you would be bludgeoned to death, or worse, in Act 2 or in Chapter 12, or certainly by the end of the story.
These two guys looked equally benign, but one of them slipped loose a rubber-tube tourniquet that had been knotted around Jilly's arm, while the second appeared to be administering an injection. Neither of these interesting actions could fairly be called evil, but they were certainly unsettling.
'Which of you is going to bludgeon me?' she asked, surprised to hear a slur in her voice, as though she had been drinking.
As one, with matching expressions of surprise, the twin salesmen looked at her.
'I should warn you,' she said, 'I know karaoke.'
Each of the twins kept his right hand on the plunger of the hypodermic syringe, but simultaneously each snatched up a white cotton handkerchief with his left hand. They were exquisitely choreographed.
'Not karaoke,' she corrected herself. 'Karate.' This was a lie, but she thought that she sounded convincing, even though her voice remained thick and strange. 'I know karate.'
The blurry brothers spoke in perfect harmony, their syllables precisely matched. 'I want you to sleep a little more, young lady. Sleep, sleep.'
As one, the wonderfully synchronized twins swept the white handkerchiefs through the air and dropped them on Jilly's face with such panache that she expected the cloths to transform magically into doves before they quite touched her skin. Instead, the damp fabric, reeking with the pungent chemistry of forgetfulness, seemed to turn black, like crows, like ravens, and she was borne away on midnight wings, into darkness deep.
Although she thought that she'd opened her eyes an instant after closing them, a couple minutes must have passed in that blink. The needle had been withdrawn from her arm. The twins no longer hovered over her.
In fact, only one of the men was present, and she realized that the other had not actually existed, had been a trick of vision. He stood at the foot of the bed, returning the hypodermic syringe to the leather satchel, which she'd mistaken for a kit of salesman's samples. She realized that it must be a medical bag.
He droned on about his life's work, but nothing he said made any sense to Jilly, perhaps because he was an incoherent psychopath or perhaps because the fumes of nepenthe, still burning in her nose and sinuses, rendered her incapable of understanding him.
When she tried to rise from the bed, she experienced a wave of vertigo that washed her back down onto the pillows. She clutched the mattress with both hands, as a shipwrecked sailor might cling to a raft of flotsam in a turbulent sea.
This sensation of tilting and spinning at last stirred up the fear that she knew she ought to feel but that until now had been an inactive sediment at the bottom of her mind. As her breathing grew shallow, quick, and frantic, her racing heart churned currents of anxiety through her blood, and fear threatened to darken into terror, panic.
She had never been interested in controlling others, but she'd always insisted on being the master of her own fate. She might make mistakes, did make mistakes – lots, lots – but if her life was destined to be screwed up, then she'd damn well do the job herself. Control had been taken from her, seized by force, maintained with chemicals, with drugs, for reasons that she could not understand even though she strained to remain focused on her tormentor's line of self-justifying patter.
With the surge of fear came anger. In spite of her karaoke-karate threat and her Southwest Amazon image, Jilly wasn't by nature a butt-kicking warrioress. Humor and charm were her weapons of choice. But here she saw an ample backside in which she emphatically wanted to bury a boot. As the salesman-maniac-doctor-whatever walked to the desk, to pick up his cola and three bags of peanuts, Jilly tried once more to rise in righteous rage.
Again, her box-spring raft tossed in the flamboyant sea of bad motel decor. A second attack of vertigo, worse than the first, spun a whirlpool of nausea through her, and instead of executing the butt-booting assault that she'd envisioned, she groaned. 'I'm gonna puke.'
Retrieving his Coke and peanuts, picking up his medical bag, the stranger said, 'You'd better resist the urge. The effects of the anesthesia linger. You could lose consciousness again, and if you pass out while regurgitating, you'll wind up like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, choking to death on your own vomit.'
Oh, lovely. She'd simply gone out to buy some root beer. Such an innocent undertaking. Not ordinarily a high-risk task. She had fully understood the need to compensate for the root-beer indulgence with a dry-toast breakfast, but she hadn't gone to the vending machines with any expectation whatsoever that by doing so she would put herself at risk of choking to death on her own upchuck. Had she known, she would have stayed in her room and drunk tap water; after all, what was good enough for Fred was good enough for her.
'Lie still,' the crackpot urged, not with any element of command in his voice but with what sounded like concern for her. 'Lie still, and the nausea and the vertigo will fade in two or three minutes. I don't want you to choke to death, that would be stupid, but I can't risk hanging around here, playing nursemaid. And remember, if they get their hands on me and discover what I've done, they'll come looking for anyone I've injected, and they'll kill you.'
Remember? Kill? They?
She had no memory whatsoever of any such previous warning, so she assumed that it must have been part of what he'd been talking about when her brain haze, now gradually clearing, had been as thick as London fog.
From the door, he looked back at her. 'The police won't be able to keep you safe from these people who're coming. There's no one to turn to.'
On the rolling bed, in this tilting room, she could not help but think about the chicken sandwich, slathered with chipotle mayonnaise, and the greasy French fries she'd eaten. She tried to concentrate on her assailant, desperate to devastate him with words in place of the boot that she hadn't been able to bury in his bottom, but her gorge kept trying to rise.
'Your only hope,' he said, 'is to get out of the search area before you're detained and forced to have a blood test.'
The chicken sandwich struggled within her as though it retained some of its chicken consciousness, as though the fowl were attempting to take a first messy step toward reconstitution.
Nevertheless, Jilly managed to speak, and she was at once embarrassed by the insult that escaped her, which would have been lame even if she had pronounced it without confusion: 'Siss my kass.'
In comedy clubs, she frequently dealt with hecklers, cracked their thick skulls, wrung their geek necks, stomped their malicious hearts till they cried for mama – metaphorically speaking, of course – using a dazzle of words as effective as the fists of Muhammad Ali in his prime. In postanesthesia disorientation, however, she was about as witheringly funny as chipotle mayonnaise, which right now was the least amusing substance in the known universe.
'As attractive as you are,' he said, 'I'm sure someone'll look after you.'
'Pupid srick,' she said, further mortified by the utter collapse of her once formidable verbal war machine.
'In the days ahead, you'd be best advised to keep your mouth shut about what happened here—'
'Cupid strick,' she corrected herself, only to realize that she had found a new way to mangle the same insult.
'—keep your head down—'
'Stupid prick,' she said with clarity this time, although the epithet had actually sounded more withering when mispronounced.
'—and never speak to anyone about what's happened to you, because as soon as it's known, you'll be a target.'
She almost spat the word at him, 'Hickdead,' though such crude language, whether or not properly pronounced and clearly enunciated, was not her usual style.
'Good luck,' he said, and then he left with his Coke and his peanuts and his evil dreamy smile.
Having cut himself loose from the chair, having taken a quick piddle – deedle-doodle-diddle – Dylan returned from the bathroom and discovered that Shep had risen from the desk and had turned his back on the unfinished Shinto temple. Once he began to obsess on a puzzle, Shep could be lured from it neither with promises nor with rewards, nor by force, until he plugged in the final piece. Yet now, standing near the foot of the bed, staring intently at the empty air as though he perceived something of substance in it, he whispered not to Dylan, apparently not to himself, either, but as if to a phantom visible only to him: 'By the light of the moon.'
During most of his waking hours, Shepherd radiated strangeness as reliably as a candle gave forth light. Dylan had grown accustomed to living in that aura of brotherly weirdness. He had been Shep's legal guardian for more than a decade, since their mother's untimely death when Shep was ten, two days before Dylan turned nineteen. After all this time, he could not easily be surprised by Shep's words or actions, as once he had been. Likewise, in his youth he had sometimes found Shep's behavior creepy rather than merely peculiar, but for many years, his afflicted brother had done nothing to chill the nape of Dylan's neck – until now.
'By the light of the moon.'
Shepherd's posture remained as stiff and awkward as always, but his current edginess wasn't characteristic. Though usually as smooth as the serene brow of Buddha, his forehead furrowed. His face gave itself to a ferocity he'd never exhibited before. He squinted at the apparition that only he could see, chewing on his lower lip, looking angry and worried. His hands cramped into fists at his sides, and he seemed to want to punch someone, though never before had Shepherd O'Conner raised a hand in anger.
'Shep, what's wrong?'
If the lunatic physician with a hypodermic syringe could be believed, they had to get out of here, and quickly. A speedy exit, however, would require Shep's cooperation. He seemed to be teetering on the edge of emotional turmoil, and if he was not calmed, he might prove difficult to manage in an excited state. He wasn't as big as Dylan, but he stood five ten and weighed 160 pounds, so you couldn't just grab him by the back of his belt and carry him out of the motel room as though he were a suitcase. If he decided he didn't want to go, he would wrap his arms around a bedpost or make a human grappling hook of himself in a doorway, hooking hands and feet to the jamb.
'Shep? Hey, Shep, you hear me?'
The boy appeared to be no more aware of Dylan now than when he'd been working the puzzle. Interaction with other human beings didn't come to Shepherd as easily as it came to the average person, or even as easily as it came to the average cave-dwelling hermit. At times he could connect with you, and as often as not, that connection would be uncomfortably intense; however, he spent most of his life in a world so completely his own and so unknowable to Dylan that it might as well have revolved around an unnamed star in a different arm of the Milky Way galaxy, far from this familiar Earth.
Shep lowered his gaze from an eye-level confrontation with the invisible presence, and although his stare fixed upon nothing more than a patch of bare carpet, his eyes widened from a squint, and his mouth went soft, as though he might cry. A progression of expressions fell across his face in swift succession, like a series of rippling veils, quickly transforming his grimace of anger to a wretched look of helplessness and tremulous despair. His tightly gripped ferocity swiftly sifted between his fingers, until his clenched fists, still at his sides, fell open, leaving him empty-handed.
When Dylan saw his brother's tears, he went to him, gently placed a hand on one shoulder, and said, 'Look at me, little bro. Tell me what's wrong. Look at me, see me, be here with me, Shep. Be here with me.'
At times, without coaching, Shep could relate almost normally, if awkwardly, to Dylan and to others. More often than not, however, he needed to be guided toward communication, constantly and patiently encouraged to make a connection and to maintain it once it had been established.
Conversation with Shep frequently depended on first making eye contact with him, but the boy seldom granted that degree of intimacy. He seemed to avoid such directness not solely because of his severe psychological disorder, and not merely because he was pathologically shy. Sometimes, in a fanciful moment, Dylan could almost believe that Shep's withdrawal from the world, beginning in early childhood, had occurred when he had discovered that he could read the secrets of anyone's soul by what was written in the eyes... and had been unable to bear what he saw.