The difference this time was that the troubled heartbeat and the cold sweat weren't merely the consequences of her standup-comedy act collapsing under her, but arose from a dreadful suspicion that her life might be falling apart. Which would make this the ultimate flop sweat.
Of course, maybe she was being melodramatic. More than once she had been accused of that tendency. Yet undeniably here she sat in a desolate desert, far from anyone who loved her, in the company of a decidedly odd pair of strangers, half convinced that any authorities to whom she turned would prove to be in league with the men who had blown up her cherished Cadillac. Worse, with every heartbeat, her blood carried an unknown corruption deeper into her tissues.
On consideration, she realized that in this instance, reality involved more frantic action, inspired more exaggerated emotions, and encouraged less respect for cause and effect than any melodrama ever staged. 'Melodramatic, my ass,' she muttered.
Through the open back door of the Expedition, Jilly had a clear view of Dylan O'Conner sitting beside Shep and talking – ceaselessly, earnestly talking. The roar and whistle of passing traffic prevented her from hearing anything he said, and judging by Shepherd's faraway gaze, Dylan might as well have been alone, bending no ear but his own.
At first he held his younger brother's hands to put a stop to the self-administered blows that had brought a thin flow of blood from the kid's left nostril. In time, he released Shep and simply sat beside him, bent forward, head lowered, forearms on his thighs, hands clasped, but still talking, talking.
Jilly's inability to hear Dylan over the traffic noise created the impression that he spoke in a discreet murmur to his brother. The dim light in the SUV and the posture of the men – side by side, close and yet apart – brought to mind a confessional. The longer that she watched the brothers, the more completely the illusion developed, until she could smell the wood polish with which the confessional booths of her youth had been maintained and also the steeped-in scent of decades of smoldering incense.
A strangeness overcame her, a sense that the scene before her possessed meaning beyond what the five senses could perceive, that within it wound layers of mysteries and that at the core of all the mysteries lay... something transcendent. Jilly was too firmly rooted to this world to be a medium or a mystic; never before had she been seized by such a peculiar mood as this.
Although the night could not possibly be redolent of anything more exotic than the astringent alkaline breath of the Sonoran desert and the exhaust fumes of passing vehicles, the atmosphere between Jilly and the two O'Conners nevertheless appeared to thicken with a thin haze of incense. This enwrapping spicy perfume – cloves, myrrh, olibanum – was no longer a mere memory of fragrance; it had become as real and as true to this moment as were the star-shot sky above her and the loose gravel of the highway shoulder under her feet. In the cloistered interior of the Expedition, the fine particles of aromatic smoke in the gauzy air refracted and reflected the ceiling light, painting blue and gold aureoles around the O'Conners, until she might have sworn that the two brothers, rather than the small lamp above them, were radiant.
In this tableau, she would have expected Dylan to fulfill the role of priest, for of the two, Shepherd seemed to be the lost soul. But Dylan's expression and posture were those of a penitent, while Shep's blank stare appeared to be not empty but contemplative. As the younger brother began to nod slowly, rhythmically, he acquired the gracious aspect of a cassocked padre spiritually empowered to grant absolution. Jilly sensed that this unexpected reversal of roles revealed a truth of deep significance, but she could not grasp what it might be, and she could not understand why the subtleties of the relationship between these two men should be of such intense interest to her or should, in fact, impress her as being key to her salvation from her current circumstances.
Strangeness upon strangeness: She heard the sweet silvery laughter of children, although no children were present, and immediately as these musical peals of merriment arose, a flutter of wings soared after them. Surveying the vault of stars, she glimpsed no birds silhouetted against the constellations, yet the turbulence of wings increased and with it the laughter, until she rose to her feet and turned slowly around, around, in bafflement, wonderment.
Jilly knew no word to describe the extraordinary experience unfolding for her, but hallucination didn't seem to be applicable. These sounds and scents had neither the dreamlike insubstantiality nor the hyperrealistic intensity that she might have expected of hallucinations, but were of a vividness precisely matched to the elements of the night that she knew to be real: neither more nor less resonant than the grumble and swish of passing traffic, neither more nor less sweet-smelling than the traffic fumes were odorous.
Still turning to the encircling sound of wings, she saw tiers of candles in the desert south of her position, perhaps twenty feet beyond the guardrail. At least a double score of votive candles, racked in small ruby glasses, jeweled the darkness.
If this was dreamlight, it played on reality with a remarkable respect for the laws of physics. The metal rack stood at the foot of a smooth dune, among scattered clumps of struggling sage, casting a precise and accurate shadow made possible by the bright votives that it supported. Prowling chimeras of reflected fire shook their lions' manes and wriggled their serpents' tails across the sand, while the silvery-green leaves of the vegetation lapped at the wine-red light, glistening as though they were tongues savoring a crimson zinfandel. The illumination didn't imprint irrationally on the landscape, as the supernatural radiance of a vision might have been splashed in gaudy disregard for reason, but integrated logically with every element of the scene.
Also to the south but a few yards east of the candles and even closer to the guardrail, a single pew stood in want of a church, and if it faced a sanctuary and a high altar, both remained invisible. One end of this long wooden bench was buried in the slope of a dune; a woman in a dark dress anchored the other end.
This very vista, without pew and candles, had in distant times known the thunder of wild horses; and now Jilly's heart galloped with a sound that seemed to be as loud as hooves pounding across a desert plain. Her flop sweat had become an even icier perspiration than any she had known in failure on a stage, and instead of a mere dread of humiliation, she had been seized by the fear that she might be losing her mind.
The woman in the blue or black dress, perched upon the pew, wore her raven hair to the small of her back. In respect of God, a white lace mantilla draped her head, and incidentally hung forward along the side of her face, concealing her features. Lost in her prayers, she seemed to be oblivious of Jilly and to be unaware that her house of worship had disappeared around her.
Always the air was battered by wings, even louder than before, and ever closer, so that Jilly could clearly identify the particular feathery flutter of pinions and thus be certain that she heard birds rather than the leathery flight of bats. So close they swooped, with an air-cutting thrum and the eerie whisklike sound of wing vanes spreading, folding, spreading like the ribs of a Japanese fan, and yet she couldn't see them.
She turned, turned, she turned in search of birds, until before her once more stood the open door of the SUV, beyond which Dylan and Shep were still elevated on the seat of the false confessional, as radiant as apparitions. Dylan remained unaware of Jilly's encounter with the uncanny, as disconnected from her as his younger brother was perhaps forever lost to him, and she could not call his attention to the candles or to the worshiping woman because fear had stolen her voice, had nearly robbed her of breath, as well. The squall of wings became a storm, more tempestuous by the second, a spiraling rataplan that rapped all the way through her and drummed upon her bones. These sounds, hard as ratcheting gears, turned her, turned her, as did the whirlwind stirred by the ghostly wings, a turbulence that tossed her hair and buffeted her face, until she rotated again to the sight of the votive candles and to the penitent on the pew.
Flash, a pale something flared before her face, followed at once by a brighter flash, by a feathery flicker as luminous as a lambent flame. In but a blink, a frenzied scintillation of doves or pigeons became visible, beating all around her. This fury of wings implied a wickedness of beaks, and Jilly feared for her eyes. Before she could raise her hands to protect herself, a hard crack lashed the night, as loud as a god's whip, terrifying the flock into a greater tempest. A wave of wings splashed her face, and she cried out, but soundlessly because no cork had ever stoppered a bottle as effectively as terror plugged her throat. Dashed by this spray of wings, she blinked, expecting to be blinded, but all the birds were instead banished by the blink, gone as abruptly as they had appeared, not merely invisible as before, but gone with all their sound, with all their fury.
Gone, too, the rack of candles in the dunes. And the mantilla-mantled woman, cast back to an unknown church with the pew on which she had arrived.
A short sharp bark of pent-up air popped from Jilly's uncorked throat. With the first shuddery inhalation that followed, she detected what might have been the dead-last smell that she would have wanted if she'd been asked to make a list of a thousand odors. Blood. Subtle but distinctive, unmistakable, here was the scent of slaughter and of sacrifice, of tragedy and glory: faintly metallic, a whiff of copper, a trace of iron. More than a white wave of wings had splashed her face. With trembling and tentative hands, she touched her throat, chin, cheeks, and as she gazed with revulsion at the evidence on her fingers, she recognized a matching wetness on her lips and tasted the same substance that her fingertips revealed. She screamed, this time not silently.
Blacker than the barren land in this moonlit gloom, the highway sometimes seemed to unravel ahead of the Expedition, leading Jilly and the brothers O'Conner into chaos and oblivion. At other times, however, it appeared instead to be raveling itself up from chaos and into an orderly ball, steadily winding them toward a rigorously plotted and inescapable destiny.
She didn't know which possibility scared her more: running into an ever thornier and more tangled thicket of troubles, into a briar patch where every prickling turn brought her to another sanity-shaking encounter with the unknown – or discovering the identity of the smiling man with the needle and laying open the mystery of the golden liquid in the syringe.
In twenty-five years of life, she had learned that understanding didn't always – or even often – bring peace. Currently, since returning to her motel room with root beer, she existed in a purgatory of ignorance and confusion, where life resembled a waking nightmare or at least a bad and edgy dream. But if she found answers and a final resolution, she might discover that she was trapped in a living hell that would make her yearn for the comparative serenity and comfort of even this nerve-fraying purgatory.
As before, Dylan drove without his full attention on the road, repeatedly checking the rearview mirror and periodically glancing over his right shoulder to assure himself that Shep was not in any way harming himself, but now two worries distracted him from his driving. Following Jilly's dramatic roadside performance – her babble of birds and blood – the attention that Dylan paid to her had the same brother's-keeper quality that colored his attitude toward Shepherd.
'You actually tasted it – the blood, I mean?' he asked. 'Actually smelled it.'
'Yeah. I know it wasn't real. You didn't see it. But it seemed real enough.'
'Heard the birds, felt their wings.'
'Do hallucinations usually involve all five senses – or involve them so completely?'
'It wasn't any hallucination,' she said stubbornly.
'Well, it for sure wasn't real.'
She glared at him and saw that he wisely recognized the mortal danger of continuing to insist that she – Southwest Amazon, fearless cactuskicker – was susceptible to hallucinations. In her estimation, hallucinations were only one step removed from such quaint female complaints as the vapors, fainting spells, and persistent melancholy.
'I'm not an hysteric,' she said, 'or an alcoholic in withdrawal, or a consumer of psychedelic mushrooms, thank you very much, so the word hallucination doesn't apply.'
'Call it a vision, then.'
'I'm not Joan of Arc, either. God isn't sending me messages. Enough already. I don't want to talk about this anymore, not right now, not for a while.'
'We've got to—'
'I said not now.'
'I'm scared, all right? I'm scared, and talking it to death isn't going to make me less scared, so time-out. Time-out.'
She understood why he would regard her with new concern and even with a measure of wariness, but she didn't like being the object of his solicitude. Even the compassion of friends was difficult for her to bear; and the sympathy of strangers could easily curdle into pity. She would not tolerate pity from anyone. She bristled at the thought of being perceived as weak or unfortunate, and she had no capacity whatsoever for being patronized.
Indeed, Dylan's glances, each of which glistened with dewy commiseration, so deeply annoyed Jilly that she soon grew desperate to distract herself from them. She unhooked her safety harness, drew her legs under herself, leaving potted Fred in full possession of the passenger's foot space, and turned half sideways in her seat to watch over Shep, making it possible for his brother to pay more attention to the road.
Dylan had left a first-aid kit with Shep. Much to Jilly's surprise, the young man opened it on the seat beside him and made proper use of its contents, although in a state of such intense concentration and with an expression of such blank detachment that he seemed to be machinelike. With swabs soaked in hydrogen peroxide, he patiently removed the obstructing clots of blood from his left nostril, which had played like a whistle with each breath he took, proceeding so delicately that the crimson flow did not resume. His brother had said this was a mere bloody nose, not a broken one, and Shep seemed to confirm the diagnosis, tending to his injury without one wince or hiss of pain. Employing cotton balls moistened with rubbing alcohol, he scrubbed the dried blood from his upper lip, out of the corner of his mouth, and off his chin. He had skinned a couple knuckles on his teeth; he treated these minor abrasions with alcohol followed by dabs of Neosporin. With the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, he tested his teeth, one by one, molar to molar, top and then bottom; each time he confirmed that a tooth was firmly in place, he paused to say, 'Quite as it should be, m'lord.' Judging by every indication – by his refusal to make eye contact; by his otherworldly air; by the absence of any nobleman in the SUV, either lord or duke, or prince-in-waiting – Shep wasn't speaking to anyone present. 'Quite as it should be, m'lord.' His ministrations were methodical to the point of robotism, and often his movements had an awkwardness that suggested a robot from which the mechanical kinks and the programming errors had not yet been entirely eliminated.