This trick of light was not, however, the thing that had caught Dusty’s attention. He waited for almost a minute before he saw it again: Skeet’s eyes jiggled rapidly back and forth for a few seconds, then settled once more into a steady stare.
“Yes, New Life Clinic,” Dusty belatedly confirmed. “And you know why you’re here.”
“Flush the poisons out of the system.”
“That’s right. But have you taken something since you checked in, did you sneak drugs in here somehow?”
Skeet sighed. “What do you want me to say?”
The kid’s eyes jiggled. Dusty mentally counted off seconds. Five. Then Skeet blinked, and his gaze steadied.
“What do you want me to say?” he repeated.
“Just tell the truth,” Dusty encouraged. “Tell me if you snuck drugs in here.”
“Then what’s wrong with you?”
“What do you want to be wrong with me?”
“Damn it, Skeet!”
The faintest frown creased the kid’s forehead. “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”
“The way what is supposed to be?”
“This.” Tension lines tweaked the corners of Skeet’s mouth. “You aren’t following the rules.”
Skeet’s slack hands curled and tightened into half-formed fists.
His eyes jiggled again, side to side, this time while also rolling back in his head. Seven seconds.
REM. Rapid eye movement. According to psychologists, such movements of the closed eyes indicated that a sleeper was dreaming.
Skeet’s eyes weren’t closed, and though he was in some peculiar state, he wasn’t asleep.
Dusty said, “Help me, Skeet. I’m not on the same page. What rules are we talking about? Tell me how the rules work.”
Skeet didn’t at once reply. Gradually the frown lines in his brow melted away. His skin became smooth and as pellucid as clarified butter, until it appeared as though the white of bone shone through. His stare remained fixed on the ceiling.
His eyes jiggled, and when the REM ceased, he spoke at last in a voice untouched by tension but also less flat than before. A whisper:
For all the sense they made, those two words might have been chosen at random, like two lettered Ping-Pong balls expelled from a bingo hopper.
“Clear cascades,” Dusty said. When his brother didn’t respond, he pressed: “I need more help, kid.”
“Into the waves scatter,” Skeet whispered.
Dusty turned his head toward a noise behind him.
Valet had gotten down from the armchair. The dog padded out of the room, into the hallway, where he turned and stood with his ears pricked, tail tucked, staring warily in at them from the threshold, as though he had been spooked.
Into the waves scatter
More bingo balls.
A small snowflake moth, with delicate patterns of piercing along the edges of its fragile white wings, had landed on Skeet’s upturned right hand. As the moth crawled across his palm, his fingers didn’t twitch; there was no indication that he could feel the insect. His lips were parted, jaw slack. His breathing was so shallow that his chest didn’t rise and fall. His eyes jiggled again; but when that quiet seizure ended, Skeet could have passed for a dead man.
“Clear cascades,” Dusty said. “Into the waves scatter. Does this mean anything, kid?”
“Does it? You asked me to tell you how the rules work.”
“Those are the rules?” Dusty asked.
Skeet’s eyes twitched for a few seconds. Then: “You know the rules.”
“Pretend I don’t.”
“Those are two of them.”
“Two of the rules.” “Yes.”
“Not quite as straightforward as the rules of poker.”
Skeet said nothing.
Though it all sounded like sheer gibberish, the ramblings of a drug-soaked mind, Dusty had the uncanny conviction that this strange conversation had real—if hidden—meaning and that it was leading toward a disturbing revelation.
Watching his brother closely, he said, “Tell me how many rules there are.”
“You know,” Skeet said.
“Pretend I don’t.”
“What’s the third rule?”
“What’s the third rule? Blue pine needles.”
Clear cascades. Into the waves scatter Blue pine needles.
Valet, who rarely barked, who growled more rarely still, now stood at the open door, peering in from the hallway, and issued a low, menacing grumble. His hackles were raised as dramatically as those of a cartoon dog encountering a cartoon ghost. Although Dusty couldn’t identify, with certainty, the cause of Valet’s displeasure, it seemed to be poor Skeet.
After brooding for a minute or so, Dusty said, “Explain these rules to me, Skeet. Tell me what they mean.”
“I am the waves.”
“Okay,” Dusty said, although this made less sense to him than if, in the tradition of the Beatles’ psychedelic-era lyrics, Skeet had claimed, I am the walrus.
“You’re the clear cascades,” Skeet continued.
“Of course,” Dusty said, merely to encourage him.
“And the needles are missions.” “Missions.”
“All this makes sense to you?” “Does it?”
“Apparently it does.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me.” Skeet was silent.
“Who is Dr. Yen Lo?” Dusty asked.
“Who is Dr. Yen Lo?” A pause. “You.”
“I thought I was the clear cascades.”
“They’re one and the same.”
“But I’m not Yen Lo.”
Frown lines reappeared in Skeet’s forehead. His hands, which had fallen slack, once more curled slowly into half-formed fists. The delicate snowflake moth flew out from among the pale clutching fingers.
After watching another REM seizure, Dusty said, “Skeet, are you awake?”
After a hesitation, the kid replied, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know if you’re awake. So. . . you must be asleep.”
“If you’re not asleep and you’re not sure if you’re awake—then what are you?”
“What am I?”
“That was my question.”
“There you go again.”
“Where should I go?” Skeet asked.
Dusty had lost the gut feeling that this conversation was full of profound if mysterious meaning and that they were approaching a revelation that would suddenly make sense of it all. Though unique and extremely peculiar, it now seemed as irrational and depressing as numerous other discussions they’d had when Skeet had been brain-bruised from a self-inflicted drug bludgeoning.
“Where should I go?” Skeet inquired again.
“Ah, give me a break and go to sleep,” Dusty said irritably.
Obediently, Skeet closed his eyes. Peace descended upon his face, and his half-clenched hands relaxed. Immediately, his breathing settled into a shallow, slow, easy rhythm. He snored softly.
“What the hell happened here?” Dusty wondered aloud. He cupped his right hand around the back of his neck, to warm and smooth away a sudden stippling of gooseflesh. His hand had gone cold, however, and it pressed the chill deeper, into his spine.
With hackles no longer raised, sniffing quizzically, peering into shadowy corners and under the bed, as if in search of someone or something, Valet returned from the hail. Whatever spooked him had now departed.
Apparently, Skeet had gone to sleep because he had been told to do so. But surely it wasn’t possible to fall asleep on command, in an instant.
Dusty put a hand on his brother’s shoulder and shook him gently, then less gently.
Skeet didn’t respond. He continued to snore softly. His eyelids twitched as his eyes jiggled beneath them. REM. He was without a doubt in a dream state this time.
Lifting Skeet’s right hand, Dusty pressed two fingers against the radial artery in his brother’s wrist. The kid’s pulse was strong and regular but slow. Dusty timed it. Forty-eight beats per minute. That rate seemed worrisomely slow, even for a sleeper.
Skeet was in a dream state, all right. Deep in a dream state.
The stainless-steel rack of knives hung from two hooks on the wall, like the totem of some devil-worshiping clan that used its kitchen for more sinister work than cooking dinner.
Without touching the knives, Martie unhooked the rack. She slid it onto a shelf in a lower cupboard and quickly closed the door.
Not good enough. Out of sight was not out of mind. The knives remained readily accessible. She must make them harder to reach.
In the garage, she found an empty cardboard box and a roll of strapping tape, and she returned to the kitchen.
When she squatted before the cabinet in which she had stowed the knives, Martie wasn’t immediately able to open the door. In fact, she was afraid even to touch it, as though this were not an ordinary cabinet but a satanic reliquary in which reposed a paring from one of Beelzebub’s cloven hooves. She had to work up the courage to retrieve the cutlery, and when at last she cautiously withdrew it from the shelf, her hands shook so badly that the blades rattled in the slots of the rack.
She dropped the knives into the box and folded shut the flaps of cardboard. She began to use strapping tape to seal the box—but then realized she would need to cut the tape.
When she opened a drawer and reached for a pair of scissors, she wasn’t able to pick them up. They would make a lethal weapon. She had seen uncountable movies in which a killer had used a pair of scissors instead of a butcher knife.
So many soft, vulnerable spots on the human body. The groin. The stomach. Between the ribs and straight into the heart. The throat. The side of the neck.
Like an official serial-killer deck of cards—ALL OF JACK THE
RIPPER’S MURDERS DEPICTED IN GRAPHIC DETAIL! EVERY JOKER FEATURES A DIFFERENT FULL-COLOR ILLUSTRATION OF JEFFREY DAHMER’S REFRIGERATED HEAD COLLECTION!—grotesque and bloody pictures shuffled through Martie’s mind.
Slamming shut the drawer, turning her back to it, she struggled to suppress the brutal images that some demented part of her psyche dealt out with savage glee.
She was alone in the house. She could harm no one with the scissors. Except, of course, herself.
Since reacting so bizarrely to the mezzaluna in Susan’s kitchen and to the car key a few minutes thereafter, Martie had sensed that she was possessed of—or by—a strange and inexplicable new potential for violence, and she’d been afraid of what injury she might inflict on some innocent person during a spell of transient madness. Now, for the first time, she suspected that in a fit of irrationality, she might be capable of harming herself.
She stared down at the box in which she’d deposited the rack of knives. If she carried it out to the garage, put it in a corner, and piled other stuff on top of it, the box could still be retrieved in a minute. The single strip of tape—and the big roll dangling at the end of it—could be easily ripped away, the lid flaps torn open, and the knives recovered.
Although the butcher knife—all the knives—remained in the box, she could feel the weight of that weapon as if she were holding it now in her right hand: thumb pressed flat against the cold blade, fingers clenched around the wooden handle, forefinger jammed against the guard, little finger tight against the neb. This was the grip she might use if she were to strike with the knife from a low angle, swing it up, hard and fast, and drive it deep, to disembowel some unsuspecting victim.
Her right hand began to shake, and then her arm, and finally her entire body. Her hand flew open, as though she were trying to fling aside the imaginary knife; crazily, she half expected to hear the steel blade ring against the tile floor.
No, dear God, she wasn’t capable of committing such atrocities with one of these knives. She wasn’t capable of suicide, either, or of disfiguring herself.
Get a grip.
Yet she couldn’t stop thinking about shiny blades and sharp edges, slashing and gouging. She strove to put away that mental Jack the Ripper deck, but a rapid-fire game of solitaire brought a series of horrific scenes in front of her mind’s eye, one card sliding-spinning over another, flick-flick-flick, until a spasm of vertigo spiraled down from her head, through her chest, into the pit of her stomach.
She didn’t remember dropping to her knees in front of the box. She didn’t recall grabbing the roll of strapping tape, either, but suddenly she found herself turning the box over and over, frantically pulling the tape securely around it, again and again, first around the long circumference several times, then around the short, then diagonally.
She was frightened by the frenzy with which she addressed the task. She tried to pull her hands back, turn away from the box, but she couldn’t stop herself.
Working so fast and so intensely that she broke into a thin greasy sweat, breathing hard, whimpering with anxiety, Martie wound the entire economy-size roll around the carton in one continuous loop to avoid using the scissors. She encased it in the tape as thoroughly as ancient Egypt’s royal embalmers had wrapped their dead pharaohs in tannin-soaked cotton shrouds.
When she came to the end of the roll, she wasn’t satisfied, because she still knew where the knives could be found. Granted:
They were no longer easy to reach. She would have to carve through the many layers of strapping tape to open the box and get at the cutlery, but she would never dare allow herself to pick up a razor blade or scissors, with which to perform the task, so she should have felt relieved. The box, however, wasn’t a bank vault; it was nothing but cardboard, and she wasn’t safe—no one was safe—as long as she knew exactly where the knives could be found and as long as there was the slightest chance that she could get at them.
A murky red mist of fear churned across the sea of her soul, a cold boiling fog arising from the darkest heart of her, spreading through her mind, clouding her thoughts, increasing her confusion, and with greater confusion came greater terror.
She carried the box of knives out of the house, onto the back porch, intending to bury it in the yard. Which meant digging a hole. Which meant using a shovel or a pick. But those implements were more than mere tools: They were also potential weapons. She could not trust herself with a shovel or a pick.