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“How old?”


Slyly playing with her, he said, “Grandma or me?”


“You.”


“Eleven. Too young to be put on trial. Too young for anyone to really believe that I knew what I was doing.”


“They had to do something to you.”


“Fourteen months in a caring facility. Lots of therapy, lots of counseling, lots and lots of attention and hugs. Because, you see, I must have offed poor Grandma because of my unexpressed grief over the accidental deaths of my parents in that awful, awful fire. One day I realized what they were trying to tell me, and I just broke down and cried and cried. Oh, Chyna, how I cried, and wallowed in remorse for poor Grandma. The therapists and social workers were so appreciative of the wallowing.”


“Where did you go from the facility?”


“I was adopted.”


Speechless, she stared at him.


“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “Not many twelve-year-old orphans get adopted. People are usually looking for infants to mold in their own image. But I was such a beautiful boy, Chyna, an almost ethereally beautiful boy. Can you believe that?”


“Yes.”


“People want beautiful children. Beautiful children with nice smiles. I was sweet-tempered and charming. By then I’d learned to hide better among all you hypocrites. I’d never again be caught with a bloody kitten or a dead grandmother.”


“But who…who would adopt you after what you did?”


“What I did was expunged from my record, of course. I was just the littlest boy, after all. Chyna, you wouldn’t expect my whole life to be ruined just because of one mistake? Psychiatrists and social workers were the grease in my wheels, and I will always be beholden to them for their sweet, earnest desire to believe.”


“Your adoptive parents didn’t know?”


“They knew that I’d been traumatized by the death of my parents in a fire, that the trauma had led to counseling, and that I needed to be watched for signs of depression. They wanted so badly to make my life better, to prevent depression from ever touching me again.”


“What happened to them?”


“We lived there in Chicago two years, and then we moved here to Oregon. I let them live for quite a while, and I let them pretend to love me. Why not? They enjoyed their delusions so much. But then, after I graduated from college, I was twenty years old and needed more money than I had, so there had to be another dreadful accident, another fire in the night. But it was eleven long years since the fire that took my real mom and dad, and half a continent away. No social workers had seen me in years, and there were no files about my horrible mistake with Grandma, so no connections were ever made.”


They sat in silence.


After a while he tapped the plate in front of her. “Eat, eat,” he cajoled. “I’ll be eating at a diner myself. Sorry I can’t keep you company.”


“I believe you,” she said.


“What?”


“That you were never abused.”


“Though that runs against everything you’ve been taught. Good girl, Chyna. You know the truth when you hear it. Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”


“There’s no understanding you,” she said, though she was talking more to herself than to him.


“Of course there is. I’m just in touch with my reptilian nature, Chyna. It’s in all of us. We all evolved from that slimy, legged fish that first crawled out of the sea. The reptile consciousness…it’s still in all of us, but most of you struggle so hard to hide it from yourselves, to convince yourselves that you’re something cleaner and better than what you really are. The irony is, if you’d just for once acknowledge your reptile nature, you’d find the freedom and the happiness that you’re all so frantic to achieve and never do.”


He tapped the plate again, and then the glass of water. He got up and tucked his chair under the table.


“That conversation wasn’t quite as you expected, was it, Chyna?”


“No.”


“You were expecting me to equivocate, to whine on about being a victim, to indulge in elaborately structured self-delusions, to spit up some tale of warping incest. You wanted to believe your clever probing might expose a secret religious fanaticism, bring revelations that I hear godly voices in my head. You didn’t expect it to be this straightforward. This honest.”


He went to the door between the kitchen and the living room, and then turned to look at her. “I’m not unique, Chyna. The world is filled with the likes of me — most are just less free. You know where I think a lot of my type wind up?”


In spite of herself, she asked, “Where?”


“In politics. Imagine having the power to start wars, Chyna. How gratifying that would be. Of course, in public life, one would generally have to forgo the pleasure of getting right down in the wet of it, hands dirty with all the wonderful fluids. One would have to be satisfied with the thrill of sending thousands to their deaths, remote destruction. But I believe I could adapt to that. And there would always be photos from the war zone, reports, all as graphic as one requested. And never a danger of apprehension. More amazing — they build monuments to you. You can bomb a small country into oblivion, and dinners are given in your honor. You can kill thirty-four children in a religious community, crush them with tanks, burn them alive, claim they were dangerous cultists — then sit back to the sound of applause. Such power. Intensity.”


He glanced at the clock.


A few minutes past five.


He said, “I’ll finish dressing and be gone. Back as soon after midnight as I can be.” He shook his head as if saddened by the sight of her. “Untouched and alive. What kind of existence is that, Chyna? Not one worth having. Get in touch with your reptile consciousness. Embrace the cold and the dark. That’s what we are.”


He left her in chains as twilight entered the world and the light withdrew.


8


Mr. Vess steps onto the porch, locks the front door, and then whistles for the dogs.


The day is growing cooler as it wanes, and the air is bracing. He zips up his jacket.


From different points of the compass, the four Dobermans sprint out of the twilight and race to the porch. As they scamper to Vess and jostle one another to be the closest to him, their big paws thump on the boards in a fandango of canine delight.


He kneels among them, generously doling out affection once more.


Oddly like people, these Dobermans appear to be unable to detect the insincerity of Mr. Vess’s love. They are only tools to him, not treasured pets, and the attention he gives them is like the 3-In-One oil with which he occasionally lubricates his power drill, hand-held belt sander, and chain saw. In the movies, it is always a dog that senses the werewolf potential in the moon-fearing man and greets him with a growl, always a dog that shies away from the character who is secretly harboring the alien parasite in his body. But movies are not life.


The dogs are no doubt deceiving him just as he deceives them. Their love is nothing but respect — or sublimated fear of him.


He stands, and the dogs look up expectantly. Earlier, they had been summoned from their kennel by the buzzer; therefore, they are now merely on an apprehend-and-detain status.


“Nietzsche,” he says.


As one, the four Dobermans twitch and then become rigid. Their ears first prick at the command word but then flatten.


Their black eyes shine in the dusk.


Abruptly they depart the porch, scattering across the property, having been elevated to attack status.


Putting on his hat, Mr. Vess walks toward the barn, where he keeps his car.


He leaves the motor home parked beside the house. Later, to minimize the distance that the two bodies will have to be carried, he will back the vehicle along the lane, closer to the meadow of unmarked graves.


As he walks, Mr. Vess draws slow, deep breaths and clears his mind, preparing himself for reentry into the workaday world.


He enjoys the charade of his second life, passing for one of the repressed and deluded who, in uncountable multitudes, rule the earth with lies, who pass their lives in denial, anxiety, and hypocrisy. He is like a fox in a pen of mentally deficient chickens that are unable to distinguish between a predator and one of their own, and this is a fine game for a fox with a sense of humor.


Every day, all day long, Vess weighs other people with his eyes, furtively tests their firmness with a friendly touch, breathes the enticing scents of their flesh, selecting among them as if choosing packaged poultry at a market. He does not often kill those whom he meets in his public persona — only if he is absolutely certain that he can get away with it and if the particular chicken promises to be tasty.


If Chyna Shepherd hadn’t disturbed his usual routine, Vess would have spent more time reacclimating himself to his role as an ordinary guy. He might have watched a game show on television, read a couple of chapters in a romance novel by Robert James Waller, and skimmed an issue of People to remind himself of those things that the desperate ruck of humanity uses to anesthetize itself against the awareness of its true animal nature and the inevitability of death. He might have stood before a mirror for a while, practicing his smile, studying his eyes.


Nevertheless, by the time he reaches the silvered-cedar barn, he is confident that he will slide back into his second life without a ripple and that all those who look into his pond will be comforted to see their own faces reflected. Most people have expended so much effort and time in the denial of their predatory nature that they cannot easily recognize it in others.


He opens the man-size door beside the larger roll-up, pauses, and glances toward the back of the house. He left the woman in the dark, so he can’t even vaguely discern her form through the distant window.


The sunless, somber twilight is still bright enough, however, for Ms. Shepherd, the eminent psychologist, to have seen him as he walked to the barn. She could be watching now.


Mr. Vess wonders what she thinks of him in this surprising new guise. She must be shocked. More illusions shattered. Seeing him on his way to his second life, realizing that indeed he passes for a stand-up citizen, she must be plunged into a despair deeper than any she has yet known.


He has such a way with women.


After Vess turned off the lights and left the kitchen, Chyna leaned back in the pine captain’s chair, away from the table, because the smell of the ham sandwich sickened her. It wasn’t spoiled; it smelled like a ham sandwich ought to smell. But the very idea of food made her gag.


About twenty-one hours had passed since she’d finished her most recent full meal, dinner at the Templeton house. The few bites of cheese omelet that she’d had at breakfast weren’t enough to sustain her, especially considering all of the physical activity of the previous night; she should have been famished.


Eating was an admission of hope, however, and she didn’t want to hope any more. She had spent her life hoping, a fool intoxicated with optimistic expectations. But every hope proved to be as empty as a bubble. Every dream was glass waiting to be shattered.


Until last night, she had thought that she’d climbed far out of childhood misery, up a greased ladder toward phenomenal heights of understanding, and she had been quietly proud of herself and of her accomplishments. Now it seemed that she had not been climbing after all, that her ascent had been an illusion, and that for years her feet had been slipping over the same two well-lubricated rungs, as if she’d been on one of those exercise machines, a StairMaster, expending enormous energy — but not one inch higher when she stopped than she had been when she’d started. The long years of waitressing, the sore legs and the stubborn pain in the small of her back from being on her feet for hours, taking the toughest classes she could find at the University of California, studying late into the night after she returned home from work, the countless sacrifices, the loneliness, the ceaseless striving, striving — all of that had led here, to this dismal place, to these chains, into this deepening twilight.


She had hoped one day to understand her mother, to find good reason to forgive. She had even, God help her, secretly hoped that they might reach a truce. They could never have a healthy mother-daughter relationship, and they could never be friends; but it had seemed possible, at least, that she and Anne might one day have lunch together at any café with a view of the sea, alfresco on the patio under a huge umbrella, where they would never speak of the past but would make pleasant small talk about movies, the weather, the way the seagulls wheeled across the sapphire sky, perhaps with no healing affection but without any hatred between them. Now she knew that even if by some miracle she escaped untouched and alive from this imprisonment, she would never reach that dreamed-of degree of understanding; rapprochement between her and her mother could not be achieved.


Human cruelty and treachery surpassed all understanding. There were no answers. Only excuses.


Chyna felt lost. She was in a stranger place than Edgler Vess’s kitchen and in a more forbidding darkness.


In all her years, she had never before felt lost, not truly lost. Frightened, yes. Sometimes confused and bleak. But always she had held a map in her mind, with a route marked if only vaguely, and she had believed that in her heart was a compass that couldn’t fail her. She had been in the wrong place many times, but she’d always been sure that there was a way out — just as in any fun-house mirror maze there is always a safe path through the infinite images of oneself, through more fearful reflections, and through all of the enigmatic silver shadows.


No map this time.


No compass.


Life itself was the ultimate fun-house mirror maze, and she was lost in its nautilus chambers, with no one to turn to for comfort, no hand to hold.


Finally admitting that she had been essentially motherless since birth and always would be motherless, and with her only close friend lying dead in Edgler Vess’s motor home, Chyna wished that she knew her father’s name, that she had at least once seen his face. Her mother’s maiden name was Shepherd; she had never been married. “Be glad you’re illegitimate, baby,” Anne had said, “because that means you’re free. Little bastard children don’t have as many relatives clinging like psychic leeches and sucking away their souls.” Over the years, when Chyna had asked about her father, Anne had said only that he was dead, and she had been able to say it dry-eyed, even lightheartedly. She wouldn’t provide details of his appearance, discuss what work he’d done, reveal where he’d lived, or acknowledge that he’d had a name. “By the time I was pregnant with you,” Anne once said, “I wasn’t seeing him any more. He was history. I never told him about you. He never knew.”

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