Chyna liked to daydream about him sometimes: She imagined that her mother had lied about this, as about so many things, and that her dad was alive. He would be a lot like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, a big man with gentle eyes, soft-spoken, kind, quietly humorous, with a keen sense of justice, certain of who he was and of what he believed. He would be a man who was admired and respected by other people but who thought himself no more special than anyone else. He would love her.
If she had known his name, either first or last, she would have spoken it now, aloud. The mere sound of her father’s name would have comforted her.
She was crying. Through the many hours since she had come under Vess’s thrall, she had felt tears welling more than once, and she had repressed them. But she couldn’t dam this hot flood. She despised herself for crying — but only briefly. These bitter tears were a welcome admission that there was no hope for her. They washed her free of hope, and that was what she wanted now, because hope led only to disappointment and pain. All her troubled life, since at least her eighth birthday, she had refused to weep freely, really let loose with tears. Being tough and dry-eyed was the only way to get respect from those people who, on seeing the smallest weakness in another, got a fearful muddy light in their eyes and closed in like jackals around a gazelle with a broken leg. But withholding tears wouldn’t fend off the jackal who had promised to be back after midnight, and a lifetime of grief and hurt burst from her. Great wet sobs shook Chyna so hard that her chest began to ache worse than her neck or her sprained finger. Her throat soon felt hot and raw. She sagged in her clinking chains, in her imprisoning chair, face clenched and streaming and hot, stomach clenched and cold, the taste of salt in her mouth, gasping, groaning in despair, choking on the smothering awareness of her terrible solitude. She shuddered uncontrollably, and her hands spasmed into frail fists but then opened and grasped at the air around her head as if her anguish were a cowl that might be torn off and cast aside. Profoundly alone, unloved and lost, she spiraled down into a mental mirror maze without even her father’s name for comfort.
After a while, an engine roared. She heard the brassy toot of a horn: two short blasts and then two more.
Chyna lifted her head, looked through the nearby window, and saw the headlights of a car leaving the barn. Her vision was blurred by tears. She couldn’t see the car itself as it sped past the house in the gray dusk, but it must be driven by Vess, of course. Then it was gone.
The jaunty toot of the horn mocked her, but that mockery wasn’t enough to rekindle her anger.
She stared out at the gloaming and didn’t care that it might be the last twilight she ever saw. She cared only that she had spent too much of her twenty-six years alone, with no one at her side to share the sunsets, the starry skies, the turbulent beauty of storm clouds. She wished that she had reached out to people more, instead of retreating inward, wished that she had not made her heart into a sheltering closet. Now, when nothing mattered any more, when the insight couldn’t do her any damn good at all, she realized that there was less hope of survival alone than with others. She’d been acutely aware that terror, betrayal, and cruelty had a human face, but she had not sufficiently appreciated that courage, kindness, and love had a human face as well. Hope wasn’t a cottage industry; it was neither a product that she could manufacture like needlepoint samplers nor a substance she could secrete, in her cautious solitude, like a maple tree producing the essence of syrup. Hope was to be found in other people, by reaching out, by taking risks, by opening her fortress heart.
This insight seemed so obvious, the simplest of wisdom, yet she had not been able to arrive at it until in extremis.
And the chance had long ago passed to act upon it. She would die as she had lived — alone. This further realization might have wrung greater rivers of tears from her but, instead, drove her into a bleaker place than she’d been before, an interior garden of stone and ashes.
Then, as she was still gazing out the window, she saw something moving in the last of the dusk. Though it was blurred by her tears, she could see that it was too large to be a Doberman.
But if Vess had gone, how could it be a man?
Chyna blotted her eyes on the sleeve of her sweater, and she blinked until the mysterious shape resolved out of tears and twilight shadows. It was an elk. A female, without antlers.
It ambled across the backyard, from the forested foothills to the west, pausing twice to tear up a mouthful of the succulent grass. As Chyna knew from her months on the ranch in Mendocino County many years ago, these animals were highly sociable and always traveled in herds, but this one seemed to be alone.
The Dobermans should have been after this intruder, barking and snarling and excited by the prospect of blood. Surely the dogs would be able to smell it even from the farthest corners of the property. Yet no Dobermans were in sight.
Likewise, the elk should have caught the scent of the dogs and galloped at once for safety, wild-eyed and snorting. Nature had made its kind prey to mountain lions and wolves and packs of coyotes; as dinner-on-the-hoof to so many predators, elk were always watchful and cautious.
But this specimen seemed utterly unconcerned that dogs were in the immediate neighborhood. Except for the two brief pauses to graze on the lush grass, it came directly to the back porch, with no sign of skittishness.
Although Chyna was not a wildlife expert, this seemed to her to be a coastal elk, the same type she had encountered in the grove of redwoods. Its coat was gray-brown, and it had the familiar white and black markings on the body and face.
Yet she was sure that this place was too far from the sea to be a suitable home for coastal elk or to provide the ideal vegetation for their diet. When she’d gotten out of the motor home, she’d had an impression of mountains all around. Now the rain had stopped and the mist had lifted; in the west, where the dregs of daylight swiftly drained away, the black silhouettes of high peaks pressed against tattered clouds and electric-purple sky. With a mountain range of such formidable size between here and the Pacific Ocean, coastal elk could not have found their way so far inland, for they were basically a lowland breed partial to plains and gentle hills. This must be a different type of elk — although with coloration strikingly similar to that of the animals she had seen the previous night.
The imposing creature stood outside the wooden balustrade of the shallow porch, no more than eight feet away, staring directly at the window. At Chyna.
She found it difficult to believe that the elk could see her. With the lights off, the kitchen was currently darker than the dusk in which the animal stood. From its perspective, the interior of the house should have been unrelievedly black.
Yet she couldn’t deny that its eyes met hers. Large dark eyes, shining softly.
She remembered Vess’s sudden return to the kitchen this morning. He’d been inexplicably tense, ceaselessly turning the screwdriver in his hand, an odd light in his eyes. And he’d been full of questions about the elk in the redwood grove.
Chyna didn’t know why the elk mattered to Vess any more than she could imagine why this one stood here, now, unchallenged by the dogs, studying her intently through the window. She didn’t puzzle long over this mystery. She was in a mood to accept, to experience, to admit that understanding was not always achievable.
As the deep-purple sky turned to indigo and then to India ink, the eyes of the elk grew gradually more luminous. They were not red like the eyes of some animals at night, but golden.
Pale plumes of breath streamed rhythmically from its wet black nostrils.
Without breaking eye contact with the animal, Chyna pressed the insides of her wrists together as best she could with the handcuffs intervening. The steel chains rattled: all the lengths between her and the chair on which she sat, between her and the table, between her and the past.
She remembered her solemn pledge, earlier in the day, to kill herself rather than be a witness to the complete mental destruction of the young girl in the cellar. She had believed that she would be able to find the courage to bite open the veins in her wrists and bleed to death. The pain would be sharp but relatively brief…and then she would fade sleepily from this blackness into another, which would be eternal.
She had stopped crying. Her eyes were dry.
Her heartbeat was surprisingly slow, like that of a sleeper in the dreamless rest provided by a powerful sedative.
She raised her hands in front of her face, bending them backward as severely as possible and spreading her fingers wide so she could still gaze into the eyes of the elk.
She brought her mouth to the place on her left wrist where she would have to bite. Her breath was warm on her cool skin.
The light was entirely gone from the day. The mountains and the heavens were like one great black looming swell on a night sea, a drowning weight coming down.
The elk’s heart-shaped face was barely visible from a distance of only eight feet. Its eyes, however, shone.
Chyna put her lips against her left wrist. In the kiss, she felt her dangerously steady pulse.
Through the gloom, she and the sentinel elk watched each other, and she didn’t know whether this creature had mesmerized her or she had mesmerized it.
Then she pressed her lips to her right wrist. The same coolness of skin, the same ponderous pulse.
She parted her lips and used her teeth to pinch a thickness of flesh. There seemed to be enough tissue gathered between her incisors to make a mortal tear. Certainly she would be successful if she bit a second time, a third.
On the brink of the bite, she understood that it required no courage whatsoever. Precisely the opposite was true. Not biting was an act of valor.
But she didn’t care about valor, didn’t give a rat’s ass about courage. Or about anything. All she cared about was putting an end to the loneliness, the pain, the achingly empty sense of futility.
And the girl. Ariel. Down in the hateful silent dark.
For a while she remained poised for the fatal nip.
Between its solemn measured beats, her heart was filled with the stillness of deep water.
Then, without being aware of releasing the pinch of flesh from between her teeth, Chyna realized that her lips were pressed to her unbitten wrist again. She could feel her slow pulse in this kiss of life.
The elk was gone.
Chyna was surprised to see only darkness where the creature had stood. She didn’t believe that she had closed her eyes or even blinked. Yet she must have been in a blinding trance, because the stately elk had vanished into the night as mysteriously as a stage magician’s assistant dematerializes beneath an artfully draped black shroud.
Suddenly her heart began to pound hard and fast.
“No,” she whispered in the dark kitchen, and the word was both a promise and a prayer.
Her heart like a wheel — spinning, racing — drove her out of that internal grayness in which she had been lost, out of that bleakness into a brighter landscape.
“No.” There was defiance in her voice this time, and she did not whisper. “No.”
She shook her chains as if she were a spirited horse trying to throw off its traces.
“No, no, no. Shit, no.” Her protests were loud enough for her voice to echo off the hard surface of the refrigerator, the glass in the oven door, the ceramic-tile counters.
She tried to pull away from the table to stand up. But a loop of chain secured her chair to the barrel that supported the tabletop, limiting its movement.
If she dug her heels into the vinyl-tile floor and attempted to scoot backward, she would probably not be able to move at all. At best she would only drag the heavy table with her inch by inch. And in a lifetime of trying, she would not be able to put enough tension on the chain to snap it.
She was still adamant in her rejection of surrender — “No, damn it, no way, no” — pressing the words through clenched teeth.
She reached forward, pulling taut the chain that led around her back from the left handcuff to the right. It was wound between the spindles of the rail-back chair, behind the tie-on pad. She strained, hoping to hear the crack of dry wood, jerked hard, harder, and sharp pain sewed a hot seam in her neck; the agony of the clubbing was renewed in her neck and in the right side of her face, but she would not let pain stop her. She jerked harder than ever, scarring the nice furniture for damn sure, and again — pull, pull — firmly holding the chair down with her body while simultaneously half lifting it off the floor as she yanked furiously at the back rails, and yanked again, until her biceps quivered. Pull. As she grunted with effort and frustration, needles of pain stitched down the back of her neck, across both shoulders, and into her arms. Pull! Putting everything she had into the effort, straining longer than before, clenching her teeth so hard that tics developed in her jaw muscles, she pulled once more until she felt the arteries throbbing in her temples and saw red and silver pinwheels of light spinning behind her eyelids. But she wasn’t rewarded with any breaking sounds. The chair was solid, the spindles were thick, and every joint was well made.
Her heart boomed, partly because of her struggles but largely because she was brimming with an exhilarating sense of liberation. Which was crazy, crazy, because she was still shackled, no closer to breaking her bonds than she had been at any moment since she’d awakened in this chair. Yet she felt as if she had already escaped and was only waiting for reality to catch up with the freedom that she had willed for herself.
She sat gasping, thinking.
Sweat beaded her brow.
Forget the chair for now. To get loose from it, she would have to be able to stand and move. She couldn’t deal with the chair until she was free of the table.
She was unable to reach down far enough to unscrew the carabiner that joined the shorter chain between her ankles to the longer chain that entwined the chair and the table. Otherwise, she might easily have freed her legs from both pieces of furniture.
If she could overturn the table, the loop of chain that wrapped the supporting pedestal and connected with her leg irons would then slide free as the bottom of that barrel tipped up and off the floor. Wouldn’t it? Sitting in the dark, she couldn’t quite visualize the mechanics of what she was proposing, but she thought that turning the table on its side would work.
Unfortunately, the chair across from hers, the one in which Vess had sat, was an obstruction that would most likely prevent the table from tipping over. She had to get rid of it, clear the way. Shackled as she was, however, and with the barrel pedestal intervening, she couldn’t extend her legs far enough to kick at the other chair and knock it aside. Hobbled and tethered, she was also unable to stand and reach across the big round table and simply push the obstruction out of the way.
Finally she tried scooting backward in her chair, hoping to drag the table with her, away from Vess’s chair. The chain encircling the pedestal drew taut. As she strained backward, digging her heels into the floor, it seemed that the piece was too heavy to be dragged, and she wondered if the barrel was filled with a bag of sand to keep the table from wobbling. But then it creaked and stuttered a few inches across the vinyl tiles, rattling the sandwich plate and the glass of water that stood on it.
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