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Trammeled, unbalanced by the chair and therefore dangerously clumsy, Chyna would be risking a crippling fall if she climbed the stairs. She would face an even greater risk when, after finding no telephone, she had to come back down again. And in the process, she would have wasted precious time.


Turning her back to the river-rock wall, she shuffled six feet from it, stopped, closed her eyes, and gathered her courage.


Possibly one of the spindles in the rail-back chair would crack apart and be driven forward. The splintered end would puncture the tie-on cushion or slip past it and then skewer her, back to front, straight through her guts.


More likely, she’d sustain a spinal injury. With all the force of the impact directed against the lower half of the chair, the legs of it would be driven into her legs; the upper half would first pull away from her — then recoil and snap hard against her upper back or neck. The spindles were fixed between the seat and the wide slab of radius-cut pine that served as the headrail, and the headrail was so solid that it would do major damage if it cracked into her cervical vertebrae with sufficient force. She might wind up on the living-room floor, under the chair and chains, paralyzed from the neck down.


Sometimes she brooded about possibilities too much, dwelt beyond reason on all the myriad ways that any situation or any relationship could go terribly wrong. This was also a result of having spent her childhood hiding on the wrong side of bedsprings, waiting for either the fighting or the partying to stop.


For a while when Chyna was seven, she and her mother had stayed with a man named Zack and a woman named Memphis in a ramshackle old farmhouse not far from New Orleans, and one night two men had come to visit, carrying a Styrofoam cooler, and Memphis had killed them less than five minutes after they arrived. The visitors had been in the kitchen, sitting at the table. One of them had been talking to Chyna and the other had been twisting the cap off a bottle of beer — when Memphis withdrew a gun from the refrigerator and shot both men in the head, one after the other, so fast that the second one didn’t even have time to dive for cover before she put a round in his face. As slippery and quick as a skink, Chyna fled, certain that Memphis had gone crazy and would kill them all. She hid in a drift of loose hay in the barn loft. During the hour that the adults took to find her, she so often visualized her own face dissolving with the impact of a bullet that every image in her mind’s eye — even fleeting glimpses of the Wild Wood to which she could not quite escape — was entirely in shades of red, wet red.


But she had survived that night.


She had been surviving for a long time. Eternity.


And she would survive this too — or die trying.


Without opening her eyes, Chyna hurtled backward as fast as her leg irons would allow, and in spite of her fear, she figured that she must be at least a somewhat comic sight, because she had to shuffle frantically to build speed, had to throw herself toward spinal injury in quick little baby steps. But then she slammed into the rocks, and there was nothing whatsoever funny about that.


She’d been bent forward slightly to lift the legs of the chair behind her and to ensure that they, rather than another part of it, would strike first and take the hard initial blow. With her entire weight behind the assault, there was a satisfyingly splintery thwack on impact — and the pine legs were jammed painfully into the backs of her legs. Chyna stumbled forward, and the upper part of the chair whiplashed into her neck, as she had expected, and she was knocked off balance. She dropped to her knees on the flagstone hearth and fell forward with the chair still on her back, hurting in too many places to bother taking an inventory.


Hobbled, she couldn’t get to her feet unless she was gripping something. She crawled to the nearest armchair and pulled herself up, grunting with effort and pain.


She didn’t like pain the way Vess claimed to like it, but she wasn’t going to bitch about it either. At least she could still crawl and stand. No spinal injury yet. Better to feel pain than nothing at all.


The legs of the chair and the stretcher bars between the legs seemed to be intact. But judging by the sound of the impact, she had weakened them.


Starting eight feet from the wall this time, Chyna shuffled backward as fast as she could, trying to ram the chair legs into the rock at the same angle as before. She was rewarded with a distinctive crack — the sound of splintering wood, though it felt like shattering bone.


A dam of pain burst inside her. Cold currents dragged her down, but she resisted the undertow with the desperate determination of a swimmer struggling against a drowning darkness.


She hadn’t been knocked off her feet this time. She shuffled forward. Not pausing to catch her breath, still hunched to ensure that the chair legs would take the brunt of the impact, she charged backward into the rock wall.


Chyna woke facedown on the floor in front of the hearth, aware that she must have been unconscious for a minute or two.


The carpet was as cold and undulant as moving water. She wasn’t floating in it but glimmering along the rippled surface, as though she were coppery spangles of sunlight or the dark reflection of a cloud.


The worst pain was in the back of her head. She must have struck it against something.


She felt so much better when she didn’t think about her pain or her problems, when she simply accepted that she was nothing more than a cloud shadow riding on the mirrored surface of a rolling river, as insubstantial as the purling patterns on moving water, gliding away, liquid and cool, away, away.


Ariel. In the cellar. Among the watchful dolls.


I am my sister’s keeper.


Somehow she got to her hands and knees.


She heard the hollow thump of paws on the front porch floor.


When she pulled herself to her feet against an armchair, she looked at the window that wasn’t covered by drapes. Two Dobermans were standing with their forepaws on the windowsill, staring at her, their eyes radiant yellow with reflections of the soft amber light from the lamp on the end table.


At the base of the stone wall was one of the rear legs of the chair. That length of turned pine was all jagged splinters at the thicker end, where it had been fixed to the underside of the seat. Bristling from the side of it at a ninety-degree angle was the one-inch stretcher bar that had connected it to the other rear leg.


The lower chain was more than half free.


On the porch, one dog paced. The other still watched Chyna.


She worked the upper chain to the left through the spindles at her back, drawing her right hand behind her head, to provide as much slack as possible for her left hand. Then she reached down to her left, under the chair arm and then under the thick slab seat, feeling for the legs. The left rear leg was gone, obviously the one on the floor by the wall. The side stretcher still extended from the left front leg, but with the rear leg gone, it no longer connected to anything, and the chain had slipped off it.


When she worked the upper chain to the right, to be able to feel under the chair with that hand, she discovered that the other rear leg was slightly loose. She pulled, pushed, and twisted, trying to break it off. But she couldn’t get adequate leverage, and the leg was still too firmly attached to succumb to her efforts.


No stretcher bar had ever linked the two front legs. Now the lower chain was prevented from slipping entirely free only by the stretcher bar between the legs on the right side.


Once more she charged backward hard, into the rock. Blazing pain exploded through her entire body, and she was almost blown away. But when the right rear leg didn’t snap loose, she said, “Hell, no,” refusing to surrender to hurt, to exhaustion, to anything, anything, and she hobbled forward and then launched herself backward once more. Wood split with a dry crackle, broken turnings of pine clattered off flagstones, and with a bright ringing, the lower chain fell free of the chair.


Bending forward, dizzy, filled with a whirling darkness, shaking violently, she leaned with both hands on the back of the big leather armchair. She was half sick with pain and with fear of what damage she might have done to her body, wondering about fractured vertebrae and internal bleeding.


Squeak-squeak-squeak.


One of the dogs clawed at the window glass.


Squeak-squeak.


Chyna wasn’t free yet. She was still chained to the upper half of the chair.


The four spindles between the headrail and the seat were thinner than the stretcher bars between the legs, so they ought to break more easily than those bars had broken. She hadn’t been able to keep the chair legs from mercilessly hammering the backs of her knees and her thighs, but for this part of the operation, the tie-on foam cushion between her and the spindles should provide her with some protection.


A pair of floor-to-ceiling rock pilasters flanked the firebox and supported the six-inch slab of laminated maple that served as the mantel. They were curved, and it seemed to Chyna that the radius would help focus the impact on one or two spindles at a time instead of spreading it across the four.


She moved the heavy andiron out of the way. She pushed aside a brass rack of fireplace tools. The lifting and shoving made her head spin and her stomach churn, and a hundred agonies assailed her.


She no longer dared to think about what she was doing. She just did it, past courage now, past consideration and calculation, driven by a blind animal determination to be free.


This time, she didn’t hunch over; as far as she was able, she stood straight and rammed backward into the pilaster. The cushion did provide protection, but not enough. She was suffering so many contusions, wrenched muscles, and battered bones that the jarring blow would have been devastating even if it had been twice as well padded, like the tap of a dentist’s rubber hammer on a rotten tooth in need of a root-canal job. Right now every joint in her body seemed to be a rotten tooth. She didn’t pause, because she was afraid that all of those pains, pulsing at once, would soon shake her to the floor, shake her apart, so she would never be able to pull herself together and get up. She was rapidly running out of resources, and with a black tide lapping at the edges of her vision, she was also running out of time. Howling with misery in expectation of the pain, she rammed backward and screamed when the blow rattled her bones like dice in a cup. Agony. But immediately she threw herself into the pilaster again, chains jangling, and again, wood splintering, and again, screaming, Jesus, unable to stop screaming and frightened by her own cries, while the vigilant dogs made that needful keening at the window, and yet once more backward, hammering herself into the rock.


Then she was again facedown on the floor without remembering how she had gotten there, racked by dry heaves because there was nothing in her stomach to throw up, gagging on a vile taste in the back of her mouth, hands clenched against the very thought of defeat, feeling small and weak and pitiful, shuddering, shuddering.


The shudders gradually diminished, however, and the carpet began to undulate, pleasantly cool beneath her, and she was a cloud shadow on fast-moving waters. The sun-haloed shadow and the fathomless water moved in the same direction, always in the same direction, onward and forever, swift and silken, toward the edge of the world and then off into a void, flowing still, so dark.


9


Expecting dogs, Chyna woke from red dreams of refrigerator-chilled guns and exploding heads, but there were no dogs. She was alone in the living room, and all was quiet. The Dobermans were not padding back and forth on the porch, and when she was finally able to lift her head, she saw no dogs at the undraped window.


They were outside, calmer now because they realized that their time would come. Watching the door and windows. Waiting to see her face. Alert for the snick of a latch, the rasp of a hinge.


She was in so much pain that she was surprised to have regained consciousness. She was more surprised that her head was clear.


One pain was separate from and more urgent than all her other distresses. Unlike the agonies of tortured bones and muscles, this painful pressure could be relieved easily, and she wouldn’t even have to put herself through the gruesome ordeal of moving from where she lay.


“Hell no,” she mumbled, and slowly she sat up.


Getting to her feet, she disturbed deep hurts that had slept as long as she had been lying on the floor but woke as soon as she began to rise: grindings in her bones and hot flares in her muscles. Some were intense enough, at least initially, to make her freeze and gasp for breath, but by the time she was standing tall, she knew there was no single pain so terrible that it would cripple her; and while the burden of her combined agonies was daunting, she was going to be able to carry it.


She didn’t have to carry the heavy chair any longer. It lay on the floor around her in fragments and splinters, and none of her chains was encumbered by it.


According to the mantel clock, the time was three minutes till eight, which unsettled her. The last she remembered, it had been ten minutes past seven. She wasn’t sure how long she had taken to break free from the chair, but she suspected that she had lain unconscious for half an hour, perhaps longer. The sweat had dried on her body, and her hair was only slightly damp at the nape of her neck, so half an hour was probably correct. This realization made her feel weak and uncertain again.


If Vess could be believed, Chyna still had four hours until he returned. But there was much to be done, and four hours might not be time enough.


Chyna sat on the edge of the sofa. Freed from the pine dining chair, she was at last able to reach the carabiner on the short chain between her ankles. This steel coupling connected the shorter chain to the longer one that had wrapped the chair and the table pedestal. After screwing open the metal sleeve to reveal the gate in the carabiner, she disconnected herself from the longer chain.


Her ankles remained cuffed, and on her way to the stairs to the second floor, she still had to shuffle.


She switched on the stairwell light and laboriously climbed the narrow stairs, moving first her left foot and then her right onto each tread. Because of the hobbling chain, she was unable to ascend one foot per tread, step over step, as she normally would have done, and her progress was slow.


She kept a two-hand grip on the handrail. With the heavy chair gone from her back, she was no longer precariously balanced, but she remained wary of tripping in her fetters.


Past the landing, halfway up the second flight, all of her pains and the fear of falling and the hot pressure in her bladder combined to double her over with severe stomach cramps. She leaned against the wall of the stairwell, clutching the handrail, suddenly sheathed in sour sweat, moaning low and wordlessly in misery. She was certain that she was going to pass out, tumble backward, and break her neck.


But the cramps passed, and she continued climbing. Soon she reached the second floor.


She switched on the hall light and found three doors. Those to the left and right were closed, but the one at the end of the hallway stood open, revealing a bathroom.

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