Page 36

The mantel clock put the time at twenty-two minutes past eight, and suddenly the night seemed to be a sled on a slope of ice, picking up speed.

She extinguished the lamp and shuffled through darkness to the kitchen. There she turned on the fluorescent lights, only to avoid tripping in the debris, falling, and cutting herself on broken glass.

No Dobermans were on the back porch either. At the window, only the night waited.

Entering the windowless laundry room, she shut off the kitchen lights behind her and pulled the door shut.

Down to the cellar, then, to the workbench and cabinets that she had seen earlier.

In the tall metal cabinets with the vent slits in the doors, she found cans of paint and lacquer, paintbrushes, and drop cloths folded as precisely as fine linen sheets. One entire cabinet was filled with thick pads from which dangled black leather straps with chrome-plated buckles; she didn’t have any idea what they were, and she left them undisturbed. In the final cabinet, Vess stored several power tools, including an electric drill.

In one of the drawers on the big wheeled tool chest, she located an extensive collection of drill bits in three clear plastic boxes. She also found a pair of Plexiglas safety goggles.

A power strip with eight outlets was attached to the wall behind the workbench, but a duplex receptacle was also available low on the wall beside the bench. She needed the lower outlet, because it allowed her to sit on the floor.

Although the drill bits weren’t labeled except as to size, Chyna figured that they were all meant for woodworking and would not bore easily — if at all — through steel. She didn’t want to pierce the steel anyway; she wanted only to screw up the lock mechanisms on her leg irons enough to spring them open.

She chose a bit approximately the size of the leg-iron keyway, fitted it into the chuck, and tightened it. When she held the drill in both hands and squeezed the trigger, it issued a shrill whine. The spiral throat of the slender bit spun so fast that it blurred until it seemed as smooth and harmless as the shank.

Chyna released the trigger, set the silent drill aside on the floor, and put on the protective goggles. She was disconcerted by the thought that Vess had worn these goggles. Strangely, she expected that everything she saw through them would be distorted, as if the molecules of the lenses had been transformed by the magnetic power with which Vess drew all the sights of his world to his eyes.

But what she saw through the goggles was no different from what she saw without them, although her field of vision was circumscribed by the frames.

She picked up the drill with both hands again and inserted the tip of the bit into the keyway on the shackle that encircled her left ankle. When she pressed the trigger, steel spun against steel with a hellish shriek. The bit stuttered violently, jumped out of the keyway, and skipped across the two-inch-wide shackle, spitting tiny sparks. If her reflexes hadn’t been good, the whirling auger would have bored through her foot, but she released the trigger and jerked up on the drill just in time to avoid disaster.

The lock might have been damaged. She couldn’t be sure. But it was still engaged, and the shackle was secure.

She inserted the bit into the keyway again. She gripped the drill tighter than before and bore down with more effort to keep the bit from kicking out of the hole. Steel shrieked, shrieked, and blue wisps of foul-smelling smoke rose from the grinding point, and the vibrating shackle pressed painfully into her ankle in spite of the intervening sock. The drill shook in her hands, which were suddenly damp with cold sweat from the strain of controlling it. A spray of metal slivers swirled up from the keyway, spattered her face. The bit snapped, and the broken-off end zinged past her head, rang off the concrete-block wall hard enough to take a chip out of it, and clinked like a half-spent bullet across the cellar floor.

Her left cheek stung, and she found a splinter of steel embedded in her flesh. It was about a quarter of an inch long and as thin as a sliver of glass. She was able to grasp it between her fingernails and pluck it free. The tiny puncture was bleeding; she had blood on her fingertips and felt a thin warm trickle making its way down her face to the corner of her mouth.

She freed the shank of the broken bit from the drill and threw it aside. She selected a slightly larger bit and tightened it into the jaws of the chuck.

Again, she drilled the keyway. The shackle around her left ankle popped open. Not more than a minute later, the lock on the other shackle cracked too.

Chyna put the drill aside and rose shakily to her feet, every muscle in her legs trembling. She was shaky not because of her many pains, not because of her hunger and weakness, but because she had freed herself from the shackles after having been in despair only a couple of hours before. She had freed herself.

She was still handcuffed, however, and she could not hold the drill one-handed while she bored out the lock on each manacle. But she already had an idea about how she might extricate her hands.

Although other challenges faced her in addition to the manacles, although escape was by no means assured, jubilation swelled in Chyna as she climbed the cellar steps. She went tread over tread, not one step at a time as the shackles had required, bounding up the stairs in spite of her weakness and the tremors in her muscles, without even using the handrail, to the landing, into the laundry room, past the washer and dryer. And there she abruptly halted with her hands on the knob of the closed door, remembering how she had raced along this same route and into the kitchen this morning, reassured by the tatta-tatta-tatta of the vibrating water pipe in the wall, only to be blindsided by Vess.

She stood at the threshold until her breathing quieted, but she was unable to quiet her heart, which had been thundering with excitement and with the steepness of the stairs but now pounded with fear of Edgler Vess. She listened at the door for a while, heard nothing over the thudding in her breast, and turned the knob as stealthily as possible.

The hinges operated smoothly, soundlessly, and the door opened into the kitchen, which was as dark as she had left it. She found the light switch, hesitated, flipped it up — and Vess was not waiting for her.

As long as she lived, would she ever again be able to go through a doorway without flinching?

From a drawer where earlier Chyna had seen a set of cutlery, she extracted a butcher knife with a well-worn walnut handle. She put it on the counter near the sink.

She got a drinking glass from another cabinet, filled it from the cold-water tap, and drank the entire glassful in long swallows before lowering it from her lips. Nothing she had ever drunk had been half as delicious as those eight ounces.

In the refrigerator, she found an unopened coffeecake with white icing, cinnamon, walnuts. She ripped open the wrapper and tore off a chunk of the cake. She stood over the sink, eating voraciously, stuffing her mouth until her cheeks bulged, greedily licking icing from her lips, crumbs and chunks of walnuts dropping into the sink.

She was in an uncommon state of mind as she ate: now moaning with delight, now half choking with laughter, now gagging and on the verge of tears, now laughing again. In a storm of emotions. But that was okay. Storms always passed sooner or later, and they were cleansing.

She had come so far. Yet she had so far to go. That was the nature of the journey.

From the spice rack she removed the bottle of aspirin. She shook two tablets into the palm of her hand, but she didn’t chew them. She drew another glass of water and took the aspirin, then took two more.

She sang, “I did it my way,” from Sinatra’s standard, and then added, “took the fu**ing aspirin my way.” She laughed and ate more coffeecake, and for a moment she felt crazy with accomplishment.

Dogs out there in the night, she reminded herself, Dobermans in the darkness, rotten bastard Nazi dogs with big teeth and eyes black like sharks’ eyes.

At a key organizer next to the spice rack, the keys to the motor home hung from one of the four pegs; the other pegs were empty. Vess would be careful with the keys to the soundproofed cell and would no doubt keep them on him at all times.

She picked up the butcher knife and the half-eaten coffee cake and went to the cellar, turning off the kitchen lights behind her.

Pintle and gudgeon.

Chyna knew these two exotic words, as she knew so many others, because, as a girl, she had encountered them in books written by C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle and Robert Louis Stevenson and Kenneth Grahame. And every time that she’d come across a word she had not known, she’d looked it up in a tattered paperback dictionary, a prized possession that she took with her wherever her restless mother chose to drag her, year after year, until it was held together with so much age-brittled Scotch tape that she could barely read some of the definitions through the strips of yellowing cellophane.

Pintle. That was the name of the pin in a hinge, which pivoted when a door opened or closed.

Gudgeon. That was the sleeve — or barrel — in which the pintle moved.

The thick inner door of the soundproofed vestibule was equipped with three hinges. The pintle in each hinge had a slightly rounded head that overhung the gudgeon by about a sixteenth of an inch all the way around.

From the tools in the wheeled cabinet, Chyna selected a hammer and a screwdriver.

With the workbench stool and a scrap of wood for a wedge, she propped open the outer padded door of the vestibule. Then she placed the butcher knife on the rubber mat on the vestibule floor, within easy reach.

She slid aside the cover on the view port in the inner door and saw the gathering of dolls in pinkish lamplight. Some had eyes as radiant as the eyes of lizards, and some had eyes as dark as those of certain Dobermans.

In the enormous armchair, Ariel sat with her legs drawn up on the seat cushion, head tipped forward, face obscured by a fall of hair. She might have been asleep — except that her hands were balled tightly in her lap. If her eyes were open, she would be staring at her fists.

“It’s only me,” Chyna said.

The girl didn’t respond.

“Don’t be afraid.”

Ariel was so motionless that even her veil of hair did not stir.

“It’s only me.”

This time, deeply humbled, Chyna made no claim to being anyone’s guardian or salvation.

She started with the lowest hinge. The length of chain between her manacles was barely long enough to allow her to use the tools. She held the screwdriver in her left hand, with the tip of the blade angled under the pintle cap. Without sufficient play in the manacle chain, she couldn’t grasp the hammer by its handle, so she gripped it instead by the head and tapped the bottom of the screwdriver as forcefully as possible considering the limitations on movement. Fortunately, the hinge was well lubricated, and with each tap, the pintle rose farther out of the gudgeon. Five minutes later, in spite of some resistance from the third pin, she popped it out of the uppermost hinge.

The gudgeons were formed of interleaving knuckles that were part of the hinge leaf on the doorframe and that on the inner edge of the door itself. These knuckles separated slightly, because the pintles were no longer present to hold them together in a single barrel.

Now the door was kept in place only by the pair of locks on the right side, but one-inch deadbolts wouldn’t swing like hinges. Chyna pulled the padded door by the knuckles of the gudgeons. At first only one inch of its five-inch width came out of the jamb on the left, vinyl squeaking against vinyl. She hooked her fingers around this exposed edge, yanked hard, and her vision clouded with a crimson tint as the pain in her swollen finger flared again. But she was rewarded with the shrill metallic skreek of the brass deadbolts working in the striker plates and then with a faint crack of wood as the whole lock assembly put heavy strain on the jamb. Redoubling her efforts, she pulled rhythmically, prying open the door in tiny increments, until she was gasping so hard that she was no longer able to curse with frustration.

The weight of the door and the position of the two deadbolts began to work to her advantage. The locks were close together, one set directly over the other, not evenly spaced like hinges, so the heavy slab tried to twist on them as if they were a single pivot point. Because a greater length of the door lay above the locks than below, the top tipped outward, induced by gravity. Chyna took advantage of these inevitable forces, yanked harder, and grunted with satisfaction when wood splintered again. The entire five-inch width of the padded slab swung free of the jamb on the side that had been hinged. With the frame no longer in the way, she pulled the door to the left, and on the right side, the deadbolts slid out of the striker plates.

Suddenly the door came toward her, free of all restraint, and it was too heavy to be lowered slowly out of its frame. She backed rapidly into the cellar, letting the slab thud to the floor of the vestibule just as she vacated it.

Chyna waited, catching her breath, listening to the house for any indication that Vess had returned.

Finally she reentered the vestibule. She crossed the fallen door as if it were a bridge, and she went into the cell.

The dolls watched, unmoving and sly.

Ariel was sitting in the armchair, head lowered, hands fisted in her lap, exactly as she had been when Chyna had spoken to her through the port in the door. If she had heard the hammering and subsequent commotion, she had not been disturbed by it.

“Ariel?” Chyna said.

The girl didn’t reply or raise her head.

Chyna sat on the footstool in front of the armchair. “Honey, it’s time to go.”

When she received no response, Chyna leaned forward, lowered her head, and looked up at the girl’s shadowed face. Ariel’s eyes were open, and her gaze was fixed on her white-knuckled fists. Her lips were moving, as though she were whispering confidences to someone, but no sound escaped her.

Chyna put her cuffed hands under Ariel’s chin and lifted her head. The girl didn’t try to pull away, didn’t flinch, but was revealed when her veil of hair slid away from her face. Although they were eye-to-eye, Ariel stared through Chyna, as if all in this world were transparent, and in her eyes was a chilling bleakness, as if the landscape of her other world was lifeless, daunting.

“We have to go. Before he comes home.”

Bright-eyed and attentive, perhaps the dolls listened. Ariel apparently did not.

With both hands, Chyna enfolded one of the girl’s fists. The bones were sharp and the skin was cold, clenched as fiercely as if she had been suspended from rocks at a precipice.

Chyna tried to pry the fingers apart. The sculpted digits of a marble fist would have been hardly more resistant.

Finally Chyna lifted the hand and kissed it more tenderly than she had ever kissed anyone before, more tenderly than she had ever been kissed, and she said softly, “I want to help you. I need to help you, honey. If I can’t leave here with you, there’s no point in my leaving at all.”

Ariel didn’t respond.


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