Head turned to the side, peering from under the bed, Chyna had still been gazing at her mother’s bare feet. As flashes of lightning strobed the small room, a cloth swirled to the floor, a soft drift of yellow linen around Anne’s slender ankles. Her blouse. She giggled drunkenly as her shorts slid down her tanned legs, and she stepped out of them.
In Chyna’s clenched hand, the angry beetle’s legs had churned. Antennae quivered, ceaselessly seeking. Woltz kicked off his sandals, and one of them clattered to the edge of the bed, in front of Chyna’s face, and she heard a zipper. Hard and cool and oily, the palmetto’s small head rolled between two of Chyna’s fingers. Woltz’s tattered jeans fell in a heap, with a soft clink of the belt buckle.
He and Anne had dropped onto the narrow bed, and the springs had twanged, and the weight had made the frame slats sag against Chyna’s shoulders and back, pinning her to the floor. Sighs, murmurs, urgent encouragements, groans, breathless gasps, and coarse animal grunting — Chyna had heard it on other nights in Key West and elsewhere but always before through walls, from rooms next door. She didn’t really know what it meant, and she didn’t want to know, because she sensed that this knowledge would bring new dangers, with which she wasn’t equipped to deal. Whatever her mother and Woltz were doing above her was both frightening and deeply sad, full of terrible meaning, no less strange or less powerful than the thunder breaking up the sky above the Gulf and the lightning thrown out of Heaven into the earth.
Chyna had closed her eyes against the lightning and the sight of the discarded clothes. She strove to shut out the smell of dust and mildew and beer and sweat and her mother’s scented bath soap, and she imagined that her ears were packed full of wax that muffled the thunder and the drumming of the rain on the roof and the sounds of Anne with Woltz. As fiercely clenched as she was, she ought to have been able to squeeze herself into a safe state of insensate patience or even through a magical portal into the Wild Wood.
She had been less than half successful, however, because Woltz had rocked the narrow bed so forcefully that Chyna consciously had to time her breathing to the rhythm he established. When the frame slats swagged down with the full thrust of his weight, they pressed Chyna so hard against the bare wood floor that her chest ached and her lungs couldn’t expand. She could inhale only when he lifted up, and when he bore down, he virtually forced her to exhale. It went on for what seemed to be a long time, and when at last it was over, Chyna lay shivering and sweat-soaked, numb with terror and desperate to forget what she had heard, surprised that the breath hadn’t been crushed out of her forever and that her heart had not burst. In her hand was what remained of the large palmetto beetle, which she had unwittingly crushed; ichor oozed between her fingers, a disgusting slime that might have been vaguely warm when first it had gushed from the beetle but was now cool, and her stomach rolled with nausea at the alien texture of the stuff.
After a while, following a spate of murmurs and soft laughter, Anne had gotten off the bed, snatched up her clothes, and gone down the hall to the bathroom. As the bathroom door closed, Woltz switched on a small nightstand lamp, shifted his weight on the bed, and leaned over the side. His face appeared upside down in front of Chyna. The light was behind him and his face was shadowed but for a dark glitter in his eyes. He smiled at her and said, “How’s the birthday girl?” Chyna was unable to speak or move, and she half believed that the wetness in her hand was a bloody hunk of chum. She knew that Woltz would chop her up for having heard him with her mother, chop her to pieces and put her in bait buckets and take her out to sea for the sharks. Instead, he’d gotten out of bed and — from her perspective once more just a pair of feet — he had squirmed into his jeans, put on his sandals, and left the room.
In Edgler Vess’s cellar, thousands of miles and eighteen years from that night in Key West, Chyna saw that Ariel at last seemed to be staring at the power drill rather than through it.
“I don’t know how long I stayed under the bed,” she continued. “Maybe a few minutes, maybe an hour. I heard him and my mother in the kitchen again, getting another bottle of beer, fixing another vodka with lemonade for her, talking and laughing. And there was something in her laugh — a dirty little snicker…I’m not sure — but something that made me think she knew I’d been hiding under there, knew it but went along with Woltz when he unbuttoned her blouse.”
She stared at her cuffed hands on the workbench.
She could feel the beetle’s ichor as if it were even now oozing between her fingers. When she had crushed the insect, she had also crushed what remained of her own fragile innocence and all hope of being a daughter to her mother; though after that night, she had still needed years to understand as much.
“I’ve no memory at all of how I left the cottage, maybe through the front door, maybe through a window, but the next thing I knew, I was on the beach in the storm. I went to the edge of the water and washed my hands in the surf. The breakers weren’t huge. They seldom are, there, except in a hurricane, and this was only a tropical storm, almost windless, the heavy rain coming straight down. Still, the waves were bigger than usual, and I thought about swimming out into the black water until I found an undertow. I tried to persuade myself that it would be all right, just swimming in the dark until I got tired, told myself I would just be going to God.”
Ariel’s hands appeared to tighten on the drill.
“But for the first time in my life, I was afraid of the sea — of how the breaking waves sounded like a giant heart, of how the nearby water was as shiny black as a beetle’s shell and seemed to curve up, in the near distance, to meet a black sky that didn’t shine at all. It was the endlessness and seamlessness of the dark that scared me — the continuity — although that wasn’t a word I knew back then. So I stretched out on the beach, flat on my back in the sand, with the rain beating down on me so hard that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Even behind my eyelids, I could see the lightning, a bright ghost of it, and because I was too scared to swim out to God, I waited for God to come to me, blazing bright. But He didn’t come, didn’t come, and eventually I fell asleep. Shortly after dawn, when I woke, the storm had passed. The sky was red in the east, sapphire in the west, the ocean flat and green. I went inside, and Anne and Woltz were still asleep in his room. My birthday cake was on the kitchen table where it had been the night before. The pink and white icing was soft and beaded with yellowish oil in the heat, and the eight candles were all cockeyed. No one had cut a slice from it, and I didn’t touch it either…. Two days later, my mother pulled up stakes and carted me off to Tupelo, Mississippi, or Santa Fe, or maybe Boston. I don’t remember where, exactly, but I was relieved to be leaving — and afraid of who we would settle in with next. Happy only in the traveling, gone from one thing but not yet arrived at the next, the peace of the road or the rails. I could have traveled forever without a destination.”
Above them, the house of Edgler Vess remained silent.
A spiky shadow moved across the cellar floor.
Looking up, Chyna saw a busy spider spinning a web between one of the ceiling joists and one of the lighting fixtures.
Maybe she’d have to deal with the Dobermans while handcuffed. Time was running out.
Ariel picked up the power drill.
Chyna opened her mouth to speak a few words of encouragement but then was afraid that she might say the wrong thing and send the girl deeper into her trance.
Instead, she spotted the safety goggles and, making no comment, got up and put them on the girl. Ariel submitted without objection.
Chyna returned to the stool and waited.
A frown surfaced in the placid pool of Ariel’s face. It didn’t subside again but floated there.
The girl pressed the trigger of the drill experimentally. The motor shrieked, and the bit whirled. She released the trigger and watched the bit spin to a stop.
Chyna realized that she was holding her breath. She let it out, inhaled deeply, and the air was sweeter than before. She adjusted the position of her hands on the workbench to present Ariel with the left cuff.
Behind the goggles, Ariel’s eyes slowly shifted from the point of the drill bit to the keyhole. She was definitely looking at things now, but she still appeared detached.
Chyna closed her eyes.
As she waited, the silence grew so deep that she began to hear distant imaginary noises, analogue to the phantom lights that play faintly behind closed eyelids: the soft solemn tick of the mantel clock upstairs, the restless movement of vigilant Dobermans in the night outside.
Something pressed against the left manacle.
Chyna opened her eyes.
The bit was in the keyway.
She didn’t look up at the girl but closed her eyes again, more tightly this time than previously, to protect them from flying metal shavings. She turned her head to one side.
Ariel bore down on the drill to prevent it from popping out of the keyway, just as Chyna had instructed. The steel manacle pressed hard against Chyna’s wrist.
Silence. Stillness. Gathering courage.
Suddenly the drill motor whined. Steel squealed against steel, and the sound was followed by the thin, acrid odor of hot metal. Vibrations in Chyna’s wrist bones spread up her arm, exacerbating all the aches and pains in her muscles. A clatter, a hard ping, and the left manacle fell open.
She could have functioned reasonably well with the pair of cuffs dangling from her right hand. Perhaps it didn’t make sense to risk injury for the relatively small additional advantage of being free of the manacles altogether. But this wasn’t about logic. It wasn’t about a rational comparison of risks and advantages. It was about faith.
The bit clicked against the keyway as it was inserted into the right manacle. The drill shrieked, and steel jittered-spun against steel. A spray of tiny shavings spattered across the side of Chyna’s face, and the lock cracked.
Ariel released the trigger and lifted the drill away.
With a laugh of relief and delight, Chyna shook off the manacles and raised her hands, gazing at them in wonder. Both of her wrists were abraded — actually raw and seeping in places. But that pain was less severe than many others that afflicted her, and no pain could diminish the exhilaration of being free at last.
As if not sure what to do next, Ariel stood with the drill in both hands.
Chyna took the tool and set it aside on the workbench. “Thank you, honey. That was terrific. You did great, really great, you were perfect.”
The girl’s arms hung at her sides again, and her delicate pale hands were no longer hooked like claws but were as slack as those of a sleeper.
Chyna slipped the goggles off Ariel’s head, and they made eye contact, real contact. Chyna saw the girl who lived behind the lovely face, the true girl inside the safe fortress of the skull, where Edgler Vess could get at her only with tremendous effort if ever.
Then, in an instant, Ariel’s gaze traveled from this world to the sanctuary of her Elsewhere.
Chyna said, “Nooooo,” because she didn’t want to lose the girl whom she had so briefly glimpsed. She put her arms around Ariel and held her tight and said, “Come back, honey. It’s okay. Come back to me, talk to me.”
But Ariel did not come back. After pulling herself completely into the world of Edgler Vess long enough to drill out the locks on the manacles, she had exhausted her courage.
“Okay, I don’t blame you. We’re not out of here yet,” Chyna said. “But now we only have the dogs to worry about.”
Though still living in a far realm, Ariel allowed Chyna to take her hand and lead her to the stairs.
“We can handle a bunch of damn dogs, kid. Better believe it,” Chyna said, though she was not sure if she believed it herself.
Free of manacles and shackles, no longer carrying a chair on her back, with a stomach full of coffeecake, and with a gloriously empty bladder, she had nothing to think about except the dogs. Halfway up the stairs toward the laundry room, she remembered something that she had seen earlier; it had been puzzling then, but it was clear now — and vitally important.
“Wait. Wait here,” she told Ariel, and pressed the girl’s limp hand around the railing.
She plunged back down the stairs, went to the metal cabinets, and pulled open the door behind which she had seen the strange pads trailing black leather straps with chrome-plated buckles. She pulled them out, scattering them on the floor around her, until the cabinet was empty.
They weren’t pads. They were heavily padded garments. A jacket with a dense foam outer layer under a man-made fabric that appeared to be a lot tougher than leather. Especially thick padding around both arms. A pair of bulky chaps featured hard plastic under the padding, body-armor quality; the plastic was segmented and hinged at the knees to allow the wearer flexibility. Another pair of chaps protected the backs of the legs and came with a hard-plastic butt shield, a waist belt, and buckles that connected them to the front chaps.
Behind the garments were gloves and an odd padded helmet with a clear Plexiglas face shield. She also found a vest that was labeled KEVLAR, which looked exactly like the bulletproof garments worn by members of police SWAT teams.
A few small tears marred the garments — and in many places other rips had been sewn shut with black thread as heavy as fishing line. She recognized the same neat stitches that she had seen in the young hitchhiker’s lips and eyelids. Here and there in the padding were unrepaired punctures. Tooth marks.
This was the protective gear that Vess wore when he worked with the Dobermans.
Apparently he layered on enough padding and armor to walk safely through a pride of hungry lions. For a man who liked to take risks, who believed in living life on the edge, he seemed to take excessive precautions when putting his pack of Dobermans through their training sessions.
Vess’s extraordinary safeguards told Chyna everything that she needed to know about the savagery of the dogs.
Less than twenty-two hours since the first cry in the Templeton house in Napa. A lifetime. And now toward another midnight and into whatever lay beyond.
Two lamps were aglow in the living room. Chyna no longer cared about keeping the house dark. As soon as she went out the front door and confronted the dogs, there would be no hope of lulling Vess into a false sense of security if he came home early.
According to the mantel clock, it was ten-thirty.
Ariel sat in one of the armchairs. She was hugging herself and rocking slowly back and forth, as if suffering from a stomachache, although she made no sound and remained expressionless.
Protective gear designed for Vess was huge on Chyna, and she vacillated between feeling ridiculous and worrying that she would be dangerously impeded by the bulky garb. She had rolled up the bottoms of the chaps and fixed them in place with large safety pins that she’d found in a sewing kit in the laundry room. The belts of the chaps featured loops and long Velcro closures, so she was able to cinch them tight enough to keep them from sliding down over her hips. The cuffs of the padded sleeves were folded back and pinned too, and the Kevlar vest helped to bulk her up, so she wasn’t quite swimming in the jacket. She wore a segmented plastic-armor collar that encircled her neck and prevented the dogs from tearing out her throat. She couldn’t have been more cumbersomely dressed if she’d been cleaning up nuclear waste in a post-meltdown reactor.
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