Hung up on the back of the motor home, the black-and-white is hauled onto its side by the larger vehicle. Then it finally tears loose, flips onto its roof, spins three hundred and sixty degrees, and comes to rest in the northbound lane.
The motor home is far past the car, three hundred feet away from the sheriff and still sliding, but it is slowing and will soon stop.
Everything is screwed up big time: the mess scattered all over the highway, which he will be hard-pressed to explain; the ruination of his plan to deal with Ariel in the methodical manner that has kept him so excited for the past year; and the incriminating bodies in the bedroom of his motor home.
Yet Sheriff Vess has never felt half as buoyant as he does now. He is so alive, all of his senses enhanced by the ferocity of the moment. He feels giddy, silly. He wants to caper under the moon and twirl with his arms out like a child making himself dizzy with the sight of spinning stars.
But there are two deaths to be dealt, a lovely young face to be disfigured, and that is fun too.
He reaches to his holster for his revolver. Evidently it fell out when he leaped from the car and tumbled across the highway. He looks around for it.
When the motor home slid to a stop, Chyna wasted no time being astonished to be alive. Instantly she disengaged her safety harness and then the girl’s.
The starboard flank of the tipped-over motor home had become its ceiling in this new orientation. Ariel clung to the door handle up there to avoid dropping down on top of Chyna. The port flank, where Chyna lay, was now essentially the floor. The window in the driver’s door at her side provided a close-up view only of blacktop.
She struggled out of her seat, turned around, and perched on the dashboard with her back to the windshield and her feet on the console box. She leaned her right side against the steering wheel.
The air was thick with gasoline fumes. Breathing was difficult.
She reached to Ariel and said, “Come on, baby, out through the windshield, quickly now.”
When the girl failed to look at her but clung to the door and stared out the side window at the night sky, Chyna took her by the shoulder and pulled.
“Come on, honey, come on, come on, come on,” she urged. “It’s damn stupid if we die now, after getting this far. If you die now, won’t the dolls laugh? Won’t they laugh and laugh?”
Here, now, comes Sheriff Edgler Vess, battered and bleeding but sprightly in his step, past the roof of the motor home, which is now essentially the vehicle’s port flank as it lies half capsized on this sea of blacktop and spilled gasoline. He glances curiously at the broken-out skylight but proceeds without hesitation to the front of the vehicle — where he discovers Chyna and Ariel, naughty girls, who have just come out through the windshield.
Their backs are to him, and they are moving away, heading toward the west side of the highway, where a sheltering grove of pines stands not far beyond the pavement, surely hoping to scuttle out of sight before he finds them. The woman is hobbling, urging the girl along with a hand in the small of her back.
Though the sheriff was unable to find his revolver, he has the 20-gauge, which he holds in both hands by the barrel. He comes in fast behind them. The woman hears the odd squish that he makes limping on one bad boot heel across the reeking wet pavement, but she doesn’t have a chance to turn fully and confront him. Vess swings the shotgun like a club, putting everything he has into it, smashing the flat of the stock across her shoulder blades.
The woman is knocked off her feet, the breath hammered from her, unable to cry out. She pitches forward and sprawls facedown on the pavement, perhaps unconscious but certainly stunned immobile.
Ariel totters forward in the direction that she was headed, as though she knows nothing of what happened to Chyna, and perhaps she doesn’t. Maybe she is desperate for freedom, but more likely she is stumbling across the blacktop with no more awareness than a windup doll.
The woman rolls onto her back, looking up at him, not dazed but white and wild-eyed with rage.
“God fears me,” he says, which are words that can be formed from the letters of his name.
But the woman seems unimpressed. Wheezing, because of either the fumes or the blow to the back, she says, “Fuck you.”
When he kills her, he will have to eat a piece of her, as he ate the spider, because in the difficult days ahead, he may need a measure of her extraordinary strength.
Ariel is fifty or sixty feet away, and the sheriff considers going after her. He decides to finish the woman first, because the girl can’t get far in her condition.
When Vess looks down again, the woman is withdrawing a small object from a pocket of her jeans.
Chyna held the butane lighter that she’d been carrying since the service station where Vess had murdered the clerks. She released the childproof lock on the gas lever and slid her thumb onto the striker wheel. She was terrified to ignite it. She lay in gasoline, and her clothes, her hair, were soaked with it. She could barely draw breath through the suffocating fumes. Her trembling hand was damp with gasoline too, and she figured that the flame would leap immediately to her thumb, travel down her hand, her arm, enshrouding her entire body in only seconds.
But she had to trust that there was justice in the universe and meaning in the redwood mists, for without that trust, she would be no better than Edgler Vess, no better than a mindlessly seeking palmetto beetle.
She was lying at Vess’s feet. Even if the worst happened, she would take him with her.
“Forever,” she said, because that was another word that could be formed from the letters of his name, and she thumbed the striker wheel.
A pure flame spurted from the Bic but didn’t instantly leap to her thumb, so she thrust the lighter against Vess’s boot, dropped it, and the flame went out at once but not before igniting the gasoline-soaked leather.
Even as Chyna let go of the lighter, she rolled away from Vess, arms tucked against her breast, spinning across the blacktop, shocked by how quickly fire exploded high into the night behind her with a whoosh and a sudden wave of heat. Ethereally beautiful blue flames must be streaking toward her across the saturated pavement, and she steeled herself for the killing rapture of fire — but then she was out of the gasoline, rolling across dry highway.
Gasping for air, she shoved onto her feet, backing farther from the burning pavement and from the beast in the conflagration.
Edgler Vess was wearing boots of fire, screaming and stamping his feet as great sheets of flame were flung up from the blacktop around him.
Chyna saw his hair ignite, and she looked away.
Ariel was well beyond the gasoline-wet pavement and out of danger, though she seemed oblivious of the blaze. She was stopped with her back to the fire, gazing up at the stars.
Chyna hurried to the girl and led her another twenty feet south on the highway, just to be safe.
Vess’s screaming was shrill and terrible and louder now, louder because, as Chyna discovered when she turned to look back, the freak was coming after them, a pillar of fire, totally engulfed. Yet he was on his feet, slogging through the boiling tar that bubbled out of the softening blacktop. His bright arms stretched in front of him, blue-white tongues of fire seething off his fingertips. A tornado of blood-red fire whirled in his open mouth, dragon fire spouted from his nostrils, his face vanished behind an orange mask of flames, yet he came onward, stubborn as a sunset, screaming.
Chyna pushed the girl behind her, but then Vess abruptly veered away from them, and it became clear to her that he hadn’t seen them. He was seared blind, chasing neither her nor Ariel but an undeserved mercy.
In the middle of the highway, he fell across the yellow lines and lay there, jerking and twitching, writhing and kicking, gradually turning on his side, pulling his knees up to his chest, folding his blackened hands under his chin. His head curled down to his hands as though his neck were melting and unable to support it. Soon he was silent in his burning.
On one level, Vess knew the fading scream was his own, but his suffering was so intense that bizarre thoughts flared through his mind in a blaze of delirium. On another level, he believed that this eerie cry was not his own, after all, but issued from the unborn twin of the service-station clerk, which had left its image as a raw pink birthmark on the forehead of its brother. At the end, Vess was very afraid in the strangeness of the consuming fire, and then he was not a man any more but only an enduring darkness.
Pulling Ariel with her, Chyna backed farther from the fire, but at last she was unable to stand one moment longer. She sat on the highway, shaking uncontrollably, pain-racked, sick with relief. She began to cry, sobbing like a child, like an eight-year-old girl, loosing all of the tears never spent under beds or in mice-infested barn lofts or on lightning-scorched beaches.
In time, headlights appeared in the distance. Chyna watched as they approached, while beside her the girl mutely studied the moon.
From her hospital bed, Chyna gave detailed statements to the police but none to the reporters who strove so arduously to reach her. From the cops, in a spirit of reciprocity, she learned a great many things about Edgler Vess and the extent of his crimes, although none of it explained him.
Two things were of personal interest to her:
First, Paul Templeton, Laura’s father, had been visiting Oregon on a business trip, weeks before Vess’s assault on his family, when he had been stopped for speeding. The officer who wrote the citation was the young sheriff himself. It must have been on this occasion that the photographs had accidentally dropped out of Paul’s wallet as he had been hunting for his driver’s license, giving Vess a chance to see Laura’s striking face.
Second, Ariel’s complete name was Ariel Beth Delane. Until one year ago, she had lived with her parents and her nine-year-old brother in a quiet suburb of Sacramento, California. The mother and father had been shot in their beds. The boy had been tortured to death with the tools from a kit that Mrs. Delane had used in her doll-making hobby, and there was reason to believe that Ariel had been forced to watch before Vess had taken her away.
Besides policemen, Chyna saw numerous physicians. In addition to the necessary treatment for her physical injuries, she was more than once urged to discuss her experiences with a psychiatrist. The most persistent of these was a pleasant man named Dr. Kevin Lofglun, a boyish fifty-year-old with a musical laugh and a nervous habit of pulling on his right earlobe until it was cherry red. “I don’t need therapy,” she told him, “because life is therapy.” He didn’t quite understand this, and he wanted her to tell him about her codependent relationship with her mother, though it hadn’t been codependent for at least ten years, since she had walked out. He wanted to help her learn to cope with grief, but she told him, “I don’t want to learn to cope with it, Doctor. I want to feel it.” When he spoke of post-traumatic stress syndrome, she spoke of hope; when he spoke of self-fulfillment, she spoke of responsibility; when he spoke of mechanisms for improving self-esteem, she spoke of faith and trust; and after a while he seemed to decide that he could do nothing for someone who was speaking a language so different from his own.
The doctors and nurses were worried that she would be unable to sleep, but she slept soundly. They were certain that she would have nightmares, but she only dreamed of a cathedral forest where she was never alone and always safe.
On April eleventh, just twelve days after being admitted to the hospital, she was discharged, and when she went out the front doors, there were over a hundred newspaper, radio, and television reporters waiting for her, including those from the sleazy tabloid shows that had sent her contracts, by Federal Express, offering large sums to tell her story. She made her way through them without answering any of their shouted questions but without being impolite. As she reached the taxi that was waiting for her, one of them pushed a microphone in her face and said inanely, “Ms. Shepherd, what does it feel like to be such a famous hero?” She stopped then and turned and said, “I’m no hero. I’m just passing through like all of you, wondering why it has to be so hard, hoping I never have to hurt anyone again.” Those close enough to hear what she said fell silent, but the others shrieked at her again. She got into the taxi and rode away.
The Delane family had been heavily mortgaged and addicted to easy credit from Visa and MasterCard before Edgler Vess had freed them from their debts, so there was no estate to which Ariel was heir. Her paternal grandparents were alive but in poor health and with only limited financial resources.
Even if there had been any relatives financially comfortable enough to assume the burden of raising a teenage girl with Ariel’s singular problems, they would not have felt adequate to the task. The girl was made a ward of the court, remanded to the care of a psychiatric hospital operated by the State of California.
No family member objected.
Through that summer and autumn, Chyna traveled weekly from San Francisco to Sacramento, petitioning the court to be declared Ariel Beth Delane’s sole legal guardian, visiting the girl, and working patiently — some claimed stubbornly — through the byzantine legal and social-services systems. Otherwise, they would have condemned the girl to a life in asylums that were called “care facilities.”
Although Chyna truly didn’t see herself as a hero, many others did. The admiration with which certain influential people regarded her was at last the key that unlocked the bureaucratic heart and got her the permanent custody that she wanted. On a morning late in January, ten months after she had freed the girl from the doll-guarded cellar, she drove out of Sacramento with Ariel beside her.
They went home to the apartment in San Francisco.
Chyna never finished her master’s degree in psychology, which she had been so close to earning. She continued her studies at the University of California at San Francisco, but she changed her major to literature. She had always liked to read, and though she didn’t believe she possessed any writing talent, she thought she might enjoy being a book editor one day, working with writers. There was more truth in fiction than in science. She could also see herself as a teacher. If she spent the rest of her life waiting tables, that was all right as well, because she was good at it and found dignity in the labor.
The following summer, while Chyna was working the dinner shift, she and Ariel began spending many mornings and early afternoons at the beach. The girl liked to stare out at the bay from behind dark sunglasses, and sometimes she could be induced to stand at water’s edge with the surf breaking around her ankles.
One day in June, not realizing quite what she was doing, Chyna used her index finger to write a word in the sand: PEACE. She stared at it for a minute, and to her surprise, she said to Ariel, “That’s a word that can be made from the letters of my name.”
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