At sixty miles an hour, as the Nevada sky boiled to a pale blue and as the white-hot sun slowly described a glowing forge-hammer arc toward the anvil mountains in the west, with hula-hula girls swiveling their h*ps to the rhythm of tire rotation, Leilani and her mother huddled at the table, like pajama-party teenagers gossiping about boys or swapping makeup and fashion tips, but in fact circling around various schemes for engraving one already odd hand.
Her mother favored a multiyear project: obscenities carved in intricate and clever juxtapositions, descending every finger, curling in lettered whorls across the palm, fanning in offensive rays across the opisthenar, which is the name for the back of the hand, a word that Leilani knew because she had studied the structure of the human hand in detail, the better to understand her difference.
While pretending to entertain the concept of transforming her hand into a living billboard for depraved and demonic ravings, Leilani suggested alternatives: floral designs, leaf patterns, Egyptian hieroglyphics, a series of numbers with magical properties culled from Sinsemilla’s books on numerology. . . .
After nearly forty minutes, they agreed that the unique canvas represented by Leilani’s “freak-show hand” tas dear Mater put it must not be misused. As much fun as it would have been to drench a finger in topical anesthetic and slash at it vigorously with scalpels and razor blades right now, without delay, they both acknowledged that great art required not only a price of pain but also contemplation. If Richard Brautigan had conceived and written In Watermelon
Sugar on one summer afternoon, it would have been SO simple that Sinsemilla would have understood its message in a single reading and would not have been wonderfully involved in its mysteries through so many rewarding perusals. For a few days, they would mull over approaches to the project and meet again to consult further on design.
Leilani gave the art form a name, bio-etching, which rang more pleasantly on the ear than did self-mutilation. The artist in old Sinsemilla thrilled to the avant-garde quality of the term.
So successfully had the danger of a major Sinsemilla storm been averted that dear Mater repacked her mutilation kit without either taking a scalpel to Leilani’s hand or elaborating upon the snowflake frieze on her arm. For the time being, her need to cut had passed.
Her need to fly, however, drove her to the produce drawer of the refrigerator, from which she withdrew a Ziploc bag packed with exotic dried mushrooms of a potency not recommended for salads.
By the time that they were hooked up to utilities at a campsite associated with a motel-casino in Hawthorne, Nevada, the hive queen had worked up a hallucinogenic buzz. This buzz was of such intensity that if focused as tightly as the laser weapon of Darth Vader’s Death Star, it would vaporize the moon.
She lay on the floor of the lounge, gazing at the smiling sun god on the ceiling, communing with that provider of island heat and surf-gilding rays, speaking to him sometimes in English, sometimes in Hawaiian. In addition to mystical and spiritual matters, the subjects that she chose to discuss with this plump deity included her opinions of the newest boy bands, whether her daily intake of selenium was sufficient, recipes for tofu, what hair styles were likely to be the most flattering to the shape of her face, and whether Pooh of Pooh Corners was a secret opium smoker with a secondary Prozac habit.
With sundown coming, Dr. Doom stepped over his wife, who might not have been aware of him if he had tramped on her, and he went out to get dinner for the three of them, leaving Leilani in the company of her murmuring, muttering, giggling mother and of those battery-powered hula girls who remained in perpetual sway.
FRIDAY EVENING in Twin Falls, Idaho, is not likely to be much different from Saturday or Monday or Wednesday in Twin Falls, Idaho. Idahoans call their territory the Gem State, possibly because it is a major source of star garnets; the primary product, by tonnage, is potatoes, but no one with a sense of civic pride and PR savvy wants to call his home the Potato State, if only because Idahoans would risk being referred to as Potatoheads. Perhaps the most breathtaking mountain scenery in the United States is located in Idaho, though not around Twin Falls, but even the prospect of gorgeous alpine vistas could not induce Curtis Hammond to play tourist this evening, for he prefers the comforts of hearth and home as manufactured by Fleetwood.
Besides, no show produced by humankind or nature could equal the beauty and the wonder of Castoria and Polluxia preparing dinner.
In matching Chinese-red silk pajamas with billowy bell-bottom sleeves and pants, standing tall on platform sandals that glitter with midnight-blue rhinestones, their fingernails and toenails no longer azure-blue but crimson, their glossy golden hair swept up in chignons with long spiral curls framing their faces, they glide and turn and twist around the cramped galley with an uncanny awareness of each other’s position at all times, exhibiting choreography that might please Busby Berkeley as they whip up a feast of Mandarin and Szechwan specialties.
A mutual interest in the culinary arts and in the flamboyant use of knives in the manner of certain Japanese chefs, a mutual interest in novelty acts involving tomahawks and cleavers thrown at brightly costumed assistants strapped to spinning target wheels, and a mutual interest in personal defense employing a variety of sharp-edged and pointed weapons have enabled the twins to prepare dinner with enough entertainment value to ensure that, given their own program, they would be a huge hit on the Food Network. Blades flash, steel points wink, serrated edges shimmer with serpentine light as they slice celery, chop onions, dice chicken, shave beef, shred lettuce. . . .
Curtis and Old Yeller sit side by side at the back of the U-shaped dining nook, enchanted by the sisters’ style of full-tilt cooking, eyes wide as they track the scintillant blades, which are handled with flourishes that invite the expectation of mortal injury. The finest scimitar dancers, whirling and leaping among flashing swords, would be humbled by the twins’ performance. Soon it’s clear that a delicious dinner will be served, and that no fingers will be severed and no one decapitated in its preparation.
Sister-become merits a place at the table for many reasons, including that she helped to save their lives, but also because she has been bathed. Earlier, rising from seven hours of sleep, before taking their own showers, Polly and Cass scrubbed the dog in the bathtub, styled her with a pair of sixteen-hundred-watt blow-dryers, brushed and combed her with an imposing collection of hair-grooming instruments, and atomized two light puffs of Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds perfume on her coat. Old Yeller sits proudly at Curtis’s side: fluffy and grinning, smelling just as the glamorous movie star must smell.
Like crimson butterflies, like fire billowing, but really like nothing so much as themselves, the twins bring forth so many fragrant and delicious dishes that the table won’t entirely hold them; some remain on the kitchen counter to be fetched as appetites demand. They also bring to the dining nook one 12-gauge, pistol-grip, pump-action shotgun and a 9-mm pistol, because since the crossroads in Nevada, they have gone nowhere, not even to the bathroom, without weapons.
The sisters pop open bottles of Tsing tao beer for themselves and a bottle of nonalcoholic beer for Curtis, so that he might have some appreciation for the exquisite combination of good Chinese food and cold beer. Plates are piled high, and the sisters prove to have appetites more prodigious than Curtis’s, even though the boy must eat not only to sustain himself but also to produce the additional energy that is necessary to control his biological structure and continue being Curtis Hammond, an identity that isn’t yet natural to him.
Old Yeller is served strips of beef and chicken on a plate, as though she is like any other guest. Curtis is able to use the boy-dog bond to ensure she refrains from wolfing down the food, as programmed in her canine nature, and to ensure she eats the meat one piece at a time, savoring each morsel. She finds this dining pace to be odd at first, but soon she recognizes the greater pleasure to be had from a meal when it isn’t consumed in forty-six seconds flat. Even if she had been able to use silverware, hold a porcelain teacup in one paw with her dew claw raised like a pinkie, and converse in the flawless English of an heiress who had attended a first-rate finishing school, Old Yeller could not have conducted herself more like a lady than she did at this Chinese feast.
Throughout dinner, the sisters prove to be vastly entertaining, recounting adventures they have had while skydiving, bronco-busting, hunting sharks with spear guns, skiing down the faces of seventy-degree cliffs, parachuting off high-rise buildings in several major cities, and defending their honor at chichi Hollywood parties attended by, in Polly’s words, “rodent hordes of grasping, horny, drug-crazed, dimwitted, sleazebag movie stars and famous directors.”
“Some of them were nice,” Cass says.
Polly demurs: “With all respect and affection, Cassie, you would find someone to like even at a convention of cannibal Nazi kitten killers.”
To Curtis, Cass says, “After we left Hollywood, I performed an exhaustive analysis of our experiences and determined that six and one-half percent of people in the film business are both sane and good. I will admit that the rest of them are evil, even if another four and one half percent are sane. But it’s not fair to condemn the entire community, even if the vast majority of them are mad swine.”
When they have all eaten to excess and then have eaten just a little more, the table is cleared, two fresh bottles of Tsingtao and one of nonalcoholic beer are opened, a dish of water is provided for Old Yeller, candles are lit, the electric lights are turned off, and after Cass has determined that the ambience is “deliciously spooky,” the twins return to the dining nook, clasp their hands around their bottles of Tsingtao, lean over the table, and focus intently on their guests, both boy and dog. Cass says, “You’re an alien, aren’t you, Curtis?” Polly says, “You’re an alien, too, aren’t you, Old Yeller?” And they both say, “Dish us the dirt, ET.”
WAITING FOR DR. DOOM to return with dinner, trying not to listen to her mother’s headcase monologue in the lounge, Leilani sat in the co-pilot’s seat, at the panoramic windshield, watching the sunset. Hawthorne was a true desert town established on a broad plain, rimmed by rugged mountains. The sun, as orange as a dragon’s egg, cracked on the western peaks and spilled a crimson yolk. Against this fiery backlight, the mountains wore king’s gold for a while, then gradually took off their shining crowns and drew royal-blue nightclothes up their slopes.
Preston now knew that Leilani believed he’d murdered Lukipela. If he hadn’t previously been planning to rid himself of her in Idaho or during a subsequent side trip to Montana, he had begun making such plans since lunch.
The scarlet twilight drained into the west, washed away by the incoming tides of east-born darkness. Curtains of stored heat rose from the desert plain, causing the purple mountains to shimmer as might a landscape in one of dear Mater’s hallucinatory fantasies.
As dusk faded at the windows and the motor home fell into gloom relieved only by the glow of one lamp in the lounge, old Sinsemilla ceased muttering, stopped giggling, and began to whisper to the sun god or to other spirits not represented on the ceiling.
The idea of bio-etching her daughter’s hand had been planted in the fertile swamp of her mind. That seed would sprout, and the sprout would grow.
Leilani worried that her mother, in possession of an extensive pharmacopoeia, would drug her milk or orange juice, slip her a Mickey Finn, a blackjack in a glass. She could imagine waking, groggy and disoriented, to discover that Sinsemilla had been busily carving.
She shuddered as the last light died in the west. Although the desert night was warm, chill chased chill up and down the ladder of her spine.
If the motherthing was in a sour mood, perhaps inspired by a bad mushroom or by an ill-conceived mix of chemicals, she might decide that prettifying Leilani’s hand would fail to bring balance to her appearance, that it would be easier and more interesting and more creative to carve the normal parts of her to match the deformed hand, the twisted leg. Then Leilani might awake in agony, with obscenities cut into her face.
This was why she made a joke of everything, why wisecracks and prayers were equally important to her. If she couldn’t find a silver laugh, bright and sparkling, then she would find a dark one, cold but comforting, because if ever she failed to find a laugh of any kind, then she would be crushed by dread, by hopelessness, and it wouldn’t matter if she was technically still alive, for she’d be dead in her heart.
Laughs of any variety were getting harder to find.
As the dream-racked hive queen whispered, whispered, no longer lying on her back, no longer face-to-face with the smiling sun god, but curled in the fetal position on the lounge floor, she seemed to be speaking in two distinct voices, though both were as hushed as lovers sharing intimacies. One whisper remained recognizably her own, but the other sounded deeper, rougher, strange, as though she were conversing with a demon that possessed her and spoke through her.
Sitting in the co-pilot’s chair with her back to the lounge, Leilani couldn’t quite hear what old Sinsemilla said either in her whisper or in that of her alter ego. Only two words, repeated from time to time, rose out of the susurrant flow of dialogue and became distinguishable, although in truth Leilani was probably imagining them, translating meaningless babble to feed her growing paranoia. The girl, Sinsemilla seemed to whisper, and later the demon said it, too, with a hungry guttural longing, the girl.
These words were surely just fumes of fantasy, for when Leilani listened, head cocked either left or right, or when she turned in the swiveling chair to face her mother’s jackknifed form, she heard only meaningless murmurs, as though the hive queen had reverted to insect speech or, under the influence of the mushroom god, talked only in tongues impossible to interpret. Yet when she faced front again, when her thoughts sped forward to Idaho and to means of self-defense, when she didn’t actively listen to old Sinsemilla, she either imagined or heard again what she dreaded hearing: the girl. . . the girl. . . .
She needed her knife.
Lukipela had gone with Preston Maddoc into a Montana twilight, never to return, and in the first night that followed her brother’s disappearance, Leilani had crept into the kitchen of the motor home to steal a paring knife from the cutlery drawer. Sharp and pointed, the blade measured three and a half inches from the haft to the tip. As a weapon, it rated less desirable than either a .38 revolver or a flamethrower, but unlike those more formidable armaments, it was available and easy to conceal.
A few nights later, she had realized that Preston wouldn’t send her to the stars anytime soon, perhaps not until the eve of her tenth birthday in February. If she tried to keep the knife hidden on her person for fifteen months, she would inadvertently drop it or be caught with it in one way or another, revealing that she expected eventually to have to fight for her life.
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