By the Light of the Moon Page 10


More than once, Jilly tried to chat with Shepherd, but every effort at communication failed. He spoke only to the Lord of Teeth, dutifully making his report.


'He's capable of conversation,' Dylan told her. 'Although even at his best, what he lays on you isn't the kind of sparkling repartee that'll make him a hit at cocktail parties. It's his own brand of conversation, what I call Shepspeak, but it's not without interest.'


In the backseat, Shep tested a tooth and announced, 'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


'But you won't be able to get a dialogue going with him anytime soon,' Dylan continued, 'not when he's rattled like this. He doesn't handle commotion well, or deviation from routine. He's best when the day goes exactly as he expects it to, right on schedule, quiet and boring. If breakfast, lunch, and dinner are always exactly on time, if every dish at every meal is on the narrow menu of foods acceptable to him, if he doesn't encounter too many new people who try to talk to him... then you might make a connection with him and have yourself a real gabfest.'


'Quite as it should be, m'lord,' Shep declared, ostensibly not in confirmation of what his brother had said.


'What's wrong with him?' Jilly asked.


'He's been diagnosed autistic, also high-functioning autistic. He's never violent, and sometimes he's highly communicative, so he was once even diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.'


'Ass burger?'


'A-S-P-E-R-G-E-R, emphasis on per. Sometimes Shep seems totally high-functioning and sometimes not so high as you would hope. Mostly, I don't think easy labels apply. He's just Shep, unique.'


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


'He's said that fourteen times,' Dylan noted. 'How many teeth in the human mouth?'


'I think... thirty-two, counting four wisdom teeth.'


Dylan sighed. 'Thank God his wisdom teeth were pulled.'


'You said he needs stability. Is it good for him to be bouncing around the country like a Gypsy?'


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


'We don't bounce,' Dylan replied with an edge that suggested he had taken offense at her question, though she intended none. 'We have a schedule, a routine, goals to be attained. Focus. We have focus. We drive in style. This isn't a horse-drawn wagon with hex signs painted on the sides.'


'I just meant he might be better off in an institution.'


'That'll never happen.'


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


Jilly said, 'Not all those places are snake pits.'


'The only thing he's got is me. Drop him in an institution, and he won't have anything.'


'It might be good for him.'


'No. It would kill him.'


'For one thing, maybe they could keep him from hurting himself.'


'He won't hurt himself.'


'He just did,' she noted.


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


'That was a first and a fluke,' Dylan said with what sounded more like hope than like conviction. 'It won't happen again.'


'You never imagined it would happen the first time.'


Although they were already exceeding the legal limit and though traffic conditions were not conducive to even greater speed, Dylan accelerated steadily.


Jilly sensed that he was trying to outrun more than just the men in the black Suburbans. 'No matter how fast you drive, Shep's still in the backseat.'


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


Dylan said, 'The lunatic doctor gives you an injection, and an hour later, or whatever, you experience an altered state of—'


'I said I want a time-out from that.'


'And I don't want to talk about this,' he declared emphatically, 'about institutions, sanitariums, care homes, places where people might as well be canned meat, where they're put on a shelf and dusted from time to time.'


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


'All right,' Jilly relented. 'Sorry. I understand. It's really none of my business anyway.'


'That's right,' Dylan concurred. 'Shep isn't our business. He's my business.'


'All right.'


'Okay.'


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


'Twenty,' Jilly counted.


Dylan said, 'But your altered state of consciousness is our business, not just yours, but yours and mine, because it's related to the injection—'


'We don't know that for sure.'


Certain expressions took exaggerated form on his broad rubbery face, as if he were in fact a cartoon bear who had stepped out of an animated realm into the real world, had shaved his furry mug, and had set himself the tricky task of passing for human. In this instance, his disbelief pulled his features into a configuration worthy of Sylvester the cat on those occasions when the scheming feline had been tricked by Tweety bird into walking off the edge of a cliff. 'Oh, but we do know that for sure.'


'We do not,' she insisted.


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


Jilly continued: 'And I don't like the term altered state any more than I like hallucination. It makes me sound like a doper.'


'I can't believe we're arguing over vocabulary.'


'I'm not arguing. I'm just saying what I don't like.'


'If we're going to talk about it, we have to call it something.'


'Then let's not talk about it,' she suggested.


'We have to talk about it. What the hell are we supposed to do – drive at random the rest of our lives, here and there and everywhere, keeping on the move, and not talking about it?'


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


'Speaking of driving,' Jilly said, 'you're going way too fast.'


'I am not.'


'You're doing over ninety.'


'It only looks that way from your angle.'


'Oh, yeah? What's it look like from your angle?'


'Eighty-eight,' he admitted, and eased up on the accelerator. 'Let's call it a... mirage. That doesn't imply mental instability, drug use, or religious hysteria.'


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


'I was thinking maybe phantasm,' Jilly said.


'I can live with phantasm.'


'But I think I like mirage better.'


'Great! Fantastic! And we're in the desert, so it fits.'


'But it wasn't actually a mirage.'


'I know that,' he hastened to assure her. 'It was its own thing, special, unique, impossible to properly name. But if you were hit by this mirage because of the stuff in the damn needle—' He interrupted himself, sensing her rising objection: 'Oh, get real! Common sense tells us the two things must be related.'


'Common sense is overrated.'


'Not in the O'Conner family.'


'I'm not a member of the O'Conner family.'


'Which relieves us of the need to change our name.'


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


She didn't want to argue with him, for she knew that they were in this together, but she couldn't restrain herself: 'So there's not room in the O'Conner family for people like me, huh?'


'There's that "people like me" business again!'


'Well, it seems to be an issue with you.'


'It's not an issue with me. It's an issue with you. You're way too sensitive or something, like a boil just waiting to burst.'


'Lovely. Now I'm a bursting boil. You've sure got a talent for getting under people's skin.'


'Me? I'm the easiest guy in the world to get along with. I've never gotten under anyone's skin in my life – until you.'


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


'You're doing over ninety again,' she warned him.


'Eighty-nine,' he disagreed, and this time he didn't ease up on the accelerator. 'If you were hit by that mirage because of the stuff in the injection, then I'll probably be hit with one, too.'


'Which is another reason you shouldn't be doing over ninety.'


'Eighty-nine,' he corrected, and reluctantly allowed the speed of the SUV to fall.


'The crazy son-of-a-bitch salesman jacked the stuff into your arm first,' Jilly said. 'So if it always causes mirages, you should have had one before I did.'


'For maybe the hundredth time – he wasn't a salesman. He was some lunatic doctor, some psycho scientist or something. And come to think of it, he said the stuff in the needle does lots of different things to different people.'


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


'Different things? Like what?'


'He didn't say. Just different. He also said something like... the effect is always interesting, often astonishing, and sometimes positive.'


She shuddered with the memory of whirling birds and flickering votive candles. 'That mirage wasn't a positive effect. So what else did Dr. Frankenstein say?'


'Frankenstein?'


'We can't keep calling him a lunatic doctor, psycho scientist, crazy son-of-a-bitch salesman. We need a name for him until we can find out his real name.'


'But Frankenstein...'


'What about it?'


Dylan grimaced. He took one hand off the steering wheel to make a gesture of equivocation. 'It feels so...'


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


'Feels so what?'


'Melodramatic,' he decided.


'Everyone's a critic,' she said impatiently. 'And why's this word melodramatic being flung at me all the time?'


'I never flung it before,' he objected, 'and I wasn't referring to you personally.'


'Not you. I didn't say it was you. But it might as well have been you. You're a man.'


'I don't follow that at all.'


'Of course you don't. You're a man. With all your common sense, you can't follow anything that isn't as perfectly linear as a line of dominoes.'


'Do you have issues with men?' he asked, and the self-satisfied, back-at-you look on his face made her want to smack him.


'Quite as it should be, m'lord.'


Simultaneously and with equal relief, Jilly and Dylan said, 'Twenty-eight!'


In the backseat, all teeth tested and found secure, Shep put on his shoes, tied them, and then settled into silence.


The speedometer needle dropped, and gradually so did Jilly's tension, although she figured she wouldn't again achieve a state of serenity for another decade.


Cruising at seventy miles an hour, though he probably would have claimed that he was only doing sixty-eight, Dylan said, 'I'm sorry.'


The apology surprised Jilly. 'Sorry for what?'


'For my tone. My attitude. Things I said. I mean, normally you couldn't drag me into an argument.'


'I didn't drag you into anything.'


'No, no,' he quickly amended. 'That's not what I meant. You didn't drag. You didn't. I'm just saying normally I don't get angry. I hold it in. I manage it. I convert it into creative energy. That's part of my philosophy as an artist.'


She couldn't repress her cynicism as skillfully as he claimed to manage his anger; she heard it in her voice, felt it twist her features and harden them as effectively as if thick plaster had been applied to her face to cast a life mask titled Scorn. 'Artists don't get angry, huh?'


'We just don't have much negative energy left after all the raping and killing.'


She had to like him for that comeback. 'Sorry. My excrement detector always goes off when people start talking about their philosophy.'


'You're right, actually. It's nothing so grand as a philosophy. I should have said it's my modus operandi. I'm not one of those angry young artists who turns out paintings full of rage, angst, and bitter nihilism.'


'What do you paint?'


'The world as it is.'


'Yeah? And how's the world look to you these days?'


'Exquisite. Beautiful. Deeply, strangely layered. Mysterious.' Word by word, as though this were an oft-repeated prayer from which he drew the comfort that only profound faith can provide, his voice softened both in tone and volume, and into his face came a radiant quality, after which Jilly was no longer able to see the cartoon bear that heretofore he had resembled. 'Full of meaning that eludes complete understanding. Full of a truth that, if both felt and also logically deduced, calms the roughest sea with hope. More beauty than I have the talent or the time to capture on canvas.'


His simple eloquence stood so at odds with the man whom he had seemed to be that Jilly didn't know what to say, though she realized she must not give voice to any of the many acerbic put-downs, laced with venomous sarcasm, that made her tongue tremble as that of any serpent might flutter in anticipation of a bared-fang strike. Those were easy replies, facile humor, both inadequate and inappropriate in the face of what seemed to be his sincerity. In fact, her usual self-confidence and her wise-ass attitude drained from her, because the depth of thought and the modesty revealed by his answer unsettled her. To her surprise, a needle of inadequacy punctured her as she'd rarely been punctured before, leaving her feeling... empty. Her quick wit, always a juggernaut with sails full of wind, had morphed into a small skiff and had come aground in shallow water.


She didn't like this feeling. He hadn't meant to humble her, but here she was, reduced. Having been a choirgirl, having been churched more of her life than not, Jilly understood the theory that humility was a virtue and also a blessing that ensured a happier life than the lives of those who lived without it. On those occasions when the priest had raised this issue in his homily, however, she had tuned him out. To young Jilly, living with full humility, rather than with the absolute minimum of it that might win God's approval, had seemed to be giving up on life before you started. Grown-up Jilly felt pretty much the same way. The world was full of people who were eager to diminish you, to shame you, to put you in your place and to keep you down. If you embraced humility too fully, you were doing the bastards' work for them.


Gazing forward at the raveling or unraveling highway, whichever it might be, Dylan O'Conner appeared serene, as Jilly had not before seen him, as she had never expected to see him in these dire circumstances. Apparently the very thought of his art, contemplating the challenge of adequately celebrating the world's beauty on a two-dimensional canvas, had the power to keep his dread at bay, at least for a short time.

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