By the Light of the Moon Page 25


Besides, Shep wore pretty much the same thing in bed and out of it. His daytime wardrobe consisted of a collection of identical white T-shirts featuring Wile E. Coyote, and a collection of identical blue jeans. At night he put on a fresh Wile E. Coyote T-shirt and a pair of black pajama pants.


Seven years ago, in a state of hysterical despair over the decisions required to dress each morning, Shep had rebelled against a varied wardrobe. Thereafter, he would wear only jeans and Wile E.


The nature of his fascination with the infamous coyote was not clear. When in the mood for cartoon mayhem, he watched Road Runner videos for hours. Sometimes he laughed with delight; at other times, he followed the action as solemnly as though it were the moodiest of Swedish cinema; and on still other occasions, he watched quietly, with bottomless sorrow, tears sliding ceaselessly down his cheeks.


Shepherd O'Conner was an enigma wrapped in a mystery, but Dylan wasn't always sure that the mystery had a solution or that the enigma possessed any meaning. The great stone heads of Easter Island, as enigmatic as anything on earth, stared with mysterious purpose toward the sea, but they were stone inside as well as out.


After brushing his teeth twice and flossing twice, after washing his hands twice before toilet and twice after, Shep returned to the bedroom. He sat on the edge of the bed and took off his slippers.


'You're still wearing socks,' Dylan noted.


Shepherd always slept barefoot. But when Dylan knelt to remove the socks, the kid swung his legs into bed and pulled the covers up to his chin.


Deviations from routine were forced on Shep, always to his deep dismay; he never chose to make them.


Dylan worried, 'Are you all right, kiddo?'


Shepherd closed his eyes. There would be no communication on the issue of socks.


Maybe his feet were cold. The in-window air conditioner didn't cool the room evenly, but sent icy drafts chasing along the floor.


Maybe he was worried about germs. Germs on the carpet, germs on the bedclothes, but only germs that infected feet.


Maybe if you excavated around one of those Easter Island stone heads, you'd find the rest of a giant statue buried in the earth, and maybe when you revealed its feet, the statue would be wearing stone socks, for which an explanation would be as hard to come by as an explanation for Shep's new preference for bedtime footwear.


Dylan was too headachy and too wrung-out weary to care about what the psychotropic stuff might be doing in his brain, let alone to worry about Shepherd's socks. He took his turn in the bathroom, wincing at the haggard face that confronted him in the mirror.


* * *


Jilly lay in her bed, staring at the ceiling.


Shep lay in his bed, staring at the backside of his eyelids.


The hum and rumble of the air conditioner, at first annoying, settled into a lulling white noise that would mask the bang of car doors and the voices of other guests who might rise with the dawn.


The air conditioner would also ensure that they could not hear the specific engine-noise pattern of a souped-up Suburban or the stealthy sounds of assassins preparing to storm their room.


For a while, Jilly tried to work up a little fear about their vulnerability, but in fact she felt safe in this place, for a while. Physically safe, anyway.


Without an urgent concern for her immediate safety, without active fear to distract her, she couldn't stave off a discouragement that came close to despair. Dylan believed they had a chance to track down Frankenstein's identity and learn the nature of the injections, but she didn't share his confidence.


For the first time in years, she wasn't in control of her life. She needed control. Otherwise, she felt as she had felt for too much of her childhood: weak, helpless, at the mercy of pitiless forces. She loathed being vulnerable. Accepting victimhood, taking refuge in it, was to her a mortal sin, yet it seemed now that she had no choice but acceptance.


Some psychotropic hoodoo elixir was at work in her brain, at work on her brain, which filled her with horror when she dared to think about it. She'd never done drugs, had never been drunk, because she valued her mind and didn't want to lose any significant number of brain cells. During all the years when she'd had nothing else, she'd had her intelligence, her wit, her rich imagination. Jilly's mind had been a formidable weapon against the world and a refuge from cruelty, from adversity. If eventually she developed the gluteus muchomega that plagued the women in her family, if her ass grew so fat that she had to be driven everywhere on a flatbed truck, she had always figured that she'd still have her mind and all the satisfactions of that inner life. But now a worm crawled through her brain, not a worm in the literal sense, perhaps, but a worm of change, and she could not know what would be left of her or even who she might be when the worm of change had finished remaking her.


Although earlier she had been exhilarated when she and Dylan had dealt with the murderous Kenny and Becky, she could not get in touch again with the fine sense of empowerment that for a while had lifted her. Concerned about the oncoming violence foreseen in visions, she could not convince herself that the gift of clairvoyance might again help her to save others – or that it might, in time, leave her more in control of her destiny than she had ever been before.


Negative Jackson. She'd never had much faith in other people, but she'd long had an abiding faith in herself. Dylan had been right about that. But her faith in herself began to desert her.


From his bed, Shepherd whispered, 'Here, there.'


'What is it, sweetie?'


'Here, there.'


Jilly raised herself on one elbow.


Shep lay on his back, eyes closed. Anxiety pleated his forehead.


'Are you okay, Shepherd?'


'Shep is scared,' he whispered.


'Don't be scared.'


'Shep is scared.'


'We're safe here, now, for a while,' she assured him. 'Nobody can hurt you.'


His lips moved, as though he were speaking, but no sound issued from him.


Shepherd was not as big as his brother, but he was bigger than Jilly, a full-grown man, yet he seemed small beneath the sheets. Hair tousled, mouth pinched in a grimace of fear, he looked childlike.


A pang of sympathy pierced her when she realized that Shepherd had lived twenty years without any meaningful control over his life. Worse, his need for routine, the limits he put on what he would wear, his elaborate rules about food: All these things and more revealed a desperate need to establish a sense of dominion wherever possible.


His silence held. His lips stopped moving. The fear did not fade from his face, but it settled into softer lines, as if mellowing from acute fright to chronic dismay.


Jilly settled back upon her pillow, grateful that she had not been born in a trap as inescapable as Shep's, but she also worried that by the time the worm of change finished with her, she might be more like Shep than not.


A moment later, Dylan came out of the bathroom. He'd taken off his shoes, which he put beside the bed that he would share with his brother.


'You okay?' he asked Jilly.


'Yeah. Just... burnt out.'


'God, I'm sludge.'


Fully clothed, ready for an emergency, he got into bed, lay staring at the ceiling, but did not turn out the nightstand lamp.


After a silence, he said, 'I'm sorry.'


Jilly turned her head to look at him. 'Sorry about what?'


'Maybe from the motel on, I've done all the wrong things.'


'Such as?'


'Maybe we should've gone to the police, taken a chance. You were right when you said we can't run forever. I've got an obligation to think for Shep, but I've no right to drag you down with us.'


'Accountable O'Conner,' she said, 'vortex of responsibility. As broody as Batman. Call DC Comics, quick.'


'I'm serious.'


'I know. It's endearing.'


Still staring at the ceiling, he smiled. 'I said a lot of things to you tonight that I wish I hadn't said.'


'You had provocation. I made you nuts. And I said worse things. Listen... it just makes me crazy to have to depend on anyone. And... especially on men. So this situation, it pushes all my buttons.'


'Why especially men?'


She turned away from him to gaze at the ceiling. 'Let's say your dad walks out on you when you're three years old.'


After a silence, he encouraged her: 'Let's say.'


'Yeah. Let's say your mother, she's this beauty, this angel, this hero who's always there for you, and nothing bad should ever happen to her. But he beats her up so bad before he goes that she loses one eye and walks with two canes the rest of her life.'


Though weary and in need of sleep, he had the grace to wait for her to tell it at her own pace.


Eventually, she said, 'He leaves you to the miseries of welfare and the contempt of government social workers. Bad enough. But then a couple times each year, he'd visit for a day, two days.'


'Police?'


'Mom was afraid to call them when he showed up. The bastard said if she turned him in, when he got bail, then he'd come back and take her other eye. And one of mine. He would have done it, too.'


'Once he'd walked out, why come back at all?'


'To keep us scared. Keep us down. And he expected a share of her welfare money. And we always had it for him because we ate a lot of dinners free at the church kitchen. Most of our clothes came without charge from the church thrift shop. So Daddy always got his share.'


Her father rose in her memory, standing at the apartment door, smiling that dangerous smile. And his voice: Come to collect the eye insurance, baby girl. You got the eye-insurance premium?


'Enough about that,' she told Dylan. 'This isn't meant to be a pity party. I just wanted you to understand it isn't you I've got a problem with. It's just... being dependent on anyone.'


'You didn't owe me an explanation.'


'But there it is.' Her father's face persisted in memory, and she knew that even as tired as she was, she wouldn't sleep until she had exorcised it. 'Your dad must have been great.'


He sounded surprised. 'Why do you say that?'


'The way you are with Shep.'


'My dad raised venture capital to help high-tech entrepreneurs start up new companies. He worked eighty-hour weeks. He might've been a great guy, but I never spent enough time with him to know. He got in some deep financial problems. So two days before Christmas, near sunset, he drove to this beach parking lot with a great view of the Pacific. Cold day. No swimmers, no surfers. He connected a hose to the tailpipe, put the other end into the car through a window. Then he got in behind the wheel and also took an overdose of Nembutal. He was thorough, my dad. Always a backup plan. He went out with one of the most spectacular sunsets of the year. Shep and I watched it from the hill behind our house, miles away from that beach, and of course we didn't know he was watching it, too, and dying.'


'When was this?'


'I was fifteen. Shep was five. Almost fifteen years ago.'


'That's hard,' she said.


'Yeah. But I wouldn't trade you situations.'


'So where did you learn?'


'Learn what?'


'To take such good care of Shep.'


He switched off the lamp. In the darkness, he said, 'From my mom. She died young, too. She was great, so tender with Shep. But sometimes you can learn the right lesson from a bad example, too.'


'I guess so.'


'No need to guess. Look at yourself.'


'Me? I'm all screwed up,' she said.


'Name me someone who isn't.'


Trying to think of a name to give him, she eventually drifted into sleep.


The first time that she woke, rising out of a dreamless bliss, she heard Dylan snoring softly.


The room was cold. The air conditioner had shut off.


She had not been awakened by Dylan's snoring, but perhaps by Shepherd's voice. Three whispered words: 'Shep is scared.'


Judging by the direction from which his voice arose, she thought he was still in bed.


'Shep is scared.'


'Shep is brave,' she whispered in reply.


'Shep is scared.'


'Shep is brave.'


Shepherd fell silent, and when the silence held, Jilly found sleep again.


When next she woke, she heard Dylan still snoring softly, but fingers of sunshine pried at every edge of the blackout drapes, not the thinner light of dawn, but the harsher glare of midmorning sun.


She became aware of another light, arising from beyond the half-open bathroom door. A bloody radiance.


Her first thought was fire, but even as she bolted out of bed, with that word stuck in her throat, she realized that this was not the flickering light of flames, but something quite different.


23


Shaken out of dreams, Dylan sat up, stood up, into his shoes, before he was fully conscious, like a firefighter so trained in the routine of an alarm response that he could answer the firehouse bell and shrug into his turnout coat while still asleep, and then wake up sliding down the pole.


According to the travel clock on the nightstand, the morning had crept around to 9:12, and according to Jilly, they had trouble, a message she conveyed to him not in words but in a look, her eyes wide and shining with worry.


Dylan saw first that Shep wasn't in bed, wasn't anywhere in the motel room.


Then he noticed the fiery glow beyond the half-closed bathroom door. Fiery but not fire. The hellfire-red of a nightmare, scarlet ocher overlaid on aniline black. An orange-red, muddy-red radiance with the bristle-at-your-eyes texture of the light in a nocturnal scene shot with infrared film. The dire-red, hungry-red glow in the eyes of a night-hunting snake. This had all of those qualities, but none of them adequately described it, because it defied description and would defy his talent if ever he tried to render it on canvas.


The bathroom had no windows. This couldn't simply be morning sun filtered through a colorful curtain. The standard fluorescent fixture above the sink couldn't produce such an eerie shine.


How odd that mere light could instantly make his gut clench, his chest tighten, and his heart gallop. Here was a peculiar luminosity that appeared nowhere in nature, that was not quite like anything he had seen before in the works of man, either, and therefore it snagged at every fiber of superstition in the fabric of his soul.


As he drew near the bathroom, he discovered that when this glow touched him, he was able to feel it, and not merely as he would have felt the heat of the summer sun when stepping out of the shade of a tree. This light seemed to crawl on his skin, to bustle like hundreds of ants, initially on his face as he first stepped into the wedge of out-falling brightness, but then more busily on his right hand as he put it against the door.

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