By the Light of the Moon / Page 18

Page 18



He glowered at her. 'What are you talking about turkeys?'


'You know exactly what I'm talking about.'


'And it's not raining.'


'Don't be obtuse.'


'You have no sense of responsibility,' he declared.


'I have a huge sense of responsibility.'


'You left Shep alone.'


'He won't go anywhere. I gave him a task to keep him busy. I said, "Shepherd, because of your rude and overbearing brother, I'm going to need at least one hundred polite synonyms for as**ole."'


'I don't have time for this bickering.'


'Who started it?' she accused, and turned away from him, and might have left the room if she'd not been halted by the sight of the doves.


The flock still streamed through the hallway, past the open bedroom door, toward the stairs. By this time, if these apparitions had been real, the house would have been so fully packed that extreme bird pressure would have blown out all the windows as surely as a gas leak and a spark.


She willed them to vanish, but they flew, they flew, and she turned her back on them, fearing for her sanity once more. 'We've got to get out of here. Marj will call the cops sooner or later.'


'Marj?'


'The woman who gave you the toad pin and somehow started all this. She's Kenny's grandma, Travis's. What do you want me to do?'


* * *


In the bathroom, on her knees at the toilet, Becky had begun to reconsider her dinner, if not the entire direction of her life.


Dylan pointed to a straight-backed chair. He saw that Jilly got the message.


The bathroom door opened outward. With the chair tipped back and wedged under the knob, Becky would be imprisoned until the police arrived to let her out.


Dylan didn't think that the girl would recover sufficiently to cut him to ribbons, but he didn't want to be vomited on, either.


On the floor, six-way-wired Kenny had come unstrung. He was all tears and snot and spit bubbles, but still dangerous, speaking more curses and obscenities than sense, demanding immediate medical attention, promising revenge, and given half a chance he might prove whether or not his teeth were snake-sharp.


A threat to cave in Kenny's skull sounded phony to Dylan when he made it, but the kid took it seriously, perhaps because he would not have hesitated to crush Dylan's skull if their roles had been reversed. On demand, he produced handcuff and padlock keys from one of his embroidered shirt pockets with mother-of-pearl button snaps.


Jilly seemed reluctant to follow Dylan out of the bedroom, as if she feared other miscreants against whom insecticide might prove to be an inadequate defense. He assured her that Becky and Kenny were the sum of all evil under this roof. Nevertheless, wincing, hesitant, she crossed the hallway to the shackled boy's room as though fear half blinded her, and repeatedly she glanced toward the window at the end of the hall, as if she saw a ghostly face pressed to the glass.


As he freed Travis, Dylan explained that Becky was not morally fit to compete in the Miss All-American Teen Pageant, and then they went downstairs to the kitchen.


When Marj rushed in from the back porch to embrace her grandson and to wail about his blackened eye, Travis all but disappeared in cuddling candy-stripe.


Dylan waited for the boy to half extract himself and then said, 'Both Becky and Kenny need medical attention—'


'And a prison cell until their social security kicks in,' Jilly added.


'—but give us two or three minutes before you call nine-one-one,' Dylan finished.


This instruction baffled Marj. 'But you are nine-one-one.'


Jilly fielded that peculiar question: 'We're one of the ones, Marj, but we're not the other one or the nine.'


Although this further baffled Marj, it amused Travis. The boy said, 'We'll give you time to split. But this is fully weird, it's practically mojo. Who the heck are you two?'


Dylan couldn't summon a reply, but Jilly said, 'Damned if we know. This afternoon we could have told you who we are, but right now we don't have a clue.'


In one sense her answer was true and grimly serious, but it only puckered Marj's face in deeper bafflement and widened the boy's grin.


Upstairs, Kenny pleaded loudly for help.


'Better get movin',' Travis advised.


'You don't know what we were driving, never saw our wheels.'


'That's true,' Travis agreed.


'And you'll do us the favor of not watching us leave.'


'As far as we know,' said Travis, 'you took a running leap and flew away.'


Dylan had asked for three minutes because Marj and Travis would have difficulty explaining a greater delay to the cops; but if Shep had wandered off, they were ruined. Three minutes wouldn't be long enough to find him.


Except for the breeze in the olive trees, the street was quiet. In the house, Kenny's muffled shouts wouldn't carry to a neighbor.


At the curb, driver's door open, the Expedition waited. Jilly had doused the headlights and switched off the engine.


Even as they crossed the front lawn, Dylan saw Shepherd in the backseat, face illuminated by the reflected glow of a battery-powered book light bouncing up at him from the page he was reading.


'Told you,' Jilly said.


Relieved, Dylan didn't snap at her.


Through the dusty window at Shepherd's side, the title of the book could be seen: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. Shep was a fiend for Dickens.


Dylan settled behind the wheel, slammed the door, figuring more than half a minute had passed since they'd left Travis to watch the wall clock in the kitchen.


Legs folded on the passenger's seat to spare her jade plant on the floor, Jilly held out the keys, then snatched them back. 'What if you go nuts again?'


'I didn't go nuts.'


'Whatever it was you did, what if you do it again?'


'I probably will,' he realized.


'I better drive.'


He shook his head. 'What did you see upstairs, on the way to Travis's room? What did you see when you looked toward the window at the end of the hall?'


She hesitated. Then she surrendered the keys. 'You drive.'


As Travis counted off the first minute in the kitchen, Dylan executed a U-turn. They followed the route they had taken earlier on Eucalyptus Avenue, with its dearth of eucalyptuses. By the time Travis would have called 911, they had traveled surface streets to the interstate.


Dylan took I-10 east, toward the end of town where by now the Cadillac might have stopped smoldering, but he said, 'I don't want to stay on this. I have a hunch it won't be safe a whole lot longer.'


'Tonight's not a night for ignoring hunches,' she noted.


Eventually he departed the interstate in favor of U.S. Highway 191, an undivided two-lane blacktop that struck north through dark desolation and carried little traffic at this hour. He didn't know where 191 led, and right now he didn't care. For a while, where they went didn't matter, as long as they kept moving, as long as they put some distance between themselves and the corpse in the Coupe DeVille, between themselves and the house on Eucalyptus Avenue.


For the first two miles on 191, neither he nor Jilly spoke, and as the third mile began to clock up on the odometer, Dylan started to shake. Now that his adrenaline levels were declining toward normal and now that the primitive survivalist within him had returned to his genetic subcellar, the enormity of what had happened belatedly hit him. Dylan strove to conceal the shaking from Jilly, knew that he was unsuccessful when he heard his teeth chatter, and then realized that she was trembling, too, and hugging herself, and rocking in her seat.


'D-d-d-damn,' she said.


'Yeah.'


'I'm not W-w-wonder Woman,' she said.


'No.'


'For one thing, I don't have big enough hooters for the job.'


He said, 'Me neither.'


'Oh, man, those knives.'


'They were honking big knives,' he agreed.


'You with your baseball bat. What – were you out of your mind, O'Conner?'


'Must've been out of my mind. You with your ant spray – that didn't strike me as the epitome of rationality, Jackson.'


'Worked, didn't it?'


'Nice shot.'


'Thanks. Where we lived when I was a kid, I got lots of practice with roaches. They move faster than Miss Becky. You must've been good at baseball.'


'Not bad for an effete artist. Listen, Jackson, it took guts to come upstairs after you knew about the knives.'


'It took stupidity, is what it took. We could've been killed.'


'We could've been,' he acknowledged, 'but we weren't.'


'But we could've been. No more of that run-jump-chase-fight crap. No more, O'Conner.'


'I hope not,' he said.


'I mean it. I'm serious. I'm tellin' you, no more.'


'I don't think that's our choice to make.'


'It's sure my choice.'


'I mean, I don't think we control the situation.'


'I always control my situation,' she insisted.


'Not this situation.'


'You're scaring me.'


'I'm scaring me, too,' he said.


These admissions led to a contemplative silence.


The high moon, lustrous silver at its pinnacle, grew tarnished as it became a low moon in the west, and the romantic desert table it once brightened became a somber setting suitable for a last supper.


Brown bristling balls of tumbleweed trembled at the verge of the road, dead yet eager to roam, but the night breeze didn't have enough power to send them traveling.


Moths traveled, however, small white ghost moths and larger gray specimens like scraps of soiled shroud cloth, eerily illumined by the headlights, swooping over and around the SUV but seldom striking the windshield.


In classic painting, butterflies were symbols of life, joy, and hope. Moths – of the same order as butterflies, Lepidoptera – were in all cases symbols of despair, deterioration, destruction, and death. Entomologists estimate the world is home to thirty thousand species of butterflies, and four times that many moths.


In part, a mothy mood gripped Dylan. He remained edgy, twitchy, as if the insulation on every nerve in his body were as eaten away as the fibers of a wool sweater infested with larvae. As he relived what had happened on Eucalyptus Avenue and as he wondered what might be coming next, spectral moths fluttered the length of his spine.


Yet anxiety didn't own him entirely. Contemplation of their uncertain future flooded Dylan with a choking disquiet, but each time the disquiet ebbed, exhilaration flowed in to take its place, and a wild joy that nearly made him laugh out loud. He was simultaneously sobered by anxiety that threatened to become apprehension – and also intoxicated with the possibilities of this glorious new power that he understood only imperfectly.


This singular state of mind was so fresh to his experience that he wasn't capable of crafting the words – or the images, for that matter – to explain it adequately to Jilly. Then he glanced away from the empty highway, from trembling tumbleweeds and kiting moths, and knew at once, by her expression, that her state of mind precisely matched his.


Not only weren't they in Kansas anymore, Toto, they weren't in predictable Oz, either, but adrift in a land where there were sure to be greater wonders than yellow-brick roads and emerald cities, more to fear than wicked witches and flying monkeys.


A moth snapped hard against the windshield, leaving a gray dusty substance on the glass, a little kiss of Death.


18


Earth's magnetic pole might shift in a twink, as some scientists theorized it had done in the past, resulting in an entirely new angle of rotation, causing catastrophic changes in the surface of the planet. Current tropical zones could in an instant be plunged into an arctic freeze, leaving startled soft-body Miami retirees clawing for survival in 100-degree-below-zero cold, in blizzards so bitter that the snow came not in the form of flakes, but as spicules, needlelike crystals as hard as glass. Colossal tectonic pressures would cause continents to buckle, fracture, fold. Rising up in massive tides, oceans would slop over coastlines, crash across the Rockies and the Andes and the Alps alike. New inland oceans would form, new mountain ranges. Volcanoes would vomit forth great burning seas of Earth's essence. With civilization gone and billions dead, small scattered bands of survivors would face the daunting task of forming tribes of hunters and gatherers.


In the final hour of his program, Parish Lantern and call-ins from his nationwide radio audience discussed the likelihood of a pole-shift striking within the next fifty years. Because Dylan and Jilly were for the moment still too busy digesting their recent experiences to talk anymore about them, they listened to Lantern as they drove north on this lonely desert highway, where it was possible to believe simultaneously that civilization had already vanished in a planetary cataclysm and that the earth was timeless, unchanging.


'You listen to this guy all the time?' he asked Jilly.


'Not every night, but a lot.'


'It's a miracle you're not suicidal.'


'His show isn't usually about doom. Mostly it's time travel, alternate realities, whether we have souls, life after death....'


In the backseat, Shep continued reading Dickens, granting the novelist a form of life after death. On the radio, the planet crushed and burned and drowned and blew away human civilization and most of the animal kingdom, as though all life were pestilence.


When they reached the town of Safford, about forty minutes after they exited the interstate, Shepherd said, 'Fries not flies, fries not flies, fries not flies....'


Maybe it was time to stop and devise a plan of action, or maybe they had not yet analyzed their situation to a degree that allowed for planning, but in either case, Dylan and Shep were in want of the dinner they had missed. And Jilly expressed the need for a drink.


'First we need new license plates,' Dylan said. 'When they trace that Cadillac to you, they'll go unit to unit in the motel, looking for you. When they find you've lit out and that Shep and I didn't stay the night we'd paid for, they might link us.'


'No might about it. They will,' she said.


'The motel records have the make, model, license-plate number. At least we can change the plate number and not be so easily made.'


On a quiet residential street, Dylan parked, took screwdrivers and pliers from the Expedition tool kit, and went looking for Arizona plates. He found an easily detached pair on a pickup in the driveway of a weather-silvered cedar ranch house with a dead front lawn.


Throughout the theft, his heart pounded. The guilt he felt was out of proportion to such a minor crime, but his face burned with shame at the prospect of being caught in the act.


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