Regarding him with what he chose to read as sympathy rather than pity, she said, 'You don't date much, do you?'
He answered with a shrug.
'I need another beer,' Jilly said as the waitress arrived with Dylan's dinner.
'I'm driving,' he said, declining a second round.
'Yeah, but the way you've been driving tonight, another beer could only help.'
Maybe she had a point, maybe she didn't, but he decided to live with uncharacteristic abandon. 'Two,' he told the waitress.
As Dylan began to eat chicken and waffles in anarchic disregard for the shape and size of each bite, Jilly said, 'So let's say we go north a couple hundred miles, find a place to hole up and think. What exactly do we think about – other than how totally screwed we are?'
'Don't be so negative all the time.'
She bristled better than a wire brush. 'I'm not negative.'
'You aren't exactly as cheerful as the Dalai Lama.'
'For your information, I was a nothing once, a wadded-up-thrown-away-Kleenex of a kid. Shy, shaky shy, rubbed so thin by life I half believed sunlight passed through me. Could've given timid lessons to a mouse.'
'Must've been a long time ago.'
'You wouldn't have bet a dollar against a million bucks I'd ever get up on a stage, or join a choir before that. But I had hope, great hope, had this dream of me as a something, a somebody, this positive dream of me as a performer, for God's sake, and I dragged myself up out of shaky-shy nothing until I started to live that dream.'
As she drained the last of the beer, she glared at Dylan over the upturned bottle.
He said, 'No argument – you've got good self-esteem. I never said different. It's not you that you're negative about. It's the rest of the world.'
She looked as if she might hit him with the empty bottle, but then she put it down, slid it aside, and surprised him: 'That's fair enough. It's a hard world. And most people are hard, too. If you call that negative thinking, I call it realism.'
'Lots of people are hard, but not most. Most are just scared or lonely, or lost. They don't know why they're here or what's the purpose, the reason, so they wind up half dead inside.'
'I suppose you know the purpose, the reason,' she said.
'You make me sound smug.'
'Don't mean to. Just curious what you think it is.'
'Everyone has to figure it out for himself,' he said, which was in truth how he felt. 'And you're one who will because you want to.'
'Now you sound smug.' She looked as if she might whack him with the bottle, after all.
Shepherd picked up one of the three pats of unwrapped butter and popped it in his mouth.
When Jilly grimaced, Dylan said, 'Shep likes bread and butter, but not in the same bite. You don't want to see him eat a mayonnaise-and-bologna sandwich.'
'We're doomed,' she said.
Dylan sighed, shook his head, said nothing.
'Get real, okay? They start shooting at us, what rules will Shep have about how we're allowed to dodge the bullets? Always dodge left, never right. You can weave but you can't duck – unless it's a day of the week that has the letter u in it, in which case you can duck, but you can't weave. How fast can he run while reading, and what happens when you try to take the book away from him?'
'It won't be that way,' Dylan said, but he knew she was right.
Jilly leaned toward him, her voice lowering, but gaining in intensity what it lost in volume: 'Why won't it? Listen, you've got to admit, even if it were just you and me in this mess together, we'd be on a greased slope in glass shoes. So then hang a hundred-sixty-pound, butter-munching millstone around our necks, and what chance do we have?'
'He's not a millstone,' Dylan said stubbornly.
To Shep, she said, 'Sweetie, no offense, but if we have any hope of getting through this, the three of us, we've got to face facts, speak the truth. We lie to ourselves, we're dead. Maybe you can't help being a millstone, but maybe you can, and if you can, then you've got to work with us.'
Dylan said, 'We've always been a great team, me and Shep.'
'Team? Some team. You two couldn't run a three-legged sack race without the sack ending up on somebody's head.'
'He ain't heavy—'
'Oh, don't say it,' she interrupted. 'Don't you dare say it, O'Conner. don't you dare, you hope-drunk lunatic, you power-of-positive-thinking nutball.'
'He ain't heavy, he's my—'
'—idiot-savant brother,' she finished for him.
Patiently, quietly, Dylan explained: 'No. An idiot savant is mentally defective with a low IQ, but with an exceptional talent in one special field, such as the ability to solve complex mathematical problems at lightning speed or to play any musical instrument upon first picking it up. Shep's got a high IQ, and he's exceptional in more ways than one. He's just... some kind of autistic.'
'We're doomed,' she repeated.
Shepherd chewed another pat of butter with enthusiasm, all the while staring at his plate from a distance of just ten inches, as though he, like Dylan, had discovered the purpose of life, and as though that purpose were meat loaf.
Each time the door opened and a customer entered, Dylan tensed. The SUV crowd couldn't have tracked them this fast. And yet...
The waitress brought the second round of beers, and after Jilly drew cold comfort from a swallow of Sierra Nevada, she said, 'So we hole up somewhere around the Petrified Forest and... You said what? You said think?'
'Think,' Dylan confirmed.
'Think about what, besides how to stay alive?'
'Maybe we can figure out how to track down Frankenstein.'
'You forget he's dead?' she asked.
'I mean, track down who he was before they killed him.'
'We don't even have a name, except the one we made up.'
'But he was evidently a scientist. Medical research. Developing psychotropic drugs, psychotropic stuff, psychotropic something, which gives us a key word. Scientists write papers, produce articles for journals, give lectures. They leave a trail.'
'Yeah. And if I think about it, I might remember more of what the bastard said back there in my motel room, other key words. With enough key words, we can go on the Internet and winnow through the researchers working to enhance brain function, related areas.'
'I'm no tech whiz,' she said. 'Are you?'
'No. But this search doesn't take technical expertise, just patience. Even some of those stuffy science journals run photos of their contributors, and if he was near the top of his field, which it seems he must've been, then he'll have gotten newspaper coverage. As soon as we find a photo, we have a name. Then we can read about him and find out what he's been working on.'
'Unless his research was all top secret, like the Manhattan Project, like the formula for fudge-covered Oreos.'
'There you go again.'
'Even if we get the full skinny on him,' she said, 'how does that help us?'
'Maybe there's a way to undo what he did to us. An antidote or something.'
'Antidote. What – we toss frog tongues, bat wings, and lizard eyes in a big cauldron, stew them up with some broccoli?'
'Here comes Negative Jackson, vortex of pessimism. The folks at DC Comics ought to develop a new superhero around you. They go in for brooding, depressive superheroes these days.'
'And you're a Disney book. All sugar and talking chipmunks.'
In a Wile E. Coyote T-shirt, hunched over his dinner plate, Shep snickered, either because the Disney crack rang his bell or because he found the remaining meat loaf amusing.
Shepherd wasn't always as disconnected as he appeared to be.
'What I'm saying,' Dylan continued, 'is that maybe his work was controversial. And if so, then it's possible some of his colleagues opposed his research. One of them will understand what was done to us – and might be willing to help.'
'Yeah,' she said, 'and if a lot of money is needed to finance the research to find this antidote, we can always get a few billion from your uncle Scrooge McDuck.'
'You have a better idea?'
She stared at him as she drank her beer. One swallow. Two.
'I didn't think so,' he said.
Later, when the waitress brought the check, Jilly insisted on paying for the two beers that she'd ordered.
From her attitude, Dylan deduced that paying her own way was an issue of honor with her. Further, he suspected that she would no more graciously accept a nickel for a parking meter than she would take ten bucks for two beers and a tip.
After putting the tenner on the table, she counted the contents of her wallet. The calculation didn't require much time or higher mathematics. 'I'll need to find an ATM, make a withdrawal.'
'No can do,' he said. 'Those guys who blew up your car – if they have any kind of law-enforcement connections, which they probably do, then they'll be able to follow a plastic trail. And quick.'
'You mean I can't use credit cards, either?'
'Not for a while, anyway.'
'Big trouble,' she muttered, staring glumly into her wallet.
'It's not big trouble. Not considering our other problems.'
'Money trouble,' she said solemnly, 'is never little trouble.'
In that one statement, Dylan could read whole chapters from the autobiography of her childhood.
Although he didn't know for sure that the men in pursuit of her could have connected Jilly to him and Shep, Dylan decided not to use any of his plastic, either. When the restaurant ran his card through their point-of-sale verification machine, the transaction would register in a credit-clearing center. Any legitimate law-enforcement agency or any gifted hacker with dirty money behind him, monitoring that center either with a court order or secretly, might be running software that could track selected individuals immediately upon the execution of a credit-card purchase.
Paying with cash, Dylan was surprised to feel no charge of uncanny energy on the currency, which had passed through uncountable hands before coming into his possession in a bank withdrawal a couple days ago. This suggested that unlike fingerprints, psychic spoor faded completely away with time.
He told the waitress to keep the change, and he took Shep to the men's room, while Jilly visited the ladies'.
'Pee,' Shep said as soon as they walked into the lavatory and he knew where they were. He put his book on a shelf above the sinks. 'Pee.'
'Pick a stall,' Dylan said. 'I think they're all unused.'
'Pee,' Shep said, keeping his head down, peering up from under his brow as he shuffled to the first of the four stalls. From behind the door, as he latched it, he said, 'Pee.'
A robust seventy-something man with a white mustache and white muttonchops stood at one of the sinks, washing his hands. The air smelled of orange-scented soap.
Dylan approached a urinal. Shep couldn't produce at a urinal because he feared being spoken to while indisposed.
'Pee,' Shep called out from behind his stall door. 'Pee.'
In any public restroom, Shepherd became so uncomfortable that he needed to be in continuous voice contact with his brother, to assure himself that he hadn't been abandoned.
'Pee,' Shep said, growing anxious in his stall. 'Dylan, pee. Dylan, Dylan. Pee!'
'Pee,' Dylan replied.
Shep's spoken pee served a purpose similar to that of a signal broadcast by submarine sonar apparatus, and Dylan's response was equivalent to the return ping that signified the echolocation of another vessel, in this case a known and friendly presence in the scary depths of the men's room.
'Pee,' said Shep.
'Pee,' Dylan replied. . .
In the mirrored wall above the urinals, Dylan observed the retiree's reaction to this verbal sonar.
Puzzled and uneasy, Mr. Muttonchops looked back and forth from the closed stall to Dylan, to the stall, as if something not only strange but also perverse might be unfolding here.
When Mr. Muttonchops realized that Dylan was watching him, when their eyes met in the mirror above the urinals, the retiree quickly looked away. He turned off the water at the sink, without rinsing the orange-scented lather off his hands.
Dripping frothy suds from his fingers, shedding iridescent bubbles that floated in his wake and settled slowly to the floor, the retiree went to a wall dispenser and cranked out a few paper towels.
At last came the sound of Shepherd's healthy stream.
'Good pee,' said Shep.
Reluctant to pause long enough to dry his soapy hands, the man fled the lavatory with the wad of paper towels.
Dylan went to a different sink from the one that the retiree had used – and then had an idea that led him to the towel dispenser.
'Pee, pee, pee,' Shep said happily, with great relief.
'Pee, pee, pee,' Dylan echoed, returning with a towel to the retiree's sink.
Shielding his right hand with the paper towel, he touched the faucet that the retiree had so recently shut off. Nothing. No fizz. No crackle.
He touched the fixture barehanded. Lots of fizz and crackle.
Again with the paper towel. Nothing.
Skin contact was required. Maybe not just hands. Maybe an elbow would work. Maybe feet. All sorts of ludicrous comic possibilities occurred to him.
Dylan rubbed the faucet vigorously with the towel, scrubbing away the soap and water that the retiree had left on the handle.
Then he touched it with his bare hand once more. The senior citizen's psychic spoor remained as strong as it had been previously.
Evidently, this latent energy couldn't simply be wiped away as fingerprints could be, but it dissipated gradually on its own, like an evaporating solvent.
At another sink, Dylan washed his hands. He was drying them near the towel dispenser when Shepherd came out of the fourth stall and went to the sink that his brother had just used.
'Pee,' Shepherd said.
'You can see me now.'
'Pee,' Shep insisted as he turned on the water.
'I'm right here.'
Refusing to be drawn into the sonar game when they were within sight of each other, Dylan tossed his crumpled towels in the waste can, and waited.