By the Light of the Moon / Page 33

Page 33



'Why are you disgusted by those little cheese Goldfish?' Dylan asked again. 'Is it because they're sort of round?'


'Shapey,' said Shepherd.


'They're round and shapey, and that disgusts you.'


'Shapey.'


'But lots of people like Goldfish, Shep. Lots of people eat them every day.'


Shep shuddered at the thought of dedicated Goldfish fanciers.


'Would you want to be forced to watch people eating Goldfish crackers right in front of you, Shep?'


Tilting her head down to get a better look at his face, Jilly saw Shepherd's frown deepen into a scowl.


Dylan pressed on: 'Even if you closed your eyes so you couldn't see, would you like to sit between a couple people eating Goldfish and have to listen to all the crunchy, squishy sounds?'


Apparently in genuine revulsion, Shepherd gagged.


'I like Goldfish, Shep. But because they disgust you, I don't eat them. I eat Cheez-Its instead. Would you like it if I started eating Goldfish all the time, leaving them out where you could see them, where you could come across them when you weren't expecting to? Would that be all right with you, Shep?'


Shepherd shook his head violently.


'Would that be all right, Shep? Would it? Shep?'


'No.'


'Some things that don't offend us may offend other people, so we have to be respectful of other people's feelings if we want them to be respectful of ours.'


'I know.'


'Good! So we don't eat Goldfish in front of certain people—'


'No Goldfish.'


'—and we don't pee in public—'


'No pee.'


'—and we don't fold in or out of public places.'


'No fold.'


'No Goldfish, no pee, no fold,' Dylan said.


'No Goldfish, no pee, no fold,' Shep repeated.


Although the pained expression still clenched his face, Dylan spoke in a softer and more affectionate tone of voice, and with apparent relief: 'I'm proud of you, Shep.'


'No Goldfish, no pee, no fold.'


'I'm very proud of you. And I love you, Shep. Do you know that? I love you, buddy.' Dylan's voice thickened, and he turned from his brother. He didn't look at Jilly, perhaps because he couldn't look at her and keep his composure. He solemnly studied his big hands, as if he'd done something with them that shamed him. He took several deep breaths, slow and deep, and into Shepherd's embarrassed silence, he said again, 'Do you know that I love you very much?'


'Okay,' Shep said quietly.


'Okay,' Dylan said. 'Okay then.'


Shepherd mopped his sweaty face with one hand, blotted the hand on his jeans. 'Okay.'


When Dylan at last met Jilly's eyes, she saw how difficult part of that conversation with Shep had been for him, the bullying part, and her voice, too, thickened with emotion. 'Now... now what?'


He checked for his wallet, found it. 'Now we have lunch.'


'We left the computer running back in the room.'


'It'll be all right. And the room's locked. There's a Do Not Disturb sign on the door.'


Traffic still passing in liquid ripples of sunlight. The far side of the street shimmering like a phantasm.


She expected to hear the silvery laughter of children, to smell incense, to see a woman wearing a mantilla and sitting on a pew in the parking lot, to feel the rush of wings as a river of white birds poured out of the previously birdless sky.


Then, without raising his head, Shepherd unexpectedly reached out to take her hand, and the moment became too real for visions.


They went inside. She helped Shep find his way, so he would not have to look up and risk eye contact with strangers.


Compared to the day outside, the air in the restaurant seemed to have been piped directly from the arctic. Jilly was not chilled.


* * *


For Dylan, the thought of hundreds of thousands or millions of microscopic machines swarming through his brain was such an appetite-killing consideration that he ate, ironically, almost as though he were a machine refueling itself, with no pleasure in the food.


Presented with the perfect entree – a grilled-cheese sandwich made with square bread lacking an arched crust, cut into four square pieces – complimented by rectangular steak fries with blunt ends, dill pickles that Dylan trimmed into rectangular sticks, and thick slices of beefsteak tomatoes that had also been trimmed into squares, Shep ate contentedly.


Although Shep used his fingers to pick up not just the sandwich, fries, and pickles, but also the remodeled tomatoes, Dylan made no effort to remind him of the rules of fork usage. There were proper times and places to reinforce table manners, and there was this time and place, where it made sense just to be thankful that they were alive and together and able to share a meal in peace.


They occupied a booth by a window, though Shep disliked sitting where he could be 'looked at by people inside and people out.' These plate-glass windows were so heavily tinted against the glare of the desert sun that from the outside, in daylight, little of the interior could be seen.


Besides, the only booths in the establishment were along the windows, and the regular tables were so closely set that Shep would have quickly become agitated when the growing lunch crowd pressed in around him. The booth offered structural barriers that provided a welcome degree of privacy, and following his recent chastisement, Shep was in a flexible mood.


Psychic imprints on menus and utensils squirmed under Dylan's touch, but he discovered that he continued to get better at being able to suppress his awareness of them.


Dylan and Jilly chatted inanely about inconsequential things, like favorite movies, as though Hollywood-produced entertainments could possibly have serious relevance to them now that they had been set apart from the rest of humanity and were most likely by the hour traveling further beyond ordinary human experience.


Soon, when movie talk began to seem not merely insignificant but bizarre, evidence of epic denial, Jilly started to bring them back to their dilemma. Referring to the convoluted chain of logic with which Dylan had gotten his brother to accept that folding out of or into a public place was as taboo as peeing on old ladies' shoes, she said, 'That was brilliant out there.'


'Brilliant?' He shook his head in disagreement. 'It was mean.'


'No. Don't beat yourself up.'


'In part it was mean. I hate that, but I've gotten pretty good at it when I have to be.'


'The point needed to be made,' she said. 'And quickly.'


'Don't make excuses for me. I might enjoy it too much, and start making them for myself.'


'Grim doesn't look good on you, O'Conner. I like you better when you're irrationally optimistic.'


He smiled. 'I like me better that way, too.'


After finishing the last bite of a club sandwich and washing it down with a swallow of Coors, she sighed and said, 'Nanomachines, nanocomputers... if all those little buggers are busy making me so much smarter, why do I still have trouble getting my mind around the whole concept?'


'They aren't necessarily making us smarter. Just different. Not all change is for the better. By the way, Proctor found it awkward to keep talking about nanomachines controlled by nanocomputers, so he invented a new word to describe those two things when they're combined. Nanobots. A combination of nano and robots.'


'A cute name doesn't make them any less scary.' She frowned, rubbed the back of her neck as if working a chill out of it. 'Déjà vu all over again. Nanobots. That rings a bell. And back in the room, you seemed to expect me to know more about this. Why?'


'The piece I called up for you to read on the laptop, the one I condensed for you instead... it was a transcript of an hour-long interview that Proctor did on your favorite radio program.'


'Parish Lantern?'


'Proctor's been on the show three times in five years, the third time for two hours. It figures you might've heard him once, anyway.'


Jilly brooded about this development for a moment and clearly didn't like the implications. 'Maybe I'd better start worrying more about Earth's magnetic pole shifting, and about brain leeches from an alternate reality, for that matter.'


Outside, a vehicle pulled off the street, into the parking lot, and raced past the restaurant at such imprudent speed that Dylan's attention was drawn by the roar of its engine and by the flash of its passage. A black Suburban. The rack of four spotlights fixed to the roof above the windshield didn't come as a standard accessory with every Suburban sold.


Jilly saw it, too. 'No. How could they find us?'


'Maybe we should've changed plates again after what happened at the restaurant in Safford.'


The SUV braked to a stop in front of the motel office, next door to the coffee shop.


'Maybe that little weasel, Skipper, at the service station suspected something.'


'Maybe a hundred things.'


Dylan faced the motel, but Jilly was sitting with her back to the action. Or to some of it. She pointed, tapping one index finger against the window. 'Dylan. Across the street.'


Through the tinted window, through the heat snakes writhing up from the sun-baked pavement, he saw another black Suburban in front of the motel that stood on the far side of the street.


Finishing the last bite of his lunch, Shep said, 'Shep wants cake.'


From his angle of view, even with his face close to the window, Dylan wasn't able to see the entire Suburban now that it had parked in front of the registration office. Half the vehicle remained in his line of sight, however, and he watched two men get out of the driver's side. Dressed in lightweight, light-colored clothes suitable for a desert resort, they looked like golfers headed for an afternoon on the links: unusually big golfers; unusually big, tough-looking golfers.


'Please,' Shep remembered to say. 'Cake please.'


30


Dylan was accustomed to being one of the biggest guys in just about any room, but the two hulks who got out of the driver's side of the Suburban looked as if they had spent the morning in a rodeo ring, tossing cowboys in the air and goring them. They disappeared around the car, heading toward the motel office.


'Let's go,' he said, sliding out of the booth, rising to his feet.


Jilly got up at once, but Shep didn't move. Head bowed, staring at his clean plate, he said, 'Cake please.'


Even if served in a wedge instead of a square, the single curved end of a piece of cake could be flattened easily. Otherwise, a wedge was satisfyingly angular, not curvy, not shapey. Shep loved cake.


'We'll get cake,' Dylan lied. 'But first we're going to the men's room, buddy.'


'Pee?' Shep asked.


'Pee,' Dylan confirmed quietly, determined to avoid making a scene.


'Shep doesn't need to pee.'


Fire laws and a need to receive deliveries guaranteed the existence of a back door; but no doubt they would have to go through the kitchen to reach it, a route that would assure too much commotion even if they were permitted to take it. They dared not leave by the front door, for fear of being spotted by the faux golfers. Only one exit remained.


'You may not get another chance for a while, buddy. Better go now,' Dylan explained.


'No pee.'


Their waitress arrived. 'Will that be everything?'


'Cake,' said Shep.


'Could we have menus to look at the desserts?' Dylan asked.


'Cake.'


'I thought you were leaving,' the waitress said.


'Just going to the men's room,' Jilly assured her. When the waitress frowned, Jilly added, 'The men's and the ladies'.'


'Cake.'


Withdrawing their lunch ticket from a pocket of her apron, the waitress said, 'We have some wonderful cakes.' She extracted a pencil from her elaborately piled and pinned red hair. 'Toasted-coconut, Black Forest, lemon, and lemon-walnut.'


'We don't all want cake,' Dylan said. 'We'll need menus.'


'Cake,' said Shepherd.


As the waitress went to get menus, Dylan said, 'Come on, Shep.'


'Cake. Toasted-coconut—'


'Pee first, Shep.'


'—Black Forest—'


By now the men in the Suburban would be at the registration desk in the motel office.


'—lemon—'


If they were carrying law-enforcement credentials, they would be presenting them to the desk clerk.


'—and lemon-walnut.'


If they had no credentials, they would be using intimidation to get the information they wanted.


'No pee,' Dylan quietly informed Shep, 'no cake.'


Licking his lips in anticipation of the cake, Shep considered this ultimatum.


'Dylan,' Jilly said softly but urgently. 'The window.'


The second black Suburban had crossed the street from the other motel. It parked behind the SUV that already stood in front of the registration office next door to the coffee shop.


Unless given absolutely no other option, Dylan didn't want to seize his brother by the arm and haul him out of the booth. In that event, the kid would probably come, although his cooperation was not a certainty. He wouldn't resist violently, but if he set his mind to it, he could become as immovable as a stubborn octopus.


Carrying menus, the waitress began the return trip from the hostess station.


'No pee, no cake?' Shepherd asked.


'No pee, no cake.'


'Pee, then cake?' Shep asked.


'Pee, then cake,' Dylan agreed.


Shepherd slid out of the booth.


Arriving with the menus just as Shepherd stood up, dropping them on the table, the waitress asked, 'Can I get you coffee?'


Dylan saw the front door open. Sun glared on that moving glass panel, and from this oblique angle, he couldn't see who might be entering until they stepped inside.


'Two coffees,' Jilly said.


An elderly couple crossed the threshold. They were probably in their eighties. Not stooped, spry enough, but surely not assassins.


'Milk,' Shep mumbled.


'Two coffees and one milk,' Dylan told the waitress.


The glass that the milk came in would have a round mouth; but the milk itself wasn't round. It wasn't shapey, but shapeless, and Shepherd never harbored a prejudice against any food solely because of the design of the container in which it might be served.


'Cake,' Shepherd said as, head down, he followed Dylan between the tables, with Jilly at the end of their procession. 'Cake. Pee, then cake. Pee, then cake.'


The restrooms lay off a hall at the back of the coffee shop.


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