'The redwood!' Jilly said.
The drapes billowed as one of the assassins began to climb in from outside.
'State flower, the golden poppy,' Dylan continued.
Persistence paid. On the fifth blow, the door shuddered inward and the bracing chair collapsed.
The first man across the threshold, kicking at the fragments of the chair, was wearing pale-yellow pants, a pink-and-yellow polo shirt, and a murderous expression. He had a pistol, and as he rushed forward, he raised it with the clear intention of squeezing off a shot.
'Eureka,' Shep said, and tweaked.
Dylan thanked God that he heard no gunfire as the motel room folded away from him, but he did hear his name – 'O'Conner!' – shouted by the would-be shooter.
This time while in kaleidoscopic transit, he had something entirely new to fear: that the thug in golf togs had gotten too near to them before they escaped the motel room, and that Shep had folded a well-armed killer with them to California.
Abundant slabs of shadow and a few shards of pale light unfolded through the receding motel bedroom, and one split second before Dylan recognized the new room that fell into place around him, he smelled the lingering savor of a cinnamon-pecan-raisin cake baked according to his mother's cherished recipe, its delicious aroma unmistakable.
Shep, Jilly, and Dylan himself arrived unscathed, but the killer in the polo shirt didn't have a ticket to ride, after all. Not even the echo of his shouted O'Conner! followed them out of Arizona.
In spite of the comforting aroma and the gladdening absence of a door-busting assassin, Dylan enjoyed no sense of relief. Something was wrong. He couldn't at once identify the source of his current uneasiness, but he felt it too strongly to discount it as bad nerves.
The gloom in the kitchen of their California house was relieved only slightly by a soft butterscotch-yellow light seeping across the threshold of the open door to the dining room, and even less by the illuminated clock set into the belly of a smiling ceramic pig that hung on the wall to the right of the sink. On the counter under the clock, revealed by that timely light, a sheet-cake pan containing the fresh cinnamon-pecan-raisin delight cooled on a wire rack.
Vonetta Beesley – their once-a-week Harley-riding housekeeper – sometimes cooked for them, using their late mother's best recipes. But as they weren't scheduled to return from their art-festival tour until late October, she must have prepared this treat for herself.
Following the momentary disorientation of being folded, Dylan realized why a sense of wrongness could not be dispelled. They had departed eastern Arizona, which lay in the Mountain time zone, before one o'clock Saturday afternoon. In California, in the Pacific time zone, the day should have waned one hour less than it had back in Holbrook. Shortly before one o'clock in Holbrook translated to shortly before noon on the shores of the Pacific, yet the black of night pressed at the kitchen windows.
Darkness at noon?
'Where are we?' Jilly whispered.
'Home,' Dylan said.
He consulted the luminous hands of his wristwatch, which he had set to Mountain time days ago, before the arts festival in Tucson. The watch showed four minutes till one o'clock, about what he had expected and surely correct.
Here in the land of the golden poppy and the redwood tree, the time ought to be four minutes till noon, not four till midnight.
'Why's it dark?' Jilly asked.
In the belly of the pig, the illuminated clock showed 9:26.
During the previous trips via folding, either no time elapsed in transit – or at most a few seconds. Dylan had not been aware of any significant period of time passing on this occasion, either.
If they truly had arrived at 9:26 in the evening, Vonetta should have left hours ago. She worked from nine o'clock until five. If she had gone, however, she would have taken the cake with her.
Likewise, she wouldn't have forgotten to turn off the light in the dining room. Vonetta Beesley had always been as reliable as the atomic clock at Greenwich, by which all the nations of the world set their timepieces.
The house stood in a funereal condition, hung with cerements of silence, draped in shrouds of stillness.
The wrongness involved something more than the darkness peering in at the windows, involved the house itself and something within the house. He could hear no evil breathing, no demon on the prowl, but he sensed that nothing here was right.
Jilly must have been alarmed by the same queer perception. She stood precisely on the spot where she had been unfolded, as though afraid to move, and her body language was so clearly written that her tension could easily be read even in these shadows.
The quality of light issuing from the dining room wasn't as it should be. The chandelier over the table, which Dylan couldn't see from this angle, was controlled by a switch with a dimming feature, but even at this low level of brightness, the glow had far too rich a butterscotch color and too moody an aspect to have been thrown off by the brass-and-crystal fixture. Besides, the light didn't originate from chandelier height; the ceiling in the next room was troweled in shadow, and the light appeared to fall to the floor from a point not far above the top of the table.
'Shep, buddy, what's happening here?' Dylan whispered.
Having been promised cake, Shep might have been expected to go directly to the cinnamon glory cooling in a pan under the clock, for it was his nature to be single-minded in all things, and not least of all in the matter of cake. Instead, he took one step toward the door to the dining room, hesitated, and said, 'Shep is brave,' although he sounded more fearful than Dylan had ever before heard him.
Dylan wanted to avoid venturing deeper into the house until he gained a better sense of their situation. He needed a good weapon, as well. The knife drawer offered a trove of wicked cutlery; but he'd had enough of knives lately. He longed for a baseball bat.
'Shep is brave,' Shep said, with even a greater tremor in his voice and with less confidence than before. Yet his head was raised to face the dining-room door rather than the floor at his feet, and as though defying an inner counsel that always advised him to retreat from any challenge, he shuffled forward.
Dylan quickly moved to his brother's side and placed one hand on his shoulder, intending to restrain him, but Shep shrugged it off and continued slowly but determinedly toward the dining room.
Jilly looked to Dylan for guidance. Her dark eyes shone with reflected clock light.
In a stubborn mood, Shep could be an inspiration for any mule; and Dylan detected here an infrequently seen but familiar obstinacy that experience had taught him could not be dealt with easily and certainly not quietly. Shep would do in this matter what he wanted to do, leaving Dylan no option but to follow him warily.
He surveyed the shadowy kitchen for a weapon but saw nothing immediately at hand.
At the threshold, in the burnt-ocher light, Shepherd hesitated, but only briefly, before stepping out of the kitchen. He turned left to face the dining-room table.
When Dylan and Jilly entered the dining room behind Shepherd, they found a boy sitting at the table. He appeared to be ten years old.
The boy did not look up at them, but remained focused on the large basket filled with adorable golden-retriever puppies, which lay before him. Much of the basket was complete, but many of the puppies lacked portions of their bodies and heads. The boy's hands flew, flew from the box of loose puzzle pieces to empty areas of the picture that waited to be filled.
Jilly might not have recognized the young puzzle worker, but Dylan knew him well. The boy was Shepherd O'Conner.
Dylan remembered this puzzle, which possessed a significance so special that he could have painted it from memory with a considerable degree of accuracy. And now he recognized the source of the burnt-ocher light: a pharmacy-style lamp that usually stood on a desk in the study. The lamp featured a deep-yellow glass shade.
On those occasions when Shepherd's autism expressed itself in a particular sensitivity to bright lights, he could not simply work a jigsaw puzzle in the reduced glare made possible by a dimmer switch. Although virtually inaudible to everyone else, the faint buzz of resistance produced by the restraint of electrical current in the rheostat shrieked through his skull as if it were a high-speed bone saw. Therefore, he resorted to the desk lamp with the heavily tinted shade, in which the regular bulb had been replaced with one of lower wattage.
Shepherd hadn't worked a puzzle in the dining room in the past ten years, having moved instead to the table in the kitchen. This basketful of puppies had been the last jigsaw that he had finished in this room.
'Shep is brave,' the standing Shepherd said, but the younger Shepherd at the table didn't look up.
Nothing that had happened heretofore had filled Dylan with a dread as terrible as the anxious fear that now seemed to shrink his heart. This time what lay ahead of him in the next few minutes was not unknown, as had been the case with all that had come before this, but in fact was known too well. He felt himself being swept toward that known horror as surely as a man in a small rowboat, on the brink of Niagara, would be helpless to avoid the falls.
From Jilly: 'Dylan!'
When he turned to her, she pointed at the floor.
Under them lay a Persian-style carpet. Around each foot, the Persian pattern had been blotted out by a glimmering blackness, as though their shoes rested in pools of ink. This blackness rippled subtly but continually. When he moved one foot, the inky puddle moved with it, and the portion of the rug that had seemed to be stained at once reappeared unmarred.
A dining-room chair stood near Dylan, and upon touching it, he saw another ink like stain at once spread out from his hand across the upholstery, larger than his palm and fingers but conforming to their shape. He slid his hand back and forth, and the surrounding black blot slid with it, leaving the fabric immaculate.
Dylan could feel the chair under his hand, but when he tried to grip it firmly, the upholstery didn't dimple. Applying greater force, he attempted to jerk it away from the table – and his hand passed through the chair as if it were an illusion.
Or as if he were a ghost with no material substance.
Aware of Jilly's shock and continuing confusion, Dylan put one hand on her arm to show her that this inky phenomenon didn't occur between them, only when they attempted to have an influence upon their surroundings.
'The boy at the table,' he told her, 'is Shepherd when he was ten years old.'
She seemed to have worked that much out for herself, for she showed no surprise at this revelation. 'This isn't... some vision Shep's sharing with us.'
Her understanding came as a statement rather than a question, as though she had begun to put the clues together before Dylan revealed the young puzzle worker's identity: 'We folded not just to California but also to sometime in the past.'
'Not just sometime.' His heart sank in dismay, though it wasn't weighted by an overwhelming peril, for he was reasonably sure that nothing in this past place could harm them, just as they were unable to influence anything here; instead, his heart was weighed down with sorrow, and it sank in a familiar sea of loss. 'Not just sometime. One night in particular. One awful night.'
More for Jilly's benefit than to confirm his own perception of their situation, Dylan stepped to the dining-room table and swept one arm across it with the intent of spilling the jigsaw puzzle to the floor. He was unable to disrupt a single piece of the picture.
Ten-year-old Shepherd, wrapped in the insulation of autism and focused intently on a puzzle, might not have reacted to their voices even if he had heard them. He would have flinched or at least blinked in surprise, however, at the sight of a man sweeping an arm across the table, attempting to undo his work. He reacted not at all.
'We're essentially invisible here,' Dylan said. 'We can see but not be seen. We can hear sounds, but we can't be heard. We can smell the cake. We can feel the warm air coming out of the heating vent and breathe it, feel the surfaces of objects, but we can't have an effect on anything.'
'Are you saying that's how Shepherd wants it?'
Shepherd continued to watch his younger self give feet to lame puppies and eyes to those that had been blind.
'Considering what night this is,' Dylan said, 'that's the last thing Shepherd would want. He doesn't set the rules. This must be how Nature wants it, just how it is.'
Apparently Shepherd could fold them into the past, but only to walk through it as they would walk through a museum.
'The past is the past. It can't be undone,' Dylan said, but he ardently wished that this were not true.
'Last night,' Jilly reminded him, 'Shepherd suddenly began to reel off all those synonyms for feces – but he did it long after I'd told you to clean up your language 'cause you sounded like my old man.'
'You didn't say I sounded like your old man.'
'Well, that's why trash talk bothers me. He was a garbage mouth. Anyway, you said Shep's sense of time isn't like yours and mine.'
'His sense of just about anything isn't like ours.'
'You said the past and present and future aren't as clearly separated for him as for us.'
'And here we are. February, 1992, more than ten years ago, before everything went to hell.'
From the adjacent living room, through an open door, came voices, argumentative but not loud.
Dylan and Jilly looked toward that door, beyond which glowed more and brighter lights than the single pharmacy lamp in the dining room. Younger Shep continued filling the holes in the puppies while older Shep watched him with an anxious expression.
On the battlefields of mind and heart, an imperative curiosity warred with Dylan's dread. If so much horror wouldn't have attended the satisfaction of his curiosity, then curiosity might have won. Or if he could have affected the outcome of this long-ago night, he would at once have been able to overcome his all but paralyzing anticipation of evil. But if he could make no difference – and he could not – then he didn't want to be a useless witness to what he had not seen ten years ago.
The voices in the living room grew louder, angrier.
'Buddy,' he urged the older Shepherd, 'fold us out of here. Fold us home, but to our own time. Do you understand me, Shep? Fold us out of the past now.'
The younger Shep was deaf to Dylan, to Jilly, and to his older self. Although the older Shep heard every word his brother spoke, he reacted as though he, too, were of this earlier time and were stone deaf to the voices of those who weren't. Clearly, judging by the intensity with which he watched his younger self, he didn't want to fold anywhere just yet, and he couldn't be forced to work his magic.