Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he'd never before imagined, Dylan O'Conner left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted fast-food franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake.
The expired day lay buried in the earth, in the asphalt. Unseen but felt, its ghost haunted the Arizona night: a hot spirit rising lazily from every inch of ground that Dylan crossed.
Here at the end of town that served travelers from the nearby interstate, formidable batteries of colorful electric signs warred for customers. In spite of this bright battle, however, an impressive sea of stars gleamed from horizon to horizon, for the air was clear and dry. A westbound moon, as round as a ship's wheel, plied the starry ocean.
The vastness above appeared clean and full of promise, but the world at ground level looked dusty, weary. Rather than being combed by a single wind, the night was plaited with many breezes, each with an individual quality of whispery speech and a unique scent. Redolent of desert grit, of cactus pollen, of diesel fumes, of hot blacktop, the air curdled as Dylan drew near to the restaurant, thickened with the aroma of long-used deep-fryer oil, with hamburger grease smoking on a griddle, with fried-onion vapors nearly as thick as blackdamp.
If he hadn't been in a town unfamiliar to him, if he hadn't been tired after a day on the road, and if his younger brother, Shepherd, hadn't been in a puzzling mood, Dylan would have sought a restaurant with healthier fare. Shep wasn't currently able to cope in public, however, and when in this condition, he refused to eat anything but comfort food with a high fat content.
The restaurant was brighter inside than out. Most surfaces were white, and in spite of the well-greased air, the establishment looked antiseptic.
Contemporary culture fit Dylan O'Conner only about as well as a three-fingered glove, and here was one more place where the tailoring pinched: He believed that a burger joint ought to look like a joint, not like a surgery, not like a nursery with pictures of clowns and funny animals on the walls, not like a bamboo pavilion on a tropical island, not like a glossy plastic replica of a 1950s diner that never actually existed. If you were going to eat charred cow smothered in cheese, with a side order of potato strips made as crisp as ancient papyrus by immersion in boiling oil, and if you were going to wash it all down with either satisfying quantities of icy beer or a milkshake containing the caloric equivalent of an entire roasted pig, then this fabulous consumption ought to occur in an ambience that virtually screamed guilty pleasure, if not sin. The lighting should be low and warm. Surfaces should be dark – preferably old mahogany, tarnished brass, wine-colored upholstery. Music should be provided to soothe the carnivore: not the music that made your gorge rise in an elevator because it was played by musicians steeped in Prozac, but tunes that were as sensuous as the food – perhaps early rock and roll or big-band swing, or good country music about temptation and remorse and beloved dogs.
Nevertheless, he crossed the ceramic-tile floor to a stainless-steel counter, where he placed his takeout order with a plump woman whose white hair, well-scrubbed look, and candy-striped uniform made her a dead ringer for Mrs. Santa Claus. He half expected to see an elf peek out of her shirt pocket.
In distant days, counters in fast-food outlets had been manned largely by teenagers. In recent years, however, a significant number of teens considered such work to be beneath them, which opened the door to retirees looking to supplement their social-security checks.
Mrs. Santa Claus called Dylan 'dear,' delivered his order in two white paper bags, and reached across the counter to pin a promotional button to his shirt. The button featured the slogan FRIES NOT FLIES and the grinning green face of a cartoon toad whose conversion from the traditional diet of his warty species to such taste treats as half-pound bacon cheeseburgers was chronicled in the company's current advertising campaign.
Here was that three-fingered glove again: Dylan didn't understand why he should be expected to weigh the endorsement of a cartoon toad or a sports star – or a Nobel laureate, for that matter – when deciding what to eat for dinner. Furthermore, he didn't understand why an advertisement assuring him that the restaurant's French fries were tastier than house flies should charm him. Their fries better have a superior flavor to a bagful of insects.
He withheld his antitoad opinion also because lately he had begun to realize that he was allowing himself to be annoyed by too many inconsequential things. If he didn't mellow out, he would sour into a world-class curmudgeon by the age of thirty-five. He smiled at Mrs. Claus and thanked her, lest otherwise he ensure an anthracite Christmas.
Outside, under the fat moon, crossing the three-lane highway to the motel, carrying paper bags full of fragrant cholesterol in a variety of formats, Dylan reminded himself of some of the many things for which he should be thankful. Good health. Nice teeth. Great hair. Youth. He was twenty-nine. He possessed a measure of artistic talent and had work that he found both meaningful and enjoyable. Although he was in no danger of getting rich, he sold his paintings often enough to cover expenses and to bank a little money every month. He had no disfiguring facial scars, no persistent fungus problem, no troublesome evil twin, no spells of amnesia from which he awoke with bloody hands, no inflamed hangnails.
And he had Shepherd. Simultaneously a blessing and a curse, Shep in his best moments made Dylan glad to be alive and happy to be his brother.
Under a red neon MOTEL sign where Dylan's traveling shadow painted a purer black upon the neon-rouged blacktop, and then when he passed squat sago palms and spiky cactuses and other hardy desert landscaping, and also while he followed the concrete walkways that served the motel, and certainly when he passed the humming and softly clinking soda-vending machines, lost in thought, brooding about the soft chains of family commitment – he was stalked. So stealthy was the approach that the stalker must have matched him step for step, breath for breath. At the door to his room, clutching bags of food, fumbling with his key, he heard too late a betraying scrape of shoe leather. Dylan turned his head, rolled his eyes, glimpsed a looming moon-pale face, and sensed as much as saw the dark blur of something arcing down toward his skull.
Strangely, he didn't feel the blow and wasn't aware of falling. He heard the paper bags crackle, smelled onions, smelled warm cheese, smelled pickle chips, realized that he was facedown on the concrete, and hoped that he hadn't spilled Shep's milkshake. Then he dreamed a little dream of dancing French fries.
Jillian Jackson had a pet jade plant, and she treated it always with tender concern. She fed it a carefully calculated and measured mix of nutrients, watered it judiciously, and regularly misted its fleshy, oval-shaped, thumb-size leaves to wash off dust and maintain its glossy green beauty.
That Friday night, while traveling from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Phoenix, Arizona, where she had a three-night gig the following week, Jilly did all the driving because Fred had neither a license to drive nor the necessary appendages to operate a motor vehicle. Fred was the jade plant.
Jilly's midnight-blue 1956 Cadillac Coupe DeVille was the love of her life, which Fred understood and graciously accepted, but her little Crassula argentea (Fred's birth name) remained a close second in her affections. She had purchased him when he'd been just a sprig with four stubby branches and sixteen thick rubbery leaves. Although he had been housed in a tacky three-inch-diameter black plastic pot and should have looked tiny and forlorn, he'd instead appeared plucky and determined from the moment that she'd first seen him. Under her loving care, he had grown into a beautiful specimen about a foot in height and eighteen inches in diameter. He thrived now in a twelve-inch glazed terra-cotta pot; including soil and container, he weighed twelve pounds.
Jilly had crafted a firm foam pillow, a ramped version of the doughnutlike seat provided to patients following hemorrhoid surgery, which prevented the bottom of the pot from scarring the passenger's-seat upholstery and which provided Fred with a level ride. The Coupe DeVille had not come with seat belts in 1956, and Jilly had not come with one, either, when she'd been born in 1977; but she'd had simple lap belts added to the car for herself and for Fred. Snug in his custom pillow, with his pot belted to the seat, he was as safe as any jade plant could hope to be while hurtling across the New Mexico badlands at speeds in excess of eighty miles per hour.
Sitting below the windows, Fred couldn't appreciate the desert scenery, but Jilly painted word pictures for him when from time to time they encountered a stunning vista.
She enjoyed exercising her descriptive powers. If she failed to parlay the current series of bookings in seedy cocktail lounges and second-rate comedy clubs into a career as a star comedian, her backup plan was to become a best-selling novelist.
Even in dangerous times, most people dared to hope, but Jillian Jackson insisted upon hope, took as much sustenance from it as she took from food. Three years ago, when she'd been a waitress, sharing an apartment with three other young women to cut costs, eating only the two meals a day that she received gratis from the restaurant where she worked, before she landed her first job as a performer, her blood had been as rich with hope as with red cells, white cells, and platelets. Some people might have been daunted by such big dreams, but Jilly believed that hope and hard work could win everything she wanted.
Everything except the right man.
Now, through the waning afternoon, from Los Lunas to Socorro, to Las Cruces, during a long wait at the U.S. Customs Station east of Akela, where inspections of late were conducted with greater seriousness than they had been in more innocent days, Jilly thought about the men in her life. She'd had romantic relationships with only three, but those three were three too many. Onward to Lordsburg, north of the Pyramid Mountains, then to the town of Road Forks, New Mexico, and eventually across the state line, she brooded about the past, trying to understand where she'd gone wrong in each failed relationship.
Although prepared to accept the blame for the implosion of every romance, second-guessing herself with the intense critical analysis of a bomb-squad cop deciding which of several wires ought to be cut to save the day, she finally concluded, not for the first time, that the fault resided less in herself than in those feckless men she'd trusted. They were betrayers. Deceivers. Given every benefit of the doubt, viewed through the rosiest of rose-colored lenses, they were nonetheless swine, three little pigs who exhibited all the worst porcine traits and none of the good ones. If the big bad wolf showed up at the door of their straw house, the neighbors would cheer him when he blew it down and would offer him the proper wine to accompany a pork-chop dinner.
'I am a bitter, vengeful bitch,' Jilly declared.
In his quiet way, sweet little Fred disagreed with her.
'Will I ever meet a decent man?' she wondered.
Though he possessed numerous fine qualities – patience, serenity, a habit of never complaining, an exceptional talent for listening and for quietly commiserating, a healthy root structure – Fred made no claim to clairvoyance. He couldn't know if Jilly would one day meet a decent man. In most matters, Fred trusted in destiny. Like other passive species lacking any means of locomotion, he had little choice but to rely on fate and hope for the best.
'Of course I'll meet a decent man,' Jilly decided with a sudden resurgence of the hopefulness that usually characterized her. 'I'll meet dozens of decent men, scores of them, hundreds.' A melancholy sigh escaped her as she braked in response to a traffic backup in the westbound lanes of Interstate 10, immediately ahead of her. 'The question isn't whether I'll meet a truly decent man, but whether I'll recognize him if he doesn't arrive with a loud chorus of angels and a flashing halo that says GOOD GUY, GOOD GUY, GOOD GUY.'
Jillian couldn't see Fred's smile, but she could feel it, sure enough.
'Oh, face facts,' she groaned, 'when it comes to guys, I'm naive and easily misled.'
When he heard the truth, Fred knew it. Wise Fred. The quiet with which he greeted Jilly's admission was far different from the quiet disagreement that he had expressed when she'd called herself a bitter, vengeful bitch.
Traffic came to a full stop.
Through a royal-purple twilight and past nightfall, they endured another long wait, this time at the Arizona Agricultural Inspection Station east of San Simon, which currently served state and federal law-enforcement agencies. In addition to Department of Agriculture officers, a few flinty-eyed plainclothes agents, on assignment from some less vegetable-oriented organization, evidently were searching for pests more destructive than fruit flies breeding in contraband oranges. In fact they grilled Jilly as if they believed a chador and a submachine gun were concealed under the car seat, and they studied Fred with wariness and skepticism, as though convinced that he was of Mideastern origin, held fanatical political views, and harbored evil intentions.
Even these tough-looking men, who had reason to regard every traveler with suspicion, could not long mistake Fred for a villain. They stepped back and waved the Coupe DeVille through the checkpoint.
As Jilly put up the power window and accelerated, she said, 'It's a good thing they didn't throw you in the slammer, Freddy. Our budget's too tight for bail money.'
They drove a mile in silence.
A ghost moon, like a faint ectoplasmic eye, had risen before sundown; and with the fall of night, its Cyclops stare brightened.
'Maybe talking to a plant isn't just an eccentricity,' Jilly brooded. 'Maybe I'm a little off my nut.'
North and south of the highway lay dark desolation. The cool lunar light could not burn away the stubborn gloom that befell the desert after sundown.
'I'm sorry, Fred. That was a mean thing to say.'
The little jade was proud but also forgiving. Of the three men with whom Jilly had explored the dysfunctional side of romance, none would have hesitated to turn even her most innocent expression of discontent against her; each would have used it to make her feel guilty and to portray himself as the long-suffering victim of her unreasonable expectations. Fred, bless him, never played those power games.
For a while they rode in companionable silence, conserving a flagon of fuel by traveling in the high-suction slipstream of a speeding Peterbilt that, judging by the advertisement on its rear doors, was hauling ice-cream treats to hungry snackers west of New Mexico.
When they came upon a town radiant with the signs of motels and service stations, Jilly exited the interstate. She tanked up from a self-serve pump at Union 76.