She looked away from the Doberman and met Vess’s eyes. For one brief moment, she saw the dog within, a dark and merciless aspect.
“Was it a prayer?” he asked again.
“In your heart, Chyna, deep in your heart, do you truly believe that God really exists? Be truthful now, not just with me but with yourself.”
At one time — not long ago — she had been just barely sure enough of what she believed to answer Yes. Now she was silent.
“Even if God exists,” Vess said, “does He know that you do?”
She took another bite of the omelet. It seemed greasier than before. The eggs and butter and cheese, too rich, cloyed in her mouth, and she could hardly swallow.
She put down her fork. She was finished. She’d eaten no more than a third of her meal.
Vess finished the food on his plate, washing it down with coffee that he didn’t offer her — no doubt because he thought that she would try to throw the hot brew in his eyes.
“You look so glum,” Vess said.
She didn’t reply.
“You’re feeling like such a failure, aren’t you? You’ve failed poor Ariel, yourself, and God too, if He exists.”
“What do you want with me?” she asked. She meant, Why put me through this, why not kill me and get it over with?
“I haven’t figured that out yet,” Vess said. “Whatever I do with you, it’s got to be special. I feel you’re special, whether you think you are or not, and whatever we do together should be…intense.”
She closed her eyes and wondered if she could find Narnia again after all these years.
He said, “I can’t answer your question as to what I want with you — but I have no doubts about what I want with Ariel. Would you like to hear what I intend to do with her?”
Most likely, she was too old to believe in anything, even just a magic wardrobe.
Vess’s voice came out of her internal grayness, as if he lived there as well as in the real world: “I asked you a question, Chyna. Remember our bargain? You can either answer it — or I’ll slice off a piece of your face. Would you like to hear what I intend to do with Ariel?”
“I’m sure I know.”
“Yes, some of it. Sex, that’s obvious. She’s a luscious piece. I haven’t touched her yet, but I will. And I believe she’s a virgin. At least, in the days when she still talked, she said she was, and she didn’t seem like the kind of girl who would lie.”
Or there was the Wild Wood beyond the River, Ratty and Mole and Mr. Badger, green boughs hanging full in the summer sun and Pan piping in the cool shadows under the trees.
“And I want to hear her crying, lost and crying. I want to smell the purity of her tears. I want to feel the exquisite texture of her screams, know the clean smell of them, and the taste of her terror. There’s always that. Always that.”
Neither the languid river nor the Wild Wood materialized, though Chyna strained to see them. Ratty, Mole, Mr. Badger, and Mr. Toad were gone forever into the hateful death that claims all things. And the sadness of this, in its way, was as great as the sadness of what had happened to Laura and what would soon happen to Chyna herself.
Vess said, “Once in a while, I bring one of them back to the room in the cellar — and always for the same purpose.”
She didn’t want to hear this. The handcuffs made it difficult to cover her ears. And if she had tried, he would have shackled her wrists to her ankles. He would insist that she listen.
“The most intense experiences of my life have all taken place in that room, Chyna. Not the sex. Not the beating or the cutting. That all comes later, and it’s a lagniappe. First, I break them down, and that is when it gets intense.”
Her chest was tight. She could breathe only shallowly.
He said, “The first day or two, they all think they’ll go out of their minds with fear, but they’re wrong. It takes longer than a day or two to drive someone insane, truly and irrevocably insane. Ariel is my seventh captive, and the others all held on to their sanity for weeks. One of them cracked on the eighteenth day, but three of them lasted a full two months.”
Chyna gave up on the elusive Wild Wood and met his gaze across the table.
“Psychological torture is so much more interesting and difficult to undertake than the physical variety, although the latter can be undeniably thrilling,” Vess said. “The mind is so much tougher than the body, a greater challenge by far. And when the mind goes, I swear that I can hear the crack, a harder sound than bone splitting — and oh, how it reverberates.”
She tried to see the animal consciousness in his eyes, which she had glimpsed unexpectedly before. She needed to see it.
“When they crack, some of them writhe on the floor, thrash, rend their clothes. They tear at their hair, Chyna, and claw their faces, and some of them bite themselves hard enough to draw blood. They maim themselves in so many inventive ways. They sob and sob, can’t stop for hours, sometimes for days, sobbing in their sleep. They bark like dogs, Chyna, and screech and flail their arms as if they’re convinced that they can fly. They hallucinate and see things more frightening than I am to them. Some speak in tongues. It’s called glossolalia. Do you know the condition? Quite fascinating. Convincingly like a language yet meaningless, a ranting or pleading babble. Some lose control of their bodily functions and wallow in their filth. Messy but riveting to watch — the true base condition of humanity, to which most people can only admit in madness.”
As hard as she tried, Chyna could see no beast in his eyes, only a placid blueness and the watchful darkness of the pupil, and she was no longer sure that she had ever seen it. He wasn’t half man and half wolf, not a creature that fell to all fours in the light of the full moon. Worse, he was nothing but a man — living at one extreme end of the spectrum of human cruelty, but nonetheless only a man.
“Some take refuge in catatonic silences,” Vess continued, “as Ariel has done. But I always break them out of that. Ariel is by far the most stubborn, but that only makes her interesting. I’ll break her too, and when her crack comes, Chyna, it’ll be like no other. Glorious. Intense.”
“The most intense experience of all is showing mercy,” Chyna said, and had no idea whatsoever where she had found those words. They sounded like a plea, and she didn’t want him to think that she was begging for her life. Even in her despair, she would not be reduced to groveling.
A sudden smile made Vess look almost like a boy, one given to puns and pranks, collector of baseball cards, rider of bikes, builder of model airplanes, and altar boy on Sundays. She thought that he was smiling at what she’d said, amused by her naiveté, but this was not the case, as he made clear with his next words.
“Maybe…what I want from you,” Vess said, “is to be with me when I finally make Ariel snap. Instead of killing you in front of her to drive her over the edge, I’ll drive her some other way. And you can watch.”
“You’re a psychology student, after all, almost a genuine master of psychology. Right? Sitting there in such stern judgment of me, so certain that my mind is ‘aberrant’ and that you know exactly how I think. Well, then, how interesting it would be to see if any of the modern theories of the working of the mind are undone by this little experiment. Don’t you think so? After I break Ariel, you could write a paper about it, Chyna, for my eyes only. I’d enjoy reading your considered observations.”
Dear God, it would never come to that. She’d never be a witness to such a thing. Though in shackles, she would find a way to commit suicide before she would let him take her down to that room to watch that lovely girl…to watch her dissolve. Chyna would bite open her own wrists, swallow her tongue, contrive to fall down the steps and break her neck, something. Something.
Evidently aware that he had jolted her out of gray despair into stark horror, Vess smiled again — and then turned his attention to her breakfast plate. “Do you intend to eat the rest of that?”
“Then I’ll have it.”
He slid his empty plate aside and pulled hers in front of him. Using her fork, he cut a bite-size piece of the cold omelet, put it in his mouth, and moaned softly in delight. Slowly, sensuously, Vess extracted the tines from his mouth, pressing his lips firmly around them as they slid loose, then reaching with his tongue for one last lick.
After he swallowed the bite of eggs, he said, “I could taste you on the fork. Your saliva has a lovely flavor — except for a faint bitterness. No doubt that’s not a usual component, just the result of a sour stomach.”
She could find no escape by closing her eyes, so she watched as he devoured the remains of her breakfast.
When he finished, she had a question of her own. “Last night…why did you eat the spider?”
“That’s no answer.”
“It’s the best answer to any question.”
“Then give me second-best.”
“You think it was disgusting?”
“I’m just curious.”
“No doubt, you see it as a negative experience — eating an icky, squirmy spider.”
“But there are no negative experiences, Chyna. Only sensations. No values can be attached to pure sensation.”
“Of course they can.”
“If you think so, then you’re in the wrong century. Anyway, the spider had an interesting flavor, and now I understand spiders better for having absorbed one. Do you know about flatworm learning?”
“You should have encountered it in a basic biology course along the way to becoming such a highly educated woman. You see, certain flatworms can gradually learn to negotiate a maze —”
She did remember, and interrupted: “Then if you grind them up and feed them to another batch of flatworms, batch number two can run the same maze on the first try.”
“Good. Yes.” Vess nodded happily. “They absorb the knowledge with the flesh.”
She didn’t need to consider how to phrase her next question, for Vess could be neither insulted nor flattered. “Jesus, you don’t actually believe you now know what it’s like to be a spider, have all the knowledge of a spider, because you’ve eaten one?”
“Of course not, Chyna. If I were that literal-minded, I’d be crazy. Wouldn’t I? In an institution somewhere, talking to a crowd of imaginary friends. But because of my sharp senses, I did absorb from the spider an ineffable quality of spiderness that you’ll never be able to understand. I heightened my awareness of the spider as a marvelously engineered little hunter, a creature of power. Spider is a power word, you know, though it can’t be formed from the letters of my name.” He hesitated, pondering, and then continued: “It can be formed from the letters of your name.”
She didn’t bother to remind him about her mother’s precious spelling. Only spyder could be found in Chyna Shepherd.
“And it was risky, eating a spider, which added considerably to the appeal,” Vess continued. “Unless you’re an entomologist, you can’t be sure if any particular specimen is poisonous or not. Some, like the brown recluse, are extremely dangerous. A bite on the hand is one thing…but I had to be sure that I was quick and crushed it against the roof of my mouth before it could bite my tongue.”
“You like taking risks.”
He shrugged. “I’m just that kind of guy.”
“Words in my name,” he acknowledged.
“And if you’d been bitten on the tongue?”
“Pain is the same as pleasure, just different. Learn to enjoy it, and you’re happier with life.”
“Even pain is value neutral?”
“Sure. Just sensation. It helps grow the reef of the soul — if there is a soul.”
She didn’t know what the hell he was talking about — the reef of the soul — and she didn’t ask. She was weary of him. Weary of fearing him, even weary of hating him. With her questions, she was striving to understand, as she had striven all her life, and she was tired to death of this search for meaning. She would never know why some people committed countless little cruelties — or bigger ones — and the struggle to understand had only exhausted her and left her empty, cold, and gray inside.
Pointing to her red and swollen index finger, Vess said, “That must hurt. And your neck.”
“The headache’s the worst of it. And none of it’s anything like pleasure.”
“Well, I can’t easily show you the way to enlightenment and prove you’re wrong. It takes time. But there’s a smaller lesson, quick to learn….”
He got up from his chair and went to a spice rack at the end of the kitchen cabinets. Among the small bottles and tins of thyme, cloves, dill, nutmeg, chili pepper, ginger, marjoram, and cinnamon was a bottle of aspirin.
“I don’t take this for headaches, because I like to savor the pain. But I keep aspirin on hand because, once in a while, I like to chew on them for the taste.”
“Just bitter. Bitterness can be as pleasing as sweetness when you learn that every experience, every sensation, is worthwhile.”
He returned to the table with the bottle of aspirin. He put it in front of her — and took away her glass of water.
“No, thanks,” she said.
“Bitterness has its place.”
She ignored the bottle.
“Suit yourself,” Vess said, clearing the plates off the table.
Although Chyna needed relief from her various pains, she refused to touch the aspirin. Perhaps irrationally — but nonetheless strongly — she felt that by chewing a few of the tablets, even strictly for the medicinal effect, she would be stepping into the strange rooms of Edgler Vess’s madness. This was a threshold that she didn’t care to cross for any purpose, even with one foot solidly anchored in the real world.
He hand-washed the breakfast plates, bowls, pans, and utensils. He was efficient and fastidious, using steaming hot water and lots of lemon-scented dishwashing liquid.
Chyna had one more question that could not go unasked, and at last she said, “Why the Templetons? Why choose them of all people? It wasn’t random, was it, not just the place you happened to stop in the night?”
“Not just random,” he agreed, scrubbing the omelet pan with a plastic scouring pad. “A few weeks back, Paul Templeton was up this way on business, and when —”