"Yeah," the waitress said with yet another yawn, "it looks just totally fabulous."
After Darvey shuffled away, as Preston put an extravagant tip on the table, Sinsemilla said, "Lani baby, this morbid thinking is what you get when you read too many trashy nonsense books about evil pigmen. You need some real literature to clear your head out."
Here was advice from the matriarch of the new psychic humanity. And she was serious: Books that lied about the nobility of pigs, and portrayed these good animals as evil, corrupted Leilani's mind and spawned morbid, paranoid notions about what had happened to Lukipela.
"You're amazing, Mother."
Old Sinsemilla put an arm around Leilani and drew her close, squeezing too tightly with what passed, in her dementia, for motherly affection. "Sometimes you worry me, little Klonkinator." Of Preston, she inquired, "Do you think she might be a candidate for therapy?"
"When the time comes, they'll heal her mind and her body both," he predicted. "To a superior extraterrestrial intelligence, the mind and the body are one entity."
Appealing to Darvey for help had been a fiasco, not primarily because the waitress's skull bone was too thick to allow truth to resonate through it, but because for the first time, Leilani had revealed to Preston that she didn't believe his story about Lukipela being beamed up into the gentle caring hands of medicine men from Mars or Andromeda, and that she suspected him of committing murder. He might previously have sensed her suspicion, but now he knew.
As she followed her mother out of the booth, Leilani dared to glance at Preston. He winked.
She could have run for freedom then. In spite of the leg brace, she was able to move with speed and surprising grace for a hundred yards, and then with speed but with less grace; however, if she raced between the tables and out of the restaurant, if she ran along the shopping arcade and into the casino, screaming He's going to kill me, the casino personnel and the gamblers were likely to do nothing more than make bets on how far the malfunctioning girl cyborg would get before colliding disastrously with either a cocktail waitress or a slot-machine-playing grandma in a jackpot-seeking frenzy.
Therefore to the Fair Wind Leilani went, with an ill wind at her back. By the time Darvey was yawning over the tip that she'd received and was thinking that the crazy-rude little crippled kid was lucky to have such a generous father, the motor home returned fully fueled to Interstate 15, once more speeding northeast toward Vegas.
In the co-pilot's seat again, following a morning of relative sobriety, and now fortified by lunch, old Sinsemilla prepared to embark upon the course of mind-expanding medications that any genuinely committed breeder of psychic superhumans must follow. She held a pharmacist's ceramic mortar between her knees and employed a matching pestle to grind three tablets into powder.
Leilani had no idea what this substance might be, except that she confidently ruled out aspirin.
When the hive queen finished grinding, she pinched her right nostril around the stem of a sterling-silver straw and inhaled a portion of this psychoactive farina. Then she switched nostrils in an effort to balance the inevitable long-term damage to nasal cartilage that resulted from being a vacuum cleaner for toxic substances.
Let the party begin, and feel the superbabies mutate.
At Las Vegas, they switched to Federal Highway 95, which struck north along the western edge of Nevada. For a hundred fifty miles, they paralleled the Death Valley National Monument, which lay just across the state line in California. The desolate terrain got no less forbidding past Death Valley, nor later past the town of Goldfield, nor when they angled northwest from Tonopah.
This route kept them far from eastern Nevada, where federal forces had blockaded highways and cordoned off thousands of square miles, searching for drug lords that Preston continued to insist must be ETs. "It's typical government disinformation," he groused.
Seated in the dining nook, Leilani had no interest in drug lords or aliens from another world, and she also had difficulty maintaining an interest in the evil pigmen from another dimension that previously had captured her fancy. This was book three in a six-book pigmen series, and her frustrating inability to concentrate on the story wasn't because the bacony bad guys had grown less mesmerizingly evil or because the amusing heroes had grown less amusing or less heroic. Since her situation with Preston had deteriorated so dramatically, she could no longer easily thrill to the menacing schemes of the pork-bellied villains. A real-world equivalent of a pigman sat behind the wheel of the Fair Wind, wearing sunglasses, Grafting wicked plans that made even the hammiest wrongdoers seem utterly unimaginative and unthreatening by comparison.
Eventually she closed the novel and opened her journal, wherein she recorded the scene at the coffee shop. Later, as the converted Prevost bus laid down a continuous peal of thunder through the arid mountain passes and across the high plains, Leilani preserved her observations of her mother's descent through increasingly disturbing states of altered consciousness. These were brought about by at least two drugs in addition in the pestle-pulverized tablets that Mater had snorted while passing Las Vegas.
Nearing Tonopah, two hundred miles from Vegas, Sinsemilla sat at the dinette with Leilani and prepared to mutilate herself. She laid her "carving towel" on the table: a blue bath towel folded to make padding for her left arm and to catch messy drips. Organized in a Christmas-cookie tin with capering snowmen on the lid, her mutilation kit included rubbing alcohol, cotton balls, gauze pads, adhesive tape, Neosporin, razor blades, three surgical-steel scalpels different in shape from one another, and a fourth scalpel with an exceptionally keen ruby blade intended for eye surgeries in which sufficiently delicate incisions could not be executed with a steel cutting edge.
Resting her arm on the towel, Sinsemilla smiled at the six-inch-long, two-inch-wide, intricate snowflake pattern of scars on her forearm. For long minutes she meditated on this disfiguring lacework.
Leilani ardently wished not to be a witness to this insanity. She wanted to hide from her mother, but the motor home provided no escape. She wasn't permitted in the bedroom that Sinsemilla shared with Preston; and the sofabed in the lounge wasn't far enough away, still within sight. If she retreated to the bathroom and closed the door, her mother might come after her.
Indeed, she'd learned that by showing the slightest revulsion or even mild disapproval, she would precipitate her mother's wrath, a storm not easily ridden out. Conversely, if Leilani expressed an interest in any of her mother's activities, Sinsemilla might accuse her of being nosy or patronizing, whereupon torment of one kind or another would follow.
Indifference remained the safest attitude, even if it might be a pretense that masked disgust. Therefore, as Sinsemilla set out the instruments of self-mutilation, Leilani focused on her journal and wrote busily, without interruption.
This time, indifference provided an inadequate defense. Leilani applied her left hand to most tasks in hope of keeping the deformed joints as flexible as possible, and also to expand the function of the fused digits; consequently, she was an ambidextrous writer. Now, as she penned her journal entry left-handed, her mother watched with growing interest from across the table
. Leilani first assumed that Sinsemilla was curious about what was being written, but her interest proved to be that of a back-porch country whittler with a taste for butchery.
"I could make it pretty," Sinsemilla said.
Leilani replied while continuing to write: "Make what pretty?"
"The gnarly hand, the pigman paw that wants to be a hand and a cloven hoof at the same time, that stumpy little, twisty little, half-baked muffin lump at the end of your arm-that's what. I could make it pretty, and more than pretty. I could make it beautiful, make it art, and you wouldn't ever be ashamed of it again."
Leilani considered herself too well armored to be hurt by her mother. Sometimes, however, the thrust came from such an unexpected direction that the blade found the chink in her defenses, slipped past the ribs, and scored her heart: a quick hot piercing.
"I'm not ashamed of it," she said, dismayed by the tightness in her voice because it revealed that she'd been wounded, even if just lightly pricked. She didn't want to give her mother the satisfaction of knowing that the point had made its pain.
"Brave baby Lani, doin' her nothin'-can-stop-me number, doin' her I-ain't-a-pumpkin-I'm-a-princess routine. Me here talkin' plain truth, while you're the type says Frankenstein's ugly old neck bolts were really jewelry from Tiffany's. I'm not afraid to say cripple, and what you need is a dose of reality, girl. You need to get rid of the idea that thinkin' normal makes you normal, which is gonna only leave you disappointed all your life. You can't ever be normal, but you can be close normal. You hear me?"
"Yes." Leilani wrote faster, determined to record her mother's every word, with notations as to the rhythms and inflections of her speech. By treating this mean monologue as an exercise in dictation, she could distance herself from the cruelty of it, and if she kept her mother at arm's length emotionally, she couldn't be wounded again. You could be hurt only by real people, by real people about whom you cared or at least about whom you wished you could care. So call her "old Sinsemilla" and "hive queen" and "dear Mater," regard her as an object of amusement, a lurching slapstick figure, and then you won't care what she does to herself or what she says about you, because she's just a clown whose gibberish means nothing except that it might be useful in a book if you live long enough to write novels.
"To be close to normal," said old Sinsemilla the hive queen, the electroshocked snakehandler, the wizard-baby breeder, "you've got to face up to what's screwed up. You've got to look at your lobster-claw hand, got to truly see your scare-the-shit-out-of-little-babies hand, and when you can truly see it instead of pretending it's like anyone else's hand, when you can face up to what's screwed up, then you can improve it. And you know how you can improve it?"
"No," said Leilani, writing furiously.
Leilani raised her eyes from the journal.
Sinsemilla slid one fingertip across her forearm, tracing the snowflake scars. "Put your pigman hoof-hand right here on the carving towel, and I'll make it beautiful like me."
Having fed on egg-white omelets with tofu cheese, also having feasted on a banquet of illegal chemicals, Sinsemilla still harbored appetites that perhaps could never be satisfied. Her face was drawn by hunger, and her gaze had teeth.
Eye to eye, Leilani felt as though her mother's stare would gnaw her blind. She looked down at her left hand. Sensing Sinsemilla's attention settle upon those deformed fingers, Leilani expected to see bite marks appear upon her skin, psychic-vampire stigmata.
If she bluntly rejected the offer to have her hand carved to "make it pretty," she might anger her mother. Then the risk was that Sinsemilla's desire to sculpt some skin would soon darken into an obsession and that Leilani would be hectored ceaselessly for days.
During this trip to Idaho and, possibly, to that quiet corner of Montana where Luki waited, Leilani needed to keep a clear mind, to be alert for the first sign that Preston Maddoc was soon to act upon his murderous intent, and to recognize an opportunity to save herself if one arose.
She couldn't do any of those things if her mother bullied her relentlessly. Peace wasn't easy to come by in the Maddoc household, but she needed to negotiate a truce in the matter of mutilation if she were in have any chance of staying clearheaded enough to save herself from worse than a little hand carving.
"It's beautiful," Leilani lied, "but doesn't it hurt?"
Sinsemilla withdrew another item from the Christmas-cookie tin: a bottle of topical anesthetic. "Swab this on your skin, it gives you the numbies, takes away the worst sting. The rest of the pain is just the price you pay for beauty. All the great writers and artists know beauty only comes from pain."
"Put some on my finger," Leilani said, extending her right hand, withholding the deformed hand that her mother wanted to whittle.
A ball of spongy material attached by a stiff wire to the lid served as a swab. The fluid had a peppery scent and felt cool against the soft pad of Leilani's index finger. Her skin tingled and then grew numb, strangely rubbery.
As old Sinsemilla watched with the red-eyed, squint-eyed, hard-eyed hunger of a ferret watching an unsuspecting rabbit, Leilani put down the pen and, not in the least unsuspecting, raised her deformed hand, pretending to examine it thoughtfully. "Your snowflakes are pretty, but I want my own pattern."
"Every child's got to be a rebel, even baby Lani, even little Miss Puritan, she wouldn't eat a slice of rum cake 'cause maybe it would turn her into a gutter-livin' drunkie, wrinkles her nose at her own mother's most harmless pleasures, but even little Miss Tight-ass has to be a rebel sometime, has to have her own pattern. But that's good, Lani, that's just like it ought to be. What a useless suck-up sort of kid would ever want to wear homemade tattoos exactly like her mother's? I don't want that, either. Shit, next thing you know, we'd be dressin' alike, doin' our hair the same, goin' to afternoon tea parties, makin' cakes for some stupid church bake sale, and then Preston would have to shoot us quick and put us out of our misery. What pattern do you have in mind?"
Still studying her hand, Leilani strove to match the tropes and rhythms of her mother's drug-shaped speech, hoping to encourage the hive queen to believe that they were bonding as never before and that many tender hours of shared mutilation were indeed in their future. "I don't know. Somethin' as unique as the cracked-glass
patterns on a horsefly's wings, somethin' awesomely cool, that everyone thinks is bitchin', kind of beautiful but edgy, scary, the way your road-kill pictures are beautiful, somethin' that says Screw you, I'm a mutant and proud of it."
Ferret fierce, storms in her eyes and pent-up thunder waiting to break in her voice, old Sinsemilla did a mood turn on a dime of flattery, caged the ferret, pressed the looming storms back beyond the mountains of her madness, and became kittenish, filled with a girlish sunniness. "Yes! Give the world the finger before the world gives it to you, and in this case, decorate the finger! Maybe there's a little bit of me in you, after all, sweet Leilani, maybe there's rich blood in your veins, just when it looked like there was nothin' but water."