Downtown Woodside was hopping for 10:30 at night. In spite of the cold, students filled the sidewalks. I could see a hundred miniature clouds of breath vapor, and hear their hollering through the glass. Dueling bars on opposite sides of the street had students milling outside the doors in long, anxious lines, waiting to reach the mirthful warmth inside. It made perfect sense to me. It was too cold in this town to do anything but drink.
Seven point eight miles from Beans n’ Bagels, Walter eased off the pavement, pulling onto the soft, wide shoulder of 116. He drove through the grass for a hundred yards and stopped in the shadow of two oaks.
“Your shovel’s back there,” he said. “I saw it against that tree.” He leaned back in his seat and killed the engine. I turned around and looked through the back windshield. Up and down the highway, bathed now in blue frozen moonlight, nothing moved.
“How’s your face?” he asked.
“My nose feels broken, but it’s not.” It was hot to the touch, the skin across the bridge having tightened from swelling. My left eye had nearly closed, but, surprisingly, it didn’t hurt.
“You wanna help me get him out?” I asked.
Two door slams echoed through the pine forest and up the slopes. An owl hooted somewhere above us, and I pictured it sitting on the flaking branch of a gnarled pine, wide-eyed, listening. I was tipsy from the brandy, and I staggered a little en route to the rear of the Cadillac.
Walter inserted a key and popped open the trunk. Orson lay on his stomach, his arms splayed out above his head. I reached in without hesitation and, grabbing his arms just above the elbows, dragged him out of the trunk and let him fall into the grass. Though he was shirtless, the cold didn’t rouse him. Walter opened the back door and then lifted my brother’s feet. We crammed him into the backseat, and Walter climbed on top of him and handcuffed his wrists behind his back. Turning Orson over, he slapped him hard across the face five times. I didn’t say anything.
Hurrying back to the door, I hopped inside. “Turn the heat on,” I said. “It’s cold as shit.”
Walter cranked the engine, and it idled noiselessly. I bent down and held my face before the vents, letting the engine-heated air thaw my cheeks.
“Orson,” I said, getting up on my knees in the seat and facing the back. He lay unmoving on his stomach, stretched out from door to door. I could see his face—his eyes were closed. Reaching into the backseat, I grabbed his arms and shook him violently, but he made no sound.
I climbed into the backseat and knelt down on the floorboard so we were face-to-face. “Orson,” I said, so near to his lips, I could’ve kissed him. “Wake. Up.” I slapped him. It felt good. “Wake. Up!” I shouted, but he didn’t flinch. “Fuck it.” I crawled back into the front seat. “Guess we’ll just wait.”
“How much did you give him?” Walter asked.
“Look, I don’t want to sit out here all night. Just give him the antidote.”
“It might kill him. It’s a hell of a shock. We should let him come to on his own if he can.”
I stared down the highway and watched a set of headlights suddenly appear and vanish.
“Out in Wyoming,” I said, “you can see headlights when they’re still twenty or thirty miles away.” I angled the seat back and turned onto my right side, facing the door. “Walter?”
“I killed a man in Wyoming.”
He didn’t say anything, and we were quiet for some time.
“You remember that party I threw last May?” I asked finally.
“I keep thinking about that night. We were sitting out on my pier—”
“Pretty drunk, if I recall.”
“Yep. I distinctly remember thinking: You lucky, lucky man. Thirty-four, successful, respected. You have a quality of life most people can’t even fathom.…One week later, to the day, I received that envelope from Orson.…How do we go home after this? I can’t imagine ever wanting to write again. Or feeling normal. Like anything’s good. Like people are capable of goodness.” I motioned to Orson. “When we were in the desert, he told me I had murder in my heart.”
“I think it’s safe to say he was projecting.”
I glanced down at the gun in my lap.
“I think he was right, Walter.”
“You are not an evil person.”
“No, but I could be. I see that now. We’re a lot closer to it than you think.” I dropped my Glock into the fanny pack. “Will you stay awake and watch Orson?”
“Wake me up in an hour, and I’ll let you sleep.”
“There’s no way I’m going to sleep.”
“Then wake me when he wakes.” I curled up in the seat. To fall asleep, I imagined I was lounging in a beach chair in Aruba. The vents were my tropical breeze, and I could even hear the ocean in the vibration of the idling engine.
Hands shook me, and I sat up. My head ached as if a fault had rifted around the perimeter of my skull. Walter stared at me, the .45 in his lap.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“One. He’s stirred, but I don’t think he’s waking up anytime soon. Not coherently at least.”
“All right. I’ll give him the antidote.”
I searched through the fanny pack until I found the 10-mL vial of the benzodiazepine antidote, flumazenil. Aspirating the entire vial, I climbed into the backseat and took hold of Orson’s left arm. Locating the same vein I’d hit before, I penetrated the skin, depressed the plunger with my thumb, and injected one milligram of flumazenil. When the syringe was empty, I slid it out and climbed back into the front seat.
“You ready?” I asked. “He’s gonna come out of this fast. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”
A minute elapsed. Then Orson moved, rubbing his face into the seat and trying to sit up. There was a nasty gash on his forehead where I’d coldcocked him with the butt of the Glock. A trail of dried blood traversed a path from his left eye to the corner of his mouth, like runaway mascara. He mumbled.
“Sit him up,” I said, coming to my knees again and facing the backseat.
Walter grabbed him by his hair and jerked him ruthlessly up into the center seat. Orson steadied himself and opened his eyes. When he saw me, he produced an enervate smile.
“Andy,” he said clearly, “what in the world—”