My mouth ran dry; I had no spit.


“I don’t know what your definition of favor en—”

“It was all for you,” he said. “Washington. Mom. We could’ve been amazing, brother. I could’ve freed you. Like Luther. I held the mirror up for him, too, you see. Showed him the demon. He didn’t spit in my face.” Orson began pinching his cheeks and scraping the skin off his face with the knife, as if amused with the lack of feeling in his brittle epidermis. He bled in several places. “You came in my house,” he continued. “While I slept in my bed. Tortured me.” He stared into my eyes. “You scare me, Andy. And that should not happen.”

“I swear—”

“I know—you’ll never come after me again. Andy, when a person knows their death is imminent, they’ll say anything. I was carving this guy up once, and he told me his grandfather had molested him. Just blurted it out between screams, like it might change something.” He laughed sadly. “You gonna talk to me while I open you? Nah, I’ll bet you’re just a screamer.”

Orson stepped down off the stool. The largest candle in the shed was a red cinnamon-scented cylinder of wax with the girth of a soup can. It sat on the shelf beside the back door, and he laid the knife blade over its flame and pulled the Glock from his waistband.

“Pick a knee,” he said.

“Why?”

“Disablement. Torture. Death. In that order. It begins now. Pick a knee.”

An extraordinary calm enveloped me. You will not hurt me. I came to my feet and found his eyes, invoking that irrevocable love that was our entitlement.

“Orson. Let’s talk—”

The hollow-point bored into the meat of my left shoulder. On my knees, I watched blood drizzle across the plastic. I smelled gunpowder. I smelled blood. I blacked out.

I stared up into the rafters, flat on my back on the plastic, hands still cuffed behind my back. I attempted to move my feet, but they were tied crudely with thick, coarse rope. One hundred and eighty-five pounds crushed into my ribs, and I moaned.

Straddling me, Orson took the knife off the red candle, which now oozed wax onto the plastic. The carbon blade glowed lava orange, and the metal secreted smoke.

I wore a T-shirt, a sweatshirt, and a shabby burgundy sweater. Starting at my waist, the blade cleaved easily through the layers of scorching fabric, all the way up to the collars at my throat. Then splitting the garments, he exposed my bare torso, the chest hair swaying in the tiny drafts effected by candles in this icy shed. Above the thudding of my heart, I thought I heard something on the desert, a distant whine, like mosquitoes behind my ear.

“Wow. Look how fast your heart’s palpitating,” he said, placing his hand on my shuddering chest. He tapped my breastbone. “I’m gonna saw through that now. Anxious?”

When the knife point met my left nipple, I chomped my teeth and flexed every muscle, as though the tension might thwart the penetration of the fiery blade.

“Easy,” he said. “I want you to relax. It’ll hurt more.” Orson moved the knife two inches to the left of my nipple and inserted the blade an eighth of an inch. The metal was brutally cold, and I shivered as I watched him slit a sloppy circle, four inches in diameter. Blood pooled in my navel, and Orson spoke to me while he carved, his voice flowing psychotic peace.

“Two-thirds of your heart lies to the left of your sternum. So I’m giving myself an outline to work with.” He sighed. “I’d have taught you this, you know. On someone else. Look at that.” He held the tip of the knife under my eye so I could see my blood sizzling on the amber blade. “I know you don’t feel anything yet,” he said. “That’s the power of adrenaline. Your pain receptors are blocked.” He smiled. “But that won’t last much longer. They can only mask so much pain.”

“Orson,” I pleaded, on the brink of tears now. “What about the gift?”

He looked down at me, puzzled; then, remembering, he said, “Ah, the gift. You nosy bastard.” He put his lips to my ear. “Willard was the gift.”

He braced his left hand against my forehead and gripped the knife in his other. “Sometimes I wonder, Andy, what if he’d picked you?”

Someone knocked on the back door. Orson stiffened. “I want you to say something,” he whispered as he stood up. “Swear to God, I’ll keep you alive for days.” Setting the knife on the stool, he walked to the door and drew the Glock.

Percy Madding’s voice came through the door: “Dave, you in there? You all right?”

I strained to sit up on the plastic.

Orson fired eight shots through the wood at waist level. Looking back at me, he smiled. “That, Andy, is what you call—”

A shotgun report blasted through the door, and Orson’s chest caught the full load of double-aught buckshot. It knocked him off his feet and slammed him on his back as if a man had thrown him. Orson struggled to his hands and knees, stunned, staring at me as sanguine globs dropped out of his chest onto the concrete. Percy burst through the door and kicked the gun out of his hands. My brother crawled toward me, then eased back down onto the concrete, hissing shoal, sputtering breaths.

Leaning his double-barreled shotgun beside the door, Percy approached the plastic and squatted beside me. From the shallowness of his breathing, I could tell he’d been hit. He looked strangely at the pole, the leash, the sheet of plastic, the ragged bloody circle in my chest.

“He got the key to these cuffs on him?” he asked gruffly, twisting his snowy mustache. His voice was strong, but his hands shook. When I nodded, he walked over to Orson and dug through his pockets until he found the key. He told me to roll over, and then, after unlocking the handcuffs, he unsheathed a bowie knife from his belt and cut the rope that bound my feet.

“You hit?” I asked. He touched his side. Down mushroomed out of a hole in his camouflage vest.

“Just a graze, though,” he said as I unbuckled the collar. “I see you took one in the shoulder. Them hollow-points, ain’t they?”

“Yes sir.”

“Then it’s still in there.” Percy walked over to Orson and pressed two fingers into the side of his neck. “This your brother?” he asked, waiting on a pulse. I nodded. “What in holy hell was he doing to you?” I didn’t answer. “Reckon we better get us to a doctor.”

I came to my feet and, starting for the back door, said, “I have to get some things from the cabin first. Would you mind helping me?”

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