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BOOK: The Road Virus Heads North
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five I dollars for them, wrote the sale carefully down on her pad below "ONE DOZ. ASSORTED POTHOLDERS & HOTPADS,"

then turned back to Kinnell.

They went out to Arizona," she said, "to stay with Iris's folks. I know George is looking for work out there in Flagstaff-he's a

draftsman-but I don't know if he's found any yet. If he has, I suppose we might not ever see them again here in Rosewood. She marked

out all the stuff she wanted me to sell-Iris did - and told me I could keep twenty percent for my trouble. I'll send a check for the rest.

There won't be much." She sighed.

"The picture is great," Kinnell said.

"Yeah, too bad he burned the rest, because most of this other stuff is your standard yard sale crap, pardon my French. What's that?"

Kinnell had turned the picture around. There was a length of Dymotape pasted to the back.

"A tide, I think."

"What does it say?"

He grabbed the picture by the sides and held it up so she could read it for herself This put the picture at eye level to him, and he

studied it eagerly, once again taken by the simpleminded weirdness of the subject., kid behind the wheel of a muscle car, a kid with a

nasty, knowing grin that revealed the filed points of an even nastier set of teeth.

It fits, he thought. If ever a title futted a painting, this one does.

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" The Road Virus Heads North," she read. "I never noticed that when my boys were lugging stuff out. Is it the tide, do you think?"

"Must be." Kinnell couldn't take his eyes off the blond kid's grin. I know something, the grin said. I know something you never will.

"Well, I guess you'd have to believe the fella who did this was high on drugs," she said, sounding upset - authentically upset, Kinnell

thought. "No wonder he could kill himself and break his mamma's heart."

"I've got to be heading north myself," Kinnell said, tucking the picture under his arm. "Thanks for-"

" Mr. Kinnell?"

"Yes?"

"Can I see your driver's license?" She apparently found nothing ironic or even amusing in this request. "I ought to write the number on

the back of your check."

Kinnell put the picture down so he could dig for his wallet. "Sure. You bet."

The woman who'd bought the Star Wars placemats had paused on her way back to her car to watch some of the soap opera playing on

the lawn TV. Now she glanced at the picture, which Kinnell had propped against his shins.

"Ag," she said. "Who'd want an ugly old thing like that? I'd think about it every time I turned the lights out."

"What's wrong with that?" Kinnell asked.

Kinnell's Aunt Trudy lived in Wells, which is about six miles north of the Maine - New Hampshire border. Kinnell pulled off at the

exit which circled the bright green Wells water tower, the one with the comic sign on it (KEEP MAINE GREEN, BRING MONEY in

letters four feet high), and five minutes later he was turning into the driveway of her neat little saltbox house. No TV sinking into the

lawn on paper ashtrays here, only Aunt Trudy's amiable masses of flowers. Kinnell needed to pee and hadn't wanted to take care of

that in a roadside rest stop when he could come here, but he also wanted an update on all the family gossip. Aunt Trudy retailed the

best; she was to gossip what Zabar's is to deli. Also, of course, he wanted to show her his new acquisition.

She came out to meet him, gave him a hug, and covered his face with her patented little birdy-kisses, the ones that had made him

shiver all over as a kid.

"Want to see something?" he asked her. "It'll blow your pantyhose off."

"What a charming thought," Aunt Trudy said, clasping her elbows in her palms and looking at him with amusement.

He opened the trunk and took out his new picture. It affected her, all right, but not in the way he had expected. The color fell out of her

face in a sheet-he had never seen anything quite like it in his entire life. "It's horrible," she said in a tight, controlled voice. "I hate it. I

suppose I can see what attracted you to it, Richie, but what you play at, it does for, real. Put it back in your trunk, like a good boy. And

when you get to the Saco River, why don't you pull over into the breakdown lane and throw it in?"

He gaped at her. Aunt Trudy's lips were pressed tightly together to stop them trembling, and now her long, thin hands were not just

clasping her elbows but clutching them, as if to keep her from flying away. At that moment she looked not sixty-one but ninety-one.

" Auntie?" Kinnell spoke tentatively, not sure what was going on here. "Auntie, what's wrong?"

"That." she said, unlocking her right hand and pointing at the picture. "I'm surprised you don't feel it more strongly yourself, an

imaginative guy like you."

Well, he felt something, obviously he had, or he never would have unlimbered his checkbook in the first place. Aunt Trudy was

feeling something else, though ... or something more. He turned the picture around so he could see it (he had been holding it out for

her, so the side with the Dymotaped title faced him), and looked at it again. What he saw hit him in the chest and belly like a one-two

punch.

The picture had changed, that was punch number one. Not much, but it had dearly changed. The young blond man's smile was wider,

revealing more of those filed cannibal-teeth. His eyes were squinted down more, too, giving his face a look which was more knowing

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and nastier than ever.

The degree of a smile ... the vista of sharpened teeth widening slightly ... the tilt and squint of the eyes ... all pretty subjective stuff. A

person could be mistaken about things like that, and of course he hadn't really studied the painting before buying it. Also, there had

been the distraction of Mrs. Diment, who could probably talk the cock off a brass monkey.

But there was also punch number two, and that wasn't subjective. In the darkness of the Audi's trunk, the blond young man had turned

his left arm, the one cocked on the door, so that Kinnell could now see a tattoo which had been hidden before. It was a vine-wrapped

dagger with a bloody tip. Below it were words. Kinnell could make Out DEATH BEFORE, and he supposed you didn't have to be a

big best-selling novelist to figure out the word that was still hidden. DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR was, after all, just the sort of a

thing a hoodoo traveling man like this was apt to have on his arm. And an ace of spades or a pot plant on the other one, Kinnell

thought.

"You hate it, don't you, Auntie?" he asked.

"Yes," she said, and now he saw an even more amazing thing: she had turned away from him, pretending to look out at the street

(which was dozing and deserted in the hot afternoon sunlight), so she wouldn't have to look at the picture. "In fact, Auntie loathes it.

Now put it away and come on into the house. I'll bet you need to use the bathroom."

Aunt Trudy recovered her savoir faire almost as soon as the watercolor was back in the trunk. They talked about Kinnell's mother

(Pasadena), his sister (Baton Rouge), and his ex-wife, Sally (Nashua). Sally was a space-case who ran an animal shelter out of a

double-wide trailer and published two newsletters each month. Survivors was filled with astral info and supposedly true tales of the

spirit world; Visitors contained the reports of people who'd had close encounters with space aliens. Kinnell no longer went to fan

conventions which specialized in fantasy and horror. One Sally in a lifetime, he sometimes told people, was enough.

When Aunt Trudy walked him back out to the car, it was fourthirty and he'd turned down the obligatory dinner invitation. "I can get

most of the way back to Derry in daylight, if I leave now."

"Okay," she said. "And I'm sorry I was so mean about your picture. Of course you like it, you've always liked your ... your oddities. It

just hit me the wrong way. That awful face. " She shuddered. "As if we were looking at him . . . and he was looking right back."

Kinnell grinned and kissed the tip of her nose. "You've got quite an imagination yourself, sweetheart."

"Of course, it runs in the family. Are you sure you don't want to use the facility again before you go?"

He shook his head. "That's not why I stop, anyway, not really."

"Oh? Why do you?"

He grinned. "Because you know who's being naughty and who's being nice. And you're not afraid to share what you know."

"Go on, get going," she said, pushing at his shoulder but clearly pleased. "If I were you, I'd want to get home quick. I wouldn't want

that nasty guy riding along behind me in the dark, even in the trunk. I mean, did you see his teeth? Ag!"

He got on the turnpike, trading scenery for speed, and made it as far as the Gray service area before deciding to have another look at

the picture. Some of his aunt's unease had transmitted itself to him like a germ, but he didn't think that was really the problem. The.

problem was his perception that the picture had changed.

The service area featured the usual gourmet chow - burgers by Roy Rogers, cones by TCBY - and had a small, littered picnic and

dogwalking area at the rear. Kinnell parked next to a van with Missouri plates, drew in a deep breath, let it out. He'd driven to Boston

in order to kill some plot gremlins in the new book, which was pretty ironic. He'd spent the ride down working out what he'd say on

the panel if certain tough questions were tossed at him, but none had been-once they'd found out he didn't know where he got his

ideas, and yes, he did sometimes scare himself, they'd only wanted to know how you got an agent.

And now, heading back, he couldn't think of anything but the damned picture.

Had it changed? If it had, if the blond kid's arm had moved enough so he, Kinnell, could read a tattoo which had been partly hidden

before, then he could write a column for one of Sally's magazines. Hell, a fourpart series. If, on the other hand, it wasn't changing,

then ... what? He was suffering a hallucination? Having a breakdown? That was crap. His life was pretty much in order, and he felt

good. Had, anyway, until his fascination with the picture had begun to waver into something else, something darker.

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"Ah, fuck, you just saw it wrong the first time," he said out loud as he got out of the car. Well, maybe. Maybe. It wouldn't be the first

time his head had screwed with his perceptions. That was also a part of what he did. Sometimes his imagination got a little ... well ...

"Feisty," Kinnell said, and opened the trunk. He took the picture out of the trunk and looked at it, and it was during the space of the

ten seconds when he looked at it without remembering to breathe that he became authentically afraid of the thing, afraid the way you

were afraid of a sudden dry rattle in the bushes, afraid the way you were when you saw an insect that would probably sting if you

provoked it.

The blond driver was grinning insanely at him now-yes, at him, Kinnell was sure of it-with those filed cannibal-teeth exposed all the

way to the gumlines. His eyes simultaneously glared and laughed. And the Tobin Bridge was gone. So was the Boston skyline. So was

the sunset. It was almost dark in the painting now, the car and its wild rider illuminated by a single streetlamp that ran a buttery glow

across the road and the car's chrome. It looked to Kinnell as if the car (he was pretty sure it was a Grand Am) was on the edge of a

small town on Route 1, and he was pretty sure he knew what town it was-he had driven through it himself only a few hours ago.

"Rosewood," he muttered. "That's Rosewood. I'm pretty sure."

The Road Virus was heading north, all right, coming up Route 1 just as he had. The blond's left arm was still cocked out the window,

but it had rotated enough back toward its original position so that Kinnell could no longer see the tattoo. But he knew it was there,

didn't he? Yes, you bet.

The blond kid looked like a Metallica fan who had escaped from a mental asylum for the criminally insane.

"Jesus," Kinnell whispered, and the word seemed to come from someplace else, not from him. The strength suddenly ran out of his

body, ran out like water from a bucket with a hole in the bottom, and he sat down heavily on the curb separating the parking lot from

the dog-walking zone. He suddenly understood that this was the truth he'd missed in all his fiction, this was how people really reacted

when they came face-to-face with something which made no rational sense. You felt as if you were bleeding to death, only inside your

head.

"No wonder the guy who painted it killed himself," he croaked, still staring at the picture, at the ferocious grin, at the eyes that were

both shrewd and stupid.

There was a note pinned to his shirt, Mrs. Diment had said. "I can't stand what's happening to me. " Isn't that awful, Mr. Kinnell?

Yes, it was awful, all right.

Really awful.

He got up, gripping the picture by its top, then strode across the dog-walking area. He kept his eyes trained strictly in front of him,

looking for canine land mines. He did not look down at the picture. His legs felt trembly and untrustworthy, but they seemed to

support him all right. just ahead, close to the belt of trees at the rear of the service area, was a pretty young thing in white shorts and a

BOOK: The Road Virus Heads North
6.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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