The Road Virus Heads North (4 page)

BOOK: The Road Virus Heads North
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piece of road that could only be an exit ramp. Moonlight shone like liquid satin on the car's dark flank. In the background was a water

tower, and the words on it were easily readable in the moonlight. KEEP MAINE GREEN, they said. BRING MONEY.

Kinnell didn't hit the picture with the first squeeze of lighter fluid; his hands were shaking badly and the aromatic liquid simply ran

down the unbroken part of the glass, blurring the Road Virus's back deck. He took a deep breath, aimed, then squeezed again. This

time the lighter fluid squirted in through the jagged hole made by one of the firedogs and ran down the picture, cutting through the

paint, making it run, turning a Goodyear Wide Oval into a sooty teardrop.

Kinnell took one of the ornamental matches from the jar on the mantel, struck it on the hearth, and poked it in through the hole in the

glass. The painting caught at once, fire billowing up and down across the Grand Am and the water tower. The remaining glass in the

frame turned black, then broke outward in a shower of flaming pieces. Kinnell crunched them under his sneakers, putting them out

before they could set the rug on fire.

He went to the phone and punched in Aunt Trudy's number, unaware that he was crying. On the third ring, his aunt's answering

machine picked up. "Hello," Aunt Trudy said, "I know it encourages the burglars to say things like this, but I've gone up to Kennebunk

to watch the new Harrison Ford movie. If you intend to break in, please don't take my china pigs. If you want to leave a message, do

so at the beep."

Kinnell waited, then, keeping his voice as steady as possible, he said:

"It's Richie, Aunt Trudy. Call me when you get back, okay? No matter how late."

He hung up, looked at the TV, then dialed Newswire again, this time punching in the Maine area code. While the computers on the

other end processed his order, he went back and used a poker to jab at the blackened, twisted thing in the fireplace. The stench was

ghastly - it made the spilled vinegar smell like a flowerpatch in comparison-but Kinnell found he didn't mind. The picture was entirely

gone, reduced to ash, and that made it worthwhile.

Mat if it comes back again?

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"It won't," he said, putting the poker back and returning to the TV. "I'm sure it won't."

But every time the news scroll started to recycle, he got up to check. The picture was just ashes on the hearth ... and there was no word

of elderly women being murdered in the Wells-Saco-Kennebunk area of the state. Kinnell kept watching, almost expecting to see A

GRAND AM MOVING AT HIGH SPEED CRASHED INTO A KENNEBUNK MOVIE THEATER TONIGHT, KILLING AT

LEAST TEN, but nothing of the sort showed up.

At a quarter of eleven the telephone rang. Kinnell snatched it up. "Hello?"

"It's Trudy, dear. Are you all right?"

"Yes, fine."

"You don't sound fine," she said. "Your voice sounds trembly and funny. What's wrong? What is it?" And then, chilling him but not

really surprising him: "It's that picture you were so pleased with, isn't it? That goddamned picture!"

It calmed him somehow, that she should guess so much ... and, of course, there was the relief of knowing she was safe.

"Well, maybe," he said. "I had the heebie-jeebies all the way back here, so I burned it. In the fireplace."

She's going to find out about Judy Diment, you know, a voice inside warned. She doesn't have a twenty-thousand-dollar satellite

hookup, but she does subscribe to the Union-Leader and this'll be on the front page. She'll put two and two together. She's far from

stupid.

Yes, that was undoubtedly true, but further explanations could wait until the morning, when he might be a little less freaked ... when

he might've found a way to think about the Road Virus without losing his mind ... and when he'd begun to be sure it was really over.

"Good!" she said emphatically. "You ought to scatter the ashes, too!" She paused, and when she spoke again, her voice was lower.

"You were worried about me, weren't you? Because you showed it to me.

"A little, yes."

"But you feel better now?"

He leaned back and closed his eyes. It was true, he did. "Uh-huh. How was the movie?"

"Good. Harrison Ford looks wonderful in a uniform. Now, if he'd just get rid of that little bump on his chin . . ."

"Good night, Aunt Trudy. We'll talk tomorrow."

"Will we?"

"Yes," he said. "I think so."

He hung up, went over to the fireplace again, and stirred the ashes with the poker. He could see a scrap of fender and a ragged little

flap of road, but that was it. Fire was what it had needed all along, apparently. Wasn't that how you usually killed supernatural

emissaries of evil? Of course it was. He'd used it a few times himself, most notably in The Departing, his haunted train station novel.

"Yes, indeed," he said. "Bum, baby, bum."

He thought about getting the drink he'd promised himself, then remembered the spilled bottle of vinegar (which by now would

probably be soaking into the spilled oatmeal-what a thought). He decided he would simply go on upstairs instead. In a book-one by

Richard Kinnell, for instance - sleep would be out of the question after the sort of thing which had just happened to him.

In real life, he thought he might sleep just fine.

He actually dozed off in the shower, leaning against the back wall with his hair full of shampoo and the water beating on his chest. He

was at the yard sale again, and the TV standing on the paper ashtrays was broadcasting Judy Diment. Her head was back on, but

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Kinnell could see the medical examiner's primitive industrial stitchwork; it circled her throat like a grisly necklace. "Now this New

England Newswire update," she said, and Kinnell, who had always been a vivid dreamer, could actually see the stitches on her neck

stretch and relax as she spoke. "Bobby Hastings took all his paintings and burned them, including yours, Mr. Kinnell ... and it is yours,

as I'm sure you know. All sales are final, you saw the sign. Why, you just ought to be glad I took your check."

Burned all his paintings, yes, of course he did, Kinnell thought in his watery dream. He couldn't stand what was happening to him,

that's what the note said, and when you get to that point in the festivities, you don't pause to see if you want to except one special piece

of work from the bonfire. It's just that you got something special into The Road Virus Heads North, didn't you, Bobby? And probably

completely by accident. You were talented, I could see that right away, but talent has nothing to do with what's going on in that

picture.

"Some things are just good at survival," Judy Diment said on the TV. "They keep coming back no matter how hard you try to get rid

of them. They keep coming back like viruses."

Kinnell reached out and changed the channel, but apparently there was nothing on all the way around the dial except for The Judy

Diment Show.

" You might say he opened a hole into the basement of the universe," she was saying now. "Bobby Hastings, I mean. And this is what

drove out. Nice, isn't it?"

Kinnell's feet slid then, not enough to go out from under him completely, but enough to snap him to.

He opened his eyes, winced at the immediate sting of the soap (Prell had run down his face in thick white rivulets while he had been

dozing), and cupped his hands under the shower-spray to splash it away. He did this once and was reaching out to do it again when he

heard something. A ragged rumbling sound.

Don't be stupid, he told himself. All you hear is the shower. The rest is only imagination.

Except it wasn't.

Kinnell reached out and turned off the water.

The rumbling sound continued. Low and powerful. Coming from outside.

He got out of the shower and walked, dripping, across his bedroom on the second floor. There was still enough shampoo in his hair to

make him look as if it had turned white while he was dozing-as if his dream of Judy Diment had turned it white.

My did I ever stop at that yard sale? he asked himself, but for this he had no answer. He supposed no one ever did.

The rumbling sound grew louder as he approached the window overlooking the driveway-the driveway that glimmered in the summer

moonlight like something out of an Alfred Noyes poem.

As he brushed aside the curtain and looked out, he found himself thinking of his ex-wife, Sally, whom he had met at the World

Fantasy Convention in 1978. Sally, who now published two magazines out of

her trailer home, one called Survivors, one called Visitors. Looking down at the driveway, these two tides came together in Kinnell's

mind like a double image in a stereopticon.

He had a visitor who was definitely a survivor.

The Grand Am idled in front of the house, the white haze from its twin chromed tailpipes rising in the still night air. The Old English

letters on the back deck were perfectly readable. The driver's side door stood open, and that wasn't all; the light spilling down the

porch steps suggested that Kinnell's front door was also open.

Forgot to lock it, Kinnell thought, wiping soap off his forehead with a hand he could no longer feel. Forgot to reset the burglar alarm,

too . not that it would have made much difference to this guy.

Well, he might have caused it to detour around Aunt Trudy, and that was something, but just now the thought brought him no comfort.

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Survivors.

The soft rumble of the big engine, probably at least a 442 with a four-barrel carb, reground valves, fuel injection.

He turned slowly on legs that had lost all feeling, a naked man with a headful of soap, and saw the picture over his bed, just as he'd

known he would. In it, the Grand Am stood in his driveway with the driver's door open and two plumes of exhaust rising from the

chromed tailpipes. From this angle he could also see his own front door, standing open, and a long man-shaped shadow stretching

down the hall.

Survivors.

Survivors and visitors.

Now he could hear feet ascending the stairs. It was a heavy tread, and he knew without having to see that the blond kid was wearing

motorcycle boots. People with DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR tattooed on their arms always wore motorcycle boots, just as they

always smoked unfiltered Camels. These things were like a national law.

And the knife. He would be carrying a long, sharp knife - more of a machete, actually, the sort of knife that could strike off a person's

head in a single sweeping stroke.

And he would be grinning, showing those filed cannibal-teeth.

Kinnell knew these things. He was an imaginative guy, after all.

He didn't need anyone to draw him a picture.

"No," he whispered, suddenly conscious of his global nakedness, suddenly freezing all the way around his skin. "No, please, go

away." But the footfalls kept coming, of course they did. You couldn't tell a guy like this to go away. It didn't work; it wasn't the way

the story was supposed to end.

Kinnell could hear him nearing the top of the stairs. Outside the Grand Am went on rumbling in the moonlight.

The feet coming down the hall now, worn bootheels rapping on polished hardwood.

A terrible paralysis had gripped Kinnell. He threw it off with an effort and bolted toward the bedroom door, wanting to lock it before

the thing could get in here, but he slipped in a puddle of soapy water and this time he did go down, flat on his back on the oak planks,

and what he saw as the door clicked open and the motorcycle boots crossed the room toward where he lay, naked and with his hair full

of Prell, was the picture hanging on the wall over his bed, the picture of the Road Virus idling in front of his house with the driver's

side door open.

The driver's side bucket seat, he saw, was full of blood. I'm going outside, I think, Kinnell thought, and closed his eyes.

file://C:\Documents and Settings\Owner\My Documents\DOUGIE\Stephen King\Stephen King - ... 7/22/2006

BOOK: The Road Virus Heads North
12.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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