Strange Highways, Page 2Dean Koontz
The casket was a handsome bronze model with polished-copper trim and handles. By phone, Joey had instructed Mr. Devokowski to provide the best. That was how P.J. would want it—and it would be his money paying for it.
Joey approached the bier with the hesitancy of a man in a dream who expects to peer into the coffin and see himself.
But it was Dan Shannon who rested in peace, in a dark-blue suit on a bed of cream-colored satin. The past twenty years had not been kind to him. He looked beaten by time, shrunken by care, and glad to be gone.
Mr. Devokowski had retreated from the room, leaving Joey alone with his dad.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to his father. “Sorry I never came back, never saw you or Mom again.”
Hesitantly, he touched the old man’s pale cheek. It was cold and dry.
He withdrew his hand, and now his whisper was shaky. “I just took the wrong road. A strange highway … and somehow … there was never any coming back. I can’t say why, Dad. I don’t understand it myself.”
For a while he couldn’t speak.
The scent of roses seemed to grow heavier.
Dan Shannon could have passed for a miner, though he had never worked the coal fields even as a boy. Broad, heavy features. Big shoulders. Strong, blunt-fingered hands cross-hatched with scars. He had been a car mechanic, a good one—although in a time and place that had never offered quite enough work.
“You deserved a loving son,” Joey said at last. “Good thing you had two, huh?” He closed his eyes. “I’m sorry. Jesus, I’m so sorry.”
His heart ached with remorse, as heavy as an iron anvil in his chest, but conversations with the dead couldn’t provide absolution. Not even God could give him that now.
When Joey left the viewing room, Mr. Devokowski met him in the front hall of the mortuary. “Does P.J. know yet?”
Joey shook his head. “I haven’t been able to track him down.”
“How can you not be able to track him down? He’s your brother,” Devokowski said. For an instant before he regained the compassionate expression of a funeral director, his contempt was naked.
“He travels all over, Mr. Devokowski. You know about that. He’s always traveling, on the move, researching. It’s not my fault … being out of touch with him.”
Reluctantly, Devokowski nodded. “I saw the piece about him in People a few months ago.”
P.J. Shannon was the quintessential writer of life on the road, the most famous literary Gypsy since Jack Kerouac.
“He should come home for a while,” Devokowski said, “maybe write another book about Asherville. I still think that was his best. When he hears about your dad, poor P.J., he’s going to be broken up real bad. P.J. really loved your dad.”
So did I, Joey thought, but he didn’t say it. Given his actions over the past twenty years, he wouldn’t be believed. But he had loved Dan Shannon. God, yes. And he’d loved his mother, Kathleen—whose funeral he had avoided and to whose deathbed he had never gone.
“P.J. visited just in August. Stayed about a week. Your dad took him all over, showing him off. He was so proud, your dad.”
Devokowski’s assistant, an intense young man in a dark suit, entered the far end of the hallway. He spoke in a practiced hush: “Sir, it’s time to transport the deceased to Our Lady.”
Devokowski checked his watch. To Joey, he said, “You’re going to the Mass?”
“Yes, of course.”
The funeral director nodded and turned away, conveying by body language that this particular son of Dan Shannon had not earned the right to add “of course” to his answer.
Outside, the sky looked burnt out, all black char and thick gray ashes, but it was heavy with rain.
Joey hoped that the lull in the storm would last through the Mass and the graveside service.
On the street, as he was approaching his parked car from behind, heading for the driver’s door, the trunk popped open by itself and the lid eased up a few inches. From the dark interior, a slender hand reached feebly toward him, as if in desperation, beseechingly. A woman’s hand. The thumb was broken and hanging at a queer angle, and blood dripped from the torn fingernails.
Around him, Asherville seemed to fall under a dark enchantment. The wind died. The clouds, which had been moving ceaselessly out of the northwest, were suddenly as unchanging as the vaulted ceiling of Hell. All was lifeless. Silence reigned. Joey was frozen by shock and cold fear. Only the hand moved, only the hand was alive, and only the hand’s pathetic groping for salvation had any meaning or importance in a world turned to stone.
Joey couldn’t bear the sight of the dangling thumb, the torn nails, the slow drip-drip of blood—but he felt powerfully compelled to stare. He knew that it was the woman in the transparent gown, come out of his dream from the night before, into the waking world, though such a thing was not possible.
Reaching out from the shadow of the trunk lid, the hand slowly turned palm up. In the center was a spot of blood and a puncture wound that might have been made by a nail.
Strangely, when Joey closed his eyes against the horror before him, he could see the sanctuary of Our Lady of Sorrows as clearly as if he were standing upon the altar platform at that very moment. A silvery ringing of sacred bells broke the silence, but it was not a real sound in that October afternoon; they rang out of his memory, from morning Masses in the distant past. Through my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault. He saw the chalice gleaming with the reflections of candle flames. The wafer of the host was held high in the priest’s hands. Joey strained hard to detect the moment of transubstantiation. The moment when hope was fulfilled, faith rewarded. The split instant of perfect mystery: wine into blood. Is there hope for the world, for lost men like me?
The images in his mind became as unbearable as the sight of the blood-smeared hand, and he opened his eyes. The hand was gone. The trunk lid was closed. The wind was blowing again, and the dark clouds rolled out of the northwest, and in the distance a dog barked.
The trunk had never actually popped open, and the hand had never reached toward him. Hallucination.
He raised his own hands and gazed at them as though they were the hands of a stranger. They were trembling badly.
Delirium tremens. The shakes. Visions of things crawling out of the walls. In this case, out of a car trunk. All drunks had them from time to time—especially when they tried to give up the bottle.
In the car, he withdrew a flask from an inside pocket of his suit jacket. He stared at it for a long time. Finally he unscrewed the cap, took a whiff of the whiskey, and brought it to his lips.
Either he had stood half mesmerized by the car trunk far longer than he’d realized or he had sat for an awfully long time with the flask, struggling against the urge to open it, because the funeral-home hearse pulled out of the driveway and turned right, heading across town toward Our Lady of Sorrows. Enough time had passed for his father’s casket to be transferred from the viewing room.
Joey wanted to be sober for the funeral Mass. He wanted that more than he had wanted anything in a long time.
Without taking a drink, he screwed the cap back onto the flask and returned the flask to his pocket.
He started the car, caught up with the hearse, and followed it to the church.
More than once during the drive, he imagined that he heard something moving in the trunk of the car. A muffled thump. A tapping. A faint, cold, hollow cry.
OUR LADY OF SORROWS WAS AS HE REMEMBERED IT: DARK WOOD lovingly polished to a satiny sheen; stained-glass windows waiting only for the appearance of the sun to paint bright images of compassion and salvation across the pews in the nave; groin vaults receding into blue shadows above; the air woven through with a tapestry of odors—lemon-oil furniture polish, incense, hot candle wax.
Joey sat in the last pew, hoping that no one would recognize him. He had no friends in Asherville any more. And without a long drink from his flask of whiskey, he wasn’t prepared to endure t
he looks of scorn and disdain that he was sure to receive and that, in fact, he deserved.
More than two hundred people attended the service, and to Joey the mood seemed even more somber than could be expected at a funeral. Dan Shannon had been well and widely liked, and he would be missed.
Many of the women blotted their eyes with handkerchiefs, but the men were all dry eyed. In Asherville, the men never wept publicly and rarely in private. Although none had worked the mines in more than twenty years, they came from generations of miners who had lived in constant expectation of tragedy, of friends and loved ones lost to cave-ins and explosions and early-onset black-lung disease. Theirs was a culture that not only valued stoicism but could never have existed without it.
Keep your feelings to yourself. Don’t burden your friends and family with your own fear and anguish. Endure. That was the creed of Asherville, a guiding morality stronger even than that which was taught by the rector of Our Lady and the two-thousand-year-old faith that he served.
The Mass was the first that Joey had attended in twenty years. Evidently at the insistence of the parishioners, it was a classic Mass in Latin, with the grace and eloquence that had been lost when the Church had gone trendy back in the sixties.
The beauty of the Mass did not affect him, did not warm him. By his own actions and desire over the past twenty years, he had placed himself outside the art of faith, and now he could relate to it only in the manner of a man who studies a fine painting through the window of a gallery, his perception hampered by distorting reflections on the glass.
The Mass was beautiful, but it was a cold beauty. Like that of winter light on polished steel. An Arctic vista.
From the church, Joey drove to the cemetery. It was on a hill. The grass was still green, littered with crisp leaves that crunched under his shoes.
His father was to be buried beside his mother. No name had yet been cut into the blank half of the dual-plot headstone.
Being at his mother’s graveside for the first time, seeing her name and the date of her passing carved in granite, Joey did not suddenly feel the reality of her death. The loss of her had been excruciatingly real to him for the past sixteen years.
In fact, he had lost her twenty years ago, when he had seen her for the last time.
The hearse was parked on the road near the grave site. Lou Devokowski and his assistant were organizing the pallbearers to unload the casket.
The open grave awaiting Dan Shannon was encircled by a three-foot-high black plastic curtain, not to provide a safety barrier but to shield the more sensitive mourners from the sight of the raw earth in the sheer walls of the pit, which might force them into too stark a confrontation with the grim realities of the service that they were attending. The undertaker had also been discreet enough to cover the mound of excavated earth with black plastic and to drape the plastic with bouquets of flowers and bunches of cut ferns.
In a mood to punish himself, Joey stepped to the yawning hole. He peered over the curtain to see exactly where his dad would be going.
At the bottom of the grave, only half buried in loose earth, lay a body wrapped in blood-smeared plastic. A naked woman. Face concealed. Ribbons of wet blond hair.
Joey stepped back, bumping into other mourners.
He was unable to breathe. His lungs seemed to be packed full of dirt from his father’s grave.
As solemn as the sepulchral sky, the pallbearers arrived with the casket and carefully deposited it onto a motorized sling over the excavation.
Joey wanted to shout at them to move the casket and look, look below, look at the tarp-wrapped woman, look at the bottom of the pit.
He couldn’t speak.
The priest had arrived, his black cassock and white surplice flapping in the wind. The interment service was about to begin.
When the casket was lowered into that seven-foot-deep abyss, atop the dead woman, when the grave was filled with earth, no one would ever know that she’d been there. To those in the world who loved her and sought her with such desperation, she would have vanished forever.
Again Joey tried to speak, but he was still unable to make a sound. He was shaking violently.
On one level, he knew that the body at the bottom of the grave was not really there. A phantom. Hallucination. Delirium tremens. Like the bugs that Ray Milland had seen crawling out of the walls in Lost Weekend.
Nevertheless, a scream swelled in him. He would have given voice to it if he could have broken the iron band of silence that tightened around him, would have shouted at them, would have demanded that they move the casket and look into the hole, even though he knew that they would find nothing and that everyone would think him deranged.
From the grave or from the mound beside it rose the fecund smell of damp earth and rotting vegetable matter, which called to mind all the small, teeming creatures that thrived below the sod—beetles, worms, and quick-moving things for which he had no names.
Joey turned away from the grave, pushed through the hundred or more mourners who had come from the church to the cemetery, and stumbled down the hill, through the ranks of tombstones. He took refuge in the rental car.
Suddenly he was able to breathe in great gasps, and he found his voice at last. “Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God.”
He must be losing his mind. Twenty years of all-but-constant inebriation had screwed up his brain beyond repair. Too many cells of gray matter had died in the long bath of alcohol.
He was so far gone that only another taste of the same sin would give him surcease. He took the flask from his coat pocket.
Aware that a month’s worth of gossip was in the making, the startled mourners at the grave site must have followed his stumbling flight with considerable interest. No doubt many, afraid of missing the next development, were still risking the disapproval of the priest by glancing downhill toward the rental car.
Joey didn’t care what anyone thought. He didn’t care about anything any more. Except whiskey.
But his dad still wasn’t buried. He had promised himself that he would remain sober until the interment was complete. He had broken uncounted promises to himself over the years, but for reasons that he could not quite define, this one was more important than any of the others.
He didn’t open the flask.
Uphill, under the half-bare limbs of the autumn-stripped trees, beneath a bruised sky, the casket slowly descended into the uncaring earth.
Soon the mourners began to leave, glancing toward Joey’s car with unconcealed interest.
As the priest departed, several small whirlwinds full of dead leaves spun through the cemetery, exploding over headstones, as if angry spirits had awakened from an uneasy rest.
Thunder rolled across the heavens. It was the first peal in hours, and the remaining mourners hurried to their cars.
The undertaker and his assistant removed the motorized casket lift and the black plastic skirt from around the open grave.
As the storm resumed, a cemetery worker in a yellow rain slicker stripped the tarp and flowers from the mound of excavated dirt.
Another worker appeared behind the wheel of a compact little earthmoving machine called a Bobcat. It was painted the same shade of yellow as his raincoat.
Before the open grave could be flooded by the storm, it was filled—and then tamped down by the tread of the Bobcat.
“Goodbye,” Joey said.
He should have had a sense of completion, of having reached the end of an important phase of his life. But he only felt empty and incomplete. He had not put an end to anything—if that was what he had been hoping to do.
BACK AT HIS FATHER’S HOUSE, HE WENT DOWN THE NARROW STEPS FROM the kitchen to the basement. Past the furnace. Past the small water heater.
The door to P.J.’s old room was warped by humidity and age. It squealed against the jamb and scraped across the sill as Joey forced it open.
Rain beat on the two narrow, horizontal casement windows that were set high in one b
asement wall, and the deep shadows were not dispersed by the meager storm light. He flicked the switch by the door, and a bare overhead bulb came on.
The small room was empty. Many years ago, the single bed and the other furniture must have been sold to raise a few dollars. For the past two decades, when P.J. came home, he had slept in Joey’s room on the second floor, because there had been no chance that Joey would pay a visit and need it himself.
Dust. Cobwebs. Low on the .walls: a few dark patches of mildew like Rorschach blots.
The only items of proof that remained of P.J.’s long-ago residence were a couple of movie posters for flicks so trashy that the advertising art had an unintentionally campy quality. They were thumbtacked to the walls, pus yellow with age, cracked, curling at the corners.
In high school, P.J.’s dream was to get out of Asherville, out of poverty, and become a filmmaker. “But I need these,” he had once said to Joey, indicating the posters, “to remind me that success at any price isn’t worth it. In Hollywood you can become rich and famous and celebrated even for making stupid, dehumanizing crap. If I can’t make it by doing worthwhile work, I hope I’ve got the courage to give up the dream altogether instead of selling out.”
Either fate had never given P.J. his shot at Hollywood or he had lost interest in filmmaking somewhere along the way. Ironically, he had achieved fame as a novelist, fulfilling Joey’s dream after Joey had abandoned it.
P.J. was a critically acclaimed writer. Using his ceaseless rambles back and forth across the United States as material, he produced highly polished prose that had mysterious depths under a deceptively simple surface.
Joey envied his brother—but not with any malice. P.J. earned every line of the praise that he received and every dollar of his fortune, and Joey was proud of him.
Theirs had been an intense and special relationship when they were young, and it was still intense, though it was now conducted largely at great distances by phone, when P.J. called from Montana or Maine or Key West or a small dusty town on the high plains of Texas. They saw each other no more than once every three or four years, always when P.J. dropped in unannounced in the course of his travels—but even then he didn’t stay long, never more than two days, usually one.
No one had ever meant more to Joey than P.J., and no one ever would. His feelings for his brother were rich and complex, and he would never be able to explain them adequately to anyone.
The rain hammered the lawn just beyond the ground-level windows of the basement. In a place so far above that it seemed to be another world, more thunder crashed.
He had come to the cellar for a jar. But the room was utterly empty except for the movie posters.
On the concrete floor near his shoe, a fat black spider seemed to materialize from thin air. It scurried past him.
He didn’t step on it but watched it race for cover until it disappeared into a crack along the baseboard.
He switched off the light and went back into the furnace room, leaving the warped door open.
Climbing the stairs, almost to the kitchen, Joey said, “Jar? What jar?”
Puzzled, he stopped and looked down the steps to the cellar.
A jar of something? A jar for something?
He couldn’t remember why he had needed a jar or what kind of jar he had been seeking.
Another sign of dementia.
He’d been too long without a drink.
Plagued by the persistent uneasiness and disorientation that he’d felt since first entering Asherville the previous day, he went upstairs. He turned off the cellar lights behind him.
His suitcase was packed and standing in the living room. He carried the bag onto the front porch, locked the door, and put the key back under the hemp mat where he had found it less than twenty-four hours ago.
Something growled behind him, and he turned to confront a many, rain-soaked black dog on the porch steps. Its eyes were as fiercely yellow as sulfurous coal fires, and it bared its teeth at him.
“Go away,” he said, not threateningly but softly.
The dog growled again, lowered its head, and tensed as if it might spring at him.
“You don’t belong here any more than I do,” Joey said, standing his ground.
The hound looked uncertain, shivered, licked its chops, and at last retreated.
With his suitcase, Joey went to the head of the porch steps and watched the dog as it hunched away into the slanting sheets of gray rain, gradually fading as