As Rya backed the car out of the driveway, Slick Eddy Beckwurt watched us go.
“What’s he look like to you?” she asked me.
“A desert rat,” I said.
She said, “Death.”
I stared at the receding figure of Slick Eddy.
Suddenly, perhaps because he regretted angering Rya and preferred to part on a better note, he broke into a smile and waved at us. That was the worst thing he could have done, for his lean and ascetic face, as dry as bones and as pale as grave worms, was not made for smiling. In his skeletal grin I saw neither friendship nor warmth nor pleasure of any kind but the unholy hunger of the Reaper.
With that macabre image as our last memorable glimpse of Gibtown, the drive east and north across Florida was somber, almost bleak. Not even the music of the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Dixie Cups, or the Four Seasons could improve our mood. The mottled sky was like a roof of slate above, a weight that seemed to press down on the world and threatened to collapse upon us. We drove in and out of squalls. At times glittering silvery rain slashed the gray air yet did not brighten it, mirrored the roadway yet somehow made the pavement even blacker, streamed in molten rivulets along the macadam berm, or surged and foamed over the gutters and drainage ditches. When there was no rain, there was often a fine ashen mist bearding the cypress and pine, lending something of the look of British moors to the swampy Florida scrubland. After nightfall we encountered fog, dense in some places. We spoke little on that first part of our journey, as if afraid that anything we said would only further depress us. As a measure of the darkness of our mood, the Supremes’ first hit record, “When the Love Light Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” which had reached the charts six weeks earlier and which was the very definition of “bouncy,” sounded not at all like an anthem to joy but like a dirge—and the other tunes on the radio fell on our ears with equally ominous effect.
We ate dinner in a drab roadside cafe, in a booth beside the bug-spattered, rain-dappled windows. Everything on the menu was either fried, deep-fried, or breaded and fried.
One of the truck drivers sitting on a stool at the counter was a goblin. Psychic images emanated from him, and with my Twilight Eyes I saw that he had often used his tanklike Mack truck to run unwary motorists off otherwise deserted stretches of Florida highway, ramming or forcing them into canals where they were trapped inside their cars and drowned, or into swamps where the stinking, gluey muck sucked them under. I also perceived that he would murder many more innocents in the nights to come, perhaps even tonight, though I did not sense that he posed any danger to Rya and me. I wanted to draw the knife from my boot, slip up behind him, and slit his throat. But mindful of the important mission ahead of us, I restrained myself.
Somewhere in Georgia we spent the night in a clapboard motel along the interstate, not because it was an appealing inn but because exhaustion abruptly seized us in a desolate and lonely place where no other accommodations could be found. The mattress was lumpy, and the worn-out bedsprings provided no support. Seconds after the lights were out, we could hear unthinkably large water bugs skittering across the cracked linoleum floor. We were too tired—and too frightened of the future?—to care. In a couple of minutes, after one sweet kiss, we were asleep.
Again I dreamed of a long, shadowy tunnel insufficiently lit by dim and widely spaced amber lamps. The ceiling was low. The walls were curiously rough, though I could not discern the material of which they were constructed. Again I woke shaking with terror, a scream caught in my throat. No matter how hard I tried, I could remember nothing that had happened in the nightmare, nothing to explain the frenzied hammering of my heart.
The radiant dial of my wristwatch revealed that it was three-ten in the morning. I had slept only two and a half hours, but I knew that I would get no more rest that night.
Beside me in the lightless room, still deep in slumber, Rya moaned and gasped and shuddered.
I wondered if she was now running along the same tenebrous tunnel that had been featured in my nightmare.
I recalled the other portentous dream we had shared last summer: the hillside graveyard, forested with tombstones. That one had been an omen. If we shared another nightmare, we could be certain that it, too, was a premonition of danger.
In the morning I would ask her what had been the cause of her groans and shivers in the night. With luck the source of her bad dream would be more prosaic than mine: the greasy food from the roadside diner.
Meanwhile I lay on my back in the blackness, listening to my own soft breathing, to Rya’s dreamy murmurs and occasional thrashings, and to the continuous busy explorations of the many-legged water bugs.
Wednesday morning, March 18, we drove until we found a Stuckey’s at an interchange. Over a reasonably good breakfast of bacon, eggs, grits, waffles, and coffee, I asked Rya about her dream.
“Last night?” she said, frowning as she soaked up some egg yolk with a wedge of toast. “I slept like a log. Didn’t dream.”
“You dreamed,” I assured her.
“You moaned a lot. Kicked at the sheets. Not just last night but the night before as well.”
She blinked, paused with the piece of toast halfway to her mouth. “Oh. I see. You mean . . . you woke up from your own nightmare and found me in the middle of one too?”
“And you’re wondering if...”
“If we’re sharing the same dream again.” I told her about the strange tunnel, the weak and vaguely flickering lamps. “I wake up with a feeling of having been pursued by something.”
“Something . . . something . . . I don’t know.”
“Well,” she said, “if I dreamed anything like that, I don’t remember it.” She popped the bit of egg-soaked toast into her mouth, chewed, swallowed. “So we’re both having bad dreams. It doesn’t have to be . . . prophetic. Lord knows, we’ve got good reason not to sleep well. Tension. Anxiety. Considering where we’re headed, we’re bound to have bad dreams. Doesn’t mean a thing.”
After breakfast we put in a long day on the road. We did not even stop for lunch but picked up some crackers and candy bars at a Mobile station when we stopped for gasoline.
Gradually we left the subtropical heat behind, but the weather improved. By the time we were halfway through South Carolina, the skies were cloudless.
Curiously—or not—the high blue day seemed, to me at least, no brighter than the storm-sullied afternoon during which we had departed the Gulf. A darkness waited in the pine forests that, for some distance, lined both sides of the highway, and the gloom seemed to be alive and observant, as if it were patiently waiting for an opportunity to rush forth, envelop us, and feed on our bones. Even where the hard, brassy glare of sunshine fell in full weight, I saw the shadows to come, saw the inevitability of nightfall. I was not in high spirits.
Late Wednesday night we stopped in Maryland at a better motel than the one in Georgia: a good bed, carpet on the floor, and no skittering water bugs.
We were even wearier than we had been the previous night, but we did not immediately seek sleep. Instead, somewhat to our surprise, we made love. Even more surprising: we were insatiable. It began with sweet, languorous flexings, with long and easy thrusts, with soft contractions and lazy expansions of the muscles, an almost slow-motion rising and falling and stroking, as of lovers in an art film, which had a sweetness and an odd shyness, as if we were joined for the very first time. But after a while we brought a passion and energy to the act that was unexpected and at first inexplicable in light of the long hours of driving that we had just endured. Rya’s exquisite body had never felt more elegantly and sensuously sculpted, ripe and full, never warmer or more supple, never more silken—never more precious. The rhythm of her quickening breath, her small cries of pleasure, her sudden gasps and little moans, and the urgency with which her hands explored my body and then pulled me against her—those expressions of her growing excitement fed my own excitement. I began literally to shudder with pleasure, and each delicious shudder passed like an electric current from me to her. She climbed a stairway of cl**axes toward breathless heights, and in spite of a powerful eruption that seemed to empty me of blood and bone marrow as well as semen, I did not experience the slightest loss of tumescence but remained with her, ascending toward a peak of erotic and emotional pleasure that I had never known.
As we had done before—though never with such intensity and power as this—we were making ardent love in order to forget, to deny, to evade the very existence of hooded, scythe-packing Death. We were trying to scorn and abjure the real dangers ahead and the real fears already with us. In flesh we sought solace, temporary peace, and strength through sharing. Perhaps we also hoped to exhaust ourselves so completely that neither of us would dream.
But we dreamed.
I found myself within the poorly lit tunnel again, running in terror from something I could not see. Panic took voice in the hard, flat echo of my footsteps on a stone floor.
Rya dreamed, too, waking with a scream near dawn, after I had been awake for hours. I held her. She was shuddering again but not with pleasure this time. She recalled scraps of the nightmare: dim, flickering amber lamps; pools of sooty darkness; a tunnel. . . .
Something very bad was going to happen to us in a tunnel. When, where, what, why—those were things we could not yet foresee.
Thursday I took the wheel and drove north into Pennsylvania, while Rya took charge of the radio. The sky closed up again behind steel-gray clouds, charred black at the edges, like the war-hammered doors of a celestial armory.
We left the interstate for a narrower highway.
Officially spring was only days away, but in these northeast mountains, nature had little regard for the calendar. Winter was still an unchallenged king and would remain on his throne through the end of the month, if not longer.
The snow-covered land rose, gently at first, then with greater determination, and the banks of snow grew higher along the state route. The road became twistier by the mile, and as I followed its serpentine course I also snaked back through my memory to the day when Jelly Jordan, Luke Bendingo, and I had driven to Yontsdown to pass out free tickets and cash to county officials, hoping to grease the rails for the Sombra Brothers Carnival.
The land had no less of an ominous quality now than it possessed the previous summer. Irrationally but undeniably, the mountains themselves seemed evil, as if earth and stone and forest could somehow evolve, nurture, and contain malevolent attitudes and intentions. Weathered formations of rock, poking up here and there through blankets of snow and soil, resembled the half-rotten teeth of some ascending leviathan that swam in the earth instead of the sea. In other places, longer formations made me think of the serrated spines of giant reptiles. The bleak gray daylight created no distinct shadows, but it plated an ashen hue to every object, until it seemed as if we had entered an alternate world where colors—other than gray, black, and white—did not exist. The tall evergreens thrust up like spikes on the armored fist of a villainous knight. The leafless maples and birches did not exactly resemble trees but might have been the fossilized skeletons of an ancient prehuman race. An uncanny number of the winter-stripped oaks were gnarled and misshapen by fungus.
“We can still turn back,” Rya said quietly.
“Do you want to?”
She sighed. “No.”
“And really . . . can we?”
Even the snow lent no sparkle to those malignant mountains. It seemed different from other snow in more benign regions. It was not the snow of Christmas—or of skiing, sleighs, snowmen, and snowball battles. It crusted on the trunks and limbs of the barren trees, but that only emphasized the black, skeletal aspect of them. More than anything else, this snow made me think of white-tiled morgue rooms where cold, dead bodies were dissected in search of the cause and the meaning of death.
We passed landmarks that were familiar from the summer past: the abandoned mine head, the half-demolished tipple, the rusting hulks of automobiles perched on concrete blocks. The snow concealed some portions of those objects but in no way diminished their contribution to the pervading atmosphere of despair, gloom, and senescence.
The three-lane macadam state route was gritty with cinders and sand, mottled with white patches of salt spread by road-maintenance crews after the last big storm. The pavement was utterly free of ice and snow, and driving conditions were fine.
As we passed the road sign that marked the Yontsdown city limits, Rya said, “Slim, better slow down.”
I glanced at the speedometer and discovered that I was scooting along at more than fifteen miles an hour over the legal limit, as if I unconsciously intended to rocket straight through the city and out the other side.
I eased up on the accelerator, rounded a bend, and saw a police car parked along the road, right there at the blind end of the curve. The driver’s window was open a crack, just enough for a radar unit to be hung from it.
As we sailed past, still moving a few miles faster than the limit, I saw that the cop behind the wheel was a goblin.
WINTER IN HELL
I cursed aloud because, although I was exceeding the speed limit by only two or three miles an hour, I was certain that even a minor infraction would be sufficient to incur official wrath in this demon-ruled town. I glanced worriedly at the rearview mirror. On the roof of the black-and-white, the red emergency beacons began to flash, pulses of bloody light rippling across the morgue-white snowscape; he was going to come after us, which was not a promising beginning to our clandestine mission.
“Damn,” Rya said, twisting around in her seat to look out the back window.
But before the cruiser could pull onto the roadway, another car—a mud-spattered yellow Buick—rounded the bend, going faster than I was, and the goblin-policeman’s attention shifted to that more flagrant violator. We drove on, unmolested, as the cop stopped the Buick in our wake.
A sudden gust of wind pulled a billion threads of snow off the ground, instantly wove them into a silver-gray curtain, and whipped the curtain across the road behind us, concealing the Buick and the hapless motorist and the goblin policeman from my view.
“Close,” I said.
Rya said nothing. Ahead and slightly below us lay Yontsdown. She faced forward again, biting her lower lip as she studied the city into which we descended.
The previous summer, Yontsdown had appeared grim and medieval. Now, in the frigid clutch of winter, it was even less appealing than it had been on the August day when I’d first seen it. In the murky distance the vomitous smoke and steam rising from the stacks of the filthy steel mill were darker and more heavily laden with pollutants than before, like columns of ejaculate from smoldering volcanoes. A few hundred feet up, the gray steam thinned and was torn to rags by the winter wind, but the sulfurous smoke spread from mountain peak to mountain peak. The combination of darkish clouds and sour yellow fumes gave the heavens a bruised look. And if the skies were bruised, then the city below was battered, lacerated, mortally wounded: It seemed to be not only a dying community but a community of the dying, a city-sized cemetery. The row houses—many of them shabby, all of them sheathed in a film of gray dust—and the larger brick and granite buildings had previously made me think of medieval structures. They still possessed that anachronistic quality, though this time—with soot-discolored snow on some rooftops, with dirty icicles hanging from eaves, with icterous frost marbelizing many windows—they also seemed, somehow, like rank after serried rank of headstones in a graveyard for giants. And from a distance the train cars in the rail yards might have been enormous coffins.