The Road Virus Heads North
by Stephen King — (narrated by Jay O. Sanders)

 

Richard Kinnell wasn’t frightened when he first saw the picture at the yard sale in Rosewood.

He was fascinated by it, and he felt he’d had the good luck to find something which might be very special, but fright? No. It didn’t occur to him until later (“not until it was too late,” as he might have written in one of his own numbingly successful novels) that he had felt much the same way about certain illegal drugs as a young man.

He had gone down to Boston to participate in a PEN/New England conference titled “The Threat of Popularity.” You could count on PEN to come up with such subjects, Kinnell had found; it was actually sort of comforting. He drove the two hundred and sixty miles from Derry rather than flying because he’d come to a plot impasse on his latest book and wanted some quiet time to try to work it out.

At the conference, he sat on a panel where people who should have known better asked him where he got his ideas and if he ever scared himself. He left the city by way of the Tobin Bridge, then got on Route 1. He never took the turnpike when he was trying to work out problems; the turnpike lulled him into a state that was like dreamless, waking sleep. It was restful, but not very creative. The stop-and-go traffic on the coast road, however, acted like grit inside an oyster—it created a fair amount of mental activity . . . and sometimes even a pearl.

Not, he supposed, that his critics would use that word. In an issue of Esquire last year, Bradley Simons had begun his review of Nightmare City this way: “Richard Kinnell, who writes like Jeffrey Dahmer cooks, has suffered a fresh bout of projectile vomiting. He has titled this most recent mass of ejecta Nightmare City.”

Route 1 took him through Revere, Malden, Everett, and up the coast to Newburyport. Beyond Newburyport and just south of the Massachusetts–New Hampshire border was the tidy little town of Rosewood. A mile or so beyond the town center, he saw an array of cheap-looking goods spread out on the lawn of a two-story Cape. Propped against an avocado-colored electric stove was a sign reading YARD SALE. Cars were parked on both sides of the road, creating one of those bottlenecks which travellers unaffected by the yard sale mystique curse their way through. Kinnell liked yard sales, particularly the boxes of old books you sometimes found at them. He drove through the bottleneck, parked his Audi at the head of the line of cars pointed toward Maine and New Hampshire, then walked back.

A dozen or so people were circulating on the littered front lawn of the blue-and-gray Cape Cod. A large television stood to the left of the cement walk, its feet planted on four paper ashtrays that were doing absolutely nothing to protect the lawn. On top was a sign reading MAKE AN OFFER—YOU MIGHT BE SURPRISED. An electrical cord, augmented by an extension, trailed back from the TV and through the open front door. A fat woman sat in a lawn chair before it, shaded by an umbrella with CINZANO printed on the colorful scalloped flaps. There was a card table beside her with a cigar box, a pad of paper, and another hand-lettered sign on it. This sign read ALL SALES CASH, ALL SALES FINAL. The TV was on, tuned to an afternoon soap opera where two beautiful young people looked on the verge of having deeply unsafe sex. The fat woman glanced at Kinnell, then back at the TV. She looked at it for a moment, then looked back at him again. This time her mouth was slightly sprung.

Ah, Kinnell thought, looking around for the liquor box filled with paperbacks that was sure to be here someplace, a fan.

He didn’t see any paperbacks, but he saw the picture, leaning against an ironing board and held in place by a couple of plastic laundry baskets, and his breath stopped in his throat. He wanted it at once.

He walked over with a casualness that felt exaggerated and dropped to one knee in front of it. The painting was a watercolor, and technically very good. Kinnell didn’t care about that; technique didn’t interest him (a fact the critics of his own work had duly noted). What he liked in works of art was content, and the more unsettling the better. This picture scored high in that department. He knelt between the two laundry baskets, which had been filled with a jumble of small appliances, and let his fingers slip over the glass facing of the picture. He glanced around briefly, looking for others like it, and saw none—only the usual yard sale art collection of Little Bo Peeps, praying hands, and gambling dogs.

He looked back at the framed watercolor, and in his mind he was already moving his suitcase into the backseat of the Audi so he could slip the picture comfortably into the trunk.

It showed a young man behind the wheel of a muscle car—maybe a Grand Am, maybe a GTX, something with a T-top, anyway—crossing the Tobin Bridge at sunset. The T-top was off, turning the black car into a half-assed convertible. The young man’s left arm was cocked on the door; his right wrist was draped casually over the wheel. Behind him, the sky was a bruise-colored mass of yellows and grays, streaked with veins of pink. The young man had lank blond hair that spilled over his low forehead. He was grinning, and his parted lips revealed teeth which were not teeth at all but fangs.

Or maybe they’re filed to points, Kinnell thought. Maybe he’s supposed to be a cannibal.

He liked that; liked the idea of a cannibal crossing the Tobin Bridge at sunset. In a Grand Am. He knew what most of the audience at the PEN panel discussion would have thought—Oh, yes, great picture for Rich Kinnell; he probably wants it for inspiration, a feather to tickle his tired old gorge into one more fit of projectile vomiting—but most of those folks were ignoramuses, at least as far as his work went, and what was more, they treasured their ignorance, cossetted it the way some people inexplicably treasured and cossetted those stupid, mean-spirited little dogs that yapped at visitors and sometimes bit the paperboy’s ankles. He hadn’t been attracted to this painting because he wrote horror stories; he wrote horror stories because he was attracted to things like this painting. His fans sent him stuff—pictures, mostly—and he threw most of them away, not because they were bad art but because they were tiresome and predictable. One fan from Omaha had sent him a little ceramic sculpture of a screaming, horrified monkey’s head poking out of a refrigerator door, however, and that one he had kept. It was unskillfully executed, but there was an unexpected juxtaposition there that lit up his dials. This painting had some of the same quality, but it was even better. Much better.

As he was reaching for it, wanting to pick it up right now, this second, wanting to tuck it under his arm and proclaim his intentions, a voice spoke up behind him: “Aren’t you Richard Kinnell?”

He jumped, then turned. The fat woman was standing directly behind him, blotting out most of the immediate landscape. She had put on fresh lipstick before approaching, and now her mouth had been transformed into a bleeding grin.

“Yes, I am,” he said, smiling back.

Her eyes dropped to the picture. “I should have known you’d go right to that,” she said, simpering. “It’s so you.”

“It is, isn’t it?” he said, and smiled his best celebrity smile. “How much would you need for it?”

“Forty-five dollars,” she said. “I’ll be honest with you, I started it at seventy, but nobody likes it, so now it’s marked down. If you come back tomorrow, you can probably have it for thirty.” The simper had grown to frightening proportions. Kinnell could see little gray spit-buds in the dimples at the corners of her stretched mouth.

“I don’t think I want to take that chance,” he said. “I’ll write you a check right now.”

The simper continued to stretch; the woman now looked like some grotesque John Waters parody. Divine does Shirley Temple. “I’m really not supposed to take checks, but all right,” she said, her tone that of a teenage girl finally consenting to have sex with her boyfriend. “Only while you have your pen out, could you write an autograph for my daughter? Her name is Robin?”

“What a nice name,” Kinnell said automatically. He took the picture and followed the fat woman back to the card table. On the TV next to it, the lustful young people had been temporarily displaced by an elderly woman gobbling bran flakes.

“Robin reads all your books,” the fat woman said. “Where in the world do you get all those crazy ideas?”

“I don’t know,” Kinnell said, smiling more widely than ever. “They just come to me. Isn’t that amazing?”

* * *

The yard sale minder’s name was Judy Diment, and she lived in the house next door. When Kinnell asked her if she knew who the artist happened to be, she said she certainly did; Bobby Hastings had done it, and Bobby Hastings was the reason she was selling off the Hastingses’ things. “That’s the only painting he didn’t burn,” she said. “Poor Iris! She’s the one I really feel sorry for. I don’t think George cared much, really. And I know he didn’t understand why she wants to sell the house.” She rolled her eyes in her large, sweaty face—the old can-you-imagine-that look. She took Kinnell’s check when he tore it off, then gave him the pad where she had written down all the items she’d sold and the prices she’d obtained for them. “Just make it out to Robin,” she said. “Pretty please with sugar on it?” The simper reappeared, like an old acquaintance you’d hoped was dead.

“Uh-huh,” Kinnell said, and wrote his standard thanks-for-being-a-fan message. He didn’t have to watch his hands or even think about it anymore, not after twenty-five years of writing autographs. “Tell me about the picture, and the Hastingses.”

Judy Diment folded her pudgy hands in the manner of a woman about to recite a favorite story.

“Bobby was just twenty-three when he killed himself this spring. Can you believe that? He was the tortured-genius type, you know, but still living at home.” Her eyes rolled, again asking Kinnell if he could imagine it. “He must have had seventy, eighty paintings, plus all his sketchbooks. Down in the basement, they were.” She pointed her chin at the Cape Cod, then looked at the picture of the fiendish young man driving across the Tobin Bridge at sunset. “Iris—that’s Bobby’s mother—said most of them were real bad, lots worse’n this. Stuff that’d curl your hair.” She lowered her voice to a whisper, glancing at a woman who was looking at the Hastingses’ mismatched silverware and a pretty good collection of old McDonald’s plastic glasses in a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids motif. “Most of them had sex stuff in them.”

“Oh no,” Kinnell said.

“He did the worst ones after he got on drugs,” Judy Diment continued. “After he was dead—he hung himself down in the basement, where he used to paint—they found over a hundred of those little bottles they sell crack cocaine in. Aren’t drugs awful, Mr. Kin-nell?”

“They sure are.”

“Anyway, I guess he finally just got to the end of his rope, no pun intended. He took all of his sketches and paintings out into the backyard—except for that one, I guess—and burned them. Then he hung himself down in the basement. He pinned a note to his shirt. It said, ‘I can’t stand what’s happening to me.’ Isn’t that awful, Mr. Kinnell? Isn’t that just the horriblest thing you ever heard?”

“Yes,” Kinnell said, sincerely enough. “It just about is.”

“Like I say, I think George would go right on living in the house if he had his druthers,” Judy Diment said. She took the sheet of paper with Robin’s autograph on it, held it up next to Kinnell’s check, and shook her head, as if the similarity of the signatures amazed her. “But men are different.”

“Are they?”

“Oh, yes, much less sensitive. By the end of his life, Bobby Hastings was just skin and bone, dirty all the time—you could smell him—and he wore the same Tee-shirt, day in and day out. It had a picture of the Led Zeppelins on it. His eyes were red, he had a scraggle on his cheeks that you couldn’t quite call a beard, and his pimples were coming back, like he was a teenager again. But she loved him, because a mother’s love sees past all those things.”

The woman who had been looking at the silverware and the glasses came over with a set of Star Wars placemats. Mrs. Diment took five 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 per cent 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 title, 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 fitted a painting, this one does.

“The Road Virus Heads North,” she read. “I never noticed that when my boys were lugging stuff out. Is it the title, 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 clearly 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 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 travelling man like this was apt to have on his arm. And an ace of spades 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.”

* * *