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

 

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 thought, was enough.

When Aunt Trudy walked him back out to the car, it was four-thirty 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 dog-walking area at the rear. Kinnell parked next to a van with Missouriplates, 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 four-part 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.

“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, and 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 red halter. She was walking a cocker spaniel. She began to smile at Kinnell, then saw something in his face that straightened her lips out in a hurry. She headed left, and fast. The cocker didn’t want to go that fast, so she dragged it, coughing, in her wake.

The scrubby pines behind the service area sloped down to a boggy acre that stank of plant and animal decomposition. The carpet of pine-needles was a road-litter fallout zone: burger wrappers, paper soft-drink cups, TCBY napkins, beer cans, empty wine-cooler bottles, cigarette butts. He saw a used condom lying like a dead snail next to a torn pair of panties with the word TUESDAY stitched on them in cursive girly-girl script.

Now that he was here, he chanced another look down at the picture. He steeled himself for further changes—even for the possibility that the painting would be in motion, like a movie in a frame—but there was none. There didn’t have to be, Kinnell realized; the blond kid’s face was enough. That stone-crazy grin. Those pointed teeth. The face said, Hey, old man, guess what? I’m done fucking with civilization. I’m a representative of the real generation X, the next millennium is right here behind the wheel of this fine, high-steppin’ mo-sheen.

Aunt Trudy’s initial reaction to the painting had been to advise Kinnell that he should throw it into the Saco River. Auntie had been right. The Saco was now almost twenty miles behind him, but . . .

“This’ll do,” he said. “I think this’ll do just fine.”

He raised the picture over his head like a guy holding up some kind of sports trophy for the postgame photographers and then heaved it down the slope. It flipped over twice, the frame catching winks of hazy late-day sun, then struck a tree. The glass facing shattered. The picture fell to the ground and then slid down the dry, needle-carpeted slope, as if down a chute. It landed in the bog, one corner of the frame protruding from a thick stand of reeds. Otherwise, there was nothing visible but the strew of broken glass, and Kinnell thought that went very well with the rest of the litter.

He turned and went back to his car, already picking up his mental trowel. He would wall this incident off in its own special niche, he thought . . . and it occurred to him that that was probably what most people did when they ran into stuff like this. Liars and wannabees (or maybe in this case they were wannasees) wrote up their fantasies for publications like Survivors and called them truth; those who blundered into authentic occult phenomena kept their mouths shut and used those trowels. Because when cracks like this appeared in your life, you had to do something about them; if you didn’t, they were apt to widen and sooner or later everything would fall in.

Kinnell glanced up and saw the pretty young thing watching him apprehensively from what she probably hoped was a safe distance. When she saw him looking at her, she turned around and started toward the restaurant building, once more dragging her cocker spaniel behind her and trying to keep as much sway out of her hips as possible.

You think I’m crazy, don’t you, pretty girl? Kinnell thought. He saw he had left his trunk lid up. It gaped like a mouth. He slammed it shut. But I’m not crazy. Absolutely not. I just made a little mistake, that’s all. Stopped at a yard sale I should have passed up. Anyone could have done it. You could have done it. And that picture—

“What picture?” Rich Kinnell asked the hot summer evening, and tried on a smile. “I don’t see any picture.”

He slid behind the wheel of his Audi and started the engine. He looked at the fuel gauge and saw it had dropped under a half. He was going to need gas before he got home, but he thought he’d fill the tank a little farther up the line. Right now all he wanted to do was to put a belt of miles—as thick a one as possible—between him and the discarded painting.

* * *

Once outside the city limits of Derry, Kansas Street becomes Kansas Road. As it approaches the incorporated town limits (an area that is actually open countryside), it becomes Kansas Lane. Not long after, Kansas Lane passes between two fieldstone posts. Tar gives way to gravel. What is one of Derry’s busiest downtown streets eight miles east of here has become a driveway leading up a shallow hill, and on moonlit summer nights it glimmers like something out of an Alfred Noyes poem. At the top of the hill stands an angular, handsome barn-board structure with reflectorized windows, a stable that is actually a garage, and a satellite dish tilted at the stars. A waggish reporter from the Derry News once called it the House that Gore Built . . . not meaning the vice president of the United States. Richard Kinnell simply called it home, and he parked in front of it that night with a sense of weary satisfaction. He felt as if he had lived through a week’s worth of time since getting up in the Boston Harbor hotel that morning at nine o’clock.

No more yard sales, he thought, looking up at the moon. No more yard sales ever.

“Amen,” he said, and started toward the house. He probably should stick the car in the garage, but the hell with it. What he wanted right now was a drink, a light meal—something microwaveable—and then sleep. Preferably the kind without dreams. He couldn’t wait to put this day behind him.

He stuck his key in the lock, turned it, and punched 3817 to silence the warning bleep from the burglar-alarm panel. He turned on the front-hall light, stepped through the door, pushed it shut behind him, began to turn, saw what was on the wall where his collection of framed book covers had been just two days ago, and screamed. In his head he screamed. Nothing actually came out of his mouth but a harsh exhalation of air. He heard a thump and a tuneless little jingle as his keys fell out of his relaxing hand and dropped to the carpet between his feet.

The Road Virus Heads North was no longer in the puckerbrush behind the Gray turnpike service area.

It was mounted on his entry wall.

It had changed yet again. The car was now parked in the driveway of the yard sale yard. The goods were still spread out everywhere—glassware and furniture and ceramic knickknacks (Scottie dogs smoking pipes, bare-assed toddlers, winking fish), but now they gleamed beneath the light of the same skullface moon that rode in the sky above Kinnell’s house. The TV was still there, too, and it was still on, casting its own pallid radiance onto the grass, and what lay in front of it, next to an overturned lawn chair. Judy Diment was on her back, and she was no longer all there. After a moment, Kinnell saw the rest. It was on the ironing board, dead eyes glowing like fifty-cent pieces in the moonlight.

The Grand Am’s taillights were a blur of red-pink watercolor paint. It was Kinnell’s first look at the car’s back deck. Written across it in Old English letters were three words: THE ROAD VIRUS.

Makes perfect sense, Kinnell thought numbly. Not him, his car. Except for a guy like this, there’s probably not much difference.

“This isn’t happening,” he whispered, except it was. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened to someone a little less open to such things, but it was happening. And as he stared at the painting he found himself remembering the little sign on Judy Diment’s card table. ALL SALES CASH, it had said (although she had taken his check, only adding his driver’s license ID number for safety’s sake). And it had said something else, too.

ALL SALES FINAL.

Kinnell walked past the picture and into the living room. He felt like a stranger inside his own body, and he sensed part of his mind groping around for the trowel he had used earlier. He seemed to have misplaced it.

He turned on the TV, then the Toshiba satellite tuner which sat on top of it. He turned to V–14, and all the time he could feel the picture out there in the hall, pushing at the back of his head. The picture that had somehow beaten him here.

“Must have known a shortcut,” Kinnell said, and laughed.

He hadn’t been able to see much of the blond in this version of the picture, but there had been a blur behind the wheel which Kinnell assumed had been him. The Road Virus had finished his business in Rosewood. It was time to move north. Next stop—

He brought a heavy steel door down on that thought, cutting it off before he could see all of it. “After all, I could still be imagining all this,” he told the empty living room. Instead of comforting him, the hoarse, shaky quality of his voice frightened him even more. “This could be . . .” But he couldn’t finish. All that came to him was an old song, belted out in the pseudo-hip style of some early fifties Sinatra clone: This could be the start of something BIG . . .

The tune oozing from the TV’s stereo speakers wasn’t Sinatra but Paul Simon, arranged for strings. The white computer type on the blue screen said WELCOME TO NEW ENGLAND NEWSWIRE. There were ordering instructions below this, but Kinnell didn’t have to read them; he was a Newswire junkie and knew the drill by heart. He dialed, punched in his MasterCard number, then 508.

“You have ordered Newswire for [slight pause] central and northern Massachusetts,” the robot voice said. “Thank you very m—”

Kinnell dropped the phone back into the cradle and stood looking at the New England Newswire logo, snapping his fingers nervously. “Come on,” he said. “Come on, come on.”

The screen flickered then, and the blue background became green. Words began scrolling up, something about a house fire in Taunton. This was followed by the latest on a dog-racing scandal, then tonight’s weather—clear and mild. Kinnell was starting to relax, starting to wonder if he’d really seen what he thought he’d seen on the entryway wall or if it had been a bit of travel-induced fugue, when the TV beeped shrilly and the words BREAKING NEWS appeared. He stood watching the caps scroll up.

NEN- Thursday- AUGUST- Transmission #19- 8:40P- A ROSEWOOD WOMAN HAS BEEN BRUTALLY MURDERED WHILE DOING A FAVOR FOR AN ABSENT FRIEND. 38-YEAR-OLD JUDITH DIMENT WAS SAVEGELY HACKED TO DEATH ON THE LAWN OF HER NEIGHBOR’S HOUSE, WHERE SHE HAD BEEN CONDUCTING A YARD SALE. NO SCREAMS WERE HEARD AND MRS. DIMENT WAS NOT FOUND UNTIL EIGHT O’CLOCK, WHEN A NEIGHBOR ACROSS THE STREET CAME OVER TO COMPLAIN ABOUT LOUD TELEVISION NOISE. THE NEIGHBOR, MATTHEW GRAVES, SAID THAT MRS. DIMENT HAD BEEN DECAPITATED. “HER HEAD WAS ON THE IRONING BOARD,” HE SAID. “IT WAS THE MOST AWFUL THING I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE.” GRAVES SAID HE HEARD NO SIGNS OF A STRUGGLE, ONLY THE TV AND, SHORTLY BEFORE FINDING THE BODY, A LOUD CAR, POSSIBLY EQUIPPED WITH A GLASSPACK MUFFLER, ACCELERATING AWAY FROM THE VICINITY ALONG ROUTE ONE. SPECULATION THAT THIS VEHICLE MAY HAVE BELONGED TO THE KILLER—

Except that wasn’t speculation; that was a simple fact.