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

 

Breathing hard, not quite panting, Kinnell hurried back into the entryway. The picture was still there, but it had changed once more. Now it showed two glaring white circles—headlights—with the dark shape of the car hulking behind them.

He’s on the move again, Kinnell thought, and Aunt Trudy was on top of his mind now—sweet Aunt Trudy, who always knew who had been naughty and who had been nice. Aunt Trudy, who lived in Wells, no more than forty miles from Rosewood.

“God, please God, please send him by the coast road,” Kinnell said, reaching for the picture. Was it his imagination or were the headlights farther apart now, as if the car were actually moving before his eyes . . . but stealthily, the way the minute hand moved on a pocket watch? “Send him by the coast road, please.”

He tore the picture off the wall and ran back into the living room with it. The screen was in place before the fireplace, of course; it would be at least two months before a fire was wanted in here. Kinnell batted it aside and threw the painting in, breaking the glass fronting—which he had already broken once, at the Gray service area—against the firedogs. Then he pelted for the kitchen, wondering what he would do if this didn’t work either.

It has to, he thought. It will because it has to, and that’s all there is to it.

He opened the kitchen cabinets and pawed through them, spilling the oatmeal, spilling a canister of salt, spilling the vinegar. The bottle broke open on the counter and assaulted his nose and eyes with the high stink.

Not there. What he wanted wasn’t there.

He raced into the pantry, looked behind the door—nothing but a plastic bucket and an O Cedar—and then on the shelf by the dryer. There it was, next to the briquets.

Lighter fluid.

He grabbed it and ran back, glancing at the telephone on the kitchen wall as he hurried by. He wanted to stop, wanted to call Aunt Trudy. Credibility wasn’t an issue with her; if her favorite nephew called and told her to get out of the house, to get out right now, she would do it . . . but what if the blond kid followed her? Chased her?

And he would. Kinnell knew he would.

He hurried across the living room and stopped in front of the fireplace.

“Jesus,” he whispered. “Jesus, no.”

The picture beneath the splintered glass no longer showed oncoming headlights. Now it showed the Grand Am on a sharply curving 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.

What if it comes back again?

“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. “Burn, baby, burn.”

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 Kinnell could see the medical examiner’s primitive industrial stitch-work; 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. Your stupid, overtrained 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.

Why 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 newsletters out of her trailer home, one called Survivors, one called Visitors. Looking down at the driveway, these two titles 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.

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 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.