Chapter Twenty-Two

XXII  -  Dead Man Driving

TOWaRD THE END OF OCTOBER, DaD BOUGHT a WIRE BaSKET FOR me to put on Rocket. at first I thought it was pretty cool, until I realized that now I would be expected to run all sorts of errands for Mom. It was about this time that she put up a hand-lettered sign on the bulletin-board at church, announcing that she was selling pies and other baked goods. a similar sign went up in the barbershop. a few orders began to come in, and soon Mom was elbow-deep in floury mixing bowls, eggshells, and boxes of powdered sugar.

The reason for this, I later learned, was that Dad's hours had been cut back at the dairy. We were hurting for money, though I never would've known it. There was simply less work for Dad to do at Green Meadows. Some of the dairy's oldest customers had canceled their orders. It was because of the new supermarket in Union Town, which had recently opened its doors to the fanfare of the adams Valley High School marching band. The supermarket, called Big Paul's Pantry, could've swallowed our own little Piggly-Wiggly like a whale swallows a shrimp. It had a section, it seemed, for everything under a fat man's chin. The milk section alone was a whole aisle, and all the milk was in opaque plastic jugs that didn't have to be rinsed out and returned. and because Big Paul stocked so much milk, he could afford to sell it at prices that knocked the stuffing out of Green Meadows Dairy. So it came to pass that Dad's milk route became progressively shorter, if such a thing can be called progress. People liked the newness of going into a clean, air-conditioned supermarket and buying their milk in plastic jugs and then throwing those jugs away without a second thought. Not only that, but Big Paul's Pantry stayed open until eight o'clock at night, which was unheard of.

Putting a basket on Rocket was like saddling Seabiscuit with mailbags. But I did my duty, carrying pies and cakes around to people in the afternoons, and Rocket stiffened up from time to time in protest but never dropped one item.

To show thanks to the Lezanders for being so kind to Rebel, Mom decided to make a pumpkin pie-her best seller-for them free of charge. She put the pie in a box, tied it up with twine, and I slid the box into Rocket's basket and pedaled for Dr. Lezander's house. On the way, I passed Gotha and Gordo Branlin on their black bikes. Gotha acknowledged me with a slight lift of his chin, but Gordo-still wearing bandages that covered oozing sores-sped away like blue blazes. I got to Dr. Lezander's house and knocked on the back door, and in a minute Mrs. Lezander answered.

"Mom baked you and the doctor a pie," I said, offering her the box. "It's pumpkin."

"Oh, how very nice." She took it and sniffed around the lid. "Oh dear," she said. "Does this have cream in iti"

"Evaporated milk, I think." I should know. The kitchen was teeming with Pet Milk cans. "My mom made it this mornin'."

"It's very thoughtful of your mother, Cory, but I'm afraid neither of us can eat cream. We're both allergic to anything from a cow." She smiled. "That's how we met, all red and blotched at a clinic in Rotterdam."

"Oh. Gosh. Well, maybe you can give it to somebody else, then. It's a real good pie."

"I'm sure it's a wonderful pie." Vunderful, she'd said. "But if I even kept it in the house, Frans would get into it like a little mouse around midnight. He has the sweet tooth, you know. Then in two days he would look like he had the measles and he would itch so much he couldn't wear clothes. So, better not to even let Frans smell it, or he'd be walking around like Vernon Thaxter, yesi"

I laughed at that image. "Yes, ma'am." I took the pie back. "Maybe Mom can make you somethin' else, then."

"It's not necessary. Just the thought is kind enough."

I paused at the door, wondering if I should mention something that had been on my mind lately.

"Yesi" Mrs. Lezander prodded.

"Can I see the doctori I'd like to talk to him for a minute."

"He's taking a nap right now. He stayed up all night listening to his radio shows."

"His radio showsi"

"Yes, he's got one of those shortwave radios. Sometimes he stays up until dawn listening to the foreign countries. May I give him a messagei"

"Uh... I'll just talk to him later." What I wanted to ask was if he needed some help in the afternoons. after watching Dr. Lezander at work, it seemed to me that being a veterinarian was a pretty important job. I could be a veterinarian and a writer at the same time. The world would always need veterinarians, just like it would always need milkmen. "I'll come back some other time," I said, and I returned the pumpkin pie to Rocket's basket and headed for home.

I pedaled leisurely. Rocket acted a little nervous, but I took that to be his dissatisfaction with the basket, like a greyhound with a leash. The sun was warm and the hills were blazing yellow. a week from now the leaves would be brown and tumbling. It was one of those beautiful afternoons when even the blue shadows are lovely, and you know instinctively to slow down and enjoy things because they cannot and will not last.

I grinned, thinking of Dr. Lezander walking around as naked as Vernon Thaxter. That would be a sight, wouldn't iti I'd heard of people being allergic to grass, dogs and cats, ragweed, tobacco and dandelions. Grand austin was allergic to horses; they made him sneeze until he could hardly stand, which was why he'd stopped going to the Brandywine Carnival when it came through town every November. Grandmomma Sarah said the Jaybird was allergic to work. I supposed people could be allergic to everything under and including the sun. Just think! Neither of the Lezanders could eat ice cream. They couldn't eat banana pudding, or drink a glass of vanilla milk. If I couldn't have any of those things, I'd go just as crazy as-

Vernon came to mind.

Vernon, standing in that room with the trains circling little Zephyr.

You know what I believei

I remembered the lights off, the windows of the tiny houses glowing.

I believe if you find a night owl who doesn't drink milk, you've got your killer.

I hit the brake. The suddenness of it surprised even Rocket. The bike skidded to a stop.

He stayed up all night listening to his radio shows, Mrs. Lezander had said.

I swallowed hard. I might've had a Pet Milk can wedged in my throat.

Sometimes he stays up until dawn listening to the foreign countries.

"Oh no," I whispered. "Oh no, it can't be Dr. Le-"

a car pulled up beside me, so close it almost skinned my leg, and then it swerved to block my way. It was a dark blue, low-slung Chevy, its right rear side smashed in and rust splotched across it like dead poison ivy leaves. a white rabbit's head on a black square hung from the rearview mirror. The Chevy's engine boomed and popped under the hood, and the whole car trembled with pent-up power. "Hey, boy!" the man behind the wheel said through the rolled-down window. The wheel was covered with blue fur. "You're that little Mackenson shit!"

His voice was slurred, the lids of his red eyes at half mast. Donny Blaylock was three sheets to an ill wind. His face was as craggy as rough-cut rock, a greasy comma hanging down from his dark, slick brilliantined hair. "I 'member you," he said. "Sim's house. Little fucker."

I felt Rocket shiver. The bike suddenly darted forward and banged into the Chevy, like a terrier attacking a Doberman.

"Been seein' things you shouldn't oughta see," Donny went on. "Been causin' us some trouble, ain't youi"

"No sir," I said. Rocket backed up and banged into the Chevy again.

"Oh, yes you have. Biggun's gonna be glad to see you, boy. Gonna have a talk with you 'bout them big eyes and that big ol' mouth of yours. Get in."

If my heart had been pounding any harder, it would've pulled up its root and burst right out of my chest.

"I said, get in. Now." He raised his right hand.

It gripped a pistol, and the pistol was aimed at me.

Once again Rocket attacked the car. Rocket had saved me from Gordo Branlin, but against this dirty rat and his gun, Rocket was powerless.

"Shoot your fuckin' head off in two seconds," Donny vowed.

I was scared half to death, and the other half was terrified. That gun's barrel looked as big as a cannon. It made a convincing argument. In my mind I could hear Mom screaming as I left Rocket and got into the car, but what choice did I havei "Goin' for a ride," Donny said, and he leaned across me-all but suffocating me with the foul odors of stale sweat and moonshine whiskey-and slammed the door shut. He put his foot down on the gas pedal and the Chevy growled and crawled up on the curb before he could get it straightened out again. I looked back at Rocket, which was rapidly shrinking. a little plastic Hawaiian girl did a wobbly hula in the Chevy's rear windshield. "Sit still!" Donny snapped, and I obeyed him because the pistol was right there to jab the obedience into me. Donny's foot pressed harder on the gas. The Chevy's engine was wailing as we tore along Merchants Street and turned toward the gargoyle bridge.

"Where're we goin'i" I dared ask.

"You just wait 'n see."

The speedometer's needle climbed to sixty. We left the gargoyles gasping for breath. The Chevy's engine was making thunder, and we were going seventy miles an hour on the curving road that led past Saxon's Lake. When I gripped the armrest, Donny laughed. On the floorboard an empty bottle rolled back and forth under my feet and the smell of raw rotgut moonshine was harsh enough to make my eyes water.

The woods on either side of the road passed in a yellow blur, the Chevy's rear tires shrieking on the snake-twist road. "I'm fuckin' alive!" Donny howled. Maybe so, but he looked near dead. His eyes were sunken, his jaw stubbled with a scraggly beard, his clothes as wrinkled and dirty as if he'd slept for three days in a pigpen. Or maybe just laid in there and drank for three days. "I saw you!" he shouted to me over the wind's blast. "Followed you! Yessir, ol' Donny crept up behind you and bagged him a bird, didn't hei" He threw his shoulders into a curve that made my eyes pop. "That fat sumbitch says I'm stupid! Show his fat ass who the smart Blaylock is!"

If a gun, a fast car, and being drunker than a Shriner made a man smart, then Donny was Copernicus, Da Vinci, and Einstein rolled up into one mass of doughy genius.

We whipped past Saxon's Lake and the red rock cliff. "Whoa! Whoa, Big Dick!" Donny hollered at the car as he stepped on the brake. We slowed down enough for Donny to turn the Chevy to the right and onto a dirt road without flying us into the trees. Then he put on the gas again, and we zoomed the fifty yards between Route Ten and the small white house with a screened-in front porch that stood at the end of that road. I knew the house. The red Mustang was still parked under the green plastic awning, but the old rust-gnawed Cadillac was gone. The rose garden was still there, all thorns and no flowers.

"Whoa!" Donny shouted, and his Big Dick came to a throbbing halt at the door of Miss Grace's house of bad girls.

Lord help me! I thought. What was this all abouti

He got out of the car, gun in hand. He showed me its ugly snout. "You better be here when I come back! Better be here, or I'll hunt you down and kill you! Understandi"

I nodded. Donny Blaylock had already killed one man. Mr. Dollar had said so. I had no doubt he would do it again, so my butt stayed glued to the seat. Donny staggered to the door and started beating on it. Somebody hollered from inside. Donny kicked the door open and charged in, shouting, "Where is shei Where's my fuckin' womani"

I was in deep dookey, that was for sure. Somehow in my fear-seized brain I thought that Dr. Lezander couldn't be the one who'd killed that man at Saxon's Lake; it had to be Donny Blaylock. Mr. Dollar had heard about it from Sim Sears. Donny Blaylock was the killer, not Dr. Lezander!

Donny emerged from the house less than thirty seconds after he'd crashed in. He had hold of a girl by her blond hair, and he was dragging her as she fought and cursed.

That girl was Lainie, who'd furled her tongue at me that very first day.

"Get in that car!" Donny yelled as he dragged her over the ground. She was wearing a pink halter top and purple hot pants, and one of her silver shoes had come off. "Get in there, and do it quick!"

"Lemme go! Lemme go, you sumbitch!"

Out from the doorway shot redhaired, stocky Miss Grace, who wore a white sweater and blue jeans big enough to house a barn dance. She had the look of hellfire on her face and a frying pan in her right hand, and she lifted it to strike Donny over the head.

He shot her. Bam! Just that fast.

Miss Grace screamed and grabbed her shoulder as the crimson blossomed against the white like the opening of a rose. She fell to her knees, crying, "You shot me, you asshole! You dumb bastard, you!" Two more girls, both brunette and one as plump as the other was skinny, rushed out to kneel beside Miss Grace, while another blond girl stood in the doorway shouting, "We're callin' the sheriff! Right this minute, we're callin' him!"

"You stupid shit!" Donny yelled as he reached the car. "We own the sheriff!" He yanked the door open and threw Lainie in on me, and I scrambled over into the backseat as she clawed and kicked to get out. Donny said, "Stop it!" and he hit her across the face with his free hand so hard, one second I was looking at the back of her head and the next at her face, the tough but pretty features pinched with pain. Blood began crawling from the corner of her mouth. "You want some more, you just keep it up!" Donny warned her, and then he went around and slid under the wheel. The Chevy's engine fired. I started to jump out, but Donny caught my motion in the rearview mirror and the pistol's barrel swatted at my head. If I hadn't ducked in time, I might've earned my wings for real. "Just sit there! The both of you!" Donny shouted, and he whipped the car around in a neck-wrenching circle and headed for Route Ten again.

"You're crazy!" Lainie seethed, one hand pressed to her mouth. "I told you to leave me alone!"

"Do tell!"

"I swear I won't stand for this! Miss Grace'll-"

"What'll she doi I shoulda shot her brains out!"

Lainie made a move for the door handle. But just then we reached Route Ten and Donny laid on the gas. The Chevy's tires screeched as we sped toward Zephyr once more. Lainie's fingers were gripping the handle, but we were already going fifty miles an hour.

"Jump," Donny said, and he grinned. "Go on, I dare ya!"

Her fingers loosened. They let go.

"I'll get the law on you! I swear it!"

"Sure you will." His grin widened. "The law don't have time for trash like you."

"You're drunk and out of your mind!" She glanced back at me. "What're you doin' draggin' a kid around with you fori"

"Family business. You just shut up and look pretty."

"Damn you to hell," she spat at him, but he just laughed.

The Chevy crossed the gargoyle bridge again. We passed Rocket. a crow was perched on the handlebars, trying to pry the pie box open. The indignity of it! Donny tore through Zephyr at sixty miles an hour, blowing dead leaves in our wake. He burst out on the other side and hit Route Sixteen, and we raced across the hills toward Union Town.

"Kidnappin'!" Lainie was still raging. "That's what it is! They can kill you for that!"

"I don't give a shit. I got you. That's what I want."

"I don't want you!"

His hand grabbed her chin and squeezed. The Chevy swerved across the road, and I gasped as I saw the woods reaching for us. Then Donny veered us back onto pavement again with a jerk of his arm. We were straddling the centerline. "Don't you say that. Don't you ever say that, or you'll be real sorry."

"I'm just shakin'!" She tried to pull loose, but his wiry fingers tightened.

"I don't wanna hurt you, baby. God knows I don't." His fingers released her, but their marks stayed on her skin.

"I ain't your baby! I told you a long time ago, I don't want nothin' to do with you or them damn brothers of yours!"

"You take our money, don't youi High and mighty for a damned punchboard, ain't youi"

"I'm a professional," she said with a measure of pride. "I don't love you, don't you get iti I don't even like you! Only one man I ever loved, and he's with Jesus."

"Jesus." He mocked her voice. "That bastard's rottin' in hell." His eyes flickered to the rearview mirror. I saw them narrow. "What the fucki" he whispered.

I looked back. a car was behind us, gaining rapidly.

It was a black car. Black as a panther.

"No." Donny shook his head. "Oh, no. I cain't be that wasted!"

Lainie looked back, too, her lower lip swollen. "What is iti"

"That car. See iti"

"What cari"

Her deep brown eyes registered nothing. I saw it, though. Clear as light. and Donny did, too. I could tell by the way he was letting the Chevy drift all over the road. The black car was speeding after us. In another moment I could make out the flames painted on the hood. I could see the faint shape of the driver through the slanted windshield. He seemed to be crouched forward, eager to catch us.

"Hell's bells!" Donny's knuckles whitened around the furry wheel. "I'm goin' off my rocker!"

"You just now figurin' that one outi Kidnappin' me is bad enough, but your ass is gonna be in a crack for shootin' Miss Grace! What if you'd killed heri"

"Shut up." Little beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead. His eyes kept ticking back and forth from the rearview mirror to the winding road ahead. The black car was lost for a few seconds behind a curve, and then I saw Midnight Mona slide around it and come out of a shadow, barreling after us. The sun was dull on the black paint and the tinted windshield. The Chevy was on the high side of seventy; Midnight Mona had to be doing near ninety.

"There's where it happened!" Lainie pointed at a place off the roadside, the wind whipping the hair around her strained and lonely face. "That's where my baby got killed!"

She was pointing at a place that might've just looked like weeds and thick underbrush, except two dead and blackened trees stood side by side, their trunks cut by deep and ugly gashes. The limbs of the trees were interlocked, as if embracing each other even in death.

I looked at her blond hair, and I remembered it.

Hers was the head I had seen resting on the shoulder of Little Stevie Cauley, a long time ago in the Spinnin' Wheel's parking lot.

"Look out!" Lainie suddenly screamed, and she grabbed for the wheel as a tractor-trailer truck roared over a hill in front of us, its grille filling Big Dick's windshield like a mouthful of silver teeth. Donny had been watching Midnight Mona grow in the rearview mirror, and he shouted with terror and twisted the wheel. The truck's massive tires zoomed past, a deep bass horn bellowing with indignation. I turned around in time to see the truck and Midnight Mona merge together, and then Midnight Mona burst through the truck's rear wheels and kept on coming and the truck went on its way as dumb as Paul Bunyan's ox. Donny hadn't seen this feat of magic; he'd been too busy trying to keep us from crashing. "That was damn close!" Lainie said, and when she looked back I could tell she still saw nothing of the black car.

But I knew. and Donny knew, too. Little Stevie Cauley was coming to save his girlfriend.

"If he wants to fuckin' play, I'll play with him!" Donny yelled, and his foot sank to the floor. The Chevy's engine screamed, the whole car starting to vibrate, everything that wasn't bolted down rattling and groaning. "He never could beat me! Never could!"

"Slow down!" Lainie begged, her eyes filling up with fear. "You'll kill us!"

But Midnight Mona was right on our tail now, hanging there like a black jet plane, matching speed for speed. The driver was a dark shape behind the wheel. The Chevy's tires flayed rubber as Donny gritted his teeth, sweat on his face, and followed the dangerous road. Over the engine and the wind and Lainie's voice crying for Donny to slow down, I couldn't hear a sound from Midnight Mona.

"Come on, you sumbitch!" Donny snarled. "I killed you once! I can kill you again, too!"

"You're crazy!" Lainie was clinging to her seat like a cat. "I don't wanna die!"

I was thrown from one side of the car to the other as the Chevy took the curves at breakneck speed, Donny fighting the wheel with every ounce of mean strength in his body. My mind was jangled, but not disconnected; I realized, as I was flung around like yesterday's laundry, that Donny Blaylock had killed Little Stevie Cauley. How it had happened I could see in my imagination: two cars-one blue, one black-racing hell-for-sparkplugs on this very road, flames shooting from their tail pipes under last year's October moon. Maybe they were neck and neck, like the chariots in Ben-Hur, and then Donny had whipped Big Dick to one side and the right rear panel had slammed into Midnight Mona. Maybe Little Stevie had lost control of the wheel, or maybe a tire had blown. But Midnight Mona had taken flight, as graceful as a black butterfly through the silvery dark, and exploded into fire when she came down. I could hear Donny's fiendish laugh as he'd raced away from the burning ruin of glass and metal.

as a matter of fact, I could hear his fiendish laugh right this minute.

"I'll kill you again! I'll kill you again!" he hollered, his eyes crazed and his brilliantined hair swept back and twisting like Medusa's snakes. It was obvious he was riding on his rims.

He slammed on the brake. Lainie screamed. I screamed. Big Dick screamed, too.

Midnight Mona, which was five feet behind the Chevy's rear fender, hit us.

I saw, as my eyes almost blasted out of my head, the black car's flame-painted snout shove through the back seat. Then, like blurred freeze-frame pictures, Midnight Mona began to fill up the inside of Big Dick. I smelled burning oil and scorched metal, cigarette smoke and English Leather cologne. For the briefest of instants a black-haired young man with eyes as blue as swimming-pool water sat beside me, his hands gripping a steering wheel, his teeth clenching a Chesterfield's stub. The sharp chin of his ruggedly handsome face was set like the prow of the Flying Dutchman. I believe my hair stood on end.

Midnight Mona cleaved through Big Dick. Went right through the front seats, and on its way into the engine block its driver reached out a hand and seemed to touch Lainie's cheek. I saw her blink and jump, her face going as pale as white silk. Donny cringed, yelling in stark-naked fear. He twisted the wheel back and forth because he could see the passing apparition even if Lainie was blind to it. Then Midnight Mona had gone through the front fender, its taillights the shape of red diamonds and its exhaust pipes spouting in Donny's face, and the Chevy started spinning around and around like a Tiltawhirl, the brakes and tires shrieking like drunken banshees at an all-night haunt.

I felt a crunch and heard a thud and I flew into the back of Lainie's seat as if pressed there by an invisible waffle iron. "Jesus!" I heard Donny shout; this time he wasn't mocking anybody. Glass crashed and something kabonged in the car's belly, and with a loud ripping noise of bushes and low tree limbs the Chevy came to a halt with its nose buried in a bank of red dirt.

"Yi yi yi yi!" Donny was yelping like a dog with a hurt leg. I tasted blood, and my nose felt as if it had been pushed right through my face. I saw Donny looking wildly about; at his hairline along the sides of his head, the hair had gone gray. "I killed him!" he squalled in a high and giddy voice. "Killed that bastard! Midnight Mona burned up! Saw it burn up!"

Lainie stared at him, her eyes unfocused, an egg-sized knot bulging on her reddened forehead. She whispered thickly, "You... killed..."

"Killed him! Killed him dead! Went flyin' off the road! Boom, he went! Boom!" Donny started laughing, and he scrambled out through the driver's-side window without opening the door. His face looked swollen and wet, his eyes cocked and crazy. He began to stagger in a circle, the front of his jeans soggy with urine. "Daddyi" he cried out. "Help me, Daddy!" Then he started gibbering and sobbing and he climbed up the bank of red dirt for the woods beyond.

I heard a click.

Lainie had reached down to the floorboard and retrieved the pistol. She had pulled its hammer back, and now she took aim at the struggling, insane wretch who sobbed for his daddy.

Her hand trembled. I saw her finger tighten on the trigger.

"Better not," I said.

Her finger didn't listen.

But her hand did. It moved an inch. The pistol went off, and the bullet threw up a chunk of red dirt. She kept firing, four more times. Four more red dirt chunks, flying in the air.

Donny Blaylock ran for the yellow woods. He got caught up in branches for a moment, and as he thrashed to get loose the branches ripped the shirt right off his back. He hightailed it, but we could hear him laughing and crying until the awful sound faded and was gone.

Lainie lowered her head and pressed her hand to her eyes. Her back began to tremble. She gave a low, moaning sob. My nose was starting to feel like it was on fire.

But through it I could still smell a hint of English Leather.

Lainie looked up, startled. She touched her tear-stained cheek. "Steviei" she said, her voice alive with hope.

as I've said, it was the season of ghosts. They had gathered themselves, building up their strength to wander the fields-and roads-of October and speak to those who would listen.

Maybe Lainie never saw him. Maybe she wouldn't have believed her own mind if she had, and she would've gone running for a rubber room the same as Donny.

But I believe she heard him, loud and clear. Maybe just in the scent of his skin, or the memory of a touch.

I believe it was enough.

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