Authors: Robert R. McCammon
Robert R. McCammon
He'll Come Knocking at Your Door
Fast Cars, the sign said.
It was in front of a used-car lot in the neighborhood where I grew up. Fast Cars. My friends and I passed it every day on our way to school. Our bikes were the fast cars of our imagination, our Mustangs and Corvettes and Thunderbirds. We longed for four wheels, but we were confined to two and on them we hurtled into the future.
I’ve built my own fast cars. They’re in this book, and they’re eager for passengers. They’re not made of metal, glass, nuts, and bolts, but rather of the fabric of wonder. All of them have a starting point, and all of them have a destination. You can sit behind the wheel, but I have to steer. Trust me.
We will travel, you and I, across a tortured land where hope struggles to grow like seed in a drought. In this land, a place with no boundaries, we’ll run the freeways and back roads and we’ll listen to the song of the wheels and peer into windows at lives that might be our own, if we lived in that land. Sometimes we’ll have the wind at our backs, and sometimes in our faces. We’ll see storms in the distance, whirling closer, and we’ll smell the forest and the sea and the hot concrete of the city. Our road will lead us onward, deeper into the tortured land, and as the speedometer revs and the engine roars, we may find strange visions on that twisting highway.
A man who awakens one morning to find a skeleton in bed where his wife had been the night before.
A small-time thief who steals a makeup case, and learns a dead horror star’s secret.
A roadside diner, where a Vietnam veteran comes seeking shelter from the storm.
A young man in prison, who finds beauty and hope on the wings of a yellow bird.
Halloween in a very special residential area, where trick-or-treating is deadly serious.
A red house on a street of gray houses, and a breath of sweet fire.
The adventures of a has-been serial hero, who dons his old costume and goes in search of a serial killer.
A priest obsessed by a porno star, and his realization that both of them are being stalked by a third shadow.
We will see worlds within worlds from the windows of our fast car. We might even see the end of the world, and we might sit on a front porch for a while and sip a glass of gasoline on a hot December day.
Some of these roads are tricky. Some of them have sudden curves that want to throw us off into space. Some of them bubble under the blinding sunlight, and some of them freeze beneath the cold white moon. But we have to take them all, if we want to get from here to there. And isn’t journeying what life is all about? The question of what lies beyond the dark hills, beyond the steaming forests, beyond the locked door?
The key to a fast car can take you there.
Novels are limousines, stately and smooth. Some of them can ride like tanks, slow and heavy, well-armored. The fast cars of short stories: those are the vehicles that let us zoom close to the ground, with the wind in our hair and the speedometer’s needle vibrating on the dangerous edge. Sometimes they’re hard to handle; they have minds of their own, and they call for close attention. They can crash and burn so easily, but their sleek power yearns for speed. In such a fast car, we can go anywhere. No locked door can keep us out, and if we want to see what lies around the next bend, or the next hill, all we have to do is steer toward it. We’ll be there, roaming through the tortured land, with the lights of other lives and different worlds passing on either side.
I’d like to thank a number of people who have encouraged me in my building of the fast cars in this book. Thank you to Frank Coffey, who published “Makeup,” my first short story; to Dave Silva of The Horror Show, and Paul and Erin Olson of Horrorstruck, for their friendship and encouragement; to Stephen King and Peter Straub for setting the pace, and leaving burning treadmarks on the pavement; to Charles L. Grant for his black-and-white visions; to Joe and Karen Lansdale for true grit; to Tappan King of Twilight Zone magazine; to J. N. Williamson and John Maclay for their first publication of “Nightcrawlers”; to Dean R. Koontz, and he knows why; to those good ol‘ boys Tom Monteleone and Al Sarrantonio; to Ray Bradbury, whose short story “The Lake” made me cry when I was a little boy; to Forrest J. Ackerman, my true father, who raised me on Famous Monsters of Filmland; to Tony Gardner; and to Sally, who always stands beside me.
The fast cars are waiting. Listen: their engines are starting up. We have a distance to travel, you and I. Buckle your seat belt. I’ll have to steer, because I know the roads. Trust me.
Ready? Then let’s go out, in our cocoon of speed, and see what finds us.
“Car’s comin‘, Mase,” the boy at the window said. “Comin’ lickety-split.”
“Ain’t no car comin‘,” Mase replied from the back of the gas station. “Ain’t never no cars comin’.”
“Yes there is! Come look! I can see the dust risin‘ off the road!”
Mase made a nasty sound with his lips and stayed where he was, sitting in the old cane chair that Miss Nancy had said she wouldn’t befoul her behind to sit on. Mase was kinda sweet on Miss Nancy, the boy knew, and he was always asking her to come over for a cold CoCola but she had a boyfriend in Waycross and so that wouldn’t do. The boy felt a little sorry for Mase sometimes, because nobody in town liked being around him much. Maybe it was because Mase was mean when he got riled, and he drank too much on Saturday nights. He smelled of grease and gasoline too, and his clothes and cap were always dark with stains.
“Come look, Mase!” the boy urged, but Mase shook his head and just sat watching the Braves baseball game on the little portable TV.
Well, there was a car, after all, trailing plumes of dust from its tires. But not exactly a car, the boy saw; it was a van with wood trim on its sides. The van had been white before it had met up with four unpaved miles of Highway 241, but now it was reddened by Georgia clay and there were dead bugs spotting the windshield. The boy wondered if any of them were yellowjackets. It was a yellowjacket summer for sure, he thought. Them things were just everywhere!
“They’re slowin‘ down, Mase,” the boy told him. “I think they’re gonna pull in here.”
“Lord A’mighty!” He smacked his knee with one hand. “There’s three men on base! You go on out and see what they want, hear?”
“Okay,” he agreed, and he was almost out the screen door when Mase called, “All they want’s a roadmap! They gotta be lost to be in this neck o‘ nowhere! And tell ’em the gas truck’s not due till tomorrow, Toby!”
The screen door slammed shut behind him, and Toby ran out into the steamy July heat as the van pulled up to the pumps.
“There’s somebody!” Carla Emerson said as she saw the boy emerge from the building. She released the breath she’d been holding for what seemed like the last five miles, since they’d passed a road sign pointing them to the town of Capshaw, Georgia. The ancient-looking gas station, its roof covered with kudzu and its bricks bleached yellow by a hundred summer suns, was a beautiful sight, especially since the Voyager’s tank was getting way too low for comfort. Trish had been driving Carla crazy by saying, “It’s on the E, Momma!” every minute or so, and Joe made her feel like a twerp with his doomy pronouncement of “Should’ve pulled over at the rest stop, Mom.”
In the back seat, Joe put aside the
Fantastic Four comic he’d been reading. “I sure do hope they’ve got a bathroom,” he said. “If I can’t pee in about five seconds I’m gonna go out in a burst of glory.”
“Thanks for the warning,” she told him as she stopped the van next to the dusty pumps and cut the engine. “Go for it!”
He opened his door and scrambled out, trying to keep his bladder from bouncing around too much. He was twelve years old, skinny, and wore braces on his teeth, but he was as intelligent as he was gawky and he figured that someday God would give him a better chance with girls; right now, though, computer games and superhero comics took most of his attention.
He almost ran right into the boy who had hair the color of fire.
“Howdy,” Toby said, and grinned. “What can I do for you?”
“Bathroom,” Joe told him, and Toby motioned with a finger toward the back side of the gas station. Joe took off at a trot, and Toby called, “Ain’t too clean in there, though. Sorry!”
That was the least of Joe Emerson’s worries as he hurried around the small brick building, back to where kudzu and stickers erupted out of the thick pine forest. There was just one door, and it had no handle on it, but it was mercifully unlocked. He went in.
Carla had her window rolled down. “Could you fill us up, please? With unleaded?”
Toby kept grinning at her. She was a pretty woman, maybe older than Miss Nancy but not too old; her hair was light brown and curly, and she had steady gray eyes set in a high-cheek-boned face. Perched in the seat next to her was a little brown-haired girl maybe six or seven. “No gas,” he told the woman. “Not a drop.”
“Oh.” The nervous clenching sensation returned to her stomach. “Oh, no! Well… is there another station around here?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He pointed in the direction the van was facing. “Halliday’s about eighteen or twenty miles. They’ve got a real nice gas station.”
“We’re on E!” Trish said.
“Shhhh, honey.” Carla touched the little girl’s arm. The boy with red, close-cropped hair was still smiling, waiting for Carla to speak again. Through the station’s screen door Carla could hear the noise of a crowd roaring on a TV set.
“Bet they got a run,” the boy said. “The Braves. Mase is watchin‘ the game.”
Eighteen or twenty miles! Carla thought. She wasn’t sure they had enough gas to make it that far, and she sure would hate to run out on a country road. The sun was shining down hot and bright from the fierce blue sky, and the pine woods looked like they went on to the edge of eternity. She cursed herself as a fool for not stopping at that rest station on Highway 84, where there was Shell gasoline and a Burger King, but she’d thought they could fill up ahead and she was in a hurry to get to St. Simons Island. Her husband, Ray, was a lawyer and had flown on to Brunswick for a business meeting several days ago; she and the kids had left Atlanta yesterday morning to visit her parents in Valdosta, then were supposed to swing up through Waycross and meet Ray for a vacation. Stay on the main highway, Ray had told her. You get off the highway, you can get lost in some pretty desolate country.
But she thought she’d known her own state, particularly the area she’d grown up in! When the pavement had stopped and Highway 241 had turned to dust a ways back, she’d almost stopped and turned around--but then she’d seen the sign to Capshaw, so she’d kept on going and hoped for the best.
But if this was the best, they were sunk.
In the bathroom, Joe had learned that you spell relief p-e-e. It was not a clean bathroom, true, and there were dead leaves and pinestraw on the floor and the single window was broken, but he would’ve gone in an outhouse if he’d had to. The toilet hadn’t been flushed for a long time, though, and the smell wasn’t too pleasant. Through the thin wall he could hear a TV set on. The crack of a bat and the roar of a crowd.
And another sound too. Something that he couldn’t identify at first.
It was a low, droning noise. Somewhere close, he thought as he stood at the end of an amber river.
Joe looked up, and his hand abruptly squeezed the river off.
Above his head, the bathroom’s ceiling crawled with yellowjackets. Hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. The little winged bodies with their yellow-and-black-striped stingers crawled over and around each other, making a weird droning noise that sounded like a hushed, distant-- and dangerous--whisper.
The river would not be denied. It kept streaming. As Joe stared upward with widened eyes, he saw maybe thirty or forty of the yellowjackets take off, buzz curiously around his head, and then fly away through the broken window. A few of them--ten or fifteen, Joe realized--came in for a closer look. His skin crept as the yellowjackets hummed before his face, and he heard their droning change pitch, become higher and faster--as if they knew they’d found an intruder.
More left the ceiling. He felt them walking in his hair, and one landed on the edge of his right ear. The river would not stop, and he knew he must not cry out, must not must not, because the noise in this confined place might send the whole colony of them into a stinging frenzy.