The Girl in the Green Silk Gown
LAURA DRIVES A PERFECTLY SAFE, perfectly solid recent-model Prius, painted silver-beige, with a matching interior and self-warming seats. It is the least offensive, least noticeable car I’ve ever been in. This car could commit crimes and no one would remember enough about it to describe it to the police. It’s like slipping into the very definition of “boring.”
I touch the dashboard as I get settled, trying to feel the car’s personality, the heart that keeps it driving instead of taking the easy road and breaking down. Cars are a constructed chaos, hundreds of small, delicate systems working in harmony when they should be flying apart. But when you bring that many pieces into one place, a sort of life will inevitably follow. All cars live, in their own way. That’s what keeps them running.
When I touch the dashboard, all I feel is the grain of the synthetic leather. Nothing more, nothing less. I jerk my hand away, feeling almost scalded. One more thing I can’t reach, here in my mortal state. The world keeps narrowing around me.
Laura slides into the driver’s seat, shooting me a narrow-eyed, measuring look. “Seatbelt,” she says. “I don’t start this car until everyone is wearing a seatbelt.”
It’s a reasonable request. I usually wear a seatbelt when I’m riding with the living, both for their comfort and to avoid awkward encounters with the police. Most seatbelt laws don’t care whether or not the person who isn’t wearing the seatbelt is already dead. I still flush red and refuse to make eye contact as I yank on the strap. There are so many steps to being alive, so many little tricks that have been optional for me for years, assuming I noticed them at all. I don’t like any of this.
The engine turns over without so much as a growl, only the sudden brightness of the dash betraying the fact that the car is on. “All right,” says Laura. “What the hell happened?”
“Not yet,” I reply, scanning the parking lot through the window, looking for any sign we’re being followed. I am suddenly, absolutely sure that Bobby has been toying with me this whole time. That he saw me before I could hide in the bathroom, that he didn’t believe Molly for an instant when she told him I wasn’t there. He’s here, he’s parked in some shadow or around some corner, and he’s here, he’s going to come roaring out into the open and drive us off the road.
This is dangerous. This is so dangerous. I’ve been able to evade Bobby for as long as I have because I’m fast, I’m flexible, and I can feel him coming, taste the ashes and wormwood and decay hanging in the air like some horrible perfume. But now there’s nothing. I have no early warning system, no way to know whether he’s ten feet or twenty miles away.
I shiver. The shiver turns into a shudder, and I’m shaking so hard that it feels like I might come apart, huddling down in the seat of Laura’s car and putting my hands over my eyes and trying to make the world stop spinning. There’s a feeling in my chest like concrete, so heavy it weighs me down, dragging me toward the bottom of some impossible sea where I’m going to drown, I’m going to drown, I’ve never felt like this before and I’m going to shake myself to pieces, like a flawed engine, and there won’t be anything left of me—
“Breathe.” A hand is on my shoulder; a voice is in my ear. “I know it’s hard, but breathe. Do you know any poems?”
I manage a vague nod, still shaking, still falling.
“Recite a poem for me. Breathe, and give me a poem.” The hand tightens as I continue to shake. “Come on, Rose. You’re the phantom prom date. A panic attack is nothing.”
A panic attack? Is that what this is? Panic suddenly seems like the most terrifying enemy in the world. I force myself to breathe, shallowly at first, and then with more force. “H-homecomer, hitcher, phantom rider,” I manage, between breaths. It’s almost impossible at first. The words don’t want to come; don’t want anything to do with me.
I keep breathing. The words get a little easier. “White lady wants what’s been denied her,” I said, and take a deep breath, feeling my lungs expand. The drowning sensation is gone. “Gather-grim knows what you fear the most,” I say, and stop, lifting my head.
Laura is looking at me with a concern that I never thought I’d see on her face. “Well?” she says. “Finish the quatrain. Don’t leave me hanging.”
“Best keep away from the crossroads ghost,” I say, and sag in my seat, closing my eyes. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. I’m essentially in shock right now. My worst enemy—the woman I spent years figuring out how to capture and destroy—is a teenage girl sitting in my car, having panic attacks. Alive. Honestly, I’m not sure why I’m helping you.”
“You’re still helping.” I muster a weak smile. We’re still in the parking lot, but it no longer feels quite so much like the sort of place where ambushes happen. Just a parking lot, well-lit and open and glittering with a dusting of broken glass.
Thinking of parking lots reminds me of Gary, and I have to swallow to keep the panic from surging back. Do he and Emma even know yet what’s happened to me? The sun will be down soon. Apple will realize something’s wrong when I don’t return from the Halloween fields, but . . .
There’s always a risk to becoming incarnate on Halloween. If the Barrowmans are clever, they can lie to the Queen of the Routewitches, tell her I took a bullet to the throat while I was running for the barn, tell her there was nothing they could have done, and maybe she’ll believe them. I haven’t considered this outcome before, and it’s enough to make me fight not to open the door and lose my grilled cheese sandwich on the pavement. If they’re good liars, if they’re clever and quick and determined to avoid punishment for the oaths they broke, they could convince my friends and allies that I’m truly dead, not just haunting a different kind of house.
Will Gary stay in the twilight if he thinks I’m really gone? Will Emma keep the green lights burning at the Last Dance? Or will he let go and drop into the afterlife he should have had all along, while she lights the red neon and becomes the kind of monster that everyone in the twilight has the potential to be?
“Hey.” Laura’s voice is sharp, the crack of a whip in the quiet of the car. “Wherever your mind is going right now, stop it. You don’t need to go there. You need to stay here with me, the woman who’s going to help you. Focus on me.”
I focus on her. She’s glaring, determined and stubborn, and for the first time I can understand what Tommy saw in her—what he still sees in her, if his ongoing presence on the ghostroads is anything to go by. She’s the woman he’s willing to delay his eternal reward for.
“Sorry,” I say, my voice timid and raspy from the strain of not screaming. “I just . . . sorry.”
“Stop being sorry and tell me what happened.”
“Can we get on the road first?” I give the parking lot one last look. “There’s someone looking for me. I’d rather he didn’t find us here.”
Laura gives me a long, assessing look before she puts the car into gear and starts for the exit. The Prius runs without making a sound. It’s unnerving, even for me, and I’m usually the one unnerving people.
She’s a good driver. Cautious, maybe, but who wouldn’t be after the way her lover died? Tommy was a cautionary tale waiting to happen, and Laura read him cover to cover. She turns, she merges, she slides smoothly onto the freeway, and I relax a little more with every turn, every time Bobby doesn’t come lunging out of a concealed hole and strike. Then we’re on the freeway, the merciful freeway, running hard and fast and clean, with a clear line of sight all the way to the horizon.
Laura doesn’t take her eyes off of the horizon. “All right,” she says. “Now’s where you tell me what the hell happened. The dead don’t rise every day. If they did, I’d know about it.”
True enough. Some people are born to magic, routewitches and sorcerers and the like pulling on the gifts the universe has decided, for whatever reason, they deserve. Others, like Laura, go out and take magic, ripping it out of the walls of the world, codifying and ritualizing it until it works for them, until it has no choice but to obey. Power belongs to those who take it.
Laura took it. After Tommy died—after she decided blaming me was easier and safer than grieving or moving on with her life—she’d thrown herself into scholarship, learning every trick and every ritual that doesn’t require some innate tie to one of the greater powers, like the road or the sky or fortune. She’s still not a witch, but that’s mostly because she doesn’t want to be. She’s happier being a folklore professor who sometimes hunts ghosts on the side.
“Do you know about the Halloween rites?” I ask.
She takes her eyes off the road long enough to glance at me, assessing. “I’ve heard rumors,” she says. “But Halloween’s over.”
“No. It’s not.” I take a deep breath, hating how it stings my throat, hating the idea that I might have time to get used to it even more. Everything is awful. “The man who killed me has been trying to do it again, but this time for keeps. He got a routewitch to summon me, and used her death to damage the protection that normally keeps him from touching me. The only way to repair it was for me to become incarnate on Halloween, and let my own symbolic ‘death’ wash her willing sacrifice away. But the people who were supposed to be protecting me during the holiday double-crossed me. They locked me in a modified Seal of Solomon, setting me outside the flow of normal time, so when the Halloween candle blew out, I didn’t go back to being dead.”
“And now whatever mechanism recognizes ‘people who shouldn’t be alive right now’ doesn’t see you, because you didn’t register when it did the count,” says Laura thoughtfully. “Elegant.”
“Awful,” I correct.
“Who killed you? I ask as much out of scholarly interest as anything else, you understand. People have been arguing about the cause of your death ever since we figured out that the phantom prom date legend was tied to a real person.” Laura smiles, slow and almost predatory. “I could get a few papers out of it.”
“No, you couldn’t, because no one will believe you,” I say. “I was killed by Bobby Cross.”
It’s a good thing there isn’t much traffic, because Laura swerves across two lanes in her shock. I yelp and grip the dashboard, feeling what must be a toxic quantity of adrenaline drop straight into my bloodstream. My heart is pounding like it’s going to give out, and I’m trying not to do the math on what a heart attack on the highway would make me, because here’s a hint: it wouldn’t be a hitcher. I’d be lucky to go homecomer. I am very rarely lucky.
“Bobby Cross?” Laura demands, finding her voice again. “Diamond Bobby Cross? The actor, the one who disappeared in the desert?”
“Yes,” I say, closing my eyes, trying to will my heart calm, steady, anything other than it currently is. “Bobby Cross didn’t disappear. He sold his freedom to the crossroads in order to live forever. He kills people, people like me, people who’ll leave ghosts behind that he can use. I don’t know how he knows. I don’t always know, and I’m a psychopomp, normally. That means I’m—”
“Someone who escorts the souls of the dead to their destinations, I’m aware,” she says. “Although I’ll admit, I’d never heard that term used in connection with you before.”
“It’s why so many people think I’m a killer, or that the girl in the diner is, since that’s the story with the most dead truckers,” I say. “When someone is heading for an accident they can’t avoid, I’ll ride with them if I can. I’ll make sure they get where they’re supposed to go. I can’t save their lives, but I can save their souls from people like Bobby.”
“Bobby. You say he targets people who will leave ghosts. Why?”
“His life and his youth are tied to his car. As long as the tank is full and the wheels are on the road, he can’t die and he doesn’t age. He can’t be killed. And his car runs on souls.”
Laura is quiet for a long moment before she says, “You understand how ridiculous this all sounds.”
“I do.” I open my eyes, twisting to look at her. “I mean, I also understand that I’ve been dead for sixty years, and now here I am, trapped in a rotting meat hotel with no check-out date and no room service. I can feel myself aging. I can feel my teeth rotting in my mouth and my skin drying out by fractions of fractions of fractions of degrees. I’m a teenage girl who’s older than most grandparents, and I’ve never been this old before, and I’ll never be as young as I am right now. This hurts. Everything about this hurts. So I don’t care if it sounds ridiculous, and the only reason I care about you believing me is that I need your help.”
“I don’t have anyone else to call!” I realize how pathetic I sound as soon as the words are out. I can’t take them back, and so I soldier on. “My mortal family is dead, except for some distant cousins and great-nieces and nephews, and they’ve never met me, so it’s not like I can show up saying ‘Hi, I’m your dead aunt, help me get back to the underworld, okay?’ Most of my friends and allies are in the twilight, and I can’t get there, because I’m not dead, even though I’m damn well supposed to be. The people I know in this world are the sort of folks who think hanging out with dead women is perfectly normal, and they don’t, by and large, go in for having listed numbers. I’m stuck, do you understand? I knew how to find you, I found you, and I’m hoping that the fact that you’ve been studying me for years will mean you can figure this shit out, because otherwise, I’m screwed.”
“And you say you can’t just kill yourself, even though that would make you dead again.”
“No.” I shake my head. “Death isn’t . . . it isn’t that easy.”
“So make it that easy. Explain it to me.” Laura’s tone is patient, like she’s asking for something simple. Like she isn’t asking me to take one of the building blocks of the twilight and break it down into something the living mind can understand.
There are probably a million rules against doing this. I can think of at least a couple dozen. I take another deep breath, cough, and say, “When two humans have a baby together, the baby will always be a human. It won’t be an exact mirror of the parents, but it will take traits from both, and be its own person. Right?”
“Biology would tend to agree with you,” says Laura, sounding bewildered and slightly amused.
“Well, when somebody dies, it’s sort of like they’re having a baby—they’re creating a new person—with the manner of their death. Which is really oversimplified and probably insulting to parents but whatever, I’m tired, I don’t even know how to handle half the things I’m feeling, I’m going with the easy metaphor. Every person who has enough unfinished business to leave behind a ghost has the potential to become a whole bunch of different things.”
“Huh,” says Laura. “I knew you came in flavors. I always assumed it was like, I don’t know. Picking a career.”
“Not quite,” I reply. Secretly, I’m relieved that she’s still listening. “Say you die like I did, in a wreck. If you come back, you’ll probably come back one of three ways: hitchhiker, homecomer, or phantom rider. There used to be a fourth, coachman, but that almost never happens anymore. The kind of ghost you are will determine the rules that bind you, your powers and limitations, everything.”
“So why can’t you walk into traffic? Traumatizing the drivers aside.”
“People who commit suicide never come back as hitchhiking ghosts.” I look down at my hands. “They can be homecomers, which is close, but it’s not the same, and I don’t want to be a homecomer. They . . . they lose themselves. In a very real way, they lose themselves. They’re trapped, forever, in this cycle of trying and failing to get home, and even if they’re nice people when they’re on the high end of their cycle, they do bad things when they’re on the low end. Really bad things. Things they can’t take back.”
“I see,” says Laura. “You would be what some of the stories already take you for if you were a homecomer.”
“Yes, exactly,” I say. “So I can’t get in a wreck on purpose, because then I wouldn’t be me when I rose. And I can’t wait to see if I’ll get in a wreck naturally.”
“This body.” I gesture at myself, unable to keep the disgust out of my voice. “It’s awful. It’s sticky and smelly and doing things. I was fine with it when I was supposed to be alive, and I’m fine with it when I’m borrowing flesh on purpose, but this? This is disgusting. I don’t want it. I can’t live like this.”
Laura’s laughter is like a slap. “Seems to me you are living like this, Rose. That’s the problem.”
“I mean it. For you, this is normal, because you’ve never been dead. And being dead’s no picnic. You’re cold all the time. If you’re a ghost like me, meant to occupy the liminal space between the living and the dead, you want so hard that it can hurt.”
“Want?” asks Laura blankly.
“For me it’s usually cheeseburgers and milkshakes. But I know hitchers who want cigarettes, or pie, or sex. Things that the mortal world has and we need to pursue. I don’t know why we work that way; I just know that we do. Right after I died, I used to say I’d do anything to be warm, to have a full stomach, to be alive. That was sixty years ago. These days, cold and hungry I can handle. Needing to sneeze is awful and I hate it.”
“So you can’t die and you don’t want to live. What does that leave?”
“It leaves you.” I turn to look at her, hopeful and hungry and hating my own weakness. “You’re a folklorist. I’m a former ghost with sixty years of experience at running through the twilight. If we can find some of my allies, they can probably point us toward whatever you say we need.”
“Need for what?”
“Need to make me dead again.” I sit up straighter, trying to draw courage from my own words. It isn’t working, but she doesn’t have to know that. “Laura Moorhead, I am asking you to put me back into the twilight without killing me or allowing Bobby Cross to catch me. Will you do it?”
“What’s in it for me?”
It’s a simple question, and I can’t blame her for asking. She’s a folklorist, but that isn’t the same as being a fiction writer. Most of the things she can learn from me would put her straight into the “people who claim they can talk to ghosts, and other sideshow oddities” section of the bookstore, and definitely won’t help her academic standing.
“Tommy’s waiting for you,” I say.
Her gasp is so soft that I would miss it if this were a normal car, with normal noises. In the silence of the Prius, it might as well be a shout.
“He’s not a psychopomp, though, so there’s every chance you’ll be gone by the time he gets to you. You’re not likely to leave a road ghost; the roads have only ever been a means to an end for you. They don’t call you, and your unfinished business doesn’t weigh as much as it used to. But he’s waiting for you, refusing to let himself do what phantom riders do and drive off the edge of the known world, into whatever reward is waiting for him. I’ve been able to see the exits in his eyes for, oh, years now. He wants to rest. He won’t do it. Not until you’re back in his passenger seat where you belong, and he’s driving to his next adventure with you beside him.”
Laura is silent. The light shining through the windshield reflects off the tears on her cheeks. I don’t comment on them. It’s not my place.
“If you help me, when your death approaches, so will I. I’ll come to you the way I’ve come to so many of the people I knew when I was alive, and I’ll hold your hand and pull you into the dark. I’ll anchor you, whether your spirit wants to stay or not, until Tommy reaches us. He can drive you the rest of the way, and you’ll be together.”
“Do you promise?” Her voice, like her gasp, is so small as to be barely more than nothing.
“I didn’t know you while you were alive.”
“Loopholes. You know me now.”
She laughs, brief and bitter. “I still hate you. Even if you didn’t kill Tommy, I’ve hated you too long to give up the habit now.”
“I don’t care if you hate me. I just need you to help me.”
“How can you trust me?”
“I have what you want more than anything else in the world: I have a guarantee you’ll be reunited with the man you love. He’s been waiting for you for so long. How could you deny him that?” They’re a dark mirror of me and Gary, the ghost waiting, the living trying and failing to move on. I could have been her, if things had played out differently.
I’m glad they didn’t. That doesn’t mean I can deny what might have been.
“I have some time off coming,” says Laura. “I can claim a personal emergency and take it now. The beauty of tenure.”
“So you’ll help me?”
Laura glances at me, tears still shining on her cheeks. “I’ll help you,” she confirms.
I inhale deeply, letting my shoulders unlock. For the first time since Bobby pulled me out of the twilight, I’m starting to feel like this could work. I could make it home.
Relief is a drug. First the high, and then the crash. I barely feel my head come to a rest against the window, cool glass on my temple, holding me up, holding me away from the road I still can’t feel, the road that’s rushing by outside. I close my eyes. Bruce Springsteen is playing on the radio, and the wind is blowing under the sound of his song, and for a little while, everything is perfectly fine, and there’s nothing to be afraid of.
“Rose.” Someone is shaking my shoulder. I bat ineffectively at the hand, burrowing deeper into my borrowed jacket—stolen now, I guess, or given, since the man I got it from is hundreds of miles away. It smells of grease and sweat and old leather, and I don’t think I’m ever going to take it off.
“Rose.” It’s the hint of irritation in that voice that renders it familiar: Laura, trying to wake me up. “Rose, please. We have a problem.”
“Huh?” I sit up, rubbing at my eyes, and start to stretch. Then my eyes catch on the rearview mirror, and I freeze.
Bobby Cross drives a car that never rolled off any assembly line, that no human mechanic has ever touched or ever will. It was a gift from the crossroads, replacing the roadster he drove into the desert when he went to meet his fate. It’s sleek and black and classic in that “muscle cars of the American highway” sort of way, stealing elements from a dozen designs, making them all both more and less than they ought to be. It’s not a Chevy or a Camaro or anything else that belongs in the daylight. It’s wrong, like the man who drives it.
And it’s behind us on the road.
I suck in a sharp breath, coughing as it burns my throat, and say, “Oh sweet Hades.”
“That’s him, then? That’s Bobby Cross?”
He’s just a blur behind the windscreen, eyes hidden by dark glasses and mouth set in a sneer, but there’s no mistaking the face of Bobby Cross. Not with as long as I’ve been running from him. I can’t seem to find my voice. It’s like I spent it all on that expletive and now it’s gone, running somewhere I can’t follow. Running for safety.
I manage to nod. That’s all I can do.
Laura’s expression hardens into a mask of grim satisfaction. “Good,” she says, and taps a button on her dash, pulling up a menu of phone options. She taps again, this time a button labeled “voice,” and says, “Call highway patrol.”
“Dialing,” says a patient, electronic voice. In a decade, will all the cars in the twilight be able to speak for themselves? If I could get Gary one of these systems somehow, he’d be able to talk to me all the time, not just when the Ocean Lady forced him into a human shape. Wouldn’t that be something?
I’m spiraling, I’m looking for distractions, because I can’t reach the ghostroads and I can’t shuck this body like a corn husk and I can’t run and I can’t hide and Bobby’s going to follow us until it’s safe to run us off the road, and then he’s going to feed and feed and FEED—
“Colorado Highway Patrol, how may I direct your call?”
“Hi, this is Professor Laura Moorhead of Colorado University,” says Laura easily. “I’m driving my niece home from a Halloween party, and well. I know this may sound a little paranoid of me, but I think someone is following us.”
I turn to stare at her, hope and amazement in my eyes. She’s using the human police. She’s using the rules.
Bobby is a killer. He has nothing against breaking the rules, nothing against rear-ending a motorist and sending them to plummet to their deaths. But when he moves in the mortal world, he’s subject to certain physical laws. He needs time and clear roads to be certain of causing an accident bad enough to kill somebody, and even after six decades of doing what he does, he’s never left a witness behind. Witnesses mean rumors, and rumors mean gossip, and gossip means people start paying attention. Bobby went from King of the Silver Screen to half-whispered rumor through his own actions. He doesn’t want people to pay attention.
If this were a deserted country road, washed in moonlight and bordered by the endless corn, he wouldn’t have hesitated. But this is a major highway, and the sun is in the sky. He wants me so badly that he can’t help himself. He wants to know that this time, at last, I’m his.
I will never be his.
“Can you describe the car, Professor Moorhead?”
“I’m afraid I’m not much for makes and models. It’s black, looks old-fashioned, like something from Grease. The license plate is—” And she rattles off letters and numbers, a unique identifier I doubt is in their system, or anyone’s. Bobby isn’t the sort to pay much attention to keeping his registration up to date. She adds a description of her own car before she says, “I tried getting off and back on again, I tried changing lanes, slowing down, none of it helped. He’s just there. My niece is afraid it might be someone connected to her ex-boyfriend. He could be . . . rough.”
“All right. We’re going to dispatch a highway patrol car to your location. Keep obeying posted traffic signs, unless he attempts to close on you. If that happens, speed up, drive as fast as you feel safe.”
It’s good logic. We might get pulled over, but then we’ll be in the company of a state patrolman, which sort of cancels out Bobby’s influence over us. The calm, practiced way that it’s delivered makes my unwanted blood run cold. How often does this sort of thing happen in the daylight? How many people don’t think to call the police, let themselves be run off the road like lambs intended for the slaughter?
Down in the twilight, we can be brutal to one another—hell, we can be more than brutal. We take each other captive in sealed jars and in haunted houses, we deny each other the things we want most in all the world, we treat eternity like a game that can be won. But this sort of casual, inescapable cruelty is beyond us. Death is no longer on the table for us, and while the stakes of our feuds can be high, we almost never corner each other like this, like it matters. I don’t like it. I want it to end.
“Thank you very much,” says Laura. “Would you like me to stay on the line?”
They chat then, two humans discussing human things, the small points of commonality and culture that keep the daylight functional. I tune them out, watching in the rearview mirror as Bobby creeps ever closer, pacing us even as Laura presses her foot down on the gas, accelerates away from the threat he represents.
There are still cars around us, but not as many as there were, and not as many as I want there to be. The farther we drive, the more of them are exiting, not committed to riding all the way to Boulder. It won’t be long before Bobby has a clear shot.
Deliver me from fear, and deliver me from evil, and deliver me from the arms of Bobby Cross, I think . . . and that’s when the patrol car appears in the rearview mirror.
First it moves up alongside Bobby’s car, the officer inside presumably running the plates, making sure everything is all right. Whatever they find, it doesn’t please them, because the cruiser’s running lights come on, flashing red-blue-red, the universal symbol to pull the hell over.
Bobby hits the gas.
He comes tearing up on us, so fast Laura barely has time to swerve hard to the right and avoid a collision. For a second, I think he’s going to turn around and come back for another pass. But the patrol car is close behind him, and he doesn’t have the room to make the turn without risking his own vehicle. Bobby’s car is self-healing—I doubt there’s an ordinary accident bad enough to take it off the road. That doesn’t mean he wants to deal with the damage. In order to heal, it needs souls, and tracking those down takes time.
Bobby drives faster. The patrol car does the same. Laura clears her throat.
“Well,” she says. “I suppose we weren’t wrong.”
“Thank you for your call, Professor Moorhead,” says the dispatcher. “We’ll contact you if we have any questions.” With Bobby on the run and the two of us safe, at least for the moment, there’s no further need for a police presence in the car. They need to focus on the man who was following an innocent academic and her teenage niece down the highway, who clearly meant them harm from the way he fled as soon as the police arrived.
“Have a nice day, and thank you again,” says Laura, before tapping her dash to cut the connection. The call drops. She clutches the wheel like a drowning man clutches a rope. Her hands are shaking. She looks terrified, and I suppose everything about the day has been terrifying, one way or another.
“Do you really have a niece?” I ask her.
“Of course I do, and she’s safe at home with her parents if she knows what’s good for her, not getting chased down the road by Bobby Cross.” She spits his name like it’s half prayer and half curse and oh, Laura. Did she have his picture on her wall when she was younger, drowning in the power of those eyes? Did she go to festivals of his movies, mourning the fact that he’d died so far before his time, before he could grow into the man he should have been?
He’s never going to grow into the man he should have been. He played younger on film than he actually was, was in his early thirties when he died, and he’s still never going to grow into that man, because Bobby Cross does not grow, does not change, does not ever admit that who he is, right now, is anything less than flawless. Bobby bought the kind of immortality that requires absolute conviction in himself as he is, and if he ever lets it go, sixty years and more will slam into him like a brick wall. His survival now depends on continuing to believe that what he did then was justified.
“I don’t believe . . .” Laura shakes her head, steals a glance at me. “He’s really the man who killed you? You’re sure? It’s not like . . . not like it was with you and Tommy?”
Where I had appeared to Tommy before his death to try and talk him out of it, she means. Where I had been an innocent bystander and psychopomp mistaken for a murderess. It would make her feel better if she could think the same of Bobby; I can see it in the tense line of her jaw, the way she holds herself stiff and miserable.
“I’m sure,” I say. “He ran me off the road. He wasn’t . . . he hadn’t been doing what he does for very long, and he got cocky, and I got away. That doesn’t happen anymore. What he kills now, he keeps.”
“Oh,” says Laura, voice hushed.
“Yeah,” I say. “Oh.”
There was a time when Bobby Cross was the most beloved man in the world, James Dean before James Dean existed. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether James Dean and his meteoric rise to fame, culminating in that fatal wreck, was something the routewitches had arranged, one more way to try to punish Bobby for doing what he did. See, it says, see. You’re nothing special. You left no marks another man can’t leave bigger and better than you ever did. See.
If he’d stayed in the daylight, stayed away from bad bargains and price tags bigger than they look, he would have been one of the all-time greats. As it is, he’s a monster, and every time someone like Laura sees that, his legend dies a little bit more. Awful as it may be, I can’t find it in myself to be sorry about that. Bobby Cross deserves what he gets.
“We have to stop him,” says Laura.
“Yes,” I agree. “But not until I’m dead again. I’m no good like this.”
“Fuck,” says Laura. “Where do we even start?”
“Have you ever heard of the routewitches?”
Laura hesitates before she says, “Nothing conclusive. I’ve heard of . . . of people who say they can talk to the road, and that it talks back. Who use it to do some sort of magic. It all sounds like parlor tricks to me.”
“They’re not as flashy as sorcerers or true witches, but they’re good people to have in your corner, and their queen knows me,” I say. “If we can reach the Ocean Lady, she’ll have some idea of what we should be doing next.”
“Their queen is named the Ocean Lady?”
“No. The Ocean Lady is . . . more like their goddess incarnate. Their big, dead, inanimate goddess incarnate. Have you ever heard of the old Atlantic Highway?”
“No. I assume it’s a road.”
“She was, and she is, and she always will be, no matter how deeply she sinks into the twilight. She was the first of the major American arteries. So many people drove her that she became aware, and she became divine, and now her broken body serves as refuge for the routewitches who don’t, for whatever reason, feel like stepping up into the daylight.”
“All right,” says Laura slowly. “Where do we have to go?”
Her laughter is disbelieving. “Of course we do. Of course.” Then she looks at me assessingly, and asks, “Have you ever been on an airplane?”