It had to happen eventually … I reached into my nine-inch-thick folder of responses and pulled out an acceptance letter. But this one has a twist.
The astute reader will note that the editor makes reference to an earlier response (on the same story) where she accused an author of sending a story that was too long and lying about the word count to make it seem like it fit the guidelines. That was, indeed, me. What happened was that I had a story (“Suicide Corners”) that was too long by some number of words, so I went through slicing them out one by one until it met the guidelines exactly. I sent it in, and got back a terse rejection (which is still in the pile somewhere) accusing me of trying to pull a fast one.
Now, I (as all writers do, or at least should) normally make a rule of not replying to rejections or defending my stories against editorial criticism; but in this case, I was so irritated that I had done all that work to meet the guidelines only to have the story kicked back unread that I wrote her a letter back. This quickly led to detente, and an invitation to resubmit, which I did. The upshot is that “Suicide Corners” appeared in Crossroads Volume 7 in February 1999.
Another interesting thing about “Suicide Corners” is that at some point in its history I completely rewrote it (except for the name of the main character), yet I somehow still have both versions on my hard drive. So, I herewith give you both versions of “Suicide Corners” — first the one that appeared in Crossroads, and then the original.
It started when Sheila’s marriage ended: at her thirty-fifth birthday party, with the girl in the little black dress.
This dewy twentysomething had been skulking at the edge of the party, casting sullen glances at the other guests. People kept asking Sheila who she was, to which Sheila would reply, “I don’t know. Maybe a hooker.”
As it turned out, she was almost on the money.
After everyone had had a few drinks, Peter announced that the girl was Jennyfyr (with Ys, he solemnly pointed out) from his office and he loved her. Jennyfyr grinned and fidgeted; her dress looked about ready to burst.
Everyone turned to Sheila.
“Who wants cake?” she said.
“Good,” she said, hurling the whole thing at her husband and Jennyfyr with Ys.
Months later; a whole different season. Sheila was stuck in traffic as a construction crew labored through the icy November drizzle. She had been watching them approach the intersection for some time, slowly chewing along the pavement like a very slow fuse; now they had reached it and turned it into a mess.
The flagman, a hooded character in neon orange like some Day-Glo druid, had a strong bias toward the cross-traffic on South Street and was letting vehicles pile up on Lethe Avenue. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and tried to think of an alternate route to her apartment building, but came up empty.
The flagman let one Lethe Avenue car through, then reopened the flow on South Street. Exasperated, Sheila leaned on her horn. The effect was like one dog barking in an overcrowded kennel; within seconds a chorus of outrage had drawn the flagman’s attention. He turned their way and stood a moment, his face invisible within his hood; then he waved them through, one by one. He bent over to look through the windows of each passing car, as if searching for something. Or someone.
Sheila got a look at him when it was her turn through the intersection. His grim face, pocked and puckered, glimmered wanly in the reflected light. Their gazes met; his eyes were pale yellow, with greenish corneas. He smiled as if he recognized her, causing his upper lip to split. Blood drooled over his grey-brown teeth. Sheila suddenly wished her building were farther away; but it stayed right where it was, at the corner. She pulled into the parking lot and fairly ran inside.
From the safety of her fifth-floor apartment, Sheila took a peek at the intersection. The crew was packing up; the flagman had gone off-duty, leaving traffic to be governed by a temporary stop sign. She suffered a sudden image of the man stalking the silent corridors of her building, his lip leaving a trail of black blood along the beige carpet as he searched for her. Her gaze flicked to the door. In her rush to get inside, she hadn’t seated the deadbolt.
He could be outside her apartment right now, reaching for the knob.
She nearly tripped over the coffee table dashing to the door. She threw the bolt, then checked the peephole. The hallway was empty, of course; she was just being silly.
The telephone rang while Sheila was rummaging in the fridge, looking for something for dinner. She checked the caller ID box, then picked up the phone and said, “Hi, Angie.”
“You’re home late,” her sister said. “Dare I hope you were out with a man?”
“You can hope.”
“Working late again?”
Angie clucked her disapproval, then said: “Guess who called me today?”
“What’d he want?”
“He was asking about you. How your job was going, what your place was like, were you seeing anyone. I told him he should talk to you if he really wanted to know how you were doing. Judging from his reaction, don’t expect a call.”
“Why would he ask you all that?”
“Oh, Jennyfyr probably put him up to it.” Angie shifted her voice up an octave and directed it through her nose. “Find out what that bitch is spending her alimony on! I want her eating dog food by the end of the week!”
Sheila laughed. “You’re probably right. Listen, I have to make dinner. Are we still on for lunch tomorrow?”
“Sure. Oh, and, Sheila?”
“Put it on a cracker, and you won’t be able to tell Alpo from pâté.”
“I prefer Purina,” Sheila said.
The next morning was cold and grey, like the one before. Sheila padded to her living room window and lifted the curtain. The crew was back at work on South Street; today’s flagperson was a woman, or maybe a guy with long hair. Either way the creep from the previous night was absent.
She noticed something in the vacant lot across the street from her building: a bright orange slicker. Had the weirdo wandered in there and collapsed? She fetched her old binoculars and took a closer look. There didn’t seem to be a body inside the coat, which was draped over a low grey stone. The lot was dotted with such stones; she had never noticed them before.
What was in that lot, anyway?
She went downstairs early, risking serious bodily injury by darting across Lethe Avenue. Frost crisped the weeds in the lot; they scraped at her coat as she walked along the high, black, gothic-looking fence. Deep, frozen ruts led to a gap that turned out to be a fallen gate. She stepped over it carefully and entered the fenced-off area, heading toward the slicker. She didn’t get far before stumbling over one of the low stones and sprawling in the grass. A saw-edged blade lashed her cheek and she cried out.
“Are you okay?”
Startled, she rolled onto her back. A man stood nearby, tall, handsome, hands thrust deep into the pockets of a tan overcoat. “You’re bleeding,” he said, coming nearer. Numbly, she felt her face; the weed had cut her. Leave it to her to get injured by grass, she thought.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” he said, helping her up. “High grass is notorious for causing nicks and scratches.” He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and, before she could protest, dabbed the blood from her cheek.
“Thanks.” She pushed his hand away. “I’m fine.”
He stepped back, looking amused. “I’m Devon.”
“What are you doing here?” she said.
He raised an eyebrow. “This is our lot,” he said. “I check on it from time to time to make sure the crews don’t do any more damage. They already knocked over the gate. The question is, what are you doing here?”
“Oh, um, I saw something from my window and came to look for it.”
He glanced at the complex. “You live right at the crossroads.”
He looked back at her. “What was it you saw?”
“An orange slicker.” She felt herself flush; it sounded silly, saying it.
“Did you find it?”
“That’s because I took it to the road crew just now. I thought it was theirs. Was it yours?”
“Uh, no,” she said.
“Do you need a slicker or something?”
No, her life was just that boring, Sheila thought. She said: “Are you going to build something here?”
“Actually, no,” he said. “My consortium has been trying to get out of this parcel for years. All this construction has finally given us an opportunity.”
“So you figure the outlet mall will make it easier to sell this lot?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, I should get to work,” she said.
“Okay. Maybe I’ll see you around again, Sheila?”
“Maybe,” she said. She turned and walked back to the roadside. She glanced over her shoulder while
waiting for traffic to thin out on Lethe Avenue, but Devon was gone.
It never did register on her that she hadn’t told him her name.
Angie said, “So how cute was he?”
“Adorable,” Sheila said. “He runs a consortium.”
“What’s a consortium?”
“It’s a group of companies. What?” An expression of suspicion had crossed Angie’s face.
“Well, I was just thinking. If you were some big shot businessman, would you go out to a vacant lot
first thing in the morning?”
Sheila sighed. “You always think people are liars.”
“They usually are. Just look at Peter.”
Sheila ignored the implication that she attracted scoundrels. “Why would he lie?”
Angie raised an eyebrow, then simulated intercourse with her finger and her fist. Laughing, Sheila grabbed her sister’s hands. Angie caught her forearms and turned them over. The long, thin, perpendicular scars along Sheila’s wrists might have only been bad cat scratches, if Sheila had had a cat.
Angie said: “If you see this guy again, be careful. I don’t want either of us to go through this again.”
Sheila pulled her arms away. “The doctor said-”
“I know what the doctor said. They gave you something to calm you down and it caused ‘suicidal
ideation.’ But I don’t buy that. I think it just brought out something that was already inside you.”
“Well, I’m off it now, anyway.”
“True.” Angie tipped her milk at Sheila. “Off it and flushed what was left, right?”
“Right,” Sheila lied.
Saturday morning, Sheila’s phone rang early. Still in her nightshirt, she wandered over and checked the caller ID box. It was blank; broken, maybe. Figuring it was too early for a telemarketer, she picked up the phone. “Hello?”
“Hi, it’s Devon.”
Pause. “How’d you get my number?”
“I looked it up.”
“It’s unlisted,” she said. Teasing him.
“I’ve got a marketing firm. No one is safe from me.”
She laughed and said, “Are you in the neighborhood?”
“Come to the window and see,” he said.
She lifted the curtain. The chill that had been hiding behind it raised goosebumps on her arms and neck. Below, Lethe Avenue stood empty; the shredded pavement of South Street looked desolate, like a once-contested, now-deserted battleground. She didn’t spot Devon until he waved from the vacant lot. “What’re you doing down there?”
“The usual. Checking for damage.”
“Looks awfully cold.”
“It is. Do me a favor?”
“Unbutton that nightshirt a little bit.”
“I don’t think so,” Sheila said.
“Please? For me?”
As if they had some special relationship he could call on. “I don’t even know your last name,” she said.
“You’re missing the point, Devon.”
“What could it hurt?” he said. “You’re not married, I’m not married. We’re both adults, right?”
Sheila hesitated. They were both adults; and who did she have to answer to? Certainly not Peter, who had paraded that half-dressed child around Sheila’s birthday party.
“I have an idea,” she said, surprising herself. “Why don’t you come up instead?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” he said.
Devon stayed until the afternoon, leaving in the middle of a snowstorm. Sheila went to the living room window and watched him dart across the street to the vacant lot, where she lost sight of him in the blowing snow. She wondered where he left his car.
She yawned and stretched, then turned the telephone back on. Turning the ringer off had been Devon’s idea; and a good one, she thought, noticing from the caller ID that Angie had called twice.
Why hadn’t anything appeared when Devon called?
Well, it didn’t matter; if the thing kept acting up, she’d get a new one. She called Angie back.
“So what do you think of your Mr. Consortium now?” her sister said, after the greetings were out of the way.
“What’re you talking about?” Sheila said.
“Didn’t you read the paper?”
The newspaper lay on the kitchen counter; Devon had brought it in and left it there. “Not yet.”
“What’ve you been doing all day?” Angie said. “Go look at section three. It’s the first story.”
The article was about the changing nature of downtown; an accompanying photograph, dated from the turn of the century, showed the South Street-Lethe Avenue intersection. The spot where Sheila’s apartment building now stood was a reedy field; opposite it, the black iron fence jabbed barbed spikes at the sky. A banner arched over the half-closed gate: Lethe Cemetery. Both spikes and banner were gone now, but the fence itself was unquestionably the same one.
“It used to be a graveyard?” Sheila said.
“It still is a graveyard,” Angie said. “A suicide graveyard. That’s why it’s vacant, you can’t build over a cemetery. It’s not allowed.”
“I’m sure Devon will pay for the graves to be moved.”
“Don’t you get it? Devon doesn’t own it, the city does. I knew he was lying.” Angie sounded rather pleased with herself.
For a long time, Sheila just held the paper, staring at the picture of the cemetery. So that was why Devon had come on so strong earlier; he must have seen the paper, and realized that once she read it, she would know him for a liar.
Finally, she said: “I have to go.”
“You already slept with him, didn’t you?”
The phone book contained a single listing for Devon MacGregor; but when Sheila called, a rheumy, querulous voice answered. His father?
“Is Devon home?” Sheila said.
“This is Devon.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Sheila said. “I’m looking for your son, I guess.”
Watery laughter devolved into a phlegm-choked cough; when he had recovered, the old man said: “I never had any children, miss.”
“The only other Devon MacGregor I know of was my father, and he shot himself before my eyes, seventy years ago.”
Unsure how to respond to this, Sheila said nothing; after a moment the old man continued. “I blame it on the Depression. We lost everything when his consortium went bankrupt.”
The word caught her attention. “Consortium?”
“He’s buried in that old cemetery by South Street where they used to put the suicides,” he continued, as if he hadn’t heard. “I forget the name.”
An impossible idea formed in Sheila’s mind. “Mr. MacGregor, if you don’t mind, what did your father look like?” she said.
And listened as he described Devon perfectly.
Weeks passed; winter settled in, bringing a seasonal halt to construction on the South Street intersection. The heaps of broken pavement and mounds of earth looked like little snow-capped mountains.
Driving home after a late night at the office, Sheila saw a figure lurking in the crossroads near her building. As she approached her headlights flooded him, illuminating the puckered face sunken deep inside his hood. Dried blood from his upper lip still stained his teeth and chin.
He unfurled a flag and motioned for her to halt.
There was no cross-traffic on South Street; there was no construction crew on duty. He had no reason to make her stop.
So she didn’t.
She took the turn too fast; the rear end of her car swung wide on the snowy pavement. She heard a thud and saw, in her mirror, the flagman disappear beneath her vehicle. She jerked the wheel to the right, bumping onto the new curb, then jumped out of the car. Her skid tracks made dark, wet slashes through the fallen snow; she could see where she had gone sideways, where she had struck the man. There was no body; but a silhouette stood just inside the vacant lot, hands in pockets, watching her.
“You took that rather fast,” Devon MacGregor said. “Lucky for you there wasn’t another car coming.”
“What happened to the flagman?” she said.
“Flagman? There’s no flagman tonight.”
“I saw him.”
“Where is he, then?”
He was nowhere; there was no body, no blood, no dent in her car. In confusion, she turned to Devon. “What’s going on?” she said.
He didn’t answer.
“I talked to another Devon MacGregor.” A grimace, quickly erased, darkened his expression. Encouraged, she continued. “He was named after his father. He saw his father shoot himself in the head. I asked him to describe his father, and you know what? He described you.”
Devon said nothing.
“Damn it, who are you? Why did that old man describe you?”
“I told you. I’m looking to get out of this parcel of land. When they disrupted the crossroads, an opportunity arose; I had to take it.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
“We’re simpatico, you and I; I knew it when I picked you out from all the other drivers, that night in the rain.”
For a frozen moment Sheila said nothing; then she whispered, “We didn’t meet in the rain.”
“Didn’t we?” He dug his fingers into the flesh of his neck, getting under the skin, loosening it with a soggy tearing sound. He peeled his face off like a mask. What lay underneath was blackened, shriveled, like the meat of a rotted pumpkin. Yellow-green eyes gleamed madly; bloody teeth protruded from withered lips. “I’m sorry it has to be this way,” Devon said, his voice a dry rasp. His handsome face hung from his fist like a rag.
“What way?” she said. “What way is it, Devon?”
He didn’t answer. He threw the mask of his skin into the snow, and turned, and walked through the fence to disappear into the graveyard.
She thought about following him, but didn’t.
She knew he wouldn’t be there.
Weeks passed. Sheila began to feel sick; not in any specific way, just a general malaise, a weariness that settled into her bones and stayed there. Angie noticed, of course, and started asking pointed questions about her state of mind. It got so Sheila wouldn’t answer the phone half the time. She didn’t have the energy to argue.
When she missed her period, she went to the doctor.
“Well, I don’t think you’re pregnant,” Dr. Glenn said, snapping X-rays onto the wall of light in his office. “Your HCG is normal for a woman your age. There’s a spot here that concerns me, though.” He tapped a small white splotch on a shot of her abdomen. “I’d like to book you for a laparoscopy.”
She told Dr. Glenn she would check her schedule and call him back, but she never did. He hadn’t used the word cancer; he didn’t have to, his suspicions were obvious. But it was equally obvious to Sheila that the splotch wasn’t cancer, or a baby, or anything else within the purview of medicine.
Devon had done something to her; he was killing her.
And that was the way it was.
Night. Sheila sat on the couch, holding what remained of her depression medication; there had been too much to swallow at once, so she was chunking it.
She gulped the last of the pills, then went out into the night. Lethe Avenue was deserted; she crossed it easily, stumbling into the lot and through the gap in the fence. “Devon!” she shouted, turning around and around in the snow as she wandered through the graveyard. “Devon!”
“You’ll catch your death out here without a coat.”
She turned. He stood some distance away, wearing his handsome face again; she remembered it lying in the dirty roadside snow like garbage.
“I figured out what to do about you,” she said.
“What’s that?” he said.
She threw the empty medicine bottle at him. It landed in the snow; he bent to pick it up, then walked over slowly, looking at the bottle. Finally he said: “Oh, silly Sheila. Do you know what you’ve done?”
Silence. She heard something dripping and lifted her arms. The old scars had split open along her wrists, weeping blood into the snow. Devon grabbed her hands. “I told you we were simpatico,” he said. “You see that now, don’t you?” He pulled gently, taking her a few steps forward, then turned her around and let her go. Her body still stood there, swaying, arms extended; after a moment it collapsed.
A ferocious suction pulled her off her feet and across the ground; she skimmed along the crusted surface as if weightless. She slammed into a headstone; it, at least, felt solid and she wrapped her arms around it just she slipped off some sort of precipice.
Devon loomed over the marker. “My grave,” he said quietly. “One soul for each unhallowed corpse. The crossroads demands it. It’s not what I planned, but it’ll do; you’ll take my place, and I’ll escape while the crossroads are disrupted. One for one!”
In the distance, a faint howling arose, moving quickly closer. Devon raised his head, his expression curious and somewhat fearful.
A breath of wind stirred Sheila’s hair.
And suddenly it was a gale.
Devon screamed as the hurricane slammed into him and whipped him away like smoke. A cacophony of shrieks filled the wind: other suicides, spirits lost in the storm. Sheila would cover her ears to shut them out, but that would mean letting go of the headstone and then she would fall; and that, she somehow knew, would be worse.
As quickly as it had risen, the wind died. Suicide corners fell silent.
Except for the sound of one lost soul, weeping.
Suicide Corners (Original Version)
It all started at Sheila’s thirty-fifth birthday party, with the girl in the little black dress.
The dewy twentysomething—a blonde, of course—had been skulking around the edges of the celebration, casting sullen glances at the other guests. People kept asking Sheila who the girl was, to which she would reply, “I don’t know. A hooker maybe.”
After they’d all had a few drinks, Peter said, “You should meet someone.” He waved the blonde over. “Sheila, this is Jennyfyr. Jennyfyr, Sheila.”
Sheila said nothing. Her mind had already made the obvious connection between the girl and all the late hours Peter had been putting in at the office recently.
Jennyfyr smiled, put her arm around Peter’s waist, and said, unnecessarily, “We’re having an affair.”
Four weeks later, Sheila continued to flash back to the party whenever she heard the song that had been playing on the stereo at that moment. It continued to sit on top of the charts, so the radio played it constantly. Sheila slapped the controls with her palm and The Song went away.
She speeded up to sixty, even though the speed limit was forty-five. She knew she was going too fast—the winding, desolate highway was frequented by deer and made treacherous by the moist leaf-fall of autumn—but she had told her sister to expect her at seven, and she was already behind schedule.
Besides, the faster she went, the farther she’d be from Peter and Jennyfyr.
Sheila shot over the top of the hill. A dirt road crossed the highway a hundred feet ahead. The spot was marked by a yellow blinker and a Truck Crossing sign that appeared to have been hit by buckshot. An enormous logging truck chugged through the intersection, halfway across.
Sheila stomped on the brakes. Her car skidded on the wet leaves and began turning sideways. The truck cleared the intersection as she slid through, just missing its rear end. She continued to spin languidly, bringing a cemetery into view. She turned the wheel hard into the skid.
Then her tires hit a patch of sand.
She snapped around, flipped, and barrel-rolled toward the graveyard. The ground chased the sky around and around, metal crunched, glass splintered. Then her car tumbled into the ditch and slammed into the embankment. Instantly, all motion ceased.
She sat there for several minutes, staring through the shattered windshield at the darkening autumn sky. She felt numb, disconnected, as if the crash had knocked her out of her body. The feeling passed gradually, leaving her once again able to move. She turned to her left and fumbled for the door handle, found it, pulled, then froze.
Someone crouched next to her car, peering inside. The withered face could have been either male or female. Its eyes, nose, and mouth were stitched shut with coarse black string; and its ears were folded forward and sewn to the sides of its head.
Sheila screamed and let go of the door. It creaked open slightly and the apparition vanished. No one was there. Just her imagination, playing tricks with her reflection. She pushed the door the rest of the way; it got stuck at a crazy angle, but there was enough room for her to climb out into the overgrown ditch. Her feet sank through floating leaves into unseen, frigid water. She felt fine, but her car looked as if a giant had rolled it a few times between his stony palms.
“Are you all right?”
The voice made her jump and, whirling, she saw a woman standing at the edge of the ditch. Where had she come from? There hadn’t been any houses for miles. “Take it easy, dear,” the woman said. “Looks like you had a nasty accident.”
“I think I’m okay.”
The woman reached down. “Come out of there before you catch your death.” Sheila took the proffered hand and clambered out of the ditch, standing in front of her rescuer. Sheila guessed she was about sixty, which maybe explained why her clothes were from thirty years ago.
“I’m Millie,” the woman said. “I run the inn. Come on inside, warm yourself up by the fire.” Millie began walking away.
Suddenly, Sheila realized that a big Victorian house stood across the street from her car. There were other structures nearby, too: a tiny brick office building in the northeast corner of the crossroads, and a garage in the northwest.
Millie paused at the top of the porch steps. “Don’t just stand there in the cold.” Sheila followed her into the inn. The living room was pleasantly rustic, with white plaster walls and a ceiling crossed by dark wooden beams. Throw rugs were scattered about, allowing the overstuffed furniture to be reached without chilling one’s toes on the silky hardwood floor. Stairs ascended along the back wall; an archway beneath it led to the kitchen. A small den, where a fire roared in an enormous hearth, opened to the left.
“What’s your name, dear?” Millie said, guiding her into the den.
“Well, Sheila, put your feet up and get comfortable.”
The doorbell rang. Millie bustled to the front door, opening it to reveal a portly man wearing a white doctor’s coat and a sheriff’s badge. “Hello, Walter,” Millie said. “What can I do for you?”
“You can tell me why there’s a car in the ditch in front of your house.”
“There was an accident.”
“You don’t say? Well, since I’m the doctor and the sheriff, I’m doubly interested in car crashes.”
“Too bad you’re not a lawyer, too,” Millie said. “Then you’d be triply interested.”
Walter grunted and came into the inn. He looked at Sheila. “That your car, miss?” She nodded. “You shouldn’t have moved, you might’ve sustained internal injuries. If you’ll come to my office for an exam—”
Millie said, “If she shouldn’t move, you should examine her here.”
The doctor shrugged. “Raise your arms and stay still, please.” Sheila did as he asked and he started gently squeezing and poking. After a moment he said: “I’m Dr. Glenn, but you can call me Walter.”
“So, Sheila, will you be staying here tonight?”
Millie said: “Of course. Where else would she go?”
“I’d like to get back on my way,” Sheila said. “Do you think my car is driveable?”
“I highly doubt it,” Walter said. “Besides, you really shouldn’t drive immediately after an accident like that.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“Everybody thinks that. But if you insist, I’ll make arrangements to get it out of the ditch.”
Millie said: “We don’t have to involve Devon, do we?”
“Devon’s the one with the tow truck. In the meantime, I’ll put out some flares.” Dr. Glenn left, letting in a fresh tide of cold air.
As soon as he was gone, Millie said, “Let’s get you settled for the night.”
“Thanks, but I really don’t plan to stay.”
“I’ll get you settled anyway,” Millie said. “Just in case.”
Sheila’s second-floor room overlooked her wrecked car. Flares burned around it, the brilliant crimson flames like ghostly knives. They lit up the cemetery with a pallid, pinkish glow; the tombstones cast long shadows that eventually blended together into darkness.
She dropped the curtain and sat down on the bed. A massive rotary telephone rested on the nightstand, reminding her that she still hadn’t called her sister. She picked up the receiver. The line crackled like a distant radio station. She dialed Angie’s number. No answer. She waited a few minutes, then tried again. Still no answer.
Sheila cradled the handset, hoping Angie hadn’t gone out looking for her. Premature cataracts had robbed her of her night vision; fear of doctors had so far kept her out of surgery.
Maybe she should call Peter.
She actually had the receiver in her hand before deciding not to do it. The two of them hadn’t communicated since she’d gotten out of the hospital, and she wasn’t going to be the one to open up the channels again.
Besides, he was staying at Jennyfyr’s, and she didn’t have the number.
“How do you feel?” Peter said, looking down at Sheila with a mixture of pity and contempt, covering a badly-hidden desire to be elsewhere.
“Like shit,” Sheila said.
“Well, what’d you expect? They had to pump your stomach or you would’ve died.”
She closed her eyes and said nothing.
“You can kill yourself over me if you want to,” he said, “but you know what? I don’t think I’m worth it.”
“Of course you are.”
Sheila opened her eyes. Jennyfyr had appeared in the hospital room, still wearing the little black dress. She stared haughtily at Sheila. “Any woman who lost you would try to kill herself. The dumb bitch fucked it up, that’s all. Maybe next time, she’ll get it right.”
Metal crashed on pavement and Sheila sat bolt upright, the dream evaporating. She shook her head to throw off the remnants of sleep, then went to the window. In the light of the flares, she saw that a tow truck had pulled up next to her car and dropped some sort of connection device. Sheila hurried downstairs. The living room smelled like cookies.
The truck had disgorged an enormous man in a cammo suit and an orange slicker. Must be an avid hunter, she thought; that would explain the gun rack on the rear window of the vehicle. He glanced at her as she came out. “You Sheila?”
“I’m Devon.” He turned his back on her, looking at the car. “You rolled this puppy good, didn’t you?”
“I guess,” she said.
“No guessing about it,” he said. “Well, I’ll get it out of there for you.”
Sheila came down from the porch to watch him work. She noticed an ancient plank bridge that crossed the ditch nearby, leading to a gap in the cemetery fence. She wandered across it and stood for a few minutes at the gate. The tombstones looked very old; most of the lettering was illegible in the pink light of the flares.
She took a step through the gate.
She turned. Millie stood on the front porch. “Your husband just called!”
“That’s right, Peter.”
“How did he find out where I was?”
“I don’t know, but he said to wait here, he’s coming to get you!”
Oh, that was all she needed, a two-hour ride with Peter and the tramp. She returned to the inn, standing at the foot of the stairs. “Call him back and tell him not to come.”
“I can’t, he’s already on his way.”
“I don’t want to see him.”
“I just don’t.”
“He humiliated you, didn’t he?” Millie said.
“He humiliated you, and you hate him.”
“I don’t hate him,” Sheila said.
“Of course you do, it’s only natural. So you drove away, trying to outrun the shame. Am I right?”
Sheila said nothing.
Millie smiled. “I’m right. But shame is quicker than you think. It keeps up with you, no matter how fast you run.”
“I’m not running.”
“Of course you aren’t.” Millie turned to go inside, then looked over her shoulder. “Oh, by the way, he said he had news about your sister.”
After a moment, Sheila said: “What about her?”
“Apparently she left a message on his machine that she was going out to look for you, and he hasn’t heard from her since.”
Sheila took hold of the railing. “Is she okay?”
“Don’t know.” Millie frowned. “Now, I see what you’re thinking, and whatever happened isn’t your fault. It’s not like you didn’t call her on purpose. Is it?” Inside, a timer dinged. “Oh, my cookies!” Millie whirled and hurried into the house.
Sheila turned and slowly lowered herself onto the bottom step. What had happened to Angie?
Walter’s voice made her jump; she hadn’t seen him coming. “I guess we’ll see,” she said.
“Hm.” Walter put his hands behind his back. “I noticed you eyeing our suicide graveyard, before.”
“Yep. This is where we bury them. The crossroads are supposed to keep them from haunting the living.”
“That’s a new one.”
“Not really. It’s actually a very old superstition. We sew their eyes shut so they can’t see the fires of hell; their noses so they can’t smell the smoke; their ears so they can’t hear the screams; and their mouths so they can’t speak of the horrors they’ve experienced. Then we bury them here. Used to, anyway; since they widened the highway we don’t use the graveyard anymore.”
She had immediately realized that he was describing the face she’d seen through her car window; but that had just been her reflection. She must’ve once heard about the procedure and dredged it out of her subconscious, she thought. Probably some helpful soul had mentioned it while she was hospitalized after her own suicide attempt.
Devon got back in the truck and stepped on the gas. It lurched forward, jerking her car out of the ditch. Devon stopped, got out, and checked the hookup. He gave her a thumbs-up sign, climbed back into the truck, and drove through the crossroads to his garage.
The car was totaled; Peter would freak out when he saw it, especially with Jennyfyr egging him on. Just look what she did to your car, she would say. Not only can’t she fuck, she can’t drive, either.
She had to get out of here. Now.
“Told you it wouldn’t be driveable,” Walter said.
“Yeah, you did. Listen, where’s the nearest place to rent a car?”
“Probably Demorest. It’s fifteen miles up the road.”
“Can you give me a ride?”
“Sorry, I don’t have a vehicle.”
She goggled at him. “You don’t?”
“I pretty much stay local.”
“But you’re the doctor.”
He shrugged. “Everybody’s pretty healthy.”
“You’re the sheriff, too. Doesn’t the sheriff need a police car?”
He turned and looked at her. “Nope.”
She stood there a moment, then went inside. The porch stairs creaked as Walter followed. Millie sat on a couch in the living room, doing embroidery. She looked up as Sheila entered. “Ready for a cookie, dear?”
“Can you give me a ride to Demorest?”
“I don’t have a car.”
After a moment, Sheila said: “How can you live in the middle of nowhere without a car? How do you get groceries? I haven’t seen a store for twenty miles.”
“I get deliveries.”
“Just relax, Sheila,” Walter said.
“I don’t need to relax, I need a ride.” Pause. “I’ll talk to Devon. Maybe he’ll take me in his truck.”
Millie scowled at Walter. “I told you not to involve Devon.”
Walter said, “I’ll fetch something to settle your nerves.” Sheila felt cold air on her back as he went out.
“The doctor will get something to calm you down. Then you can nap until Peter gets here.” Millie went back to work on her project. “Besides, you’ll want to be relaxed when you hear about your sister.”
“What about her? Do you know something?”
“I’m not supposed to tell you.”
“Peter said it might upset you. He said you might try to kill yourself again.” She looked up and smiled. “We wouldn’t want that, now, would we?”
Sheila was too shocked to retort. Peter had told this woman about that? What else had he said?
She couldn’t stay here another moment. She would sleep under a pile of leaves if she had to, but she wouldn’t stay here. Sheila stormed up the stairs, went to her room, picked up her suitcase, and turned to go.
But the exit was blocked.
The thing in the doorway looked like Millie, but a Millie who had been buried for quite a long time. Her plum-colored dress clung damply to her shrunken body. Pendulous wattles of grey-green flesh swayed beneath her arms and chin. An old noose was drawn tight around her throat. Her eyes, nose, and ears were sewn shut.
“You can’t leave,” Millie rasped. The noose made her voice tight. Broken black strings fluttered whisker-like from her lips. “You have to stay, so I can go. One for one!”
Millie advanced into the room. Sheila’s suitcase slipped from her fingers as she retreated. “No more games,” Millie said, holding out a plastic bottle full of little blue tablets. “I’ve got your pills. Take them. Get it over with.”
The sight of her pills triggered the memory of Peter’s face as he looked at her in the hospital bed. After he had gone, she’d sworn he would never look at her that way again. She raced to the window, threw it open, and climbed onto the porch roof. The stone shingles were damp, mossy, and loose as rotten teeth. They pulled out under her feet; she fell, slid, and dropped off the edge, landing amidst a shower of broken slate. Her knee popped painfully.
Walter was waiting for her, his face sewn shut. An empty syringe dangled from his left forearm. “That was a nasty spill.” He yanked the needle out and proffered it to her. “I recommend … suicide.”
“You stay out of this!” Millie shrieked from the upstairs window. “She’s mine, not yours! One for one!”
Sheila scrambled toward the street. Everything about the crossroads had changed. Millie’s inn was a derelict, with boarded windows and rotting clapboards and a yard overrun with weeds. The doctor’s office had become a fire-gutted ruin, Devon’s garage a vacant shell. The sky was wild with racing clouds shaped like twisted faces.
And the graveyard was full of people.
They stared from beyond the fence, their pale white faces blind, deaf, dumb. They clutched the iron bars with gnarled hands and tried to shriek, but their stitched-shut mouths muffled the sounds.
“Look at them,” Walter said from right behind her. “Too weak to escape the fence. We were all like that, until they widened the highway and made the crossroads unequal. Now we can roam, but only a little.”
She stumbled away from him, heading for the garage.
Devon had a truck.
He came out of the office as she approached, moving to intercept her. The top of his head was missing.
“Stay away!” she screamed.
“I’m not like them,” he said. “I didn’t kill myself. Tell them to move me out of the crossroads and bury me properly.”
A desperate idea formed. “I’ll tell them, but you have to help me get away.”
He nodded and led her to the tow truck, getting into the passenger seat. “You drive,” he said. Sheila scrambled into the cab. The keys were in the ignition; the engine caught after a few seconds of tubercular coughing. She drove away, leaving Walter staring after her, and Millie shouting from upstairs.
Sheila cast a furtive glance at Devon. He stared straight ahead, his exposed brains jiggling with every bump. His eyes flicked her way. “Hunting accident.” He poked his brains with a thick finger. “All us trapped spirits bear the marks of our deaths.”
“So Millie hung herself, and Walter overdosed?”
Devon nodded. His brains sloshed like gelatin.
She decided not to ask him any more questions.
Before they reached Demorest, they came upon a fresh accident scene: a little car had missed a turn and smashed into a roadside boulder. Sheila pulled over and went to investigate.
Oh, God. Angie’s car.
Her sister’s head was a bloody pulp; she hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt, and the impact had sent her over the top of the airbag and into the windshield. A hairy crimson splash showed where she had hit.
How had Millie known about this?
Trembling, Sheila returned to the truck. Music drifted from the open door; Devon must’ve turned on the radio. They were playing The Song, of course.
It was all too much.
The rifles were right there. She grabbed one, wedged it between her chin and the running board, and pulled the trigger.
She suddenly had the feeling of being swept away by an icy and ferocious wind. It blew her back up the highway; her surroundings quickened to a blur, then slowed to become the graveyard. The disorientation quickly passed and she went to the fence to watch some paramedics trying to open the door of her car. She could hear them talking about her; they were saying to tell the ambulance not to hurry. After a moment she realized why.
The buildings were gone from the crossroads; they had never really been there, she realized. None of it had been real, except for her imaginary suicide. She had been dying anyway; but now she had taken Devon’s place, and he had gone free.
Millie and Walter stood nearby. “All that work,” Millie said, “and Devon gets the benefit.”
“Better luck next time,” Walter said.
Sheila ignored them. She had a hunch she would be liberating herself soon enough; somehow, she knew that the rescue crew had run her plates and called the car’s owner.
Peter was coming to suicide corners.